Elizabeth Taylor in Velvet

“I want it all quickly ’cause I don’t want God to stop and think and wonder if I’m getting more than my share.” – Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944)

A blur of thousands of words and pictures began to tumble out of every medium as soon as news of Elizabeth Taylor’s death at age 79 was announced on March 23rd. I know that the most noteworthy features of this performer’s life are the many adult roles she played with skill (on screen and off), her remarkable beauty, durable, often deliciously excessive glamour, the ups and downs of her not-so-private life, and ultimately, her pioneering charity work to assist those with AIDS. People will naturally mention her two Oscars. One was awarded for her tart with a heart in the often ludicrously steamy Butterfield 8 (1960)–making up for the Academy’s neglect for her fine work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)–and her well-deserved Best Actress Award for the harrowing and truthful characterization in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

To me, however, Elizabeth Taylor is cherished in memory for her extraordinary work near the beginning of her career, when she gave herself completely and unselfconsciously to the role of Velvet Brown, a dreamer, whose love of horses seems to border on a pagan devotion deeper than civilized analysis can ever explain away. All of the entertaining blather surrounding this “last great star” falls away when watching National Velvet (1944), a beautifully crafted product of the studio era at its height. This role prompted the already accomplished rider (Elizabeth Taylor’s father had taught her to ride at the age of 4) to train rigorously each day and, with the guidance of her ambitious mother Sara, prompted the tiny girl to try to grow three inches to be an acceptable height for producer Pandro S. Berman (lifts in her shoes and some natural growth helped a bit).

Bewitched by the equestrian allure of the Bagnold story, Taylor plastered her room with horse-related images and paraphernalia. The slight girl also sustained a back injury during riding for this movie that would plague her for the rest of her life. Despite any of the background pressures, this film appears to be one of the last times that the then 12-year-old actress seemed so blissfully unaware of her own “rapturous beauty,” as critic James Agee acknowledged in his review of the film at the time of its first release. Perhaps the openness of Taylor‘s heartfelt performance in this movie was the result of careful tutoring or simply reflected her own well-documented love of animals, but I suspect that it may also have been because, as an outstanding part of a strong cast, she was treated for what she was rather than for how she looked, allowing her inner spirit to soar on screen. As an adult Taylor later tried to explain it, “National Velvet really was me.”


Conrad Veidt: “I am a wanderer”

“What are you?,” asks the blunt landlady when a new guest arrives unexpectedly on the doorstep of her boarding house in The Passing of the Third Floor Back (1935). Filmgoers and filmmakers had been attempting to answer that question since they first spied this tall enigma in front of a camera, starting from the moment when Cesare the somnambulist opened his extraordinary eyes in the expressionist horror classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919).  “I am a wanderer,” Conrad Veidt’s nameless character replies quietly, reminding the viewer of his role as The Wandering Jew in an earlier Gaumont-British film, which marked what was roughly Veidt‘s one hundredth appearance on screen. “I live so out of the world,” he explains, further unsettling the chattering woman.

In truth, the cosmopolitan, German-born actor, whose birthday falls on Saturday, January 22nd, was very much “of the world,” involved in the tumult of his era, but able to hone his gifts to such a point of transcendence, he achieved an international stardom. He could illuminate humanity’s sinister side, but made viewers recognize the human being inside the often troubling characters he brought to life with such exquisite understanding. Ultimately, as Veidt’s friend and contemporary, producer Eric Pommer, once commented, “It is hard to say what was more to be admired in him, his artistry or his humanity.”


“The Hasty Heart” — One of “Bob’s Picks” and Mine, Too!

I was gratified to see the 1950 Warner Bros. title The Hasty Heart scheduled tonight at 8pm on TCM as one of Bob Osborne’s personal favorites.  I’m not sure why Bob is so crazy about it, but I’ll bet we share some of the same respect and affection for the movie.  Based on a Broadway play by dramatist John Patrick, The Hasty Heart tells the tale of an irascible Scottish soldier in WWII whose stay at a British military hospital in 1944 Burma brings him face-to-face with the consequences of his prickly personality and ultimately his own mortality. [...MORE]

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.

Knock on Wood

“People say I’m a one-note actor, but the way I figure it, those other guys are just looking for that one right note.”
-Joel McCrea

I am an aficionado of wooden actors. I love them so, I ought to have splinters.  Among leading actors, Joel McCrea may be lumped in with them occasionally, but not by me. His “one-note” as he mentioned above, was well played throughout his long life on screen, bringing a naturalism to everything from Westerns to Screwball Comedies. On top of that, he was physically beautiful when young and warmly interesting, weathered and credible as he aged; as anyone who has seen The Most Dangerous Game (1932) or Ride the High Country (1962) can attest. He underplayed well, and seemed to have the instincts that allowed him to make it through almost 100 movies without embarrassing himself.

Those fellows whose presence I’d like to celebrate today may have lacked that instinct at times, but they were usually highly employable during a time when the cut of an actor’s clothes as well as his ability to blend into the background allowed the more vivid players around them to shine. Often the focus of many silent crushes by film fans in their own day and even today, my own appreciation of these unsung actors has increased in recent years. I was reminded of my affection for these guys recently when I came across this article by David Thomson on “The Death of the Method” in The Wall Street Journal last week.  The brouhaha that has since occurred in the blogosphere dissecting or defending this argument is amusing, though it reminded me that, despite having grown up in the time when a murmur from Brando, a shout from James Dean, and an angst-ridden cry from DeNiro and Pacino was the standard, I was always fond of a forgotten breed too. I have been moved by each of these actors, but I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed the often forgotten fellows whose only method seemed to involve showing up looking presentable as well. These actors were the guys who bounded or glided into a drawing room asking “Tennis, anyone?”, lit a leading lady’s perennial cigarette, got her wrap for her, and commiserated with her over her emotional (and often trite) travails.


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.


Gladys Cooper A Natural Aristocrat Part 2

Gladys Cooper in her early California yearsGladys Cooper was a bit of a snob.

Not in the usual social way that you may infer from that remark, but as a working woman she had an attitude that hers was a job, like any other, a way of making a very good living at times.  Sometimes it meant acting in The Letter, or The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, or even Peter Pan at the age of 35. She was unacquainted with idleness, revelations of inner torment, and too many expressions of emotion off stage, taking pride in her toughness and the pleasure she derived from her work and her family.  Wearing Molyneux gowns and hawking some bloody face cream with her name on it was all part of the game, giving her an independence that very few women of her time would ever know. It also gave her a chance to do much more than the average woman as well–including bringing up her children, helping her extended family and friends, and having some very good times indeed traveling and indulging her greatest pleasure of creating a comfortable home wherever she was at the time.

At other, more meager times, being an actress was a discipline to be endured and “gotten on with” rather than analyzed or draped in much mystery. As a result of this refreshing no-nonsense attitude and the fact that she was her own producer for so many years when she ran her Playhouse in London, challenging plays and classical roles were not in her background as they were for her contemporaries Sybil Thorndike and Edith Evans. Her fellow actress, Dame Edith once confessed envy of her peer, commenting that she used to stand in the wings just to watch her face under the lights on stage, transfixed by Cooper‘s youthful beauty that was, she claimed, essentially unphotographable but  “enough to stop a bus”.


The Last Swashbuckler by Peter Bosch

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A Note from  Moira:
When I heard the news that Stewart Granger was to be July’s Star of the Month on TCM, I was delighted for two reasons. As regular readers might have guessed, part of my happiness stemmed from my lifelong enjoyment of the adventure films touched on appreciatively in last week’s nod to Errol Flynn in this blog. Such movies also were animated with renewed zest during Stewart Granger‘s high time in British and Hollywood films.

My second reason for joy was the offer by my friend, Peter Bosch, a writer and a recent TCM Fan Guest Programmer to have an interview he’d conducted with Mr. Granger published here. I think Peter, (fondly known to many of us on the TCM Message Boards as Filmlover), does an excellent job of capturing Granger‘s acerbic wit and honesty in this glimpse of the man as he launched his well done autobiography in 1981.

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