What makes you cry? O.K., I know if you pull out a nose hair with tweezers you will probably shed a tear. But what kind of movie brings tears to your eyes? Unless you tend to view movies from a strictly controlled and objective viewpoint, chances are you experience a variety of emotions when watching a film. Of course, Hollywood knows this and has therefore learned how to manipulate you: they use visuals, words, a soaring soundtrack and many other (more subtle) techniques in order to evoke a certain reaction from you … it’s the business that they’re in.

First and foremost, they want you to believe that what you are seeing on the screen is real or the truth; they might also want to persuade you to adopt a certain viewpoint. So, moviemakers have developed storytelling methods which are constantly being refined in order to to thrill, scare, excite, surprise, convince, enrage (etc.) you and perhaps even bring tears to your eyes, which may be the hardest thing for them to do in a cynical world.


Home Noir: Deadly Domesticity

During post-WWII Hollywood, film noir emerged to reflect, represent, and even romanticize the corruption, dissatisfaction, and cynicism lurking beneath the veneer of normalcy and optimism that America so desperately clung to after a hard-fought war. A pessimistic genre that is dark in theme and visual design, film noir critiqued or challenged America’s social institutions—law and order, the justice system, marriage and family—in contrast to most genres, which support or propagate them. But, the world of film noir is a man’s world; the male protagonist investigates crime outside the home, through the dark streets, and into the seedy clubs and businesses of the city. His prowess as a man and his judgment as a detective are challenged as the genre plays with traditional gender roles and reveals an unstoppable social and political decay; in other words, if the corruption doesn’t get the ill-fated protagonist, the femme fatale will.

With its similar visual style, casts of twisted individuals, and perverted male-female relationships, postwar melodrama is a kind of doppelganger genre to film noir. The primary differences are in the settings and in the gender of the protagonists. I had never really compared the two genres until my friend Lisa Wright and I took a class this summer titled “Home Noir: Domestic Melodramas of the 1940s.” The class was part of Facets Film School, which offers a variety of six-week film courses on specific topics, and it was taught by film scholar Therese Grisham. Therese was terrific at offering just the right amount of lecture to stimulate the class’s powers of observation and interpretation, so the discussions after the movies were lively, spirited conversations. As Lisa noted, “. . .we live in a time where we are used to seeing films mostly alone or with a friend or spouse. Getting so many interesting and diverging opinions about what we saw enhanced the enjoyment.”


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.

Remembering Jill Clayburgh

The passing a few days ago of actress Jill Clayburgh really strikes a blow into the hearts of women of a certain age, for whom Ms. Clayburgh was almost an avatar, living out different lives that we weren’t, but might have, in different circumstances.  Lovely to look at but not a devastating beauty, with Jill it was instead her intelligence and grace under fire that sealed the deal, making her an audience favorite for a generation.  Losing her too early — at 66 — deprived us of yet another place she could have taken us further…the aging of a classy woman in the 21st century.  Other actresses will have to step in for her now.


So Big (1953) On Screen

“Always to her, red and green cabbages, were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and porphyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.”~Edna Ferber in the novel, So Big

Please note: Some plot points of various movies are discussed in detail below

Hollywood has made over twenty films from Edna Ferber‘s stories, novels and plays. When TCM aired the third feature film version of Ferber’s  Pulitzer Prize winning 1924 novel, So Big (1953-Robert Wise) last month on Mother’s Day, I wondered if anyone read this author’s works anymore.  Once upon a time, Ferber, was a 5′ 2″ titan of publishing, with novels, short stories, and plays pouring from her pen and selling like today’s iPhones. The world seems to have passed her work by, without the respect accorded the work of other female American novelists, such as Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, and Willa Cather, while her contemporaries, Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, are still read and appreciated, thanks to the universality of their themes and their incisive voice.

By contrast, Ferber’s prose, once likened by one of today’s more droll critics, John Lahr, to that of “a teenager on diet pills,” may have dated a bit, but her engaging stories, often dealing with thorny issues such as feminism, economic hardship and individual, racially diverse characters, gave classic movies the raw material for several memorable films. Though Ferber later dismissed her earlier efforts, I suspect that many people, even the gifted Mr. Lahr, might enjoy some of Ferber’s lively short stories, some of which are online here).  Along with the critically neglected Fannie Hurst and Zane Grey, a pair of other writers whose mass market appeal and lack of literary pedigrees never seem to garner them much respect, Ferber‘s snapshots of a time and place in American life may have been among the most ubiquitously adapted tales during the studio era.


A Memorable Woman’s Face (1941)

“The director who, hands down, helped me the most was George Cukor. He didn’t just help me do better in the films he directed me in, but he helped me be me. His words stayed with me always, so he was actually directing me later when I did films with lesser directors, and everyone was a lesser director compared to Mr. Cukor. I heard his words in my head, even words he never said, but which I thought he would have said…He had a profound effect on me.  If I could have selected a man to be my father, he would have been George Cukor.” ~ Joan Crawford

On Saturday, April 24th at 3:30 PM at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, the audience at the TCM Classic Film Festival will have an opportunity to see director George Cukor’s effect on Joan Crawford when A Woman’s Face (1941) is introduced by Illeana Douglas, the granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas, and Casey LaLonde, the grandson of Joan Crawford. For those of us who won’t be able to make it that day, this movie may still be worth exploring on DVD and whenever it appears on the TCM schedule.

Seeing A Woman’s Face (1941) for the first time a few years ago made me realize all over again why Joan Crawford was–like her or not–more than a movie star: She could act. The actress cited this film as one of the performances that ultimately helped her to earn an Oscar as Best Actress later in this decade for Mildred Pierce (1945). A Woman’s Face may be her among her best films. It deserves a bigger audience.


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…


Thoughts on ‘My Name Is Julia Ross’

No one can dispute that contemporary Hollywood has little room for movies with leading roles for female movie stars.  And, those few that do exist are treated as anomalies, as though it is completely strange for a film with a woman protagonist to be of interest to any movie-goer. Most of the time, female stars are stuck in badly written romantic comedies, which are giving the genre a bad name. I am movie-sick (like being “homesick” except it’s a longing for certain types of movies) for the studio days when films showcased a variety of actresses who looked older than 18, weighed more than 90 pounds, and had more than one facial expression.

In addition to enjoying the onscreen talent of the likes of Hepburn, Davis, Crawford, Hayward, Loy, Grable, Harlow, Russell, and countless others, the roles and storylines developed for female movie stars in past Hollywood eras serve as a window into the issues and problems of the women of the day. One of my favorite periods for women’s roles is the post-WWII era, when the film noir and melodrama genres offered some fascinating glimpses into living in a man’s world, circa 1950. My thoughts on the dismal state of contemporary cinema and longings for past leading ladies were stirred up recently when I watched My Name Is Julia Ross, a notable, little b-movie directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1945, years before his string of well-known noirs such as Gun Crazy and The Big Combo.


Beware of The Unfinished Dance (1947)

Film fans always talk about The Omen or The Bad Seed as if the characters that those kids played were truly disturbing children. Poppycock, I say.
So what if Damien’s presence on earth was a sign of the coming apocalypse and if Rhoda Penmark’s blond sweetness masked a murderous soul? 1940s child star Margaret O’Brien could act rings around those kids with one pigtail tied behind her back, break your heart neatly in half in the process, and make you wish that you could thank her for that privilege. When seven of her films air this Friday, January 15th on TCM in honor of her 73rd birthday, you may be able to catch at least a few of them. While I’m sure we’d all like to calmool in sick and spend a gray January Friday in the company of Ms. O’Brien, for the purposes of this brief piece, I’ve tried to narrow my focus a bit, looking at one extraordinary film out of several exceptional ones featuring this actress.

Let’s see if I can describe the disquieting effect of The Unfinished Dance adequately for those who haven’t been exposed to it. The formula for The Unfinished Dance (1947-Henry Koster), a rarely seen film that will be aired at 1:15pm on January 15th, is a heady brew, composed of mysterious elements blended from this:

Take the early adolescent intensity of Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944), as played by Elizabeth Taylor, (who was apparently channeling Diana the Huntress and Aphrodite on the half shell). Carefully mix in some of the Machiavellian deviousness of Mary Tilford in These Three (1936), as performed with a chilling calculation by Bonita Granville, then add a generous dash of Marcia Mae Jones‘ vulnerable roller coaster personality when she played Renfrew to Granville‘s manipulative Draculetta in that same film. Don’t forget to add some atmosphere to the movie that borrows from the hormonally tense Mädchen in Uniform (1931 or 1958 versions) and, for added measure, just a little soupçon of Louise Brooks‘ “cheerful” school days in The Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). For artistic atmosphere borrow a bit of Maria Ouspenskaya‘s hauteur as a ballet martinet instructor in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Waterloo Bridge (1940).

Blend these explosive, decidedly distaff ingredients with care, seasoning with a dollop of schmaltz (courtesy of Danny Thomas as O’Brien‘s hapless guardian) –and you’ll have some idea of the potent power of this unhinged but fascinating MGM movie set in the ballet world “…of those who love, of those who hate–and one who loved too much …”

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