Negotiating the Dangerous Compromise: Curtis Harrington’s “Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood”
By Nathaniel BellAugust 13, 2013
CURTIS HARRINGTON was a nice guy. If you were fortunate enough to be a cinephile in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, chances are you shared a theater with him either at the Egyptian or the Aero, where his films were often shown. He was always happy to discuss his work, especially the two projects that represented the summit of his professional career: Games (1967) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). Occasionally, he would refer to his private battles with producers and distributors, and the tone would shift to one of weary frustration. This nice guy was able to work in Hollywood, but not without paying a price.
Harrington died in 2007, but his memoir, Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, was recently published by Drag City. The original manuscript was disinterred from a special collection in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and carefully edited by Lisa Janssen, a Chicago-based poet, archivist, and film buff. Harrington, a true connoisseur of the macabre, would surely have appreciated knowing that his story would one day be told from beyond the grave.
The memoir, a brisk 200 pages plus appendices, relates his formative artistic experiences and creative skirmishes in a fast-moving, picaresque style. Its subtitle, “The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business,” immediately sets up the underdog dynamic through which we will view Harrington’s troubled, feast-or-famine relationship with the motion picture industry. The narrative that follows is one of a tasteful, intelligent sensibility trying to retain a modicum of artistic integrity in a business infamous for devil’s bargains. It is a familiar story, to be sure, but Harrington’s relationship with the Dream Factory was a complex one, and his credentials as a cineaste are exceptional: he was the only filmmaker of his generation to successfully transition from the underground to the mainstream. This belated autobiography is a celebration and a lament, a fable of good fortune and hard luck, a parable of individual will and blind fate.
For Harrington, the romance with movies began early. He was stirred as a child by the sight of Mr. Death wilting a bouquet of flowers with his breath in Death Takes a Holiday (1934). He watched transfixed as an Egyptian princess was raised from the dead in Chandu the Magician (1932). “I loved the mystery, the excitement, the suspense of it,” he recalls. A shrewd scholar might draw a clear line from these two impressions to certain images in Harrington’s own films — the Venetian death figure in The Assignation (1952), the ambulatory mummy in The Cat Creature (1973) — in which Eros and Thanatos meet and dance with each another.
Growing up in Beaumont, California, with parents who gave him leeway to pursue his creative interests, Harrington discovered a soul mate in Edgar Allan Poe, and began his film career at 14 with an abbreviated version of “The Fall of the House of Usher.” The director plays both the death-haunted Roderick and his twin sister, Madeline. He fed imaginatively on Paul Rotha’s 1930 treatise The Film Till Now, and fell under the spell of Marlene Dietrich, which in turn led to a deep appreciation of Josef von Sternberg, the director with whom he felt the strongest rapport. “I discovered that behind the magic of Dietrich there was a Master Magician pulling the strings,” Harrington writes. Later, as a student at the University of Southern California, Harrington came under the mentorship of von Sternberg and wrote the first serious appraisal of the director’s oeuvre before auteur studies became fashionable. An Index to the Films of Josef von Sternberg, still fresh with insight, is included as an appendix.
After outlining the crucial episodes of his imaginative awakening, Harrington turns to his early forays into cinematic experimentation. While still a smooth-faced, curly-maned teenager, he emerged as a key player in the postwar avant-garde. Greatly influenced by Maya Deren, co-creator (with Alexander Hammid) of the trance classic Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), he completed a cycle of 16 mm shorts, several of which — Fragment of Seeking (1946), Picnic (1948), On the Edge (1949) — are now regarded as prime examples of West Coast experimental filmmaking. His friendship with Kenneth Anger, director of Scorpio Rising (1963) and author of the notorious bestseller Hollywood Babylon, fueled an appreciation for the mystical and provided occasion to participate, if only peripherally, in the Southern California occult explosion. He appeared in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) dressed as Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Sharing screen space with Anais Nin, Joan Whitney, and Samson De Brier, Harrington cuts a baleful figure as the black-clad, chalk-faced somnambulist.
Although he enjoyed unfettered creative license during this period, the pressure to conform weighed heavily on the young filmmaker. The conservative postwar climate was an unlikely breeding ground for the deeply personal, highly stylized “film poems” created by Harrington and his contemporaries. His status as an outsider was no doubt intensified by his orientation as a gay man — a subject on which Harrington remains subdued throughout the memoir. “This seemed perfectly natural to me,” Harrington writes of his teenage attractions. “It did not occur to me to attach any sense of guilt or shame to my activities.” In one of the book’s most vivid episodes, he relates the story of a disastrous private gathering at the Schindler House, where a screening of Fragment of Seeking and Anger’s Fireworks (1947) stunned an audience of Los Angeles intellectuals with its potently surreal evocations of homoerotic desire. “Everyone in the room was too shocked to say a word,” Harrington recalls. “Kenneth and I were kept waiting in the anteroom while we wondered what had happened. I told Kenneth that I felt like taking my pants off and walking out in front of everyone to really give them a shock. I was angry.”
Harrington also fastidiously chronicles his sojourn to Europe in the early 1950s, around the time Jean Cocteau was hailing Anger as the enfant terrible of American cinema. He sent false letters to his parents, tricking them into thinking he was hunting down a job in New York while using his allowance to mix with bohemian artists and writing articles for Theatre Arts and Cahiers du Cinéma. One of them, “The Dangerous Compromise,” alluded to the artistic concessions made by von Sternberg in order to sustain a career in Hollywood. The essay would prove eerily prescient as Harrington, too, would eventually submit to the same fateful pact. Upon returning to America, the lure of Hollywood finally proved irresistible, and he landed a job as an assistant to Jerry Wald, the producer behind An Affair to Remember (1957) and Peyton Place (1957).
The true turning point in his career was the extraordinary Night Tide (1961), a gently haunting fable about a sailor (an uncharacteristically shy Dennis Hopper) who falls in love with a mermaid impersonator (Linda Lawson). A key film of its era, it is a dazzling showcase for Harrington’s peculiar brand of poetic horror. Working on a miniscule budget, Harrington brilliantly realizes the visual potential of Santa Monica and Venice, whose derelict boardwalks, faded amusement parks, and crumbling edifices provide a psychologically suggestive dream space. The plot, which resourcefully retools Cat People (1942), establishes an elegant pattern for his future films, which often explore a theme of psychological decay around the archetype of the predatory female. From this point on, however, his poetic instincts would be subtly reorganized to accommodate a more commercial model. The dangerous compromise was already underway.
Night Tide was distributed by Roger Corman, who in due course offered Harrington two directing assignments: Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965) and Queen of Blood (1966). Harrington was given the task of repurposing a couple of Russian science fiction films to which Corman had acquired the rights. He wrote a new story, shot fresh footage with American actors, and blended them together as seamlessly as he could manage. Though Harrington’s commentary on these two productions is largely anecdotal (the former scarcely warrants a mention), Queen of Blood deserves special attention for its inventive scenario involving a deadly female alien aboard a tiny spacecraft — a situation that reappeared the next decade with Alien (1979).
On the strength of these two projects, Harrington, now 40, secured a contract with Universal and directed Games, an elaborately designed suspense piece that helped launch the careers of James Caan and Katherine Ross. Modeled on Hopper and his then wife, Brooke Hayward, the young stars play a pair of wealthy art collectors threatened by the sudden appearance of a mysterious foreigner (Simone Signoret) who leads them into a labyrinth of fear and deception. Availing himself for the first time of the resources of a major studio, Harrington was able to achieve the Sternbergian ideal of constructing a self-contained world that reflects the distressed inner states of his characters. And he did it without recourse to “the shadowy figures in the Black Tower” — his nickname for the inhabitants of Universal Studios whose whims he was constantly at the mercy of.
Unfortunately, due to creative clashes over the casting of his next project, Harrington’s contract was dissolved and he was forced to ricochet between various smaller projects for the remainder of his career. He managed a personal triumph with What’s the Matter with Helen?, a boldly stylized period thriller that places Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters against a dark vision of Los Angeles in the 1930s. Commonly referred to as a camp exercise in the mold of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (Henry Farrell wrote the screenplays for both), the film is in fact a sophisticated showbiz satire with echoes of Nathanael West, as well as a powerful portrait of a deteriorating mind. The persistent use of religious imagery lends a metaphysical dimension to this psychological thriller, all rendered in an intense visual style worthy of von Sternberg. “Of all my films,” Harrington writes, “Helen is the one I personally like the best.” Even that victory, however, was tainted when the publicity department decided to spoil the surprise ending by foregrounding the concluding image — Reynolds’ corpse arranged in bloody repose — on the film’s official poster. “It used the very image that I had not wanted revealed anywhere!” Harrington laments. The dangerous compromise had struck again.
The dense visual and thematic textures of his early features challenge the notion that Harrington was a mere purveyor of cheap thrills. Even so, none of them succeeded at the box office, and Harrington spent the following years scraping for work at home and abroad. He traveled to England to make Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971; again with Shelley Winters as an eccentric grand dame), hustled the funds to direct The Killing Kind (1973; a potent Oedipal thriller starring John Savage and Ann Sothern), endured a hellish post production experience for Ruby (1977; one of the better Exorcist knockoffs) and flew to Hungary to shoot Mata Hari (1985; a Dietrich style vehicle featuring Sylvia Kristel). All the while, he slowly descended “the slippery slope” — the downward spiral into network television.
He describes his transition into directing for TV, candidly enough, as a “descent into hell.” It began with made-for-TV movies such as How Awful about Allan (1970) and The Killer Bees (1974), then shifted to episodes of popular series (Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty). “I was forced to take on projects that I neither had the aesthetic vision for,” Harrington writes, “nor the slightest intellectual interest in.” On this phase of his career Harrington is mostly reticent barring the occasional anecdote about a performer he admired. He does, however, provide an astronomical explanation for the medium’s inferiority to film: “Cinema is under the planet of illusion, Neptune, whereas television falls under the influence of the planet Uranus.” One wonders whether Harrington might have modified this interpretation if he had lived long enough to witness television’s rebirth as an exemplar of long-form storytelling.
Fortunately, Harrington’s memoir does not end at the bottom of the slippery slope. At 75, he managed to summon the remainder of his creative vigor to make Usher (2002), a self-financed short film that brought his career full circle. “I went all the way back to the story that had haunted me so early in my life,” Harrington writes. Usher recapitulates the story of Roderick and Madeline, siblings who share the same soul, while leaving ample room for conversation on the nature of art. It is an awkward, indulgent picture, far removed from the surrealist classics of his experimental days, but it is a touching coda, and pure Harrington. “I was thrilled with the results,” he writes. “It was, indeed, the film I had intended to make. Nobody had told me what script to write, what scenes to shoot, or how it should be cut.”
In sum, Harrington’s autobiography is often plodding in its chronological march through the highs and lows of the director’s bumpy career. Some of the events, such as his unsolicited feud with Christopher Isherwood, are only loosely connected to the fabric of the whole. It is almost as if the author, writing against the clock, just wanted to get the facts down. He pours it out neat, so to speak. The attentive fan is apt to feel a bit disappointed, even cheated, that Harrington resists delving deeper into his life beyond the screen. He is silent, for instance, on the years covering his retirement (his last professional assignment being 1987), a period during which he reputedly threw fabulous parties in his art nouveau Hollywood home. What joys and private despair he experienced there we will never know. Perhaps it only proves that for Harrington, his work was his life. I believe we are given a valuable clue in his description of The Wormwood Star (1956), his brief visual study of Marjorie Cameron’s occult artwork. “The thrust of the film,” Harrington proposes, “is to present the artist as an alchemist who, through her creative work, becomes herself transmuted into gold.” The artist, the work, and the gold — for Harrington, these three elements formed a diagram for what cinema ought to be, but so rarely is.
Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood is finally a story about uneasy concessions, written by a sensitive soul who managed to survive as the industry changed around him. Judging by the ardor of his words, Harrington would prefer to be remembered not so much as a nice guy (although he was certainly that) but as a firm believer in, and tireless practitioner of, the art of the motion picture. For readers already familiar with the man and his work, the book is a blessing and a gift; for newcomers, it is an excellent introduction to an unjustly obscure filmmaker. With the simultaneous release of the memoir and a deluxe Blu-Ray/DVD co-presented by Flicker Alley and Drag City, The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection, the life and legacy of this neglected auteur seem poised on the brink of a revival. These missing puzzle pieces will surely help cultivate appreciation for a man who bridged the divide between private and industrial modes of production — a perpetual idealist who believed in the power of cinema, and who gave cinema the utmost measure of his talent.
Nathaniel Bell earned a masters degree in film studies from Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. He lives in Orange.
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