Thursday, June 28, 2007

Lon Chaney

Lon Chaney has the remarkable distinction of being a character actor who was, at the same time, a star. We are accustomed to thinking of film actors as one or the other, particularly in the regimented caste system of Hollywood’s heyday, but Chaney transcended that. He did this by being one of the finest actors of his generation.

Known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces” and using his talent as a makeup artist to create vivid screen monsters, Chaney was also an actor of intense charisma, capable of showing profound depth of emotion.

His ability to convey emotions deftly on the silent screen is sometimes attributed to his being the son of deaf parents, where pantomime was communication at home. He learned about the transforming magic of makeup, wardrobe, and even dance and choreography on the vaudeville circuit, and eventually made his way by 1914 to the first Hollywood studio, Nestor, on Sunset and Gower Streets (which later became Gower Gulch). He moved on to Universal where he made over 100 films, most of which are now lost. According to an American Masters documentary on PBS on Chaney, Universal simply recycled the old films for the chemicals.

By 1919, we see Mr. Chaney in “The Miracle Man” as a scam artist pretending to be crippled with a contorted body and then pretending to be cured. He plays a Chinese character in “Shadows” (1922), Fagin in “Oliver Twist” and the famous “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923). The pitiable scene where Esmeralda gives him water after he is whipped is powerful, and we see a pattern of Chaney’s playing tortured souls beneath the tortuous faces. Especially, there is a pattern of Chaney’s playing a character in love with a girl who loves someone else.

However, his characters are not always sympathetic, and never ask for pity. In “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924) his character is a man out for revenge, a twisted and somewhat grotesque soul who nevertheless has our sympathy when his declaration of love is laughed at by Norma Shearer, who honestly believes him to be kidding.

In “The Unholy Three” (1925), he plays a ventriloquist and a con-man who also pretends to be an old lady to pull off a scam. This film was remade as a sound film in 1930, and was Chaney’s last film before he died. His pinnacle was probably “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925) (see blog entry April 24, 2007) which continues his characterization of figures who are grotesque, as inwardly as they are outwardly, and yet pull at our conscience and our sympathy.

One film, “Tell it to the Marines” (1927) in which he plays a Marine sergeant, is done without makeup and is a departure from his normal characters, but without the makeup we see the strength and power of his acting.

A truly grotesque story is the “The Unknown” (1927) in which he plays a circus knife thrower in love with a young Joan Crawford. He has a congenital defect, possessing double thumbs on his hands, but for his act he pretends to be armless, throwing knives with his feet. When he commits murder and realizes he can be identified by his abnormal hands, he blackmails a doctor into actually removing his arms. However, Joan Crawford still falls in love with Norman Kerry anyway, and the look on Chaney’s face when he realizes he has amputated his arms for nothing is shocking. Mr. Chaney’s frozen, icy, not-quite-a-smile suggesting, “Oh, I’m so happy for you two,” while at the same time being hit with the burden of being an armless man for the rest of his life is so stunning it is almost frightening. He does not need to have horrible makeup to convey horror to us. The characters Mr. Chaney plays are often damned, and they seem always to damn themselves.

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

Sponsored Link:
Lon Chaney Movies

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Now Playing - Spring 1920


The above newspaper ad was published in the spring of 1920, and tells us as much about the state of the film industry at that time as about the films.

First, it seems that a silent film does not always speak for itself. The ad for "Eyes of Youth" is loaded with more verbiage than "War and Peace." We are informed that the star, Clara Kimball Young (who did not really remain a star for much longer after this film was produced), is "The Screen's Most Vital Personality." Not gorgeous or breathtaking, but "vital." We are also informed that the film is "lavishly staged, magnificently scened, gorgeously gowned and with a remarkable supporting cast." Any movie that is "magnificiently scened" gets my 25 cents, especially worth the price since it is "Enacted in Nine Wonderful Reels."

We are further told that the movie is "The Most Remarkable Dramatic Film Ever Published and was Made at a Cost Exceeding $250,000." That probably wouldn't even cover the trailer today.

We see also that a Harold Lloyd short, "Haunted Spooks," runs with the feature, as well as a Pathe newsreel. You get a lot of bang for your 25 cents. The Lloyd short is guaranteed to make you "Laugh 'Till Your Ears Ring."

Though I generally dislike the sensation of my ears ringing, for those that do, 25 cents is a bargain.

We are still in an age of superlatives when it comes to film hype, but "most remarkable dramatic film," "vital" and "magnificently scened" have not been heard in years. Even "wonderful" isn't used any more when advertising a film. There may be a reason.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Vitascope Hall

On this day in 1896, some 111 years ago, the first permanent cinema was opened to the public. It was called the Vitascope Hall, located on Canal Street in New Orleans.

Public exhibition of moving pictures had occurred previously in New York City earlier that year at the Koster & Bials Music Hall on 34th Street, but the Vitascope Hall, a 400-seat theater, was intended to capitalize on what some even then were thinking was more than just a passing fad.

Painfully flickering travelogues were generally the entertainment of the time for an industry trying to get its foot in the door of respectability by appearing educational. That notion would wear off soon enough, even if the eyestrain didn’t. Within fifteen years, we had “The Great Train Robbery” and some 13,000 theaters across the country, with most tickets under 10 cents

Monday, June 25, 2007

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

If you can stomach the ladies’ costumes, it’s not a bad movie. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) has all the elements of a delightful film including a well-known and beloved story by Jane Austen, two superb stars at the top of their game, and some of the best character actors of the day. Only a restoration of parts of the story line to Austen’s original intent, and the correct period costumes are all that is needed to make this an excellent adaptation.

Greer Garson and Sir Laurence Olivier are the iconic Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, and their stagecraft and chemistry are evident. Ms. Garson’s twinkling eyes and slightly nose scrunching smile are charming, and her attentiveness to the other actors bears a history of ensemble work on stage. She is feisty, he is haughty, so far so good. Mary Boland and Edmund Gwenn are spot-on as Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, and Edna May Oliver as Lady Catherine is marvelous. Edna May Oliver as anything is generally a hoot. No actress could make pomposity as endearing as she.

In Marsha Hunt we have one of the funniest Mary Bennetts on screen, with her broad, almost campy playing of the unattractive and dull sister, particularly in her too-eager reaction when her mother admonishes her to smile at a party. The sour note she hits in her performance of “Flow Gently, Sweet Afton” is priceless.

In Mary, and in several aspects of the film we have a slapstick element being thrown in, and a tweaking of Austen’s verbiage to relate to a modern audience, as when Edmund Gwenn saves the Bennetts from looking more ridiculous by stopping Mary from performing another selection. Instead of insisting to his daughter that the other young ladies must have a chance to exhibit, he says, “Give the other young ladies a chance to make exhibitions of themselves.”

Frieda Inescort plays a suitably frosty Caroline Bingley, and she is perhaps the most recognizable element of the novel. Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” not surprisingly, undergoes some alteration in the interests of time, pacing, and translation to a modern audience in this film. Austen’s subtle wit is stretched to slapstick at points, and her wry observations on society are poured through a Hollywood sieve to make them commercial and relevant to what the executives felt audiences would understand and accept. The story becomes a kind of Cinderella story, with Lady Catherine playing matchmaker. Austen’s story was really more a parody of fairy tale romance, but evidently the studio felt this might not play in Peoria.

Interestingly, the aspect of five unmarried daughters desperately in search of husbands does not undergo any necessary explanation in this 1940 film, at least in the same way it does in the 2005 film starring Keira Knightley. This latest version of the story famously departed from the Regency period (more costume issues) and, according to some critics, “dumbed down” if you will, Austen’s narrative to explain a world which no longer exists to modern audiences, (younger audiences). The 1940 version was filmed in an era where the getting of a husband was still considered a career move for young ladies, and so required no explanation.

Inevitably both versions, any version of “Pride and Prejudice” is compared to the fine 1995 BBC film, which had the luxury of telling the story over several episodes, which is what such an intricate plot takes. In attempting to tell the story in under two hours, much is whittled out by necessity, and there are times when the 1940 version feels less like the novel and more like the Cliff Notes. It is odd that with so much removed, a few extra scenes including the opening segments are entirely made up and it takes a while for us to finally get to the famous line, “Netherfield Park is let at last!”

Back to the costumes. They are garish, distracting, anachronistic, and mostly left over designs by Walter Plunkett from “Gone with the Wind.” Evidently the Empire style wasn’t flashy enough, and we end up with everything from enormously cartoonish mid-19th century bonnets to Gilded Age leg-o’-mutton sleeves. The dancing sequences (you can’t have an Austen novel without a ball), are another hodgepodge of waltzing, mazurka and other dances not performed in England of Austen’s time, though “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” is lovely enough to be performed wherever and whenever.

However, if one accepts this film only as a well-meaning version of “Pride and Prejudice” and not an attempt at the definitive, it remains a charming and enjoyable film, based on a novel that will undoubtedly continue to be remade, because it is just that good.

Sponsored Link:
Pride And Prejudice [DVD](1940) DVD

Thursday, June 21, 2007

An Eastern Westerner (1920)

Harold Lloyd in “An Eastern Westerner” (1920) plays a rich milquetoast (do the younger folk of today even know that word?) who is sent by his father, after carousing all night in a dance hall where “Shimmie Dancing Prohibited” to an uncle’s ranch Out West as a punishment.

The plot is thin, the gags are constant, and hapless Harold Lloyd finds himself saving a damsel in distress and her father from the town bully. Like silent screen clown counterparts Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Lloyd does this through pluck, conscience, acrobatics, ingenuity, and a lot of dumb luck.

Unlike Chaplin and Keaton, Mr. Lloyd has a strange kind of modernity to him. Where Chaplin played the classic Little Tramp, a fellow who could have stepped out of the pages of Dickens to visit the 1920s, and Keaton, who played a wider range of roles in different historical time periods nevertheless still carried turn-of-the-20th century American Everyman about him, Lloyd was different. Harold Lloyd rode on the crest of the wave of public interest that had to do with the frivolous young college set, and he looked hopelessly collegiate.

Perhaps it is his round glasses which makes him seem like a modern day nerd, without any other affectation to his screen character (Chaplin’s costume or Keaton’s flat hat). Lloyd would make a credible computer geek today.

His antics to save The Girl, played by Mildred Davis, and her sausage curls from Tiger Lip Tompkins (Noah Young), the bully and his rather KKK-styled hooded gang called “The Masked Angels,” who we are told are “men who have broken eight commandments and twisted the other two,” Lloyd’s fighting is never direct but a kind of guerrilla tactic involving all the props one can find in an alley. There is an especially neat stunt when he hides in a wooden barrel, which is set to rolling and quickly smashes against a porch with the staves coming apart and the Lloyd entangled in the hoops.

Another fun scene is when Lloyd sits in at a game of cards and a tough hombre rolls his own cigarette with one hand while concentrating on his hand of cards. Lloyd tries to imitate him and comes out with a handful of factory-perfect cigarettes at once. Luck is occasionally with him.

In the silent screen days, at least with the comedies, the gags were the foundation of the plot, which was loosely constructed around the gags. It is as if a modern-day stage magician started to form a story around the tricks he performs for us on stage. The tricks are the purpose of the act; the story is just to string us along until the next trick.

The wild and wooly western town is actually quite realistic-looking, with its uneven streets and alleys and run-down structures. It looks more realistic than the neatly laid out and painted western towns of the B-westerns of a couple of decades later. Perhaps because 1920, when the film was made, was a bit closer to the wild west days than the late 1940s.

The film closes after one more stunt with a train, the damsel saved, and Mr. Lloyd takes a pencil and draws a circle around her ring finger, indicating they are to wed. It is the kind of thing Chaplin would do because the Little Tramp never had any money, but wealthy young college boy Lloyd should have been able to wire home for the dough to purchase a diamond. At the very least, such a gesture illustrates how much the film contemporaries borrowed from each other.

This film is also noted for being shot just after Mr. Lloyd lost part of his right hand in a stunt on a previous film, though his flesh-colored prosthetic glove and his superb athletic ability never reveals to the audience that he is now with a handicap. Like the character he played, he always found a way around a problem and never gave up.

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

Sponsored Link:
Harold Lloyd Movies

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Regis Toomey

Regis Toomey started his film career as a lead, who very quickly drifted into character roles. He previously did musical stage work as well, before laryngitis took that option away from him.

He played romantic leads against the reigning actresses of the early 1930s, but by 1941 we see him in smaller roles, like Bert Hansen the soda jerk in “Meet John Doe.” Though he plays a minor role, Toomey seems more the everyman character in that movie than that demonstrated by lead Gary Cooper’s John Willoughby character, more the small-town yokel struggling to get by. He seems more genuine if only because he is less romantic, has less of that aura of mystery. We think we already know him, and maybe we do.

Regis Toomey is also one of the remorseless ambulance-chasing reporters in “His Girl Friday,” and he played a string of detectives and reporters, and a few uncredited roles as his career progressed through the 1940s and 1950s, until television gave him, like so many character actors, new ground and new opportunities for work.

But you see him in the big ones, “The Big Sleep,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” “Sister Kenny,” and “The Bishop’s Wife,” as well as less memorable B-movies. There was an average Joe quality about him, but comparing the moral ambiguity of the reporter in “His Girl Friday” with the open-hearted and guileless Bert Hansen, we can see there really was more there than just the guy we think we know.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Production Code

The Production Code, established in 1930 but not really enforced until 1934, gave us a world on screen that did not always mirror real life. Its existence, however, was deeply rooted in cold, hard reality: if the film industry played too freely with the sensitivities of the public, the government would clamp down. In order to keep their relative autonomy and keep the box office coffers filled, the industry decided to police itself. It was always more about money than morality.

The Code gave us such rules that stipulated the law was not to be ridiculed and wrongdoers must always be seen to be punished. That’s why gangster James Cagney and gangster Humphrey Bogart were always being gunned down or sent to the big house. Nudity was forbidden. Religion was not to be ridiculed and the clergy were not to be seen as comic or villains. This would explain why the sycophant character of Mr. Collins in “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) was changed from a minister to a librarian.

Depiction of drug use was forbidden, largely because the deaths by overdoses of a few well-known Hollywood stars of the 1920s nearly destroyed the public’s good opinion of movies in general and their willingness to spend money on them.

Crimes were not to be detailed explicitly, so that the public would not use a film to study the fine art of murder, arson, etc., much as in the same way today we might be leery of the publication of how to make a nuclear device.

Vulgarities in speech and behavior were forbidden. This was pretty broad. Everything from “damn” to homosexuality and miscegenation was considered forbidden in this vein. “Damn was conquered first in 1939 with Rhett Butler’s famous farewell to Scarlet, but homosexuality and racial intermarriage would take rather longer.

It is interesting that the real-life scandals involving Hollywood drug deaths, murders, and especially the case of the unfortunate Fatty Arbuckle’s manslaughter trial would be the touchstone of so much distortion of reality or even the absence of certain aspects of real life, including depictions of childbirth, in the make-believe universe of the screen. In Arbuckle’s case, most of the lurid charges against him were actually brought by the Hearst newspapers and many of them fabrications. In court Arbuckle was eventually vindicated, and the jury even apologized to him, but that did not alter the downward spiral of his film career. He was destroyed. Art did not imitate life, it was twisted by it.

The Code was eventually replaced by a ratings system in the late 1960s, for much the same reason as it had been implemented: business. The film industry was competing with television and with foreign films, which were not subject to the strict code. The bottom line, more than morality, was the inspiration for the code, and conversely, also for trends in filming “realistic” movies of today. Strong scenes of a sexuality explicit or violent nature are not always there to provide for a “realistic” plot, but to increase the box office. The make-believe universe of the screen is just as phony today as it was back then.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Rasputin and the Empress (1932)

“Rasputin and the Empress” (1932) is a watershed film in a couple of different respects. First, it unites on film for the only time all three of the Barrymores. Secondly, due to Hollywood’s (or, at least in this case, producer Irving Thalberg’s) penchant for changing history in a movie about a historical subject to suit the needs of script, a lawsuit gave us the immortal movie words, “All the characters in this film are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental,” or words to that effect.

In the first case, bringing all three famous Barrymore siblings together in a film was a treat for filmgoers of the day and a gift to posterity. Before their film careers, they represented the next generation in America’s pre-eminent theatrical family. A dynamic, tempestuous, and talented generation it was. Since this blog is about the history of film and not theatre, it is enough perhaps to say that the names above the title of “Rasputin and the Empress” were listed simply, and boldly, as:

John - Ethel - Lionel
BARRYMORE

The audience needed no explanation. This was an all-star lineup, the dream team.

Younger son John, the longtime matinee idol, played Prince Paul Chegodieff, friend of the royal Romanov family. Middle girl Ethel plays the Czarina Alexandra, and oldest child Lionel plays the monk Rasputin, a rapacious and slovenly mystic whose ambition leads him into hypnotizing members of the royal family when he is not engaging in debauchery. Ethel is the heartsick mother of little Czarevitch Alexis, who suffers from hemophilia. Rasputin’s influence over the mother as he works, so he says, miracles with the son will bring down the Russian nobility.

The performances, particularly Ethel’s, are theatrical, and there is quite a bit of newsreel footage of czarist peasants and soldiers to attempt a documentary feel despite obvious errors in the telling of the story. Czar Nicholas’ autocratic administration of his country is glossed over, and this instead becomes the story of how John as Prince Paul, a good guy, has to get rid of his brother Lionel, the mad monk in whom his sister Ethel has so much faith.

The siblings’ scenes together are fun to watch, as they are clearly masters at stagecraft and that is what we are seeing here more than scene stealing. In a scene with John and Lionel, as their characters spar psychologically, Lionel as Rasputin declaring, “I will be Russia!” while John listens thoughtfully, his back turned to him, playing with a rapier. Both brothers are strong actors, neither giving an inch, but also respectful of each others talents.

“There’s something clammy about him,” John says of Rasputin, and describes him, “Like a man-eating shark with a Bible under his fin.”

Lionel does some impressive just-short-of-scenery-chewing here. He clearly has the meatiest role. He is disgusting and creepy. There is a particularly unsettling scene where he forces the young czarevitch, played by Tad Alexander, to watch an ant and a fly at combat under a microscope. The audience is forced to watch as well with intense close-ups as the ant attacks and eats the fly, which Rasputin uses as a teaching tool for political theory.

Another creepy scene is when he gets one of the royal daughters aside and places a locket on her, touching her, like a molesting uncle, and she squirms with discomfort but utter helplessness. Like the cavalry, the lady in waiting played by Diana Wynyard comes to her rescue. An early fan of Rasputin, she begins to change her opinion of him and chases him away from the daughters, when he also tries to hypnotize her so that he may have his way with her.

This, evidently, was the sticking point for the lawsuit against the film. A scene, removed later, suggesting she is raped by Rasputin was decried as false by the real-life counterparts of Prince Paul and her character, who was his wife. He sued; he won, and now we are told that the movie we are watching is fictional. Even if all the names and places and events are real, it’s still fictional, that way we can still make up stuff.

An impressive and realistic fight scene between John and brother Lionel illustrates the death of Rasputin by gunshot, poisoning, beating, and finally drowning. Rasputin was like the Energizer Bunny, but he finally succumbed, and John is the only Barrymore sibling to survive the Russian Revolution, as sister Ethel is massacred with the rest of the Romanovs.

There are a lot of character actors to pick out, and many were uncredited in the film, including Anne Shirley as Princess Anastasia, who later came to life as Ingrid Berman in another film, and Mischa Auer as a waiter. Movies depicting historical events and real people always seem to walk a fine line between creativity and accuracy, but this film that gives us the three Barrymores together is a historical document all by itself.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Flag (1927)


The above photo is of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. Betsy wasn’t home at the time.

Flag Day is celebrated today in the US. Elementary school memories might include the ceremonial raising of the flag, a few clumsily recited poems like “In Flanders Fields” or a bored fourth grader plowing through the Gettysburg Address, and perhaps the playing of “Taps” by a trumpet player borrowed from the local high school band. That’s how it used to be. “The Flag” (1927) gives us a similar vague but earnest tableau of patriotism in the guise of the Betsy Ross story, in a way things did not really used to be.

Ross’ real place in American history as a unique figure: a successful businesswoman in the 18th century, has been buried to a great extent in the legend of her making the first flag. What we don’t know about it, Hollywood is always happy to make up.

What is interesting about this short, directed by Arthur Maude, is its being filmed in an early Technicolor process. The colors, like peach tones and light blues, are somewhat muted, but the flesh tones of the white and black actors appears natural. There’s not much story here: General George Washington, played by stone-faced Francis X. Bushman, wants a national flag, so Betsy creates one . One has the feeling that the film was little more than a test for the color process.

A (very slight) subplot involves a British officer sneaking into Betsy Ross’ house to visit his wife, who happens to be staying there as her guest. When he strips off his black cape to reveal his brilliant red uniform coat, it is quite striking. When Washington and Ross are at a party, all looking out at the blue twilight settling over a pink western sky, Ross describes her design for a flag as stars in a field of blue, one for each colony, as she gazes up at the starry sky. The bars of red are “for the blood of sacrifice” like the pink streaks of sunset, on “a ground of white for love and peace.”

It is meant to be “a flag beneath whose folds every man shall find freedom and protection.” This becomes quite literally true for the British officer, who when Ross unveils her creation (the bold red, white and blue primary colors of the large flag standing out very flashy against the muted colors of the set), and it is hung on the wall for display, he hides behind it when hunted by Continental soldiers.

Washington discovers him and grants him leniency, and as they shake hands, the blue-coated and red-coated men, they predict a future day when their nations will be “united in a common cause.” We are brought immediately to 1917 and the flags of the US, the UK and France carried by allied soldiers of World War I as they march toward the camera.

A simplistic view of foreign relations, to be sure, but Hollywood had a way of tying everything up with a ribbon. Symbolism is what Flag Day is about, anyway.

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Old Movie Buffs

You know you might be a real fan of old movies when:

Though cable news channels constantly cover the latest news about Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or anybody on American Idol, you still have no idea who they are talking about.

When the only thing about watching the Oscars on TV that interests you is what old timer is going to win some honorary award.

When the only people you recognize on the Oscar telecast are in the memoriam reel of performers who died in the preceding year.

You feel really bad about the performers dying in the preceding year.

You use words like “swell” in your speech to indicate approval.

When you and your spouse go to bed, one of you keeps at least one foot on the floor at all times.

You list the cast and put end credits on your vacation videos.

You put a Max Steiner score on your vacation videos.

You know who Max Steiner is.

You know who James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, and Edith Head are, and any of the Westmores, and you can recite the film technicians’ names on any movie the way your kid can recite the starting lineup of a favorite baseball team.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rear Window (1954)

“Rear Window” (1954) is shot on one of the most intricate sets ever created for film, and is so much fun I’m surprised someone hasn’t re-created it as a theme park. The set itself, a courtyard showing the backs of several multi-level apartment buildings, is its own character in the film. It has moods and secrets.

Director Alfred Hitchcock allows the audience to become, much as L.B. Jeffries, played by James Stewart has become, a voyeur sneaking glances into the private worlds of his neighbors. Their private worlds are not just the tangle of fire escapes and studio apartments and kitchenettes, but the rejection and disappointment, the loneliness and troubles they face.

In a swift opening shot we see the backdrop of apartments out Jeffries’ windows, his wheelchair and leg cast, his smashed cameras and photographs, and a stack of Life Magazines which tell us he is a man of action, and already a sort of voyeur as a professional photographer. The first shot we see of Grace Kelly, who plays his girlfriend Lisa, is stunning, with an almost slow-motion feeling of her leaning over the camera and leaning over him for a kiss while he is sleeping. We soon learn, despite this sensual encounter, that there is trouble between them. She is trying to change him into something he is not; and he does not want to be tied down in marriage.

The dialogue in the film, written by John Michael Hayes is reflective, sometimes overlapping, deceptively simple and spare. There is as much conveyed in a camera glance into one of the apartments, or a facial expression from James Stewart as is revealed through the spoken word, though the insurance company nurse, played by Thelma Ritter, gets some good lines.

“We’ve become a race of peeping Toms,” she says, and one wonders what her character would think of today’s camera cell phones.

She senses impending trouble for Stewart, disapproving of his spying on his neighbors, including the nubile dancer dubbed “Miss Torso,” with his telephoto lens, and when he scoffs at her foreboding, she tells him she also predicted the stock market crash of 1929 based on her observations of her patient, an executive at General Motors.

“Kidney ailment they said. Nerves, I said. And I asked myself, what’s General Motors got to be nervous about? Over production, I says. Collapse. When General Motors has to go to the bathroom ten times a day, the whole country’s ready to let go.”

When the lonely woman who lives by herself, dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts, pretends to entertain in a candlelight dinner for two, she raises her glass of wine, as Stewart, wryly and condescendingly observing her, raises his own glass and toasts her, playing her imaginary partner from a distance. We hear street sounds, car horns and sirens, the distant muffled voices of the neighbors, and music as if from a distant radio.

When he begins to suspect his neighbor Thorwald, played by Raymond Burr, of killing his invalid wife, Jeffries’ boredom with his neighbors and his sarcasm toward them changes. He becomes fascinated, and with the help of Kelly and Ritter, tries to prove to his detective friend that a murder even happened. His relationship with Kelly changes as well, and his face lights up with admiration as she reports back on her spying attempt to get information. The audience becomes conspirators, as if, like children, excitedly ringing doorbells and then running away, in an attempt to get the goods on the murderer from a safe distance. In the end, however, his apartment is not Stewart’s haven anymore than his neighbors’ apartments are theirs. Thorwald comes to get him, and Stewart’s only protection is the flash device on his camera, where he pops in the bulbs one at a time into the enormous flash reflector, like a long-ago soldier using a percussion musket that can be fired only once before it must be reloaded each time.

For a guy who spends the entire film in his jammies in a wheelchair, James Stewart has one of the most interesting roles of his career, in part due to his reactions displaying his changing attitudes towards his neighbors. He and Thelma Ritter disgustedly watch a distasteful scene of Miss Lonelyhearts fending off an aggressive date, and later fear her attempted suicide. His attitude towards this neighbor, and the others, has moved from bored disinterest, to fascination, to compassion. Her suicide attempt is stopped suddenly by the rapture she feels at the music coming from the bachelor composer’s apartment (played by Ross Bagdasarian, who later gave us Alvin and the Chipmunks).

Lisa, sneaking into Thorwald’s apartment is also transfixed by the music, but the music that saved Miss Lonelyhearts is Lisa’s doom. Thorwald catches her, and Stewart is trapped by his helplessness, in a black hole of panic when Lisa screams and the lights are turned out. After she is rescued by the police, Stewart broods on his own danger when he knows Thorwald knows he has been watching, and we see the eerie glow of a cigarette in Thorwald’s darkened apartment.

The magnificent set, so intricate despite appearing so ordinary, gives us all these moments. “Rear Window” is perhaps one of Hitchcock’s best-told stories of murder and suspense because it is played out in such an ordinary setting, and at times with ironic humor. That a grisly murder could happen under such every day circumstances and missed by all the neighbors is creepy. The aura of normality is deceptive, which is a creepy thought by itself.

Sponsored Link:
Rear Window [DVD](1954) DVD

Monday, June 11, 2007

New Charlotte Greenwood Biography

Charlotte Greenwood, in her day one of the foremost comediennes of stage and film, is finally the subject of a biography. Grant Hayter-Menzies has written “Charlotte Greenwood: The Life and Career of the Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio and Film,” utilizing a number of personal notes and memorabilia the actress left to their mutual friend, playwright William Luce.

Published by McFarland & Company in May 2007, this new biography gives us a chance to re-examine the career of a remarkable talent. Mr. Hayter-Menzies kindly answered a few questions for me on his book, for which he interviewed Shirley Jones, who starred with Miss Greenwood in “Oklahoma.” The challenge of course is when the subject was born in 1890, there are few colleagues left to interview, even though Greenwood’s career spanned nearly fifty years. Much of the source material comes from Miss Greenwood herself.

Both Miss Jones and the author comment on Charlotte Greenwood’s honesty in her performances. Mr. Hayter-Menzies remarks, “Even in her crazier roles - with the high kicks, the splits, the Camel Walk (her dance routine involving a flat-handed crawl off the stage) - you feel like a real person is in front of you.”

“I think this realness, honesty, and empathy, was based on the fact that Charlotte regarded herself immensely privileged to be an actor. As Shirley Jones notes elsewhere, Charlotte took all the pleasure in her work, after 50 years on stage and screen, that a much younger person, full of youthful ideals, would have shown. She had somuch to give, and she wanted everyone giving her their attention to have as much pleasure and inspiration as she got from performing. She really loved people and had no hesitation about showing it.”

Theatre critics lauded Greenwood as a special talent, and in one of her earliest film reviews for “So Long Letty” (1929), which featured a character she was to portray in several plays and films, the New York Times commented that she was “largely responsible” for the lively picture, doing “exceedingly well in her part of the light-headed wife.”

According to Hayter-Menzies, “She was in Los Angeles touring ‘So Long Letty,’ the first of her several spin-off musical comedies based on a character, Letitia Proudfoot, that she had played in a show called ‘The Pretty Mrs. Smith,’ and was tapped by Jesse Lasky to star in a film called ‘Jane.’ She confided to a reporter during this time that playing ‘Letty’ in the theatre and shooting ‘Jane’ on the Famous Players set nearly exhaustedher. Perhaps this contributed to her early lack of appreciation for movie-making. But the most important factor was the lack of a live audience and little control over what she could do with the characters she played. And there was a certain snobbery among theatre people from New York in that day that movies - what Charlotte called ‘the flicks’ - were not as good as theatre and a passing fad. It is significant that the first serious dramatic parts Charlotte played and was critically acclaimed for came about in the live theatre, not in films. She always preferred that one-on-one experience with a live audienceto the static strictures of movie making. Yet that wonderful directness from years of live theatre served her very well on film.”

By the early 1940s, though her reputation for comedy was still respected, she was invariably referred to, perhaps even dismissed in articles as merely “cutting middle-age capers” (NY Times, October 18, 1940 on “Down Argentine Way”) and appearing “with legs like stilts.” (NY Times, December 23, 1943 on “The Gang’s All Here”). Still, there was more to Charlotte Greenwood than an almost gymnastic dancing ability and a deft way with a comic line.

The author describes what he feels are a couple of her finest roles: “In my book I make it clear that in terms of how much of the total Charlotte Greenwood went into the characterization, how well directed she was and how thoroughly explored her talents were, the role of Aunt Eller in ‘Oklahoma!’ is Charlotte's best. And, too, there's her ‘trial run’ for Eller, the role of Aunt Penny in the 1944 drama, ‘Home in Indiana,’ which contains Charlotte's first filmed dramatic scene - and a knockout of a first scene it is, too. But in terms of comedy, it doesn't get much better than her role as the ex-cabaret dancer turned investor's wife, Mrs. Peyton Potter, in Busby Berkeley's wild wartime musical, ‘The Gang's All Here.’ She's elegant, she's a klutz, she's a wisecracker and she's justbeautiful to look at and to hear. Her jitterbug sequence, in a long gown and with a man young enough to be her son, is a classic.” (See the link below to watch this classic scene on YouTube.)

Perhaps most poignant about Miss Greenwood’s career is that she regarded it as somewhat accidental.

“I was astonished, first off, that she never intended to become a comedian.” Mr. Hayter-Menzies responds, “From her earliest girlhood she wanted desperately to be a seriousdramatic actor, and that was an ideal that she kept close to heart her entire career - it wasalso one that was reinforced when great drama critics in New York and London acclaimed her in roles that used this largely untapped talent. I was also amazed that her other ideal had been to sing opera - in fact, she studied voice very seriously and I have her music, showing how many arias and art songs (Brahms was a favorite) she worked on. In the 1930's she was still suggesting to the press that she might perform a recital of Brahms songs. She was vocally so unsuited to this material that the idea of her performing Brahms songs or opera arias publicly is rather harrowing. On the other hand, you have to love and applaud the woman's bravery, her gallantry.”

A woman 5’10” tall was considered to be an Amazon in those days, and her ability to use her height and flexibility became a large part of her stage and screen persona. Mr. Hayter-Menzies notes that, “Accident played such a part in making her the beloved comedy figure she was. Charlotte realized her height and leanness were an effective gimmick by accident, and through a great deal of pain. She and her partner EuniceBurnham were performing their act, ‘Two Girls and a Piano,’ in a Wichita theatre in the mid-1900's. Both were elegantly gowned, and while Eunice accompanied at the upright Charlotte sang ballads. One night, she let herself emote with her hands and arms, and the house was in stitches - the more she tried to over correct, the more they liked it. Charlotte was devastated, as she had always been laughed at, since childhood, forher physique. But Eunice convinced her to go with the flow, and the act became a comedy routine that broke box office records and made the pair famous on the vaudeville circuit.”

Quoting Miss Greenwood’s notes for the memoir she was never to write, “In that decision, I had learned the most valuable lesson of my career - that of subjugating self. I was ready for a career as a clown."

“She loved, above all, making people happy,” the author notes, “even if she had to learn to make herself happy in the process.”Another incongruous element in Miss Greenwood’s career is that she often played a man-chasing spinster, yet in real life was married twice. Her second marriage to songwriter Martin Broones was a long and very happy marriage.

“Charlotte was no more gangly and skinny than Julia Roberts or Darryl Hanna, but inthe tastes of the time she was not a girl whom anybody thought any man would want to marry,” Mr. Hayter-Menzies explains, “Hence the Letitia or Letty character and her many iterations, who was always chasing after a man, physically subduing him (as she does with Eddie Cantor, Bert Lahr and Buster Keaton in her early 1930's comedies), or outwitting men one way or another in her theatre roles (Abby in ‘The Late Christopher Bean"’ being a good example). She knew she was stereotyped, especially in Hollywood, and she went with it, because it was what gave people pleasure. That she was in factan elegant woman, versed in classical music and opera, a collector of Chinese art and thepaintings of Sir Jacob Epstein, was the reality that only her friends ever saw.”

What the author hopes the reader will take away from this biography of Charlotte Greenwood is, “That behind every stereotype there is a real person - that the clown we laugh at is a human being, with loves, hates, fears and all the rest that goes with being mortal. And the message that Charlotte ends her memoirs with: go with your inspiration. It will lead you to just where you want to be.”

The book can be ordered through Amazon, Borders, Barnes & Noble, or through thepublisher, McFarland & Company. The publisher's listing for the book is:http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php?id=978-0-7864-2995-0

Grant Hayter-Menzies will be reading from his book at The Drama Bookshop in New York City at 6 p.m., September 11, 2007. This link below is to The Drama Bookshop event: http://www.dramabookshop.com/NASApp/store/IndexJsp?s=storeevents&eventId=345212

This is Mr. Hayter-Menzies' website with photos and more info on Charlotte Greenwood: http://solongletty.tripod.com/.

Thanks very much to Grant Hayter-Menzies for this interview. I think perhaps we’ll give Charlotte Greenwood the last word. Here's a YouTube clip of Charlotte doing that jitterbug scene from “The Gang’s All Here” (1943). Keep in mind, she was about 53 years old when she did this:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJQksW2vGIA

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) - Part 2

In this film, I especially get a kick out of the police desk sergeant trying to amuse a temporarily lost baby who is waiting for her mother to pick her up at the station, while he is on the phone trying to calm Leona. It is a nice touch that the fretful child he gently pacifies, dressed to go bye-bye in her crisp white dress and bonnet, is played by an African-American infant.

The biggest difference in the radio and film versions is in the actresses who played the invalid woman and how they played her. In the radio version, Agnes Moorehead was so very fine as the lead, that she was asked to repeat her performance on radio several more times. It was a role with which she became identified. Just as Miss Stanwyck saw the need to film the scenes in sequence to build up the momentum of hysteria, Miss Moorehead, too, was said to have requested to play the role sitting down at a table to support herself (unusual on radio, where actors stood before mics) because she felt utterly exhausted by the end of the show.

Moorehead’s invalid woman was more fragile than Stanwyck’s, more whining and irritable, and perhaps therefore more comic. There is something we can all identify with when her frustration with the impersonal telephone operators grows and she calls them stupid and fights with them. We’ve all had that experience of being blown off by an unhelpful customer service rep and wished we could reach down into the phone receiver and choke them.

As good as Stanwyck was as Leona, it is unfortunate that Miss Moorehead did not get her chance to play the character on film. It would have been a slightly different Leona, but she would have undoubtedly been terrific. However, there was a rule in Hollywood about character actresses not being allowed to play leads, and Moorehead, despite her familiarity with the character and fame at playing it, would never have been allowed to take the lead role in a major film.

Likewise, it was Hollywood’s rule that the female protagonist in a film was not allowed to be murdered, unless the audience felt she somehow deserved it. A female could die a tragic death due to some mystery disease, and lounge languidly in the arms of the hero as she gave a farewell speech, but not be senselessly murdered. Murder was too sordid to be allowed to happen to nice people, especially if they were the lead in the movie on which a lot of the studio’s money was riding. Leona had to be changed from just an irritable invalid to a really nasty person.

So, Stanwyck’s Leona was given the background in the flashback scenes of being a schemer and a boyfriend stealer, a spoiled rich daddy’s girl, and someone who wasn’t really an invalid at all, just a manipulative hypochondriac. Miss Stanwyck’s challenge then was to make us care that she was marked for murder, despite all that. We did care, because Stanwyck is reduced before our eyes from a willful, bossy shrew to a helpless, bewildered woman, all alone, crazed with panic, yet a victim of her own flaws as much as her scheming husband’s greed. Mostly we care because the thought of being helpless in bed while a killer walks up your stairs, and you see his shadow, and your only defense is the telephone, still moves us.

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

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) - Part 1

“Sorry, Wrong Number,” (1948) is an interesting mixture of script dynamics that combine qualities of film, stage, and radio. Lucille Fletcher, who wrote the original radio script on which the film was based, also wrote the screenplay and she carries over the sensibilities of both in this film.

The studio or producers or whoever made the decision to allow Fletcher to adapt her own script herself deserve full marks for not handing the job over to somebody else. She deserved a crack at it, and her film script is complex and multi-faceted. Barbara Stanwyck won her fourth Academy Award nomination for her work in the film as a murder victim, which also starred Burt Lancaster as the desperate, bitter, henpecked husband who lives in her shadow, and who plots to kill her.

Neither Lancaster’s role, nor any of the other roles played in the film existed in Miss Fletcher’s original radio script. It was just the woman and her phone, and a few disembodied voices of nonplused telephone operators and police desk sergeants to whom she spoke, and the voice of her eventual killer.

The telephone is as vivid a character in the radio script as any actor. The sound of the hesitant rotary dial and the ringing, and the busy signal are remarkably suspenseful in the radio script. The phone is her source of hope, her survival tool, her harbinger of doom. If this were a cartoon, it would sprout leering eyes and a monster’s mouth and freak us out. These psychological elements are more difficult to carry over into film, where the moment of a half-hour radio sketch must be stretched into a visual telling of the story of two hours.

This is where the film script departs from radio and becomes standard film noir fare, with lots of flashbacks to tell the story, and history of the characters to tell us who they are. We must build up to the murder with a foundation of wheres and whys. These things are not even hinted at in the radio script. In the radio version, an invalid left alone overhears a murder plot, and frantically tries to warn the police as any good Samaritan should. By the end of the story we realize, and she comes to realize, that the intended victim is herself. It is an almost overwhelmingly suspenseful story on radio, but that is hard to maintain for two hours on film, so we need a full story of who Leona is and who are the people in her life and why they are what they are. In the radio version we don’t know who is out to kill her or why. We have an inkling that the sudden absence of her husband on an out of town trip is too coincidental, and perhaps he is involved in plotting her murder, but we’re not really told. The film gives us the background.

What is stage-like and theatrical about the film is that Stanwyck is trapped in her bed, trying to get help from the outside world on the phone much as on a static stage set. Also, Miss Stanwyck specially requested of the director Anatole Litvak that her scenes as the invalid be shot in order, so that she could properly work up to the crescendo of hysteria that envelops Leona by the end of the film. Usually films are not shot in order, the scenes are shot in a random sequence according to logistics and what equipment is available and what actors are available on any given day. Technical aspects rule the shooting roster, not chronological order of scenes. Shooting Leona’s bedridden scenes in order of the plot on this film is unique.

More on "Sorry, Wrong Number" tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

The Kid - 1921

“The Kid” (1921), Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, ties together episodic bits in the life of an orphaned child and the Little Tramp who raises him. What ties the flow of funny or heartbreaking short scenes together is Chaplin’s wonderful sense of place. The slum these two characters live in is a world unto itself, and they are survivors in this world that is not supposed to be funny, but frequently is.

Their streets are mean and dirty. Their flat is crumbling about them, and their food looks like just so much garbage in a steaming wash tub. There is nothing meager, though, about their sense of purpose in surviving poverty, and their attachment to each other.

Charlie Chaplin’s character, and the world he lives in, is equal parts honor and larceny, but underhandedness only in a sense of survival because that it what it takes to survive. The kid, played by Jackie Coogan, breaks windows with rocks so that Chaplin, a street peddling glazier, may repair them to support them both.

When a bratty kid steals Coogan’s toys, given to him by the kind lady who later turns out to be his natural mother, Coogan thrashes the brat in a fistfight. Chaplin’s pride in his boy soon turns to thoughts of self preservation when the brat’s old brother, a bully played by Charles Reisner, threatens to beat up Chaplin if Coogan wins the fight. Chaplin, in comedic timing worthy of a true champion admonishes Coogan with a quick, “You wicked boy,” and plants his foot on Coogan’s chest to keep him from winning.

Inevitably, the bully wants to fight Chaplin anyway, and the voluminous padding under Reisner’s tight turtleneck making him look a little like the Michelin Man tells us he is a strong and powerful fighter. We need not fear for Chaplin, however, because underhandedness is his code of honor, and he repeatedly clunks the bully with a hidden brick.

We see trickery at work as well in the flophouse (no politically correct homeless shelter in 1921), where Chaplin tries to sneak Coogan in without paying extra for him. Chaplin pays for a cot in a barn of a room lined with other sleeping men and hides Coogan successfully, until Coogan, raised by him to be good as well as sneaky, after a snuggle and a kiss, slips out of bed and onto his knees for a quick bedtime prayer, and they are caught, and he must pay extra. A nice touch is the thin, pitiful jets of gaslight being turned down by the proprietor, and then later frantically turned on again by Chaplain when he realizes his boy is missing.

Edna Purviance plays the woman who abandoned the kid as a baby and who, now a successful performer, pines for her lost son. That they are eventually reunited, all three in Purviance’s mansion is meant to satisfy the audience and resolve Chaplin’s and the kid’s hopeless future, but her mother’s love is not so meaningful to us as the anxious moments earlier in the film when the orphan asylum authorities try to remove the kid from Chaplin’s care. Coogan is removed, kicking and crying and dropped into the truck bed the way a dogcatcher rounds up a stray dog. Young Coogan is handled and manhandled so much in this film, it’s a wonder he lived to grow up.

When Coogan is taken from him, Chaplin struggles bodily with the authorities and when they restrain him, his expression thrown like a dart at the camera is one of animal pain and fear. Chaplin expertly, with one deep look into his stricken face, illustrates our deepest sick fears, our worst nightmares about losing our children, and cuts to the heart.

In a vigorous chase over rooftops, with the asylum vehicle driving the street below to show perspective of height, Chaplin escapes the authorities and leaps to the truck bed, reunited with his boy with a clinch of a hug and a desperate kiss, and charges at the driver in a physical threat to leave them alone. That his lithe, graceful little form, so successfully used to comic effect can be actually threatening as he stamps his feet at the intimidated asylum officer, is somehow touching.

Chaplin was very good at exploiting his abilities, and at exploiting the emotions of the audience, who were always right in his pocket.

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Rosalind Russell - 100th Anniversary

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Rosalind Russell, one of Hollywood’s most sassy fast-talking leads in an age of clever and sassy independent women. Since the earliest days of women’s involvement in theater (which was much later than men’s), the prominent roles for female leads were either as the victim or the whore. The film industry continued this somewhat frustrating theater tradition until actresses like Rosalind Russell came along to prove there was yet another side to women.

She was not the only one, there was an elite corps of female troopers ready to give a punch as well as take it, mask uncertainty and face adversity with a lot of lip and a classy attitude. Claudette Colbert, Myrna Loy, Barbara Stanwyck, Jean Arthur, a line of ladies who stood up for themselves and were funny to boot.

In her breezy and anecdotal autobiography, “Life is a Banquet,” (with Chris Chase, Random House, New York, 1977), Miss Russell insists she was not of the upper echelon of stars at Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and even joked that she got Myrna Loy’s cast-off scripts, but when “The Women” (1939) came along, there was nobody who could do the part of busybody, troublemaking Mrs. Fowler like her. It pushed her into comedic roles after a lot of what she called “Lady Mary” roles.

One of her most memorable of these comedic films was “His Girl Friday,” (1940) a remake of the successful stage hit and film, “The Front Page.” Director Howard Hawks’ decision to change the character of Hildy to a female changed the scope and direction of the film, obviously, and took off some of the edge the original film in its biting commentary on cynical newsmen, crooked politicians, exploitation of race, and a circus of a police, crime and graft in order to slide in a romantic comedy in the middle of it all. But, there was still plenty of cynicism left, batted about like ballplayers practicing on the infield by a group of terrific character actors as the newshounds in the pressroom, including Regis Toomey, with Gene Lockhart as the smarmy Sheriff Hartwell, Helen Mack as the tragic Mollie Malloy, and John Qualen as the pitiful hangdog murderer on the lam. Billy Gilbert steals the scenes as Mr. Pettibone, the hapless, bumbling, just-doing-my-job messenger trying to deliver the governor’s pardon.

Rosalind Russell floats nicely between moods as Hildy. In her soft, intimate interrogation of John Qualen in the jail, speaking to him through a chain link pen, she lights him a cigarette from her own mouth, passes it to him and mutters, “Sorry about the lipstick, Earl,” as she softly continues her questioning. This is in contrast to her fast and furious bandying with Cary Grant, who slaps her word for word, shout for shout, goad for goad as her editor who is determined to wring one last assignment out of her and mess up her plans to marry the ever patient Ralph Bellamy. Noted for his regular guy roles, Grant even pokes fun at Bellamy by saying that his character, “looks like that fellow in the movies. Ralph Bellamy.”

In her autobiography, Russell claims that some of the script was ad libbed, and some doctored up by a writer she had hired on the side for jokes, but the lines flow together seamlessly with Charles Lederer’s script (based on the stage play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur), and make this a film that needs to be seen over again to catch all of them.

“Earl shot the professor in the classified ads,” she tells Cary Grant, and once she realizes her dream of marrying the stable Ralph Bellamy and his interfering mother is not for her, “I’m no suburban bridge player, I’m a newspaperman.” Newspaperman. In her pinstripe suit, she is one of the guys, and a better writer than all the other lying ambulance chasers barking on candlestick telephones around the table in the newsroom.

It is a great film to snag even a small part in, because everyone gets a piece of the pie as far as great lines are concerned. When Grant’s hired thug, Louie, kidnapping Hildy’s future mother-in-law gets into a car wreck with a couple of police cars, he returns shaken, moaning, “Can you imagine bumping into a load of cops? They come rolling out like oranges.”

In her book, Miss Russell recounts her famous description of acting as, “standing up naked and turning around very slowly.” There has been plenty written about the personal scandals and private lives of Hollywood stars, but not enough about how the everyday film work was accomplished. It is fortunate she documented a small part of her career for us, fortunate to have participants in Hollywood’s golden age give us the nuts and bolts of the work involved behind the magic. As always, she is a sensible and sassy voice, still.

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