Friday, January 20, 2012

Portrait of Jennie (1948): Haunting Beauty

"Who knoweth if to die be but to live, and that called life by mortals be but death?" ~ Euripides

Portraits have played key plot elements in several classic movies during the 1940’s, sometimes even being the central theme around which the film is based. From Kitty (1945) and Laura (1944) to The Picture of Dorian Gray (also 1945), the mystery and enchantment of someone’s painted image intrigued moviegoers throughout the decade. One of the most fascinating examples in this circle took over four years to get on the screen. Portrait of Jennie (1948) is a romantic fantasy with shades of mystery and more than its share of haunting beauty.

 The film was based on a 1940 novel by Robert Nathan, who had also authored The Bishop’s Wife, which was adapted for the screen in 1947. MGM had taken an option on the story but dropped it, when producer David O. Selznick picked it up in late 1944. When casting discussions began, Vivien Leigh was considered for the part of Jennie. She was still under contract to Selznick at the time and there was even talk of she and husband Laurence Olivier starring together but the idea was dropped. There was also discussion among Selznick’s production team to film it with Shirley Temple, who was also under personal contract, over a period of years to take advantage of Temple’s transition from youth to young adulthood. As tempting as the marketing angle was to the publicity genius, Selznick felt it would be a perfect project for his then lover Jennifer Jones. Joseph Cotten was then cast in the male lead, making it the fourth film teaming for the duo in as many years (Cotten and Jones had previously co-starred in Since You Went Away (1944), Love Letters (1945) and Duel in the Sun (1946)).

Eben Adams is a downtrodden artist, a wandering soul in search of what he’s not entirely sure. His name fairly drips of early-mid century American artist. He half heartedly wanders into the low key but high quality gallery of Matthews and Spinney, the latter name belonging to a straight talking, self proclaimed old maid who takes a shine to Adams. Receiving a verbal as well as a financial renewal at Matthews and Spinney, the artist heads back out into the cold that is Manhattan in winter. While wandering in the park, he encounters a strange but lovely girl named Jennie. She talks of things and places from 20+ years earlier, as if they were happening that day. She leaves as suddenly as she appeared, leaving Adams to speculate on such an odd child. Taken with Jennie’s unique spirit, the artist creates a sketch of her which he presents to Matthews and Spinney. Mr. Matthews, who originally thought Eben’s work lacking, finds the sketch so striking and inspired, that he offers him a relatively substantial sum.

Adams once again meets Jennie, while out and about, but notices that she seems to have aged somewhat, changing from a child into a pre-adolescent. His subsequent encounters with her prove just as strange, each revealing a maturity in years. As she “ages” he falls in love with her and she with him. This romance, created beyond the confines of time and space, blossoms but where will it lead?

With production beginning in February 1947 and ending in October 1948, Jennie was fraught with problems, least of which was Selznick’s perfectionism. William Dieterle was chosen to direct. His creative sense of the visual had been used to great effect in the fantasy The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), which had photographic elements that could transfer into this project. Ethel Barrymore was perfectly cast as Miss Spinney, as was Cecil Kellaway as Mr. Matthews and Lillian Gish as a kind nun who knew Jennie as a child.

Portrait of Jennie
was released on Christmas Day 1948 and although not very well received, has over the course of time become a classic. Joseph Cotten won the International Prize for Best Actor at the 1949 Venice International Film Festival for his portrayal of Eben Adams and Selznick and Jones married the following year. Though problems and chaos plagued production of the movie, the end result is a fascinating fantasy ghost romance.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Kay Francis Double Feature: "Wavishing"

Most fans of classic movies know film divas of the 1930’s such as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. They are iconic figures who more often than not, appear as caricatures of there original screen image. But among these movie queens, there is a name that hardcore cinephiles also recognize with as much stature in the deco era: Kay Francis.

A sultry brunette who was always dressed to the nines, Francis wrung her hands and suffered long in films at both Paramount and Warner Brothers studios during the Depression. She headlined both light comedies and heavy melodramas, with emphasis on the latter. Two prime examples of a “Kay Francis film” are featured below, the first from her early days at Paramount and the second during her tenure at Warners.

The Virtuous Sin (1930)

Is there such a thing as a virtuous sin? Kay seemed to think so in this very early talkie in which she co-starred with Walter Huston. Set in World War I Russia, it’s actually a bit hokey and kind of dated but since it’s a pre-code, there’s enough risqué hanky panky to make it fun.

Kay plays the wife of a medical researcher (Kenneth McKenna), an eager chap who is taken into the military against his will. His disgust of his current station leads to insubordination and eventually court martial. Sentenced to execution by his superior (Huston), our doctor friend is hopeless. Enter Kay, determined to save him no matter what it takes, even though she has admitted she isn’t deeply in love with him. She frequents a café cum bordello in an attempt to tantalize the general who sentenced her husband to die, hoping to “persuade” him to reverse his decision. So what does she do instead? She falls in love with him!

The Virtuous Sin is the kind of improbable melodrama that ran rampant in pre-code Hollywood. Hand to forehead tales with overacting styles that carried over from silent films. They are a hoot to watch though and rarely boring. As an interesting side note, Kay and costar McKenna carried on a torrid affair during filming which culminated in their marriage in early 1931.

Living on Velvet (1935)

Although not one of Francis’ better known or more notorious vehicles, Living on Velvet is a good example of the genre she starred in while at Warner Brothers. At her zenith, she was among the highest paid stars in Hollywood. At her lowest ebb at the studio, she was among the highest paid stars in Hollywood. You see, hers was an extremely lucrative contract and even when Warners thought her time had passed and gave her sub par scripts in hopes her ego would make her break said contract, she plugged along collecting her paychecks and becoming a very wealthy woman.

Living on Velvet gave her two leading men, George Brent and Warren William (though there was no doubt that Kay was the star). Aviator Brent loses his parents and sister in a plane crash in which he had piloted the plane. Guilty and reckless, he feels he is now ‘living on velvet’. When he meets Kay, it is love at first site for them both, although she is Warren’s girl. Kay marries George only to be plagued by his lackadaisical outlook about making a living and life in general.

Francis had worked with both George Brent and Warren William before and worked with Brent several more times before leaving Warners. Life was not velvet for William during this period. Once a leading man at the studio and on loan-out films like the previous year’s Cleopatra and the original Imitation of Life, Velvet relegated the actor to what was basically supporting status. Far from the suave and virile men he’d played earlier in the decade, he was a mere door mat for best friend Brent and girlfriend Kay to walk across on there way to the alter.

One notable scene from Living on Velvet has Brent’s character giving Francis a diction lesson. The star had a noticeable lisp, where her ‘r’s came out as ‘w’s. So much so that she was often teasingly called the “wavishing Kay Fwancis.” In their shared scene, George gives Kay a verbal exercise where she must repeat “around the ragged rocks the ragged rascal ran,” only Francis’ version went: “Awound the wagged wocks the wagged wascal wan.” Audiences found her self deprecation charming.

The actress continued making films after she left Warner Brothers in the late 1930’s, but her glory days were long behind her. A workhorse (she made 15 films in 1930-31 alone) as well as a clotheshorse (her costume changes were legendary), Kay Francis was also a true blue star.
For more information about the colorful Kay Francis, author Scott O’Brien has penned a fascinating biography entitled, Kay Francis: I Can't Wait to be Forgotten - Her Life on Film and Stage (linked below).

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Women (1939): Color It “Jungle Red”

Start with one highly seasoned Norma Shearer. Next, add a fairly hard boiled Joan Crawford (she will toughen even more during cooking). Take one second string star, Rosalind Russell, just waiting to blossom. Mix in a couple of fresh faces with fresh figures, preferably Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine. Then sprinkle the whole thing with colorful supporting players like Marjorie Main, Mary Boland and Lucile Watson. Serve up with art direction by Cedric Gibbons and couture by Adrian (no last name necessary) and you’ve got a recipe for cinematic success known far and wide simply as, The Women (1939).

With a cast largely consisting of discarded Scarlett O’Hara wannabes, The Women was produced the same year as Gone with the Wind and was second only to that gargantuan film in profits for its studio, MGM, in 1939. Director George Cukor was signed on to tame these lipsticked lionesses after also being discarded as director from the Civil War epic, when the films’ star, Clark Gable, complained that he was giving too much attention to the female leads. Cukor said of The Women: “ At the time it probably wasn’t as silly as it seems now, because it came from a different world. ‘Kept women’ and marital break ups were big moral questions then. Now, of course, everybody would be screwing everybody, and everybody would know about it. Crystal wouldn’t be a kept woman, she’d be carrying on with another girl.” But Cukor’s deft and skillful directing aside, the classic comedy belonged entirely to its title characters.
The plot is indeed as Cukor described it about ‘kept women’ and marital break ups, in a gossipy modern high society circle of “friends” in NYC. Based on the hit Broadway play by Clare Booth Luce, it ran 666 performances on the Great White Way in 1936. In a nutshell, wealthy and elegant socialite Mary Haines (Shearer) goes through her privileged tasteful life in bliss with her handsome, engineer husband, Stephen and their daughter, Little Mary (it must be noted that nary a man steps in front of the camera during the two plus hours of celluloid. They are merely referenced….A LOT!). Her happy existence is threatened big time with the onset of Crystal Allen (Crawford, pictured here with her signature designer Adrian), shopgirl, home wrecker and floosie supreme. Enter Sylvia Fowler (Russell), et al, Mary’s dearest “friends” who verbally and maliciously take her (and each other) apart piece by piece.

Most, if not all, of the movie’s stars were in some sort of career shift. Norma Shearer, whose MGM high-up honcho husband, Irving Thalberg had died two years earlier, was in a state of dated star decline, holding her own basically because she was also holding substantial MGM stock left to her by her dear departed spouse. Joan Crawford was also on the verge of “has been” status after a string of flops at Metro. Pop columnist Sheila Graham noted in early 1939, “After three misses in a row, if Joan Crawford doesn’t come up with a hit picture soon, she will be joining Luise Rainer in the Hall of Forgotten Stars at Metro.” Never any love lost between Shearer and Crawford, the two divas had an long standing feud over who was the female powerhouse at MGM. Crawford always felt that Norma got the choice roles at the studio, merely because she was sleeping with the boss and was fond of calling her “Miss Lotta Miles”, a moniker Shearer had worn back in the 20’s as a model for a tire manufacturer. Their attempts to one up each other on the set were legendary, including Crawford’s clacking knitting needles during many of Shearer’s scenes.

Rosalind Russell had been at MGM for half a decade, relegated to second tier status for most of that time with a few exceptions, most notably on loan out to Columbia for Craig’s Wife (1936). With the success of The Women, Russell’s talents as a comedic gem had been discovered and utilized. Like Russell, both Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine were actresses who were just on the verge of stardom. Goddard had actually been a hair’s length away from winning the coveted role of Scarlett in GWTW before losing out to Vivien Leigh. On loan out from producer David O. Selznick for The Women, she would leave the showman’s employ later that year to enter a long term, very successful run at Paramount where her star would shine. Fontaine would also shoot to stardom in 1940, when Alfred Hitchcock cast her as the second Mrs. deWinter in his classic Rebecca. Not as high profile as most of the other females on the Women set, Fontaine had up until that time, fell mostly in the shadow of her more successful, higher profile sister, Olivia de Havilland. In “Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography” the star praises Cukor and most of her cast mates (except Shearer, of course!) with the noted exception of Fontaine. “I think the only one I could have done without was Joan Fontaine. She wasn’t a bitch, she wasn’t nasty - there was just something about her. She had the smallest part of all of us and maybe she was just a little jealous."

Marjorie Main presented a trial run of her Ma Kettle character ten years early and it suited her Lucy character in The Women to a tee. Comedy veteran Mary Boland spouted her faith in “l’amour” throughout the film, cracking many hilarious one-liners along the way and in a small but fun part, luscious Virginia Grey, as one of Crawford’s department store co-workers, makes one wonder why Stephen Haines didn’t sniff around HER end of the perfume counter instead of the world weary Crystal’s.
Above, MGM boss Louis B. Mayer, with Paulette Goddard and director George Cukor at The Women premiere

The Women was an enormous hit. It’s premise was successful enough to warrant not one but two remakes, albeit sad disappointments, both. First in 1956 with The Opposite Sex starring June Allyson and Joan Collins, then again over 50 years later under the original title with Meg Ryan and Annette Benning. Neither even came close to the sparkling wit and vicious bite of the original film. It’s phenomenal ensemble may never be duplicated under such circumstances again.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2012!: Let the Classic Movies Continue!

It’s another year and another passel of great classic films to look forward to in the next twelve months. I’m not sure who or what films might show up, but there are some stars, films and film genres that I hope to feature in the near future. Look for Carole Lombard, Edward G. Robinson, Alfred Hitchcock, Olivia de Havilland, a glimpse of classic British films from across the pond and much more.

Thank you for sharing your love of classic film with me and letting me share it with you in 2011. I hope great things are in store in 2012. Happy New Year!


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