Posted by morlockjeff on August 8, 2009
Most Hollywood stars have a distinct screen persona and Gloria Grahame, whether by intention or design, established herself as the iconic bad girl of film noir starting with CROSSFIRE in 1947 and continuing all the way up to ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW in 1959. At least, that’s how the majority of moviegoers probably remember her – as the vengeful gangster moll, disfigured by hot coffee, in THE BIG HEAT (1953) or the murderous schemer of SUDDEN FEAR (1952) or the unfaithful wives from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952) and MAN ON A TIGHTROPE (1953) or terrified by the likes of Humphrey Bogart (IN A LONELY PLACE, 1950) or Broderick Crawford (HUMAN DESIRE, 1954). A comedienne is not the image that usually comes to mind when one thinks of Gloria Grahame yet that’s how the actress began her career – in light comedy roles, often playing flirtatious, fickle women who are completely aware of their sex appeal and its effect on men.
Most people are aware of her broadly comic, stylized portrayal of Ado Annie in the 1955 screen version of the popular stage musical OKLAHOMA! but some of her most interesting and unheralded work is in offbeat, little known films such as the quirky romance HEAD OVER HEELS (1979, aka CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER) in which she plays John Heard’s hilariously neurotic mother. This is an aspect of Grahame that is usually overlooked or obscured by her crime melodramas. All the qualities that made her such an iconic femme fatale – the carnal presence, the provocative demeanor, the bold, sexual stare, the eternal pouty lip and her almost fetishistic attention to her appearance and behavior – become targets of self-parody in her comedic roles.
You also rarely read any film scholars or historians making any claims for Grahame’s acting abilities but a quick look at her filmography lets you know that her “bad girl” screen image was mostly a stereotype. Her skill as a dramatic actress was never in doubt in Hollywood – she racked up two Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for CROSSFIRE and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952), winning the award for the latter. And she often did some of her best work in genre films or independent efforts that many people didn’t see such as her tough, resourceful dance hall madam in the Western revenge drama ROUGHSHOD (1949) or the desperate working class heroine of THE GLASS WALL (1953), a well-intentioned but uneven attempt to blend neorealism and film noir in a story about an illegal Hungarian immigrant being hunted in New York City.
But back to the film that started it all – BLONDE CRAZY. Unlike a lot of other actresses of her generation, Grahame didn’t have to work her way up through the ranks in bit roles. MGM build an appealing showcase for her in her feature film debut and surrounded her with a top-notch cast – Philip Dorn, Mary Astor, Marshall Thompson and Elisabeth Risdon – slick production values (it might be a B movie but looks like an “A” picture) and a playful script by Patricia Coleman who adapted it from the Ferenc Molnár play. Gloria rises to the challenge and then some as Sally, a small town girl working as a waitress in a posh resort near Reno, Nevada. She’s got a wildly affectionate boyfriend, Freddie (Thompson), but seems to hunger for something outside her realm of experience, namely the very married owner of the resort who possesses continental charm, is experienced in the ways of the world, has money (mostly his wife’s) and is EXTREMELY attracted to her. In fact, Freddie and Sally were a pretty solid item until Sally’s employer Peter (Dorn) began his relentless seduction of her, filling her head with delusions of grandeur and romantic fantasy. Grahame proves herself an accomplished farceur in this pleasant trifle. Her verbal sparring scenes with Peter’s wife Delilah (Astor) are the most amusing in the film with Astor delivering zingers that go right over Gloria’s head while the latter becomes almost drunk on her hormonal effect on the men in her life. She comes to her senses in the end – due to Delilah’s behind-the-scenes manipulation – but it’s more fun when she’s preening like a peacock and basking in her own sexual gamesmanship. I like the way she cloyly delivers lines like “My father says there are only two kinds of girls – nice, and the other kind. I hope you don’t think I’m the other kind,” or ” What is it about me that makes people say that life is calling?” Watching Gloria in action here, you’d never guess this was her first major acting role.
After such a promising showcase, you’d think MGM would cast Gloria in an equally appealing follow-up but instead she was given very minor roles in WITHOUT LOVE (1945), IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN (1947) and SONG OF THE THIN MAN (1947). The first two though were comedies and in WITHOUT LOVE, a Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicle, she has an amusing bit as a nightclub flower girl with a cold in her nose. She also shines in her brief scenes with Frank Sinatra in IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN where she plays a brassy army nurse from Brooklyn (dressed in a skin tight, all-white tailored service uniform) who razzes Sinatra mercilessly about being a poseur and not a real native of Brooklyn. She’s only featured in the first few minutes of the film and her absence is solely felt, especially during the Jimmy Durante segments. (If you happen to watch it on TCM on August 13th at 7:15 pm ET, don’t tune out before Sinatra’s rendition of “The Brooklyn Bridge”, filmed on location. It’s a dazzling, nostalgic valentine to the borough). As for SONG OF THE THIN MAN, this is strictly MGM contract work. Gloria plays a tough as nails nightclub singer who is permanently silenced and it marks the beginning of many roles as a murder victim.
It was between WITHOUT LOVE and IT HAPPENED IN BROOKLYN that Grahame delivered on the promise of her debut film BLONDE FEVER. She was cast in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) as a small town flirt named Violet, a role she gets to play in shades of dark and light. She’s delightful in a high school dance scene doing the Charleston and in her street encounter with James Stewart where she takes his remarks the wrong way, creating a public scene. Later on in the film, she plays the same character in a fantasy vision of what her life would have become if James Stewart’s George Bailey had never existed. And we see a hysterical Violet being dragged off by the police in a paddy wagon, most likely on prostitution charges, and she’s a sad sight to behold indeed. It’s like a flash forward to her role as Jenny, the pathetic barfly of CROSSFIRE, a part she would play the next year. In fact, it was ultimately CROSSFIRE that brought her to the attention of the critics and her peers in Hollywood and is also partly responsible for typecasting Gloria as the proverbial bad girl for much of her later career.
Not that she didn’t appear in other films besides crime dramas and melodramas but ask any film buff to name their favorite Gloria movies and titles like MERTON OF THE MOVIES (1947) or NAKED ALIBI (1954) or THE MAN WHO NEVER WAS (1956) are probably not going to be among the films most cited. As much as I love Grahame’s performance in Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE (the director and actress were married and in the process of breaking up when it was filmed), I miss the teasing, playful innocence of Gloria’s small town vamp in the early scenes of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.
There is, however, considerable compensation in MERTON OF THE MOVIES which remains an undiscovered delight for Grahame fans who haven’t seen it. I resisted MERTON for years because I’m not a Red Skelton fan but I was completely won over by the film’s clever satire of the motion picture business (It’s based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly). Set during the silent era and preceding Singin’ in the Rain (1953) by several years in its insider observations, MERTON not only keeps Skelton’s broad, mugging antics to a minimum but actually gives him a sympathetic character to play and not the usual bumbling fool. He’s a naïve, small town transplant, trying to break into the film industry and is eventually helped by a former stunt double turned successful actress (Virginia O’Brien, master of the poker-face wisecrack and put-down). The real scene-stealer here though is Gloria as Beulah Baxter, a vain, gorgeous but somewhat dim starlet with a screen image like Theda Bara or some similar silent era sexpot. She gets to flash her beautiful, sexy legs in one funny scene where she’s hoisted to the crow’s nest of a ship for a costume picture. “Do I really have to sit in a bird’s nest?” she asks the director (an exasperated Alan Mowbrey). “Crow’s nest!”, he says, correcting her but realizing the distinction is probably lost. “Well,” she replies, “if there’s any crows in it, I’m comin’ down!” Then her stunt double (O’Brien) gets to leap from the top of the mast into the water tank below as Beulah descends and retreats to her private dressing room. There are quite a lot of similarities between Grahame’s egocentric star and Jean Hagen’s equally clueless celebrity in Singin’ in the Rain which become even more apparent in the scene where Gloria tries to seduce Skelton, the studio’s new sensation (she thinks it will help her career). The mixture of transparent manipulation and genuine delight over her apparently victorious scheme are played out in a funny physical charade – the couple are getting smashed on champagne – and culminates with Skelton inquiring if there is novocaine in his drink because his face is going numb. Gloria helpfully suggests, “Try biting your upper lip,” a telling bit of advice considering her real life obsession with HER upper lip (read Vincent Curcio’s biography of her – Suicide Blonde – for the cosmetic surgery details). He responds, “Can’t find it. I had one coming in, didn’t I?” Then before things can get more interesting – really, Gloria Grahame and Red Skelton getting it on? – Virginia O’Brien barges in and rescues Red. MERTON OF THE MOVIES airs on TCM on 8/13 at 9 am ET.
Other rarely seen or lesser known Grahame films in TCM’s lineup include the two aforementioned titles – ROUGHSHOD and THE GLASS WALL - and CHANDLER (1971), which barely qualifies as a Gloria sighting since she only has one scene with the title character, played by Warren Oates. Now THAT’S a couple.
ROUGHSHOD is an engaging and consistently entertaining little B Western directed by Mark Robson in which two wranglers, Clay Phillips (Robert Sterling) and his younger brother Steve (Claude Jarman Jr.), are taking a group of thoroughbred horses to Sonora for sale. Along the way they encounter four dance hall girls who were driven out of Aspen, Colorado by the community (and you know what that means). Now stranded with a broken carriage, the women are allowed to accompany the two cowboys as far as the first ranch they see. Meanwhile, three escaped convicts are on their trail with their leader Lednov (John Ireland), intent on killing Clay who was responsible for his incarceration. While the plot plays out in a predictable manner with few surprises along the way, ROUGHSHOD has an authentic Western feel to it due to the stunning on-location cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc (it was filmed in the Lake Tahoe area). It also features Gloria as an unlikely heroine who looks surprisingly at home on the range, roughing it under the stars. She’s a spunky, ambitious business woman with no allusions about her reputation even though an intense love-hate relationship develops between her and Clay along the way. [Spoiler] Usually in films of this period, a prostitute in love with the hero would most likely end up dead, leaving the protagonist free to marry his virginal sweetheart. Not in this one. But I will say that only one of the dance hall gals actually makes it to Sonora.
THE GLASS WALL, co-written and directed by Maxwell Shane, is a genuine curiosity in which Hungarian refugee Peter Kaban (Vittorio Gassman), a concentration camp survivor, stows away illegally on a ship of displaced Europeans bound for New York City after WWII. Denied entry into the country and facing deportation, he escapes into the city to look for Tom (Jerry Paris), a former American soldier whose life he saved during the war. With Tom’s support and sponsorship, Peter could stay in America but the desperate immigrant doesn’t even know Tom’s last name or where he lives. He only knows that he’s a jazz musician in a club near Times Square. Peter’s nocturnal ramblings while constantly eluding the police and immigration officers leads him to a diner where he meets Maggie (Grahame), a recently fired factory worker who is about to be evicted from her boarding house. THE GLASS WALL presents Gloria at her most unglamorous during a period where her sexy appearance was always well exploited on screen. Wearing no makeup and looking convincingly haggard, it’s one of her best and less known dramatic performances and truly captures the desperate state of mind and hard knocks her Maggie has endured. Originally Shelley Winters wanted to play this part opposite her husband, Gassman, at the time but Columbia cast Grahame instead. It’s a shame the movie isn’t better as it addresses real post-war concerns about refugees in America, unemployment, and the harsh realities of life on the streets of New York. The cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc (him again) is a wonderful time machine back to the New York City of 1953 and has a raw, you-are-there feel to it at times as if referencing the neorealism films of Roberto Rossellini. For jazz fans, there is even a cameo appearance by Jack Teagarden, Shorty Rogers and their band in one brief nightclub sequence. Unfortunately, the film’s pacing is uneven and the poignant relationship that starts to develop between Gassman and Grahame is interrupted and dropped in favor of constant chase scenes. Gloria fans should seek it out though just to see her running full speed. It’s an odd sight. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in such constant motion except for the climax of Sudden Fear when she tries to outrun Jack Palance’s speeding car.
Gloria Grahame’s day on TCM concludes with CHANDLER, another rarely seen film which features the unlikely pairing of Warren Oates and Leslie Caron as a former security guard turned bodyguard and the target of hit men, respectively. This muddled B-movie is extremely sparse in the dialogue department and there is little action though in theory it should be a chase thriller. There is no chemistry between Oates and Caron and it’s a bit of a mystery of how this movie even got made. Still, there are a few compensations such as the on-location cinematography of Los Angeles and the Monterey Peninsula (some scenes were shot in the Highlands Inn, a famous luxury resort) and one scene with Grahame. She’s cast as the wife of a former partner/friend of Chandler’s and, as if in homage to her film noir past, Oates gets to plant a kiss on Grahame’s famous upper lip which by this point in her career was starting to look like a special effect.
I wish TCM were showing some of the other more obscure but interesting Grahame movies such as NAKED ALIBI or THE GOOD DIE YOUNG (1954), a British noir, or PRISONERS OF THE CASBAH (1953), a tacky, Sam Katzman desert adventure but I’m not complaining. A full day of Gloria is a rare treat from the cinema gods.
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