Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Our Miss Lombard is working hard this Thanksgiving to record your comments.

It's two days before Thanksgiving 2008, and Hollywood Dreamland will be using this valuable vacation time to recharge its blogging batteries, which are surprisingly depleted in this, our first month of existence. For those in the U.S., here's hoping that any forced family "togetherness" will include the viewing of a classic movie.

If you'd like to send your own Thanksgiving wishes, our secretary, Miss Lombard, will be happy to jot down your comments. Just be careful not to startle her, as she's given to flights of Screwball wackiness...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ginger Rogers' Oscar Moment

Thanks to a tip from Carrie at her excellent blog, Classic Montgomery, I was able to search LIFE magazine's photo archives and found another picture of Ginger Rogers' Oscar win at the 13th Annual Academy Awards in 1941. "The little Rogers gal" looks genuinely moved and in awe of the moment, in what would be the pinnacle of her career.

1941 also marked the first year that Oscar results were kept secret from the press and public until the actual opening of the envelope, so I'm sure that Ginger wasn't acting when she was announced as the winner (for Kitty Foyle). The presenter is stage actress Lynn Fontanne.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

War Finds Andy Hardy: The Human Comedy (1943)

One of my favorite movies from the 1940s is The Human Comedy (1943; MGM), an episodic coming-of-age story depicting World War II’s affect on the fictional small town of Ithaca, California. Its central character is young Homer Macauley, who is dealing with his father’s death as well as the absence of his older brother, now overseas in the army. In order to help out the family, Homer takes a job as a messenger at the local telegraph office.

Those familiar with Mickey Rooney will no doubt have seen MGM's Andy Hardy series. It chronicled the idyllic life of Judge James Hardy and family in the "Anytown" of Carvel, California. Judge Hardy's son, the "irrepressible" Andy, engaged in wholesome shenanigans but always learned a valuable lesson by each film's end. I've always seen The Human Comedy as the dark flipside of the Hardy series. Comedy's Homer Macauley has no father and must make his own way through the world. Like Andy, Homer has a dedicated mother and goodwilled sister, but Homer, at 17, is the man of the house. And unlike Carvel, his hometown of Ithaca has several of its citizens serving abroad in the war. It is a dark, uncertain time in this particular "Anytown, U.S.A."

The Human Comedy is often regarded as a film of its time; a World War-II propaganda film extolling the virtues of American life. It
is at once sentimental, sad, uplifting, sentimental, joyous, and with a romantic view of the world and its future possibilities. It depicts an idealized America that never existed, yet it is unabashedly in love with the ideal of America. A genuine attempt is made through the film’s imagery and dialogue-- sometimes preachy but more often poetic-- to convey to the wartime viewer what it was our soldiers were fighting for, by romanticizing what they had "back home." The film's message is effectively conveyed by the film's narrator, the late Matthew Macauley:

"I am Matthew Macauley. I have been dead for two years. So much of me is still living that I know now the end is only the beginning. As I look down on my homeland of Ithaca, California, with its cactus, vineyards and orchards, I see that so much of me is still living there - in the places I've been, in the fields and streets and church and most of all in my home, where my hopes, my dreams, my ambitions still live in the daily life of my loved ones."

The film was directed by the underrated, unheralded, and just plain unappreciated
Clarence Brown, who, after finishing The Human Comedy, went on to direct, in succession: The White Cliffs of Dover, National Velvet, and The Yearling. The Human Comedy also features, for my money, the best performance that Mickey Rooney ever gave, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Rooney detractors expecting another mugging, hammy performance from him will be impressed by his brilliance in The Human Comedy. The movie would receive four additional Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, and would win for Best Story (William Saroyan). In an interesting twist of fate, Saroyan would win the Oscar even though much of his original story was altered by Hollywood screenwriters. Saroyan would later publish The Human Comedy as a stand-alone book and include numerous elements (like social commentary) that did not make the finished film. The book, like the film, was a hit.

A number of vignettes run through the course of the film, but the movie’s center is Rooney’s Homer Macauley. His character endures the pains of growing up amid the most tumultuous world events that would profoundly affect him, his family, and his hometown. There are the typical coming-of-age trials and tribulations: Homer’s attempts at getting a date for the town social, competing against a rival for a girl’s affections, the big school hurdle competition, and the humiliation of having to sing a telegram to his rival at the latter’s birthday party. But Homer finds himself with ever-growing, decidedly adult responsibilities. Whether it be tending to the kindly, but perpetually inebriated co-worker at the telegraph office (the wonderful Frank Morgan), or dealing with the traumatic events during his workday, as when he must read the Department of War telegram he delivers to the mother of a soldier killed in action. Homer must break the news to her himself because the soldier's mother cannot read English. Her reaction—and Homer’s—are heartbreaking. There’s also a touching scene featuring Van Johnson as Homer’s brother, Mark, as he and his fellow soldiers are en route to the battlefield aboard a train and who find comfort by joining in a gospel hymn. And then there’s the film’s finale, which is about as over-the-top as Hollywood gets, and which I won’t reveal here, but it works beautifully.

While the emphasis here is on Rooney's parts of the movie, it should be noted that The Human Comedy is episodic, with several characters receiving substantial screen time. In one of the extended sequences not involving Rooney's character, the film's pro-American aspects are heavily applied, notably the scene where two characters (played by James Craig & Marsha Hunt) see the various ethnic cultures "in action" in Ithaca, in an early example of "diversity" or "melting pot" philosophy. It is the most propagandistic portion of the film. This heavy handedness sometimes works against the movie's total success, and those elements pale in comparison to the powerful Rooney scenes.

The Human Comedy is a memorable film, an example of Americana that will fascinate anyone with an interest in the American "Home Front" of World War II. It is very much an MGM-style production, with that studio’s typical gloss and sentimentality. It was reportedly MGM boss Louis B. Mayer's favorite film. Thematically, The Human Comedy in some ways owes a stylistic debt to Our Town (1940), but is closer in spirit to Mrs. Miniver (1942) (with its focus on the British home front), and Since You Went Away (1944). Like The Human Comedy, all are Oscar-nominated films that serve as representative takes on Hollywood’s view of WWII’s home front.

The Human Comedy next airs on Turner Classic Movies (U.S.) January 19 at 11:45am (est).

On the Job Humiliation: Homer Macauley (Mickey Rooney) must sing a telegram to his hated rival, Hubert Ackley III (David Holt) in 1943's The Human Comedy.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

I’ve changed my name. Why? Because C.K. Dexter Haven was one of Cary Grant’s greatest characters. You could say his performance was…Yar. Yar is defined in The Philadelphia Story as something---in the movie, a boat—that's easy to handle and moves along smoothly. The same could be used to describe Cary Grant’s performance in the film.

1940—there’s that year again-- was stellar for Cary Grant. Grant starred in My Favorite Wife, His Girl Friday, and The Philadelphia Story. When approached for the role, Grant would demand-- and get-- top billing. Plus a $100,000 salary, which he donated to British War Relief. And while fellow cast members Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Ruth Hussey all received Oscar nominations, the former Archibald Leach would get snubbed come Oscar time. Knowing this as I became enamored with the film, I found myself concentrating on Grant’s understated performance as C.K. Dexter Haven. His was a thankless role, as he’s sandwiched between Hepburn’s persona-defining character, Tracy, and Stewart’s funny, Oscar-winning role as writer Macaulay “Mike” Connor. Grant must achieve a fine balance. He must be likable enough for the audience to want Hepburn to go back to him, but at the same time display some flaws and be annoying enough for Hepburn to wage a war of words with him for most of the film. These thankless, unheralded performances are the types of roles I’ve always liked. In fact, other leading men like Glenn Ford and Dana Andrews made entire careers out of solid, dependable, yet seemingly unnoticed performances.

About C.K. Dexter Haven: He’s a recovering boozer, and he and Tracy split two years before (memorably depicted in the film’s immortal opening sequence). Now that Tracy is about to marry self-made schlub George Kittredge (John Howard), Dexter comes barging back into her life and brings two reporters from Spy magazine (is that where that 1990s rag got its name?) to cover her impending wedding. C.K., however, would appear to be blackmailing his ex-wife (whom he calls “Red”) by forcing her to allow the unsavory Spy to cover her wedding or else Dexter will reveal the “dirt” he has on Tracy.

I was so impressed with Grant’s performance. It’s something I can’t quite explain. Grant’s subdued brilliance in TPS demonstrates an onscreen confidence that I hadn’t seen from him before. Sure, there were similarities with Grant characters like Walter Burns in His Girl Friday, but as C.K. Dexter Haven there’s little of that other character's arrogance. Dexter sometimes comes off as cynical, but he’s wiser now that he’s “dried out.” He knows exactly how to push Tracy’s buttons. His role here was not showy like co-star Stewart’s. Grant never got credit for being a great actor, but as Dexter, he reveals a duality of character, which Grant would bring to fruition in 1946’s Notorious. And while Grant doesn't reach the level of darkness as he does in the Hitchcock film, Dexter has his demons; he’s been a drunk and he lost the woman he loved, and to get her back, he must deal with two rivals: Tracy’s fiancé, George, and even the man Dexter himself brought into this affair, Macaulay Connor. Grant was emerging as a classic leading man and I find his performance to be real, with a subtle, biting wit that makes this and many other Cary Grant performances mesmerizing. It does wonders in his rapport with Katharine Hepburn. Grant displays a confidence that is downright appealing. He’s the kind of character I’d like to emulate! In the classic drunk scene with Stewart, Grant underplays and makes Stewart look even better. The scene’s humor succeeds because of Grant’s performance as it does with Stewart’s. There’s an awkwardness in Dexter’s reactions to the pixilated Macaulay and the improvisation by the two actors only adds to the scene’s charm.

1940 was a watershed year for Grant, he appeared in four films altogether, three of them classics, and solidified the Cary Grant Persona. In discussing his role in The Philadelphia Story, I realized that I could have been talking about almost any Cary Grant performance. He was that good. So was he just playing himself in all those films? There's that conundrum: if acting is defined as becoming the role one is playing, and-- knowingly or not-- providing elements of one’s own personality into a role, and a Movie Star is defined as “merely” injecting the various nuances of an established persona, then when does an actor “end” and a movie star begin? I really don’t care. Whatever one wants to call him, Cary Grant was yar in The Philadelphia Story.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ralph Meeker Night On TCM

I just found out that Turner Classic Movies is dedicating tonight's prime time schedule to forgotten tough guy Ralph Meeker. Meeker (1920-1988) is best known for his definitive take on Mickey Spillane's iconic detective, Mike Hammer, in 1955's Kiss Me Deadly. If you haven't seen the film, do so... now! The DVD appears to be out of print in the U.S., so TCM's your best bet.

Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer is one bad man. He wears a naturally menacing leer on his smug mug and doesn't hesitate to manhandle an elderly desk clerk, slap, punch, and shove a thug down a flight of steps, tell a nosy old woman to shut up, or snap a valuable Caruso record in half in front of its owner's eyes. And he's the hero of the film! Kiss Me Deadly is such a dark film with some genuinely disturbing imagery. Much has been written about the film's subtext and meaning, but I avoid delving too deeply into those things because I’m tired of having my favorite films drained of their vitality through turgid analysis. I can only say that the movie is an atmospheric masterpiece, with great performances from well-known character actors (Paul Stewart, Jack Elam, Albert Dekker) rising stars (Cloris Leachman in her film debut), and unknown players (Maxine Cooper and Gaby Rogers) who seemed to exist solely within the film.

"I don't care who I pummel, just so I'm dishin' out some hurt!"

Meeker's brilliant portrayal of Mike Hammer is sacred to me. And because of his absolute mastery of this role, I have purposely avoided reading anything about his private life---wouldn't want to spoil the image (heck, Noir nasty men Dan Duryea and Richard Widmark were dedicated family men!) I have of him. So partly because of my own choosing, Ralph Meeker remains a mysterious figure to me. I never saw him in anything before I saw Kiss Me Deadly, but have seen his work in a few films, like the Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Jeopardy (1953) as well as his brief role in another gritty movie, the Frank Sinatra film, The Detective (1968). He also appears in a childhood favorite of mine, Kiss Me Deadly director Robert Aldrich's The Dirty Dozen (1967). I’ve also seen some of his many TV appearances from the 1970s, but Ralph Meeker will forever be etched in my memory as Mike Hammer.

TCM airs Kiss Me Deadly tonight at 11:30pm (est.) along with:

I no longer get TCM and I haven't seen those last three movies, so you'll get the "Meeker Edge" on me if you see them.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Random Raves: His Girl Friday (1940)

Five years ago, I gave up watching His Girl Friday twenty minutes into it. The rapid-fire dialogue was “distracting”, the plot “dragged”, so I just tuned out. A subsequent attempt at watching it a year or so later also failed. I watched it all, and was bored silly.

What a dope I was!

I’m a recent convert to this film and considering the talent involved with it, that’s surprising: Howard Hawks is among my favorite directors--El Dorado (1967) is my favorite film of all time-- Cary Grant is brilliant in everything I’ve ever seen him in, and Rosalind Russell’s career was made with her performance, though I first became smitten with her after seeing her take bitchiness to the highest plane in The Women (1939). So two years ago I gave the film another chance. By then, I had become familiar with Screwball Comedies and had seen a number of 1930s movies in general and had loved them. This time around I was immediately pulled into the plot, I was enamored with the characters, and the dialogue was brilliant. The film was always great; I just wasn’t ready for it before.

A brief synopsis: His Girl Friday begins as former reporter Hildy Johnson, now divorced from her husband and editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), stops by the newspaper offices to inform Walter of her impending marriage to ho-hum insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Walter, always trying to influence Hildy, urges her to come back to the paper and remarry him. The two strong-willed professionals pick up where they left off, with biting verbal exchanges delivered in wonderful, machine-gun fashion. Hildy is intent on marrying Bruce, but when a big story breaks, she and Walter get pulled into the maelstrom, and Hildy must decide if she will start a new life with Bruce, or if her life and career with Walter matters most while bedlam breaks out around her.

His Girl Friday, like legendary composer Duke Ellington, is “Beyond Category.” The film's reputation is as a comedy even though it has some dramatic moments, it manages to stretch across the boundaries and entertain as both. Like real life. I'm not big on plots, because a film's main draw for me is its characters. Actors who react to one another and who are so natural in their characterizations that they’re not acting at all. They don’t speak the lines, they mean them! It’s why I love Golden Age pairings like Tracy-Hepburn, Bogart-Bacall, Powell-Loy, Grant-Hepburn, and now, Grant-Russell. It’s two characters responding to each other and we are quickly clued into their past relationship, everything we know about that relationship is further emphasized with each great line of dialogue. Grant trades in the sometimes-awkward, klutzy leading man of The Awful Truth and Holiday, and replaces it with a domineering, sometimes dark side of the Grant persona in the Walter Burns character (which would best be seen in Hitchcock’s Notorious). Beginning with His Girl Friday, Grant was to embark on a series of great roles himself. Director Howard Hawks’ set was fast and loose, with Hawks allowing improvisation from his players. Grant’s dialogue with Russell was often made up on the spot, with Russell employing a writer to provide her with her own “improvised” retorts to Grant’s barbs.

It was surprising to discover that the film’s star, Rosalind (aka "Roz") Russell (1907-1976) failed to earn an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actress. 1940 was a competitive year for Best Actress, but I took it for granted that I’d see Russell’s name on the list of nominees, seeing as the film has earned decades of praise and namedropping-- Not a chance! As a matter of fact, the film itself didn’t get nominated for Best Picture and this was during a time when there were ten films per year up for the big prize. I’ve seen all the Best Actress nominees’ films and none of those performances can surpass Rosalind Russell’s brilliance in His Girl Friday. In fact, the movie stands as Rosalind Russell’s defining moment on film (as far as I’m concerned, her latter-career role in Auntie Mame (1958) runs a distant second).

Of all the things that are great about His Girl Friday, its best attribute is Rosalind Russell’s performance as Hildy Johnson. It's wonderfully played and impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Among the noted actresses who turned down the part: Ginger Rogers, Jean Arthur (who didn’t like working with Hawks), Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne. It’s shocking, considering how good a showcase the role was and Hawks’ sterling reputation as an A-List director. The Hildy Johnson role is the typical Hawksian dame. Witness her triumphant return to the newspaper office. Among the male reporters, she’s “one of the boys”, yet she’s feminine without being feminist and tough without being hard. Hildy never cries foul because of her gender and it’s never an issue. She’s capable of taking care of herself, and not gullible, never falling for Walter’s stock lines and gives just as good as she gets. She does have one great moment of vulnerability and--without spoiling the ending-- it pulls together the most important element of the story, characterwise, and it lets the viewer know even more about Hildy and her dilemma. It's a beautiful realization of the two leads' relationship and stands as one of the best moments in the film by who I consider the "real" Best Actress of 1940, Rosalind Russell, in a movie I had to watch three times in order to appreciate its many charms.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

James Stewart: A Veterans Day Salute

On this Veterans Day, Hollywood Dreamland, in its own small way, would like to honor the service of all veterans who have served their country. James Stewart was one of the many who answered their country's call.

James Stewart (1908-1997) was already an Oscar-winning actor and had been a pilot of his own plane beginning in the mid-1930s when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in March, 1941. He had previously been rejected for service due to his insufficient weight (Stewart was under the 148lb minimum weight requirement) the previous year and gained the weight through a workout program with the help of an MGM trainer, Don Loomis. Stewart joined the USAAF as a private and earned a Second Lieutenant's commission in 1942. After several months of training bombardiers and B-17 pilots in New Mexico, Stewart was finally assigned to a bombing group in 1943.

In 1944, Stewart was assigned to the 454th Bombardment Group, his unit flew the B-24 Liberator in air operations over Germany. By then, he had attained the rank of Major. The number of official missions flown by Stewart’s wing is twenty, but he ordered numerous missions over Nazi Germany kept uncounted. By the end of the war, James Stewart had reached the rank of Colonel, with several decorations including the Distinguished Flying Cross (twice), and the Air Force Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters.

He was also admired by his peers. From Citizen Soldiers by Stephen E. Ambrose:

"A special favorite was Maj. James Stewart, the actor already famous for parts in The Philadelphia Story and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. Stewart enlisted as a private, made his way into pilot training school, and earned his wings. The Air Force knew he was a good flyer but didn't want to risk him, so he was assigned to the staff. He insisted on flying. He bacame a squadron commander. One of his pilots, Lt. Hal Turrell, said of Stewart: 'He was a wonderful human being and excelled as a command pilot..He never grandstanded by picking missions. If our group led the wing, he flew.'

Stewart would remain involved with the Air Force Reserve and was promoted to Brigadier general in 1959. During the Vietnam War, Stewart flew in a B-52 bomber as an observer. He refused to let the story be reported. James Stewart retired from the Air Force in 1968, after twenty-seven years of service.

It staggers the mind that a man who had everything to lose would ditch his movie career--at its peak--and answer his country's call. I cannot imagine any actor today (NFL player Pat Tillman is the exception) setting his career aside to join the armed forces full time, volunteer for combat duty, and proceed to remain involved with that service for nearly thirty years. Stewart's service, and the other Hollywood legends who worked in some capacity (Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and John Ford, to name but a few) never gave it a second thought and enlisted, helping in any way they could. They could have sat out the war and continued to pad their bank accounts and add more Oscars to their shelves, but sacrificed their careers and risked their lives to serve their country.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Katharine Hepburn: Holiday (1938)

Holiday (1938) was Katharine Hepburn’s first film based on a Philip Barry play and followed her roles in the ensemble hit Stage Door and the overlooked (and eventual classic), Bringing Up Baby, both from 1937. These films came in the midst of Hepburn’s “Box Office Poison” period when in the spring of 1938, Hepburn (along with Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, and Mae West) was listed by Harry Brandt, president of the Independent Theater Owners of America, as being among the stars whose films guaranteed poor box-office sales. Holiday also had the misfortune of getting overshadowed by Hepburn’s “comeback” effort, the most-famous Philip Barry play, The Philadelphia Story, a successful 1939 Broadway stage hit and a popular film in 1940, earning The Great Kate her third Academy Award nomination. Holiday doesn’t quite reach the heights of The Philadelphia Story, but it comes tantalizingly close.

(Virtually) Spoiler-Free Synopsis: Holiday concerns free spirit and nonconformist Johnny Case (Cary Grant). Johnny comes from a humble family in Baltimore but has the potential to become a successful businessman. However, he feels that there is more to life than earning money. He meets Julia Seton (Doris Nolan) at a Lake Placid ski resort just before Christmas. The two begin a whirlwind romance and plan to marry the following January. Unbeknownst to Johnny, Julia is from a wealthy and influential east coast family. Julia brings Johnny to the family’s stately mansion to meet her family. Her father, Edward is a chronically straight-laced businessman who is so organized and controlling that he owns the tobacco plantation the cigars he smokes come from. Julia’s brother, Ned (Lew Ayres; who's great here), is a heavy drinker disinterested in his duly-appointed position at the family investment firm. And then there's Linda (Hepburn), Julia’s elder sister who acts as madcap and carefree as Johnny, but who has a sad, tragic aspect to her. The Seton children’s mother, who was the heart of the family, died some years before. The movie chronicles Johnny’s attempts at convincing Julia and her father that he needs to explore life before sacrificing his freedom for a successful, but stultifying business career.

What makes Holiday (aka: “Unconventional Linda”; so the film is about her!) so rewarding is Katharine Hepburn’s performance as the idealistic, romantic Linda. She’s clearly the black sheep of the family. She has romantic ideals, but doesn’t possess the will to go through with them. She’s occasionally melodramatic and melancholy but also possesses a quick wit, trading humorous barbs with Johnny--the amusing “sheep and goat” routine typifies their great rapport. Linda and Johnny also share the same negative view of money worship (Linda: “Don’t you know that money is our God?”). Yet underneath it all, Linda suffers from emotional problems, which are explained away by Edward and Julia as Linda having one of her “headaches”, an excuse used when her proposed engagement party for Johnny and Julia’s engagement is rejected in favor of the formal affair her father organizes. Linda has preserved the family’s upstairs play room, where she reflects on those long-lost days. Linda's internal suffering is effectively and sympathetically realized by Hepburn. She is nostalgic, the playroom is preserved like a shrine. It is was once the center for family activity: her late mother played piano, Ned began work on his concerto and Linda painted. The room ceased to flourish after the Seton matriarch’s death.

Grant and Hepburn on the set of Holiday with director George Cukor

Hepburn’s role is similar to a number of her 1930s performances (Alice Adams comes to mind). She’s more sympathetic and does not yet embody the steely source of strength and independence that would define most Hepburn characters in subsequent decades. The Linda Seton character is quite unlike her iconic performances in better-known roles such as Tracy in The Philadelphia Story or Tess in Woman of the Year. Holiday is centered on Johnny Case's choice, but it is Hepburn's movie. She is the emotional center of the film and gets to shine under director George Cukor's steady hand. Her performance is entirely convincing. I know it's cliché to say this, but Hepburn becomes Linda Seton. I'm discovering that Hepburn's best 1930s performances all have this quality where she immerses herself into the character. I'm not saying that other actors from this time period don't, but Hepburn is the first actress who made me notice, and I didn't realize it until I reflected on the movie some time later! Watching Katharine Hepburn in Holiday makes me wish she would have revisited the fragile, delicate side of her persona more often in her post-Philadelphia Story career.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Gail Patrick: Deco Dame, Part II

"I'm an avid reader of 'Hollywood Dreamland' because it allows me to reflect on the era in which I lived..."

I’ve managed to find some wonderful Gail Patrick photographs lately. The amount of publicity stills--which I'll string along in future entries-- that exist even for her obscure films makes my mouth water! To think of the numerous mysteries, comedies, and westerns that she appeared in during the thirties and forties that *never* get aired on the premium movie channels! The fact that so few of her films are available only stokes the fire of my curiosity! Just how many roles did she play when she wasn’t the bad, “other” woman? The volume of publicity stills also drives home the fact that the studio system was all encompassing in its ability to promote even their second-tier performers. The selection of photographs shows various aspects of the actress' career. I hope to find many more. Enjoy. (click photos for larger view)

"In Character" Gail- From Disbarred (1939) locking horns with co-star Robert Preston. Judging from the IMDB synopsis, Gail's character, "Joan Carroll" is quite the accomplished, strong-willed career woman, even if she is an attorney fronting for a crime syndicate!

Huckster Gail- This 1937 card accompanying Union Tobacco has Gail looking every bit the girl next door--and well put together in some snazzy shoes!

Sultry Gail- from an Argentine press book. "Bellisma", indeed! I don't think that such a smoldering still would get published in an American magazine. It looks (but isn't) pre-Code.

Okay, so I haven't provided detailed analysis of obscure Gail Patrick films, but seeing as they are largely unavailable, I'll just have to will them into being! Here's hoping that Turner Classic Movies will someday dedicate some time to Gail Patrick via one of their "theme of the month" festivals and air some of her obscure films.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Recommended Reading: "On Cukor"

On Cukor, originally published in 1972, is screenwriter Gavin Lambert’s (Sons and Lovers; Inside Daisy Clover) series of wonderful interviews with Golden Age Hollywood director George Cukor (1899-1983). The interviews cover the director's entire career, from Cukor discovery Katharine Hepburn’s screen debut in A Bill of Divorcement (1932) to masterworks like The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940) and A Star Is Born (1954). Forgotten flops like Her Cardboard Lover (1942) and The Chapman Report (1962) receive honest appraisals from Cukor the interviewee, too. Included in the book are between-film “Interludes”, where the director candidly discusses actors (Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Greta Garbo), directors (Cukor was amused and fascinated by Alfred Hitchcock), and well-known events in Cukor's career, like when Cukor was replaced as director of Gone With the Wind.

I credit this book with getting me interested in 1930s movies. I received it as a gift in 1999 and I'll admit that at the time, Cukor’s films were not the kind I usually watched. “Too many women’s pictures” I muttered, ignorant as Hell. I duly shelving the book without any clue that this book and this director would one day rank among my favorites. It was only three years ago when I finally admitted that the 1930s and 1940s were the greatest period in cinematic history. I had been a Film Noir enthusiast for some time, but 1930s films were largely unknown to me. As I worked my way through the book, I found myself becoming enthralled with Cukor's films. Yes, many of the movies had women as the protagonists, but these weren’t the usual women’s roles I had grown up being bored by. Thirties and Forties female stars---especially in George Cukor's work-- were so much smarter, sexier, and funnier than the bland homemaker types of the 1950s (and their "Va-va-voom!" counterparts), or the bewigged, overly-sexualized drones of the 1960s (I’m generalizing; there are exceptions to each decade, of course).

What makes On Cukor so memorable is the man himself. George Cukor was intelligent, witty, and sophisticated. He speaks honestly of his successes and failures but surprisingly says little about his Oscar-winning effort, My Fair Lady (1964). Cukor and Lambert work well together, with Lambert serving as a sympathetic, knowledgeable interviewer. He knows the director's work and this adds to the reader’s enjoyment. This book avoids any awkward moments which is a stark contrast to George Cukor: Interviews (from the Conversations with Filmmakers Series) which compiles numerous mainstream press interviews with Cukor over the course of three decades. Cukor comes off (or is portrayed as) guarded and even grouchy! Not so in the Lambert book, which contains the strongest series of interviews I’ve ever read with a filmmaker. Apparently, the newer edition of the book contains numerous photographs that were unavailable in the 1972 edition. I was also thrilled to learn that the republication in 2000 coincided with a PBS documentary of the same name from the American Masters series.

A hearty recommendation for On Cukor!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Life Imitates Art (Again)

First of all, nobody who appeared in this film ever dropped anyone off the side of a building! However, there's an important plot point in Manhandled (1949) that involves a "slip of the lip" which would later haunt one of the film's stars in real life. Manhandled's plot concerns a nasty private investigator, Karl Benson (Dan Duryea) who is hot for his boardinghouse neighbor, psychiatrist's secretary Merl Kramer (Dorothy Lamour). After Merl gently refuses Karl's unwanted advances, she blabbers about a patient(!), an unemployed writer who that day told Merl's psychiatrist boss about a dream he had where he kills his wealthy wife for her jewels. Inspired, Karl develops a plot to steal the jewels and and frame Merl for the murder of the writer's wife. It's up to good-guy insurance investigator Joe Cooper (Sterling Hayden) to save the day.

"Why don't you quit yer cryin' and get me some bourbon."

In a sad case of life imitating art, Manhandled star Sterling Hayden's own psychiatrist (in contrast to Lamour's rather innocent "loose lips" moment in the film) would inform on Hayden to the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) a huge violation of doctor-patient confidentiality that was typical of the Noir era. Hayden ended up testifying and "named names." To his credit, Hayden later wrote in his autobiography Wanderer (still in print!): "I don't think you have the foggiest notion of the contempt I have had for myself since the day I did that thing." In an interview later in life, Hayden sarcastically commented, "I castigated myself the way any proper person should." Ironically, Hayden was a patriot, joining the OSS (Office of Strategic Services; later known as the C.I.A.) before Pearl Harbor and operated as a gunrunner, helping Yugoslav partisans against occupying Nazi forces and earned the Silver Star for bravery. The fact that the partisans were Communists (and United States allies) didn't matter in those dark days after World War II, when paranoia and fear ruled the day.


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