Wednesday, January 31, 2007

NOIR CITY 5—Evelyn Keyes & Tab Hunter

Eddie Muller has a great double-punch when it comes to educating his audiences regarding film noir ("Take that … and that!). This year, more than previous years, I actually feel like I'm learning something and it's sticking. I'll always know who Marsha Hunt is now as well as being keen to the snappy repartee of William Bowers and the character acting of Richard Erdman. Likewise, Evelyn Keyes is firmly ensconced in my consciousness, by face and name. I'd never made the connection that Keyes played Julie Benson (the fictional counterpart of Ruby Keeler) in one of my mother's—and mine!—favorite mid-afternoon t.v. flicks—The Jolson Story. Noir City 5 paid tribute to Keyes by screening 99 River Street (1953) and Hell's Half Acre (1954) and delightfully surprised its audience by having an unpublicized introduction by Tab Hunter.

Why Tab Hunter? As Hunter explains it in his absorbing autobiography Tab Hunter: Confidential: The Making Of A Movie Star, co-authored by the Czar of Noir himself: "Perry Bullington worked in casting at Canon Films. One night while he was lying in bed, a book fell off the shelf above and conked him: it was Evelyn Keyes's novel, I Am A Billboard. Perry knew a good thing when it hit him on the head. He raved to us [Glaser-Hunter Productions] about the story, and once Allan [Glaser] and I read the thinly veiled memoir about a young Georgia girl's coming-of-age in the 1930s and her journey to Hollywood, we agreed—it would make a terrific movie.

"I'd always loved Evelyn Keyes, not just in Gone with the Wind, where she played Scarlett O'Hara's sister, but in pictures like Here Comes Mr. Jordan, The Jolson Story, and The Prowler. By the time we met, she was in her seventies and writing a regular column for the Los Angeles Times, "Keyes to the Town." She was excited about our plan to turn I Am A Billboard into a film, and she sold us the rights. Evelyn was still so sharp, so opinionated, so full of piss and vinegar, and so brilliant a writer, that when she insisted on taking a crack at the screenplay, we eagerly agreed.

"Evelyn practically lived in our Beverly Hills house, working with me every day on that script. She had a volatile personality—extremely engaging, but relentlessly combative. It was easy to see how major talents like Charles Vidor, John Huston, Mike Todd, and Artie Shaw had all been beguiled by her—and how eventually they'd all had enough.

" 'Don't let the door hit you in the ass on your way out!' I yelled after one of our countless battles. Evelyn stormed out, drove around the block, and came back to finish the scene we were working on. Over the course of the year, that incident repeated itself innumerable times, but out of it all came a terrific script, titled Georgia Peach.

"We weren't the only ones who thought highly of it. Allan sold it first place he pitched it, to Scotti Brothers Pictures, a newly formed offshoot of Scotti Brothers Records, which had scored with several hit records in the eighties, Eye of the Tiger being the biggest of the bunch.

"Georgia Peach quickly went into preproduction—where it languished for two years. Finally we got a start date and were scouting locations when Scotti Brothers decided to quit the movies and return to record making exclusively.

"Such is the treacherous nature of independent filmmaking." (2005:329-331)

When later invited to the rededication of Warner Brothers in 1973—"A Celebration of Traditions"—Tab Hunter took Evelyn Keyes as his date. "[S]he and I had traveled around the world," he recalled, "lived overseas, and at various times sworn off this insane industry. Yet here we were, years later, back in the fold. Once in your blood, show business, it seems, is there forever." It had been 30 years since Hunter had set foot inside the Warner walls and, overcome with emotion as memories flooded back to him, his eyes welled up with tears. Noticing, Evelyn Keyes squeezed his hand. (2005:336, 337)

Keyes's Georgia Peach screenplay was subsequently re-named Blues in the Night and Allan Glaser succeeded in rekindling interest in the script by engaging Four Seasons Entertainment to possibly produce (2005:343).

Astute to the prurient interest the average moviegoer has in Hidden Hollywood, Hunter wrote of Keyes's notorious enmity with Joan Cohn, widow to Harry Cohn. Juggling friendships, Hunter was careful to never mention his film project with Evelyn Keyes. "Joan and Evelyn hated each other," he revealed. "The animosity stemmed from Evelyn's autobiography Scarlett O'Hara's Younger Sister, in which she claimed that Harry Cohn had a decade-long infatuation with her.

" 'That's complete bullshit,' Joan declared. 'Harry had better things to do than obsess over a second-rate actress.'

"By this time, Allan and Evelyn had become thicker than thieves, and whenever he'd mention Joan in conversation, Evelyn would hiss, 'What line of bullshit is Queen Cohn telling you now?' " (2005:346)

Elsewhere, Hunter noted: "Evelyn Keyes used to argue with me all the time about psychoanalysis. She'd been through it back in the fifties and found it essential to understanding herself. By contrast, I've never spent one minute of my life in any kind of analysis." (2005:351)

Allan Glaser arranged a "power dinner" with Neil Koenigsberg, personal manager to such talents as Jeff Bridges and Ed Harris, because of Koenigsberg's interest in helping to get Blues in the Night made. Peter Bogdonavich was invited to the dinner as a potential director and Bogdonavich was anxious to meet Keyes, who joined the dinner party. "More than twenty years had flowed past since she and I had first met," Hunter reminisced. "Her razor-sharp brain was by this time being inexorably dulled by the early stages of Alzheimer's.

" 'John Huston was certainly an amazing man,' Peter said to her. 'What was it like being married to him?'

" 'John who?' Evelyn responded, bewildered. 'Who's he? Oh, that's right, I was married to him.'

"Although her odds have greatly improved that Blues in the Night might finally be produced, Evelyn won't be able to savor the satisfaction of seeing her story on the silver screen. She lived it, she wrote it, but she doesn't even recognize her own script when it's in her hands.

"Allan and I still see Evelyn regularly. She lives just down the road, at a retirement home that looks, appropriately enough, like a set from Gone with the Wind. Allan, now her conservator, moved her when she became too forgetful. All things considered, she has it pretty good. She gets treated like royalty, has gained thirty pounds from all the home cooking, and remembers most of the good things—but it's heartbreaking to see her losing pieces from the incredible canvas of her life.

"Perhaps," Hunter attributes, "that's one of the things that inspired me to put my life down on paper." (2005:352-353)

Hunter's willingness to fly up from Santa Barbara to accept Muller's invitation to introduce 99 River Street and Hell's Half Acre indicates a loving friendship with Evelyn Keyes, which made me respect him all the more. Hunter peppered his introduction with the memory of Evelyn Keyes looking at herself on the screen, exclaiming: "There's star quality! Look at those tits!" Keyes was quite the character apparently and—according to author and Noir City 5 co-producer Alan K. Rode, with whom I had a charming chat last night—both Hunter and Muller cleaned up their remembrances somewhat, not wanting to offend their audience. Maybe one of these days over a lucky single malt, I'll get to hear what was respectfully omitted. For now, it was such a pleasure to experience Noir City 5's tribute to Evelyn Keyes; a double-punch I didn't mind taking on the chin.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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