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Retiring From Hollywood: The Last Reel

Starring Mary Astor and the cast and crew of the Motion Picture and Television Country Home

Reels, filmReels, film

Reels of film. Circa 1920.

Albin Guillot/Roger Viollet/Getty

A retirement home for aging moviemakers brings to mind a caricature of obsolete vanities, illusionists bedazzled by their own illusions — in movies like Sunset Boulevard they even helped create the image — but the Motion Picture and Television Country Home doesn’t really fit that picture.

Gertrude Combs has found nirvana here. A chiseled, spry woman, she’s like a walking advertisement. “I’m just as busy as I can be from the time I get up. … We have theater, entertainment, twice a week. We have a monthly birthday party. And they are fantastic, I want to tell you. Buffet lunch, ooh, my gracious. Valentine party. Every holiday is celebrated. The Wheelchair Parade. And I’m a Ding A Ling [a singing group that performs annually]. And we have transportation to go shopping and to church. Everyone is given a color TV. Hairdressing, laundry, dry cleaning, barbershop, new clothes even — all provided. And the meals are excellent. We have filet mignon. They call it chef’s steak, but it’s really a filet.

“Now before I came here, dear, I thought that — when I would hear on the news of someone dying here — oh, how could they have gotten down to poverty like that? Well you can’t buy your way in here … and as I say, every need is met. Beautifully. And it’s dignified.”

Bill Combs was chief of security at Paramount Studios. Gertrude married him 13 years ago, when she was 70. On the wall is a photograph of Bill with his men in uniform. On the inside of the front door is a photo of Jane Russell autographed to Chief Combs, and below it one of him with Ralph Edwards and Leo Carillo. On the inside door of a cupboard are snapshots of Gertrude and Bill as Little Orphan Annie and Daddy Warbucks at the home’s Halloween party one year, and another year of them as Santa Claus and the Christmas tree, for which they won Grand Prize.

Bill is in a hospital in Pasadena. He had a stroke, but Gertrude struggles not to let her troubles get her down. She touches her toes, demonstrating the exercises she does daily, despite two types of arthritis. “Of course, drugs do help,” her smile is so elongated, it nearly pushes her eyes closed, “and I take a lot of drugs.”

Hollywood has discreetly retired to a cluster of pink cinder-block buildings in Woodland Hills, in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. The fastidious grounds are planted with every flower and tree you can name. One hundred volunteers, the Blue Ladies and Blue Men, assist the regular staff here, providing everything from medical care to daily deliveries of Variety for these 300 survivors of the motion picture industry. There is a sense of self-sufficiency here, in the range of services contained within the 41-acre compound, in its provisions for the stages of old age — the cottages for those who are independent, the lodge for those who need assistance, and the hospital — and especially in the people who live here. Except when annual wingdings like the Wheelchair Parade attract today’s celebrities and the media, the generation that created Hollywood carries on here, graciously withdrawn.

“On the wall facing you there, dear, the yellow sweater. She wrote Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch — Jane Storm — quite a gal. Then the heavyset woman there, Babe London. She was a big comedy star. We have people who go right back to Birth of a Nation.” May Hoffman performs a dozen or so jobs here, as administrative assistant. One of them is distinguishing the 60-odd cottage residents for visitors who might have difficulty, considering that all the heads are gray, that the average age is 81 and there are no minorities. May Hoffman now scans the Country House dining room from the staff table, with the deserved self-satisfaction of someone who has just turned down apple cobbler in favor of seasonal fruit salad.

“This lady facing us here with the polka-dot dress, Miss Wilson, she made all the fancy hats. The Parnells, they were character actors — Life of Riley, Ma and Pa Kettle. Herb Sterne, in the brown suit there, was a publicist.

“The gentleman sitting by himself by the doorway is Clint Urtubees. He was a cameraman for John Ford. Before that he was in charge of properties, and hired a young man by the name of John Wayne in his department. Now when Clint was a young man in Milwaukee, he was a projectionist, in the old silent days.” With this unobtrusive lead, May recounts the story that Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the stomach in Clint’s theater. Clint tackled and held the assailant. “He carries an old article in his wallet that is just brown with age, and unless he’s known you for a long time he never shows it to you …

“All of the paintings you see hanging on the walls here, with two exceptions, were done by our people.”

I expect to meet a few of these people, before they return to their cottages. But suddenly the room is empty. “I’m sorry dear,” one lady tweaks my hand, hurrying right off, “but they have me on diuretics and I really must go, if you know what I mean.”

May Hoffman does not point out Mary Astor, the star-in-residence, sitting a few feet behind me. Mary Astor was an actress for 45 years, but is probably best known as the wide-eyed murderer in The Maltese Falcon, 1941. Mary is dumbstruck when someone identifies her another day here in the dining room, and all in all she tries to be gracious. She and the others who eat in this dining room live in cottages on the grounds. The cottages have bathrooms but no cooking facilities. Meals in the Country House are the only compulsory public appearances. No-shows are chased down by intercom, to be certain they’re all right.

So Mary Astor plays ball. She looks great. “Not if you’d seen her 30 years ago,” contends one man. Still, she looks more like a weathered young woman. “I don’t give interviews” is her way of saying hello, and goodbye. Fortunately, Betty Furness happens to visit her a few weeks later on the Today show — “the first interview Mary has granted to anyone in many years, and we are very grateful.”

“Acting was my parents’ idea for me,” Mary tells Betty. “I happened to have a very pretty face — it was a very pretty face indeed — and it was sold to the highest bidder, that’s all … I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t know that until about 15 years ago, and I’ve been writing ever since. And that’s about all I want to do.”

Actually, Mary has been writing a lot longer than that, but the first time she was published, it was without her consent. Newspapers ran excerpts from her diary in the Thirties — uninhibited accounts of her affair with playwright George S. Kaufman, leaked by her ex-husband’s lawyers during a child-custody suit after being ruled inadmissible as evidence. Mary won custody, but the court burned her diary as pornography.

Since then Mary has published autobiographical books on her own terms. She is pleasant but distant toward most of the residents at the home. “Honey,” says Alma Young, a retired script supervisor who edits Motion Picture—TV Haven, the house newspaper, “she wouldn’t even give an interview for our little paper. She told us to go and read her books.”

The sliding glass doors at the rear of Mary Astor’s cottage are darkened. The name slot by her front door reads only “Please do not disturb.” Clerks at The Health Nut, a store across the road from the compound, say she comes in just about every day for something, “Vitamin E, things like that.” She keeps a blue tricycle — an adult tricycle — parked in front of her cottage and rides it through the gardens to the Country House at mealtime.

By the standards of most such institutions, this place is paradise. It’s full, unwieldy title is the Motion Picture and Television Country House, Lodge and Hospital. It is under the auspices of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which was incorporated in 1921 (TV was added recently), the outgrowth of an informal program established by Mary Pickford and others, for the benefit of film-colony families hurt by the first World War.

Actually, there are no similar institutions. No other industry has provided itself a place to retire. Few industries are so geographically concentrated. The outcast character of movie people who originally, and literally, colonized Hollywood produced a rather understandable clannishness that could support such an enterprise. The colonists were outcasts of the legitimate stage, and theater people were themselves a scandal to the general public.

Now that motion pictures are respectable, the industry is committed to perpetuating what it built here. The home is supported by voluntary payroll deductions and contributions, in addition to property and income turned over to it by the people who permanently reside here.

Residents must have worked 20 years in motion pictures or filmed television. It is booked up. “Unfortunately,” says May Hoffman, “the only way to get in now is when the natural course of events takes place and someone dies.”

Death is an insistent factor here. Frank Baker came not as a calculated retirement move, but only when his wife became fatally ill. It is eerily comforting to hear someone speak in the past tense about what must be the most excruciating experience there is — when the person you have spent your life with dies, and somehow you come out the other side and go on with business.

Frank is an Australian who nurtures the crusty accent, and the Schweppervescence, with humor: “They have me play fuddy-duds.” His white hair and beard, his clothes, are impeccable, though his bad legs (“these damn things”) make walking difficult. He began making documentaries in World War I. During 60 years in pictures, Frank wrote stories, acted, and worked as a research and technical adviser, counting 38 pictures with John Ford.

Near Frank Baker, on the desk in his cottage, is a photo of his wife, Helen Broneau, an actress. She was about 70 when the picture was taken, and very much resembles Olivia de Havilland at about 35.

“My wife and I, we were sitting at home one evening discussing things and Helen says, ‘That’s funny. I’ve got a funny feeling in my head.’ In a matter of moments, a massive cerebral hemorrhage totally and permanently destroyed her sight, hearing, speech, muscle response, everything.

“Yet it was possible for her to live for many years. It was unthinkable. I could only afford it for so many years and then what? And if something happens to me, who would look after her? This is the only companion I’ve ever had in my life.

“I was in a heck of a state. Someone got in touch with the Motion Picture Fund. They made an arrangement whereby Helen would be brought to the hospital here and I would take up residence at the Country House for as long as I liked. So that’s how I got to this place.”

Helen died within a few days and Frank remained. This was about three years ago.

“You turn in everything,” Frank explains. “If you choose to leave, then they make an assessment of what it has cost them, and if there’s anything left over, you get it and you can go out. It’s not a matter of being confined here, not in that respect.”

Many people here are uneasy with even voluntary confinement. Beverly Bayne toys with the idea of leaving. Beverly lives in the Lodge, a kind of halfway house between the cottages and the hospital, a “sheltered environment facility,” as May Hoffman puts it. The 62 residents of the Lodge have their own rooms, but require help, medication — some are in wheelchairs, others have a few loose screws, that kind of thing.

Beverly Bayne is peeved because she can’t remember exactly why she is famous. “I was put in an awful place for, oh, a year. I think I must have had malnutrition. Flat on my back for a year. … It destroyed my vigor — and my figure.” She touches her stomach wistfully.

She does recall that she jumped straight into silent pictures as a leading lady, with no stage or screen experience, opposite Francis X. Bushman. This, I later learn, was in Romeo and Juliet, 1916. What was Francis X. Bushman like? “A very egotistical, horrible man.” She goes on, “We had gone to work in New York, and he took me out to dinners and to the theater, and I never realized that what he was doing was keeping me away from young people my own age. He went to work on me, and after several years he wore me down, I guess, and I married him. I was married to him for seven years. … I try not to be concerned with things of my past. But I had a very successful one, I must say. They must have some information on me in the office or the library or somewhere.”

She longs to be in Arizona, where she lived after leaving films. But a month later, I’m really surprised to learn she’s managed to return there. I’ve underestimated her. For these people to have made it this far, safe and comfortable in their 70s and 80s and 90s, their survival instinct must be incredible. They have, after all, survived Hollywood.

The lobby is the hangout in the Lodge. The Blue Ladies have stuck pink and yellow paper bunnies with cotton tails all over the glass entrance for Easter. The Lodge lobby is tranquil, sedate. No one talks much; just being out of their own rooms will do, sunken in sofas or lined up in wheelchairs seeing the sun travel east to west across the parking lot, and watching Ivy Wilson toss out bread crusts to the crows.

Ivy Wilson, Ivy Crane Wilson, was one of the Dancing Cranes, exhibition ballroom dancers like the Castles. She and her husband popularized the tango in the U.S. Ivy had been the featured dancer in Kismet with Otis Skinner on Broadway in 1912, and later danced in pictures with Tom Mix and Ronald Colman. She sent Rudolph Valentino to Hollywood. “I gave him $500 to get him out of San Francisco because all the men were jealous,” she laughs. “And I’ve often thought it was a lucky break for him.”

Ivy Crane eventually became Ivy Crane Wilson and changed careers, becoming a Hollywood correspondent and columnist for British papers. “She was as big there as Louella Parsons was here,” says Alma Young, who naturally keeps tabs on everybody for the Haven. Ivy traveled in 80 countries and was a research assistant to Albert Schweitzer, whom she still idolizes. Greer Garson and Doris Day come to visit her.

Now, Ivy tends to be forgetful and hard of hearing, which makes it a trial to shout questions at her in the quiet lobby. Ivy herself is vexed by these infirmities and shakes her head in disgust. Animals preoccupy and absorb her, in an almost supernatural way.

Ivy picks up the little stuffed cat she carries constantly, because she is not allowed to have real pets. She puts a finger on his red-felt tongue, scolding, “I told Kitty to put in his tongue, and he said, ‘I’m not going to put it in until the world’s a better place again.’ “She puts Kitty down and her eyes fill with tears. “I said, ‘Well then, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.'”

The evening papers are folded and delivered to the tables in the Lodge dining room. Tonight, over vegetables à la king, the residents read about the Westside Rapist, whose most recent victim is an 85-year-old woman. They are thankful to be here, 40 minutes away from his Los Angeles turf, protected by Cyclone fences and a security patrol. Here the controversies are tamer.

Dorothy Davenport’s first appearance sends a prickle of excitement through the Lodge dining room. Dorothy Davenport Reid.

“Wallace Reid, her husband,” Alma Young explains, “was a big star at Paramount, maybe the biggest star, around 1920. He was off on location and hurt his leg. Some hophead did him a favor and got him hopped up so he could finish his scenes. Some favor.” This is not the sort of story Alma can run in her paper.

Dorothy Davenport Reid arrived just today. She is confused and edgy. Small, lean, propelled by walking shoes, she buzzes the lobby after dinner. She asks two men in wheelchairs, “Why’s everybody so quiet?” and another lady, “Where’s that music coming from? Can’t they turn it up?” She carries a felt pen and pad as if to jot down the answers. She alights for a moment on the sofa.

“He was the tenderest, dearest man, even though he was muscular and tough, Wally. I was very proud of him. He never gave me any reason to be jealous or upset.” Without prompting, Dorothy begins this conversation in the third verse. She has recited it for over 50 years, since Wally died at 30 in a padded cell as a result of morphine addiction.

“After that I made propaganda movies. Broken Laws. Human Wreckage.” She snickers, jerking her shoulders. “Can you imagine a picture with a title like that?”

Dorothy Davenport herself was an actress before Wally’s death set off her crusade. “I was 13 or 14 when I went down to D.W.’s studio at 11 East 14th Street to get work. I didn’t let him know my age because he had a bad reputation with girls that age and he didn’t want trouble.” For a moment it seems hopeful that she’ll focus on director D.W. Griffith, but her attention is too skittish. “D.W. was always on the make. I never had a dirty crack from him, though. What time is it?”

Griffith established the technical possibilities of moving pictures, as distinct from still photography or the stage. He also fostered the tender, ingénue heroines of the early silents. Herb Sterne fills out Dorothy’s story some, explaining that Griffith’s predilection for young girls was in part technical, that the harsh effects of primitive lighting added years to their faces through the camera’s eye. “Griffith had to use young girls, 13 and 14. By the time they were 16, 17, 18, they were finished.

Herb Sterne has a reputation as a recluse, preferring flowers to neighbors. Griffith is one of Herb’s main preoccupations. Herb was a newspaper correspondent in several foreign cities, among them Shanghai and Calcutta, and a writer for the Hollywood Reporter, before he “got sucked into the industry” writing publicity for Columbia’s “glamour acts — Rita Hayworth, Judy Holliday, Roz Russell.” But Herb acts as though he could care less about his own career. He organized the first Griffith festival in Hollywood in 1943. The walls of his cottage are devoted to Griffith and his circle, with whom Herb has developed intimate friendships.

A lock of Mary Pickford’s hair in a little mirrored box hangs on the wall, with several pictures of Mary and Lillian Gish, a landmark photograph of Herb, Lillian, Jean Renoir and Griffith at that first festival, and last year’s Kodak Christmas card from Mary Pickford and Buddy Rogers, signed “with love from Mary and Bud.”

In a small red-leather scrapbook Herb keeps photos from trips to Babylon and India, pictures he took of Lillian in Rome, snapshots of family Christmases with Mary, a backyard party with Griffith: “That afternoon,” Herb says, “after a few drinks, we had gotten him to reenact — it was a little dirty — this scene from The White Rose. A clergyman is seducing this young girl, and in this one scene he had Satan peeling a banana, you know.”

You might expect that someone who has pictures of Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish all over his walls would be a little gushy about it. Herb does not romanticize. “That lock of hair, that curl. I’ll tell you how I got it. Mary was a little looped one night, and she said, ‘Oh, don’t you have a lock?'” He imitates Pickford’s sniveling little-girl self-parody. “And she sent the butler for some scissors and snipped one off and gave it to me.”

“Mr. Sterne?” the intercom on Herb’s wall asks. “Mr. Cukor will be here tomorrow for the parade.”

He thanks the intercom without moving, and talks about the last big party at Pickfair, the pleasure palace originally built by Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, which in its heyday was the preferred hostel in the West for international royalty. “It was Easter, 1956 I think. That was the last really big affair they had, about 1500 people. You can only have so many face lifts, you know.”

Few here have kept even a scrapbook. Moving, house-cleaning, fires — sooner or later the mementos have slipped away. Oddly, it is the men whose rooms are more atmospheric with keepsakes and even old furniture. The women have mostly chucked it all and redecorated: what they have kept is mainly of personal importance, in some cases tangentially interesting with respect to movies.

Many people seem caught in an uncomfortable ambivalence about the past. One couple, Ed and Carmen Held, have hung on to many things, but like others they vacillate between a certain pride in their past and an inkling that there is something unhealthy, or just disruptive, about giving it importance.

Ed Held was a set designer for several major studios, and one of the designers of Disneyland. Now he teaches a volunteer class in set design at Reseda High School.

Carmen Held is protective of the delicate order in their sequestered community: “It just causes hurt feelings when people single themselves out and give interviews and others are not asked.” She jams her husband’s wavelength with a firm jiggle of his shoulder. “Come on, Daddy, let’s go.” But eventually she relents.

Their cottage is chaotic. In this tiny space (the cottages are all one room, doubles like the Helds’ about 15′ × 20′, singles still smaller) they have squirreled away past, present and future. It has a miniaturized quality.

Ed has a large studio worktable and a smaller drawing board, stacked with work. He makes Carmen 3-D birthday cards: a diorama of Seal Beach, a packet of sketches from Europe and South America. Carmen asks him to find his traveling materials: a tiny paint box and water holder that fit in the palm of his hand.

Ed looks like a character from Wind in the Willows, short and stocky, a big round face with a thin horizontal waxed mustache, a beret and a signature Western string tie. Carmen is taller, has a hard time keeping her hair out of her face, and one lens of her glasses is frosted because she is blind in that eye. She is cheerful, solicitous and firm.

They both worked, almost as children, for French outfits in the East, Carmen in millinery and costume design (she quit when they married), Ed with interior architects and furniture designers, and both spoke French in their jobs.

Ed did period designing for the Pantages theater chain before his first job in pictures in 1930. He designed sets for Flash Gordon, Lost Horizon, Wuthering Heights, The Fountainhead, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Carmen brings out the blueprints of Disneyland, for which Ed designed Main Street and the Railroad Station. She has carefully preserved plans, drawings, paintings and records of his career, in amazing cubbyholes.

With the quirky perspective of someone who has witnessed history firsthand, Ed beams as he recollects working with Merle Oberon on Wuthering Heights: “She speaks French!”

The Helds introduce their neighbor, Ethel Smallwood, Ethel Grandin Smallwood, who was brought to Hollywood as an ingénue in 1911 by Thomas Ince for War on the Plains. The covered wagons they used were original ones, driven west by the pioneers. Ethel was on tour with Mary Pickford’s mother and sister when Mary got her first job with Griffith, and her husband Ray Smallwood directed Valentino and Nazimova in Camille.

There are the microscopic details of picture-making and the curious careers it propagated, like Emma Borgato, who embroidered a dress Grace Kelly wore in High Society, which the princess liked so well she asked Emma to embroider her wedding gown and the details, down to the lace on her prayer book.

There are the major stories, the big names. Joseph Henry Steele, who resigned as publicity director of Selznick International (“I was the only one in history who resigned … Selznick was killing me with memos. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think, my nerves were shot. … I sat down and wrote an eight-page memo to him, in general, and then I went back and wrote him a 12-page memo and told him all about his wife Irene and his two brats and the trouble they made.”).

Joe later became Ingrid Bergman’s front man and saw her through the Rossellini affair. (Bergman had fallen in love with Roberto Rossellini, her director in Stromboli, a picture financed by Howard Hughes. She stayed in Rome with Rossellini while her husband, who was in the States, held up her money. Joe told Hughes that Bergman was pregnant by Rossellini in order to rush the release of the film so she’d receive some money before the scandal broke and the film was boycotted: the next day the papers headlined the story.)

There’s Philip MacDonald, who wrote The Lost Patrol and is still writing novels; or Bess Flowers, “Queen of the Extras”; or Mr. Money, who trained animals for movies.

And the stories and lives begin to overlap and interweave. George Hopewell, a scenic artist, worked with Ed Held for Warners. “Ed used to design the sets for us in miniature, and then he would send it down to our scenic department and we would paint it 60 feet tall and 100 feet long. … I finished up with Gypsy with Rosalind Russell. Old Man and the Sea. Let me think. East of Eden. I don’t know what else. It just slips my mind.”

But at the moment, George Hopewell is not really interested in ancient history. He has more pressing things on his mind, because today he dresses up as Abraham Lincoln and leads the Wheelchair Parade.

This year our theme is the Bicentennial,” May Hoffman explains. “We decided the greatest art form in America is the American movie, and so that’s our theme for the floats this year. And,” saving the best for last, “our grand marshal this year is going to be General Omar Bradley.”

The 44 floats are elaborately decorated wheelchairs. Many of the patients in the parade are post-stroke: some help with the decorations, but they mainly suggest ideas for their floats. Some aren’t able to participate even to this extent.

Everyone has been up since 5 or 6 having their costumes and makeup applied and the final bits of crepe paper and glitter put on their floats.

Pinocchio sits near the front of the parade, with an alpine cap and a long nose Scotch-taped to his face. Through the teeth of a bullet-shaped, papier-mâché shark, you can see a woman looking ferocious, as her Blue Lady tells her to be. Four little kids with palm fronds surround a canopied sedan wheelchair in “The Arabian Nights.” “The Blue Angel” is a man in heavy makeup, a long blond wig, a blue chiffon gown, glitter wings and a halo. Alma Young, dressed in lace and bonnet, is “Country Girl.” A studio makeup artist came out to work on “The Man Who Came to Dinner.”

It is nearly noon, a brilliant Kodacolor day, 85 degrees. There are unshaded seats for residents, facing an awning-covered reviewing stand, where the celebrity judges and visitors sit: Chill Wills, Ted Knight, Jerry Colonna, George Cukor, Gale Sondergaard, Anson Williams, Ruth Hussey, and General Bradley with a group of aides. Bradley, the only living five-star general, is in a wheelchair himself.

Morey Amsterdam comes to the mike and cracks a rectal joke. Chill Wills tells this one: “I was looking for Zsa Zsa Gabor out here but she said she had joined the women’s lib and burnt her bra. And when I saw her I said, ‘Zsa Zsa, that makes you look 20 years younger, ’cause when you burnt your bra and them things dropped, it took every wrinkle out of your face.'”

The judges’ decision is slow. Some of the entrants appear to be suffering from the heat. George Cukor says a few words. Ted Knight is inscrutable: “Hi guys. I really hadn’t planned to say anything, and I won’t.”

There are residents, like Frank Baker, who won’t go near this affair. “The Wheelchair Parade — well, the first time I saw that, I was completely horrified. A person, an aged person — the only thing left is a certain dignity, I think. You’ve had it. And all right, if you’ve really had it, just accept it as such. Now these poor people, some of them, they don’t even know they’re there, they don’t know their name. So these — Blue Ladies is it? Wonderful, generous people — but, my God, they decorate their wheelchairs and they put them into childish little costumes with their hair all done up in curls, in ridiculous outfits, and they parade them before visitors! This to me is a hideous cruelty.”

George Hopewell’s attitude is more conciliatory. “We get so enthusiastic about something coming up like this parade. Instead of sitting in a wheelchair just waiting, you know — they could sit there and just die — but it keeps the mind active. It gives them something to go after.”

Now out of his Abe Lincoln duds, George Hopewell waves his cane recklessly as we walk toward the hospital. George lives in the cottages but spends a lot of time visiting the hospital, where most of the entrants in the parade live. There are nearly 200 patients in the hospital. Although there are both young and old from the industry here on a temporary basis, most are old people who will never leave.

The hospital is the last stop. It makes you feel kind of desperate, to realize how much of the past is stored up here, locked up in the minds of these people where you can’t get at it, subject to the capriciousness of memory.

Others simply will not be bothered remembering. Bess Flowers, Queen of the Extras, would prefer to eat her lunch. Clint Urtubees, sitting under an awning after the Wheelchair Parade, recollects the movies he shot for John Ford. “Oh, lots of ’em.”

It is exhilarating, then, to find someone like Frank Baker, who luxuriates in looking back. Having survived the crises of his wife’s death and his own narrowed margins in his mid-80s, he whacks the past into focus with great zeal.

Francis Ford, John Ford’s brother, met Frank Baker in Samoa after World War I and persuaded him to come to Hollywood. They formed a film company of seven people, and for a few years in the early Twenties completely wrote, acted in, produced and marketed movies themselves. “Sometimes a whole script would be on the back of a post card. We’d just extemporize, create the picture as we went along.” (Off and on, after their group broke up, Frank Baker went back to making adventure travelogues and documentaries in faraway places — Mongolia, Thailand, Central America, Alaska.)

“It’s such fun to do things as we did though, with our little company. Now, I like making pictures that way. But when you have it all laid out, when you go in and it’s just like a factory and you’re making pictures as if you’re turning out seat covers or cakes of soap … But those were great days, they were creative days. I mean the entire industry, because it was a building industry. There was such a friendly spirit that doesn’t exist anymore. You’d walk in the studio and you knew everybody. There were no police to stop you. A different feeling altogether. That is what I mean when I say I detest motion pictures. I detest what they have become.

“The medium of motion pictures — it’s a terrific medium of education, of broadening human knowledge and human worth. And it’s got into the hands of a bunch of peddlers.”

While many around him are succumbing to shuffle-board and bingo, Frank spends his time corresponding with historical societies and various institutes about motion pictures, the South Seas, World War I and military history in general. Sometimes he will recall something that interests him and he will just sit and write until he has exhausted himself on the subject.

Frank Baker says that one day he took out some color film from earlier days when he traveled, expecting to have captured in it some place that the intervening decades hadn’t yet spoiled. “I looked at the film. The grass was magenta, which I knew quite well should be an emerald green, and the sky was brown. Ruined. Absolutely worthless,” he laughs.

“It’s been a wonderful trip, all the while. The thing that we all have to have, is the sense of being able to laugh at yourself, and laugh at the whole thing. If you take it seriously you’re through. Well we have to take it seriously in the sense that we have to keep our heads above water, so we have to build some sense of security in ourselves and what we do. But really it doesn’t matter where we get to, we don’t amount to a thing. I get great fun laughing at the whole thing. Otherwise I’d die.”

We make plans to visit again in a year. “I’ll mark you down for one year from today then,” he says at the door. “And if you see me out there in a wheelchair, out there in the parade, all done up, you can say, ‘Well look at him. He’s gone round the bend too!'”

In This Article: Coverwall, Hollywood, retirement


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