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Young, Mitchum and Ryan

Like my previously discussed Arthur Kennedy obsession, my love for Robert Ryan is just as great. It’s odd to think that less than a year ago, I barely knew who he was. But seeing The Wild Bunch (1969) changed all that. Ryan captivated me as the reluctant bounty hunter, Deke Thorton. to the point where I lit up every time he appeared on screen. While I love everyone in that film, I found myself concerned about his character the most. He intrigued me like you wouldn’t believe (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also really handsome) and therefore, my newfound obsession with Robert Ryan was born.

Besides his involvement in The Wild Bunch, Ryan is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the murderous anti-Semite, Montgomery, in Edward Dmytryk’s excellent 1947 film-noir, Crossfire (showing Saturday March 22nd at 8:15 am on TCM). Take one look at his filmography and you’ll see that more often than not, Ryan played psychotic heavies in about 80% of the films he was cast. This is probably due to Crossfire, in which he plays Montgomery as a man brimming with anger and hate, but in measured doses. He doesn’t, as they say, chew the scenery. Monty seems to be good-natured, until someone pushes the right buttons and his psychotic side comes forth. One of Ryan’s strengths was playing villains. No matter what the part, Ryan brought an intelligence to them. His villains were never over the top–instead, Ryan characterized them as thoughtful and quiet, never one dimensional cardboard cutouts. They thought before they spoke or lashed out. And while you hated them, you also felt a bit of sympathy towards them for being so evil. In movies such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) or House of Bamboo (1955), Ryan always stole every scene he was in. His mere presence was enough to capture your attention.

Robert Young as FinlayThe plot of Crossfire deals with the murder of Samuels (Sam Levene), who also happens to be Jewish. Investigating it is Captain Finlay (Robert Young), who suspects Mitchell (George Cooper) of committing the act, while another GI, Keely (Robert Mitchum), goes out on a limb to prove his friend’s innocence. Others getting tangled up in the mess are Mitchell’s wife, Mary (Jacqueline White), “nightclub hostess”, Ginny (the always sexy Gloria Grahame) and her dishonorably discharged husband (Paul Kelly). The missing piece of the puzzle is Montgomery, who not only killed Samuels at the beginning of the film, but also murders another GI, Floyd (Steve Brodie), the only witness at hand.

Crossfire first emerged as a novel entitled, The Brick Foxhole. It was written in 1945 by Richard Brooks, who would go on in later years to direct such classics as Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and my personal favorite, Elmer Gantry. In the book, Conversations With the Great Moviemakers, Brooks, an ex-marine, explains that his novel was inspired by the group of men he was stationed with: “In my outfit, marines didn’t like black people, didn’t like Jews, didn’t like homosexuals, didn’t like Catholics. They didn’t like anybody except marines, Protestant marines, especially if they came from Texas or Atlanta.” In The Brick Foxhole, the character of Samuels was a homosexual and since the Hayes code disallowed “sex perversions”, he became Jewish. However, it turned out to be a timely change, especially with the horrors of the concentration camps beginning to surface.

Robert RyanLike other actors of the era, Ryan enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944, and while he never saw combat, he did become a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. It was during these years that Ryan read The Brick Foxhole. Afterwards, he got into contact with Brooks and told him that he would like to be considered for the role of Montgomery if it were ever made into a film. Brooks agreed. At that point, Ryan’s film career was rather short. He had been signed to Paramount for a brief period in 1940, but was dropped by the studio when they claimed that he was unsuitable for films. Now he was signed to RKO, where he appeared in second billed parts of a general nature. Perhaps Ryan saw Montgomery as a huge step forward–and it was. It not only garnered him rave reviews, but nabbed him the only Oscar nomination in his entire career. Ironically enough, Ryan would look back at the part with mixed feelings. While it did bring him to the public’s attention, it also lead to his being typecast as a villain. The public’s enthusiasm for Montgomery always mystified him, as he failed to see “the bone chilling evil I presumably projected.” Perhaps because in real life, Ryan was the complete opposite of his crazed characters. To say he was tolerant of other nationalities would be an understatement. Ryan despised racism, and was a supporter of many liberal political causes. He and his wife Jessica also founded a school, Oakwood, as they felt their children weren’t getting a proper education from the public and private systems. Whether through his acting or his social causes, Ryan wanted to make some kind of contribution to the world.

Mitchell’s flashbackCrossfire succeeds because of Ryan’s psychotic portrayal. When Keely (Mitchum) finds Mitchell (Cooper) and drags him into a darkened theater, Mitchell recalls a flashback from earlier in the night. Since he was drunk, his memory is hazy–yet, we see Montgomery and Samuels standing together, drinking. There’s a bit of an argument between the two and suddenly, Montgomery snarls, “No Jew is going to tell me how to two drink his stinking liquor!” It takes just the slightest word to set him off and expose the ugly hatred that lurks beneath. This is in contrast to the public persona of Montgomery that we see at the beginning of the film. When talking to Capt. Finlay, Monty has an almost wide-eyed and earnest innocence about him. But as the story progresses, more and more of Monty’s true nature is revealed. Right before the pivotal scene where Monty kills Floyd, he lashes out at him, yelling, “I don’t like Jews and I don’t like anyone who likes Jews!” For him, guilt by association is just as bad as being Jewish. But the one point that Crossfire lacks is the reason of why Monty hates the Jews so much. The most we ever get about his background is courtesy of Keely (Mitchum), who mentions that not much is known about him, except that Monty was a loner from all the way back. Did a Jewish person do something to him in the past? Or was he brought up to hate them? We’ll never know. Perhaps the book expounds on his character more, but for the film, it’s a pretty big flaw.

Gloria Grahame as Ginny

Besides Ryan’s standout performance, also of note is Gloria Grahame. Like Ryan, she was dumped by her old studio (MGM) and picked up by RKO. As Ginny (because she’s from Virginia–a fact that will be proven false later in the film), she’s both tough and vulnerable. As the “nightclub hostess” who gets involved with Mitchell, she lets her guard down when he offers to dance with her in the garden of the club where she works, The Red Dragon. Grahame is not only perfect for the role, but she’s also the perfect noir femme fatale. She’s sexy and seductive, with a bit of innocence thrown in for good measure. I absolutely love her in every movie of hers I’ve seen and her role in Crossfire is no exception.

Ginny and Mitchell share a danceFour’s a Crowd - Grahame, White, Young and KellyGinny’s husband
3 Scenes of Trouble: the innocent dance, the investigation and Ginny’s husband

One of my favorite scenes in the whole film occurs when Capt. Finlay and Mitchell’s wife, Mary, arrive at Ginny’s apartment to question her. Taking Ginny out of her nightclub element brings out her defensive side, only softening to admit that she did like Mitchell because she felt sorry for him. Finlay’s questioning is further complicated by the sudden appearance of Ginny’s husband, who admits that he had a conversation with Mitchell earlier in the evening. While he’s a slight character and their relationship is only a subplot, I find Ginny and her husband (I don’t think he was given a first name in the film)the staircase scene to be fascinating, a perfect example of how pre-war marriages failed when the men came home. It’s a subject examined more thoroughly in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives (the failing marriage between Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo), but here it’s sort of a postscript, albeit an interesting one. In one of the most disconcerting scenes, Ginny’s husband continues to talk about his failing marriage while Capt. Finlay and Mary walk away, leaving him alone. He admits that he still loves Ginny, although she despises him. But no one cares about his words or him. It’s as though the war has turned him into a lost soul.

Robert Mitchum as KeelyWhich brings me to the other air of sadness that pervades Crossfire: the adjustment to normal civilian life that the returning soldiers faced. In the beginning of the film, when Keely tells Capt. Finlay about Mitchell, he explains that his current occupation is that of a printer and mentions that instead of the Purple Heart, he now works with purple ink. It’s a good example of how heroic men who once fought for our country are now reduced to menial jobs, since they received no formal job training afterwards. It really depresses the entire film. No matter what the “happy” ending is for Mitchell and his wife, their future is still going to be bleak. Not only is there his involvement with Ginny (as innocent as their relationship is, I would hate to find out my husband went to a “nightclub hostess”!) but he’s just a lowly painter as well. I’m sure his salary is hardly enough to support a wife on. It’s for these reasons that I find post-war movies to be interesting, since I think all the disillusionments really shaped the nation for the years ahead, finally culminating rebellious spirt of the 1960’s.

Robert Ryan as Montgomery

When it was released, Crossfire was a hit. Not only did it win Best Social Film at the Cannes Film Festival and the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Picture, but it was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Ryan and Grahame, Best Director for Dmytryk, Best Picture for Adrian Scott (producer) and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Grahame, Dmytryk and the film itself lost out to the year’s other “social” picture, Gentleman’s Agreement (Celeste Holm won the Best Supporting Actress statue and Elia Kazan won for Best Director), while Ryan lost to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle of 34th Street. A snarling killer is no match for a lovable man masquerading as Santa Claus!

Sadly, the success of Crossfire brought negative attention to the people involved: Dmytryk, RKO producers Paul Jarrico and Scott, and Robert Ryan. The head of RKO at the time, Dore Schary, quickly dismissed any claims against Ryan by using his Marine Corps background to get him off the hook. The others weren’t so lucky–while Dmytryk rebounded after his inclusion on the Hollywood Ten list and Jarrico went on to make the only blacklisted film, Salt of the Earth, Scott found himself completely ruined.

Robert Ryan as MontgomeryGloria Grahame as Ginny
Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame make Crossfire a classic

Despite this, Crossfire is still a movie that manages to hold up today. While many people say that it’s a bit heavy-handed in it’s handling of racism, I tend to think of it as an excellent film noir murder mystery first and an anti-racism film second. As with many films, it’s the fantastic performances by the entire cast that make Crossfire worth watching. But it’s especially due to Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, who were so rightly nominated for Oscars. They’re what gives the film it’s punch, creating two characters who try to suppress their true feelings, only to wind up wearing them on their sleeves. I’m not sure if any other actors/actresses could be good in those roles–both Ryan and Grahame give their characters that extra something that elevates them above the rest. It’s especially uncomfortable to watch Ryan’s Montgomery, since he’s such a hateful person, but it’s countered by knowing that he was the complete opposite of that persona in real life. That’s the mark of a great actor–to take yourself out of your element and make it completely believable.

In a curious side note, that brings this article together in a really roundabout way, The Brick Foxhole was reprinted and reissued in 1952 as a cheap paperback. However, the actor that graced the cover was not Robert Ryan, but…Arthur Kennedy. How about that?

Link: Another vintage magazine advertisement for Crossfire (large, good quality)

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the movie poster for “I Confess” - Click for larger image

In the confessional boothMany people who have seen Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess (1953) say that it’s one his most underrated films. After seeing it last week, I have to agree with them although I wouldn’t be quick to say that it’s a great movie. It’s flawed, that’s for sure, but it’s also a good, solid film. I Confess is unlike any of Hitchcock’s movies since it lacks the mysterious glamour that’s found in his most famous works. The plot centers around a priest named Father Logan (played beautifully by Montgomery Clift), who is unable to tell the police about a murder since he is bound by the vow of confessional secrecy. Also complicating matters is the involvement of an old flame, Ruth (Anne Baxter) and a police inspector, Laurrue (Karl Malden), who is intent on finding out the truth.

There are two things that keep I Confess from being a great Hitchcock movie: the flashback romance between Father Logan and Ruth as well as the fact that we immediately know who the murderer is. While both ideas are necessary to the plot, their execution bogs the story down a bit.

Confessing to the wifeSince Hitchcock wastes no time in getting to the “who” and “why” of the story, you find out that Otto Keller (O.E. Hasse) is the murderer. Otto is an employee of the church as well as gardener for the man he killed, local lawyer, Villette. After confessing his sin to Father Logan in the confessional, Otto then tells his wife, Alma (Dolly Hass) why he killed Villette–he stole $2,000 because he was sick of watching her work so hard. During the confession, Father Logan told Otto that he must give the money back–an idea that terrifies him since he doesn’t want to be caught. Grief-stricken, Alma fears that Father Logan will go to the authorities and report the crime and suddenly Otto realizes that he is bound to his Catholic vow. He must keep the confession secret.

What’s interesting about this scene is watching Otto’s manner change from panicked and fearful to annoyingly confident. He is no longer frightened. You can literally see the weight of his guilt lift off his shoulders. Otto has gained a tremendous amount of power, knowing he can commit murder and get away with it. His eyes become wide and the expression on his face turns manic with an almost sick kind of glee. There are no doubts in his mind that Father Logan will not go to the police. Otto has faith in his strength as a man of the cloth, but what he doesn’t realize is that his actions will end up hurting the person he loves the most: Alma.

While it’s interesting to start off the movie with a bang, it lessens the suspense throughout. Even though Ruth (Baxter) gets involved halfway through and you find out that Villette was blackmailing her, you still know that Keller is the murderer. Part of the fun of a Hitchcock movie is the big reveal or a murder committed either halfway through or at the end: Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train or the “two” Kim Novaks in Vertigo. And while the ending of I Confess is definitely exciting, the middle of the film has a tendency to lag.

Flashback romance - Anne Baxter and Montgomery CliftPart of the problem with the Ruth subplot is that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie. Anne Baxter is perfect for the part of Ruth. She does well with the material and she and Clift are well matched. But it’s the part itself that seems as though it was transported out of another movie, almost as though Hitchcock was trying to inject his brand of romance for the sake of adding it. For the most part, I Confess has a sharpness to it. The cinematography is fantastic and crisp, but with Ruth’s subplot it suddenly takes on a dream-like quality to reflect her obsessive love for Father Logan. Compared to the tightness of the rest of the script, it’s jarring, to say the least. Yet, Ruth flashback is essential to the plot since in trying to help him clear his name, she winds up doing more damage to his case.

Montgomery Clift

Montgomery Clift, an actor I’ve always liked, is beyond amazing in I Confess. I noticed that he doesn’t say much. Instead of dialogue, Hitchcock uses close-ups on Clift’s face to convey the emotions he’s going through. What’s amazing about his performance is that he expresses so much through his eyes. You see the agony that he’s going through, the internal struggle of wanting to tell the police even though he knows he can’t. Father Logan’s love for God and his devotion to the church is stronger than his own need.  As the story progresses and Otto becomes more and more aggressive, taunting Father Logan and lying about his own involvement, Clift does an amazing job at expressing his character’s fear of being arrested and hung for a crime he didn’t commit. I’ve seen quite a few of Clift’s films and I Confess is certainly one of his best. So much of the movie succeeds because of his performance. Clift’s Father Logan carries himself with a quiet dignity. There’s no doubt that he will honor the sacred vows he made when he became a Priest, no matter what the cost.

The heart of I Confess is rooted in the “C” word: Catholicism. After watching this and looking up various articles, I wasn’t very surprised to find out that Hitchcock was a Catholic throughout most of his life. If one is brought up in another denomination, the vow of Confessional secrecy that sets the plot into motion might not be familiar to some. Hitchcock uses various Catholic themes throughout, mainly religious fear, not to mention guilt, suffering and forgiveness. All the characters go through some sort of suffering throughout the film, but it’s Father Logan who receives the brunt of it. Here’s a man who devotes his life to God and winds up suffering for the sins of others (Otto’s murder and Ruth’s obsessive love for him despite being married) because he’s unwilling to break the promises he made to God. Hitchcock makes it quite clear that Father Logan is a Christ-like figure, most notably during the scene where he goes walking through the streets of Quebec. Clift is presented in a long shot, with a statue of Christ carrying the cross while being flanked by two guards in the foreground. It’s not subtle at all. This image is repeated later in the movie, during Father Logan’s trial. When you see him, he’s surrounded by two guards, while a large crucifix hangs on the wall across from his seat. It’s as though Hitchcock is setting up Logan by showing him what will happen if the jury finds him guilty: he will hang. Not only will he die for Otto’s sin, but Ruth’s as well.

Carrying the CrossModern symbolismDelievering the verdict
The religious symbolism throughout I Confess 

The tension between Father Logan and Otto is really what elevates the premise of I Confess. It’s almost unbelievable how brazen Otto becomes in taunting Father Logan, reminding him of his confessional vow as well as lying to the authorities and basically selling out the man who is protecting him. At first his faith in Father Logan is solid. At the beginning of the story, Otto tells Logan, “I have abused your kindness…you gave my wife and me a home–even friendship, so wonderful a thing for a refugee, a German, a man without a home.” But it becomes easier and easier for Otto to transfer his own guilt to the priest, therefore making him less and less sure of Father Logan in the process.

O.E. Hasse and Brian AherneDolly Hass as Alma
In the courtroom: Otto on the stand and Alma in the seats 

Father Logan isn’t the only one suffering at the hands of Otto–his wife, Alma also suffers as well. At first, she’s overly nervous, especially whenever she comes into contact with him. But it’s during Logan’s trial that the guilt of knowing her husband’s secret really begins taking it’s toll. When Otto testifies against Logan, and lies about the events of the night leading up to his confession, the dismay is clear on Alma’s face. With every negative testimony put against him, she grows more and more shaken. She knows the truth, but telling it would result in the death of the man she loves.

the fateful momentDolly Hass is wonderful as Alma. There’s a meekness about her that makes her perfect for the role, although in the penultimate scene, she drops it and shows a boldness in her quest do the right thing. In so many of his films, Hitchcock attempts to show you that every man has good and evil coursing through his veins and I Confess is no exception. After Father Logan receives his “Not Guilty” verdict (which is delivered with a few disparaging remarks by the foreman and judge), the crowd that waits outside the courtroom is hostile. As Alma and Otto watch Father Logan get shoved by the angry mob, Alma can take no more. Her love for Otto is trumped by the torment of wanting to do what’s right: clear an innocent man’s name. When she pushes her way through the crowd and approaches a police officer, Otto’s sense of fear takes over. He has no other choice but to shoot Alma to keep her quiet.

Here is the most interesting twist in the entire film: since Father Logan can no longer die for Otto’s sin, it’s Alma that winds up dying for it instead. She suddenly becomes the Christ-like figure in Hitchcock’s world. After suffering for her husband’s guilt, she winds up paying for it with her life. It’s a rather dark move, made even darker by the fact that this one of of Hitchcock’s only films that’s completely devoid of humor. It’s also important to note that in the original play on which this is based, Father Logan does die at the end, which would have made his Christ-like transformation complete.

Forgiveness - O.E. Hasse and CliftDuring the final moments of I Confess, Otto winds up falling into his own trap and thinking that Father Logan has told the authorities, winds up indicting himself. After shooting at the police, they shoot back and Otto is struck. As he lays dying, he finds out that Alma has died and asks forgiveness from Father Logan. It’s amazing that his love of Alma is what drove him to steal and murder, only to turn around and murder the woman he loved in order to save himself. This realization is what causes Otto to ask forgiveness before he dies, because if one is truly sorry for their actions, then forgiveness is granted. The workings of the Catholic church do come full circle in I Confess, which I thought was nicely done. You’re to believe that Otto, while not a truly bad man, got swept up in his own fear to the point where he became someone else entirely. Under the right circumstances, anyone can change.

a chance encounter between Logan and RuthWatching I Confess in today’s world, I find it interesting that Father Logan is made out to be a good priest and a good man. Even in his darkest hour and after aimlessly walking the streets of Quebec, he makes his way to a church and turns to God for solace and comfort. There’s nothing shifty about Father Logan, although the sudden appearance of Ruth does make you wonder a bit, but only momentarily.  Yet, if I Confess were made today amidst all the church scandals, there would be no doubting that Father Logan is guilty of something, in any way, shape or form. When Ruth and Logan meet at the crime scene and she utters the words, “We’re free!”, you can’t help but think something really tawdry is going on between them. You even doubt Otto’s confession for a moment, thinking that perhaps there was some kind of twist and Father Logan had done something to Villette before Otto arrived and finished him off. It’s amazing how modern thinking and controversies can shape one’s opinion on a movie that was made almost 50 years ago!

Karl Malden and Anne BaxterBut despite all it’s flaws, I Confess is still a good, solid Hitchcock movie. The cinematography by Robert Burks and score by Dimitri Tiomkin (who both worked on several Hitchcock classics) only elevate it above the standards of a normal film. Also worth mentioning are the strong performances of Karl Malden (to be honest, he’s always good) and Brian Aherne as Willy Robertson, a friend to Ruth and her husband and the prosecutor who grills Father Logan during the trial.

In my opinion, I Confess is one of Hitchcock’s most personal movies. In later interviews, he felt that I Confess was a disappointment, possibly due to it’s not being well-received at the time of it’s release. During the early 50’s, Catholics were not well liked throughout England and perhaps Hitchcock took their refusal to see I Confess (as well as many of his other films from that era) personally. I will never get the notion of disliking someone because of their personal beliefs, unless that person is trying to shove it down your throat. Perhaps audiences felt that’s what Hitchcock was trying to do with I Confess–which he wasn’t. Hitchcock was merely trying to tell the story a wronged priest and with the exception of the opening scene, not once is Father Logan shown consoling other parishioners on the rights and wrongs of the world. He’s just another wronged man, made guilty in the eyes of others because of uncontrollable circumstances and his devotion to God. He could fit in right next to Cary Grant in North by Northwest or Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. It’s an interesting twist to a standard mystery. Combine that with the outstanding performance put in by Montgomery Clift and that’s exactly why I Confess, despite some weak points, still manages to hold up today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy!

Chesterfield ads (click on thumbnail for larger version):

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

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

Beer (click on thumbnail for larger version):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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