Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Grand Old Dame

Ever see The Awful Truth (1937)? Remember Aunt Patsy (Ms. Cecil Cunningham) who played the sassy, undersexed confidant of Lucy (Irenne Dunne)? The same character who hands Ralph Bellamy's mama's boy his "diploma"? The same woman who steals virtually every scene she's in?

That's the kind of woman I refer to as a Grand Old Dame.

Several women with that same sort of pluck populated Hollywood during the Golden Age, and the persona they crafted existed in real life, too. In fact, the women who played tough old gals who were quick with a quip, bawdy in demeanor and behavior, and who could outdrink the men without a thought.

Some names that come to mind: Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, Shelley Winters, Elizabeth Taylor, and Bea Arthur. These are women who battled their men on screen and off. Whose marriages toughened them and their dealings with studio bosses and sexist directors toughened their attitudes towards men and life. These "broads"--and I use that name in the very best sense of that usually derogatory term--were great raconteurs, who knew where all the bodies were buried and laughed about it. Ever see Bette Davis on The Dick Cavett Show from the early 1970s? Here was perhaps the greatest Grand Old Dame of them all, smoking, drinking, and swearing with aplomb. But also absolutely charming.

As a kid, I knew there was something special about these women who emerged from the studio system run by tightfisted tyrants like Jack Warner, Hal Wallis, and Daryl F. Zanuck, Gals like Davis, Garland, and Taylor had to be tough, or die meekly. Garland coped with booze and drugs and died young, but not before becoming a wonderful storyteller with a great laugh. She could hold a room spellbound with her dramatic and comedic flair. Women like Davis were so much more interesting than their shrinking violet successors of the 1950s and 1960s, where women seemed to take a step back after progressing during the 30s and World War II. They became institutions unto themselves.

Do we have anyone like that today? I don't think so. Liz Taylor is scarce in public these days, and no one who's a star today has that kind of charisma or presence to tell great tales. We communicate more and say less these days, which would no doubt disappoint Dames like Davis.

I recommend the Dick Cavett DVD set Hollywood Greats, to see Bette in action. Judy Garland did an interview on either The Jack Paar Show or The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Go scour youtube for those.

Almost Ready, Jack: Judy Garland preparing to be bawdy.


  1. One of my favorites who I think matches this description is Brett Sommers of Match Game fame.

  2. I love that Bette Davis interview! Another great grand old dame (who I think played in a movie of the same title once?) is May Robson -- what a spunky character!

  3. I love aunt Patsy! I have probably seen The Awful Truth about 50 times. It will never be enough!

  4. Oh yes, I totally wish we still had 'em around, today's world could use some of their charisma and views on life! (;
    &What about Katherine Hepburn? I think "The Great Kate" was a Grand Old Dame as well! (:

  5. I just worked my way through that Dick Cavett Hollywood Greats DVD. The Davis interview was my favorite because she was game for everything. She was from old Hollywood, and yet there was a modern edge to her. I also loved Astaire's humble grace and John Huston's positive spirit and "yes, this is what God's voice would sound like" way of talking. As frustrating as it could be to watch the Brando interview, I thought it was interesting that he was at least somewhat aware that he was acting like a punk. At the end, it was almost as if he was saying--"yeah, this isn't a nice way to act, but it's what I am". Man, you've made me want to watch that set again!

    I think the grand old dames got great build up from the studio system. It's hard to imagine that level of respect in our current "tear 'em down" culture.

  6. C.K., I'm so glad you mentioned that great Cavett interview with Bette Davis. She's my favorite actress ever, and that interview is a revelation. She is relaxed, funny, candid, and bawdy--so different from the neurotic roles she hypnotized audiences with. She was so convincing in those roles that people thought she was like that offscreen too. The Cavett interview shows you that wasn't necessarily so and reminds us that the great actors are capable of becoming someone else convincingly. Cavett always seemed to bring out the best--and the real person--in his interviews.

  7. I think the reason that there aren't any `Grand old Dames" anymore is there is no need.
    I think the women of that era had to be tough, act like a man, to get anywhere.

  8. Great post. I love this type of woman. Bette Davis is incredible. Always one of my favorites.

  9. Lovely post! If there is a grand old dame today, we have Lauren Bacall. Do you concur? She is great in movies still, like in Lars von Trier's Dogville.

    I adore the Dick Cavett interview with Bette Davis. He also did an interview with Gloria Swanson, another dame fitting you description.

    I did not know there was a DVD set! I have to put it on my "to buy list".

  10. Bette Davis' appearance on Dick Cavett has actually popped up in my "recommended viewing" section on YouTube, but I haven't gotten around to seeing it yet. Thanks for the reminder -- I'll make sure to check it out soon.

    I think you've just about summed up exactly why I find Bette Davis, and women like her, so captivating to watch.

  11. It's nice that you appreciate actresses like Judy Garland and Bette Davis. But why . . . why view the past through rose colored glasses and put down the younger generation in the process? Why do so many people do that?


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