Lost Horizons Beneath the Hollywood Sign, by David Del Valle. Albany, GA: BearManor Media, 2010. Paperback. $27.95. 458 pp.
David Del Valle collects. Among other things, he collects movie people. Lost Horizons Beneath the Hollywood Sign is a book of reminiscences, some of which previously appeared in Films in Review, of movie people Del Valle has met over the years in his capacity as a film fan, talent agent, author, Hollywood resident, and collector of movie memorabilia. The personalities profiled here include Vincent Price, John Carradine, Christopher Lee, Helmut Berger, Terry Southern, Timothy Leary, Russ Meyer, Calvin Lockhart, John LaZar, Gale Sondergaard, Sybil Danning, Monique Van Vooren, Herve Villechaize, Johnny Eck, Robert Quarry, Curtis Harrington, Kenneth Anger, Viva, and many others whose names might not necessarily ring a bell, but whose faces any aficionado of the exotic, erotic, or horrific in cinema would immediately recognize.
What ties these pieces together? Most of the people profiled are connected in one way or another with the horror genre. Many of the pieces are written from what Del Valle calls “a gay man’s perspective.” However, what connects these pieces thematically is spelled out in the book’s title, the idea of Hollywood as, quoting Vincent Price, “one of the most evil cities on the planet,” a Venus flytrap that lures the beautiful and the talented, swallows them whole, and then spits out their exploited husks after one or two brief moments of success (if that many).
Del Valle writes of his friendship with the blonde and hauntingly vulnerable Joyce Jameson, “one of the brightest and most talented comediennes of the late 1950s and 1960s,” who worked alongside Red Skelton, Danny Kaye, and Steve Allen in television, and in the movies reached a peak of sorts playing comic foil to Peter Lorre and Vincent Price in the brilliant “The Black Cat” episode of Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror and then, repeating the winning combination, opposite Price and Lorre in Jacques Tourneur’s A Comedy of Terrors. Sadly, she became overweight and insecure, and the jobs dwindled accordingly. “She could behave like a diva, and only Clint Eastwood could convince her to appear overweight on screen [in The Outlaw Josie Wales and Any Which Way but Loose].” She became a recluse, reluctant to leave her own house. She had a toy poodle that she loved dearly, but one horrible night, “she rolled over in bed and accidentally broke the poor little thing’s neck in her sleep.” A year later, she committed suicide.
Even more pathetic than the story of a lovely and talented has-been like Joyce Jameson is the story of a virtually talentless barely-was, Paul Marco, who played “Kelton the Cop” in a trio of Ed Wood productions. Marco, writes Del Valle, “was one truly fucked-up individual, who would do just about anything to keep one foot in the door of show business.” Wood cast Marco in the first of his three “Kelton” films, Bride of the Monster, after Marco had invested in the project, and Marco became a kind of all-around helper/production assistant to Wood. Years later, deluded by the Ed Wood revival into thinking himself some kind of cult star, Marco “spent well over half his savings” on bumper stickers, T-shirts, balloons, and key chains, “all extolling the image of the latest superstar on the horizon, Kelton the Cop.” He started his own fan club, with himself as president. Del Valle describes the heavy-drinking Marco during his final days, squatting illegally in a house he did not own, desperate for company, calling Del Valle on the telephone, imploring him, “Just get me a trick!”
But there are also stories of survivors, like Price and Lee — or Gloria Stuart, James Whale’s favorite leading lady, who beautifully incarnated the director’s conception of “a white flame that dances about [The Old Dark House] much like a moth.” Stuart, a woman of many talents, wisely retired from Hollywood in the late ’30s to become a successful painter, and then returned triumphantly 60 years later to play the Oscar-nominated role of Old Rose in Cameron’s Titanic.
There are pithy portraits of eccentrics like Isabella Telezynska, the actress who played Tchaikovsky’s patroness in Ken Russell’s The Music Lovers:
“She stood framed in my doorway in a blouse pulled off her shoulders to reveal a silver necklace made of stars and moons around her neck. ‘I am Isabella Telezynska,’ she announced as she came through the door. ‘I work for Visconti and Ken Russell. You got any whiskey in the house?'”
And we get some delicious gossip — like the story of respected auteur James Ivory pounding on the door of an apartment because he suspected his longtime producer-partner, Ismail Merchant, was flirting with some young man inside. “To this day,” writes Del Valle, “I cannot see Remains of the Day or any Merchant/Ivory production without hearing the American half of that production company screaming, ‘Let me in! I want to meet all your lovers!'”
Some of Del Valle’s profiles, like those of directors Robert Florey and John Brahm, are too short and reveal regrettably little — largely because the subjects of these profiles did not reveal that much of themselves to Del Valle. On the whole, however, Lost Horizons‘ mixture of gossip, insight, and straight-from-the-horse’s-mouth film history makes for compulsive reading. My only major complaint is the lack of an index.