Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Louis Calhern: What's Worth While?

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote some beautiful prose, but he was far from flawless in his insights. One of his observations that has been happily proven wrong on more than one occasion is that "there are no second acts in American lives." By 1950, tall, distinguished men with velvety voices, hawk-like profiles, a genial world-weariness, and decades of theatrical and cinematic experience were beginning to seem like an endangered species. Louis Calhern (1895-1956) might have stopped being a viable actor around the time that they ceased production of those limos with a crystal bud vase next to the passenger door and stopped making movies in which the virtue of ingénues was threatened by roués like John Barrymore. About 7 years younger than Barrymore, he'd shared a self-destructive streak with The Great Profile, though mercifully Louis never had the publicity of the youngest member of those acting siblings. Calhern did his tippling and romantic pursuits on a quieter scale.

Hoagy: Who's That Cool Guy?

Hoagy Carmichael

He seems to be just a regular guy, that Hoagy Carmichael. There he is on screen, hunched over the piano, hat tipped back, in his shirtsleeves, wearing a matching series of monikers from the down home to the outlandish, playing characters called Cricket, Celestial, Hi, Butch, Willie, Smoke or Happy. I'm not sure when I first became aware of his calm, bemused presence and air of tolerance in movies, but he always struck me as the kind of guy you'd wish were your worldly uncle; the slightly disreputable family member who understands all, with that undeniable gift for music.

Yet, unlike the troubled heroes or villains that might populate the center of the screen in the movies he appeared in, he seems to lack their tension or ambition. There's little or no romantic involvement or intrigue for him in these movies. He's invariably the good guy or gal's best buddy, even if that person doesn't always have the good sense to know that immutable fact. Hoagy on screen appears to be the most relaxed man in movies from the thirties to the fifties, despite the fact that he was never hired as an on screen performer in the mid-thirties. When he landed in Hollywood as a songwriter, the place was, as Hoagy said, "where the rainbow hit the ground."...Read More

Contents Under Pressure: William Powell & Mervyn LeRoy

William Powell and Mervyn LeRoy discussing a scene in "High Pressure" (1932)

If you've ever dipped your toe into the world of financial services in your career path, you've probably attended at least one or two of those corporate pep rallies dressed up as "informational seminars."
In the early sound film that TCM slipped by most of us last month, called High Pressure (1932), the irresistible William Powell, ably assisted by the puppy dog devotion of Frank McHugh, plays ringmaster to a crowd of ethnically diverse salesmen at a hilarious parody of such a gathering.
Based on a play by Aben Kandel with the appropriate title of Hot Money, the story was credited to Joseph Jackson and S.J. Peters. Still, it is what the leading man brings to the role that initially made me take notice of this quite obscure movie. The fairly dazzling display of charisma and ruthless pandering to the herd by a masterful, pre-Thin Man William Powell seems to indicate just how likable the glib actor would be in the sound era--even when playing what might have been a two dimensional mountebank in less skilled hands. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever seen a movie that features such an outpouring of Powell's very funny and occasionally scary ability to manipulate a crowd...Read More

The Essential Aline

Aline MacMahonHer features were always considered too large to fit the Hollywood studio mold of prettiness, yet artist Isamu Noguchi sculpted a bust of uncommon beauty of her head and the elegant Cecil Beaton thought that what some have described as "melancholy features" made a fine photographic subject. The serene maternal warmth of her smile could shift into a dour and sometimes acerbic look but she could never, ever look dumb. When a role needed to convey a weariness of soul as well as body, along with a healthy streak of sarcasm, wise filmmakers sent for Aline MacMahon. One Hollywood casting director once placed Miss MacMahon "among the 10 smartest actresses, in a class with Miss Hepburn and Helen Hayes" in the 1930s. Maybe that sharp mind and knowing look she cultivated scared the Hollywood types off. "Brains" rarely seems to be the top criterion for casting in Hollywood in the '30s, though MacMahon certainly gave movies a good try in that decade--fortunately for us...Read More

Young Cassidy: A Memory Piece

Rod Taylor as Seán O'CaseyThe hallway of every man's life is paced with pictures; pictures gay and pictures gloomy, all useful, for if we be wise, we can learn from them a richer and braver way to live. ~ Seán O'Casey

The penultimate John Ford feature film, Young Cassidy (1965), completed by master cinematographer and underrated journeyman director Jack Cardiff, airs this coming Monday at 6 PM ET on TCM. It is, appropriately enough, scheduled for St. Patrick's Day, March 17th. The film, which is not available on vhs or dvd, sank from sight soon after it premiered in March of 1965, but eventually became a vivid part of the annual celebration of that day, thanks in large part to the repetition of this "beautiful failure" on the Million Dollar Movie on New York channel WOR in the sixties and seventies.

Growing up in the Finnie household, St. Patrick's Day brought out all the contradictions in our Irish-American family...Read More

A Glimpse of the Culinary Adventures of Old Hollywood

"Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year." ~ Victor Borge
 a holiday displayDon't get me wrong. I love my family. However, the month of December, no matter one's spiritual beliefs or family traditions, is fraught with such a heady mixture of anticipation, ephemeral hopes, memories of past joys and pain, and just plain effort, that the day after Christmas is almost welcome with its mixture of exhaustion and ennui.

December 26th marks a day to spend with family, a return to work, and in some shopaholics, prompts one more mad dash to the mall to return or cash in those material goods gleaned from the day before. Some of us, after visiting with family members, gladly count ourselves among the less hardy souls who find some solace in the week-long "limbo" that seems to occur after Christmas and before the New Year...Read More

Thelma Ritter: All About Birdie

Above: Thelma Ritter and friend, looking the world straight in the eye in All About Eve (1950).
Thelma Ritter had six Academy Award nominations, but was never a winner. What were they thinking?
On days like this, when the wind blows across from Canada and the thermometer never creeps much above 12 degrees, I look for my favorite winter hat. It's a shapeless black felt one, but cozy, durable, and it never seems to mind if I wind up stuffing it into my coat pocket. I call it my "Thelma Ritter" hat because, like the actress, (who was born and died in the month of February), it is unpretentious and always welcome, even if it will never be chic. And I'd miss it if it were gone.

Like Miss Ritter, who was nominated for a remarkable six Academy Awards® in twelve years*, that hat is familiar, yet remarkably versatile in its useful life...Read More

Lew Ayres: The Road Less Traveled

Lew Ayres as the young soldier in All Quiet..."It's dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it's better not to die at all. There are millions out there dying for their country and what good is it?" ~ Erich Maria Remarque.

In All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), actor Lew Ayres played Paul Bäumer, a German soldier disillusioned by the horrors of World War I (the iconic scene of his reaching for a butterfly on the battlefield remains a classic image in world cinema). The film was the first all-talking non-musical film to win the Best Picture Oscar for its producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. and an additional Academy Award for director Lewis Milestone. It also received nominations for the remarkable work by Arthur Edeson for Best Cinematography and a nomination for the adapters of Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 autobiographical novel, George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews. Actor Lew Ayres, who seems to me to be by turns awkward and quietly powerful in the film, received no nomination for the movie, though the film would have a far-reaching impact on his life...Read More

Claude Rains: The Virtuoso

It was 1932 and Claude Rains was disenchanted.

Claude RainsHe was at a crossroads in his life and his career. He'd tried his best to find work in the new fad, the Talkies, but the camera apparently disliked him. A recent screen test for RKO to play the part of Hilary Farfield in a film adaptation of Clemence Dane's A Bill of Divorcement had seemed promising. In his effort to show the extent of what he could do, Rains had pulled out all the stops for the test by performing scenes from two of his tour de force stage performances from The Man Who Reclaimed His Head and Shaw's Man of Destiny. In retrospect, Rains knew that he'd made "the worst screen test in the history of movie-making." The dramatically flamboyant part in the movie of Dane's play went to John Barrymore.

If his own assessment had been the last word on his career, who would have supplied the Machiavellian skill and cunning to his Don Jose scheming against Flora Robson's Queen Elizabeth in The Sea Hawk (1940), or brought a spark of lively warmth and humanity to what might have been a stock character in White Banners (1938) or Daughters Courageous (1939)? In the mid-forties, he would even flex his finely honed Shavian muscles to good effect on screen in very high style in Caesar and Cleopatra (1946), playing a worldly wise Julius Caesar to Vivien Leigh's kittenish Cleopatra. Chosen by George Bernard Shaw himself, (who would say that Rains and Sir Cedric Hardwicke were his favorite interpreters of his work), it must have been heartening for Rains--for once--to get the girl...Read More

John Monk Saunders: Something in the Air

Wings title card without mention of the author

"They ask me where I've been,
And what I've done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn't I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name."
~Wilfred Gibson

Living in an era when the auteur theory is dominant among film analysts, the name of a mere screenwriter such as John Monk Saunders may not be familiar to many of the viewers who enjoyed the seldom seen Wings (1927) the other night on TCM. The directors of his stories on film, Josef von Sternberg, William Wellman, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle and Edmund Goulding, are readily acknowledged as among the best of the medium. These skilled directors undoubtedly made the work of this screenwriter come to life on the screen in Wings (1927), The Docks of New York (1928), The Dawn Patrol (1930 & 1938), The Finger Points (1931), and The Last Flight (1931), among other films, but perhaps we could take a moment to acknowledge the writer who provided the stories for these films. He was someone who "wanted to live dangerously and die young," said actress Fay Wray regretfully about him shortly before her death. Married to screenwriter John Monk Saundersfor eleven sometimes sweet but often harrowing years, she knew the high cost of living in the wake of one of the more profligate members of that "lost generation."For those who cherish the too often obscure names of screenwriters, Saunders is forever identified with...Read More

Delbert Mann: More than Marty

Marty (1955) PosterWhen Delbert Mann, the director who won an Oscar® for Marty (1955) died last month on November 11th, his obituaries tended to emphasize two items from his career. The film of writer Paddy Chayevsky's story Marty (1955), which highlighted the hopes and sorrows of an everyday guy, played eloquently by Ernest Borgnine, and the incident in 1968 when Mann's made-for-tv movie, "Heidi" pre-empted the end of a nail-biting NY Jets-Oakland Raiders game on television. The Raiders, won the game, 43 to 32, with two last minute touchdowns unseen by the vast, royally ticked offed American audience, who had to comfort themselves with the sight of the score superimposed over Clara's dramatic learning-to-walk-again scene in "Heidi".

Marty, the Chayevsky teleplay that Mann had brought to the screen, (at the playwright's insistence), would, in retrospect, document the plight of a self-described "ugly little man" who has spent his life "looking for a girl every Saturday night of my life," but it would also mark the beginning of the successful migration of talented tv directors such as Mann, John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet to the movies...Read More

You Can't Go Home Again: Revisiting the Films of Childhood

Maybe Thomas Wolfe had a point. You can't go home again, but thanks to technology, you can revisit films that once beguiled you as a youngster. Sometimes, of course, this is a mistake.
The Swiss Family Robinson Book
As a little kid in the '60s, television, or "the idiot box" was what our parents called "an insult to your intelligence". Of course, being American kids, we were dying to have our intelligence insulted and would cultivate friendships in hopes of glimpsing some mind-numbing tv shows at a playmate's house. Since forbidden fruit was often most appealing, I do remember relishing my glimpses of the misadventures of such inappropriate entertainment as The Three Stooges and longed to visit that imaginary universe where the Our Gang kids could somehow fashion an entire Art Deco nightclub out of leftover boards, a few scraps of costumes and the talent of such individuals as Buckwheat and a most annoying and demanding girl, Darla. In retrospect, I understand that my parents hoped to give their children a broader, more imaginative view of the world's possibilities than old repeats of anarchic vaudeville acts or the Disney corporation was offering children--but, while they certainly couldn't deny the power of these cinematic siren songs, they did make us aware of more than one form of entertainment, even if we didn't always appreciate it at the time...Read More

Whenever Hollywood isn't looking at old television shows and comic books for inspiration for the next alleged blockbuster, they try to remake a good movie. Supposedly adding the latest CGI techniques to an oft-told tale may fool the kiddies in the audience, but perhaps classic film buffs might find remakes more creatively acceptable, and possibly even more entertaining, if the point of view of the story were shifted, at least slightly. The following are examples of potential remakes that might be enjoyable since the stories are told from a different character's point of view. See if you'd shell out 8 samoleans at the multiplex to see these vaguely familiar stories…with a twist and an affectionate nod to the wonderful originals...Read More

The Red Menace in Shades of Gray

I grew up on Communism.

No, my parents weren't Bolsheviks or Trotskyites who weaned a "red diaper" baby, they were thoughtful Americans who, after a World War Two marriage, and four kids in almost as many years, simply tried to keep a few American ideals and a sense of humor alive in our household. Consequently, when they discovered us huddled in front of a flickering t.v. image seemingly enthralled with Frank Lovejoy confessing that I Was a Communist For the F.B.I. (1952) or bringing home a now forgotten artifact from our parochial school such as Treasure Chest comic books, (which were chock full of depictions of life under the boot of "godless Communism"), they leavened the heavier fear mongering with large doses of faith in American ideals such as freedom of speech and encouraged us to explore the free marketplace of ideas, where we might hear all sides of every issue...Read More

Mayo Methot: An Appreciation

Sometimes it seems that I learn more from looking at the losers in history—even Hollywood history—than I do from the lives of those who seem to be victors in life's competitive struggle. The triumphant, who are usually perceived that way at a distance, are feted anew in biographies and compendiums of a period's highlights. The also-rans are sometimes given the affectionate sobriquet of "beautiful losers". Their foolish, noble or flamboyant failings may be most fondly remembered by those who never knew them. Well, here's a small toast to a less than beautiful loser, a woman whose brief and tragic life has only been seen through the somewhat romanticized prism of several other celebrated lives.

Mayo Methot (1904-1951) is usually referred to as a colorful, if sad chapter during the "wilderness years" of movie icon Humphrey Bogart's long apprenticeship at Warner Brothers, following his promising breakthrough role in The Petrified Forest (1936) opposite his friend, Leslie Howard. As Bogart's third wife, Methot's descent into alcoholism, tempestuous marriage, possible mental illness, spousal abuse and inevitable obscurity are well documented. What seems less well known are her occasionally noteworthy appearances on screen.

James Edwards: Someone Must Make a Stand

A friend recently suggested that I might comment on the observation by him that few African Americans enjoy classic movies from the studio era. As a white woman, I hardly think I'm qualified to tackle this enormous subject, which has been eloquently discussed by such observers as Donald Bogle and other scholars. In addition to this, it occurs to me that with some notable exceptions, there would be little that contemporary African Americans wouldn't find painful viewing from the studio era. Well, I was reminded recently of one Black actor whose groundbreaking legacy and distinctively thoughtful work—in whatever role he played, should be remembered by all who cherish classic movies and the artists and craftsmen who make them worth revisiting. Perhaps this column will encourage at least one person to seek out his films.

One weekend about a month ago, I was watching an old movie called Fräulein (1958). As smoothly directed by old pro Henry Koster, the film is essentially a soapy tale documenting the privations and survival of a "good" German woman at the end of WWII and its aftermath. Starring a very reserved Mel Ferrer as an American officer who becomes involved with a young German woman, (Dana Wynter), it is a bit glossy despite the grim historical material of the story. Wynter's character suffers through near rape by Russian invaders and is almost forced into prostitution, though interestingly, this being the '50s and Ms. Wynter being an actress remarkable for her composure, she remains quite prim and relatively unsullied throughout these desperate situations. The most engaging work in the movie is done by good actors in smaller roles, such as Ivan Triesault, Theodore Bikel and Helmut Dantine.

As my attention drifted and I was ruminating about possible imaginary recasting of the movie and wondering if it would've seemed better in black and white, my reverie was broken by a scene near the end of the film. Wynter's past encounter with a prostitution ring in Berlin has appeared on her criminal record, making her exodus from her defeated country less likely, despite Mel Ferrer's earnest expression of a desire to marry her. This nearly impossible obstacle to a "Hollywood ending" seemed to be one of the more realistic touches in the film, but for the appearance of an almost angelic U.S. serviceman disguised as a desk clerk shuffling papers among the ruins: James Edwards...Read More

Roger Livesey (1906-1976): An Appreciation

Roger LiveseyIt was the voice that first captured my attention. Husky, yes, but distinctively so. Who was that?

Late as usual on a rainy evening, I had dashed into the already darkened auditorium for a rare revival house showing of the ambitious 1936 Alexander Korda film, Rembrandt, featuring Charles Laughton in the lead, (premiering on TCM on October 23rd). I was eager to see this nearly pristine print of the biopic. Already a Laughton fan, my interest had been further piqued by those who had described this movie as one of the better cinematic renderings of an artist's life.

This evaluation was perhaps ironic, given that few of the master's paintings are shown during the movie, though the monumental and iconoclastic painting of "The Night Watch" figures prominently in the painterly black and white film, photographed with abundant chiaroscuro. Still, that raspy fellow on the screen with Laughton really seemed familiar. Hustling to get settled without disturbing too many other patrons, I was brought up short by the sound from the screen. Then it hit me!...read more

Whistle Stop (1946): Ava's Back in Town

 According to some sources, producer Mark Hellinger spotted a possible actress for his next feature in the independently produced, low budget noir, Whistle Stop (1946). That next Hellinger feature, an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's story, The Killers (1946), would go on to make MGM contract player Ava Gardner a big star, albeit away from her home studio.

After seeing Whistle Stop recently, this early Gardner movie made me wonder if Hellinger might have simply felt sorry for the youthful beauty trapped in this movie. Ava plays a small town gal who inexplicably chooses to return to Podunkville in the mid-west after lighting out for the big city. We are never told exactly why she's returned to Molly Veech's (Florence Bates) boarding house, where Flo lives with her train watchman husband and "kids", including 51 year old George Raft, (who looks older than the half century mark).
Bates, (who was only 7 years older than her cinematic 'son'), seems to delude herself a lot in this movie. Ma Veech seems to think that her Kenny (Raft) will eventually stop being a layabout without a job who laps up booze every night & plays cards once he "finds himself" and discovers his well-hidden worth. Mom suppresses any nagging doubts about her sonny's character by repeatedly pointing out that times are tough and her baby is scratching out a living as best he can in this burg they call home. Hmm, perhaps this storyline would have seemed more credible if the film had been set in the Depression as had been the steamy novel by Maritta Wolff.


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