Saturday, March 27, 2010

It's Ginger Rogers They Come to See, Part II

I guess I'd better thank Turner Classic Movies for making Ginger Rogers their March Star of the Month! This, my own miserable corner of the bloggosphere, has received maybe four times the amount of visitors--and spammers--since Ginger's movies started being shown on Wednesdays. As mentioned before, the most popular search term is "Ginger Rogers [sans clothing]", with "Gloria Grahame [sans clothing]" hanging on to second place; they won't find that stuf here, though, this is a family-friendly blog. Star of Midnight (our April, 2009 review has new screen caps--take a look), a delightful Thin Man-esque mystery starring Ginger and William Powell, also gets searched a lot, and of course Ginger Rogers Swing Time Dress, which has been lifted from here more than any other photo that *I've* nipped from other sites!

I'm thrilled that Ginger still wows 'em! I like to think that she's gaining legions of new fans with every re-airing of Swing Time, and that some drably-attired "T-Shirt and Jeans Girl" will discover the glamour that is the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Scenes I Love: The Thin Man (1934)

In The Thin Man, there's a wonderful scene that takes place during Nick and Nora's Christmas party and where Nora (Myrna Loy) sports that gorgeous, I-wish-women-today-dressed-up dress. The sequence has Mrs. Charles entering the bedroom of their swank NYC hotel and finding husband Nick (William Powell) and the comely young Dorothy Wynant (Maureen O'Sullivan) arrives to see Nick and admit to shooting Julia Wolf. The young lady falls into Nick's arms and as our favorite gentleman detective consoles her, who but Nora would enter the room and see her husband embracing another woman. Nick responds in his typically playful way:

So how does Mrs. Charles react to this? Well, seeing as their relationship is among the best ever depicted on film, the ever-cool Nora responds with her usual panache:

I love that! Using no dialogue whatsoever, our two stars convey everything about their successful marriage. Nora knows darn well that Nick wouldn't stray, and Nick knows he's playing up the suavity for which he's known. He knows that she knows that there's no hanky panky going on but she still gives him "heck" for being in such a position.

One would be hard pressed to think of many films that depict a loving, playful, and vibrant relationship at its peak. Most movies depict the beginning or twilight of a married couple but Nick and Nora are among the elite couples that are enjoying themselves in the middle of their relationship. Once again, The Thin Man gives yet another reason why it's my all-time favorite film. By the way, I believe I "nicked" this blog post concept from Ginger Ingenue over at Asleep in New York, so credit and royalties all go to her...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: Morning Glory (1933)

If Katharine Hepburn hadn’t won her first Oscar for Morning Glory, the film wouldn't even merit being the answer to a trivia question; it’s just not a memorable movie. It’s a underdeveloped blend of What Price Hollywood (1932) and A Star is Born (1937) while lacking the superior writing and direction of those films. Morning Glory attempts to inject “cautionary fame” dialogue but it’s only dumped in at the end. The performance by Hepburn could be considered a warmup of sorts to Hepburn’s Alice Adams character, as her Eva Lovelace is just as naïve and foolishly romantic as Alice Adams was, only without the emotional power and sympathy.

Morning Glory is the story of Eva Lovelace, a naïve ingénue who has romantic aspirations in the world of the theatre. She arrives at the office of Lewis Easton (Adolphe Menjou) and playwright Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) hoping for her big break. She ends up being defiled, dumped, and dismissed by Easton after a drunken fling at a party, but not before we see what a talent Eva is when she does a drunken rendition of Hamlet, moving Sheridan to tears! Eva winds up doing vaudeville shtick until the play’s greedy leading lady bows out of Easton’s play and Eva must step in at the last minute to save the day and achieve the fame she seeks.

Despite being a pre-Code film—there's some innuendo and women in undergarments that warrant one’s notice—Morning Glory is a half-baked drama that never makes its move. We never feel for Eva Lovelace like we would Alice Adams. The film does boast a top-notch cast: Adolphe Menjou, playing another stage producer like he would in Stage Door, only without the wit; Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as the playwright, spends the duration of the movie with a pipe stuck in his mug (because writers always smoke pipes) when he's not half-heartedly fawning over Hepburn; C. Aubrey Smith, who’s charming and not his usual blustery, "Pip-Pip" self but he's woefully underused. An interesting thing to notice about the actors here is that the men are all quite naturalistic in their performances while the women (save Kate) play their parts with over-the-top gusto.

As for Hepburn’s performance, she’s fine but her character is surprisingly one note and woefully underdeveloped, with little script and helpful direction to flesh out her character. Director Lowell Sherman is no George Cukor or George Stevens, that’s for sure. One laments what those two directors could’ve done with this material. The film is a brief 73 minutes but the first twenty is spent in a static scene in Menjou’s office where he and Dougie, Jr. are trying to cast the latter’s play. This is where the film does its cast a disservice. Morning Glory could’ve packed more character study into its lean running time instead of flailing away at a plot that’s even leaner. Hepburn's not even on screen as much as she should be! Besides that, the narrative lets her character down, as we don't get to see her trials in her quest to be a great actress; they're mentioned in an offhand way to no dramatic effect.

The Bottom Line: Morning Glory is notable only for being Katharine Hepburn’s first Oscar winner—she beat out May Robson in Lady for a Day and Diana Wynyard in Cavalcade. After seeing Morning Glory it only makes me wish that Kate had lost the Oscar and instead won it for Alice Adams or The Philadelphia Story instead of for this forgettable effort.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: Stage Door (1937)

When I first saw Stage Door in 2006 it was because of my newfound interest in Ginger Rogers. Ginger was the comedic backbone of the movie and I became an admirer of hers from that day forward. However, the other major star in the movie, Katharine Hepburn, was already a longtime favorite of mine but her performance in Stage Door didn’t involve many of the comedic bits despite her great rivalry with Rogers’ character. In the many times I’ve watched the film since then, I’ve realized what a fine performance Hepburn gives. In fact, she’s the central dramatic focus of this already quite impressive ensemble cast of wisecracking dames.

The Plot: Hepburn is Terry Randall, the daughter of a business tycoon who has recently decided to become an actress. Terry figures that there’s nothing to acting—one just goes up on stage and speaks the lines. However, Terry wishes to succeed in theatre without her father’s powerful influence. Mr. Randall backs the production and makes a deal with producer Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou; who gives a delightful performance and gets some great lines) to get Terry the lead so she can fail miserably and get show biz out of her system. Terry’s wealthy background and shallow pursuit of stardom rubs the other girls of the Footlights Club boardinghouse the wrong way and she develops an instant rival in Ginger’s Jean Maitland character. The two have wonderful scenes together, trading caustic barbs in a see-saw battle of acid wits. However, Terry’s getting the lead over another roommate, the emotional fragile and creepy Kaye, leads to tragedy and Terry finally understands that being an actress involves more than merely reading the lines; one must feel the same things as the person they're playing.

Stage Door is best known as the movie with Kate’s line about the Calla Lilies being in bloom again. It’s often mentioned with amusement. In fact, the line is amusing when Kate speaks the words in rehearsal while oblivious to their meaning and then those same words take on a poignant, tragic meaning when she says them again during the performance of the play within the movie. Ginger Rogers may have gotten the bulk of comic lines but Hepburn gets more to do with the heavy dramatic scenes. Her scene in the dressing room just before curtain is Kate’s powerhouse moment. She’s sympathetic and devastated at the news of a tragedy concerning…no spoilers here, folks! The play begins and Terry’s previous ignorance of her character’s reading of the “Calla Lilies are in bloom” line has a poignancy and emotional impact that brings the Terry Randall character full circle.

Stage Door turned out to be something of a comeback for Katharine Hepburn, who was recovering from that ridiculous “Box Office Poison” label that dogged her during the mid-‘30s after a series of less-than-stellar films. When the issue of star billing arose, Hepburn was initially to be placed second under Ginger Rogers. RKO producer Pandro S. Berman reportedly told Hepburn that "she was lucky to have the 7th role in a star picture." Stage Door ended up a big box office hit and for Katharine Hepburn, was a first step back towards the top. Stage Door went on to receive Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Supporting Actress (Andrea Leeds; ironically the weak link among the cast).

Where Hepburn’s performance in Stage Door ranks among her career best is unclear. It's a fine effort, especially when one considers that she reportedly didn’t "get a handle" on her character until quite late in the shooting is testament to her ability, as Terry Randall is the one multi-layered character in the film. Hepburn also gets overshadowed by one of Ginger Rogers’ best comedic performances, and I never fail to be impressed at how she goes toe-to-toe with The Great Kate. Couple that with the energetic ensemble cast (which includes Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Gail Patrick, and Eve Arden), Hepburn still emerges with another fine role in her 1930s filmography.

Poised for a Comeback: Stage Door was a solid effort in The Great Kate's career.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: Alice Adams (1935)

Alice Adams remains one of Katharine Hepburn’s most memorable performances and it’s the role that defined her in the 1930s. Hepburn’s characterization of the Booth Tarkington character is the one that launched a thousand Hepburn impersonations, with Kate’s memorable line ( “Really I do, really”) becoming the words used to “channel” an impression of her, though she never speaks the line quite that way; see the above capture with her actual words. It’s attributed to her like “You, you dirty rat” is for James Cagney and the “Judy Judy Judy” routine is for Cary Grant.

Hepburn is the title character, a small-town girl of humble means with aspirations to the upper class. Alice Adams is an alternately sweet, awkward, heartbreaking, and amusing film with the “Hollywood Ending” that Depression-era audiences loved. However, the plot of any film isn’t nearly as important to my viewing enjoyment as the characters and the interplay between them. I’m more interested in what the cast is doing and how they’re behaving more than I am in any intricate plot devices which are bound to disappoint anyway. One never has to worry about giving away how good a performance is as one does with keeping mum about a pivotal plot point.

It’s easy to see why this movie was such a hit for Hepburn. It shows the sweet, vulnerable side of the actress and so much of what I love about the early period of Kate’s career. Like her wonderful performance in Holiday--which I never fail to mention—she’s totally immersed in this character and while I know it’s Katharine Hepburn, I completely buy into what she puts across onscreen. She had yet to emerge into the standardized version of the Kate that emerged with The Philadelphia Story and was fully in evidence in Woman of the Year.

Hepburn as Alice is about as vulnerable a character as I’ve ever seen her play. She was twenty eight in 1935 and is portraying a socially-awkward eighteen-year-old(?) girl. Maybe I’m just a sap for All Things Hepburn but I truly bought into her being a young woman here. Alice behaves like a silly girl with a romantic view of the rich much like her role as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, who had a pseudo-tragic/romantic view of being an actress. Here, she’s deluded by how she envisions the wealthy.

Alice’s family finds itself in a precarious financial situation. Her father, Virgil (wonderfully played by Fred Stone), is convalescing from serious illness and even though he’s still being paid by his boss, Mr. Lamb, Virgil Adams feels he must work to earn his pay—strange concept in today’s world—and Mrs. Adams who wants Alice to have a better life, badgers Virgil into forming his own glue works company with the formula he helped create years before. Mrs. Adams feels it is their key to success. In a “Keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, Mrs. Adams believes that they’re long overdue in arriving to their own big time.

The audience must wonder why Alice thinks so highly of these people because in the film they are nothing but shallow, vain, and downright unlikable. I found myself despising those “frozen faced” dopes—to borrow Alice’s brother Walter’s term for them—and wondering why this sweet girl would ever want to belong to such an ugly group; it had everything to do with Alice believing that the grass was greener among the rich. Then, she meets Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray). Arthur is smitten with the flighty Alice and cares not one whit about her family’s lack of means. This is what I see as the main emotional draw of this film.

The fact that Alice puts on the air of sophistication and pretends she’s something she isn’t is what makes her so endearing. She has a decent man interested in her but she can’t see that Arthur likes Alice for who she is, not who she’s pretending to be. There’s a heartbreaking feeling to this and you want to cry out to Hepburn’s Alice to just stop with the pretense. Yet when her family is in peril, Alice becomes the strength and drops the silly dreaming. She looks after her ailing father and serves to assuage the pain between her argumentative parents, who are both frustrated by their lack of success. This is what moves Alice to dream of being a wealthy sophisticate, as her real-life family lacks the financial success of their neighbors.

Nowhere in the film is this tension played up more than in the hilarious dinner scene, when poor Arthur is sweating howitzer shells as the Adams’ menu on that particularly sweltering night is to serve hot soup, brussel sprouts, and heavy roast beef and mashed potatoes! MacMurray's low-key facial expressions are hilarious as Hepburn maintains the dopey charade with a running commentary of excuses. MacMurray was perfect for this because what comes through is not his discomfort but his keeping a good face on the whole debacle. He doesn’t try to play up the comedy, as that is done to perfection by Hattie McDaniel (billed as “McDaniels”).

While the entire cast is superb, this is Hepburn’s movie and her performance is the centerpiece. Going into this I thought that Alice Adams would be a melodramatic mess but Hepburn is perfect in every way. Her emotion is genuinely moving and never over-the-top, Alice’s dopey flights of fancy and pretentious desire to be among the wealthy reveals more about the vulnerability of her fragile character than any superficial ambitions she has. Alice is likable but frustrating, as she fails to see just how someone could love her for who she is, not who she wants to be, yet we're never angry with her and we sympathize with her completely. A lovely film and a beautifully appealing performance by Katharine Hepburn--one of her best.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Poll Results: Bringing Up Baby

The voters decided by a landslide that their favorite 1930s performance by Katharine Hepburn is 1938's Bringing Up Baby, easily beating out second-place Holiday (my personal favorite) by twenty-four votes. Of the 83 votes cast:

Bringing Up Baby 43 (51%)

Holiday 19 (22%)
Stage Door 10 (12%)
Little Women 4 (4%)
Alice Adams 3 (3%)
Morning Glory 2 (2%)
Sylvia Scarlett 2 (2%)

It's not surprising that Kate's role as madcap heiress Susan Vance won so easily. It's Hepburn's definitive comic performance. Her mastery of Howard Hawks' rapidfire dialogue is hilarious and yet it's not nearly as rat-a-tat-tat as the director's His Girl Friday, which would follow this film two years later and is, for my money, The Mother of All Rapidfire-Dialogue Movies.

What was surprising was the lack of support for Alice Adams, one of Hepburn's greatest performances no matter which decade, and Morning Glory, her first Oscar winning turn.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Robert Montgomery Awaits

Years ago, I was discussing jazz musicians with a friend of mine and when an artist's name came up, my friend said, "He's not one of my favorites, but he should be!" So it is with Robert Montgomery; he should be one of my favorite actors, and he's well on his way. Bob's a hidden treasure of 1930s cinema with his suave, easygoing demeanor and effortless charm, often cast as a dapper playboy. Montgomery was one of the best-dressed actors and seeing as his prime was the 1930s, that's really saying something. He's even inspired me to shave every day! See what a great role model he could be?

In the "Suave" department, Bob's better looking than fellow suavier Melvyn Douglas and just as strong a dramatic actor as William Powell. And in a James Stewart vein, Bob's a WWII vet, too. And like most every person that interests me, Bob had interests outside of acting. He was an accomplished director, producer, and involved himself in politics, having served as Screen Actors Guild president and as an "image consultant" to President Eisenhower. There's also his TV success, hosting Robert Montgomery Presents during the 1950s. On a less-exalted level, Montgomery was the father to a famous daughter, whose name eludes me...she's much better known than Bob ever was!

Bob's films are finding their way onto DVD via the Warner Archive, which has only increased my interest. Montgomery may prove to be my introduction to pre-1934 films, as his pairings with Norma Shearer may lead me to a period in Hollywood history I know next to nothing about (I hereby declare today "Admit My Ignorance" day). Bob also has multiple teamups with Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, too.

The two movies that made me take notice of this undervalued star were 1939's Fast and Loose, with Montgomery playing Joel Sloane, antique book dealer/detective in the Thin Man tradition and one of my most sought-after movies (TCM played it four years ago). There's also 1931's When Ladies Meet, co-starring Myrna Loy. Bob's time on screen seems rather limited but when he's on, he's the life of the movie. There's a scene on a golf course where Bob's charm is evident. This is the Montgomery that I wish to explore first; the easygoing charmer. I'm more aware of his darker, sociopathic roles that he played later in his career. A few of my favorites are Night Must Fall (1937), Rage in Heaven (1941) and the 1947 Noir Ride the Pink Horse. A less successful venture into Noir, Lady in the Lake, (starring and directed by Montgomery) is best remembered for its point of view camerawork.

I hope TCM airs more Montgomery so I can take in his 1930s output. I'd like to have Robert Montgomery in my top ten list of favorite actors next time around. From what I've seen of him so far, it looks to be an interesting and entertaining journey.

By the way, one of my favorite blogs in this old brown world is Classic Montgomery which is a treasure trove of All Things Bob.