An Evening in the Company of Legends

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I didn’t realize how much I missed the Golden Age movie stars of the past—the legends I used to watch as a kid on the late show or the afternoon movie—until recently when I caught a couple of bio-documentaries by Joan Kramer and David Heeley. Even in the twilight of their years, performers like Jimmy Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, and Henry Fonda lived up to their identities as bona fide movie stars who represented something more than glamorous faces on the big screen.

Tomorrow night, April 7, TCM airs a series of documentaries showcasing five of Hollywood’s iconic stars. The series was created by Kramer and Heeley, and the films were released in the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still enough Golden Age stars to be interviewed. Kramer and Heeley have written a new book about their experiences in making these documentaries titled In the Company of Legends, and they will be on hand on Tuesday to introduce their work with Robert Osborne.

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Glamorous Gloria

Gloria Swanson - c. 1920sI’ve been reading Gloria Swanson: The Ultimate Star, Stephen Michael Shearer’s 1913 aptly titled biography of the woman who defined what a real movie star should be. Though I had read parts of Gloria’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson, Shearer’s book exposes that the star’s recollections were colored by selective memory, forgotten details, and overlooked events. I thought I knew a great deal about Swanson, but I discovered that instead of fact, I was hanging onto assumptions and misconceptions. Below are several discoveries about Gloria Swanson that reveal the complexities of her life and career.

Gloria in Chicago: Swanson began her career at Chicago’s Essanay Studio just a few months before Charlie Chaplin arrived to make movies in the Windy City—a venture that proved short-lived. Chaplin tested the teenager for what proved to be his only Chicago film, His New Job. He tried to teach her some basic comic shtick, but she was not good at spontaneous physical humor. More to the point, she didn’t like it. What 15-year-old girl does? She was supposed to bend over to retrieve something and get kicked in the backside. The next day, Chaplin had someone tell her that she would not do as a comic foil, to which Swanson replied, “I think it’s vulgar anyway.” Though Swanson does appear in a bit part as a stenographer in His New Job, she always denied that she was ever in a Chaplin film.

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN'S 'THE NEW JOB'

GLORIA AS THE SECRETARY IN CHAPLIN’S ‘THE NEW JOB’

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Tracy & Hepburn, Bogart & Bacall, Powell & Loy, and . . . . Sothern & Raymond?

blogwalkingI am enjoying the films associated with TCM’s Star of the Month for March, Ann Sothern. Every Wednesday night, TCM will air a number of Sothern movies, totaling 35 in all. Though primarily b-movies or series, these titles are delightful precisely because they are b-movies. Often, the b’s are completely dependent on the charms of the stars to overcome the simplistic storylines, mediocre songs, and limited sets. Sothern enlivened many a film because of her sassy persona and stylish look, particularly romantic comedies.

Among the films selected are five that Sothern made during the Depression with forgotten leading man Gene Raymond. In the 1930s, the use of romantic teams became a casting strategy for studios, a practice they continued throughout the Golden Age. A successful pairing generated twice the box office because fans of the individual actors as well as devotees of the romantic team came to see the films. Today’s classic-movie lovers are familiar with the most famous movie couples—Astaire and Rogers, Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall, Powell and Loy—while dozens of other romantic teams have long since been forgotten.

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A Forgotten Film to Remember: Eyes in the Night

eyesopenerTomorrow, January 27, TCM will celebrate Donna Reed’s 94th birthday by showing a selection of nine early films, including her first feature The Get-Away. My favorite film on the list is the crime thriller Eyes in the Night, which I have singled out as a Forgotten Film to Remember.

MGM signed Donna Belle Mullenger to a contract in 1941, just after she graduated from Los Angeles City College with a secretarial degree. During the production of The Get-Away, the studio fumbled around for a more marquee-friendly name. Donna Adams was trotted out for size until it was discovered that another actress was using the same name; someone suggested Donna Drake, but that was too close to big-band singer/actress Dona Drake. Even Donna Denison was considered, because the actress hailed from Denison, Iowa. Finally, MGM casting director Billy Grady came up with Donna Reed, a name the actress never really liked. When Eyes in the Night was released in October 1942, it was Reed’s eighth film appearance, more or less. (Two of her roles were uncredited and don’t always show up in filmographies.)

In many ways, Eyes in the Night is a typical b-movie from the Golden Age. Though b-movies are low budget and small scale, they tend to make good use of the skills and talents of the cast and crew, raising the level of the material. This stylish crime thriller is tautly directed by Fred Zinnemann (High Noon; From Here to Eternity; Julia) and benefits from a solid cast of rising stars (Reed), returning stars (Ann Harding), established character actors (Edward Arnold, Allen Jenkins, Reginald Denny), and a scene-stealing canine named Friday the Seeing Eye Dog.

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Christmas with Ginger Rogers

gingeropeningFor my last article on not-your-usual Christmas movies, I offer a double feature starring Ginger Rogers. Unfortunately, one of the films, I’ll Be Seeing You, aired on TCM yesterday, December 21, before I had a chance to post this recommendation. Hopefully, some of you caught it or have watched it previously. The second film, Bachelor Mother, is scheduled for Christmas Day at 9:30 am. Though different in genre and tone, the films make a good double feature because they are both set at Christmas, and they are both thought-provoking.

Released in 1944,  I’ll Be Seeing You is a lesser-known romantic melodrama that must have been heart-wrenching for war-weary viewers of the day. Rogers plays convict Mary Marshall on leave from prison for the holidays. On the train home to Pine Hill, she meets soldier Zachary Morgan, played by Joseph Cotten. Because they are attracted to each other, they are reluctant to reveal their true circumstances. Mary claims to be a traveling saleslady, while Zachary hides the fact that he has just been released from the hospital after suffering from shell-shock. Mary invites Zachary to dinner at her aunt and uncle’s house, marking the beginning of a hesitant romance.

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Christmas on Celluloid: “Susan Slept Here”

susanopenerLast week, I wrote about Christmas in Connecticut with its charming romance, role-reversal comedy, and Currier and Ives backdrop. The film is the very essence of a holiday classic for the whole family: It features warm sentiment, Christmas carols around a tree, and sleigh rides in the snow. This week, I couldn’t resist writing about Susan Slept Here, which is a Christmas comedy with a May-December romance set against the cynical backdrop of the Hollywood industry. Last year, I devoted a paragraph to Susan Slept Here in a list of unconventional Christmas movies, and I hesitated to write about it again. But, TCM is airing the film in the wee hours of December 11 so interested viewers will have an opportunity to catch it. Set those DVRs for 5:00am this Thursday, because this oddity may not be a Christmas classic, but it is the kind of movie that is a lot of fun for cinephiles.

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Valentino’s Starmaking Role in ‘The Sheik’

sheikcigaretteAs part of TCM’s series Silent Stars, Rudolph Valentino sets the small screen on fire tonight with his star-making performance in The Sheik (1921). Though Valentino had created a stir when he danced the Argentine tango in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, it was The Sheik that propelled him to superstardom. Over the next five years, Valentino would magnify his celebrity by taking on roles that exploited his sensual, exotic Latin Lover image and by exposing his colorful romantic life to the fanzines.

Valentino’s screen persona would be out of place in today’s Hollywood, where interchangeable young actors show off their buff bodies and blond highlights while tossing out snarky one-liners. Valentino’s slightly feminine face and smooth body are unusual physical traits for a leading man, while his nostril-flaring, eye-bulging acting are unfashionably melodramatic. Yet, despite his dated persona and acting style, there is much to appreciate in Valentino’s films. They are imaginative, highly romantic fantasies that evoke colorful, exotic places or eras that never really existed. And, Valentino was undeniably charismatic and energetic—a perfect combination for the silent screen. A few years ago, I was fortunate to catch Valentino on the big screen in The Eagle, the story of Russian soldier Vladimir Dubrovsky. The film opens with Dubrovsky on horseback dressed in full Russian regalia while inspecting his troops. His queen, Catherine the Great, tries to seduce him, but he refuses her advances, resulting in his banishment from the castle. Details such as Catherine the Great, a castle, soldiers on horseback, and Valentino in a cape and uniform suggested to me—and the rest of the audience—that the story takes place in the distant past. Imagine our surprise when Valentino drives away from the castle in a fancy 1920s automobile. The audience burst out laughing at the incongruity, but this type of mismatching of exotic styles and historic eras is typical of Valentino’s films, where Romance with a capital R trumps accuracy.

To set the stage for Valentino’s signature, career-making role, I offer ten facts about The Sheik, which airs at 8:00pm tonight.

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Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!

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Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)

Last night FX premiered the new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The award-winning horror anthology’s latest incarnation is called FREAK SHOW and it’s set in Florida during the 1950s at a circus sideshow where strange goings-on take place in and outside of the Big Top. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, have admitted in recent interviews that they found inspiration for the new season in two classic horror films, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) but circuses and carnivals have long been a staple of horror cinema and director Tod Browning used the sideshow as a setting for numerous uncanny films before he made FREAKS. With Shocktober upon us it seems as good a time as any to showcase some of my favorite horrific or just plain odd and unusual films with scary clowns and sideshow performers that paved the way for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. So step right up ladies and gents! Tickets are free for today’s main attraction! Thrills, chills and rare delights await all who dare to enter!

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In the Aftermath of Errol Flynn

flynnklineRecently, 57-year-old actor Stephen Bauer was photographed with his new girlfriend, 18-year-old aspiring journalist Lyda Loudon. The paparazzi pounced on the couple as they emerged from a restaurant. Afterward, the media mentioned their age difference in every paragraph of the stories about their May-December romance as a way to hint that their relationship must be aberrant or deviant. I briefly thought of Bauer and Loudon as I watched The Last of Robin Hood, an indie film about Errol Flynn’s end-of-life romance with teenager Beverly Aadland. Apparently, the press treated Aadland with the same combination of sensationalism and disdain.

Kevin Kline, who looks and sounds like Flynn, offers a believable interpretation of the debauched movie star. Flynn was only 50 when he died, but after a lifetime of “living every day like it was my last” (as he says in the movie), he looked decades older. The film begins when Flynn meets 15-year-old Beverly on the Warner Bros. lot, where she is in the chorus of the Gene Kelly film Marjorie Morningstar. Flynn sends costume designer Orry-Kelly to bring her to his office/dressing room, where he proceeds to offer her an audition for a non-existent part. He seduces the teenager, robbing her of her virginity. Flynn continues to pursue young Beverly, who looks and acts older than an adolescent, and the two become seriously involved. After he learns Beverly’s actual age, he beguiles her mother into accompanying them when they are out on the town in order to create the illusion that he is actually fostering Aadland’s career.

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SARANDON AS FLORENCE AADLAND

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September 13, 2014
David Kalat
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Jean and Clara, Bombshell and It

Coming up on Friday on TCM is a delightful pre-Code screwball comedy called Bombshell. If you haven’t seen it before, you owe it to yourself to catch up with it this time around since it is at once a zippy, aggressively paced comedy with one of early film’s most glamorous comediennes, while also being a sharp-edged and angry satire about Hollywood power dynamics and women’s sexuality. It is also an M.C. Escher-like knot of in-jokes and life-imitating-art-imitating life self-referential whorls. It is a bubbly, bitter comedy emerging from the intersection of two great comediennes, whose earthy sexuality was both their ticket to stardom and their downfall; two women whose careers were tragically destroyed before they reached the age of 30 but who managed in that short window of time to permanently etch their names and memories into pop culture posterity. You’ll be hard-pressed to identify 90 minutes of celluloid that accomplishes more than this.

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KEYWORDS: Bombshell (1933), CLara Bow, It, Jean Harlow
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