Sunday, November 21, 2010

24 Hours (1931): A Full Day with Hopkins & Francis

Talented but temperamental actress Miriam Hopkins had the reputation of stealing scenes and chewing scenery throughout her prominent career. Her earliest days onscreen were no exception and as a bright and shiny new star at Paramount in the early 1930’s, she did not hide her light under a bushel. Making her film debut in 1930 in Fast and Loose with fellow Paramount pretty Carole Lombard ( Lombard had been in films for over half a decade by then), she had a hit in her second feature The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) co-starring movie novice Claudette Colbert. By her third film, she was the sure fire star of the show, even though Clive Brook and Kay Francis were billed above her. The film was called 24 Hours, and it was a prime example of pre-Code Paramount, with a great line-up of actors to boot.

Jim and Fanny Towner (Brook and Francis) are a wealthy yet bored couple who are each involved in an extramarital affair. Jim’s alcoholism doesn’t help the problem and he finds solace with his paramour Rosie Duggan (Hopkins), a brassy speak easy singer, who is married to a weak and neurotic small time hoodlum named Tony (Regis Toomey, whose 40 year screen career began the year before this film was made). Tony is on the skids after his wife has the bouncer at the club where she works, toss him out on his keyster. Later that evening, she carries the falling down drunk Jim home with her to see that he sleeps off his buzz. When Tony comes aknockin’ in the middle of the night, crazed look in his eyes, he accidentally kills the two-timing torch singer, while her sugar daddy is passed out in the other room. He beats it when he realizes what he’s done, as does Jim when he awakes the next morning and realizes he could be blamed for the chanteuse’s demise.

As much as a dramatic showcase 24 Hours is for Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis has the tougher job of giving a more subtle yet still effective performance. To an extent she succeeds, but her character is written so that she has little more to do than look forlorn about the lack of love in both her marriage as well as her affair. Her dramatic glory days would come with her tenure at Warner Brothers a few years later, a working relationship that was both extremely profitable as well as turbulent for the raven haired star. British born Clive Brook worked in silent films for years and made the transition to sound successfully. He looks rather bored in the first half of this film, but I suppose that is his job, as he is bored with his life AND his wife. (Brook made a telling statement about his profession in America when he said: "Hollywood is a chain gang and we lose the will to escape. The links of the chain are not forged with cruelties but with luxuries."). Although given a small role, veteran stage actress Lucille LaVerne gives the audience a visual once-over as Tony’s slovenly and tough-as-nails landlady. I recognized immediately her voice as that of the old hag in Walt Disney’s animated masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It was the last performance of her very lengthy career, and the one for which she is most associated, as the animators actually used the actress as a visual model for the crone.

Based on the novel Twenty-Four Hours by Louis Bromfield, the film is a lost gem, a part of Paramount’s film library, owned by Universal/MCA, most of which are unreleased to the general public. Copies aren’t easy to find and when they are, the quality sometimes has much to be desired, but if you do get a chance to gander the charms of the young Mesdames Hopkins and Francis, I’d jump at it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What Am I Watching?: Well, I’ll Tell You

Classic movies are obviously one of my favorite things (hence this venue for my passion), and although I write about various films and classic stars, there are so many other personal viewings whose good or bad aspects, as the case may be, don’t get recorded on this blog. There just isn’t enough time to write about them all as in depth as I might like. Having said that, I’d like to pass along a few films, recently viewed, but not shared.

The Great Man's Lady (1942)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Joel McCrea, with second lead going to Brian Donlevy, The Great Man’s Lady has a cast who can always deliver the cinematic goods. McCrea is the Great Man, Stanwyck, his lady. Babs ages from 16 to over 100 (pictured above), and lives a lot of life in between. Director William Wellman leaves his signature masculine touch, with plenty of rough and tumble historics mixed with emotional histrionics.

Stanwyck was made for this kind of role. She is part Stella Dallas, part Victoria Barkley. Some may wonder why she sacrifices so much for her “great man”, but that’s the nature of old Hollywood. Catch it if you can.

Le Corbeau (The Raven; 1943)
Director Henri-Georges Clouzot was known as “the French Hitchcock” and with good reason. Most famous for 1955’s Les Diaboliques, Clouzot shot Le Corbeau during the war and its somber mood and very adult themes reflect the conditions of his nation at the time. More a mystery than a suspense, the latter characteristic is always present.

Le Corbeau or The Raven is the signature used by a poison pen letter writer in a small French burg, whose main aggression is directed at a local doctor (Pierre Fresnay). The letters accuse, among many other things, the doctor of being an abortionist. Pretty frank topic during World War II, or anytime before the new millennium for that fact. The entire film is frank and extremely well made. Even if you aren’t into sub-titles, if you like film noir at all, I suggest you give this foreign flick a try, as it is very noirish in feel.

Four Frightened People (1934)
I don’t usually write about films that I didn’t really enjoy, but with this particular post, one takes the good with the bad. It’s not that Four Frightened People is particularly bad, it’s just not all that good. Directed by the gargantuan filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, it did not even make back its cost and DeMille counted it one of his box office turkeys.

The story tells of four completely different types from the western world, who evacuate a ship off the Malayan coast, which has been striken with bubonic plague. They make their way to land only to be lost in the deepest jungle, to be hunted by nasty natives and even nastier attitudes among themselves. Think Survivor 1934.

Starring Claudette Colbert and Herbert Marshall, with support by William Gargan and Mary Boland, and made at Paramount, the film looks more like one of the studios attempts at a low grade B flick than a Cecil B. DeMille mega-production. But the thing that really got this blogger, was Claudette Colbert, who never disappoints. As a mousy, high strung old maid teacher (can you imagine!), she is anything but classic Colbert. Then she blossoms into a jungle maiden, wearing a sarong of giant banana leaves or leopard print, in full make-up and coiffure. We are talking Fredrick's of Hollywood in the middle of a jungle folks. But the classic Colbert would appear directly after this film was released, because it was then that she played her career changing Oscar winning role in It Happened One Night. One bright spot is Mary Boland. Looking like Paula Deen’s grandmother, Boland is a comic relief of sorts, a toned down version of her Countess DeLave from The Women (1939). I wouldn’t say “Don’t watch this”, as it is watchable but don’t expect a lot either.

There you have it. Rupert’s recent roster of raves and rants. Which leads me to ask, have YOU seen anything delightful or deplorable of late?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Silver Cord (1933): Come to Mama

Ah, motherhood. From Madame X to Stella Dallas, Marmee March to Mrs. Judge Hardy (her movie husband, Lewis Stone, even called her “Mother”), the institution of motherhood in Hollywood during the golden age could verge on the sanctimonious and saccharine. That, however, was just one end of the maternal meter. If one goes to the other extreme, they find silly, self serving women, Mommies Dearest to the nth degree. The cinematic grandmaMA to these characters (or even great-grandmaMA, as our subject is an early talkie) would have to be Mother Phelps in RKO’s The Silver Cord (1933).

Based on a play which had a successful run on Broadway in 1926, The Silver Cord is the story of a woman who, by all outward appearances, adores her two grown sons (Joel McCrea and Eric Linden). But as we begin to realize, barely before Mrs. Phelps (her first name is never mentioned) gets her coat off in her first scene, this woman is a manipulative, conniving, self centered barracuda, who, upon meeting her new daughter-in-law (Irene Dunne) for the first time, marks her line in the sand as to where her son’s loyalties should lie! Also present is her younger son’s fiancee (Frances Dee). Matriarch Phelps is ready to devour Dunne, limbs and all, as the main course and finish off Dee, as the lighter, easier to digest dessert, albeit under the guise of sugar-laden maternal concern for her ”big young things.” Dunne’s character, Christina, is a scientist; bright, modern and intelligent and has no intention of giving up her new husband (McCrea) to “another woman” as she calls his mother.

The Silver Cord is a Freudian film fantasy. There is no end to Mrs. Phelps’ mouth kissing both her sons, cleaving them to her ample bosom and having them lay their heads in her always waiting lap. She even admits romantic attachment for them (though verbally falling short of declaring lust) after she discovered her marriage to their father was a loveless one. No woman will ever be good enough for them because no woman is her.

The entire cast is spot on in their portrayal of various members or potential members of this very dysfunctional tribe, headed by Mama Smother Me Not performed with great relish by stage veteran Laura Hope Crews. Crews played the role in the stage version and was a natural when the story came to the screen. Best known as the fluttery spinster Aunt Pittypat Hamilton in the epic Gone with the Wind, Crews channels the same fidgety anxiousness displayed in her Pittypat for Mrs. Phelps, only tempering her flamboyance with a steely resolve to have her own way regarding her offspring.

The apples of her eye, David and Robert, are played by handsome up and comer Joel McCrea and Eric Linden, respectively. The major lack of continuity in character seems to lie with McCrea, whose David makes light of his mother’s fussy cuddling and (wo)man-handling him in the film’s first half, yet defends her against his bride (unfounded, of course) in the second. Linden’s Robert is a spineless “effete” rounder who has no problem being tied tightly with his mothers apron strings. These mama’s boys are whooped! The lovely Frances Dee is splendid as his fiancee, Hester, whose defiance of her would-be viper-in-law brings cheers from the audience. She has one of the best lines in the picture. When asked what she will do by Robert after they have broken their engagement, Dee replies: “Marry an orphan.“ She and McCrea (pictured together below) would become romantically involved off screen during the making of the film, marry and remain so for 57 years until McCrea’s death in 1990.

Star billing went to the sublime Irene Dunne. As Christina, she gives as good as she gets, better in most cases, when going rounds with the monstrous dowager. The role was considered for both Katharine Hepburn and Ann Harding before RKO cast Dunne. Not the mega star she would be later in the decade, Dunne’s grace and sophistication shone through in this pre-code soaper. She would have several collaborations with the film’s director John Cromwell including 1946’s Anna and the King of Siam.

The Silver Cord is very much a filmed play, with lengthy stretches of dialogue by both Hope Crews and Dunne, but it packs quite a wallop in its 74 minute time frame. It would make a great double feature with Craig’s Wife.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Claude Rains: A Man for All Seasons

London born and stage trained, Claude Rains was an exceptional actor equally adept at whimsical roles as he was in heavy drama. He made his mark in his very first Hollywood film, The Invisible Man (1933), his unmistakable voice doing most of the work. He signed on with Warner Brothers studio where his performances graced many of Hollywood’s greatest and best known classics. Warners cast him with its biggest stars at the peak of their careers and in many of their definitive films; The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) with Errol Flynn, Now, Voyager (1942) with Bette Davis and Casablanca (1943) with Humphrey Bogart.

Although rarely the lead, his characters were pivotal and always unforgettable. As Prince John in Flynn’s Robin Hood, he created one of the screen’s great villains. Wearing a heavily banged page boy bob, Rains preening prince planned and plotted only to be foiled in the end by the Prince of Thieves. Along with his role as the wise and knowing Dr. Jackwith in Now, Voyager, he also starred with Davis in Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Deception (1946). The two actors complemented one another perfectly and Rains was one of the actress’ favorite co-stars. The grande dame of the Warners’ lot even went as far to say he was “He was a pip! The best!”

The actor gave a powerful performance as a corrupt senator opposite James Stewart in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and yet another as a sinister Fascist leader in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), although it’s debatable whether he or his characters mother is more evil in the latter.

He continued working into the 1960’s and also continued his stage work, winning a Tony Award in 1951. Well respected by his peers, Rains was nominated for the Academy Award four times, though never winning the coveted prize.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Ann Rutherford: Polly Benedict and MORE!

“There was a quality about Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer that was so special . . . it was just the most exciting studio in the world. They looked after their people so perfectly. And then to go to a place [20th Century-Fox] where you don't know anybody and they don't know you and they don't give a rip, it was not a happy time. I got so ticked off, I got married!” ~ Ann Rutherford

Ann Rutherford will be 90 on Tuesday! An elegant dark haired beauty who graced many classic movies from Hollywood’s hey day, Ann was a prime example of the old Hollywood star system. Making her first film at the age of twenty, she soon was signed to MGM, the glittering super studio of Hollywood at the time. Groomed as one of its prime starlets, she appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Past in Metro’s holiday favorite, A Christmas Carol alongside Reginald Owen and Gene Lockhart. But it was as Polly Benedict in the studio’s wildly popular “Andy Hardy” series, that she became famous and steadily employed for nearly half a decade. As Polly, Andy’s (Mickey Rooney) best girlfriend, Ann had to often share Andy, and screen time, with other up and coming starlets who were being promoted by the studio. These comely lasses included Lana Turner, Esther Williams, Kathryn Grayson and Donna Reed.

Landing juicy roles in youth oriented films at MGM in the late 30’s (most noticeably Dramatic School (1938) and These Glamour Girls (1939), Rutherford was cast by David O. Selznick in his mega hit, Gone with the Wind (1939), as Scarlett O’Hara’s baby sister Careen. The role was briefly considered to be offered to teen-aged Judy Garland, but her light was about to shine very brightly in The Wizard of Oz later that same year.

In the early 1940’s, Rutherford left Metro and worked as a freelance actress, with some success at 20th Century-Fox. In Orchestra Wives (1942), she played Connie, who falls in love and marries trumpet player Bill Abbott (George Montgomery) much to the chagrin of his fellow band member and lead singer Jaynie (the lovely and ever conniving Lynn Bari). She went on to even more memorable roles particularly in the “Whistling” series with Red Skelton back at MGM and as Danny Kaye’s fiancee in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), but retired from films in 1950. She returned in the 1970’s for a couple more big screen roles and was considered for the role of older Rose in James Cameron’s huge cinematic spectacle Titanic (1997), a role that eventually was played by Gloria Stuart.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Footlight Parade (1933): Jimmy Cagney, the Hoofer

With 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933), Warner Brothers studio had tapped into a treasure trove of entertainment for Depression weary audiences, longing for escapist fare of the highest caliber. With these fluffy film musicals, they had just that, lots of singing, lots of dancing and spectacular kaleidoscopic choreography by master showman Busby Berkley. Striking while the iron was red hot, Warners produced Footlight Parade, a cookie cutter copy of the previous shows, before the year was out. Although not exactly the same plot, the similarities were enough to continue the successful streak for Berkley and the studio.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the flailing career of New York stage director Chester Kent (movie tough guy James Cagney), who, in an attempt to save his struggling production company, develops “prologues”, live musical introductions to the newly popular talking pictures. As his financial woes mount, his shrewish, shallow wife demands a divorce, his competitor steals his ideas (with the help of an insider from his troupe), and his partners are swindling him of his share of the profits; add to this mix a gold-digging tootsie who latches on to his coattails when it appears he is on his way up again and you have a whirlwind of screen activity with Cagney chewing it up like it was a steak and baked potato. By his side the entire time and helping him at every turn, is his devoted and enamored secretary Nan (the incomparable Joan Blondell, at her cutest and wise-cracking snappiest).

Cagney had become a big star at Warners, along with Edward G. Robinson, as the resident grande gangster, after his breakthrough hit The Public Enemy two years earlier. But the actor had started out on the stage as a song and dance man and took this opportunity to flaunt his hoofing skills to great success. It is in this capacity and genre that he would win an Academy Award nine years later as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. In Footlight Parade, Cagney is a firecracker of activity, shooting rapid fire dialogue as quickly as he does a machine gun in his gangster/hoodlum pictures.

Blondell, also a Warners staple, is a scene stealer as Nan. Standing by her man throughout the whole film (even when Cagney doesn’t realize he’s her man), she sticks up for the underdog/good guy (encouraging Chester to hire talented dancer/stenographer Ruby Keeler) and protects those she loves from harm (ie: pretty but conniving Claire Dodd from bossman Cagney). Along with the two leads, Footlight Parade features the fresh faces of crooner Dick Powell and the afore mentioned Keeler, who made a dynamic duo in the year’s previous two Berkley hits.

The film is pre-Code, the time before Hollywood censorship took a stronghold, and some of its racier dialogue was sliced and diced from re-release dates after the Code took effect. However, it was restored in 1970, so today, we can enjoy a classic Blondell sniping to her gold-digging rival for Cagney’s affections: “Out countess…as long as there are sidewalks, you’ll have a job.” Other elements that post-Code films wouldn’t have gotten away with were scantily clad chorines in a the bathing beauty extravaganza “By a Waterfall.” As a matter of fact, all the musical numbers in the film’s finale have daring themes to say the least. The charming “Honeymoon Hotel” routine shows a newlywed couple (Powell and Keeler) trying to enjoy their matrimonial amour without the constant interruptions that ensue, including an odd and ribald baby played by dwarf Billy Barty. In the final number, “Shanghai Lil”, Cagney is a sailor, looking for his lost love in the bordellos and opium dens of the Orient. It is a bizarre and surreal concept and even more unusual is the introduction of Keeler’s Lil. Unlike the debauchery and wanton behavior going on around her, Keeler, as Cagney’s Asian gal pal, is cute and perky. From the rest of the performers in the bit, one would expect Marlene Dietrich to show up as the infamous Lil. However, it is nonetheless a fabulous piece of film extravagance set to music.

Fast, furious and complete fun, Footlight Parade, like its toe tapping cousins, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers, was a success and continued the trend at Warners fondly known as the “backstage musical”. The string would continue the following year with another installment of the “Gold Diggers” films, Dames and Wonder Bar.

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Footlight Parade (1933) DVD
Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes ~ Matthew Kennedy

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Fallen Angel (1945): Fox Film Noir

With Laura (1944), 20th-Century Fox had a certified hit, both commercially and critically. Stylish and sexy, it also certified full fledged stardom for it’s leading lady, Gene Tierney, and propelled the status of it’s director, Otto Preminger. As always in Hollywood, the studio was eager to build on and duplicate the success of a film by using similar elements to potentially create a new one. This was the case with Fallen Angel, produced the year after the Tierney success. Laura’s male star, Dana Andrews was cast in the lead and Preminger assigned as it’s director.

Unlike Laura, the characters in Fallen Angel aren’t glamorous and wealthy eastern urbanites with razor sharp wit. They are denizens of a small podunk hamlet on the California coast. Although the characters reside on both sides of the tracks, the main focus is on the seedier “wrong” side. Down on his luck drifter Eric Stanton (Andrews) is kicked off a night bus bound for San Francisco, for lack of payment, landing in the burg of Walton, population 23 (an exaggeration, but it is a small, slow moving town). Drowning his sorrows in a cuppa joe at a late night diner, he happens upon Stella (luscious Linda Darnell); waitress, leggy lovely and local slut. As mercenary as she is beautiful, Stella, as Eric discovers within ten minutes of film footage, has a penchant for picking up admirers as quickly and handily as she does the day’s blue plate special.

Impetuous boy that Eric is, 24 hours later, he finds that he’s fallen head over heels with our girl Stella. She on the other hand has other plans. Being burned by Johnny-Come-Latelys before, she wants more than a chop suey dinner and a good time. Determined to give the sultry hash slinger the material possessions she craves, Eric sets his sights on local spinster June Mills (Alice Faye), attractive and financially well off. The plan: Marry June, grab her dough and take off with his viperous vixen. But when Stella is found murdered, Eric finds a target on his back.

Not only was Fallen Angel supposed to follow in the successful, noir-ish footsteps of Laura, but it was also supposed to be the dramatic debut of film songstress, Alice Faye. Longtime Fox musical star, Faye wanted to take her career in a different direction and was excited when her boss, head of Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, chose this for her dramatic break-out (Olivia de Havilland and new Fox lovely Jeanne Crain were also considered for the role. DeHavilland specifically might have done well in it, as she successfully played a similar role in Paramount’s Hold Back the Dawn, two years earlier). Although not a flop, the film didn’t come close to the box-office powerhouse, Laura had been, and Faye was very unhappy with the way the film had been edited. After visiting the screening room to see the final product, she reportedly left the studio and retired from films (she would return to both films and Fox in 1962 for a remake of State Fair, in a secondary mother role).

Dana Andrews was riding a career high, starring in the aforementioned Laura, the hugely popular ‘45 version of State Fair, and headlined the following year’s Oscar winning Best Picture, The Best Years of Our Lives. But the big winner in Fallen Angel was Linda Darnell. Based on her strong performance in Hangover Square, also released in 1945, she was cast yet again as a dark vamp and the persona suited her. Her early roles had consisted of very young and virginal ingenue parts, but as the middle of the decade approached, she began being cast as naughty girls and her dark good looks only enhanced her burgeoning sexpot image. Stella can actually be viewed as a precursor to her acclaimed role as beautiful gold-digger, Lora Mae Hollingsway in the highly successful A Letter to Three Wives (1949). According to Darnell biographer Ronald L. Davis, there was even talk about an Oscar nomination for her performance in Angel.

Famed playwright Tennessee Williams recommended the movie, albeit denouncing the “awful” title, but the overall impression was that it just didn’t live up to it’s expectations. The fast pace of the relationships were inane, with Andrew’s character falling madly in love with a loose woman, meeting and marrying an upstanding lady and attempting to bilk her of her fortune, all in a very small town, and all in less than a week. But the noir elements, overall good performances by not only the three principals but also fine character actors, Charles Bickford, Anne Revere, Bruce Cabot and Percy Kilbride, and striking cinematography by Joseph LaShelle, make for a film from the golden age that can be enjoyed, if not wholly believed.
Want to know more?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lana Turner: Birth of a Starlet, Part 2

Note: The first part of this two part article can be found here.

As far as party girls go, Lindsay Lohan had nothing on Lana Turner in the early 1940’s (well, accept arrests and rehab time). With her perky nose, dancing dimples and honey blonde hair, the gorgeous “Sweater Girl” was on the top of the Hollywood heap, both socially and professionally. Although she was still technically a starlet, her career was on the rise, which only heated up her love life all the more.

Her wild woman reputation would only be enhanced by her whirlwind four month marriage to bandleader Artie Shaw (pictured below), a notorious ladies man, who jilted both Betty Grable and a young and impressionable Judy Garland for Turner. Eloping after their first date, the 29 year-old lothario and the sweater girl (who had just turned 19 earlier that week) had a tumultuous time of it and Lana famously called her tenure with Shaw her “college education.” The irony is that Turner claims that she married Shaw on the rebound from yet another infamous Hollywood wolf, attorney Greg Bautzer. Bautzer ditched her for Joan Crawford (Bautzer would be portrayed by actor Steve Forrest in 1981’s Mommie Dearest). He would not only represent her in her divorce from Shaw, but also in her split from second husband, restaurateur Stephen Crane. And so goes the fast and furious Hollywood sexual Merry-Go-Round.

With her divorce came a new crop of men and nightclub rounds. Victor Mature and singer Tony Martin were just a few who squired the blonde beauty around town. MGM took the opportunity of Turner’s burgeoning notoriety to cast her in Ziegfeld Girl (1941) with fellow studio beauty Hedy Lamarr and fellow studio cutie Garland. As Sheila Hale, top banana in a sea of legs and sequins that only the great showman Florenz Ziegfeld could display properly, Lana tumbled and stumbled in yet another kind of sea…..booze and men. The hit film played as a precursor of sorts to 1967’s Valley of the Dolls, and allowed Turner melodramatic training which, not only boosted her career at the time, but would hold her in good stead twenty some odd years later in her middle aged diva stage (ie: Peyton Place (1957), Imitation of Life (1959) and Madame X (1966)).

Her next picture was the big budget remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which placed her at third billing after Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman. Originally slated to play the slutty victim of Mr. Hyde, she was cast as the good girl in love with Dr. Jekyll, when Miss Bergman, set to play that role, wanted a change of pace and requested their parts be switched. With the success of Ziegfeld Girl, Metro cast her with the studio’s top male star, the King himself, Clark Gable, in a western/romance called Honky Tonk (1941). Mrs. Gable, aka Carole Lombard, reportedly didn’t like the film pairing, believing the kisses during the fade out might linger after the cameras stopped rolling. Rumors swirled to that notion, though Turner stated, both in a Ladies Home Journal article, as well as her autobiography, that no such affair took place.

Yet another case of alleged extramarital cuddling occurred during the filming of Johnny Eager (1942) with another MGM heavyweight heartthrob, Robert Taylor. The films promotional ads read: "Taylor's Johnny, Turner's eager." Married to actress Barbara Stanwyck at the time, Taylor reportedly was so smitten with Turner that he asked Stanwyck for a divorce. As with the rumored Gable affair, Lana also denied any wrongdoing with Bob Taylor. The onscreen chemistry was definitely there, as it was with Gable and tongues continued to wag when she and Gable were cast yet again in Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942), and it was during the filming of this picture that Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash while on a war bond selling tour. The following year, Turner starred in a picture called Slightly Dangerous.

By the end of the war, Lana Turner was a hot property, both on and off screen. No film could display this sexy femme fatale persona better than the one for which the actress would become most famous, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). As a tanned and tempting married waitress on the make, she would forever brand her image, wearing a stark white two piece short set and matching turban. She would have several more husbands in the next 25 years and many other big roles, but this part defined her sex goddess persona for the rest of the decade and most of the next one. The starlet had become a star.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Hard Way (1943): Forgotten Gem

The Hard Way could be a description of actress Ida Lupino’s career. Called by some a “poor man’s Bette Davis (a moniker shared by Susan Hayward), Lupino was a star in her own right, possessing a very distinctive style and consistently giving top notch performances. However, attaining her major success at Warner Brothers in the early and mid 1940’s, she was sometimes required to take some of Davis’ cast off roles, Bette being the queen of the Warner’s lot during this period. One such Davis hand-me-down was the meaty lead character of Helen Chernen in The Hard Way (1943), which Lupino deftly handled. She gave a tour de force portrayal and gained much acclaim including the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress of 1943.

Helen Chernen is a woman living in near poverty in a lifeless, stifling, dirty coal mining town. Trapped in a loveless marriage to boot, her only ray of hope is her teen-aged sister, Katie (Joan Leslie). Helen sees an opportunity for the moderately talented Katie, when the youngster catches the eye of a traveling vaudevillian, Albert Runkel (Jack Carson), who is passing through the shabby little burg with his show biz partner, Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan). The elder sister pushes for their marriage, then slowly integrates Katie into the Runkel/Collins act until bigger fish come along to fry. Katie becomes a huge success leaving the lovelorn Albert behind, but success via her sister Helen, she finds, isn’t so sweet when you go about it the hard way, or should I say the wrong way.

The film, written by famed playwright and author Irving Shaw, is reportedly based loosely on the early life of actress Ginger Rogers, specifically her relationships with her stage mother Lela and her first husband, vaudeville performer Jack Pepper. The movie even makes reference to Rogers by name and when the character of Katie makes big in her first Broadway show, the production is called “Boy Crazy” (as opposed to Ginger’s first successful foray, “Girl Crazy”).

Ida Lupino is superb as Helen. Underrated and often overlooked in the annals of Hollywood history, the actress displays in The Hard Way, as well as other films, an inner toughness and resolve, to get her way, whatever the cost. She is not alone in contributing a fine performance however, with the entire cast turning in solid work. Jack Carson gives perhaps his finest dramatic display as the good hearted but ill-treated Albert. He and Dennis Morgan would co-star in several other Warners features, but none so artistically successful as this. Not to say this is high art. It is basically what was known at the time as a “woman’s picture” with hints of film noir, very similar in many ways to Mildred Pierce, also produced at Warner Brothers two years later. In fact, producer Jerry Wald used the opening sequence of Ida Lupino dressed to the nines and jumping into the bay as the basis for the opening in Pierce.

Aside from Miss Lupino, the two second lady roles went to the afore mentioned Miss Leslie and veteran actress Gladys George, who was a staple at Warners and other studios in bedraggled dame roles or the moll with the heart of gold. Gladys’ characters had lived a lot of life and seen a lot of sadness. Her role here, as a has-been stage actress who drowns her sorrows in a bottle of whatever is at hand, is no different. Joan Leslie is the only proverbial fly in the ointment in The Hard Way. Not that she doesn’t do an adequate job, but one finds it extremely hard to believe that, as Katherine Blaine, she is a great shining beacon on the New York stage. Her Katherine can be downright lackluster at times, especially beside the scenery chewing Lupino! However, with the help of make up guru Perc Westmore and gowns and get-ups by designer Orry-Kelly, she goes from small town gum chewer to sophisticated stage star quite smoothly, and considering her youth (Leslie was only seventeen at the time of filming), she keeps her head above water with the stalwart Warner Brothers stock company. The entire ensemble is really good, but Ida Lupino is the one you can’t take your eyes off, and shouldn’t, as you might find a knife in your back.

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Ida Lupino: A Biography by William Donati

If you are interested in this or any other merchandise, please help support this blog by purchasing them through the Amazon portal at the top of this page. By accessing Amazon through this site, you help me maintain resource material and continue to share my love of classic film. Thank you very much.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Beauty and the Beast (1946): Enter Cocteau's Dream

To put it simply, director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 version of Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) is sheer genius. The film is a masterpiece of celluloid and no other fairy tale put to film is as artistically stunning (The Wizard of Oz may be an exception, but Cocteau’s French chef d'oeuvre has an ethereal quality that even Oz can’t touch). It is exquisite in every detail, visually sumptuous with an equally impressive and lavish musical score by composer Georges Auric. Cocteau, a highly intelligent and creative individual, who cavorted with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Edith Piaf, pulled out all the stops to actualize the famed fairy tale. His dreamlike classic would inspire the Walt Disney animated version of the same name 45 years later.

The story revolves around the characters of Belle, a beautiful, kind and humble French girl and The Beast, a magical, physically hideous creature. When Belle’s father gets lost in the forest while on a journey, he happens upon an other worldly like estate, a chateau of mystical essence. After partaking of the hospitality of an invisible host, the man wakes the next morning to wander the grounds looking for his horse and continue homeward. In the garden of the estate, he finds a magnificent rose and plucks said flower for his daughter. This gesture of affection awakens the rage of his host, now making his presence known as the Beast. For this infraction, the Beast commands that he shall have to pay with his life, unless one of his daughters come in his stead. Of his four children, the old man has a shiftless, irresponsible son named Ludevic and two vain and abrasive daughters, Felicie and Adelaide. His third daughter is the lovely and selfless Belle, for whom he picked the rose. The last of the characters in Cocteau’s version is the handsome but erratic Avenant, who is in love with Belle.

When the father arrives back home, fatigued and ill, he tells his tale to his amazed family. Belle, wishing to save her father from any potential harm, sneaks out and rides the magic horse which was provided by the Beast, as the means for return to his world. Once she has reached her strange destination, Belle is both frightened and astonished at the fantastical residence. When she meets the beast face to face, she is horrified by his countenance. The Beast on the other hand is enchanted by Belle’s beauty and asks her to marry him. Initially repelled by the offer, as her time in the Beast’s company progresses, she befriends him and persuades him to allow her to return to her father, who she discovers is deathly ill. The Beast reluctantly agrees, on the terms that his beloved return within a week, on her honor. He informs her that should she fail to come back, he will die of grief.

As both the film's director and writer, Cocteau’s vision is brought vividly to life onscreen long before high tech special effects were even considered in film making. The gallery of living candelabras, Belle’s diamond tears, her enchanted mirror and the fireplace mantle carved with faces whose eyes watch every movement around them are just a few of the fascinating examples of the director’s creativity come to life. His use of quick cutting between scenes, abruptly ending one scene and immediate entrance into the next, as opposed to a slow fade out, enhances the surreal effect of the picture. As an American watching the film, the French language, fluid and alien to me except for a few scattered words, also lends to the hypnotic production. Famed French designer Christian Bérard, was in charge of production design and acclaimed cinematographer Henri Alekan the gorgeous black and white photography.

As both the Beast and Avenant, French matinee idol Jean Marais does a wonderful job projecting the pathos of the Beast, as well as the pompous virility of Avenant. Marais met director Jean Cocteau in 1937. The two became lovers and Marais, Cocteau’s protegee. The director guided the young actor to become one of France’s most popular stars in the 1940’s and 50’s, with their best collaborations, being this film, as well as Orpheus (1949). French actress Josette Day is luminous as Belle. Each of her shots accentuate her beauty and elegance on film and she displays the grace of a ballet dancer, whether in her scenes at the family’s provincial homestead or the Beast’s palace. Unfortunately for the French movie industry, Day retired from films only 4 years after La Belle et la Bête at the age of 36. As for the supporting cast, mention must be made for the performances of Mila Parély and Nane Germon as Belle’s viperous and hateful sisters. These two nasty wenches could give Cinderella’s step siblings a major run for their money.

Beauty and the Beast is a masterwork indeed. But be warned, there is no Ma and Pa Kettle Go to the Fair here. It is a work of supremely skilled artistry with both style and substance, and excellence from all involved. For a foreign film novice, it’s a perfect foray into the genre and a delight to all who make the leap.

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
Beauty and the Beast ~ The Criterion Collection (DVD)

If you are interested in these or any other merchandise, please help support this blog by purchasing them through the Amazon portal at the top of this page. By accessing Amazon through this site, you help me maintain resource material and continue to share my love of classic film. Thank you very much.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pre-Code Barbara Stanwyck: You've Got the Cutest Little "Baby Face"

Raw, gutsy and independent, Barbara Stanwyck was a “brawd” in the truest sense of the word and one of the best examples that Hollywood had to offer. This tough dame persona, which ran rampant in classics like Double Indemnity (1944), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and a variety of westerns in the 1950’s, found its roots in the actress’ pre-code movies of the early 1930’s. While many of her contemporaries tried to speak with a pseudo-British accent, a common trait as part of actor's film diction training by various studios (MGM was the worst), Stanwyck not only spoke in her native Brooklyn-ese, but wore it as a badge of honor. Among other things it made her stand out from the pack of young actresses who seemed bound for stardom in the early days of talkies.

In the period of Hollywood history known as the pre-code era (the time in the early 1930’s before the Production Censorship Code was put into strict enforcement), Stanwyck’s roles stood out as some of the most notable and brazen. Along with Mae West’s early cinematic romps, Stanwyck’s racy Baby Face (1933), helped pave the way for a tighter hold by Hollywood censors later in the decade. Her husky, knowing voice not only betrayed her Brooklyn roots, but revealed in her roles of this period, an earthy, wanton past. Her characters had been around the block, and if they hadn’t, they wanted to.

Her screen image in the Thirties was that of a self-sacrificing mother or a tramp, either with a heart of gold or cold and hard, with the capacity of redemption. Some of her film’s plots during this interval were contrived and hard to swallow, such as The Purchase Price (1932) and Ladies They Talk About (1933), but Stanwyck’s performance always shined and made otherwise unbelievable situations extremely entertaining. She possessed similar screen traits to one of her screen peers at MGM during the same time, Joan Crawford. Like Crawford, she was often cast as a lower class young woman scraping her way in a man’s world. Just as Joan was the eternal shopworn shopgirl in her pre-code films, Barbara actually starred in a film titled Shopworn (1932). But unlike Crawford, Stanwyck was more hard boiled. She could play not only a gangster’s moll but the gangster, and she had no qualms when it came to revenge. Also unlike Crawford, who was, and wanted to be, iron clad contracted with her studio, Stanwyck had non-exclusive contracts with both Columbia AND Warner Brothers during a time when the studio ruled. Talk about gutsy.

Barbara Stanwyck’s real life past lent a certain credence to her onscreen performances. Born in Brooklyn in 1907 as Ruby Stevens, she was orphaned at a very young age and was cast about in several foster homes until eventually hitting the stage as a teen and becoming a chorus girl. Mind you, a chorus girl in the 1920’s was not exactly a Little Bo Peep existence. She met and married Frank Fay, a popular vaudeville star and followed him to Hollywood, where she got a less than auspicious start in movies. Her first two features were duds, and discouraged and distraught, she went, on recommendation of Columbia Studio boss Harry Cohn, to see director Frank Capra about a picture he was casting called Ladies of Leisure (1930). Capra thought Stanwyck “sullen” and she left the interview prematurely. But after viewing a test she had made for another film, the director wanted her in his picture and the two became great friends with Capra saying of the actress in his autobiography, “In a Hollywood popularity contest, she would win first prize hands down.” A notion shared my many in the film community for years to come.

In Ladies of Leisure, the actress plays a “party girl”. In her next film, Illicit (1930), as if the title wasn’t titillating enough, she plays a girl who wants to live with her lover outside of marriage (this is 1930 we’re talking here). Forbidden (1932), shows her as a sexually repressed librarian who throws caution to the wind and becomes the mistress of a married man, even having his child out of wedlock. Ladies They Talk About (1933), she winds up in a women’s prison. These kinds of roles and ones similar to them, were a prevailing theme in Stanwyck’s early work. Bouncing back and forth between Columbia with roles in early Capra films and Warner Brothers, the actress made great career strides eventually gaining full fledged stardom. The culmination of this bad girl image arguably came in the form of Baby Face, the deliciously decadent diatribe which helped push Hollywood censors over the edge.

Baby Face features Stanwyck as Lily Powers, product of a grimy factory town where her bootlegging father has been pimping her out since she was 14. When he is killed she heads for the big city to make her mark. Starting from the ground floor, she literally sleeps her way to the top in a large metro bank, where she eventually becomes the mistress of the vice president then marries the banks newly elected president (George Brent). The film’s imagery of Stanwyck’s ascent to material wealth is priceless. With each corporate conquest (one of which is played by young pre-stardom John Wayne, pictured above), the camera pans further upward the exterior of a New York skyscraper, which represents the bank in which she intends to prevail, all to the sound of St. Louis Blues on the saxophone. How pre-code is that.
Even in her more tame film efforts after the enforcement of the censorship code, Barbara Stanwyck’s tenacity and vitality shined through. She went on to make better known and glossier pictures, but the seed had been planted in her early days. In these pre-code offerings of sin, seduction and self-sacrifice, Stanwyck showed she not only had what it took, but knew exactly how to use it.
If you are interested in these or any other merchandise, please help support this blog by purchasing them through the Amazon portal at the top of this page. By accessing Amazon through this site, you help me maintain resource material and continue to share my love of classic film. Thank you very much.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The 39 Steps (1935): Hitchcock Breaks Through

“If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.” ~ Alfred Hitchcock

This statement by Hitchcock sums up perfectly his attitude about directing the film that really made the public sit up and take notice of his talent, both in England and the United States. It is the inspiration for his creative, yet very straightforward direction of The 39 Steps (1935), a movie still revered today for its masterful style and pacing. It’s been remade more than once, but none have begun to touch the Hitchcock bravura.

As the film begins, in an English music hall, the mood is very raucous and lighthearted, and one wonders where the trademark Alfred Hitchcock suspense will enter in. That alone makes it exciting, because you know it will, just not where and how. But enter it does and with both a vengeance and the director’s panache. The featured act at the theater is a novelty called “Mr. Memory”, a fellow who is a walking encyclopedia and as he is spouting his wisdom to the jeering crowd a shot is heard, leading to mass hysteria. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) is a Canadian visiting London, who gets caught up in the frantic hustle bustle to find an exit. In all the pandemonium, he meets a mysterious foreign lady who nervously persuades him to take her back to his lodging. Turns out Miss Mata Hari is a secret agent, being sought out by a couple of nasties who are scoping out Hannay’s building. Our hero Hannay thinks she’s not exactly on the up and up at first, but quickly sees which way the wind is blowing when the spy falls upon him in the night with a knife in her back. With a dead body in his place and knowledge passed on to him by the mysterious mademoiselle, he takes it on the lamb with both the police and foreign agents on his tail.

He goes from one scrape to another, and eventually meets up with a blonde maiden fair (Madeleine Carroll), who, thinking him the murdering monster he has been painted by the newspapers, holds only contempt for him, and when they become handcuffed by “the bad guys”, Hannay has a hard time, keeping one step away from capture while trying to keep the wild beauty from surrendering him.

The success of Hitchcock’s previous release, his original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) allowed him more freedom in his next cinematic venture. The 39 Steps was based on a spy yarn from 1915 by Scotsman John Buchan, though the director made the story his own. For film buffs and historians, the picture marks the first of a few oft used Hitchcockian themes, the most relevant being that of the “innocent man on the run” which was duplicated again in Saboteur (1942) and North by Northwest (1959), among others. Another is his casting of Madeleine Carroll, a beautiful and cool blonde leading lady, and a precursor to icy fair hairs Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren in several of his 50’s and 60’s films. Carroll’s character, Pamela, wasn’t actually in the original novel and both the character and the potential romantic element she brings to the story were successfully added by the formidable director.

The film offers Hitch a chance to display his mastery of his craft, as well as the creative use of the camera. He claimed that with The 39 Steps, he wanted each scene to be like a short film unto itself and indeed he achieved quite the effect to culminate the whole as a quick and smoothly paced film. Upon finding the body of the initial female spy in Hannay’s flat, an elderly charwoman screams in close-up, her scream not from her own vocal chords, but the sound of a train whistle which is segued into the next scene of a railway. It is a three second spot, but very chilling and effective.

A well known episode from the film is that of Hannay making his way to a remote farm while on the run and asking the farmer to put him up for the night. The farmer, a strict and extremely pious old coot has a much younger wife, who finds the handsome and urbane Hannay attractive, and helps him escape when the police track him to the farm. This is yet another scene which was absent from the original book but developed for the screen. The vignette, although pertinent to the rest of the movie, is a short story in itself.

Carroll’s casting as Pamela is perfectly complemented by Robert Donat’s Hannay. The actor had just hit it big the previous year in The Count of Monte Cristo and had become fondly known as “the Monte Cristo man”. The 39 Steps added to his growing repertoire of quality films, and led him to MGM in the States to make The Citadel (1938) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), the latter for which he won an Academy Award. The suave Brit exudes just the right amount of energy, humor and intelligence to make him a very worthy Hitchcockian hero. With fine support by Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle and Peggy Ashcroft, the film is superbly cast.

Atmospheric, humorous and exciting, The 39 Steps is definitely a must-see. There is a lot to transpire in the movies 86 minutes, with suspense and fun aplenty, which is the least to be expected from an Alfred Hitchcock feature. Oh, and if you get a chance to view this classic, see if you can spy the director in his trademark cameo….cheers!

Want to know more?
Here are some recommendations regarding the article above:
The 39 Steps (1935) Criterion Collection
Hitchcock By Truffaut. The Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock By Francois Truffaut
If you are interested in these or any other merchandise, please help support this blog by purchasing them through the Amazon portal at the top of this page. By accessing Amazon through this site, you help me maintain resource material and continue to share my love of classic film. Thank you very much.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Happy 94th, Olivia de Havilland!

Born during the first World War, the legendary Olivia de Havilland turned 94 on July 1, 2010. One of the last stars of the golden age, de Havilland has one of the most incredible careers in film history.

Independent Woman published a wonderful interview with O de H last year. I'd like to share it to help celebrate her special day. Check it out by way of the link below.
Happy Birthday Olivia!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Wicked Lady (1945): Or Cleavage and the Crafty Wench

In November 2004, the British Film Institute compiled a list of the all-time most popular films ever shown in England, not just those made in Great Britain but across the globe. This list wasn't created by opinion polls or statistics, but by the most accurate data available....the number of tickets sold. Not ticket sales, which can change dramatically over decades due to inflation, but actual tickets sold to viewers. What a novel idea! And of the tens of thousands of movies shown in Britain, number nine on the list was The Wicked Lady (1945), a lush and lusty historical potboiler made in England and starring the ravishing Margaret Lockwood and the rakish James Mason. You may have heard of it but chances are the average modern classic film fan hasn't and yet it beat out Jaws, the Harry Potter series and even each individual installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, none of which even made it into the top ten. What? How could an obscure little swashbuckler made just after the war, with a running time of only 104 minutes, sell more tickets than these blockbuster heavyweights?

The Wicked Lady, released in December 1945, just so happened to be England's highest earning film for 1946. The British box office coffers fairly exploded with the bodice ripping tale, set during the Restoration. Critics thought very little of it but the public couldn't get enough. Based on a novel by Magdalen King-Hall called The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, the story apparently has its roots in real life events of the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers (pictured right), an heiress and wife of prominent landowner Thomas Fanshawe, in 17th century England. The conniving female of the film's title is Lady Barbara Skelton (Lockwood), who has been invited to the wedding of her childhood friend, Caroline (played by the lovely Patricia Roc). Upon arrival, the beautiful and scheming Barbara charms and bewitches bridegroom-to-be Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones), a wealthy, albeit uninspiring landowner. She marries the unassuming Ralph and becomes lady of the manor, a grand Jacobian mansion called Maryiot Cells (the huge estate is actually Blicking House in Norfolk, now a property of the National Trust). Bored with what she considers a dull life as a country lady, she dons a mask and men's clothes and becomes a highwayman, a rogue in days of old who worked as armed robbers of passing carriages on remote highways. She meets up with another thief of the same order, the infamous Jerry Jackson (Mason) and, as bored with her her husband as she is with domestic life, she and Jackson become lovers. Wicked doesn't begin to describe our lass, as her shenanigans multiply, eventually leading to murder, as well as yet another man floating about in the background to raise her temperature (Michael Rennie).

The Wicked Lady was a product of Gainsborough Pictures, a film studio in Islington, London, which was a part of the Rank empire, the leading movie production company in Britain. Gainsborough gave rise to a small group of up and coming actors which included Stewart Granger and Phyllis Calvert, as well as Lockwood, Mason and Roc, and specialized in interchanging these players in various historical, as well as contemporary dramas. Lady is a perfect example of the Gainsborough formula and by far the most commercially successful. One simple reason for the film's popularity was the fact that risque Restoration romance was all the rage in 1945. American author Kathleen Windsor had just released her debut novel Forever Amber the previous year to enormous success, with a film version in the works by 1946. The Wicked Lady was very similar to Amber in atmosphere and theme and was a better representation of the genre for a fraction of the cost its American counterpart would incur. The fiery melodrama made no pretense of being high art, instead embracing its dime store romance novel status with sumptuous interior decor and lavish costumes given exquisite attention to detail.

When it came to U.S. distribution of the film, the costumes became a huge bone of contention. American motion picture censors considered Margaret Lockwood's cleavage much too prominent to be allowed on Yankee movie screens and costly reshooting was required in order for the picture to be shown this side of the Atlantic. There was also no lack of innuendo and racy dialogue. Upon meeting the dark and daring Jerry, who has no qualms about wrapping his hands around Barbara's nibble worthy neck, she asks: "Do you always take women by the throat?", to which the sensual thief wantonly answers, "No, I just take them."

Lockwood is without doubt the star of the show. She had already made a name for herself nearly a decade earlier as the female lead in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). By the time she played Lady Skelton, she was one of England's most popular movie actresses. Bearing a striking resemblance to American film star Joan Bennett, Lockwood runs dramatically amok in The Wicked Lady. She is a cross between Jezebel and Lucretia Borgia, definitely the stronger character next to her weaker male film counterparts. When all is said and done, number nine on Brits top list is just good dirty fun.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bette vs. Miriam, Bout of the Divas: Meow

About a year ago, I wrote a short piece on the legendary feud of two legendary Hollywood actresses, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Since then, I have expanded this forum and also, delved deeper into the abyss that was the Davis/Hopkins relationship. Bette was infamous for her battles with certain co-stars, male (paging Mr. Flynn! Mr. Errol Flynn!) as well as female (calling Joan Crawford!), but they seemed to pale in comparison to her feeling for Miriam Hopkins. Their’s was a deep seeded, long standing rivalry, which began even before either woman made a single movie.

Round 1
In 1928 both young actresses were in a stage production on the east coast called Excess Baggage. Both were part of a repertory acting company headed by director George Cukor, although at this point, unlike their future film pairings, Miriam, not Bette, was the big cheese. Hopkins also made leading lady status in Hollywood long before Davis, with star turns in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Design for Living (1933), among other notable films of the early 30’s.

Round 2
In 1933, Hopkins starred in Jezebel on Broadway. It was the story of a tempestuous Southern belle (a part tailor made for the real life Southern spitfire) in the era before the Civil War, ala Scarlett O’Hara. The play was unsuccessful, running only a few dozen performances and closing after a month. Not only did Miriam star in the play, but she was part owner of the rights to it. When Warner Brothers studio showed interest in the story as a vehicle for its rising star, none other than Miss Bette Davis, Hopkins balked, refusing to sell the rights unless the deal included her in the lead role of Julie, which she had originated. In order to obtain the rights, she was given the impression that she would be cast, so when top brass gave the plum part to Davis, Miriam was livid. To add insult to injury, Bette won her second Oscar for her performance in Jezebel. The story goes that Miriam cried.

Round 3
In late 1938, with her career in somewhat limbo, Hopkins signed a two picture deal with Warner Brothers. The first film under her new contract was the historical melodrama The Old Maid (1939), based on an Edith Wharton story. In the film, she played second lead to guess who….Bette Davis, Warners reigning queen supreme. But neither actress was a shrinking violet and there was tension aplenty on the set, with director Edmund Goulding at the helm. A studio memo summed up the stressful situation when it relayed, “…Goulding has a tough job on this picture with these two girls. Not that they want to cause him any trouble or worry, but each one is fighting for a scene when they go into it…”

Davis had fought hard with the studio to get where she was professionally, and she wasn’t about to take guff from her rival. But Miriam certainly tried to get a rise out of her at any opportunity. On her first day on the set, Hopkins wore an exact duplicate of the dress Davis had worn in Jezebel. Davis reflected on this time with Hopkins in her autobiography with the following observations: “Miriam used and, I must give her credit, knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one…When she was supposed to be listening to me, her eyes would wander off into some other world in which she was the sweetest of them all. Her restless little spirit was impatiently awaiting her next line, her golden curls quivering with expectancy."

Warner Brothers publicity department took full advantage of the dueling divas and played up their feud to boost ticket sales for the upcoming film. They even went as far as to circulate a photo of the actresses in full costume with boxing gloves on, ready to duke it out, with director Goulding looking resigned between them. (above)

Round 4
During the making of The Old Maid, Hopkins was married to director Anatole Litvak. Litvak had directed Bette Davis in her follow up film to Jezebel called The Sisters (1938), and Miriam suspected the two were having an affair, but Davis was too taken with her Jezebel director, William Wyler, at the time to look at Litvak. However, reportedly Litvak and Davis DID have a short affair during the filming of All This and Heaven Too in 1940, but by that time the director and Hopkins had already divorced.

The Old Maid was excellent box office, and Warners signed Miriam on for another spin with her nemesis in 1943 to make Old Acquaintance, the story of two childhood friends/rivals who spar incessantly over men, career, and a child. The romantic yarn was perfect for the pair, but wasn’t without its backstage fireworks. Edmund Goulding was again slated to direct but had a heart attack shortly into the production. Knowing the emotional state of the set and the stress Goulding had been under with the two high maintenance queens, studio head Jack Warner jokingly accused him of having the heart attack on purpose. At 40, the dew was off the lily for Miriam, and when production wrapped on Old Acquaintance, she sold her house in California, packed her bags and went back east to the stage. When she returned to Hollywood, it would be in character roles over half a decade later.


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