Tuesday, July 31, 2007
Mr. Hampden was in his 70s when “Sabrina” was shot, and he came to the movies late in his career, and played only character parts. He was the longwinded master of ceremonies at the beginning and end of “All about Eve” (1950), which poked fun at his own historic place in American theatre, and he played the Archdeacon in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939).
He took on a few television roles (nominated for an Emmy), but most of his career was spent on the boards where he played the classics, including heralded stints as Cyrano de Bergerac, Hamlet (once with Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia), and even founded the American Repertory Theatre. His last stage role was in Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
Twenty-one years old at the turn of the 20th century, Mr. Hampden could not then have envisioned sound film let alone television, where he played Hamlet for the last time.
Capping off his film career as Louis XVI of France in “The Vagabond King,” Mr. Hampden was one of those superlative stage actors who proves, and evidently must have felt, that all the world’s a stage.
Monday, July 30, 2007
We’ve covered the famous Music Box Steps where this film was shot (see entries March 6th, and April 17th) but let’s have a look at the actual film, which won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, the only Oscar given to the team of Laurel and Hardy.
They start their new business with a horse-drawn freight wagon, and their first assignment is to haul a player piano, a gift bought by his wife, to the home of a man who happens to hate pianos. The incomparable Billy Gilbert plays the blustering, arrogant and self-important loudmouth.
His home is at the top of a set of cement stairs, 1127 Walnut Avenue, which is really Vendome Street in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. There are 131 steps which the boys must navigate with the piano in a crate. The boys wear overalls and white work gloves, but are still dapper in their trademark derby hats and wing collars. The movie is essentially like a silent movie with sound. It does not rely on dialogue. Their routine is based on sight gags, not a lot of clever repartee.
The daunting task of carrying a piano up the steps is made more difficult by a nanny with a baby carriage who wants to pass. This is one of many attempts at ascending the stairs where the boys lose the piano and it rumbles down the steps with them in chase. The nanny laughs at them and Mr. Laurel boots her in the bottom, and she responds by socking him in the pus, then smashing a glass baby bottle over Mr. Hardy’s head. Good clean fun. She complains to the cop on the beat that Mr. Laurel assaulted her, where? “Right in the middle of my daily duties.”
Next Billy Gilbert makes his officious way down the steps and wants them to move aside so that he can pass. By this time, the boys have made a lot of progress getting the piano up the hill, and they won’t budge. They knock his hat off and send it sailing down the hill. Shots like this, from the top of the steps looking down towards the street below with Mr. Gilbert’s hat sailing in the breeze and rolling down the steps is what make this film so much fun. We view the steps from bottom to top, from top to bottom, from all angles so that we can appreciate how difficult their chore is, and how the steps become a character in the movie. In part we may agonize for them and want them to succeed getting the piano to the top, but part of us is really looking forward to the next time they lose their grip on it. At one point, the crate slips from their grasp again and this time Oliver is dragged down with it on his belly, clinging desperately but in vain to the crate.
Oliver Hardy’s body English in demonstrating frustration is his special comic bit, and the way he looks in exasperation at the camera, and the many wails and whoops he emits when Laurel accidentally drops things on him. Hardy expresses our feelings more than the obtuse Stan Laurel, who is oblivious to everything, us included, except for an occasional glance to the camera like a plea for help.
When the piano is finally deposited in Billy Gilbert’s house, the boys plug it in and give us a little impromptu dance to the accompaniment of patriotic tunes. Gilbert returns and takes an ax to the piano, briefly stopping when the piano plays the first few strains of the “Star Spangled Banner.” All three men salute. It was only the year before this film was released that the “Star Spangled Banner” officially became the national anthem, in 1931. The boys are clearly as patriotic as they are optimistic that the hard times need not touch them as long as they are able bodied and can work. Being utterly clueless does not seem much of an impediment for them, either. We should all be so accomplished.
Laurel & Hardy, Vol. 1 (Sons Of The Desert) [DVD] DVD
Thursday, July 26, 2007
A Midsummer Nights Dream (1935) is almost startlingly good. I’m not sure if its being good is unexpected because Warner Bros. was more noted for its grim gangster fare, or the presumption that Hollywood was ever too shallow for the likes of the Bard, but then, this is a fantasy piece and Hollywood has always known how to spin fantasy. It is their realm.
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. Her new book, a collection of posts from this blog - Hollywood Fights Fascism - is available here on Amazon.
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Both are sharp, (well, yes), both are curt, but Christine’s bluster is funny where Hattie’s interfering, gossipy, resentfulness towards Father O’Malley played by Bing Crosby, and her neighbors, makes her unpleasant. She is the neighborhood witch.
Christine, the maid for Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck in the suspenseful story of an artist planning to kill his second wife in the same manner he killed his first wife, is more like comedy relief. Her mouthing off to Stanwyck, who shrugs aside Christine’s manner with a smile, is the release valve of the movie. Yet, her comedy is not broad; it is contained and controlled. She could easily become Hattie in an instant, but she plays it neatly and her remarks in her thin-as-broth Irish accent sound comically ironic rather than scathing and shrewish.
A dark, thin, angular woman, Miss Sharp-Bolster played a lot of maids, cleaning ladies and housekeepers, and walk-on parts identified as “Woman” in a career that lasted several decades. Her gothic appearance and voice perhaps made her a natural for her appearances on the TV suspense soap “Dark Shadows.” She was a “type” who could play against type if the occasion arose.
The interesting thing is that Christine and Hattie are not that far apart. Not really. There is just enough gossamer humanity between them that makes them seem so different.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
I’m not sure who wrote the signatures in the cement in the above photo, Charlie McCarthy or Edgar Bergen, but the handwriting is the neatest I’ve ever seen. Probably Edgar, because Charlie was always cutting school, so his penmanship might have suffered.
The comedy team, one human and one ventriloquist’s dummy, had hit the big time after the inevitable vaudeville apprenticeship. A few movie appearances and some successful guest appearances on the Rudy Vallee radio show led Mr. Bergen, and his unruly sidekick, to their own radio program where they remained for the next decade or so.
Edgar Bergen’s film work continued in decades to come, and there was even a dramatic role or two without Charlie McCarthy, but at this moment in time, July 20, 1938, they were at the unique position in their career (difficult to speak of them separately), as being both at the pinnacle of achievement and yet at the same time, standing on the threshold of something very new and exciting.
In this same month, July 1938, the last reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War took place at the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Howard Hughes set a new flight record by flying around the world in 91 hours.
Somewhere in Austria, a concentration camp called Mauthausen was being constructed.
Pinnacles and thresholds for many indeed, and something more sinister on the horizon for many other people.
But for Edgar Bergen, the ventriloquist whose lips moved and who was such a comfortable entertainer that it did not matter, did not even matter that he was a ventriloquist ON THE RADIO, time pleasantly stopped as he (or Charlie) scratched their signatures and planted a big set of hands and feet, and a little set of hands and feet, in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
Four days later on July 24th, their radio program, The Chase and Sanborn Hour, was hosted by Edward Arnold. Bergen and Charlie rubbed elbows with Spencer Tracy and Dorothy Lamour. Just another day at the office.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Harold Lloyd has a remarkable modern quality to him, as noted before (see June 21st and June 27th entries), perhaps it is as much to do with his simple costume of a regular suit and nerdy glasses, and his manner of occasionally looking directly into the camera, as if to gauge our reaction to what he is doing. When Chaplin or Keaton look in the direction of the camera, it is to gaze beyond it, as if it is not there. Lloyd knows we are there every step with him, and he seems to want to know what we think.
The action takes place in the South, as the caption tells us, “Go down the Mississippi River several miles and turn to the right.” The 1920s college boy wit continues with the explanation that “A southern gentleman has died for the first time,” and his heir, The Girl, must live with her husband in the family mansion for a year, or the whole inheritance will fall to The Uncle.
However, The Girl, played by Mildred Davis, is not married. She tells the lawyer, “But I have no husband -- nothing but a Ford and a phonograph.” With such dialogue, we get the feeling the roaring, carefree 1920s has begun with this film.
Her ambitious lawyer tells her he will round up a husband, and finds Lloyd failing at a series of unsuccessful suicide attempts after losing out his best girl to another. He does not look terribly despondent, however, just frustrated that nothing works, not jumping off a bridge into ankle-deep water, nor standing in front of an oncoming trolley which switches tracks right before it hits him, nor throwing himself, backside first, into the oncoming car driven by the lawyer. This is quite a funny sequence with the lawyer’s car moving backward and forward and side to side, desperately trying to miss Lloyd, who perseveres and stubbornly sticks his bum out in front of the bumper wherever he can find it.
Lloyd agrees to marry The Girl in a hasty ceremony, after which a comic automobile ride in the Girl’s previously mentioned Ford out to the mansion gives us a sensation of being in a fast-moving Ford ourselves, as we trail the happy couple behind a road hog.
Meanwhile, at the mansion the Uncle, wanting to plant a trap and warn off the couple so he can inherit the mansion himself, tells tales of ghosts haunting the mansion on this night of nights to the assembled servants. All played by African-American actors and not white actors in blackface as was common before the 1920s, the staff are so upset by the ghost stories that they practically trample the happy couple on arrival in their haste to get away. Remaining is the dignified but anxious butler, who explains to Lloyd about the ghosts and the staff problem, and a young boy, played by Ernest Morrison. Young Morrison appeared in many silent films as a child and is probably the first black child star. Very popular, he worked for Hal Roach, and later appeared as one of the Dead End Kids in his teens.
Here, he is comic relief, when his unfortunate hiding place from the ghosts, a flour bin, covers him all in white powder and makes him appear ghost-like. He spends much of the film freaking out, and unavoidably freaking out others. This is the film of the famous shot of Lloyd with his hair standing on end in fright, as if from static electricity.
The mansion itself is an interesting set, very heavily ornamented, richly furnished, decorated with different wallpapers and wainscoting as to appear quite realistic and not like a slapped-together set.
Eventually the butler discovers the Uncle’s ruse and ghostly tricks, and he muscles him out. The other servants return, and Lloyd and The Girl proceed with their wedding night. As they enter their room, night clothes over their arms, she coyly asks him, “Say, what’s our name?”
Before all this chaos, there had not been time for a proper introduction.
Harold Lloyd Movies
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Five companies sent cameramen to Lakehurst, New Jersey, where the German airship “Hindenburg” was to land after a two-and-a-half-day Atlantic crossing. The luxury zeppelin was in its second year of service, had made many safe crossings to the US and to South America from Germany, and this particular landing in New Jersey was considered to be routine. Fox, Hearst, Pathe, Paramount, and Universal were on hand, but nobody was prepared for what happened.
There had been warnings to the German Ambassador that a bomb was planted on the airship and would go off after it passed New York City, but there remain several theories in the controversy of the “Hindenburg’s” crash.
What we remember most is the frantic reporting from radio announcer Herbert Morrison. His graphic descriptions of the fireball were so graphic because he was a radio man. His account of the incident was not played until the next day, on radio. It was not originally part of any film footage. That came later, when Morrison’s audio was tacked onto the film footage, and became what we know as the Hindenburg film.
Here are a few links to the various stock footage of the disaster. One can see the difference Morrison’s audio adds to the film.
This is the Paramount (British) footage:
This is the Pathe version with Herbert Morrison’s audio tacked onto it:
Another version with Morrison’s audio:
Here is Morrison’s audio version alone:
Comparing the versions of Mr. Morrison’s live account with those that have the narration dubbed in, we instantly see a difference between live news and canned news, and how much less exciting it is to be told an event after it has happened than to hear of it while it is occurring. To be sure, the audience in the theater already knew that the “Hindenburg” exploded and crashed by the time they saw the film, but if you have Morrison’s audio along with it, it seems as if you are there.
Impressive is the sight of the airship flying over the skyline of New York City, an over 800-foot long football with a swastika on its tailfin, gliding slowly over the skyscrapers like something out of Buck Rogers, or so it must have seemed, very futuristic to folks on the ground looking up. Thirty-six people died when it crashed a little while later. One of the most affecting comments Mr. Morrison made in his audio description of the event was that most personal, most subjective remark in the form of a choking sob, “I’m going to have to step inside a minute…Honestly, this is the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed!”
His reporting and this disaster have been parodied a lot, but one cannot help but still be affected by the footage, both audio and video.
That’s it for this week. See you Monday.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Two cartoons when examined together tell us a lot about the World War II era, and from two different viewpoints. These two cartoons are “Peace on Earth” (1939) and “The Ducktators” (1942).
Just by the titles and the dates of release, we can tell these films are drastically different. “Peace on Earth” is rather like “All Quiet on the Western Front” for kids. A Grandpa Squirrel puts his grandkids to sleep with a story of long ago, how strange creatures called “men” fought a terrible war against each other. The flashback is stark, colored in grays and browns and blacks, looking realistically like an old film of World War I soldiers. There is chaos in the trenches, and a horrific man-like figure in a gas mask with a gleaming bayonet. It is a nightmare vision. Finally, only two men are left, and they kill each other from opposing foxholes. This is why, as Grandpa, voiced by Mel Blanc, explains, there ain’t no men no more.
The little squirrels go to bed, and we see that the whole squirrel village is made from old army helmets. All is peaceful under a blanket of snow. All trouble is gone because man is gone. “Peace on Earth” was nominated for an Academy Award.
This cartoon was released in December 1939, when World War II was a few months old. The strong pacifist message it carries was rooted in the horror of World War I, which created for most nations and people who participated in the war an aversion to future war that directed public policy, at least in Britain, France and the US, for the next generation. The cartoon also reflects American nervousness at the outbreak of the Second World War in Europe and how deeply reticent most Americans were at having to commit to the struggle. As it is, it took the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor to drag us in, over two years later.
Which brings us to “The Ducktators.” This is a sillier cartoon, a more humorous cartoon, with lines like, “My mama done told me - Sieg Heil!”, but despite the silliness it is a more savage cartoon. Here is a link to “The Ducktators”: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=1390519574176708696 .
There are no polite manners here, where barnyard animals are taken over by three bullies intended to represent Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Emperor Hirohito. Ethic and racial characteristics are obviously exaggerated to ridicule these bullies. There is a brief comic signboard from the invisible theater management to announce, “We wish to apologize to all the NICE DUCKS and GEESE in the audience - The Management.” How funny this seemed to Americans of German, Italian, and Japanese ancestry who by the time of this film’s release must have endured a bellyful of caricature, we can only guess. Still, it is interesting that the producers would even tuck in that notice, as if to say they knew they were crossing a line, with sensitivity that was quite uncharacteristic for that time. Even a black duck sounds like the Rochester character on the Jack Benny radio show, played by Eddie “Rochester” Anderson.
But, in this cartoon, even the Dove of Peace is caricatured as an effete fellow speaking in couplets. We know that right is on his side, but we can’t help but be a bit disgusted by him as he sits waving around olive branches (note that he is perched near an actual jar of olives), and letting the bullies run the barnyard. We only begin to like the Dove of Peace when he has had enough of being trampled upon, and beats up the bad ducks in a Popeye-like fistfight.
The end of the cartoon, usually cut off in later releases, concluded with a plea to buy war bonds.
It is fascinating that terrorists of today are as evil as any enemy we encountered in World War II, yet we tread a fine line making fun of them, especially in the use of caricature. If we do not, we would run the risk of insulting millions of people these terrorists claim to represent, but do not represent and are innocent.
We are not even encouraged to buy bonds. It is as if even today we are caught between the messages of these two cartoons: one, that all war is bad. Two, that only the enemy is bad. Public policy may have taken a quick and drastic change after Pearl Harbor, but in the psychological span evidenced between these two cartoons, it is negligible how prompt most Americans were to respond to it.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
Fonda as the gullible and naïve reptile expert, who as been up the Amazon on expedition for a year, is putty in the hands of con-woman Stanwyck and her card sharp father, played wonderfully by Charles Coburn. He admonishes her, “Let us be crooked but never common,” and she drops a real apple on Fonda’s head like a bombardier as he ascends a ladder to the ocean liner on which the first part of the film’s action takes place.
Some great scenes include Fonda’s entrance to the plush lounge of the ship where table after table of females hoist a Pike’s Pale Ale (from where his family has amassed their fortune) in the hope he will notice. He does not, and Stanwyck narrates the futile attempts of fawning women to attract him in a clever shot through her compact mirror. “See those nice store teeth, all beaming at you?” she mumbles, and at another woman, “Won’t do you any good, dear. He’s a bookworm, but swing ‘em anyway.”
Even the way she introduces herself to Fonda, after tripping him to get him to notice her, “My name’s Jean. It’s really Eugenia. Come on.” She says it all in one line, with no inflection, no flirtation, all business, as if he needs to know this information. This is the last time she is completely honest with him.
The sweet sensuality of close proximity is illustrated when she is on the divan, Fonda on the floor, and she plays with his hair. When he pulls her skirt down over her naked knee, she demurely replies, “Thank you,” as if he has retrieved her handkerchief from the floor.
Fonda looks like he is going to faint through much of the film, and at one point, after flirting with him, she pulls back and scrutinizes him with real concern, “You’re not going to faint, are you?”
When she bids him goodnight, it is with the question, “Don’t you think we ought to go to bed?” Fonda replies, “You’re certainly a funny girl for somebody to meet who’s been up the Amazon for a year.” But he waits a moment, a beat elapses before he says it, giving us time to think about her remark. Their rehearsals must have been hysterical.
Soon the tables are turned on Stanwyck when she actually falls in love with this easy mark, and she turns the tables on her father, who wants to go ahead as planned and fleece him. Fonda learns of their con game and turns the tables on them, throwing Stanwyck over. Now a woman scorned, she is not ready to let go.
Eric Blore is terrific as fellow con-man Sir Alfred, who brings Stanwyck into Fonda’s wealthy society by introducing her as his niece, the Lady Eve Sidwich. Stanwyck becomes an upper class Brit, haw-hawing over the droll Americans and uttering “Thenk yuh,” in a veddy British way to many men fawning over her at the party in the Pike mansion.
The supporting actors all get to strut their stuff as everybody gets to be funny and steal a scene or two. Eugene Pallette as Mr. Pike is lordly and loveable. William Demarest as Muggsy, admonishes the butler, “Why don’t you shave in your room?!” after the cook has covered the butler with cake icing.
Even the horse gets a laugh when, as Stanwyck and Fonda are cuddling in their riding habits after a ride through the estate, Fonda’s horse nuzzles his hair and won’t stop, despite all the serious romancing going on, all the times he is pushed away. He practically eats Fonda. I’d love to know how they got through that scene.
Stanwyck’s comedic timing is stunning, and her appearance in the Edith Head costumes likewise is stunning, especially in the wedding gown. Her sideways sardonic look at Fonda before the altar is priceless. But the charade does not end here. Though she has tricked him, he is not the prize she wants, or so she tells herself. She wants to humiliate him, so the Lady Eve, whom he thinks he has wed, confesses a hysterical list of past sexual exploits on the train honeymoon trip. He tries to forgive her, “The name of Angus will never cross my lips again.” But, a man can stand only so much, and he dumps her again.
It takes a while for them to be reunited on a ship where it all began, but long before the ending we see that Miss Stanwyck has left the shopworn drudges and embittered fallen women of her 1930s films well behind her. Even the bad women she will play in the future will not be victims as much as they will be villains, taking unrelenting control. It suits her.
The Lady Eve [DVD](1941) DVD
Monday, July 16, 2007
She played an enormous range of roles. No other actress of her day played as many varied types. Few other actresses of her day could lose themselves in a role as she did.
Iconic actress of the period, including Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and Joan Crawford leaped off the screen and commanded attention, and a great deal of publicity when they were off screen. As fine actresses as they were, one rarely can watch their films without being able to forget it is Hepburn or Davis or Crawford. They assumed their roles; they did not lose their own strong personalities in them. Barbara Stanwyck, on the other hand, never played the same person twice. Even her string of fallen women were different from each other.
Phyllis Dietrichson of “Double Indemnity” was nothing like Stella Dallas. The precocious sexpot of “Baby Face” is light-years away from Elizabeth Lane in “Christmas in Connecticut,” who was nothing like Sugarpuss O’Shea in “Ball of Fire.” Miss Stanwyck was lauded by her peers as hardworking and affable, a favorite with directors, but where the intensity came from that shot forth from her as Lulu in “Forbidden” or Florence Fallon in “The Miracle Woman” is still unknown to us. She came to screwball comedy late, but made it her own. Her villains were realistically evil, not cartoons of evil, so much so that they even earned our understanding. She came to westerns late, and that became a favorite genre. She came to television, when as an older woman film parts were more scarce, and made it her medium. She clearly adapted, and learned along the way.
Miss Stanwyck is especially fun to watch in ensemble scenes. She works well with other actors, seeming to enjoy the give and take of the process, where some other stars of the day were more given to posturing and not sharing the spotlight if they could help it. She was quick with a quip, quick on the trigger, and quick to learn.
She appeared different from her peers, even in the way she would handle the smallest scenes. In “Meet John Doe” her younger sisters come upon her working at her typewriter, and wanting her to play with them, tip her chair over and dump her on the floor. One of them attempts a headstand on her abdomen. I’d like to see anybody try that with Joan Crawford. And live.
In “Forbidden” she bathes her toddler, played by Myrna Fresholt (talk about your natural actresses) who continues to babble over Stanwyk’s dialogue, so Stanwyck, with humor and gentleness ad libs her own dialogue to fit what the child is doing. This happens again in the scene in the car with Adolphe Menjou and the child sitting between them, babbling during their tense scene.
Much of “Stella Dallas” is a revelation, and has been discussed on this blog before (see entry May 17, 2007). There is much to discuss about Miss Stanwyck’s work, but none of it can be summed up easily. She was enormously versatile, herself a work in progress. It is hard to imagine anybody else playing the roles she played, and yet, it is irresistible to imagine her in roles that were played by others. Taking nothing away from either Gloria Swanson or Bette Davis who were excellent respectively in “Sunset Blvd.” and “All About Eve,” what would Stanwyck have done with those roles?
She had never been directed by William Wyler. What would it have been like for her, who was one of those best-on-the-first-take actresses, to have worked with “forty-take Wyler?” What kind of partnership would that have been?
This is the conundrum of Barbara Stanwyck’s film career. Even though she opened herself up and showed extraordinary emotional depth, there is the feeling that there is still more, that her personal intensity, and talent for making us believe, is endless. No matter how many times you’ve watched the film.
Barbara Stanwyck Movies
Thursday, July 12, 2007
So, please let me know which films are the ones you’ve seen most often. Not your favorites, because we tend to shift in our moods from time to time and when a Fred Astaire movie will do for us one day, another time it will be only Alice Faye or nothing. Which films have you worn out the DVD or VHS tape, or never missed when you saw it in the TV listings, even if it meant missing work or your daughter’s wedding? Which films, and if you dare, how many times?
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
She eventually played Broadway, and in 1928, Broadway’s Princess Theater was renamed the Lucille La Verne Theater briefly when she played there in “Sun-Up.” (That theater, located at 104 West 39th Street, had several name changes and was eventually demolished in 1955.) Uncommonly, she also wrote for the stage, and directed, and was named manager of the Empire Theater of Richmond, Virginia, running her own stock company.
We best know Miss La Verne from her portrayal of the hag Mother Frochard in D. W. Griffith’s “Orphans of the Storm” with her exaggerated bullying of Dorothy Gish. She is hefty, commanding, carries a bit of a mustache on her upper lip and an ugly mole to make her even more disgusting to us if the bullying alone isn’t enough.
She made the transition to sound, but at the end of her life and her career, she is probably most famous for her voice work in Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1938) where La Verne speaks the part of the Wicked Queen and Hag.
What kind of a career, what kind of life must it have been to star as Juliet at 14 years old, manage a theatrical company producing the classics, and end as ugly Mother Frochard (when La Verne was only around 49 years old), and voicing the Wicked Queen that scared us as children? There is a good deal going on in between that we don’t know, but would make an interesting story. She was known as an extremely versatile actress, and evidently a most versatile human being as well.
Lucille La Verne Movies
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Lillian, meanwhile, escapes a fate worse than death at the Marquis’ fete, where the debauched aristocrats bathe in wine fountains and a dandy drinks wine from a glass clenched between the ankles of a woman of apparently questionable virtue. The Chevalier saves Lillian, they fall in love, but cannot be together until they find Dorothy, and his uncle and aunt, the Count and Countess, relent and give their permission. We learn that the Countess is actually Dorothy’s long-lost mother, and so things turn out right at the end and we have our happy ending. Dorothy becomes not only sighted, but rich and aristocratic. Not a bad deal. However, now she is too good for the decent fellow Pierre Frochard, who finally becomes a man by defying his rotten mother and knifing his bullying, lecherous, brother, saving Dorothy from a fate worse than death. Frochard also knifes the executioner about to guillotine Lillian. Apparently a man who sharpens knives for a living knows how to stab pretty well.
Danton, echoing the ferment of the rebellious people mutters, “Damned Aristocrats!” long before Clark Gable ever got to say the naughty word in “Gone With the Wind.” Danton has troubles of his own. Royalist spies are after him, and he hides after being wounded in Lillian’s room, compromising her respectability. But, she’s a feisty thing and insists he stay, cares for him, and he pays her back by rushing to the scaffold with her official pardon just as Madame Guillotine is about to have her for lunch.
Griffith keeps shifting the action from one plot element to another, never letting us get bored, keeping us on edge, making us wonder what will happen next. One wonders what efforts it took to get hundreds of extras in the appropriate costumes, appropriate weapons, cannon, and a horse cavalry filmed at a racing gallop. In the scene where Dorothy and Lillian, reunited as Lillian is in the cart being taken to the guillotine, embrace for the last time and kiss, they are stone still, a vision of complete stillness while the wild crowd behind them of peasants and revolutionaries wave sticks and guns and various sharp things in a constant frenzy. It looks almost like a contrived special effect.
But Lillian need not fear, as Danton makes a speech before the revolutionary tribunal to save her life. We can tell he is eloquent by the way he flails his arms around as he speaks.
The French Revolution, its backwash noted for the horror it created, is not the only revolution to exhibit a dark side. Most revolutions begin with a mixture of high ideals and terrible violence, and end not always with justice and peace, but with a confusing new set of rules to adjust to, and justice is sometimes delayed for months or years. The Russian Revolution had its aftermath of injustice, and even the American Revolution, lauded for creating the first Republic the world had ever known, suffered Shays’ Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion in its wake. These two limited, but enormously politically important events were limited perhaps because they were regional, and we had no aristocracy upon which to take vengeance once the British army was defeated and could no longer be blamed for our troubles, and no guillotine to make execution a public entertainment of our wrath.
Still if “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” as Thomas Jefferson expressed, it can easily slip through our fingers to unspeakable and bestial anarchy. This is not just the stuff of history. Present day perspectives we might have aside, Mr. Griffith was seemingly echoing Hollywood's uneasiness over the Red Scare in America at the time, with his references in the film to bolshevism. How much of the film is really about the Red Scare in the guise of examining the Reign of Terror would be an interesting discussion.
Monday, July 9, 2007
Real life sisters and silent film icons Lillian and Dorothy Gish play adopted sisters who travel to Paris for a doctor to treat Dorothy’s blindness. On the road, they meet a lecherous Marquis with designs on Lillian, who paints his lips with lipstick before engaging her in flirtation, and who inappropriately touches both the flowers on her bodice and one of her sausage curls. We see he has nefarious designs on her. In Paris, he arranges his henchmen to kidnap Lillian for an evening of debauchery.
We are introduced to a number of characters and plot lines, and how Mr. Griffith (as Lillian used to call him) intersperses this is nothing short of masterful. We meet the handsome young Chevalier, played by Austrian actor Josef Schildkraut in his first American film. His uncle and aunt, the Count and Countess, played by Frank Losee and Katherine Emmet represent the aristocratic class soon to fall prey to the vengeful starving masses, represented by the glowering Jacques-Forget-Not, played by Leslie King.
There is a huge scope of political and social history being diced up for our easy digestion here. A huge swath of time is telescoped in the individual stories of these people whose lives become linked through misfortune, coincidence, and the swift march of historical events.
Mr. Griffith tells us in the prologue that all this French Revolution soured into murderous anarchy by “otherwise highly moral men except that they saw evil in all who did not THINK AS THEY DID.” He even uses the anachronistic term of bolshevism to describe their dissent, and Robespierre is deemed a “pussy-footer” for blowing with the wind politically. Another fun term of days gone by. His use of the term bolshevism, and perhaps the film itself, is a reaction to the “red scare” in the U.S. in the early 1920s.
The Court of King Louis XVI is lavishly presented, with enormous interiors of great halls and salons, and palace exteriors huge in scale. In one scene, courtiers are moving in procession in the great hall, and floor is so polished we can see the reflections of the actors.
The village streets are paved with cobblestones, and the filthy hovels of the poor peasants are shown in stark contrast to the grand environment of the aristocrats. The detail is exceptional.
Danton, played by Monte Blue, is introduced to us as “The Abraham Lincoln of France,” in a scene where he confers with the visiting Thomas Jefferson and Marquis de Lafayette. When Danton sees the young Chevalier distributing bread to a flock of starving peasants whose desperate looks he cannot escape, Danton remarks, “If more aristocrats were like you, things would be different.”
But they’re not, at least not in this film. Even the Chevalier’s family is known to have committed terrible atrocities in punishing its estate tenants, including the father of Jacques-Forget-Not, who had boiling lead poured into his veins. In this flashback scene, the Chevalier, still a boy, looks on. As boy he is played by Kenny Delmar, who you will remember as the voice of Senator Claghorn on Fred Allen’s radio show. The cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn was based on this Senator Claghorn character of Delmar’s. You can take a moment to play Six Degrees of Foghorn Leghorn. Tomorrow we’ll get back to the film.
Orphans Of The Storm [DVD](1921) DVD
Thursday, July 5, 2007
When he appeared in “Shadow of a Doubt,” Travers was by then 69 years old, his hair obviously dyed to appear as the middle-aged father of small children. His trace accent made him as convincing an American Dad as he could be playing the English railroad station master Mr. Ballard in “Mrs. Miniver.” In both these films he exudes not only kindliness, but a flare for subtle comedy common to the best character actors who must have all these tools at hand, just like a variety of makeup devices, to go from one character to the next.
As Clarence the angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” one of the last films Mr. Travers was to make before his retirement, he has left us with the quintessential bumbling guardian with best intentions if somewhat cockeyed methods. He makes the angel guiding James Stewart through his personal crisis appear less angelic and more human, trying to do the right thing and, if sometimes failing, never failing to try again. He was by then in his 70s.
One of the great things about the studio system, for all its negative aspects, was presenting to the public a range of ages in the actors it employed. Character actors were able to earn a living for nearly their entire lives, and the audience reaped the benefits of seeing elderly characters as a natural part of everyday life on the screen. There are less opportunities for aging actors in the film industry of today. Were “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be filmed today (for the first time, not one of it’s many parodies), Clarence would probably be played by a young man in his 20s or 30s, still bumbling, but we would miss out on the qualities someone with the experience of Henry Travers effortlessly gives to the role.
One wonders if the Baby Boomers, who apparently do not intend to go gently into that good night, will be depicted on screen one day as elders who contribute to our society, and belong in the family. Or, will they be left out of the family and the film, dismissed and forgotten in the excitement of showcasing ever younger talent?
That’s it for this week. See you Monday.
Henry Travers Movies
Wednesday, July 4, 2007
But in the “Grand Old Flag” number staged as part of Cohan’s “George Washington, Junior” musical, the film revs up to a colossal orgy of patriotic flag waving. The red, white and blue never looked so impressive in black and white. We have a chorus in Union Civil War uniforms, an appearance by the Boy Scouts, a tableau featuring Betsy Ross, the Spirit of ’76, and an African-American man singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while slaves file past him and they pay tribute to a replica of the Lincoln Memorial. There is a poignant dignity in this last scene, without the hoopla of what came before, a helpless but earnest nod to a point on our timeline we cannot now change. It is unlike the cringe-worthy scene at the beginning of the film, when Cagney is led up the stairs at the White House by the black butler, played by Clinton Rosewood, who says he saw Cohan’s act many years ago when his then employer, President Theodore Roosevelt, or Mister Teddy as the butler calls him, gave him tickets for seats “in the gallery.”
There is perhaps at least one generation of young Americans who do not know that there was a time, particularly in certain parts of this nation, where African Americans were not allowed in theaters except in the segregated balcony seating, including when this film was made. This remark in the film may pass right by them unnoticed. More noticeable is the brief scene of the Four Cohans in blackface. It, too, is cringe-worthy and foolish, but to leave it out would be a lie. It is a realistic image of a long ago style of entertainment in American theater, which in this film is reviewed with remarkable detail.
Going back to the “Grand Old Flag” number, we are then presented with a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike leading a platoon of Spanish-American War soldiers, and a flock of workers, nurses, farmers, and an assortment of the Common Man gathering around some men about to load a cannon. If we did not figure it out before, we now know this movie is really about World War II. Released in 1942, this film gives us only a brief escape into the nostalgic past of American theater, but deftly slaps us back to consciousness. There is a war on outside the movie house, and when Walter Huston emerges in the final moments of the number dressed as Uncle Sam and Rosemary DeCamp as the Statue of Liberty, and there are more flags than we can count, we know that something more is expected of us. And it is not even the finale yet.
In the film World War I intrudes upon the life of George M. Cohan. He writes “Over There,” which became the anthem for American involvement in that war, and later in the film when he finishes telling his life story to FDR, the President gives him the medal for writing “Over There” and “A Grand Old Flag.” The faux FDR tells him “A man may give his life to his country in many different ways.” The film seems to expect the audience to give back something, too, now that we are at war, and the movie is over, and it is left to each of us to find the way to do it.
Just as important a message, and just as poignant, is when the two doctors confer outside the dying Cohan, Sr.’s room, reminiscing about the Four Cohans’ career. “I can’t help thinking a theatrical era is dying in there,” one says to the other. Their diagnosis is on the state of the theatre, and not the patient. Today there is a statue of George M. Cohan in Times Square. Mr. Cohan died five months after this film was released. He was ambitious, and he was flag waving, and he gave back something.
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
James Cagney won his Academy Award for this film, a departure from his usual tough guys and gangsters, and is supported by Walter Huston (who received an Academy Award nomination) and Rosemary DeCamp as his parents, his real-life sister Jeanne Cagney as his sister Josie, and his real-life brother William is the film’s producer. As with most Hollywood biopics of the day, the life of song-and-dance man George M. Cohan is complimentary, avoiding controversy, and sometimes a bit light on the facts, including the omission of Cohan’s children or his first marriage, and including the fact that the medal President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Cohan in 1936 (not after we were involved in World War II as in the film), was a Congressional Gold Medal, not a Medal of Honor.
What is captured is a warm affection for Cohan’s place as a pioneer in American musical comedy. He did much to represent, and to appeal to, the common man in his shows, and the film is rife with fun and poignant montages of theater marquees of his plays. The hardscrabble life of the stock players in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the theatrical Cohan family and many others endured is pictured in shots of luggage plastered with labels, gloomy boarding houses, forlorn train depots, and always another theater and another audience.
We see a lot of theater in this film. This is one of those musicals that realistically presents its musical numbers as re-creations of the Cohans’ act. Unlike other musicals of the day where people tend to burst into song for no reason and violins are heard mysteriously from heaven knows where, the songs here are performed as they would have been performed on stage for an audience. Director Michael Curtiz crams a great deal of material in this entertaining film. We see the backstages, the dressing rooms, we see the front of the house from over the shoulders of a woman, who like the woman playing Fay Templeton on stage, is dressed in the Belle Époque style. We see the footlights, and the backdrops, and if not all aspects of Cohan’s life are presented before us, surely the lure and the atmosphere of the theatre he loved are presented to us with loving detail.
Cagney’s vigorous, stiff and rather marionette-appearing style of tap dancing and his surprisingly Boston-intoned tenor show us that he was himself, like Cohan, a song and dance man in vaudeville before he ever pushed a grapefruit in anybody’s face on film. Seeing Walter Huston lead the Cohan family in their performing quartet is a joy. Cagney’s scene with Huston upon the death of George M. Cohan’s father is one of the most affecting either man ever filmed.
And then, of course, there is the compulsory flag waving. Fay Templeton, when approached by Cagney to appear in his new show, decries Cohan’s material as “loud, vulgar flag waving.” Her manager insists Cohan has captured the mood of the nation, “He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants…George M. Cohan has invented the success story and every American loves it because it happens to be his own private dream….” These themes of ambition and pride and patriotism may well be intertwined and ingrained in us, for any immigrant’s arrival to this country is based on ambition. It is as basic to these immigrants as an idea of “freedom,” for the freedom to be ambitious is as dearly held as the freedom of religion or speech. We are perhaps the only nation on earth which has declared in writing, in our Declaration, the right to “the pursuit of happiness,” an idea which other cultures may find hedonistic or frivolous. To be sure, we can sometimes be both.
More tomorrow on “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Yankee Doodle Dandy [DVD](1942) DVD
Monday, July 2, 2007
Teresa Wright plays Charlie, a young woman who has yet to throw off the blinders of innocent childhood and is slow to realize her beloved uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is a murderer. The audience learns this at the beginning, and we are drawn in to the story of how an Average American Family, if such thing exists, faces evil, or chooses not to face it. There is a strong allegory in this film relative to America’s isolationism and its late entry into World War II when facing evil was the only thing left to do once it seemed that choosing not to face it was no longer an option. There are signs or posters in Mr. Newton’s bank and in the library promoting defense bonds, and even the nerdy Herb from next door wears a flag pin on his lapel. Mr. Hitchcock never elaborates, he only insinuates.
Teresa Wright was one of the best young actresses of her generation, and is so far the only actress to win Academy Award nominations for every one of the first three films she appeared in, winning Best Supporting for “Mrs. Miniver,” (1942) , the year she was also nominated at the same time for Best Actress for “Pride of the Yankees” (1942). Her performance of a gentle girl with nerves of steel is, along with Joseph Cotten’s as the sinister Uncle Charlie, for whom she was named, are the only two characterizations in the film not given to whimsy or humor. She is good and innocent; he is wily and twisted, and each is in dead earnest about what they want and what they are going to do about it.
It is the character actors who support these two which give us the background of who these people are and what this family and community are about. Patricia Collinge is particularly affective as the fragile and loving mother (see blog entry March 8, 2007), and Henry Travers is reliable as the kindly if occasionally confused father. His running discussions with neighbor Herb, played by a young but made to look older Hume Cronyn on how best to murder people is a delightful comic foil to the film as the script grows more tense. Both men are fans of murder mysteries, and the books and fiction magazines they trade and the gruesome facts of murder cases are delightedly discussed with utter seriousness. They share favorite methods on how they would murder each other, to the point where Teresa Wright nervously loses her temper in a near fit of hysterics after she begins to piece together the lurid story of her uncle’s past, the current danger to her family.
Edna May Wonacott, the typical little girl Hitchcock found while scouting Santa Rosa, California for this location shoot, is extraordinarily natural and quite funny as the too-serious younger sister Ann, who reads more intelligent literature than her father and wears flowers in her hair, who pompously warns her little brother he is not to make seditious remarks against the government. Underneath the jovial family chaos, some undercurrent of disaster is brewing.
Like many of Hitchcock’s films, this is a character study and the suspense is organic. It comes not merely from a threat from the outside, but from something within the characters, something weak, or ignorant, or wrong that makes them vulnerable to a stronger force. The characters played by Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten play a game of emotional chess with each other, with the Newton family as the stakes, with all this nonsense going on behind them.
Two of the best and most famous shots, however, are technical achievements: the extreme close-up on the ring Miss Wright wears when she drapes her hand on the banister coming down the stairs to challenge her uncle to leave town, showing him she has the evidence, which is the ring, to convict him. The second is the moment in the darkened town library when, searching newspapers while a thunderous chorus the “Merry Widow Waltz” shocks us, she reads details of a crime spree by a suspect called the Merry Widow Murderer which implicate her uncle. The camera pulls back in a long overhead shot, leaving Wright small, exposed and vulnerable as she pulls herself up with difficulty from the library table and walks, trance-like and ill, trudging away into the shadows.
We see here again that Alfred Hitchcock is ever as much a technician as a storyteller picking apart human psychology. He is aided and abetted here, perhaps not so ironically, by screenplay writer Thornton Wilder, who is famous for the play “Our Town,” an iconic piece about a supposedly average American town. He gives Mr. Cotten the chilling speech: “How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you’d find swine?” Not the stuff of Grover’s Corners.
If Young Charlie is the antithesis of Uncle Charlie, then perhaps Hitchcock intends for “Our Town” to be the antithesis of “Shadow of a Doubt.” He never comes right out and says it though; as with the meanings of the many pairings of two in this film, we have to follow his hints, while he merrily strings us along.
Shadow Of A Doubt [DVD](1943) DVD