Posted by moirafinnie on April 7, 2010
Now that Spring is here, I can look back on this event with amusement as I recall Daniel Webster’s comment that there “is nothing so powerful as truth—and often nothing so strange” Ain’t it the truth?:
The Real and the Imaginary Elisabeth of Bavaria (1837-1898)
The Scene: My Living Room
The Time: The Late Winter Doldrums
The Occasion: An Intervention
The Participants: My Loved Ones
What prompted this intervention by my family? Shuffling into the living room, none of my near and dear ones seemed to want to meet my eye. As they gently explained, it was time to remember that I’m an American living in the 21st century. “Chuck this new-found interest in moldy royalty, and, well, get back to reality.” Sure, sure, I knew they were right, but still…
Posted by moirafinnie on March 31, 2010
This is the second part of a profile of actress Helen Walker. The first part can be seen here.
“No wonder so many actors are out of work,…considering all the lousy scripts the agents hand you…with such big build-ups. They’re nearly all tripe. The dialogue is all the same. Everything’s been done before. I’ve read 15 or 20 scripts in the last three weeks and only one was any good.”
–Helen Walker, in one of her more impolitic public comments to a reporter in the 1940s.
After almost three years in Hollywood, Helen Walker‘s life and career came to a turning point by the mid-1940s. As seen in the first part of this two part blog on the actress, found here, Walker had proven that she could hold her own in fast comedic company with popular successes such as Brewster’s Millions (1945) and Murder, He Says (1945). She had also shown an untapped capacity for drama evidenced by her effectiveness in The Man on Half Moon Street (1943). Critics had begun to describe her as a “charmingly different personality,” noting her poise and ability to uncover a laugh or a character nuance–sometimes despite the quality of the rest of the production. Still, Paramount persisted in using their contractee’s services in several B movies destined for Broadway grind houses and a dismal spot on the lower halves of double bills. Walker refused to appear in one more ill-conceived comedy, (1945′s all-star melange, Duffy’s Tavern (1945), based on a popular radio show), followed by another, Follow That Woman (1945). She also made the tactical error of bluntly pointing out to a Los Angeles Times reporter that she felt “stymied…while waiting confidently for ‘grown-up’ parts.”
Posted by moirafinnie on March 3, 2010
Ernest Hemingway may have loathed most of the translations of his own stories to film, and sometimes with good reason. Happy endings were tacked on to many of his stories. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952) a conflicted hero lived, despite a touch of systemic septicemia, a gangrenous leg, and a heckuva death wish. (The author fumed and called it ‘The Snows of Zanuck’ in private). Political realities were sometimes lost. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) does not seem to have a commie in sight and only one mention of a fascist is made, at least by name. Evocative situations were embellished. The Killers (1946) left Hemingway’s terse masterpiece behind after the first superb fifteen minutes, but the author expressed some liking for that one despite this amplification, (his acceptance of the film may have been partly due to the presence of Ava Gardner and the likability of the producer, Mark Hellinger). “A fat actor”–in Hemingway’s words–played one of his best characters when an aging Spencer Tracy took the lead in The Old Man and the Sea (1958) a novella that led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the writer in 1954. Other, lesser known adaptations of Hemingway stories fared a bit better, with glimmers of the writer’s elusive style in A Farewell to Arms (1932), and The Breaking Point (1950).
Of course, Ernie wasn’t allergic to the money the studios tossed in his lap for these tales, though he was miffed when he learned what some of them eventually earned after he sold the rights to the books to filmmakers. He reportedly didn’t speak to Howard Hawks for six months after he challenged the director to make a movie from what Hawks called “his worst book”; only to have To Have and To Have Not become a giant hit, even though the story had little to do with the original novel. Nor did he disdain the company of the beautiful and the gifted people who sometimes took roles in these movies. Who can blame him for feeling the pull of the glamorous company of his hunting buddy Gary Cooper, beautiful Ava Gardner or the glorious Ingrid Bergman, among others?
Posted by moirafinnie on February 24, 2010
Motherhood and the movies have often made for boffo box office returns. My glowing memories of those warm-hearted, endearingly fluttery, or nobly self-sacrificing mothers played by Spring Byington, Mary Astor, Fay Bainter and Barbara Stanwyck and others in classic movies may have fogged my vision of celluloid motherhood a bit.
The Silver Cord (1933), a 77 year old film made at RKO, broke that clichéd Mom mold with a disquieting crack, blending a domestic drama with strong elements of high camp. There were Bad Moms around in dramas before and after this exercise in theatrical Freudianism. Noel Coward enjoyed his first big success in the mid 1920s dramatizing the unhealthy relationship between a glamorous nymphomaniac socialite and her drug addicted son in The Vortex (1927), which was made into a silent movie in 1927. The same year as The Silver Cord (1933), director John Ford offered a surprisingly negative portrait of a mother played by Henrietta Crossman in Pilgrimage. Crossman’s dour character was so fixated on avoiding a marriage by her only son to “an unsuitable girl,” she sent him off to the trenches of World War I. And Gladys Cooper brought the Bad Mom to an artistic high point with her portrayals of lethally clinging matriarchs in Now, Voyager (1942) and Separate Tables (1958) in the ’40s and ’50s. The grandma of many of the later indictments of maternal love, however, might be this early talkie, which is statically staged but electrifying, thanks to the author, the actors and their under-appreciated director, John Cromwell.
Posted by moirafinnie on February 17, 2010
Last year, in part because of the celebrations surrounding the films of 1939, I had a chance to introduce Gone With the Wind to younger viewers in my family who had never seen the film. It’s not a favorite movie of mine, so I could understand their appalled reactions to the innate racism of the story that implied that a slave’s first loyalty was to the families that owned them, (even after the Civil War and emancipation). Seen at a glance in GWTW, maybe the antebellum South’s biggest problems may only seem to be uppity white trash like Victor Jory’s oily Jonas Wilkerson, or the need for rebellious girls like Scarlett to maintain their hypocritical poses in a rigid social structure, while secretly acting on their own half-understood impulses, and the upheaval caused by those damn Yankees. But look a bit closer and you can see the story of changing attitudes and a brave woman struggling to make her mark in a world that both rejected and accepted her. I don’t mean Scarlett Katie O’Hara, either.
Posted by moirafinnie on February 10, 2010
Captured! (1933-Roy Del Ruth) is a Warner Brothers film that was advertised in overheated ad copy of the time as a “cavalcade of human passions in the maelstrom of mankind’s great adventure”. This little known pre-code movie never reaches those hyperbolic proportions, and has largely been forgotten, but, despite its strengths and flaws, I suspect that the situations depicted among men isolated in the time of war may have had an unacknowledged impact on later depictions of POW camps on film, influencing everything from La Grande Illusion (1937-Jean Renoir) to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943-Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger) to Stalag 17 (1953-Billy wilder) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957-David Lean). The movie is an uneven look at the erosion of accepted values in the 20th century, and it is also an interesting glimpse of the changing public attitudes toward war, influenced by a rise of pacifism following World War I.
Posted by Susan Doll on February 8, 2010
No one can dispute that contemporary Hollywood has little room for movies with leading roles for female movie stars. And, those few that do exist are treated as anomalies, as though it is completely strange for a film with a woman protagonist to be of interest to any movie-goer. Most of the time, female stars are stuck in badly written romantic comedies, which are giving the genre a bad name. I am movie-sick (like being “homesick” except it’s a longing for certain types of movies) for the studio days when films showcased a variety of actresses who looked older than 18, weighed more than 90 pounds, and had more than one facial expression.
In addition to enjoying the onscreen talent of the likes of Hepburn, Davis, Crawford, Hayward, Loy, Grable, Harlow, Russell, and countless others, the roles and storylines developed for female movie stars in past Hollywood eras serve as a window into the issues and problems of the women of the day. One of my favorite periods for women’s roles is the post-WWII era, when the film noir and melodrama genres offered some fascinating glimpses into living in a man’s world, circa 1950. My thoughts on the dismal state of contemporary cinema and longings for past leading ladies were stirred up recently when I watched My Name Is Julia Ross, a notable, little b-movie directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1945, years before his string of well-known noirs such as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo.
Posted by Susan Doll on January 25, 2010
Douglas Sirk directed a series of melodramas during the 1950s in which a lavish visual style and careful mise-en-scene telegraphed a subtle criticism of middle-class social conventions beneath the emotion-driven storylines. With their rich Technicolor surfaces and highly charged performances, Sirk’s melodramas are distinctive and easily recognizable as the work of this respected director. Much of the scholarship and critical commentary on Sirk centers on these films, which include Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, The Tarnished Angels, Written on the Wind, and Imitation of Life. Recently, I had the opportunity to view Sirk’s little-known The First Legion at the wonderful Bank of America Cinema in Chicago, which is devoted to showing classic films every Saturday night. Not available on DVD, The First Legion represents an early work by Sirk that reflects his trademark style yet also differs from it.
Posted by moirafinnie on January 20, 2010
My dictionary gives the definition of a cri de coeur (krēt kër′) as “a cry from the heart, an impassioned protest, complaint, etc.” If you really want to see that term translated onto film, the Warner Brothers movie, Two Seconds (1932) could fill the bill.
Crude, raw and disturbing, Two Seconds (1932) is being broadcast on TCM on Thursday, Jan. 21st, at 11:45am. First released in the middle of 1932, audiences flocked to see this financially successful but dramatically grim tale about the thoughts and memories that flash through the mind of a man just as he is about to die in the electric chair. Perhaps some of them felt as though they were walking the last mile too. After Americans had witnessed 13 million jobs evaporating into thin air since 1929, watching nationwide unemployment rise to 23.6 %, wouldn’t logic tell us that most people might want to go to the movies to escape a reality they could not control? Apparently not, especially when Warner Brothers had the good fortune to have several talented individuals involved in this film. READ MORE
Posted by moirafinnie on January 13, 2010
Film fans always talk about The Omen or The Bad Seed as if the characters that those kids played were truly disturbing children. Poppycock, I say.
So what if Damien’s presence on earth was a sign of the coming apocalypse and if Rhoda Penmark’s blond sweetness masked a murderous soul? 1940s child star Margaret O’Brien could act rings around those kids with one pigtail tied behind her back, break your heart neatly in half in the process, and make you wish that you could thank her for that privilege. When seven of her films air this Friday, January 15th on TCM in honor of her 73rd birthday, you may be able to catch at least a few of them. While I’m sure we’d all like to call in sick and spend a gray January Friday in the company of Ms. O’Brien, for the purposes of this brief piece, I’ve tried to narrow my focus a bit, looking at one extraordinary film out of several exceptional ones featuring this actress.
Let’s see if I can describe the disquieting effect of The Unfinished Dance adequately for those who haven’t been exposed to it. The formula for The Unfinished Dance (1947-Henry Koster), a rarely seen film that will be aired at 1:15pm on January 15th, is a heady brew, composed of mysterious elements blended from this:
Take the early adolescent intensity of Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944), as played by Elizabeth Taylor, (who was apparently channeling Diana the Huntress and Aphrodite on the half shell). Carefully mix in some of the Machiavellian deviousness of Mary Tilford in These Three (1936), as performed with a chilling calculation by Bonita Granville, then add a generous dash of Marcia Mae Jones‘ vulnerable roller coaster personality when she played Renfrew to Granville‘s manipulative Draculetta in that same film. Don’t forget to add some atmosphere to the movie that borrows from the hormonally tense Mädchen in Uniform (1931 or 1958 versions) and, for added measure, just a little soupçon of Louise Brooks‘ “cheerful” school days in The Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). For artistic atmosphere borrow a bit of Maria Ouspenskaya‘s hauteur as a ballet martinet instructor in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Waterloo Bridge (1940).
Blend these explosive, decidedly distaff ingredients with care, seasoning with a dollop of schmaltz (courtesy of Danny Thomas as O’Brien‘s hapless guardian) –and you’ll have some idea of the potent power of this unhinged but fascinating MGM movie set in the ballet world “…of those who love, of those who hate–and one who loved too much …”
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