Monday, May 31, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: Dragon Seed (1944)

Heavy-handed sentiment and political messages never make for a great movie, and terms like “Important Film”, “World War II Propaganda”, and “Interesting Failure” come to mind when Dragon Seed (1944) is mentioned, but it’s no less a fascinating experiment. Based on the Pearl S. Buck novel, it’s the story of Ling-Tan (Walter Huston) and his family, the simile-and metaphor-spouting denizens of a Chinese village and the impact the Sino-Japanese War has on them.

Putting aside the whole controversy of westerners playing Asians, Kate gives an unremarkable performance even though the role of Jade was an opportunity for her to spout her independent, proto-feminist beliefs as well as a chance to publicize the Chinese war effort. The Chinese portrayed here would later be Communists and not exactly a United States ally, but that would be the case with the Soviet Union, too; it’s funny how politics work: your ally becomes your enemy and your enemy becomes…okay, you get the idea.

Still, this was 1944 and World War II was well under way. The war in China had been raging full on since 1937 (or 1931 if you count the conflict in Manchuria), when this film takes place, and China was suffering massive casualties while under siege from Imperial Japan since 1937. Hollywood tends to act years after the fact, just as they did in the production of For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), though the republican faction in Spain had long since been vanquished by Franco’s forces. With Dragon Seed, at least the struggle continued in China and perhaps the film could bring attention to this ally in the East. There was great sympathy for China and the Soviet Union during the war, and when watching Dragon Seed it’s best to keep that context in mind. The film is interesting more for its historical context than its dramatic power. It is also regrettable that the westerners portraying Asians is a distraction, even to those of us who dwell among the anointed ones flowing over with much wisdom. Sorry, I’ve been watching Dragon Seed

Katharine Hepburn receives top billing as Jade, the curious and free-thinking wife of Ling-Tan’s middle son Lao (Turhan Bey) and who wants to stand up to the invading Japanese. Or to be more specific it’s Katharine Hepburn playing herself in Asian-style makeup. You have to give Kate a ton of credit for trying vastly different roles; in our previous Hepburn performance review, she played a boy (in disguise). Jade longs to become educated and is interested in world events, especially the Japanese invasion. Hepburn’s first scene is at a propaganda film showing with what is probably a communist political officer narrating a newsreel of Japanese atrocities and is imploring the complacent Chinese farmers to act.

Hepburn is unremarkable in the role though she earnestly tries to become the character; but it just doesn’t work. She’s alternately coy, evasive, and downright flaky! There are some genuinely bizarre facial expressions, too which I found to be distracting. Jade is supposed to be shy in her admissions in wanting to be “of the new” and the modern and she’s full of so many deep, meaningful thoughts: “My thoughts are like a chain and one is fast to the other.” See? Jade is complex! She contains multitudes! Unfortunately, Kate delivers much of her dialogue as if she were in an opium-induced trance. I’d love to know what Hepburn did to prepare for this movie.

Dragon Seed, despite some manipulative yet effective scenes, is more a historical curiosity, one that was borne of public conscience and war aims rather than cinematic achievement. It was perhaps more important for Katharine Hepburn to be associated with this film’s purpose—the support of China—than it was to give a memorable performance. She lent her name and her presence to the project but she’s off the screen for long stretches, one as long as thirty minutes. Much of that time in the film is spent on showing the Japanese pillaging and destroying and being evil. It’s easy to rail against the depiction of the Japanese in the film, but this was after all the same campaign that brought The Rape of Nanking.

Dragon Seed airs on Turner Classic Movies June 23 @ 6am EST.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Joan Crawford was Hot in the '30s!

Indeed she was. Just a quick pic to touch base again. This is my favorite Joan Crawford photograph. We'll be back with more of the usual next week...

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Golden Age Comic Strip: Steve Canyon

Okay, 1947 is a bit outside the Golden Age, but how's this for a 1940s pin up? The sketch is a preliminary drawing for the Steve Canyon comic strip, which was created by artist/writer Milton Caniff. Caniff (1907-1988), whose nickname was "The Rembrandt of the Comic Strip" because of his influential inking style, began the Steve Canyon comic strip in 1947 because he wanted complete ownership of the property. His previous creation, Terry and the Pirates, was a popular comic through the 1930s and made Caniff a household name. Caniff wrote and drew Steve Canyon for forty-one years. The strip ended with his death in 1988. However, the comics have been reprinted in multiple volumes and are widely available.

The illustration was based on Gary Cooper, whose long, lean fame served as the inspiration to the thoughtful, patriotic man of action, Steve Canyon.

Another element of the comic was Caniff's various female villains. Glamorous, dangerous, and attractive, a "Caniff Woman" like Copper Calhoun was a wondrous creation, indeed.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: Sylvia Scarlett (1935)

Sylvia Scarlett concerns the sensitive title character (Kate) who’s saddled with a dopey father, a recent widower who also gambled away money he “borrowed” from his company. The two leave their home in France and head for England, with Sylvia disguised as “Sylvester Scarlett” to avoid capture by the authorities. They meet Cary Grant—who steals every scene he’s in—and form a traveling entertainment troupe after their initial con game doesn’t meet with goodhearted Sylvia’s approval.

Sylvia Scarlett is the semi-legendary cult movie known for two things: It’s the film where Cary Grant “discovered his Cary Grantness”, and it’s Katharine Hepburn disguising herself as a boy.

So is this a comedy or drama, or a mixture of both? Director George Cukor worked wonders with the comedy/drama mixture in both Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, but with Sylvia Scarlett even Cukor’s considerable powers can’t keep the movie from floundering, despite some fine comedic moments from Hepburn and Grant. The review here mainly concerns the film itself, as Hepburn is just fine but there’s just not that much for her to do except look androgynous.

The main problem with the film is that it never settles on a tone. It veers from melodrama to comedy and back again. I get the feeling that director George Cukor tried to blend the serious drama (of the novel?) with the more amusing antics seen between Hepburn and Grant but could never find a consistent tone. The story is promising, but takes two steps back for every one step forward. There are also some ineffective supporting actors, especially the Maudie character, played by Dennie Moore (no relation to an untalented actress from another generation, Demi Moore) who’s supposed to have a cockney accent but instead sounds like Edith Bunker; she’s just awful. The movie also boasts a rare cruddy music score by RKO stalwart Roy Webb, who was uninspired enough to spackle the film with a cloying theme that stays in your head long after the movie ends; it plays over the DVD menu, so beware.

Katharine Hepburn’s performance is her usual effective self but even her characterization loses steam when she’s not in “Sylvester Scarlett” mode! As Sylvester, she’s tough and gutsy, showing a strength that vanishes when she reverts back to being Sylvia. The ultra-feminine Sylvia is a morose crybaby, weak and pathetic and who’s never developed as well as her “boy alter ego” is.

It’s difficult not to sound like Freud when discussing this movie.

I’m not sure if Hepburn’s character differences were intended, but since the movie is an unfocused melodrama that lacks a decent script, effective editing, and a huge missed opportunity to play up the gender roles for comedic purposes. So while Hepburn is quite good in this, the movie has earned its longstanding reputation as an intriguing failure; even though it never truly delivers the dramatic and comedic potential of the gender bending that Sylvia Scarlett is (barely) remembered for.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What in the Name of Robert Mitchum is Goin' On Here???

One night I can't sleep--a common occurence in recent years--so I'm up at three a.m. watching my favorite Robert Mitchum movie in one of the greatest Films Noir ever slapped to celluloid, Out of the Past, from 1947; it's the year's best Noir in Noir's best year. Anyway, since I'm up late and don't want to disturb my sleeping wife, I watch with the volume down and the subtitles on.

I was blissfully relaxed until the following:

There's an apartment scene with Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) and Meta Carson (Rhonda Fleming) pretending to be cousins. They're visiting Fleming's boss, Leonard Eels (Ken Niles), who's making cocktails. Eels asks Mitchum "Have a Martini?" but the subtitles read: "Apple Martini"!!! There's no way in this old brown world that a hardboiled 1940s Noir film is going to have a yuppified drink ---which was most-likely concocted by the writers of Sex and the City--- like that in a movie where just watching Mitchum light cigarette after cigraette in every single scene can produce emphysema-like symptoms in the fact, I was so taken aback with a combination of shock and amusement that I lost count of how many unfiltered coffin nails ol' Mitch was firing up (and speaking of Mitchum's smoking in Out of the Past, imagine how many he lit and dragged from in the out takes!)

The subtitle gaffe isn't a huge deal, I guess, at least to those of us among "The Annointed", and who love classic movies so much that they write an occasional blog post, but what if a younger person, born of CGI parents and weaned on Yu-Gi-Oh cartoons is watching Out of the Past for a school assignment and thinks that something like an "Apple Martini" was commonplace among the WWII generation. I can hear it now: "Well, Hitler's dead, let's sit in our favorite sports bar and sip a sugary Apple Martini and eat low-carb food."

I exaggerate for comic effect...

The subtitle gaffe is amusing and I eventually moved on, but that one error says volumes about how a terrifying, monolithic, fire-breathing corporation like Warner Brothers works: They have barely-paid--if at all--indentured servants from one of the film school mills work as interns in a hot basement using
the most rudimentary of tools to scratch out the dialogue and submit it like a typical data entry drone in some office. Out of the Past is a revered film in Film Noir circles, and hopefully any self-respecting classic movie lover will have seen it. It's not as famous as Gone with the Wind or Transformers 2, but it's an okay film. If companies like Warner Brothers farms out their subtitle crew to such incompentents, can you imagine who Universal Pictures selected to store their film and TV library?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Self Pluggery: A Frightening New Blog

I'm so nervous I feel like Warner Baxter in 42nd Street! I've started a second blog focusing on the 1960s and '70s! That's right, Hollywood Dreamland can now experience the Generation Gap! The Neo-Edwardian Hipster: Movies, TV, and the Pop Culture of 1965-1975 is open for business. Hollywood Dreamland will soldier on--do you think I could gush about Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers with '70s people??? However, I do need an outlet for my '60s and '70s love too, so we'll see how it goes. It's kind of fun to start over in terms of building followers but I hope that there are enough 1960s-'70s fans out there.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Priceless Expressions

In this scene from The Philadelphia Story, C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and George Kittredge (John Howard) react at the first sight of a hungover Macaulay Connor (James Stewart; Oscar winner--get used to it Fonda fans) singing "Over the Rainbow" while carrying a hungover Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) back home at dawn...on her wedding day(!). Not only is the above-shot priceless, so is the dialogue in the subsequent scene. As many times as I've seen the film, it was only recently that I noticed how good John Howard's reaction is here.

By the way, there have been some tremendous comments in the Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story (1940) entry! It's amazing how much fascinating insight can be read into this marvelous movie.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Katharine Hepburn: The Philadelphia Story (1940)

It’s been mentioned here before how totally Hepburn becomes her character, Linda, in 1938’s Holiday, another Philip Barry play co-starring Cary Grant and directed by George Cukor, and how there’s nary a trace of Kate the iron-willed individualist that audiences have come to know. I was floored by how wonderfully vulnerable she was, yet with a nascent strength brought out by Cary Grant’s Johnny Case character. That film is a dry run for The Philadelphia Story, as all the main players are present: Hepburn, Grant, writer Barry, and director Cukor. Alright, so there’s precedent to The Philadelphia Story; everyone works well together…

Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The Philadelphia Story is widely considered her comeback role, after being branded “Box Office Poison” during the 1930s. As insane as that is to comprehend today; I find it more difficult to explain why I like Kate’s performance so much. Yes, it’s on the short-list of Hepburn’s career-defining performances and it’s a part the actress played on stage before bringing the play to MGM, so she had ample time to hone the Tracy character. In writing this assessment of Hepburn’s performance, I’ve discovered that it’s impossible to separate her role from the film itself, as The Philadelphia Story is truly an ensemble cast, and while Hepburn is undoubtedly at its center, her role can’t be easily described, at least by this blogger.

Kate’s Tracy is the focal point of The Philadelphia Story. It is her reactions to everyone else’s views of her that makes the story. She’s a symbol of strength yet possesses a hidden vulnerability that no one sees; she’s a vision of perfection and put on a pedestal. More than once she is referred to as a “Goddess.” Tracy holds those she loves to impossibly-high standards and when someone in her life doesn’t measure up—whether it is her ex-husband (C.K. Dexter Haven) or her own father—she casts them aside. Tracy's refusing to forgive Dexter's past weakness for alcohol was what caused their breakup, and her father's dalliance with a dancer is another point of contention leading to yet another strained relationship. And though her scene with her father misses the mark—Seth’s reasoning for his philandering is beyond belief---Hepburn and John Halliday sell the concept--at least on one’s first viewing of TPS, with conviction. It is this Goddess appellation and how she deals with it that is the center of The Philadelphia Story. Tracy has to forgive her father and her ex-husband in order to rid herself of the unwanted "perfection personified" label. That in itself is just one more aspect of this brilliant movie. She is conflicted, yet those who figure prominently in her life: husband, father, and even James Stewart’s Macauley “Mike” Connor—know this about her.

Katharine Hepburn is amazing here. While she's on the cusp of becoming her well-known onscreen personality, TPS captures her at this tremendous moment in her career. She inhabits her character so completely that I’m only vaguely reminded that she’s acting. Only her trademark accent gives her away. I’m never sure where the actress ends and the person begins but if Hepburn adheres to Jimmy Stewart’s remarks about acting: “You play yourself in deference to the character:--then that works marvelously. It also helps Hepburn and the rest of the cast that they have that wonderful Philip Barry dialogue to carry the story; and unlike the majority of plays turned into films, The Philadelphia Story never comes off as stagy—credit director George Cukor, who was and remains the master of this concept.

Trying to describe to someone about what's great about Katharine Hepburn’s performance in The Philadelphia Story is best remedied by watching the movie. Remember that the film is not a comedy or a straightforward drama but something fascinatingly in between. Like all great art, The Philadelphia Story defies easy categorization and is endlessly interesting. Every time I see it, there’s yet another aspect of it I discover, another layer to be enjoyed. “Constant, unfolding joy” is the term that comes to mind and Hepburn’s performance, while tremendous on its own merits, works best when viewed as part of the entire film. Hepburn’s is the most unselfish performance in the most unselfish film ever made.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's Katharine Hepburn's Birthday

Today, May 12, marks what would've been Katharine Hepburn's 103rd birthday. I didn't have a proper post planned as the date caught me by surprise, but I couldn't let the day go by without acknowledging my favorite actress' birthday, could I?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Philadelphia Story Heals All Wounds

Last night, I was feeling sort of gloomy but wifey and I watched The Philadelphia Story ("TPS") two consecutive times and felt a heck of a lot better...Anyway, some things that came to mind that I may or may not have mentioned before:

Subtlety: What I love about this movie (and its "sister" film, Holiday) is the subtlety of the material. Time spent watching The Philadelphia Story reveals the movie to be a constant, unfolding joy. The most rewarding aspect about the film is its mature, sophisticated nature; the nuances you catch in the multi-layered performances. Every scene is worth watching and they demand your attention because the performers are giving so much, and there's so much going on! It's a real "actor's movie" without the melodramatic or scenery chewing. For some fine subtle comedic brilliance, get a load of the library scene where Stewart interacts with that librarian bit player--watch Jimmy's mug the entire time and enjoy yourself; he's always in character and reacting to what's going on. In fact, Stewart and Ruth Hussey's roles get better with each viewing. Stewart absolutely deserved his Oscar that year; he never did anything like this role and what a shame he never worked with Hepburn again.

Ruth Hussey-as-Liz under whelmed me the first few times I watched but recently I've grown to love her smart, world-weary, luckless-at-love characterization. She's fantastic in this and shame on me for dismissing her before!

Cary Grant: What's my blogger name again? His performance is covered here.

The famous opening of The Philadelphia Story--when Grant shoves Hepburn to the floor-- is jarring to today's audiences, who no doubt expect a belly laugh here, but as this film is all about subtlety, so the scene works because of what it was supposed to achieve. Despite having zero dialogue, it illustrates why Grant and Hepburn have split, and that domestic dispute shows the audience just how dire their relationship had become. In one brief segment we're told everything we need to know about their breakup and it's a fine storytelling device. The scene is *not* supposed to be funny, though Franz Waxman’s cue here *is* comedic, which prevents this bit from veering off into "serious drama" territory, thereby striking--no pun intended--a fine balance.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Poll Results: Fred Astaire

Hey, what happened to “trying hard to look like Gary Cooper”???

Fred Astaire easily wins the poll question “After Cary Grant, who’s the best-dressed man of the Golden Age?” I was tempted to include Cary in the poll, but I believed that he’d have won handily. Thus, the race for second best was on! Of the 77 votes cast, the results looked like this:

Fred Astaire 36 (46%)
William Powell 24 (31%)
Gary Cooper 9 (11%)
Robert Montgomery 8 (10%)

I’ve always marveled over how well Astaire was dressed in all of his films. His wardrobe in, say, The Bandwagon (1953) is simply to die for! However, it’s not just the clothes themselves that are amazing, but the way Astaire wore them. Tailored clothes tend to make everyone look better than they actually do, but Fred had that “cadaverous” physique that lent itself to looking great in clothes. . He wasn’t tall like Powell and Cooper or conventionally handsome as Grant, Cooper, and Montgomery but somehow Astaire’s overall appeal lay in his outstanding “ability” to wear clothes. Maybe it was his dancer’s grace, which manifested itself in his posture, balance, and gestures giving Astaire a fluid grace that no one—including Grant—could emulate. And no one—no one—looked better in top hat, white tie, and tails than Fred Astaire. Astaire’s wondrous appearance in clothes weren’t limited to tuxedoes or suits, as he even looked swellegant in casual or sporty clothes.

To me, the film that personifies Fred Astaire’s fashion acumen is the “Needle in a Haystack” number from The Gay Divorcee (1934), where Guy Holden (Astaire)--I love the names of Fred Astaire characters; they fit him perfectly, just like the names they give Elvis in his movies—is determined to find the girl (Ginger Rogers) he met fleetingly. As he’s singing the song, Astaire is choosing a necktie, putting on a jacket, and donning a bowler hat. The number is a wonderful coupling of song and dance with elegant 1930s fashion.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Ginger Rogers: THE Dress Revisited

"Ginger Rogers Swing Time Dress" is the most-popular search term here at Hollywood Dreamland and it stems from this post from February, 2009. Now, thanks to HD reader and commentor Dan, we can get an idea of what it takes to create Ginger's finest gown, as he has had a replica made for his wife! Dan already commented in the original post, but his fascinating commentary is reproduced here for your fashion benefit. Hey Dan, send us some pictures! Until then, we've provided these:

"I have now had THE DRESS copied for my wife, after considerable research. The original exists but is in a private collection, undisplayed. It was last seen in NYC at the MMoA [Metropolitan Museum of Art] in a special gown show in the late 70's.

My seamstresses made as close a copy as possible based on 220 stills taken from the dance sequence and a lengthy review of it with a professional costume designer who personally examined the dress in great detail the last time it was seen in public. Here are the facts on the dress as we now understand them:

It was silk georgette, two layers of fabric, forming two big circles. The material was cut on the bias. The dress was constructed in 22 panels with French seams, every other seam (in the skirt part only) held hand applied sequins. It had an under-structure similar to a 1920's bathing suit--with those short-short style legs. The original also had weights in the hem that were the size of half 50 cent pieces and made of something similar to a clear plastic. It was originally light pink and George Newman, RKO's costume director designed the gown. He surprised Ginger by doing it in her favorite color and she wrote in her book that she was greatly pleased. I had the dress copied in aqua for my wife as that is her favorite color. Those colors would have looked the same in black and white film. It took my seamstresses 85 hours to make the dress. My wife has worn the dress twice, first in LA at an Academy Awards party and later to a black tie benefit here at The Greenbrier Resort. It is not an exaggeration to say that this dress is dazzling to the eye. She has never received such complimentary comment."

Tremendous! Special thanks to Dan for taking the time to comment and especially for following up on the original post; it is appreciated.