Saturday, June 25, 2011

Behind the walls at Hearst Castle, and other scandals

By Steve Crum

San Simeon, Calif.--Life was sweet here, the best sweets money could buy. For more than 30 years, since its $10 million construction began in 1919, Hearst Castle aka La Cuesta Encanta (“The Enchanted Hill’) was William Randolph Hearst’s ornate valentine to his mistress and to himself. Especially to himself.

Today, state park guides boast to tourists that the late publisher-baron would be ecstatic knowing his awesome dream is shared with the masses., the Hearst name forever connected. A shrine to W.R., The Boss. Magnificent is the apropos adjective for this place.

Towering high, high over the San Simeon Bay of cavorting whales and seals, the castle is surrounded by 240,000 acres of rock-strewn hills and plains.

Remnants of Hearst excesses are visible far from the castle itself. Zebras, cattle and horses still roam--perhaps the ancestors of the original animal brood Hearst had flown to this area beginning in the 1920s.

In those days, Hearst even maintained a zoo of llamas, lions and bears, oh my. As part of the $21.60 per looker ticket, you even see the ruins of the bear cages. Amazing that they are still standing even this long after the man’s 1951 death.

At that time, his Enchanted Hill itself stopped production--unlike his publishing empire that kept on churning. For indeed The Boss had long range plans for building more guest houses, and extending the main house. And meticulously designing each room, each historically themed, antique-excessed room. But Hearst had said to stop construction until he got back from a brief trip. Then he died, never getting back.

Today is Tour No. 2 of four Hearst Castle tours, my second and last this vacation. This is a much more intimate tour than yesterday’s Tour 1 which guided 30 of us through the main house and dining areas as well as the two Roman-columned swimming pools. On this aridly hot morning, Mary greets the 12 of us: “You can ask me anything you want, and I will do my best to answer.”

By the time we snake through another dozen of the estate’s 115 rooms and file into Marion Davies’ bedroom, our host has enthusiastically answered several of my queries that focus on what I was really interested in: the Davies-Hearst scandal.

Mary said guides must have at least four sources to back up their facts, so accept the following as credible:

•Marion Davies, star of 51 movies between 1917-37, lived with Hearst for 30 years, until his death in 1951. Hearst remained married to his wife Millicent throughout this time. She rarely visited the castle unless Marion was not there, preferring to stay in her New York digs.
•Hearst had several children with Millicent, none with Marion. Or is that the final answer? During a trip to Europe with his sister, Davies claimed her sister gave birth to a baby girl. The girl, named Patricia Van Cleve, grew up to be tall with piercing eyes--resembling William Randolph Hearst. Coincidental? The story goes that years later Hearst confided to Patricia, admitting she was indeed his daughter, and that she should never tell anyone, including her husband, Arthur Lake.
•Arthur Lake made 75 movies, but is best tagged as Dagwood Bumstead in 30 Blondie movies produced by King Features Syndicate (owned by the Hearst Corp.)
•In 1999, moments before she died, Patricia admitted to reporters what she had promised never to reveal until she was on her deathbed, that she was indeed the daughter of Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. It was so stated in her obituary, which even ran in Hearst newspapers. (Her mom, Marion, died in 1961 of cancer.)
•Vignette: Marion Davies received a flower from Hearst every day for the 30 years. The romantic tycoon placed it on the floor outside her bedroom door. They had separate bedrooms.
•Of the many reasons Hearst hated Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, none was more vitriolic than the film’s Rosebud plot device. Kane, of course, is a thinly disguised Hearst. Xanadu is the name of publisher Kane’s castle, and there are numerous parallels. Rosebud is a beloved sled’s name in the movie, but it really meant something entirely different. Davies had made the mistake of telling her old drinking buddy, Herman J. Mankiewicz, the real meaning of Rosebud. When Mankiewicz and Welles later collaborated on Citizen Kane, the name was included, definitely signifying Welles’ contempt for Hearst and his empire.
•The true meaning of Rosebud? It was Hearst’s pet name for Marion Davies’ most intimate body part. Do the math.

Citizen Kane was a box office disaster when released in 1941. Hearst had banned all mention and advertising of the film in his newspapers and magazines. That zero-publicity included the top Hollywood gossip columnist and Hearst employee, Louella Parsons. She could help make or break any picture. MGM head Louis B. Mayer even tried to buy the film from Welles to burn the negative. Welles refused, withstood a major career blast, and lived to see his movie revered as the best ever made.

In 1985, grandson W.R. Hearst III said he personally enjoyed Citizen Kane, and that Orson Welles could visit Hearst Castle any time he wanted. Welles never took him up on it.
CRUMMY TRIVIA: Look for future movie star Alan Ladd as a reporter during the opening and closing scenes of Citizen Kane.
NOTE: This story was originally published in The Kansas City Kansan newspaper in 1998.
Let's take a tour of Hearst Castle via this featurette:

Friday, June 24, 2011

'Bad Teacher' gets solid, shaking one's head, 'F'

By Steve Crum

Like Bad Santa, Bad Teacher is among the most aptly titled movies in film history. Unfortunately, the adjective “bad” has taken on urban slang that changes its meaning to “very good.” Believe me, stick with the Webster’s Dictionary definition. The “teacher” in Bad Teacher is definitely not admirable in the least, let alone very good. The referenced teacher, Miss Halsey, portrayed by the sultry Cameron Diaz, is rude, vulgar, self-centered, and morality-free. In her middle school classroom, she sleeps while showing videos to her students. She also taps into her teacher desk bottom drawer to smoke pot and swig booze whenever she can.

The simply written scenario, by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, follows gold digger Elizabeth Halsey, as she attempts to wrangle money out of anyone or anything. Early on, she is engaged to a wealthy guy, but their relationship abruptly ends when his mother discovers Elizabeth desires dollar signs over love hearts. That forces Elizabeth back to a second year of teaching at John Adams Middle School. Her novice year, we earlier observe, was pretty much a failure, yet she is oddly welcomed back like she was Teacher of the Year. For that matter, how in the world did this lady even get a teaching degree? Regarding basic tenants of instruction and administrative compliance, she is clueless. John Adams Middle is a fantasy unto itself, with incompetent Principal Wall Snur (John Michael Higgins), assisted by nary one assistant principal. There is not even a security guard on the premises. (A budgetary problem with movie production?) Also, a first or second year teacher would have frequent visits from the principal and district personnel to evaluate her classroom performance. That never occurs in this fairy tale.

The overall faculty further insults the education profession via their depiction as dorky dimwits in charge of comparatively bright, sophisticated students. At an Open House, parents are shown as concerned, upper middle class types, yet accepting of Halsey’s daily movie showings in her classroom. In fact, Halsey could care less about her professional demeanor until she hears that she could win $5,000 for having the best state test scores. Her lofty reason: so she can have breast enlargement to attract a wealthy guy. No surprise there is a graphic sequence of her choosing the best “boob job” at the doctor’s office. Folks, this is the script crux of Bad Teacher. Could writers Stupnitsky and Eisenberg really be junior high nerds themselves, writing this kind of repressed, sexual claptrap?

As Halsey behaves like she is a sleazy waitress at some dive cafeteria, her fellow staffers do not seem that concerned. They include Scott Delacorte (Justin TImberlake), the substitute teacher who is naive about Halsey’s lustful attraction; the lusting gym teacher, Russell Gettis (Jason Segel); and Lynn Davies, played by The Office’s Phyllis Smith. Lucy Punch plays the well named Amy Squirrel, a competitive fellow teacher who was last year’s winner of the state score prize money.

Directing like he has absorbed every episode of TV’s Reno-911 is Jake Kasdan (Freaks and Geeks TV series). For all the crotch shots alone, Kasdan just might graduate to grade 8.

There were those in the audience at Bad Teacher’s screening who consistently howled, nearly falling on the floor, at each utterance of the f-word, and at each toilet joke. Once again, the Judd Apatow-influenced school of witless comedy reinforces that we should bust a gut laughing at virtually the lowest of low humor. This is funny? No. This is 92 minutes of wasted acting talents given some of the most boorish set pieces imaginable.

Bad Teacher? Rename this one Terrible Flick.
GRADE: On an A to F Scale: F
Mediocre trailer for a truly bad flick:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Despite dicey plot, 'X-Men: First Class' is spectacular fun

By Steve Crum

It is about time, and I mean past and present when referencing superhero movies. We are aware, aren’t we, that at a given time in any such film franchise, there has to be a movie about the origin of said superhero. After three movies exploring the exploits of Dr. Xavier and his avenging band of mutant heroes, now is the right moment to release a prequel, explaining how it all began...when a flame thrower was merely an ember, and a mental condition did not yet elevate mountains. X-Men: First Class fills the sci-fi bill.

After all, two years ago, Star Trek fans were finally, after decades, given the lowdown on how Kirk, Spock and McCoy began the accent from their home planets into the universe in the prequel, Star Trek. Seeing a young cast in the Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley roles, framed in a story line befitting the legends they were portraying, was extremely entertaining. Knowing direction by J. J. Abrams undoubtedly helped the picture’s success.

Now, the heretofore independent director Matthew Vaughn grabs the reigns held by Bryan Singer and Brett Ratner in the previous three movies. Vaughn handles it very well, working the young cast through a troublesome script, concocted by a four-writer team. The core of their story, in addition to depicting how the future heroes and villains evolved, centers on an actual historical event of 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is always dicey at best to mix historical fact with comic book fantasy, so the final product of X-M:FC bodes not so well.

In the 1960’s, DC Comics actually featured Superman in one issue, battling the Vietcong, well, a gigantic Vietcong soldier. Setting Superman in the jungles of Vietnam, during a current war, was a mistake. For one thing, Superman was there only to take care of essentially a super villain. Once the bad guy was captured, Superman then left the war in the hands of American soldiers. Incredibly, a weak explanation was given that Superman felt he should leave the matters of war between earthlings TO earthlings. In other words, Superman could have easily ended any war, actually, and anywhere on earth. Talk about an imbalance of power!

A similar dilemma occurs in X-M:FC. I do not want to be a story spoiler, so let us say there are some huge plot holes created when mixing the navies of the USA and USSR with super-mutants. Damn the true happenings during those terrifying JFK days, and full speed ahead to entertain 2011 audiences. Surely youngsters seeing X-M:FC will not be thoroughly misinformed with this much more entertaining history redux. It is scary to contemplate.

Then again, there is the origin of Erik Lensherr, who will eventually be Magneto, the X-Men’s supreme nemesis. X-M:FC repeats his beginnings, first told in X-Men (2000), wherein the young Erik is separated from his parents as they are incarcerated at a concentration camp, and violently reacts by using his mind/magnetic power to fight his Nazi captors. That sequence is then enlarged upon in this prequel to introduce a deliciously evil Kevin Bacon as Nazi interrogator Sebastian Shaw, who wants to use Erik’s powers. Fans of superhero movies realize that there has to be a strong adversary to make the movie work. Bacon is as rotten, conniving, and darkly brilliant as they come. It is his best work in years.

Then again, without being overly analytical, anyone possessing Erik’s powers could easily have defeated the Nazis and ended WWII. But that story possibility is quickly ignored. (Yeah, yeah, Erik had yet to fully realize his awesomeness, so there is a degree of credibility here after all.)

Now young adults, mentalist Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik (Michael Fassbender) have yet to assume their Professor X and Magneto monikers. They are friendly mutants just beginning to develop their powers. They befriend other mutants invited to live at Xavier’s home, as a psychological retreat if nothing else. We are eventually introduced, among others, to Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique, Alex Gonzalez’s Janos Quested/Riptide, Nicholas Hoult’s Hank/Beast, and January Jones’ glassy-gorgeous Emma Frost. Unless you are a comic book freak, you will need a score card to keep track of all the heroes, villains, and changing names. (By the way, I consider myself a one-time comic book freak, having collected and traded throughout my youth--decades ago.)

Sure, the X-Men: First Class revisionist history, plot device is troublesome, but the film's digital effects provide enough spectacular action and levitation eye candy to soothe any blue Beast.
GRADE on an A to F Scale: B
Meet the younger X-Men via this trailer: