books


When I discovered a book review last week about “The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend” by Glenn Frankel, I was already ordering it before I read whether the reviewer thought it was good or not.

My motivation wasn’t just my unconditional adoration of John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, starring John Wayne. It was also because I was hoping for an answer or at least insight into Ford’s decision as to why he filmed the climactic scene where Wayne’s Ethan Edwards finally catches up to Natalie Wood’s Debbie at Bronson Canyon here in Hollywood.

caveIn the film Debbie flees across the barren plains of Monument Valley with Ethan in hot pursuit on horseback. But instead of reuniting them there, Ford quick-cuts to Debbie running up to the mouth of the Bronson Canyon cave/tunnel. Wayne comes charging down the adjacent slope, dismounts and approaches his long-lost niece, undecided still as to whether he’s going to save her because she’s kin or let his hatred of Indians take over and kill her because she’s long assimilated into the native culture she was abducted into as a child.

As a local who’s haunted them thar Hollywood Hills since I was a kid, I’ve known about Bronson Canyon since I was in elementary school, and I can remember watching “The Searchers” for the umpteenth time about 10 years ago and finally recognizing it. And yes, during visits since, I’ve gone to the mouth of that cave entrance in full-on fanboy awe knowing that I was standing in the exact spots where The Duke and Ford themselves had stood. One time, while overhearing a trio of visitors talking about the place’s use in lesser vehicles such as “Batman” (the ’60s TV series), “Star Trek VI,” and “Army of Darkness.,” I shared what I knew with them. Sadly, my enthusiastic description of the scene (complete with where Ford set up the camera) was lost because none of the three had seen the classic (which I feel should be a crime against entertainment).

I hold the film dearer to my heart knowing part of it was filmed in what is basically the playground of my past and so readily accessible at present. But with so much of the film’s exteriors shot in and around the organic magnificence of Monument Valley (itself a star of the film), I’ve long wondered what happened to bring Ford and Wayne and Wood to film that pivotal scene back here in Hollywood at what is in essence so fake a location entirely incongruous to the established wide-open scope of the West’s great outdoors. As such, I couldn’t resist diving into the back of the book to see if it was there. Thanks to Frankel, I now have the answer and so much more.

From the book:

Four days later, Ford took John Wayne, Natalie Wood, and a camera crew to Bronson Canyon to shoot the film’s climactic scene in which Ethan finally hunts down Debbie. The canyon was one of Hollywood’s classic outdoor locations, a former quarry carved into the southwest corner of Griffith Park just a few miles east of the Culver City studio. Brown and barren, it readily stood in for the rocky terrain of the West. From “Riders of the Purple Sage” (1925) to “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932) to “Zorro Rides Again” (1937), anyone who needed a cheap natural location within a bus ride from a studio had resorted to Bronson Canyon over the years. Ford didn’t go there save money, however, but to solve a problem. As usual, he left no notes to explain. But it’s likely Ford and his crew had filmed the climactic scene in Monument Valley in July according to the [Frank] Nugent screenplay and that Ford had decided at the last minute to change it.

Nugent’s original script spells out exactly what is supposed to happen and why:

Ethan Dismounts with his gun drawn, pointing it at Debbie. “I’m sorry, girl,” he tells her. “Shut your eyes.”

The camera holds on Debbie’s face — the eyes gaze fearlessly, innocently into Ethan’. After a moment, he lowers his gun and puts it away. “You sure do favor your moth,” he tells her. Then he extends his hand, puts his arm protectively around her and a reconciled uncle and niece head for home.

013-Debbie-Cowering-In-Cave-The-Searchers-1956Somewhere between the original filming of the scene and August 12, Ford decided to reach for a different ending. He clearly wanted something more visual and ambiguous — something the audience could see and feel and not have explained to them. “I wonder, did they box themselves into a corner and find themselves having to shoot this at the very end?” asked Ford scholar James D’Arc. “Bronson Canyon’s the obvious quickie solution.”

As he did so many times, Ford threw away Nugent’s dialogue and improvised. The face that he would be jump-cutting from the flat parched floor of Monument Valley to the hilly rock-strewn path leading to Bronson Canyon did not seem to trouble him. In the filmed version, Ethan chases Debbie down, calling out her name — similar to the way he had called out Martha’s name earlier in the film when he searched for her among the flaming ruins of the ranch house. Desperate to escape him, Debbie reaches the mouth of the cave and then collapses. Ethan dismounts, stands over her, then lifts her over his head in one sweeping motion and takers her in his amrs. “Let’s go home, Debbie,” is all he says.

For Ford and his crew, it was a quick visit. They started shooting at Bronson Canyon at 11:00 that morning and finished up at 12:45. They broke a half hour for lunch and then headed back to the studio.

Damn. I’ve long been a searcher for that information. I can’t wait to start at the beginning of Frankel’s book and see what else he has to show me about one of the greatest motion pictures ever made.

Above is a shot taken yesterday from Broadway of the landmark Higgins Building on the southwest corner of Second and Main, looking east at its backside bathed beautifully Hopper-esque in the afternoon light. Susan and I had a wonderful excursion that started with lunch at Cole’s, and then a stroll up to this building so that I could express my requisite awe in the wake of my discovery that one of my heroes, Clarence Darrow, kept an office here while representing the infamous McNamara brothers who bombed the original Los Angeles Times building (at First and Broadway) in 1910 and killed 20 people.

Afterward we visited the Bradbury Building, Grand Central Market, and rode Angel’s Flight to the top of Bunker Hill, which we descended via Hope Street to go to the Central Library and pick up the new biography of Darrow by John Farrell I had on hold, Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned. From the library we worked our way back to the Drkrm Gallery on Spring Street south of Seventh to check out an exhibit of Ansel Adams’ photographs of Los Angeles in the 1930s. Lastly we explored the incredible space of The Last Bookstore at Spring and Fourth Fifth.

But back to Darrow. I’ve been an unabashed idolizer of his (and subsequent skeptic of religion) since a 13-year-old when I checked out a copy of the play “Inherit the Wind” by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee from the LeConte Junior High School library, based on the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee, in which he represented the defendant who challenged that state’s anti-evolution law. The first monologue I ever did as an acting class student at Beverly Hills High School was one of Drummond’s (Darrow) from that play:

Yes there is something holy to me! The power of the individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “Amens!,” “Holy, Holies!” and “Hosannahs!” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is more of a miracle than any sticks turned to snakes, or the parting of waters. But are we now to halt the march of progress because Mr. Brady frightens us with a fable? (to the jury) Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You’ve got to pay fo rit. Sometimes I think there’s a man behind a counter who says, “All right, you can have a telephone; but you’ll have to give up rivacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote; but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powderpuff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!” Darwin moved us forward to a hilltop, where we could look back and see the way from which we came. But for this view, this insight, this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.

Anyway, through a recent issue of Smithsonian magazine I learned via an excerpt from Farrell’s book that he had an office in the Higgins during the McNamara trial and afterwards during what was the darkest time of his life and career as a lawyer, when he was tried twice on charges of bribing McNamara jurors. The first ended in his acquittal, the second with a hung jury, and a subsequent deal with the district attorney was struck in which he agreed there would be no retrial if Darrow promised never to practice law again in California. Darrow then went on to some of his greatest legal battles — including the Scopes trial.

As I looked over the buildings features and details and stood in its foyer where Darrow had undoubtedly stood more than 100 years ago, I figured it might be lost to history where his office had actually been within, but that of course didn’t stop me from googling it and finding via the LA Times that it was on the southwest corner of the ninth floor, the windows of which — second floor from the top — are visible in the picture.

John Le Carré is a writer I’m remiss to admit I’ve never read. I’ve seen film adaptations of his works such as “The Constant Gardener” and “The Russia House,” but I’ve never picked up one of his books.

With “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” currently in theaters and getting a lot of buzz, I debated between waiting for that to come to Netflix or first ordering up the DVDs for the acclaimed 1979 mini-series version starring Alec Guinness.

Then I decided I’d go straight to the source. Logging on to the Los Angeles Public Library website to see it there might be a copy on the shelves in one of my nearby branches (I’m blessed as a Silver Laker to have four within a couple miles or so of me), I quickly learned that there were like-minded people who were faster on the draw than me: there was not a copy pretty much citywide that wasn’t checked out or on hold.

Sure I could’ve ordered up a new or used copy from Amazon, but I was jonesing both for some library action as well as for some Le Carré so I headed out on foot to the Silver Lake branch where I found his 2008 novel “A Most Wanted Man” as well as 2010′s “Our Kind Of Traitor.”

It was a toss-up between the two until I cracked open the former and gave it the First Paragraph Test. Let’s just say, it passed:

A Turkish heavyweight boxing champion sauntering down a Hamburg street with his mother on his arm can scarcely be blamed for failing to notice that he is being shadowed by a skinny boy in a black coat.

I’ll betcha “Traitor” is just as good a read, but after marveling at that awesomely intriguing opening I was completely hooked and “Man” came with me to the check-out kiosk.

I took 120 or so of the 5,818 stills my camera captured during last Sunday’s CicLAvia and dove into Lulu.com to create a photo book that can tell the visual story of last Sunday’s CicLAvia. I’m not quite at the stage to publish it, but as soon as I get there, you’ll be the first to know.

I’m there. But please don’t get all wide-eyed at the high pricetag. Lulu’s base cost left me no choice — and for what it’s worth, I’ll be donating half the proceeds from each book sold to CicLAvia.org.

I’m not much on absolute favorites. I’m much more a “Top 5″ or “Top 10″ kind of guy — the sort who always qualifies his appreciation of things, inserting “one of” into anything I’m glowing and crowing about.

  • “That is one of my favorite Frank Lloyd Wright residences.”
  • “My 19th birthday? One of the best I’ve ever had.”
  • “Without question, Dude Where’s My Car stands as one of the most awesome motion pictures in the history of motion pictures.”

If I do feel particularly daring, I might drop the “one of” for a “probably” or “perhaps.” Bold, right?

But then there’s John Steinbeck and I wipe the wish-wash away.

John Steinbeck is my favorite writer. Absolutely. No “perhaps” or “one of” about it. And I just now learned that he lived in Los Angeles for a spell. Montrose, to be exact. for a few months between 1932-33. And the tiny house he rented still stands behind an apartment building built in the ’60s on Hermosa Avenue.

If you know me at all, you know I go crazy over shit like that, because it’s easy for me to mythologize my heroes as far-removed like gods up on Olympus. I’ve practically made a shrine out of the bungalow Mr. and Mrs. Jackie Robinson lived in near Western and Jefferson in his monumental year of 1947. Hell, I’ve known for a couple years that F. Scott Fitzgerald died a loooong way from West Egg in a West Hollywood apartment on Hayworth Avenue a half-block south of Sunset Boulevard, and whenever I recall that nugget I still shake my head in amazement. F. Scott Fitzfuckinggerald!

The coincidence is that I learned both things via my friend Rodger Jacobs. The irony is that he laid Steinbeck’s LA connection on me after I commented on his blog about “London House,” a unique Hollywood residence south of Melrose Avenue just off Van Ness which legend has it Jack London lived in during a 1906 visit here. Trouble is the legend’s a total fiction. The house, built by the author’s sculptor friend Finn Frolich, wasn’t constructed until the 1920s, augmented with a bas relief by Frolich of the writer mounted near the entry. London might have lived there in spirit and memory, but spirit and memory only.  He died in 1916.

In response to my comment, Rodger (not coincidentally who’s written the preface to a new book out titled Jack London: San Francisco Stories, which you can buy on Amazon and should) wrote back to me that he once lived a few blocks from where Steinbeck lived in Crescenta Valley.

After I stopped saying “No way!” and “Dood!” to my computer screen, I got out my e-shovel and started digging around the internest, first finding out from a column in the Crescenta Valley Weekly that the home was somewhere on Hermosa Avenue between Sunset Drive and Rosemont in Montrose and ultimately finding out the address from none other than Steinbeck himself, via Google Books and its e-version of Steinbeck: A Life in Letters. Appearing on page 66 is a note written to publisher Robert Ballou, one of several from:

A visit will certainly be in order after this seriously most awesome discovery. No “one of” or “perhaps” about it.

UPDATE (5:39 a.m.): Oh my goodness — a personal connection! Correspondence included in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters shows that for a time in 1930 he lived at 2741 El Roble Drive in Eagle Rock, which was on my route back when I worked for Sparkletts. In fact, if memory serves from checking out the Google Street view image of the house, the occupant at the time was a customer of mine!

This past few week has been a bit of a behind-the-scenes whirlwind of anticipation. Thanks to a heads-up from LA Metblog Capt. Lucinda Michele, I found out about a great gig offered via Craigslist by an Aussie outfit looking for an author to write a guide book about bike rides in Los Angeles.

So I got busy submitting clips and stuff knowing how far I could knock such a topic near and dear to my heart out of the park. Then came the phone interview early in February, followed by an in-person interview last Thursday in Redondo Beach with the publishers who were on something of a hectic visit to the states, where they’re also finalizing writers for sister books in other cities.

On Friday out of something like 50 initial candidates I was told it was between me and one other person.

Tonight, as I was out behind my office building literally swinging my leg over the bike about to get on it for the ride home from work, my cell phone rang and it was the publisher and without much in the way of chitchat I was told the decision had been made to go with that other person.

I was gracious in defeat. I told the publisher that I understood they had to make the decision they thought was best for them and the project. I stopped short of saying anything silly like “Your loss” or “You’re making a mistake,” and instead expressed my appreciation for their consideration and wished them great success with their endeavor — and I meant it. The book can be a wonderful thing for cycling in LA… even if it isn’t my name on the cover and my dedicated efforts filling it up.

The ride home across town? Yeah it was a solemn and pensive journey but I worked out some of the kinks of disappointment along the way. Some. And I was thankful that I had my bike to ride through the rain-sprinkled streets of the city I know so well and love so much.

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