Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers

On October 25th my wife and I took in Strangers on a Train at the AFI Silver in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a great experience to see it on the big screen for the first time after having seen it so many times on the small screen exclusively. Once again it was a wonderful audience who laughed and gasped at all the right places and once again the film historian introducing it went on a little too long and offered up a little too much elementary interpretation for what we were about to see. But when he asked how many of us had already seen it (it was a sold out show) I was happy to see that you could count on one hand the number of hands that didn't go up. This was an audience of film lovers waiting to see the film again on the big screen, many of us, as stated above, for the very first time.

But the real treat of seeing this showing of Strangers on a Train was the fact that Farley Granger was there and spoke with the audience after the show and signed autographs after that. Sometimes Hollywood stars disappoint in person but this was not one of those times. Granger was entertaining, honest and kind in every way imaginable. When I met him after the show and shook his hand he seemed genuinely friendly. I asked him to sign the program to my wife and he happily obliged. The interview he did on stage with the film historian, whose name I can't remember and who is not listed on the AFI site or the program (maybe he just wandered in off the street), was illuminating and delightful. Granger's bluntly honest response to several questions was refreshing but my favorite was:

Interviewer: "Did Hitchcock discuss the psychological motivations of the character with you before shooting?"

Granger: "No, no. He wasn't big on bullshit."

Granger was so endearing that even when he spoke of his love of the stage over film (something we've all heard from Hollywood stars at one point or another) he sounded like he actually meant it, not like so many stars sound where they think saying that will give them instant credibility. And he discussed his other works as well. Rope he said was a chore. "You do eight minutes and something falls on the set and you gotta do the whole goddamn scene over." And "Jimmy (Stewart) wasn't right for the part and Hitch knew it and Jimmy knew it and Jimmy felt he had to struggle with it. The part is a snooty, elitist professor and Jimmy just doesn't project snooty elitism. Someone like James Mason would've been better suited for the part."

On Nicholas Ray: "He had such a feel for gritty personal films and then he started doing a bunch of glitzy crap. I said, 'Nick what's with all the glitzy crap' and by that point he didn't care what he was making anymore."

On Shelley Winters: "We were at this hotel that had pictures of the stars and she says to the manager, 'You should have my picture up there' and the manager didn't even know who she was and wouldn't put her picture up (Granger laughs). I just told her to shut up about it. She was a great lady to work with but you know, these stars sometimes, they get a little big headed." Amazingly he pulled that last statement off without a hint of irony. He really didn't have that "Star" mentality about him so he could talk about "stars" as if he wasn't one.

And then there was Samuel Goldwyn who he didn't like at all. Goldwyn had demanded Granger pay him all the money on the contract that he had received because Granger wanted to quit working with Goldwyn after Hans Christian Anderson. Granger paid back the money and left. The thing is, aside from relaying those facts, he didn't elaborate any further on what problems he and Goldwyn had and when asked about the book he had written he said he had contacted everyone or their relatives before writing it and told them what he wanted to write. If they objected to anything he left it out. He even called Goldwyn's children and asked if it was okay to recount the stories of the troubles he had with Goldwyn. They said it was okay. Geez louise, what a guy. I don't have the book myself, but I'm told it has the same "blunt honesty without being mean spirited" attitude that came off in the interview. And it mainly concerns his life in the theatre which he enjoyed much more than film.

Of course, for me, the highlight of the interview was when he spoke about Robert Walker during the course of making Strangers on a Train. I've written about Walker here before and prior to that Sheila O'Malley had an excellent write-up on Strangers on a Train so I won't rehash the story of Walker's life or his excellent performance in the film. Rather I'll let Farley Granger have the final word from this video I shot of the interview (I was in the back lower balcony area, the best place to sit at the theatre. The seats back there are bigger, more like recliners, and have tables between them for your refreshments and at least four feet of room before the next seat in front of you or behind you but you have to get there early for those seats - which I always do). In the clip Granger describes the first night he, Hitchcock and Walker got together in Washington, D.C. before the first day of shooting. They went out to dinner downtown before retiring to their rooms at the hotel, at which point Walker started to panic. The rest I'll leave to Granger but from this story I was reminded of how fragile was Robert Walker, and how gracious and sympathetic was Granger. Walker must have sensed that to let himself go in front of him like he did, and Granger didn't let him down. They had just met but Granger treated him like a brother. It's a great story and it was a great experience seeing and meeting Farley Granger. Enjoy the clip.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hold Me

Pictured above: Jimmy Stewart and Jeanette MacDonald in Rose Marie (1936), a scant two years before Stewart became a bankable leading man with Frank Capra's You Can't Take it With You.

Next up is Conquest (1937) with Greta Garbo and Charles Boyer, directed by the under-appreciated Clarence Brown, a director who never directed a movie that would appear on anyone's "Greatest of all time" lists but nevertheless produced one solid entertainment after another for most of his career.

Third in line we have La Boheme with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert, a silent from 1926. La Boheme the silent feature obviously has none of the music of the opera, just the story which was adapted from the work of Henry Murger, La Vie de Bohème. It also contains an early performance by the great character actor Edward Horton, in only his fourteenth role. Yes, fourteen sounds like a lot but it's early in your career when you end up making 175 movies!

Finally the great Frank Borzage directs Maureen Sullavan and Robert Taylor in Three Comrades from 1938. This is a Borzage I haven't yet seen but look at this cast: Maureen Sullavan, Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, Guy Kibbee, Robert Young, Lionel Atwill, Monty Woolley, Henry Hull and even Charley Grapewin a year before playing Uncle Henry in The Wizard of Oz. Taylor was never a favorite of mine but I've always been fond of Tone (a great wisecracker for the uninitiated), Kibbee and Lionel Atwill, recently profiled on TCM's Movie Morlocks here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Are you a Player?

Back in 1934 Player and Sons Cigarettes, based in England, started producing Movie Star Collector's Cards with their cigarettes, kind of a baseball card in the bubblegum pack idea for smokers. Smoking had been a man's game for decades with women "catching up" in this slow death pastime by the twenties. It was hoped Movie Star Cards might help Player and Sons capture the women's market. They released albums as well that contained the bios of the stars whose cards one would collect. As one acquired more, they were pasted into the album. Many of the pictures from these albums (they released several editions) can be found online, in various forms.

I recently acquired a completed album from the first edition, 1934, and have scanned it in its entirety for reproduction here. The album has 17 pages of stars, 50 stars in all. My comments for each page follow (and please feel free to click on the pictures to enlarge them to read the mini-bios provided. Some contain the actor's height, other's don't. Odd.)


Gwili Andre may not be famous to many movie fans today but she is known to anyone who has ever read Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger's 90 percent inaccurate, made-up, rumor-mongering slime bible. Books like Hollywood Babylon are part of the reason it was necessary for things like Snopes.com to come along. But I digress. She is in Hollywood Babylon because of her sad demise in 1959, when she committed suicide by self-immolation. She mainly did B pictures that I haven't seen but would like to. Her most recognizable role for most of us cinephiles would be in Joan Crawford's A Woman's Face (1941).


Joan Bennett did plenty but for me her best work (both she and the movie) will always be Scarlet Street (1945). P.S. - Doesn't Tala Birell look like Greta Garbo?


I love Clive Brook's bio, especially the opening line. Also, he's 5'11'' and he's a clever writer.


Joan Crawford's bio mentions her latest "talkie" being Dancing Lady. This is odd. Throughout the album they use the term "talkie" as if both periods (silent and sound) are actively occuring. Like after Dancing Lady Joan's going to make another silent film and rotate between the two for the rest of her career.


That's Bette Davis?!!! It looks like Linda Blair. This one's got my vote for worst likeness in the whole album.


Shhhhhh. James Dunn is sleeping.


Fairbanks has an inch in height on Clive Brook and is also a clever writer - and cartoonist! I bet Brook felt emasculated when he read that, poor guy. Meanwhile, Gable's height isn't listed at all. Guess he wasn't a six-footer. And lovely Kay is in the middle, a wonderful actress from the thirties recently showcased on TCM.


William Haines is often called the first openly gay actor in Hollywood. The studios tried to hide it but he never did. Moving in with his lover and partner, Jimmy Shields, in 1933 he was given the choice by Louis B. Mayer to have a lavender marriage or hit the road. Haines took the road - the high road. He and Shields were together for fifty years until Haines death in 1973. And their marriage, minus the piece of paper from the state, lasted longer than most other marriages in Hollywood ever do.


Who the hell's Katherine Hepburn?


Dorothy Jordan retired in the thirties but came back for three small roles in the fifties, one of which was The Searchers, in which she played Martha Edwards, killed in the raid that propels the plot in motion. Also, she was 5'2".


Gertrude, Carole and Myrna, all on one page. I love the bow Gertrude is wearing but am disappointed that Noel Coward is not mentioned or her height. In fact, I don't know how tall any of them are. Players, you have let me down again.


Name me one Hollywood actress today who could pull off the name "Boots Mallory."


Jessie Matthews is most famous for her musical work, including First a Girl (1935) which would later be remade in 1982 as Victor/Victoria.


I like Joel McCrea more and more with each new film I see him in. I may have recommended it here before, but if TCM runs The Silver Horde (1930) again, check it out. It's not much of a movie, fairly average in execution, but its social attitudes and ending are years ahead of the game.


Sylvia Sidney, Dead End, 1937. Great performance in a great movie. Highly underappreciated actress. By the way, Norma Shearer is 5'3".


Johnny Weismuller, Olympic champion and Tarzan of the Apes. He was, as mentioned on the card, married in 1933 to Lupe Velez, one of the biggest smear jobs in all of Hollywood Babylon. For those who know the story from the book here's the reality: She was found lying peacefully on her bed, having committed suicide by swalowing sleeping pills.


Diana Wynyard starred in Calvalcade, earning an Oscar nomination, the first for a British actress, and the first film version of Gaslight in 1940 with Cinema Styles favorite Anton Walbrook. I don't know if it's entirely true or not, but in theatre circles the name Diana Wynyard is famous, not only for her extensive Shakespearean experience, but for accidentally walking off the stage during the 1942 production of Macbeth (in which she played Lady Macbeth), tumbling twelve to fifteen feet, climbing back up and continuing with her performance. I've seen some miraculous things on stage in my time, in just the plays I've done, so I have no trouble believing that story is true.

And that's it. A very young Loretta Young wraps it up, although sadly, we are not informed of her height. I hope you have enjoyed this tour through the Player's Guide Album of Stars from 1934 as much as I enjoyed bringing it to you.

And by the way, I'm 7'2".

Monday, November 17, 2008

In with the In Crowd

Children are great at parroting their peers and parents. Over time their views are challenged, they realize they can't defend them since they have simply been parroting and they begin to develop critical thinking. It's essential to their development. It's also fun to watch. Our 14 year old son says this often of movies: "You have to see it on the big screen." Why does he say that? Because he's heard adults, peers and my wife and I say it. Does he know what it means? I'm not sure.

When I was a kid, one either saw a movie in the theatre or on commercial television. Later, cable and videotape became other options. When someone said, "You have to see it on the big screen" it meant something. Seeing a movie on television meant pan and scan, commercials, scenes edited out, scenes originally cut out edited back in and profanity either muted or dubbed with another word. Sometimes the filmmakers would go as far as film two scenes when profanity was used, one for the theatre and a cleaned up version for tv. If you only saw the movie on television, one actually could argue that you had not really seen the movie at all. A rough facsimile maybe but not the real thing.

Now it's different. When my son watches a movie on television, it's a fairly big screen (and relative to the size of the screen and his distance from it, around five feet, it is a rough equivalent of seeing the larger theatre screen from a distance of eighty five feet), there are no commercial interruptions, no pan and scan, no post release editing. Seeing a movie on television now, by means of a DVD player, does not present a radical difference visually from seeing it in the theatre.

But depending on the movie, the difference in social experience can be compelling.

I've never supported the idea that the movies that "must be seen on the big screen" are the great visual giants, the great special effects extravaganzas. The more I see on the small screen that I have already seen on the big screen, the more I realize that the big screen provides little difference for me visually. But emotionally, it's a completely different story.

This past October my wife and I saw The Crowd at the AFI Silver Theatre in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, and the experience was unforgettable. The film was featured as a part of the A.F.I.'s Labor Film Fest and as an added bonus had the original organ score played live for the film by accomplished organist Ray Brubacher.

Other features included the requisite film historian giving a brief introduction and a raffle in which the audience submitted their names on cards for a bag full of goodies. And I won! So if you happened to be present for this showing of The Crowd, that dashing young man who walked up front to collect his prize was yours truly. It wasn't much of a prize (a couple of free passes, T-shirt, cup, etc) but it was still exciting to win.

Then the movie started with Brubacher providing accompaniment. I had seen The Crowd twice before, both times on television, once on PBS and once on videotape. I was excited for my wife to see it for the first time. Only later did I realize I was seeing it for the first time too. Directed by King Vidor with a fluid movement of camera and lean pacing, the movie tells the story of John and Mary Sims (James Murray and Eleanor Boardman) making their way through an indifferent urban landscape as they struggle with marriage, money and parenthood. Watching it on the big screen I was reminded why so many film historians rank James Murray's performance as one of the best of the silent era. Remarkably free of over the top pantomime, it is a subdued and nuanced performance, one that draws the audience into the character and attaches them to him emotionally. Eleanor Boardman is also superb as Mary Sims, playing off Murray brilliantly as he slides deeper and deeper into emotional despair.

The film became famous for the fight over its ending by Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. Mayer wanted to tack on a happy ending, where John and Mary win the lottery or John gets a high paying job dropped into his lap. What Mayer didn't realize, and it makes me wonder what if any understanding of story he had, is that The Crowd does have a happy ending, only it's real, not phony. At the end, as John and Mary laugh at the comedy they're watching in the theatre, they are still destitute, still jobless, still struggling. John is but 24 hours removed from a suicide attempt and Mary just hours removed from wanting to leave him. But they're happy, right now, in this moment. It took years but they finally realize that whatever is going to happen to them they can only survive it together. And that's a great ending, one that doesn't declare their troubles are over or their money problems solved, but states definitively that they've grown, together. That's a happy ending in my book. Vidor got it. Thalberg got it. Mayer? It flew right over his head. How could they be happy if they weren't rich? I'm glad I never knew Mayer.

That's the movie. Now for the experience. The audience present, the crowd, was there because of a love of classic film, a love of silent film. We all laughed together in the same places, gasped together, shared the same sense of excitement, the same sense of awe. When it was over we all applauded, ostensibly for Ray Brubacher and his excellent accompaniment, but I knew we were applauding the film as well, perhaps sharing a spiritual hope that somewhere, somehow, James Murray and Eleanor Boardman, King Vidor and Irving Thalberg could hear us and feel how much we loved their work. It was a wonderful experience, one I will never forget. And it taught me once again that seeing a film on the big screen as opposed to the television screen can make all the difference in the world. I'd recommend The Crowd to anyone interested in great cinema but feel like seeing it at home would be seeing a different movie than the one I saw at the A.F.I. This may be illogical and irrational, it may be challenged in this era of 70 inch screen televisions and blu-ray DVD players, but I have to say it anyway:

If you haven't seen The Crowd on the big screen, you haven't seen it.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Esther Blodgett Would Approve

Many years ago I saw a play in Washington, D.C. about three people, Joseph Meggesy (Megs), David Flanagan and his sister Martha Flanagan. The title of this play about Vietnam vets struggling to put the past behind them was Strange Snow. That's a title I've always liked, alluding to a trout fishing trip of theirs on one occasion, and it didn't hurt that the play was superbly performed by its three cast members. When I heard a few years later that a movie was being made of it I was excited to see what they would do with its intimate setting, small cast and period detail. It never occur ed to me for a second that they would change the title. Why would someone change a title so beautifully woven into the fabric of the characters' experience? Because they're Hollywood and they're stupid. That's why.

The movie, starring Robert DeNiro and Ed Harris, was released as Jacknife, and to justify this title they change Meggesy's nickname from "Megs" to, you guessed it, "Jacknife." Good grief. Had the movie been half of what I saw on the stage I might have grimaced and accepted the title change but the whole thing felt slapdash and fragmented. As a result I was even more annoyed that the movie had lost such a great title.

Famous plays and novels don't have to worry about title changes or have minor changes such as Bridge Over the River Kwai becoming The Bridge on the River Kwai or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde losing the first four words. Others are changed to avoid confusion. Wiseguy by Nicholas Pileggi was changed to goodfellas because of the popular television show Wiseguy on the air at the time. I've never liked the title goodfellas, but understand the change.

And others are adapted from book to screen and keep the title intact even though the given title stinks in book or movie form. And somehow they still manage to make a good movie. Which finally brings us around to the subject of this post, Floods of Fear, released in 1959, directed by Charles Crichton and starring Howard Keel and Anne Heywood.

The book it was based on had the same archly pulpy title but prior to that it was presented as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post under the equally pulpy title A Girl, a Man and a River. The series and novelized versions were written by brothers John and Ward Hawkins who wrote pulp and knew how to title it. For the record, I love both titles, Floods of Fear and A Girl, a Man and a River. It's just that for the movie, it appears the title may have done it in, giving people the impression they were going to see a disaster flick instead of a taut thriller.

Floods of Fear is a surprisingly engrossing noir in which a couple of escaped convicts are eluding the authorities and, in the case of the Keel character, Donovan, trying to find the person that framed him. And all of this is done in the midst of massive flooding in a small town. Keel was known for his musicals and this was his first step outside the genre into the gritty world of noirish surrealism. He does a good job with the role as does Anne Heywood as the woman caught between the convict and the law but it's Cyril Cusack who steals the movie with his menacing and snivelling convict, Peebles, providing a dangerous tension where the characters don't know whether to fear the floods or him more.

Impressively directed by Charles Crichton, noted comedy director from The Lavender Hill Mob to A Fish Called Wanda (he even directed the Golf Story Segment I didn't like in Dead of Night), Crichton uses his affinity for comedy editing to great effect here by not lingering over any shots or scenes in keeping the film moving at a swift but not rushed pace.

And for a low budget film the effects are quite good, mixing together stock footage with location shooting to miniatures and on the set wave machines. Its one problem may be that, being made in England and using British actors but set in the states, not everyone is completely convincing with their accents. But this is a minor quibble for such a well made pulp noir. Don't let the title fool you, Floods of Fear is a fine film for those in search of a solid, if predictable, late era noir but you'll have to catch it on television. It's never been released on DVD or, to my knowledge, VHS. But if you can find it give it a look. It's won't knock you over like a tidal wave but it won't drown your expectations either.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Still Time for Stillson!

I don't normally talk politics here at Cinema Styles but with Tuesday being the big day I thought I'd break that rule for once. You see, there are so many good choices here on the ballot in Maryland I just don't know what to do with such an embarrassment of riches. Forget about the two big political parties, it's the smaller ones I'm interested in.
For instance, there's a guy on the ballot here for the Senate named Greg Stillson. Wow, what a guy! He seems like a real friend to the worker. Why just the other day at one of his rallies there he was doing push-ups on the stage. I'm not sure why that should impress me but for some reason it did. And his posters show him wearing a construction hat. A construction hat! You're telling me your going to vote for one of the major party candidates when there's a guy in a construction hat running? You're crazy. Yep, I think ole Stillson is going to really shake things up when he gets elected. I mean really shake things up, like an A-Bomb explosion!
There's this guy, Roger Stuart, whose son I tutor on occasion, who told me not to vote for Stillson but what does he know? He wouldn't know good advice if it bit him on the leg. Why just last year he was trying to make an ice sculpture for a party he was having and grabbed an ice pick far too big for the task (that's Stuart, always overcompensating). I told him, "Roger, if you use that pick, the ice is going to break." He just laughed. So I took my silver wolf-headed novelty cane I bought from The Wolfman Society online and smashed a cherished antique vase in his house. "THE ICE IS GONNA BREAK!" I screamed. Later I realized this would have been far more effective had he actually been in the room. He came inside to see what the commotion was, asked about the smashed vase and I was all like, "Uh, that was like that when I got here. I think the dog did it."
But I digress. Back to Stillson. Not only is he a friend to the worker but even the local press loves him. The paper here wrote some nasty stuff about him and then you know what happened? Stillson and his Chief Advisor, Sonny Elliman, met with the editor and all the bad blood went away. Vanished into thin air. How many candidates do you know could completely change an editor's mind just by sitting down and having a chat with him? Once the editor saw how friendly and progressive Stillson was, he immediately changed his editorials. Wow, how can you not be impressed?
Now I don't know about you but I'm looking for a change. I still haven't forgotten how one of our last Presidents surrendered our nation to three aliens from Krypton led by General Zod. Boy, that really pissed me off at the time (although I admit, I did like Zod's energy policy, even if it was unrealistic to expect everyone to start flying under their own power). And how about the President after him, putting in that tape of Bandstand Boogie just when we needed a dry scientific treatise on nuclear fusion instead. What arrogance! What disrespect! I know a President who's not A-Number One in my book. If Stillson gets elected to the Senate one day he could run for President and vaporize all our problems in the blink of an eye.
So that's all I'm going to say. Greg Stillson is the candidate for change. A candidate who will push all the right buttons, and make others push them too, even if he has to hack their hand off to do it. He's starting to get a lot of recognition and people are writing in by the thousands to their local election boards to get him on the ballot. That's right, letter after letter being written in support of this little candidate who could. A real grass-roots campaign that's starting to really make a difference. Send a message to Washington that we're going to explode all their preconceived notions with a 10 megaton shockwave through the city. Don't delay, write those letters today. The missives are flying. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!