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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 the title is a little misleading because in every interview I’ve read or seen, people have nothing but glowing words for Fred Astaire. He was a gentleman through and through. The worst thing I’ve ever read was that he was a…perfectionist.

I figured now would be a good time to profess my love for Mr. Astaire since he’s one of the stars in Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach–which is showing February 27 at 8 pm on TCM. Nuclear war has broken out across the nation and Australia is one of the last places where people are still alive. Before we go any further, I should warn you that it’s an extremely depressing movie. It’s not good to watch if:

1. You’ve had a terrible day. You’ve lost your job. Your dog or cat died.
2. You are a woman who’s currently going through PMS.
3. You spent the entire afternoon searching through myspace, checking out your old classmates profiles, only to find out that a good majority of them are all married with kids and now you realize that yes, you are going to die alone. If you were cast in a classic movie, you’d be the “Spinster.” And since you’re terrified of cats, even the title of ‘crazy cat lady’ is now out of your future.

Ahem.

Not only is On the Beach depressing, but it’s a bit draggy at times. It’s a good solid story though, which should be more than enough reason to tune in and at least give it a chance. The other members of the cast include Gregory Peck as Towers, the commander of the USS Sawfish and Ava Gardner as Moria Davidson, who (of course) fall in love with each other. Rounding out the cast are Donna Anderson and Anthony Perkins (when he could still be viewed as a sweet and innocent actor instead of a nutjob) as a young married couple.

And of course there’s Fred Astaire. Legend has it that Astaire got the part of the scientist, Julian Osborne, because of Mrs. Stanley Kramer. She happened to be watching an Astaire movie on the late show and knowing her husband’s search for an actor to play the scientist, she turned to him, pointed at the tv and said, “There’s your scientist.” Kramer was dismissive at first, but he soon realized that she was right. When they met, Astaire was curious to why he was chosen for such a role. Kramer answered, “You’ve got something most actors don’t have, Fred. Integrity. It shines out of you.” And Astaire accepted the part.

Fred, Ava and Greg
In a wink-wink moment, Ava coyly remarks: “I could sing and dance.” 

It’s seems like a bit of stunt casting at first. Fred Astaire in a non-dancing role! But he’s absolutely wonderful. It’s because of this movie that I became a huge Fred Astaire fan. Kramer was right on the money when he said Astaire had “integrity.” That’s why his characterization of Julian is so terrific. We first see him at a local get together, where he’s downing drinks and feverently discussing the nuclear war with another partygoer. Since he’s a scientist, he feels that people are blaming him for the mass destruction and ends his drunken rant by concluding that everyone is doomed. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you want at your party, but Astaire’s acting ability is a revelation. Anyone thinking that he was strictly a song-and-dance man is proven wrong. There’s none of that lighthearted joy that’s so prevalent in his musicals. Something is seriously bothering Julian Osborne. There’s a bitterness that he’s trying to mask by consuming alcohol. You want to know what’s going on his mind and why he’s like this.

Another pivotal scene for Astaire takes place later in the film. By this time, Cmdr. Towns has asked Julian aboard the USS Sawfish, hoping to find out who (or what) is sending a mysterious morse code signal that’s based in San Francisco. When all the crew members are sitting around and joking with one another, one of them asks Julian who started the war, to which he sarcastically answers, “Albert Einstein.” He then delivers a guilt-ridden monologue which explains where his mind is at: “Everyone had a bomb, an atomic bomb, a counterbomb, countercounterbombs–the devices outgrew us, we couldn’t control them. I know. I helped build them. God help me.”

Serious Fred Astaire
A close up on Astaire’s face during his monologue 

During this scene, Kramer closes in on Astaire’s face, allowing us not only to hear the pain in his voice, but see his tortured look as well. And as you watch him, you forget that he ever danced with Ginger, Rita and Cyd. You believe that these thoughts, these terrible guilty thoughts have been weighing on his shoulders for the longest time and after seeing San Francisco, only now is he able to get them out. It’s not really his fault. It’s the fault of the people who chose to use these weapons so carelessly, but Julian doesn’t care. He feels that he’s specifically to blame.

What’s great about Astaire’s delivery of the lines is that he doesn’t over act. Each word is carefully thought out and spoken with such heartfelt sincerity, you see him as Julian Osborne, not Fred Astaire acting as Julian Osborne. He doesn’t just step into the role, he becomes it. And that’s what makes his performance so fresh and interesting. He even holds his own with Peck–and even, dare I say it, surpasses him (And I LOVE Gregory Peck, so this isn’t a putdown).

I always wondered if Astaire’s casting opened the door for Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind, which was released the following year. To be honest, I prefer Inherit the Wind to On the Beach, but competing with giants like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March–well, Kelly is outshined. He’s good though, but not as good as Astaire. I know it’s said that comparing them is like comparing Apples and Oranges, but you can trace their acting styles right to their dancing styles. While Kelly was creative in so many wonderful ways, I feel Astaire managed to convey more emotion through his dances. The draw of Kelly’s routines is how unique they’re set up, whereas Astaire conveyed creativity through the grace and fluidity of his movements. That’s why he puts in an outstanding performance in On the Beach. His sensitivity for his character shines through. He’s in touch with Julian’s inner emotions. While it’s mentioned earlier in the movie that he once had a relationship with Moria (Gardner), he left her behind and forged ahead with his work. Now he regrets it. There’s also another scene where Julian and Peter Holmes (Perkins) have a conversation. Holmes is bemoaning his life, worrying about his wife and children and the cyanide pills that he left her with. After giving him a cool look, Julian comments that he feels so sorry for him, being saddled down with a family. He’s a rather sarcastic fellow, but you can understand why–he’s alone in this world. Holmes has his wife and children. Moria and Towers managed to connect amidst all this sadness. And Julian is alone. He gave everything up for a career that’s now to blame for the destruction of the world. It’s another moment into the dark regrets of Julian’s mind that Astaire allows us to see.

I’m surprised that Astaire wasn’t Oscar nominated for this, especially since the Academy loves when actors play against type. Perhaps they couldn’t see past his musical past. He was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor, but lost out to Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur.

astaire_ryan1.jpgIn the final words of his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire mentions that he never used dancing as a way to express himself. He just did it. Maybe he didn’t dance to personally express himself, but he did a hell of a job expressing his character’s emotions. And no better example of this is in the little-known, 1943 RKO musical, The Sky’s the Limit. It’s an odd movie. Not only are there some plot holes, but there’s the casting of RKO contractee Robert Ryan as one of Astaire’s Flying Tiger buddies as well as funnyman, Robert Benchley. And if that weren’t enough, both Astaire and his co-star Joan Leslie (fresh off her success in Yankee Doodle Dandy) keep their real first names: Fred and Joan. It’s an odd choice, especially when Hollywood was so keen on creating illusions.

Fred Astaire and Joan LeslieThe premise of The Sky’s the Limit could have been lifted from any old Astaire/Rogers script: Fred is a decorated Flying Tiger who’s about to go on leave, but instead of enjoying it, he’s forced to make personal appearances. Fed up with the situation, Fred rebels, jumps off a train and heads to a New York nightclub where he meets and instantly falls in love with Joan. He never tells her that he’s part of the Air Force. Instead, he allows her to think he’s a bum who can’t keep a job. There are some scenes where you could say he’s stalking her (moving into her apartment building about an hour after he meets her, making her breakfast, visiting her in the darkroom at work), but since it’s the 40’s, that behavior is fine. It’s a little annoying, but it’s sweet, I guess. I’d have a guy following me around like that and you bet I’d be calling the cops or arming myself with a gun.

But what’s really weird is that there’s no reason given to why Fred doesn’t tell Joan who he really is. “Because the script says so!” isn’t an adequate response. Is it because he wants Joan to love him for who is he and not as a celebrated war hero? Or perhaps he doesn’t want become too attached, knowing there’s a chance he may die in the war. Or is Fred just nuts? It’s never discussed. Were the bosses at RKO afraid to inject too much psychological drama into a Fred Astaire movie, thinking that moviegoers wouldn’t want to see him grappling with dark thoughts? Even Astaire knew there were weak points in the movie, yet it wasn’t in his nature to argue and fight with studio executives or directors. He listened to them. Except for an incident on The Band Wagon (where tensions ran high throughout the entire cast), Astaire was a total professional with the cast and crews he worked with. When you read about all the spoiled brats in today’s Hollywood, you have to love a story like that.

Despite these complaints, The Sky’s the Limit is one of my favorite Astaire movies. It’s fun to watch Fred and Joan sing and dance together. Robert Ryan gives the movie a bit of an edge, especially in the scene where he forces Fred to dance on a table, while he pounds on it. It’s a strange, yet hilarious moment, almost as though it were taken out of a western.

table dancesnake dance
Images from the “Snake Dance” scene

But the real kicker of the film comes near the end when Fred thinks he lost Joan forever. In the number, “One For My Baby”, Fred sits at a bar and drinks and then suddenly begins a routine where he winds up kicking glasses in anger. He combines physical violence with an edgy dance routine and it works. It’s nothing like his comical drunk dance routine in Holiday Inn. No, he wants us to know that he’s disgusted with himself for losing a woman he’s just fallen head over heels in love with and if that weren’t bad enough, he has to go back and fight in the war. He may die and never even see her again. It’s a serious plot turn in a lighthearted movie. There was never a routine like this in an Astaire/Rogers vehicle because his characters never had to express such extreme anger or depression. Sure, Ginger might have rejected him, but it was always done with a knowing wink. Here Astaire is so angry, he caps off the number by hurling a bar stool through a mirror. He’s dejected, broken-down and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s also interesting to note that Astaire choreographed his own routines in The Sky’s the Limit, so this number was all his own idea. One wonders how other future dance numbers would have been if Astaire choreographed them by himself.

Drinkingbartop.jpgsmashingglasses.jpg
barstool.jpgsmash.jpg
Images from the “One For My Baby” Number. In order: Fred drinks, dance, kicks glasses and then hurls the barstool into the mirrored backdrop. Hooliganism! 

As I read this over, I’m still awed by the fact that it took a movie like On the Beach to make me realize that Fred Astaire was a great actor and entertainer. I used to think “He just a dancer!” Thankfully, he put in that splendid performance in On the Beach and managed to change my opinion. Yes, he dances, but that was his method of acting and how he conveyed emotion to the audience. Whenever I watch him now, I can’t take my eyes off the screen and when he finishes a number, I find myself smiling like crazy. He’s just so good.

It’s a shame that Astaire was never cast in a role like Julian Osborne again. I think he could have had a great career as a serious actor, but deep down his number one love was dancing. Even as styles changed, Astaire stayed true to himself and the public continued to adore him. I think a lot of it has to do with that integrity Stanley Kramer was talking about. It’s one thing to just go through the motions of acting, but when you put your heart and soul into it, everyone knows. And that’s what Astaire did. He loved what he did and we loved him for it.

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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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balloffire1.jpg

balloffire1.jpgConfession time: When I first got into classic movies, I didn’t like Barbara Stanwyck. At all. The first movie of hers I saw was Sorry, Wrong Number and that was for Burt Lancaster.

Now? I LOVE her. I absolutely adore her. I really can’t find anything bad to say about her, because she’s just one of the best actresses ever and I blush at the idea that I didn’t like Ms. Stanwyck. They really don’t make ’em like that anymore. And she can bounce from genre to genre without skipping a beat.

My favorite performance of Barbara’s though, hands down, is that of Katherine “Sugarpuss” O’Shea in 1941’s Ball of Fire. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like this movie. There’s something for everyone: a little romance, a little screwball comedy and even a touch of crime thrown in at the end. It’s a perfect movie.

But when I first saw this, my favorite scene was where Sugarpuss performs the song “Drum Boogie” with Gene Krupa and his Orchestra. For weeks, I searched the internet for a recording of it and never found one. I’m a self-reliant person, so I just made my own.

Of course, the vocalist isn’t Barbara Stanwyck–it’s Martha Tilton, who was a notable vocalist in the Big Band Era. She sang with Benny Goodman on his radio show and wound up with her own show in the 40’s and 50’s. Quite a career on her own terms, but for most classic movie fans, this is the performance that she’s remembered for.

Download: Drum Boogie (3.1 MB — a new page with the download will open when you click on the link.)

Note: This is the first in a series of classic movie related Mp3’s. In the upcoming weeks, I hope to have songs from various MGM musicals as well as others. While my tastes have changed radically since I was a teenager, I still love music and can’t imagine not including it somehow in this blog.

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