Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Face in the Crowd - 1957

A Face in the Crowd (1957) chronicles its era, lambastes it, and foreshadows future evils of an unchecked demagogue. Perhaps it also marks the end of the noir era of film in its intended righteous ending. It is that ending, however, that contradicts the realities of the future, the cynical realities of our own era. It might be the weakest moment of the movie.

Andy Griffith makes a magnificent film debut as the noxious “country boy” whose meteoric rise in the media is made possible by a gullible public and the machinations of a canny promoter played by Patricia Neal.  Both turn in stunning performances. Their co-dependent professional relationship becomes personal, and intensely psychological as both nearly go off the deep end in mental breakdowns by the movie’s conclusion.

The film is a parable, and starts, rightly enough, as Miss Neal and a radio crew discover Mr. Griffith as a vagrant in jail, a colorful character they exploit for a whimsical program.  We have beginning shots of men playing checkers, whittling, as tropes for the sleepy Southern town with the eerie fatigued complacence of a society willfully decaying.  A gentle bluesy guitar over the credits is a deceptive lulling feel, but there are menacing shadows even now.  The character Andy Griffith plays; and the director, Elia Kazan; and the writer, Budd Schulberg, constantly flick us with contradictory images – warm and kind, and then backstabbing and threatening.  They keep us off balance, and so too will Patricia Neal’s character be swept in and kept off balance throughout the film, falling deeper under the spell and sinking deeper into danger, but it is a quagmire she has created. By the end of the movie, she and Griffith have become allegories of our modern era.

Long post.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

She is a roving reporter for a small-town radio station run by her uncle.  Her show is called “A Face in the Crowd” and today she gleefully interviews drunks and vagabonds at the county jail for amusing material.  The sheriff is sweet on her, so he rouses the inmates and orders them to perform.

Not particularly craving the spotlight, the hungover Griffith is at last persuaded to play his guitar for the pestering radio crew.  He tells folksy stories, and the camera looks beyond the easy rambling of Griffith to Patricia Neal’s delight in finding such good material.  Her gossamer parade of expressions reveals an increasingly intense curiosity about Griffith, her captivation for a man so poetic, earth-bound, and gloriously independent. 

Filling a void in local radio programming—or hitting a nerve—“Lonesome Rhodes” finds an appreciative audience who identifies with him and whose identification with him he will find easy to exploit.  Soon, he has a regular radio program and will use his “voice” to charm the citizens and call down revenge on the sheriff in pranks when he finds his loyal audience will do his bidding.  Lonesome Rhodes, or Larry, has a mean streak.

Neal and her protégé next move to a television program at a small station and a regular sponsor.  Part of Lonesome’s charm for the audience is that he playfully bats the sponsor’s name and product around insultingly, like a cat knocking expensive glass tchotchkes off the coffee table and with about as much concern for consequences, and the audience loves him for his seeming bravado, daring to talk back to authority, telling it like it is.  The very fact that he doesn’t seem to care who he offends, boyishly admitting his lack of social graces with a shrug of his shoulders, endears him to his audience.

We see he makes use of people who latch on to him, but his closest relationship is with his “Mama Guitar” which “beats a woman every time” and is a psychological reference to the mother who slept around and who left him with a misogynistic attitude toward all women.  He continually puts the moves on Miss Neal, who with mature wariness for the grifter, rebuffs him.  However, when one prank gets him in hot water with the sponsor and Griffith is set to leave for good, she invites him into her bed.  Is it because she can no longer contain her desire for him, or because it is all she has left to keep him there?  Neal is more refined and genteel than Lonesome Rhodes, and has kept him at bay with her superiority, but she is no less a compromising person.

Anthony Franciosa plays the aggressive office boy-turned-mogul, a symbol of the new TV age, who joins the Lonesome Rhodes gravy train and propels him to an even larger TV market in New York City.  He takes kickbacks from advertisers and crows, “It’s not illegal if they don’t catch you.”   He will later leave Griffith in the dust when he is no longer of use to the shallow, but even shiftier, Franciosa.

Walter Matthau plays one of the Silent Generation’s men in the gray flannel suit, a writer of intellect and ideals on the writing staff of the program, who is constantly put down by Griffith because Mr. Matthau makes the naïve, if pardonable, confession that he matriculated at Vanderbilt University.  His intellectualism, as well as his decency, is a threat to the homespun (gutter-spun, actually) Griffith, who pathologically resents anyone who has more than he does—more education, more talent, more money, more importance, more fame.

But Lonesome Rhodes continues to keep us off balance with antics that are sometimes kind and always nervy.  He brings forth an African-American woman and says she has had a personal calamity, a fire, and asks his audience to donate money.  Thousands of dollars pour in, and she is able to buy a new home for her family.  Matthau remarks under his breath to Neal in admiration at the moment of surprise when he first brings the lady on stage that putting a black person on TV took nerve here in Nashville.  It did take nerve, but was his generous stunt because he is impulsive and innocent, or because he knows it is nervy and the establishment won’t like it, and so he can’t help himself but to taunt them?  Lonesome Rhodes, as Patricia Neal discovered early on, is an irresistible character.

But the behind-the-scenes staff doesn’t like him.  Matthau is an underling, and he must submit to and endure Griffith’s teasing and bullying, but more insufferable for Matthau is the attraction Patricia Neal feels towards Andy Griffith’s character.  Matthau is in love with her, but in addition to the pain of not being her romantic choice is the anger and disgust he feels towards her for her inexplicable desire for such a phony, manipulative sociopath.  We are meant to see and accept her desire for him, but the hold he has on her is never explained in a psychological or emotional sense.  She is an intelligent, ambitious professional woman.  Matthau may not want to concede her sexual preference for Griffith, and he puzzles over her lowering herself to someone clearly not in her league.  At last, he must accept that the woman he has put on a pedestal is as unscrupulously ambitious as Griffith (it was she who gave him the marketable nickname, “Lonesome” Rhodes,) and that is their strongest bond. 

Griffith does not really need her sexually—he is a womanizer, and in one scene painful to Neal, chooses a young Lee Remick for his second wife.  (A delightfully wry Kay Medford is the first Mrs. Rhodes, who happily watches his climb to fame as long as it means large alimony checks.) He judges a baton-twirling contest and lusts after the innocent 17-year-old played by Miss Remick in her film debut—who enters the Faustian menagerie through her own consuming ambition to be the wife of a big star, and escape from the boredom of her small town.

Apart from these wonderful performances dancing or fencing in their tangled relationships is the broader look at American society at the end of television’s first decade. Once Griffith rides to the top of the ratings and is firmly in the public eye, the movie shifts into high gear and we are slapped with a series of images that parody society even as they unflinchingly document the era.  First is the maniacal Vitajex musical commercial montage, a barrage of tasteless images of coy, seductive females, an animated pig who turns into a wolf by achieving sexual prowess through taking the little yellow pill, Griffith’s in-your-face laugh to a crazed doo-wop tune, a mesmerized audience, and sales charts. 

The uncomfortable flicks of sinister motives, sinister doings grow from merely being less subtle to sinking into out-of-control obvious, and the journey following the increasingly manipulative Lonesome Rhodes and his handler drags us into a Madison Avenue film noir nightmare. His penthouse apartment, and the studio control booth, are all angles and shadows.

Vitajex is Griffith’s commercial sponsor, a diet supplement (made of some sugar and nothing nutritional) promoted in a buttoned-down and boring way by company man played by Paul McGrath, who finds himself totally usurped by Griffith.  Griffith takes over the sales talk and promotes it as a powerful vitamin to enhance the male libido.  McGrath will end up in the hospital from a heart attack when Griffith has destroyed his career.

Cameos by real-life journalists and media figures of the day such as John Cameron Swayze, Mike Wallace, and Walter Winchell stamp the movie with topical cachet, and even Edward R. Murrow’s name is bandied about. Lonesome Rhodes gets his picture on the cover of Life and Look magazines.

Griffith’s ego climbs with his ratings.  The man behind Vitajex, retired General Haynesworth, played by Percy Waram, who has king-making aspirations, wants Griffith to do the same for the general’s chosen presidential candidate, right-wing Senator Worthington Fuller, played by Marshall Neilan, as he did for Vitajex. 
General Haynesworth believes the masses need to be led by a strong hand.  Fifth Avenue and Big Business join hands to utilize the entertainment media to make their candidate President, with graft, favors and kickbacks to follow, and a social reconstruction that serves only the right people. We’ve seen it happen in presidential races, but A Face in the Crowd gives us an uncanny simplistic blueprint as to how it’s done.

We realize the fun and games that has amused and diverted us has led to the potential for serious evil, especially as Lonesome Rhodes, unchecked in his self-absorbed quest for power, is not merely content with making anyone he chooses President, but he wants a place in the cabinet for himself. The money isn’t enough, the fame isn’t enough, the power isn’t enough.  Having a war ship and mountain named after him isn’t enough.  He wants everybody to love him, to give him absolute adoration. He invents a canned laughter and applause machine for his program, and has one installed in his apartment. We see he is a sick man, but he always was, even back in the sweaty jail cell with his guitar.  He was harmless then; someone else had to launch him and profit by him.  Who is the guiltier?

He has left a trail of enemies along with his cult fans, plenty of people to whom he has done dirt, but none more so than Patricia Neal, who keeps coming back for more.  Walter Matthau, who abandoned ship months previously to maintain his integrity, returns, having left to write a book on the phony rise of Griffith (another foreshadowing of our modern era of tell-all political books). He finds Miss Neal in a bar, nervously smoking and sipping her drink while morosely watching Griffith on the TV over the bar.  He frankly points out Griffith’s manifold sins, and she weakly defends him, and herself, by saying she keeps him from worse impulses, in effect, she is, as the modern phrase goes, “the adult in the room.”  She is practically a shaking wreck over the moral morass she is beginning to acknowledge.

Only in the final moments of the film will she accept responsibility for the monster she has made when she realizes the fascist horror about to be unleashed upon America as can only come from the hand of a demagogue.  She flees her apartment when Griffith, weary and half-crazed, expects to return to her bed now that he has thrown out Lee Remick.  He discovered his child bride having an affair with Mr. Franciosa, who throws it in his face.

The next evening, Griffith will perform his show live as usual, and afterwards, he plans to attend a political dinner where the sponsor’s chosen presidential candidate will crown Lonesome Rhodes Secretary of Morale, something we will need in time of war. Senator Fuller, the “isolationist” who says he knows what is best for America, is evidently full of big plans, including getting rid of Social Security because Daniel Boone didn’t have unemployment insurance and social security benefits.

Patricia Neal, desperate and nearing a nervous breakdown, hides in the dark control booth watching the show, because she cannot face Griffith’s overbearing personality to tell him she wants out, knowing that even if she had the strength to leave, she would still be responsible for the monster she created.

When at the very end of the show, as the credits roll over the recorded theme song (which, without shame, is a hymn), Griffith is still on set, aping for the camera to play the show off, and mocking and belittling Senator Fuller, mocking the millions of “stupid idiots” who watch his show, showing off for the cast and crew like a class clown looking for attention. The television audience cannot hear his words because Griffith’s mic is dead as the theme song plays over the rolling credits, so he knows he is safe.

The control booth technician, disgusted by months of working behind the scenes for the bullying star, wishes aloud that the public could only hear that.

In a flash, the remark wakes Patricia Neal out of her inertia, and she lunges forward and thrusts the control to turn on Griffith’s mic.  His words, his hypocrisy, his cruelty, his abominable ego pours out over the airwaves.  The techie tries to stop Neal, but sobbing, she has thrown her body over the console and will not relent until the show has ended.

The sponsor is aghast.  The Senator is insulted.  The millions of “stupid idiots” who adored him are incensed.  When Griffith, not knowing he was caught by a hot mic (another foreshadowing of modern political realities), heads for the elevator so he can rush to the political dinner, the elevator operator calls out, “Going down!” and we know there is a double meaning.  In a rush of calls to the network switchboard, we see the career of Lonesome Rhodes taking a very public, real-time nosedive.  Anthony Franciosa, even now, is grooming a new “country boy” for a replacement.  The sponsor, the network, and the public will abandon Griffith.

Will Patricia Neal abandon him at last?  When Walter Matthau finally finds her still hiding in the control booth, she is emotionally helpless, as one in shock.  Griffith calls on the phone, pleading for her support because nobody has come to his party, everyone has called to cancel.  He is bewildered and needs her to put things right.

Matthau insists that she tell him she’s through with him, to have the courage to tell him that she was the one that turned on the mic and betrayed him.  He takes her to the hotel ballroom where Andy Griffith paces like an animal in a cage, frothing at the mouth and demanding revenge for whoever scuttled him.  It takes the last bit of strength she has, but Miss Neal claims responsibility not only for the creation of his career, but for the ending of it.

It is this emotional climax, this roller-coaster ending to the film that sweeps away the moody, menacing film noir aspect to this movie and to the genre and replaces that genre with something noticeably different about movies in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  There is no name for them, at least not that I know of, but they are pointedly liberal in their message.  Films like Inherit the Wind, Twelve Angry Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Miracle Worker, To Kill a Mockingbird, Seven Days in May, are different from the cynical noir of the late 1940s and early 1950s, as if in the wake of crumbling of McCarthyism, an era when liberals were politically and legally persecuted, when the Silent Generation marched cautiously, blindly toward the New Frontier, the writers—who were the most persecuted under McCarthyism, came out from the noir shadows and said, “Enough.  Our turn in the sun now.”  Ironically, both director Kazan and writer Schulberg participated in the witch hunts by naming names to save themselves, attempting to expunge their own earlier communist affiliations.  They knew something about being compromised and compromising others.

Such films of this movement, if it was a movement, explored social issues with strong writing, a breath of fresh air in a stagnant, repressed era.  These introspective, thought-provoking, soul-stirring, and conscience-poking liberal-message TV shows and movies would form a brief, if brilliant period.  Maybe it was the Kennedy assassination that brought it to an end, for after that came a period of films where predominantly there was no message, no great theme, and women’s roles were weakened and diminished. The most successful films were mega-expensive blockbusters, the ratings system was created to categorize films that increasingly featured coarse language and explicit sexual scenes, and if there was a point to the film, it was only to shock and to dare the audience to be entertained by it. Most films did not strive for a lesson learned, or an inspirational message, lest they risk being labeled unrealistic, or even more damaging at the box office: family friendly.

Looking back on A Face in the Crowd from an era where the story came true, we may marvel with condescension on the naïve conclusion to the parable that a megalomaniac could be rendered harmless by a changed public opinion, or that public opinion could even turn sour on such a folk hero manufactured to custom fit the most base, coarse, and ignorant instincts of millions of Americans, who by their fecklessness hold the lives of millions of other Americans in their guilty hands.  However satisfying Lonesome Rhodes' comeuppance may be, it doesn't ring true. 
Senator Joseph McCarthy, to be sure, did have his downfall at the hands of such as Murrow, and a courageous Republican Senator who defied her party: Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, the first to publicly denounce McCarthy on the Senate floor.  If this, along with the careers of Will Rogers and Arthur Godrey were influences for A Face in the Crowd, the movie nevertheless uses Neal and the audience as those most culpable and therefore to be ones who right the wrong.

But how often does that happen in real life, let alone in the area of public opinion where being wrong is so humiliating that we can never admit to it?

We have a greater appreciation for film noir these days, rediscovered and named in the 1970s.  Our cynicism today is less articulate and less stylish than in those gritty/glamorous films we love, but we have experienced disillusionment, and so we these days we identify with that darker world of film noir. 

To be idealistic and progressive requires courage, a respect for humanity and for human intellect, to prize compassion above all else, and a willingness to stubbornly try, try again.  It is often irascible, and certainly nitpicking.  It also requires a leap of faith that a better world is even possible.  Noir has no use for this dreaminess, and so the stark black-and-white world fades in the new liberal message films.  But even A Face in the Crowd is not so optimistic, and does not extend its message of a lesson learned beyond Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.  It does not stoop to that level of naiveté. The powerful triumvirate of politics, big business, and the media has not been changed by the revelation about Lonesome Rhodes. Probably not the public either, who are not really chastened, just mad at being played for saps.  They will be back.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Public Domain Day - 2020

January 1st has become yet another reflection of our media-conscious society in its being heralded as Public Domain Day.  

This achieved widespread attention last year in 2019 when the creative works of 1923 passed into public domain (in the U.S. and many other countries--not all nations have uniform copyright codes). There had been a period between 1998 and 2018 when, in the U.S., the Copyright Term Extension Act kept works from entering the public domain.  With that expiration, it is expected that each year will bring a new crop of creative works -- books, music, art, and film -- into public domain.

This year, we welcome the works of 1924 into public domain.  For us classic film fans, that includes the following films:

Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy and Hot Water (which we discussed here)
Erich von Stroheim's Greed
Buster Keaton's The Navigator and Sherlock, Jr.
Raoul Walsh's The Thief of Bagdad
Herbert Brenon's Peter Pan starring Betty Bronson

To enter into public domain is a double-edged sword, as we know.  It can mean more accessibility to films and thereby increasing their popularity (perhaps the most famous example of this is the annual showing on TV of It's a Wonderful Life when it had been previously listed in public domain -- it is no longer), but it can also mean a lower likelihood to be restored and preserved if being in public domain appears to devalue it.

In an era where it seems much of our cultural heritage on film is being preserved by classic film fans and bloggers, we can be happy that a little more classic film is in our hands.

Wishing you all a very Happy New Year, and thank you again for the pleasure of your company.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Lionel Barrymore - The Spirit of Christmas Past and Present

Lionel Barrymore was Ebenezer Scrooge for a generation.  For another generation, he became Mr. Potter, perhaps a deeper, more disturbed, and more modern Christmas villain.

In 20 years, he was absent only twice from playing Mr. Scrooge on the radio every Christmas Day; once because of tragedy, and once because of his great generosity.

He began the role on radio in 1933.  He admitted in his crusty fashion that he took the job because radio work paid well, but according to author Hollis Alpert in his biography of the three Barrymore sibling actors: “But it was customary for Lionel to mask the sentimental side of his nature.  Not only did he like Dickens as a writer, but he harbored hopes that Scrooge’s transformation might spark a few good or noble impulses among his hearers.”

In 1936, however, his fortitude was tried and his sentimental side nearly destroyed him.  His wife Irene, to whom he was deeply devoted, died on Christmas Eve. His brother John Barrymore stayed up with him that night to comfort him, and then he took Lionel’s place the next day at the microphone to play Scrooge.  The annual radio event was done live.  Lionel attended Christmas Mass, then collapsed from grief and spent several weeks in isolation at a sanitarium.

It was a horrible end to a bad year.  It was in this year that Lionel broke his hip at home while leaning on a metal drafting board on which he was working, pursing his other interest and talents as an artist.  The board was heavy, and toppled over, and Lionel fell.  His recovery period was long and painful, but though he managed to walk again with a limp and with a cane, it would be the beginning of his handicap that would eventually put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

He worried most about his career, expecting this would end it.  MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, whose reputation for ruthlessness is the stuff of legend, was truly kind and magnanimous to Lionel Barrymore, keeping him on the payroll when then the accounting department questioned it, and found him work in movies simply as a wheelchair-bound character, first in the Dr. Kildare series, and then in a number of other major films. Not only did Lionel’s career not end, it actually thrived and he arguably became the most famous and successful wheelchair-bound person in the U.S., especially when we consider the irony that most Americans in the 1930s were not aware how dependent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on his wheelchair.

In 1938, Lionel Barrymore had the second accident that was to put him in a wheelchair for good this time.  Once again, Louis B. Mayer came to his rescue and promised that the screen version he intended to make of A Christmas Carol would star Lionel as Scrooge as soon as Lionel was able to do the picture.

Lionel knew there would be no recovery this time.  He also had a generous streak behind his famous crusty exterior, and suggested that MGM go ahead and make the movie on schedule but with Reginald Owen in the role.  Lionel made himself available on set to coach Owen.  To help promote both the film and Owen in the role, Lionel insisted Reginald Owen do the Christmas radio broadcast as Scrooge that year.

The following year, 1939, Lionel was back at the mic for A Christmas Carol and would continue this annual role for the remainder of his life.  He died in November 1954.  

Today, Christmas for classic film fans is more to be identified with Lionel Barrymore in another role:  the evil Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  Unlike Scrooge, Mr. Potter never had an epiphany or change of heart.  Interestingly, author Hollis Alpert’s book, The Barrymores, which is a wonderful collection of research and stories of John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, was published in 1964, long before the annual Christmastime television broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life, so the author was just as ignorant as Lionel was of his future importance to classic film fans as Mr. Potter.  The film does not even rate a mention. It was Mr. Potter, and not Mr. Scrooge, that became Lionel Barrymore’s Christmas legacy.

Scrooge embodied a Victorian Christmas, and Charles Dickens is often said to be the creator of the modern Christmas, but Mr. Potter, perhaps, is a figure much more symbolic of our 21st century era—cynical, greedy, unrepentant, and unpunished, reveling in his meanness and feeling that his very self-interestedness gives him actual omnipotence. It is a veil he dare not drop lest he lose his power.

George Bailey is the one with the epiphany in the movie, and if he does not vanquish Mr. Potter in the old-movie fashion of destroying the villain, he does something through his epiphany which is perhaps more realistic—he renders Mr. Potter totally irrelevant. 
Becoming irrelevant is a deeper punishment to someone as power-hungry as Potter than even time in prison.  

Here’s wishing you all a very happy holiday season and in the happy new year to come, may all the villains become rendered irrelevant.

Listen here for Lionel Barrymore's final radio performance as Scrooge.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Anne Shirley in Screen Guide

Anne Shirley from Screen Guide, May 1942.  A brief blurb laments her recent divorce from John Payne, but supports the young mother and working actress in Hollywood style by following her every move.  

When a personal life-changing event happens, the only recourse is to up the glamour.  We can both applaud and pity the stars under such circumstances.  So many decades later we still have their films and they continue to entertain. Could they ever have imagined that?

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Listen to THE WAR OF THE WORLDS - 1938

Have a listen to my favorite Halloween tradition -- "The War of the Worlds" as heard on October 30, 1938 on the Mercury Theater radio program.  For more on the broadcast as it compared to the 1953 movie, have a look at this previous post.


Thursday, October 24, 2019

90th Anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash

James Stewart's dazed expression at the panicked customers demanding all their deposits in the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash speaks volumes to the audience who remembered the crash and lived through its aftermath.  His quick decision and energetic parceling out of meager funds saves the bank with two dollars to spare at closing time.  Today we mark the 90th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash.

Many movies of the 1930s reflected and illustrated the Great Depression with unblinking frankness despite, as Mary Astor noted in her memoir Mary Astor--A Life on Film:

“The national situation was tragic, but it wasn’t our tragedy.  It was something that was happening ‘out there’ and wasn’t it awful, but did you read Variety today?  People stood in line at the employment agencies but they also stood in line at the theaters.”  (p.81)

“These were the years called by the extravagant name of the Golden Years, maybe because nobody ever had it so good as the movie-makers.  In our fortress of films we were safe from dust bowls and grinding poverty, breadlines and alphabet agencies.”  (p. 109)

The buildup to the Crash was also extensively covered by Hollywood in its 1920s pre-Code party mode -- the vamps, the lascivious key-hole views of wild parties, and occasionally, a look at the even more wild spree on Wall Street.  The Marx Brothers capped the madness by adding more of their own in The Cocoanuts from 1929 a few months before the crash, which we covered in this post.

The Roaring Twenties (1939) attempts to cover it all -- the boom, the bust, the gangsters that appeared to usher the era in and out again, but takes the Crash with a clearly clichéd and nostalgic view.  It's easier to put a label on an event or an era when we are looking at it in the rearview mirror.  Here 90 years on from that event, from which we have only a few images of people swarming to the Stock Exchange when the panic began, we still dismiss it with a bemused and somewhat condescending eye.  We cannot imagine ourselves running to our local banks and screaming for our money, and not getting it (not all banks were so fortunate as to have George Bailey and his two dollars left).

We covered The Roaring Twenties here in this post -- ten years ago on the 80th anniversary of the Crash.  Have I really been writing this blog for twelve years?  We were coming down off a financial crisis then, ten years ago.  I have, I confess, feelings of more ominous foreboding for the one we're entering right now, but I can still take comfort in George Bailey's desperate and gusty response to a crisis. 

The timeline of the crisis that ultimately launched us into all those great Great Depression movies was this:

On Wednesday, October 23, 1929, the stock market fell about 4.6 percent, but rallied on Thursday the 24th in heavy trading.  Bankers stepped in and bought up shares, similarly to what the Fed is doing today, to prop up the market.  By Friday the 25th, the crisis seemed to have been averted.

But Monday, October 28th, when the market reopened, stocks dropped again.  Tuesday, October 29th, "Black Friday," the bottom fell out and the stock market collapsed.

That event is what we like to peg the beginning of a new era, but the market did not actually stop falling.  It slid down a bit more through several months and did not actually hit its bottom until July 1932, when 90 percent of its 1929 value had been lost.

Of course, as devoted investors like to point out, if one had bought stocks in August 1932 and held them, they would be rich because the stock market went up after that.  Well, yes, but it did not reach its 1929 level until 1954 -- 25 years later.  Fine if you're young and bought in (not a whole lot of people had the money, let alone confidence in Wall Street, to buy stocks in the depths of the Depression), but if one was middle-aged or a senior, the ball game was over.  What was lost was never to be recouped.

History, as is said, does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes, in a quote often attributed to Mark Twain.  I like to take a lesson from charts and graphs, from the testimony of people who experienced an event -- and from George Bailey, who always seemed to be behind the 8-ball but who thought fast and stayed on his feet.

May we all be here in ten years, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Sound Era with curious, bemused, and somewhat condescending commemorations of the Crash of 1929.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Bertha Kirk - a Studio "Extra" Mystery

In September 1928, a gentleman named H. J. Pepper, 60 years old, retired hotelkeeper from Manitoba, Canada, and now eager silent movie "extra," met character actress Bertha Kirk at a studio while working on a film.  Though married, he became infatuated with her, but stalked her and shot her, then turned the gun on himself.  She was 50 at the time. 

I recently received a request for info on this subject by a researcher named Scott who wanted to know if I could help him find the titles of the movies Bertha Kirk might have played in, or obtain a photo of her.  Unfortunately, I knew of only the bare facts of the case.

It's an intriguing mystery, and Scott adds a hypothesis from his research (his remarks are slightly abridged by me for brevity and clarity):

"Halsey James Pepper was promoted to “Gas Officer” during the First World War and joking, attributed his promotion not to skill but to his tolerance for high-fume gas. And in June of 1928 just 3 months before the shooting a short film was released titled “A background Extra” full title being “The Life & Death of 9413, a Background Extra” and the working title from the studio being “The suicide of a background extra.” Unlike most experimental films of that time, it was not shown in the living room of a producer or home audience, it was promoted by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, who saw the genius behind the film's portrayal of Hollywood and the never-ending loops you must jump through only to be disregarded altogether as background material. Nothing more than a prop. So it was shown in 300 select theatres across America that summer. The story is almost uncanny to the real-life event that unfolded...most bizarre is a small scene near the end where a “Captain” character is seen laughing at background extra 9413 in his grave. This character has no credit nor does he appear in any other scene. I’ve tried to find a reference to his meaning but nothing comes up about him. This to me is almost supernatural and I feel something more was at play but to conclude my current hypothesis, Captain Pepper was suffering from some form of brain deterioration caused by years and years of exposure to high-fume gases. The fact that he went 50 years living a relatively normal life managing hotels seems bizarre to up and leave for Hollywood and in his mid 50’s at that. The short film that came out right before this event unfolded could be the key that unlocked the insanity manifesting inside Captain Pepper." 

The newspaper blurb above is from a wire story printed in an Australian newspaper, so while it must have gained some notoriety at the time, the headlines were probably short-lived since the police case would have been closed due to Pepper's committing suicide.  Had they arrested the murderer and put him on trial, there would have been daily reporting and possibly some photos and more background on Bertha Kirk.

I'd like to turn this over to our classic film fan community and see if anyone can come up with any more info on Bertha Kirk or the story, especially those among you who know more about the silent film era.  Feel free to leave your comments on this post, or email me at, and I'll pass the word along to Scott.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Fred MacMurray sings "I'm in the Market for You"

Before he was a Hollywood actor, Fred MacMurray was a saxophonist and a singer who entertains us here with the timely tune from 1930:  "I'm in the Market for You"...

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Wretched Refuse of Your Teeming Shore - Since You Went Away (1944)

Since You Went Away (1944) is a tribute to the American home front during World War II, its cozy, meandering plot glowing with quiet moments of breathtaking truth. Sentimental, certainly, but no less truthful for its sentiment, and never more so than the important scene toward the end of the film when we see Claudette Colbert learning a lesson on what it is to be an American.

She takes a coffee break in the canteen at the shipyard where she is doing war work. Her co-worker, an immigrant from Europe, recounts of the terror of the old country, of clutching her child, hearing, "the sound of heavy boots marching down the street."  

We do not know the country, or her religion, or how she came to arrive in America, only that her little boy did not come with her. We cannot imagine the circumstances of what we presume was his death, or what happened to his father. 

"We'd pray together that God would let us go to the fairyland across the sea."

Nazimova plays Zofia Koslowska.  Her name, Claudette Colbert writes to her husband, "is nothing like we ever heard at the country club."  Nazimova describes her visit to the Statue of Liberty upon arrival in the country, and recites from memory over the lunch counter, over their coffee, as Claudette listens, watching her face with awe, the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the bronze plaque on the pedestal of Lady Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

"I know it so well here," she points to her head, "because I feel it so much here," she points to her heart.

It was Nazimova's last film; she died the following year at 66 years old.  Another veteran of the European stage, Albert Basserman, plays another immigrant in the film, and producer/screenwriter David O. Selznick prefaces his appearance with the tender, and pointed, quote on a plaque by another American poet, Carl Sandburg, 

"America, thy seeds of fate have borne a fruit of many breeds..."

Then we see a university degree awarded to Sigmund Gottlieb Golden, M.D., a kindly psychiatrist treating a young serviceman in a veteran's hospital, played by Craig Stevens, who is suffering from what we today call post-traumatic stress.  The doctor's name, like Zofia Koslowska's, would never be heard at the country club.

But middle class WASP Claudette Colbert, and her daughter played by Jennifer Jones, embrace these "wretched refuse" as role models and as friends.  We next see Nazimova as a guest at a party at Claudette's home.

Selznick uses these inferences and examples of the strength, nobility, and virtue of a culturally diverse America -- and the white Christians openly accepting the newcomers who are different -- not as a shaft of conscience, but as a source of pride during a desperate war against fascism.  Our cultural diversity and our pride in that was one of our greatest weapons against evil.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

One Small Step - The Moon Landing and the Movies of the Day

"Today's Headlines!" the ad above for 2001: A Space Odyssey announces, referring to the first moon walk by astronauts in July 1969.  Today we commemorate the enormity of the event, particularly for those of us who remember it, but also we look back at the movies playing at that time to see where America was, culturally, during that monumental moment when man first set foot on another celestial body outside the Earth.

This wrinkled front page is from the newspaper my family read and which my mother saved from Monday, July 21, 1969.  As we can see by other front page newspapers below, the moon landing was the biggest news of the day -- of all time, we thought.  I especially love this front page of the Springfield (Massachusetts) Daily News because, unlike the other newspapers, there is no headline and no story -- just the dramatic fuzzy image of two astronauts and their lunar module craft on the moon.  No words were needed.  No words could adequately express our awe.

The astronauts were, of course, Neil A. Armstrong, the civilian commander, and Air Force Colonel Edwin E. "Buzz" Aldrin.  Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Michael Collins remained in the command vessel orbiting the moon, called Columbia.  The lunar module was the Eagle, as in those triumphant words, "The Eagle has landed!"

The mission was called Apollo 11 and the Saturn 5 rocket was launched July 16th. People all over the globe watched excitedly and followed the progress of the mission.  On Sunday the 20th, a little after 11 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder and onto the surface of the moon.

In commemorating that event, many will recall the inspiring pledge of President John F. Kennedy at the beginning of that decade that we would be on the moon by the end of the 1960s, and will recall a time when the  nation was more idealistic, more driven to setting technological and intellectual goals, and with a far more robust economy that would allow us to provide for the expenditure for such a space program.  

Those of us who were children in those days recall watching the series of Gemini and Apollo flights on TV at home and even at school.  We had our space toys, and believing we would certainly have a Jetson's car when we were grown.

But from the standpoint of pop culture as it is expressed in the movies, have a look at what we were looking at in the drive-ins, the neighborhood movie houses, and the new cinema complexes in the summer of 1969...

We were really more interested in the 2001: A Space Odyssey above, or was the topical comedy How to Commit Marriage more appealing? We see that in the late sixties, stars of the Golden Age like James Stewart and Gregory Peck, Doris Day, Anthony Quinn and Sir Lawrence Olivier were still starring in feature films, often now alongside younger box office stars and apparently trying to adapt to new subject matter and to new audiences.  Bob Hope, Jackie Gleason, and Jane Wyman starred, and in the movie at the bottom of that ad, we see Bandelero! with James Stewart and Dean Martin paired with Raquel Welch.

In this ad, another theater carries How to Commit Marriage, and a drive-in is showing Bullitt with Steve McQueen.

We seemed to have a greater variety in movies at that time -- dramas, comedies, westerns, sci-fi, Shakespeare, and musicals -- and a wider variety of venues in which to see them.

Note that the ad above stresses the theater is "air conditioned" and has "exclusive air-flo rockers."  

If we were glued to the TV for those several days the astronauts were on their trip to the moon, the movie theaters might not have gotten as much business.  In the next decade, many of the theaters above would close. It might have been the last time that stars of classic films and contemporary actors would have equal footing in pop culture.

Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

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