Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A little info on Winnie Lightner




Winnie Lighter was a top rate comedic and musical star. She got her start in vaudeville and then moved on to brodway in the early 1920s. She introduced the Gershwin songs Somebody Loves Me and I'll Build a Satircase to Paradise. From the stage to she moved on to the screen and in 1928 made a short film for Vitaphone that featured her rendtion of songs like God Help a Sailor on a Night Like This and We've Got Alot to Learn. The songs were so racy and her performace so saucy that she has the distinction of being the first movie actor censored for her vocals.

In 1929, she starred in the film that would make her a sensation, Warner Brother's Gold Diggers of Broadway. The film, about three gold digging broadway showgirls, was the second talkie produced in techincolor and became Hollywood's biggest grossing picture, a record it held until 1939.

As a result of the success of Gold Diggers, Lightner was often type cast as the wisecracking gold digger. Sadly, no complete print of Gold Diggers of Broadway exist. However, the soundtrack, recorded on Vitaphone sound discs, has survived. Lightner made more musicals and comedies at Warner's but by the mid-1930s the flapper image had become outdated as the Great Depression set in.

In 1928, she made a Vitaphone short which featured her singing a trio of racy songs was banned. She has the distinction of being the first movie actor censored for vocals. Several of her musicals were turned into comedies after filming when Warner executives cut out her musical numbers because they felt the mood of audiences had shifted.




Winnie Lightner retired from the movies in 1934. In 1940, she married her Gold Diggers director Roy Del Ruth. She died in 1971.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

With Family Like This . . .

The movies are filled with conniving sisters that work to undermine and destroy the lives of loved ones and family members. These lovely terrors are often the family favorite and usually begin the film as the apple of their over indulgent and oblivious family's eyes. If they aren't too terrible and if they don't cause too much havoc in the end they will get some sort of comeuppance and learn from their mistakes. However, if they choose to continue with their evil ways up until the end they usually end up in the slammer or worse - six feet under.


Name: "Baby" Jane Hudson (Bette Davis)
Film: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Who She Wronged: Blanche Hudson, her sister
What she did: Abuses and torments her wheelchair bound sister. Kills Blanche's parakeet and serves it to her on a plate. Kills a rat and serves it to her on a plate. Kills loyal maid Elvira with a hammer (does not serve her on a plate)- well, Elvira was loyal only to Blanche so that's why she got it.
Her Fate: Most probably institutionalized. Jane was a nut case, no doubt about that.
Important Lesson: If you are paralyzed and your sister shows signs of severe mental illness do not wait around for her to kill your parakeet before you take action.



Name: Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney)
Film: Leave Her to Heaven
Who She Wronged: Who didn't she wrong
What She Did: Kills her new husband's polio stricken little brother. She coldly watches the young boy drown a few feet away from her as she sits in a row boat (See photo above). Throws herself down the stairs to induce a miscarriage. Kills herself but makes it look like a murder in order to frame her husband.
Her Fate: Death. She kills herself.
Important Lessons: Do not dedicate your novel to your wife's sister especially if your wife is insanely jealous because that might just push her over the edge. . . edge being murder/suicide.



Name: Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth)
Film: Mildred Pierce
Who She Wronged: Her overly indulgent mother, Mildred.
What She Did: Hated her mother's pies. Even though her mother becomes a business tycoon through owning a chain of restaurants Veda looks down on her as a glorified waitress. She secretly marries and falsely claims to be pregnant then negotiates a huge settlement after an annulment. Seduces, beds and murders her mother's playboy husband and lets her mother try to take the blame for it.
Her fate: Hmm... California judicial system in the 1930s and 1940s. . .I'm thinking she got the chair.
Lessons: Do not take a murder rap for a spoiled brat daughter if you do she will never learn.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bette Davis Under the Stars

If you've got Turner Classic Movies and you're staying in because of the heat check out the afternoon of Bette Davis movies. They are showing some of her earlier films like Marked Woman and Three on a Match as a part of their Summer Under the Stars festival.

The schedule of Bette Davis films got me thinkning about some little seen moments of the great Ms. Davis. Hope you enjoy. Have a wonderful weekend.

Bette on Hollywood Palace 1965



BD on What's My Line 1960



BD on I've Got A Secret 1964



I love how she lights up around minute 6. Classic.


BD on the Dick Cavett Show 1975



PS - The actor with the ugly kind of mouth was Edward G. Robinson

Friday, August 7, 2009

Breakdowns of 1942

While suffering from insomnia last night, I found this great clip that includes outtakes and bloopers from Kings Row. Fast forward to around 4:47 to see future president Ronald Reagan flub his lines and crack jokes on the set - he's pretty darn cute.

Some other highlights include a Bette Davis stand-in screen testing young men for a small part in Now, Voyager. Can you guess which one got the part? Here's a hint - He's the one that doesn't recite his lines like he's made of cardboard. 

It's pretty interesting to see icons like Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis break character to reveal some of their offscreen personalities. It seems like goddamn was the expletive of choice back in 1942. Or, perhaps that just chose to edit out any f-bombs. Oh, and check out that Ann Sheridan. She  sure does look like she has a good time, huh? 

These breakdowns were an in house WB production produced annually for the studio Christmas Party.  


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Kings Row



If Andy Hardy’s Carvel represents the idealized version of small town America in the movies with it’s happy families, tight knit communities and moral lessons then Kings Row, Missouri is the antithesis to that. In fact, in Kings Row, Andy Hardy types are few and far between. This is small town American gothic and a film that starts on an ironic note by proclaiming in it’s opening scene that it’s a good clean place to raise a family. This, it most certainly is not. All the children we come to meet in Kings Row grow up to be angst ridden, deeply disturbed or worse.

As a film Kings Row is a quiet masterpiece and an underappreciated melodrama that is today best known for the famous scene where Ronald Reagan screams out in horror “Where’s the rest of me!” But the events that led up to that moment and the film itself revolve around topics such as sadism, incest, insanity and murder - all very heady stuff, indeed.

Produced in 1942 by Warner Brothers and based upon a novel by Henry Bellamann, Kings Row tells the story of five childhood friends who grow up to lead complicated lives. Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings) has become a medical student, studying privately with Dr. Alexander Tower (Claude Rains), whose daughter Cassandra (Betty Field) is a sheltered neurotic. Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) has been raised by harsh parents who warn here away from playboy Drake McHugh (Reagan), who is living off an inheritance.

Drake ends up falling for Randy Monoghan (Ann Sheridan), the former tomboy who has grown up in to a most practical working class girl. Things then get very dark. First, when Dr. Tower discovers Cassandra is pregnant he kills her and himself. Then, after losing his fortune and taking a job at the railroad yard, Drake is injured and Dr. Gordon (Charles Coburn) decides to amputate the young man's legs as a punishment for his former hedonism. This is all in the first half of the film

This is an intense film and the lighthearted moments are few and far between. Kings Row pulls away the veneer of respectability of a small American town to show that titles and class really have no direct correlation to morality and ethics. In fact, it is the leading figures of the town that perform the most heinous acts. Dr. Tower kills himself and his daughter, the president of the bank embezzles Drake’s money, Dr. Gordon abuses his daughter and performs sadistic surgeries on the "sinful". These are people in positions of authority and they are the morally corrupt.

Kings Row is a pre-war predecessor to Peyton Place but it makes Peyton Place look like Pleasantville. At times Peyton Place indulges to0 much in being a pot-boiler and the fact that it is filmed in glorious technicolor undermines alot of dark side of human nature it is trying to expose. Something sinister can always be lurking in the shadows and light of a black and white film. Judith Anderson's face framed in half darkness, or the flash of white lightening illuminating the shadows of a clandestine couple in a dark room sets a much different tone in black and white than it does in technicolor.

Cinematographer James Wong Howe is responsible for the cinematic beauty of Kings Row and along with director Sam Wood and production designer William Cameron Menzies they keep the film from ever coming anything close to campy which in lesser skilled hands it certainly could have been. Although filmed on a soundstage and the Warner's backlot you never have the feeling that you are anyplace but turn of the 20th century America.

Credit also has to go to the cast of young actors particularly Betty Field as Cassandra Tower. Adult Cassandra has very little screen time before she meets her untimely end, but in her twenty minutes or so in front of the camera Field imbues Cassie with all the passion, pathos and neuroticism needed to keep her haunting us and Parris Mitchell until the end of the film.

Also, Ronald Reagan gives the finest performance of his career. Reagan plays Drake initially as a happy go lucky playboy who's all jokes and laughs for the ladies. There is such an infectious twinkle in his eye that you can see why the mothers warn their daughters away from him. Once he loses his money he becomes bitter, moody and self-pitying and later on, after his accident and the loss of his legs, he slips into a deep dark depression. Reagan's Drake is believable and it shows that with a good director and supportive cast he can really act.

Contemporary critics opinions were split. Variety was relatively kind writing:

Kings Row, Henry Bellamann's widely-read novel of small-town life at the turn ofthe century, becomes an impressive and occasionally inspiring, though overlongpicture under Sam Wood's eloquent direction. It is an atmospheric story,steadily engrossing and plausible.

New York Times critic Bosley Crowther's assessment was relatively negative:

One could accept its morbid and spiritually depressing tale if it weretold with coherence and unity and some better-than-average imagery. But itisn't. The script by Casey Robinson is built like an unreliable dam; it laborsover things of passing consequence—surface details in a web of clashinglives—and skimps the motivating fundamentals which should be most carefullyclarified. Sam Wood's elaborate direction is slow and quite affected, attemptingto make the story seem more profound than the script. And the performances ofthe leading actors—especially that of Robert Cummings in the top role—arecompletely lacking in conviction. "Kings Row" was too much for them tohoe.

True, the original novel was a bit too thick for the screen, being acomprehensive story of several sordid and perverse folk living in a queerMidwestern city around the turn of the century. The leading character was—and,in the picture, still is—a likely lad who aspires to become a great doctor. Butin the novel his ambition and the subsequent course of his life was influencedby many psychological factors which are barely suggested—or omitted entirely—inthe film. And thus some essential explanations are left hanging or are slyly overlooked.

Today, there is a new respect for the film as it has found a new audience. Kings Row's legacy is also secured by Erich Wolfgang Korngold's beautiful theme music which is considered one of the finest film scores ever composed. It also served as the inspiration for John William's theme for Star Wars.

Interestingly, in the mid-1950s, Warner Brothers planned a remake of Kings Row. The film was slated to star Montgomery Clift, Frank Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint and Ronald Reagan cast once again in the role of Drake McHugh. Sadly, it never got out of the planning stages.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What a Hussey!


When I was younger, I always identified with the characters played by Ruth Hussey. Rarely was she the leading woman and she never got the guy you knew she would be perfect for until the last reel. (That pretty much describes my life in a nutshell.) Along with Geraldine Fitzgerald, Gloria Graham and the deliciously bitchy Gail Patrick, Ruth Hussey was one of the best supporting actresses of Hollywood's golden age.


Hussey started her career in summer stock after graduating from the drama school at the University of Michigan. She went on to work as a radio fashion commentator in Providence, Rhode Island before landing a role in the touring company of Dead End. In 1937, she was signed as a features player by MGM and appeared in a string of B-movies and as a supporting player in A-pictures. She was one of the millions of women (I exaggerate, it was only hundreds) featured in the film The Women (1939) and she even had a small role in one the Andy Hardy films, Judge Hardy's Children (1937)


Hussey could be counted on to play the vixen or the cynical sophisticate with equal ability. In 1940, she got her best role as the cynical New York City Spy Magazine photographer, Elizabeth Imbrie, in The Philadelphia Story (1940). In the film Hussey was the scene stealer. Teamed with Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and James Stewart, I have to admit I always gravitated to and sympathized with Hussey's character.


Her Elizabeth Imbrie was at once comedic and sardonic never crossing into malicious and always sympathetic. She stuck by her indecisive emotionally elusive boyfriend, Mac Connor played by James Stewart, as he was swept up by Hepburn's flighty flaky Tracie Lord and you saw her heartbreak on screen when she realized the two might be closer than she ever imagined. But above all, Imbrie was steadfast and knew that Mac's infatuation was just that, an infatuation. She was mature and witty and even though her heart was bruised she kept her composure and her remarkable sense of humor. In the end, her loyality paid off when Mac realized his perfect match had been at his side the entire time. For this role she was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress




In 1944, Hussey appeared in one of the best ghost movies of all time, The Uninvited. Prior to the release of this film ghosts were often played for laughs and The Uninvited was the first to portray a haunting as a genuine supernatural event.


The film also starred Ray Milland, Gail Russell and the wonderfully creepy stage actress Cornelia Otis Skinner. Hussey and Milland play a brother and sister who buy a classically haunted house on the English coast and battle a malignant and vengeful ghost in order to save their home and the life of local girl, Stella Meredith. This film is truly creepy and never ever campy. There is a seance scene that involves Russell's character channeling a Spanish speaking spirit that is truly unsettling.


I can just imagine what it would have been like to be in an audience in 1944, before the conventions of this genre were established, seeing something like The Uninvited on screen for the first time. The ad copy for the film called it "truly terrifying" and that is not an understatement. The film introduced the beautifully haunting song Stella by Starlight which is used as a theme throughout the film and is now a classic standard.



The Uninvited was made at Paramount and as Hussey's career at MGM wound down she began appearing in films at other studios. In 1945, she appeared on Broadway in State of the Union with Ralph Bellamy. As the demands of family life increased Hussey's career took a back seat to raising her children but she continued to make occasional screen and television appearances. Hussey died in 2005, at the age of 93.



Tuesday, August 4, 2009

A Hardy Kind of Life


There's something to be said about the small town nostalgia offered up in the Andy Hardy films produced by MGM between 1937 and 1958. The sentimental comedies were a slice of Americana, a picture of an idealized way we lived at the end of the depression and the end of the war.

The first film of the series, A Family Affair, hit theaters in 1937 and was intended to be a one off B-picture based on the play Skidding by Aurania Rouverol. Filmed in 17 days, A Family Affair reunited the cast of the popular family comedy Ah! Wilderness and starred with Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy with Lionel Barrymore and the fabulous Spring Byington as Judge and Mrs. Hardy , Sarah Haden as Aunt Milly and Cecelia Parker as sister Marian Hardy. After this initial film Barrymore and Byington were replaced by Lewis Stone and Fay Holden.

The Hardy family and their life in small town Carvel, Midwest USA was exactly the type of film that appealed to MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. It's a 1930s dream town crafted by Mayer whose preference for the sentimental and patriotic was legendary. The Hardy's presented America with the image of a strong unified family headed by a stern but loving and approachable patriarch, Judge Hardy and a doting domestic mother, Mrs. Hardy. Further support came from sensible and sweet Aunt Milly, who did double duty as a Carvel High School English teacher. The Hardy's lived a solid middle class life that resembled many middle-class families with troubles that mirrored many American families troubles. The trailer was true for many people, the Hardy's could be your neighbors and that was a big part of their appeal.

While the early films featured plots that revolved around the entire family, soon the main storyline began to focus on Andy and his antics. He was always getting into some sort of youthful trouble with money, school, or cars and girls, (particularly with his on and off again steady Polly Benedict, played by Ann Rutherford). Since the Hardy films were immensely popular they offered a great platform to introduce new faces to the movie public. Andy had romantic adventures and entanglements with characters played by Lana Turner, Katherine Greyson, Esther Williams and Judy Garland among others.



However, not all of the films were light and breezy. Life Begins for Andy Hardy took a dark turn when following high school graduation Andy decides to strike off on his own in the big city. He finds himself embroiled in a romance with an older married woman and becomes friends with a young man who later commits suicide. Well, he dies of a heart attack in the final film because the censors had a little problem with the suicide.

The wonderful thing about the Hardy's is that they are not a family full of angst and resentment. They are not the type of modern American family we see in today's films with weekly therapy sessions and lives lived separately and so many issues. The Hardy's ate dinner together every night and the family discussed their problems as a unit. Famously, when Andy needed the wise advice of his father after finding himself in some sort of trouble they engaged in a man to man talk where the Judge reiterated the values of doing the right thing even if i was hard and not always beneficial to the sometimes selfish Andy. Each movie presented at its conclusion a moral lesson that helped Andy become a better man and a better citizen.

The Andy Hardy films were a pet project of Louis B. Mayer and if something filmed did not fit his idea of mom and apple pie America he demanded it be reshot. Mayer once insisted a scene where Andy is so heartsick he refuses to eat be rewritten because he could not believe a healthy American teenage boy, even a heartsick one, would refuse to eat anything for any reason. Also, in his eyes a good American boy would never insult his mother by sending away a dinner she worked so hard to prepare.

Mayer truly believed in the values put forth in the series and so did Americans. The Hardy films are said to be the most popular film series ever produced in the United States. In 1941, the cast was named the first family of Los Angeles by mayor Fletcher Bowron and the Academy Awards presented the series a special award in 1943 for representing the American way of life.

Gerard Jones, in his book "Honey, I'm Home! Sitcoms Selling the American Dream," says that the Hardy films created an ideal small town where traditional security and strong parental figures mixed painlessly with the slangy swinging world of modern teens. For conservatives audiences battered by unwelcome change, these movies provided a seductive fictional retreat to a place such citizens could believe they had once lived in and might create again.


One of the saddest, yet most telling images, I have ever come across on the Internet is a picture of a part of the MGM backlot that was home to Andy Hardy Street. This image of the deserted street speaks to how far removed we are from the world of Carvel, USA, the man to man talk and family dinners. While the Andy Hardy films showed life in a white middle class world the values of family, integrity, responsibility and citizenship are universal.


FILMOGRAPHY

A Family Affair (1937)You're Only Young Once (1937)
Judge Hardy's Children (
1938)Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)
Out West with the Hardys (1938)
The Hardys Ride High (
1939)
Andy Hardy Gets Spring Fever (1939)
Judge Hardy and Son (1939)
Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940)Andy Hardy's Private Secretary (1941)
Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941)
The Courtship of Andy Hardy (
1942)
Andy Hardy's Double Life (1942)
Andy Hardy's Blonde Trouble (
1944)
Love Laughs at Andy Hardy (
1946)
Andy Hardy Comes Home (
1958)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

A Hell of a Drug

Drugs in Hollywood is nothing new. Since the birth of tinseltown actresses have been dropping dead from narcotics. Watching second rate actresses like Linsday Lohan and Mischa Barton self destruct has been a pastime for the public for 90 years and believe me, greater performers than those two have let their addictions destroy them.

Let's take a walk down memory lane and revisit some of the early stars whose lives came to a sad and tragic end.


Barbara LaMarr


Known as "The Girl Who is Just Too Beautiful" she was a sensation on the silent screen. She made over 25 films in five years and loved the rip roaring life of Hollywood in the 1920s. Between working, partying and marrying five times she admitted to sleeping fewer than three hours a night. She died of complications from heroin addiction at the age of 29 in 1926.


Jeanne Eagles



Jeanne Eagles was without a doubt one of the greatest actresses of the early 20th century. Over 1 million people saw her originate the role of floozy Sadie Thompson in the stage production of Rain and she played the role of Leslie Crosbie in the original film version of The Letter, in 1928. She was temperamental and stormy and her addiction to heroin did her in at the age of 35, in 1929. She was nominated posthumously for an Academy Award for The Letter but lost to Mary Pickford.


Alma Ruebens

She began her career in 1914 and became a big star just as the cultural concept of "movie star" was being created. Rubens was arrested on her first narcotics charge in 1919 but her downward spiral would last another 12 years. By 1923, she was making one thousand dollars a week which helped her afford her habit. By 1929, her career had nosedived as a result of her addiction. Her story of addiction, as recounted in her own 1931 autobiography, is worth the read. In it she describes her time in a sanitarium, her many arrests and selling her valuables to buy dope. She died in 1931, she was 33.


Marie Prevost


She was a silent screen comedienne who had great promise as a dramatic actress. Her life began to spiral out of control after her mother was killed in a car accident in 1926. Marie tuned to alcohol to cope with the loss and was soon addicted. Her heartbreak was further compounded by an ill fated relationship that sent her into a deeper depression. Along with depression and alcoholism, Prevost began struggling with weight problems and would crash diet to keep slim for the few film roles that she was offered. Marie Provost was found dead in her apartment in 1937, dead of alcohol abuse and malnutrition she was 38. Her estate was valued at only $300.