Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Granda

As I sat in the Cork Opera House in October, enjoying a program of classic silent comedies presented by Paul Merton at the Corona Cork Film Festival, I thought to myself: I will have to tell my father-in-law that I saw Laurel and Hardy.

When I finally got around to telling him, I don’t know if it registered with him. At that point, he had been lying in a bed in a nursing home for 15 months, unable to communicate. In the 13 years that I knew him, I had occasionally attempted to drag him off to a movie, as I often have with his son and namesake. But he always demurred. “Will they have Laurel and Hardy?” he would ask with a mischievous grin, suggesting that his cinematic tastes, if they ever existed at all, were locked down back in the silent era or, at the latest, in his childhood or adolescence when the comedy pair were still making movies. Instead of traveling to a cinema, he was much happier hanging around his garage and swapping yarns with the numerous local characters who would wander by for a visit.

He would certainly have enjoyed the particular Laurel and Hardy film that I saw in Cork. It involved the pair becoming attached to a goat that eventually wound up in their hotel room. My father-in-law had his own goat story, about the animal, fully dressed in women’s clothing, that wound up in his yard one morning after a local stag night (bachelor party). The goat hung around and became a fixture for years, until it made the mistake of ingesting some discarded paint and died.

In many ways, my father-in-law was like a character out of a movie. An astute businessman under his grimy and greasy exterior, he liked to play the yokel. He had a large repertoire of stories, mostly quasi-true ones about the colorful characters he knew, and he would tell one after another if ever you could get him to sit down and chat—usually late at night after the garage was finally closed and the chores done and a few visitors having cups of tea in his tiny kitchen. They were the kind of stories that derived their humor from the characters in them rather than the punch line. You had to know the people he was talking about. And, if you didn’t already, you would after you heard the stories a few times. Like the one about the local man who married a woman whose first husband went missing in the war. A couple of friends thought they would play a good joke on him and told him that word had arrived that the first husband had been found alive. “He can have her,” came the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

If my father-in-law had one eccentricity (and he didn’t, he had many), it was his constant desire to live in a past age. When people were speaking of olden days and how hard life was back then, he would get wistful and say, “Just one room and a fire and I would be happy.” At various times during harder times in Ireland in years past, relatives would come home from America and attempt to install hot water in his house or central heating, but he would inevitably de-activate it. One year his daughter got him a cordless phone for the house. He refused to use it, suspicious that, because it was wireless, he would be charged at cell phone rates. And he unplugged the charger anyway because it was using precious electricity. This is a man who stubbornly refused to have any part of the Celtic Tiger or its trappings.

A widower for 28 years, he never showed any interest in remarrying, although a surprising parade of women showed keen interest in him. Only one time did I see him seem to show a hint of curiosity during one of his frequent but ultimately unconsummated flirtations. At an anniversary party for visiting Americans in a pub, an acquaintance of theirs, who had recently moved home from Boston, told him about how she had made a home of her brother’s barn in Wicklow. His interest waned, however, when she explained that she had remodeled the place into a proper residence and was not sleeping on stacks of hay. But the Missus and I had good craic imagining how this refined lady would have fared with her immaculate white pantsuit in the garage, which at the time had a filthy dog that jumped up on everybody.

To the extent that he had a social life, it consisted of going to funerals. I suppose he thought it was important for business, and there were few weeks that went by that he didn’t call into at least one funeral to pay his respects. But I think he actually enjoyed going to them. It was a way to make contact with old friends from miles away, whom he hadn’t seen in a while. He went to funerals somewhat in the same way I used to go to movies. I remember driving him one evening when he had no fewer than three funerals to appear at. As we approached the first church, I made conversation by asking him whose funeral was the first one. Trying hard to rack his brain, he honestly couldn’t remember.

Given that he attended so many funerals himself, it was to be expected that quite a few people would come to his. In the end, it came on a bitterly cold and frosty night when the roads were dangerous to travel on. But the hordes came anyway. We were scheduled to greet callers for two hours, but we wound up greeting them for more than three hours. People were lined outside like fans at a rock concert. For at least 180 solid minutes I stood in one place and shook hands with more people than I could count. I knew a good many of them, some I recognized the faces and most of them I had no clue who they where or why they were there. (In fairness, they could have said the same about me.) One solidly built old lady, dragging her husband behind, got as far down the family line-up as the first son-in-law and declared, “These are just in-laws,” and promptly marched off to say her good-bys at the coffin. I would have loved to have had the time to ask each person who came by how they knew my father-in-law and what their story was.

But we would have been there for weeks.

* * *

We learned over the weekend that people’s bodies can survive quite a long period of time, even after their mind has ceased functioning. Many of us were surprised to learn, upon her death, that Sunny von Bülow had still been alive. She died Saturday at the age of 76, after nearly 28 years in a coma. A wealthy heiress, she was perhaps proof that anybody’s heart can be kept beating if they can only afford the medical care.

The two trials of her husband, Claus, for attempted murder made Ms. von Bülow the center of much notoriety back in the 1980s. Years before anybody would have thought that a well-liked former football star like O.J. Simpson could be accused of murdering anybody, Claus von Bülow’s trial was prematurely dubbed the “trial of the century.” Did he try to kill his wife with an insulin injection? The first trial convicted him. The second trial acquitted him. He eventually reached a settlement with his in-laws after they brought a civil suit.

The main reason for noting Ms. von Bülow’s passing on a movie web site is to make reference to the feature film that was based on her unfortunate case. The 1990 movie Reversal of Fortune received three Oscar nominations, including one for directing for Barbet Schroeder and one for adapted screenplay for Nicholas Kazan. The other nomination resulted in the only Oscar win to date for Jeremy Irons, who played Claus. Glenn Close played Sunny, and Ron Silver, in a bit of perfect casting, played defense attorney Alan Dershowitz.

When I saw the teaser for the story on Ms. von Bülow’s demise on Saturday’s NBC Nightly News, I was presented with archive footage of Claus von Bülows raven-haired mistress, looking like a deer caught in the headlights as she sat on the witness stand, testifying that he had told her that he loved her. And that brings me to the other reason it is worth noting Ms. von Bülow’s passing on this web site. The mistress was a woman named Alexandra Isles. And I used to see her most days during the late 1960s. So did a lot of other people. Born in Sweden, the daughter of a Danish count and an American mother, she had a brief acting career. In fact, it seems to have consisted of almost entirely of three years on a daytime soap opera, and with that you are probably groaning because you know where this is headed.

Yes, working under her pre-marriage name of Alexandra Moltke, hers was the first voice ever heard in the very first episode (and hundreds to follow) of the gothic serial Dark Shadows. Many students ran home from school to be in time to hear her intone, “My name is Victoria Winters…” to kick off each episode of the program, which recounted the story of how young Victoria, who was a foundling raised in a Maine orphanage, was mysteriously offered a job as governess to a child in the old mansion on Widow’s Hill for the weird Collins family. All manner of supernatural encounters were to follow, including becoming the obsession of the unchained vampire Barnabas Collins.

It was a truly art imitating life that, after leaving the show, she became involved in the real life dark intrigues of a family in a mansion in New England.

-S.L., 11 December 2008


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