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 Myrna Loy found her “a very private person, a wonderful actress completely without star temperament, but withdrawn.”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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Sweet Dreams are Made of This: Reflecting on Sturges and Sullivan

I rarely attend films on opening night, but made an exception for Christopher Nolan’s Inception, knowing that it would be one of those films, like The Usual Suspects, whose ending can be telegraphed in two or three words by anyone who’d seen the film before me. Among other things, Inception is about dreams, dreams within dreams, lucid dreaming and shared dreams – which is ripe terrain for cinema since films themselves reveal the collective unconsciousness of the nations that burp them into existence. I followed up Inception with Sullivan’s Travels, and found it an appropriate choice. After all, Preston Sturges’ 1941 classic is, like the dreamer who knows he’s dreaming, very much self-aware. It’s a film about films that knows it’s a film. The more precise and academic term that Bruce Kawin, my Film History professor would use for this is “self-reflexive.” [...MORE]

To love and cherish, forever and ever.

I’d like to call your attention to a rather insidious thing that Hollywood has done in regards to romantic comedies. You know what they all have in common? They usually end with a wedding ceremony. And I think this is insidious precisely because most romantic comedies are aimed squarely at younger people who thus grow up with a false sense of marriage as providing that highly sought after “happy ending” that we all want from life. But the stubborn truth is that weddings are not endings, they are beginnings. And it’s not always going to be a romantic comedy, either.  Sometimes, it’s going to seem more like an uncomfortable drama full of dysfunctional characters, something like, say, a Wes Anderson film – or a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode. Maybe sometimes it will turn into an experimental film, the kind where you don’t know which way is up and a backward talking midget suddenly reveals itself from behind a curtain to do a black-and-white dance sequence. Or it might even turn into a horror film. The point is: anything can happen.  [...MORE]

My Month With the Hapsburgs

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…

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Suburban Paradise

My husband and I recently purchased our first home and it’s a cute 1954 suburban California ranch house that needs a lot of work. We’re trying to restore our home’s original vintage charm and in the process we’ve been watching some older films that make use of suburban locations and highlight mid-century design. One of my favorite examples of this is the 1961 comedy Bachelor in Paradise. The movie was directed by Jack Arnold who is best known for the classic horror and science fiction films he made including Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), It Came from Outer Space (1953), Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) but in the ’60s Arnold’s interests seemed to shift a bit. He started making comedies like The Mouse That Roared (1959) with Peter Sellers as well as Bachelor in Paradise and A Global Affair (1964) that both featured Bob Hope.

The comedies that Bob Hope appeared in during the ’60s are often dismissed by critics and for good reason. Hope’s combination of slapstick humor and snappy comebacks had somewhat run its course. His style of humor was seen as slightly outdated at a time when younger funny men like Jack Lemmon, Jerry Lewis and Peter Sellers were making their mark in Hollywood. But I personally enjoy some of the movies Bob Hope appeared in during the ’60s such as the adulterous comedy The Facts of Life (1960) as well as this silly suburban sex farce.

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Love Among the New Bohemians

If literary legend Jack Kerouac were still alive he would be celebrating his 88th birthday tomorrow. Unfortunately Kerouac left us much too early at age 47 but his work lives on. Often called the father of the Beat movement, Jack Kerouac’s jazz-fueled spontaneous writing style doesn’t easily lend itself to film adaptations. The most grievous example of this is the 1960 film adaptation of Kerouac’s short novel THE SUBTERRANEANS directed by Ranald MacDougall and produced by Arthur Freed for MGM. THE SUBTERRANEANS was the first full-length film adaptation of a Jack Kerouac novel and it’s not an easy movie to recommend. The film is badly cast and plays like a poorly misconstrued parody of the Beat Generation. It also takes extreme liberties with Kerouac’s original story. So why am writing about it? As a novice jazz enthusiast the movie appeals to the music lover in me and as someone who was born in the Bay Area, I find the San Francisco setting extremely enchanting.

THE SUBTERRANEANS
was originally a semi-autobiographical story written by Kerouac in just three days and published by Grove Press in 1958. It details the brief interracial romance between Leo Percepied (filling-in for Jack Kerouac) and a young African American woman named Mardou Fox. Some of the highlights of the book include Kerouac’s description of the clubs that he was frequenting at the time and an encounter with jazz legend Charlie Parker.

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