Saturday, November 24, 2012

Mid-Century Marvelous - Hollywood at Home

Hershberger Residence
I'm thrilled to have a guest posting from my friend Steven Price.  He's well respected in the architectural community  and an expert on the history of Trousdale Estates.  Steven is currently working on his magnum opus on Trousdale entitled Over the Top.  I'm sitting here tapping my foot waiting for him to finish and publish it. 

Mid-Century Marvelous
Surprising Architectural Treasure in Trousdale Estates

Everyone has an opinion about Trousdale Estates.  Glamorous.  Vulgar.  Ultimate L.A. dream.  Nouveau riche nightmare.  It’s always been that way.  

That said, a lot of people are surprised to hear the words “Trousdale” and “architecture” in the same sentence.  From the beginning, it was famous for its celebrity residents and the flamboyant quality of its houses.  What’s not widely understood, however -- even to architectural scholars -- is that Trousdale Estates comprises Los Angeles’ largest concentration of residential work by most of its A-List architects of the 1950s and 60’s. From the great classicists at the twilight of their careers such as Wallace Neff, James Dolena and Paul Williams, to up-and-coming pioneers of modernism of the day like Cliff May, A. Quincy Jones, Richard Dorman, Harold Levitt, Lloyd Wright, Buff, Straub & Hensman and successive generations have left their mark on the hillside colony.  

Starting in 1954, Paul Trousdale developed what had once been the ‘backyard’ of the Doheny oil family’s Greystone Mansion -- the 410 acre Doheny Ranch -- into 535 homesites as his crowning achievement. It was the last major development within the city limits of Beverly Hills.
Fame and glamour have always played an important role in the Trousdale mystique: Its first residents counted among them Groucho Marx, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley…even Richard Nixon.  The area continues to be home to the famous: Jennifer Aniston, Simon Cowell, Elton John and dozens of others.   

Aerial View of Trousdale

Yet for all its supposed celebrity stardust, Trousdale has always housed an equally high concentration of entrepreneurs and tycoons across all industries, and was a haven for construction and home-building magnates: Montgomery Ross Fisher, Isadore Familian and Nathan Shapell (developer of Porter Ranch) who could have chosen to live ANYwhere, but who made their homes in Trousdale.
Part of that was the architecture.  The ability to build anew in the most desireable city in America was a powerful draw: The boldest-faced celebrities and society names in town angled to get the best lots, and competed with each other to hire the most talented architects and in-demand ‘interior decorators’ money could buy. 

Large flat pads with views were blank slates ready for dramatic stage sets for living. One of the first, Groucho Marx, commissioned Wallace Neff to build him a sleek modern home that was destined to become an instant Trousdale landmark: a long, blank front to the street broken only for a tall front door and an open carport to showcase the family’s three cars, with an expansive motor court that could accommodate a dozen more.

Groucho Marx Residence
Nearby, the Rose House was designed by architects Conrad Buff, Dennis Straub, and Don Hensman in 1963 for Helen Rose, the Oscar-winning MGM costume designer, also beloved in Hollywood for her design of Grace Kelly’s famous wedding dress.

In 1999, interior designer Carole Katleman acquired the home and selected the firm of Marmol-Radziner to undertake an updating. It’s a credit to her unfailing eye that this house been cited time and time again as the ultimate Trousdale icon, inspiring designers and artists alike. 

The blank façade of the main entry only hints at the patrician pavilion to be found behind.  The view unfolds through transparent glass walls, giving onto the terrazzo-paved pool terrace.

Rose/Katleman residence by Buff, Straub & Hensman (1963) and Marmol-Radziner (1999)

At one point in the mid 60’s, sales were a little slow, as they finished up the grading on the western ridges.  So a new marketing campaign was launched: Ten model homes were planned, there were to be two each by architects Rex Lotery, Edward Fickett, William Stephenson, Richard Dorman, and Quincy Jones. In the end however, only five were built.

One of the five, by Jones, undisputed master of relaxed California modernism, later became the home to 5-star general Omar Bradley, and later disco record producer Giorgio Moroder, who recently sold it to film director Harold Becker.  The ownership history of the house illustrates perfectly the roller-coaster of high-and-low culture that is Beverly Hills. 

Entrance to a "Model Home" by A. Quincy Jones, 1965

Today, much of the architectural drama lies in the updating of existing homes, handsome remodels (or “Mid-Cent reMods”) outpace all new construction and can be very rewarding, especially when seen in Before-and-After mode.

Burt Reynolds Residence - Before

The former Burt Reynolds residence on a cul-de-sac off upper Carla Ridge is a case in point.  To fully appreciate the effect of architectural designer Steve Hermann’s renovation, a look at how the designer found it is juxtaposed versus its dazzling finished result .  Its sexy sheen attracted a buyer no less discerning than fashionista Vera Wang, who reportedly paid close to the $10 million asking price. 

Vera Wang Residence - After

After an incredibly glamorous start, Trousdale fell somewhat in decline and disrepute during the 1980s and 1990s. But the dawn of the 21st century found the area roaring back into favor, as critical and popular re-appreciation of the Mid Century era got underway alongside major new estates by Marmol-Radziner, Steven Shortridge and Howard Backen in recent years. In the intervening years, many of the original houses were taken down and replaced, or remodeled beyond recognition.  In the process, many architectural treasures have been lost; this trend of course is not limited to Trousdale but is rampant through-out Beverly Hills and the rest of Los Angeles as well.

In some cases, what was once salvageable is now sure to be lost. Case in point: the Joseph Beber house by Richard Dorman with its folded plate roof has always been an architectural highlight on lower Loma Vista.  In recent years, however, it’s had a bad run of luck -- owners starting construction, then running out of money, one walked away from it. With no kitchen and bathrooms, it couldn’t find a buyer and has continued to degrade.  The home apparently was purchased recently, but restoral is a very unlikely long-shot at this point; its current state is unworthy of pictorial reference.  

Joseph Beber residence by Richard Dorman, 1960
Such neglect and destruction has raised significant awareness of what’s being lost, however.
On that note, it’s great to be able to report that a Preservation Ordinance was adopted in 2012 by the Beverly Hills City Council.  There will be longer review periods, and a committee to make nominations for landmarking status. There are even Mills Act tax credits to be made available. A list of Master Architects is being compiled to assist the City in determining what properties will qualify.  Still, in some cases, the triumph is bittersweet; so many irreplaceable properties have fallen – and continue to face endangerment.

 * * * *

All this and more will be detailed in the forthcoming large-format coffee table book “Over The Top”, the architectural history of Trousdale Estates authored by Steven Price.  He is anticipating a Spring 2013 publication date.  Do visit the book’s website for a preview, or follow him on Facebook, for news about the book and related architectural, historical and Mid-century real-estate news.  Steven also hosts a very active Facebook Group Mid Century Marvelous, check it out!

I'm grateful that Steven allowed me to republish his work here.  I hope you find this as fascinating as I do.  All images herein are courtesy of Steven Price and should not be reblogged without his permission.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On the Bedside Table - STILL

Proposed Cover Art

I'm really excited to announce the forthcoming publication of STILL: American Silent Motion Picture Photography by Davis S. Shields.  David's wonderful website devoted to the art of Broadway photography/portraits and the artistry of  the studios and indivudual photographers has long been a source of great information for me.  It was at this site I first learned of David's manuscript for STILL.  I have been patiently waiting for this book for many years and am happy to report, this wish will soon be granted.  You can read more about the book at the University of Chicago Press website.  You can preorder it at amazon, too!
During my Valentino research, David very generously allowed me to read some of his chapters and I can attest, this book will not only be stunningly gorgeous to look at, it's going to be a gorgeous read, too.  May 2013 will not come fast enough for me!

San Francisco Silent Film Festival - Winterfest 2013

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival annouced the 2013 winter program on November 16th.  Mark your calendars!  Buy your tickets!  Be there or be square!


Saturday, February 16 | Castro Theatre

One day, five programs. A perfect winterlude.

Maurgerite Clark in the 1916 film Snow White was an early inspiration to Walter E. Disney.  I've only seen snipets and am looking forward to seeing the whole film.  BTW, a great exhibit on Disney's 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can be seen at the Walt Disney Family Museum through April 14th.  Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano.


The artistry of Buster Keaton is still very modern comedy 90 years later.  I'll hazard to say that his films still continue to resonate and have not dated as much as some of his contemporaries.  The festival will present three of BusterKeaton's Metro short films One Week; The Scarecrow; and The Play House.  Be prepared to be amazed and laugh your socks off. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano.

Douglas Fairbanks' lavish fantasy spectacle The Thief of Bagdad is my all time favorite of his films.  Seeing this on the big screen is an unforgetable experience.  Love story, adventure, larceny, a great villian (Sojin), a young Anna May Wong and Doug, what more can you ask for?  Oh wait, Snitz Edwards, too!  Accompanied by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.


It is mostly forgotten that Mary Pickford spent a good part of her career playing adults, as well as children.  One of her most charming films is the well regarded and much beloved My Best Girl.  I'm looking forward to seeing this on the big screen for the first time.  We'll get two of Mary's husbands on film during the winterfest.  Now where is an Owen Moore film to complete the trio?  Accompanied by Donald Sosin on the piano.

FAUST, 1926
Closing out the day will be F.W. Murnau's grand epic telling of Faust.  starring Emil Jannings as Mephisto, Gosta Ekmann as Faust and Camilla Horn as the tracig Gretchen.  Also making an appearence is future film director William Dieterle as Valentin.  Accompaniment by Christian Elliott on the Mighty Wurlitzer.
Become a member of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival today!
You can order your festival pass and individual tickets here.
See you there!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

 A very pre-code poster for the film, promising a bit more than you actually get.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) is my favorite film directed by Frank Capra, followed closely by Lost Horizon (1937).  It stars former silent heartthrob Nils Asther and Barbara Stanwyck as the main protagonists.  They’re supported by the always wonderful character actor Walter Connolly and the remarkable Toshia Mori.  It’s a splendid pre-code film.  If you’ve not seen it, seek it out.
In the silent era audiences were treated to actors such as Richard Barthelmess (Broken Blossoms) and Lon Chaney (Mr. Wu and Shadows) playing in “yellow face.”  This unfortunate trend continued well into the 1950’s with Marlon Brando (Teahouse of the August Moon), Curt Jurgens (Inn of the Sixth Happiness) and 1960’s with Mickey Rooney (Breakfast at Tiffany’s).  Of course this type of casting was not limited to “Asian types.” See The Rains Came 1939 for Tyrone Power as an Indian as well as H.B. Warner and Maria Ouspenskaya portraying the Maharaj and Maharai.  I won’t even go near the history of “blackface.”  I’ll point you instead to the excellent work of Donald Bogle.
Warner Oland in costume as a Fu-Manchu circa 1927

Perhaps one of the most famously typecast actors in the silent era, besides Lon Chaney (Shadows, Mr. Wu for example) was Warner Oland.  Oland was by birth a Swede and made quite a career in the silent era portraying a variety of Orientals and usually villains.  He began starring in Pearl White serials as her nemesis, a Fu Manchu-type and in the late silent era was a delightful baddie in Old San Francisco.  The twist in Old San Francisco was his character was a Eurasian posing as a pure Chinese.  Oh, the horror of being found out to have heathen white man’s blood coursing through his veins!  (It’s a fun film.)  Oland’s typecasting continued in the talkie era and his fame grew with his portrayal of the beloved/reviled Charlie Chan in a series of films for 20th Century Fox.  Personally, I like the Chan films.  There is plenty of humor and fun mysteries.  The pidgin English Chan spouts is merely a front, he is a very smart cookie.  He's smarter than most of the regular goons in the pictures.  Usually well cast with 20th Century Fox stable of actors, they’re always fun. 
Lon Chaney as Mr. Wu

Myrna Loy is equally famous for her early career as an exotic/Asian (see the header image on this page).  She portrayed an Asian or Native-type in most of her silent films before graduating to Nora Charles in the talkie era.  Loy made much with two of her last exotic roles in the pair of 1932 releases Thirteen Women and Mask of Fu Manchu.  The MGM Fu Manchu she was paired with the Boris Karloff and in which she delightfully chewed the scenery and orgasmic ally enjoyed the hero being flogged.  It was not “politically correct” then, nor is it now, but damn it is a fun movie.  Karloff, of course, later played Mr. Wong Detective in a series of low budget films and Peter Lorre did a turn as Mr. Moto in the late 1930’s.
Edward G. Robinson in The Hatchet Man

One of the more unusual bits of casting would be Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young in The Hatchet Man, almost the entire cast is white actors in yellow face.  None of it is taken for camp, though it may well be viewed that way today.  Toshia Mori also has a small bit in this film.  Another actor who portrayed exotics in the silent and sound era was the always sensitive Latin heartthrob, Ramon Novarro.  He’s quite good in 1932’s The Son-Daughtersharing star billing with Helen Hayes during her brief tenure at MGM.  Being cast in this film is probably what sent her flying back to Broadway and on to even greater triumphs.
Most of the yellow face portrayals were stereotypes, extremely racist and with the advent of World War II even more distasteful.  The aforementioned Richard Barthelmess as Chen-Huang in Broken Blossoms was a notable exception in the silent era.  His dignified and restrained performance was and still is outstanding.  This could also be said for Paul Muni and Luise Rainer in 1937’s The Good Earth.  Though I personally feel they are miscast, there were many contemporary Asian actors who could have been great in this film.  Hello, Anna May Wong, anybody?
a promotional herald for the film
This long preamble brings me to Nils Asther as General Yen in The Bitter Tea of General Yen.  Asther brought both gravitas and humor to his portrayal of General Yen.  Of course, Asther was no stranger to being cast as an exotic.  One only has to see 1929’s Wild Orchidsfor a fine example with Asther as an Indonesian Prince.  He is simply fabulous, worth the price of admission for him alone, Garbo is frosting on the cake.  In Bitter Tea he is made up as yellow face but his portrayal was anything but stereotypical of the day.  His Yen was tender, cruel, mercurial and magnetically sexy.  Human is how I’d characterize him.  He recognizes the hypocrisy of the Christian missionaries and, in particular, the hypocrisy of Megan Davis.  He is a man of power, he is cruel when the case warrants and he enjoys the perks of his position with what one assumes more than one concubine.  He is a man who is also not afraid to go after what he wants, and in this case, what he wants is Megan Davis.   
Yen first meets Megan Davis during a refugee exodus in his province.  His sedan hits, and presumably kills a rickshawman.  You can see the momentary flicker of desire cross his face when he meets the indignant Davis.  (That’s the veteran silent actor speaking volumes.)  Davis and her fiancé Robert (Gavin Gordon) become separated at a railway station and she rendered unconscious.  Davis is rescued and/or kidnapped by General Yen.  Davis awakens in Yen's summer palace. Lavish quarters!  The dreaminess of the surroundings are quickly brought back to harsh reality when from her window, she witnesses a mass execution. She is greatly upset by the violence and Yen merely orders the executions moved further away and out of earshot. 

Yen is clearly infatuated with Davis.  He knows that she is believed to be dead and all he must do is bide his time for her to relent and succumb to his power and charm.  Davis finds herself subconsciously attracted to her captor.  This is shown in a dream sequence in which Asther made up as a stylized and horrific ideal of Fu-Manchu.  He threatens her and she is rescued by the charming, dapper masked man, who upon removal of the mask reveals himself to be the urbane General Yen.
Yen invites her to dine with him.  Mah-Li brings in a retinue of servants and elaborate jeweled garments for her to wear.  Davis revels in the luxury and ritual of being made up and then dresses as an Asian Princess.  Looking in the mirror at her changed countenance, she rejects it and changes back into her drab, plain, western clothing.  This rebel won't be tempted by the ultimate in temptation. 

At dinner, she meets Yen's adviser, American mercenary and renegade Mr. Jones (Walter Connolly), and Yen's aide, Captain Li (Richard Loo).   She is shocked to see Mah-Li treated so badly, like an object, a lesser being.  She warms to Mah-Li and vows to help her in what she sees as her innocent affair with Captain Li.  She's buffaloed by Mah-Li's premise of atoning for her misdeeds by going to temple.  In reality, she is passing secrets to the enemies of General Yen.  Yen sentences her to death and Davis pleads with him to spare her. Yen realizes that Mah-Li will not change her ways, but sees this as an opportunity to "convert a missionary."  He dismisses Davis' appeal to the Christian ideal of forgiveness as empty words, but accepts her offer to serve as a hostage against the future conduct of Mah-Li.

When Mah-Li and Captain Li betray the location of the General's money to the enemy, his army deserts him. Yen discovers his palace empty and realizes he is lost and he begins to prepare to commit suicide.  Meanwhile, realizing that she has destroyed Yen, Davis goes to him willingly but then finds she cannot go through with her side of the bargain as forfeit for Mah-Li.  She runs away to her rooms weeping, torn by her own desire for Yen and her own prejudice.  Yen begins his ritual and preparing the “bitter tea” that will take him to another world.  Davis realizes she must go through with her part, and makes herself up and dresses in the Chinese gown Yen had given to her.  She comes to him to play her part, but he knows his life is over and drinks the tea telling her he hopes they will meet again where there is no General Yen and no Megan Davis, only the pair of lovers.  Davis and Jones make their escape from the province.  He closes the film musing, drunkenly, about Yen and the meaning of his life and ultimate failure.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen was a box office failure upon its release and was for many years overshadowed by Capra's later films.  Happily, with the passage of time, the film has grown in critical acclaim as the great film that it is.

The sets are beautiful and dreamlike, the cinematography by Frank Walker is much the same.  The film, though limited in the number of sets, still looks as lavish as an MGM film.  Much like the later Lost Horizon, Caolumbia spent a fair amount of money on this production and it shows.  The performances of all are uniformly wonderful, though I do find Stanwyck shrill at times.  I can't help it, the instant Asther is on screen, my eyes gravitate to him.  It's a wonderful performance and should have moved his career further, and tragically did not. 

The Bitter Tea of General Yen is curretly available on DVD as part of a set from the TCM Vault Collection entitled Frank Capra: The Early Collection. You can purchase the set here.  In addition to Bitter Tea, the set includes Ladies of Leisure (1930), Rain or Shine (1930), The Miracle Woman (1931), and Forbidden (1932).  I've see each, except Rain or Shine, and they're all excellent.