Saturday, January 28, 2012

Hollywood Without Makeup (Ken Murray Productions, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I screened a rather interesting 48-minute TV-movie we’d downloaded from called Hollywood Without Makeup, a production of a man named Ken Murray who had had a minor career as a bit actor in the 1920’s and had taken a home movie camera to the sets of films he was working on and shot candid off-screen footage of the stars. Though he dropped out of the creative end of picturemaking shortly after, he continued to work as a Hollywood journalist and film the movie stars both at work and at play — and this film takes his documentary history all the way up to 1963, when it was compiled and first shown, offering backstage footage of Fred MacMurray working on the Disney lot in the then-new film Son of Flubber (there’s a charming bit of MacMurray taking some kids for a drive around the Disney backlot in the Model T Ford he drove in the film, and Murray’s narration tells us that the kids kept asking MacMurray, “Make it fly”) and closing with footage of the recently deceased Marilyn Monroe at a movie premiere, waving to the audience and looking utterly gorgeous and plastic (Murray didn’t get any truly candid footage of her and so we don’t get the side of Marilyn we see in some of Milton Greene’s stills or in her best-looking movie, The Prince and the Showgirl — in which Jack Cardiff photographed her artistically for the first and only time in a color film, taming her aggressive looks and making her sensual rather than blatantly sexual).

One of the most fascinating aspects of Hollywood Without Makeup is how accurate the title was — you really did get to see at least some of the stars without makeup and being essentially themselves instead of playing to the camera — and though some of them (notably Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart) proved every bit as charismatic being photographed by Ken Murray’s camera as they were getting the full-dress professional treatment in their actual movies, others (including Norma Shearer) turned out to be quite plain-looking, only ordinarily attractive without the help of makeup and studio lighting. People who knew both Rudolph Valentino and Marilyn Monroe (that’s two different sets of people, but they made strikingly similar comments) both said that off-screen they were no more than decent-looking people, physically easy on the eyes but nothing special — yet on film they acquired a glow that made them seem far sexier than they were in person. “The miracle happened on the film emulsion,” said Billy Wilder on Monroe (he directed her twice and she gave him such a hard time that he joked the Screen Directors’ Guild should award anyone who made more than one film with her a Purple Heart) — and what’s most interesting about Hollywood Without Makeup is not only that some of the “candid” footage appears to have been staged (notably an early-1930’s toy-car race between the young Jackie Cooper and Groucho and Harpo Marx — the ½ to 2/3 of the Marx Brothers were in full on-screen regalia rather than their rather ratty off-screen appearances) but the layers on layers of image-making that went into even a “casual” appearance by a star in the glory days.

It’s also amusing to hear Murray’s narration referring to Hollywood’s glory days as if they were already in the past — and it’s fascinating to see some of the footage at San Simeon (William Randolph Hearst is virtually the only person depicted here who was a celebrity but not a movie star), which Charles (who’s been there) pointed out had been used in the official videos shown at the state park (and the commentary there duplicated some of Ken Murray’s mistakes in his narration). Also worth note is the sequence from Murray’s TV show in which Kirk Douglas appears as a guest star and complains that his mother thinks Murray is a bigger star than he is because he has a new TV show on once a week whereas Douglas only releases a new movie every three or four months. It would be nice to see Hollywood Without Makeup in better shape — the print we downloaded from was in terrible condition and looked like a silent movie rescued just in time before it decomposed completely (and the disc we’d burned from the download had its own set of glitches, often jumping ahead a full five-minute chapter) — it is a really charming film even though it’s something less than the glimpse of Hollywood stars totally letting their hair down (figuratively, and sometimes literally) Murray promised us in his narration.