In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney
By Ed Garea
If there was anyone who could be said to be literally born into show business, it was Mickey Rooney. From his debut in Vaudeville at only 17 months of age, he remained a star until the day he died. It was said of Rooney that he could do it all: act, sing, play piano and drums, and anything else that was needed.
His son, Michael Joseph Rooney, confirmed Mickey’s death on April 6. Mickey was 93.
Rooney was born Ninian Joseph Yule Jr. in Brooklyn on Sept. 23, 1920. His father, Joe Yule Sr., was a headliner on the second-rate Vaudeville circuits, and his mother, Nell Carter, danced in a burlesque chorus line. Known as Sonny Yule, he grew up in boarding houses and practically lived backstage. His parents divorced when he was 4, his mother returning home to Kansas City, Missouri. It looked as though he would get the chance to lead a normal childhood when his mother spotted a notice in Variety that Hal Roach was looking for children for his Our Gang comedies.
Roach’s offer to Sonny’s mother was $5 a day, but she declined, waiting for a better offer. When none was forthcoming, she and Sonny returned to Kansas City for a while, then returned to Hollywood, where Sonny secured a job in a musical revue for $50 a week. A few months later he was in a Fox short titled Not to Be Trusted, under the name of Mickey McBan. His mother then answered an audition call for the role of Mickey McGuire in a series of shorts based on the popular “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip. He won the lead, and as Mickey Yule, appeared in 78 of the shorts from 1927 to 1932. When not acting on the screen, he provided the voice for Walter Lantz’s “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” cartoons, released through Universal Studios. His mother wanted to change his professional to Mickey McGuire, but when “Toonerville Trolley” comic strip creator Fontaine Fox objected, she chose the moniker Mickey Rooney instead.
Rooney signed on with MGM in 1934. His first notable role for the studio was playing Clark Gable as a boy in Manhattan Melodrama. He continued moving up the ladder, with roles in Ah, Wilderness (1935), and reprising his stage role as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream for Warners, where he appeared with James Cagney, Joe E. Brown, and Olivia de Havilland.
However, it was his role in a minor B film that sealed his path to stardom. A Family Affair, based on a 1928 Broadway play by Aurania Rouverol called “Skidding,” told of the trials and tribulations of the Hardy family in Carvel, Idaho. As Andy Hardy, youngest child of Judge James K. Hardy (Lionel Barrymore), Rooney’s part was strictly supporting, but the film took off at the box office and MGM decided to make a series out of it. Lewis Stone would take over the role of Judge Hardy for the rest of the series’ run, and Rooney saw his role as Andy turn from supporting to lead as the public couldn’t get enough of the Hardy family adventures. The series lasted for 15 films and is estimated to have earned over $75 million. He also won plaudits later that year for his role as a young deckhand in Captains Courageous with Spencer Tracy.
Although the public saw Rooney as the squeaky clean Andy Hardy, his off-screen persona was said to be more in line with Whitey Marsh, the delinquent he played in 1938’s Boys Town. Jackie Cooper said it was Joan Crawford who initiated him into the world of adult sex. For the 16-year old Rooney, it was none other than Norma Shearer. They had a hot and heavy affair while Shearer was filming Marie Antoniette, making so much noise in her trailer that the crew on the film complained to Louis Mayer himself. The death of her beloved husband, Irving Thalberg, and the continuing mental problems of her sister, Athole (married at the time to Howard Hawks), were said to have driven Shearer off the rails, and Rooney was but one in a long line of lovers (including Jimmy Stewart and George Raft) she took until she wed for the second, and last, time in 1942. For his part in the scandal, MGM severely reprimanded Rooney, and the studio publicity machine kept it quiet. They weren’t going to lose their cash cow if it could at all be helped. In fact, it wasn’t until Rooney spilled the beans in his autobiography, Life is Too Short, that the general public knew of the affair.
Looking around for other vehicles for Rooney, MGM again hit pay dirt when it decided to team him with their number one ingénue, Judy Garland. Having discovered positive buzz in their first film, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry (1937), with Mickey playing a jockey tricked into throwing a race and Garland as the young woman who tries to help him, the studio next paired them in an Andy Hardy entry, 1938’s Love Finds Andy Hardy, with Garland playing Betsy Booth, a young lady visiting her relative, who lives next door to the Hardys. Though she has a crush on Andy, he regards her as too young. But she comes through at the end and gets Andy out of a jam with regular girlfriend Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford). The character of Betsy proved so popular with the movie-going public that Garland reprised it in two later films: Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940) and Life Begins For Andy Hardy (1941).
Meanwhile, MGM also teamed the pair in a series of “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” musicals, beginning with Babes in Arms in 1939, where they put on a show to raise money for their out-of-work parents. It was MGM’s biggest money grosser of 1939 and earned Rooney an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. It was followed by Strike Up the Band (1940), where they raised money for a high school band contest; Babes on Broadway (1941), where they put on a show to send orphans on an excursion to the country; and, finally, Girl Crazy (1943), where they staged a rodeo to save their college from financial ruin. But the plots, such as they were, really didn’t matter. What really mattered was Judy’s voice, Mickey’s brashness and pluck, the music by such legends as the Gershwin brothers, and Rogers and Hart, among others, and the direction by veteran Busby Berkeley.
The year 1939 saw Rooney at the top of his game. That year, theater owners voted him the No. 1 box office star, ahead of second-place finisher Tyrone Power. In 1940, Rooney again took the crown, this time over Spencer Tracy. And in 1941, he made it three in a row, beating out Clark Gable. Also, at the 1939 Academy Awards, he and Deanna Durbin were presented with special juvenile Oscars for their contributions to the cinema. Besides the Hardy series and the musicals with Garland, Rooney also kept busy in films like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1939), Young Tom Edison (1940), Men of Boys Town (1941), A Yank at Eton(1942), The Human Comedy (1943 and his second Oscar nomination), and National Velvet (1944), with Elizabeth Taylor and his first adult role.
He was drafted into the Army in 1944 and until 1946 served in the Jeep Theater, a traveling troupe entertaining the troops, and acting as a personality on the American Forces Radio Network.
After his wartime service, however, he had a difficult time fitting back into Hollywood. MGM cast him in a new adult image as the lead in Killer McCoy, a remake of Robert Taylor’s 1938 boxing opus, The Crowd Roars. He also starred with Gloria DeHaven in the musical, Summer Holiday (1948), and as Lorenz Hart in Words and Music, a biopic about the songwriting team of Hart and Rodgers. But all three films failed at the box office; audiences now saw the qualities that made Rooney such a fan favorite during his earlier years as dated and annoying. Rooney settled his MGM contract in 1948 after a dispute about not being cast in their prestige 1948 war drama, Battleground, and began freelancing, appearing in nightclubs and in such forgettable fare as The Big Wheel (1949), Quicksand (1950), The Strip (1951), The Atomic Kid (1954), and Francis in the Haunted House (1956), where he took over from the departed Donald O’Connor as the talking mule’s sidekick. There were some gems in the mix, such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), The Bold and the Brave (1956, for which he garnered a Supporting Actor nomination), and Baby Face Nelson (1957), but these were few and far between. He tried to rekindle the magic with 1958’s Andy Hardy Comes Home, only to discover that the magic had left long ago.
Rooney fell victim to a series of demons in the ‘40s, including gambling (playing the ponies and craps), sleeping pills, alcohol, and, of course, marriage. Rooney was a serial monogamist, with eight marriages under his belt. He would divorce six times, with the divorce complaints focusing on the same issues: his fiery temper and his propensity to leave home for days and even weeks at a time.
The first of his marriages was to the 19-year old Ava Gardner in 1942 (he was 21). MGM fought against the marriage, and the subsequent divorce one year later. His next wife was Alabama beauty queen Betty Jane Phillips, who gave him sons Mickey Rooney Jr. and Tim Rooney. They would divorce in 1949. Spouse number three was actress Martha Vickers, who made a big splash as Lauren Bacall’s troubled sister in the 1946 noir, The Big Sleep. That union lasted until September 1952 and produced a son, Teddy Rooney. Mickey wasn’t back in circulation for long when he married spouse number four, Elaine Mahnken, who divorced her first husband while he was on probation for armed robbery. She took over the finances and brought Mickey to the cusp of solvency. He repaid her by going to Las Vegas and losing $50,000. That was that and they were granted a divorce in September 1958.
Again, Mickey wasn’t on the market for long when he married wife number five, Barbara Thomason, an aspiring actress. They had four children together: daughters Kimmy Sue Rooney, Kerry Yule Rooney, Kelly Ann Rooney, and son Joseph Kyle Rooney. It was during this marriage that Rooney declared bankruptcy, listing $500 cash in assets and almost $500,000 in debts, including $100,000 in delinquent taxes. In a settlement with the IRS, Rooney was grated an allowance of $200 a month, which forced him to borrow money to play the horses. But at least Barbara didn’t divorce him. A month after they separated in December 1965 and began a custody battle, Barbara Thomason Rooney was shot to death in Rooney’s Brentwood home by jealous lover Milos Milosevic, who then turned the gun on himself. The hit Rooney took in splashy tabloid publicity made him poison to many producers.
Rooney remained at large for a slightly longer period before wedding wife number six, Margaret Lane, in September 1966. That marriage had even less staying power, as the couple divorced in December 1967. It wasn’t until May 1969 that he wed spouse number seven, Carolyn Hockett. They had daughter Jonelle, and Mickey adopted Carolyn’s son, Jimmy, from a previous marriage. This one lasted almost six years, ending in divorce on January 24, 1975.
The multiple marriages and his other addictions, combined with an impulsive, mercurial nature, left Rooney is a state of perpetual need of funds. It was said that he earned $12 million before he was 40, and spent even more. When he was in desperate need of funds, playing Las Vegas was a safety valve – of sorts. As he said in his autobiography, he would often make $17,500 a week, then lose twice that amount at the crap tables.
At one point, in 1950, he was reduced to hawking Hadacol, a tonic with supposed health benefits (ironically, not unlike Vitajex) while touring the South with the “Hadacol Caravan,” an all-star revue extolling the dietary marvels of the product that also included celebrities like Milton Berle, Carmen Miranda, Chico Marx, Bob Hope, Cesar Romero, and Judy Garland, among others. Admission to the show was two Hadacol boxtops for adults and one for children. (Hadacol usually ran from $1.25 for 8-ounces to $3.50 for the 24-ounce “family size.”) Its inventor, Dudley LeBlanc, made over $10 million from sales until the government clamped down when it tested the mixture and discovered the “health” benefit came from it being 24 proof (12% alcohol).
And when films and Vegas proved to be not enough, there was television. He had a short-lived television series (33 episodes) on NBC in 1954-55. In 1957, he accepted a role on Playhouse 90 that a half-dozen other actors refused – that of a vicious, greedy and egomaniacal comedian named Sammy Hogarth in the teleplay, “The Comedian,” with a teleplay by Rod Serling and direction by John Frankenheimer. It was both a critical and commercial triumph, earning Rooney his first Emmy nomination. He followed this the next year with another critical triumph on Alcoa Theater starring in “Eddie,” a teleplay about a bookie who owes a fortune to loan sharks. He has until 6 pm to pay up, or else. It earned him another Emmy nomination.
However, no matter how any televised triumphs Rooney appeared in, his demons always left him broke and scratching for funds. He even tried his hand at directing, but the results were uneven at best. He did get to co-direct one of the all-time laff riots with Albert Zugsmith, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960), in which he also starred, playing the Devil in, of all things, a padded snake suit.
But somehow he managed to revive his acting career by shifting his roles from leading to supporting. In 1961, he made a splash of sorts in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, playing the Japanese landlord, Mr. Yunioshi. His broad, over-the-top, stereotypical performance is condemned today, but in 1961, it was considered hysterical. Rooney followed this with roles in the critically acclaimed Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) as Army, a boxing trainer who doesn’t want to sell his fighter down the river into a career as a pro wrestler. He also had a small, but lucrative, role in Stanley Kramer’s all-star extravaganza, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World(1963), as Ding Bell, who with buddy Benjy Benjamin (Buddy Hackett) is one of many chasing after a hidden fortune.
But, driven by his need for cash, he would take any role offered, starring with Hackett in Everything’s Ducky (1961) as two sailors who sneak their talking duck aboard their ship. It was a bad as it sounds. Another low budget wonder was AIP’s How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965), the last of the popular “Beach Party” series with Frankie and Annette. Rooney was “Peachy Keane,” a scheming ad executive looking for “the boy next door” and “the girl next door” for an advertising campaign. Also during this period he attempted another television series, this one called Mickey, where he played a hapless hotel owner. However, despite winning a Golden Globe Award, it only lasted for 13 episodes.
After the death of wife Barbara in January 1966, the resulting scandalous publicity made work hard to come by for Rooney. He would continue to plug away in mediocre movies such as Otto Preminger’s trainwreck, Skidoo (1968), the numbingly dull The Extraordinary Seaman (1969), and the excruciating The Comic(1969), with Dick Van Dyke. He would also pay the bills by guest starring on shows like “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” “The Dean Martin Show,” and “The Carol Burnett Show.” He also made 13 appearances on “Hollywood Squares” between 1969 and 1976, and made 15 appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” between 1970 and 1973.
He would personally hit bottom with the death of Judy Garland in 1969. Liza Minnelli has been quoted as saying that she wanted Rooney to give the eulogy at her mother’s funeral, but decided against it because Rooney’s emotional state made her feel that he might not be able to get through it, given his long and close friendship with Garland.
Things began to turn around for Rooney in the 70s. He gave up the booze and drugs and became a born-again Christian. In 1978, he wed his eighth – and final – wife, Jan Chamberlain, a country singer he met through son Mickey Rooney Jr. Their marriage lasted longer than his previous seven combined. (They would permanently separate, though, in 2012.) Jan brought a focus to her husband’s life, making him the star of their show.
In 1979, Rooney gained some of his best notices and his last Oscar nomination for his performance as Henry Dailey, a once successful horse trainer who receives one last shot at immortality in The Black Stallion. In 1981, he finally won an Emmy Award for his turn in the television movie Bill as a developmentally disabled man who has spent most of his life in an institution and must adjust to living in the outside world. A reprise of the role in the 1983 sequel, Bill: On His Own, led to his fifth – and final – Emmy nomination. Also, in 1983, he was awarded an honorary Oscar by the Academy “in recognition of his 60 years of versatility in a variety of film performances.”
In 1979, Rooney, along with fellow MGM hoofer Ann Miler, was approached by the duo of Ralph G. Allen and Al Dubin about starring on Broadway in an old-fashioned burlesque revue called Sugar Babies. He threw himself into the project with renewed energy, relying on his years in vaudeville to whip a motley collection of burlesque skits into shape. He would argue with the producers over every skit and every song, and was vindicated when the show opened on October 8, 1979, to ecstatic reviews from critics and strong sales. Both Rooney and Miller were nominated for Tony Awards. It would run for nearly three years after 1,208 performances. A road company with Carol Channing and Robert Morse headlining was unsuccessful – people wanted to see Mickey Rooney – so Rooney stayed four more years on the road with the show. In 1991, he returned to Broadway to star in The Will Rogers Follies, a review that played from May 1, 1991, to September 5, 1993, and 981 performances. And in 2007, he and wife Jan began touring in what they described as a “one man, one wife” show with the nostalgic title “Let’s Put On a Show.”
The coming of the new millennium failed to slow Rooney, as he appeared in Night at the Museum (2006) and The Muppets (2011) in addition to other movies. At the time of his death he was working on a new version of Jekyll and Hyde. His last live appearance was as a special guest on the TCM Classic Cruise in January 2013.
In 2011, Rooney obtained a restraining order against his stepson Christopher Aber and Mr. Aber’s wife, Christina, charging them with withholding food and medicine and forcing him to sign over his assets. He later filed suit against them, which was settled in 2013, with the Abers agreeing that they owed Rooney $2.8 million.
Also in 2011, Rooney repeated his allegations against the Abers in testimony before the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which is considering legislation to curb abuses of senior citizens.
He is survived by wife Jan Chamberlin; sons Mickey Rooney Jr., Theodore Michael Rooney, Michael Joseph Rooney, and adopted son Jimmy Rooney; daughters Kelly Ann Rooney, Kerry Rooney, Kimmy Sue Rooney, and Jonelle Rooney. Son Tim Rooney died in 2006.
Besides his autobiography, Life Is Too Short, Rooney also published a murder mystery, The Search for Sonny Skies, in 1994.
He was a co-owner for many years of the Mickey Rooney Tabas Hotel in Downingtown, Pennsylvania.
In Life Is Too Short, Rooney mentions a brothel called "The T&M Studio," where the girls looked like Hollywood starlets. Although there were many rumors of such a brothel, no one would admit to ever having been there, or even verify its existence. Rooney also wrote that Groucho Marx had taken him there once, and Groucho appeared to be on a first-name basis with many of the hookers.
According to one story, Mickey Mouse was supposedly named for Rooney. It seems that Walt Disney saw young Rooney while working on the first drawings of what was to become Mickey Mouse. He asked the child actor what he thought of the drawings and also asked what his name was. This later was proven to be false.
Rooney broke his leg while filming A Midsummer’s Night Dream and was doubled by George Breakston in many scenes. Breakston would later go on to play “Beezy” Anderson, Andy Hardy’s best friend, in the Hardy Family series.
Rooney is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for longest movie career: 89 years (1925-2014).
Norman Lear considered him for role of Archie Bunker, but Rooney rejected the project just as Jackie Gleason had because of the controversial nature of the role.
THE ESSENTIAL MICKEY ROONEY
Death on the Diamond (MGM, 1934), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (WB, 1935), Ah, Wilderness! (MGM, 1935), A Family Affair (MGM, 1937), Captains Courageous (MGM, 1937), Love Finds Andy Hardy (MGM, 1938), Boys Town (MGM, 1938), Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (MGM, 1939), Young Tom Edison(MGM, 1940), Strike Up the Band (MGM, 1940), The Human Comedy (MGM, 1943), Girl Crazy (MGM, 1943), National Velvet (MGM, 1944), Quicksand (UA, 1950), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Paramount, 1954), The Bold and the Brave (RKO, 1956), Baby Face Nelson (UA, 1957), The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (Universal, 1960), Requiem for a Heavyweight (Columbia, 1962), The Black Stallion (UA, 1979), Bill (CBS, 1981), Night at the Museum (20th Century Fox, 2006), The Muppets (Walt Disney, 2011), Driving Me Crazy (Keith Black Films, 2012).
In Memoriam: Shirley Temple
The Little Girl Who Saved the Big Studio
By Ed Garea
The death of Shirley Temple Black at the age of 85 on February 10 has opened up a treasure trove of memories for the film fans. Many movie buffs watched her films as children; they were frequently shown on television in the mornings or afternoons on Saturday and Sunday. My mother was a huge fan of Miss Temple’s work and often made me watch with her when I could have otherwise spent the hours with a good horror film on another channel or engrossed in the latest copy of Mad or Famous Monsters of Filmland. But I’m glad she made me watch, as the films deepened my appreciation of musicals.
Over the years her films came to be regarded as family classics and were hawked on VHS and later DVD to the public in frequent advertisements, assuring the purchaser that not only would he or she receive the original black and white versions, completely restored, but as a bonus would receive a colorized version of each films, as kids today are reluctant to watch anything not in color.
If anyone could have been said to born a movie star, it was Shirley Temple. Born in Santa Monica, California, on April 23, 1928, to businessman George Temple and his wife, Gertrude, she was prepped for bigger and better things beginning at the age of 3, when her mother enrolled her in dancing school.
In 1932, she was spotted by an agent from Educational Pictures and was chosen for a role in Baby Burlesks, a series of rather sexually-suggestive shorts in which children played all the roles. The children, all around the ages of 4 and 5, wore adult costumes that ended at the waist. Below they wore diapers outfitted with oversized safety pins. The shorts were rather obvious parodies of popular films, with Shirley imitating such stars as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Dolores Del Rio.
As Educational Pictures was pretty much a shoestring operation, proper behavior was strictly enforced; any child that misbehaved on the set was locked in a windowless sound box with only a block of ice on which to sit. Shirley served her share of time in the box, claiming later in her autobiography that the experience did no lasting psychological damage and taught her the lesson that wasted time is wasted money.
After Baby Burlesks ran its course, Shirley was schlepped to a series of casting calls and auditions for bit parts that won her a few small roles. But age was threatening to erode her earning potential and as a remedy, her mother cut a year off Shirley’s age. She said in her autobiography that at her 12th birthday party in 1941 she was surprised to learn that she had really turned 13.
It was in 1934 that her career began to gather steam. She was chosen to play James Dunn’s daughter in Fox’s Stand Up and Cheer, one of many Depression musicals that suggested the best way to deal with the everyday misery is to sing and dance your way to happiness. Her initial Fox contract called for a salary of $150 per week, with an additional $25 each week for Gertrude. The contract also contained an option for seven more years and the stipulation that she was to provide her own tap shoes.
The critics gushed over Stand Up and Cheer, and Shirley made an additional eight movies in 1934, the earnings of which saved the studio from certain bankruptcy. However, it was with the release of Little Miss Marker, an adaptation of a Damon Runyon story for which Fox had loaned her to Paramount, that she became a star. Besides being a box office hit for a studio that badly needed one that year, the film also established the template for future Shirley Temple films.
In Little Miss Marker, Temple plays a child left with a bookie as a marker for her father’s gambling debts. As the film progresses she goes on to reform a gang of gamblers, bookies and race fixers. This carried over to her future films: she was cast as a sort of miniature adult who dominated the adults around her, solving problems with uncanny common sense and infusing them with her sense of unbounded optimism. Each of her films onward would simply be a variation of that basic story.
Besides being cute, Shirley was also given a trademark song to sing in each film, the better to sell records. So powerfully was she identified with some of the songs that even today when a film buff hears “On the Good Ship Lollipop” or “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” he or she cannot help but associate Shirley Temple with the music.
She was also supplied with a plethora of dancing partners, including Buddy Ebsen, Jack Haley, and George Murphy. But her best-remembered partner was the legendary Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an African-American veteran of the Broadway stage, and one of the people credited with tutoring the great Eleanor Powell in tap dancing while working together on Broadway. His staircase dance with Shirley in The Little Colonel, the first of four films they would make together, is considered one of the greatest in the history of film musicals, and Robinson would always be remembered for his work with her.
She was so ensconced in the public’s mind by 20th Century Fox that any criticism of her could result in retribution against the critic. The studio famously sued novelist Graham Greene for his review of Wee Willie Winkie in the magazine Night and Day (which he edited as well). His crime was to question whether she was really a midget and exposed an uncomfortable truth when he wrote that her “well-shaped and desirable little body” was being displayed for the enjoyment of middle-aged male admirers.
Although the studio could certainly overcome any human obstacle in its way, it was powerless against nature, and as Shirley aged her box office appeal diminished. It’s been said that the best decisions are the ones not made, and in the case of MGM this certainly proved to be the case. MGM, having the rights to The Wizard of Oz, was bound and determined to have Temple play Dorothy Gale, but Fox refused to loan her out; instead they made plans to star her in a fantasy film of their own, The Blue Bird. MGM instead was forced to go to Plan B and cast Judy Garland as Dorothy, a move for which the gods of posterity would thank them.
But while The Wizard of Oz didn’t exactly light up the box office when released, it still fared much better than The Blue Bird, which made its way to the screen in 1940. A lengthy consideration of the pathetic box office returns combined with an appraisal of her advancing age led Fox to drop her contract at the ripe old age of 12.
Now outside the protective cocoon of the studio, Shirley found the real world a lot tougher than the one created for her movies. She enrolled in the seventh grade at the private and exclusive Westlake School for Girls, where she had trouble at first fitting in with her classmates. But after she began to relax she became a popular and sought-after companion, enjoying a happy and productive five years at the school.
Meanwhile, MGM signed her eight-months later and cast her in their 1941 comedy-romance, Kathleen. It was in the mold of her earlier films, only now she had to deal with the additional problems of adolescence. Kathleen did not live up to the studio’s fiscal expectations, so she was loaned to United Artists in 1942 for Miss Annie Rooney, and made two films on loan-out to David O. Selznick: Since You Went Away and I’ll Be Seeing You (both 1944). In 1945, she starred in Columbia’s Kiss and Tell, again on loan. But the changes from an adorable little blonde moppet to a rather ordinary brunette teenager resulted in her audience losing interest in her movies.
Her private life also took another turn when, supposedly determined to be the first in her Westlake class to become engaged, she accepted the proposal of 24-year old Army Air Corps Sergeant John Agar Jr. a few days before turning 17. They were married on September 19, 1945.
“Act in haste, repent in leisure.” (I’m full of pithy quotes today.) That would be the motto of her marriage to Agar. While she adjusted to the new realities of married life and films, her husband wasn’t as fortunate. Years of being ignored and being dubbed “Mr. Shirley Temple” took their toll and Agar began drinking as a hobby. Following in the footsteps of his wife, he also went into acting, but lacked his wife’s charisma and acting ability, soon working his way down the ladder to where he was headlining Z-Grade films such as The Brain From Planet Arous and The Puppet People, and, most famously in the annals of bad movies, Zontar: The Thing From Venus, which gained a cult status, being featured on SCTV.
He did appear with his wife in John Ford’s classic Western, Fort Apache (1948), but while she had a featured role as Philadelphia Thursday, the daughter of Henry Fonda’s character, Lt. Colonel Owen Thursday, Agar was given the decidedly minor role of Second Lieutenant Michael Shannon O’Rourke, which did nothing for their already troubled marriage.
They divorced in December 1949, a year after the birth of their daughter, Linda Susan Agar. Less than a month later she met and subsequently married Charles Alden Black, a 30-year old assistant to the president of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company and a certified member of San Francisco’s blueblood community. Shortly after their marriage he was dropped from the San Francisco Social Register as punishment for marrying an actress, but the marriage took, lasting 55 years until his death in 2005.
Another casualty of her marriage to Black on December 6, 1950, was her career in films, which she gladly gave up in favor of being a wife and mother. Charles adopted Linda, and she and Charles had two children of their own: Charles Alden Black Jr., born in 1952, and daughter Lori Alden Black, born in 1954. Both daughters were born in Santa Monica, California, at the same hospital, not to mention delivered by the same doctor who delivered Shirley years before.
During the Korean War, Black served as a Navy lieutenant commander and Shirley and the children followed him to Washington. Later, when she entered the diplomatic service, he would travel with her to her diplomatic postings.
As the ‘50s progressed, her films began to show up on television, grabbing huge ratings. This prompted her to accept an offer as host and occasional performer on a television series titled Shirley Temple’s Storybook, an anthology of adaptations of fairy tales. The series ran from 1958 to 1961.
Outside of show business, diplomacy, and politics, she is best known for her work with the Multiple Sclerosis Society, of which she later became president. She became interested in serving for the Society after the disease struck down her brother George, who was making a name at the time as a professional wrestler. She also worked to found and develop the San Francisco International Film Festival, but resigned in 1966 as a protest over a decision to screen the Swedish filmNight Games, which she derided as “pornography for profit.”
Living in Washington spurred an interest in politics, and in 1967 she made an unsuccessful run for Congress to fill the seat left vacant by the death of California Republican J. Arthur Younger, losing in the primary to the Pete McCloskey. One newspaper headline read: "McCloskey Torpedoes Good Ship Lollypop."
In 1969, President Richard Nixon appointed her to the five-member delegation to the United Nations General Assembly. In 1974 she accepted the position of Ambassador to Ghana, where to all accounts she performed in an outstanding manner, despite the reservations of professional diplomats concerning her appointment. After her tenure in Ghana (1974-76), she was later appointed as ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1989.
She also had a well-publicized bout with breast cancer, during which she underwent a mastectomy. After the operation she held a news conference in her hospital room to discuss her experience and urge women who discovered lumps in their breasts to see a doctor instead of sitting home afraid to talk about it. The American Cancer Society credited her with helping to make it acceptable to talk about the disease.
Survived by her children, she stands today as a shining example that there can, indeed not only be life after the movies, but that the life can be a rich and accomplished one.
According to Groucho Marx, his brother Harpo offered Shirley’s parents $50,000 to let him adopt her. They declined the offer.
During the filming of Little Miss Marker, co-star Adolphe Menjou reputedly referred to her as “an Ethel Barrymore at six,” and complained to director Alexander Hall about her “making a stooge out of me.”
Director Allan Dwan told Peter Bogdanovich, in his book Who the Devil Made It: Conversations With Legendary Film Directors, that she was a quick study. All he had to do was tell her something once and she’d remember it. And if one of the actors gut stuck for a line, she’d tell him what the line was. “She knew it better than he did.”
From 1936 to 1939 she was America’s most popular movie star. Clark Gable was a distant second. Her popularity spurred a line of “Shirley Temple” dolls, which were the best-selling dolls of that decade. (Today collectors highly prize them.) She had sat on the laps of over 200 famous people, reportedly preferring the lap of J. Edgar Hoover. Amelia Earhart shared chewing gum with her, and she had several conservations with Eleanor Roosevelt. She received more mail than Greta Garbo and was photographed more often than President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood created a special drink and named it for her: the Shirley Temple, a nonalcoholic mixture of lemon-lime soda, grenadine, topped with a maraschino cherry. Reportedly, she didn’t care for it.
When MGM picked up her contract, she was entering adolescence. She wrote in her autobiography that producer Arthur Freed summoned her to his office. Once there, he unzipped his pants and exposed himself to her. As she was ignorant of male anatomy she giggled loudly and he threw her out of the office.
Director John Ford, who got along splendidly with her during the filming of Wee Willie Winkie in 1937, gave her a hard time on the set of Fort Apache, reportedly asking her where she went to school and if she graduated.
When she came to Prague as ambassador she was surprised to discover that there had been a Shirley Temple fan club there 50 years ago. Numerous officials brought their old membership cards for her to autograph.
Daughter Lori played bass guitar for the rock band The Melvins and went by the moniker, “Lorax.” On a related note, Shirley appeared on the cover of the Beatles’ album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Her career was the subject of a series of sketches on the Carol Burnett Show, where Carol played “Shirley Dimple.” She was also parodied on Saturday Night Live in a skit where she was played by Laraine Newman as the ambassador to Ghana. There, she cutely talks Ghana’s president, played by Garrett Morris, out of waging any more wars.
In Memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell
By Ed Garea
Two defining actors of their generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Maximilian Schell, died within 24 hours of each other, one through natural causes and the other through a drug overdose. Both added greatly to the film environment of their times.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, 46, was found dead in an apartment in the West Village of New York on Sunday morning of an apparent drug overdose.
A friend, who was concerned at not being able to reach him, discovered his body around 11:30 a.m., according to law enforcement officials.
At the scene, police found a syringe in his left forearm, with at least two plastic envelopes with what appeared to be heroin nearby. Five empty plastic envelopes were also found in a nearby trash bin.
Hoffman won the Academy Award in 2006 for Best Actor for his role in the film Capote, in which he portrayed the author Truman Capote during Capote's research for his book In Cold Blood.
Hoffman was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actor category three times: for The Master (2012), Doubt (2008), Charlie Wilson’s War (2007). He also was featured in a role in the popular The Hunger Games.
According to Variety, Hoffman had completed a detox program for substance abuse, including snorting heroin, last May. His struggle with alcohol and drugs began as a young man, and in a 2006 interview with the CBS program 60 Minutes, Heffman declared that he had been sober since the age of 22.
Hoffman was a prolific actor, having worked in films for the last two decades; films that often called for him to undertake a physical transformation. Besides appearing in films, he was also active on Broadway, earning two Tony nominations: one in 2000 for Best Actor (Play) for a revival of Sam Shephard’s “True West,” and as Best Actor (Featured Role – Play) in 2003 for a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
He was also the Co-Artistic Director of the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York, for which he directed Stephen Adly Guirgis’ "Our Lady of 121st Street" and “Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train.” In addition, he directed Rebecca Gilman’s "The Glory of Living" at the Manhattan Class Company.
Hoffman was born in the Rochester, New York, suburb of Fairport on July 23, 1967. His interest and involvement in high school theatrics led him to New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where he graduated with a B.F.A. degree in Drama in 1989.
His feature film debut came in 1991 in an indie production called Triple Bogey on a Par Five Hole (as Phil Hoffman), with his first role in a major release coming the next year in My New Gun. His breakthrough role came in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 production of Boogie Nights. Besides his Oscar wins and nominations, his other notable films included Twister (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Magnolia (2000), Almost Famous (2000), State and Main (2000), Red Dragon (2002), and Cold Mountain (2003).
Hoffman leaves behind three young children, a son and two daughters, with his partner, Mimi O’Donnell, a costume designer.
Maximilian Schell, probably the most successful German-speaking actor in English-language films since the silent days of Emil Jannings, died on early Saturday at the age of 83 in a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria, of natural causes (pneumonia). Schell's wife, Iva, who he married in August, was at his bedside when he passed.
Like Hoffman, Schell was a multi-faceted talent. Not only was he a celebrated actor with more than 100 film and TV credits, but he also achieved fame as a director of films, documentaries, plays and opera.
Schell was born in Vienna, Austria, on December 8, 1930, but his parents could read the handwriting on the wall concerning Austria’s future and fled to Zurich, Switzerland, where young Maxililian was raised. He attended the University of Basel, and began acting on the stage in 1952 and made his film debut in 1955 in the West German production of Kinder, Mutter und ein General (“Children, Mother and a General”).
His Hollywood debut came in 1958 in the World War II film,The Young Lions. The irony of his hiring is that the producers wanted his sister, Maria Schell, instead, but because of an unfortunate mix-up in communications, hired him instead. The producers were impressed with his work as Capt. Hardenberg, the friend of German soldier Marlon Brando. It was Brando who tutored Schell in English on the set, and so Schell gained fluency in both English and Brando’s native tongue, Mumble.
He next gained notice in the role of the German defense attorney in the 1959 “Playhouse 90” production of Judgment at Nuremberg. This led to his being cast in the same role for Stanley Kramer’s Hollywood remake, for which he won a Golden Globe, the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor, and most importantly, the 1961 Academy Award for Best Actor, beating out fellow nominee Spencer Tracy. In addition he earned a 1962 BAFTA nomination as Best Actor for his work in the film.
He would gain two more Oscar nominations for acting: in 1976 as Best Actor for the Man in the Glass Booth (1975, with an accompanying Golden Globe nomination), and in 1978 as Best Supporting Actor for Julia (1977), for which he was also nominated for a Golden Globe and by the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Supporting Actor. He was twice been nominated for an Emmy for his TV work: in 1992 for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for Miss Rose White, and the following year as Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Lenin in the HBO film, Stalin, and won the 1993 Golden Globe for best performance by an actor in a supporting role in a series, mini-series or made-for-TV movie for the film.
Other notable films, in addition to those named above, were Topkapi (1964), The Castle (1968), The Odessa File (1974), director Sam Peckinpah’s war drama,Cross of Iron (1977), The Black Hole (1979), The Freshman (1979), where he was reunited with old friend Marlon Brando, and Deep Impact (1998).
As a director, his 1974 film, The Pedestrian, which he also wrote and starred in, was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film, and won a Golden Globe in the same category. His 1984 documentary about Marlene Dietrich, Marlene, was nominated in the Best Documentary category. Another notable documentary was My Sister Maria (2002), a mixture of documentary and staged footage about the career of his sister, Maria Schell, and his relationship with her.
And if all this weren’t enough, Schell was an accomplished pianist and conductor. His love for opera led him to produce and direct several, including Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin,” and Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavilier” for the L.A. Opera. He also spent time as a guest professor at the University of Southern California and received an honorary doctorate from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago.
In addition to his wife, Iva, Schell's survivors include a daughter, Nastassja, from a previous marriage to actress Natalia Andreichenko that ended in divorce, and a grandchild.
In Memoriam: Joan Fontaine
By Ed Garea
Joan Fontaine, who passed away on December 15 at the age of 96, had a long and notable career in films, on stage, and on television. Yet, the thing she will probably be remembered for most was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.
Joan was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland in Tokyo, Japan, on October 22, 1917, in that part of the city known as the International settlement. Both parents were British. Her father, Walter Augusts de Havilland, was a patent lawyer with a thriving practice in Japan. Her mother, Lilian Augusta (nee Ruse), was a stage actress who retired upon marrying. Joan was the younger of two daughters to the family. Her older sister was Olivia Mary de Havilland, who was born on July 1, 1916. The parents, who married in 1914, split up in 1919 when Lilian left after learning that Walter had availed himself of the services of geisha girls. The divorce was finalized in February 1925.
Joan was a sickly child, having developed anemia following a combined attack of the measles and a strep infection. A physician advised Lilian to move Joan to a warmer climate, and Lilian took Joan and Olivia to California, settling in Saratoga, a city in Santa Clara County directly west of San Jose. Fontaine’s health improved dramatically and she was educated at Los Gatos High School, taking diction lessons with Olivia after school. When she was 16 years old she returned to Japan to live with her father, and while there, graduated from the American School in Japan in 1935.
Returning to the United States later in 1935, Joan’s stage mother pushed her into films, as she did with older sister Olivia. Joan signed a contract with RKO, who immediately loaned her out to MGM. Since Mom, who reportedly favored Olivia, refused to let Joan use the family name, Joan took the moniker “Joan Burfield” (her stepfather’s name) when she made her movie debut in the 1935 Joan Crawford-Robert Montgomery MGM comedy, No More Ladies. Joan was billed ninth, as “Caroline,” an object of the wandering eye of Montgomery’s character.
Back at RKO she was idle for about a year-and-a-half, the only notable event in her career being to change her last name from “Burfield” to “Fontaine.” RKO pushed her slowly, with her first big break being cast opposite Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress (1937). She was supposed to be Fred’s love interest, but two things doomed the film: Joan couldn’t dance (theatergoers expected any partner of Fred Astaire to be able to dance), and she lacked the chemistry with Fred that he had enjoyed with Ginger.
After this she had two decent supporting roles in Gunga Din and MGM’s The Women, but it wasn’t until David O. Selznick chose her for the female lead in Rebecca that Joan hit stardom . . . and never looked back. The next year, she won the Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion (which everyone acknowledges was a consolation for not having won the year before with Rebecca) and was nominated a year after for her role in The Constant Nymph.
During this time, sister Olivia de Havilland had not won an Oscar. She had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Gone With the Wind, but lost to fellow cast member Hattie McDaniel. In fact, de Havilland would not cop an Oscar for herself until 1946, when she won the Best Actress award for To Each His Own (1946). To say the sisters had a rivalry was putting it mildly. They couldn’t stand one another. Their feud began as children, according to Fontaine in her autobiography, with big sister Liv annoying young Joan while she was still in the crib. It later escalated to things like hair pulling, tearing her own clothes so Joan couldn’t wear them as hand-me-downs, and outright fistfights, one of which ended when Olivia broke Joan’s collarbone. As they got older and Joan got bigger, the physical was replaced with the psychological. After Olivia became a star in 1935, Joan, still looking for a regular gig, was pressed into service as her sister’s driver. And when Joan did hit it big, the tension increased.
Joan was nominated in 1942 by the Academy in the Best Actress category for her role in Hitchcock’s Suspicion the year before. Sister Olivia was also nominated for the same award for her turn on Hold Back the Dawn. Both sisters were to be seated at the same table, and Joan considered no-showing; she believed that as she didn’t win the award the previous year for a superior film, she had no chance of winning it now. However, when Olivia visited Joan on the set of her latest film with her dress in hand, Fontaine decided to attend. According to her autobiography, when Fontaine’s name was called out as the winner, she froze. She stared across the table, where Olivia was whispering to her in a commanding tone to get up there. Joan said that when she did arise to accept the trophy, she walked around the other side of the table so as to bypass Olivia, whom she was certain would trip her on the way up.
Their feud escalated even further over the years and reached the point of cold war: neither sister was speaking with the other. This war-of-the-sisters made for an indelible moment at the 1947 Oscars, where Olivia won Best Actress for To Each His Own. Joan, who was on hand to present the Best Actor award, hung around afterward backstage. After Olivia departed the stage holding the award, Joan stuck out her hand in congratulations, only to have Olivia snub it. The moment was caught in a photo by Hymie Fink of Photoplay, and remains to this day one of Tinseltown’s iconic photographs. Over time, the sisters somewhat reconciled, but the relationship was never a warm one, often diverging between hot and ice cold. In 1989, the sisters were reunited at the Oscars, but upon discovering they were staying in adjoining hotel rooms, Joan had her room changed and swore never again to attend another Academy ceremony, an oath she kept until her death. For her part, when notified of her sister’s death, Olivia issued a rare public statement: “I was shocked and saddened to learn of the passing of my sister, Joan Fontaine, and my niece, Deborah, and I appreciate the many kind expressions of sympathy that we have received." Unless Olivia writes something of their relationship, Joan’s autobiography remains the main source of our knowledge of the relationship between these two talented sisters.
If I were to be approached and asked as to which sister was my favorite, I would have to excuse myself. I loved seeing both in whatever film they happened to appear. My first memories of Olivia come as an 8-year old completely enraptured by Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, thinking that, I too would risk death to be with Maid Marian. Joan I didn’t catch until years later when I saw her in ads for the local New York market hawking the delights of Arnold sliced bread. I suppose it was either that or star in a bad horror films such as The Witches (1966). Joan did come out of retirement in the late ‘70s to do a few TV movies and series, among them the soaper Ryan’s Hope. But it wasn’t until I saw Rebecca at the age of 13 that I began to appreciate her ability – and her beauty. To me, she was the better looking of the sisters, but in terms of ability, both are equal in my eyes and remain as actors I love to watch no matter what sort of film they happen to be in.
My Favorite Fontaine:
Damsel in Distress (1937): Granted it’s not one of Astaire’s better films, but Joan is quite fetching as his love interest, Lady Alyce Marshmorton. OK, it’s basically the same old plot, but Joan comes off quite well, considering she doesn’t dance. The thing that always got me was the fact that someone that looked as emaciated as Astaire could score a doll like Fontaine, even in a movie.
Rebecca (1940): Joan is superb as the second Mrs. De Winter. No one can project timidity and beauty like Fontaine and make it totally work. I don’t know how bright Joan was in real life, but she projected the image of the gorgeous inhibited librarian-type to near perfection.
Suspicion (1941): With a character that’s nearly a repeat of her earlier turn as Mrs. De Winter, the role could hardly be called a stretch for Fontaine. She proved the perfect foil to Cary Grant’s easygoing con man and shnook. How Grant’s character could look at her and still call her “Monkey Face” was a mystery, even with that unflattering early ‘40s hairdo?
The Constant Nymph (1943): The picture’s not so hot, but Joan is superb. She and Ginger Rogers were the only adult actresses of that time who could rock the teenage look and make you actually believe they were that young. She manages to dominate the film, not an easy task when we can see that co-star Charles Boyer has left his teeth marks all over the scenery.
Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948): This is where one can really appreciate a good actress. Anyone less and we’d be bored out of our skulls, for this film takes a master to pull off properly. Directed by the great Max Ophuls, Joan plays lead character Lisa brilliantly, capturing both her vulnerable facet and later the mature, hardened Lisa, marrying a man for financial security and social respectability rather than love. We see in the film that the notion of romantic love makes the younger Lisa vulnerable and needy, and how Stefan (Louis Jourdan in a fine performance) takes advantage of this neediness. To make Lisa work requires an actress to be strong, yet subtle. Joan delivers on this in spades, aided by Ophuls’ excellent direction and equally strong performances by Jourdan and Marcel Journet.
Born to Be Bad (1950): Another film that’s not so hot. In fact, Joan’s character, Christabel, comes off as a junior grade Eve Harrington. Nicholas Ray’s direction doesn’t help matters, either. But Joan is still able to give her character some badly needed depth and a little oomph. It also helps when one has the sort of chemistry she had with co-star Robert Ryan.
In Memoriam: Peter O'Toole
By Ed Garea
It always seems that, while one dies alone, death itself comes in bunches. In just two days back-to-back in December we lost two of the brightest lights in the Hollywood firmament.
Peter O’Toole passed on first, on December 14 at the age of 81, followed by Joan Fontaine a day later at the age of 96. We will cover her career in a subsequent article; for now we’ll concentrate on the great O’Toole and his films.
The thing that always amazed me about O’Toole was that he managed to last so long; one would have thought he would have drunk himself to death long ago. In his last years he sort of resembled an ill-kept grave. But what a talent: O’Toole was easily one of the most talented men ever to set foot on stage or screen. His T.E. Lawrence will always be remembered as one of the greatest performances ever on film, as will his portrayal of Henry II in both Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968).
As far as Oscar was concerned, O’Toole was always a bridesmaid but never a bride. He holds the record – eight – for having been nominated in the Best Actor category without winning.
He cemented his reputation as a brilliant actor in his late 20s, when he became the youngest leading man ever at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford. While there he also cemented his reputation as a hellraiser, fueled by goodly amounts of alcoholic beverages.
It was the latter reputation that almost caused producer Sam Spiegel to overlook him when casting the part of T.E. Lawrence, but director David Lean pitched for O’Toole and was rewarded when Spiegel saw O’Toole’s screen test and admitted to Lean that they had found their Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia took nearly two years to film, but upon its release O’Toole was now Filmdom’s latest superstar. Contrary to popular belief, it was not O’Toole’s first movie. He appeared in three previous films, the best known of which was Disney’s 1960 adventure, Kidnapped, in which he had a small role as “Robin McGregor.” He had third billing in the 1960 crime drama, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, about three IRA men in turn-of-the-century England who plan to rob the Bank of England of its gold bullion. O’Toole is the officer in charge of security at the bank.
Below are my favorite O’Toole performances, sorted by year.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Who doesn’t love this movie? Oh sure, we can find some crank on IMDb who hated it. It was overlong, not historically accurate, etc. However, they’re in the distinct minority. Lawrence is a majestic movie, the sort they don’t make anymore (for one thing, CGI may have killed off the epic). It has a great script, wonderful cinematography and pacing, and, most of all, solid performances from its cast. Despite this, however, the film is structured in such a way that if the leading man fails (most of Lean’s other epics rely on the same formula), so does the rest of the film. And O’Toole makes sure the film doesn’t fail, capturing the spirit, if not the history, of Lawrence the man. It’s a film that, despite its length, I can watch anytime.
Becket (1964): So how does one follow up on a triumph like Lawrence of Arabia? Why with Becket, of course. Using Jean Anouilh’s play as a basis, it’s the story of the turbulent relationship between King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, childhood friends who later became bitter enemies when Becket got religion and stood up for the Church against the King, and was ultimately killed for it. O’Toole’s Henry is up against another heavyweight in Richard Burton’s Becket, in the days before Liz and booze destroyed his career. John Gielgud also turns in quite an effective performance in a supporting role as King Louis VII of France.
The Night of the Generals (1967): This is a nice little gem in the O’Toole oeuvre, a tale about three Nazi generals suspected in the murder of a Polish prostitute in Warsaw, now in Paris, where one is in on the plot to kill Hitler. O’Toole, as General Tanz, gives a good, suspicious performance. Could he be the murderer? Donald Pleasance and Charles Gray, as the other two suspected generals, also give excellent performances, as does Omar Sharif as the investigating officer on the case. The film does lose its focus with the kill Hitler plot in Paris, but overall it’s quite good, especially O’Toole.
The Lion in Winter (1968): O’Toole is once again Henry II, but this time the focus is not on his intrigue with Thomas Becket, but with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. It’s Christmas 1183. Henry, aging but still conniving, calls a meeting where he will name a successor. In attendance are his scheming wife, Eleanor, and his three sons, Richard, Geoffrey and John. Also called are his mistress, Princess Alais, whom he hopes to marry, and King Philip II of France. All want his empire, but only one will be named. O’Toole is having a field day. Having played Henry before, he is comfortable with the character. Katharine Hepburn is wonderful as Eleanor (she got the Oscar for her portrayal), and a young Anthony Hopkins shines as Richard. Watching O’Toole and Hepburn engaging in their game of political chess (Henry wants John as his successor while Eleanor favors Richard) is mesmerizing: two pros at the pinnacle of their craft. And for those looking for offbeat Christmas movies, the setting of this film should fit the bill.
The Ruling Class (1972): O’Toole is the mad 14th Earl of Gurney in Peter Medak’s wonderful satire on the upper classes. The Earl believes himself to be Christ, wearing glasses because it’s cold, resting himself on a crucifix, and suddenly breaking out into song and dance numbers. His peers and family think he’s quite mad. Yet, when he undergoes a metamorphosis, dresses as a Victorian gentleman while speaking of capital punishment and superior breeding, his peers think him not only cured but prepare him for his seat in the House of Lords. The real point is that the Earl is not cured at all; he now believes himself to be Jack the Ripper. For those who love dark comedy or simply want to see a different O’Toole, this is one to see.
My Favorite Year (1982): O’Toole is in his element in this hilarious comedy. It’s 1954 and King Kaiser (read Sid Caesar) is the biggest thing on television. His guest this week is swashbuckling actor Alan Swann. Now all Kaiser and his staff have to do is make sure Swann stays sober for his appearance, a task not as easy as it seems. As the dissolute Swann, O’Toole dominates the film. Although his character is supposedly based on Errol Flynn, there are a few touches based on O’Toole himself, such as the habit of not wearing a watch (“I don’t trust them, one hand is bigger than the other.”) and his preference for Pinch scotch. In fact, O’Toole’s performance is so true to his real life self that it’s hard to discern where Flynn ends and O’Toole begins. The idea of having junior writer Benjy Stone babysit Swann is based on the real-life incident of having then Caesar show’s junior writer, Mel Brooks, chaperone guest star Flynn around before his appearance on Your Show of Shows.
Ratatouille (2007): Having provided the voice of Sherlock Holmes in a series of animated films for Burbank Studios in Australia, O’Toole was no stranger to the genre. In this heartwarming animated movie from Pixar and Disney about a rat who dreams of becoming a great French chef, O’Toole supplies the voice of Anton Ego, food critic for “The Grim Eater,” and someone whose word can make or break a restaurant. Though he initially comes on as the villain of the piece, his character is the heart of the film because of his love of good food and his honesty. A large part of the fun in watching Ratatouille is listening to O’Toole resonant voice as Ego. Besides, if I didn’t mention this film, Steve Herte would never forgive me.
My Favorite Truffaut
Christine, Ed Garea and David Skolnick share their top five Francois Truffaut-directed films.
When we lost Francois Truffaut at the young age of 52 from a brain tumor, we lost more than a director; we lost an artist who climbed to the status of a cultural icon in a little over a quarter of a century. He was easily the best director France has had since the days of Jean Renoir (we can only wonder about what sort of career Renoir would have had if not for the war), and our most prolific in terms of films that are now acknowledged as classics of the cinema.
There were no limits of genre for Truffaut; his films range from stark drama to the autobiographical to romantic comedy to science fiction. A jack of all trades? Yes, and in my opinion, a master of all. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Truffaut’s films successfully crossed over to the moviegoing audiences in other countries, especially America, where foreign directors had long been consigned to an “art house ghetto.” I think the reason for his success comes from the fact that he eschews the stridence of the political statement for the emphasis on the universal human condition. He had famously said that “life is neither Nazi, Communist, nor Gaullist, it is anarchistic.” For Truffaut, the human condition comes down to love: the abundance or lack of it; the elation it brings and the despair it imposes; the difficulty of communication with respect to being in love; and the resilience of children in the face of the lack of love.
Although many of his films were autobiographical, he also availed himself of other sources, ranging from Henry James to Cornel Woolrich to Henri-Pierre Roche. He once said that if the story was good, did it matter who the author was? That material could not be in better hands, for he had that rare ability to take such material and make it his own without compromising the integrity of that original material, a rare feat for a filmmaker.
I was asked by the editors to pick my five favorite Francois Truffaut films. Five. Five? A most difficult task to accomplish when every film he made is my favorite. But, yes, I suppose it must be five. Hence, beginning with number five, here is my list:
5. Vivement dimanche! (Finally Sunday, or Confidentially Yours, 1983): It was Truffaut’s last film, and sadly showed why he died all too soon. Keeping with his theme of love, this is a heartfelt tribute to the movies he grew up with; the movies he loved. Fanny Ardent is the secretary to businessman Jean-Louis Trintignant. When he is falsely accused of murder, she sets out to investigate and clear her boss in this wonderful mélange of film noir and suspense thriller alleviated by screwball comedy in a style that reminds us of Hitchcock. I loved the name of the secretary, “Barbara Becker,” a wonderful noir moniker denoting at once the Hitchcockian relevance – and reverence. Warning! This film should be recorded rather than seen live, for once viewed, you will want to see it again. When I saw Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery with my husband, we noticed the similarity between Allen’s movie and Vivement Dimanche! I shed more than one tear thinking about what Truffaut would have said about it.
4. Les Quarte cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959): One can do no better in a film debut than create one of the enduring classics of cinema. The heartbreaking story of Antoine Doinel’s childhood was based closely on Truffaut’s own childhood. A realistic, and yet, extremely personal film about Doinel’s troubled childhood, it’s the very sort of film Truffaut challenged others to make. When I first saw it, it made me laugh, especially with the school scenes. Later it made me cry, when his mother abandons him in the reform school with the coldness with which one might dispose of an old piece of furniture.
3. Le Nuit americaine (Day for Night, 1973): A touching and hilarious look at the madness that comes with the making of a film. Truffaut stars as Ferrand, a director filming Je vous presente Pamela (Meet Pamela), the story of an English married wife falling in love and running away with her French father-in-law. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Ferrand is beset with problems large and small, from choosing the right props for a scene to the film lab ruining an expensive crowd scene to dealing with the actors themselves, including a leading lady recovering from a breakdown, a co-star more interested in romancing the script girl than the movie, an alcoholic actress who can’t remember her lines, and most hilarious of all, a cat that won’t hit his mark. For me, the beauty of this film is in the genius with which Truffaut put it together, establishing the difference between Ferrand, the character, and Truffaut, the director. As Ferrand he shoots Meet Pamela rather unexceptionally with a static camera, but as Truffaut, filming the behind-the-scenes story, he uses fluid camerawork. Day for Night is a technical term for night scenes shot during the day with an optical filter, and when we think about it, it sums up the picture perfectly. If it seems similar to a film Jacques Tati would make . . . well, Truffaut once confided to me of his admiration for Tati when I broached the subject. So let us draw our conclusions.
2. Baisers voles (Stolen Kisses, 1968): This is my personal favorite of the Antoine Doinel series. Antoine is dishonorably discharged from the army and returns to Paris, where he finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life. He takes on a series of jobs, going from a dismal turn as a night clerk at a hotel to working as perhaps the most improbable private eye in history, to a turn as a television repairman. For me the beauty of the film lies in its subject matter: an awkward age that we tend to ignore, one’s early twenties. I think for we French, the early twenties are more confusing than our teen years because until then everything is pretty well laid out for us. It’s when we have to assume the adult life that everything comes crashing down. For me that moment came after finishing my university studies balancing what it was I intended to do with my life while dealing with love in the form of a few boyfriends. I generally remained confused until my mid-20s when I began my career as such and shortly after that, meeting my husband, who made it all come together, proving that Truffaut was right about the power of love.
But alas, for Antoine Doinel, love was never that easy. It is difficult enough when thinking of his Christine, but when he’s in love with her, she’s not in love with him; and when she’s in love with him, he’s pursuing someone else. Look for the scene where Antoine and Christine spend the night, and in the morning he proposes to her with what looks like a bottle opener substituting for a ring. I think it’s one of the most beautiful and deeply poetic scenes in cinema history.
1. Jules et Jim (Jules and Jim, 1962): For me, it would take a really remarkable film to top Baisers voles. This should give the reader an idea of how remarkable Jules et Jim is. It’s not only Truffaut’s finest film, but also one I regard as one of the 10 best films ever made. It’s a riveting story of the love and friendship forged over a span of 25 years between best friends Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre) with the free-spirited Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). I shall leave it to others to describe the plot, but the thing I have always found interesting is that the novel upon which the film is based in an autobiographical one. With this film Truffaut first begins to examine the very nature of love while creating a mise-en-scene of the world as a fable. In the first half of the film, as the three friends experience the joy of love, Truffaut’s camerawork expresses their euphoria. In the second half, when the three friends are facing disillusionment and loss, the camera reflects the mood and the film becomes subdued. It seems strange that a period drama adapted from a novel written by a 75-year old man should have such resonance with the youth of the time, but Moreau, Werner and Serre bring an infectious exuberance to their characters. Besides being attractive and charming, they also defy the conventional morality of society. Catherine is the epitome of the free spirit, moving freely from one lover to another; fighting for equality in her own way. Unlike Jules and Jim, who channel their desires through art, Catherine expresses her talents in the act of living itself; her essence lies in her very unpredictability. Yet, at the same time she is searching for love and the security that goes with it. It would seem that she finds it with Jules, but their temperaments are too far apart to reach an accord because Jules can never satisfy her need for adventure.
And so ends my list. Writing about these films has caused me not only to remember them, but to also remember the man that made them. Perhaps that’s the true nature of love – the memory that never dies.
By Ed Garea
This month, TCM is planning a festival of Francois Truffaut movies. Each Friday during the month, four or five will be spooled to what I’m sure will be an eager audience. Many of Truffaut’s films were intensely personal, arising from incidents or episodes in his life. In the end, though, Truffaut ultimate scenario was his premature death at age 52 from a brain tumor.
An avid reader and intense film buff since childhood, Truffaut was a true autodidact. Beginning his career in films as a critic with Cahiers du Cinema in the early ‘50s, he made a name for himself with his 1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” which called out the old guard of French directors for their “stodginess,” and stating his preference for American films, even the low budget B variety. He was also the instigator of what came to be known as “the auteur theory,” which has since become part and parcel of our understanding of the intellectual fabric of cinema. For Truffaut, the creative personality of directors over the body of their work was more important than individual films themselves. Some of the directors he admired included Abel Gance, Jacques Becker, Max Ophuls, Roberto Rossellini, Fritz Lang, Nicholas Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock, a personal idol of Truffaut’s.
But as a director, while his technical expertise is to be admired, a far more important factor in evaluating Truffaut is the fact he’s a marvelous storyteller. All the technical competence in the world is worth nothing if a director cannot communicate his story to the audience. However, while I’m sure my colleagues here at The Celluloid Club see him as France’s greatest director, I see him only as France’s best director since the establishment of the revolution created by La Novelle vague, taking a back seat to the body of work of Abel Gance, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carne, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Jean Vigo.
Be it as it may, the three of us agreed to present our five favorite Truffaut films. While it would be easy to plug in what I believe to be his “artistic” and critical best, I’m taking the other road in that I’m listing what I consider to be his five most entertaining movies. Put it this way – if I were listing my five favorite Henry James novels, I would keep in mind that The Golden Bowl is his best, both critically and artistically, but it is not my favorite. That would be The Bostonians, which I believe to have the better story. It’s the same with Truffaut; his most critically acclaimed may not necessarily be my favorite, and as I lean towards the psychotronic in a director’s body of work, the reader will notice that this preference is evident in my choices. So, without further ado, below are my five favorite Francois Truffaut films.
5. The Bride Wore Black (1968): It’s sort of Truffaut’s homage to Hitchcock, even down to having Bernard Herrmann write the score. However, Hitchcock was never this obvious. Jeanne Moreau is mourning the fact that thugs whacked her fiancée at the church door right after he and Jeanne tied the knot. She thinks of killing herself, but gets an even better idea: why not track down the killers and kill them? At any rate, it’s a lot of fun, as Jeanne dispatches her victims in most interesting ways.
4. Stolen Kisses (1968): Not only is this is one of Truffaut’s most beautiful films, but it also shows the growth and maturity from his Nouvelle Vague days. Continuing the story of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Truffaut’s alter ego from The 400 Blows, we discover he has been dishonorably discharged from the army for questionable character. So, he takes on a series of odd jobs while trying to find his niche in life. At the same time there’s the problematic relationship with the love of his young life – Christine Darbon (Claude Jade). Their problem is that they can never find themselves on the same page, which provides the basis for much of the film’s humor. As I noted before, watch for the scene where Antoine proposes to Christine. The camerawork is excellent and the score enhances the action on the screen.
3. Fahrenheit 451 (1966): This Truffaut film will not be screened during July’s celebration, but it’s a favorite of mine and deserves inclusion. It’s Truffaut’s first and only film in English; he co-wrote the screenplay and began shooting before he mastered the English language – and it shows. He was very disappointed with the awkward and stilted English dialogue, preferring the French-dubbed version, which he supervised. But no matter, for it’s still a compelling film based on Ray Bradbury’s book about a future society where books are burned. Watch for the book burnings: one of the books being burned is an issue of Cahiers du Cinema, and on its cover is a still from Breathless, for which Truffaut collaborated on the screenplay.
2. The 400 Blows (1959): Truffaut’s first and most autobiographical film, and one I can watch multiple times. It never grows old for me. While this is not, as many think, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s first film, it is the film that brought him to the attention of the public and secured a place for him in cinema history. He went on to play the same character, Antoine Doinel, for Truffaut four more times. It’s a touching story of a neglected teenager, brutalized both at home and at school, who responds by acting out: skipping school, sneaking into the movies, and petty theft. Truffaut’s mise en scene of a dingy Paris full of arcades, dingy apartments, abandoned factories, and regular working day avenues helps raise this above other films of the time. At the end, it presents the question of whether the punishment of Doinel fitted his crimes.
1. Day for Night (1973): I saw this long, long ago when I was first married. We went to a theater called The Lost Picture Show, believe it or not, to see a Truffaut double feature of Day for Night with The Green Room. Although I enjoyed both, Day for Night especially moved me. It’s a wonderful film about a director and his problems both on and off the set, as he has to deal with temperamental actors, an actress rescheduling because of her pregnancy, problems with the set, and other emergencies that suddenly crop up, calling for the filmmaker to be a fireman, a confidant, and a psychiatrist in addition to his directorial duties. It is extremely entertaining and one of the few Truffaut films I own on DVD.
By David Skolnick
There are only few directors in the history of cinema who can compare to Truffaut. His films are incredibly well-made whether it's a comedy or a drama or, as in most cases, a combination of both. You'd think that because Truffaut made only 21 feature-length films, it wouldn't be that difficult to pick his best five. After all, I get to select nearly 25 percent of them. But because of the quality of each movie, the selection process is difficult. It means some of my favorite films - The Bride Wore Black, Shoot the Piano Player, Mississippi Mermaid, The Man Who Loved Women and Stolen Kisses - didn't make this list.
5. Two English Girls (1971): This is a role reversal of Truffaut's classic Jules and Jim, made in 1962, about two men in love with the same woman. In Two English Girls, it is two women in love with the same man, Claude Roc, played by the incomparable Jean-Pierre Léaud, who stars in more Truffaut's films than any other actor and is the face of the French New Wave. Two English Girls takes place around the turn of the 20th century with Claude meeting an English woman, Muriel Brown (Stacey Tendeter), with the two immediately becoming close friends. She invites Claude to her family's estate hoping he'll fall in love with her sister, Ann (Kika Markham). The three are inseparable, but Claude falls for Muriel, who falls even harder for him. Their families insist they don't see each other for a year and if they're still in love after that time, they can be married. Claude spends most of the year having sex with several women in Paris and with only one month until the year is up, he breaks it off, devastating Muriel. Ann, who isn't assertive by nature, goes to France to confront Claude, but instead the two fall in love. While neither relationship works, the three characters are deeply affected for decades as a result of the passionate love each sister has for Claude and his love of them. It's a beautiful yet tragic film that has been wrongfully maligned over the years by some who can’t appreciate its underlying message of intense love never fulfilled.
4. The Woman Next Door (1981): Truffaut's second to last film, released three years before his death, The Woman Next Door tells the story of Bernard Coudray (Gérard Depardieu), a happily married family man living in the French countryside who's life gets turned upside down when Mathilde Bauchard (Fanny Ardant in her greatest role) and her husband move next door. It turns out Bernard and Mathilde had a passionate love affair years ago. They try to fight their feelings, but succumb to them. There are a few light-hearted moments in the film that initially comes off as a romantic comedy. But at its core, it is deep, dark and tragic with outstanding acting and beautiful cinematography. And that ending stays with you long after the closing credits.
3. Day for Night (1973): This film permanently ended the friendship between Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, probably the second most important director of the French New Wave movement whose earlier films were groundbreaking, but made largely inconsistent movies the rest of his career. Day for Night is a film about making a film with Truffaut playing Ferrand, a director. Godard sent an angry letter to Truffaut after seeing the film. He complained that Truffaut’s character and Jacqueline Bisset, who plays Julie Baker, the lead actress in the fake movie, called Meet Pamela, don't have a sex scene in Day for Night as the two were a real-life couple at the time. Godard wrote a letter calling Truffaut "a liar" and then had the nerve to ask for money for his next film project. Truffaut's letter in response puts Godard in his place, calling him "a liar" by posing as a "victim" of the film industry system despite making whatever movies he desired. As for the film, it's an excellent portrayal of the difficulties and challenges of making a movie with the focus not only on the actors of the fictitious film, such as Bisset and Jean-Pierre Léaud, but also the crew members giving viewers a complete look at the process. What’s very interesting is the fake film comes across as trashy, simplistic and dull, sort of the anti-Truffaut movie. The acting is top-notch with Valentina Cortese stealing many scenes as Severine, a nearly washed-up alcoholic actress having trouble accepting that her better days are behind here. Also, kudos to Truffaut, who is great in his portrayal of the director. It's a beautiful tribute to cinema; a love letter from Truffaut to film without getting mushy or sentimental.
2. The 400 Blows (1959): This is Truffaut's debut feature-length film and it's a masterpiece. Before he made The 400 Blows, Truffaut was a film critic for Cahiers de Cinéma, a French film publication, and made no secret about what he saw as the shortcomings of the movie industry. Incredibly, he shows the world how to make a daring, brilliant film and helps create a movement that changed the face of movies, inspiring numerous directors in the decades since its release. Rather than stick with the traditional French formula for making movies, Truffaut championed films with strong, creative directors who personalize their work. Jean-Pierre Léaud had a small part a year earlier in King on Horseback, but this is his first leading role – a 14-year-old playing the 12-year-old Antoine Doinel, strongly based on Truffaut. As previously mentioned, he'd reprise the character in three other feature-length films (all are excellent with 1968's Stolen Kisses the best of the bunch) and a 30-minute short. You can see even at this age why Léaud would become Truffaut's go-to actor in many films and why at such a young age, he was already a gifted actor. He has a natural charisma, charm and talent, seemingly so at ease portraying the mischievous and misunderstood Antoine. Truffaut deserves a lot of credit for the brilliant filming of this movie, making the gritty, dirty streets of Paris the young actor's main co-star and helping to highlight the lost, confused existence of Antoine. Its final scene on the shoreline with a freeze-frame of Antoine’s face is among the most iconic endings to a film. Many directors, actors and film fans say this is their favorite movie. It's definitely in my top 15.
1. Jules and Jim (1962): Just edging out The 400 Blows as my favorite Truffaut film is this incredible movie. The plot takes place over a period of about 25 years before, during and after World War I, depicting the intense friendship between two men – Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchman – that is stronger than many marriages, and how it evolves because of the presence of Catherine (Jeanne Moreau, one of cinema's all-time best actresses), an impulsive, captivating and enchanting woman. Catherine loves both men, marrying Jules before the war – he and Jim are fighting for opposing countries and fearful they'll meet in combat. After the war, Jim visits Jules and Catherine, who have a daughter. But things aren't good between the couple and Catherine, who's had several affairs, falls for Jim. Jules' love for her is so great that he agrees to divorce Catherine so she can marry Jim with all three of them, and the child, living together. But that marriage also has its problems. Jim leaves, but plans to return when Catherine becomes pregnant with his child. They don't get back together because of a miscarriage with Jules and Catherine becoming a couple again. That too is short-lived when the three meet years later and Catherine wants to get back together with Jim, who loves her but realizes there's no future for them as a happy couple. The acting is extraordinary, the voice-over narration by Michel Subor greatly enhances the storyline – narration can easily kill a movie – and everything works to perfection from the beautiful cinematography that uses photos, freeze-frame, archived footage and tracking shots to the storyline adapted from Henri-Pierre Roché’s book to Georges Delerue’s soundtrack. Passion and the impact it has on people is something Truffaut focuses on in a number of films, including The Woman Next Door. While the ending to that 1981 film is outstanding and memorable, the conclusion of Jules and Jim is even better. This is one of the finest films ever made. It is as much a piece of art as a master painting, a captivating song or a brilliant poem. It is easily the best French New Wave movie I've seen, and the greatest French film of all-time, which is as big a compliment as I can give because no other foreign country has made more quality movies than France.
Busby Berkeley: The Man Who Saved the Hollywood Musical
By Ed Garea
By the year 1933, the movie musical looked as if it were headed for extinction. The musical was a natural child of the revolution in sound technology; in fact, the first talkie was a musical – The Jazz Singer. Musicals were also a novel way to use the new technology in that, while the audience was being entertained in song, the studios were also figuring out who could speak and who couldn’t; who had charisma and who didn’t. Plus, with sound technology still in its primitive stages, placing a boom microphone over the stage while the assembled cast joined in song was far easier than the problems in drama with hidden microphones in plants and on women’s corsages, with the result being that actors were talking into those plants and corsages.
And – of course – the advantage of filming musicals in those early days was that almost every musical was a hit. But the other side of the coin was that every studio was filling their theater bills with them. It’s like candy: as a tasty treat, fine, but too much and the urge is lost. And it happened that way with the musical. Over 100 were released in 1930 to ever dwindling box office as the novelty wore off. In 1931, only 14 were released. Save for the emergence of Marlene Dietrich in such vehicles as Morocco, and the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers, the musical was in bad shape. In both cases, it was the curiosity about the stars rather than their vehicles that propelled the box office. In Dietrich’s case, her films were quickly shifted from being musicals as such to being dramas with music in them. She would often play a spy or shady character who also worked as a chanteuse or musician in a nightclub, palace or other venue. (Blonde Venus, Dishonored – where she played the piano, The Song of Songs, etc.)
And yet the itch to do a musical rested like an egg in the studios’ nest, waiting for the right time to hatch. Warner Brothers, a studio noted for more for their “ripped from the headlines” dramas starring Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or Barbara Stanwyck, decided to take a chance with a book to which they recently purchased the rights, a novel by Bradford Ropes entitled 42nd Street. Amazing, isn’t it? 42nd Street plays just as if Warner Brothers had written it themselves. But no, there was an actual novel on which the movie was based.
While the studio would assign one of its usual directors to handle the story, they brought in Broadway veteran Busby Berkeley to handle the musical numbers. It was Berkeley’s novel approach to the combination of choreography and camera work that set his musicals apart. Of course, his lavish numbers for the movies contained scenery and an ensemble way too large to fit in any conventional Broadway theater, but this was Hollywood. His genius lay in the fact that he perfected the technique of synchronizing the filmed images to a previously recorded soundtrack. Thus, microphones and the problems inherent with them in those early days were not necessary to the action, and the camera no longer had to be imprisoned in soundproof booths. This gave them the freedom that they previously enjoyed during the Silent Age. Now for the first time, fluid camera motion and intricate editing were now possible, and this gave the musical an even greater range than previously. Berkeley took full advantage and then some by placing his cameras on custom-built booms and crafted monorails.
What’s even more amazing about all this was that Warner Brothers, one of the most frugal studios in Hollywood, gave him the freedom to do so, even if it cost a few more pennies on the production side of the ledger. The result of this unexpected lavish spending was box office receipts that not only allowed the studio to survive those Depression days, but to actually flourish in the times.
42nd Street (1933) Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, George E. Stone, Ginger Rogers, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ned Sparks, and Allan Jenkins. Black and White, 89 minutes.
Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who've worked with you. You've got to go on, and you've got to give and give and give. They've got to like you. Got to. Do you understand? You can't fall down. You can't because your future's in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I'm through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out, and Sawyer, you're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!
Did we really talk like that back then?
This is it, the granddaddy of them all; the archetypical backstage musical; the one we all go back to when discussing the subject. It captures the essence not only of the Warner Brothers films, but also of the decade itself. Loaded with the gritty urban atmosphere and hip dialogue that was the hallmark of 1930’s Warner Brothers films, the movie was the genesis of several show business musical plot devices that later became well-worn clichés:
The hard-driving Broadway stage director whose finances, teetering health, or other condition finds him literally dying for a new hit;
The egotistical star who gives everyone else a hard way to go, then right before the big performance, breaks a limb, paving the way for . . .
The unknown, overlooked, but talented kid from the chorus who takes over the star's role on opening night and makes the musical into the biggest hit on The Great White Way.
We would believe that 42nd Street sprang full-blown out of the mind of Darryl Zanuck, but it wasn’t that way at all. As previously mentioned, the musical is actually derived from a novel of the same name written by Bradford Ropes and published in 1932. Ropes had worked as a dancer on Broadway and put his stage experiences into novels such as 42nd Street, Stage Mother (filmed by MGM in 1933), and Go Into Your Dance.
Given its urban setting, 42nd Street was a perfect vehicle for Warner Brothers: it follows a Broadway musical from casting call to the opening performance. The backstage part of the movie meant constant action, so there’s sure to be no dead spots where the ingénue is romancing the juvenile or the cast director is making eyes at the chorine.
As the movie opens we see director Julian Marsh (Baxter) in the office of producers Jones and Barry. They want him at the helm of their new musical, “Pretty Lady,” and he is totally amenable. It seems that he was quite flush before the Crash, but now he needs the money. A phone call interrupts the meeting. It’s from his doctor, who tells him that he just got over a breakdown from too much work, and this new assignment could kill him. Thus we have Marsh’s motive: he needs the money, even if it will kill him. He’s also got another reason for taking the job: a money-drawing star in Dorothy Brock (Daniels). It seems her new sugar daddy, kiddie-car mogul Abner Dillon (Kibbee), is financing the musical.
Word about the new musical quickly goes out, and it is just as quickly discovered that everyone involved or soon-to-be-involved knows it beforehand anyway. This is done using a very clever montage of the sword being passed around. Soon the hopefuls arrive and among them is a woman with a monocle affecting an English accent, soon discovered to be Ann Lowell (Rogers), aka “Anytime Annie.” According to stage manager Andy Lee (Stone): “Not ‘Anytime Annie’” Say, who could forget ‘er? She only said ‘No’ once and then she didn’t hear the question.”
Another featured player introduced is Lorraine Fleming (Merkel). One of the stagehands notices that she’s been hitting the bottle. “Yeah,” another replies, “the peroxide bottle.” That leaves two characters: the juvenile, Billy Lawler (Powell), and the ingénue, Peggy Sawyer (Keeler), and we meet them in short order as Keeler accidentally enters Billy’s dressing room while he’s clad only in his underwear.
Now that we have the assembled the necessary players, the movie concentrates on the reason they’re assembled – to put on a show. Marsh is a no-nonsense, driven director. He’s fighting the clock to the opening while trying to get the best performances possible from the cast he’s chosen. And along the way he has to deal with problems that suddenly crop up, such as the fact that his leading lady, Dorothy Brock, is still in love with her old vaudeville partner, Pat Denning (Brent), seeing him on the sly. If her sugar daddy should find out, he could pull the plug in the whole shebang, and Marsh would left on the outside looking in. To put Denning in his place, Marsh calls upon a few underworld pals of his and they give Denning a message he’s sure to understand, capped off with a sock in the jaw.
But try as he might, Marsh can’t keep Brock and Denning apart and things come to a boil when Brock explodes at a pre-opening party. She ends up throwing everyone out, including her sugar daddy. She also breaks her ankle in the fracas and it looks as if the show is sunk. But Sugar Daddy Dillon has a solution: his new squeeze, Anytime Annie. Marsh turns the suggestion down, but Annie herself pitches for young Sawyer, telling Marsh that if she would turn down this chance of a lifetime, it must be in favor of someone who is really talented. So, it’s Sawyer. Marsh rehearses her until she almost collapses, but then she goes on not only to save the show, but to make it a hit as well.
Once the musical numbers begin, the movie belongs to Berkeley. The first number, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” about a young couple (Keeler and an uncredited Clarence Nordstrom) on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, sets the tone. Berkeley expands the rail sleeper car into a huge stage, as the just married couple dances their way down to aisle to the accompaniment of Merkel and Rogers warbling a cynical parody of the lyrics. From there Powell takes over in his “Young and Healthy” number, accompanied by Toby Wing, a young actress who might best be described as Berkeley’s “protégé” at the time. A former Goldwyn Girl, it seemed as if the talented Wing was heading for bigger and better things, but her career inexplicably stalled and she reverted back to being the eye candy that filled out a scene.
Everything works up to the big finale, where Keeler sings the title song. Right before she goes on, Marsh gives her the big speech (quoted above). The finale, of course, is wonderful, with Keeler dancing on that we first think is a stage, but as the camera pulls back we see that it’s the top of a taxicab. Keeler has been criticized over the years for her “heavy-footed” dancing in this scene, but keep in mind that she was trained as an Irish step-dancer (yes, they had them even back then), and – anyway – she’s just fine as she is. What she can’t do, however, at least in this film, is act. It’s a good thing her lines were at a minimum, because she is clearly stage acting instead of film acting – and there is a difference, a big difference.
Another line that may at first go unnoticed with all the other innuendo flying around is Marsh’s entreaty to Andy Lee on the last night of rehearsals, asking Andy to come home with him that night because he’s lonely. In the Ropes novel, Marsh is clearly gay and his lover is the show’s juvenile, Billy Lawler, which is how Billy gets all his roles. But not even Warner’s in all its Pre-Code glory could go that far, and it was decided to make Billy infatuated with Peggy instead. Besides, a role such as that for the young Powell would have killed his career before it even got off the ground.
As a movie, 42nd Street was just another offering from Warner Brothers that year, albeit a very popular offering. Today it’s seen as a groundbreaking classic.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) Director: Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley (musical numbers). Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, and Ginger Rogers. Black and White, 96 minutes.
Although given the material and the time in which it was made, to think that this film is entirely original would be an erroneous assumption. Its roots go back to a 1923 Warners’ silent entitled The Gold Diggers, a comedy adapted from a play by Avery Hopwood about the uncle (Wyndham Standing) of wealthy young Wally Saunders (John Harron) and his efforts trying to dissuade him from marrying chorus girl Violet Dayne (Anne Cornwall) because he believes all chorus girls are ruthless gold diggers, only after a man for his money. When sound arrived the film was remade as Gold Diggers of Broadway in 1929. The story is essentially the same, only now music is added and the film was shot in two-strip Technicolor.
The success of 42nd Street caused Warners to examine other projects that might be suitable; thus it was only natural that Executive Producer Darryl Zanuck would green light Gold Diggers of Broadway for an update. The original play and movie focused on the efforts of two sisters to hit the big time. Gold Diggers of 1933 would center around three chorines – Keeler, Blondell, and MacMahon – in pursuit of not only their dancing careers, but also three rich men – Powell, William, and Kibbee. Their backstage hijinks would be clothed in a hodgepodge of mistaken identity and screwball romance, flavored with just enough innuendo to keep the audience’s attention in case things began to flag.
Just before filming was to begin, Zanuck and LeRoy decided to change the opening, and in doing so, created not only one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, but also a trademark scenario for movie musicals in general. The film was supposed to open with a semi-documentary montage of closed theaters, empty ticket agencies, and deserted office buildings. After the change, the picture opens on a theater stage, where we see a performance in progress. As the camera pulls away we see that it’s a dress rehearsal and the tune being rehearsed is “We’re in the Money,” with chorines dressed in outfits sporting coinage and Rogers singing a chorus in Pig Latin. It’s not only pure Berkeley, but also changes the entire tone of the movie. A musical is no place for realism – especially a musical set during the Depression.
Of course, as with any Busby Berkeley Warners’ musical, we eagerly await the end to see what Berkeley has come up with to entertain and enthrall us this time. And Gold Diggers of 1933 is no different – not only are we entertained, we are also awed with the amount of imagination that went into each number. “The Shadow Waltz,” where Berkeley used 60 electrically-wired violins and a huge curving staircase to feature them, was definitely awe-inspiring. The number “Pettin’ in the Park,” was one of the most risqué, even in those Pre-Code times, and had to be edited down to prevent some state censorship boards banning the film altogether. The “highlight” of the number was when the women are caught in a sudden rainstorm and have to change behind a flimsy screen. They re-emerge in metal costumes that seem to stump the men until a lecherous baby (played by Billy Barty) hands Powell a can opener.
“Pettin’ in the Park” was supposed to be the last number, but Berkeley moved it ahead, replacing it with a number he was inspired to write while in Washington D.C. during the march of the “Bonus Army,” a group of disaffected veterans from World War I that were seeking advance payment of bonuses due them during the next decade for their service during the war. The number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is sung by Blondell (voiced by Jean Cowan) and is a deftly produced and shot plea for those left behind by the economics of the times. It is darkly pessimistic and owes more to the German Expressionism of the ‘20s than the American optimism of the musicals of the ‘30s. It also brings the gaiety of the previous numbers to a crashing halt, giving us all something to think about as we leave the theater.
Trivia: Watch for the “call boy” paging the cast before the “Forgotten Man” number. It’s none other than Berkeley himself.
Footlight Parade (1933) Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Jimmy Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, and Claire Dodd. Black and White, 102 minutes.
Berkeley already had some ideas for musical numbers when Gold Diggers of 1933 wrapped production. He was thinking ahead and knew here’d be another musical soon down the road. Now all Warners had to do was supply the necessary backstage plot. While Zanuck and his assistants worked out those necessaries, the studio announced that none other than Cagney would star. As if another musical from the hot hand of Berkeley wasn’t enough to draw customers in, the added lure of Cagney playing against type was certain to draw a curiosity factor. What most fans didn’t know at the time was that Cagney got his start on Broadway as a dancer and was always eager to play the same in movies. As soon as he saw the posting for the role he began lobbying Jack Warner for the role. Zanuck immediately saw the box office potential of Cagney in the role and quickly acquiesced to his star’s request.
Now that they had the star, it was time to secure the supporting cast. Powell and Keeler were added; after all, they were a big hit in the previous two films, even to the point where fans thought they were an item offstage, not realizing that Keeler had been married to Al Jolson since 1928. (When Powell wed Blondell, some fans were dismayed, thinking that he was married to Keeler.) Speaking of Blondell, casting her was a natural, for no one in those days – absolutely no one – could deliver a comic line like her. McHugh, a close off-screen pal of Cagney’s, was also added in a supporting role, as were Warners stalwarts Kibbee and Herbert. Now all they had to do was come up with a passable plot to support the musical numbers.
Cagney is Chester Kent, a musical producer who finds himself out of work with the coming of sound. He may be down, but he’s not out. He convinces two partners to throw in with him in producing a series of live action prologues that will precede the feature film in theaters. However, everything’s not going as well as can be expected. For one thing, his main competitor, Gladstone, seems to have a knack for taking his ideas and beating him to the punch with them. There’s a leak somewhere, and Blondell as Nan Prescott, his loyal – and lovesick – secretary, is determined to find it. Nan also has other problems to distract her. For one thing, she and Cagney’s new gold digging girlfriend, Vivian (Dodd) don’t get along. But for Blondell, things come together when she discovers that the source of the leak is none other than Vivian herself, who has been secretly working for the competition. This leads to the best line of the picture, when Blondell is kicking Vivian out of the office – literally. Vivian asks what she’ll do now, to which Blondell replies, “Outside countess. As long as they’ve got sidewalks you’ve got a job.”
The prologue comes off well, highlighted to that point by Berkeley’s number “By a Waterfall,” featuring an 80-foot-by-40-foot swimming pool, lined with glass so that Berkeley could film the swimmers underwater. He designed their suits to as to create the illusion they were naked. They result was so impressive that the audience at the premiere gave it a standing ovation. (Point of logic: Kent is producing prologues to fit in theaters. How does one fit anything that size into a small theater?)
Now a glitch develops: the male lead in the “Shanghai Lil” finale (with Keeler impersonating a Chinese woman) gets too drunk to go on. Enter Cagney in his place, and he and Keeler bring the joint down with their exuberance. Now to the question that’s been on the minds of almost everyone who’s seen the film: In the “Shanghai Lil” sequence, is that John Garfield we see as one of the extras at the beginning? Almost each time I’ve discussed this movie with a film fan, that question always comes up. What’s really amazing is that Garfield in on screen for only 5/6 of a second, yet we remember him. Some historians think it’s him and point to the fact he was doing extra work in addition to his stage roles in Los Angeles at the time. But others, including Garfield’s daughter, insist it’s not him. All I can say is that, if it wasn’t Garfield, then he has an identical twin out there. I will leave the final word to my late wife, a big Garfield fan since she first laid eyes on him in Four Daughters. She said it was definitely Garfield in that scene and I will not disagree.
Both Warner Brothers and Berkeley would go on after this to produce Wonder Bar, Dames, Gold Diggers of 1935, Stars Over Broadway, and Hollywood Hotel, using basically the same formula. And when something is overused it loses its novelty. This is what essentially happened: the formula used so successfully by Warners grew stale and was replaced with the Art Deco stylings of producer Pandro Berman’s Fred Astaire and Rogers musicals at RKO. Berkeley, however, would start afresh at MGM with Gershwin music and Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland as his stars, creating a new take on his by now classic style. And just when we began to believe we’d seen the last of Berkeley and 42nd Street, it popped up once again, this time on the Broadway stage and became the biggest thing on Broadway that year. What goes around comes around – only to go around and come back around again – and again.
Howard Hawks and the Intellectuals
By Ed Garea
The name of Howard Hawks carries a definite connotation. Known for his Westerns and action yarns, off the screen he was known as a “man’s man.” Before he found his passion working in Hollywood, Hawks served in the U.S. Army Air Service during World War I and after the war flew planes and drove racecars. When not on the set, Hawks spent his time hunting, fishing, golfing, driving fast cars, and piloting airplanes.
His circle of friends reflected his interests. Two of his closest friends were Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Hawks fished, hunted, collected guns, drank and womanized with both. Faulkner worked for Hawks as a screenwriter or contributor on a number of films, among them Air Force (1943), To Have and Have Not (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), and Land of the Pharaohs (1955).
Hemingway, though he never worked directly for Hawks, is famed in movie lore for an apocryphal story set in 1939 while the two were on a fishing – and drinking – trip. Hawks tells the story in Peter Bogdanovich’s book Who the Devil Made It? (The title itself originated from a quote by Hawks.):
I told Hemingway I could make a picture out of his worst book and he said, rather grumpily, “What’s my worst book?” I said, “That bunch of junk called ‘To Have and Have Not.’ ” He said, “Well, I needed money.” I said, “Oh, I don’t care about that part.” He said, “You can’t make a picture out of that.” “Yes, I can.” So for about 10 days we sat around, while we were fishing, and talked about how these characters met one another, what kind of people they were, and how they ended up. When I came back, I went over and bought the story and started in on the premise that Hemingway and I had evolved.
Hawks has also wanted to make a film about the wartime escapades of his friend Hemingway with the famed war photographer Robert Capa, but the project never got off the drawing board.
But Faulkner and Hemingway served as more than friends, they also served Hawks’ ideal of what an intellectual should be; the word “intellectual” implies a man of action that can write a damn good novel or story. Nowhere in any of Hawks’ films will we find any interest in ideas as such. None of his films are built around a separate social or ethical theme. For Hawks, ideas are part and parcel of the situations, the actions, and the characters in his films. His films are unabashedly commercial: “I never made a statement,” biographer Todd McCarthy quoted him as saying. “Our job is to make entertainment. I don’t give a God damn about taking sides.” Seeing himself as a storyteller who used film, he never let an idea come between the story and audience.
That being said, he did have certain attitudes that were expressed in his films. Foremost is the attitude of male camaraderie. It’s what allows Hawks’ heroes to overcome adversity, and without it the hero cannot succeed. We need to stick together if we are to win. In his wartime Air Force (1943), it is when the crew of the Mary Ann comes together as a crew that the Japanese enemy starts being overcome.
Even more representative of this attitude is Only Angels Have Wings (1939): Cary Grant heads a decrepit airmail and freight service in the Peruvian Andes. They only persevere because of their common bond. If a pilot cracks up and dies it’s because he didn’t have what it took, period. No excuses. Richard Barthelmess is a pilot who bails out when his plane gets in trouble, leaving its mechanic there to die. No one wants anything to do with him. It’s only when he refuses to bail out when his new plane is damaged and lands it with paralyzed mechanic Thomas Mitchell that he is finally accepted by his crewmates.
Not even women are exempt: Jean Arthur is a showgirl stranded among them. Because she doesn’t understand what camaraderie is, she doesn’t care for what she sees as a cavalier attitude. It’s only when she becomes “one of the boys” that Grant is able to return her love and open himself up emotionally to her. This is the world of Howard Hawks.
So it stands to reason that he has no use for the intellectual as such; what we would refer to jokingly as “the egghead.” This sort of intellectual is incapable of action on his own. He’s lost in contemplation of some arcane idea or object necessary to realize his arcane idea. He’s separate from his peers because of this and cannot relate himself to the social world around him – the real world.
We can divide Hawks’ attitude to intellectuals into Prewar and Postwar. The Prewar Hawks saw the intellectual as a bumbling bozo living in a world estranged from that of ordinary society, a threat to no one but himself in his endless obsession with puzzles and objects. But, for Hawks, the Postwar intellectual is now seen as a threat: his creation of an agent of destruction capable of wiping mankind from the face of the planet signifies his anti-life stance. Worse, he doesn’t realize the gravity of what he has done. Far from being isolated from society he is now in positions of authority, but his lack of common sense and enthrallment with utopian ideals will doom us unless checked by those that do possess the common sense and commitment to life that he so clearly lacks.
Hawks has often said in interviews that the characters of David Huxley in Bringing Up Baby and Bertram Potts in Ball of Fire were exaggerations; and the same with Dr. Barnaby Fulton in Monkey Business. Hawks said he saw the role as a great comedy vehicle for Grant. As for The Thing from Another Planet, he said that he kicked it around with screenwriters Charlie Lederer and Ben Hecht and they decided the story needed a heavy (besides the Thing), so they chose the scientists. But this explanation by itself shows a great coincidence, one too great to be taken at face value. Huxley could have been presented as a normal man, without all the baggage. The same for Potts; why not make Stanwyck’s character the heavy, the boob? As for Monkey Business, why does Hawks go to the lengths he does to make Fulton look silly? As for The Thing from Another Planet, why isn’t everyone banded together to stop the invader? Why must there be a split and a war within the colony? No, the way he presents intellectuals and academics in his movies is perfectly in keeping with the Hawksian world-view, and that of his screenwriters.
Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant), the hero of Hawks’ flawed screwball masterpiece, Bringing Up Baby, is a milquetoast paleontologist who’s been working for the past four years piecing together a brontosaurus skeleton in a museum. His fiancée and assistant, Alice Swallow (Virginia Walker) is officious, smothering, and buttoned down to the extreme. She reminds us of Bebe Neuwith’s repressed Lilith in Cheers and Frasier. In marrying him, she declares that she’s more interested in David’s work than in him as a person. “Our marriage must entail no domestic entanglements whatsoever,” she tells David. It’s a sign that she will be the dominant in the family. For his part he simply acquiesces to her demands, one of which is winning a $1 million endowment from the wealthy Mrs. Carlton Random (May Robson) for the museum. Her lawyer, Alexander Peabody (George Irving), will make the decision on her behalf, so, as Alice reminds him, David must make a good impression. During David’s game of golf with Mr. Peabody he crosses paths with heiress Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) and we know right away his life will never be the same. She’s capricious, acting for the moment as opposed to David. If we were to cast this in Freudian terms, we might say she is the Id to his Superego.
But unlike David and Alice, Susan is alive. She ruins David’s golf game – and meeting with Mr. Peabody – in an argument over whose golf ball it is on the course. From here on in with their relationship, she dominates him completely. But it is within this relationship that David finally begins to grow, for he is finally out in the real world, where things take place by chance and not through planning.
Most of the film’s shenanigans take place at the home of Susan’s Aunt Elizabeth (May Robson). David makes a bad impression on her at the door, and later discovers she is THE Mrs. Carlton Random. So David and Susan must hide his identity, lest her aunt find out who he really is and cancel the endowment. During their time together, a vertebrae David has been seeking to complete his skeleton finally arrives, but is taken by the family dog, named George. It is in their attempt to discover where George has hidden the bone that David’s world is turned upside down. Susan discovers that the gardener has accidentally let Baby (the leopard Susan’s brother sent her as a gift to her aunt and the Baby of the title) loose from the stable and she has mistaken a wild leopard from a nearby circus being carted off for Baby and lets the animal out of his cage.
The climax of the film occurs when Susan spots the wild leopard on the roof of Dr. Lehman’s house. Thinking it’s Baby she tries to coax it down, but Lehman, coming to the front door, sees only Susan (who he thinks is deranged, based upon his earlier meeting with her at a dinner club), drags her into the house, and calls for the constable. When Constable Slocum arrives, he sees David slinking around the grounds and arrests him as a Peeping Tom.
At the jail, Slocum, with the help of Lehman’s providing psychological theories, refuses to believe either David or Susan. When Elizabeth and her guest, Horace Applegate, arrive to bail the duo out, Slocum arrests them as well, believing they are impersonators. Unable to get Slocum to listen, Susan concocts a story that she is moll “Swinging Door Susie” and the others are “the Leopard Gang. This Slocum and Lehman swallow whole, and while they are writing it up, Susan escapes through a window. Enter lawyer Peabody, who is recognized by Lehman. He explains their real identities. Meanwhile Susan has captured the circus leopard and drags it in to the station. David now takes charge, probably for the first time in his life, and using a chair, backs the beast into an empty cell.
The ending of the film confirms David’s experience: Alice breaks off their engagement and David returns to his brontosaurus. Hearing Susan’s voice in the outer corridor, he scrambles up to a platform overlooking the skeleton. Susan climbs a nearby ladder on the other side of the brontosaurus, telling him that she has retrieved his bone and that Aunt Elizabeth gave her the million dollars, which she tells David she will donate to the museum. Initially, David is unmoved by her, but thinking over their weekend, admits that it was the best weekend he’s ever had and it was due to her. Susan, overcome, begins to swoon on the ladder and realizes that she’s losing her balance. As David tries to pull her to his platform, she lands on top of the skeleton, causing this one-of-a-kind restoration to collapse in a heap. David now shrugs it off and embraces Susan.
The collapse of the brontosaurus is our sign that David has left the ivory tower for the land of the living, and in embracing Susan (representing the life force), he trades the sterile for the vital. I said it was a flawed masterpiece. This is due to the horrible miscasting of Hepburn in a role she was ill-prepared to enact. It was her first comedy, and she simply wasn’t up to playing against Grant, who excelled at any type of comedy, from drawing room to madcap screwball. It was a role that screamed out for Carole Lombard, who could match Grant in frenetic energy without appearing obviously playing a comedy.
Sometimes overlooked is the marvelous performance in the film by Fritz Feld as psychiatrist Dr. Lehman. Upon running into Susan in a restaurant and getting into an argument with her over identical purses, he thinks she is deranged. And by his strict standards, she is. However, she never takes the time to explain and, more importantly, he never takes the time to listen. He’s too busy trying to pigeonhole her into some mental aberration or other. Later, when the equally daffy constable Slocum (Walter Catlett) takes Susan, David, and the whole bunch into jail, Lehman is there to concoct strange psychological theories based on the line of baloney Susan is feeding both of them. It begs the question of who is really deranged: Susan, or the authorities.
The next example of the Prewar intellectual skewered by Hawks is linguistics professor Bertram Potts, played by Gary Cooper in Ball of Fire (1941). Like David Huxley, Potts exists in a vacuum cut off from everyday society – and reality. He oversees a group of like-minded intellectuals that have spent the last nine years composing an encyclopedia. When the garbage collector (Allen Jenkins) drops by for help with a radio quiz, his colorful use of slang convinces Potts that his article on slang, composed only from research books, is already outdated, and he needs to do further research, which can only be had by going directly into the field.
He goes to a nightclub, where he writes down every slang expression he hears. He also meets stripper Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), inviting her to a slang symposium. She dismisses his invitation, but later learns that the D.A. is looking to subpoena her as a witness in his case against her gangster boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). She now takes Potts up on his invitation and arrives at his doorstep later that night. (In the Bogdanovich interview, Hawks says he based the plot on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.)
What begins as a match between two differing points of view ends up with them falling in love and Potts having to rescue her from Lilac, who has kidnapped her and taken her to New Jersey to be wed, as a wife cannot testify against her husband. Potts, accompanied by the professors and the garbage collector, comes to her rescue and Potts realizes he must fight Lilac. Knowing he has to fight Lilac, Potts has brought along a book on how to box, but it is of no help. Only when he discards the book and relies on his instincts is he able to subdue Lilac and his gang.
Both Huxley and Potts live in ivory towers, cut off from the world-at-large. And both are redeemed through the intervention of a strong woman rooted in the real world, with each experiencing an existential catharsis. David confesses to Susan in the end that their past weekend was the most fun he’s ever had, and Potts, thinking he’s speaking with another professor, confesses not only his love for Sugarpuss, but how she’s made him come alive. And that is the point Hawks is making in both films – the professors are dead, living in the past or in books. Because the Academic could only hurt himself, he was a comical figure and a subject for screwball comedy.
In Part Two, we’ll examine the scientist from Hawks’ Postwar view as constituting a threat. The threat from within comes in Monkey Business and the threat from without is seen in The Thing From Another World.
Bringing Up Baby (RKO, 1938) Director: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Dudley Nichols and Hagar Wilde. Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, May Robson, Charlie Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, and Alice Walker. B&W, 102 minutes.
Ball of Fire (Goldwyn, 1941) Director: Howard Hawks. Screenplay: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Cast: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Dana Andrews, Dan Duryea, Oscar Homolka, Henry Travers, S.K. Sakall, Tully Marshall, Leonid Kinskey, Richard Haydn, and Allen Jenkins. B&W, 111 minutes.
Bogdanovich, Peter – Who the Devil Made It? (New York: Knopf; 1997)
McCarthy, Todd – Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood (New York: Grove Press; 2000)
Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith
By David Skolnick
By 1961, Ingmar Bergman had cemented his place among cinema's greatest directors. 1957 saw him direct what many movie fans consider to be his two masterpieces – The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries. They are notable for the themes that would define Bergman to moviegoers: religion, morality and humanity. He takes these themes to an even greater level in the three movies, called the “Trilogy of Faith” and released between 1961 and 1963.
Bergman has stated many times in interviews that he didn't intend for Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and the two follow-up films – Winter Light and The Silence (both released in 1963) – to be considered as a trilogy. But there is nevertheless a definite connection between the films. While there are no characters or storylines carried over from one film to the next, but the themes are strikingly similar. Like most of Bergman's films, there are no happy endings and they provide an insight into the human psyche. But the intensity in these three is much greater.
While Bergman addresses religion in several of his movies, these are more about God's silence and the potential horror rather than compassion a higher being would show in the face of tragedy and uncertainty. They also focus more on isolation – the number of actors in each film is minimal as are most of the settings – and the destruction of the family. And for those who equate Bergman with long movies, each film in the Trilogy films is under 100 minutes so you can take your time closely watching while attempting to understand them.
Through A Glass Darkly (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films, 1961) – Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Harriet Andersson, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Max von Sydow, and Lars Passgard. 89 min.
Bergman does his best to initially fool his viewers. The movie starts off with the four actors emerging from the sea laughing and in high spirits, spending time together on an island. (The movie is the first Bergman filmed on the island of Faro, which later became his home.) But as we quickly discover, things are not all that pleasant. Karin (Andersson) has just left a mental institution where she was treated with shock therapy to cure her of what appears to be schizophrenia, and is reunited with her husband Martin (von Sydow). They are on vacation with her father David (Bjornstrand) and her 17-year-old brother Minus (Passgard). Martin confides to David, a novelist, that there is no cure for Karin. She however believes she's turned a corner.
Martin loves Karin, but she is no longer able to show much emotion, except loyalty, for her husband. David has spent his entire life being emotionally detached from his children, which severely impacts Minus, who is dealing with teenage angst. Minus desires a real relationship with his father, who realizes he's been an absentee parent, but does nothing to change it. In a quiet moment, after giving the three others thoughtless presents from a recent trip, David breaks down in tears alone. Yet he tells his family that he's cutting his vacation short for another job. Also, David is experiencing writer's block and finds his inspiration for a potential novel in the deterioration of his daughter's mental state. He keeps a diary of her condition, which she discovers. She was going to lose touch with reality at some point soon, but her discovery of her father’s journal gets her there a little quicker.
Karin's delusions consume her and she goes into a room where she claims she hears the voices of other people behind wallpaper. She eventually comes to believe that God will reveal Himself to her in that room. The voices keep on talking and Karin confides in her confused and vulnerable brother about what she's experiencing. (While it isn't shown on camera, it's heavily suggested that Karin seduces Minus and the two have sex.)
Karin realizes she cannot live in two worlds and agrees to return to the asylum. But before that the voices call her back to the room telling her God is there. With a helicopter landing just outside the room, and with the windows open, the wind created by the blade opens a door in the room and Karin "sees" God. She screams in horror. After being sedated by Martin, Karin said God came to her as a spider – the “Spider-God” theme is in other Bergman movies – with a cold, calm, stony face who tried to unsuccessfully "penetrate" her.
Martin goes with Karin in the helicopter while David and Minus stay behind stunned by what they've seen. Minus, who has lost touch with reality because of his sister's delusions, wonders if he can go on. Despite what just happened to Karin, Martin speaks of God and love. "I don't know if love is the proof of God's existence or if it's God himself." The discussion brings great comfort to Minus. While some of that is in his father’s words, the mere fact that his father spoke to him is significantly more important. The film ends with a hint of optimism with a somewhat stunned/somewhat happy Minus saying, "Papa spoke to me."
The actors are authentic in their roles, particularly Andersson, who has the most-challenging part. The dialogue, while minimal at times, is insightful. While Karin slips in and out of reality, the film is real and meaningful.
Winter Light (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films, 1963) – Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Gunnel Lindbloom, Max von Sydow, Allan Edwall, Kolbjorn Knudsen, Olof Thunberg, and Elsa Ebbesen. 81 min.
Bjornstrand shines in this film that pulls no punches when it comes to questioning God, and if He exists, why does he remain silent?
Bergman's films aren't light watching, but Winter Light challenges the viewer more than usual. Bjornstrand plays Tomas Ericsson, a pastor at a church whose congregation is getting smaller and smaller. The town seems to be dying, but more central to the film is fewer people are attending church. Tomas questions his own faith and relationship with God, and does a poor job of hiding it from the very parishioners that depend upon him for spiritual solace.
His problems began four years earlier with the death of his wife, the only woman he ever loved. Her death made Tomas reevaluate God to the point of wondering if He exists and if so, why has He left him living a horrible existence.
The parishioners include Marta (Thulin), the local school teacher who is in love with Tomas and has been intimate with him since the passing of his wife; Jonas Persson (von Sydow), who is depressed after learning China is developing an atomic bomb; and Persson's wife, Karin, who is deeply concerned about her husband's mental state.
Marta, an atheist, wants to marry Tomas, but he doesn't love her. She sends him a letter detailing their time together. Rather than have Tomas read it, however, Bergman gives us a close-up of Marta speaking the content of the letter, showing her vulnerability, loneliness and desire for passion in the monologue in a brilliant turn by Thulin. We learn that the pastor became repulsed after she developed a skin condition that initially caused a rash on her hands (stigmata perhaps). It became worse when the unsightly rash covered her entire body. Bergman cuts several times between the pastor and a sculpture of Jesus being crucified, located inside the church, to symbolically show Tomas' suffering. With that in mind, it's not a stretch to compare Tomas' rejection of Marta because of her skin condition as a religious rejection of the human flesh.
Jonas returns to the church seeking answers and understanding from Tomas about the Chinese developing the atomic bomb. But (doubting?) Tomas provides no help as he talks about his lack of faith rather than listening to his parishioner. In this scene, Bergman reintroduces the “Spider-God” from Through a Glass Darkly. Tomas tells Jonas that God used to be one “who loved mankind.” After his wife’s death, He became a “Spider-God, a monster.”
Tomas tells Jonas it is more logical for there to not be God so the atrocities people commit against each other make more sense. If God existed, He wouldn't let all such terrible things happen. Tomas also suggests if God exists, He is silent so there is no reason to put you faith in Him. This advice drives Jonas over the edge. He grabs his shotgun, drives off and kills himself.
Tomas – with Marta along for the ride – agrees to tell Karin that Jonas is dead. He can’t offer sympathy or empathy (even though his wife died four years prior) and is left asking Karin if she wants to read some Bible verses with him. She rejects the offer.
Tomas, nursing a nasty cold throughout the film (Bjornstrand was actually sick during some of the time this was made), and Marta finally have it out with the latter begging the pastor to marry her so the two can be happy. Tomas is cruel, telling her that he never loved her, never will and she is nothing compared to his wife.
The film ends with Algot (Edwall), a sexton at the church, asking Tomas about Christ's final hours in which he is brutally beaten and crucified. Algot, a hunchback, said that Christ's physical pain didn’t last long. While it was certainly horrible, Algot believes the mental suffering – being rejected by his disciples and then hearing nothing but silence from God in his greatest time of need – was worse. Tomas agrees. Seemingly unaffected, Tomas conducts mass, the only steady activity he has in his miserable existence, even though Marta, who doesn’t believe in God, is the lone parishioner.
This is about an intense a film as you're going to see. At least in Through a Glass Darkly, Minus finally gets to have a conversation with his father that provides him with the tiniest glimmer of hope. There's nothing in this film that's uplifting. It’s depressing, but still fascinating and beautifully filmed. Bjornstrand, who is one of my favorite Bergman film actors, and Thulin are exceptional, particularly when interacting with each other. Bergman has said this was his favorite film he made. I've found others to be better, but it is certainly one of his most compelling and troubling films.
The Silence (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films, 1963) – Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Ingrid Thulin, Gunnel Lindbloom, Hakan Jahnberg, Jorgen Lindstrom, and Birger Malmsten. 96 min.
Thulin is back, this time as Ester, a seriously-ill language translator. She is traveling by train through portions of Europe with her free-spirited and beautiful but insecure sister, Anna (Lindbloom), and the latter's 10-year-old son, Johan (Lindstrom). It is obvious from the first time we see them that the sisters don't like each other, aren't close and resent each other. The first question I had was: "Why are they traveling together?" The answer is never given.
Ester has a major bronchial attack, forcing the trio off the train to allow her to rest in a hotel. The country they are in is on the brink of war. You can tell that by the tanks that appear in a few scenes. The country they are in, likely in Central Europe (though never mentioned by name), and from the appearance of tanks in a few scenes, we can infer that it is on the brink of war. The sisters don’t speak the language, but after a while, Ester is able to communicate with an elderly waiter/bell-hop at the hotel to have him bring her liquor for self-medication and cigarettes.
There is little dialogue in this film. (Well, it is called The Silence.) Some of the dialogue is in the language of the country the three are in with no subtitles for that fictitious language.
The Silence is more sexually explicit than most other Bergman films, and more so than any other he’d directed to that point. The movie includes a few nude scenes with Lindbloom, a couple having sex at a table at a cabaret with Anna a few feet away, and a masturbation scene with Thulin, whose character, we are led to believe, is a closet lesbian.
The friction between the sisters (Ester is too clingy and judgmental) and boredom leads Anna to leave their hotel suite for a night out. Anna leaves behind her son, who is left to roam the hotel seeking ways to entertain himself. He has fun with a group of carnival troupe of dwarves, but after a few minutes, the main dwarf comes into their hotel room and puts an end to it. It’s sort of like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer after leaving the North Pole playing with other animals until their mother forces Rudy to get lost.
Johan is stuck with Ester, who frightens him likely because of the problems between his mother and aunt. He is loyal to his mother even though she leaves him behind at the hotel. After a while, Ester and Johan become somewhat close.
During one of her first times away from the hotel, Anna wanders into a cabaret with the couple having sex nearby. She also meets a restaurant waiter (Malmsten), who is very interested in her sexually.
When Anna returns alone, Ester accuses her of sleeping around, which was not the case. But she finds the waiter and an empty room at the hotel and has sex, largely because of what Ester said to her. She is also furious that her sister has become close to her son. Anna doesn't want to stay in the foreign country any longer, and the next day she and Johan get on a train heading for home, leaving Ester behind to die alone at the hotel. Before they leave, Ester gives a note to Johan, which he starts to read on the train. Anna takes the note out of her son's hands and reads it. It turns out to be a list of translated words to help the young boy on his journey through foreign countries on his way home.
There isn't much overt religion or references to God in this film. It's more about the lack of spirituality among those who only look to God in their time of desperate need. It took nearly 30 minutes into the film for the word God to be mentioned. As Ester realizes her life is quickly slipping away, she begs God to let her die in her home. But God is silent, not answering her. The characters in this film as well as Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lights, ask a lot of God. They receive only silence in return.
Bosley Crowther, in his original review of the film in The New York Times, wrote that “what Mr. Bergman is trying to tell us is something each individual viewer must fathom and discover himself. Or, indeed, one may reasonably question whether he is trying to give us anything save a grim philosophical observation of a tragic aspect of life." While Crowther isn't much of a fan, I'm sure if Bergman read the review, he did so with a smile on his face.
The Artist and His Canvas: Early Bergman
By David Skolnick
In examining the complexities of people and capturing these on film, Ingmar Bergman has few peers.
His films go beyond merely being compelling and interesting; his goal is to give his audience a glimpse into themselves, and by extension, their humanity. It’s more than an artistic coincidence that Bergman seemed to know a lot about relationships: He was married five times, divorced four times, and had notable love affairs with three of his leading ladies: Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.
In addition to disintegrating relationships, Bergman’s films focus on subtexts such as death, religion, loneliness, regret and self-examination. They’re also beautifully shot with lengthy close-ups that capture the moods and feelings of his films’ characters, many who are entertainers of some sort ranging from prima ballerinas and concert pianists to small-time traveling actors.
Rarely does a Bergman film have a happy ending and there are times in which there doesn’t seem to be an ending. Those movies are snapshots of life without a conclusion.
It’s ironic that a comedy – the excellent 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night – gave Bergman his first international hit. Two years later, Bergman released The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, two classics that cemented his well-deserved status as one of cinema’s greatest directors. He would go on to make numerous other memorable films.
But we are interested here with Bergman’s earlier movies. Are they as good as his later work? Did they give clues as to what he would create?
I recently saw five of his early films. While Bergman, as with many artists, sticks to a central theme, he diverges and adds to it to give the audience the impression they’re not seeing the same movie at a different date, which can’t be said of many of his fellow directors/producers.
Torment (aka Frenzy) (1944): Bergman wrote the screenplay and directed small parts of this film, including the finale, but did not receive a directing credit. Alf Sjoberg is the film’s credited director, and he appears to have been a major influence on the young Bergman. If you watch Bergman-directed films you can see Sjoberg’s influence: The crisp black-and-white cinematography, effective use of shadows and the slow mental breakdown of one of the main characters.
Torment is about problems at a Swedish high school, primarily caused by a cruel and sadistic Latin teacher, (Stig Jarrel). We never learn the teacher’s name, but all of the students and some of the other teachers appropriately call him Caligula behind his back. (Yeah, he’s that bad.) The movie focuses on one student, Jan-Erik Widgren (Alf Kjellin), the target for much of Caligula’s torture.
Widgren falls in love with a slightly older woman who works at a store near the school, selling cigarettes. A troubled soul, she tells Widgren of her victimization at the hands of a mysterious older man. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who is the older man.
Widgren is on the verge of quitting school with only two weeks left before graduation as he is unable to withstand any more cruelty from Caligula, but it gets worse. In a rage, the teacher kills the woman. Trying to cover up his responsibility for the death, the teacher concentrates on getting Widgren expelled. But this has a positive catharsis in the young man, giving him a direction in his life while Caligula, on the other end of Bergman’s spectrum, is condemned to loneliness and misery. He calls for his former student’s forgiveness; something he doesn’t receive.
It’s a good film with a strong performance from Jarrel and a solid script from Bergman. Look for Stig Olin, an early Bergman film regular, as Widgren’s friend, Sandman.
Crisis (1946): Bergman’s directorial debut in feature films. He also wrote the screenplay. While it stands on its own as a personal effort, it but pales in comparison to his later work.
Crisis (1946): Bergman’s directorial debut in feature films. He also wrote the screenplay. While it stands on its own as a personal effort, it but pales in comparison to his later work.
A narrator at the beginning of the film sets the mood. “I wouldn’t call this a great or harrowing tale. It really is just an everyday drama.”
He’s correct. There’s nothing special about this movie, but ironically that is precisely what makes it special: Bergman’s knack of capturing and magnifying the ordinary; taking it from mere role play into an almost exact mirror of the human condition.
There are a handful of early Bergman film acting regulars in this film. Of particular note is Stig Olin, who has the best role as Jack, a lowlife con-man who develops a conscience at the end of the film. The movie’s featured character is Nelly (Inga Landgre), who would later play the wife of Max von Sydow’s knight in The Seventh Seal.
The plot centers around Nelly, who is raised in the country by a loving older woman, who is dying. Nelly’s birth mother comes to the small town when Nelly turns 18 and successfully manipulates her daughter into coming to the big city to help her at her beauty salon.
Bergman’s point is sacrifice versus selfishness; trust versus betrayal, but both the director and his storyline lack the necessary strength at this point and Bergman clutters the canvas with too many useless characters. The film stands more as a testament to the director’s own personal growth than to a cognizant storyline.
Thirst (Three Strange Loves) (1949): I had to stop about 20 minutes into this movie to read about what I was watching. That helped me considerably as I would have never figured it out on my own. The film goes from present time to flashbacks without giving any indication the latter are about the past. Bergman uses the flashback to supersede time itself, adding a fourth dimension to the character and delving even deeper into the interior life.
Thirst is about the unhappy marriage (surprise!) between Rut, a woman who was a ballet dancer (note Bergman’s fascination with entertainers), and Bertil. They’re returning on a train from a vacation in Italy as they recall past love affairs, none of which are happy. Rut’s affair with a married military officer resulted in her having a botched abortion, the consequences of which are that she can no longer bear children, and is the major factor in the couple’s tension.
The recollection of other unpleasant relationships causes great strain on their marriage, a strain that is only relieved when Bertil kills her. But does he? No, it’s only a dream. Bertil wakes up, and out of nowhere, they decide to give their marriage a real chance to succeed. Bertil’s dream symbolizes not only their tension, but that their lives previous were a dream. Now awakened into reality, they can only decide to slog on. (With the baggage the two of them have, I’d give them another few months, but the movie ends.)
In the hands of a lesser talent, it would be annoying but Bergman uses the film to help with our understanding of the characters. Background shots of lakes, clouds and forests and the unusual camera angles are used to define and move the characters along. For every moment in the film there is an equal moment when Bergman wishes to evoke a precise feeling, and we should not overlook this.
A note: Bergman didn’t write the screenplay. Herbert Grevenius, who also wrote Summer Interlude, did the honors here.
Thirst is choppy, sloppy, and confusing. It has a few Bergman elements such as the extreme close-ups and a nostalgic look at past relationships, even though they were bad. But it’s the most unBergman Bergman movie I’ve seen, and, ultimately, I found it less interesting than his other work from this period.
To Joy (1950): An excellent film about two members of a symphony orchestra (the theme of entertainer-as-hero), Stig Eriksson (Stig Olin again) and Marta Olsson (Maj-Britt Nilsson), who fall in love and marry. While I’m not a classical music fan, Bergman does an outstanding job in this film of using it to move the story.
Stig is an ambitious violinist who dreams of being a famous soloist. The problem is he just isn’t that good, which leads him to never be happy and believe the world is out to get him. The movie is told in Bergman’s favorite form, a flashback, and opens with Stig learning about the death of Marta and a child. Even though we know the tragic ending, the final scene is still incredible and moving.
There is little joy in this film, but it’s compelling nonetheless. There’s no doubt this is a Bergman movie, and an excellent Bergman movie at that. Besides the close-ups (no mere sleight of camera for Bergman, but an integral feature of the character), the back and forth of the relationship, and use of music, there are several scenes that allow the passion and love between Stig and Marta to be experienced, even through the tough times.
Summer Interlude (1951): At this point in his directing career, Summer Interlude was Bergman’s greatest film and a strong indicator of what he would do in the future. It’s almost as if Bergman is foreshadowing some of his greatest movies. There is one scene that has a dying woman playing chess with a priest (The Seventh Seal). The leads are seen picking wild strawberries. The summer is seen as the perfect season in this film, as it is in Smiles of a Summer Night. Summer is Bergman’s symbol for happiness: warm but all too short in the Scandinavian climate. We get the Bergman close-ups, the passionate but rocky romance, and questions about religion, all told in flashback. Maj-Britt Nilsson is the female lead (Marie) again. As in To Joy, she’s a ballerina, although this time she’s a successful one.
Marie is detached and off-putting, emotionally empty. It helps her focus on being a prima ballerina, but does nothing to overcome her isolation, and hurts her relationship with her boyfriend, David (played by Alf Kjellin), a newspaper reporter. That the two are together at all is somewhat of a mystery: he comes across as light-hearted while Marie is an ice queen, seemingly incapable of love or even basic, simple kindnesses.
We learn that Marie shut herself off emotionally because of a tragic love affair 13 years earlier with Henrik (Birger Malmsten in his eighth of 11 Bergman films) while on a summer vacation. The two fall madly in love, but Henrik dies when diving into water. (You’re supposed to check the depth of water before diving in head-first: a lesson Henrik learned the hard way.)
After that, “Uncle” Erland, an older family friend, takes advantage of Marie’s grief to engage in a love affair with her, which results in her emotional shutdown. The memories of Henrik return after Erland sends Marie the diary Henrik kept that summer and release the bottled-up emotions return for Marie, who recalls that wonderful time 13 years ago. Happiness for Bergman is always temporal and transitory. She comes to terms with her hatred of Erland, confides in her ballet master (Stig Olin once again!), and is finally able to show love for David.
In a telling moment during one of the film’s final scenes, Marie removes the heavy makeup she wears for the ballet’s last dress rehearsal. As she takes off the makeup, she is also exposing her true self, looking young and happy as she did during that magic and tragic summer with Henrik. While the symbolism is all too obvious, it still cannot distract us from the emotions we feel in this incredibly touching scene.
Bergman has called Summer Interlude “one of my most important films.” It definitely was a sign of things to come for one of cinema’s most talented and iconic directors.
The Progression of Myrna Loy
By Ed Garea
Sometimes I wonder that – if not for the arrival of sound – whether Myrna Loy would have been as a big a star as she became. And then there are times when I wonder that if not for MGM, whether Myrna Loy could have vaulted out of the supporting cast to stardom.
The story of Loy’s early years in Hollywood has become one of the essential stories in Hollywood mythology. Born Myrna Adele Williams in Radersburg, Montana, on August 2, 1905, she was raised on a ranch outside Helena by an adoring mother and father who encouraged her in the arts. Her father, besides being a rancher, was also the youngest person elected to the Montana State Legislature. When he died in 1918 during the influenza pandemic, her mother moved the family to Culver City, California. Myrna was enrolled at the Westlake School for Girls, but when the administration dampened her theatrical aspirations, she left the school and enrolled at Venice High School, where she took part in various stage productions. (The school would later name its awards for Speech and Drama excellence, the ‘Myrnas.’)
At the age of 18, she landed a job as a dancer at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian Movie House. Spotted in a publicity photo of theater by Rudolph Valentino and his wife, Natacha Rambova, Myrna was invited to test for the part of the leading lady in their new production, Cobra. Though she didn’t get the part, she landed a small part as a vamp in Natacha Rambova’s movie, What Price Beauty?
In her early career, Loy toiled as The Vamp. From what I’ve seen of her early silents, she was Theda Bara with bared fangs: focused and dangerous to the men who crossed her path. She accepted a number of small roles, some uncredited, for various studios. The highlight of this period was a small and uncredited role as a Roman slave girl in Ben Hur.
In 1925, she changed her last name to Loy and signed on with Warner Brothers. The studio continued to place her in small parts, but a pivotal role came with her casting in Across the Pacific (1926), playing a half-caste woman. Later she began to become typecast as “the exotic,” playing Chinese, Asian Indians, American Indians, Mexicans, Eurasians, What Have You. Without a doubt, her most embarrassing role was in blackface as the dusky Parisian Fifi in Ham and Eggs at the Front (1927). The leads, Ham (Tom Conklin) and Eggs (Heinie Conklin), were also in blackface and are AWOL in Paris, where they meet up with Fifi. They later discover she’s a spy and they follow her back to Germany and capture a general. It’s the usual stereotyped hijinks and Loy later said that she would never again appear in blackface even if it meant suspension. Though I applaud her sincerity, I still wonder why she had no aversion to playing as a Chinese or mulatto (in dark makeup), as those roles are equally demeaning.
When Loy was allowed to step out of the typecast, she found her main purpose in the supporting cast, usually as a scheming vamp/bitch/trollop out to ensnare the leading man/discredit the leading lady/both. She did have a few starring roles, but in Poverty Row productions of which the best that could be said was that she acquitted herself well in the role.
Fortunately, the arrival of sound provided her with an opportunity to move into starring roles, for with so many silent stars failing voice tests, the competition was less. Myrna’s voice came across quite clear, with a natural tone. This, combined with her beauty, positioned her for bigger and better roles.
She left Warner Brothers and freelanced for Fox, RKO, and Poverty Row studios. She had an abbreviated part in Goldwyn’s production of Arrowsmith (1931), playing a New York socialite. She made her way over to MGM, where her first role was a supporting one in Emma, starring Marie Dressler in one of her best performances. The release of a film made before she signed on with MGM, Vanity Fair, where she played the lead as Becky Sharp, nearly ruined her career. The word ‘inept’ is not strong enough to describe this mess made by Allied Pictures Corporation, a studio best known for its Westerns and which folded shortly after Vanity Fair bombed at the box office.
The immediate result was that Myrna continued in the roles to which she had become accustomed. Her best known efforts from this time were Thirteen Women (made on loan to RKO), where she received accolades as an embittered Eurasian who decided to whack her former schoolmates for revenge, and The Mask of Fu Manchu, where she played the arch-criminal’s daughter, Fah So Lee. [i]
Slowly, better roles began to come her way, as MGM began to expand her scope. 1933 was her breakout year. She received good notices for her work in When Ladies Meet and Penthouse, but it was The Prizefighter and the Lady, where she worked against Max Baer that not only cemented her in the mind of the public, but also the critics, and – most importantly – MGM’s front office. The rest, we say out of the need for brevity, is history.
We will examine four of her efforts in this early period, two in a supporting role, one in a featured role, and one in a starring role.
The Great Divide (First National, 1929): Starring Dorothy Mackaill, Ian Keith, Myrna Loy, Lucien Littlefield, and Creighton Hale. Directed by Reginald Barker.
The Great Divide was made twice before, in 1915 and 1925. This was the first attempt at a sound version. Music was introduced as an added incentive to get audiences in the theatre.
Stephen Ghent (Keith) has co-owned a mine near the Mexican border for 15 years, and for many of those years he’s been supporting the daughter of his long-dead partner in New York. Deciding to sell his interest, he attends the annual fiesta when he learns that his late partner’s representatives will be delayed. There he meets Ruth Jordan (Mackaill), his late partner’s daughter, for the first time. He’s dejected when he finds that she has become a hard-drinking party girl and becomes convinced that what she needs is a strong dose of the great outdoors and the simple life that accompanies it. So he disguises himself as a Mexican bandit and kidnaps Ruth, taking her to a cabin in the wilderness. Naturally they fall in love and Ruth embraces the virtues of the simple life.
Loy plays Manuella, a hot-blooded Mexican/Indian servant girl who’s warm for Stephen’s form. It’s she who, out of jealousy, sics the posse on Stephen when she learns that he’s taken Ruth to that lonely cabin in the woods. Even clad in dark make-up with a hilarious Spanish accent at times, Loy nevertheless manages to be the focal point of every scene in which she appears. If her acting appears pantomimed at times it’s because the movie was shot in both sound and silent versions for theatres that weren’t yet converted to sound.
The Naughty Flirt (First National, 1931): Starring Alice White, Paul Page, Myrna Loy, Douglas Gilmore, and George Irving. Directed by Edward F. Cline.
The Naughty Flirt was advertised at 78 minutes, but bad tests with preview audiences resulted in its being cut down to 57 minutes for release. Reportedly, one of those in a small role to be left on the cutting room floor was Bela Lugosi.
The star of the film is Alice White, Warners’ answer to Clara Bow. Her career as a star ended in 1933 when a scandal in which she was involved hit the front pages. White is doing her usual flapper role, this time as Kay Elliot, an heiress who is frequently in night court trying to explain her escapades. While at one session she decides to marry fortune hunting Jack Gregory (Gilmour) as a lark, but is spotted by lawyer Alan Ward (Page) who works for her father. After a phone call, Ward breaks up the proposed marriage and escorts her back home to Daddy (Irving). Of course, she’s smitten with Ward, but he avoids her like the plague, so she becomes a secretary in her father’s firm and tries to win him over. She succeeds and they become engaged. But during a stay at a country club dance, Jack’s mercenary sister Linda (Loy) arranges a frame to look as though Ward was visiting her room for some amour. The engagement is broken and Ward hands in his resignation at the firm. When Kay announces her intention to marry Jack on the rebound, Alan wakes up and crashes the wedding, winning Kay back.
Here we see Loy looking her normal self but still cast in a supporting role as a schemer. She does well in this role, dominating the scenes she’s in with both Page and Gilmour. But a mitigating factor is that neither Page nor Gilmour are good actors; Gilmour was out of the business by 1932 and Page by 1934. Loy’s one shining moment is when she frames Ward into coming into her room on the pretext that her heart is giving out and she needs brandy. It’s well done and Loy carries the scene. Too bad the bigwigs at Warners weren’t noticing.
When Ladies Meet (MGM, 1933): Starring Ann Harding, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, Alice Brady, and Frank Morgan. Directed by Henry Beaumont.
This film is an almost literal adaptation of Rachel Crother’s drawing room drama. Except for a few changes of scenery from one locale to another, it remains static. However, once we establish our interest, the characters are strong enough and the actors portraying them appealing enough to hold our interest.
Ann Harding stars as Claire Woodruf, the wife of philandering publisher Rogers Woodruf (Morgan). Morgan’s latest love interest is author Mary Howard (Loy) with whom he spends much time rewriting the final chapter of her novel. Complicating things is newspaper reporter Jimmie Lee (Montgomery), whose constant put-downs of Mary’s novel conceal the fact that he’s madly in love with her. After much give and take and scads of witty repartee by the characters, Jimmie, determined to break up Mary and Rogers, introduces Claire (who is oblivious to her husband’s plans) as his new girlfriend to Mary without revealing her true identity. Later, as the women talk in Mary’s bedroom, Rogers comes into the room and everything is exposed. With the cat now out of the bag, Claire provides Mary, in a blunt, common-sensical way, with her own personal take on love and straying husbands. Claire then tells Mary that she is prepared to give up her husband and leaves. Rogers, on the other hand, confesses to Mary that it’s really Claire that he loves, and in the end, it’s left to Jimmie to console a broken-hearted Mary.
This film is a real test for Loy for she’s working with extremely talented actors at what was considered the crown jewel of studios. Judging by the results, Myrna handled herself quite well in this heavyweight crowd. In her autobiography, she tells of paling around with Montgomery and Alice Brady (who as the cynical hostess, almost walks off with the movie), spending off hours in their company at Brady’s home. The film was later remade in 1941 with Joan Crawford, Greer Garson and Robert Taylor in the roles of Mary, Claire and Jimmie respectively. The remake is far glossier, but the difference in substance is the difference between the Pre-Code movies and their later counterparts. In the 1941 version, the dialogue isn’t as crisp and one gets the feeling that something is missing.
The Prizefight and the Lady (MGM, 1933): Starring Myrna Loy, Max Baer, Primo Carnera, Jack Dempsey, Walter Huston, and Otto Kruger. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke.
Here was a role I’m sure Loy accepted not for what it was, but for its potential down the road, which proved to be a wise choice indeed. The movie may have been fashioned around Max Baer, but it’s Myrna who delivers the knockout.
Baer plays Steve Morgan, a bartender with a dynamite pair of fists. While in the process of knocking around an unruly customer, he’s spotted by the Professor (Huston), a boxing coach who convinces Steve that he has a terrific future in prizefighting and takes him under his wing. While in the midst of his roadwork, he’s almost hit by Belle (Loy), a beauty who’s making a name for herself as a nightclub singer. The narrow miss causes Belle’s driver to lose control and flip the car over. Morgan rescues Belle from the auto and she’s unhurt, but both become smitten with each other. Though she’s currently the squeeze of underworld kingpin Willie Ryan (Kruger), Morgan won’t take “no” for an answer and it doesn’t take him long to win her away. They get married and Morgan’s career soars with a string of impressive knockouts. But Morgan can’t keep his eyes – or hands – off the other ladies. Things come to a boil and a despondent Belle leaves Morgan, going back to Kruger. Morgan in turn begins hitting the bottle hard and fires the Professor, just as he’s lined up a championship bout with Primo Carnera. During the fight, Morgan is taking a bad beating until he looks up and spots Belle with the Professor in the stands rooting him on. He rallies and fights Carnera to a draw. Ryan, seeing his future with Belle is hopeless, gives her over to Steve and helps the newly reunited couple rejoice.
The film was originally titled The Sailor, and as written by Frances Marion, was supposed to star Clark Gable as a gruff sailor who falls for the charming Loy. However, things changed when Gable was not available for filming and the studio signed Baer. Marion was ordered to change it to a boxing film. When she refused, other writers were brought in to adapt her script to the world of boxing. The original director, Howard Hawks, also begged off the film, uncomfortable with the way things were changing. In order to save on the spiraling costs, Woody Van Dyke, a director with a reputation for economical filmmaking, was brought in.
Hawks was persuaded to stay on for two weeks in order to coach his friend Baer in the art of film acting. Baer turned out to be a natural before the camera, and dominates the film. A natural reaction for Loy would be to top Baer by overacting. But instead of playing against him, Loy underacts crucial scenes and plays off him, as in a dance where he would lead. The results are terrific and with the reviews and audience opinion, Myrna Loy had finally bridged the gap from supporting player to star. It didn’t hurt Loy, either, to have Van Dyke in the director’s chair. He was already a fan, having directed her in Penthouse (1933) and the two frequently put their heads together before a scene with Van Dyke providing suggestions. In her autobiography, Loy states that the only major mistake she made in her career was underestimating the presence of Baer’s physicality, but she handled him perfectly.
Ironically, a year after this film was released, Baer faced off for real against Carnera in a championship bout and knocked the champ down 11 times before the referee stopped the bout and awarded Baer the championship. Wrestling fans should look out for a cameo appearance by Strangler Lewis before the climatic bout.
The good press and box office from The Prizefighter and the Lady stood Myrna well, leading to a leading role in the classic Manhattan Melodrama, [ii] and finally to the role as Nora Charles in The Thin Man, from which she never looked back.
Edited by Steve Herte.
[i] Loy was quoted in interviews as saying that Boris Karloff taught her more about the art of acting than anyone else she had met at the time. He looked out for her and gave her several important pieces of advice that she kept with her until retirement.
[ii] Polly Hamilton, Dillinger’s girlfriend at the time of his demise, said that it was Dillinger’s crush on Myrna Loy that compelled him to abandon common sense and attend the showing at Chicago’s Biograph Theater of Manhattan Melodrama.
My Favorite Hitchcock
To say we were surprised that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo topped the list on the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound decennial poll of the greatest films would be an understatement. Critics and directors are not typical moviegoers – obvious by some of the films on the list including Man with a Movie Camera (1929), La Jetee (1962) and Au hasard Balthazar (1966).
My Favorite Hitchcock
To say we were surprised that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo topped the list on the British Film Institute’s Sight & Sound decennial poll of the greatest films would be an understatement. Critics and directors are not typical moviegoers – obvious by some of the films on the list including Man with a Movie Camera (1929), La Jetee (1962) and Au hasard Balthazar (1966).
We certainly consider Vertigo (1958) to be an excellent film. But not only isn’t it the greatest movie ever made, it’s not even Hitchcock’s best.
While we’ll leave the debate on the greatest films ever made for another day, here are what we consider to be Hitchcock’s best films.
The Birds (1963)
By Steve Herte
Of the seven Alfred Hitchcock films I can recall having seen thus far, The Birds is my favorite because it is the most memorable for me. I saw it when it was on the big screen. The Catholic “Legion of Decency” made it more attractive by giving it a lower rating (it had the words “damn” and “hell” in it and was particularly graphic with gore). And by then I had seen Vertigo and Psycho also on the big screen and I was hooked on Hitchcock.
My three favorite scenes in The Birds are:
1. Early in the film when occasional bird strikes create a Rube Goldberg chain reaction that ends with a cigarette-smoker tossing a match (even though several people are screaming that he shouldn’t) and blowing up a gas station and several cars.
2. When Jessica Tandy as Lydia Brenner finds the body of her neighbor with the eyes pecked out and the camera zooms in twice on the twin pools of blood, (it gave me chills, especially with all the girls in the theater screaming).
3. The last scene where all the attacks and action just stops for no reason at all (just as it started) and the birds begrudgingly let Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren slowly leave Bodega Bay in their car.
I had heard that Hitchcock loved blondes because blood shows up better on them. It worked on Tippi. This was one of the first movies I saw that made me “read the book” – this one by Daphne DuMaurier – which, I was surprised, also gave no rhyme or reason for the birds’ sudden attacks, only hints. When the main characters are holed up in the beach house the book hints about “the larger birds” and I was thinking eagles and condors. I always theorized that it was because of the two caged lovebirds at the beginning, that and the “I can get anything I want” attitude in Tippi’s jet-setting character.
Later on, I saw the remaining four movies in my memory, Marnie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, and To Catch a Thief, and continued to enjoy them and in each to try finding the great Mr. Hitchcock in his cameo appearances.
Marnie (1964) and Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
By Ed Garea
The problem with choosing a favorite Hitchcock movie is limiting oneself to only one favorite. There are so many I could just sit down and watch again . . . and again . . . and again. However, there are two that stand out, and which I don’t feel get their share of credit. One is Marnie, an offbeat (even for Hitchcock) film about a kleptomaniac, played by Tippi Hedren.
The other is Shadow of a Doubt, a film that is one of Hitchcock’s darkest. Made in 1943, when the war dictated that films should be optimistic, this is one of Hitchcock’s most penetrating looks into the nature of evil and how it can suddenly come to a community where everything was wonderful and serene.
Kindly Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) is coming to visit. The anticipation is greatest with young Charlie (Teresa Wright), who was named after her favorite uncle. But as we know, Uncle Charlie is anything but kindly. In fact, he is a serial murderer, known as “The Merry Widow Killer” for having knocked off a succession of women for their money. The dawning realization by young Charlie that her uncle is a murderer is Hitchcock at his absolute best. Add Hume Cronyn, in his film debut as a nosy pulp-story fan, and a script by Thornton Wilder, and it becomes a film that can be repeatedly enjoyed without ever losing its punch.
By David Skolnick
Psycho is the only other Hitchcock movie on the Sight & Sound Top 50 list, tied for 35th place with three other films, including Fritz Lang’s brilliant 1927 film, Metropolis. The graphic violence and sexual content in Psycho are firsts for him, taking full advantage of the demise of the Hays Code restrictions.
If there is a movie moment that better captures the combination of sex and violence than the shower scene in Psycho, please point it out to me. It is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history and deserves the praise it receives. Leigh’s scream and look of pure terror, the shadow-like “mother” figure, the close-up image of the knife and the sound of it plunging into the body, the shower curtain coming down and the blood swirling as it goes down the drain is perfect and scares the hell out of those watching it. It was incredibly bold for Hitchcock to kill the female lead so early in the film, but it allows other aspects of the film to play out.
Anthony Perkins is not a personal favorite, but he gives the performance of his life – and was forever typecast as Norman Bates – with Hitchcock allowing the actor to explore the multiple dimensions of the character.
Vertigo is an outstanding film, but not only isn’t it my favorite Hitchcock movie, it’s not my favorite Hitchcock film starring James Stewart. That would be Rear Window, the 1954 film co-starring Grace Kelly.
How great was Hitchcock? An indication is there are a number of his films I find to be superior to Vertigo, including Shadow of a Doubt (1943), North by Northwest (1959), and The Paradine Case (1947).
Andy Griffith: In Memoriam
Andy Griffith: In Memoriam
By Ed Garea
It may surprise some younger viewers that Andy Griffith even made any movies before going into television, especially as they were made in black and white, which with the younger generation is the equivalent of the Stone Age. Actually, Griffith first made his name on radio and on records as a comedy monologist. His routine, What It Was, Was Football, a description of a bemused backwoodsman trying to figure out the game of football, became a hit record in 1954.
He then starred in Ira Levin’s one-hour teleplay version of No Time for Sergeants on the United States Steel Hour, a television anthology series of the type popular in the ‘50s. Again Griffith was a bemused country boy, albeit one that was drafted into the Air Force, and the play dealt with his adjustment to the ways of military life. He expanded the role in Levin’s full-length Broadway play of the same name in 1955 and earned a Tony nomination for “Distinguished Supporting or Featured Dramatic Actor” at the 1956 Tony Awards. He won the 1956 Theatre World Award, a prize given for debut roles on Broadway. He appeared on Broadway for the last time in 1957, starring in the musical version of Destry Rides Again. It ran for 472 performances, over a year, and earned Griffith his second Tony nomination in 1960 for “Distinguished Musical Actor.” Again he lost, this time to Jackie Gleason for the musical Take Me Along.
But it is Griffith’s film career we are concerned with in this column. His first film was the starring role in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, a movie that tanked at the box office. His second was the film adaptation of No Time For Sergeants, which was a hit. Next, however, came the ill-advised Onionhead, a movie that performed so poorly that Griffith later credited it in interviews with convincing him to go into television.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Andy Griffith Show was a smash hit, and was still on top of the ratings heap when Griffith walked away, figuring that going out on top was better than waiting for the ax to fall. He did a succession of made-for-television movies until he was offered the lead in Matlock, a sort of country version of Perry Mason with Matlock as an expensive Atlanta lawyer who manages to exonerate his clients after some sharp detective work by his staff.
The films below are worth your time and trouble in our opinion and will provide an insight into Griffith as an actor.
A FACE IN THE CROWD (1957): Griffith’s first film and critically his best. Although it was a box-office dud when released, it managed to pick up notice and critical steam in the 90s thanks in large part to its repeated showings on TCM and the renewed interest in Elia Kazan. I remember watching it as a 10-year old with my mother. (August 3, 1963 to be precise. Hey, I looked it up.) It was shown on The Schaefer Award Theater, a fancy name for CBS’s The Late Show on one Saturday a month where “prestige” films were shown. I was completely dumbfounded by the film. This wasn’t the Sheriff Taylor I knew. This guy – this “Lonesome Rhodes” – was an out-and-out rat. But at the same time I was mesmerized by the movie and always remembered it. I didn’t see it again until it was shown on Channel 9 in New York in 1980. I told my wife (she had never seen it), and we pulled up to the television with the proverbial popcorn and watched. She, too, was blown away; she couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that this was kindly, lovable Sheriff Taylor she was seeing, but on the other hand she said Griffith was never sexier than when playing a heel. Something about raw magnetic power, she said.
Although the film was made in 1957, it has never lost any of its timeliness and is still powerful and relevant today. Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is a producer for a local radio station in rural Picket, Arkansas. Host of a morning show, she is interviewing convicts in the local jail. One of those is Andy Griffith. While at first he refuses, he quickly warms up when he gets a look at Neal and puts on a performance with his guitar that she deems so good that she offers him the role of the host on the morning show. She also dubs him “Lonesome” Rhodes when he refuses to give his name. The show quickly takes off, due to Rhodes’s homespun humor. It’s enough to land him a television show in Memphis, where he acquires a writer (Walter Matthau) for whom he has little, if any, use, but who supplies him with the material that gets him over with his audience.
When one of the sponsors withdraws after being kidded on the air (even though Rhodes’s kidding has sent sales through the roof), it looks like Rhodes is through in Memphis. However, office-boy-turned-agent Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa) has gotten him an audition in New York. Given a one-hour variety show, Rhodes proceeds to turn it into a huge hit. He becomes not only closely identified with the show’s sponsor, Vitajex, a worthless “energy” pill composed of caffeine, aspirin and dextrose, but he also becomes the personal protégé of the company’s owner, Gen. Haynesworth, a right-wing corporate owner who sees the potential in Rhodes as “a mover of people,” and begins a media blitz to build Rhodes into a superstar.
However, the assumption of more and more power and fame feeds Rhodes’s rapidly growing megalomania. His rotten side is now coming to the front more and more, with the only check being applied by Jeffries, who is in love with Lonesome and who Rhodes treats in a most despicable way until he needs her support. The final straw is when Rhodes promises to marry her but runs off to Mexico after judging a baton-twirling contest to marry the winner (Lee Remick). That and the growing danger in Rhodes’s affiliation with right-wing Sen. Worthington Fuller (Marshal Neilan) convinces Jeffries that she must destroy this Frankenstein monster she created, and she does so in a most unique manner when he’s least expecting it. Kazan uses a brilliant display of intercutting to show the decline and fall of Lonesome Rhodes after his gaffe. But as Matthau tells him after the fall, he’ll be back, perhaps in a slightly different package and nowhere near as big, but the public hasn’t yet seen the last of Lonesome Rhodes.
NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS (1958): Now this is the Andy Griffith we all know and love, playing a naïve, optimistic backwoods boy drafted into the Air Force. The movie derives its comedy from the premise that no one takes young Will Stockdale at his word. They rather insist on reading their own prejudices into him, which leads ultimately to their downfalls, as it were. All Stockdale wants to do is get along and enjoy himself serving his country, but others see him as a dangerous threat, starting with the overzealous draft officer (Dub Taylor) who comes to get him and places cuffs on him. (Taylor ignores the pleas from Will’s father, who says he never gave Will the draft notices because he didn’t want to lose him.) At the bus station, recruit Irvin S. Blanchard is put in charge because he had R.O.T.C. in college. Of course, the position goes right to Irvin’s head and he begins ordering Will around like a convict.
For his part Will believes that R.O.T.C. is a disease and he should humor Irvin. Once at the base, Will runs afoul of his sergeant, Orville C. King (Myron McCormick). An altercation between Will and some of the other recruits that are bothering him and his friend Ben Whitledge (Nick Adams), leads King to make “Stockdale Permanent Latrine Orderly – P.L.O.” and is put in charge of cleaning the bathroom. Will thinks this is a special honor and soon has the plumbing clean and shining.
It comes to the attention of Gen. Smith that Will has not been classified, so King must take him through the ordeal of classification. This scene is neatly stolen by Don Knotts, playing a nervous corporal in charge of administering a manual dexterity test. With the results of the test, Ben, Will and the now demoted Sgt. King are sent to gunnery school, where King rises to the top of the class and gets his stripes back. Flying a B-25 bomber to Denver, the pilots place the plane on autopilot and fall asleep causing it to drift over an A-Bomb test area. Although Ben and Will bail out, they are presumed killed and a service is held for the “fallen heroes,” who unexpectedly show up in the middle. To hush the incident over both are transferred to the infantry, where Ben has always wanted to serve, along with Sgt. King, who accompanies them at Will’s request, because he’s “the best dang sergeant in the whole dang air force.”
It wasn’t much of a stretch for Griffith, who was reprising his Broadway role, but the film was a smash hit and was largely responsible for launching the career of Knotts.
HEARTS OF THE WEST (1975): This film, which has gained a cult following, is a wonderful, gentle comedy about the world of B-Westerns in the 1930s. Most films made about studios are indictments of an ego-driven and immoral system, but Hearts of the West plays almost like a valentine written by a man about the lovely films of his childhood. Of course, rotten things take place all during the film, but these acts are done by such likeable characters that we smile instead of clenching our fists.
Jeff Bridges is Lewis Tater, a naïve young man who wants to write Western novels like Zane Grey. He travels to Nevada to a correspondence school that turns out to be a con run by two grifters out of post office boxes. When they try to rob him in his hotel room, he takes off in their car, which contains the proceeds of what they ripped off other customers.
Wandering in the desert, he meets Howard Pike (Andy Griffith), an actor in low-budget Westerns who takes Lewis on horseback to the movie set, where he meets Bert Kessler (Alan Arkin), the director, and Miss Trout (Blythe Danner) the script supervisor who takes a shine to the guileless young man.
He accompanies the company back to Los Angeles, where he gets a job as a stuntman with the company. He also develops a romance with Miss Trout, a friendship with Howard, and manages to write his first novel, a melodrama titled Hearts of the West, all while rising to become a cowboy star himself and foiling the con men that chase him throughout the latter part of the picture.
ONIONHEAD (1958): Andy Griffith is Alvin Woods, an irresponsible college students who breaks up with his girlfriend Jo (Erin O'Brien) and enlists in the Coast Guard as a way to duck combat duty in World War 2. After boot camp, he is sent to Boston and assigned to the U.S.S. Periwinkle as a cook. At a bar in Boston, he meets flirty Stella (Felicia Farr) and strikes up a relationship of sorts. Back at the ship, he runs into head cook "Red" Wildoe (Walter Matthau), who resents Al's fast advancement to cook and refuses to bunk with him.
After a series of mishaps, Al finds out that not only is Stella dating Red, but also that Red intends to marry her. Al tries to warn Red that Stella is a party girl, and should they be shipped out, Al may be distracted wondering where his wife is. But Al marries Stella anyway, Al is promoted to head cook and Red is transferred to the Algonquin. While Red’s at sea, Al keeps an eye on the flirtatious Stella and manages to keep her out of trouble. With the coming of war, the Algonquin is menaced by a German U-boat and sunk. The Periwinkle rides to her rescue and Al ends up helping to capture the submarine. Back at base, Al takes the fall for an officer’s misdoing and is stripped of his rank. But he does reunite with Jo and marries her before being shipped off to Greenland.
The problem with the film is that it tries too hard to be a comedy, drama and romance at once, a sort of merging of No Time For Sergeants and Mister Roberts, but the script is simply not there. Onionhead is directed by Norman Taurog, a director best known for some of Elvis’s atrocities in the ‘60s. Critics say that Walter Matthau steals the film, but if he were arrested for this “crime,” he would be charged at most with petty theft.
Aline MacMahon: Beauty, Vitality and Truth
By Ed Garea and J Michael Kenyon
Aline MacMahon began as one of the great feisty, wisecracking dames in the Warner Brothers repertoire company, but the length of her career proved the depth of her talent – both on stage and the screen. Her forte was playing the ”character lead,” and this exceptional versatility allowed her to cross the boundaries from drama to comedy and back again with almost no effort, making herself believable and noticeable in whatever she undertook. She had what we call “intellectual beauty.” in that one could see the intelligence behind the beauty of the face. Though her looks were considered outside the Hollywood ideal, these same striking and melancholy looks caught the eye of both sculptor Isamu Noguchi and photographer Cecil Beaton, who immortalized them, respectively, in marble (“Beauty and Vitality and Truth”) and photography.
She appeared with the best Warner Brothers had to offer in the ‘30s, and when time demanded she move to lower-billed supporting parts in films, she responded with solid performances, one of which, in Dragon Seed (1944) earned her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. When not on the screen, she went back to Broadway, where she first made her reputation.
She was born Aline Laveen MacMahon on May 3, 1899, in McKeesport, Pennsylvania. Of Irish/English/Russian ancestry, her father, William Marcus MacMahon, was the editor of Munsey’s Magazine, a pulp fiction monthly that eventually merged with Argosy Magazine in 1929. Her mother, Jennie Simon MacMahon, was content to be a homemaker until the age of 53, when she ventured into acting, reportedly at her daughter’s urging. After the family moved to Brooklyn (probably after MacMahon became editor of Munsey’s), Aline attended Erasmus Hall and graduated from Barnard in 1920, afterward training at the The Neighborhood Playhouse in Manhattan. She made her formal bow on Broadway in 1921, appearing in The Mirage. Her Broadway career then took off, first, as a comedienne specializing in impersonations, notably The Grand Street Follies (1922, described as “A Low-Brow Show for High-Grade Morons”), and Artists and Models (1925).
By 1926, she moved to dramatic roles, impressing as Ruth Atkins in Eugene O’Neill’s Beyond the Horizon (1926). Her performance attracted the attention of both Alexander Woolcott and Noel Coward. Woolcott said she acted “with extraordinary beauty and vitality and truth,” while Coward found her “astonishing, moving and beautiful.”
She married architect Clarence S. Stein in 1928, after a long courtship. Stein was a proponent of the “garden city” concept of urban planning, using “greenbelts” to break up congestion in city neighborhoods. Along with colleague and friend Lewis Mumford, Stein spearheaded the movement for more livable cities, was credited with planning Radburn (now part of Fair Lawn), New Jersey, and with helping to design Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, New York.
Aline answered Hollywood’s siren call and arrived in Los Angeles in 1931. Universal had acquired the rights to Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s satirical play, Once in a Lifetime. It was about the effects talking pictures were having on the entertainment industry. Hired to play the role of wisecracking diction teacher May Daniels, she found that delays were plaguing the film. To fill in the idle time, MacMahon played the role of Daniels in a 1931 Los Angeles stage production.
Talent scouts for Warner Brothers spotted her, and she was signed for the film Five Star Final, one of the darkest movies ever made about newspaper life. She made a good impression as editor Edward G. Robinson’s secretary and was rewarded in typical Warners’ style with the terrible The Heart of New York (1932), about a hapless inventor; The Mouthpiece (1932), where she plays shyster Warren William’s secretary, and as loser Roscoe Karns’ wife in the wild comedy Week-End Marriage (1932).
Things did begin to get better that year, as she received good notices for her performance as compassionate nurse Miss Bowers in Life Begins, a con artist whose performance steals the Kleenex-heavy William Powell-Kay Francis starrer, One Way Passage, and her sympathetic portrayal as the put-upon first wife of mogul Robinson in Silver Dollar. Yes, she finally was able to bring the role of May Daniels to the screen as Universal finally filmed Once in a Lifetime. However, the film died quickly at the box office.
Part of the reason things may have improved was because she stood her ground, adamantly, against the studio. This came about as a result of her refusal, pre-Code, to participate in a bedroom scene with William and a couple of other girls. The scene made it into the picture – but not with MacMahon in it. Warners sued her for $25,000, largely, it was thought, to send a warning to other actors who might consider similar "disobedience." But when MacMahon stood her ground, Warners chose not to follow through with the litigation.
Screen audiences next saw Aline as chorus girl Trixie Lorraine in Gold Diggers of 1933. In it, she shares an apartment with fellow chorines Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler, with the ladies on the lookout for casting calls and rich older men. Joan and Aline eventually hone in on the gullible Guy Kibbee and William, pompous bankers trying to save William’s brother (Dick Powell) from backing a show and marrying Keeler. Aline had the best lines in the movie: upon awakening, she tells roommates Joan and Ruby to “excuse me while I fix up the old sex appeal. The way I feel this morning I’ll need a steam shovel.” Later, when Powell threatens to walk out on the show, Aline tells him forthrightly his walking out would mean the show’s closing and a lot of girls would be forced to do things that, frankly, she “wouldn’t want on my conscience.”
She was top-billed in 1934’s Babbitt as Myra Babbitt, the long-suffering wife of George (Kibbee) and MGM’s Kind Lady (1935), but as the decade went on, the starring roles gave way to supporting characters, and only in the Bs would she be given star status. It was said that Warners built her career as a “character leading lady” and studio publicity insisted MacMahon preferred her supporting parts. Perhaps the studio mistook her professionalism for docility; no actor or actress would prefer a supporting part to stardom, no matter what the vehicle, and in an interview in the ‘70s, MacMahon confirmed that very point.
Though her roles in the ‘40s continued the trend of supporting roles, she was nominated for her performance as the Chinese mother of Katharine Hepburn’s Jade Tan in Dragon Seed. What was interesting was that MacMahon had sought to play the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth, a role that ultimately went to Luise Rainer. Her other notable role was as Mrs. Murray, the careworn, compassionate volunteer in The Search, who, with Montgomery Clift, tries to help Czech youngster Ivan Jandl find his mother in post-war Berlin. Her performance was matter-of-fact, economical (no unnecessary gestures or stage business) and precise. She hints at, rather than shows, the well of emotion hidden beneath the surface as she helps Clift, Jandl and the mother, Jarmila Novotna, in their quests. It’s a performance one can overlook at first, as the scenes between Clift with the boy and his mother are the centerpieces of the film, but as time goes on, her performance begins to stand out on its own. It so stuck with me (Ed) after I had seen it in college that when I noticed it was being shown on TCM years ago, I stayed up to catch it (my VCR was broken) and I was not disappointed in my memory.
Aline also stood out in Anthony Mann’s 1955 Western, The Man From Laramie, plot of which is the battle between Cavalry captain James Stewart with rancher Donald Crisp and his psycho son, Alex Nichol, over illegal sales of guns to the Apaches. As Kate Canaday, a rancher formerly engaged to rancher Alec Waggoman (Crisp), but now at odds with him, she gives Kate’s character real depth, noted by a review in Variety as “a socko portrayal of a tough old rancher.”
But after these triumphs, Aline and husband found themselves in trouble with the thought police of Congress and found themselves on something called a “graylist.” To be sure, the graylist was not the blacklist, which prohibited the hiring of the people listed on it. People were graylisted, largely, for supporting people who were either blacklisted or targets of HUAC. What precipitated this move for Aline and Clarence to the graylist is unclear, but to quote Gore Vidal: “Not only do our governors always know what’s best for us, they never let up.” Whatever, Aline found she was no longer employable in anything but B films, and from 1955 to 1960, when the prohibitions were finally lifted, there was no movie work to be had. Fortunately, she had her Broadway experience and also took on live television work, where the restrictions weren’t as strictly enforced. She finally returned to the big screen in 1960 in Anthony Mann’s Cimarron, with 12th billing as Mrs. Mavis Pegler. Critics then singled out her work as Aunt Hannah in Paramount’s 1963 drama All the Way Home for praise.
It would be her last Hollywood movie. She performed as a guest on various television shows and in a TV movie, For the Use of the Hall, a filmed adaptation of Oliver Hailey’s play, for the Broadway Theater Archive. She also worked for New York’s Lincoln Repertory Theatre and appeared in several distinguished productions until completely retiring in 1975. Her remaining years saw her devoted to various theatrical charities. In 1991, having survived her husband by 17 years and her mother by only six years, MacMahon succumbed to pneumonia, age 92. We should count ourselves fortunate that at least we have a considerable record of this amazing actress preserved on celluloid.
A Little Trivia: Aline’s mother, Jennie Simon, began her acting career at the age of 53 after the death of her husband. Encouraged by her daughter, Jennie worked mostly on stage, but performed in four unbilled parts for MGM, one (Tish, 1942) starring Aline. All four films were directed by S. Sylvan Simon, Jennie’s nephew and Aline’s cousin.
The Essential Aline MacMahon:
Five Star Final (WB, 1931), Gold Diggers of 1933 (WB, 1933), Heroes For Sale (WB, 1933), The Life of Jimmy Dolan (WB, 1933), Heat Lightning (WB, 1934), Babbitt (WB, 1934), Kind Lady (MGM, 1935), Dragon Seed (MGM, 1944), The Search (MGM, 1948), The Flame and the Arrow (WB, 1950), The Man From Laramie (Columbia, 1955), Cimarron (MGM, 1960), All The Way Home (Paramount, 1963), For The Use of The Hall (PBS, 1975).