Once Again, Remembering Vera-Ellen

vera three little words

Those of us who can’t resist a good MGM musical are no doubt now and again thinking about the great screen dancer Vera-Ellen, a sparkling screen presence in an number of films yet someone whose memory is overwhelmed by the passage of time and a peculiar lack of the proper respect paid to her accomplishments. On the occasion today of the 92nd anniversary of her birth on February 16, 1921, and although I wrote about her once already (way back in 2007, check out the post by clicking here), and though she’s been gone for over thirty years — she passed away from cancer on August 30, 1981 at only 60 years old – it’s a perfect time to remember again this most charming and talented actress.

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Whips, Guns, and Horses: The Westerns of Barbara Stanwyck

From Baby Face to The Lady Eve to Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck thrived during the 1930s and 1940s as the hardscrabble, working class dame who was accustomed to staying one step ahead of men. Her throaty voice and no-nonsense delivery suited her tough-talking screen persona. During the 1950s, Stanwyck appeared in a number of westerns that exploited the aggression and independence associated with her star image. The unofficial series included Cattle Queen of Montana, The Violent Men, The Maverick Queen, Trooper Hook, and Forty Guns. Oddly, this period in Stanwyck’s career is either brushed off as a time when the aging star was trying to re-establish her position in Hollywood, or simply presented as a decline in her career. After Forty Guns was released in 1957, she did not make another film until the colorfully flamboyant Walk on the Wild Side, released in 1962. Biographies then note the resurrection of her stardom on the small screen, first as the host of The Barbara Stanwyck Show, which won her an Emmy, and then in The Big Valley. Later, she costarred in the mini-series The Thorn Birds and lent her considerable star presence to Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys.

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Griffith and Gish Lost at Sea

As an unabashed fan of movie stars from all eras, I am enjoying TCM’s marvelous lineup for this year’s Summer Under the Stars. And, no screen actor could be more deserving of a day than Lillian Gish, who is spotlighted on Wednesday, August 15.  Gish , whose screen career began with An Unseen Enemy in 1912 and ended with The Whales of August in 1987, helped develop the art of screen acting while under the guidance of D.W. Griffith.  It is a testament to her talent that she acted steadily throughout the silent era, survived the coming of sound to become a character actress during the Golden Age, costarred in one the 1950s most revered films, The Night of the Hunter, and then continued to work after the upheavals of the Film School Generation. Her career ended in what is generally considered to be the early modern era—quite a run for someone known as the “First Lady of the Silent Screen.”

Three of the films scheduled for Wednesday—Intolerance, Broken Blossoms, and Orphans of the Storm—were directed by D.W. Griffith, who was Gish’s mentor, colleague, and close friend.  During their years together, Gish learned a great deal about filmmaking, and in 1919, he urged her to try her hand at directing. Griffith had just purchased the huge Henry Flagler mansion in Mamaroneck, New York, and was in the process of converting it into a movie studio.  He wanted to keep his stock company of faithful actors and crew members happily occupied while developing new talent. Gish opted to direct sister Dorothy in a lighthearted romance titled Remodeling Her Husband. Gish’s little comedy became the first feature shot at Mamaroneck, because Griffith was busy shooting The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower on location in Florida. In addition to directing, Gish was also put in charge of the final renovations for the studio.

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Snapshots of the Fall

The art house film calendar that I program goes to press in two days and, although I’m still waiting for some confirmations, I’m sharing the rough-draft with TCM readers, along with some brief thoughts regarding the choices made.

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Funny Lady: Nora Ephron

Before the deaths of Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine dealt a double blow to Baby Boomers who have fond memories of both actors, Nora Ephron passed away from leukemia. Boomers grew up on the television series of Griffith and Borgnine, and the latter costarred in a number of landmark films of the 1950s and 1960s, which accounts for the outpouring of genuine sentiment at their passing.  As a screenwriter and director, Ephron was not in a position to inspire that level of collective grief. But, her career deserves an evaluation or assessment, because she was one of the few women directors in Hollywood.

Prior to poking around a bit for this article, I did not know a lot about Ephron. I have never used one of her films in any of my classes, and, truth be told, I did not find her to be a dynamic director. Her scripts may be rich in humorous observations and witty exchanges between characters, but her directorial efforts were uneven to say the least. The best of them were adequately directed and enhanced by star turns (Sleepless in Seattle; Julie & Julia); the worst (Mixed Nuts; Bewitched) suffered from static blocking, sluggish pacing, and poor staging of the physical comedy. However, as I looked into Ephron’s career, I realized that I was wrong to short-change her. After all, her scripts and characters represent a style of film humor that is far more sophisticated and universal than today’s clunky, crude comedies targeted to males or the flat, offensive chick flicks aimed at girls. Ephron’s perspective as a mature, contemporary woman represents a voice or point of view that adult women can recognize and relate to; yet, it does not alienate other factions of the audience. Ephron did not make chick flicks—instead, she wrote and directed comedies with female protagonists that had something to say. Her films offer universal observations, perspectives, and themes about relationships that are relevant to both genders and most age groups—much like the intended audience for movies during previous eras of Hollywood.

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Charlotte Rampling: The Look

Woody Allen introduced me to Charlotte Rampling. It was during the early autumn of 1980 or possibly the early winter of 1981. I was a moody adolescent and family friends took me to see STARDUST MEMORIES (1980). At the time I was only remotely familiar with Allen’s work, having seen a few of his “early, funny pictures” but nothing had really prepared for me for the film I was about to see. And the indelible image of a broken, cheerless Charlotte Rampling quietly weeping into the camera while Allen zooms in on her remarkable face was seared into my brain. I sympathized with the hopelessness Rampling seemed to be conveying during those few moments but I’d never seen it illustrated in quite the same way. STARDUST MEMORIES quickly became a sort of touchstone film for me and the beguiling and beautiful Charlotte Rampling instantly became one of my favorite actresses.

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Barbara and Wanda

Each month, my film-discussion group meets for a lively brunch to discuss a topic agreed on in the previous meeting. At the end of September, we will meet to talk about the films and careers of selected female directors. One of the films on the suggested viewing list is the early indie film Wanda, which will make its TCM debut this evening at 7pm CST/8pmEST. An uncompromising portrait of a working class woman born and raised in a Pennsylvania coal town, Wanda is the only film written and directed by actress Barbara Loden, who died of breast cancer in 1980.

Loden also starred in the title role as Wanda Goronski, whose choices in life are limited by her lack of education and economic opportunity. In her world, a woman’s only hope for a better life rests on the shoulders of a miner willing to marry her. But, it’s too late for Wanda, who has failed at marriage, so she lives on the fringes of an already marginalized region. In court to finalize her divorce, Wanda willingly gives up her two children to their father noting that they are better off with him. “I’m just no good,” she tells the judge. With no personal ties or job responsibilities, Wanda drifts with the wind, becoming further alienated from mainstream society with each misadventure. She goes with any man willing to pick up the tab, matter of factly putting up with their callousness and cruelty as though it were expected. Eventually, she stumbles across a thief in the process of robbing a beer joint, though she doesn’t realize the trouble she’s stepped into. Wanda joins the thief, whose name is Mr. Dennis, on the road for no other reason than she has no place else to go.

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Joan Blondell: Big Deal on the Small Screen

As we’ve seen this past week on our Blondell Blog-a-thon, Miss Joan Blondell was a survivor.  Through her long movie career she always managed to come out on top, and her image as a plucky dame was one that audiences cherished and wouldn’t forget.  As her motion picture career began to slow down and she entered middle age — never a wonderful time for an actress, then as now — she was fortunate to still have some great career choices available to her.  Joan returned to the stage to much acclaim in the 1950s, and also began to appear on television during the same time, picking up roles on many of the prestigious dramatic  (and often live) anthologies of the TV’s early years.  In the first half of the decade she delighted audiences with roles on Schlitz Playhouse (as Calamity Jane), Suspense, Lux Video Theatre (with her A Tree Grows in Brooklyn co-star James Dunn), Fireside Theatre, Shower of Stars, G.E. True Theater, Shower of Stars, Playwrights ’56, Studio One, Playhouse 90, and The  United States Steel Hour.  The worst part about this fertile period in Joan’s career is that it’s pretty much impossible today to actually watch any of her performances in these very early TV series.  Our loss, for sure.

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Blondie

Take a look at this poster and tell me what you think this movie is about:

Blondie Johnson movie poster

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Lucy Ricardo Was Just Like Us — She Loved Movie Stars!

This coming Saturday — tomorrow, August 6th – marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of show business’ forever and always top funny lady Lucille Ball, and also a day of Lucille Ball on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars.  It would be more than appropriate for anyone to celebrate this significant milestone, but I especially love Lucy.  My mother used to say that when I was a kid everytime she would come into a room I’d be watching I Love Lucy on TV, and I used to talk about it all the time.  Still do even today — watch and talk about it! [...MORE]

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