IMPEACH TRUMP.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

TCM Classic Film Festival - Read All About It


Today begins the TCM Classic Film Festival hosted at several Hollywood venues by Turner Classic Movies.  Though I've never been to the TCMCFF, I've always enjoyed a ringside seat through the wonderful descriptions of my fellow classic film bloggers.  Their adventures and their enthusiasm are a lot of fun to follow.  If you aren't able to take in the festival, then by all means, enjoy the recap posts of the four days of old movie lovers' heaven through classic film blogs such as these:

Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

Essays from the Couch

Out of the Past

Once Upon a Screen

Outspoken and Freckled

Classic Move Hub

...to name a few.  But for on-the-spot action, follow their trail on Twitter - #TCMFF.

Thank you to these bloggers and others who share their experiences on social media about the TCM Film Festival for those of us who don't get to go, and for sharing their love of classic films all year long.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)



Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) is engrossing for the work of its cast, the sensitive and shrewd viewpoint of the director, and mostly for being a fine example of what was most entertaining about classic films:  They were almost always character studies, and the characters were not so very different from us. Also, they were quite bold and courageous about playing the ball where it lies.

When a child reads Cinderella, there is no questioning the logic of how there could be such a thing as a glass slipper and that there’s only one person in the whole kingdom whom it will fit. That's just the way it is.  The child accepts those terms in order to enjoy the story.



In Phone Call from a Stranger, we are expected to accept a series of unusual or even unlikely scenarios as a matter of course. Therein do we find the magic of storytelling.

Many critics and fans alike will point to classic films as examples of entertainment that were escapist. For many films, this was true, but even in the most fantastical adventure what I find most compelling in classic films is not their escapism but their relevance.  Time and again, I find relevance more than escape.

What I also admire about the people who made classic films is that they had the guts to focus on the most mundane lives and circumstances to launch an adventure. In many respects we've gotten away from that in our modern films and television entertainment, where to be competitive in the marketplace where there is so much competition, the film's story must have some sort of special hook to it, either the characters must be unusual or their experiences must be, or they must be seen as representing a segment of society which is currently marketable.

But old movies, in an era where they churned them out by the dozens by the week, there was little self-conscious need to market the story right from the script.  That was the purview of the publicity men; directors and writers and actors could be more playful with an idea. It didn’t always necessarily need to be considered logical.

Phone Call from a Stranger is a mystery, a character study, a moralistic fable, that is also quite funny at times, and often unflinching at the foibles and inconsistencies of not only its characters but of us.  It also manages to be inspirational.

Gary Merrill stars as a lawyer who is leaving his wife because she has been unfaithful to him. Like a noir film there are flashbacks and it will take almost until the very end of the film until we understand his whole story and his motivations. At first, we only know that he is angry and resentful, that he loves his wife and two daughters, but he cannot reconcile himself to living with her anymore. He leaves his Midwest home to take a flight to California to start a new life.

The film begins as a noir, at midnight, in a rainstorm, with ominous music flooding over the title and credits.

By the way, there’s going to be enough spoilers in here to choke a horse.  You love spoilers?  Oh, that's fine, then.

He takes a cab to the airport and books his one-way flight by an assumed name so that she cannot track him down, yet he calls her from a phone booth so that she will not worry. We see from the very first moment of the film that despite his need to escape his life, which has become bitter and disappointing, he still has enough sympathy for his wife not to put her through the agony of wondering where he went. He tells her he will be in touch. The rain drips off the brim of his fedora.

He will spend the next couple of days on a long-distance journey full of layovers and delays in the company of three other passengers. They are Michael Rennie, a doctor; Keenan Wynn, a traveling salesman; and Shelley Winters, a second-rate actress. Director Jean Negulesco allows their stories to unfold in a leisurely way that is interesting and easily keeps the audience's attention with a kind of sleight-of-hand that is as effective as Hitchcock's but much more subtle. There are mysteries all around us, and sudden tragic scenes of violence, but it is the deceptively normal, innocent moments of seeming irrelevance that keep us off balance the most.

Michael Rennie, who we last saw in I'll Never Forget You (1951) here, plays a reserved, gentlemanly, and somewhat anxious man. Like Merrill, he seems to have some secret trouble.
Keenan Wynn is a joker and a constant motormouth, pulling out novelty items like clattering teeth and funny glasses and letting rip off high, maniacal laugh that echoes in the lunch room, in a waiting room, on the plane. He is a little annoying for his over-the-top extroverted character. We haven't an inkling what his story really is, not because he is more clever at hiding his emotions than the other three, but because he is less burdened by them, and that will be the most amazing thing of all.

Shelley Winters, who played goodhearted but common-as-dirt dames, is very likable as a small-time performer who wants to be a big-time actress but has failed to gain any traction in New York. She is flying home to California to rejoin her husband and his overbearing mother because she misses him and she has learned that the bright lights of Broadway are probably not going to shine on her. Rather than being despondent about that, she has decided to focus herself on her marriage, what she realizes means more to her. Because she is so gregarious, she draws out the back stories of the three men. She guesses before anyone, with common sense and razor-sharp astuteness, that Rennie is a doctor and that Keenan Wynn is a traveling salesman, and she has guessed that all the men are married. She freely discusses her own problems and we can commiserate with her about her fear of flying on her very first plane trip.

It's fun to see the trappings of the era: walking out to the plane on the tarmac; the plane, a prop job with a small cabin; the smoking and no smoking and fasten seatbelt lights going on and off in the days before jets when a transcontinental flight would actually have to make stops to refuel at certain points along the way. It is on the stops that they get to know each other.

Gary Merrill, despite his troubles at home, has the easiest manner of the bunch, is the most level-headed and patient with them. He is a lawyer.  It is his calm nature that makes Shelley Winters want to sit next to him on the plane. At one point, in their chumminess, when he puts his seat back to sleep, she does the same and jokes about their spending the night together. For those who find it difficult to sleep on planes, one has to envy them in the shot at night when most of the people on the plane are asleep even during a violent thunderstorm. When the storm forces them to land in an out of the way spot, they sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” as the plane lurches in the descent.  (Quick, what other road movie has the characters singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze?”   Yeah, I know you know.  It Happened One Night -1932, which we discussed here.)  In a panic, Shelley Winters clutches Merrill’s hand, and lurches forward with what looks like a stomach-churning lift of the plane.

Gary Merrill, with that craggy face had a wonderful knack for playing unassuming characters of quiet strength that were somehow heroic simply for being unassuming. During one point in the trip, the plane has come to a difficult landing and in a layover waiting for the storm to pass he and Michael Rennie discuss Rennie’s troubles. He wants Merrill's help and his professional judgment as an attorney.
Five years earlier, when at a dinner dance at a country club, Rennie had too much to drink and was called away to perform surgery on a patient. His fellow physician, played by our friend Hugh “Ward Cleaver” Beaumont went with him. In a childish bit of drunken bravado, in spite Beaumont's protests and perhaps because of them, Rennie drove very recklessly and they got into an accident. Beaumont was killed, as were two others in a car with which they collided. Rennie lied to the police, telling them Beaumont was driving, and his wife, played by Beatrice Straight, stoically and with disgust, did not contradict her husband, lying as well to protect him. Their son never knew the truth, but he did observe the break in his parents’ marriage after this incident where his father drank more and his mother seemed to shut him out. This is told in flashback scene.




Now Rennie is coming home to California to face the music and he wants Gary Merrill to go with him to the DA’s office to tell them the truth. He had already gotten away with it, but he can no longer live with his guilt and needs to regain his wife's respect. Rennie is brittle, bitter, good with the conflict.

Shelley Winters is charming in her effortless and natural friendly if outspoken dame who’s been around the block, not playing it at all like a stereotype.  There is something sweet and childlike about her.  She confesses to Merrill about her failure to hit it big in New York and her desire to go home to be with her husband.
Her biggest problem was the conflict she had with her mother-in-law, an ex-vaudevillian, played with venomous panache by Evelyn Warden, who owns a supper club in Los Angeles where her son, Shelley's husband, performs with her. Mama rules the roost, and she disliked Shelley from the beginning. But Shelley is willing to go home and even brave her mother-in-law just to be with her husband again. She’s a people person, and it’s fun to watch her figure out what makes everyone tick.  We realize, later on, that she has given Merrill a lot to think about.

Keenan Wynn seems such a shallow and trite man that we don't imagine there is anything below the surface, and others refer to him, among other things, as a jerk.  We never get a chance to get his story – the plane crashes.

It happens on the second leg of the journey, the next morning, when the day is fine and there is no hint of the noirishness of the night before. It is shocking when, in an instant, the pilots notice ice on the wings, and Shelley Winters’ body is thrown over Gary Merrill, on top of us, and the whole plane lurches, and then we see the plane flailing through the trees and upending. We see the inevitable headlines about the plane crash – most of the people on board are dead, except for three who survive.

We wonder which three of the four lived?

We’re next brought to a hotel room in Los Angeles and – Gary Merrill walks through the door.   

He has facial bruises, his arm in a sling, his torn suit a mess and we see he has just gotten out of the hospital. He dictates a telegram to his wife telling her where he's going to be staying for a few days but mentioning nothing about the plane crash. She would not have been alerted to it, because he had checked in under a phony name anyway. He could have gotten away with disappearing.

Absentmindedly, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the business cards of the two men and a piece of paper with Shelley's address info on it. The four musketeers, as they called themselves, decided that they would keep in touch.

We realize now that the other three have all been killed.

Merrill seems to be making up his mind about something, and his character suddenly takes the movie one step further, one step beyond a typical plane crash movie. What happens next isn’t about the crash, but about the families of these three characters and what happens next for them. 

Merrill does the very noble thing of contacting their loved ones, not only to bring them comfort to share with them the last moments, but to right some wrongs and to repair the damage in the lives of the deceased so that at least the living can go on.

In the case of Michael Rennie, Merrill visits his wife who laments that their teenage son has run away.  He does not know the truth about his father. Gary Merrill tracks him down, brings him home and tells the boy, played by Ted Donaldson (whom we saw here in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – 1945) the truth about his father's guilt in the accident and reminds him that an indecent man would've taken pleasure to have gotten away with something; a decent man is horrified by the guilt. He also learns that his mother has protected him. The son grows up quite a bit in those few minutes. The family is restored even though Rennie will never come home to them, and his memory will be sweeter for them. In a sense, he has come home.



Next Merrill tackles Shelley Winters’ story. He goes to the supper club where her mother-in-law is onstage, the next to the last of the big hot mamas, and a cute, if well-worn, club routine with her son, who is played by Craig Stevens. It's not a large role but Craig Stevens always acquits himself very well and it is a pleasure to see him in anything. He jokes on stage with mom and gets to sing a song, although I'm not sure that's really his voice on “Again”, though he was a singer and clearly sings the preceding “The Old Gray Mare.”



Merrill gets to see just how overbearing mom really is. She is rude, selfish and bad-mouths Shelley Winters and has tried to break up the marriage, wanting to keep sonny boy to herself. She tells her side of the story in a wholly made-up flashback that seems to parody noir movie flashbacks, but Merrill sets the path straight by throwing in a cute flashback of his own imagining where Shelley Winters has been a big hit on Broadway taking over for Mary Martin in South Pacific. It’s a clever and really funny bit where we see Shelley pantomiming the stage bits of Nellie Forbush including washing that man out of her hair, and he tells her that Shelley wanted to have her mother-in-law join the cast as Bloody Mary, had she not been killed in the plane crash. Mother-in-law, who would have killed for the part, is finally put in her place and her big mouth is finally shut once and for all. Craig Stevens is not fooled, but what is more important to him is Merrill's telling him that Shelley was coming home of her own will, not to battle him in a divorce case, but because she missed him and wanted to give up entertaining for him.

As the days progress, Merrill seems to heal a little from his injuries. He's got a new suit, he loses the sling, the Band-Aid on his head is removed to reveal a thin scar. He finally makes his way to the last stop:  Keenan Wynn's house. Now his last duty is to comfort his widow. We wonder what he will say about Keenan Wynn. He had no heart to hearts with Wynn, no one really got to know him that well; it is hard to know someone who shines such a bright light on himself, a jokester who always goes too far. At one point, Keenan Wynn had passed around a photograph he carried of his wife in a bathing suit on a beach. And everyone is surprised, partly because showing cheesecake photos of one’s wife is a rather tasteless thing to do, and partly because she is such a good-looking young woman, everyone wonders how someone so smashing could've ended up with a schmuck like Keenan Wynn?

But the mystery grows even greater when Gary Merrill goes to his widow's home and finds Bette Davis, Keenan’s widow, lying in bed, hoisting herself up with the handgrips of medical frame. She is paralyzed from the waist down. She is not the sexy young woman in the photo; that was years ago. She knits industriously and seems matter-of-fact in her discussion with Gary Merrill. She does not seem to grieve. When she acknowledges to Merrill that her husband was a loudmouth and crude and uninteresting and that people tended to avoid him, Merrill is at a loss for words. He has come to comfort this woman who seems to want no comforting.

Then she tells him her story and we fall into another flashback. She tells Merrill that very early in their marriage she became tired of him and had an affair. She ran away with another man and on a cross-country trip to Chicago, she was injured in a swimming accident and became partially paralyzed. Her lover abandoned her. In the most touching scene in the film, and ironically, one of the most shocking, we see Bette Davis lying in an iron lung and we hear the ghastly wheezing sound made by the machine that will keep her alive. Her head is completely bandaged after brain surgery. There is that the mirror positioned above the iron lung, which was common so that people who were in them could see visitors above and behind them without having to turn their heads. Over Bette's shoulder we look into her mirror and we see her and then we see the reflection of someone who visits her.  Keenan Wynn puts his face close to hers and looks at her through the mirror and smiling with a great twinkle in his eye, he says in his great booming voice, “Hello, beautiful!" It is a stunning moment of love and forgiveness and the heroism that is involved in both.



The flashback completed, Bette sits in her bed knitting and looks over at Gary Merrill with tears in her eyes and says that she never knew what love was until that moment.

I love that the director focuses not just on Bette’s delivery, which is quite moving, but on Gary Merrill watching her. There is a marvelous gleam of admiration and pride in his eyes as he watches her. We know, of course, that at that time Gary Merrill and Bette Davis were married and maybe he was just getting a kick out of watching his wife hit one out of the park, but it fits so well with his character, for a wonderful everyman sort of empathy in the admiration he feels not only for her for accepting her husband's forgiveness and for being grateful to him staying by her when she was injured, but for this great tribute to Keenan Wynn who really wasn't such a schmuck after all. Gary Merrill will learn that Wynn was the better man of all of them. It teaches Merrill something about forgiveness and about the guts it takes to do that.

She tells him of her husband, “Nothing could shake his love.  It was from him that I learned what love really was – not a frail little fancy to be smashed and broken by pride and vanity and self-pity.  That’s for children.  That’s for high school kids.”

Merrill immediately sees a parallel with his own situation and wants to go back to his wife, and we see that his experience in helping resolve the loose ends in the lives of these other people has done something far greater for himself. He is the lucky one after all, not just because he is alive, but because he will get to mend fences, theirs and his, and he will always have them as an example and a memory to walk with him.

Some might say escapist, or schmaltz, but I say relevance. It's a gutsy movie that tries to tell a story for the story’s own sake—Cinderella was the only one that the glass slipper would fit, so deal with it—and allows us and gives us permission to be entertained by something that is so simple.

An acquaintance, who knows nothing about this blog but who has discussed his love of old movies with me, loaned me the DVD of Phone Call from a Stranger because he loves this movie. He had to pass it along. That’s another thing I like about classic films; they inspire old movie lovers to do things like that. Thanks, Jean-Paul.

Somebody else passed it on, too: it's here on YouTube, at least for now.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

It Can't Happen Here - The movie that was never made.



It Can’t Happen Here is possibly the most important movie that was never made. It did have a cast: Lionel Barrymore was to be the star, playing the lead role of the crotchety small-town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup. The plot told of an America in the 1930s where democracy was eroded into fascism in the wake of a populist and powerful figure elected to the presidency.  It was a kind of alternate universe dystopian story -- of the kind we are living out today. 

The script, based on the best-selling novel by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, was by Sidney Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who had already adapted Lewis’ book Dodsworth for Hollywood, released in 1936. Everything pointed to a most important smash hit for Hollywood with It Can’t Happen Here, and for M-G-M, which slated the movie to begin shooting in 1936.

Others in the cast were to include Basil Rathbone, Walter Connolly, and Virginia Bruce.  J. Walter Rubin was to direct.

The sets were built. But then something curious happened. The movie was canceled in February 1936. While it is uncertain on whom to pin the fault for pulling this film out of production, according to the introduction of the 2014 edition of the novel by Michael Meyer, it seems that the Hays Office had a hand in it because they did not wish to offend foreign film distributors in Germany and Italy, or their governments. Their governments, at the time, were fascist. It Can’t Happen Here was an antifascist message of warning.

But it was not a tale of warning against Germany or Italy, or indeed, any European country. The victim and chief offender in the story was the United States of America. Hence the title It Can’t Happen Here.

But, of course, it can, it has, and it may continue to appalling degrees, with the right kind of complacence.

Some of the blame for not continuing with the film was also laid at the door of studio head Louis B. Mayer, not necessarily for wishing to avoid offending foreign governments by painting fascism as a bad thing, but for the amount of money that would be lost if those foreign markets decided to boycott the movie.

The novel continued Sinclair Lewis’ body of work of examining what he felt was the corruptive hypocrisy and choking materialism of middle-class America, in works such as Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. It Can’t Happen Here, however, took a sharp turn, a more imaginative and dystopic view of what was down the road, rather than what we recognized with familiar comfort as everyday life in the U.S.

The story takes place in a small town in Vermont. Doremus Jessup is the editor of the local paper, in his early 60s, married with one young son and two other grown children, and friends and colleagues and neighbors who are all affected by a strange new political upheaval in the land. The genius of the book is it portrays fascism as something that happens to a country slowly, very slowly, and with surgical precision, until the victims – its own citizens – are too helpless to do anything about it once they have recognized the crisis.

This is the template for fascism in every country. The most startling aspect of this book is that there is so much to reflect upon that is relevant today.

Doremus Jessup is acidic. He is not one to raise the call to alarm, and though we see the coming turmoil through his eyes, because, being a newspaper editor, he is observant, we see that much of the fault of not preparing for and warning people about the encroachment of fascism falls upon people like him. They are educated, but they have adopted the bemused attitude that morons may shout a little but will never carry the day, that intellectuals are protected in their own cocoons by their education, and that double-edged sword that damns us as a country – the belief that our own system of government is so perfect that it will protect us against anything, that we are so superior a people that we would never fall for a pack of lies. That the founding fathers set this nation on autopilot and that we don’t have to do anything to help steer the course.

But Doremus Jessup does observe the follies happening around him. Rather than protest, he smirks, and that is the extent of his indignation. He fluffs off much of what he sees as insignificant because the ultra-right-wing people coming into power in local, state, and national government are fools who admire bullying strongmen. Eventually, he is moved to call them out, not in angry tones, but in a merely dismissive attitude.  He scoffs, “Remember our Red Scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the OGPU were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won, the Pope would illegitimize their children?...Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?... Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how truckloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings?... Why, wherein all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!”



A populist figure runs for the presidency. His name is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, and he is low on intelligence but he has a great big mouth and a certain degree of charm for those who hate progressives.

Windrip’s campaign promises include several points. One of his planks is that “all Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they should be taxed 100 percent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year... Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one-sixteenth colored blood.”

Another campaign promise, “All women now employed shall, as rapidly as possible, except in such peculiarly feminine spheres of activity as nursing and beauty parlors, be assisted to return to their incomparably sacred duties as homemakers and mothers.”

We see where this is going. As fairytale fantastic as this sounds, it still echoes the idiocy and meanness of the farthest right-wing Trumpanzees of today’s political climate. They have insidiously taken their inch; they hope eventually to forcibly to take their mile.

Windrip touts himself as the hero of “forgotten men”, he glories in big rallies where he is the center of attention, and he accuses the press of lying. His fans and supporters, encouraged by his message, heap hatred upon the intellectual “elite” and they take out their hatred on blacks and on Jews.

Doremus Jessup’s family is torn, with a grown son attracted by the new fascist government and rising in its ranks, and his courageous daughter rebelling against the new order in whatever method possible with the new underground resistance.

When President Windrip is disappointed that Congress fails to pass his whacko campaign promises into law, he declares martial law and takes over sole control of the government, with the help of his colleagues in office who have been waiting for such powerful coattails to ride.  And still, there are people who think it can’t happen here.

“The most liberal for members of the Supreme Court resigned and were replaced by surprisingly unknown lawyers who called President Windrip by his first name.”

A group of right-wing vigilantes who call themselves Minute Men make up his private army and are used to put down public protests. With little hope to overcome the fascism in their government, many people attempt to escape to Canada, as does Doremus and his family, but fail. Eventually, Doremus is sent to one of the new concentration camps for resistors. The descriptions of his experiences in the camp are chilling and vivid; he is subjected to beatings and sick torture.

Across the nation, opposition groups are kidnapped and arrested, journalists foremost among them, for they are the vanguard of freedom in any republic. Doremus’ greatest sin, which he comes to acknowledge himself, is that, as a member of the free press, he did not take this threat seriously, or have the courage to speak out about it when he finally did see the trouble.

“The charity of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of big business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” he realizes. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups, who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

The media who surfed Trump’s campaign as a ratings-grabber failed their responsibility of due diligence in a time of impending crisis, which they should have foreseen and faced. 

One of the thugs who raids Doremus’ home upon his arrest finds many volumes of the works of Charles Dickens. One of the dumbbell vigilantes, looking for proof of Doremus’ lack of loyalty remarks, “That guy Dickens—didn’t he do a lot of complaining about conditions – about schools and the police and everything?” I had to smile at this; it reminded me of a comment left on my post about A Christmas Carol back in December by a reader who felt that my political views were “quite extreme” for writing about the “Dickensian” lives of the characters in A Christmas Carol, and for the IMPEACH TRUMP banner across the top of this blog that will remain as long as he remains in office. Apparently, there is, indeed, something in Dickens to rile the right and put them on the defensive.

How the characters in the novel, It Can’t Happen Here adapt to the new order, how they escape it, and how they resist, are compelling subplots to the main story, which is always in the background – that it can’t happen here. That is the greatest irony of the book, the irony on which the story is pegged. It does happen here in the story. It can happen here in real life. Even under a progressive president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we saw concentration camps for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

Eventually, the dictator Windrip is a deposed by another dictator – as we’ve examined before in our series on fascism in America, fascism is always and inevitably cannibalistic. Fascists will always sell out each other.

The movie which was not made did have a second chance with the possibility of Lewis Stone playing Doremus Jessup, but M-G-M again decided not to go through with the project. It was adapted for the stage in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project, which was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration – a federally funded program to keep alive vital theatre in America and to employ thousands of theatre professionals.  It was disbanded in 1939 when Congress cut its funding. However, the play opened in over twenty different productions simultaneously in eighteen different cities on
October 27, 1937, and was a smash hit.

The Berkeley Repertory Theater, of Berkeley California, produced the play in a timely offering in the fall of 2016, just before the November election.

It should be produced again. It should be produced for television for a mass audience to see. It should be made into a major motion picture.  I wish we could have seen Lionel Barrymore in it.

For Hollywood, It Can’t Happen Here is unfinished business.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Portrait of Kay Francis


A stunning portrait photo of Kay Francis by Kenneth Alexander, published in Stars of the Photoplay (Photoplay Magazine, Chicago, 1930).  Her brief bio recounts a leap from a convent school, to stock, to Broadway, and then to Hollywood, and that she is 5'5" and 112 pounds. Interestingly, she was actually 5'9", one of the tallest leading ladies of the day.

Born in 1905 in Oklahoma Territory, she's 25 years old in this photo.  She had made five movies the year before, and nine in 1930.  We've discussed her appearances here in Women in the Wind (1939), and The Cocoanuts (1929), and For the Defense (1930).

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ben-Hur - 1925 and 1959



Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Ben-Hur (1959) dramatize the novel from 1880 by Lew Wallace about a wealthy Jewish prince during the time of the Roman occupation of Judea who was sent into slavery by his old friend, now a Roman soldier who aspires to political high office. Judah Ben-Hur will eventually avenge himself, sorrow and suffer, and his path will cross many times with Jesus Christ until the moment of Christ’s Passion. The story combines so many elements dear to Hollywood: a successful novel, a biblical epic wherein images of suffering, torture, a certain degree of salaciousness, are permitted because they are deemed biblical, including a showing fair degree of muscled legs and chest of our hero, and the opportunity to appear as if they are enlightening their public as much as entertaining them. We mark the annual crisscrossing of Passover and Easter with this story of Ben-Hur.

The original feature-length movie from 1925, being a silent movie, and being predominantly in black and white, except for some two-strip Technicolor scenes, is obviously different from the blockbuster 1959 multiple Oscar-winner, which was made in color, and where every sound from grunts and groans, the hoofbeats during the chariot race, a relentless hammering of the wooden mallet on the drum to mark the time of the galley slaves rowing, is gloriously and intimately recorded. It was also shot in a widescreen process allowing us a view of everything on either side of the principal characters in the scene, thereby allowing our eyes, and our minds, to wander.

Astonishingly, however, there is much about both movies that is quite similar, including much of the chariot race and the scenes leading up to the race. The 1925 version is a little closer to the novel, but it is no less an opportunity to embrace all that is lavish and lush about an era in Hollywood where there was no CGI and those thousands of people we see in the arena and on the rocky hillsides and the lonely road to Calvary, were real people and not embedded by computer-aided graphics. One might even note that the naval battle in the 1925 version is actually a little more impressive than the 1959 version because it does not appear so much like models in the M-G-M pool.




One of the great delights of the Easter season is watching these old Hollywood epics on regular broadcast television. As we know, broadcast TV rarely shows classic films these days; they are to be found only on retro channels and on TCM, so fewer people are exposed to classic films today. And though broadcast TV does include those pesky commercials, does include edits which are extremely annoying to us old movie fans, there is still something wonderfully egalitarian about being able to see them for free, especially when one is sated after the holiday family meal and the kids are tired out from a long day of festivities and the whole family can gather in front of the TV and watch Hollywood’s ambitious take on the deeper meaning of the season.



Of course, Hollywood’s take on the deeper meaning is never all that deep, but it is entertaining and picturesque, sometimes as magnificent a feast for the eye as the old Renaissance masters’ versions of biblical events; their views were also slanted viewpoints. We could note that the scene of the Last Supper in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur looks almost exactly like the da Vinci painting. Of course, that was da Vinci’s version of the Last Supper, which probably did not happen on a long rectangular table with all twelve apostles and Christ sitting on one side of the table like the dais at a Friars roast. More likely they were all seated together on the floor, dipping pieces of their unleavened bread into a communal dish. And the lighting wasn’t as good.



The other fun aspect about watching biblical epics is that they always end up containing a dream team of players. Sometime or other we’re going to have to discuss The Ten Commandments (1956), a movie I cannot think of without recalling Edward G. Robinson in one of his most campy roles. Just hearing his gangster delivery makes me laugh. (Or was that Billy Crystal?) But that is Hollywood.

It was in The Ten Commandments that Charlton Heston first became famous for the biblical genre. He played Moses in that epic free-for-all, and he comes to the 1959 Ben-Hur with that under his belt. Sam Jaffe and Finlay Currie as well as Martha Scott are the old-timers from classic films here, but they are joined by popular actors of the day such as Stephen Boyd, and Hugh Griffith, who with great panache plays Sheik Ilderim. Newcomer Haya Harareet plays Esther in what was intended to be a dash of authenticity in this version. Ms. Harareet was herself from Israel, born before that country was established when it was still part of British Palestine. She made only a handful of films after that however.  Director William Wyler cast most of the Romans with British actors and most of the Jews with American actors, because he felt the distinction in accents would help differentiate them in the minds of the viewers.  It seems that most Romans in the old epics were played by Brits, which may lead many of us to assume Caesar studied at Oxford.



The 1925 version of Ben-Hur, untroubled by the need for different accents, we also have a dream team of sorts.  Except for star Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, the movie features a large cast of actors who are predominantly unknown even to classic film buffs. This might give the film more of a purity in the sense that we come to the story without any preconceived notions about the actors playing the roles. However, most of us would be delightfully shocked to discover that many of the Hollywood stars of the day played uncredited bit parts in this movie, lending themselves to crowd scenes, including John and Lionel Barrymore, who supposedly were spectators at the chariot race, as was director Clarence Brown, Joan Crawford and Marion Davis, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, as well as producer Samuel Goldwyn. Even theater owner Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was there in the stands. Gary Cooper is supposed to have played a Roman guard, as was Clark Gable. Janet Gaynor and Myrna Loy played slave girls. I did not see them, but I promise you I’m going to watch this movie over and over again until I can find them. Let me know if you do.  I don’t think there has ever been such a collection of future stars in bit parts in the same movie.




There actually is something very pure and very innocent and strikingly emotional in the 1925 silent Ben- Hur. Directed by Fred Niblo, June Mathis was the scriptwriter, and we may recall that the 1920s was a time of greater opportunity in Hollywood for women. Ramon Navarro, a really excellent actor, is handsome and very moving as Ben-Hur. Francis X. Bushman is his friend and foe Messala the Roman soldier. In the 1959 version Stephen Boyd plays the role and at first, he and Charlton Heston meet after an absence of many years and renew their childhood friendship. It is only after they discuss the political events of the day and Boyd’s request that Heston inform on fellow Jews who work against the Roman Empire that they fall out and become enemies. Though the 1925 version has Navarro welcoming Bushman after a long absence, the beefy and brash Bushman acts like a bully from his first entrance.



May McAvoy plays Esther, the daughter of Simonides who is Ben-Hur’s slave and steward. She will be his future love. Claire McDowell plays his mother and Kathleen Key plays his sister Tirzah. Mitchell Lewis plays the flamboyant Sheik Ilderim but he does not have the grandiose humor of Hugh Griffith. Charles Belcher plays Balthazar, one of the Three Kings who paid tribute to Christ at his birth and who has been seeking him these many years. Finlay Currie gets the job in the 1959 version, and also serves as narrator.

The moments where Ben-Hur’s life intersects with the life of Christ are commonly treated with a two- strip Technicolor process. We see the brightly colored robes and skin tone on the actors.


Though the grand scenes of the enormous palaces, the gigantic sets are mind blowing, we are treated to very small, intimate scenes of equal power as was common in silent film. After the impressive naval battle when Ben-Hur has rescued the Roman captain and they are brought to another ship, he climbs the outer net of rope rigging to the deck and he passes by a porthole where a fellow galley slave looks up at him mournfully. So much is said with a glance. The director gets a lot of mileage out of these kinds of scenes. One of the problems with the widescreen process as used in 1959 is, as director William Wyler himself lamented, all the space has to be used and so even when the director is focusing on two people in the scene, the audience is going to be looking elsewhere because there is so much else to look at. The director is not able to focus on a pinpoint moment.



The chariot race is perhaps the most famous element of either movie or even the book. It is stunning. The silent version gives us remarkable camera angles where both actors are seen handling the four horses that pull their chariots and I’m assuming that stunt doubles were kept to a minimum simply because of the difficulty of filming. There are those amazing shots, replicated in the 1959 version, of the chariot actually driving over the camera which has been placed into the ground. The stunning wide sweeping shots of the chariots making turns and thrusting down the straightaway, sometimes crashing into each other and overturning is breathtaking. What the silent version lacks is the sound of hoofbeats. We have a beautifully restored version of the 1925 film from 1988 scored by Carl Davis which provides a stirring backdrop to this scene, but we have no hoofbeats.

One thing that some critics remarked upon in the 1959 version was that it was a very slow, unwieldy tale, a very long movie and the parade of characters were presented with chronological diligence but with without raw emotion. The 1925 version carries all the raw emotion including several scenes that are utterly heartbreaking. We may note that this movie was remade in 2016, and it was not successful, but though I have not seen it I can imagine one reason for its lack of success among others – the heavy use of computer graphics makes a modern film more cost-effective but it removes us emotionally from the scene. It must have been extremely expensive and extremely laborious to have thousands and thousands of people rising as one, perfectly choreographed to cheer during the chariot race but it is far more effective because it is real, and because people whose emotions we understand are more interesting, and always will be, than technology we don’t understand.



Both movies deal with the representation of Christ as a silent figure and whom we see only from the back or only his arm, or his hand. Christ gives Ben-Hur a drink of water when he has been marching through the desert to become a galley slave and we see his gentle touch on Charlton Heston’s hair; the difference, however, is that the reaction toward Christ is on a more human and less spiritual manner in the 1959 version. When Charlton Heston looks up at Christ, Heston’s expression seems to tell us that he is grateful for the water and relieved he has found a sympathetic person who is helping him. He does not look as if looking into the face of the Messiah. Ironically, the Roman soldier who comes by to bark at him and tell Christ to go away suddenly stops and looks towards Christ with more of a sensation of encountering something strangely mystical. We see a more powerful reaction from the soldier than we do from Heston.

Ramon Navarro always appears as if deeply moved when The Nazarene crosses his path. Another interesting moment done with pure acting, is when his mother and sister are healed from their leprosy by their interaction with Christ. They had been told that The Nazarene performs miracles for those who believe and they arrive in time for his Passion as he drags the heavy cross through the streets. We don’t see his face; we see the cross on his shoulder and his face is behind it. They sorrow for him, and just with lighting, a white light that centers on their faces, the dark circles of their illness disappear and they immediately delight, acting as if they had been cured of their leprosy. There is no Jekyll and Hyde makeup transformation; it is all in the acting.

The 1959 version has Christ on the cross in the storm, the rain pouring down, dripping from his fingers on the hand nailed to the cross.  In a nearby cave, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister discover they are cured of leprosy. The darkness of the cave masks their need to wear makeup. The 1959 version is more sweaty and dirty, but even the realism does not match the heartbreak of the 1925 mother and sister close enough to the sleeping Ben-Hur to touch him, but resisting to wake him from sleep because they want to spare him the knowledge of their leprosy.

Both films make an attempt to address the political issues of a conquered people, for the biblical events, as in current events, are always as much about politics as about faith. Ben-Hur’s quest for Christ is his militant quest for a king to lead them out of Roman bondage, but he eventually adopts Christ’s message of peace. In the 1959 version Stephen Boyd taunts Charlton Heston with the idea that he is a member of a conquered people and he needs to get used to that. “The glory of Solomon is gone... Joshua will not rise again to save you, nor David.” To which Charlton Heston replies, “Rome is evil... Rome is an affront to God.”

The story ends with Ben-Hur reunited with his mother and sister, and with his love, Esther. But there’s a big “what happens next” that is never answered. How does he live with no end to Roman occupation for the rest of his life? We are meant to assume that the early Christian followers find strength and comfort in the teachings of Christ and in their own growing numbers, but though Hollywood enjoyed platitudes as a way of staying on the good side of the public who always thought that movie capital was a Babylon among the orange groves, it did not even trouble to answer the larger questions, preferring to wallow in the spectacle.



I enjoy biblical epics, but not because I find them instructive or inspirational; rather because, like a painting by a great master, they are imaginative pictures of wondrous events brought down to a human level we are better able to relate to – and despite the temptresses, the virile warriors, and the gauzily dressed slave girls, I think the most frivolous thing about them is that they are so irresistibly commercial.

So frivolous that, unlike the more meaningful and reflective rituals of the holidays, I cannot help but equate theses movies with a handful of jelly beans and winding down a busy weekend of celebration.

May I wish a Blessed Passover and a Happy Easter to all who celebrate.

You have a chance to watch the 1959 Ben-Hur this Easter Sunday on TCM.  

Have a look at the chariot scene from the 1925 version below.


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