Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Laughton

The long night

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Three years ago, a man named Paul Gregory died on Christmas Day. He lived by himself in Desert Hot Springs, California, where he evidently shot himself in his apartment at the age of ninety-five. His death wasn’t widely reported, and it was only this past week that his obituary appeared in the New York Times, which noted of his passing:

Word leaked out slowly. Almost a year later, The Desert Sun, a daily newspaper serving Palm Springs, California, and the Coachella Valley area, published an article that took note of Mr. Gregory’s death, saying that “few people knew about it.” “He wasn’t given a public memorial service and he didn’t receive the kind of appreciations showbiz luminaries usually get,” the newspaper said…When the newspaper’s article appeared, [the Desert Hot Springs Historical Society] had recently given a dinner in Mr. Gregory’s memory for a group of his friends. “His passing was so quiet,” Bruce Fessler, who wrote the article, told the gathering. “No one wrote about him. It’s just one of those awkward moments.”

Yet his life was a remarkable one, and more than worth a full biography. Gregory was a successful film and theater producer who crossed paths over the course of his career with countless famous names. On Broadway, he was the force behind Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, one of the big dramatic hits of its time, and he produced Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter, which deserves to be ranked among the greatest American movies.

Gregory’s involvement with The Night of the Hunter alone would have merited a mention here, but his death caught my eye for other reasons. As I mentioned here last week, I’ve slowly been reading through Mailer’s Selected Letters, in which both Gregory and Laughton figure prominently. In 1954, Mailer told his friends Charlie and Jill Devlin that he had recently received an offer from Gregory, whom he described as “a kind of front for Charles Laughton,” for the rights to The Naked and the Dead. He continued:

Now, about two weeks ago Gregory called me up for dinner and gave me the treatment. Read Naked five times, he said, loved it, those Marines, what an extraordinary human story of those Marines, etc…What he wants to do, he claims, is have me do an adaptation of Naked, not as a play, but as a dramatized book to be put on like The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial…Anyway, he wants it to be me and only me to do the play version.

The play never got off the ground, but Gregory retained the movie rights to the novel, with an eye to Laughton directing with Robert Mitchum in the lead. Mailer was hugely impressed by Laughton, telling Elsa Lanchester decades later that he had never met “an actor before or since whose mind was so fine and powerful” as her late husband’s. The two men spent a week at Laughton’s hotel in Switzerland going over the book, and Mailer recalled that the experience was “a marvelous brief education in the problems of a movie director.”

In the end, sadly, this version of the movie was never made, and Mailer deeply disliked the film that Gregory eventually produced with director Raoul Walsh. It might all seem like just another footnote to Mailer’s career—but there’s another letter that deserves to be mentioned. At exactly the same time that Mailer was negotiating with Gregory, he wrote an essay titled “The Homosexual Villain,” in which he did the best that he could, given the limitations of his era and his personality, to come to terms with his own homophobia. (Mailer himself never cared for the result, and it’s barely worth reading today even as a curiosity. The closing line gives a good sense of the tone: “Finally, heterosexuals are people too, and the hope of acceptance, tolerance, and sympathy must rest on this mutual appreciation.”) On September 24, 1954, Mailer wrote to the editors of One: The Homosexual Magazine, in which the article was scheduled to appear:

Now, something which you may find somewhat irritating. And I hate like hell to request it, but I think it’s necessary. Perhaps you’ve read in the papers that The Naked and the Dead has been sold to Paul Gregory. It happens to be half-true. He’s in the act of buying it, but the deal has not yet been closed. For this reason I wonder if you could hold off publication for a couple of months? I don’t believe that the publication of this article would actually affect the sale, but it is a possibility, especially since Gregory—shall we put it this way—may conceivably be homosexual.

And while there’s a lot to discuss here, it’s worth emphasizing the casual and utterly gratuitous way in which Mailer—who became friendly years later with Roy Cohn—outed his future business partner by name.

But the letter also inadvertently points to a fascinating and largely unreported aspect of Gregory’s life, which I can do little more than suggest here. Charles Laughton, of course, was gay, as Elsa Lanchester discusses at length in her autobiography. (Gregory appears frequently in this book as well. He evidently paid a thousand dollars to Confidential magazine to kill a story about Laughton’s sexuality, and Lanchester quotes a letter from Gregory in which he accused Henry Fonda, who appeared in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, of calling Laughton a “fat, ugly homosexual”—although Laughton told her that Fonda had used an even uglier word.) Their marriage was obviously a complicated one, but it was far from the only such partnership. The actress Mary Martin, best known for her role as Peter Pan, was married for decades to the producer and critic Richard Halliday, whom her biographer David Kaufman describes as “her father, her husband, her best friend, her gay/straight ‘cover,’ and, both literally and figuratively, her manager.” One of Martin’s closest friends was Janet Gaynor, the Academy Award-winning actress who played the lead in the original version of A Star is Born. Gaynor was married for many years to Gilbert Adrian, an openly gay costume designer whose most famous credit was The Wizard of Oz. Gaynor herself was widely believed to be gay or bisexual, and a few years after Adrian’s death, she married a second time—to Paul Gregory. Gaynor and Gregory often traveled with Martin, and they were involved in a horrific taxi accident in San Francisco in 1982, in which Martin’s manager was killed, Gregory broke both legs, Martin fractured two ribs and her pelvis, and Gaynor sustained injuries that led to her death two years later. Gregory remarried, but his second wife passed away shortly afterward, and he appears to have lived quietly on his own until his suicide three years ago. The rest of the world only recently heard about his death. But even if we don’t know the details, it seems clear that there were many stories from his life that we’ll never get to hear at all.

My alternative canon #2: The Night of the Hunter

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The Night of the Hunter

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next two weeks, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

I’ve only seen The Night of the Hunter once. As far as I can remember, it was at the sadly departed UC Theatre in Berkeley, which means that it would have been at least fifteen years ago, and possibly closer to twenty. I haven’t revisited it since, but it has left me with images that I’ll never forget. There’s Robert Mitchum, of course, as the murderous preacher with his knuckles tattooed with LOVE and HATE, which most film buffs probably know best through the homages in Cape Fear and Do the Right Thing. And then there are the weirdly surrealistic touches that have burned themselves into my memory like the flashes of a nightmare: Mitchum lunging after the two children in the basement with his arms extended like a cartoon villain; the dead body of Shelley Winters lying in her car at the bottom of the lake; Lillian Gish brandishing a shotgun on the porch; and the insane silhouette of Mitchum outlined against the horizon on horseback, which director Charles Laughton created using a midget riding a pony. When I saw it in the theater, its stylistic excesses often evoked uncertain laughter from the audience, which seems like the right response. Like Blue Velvet, which in some ways is its true successor, it’s the kind of film in which it can be hard to tell where craftsmanship leaves off and naiveté begins—although it’s probably safest, in both cases, to assume that the director is more sophisticated than we are. (The script is credited to the writer and film critic James Agee, although most sources agree that the finished screenplay is almost entirely Laughton’s.)

If I haven’t gone back to watch it in its entirety, it’s in part to maintain the hallucinatory experience of that first viewing: the more time goes by, the more it seems like one of my own half-remembered dreams. But the actual explanation doesn’t have any parallel in my life as a moviegoer. It’s because of the scene in which the brother and sister flee on a tiny rowboat from their monstrous pursuer, who lets out a howl of anguish as they escape from his clutches. The boy, exhausted, falls asleep in the boat almost at once, while the little girl sings softly to herself, stroking her doll’s hair, as they drift down the river together:

Once upon a time there was a pretty fly
He had a pretty wife, this pretty fly
But one day she flew away, flew away…

A process shot shows them drifting beneath a spider’s web, followed by an enormous toad looming in the foreground, and then it’s over. The entire scene lasts for less than a minute. But from the moment I saw it, I thought that it was the single most beautiful sequence in the history of cinema. It comes out of nowhere, and it’s like nothing else before or after it—in this movie or any other. And the real reason I’ve never watched The Night of the Hunter again is to preserve that memory. I’ve seen most of the classic scenes from my favorite movies so many times that they’ve lost much of their power. This is the one that I’ve decided to leave alone, revisiting it maybe once a decade, in hopes that its magic will stay intact for as long as I have eyes to see it.

Written by nevalalee

June 7, 2016 at 9:00 am

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