Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fidel Castro, Movie Star

Fidel Castro and his American nemesis, Ronald Reagan, have one thing in common. Both men had a film career. Reagan's time as a movie star is well known to even the most casual of old movie fans, but Fidel's one film, one line career certainly qualifies as forgotten Hollywood history.

Havana in the 1940s and fifties was a hot spot for the Hollywood crowd. With it's proximity to the United States, favorable exchange rate, rum, cigars and pretty women, it attracted both the film elite, as well as it's hustlers. Jerry Beeker, a talent scout with Paramount, was vacationing in Havana when he spotted a tall, athletic, and still clean shaven Fidel Castro at a night club. Introducing himself, he gave the young Castro his card and invited him to the United States for a screen test.

A few weeks latter, with the blessings of his parents, Fidel Castro boarded the ferry that would take him to Key West, just ninety miles away, in Florida. After catching a train for the west coast, Fidel was soon in Jerry Beeker's Paramount office. Needing a Latin lover type to deliver a single line in the soon to be completed production, Havana After Midnight, Fidel was cast as a Cuban gigolo. And his line, "Si Yanqui. Havana has the most beautiful and hot blooded women in the world. You'll like it here."

With only a few days until wrap, Fidel took a room in one of downtown Los Angeles's transient hotels. When the studio told him that his line had been cut, he went to the office of film editor Barney Pockler and demanded to know why he had been left on the cutting room floor.

For years, before his death, Pockler would tell this story. "This guy shows up in my editing bay, yelling about how Beeker had promised him he was going to be a movie star. I said, listen Ace. I called everyone Ace back then. It wasn't my decision to cut your scene. The director looked at the dailies and decided you was a stiff. So snip, snip and you're gone. End of story. When he got to the door, the little grease ball turned around and told me that he had always loved America, but not anymore, and that we was all going to regret it. I always figured that if we hadn't cut the guys line, maybe there wouldn't have been a Bay of Pigs. I know when we all thought the Cubans was going to hit us with them Russian missiles, I kept thinking I might have killed myself."

Castro returned to Cuba. In 1953 he was arrested after his failed assault on the Moncado military barracks. Six years latter he would over throw the American backed government of Fulgencio Batista. In 1963, the CIA confiscated Castro's out takes. They haven't been seen since.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Myrna Loy and the Cross Dressing Dwarf

It's hard to imagine that beautiful, gracious, movie star Myrna Loy could have had her career damaged by Buddy Gilchrist, an all but forgotten Hollywood character actor.

Loy, the star of the Thin Man series and The Best Years of Our Lives was a committed Democrat, supporter of Franklin Roosevelt, feminist, and a very early anti-fascist. During World war 2, she was one of the Hollywood organizers of Bundles For Bluejackets, a social support group for American sailors, that among other things, ran a Hollywood canteen for navel personnel. One of Loy's responsibilities was the recruitment of actors and singers to provide entertainment for sailors, on leave, in southern California.

Buddy Gilchrist's Hollywood legacy was small in comparison to Myrna Loy's. Gilchrist was born in the shadow of the Hollywoodland sign. From an early age he dreamed of an acting career. In his mind he saw himself, on stage, preforming the great theatrical works of western civilization. Sadly, Buddy Gilchrist was a dwarf, and would never have a chance to play Hamlet or Henry Higgins. Limited in the parts he was offered, made worse by his refusal to play the stereotypical circus types that often came his way, Gilchrist was desperate for work when he accepted a part in The New Shirley, a low budget two reeler produced by Harry Tizzler at poverty row studio, Terrific Pictures.

Tizzler, one of the strangest people ever to run a film studio, was noted for his many attempts to exploit the success of far better, and far more popular films, made by the major studios. In the late 1930s, Tizzler tried to exploit the Shirley Temple craze by making a movie about a dwarf who tries to win a talent show for children. The plot had a male dwarf, entering the contest on a dare, disguising himself as Shirley Temple, and winning a contract with a Hollywood studio. Gilchrist took the part, expecting it to be a one time deal, only to discover, that once the movie became the most popular film in the history of Terrific Pictures, he was under contract to make an almost unlimited number of sequels.

Depressed and angry, Buddy Gilchrist carried on with his staring role in the new Shirley series of two reel comedies. As quoted in "If It's Terrific, It's a Picture," Sid Charters' biography of Harry Tizzler, Gilchrist said, "It was really unfair. I'm a realistic man. I never expected to be a movie star. I just wanted to make a living as an actor. There's no reason why I couldn't have done some of the character parts that went to other guys, but all I got offered was circus movies, and Santa's elves parts. Oh how I hated those things. If I only knew that it could be worse. I should never have got involved with that shit, Tizzler."

When Myrna Loy called up Buddy Gilchrist and asked him to entertain at Bundles For Bluejackets' Hollywood canteen, Gilchrist accepted. For once in his career, Buddy Gilchrist thought, he could preform as what he was, an actor, rather than as a negative stereotype. Gilchrist worked up an act. A few songs, some jokes, and a comedic reading from a play. When he arrived at the club, he was greeted by Myrna Loy, who was that night's entertainment coordinator. When she asked Gilchrist to put on the nurses uniform that had been provide by the club, all of the anger and resentment that filled Buddy Gilchrist came to the surface. During a lengthy tirade, Gilchrist threw an empty coffee cup at Myrna Loy. The hair line fracture to her right knee cap was a minor injury, but it was enough to force her out of the Warner Brothers production of watch on the Rhine. The part would go to Bette Davis.

The story of what happened that night quickly made the rounds of Hollywood's power brokers. Harry Warner was especially angry. After all, it was his movie that had to be quickly recast, and that was always an expensive proposition. Warner called up Tizzler and demanded that Buddy Gilchrist never work again. After an agreement was made, where Warners loaned some of their lesser talent to Tizzler for a war movie he wanted to make, Buddy Gilchrist was fired from the new Shirley series of two reel comedies. At first Buddy was happy to be out from under his contract with Terrific Pictures, but soon reality settled in. It wasn't' just Terrific. He had been black balled through out the industry.

Buddy Gilchrist eventually went to work in an airplane factory, making bombers for the army air force. After the war was over, he opened a clothing store that catered to little people. He died of a heart attack in 1994. It should be noted that Myrna Loy made several attempts to get Buddy Gilchrist work in the movies. Eventually, they became friends.

The new Shirley movies were all made between 1938 and 1943. Most have been lost, so it's almost impossible to know how many were made, and their exact release dates. The following titles have been verified. 1. The New Shirley, 2. New Shirley Meets Herbert Hoover 3. New Shirley and the Ghost 4. New Shirley Comes a Cropper 5. New Shirley Smokes a Cigar 5. New Shirley Goes to the Dance.