Posted by Susan Doll on January 6, 2014
A few years ago, I consulted on a film reference book filled with star bios, movie trivia, lists, and fun facts. The group of writers responsible for the content was divided into two camps: experienced freelancers, who were accustomed to using libraries, biographies, and reference books, and newbies who thought the Internet could supply all their needs. Not surprisingly, the work submitted by the latter camp was riddled with errors, unsubstantiated assumptions, and age-old myths about Hollywood legends long shattered by legitimate biographies. The whippersnapper responsible for the bio on Joan Crawford used only a single web article as his primary source, which I discovered when I fact-checked his work. Both the whippersnapper’s bio and the web source painted Crawford in broad brushstrokes, exploiting her string of romances to sensationalize her life story and emphasizing the “no more wire hangers” portrayal created by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest. The experience saddened me, because I realized that Crawford’s remarkable, decades-long career had been overshadowed by this cartoonish persona.
Not only is the sheer length of Crawford’s career impressive but her ability to reinvent herself decade after decade is a more telling view of her personality than the Mommy Dearest image that has tainted her in death. This month, TCM is airing 63 Crawford films, covering her career from The Boob (1926) to Trog (1970). As TCM’s star of the Month, Crawford receives the respect she is due as a major contributor to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Movie Morlocks are proud to make her the subject of a week-long blogathon, exploring the various phases of her career. The blogathon begins today and concludes next Sunday. Crawford’s films will air every Thursday, sometimes over a 24-hour period.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 19, 2013
The original rebel, the first rock star, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, an American legend and the Sphinx of Youth. These are just a few of the labels that have been used to describe James Dean but I like to remember him as a one of our greatest actors. I lost count of how many times I’ve seen EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) long ago but I never get tired of watching Dean and each time it’s a revelation. There’s always something new and invaluable to discover in his performances. His critics like to complain about his line delivery and often refer to his “mumbled dialogue” but like any great actor, Dean didn’t need words to express what his characters were thinking and feeling. He understood the power of silence and with a sudden twitch of his boyish body or a gentle tilt of his cowboy hat he could reveal his character’s fears, fervors and focus without uttering a single word. You can see entire worlds illuminated in his eyes when they’re lit up by studio lights and the shadows that dance across his face speak their own distinct language. James Dean may have followed in the footsteps of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando but he was a wholly unique talent who managed to carve out his own individual path in Hollywood during a few short years with a handful of notable films that have recently been collected into a beautifully packaged Blu-ray DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
Posted by Susan Doll on December 2, 2013
This past August, two new biographies about the silent era’s most glamorous star were published, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up by Trish Welsch and Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star by Stephen Michael Shearer and Jeanine Basinger. Both are profiled on the Books page of the TCM website. I breezed through both of them, looking for info on my favorite Swanson flick, Stage Struck.
If the title doesn’t sound familiar, it’s because Stage Struck doesn’t have the reputation of those romantic melodramas that Swanson made for Cecil B. De Mille—Male and Female, Why Change Your Wife, Don’t Change Your Husband, etc. Also, the film has never been released for home viewing, not even in the good ole bad VHS days. Years ago, I checked out a poor VHS copy from the public library in New Martinsville, West Virginia. The librarian recommended it because Stage Struck had been shot in New Martinsville in 1925. Local resident R. Bryan Wilson had tracked down a 16mm print and paid for a videotape copy for the library so that residents would have an opportunity to see it.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 18, 2013
Last week, I was reminded of Louise Brooks when someone on Facebook noted that it was her birthday. As a film historian, I should have immediately recalled her best films—Pandora’s Box, A Girl in Every Port, Diary of a Lost Girl. Instead, my first thought was: “Great hair.”
A good haircut can be more than mere fashion or part of a glamorous appearance. It can also connote something about a character’s persona, and in some cases, tap into a larger social significance. While some male film stars have sported distinctive-looking styles (Elvis’s ducktail, Yul Brynner’s bald pate, Johnny Depp’s dreadlocks), hair is more obviously part of the identities of female characters and stars. For example, I have seen films in which a female character’s hair is shorn, shaved, or chopped off in order to extinguish or obliterate her individuality or sense of self. When I was a little girl, I watched the WWII drama 5 Branded Women, directed by Martin Ritt. The story follows five women who are accused of sleeping with the Nazis. As part of their punishment, a group of partisan men chop off their hair, obliterating their sense of femaleness and scarring them as outcasts. The film scared me, because I found the act so brutal—like destroying someone’s personal identity as a way to control or punish them.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 11, 2013
This could be the title of my autobiography, since I do not cook for anyone—not even myself. But, it is really the title of a minor screwball comedy. Released in 1935, just a year after It Happened One Night launched the subgenre dubbed screwball, If You Could Only Cook stars Jean Arthur and Herbert Marshall as the mismatched couple destined to be together. The film airs on TCM this Friday night, November 15, at 4:45am.
To be honest, this is not a long-lost gem that will rival classics like It Happened One Night, Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, or other films that defined the genre. I did not feel it was special to recommend it as one of my “Forgotten Films to Remember.” The script lacks the fast-paced dialogue and snappy comebacks associated with screwball, the supporting characters are not zany enough, and the actual screwball situations are few and far between. But, the film provides a good example of how the systems and practices of the Golden Age could elevate the most mediocre of material, and I found myself admiring If You Could Only Cook for that reason.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 4, 2013
George Eells recounts this sad exchange in Final Gig, which is perhaps the only full-length biography of Gig Young, which reveals—or rather exposes—the actor’s tragic life. Between his father who belittled him because his conception was an accident and his mother who withdrew into neurosis, Young experienced insecurity on all fronts. According to Eels’s bio, he spent a lifetime searching for love and approval; his fans, Academy Award, and five wives were not enough. Nothing was ever enough. In some ways, his life seems at odds with his suave, sophisticated star image, but in other ways, it fits.
This afternoon, TCM is airing eight films starring Gig Young in celebration of his 100th birthday. The films are from his earliest career, during the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he was a supporting character and his star image was evolving into the affable gent with a debonair smile.
Posted by Susan Doll on October 14, 2013
Librarian-archivist Christina Rice has just penned Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel, the first major biography of this star who has been forgotten by the public but still beloved by movie lovers. She was kind enough to let me interview her about the book, which will be TCM’s Book Corner Selection for November. Evidently, we Morlocks like to hobnob with the literary set, as evidenced by Greg Ferrara’s recent interview with Kendra Bean, author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and a previous interview with Ms. Rice by Richard Harlan Smith about her expertise on Dvorak.
Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel will be officially released on November 4 via the University Press of Kentucky. If you live in Los Angeles, drop by the release party on November 12 at the Central Library on West 6th Street. Please read on for expert insights into Dvorak’s life and recommendations for her best films.
SD: Can you briefly summarize the scope of Ann Dvorak’s career for those who may only know her from her most well-known films, Scarface and Three on a Match? And, what type of role/character was her forte?
Posted by Susan Doll on September 30, 2013
Depression-era star Kay Francis is on my radar these days. Recently, I had occasion to research one of her films, The White Angel; also, I inherited many of her movies from my movie-collecting friend who passed away earlier this year. While the name Kay Francis is probably familiar to movie buffs and avid TCM viewers, I am sure the average movie-goer is thinking, “Kay who?”
In the mid-1930s, Kay Francis was Warner Bros.’s highest paid actor. Signed to WB in 1932 after making 17 films for Paramount, she peaked in the early Depression era playing sharply dressed, sophisticated women who excelled in the game of romance. Sometimes her character suffered for love; sometimes, she caused the suffering of others. A typical storyline might find Francis straying in her marriage because her husband neglected her, as in Transgression. Or, any romance for her was simply doomed because she had a terminal illness, as in One Way Passage. Francis was renowned for her fashion sense, and part of her star image mandated that her characters wear the latest gowns, suits, and accessories. Her tall, sleek, model-like figure was tailor made for the long lines and dropped waists of 1930s clothing.
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on September 8, 2013
A week ago I attended the Telluride Film Festival. Their program used the XL Roman numerals to mark the occasion of their 40th anniversary. With the addition of an extra day of programming as well as a new, 650-seat theatrical venue named after Werner Herzog (dubbed “the Zog” by staff), the festival also felt XL in overall size when compared to previous years.
TCM, a yearly sponsor of the Palm Theater, was there with a special presentation that dovetails nicely with the current SUNDAYS WITH HITCH IN SEPTEMBER motif: a selected program by cinéaste Pierre Rissient (assistant director to BREATHLESS) that included an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour titled A PIECE OF THE ACTION, directed by Bernard Girard (ten years later he’d work with an unhappy Christopher Walken on THE HAPPINESS CAGE).
A PIECE OF THE ACTION was originally broadcast on September 20th in 1962, and stars Gig Young (who, speaking of Alfreds, was in Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA). Young plays a professional gambler and Martha Hyer is his frustrated wife. It also had a supporting role for a 25-year-old Roberd Redford as the gamblers’ reckless younger brother.
Posted by Susan Doll on August 26, 2013
To cap this year’s Summer Under the Stars series, TCM devotes the last day of August to British actor Rex Harrison, best remembered as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Harrison’s extensive career was more diverse and interesting than his signature role suggests, which is true of most actors whose life-long work has been reduced to one famous role.
During the 1940s, Harrison was under contract to 20th Century Fox, where he was cast in a variety of films, including Anna and the King of Siam, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Unfaithfully Yours. Supposedly, Harrison was unhappy at Fox because he felt the studio did not appreciate his talents for sophisticated romantic comedy. He was granted a release from his contract, though I suspect Fox’s decision to let him go had more to do with the scandal resulting from Harrison’s role in the suicide of Carole Landis. Frankly, this is the only phase of Harrison’s career that I find interesting. There is something unlikable about his movie-star image, which began as an arrogant, supercilious cad in the 1940s and evolved into a stuffy patriarch by the 1960s. The publicity surrounding his unsuccessful marriages and dalliances only furthered this aspect of his persona. At least his roles for Fox either used this persona to its best advantage or softened it.
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