March 16, 2011

Wilde Again!

Cornel Wilde at his swashbuckling best.

Cornel Wilde deserves to be remembered not only as a movie star who toiled within the studio system in it's heyday but more importantly as a director whose films remained outside the realm of popular review.

I got to know Cornel rather well towards the end of his life as is my want in life with these kind of personalities that crossed my path in Hollywood during the 1980s. He was what Hemingway observed to be "a man's man", the kind you don't see on the screen anymore. Cornel wanted to be remembered as a director because he put so much of himself in the few films he was allowed to make after a long career as a film star. When I was invited to his condo to begin our first interview, he was leasing a place among the tall apartment complexes that dotted Wilshire Boulevard near Westwood. I remarked how close he lived to another co-star, Christopher Lee, who was at the time, down the road at the Wilshire Holmby. Cornel seemed surprised, commenting "really? Christopher and I did BEYOND MOMBASA back in ‘56 and I don't believe we have seen each other since, quite frankly.”

Cornel and his wife Jean Wallace in the film noir classic, "The Big Combo."
Cornel was living alone at the time preparing to marry a much younger woman after 20 years of marriage to Jean Wallace, his frequent co-star in such films as THE BIG COMBO. It was well known at the time that while they were truly soul mates, Jean's drinking had placed an obstacle he could not overcome and they had called it quits. However during my long afternoon in his company, she called at least half a dozen times, always getting his answering machine whereupon she would vent her feelings, something I kind of wish I hadn't heard. Cornel finally turned the volume off after he realized it was audible to me and my tape recorder(!).

The main reason he felt the need for publicity at that time was his current project, a proposed sequel to his favorite film THE NAKED PREY. In the sequel, he would play the same role years later, with his son now primed to take a similar rite of passage through the African landscape. The role of the son would be played by Cornel's real life son who was about 20-something then, Paramount was mulling it over as we spoke, so he was very up on making another film, as he planned to direct as well.

Lucille Ball and Cornel backstage at a taping of "I Love Lucy."
My mother was like most women who had seen the virile handsome Cornel Wilde on the silver screen during the 40s and was smitten, asking me to get his autograph for her while I was there. He asked me what my favorite film was and before I could really make a choice, I could not help but tell him that the most memorable Cornel Wilde performance for me was his appearance on the I LOVE LUCY show. He was one of many movie stars that would encounter Lucy when she and the Mertz's landed in Hollywood while Ricky was making his screen debut at Metro. I must have seen that episode a hundred times over the years and that more than anything else made Cornel Wilde a star since Lucy was so crazy about him just like my mom was in real life.

I had last seen Cornel in a TV movie of the week called GARGOYLES and he took a moment to tell me how impressed he was with the film’s make-up and costumes. “The men in those suits were sweating like there was no tomorrow and at the end of the day buckets of water came off each of these guys as they peeled off those rubber outfits. They had to wear contact lenses as well so they were uncomfortable throughout the shoot. I am rather proud of that one since I still get fan mail about it even now."

We talked at length about the first NAKED PREY and it was obvious just how much this film meant to him personally. “I have nearly died at least a hundred times during my life and nearly twice on that film." Apparently a bull elephant charged at him while on location and he barely got out of it's way. He was also very pleased with a shot done with a silhouette of an antelope that was really made of wood but shot at a distance that one could not tell the difference. Cornel was nearly naked throughout the filming and this also resulted in many mishaps, especially with his feet being bruised over and over again. It is a testament to his dedication just how fit Cornel has remained throughout his life. He was a heart throb in so many swashbuckler films seen in Technicolor, nearly always shirtless, as he fenced professionally. In fact, his fencing is what brought him to Hollywood in the first place.

We talked long into the afternoon and towards the end of my time with him I felt comfortable enough to invite him to a party I was having that weekend and to my surprise he agreed to come and I left knowing I had done what Lucy would have done in my place…get Cornel Wilde over to meet my friends. Now if only I had an Ethel Mertz to show him.

The night of my party I was pleased so many people came, including 40s tough guy Lawrence Tierney, who was on good behavior, so it was cool and at least there would be another of Cornel’s contemporaries to chat with, or so I thought. As the party got into full swing I noticed Cornel was cornered by veteran photographer Lazlo Willinger, who was told to put out his cigarette if he was going to be around Cornel, who stopped the nasty habit years before. Now what I did not know until it was too late was that having Larry Tierney there at the same party was a huge blunder on my part, as it seems that Larry had an affair with Jean Wallace. All this was, of course, unknown to me and it took Lazlo's wife to explain to me that Jean had stepped out on Cornel in retaliation to his affair with Richard Conte's wife while they were filming THE BIG COMBO.

Now I was in a total panic with Larry still in my kitchen and Cornel on the patio. I just had to keep them apart for the duration, if that was even possible. It turned out that they had already spotted one another and since Larry was sober, the situation was handled with little fuss. The two men just stayed far away from each other until Cornel had decided it was time to go. All the ladies there were thrilled to meet him even if time had taken away the hunk Cornel was on the screen, but he still had that spark and he knew it.

Cornel and I.
The next day, I received a card from Cornel addressed to "David of the Valley", thanking me for having him over, remarking what a fine time he had meeting my friends, with no reference to the infamous Larry, much to my everlasting relief. My interview was published in FILMS AND FILMING magazine and copies were sent to Cornel from London. He was pleased the way it all turned out. Sadly the sequel to THE NAKED PREY was not to be and Cornel died a few years later. His legacy is in the handful of films he directed during the second stage of his Hollywood career. Each one of his films is unique in its perspective regardless of the genre. BEACH RED is way ahead of it's time regarding the aftermath of war with it's almost psychedelic photography. NO BLADE OF GRASS (1970) coming way before MAD MAX or ROAD WARRIOR, and lastly SHARKS TREASURE, where he still looked buff well into his 60s.

In the time since Cornel Wide died, I had hoped to see more of a renaissance of his work, especially as a director. Criterion has issued a beautiful print of THE NAKED PREY and I wrote liner notes in 2004 for the CD soundtrack of the film (available from Locust Media on Latitude Records), using some of Cornel's remarks about his favorite film.

Cornel Wilde was a true auteur, blessed with courage and taste…a survivor of both the studio system and a fickle public that tire of their idols which is inevitable since someone new always comes into their collective view, erasing what came before. I will always remember the man not only for his screen persona, riding along a Technicolor horizon, watching Gene Tierney cast her father ashes into the wind in the classic LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, or even better, trying to get Lucille Ball out of his hotel room for the umpteenth time. They just don't make movie stars like that anymore.

1 comment:

  1. Great article again. Didn't know much about this fellow, but now after reading this I want to track down his directing efforts. Thank you for your article.