Joan Blondell: “I Was the Fizz on the Soda”

In the twilight of her career, sassy, brassy Joan Blondell reflected on her star image by noting, “I was the fizz on the soda.” Considering her talent for snappy patter, her ability to get the most out of one-liners, and her full, robust figure, the description is apt. Like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers, Blondell enjoyed a long career stretching over several decades, and yet she lacks the critical and popular recognition of her peers. Perhaps this slight is the result of  playing the second female lead most often, alongside Rogers, Una Merkel, Barbara Stanwyck, or Ruby Keeler, who tended to get higher billing than she did. Only in hour-long programmers or B-films did Blondell get to play the lead. I have always enjoyed her wise-cracking characters, but it wasn’t until recently, while doing some research on Blondell, that I realized what a terrific movie star she really was.

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Party Girls to the Rescue!

The year is 1933, and times are tough all over.  What of the poor little rich boy, Henry Gibson (Ben Lyon), who can’t even inherit his millions unless he gets married by his 27th birthday?  And yes, Keaton fans, that’s the same idea as SEVEN CHANCES—but where Buster turned that premise into a feature-length chase scene, the movie we have in front of us here has different plans in store.  Luckily, Gibson’s got himself a wife—a beautiful young debutante whose icy good looks and haughty demeanor prove her high social standing.  On their honeymoon, the girl goes missing (hence the title of this flick, GIRL MISSING), and our distraught hero offers up a reward for his wife’s safe return.  This is all sensible enough, and fairly familiar thriller territory.  But Gibson’s life is about to be turned upside down by the arrival of a pair of gold-digging “chorus girls,” whose complete lack of restraint or decorum may very well save the day.  This is a movie that wouldn’t have been made even just a few years later, and pretty much doesn’t exist anymore even today.  This is Pre-Code, ladies and gentlemen, and it’s a riot.

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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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Me Suzi, You Tarzan!

I have a soft spot for Golden Age movies that take place in tropical environments, which have left me with a life-long love of swaying palm trees, white sandy beaches, jungle birds cawing in the background, and exotic flora and fauna—giant snakes excluded. My love of tropical scenery and jungle locales began in childhood when I devoured the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller that were frequently broadcast on one of the Cleveland television stations. Nothing seemed more adventurous and exotic to me than trekking through the jungle. In adulthood, I still enjoy these films, though the racist depictions of natives are difficult to watch. I enjoy them because they are not only an escape to an exotic Neverland filled with jungle animals, oversized tropical plants, and extra-large vines but also an escape from computers, cell phones, and those people who think they can’t live without them.

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The Silver Cord (1933) That Binds

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.

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Captured! (1933) By the Past

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.

Two Seconds (1932)

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. [...MORE]

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.: The Pleasure of His Company

When was the last time you saw someone who could be described as debonair?

Chances are slim that the word could be aptly applied to anyone in the twenty-first century, but I hope I’m wrong about that. I think that the first time I saw a person that term might describe was as a kid. I saw a dazzling old guy on stage in a summer stock production of a frothy comedy with considerable style, The Pleasure of His Company.  The actor portraying “Pogo”, an engaged young woman’s long lost father, had a spark, verve and style that was compelling and completely unlike anything I’d then seen in reality or my brief movie-going life, (and even shorter theater-going one). That role, which the actor alternated for years in touring companies with another part that fit him like a glove, Prof. Higgins in My Fair Lady, was played by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

By the time I saw him, he’d long since relinquished any claim to motion picture stardom, preferring to pursue his interests in business, the arts and a kind of diplomacy, jetting between New York, London and Palm Beach. While he’d received several offers to take productions to Broadway, where his father had enchanted pre-World War One audiences, Doug Jr. preferred keeping his hand in the family business on the fringes of the spotlight. In celebration of the 100th anniversary of this under-appreciated actor’s birth, I thought it appropriate to give a nod to this man who gracefully swept through movies and life, until he left the scene ten years ago at the age of ninety. Understanding that less is so often more, he left us one last present that only the best performers seem to understand–a wish to see his like again.

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J. Carrol Naish, Changeling

Careening across the countryside in a gypsy wagon, a lovesick hunchback cries out piteously for release from his twisted form. A hardworking Jewish-American father tries to appease his young son on his birthday, seeking to interest him in a baseball bat rather than an expensive violin.

A tired general on the Western frontier finds a few moments of solace in soldiers’ singing. An Italian soldier, willing to do anything to get back to his wife and baby, is stranded in the war-torn desert. A stoic Indian chief joins a wild west show, finding a way to keep his dignity despite his reduced circumstances. A broken matador tells an up and comer some hard truths. A Mexican dictator regretfully but decisively goes to war. A Japanese editor tries to correct his American-educated son’s corrupt Western ways.  And a half-monkey, half-man broods endlessly about his plight, especially since he’s stuck being an unpaid houseboy for his creator.

What do each of these diverse (and sometimes pretty outlandish) characters and at least 200 more have in common? Character actor and changeling J. Carrol Naish (1896-1973). I can’t possibly touch on the range of Naish‘s roles in this blog, but his remarkably productive career includes an enormous range of characters, far beyond the roles as heavily accented types he is often best remembered for today.

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Creative Loafing on Film

A Depression era couple getting some bad news (Depicted by artist Russell Patterson for the cover of Life in 1929)There do seem to be a few hopeful signs of life in the economy lately. This is despite the recent flurry of talking heads who have had a field day comparing today with the era of 80 years ago.

Maybe it is feeling awfully 1929ish for some of us. Since I’ve already gone through a quiet tailoring of my own expectations, thanks to several rides on our society’s never-ending carousel of economic mobility, I set my cap at a rakish angle and decided to enjoy my personal freedom from the burden of luxury some time ago. Consequently, I am always curious about the alternating airs of despair and elation and hope heard in movies of the 1930s.

No matter what this new world brings, I suspect that many of us will inevitably turn to classic movies to look for some sense of perspective on this experience. So, if you are ready to don that hopeful, brave mask, let’s breeze through a look at a unique movie, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933) that was made by people who were surfing on the crest of an economic tsunamis–classic Hollywood style.
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