Frederica Sagor Maas 1900-2012

16 01 2012

Usually when someone is a super-centenarian (110+), that is their biggest claim to fame.  However, for Frederica Sagor Maas, she was also a trail blazing female screenwriter in early Hollywood.

Born on July 6, 1900, Frederica Sagor obtained a degree in journalism from Columbia University before taking a position as a story editor for Universal Pictures, and then as a screenwriter for Preferred Pictures in 1924.  Two of her most prominent titles were the Clara Bow and Garbo vehicles The Plastic Age and Flesh and the Devil.  Following solid work in the industry for several years, like many in the silent era, her workload declined in the 1930s.  Her last credit was for The Shocking Miss Pilgrim was in 1947.

She married fellow screenwriter, Ernest Maas, in 1927; the couple would remain married until his death in 1986 at the age of 94.  After many rejections of both her and her husband’s screenplays, coupled with the stock market crash of 1929, Maas and her husband became disillusioned and impoverished.  Eventually, however, she started a second career as a stenographer for an insurance agency, in time moving to the role of adjuster due to “adjusting” her age by 10 years on her resume.

Never one particularly fond of the movie industry or how it treated its employees, she wrote her tell all memoir “The Shocking Miss Pilgrim” in 1999 at the age of 99.  Perhaps her greatest feeling of satisfaction was being able to tell her story and knowing that all those that did her wrong or whom she despised were in the ground.  In an interview with Salon in 1999, she said, “I can get my payback now. I’m alive and thriving and, well, you S.O.B.’s are all below.”

It is with some personal sadness to hear of Frederica’s passing last week at the age of 111.  In 2008, I contacted her about the possibility of doing an extensive on camera interview about her life and times in Hollywood.  I was contacted back by her niece, Phoebe, who told me that, though Frederica’s mind was sharp many days, that would be a taxing thing for her and that some days were better than others.  Being 108 at the time, that is not a shocker at all and I completely understood.  I further found out that famed film historian Kevin Brownlow had beat me to the chase so to speak by doing a series of interviews with Maas in 1999, though I don’t know that any of the footage has been released or used as of this time.  I’m sure Mr. Brownlow is waiting for the most opportune medium to present the footage.

Though we didn’t end up doing an interview, Frederica’s niece Phoebe was extremely kind and said there were several boxes full of correspondence and other items from Maas’s time in Hollywood that she would be happy to look through if any of the information was helpful for any of my writing efforts.  Furthermore, nearly a year later, Phoebe sent me a wonderful article from the San Diego Times regarding Frederica’s solidification as one of the oldest inhabitants of California.  I sent a gracious “thank you” note and Christmas card that year.  According to Phoebe, Frederica was ready for her time to come; after a certain age, it becomes difficult to go on when all your friends, family and loved ones are gone and it’s hard to do the things you once loved.  Though it’s always tough to see someone go, I’m sure Frederica is at peace now with her husband and other friends and family with an eternally youthful mind and body.  We are so lucky, as a film historian community, to have had someone with her knowledge so willing to share her experiences and stories of that early time in cinema’s history.


Yvette Vickers and the Dark Side of Fame

4 05 2011

Vickers from a 1950s Photo Shoot

Hollywood is legendary for red carpet events, epic parties, glitz and glamour, but it has always been the underbelly of this faux front that has in some ways interested me.  Hollywood, like the film industry itself in many ways, is very plastic and fake in so many ways; one day you are a star, the next you are forgotten.  The old phrase still rings true in so many ways, “You are only as good as your last picture.”

Why this type of post today?  Well, I recently read an article on the death of actress and former Playboy pin-up Yvette Vickers.  These are stories that you don’t hear as much about, the ones that show the sad, lonely side of fame.  Vickers, who was born on August 26, 1928, is probably best remembered for her lead role as Honey Parker in the Sci-Fi/Exploitation classic Attack of the 50 Foot Woman in 1958.  However, her career also included bit parts and other work in such classic films as Sunset Blvd., Hud and a host of guest roles in a variety of television programs.  In addition, she was Playboy’s Miss July in 1959, with photos by B-movie trailblazer Russ Meyer.

In her prime, Vickers was about as beautiful as they get: blue-eyed, blonde haired and very shapely.  As time went by, however, her roles became less and less and, by the mid-1960s, her career had squandered to only sporadic appearances.  According to IMDB, her final role was as “Neighbor” in a low budget horror film entitled Evil Spirits from 1990.

Largely forgotten by all but the most dedicated of science fiction and horror fans, Vickers body was found in her Benedict Canyon home last week.  Coroners were unable to pinpoint exactly how long she had been dead, as her body had mummified.; sources say it could have sat in her upstairs bedroom for as long as a year.

She had lived in the 1920s-era home in which she was found for decades, but over time, the home had fallen into a state of disrepair and even been exposed to the elements in some areas.  Noticing cobwebs and yellowed mail spilling out of the mailbox, neighbor Susan Savage decided to investigate further.  Savage looked in through the windows and could see blonde hair, which turned out to be a wig.  She entered the home which was purportedly filled with boxes of old mail, clothes and junk and maneuvered her way upstairs.

Copyright 1958 Woolner Brothers Pictures, Inc.

In a small room, cluttered as the rest of the house was, Savage found Vickers body next to a small space heater that was still running.  The body was unrecognizable and completely mummified.  According to Savage, she remembered her neighbor as a kind, older women with a warm smile who had friends.  Where were all these friends though to allow a death to go unnoticed for so long?  Everyone wants to make excuses, but in reality, poor Yvette Vickers was just a forgotten soul that few people outside of some fans across the nation remembered.

On a small scale, this is truly the bad side of fame, the part that forgets you after you are no longer in the spotlight.  On a large scale, this is the sad truth that likely much of our geriatric population without children go through, famous or not.  It hurts to see someone forgotten, someone no one seems to remember or care about anymore.

As for filmmaking as an industry, why don’t we take care of our own?  If you didn’t know already, the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital that had long been a service of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, is closing down.  No one new has been admitted for several years and after the passing of those currently occupying, the facility will close for good.  Many former staples of the industry have spent their last days in this facility and some would have had no where else to go but a demise such as Vickers had they not had this facility to rely on in their old age.

Maybe I’m biased because my father is older and always has been a senior citizen since I’ve been alive, but these people deserve to be cared for and treated properly.  If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have many of the things we take for granted today.

Remembering Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

23 03 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, one of the few true living Hollywood legends passed away today at the age of 79 from congestive heart failure. Having been ill for the past several years, she had spent the last month in a Los Angeles hospital. Taylor, who began her acting career as a child actor in the 1940s, went on to win commercial and critical acclaim as an actress, as well as becoming an astute business woman.

Her film career encompassed a nearly 60 year span and included classic films such as Giant, A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, among many others. She was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and won twice for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her work in Butterfield 8 and her electrifying performance as Martha opposite then husband Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Her career and elegance as a leading actress made her one of the top billing actresses of the 1950s and 1960s. For Cleopatra in 1963, she became the first actress to receive one million dollars for a film role. However, unfortunately, her private life became as much news as her public roles with several tumultuous affairs and multiple marriages (eight in all, twice to actor Richard Burton).

In addition to her acting career, Taylor also helmed a successful business with her perfume line which included “Passion”, “White Diamonds” and “Black Pearls”, as well as being a lifelong lover and collector of diamonds.

There aren’t really any actresses these days that stand on the same legendary platform as Taylor, especially during her heyday. As one article put it, “it’s the end of an era”, and I don’t think they could be more right in saying so. The style and ability that exuded from the top actresses of Taylor’s era is something that is much more unachievable in our globally connected world.

Now, that being said, I am not one to place much merit on glitz, glamour and star status. What I will remember Elizabeth Taylor for is her screen performances; in spite of her larger-than-life public status, she was an amazing actress who’s abilities far out-weighed any other facet of her career. She could perform loving, kind, caring, restrained, electrifying, mad, maniacal and so many other emotions with exacting precision; her legacy of films is testament to her amazing abilities. She will be missed, but her screen legacy will live on.

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