Thursday, March 5, 2015

8th Anniversary - News and Notes

Today marks the 8th anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog, started in 2007 when I had no idea what I was getting into.  But I’m glad I did.  Thank you for the pleasure of your company.
Just a few news and notes today:


First, I’ll be joining the céilidh in the kitchen with the Metzinger Sisters over at Silver Scenes for their “Luck of the Irish Blog O’thon.”  I’ll be posting on Sunday, March 15th, and I’m having a look at darlin’ Jane Withers in Paddy O’Day (1935), where she plays a young immigrant from Ireland on her way through Ellis Island to begin her new life in the new world.  She runs into a bit of trouble, but nothing scrappy little Jane can’t handle.  Rita Cansino, soon to be Rita Hayworth, plays her Russian immigrant pal. 
The Metzinger colleens are still open to entries, so stop by and join the fun.
*************************
I have a book signing coming up on Saturday, the 28th of March at the Indian Orchard branch of the Springfield City Library, 44 Oak Street, Indian Orchard (Springfield), Massachusetts, from noon to 2:00 p.m.  I’ll have a variety of my books available for purchase, both non-fiction and novels, and if you have time to stop by, I’d love to chat with you.
*************************
I’ll be speaking at the Chicopee Historical Society Wednesday, April 15th at 6:00 p.m. at the Edward Bellamy Memorial Association, 91-93 Church Street, Chicopee, Massachusetts.  The topic will be my novel The Current Rate of Exchange.  Copies will be on hand for sale and signing.
*************************
Speaking of books, next Thursday I’m going to reveal the cover for my upcoming book on the career of Ann Blyth.  I’m really looking forward to sharing it with you.  It’s swell.  You’ll see.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Deep in My Heart - 1954


Deep in My Heart (1954) is a delightful musical, a biography of composer Sigmund Romberg that is perhaps not so much biography as it is pastiche—but this is what makes it so successful.

It is long a common complaint of classic film fans, even fans of musicals, that filmed biographies of composers fall short of the mark when it comes to being authentic or factual.  I won’t disagree.  However, neither do I expect a musical, even in the form of a biography of a composer, to be a documentary.  It is first and foremost a revue of his music, and Deep in My Heart, though giving us a smattering of Romberg’s experiences as in immigrant to the U.S. in the days of Tin Pan Alley, nevertheless firmly keeps to his music as a method of telling the story of his aspirations as a composer.  To this end—fighting the “modern” trends of music with its soul-crushing disposable fads, and yearning for the opportunity to express himself in his own way—these ideals are timeless among creative people and in telling this story the film is completely successful.

Stanley Donen, I think, was an exceptional director of musicals, and his quick style and expressive camera work reminds me a little of the work of Michael Curtiz in a way, the way the camera sweeps, pans, and catches little things.  It is never static.  But it is the unlikely cast of this musical that is the most intriguing.  José Ferrer stars as composer Sigmund Romberg.  A star on Broadway in Shakespearian roles, and, of course, his Tony-Oscar-Emmy win for Cyrano—who in the world suggested, “Ah, a frothy musical on a Viennese composer of operettas!  Let’s get José Ferrer!”?  I don’t know whose idea it was, but it was a serendipitous choice.  Mr. Ferrer is astounding in this role.  A true Renaissance man, his abilities not only in dramatic acting, musicianship, languages, and a beautifully silly flare for comedy, Ferrer is perfect in this film.

Helen Traubel, another in the “how did they ever think of her?” category, is splendid as Ferrer’s longtime buddy, an immigrant like himself from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who carries the sentimental veneer of Old Vienna, while at the same time espousing a scrappy American immigrant’s idealism and love for her new country.  She owns the café where Ferrer, a newcomer to the New World himself, plays piano, sometimes his own lovely compositions, and also waits on tables.  She is with him through thick and thin throughout his career, just as much a part of his life at the beginning as at his triumphant final moments before the fade out.  Miss Traubel was something of a Renaissance woman herself: one of the Metropolitan Opera’s Wagnerian sopranos in the 1940s, she later wrote mystery novels and was a long-time baseball fan, eventually becoming part-owner of her favorite, and unhappily unsuccessful team, The St. Louis Browns.  She and Ferrer play off each other well, as much celebrating as parodying the gemütlichkeit of their culture.

Joining Miss Traubel in supporting Ferrer’s career is Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, Sigmund Romberg’s real-life partner in musical theatre.  Dorothy Donnelly had an interesting and important place in American theatre in the early days of the twentieth century; noted stage actress, even appearing in a few silent films, playwright, producer, and director.  She also enjoyed fame as the librettist to many of Romberg’s most successful operettas.  In this movie, she has the rather shadowy role of being Romberg’s advisor, supporter, partner, but also as played by the fey and lovely Merle Oberon, a woman silently in love with him, who, for whatever reason, keeps her infatuation to herself.  Miss Oberon gives the role an intriguing sadness.  Her best roles, the height of her career was behind her, but she gives this slight role a lustrous charm.
 

Rounding out the cast we are given more real-life personages, but presented, in typical Hollywood fashion, more as “types.”  Doe Avedon, who enjoyed only a brief career in film, plays the elegant upper crust debutante with whom Ferrer is smitten and eventually marries. 

Walter Pidgeon, now relegated from leading man to character roles, mostly fuddy-duddy businessmen, plays theatre impresario J.J. Shubert. 

Paul Henreid briefly plays Florenz Ziegfeld.  Later this year, we’re going to discuss a bit more about Florenz Ziegfeld and the actors who played him on film.
 

Paul Stewart, normally relegated to gangster types with that icy stare, here has a prominent role as Bert Townsend, Shubert’s producer who frankly admits to being in the theatre racket for the money and who panders to a public he feels are more likely to attend snappy shows with up-to-date situations, dialogue, and tunes.  He stomps down hard on Ferrer’s artistic bent for presenting operetta with all its cultural, dramatic, and musical richness, and this is the running theme of the story:  The artist being allowed to create what he wants versus what is currently the rage in the marketplace.

This theme pulls this splendid movie from the cozy dream world of the usual MGM musical and plants it firmly in today’s era of art versus product marketability.  It’s the same for music, theatre, books, as it is for any artistic endeavor, and every artist can relate.  The only thing perhaps holding back a modern appreciation of the struggles Romberg faces in this film is that the struggles are over operetta.  Unfortunately, as we discussed last year in our posts on The Student Prince (1954), Rose Marie (1954) and The Great Caruso (1951), operetta, outside of regional theatre, no longer enjoys the popularity it once did.  Paul Stewart, the grumpy producer, feels the same.  He wants no part of these Viennese-inspired cupcakes.  He wants Al Jolson in blackface, college co-eds, and flaming youth.

Needing the money, and the exposure, Ferrer sells his soul, as it were, and allows himself to become the composer of a great number of these now-forgotten topical “hits” of the World War I era and the early 1920s.  He constantly hammers at Mr. Stewart to allow him to write the kind of music he wants to write, constantly shoving the score of Maytime in his face, at which Stewart turn up his nose like smelly garbage.  Maytime would become one of the colossal hits of Broadway, which finally gave Romberg a leg up on doing the kind of music he wanted.

The Student Prince, Desert Song, and Rose Marie were even bigger hits in the 1920s, and it is for these operettas, Romberg’s pride, that he is remembered and not the dreck he was forced to write earlier in his career.

So there, Paul Stewart.

A few scenes of note:  I love how the movie starts, slowly, elegantly, and grandly with a full orchestra, as the camera pans probingly, lovingly on the musicians at their instruments (I doubt close-ups were ever given to orchestra musicians before or probably since), then finally lands on José Ferrer conducting, and then, bang, the credits.  It is a classy way to begin.

The use of a roster of MGM stars to present the various musical numbers is genius: it allows the studio to play its first-stringers, and it allows most of the story to be centered on the music and not on any awkwardly strung-together “biography.”  Jane Powell and Vic Damone, Howard Keel, Tony Martin, Ann Miller all are presented in numbers that show off their best talents.

Ferrer, who, among his other talents, can sing a little as well, is presented in a charming number with his new wife, Rosemary Clooney, “Mr. and Mrs.”  And proves to be a pretty snappy dancer.

He also performs the ragtime novelty song and dance “Leg O’ Mutton Rag” with the delightfully game Helen Traubel.  Wagner?  Who’s that?

Cyd Charisse and James Mitchell dance to “One Alone” from The Desert Song in one of filmdom’s most sensual performances ever.  They way they move and cling to each other in perfect interpretation of the music makes her climbing over his body look curiously almost like ice dancing.  You’d swear there is more movement than the camera is capturing.

We see the fun stuff, and the most exquisitely beautiful popular music ever written.  “Softly, as a Morning Sunrise” is tops among these, and Helen Traubel gets to save it, most majestically, from its early foot-stomping mangled version as concocted by the Shuberts and the manic styling of Tamara Toumanova.

Gene Kelly, in a rare film duet song and dance with his brother Fred, appear in the “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen.”

But the tops is José Ferrer’s tour-de-force performance in the scene where he is requested to describe his latest work for the Shuberts, a silly romp called “Jazzadadadoo” from Bombo.  Embarrassed about this show, he is reluctant to act and sing it in front of his lady friend and her snobby mother, but once persuaded, he throws himself into it, manic and most hysterically funny.  The performance is incredible; not only does he compresses the entire plot of the ridiculous show in a single scene, but he dances, does mimicry, funny voices, smears on a little blackface to imitate Al Jolson, and will make you laugh until you cry or wet your pants or both.   It’s like a Monty Python skit.

Dignity slowly returns to Romberg, and the movie, when we witness his eventual vindication among the Shuberts and all low-brow folks when his operettas are the hits of the shallow 1920s; when he mourns the loss of his pal, Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, who sadly died at only 47; and in the final majestic number before a full orchestra, Romberg’s signature tune, “Deep in My Heart.”

But were the Shuberts right, did they have the last laugh in knowing that someday operetta would no longer be what the public wanted?

Listen to the music.  “Softly as a Summer Sunrise” is one of the loveliness, most sensual tunes ever written, and is still performed by jazz/blues singers today, as well as “Lover, Come Back to Me” both from the operetta The New Moon.





And consider that if Linda Rondstadt and Kermit the Frog can perform “When I Grow to Old to Dream,” then it really is a cool song after all, isn’t it?



In this old radio show, we have Ferrer, Rosemary Clooney, Jane Powell and others on the soundtrack promoting the film: 




Deep in My Heart, sometimes shown on TCM, is available on DVD here:



©Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2007-2015. All rights reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Another Old Movie Blog, please be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission. 

**************************************

My book on Ann Blyth's career--Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be published on June 18th. To that end, I’ll be looking for some help in the pre-launch phase, so I’d like to invite any blogger—film blogger or book blogger—to participate in a blog tour. I’ll be looking for blogs to schedule publicity-oriented posts beginning Monday, June 1st. The last day will be June 17th. If anyone wants to pick a day, please let me know so I can coordinate with others. Think of it as a kind of blogathon. On your day, you can post a review of the book (I’ll have ARCs – advanced reading copies - available in PDF form which I’ll email to you that you can read on your computer), or you can do a Q&A with me, or I can just send you a 250-word excerpt of the book, or you can just post the cover and a link to the Amazon page, if you will. Just a little something to spread the word. I will be posting here every day from June 1st through the 18th and I’ll be linking to your blogs, pushing traffic to you.

Among those 17 bloggers who participate, I’ll throw your names in a hat and pick five winners who will receive a print book of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. when it is published on the 18th. The rest will receive an eBook file in whichever format you choose: ePub, Mobi, or PDF (Note, the ARC copies will not have the index).


 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A couple of Dougs.


More photos from Stars of the Photoplay, a 1930 book that lauds the then current screen stars, and how interesting to have a father and son both in the fan mags as heroes and hearthrobs.  The year before Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. had played Petruchio, the dashing rogue in The Taming of the Shrew; and Doug, Jr. had appeared in no less than six films, one of which, Our Modern Maidens, paired him with Joan Crawford, whom he married that year.

Hollywood "royalty," perhaps the first such examples, the book pointedly places them on facing pages, and though they do not face each other, they appear to be gazing off in the same direction.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Abe Lincoln in Illinois - 1940


Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) carries both historical insight while at the same time being remarkably and most startlingly current in its message.  Surely writer Robert E. Sherwood made no attempt to be prescient, in the same way Abraham Lincoln seemed to foresee his own doomed future, but we may take as a sad state of fact that all life is a cycle and we must continually fight the same battles every couple generations. 

We celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday today with probably the best movie ever made depicting Abraham Lincoln, both in script, and in characterization by Raymond Massey, who played this role on Broadway before Sherwood adapted his own script for the screen.  John Cromwell directs, and we are treated to a nineteenth century fairy tale land of innocence and danger, but always familiar because it is part of our American consciousness—the log cabin, the reading by firelight, the lusty backwoodsmen who “wrassle” and drink, the hoop skirts, the stovepipe hat, but stringing everything along is the message of a gentle, reluctant man, sometimes self-admitted blunderer, who is idealistic enough to expect better from his country, and pragmatic enough to know “a more perfect union” wasn’t going to happen without an awful lot of trouble, and that some in the dysfunctional family of states would have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table.  Behind all, shaping his journey and shouldering it, are his periods of depression that threaten his nimble mind, sap his courage, and crush his soul.

We covered another Lincoln biography here when Walter Huston took the role in 1930.

Raymond Massey’s Abe Lincoln is not a schoolroom saint.  He is flawed, human, and beset by troubles that include a nagging wife, certainly the most homespun and prosaic of incidents that ride the coattails of his more Herculean crisis—that of publically standing against slavery, and of trying to keep the union together when so many preferred it to be dissolved.  He makes compromises, he allows himself to be shepherded into the political process by backroom dealers.  Our American democracy is on display here for all that is good about it and all that is shady.

Election night, with vote tabulations cast by magic lantern onto a screen, and crowds cheering everything by torchlight, with relentless tinny tapping of Morse code relaying results from across the country—which is presented by a crude map of states and territories and pins—is no less accurate and no less exciting than were it covered ad nauseam between commercials on CNN.

That Raymond Massey, for whom Abe Lincoln was his signature role, was, and probably remains the best actor to have played him, was able to convey Lincoln’s self-deprecating humor, his cleverness, his anxiety, his good nature all at once is a splendid feat of acting.  His manner of speech is a marvel and mesmerizing.  However, he was helped along by the very legacy we have of Lincoln’s personality in context of the opinions of his countrymen.  There are fewer films in which George Washington is depicted, largely because we still, I think, don’t know how to approach the father of our country.  He remains a schoolroom saint in many respects, as least for the non-historian. 

We know more about Lincoln, and he has become a flesh and blood, more down-to-earth person to us in large part probably because so much was written about him in his own day that was extremely critical.  The Confederacy, of course, considered him an enemy, up to and including the nutcase who murdered him.  John Wilkes Booth’s act was borne of cold, deep-seated hatred, political resentment, and vengeance.  Such an action is not an anomaly; it is the end result of resentment carried to the extreme.  Then—and today.

But there were many in the North who felt just as much antagonism for Lincoln, even if they did not carry their anger to such extremes.  Lincoln was dogged by critics every step of his years as President, in his own party, in his own cabinet, by some of his own generals. 

All Presidents are met with criticism while in office, especially from the opposing political party; that is normal and the sign of a healthy democracy.  But few Presidents are reviled and mocked and vilified to the extent Lincoln was.  We may add Franklin Delano Roosevelt in this category, for his programs to lift the nation out of the Great Depression were all hated by those who considered them communistic.  FDR, just as Lincoln, was considered by those who felt they had a great deal personally to lose under his administration, as dangerous anti-American radicals.

And they were two of our greatest Presidents, who brought us through two of this nation's great periods of crisis, and we know them for their flaws as well as for their great deeds.  It’s a funny kind of paradox that those who hate to the extreme shine an accusatory light not only on their intended enemy, but on themselves.  Lincoln’s detractors, including those who mocked the Gettysburg Address, are regarded as fools today, standing on the wrong side of history.  So are the factions into the early twentieth century who felt that child labor was necessary and that without it, our economy would collapse; that if women were allowed the right to vote family values would collapse; etc. and we could go on about those who fear equality for others because it might mean they would lose their own enviable position in society, or their own imagined moral superiority.

Massey delivers, in a depiction of a Lincoln-Douglas debate on a wooden platform under torchlight:
“All men are created equal except Negroes.  If we are to accept this doctrine of race or class discrimination, what is to stop us in time of decreeing all men are created equal except Negroes, foreigners, Catholics, Jews, or just poor people?”

Stephen Douglas, played here by Gene Lockhart, upholds slavery as it is decreed lawful by the Supreme Court.  We could certainly draw similarities to a Supreme Court bought by special interests today, could we not?

Lincoln further warns that we are sliding into a morass where “there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”

It is a literate script that carries us from Abe’s adventures, and misadventures, as a young man, his doomed love for Ann Rutledge, his business failures, his start as a lawyer, his troubled courtship of Mary Todd.  John Cromwell’s direction is artistic and full of feeling. We look down over the shoulders of these historical figures, we look up at them, we stand in the doorway and watch their turmoil.

A few high points:  Mr. Massey’s singing of the old campaign song for William Henry Harrison and John Tyler: “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” and the crowd later singing the campaign song for Lincoln, “Lincoln and Liberty Too.

Stage actress Ruth Gordon gives a strong performance as Mary Todd Lincoln.  

Howard Da Silva (who originated the role on Broadway) is the town bully and eventual loyal supporter of Lincoln. 

Louis Jean Heydt as Mentor Graham, who tutors Abe in the law.  Look for Ian Wolfe as newspaper editor Horace Greeley.

Alan Baxter is Billy, the young law clerk Abe takes under his wing, who, almost like Mary Todd, nags him to take up the torch of politics and defeat slavery.  An interesting minor character, he is not fawning and idealistic; he is tortured, angry, and a kind of Greek chorus.  All the minor characters who stay in Abe’s life through the film visibly age with him, and it is a poignant thing to see.

The scene where Lincoln has just won the election and Billy explains the new President’s grim attitude by reminding us that the South has threatened to secede if he won.  Now, war is inevitable, and Lincoln is walking straight into it.  Literally.  As Massey is about to leave to the room, suddenly the double doors open and a there is a uniformed guard detail: at once a sign that he is the President, that he will need security because there are already threats against his life, and also as a portent of Civil War and the soldiers over whom he will have authority as Commander in Chief.


The final scene is Cromwell’s dramatic touch, as Lincoln stands on the train platform offering a curiously ominous farewell to Illinois as he is about to leave for Washington.  He won the election, but seems somehow the loser.  The train slowly pulls away, he manages a weak half-wave, and he slips into the darkness of the night, as we finally imagine, as he has done already, his doom.  It is not a moment of triumph; it is an eerie moment of foreboding as the train chugs away into the blackness.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois is such a fine achievement both as drama and as history, and works so well partly because of the skill of the writer, the director, and the actors, but also because we have the unique legacy of knowing all about Abe Lincoln and all about those who hated him.  Neither can hide from us, even this far away from 1860.

©Jacqueline T. Lynch, 2007-2015. All rights reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Another Old Movie Blog, please be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission. 



********************************

My book on Ann Blyth's career--Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. will be published on June 18th. To that end, I’ll be looking for some help in the pre-launch phase, so I’d like to invite any blogger—film blogger or book blogger—to participate in a blog tour. I’ll be looking for blogs to schedule publicity-oriented posts beginning Monday, June 1st. The last day will be June 17th. If anyone wants to pick a day, please let me know so I can coordinate with others. Think of it as a kind of blogathon. On your day, you can post a review of the book (I’ll have ARCs – advanced reading copies - available in PDF form which I’ll email to you that you can read on your computer), or you can do a Q&A with me, or I can just send you a 250-word excerpt of the book, or you can just post the cover and a link to the Amazon page, if you will. Just a little something to spread the word. I will be posting here every day from June 1st through the 18th and I’ll be linking to your blogs, pushing traffic to you.

Among those 17 bloggers who participate, I’ll throw your names in a hat and pick five winners who will receive a print book of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. when it is published on the 18th. The rest will receive an eBook file in whichever format you choose: ePub, Mobi, or PDF (Note, the ARC copies will not have the index).


Thursday, February 5, 2015

Update - Ann Blyth, Blogging, and Other Stuff


I’ve decided to devote all of 2015 to Vilma Banky.

Just kidding. (BAW-HA-HA-HA-HA. I just crack myself up sometimes.)

I’m glad to have a chance to talk to you again, after several weeks of this blog being on hiatus. They’ve been very busy weeks for me with continuing work on the Ann Blyth book: research, writing, interviews, looking under rocks for photos I can afford, etc. 

The book is to be called Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. (though in my more overtired moments I’ve come to refer to it as The Big Book of Blyth). As the title, I hope, will emphasize, this to be a study of her career and will not delve too deeply into her personal life. Even so, it’s going to be a pretty fat book. Much of it contains tweaked posts from my year-long 2014 series on Ann Blyth from this blog, but there is also a lot of new material: including chapters on her early radio work as a child, her experience in the Broadway play Watch on the Rhine, and her re-emergence for younger, newer fans of classic film as a one of the Hollywood greats (for this chapter, I have called upon the assistance of two bloggers to whom I am indebted for sharing their opinions, experiences and photos—Laura Grieve of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, and Janet Sullivan Cross of Sister Celluloid).  Also lending their input are fans who took the TCM Cruise last October where Ann was one of the celebrity guests.


The book will contain appendices of filmography, selected television appearances, radio appearances (with synopses of episodes), stage, discography, and for the print book, an index. The book will be as complete a resource for film fans and, especially fans of Ann Blyth’s career as I can make it. It is the first book written about her work, and I hope will be worthy of the subject.

My intention at this point is to publish the book on June 18th. To that end, I’ll be looking for some help in the pre-launch phase, so I’d like to invite any blogger—film blogger or book blogger—to participate in a blog tour. I’ll be looking for blogs to schedule publicity-oriented posts beginning Monday, June 1st. The last day will be June 17th. If anyone wants to pick a day, please let me know so I can coordinate with others. Think of it as a kind of blogathon. On your day, you can post a review of the book (I’ll have ARCs – advanced reading copies - available in PDF form which I’ll email to you that you can read on your computer), or you can do a Q&A with me, or I can just send you a 250-word excerpt of the book, or you can just post the cover and a link to the Amazon page, if you will. Just a little something to spread the word. I will be posting here every day from June 1st through the 18th and I’ll be linking to your blogs, pushing traffic to you.

Among those 17 bloggers who participate, I’ll throw your names in a hat and pick five winners who will receive a print book of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. when it is published on the 18th. The rest will receive an eBook file in whichever format you choose: ePub, Mobi, or PDF (Note, the ARC copies will not have the index).

Also, I hope to have the book ready for pre-order on Amazon by April. (It will also be sold at a variety of other online merchants.)

For those of you with connections to book clubs, classic film societies, libraries, or bookstores, I will be available for speaking or book signing after the book is released, but will likely limit my geographic range to eastern New York and the New England states for the time being.

I’m looking forward to the year ahead and sharing it with you. More updates on the book (including the cover reveal) to come in weeks ahead. 

Speaking of the year ahead: I’m going back to blogging about a variety of old movies, and next week we’re celebrating Lincoln’s Birthday (President’s Day, Shmezident’s Day) with Raymond Massey’s truly glowing performance as Abraham Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Like I always say, if you want a genuinely moving portrayal of an American President, get a Canadian to do it.

Speaking of Vilma Banky (Not that we were), the above come-hither portrait comes from a pretty swell book called Stars of the Photoplay, published in 1930 by Photoplay Magazine. It’s an album of headshots of the biggest Hollywood starts of the silent-cum-sound period, and I’ll be sharing some of those photos with you over the course of the year.

It also gives vital statistics. Vilma Banky was born in Nagydorog, near Budapest in 1903, she was 5 feet 6, weighed 120, and had gray eyes.

Chew on that for while. That’s all you’re getting of Vilma Banky.

So much for coming attractions. Now for the newsreel:



I’m very pleased to have an essay, along with those of many of your favorite bloggers, in the big year-end issue of The Dark Pages devoted to all things Mildred Pierce. Edited by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, author of Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, this film noir monthly is available as an e-zine or in print. For more info on how to get your copy, or subscribe, have a look at this website.

Now for the biggest news. Well, for me it was. You may have heard me mention in a low mumble last year once or twice that I was looking for the film Katie Did It (1951), the only Ann Blyth movie I couldn’t locate.  It once was lost, but now is found and saved a wretch like me.  It has only recently become available on eBay, in what I think is probably a homemade copy of a now in public domain movie. Whatever. I’ll take it. I won’t blog about Katie here, I’m saving that essay for the book.

AND a very special Ann Blyth fan is sharing with me some very old material that was taped off TV back in the day, including her 1959 This Is Your Life episode.  I’ll go into more detail about what happens on her This is Your Life episode and other stuff in the book.


I have a few very dear new friends to thank for making this book possible, and their generosity, and their love of Ann Blyth, has been a constant source of inspiration.  Above all, this book is the product of the devotion of some longtime fans, and the espirt de corps of classic film bloggers which make this project, I feel, a community effort.

One more note: a collector of classic film stills and lobby cards, Mr. Leo Bianco, is selling items from his collection at very reasonable rates. If you’re interested in purchasing, or for more info on what he has in stock, you can reach him by email at: Leobianco@comcast.net.

See you next Thursday.


Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Year of Ann Blyth - Finale



“She simply does not like to talk about herself.  That is perhaps her most unusual characteristic—her reserve.  She’s a great introvert.  It’s as though there was a wall around her.” -- Roddy McDowall, Screenland, March 1951

Her longtime friend, Roddy McDowall, knew her from that bitter period after her mother’s death and photographed her so tenderly decades later when they were both in their sixties.  Presumably, he knew her better by then.

In those later years she once described herself in an interview as still “A work in progress.”

This is our final post in the Year of Ann Blyth series.

From our first post back in January:

…if you know Ann Blyth only through her frothy MGM musicals, you don't know Ann Blyth.  In dramas she has morphed into the epitome of hateful, sensual, heartbroken, and shamed.  If you know her only as the demon teen Veda in Mildred Pierce, you don't know Ann Blyth.  The same colossal greedy train wreck of a girl who spit invective at Joan Crawford and smacked her in the jaw also performed a night club act to enthusiastic crowds in Las Vegas, bringing them to tears with the sentimental "Auld Lang Syne" and sang at the California state fair.  If you only know her from The Helen Morgan Story or melodramas, you are missing her genuine gift for screwball comedy.  Sinking herself intellectually, just as much as emotionally into these roles, she swims against the powerful and unrelenting current of studio typecasting. 

After more than 50 posts and more than 150,000 words, I still don’t know Ann Blyth.  There is much about her that intrigues me yet, because it remains below the surface, only rising in sudden, instant epiphanies of delighted recognition.  That I don’t really know who she is—that’s okay with me.  With deference perhaps unusual, and usually undesired, in a biographer—though I never intended to be one—I am content to leave her personal life to her.  I don’t need to know her, because I know her characters.

I know Killer Connell and Rosemarie Lemaitre.  I know Gail McCauley and Regina Hubbard.  I know the enigmatic mermaid, Lenore.  I know Veda Pierce.  We know them.

Ann Blyth’s deft and emotionally transparent portrayals of these people demonstrate not just an extraordinary depth and versatility in her acting, but perceptive intellect and genuine empathy.

One factor in keeping this series to her professional life and not her personal life is my irritation on the irony that most biographies and autobiographies of films stars have a frustrating habit of actually giving short shrift to the movies they made.  Often we’ll slog through narratives of multiple marriages or liaisons, and the occasional bar fight to finally come upon the film we love…and the writer comments only:  “And then he did such and such a film.”  And then we move on to another anecdote about who he insulted or was insulted by at a party.

That’s it?  I waded through generations of his family tree, his childhood fear of cereal, and how his father never took him to the circus—which is why you hypothesize he has a problem with commitment (and other assorted jerry-rigged “dime store Freud”)—just so I could read about his movies, and you’re not going to talk about them?!  Why, I oughta…

Granted, if Ann Blyth had beaten up several people at Ciro’s, quite possibly that would have made an interesting chapter.  (Picturing a 5’2” drunken young Ann clubbing an equally drunken and combative Errol Flynn mercilessly on the skull with a belaying pin she has stolen from the set of The World in His Arms.  Hmm.  Yes, that has possibilities.)

Most film fans are interested in the private lives of their favorite stars, that is only human.  Because it is a natural and common interest, invading the privacy of celebrities has become a profitable industry. 

But for the most part, the gossip of scandals or the name-dropping in film star biographies bores me silly as something not merely gratuitous, but juvenile.  I readily accept that film stars are human beings, and so take for granted with the utmost compassionate understanding that most of them are probably sleeping with someone…just who is irrelevant to me.  We have all experienced or been exposed to divorce, infidelity, financial ruin, and rude remarks at parties, and maybe even thrown a punch or two, etc.  (Even if we never settled an argument with a belaying pin.)  But I don’t know anyone who took a bow on a Broadway stage with Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine at the age of 12.  I don’t know anyone who reported to the makeup department where Bud Westmore turned her into a mermaid.  This is what really interests me, the nuts and bolts of the job, because it is quite beyond my realm of experience. 

So this is where I’ve chosen to focus.

Her job as an actress included many years in radio, (another facet that most film biographers tend to ignore, and so I wanted to cover it here), along with her TV and stage work (which usually also rates little discussion, included usually only by authors who arrogantly and ignorantly dismiss the rigors of summer stock and the joy it brings to people who can’t possibly travel to Broadway as a fallen actor’s laboring in obscurity).  These venues show not only how Ann Blyth mined opportunities and surfed the currents of change in her decades-long career, but show what was happening to actors in the twentieth century, how entertainment became an “industry” and how the “entertainment industry” evolved—and how it left many behind.

To a great extent, the careers of performing artists are the sum total of their press.  This is why, in part, I’ve relied upon magazine and news articles of the day to illustrate her place as it evolved in the entertainment industry and the media.  I’ve tried to avoid using information I could not verify, for as all who’ve researched history from popular sources know, wrong facts are continually perpetuated either by the ignorant use of past writers' errors, or else frank laziness.  Instead, I’ve tried to use these sources more as a window on the world in which Ann Blyth forged her career and lived her life, and what her contemporary critics and audience thought of her. 

The old Hollywood studio system certainly knew the value of publicity and worked hard to create it, exploit it, and at times, manipulate it to their best advantage.  Occasionally, an actor-employee would come along who would not cooperate, or proved to be a particular challenge.

A young woman whose stunningly sensual appeal on screen, but whose private life was a hotbed of church activities was, amusingly, a conundrum for them, and perhaps as well for the audience.  It was hard to package a devout vixen, and the “nice girl” image sometimes worked against her professionally, even if it gave her a satisfying private life.

In the very first post of this series back in January, I quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

 “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”

In 1949, columnist Ida Jean Kain wrote of Ann:

She is poised and genuinely unaffected…and in a quiet, confident way, she knows where she is going, and she is neither deviating nor taking short cuts.

What fascinates me about that statement is it was made so early in her career, she was 20 years old at the time, and rang completely true, and would remain true.  She, with remarkable constancy, knew indeed where she was going or wanted to go…yet decades later, it would be asked, as it often is of actors….“Whatever happened to…?” 
What ever happened to Ann Blyth?

So, where did she go?


That many of her films are not available on DVD and because of the whole murky Universal “vault” legal quagmire, most are not being shown on TCM, much of her work has been forgotten by younger generations.  So, just what did happen between Mildred Pierce and The Helen Morgan Story? 


A lot, and beyond.  It is a story of variety and versatility, and constant new challenge. There is so much richness to discover in her films, so much that she attempted and mastered in her career, and I hope this series has been a launching pad for others to rediscover this marvelous actress.  I hope it will at least help put to rest the image of Ann Blyth only as the super-brat Veda Pierce and “that actress who was dubbed in The Helen Morgan Story and then retired.”  Here I quote from my discussion on my pal John Hayes’ blog Robert Frost’s Banjo a few months ago:

This woman had been the flavor of the month all through the late 1940s and most of the 1950s, on enough magazine covers to choke a horse, and as famous in her day as any young star could be.   Today, she is nowhere to be seen in that kitschy souvenir shop universe where classic film fans can easily snag T-shirts and coffee cups and posters of Clark Gable and The Three Stooges, Mae West and Betty Boop, and, of course, the ever-exploitable Marilyn Monroe.  

Where was Ann Blyth?  She never retired from performing.  She had, unlike most other stars of that era, performed in all media from radio to TV to stage, and was successful in all of them.    Far, far more talented than any other 1950s glamour girl, yet she is not as well known today among younger classic film fans.  I wanted to know why.


Paradoxically, among those older fans whom  I’ve heard from in the past year, Ann Blyth is remembered with deep and abiding love, with an admiration and wistful, sweet affection I have not heard expressed for other stars.  I wanted to know why.


This has been an extraordinary journey for me, both professionally and personally.  Last summer, 2013, when I first kicked around the idea of writing a series of blog posts on Ann Blyth’s movies, and then decided to stretch the series to cover not only her films, but also her stage, radio and TV work, and to have the series last the entire year of 2014—I did not expect this series, and this actress, would become so important to me, for quite personal reasons.  I’ve marveled how Ann has accepted sorrow and suffering and success with her hope, faith, and dignity intact, and remained a kindly and gentle person. 

I think sometimes for a writer (or artist, or photographer, etc.) your subject picks you.  This series came along at the right time for me.
Again quoting from my interview on John’s blog.


I think I am even more awed by how hard one must work to get anywhere in the business, and how much luck is involved, how much is due to the help and contribution of others from makeup, publicity, and anyone in the production end willing to go to bat for a performer, and how much is out of one’s hands.  Ann always appreciated her contract with Universal, but the studio did not always showcase her in the best movies.  On the one hand, she enjoyed a variety of genres and experiences.  On the other hand, there was no clear and strong trajectory to her path.  She controlled as much of her course as she could with admirable prudence.  What she could not control, she handled with quiet resolution.


What I admire most about Ann Blyth, above and apart from her skill as an actress and talent as a singer, is what appears to be an innate sense of the importance of balance and self-discipline, despite riding that mind-bending, gut-twisting pendulum of great highs and crushing lows in her profession.  And also, in a funny contrast to the picture of serenity she exudes, what I sense to be a fire-in-the-belly ambition and a gutsy spirit of adventure.

I have not touched upon her personal life too deeply in the series for another practical reason that, without interviewing her, or those closest to her, I am ill-equipped to discuss it.  Speculation is for fiction.  In non-fiction, it is the mark of a hack writer.

I have not addressed in-depth her religious faith, again, because I intended to focus on her career.  I’m also aware that any mention of religion is likely to raise the hackles of an audience who fears being preached to, and my intention is certainly not to proselytize.  Not everyone is able to discuss, or read about with a detached attitude another person’s religious faith.  On the contrary, it inevitably excites some strong emotion, positive or negative.  But not to have addressed her faith at all would have been ignoring the elephant in the room, so profound an influence it has had on her life, a motivating force since early childhood.

An actress lives many lives.  First, there are the scores of roles that overshadow her real self.  Then, as part of the business rather than the art, a necessary wearing of different hats: publicity, training in the craft, being the CEO of the image that has been created.  If actors are particularly fortunate, there is a private life, a family to nurture and to be nurtured by in turn.  But even apart from the family, there is another private chamber of the soul belonging to all of us.  For some, it is a rich haven of memory and experience, hope, dreams, and spirituality.  For some, it is, sadly, a black hole of emptiness to be desperately escaped in any way possible.

In the past few years, possibly as part of the Turner Classic Movies parade of movie star resurrections—but most especially because of its frequent airing of Mildred Pierce—interviewers of Ann Blyth inevitably want to know what it was like to slap Joan Crawford.  It is the question she gets asked most these days.  Had Christina Crawford's tell-all book Mommie Dearest never been written, I doubt it would occur to anyone to ask that--Ann had slapped and been slapped in other performances.  I sometimes wonder if Ann thinks to herself, bravely smiling at the interviewer, “I worked my ass off for eighty years, and this is all they remember?”

I would have had many questions for her about her work, and her impressions of her career journey, what she learned from colleagues and who inspired her.

But the last one, I think it would be this:

You once played the character Emily in Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town on stage.  There is a scene where Emily, in spirit, is allowed to revisit a scene from her childhood, to move around her loved ones without them noticing, so the she can look upon again all the miraculous minutiae of everyday life and discover how precious they are.  It is a joyous and bittersweet moment, painful in its simple honesty.

If you were allowed to have the power to re-visit a similar scene in your own childhood, perhaps the apartment where you lived in New York with your mother and older sister, during the Depression, before that tap on the shoulder by Herman Shumlin and Lillian Hellman that brought you to Watch on the Rhine on Broadway, what would you see there?  If you could speak to your child self, 11-year-old “Anne”, what might you say?


I conclude this series by giving Ann Blyth the last word.  This clip is from an interview, when Miss Blyth was 84 years old, with Scott Feinberg at The Hollywood Reporter on the occasion of her participation as a guest at the 2013 TCM Film Fest:



****************************

I never envisioned at the outset, collecting these blog posts into a book, though some of you very early on, with far more imagination than I, suggested this.  I think the first was Java’s Journey last summer before the series even started.  Java, if you are also able to predict winning lottery numbers, drop me a line.  I could use a million bucks right now.

The book will be published summer 2015, and will include more material that is not in these posts.  You may recall, as I do with a certain degree of embarrassment, my failed Kickstarter campaign this last August to raise funds to obtain the rights of copyrighted photos.  My sincere thanks, again, to those of you who were willing to donate if it came to that.  I know the sacrifice was not easy for all, and that makes your gesture all the more honored by me.

I’m grateful to many long-time fans of Ann Blyth.  I know that she answers fan mail, but some too shy to write to her have contacted me, wanting to share their own strong feelings about her.  I think that’s moved me more than anything.

One reason I wanted to do this series is to honor an actress who is still with us, that she may know how much her work is respected and loved.  Too often we wait for posthumous tributes to show our appreciation.

Some fifty-plus posts after this series began, I find myself still interested, and eager to work on the book.  But I need a bit of downtime from this blog to get some stuff done, so I’m taking several weeks off.  I’ll see you on Thursday, February 5th for another year of Another Old Movie Blog, and back to posting on a variety of movies and subjects.

Until then, I wish all who celebrate a very Merry Christmas, and Happy Hanukkah, and to everybody a very happy and healthy, and peaceful New Year.

Thank you for the pleasure of your company.


*********************
Miami News, July 16, 1949, column by Ida Jean Kain.

********************
THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, and actor/singer/author Bill Hayes.  And thanks to all those who signed on as backers to my recent Kickstarter campaign.  The effort failed to raise the funding needed, but I'll always remember your kind support.

************************************

HELP!!!!!!!!!!
Now that I've got your attention: I'm still on the lookout for a movie called Katie Did It (1951) for this year-long series on the career of Ann Blyth.  It seems to be a rare one.  Please contact me on this blog or at my email: JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com if you know where I can lay my hands on this film.  Am willing to buy or trade, or wash windows in exchange.  Maybe not the windows part.  But you know what I mean.

Also, if anybody has any of Ann's TV appearances, there's a few I'm missing from The Dennis Day Show (TV), The DuPont Show with June Allyson, This is Your Life, Lux Video Theatre.  Also any video clips of her Oscar appearances.  Release the hounds.  And let me know, please. 

***************************
A new collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century is now out in eBook, and in paperback here.

I’ll provide a free copy, either paperback or eBook or both if you wish, to bloggers in exchange for an honest review.  Just email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com with your preference of format, your email address, and an address to mail the paperback (if that’s your preference).  Thanks.