Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t: Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
A proud, fearless producer of hundreds of B-movies, Harry Alan Towers was probably known more as a wheeler and dealer than as an "artist," both reviled and secretly admired for his inventive tax dodges, use of public domain works to save money, and shameless exploitation of former movie stars to turn a fast buck. Raised in radio, Towers and his mother syndicated shows with actors like Orson Welles and Sir John Gielgud before he moved on to working in television, all but inventing the British TV movie with 1956’s The Anatomist. He entered the world of cinema in the ’60s, making a string of pictures based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, Agatha Christie, and Edgar Wallace before hooking up with giallo director Jess Franco, with whom he made a string of midnight movie classics like Venus In Furs and Marquis De Sade: Justine. In addition to being famous shooting in exotic locales (he was once quoted as boasting, “I can step off a plane in any country in the world and within 24 hours have a film in preproduction”), Towers was notorious for cranking films out at a feverish pace, improvising the script and action sequences for the lesbian sexploitation movie 99 Women on the spot during some downtime while shooting The Seven Secrets Of Sumuru.
Towers was perhaps best known for his work with actors Christopher Lee (with whom he made the Fu Manchu series) and Michael Caine, whom he convinced to reprise the role of secret agent Harry Palmer in the mid-’90s films Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In Saint Petersburg, but his most notorious connection of all had nothing whatsoever to do with filmmaking: In 1961 he was arrested by the FBI and accused of violating the White Slave Traffic Act for bringing Mariella Novotny into the country. Novotny was a striptease dancer who was known for running sex parties and was rumored to have had flings with both John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert; she told FBI agents that Towers was both her pimp and a Soviet spy who was setting her up to have sex with JFK for the purpose of extracting information. Towers fled the country before the trial (J. Edgar Hoover, ever even-keeled, accused him of relocating to the Soviet Union), but the cases were eventually dropped. He returned to churning out films at a breakneck pace, taking advantage of the VHS boom by producing cheapies like the Robert Englund-starring The Phantom Of The Opera and endless reels of softcore pornography. Before his death this week at the age of 88, Towers claimed to have more than 25 projects in the pipeline; classy to the end, one of these was supposed to be a “sexually charged” take on Moll Flanders.
Although most people would probably balk at filmmakers taking lessons from the guy who wrote Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, Blake Snyder was nevertheless a big influence on many aspiring screenwriters thanks to his bestselling book, Save The Cat!: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need. (“Save the cat” was Snyder’s term for a scene in which a hero is seen doing something nice, i.e. saving a cat, which causes the viewers to become invested in him.) He became known as “Hollywood’s most successful spec screenwriter” after the bidding war for Stop! reached $500,000, and went on to sell dozens more scripts—though only one, Disney’s Blank Check, has been produced so far. Proof that you don’t have to have an extensive IMDB page to be considered a successful screenwriter, Snyder continued to teach his methods at various workshops around the world and at universities like UCLA and the Beijing Film Academy, and provided script analysis for Disney until his death this week at the age of 51.
Before Howard Smit, the Hollywood makeup artist was officially a second-class citizen on the set, and often completely ignored in film and television credits. As a founding member of Make-Up Artists And Hair Stylists Guild Local 706, Smit made it mandatory that he and his brush-slinging brethren were properly acknowledged in everything they worked on, and fought to ensure health and pension benefits for everyone who shared in the trade. Later, he successfully worked on a campaign to create an Oscar acknowledging outstanding makeup; his efforts were so crucial to the industry that his Guild created the Smitty Award in his honor. In his life, Smit worked on 50 different films and television shows beginning with The Wizard Of Oz and Gunga Din in 1939, stretching through dozens of Westerns in the ’40s and ’50s, and serving as makeup artist for stars like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, John Wayne, and Robert Mitchum among many others. Alfred Hitchcock later tapped him to do the makeup for both The Birds and Marnie, and he ended his career in the ’60s and ’70s working in TV, most famously on The Mod Squad. In an odd coda to a more or less staid career, Smit was shot by an irate makeup artist who ambushed him after a board meeting in 1986 but survived, serving the Guild for eight more years. He died this week at the age of 98.
If it weren’t for the groundbreaking work of Naomi Sims, there would be no Naomi Campbell or Tyra Banks—and while those two have given us plenty of reason in the last few years to say, “Yeah, big loss,” the fact is all African-American models owe a debt of gratitude to Sims, who broke ground by becoming (according to some) the first black supermodel in the ’60s. A student at the Fashion Institute Of Technology during a time when only white faces need apply, Sims was a go-getter who chased down photographers and advertising agencies herself, landing a prominent television campaign with AT&T that put her in high demand for top fashion designers. Her most famous moment came as the first black model to grace the cover of Ladies Home Journal in 1968, which was regarded as a milestone in the burgeoning “Black Is Beautiful” movement. Sims retired from modeling after five years (telling the New York Times, “There is nothing sadder than an old, broke model”—ahem, Janice Dickinson), and started a wig-making business that eventually became a towering, multi-million dollar beauty empire that included five books from Sims, fragrances, cosmetics, and salons that are still around today. Sims died this week at the age of 61.
Have a super weekend!