Tuesday, February 23, 2010

My First Warner Archive Purchase

After an eternity of hemming, hawing and just plain making excuses to not buy any titles from the WB Archive, yours truly finally happened upon a title that broke my self-styled, John Garfield,-anti-hero will.

The Robert Benchley Miniatures Collection, a 3-disc set of the master humorist's short films made for MGM spanning 1935-1944 became available as of Oct 2009! Cost was $30.00 and coupled with shipping and tax, came to $36.97. Considering that most Archive titles run $19.95 per disc, getting three at $30.00 was a steal, a factor instrumental in the decision to buy. Eventually, the Archive will have a title so irresistible that even the skinflintiest, cheapskatiest classic film fan will yield. Besides, this is probably the "way of the future, way of the future, way of the future, way of the future..." ;)

Benchley's a legend in the Haven household, and since we lacked a DVD recorder, the only way to snag the odd Benchley short was on a Warners DVD. It was a tedious and expensive process which netted just four shorts. This set completes our MGM Benchley in one fell swoop, with thirty films filling out this collection.

Quality: Another big concern to fans was the varying sound and picture quality. This doesn't play a factor with seventy-year-old short films, but may with, say, a 1960s Sci-Fi film shot in widescreen Technicolor. With the Benchley set, quality is on par with how these shorts look and sound on "regular" Warner Bros. DVDs. No remastering, but all dialogue is completely intelligible, and the picture is fine, considering the time frame and absence of any restoration. I don't think short subjects receive any special treatment on standard-issue DVDs. Packaging is a regular case with "flipper" pages to hold the discs. No cellophane wrapping or gooey stickers, so that's a plus; anything that reduces plastic can't be all that bad. Shipping was lightning fast, with the order placed on Feb 17 and received on the 22nd.

I'm pleasantly surprised when films of this vintage are in immaculate condition--these aren't anywhere near the level, of say, Columbia's Three Stooges Collections, but the Benchley Collection is well worth the price paid. I have absolutely no qualms about this release.

Oh, I see they have the Joe McDoakes short films, too!

Monday, February 22, 2010

One Lovely Blog Award!

Thanks to Robert at Retro Hound, who awarded Hollywood Dreamland with the One Lovely Blog award. We're always humbled here whenever we're recognized by our blogging peers, so in keeping with the rules of the award, I will pass the award on to *gulp* ten other blogs. This time around, we'll spotlight blogs that are recent discoveries, as well as a nod to some old favorites who've probably been awarded this already...

Laura's Miscellaneous Musings- My pal in Disney and in 1930s movies whose well-rounded and informed writing is a treat.

Dear Old Hollywood- Congrats to newlywed Robby!

The Big Parade- Led by Zoe, who's a delight.

Screen Siren- Naomi's lovely blog is, well, lovely!

Goodfellas Movie Blog- Dave's a helluva writer and his Noir countdown has inspired animated discussion. Dave, I'm jealous of *and* intimidated by your ability.

The Movie Projector- R.D.'s currently running down a great Oscar list, check it out.

Movietone News- Matthew Coniam's recent entry on Robert Benchley is saved on my hard drive. Great work, Matthew.

Wearing History- Lauren's fun blog is teaching me all about vintage fashion.

It's All Make Believe, Isn't It?- Stefanie Valentine's blog is another recent discovery that I look forward to reading. She also liked my Porky at the Crocadero post.

Hollywood Heyday- One of the first blogs I ever followed. It quietly runs down the goings on in tinseltown. Fascinating stuff, edited by the mysterious GAH1965...

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Porky at the Crocadero (1938)

Porky at the Crocadero (1938, Warner Brothers; dir. Frank Tashlin) is a decent, if by-the-numbers effort that only takes off in the final two minutes, when Porky Pig gets his chance to be a bog-time bandleader at the swank Crocadero nightclub. When the band slated to play that night can't make it, just-fired dishwasher Porky is hastily tracked down to get his big shot at the big time.

Porky proceeds to do impressions of Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman but the fireworks really fly when he goes into Cab Calloway mode (respectfully, considering when this was made) or rather "Cab Howlaway and his Absorbent Cotton Club Orchestra" and gets the joint jumpin' with a frenetic take of " Chinatown." I couldn't find any versions of Cab singing "Chinatown" but if any Calloway (or Howlaway!) scholars out there know of one and where it can be found, let us know.

Note the Deco styling. These nice touches can be found in many 1930s cartoons. It was an era of Moderne sophistication!

The sheet music has the song "Avalon" on it, with Porky-as-Paul Whiteman just having played it before jumping into swinging mode as "Cab Howlaway."

The following sequence of stills demonstrate just how expressive and, er...animated Warner Brothers cartoonists made their subjects. So expressive and entertaining whether they're in motion or not. Don't know who's singing for Porky (it's not Mel Blanc, who does warble "Summer Night.")

"My Chinatown..."

The Porky Pig of the 1930s has always interested me. I like how he was Warner Bros. first breakout star, years before The Rabbit burst onto the scene. Through these 1930s cartoons one can follow the pig's career as he emerges from a pack of uninteresting animal characters in 1935's I Haven't Got a Hat. I'd never seen Porky in black & white until recently and it's been a joyous discovery. Too bad these never ever aired when I was a kid, but being in black & white and not of the 1950s, Chuck Jones-dominated fare found on the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner Show of Saturday mornings of my late-'70s/early '80s youth, it wasn't likely that I would happen upon them. If I had seen these before now, I might've worn my first Zoot suit at age ten.

Porky at the Crocadero is available on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Volume 5.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #1: Katharine Hepburn

First Movie I Saw Her In: The African Queen (1951; on DVD March 23---finally!!!)

Three Favorite Movies: Holiday (1938); The Philadelphia Story (1940); The African Queen (1951)

Honorable Mention(s): Stage Door (1937); Woman of the Year (1942)

Favorite Movie with Spencer Tracy: Adam’s Rib (1949)

Oddly Interesting: Dragon Seed (1944)

Favorite Performance(s): Alice Adams (1935); Holiday (1938); Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962); Lion in Winter (1968); On Golden Pond (1981)

Why I Like Her: Yeah, yeah, yeah I know it’s fashionable these days to hate Katharine Hepburn but we live in a mad, mad, mad, mad world so what’s a little backlash against my favorite actress of all time?

Katharine Hepburn is probably the coolest woman that ever lived. I am in awe of her progressive, New England personality borne of a solid upbringing. I admire her feisty independent spirit and even her prickly personality.

When I watch a Katharine Hepburn movie I’m not watching it because I necessarily love that time period—though I do—but every Hepburn film I’ve seen, period piece or not, has a sense of timelessness about it. It’s her performances that remain fresh all these years later. Hepburn was the first “modern” woman in film I ever saw. Other actresses were strong-willed but were very much of their time. Hepburn’s confidence and focus is another part of what’s so great about her. Hepburn is much like Cary Grant in that her personality transcends the time in which her films were made. She’s not just a “1930s actress” or someone exclusive to any other decade.


The Hepburn I like best is in the roles where she’s vulnerable and tender. It’s no coincidence that my favorite Hepburn performances: Alice Adams, Holiday, On Golden Pond, etc., all have Kate in “Tender Mode.” If you’ve only seen her in her tough, pre-feminist roles give that other side of her a try and I think you’ll be won over.

In the looks department, she’s another Golden Age actress who was not “conventionally” beautiful yet Hepburn’s distinctive speaking voice, steely stare burns with a fierce intelligence that is quite attractive. My wife and I disagree as to whether Hepburn is good looking or not—you probably know which end of that argument I’m on…

Fashion wise, Hepburn had a natural, easy style about her. No, not the “rags” as she called the Kate-uniform she wore in her later years but rather the sporty, athletic, and tastefully-casual style she had in the 1940s-50s. Hepburn had a natural glamour. One of my favorite photos of her is from 1938 with the freckled, beaming Hepburn amid the destruction of her Connecticut home that ruined 95% of her personal belongings.

Hepburn’s never had a “down period” because she didn’t work as often as her contemporaries. She endured the “Box Office Poison” tag in the 1930s something that’s long-been consigned to the realm of historical trivia. She wasn’t helpless, drug-addled, or self destructive. Hepburn was a survivor who was level-headed and who credited her parents with raising her right. I like my heroes to be long-lived, happy, and honored while they’re still among the living. Hepburn had all that. We know about the four Academy Awards, the twelve nominations, and her long affair with Spensuh; all that’s legend now.

So there you have it, Hollywood Dreamland’s Ten Favorite Actresses. Kate’s ruled the roost for a number of years in my personal top ten but I’m not above having her knocked off the top of this heap if I suddenly find a new favorite to obsess over. It may not ever happen; but I’ll have a blast looking.

One More Thing: One of my favorite Hepburn-related websites is the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Center. "The Kate" is the theatre built in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. I plan on dragging the wife up there to see The Land Where Kate Lived (how is it in Summer?). The Center has a great blog, which gave Hollywood Dreamland a plug when we were just getting started. I'm grateful for that. It was special to have something connected to Katharine Hepburn wish us well, though I'm surprised we're still around!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #2: Myrna Loy

First Movie I Saw Her In: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Three Favorite Movies: The Thin Man (1934) After the Thin Man (1936); The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Honorable Mention: Test Pilot (1938)

Favorite Movie with William Powell: If you have to ask...

Favorite Performance: The Thin Man (1934)

Why I Like Her: Anyone who reads this blog knows how mad I am about the Thin Man movies. A lot about what I like about them has a lot to do with Myrna Loy. She’s the definition of cool and calm with a biting, sarcastic wit that’s second to none. That, in a nutshell, is why I like her so much. No layers of complicated emotions, no inner “torment”, just a dame who’s relaxed and in control. She’s someone who’s confident, funny and has the world in the palm of her hand. Well, that and because Loy is also such a distinctive-looking beauty with her "trademark" nose and her voice with its sophisticated tones. She was the strong woman behind the man. I worship her performance in The Thin Man, a film where she was denied even an Oscar nomination but makes off with most of that film’s best lines. She has an introduction even better than her perpetual co-star, William Powell.

Myrna Loy’s cool demeanor is the ultimate Hollywood illusion. It was also one of the great fantasies of the movie-going public. I’ve commented before on how I feel about the “ideal wife” tag that was used to sell her image and once again I’ll say that I much prefer the witty tippler who implored her husband to solve another mystery. I love how Myrna conveys confidence in her roles. As Nora, she’s unflustered by Nick’s consoling of Maureen O’Sullivan’s character. The wrinkled nose face Myrna makes at Powell shows that she’s not jealous but rather secure that Nick isn’t up to anything sneaky. Women adored her because she was no man’s fool and was every bit as intelligent—if not more so—than any male character.

Myrna’s characters often knew best and had a wonderful wisdom about them. Take the scene in The Best Years of Our Lives, when daughter Theresa Wright claims that her parents never had any difficulty in their relationship. Myrna’s character responds with some of the most moving dialogue in the film:

"We never had any trouble." How many times have I told you I hated you and believed it in my heart? How many times have you said you were sick and tired of me; that we were all washed up? How many times have we had to fall in love all over again?”

I can hear those words spoken in Loy’s distinctive voice with a touch of sadness at remembering the pain. Of course, the Academy failed to nominate her for this or anything else.

Myrna Loy’s career, like that of Ginger Rogers, tapers off after the mid-1940s. Less roles for aging actresses—Hollywood’s ongoing shame—and less interest for any woman over 40 essentially all contributed to Loy’s withdrawal from movies. Despite being massively popular during the 1930s and ‘40s, she’s never mentioned as one of the great stars of her time. Ever for the underdog, the underappreciated, and the just-plain forgotten, Myrna Loy ranks so high on this list because in her prime she was as appealing an individual that Hollywood ever produced. She was criminally underrated in the looks department despite having played exotic beauties in many of her silent films. She also gets overlooked as a comedic actress because comedy has always been cinema’s second citizen. Those who become enamored with classic film can claim Myrna Loy as their own private find, a neglected treasure of wit, elegance, and sass who is just as fresh today as she was seventy-five years ago.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #3: Ginger Rogers

First Movie I Saw Her In: Stage Door (1937)

Three Favorite Movies: Top Hat (1935); Swing Time (1936); Stage Door (1937).

Honorable Mention: Weekend at the Waldorf (1946)

Favorite Performance: Stage Door (1937)

With Astaire: Top Hat (1935)

Why I Like Her: Ginger’s been covered at length in the Discovering Ginger Rogers entry. However, I could talk about her all day…

Liking Ginger Rogers was easy as pie once I actually saw her on screen. After about thirty seconds of watching Ginger in Stage Door I already considered her one of my favorites. She made me a fan from the start. Right away I was impressed at how modern she was. Ginger wasn’t melodramatic or whiny, she was more like how a real young woman would be during the 1930s; that is, if RKO technicians were tending your hair, makeup, and wardrobe, as well as providing your dialogue. Despite those small details, she came off as strikingly real. Ginger is also solely responsible for getting me interested--make that fascinated--with 1930s movies.

It’s hard to believe that I dismissed her out of hand as Fred Astaire’s untalented other half! My goodness, what was I thinking??? It’s an embarrassing admission but one I must admit to lest I fall into such stupidity again. Confession is good for the soul… However, Ginger was less a great star than a cultural cliché (“Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels.”) That’s such a dismissal of her ability. Ginger won an Oscar over staggeringly good competition in 1941 with her win for Kitty Foyle (the merits of the film is grist for another thread) but Astaire never did win a competitive Oscar, so she had that much on him.

Ginger’s comedic ability is second to none as she had great timing and a snappy, breezy way of speaking that made her a great choice for what were referred to as “working gal” roles. She was earthy without being foul, delicate without being helpless and graceful and feminine without sacrificing toughness. She could get into a catfight, moon over a dashing man, and crack wise with the likes of Kate Hepburn and Gail Patrick. She’s also the only actress of her era who could sing a Gershwin tune, dance while conveying a variety of feelings, and excel at drama and comedy—I say that in every entry, don’t I? For my money and for what’s up there on screen, Ginger Rogers is the most talented actress on this list. I’m amazed at all the things that she could do well and she’s alone at the top in that respect. The unfortunate aspect of Ginger’s career is that she turned her back on musicals and dancing which she should’ve kept at and could’ve continued doing, especially after her Oscar win, which put her on the top of the heap.

My interest in Ginger Rogers wanes considerably after 1945. Less interesting roles and films did nothing for her career as well as some inconsistent performances that were strangely out of character. However, from about 1932 to 1945 she was as good as anyone ever was or will be.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #4: Barbara Stanwyck

First Movie I Saw Her In: Double Indemnity (1944)

Three Favorite Movies: Ball of Fire (1941); The Lady Eve (1941); Meet John Doe (1941)

Honorable Mention: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Favorite Performance: Drama: Double Indemnity (1944); Comedy: Ball of Fire (1941)

Why I Like Her: Barbara Stanwyck is the Golden Age actress I was ever exposed to, via The Big Valley (1965-69), the Western TV show where Babs played Victoria, the matriarch of the Barkley family. She was billed as "Miss Barbara Stanwyck" and even to my child brain of thirty years ago, she made an impression. I knew that this woman was something special (even when I wasn't gawking at Stanwyck's ravishing co-star, Linda Evans). Stanwyck was the first movie star-turned-TV-star that I ever watched with regularity.

It wasn't until the mid-1990s that I would reconnect with Stanwyck and this time, it would be her her film career, which I had been vauguely aware of but hadn't seen. Discovering Barbara Stanwyck the film star was a constant, unfolding joy. In fact, it remains one of my favorite discoveries since my full-fledged obsession with classic film.

Stanwyck was brilliant at both comedy and drama, played cold-bloodedness and jubillance with equal expertise and I was stunned at how sensual and hypnotic she was as Phyllis Dietrichson, the black widow of Double Indemnity. It was a helluva introduction to this side of the actress! However, the "lighter side" of Stanwyck was what made me like her even more. Once again, a woman who can be funny is a guaranteed success in my book. My three favorite Barabara Stanwyck performances all come from her stellar year of 1941 where she appeared in Ball of Fire; Meet John Doe; and The Lady Eve. In the last film she tantalized and beguiled Henry Fonda and in the first two movies Stanwyck and Gary Cooper were simply wonderful together. Never in a million years would I think that that combination would work as well as it did.

Stanwyck will never be thought of as a great beauty but as Sugarpuss O'Shea in Ball of Fire, she has a sexy, playfullness about her that makes her wonderfully appealing. Proof once again (as if anyone needed it) that beauty is a way of being, not looking. Stanwyck has Cooper and company eating out of her hands in that film.

In an earlier, largely unread post I put forth the theory that Barbara Stanwyck's legacy has grown bigger in the years since her death in 1990. I confindently place her "up there" with three other major actresses of the 1930s-40s. Stanwyck was well-respected in her movie star prime, receiving four Oscar nominations but never winning. The Academy finally honored Stanwyck with an honorary Oscar. Better late than never. Go here for her emotional acceptance speech.

Given my long history and lifelong appreciation for Stanwyck, it wouldn't surprise me if she eventually rises to the top spot on this list. I still need to see her more obscure 1930s work. It'll no doubt be just as rewarding as first seeing her as the tremndous performer she revealed herself to be when I was just discovering her as a movie actress.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #5: Carole Lombard

First Movie I Saw Her In: My Man Godfrey (1936)

Three Favorite Movies: Hands Across the Table (1936); Nothing Sacred (1937); To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Honorable Mention: The Princess Comes Across (1937)

Favorite Performance: Hands Across the Table (1936)

Why I Like Her:
Who's that gorgeous gal in the Hollywood Dreamland masthead? Before I ever saw a Carole Lombard movie I was floored by how beautiful she was in photographs. She remains the most photogenic movie star ever. But if good looks were all that mattered, Hedy Lamarr would be the World's Greatest Movie Star.

Nothing appeals to me more than a beautiful woman with a sense of humor; it can't be beat. Lombard was known for her bawdy and uninhibited wackiness. If she were in her prime today she would own Hollywood. Her personality would be ripe for interviews and priceless "sound bytes." In fact, many Carole Lombard stories are brilliant in their raunchy but absolutely priceless content (They can't be repeated here; sorry, we're a family blog).

But it's Lombard the actres that appeals to me most. Lombard, like many of her Golden Age peers, was able to do comedic as well as dramatic roles. There were also those seriocomic scenes within her films when Carole could straddle the line and dazzle using elements of both. There's a scene in My Man Godfrey where her character is "distraught" over Godfrey. It's great how she's able to feign the depths of gloom but make it hilarious at the same time. It was perfect behavior from her character who was wildly immature but was falling in love with William Powell's Godfrey. The scene is exactly the kind of emotional meoldramatics that an "angst-ridden" teenager might engage in---fun for the whole family! It's the best scene of faux-torment ever put on film. I'm convinced that that scene alone was responsible for her Academy Award nomination for Best Actress that year. Carole's greatest strength was her mastery of comedy, bringing along with it a pathos that such an undertaking requires

Despite Lombard's appeal, her fame and reputation is tied to her romance with Clark Gable and to her early, tragic death at age 33 in a plane crash in 1942. Despite a handful of memorable performances (and her reputation as Hollywood's "Profane Angel"--watch the My Man Godfrey outtakes for Carole's "potty mouth") perhaps her filmography lacked that definitive Lombard performance. My Man Godfrey is an ensemble piece, To Be or Not to Be is Jack Benny's film, and the lone movie she did with Gable---1932's No Man of Her Own--is the answer to a trivia question. For better or worse, Lombard is best remembered for what she was offscreen and that's a tragedy in itself. This list consists of several underdogs and forgotten actresses but none are as tied to the Golden Age as Carole is. The fact that she existed in the 1930s (like Jean Harlow) and perished at the beginning of World War II tied her to that age of America more than any other performer.

We'll never know what Carole's career would've been like during and after WWII but she appeared to be on the comeback trail with To Be or Not to Be (playing "Straight Man" to Jack Benny; she did it marvelously) but it requires major guesswork and grasping at straws to envision what "might've been", and that is the greatest tragedy, the not knowing. The fact that such a vibrant, spirited, and caring person died at such a young age is something I often think about when I watch a Lombard film.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #6: Susan Hayward

First Movie I Saw Her In: Top Secret Affair (1957)

Three Favorite Movies: The Lusty Men (1952); I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955); I Want to Live! (1958)

Honorable Mention: Garden of Evil (1954)

Favorite Performance: I Want to Live (1958)

Why I Like Her: Susan Hayward is my favorite 1950s actress, even though she’s a recent discovery for me. She opened up my interest in 1950s actresses whom I had previously categorized as the mousy housewife (June Allyson) and the breathless sexpot (Marilyn Monroe). There had to be something more than those options. Susan Hayward opened up the possibilities and also threw out my dopey generalizations about those aforementioned actresses and the 1950s in general.

I first decided I liked her when I saw her “lighter side” in the 1957 comedy Top Secret Affair. It turned out to be a great introduction because I was only aware of her as a gutsy, leave-it-all-on-the-screen actress. The fact that Hayward and co-star Kirk Douglas both reined in their intense acting styles and the resulting fun romantic comedy showed a side of Hayward’s not often seen. From there my exploration into Hayward’s career continued with her Oscar nominated roles. Hayward played real-life singers twice and received acclaim: 1952’s With a Song in My Heart and 1955’s I’ll Cry Tomorrow. For the latter, Hayward finally conquered her fear of not being good enough and agreed to do her own singing; the results were stellar. The soundtrack CD of I’ll Cry Tomorrow features a Hayward vocal of the title tune not heard in the film but was issued on a LP compilation. Her voice is haunting and her phrasing is brilliant; here was a singer who knew the lyrics’ meaning, too.

Hayward exuded a tough but tender character that made her stand out from her contemporaries. Her performances are often over-the-top but when Hayward’s doing it, all is forgiven. She excelled at playing tragic, boozy characters—and they were often real people! Hayward’s Oscar-winning role as real-life convicted killer Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! has grown mythic in recent years and has been acknowledged as one of the 1950s greatest performances. I can count on one hand the number of performances where an actress or actor in question owns every frame in which they appear. Susan Hayward’s tremendous performance in I Want to Live is one of them. Her Oscar win was the culmination of twenty years of Hollywood toiling before she essentially rode off into the sunset with this career-defining role.

What keeps Susan Hayward from being higher on this list is the paucity of light, comedic roles. I know the talent was there and it’s a shame whenever an actor’s career isn’t fully realized. She accomplished a great deal but I’d love to have seen more diversity in her work. Besides, I'm a sucker for a gal with a great sense of humor. However, when I'm in that heavy drama mood, Susan's the one.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #7: Gail Patrick

First Movie I Saw Her In: My Man Godfrey (1936)

Three Favorite Movies: My Man Godfrey (1936); Stage Door (1937); Love Crazy (1941);

Honorable Mention: My Favorite Wife (1940)

Favorite Performance: Love Crazy (1941)

Why I Like Her: Okay, so this entry's a bit of a cheat. However, anyone who still reads this blog knows how I feel about Gail Patrick. In fact, I've written so much about her here in the Deco Dame series that another entry extolling this amazing woman's virtues would be repetitous. So, we direct you to this entry, which was originally written for the Silents and Talkies blog last Summer (thanks again, Kate!). It should also be mentioned that Gail Patrick is the only non-leading lady (though she did have a few) to make the top ten list. If I had more access to her films she would no doubt be higher up in the ranking. A biography would be nice, too.

One thing I'd like to add, though, is upon reflection, Gail is the one actress that first made me realize how great that 1930s era was for movies and for women performers. No decade produced such a varied field of brilliant actresses, wise-cracking dames, and godesses of beauty, wit, and intelligence. When you read Gail Patrick's biography you'll get to know about one of the great examples of the "strong woman" in real life, as well as on the screen.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #8: Claire Trevor

First Movie I Saw Her In: Born to Kill (1947)

Three Favorite Movies: Born to Kill (1947); Key Largo (1948); Raw Deal (1948)

Honorable Mention: Murder My Sweet (1944)

Favorite Performance: Key Largo (1948)

Why I Like Her: What a woman! I'm a sap for any dame who's an "unconventional" beauty. Claire Trevor just represents so much of what I like about actresses from the 1930s-40s. Despite being an Oscar winner, she's one of the great but forgotten actresses of her era. She made her mark playing the “Hooker with a heart of gold” in Stagecoach (1939) but it was her tough, sultry demeanor that made its mark on me. Claire Trevor doesn’t have the popularity as other noir actresses do. She wasn’t the sex kitten that, say, Gloria Grahame was, but Claire Trevor played the “lived in” and vulnerable character better than anybody. I find her quite attractive but Trevor’s also underrated in the beauty dept., She’s absolutely stunning in Murder My Sweet, a film I’m not crazy about—I’m spoiled by the novel—but she mesmerizing with her blonde hair and black outfits both of which look amazing in black & white photography.

Claire Trevor could work both ends of the character spectrum in that she could be sympathetic in one film and completely dark with villainy in the other. I admire her ability to be bad but it’s her sad, sympathetic roles that I like best. In her Oscar-winning performance in Key Largo, Trevor plays Gaye Dawn, a mobster’s moll way past her prime who’s now reduced to a pathetic and boozy shell of a woman. Her eyes are glassy and filled with the sorrow of a life wasted. The scene where Edward G. Robinson makes her sing is one of the most humiliating things I’ve ever seen in a noir film. I’m embarrassed for her character. Robinson’s reaction to Gaye’s “singing” makes it all the sadder as he actually expected the pathetic display he forced her into. I consider Key Largo one of the greatest films where what isn't said says volumes more than other films with double the dialogue. Claire Trevor excelled at this type of role and Key Largo fit her strengths perfectly.

She had a dark, tough way about her (watch her in Born to Kill!) but she was vulnerable just under the surface. She had a “lived in” look that conveyed both experience and a variety of emotions from a life filled with regret. She could do more with her eyes in a scene than most actors could with a monologue and showy direction. A lot of times I’ll be ignoring the other performers just to see how Trevor is reacting, usually without saying a word or even moving! Charisma and screen presence can’t be taught and what Claire Trevor does isn’t scene-stealing or scenery chewing; she’s just a force on the silver screen. That’s what I love about 1940s films: so much was expressed through innuendo or timing or even silence. Claire Trevor doesn’t come off as real and even when she goes into the more melodramatic parts of a role, I just enjoy being the audience for a Claire Trevor performance.

It just so happens that RD Finch of the excellent Movie Projector blog has written a review of Raw Deal today.

Ah-rooo-gah: Claire Trevor was deceptively gorgeous.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #9: Jean Arthur

That's right, another favorite actress named Jean.

First Movie I Saw Her In: Shane (1953)

Three Favorite Movies: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Easy Living (1937); You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

Honorable Mention: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Favorite Performance: Easy Living (1937)

Why I Like Her: My reasons might be reactionary in that everything I like about Jean Arthur is what her detractors dislike! They say she wasn’t pretty, whereas I think she’s beautiful. Others dislike her speaking voice, yet I adore it. And seeing as Arthur so often played comedic roles, it suited her perfectly, but she’s equally tremendous in dramatic parts, adding a sense of urgency to the characters she’s playing (Only Angels Have Wings is a fine example of this).

Jean Arthur was an underdog in every sense of the word, with those aforementioned “handicaps” presumably working against her, she still managed to be involved with many of the 1930s greatest films. Her work with Frank Capra alone would cement her immortality in these eyes. Her impeccable line delivery is a joy to behold. You can “hear” her thinking when she’s a character. Arthur, (along with Irene Dunne) had this quality where you never saw her acting. Comedic actresses who take on dramatic roles almost never get the credit or awards that predominantly dramatic performers get for the odd comedy part. Comedy always gets the short end, doesn’t it?

One of her best attributes was being able to “sell the drama” in any given situation. When Arthur did this, there was no sign of the daffy screwball comedienne; it was an impressive transformation. She was excellent at the dramatic speech in that she could give an impassioned “pep talk” to the likes of Gary Cooper or James Stewart in what could be viewed as a sort of “strong woman behind the man.” She often came off as the female best friend of the protagonist as well as their conscience. Not many actresses from the Golden Age had these multilayered character traits.

Jean Arthur’s last film was 1953’s Shane, though she was largely retired from movies at the height of her career in 1944. Arthur appeared in 1948’s A Foreign Affair (dir. Billy Wilder) and 1953’s Shane (dir. George Stevens), working for two legendary directors wasn’t a bad way call it a movie career. Arthur would try her hand at television with 1966’s The Jean Arthur Show, which lasted all of eleven episodes.

Jean Arthur also qualifies for Miserable Sod status, as she came off as perpetually unhappy in her private life, with two failed marriages and endless doubts about her abilities as a performer: “I guess I became an actress because I didn't want to be myself.” Whatever it was that bothered her, it didn’t interfere with Jean the actress, whom I’ve grown to enjoy a whole lot in only a short time.

Does anyone have an unadulterated copy of this photo?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #10: Jean Harlow

First Movie I Saw Her In: Libeled Lady (1936)

Three Favorite Movies: Dinner at Eight (1933); China Seas (1935); Libeled Lady (1936)

Honorable Mention: Wife vs. Secretary (1936)

Favorite Performance: Dinner at Eight (1933)

Why I Like Her: To be honest, having Jean at #10 saddens me. Harlow died in 1937 at age 26. To get an idea of that devastation, imagine if Ginger Rogers had died right after Swing Time. We would be robbed of her at her peak. I'm certain that had her career lasted another ten years, Harlow would place much higher. It may sound "romantic" in that sickening "Youth Cult" sort of way, but losing Jean Harlow, one of the great movie comediennes of any era, was just tragic. There's nothing glamorous about someone dying in the prime of life. I'd rather Harlow lived to be a bawdy, eighty-year-old, Shelly Winters kind-of-gal than have her gone before she hit 30.

Before I ever saw a Harlow film, I had believed the half-truths of the brainwashed people who parrot whatever they hear, (“Jean Harlow was the Marilyn Monroe of her day”; “Sex Goddess”) but when I saw Harlow play a lovable, headstrong woman in Libeled Lady, I knew right away that there was infinitely more to her than ill-informed critics or so-called film buffs ever knew; did they even see her movies? Harlow was, on the surface, the platinum blonde dressed to the nines, but that’s all it was, a look. She had none of Monroe's childlike innocence or sensual breathiness. Harlow's sensuality, as it were, was largely confined to the imaginations of her male costars or the jealousy of her female costars. (The photo above is my favorite picture of her, looking sophisticated and nothing at all like the Deco Goddess she was portrayed as being. I think she's better looking as a "regular" girl). A Harlow character was tough, tender, but definitely not helpless, though she could convey vulnerability as well as anyone. I lament her early death, I truly feel sorry that she didn’t live a long life. Harlow could’ve done anything and been a smashing success.

I’m consistently amazed at how Harlow steals the show in Dinner at Eight, when she’s on screen with an MGM all-star cast and the biggest stars of the day: John and Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, and Lee Tracy. The reason that film is remembered is because of Jean Harlow’s star-making performance. Every time she appears on screen she commands the viewer’s attention. If you never knew anyone from that film, you would believe that Dinner at Eight was a vehicle for Harlow at at her peak, not in her first real comedic role.

Harlow’s appeal to me is that she was so much more than those oft-repeated generalizations about who she was merely based on her appearance. When I took a really good look at her, I saw a pretty girl, not the sex goddess everyone talked about. I saw a sweet girl who had charisma and personality to burn and that ability to show vulnerability without breaking into melodramatic hysterics. To me, she’s the best-kept secret on this list and also in the Golden Age.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Starting Tomorrow: Favorite Actresses Countdown

Hot, but Not: Ava and Lana didn't make HD's Favorite Actresses list.

Or rather, as a soon as I complete the first entry! Back in June, Hollywood Dreamland ran down its Ten Favorite Actors list, which was a lot of fun to do. A favorite actresses meme was done here back in December, 2008 but that was a mere listing without any of the blowhard commentary you've (hopefully) come to expect. However, I'm going to try and be more succinct in my "whys" and "wheres" this time around.

The Set Up: As with the gentlemen's countdown, only actresses who were active up to and including the 1950s will be included: For example, no Raquel Welch or Faye Dunaway, but Bette Davis would count, although her career spanned the 1960s and '70s, she worked in that 1930s-50s time frame.

And speaking of actresses, the new poll is up and ready to count your vote.