Friday, June 15, 2007

Curtis Harrington RIP

From a friend of the blog, Dennis Bartok (a man whose wedding guest list included: noir actress Ann Savage, Max Rosenberg, producer of DR. TERROR'S HOUSE OF HORRORS, distributor Harry Novak (MANTIS IN LACE), actors Frederic Forrest (APOCALYPSE NOW), directors Richard Fleisher, Werner Herzog, Andre De Toth (HOUSE OF WAX!!!), Curtis Harrington, Monte Hellman, Joe Dante, Adam Rifkin, Val Guest and film critic Leonard Maltin), comes this reflection on the passing of Curtis Harrington this past May:

As many of you may have already heard, director Curtis Harrington passed away on Sunday at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Although Curtis had no children of his own, his extended “family” included dozens and dozens of filmmakers, authors, movie buffs, dancers, actors and just plain fascinating people who converged on his house at irregular intervals for one of Curtis’s famous salon-like parties. Curtis was an astonishingly sweet man – this may sound strange describing the director of such macabre treasures as NIGHT TIDE, GAMES, WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? And THE KILLING KIND – but it’s true. There was a wonderful elegance and generosity of spirit about him – and also a wicked sense of humor and the absurd. Like his own home, his movies were filled with odd bric-a-brac (the severed hand in a jar in NIGHT TIDE, the sinister amusement machines in GAMES) and wonderful, eccentric characters – who could forget the surreal sight of dozens of little moppets training to be the next Shirley Temple in WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN?, or the great Agnes Moorehead as an evangelist in the same film. (Curtis’s parents had gone to see the real Sister Aimee back in L.A. in the 1930’s, and he loved repeating her famous admonition to her faithful: “I don’t want to hear the clink of coins – I only want to hear the rustle of DOLLAR BILLS - !”)

Curtis was a true lover of Los Angeles and a brilliant chronicler of its beauties and frailties, from his early experimental shorts such as the exquisite “Fragment of Seeking,” through the melancholy side-shows and desolate beaches of NIGHT TIDE, and on to the seedy Hollywood underbelly of HELEN?, surely one of the darkest portraits of this town ever put on film. Even his final film, USHER – with the unforgettable image of Curtis in drag as Madeline Usher (!) – is a twisted love letter of sorts to L.A.: it was filmed at Curtis’s house, and evokes a kind of “hidden strangeness” lurking behind the facades of those vine-covered Hollywood mansions. Curtis was a sweet man but he was also unflinchingly honest, in person and on film: he may have sympathy for Ann Sothern’s tyrannical mom in KILLING KIND, or Shelley Winters’s hopeless, pathetic Helen Hill in HELEN? – but he understands that they’re monsters, true monsters of a very human kind, and that’s part of what makes them so haunting.

Curtis was a devoted film-lover and movie-goer, endlessly curious about what other filmmakers were doing here and around the world. He was a familiar sight at screenings at the American Cinematheque, UCLA Film & TV Archive, the NuArt and many other venues around town. He also took great pride in his work as a film scholar and writer in the 1950’s: he wrote some of the first serious articles on James Whale, director of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and became Whale’s friend and supporter at a time when the great director was almost completely forgotten by the industry. Curtis was instrumental in helping to save one of Whale’s finest films, THE OLD DARK HOUSE, from being lost forever: he discovered that there was one decent lavender print of the film, neglected and forgotten, and insisted that protection copies of it be made and sent to several archives. He also remembered and mourned the movies he’d seen in his younger days that are now vanished: Curtis wrote the first monograph on the films of Josef von Sternberg, and clearly recalled seeing a now-lost film of his, probably THE CASE OF LENA SMITH, in a nitrate print at Paramount in the late 1940’s.

Curtis and I had lunch a few months ago on the Sunset Strip. We sat there, surrounded by beautiful young things in insect-shades and artfully-ripped jeans – today’s equivalent of the Shirley Temple wanna-bes in HELEN?, I guess – and Curtis shared stories of old Hollywood … Of his friend Jean Howard, ex-wife of Charlie Feldman and thrower of fabulous parties in the 1940’s and 50’s… Of visiting Marlene Dietrich in Vegas after her cabaret act (he’d desperately wanted Dietrich for GAMES but the head of Universal replied “Dietrich?? Nobody remembers her!” and insisted he hire Simone Signoret instead … And then the conversation side-tracked to Signoret, who Curtis had invited to a screening of TERROR AT TINY TOWN – she stood up halfway through the movie and launched into a Leftist tirade about the exploitation of the midgets in the movie and then stormed out … That was how it was talking with Curtis: so many stories, so many hidden doorways with wonderful, eccentric people behind them.

We love you and we’ll miss you, Curtis.

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