Tuesday, March 03, 2020

Rebecca (1940)

The Criterion Collection had a half-price sale last week, so I scooped up three DVDs: "Rebecca," "Fritz Lang’s M," and "The Golden Age of Television." While I was waiting for them to arrive, I re-read the book Rebecca, which is so, so good.

One of the bonus features of "Rebecca" was screen tests for other actresses who wanted the role: Vivien Leigh, Anne Baxter, Loretta Young, and Margaret Sullavan. Joan Fontaine was perfect, of course, but I was interested to see the other tests, especially Sullavan’s, since she is the person I usually imagine as the second Mrs. de Winter when I’m reading the book. (I tend to picture Paul Henreid as Maxim.) So I was surprised when I watched Sullavan’s screen test and felt right away that she would be wrong for the part. I can’t quite explain why. She smiled a little too much, but it was more than that. She didn’t seem nervous enough, maybe?

Next up, Vivien Leigh. That one was a big no. She very much wanted the role, and she was Olivier's first choice, as he was in a relationship with her at the time. George Cukor, who was a close friend of hers, reportedly laughed when he saw her screen test. She's just too pert. I saw Scarlett O'Hara in a sweater set.

After that, Anne Baxter. I was surprised at how much I liked her screen test. I think she was Hitchcock’s first choice at one point. She was in a very dark wig, which I thought was a minor distraction, but she had the mannerisms down.

I saved Loretta Young for last. No way, I thought, is she even going to come close. Well, I was wrong. I would put her in third place, behind Fontaine and Baxter. Not quite right, but she captured the timidity pretty well, I thought.

Another interesting addition was an insert in the DVD case with a sample of the memos that flew back and forth between Hitchcock and Selznick during the making of the film. I knew Selznick was a compulsive memo writer (fueled by Benzedrine) and liked to interfere with his directors. Hitchcock wanted some changes which Selznick didn't think would be beneficial to the story, which as Selznick pointed out was very well known by now, from the best selling novel. Selznick imagined the movie as a "picturization" of the novel, and wanted to stay as true to it as possible. Hitch wanted to add and change some things that would make the story more "suitable" as a movie, in his opinion. In the end, I sided with Selznick on this one.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Hollywood was capable of hurting me so much."

Today is the 40th anniversary of Joan Crawford's death. It seems like a good time to talk about Feud: Bette and Joan, which I've been wanting to do.

The Hollywood Reporter contacted Olivia de Havilland, the only person still alive who is portrayed in the series, to ask her what she thought about it. Here is her reply:

"Having not seen the show, I cannot make a valid comment about it. However, in principle, I am opposed to any representation of personages who are no longer alive to judge the accuracy of any incident depicted as involving themselves."

This sums up my own feelings about certain biographical pictures. I am very judgemental about the accuracy, to the point where I find it a distraction. I was all excited about The Tudors until I read that the writers combined Henry VIII's two sisters into one character. Nope! Never even started watching it. I tried watching the recent Masterpiece Theater series Victoria, but I couldn't really get into it, even though I couldn't spot any glaring inaccuracies.

Old bio pics I don't fact check as much. I've written about several of them that I enjoy. I don't know why it's only the modern ones that have me checking for accuracy. I debated about whether I wanted to watch Feud at all, and decided to give it a try. I ended up watching the whole series to see how it ended. I'm not sorry I did, but I don't think I would watch it again.

David Canfield wrote a review of the series for Slate and said that "Crawford [...] was [the] heroine." While I agree that the story spends the majority of its time with Joan Crawford, especially in the last episode, I would disagree that she's the heroine.
  • Over dinner, Joan confesses that she seduced her own stepfather at the age of 11. Bette says she was a virgin until her first marriage in her mid 20's.
  • Joan colludes with Hedda Hopper to not only spread nasty rumors about Bette during the filming of Baby Jane, but to try (and succeed) to deny Bette the Oscar for her performance. Meanwhile, kind Bette bails Victor Buono out of jail when he is busted at a gay porno film. (And if that scene is not based in some fact, it's just plain mean to Buono.)
  • Joan drunkenly throws herself at director Bob Aldrich several times and is rebuffed. He then drives to Bette's house and hops into bed with her.
  • While Joan is being humiliated during the making of Trog, reduced to changing her clothes in a van, Bette is lovingly visiting her mentally challenged daughter Margo at the institution where Margo lives.
I'm not sure there are any heroines in this story. I've read the book on which the series is based, Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine. Neither one of them comes off well in the book. While I think that while the Feud series tried to portray Joan more sympathetically on the surface, underneath was the same old malice.

On other topics of Joan, I also recently read My Way of Life and A Portrait of Joan. I can see why the lifestyle book is a "camp classic" today; it's way over the top. It's interesting that Joan spends so much time talking about how to hold on to your man, when she succeeded so well on her own for most of her life. I did like the little tidbits of personal things she herself enjoyed; I picked up a bottle of one of the perfumes to which she "remained faithful," Estee Lauder's Youth Dew. It smells amazing. I didn't expect the autobiography to be 100% accurate, but I did find her tone in both books to be kind of charming. It feels like you're sitting down and having a talk with her. And really, isn't that all any true fan could want?

Rest in peace, Joan. Your fans still remember you, which I think would make you happy.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Wet Parade

What would be to most people a dull, preachy movie about the evils of alcoholism was enjoyable to me in large part due to the amazing cast the studio managed to put together. Our roster of performers includes Judge Hardy, Commissioner Gordon, Mrs. Nick Charles, Auntie Em, Marcus Welby, The Schnozzola, and Jerry Cohan. Oh, and Wallace Ford.

The movie tells the stories of two families, the southern Chilcotes and the northern Tarletons (they are divided this way in the credits). Both families are plagued with alcoholic fathers: Roger Chilcote, Sr. (played by Lewis Stone dressed like Colonel Sanders) is aware on some level that he has a problem, but despite his best efforts, is unable to get sober. Pow Tarleton (Walter Huston with a curly mustache he can't stop twirling) is in denial up to his eyeballs, steals money from his family's business to support his habit, and is basically a big blowhard.  It's a testament to Huston's excellent acting that I wanted to punch Tarleton in the face for the entire movie, and I was not at all sorry when he met his eventual fate.

Roger Jr. (totally handsome Neil Hamilton) does not learn from his father's example and takes to drink himself, despite the pleas of his sister Maggie May (Dorothy Jordan), who is nicknamed "Persimmon" for reasons not entirely clear. She goes all Carry Nation on everyone, sometimes with too much hysteria. Sharing her sentiments is Kip Tarleton (Robert Young), who tries to support his mother (Clara Bandick) and keep the family's hotel afloat while his father drinks all the profits. The two meet when Roger Jr. moves to New York, and Maggie follows him to keep an eye on him. What eventually happens to Roger Jr., I found to be unexpected (I was sure he'd kick the bucket), and I was pleasantly surprised by how that part of the plot proceeded.

Also appearing are Myrna Loy as Eileen, Roger Jr.'s actress girlfriend, Wallace Ford (rather under used) as Roger and Kip's reporter friend Jerry, and Jimmy Durante as (wait for it) a Prohibition agent with an inordinate penchant for saying "ha cha cha!" The concept is perhaps dated (as far as Prohibition goes; I think the alcoholism is still very relevant today), but it still makes for a compelling story.

See? That costume is finger lickin' good.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Requiem for a Heavyweight

As big a fan as I am of Jackie Gleason, I'd never seen this movie before. I'm not a fan of boxing, I knew Gleason played a bad guy, and I just thought it wasn't for me. Now, I stand corrected.

The opening scene is unique, I think, for the time. The camera shows us the boxer's point of view, starting with the fight, his defeat by knockout, and his skewed vision as he's dragged out of the ring into the locker room. At the end of the shot, the camera pans around to show the boxer, being supported by his manager and cutman, in the mirror, and he's a complete horror show.

It's not an easy movie to watch; Anthony Quinn plays the boxer ("Mountain" Rivera) who, after 17 years in the ring, really should retire yesterday. The make-up is very well done, because he looks like 10 miles of bad road. Mickey Rooney plays Army, Rivera's cutman, the only person who really cares about him, until Miss Miller (Julie Harris) comes along.

Jackie Gleason is Maish Rennick, Rivera's douchebag of a manager. He's in debt to some shady characters, so he wants Rivera to keep working -- one way or another. Since Mountain can't box anymore, Maish guilts him into taking a job as a wrestler. At first, Mountain is offended: he's never taken a dive in his career, and now he'll have lose whenever he's cast as the "heavy" for the evening. Maish assures him it's not that bad, it's just how things are done. After repeatedly reminding Mountain that he owes him, Mountain gives in.

While this is going on, Army takes Mountain to an employment agency, where he meets Grace Miller. At first she's not sure what to make of him, but she comes to like him. Taking a special interest in him, she arranges for him to interview for a job as a sports camp counselor. The night he's supposed to meet the camp owners, Maish sends Army for sandwiches and then slips out with Mountain, getting him drunk. Army eventually finds them and Mountain does try to make the interview, but it's hopeless at this point.

One of my favorite scenes is when Maish runs into Grace on the stairs as she is leaving from visiting Mountain after he misses the interview. He sneers at her efforts to make anything worthwhile out of Mountain's life. "You think when you put clothes on an ape, you make him into a dancing partner," he says, and Grace slaps him.

The movie draws to an end at the wrestling ring, where Mountain almost walks out until "Ma Greevy" and her thugs come in and threaten to kill Maish. Mountain puts his "Indian Chief" costume back on and walks into the ring, as Army looks on, crying. There is one last moment when you think he might still save himself, but then he starts whopping and dancing around the ring in his feather headdress.

I've seen Gleason in serious roles before, but this was the first time I actually found him menacing. Maish is a victim of his own weaknesses, and unfortunately he takes Mountain Rivera down with him, despite Army and Grace's efforts to salvage some kind of life for the boxer.

"You fink. You dirty, stinking fink."

Friday, January 23, 2015

DVR Catch Up

The last few weeks I have been watching and clearing out the movies stored on my DVR. Since I'm too lazy to devote a whole post to each one (plus, I just don't have that much to say about some of them), here's a quick list.

Fritz Lang's M - Considered by many one of the finest German films ever made, with good reason. Peter Lorre, in his first major role, is creepy and gross, in the best way. While the police chase this child murderer all over the city, the criminals band together (they're remarkably well organized) and end up catching him themselves. One of the best parts of the movie, I think, is the mock trial they hold. Lorre gives a long speech, pleading for his life and explaining that he just can't help himself. When he reaches the climax, screaming, "Wird nicht! Mußt! Wird nicht! Mußt!" I always get chills. (Translation: "Will not! Must!" although the subtitles say "Don't want to, but must!.") Check it out here.

And sweet dreams!

Third Finger, Left Hand - More or less your typical "boy meets girl, boy and girl hate each other due to wacky misunderstanding, boy and girl fall in love" comedy of the 40's. Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas are charming, as always.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again - Only my abiding love for Vincent Price got me through this. If the first movie, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, was a B movie (barely), this one was a Z. Plot holes big enough to drive a truck through, continuity errors galore, and just all around cheese. According to IMDB, a remake of Abominable is in development, to which I can only say: dear God, why?

The Emperor's Candlesticks - William Powell and Luise Rainer star as Polish and Russian secret agents, respectively. They are each tasked with smuggling documents to St. Petersberg and end up hiding them in a pair of candlesticks, each one having a secret compartment. There is some suspense as they chase each other across Europe, both trying to snatch the candlesticks from each other and eventually, of course, falling in love. Just when it looks darkest for them both, the czar of Russia pardons them and gives his blessing for them to get married. As often happens, with spies who fail their missions for personal reasons. Powell and Rainer are as usual: he's suave and charming, she's dainty and coquettish.

The Irish In Us - James Cagney, Pat O'Brien, and Frank McHugh play three brothers in a "typical" Irish family, with adorable Mary Gordon as their long-suffering mother. Olivia de Havilland also stars but is underutilized. Not much of a plot, and the love story leaves something to be desired, but it was kind of endearing just the same.

Big Hearted Herbert - A small B flick stuffed with character actors such as Guy Kibbee, Henry O'Neill and Aline MacMahon, this was a funny little movie. Herbert prides himself on being "regular folks," to the extent that when his daughter's fiance brings his upper crust family to dinner for the first time, Herbert huffs and puffs until they're thoroughly offended ("College men! Idlers! Loafers! Wasters! That's all colleges turn out nowadays!") . As payback, his wife Elizabeth and the children put on an exaggerated show of "regular folks" (read: country bumpkins) the next night when Herbert brings his biggest client home for dinner. In the end, of course, Herbert realizes the error of his blustering ways.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Andy Hardy, you can't go home again

I received my copy of "The Andy Hardy Film Collection Volume 2" in the mail yesterday, and I went right to the end, with "Andy Hardy Comes Home" from 1958. Now a lawyer for Gordon Aircraft in Los Angeles, Andy comes home to Carvel, having talked his bosses into building an aircraft plant in town. It will bring jobs to the area and help the town grow.

"I'm totally sure this time that my elaborate plans will not go awry!"
Andy has apparently not learned much since the last movie, because this time his plan ends up alienating most of his home town, mostly thanks to a crooked land owner who turns the town council against him. Of course he plows ahead without thinking ahead, and almost loses his job when not one but two schemes fall to pieces. In the end, of course, Andy prevails, and ends up deciding to move back to Carvel and take a judgeship that has just been offered to him, thus following in his esteemed father's footsteps.

Pictured: possibly best movie dad of all time.
The movie seems to have been a set up for further movies, or possibly a TV series, because the end title card says "To Be Continued..." We never heard from Andy Hardy again, however, and to my mind that's not entirely a bad thing.

How have the Hardy family aged? Well, let's take a look.

"Should I pause to consider the consequences that will entail if my plans go awry? Nah!"
Mother Hardy is just the same, fluttery and sweet and slightly daffy. She's still terrified of telegrams. One hopes she has learned to balance her checkbook better.

Aunt Millie is still living with Mrs. Hardy. Marian shows up only occasionally, usually followed by her son Jim, played by Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., in what I assume was a bit of stunt casting, since he is roughly twice the size of his diminutive Uncle Andy.

The huge gaping hole in the film is the absence of Judge Hardy, played by Lewis Stone, who had passed away in 1953. Rest assured, he is not forgotten, especially since a life size, rather grim looking portrait of him hangs over the fireplace in his study, glaring down at Andy and Andy Jr.(played by Mickey's son Teddy, who is cute as a button) when they have their own "man-to-man talk." I may have choked up a little when Andy goes into the study (the whole house is exactly the same) and his father is not there to greet him.

(Also absent are Polly Benedict, Betsy Booth, and the original Beezy. Although there are some flashback clips.)

The late Judge, Andy's own children, and his nephew's "cool" teeny bopper friends (whom Andy does not "get" at all) all serve to emphasize that Andy is a grown man now. And therein lies the flaw in this movie: Andy Hardy should never have grown up. It's just not right. Instead of getting into silly troubles with girls or his jalopy or some other harmless misunderstanding, Andy now attends town council meetings, negotiates contracts, and worries about how he will support his family if he loses his job. All realistic concerns in a grown up world...but it's not really a world in which Andy belongs.

"Son, don't grow up. It's a trap."

Monday, April 07, 2014

Mickey Rooney 1920-2014

That is all.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Orson Talks (and talks and talks and talks...)

I recently finished reading My Lunches with Orson, a book of conversations between the great Welles and Henry Jaglom, director of such films as "Queen of the Lot," (which I just added to my Netflix queue as it contains the endlessly adorable Noah Wyle). Welles was fond of recording himself for posterity, because there is a nearly identical book called This Is Orson Welles, which transcribes his conversations with Peter Bogdanovich. And while yes, this does make Welles seem incredibly vain, it's also entertaining as hell, because could that man tell a story! The anecdotes fall into one of three categories:
  1. That can't possibly be true.
  2. That might be true.
  3. If that's not true, it should be.
You'll notice there is no "100% true" category, because I just can't get to that place when Welles is telling stories (especially about John Houseman -- meow!). Not that I am saying he's a big liar, although I think sometimes he was. But I think every story is embellished, whether a lot or a little.

I liked "My Lunches" a little bit more, in part because it takes us up to the very end of Welles' life; his last conversation with Jaglom was just a few days before Welles died. In reading them, I came away feeling like I learned something about Hollywood, a lot about film making, and not very much about Welles himself. Which is I'm sure just how he intended it to be.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

How this all got started

I was thinking today about how my love of classic movies began. The first classic movie I remember seeing is "Gone With the Wind" in 8th grade. (Well, I saw "The Wizard of Oz" long before that, but GWTW was what started my love.)

We read the book in English class, and everyone loved it (despite the groans that came at first when we were handed the book and realized it was over 1000 pages). I can still remember the day the class geek, who had finished way before any of us, horrified everyone by blurting out the Melanie dies at the end. Anyway, after we finished reading this behemoth, our teacher treated us by showing us the movie in 45 minutes chunks each period for about a week. We were just dazzled. Or at least I was.

Casting: Clark Gable was, of course, the perfect Rhett Butler. Whether Margaret Mitchell had in mind when she wrote the book or not, no one else could have played that role, ever. Olivia de Havilland had that quiet, gentle manner that was just right for Melanie. Had no idea Vivien Leigh was British until years later.

The one cast member that wasn't quite right was Leslie Howard. If you've read the book you'll understand why. The first description of Ashley goes like this:

"...his drowsy grey eyes wide with a smile and the sun so bright on his blond hair that it seemed like a cap of shining silver."

And later, when he comes home on Christmas furlough:

"The Ashley Wilkes in his faded, patched uniform, his blond hair bleached tow by summer suns, was a different man from the easy-going, drowsy-eyed boy she had loved to desperation before the war. And he was a thousand times more thrilling. He was bronzed and lean now, where he had once been fair and slender, and the long golden mustache drooping about his mouth, cavalry style, was the last touch he needed to make him the perfect picture of a soldier."

Somewhere I think it also mentions that Ashley is over six feet tall. So imagine our surprise when we get to the barbecue scene of the movie, Scarlett calls out, "Ashley!", and this guy comes down the stairs:

And he has a British accent.
I am sorry to say that we all burst out laughing. Poor Leslie Howard, who was so great in many other roles, and was shot down by the Germans in 1943, was spectacularly unsuited for this role.

Not long after that, a new video rental place opened, with a much bigger selection than your average Blockbuster, including a great selection of old movies. They were usually shelved by actor/actress, so I began working my way through the Joan Crawford shelf, and the rest is history.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

I felt the need to include the year in the title this time, because there are, according to IMDB, fifteen film versions of this Dickens classic, including a 2000 German version titled Eine Erzählung von zwei Städten. I recently saw the David O. Selznick production starring Ronald Colman, Reginald Owen, Edna May Oliver, and Basil Rathbone.

Basil is at his evil best here as Marquis St. Evremonde, your sterotypical (but deliciously so) cruel and unfeeling French aristocrat. After his coach runs over a small boy, his response is to complain about the inconvenience to himself, so you know he's not going to last very long in a movie about the French revolution, and he doesn't. 

"Sure, I seem like a drunken jerk now, but just you wait..."

I don't think I'd ever seen Ronald Colman in a movie before, and he was just great as Sydney Carton, the world-weary, alcoholic lawyer who in the end does a "far, far better thing than [he] has ever done..." The role is tragic, of course, but Colman also managed to find the bits of humor in it, such as the scene when he is writing notes in the courtroom for Stryver to read outloud, sometimes with unintentionally hilarious consequences. He also portrays Sydney as more than just a cad; even when he's at his most obnoxious, he still manages to be sympathetic.

The movie is famous for its scene of the peasants storming the Bastille, and rightly so. It's very well done, considering the only special effects they had were the set and the people. Selznick may have been an obsessive compulsive control freak, but you have to admit he achieved quite the result.

I just bought the book yesterday, and I'm looking forward to seeing if it lives up to the movie, instead of the other way around.