It’s my great pleasure to accept Paula’s gracious invitation to add a different perspective to the current Oscar Blog~A~Thon and its many unique facets.
Opting for the less-discussed, though aesthetically important variant that today has been given criminally short shrift amongst the plethora of romantic comedies. Where a logo T-shirt, jeans, sandals or sneakers will suffice for the guy, while skinny jeans, a midriff top and heels works for the girl.
For this dissertation, I want to go back to the familiar stomping grounds of the 1970s and a little-known novel replete in the history of its time. The Luck of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray was adapted by that master of detailed storytelling, Stanley Kubrick, who devoted 300 days in 1973 and ’74 to splendid on-location cinematography around the estates, castles, valleys and marshes of Ireland, creating a lavish, occasionally luscious feast for the eyes.
A film about unadulterated social climbing within the strict confines of 18th-century English morals, mores and etiquette, where words, or lack of them, contain great destructive or constructive power. Enhanced and highlighted by meticulously detailed and constructed costumes.
To that end, allow me to introduce a perfect cure for a bout of the flu, or dreary rainy or snowy days, when the weather outside is far more miserable than you wish it to be, and you are in need of an opulent distraction: Barry Lyndon (1975).
Barry Lyndon begins with ne’er do well, Redmond Barry (quietly adequate Ryan O’Neal) trying to improve his lot in life after the death of his father in a duel, leaving Barry and his mother to scheme amongst monied families. Falling in love, being rejected and getting revenge, before running off to Ireland.
Joining the British Army to survive the French at the Battle of Minden. Before deserting and trying his luck at the gaming tables. In search of a sponsor or a titled friend.
Barry’s a very busy boy and finds himself in the employ of a minor spymaster and gambler (Hardy Kruger). Forming an alliance at the gaming tables and shady dealing with new, well-off friends and acquaintances. Working their way across Europe to placate Barry’s desire to make money the old fashioned way. Marrying it!
The apple of Barry’s eye is the beautiful, willowy, wealthy and widowed, Countess of Lyndon. Outwardly delicate and sedately seductive Marisa Berensen, whose gaze, occasional glare and silence carries more weight than pages of written dialogue!
She is seemingly wedded to intricate gowns constructed of rigid whispering taffeta and flattering loose silk, and even more elegant hats. Gliding about parquet floor sally ports or the polished woods of grand halls, posture perfect and temperament mild as she and Barry are wed. With her young son, Lord Bullington (Dominic Savage as an infant and child; Leon Vitale, later in life), who sees Barry for what he is and despises him. Even more so as a baby step brother, Bryan Patrick is added to the equation, upon whom Barry ridiculously and lavishly dotes.
I won’t go into heavy detail, but Barry does what he does. Going through paramours and the Countess’ wealth with carefree and sloppy abandon, as Lord Bullington’s anger grows. Intrigues about inheritances arise, and Barry’s mother (Marie Kean) tries to take over, bringing about a duel and ending that may seem sad, but is ironically well deserved.
With a slow moving, yet intricate morality play of this size, acting, is of course essential to sell the story. Yet it is costuming that seems to rise above and take center stage in cementing time and place. In a film that is essentially an opulent, lush and moody oil painting brought to life.
We’ve all heard of Mr. Kubrick’s insistence in designing camera lenses for shooting in available candle and sunlight. Also the exactly of its time Schubert-heavy piece that comprise its soundtrack. The costumers are the unsung heroines and heroes are never seen in front of the camera, but their meticulous hard work and attention to design and detail adorns the film and makes things whole.
Huge kudos to 1976 Best Costume Design Oscar winners Milena Cannonero and Ulla-Britt Sonderlund, aided by Norman and Yvonne Dahms, Gloria Barnes, and Jack Edwards, for their vision in regaling Ms. Berensen in soft tones and period pastels, while making British Redcoats even more bold and empowered on the field of battle. And to Colin and Frances Wilson, for creating minor miracles with elegant head wear.
Note: This film is available for viewing on You Tube.
This chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces. — Frank Capra
It’s difficult to consider Oscar snubs without thinking of Barbara Stanwyck. I remember reading a few years ago that she had never won an Academy Award. “That can’t be right,” I thought. One thing about this modern world, no one ever has to wonder about any factual information. In a couple minutes, I had confirmed without a doubt that, though Stanwyck received an honorary Oscar for “superlative creativity and unique contribution to the art of screen acting” in 1982, she had been nominated four times for the Best Actress Oscar, and indeed had never claimed the prize.
The four nominations were for her work as: the title character in Stella Dallas (1937), Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941), Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944), and Leona Stevenson in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Of these, the Stella Dallas loss is the one that Stanwyck herself apparently regretted.
This film had the kind of source material that still draws nominations today. It was based on an acclaimed novel about a woman who marries up and can’t fit in. Eventually she gives up her daughter, whom she loves more than anyone or anything else in the world, so the latter can have a better life. The role required the actress to age 20 years. It was a plum, and Stanwyck wanted it. However, producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted a screen test. Stanwyck felt she’d proven her abilities over seven years working in Hollywood, and refused to make it.
She was not a sure thing to play Stella. The director, King Vidor, wanted her to, but Goldwyn was remaking his own 1925 version of the film, and he maintained that Stanwyck didn’t have enough sex appeal. He favored, among others, Ruth Chatterton, who turned it down.
One of many things I’ve learned from reading Victoria Wilson’s comprehensive Stanwyck bio, Steel-True, is that Joel McCrea, a frequent co-worker and friend of Stanwyck’s, was enlisted by her agent and friend, Zeppo Marx, to persuade her to make the necessary test. McCrea got nowhere. He then approached Goldwyn and pointed out that if Stanwyck was dating the handsome and very popular Robert Taylor, then she must have something going on.
I always knew Taylor was idolized in his day. Another thing I’ve learned from Steel-True is how really extremely popular he was. More than 25 years before the Beatles, Taylor was routinely getting mobbed and having his clothes torn off. He often needed a police escort to go out in public.
Goldwyn wouldn’t hear any of it. Stanwyck would have to agree to a test, which she eventually did. Per Steel-True, her test was cut into a reel with 47 others, but there was no doubt about it. Even Goldwyn had to agree, Stanwyck was Stella.
Stanwyck is stunningly great in the film. She simply became Stella Dallas, cheap and vulgar yet lovable and generous, so that the melodramatic aspects of the character evaporate and leave a real person. She makes it believable that someone who desperately wants to move up in class somehow doesn’t know she is too much. If you don’t feel for her in the scene in the train car where Stella overhears her daughter Laurel’s “friends” ripping on her walk and clothing choices and then pretends, for Laurel’s sake, not to have heard them….check your chest, you might not have a heart in there.
The film was both a popular and a critical success. It and Stanwyck both got great reviews. Per TCM, “the movie was so popular it became a radio serial in October 1937, dramatizing the later lives of characters in the movie. The serial lasted for eight years.” [Emphasis mine.]
So what happened? First, her competition for the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1938 was formidable: Irene Dunne for The Awful Truth; Greta Garbo for Camille (co-starring Stanwyck’s beau, Robert Taylor); Janet Gaynor for A Star Is Born; and the previous year’s winner for The Great Ziegfeld, Luise Rainer for The Good Earth.
Also, Stanwyck rebelled against the system, refusing to be tied to any one studio. At the time she was cast as Stella Dallas, she had contracts with two studios, RKO and Fox, and was working on a picture at a third, Paramount. She had been suspended many times when she refused to work on a picture that was wrong for her, and had been involved in breach of contract litigation. Studios were notorious for sometimes throwing together a big star and a weak script, relying on the talent’s drawing power to make money, and Stanwyck avoided those productions for the most part. However, as Wilson writes, “Barbara’s independence from the studios came at a price.” She often took roles that were originally meant for someone else. In terms of Oscar voting, she missed out on the consistent support and yards of good press that “team players” got.
I also think the realism of Stanwyck’s performance may have been another contributing factor. She is always so natural, and almost never seems to be acting.
A Stanwyck win was widely predicted, but whatever the reasons, Rainer prevailed on Oscar night, for the second year in a row.
PS: The Variety review of Stella Dallas contended that it was incredible that Stella would wear such crazy outfits when Laurel’s apparel, designed and made by Stella herself, was so elegant. I disagree. I think Stella would have wanted her daughter to fit in as much as possible so she would have copied her friends’ clothes. Stella knows she doesn’t fit in by that point, so she would not have done the same for herself.
Marnie sees red and panics. As she struggles to remember the events of a long-repressed night from her childhood, we see Marnie as a child awakened from a deep sleep and sent to the sofa while her mother uses the bed for ‘business.’ A storm rages outside and thunder frightens the sleeping child. Mom’s client, a sailor, tries to comfort Marnie but the child resists him. She wants her mommy who enters and pushes the man away from her girl. A fight breaks out and Mom falls, hurting herself. In an attempt to help her mother, Marnie grabs a poker from the fireplace and beats Bruce Dern to death. Marnie (1964)
Dressed in a tuxedo for a society party, Bruce Dern waits in a solarium for a tryst with his beloved, Bette Davis. The meeting doesn’t go as planned. Seconds later we see his face full of fear as an axe wielded by a mysterious stranger descends and his head rolls across the floor. Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Dying violently after very brief screen time may seem like an inauspicious start to a film career, but it added to the CV of a prolific actor who has played killers, scumbags, and downright nasty guys. Bruce Dern started in television in the 1950s and continues to work today. To be fair, he has also played some non-psychopathic roles though Dern, as a rule, is known for playing heavies. Tall and lanky, with a toothy grin that can go from friendly to malevolent in an instant, Dern plays nasty like no one else. In the western Hang ‘Em High (1968), his murderer/cattle rustler taunts Clint Eastwood and jumps him when he’s not looking.
In Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966), he and fellow Hell’s Angel Peter Fonda, clad in swastikas and other Nazi insignia, threaten veteran Dick Miller with a pair of pliers. In his most infamous role, Long Hair in The Cowboys, Bruce Dern shoots John Wayne in the back, killing him. When they discussed that scene John Wayne told Dern, “America will hate you for this.” Dern replied, “Yeah, but they’ll love me in Berkeley.”
His counter-culture reputation was cemented after a series of films he did with Roger Corman and others during the 1960s. He even strayed from his nasty persona in a few. In The Trip (1967), Dern plays a benevolent soul guiding Peter Fonda through his first acid trip. His calm, thoughtful demeanor and compassionate tone are a far cry from the snarling villain he usually played. I watched The Trip recently and listened to director Roger Corman’s audio commentary on the film. He said of all the cast members, including Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern was the only one who never touched drugs. A marathon runner who almost qualified for the Olympics, Dern lived a healthy life. During one scene in which partiers pass a joint, Dern is the only one not smoking.
Jack Nicholson, a close friend, said Dern was one of the best of a breed of actors coming into his own in the 1970s. Films like The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Silent Running (1972), The Great Gatsby (1974), and The Driver (1978) allowed Dern to show his range. In Marvin Gardens as the ne’er-do-well with a dozen get-rich-quick schemes, Dern is all charisma and charm, and you get caught up in his enthusiasm even when you sense his plans will never come to fruition. In Silent Running, as astronaut Freeman Lowell, Dern gives a nuanced performance. You know his actions are wrong, but his motives and the way he relates to little Huey, Dewey, and Louie charm you into rooting for him. As Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, Dern’s callous aristocrat uses people and tosses them aside without a thought. I cannot think of the book or film without picturing Bruce Dern in that role. The spare The Driver lets Dern show his malevolent side again when, as The Detective, he orchestrates a robbery to frame Ryan O’Neal’s getaway driver and seems unaffected by the violence left in its wake.
It might surprise you to learn that Bruce Dern’s background is closer to the patrician Tom Buchanan (The Great Gatsby 1974) than the scuzzy gang member Loser (The Wild Angels 1966). Bruce MacLeish Dern, born in Winnetka, Illinois, in 1936, went to the prestigious New Trier High School in Illinois before attending the University of Pennsylvania. He left Penn after a couple years for The Actors’ Studio and a career in acting. Dern’s grandfather served as Governor of Utah and Roosevelt’s Secretary of War. His other grandfather established the department store Carson, Pirie Scott & Co., and the poet Archibald MacLeish is a maternal relation. His godparents were Adlai Stevenson and Eleanor Roosevelt.
Throughout his career, Dern has done scores of television shows including Route 66, Thriller, The Outer Limits, The Kraft Suspense Theatre, Branded, Bonanza, Big Valley, Rawhide, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive, The FBI, and recent appearances on Big Love and CSI:NY. He even hosted his own series from 1996-2001 called The Lost Drive-In, during which he sat in a vintage car and talked about drive-in movies, old cars, and that era in general, then showed a film which might have played in one. It was a fun show and Dern came off as well-versed and natural. I was sorry to see it end.
With a career spanning almost 60 years, 145 films, and countless televsion appearances, Bruce Dern remains a working actor. He, his daughter Laura Dern, and ex-wife Diane Ladd received their stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2010 and IMDB lists 5 or 6 projects in production for this versatile actor. In May of 2013, Bruce Dern won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his role in Nebraska, which plays in theatres in November of 2013. I can’t wait to see it! Kerry Fristoe is on Twitter and writes reviews about an array of eclectic movies at screamingargonauts.com. She lives in Massachusetts with her pretty cool teenager and sweet puppy.
It’s been a while since being invited to delve in and play around in the wonderful world of those consistently and hardworking people towards the back of any room or set. The character actors. Who begin their careers in obscurity. Usually as one of a pack. Or spread throughout a set. Earning and learning their trade. Either silently, or with only one or two throwaway lines as roles, lines and screen time increase.
To that end. I would like to introduce one of a collection of thousands. Who caught my attention in small parts amongst the plethora of television prime-time situation comedies and later, dramas of 1970s and ’80s. Specifically, at first glance. Playing four distinctly different characters in the superbly cast, live audience, classic cop situation comedy, Barney Miller. Reveling in their interplay with master of dry, wry comedy, Steven Landesberg’s Detective Sgt. Arthur Dietrich. Knowing there was something there in this tall, gaunt actor worthy of greater things. Enjoying his episodic and occasional background work. While moving to the forefront work in smaller films.
Until the right opportunity presented itself. As the omniscient, erudite and charmingly bent as barbed wire Honcho of Homicide Detectives in a recent classic of noir genre.
James Cromwell: Kingpin Cop, Captain Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential
Take the wisely-purchased rights to an award-winning and best-selling James Ellroy novel that has to bleed mood, setting, lighting and allegiance to the near “anything goes’ mindset of a spread-out city becoming the land of milk and honey. And does!
Focus its spotlight away from the packaged and highly bankrolled glamor of the day and take a look at what runs rampant underneath. With a well-known crime boss, Mickey Cohen (Paul Guilfoyle) safely ensconced in prison, but leaving a massive power vacuum to be filled. Add a large batch of stolen heroin and the money and types of uncouth, out of state, riff-raff clientele it draws, and you have the makings of a prime neo-noir!
That begins with an eye-blackening scandal for the LAPD. In the shape of a very violent, multiracial rumble erupts in a lone precinct’s holding cells prior to a Christmas party attended by the local press. Papers are printed. Conferences amongst the highest ranks of the LAPD are held. And scapegoats are sought. Aided by a still wet behind the ears precinct officer, Edmond Exley (Guy Pearce, at his most bookish looking, easy to underestimate best)! Who yearns to achieve the reputation of his iconic, killed-in-the-line-of-duty father.
An old, not quite crooked, soon to retire “hat” (Graham Beckel) is selected. Along with celebrity busting, Hollywood connected, Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey channeling Dean Martin, smooth and cool) are on the chopping block. Events all overseen and manipulated by Mr. Cromwell’s Captain Dudley Smith. Who may have a new and intriguing appreciation of young Exley’s familiarity in playing the system.
Vincennes is placed on suspension. And the old “hat”, Detective Dick Stensland is forcibly retired without his pension. Creating a massive amount of hate within Officer Bud White (Russell Crowe showing tremendous potential for future greatness!) and his sizable hard on for newly promoted Lieutenant Exley.
Time passes and erupts with a spree shooting at an all night diner, The Nite Owl. Which brings about an instance of swords crossing between Exley and Smith. Who wisely wants to keep this eager beaver at controllable arms length. Even more so when it is discovered that White’s retired partner and Susan Lefferts, a prostitute made up to look like a star, are among the dead.
The hounds are set loose the following morning. With all data, direction and where to look generated by Captain Smith. Two “negroes” are sought while Vincennes, recently reinstated to Narcotics, follows the lead of a Fleur De Lis business card that screams high-end and very cautious prostitution. Vincennes seeks counsel from his under-the-table business partner, Sid Hudgens (slimily played to the hilt by Danny De Vito), who points him towards prominent citizen, with his fingers in everything dirty, Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn). Whose minion is seen setting up an introduction between the District Attorney (Ellis Lowe) and a promising young male talent (Simon Baker).
As with any atmospheric cop film. People are murdered. Criminals escape only to meet a bloody end. Medals are awarded and won. Alliances are formed between the unlikely (Vincennes and Exley) who know something important about each other’s cases. And inroads are made into Mr. Patchett’s empire. Courtesy of Kim Basinger, playing Veronica Lake lookalike Lynn Bracken. Who knows and whispers enough between Exley and White to send them on a collision course with a glimmer of photographic extortion hinted at by a soon to be a loose end, Sid Hudgens.
And through it all Captain Smith stays in the background. Always one step into the shadows and ahead of everyone. As he gently pulls a string here. Or tugs one there. Throwing up false signals and leads, as White and Exley start dipping into the past records of the LAPD in general. And Smith, in particular. Which leads to his, Stensland’s and the recently-discovered “Buzz” Meeks’ past cases, and later ties to opportunities for crime and corruption. On scales small. Large. And in between.
What does Mr. Cromwell’s Captain Smith bring to the film?
A masterfully delivered dose of quiet mystery. Tall, seemingly omniscient. Grandfatherly and quiet in his disposition. Simply because, as a Captain of Homicide, he doesn’t have to raise his voice or chew scenery best left to Mr. Crowe’s “Bud” White. The Captain’s word is law. And the Captain assigns manpower and initially directs where it goes.
The wizened spider in the center of its web. Getting tickles from Vincennes, delving into the death of Mr. Baker’s Matt Reynolds. Sensing that “Bud” White may be wanting to expand his career horizons beyond that of muscle for one or more “valedictions” with greedy out -of-town talent.
While also being blessed with a soft Irish brogue. And the film’s, and possibly, cinema history’s best lines.
Offering advice to “Bud” White and the officer’s desire for a gold shield:
“I admire you as a policeman – particularly your adherence to violence as a necessary adjunct to the job.”
And later. After White concedes;
“Wendell – I’d like full and docile co-operation on every topic.”
During a “valediction” with recently arrived out of state talent at the deserted Victory motel:
“Go back to Jersey, sonny. This is the City of the Angels, and you haven’t got any wings.”
When Vincennes expresses a desire to look once again at the Nite Owl murders:
“I doubt you’ve ever taken a stupid breath. Don’t start now.”
“Don’t start tryin’ to do the right thing, boy-o. You haven’t the practice.”
And through it all, Mr. Cromwell’s Dudley Smith radiates a serene, untouchable confidence. That easily equals that of his fellow cast of veteran, A-List and soon-to-be A-List talent. In a film loaded with color, shadow, glitz and post-war glamor for the masses.
This post is part of the 2013 What A Character! blogathon, co-hosted by myself, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, and Aurora of Once Upon A Screen. Be sure and check out all the other Monday posts. And there’s Saturday and Sunday’s as well.
We have reached the third and final day of our annual tribute to the lesser-known and somewhat-unsung supporting actors whose talents really pull a movie together. Hosted by myself, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, What A Character is our attempt to move those on the periphery to the center of attention.
Monday, November 11 — DAY 3:
Movie Star Makeover profiles “chameleon of the air” Agnes Moorehead.
Joel’s Classic Film Passion covers one of the most prolific characters, Thomas Mitchell.
Frank McHugh was perhaps the epitome of a reliable supporting player. You know this guy — you might not know his name, but you know his face.
As a Warner Brothers contract player in the ‘30s and ‘40s, no one backstopped stars like Bing Crosby, William Powell, and James Cagney better than McHugh. He was an expert at sheepish expressions, jittery laughs, and screwball action, usually serving as comic relief and providing larcenous or romantic complications when required.
McHugh was born into a stage family on May 23, 1898, and appeared in vaudeville with his siblings Matt and Kitty by the age of 10. Drawn from his stage career by the arrival of talkies, he arrived in Hollywood in 1930, signed with Warner Brothers almost immediately, and appeared in nearly 90 films in his first 10 years with the studio.
He was also known as a central member of the Irish Mafia, the tight-knit group of Irish-American actors that included Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Spencer Tracy, Allen Jenkins, Frank Morgan, and Ralph Bellamy. They preferred to be known as the “Boys’ Club,” and Morgan and Bellamy were actually of German and English/French descent respectively, but these real-life ties translated well onscreen. McHugh and Cagney, for instance, appeared together in 12 pictures; McHugh and O’Brien in 11.
What you may not know about McHugh is the valuable real-life part he played during World War II.
Like many in Hollywood, he enthusiastically supported the war effort, joining the Hollywood Victory Caravan in May 1942. This show traveled the United States, featuring performances by the biggest stars, with the ticket proceeds going the Army and Navy Relief Fund.
Mark Sandrich, director of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, and Alfred Newman, Twentieth Century Fox’s musical director, organized the Caravan as a musical revue. It featured, at various times, Crosby, Cagney, O’Brien, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Claudette Colbert, Charles Coburn, Joan Blondell, Joan Bennett, Eleanor Powell, Desi Arnaz, Bert Lahr, and Groucho Marx, along with McHugh (leaning forward in the top row above). In August and September of the same year, he went to England with a USO tour, the American Variety Show.
After those tours, McHugh continued his war efforts, producing his own show and taking it to the troops in Europe two years later. In November and December 1944, just in time for the Battle of the Bulge, “McHugh’s Revue” toured the front lines in Belgium, France, Holland, and Germany.
McHugh loved meeting and chatting with the servicemen, and the feeling was mutual. He received a citation from the Army, in which General Raymond S. McLain referred to the Revue as “an oasis in this desert of hardship and suffering….Your show was sparkling, and left a refreshing atmosphere in the spirit of many battle weary soldiers.” This certainly was McHugh’s most important, and possibly most loved, supporting role.
In our classic movie corner of the world, the eleventh month of the year is not dedicated to family gatherings or special sales. Here we celebrate crime-laden streets, shadowy figures, and suspicious cops. This is Noirvember.
In celebration of all things noir, TCM Party is joining Warner Archive Instant for a series of tweet-a-longs in November. We’ve chosen favorite films noir from the Warner Archive Instant offerings.
Using the hashtags #TCMparty and #Noirvember, we will gather to watch and tweet along as follows (all times are Eastern):
Sunday, November 3 at noon – Guest host Aurora [@CitizenScreen] has chosen Fritz Lang’s CLASH BY NIGHT (1952) starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas and Marilyn Monroe.
Tuesday, November 12 at 8 p.m. – @TCMparty host Paula has chosen Jacques Tourneur’s EXPERIMENT PERILOUS (1944) starring Hedy Lamarr, George Brent and Paul Lukas.
Saturday, November 16, time TBD – Special guest host Karen [@TheDarkPages] has chosen Vincent Sherman’s THE DAMNED DON’T CRY (1950) starring Joan Crawford, David Brian, Steve Cochran and Kent Smith.
@TCMParty host Trevor has chosen three noirs: Thursday, November 21 @ 8 p.m. – Jack Bernhard’s DECOY (1946) starring Jean Gillie, Edward Norris and Robert Armstrong. Sunday, November 24 @ noon – Richard Fleischer’s ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950) starring Charles McGraw, Adele Jergens and William Talman. Thursday, November 28 @ 8 p.m. – Edward Dmytryk’s CORNERED (1945) starring Dick Powell, Walter Slezak and Micheline Cheirel.
We hope everyone will want to participate, as it’s sure to be a fun, informative time. If you already subscribe to Warner Archive Instant, you’re all set. If you don’t, you can sign up for a free two-week trial here.
Either way, you need only be on Twitter at the scheduled time, use the correct hashtags, and wait for the host to signal, “START THE MOVIE,” to enjoy online Noirvember.
We’re thrilled to be presenting these Warner Bros. film noirs as part of the excitement of #TCMparty, and hope this is the first of many collaborations between our enthusiastic film-loving community and the studio with deep dark noir roots.
Note that these Noirvember tweet-a-longs are in addition to the regular #TCMparty events, which follow along to scheduled programming on TCM (dates listed below). Please visit the TCM Party tumblr for more info.
Wednesday, November 6 @ 8 p.m. THE KILLERS (1946)
Wednesday, November 13 @ 8 p.m. GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957)
Tuesday, November 19 @ 8 p.m. THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)
Wednesday, November 27 @ 8 p.m. FIELD OF DREAMS (1989)
Anybody who has either read this blog for a while or attended a TCM Party knows that I have been watching old movies since I was a young child.
During the summer when my mom was working, I would be at my grandparents’ house, watching the local afternoon movie showcase, Bill Kennedy At The Movies, hosted by the titular raconteur/retired actor. For those who grew up outside of the metro Detroit area and/or were born after 1986 or so, picture a slightly-unkempt, more rambling, hammier Dean Martin. At least that’s how it seemed at the time.
Slinging both fascinating anecdotes — particularly about the films in which he’d had a role — and barbs that mostly went over my head, Kennedy owned those hours after noon and before the 6 o’clock news. He showed pretty much anything old. The Best Years of Our Lives is one that I particularly remember. I can remember just bawling during it, without even really knowing why.
In those days, respectable Italian girls lived with their parents or their husbands, certainly not by themselves or with other girls. Not in my mother’s family. Thus if I was allowed to stay for the evening, I got to see my mother’s oldest sister, Mary Rose Romano, when she arrived home from work. Born the same day as Elizabeth Taylor, February 27, 1932, Aunt Mary seemed just as glamorous and self-possessed. Unlike my parents, she worked in a bank downtown, and wore suits to the office; also scarves, cute shoes, and amazing jewelry. (Also unlike my parents, she liked to take me shopping for clothes.) Though (I now know) she was probably really tired, we’d always talk about whatever I’d watched, because she knew all about Old Hollywood — the movies, how they were made, the actors and actresses. No one has had more of an influence on my film taste than Aunt Mary.
I believe her favorite movie was Gone With The Wind. Back in the day, before cable, really the only way to see it in one piece was on network TV in the evening. Even broken up with ads, it was powerful stuff. She told me all about the burning of Atlanta being filmed first, Clark Gable’s dentures, the long process of casting Scarlett, and how Leslie Howard was a spy and died in The War. This was the first time I was conscious of a film being a purposeful creation, the result of a collaborative effort by many people. Since then, I’ve learned more about the time period portrayed in the film, and I have a fair amount of ambivalence about it, but to this day, if I’m home, I can’t pass it up.
Fast forward 20 years or so. My mother died of cancer in 2002, and afterwards my husband and I began to visit my aunt (now in her 70s) and my grandmother (in her late 80s) every Sunday. The routine almost never varied: lunch at around noon, then movies on TCM until 4 or 5 p.m., accompanied by their inevitable dialogue, which I affectionately call “Who’s Dead?”
— “Jesus, everyone in this movie is dead.”
— “Yeah, there’s so-and-so. He’s dead.”
— “There’s so-and-so. She’s been dead forever.”
I think it may be an Italian thing.
These Sunday afternoons were when I realized how much I had absorbed from her as a kid. She loved the classics and had great respect for both their craft and their magic, but at the same time, she could be irreverent. In other words, she would have fit right in at a TCM Party. Among these random recollections, imagine the quotes from Mary are tweets and you’ll get the picture (may contain spoilers):
Psycho: “That sound [the stabbing in the shower] is somebody knifing a melon. Nobody could believe Janet Leigh got killed off. It just didn’t happen. That Hitchcock was a weirdo.”
Now, Voyager: We watched this together so many times that it’s almost painful to watch now. My aunt looked a bit like Miss Davis, and had her crisp enunciation, and I always got the impression from her comments that she could relate to Charlotte Vale, but I can’t know for sure.
Any Joan Crawford movie: “Watch out…she packs a wallop.”
Any appearance by Adolphe Menjou or Ray Milland: “He’s such a sleaze.”
Jeremiah Johnson: Robert Redford was a fave of ours, particularly in The Sting and this downer of a 1970s beard-tastic Western. When the widow freaks out on Jeremiah and forces him to take her son along with him, I remember asking, “What is she going to do? How is she going to get food out there by herself?” Mary shrugged. “She’ll go over to craft services, they’ll find her something.”
Victor/Victoria: “Has this guy [James Garner as King Marchand] ever really looked at Julie Andrews?”
On The Waterfront: This is the last film we ever watched together, a couple of weeks before Tim and I saw it at the TCM Film Festival with an introduction by Eva Marie Saint. I so wish my aunt could have gone with us. To Terry Malloy [Marlon Brando]: “She’s not interested in you, you dumb lug.” To Edie Doyle [Saint]: “He’s no good. Go back to school and study.”
The Pink Panther: [Gales of laughter] “What an idiot. He’s so stupid. He’s so silly.”
Sunset Blvd.: Norma Desmond: “They had to have the ears of the whole world too. So they opened their big mouths and out came talk. Talk! TALK!” Aunt Mary: “Thank God. Who wants to read a movie?”
Two Mules for Sister Sarah: “She’s a pretty lousy nun.”
My Aunt Mary passed away on September 27, 2013. Our family and everyone who knew her will remember her unqualified generosity, her style, and her sense of humor, but I also have her love of the movies, and because of that, she is still with me.
The image above is taken from Hawks’ The Big Sleep, which has a reputation for being a great yet somewhat incomprehensible film noir. No one can really deny the gritty atmosphere created by Hawks and his team, or the unmistakable chemistry between the leads, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, which Hawks displayed to great effect. But, due to factors beyond Hawks’ control, the plot is a bit difficult to follow, supposedly even for the author of the book on which the film was based, Raymond Chandler. Any Google search will turn up the story that, when asked (by Hawks and the film’s writers) which character killed another, Chandler didn’t know either.
Whether the Chandler anecdote is true or not, it is certain that the transition to film further complicated the author’s already convoluted novel. How did this happen? Spoiler alert: There are plenty in here! If you haven’t read or seen The Big Sleep and you care about spoilers, stop reading and come back once you have read or seen it. Even if you have read the book or seen the film, you might want to refresh your memory before reading the rest of this post. This SparkNotes plot summary of the book is the briefest I’ve found. A diagram is always helpful as well.
Two major circumstances upon which the book’s cohesion depends ran afoul of the Hays Production Code. The first was that Carmen Sternwood (Martha Vickers in the film) kills Sean “Rusty” Regan (before Marlowe enters the story), making her older sister Vivian Regan (Vivian Rutledge in the film, played by Lauren Bacall) both a widow and an accessory to murder. The second is that Arthur Gwynne Geiger, who is blackmailing Carmen with compromising pictures, is a pornographer who is in a homosexual relationship with Carol Lundgren (who murders Joe Brody because he thinks Brody killed Geiger). Whew! Anyway, neither of these plot points could stand under the Code. The identity of Regan’s killer is fuzzy in the film; it’s implied, but never actually stated, that Eddie Mars killed Regan for messing around with Mars’ wife. Mars then evaded justice and collected blackmail from Vivian by convincing her that Carmen killed Regan. Neither the pornography, illegal in 1944, or the homosexuality are ever referred to; thus Sternwood family chauffeur Owen Taylor’s motivation for killing Geiger is unclear, and Lundgren’s motivation for gunning down Brody is greatly diminished. So that’s one layer of complication.
Further changes which don’t seem to significantly affect the plot were also made to the source material, to amplify Bacall’s role and strengthen Marlowe and Vivian’s relationship. Vivian is present in two major scenes from which she is absent in the book, one at Joe Brody’s apartment, and one at Eddie Mars’ hideout near the end. In the latter scene, it is Vivian, not Mona Mars, who unties Marlowe, helps him to escape, and accompanies him back to LA. There is a scene of her singing at Eddie Mars’ casino which is reminiscent of her début, Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. And her last name is changed to Rutledge; she is still a widow but not Regan’s, which arguably reduces any incentive she may have to find Regan. Some of these changes affect later scenes in the film, but they don’t seem to affect the overall action of the story.*
However, there are actually two versions of The Big Sleep, and this is where things really start to get cloudy… The first version, which is closer to the book, began shooting in October of 1944, and was completed in January 1945. Though it was ready for release in March of that year, it was shelved, and ultimately not released in its original form, for two reasons. First, World War II was rapidly winding down and Warner Brothers, like the rest of the studios, was looking to fast-track war-themed properties into cinemas as quickly as possible. A detective story without a time-sensitive theme could wait. Thus, Bacall’s film with Charles Boyer, Confidential Agent, though shot after Sleep, was released before.
Which brings us to the second reason another version of Sleep exists: Bacall received reviews so horrible that they seemed to wipe out all the acclaim she’d received for To Have and Have Not. I’ve seen the film and I think they were overreacting. She is certainly miscast as an English aristocrat; the role should probably have gone to Margaret Lockwood or someone like that. But it’s Bacall, and she isn’t as awful as these reviews were. At any rate, her agent, Charles Feldman, who was also Hawks’ agent, wrote a letter to studio head Jack Warner, asking him to order a re-take of a scene which particularly bothered Feldman, known as the “veil scene,” and essentially requesting that “insolent and provocative” scenes, like those in Have Not, be added to Sleep, in order to save Bacall’s career and the film. Warner did order a re-take of the veil scene and the addition of more sassy scenes with Bogart and Bacall. Hawks re-assembled most of his cast and crew and filmed these in January of 1946.
For the 1946 version, which is the version usually shown on TCM and for big-screen revivals, Bacall’s part was further enhanced, and the plot further obscured. For instance, when Marlowe brings Carmen home from Geiger’s house, instead of leaving her with Norris the butler, Marlowe brings Carmen upstairs to Vivian’s bedroom, giving them an opportunity for a saucy exchange. This forces an alteration to the scene in Marlowe’s office which takes place the next day; Vivian can no longer say she wasn’t home the night before. The scene was dubbed over; if you look really closely, you can see it is a little off.
There are other changes, but perhaps the most important one is the deletion of an exposition-rich scene in the DA’s office, in which all the facts were laid bare as Marlowe is questioned by District Attorney Wilde and Captain Cronjager of LAPD. Don’t recognize those names? Both characters were completely cut, as they didn’t make sense without the scene. But it was replaced with this, one of the greatest extended double entendres ever:
To the great credit of Howard Hawks and his cast and crew, most critics and fans appreciate the mood of the film, the noir tawdriness of the characters, and the incandescent spark between Bogart and Bacall, and overlook, or even love, the disorder of the action. The Time magazine review of August 26, 1946 stated, “the plot’s crazily mystifying, nightmare blur is an asset, and only one of many,” and commended Bogart and Hawks for their work. Roger Ebert viewed both versions in 2009, and preferred the 1946:
The new scenes add a charge to the film that was missing in the 1945 version; this is a case where “studio interference” was exactly the right thing. The only reason to see the earlier version is to go behind the scenes, to learn how the tone and impact of a movie can be altered with just a few scenes….As for the 1946 version that we have been watching all of these years, it is one of the great film noirs, a black-and-white symphony that exactly reproduces Chandler’s ability, on the page, to find a tone of voice that keeps its distance, and yet is wry and humorous and cares.
Possibly the most famous fans of The Big Sleep are Joel and Ethan Coen, who paid homage to it with their 1998 classic The Big Lebowski. (A classic doesn’t always have to be old.) There are many connections between the two films, and the best post I’ve seen on the subject is The Big Parallel by John at the droid you’re looking for. Check it out.
* Another aspect of the story that doesn’t seem to affect, well, anything really, is that we’ll never know who killed Owen Taylor. This is the question that so confounded Chandler and everyone else. As stated above, the Sternwood family chauffeur, who was in love with Carmen, killed Geiger because the latter was blackmailing her. Taylor was found murdered in the Sternwood family Packard, sunk off Lido Pier. I’ve read the book and watched both movies a couple of times, and I don’t believe it’s in there. We’ll never know for sure I guess, but I vote for Norris, the butler.
TCM’s host Ben Mankiewicz also did a media call on the Wednesday before TCMFF actually started.
As before, some highlights:
Lawrence Carter-Long, TCM’s co-host for The Projected Image, their series on portrayals of disability on film, will be back. Mankiewicz said, “I learned more from Lawrence Carter-Long than anyone else in 10 years with TCM….He is a resource we’ve used since and will continue to use.”
Mankiewicz loved that TCMFF included Airplane! as part of this year’s travel theme “when it looks like the whole thing was shot for $4.95. ‘See LAX…the inside of an airplane.’ Nonetheless, that’s a travel movie.”
Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller is coming up on TCM Friday nights with a series of around 20 films noir. Mankiewicz likes neo-noirs, particularly three involving John Dahl — The Last Seduction, Kill Me Again, and Red Rock West. “I’d love to make a case for us to show those, those are great films. You can clearly see Dahl had a keen appreciation of ’40s and ’50s film noir.”
TCM is featuring more films from the ’70s and ’80s, but not because there’s some kind of age requirement. “We have a very open mind as to what makes a classic movie. It’s not about years removed from a movie…the movies have to have some emotional connection for people. Because we learned that two-thirds of our audience is under 49 years old, we realized very quickly that most people have not seen most of our movies when they came out, or anytime even close to when they came out. So how did these movies become important to them? It’s probably through family connections, they watched with their parents or grandparents, or, what happens to me sometimes, because we shoot so far ahead, I don’t know what we’re showing, and like you guys, I’ll stumble on to a movie on a Saturday afternoon. As we get better perspective on movies, which does come with time, and as more of those titles become available, I suppose that you might see more ’70s and ’80s movies on TCM, but I always say that with a caveat: nothing is going to stop us from showing the movies we already show….In that sense, our programming won’t change. We always, always want to find something that will be relevant and emotional for our audience. There were a lot of great filmmakers in the ’70s, I think more so than the ’80s, if i could sort of flippantly dismiss an entire decade, which, by the way, was important to me. It’s what I grew up with, what are you gonna do? I can’t change when I grew up. So, i think you’ll see more ’70s and ’80s movies, but not to the extent that we’ll change what we already show.”
He has some choice in which movies he hosts on TCM, but not as much as you might think. “Charlie (Tabesh, TCM’s programmer) knows what I like, but in the end, I’m an employee.”
Re: a 16-year-old girl’s crush on Farley Granger: “It’s not gonna work out for her.”
Mankiewicz believes the Production Code was the result of Fatty Arbuckle’s three trials.
I also got to interview Mankiewicz for some of the shortest-seeming 15 minutes in my life ever. He isn’t the first interviewee from whom I’ve cadged refreshments, but he is nicest.
What’s your process for hosting on TCM? Anywhere from one day to three or four weeks before, they start sending me scripts. And I go through every one of them, and put them in my voice, add stories, take stories out. Same process for Robert. Some of them, when movies start coming back, I realize that what they sent is essentially what I wrote three years earlier, cos I’ll be like, i wrote this and then I’ll change it again, because I’m like, oh that sucked. That’s the basic process. The research department in Atlanta keeps track so that we don’t repeat the same stories. It takes a while to go through 200 scripts. We shoot them all basically in a row in a week. And by the way, it’s super-easy to get confused. I don’t pretend to not have to look stuff up.
[At this point, I’d forgotten the questions I’d prepared. I also remembered something Robert Osborne had said earlier in the day; he studies up on people he’s going to interview because once a reporter looks at his/her notes, it’s no longer a conversation. Yikes. I decided to wing it.] Quentin Tarantino has a litmus test for potential girlfriends. He shows them Rio Bravo to see what their reaction is. Not that you would have something like that now, but did you ever have a film like that, and if so, what was it?
Good question. No, not off the top of my head, is there a film that did that. But I would know whether I connected with people based on what they liked, no question. Obviously from the time I was getting serious about girls, if a girl thought Fletch was stupid, obviously I’m not gonna go out with her. But that was at a time when I had no appreciation of classic movies. I mean, now, no question, I love Rio Bravo, that makes Tarantino so cool. I gotta find a cool answer to that. To me, like somebody who wouldn’t appreciate A Face in the Crowd, or wouldn’t be blown away by that, I couldn’t possibly have a serious friendship with them. That movie just gets me every time. It was so prescient, 53 years ahead of time. And also, if you’re not moved by Casablanca, if you make fun of Casablanca — whatever, we’re not sleeping together. Well, we might sleep together. But I’m not gonna call you.
You said you weren’t always into classic movies…what were some of the first ones that pushed you in that direction? My mom showed me North by Northwest. It’s funny how memory plays tricks on you, because I remember saying to Mom that I didn’t want to watch it because it’s black and white. She gets me to watch it, and it’s not black and white….And I remember thinking, this is really cool, and that guy is cool. Like all of a sudden. And it’s not like I didn’t know who Cary Grant was. But I associated him with something that I knew instinctively I was going to not like. When I went to college, I was always looking to do things as easily as possible. I took a film course at Tufts pass-fail, thinking this is going to be the easiest thing in the world. I was such an idiot. I wrote a paper, that counted for more than half the grade, on Santa Fe Trail. And I started doing the research. These guys weren’t in the Army together at the same time, this is all a wildly nonsensical re-imagination of how history worked. But they’re going after John Brown. The movie is made in 1940, and clearly, John Brown is a Hitler-ian figure in the movie, and I wrote about the historical context, and how, ironically, they’d screwed up history. And I loved writing the paper. It was so good. I got an A+. I remember thinking, I don’t think the professor thinks anyone wrote a better paper in this class. And of course, my thought wasn’t, I should pay more attention to film. My thought was, I can’t believe I took this class pass-fail. I cannot believe that I’ve just given away an A. So it was developing then. And then I went out to LA after I graduated, just to see family out here, and I went to a couple of parties, and I was introduced as Ben Mankiewicz, and people would say, “From the Hollywood Mankiewiczes?” And I’d say, yeah, and they’d be like, Hollywood royalty. Happened twice. And I was like are they thinking of someone else? It just started to come together how much my family mattered to a very small group of people, but it mattered a lot to that group.
Which actors/actresses working in Hollywood today would have done well in the Old Hollywood system, and vice versa? [This is a recurring question of mine.] I think a lot of the big stars then would have done well today. There’s no question, Clark Gable would have been a star, Cary Grant. Those are easy ones. Bogie. John Wayne. From now, George Clooney could work in any era. Robert Downey Jr., any era. If you own the screen now, the way those guys do…not only are they enormously talented, not only can they play a variety of roles, but they have that screen charisma. Clooney was my first thought, but I’m not sure that Downey isn’t a better answer. I don’t even really like the Sherlock Holmes movies, but he’s got a thing. Johnny Depp owns the screen. They are too charming not to succeed. The talent and looks that Ryan Gosling has, of course he’d succeed. Jessica Chastain, Jennifer Lawrence, no question. Chastain even looks like it. I don’t think there’s any doubt there. Penelope Cruz is another one. I don’t know how the language issue would have worked then. Maybe she’d have made Spanish-language movies, but she would have been a big star. Matt Damon would have been a star, and he’s not even that good-looking. Not in the same league as those other guys. For him, he just sort of exudes charm. He makes it work in so many different roles. I think there are many others. I don’t think things are even remotely lost in Hollywood right now. There are a lot of reasons now why Hollywood is totally f*cked up but that said, there’s still great stars, there’s great producers, and there’s great movies. But frequently the ones that get the most attention and marketing are embarrassments. But there’s still great movies being made.