Documentaries

Mansfield 66/67 (2017)

Mansfield 66/67

In Hollywood, blonde bombshells don’t always have the longest lifespans. Many of the most popular blonde actresses of all time have died young under tragic circumstances, from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Jayne Mansfield. On June 29, 1967, Jayne was killed in a car accident at the age of 34 while she was on her way to an appearance in New Orleans. While this might seem like a pretty straightforward cause of death, there are long-standing rumors that she had actually died as the result of a curse by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.

Jayne Mansfield catapulted to stardom in the 1950s thanks to her figure, her Marilyn Monroe-esque image, and her unrelenting love of publicity stunts. But as American culture shifted into the 1960s, the whole image and style of glamour embodied by Mansfield began to fall out of favor. However, her desire for attention hadn’t even begun to be satisfied and she started actively trying to keep up with the changing times by doing things like hanging out on the Sunset Strip and any place else where she would be photographed. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Anton LaVey was just as hungry for publicity as Jayne and was eager to bring more celebrity followers into the Church of Satan. When Jayne decided to crash the 1966 San Francisco Film Festival, she ended up meeting Anton LaVey and it was the beginning of a match made in publicity stunt hell.

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Jayne Mansfield with Anton LaVey

Over the course of their relationship, Jayne and Anton were repeatedly photographed together, both in Jayne’s infamous Pink Palace home and in Anton’s Black House in San Francisco. Of course, this got people talking. Was Jayne Mansfield really a practicing Satanist? Were Jayne Mansfield and Anton LaVey having an affair? The big rumor is that Sam Brody, Jayne’s boyfriend/lawyer at the time, got on the bad side of Anton and he put a curse on Brody, warning him that he would die in a car crash. Supposedly, Anton told Jayne to stay away from Sam, but she didn’t listen. Brody was indeed killed in that car accident along with Jayne and in the time leading up to that fatal accident, he had been involved in multiple other car accidents.

The 2017 documentary Mansfield 66/67 explores the rumors surrounding Jayne Mansfield’s association with the Church of Satan and the role it may or may not have had in her untimely death. Since so much of what we know about the life of Jayne Mansfield comes from media coverage, it can be difficult to know what exactly is real and what just sounds good. Mansfield 66/67 never pretends to have any definitive answers. It describes itself as being “A true story based on rumor and hearsay,” which is a completely accurate description of it. But even if it doesn’t draw any conclusions, that doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining.

Mansfield 66/67 takes a very campy and playful approach to the subject, complete with dance numbers, animation, and a theme song performed by Donna Loren. It features interviews with a mix of cultural commentators and celebrities, including John Waters, Mamie Van Doren, Tippi Hedren, Mary Woronov, and Hollywood Babylon author Kenneth Anger. Everyone has their own theories about who Jayne really was, what happened between her and Anton LaVey, and how active she was in the Church of Satan. I watched the documentary a few times because it was so fun and the whole legend of this story is just so wild. We’ll never know the full truth, but who needs the truth when the legend is this fascinating?

If you’d like to see it for yourself, Mansfield 66/67 is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and digital download.

Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980)

If you have an interest in silent film, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s thirteen-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film is essential viewing.  This series truly is a treat for silent film fans.  It’s very insightful, has a great narration by James Mason, and is chock full of interviews with actors and actresses, directors, producers, writers, cameramen, stuntmen, and journalists who were all part of the film industry during that era.

Quite a few big names were still alive at the time and were able to be interviewed for this documentary including Gloria Swanson, Janet Gaynor, Anita Loos, King Vidor, Hal Roach, Bessie Love, Mary Astor, Lillian Gish, Jackie Coogan, Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks, Frank Capra, and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, just to name a few.  Interviews with some of these people were quite rare, which makes this documentary an extremely important resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the silent film era.

Although the series was released on VHS and Laserdisc, due to copyright issues, it has yet to make its way to DVD.  Copies of the complete series on VHS are for sale on Amazon, but the asking prices are pretty ridiculous ($989 for a set?  Get out of here.)  I really hope the copyright issues can be worked out someday and it can be released on DVD, because it absolutely deserves to be seen.  In the meantime, the whole series is currently up on YouTube.  Each episode is just under an hour long, so it will take you a while to make your way through the series, but the time investment is absolutely worth it.   I’ve included a link to each episode along with my episode summaries.

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MGM: When the Lion Roars

Let’s just cut right to the chase here:  if you have any interest at all in the history of MGM studios, MGM: When the Lion Roars is essential viewing.  If you’ve never seen it, it’s a six-hour, three-part documentary from 1992 that chronicles the rise and fall of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.  Part one covers the earliest days of MGM and some of their silent epics like Ben Hur and Greed.  We learn about their first wave of top stars like John Gilbert, Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer, the studio’s rise to the top, and the episode culminates with the death of Irving Thalberg.  Part two picks up with the aftermath of Thalberg’s death and takes a look at how even in the wake of that loss, the studio maintains its image of being the premiere dream factory.  The studio thrives throughout the mid-to-late 1930s, but by the end of the decade, a lot of MGM’s original stars were on the way out and stars like Mickey Rooney, Lana Turner, and Judy Garland took their places.  Episode three begins in the early 1940s with Meet Me in St. Louis and covers some of their golden era musicals starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Leslie Caron.  But it also focuses a lot on the business end of things including the departure of Louis B. Mayer, the rise of television, and the numerous other difficulties that brought down the greatest movie studio in the world.

The documentary is hosted by Patrick Stewart, whose narration can be a little LOL-tastic at times, and features tons of interviews with people like Mickey Rooney, Esther Williams, Debbie Reynolds and Stanley Donen.  Just having so many first hand accounts of what MGM was like makes this a truly valuable resource, especially because it also features interviews from several key players who are no longer living, such as Lillian Gish, June Allyson, Jackie Cooper, and Van Johnson.  It’s a far better representation of MGM than all of the That’s Entertainment! movies put together.  I love re-watching it every now and then because it’s so great to hear to all those stories and being able to watch clips of so many spectacular movies.  All three parts are excellent, but I admit to rarely watching part three.  Part three gets pretty depressing near the end when it gets into all the props and costumes being auctioned off and seeing footage of all those famous backlots being demolished.  It’s not just because of how many classic movies were filmed there, but of what it represents — the true end of an era.  MGM really was a dream factory, we’re never going to see a movie studio like that ever again and nothing drives that point home quite like seeing that legendary Metro Goldwyn Mayer Studios sign being dismantled and replaced with a very 1980s-looking Lorimar Telepictures sign.  It’s such a well produced documentary, I can’t possibly recommend it highly enough to classic film fans.  It may be long, but the fact that it’s broken down into two-hour episodes makes it very easy to handle.

Marlene (1984)

In the 1980s, Marlene Dietrich was a virtual recluse.  When people think of reclusive stars, Greta Garbo is likely the one who first comes to mind, but Dietrich was just as reclusive as Garbo, if not more so.  Dietrich spent most of the 1970s performing her one-woman stage shows, but that all came to an end in 1975 when she broke her leg during a show in Australia.  She made one more film at the age of 77, 1978’s Just a Gigolo, before disappearing from the public eye.

She lived in her Paris apartment until her death in 1992, allowing only a very select group of employees, family, and friends to see her.  Her Judgment at Nuremberg co-star Maximilian Schell worked his way into that inner-circle long enough to interview her for a documentary simply titled Marlene.

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