Thursday, July 15, 2010

"Time wounds all heals."

Sixty years ago this week, 711 Ocean Drive rolled into theaters accompanied by a television commercial campaign, a pioneering strategy undertaken by Columbia Pictures. But the real hype was courtesy of producer Frank Seltzer, who had testified to Congress about his troubles in making a film (originally entitled Blood Money, and originally starring Victor Mature) about the wire racket, and then, when it was time for the big promotional push, took his story to the papers. To the legendary labor-beat columnist Victor Riesel, Seltzer recounted a mysterious phone call he'd received, before shooting commenced in the autumn of 1949:

"So you're the guy who's going to make Blood Money. Well, you're not going to make it. You're not going to shoot it in Las Vegas. You're not going to shoot the picture. That's all."

Seltzer flew to Las Vegas, where a member of the Chamber of Commerce told him, "Just inject a few lines saying we don't like Eastern hoodlums, and that gambling here is on the level, and you can shoot what you want." Riesel's account continued:

The cost of recreating certain locations came to $77,000, Seltzer later complained. But he got his money's worth when it came time to testify before the Estes Kefauver and his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce. Seltzer exploited the conflict at every turn. "A newsreel company interviewed the congressmen afterward and they gave me glowing endorsements," he told another columnist, Virginia MacPherson. Wisconsin Senator Alexander Wiley even appeared onscreen to introduce the film. "And that's not all. I have their permission to reprint these remarks in my newspaper advertising for 711 Ocean Drive. This is the first time any movie's ever had anything like that."

711 Ocean Drive tells the story of telephone lineman Mal Granger (Edmond O'Brien), who's offered a chance to cash in on his technological working for the mob. The wire service in L.A. wants to step up the efficiency of its scams, and Granger has just the skills, and the ambition, they're looking for. He moves into a Malibu beach house, and enjoys the easy life. Before long, though, he gets a big head, grabs too much, and draws attention from the boys who run the "National Wire Service" back east. Trouble comes in the form of Larry Mason (Donald Porter), accompanied by his wife Gail (Joanne Dru). Mason wants a bite out of Granger's take, and Granger wants a taste of Mason's wife.

Here's where the fun begins: the film is like a mash-up of all the stories you've ever heard about 1940s organized crime on the West Coast. Granger echoes Bugsy Siegel—a California kook, running the wire service, who needs to be reeled in by the East. Gail echoes Virginia Hill, jumping the gangster circuit from bed to bed.

Naturally, these comparisons would have been too incendiary for Seltzer to acknowledge, even three years after Siegel had died. "One of our subsidiary characters is shot through the window of his Beverly Hills home," Seltzer told Harrison Carroll, "but the other circumstances are not the same as in the Siegel killing."

The ghost of Mickey Cohen, Siegel's former junior partner, is walking around there, too—it was Cohen who destroyed the offices of competing wire services in 1943, just like Granger's men are shown doing. Cohen ran a haberdashery; Granger goes to a tailor shop to hire a hitman. And it was Cohen that gunmen were aiming for at Sherry's on the Sunset Strip, an incident the film recreats for a flickering instant in a montage.

(Los Angeles Mirror, 1949; photograph by Delmar Watson)

(711 Ocean Drive, 1950; photography by Franz Planer)

Moving further down the pecking order: if Granger had a little bit of Siegel, and a little bit of Cohen, he also, in his hi-tech wizardry, bore some resemblance to Jimmy Vaus, the wiretapper who worked for both the LAPD and Mickey Cohen. Cohen had first hired Vaus to sweep his home for bugs, and then to help him record incriminating evidence against crooked members of the LAPD. Vaus started making the papers in the summer of 1949, as Seltzer and director Joseph M. Newman were moving into preproduction. After shooting wrapped, Vaus wandered into a Billy Graham revival, renounced his criminal life, and was born again, a story that was chronicled in the 1955 film Wiretapper. A shot from that film, of course, also echoes the Sherry's crime scene:

"There was opportunity for all in Los Angeles—the races, Hollywood, wartime black markets, herds of money-heavy aircraft workers. The newly arrived mobsters sighed happily, bought gabardine slacks and pastel sports shirts, rubbed shoulders peacefully at Vine Street bars, the baseball games and the Friday night fights at Hollywood Legion Stadium....But last year things began to change. Los Angeles heard rumors of a struggle for power, a merging of talent. Some said Mickey Cohen might end up as the city's No. 1 business man."
Time, Oct. 14, 1946

Seltzer and director Newman (and screenwriters Richard English and Francis Swann) did their homework. They place Granger at a Hollywood Stars baseball game at Gilmore Field...

At the Simon's drive-in at Highland and Sunset (not too far from those Vine Street bars)...

...and, naturally, at a fight at Legion Stadium.

But we know he's on the rise when he makes it out of Hollywood—he buys that beach house, and starts spending more time with Gail in Palm Springs. At, for instance, the Doll House.

Of course, there's nowhere to go from there but down.


The technical advisor on 711 Ocean Drive was LAPD Lt. Willie Burns. He'd been head of the Gangster Squad, but just before shooting on the film began, he resigned in a bureau-wide shakeup precipitated by the departure of Chief Clemence B. Horrall. As recounted in John Buntin's L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, it was the Brenda Allen scandal that sank Horrall. And the man whose recordings unleashed the Brenda Allen scandal? None other than wiretapper extraordinaire—and possible Mal Granger model—Jim Vaus.


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