From Universal’s classic monster movies of the 1930s to the fleshpot romps of Russ Meyer in the 1960s, and the European arthouse antics of Fellini and Visconti in the 1970s, cult movies have become part of the fabric of contemporary culture, and we all have fond memories of them. But what of the actors and actresses you recognise, but whose names you can’t quite remember? We’ve all heard of the King of Horror, Boris Karloff, but can you remember any of the players he starred with in The Mummy, like the exotic Zita Johann or the charming David Manners?
Remember when the late veteran actress Gloria Stuart became the oldest person to be nominated for an Academy Award for Titanic back in 1997? Did you know she worked for Universal in the 1930s (in classics like James Whale’s The Old Dark House), a period which also saw actresses like Gale Sondergaard at their peak before being caught up the McCarthy blacklisting fiasco in the 1950s. Remember her? And what about that great scene in 1978’s Damien: Omen II when Elizabeth Shepherd‘s reporter gets her eyes pecked out by crows. Did you know she was one of Britain’s leading stage actresses in the 1960s. Whatever happened to her?
From writer, historian and one-time agent, David Del Valle comes the darkly comic memoir, Lost Horizons: Beneath the Hollywood Sign, which follows his own personal journey over 25 years, meeting and befriending many of the old-time and obscure players whose dreams of fame and fortune never quite worked out the way they quite intended.
The late, great Vincent Price described Hollywood as one of the most evil cities on the planet, and he had witnessed enough in his lifetime not to kid around – unlike some of his contemporaries, who got burned on their journey through Tinseltown’s stratosphere. Reading Del Valle’s entries, you certainly get the picture – Hollywood is a Hell of a place to make a living.
Some tragic, some suprising, some plain shocking, the stories are many – too many to explore here in detail here. But whether they’re ancient silent movie actors whose only stage in later life are the cocktail parties they host or attend; or big name veteran stars like John Carradine, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price giving their honest take on living in this Hollywood Babylon, survival is the key theme.
One of the saddest must be the tragic story of Johnny Eck, best known as the Half-Boy in 1932’s Freaks. After retiring from acting, Eck turned his hand to art and photography, but was left traumatized following a brutal home invasion. The incident left him housebound and fearful for the rest of his sad life. Then there’s Les Baxter, the undisputed king of Exotica. Baxter was living a lonely life in music exile when Del Valle met him. Depressed over unsuccessfully suing John Williams for lifting some of his music for his ET score, Baxter died before his style of lounge music became cool again.
There’s also some deliciously gossipy entries, including one in which Del Valle describes actress Hermione Baddeley and singer Martha Raye entertaining the patrons of a leather bar in West Hollywood, only for the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder wanting to meet these grand dames. What a sight that would have been.
Del Valle also has some intimate encounters with some truly offbeat heroes. He gets high on gin and joints watching The Loved One with the film’s writer Terry Southern, the cool hipster immortalized on the Sgt Pepper’s album; trips on LSD with Timothy Leary over Charlie Chan movies; and gets a tour of Russ Meyer’s home, filled with memorabilia from his saucy sex films, including a giant bra.
It all makes for some revealing reading. And, despite the odd typo, I couldn’t put it down as each chapter offered a glimpse into the private lives of an actor, actress, writer, director, musician or muse who have given cinephiles everywhere such joy and excitement over the past 70 years. Less salacious than Kenneth Anger’s infamous trash bible Hollywood Babylon, but no less gossipy, Del Valle’s memoir is a truly touching portrait of the people that were very much a part of old Hollywood. Thankfully, Del Valle has given these fading characters their proper dues, making them shine for us film fans once more.