Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film

Photo of Michael Curtiz

MICHAEL CURTIZ—A LIFE IN FILM has a November 6, 2017 publish date!





Commentary and critique on actors and actresses

75th Anniversary of Casablanca


Poster of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman Casablanca 75th anniversary tcm screening It is a life-enriching event to watch Casablanca on the big screen. In commemoration of the film’s 75th anniversary, I urge everyone to take in the nationwide TCM/Fathom theatrical screening on November 12-15. For more info: https://www.fathomevents.com/events/casablanca

To whet your appetite, here’s a condensed synopsis about the making of the film from my recently published biography Michael Curtiz A Life in Film:

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TV's Mightiest Mouthpiece—The Noir Roots of Perry Mason

1 Burr lg

CROOKED MOUTHPIECES date back to the era of 1930s porto-noir gangster movies (reaching their apogee with Louis Calhern’s turn in The Asphalt Jungle), but crusading defense attorneys who trod the line between cleverness and corruption proved to be scarce onscreen.

   And then came Perry Mason.

   His creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, was a self-taught trial attorney who began submitting mystery stories to the pulps in 1923. Over the next decade, under a number of pseudonyms, he turned out an average for 3,200 words per day (1.2 million words per year) describing the adventures of protagonists such as Lester Leith, Speed Dash, and Ken Cornin.  “By the time I’d learned my craft—and that took about ten years—I was ready to use my law background for my stories,” Gardner recalled in a 1965 interview.


© Copyright 2017 Alan K. Rode - All Rights Reserved

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Rose & Joan: Rest in Peace

I was deeply saddened to learn of the recent passing of Rose Freeman aka Joan Taylor who was a featured actress in movies and television from 1949 until her retirement in 1963. Rose was a special lady and we had a rather unusual relationship that began over five years ago.

I was wrapping up my Charles McGraw biography manuscript but wanted to learn more about one of his movies, Warpaint, an interesting Western that he appeared in 1952 after leaving the contractual confines of RKO studios.

Rose, or I should say Joan, played an Indian woman who helped make life extremely difficult for a thirst-crazed Army cavalry detachment led by Robert Stack and a pipe-smoking McGraw with Peter Graves, Robert J. Wilke, Walter Reed, Douglas Kennedy, and Paul Richards lending able support.

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A Golden Boot for Bobby Hoy


2/8/2010: Sad news. Bobby Hoy passed away early this morning. He leaves a loving family and a legion of friends and colleagues who will miss him greatly. R.I.P. Here us a link to his obit in the L.A. Times.

It was my distinct privilege to attend the Golden Boot Award ceremony last week that honored Bobby Hoy.

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The Count of Canoga Park... and my mental CD player

Shortly after relocating to the far reaches of the western San Fernando Valley, I came across this sign while driving home one day.  Was this street named after Francis Lederer, actor?  Of course, it was.  It must have been fate and a collective touch of native soil that brought us together.

lederer st

My awareness of Lederer began at a young age. After viewing Return of Dracula (1958) on local N.Y. television, I firmly believed that the Czech-born thespian was the real Count Dracula and Bela Lugosi was well... Bela Lugosi. Sorry about that all you devoted Lugosiphiles.

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Final Curtain for an Actor's Actor

When I found out that Karl Malden died last week, I initially recalled many of my favorite roles that he played and thought about how much he would be missed.

His peaceful demise at 97 years of age doesn’t qualify as a tragedy, but even as a signpost of normal passage, there is genuine bereavement at his departure.

As an actor and persona, Malden was so steady, so permanent. It never occurred to me that there would be a world without Karl Malden. He simply had always been there in movies, television and before all that, a belwether of Broadway.

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Put your flag at half-mast for James Whitmore

James Whitmore died the other day and I selfishly thought, "There's goes another irreplaceable actor that I will never get to meet." The more I learned about Whitmore, the more it seems he might have been an irreplaceable human being.

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Whitmore first entered my consciousness in a Twilight Zone episode that I saw at my grandparents apartment when I was ten years old. He portrayed a well-intentioned, but authoritative leader of a group of people who have been stuck for decades on a barren planet. When the group is able to return to Earth, Whitmore's character mutates from putting the welfare of his people first to becoming frantic over what will become of him now that his mantle of leadership is removed. It was an amazing portrayal about the unintended outcome of power that left this kid absolutely stunned at the finale and thinking about it the next day... and beyond.

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A Chat with Ernest Borgnine


Here's a link to my chat with Ernest Borgnine on Filmmonthly.

Ernie tells it like it was. Great guy.

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The Noble Gentleman

Ricardo Montalban died today and the world lost a veneer of badly needed class.

Ricardo Montalban

I never met the man, but I sure admired him.

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Vive Mitchum

Robert Mitchum on screen epitomizes ultimate cool… always has, always will.

robt mitchum

I have a short list of favorite Mitchum pictures…doesn’t everyone?

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One Tough Broad

Ann Savage was one tough broad.

ann savage Detour-1945

And that title is a royal adornment for a lady who was pure class.

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Bad Things Come in Threes

Honest to God, this blog is not a permanent obit column. I was actually working on an actor profile that is going to go up shortly - but simply had to pause in order to comment on the passing of three notable people from the world of film and entertainment who will be sorely missed.

Actually it’s difficult to quantify the world of Forrest J. Ackerman as he created a unique firmament that bound up so many others. His death last Thursday at age 92 was not unexpected, but has left a permanent void. Ackerman was an authentic icon of American popular culture.

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In Remembrance of Millie

Mildred Black died the other week in her home in the San Fernando Valley. Mill wasn’t a movie star or anyone famous. She was a sweet, tough, generous woman who gave a lot more than she got in this life. There wasn’t a funeral, wake, celebration of life or an obit in the L.A. Times for her. I don't usually opine on this blog about someone I know, but these words are a public memoriam for a dearly departed friend.

I met Millie shortly after I began researching the life of actor Charles McGraw. It was a serendipitous encounter. I mailed her a brief note inquiring if she knew anything about McGraw after checking property records and discovering that she was the owner of the house where the actor died in a horrifically tragic accident back in 1980. I didn’t receive a response. Several months later, I marshaled the appropriate chutzpah and drove by her place on a broiling hot Saturday afternoon.

A couple of guys were working on the roof and I hailed them for Miss Black. Millie emerged from the garden wearing a sun visor. I introduced myself. She responded: “Oh goodness, you’re the fellow who wrote me about Charlie. I was hoping you would come by”.

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Joseph Pevney

joseph pevney

Here is a recent piece on the late actor/director Joseph Pevney that was published in the current edition of the Noir City Sentinel, the house newsletter of the Film Noir Foundation. I recently transcribed about four hours worth of conversation with Joe when I visited him and his wife Margo at their Palm Desert home last year. I've always believed that Joe's films have been overlooked and underrated; he was one of the last of the true studio system directors while at Universal during the 1950's and has a fine body of work. His tremendous contributions on television from Johnny Staccato, to the original Star Trek to Trapper John M.D. were seminal. I found Joe to be a sweet, tough and funny man who I wish I got to know sooner.

BTW- I encourage everyone to join the Film Noir Foundation. In addition to supporting the mission of film preservation, you will receive a cyber copy of the Noir City Sentinel every other month. It's a sweetheart deal straight from the Dark City!

Cheers, Alan

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As Time Goes By

The passage of time prepares one with a sense of acceptance for the death of admired personages; this musing is more of a personal “coming-to-grips” with the approaching finale to an era of popular culture that will shortly reside solely in films, books, the Internet and the remembrances of second generation intimates.

More than regret, I feel a sense of disappointment that the era of cinematic history which comprised a significant part of my baby boomer upbringing is becoming relegated to table book nostalgia as the last icons from the era of Old Hollywood depart due to exorable passage of time. .

Richard Widmark always commanded my attention. Regardless of the role or the movie, Widmark excelled at essaying transfixed characterizations that ranged from in-your-face resolve to pure psychopath. His work on screen invariably conveyed a sense of larger purpose along with the notion that hell (or a reasonable facsimile) was apt to break loose at any moment.

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robinson helton

No actor exemplified the downtrodden film noir schlemiel better than Percy Helton. If his hunched frame and marsupial-like features weren’t enough to convince audiences of his servile timidity, there was always the unique Helton voice which made his screen characterizations permanently distinctive. Never was a vocal inflection more perfectly suited to a performer.

Percy Helton uttered his lines with a breathy vocal lilt akin to the sigh of an exhausted calliope. When alarmed or threatened- a frequent occurrence- he reached a higher octave reminiscent of a damaged ukulele. Even though the diminutive performer seemed to be specifically constructed as a mid-century urban whipping boy, Helton’s thespian roots dated back to the nineteenth century.

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In the Garment Jungle with Robert Loggia

There are few performers around that exude the instant recognizability that compresses multiple generations of movie lovers into a solitary entity of affection and respect as does Robert Loggia. I must confess that I immediately succumbed as well. When Bob and his wife Audrey drove up to the parking lot in the rear of the Egyptian Theatre where I was waiting to greet them on Wednesday night, I experienced a film buff's psychological voltage spike: "Holy Cow, it really is Robert Loggia - what a guy!"

robert loggia army

Loggia started out in the mid 1950's and as he remarked following the screening of The Garment Jungle that after finishing college, the Army and then studying acting with Stella Adler ( I may have the order wrong...), he immediately went to work as an actor. Bob readily admitted that, "I never had to 'pay my dues' waiting tables and the like." He studied hard at his craft, but his grace as an athlete (a scholarship to University of Missouri was arranged by N.Y. Giants football coach Jim Lee Howell) and inner confidence never made him take pause. Bob recalled his first time treading the boards during a college production at Mizzou: "I wasn't nervous at all. I was completely comfortable on stage."

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Cooper, Tracy... and Richard Anderson


I knew Richard Anderson had an impressive acting resume, but I didn't know how impressive a person he was until I met him Sunday night about an hour before the screening of The People Against O'Hara (1951). Nattily attired in a beige jacket with scarf, we started talking in the parking lot, continued while pausing in the Egyptian Theatre courtyard and then swept inside the lobby, still talking movies. The man isn't just an actor; he's a fan, a true cinephile. Anderson also is a history buff so we lapsed into a brief Civil War discussion in between stories about Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper, the two actors that Richard admires above all others. Frankly, I was momentarily disappointed after glancing at my watch and noticing that the film was scheduled to begin in two minutes.

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"Every character actor, in their own little sphere, is the lead."


As the actors who became personal touchstones during my youth continue to depart this mortal coil due to the inevitability of time, I usually attempt to place their passings into a philosophical perspective (unless I knew them personally) despite the pangs of inner pain and regret.

Sometimes the departure of a familiar face affects me more than others. A case-in-point was the death of veteran character actor, Dabbs Greer last evening. Dabbs was 90 years old and had been an working actor for seven decades.

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The Right Woman for the Wrong Man

Peggy Webber's part in The Wrong Man (1956) was a brief, but important scene as an insurance company clerk who wrongly identifies Henry Fonda as an armed robber. Her erroneous conclusion provided the impetus that propels an innocent Fonda into the bowels of injustice hell. I had to cajole Miss Webber just a bit to join me at the screening on Saturday night, "It's such a small part...", but thankfully she attended and her presence made for a delightful evening.

The Wrong Man was an interesting disappointment. Hitchcock's solitary voyage into literal docudrama (he had apparently watched The Bicycle Thief and experienced a spasm of neo-realism with an actual miscarriage of justice story featured in Life Magazine) was simply too sterile to elicit rapt interest. For openers, I simply couldn't buy a 51 year old Hank Fonda as a 38 year old Italian jazz musician thumping a bass fiddle nights at the Stork Club and living in a Jackson Heights walkup with a deliciously fragile Vera Miles and two young sons. Fonda's abject passivity with the police as the "evidence" piled up struck me as dated and farfetched; he was completely wrong for the part. Much better was Vera Miles, Hitchcock's first female star that was his very own, locked down under an exclusive contract to Hitch in 1955. I've read that Hitchcock was obsessed by Miss Miles and fussed over her as a precursor to his fantasia relationship later on with Tippi Hedren.. Well, what the hey? Given the opportunity, what heterosexual male wouldn't have hovered over Vera in 1956? She was jaw-droppingly gorgeous and could also act. Miles' subsequent mental breakdown in the picture along with some wonderful nighttime shots in New York City made The Wrong Man worth hanging in there till the end.

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The Coleen Gray Doubleheader

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One of filmdom's most lovely and gracious stars, Coleen Gray, was on hand at the Egyptian Theatre Wednesday night for a double bill screening of The Killing (1956) and The Sleeping City (1950). Since being featured in Eddie Muller's book, Dark City Dames six years ago as one of the authentic film noir femme fatales, Coleen has jointly appeared with Eddie for Q&A sessions at numerous screenings of her pictures at venues in San Francisco, Palm Springs and here in L.A. I was tickled to death to interview Coleen between the films yesterday evening and become a supporting player in what has become an enduring, dark tradition.

The Killing (1956) is my definition of a classic film; I 've seen it at least 15 or 20 times and never tire of it, feeling exhilarated and renewed with each viewing.

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The Glass Wall & Ann Robinson

The Saturday night double feature at the Noir City Festival in Hollywood led off with a screening of The Glass Wall (1953).

This seldom seen film, with a near-faultless print courtesy of Sony-Columbia, provided a unique view of Times Square at night, as a hurt World War II refugee (Vittorio Gassman) jumps ship to enter America hunting for a former soldier, now a clarinet player (Jerry Paris) who can provide his safe entry to the Great Melting Pot. Gassman finds safety, empathy and then love in the arms of noir siren Gloria Grahame, the last dame you'd think would be working in a shoelace factory, but there you have it.

The Glass Wall was written and directed by Maxwell Shane, a lawyer by profession, then turned to writing 'B' screenplays in the late 1930's and buying up land in the San Fernando Valley that was dirt-cheap at that time. Shane's real estate holdings helped finance his entrance into motion picture direction beginning with Fear in the Night (1947) Interestingly, Shane remade his debut film, a Cornell Woolrich story, as Nightmare in 1956 starring Edward G. Robinson and Kevin McCarthy. How many directors do you know who directed the original film and the remake?

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Gloria Pall

John Ford once remarked that the best moments in films are invariably serendipitious. So too are the appearances of film noir festival guests, especially last night at the Egyptian Theatre.

Gloria Pall made a last minute show-up at last night's viewing of The Crimson Kimono as the screening guest between the Sam Fuller double bill. The statuesque Ms. Pall has been around Hollywood since 1951 and was the focal point of the movie; the murdered stripper "Sugar Torch". Gloria proved to be a terrific raconteur, reeling off stories about Sam Fuller (she refused to film the opening sequence with a car nearly running into her; Fuller acquiesced to using a stunt double), charmed Elvis Presley when he was a Southern lad who liked to lick Gloria's fingers (ahem!) and went to lunch with Robert Mitchum after he brandishes a knife towards her (in the fist tattooed "HATE") in The Night of the Hunter. Gloria has self-published 13 books and more information about her at her website.

Speaking about terrific, it was great to see Christa Fuller, Sam's widow, muse and collaborator with her daughter and granddaughter at the screening of Kimono and my favorite Fuller picture, Pickup on South Street (1953). Christa is the co-author of Sam Fuller's prize-winning, A Third Face, My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking, one of the best filmmaker memoirs around featuring an intro by Martin Scorcese. As Sam might have said, "it's a great yarn!"

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