Tuesday, June 3, 2008
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.
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
Perhaps you're a not very well-to-do producer. Your next payment on one of those Fleetwood Cadillacs is due. You have a dog-eared script that may take a week or two, tops to shoot. It's the usual mishmash of nuclear age anxiety, with a nod to Freud and oodles of Jungian symbolism blended with some platitudes about "the hoodlum problem." It would be ideal fare for the growing youth market--especially those who frequent the passion pits masquerading as drive-in theaters that dot the countryside. The return on your low ball estimated initial investment is almost guaranteed.
You know that you can't swing a cat in LA without hitting some brylcreemed youth with a smooth-faced mug. Most of them would probably run over his grandmother for a chance to play the perennially misunderstood lad who is...well, you can fill in the blank...but let's say that said protagonist is the only person in town who sees the imminent danger after that strange meteorite hurtles to earth quite near lover's lane. You need a likable, tousle-haired delinquent as the boy who cried wolf...then again, maybe you're onto something there...he doesn't just cry wolf...Read More
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 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.
"Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year." ~ Victor Borge
Don'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
|Above: Thelma Ritter and friend, looking the world straight in the eye in All About Eve (1950).|
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
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
He 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
"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."
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Imagine that you are a writer of some note who has come to "the land where it is always afternoon", generally known as Hollywood. You reside in a small, rather dark, but cozy little bungalow, optimistically called a "villa" by the rather lenient management. Your abode is one of the twenty-five or so vaguely Spanish-Moorish stucco buildings at 8152 Sunset Boulevard, on about 3 ½ acres of property scattered around a swimming pool shaped like the Black Sea. You wake up, shuffle out of bed, find that there's no coffee in the small kitchen in your "villa", and so you begin to consume the dozen or so Coca-Colas that will comprise the only fluid that you will allow in your body that day.
Suppose the year is 1937.
Gathering your strength to face the day, you remind yourself that you are starting fresh. You were here when flush with your first, wild success in the twenties, and you even came a second time when times were tougher. You had a job back in 1931, working on that script for Metro for a movie called Red-Headed Woman—though not much of what you wrote ever made it onto the screen. Especially after that embarrassing slip-up at the Sunday brunch at the Thalbergs' house. But that was then—and you must remember to "never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat." You allow yourself to murmur the old cliché, wondering if "perhaps the third time here is the charm."
Time to get the mail. Good, only a few bills and a brightly colored postcard today. Smiling wistfully to yourself, you turn the postcard over and read the spidery hand that says:
How are you? Have been meaning to come in and see you.
I have living [sic] at the Garden of Allah.
When F. Scott Fitzgerald first moved into the complex of furnished apartments that comprised The Garden of Allah in West Hollywood between Havenhurst & North Crescent Heights Avenue, he wrote this in jest to himself. Perhaps he also meant it as a reminder of his revised identity in his new surroundings, or maybe it was just a lonely man's attempt to receive something other than bills, like a plain girl sending herself flowers from an imaginary admirer.
Fitzgerald would soon realize that he was not alone, though the fragile writer probably could not have chosen a less likely spot to stay sober and create a disciplined writing life for himself once again. Even fellow novelist Thomas Wolfe once expressed skepticism about Scott's choice of residence in a letter he wrote to him in July of '37 that said that "I'll be damned if I'll believe anyone lives in a place called "The Garden of Allah."
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
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).