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Archive for the ‘Paramount movies’ Category

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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Click for larger imageFor most people, the 1955 version of The Desperate Hours is remembered as the film that features Humphrey Bogart’s last tough guy role. For myself, it’s the film that reminds me of Fredric March. I watched The Desperate Hours when I was first getting into movies, so none of the actors involved–with the exception of Bogie–were familiar to me. A few years later and I’m a huge fan of Fredric March, Arthur Kennedy and Gig Young! How about that?

The Desperate Hours is a taut, exciting crime drama, expertly directed by William Wyler. The plot revolves around an ordinary suburban family, whose life is shockingly disrupted when three escaped convicts break into their home and hold them hostage while waiting for some getaway money to arrive. Bogie plays Glenn Griffin, the leader of the convicts, while March is the levelheaded, yet tense, father who attempts to hold his family together. As a criminal, Bogie is always good. I’ve never really seen him phone in a performance (although the bizarre 1939 horror flick, The Return of Dr. X, ranks pretty high on that list) and the character of Glenn is what Duke Manatee (from The Petrified Forest) would be like had he grown older. Yet, it’s Fredric March who really made the movie for me.

Studio issued still of Fredric MarchI owe my love of Fredric March to this film. A few years later when I viewed The Desperate Hours again, I realized what a powerful actor March was. As Dan Hillard, he appears cool under pressure–yet, you know that it’s all an act. He’s terrified that one wrong move will affect the fate of his family, and he does all he can to protect them. Can you imagine going to work while your wife and kids are back home, being held hostage by three gun-toting nuts? In one particular scene, March’s talents are on full display. After being visited by son Ralphie’s schoolteacher, March must pretend that the convicts lurking in the house are old friends that he met that afternoon in the bar. Adding to that, Ralphie has given his teacher a note describing the situation, disguised as homework. When March spots it, he must take it away before she leaves the house. And if that weren’t enough, he leeringly asks the teacher to “join the party!” as a cover for his nervous state. It’s marvelous, layered acting on March’s part.

The family and the convictsThe cast of “The Desperate Hours”
A family in crisis: Scenes from ‘The Desperate Hours’

Surprisingly though, March’s participation in The Desperate Hours almost never happened. The role of Dan Hillard was originally meant for Bogie’s good friend, Spencer Tracy. Since both of them were used to top billing, neither wanted to concede that first above-the-title spot to the other. And so, Tracy was out and March (who was pretty much second or third billed in all his later movies) was in. And thank goodness for that! While I love Spencer Tracy, there’s just something about Fredric March that grabs me. He’s a brilliant actor who always manages to find the heart of his characters, no matter what the situation. While he’s notable for so many wonderful films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, A Star is Born, The Best Years of Our Lives and Inherit the Wind to name a few), one of my favorite performances is his portrayal of Jean Valjean in 1935’s Les Misérables, a movie I thought I would never like. Yet, it’s March’s skills as an actor that draw me in and make me care about this escaped French prisoner who creates a new life for himself. I’m not one for historical epics, but I love Fredric March in them. Go figure.

The paperback novelOddly enough, the backstory of The Desperate Hours originated from a real life hostage situation that took place in 1952. After reading about it in the papers, writer Joseph Hayes then turned the story of the Hill family into a 1953 novel and then wrote the script for the Broadway play. Directed by Robert Montgomery and starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman in the March and Bogie parts, The Desperate Hours won Tony awards for Best Director (Montgomery) and the Best Play of 1955.

Using the real house of the Hills (who had since moved away after the incident) and the cast of the Broadway play, Life magazine published an article that recreated many scenes from their ordeal. However, the Hills then sued Life magazine for falsifying the article. The magazine stated that the Hills were assaulted and sworn at–claims that the family’s patriarch chalked up to being false. In fact, the Hills were treated rather civilly by the convicts (but that wouldn’t make a good story now, would it?). The case wound up bouncing back and forth in court–at one point, the Hill’s attorney was future president Richard Nixon–with both sides winning and losing at different points. In the end, the case just fizzled out and the results were unknown. Either the Hills abandoned the suit or settled out of court with Time, Inc., the publishers of Life magazine.

Life magazine - Page 1Life magazine - Page 2Life magazine - Page 3

the Broadway cast of “The Desperate Hours”Newman and Malden of Broadway’s “The Desperate Hours”
Top row: 3 pages from the controversial Life magazine article; bottom row: two stills from the Broadway version of The Desperate Hours, starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman

Despite the real life drama, the film version of The Desperate Hours turned out to be a hit. Much of the credit is due to William Wyler, who has a knack for making the most mundane scene interesting. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Gig Young’s experience in this film. While exhausting for an actor, Wyler’s strict attention to detail and demands of multiple takes pay off in the end. In the wrong hands, The Desperate Hours could have flopped, becoming boring or mundane during the middle section–but it doesn’t. If anything, the tension builds from the moment the convicts enter the Hillard’s home. There are also some interesting subplots that give the story even more emotional weight: the history between Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard (Arthur Kennedy) and Glenn Griffin, Dan’s dislike of his daughter Cindy’s (Mary Murphy) Robert Middleton waves a gunboyfriend Chuck (Gig Young), and the tragic relationship between brothers Dan and Hal (Dewey Martin), which ultimately leads to Hal’s death. From the supporting cast, Robert Middleton plays the slimy, unhinged convict, Sam. Of the three, he’s the loose cannon, the one to watch out for. Sam is almost childlike in nature, yet he’s the first one to resort to extreme violence which culminates in the murder of an innocent bystander. In so many films, Middleton excels at playing heinous criminal types and here he’s no exception. You find yourself despising him throughout the film and cheer when he finally gets his just desserts.

Wyler also knew how to lighten the tension, albeit briefly. By using one of Ralphie’s friends, he interjects little slices of humor throughout the first half of the film. After picking up Middleton from an afternoon excursion, March pulls into the driveway. Noticing that Ralphie’s football playing friends are there, he then swats them away, causing one of the kids to turn to the others and whine, “Guys, what did I do?” It’s gives the viewer a brief chuckle before turning back to the situation at hand. In another tense drama, 1951’s Detective Story, Wyler employed the same technique with the shoplifiting character played by Lee Grant. Without the slight humor that these characters offer, the tension throughout both films would be practically unbearable. After all, it is a movie–not real life!

Bogie and Bacall at the Premiere of The Desperate Hours (10/5/55)It’s also interesting to note that in the script, the part of Glenn was aged considerably so that Bogie could play it. On Broadway, Paul Newman created the role–yet in 1955, he didn’t have much of a film career and I’m sure Wyler wasn’t willing to take a risk on a virtual unknown. Until that point, Newman had done mostly television and Broadway work (he made his Broadway debut in 1953’s Picnic). The only film on his resume was 1954’s historical drama, The Silver Chalice, which embarrassed him so much, Newman took out an ad in a trade paper apologizing for his performance. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if Paul Newman was cast in the part of the Glenn. Can you imagine being taken hostage by him? Seriously, now!

Gratuitous shirtless shot of Paul Newman - because I CAN
While its addition is suspect, I’ve included a photo to show you what Paul Newman looked circa mid-50’s. Ahem.

Despite my silly meanderings, The Desperate Hours is a great film and one that’s well worth your time. It was remade in 1990, but as with all remakes, they’re somewhat trite and meaningless when you compare it to the original. And the original has it all: a great script, well-thought out characterizations of three desperate men and a family in crisis, as well as a nail-biting conclusion. And of course, there’s the wonderful acting between Bogie and March, who play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse near the end of the film. Unlike so many movies that I write about, I refuse to spoil the ending here. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

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Since I’ve been busy for the past few days (not to mention that my brain feels like it’s completely fried out from work), I’ve become semi-obsessed with movies that run from about 60-75 minutes in length. I think they’re what the studios used to call “programmers”: b-movies that were the second feature on the bill, usually made in a short amount of time and with stock members of the studio’s acting stable. I’ve seen quite a few in the last couple of days–I find they fill in the space quite nicely between eating dinner and getting caught up on the latest Governor sex scandal.

One of my favorites is 1932’s Union Depot, a Warner Brothers’ effort that stars Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan Blondell. Since it’s a depression era pre-code, you get all the trimmings: there’s Ruth (Blondell), a chorus girl who’s down on her luck, bums (Fairbanks and Guy Kibbee), a drunk (the lovable Frank McHugh), a counterfeiter on the lam (Alan Hale) and not one, but two sleazy sub-plots! Hurray!

Fairbanks and McHughThe beautiful Joan Blondellkibbee.jpg
Fairbanks and McHugh, Blondell and Kibbee. The latter three are standard in any early 30’s WB movie.

Union Depot is reminiscent of 1932’s Grand Hotel, except that it’s set in a train station and we’re treated to the exploits of the poor, instead of the rich. What I particularly enjoyed were the many subplots that managed to weave together by the end of the film. Since it’s a pre-code, the amount of sex is fairly shocking: when Ruth needs money, she’s willing to prostitute herself out to Chick (Fairbanks), a bum who’s posing as a rich guy thanks to the contents of a suitcase that the drunken McHugh left behind. However, Ruth can’t bring herself to do it and after having a change of heart, Chick decides to play “Sant-y Claus” and help her out. Ruth also has a deliciously twisted back story, which involves a perverted old man that she used to read dirty books too. She thought he was blind–he wasn’t, and when he whipped off his glasses and revealed a pair of evil eyes, Ruth ran for her life. Now, the pervert is hot on her trail and unbeknownst to Ruth, has followed her to Union Depot.

One of the scenes I got the biggest kick out of was in the diner where Chick orders a meal. When he places an order for “a nice tomato salad, a thick sirloin steak smothered in onions, some browned potatoes in creamed gravy, a flock(?) of hot biscuits and some honey, coffee and raisin pie a la mode”, you can only imagine what a meal that sumptuous would cost in 1932. Ready to find out? Here it is:

The grand total of $1.75!

Using this calculator, that meal would now cost a person $26.56. So back in those days, $2 was equivalent to $30 today. Talk about inflation! I’m always fascinated by the price of food in classic movies. It’s shocking to see a grocery store sign touting that a loaf of bread costs ten cents, while in today’s world, a loaf of bread is fifteen to twenty times that much! It insane.

Ellen Drew and Dick Powell on the rooftopMoney is also a huge factor in Preston Sturges little known comedy, Christmas in July (1940). Like Union Depot, it’s also another “programmer”, this time starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, as well as Franklin Pangborn and Sturges’ favorites, William Demarest and Frank Moran. Jimmy (Powell) and Betty (Drew) are a working class couple who spend their evenings sitting on the rooftop of their tenement, listening to the radio. Jimmy is obsessed with winning a coffee slogan contest that he entered, and while Betty doesn’t exactly get his entry (“If You Can’t Sleep at Night, it isn’t the Coffee–It’s the Bunk!”), they both dream about the $25,000 prize money that would change their lives. When Jimmy’s co-workers trick him into thinking he’s won the contest via fake telegram, he and Betty go on a huge shopping spree where Jimmy finally buys Betty an engagement ring, as well as gifts for all their neighbors and a state-of-the-art davenport for his mother.

The self airing davenola!
Push button technology that includes a reading lamp, a radio and a self-fluffing mattress–
all for the low, low price of $198.50! Try getting a couch for that now.

Out of all the Sturges films I’ve seen, I have to say that Christmas in July has become one of my favorites. Clocking in at under 67 minutes, it’s not only funny and witty, but Sturges shows how the sudden accumulation of money changes the opinions of others who would have treated the couple like a bunch of nobodies beforehand. In that respect, Christmas in July is pretty depressing: money changes you in the eyes of others. It’s a sad, but true realization. Jimmy and Betty are the same people, only richer and yet, everyone fawns over them as though they’re newfound royalty. That is–until it’s revealed that Jimmy’s winning was a joke and suddenly, Jimmy is a “criminal” to those that had just fawned over him. It’s quite hypocritical.

Like Christmas in July…
Living the Good Life: Ellen Drew and Dick Powell in Christmas in July

I didn’t realize it until the other day, but Union Depot and Christmas in July are quite similar in tone. What makes them work is the ability for the audiences to identify with their characters: Ruth and Chick or Jimmy and Betty. Both stories are representative of their eras. With Ruth and Chick, they’re just struggling to make it through the depression like everyone else. And with Jimmy and Betty, they’re both working just to make ends meet, in hopes that one day they’ll be able to afford a better life. When both couples come into money, the first thing they do is splurge: a big meal for Chick and some new clothes for Ruth, while Jimmy and Betty run down to the local department store and buy an engagement ring. But despite their wealth, the one thing that really draws you into both stories is love. You get the feeling that each couple could wind up poor and still find a way to make it. Love is stronger than money and the tense situations that test each couple afterwards, prove it.

And that’s the beauty of the one hour movie: a big plot and good acting packed into half the time that a regular movie would take. Sure there are some clunkers, but there are hidden gems as well. The studios cranked these movies out like clockwork out only to fill out double bill features and to meet quotas that theaters set. But what the studios didn’t realize is that in some of these little films, such as Union Depot and Christmas in July, were just as uplifting and entertaining as an top-billed movie, maybe even more so. By the time the 60’s rolled around, the “programmer” was pretty much obsolete and that’s a shame. Thank goodness they’re still around for us to watch today. Although times have changed, good films haven’t and sometimes, you just need a little cinematic pick-me-up that only a well-crafted b-movie programmer can provide.

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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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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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