Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Reflections on ... Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi

 / The woman behind Vampira: Maila Nurmi photographed at the Seventh Primetime Emmy Awards on 7 March 1955 at the Moulin Rouge nightclub in Los Angeles. As her biographer Sandra Niemi recalls, "She wore an ice-blue evening gown, her hair dyed to match, and a rented fur stole draped around her shoulders." /

My ruminations after reading the 2020 biography Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi by Sandra Niemi. 

First, some caveats about this account of the life and times of wraith-cheekboned atomic-era horror movie hostess, pin-up model and actress Vampira (aka Maila Nurmi, 1922 - 2008). That title is unwieldy. The misjudged cover design is offputtingly amateurish. The prose would have benefited from the hand of a professional ghost writer. Author Sandra Niemi (Maila Nurmi’s niece-turned-biographer) frequently gets bogged-down in minutiae, especially (and perhaps understandably) when it comes to the Niemi family history. (A quick explanation: Maila Nurmi’s real name was Maila Elizabeth Niemi). All you really need to know about Nurmi’s origins is that she emerged from a poor family of Finnish immigrants, with a deeply conservative and disapproving father and an alcoholic mother. 

But stick with Glamour Ghoul. It’s clearly a labour of love and ultimately a gripping account of an eccentric and tenacious survivor (some might say “failure”) who existed on the fringes of Hollywood for decades. Like the doomed Barbara Payton or her one-time director Ed Wood Jr, Nurmi endured obscurity and grinding abject poverty for most of her life. Yes, The Vampira Show on KABC-TV in Los Angeles rocketed her to fame and made her a pop culture sensation, but that success was ephemeral (her show was only on air between 1954 -1955) and Nurmi never made a cent even at her fleeting apex. 

When The Vampira Show was abruptly cancelled following a dispute with the broadcasters, Nurmi’s career dramatically fizzled-out and never recovered. She also alienated many by seemingly exploiting for publicity her friendship with James Dean following his death in 1955. By the time Nurmi appeared in Plan 9 from Outer Space she was widely considered washed-up and a show business pariah. All her scenes were filmed in one day, she was paid a grand total of $200 for her performance (the union minimum) and she was presumably glad to get it.

Plus, the volatile Nurmi was nuts and self-sabotaging, burning bridges and making terrible career decisions at every turn. (Boy, did Nurmi need good management and financial advice). It also didn’t help that she lost her health and looks early. While still in her forties Nurmi was struck down with the debilitating autoimmune disease pernicious anemia. The side effects included losing many of her teeth and meant she walked with a cane for rest of her life. Niemi speculates her aunt’s illness was caused by malnutrition, partly from sheer poverty and partly from Nurmi starving herself to maintain the freakily emaciated 19" waist that was an essential component of the Vampira image. (By today's standards, we'd say Nurmi had an eating disorder).  

/ Kim Novak and Vampira /

Nurmi was terminally unlucky in love, too - with one exception. God knows Marlon Brando was a messy, complicated and deeply flawed person but he was a rare savior in Nurmi’s life. To his credit, once their brief romance cooled, they remained long-term platonic friends and he just about kept Nurmi afloat in later years by paying her a modest allowance. (Brando did eventually cut her off, though). Otherwise Nurmi’s taste in men (with a preference for younger pretty boys) was disastrous. (Interestingly, she clashed with powerful gay agent and “the man who invented Rock Hudson” Henry Willson: they liked the same type). While Niemi herself never comes to this conclusion, it’s clear Nurmi either possessed defective “gaydar” or was primarily sexually attracted to unavailable gay men. For example, she was obsessed with the manipulative and sexually ambivalent young Antony Perkins and seethed with frustration that he didn't return her ardor. 

If Brando was the hero, then Orson Welles was the villain of Nurmi’s life. She first encountered him aged 18 when she arrived in Hollywood in 1940 in pursuit of stardom. Welles took the naïve starlet’s virginity – and impregnated her. Unfortunately for Nurmi, he was engaged to Rita Hayworth at the time.  After Welles callously abandoned her, the baby boy was quietly put up for adoption. Once Niemi uncovers this long-suppressed family secret, she commits herself to locating and contacting the long-lost son of Orson Welles and Vampira. (Did she succeed? I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to read the book). 

On a lighter note, in 1956 Nurmi enjoyed a short-lived fling with 21-year-old Elvis Presley in Las Vegas. At the time, Nurmi was guest starring in Liberace’s spectacular revue at The Riviera and the embryonic Elvis was bombing nightly to hostile audiences at The New Frontier. Recognizing a kindred spirit, Nurmi was initially dazzled by the rockabilly hepcat’s rebel style (she admired his turquoise dinner jacket and noted, “Never before had I seen a straight man … and I assumed he was … wear eye shadow and eyeliner and was that mascara as well?”). But she was bluntly critical of his sexual expertise (“he made love like an adolescent”) and their relationship ended abruptly one night when in a fit of pique (Elvis was paying her insufficient attention), Nurmi - in her own words - “grabbed his pee-pee in a public place and he never forgave me.” But never mind that. Imagine the hallucinatory trio of Vampira, Liberace and Elvis hanging out together in Las Vegas in the fifties. The mind reels! 

/ Above: Liberace and Vampira /

/ Above: Maila Nurmi with an adorable young Elvis in Las Vegas /

/ The February 1956 issue of gossip magazine Whisper via /

The other essential male presence in Nurmi’s life, of course, was her friend James Dean. They met when she was 31 (and finally finding belated success on television as Vampira after years on the margins) and he was still an unknown 23-year-old actor on the ascent. Just how intimate they were is contested (some Dean biographers argue Nurmi embellished their friendship). Niemi takes her aunt’s version as gospel (and doesn’t question Nurmi’s claims that Dean’s ghost repeatedly contacted her from beyond the grave). For what it’s worth, on the topic of Dean’s much-debated sexuality, Nurmi was succinct: “At the time I knew him, he was seeing women, but he was basically bisexual.” 

In her later years, with considerable justification Nurmi sued Cassandra Peterson (aka Elvira, Mistress of the Dark) for copyright infringement. (Nurmi lost, even though she had an overwhelmingly persuasive case. If – like me – you revere both Vampira and Elvira, the chapter about how Nurmi got swindled makes for painful reading. Nurmi was frail and destitute at the time, while the savvy Peterson would go on to amass a fortune from Elvira merchandise. We’ll inevitably get Peterson’s side of the dispute when her impending memoirs come out in September 2021). 

/ Maila Nurmi as a beatnik poetess (with a pet rat) in The Beat Generation (1959) /

More happily, in the seventies and eighties Nurmi would be embraced by her spiritual offspring, punk musicians, particularly the bands inspired by lowbrow culture and horror b-movie imagery like The Misfits, The Screamers, The Damned, The Cramps and surf band Satan’s Cheerleaders (Nurmi recorded several tracks with the latter, which you can listen to on YouTube). Nurmi herself was obviously a punk ahead of her time. One thing Glamour Ghoul clarifies: there are some startling photos circulating online of a virtually bald Nurmi in the fifties sans the Vampira wig with brutally shorn hair, seemingly anticipating punk by about twenty years. Out of Vampira drag, Nurmi favoured a low-maintenance beatnik look of cropped-short blonde hair, Capri pants, sandals and shapeless sweaters. (You get a good impression of what the real Nurmi looked like in her cameo appearance as a beatnik poetess in 1959 film The Beat Generation). Niemi explains that when Nurmi’s stormy marriage to screenwriter Dean Riesner broke down, she chopped all her hair off in a bout of depression. 

/ Maila Nurmi sans the trademark Vampira wig, 1955 / 

/ Above: Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of The Cramps. Note Lux's t-shirt - original Vampira merchandise that Nurmi made herself and sold at public appearances in the punk era. In 2015 I managed to pick up a reproduction of this t-shirt at Viva Las Vegas rockabilly weekender, and I wear it with pride! /

/ Above: Vampira and Tor Johnson in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) /

/ Above with Edward D Wood Jr in 1955 /

Weirdly, Niemi seems to skim over some intriguing aspects of Nurmi’s life and career. She doesn’t offer much insight into Nurmi’s participation in Ed Wood’s notorious 1959 sci-fi atrocity Plan 9 from Outer Space (to be fair, that’s been extensively documented elsewhere). We don’t glean much about how Nurmi came to be the live action model for the animated evil queen Maleficent in the 1959 Disney classic Sleeping Beauty. And I’d read elsewhere that Tim Burton exploited Nurmi badly when he made his 1994 biopic Ed Wood. If so, Niemi doesn’t mention it. 

While Niemi strives to present her aunt in a sympathetic light, Nurmi doesn’t always emerge as terribly likable. Many of her career disappointments were self-inflicted. In the forties director Howard Hawks wanted to groom Nurmi for stardom as his next protegee (as he’d recently triumphantly done with Lauren Bacall). Nurmi scuppered that opportunity by flouncing off in a huff, complaining Hawks was taking too long. She also rarely had a good word to say about other women.  Consider Nurmi’s scathing assessment of  fiftysomething Mae West (one of Nurmi’s first acting breaks was appearing onstage in West’s 1944 play Catherine Was Great). “I saw that her movie star stature was only an illusion of the camera. She was really a tiny little biscuit of a girl. She wore an Aunt Jemima scarf tied round her weary peroxided hair and walked on tall awkward platform shoes. She wore a faded peignoir that likely began its life as pink but had since greyed with age. The garment was cut on the bias, revealing a surprisingly buoyant cleavage even as her pot belly gave away her age. She wore no makeup save for a huge pair of black nylon eyelashes. I didn’t understand why a purported legend could not afford a new bathrobe.” 

Adopting the morbidly beautiful Vampira persona never made Nurmi rich or assured her stardom – but it gave her immortality. Still vivid, cartoon-ish, sexy and perverse, the irresistible image she created never grows stale, appealing to b-movie connoisseurs, punks, psychobillies, goths and the fetish subculture (with her extreme waist-cinching, Nurmi was a pioneer in body modification). And remember: at the time, she was perceived as a gimmick or one-woman publicity stunt. Decades later, Nurmi’s cadaverous cutie still haunts popular culture. The spell Vampira cast is seemingly eternal.

Further reading:

My analysis of Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Reflections on ... Tempest Storm (29 February 1928 - 20 April 2021)

Farewell to doyenne of burlesque, Rita Hayworth lookalike and undisputed Queen of Exotic Dancers Miss Tempest Storm (née Annie Blanche Banks, 29 February 1928 - 20 April 2021).

The death of “the torrid tornado from out West” aged 93 conclusively ends a chapter in striptease history (Storm outlived all her contemporaries including Russ Meyer, Bettie Page and Blaze Starr).

What a life! At her peak Storm earned $100,000 a year, making her the highest-paid striptease performer in history. Her last performance was in 2010. And she had a fling with young Elvis!

I used to love catching glimpses of bouffant-haired eternal showgirl Storm at the annual Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekenders over the years, consistently looking immaculately groomed and fiercely glamorous. This shot of Storm and I was taken at Viva Las Vegas 2017 at the car show. I call this "touched by a goddess" because when we posed together Storm placed her hand on my lower back! Tempest Storm was a woman and a half!

For my social media tribute posts to Storm today, I really wanted to post these glamour shots taken by sexploitation maestro Russ Meyer in 1952 - but I was afraid they were too "boob-tastic" and would instantly send me to Facebook (or Instagram) jail!

Read the New York Times obituary for Tempest Storm here.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Reflections on ... Silhouette (1990)

Recently watched: made-for-TV “woman in peril” thriller Silhouette (1990). Tagline: “She Saw Too Much for Her Own Good.” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly). 

Everyone’s favourite fearsome diva Faye Dunaway plays Samantha Kimball, a high-flying, elegant and shoulder-padded architect who becomes stranded in an isolated rural Texan hick town – and while there, observes a murder from her hotel room window! But no one believes her! (If Silhouette were made in the fifties, Samantha would totally be played by Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck). 

As far as schlock like this goes, Silhouette is made with a degree of flair and almost qualifies as “hicksploitation” (the sub-genre of exploitation / horror films where an urban sophisticate gets terrorized by hillbillies). Anyway, the camp high point is when La Dunaway visits the town’s redneck dive bar (partly to use the payphone – this was the era before mobile phones). She haughtily asks the bartender, “Can you make the perfect Rob Roy?” I love the look of incomprehension and contempt she gets back in response. 

But for Dunaway connoisseurs, Silhouette is enjoyable for how “meta” it is: intentionally or not, it keeps referring to other (better) Dunaway films. Like when she orders the Rob Roy, it reminds me of Dunaway in Chinatown (1974) ordering a Tom Collins with the terse instructions “with lime, not lemon, please.” When Dunaway tries to piece together the murder, it cuts between violent flashbacks and extreme close-ups of her anguished face, just like in The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978). When we’re first introduced to Bonnie Parker in Bonnie & Clyde (1967), we see her framed by her bedroom window and we constantly see Dunaway looking out her hotel room window here. And some of Dunaway’s distraught line deliveries here inevitably evoke Mommie Dearest (1981). 

In short: if you enjoy watching Faye Dunaway suffering extreme distress like only she can, Silhouette is the film for you!

Watch Silhouette on YouTube below.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Reflections on ... The Price of Fear (1956)

Recently watched: The Price of Fear (1956). Tagline: “Hour by hour the net of terror tightens!” I’m using this period of enforced social isolation to explore the weirder corners of YouTube for long forgotten and obscure movies. (My boyfriend is accompanying me only semi-willingly).  

The direction is merely efficient. The acting is mostly stilted. The two stars are arguably past their prime. So why is this undistinguished film noir - an examination of cowardice, fatalism and the consequences of bad decisions - so diverting? Opening at a greyhound racing track at night, The Price of Fear concisely establishes a jittery, grubby ambiance. On the soundtrack, a narrator’s voice mansplains - I mean, sets the scene: “This dog track has nothing to do with the story. But without it there wouldn’t be any story. Because a racketeer’s desire to get control of it set forces in motion that caused a man and a woman who’d never met and were not likely ever to meet to converge on each other like an express train – and with the same result.” 

The man is David Barrett (Lex Barker). “Half owner of the track. Honest. Altogether a decent guy.” His business partner Lou Belden, though, is less scrupulous – and is in cahoots with local gangster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), who’s keen to muscle in on their action.  Unwisely, Barrett publicly threatens Belden (“So help me, if I ever lay eyes on you again, I’ll kill you!”) in a restaurant crowded with witnesses. (Conveniently, all conversation hushes just before he says this). When Belden gets murdered that same night, the innocent Barrett inevitably finds himself under suspicion and goes on the run. But things are about to get even worse! 

The woman is Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon). “A lovely businesswoman. Desirable. Successful. Above reproach.” We see her glamorously departing a ritzy cocktail lounge in formal attire complete with one of those fox stoles with the heads still attached. “She has devoted her life to her work and the greatest success of her career is within her reach. And tonight, she is celebrating.” Celebrating? Jessica is frankly inebriated when she climbs into her convertible, and within no time she’s involved in a hit and run incident! Panicking, she speeds away from the scene before checking whether her victim – an elderly man walking his dog – is dead or alive.   

Guilt-stricken, Jessica begins to anonymously report the accident by payphone. But while she’s in the phone booth, Barrrett jumps out of a taxicab and “borrows” her convertible to evade Edare’s henchmen on his tail. Seizing this stroke of luck, Jessica instead reports her car as stolen. So now in addition to being wanted for murder, Barrett looks like he killed the pedestrian, too. And Jessica’s story suddenly overlaps with the world of low-life organized crime. Now being blackmailed by opportunistic sleazebag Edare, the desperate Jessica initially tries to frame Barrett for the hit and run – but they end up falling in love! This can’t end well … 

I have a perverse affection for the performances of the two leads, both then experiencing professional downturns. A cleft-chinned Adonis, popular fifties male starlet Lex Barker - veteran of five Tarzan films and former Mr Lana Turner - is a stolid, brawny presence as Barrett. Sure, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford had considerably greater “acting chops” than Merle Oberon and either could have convincingly played the part of Jessica in their sleep.  And yet I’d argue Oberon - frosty and ill at ease throughout - is perfect as an elegant woman out of her depth and striving to maintain a patrician ladylike demeanor. (Plus - not possessing the hard veneer of a Crawford or Stanwyck - she brings greater fragility). Oberon herself seems tangibly uncomfortable onscreen appearing in this tawdry b-movie, which fits the character’s predicament: Jessica - with her posh accent and prim little white gloves - is tangibly uncomfortable in the milieu of violence, crime and gangsters. Oberon also adds to the film’s camp appeal. Jessica is a high-flying and affluent businesswoman. How do we know this? She snaps things like, “I know that merger is not going to happen! But the time to sell is just before it doesn’t happen!” on the telephone. Her office door is emblazoned “Jessica Warren: Investment Counselor”. And what an office! Absurdly swanky and chic, with sprays of flowers, exposed brick and a kidney-shaped desk. Is Jessica duplicitous? A victim? Either way, watching her suffer indignities is a blast.

In retrospect, The Price of Fear foreshadows multiple endings. The Hollywood careers of its two stars subsequently fell off a cliff. Decamping to Europe, the surprisingly durable Barker would triumphantly reinvent himself in Italian sword-and-sandal epics and Euro-spy films (and even appeared in Fellini’s 1960 arthouse masterpiece La Dolce Vita).  Aged 45, Oberon retired from the screen after The Price of Fear for seven years to luxuriate as the jet-setting socialite trophy wife of an Italian millionaire before unexpectedly returning in the berserk 1963 melodrama Of Love and Desire. And by the mid-fifties, the entire film noir genre was grinding to a halt. Perhaps it was The Price of Fear that killed it for good?

Watch The Price of Fear below.