Ask Charles Lieurance, the Austin-based founder of wildly popular Facebook fanpage Decaying Hollywood Mansions, what would be his favourite moment in Hollywood history to revisit, and you get a typically detailed response. “It's 1932. I'd live in the Villa Elaine on 1245 Vine Street in Apartment 10, and I would be assistant to Warner Brothers Art Director Anton Grot and moonlight for Mitchell Leisen at Paramount. I'd forever be working on screenplay adaptations of Djuna Barnes' Nightwood and Jean Rhys' Good Morning, Midnight and begging Myrna Loy to sign on to the projects. Gradually I would become so single-minded that no one will speak to me, so I sink into drunken despond and haunt the bar at Boardner's until the early 1970s, when I disappear completely, leaving my collection of Warner Brothers pay stubs to my newspaper boy.”
Movie nostalgia is Lieurance’s business, and his passion and spellbinding knowledge of Hollywood trivia suffuses his blog, garnering him tens of thousands of fans across the world. These fans greedily lap up his posts from the glory days of the silver screen, which throw up gems of everyone from James Dean to his personal idol Myrna Loy. Here, we gave him the impossible task of picking his Top Ten Highlights from the past four years of posts. Gamely he obliged , but we just couldn't make him choose a favourite film.
1. Apotheosis/Glamour as a Religious Icon
Stills from films made during the teens and 20s of the last century – and so many are lost now – seem as concerned with apotheosis, with rendering their players as divine, as with publicity. Often the photographs of the great portrait artists of early cinema – Max Munn Autrey, George Hurrell, Alfred Chaney Johnston, Irving Chidnoff, and others – resemble religious icons more than marketing tools for mass entertainment, and present glamour as a spiritual state. While the forces of Social Realism/Naturalism and Artifice still battle it out in movies, there was a glorious time when artifice, myth & symbolism held sway in Hollywood, and it's a time I like to remember.
2. James Dean in a Coffin, Dennis Stock 1955
I am, at heart, a morbid person. I'm drawn to bloody crime scenes, autopsies, kink, the purple prose of suicide notes, bridge-jumpers, the tangled steel of automobile accidents, impossibly beautiful people who have aged into monsters. Therefore I can appreciate the photos of a jocular James Dean visiting a funeral parlor in 1955, taken jauntily enough by famed LIFE photographer Dennis Stock, seven months before the star was killed in a collision while driving his Porsche Spyder to Salinas, California for a race.
My favorite thing about Hollywood is the way it has mingled, sometimes quite uncomfortably, with the more "serious" worlds of art, literature and music – Salvador Dalí designing the dream sequence in Spellbound, William Faulkner assisting on the screenplay for Gunga Din...so many others. This image is a real treasure, Surrealists Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp sitting beneath a Parisian street sign on a Hollywood backlot in 1949. While the horrors of World War II left the human psyche and most of Europe in ruins, the resulting influx of Old World geniuses gave Hollywood a rarefied patina. Strange how tragedy seems to add to the lustre of this magical kingdom, while the rest of the world reels from it.
4. Glamour Apes & Monkey Funerals
My personal obsession with anthropomorphism, especially rabbits and foxes in Edwardian waistcoats and the elegant zoological garden chimp "consuls" nibbling cucumber sandwiches and sipping Earl Grey tea in postcards from the turn of the last century, often overflows into the posts. Movie royalty boxing stuffed bears, luxuriating on tiger rugs, walking leopards in Echo Park, cuddling ocelots on a plush divan, cavorting with live bunnies for Easter, kissing canaries, and swimming with pet lions in terracotta Beverly Hills pools – these will always have priority.
5. Foamite Snow, Backlot Surrealism & The Triumph of Artifice
Whether it be the impossibly fluffy painted-cornflake snow of post-Weimar Bavaria in Frank Borzage's This Mortal Storm or the sleepy sirocco breezes swaying the palm trees and ruffling Yvonne De Carlo's crow-black hair on a backlot desert oasis in 1951's Hotel Sahara, DHM worships at the altar of artifice. Rear-projections, painted mattes of faraway landscapes, detailed miniatures of fairy-tale Budapest and Venice, and elaborate dance routines that begin on some little Broadway stage and flower into kaleidoscopic patterns larger than the theater, the block, the city itself, are no laughing matter.
6. Hollywood Gothic & The Grand Guignol
Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. & the works of novelist/screenwriter Henry Farrell are First Principles at DHM. Their works and those inspired by them - think Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? – nasty, overheated, and wickedly funny Gothic passion plays, revived the careers of Golden Age movie beauties such as Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Agnes Moorehead and Olivia de Havilland. Though it normally transformed them into shrieking harpies and brooding gargoyles in the process, the actresses all turned in lively, committed performances that rank in the upper echelons of screen villainy.
7. Orientalism, Exotica & Decadence
While the rest of the nation scurried after a number of trends in architecture, fashion, furniture design and home decor after the 1920s, I think we still imagine at least a few stars living like Ottoman pashas up until, well, today at noon. DHM is certain of it and won't let the sight of a few celebrities relaxing in mid-century Richard Neutra homes shake its beliefs. Somewhere in the Hollywood Hills there is a great, perhaps forgotten, star donning a jade-green turban and shuffling through his or her cavernous upscale opium den at midnight, its rooms stuffed with brocade throw-pillows, dressing screens decorated with lithesome nudes mid-orgy, and brass censers emitting lazy serpents of jasmine smoke into the mouldering elegance of a Left Coast House of Usher.
8. Bunkum, Hokum & Hoodoo
Certain literature would have you believe Hollywood was founded by hucksters, confidence men, and carnies with ambition. Other literature would have you believe ALL OF THE UNITED STATES was founded by the same folks and that Hollywood just makes a convenient microcosm. However you choose to see it, there's no better place for a carny or a confidence man to make good than in a place entirely devoted to illusion. Tod Browning -- very close to being my favorite filmmaker -- specialized in the depiction of corrupt fortune-tellers, larcenous magicians, and ne'er-do-well carnival workers, all using their gift with illusions to bilk the public, usually putting into motion plots so byzantine you can't believe they wouldn't be better off buying a pawnshop gun and rob a filling station. Of course his fascinations reached their eye-boggling apex with 1932s classic, Freaks, but his lesser-known films The Mystic, The Show, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown are cat-nip to DHM.
9. Madam Satan (Cecil B. DeMille, 1930)
Once you begin delving into film oddities from the late-1920s and early-1930s (our favorite period), you'll find the well nearly bottomless. Unless you simply demand verisimilitude from the movies you watch, I guarantee that after three or four, you'll be hooked by their sophistication, their often intense eroticism, their daft whiplash changes in tone and cock-eyed narrative reversals, and utterly breathtaking visuals. Not that there aren't hundreds of creaky, dull, stage-bound productions from this period, but spend a little time with DHM and you'll discover the wild and fantastical gems as I do. A perfect gateway drug to your new full-blown addiction is DeMille's Madam Satan. From the moment drunken pals Reginald Denny and Roland Young stumble back to Denny's mansion in dusty top hats and rumpled tails and begin undressing one another in the shower, we're in a world addled by Free Money, constant leisure, and a surfeit of reflective surfaces.
10. The Lost
Of course, the only thing more filled with possibility than the future, is a past that is lost to us, and mooning over lost films is our favorite pastime at DHM. For instance, the publicity still above is for a Vitaphone short called Murder in Your Eyes from 1934, purported to be about the goings on in an all-female detective agency. After staring at this evocative picture for an hour, you start to fill in the incredible story yourself, but what could possibly lead these gals to perform a dance routine atop a Colt .38 revolver?
Text by Tish Wrigley