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“We have a great deal in common…”
“You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also, a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other.” — Addison DeWitt

All About Eve movie poster - Click for Larger VersionThere’s no doubt that All About Eve is one of Hollywood’s most iconic films. And while I can attest that it has top-notch performances by all the cast members involved (even Marilyn Monroe, who I can tolerate on a good day) and a knockout script filled with line after line of bitchy, witty comebacks, although I have to admit that when I need a Bette Davis fix, I prefer Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte which is one of my all time favorite movies.

Still, I can’t deny that All About Eve is a damn good movie and still remains extremely watchable after all these years (it’s showing tonight, on TCM at 8 pm EST.) It has that certain sophisticated *glow* that all 20th Century Fox movies have (at least from the Golden Era of Hollywood), which only adds to it’s mystique. But All About Eve wouldn’t be the classic it is today if it weren’t for the performances of Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and the always underrated Celeste Holm. It sounds cliched, but these actresses breathe life into the characters–you’re never bored by them, and they make the script work. Claudette Colbert was supposed to have played Margo Channing, but threw out her back while filming Three Came Home. A tragedy for Ms. Colbert, but can you imagine how radically different Margo Channing would have been? Bette Davis has that supreme ego (I mean this as compliment) that makes her Margo Channing the diva she was meant to be. I don’t think Claudette could have pulled it off.

Margo Channing, Diva.Eve (Anne Baxter) and Margo (Bette Davis)
Diva vs. Diva: Davis as Margo Channing and watching Bill Simpson leave with Eve (Baxter)

I first watched All About Eve about three years ago. As a classic film newbie, I knew it was one of the movies that I had to see, and after I watched it, I felt a bit let down. Perhaps I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it. I’m really showing my age here, but I think I expected a good old fashioned chick fight that included lots of bitch slapping and name calling. Having been in one myself (a long, long time ago), let me tell you–they’re much more fun to watch than to be in. It’s the hair-pulling that hurts the most, although the name calling is a close second.

A telling sceneAnyway, when TCM premiered All About Eve during last month’s Oscar lineup, I decided to give it another go. After all, I’m older, wiser and can appreciate the subtlety of a well-timed quip now. Watching it through new eyes, I was surprised by certain “clues” to Eve’s character that director and writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz sprinkled throughout. Eve (Anne Baxter) seemed a bit…manly, with her poise being the most telling clue. She didn’t move around the screen like the other women–no, there was something rough about her walk. She lacked femininity. But perhaps the most telling trait is in the way she and her female friend ascend the staircase after placing a phony sick call to Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe). I’m always wary of people who “look” for homosexuality in films, since I think some of it is just pure speculation and projection, so I did a little research afterwards.

The truth finally comes outMy suspicions were confirmed: according to Mankiewicz biographer, Ken Geist, the character of Eve Harrington was originally conceived as a lesbian. When you know this little bit about Eve, the film suddenly takes on a whole new light–especially where her relationship with Addison DeWitt is concerned (an Oscar winning perfromance by the marvelous George Sanders). There are lines in the “reveal” scene that throw the viewer for a loop, particuarly in the statement where Addison proclaims, “You realize and you agree how completely you belong to me.” Perhaps Mankiewicz wrote this line so it appears that Eve and Addison are having a sexual relationship–but I find it hard to believe, since neither has ever been affectionate towards one another. Yes, Eve has passion running through her veins, but Addison doesn’t. He gets more excitement out of making sarcastic comments and watching everyone in the theater world stab each other in the back. For all that’s been written about his character, I’ve never gotten the impression that Addison was gay. If anything, I felt that he was somewhat asexual. For him, sex just came with the job, like overtime and health benefits. I’ve always thought that Marilyn Monroe’s character had a relationship with him, and if the code allowed it at the time, I’m sure he would have attempted to play Svengali to a man as well. Yet, I feel the proper description for both Addison and Eve is “chameleon”–they both adapt to the people surrounding them, calculate the situation at hand and sense who they can best use to their advantage. Except that Eve lacks the finesse and wisdom that Addison has. She thinks in the moment, while Addison considers the whole picture and this leads to Eve getting beautifully played at the end.

Meet Eve Harrington
Out of the shadows: Karen meets Eve

Another interesting characterization of Eve is her appearance. When we first see her, she’s emerging from the shadows dressed in a man’s trenchcoat and hat, giving off the impression that they once belonged to her deceased husband. Eve wants to come off as a girl who’s just making do with what’s at hand. But when you find out the truth–there was no husband!–you realize that Eve is a master at costuming herself for the situation at hand. That innocent-looking trenchcoat and hat make her look drab enough to gain sympathy from Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), who first spots her in that darkened alley (now film scholars note that homosexual characters in classic Hollywood films are “coded” this way–lurking in the shadows). Upon first inspection, Eve seems like a shy, sweet theatergoer who has nothing but admiration for Margo Channing. Since it’s all an act, you have to imagine the amount of planning and preparation Eve had to do in order to make her sob story work. In order to seem legit, you need to look the part as well as make it believable.

Addison’s Watchful EyeThe failed seduction

Later, when Eve attempts to seduce Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), she’s again in costume after taking over for Margo. It’s as though Eve cannot play herself–everything she does is a performance for the secret play going on in her mind. Unlike Karen, Bill doesn’t buy it–he flat out rejects Eve. Having seen and worked with all types of actors and actresses, Bill is much more cynical and hardened to the world around him. It’s an interesting comparison to Karen, who spends her free time painting and only observing the theater world from a wife’s viewpoint. She’s not actively involved and while it makes her a bit more naive, it also makes her susceptible to Eve’s plans.

Noticing PhoebeThe Real Eve?Phoebe Meets Addison
The Seduction Theory: Eve and Addison meet Phoebe, an “innocent” schoolgirl

Many people would say that the final scene between Eve and the mysterious Phoebe is the crowning moment of All About Eve. The main point is to let the audience know that in future years to come, Eve will be replaced by Phoebe and other aspiring, cutthroat actresses just like her. But those last five minutes or so tell more about Eve’s true personality than the entire film did. Not only is it the first time we see Eve smoking, but while talking with Phoebe, she drapes herself languorously on the couch. Clearly, Mankiewicz wanted the lesbian side of Eve to be finally revealed and when it is, it’s a bit off-putting. While she’s cold to others, she’s almost leering in her invitation to Phoebe. It’s obvious that she’s attempting to seduce the young woman by asking her to stay the night–yet, it’s Eve who’s being taken in for a sucker. Phoebe is pulling the same routine that she pulled on Margo. The two women even share physical similarities: the same husky tone of voice, a no-nonsense haircut and plain jane clothes. Phoebe is a chameleon as well. The only difference is that she reveals her cards to Addison when he drops off Eve’s forgotten award (and in the process, admits that “Phoebe” isn’t even her real name!). Her ambition is clear-cut. For all you know, Phoebe may be lying about her involvement in the “Eve Harrington Club”–after all, Eve lied about her non-existant husband and who says Phoebe can’t do the same?

The future and beyond…

While some critics claim that Mankiewicz’s portrayal of Eve is supposed to be an attack on lesbians, I only believe that to be a half-truth. Eve is just a terrible person. She may prefer the company of women in her private life, but it’s clear that in her public one, she’d sleep with anyone to get ahead. If anything, I think Mankiewicz succeed in showing us that the life of an ambitious actress is a lonely one. Even in the closing shot, where Phoebe stands among reflections of herself, I take that as a comment on being alone. Eve has no true friends. Addison considers her his “property”, a puppet he can use when he needs her. Margo and Karen have each other and Phoebe is just using Eve to get ahead in the world. Eve winds up with no one. Her ruthless ambition has cost her any close friendships. She will spend night after night alone, with only herself as company. On a related note, Is there any wonder why Bette Davis titled her first autobiography, “The Lonely Life”? Success certainly comes at a cost.

Margo + Bill = True LoveIn the scene where Margo rejects the role in Lloyd’s play, she bases her decision on her upcoming nuptials to Bill, saying, “It means I finally got a life to live. I don’t have to play parts I’m too old for just because I have nothing to do with my nights.” Margo has realized that true love is more important that the adoration of nameless, faceless theatergoers. Bill’s love is the only applause she wants now. She has put her own ambition aside to become a wife. In a case of fiction mimicking real life, Bette Davis and Gary Merrill eloped during the filming of All About Eve, where after, Davis put her career shortly on hold to become a housewife. The marriage, filled with bouts of drunken arguring, didn’t last and both parties would later say that Margo and Bill, not Bette and Gary, fell in love.

Of all the performances in All About Eve, my favorite comes courtesy of Celeste Holm. As Karen, the wife to the famous playwright, Lloyd Richards, she lives a very good life rubbing elbows with the theater elite. It’s a happy marriage. But when Eve gets hold of a cruel joke that Karen played on Margo, her happiness finally becomes threatened. Karen finally feels the sting of loneliness, albeit in a different fashion from Margo. Since Eve is now the new leading lady of Lloyd’s new play, the reheasals only bring them closer together, therefore pushing Karen out of the picture. Right before that fateful phone call, we see Karen lying in bed, musing about their relationship: “Everything Lloyd loved about me, he’d gotten used to, long ago.”

On the telephone

As an observer to the ups and downs of the theater, Karen knows how easily aging actresses are replaced. What makes an aging wife any different? It’s a scary thought, especially after witnessing exactly how manipulative Eve truly is. When Eve finally thinks she has Lloyd in her clutches, she tells Addison about her plan to steal him away from Karen, throwing in a few lies for good measure. This is what finally causes Addison to snap. Knowing that Karen is a good woman and also because Lloyd is a successful playwright whose plays can make or break actresses, Addison blows the roof off Eve’s plans, setting her straight. Attempting to upstage an aging, past-her-prime actress is one thing. To destroy a marriage is another. One wonders what he would have done if Bill gave into Eve’s temptations backstage.

Mankiewicz’s portrayal of the men in this film is especially positive–both Bill and Lloyd stay true to their ladies, and when you include Addison in that group, none of them are easily swayed by Eve’s poisonous charms. Lloyd only wants to do the best for his writing, Bill is madly in love with Margo and Addison is in love with his career. Since all three hold positions of power, they’ve seen every dirty trick in the book. Combine that with the male ego, and you’ll understand why they refuse to be undermined by a up-and-coming actress. It was easier for Eve to worm her way into Margo and Karen’s circle–she could pretend to identify with them, comfort them and offer compliments when needed. Men and woman are equally insecure, it’s just that women tend to wear their emotions on their sleeve. And for someone like Eve, this is all the bait she needs.

At face value, All About Eve is a great movie, but when you dig a little deeper, you find that there’s so much more to it than just backstabbing, betrayal and Margo’s famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”. It’s about actresses and their vulnerabilities, a married woman facing her worst nightmare and how cruel and low some people can stoop to in order to get ahead in the world. It’s also about love, for it’s love that saves Margo Channing from herself and love that saves the marriage between Lloyd and Karen Richards. Without love, you wind up like Eve Harrington. Successful and adored, but lonely and used. And who wants to live a life like that?

This week’s MP3 doesn’t have to do with All About Eve, per se, but “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays could be the theme song to Eve’s devious plans. I love 70’s R&B/Funk and while it’s not classic movie related, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to post such an appropriate song.

Download: “Backstabbers” by the O’Jays 2.8 MB – Link will open in new window and download it from there.

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Like last week’s Free-For-All-Friday entry, the following images have to do with publicity. Except they’re not photographs, they’re illustrations–and beautiful ones at that! I’ve seen some of the illustrations in their original form (I have the Katharine Hepburn one somewhere on my hard drive), but they’re much more striking and lovelier in their illustrated version.

Along with the main illustrations, are tinier ones with little factual trivia blurbs. For instance, did you know that Joan Blondell’s diet consisted for skimmed milk and potatoes for a period of three days at a time (The carbs! The carbs!)? Or that Joel McCrea was one of the only actors never to use any sort of stage makeup? It might also interest you to know that Victor McLaglen cooked all the meals when he went camping and that the divine Tallulah Bankhead was an avid oil painter. Like the publicity packages of the time, I’m not sure how many of these “facts” are true, but they’re sure fun to read.

Click images for larger versions:

Tallulah Bankhead, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery:

Tallulah Bankhead - Click for Larger ImageJohn Barrymore - Click for Larger ImageLionel Barrymore - Click for Larger ImageWallace Beery - Click for Larger Image

Constance Bennett, Joan Bennett, Joan Blondell, Claudette Colbert

Constance Bennett - Click for Larger ImageJoan Bennett - Click for Larger ImageJoan Blondell - Click for Larger ImageClaudette Colbert - Click for Larger Image

Ronald Colman, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Jimmy Durante

Ronald Colman - Click for Larger ImageGary Cooper - Click for Larger ImageMarlene Dietrich - Click for Larger ImageJimmy Durante - Click for Larger Image

Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Katharine Hepburn, Joel McCrea, Victor McLaglen

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. - Click for Larger ImageKatharine Hepburn - Click for Larger ImageJoel McCrea - Click for Larger ImageVictor McLaglen - Click for Larger Image

Also to go with yesterday’s penny-pinching post (say that three times fast), I forgot to link to this site that features old Montana Bar and Restaurant Menus. See how much a toasted sandwich and french fries would cost at the Coffee Cup Cafe or if you’re in the mood for drink, perhaps the drink list at The Club would be more to your liking. Only $.35 for a Daiquiri? I’m there!

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Another group of images for your enjoyment! This time, I’m posting Publicity Shots from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Over the years, I’ve collected them from around the internet and I thought I would share them with you today.

However, I’ve always wondered what their source was. In the 1933 shots, there are numbers at the bottom of each page, so I’m assuming they’re from a book the studios sent out. Was this something available to the public? It doesn’t seem to be from a specific studio, but a grouping of them. You have Clark Gable (MGM) with Claudette Colbert (Paramount). I have to say though, a lot of the shots are gorgeous–especially the Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck ones (or maybe my love for Ball of Fire is showing!) If anyone has any information or knows what these are from, please let me know. They’re really gorgeous pictures though and the little biographical blurbs are fun to read as well. I’m also thinking that this is a book from the UK, since one of the Cagney stills says it’s from the movie Enemies of the Public, which was the UK title for The Public Enemy.

Also, I get a kick out of Greta Garbo’s little blurb: “Someday someone will find the real woman in her and she will cease to be Greta Garbo, film star. She will become, perhaps, Mrs. Somebody, housewife.” Yeah, right.

The 1930 shots of Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford are from their publicity packages. I doubt they wrote their own bios, although if I were alive at the time, I probably would have thought they did. I’m that naive.

Next week, part 2–but for now, Enjoy!

The 20’s – Norma Shearer (1925 & 1929)

1925 - Norma Shearer - Click for larger imagesmall_1929_norma.jpg

1930 – Gary Cooper and Joan Crawford

Gary Cooper - 1930 - Click for Larger ImageGary Cooper - 1930 - Click for Larger ImageJoan Crawford - 1930 - Click for Larger ImageJoan Crawford - 1930 - Click for Larger Image

1933: Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper 1 & 2, Joan Crawford

Claudette Colbert - 1933 - Click for Larger ImageGary Cooper - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGary Cooper - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionJoan Crawford - 1933 - Click for Larger Image

1933: Jimmy Durante & Buster Keaton, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, Leslie Howard & Mary Pickford

Jimmy Durante & Buster Keaton - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionClark Gable - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGarbo - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionLeslie Howard and Mary Pickford - 1933 - Click For Larger Version

1933: Fredric March, Laurence Olivier, George Raft, Barbara Stanwyck

Fredric March - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionLaurence Olivier - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGeorge Raft - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionBarbara Stanwyck - 1933 - Click for Larger Version

1933 Movie Stills:

Cagney, Cimmaron, Lee Tracy and Ann Harding - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionCagney & Blondell, McCrea & Fay Wray - 1933 - Click for Larger VersionJames Cagney - 1933 - Click For Larger VersionGary Cooper and Joel McCrea - 1933 - Click For Larger Version

From left to right:
Picture 1 – James Cagney, Cimmaron, Ann Harding, Lee Tracy
Picture 2 – Cagney & Blondell, Joel McCrea & Fay Wray
Picture 3 – Cagney in Enemies of the Public
Picture 4 – Gary Cooper and Joel McCrea

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If you can believe it, there was once a time when I disliked musicals. I’m crazy about them now, but back when I first started watching classics, I just didn’t get the point. Yeah, dancing and singing, big whoop. I say this with a bit of shame now, but it’s the truth. I just didn’t like them–or I didn’t allow myself to like them. A closed-minded film addict is the worst thing ever.

The movie poster for “How to Succeed…”So it was always a bit odd that one of my favorite movies was How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1967). It’s airing Saturday, March 8 at 10:15 pm on TCM as part of their “How to Climb the Corporate Ladder” nightly theme. I fell in love with it from the second I saw it. How to Succeed… (as it will be written throughout) is one of those films that doesn’t take itself too seriously and I’ve always recommended it to people as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.” It has a very “modern” feel to it unlike the MGM spectaculars from the 40’s and 50’s or the Rodgers and Hammerstein epics. How to Succeed… is a satire of the business world, in which lowly window-washer J. Pierpont Finch amusingly schemes himself into a top level executive position, all thanks to a little paperback book he buys at the beginning of the film.

Finch reads the book for the first time

Since How to Succeed… started as an actual book, it’s transition to one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time is something of a miracle. Written by Shepherd Mead (an advertising executive at Benton and Bowels), How to Succeed… was a satire of the ups and downs of the 1950’s business world in the form of a self-help manual. The book proved to be so popular that the writing team of Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert bought the rights to it and adapted it for the theater. When it went unproduced for the next five years, they brought it to the attention of successful writer/director of many Broadway hits, Abe Burrows and composer Frank Loesser and the rest is history.

Robert Morse and Rudy ValleeFrom the start, Burrows and Loesser had Robert Morse in mind for the role of J. Pierpont Finch. Morse’s first notable role in both Broadway and Hollywood, was in The Matchmaker, where he played the role of Barnaby Tucker. It was on the opening night of another Broadway play, Take Me Along (1959, with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidegon) that Burrows and Loesser sent Morse a telegram saying, “Have a good time. But in two years, when you get out of that show, we’re doing How to Succeed… and you’re playing Finch.” Morse was thrilled with the news. For the part of World Wide Wicket company president, J.B. Biggley, Burrows and Loesser originally sought the British comedian, Terry-Thomas, but when negotiations fell through, Rudy Vallee was cast instead. This was to be his first Broadway performance in 26 years, when he last appeared in George White’s Scandals of 1935. Charles Nelson Riley was to play Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, while Bonnie Scott was cast as Rosemary, the love interest.

A Playbill from the Broadway runThe cover of Newsweek from November 27, 1961Robert Morse with other Tony award winners
From left to right: the 1961 Playbill for How to Succeed…, Making the Cover of Newsweek and Robert Morse with other Tony award winners

Opening on October 14, 1961, the first Broadway performance of How to Succeed… was met with rave reviews. The cast was top-notch and critics were praising it’s smartly written script, catchy songs and exciting dance numbers choreographed by Bob Fosse. It became one of Broadway’s most successful shows, winning seven Tony awards — Best Musical, Best Author, Best Composer, Best Actor for Morse, Best Supporting Actor for Reilly, Best Direction, Best Conductor and Best Producer — and the prestigious 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s quite a feat for a show that went unnoticed for five years! When it finally closed, How to Succeed had racked up 1,417 performances and became the fifth longest running musical of all time.

The cast of “How to Succeed…”

As with all successful Broadway productions, a movie version was inevitable. Of course there were some major cast changes. Since Michele Lee had taken over the part of Rosemary on Broadway, she was cast in the film version instead of Bonnie Scott. Taking the place of Charles Nelson Riley was Anthony “Scooter” Teague as Bud Frump, while Maureen Arthur, who had played sexy secretary Hedy LaRue on the road, would also appear in the movie. Otherwise Morse, Vallee, Sammy Smith (as Wally Womper) and Ruth Kobart (as Biggley’s secretary who has a soft spot for Finch) all reprised their roles for the 1967 film version. And If you happen to be a die-hard Monkees fan like myself, keep an eye out for Carol Worthington as the gawky secretary, Lucille Krumholtz. Worthington had just appeared as a tough biker chick on one of my favorite episodes, “The Wild Monkees”, that same year.

From the “I Believe In You” numberNot only were there cast changes, but some of the songs were dropped as well. All of Rosemary’s songs–“Paris Original”, “Cinderella Darling” and “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”– were cut from the film. Instead, Rosemary sings “I Believe In You” to Finch, while in the Broadway version, Finch sings this song to himself in a mirror. Also deleted from the print was the musical number, “Coffee Break”, since it’s footage was deemed unusable. Some stills do exist, but it explains why there’s an abrupt cut right after the arrival of the coffee cart was announced.

A still from the deleted “Coffee Break” numberA still from the deleted “Coffee Break” number
Two stills from the deleted “Coffee Break” number

I love that How to Succeed… is really a product of the late 60’s. The sets are brightly colored, almost garish in their use of bold, strong colors. While David Swift did a wonderful job in both directing and adapting the film for the big screen, what I really love about How to Succeed… are the musical numbers, particularly the hilariously saucy, “A Secretary is Not a Toy”. Although another choreographer was used for the movie, Bob Fosse’s original style resonates throughout.

From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
Scenes from number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”

In “A Secretary is Not a Toy”, the clicking keys of a typewriter are used as a form of percussion, while the shuffling sound of shoes and numerous finger-snaps also add to the mix. The dancers move in a decidedly modern style, shuffling back and forth, shaking their hips and wiggling their heads. More than anything else, it draws from the world of jazz. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also boasts one of the best lyrics ever: “Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in!” How can you not love a song that says that?

The panned version - UGH!From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
To pan or not to pan: the answer is “NO!”

The final moments of “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also has one of the most unique set-ups–the dancers come into the picture from opposite ends of the screen. Because of this, it’s essential to watch How to Succeed… in it’s original letterbox format. I once saw this movie on the Flix channel in the panned-and-scanned version and nearly had a coronary. During this number, you see nothing but a completely empty space for at least ten seconds while waiting for the dancers to enter the picture! It’s infuriating to see the movie butchered like that. I’m getting angry just thinking about it!

From the “Brotherhood of Man” finale numberAnother musical highlight is the rousing finale number, “The Brotherhood of Man”. This really shows my age, but I first came to know it from an episode of “The Drew Carey Show “(remember how they used to do musical numbers?). I had no idea that “The Brotherhood of Man” was from a Broadway production, so I was more than surprised to see it in How to Succeed… Anyway, it’s the first song that I ever really loved from a musical–so much, that I went and bought the soundtrack after seeing the movie. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve lip-synched Ruth Kobart’s part in the mirror while getting ready for the day. Really. Now stop laughing at me.

Download: “The Brotherhood of Man” sung by the Original Broadway Cast – 5.6 MB (link will open in new window and download from there)

1967 Smirnoff Vodka Tie-in Ad for the Movie ReleaseEven with all the fantastic musical numbers, the real the star of How to Succeed… is Robert Morse as J. Pierpont Finch. By 1967, Morse had already racked up numerous movie credits (the biggest one at that point was the 1965 black comedy, The Loved One), so he definitely had screen experience. I’m so glad the powers that be allowed him to recreate the role of Finch on the big screen. So many times you hear that the original Broadway actor was passed over, because they weren’t commercially viable enough for the film version. Thank goodness they had enough sense, because Morse is absolutely perfect as Finch. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. He’s mischievous and sly in his slightly underhanded dealings, but still possesses a lovable boyishness that makes you root for him–especially when it comes at the expense of Bud Frump. One of my favorite scenes is when Finch rushes to work on a Saturday morning, runs to his desk, begins dumping cigarette butts, empty styrofoam coffee cups and other pieces of assorted trash all over it, and then collapses as though he had just pulled an all-nighter. Just as he finishes this routine, J.B. Biggley walks in, sees the “exhausted” Finch at his desk and compliments him on what a hard worker he is. Not only is it hilarious, but it also leads to the “Groundhogs!” duet in which Finch pretends to have attended the same alma matter that Biggley did.

Groundhogs!

I love you.I also love the sweet relationship between Finch and Rosemary. In her first film appearance, Michele Lee is as cute as a button and she’s a perfect match for Robert Morse. Rosemary’s love for Finch is earnest. I love when she sings, “I Believe In You” to him. The look in her eyes and the expression on her face says everything that the lyrics don’t. She *does* believe in him. And despite a mishap between Finch and Rosemary in the middle of the film, one of the sweetest moments occurs when he realizes that he loves Rosemary just as much as she loves him–and of all things, after being kissed by Hedy LaRue!

As I’ve gotten deeper into the classics, I’ve found other musicals to love and oddly enough, they’re the ones that I detested so much at the beginning: The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Ziegfeld Follies, Top Hat, The Barkleys of Broadway and the one that really started it all, On the Town. I’ve come to love the MGM musicals that I once found so corny and silly. Rodgers and Hammerstein, not so much. But I still adore How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Yes, it’s a little kitschy at times, but it’s got a great story, strong acting and songs that will stick in your head for days. It’s a very well-made film and even though the business world has certainly changed some forty years later, How to Succeed… still stands the test of time. It’s great entertainment. Even if you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy musicals, I suggest you give How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a chance. It’s different than any other classic musical out there. And who knows–like myself, it may start you down the slippery, addictive slope of watching and enjoying more musicals. And you know what? That’s not such a bad thing after all.

Note: A lot of the information presented here is from the liner notes and interview tracks off the Deluxe Collector’s Edition CD of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It’s a great listen.

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Three on a Bed - Click for larger image

To get into the spirit for tonight’s pre-code marathon on TCM, I thought I would discuss one of my favorite movie from that era, Ernst Lubitsch’s Design For Living (1933). I admit that I don’t know much about pre-code films or their history, but I do know a great film when I see one. And not only is Design For Living great, but it’s incredibly sexy and fun as well. It’s risque plot begs the question: is it possible for two men to share a woman and live happily ever after? While the idea of a menage a trois is common knowledge by today’s standards, it had to be a shocking topic for 1933!

Cooper, March, Hopkins - Click for larger imageThe plot centers around two friends, playwright Tom (Fredric March) and painter George (Gary Cooper) who meet a free-spirited commercial artist, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) on a train. Naturally, both men fall in love with Gilda and unbeknownst to each other, are having a physical relationship with her. Instead of choosing one, Gilda decides that the best solution is to forget about sex. Yeah, like that’s going to happen. Instead, Gilda has separate dalliances with both George and Tom and when she sees that she’s tearing their friendship apart, she runs off and marries her humorless boss, Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Soon, Gilda finds herself in an unhappy situation, surrounded by Plunkett’s boring, snooty friends while forced to play silly dinner games and sing even siller songs. It’s then up to Tom and George to rescue her from the boredom of Plunkett’s home.

While the “Lubitsch Touch” may not be for everyone, it’s precisely what makes Design For Living so fantastic. It’s a light, sophisticated sex farce that never crosses the line into smut. And while there are serious turns in the plot, they mostly revolve around the emotions of Tom, George and Gilda–never are they made to feel guilty for enjoying sex. It’s who they’re enjoying it with that’s the problem. But what makes Design For Living truly beautiful is that the main characters are friends first, and romantically involved second (a very close second, I might add). It’s clear from their banter on the train that they enjoy each other’s company. And when Gilda tells the boys to forget about sex, she turns it into something positive by critiquing their work instead and turning them into successes. Of course, none of the parties involved can go without physical comforts for long, but isn’t that what makes the movie so much fun?

Gary Cooper and Fredric March - Click for larger image

Both Fredric March and Gary Cooper are perfect in their roles. Not only do they have amazing chemistry with Hopkins, but they play off each other beautifully as well. The comic banter between them is easy and light and Design For Living playbill - Click for larger imageyou understand why their friendship has endured for eleven years. It’s also interesting to note that in the original Noel Coward scripted play, it was hinted that Tom and George were bisexual. Even though the Hays Code was lax, the powers that be insisted that Design For Living be cleaned up for the screen version. Hollywood wasn’t that liberated. Enter screenwriter Ben Hecht, who wound up rewriting all the dialogue except for one line (“For the good of our immortal souls!”), while keeping the plot the same. All traces of bisexuality between Tom and George were written out–or was it? In the scene where George finds out that Tom and Gilda have spent the night together, he angrily tells them, “It’s hard to believe I loved you both!” While the line was meant to express a platonic love between Tom and George, I’m sure some people were thinking along the lines of the original Broadway version. I know I was (but that’s mostly because I have a filthy mind). After all, Tom and George lived together before Gilda came along and after Gilda leaves them, they go off to China together. March and Cooper are not affectionate towards each other, but it’s hard not to think that there was something more to their characters, especially in such a sexually charged movie. I’m sure if Design For Living was re-made today (Heaven forbid), the writers would throw in some sexual tension and jealousy between Tom and George based on their previous, pre-Gilda relationship.

Cooper, March, Horton - Click for larger imageThe character of Max Plunkett is Design For Living‘s authority figure and the exact kind of attitude that the saucier pre-code movies thumbed their nose at. He’s awfully fond of the phrase, “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day!” which describes the kind of guy he is. Yawn. Played by Edward Everett Horton (one of my favorite character actors from the 30’s), Plunkett is the kind of guy who thinks after dinner games of 20 Questions and “Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?” are a good time. He’s the symbol of stodgy monotony, while Tom, George and Gilda represent a more carefree attitude. Plunkett is obsessed with work and while the three want to be successful in life, it shouldn’t come at the loss of their happiness.

Married? Noooooo! - Click for larger imageI know it’s said that Horton was gay in real life, but I never got that kind of over-the-top flamboyancy from him, like I did with Franklin Pangborn. In so many movies, Horton was constantly married to women, who like him, had a sense of asexuality. You could never imagine them having sex–maybe the most you’d see is a chaste kiss, but that’s about it. Horton’s asexuality is what makes Plunkett so great–despite his love for Gilda, you could never, ever imagine him satisfying her like Tom or George could, nor could you imagine Gilda getting all worked up over him. Even his attempts at shopping for a bed are dull–Plunkett pulls out a tape measure to see the width of the bed, before measuring each of their shoulders! Horton puts in a fine dramatic performance here, especially in the post-marriage bedroom scene where he kicks the tulips after having a passionless wedding night.

But what really makes the movie is the character of Gilda (pronounced Jil-da). Miriam Hopkins shines in the role, bringing to life a complex woman who is not only comfortable with her sexuality, but places Tom and George’s friendship above her own happiness. The last thing she wants is for them to hate each other. Throughout the film, Gilda tries many different things in order to restore peace between Tom and George: she becomes “den mother” to their pursuits and then marries Plunkett so that neither man can have her. But in the end, Gilda cannot deny her true happiness anymore and neither can Tom or George. They need her as much as she needs them, jealousy be damned.

Hopkins runs a gamut of emotions throughout the film: she’s flirty and coy, but serious and passionate when she needs to be. It would be hard to like Gilda if Hopkins played her as a stupid, shallow and coarse girl, but she doesn’t. If anything, Gilda is a revelation–she’s a sexually liberated woman in the 1930’s, an idea that wouldn’t be popular until almost 40 years later. Gilda only wants to bring out the best in both of her men. She’s not desperately seeking approval from Tom or George and isn’t afraid tear down their egos and criticize their work (“Rotten!”). But she’s willing to succumb to passion when the time is right. Gilda wears her emotions on her sleeve. In one scene, she tells Tom that he haunted her “like a nasty ghost” and that “on rainy nights, I could hear you moanin’ down the chimney.” She’s open and honest. There’s no false pretenses with her and not only is it refreshing to see, but it’s fun to watch. It makes you root for Gilda and hope that she gets both her men at the end of the story. These characters are too nice and too much fun to be left broken hearted at the end.

A Gentleman’s Agreement - Click for larger imageGary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins - Click for larger imageI’m no Gentleman - Click for larger image
The end of the “Gentleman’s Agreement”

Design For Living also has it’s share of extremely sensual moments, which are sprinkled through the film. The innuendo is hard to miss. For example, take the scene where George and Gilda are alone together in their apartment. After pacing back and forth a few times, George grabs Gilda, proclaims his love and kisses her. In return, Gilda walks over to the dusty couch, lazily stretches the length of her body across it and purrs, “It’s true we had a gentleman’s agreement–but unfortunately, I am no gentleman.” The scene fades to black. It leaves the power of one’s imagination to figure out what happened next, which is so much sexier than showing the physical act of lovemaking itself.

It still rings! - Click for larger imageIn another scene, Tom visits the apartment of George and Gilda, only to find that Gilda still has his old typewriter. Despite promising to take good care of itwhen he left for London, Tom finds that’s it’s now rusted out. When Gilda enters the room, the sexual tension between them becomes unbearable. They can’t take their eyes off each other and the typewriter becomes a metaphor for their relationship. As Gilda starts fiddling with the machine, she and Tom have the following conversation:

Tom (accusingly): You didn’t keep it oiled.
GIlda: I did for awhile.
Tom: The keys are rusty. The shift is broken
Gilda seductively slides the carriage back and forth, causing the typewriter to ‘ding’. Tom and Gilda look at each other wide-eyed with excitement.
Gilda (excitedly): But it still rings!
March walks over to Gilda, where they meet face-to-face.
Gilda (softly): “It still rings.”
Tom: “Does it?”
Fade to black.

It’s one of the best moments in the entire film and that’s saying a lot, because there are so many high points to begin with. And speaking of which, the closing scene is also fantastic. After Tom, Gilda and George escape Plunkett’s mansion in a taxi, Gilda then declares that she wants to go back to Paris and have some fun–but not before giving each guy a big kiss on the lips. And we know exactly what kind of fun she wants. After all, she’s nestled in between Fredric March and Gary Cooper–who could blame her for wanting to have “fun”?

When I first got into classics, I could never understand what the fuss about pre-codes was all about, but after seeing a few, I do understand. Not only are they fun, but it’s nice to see endings where the main character isn’t severely punished for their actions. You know, if Design For Living had somehow been made after 1934, not only would a good chunk of the snappy dialogue have been eradicated, but one of the main characters would have had to die in order for moral sanity to rule the day. I’m guessing that Gilda would have received the brunt of the Code’s moral abuse. After all, she enjoyed sex and everyone knows that in post-1934 films, any woman who enjoys sex is a harlot. And don’t even get me started on separate beds!

I’ve always wondered what the movies would have been like if the Hays Code hadn’t been enforced in 1934. Would movies have gotten sexier and more violent? Hollywood is not a place where they know how to draw the line. For every good movie that’s released today, there’s another film that’s filled with tons and tons of gore and sex. I know I sound like a prude saying this, but my idea of a good time isn’t watching someone slice off their own arm or kill their beloved puppy for the sake of shock value. You don’t need shock value to enjoy a movie. I like sensical plots and good character development and that’s why classics, pre or post code, had those qualities in spades. Once the hammer of the Hays code came down, Hollywood had to clean up their act. But it’s not as though the quality of the movies went down–if anything, they went up.

Still, I’m thankful that so many pre-code movies still exist and I’m happy whenever I find a really good one, such as Design For Living (which is available in the 5-disc Gary Cooper Collection). I’m looking forward to the pre-codes and new documentary that TCM is offering up tonight because with every new film I watch, I gain new insights into the past and become more appreciative of the present. And in my opinion, that’s what loving Classic Hollywood is all about.

Links:

• A review and more background info on Design For Living via the Lubitsch site.

• The outlines of the Hays Code from Wikipedia

• A very good pre-code article at GreenCine

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Okay, so this isn’t a traditional Free-For-All-Friday blog post (FYI: a FFAF blog post is when readers say whatever they like in the comments–I mean, you’re more than welcome to do that, if you please), but I thought it would be fun to take a day off from my usual wordy critiques (as well as giving my brain a rest) and do a weekly post that contains fun classic movie related items. So for this first FFAF post, I give you a sampling of classic movie stars shilling beer, booze and Chesterfield cigarettes.

Joseph Cotten for Smirnoff Vodka (1958)
Two Joseph Cotten’s are Better Than One: Smirnoff Vodka (1958)*

In the good old days of Classic Hollywood, famous actors and actresses lending their name to products wasn’t a big deal. If anything, it was the standard. Unlike today’s actors who go overseas to do commercials because they don’t want you to know they’re doing them, you could flip through any popular magazine from the 40’s and see Barbara Stanwyck recommending Chesterfield cigarettes to her friends and fans. Imagine her doing that in today’s PC age! She’d be hit with lawsuit after lawsuit by fans who claimed that she encouraged them to smoke and since they’re dying of cancer, she should foot their bills. Complete and total madness.

Stanwyck for Chesterfield
No Barbara, NO!: Stanwyck for Chesterfields (1950)

One more interesting thing I’ve noticed is that in the majority of the cigarette ads, there’s also a promotional line for whatever movie they’re appearing in at the time. So of course, it begs the question–were these stars really smoking Chesterfields, or were they just sold out to the company by their home studio or agent? Look at Claudette Colbert–she’s practically Chesterfield’s poster girl, appearing in no less than 4 ads during a span of 6 years! Either agent must have been getting good money from the Chesterfield people or Claudette really loved her smokes.

Colbert (1942) - Click for larger imageColbert, Lake, Goddard (1943) - Click for larger imageColbert (1946) - Click for larger imageColbert (1948) - Click for larger image
Claudette Colbert for Chesterfield: dressed as a nurse and giving our soldiers nicotine in 1942, with “So Proudly We Hail!” co-stars Veronica Lake and Paulette Goddard in 1943 and two solo ads in ’46 and ’48.

And of course, look how glamorous they look while smoking and drinking! Honestly, I haven’t smoked in about…ten years and I could kill someone from a cigarette right now. For some reason, I’m thinking if I lit up a Chesterfield, I’d somehow look like Rita Hayworth. Yeah, if I had a face lift maybe. And even that’s pretty suspect.

But on a personal note, my mother told me that my grandfather’s favorite brand of smokes were Chesterfields and he lived well into his 90’s, the miserable old coot.

Enjoy!

Chesterfield ads (click on thumbnail for larger version):

Russell (1942) - Click for larger imageMerman (1946) - Click for larger imagePower (1948) - Click for larger imageHayworth (1947) - Click for larger image
Rosalind Russell, Ethel Merman, Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth

Mayo (1947) - Click for larger imageWyman (1950) - Click for larger image
Virgina Mayo, Jane Wyman

Beer (click on thumbnail for larger version):

EGR & wife - Click for larger imageKennedy (1953) - Click for larger imageDuryea (1953) - Duryea
Edward G. Robinson and wife, Arthur Kennedy, Dan Duryea

Smirnoff Vodka and Jim Beam (click on thumbnail for larger version):

Fontaine/Young - Click For Larger ImageRandall - Click for larger imageHarpo (1961) - Click for larger imageDavis/Wagner (1973) - Click for larger image
Joan Fontaine and Collier Young, Tony Randall, Harpo Marx, Robert Wagner and Bette Davis

For those of who abstain from vice – Cola and Gum! (click on thumbnail for larger version)

Stanwyck (1948) - Click for larger imageCrawford (1947) - Click for larger imageHeflin (1947) - Click for larger image
Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford for RC COLA (she’s rolling over in her grave), Van Heflin

Note: I collected all these ads over the years off ebay, where you can find many of them for sale. The only thing I did was straighten them out and color correct them

*According to this article, that advertisement of Joseph Cotten is supposed to be aimed at the 1950’s gay market. Uh, I really didn’t get that. I just thought there was two Joseph Cotten’s in one ad. I wonder if he would have posed if he knew that. Hmmmm.

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I’ve been on a big Gregory Peck kick as of late, which after four years or so, I’d say I’ve waited long enough. I’ve always read a lot of reviews where people complain that he’s somewhat of a “wooden” actor. I’ve never thought that about him, but I can understand where people are coming from. He has that stoic, clipped manner of speaking and what other people take as wooden, I take as calm and collected. To each his own though.

Gregory Peck shirtless
Gratuitous shirtless shot of Gregory Peck–because I can.

But for those people who do find him “wooden”, I’d highly recommend William A. Wellman’s 1948 western, Yellow Sky, where he’s anything but. He’s dangerous and sexy, while Anne Baxter matches him moment for moment. Its plot revolves around a gang of bank robbers that make their way through the desert, only to wind up in a deserted town called Yellow Sky. Soon after, they meet its only inhabitants, a woman nicknamed Mike and her Grandpa. However, when the gang realizes the two are hiding gold, they decide to make quick fortune by robbing them.

For all the William A. Wellman movies I’ve seen, this quickly became one of my favorites. Not only is it a solid western, but the relationship between “Mike” (Anne Baxter) and “Stretch” (Gregory Peck) is fascinating. Yellow Sky isn’t just a western–it’s a psychological one. Hands down Anne Baxter’s characterization of Mike steals the show here. Yes, she’s mainly known as the backstabbing bitch in All About Eve, but in Yellow Sky, she shows a great range of emotion. It’s sounds a bit trite, but Mike wants to prove that she’s just as tough as one of the guys, even favoring a men’s nickname instead of using her real name, Constance Mae. She lives by her own strict moral code. And while Mike is a tomboy, she’s a Hollywood tomboy. Petite in size, her hair is neatly coiffed and even though she spends the entire film in a non-nonsense blouse and black jeans, they show off her best assets. It’s no wonder that she elicits lust in most of the gang.

Since they’re the focus of the story, the main relationship is between Mike and Stretch. While Mike hates all the men, it’s Stretch that she seems to hate the most. Gregory Peck is fantastic in this role (but then I love when he plays bad boys). He constantly pursues Mike despite warning all the other men in his gang to stay away from her and Grandpa (John Russell). It’s almost as though he feels he has first dibs on her because he’s their leader. In their first meeting, Stretch asks her what she’s so afraid of, to which Mike defiantly answers, “Nothing.” It’s a lie of course, but there’s no way Mike can show any other emotion besides “tough.” She feels that even the slightest hint of femininity would be a sign of weakness and with the six men who just intruded their lives, Mike intends to be just as tough as them.

baxter_rifle.jpgIn addition to giving Stretch a mean right hook when he attempts to steal her rifle, she’s ready to shoot anyone at a moment’s notice. But what’s nice about the character of Mike is that she’s not a caricature of a tomboy. For example, she isn’t anything like Doris Day in Calamity Jane. Wellman was smarter than that. In less assured hands, the character of Mike could have easily been one to laugh at. You take Mike seriously because she is serious and Anne Baxter manages to bring her to life in a wonderful way. There’s nothing humorous about her. You don’t doubt for a second that Mike’s first instinct would be to shoot a man right below the belt. The only person she cares about is her Grandpa and she’d fight to the death to keep him safe. Her loyalty towards him isn’t just because he’s her Grandpa, but because he treats her with respect. In a conversation, he proudly tells Stretch that not only is Mike as “tough as a nut”, but that she was raised by Apaches. In so many westerns, anyone who is raised by Indians is immediately treated as though they have the plague. Not only do Grandpa and Mike have a good relationship with the Apaches, but Mike has turned out to be a real fighter. Her Apache upbringing is a source of pride, not shame, for him.

There are plenty of interesting scenes and one of them occurs at the watering hole, which is to be a source of trouble for Mike. After being accosted by the men, Stretch steps in and tells them to stay away from her and Grandpa. Immediately, Mike rewards him with a look of tenderness. It’s the first real emotion (besides anger) that we see from her. Is it because she sees Stretch respects not only her, but her Grandpa as well?

However, Stretch refuses to take his own advice and treks over to the house to see Mike. After tackling her to the ground and kissing her, Mike repeatedly headbutts(!) him and tells him “You stink!”, but not before wiping her mouth as though his kisses were poison. It’s interesting to see that Mike’s first reaction after physical violence is to verbally assault him. It’s a one-two punch of hitting him below the belt. She then ends their “rendezvous” by shooting at his head–although she aims to miss. Later, when she and Grandpa are Illustration of a Womanwalking back to the house, Mike tells him, “He made me feel..I don’t know.” But she does know. Mike has made her feel like a woman for the first time in her life. Wellman then cuts to Mike’s room, in which a picture of an elegantly dressed lady is pinned onto her wall. Seeing it fills her with disgust and causes Mike to angrily tear it into pieces. It’s a great moment of self-loathing–she hates herself for feeling something that she’s been trying so hard to suppress. Although having such a picture on her wall in the first place clues us into the fact that Mike longs to be as pretty as any other woman out there. In that one short scene, we sense Mike’s vulnerability for the first time. It’s easily one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie.

A famous Wellman shadow shot
Wellman was known for odd angles and shots. Here, Grandpa and Mike stand in near darkness.

What makes Yellow Sky so interesting is how the relationship between Mike and Stretch progresses. It’s not a full blown love affair–there are things that Stretch does and says that are questionable–yet it’s enough to gain Mike’s trust. Stretch is the first man besides her Grandpa to treat her with a respect. He doesn’t look down at her. It’s clear that even after their first kiss (albeit a forced one), Stretch is bothered enough by Mike’s disgust, that he appears the next day wearing a fresh shirt while his face is clean shaven. Upon seeing his efforts to impress her, Mike’s facade begins to crumble.

Bull Run saves the dayWhile the relationship between Mike and Stretch grows, the one between her and the rest of the gang is precarious. When she goes down to the watering hole a second time, she’s physically attacked by Lengthy (John Russell) while Half Pint (Henry Morgan) and Walrus (Charles Kemper) cheer him on, with the latter yelling, “Ride her cowboy, ride her!” It’s a particularly disturbing scene, especially for 1948. Since the code was in effect, the most you see is Lengthy pushing Mike against a tree while she tries to beat him away. But it’s clearly a prelude to rape. It’s even more disturbing when Walrus tells Stretch afterwards that she was asking for it. This scene also lets you know that Lengthy sees right through Mike’s tough act. He doesn’t see her as an equal. For Lengthy, she’s just another woman to take advantage of.

However, it has to be noted that the youngest member of the gang, Bull Run, (Robert Arthur) does respect Mike. When he sees Lengthy attacking her, he’s the only one to step in and pull him off, only to need saving by Stretch in the end. In some respects, both Bull Run and Stretch are somewhat alike. While they try to keep up their tough facades, their basic sense of decency hasn’t been corrupted yet and after such a particularly brutal scene, it’s refreshing to see. The only difference is that Bull Run is naive to the ways of the world, while Stretch has seen it all and is wise to the ulterior motives of his gang. This certainly affects the fates of their characters at the end of the movie.

Widmark, always the villianThe relationship between Stretch and Dude (Richard Widmark) is probably second to that of Mike and Stretch. When Dude sees that Stretch is falling for Mike, he knows that he’s of no use to the gang anymore. Women mean absolutely nothing to Dude. He was burned by an old girlfriend in the past and he’s nothing but bitter towards them now. Not only does he make numerous attempts to overthrow Stretch as their leader, but he’s also a silent witness to many moments where both Mike and Stretch let their guards down. He revels in their downfalls, knowing that the more Stretch becomes emotionally attached to Mike, the sooner he can make off with the gold. Greed is Dude’s only motivation in life. He and Lengthy are both soulless in their pursuit for the gold and when Stretch finally backs out of a deal that would wipe out Mike and Grandpa for good, the gang finally turns on him. It’s interesting to see that Mike is the only one who immediately tries to protect him. As the gang attempts to shoot him down, Mike covers him, therefore risking her own life so they can make their way back to the house together. It’s a nice twist, especially seeing the malevolence she had towards him when they first met.

Peck and Baxter

It’s another facet that makes Yellow Sky so interesting to watch–the gender lines become blurred when it comes to Mike and Stretch. In two separate, but pivotal scenes (the rape scene and the aforementioned shootout), they both save each other from possible death. Unlike most westerns, Mike’s character doesn’t suddenly turn into that of “damsel in distress.” If anything, it’s Stretch who becomes the damsel! Once he falls in love with Mike, therefore respecting her, his gang loses respect for him. Without Mike’s protection, he would be a dead man since it’s hard to fight when there are five against one. The roles have reversed and it’s an interesting path for Wellman to go down, but it’s certainly one that he treaded down before. Although the genres and situations are different, his 1937 film, A Star is Born is another movie that has similar gender relations. The up-and-coming actress (Janet Gaynor) becomes a star, while the once-famous husband (Fredric March) is reduced to the role of Mr. Vicki Lester. In order to save him, she must give up her own career and she doesn’t do it because she has to–she does it because she loves him. Yet, the literal death of her career becomes a figurative one for him. It’s heartbreaking to watch and for a director that was nicknamed, “Wild Bill”, he certainly had a sensitivity for relationships and how they work.

While Yellow Sky is a rough western with a love story thrown in, it’s not too sappy. In fact, it’s presented in such a way that you think Stretch is saving Mike from herself. Audiences back then may have thought that all Mike needed was the love of a good man to change her mind, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s the proof in the final scene (which I hate to spoil, since it’s so good) that Mike saved Stretch from himself as well. The building of their whole relationship was based on seeing each other as equals and in the end, that’s exactly what they are. Love saves the day and all that sappy stuff notwithstanding. They saved each other from themselves by letting their facades down and admitting that they needed love. What’s that old saying–No man is an island? I think it applies here perfectly.

It’s a shame to see that despite a dvd release, Yellow Sky isn’t that well-known today. Especially when you compare it to Gregory Peck’s other bad boy western, 1946’s campy Duel in the Sun. While the basis of that was a soap opera-type love story, Yellow Sky is so much more than just a love story between Mike and Stretch. It’s about the survival and relationships between people, no matter what the odds are against them. And that’s always a timeless topic.

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