Thursday, March 26, 2015

Answers, Updates, and Famous Photos...

A bit of this and that today:

First, a big huzzah and best wishes to all our fellow film bloggers enjoying the festivities at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood, which begins today and runs through Sunday.  I really enjoy reading their posts and updates on the fun, and their coverage only gets better each year.

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Now, the answers to last week’s Leggy Ladies on Ladders photos:

A is Cyd Charisse.  Though it’s a candid sort of backstage shot, the film she was doing in this costume is Meet Me in Las Vegas, which we discussed previously here.

B is Paul Newman and…Alexis Smith.  This is from The Young Philadelphians, which we briefly mentioned in this previous post on Alexis.

C is Zachary Scott entering the room to find…Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, which we discussed here. And here.


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I have a book signing coming up this 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.

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And now, a word about my soon-to-be-published book on the career of Ann Blyth.  June 18th is less than three months away, and will be here before we know it.  I’m working like mad on it, and I hope you’ll approve of the final product.

Part of the challenge of finding photographs for the book is investigating the copyright or ownership of the images.  It can be a daunting task, but also a pleasure when one discovers really fine photos by a master photographer.  In this case, I’m speaking of two greats: Florence Vandamm and Eileen Darby.  They were giants in the field of theatre photography, and Ann Blyth was photographed by both when she appeared in Watch on the Rhine as a young girl.

Florence Vandamm was a pioneer in this field, and from 1925 to about 1950, she was the foremost photographer capturing the greats of the Broadway stage.  The Vandamm Studio specialized in very glamorous portraits of the Broadway stars, images not too dissimilar from what the Hollywood studios would adopt for their style of light-sculpted, touched-up and stunning glamour photos in the 1940s.

Eileen Darby came a long a little later, beginning her career as a theatre photographer in 1940, Vandamm’s chief competitor and ultimate heir to this highly specialized field; however, Darby’s work had a different style.  She would most often perch herself in the front row seats and shoot with low light the dramatic action on stage, catching stars in the moment of their greatest work.

Ann Blyth, just by the serendipitous circumstances of being cast in Watch on the Rhine, was photographed by both these greats for that play, and I am so pleased and privileged to be including photos from both these famous photographers in my book.  I admire their work tremendously.

Today, the Vandamm body of work is the property of the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  Because my budget was limited, I could only purchase the rights for one Vandamm photo.  Though I was tempted to go with the images that grouped Ann with Paul Lukas, who played her father, and other actors in the play, I ultimately chose, instead, a portrait of her.  The group photos were excellent, but I had seen them, or photos like them in other books and magazines.  The reasons I chose the portrait are twofold:

First, it is such a sweet expression that seems to show this young girl on the verge of leaving her “play-acting” years and becoming a serious actress – half school photo and half actor’s professional headshot.

Second, because something in that portrait kept calling to me, and finally I realized what it was.  I think I might have been the first person in seventy years to look upon that sweet face outside of the archives, and if I didn’t publish it, I might be the last.  So, since those other photos were more easily available to the public in other books, I took this rarely (or never) seen photo for mine.

The Eileen Darby photo of Ann in Watch on the Rhine is one of her “action shots” that shows Ann on stage with Lucille Watson, who played the family matriarch; George Coulouris, the villain of the piece; and Peter Fernandez, who played one of Ann’s brothers.  This particular photo had also found its way into the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts collection, but for rights to publish I had to turn to the Eileen Darby Estate, which is currently managed by her grandchildren.  I am very grateful to Mr. Alex Teslik for allowing me to publish that photo.

There will be quite a number of other photos in the book, and other photographers or publishers to whom I needed to apply for permission, but I wanted to tell the story of these two particular photographers because of the important place they have in the history of American theatre.

Last year, a retrospective of Vandamm's work was held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts called: Pioneering Poet of Light: Photographer Florence Vandamm & the Vandamm Studio, which you can read about here and see some of her stunning work.

Eileen Darby's life and work has been presented in the excellent book, Stars on Stage- Eileen Darby & Broadway's Golden Age by Mary C. Henderson.


 

See you next Thursday for a little Easter noir.  You can probably guess the movie.


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Leggy Ladies on ladders...

Have a gander at those gams, and tell us who the ladies on the ladders are, and, if possible, from what films:


B


C

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Paddy O'Day - 1935


Paddy O’Day (1935) is about an illegal immigrant we don’t have the heart to send back. 

Maybe it’s because she sings and has a puppy.  Maybe because mainstream America was a generation or two closer to the immigrant experience, where Ellis Island represented both the dreams, and the deepest fears of the immigrant, and so our understanding and compassion was deeper.  We remembered, or our momma and papa remembered, that hope rode one shoulder, a sense of doom the other.  We may muse with chagrin  and raised eyebrows that such a lighthearted and fanciful movie flies in the face of one of the most contentious political issues of current times.


Jane, a little Irish girl who is slated to be sent back to Ireland, gives us only a few moments of the doom of being sent back; she quickly takes matters into her own hands by sneaking into the U.S. illegally by hiding in a milk can. 

Hiding in things to enter illegally has been done many times since, rarely so successfully, and often tragically.

Once having arrived, she is hidden by new friends, who are complicit in the crime.  That’s been done, too.  Who’s talking about the Mexican border?  I’m talking about all the illegal Irish in Boston right now (something like 10,000 of them).

Yeah.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


Jane Withers was a multi-talented youngster, who was nine years old when this movie was made, and already a veteran of a dozen films.  We may most recall her as the brat tormenting Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934), but she had no less an important career over at 20th Century Fox as another feisty Depression kid.  There was not as much of a fairy tale element to Jane’s movies in comparison to Shirley’s films, and though her fame generated its own line of merchandising, as did Shirley’s, Jane never reached quite the heights of stardom that the moppet with the golden curls did.

Shirley’s talent was prodigious, and she was a hard act to follow.  But Jane Withers, I believe, was even more talented.  She had a better singing voice, was just as fine a dancer, could mimic and do accents where Shirley did not, but most especially, despite bursts of mugging, had a larger acting range and a quality of being “in the moment.” 

Shirley, possibly from her early training barely out of diapers was taught to react and respond much in the same way one might train a dog, and had an acting style as she grew older that was somewhat mechanical.  Perhaps because Shirley was so adorable and lauded to be a “natural” that no drama classes, or experience performing either on radio or stage was thought necessary to train her out of the habits she acquired as a child.  All she knew was the technical style of acting before the camera.  Shirley left acting to raise her family, and had a successful career in diplomatic service, perhaps partly because when she was too old to pretend she was the little orphan girl, her work became too studied and stiff.  It didn’t look like her heart was in it.

Jane Withers was nothing but heart.

We meet the little Irish lass, Paddy O’Day in steerage on a ship to the U.S.  She sings “With a Twinkle in Your Eye,” complete with accent and with reprises, you’ll be singing it before the movie’s over.  The wretched refuse of many teeming shores are dressed in native costume and singing native songs, among them Rita Cansino, who plays a Russian girl traveling with her mother and father, of course called Momushka and Popushka.  We see from the beginning this is more parody than anything.

Rita performs a spirited Russian dance.  She would make a handful more movies in the next couple years before she became Rita Hayworth.  The red hair and sex symbol came later under Columbia.  She and her parents, Momushka and Popushka take little Paddy under their wing, for the Irish girl is traveling alone.  Her mother, working as a servant in a wealthy household on Long Island, will meet her at Ellis Island.

For those of us who have family members who came through Ellis Island, the place is hallowed.  It’s fun to see it depicted, though as such, a scene on a movie soundstage, it's a little surreal if your grandma came through there terrified.

Tragically, little Jane’s mother is not there to meet her, because she has recently died, and with no one to claim her, Jane will be sent back to the old country.  

But she escapes the watchful eye of the immigration officer, played by Francis Ford, and we have a few neat shots of the real Ellis Island, and of the 3rd Avenue El and the Empire State Building rising behind it, looking to the little girl like science fiction monsters.



Through the improbable actions of an unknowing police officer who puts her in the car of a total stranger (such scenes these days make us squirm), Paddy arrives at her mother’s workplace—not knowing she has died.  Jane Darwell, kindly cook of the house, gets the dirty job to break the bad news.  She and the other servants convince the dour butler, Russell Simpson, to let the girl stay until they can figure out what to do.

A pair of fussy old ladies lives in this mansion, with their studious, mild-mannered and somewhat vague nephew, played by Pinky Tomlin.  Tomlin had appeared in a few minor films, but his main gig was as a bandleader and composer.  He’s the chap who came up with “The Object of My Affection.”  (Raise your hand if the first thing you think of is Alfalfa on the Our Gang comedies.”)

Here, Tomlin, a likeable fellow, strums a guitar and sings another of his original tunes, “Changing My Ambitions,” a very pleasant song he croons to Rita because he is falling in love with her.  

Rita and her family, now including a boisterous uncle who runs a café in New York, played with aplomb by George Givot, have discovered the mansion where Jane is in hiding and want to help keep her in the country.  It is agreed she will stay with her Russian pals and work at Uncle’s café as a performer. 

George Givot, a bullying impresario, mangles English with delightfully silly malapropos, but somebody has to speak with a Russian accent because even little Jane’s Russian accent is better than Rita’s.  However, Rita can dance, and that is her act in the club.  Jane, dressed up like a little Russian doll with painted cheeks sings, “I Like a Balalaika.”

Trouble is not over yet, though, because the aunties have discovered Jane and want to send her back to Ireland.  They, and the immigration officer Francis Ford are hot on the trail, but Pinky Tomlin and Rita decide to marry and adopt Jane, which will keep her here for good.  A WASP dad, a Russian immigrant mom, and loudmouth Uncle George.  What little Irish lass could ask for anything more?

Jane doesn’t become assimilated in America in the little more than an hour it takes to watch this movie, but she does what all immigrants did when they first arrived, and still do—try to put down roots in a strange new world, more magical, more wonderful, and more terrifying than Alice’s trip through the looking glass.

Jane Withers has a good rapport with all her adult cast mates in this movie, but she forged a special bond of friendship with the shy young woman who would come to be known as Rita Hayworth.  Rita, 16 years old, was nervous on the set, more terrified than the immigrant she was playing. Jane, nine years old, but already a veteran and the star of the movie, felt protective of her.  Before the cameras rolled, Jane held Rita’s hand and said a prayer to comfort her. 

Decades later, in 1987, when Rita Hayworth died, Jane was asked to deliver the eulogy at her funeral.  She repeated on that occasion the prayer she said while holding Rita’s hand on the set of Paddy O’Day:
 
“Lord, this is Rita and she’s afraid… Please be with her because she’s special.”

Jane Withers is pretty special too.



This post is part of the Luck of the Irish Blog O’Thon sponsored by the Metzinger Sisters at Silver Scenes.  Please go have a look at the other great entries.

And Happy St. Patrick’s Day.




Thursday, March 12, 2015

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. - Cover Reveal

Today, I'm pleased to reveal the cover for my forthcoming book on the career of Ann Blyth...

(Climbs billboard at great peril, loses shoe, which falls 100 feet to the ground, struggles with tarpaulin, gets wrapped in it for a moment when the wind picks up, then proudly shakes lose the tarp .  Dang, glasses go flying off her face.  Makes "ta-daa!" gesture, squinting myopically at the gathering crowd below, wears a cheesy grin...)

Ready?





I'd like to thank most sincerely and congratulate most heartily the graphic artist who designed this cover, your friend and mine, Constance Metzinger, one half of the Metzinger Sisters who author the swell blog Silver Scenes.  Please have a look at their blog and you'll be regular customers.

The cover above will be on both the eBook and the print version, but the print book will also have another photo gracing the back.  This one:



And there will be a bunch of photos in between, some that you've never seen.

By the way, they Metzinger gals are hosting The Luck of the Irish Blog 'O Thon, and my post is coming up this Sunday the 15th.  Come back Sunday for Paddy O'Day (1935) with Jane Withers.




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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, 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.
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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.
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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.
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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. 

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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. 



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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).