by Marie Wilson

This Is A True Story

When a carnival mannequin turns out to be a real human body, the police are called in to investigate. This is a true story. “Sideshow Bandit” is a feature length screenplay that begins in 1976 when a film crew for the Six Million Dollar Man discover something odd about a day-glo orange dummy hanging in a Laff-in-the-Dark ride at Long Beach, CA.

Setting up to shoot a scene, a techie tries to move the mannequin but its arm falls off, revealing sinew.

INT. LA CORONER’S DEPT. – DAY – 1976. The orange fun-house corpse is wheeled through the hallways. Everywhere cadavers await autopsy like so many loaves of bread waiting to be sliced. Technicians and other staff crane their necks to get a glimpse of the day-glo body as the gurney rolls by. The fetid air crackles with excitement – it isn’t every day one gets a mummy into the morgue.

As the autopsy on John Doe #255 reveals clues, we are cast back in time to the real life story of Elmer McCurdy, wanna-be cowboy and failed train robber, circa 1911.

Born to an unwed teenager in 1880, Elmer grows up in the small town of Bangor, Maine. Though his mother loves him completely, his boyhood is marred by the stigma of being a bastard child. He escapes into fantasies of riding with Jesse James.

But as the twentieth century dawns, the wild west of Elmer’s youth is quickly retreating and he has joined the legions of unemployed, itinerant men. He rides the rails, sleeps in hobo camps, does a stint in jail, joins the army, works odd jobs. He develops a cough, now known to have been tuberculosis, and drinks to ease it. He falls in love with a woman he can never have, is driven out of several towns, and befriends a stray dog who becomes his best friend.

Hell bent on making a name for himself, Elmer robs a train carrying royalty payments for the Osage nation. But he uses too much nitroglycerin and the heat from the explosion melts four thousand dollars worth of silver coins into the safe. With nothing to show for his efforts but the conductor’s watch and a jug of whiskey, Elmer holes up in the hayloft of an old barn belonging to his friend Charlie Revard. Charlie is an Osage gentleman farmer who, despite Elmer’s betrayal of his tribe, tries to help the drunk and depleted outlaw.

But early one morning, a posse tracks Elmer down and, in a shoot out Jesse James would’ve been proud of, Elmer, age thirty-one, is killed. Which brings us back to 1976, where a pair of forceps has extracted a bullet jacket from the mummy’s torso.

“Sideshow Bandit” is a Drama with Western overtones and Comedic turns. It’s the story of a forgotten man, remembered. A great piece of Americana, the screenplay interweaves Elmer’s life with his afterlife as a sideshow attraction and the fascinating story about how a coroner unraveled the mystery of the carnival mummy. “Sideshow Bandit” has won –

And was an Official Selection at –

And was shortlisted for Best Screenplay 2019 –

And is the Grand Prize Winner of The Write Room Screenplay Competition 2019: thewriteroom.org/screenplay-competition-2018-19/

WINNER “BEST SCREENPLAY” : Sideshow Bandit by Marie Wilson.  Marie Wilson’s writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, NOW magazine, Fireweed and She Does the City. Harper Collins published her novel “The Gorgeous Girls”, calling it “the thinking woman’s erotica” and it is now being adapted for the screen. Marie lives in Toronto.

To read, option or inquire about, contact: mariewilson53@gmail.com

WGA#1308961   CIPO#1153802

Photos:

Laff in the Dark & Town of Bangor, Maine: photographers unknown

Elmer McCurdy shortly after his death, at Johnson’s Funeral Home in Pawhuska, OK: WJ Boag

Ferris Wheel by Aaron Schwartz

“Sideshow Bandit” poster by Aaron Schwartz


Christmas Eve in Shaughnessy Heights

Auntie Elva and Auntie Myrtle lived in a big old house on a tree-lined street in Shaughnessy Heights, a neighbourhood of stately old mansions. Theirs was a smaller manse but to me it was huge. But then, I was small. Every Christmas Eve, my family and I piled into the station wagon and travelled from the burbs to the sisters’ storybook house. Somewhere in West Vancouver a carload of cousins was also wending its way to the celebration.

The aunties wore floral-patterned dresses circa 1946 and sensible shoes from the same era, though we were entering the 1960s. Their Christmas corsages brushed my cheek as they embraced me at the door and the scent of their dusting powder filled my nose. The house smelled of pine – a big tree stood shimmering in its yuletide finery in the living room.

Auntie Elva was legendary for her bad cooking. Every Christmas Eve her crowning glory was placed in the middle of the dining room table: a lime Jell-O dome with entrapped carrots and green olives, the latter staring out from the wobbly emerald world with bloodshot pimento eyes.

Auntie Myrtle liked to settle into the couch by the fireplace after dinner. With a crackling fire at her side, she rested her ample girth next to a few souvenir cushions, satiny tasseled things with Hawaii or Reno written on them. I don’t know if Myrtle had ever been to those places but I do remember she had been a missionary in China when foot binding was banned in ‘49. She helped care for misshapen feet that had been bound since childhood, as any woman who didn’t take the bindings off would be fined by the government.

Elva had been a librarian when she married my grandfather, a sea captain divorced from his first wife, my grandmother. Which meant Elva was actually my step grandmother. But neither “grandmother” nor “step” suited her very well. Her personality was flamboyant, although her demeanor suggested a refined lady of letters. Unlike Auntie Myrtle, she talked a lot, and I treasured the sound of her words: the timbre of her voice fell somewhere between whiskey and black tea.

My grandfather, her husband, had died years ago and was buried at sea. I never knew him but I saw his presence around the sisters’ house in the many objects he’d brought back from his voyages: cloisonné vases and carved ebony from China, brass tables and wicker baskets from India.

Every Christmas Eve the aunties gave me a beautifully wrapped present and every year it was a doll. My sister and our cousin also got dolls and we played with them on the landing of the big staircase that led up to the aunties’ neat and hallowed bedrooms. It was a landing big enough to set up house on, and it had a stained glass window that glimmered amethyst and amber in the golden glow of a modest chandelier. Sucking on humbugs, we got down to the business of caring for our new babies.

Then came the year that our cousin, the eldest of us three, got a sweater from the aunties instead of a doll. The next year my sister, the second eldest, also got a sweater. I only wanted dolls. I loved the smell of new dolls at Christmas. I loved their clothes and the way their eyes shut when you lay them down. I loved everything about dolls. When I unwrapped my sweater the following year, it was the end of an era.

photos of vintage (& vintage-inspired) wrapping paper by MW


Christmas by Candlelight

In grade four, our teacher taught us to dip candles. Then in December she announced there would be a Best Candle Contest. The prize: an illustrated book of The Night Before Christmas. I knew that poem by heart and thought it would be nice to have the book. I was also addicted to contests – colouring contests, country fair raffles, jelly bean estimating. Add all of the above to a love for this newly-learned art of dipping candles, and you had a keener for this contest. I ran home the day of the announcement to get started on my entry.

My next door neighbour knew I had a penchant for sparkly things and had once given me a big rhinestone. This was in the days before dollar stores, and cut glass jewels were as rare and precious to me as the real thing. Now, as my little white taper hung from its wick to solidify, I took the dazzling gem out of my treasure box and sunk it into the warm wax, right in the middle of the six-inch-tall candle. I then sprinkled a soupçon of silver glitter over the whole thing – and voila! paraffin magic!

The day of the judging, I wrapped my glittery wonder in a piece of tissue paper – its sparkly cyclopean eye winked at me, declaring itself the best candle ever. I had a lovely walk to school that morning, carrying my candle in a paper bag, dreaming of winning the book. At school, I laid it on the table set up for all the contending creations. I thought it looked pretty good next to my classmates’ efforts, and it gave me a thrill just to think I had made such a beauty. To me, it was in the same camp as silver stars in a twilit sky or a pale moon at dawn or harp music.

There was a general buzz in the air, then the whole room fell silent as Eloise Roane’s mother entered the classroom carrying Eloise’s entry: a big sparkling holiday scene – not just a candle but a whole Broadway production on a tin foil base. A perfect red taper, twice the length of my candle, grew out of holly sprigs and silver bells and shiny ribbons.

And the whole shebang was topped with soap suds!

The delicate sparkling froth wobbled as Mrs. Roane carefully placed the masterpiece on the table. I imagine now the process: it starts with Mrs. Roane finding the idea in Readers Digest and it ends with Mrs. Roane whipping suds up in the kitchen sink while her car idles in the driveway – niftily she plops suds on the yuletide scene to create a winter wonderland; finally, she instructs the junior Roane to get into the car and carefully hold the creation on her lap. Fortunately, they lived only a few blocks from school.

My own candle looked like a pale one-eyed urchin lying next to the Las Vegas centerpiece created by Mrs. Roane, I mean, by Eloise. She won of course.

Later that week, I packaged my candle up and sent it to my Grannie on Pender Island for Christmas. She liked it very much and it looked splendid in a candlestick on her mantelpiece. Best candle ever.

Footnote: photo was shot by the author in the best bubble bath ever. Happy Holidays, everyone!


Goodbye City of Angels

On my last day in LA, I got to see Angels Flight – a funicular that once took Angelenos and visitors up and down Bunker Hill on a short but steep trip.

Its original location (pictured above) was destroyed by city planners in the 60s, when the area’s beautiful, historic and architecturally significant buildings were bulldozed under.

In 1996, due to popular demand, the city reinstalled the funicular a few blocks away. An enchanting form of transit as glimpsed in old photos and such films noir as Act of Violence (‘49) and Criss Cross (‘49), the Flight is now mostly a tourist attraction.

Pictured above – glass skyscrapers replace the ramshackle Sunshine Apartments and other lovely structures: Victorian Mansions that once housed the wealthy and would later become rooming houses. So much lost charm.

Still, riding the car beats climbing all those stairs. Today it costs 25 cents a ride – up 24 cents from when it first opened in 1901. That wonderful apartment building with the sunny (and often ironic) name can be seen on the right in the photo below – it’s one down from the Hotel Hillcrest. A much better view is had in Criss Cross, as Burt Lancaster and friends plan a heist in one of its rooms (although the interiors were studio built).

Also on my last day, I visited legendary Leo’s Taco Truck.

Nearby, in a laneway I noticed a beautiful tree with pale pink flowers hanging from its branches like elegant trumpets.

I learned that it’s called Angel’s Trumpet and that it has hallucinogenic properties if eaten. This was discovered by teenagers in Los Angeles a few years ago, and kids were landing in the hospital at an alarming rate.

While the flowers and seeds are used in modern medicine, the plant can be deadly if ingested raw. It sent the LAPD knocking on the doors of any home that had such a tree in its yard to warn them of its dangers.

No, I didn’t win Best Screenplay. But here I am pictured with my many Oscars. Actually the important items in this photo (shot by Aaron) are my jewelry: crystal necklace was my mother’s, colourful glittery beads were given to me by Aaron, bracelet is a gift from my son Tom – an old-fashioned “M” typewriter key on a silver band, the big sparkle ring is from my daughter Anna and the little silver heart ring is from my daughter Chloe. That old evening bag was a gift from my dear Auntie Elva and in it is a keychain from my big sister Terri. In my heart were all the well wishes from friends and family – if I’d have worn them like jewelry, I’d have been laden. Lucky charms for a lucky duck – so many people cheering me on.

And finally, “Sideshow Bandit” has been shortlisted in the Rhode Island International Film Festival as well as the Filmmakers International Screenwriting Awards. The angels must be smiling on me.

Aaron and me. There is a red carpet beneath our well-travelled feet.


Santa Catalina

In 1919, chewing gum giant William Wrigley, Jr. bought Catalina Island and had a mansion built atop one of its highest hills, providing a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean. This was the Californian island I travelled to recently for the Catalina Film Festival. The Wrigley Mansion still stands with its magnificent view but is now a bed and breakfast.

Wrigley was also the man behind what are now called the Wrigley Lofts on Carlaw Ave. in Toronto. In the early 20th century, he commissioned the building of those two beautiful Beaux Arts buildings (now the Lofts) and since The Canadian Chewing Gum Co. Ltd. was located nearby, the neighbourhood of Leslieville became known as the “Chewing Gum Capitol of Canada”.

But long before the duelling gums of Leslieville, Catalina was inhabited by Native Americans who called the island Pimu. Spain claimed it in the 16th century. Later, it was transferred to Mexico then finally to the US. While the Pimuvit mined and traded the island’s vast soapstone supply, the territory was later used for smuggling, gold digging and otter hunting. Wrigley made its primary trade tourism. Since the 70s, the island has been administered by the Catalina Island Conservancy.

The 2018 film festival was held in an Art Deco jewel of a building which Wrigley had built in 1929. Called the Catalina Casino, it houses a theatre and a ballroom but no slot machines or roulette wheels: “Casino” is Italian for “gathering place” and that’s the meaning of its name. If you want a nice glimpse of its circular exterior – surrounded on three sides by the sea – watch “Chinatown”: it’s there when Jake Gittes arrives on the dock for his visit to the Albacore Club.

The awards ceremony was held in the Avalon Theatre in the Casino amidst beautiful murals. My screenplay “Sideshow Bandit” was up for Best Screenplay, the whole reason I was on this unique island.

I imagine that island resident Norma Jeane Dougherty would have taken in a few flicks there when she lived on the island in the 1940s with her first husband. By the 50s, she’d escaped that life and become Marilyn Monroe, while Catalina had become popularized in a song called “26 Miles” (its distance from the mainland). From 1921 to 51, the Chicago Cubs (Wrigley’s team) went for spring training there, except during the war years when their ballpark became a simulated warzone for training marines and other war personal.

At this year’s festival, Richard Dreyfuss was presented with the Stanley Kramer Social Artist award, and I couldn’t help feeling like I was in the presence of a fellow Canuck – all because Dreyfuss rose to stardom in the quintessential Canadian film “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz”.

Back on the mainland, we visited Venice Beach where tents dot the wide expanse of golden sand and squatters sell their crafts and psychic readings amidst the hurly-burly of the boardwalk. Many of these folk look like they just wandered out of the Summer of Love – it was a truly anachronistic journey for me. And then I found the last remaining building from that amazing opening shot in Touch of Evil (58). Sweet. (I think that is supposed to be Janet Leigh looking out of the window.)

In downtown LA, I was delighted to explore The Bradbury Building – a most extraordinary structure built in 1893 after its architect consulted a Ouija board. This beautiful, light-filled building took much of its blue-print inspiration from a popular novel of the time called “Looking Backward”, which was set in the year 2000. How appropriate then that the Bradbury should end up being dressed for the toymaker’s house in the neo-noir “Blade Runner” (82).

The five-story central court is surrounded by a magnificent tiered maze of yellow-and-pink bricks, cast iron, marble, tile, terra cotta and, polished oak. It’s topped with a skylight that covers the entire ceiling. Bird-cage elevators are still in operation but one can also climb the open wrought-iron staircases. Today, most of Bradbury belongs to the Internal Affairs Division of the LAPD, which suits its history of appearing in many films noir, including “DOA” (49) and “M” (51).


Hollywood!

The Catalina Film Festival nominated my screenplay “Sideshow Bandit” for Best Screenplay & invited me to attend the awards ceremony. I’m eternally grateful to them & all my other sponsors & supporters for the opportunity to see LA & Catalina Island, as well as attend the festivities.

I stayed in the heart of Hollywood. The glamour of its early days barely glimmers through all the modern raz-ma-taz but if you keep your eyes on the ground, you can find Jean Harlow’s shoe prints or Eleanor Powell’s shiny taps imbedded in the cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Most tourists in this area walk with their heads down, not just for the foot-and-hand prints but also as they follow the Walk of Fame along Hollywood Blvd. Started in ‘58, the Walk runs 1.3 miles. As you can see, I found one of my favourite movie stars. (photo above by Aaron Schwartz)

I also found my namesake on the Walk: if you don’t know Marie Wilson from such flicks as “Fools for Scandal” (’38) or “Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation” (‘62) or her sitcom “My Friend Irma”, look her up: she was good! She also played the secretary in the second cinematic treatment of “The Maltese Falcon” – “Satan Met a Lady” (‘36). (Pictured below in “Mr. Hobbs”).

Just a block up the street from Hollywood & Vine, you can venture into the hills & escape the circus. There, California’s desert heart emerges: golden soil covers hiking trails that wind among sage scrub, oak trees, succulents & more. Atop Mount Hollywood, I visited the iconic Griffith Observatory, a Beaux-Arts architectural wonder. From its rooftop, I could see just how extensive the city & its wilderness is. In 1896 Griffith donated 3,000 acres of land for the building & a park, which has now grown to more than 4,000 acres. While pondering a bronze bust of Jimmy Dean commemorating scenes shot there for “Rebel Without a Cause” (‘55), I espied a handsome coyote trotting down one of the trails.

We’ve all seen scads of photos of the iconic Hollywood sign but I knew I could only truly appreciate the triumphs & tragedies it represents if I saw in person. I’ve been outlining a screenplay about a young woman trying to make it in the movies in the 20s, & since it’s a true story, seeing the sign was essential. Her name was Peg Entwistle, and she met her end when she jumped off the “H”.

There’s the sign just over Jimmy’s shoulder (or a stone’s throw from his hair).

Mulholland Drive, aside from being the title of Lynch’s cinematic wonder, is dotted with stars’ mansions. But these places are dwarfed by the magnificent rolling hills that the road winds through. It was great to glimpse Ida Lapino’s former house since I admire her pioneering work as the only woman director working in the studio system in the 50s. Lupino dared to focus on controversial, socially relevant topics, & was also the first woman to direct a film noir – “The Hitch-Hiker” (‘53).

Then came the boat trip to Santa Catalina, which is a subtropical island where deer walk right up to you like big gentle dogs, their lovely brown eyes inquiring if you have any food for them. And there are bison roaming the hills! In the 20s, some filmmaker had a herd brought over for a movie he was making then just left them there when he was done. But the Catalina experience is for the next instalment…



She’s An Artist

One of the most extraordinary young women I know thoughtfully places a dot at AGO’s Infinity Mirrors exhibit.

She’s the drummer for two bands: Prom Nite (with Anya, Ivan & Scooter), described by Vice as: “punk tempo with a glittery ambition”, and Anti-Vibes (with Sean & Claire), who’ve drawn accolades from music reviewers, including: “The drummer completely owns their set through crisp, accented handiwork, backing everything else wonderfully.”

Sometimes, she sits at the keyboard in our living room, teaching herself to play: the tinkling notes of Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies float up to me as I peck on this other kind of keyboard, making my writing contortions easier to bear.

She’s also a part time pearl diver at a popular vegan hash house. And she’s my youngest daughter.

In her little kid years, she drew oodles of cartoons: “Attack of the Household Appliances,” “Toast Patrol”, “Abraham Skinkon” (yes, the Prez reimagined as a lizard). Here’s a toon from when she was 7:

She’s a voracious reader who spends a lot of time in T.O.’s neighbourhood libraries. In school she tested as gifted and her science teacher suspected her of being an eidetiker (possessing a photographic memory). So, her brain is a marvel. But her intuitive/emotional aspects are pure gold. She lives true to her heart & her heart beats true.

She loves dogs & befriends them wherever she goes.

Now, see her shoulder bag in the first photo? It’s a quilted purse in the shape of a dachshund. Sourced at a secondhand shop, she chose it for the gallery outing because it matched artist Yayoi Kusama’s colours, patterns, aesthetic. She got a lot of compliments from strangers that day who noticed the fun bag. On more levels than I can express here – symbolic, sartorial, magical, maternal, etc. – I love her puppy dog purse.

One day, when she was 3, her big brother Tom and I woke her from a nap. As her eyes fluttered open, she proclaimed: “The king of rock’n’roll is dead.” We had no idea where that came from.

At the same age, she did a series of paintings, giving each work a title. A splatter of orange paint with a daub of brown, she called: “Trees in a Graveyard with a Symbol of Terror”. They all had similar titles; it was a series after all…and she was 3 after all.

In 2017, the solar eclipse occurred on her 21st birthday. Drinking pink champagne and watching the moon cast shade on the sun, Tom snapped a selfie with her and Instagrammed his little sister as “Goddess of the Solar Eclipse.”

The above image evokes Bob Dylan’s lyrics: “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist/She don’t look back/She can take the dark out of the nighttime/And paint the daytime black.”

While on tour with Prom Nite, she found a dress in a Chicago vintage shop, perfect for her big sister Anna’s wedding. At $12.99 the price was right. With floral crown, she made the most beautiful bridesmaid. Doug (born next door 2 months before her) went with her, and they had a fantastic time.

Bride & bridesmaid –

Her name is Chloe. And she’s my little eidetiker.

And of course, she’s her own woman.

 


Ya Gonna Eat That?

In two different movies, Bing Crosby mucks about with a turkey dinner. As Father O’Malley in “Going My Way” (44), he has a lot of lines to deliver during the Christmas feast at the parsonage. While he speaks, he endlessly cuts a slice of turkey on his plate. He saws away until that slice must be a thousand pieces each the size of a grain of sand. And he never takes a single bite!

There’s some consolation: Barry Fitzgerald, as Father Fitzgibbon, gets to voraciously gnaw on a big turkey leg while his dining partner pontificates. But honestly, you just wish Bing would put that fork in his mouth – just once!

The Academy didn’t seem to mind though. They honoured Bing with Best Actor for his portrayal of Father O’Malley. Bing was up against his co-star, who was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for playing Father Fitzgibbon (the rules were changed immediately following that bit of nomination abomination). Barry won for Best Supporting Actor – way to chew a drumstick, Mr. Fitzgerald!!

“Ya Gonna Eat That?” is a new feature wherein I examine movie scenes in which food is present but ignored (except by me).

Next up: the other film in which Bing mucks about with a turkey dinner.


Ya Gonna Eat That?

Because of the upper-crustiness of Douglas Sirk’s characters and the melodrama in his scripts, food is always getting left uneaten in his films. In “Magnificent Obsession” (54), Rock Hudson sits down to a big breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, the whole shebang. But Rock’s host, an artist played by Otto Kruger, waxes philosophical as he salts and peppers his eggs. Then, having not even set fork to food, Otto abandons the meal and walks to end of his charmingly-set table. There he lights his pipe and delivers some mystical wisdom. Rock eats just one forkful before he’s moved to join Otto at table’s end. The amazing breakfast grows cold as Rock skims his soul.

I like Sirk, and in some of his flicks they eat the food. And there’s always plenty of “hot coffee” for guzzling or sipping. For your own eating pleasure, Sirk’s lush mise en scene & campy style pair well with popcorn & champagne. Or you could enjoy a cup of hot coffee and eat vanilla cake while watching any lavish Technicolour, Cinemascope Sirk-us.

Marvel (and salivate) as Agnes Moorehead turns down chicken salad in “All That Heaven Allows” – blithely, via good acting chops. Mmmmm, chops…

“Ya Gonna Eat That?” is a new feature wherein I examine movie scenes in which food is present but ignored (except by me).