Thursday, August 27, 2015

Was Vampira the model for Disney's Maleficent? Probably.

Maila Nurmi (aka Vampira) and her cat, Ratface, in 1956.
Back in 2014, R.H. Greene wrote a compelling argument in support of the rumor that Maila Nurmi (aka "Vampira") served as a model for the character of "Maleficent" in Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY. It's one of those legends that we'd all love to believe, but always seemed too good to be true.

And Greene's evidence is pretty compelling. Nurmi's datebook suggests the actress knew something about the inner workings of Walt Disney Studios in 1956, specifically the name of SLEEPING BEAUTY's casting director. Sadly, Disney's secretive corporate habits mean that there's no records of Nurmi serving as a model for arguably its greatest villain.

And then there's the sticky problem of how Nurmi's datebook identifies another film she worked on that year: GRAVE ROBBERS FROM OUTER SPACE. The traditional history of that film, shot in Novemeber, 1956, says that the film was re-titled as PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE well after production ... but Nurmi mentions taking part in the production that month of a movie she slugs as "OUTER SPACE PLAN 9."

Green said there's a possibility that Nurmi, who had a habit of using a pencil to make revisions to her datebook, might have later altered the title of the film.

"I saw no evidence of erasures in any of the entries that were turned over to me but that doesn't mean a look at the physical documents might not reveal more about them," Greene said during a discussion about this discrepancy at the Classic Horror Film Board. "I mentioned erasures because it's a standard practice for datebook dedicatees to pencil in future events in case they have to be changed, and I saw evidence of this dual entry practice in Maila's entries (though nothing looked to have been erased as indeed all the bookings I saw came to pass)."

Just because this evidence might have been altered does not make it more credible, in my opinion. Greene said he shared photos of Nurmi's datebook with Salon as part of his 2014 story, but the magazine opted to publish a text transcript rather than scans of the pages. And what happened shortly after her work on PLAN 9 might lend more credibility to the SLEEPING BEAUTY legend, should those pages in her datebook ever be shared.

Maleficent in Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY.
The Medford Mail Tribune: Dec. 23, 1956.
1956 was a not entirely pleasant year for Nurmi. In January that year she was the victim of sexual assault, something that newspapers at the time seemed to thing was funny. An asshole named Ellis Barber (aka "The Vamp") broke into her home and assaulted her for two hours, leading to "witty" headlines like "The Vamp Rips Off Clothes of Vampira." The year came to an end with a fire at her apartment near Christmas that caused superficial burns to her arms and hands.

You can see a photo at the top of this post of a bandaged Nurmi and her cat Ratface, who she credited with waking her during the fire. And here's where things get interesting.

The following week, a syndicated news account of the fire began to hit newspapers. These kinds of stories are generally considered filler by editors and are trimmed to fit "holes" on newspages. Some of these stories are trimmed more than others, but at least one version of the story mentioned that Nurmi was playing "a witch" in Disney's SLEEPING BEAUTY (see right). This information almost certainly came from Nurmi, whose datebook mentioned meetings with the studio the previous month.

Even better, SLEEPING BEAUTY wasn't released until three years later in 1959. If Nurmi was lying, why pick an unfinished, unreleased animated feature?

It appears that Nurmi was not among the fans of Maleficent's design, though. Her niece, Sandra Niemi, told Greene that she saw sketches made by her aunt that revised the character's iconic headdress.

“I was told Maila found work on a movie for Walt Disney,” Niemi said. “Then a letter came with a full sized sheet of drawings in pencil that Maila had made with what I know now to be Maleficent’s head, only Maila drew huge cat ears.”

Via: Salon 

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