Barbara Stanwyck’s Career… in Advertising!

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In case you missed it, Tuesday (July 16th) was Barbara Stanwyck’s 106th birthday. Although the actress has been dead for more than 20 years, she’s still grabbing headlines and making new fans. Yesterday Dame Helen Mirren told reporters that she was a “…great fan of Barbara Stanwyck’s” and a group of Stanwyck’s fans are currently celebrating her career with a blogathon hosted by Aubyn Eli at The Girl with the White Parasol. We can also look forward to a new DVD collection from Warner Home Video and TCM due out in October that will include four of Stanwyck’s most beloved films, BABY FACE (1933), ANNIE OAKLEY (1935), MY REPUTATION (1946) and EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (1949).
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Ann Harding: A Q & A with Biographer Scott O’Brien

“Looking at [Ann] Harding,” wrote film historian Mick LaSalle in his book, Complicated Women (St. Martin’s, 2001), “is like looking into clear, deep water. Nothing stands in the way. No stylization, no attitude, no posing. In fact, little about her technique could date her as a thirties actress.”

These are some of the words that inspired Scott O’Brien, author of Ann Harding – Cinema’s Gallant Lady (BearManor) in his research into the career and life of actress Ann Harding (1902-1981). For those who met her during the height of her Hollywood career, she left starkly different impressions. Laurence Olivier called her “an angel.” Henry Hathaway said that she “was an absolute bitch.” Myrna Loy found her “a very private person, a wonderful actress completely without star temperament, but withdrawn.” Ann Harding may not be as well-remembered as actresses whose stellar careers extended well beyond the pre-code era, such as Norma Shearer or Barbara Stanwyck. Her natural reserve means that her name does not automatically come up when particularly saucy favorites of the period like Ruth Chatterton, Joan Blondell or Dorothy Mackail are discussed. Powerful icons whose last name conjures something singular, such as Garbo, Dietrich and West, are better remembered. In recent years, in large part because of the rediscovery of her early films on Turner Classic Movies, occasional revivals of her movies and the work done by film historians reassessing the pre-code period, Harding has begun to captivate audiences again. Her lustrous beauty and surprisingly modern style of acting are only part of her appeal.

With the publication earlier this year of Scott O’Brien’s beautifully illustrated and well written biography, a balanced portrait of a skilled actress emerges, as well as some sense of the publicly guarded but privately intense woman behind her fame. Recently, I had a chance to ask the author of this meticulously researched and long overdue biography of Ann Harding about his interest in this unique, transitional figure in American film. Perhaps after reading this post a few more people who have yet to discover her work will pause next time one of her rarely seen films, such as Devotion (1931), The Animal Kingdom (1932), Double Harness (1933), When Ladies Meet (1933), The Flame Within (1935) or Peter Ibbetson (1935) emerges from the movie vault. This often surprisingly modern actress may intrigue and touch you with her presence. You might find yourself unexpectedly enthralled.
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Gladys Cooper A Natural Aristocrat Part 2

Gladys Cooper in her early California yearsGladys Cooper was a bit of a snob.

Not in the usual social way that you may infer from that remark, but as a working woman she had an attitude that hers was a job, like any other, a way of making a very good living at times.  Sometimes it meant acting in The Letter, or The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, or even Peter Pan at the age of 35. She was unacquainted with idleness, revelations of inner torment, and too many expressions of emotion off stage, taking pride in her toughness and the pleasure she derived from her work and her family.  Wearing Molyneux gowns and hawking some bloody face cream with her name on it was all part of the game, giving her an independence that very few women of her time would ever know. It also gave her a chance to do much more than the average woman as well–including bringing up her children, helping her extended family and friends, and having some very good times indeed traveling and indulging her greatest pleasure of creating a comfortable home wherever she was at the time.

At other, more meager times, being an actress was a discipline to be endured and “gotten on with” rather than analyzed or draped in much mystery. As a result of this refreshing no-nonsense attitude and the fact that she was her own producer for so many years when she ran her Playhouse in London, challenging plays and classical roles were not in her background as they were for her contemporaries Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans. Her fellow actress, Dame Edith once confessed envy of her peer, commenting that she used to stand in the wings just to watch her face under the lights on stage, transfixed by Cooper‘s youthful beauty that was, she claimed, essentially unphotographable but  “enough to stop a bus”.

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Gladys Cooper: A Natural Aristocrat Part 1

Gladys Cooper (1888-1971) as an unexpectedly popular child model

Gladys Cooper in one of the many photos that made her the pin-up girl in the WWI trenches

In the third week of an appreciation of character actors, the transition and development of a famed leading lady of some repute into a good character actress and at times, a plain great actress, is outlined below. As the mass media developed over the course of the twentieth century this individual grew from anonymity into a “living legend”.  The subject of this week’s blog will be examined in two parts:

Some time ago, in a visit to a museum in Toronto, I wandered through an exhibit on The Great War that featured the contents of a young Canadian Tommy’s kit bag from the trenches in 1916. There, amid the personal items, a battered mess tin, a scarred bayonet, a small, chipped shovel for digging a trench, an Enfield rifle and the letters from home, was a yellowing post card.

Used often in this period for sending a brief message to loved ones, this small, dog-eared object bore an image similar to that seen at left. Bringing a touch of homey glamour to a homesick soldier, it featured the pin-up girl of the First World War, the British actress, Gladys Cooper (1888-1971).

It may be hard to believe that this same winsome creature would evolve into the sometimes frosty character actress whose hauteur chilled filmed audiences in the 1940s as she laid down the law for her screen daughter Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, or questioned the truth of Jennifer Jones‘ visions of the Virgin Mary in The Song of Bernadette.  At the stage of her life when this photo was taken, the model-actress had been in front of the cameras for twenty-two of her twenty-eight years, beginning at the age of six, when her mother had given in to a request to photograph the exceptionally lovely child with her thick blond hair, and unsettling blue eyes set into a heart shaped face.

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Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Billboard around the time that "The Hucksters" (1947) was released.

Acceptable risk vs. benefit ratios, the duality of human nature and the beautiful way that smoke photographs in black and white movies. These are some of the topics that an admittedly geeky but bright friend loved to discuss as we both studied for a professional insurance licensing exam a few years ago. At the time, I was overwhelmed trying to master enough arcane information just to squeak by on the exam for my then job,  (though I’ve never used most of it again!).

While watching The Hucksters (1947) the other night on TCM, I thought about those philosophical conversations that my fellow student and I once had during breaks in our study sessions almost a decade ago. We were trying to avoid thinking too hard about actuarial tables, state regulatory laws, death and taxes. Fortunately for me, my pal had a love of classic movies, and a background in advertising that gave him some amusingly dark insights into the wizened, manipulative heart of modern methods of persuasion. The real life people who inspired this movie might be more interesting than the film.

The rather tepid and predictable drama in this movie seems to have been biting the hand that fed it by parodying the corporate culture and publicity machines that the major studios, including MGM, had helped to create during the studio era. Based on a roman a clef by Frederic Wakeman, a former advertising account manager at the Lord & Thomas ad agency, the once controversial novel was inspired by the author’s observations and a nonfiction four part series published in The Saturday Evening Post that critiqued the growing power of the Music Corporation of America (MCA).

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