Fame as Disease; Celebrity as Illness (part ii)

We return to the story of Anna Held, Florenz Ziegfeld’s meal ticket from 1895

The 1896 Broadway revival of A Parlor Match had two musical highlights – the hit song “Daisy Bell” (also known as “A Bicycle Built for Two”), and Anna Held’s performance of the playful “Won’t You Come and Play With Me?” To guarantee ongoing publicity, Ziegfeld let out word that Held took daily milk baths, and he won headlines by suing a popular dairy for sending sour milk. The outraged dairy owner soon revealed that it was all a hoax – Held bathed in scented water that just looked milky. The brouhaha succeeded in making Held a national celebrity….

A national celebrity … guaranteeing ticket sales. Not the first use of “legal” scandal to drum up publicity, and the knowledge that controversy sells tickets, this is merely a classic example of the genre. Celebrity in this case not meaning to be “celebrated,” but, rather, the artificial and cynical creation of a “must see” curiosity factor to shuck the rubes. Now, it ought to be noted that had Anna Held NOT been a superior entertainer, it probably wouldn’t have worked, but Ziegfeld had cannily tossed the “talent” portion of the publicity out the window in favor of the “scandal” that he created by knowingly filing a false lawsuit surrounding a ridiculous lie.

… he won headlines by suing a popular dairy for sending sour milk. The outraged dairy owner soon revealed that it was all a hoax

But Ziegfeld didn’t care a fig. He knew what he wanted, and he got it: celebrity as a kind of parasitic illness, a social disease. We return to the present day …

Ziegfeld wasn’t  selling milk
baths — he was selling sex 

i. an incredibly short section on fame

Why, anybody can have a brain. That’s a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. — Wizard, The Wizard of Oz, MGM 1939

Or, anybody can want fame. That’s a very mediocre commodity that we tend to moderate after the age of three. You can see it in every bozo jumping down in the background of a live TV broadcast, and grinning to their buddy who’s doing the same thing until they’re cropped out of the shot.

As noted yesterday, there is the virtue of fame (role model or anti-model) and the vice of fame. Like Zeigfeld’s shameless media manipulation of Anna Held’s fake milk baths in 1896. What we’re concerned with here is MEDIA. Not the normal human desire to be noticed and its extreme expressions from Al Capone to Donald Trump.

ii. Back in the olden days

Stratton Story Publicity Campaign (MGM, 1949)

One of my favorite pieces of Hollywood memorabilia (from a batch of stuff that was being cleaned off the Warner Brothers lot) is an old 1949 MGM bound in-house publication entitled “PROMOTION CAMPAIGN – THE STRATTON STORY from Howard Strickling Director of Studio Publicity Metro • Goldwyn • Mayer Studios.”

Frank Morgan  sans mustache (L) and Jimmy Dykes in “Stratton”

And for forty pages, it lays out in explicit detail the studio’s angles on publicity — listing just about every possible media outlet and what stories to “pitch” to them. One is an angle on Frank Morgan (who had played the Wizard for MGM in 1939), who plays the catcher to the one-legged pitcher (Jimmy Stewart) on whose real story the movie [The Stratton Story] is based:

GET THAT FRANK MORGAN

Watching Frank Morgan catch, while he burned ’em in at his best which isn’t bad at all after weeks if practuce) Jimmy Stewart couldn’t help saying, “Get that Frank Morgan. He’s trying to be the best ball player on the set!” And Morgan is giving Hollywood its biggest surprise of the year by turning out to he a good ball player.

“And why not,” he says. “I’ve taken more money out of baseball than anybody on this set, except the professional players we have working as actors.” Morgan did, as he reveals, play considerable baseball years ago, and with good results. It isn’t just one of his typical (in character) boasts, although he can add to the facts colorfully when he wants….*

(* Morgan would die later that year, on September 18th, aged 59)

Frank Morgan’s last MGM still photo (with mustache)

And so on and so forth for a full page of outrageous drivel.  Other examples include, “MY PAL, JIMMY — BY HENRY FONDA”, “ALLYSON CAN DO IT! — BY MERVYN LEROY”, “JUNE’S OTHER SIDE” …

It’s the tomboy in June Allyson finally coming out! …

and so on and so forth. The MGM Publicity Department wasn’t skipping a beat. We have “SYNDICATE STORY IDEAS”

  • A MAN’S BEST FRIEND (“In the case of Frank Morgan it’s his mustache ….”)
Yes. Honest to gosh, there’s a half page, single-spaced on Frank Morgan’s shaved off mustache (for the film).
MGM learned the Ziegfeld lessons well
  • A CATCHER WITH DIMPLES (“And the prettiest catcher ever to pull on a mitt is June Allyson …”)
  • “TOKYO REUNION” (“When Van Johnson comes on the set of ‘The Stratton Story’ to say hello to Bill Williams, it marks a reunion of the two actors who took their big step toward stardom together several years ago in ‘Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo’ …”)
And we have NATIONAL MAGAZINES:

THE STRATTON STORY

Here is one of the most inspiring and dramatic of all sports stories, a pwerfect story for any important national amagazine … Suggest this for Life, Saturday Evening Post or Collier’s.

READER’S DIGEST

Suggested and sold to this magazine is the idea of doing a thorough article on the making of this motion picture, from the inception of the story idea to its final production details. Charles Palmer will talk with all the people connected with the picture, including the cast and Monty Stratton, to do his comprehensive article. It will be a good human interest story …

PITCHING ON ONE LEG (FOR SPORTS MAGAZINE)

An analyzing article revealing how Monty Stratton pitches and how he won eighteen games one season with an artificial leg. This is an inspiring and an illuminating article for all men with any kind of a handicap, an particularly for those who have lost a limb …

Frank Morgan as you probably remember him (also sans ‘moustache’)

And we have NEW YORK SUNDAY FEATURES, including

JUST LEAVE ME “DOWN ON THE FARM”

Says Agnes Moorhead, and she could be referring both to her screen career and her personal life. there’s nothing she likes better, in the atter, than to head with her husband for her farm in Ohio. And there’s nothing she likes better on the screen than to play a farm woman, just as she is now in “The Stratton Story.” …

There are several others, including this morbid prefiguring of  Frank Morgan’s death later that year:

FLAMING YOUTH IN REVERSE

That’s the way Director Sam Wood kiddingly refers to Frank Morgan, as he appears in “The Stratton Story” minus his moustache [sic]. Morgan admits that he feels like ten years have been taken off his life since his moustache [sic], that he hasn’t been without for ten years, was shaved off his lip. In a gay, light story, full of typically colorful Morgan anecdotes, the veteran actor who [sic] probably has played more death scenes than any other performer in Hollywood, tells of his adventures as a “comparatively” young and active man again….

Always with the “moustache,” those MGM PR guys.


Forty pages of hogwash, puffery and always with the same intent: sell the MGM film. Sell it with a fashion shoot with “tomboy” June Allyson. Talk (and talk and talk) about Frank Morgan’s ‘moustache’ and Agnes Moorhead’s farm.

Or, how about this final bit of prefabricated “news”:

FAN MAGAZINES

THANK YOU, JIMMY STEWART

Says Monty Stratton, in a by-line or “as told to” story…

Yup. The guy who lost his leg is thanking Jimmy Stewart, rather than the other way ’round, since this is “Golden Age” Hollywood, and reality is whatever they wanted it to be.

It really is an amazing document, single-minded and merciless in figuring out media “angles” to exploit and how they were already BEING exploited (Reader’s Digest). There is a detailed listing of still photographs — from the film, and generic publicity shots by the studio’s photography studio — with descriptions and suggested captions for local newspapers, magazines, etc. Forty pages of single-spaced, typed booklet, printed in the studio’s print shop straight from the original typed (by the steno pool, probably) manuscript, perfect, save for weird grammatical and spelling conventions. This was a slick PR operation, for sure.

Morgan’s headstone from “Find-a-grave”

I have it by happy accident, along with my “PRINCIPLE’S WARDROBE [sic] Detailed Breakdown for KIM”  — the 1950 movie starring Errol Flynn and Dean Stockwell — indicating scene by scene what everyone will wear.  Page after page of

MAHBUB ALI – ERROL FLYNN

scene 9

green cape
rose tunic
green sash
grey pants
white turban — red top
boots tan

Also (save for spelling “Principals” as “Principles” and making a plural possessive into a singular possessive Principle’s instead of Principals’) typed and aligned perfectly.

A reminder that it is less art than artifice, and that the the term “artificial” has its genesis in that family mosh pit. Here was how Kim was marketed in 1950:

Famed Spectacular Adventure Story Filmed Against Authentic Backgrounds in Mystic India The Greatest Spy Thriller of Them All!

Modesty has never been Hollywood’s policy. But this is an entire industry built on the foundation that “milk baths” for Anna Held built.

And much like then, “celebrity” and “star” is a sausage factory in which you don’t want to see how the sausages are made, but you appreciate the attractive, festive packaging, and the endless talk show hosts — standing like the barely employed lady in your supermarket offering free samples of [INSERT FOOD NAME HERE] — offering FREE samples of the merchandise: clips, “interviews” and all the rest of it.

As Joni Mitchell sang:

You know I’d go back there tomorrow 
But for the work I’ve taken on 
Stoking the star maker machinery 
Behind the popular song

iii. Future to the back now

[next – the senses-shattering, spectacular human interest conclusion! Our Modern Publicity Machine.]

Courage.

=============

A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, a survivor of Texas and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog.

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About Hart Williams

Mr. Williams grew up in Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and New Mexico. He lived in Hollywood, California for many years. He has been published in The Washington Post, The Kansas City Star, The Santa Fe Sun, The Los Angeles Free Press, Oui Magazine, New West, and many, many more. A published novelist and a filmed screenwriter, Mr. Williams eschews the decadence of Hollywood for the simple, wholesome goodness of the plain, honest people of the land. He enjoys Luis Buñuel documentaries immensely.
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