Annotations for “The Abandoned Sunset” 8 pages in Cinema Purgatorio #15
Writer: Alan Moore, Artist: Kevin O’Neill
Note: Some of this is obvious, but you never know who’s reading and what their exposure is. If there’s anything we missed or got wrong, let us know in comments.
General: The film-within-a-comic riffs on a morgue scene that was cut from the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. In the issue’s film characters tell small, unconnected gossipy stories – until the it is revealed that the actual theme is the Hollywood magazine Confidential, which was full of such stories. Purgatorio‘s fictional publication Screen Regrets, seen in several previous issues, is clearly based on real world magazines such as Confidential.
For this issue, Moore and O’Neill have drawn inspiration from the 2002 book The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties by Sam Kashner and Jennifer MacNair. In an unpublished 2016 interview Moore mentioned this book as a background source for Purgatorio.
- The cover depicts the six characters the reader will “see” in the morgue (and mostly not see this clearly again). Their names largely do not appear, except for Howard Rushmore, though he never admits who he is.
- The cover references the famous shot from the film Sunset Boulevard, looking up at a corpse floating in the swimming pool, as police cluster above looking down at it. (Thanks to commenter Charles for noting this.)
The central man is journalist Howard Rushmore, a man of many contradictions, some of which are symbolized by the red emanations from his head. The fading hammer and sickle symbolizes his early Communism. The blood-red stripes of an American flag for his later crusading anti-Communism.
– Actor Gloria Swanson playing the character Norma Desmond in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. Swanson was a major silent film star in the 1920s, though is best known for her Oscar-nominated role in Sunset Blvd.
– Actor Lana Turner, who starred in the 1957 film Peyton Place. Turner wears the headscarf she was photographed in the day her daughter was arrested for stabbing of Turner’s husband Johnny Stompanato.
- It is perhaps appropriate that, in an issue whose theme seems to be sordid gossip, we begin with the aftermath of a closet assignation.
- “Sunset” is the first of several references to the 1950 Film Sunset Boulevard. The stenciled curbed lettering appears at the beginning of the film.
Sunset Boulevard explores several of the ongoing themes of Moore and O’Neill’s CP stories: the destructive, exploitative nature of movie stardom, the under-appreciated role of the creator (especially the writer), and broadly “the horror of film.”
- The setting is a morgue. According to Wikipedia, the initial trial version of Sunset Boulevard opened in a morgue “with the assembled corpses discussing how they came to be there.” The scene was cut, replaced by the corpse-in-pool opening.
- The voice is Howard Rushmore (though he never actually admits it).
- Pictured are the covered corpses of (clockwise from lower right speaker):
– Howard Rushmore (speaking)
– Lana Turner
– Sal Mineo
– Chalky Wright (the only African American here)
– Alvah Bessie
– Gloria Swanson
- “In the cab, Frances was yelling” refers to how, on January 3, 1958, during an argument in a taxicab, Howard shot his wife Frances, and then himself.
- “Me: of all people!” is Howard being annoyed at the irony that he, a sensationalist reporter, will now be the subject of sensationalist news.
- The new voice is Gloria Swanson, the actress who plays aging star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.
- “This whole afterlife scenario… like that ghastly opening scene of Billy Wilder’s that got rejected from my big movie” refers to the initial morgue scene cut from Sunset Boulevard. That film was directed by (and co-written by) Billy Wilder.
- “Audiences hated it” references how audiences laughed uncomfortably at the early version of the morgue scene opening for Sunset Boulevard.
- “In pictures” means “in motion pictures” ie: movies.
- “Not since ’56” refers to how Swanson‘s acting career largely ended after 1956 (age 57) demonstrating the paucity of roles available to older women actors.
- “Except TV stuff like Dr. Kildare” refers to Swanson‘s role in a 1963 episode of the television series Dr. Kildare.
- “Helped my husband promote healthy eating” refers to Swanson’s sixth husband William Duffy, a writer who promoted a macrobiotic diet. (No relation to Swanson frozen food.)
- “That movie” is, of course, Sunset Boulevard.
- Clockwise from the left are characters in Sunset Boulevard:
– Director Cecil B. DeMille as himself
– Director and actor Erich von Stroheim as Max von Mayerling, Desmond’s chauffeur.
– Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond
– Actor Anna Q. Nilsson as herself
– Policeman (reflected on mirror at bottom of pool – his foot appears in the lower left corner of the panel)
– Reflection of corpse
– Corpse of Joe Gillis, played by actor William Holden, floating face down in the pool
- As noted the fictional screenwriter character “Joe Gillis” narrates Sunset Boulevard. Gillis stands in for the screenwriter director Wilder.
- “Romancing… Joe Kennedy” refers to Swanson’s affair with businessman statesman (and father of U.S. President John F. Kennedy) Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., who financed some of her films.
- “I fitted the part” references how aging silent star Swanson’s life’s trajectory resembled that of fictional aging silent Desmond.
- As stated, Sunset Boulevard’s “waxworks scene” features aging actors – Nilsson, Warner, and Keaton – playing themselves. Narrator Gillis refers to Desmond’s ancient friends as “waxworks”.
- As stated, Sunset Boulevard has cameos (or supporting roles) by “[director Cecil B.] DeMille,” “[actor Erich] von Stroheim” and actor “Hedda Hopper.”
- It is true that “Wilder had originally wanted Mae West” for the Desmond role. There were several silent film actors considered before Swanson got the part – see next panel.
- “‘Desperate old woman’ wasn’t a role she craved” is the reason West turned down the Desmond role. Sadly, in West’s final film, Sextette (1978), she attempts to remain a sex symbol at the age of 85. This made her look even more desperate than Norma Desmond.
- Actor “Mary Pickford” turned down the Desmond role as described.
- Mae West’s one-time chauffeur is former boxer Chalky Wright. “One time” here should be taken to mean “for a period of time”, not “on a single occasion.” Internet research did not yield specifics, but White appears to have been West’s chauffeur and bodyguard for several years.
- Swanson further describes Sunset Boulevard where von Stroheim’s character, Max von Mayerling, is both Desmond’s current chauffer and her former husband.
- The new speaker is screenwriter (and Hollywood Ten member) Alvah Bessie. He doesn’t appear to have had any strong connection to Von Stroheim.
- “At least his career wasn’t ended by his principles” is Bessie describing himself, a victim of Hollywood’s anti-communist black list. von Stroheim’s career was arguably ended by his aesthetic principles, though not necessarily political principles. According to Wikipedia:
Stroheim’s unwillingness or inability to modify his artistic principles for the commercial cinema, his extreme attention to detail, his insistence on near-total artistic freedom and the resulting costs of his films led to fights with the studios. As time went on he received fewer directing opportunities.
Though Bessie’s statement reflects his own perspective, it would perhaps be more accurate to say that von Stroheim’s career wasn’t ended by his politics.
- The first speaker is Howard Rushmore, who, as noted above, shot himself.
- While nowadays they are known primarily as “The Hollywood Ten,” during the HUAC proceedings the name “Unfriendly Ten” was also used, as they were “unfriendly witnesses.”
- O’Neill’s unlettered artwork for page 4 was shared via this March 2018 Bleeding Cool article.
Far Background (left to right)
– Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (ghostly couple)
– three men – suggest??
– man with pipe and hat
– Possibly Alvah Bessie (balding man with moustache) the man speaking, blacklisted screenwriter, and one of the Hollywood Ten. He is in the central position of the image, albeit small and in the background.
– man in dark suit stepping forward
– Possibly Herbert Biberman (man with glasses and bow tie) – blacklisted screenwriter/director, one of the Hollywood Ten
– man with dark hat and dark suit
– Possibly Ring Lardner Jr. (man with cigarette and glasses) – blacklisted screenwriter, one of the Hollywood Ten
– Possibly Samuel Ornitz (man with glasses, looking to right), blacklisted screenwriter, one of the Hollywood Ten. Or possibly (per commenter Paul) Arthur Miller, blacklisted playwright.
Foreground (left to right)
– J. Edgar Hoover (an with striped tie holding FBI folder) – red-baiting head of FBI.
– Richard Nixon (sweating man with tie) – later U.S. president, Nixon was a freshman congressman who served on HUAC.
– Possibly actor Edward G. Robinson (man in dark jacket)
– Joseph McCarthy (man in light jacket shaking hands with Nixon) – Red-baiting senator, head of HUAC
– Howard Rushmore (man with striped tie and cigarette) – the somewhat elusive central figure of this issue
– man with rolled sleeves pointing
– Possibly Lee J. Cobb, blacklisted actor (man with right hand signalling stop) (thanks to commenter Paul for the ID)
– Possibly Edward Dmytryk (man with light jacket looking right) blacklisted director, one of the Hollywood Ten
– balding mustached man with striped tie.
- “Rosenbergs executed” are convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed in 1953.
- “Vice-president Nixon,” as noted above, was actually a Senator when he was active in HUAC, though he became Vice-President a few years later.
- “Senator McCarthy” is Joseph McCarthy.
- “Trumbo” is writer Dalton Trumbo.
- “Lardner” is screewriter Ring Lardner Jr.
- “Did jail time” refers to The Hollywood Ten, including the current speaker Alvah Bessie, being “convicted of contempt and fined $1,000 each… and sentenced to six-months to one-year prison terms” per Wikipedia.
- Elia Kazan named eight names to HUAC.
- “Former union organizer Ronald Reagan” refers to later-president Reagan serving as president of the Screen Actors Guild throughout the HUAC witch hunt.
- “Turned chief commie-hunter” references how “during the late 1940s, Reagan and his then-wife, Jane Wyman, provided the FBI with the names of actors within the motion picture industry whom they believed to be communist sympathizers” per Wikipedia.
- “Investigatin’ his future second wife” is, again, not an unbiased view. Wikipedia states:
Reagan met actress Nancy Davis in 1949 after she contacted him in his capacity as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He helped her with issues regarding her name appearing on a Communist blacklist in Hollywood.
- “Lending money” refers to Edward G. Robinson loaning Dalton Trumbo money to help pay for his contempt fines. Robinson later had to testify to HUAC about it. Per Wikipedia: “[Robinson’s] name was cleared, but in the aftermath his career noticeably suffered, as he was offered smaller roles and those less frequently.”
- Howard Rushmore became Chief Editor of Confidential in 1955, well after HUAC (though the Red Scare was still going strong). During 1947, however, Rushmore had been a key witness for HUAC.
- “He was a Communist turned red-baiter” refers to how, indeed, through the 1930s Rushmore was a Communist, and employed by The Daily Worker.
- The person asking for judgment to be withheld is Howard Rushmore himself.
- “Confidential” is Rushmore’s magazine. (See page 7 below)
- The new speaker (middle top) is actor Sal Mineo, who was bisexual (and out about it, at least by 1972).
- The first speaker is Alvah Bessie, who naturally thinks Communists (like him) got harsher treatment.
- “Lizabeth Scott” was a noir actress in the 1940s and 50s. According to filmcomment.com:
In 1955, a story accusing Scott of lesbian intrigues was on the galleys for Confidential magazine. Written by Howard Rushmore, the scandal sheet’s editor, the piece, titled “Lizabeth Scott in the Call Girls’ Call Book,” stated that Scott traveled in “off-color joints” using the nickname “Scotty,” appeared in “the little Black books kept by Hollywood prostitutes,” and had recently consorted with Parisian nightclub manager Frédérique “Frédé” Baulé, “that city’s most notorious lesbian queen.” (For the record, Colette had died in August 1954, so it’s possible the crown was up for grabs.) Rather than pay out to kill the story, as was usual practice, Scott had her attorneys level a $2.5 million libel suit at the magazine, which ran the story tout de suite.
- “Chaplin’s tennis coach” – per Wikipedia: Charlie “Chaplin allowed Tilden to use his private court for lessons to help him after the run of legal and financial problems.”
- ‘Big’ Bill Tilden was a famed tennis player, and friend of actor Charlie Chaplin. According to The Bad & the Beautiful: Hollywood in the Fifties:
In June of 1953, just days before his death, Tilden’s humiliation was complete, thanks to Robert Harrison and Confidential magazine when they published “Bad Boys of Tennis” and referred to Tilden as one of “the most arrested players of this so-called gentlemanly game of tennis.”
- Tilden was arrested in 1946 and 1949, for having sex with young men in cars.
- Director F. W. Murnau died when his 14-year-old Filipino servant boy crashed the car they were in into an electric pole. There were persistent, if unproven, rumors that the boy was distracted by Murnau performing fellatio on him.
- The movie Mineo is describing here is Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo, directed by Nicholas Ray.
- The “Hays office” was an informal name for the Motion Picture Production Code. This was a Hollywood self-censorship regime (symbolized by the scissors depicted on the cover of the “Hays Code” book pictured below) which operated from 1930 to 1968.
- Mineo’s character in RWaC , Plato, was clearly gay. According to indiewire.com:
Inarguably one of the most blatant homosexual characterizations of the Hays era, the Motion Picture Production Code office made sure to send a memo to Warner Bros. head Jack Warner, warning him against “inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim.”
I have been unable to find documentation that this memo was due to Confidential magazine.
- “underage leads” – According, again, to indiewire.com:
Gore Vidal even claimed that Ray, also bisexual, had an affair with the 16-year-old Wood as well as Mineo (also 16), “while the sallow Dean skulked in and out.” Perhaps Dean, at 24, was a little too long in the tooth for Ray, though he felt a deep kinship with his leading man. As for Mineo, Ray may have felt a little something different. Describing the young actor, Ray compared Mineo to his his son Tony from his first marriage, only “prettier.”
- Chateau Marmont is a residential hotel located at 8221 Sunset Boulevard. Ray had a bungalow there, where rehearsals for RWaC were held. It was not a “set”, per se.
- “Drive his Porsche fast” – James Dean died when his Porsche crashed; he had been speeding at the time.
- “Nick died as a wreck too” – Ray was, according to Wikipedia “a heavy user of drugs and alcohol”, leading to him not working much after 1963.
- Sal Mineo died as described.
Top (left to right):
– Sal Mineo
– Nicholas Ray
– Natalie Wood
– James Dean (in his Porsche)
- Mineo’s murder was, indeed, assumed to have a “homosexual motivation“. The killer was caught years later.
- The new speaker (back right) is Lana Turner.
- The person agreeing with Turner is the other woman in the morgue, Gloria Swanson.
- Lana Turner frequently appeared in Confidential, though I have been unable to find any specific “Maneater” references. The cover to the September 1956 issue featured a caption “Topping was in a rage, and Lana was in the den – with Billy Daniels.” (Dan Topping was Turner’s third husband, from 1948-1952, though the incident reported here probably took place in 1951.)
- The speaker crassly referring to Turner’s husband as Tarzan is Howard Rushmore.
- Turner married husband number four, Lex Barker, in 1953. Barker had been a screen Tarzan from 1949 to 1953.
- Turner’s daughter, Cheryl Crane, claimed in her autobiography that Barker raped her throughout his marriage to her mother, and that when she told her mother, Turner divorced him.
- Peyton Place (1957) was nominated for nine Oscars, though it won none. Moore mentions Peyton Place in Providence (#12, page 13), where he connects it with Twin Peaks.
- Johnny Stompanato was a gangster working for Mickey Cohen, as described. Turner began dating him in 1957, but, contrary to the text, they never actually married.
In the 1940s, Mickey Cohen worked for “Bugsy” Siegel, who appeared in CP#6 and CP#13.
- “One night in 1958” – Specifically, March 26, the night of the Oscar ceremony in which Turner was up for Best Actress for Peyton Place. Turner attended without Stompanato, which led to a violent argument when she got home. Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, fearing for her mother’s life, stabbed Stompanato with a kitchen knife. The “uh, accidentally” is perhaps meant to allude to rumors that Turner killed Stompanato herself, and convinced her daughter to take credit.
- “Basically reprising the troubled relationship between me and my daughter” – This seems to be something of an overstatement. That said, per Wikipedia: “The production was difficult for Turner given the recent events of her personal life”.
- “creepy stepfather” – More than just creepy; according to Dee’s son, said stepfather sexually abused her. The other details given about Dee appear to be accurate.
- Pictured (left to right):
– (top) Lex Barker as Tarzan. The cowlick was only an occasional feature of Barker’s Tarzan appearance, but may be included as a nod to Superman’ more canonical cowlick.
– (bottom) Grace Metalious, writing the 1956 novel Peyton Place, basis for the film. The text shown is the opening words of the book
– Lana Turner in Peyton Place.
– Cheryl Crane, stabbing
– “Oscar”, the Academy Award statue
– Johnny Stompanato, stabbed
– Mary (Cymboliak) Zuck (Dee’s mother)
– Sandra Dee
– Eugene Douvan (Dee’s stepfather, possibly shadowed because there don’t seem to be any pictures of him online)
- The speaker concerned with queer issues is, of course, Sal Mineo. The speaker concerned about race is the only black person present, Chalky Wright.
- Director Douglas Sirk, in a posthumous memoir, claimed:
I sometimes think Ross Hunter played a part in pushing Rock towards being homosexual. At first Rock seemed to me to lie near the middle of the sexual spectrum, but when he met up with Ross, that was it.
- The speaker concerned with class and Marx is, of course, Communist Alvah Bessie.
- In 1957, Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr. were in love, but were pressured out of their relationship. The story is too long to recount here, but is well worth reading up on. (It includes a bit with frequent CP guest star Mickey Cohen, even). Confidential‘s role in the affair seems to have been tangential at best, though other “celebrity gossip” sources did lead to the pressure.
(“Davies” is an error – see nitpicks page.)
- The Confidential article about Wright and West appeared in November 1955. In 1957, there was a large libel case against Confidential, not just a personal one. Wright was scheduled to give testimony, but died before he could. While the medical evidence suggests an accidental death, his first wife (also scheduled to testify against Confidential) “claimed she received an anonymous phone call from a “gruff voiced man” who told her “…if you know what’s good for you, you’ll clam up about this whole thing.””
- The speaker objecting (accurately) that nothing was proved is Howard Rushmore.
- The speaker using the camp form of address “Miss Bashful” is Sal Mineo.
- This is not an actual Confidential cover, though it does mimic the style quite well.
- The image inside the cab is based on photographs. (not reproduced on this blog due to copyright).
- Howard Rushmore was born in South Dakota, but the family moved to Missouri “sometime during 1925–26”, when Howard would have been 12 or 13. Per Wikipedia “the family was hit hard economically by the Great Depression, which started Rushmore’s lifelong interest in politics.”
- Rushmore wrote for The Daily Worker in the late 1930s. Per Wikipedia:
…he was fired for giving an ambivalent review of Gone with the Wind (1939). Rushmore was impressed by the film’s technical aspects. But despite describing the film as a “magnificent bore” and holding to the standard communist party line that the film was “racist,” this was regarded as insufficiently negative by the editorial board. The chief editor of the Worker, Ben Davis, who personally fired Rushmore,was particularly incensed at Rushmore’s refusal to rewrite the review. But the sacking backfired as it made the front page of all the major New York newspapers, such as the New York Journal-American, New York Post and The New York Times, as well as mainstream papers across the country, which were supportive of Rushmore. The resulting publicity made the 26-year-old an instant celebrity in anti-communist circles.
- In 1955, Rushmore became chief editor of Confidential. He seems to have held the post for less than a year, though it was a busy and influential period.
- In 1945, Rushmore obtained a “Mexican divorce” from first wife Ruth, then married Frances McCoy. Wikipedia: “Ruth Rushmore tried to have Howard arrested—her lawyer would later maintain that the Mexican divorce was invalid and that Howard Rushmore was a bigamist.”
- “Faking … my … own kidnapping” – In 1955, after publicizing the “fact” that he was on a secret to uncover communist assassins, Rushmore vanished from his hotel room, leading to speculation that he had been kidnapped or murdered by communists. This appears to have been only one of many incidents in which Rushmore made up anti-communist adventures to gain publicity for himself.
- “Testifying against Confidential itself” – In August of 1957, a high profile trial against Robert Harrison, the publisher of Confidential, began. Wikipedia:
Rushmore, now the state’s star witness, testified that the magazine knowingly published unverified allegations, despite the magazine’s reputation for double-checking facts: “Some of the stories are true and some have nothing to back them up at all. Harrison many times overruled his libel attorneys and went ahead on something.” According to Rushmore, Harrison told the attorneys, “I’d go out of business if I printed the kind of stuff you guys want.” Rushmore even fingered Aline Mosby, who was in the press galleries covering the trial for United Press. It was revealed that Mosby wrote upward to 24 stories for Confidential—UP had to replace the disgraced Mosby with another reporter. But a mistrial was declared on October 1, 1957, when the jury could not agree on a verdict after two weeks of deliberations.
- “earlier tonight” – From Rushmore’s own point of view, at least. Time appears to be rather elastic in this morgue.
- As noted above, Rushmore shot his (second) wife, Frances, then himself.
- The lettering resembles the end of Sunset Boulevard (and most other Paramount films of this era).
- coming soon
- The graffiti could be read as either “old fucker” or “old flicker”. Flicker in this case referring both to the manager’s name, and to “flickers” as old-fashioned slang for movies. There’s also a reference to the folklore that comic books were not allowed to use the words “flick” or “Clint”, due to possible misreadings.
- “You hurt your hand, remember?” is another suggestion that our narrator abused Geraldine.