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INTERROGATION BY JAKE DASHING, PRIVATE EYE
Turnbull is his name. Martin Turnbull, though I assure you, when it comes to bull, he’s not turning it. He’s a bonafide Old Hollywood expert sure enough. He’s worked as a tour guide, providing tourists and LA locals alike with access to Beverly Hills mansions, Hollywood hills vistas, and according to his Amazon author page, he’ll even share where all the bodies are buried.
Nine years. That’s how long he spent volunteering as a historical walking tour docent with the Los Angeles Conservancy. Hell, the fella was even a tour guide for a summer at Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank.
If old style Tinsel Town is your bag, you’ll want to feast your peepers on Turnbull’s books, particularly his Hollywood’s Garden of Allah series.
Q. Take a load off, palooka, ‘cuz you’re gonna be here awhile, see? First thing’s first. This obsession of yours with the Hollywood of days long past. Where did it come from and what drives you to keep it going?
A. It all goes back to my school vacations. There was nothing I liked better than to spend my days watching old movies on TV. One of the TV stations had a Midday Movie where they’d show an old Hollywood movie every day, so that was my version of heaven. Then, in 1987, Lauren Bacall published her memoir, “By Myself,” and she did a book tour in Australia. When she came to Melbourne, I was amazed. I couldn’t believe that someone who I’d only known on my TV screen was actually in the same city as me. It wasn’t like I thought these old Hollywood movie star type people weren’t real, but when you’re 16 and living in Australia, those 8000 miles between Melbourne and Los Angeles – not to mention those 40 years in between – lend everything connected with golden-era Hollywood an aura of otherworldliness that I never expected to connect with. I went right out and bought her book, devoured it, and then set about reading every memoir, biography, and autobiography of the stars, directors, moguls – anything I could get my hands on.
Q. Bogie. Bacall. Bette Davis. Errol Flynn. James Cagney. Judy Garland. Clark Gable. Joan Crawford. Greta Garbo. Grace Kelly. Fred Astaire. This is just a sampling of the many classic stars you list as your favorites on your Amazon author page.
If you had to pick one as your absolute, all-time favorite, who would it be and why?
A. Oh boy, talk about your Sophie’s Choice. If you MAKE me choose, I’ll probably have to go with Garland. That’s mainly because she had that unique ability to have you laughing your ass off one minute, and literally a split-second later, there’d be a look in her eye, or a tremble in her lip, or a break in her voice, and your heart would go out to her. She had that rare combination of vulnerability and accessibility fused with extraordinary talent and singing voice like no other.
That’s what made the stars back then “Movie Stars” with a capital “M” and a capital “S.” Anybody from that list of stars you mentioned was the same – there was nobody else like them. They each possessed those mystical, magical qualities that came together in one person and somehow projected from the screen and spoke to a whole generation of moviegoers. And still do!
Q. Kids these days. What with their new fangled computer-ma-bobs and beep boop machines, they drive me crazy. They’re into blockbusters now. Flicks with fancy computer graphics. Big budgets and special effects galore.
If you had to talk one of these whippersnappers into giving the likes of Bogie and his ilk a try, what would you say?
A. Hmmm…I’d probably try and describe how movies were made back then—how the studio system was set up and geared toward producing a movie that went about trying to tell a story without having rely so heavily on post production visuals. If you read autobiographies of directors, they talk a lot about the work that went into a developing and refining a story until they had something workable, appealing, commercial, different, and worth telling. I just finished reading the autobiography of Vincent Sherman, who directed both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford at the top of their game, and he talked a lot about working and working and working on the story until they had it right. There was no talk of distracting the audience or filling stretches of the movie with robot duels or space battles.
Q. This site is about “Pop Culture Mysteries.” Bookshelf Q. Battler has sent me on a mission to answer questions about movies, music, books and other forms of entertainment.
Here’s one inquiry I have about Casablanca. Would the ending have been as good had Rick told Ilsa to stick around?
Sorry, 3.5 readers. Apparently I was supposed to shout “SPOILERS!” before saying that but you’ve had seventy plus years to watch that damn movie, so quit your belly aching.
A. Ah, well, now you’re talking about one of my all-time favorites. My theory about the longevity of Casablanca is that one of the reasons why its lasted so long is because it didn’t fit the standard Hollywood ending where the male and female romantic leads walk off into the sunset together—or in this case, into the fog. As bittersweet as it is, the ending of that movie is more realistic, and more importantly, it feels right. Casablanca is about The One Who Got Away, and what we’d do if we had a chance for a do-over. I suspect that many of us have a One Who Got Away in our past, but few of us get to have a do-over. Casablanca gives Bogie that rare opportunity, but he’s pragmatic enough to see that what happened in Paris ought to stay in Paris. Yes, he still loves her, but he loves her enough to do the right thing by her, and lets her escape. He tells her that eventually she’ll regret not getting on that airplane, and he’s right. She would. So Bogie makes the greatest sacrifice for love, and we all love him for it. And the fact that the filmmakers had the nerve to not let the two stars end up together was brave and, in my opinion, helped turn a good movie into a classic.
Q. Hollywood’s all about reboots and remakes these days. They’ve done it all and now they want to do it all…again.
Is there one old classic you’d like to see updated for modern times? Or are you like me and would prefer those gems stay as is?
A. All you have to do is look at the remakes of The Women to know the answer to that question. In 1956, they remade it into a musical called The Opposite Sex. And in 2008, it was remade again as a non-musical comedy called The Women. I am a huge fan of the original movie and while I don’t hate-with-a-passion either of the remakes, it’s very clear that the original was a lightning-in-a-bottle miracle that brought together the perfect cast, story, director, costumer and editor, and resulted in a production that can’t be bettered. In my view, all movies are a reflection of the times in which they were made and should be viewed as such. Some remakes are successfully done, but in my view it’s lazy storytelling. Surely there are many, many more stories yet to be told?
Q. Your Hollywood’s Garden of Allah series begins at a time when moving pictures give a “slug” to Tinsel Town’s silent film industry. For the uninitiated reader, can you explain why the transition from silent films to movies was such a trying time?
A. To quote Norma Desmond: “There was a time, you wouldn’t remember…” and she was actually kinda right. Before the talkies, the movies were an entirely visual medium. They had title cards, but they were used sparingly because it was felt that the whole point of these new-fangled flickers called moving pictures was the ability to tell a story visually—and entirely visually.
They needed people with not just great faces, but who were somehow able to reach through the screen and evoke an emotional response with each individual audience member. If you wanted to hear people speak, you went to the theater. If you wanted to see them, you went to the movies. In the minds of many people at the time, the introduction of talkies got in the way of the visuals. They were a distraction and a degradation of the art form.
Also, because the movies were silent, they could be shown to anyone in any country and the audience would understand it because language wasn’t an issue. But with the introduction of audible dialogue, it meant that the movies would only play in those countries that spoke English. The studios now had to go to the trouble of dubbing and subtitling whereas they didn’t before.
And thirdly, this was a time when the studios owned their own extensive chains of movie houses. Transitioning to sound meant going to the enormous expense of installing sound systems in each theater. It took the Powers That Be a while to come to grips with the reality that progress was marching ever forward and if they didn’t keep up with the times, they’d be kicked to the curb.
Q. The Black Dahlia. Who did it? Come on, bub. It’s time to make like a canary and sing, see?
A. I ain’t no stool pigeon. I ain’t blabbin’, I tells ya, and none of you low-down dirty birdies can make me.
Q. Speaking of dead bodies, what’s the worst crime or scandal in classic Hollywood’s history you can think of?
A. The one that springs to mind was the whole scandal surrounding the Fatty Arbuckle thing in the early 1920s. Between November 1921 and April 1922, Arbuckle had to defend himself against accusations of rape and manslaughter after a weekend-party-gone-wrong resulted in the death of Virginia Rappe.
After the first two trials resulted in hung juries, he was acquitted in the third trial and even received a formal written statement of apology from the jury. Despite this outcome, Arbuckle’s career shot down the sewer and never recovered. Even worse, he became the poster boy all the depravity and moral turpitude that the conservative element was holding Hollywood responsible for. Arbuckle was probably no saint, but he didn’t deserve the treatment he got at the hands of the US justice system.
Q. You were a Hollywood tour guide for a long while. If some schmuck reading this visits the City of Angels for the first time, what’s the one spot he absolutely has to take in before he hauls his sorry carcass back to whatever two-bit burg he comes from?
A. Dude, Los Angeles is home to over 18 million people and covers 4,850 square miles, I can only give you ONE spot? Are you freakin’ kidding me? I can’t give you one spot, but I can give you one short list:
- Hollywood Forever Memorial Park is a cemetery where a lot of old Hollywood stars are buried. 60000 Santa Monica Boulevard. Historian Karie Bible does a wonderful walking tour www.cemeterytour.com
- The Los Angeles Conservancy does a series of terrific historical walking tours, mostly around downtown L.A., which I highly recommend: https://www.laconservancy.org/tours
- The Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. Built in 1923 and has been restored to its glory.
- Hollywood Max Factor Museum – www.thehollywoodmuseum.com
- Bradbury Building, Downtown LA
- A guy called Philip Mershon does a great walking tour of a 4-block stretch of Sunset Boulevard east of Vine Street. It’s amazing how much happened on this short stretch. His tour is one of my LA must-do’s: http://www.felixinhollywoodtours.com/
Q. You’ve been all kinds of helpful during this interrogation so I’ll cut you some slack. I’m not saying I’m going to let you go. I’m just going to leave the door open and turn around. If you walk out, no one’s the wiser, see?
Before you put your feet on the street, the 3.5 readers of this site are aspiring writers. Any last minute words of wisdom for them?
A. I have three words of wisdom: persistence, persistence, persistence. I’d say at least 80% of what people think goes into becoming a writer — inspiration, talent, craft — comes from dropping your butt into your chair / sofa / bed / hammock / position of choice and start tapping that keyboard. Even on days when you don’t feel like it. In fact, I’d say especially on those days you don’t feel like it. Even if you hate every word of what you’ve written. You can’t polish or improve or edit or re-write something you haven’t written. So stop talking about it, stop thinking about it, stop dreaming about it, and just DO IT.
EPILOGUE: Another day, another interrogation. Facts gathered like so many pieces to a cardboard puzzle. Turnbull laid all those pieces out on the table and helped me connect them together. I respected him for being a straight shooter, so much so that I was dying to read Reds in the Beds, Turnbull’s latest book, now available on Amazon.
You’ll want to grab a copy, 3.5 readers, because if there’s one thing this private dick knows, it’s that a good page turner is like a good woman – hard to find one, but once you do, you won’t want to let go.