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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet Eve Harrington
Out of the shadows: Karen meets Eve

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

Addison’s Watchful EyeThe failed seduction

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

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

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

The future and beyond…

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

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

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

On the telephone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peck and Baxter

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

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

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

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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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Last night (this morning?), I wound up falling asleep in front of the tv while Equus was showing on TCM–not because I was bored, but because I was just flat out tired. I woke up in time to record Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams and since Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) immediately followed it, I figured I’d watch it.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a DoubtShadow of a Doubt is my favorite Hitchcock movie, mainly because of the strong performances by Joseph Cotten (who was my first, big classic movie star obsession) and Teresa Wright*. If you’re a movie fan, classic or modern, you probably know the story: Uncle Charlie (Cotten) comes back to his old hometown of Santa Rosa to visit his sister and her family. There’s also “Little” Charlie (Wright), who loves and adores her Uncle. As the movie progresses, Charlie discovers that her beloved Uncle might not be what he seems to be–is he the notorious Merry Widow strangler that preys on old, rich women? Or is he an innocent man, wronged by the law?

I’ve seen this movie countless times and one scene in particular always catches my eye: it occurs in the garage, when Charlie is alone with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), a detective who was sent to Santa Rosa in search of Uncle Charlie.

Teresa Wright and Macdonald Carey in Shadow of a Doubt

In the scene, Graham asks Charlie if she’d be interested in pursing a relationship after the whole Merry Widow mess has passed over. Charlie doesn’t jump at the chance. If anything, she rejects him–she tells him she’d like to be friends though (a modern response in 1943!). While it’s not a flat out rejection, there’s certainly a sense of hesitation and even trepidation at the idea. Every time I talk about this scene, I like to imagine that Charlie is thinking, “Are you nuts? You’re thinking about romance at a time like THIS? My psychopathic uncle is on the loose and you’re thinking about ways of getting into my dress!” And how in the world would Charlie tell her kids about how they met? “I met your father when he was trying to arrest Uncle Charlie for strangling widows.” Yeah, that will go over really well.

What I always find odd about this scene is that, yes, Charlie does reject him. In most classic movies, the heroine immediately falls in love with the man who becomes her savior and right before “The End” pops up on the screen, you’re usually treated to a scene where the new couple get married or passionately embrace. Shadow of a Doubt is one movie that goes against the standard idea of Hollywood romance.

I’ve always felt that Teresa Wright was an odd leading lady for a Hitchcock film. She’s not sexy or dangerous like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious or a cool, detached blonde in the Grace Kelly vein. But that’s what makes Wright essential to the plot. She’s cute and all-American–the kind of girl you could bring home to meet your parents. Santa Rosa is the kind of town where you can imagine a girl like Charlie and her family living. Innocent, sweet suburbia where the biggest scandal might be a controversy at a pie-eating contest. By all means, Charlie is the type who should immediately fall in love at the drop of a hat. After all, that’s what happens to those girl-next-door types. They fall in love, get married and pop out some kids.

Teresa Wright in Shadow of a DoubtBut unlike other hometown girls, Charlie is now suddenly faced with the idea that her favorite Uncle (and one that she’s named after!) may be a murderous psychopath. She’s agitated–she asks her mother not to hum the “Merry Widow Waltz” because it bothers her so much. How can Charlie fall in love when a family member thinks that strangling rich, fat women is a good idea? Love pales in comparison to murder. Her whole world is shaken and nothing will ever be the same, even if Uncle Charlie is innocent. As he tells her, “I brought you nightmares…How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.”

Thanks to Uncle Charlie, her brush with the darker side of life will always lurk in the back of her mind. Every time she thinks about her Uncle, Graham, the Merry Widow Waltz or even some of the various situations that are sprinkled throughout the film, Charlie will always be reminded of how much pain this whole situation brought into her life. In the garage scene, Graham is fully aware of this scenario but he can’t help himself: he tells Charlie that he loves her. And yet, she can’t reciprocate. She knows she likes him as a friend, but it’s just too soon to move forward romantically. There’s just too much going on in her mind.

Or is Charlie beginning to distrust the men in her life? Her father and next door neighbor, Herbie (played by Hume Cronyn) constantly play games of imaginary murder with one another. While this was humorous in the past, her sudden discovery of Uncle Charlie’s secret life now brings those innocent games into a sinister light. Who wants to joke about murderers and their evil ways when you have the real thing sitting right there in your living room?

And how does she know that Detective Graham can be trusted? After all, she trusted her Uncle and now her world is upside down. By posing as someone he’s not, Uncle Charlie has betrayed her and the family. He’s an impostor. How does she know that Graham isn’t an impostor as well? She’s only known him for a few days and his business revolves around murderers and criminals. He’s associated with the seedier side of life and while he doesn’t seem to be affected by it, can Charlie be assured of a good future with him? Thanks to her Uncle, she’s learned that you can know someone your entire life and not really know them at all.

the staircase scene

It’s ironic that it’s emerald ring that Uncle Charlie presents to Charlie at the beginning of the film, is what severs the final ties between them. As she comes down that staircase, ring on her finger and defiantly staring Uncle Charlie in the eye, he knows that his niece has had it with him (what else do you want after two murder attempts?). Charlie doesn’t want his help or his friendship–she just wants him out of her life forever. He has brought her nightmares, terrible ones at that, as well a permanent scarring for life. His secret will never be safe as long as Charlie is alive. She’s taken his advice, used her wits and learned something: that her once beloved Uncle is nothing to her anymore. The only reason Charlie is keeping quiet is because she doesn’t want to break her mother’s heart. Why should her life be ruined as well?

What I love about Shadow of a Doubt is the atmosphere of the entire film. The shattering of innocent suburbia as well as Charlie’s womanly awakening. She knows that everything is in life isn’t going to be wonderful and perfect like your parents or the movies want you to believe. Life is hell. There will be rough patches and everyone goes through tragedy at some point in their lives. But you have to adapt and find ways to survive because if you don’t, you’ll wind up at the lesser end of it all.

For most filmgoers, movies are a sense of escapism from real life. You want to see that happy ending, the girl getting her man or the innocent criminal being saved from the electric chair at the last second. Hitchcock brought the idea of small town tragedy and scandal to the screen in a beautifully sophisticated way. It’s a movie that delivers time after time not only in part to the writing and direction, but because of the characterizations brought forth by Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright.

Speaking of which, I like to think that Teresa Wright’s portrayal of Charlie is one of the first modern feminist heroines to ever grace celluloid. She didn’t need Graham or anyone else to save her. No, thanks to Uncle Charlie and his dark view on life, all she needed was herself.

*Sadly, Wright never appeared in another Hitchcock production, but Cotten** appeared in one more–the 1949 period drama, Under Capricorn. According to his biography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, Cotten mentioned that he accidently called this film “Under Cornycrap” right to Hitchcock’s face and therefore, never worked in another of his films again. Oops.

**Also, it’s CottEn. Cotten. Not Cotton, like the fabric. There’s an E in his last name. It drives me nuts whenever I see it misspelled.

Note: Over on archive.org there are numerous pages for the old time radio show, Lux Radio Theater. Here is the page for the 1944 episode of Shadow of a Doubt, which features William Powell (who was rumored to be the original choice for Uncle Charlie!) and Teresa Wright.

Also, I should be getting my links sidebar up this weekend, but I wanted to post a link to this “Blog Carnival” that I’m participating in. It gathers up a bunch of different blog posts and lists them in one place. This week, I chose my “Dirty Dozen” post to be featured and the host of the blog also chose a great You Tube clip from the movie to go with it. Thanks!

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