[Editor’s note: Was that a 1935 Cadillac in “The Artist”? Or not? That has been a subject of debate among readers of this blog, since I made a claim that it was, in columns posted here and here in December 2011. Finally, a year later, the owner of the movie car contacted me to confirm it was indeed a ’35 Caddy. But, there was a Hollywood-worthy twist to the tale.]
The plot of “The Artist“, the Academy Award-winning film, follows the downward career arc of a silent movie star, George Valentin, who was slow to adapt to the advent of the “the talkies.” Was the movie based on a particular person, and if so, who? That much-debated question has multiple answers, noted director Michael Hazanavicius, who cited the influences of many silent films, directors and actors, particularly Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.
The film-makers went out of their way to intentionally include in “The Artist” authentic relics from Hollywood’s past, such as Mary Pickford‘s actual house, including her bed. But the casting of the automotive star of the film, a 1935 Cadillac V-12 Convertible Sedan, apparently was just an amazing coincidence. As it turns out, in “reel life”, the Cadillac was required to play the role it had played in its real life: The car was originally owned by daredevil movie comedian Harold Lloyd.
“We believe that Harold Lloyd was the original owner,” Jennifer Sparks Bushman, the current owner, said an email. The car is due to be sold at auction in Phoenix, Jan. 18. “All of the data we’ve been able to collect certainly points to that. We do not have a bill of sale, which would confirm it, but we are 90 percent certain it was his car.”
But the film-makers were not aware the 1930s-vintage car they had rented from Ms. Bushman for a few scenes had any Hollywood history behind it, much less a connection to Lloyd – of all people.
“I don’t think anybody knew until we decided to sell the car and did research,” Ms. Bushman said.
Wait. The story gets even better.
In the black-and-white film, the Cadillac (which is actually maroon and tan) appears as the last extravagant purchase of George Valentin (Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin), before talking pictures and the stock market crash precipitated the end of his brilliant career. In reality, the Cadillac, with a custom Fleetwood body that Lloyd himself ordered from the factory, might well have been one of his last, great extravagant purchases.
Through the 1920s, Lloyd’s films, a string of classics such as Safety Last! and Why Worry?, actually made more money than Chaplin’s. Handsome, charismatic and even well-spoken (unlike Dujardin lookalike John Gilbert), Lloyd actually had an easier – and earlier – transition to talking pictures than most of his silent film contemporaries. But his silent film filmography – more than 240 features and shorts – pales in comparison with his work in sound: seven!
In 1923, Lloyd, at the peak of his career, bought a huge, choice plot in Beverly Hills and built his famous 44-room mansion, Greenacres; it was completed shortly before the 1929 stock market crash. It was the last house he would ever own.
Lloyd had seemed to be doing all right through most of the Great Depression – hence he was able to easily afford $5,000 or so for his fancy ’35 Caddy – but his fortunes declined rapidly soon thereafter.
In 1937, he liquidated his Harold Lloyd Motion Picture Company, and sold the studio’s 24-site site to the Mormon Church (which later built its Los Angeles Temple there).
By the early 1940s, he was so broke he told the Los Angeles County tax assessor’s office that if he couldn’t get a break on his property taxes, he could no longer afford to live in his home. (A small reduction was made.)
In another odd parallel with “The Artist”, the negatives of Lloyd’s extensive film library caught fire in 1943, in the basement of his home, and he had to be dragged to safety by his wife after he was overcome by the flames. (No word on whether a Jack Russell Terrier was involved in the rescue!) Lloyd and seven firemen had to be treated for smoke inhalation afterward.
He made only one film after that, an odd comedy “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock” produced by Howard Hughes and directed by Preston Sturges. Acrimony followed, as well as lawsuits (which Lloyd won), but no more films. Lloyd’s interests became more and more eccentric – Freemasonry, stereo music (played loudly), and nude photography in 3D.
After Lloyd died of cancer in 1971, visitors to Greenacres found it was as if “time stood still” inside. Roaring 20s-era furnishings, appliances and decorations adorned the home; rooms looked like silent movie sets; Lloyd’s old suits still hung in the master bedroom closet. House-warming gifts from 1929 were still in the entryway. It had the feel, The Los Angeles Times reported, of Norma Desmond’s house in “Sunset Boulevard“ (another influence in “The Artist”).
“It was,” like a line in that film’s script said, “the kind of place that crazy movie people built in the crazy ’20s.”
The Cadillac, which Lloyd is believed to have sold by the early 1950s or before, was the only thing missing. Until now.
December 15, 2012