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Sheet music for “Only Forever”A few weeks ago, I bought myself the Bing Crosby double feature dvd, Rhythm on the River/Rhythm on the Range. Now, I’m not a huge Bing fan–I like him in High Society (1956) and of course with my love for Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn (1942) ranks pretty high on my list (But not Blue Skies (1946)–I think that one is pretty dull).

I mainly wanted to see Rhythm on the River because of Oscar Levant. Yes, I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll mention it again: I love him. Even though he’s more of a personality than an actor, he’s still one of my favorites. With the exception of one or two movies, I think I’ve seen most of his filmography.

Oscar and Bing

Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Oscar LevantRhythm on the River (1940) is a cute little movie, and surprisingly it’s co-written by the great Billy Wilder. It’s plot revolves around a “brilliant” singer-songwriter named Oliver Courtney (Basil Rathbone), who in reality, can’t write music or lyrics to save his life. The real geniuses behind his popular hits are Bob Sommers (Bing Crosby) and Cherry Lane (Mary Martin). Of course, neither know each other exist and when the finally meet, they fall in love. Together, Bob and Cherry defect from Courtney’s employment and try to strike out on their own, only to be rejected by every publisher in town because their songs sound too much like Courtney’s. Oscar Levant plays Courtney’s musical assistant, Starbuck (when you needed a sarcastic, wisecracking piano player, Levant was your man) and there’s a cute little joke revolving around a bed and breakfast inn that Crosby’s folks own called, “Nobody’s Inn.” Get it? Nobody’s In? Ha ha! Anyway, Rhythm on the River predates Holiday Inn by two years, so it seems like they took the idea from this movie and just expanded on it.

Besides Oscar, it was Mary Martin who intrigued me the most. While she’s a good singer, I didn’t find her to be an outstanding actress. But she’s cute enough and the interaction between her and Bing was realistic. However, the most striking thing about her was her resemblance to Jean Arthur.

Back when the lovely and talented Ms. Arthur was TCM’s Star of the Month (in January ’07, I believe), I bought a biography on her called The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller. It was certainly a page-turner, filled with all kinds of interesting information that spanned her entire career. Believe it or not, she and Oscar Levant were once an item in the late 20’s! Jean had called him, “The only brain in Hollywood” and when they went out, he accompanied her to speakeasies and prize fights, that is, if they weren’t cozied up in the corner at a party.

However, one of the most interesting stories in the book is her supposed relationship with Mary Martin. They first met in 1939 at a small dinner party, shortly after Mary came to Hollywood. The meeting wasn’t exactly a happy experience for her–Jean spent the evening in deep conversation with Paramount story editor, Richard Halliday and completely ignored Mary. Despite this, Halliday married Martin a short while later and soon enough, they became good friends and neighbors to Jean and her husband, Frank Ross.

The friendship between Jean and Mary quickly grew. Not only did they spend a great deal of time together, but they also shared an obsessive love for Peter Pan. The women would endlessly discuss their dream of playing the character one day and when they planned to attend costume parties, Jean and Mary would fight over which one would get to dress up as Peter Pan. Both ladies would get to play the part: Jean would play it on Broadway in 1950, and Mary in 1954 but through the years, it’s Mary who’s mostly associated with the role.

Jean as Peter PanMary Martin as Peter Pan
Jean and Mary as Peter Pan

Jean and Mary…which is which?Hollywood gossips noted the close friendship between the two ladies, and soon enough, rumors that they were romantically involved began to swirl around town. Not helping matters was Mary’s startling resemblance to Jean! If you’re a classic movie fan with only a smattering of knowledge, you may think that it’s Jean Arthur in Rhythm on the River, not Mary Martin! And if that weren’t enough, Mary’s career seemed to follow Jean’s: both ladies would play female western legends (Jean was Calamity Jane, while Mary was Annie Oakley on stage) as well as the Billie Dawn role in Born Yesterday (Jean briefly played it on stage, while Mary did the tv version).

In late 1966, Hollywood thought the rumors were practically confirmed when an obscure publisher released a novel entitled, The Princess and the Goblin (not having anything to do with the fairy tale of the same name). Written by Paul Rosner, the story described the intertwining lives of two actresses, Maureen and Josie. Like Mary, Maureen was a star on Broadway and arrived in Hollywood in the late ’30’s. She then falls in love with Josie, her female idol. Josie, like Jean, is a publicity shy actress, whose husky voice and comedic talent elevated her as one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies. The two women soon have an affair, which causes Josie to have a nervous breakdown and therefore become a recluse. After its publication, the rumors spread like wildfire. Everyone in Hollywood assumed that Rosner was confirming the gossip about Jean and Mary (it doesn’t help that their fictional characters even share the first initial of their names!).

But there was one glitch–Rosner had created a total work of fiction. Yes, he had based the character of Josie on Jean and Maureen on Mary, but only through his own viewing of Jean’s films and his observation on how Mary had seemingly usurped Jean’s identity. When Rosner saw Mary as Peter Pan, a light bulb clicked. The physical similarities (minus the husky voice) between Jean and Mary were downright eerie. After the novel’s publication, he was surprised by the amount of phone calls and feedback he received: people had assumed that he was writing a thinly veiled story of truth, not fiction. Rosner once commented, “I had no way of knowing when I wrote it that any of it was true.”

The lovely Jean Arthur circa 1937If Jean knew about the book, she never let anyone know. The only reference she made towards it’s existence was during her teaching days at Vassar college in the early 70’s. While heading a drama class, Jean had her students recreate a scene from Lillian Hellman’s controversial play, The Children’s Hour, in which a vicious child falsely accuses her two female teachers of being lovers. When the students finished the scene, Jean was visibly upset and explained to her class on how gossip can ruin one’s life. Was she referring to The Princess and the Goblin and/or the Mary Martin rumors? No one will ever know. While many books written after her death state that Jean was a lesbian (despite being married to Frank Ross for seventeen years!), it seems as though she was asexual. In a 1975 interview, Jean stated that sex was something she could live without. Her friend and one time agent, Helen Harvey, claimed that Jean’s passions were more geared towards her strict ideals, while another male friend said that she had little interest in romance, since most of the time her head was in the clouds. Jean’s world wasn’t one that was firmly rooted in reality. She chose her own path and did her own thing. And for some reason, people love to speculate about those who are uninterested in following the standards of society–especially if an unmarried woman chooses to live her life alone.

Mary Martin circa 1940As for Mary Martin, she was married twice–first to Ben Hagman, before marrying Richard Halliday, whom she remained with until his death in 1973. Despite this, rumors about her sexuality have always dogged her, even claiming that the great love of her life was actress, Janet Gaynor. The two women were close friends, and both were involved in a tragic car accident that occurred in 1982. While it left Mary bruised and injured, Janet was critically hurt and the multiple injuries led to her death in 1984.

What I always find odd about classic Hollywood rumors are the fact that they seem to come out after a person has died. It tends to be awfully convenient, since it’s hard for a ghost to defend itself. I’ll be the first person to admit that I enjoy reading about my favorite actors and actresses, and yes, that includes the gossipy bits. I don’t think this makes me less of a fan though–I’m just a nosy person! Still, I don’t base my love of certain actors/actresses/directors on gossip. I judge them by their performances. For example, I dislike Grace Kelly not because of all the men she hopped into bed with, but because I think she’s mostly a lousy actress (Dial M For Murder an exception – please direct all your hate mail to the email address at the top of the sidebar! Thank you!).

In Rhythm on the River, I admit that I loved Oscar Levant’s Starbuck character the most, but since that was to be expected, I can also add Mary Martin to my list. As I mentioned before, I don’t think she was an outstanding actress, but she was pleasant to watch. I’ve read some fan postings which claim that her talent never translated well to the big screen and in order to really see her shine, one had to see in her element–that is, Broadway. I can fully understand that. Most stage actors don’t translate well to motion pictures, which is why they stay on the stage. Still, if I saw Mary Martin’s name in the opening credits of a film, I certainly would watch. Mary’s acting style was fun and cute and for the type of breezy musical comedies Paramount cast her in, her personality was a perfect fit.

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Gig Young in 1943
WB headshot of Gig Young in 1943

Time hasn’t been kind to Gig Young. For most casual movie fans, his place in film history will be “that guy who killed himself and his wife”. Some may remember him for his role in a Doris Day movie or even for his fantastic performance in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but otherwise, every article I read about him always makes note of that fatal incident. It’s impossible not to. But very rarely do I ever read about what a fine actor he truly was. Sure, he’s always mentioned in reviews of movies he appeared in, but briefly, as though he were an afterthought.

For me, seeing Gig Young’s name in the cast list usually seals the deal on a movie for me. If he’s in it, I’ll watch it. It’s that simple. He’s one of my favorite supporting actors, usually starring in films of very good quality. The problem was that he was overshadowed by the films leads: Ida Lupino and Glenn Ford, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Doris Day, Cary Grant, Sinatra, Clark Gable–the list goes on and on. He was a popular supporting actor throughout the 50’s and was finally rewarded with an Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1969 for his work in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Cursed by the Oscar win, his personal demons took over, leading him to the murder/suicide that ended not only his life, but that of his fifth wife as well. I’ve seen posts where people say they can’t watch a movie of his without thinking of this and it depresses me. He’s a wonderful actor and to ignore his work because of that is a shame. It also lead me to write this and to shed a little light on a career that deserved more accolades than it received.

After receiving a scholarship to the prestigious Pasadena Community Playhouse in the early 40’s, Gig was spotted by a Warner Brothers talent scout and was signed to a contract with the studio. Using his real name of Byron Barr, most of his early work was in bit parts that usually went uncredited. As he gained more visibility, the powers that be decided he needed a name change since there was already another Byron Barr in the business. The solution was simple: use the distinctive name of the character he just played in The Gay Sisters (1942). And with that Byron Barr became Gig Young.

Front of WB postcardBack of Postcard
A promotional postcard of Gig sent to a fan during his years at WB.
The back reads like a form letter.

Bette and Gig (Old Acquaintance)1943 was a good year for Gig. He appeared in two major releases, the first being Howard Hawks’ excellent war film, Air Force, while the second was the Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins woman’s picture, Old Acquaintance. His career was interrupted by WWII and like other actors, Gig served his country with a stint in the Coast Guard. When he returned to Hollywood, he began gaining momentum by appearing in all sorts of movies, some high profile (MGM’s The Three Musketeers – 1948) to the lackluster (Escape Me Never – 1947, Wake of the Red Witch – 1948). One of the best from that period was the western, Lust For Gold (1949) in which he plays Ida Lupino’s scheming husband. It’s a fantastic role for Gig, one where he gets to play a truly nasty guy, unlike the nice guy parts he was usually given. Gig displays an edge that I’ve never really seen in any of his other films and it’s refreshing to see. In 1951, Gig returned to home studio of Warner Bros. and appeared with James Cagney in the drama, Come Fill the Cup. The part landed him his first Oscar nomination in a role he’d come to know too well: that of an alcoholic.

Cagney and Gig in “Come Fill the Cup” (1951)
Cagney and Gig in Come Fill the Cup (1951)

Throughout the 50’s, Gig seemed to take over “The Ralph Bellamy Role”: that of the handsome, yet somewhat bland guy who always finds himself getting dumped for the film’s leading man. In 1954, Gig appeared for the first time with Doris Day in Young at Heart, where he gets ditched for the surly, yet talented pianist played by Frank Sinatra. Doris and Gig would go on to star in three more films together: Teacher’s Pet, The Tunnel of Love (both 1958) and That Touch of Mink (1962).

Cary Grant and Gig in “That Touch of Mink” (1962)

Oddly enough, That Touch of Mink has what I think is one of Doris Day’s most asinine roles, yet it’s my favorite movie of Gig’s. In it he plays Roger, Cary Grant’s neurotic financial analyst who holds a grudge against his boss for making him into a rich man. Roger was once a respected teacher of economics at Princeton, but gave it all up when Philip Shanye (Grant) offered him $50,000 and he’s never forgiven himself for selling out. He feels humiliated when Phillip raises his salary and gives him stock in the company for Christmas. “Like rubbing salt in the wounds,” Phillip deadpans after one of Roger’s diatribes.

When the playboy Phillip is rejected by the virginal Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day), Roger is elated at seeing his boss finally get shot down. In a scene where Cathy sends back all the clothes Phillip bought for her, Roger gives one of my most favorite movie speeches ever:

Roger: “When she sent this back she became a symbol of hope for all of us who sold out for that touch of mink.”
Phillip: “Roger!”
Roger: “You give us good salaries, paid vacations, medical insurance, old age pensions. You take away all our problems and you act like you’ve done us a favor. Well you haven’t! We enjoyed our problems and someday there’s going to be an uprising and the masses will regain the misery they’re entitled to!”
Philip: “Neurotics of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your psychiatrists.”

Gig in “That Touch of Mink” (1962)What I love so much about Gig in this role is that he plays Roger with a kind of quirky, wide-eyed enthusiasm and naivety. Despite being constantly cast in light comedies, Gig plays this unlike any other of his supporting roles. The scenes between him and Cary Grant are absolutely priceless and it gets even better when Roger is constantly mistaken as Phillip by Cathy’s roommate, Connie (a feisty Audrey Meadows). When he goes to visit Cathy, Roger gets slapped by Connie, beaten up with a broom, and then chased into a car by a gigantic dog. Elated, Roger shows Philip his battle wounds before heading to the hospital: “It’s the most satisfying day of my life!” Roger exclaims. “They thought I was you….and you deserved everything I got!” It’s hands down one of my favorite performances ever, by any actor and definitely in my top ten of all time.

Gig in Teacher’s Pet (1958)
Nobody likes a show-off: Gig as Dr. Hugo Pine in Teacher’s Pet (1958)

Gig also excelled in Teacher’s Pet (showing on TCM on Sunday, March 9 at 4:00 pm), the movie that garnered him his second Oscar nomination. As the attractive and knowledgeable Dr. Hugo Pine, Gig is once again the bright spot in the movie. I’ve always felt that Teacher’s Pet has a tendency to drag at times and I find the romance between Doris Day and Clark Gable a bit unbelievable (and I’m usually all for May-December romances). Gig doesn’t show up until halfway through the film, but when he does, the movie finally perks up. He turns in another great performance here. The nightclub scene where he proves what an expert he is at everything never fails to make me laugh. I love how Hugo Pine can do it all all, much to Gable’s chagrin: dance with Doris, play the bongo drums, speak Watusi and even hold his liquor–until the cool night air hits him, that is. Another funny scene occurs when Hugo is in his apartment, mixing up a homemade hangover remedy. When the doorbell rings, Hugo holds onto his head for dear life as though it’s about to fall off. I particularly enjoy how he moves the huge doorbell chimes apart, one by one, preventing them from clanging against each other. He’s hilarious. In that scene alone, Gig proves that he’s just as good at subtle physical comedy as he is verbal. It’s a really outstanding supporting performance (And on an unrelated note, you have to wonder why Doris never got her props either).

For the best all-around movies that Gig appeared in, I’d have to go with either the Tracy-Hepburn technological comedy, Desk Set (1957) or William Wyler’s tense hostage drama, The Desperate Hours (1955). In the former, he plays another victim of love, losing out to Spencer Tracy for Katharine Hepburn’s affections while in the latter, he plays a worried boyfriend who figures out that his girlfriend is being held hostage by escaped convicts. It’s a fine ensemble drama with excellent performances put in by every member of the cast, especially Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. In one of my favorite books, Arthur Kennedy: Man of Characters, Kennedy remembers the hell director William Wyler put Gig through:

“I had a very difficult scene with Gig Young, a charming guy. It ran seven or eight pages. Gig initially had to act fresh. I tell him that the family written about in the newspaper is his girlfriend’s family. That has to register–and at the same time, he has to conceal his fear. We went through the whole scene and Wyler says, ‘The look on his face stinks! Do it again!’ We got up to 27 takes. I suggested we stop for a coke and then we did another 13! Wyler said “Print six, eight and 23. Then he said, ‘Move in for a close-up of Gig’s look.’ Gig was a damn good actor. After three or four takes, he was perfect–and Wyler printed it.”

Very rarely did Gig get to ever play a leading man part, and when he did, they came off with mixed results. One of my favorites is the 1963 MGM comedy, A Ticklish Affair, where Gig is a naval officer who falls hard for navy widow, Shirley Jones. Not only does he get her at the end, but he plays hero to her young son after a mishap with some giant weather balloons. It’s not going to be on any Top Ten lists in the future, but watching it is a good way to spend an afternoon.

Rita and Gig (The Story on Page One)Yet for all his talent, Gig could also be horribly miscast in roles that weren’t right for his style. Take the courtroom drama, The Story on Page One (1959) where Gig is a lonely divorcee who finds love with an abused and neglected housewife, played beautifully by Rita Hayworth. By this time, Rita was no longer the sexy, pin-up girl of the WWII era. She was, however, a fine dramatic actress that people failed to take seriously. Rita more than holds her own in this film, but Gig? Not so much. In so many scenes, such as where he tells Josephine (Hayworth) about the loss of his child, his acting rings false and throughout the whole movie, he’s merely adequate. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do serious work–because he definitely could. Maybe it’s the direction by Clifford Odets, but I just didn’t like him in this film. I feel that he was just completely wrong for the part, although he and Rita do compliment each other physically. And when Gig shares a scene with the great character actress, Mildred Dunnock (as his overbearing mother) she leaves him in the dust. Otherwise, it’s a good movie, with an exceptional performance by Tony Franciosa, as the lawyer who defends Gig and Rita. Another case of miscasting would occur a few years later in 1963’s Five Miles to Midnight--but then I think everyone–Gig, the stunningly gorgeous Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins and especially the screenwriter–were miscast in that one. It’s not a good movie by any stretch.

Elizabeth Montgomery and GigWhile he turned in some of his best work during the late 50’s and early 60’s (The Story on Page One notwithstanding), his personal life was a mess. In 1956, Gig married Elizabeth Montgomery (daughter of actor Robert and of Bewitched fame). It was a stormy marriage, marred by Gig’s chronic drinking and Elizabeth trying to keep up with him. And since Gig had a vasectomy earlier in his life due to some health problems, children were also out of the picture. They wound up divorcing in 1963 and nine months later, Gig married his fourth wife, a real estate agent named Elaine Whitman. She bore him a child Jennifer, that he initially pronounced as a “miracle”, but later denounced her when he realized that he had to pay child support. Like Cary Grant, Gig also tried out LSD therapy to help him straighten out his life, but always found himself turning back to the bottle. In the book, Final Gig, it’s said that he had a habit of relying on women throughout his entire life. As a child, Gig was aware that he was the result of a “leak in the safe”. His father would constantly introduce him as “a little dumbbell” and both parents were emotionally unavailable, causing him to rely on his sister, Genevieve, for support. I’m not saying this is an excuse for any of his behavior, but it does give you a clue into what his mental state may have been like. You’d never guess that behind all those fantastic comedic perfomances was a man with a dark, turbulent, emotional state of mind.

Gig, Charles Boyer and David Niven on TV GuideBy the mid-60’s, the type of light comedy/sex farce movies that Gig usually nabbed supporting roles in were becoming out of fashion. He appeared in few movies during this time, mostly concentrating on work such as the sophisticated tv series, “The Rogues” (1964 – which also starred David Niven, Charles Boyer and Gladys Cooper). However, Gig’s luck would change in 1969. His former agent, Marty Baum, became the head of ABC Pictures, the company that was producing the depression-era drama, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Baum insisted that Gig take the role of Rocky, the emcee who presides over the dance marathon. Not many people were thrilled with this decision, since Gig was primarily known for comedies, not serious drama.

However, he proved them wrong. Gig’s acting ability is a revelation. You would never guess that this was the same man who starred in all those Doris Day movies. As Rocky, Gig manages to be both sleazy and boastful. To the public, he appears sympathetic while exploiting the participants’ troubles for the crowd’s entertainment. But behind the scenes he’s emotionless, caring more about the finances than the health and emotional well-being of the people involved. But there are glimpses into his character that contrast sharply with his slick, ruthless persona. Take the scene where one of the contestants begins to hallucinate from lack of sleep. As she screams that bugs are crawling all over her body, Rocky rushes forth and takes control of the situation. After the incident has died down, Gloria (Jane Fonda) sarcastically remarks, “I thought you would have put that on display.” To which Rocky soberly responds, “No. It’s too real.” Gig gives a layered, nuanced performance here, with an emotional depth that he never had the chance to display in any other movie before. Yes, Rocky is cold and callous, but he’s doing what he needs to do in order to survive during the Depression. While the rest of the cast is fantastic (Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, York and Red Buttons) and the direction by Sydney Pollack is excellent, it’s Gig’s performance that really stands out. He definitely deserved the Oscar that year.

Gig and Jane Fonda in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969)

Gig with his Oscar (1969)Gig always had apprehensions about winning or being nominated for an Oscar. As he once told Louella Parsons, “So many people who have been nominated for an Oscar have had bad luck afterwards.” And while being nominated certainly didn’t hurt his career, winning one most certainly did. His fourth wife, Elaine, says that what Gig wanted most “was a role in his own movie, one that they could finally call a ‘Gig Young movie.'” But that never happened and his seventies filmography proves it. No leading parts ever came his way after his win, and the movies he appeared in are of middling quality (some may argue about Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia though. I’ve never seen it, so I can’t comment). Gig’s alcoholism turned even more self-destructive than before. He was fired from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles after showing up on the set suffering from delirium tremens. And if that weren’t enough, Gig was also fired as the voice of “Charlie” on the 70’s crime drama/jigglefest, “Charlie’s Angels”, because he was too intoxicated to read his lines. It’s a pretty terrible way to end such a great career.

Which brings us to the final note in Gig’s life, the horrible murder-suicide that will dog his name whenever you read about him. It would be impossible not to mention it because it’s a culmination of a very sad and very tragic life. For all the wonderful performances Gig put in throughout his career, he suffered miserably due to his life-long battle with the bottle. It’s noted that at the time of the incident, Gig was under the psychiatric treatment of Dr. Eugene Landy, the same “doctor” who treated Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (and we all know how he turned out, the poor guy).

Despite all this, Gig is still one of my favorite actors. He was an excellent subtle comedian and in my opinion, I think that’s even harder than being an over-the-top one. It’s difficult to walk that fine line between making the audience believe in your character, while laughing at the same time and Gig always managed to pull it off. He not only had a flair for light comedic parts, but the charm to pull them off as well. And when the right script came around, he excelled in serious roles as well. I think it’s a shame that his tragic end overshadows his work and possibly keeps people from viewing his movies. I’ve seen a good majority of them and let me tell you, those people have no idea what they’re missing.

Links:

• An article on the marriage between Elizabeth Montgomery and Gig, plus a gallery of pictures.

• Gig Young’s Wikipedia entry

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Arthur Kennedy as Barney Castle

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely adore Arthur Kennedy. This is going to sound a little weird, but out of all the classic movie actors I love, he is the one I spend the most time obsessing over (watching his films, reading about, collecting memorabilia, etc.) Not only do I think he’s a wonderful actor, but he’s one of the most handsomest, attractive actors that I’ve ever seen.

What? Stop looking at me like that.

It was after seeing his performance as Jim Lefferts in Elmer Gantry (1960) that I became interested in his work and from then on, I started taping and watching every movie of his I could get my hands on. I figured it would be just a phase–after all, I went through my Joseph Cotten, Martin Balsam, and Alan Arkin phases and came out fairly unscathed. That was two years ago and Arthur Kennedy still holds a high place in my heart, only slightly challenged by my relatively newfound love for Robert Ryan. One day, I’ll bore everyone with nice, long entries about both of them in “Classic Movie Actors I Obsess Over” posts.

trial1955_small.jpgBut instead of that, I’d like to recommend for you the 1955 courtroom drama, Trial, which airs February 29 at 8 am on TCM. Set those VCR’s or DVD/DVR Recorders! Although it boasts an impressive cast that’s headed by Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire, it remains a relatively obscure film today. Directed by Mark Robson, Trial is the story of a young Mexican boy named Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos), who gets caught up in the murder of a caucasian girl. Racial tensions already run high through the town and the accusation against Chavez only adds fuel to the fire. Enter David Blake (Glenn Ford), a law professor who finds out that he needs more courtroom experience in order to keep his job at the University. Blake goes from lawyer to lawyer and is rejected by all–except for Barney Castle (Kennedy), who is also handling the controversial Chavez case. Working for Castle is his attractive assistant, Abbe Nyle (Dorothy McGuire), who has a somewhat shady past of her own. As Chavez’s case gains momentum and his trial begins, Castle heads off to New York City with Mrs. Chavez (Katy Jurado) to raise money for his defense fund. Soon after, Blake joins them, only to find out that Castle is using Angel as a cover to raise funds for the Communist Party. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story for you though–you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Rafael Campos and Glenn FordDorothy McGuire, Katy Juardo, Arthur Kennedy
The cast of Trial: Rafael Campos, Glenn Ford, Dorothy McGuire, Katy Juardo and Arthur Kennedy

Trial is directed by Mark Robson, a director who has been forgotten over time except by die hard classic movie fans. But one look at his filmography and you’ll see that he directed many important classics: Peyton Place, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and The Harder They Fall as well as the late-60’s cult classic, Valley of the Dolls. Despite it’s obscure status, Trial is probably one of his best works. Before filming, Robson insisted his actors attend rehearsals and I’ve noticed that it always pays off in the end, especially in an ensemble movie like Trial. Everyone works off one another seamlessly and the dialogue is sharp. It’s as though you’ve stepped into a real-life situation, not a Hollywood movie.

And of course there’s Arthur Kennedy. As the slick, manipulative Barney Castle, there’s no doubt that he has the best role in the movie. There are so many facets to his character. At first, he comes across as the overbearing lawyer who seems to have Chavez’s best interests at heart. But by the time Blake arrives in New York City, Castle’s cover is blown: he’s really a card-carrying Communist who only cares about raising money for the “All People’s Party.” When Blake finds out, he’s livid. He argues that the majority of the All People’s Party are Communists, to which Castle flippantly replies that it’s actually “about 60% and some of them are cheating the party out of it’s dues.” Blake tells him he wants none of the Party’s money for Chavez’s defense fund and without missing a beat, Castle sneers, “You want nice honorable American money, not dirty Commie money.” He’s heartless. It suddenly becomes clear: Angel Chavez has ceased to be a human being. He’s strictly a commodity. Castle has dollar signs for eyes and he’s completely soulless. Kennedy plays the character to the hilt, making him equal parts despicable and smarmy.

Barney Castle, crowd charmer

The backdrop of the Free Angel Chavez rallyHowever, it’s Kennedy’s performance at the “Free Angel Chavez” rally that shows the true test of his acting skills. With banners boasting messages like “Peace” and “Freedom”, Castle works the assembled crowd of thousands before him like an old pro, winning them over with his charm and charisma, but not before launching into what he calls (in private, of course) “The Sea of Green bit.” He asks the entire audience to hold up one dollar bills, and then tells them to close their eyes, promising the money will still be there when they open them back up. He’s lying of course. A man like Barney Castle has never told a truth in his life. And when the disgruntled crowd finds out that they’ve been had, Castle just laughingly tells them, “Don’t trust anybody!” and they eat it up. It’s amazing to watch Kennedy work the volunteers that quickly move around to collect the money. He hustles them, quickly moving back and forth from each side of the stage, while clapping his hands to encourage them. It’s an amazing performance to watch–one that simultaneously impresses and angers you.

Taking on a such a role in the 50’s was fairly dangerous: thanks to McCarthyism, Communist paranoia was still rampant. The liberal Kennedy once donated money to the New York Post, supporting editorials that lambasted McCarthy for all the damage he was doing. After seeing his name attached to one of these anti-McCarthy advertisements, a man contacted Kennedy thinking he was giving money to the Communist Party. Luckily, Kennedy’s cousin was a leading man in the New England chapter of the FBI and this cleared him. Or was it the fact that he was Irish and served in WWII’s Motion Picture Unit? It seems that other liberal Irish actors who served in the war (Gene Kelly and Robert Ryan first come to mind) also escaped the era unscathed based on the fact that they were Irish and Catholic, therefor no Irish Catholics could ever be Communists. The mindset of that era boggles my mind sometimes.

Barney Castle, working the crowd into a frenzyRobson was what Kennedy called “his lucky rabbit’s foot”. This would be his third Robson-directed performance to be nominated for an Oscar, the other ones being Champion (1949) and as a lead actor, Bright Victory (1951). Kennedy would lose the Oscar to Jack Lemmon for Mister Roberts, and would be nominated for one more Robson directed picture, Peyton Place (1957). His final supporting actor nomination came for his turn as a philandering husband in Vincent Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958). However, Kennedy did win the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for Trial, so it was nice to see that the Hollywood Foreign Press recognized his outstanding work as Barney Castle. I’m not sure if any other actor could pull such a smarmy characterization off like Kennedy did. There was something so real about him. It wasn’t just in the delivery of his lines, but the expression on his face, the movement of his body–not to mention his arrogant nature. By the end of the film, Castle turns out to be such a horrible person, you’re practically hissing at the screen.

Of course this review might be somewhat biased since I’m such a huge fan of Arthur Kennedy. I could rattle off at least 10 other films where I think he put in outstanding work, but I won’t. I’ll save those for other posts. But if you’re into well-written and acted courtroom dramas from the 50’s or want to see one of Hollywood’s most popular supporting actors doing some of his best work, I wholeheartedly suggest you give Trial a chance. And if you don’t like it, you can come here and tell me that I have lousy taste in movies.

Information about Kennedy taken from Arthur Kennedy, Man of Characters by Meredith C. Macksoud, with Craig R. Smith and Jackie Lohrke. One of my all time favorite biographies!

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For some reason, Hollywood keeps remaking classic movies. This summer they’re releasing a new version of the 1939 MGM classic, The Women. And back in 2004, Hollywood saw fit to remake Robert Aldrich’s 1965 masterpiece, The Flight of the Phoenix.

phoenixtitlecard.jpg

The premise is simple: A plane filled with passengers from different walks of life, crashes in the Sahara. After a few deaths and no rescue attempts, the remaining survivors attempt to rebuild the plane from the wreckage and fly themselves to safety.

I saw the original version last year on the Fox Movie Channel and I expected a good movie–what I got instead was a great movie, filled with interesting characters and a plot twist near the end that will either make you laugh or gasp in horror. For weeks after my initial viewing, I became obsessed with this movie. I must have watched it six times in two weeks. I just couldn’t stop. I loved the characters, their problems and the way they banded together despite some serious personality clashes. The story unfolds beautifully, leading to an ending that you won’t forget. Some people say The Flight of the Phoenix is a bit too long, but I don’t know what you could cut out to make it shorter. All the parts are important.

The majority of the film is mostly dialogue-based and while you might expect a movie of that nature that to be boring, it’s not. It’s exciting because of the top notch performances put in by Jimmy Stewart, Hardy Kruger, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine and Ian Bannen. My personal favorite of the bunch is Dan Duryea, who portrays a meek, religious businessman (a far cry from his villainous days opposite Stewart in many Anthony Mann westerns). This film was also my introduction to Richard Attenborough, an actor I’ve really come to enjoy over the past year of my ravenous movie consumption. And as always, Aldrich keeps the energy of the film afloat with many different subplots that focus on the personalities of each character. I love Robert Aldrich. Very rarely am I ever disappointed with one of his movies.

Director Robert Aldrich felt that rehearsals were an important process for his movies. In this behind-the-scenes picture, Aldrich stands in the center while the entire cast takes their spots in an outline of the doomed plane. His son, Bill, is seated at the top left.*

Sadly, stunt pilot Paul Mantz lost his life during the filming of this movie and if that weren’t disheartening enough, The Flight of the Phoenix bombed at the box office when it was released in December of 1965. In a 1974 interview, Aldrich lamented about it’s misfortune: “There are failures you never think are right or justifiable or understandable. For example I put Too Late the Hero, Flight of the Phoenix, and The Grissom Gang in a category that says these are all fine movies, very well made. People understood what they were about, what they aimed to say. They were entertaining and exciting and should have been a success. That they weren’t means that something else was wrong besides the way the picture was made. Maybe in another five years Phoenix will break even. I think it deserved to do infinitely better than it did.”**

I saw the 2004 remake a few weeks ago and was disheartened by how it lacked in comparison. There are (of course) CGI effects for the plane crash and the PC casting adds a woman to the crew. There’s a “music video” sequence to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and somehow, the crew has working power tools in the middle of a desert. But mainly Dennis Quaid is no Jimmy Stewart. The one reason why I loved the original Phoenix so much was because Stewart wasn’t a very likable guy. In fact, his Captain Frank Towns is a stubborn jerk whose old methods are being replaced by modern ones and I liked that, mainly because Stewart is always the hero. I love when actors are cast against type because they’re fun to watch. Aldrich had plans to use him and John Wayne in a comedy called …All The Way to the Bank***, but that fell through when Phoenix bombed and Aldrich went on to making The Dirty Dozen instead. A good twist of fate!

One of the highlights (in a film of many highlights) is during the scene where everyone is stuck inside the plane during a sandstorm and Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine) is playing around with his radio. And as he fiddles with the knobs, a faint love song comes across the airwaves. The injured Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti) hears it and perks up; he’s desperately missing his sick wife. With a bit of prodding from Towns, Cobb begrudgingly hands the radio over to Gabriel, but smiles as soon as he sees how much happiness it brings to him. See the You Tube Clip here.

Connie Francis

The ballad in question is called “Senza Fine.” It’s sung by perky 60’s singer and actress Connie Francis and it has an absolutely gorgeous and haunting melody. The snippet used in the movie doesn’t do the song justice. While she’s best known for songs like “Who’s Sorry Now” and “Where the Boys Are”, “Senza Fine” is one of those lost treasures that seem to be forgotten by record companies today. A search on Amazon brings up only one item, an out-of-print cd that includes the soundtrack to both Phoenix and Patton (one copy is selling for almost $160!).

This site discusses it a bit:

“The English version of the LP “Movie Greats” has the song Senza Fine (means Without End) from the movie Flight of the Phoenix. Senza Fine was only done in two versions that is known. There is a single version which is a beautiful release from England on a single and also released on CD there a few years ago. The other is on the LP “Movie Greats of the 60s.” Connie did one whole version in English and one in Italian and they spliced in and out different versions.”

I found my copy through a file sharing service. This is the version that combines both the Italian and English verses and it has a running time of 3:12 (the version on the Patton soundtrack runs at 2:14 seconds). It took me a long time to find, but when I did, I was beyond thrilled. It’s a gorgeous song, one of my favorites and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when I first heard it:

Download MP3: “Senza Fine (Love Song From The Flight of the Phoenix)” – Connie Francis

Do not direct-link download. Page will open in another window and follow the link from there.

* The picture is scanned in from the book, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich: His Life and His Films by Alan Silver and James Ursini. Much of this information comes from this book as well. It’s a great read.

** From the book, Robert Aldrich Interviews edited by Eugene L. Miller Jr. and Edwin T. Arnold.

*** …All The Way to the Bank centered around “two retired safecrackers who steal money from a mob boss’s safe deposit box to benefit an old folks home.” Aldrich attempted to sell this project to 20th Century Fox, but fell through when he decided to make The Dirty Dozen instead.

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Webb - acid tongued

One actor I’ve always loved is Clifton Webb. The first movie I ever saw him in is probably the movie he’s best known for: Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). I wanted to see it because of Vincent Price, but afterwards, it was Clifton Webb that intrigued me. His Waldo Lydecker was the most interesting character in the film: typing in the bathtub, obsessed with the beautiful Gene Tierney and cold and calculating enough to commit murder. What else could you want?

The problem with Clifton Webb’s movie career is that he didn’t make that many and when he did make them, it was only for 20th Century Fox. His movies will rarely (if never) show up on TCM, which means you’ll have to rely on either HBO/Cinemax or the Fox Movie Channel to see his work. The closest he came to being loaned out was for the 1953 MGM musical, The Band Wagon. He was offered the role of Broadway’s jack-of-all-trades, Jeffery Cordova, but turned it down because he didn’t take secondary parts (he was however, gracious in recommending England’s answer to Fred Astaire, Jack Buchanan, for the role). Webb was strictly an above-the-title, first billed actor and with good reason: in 1950 he was listed seventh on the annual Motion Picture list of Box Office Stars.

What interests me the most about Webb is that he’s not your typical star. Looks-wise, he’s not Cary Grant. He’s small in stature (his bathtub scene in Laura proves he was one of the skinniest men to ever grace the silver screen) and while he is handsome, he’s certainly not a teenybopper heartthob. Another factor is age: by the time he took on the persona of Waldo Lydecker, Webb was about 55 years old. For most actors in Hollywood, you could forget about having a career at the age, let alone start a successful one.

Titanic - WebbIt was the film Sitting Pretty (1948) that changed Clifton Webb’s career. Instead of being an uptight, know-it-all murderer that the audienced booed at, he became the uptight, know-it-all babysitter that audiences laughed along with. Watch him take control of Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara’s children (and dog!) and you’ll find yourself rooting for him as he dumps a bowl of oatmeal on a child’s head. From this movie he went from being a third-billed supporting player to a first-billed leading man (he was Oscar nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Laurence Olivier). There would be no more murderers in his future. Seeing they had a hit on their hands, 20th Century Fox turned out two more Belvedere sequels, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). He became the actor that the whole family could enjoy and that was fine with him. In Jeanine Basinger’s book, The Star Machine, Webb is quoted as saying: “I love Hollywood and the chance to make more and more money. I love money.” Well said.

The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (small art)In the 50’s, the majority of Webb’s filmography consists of light comedies where he was cast as a family man. In Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), he cuts a mean rug with the oldest of his twelve children, Jeanne Crain, while in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959) he’s a bigamist with two families and 17 kids. There’s a twist of irony, since Webb was gay in real life. It was known by most of Hollywood and throughout his life, his mother was his constant companion and business manager. When she died in 1960, Webb went through a deep depression, causing Noel Coward to make his famous quip that Webb was the world’s oldest living orphan.

But 20th Century Fox continued to place Webb in romantic leading man roles and the audience–even if they knew about his sexuality–didn’t seem to care. Even with a weak script, Webb’s unique personality manages to trancend lousy material. He did get the chance to star in a few dramas–one standout is 1956’s The Man Who Never Was, where Webb is cast against type as an Admiral who concocts a plan to trick the Nazis from attacking Sicily. There are no love interests for Webb, just a good old fashioned game of cat-and-mouse between Webb and Nazi sympathizer, Stephen Boyd. It also features a great supporting performance by Gloria Grahame who is inadvertently brought into the plot via her boyfriend.

Titanic movie poster - colorHowever, my favorite role of his by far is in 1953’s Titanic. I know it’s an odd choice, especially with all the movies Webb did. A lot of people are down on this version since the script plays fast and loose with the facts of the real Titanic. But to me, it doesn’t matter. I can watch the excellent A Night to Remember (1957) if I want facts. No, the reason I love the 1953 version of Titanic is because of all the different stories that are weaved together, making their way towards the disastrous climax. Besides Webb, you have Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Thelma Ritter, Brian Aherne and Richard Basehart (who’s performance as a disgraced priest is my second favorite storyline in the film). It’s hard not to like this version, even with all the factual inaccuracies.

Webb plays opposite the tough-as-nails Barbara Stanwyck and at first, they first seem like a mismatched couple. Stanwyck’s Julia Sturges is described by her husband, Richard (Webb) as someone who bought her hats out of a Sears and Roebuck Catalog (while it made me laugh when I first heard it, that was probably one of the ultimate put-downs of the rich). Her husband’s behavior and high standards of living is exactly why Julia packs up her belongings and takes the kids to America via the Titanic.

While Stanwyck is good (she’s always good), Webb is even better. Titanic is an excellent showcase for his range–one second he loves and adores his son, Norman and the next, he’s treating him like absolute dirt once a devastating secret comes out. It’s amazing how much hatred Webb can convey with a simple icy stare. And while he breaks the hearts of Julia and Norman, he broke mine as well. It’s one thing to watch actors going through their lines on screen, but it’s another to feel it. Even 50 some years later, Webb’s actions still manage to hurt. And it’s terrible to watch Norman visit his father at the card game, only to be cruelly rebuffed. Knowing the terrible tragedy that lies ahead only makes it hurt more.

But my favorite scene in Titanic has to be when Julia and Richard are saying their final goodbyes, right before she and the children board a lifeboat. Webb gives a monologue, that in the wrong hands, could be viewed as sappy and melodramatic. However, he elevates it to something deeper and much more emotional:

Titanic - Goodbye

“We have no time to catalog our regrets. All we can do is pretend 20 years didn’t happen. It’s June again. You were walking under some Elm trees in a white muslin dress, the loveliest creature I ever laid eyes on. That summer, when I asked you to marry me, I pledged my eternal devotion. I would take it as a very great favor Julia, if you would accept a restatement of that pledge.”

It’s an amazing, heartwrenching scene. Words can’t even do it justice. It’s one thing to read the dialogue, but it’s another to watch Webb deliver the words with tears brimming in his eyes, right before passionately embracing Stanwyck for the final time. There’s none of Webb’s trademark mannerisms. No sarcasm, no witty quips. It’s a heartfelt, emotional speech. Yes, the Webb/Stanwyck pairing seemed completely mismatched at the beginning to me, but by the end, it’s absolutely believable. The look in Webb’s eyes conveys all his love for a woman that he will never see again. And hearing him go through the memory of first seeing her, you know exactly why he fell for her. You can close your eyes and feel the warmth of the sun, as Julia strolls down the street in her white dress and you know that it was love at first sight for him. It’s a simple line, but you can imagine all the happiness they shared upon first meeting and why Richard wanted to marry her–all this from one simple monologue. It takes a talented actor to summon that kind of emotion by reciting someone else’s writing and Webb does it splendidly. For days after, I just couldn’t get this scene out of my mind. For anyone who’s prejudiced against this version, I’d recommend that you give it another chance. And if you haven’t seen it, do so immediately.

There are other movies of Webb’s I would love to see–the 1952 John Philip Sousa biography, Stars and Stripes Forever and the all-star, 1954 drama Woman’s World just to name two. But I am thankful for what movies of Clifton Webb’s that I have seen. Like most classic movie actors, he’s shamefully forgotten today and each time I watch one of his movies, I marvel at what a terrific actor he really was. Any actor could take on Webb’s prissy, acid-tongued act, but he took it and made it his own. It’s a treat to watch him whether he’s plotting Laura’s murder, taking on an angelic cowboy persona in For Heaven’s Sake (1950) or as the object of Dorothy McGuire’s affection in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). There are no actors like Clifton Webb in today’s Hollywood–studios would never take a chance on someone like him now. But in a way that’s good, because no one could ever replace him. Clifton Webb was a one of a kind actor and for that, us classic movie fans are that much richer.

Links:

• For information on his pre-Hollywood life, Wikipedia (how did I ever live without it?) has a very detailed page on him here.

• Also, there’s also a Hollenback Genealogy page on Clifton Webb here (His real name was Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck. In the 1957 drama, Boy on a Dolphin, Webb’s character is named Victor Parmalee as a tribute to his original name.)

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Joan in “Today We Live”
A gorgeous, young Joan in Today We Live (1933)

Like most people in my age bracket, if you mention the name “Joan Crawford” two words will come to mind: “Mommie Dearest”. And then five more: “No More Wire Hangers EVER!”

When I was a child, Mommie Dearest was my favorite movie. It came out in 1981, two years after I was born. By the time it made it’s appearance on HBO, I was probably four years old and it quickly became my favorite film. The glamorous opening shots of Joan (Faye Dunaway) getting dressed and ready for the day was how I wanted to live my adult life. A huge shower. Gigantic closets filled with beautiful clothes. Ice water facials. To my four-year old mind, this was the ideal life of a grown woman. I don’t think I really got the main plot of the story though: Joan’s drunken rampages, various affairs and child abuse, although I fondly remember myself grabbing a wire hanger and repeatedly smacking the rear end of my favorite Care Bear with it. Children are highly impressionable creatures.

It would be years later when I would see my first Joan Crawford film, Mildred Pierce (mainly because of the Sonic Youth song of the same name). I remember it being a good film, but I was a teenager and I was more concerned with collecting 7 inch singles by my favorite indie bands and the guy I worked with, than with classic movies and dead actresses. One day in my high school library, I found a dusty copy of Mommie Dearest tucked away in the back shelves. I tried to read it, but apparently I needed the visual aide of a crazed Faye Dunaway choking her daughter–it an was unbelievably boring book. I put it back and went back to listening to my discman through my messenger bag.

Fast forward to my early 20’s and my newfound obsession with classic movies. My love for music had inexplainably dried up and I found myself obsessively watching TCM, taping movies and researching them on the internet. I’m not sure what my first Joan Crawford movie was, but I remember thinking: “She’s really not as good as Bette Davis.” I had become a film snob after one month of viewing movies!

And now I come to the present. Four years later and suddenly, I’ve become highly interested in the films and life of Joan Crawford–the real Joan Crawford. Not the monster that Christina Crawford wrote about, but the woman who made movie after movie and proved herself as a damned good actress. It was A Woman’s Face that made me realize this. I watched it for Melvyn Douglas and wound up going, “Wow! Joan was great in this!” I’ve been recording her movies ever since then and in each one, I marvel at her beauty (okay, she went way, way overboard with the eyebrows in the 50’s and 60’s) and her talent. I bought a copy of Mildred Pierce just for the documentary, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star and was struck by how bitchy the grown Christina was. If I could have reached through the screen and slapped her, I would have. For someone who despises her mother so much, she was sure eager enough to latch herself onto the gravy train.

A few days ago, I bought a copy of Not the Girl Next Door, Charlotte Chandler’s biography on Joan and walked away with an entirely different impression of her. It would be nice if this book was packaged with dvd copies of Mommie Dearest, just to let you know that there are two sides to every story. The Joan in Chandler’s book is kind and giving. There are anecdotes from another one of Joan’s children, Cathy. If you only watch Mommie Dearest, you get the impression that Joan only had two children, but she had four: twins named Cathy and Cindy and they were both humiliated after the publication of Mommie Dearest. According to Cathy, there were no wire hangers and no beatings. And yes, she was sent to bed without dinner as well, but that was her punishment for refusing to eat it. Joan taught them to work hard for the things they wanted in life, just as she had and in the end, they were left in her will while Christina and Christopher were left out.

In Chandler’s book, Christopher is described as a problem child, constantly running away from home and Christina was a spoiled brat. I’m sure Joan didn’t help matters by asking them to call her “Mommie, Dearest”, which she soon learned they used as a way of mocking her to her face. Myrna Loy was a good friend of Joan’s and comments that seeing the way Christina and Christopher acted made her glad she didn’t have children(!), adding that Christina was “vicious, ungrateful and jealous”. Ouch.

On the flip side of this are people who also believe that Joan abused the children. In Oscar Levant’s biography, A Talent for Genius, his wife June discusses the time she and Oscar were invited to a party at Joan’s house during the filming of Humoresque. That night, Joan invited the guests upstairs, ushered Christopher out of bed, announced that he was a problematic thumbsucker and forced him to show the big, rubber cap that covered his thumb–humiliation at it’s finest. If my mother had ever done something like that to me, I’m sure I’d come away hating her as well.

One of my favorite stories in Chandler’s book is how Joan always answered her fan mail. She was devoted to her fans. She felt that if they had taken the time out to write her, she surely had enough time to write them back. It was the least she could do. Any movie fan, classic or modern, has to appreciate that. Joan felt that without her fans she would be nowhere. Their letters were like applause and as a movie actress, she never heard the applause that a stage performer did. There’s also another story in the book centering around David Niven and the death of his first wife, Primula, who fell down a flight of stairs during a game of hide-and-go seek at Tyrone Power’s house. Even though she wasn’t at the party, the first thing Joan did was call up and offer to watch their newborn child.

There are so many conflicting stories out there and the problem is that most of the people involved in them are dead. There is no way of finding out the truth, unless you lived in Joan Crawford’s house during the years that Mommie Dearest took place. If one it to believe the movie, you’ll get the impression that Joan Crawford was a crazy, child abusing lush. But honestly, if I chose the right words and built up the right tone, I could make up a fantastic, exaggerated horror story about my parents. I could tell you about the time I got spanked with a spoon, but conveniently leave out the fact that I had just made a huge mess in the family room after my mother slaved for hours by cleaning it. Years later in college, I would be talking with my friends and it somehow came out that we had all gotten spanked with a spoon at some point in our lives. And I’m not even going into the “Joan Crawford is an alcoholic” thing that was played up so succulently in the movie–if you read up on classic Hollywood, a great deal of actors and actresses liked to hit the sauce. It’s not like Joan should have been the only one attending AA meetings, so shut it Christina. I’m not saying that some of the events didn’t happen, because they might have–but it all depends on how one presents the facts and how much they’re willing to fabricate. Money helps.

But what is most important is that Joan Crawford was a great actress, something that is shamefully ignored today. A good part of the problem is that for every movie like The Women or Grand Hotel, there’s a clunker like Above Suspicion or the absolutely dreadful, not even campy-in-a-good-way, Trog. She didn’t make that many great movies like Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn did. MGM gave her the scripts and she did them as she was told. She didn’t have the moxie to fight the studio like her rival, Bette Davis. For the most part, Joan was just happy to work.

mommie dearest
Crazy Like a Fox: Faye Dunaway as Joan in the climatic “Wire Hanger Scene”

I still like to watch Mommie Dearest, because let’s face it, who can resist a scenery-chewing Faye Dunaway, crossed eyed and slathered in cold cream while banging around a can of bathroom cleaner? Or swinging an axe while dressed to the nines? But it’s not fact. It’s a great fictional biographical film like They Died With Their Boots On or Night and Day. A one sided look at a great actress written by her money hungry, vindictive daughter. I still long for a huge closet full of designer clothes and a gigantic shower, but I’ve learned that if you want to know the real Joan Crawford, you need sit down and watch her films. If every classic actor or actress were given their own biographical movie, I doubt we’d like them by the end. In fact, Joan Crawford may come out as the tamest of them all.

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