Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hollywood Walk of Fame

The Hollywood Walk of Fame, with its star-shaped plaques extends on Hollywood Boulevard from Gower Street to La Brea, and on Vine Street from Yucca to Sunset Boulevard. It was created in 1960 as part of a restoration and clean-up project in a deteriorating Hollywood. Its first star on the sidewalk honored Joanne Woodward.

Five different categories of fame are honored on the plaques: performers in film, television, radio, stage, and recording artists. Only Gene Autry has one of each of the five different plaques with his name on them.

Not all the stars have had such stellar careers as Bugs Bunny; there are plenty of minor actors as well like Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, but that is the beautiful democracy of it. Take a walk on Hollywood Boulevard sometime and see how many you know.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

"Community" Theaters

Two teenage girls in the 1930s won a prize turkey in a raffle at their local movie house. They lived in a city, close to the downtown where several movie theaters were located, and the turkey was alive. They walked it home, with a piece of rope fastened to its neck like a leash, along the crowded sidewalks of the busy downtown. They were a bit mortified, but the turkey seemed to have had a pleasant time on the walk home.

Fortunately, their mother, like the turkey, was farm-raised, and knew what to do with it. It was a welcome prize in the Great Depression.

Cash raffles in movie theaters were also common, and turned out to be easier to take home than a turkey on a rope. What is called carnival glass today, or Depression glass, was also a premium theaters offered to entice patrons. Some young women acquired entire sets of dinnerware by the time they were married and put it to use. Unless they dropped it on the way home from “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.”

Blood drives, bond drives, community service programs were all common in movie theaters in the 1930s and 1940s. It might be difficult for young people to imagine today, with large cinema complexes in the suburbs and movie prices and fewer movies worth seeing which make going to the movies a sometimes thing and not an every day thing, that the movie theater was as central to community life at one time as the city hall, the corner grocery, school or even houses of worship. Theaters were the common meeting place for people of all backgrounds. That they, and the film industry which created them, should have an enormous impact on the society of the day is fascinating.

What is also interesting is that movie moguls knew that, and imposed standards, censorship codes, and war-effort films to acquiesce to the public, to mobilize it. The film industry today, despite whatever complaints or suspicions some might have about its pervasive influence over our society, cannot compare to the influential place it had in America before the 1950s. While people all over the world still look to America through its films, the American film industry today itself seems to be more and more irrelevant to most Americans.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Eugene Pallette

Most of Eugene Pallette’s film career occurred before 1930, in the days of silent films. He was young, he was slim, he was silent. We probably wouldn’t recognize him, since he has become known to us as the boisterous, frog-voiced, and overweight family patriarch in such films as “The Lady Eve” (1941) and “My Man Godfrey” (1936).

In “The Lady Eve” he makes his memorable appearance striding down the enormous staircase of his mansion, laconically singing the bawdy tavern song:

Landlord, fill the flowing bowl
Until it doth run over.
For tonight, we’ll merry, merry be,
For tonight, we’ll merry, merry be,
For tonight, we’ll merry, merry be,
Tomorrow we’ll be sober.

It is a magnificent entrance for a man who used his physical attributes with a sense of dash and pride, and a sensible studio which let him act the lord of the manor with all the dignity he deserved. Though there is sometimes much comedy in dignity, and Pallette played many comic roles, there is also a fine line that creates poignancy and respect. Most overweight actors were displayed as buffoons, but Pallette was allowed to be intelligent and shrewd. Despite his occasional roles as millionaires, they tended to be self-made men. Horace Pike, the wealthy brewer whom he plays in “The Lady Eve” seems just as likely to lift one of his kegs of beer onto a delivery truck as to discuss commercial trends in the boardroom.

His Alexander Bullock, head of the whacky family which takes on William Powell as their butler in “My Man Godfrey” is the only one sane and sensible, and not to be taken in by sycophants and sharpsters.

His Friar Tuck in “Robin Hood” can fight just as well with a sword as the much more athletically-appearing Errol Flynn. Pallette uses his enormous girth, and his impossibly low voice (which I think is the reason why they invented tea with lemon), not as comic foils but as heaven-sent attributes. He displays them proudly, as well he should.

Monday, May 28, 2007

So Proudly We Hail (1943)

Today is Memorial Day in the U.S., when we commemorate members of the American armed forces who have lost their lives in war. Among the many films which would aptly illustrate the experiences of the armed forces in various conflicts, one film seems particularly poignant in its ability to reach audiences today. Perhaps because parts of the film are so eerily prescient of our modern struggle with its ironic lack of national purpose and idealism. This is “So Proudly We Hail!” (1943), the story of the Army Nurse Corps experiences on Bataan and Corregidor during World War II.

There is much to recommend this film: some fine dramatic performances from Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake, an excellent supporting cast and very fine special effects in the battle scenes. The story moves swiftly along and we are caught up in many subplots that inevitably take a back seat to the war itself. What is especially interesting is the script. Written by Allan Scott, who had teamed with this film’s director Mark Sandrich, on so much lighter fare in the 1930s, such as several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicles, Scott’s script is surprisingly lean and muscular. There are several bits of dialogue, soliloquies we should actually call them, which illustrate the feelings of the characters regarding their place in the war. These speeches are labeled today as the stuff of propaganda, but they are clear, clean, well-written, and deserve special notice today.

On the ship that takes the Army nurses to the Philippines in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the chaplain, played by Walter Abel, addresses the Christmas Eve party of officers and enlisted men: “This is the night before Christmas, and because it is, you must forgive me for being sentimental. We are a sentimental people. And I think we’re proud of it. Despite the fact that our enemies deride us for it, it makes us the stronger.”

The chaplain exhorts them to have, “Such faith in mankind that we are tough about the things we believe in, that we will make those tender and spiritual beliefs, like Christmas, a reality forever.” There are close-up shots of the young men with serious faces listening to him. Then from somewhere a swing version of “Jingle Bells” gets the party going. This, too, like sentimentality, is seen as typically American.

Another speech is given by Colbert after the nurses are stranded on Corregidor, and a nurse wearily complains, “Why are we here anyway?” Colbert responds, “Why? Why isn’t there any quinine? Why isn’t there any food? Why aren’t there any supplies? Why are we waiting here like rats in a cage waiting for the man to come and pour scalding water over us? Why is nothing done? Why? I’ll tell you why. It’s our fault…because we believed we were the world. That the United States of America was the whole world. Those outlandish places, Bataan, Corregidor, Mindanao, those aren’t American names. No. They’re just American graveyards.”

After the initial shock of admitting our own ignorance about the world has left us vulnerable, Miss Colbert’s speech becomes a warning to the stateside audience in the darkened movie theater. One of her nurses wonders why they can’t be removed from Corregidor, and Colbert replies, “They can’t get us off. We’ve become what they call a delaying action…I hope to God the people back home aren’t losing it for us. Do you remember what the chaplain once told us? It’s our present. We’re giving them time.”

These speeches address the past and the present aspects of American military consequences, but their chief nurse, Captain “Ma” McGregor, played by Mary Servoss, mourns her son and addresses the unimaginable future to which these young women, and their country, plod along,

“Like his father, he died for what he knew was right. He was right. My son and his father. And this time, if we don’t make it right, my son and his father and all our dead will rise up and destroy us.” This is reflected more hopefully in George Reeve’s letter to his new wife, Colbert at the end of the film, “This is our war now and this time it’ll be our peace.”

We are less clear today on purpose and ideals, and in a more cynical world, less equipped with the idealism that makes purpose seem clear. There is another image from “So Proudly We Hail!” that lingers, horrifically, in its prescience of 21st century warfare. Veronica Lake becomes a suicide bomber in a scene still shocking today. Her character has witnessed the death of her fiancĂ© at Pearl Harbor, and her barely concealed hostility for the enemy, as well as her fellow nurses and the world in general, is finally broken under the camaraderie of her fellow nurses and the greater cause of fighting the war and keeping themselves, and their patients in the jungle hospital, alive.

When the nurses are trapped by the sudden advance of a Japanese patrol, Lake stuffs a grenade in her uniform blouse, bids a stoic goodbye to Colbert, and loosens her trademark long, wavy blonde hair from its neat military bun. She walks towards the enemy, a mixture of sex and sacrifice, her hair softly cascading over her face and shoulders and she pulls the pin to the grenade nestled hidden beneath her breast. The Japanese approach her to take her into custody, and we are meant to assume she will be raped. Then she explodes, and they are all killed. The nurses escape.

Such a scene has different connotations to us today, and is more distasteful than heroic. It may have an even stronger impact on us today than it did in 1943, for different reasons, just as the impassioned speeches have a lesser impact on us today. When we take this Memorial Day to reflect on the bravery of our fallen service personnel, we should also reflect on the idealism that made them so brave.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Wayne - 100th Anniversary

I once met an Arizona cowboy, a real cowboy, not a film one, who said he wanted to vote for John Wayne as President. That Wayne had entered politics only on the sidelines and not a candidate, and the fact that he had been deceased for some years, did not detract this cowboy from his belief that Mr. Wayne was somehow eternal, and somehow eternally the right answer to America’s problems.

John Wayne had a remarkable career, and his image on screen as someone stalwart, moral, and dispensing no-nonsense justice was, and is, appealing in a world where we have many doubts about where our society is going and who we can really trust. The 100th anniversary of John Wayne’s birth, on May 26th, will undoubtedly give us a chance to watch some of his films and remember again what made him so likeable, and so iconic an American figure.

His long career, begun in the 1920s, really took off after John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939), and the 1940s saw Wayne’s career blossom, from war films to westerns. By the end of the decade, he was firmly ensconced in the public’s, and the film industry’s mind as the man who made things right just by showing up. The posse and the cavalry were just there for support.

But that is image, and film is first and foremost, all about illusion. John Wayne did not bravely fight the enemy in World War II, no matter how many times he did it on the soundstage. In truth, he applied for a deferment and never served, even though many of his fellow actors, men with families and careers that were just as important to them, joined the armed forces. At the time, Mr. Wayne was criticized as caring more about his career than his country, and was disparaged as a coward, just as he would accuse men who would not serve in the armed forces during the Vietnam War of cowardice. Some have suggested that this period of his life in Hollywood during the war may have helped make him such a vocal supporter of investigations against communists in Hollywood in the 1950s and an advocate of right-wing politics in the future. Whether his later actions were because of, or in spite of, the personal choice he made during World War II not to serve, he remained a heroic figure on film, and some of his best work was when the film was less about a message and more about the man he was playing.

One of his best in this vein was in “The Quiet Man” (1952) where John Wayne plays the lone American in an Irish village, out to put a violent past behind him, only to find more exasperating, and much more comic, battles ahead of him before he finds happiness with Maureen O’Hara. He is as much the rugged individualist in the rain-swept ruins of an Irish castle, vainly trying to protect from the rain Miss O’Hara, who nestles against him in a beautifully filmed wordless scene, as he ever is leading a cavalry charge in Monument Valley.

His cross-country fistfight with Victor McLaglen is the most entertaining pummeling we are likely to see on film, and director John Ford’s stock actors, including Ward Bond, Barry Fitzgerald, Mildred Natwick, and a riotous flock of actors from Irish theater make Wayne’s Irish-born but American-raised character seem as if he is truly a man without a country.

In a world today where Americans are so disparaged abroad, it is especially poignant to see Wayne in this foreign setting, bewildered and misunderstood, but managing to fit in at last while losing none of his American individualism. He still stands tall. (At 6’4½ ” he should.) If John Wayne means different things to different people, then that is as it should be. Being allowed to express your own perspective is one of the best things about being American.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Katharine Hepburn - 100th Anniversary

May 12th marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Katharine Hepburn, who, with four Best Actress Academy Award wins needs no career description. Miss Hepburn’s first win was for “Morning Glory” (1933), and from that point, despite whatever ups and down or accusations of being “box office poison” as she was labeled after a few failed films in the late 1930s, she remained a star.

“Morning Glory” was somehow prophetic to her career, playing the young actress who more than anything wants to be a great actress. Hepburn became a great actress and a great star, but that veneer of stardom may be what attracts the viewer and not necessarily always the quality of the performance. Not that the quality is bad; she is usually riveting, but when watching a Katharine Hepburn film, one is ever conscious it is Katharine Hepburn. She was not an actress to disappear into a role, but to make the character conform to her own strong personality. The way a person might pick up a pair of jeans off the floor and put them on.

Moreover she stole scenes as blithely as a remorseless thief, and one of the few co-stars to hold his own in a scene with her was Spencer Tracy. No wonder she found him irresistible.

She is fascinating to watch, but one role among all the great and dynamic women she has played stands out as most easy and natural to her. Her role as Jo in “Little Women” (1933) made in the same year as “Morning Glory,” illustrates the importance of appropriate casting and how much the right actor for the right role can effortlessly enhance a film. Hepburn stands out, among others who have played the character, as containing that right mixture of irascibility and tenderness, energy and awkwardness, determination and frustrating confusion. Miss Hepburn was so good as Jo because in real life she was so much like her. So was Louisa May Alcott, who wrote “Little Women” as a girls’ novel in 1868, just as irascible, profoundly free-thinking and scornful of what she felt was nonsense, as Miss Hepburn and Jo put together.

Even if Miss Alcott had lived as long as Katharine Hepburn did (96 years), she still would have missed seeing Hepburn in the film “Little Women.” In 1933 she would have been 101. Unfortunately, Miss Alcott died while only 57 years old in 1888. Though Alcott had already tasted the enormous success of her story, she could not have imagined what film would do to her novel. In the casting of Miss Hepburn as Jo, perhaps Miss Alcott would have been pleased. Between tromping around in Roderigo’s boots, watching her beloved sister dying, and sorting out her feelings for Professor Baer, Hepburn is here without that star’s veneer that she would in future wear so brilliantly. Her emotions are more transparent, raw, and simple. It is also perhaps one of her few really ensemble films, and that might explain why despite her strength in the role, we will see her more as Jo than as Katharine Hepburn. There is an incandescence that is much more interesting to see in an actor, I think, than what is called star quality.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sir Laurence Olivier - 100th Anniversary

We cover three giants this week with a great many differences between them, but one particular thing in common, which is the 100th anniversary of their births. Katharine Hepburn, born May 12th, Sir Laurence Olivier, born May 22nd, and John Wayne, born May 26th, all in the year 1907, have different strengths and talents, but all with such remarkable screen star quality.

Sir Laurence, though he belongs unquestionably to the theater world, especially noted for his interpretation of Shakespeare’s plays, nevertheless found himself a place in Hollywood as well. “Hamlet” (1948) is the only filmed version of one of Shakespeare’s plays to win an Academy Award, in which he stars, directed, and also produced.

This same elite performer of classics appeared at home as Mr. Darcy in “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) as he did playing the dapper and aloof Mr. de Winter, haunted by his past in “Rebecca” filmed that same year, coming in off the success of “Wuthering Heights” (1939) that made his brooding, anguished portrayal of Healthcliff the definitive.

In 1941, there is an odd about-face in the role of boisterous French-Canadian Johnnie the Trapper in “49th Parallel,” a British film made by Ortus Films, Ltd. Even in character parts (which not too many stars of the day would stoop to taking when they had achieved star status), Sir Laurence takes over the screen. He is also to have reported to have worked at half salary on behalf of the United Kingdom’s war effort. He may have been as well known for his marriage to actress Vivien Leigh during these years, but name recognition does not seem to be something he had a problem with once the camera, and the public, discovered him for his own prodigious talent.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) looks as fun and lusty a good time as people could have overthrowing a corrupt government while wearing tights, swinging from trees, and eating chunks of meat with their hands. Famous for making Errol Flynn into a star, a man who truly looked the romantic hero and so natural in his 12th century costume and page-boy haircut, that he seems to look out of place in his modern-day films.

Basil Rathbone is the brooding Sir Guy who wants Flynn dead and who just plain wants Olivia De Havilland, who plays Lady Marion. Claude Rains is the devious and deliciously effete Prince John, who has usurped his brother’s throne. The well-known legends of Robin Hood are given a light but jubilant telling in this early Technicolor film, and what really makes it are the reliable character actors of the day: Alan Hale, Sr. as Little John, Eugene Pallette (who looks good with a sword) as Friar Tuck, Una O’Connor as the easily flattered giddy servant to Lady Marion, and a collection of Warner Brothers stand-bys. Most of the film is shot outdoors and this gives it an authenticity that is sometimes lacking in studio sets when conjuring history. However, the castle set is particularly impressive, and the final great swordfight between Rathbone and Flynn all over the great hall, stairs, and pillars of this set is especially memorable. The shadow of them thrown on the stone wall from the firelight has become iconic. There is another scene of the duplicitous Abbot, Sir Guy, and Prince John plotting, with the roaring fire between them and the camera. Technicolor must have been invented just for fire.

From the moment we see Flynn enter the castle with a killed stag across his shoulders and he plunks it on the table in front of Claude Rains, we know this is going to be a hearty tale of knightly courtliness, but no table manners. Swordsmanship, but dirty tricks. Honor, but treachery. Stolen riches, and stolen kisses. It is a 12-year-old boy’s best scenario: lots of fighting and not too much mushy stuff.

We are told in the prologue that King Richard is off in the Holy Land to drive off the infidels. Loaded words today, and the fight between the ruling Normans and suppressed Saxons is a very old story in the course of history. Only the names need be changed to see the same struggles happening over and over again, all over the world. It seems it is difficult to escape even in an escapist film.

We are told by authors Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz in “Gone Hollywood” (Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1979), that Howard Hill, who was the archery consultant on the film and taught the actors for the great archery contest, was actually the person who shot Robin’s arrows dead-center on the target. We may still be impressed, however, by Flynn’s sword fighting, as well as his and Hale’s masterful fight with quarterstaffs.

It is difficult to watch this heroic battle without being reminded of Daffy Duck’s less heroic battle with his “buck and a quarter quarterstaff” with Porky Pig as the Friar in “Robin Hood Daffy” (1958), made of course by the same studio, Warner Brothers. Though Flynn was never heard to have uttered “Yoiks and away!” as Daffy does for his rallying cry, perhaps he should have. It is the only thing that the film “Robin Hood” is missing. It has just about everything else.

Another cartoon tribute comes in “Rabbit Hood” (1949) when Bugs Bunny’s Sherwood Forrest adventure is capped by a visit from the man himself, as the live-action film clip from “Robin Hood” is tacked onto the end of the cartoon with Errol Flynn welcoming Bugs to Sherwood. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, clearly Flynn’s “Robin Hood” became a classic even in its own time.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Stella Dallas (1937)

“Stella Dallas” (1937) is one of the reasons why Barbara Stanwyck was one of the best actresses of her generation. It demonstrates not only her believability in a role, but a dedication to her character that seems to outstrip her contemporaries.

Often labeled a “tearjerker,” the film really does not get tear jerking until the end when Stella is faced with a decision about her daughter’s future. Most of the film is an interesting commentary on class structure and about being true to oneself. Stella’s New England mill town and her family’s dingy company house is presented with stark realism. She becomes smitten by Stephen Dallas, who works in the factory office, the son of a disgraced millionaire who had committed suicide due to the failing of his business. Stella knows very well that Dallas has no money and has severed his ties to rich society. All she wants from him is what attracts her about him: his kindliness, his manners. She wants to be with him, she says, because what is good and fine about him may rub off on her in time.

Her early scenes with John Boles, who plays Stephen Dallas, are sweet and earnest. Stella is clearly not a gold-digger, just a girl with a soft heart afraid to grow up hard in hard surroundings. Boles encourages her to be herself, that it really isn’t good manners to pretend to be something you’re not, and that high society is really dull. Dallas had previously broken off an engagement to be married, and Stella brings warmth and fun back into his lonely life.

They start their life together, but after their daughter is born a rift begins that will tear them apart. Stella’s campaign of self improvement ends when her daughter Laurel is born, and from then on puts all her energy and interest in the child. Boles’ character grows dismayed when he sees the change, and becomes embarrassed by Stella’s behavior. She has grown loud, coarse and common. When Boles is promoted to run the New York office of the firm, Stella refuses to go with him, no longer interested in society, wealth or finery, or Boles. She just wants to raise her baby by herself.

At this point, the film could turn into a story of a smothering, domineering mother living her life through her child, but the film never skirts into that territory. Both parents are kind to the child and respectful of each other, never playing Laurel off on the other parent. As a result, Laurel, played very sweetly by Anne Shirley, grows up to be an unaffected young lady, with her mother’s spirit and her father’s gentleness and elegance.

Alan Hale has a particularly wonderful part as Stella’s low-brow buddy, and his drunk scene with the turkey at Christmas is some of his best work, funny and sad at the same time. He is abashed when he realizes his untimely appearance has messed up a reunion between Stella and her husband. Bole’s look of bewildered helplessness whenever Hale is around goes a long way to explaining who both men are and how they fit into Stella’s life.

What makes Miss Stanwyck’s work in this film so fascinating is her intimate, clinging scenes with Anne Shirley that illustrate their co-dependence, and also her willingness to look frumpy. Screens stars of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” were sometimes willing to play the bad girl, but that bad girl was inevitably glamorous. Stanwyck went where no major star would go at that time: into unflattering clothes and gaudy jewelry, and body padding to make her appear heavier as she entered middle age. Stella is not aging well, including her bad dye job with a brief but meaningful scene where after she and Laurel have words, and Laurel makes repentant overtures by silently coloring her mother’s dark roots for her while Stanwyck sneaks a forlorn look at herself in the mirror.

Stanwyck invites the audience to laugh at her, dares them to deride her, and yet because of the astonishing honesty of the performance, we cannot really laugh because she is too real. When Laurel’s friends mock Stella, and Stella overhears, it is a loss of innocence for them both. Laurel has sometimes been frustrated with her mother, but never before embarrassed by her. Stanwyck sees for the first time what must have embarrassed her husband so many years ago. Now, the film becomes a tearjerker when Stella must make choices, which she makes with such clarity and resolve. At last, Stanwyck has that famous final shot, what some have called the best fadeout in motion picture history, as she beams triumphantly at the result of the choice she has made.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Alan Hale, Sr.

Alan Hale, Sr. has been called one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood, with 235 films under his belt. He began in 1911 with “The Cowboy and the Lady” and though he appeared in many westerns, he also played in films adapted from classics by Dickens, Bronte, Twain, and Ibsen.

In 1934 he played in “Of Human Bondage,” “The Scarlet Letter,” and “Great Expectations” in just that year alone. He was the boorish Klaas Poole who mimicked Barbara Stanwyck’s appreciation of the sight of a field of cabbages in “So Big,” and played her bumbling, hapless best pal and unsuccessful suitor in “Stella Dallas.” Another featured role was in “Santa Fe Trail” with Errol Flynn, and he made 12 films with Flynn.

One film with Flynn which stands out is “Robin Hood” (1938), in which Hale plays Little John. Mr. Hale seemed to have owned the part of Little John, having played him in two other films as well: “Robin Hood” (1922) and “Rogues of Sherwood Forest” (1950), which was to be his last film before he died.

Part of Warner Brothers famous merry band of stock actors, Hale was big, barrel-chested and seized each small role with the gusto of a star.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Some Movie Icons

Grace Kelly became a 1950s acting icon, after appearing in only 11 films and also in a number of early television guest roles. Audrey Hepburn appeared in about 30 films, reaching icon status almost immediately and staying there. Katharine Hepburn, who appeared in less than 50 films, is so iconic I’m surprised there hasn’t been a commemorative quarter released even if she wasn’t a President.

Running the gamut between character actor and icon is perhaps only John Wayne, amazingly with over 170 roles, who got his start playing extras in the 1920s. Though he became a B-western cowboy in the 1930s and finally got to say lines, it probably wasn’t until John Ford’s “Stagecoach” (1939) when Wayne steps into our popular consciousness, casting a long shadow and making him a star, eventually an icon in his own right. Before that, he spent a lot of time in the crowd scenes.

What turned John Wayne from an extra in a silent film about college football to The Duke, whose fans would carve him on Mount Rushmore if they could, never mind put him on a quarter? What makes an icon, if one person becomes one instantly and another slowly morphs into one after decades? What do they share? We do not see ourselves in these people, as we might with character actors. We see something more, something perhaps we would like to be ourselves, something perhaps unattainable, yet a quality that we think we understand and admire.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Paramount Pictures



Paramount is 95 years old this year. It is the only motion picture studio from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” to remain in Hollywood after the many others closed, or moved to the suburbs. Its famous “Bronson gate,” a feature since the studio was built 1926-27, has been seen most notably in “Sunset Blvd.” (1950), and in publicity shots of the stars, and in the scrapbooks of the fans. Take the studio tour, and have someone take a picture of you by the gate. If it was good enough for Fred MacMurray, it’s good enough for you.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Birth of a Nation (1915) - Part 2

The story of the Northern Stoneman family and the Southern Cameron family is played out over many years. A lot happens in the film: a war, the struggles of courtship, the power struggles of Mr. Stoneman, who, not so distressed by the loss of President Lincoln, uses the rise of freed slaves as a platform for his own political ambitions. Lincoln is treated respectfully in this film, but probably had to be for by 1915, President Lincoln had become an icon of virtue to the North if not the whole country, and presenting him in any less light than angelic would have been too much controversy for Griffith to withstand. Lincoln was no such icon of virtue to the North or South during the Civil War, but then, it sometimes serves filmmakers not to be too accurate.

The main focus of the controversy is the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan as a virtuous home army defending downtrodden whites from the anarchy of black rule. While most of the Negro extras in the film are played by African-Americans, the principal black characters are played by white actors in blackface. This turns these characters into broad caricature. Insulting, yes, but looking back with 21st Century eyes, it is also ridiculous to the point of wondering how anybody in his right mind could have swallowed this foolishness, and why a seemingly intelligent man like Griffith could have thought it artistic or accurate.

One might just as well wonder why Don Imus would make those ignorant remarks against the Rutgers women’s basketball team, now in the 21st Century, in an attempt at humor by using the same techniques of condescension and caricature. Because some people do find truth in innuendo, swallowing it with a smirk, even now. Some even believe caricature.

When both the Northern Stonemans and Southern Camerons unite to defeat the marauding blacks, and the white actor in official Hollywood mulatto makeup who has made improper advances to Lillian Gish of all people (gasp!), they are said to be joining together in “common defense of their Aryan birthright.” Chilling connotations to be sure, but Adolf Hitler, then a corporal in the Kaiser’s army when this film was released, would have swallowed it and even rejoiced. His country would lose a war, too, and they would find scapegoats, too.

Griffith gives us what he believes is a happy ending, when the blacks are defeated and denied the right to vote, the Stonemans and Camerons are united in the double marriage ceremony among sons and daughters, and younger daughter Flora Cameron, played with spirit by Mae Marsh, preserves the virtue of her Southern womanhood by leaping off a cliff to her death rather than submit to that old fate worse than death at the hands of a white actor in blackface pursuing her for marriage. Stunned was Mr. Griffith when his audiences, just like the Confederate States of America, rebelled. Stunned, too, supposedly, was Mr. Imus when the public rebelled. Condescension and caricature work only up to a point. Then, you must make legitimate the reasoning behind your prejudice. Most often, it can’t be done.

That's all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The Birth of a Nation (1915) - Part 1

Director D. W. Griffith was astonished to find himself called a racist upon the release of his landmark film, “The Birth of a Nation.” This in itself gives us a lot of information about the director, about the film, and the time in which it was made. Griffith was to discover something else, that the use of condescension and caricature are effective ways to make a point, and conversely, excellent ways of drawing controversy upon oneself.

Mentioning the film evokes all the controversy which surrounds it, overshadowing the Griffith’s truly groundbreaking techniques in cinema, the work of lead actress Lillian Gish who was one of the finest actresses of the silent era, and some interesting historical tableaus, including Lee’s surrender at Appomattox (that’s Donald Crisp as Ulysses S. Grant), some technically accurate battle scenes, and a very dramatic re-creation of Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater.

The title, which Griffith chose over “The Clansman,” the novel on which the film is based, is an apt one. The Civil War, in many respects, did signal a re-birth of the United States, changed it forever, and fixed two errors of the Declaration of Independence that had eluded politicians for decades. These were the political sovereignty of independent states, and slavery. Both had to go for the nation to become what it always said it was, free, and united. That it took a war for that to happen is the real shame of the Civil War.

Mr. Griffith tries to make war the big evil which threatens mankind, but his story of defeated white Southerners under the heel of monstrous black masters who want to marry all the white women is a look into Griffith’s psyche more than it ever was a treatise on war or an accurate representation of Reconstruction. Like the way a handwriting expert can determine psychological characteristics, Griffith’s film tells us more about Griffith than about his characters. Mr. Griffith was a Southerner who was raised in the aftermath of the Reconstruction days, spoon fed on the stories of despair and destruction in those difficult times. Unfortunately, his attempt at legitimizing the real suffering of Southerners in those days turns their hard times into a mere cartoon.

Any historical film is just as much about the times in which it was made as about the times it is supposed to illustrate. TV westerns made in the 1950s and 1960s carry more a flavor of the 1950s and 1960s about them than the 1870s, and so it is with any look into the past made today. We are not so sophisticated that we have found a way to be accurate, and at the same time not a traitor to the sensibilities of our own times. It is almost impossible. We leave our own imprint.

So, “The Birth of a Nation” is really more about 1915, about Griffith and a modern South still rationalizing past failures, and about the United States still struggling to be “traditional,” on guard against suspicious modern influences and trends. The film sparked controversy the moment it was released, and was protested against and banned in several cities, but still grossed more money than any film for decades, largely because controversy attracts us.

More on "The Birth of a Nation" tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Five Films from 1941

Five films from 1941, and I think the top five are, in no special order:
“Citizen Kane”
“The Little Foxes”
“The Maltese Falcon”
“Meet John Doe”
“Sullivan’s Travels”

Some of them were nominated for Best Picture, some had acting and best supporting acting nominations (“The Little Foxes” leads in nominations) but interestingly, none took home any Academy Awards, save for Best Original Screenplay for “Citizen Kane.”

Shuffling the hand allows us to examine them a bit as individuals and groups. “Citizen Kane” stands out, as it always has for film historians, as being a maverick in innovation of cinema technique. However, only star Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten get to do any real acting, and most of that is aging.

“The Little Foxes” and “The Maltese Falcon” give us the acting. “The Little Foxes," taken from Lillian Hellman’s smash Broadway play gives us a literate view of a nasty family stabbing each other in the back, and “The Maltese Falcon” gives us a less than literate view of a collection of low-lifes also stabbing each other in the back. Unlike the technical tricks of “Citizen Kane,” these films show that if you throw a bunch of great actors together in a room, there’s not much else for them to do but act. And stab each other in the back.

“Meet John Doe” and “Sullivan’s Travels” can likewise be lumped together as road pictures, featuring social commentary on the common man and what the common man does best: be optimistic as possible while being as downtrodden as 90 minutes of screen time allows.

Welles, Wyler, Huston, Capra and Sturges, five of the best directors of their day, give us these films. “The Maltese Falcon” introduces us to film noir, and “Sullivan’s Travels” can be called the Last Movie of the Great Depression. Though World War II had been going on without the US for a couple of years, none of these films brings America to the battlefield. We’re clearly not quite ready for that yet. The past, as in “The Little Foxes” and “Citizen Kane” have too strong a hold on us, and the present, as represented in the other films, is engrossing. The war was our future, and we knew it, and it evidently must have been unimaginable.

(This post is also found on the Top 5 writing project of www.problogger.net.)

Monday, May 7, 2007

Una O'Connor

Una O’Connor’s voice like a rusty hinge and her spot-on comedic timing made her one of the most reliably funny and endearing character actresses of her day. Two of her most well-known appearances are in “Robin Hood” (1938) and “Witness for the Prosecution” (1957), yet even in the smallest roles she undertook, Miss O’Connor is instantly recognizable.

We see her briefly in two scenes meant to be years apart in “Random Harvest” (1942) as an unnamed proprietress of a tobacconist’s shop. It is a brief role, probably not worth her bother, except one can see why the studio would want her rather than an unknown character player of lesser experience. She has the ability to convey types and bring out the complexities of the simplest characters. She could be poignant and funny at once. Her stalwart maid in “The Barretts of Wimpole Street” was both, and she provides the funnier moments in an otherwise heavy drama.

The full range of her scale is probably seen best in comparing her roles in two films she did some years apart. One is “Christmas in Connecticut” (1944) where she is hysterical as Nora the Irish maid scuttling from room to room with various mystery babies in her arms, battles S.Z. Sakall from turning her “good old Irish stew” into Hungarian goulash, and butchers his difficult to pronounce surname. When asked to flip flapjacks, her deadpan reply, “I don’t flip, I scoop” is one of the funniest lines in the film, only because of the way she says it.

Another film shows the opposite end of the spectrum, when in “The Informer” (1931) she plays a Madonna-like poverty-stricken Irish woman whose son has been informed on to the police by Victor McLagen. She forgives McLagen, not as would a saintly person above the cares of the world, but a woman who knows all too well the human frailty which leads men to sin and murder. She is worn down and beaten by life, but still has enough strength to forgive.

There a genuine quality to her screen appearances that made Una O’Connor believable in any range of circumstances. Whether it be in Sherwood Forest or a Connecticut farmhouse, she seemed to belong there.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934)

“The Barretts of Wimpole Street” (1934) does two things very well. First, it (or rather Rudolf Besier’s stage play which it closely follows) relates the biography of a famous person by using a few precise and intimate scenes to illustrate the scope, if not every minute detail, of a person’s life. We learn a lot about poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, her family, her husband poet Robert Browning, and the times in which she lives with just a few simple strokes of evocative dialogue and tightly structured scenes.

She is a poet of some fame in her London literary circle, enough to be admired by fellow poet Robert Browning. She is an invalid of many years, the prisoner in her father’s house not only of her illness, but of her father. His obsessive love for her, as well as his complete disdain and even hatred for his many other grown children, keeps them all his prisoners. The bullied brothers are financially dependent on their father. The three sisters, being female, are utterly without hope of ever leaving their father’s home except by marriage, and Mr. Barrett has forbidden any of his children to marry. We learn a great deal about their dysfunctional family and the age in which they live, and the rules they are forced to live by just with some elegantly written scenes. We do not need any long drawn out explanations or cinema flashbacks. We are told enough to be able to guess the rest.

The second thing this film does well is tell the story almost as if we are seeing the actual stage play. Much of the action is shot in Elizabeth’s study. Director Sidney Franklin has resisted the typical Hollywood impulse to pull out all the stops and show all the tricks the film industry has up its sleeve. When plays are brought to film, this often is the case and it tends to ruin the intimacy and intensity that made a good play so good to being with; an inside story can be changed for the worse by taking it outside, filling it with flashbacks and cityscapes, crowd scenes and all the devices that make film different from theatre.

The story is compelling, though I don’t believe has been remade since Franklin himself directed an almost exact replica in 1957 in color. A doctor who visits Elizabeth Barrett, played wonderfully by Norma Shearer in the 1934 version, decides that “The will to live is better than a hundred physicians.” She has long ago lost her will to live under the tyranny in the guise of the obsessive love of her father. The stage play delineates the incestuous nature of his possessive attitude towards his daughter Elizabeth more boldly than the film is able to under the Code at that time, but by the end of the film we have understood that when Robert Browning enters the picture, we are seeing the jealousy played of a romantic triangle.

It is also interesting how Elizabeth is at a loss to explain to Robert the reasons for her dysfunctional family’s issues, and she overcompensates for them. She is embarrassed and tries to keep Robert away. Her reaction is the same as any modern woman would express who might be hiding an abusive relationship, shielding an alcoholic parent or spouse, avoiding discussion of a childhood trauma. The characters’ problems and feelings are modern, though their setting is not.

The setting is portrayed very well, with excellently researched costumes, hair styles, and sets, probably again because the stage play is being used as a template. Fredric March, Norma Shearer, and Charles Laughton who plays the bullying and manipulative Edward Moulton-Barrett likewise come off as authentic and believable in their roles. This is a Hollywood film that keeps these performances and this story as intense as the stage play perhaps by respecting the environment of the stage in its ability, its very necessity to focus in on the small things to tell a big story.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Dabbs Greer

Dabbs Greer, who died recently, gave a wonderful quote to the Albany Times Union in 2000, much repeated with news of his passing, “Every character actor in their own little sphere, is the lead.”

With over 100 roles to his credit as a character actor, divided between film and mostly television, Mr. Greer joined the ranks of those actors we always recognize but do not always know their names. His final feature film role in 1999 was in “The Green Mile” playing the elder Tom Hanks role of Paul Edgecomb.

He started out as the cop, the cab driver, the clerk, the reporter. Later on in television, he became our uncle, our friend, our neighbor. From shopkeeper to minister, he was a good character actor. One does not work as many decades as he did without being good at his job, and the great thing about character actors is they are allowed to age. Stars are seldom forgiven for aging, but it’s an okay thing for a character actor to do. Character actors are everymen. They are like us, and perhaps that is why we recognize them so well. We are all the leads in our own stories. So was Dabbs Greer.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Fun and Fancy Free (1947)



On his Sunday evening Chase and Sanborn Hour radio program, September 21, 1947, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy took advantage of the airwaves to plug their new film. The above graphic is a magazine ad for “Fun and Fancy Free,” which was a feature comprised of one animated short called “Bongo,” sung and narrated by Dinah Shore, and another short which combined animation and live action called “Mickey and the Beanstalk.”


Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd appeared in this one, as hosts of a party for a little girl. They narrate the story, which features Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Our old pal Jiminy Cricket tied both stories together, and “Fun and Fancy Free” is the only time all four characters appeared in the same feature. It was also the last time Walt Disney gave voice to Mickey.

Mr. Disney also appeared as a guest on Mr. Bergen’s radio show that evening to help promote the film. Edgar Bergen had a resilient career, crossing over from vaudeville, to an immensely successful radio program, to film, and eventually to television guest parts. His telling of “Mickey and the Beanstalk” is constantly punctuated by Charlie McCarthy’s funny remarks. Combined with the detailed, almost oil painting quality of the landscapes in “Bongo,” the circus bear who escapes to the wild, make “Fun and Fancy Free” a delightful escape from the everyday gloomy headlines Jiminy Cricket tisks over as he encourages us to take things easy. It’s a sweet film.