Saturday, January 21, 2006

Noir City 3: Coleen Gray

The 4th Annual San Francisco Film Noir Festival (click here for more info) is taking place this year at the under-renovation-yet-again Palace of Fine Arts, visionary architect Bernard Maybeck's elegaic attempt at recreating a vanished classical world at the cusp of World War One.

To read more about the place, the Bernard Maybeck Foundation has a short history of the decaying-and-restored palace here.

An interesting note from their site is a description of Maybeck's original vision of his building's demise:
In succeeding years, the Palace became exactly what its creator had intended, a vast ruin whose somewhat garish colors bleached to sunset tones of russet and ochre. Asked in old age what he felt should be done about the collapsing Palace, Maybeck characteristically responded:

I think the main building should be torn down and redwoods planted around—completely around—the rotunda....As they grow, the columns would slowly crumble at approximately the same speed. Then I would like to design an altar, with the figure of a maiden praying, to install in that grove of redwoods...I should like my palace to die behind those great trees of its own accord, and become its own cemetery.

Nonetheless, Maybeck made several attempts to rebuild variants of the Palace in permanent materials, and, at the end of his life, he changed his mind and asked the governor to preserve the Palace.

The main building he is referring to is a thin, curved structure with enormously high ceilings. Most of it has become the very successful "Exploratorium" children's science museum and another section houses an approximately 1,000 seat theater that is used for anything and everything, though its wide stage and terrible musical acoustics (because of the high ceiling) make it better for some events rather than others.

I first went to the festival in its second year when it was held at the Castro Theatre, and was astonished at how popular the series was.

The huge Castro Theatre would sell out for most of the Film Noir Festival programs even though they consisted of obscure films from the 1940s and 1950s that were essentially B-films.

The third annual festival moved its operations to the much smaller Balboa Theater in the Richmond, where the last four days of this year's festival are also being held.

The move wasn't made because the Castro was too large, but because the 16-year-veteran programmer of the Castro, Anita Monga, had just been unceremoniously ousted from the job which had made her a national legend.

To read more about the controversy, there's a San Francisco Bay Guardian wrap-up here, and to read an appreciation of why she was so legendary, there's a good appreciation here from the San Francisco Festival which promptly handed her the "Mel Novikoff Award" after her dismissal.

Anyway, she is currently programming the Film Noir Festival for Eddie Muller, which is part of why it's so interesting.

Another reason the festival is interesting is because of its audiences...

...who often identify in some way with the "film noir" era.

Above all, the festival is interesting for all the ancillary folk it brings in, such as the "M is for Mystery" bookstore where author Matthew Kennedy was signing his year-old biography, "Edmund Goulding: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy."

Goulding had directed the first half of the January 16th double-bill dedicated to actress Coleen Gray. She was an ingenue in one of the darkest big studio films ever made: "Nightmare Alley" starring Tyrone Power as a sexy carnival hand whose rise and fall is horrific.

Eddie Muller interviewed the 83-year-old Coleen at intermission, and it was quite sweet since the two obviously adored each other.

At one point, Eddie mentioned that she seemed to have more energy than anybody else he knew, and wondered how on earth she did it at her age. The question didn't feel like hyperbole because she was radiating extraordinary energy from the stage.

Coleen thought about it for a moment, and said it was "genes, and eating right is probably important, and so is knowing how to be happy."

She had a long career in movies and television from the late 1940s up until her last marriage in the late 1970s. In the Film Noir program, there's a good article by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry with some choice quotes. One of my favorites was about her appearance in 1960's "The Leech Woman," a campy horror film that has become a cult classic. "No matter what I did, I did it with the utmost sincerity," Gray recalls. "But it was so much fun. Sometimes we had to stop the camera to stop laughing."

"I'm very grateful to have had the privilege of being in motion pictures at the time that I was," Gray says. "And I'm also grateful that I have other interests in my life. Life can be very rich, and I've had a charmed life."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just caught Coleen in Kiss of Death. I hadn't really heard of her. She made an impact. I'm glad to hear she's still around and i hope still in good health. I've gotta see nightmare Alley now. Never seen it but it sounds intriguing.