31 Days of Oscar – The Snubs: Barbara Stanwyck in STELLA DALLAS

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.

Stella posterThis 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.

Stella-Laurel-color-tintStanwyck 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.

Leigh Oscar banner flatThis post is part of the second annual 31 Days of Oscar blogathon hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen.  For more posts featuring Oscar snubs, visit the megapost at Outspoken and Freckled, and stay tuned for more Oscar-related posts throughout the month. Our blogathon gets its inspiration from Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar, “where every movie shown is an Oscar winner or nominee.”

Completely Unscientific Favorite Stanwyck Movie Poll Results

In honor of Barbara Stanwyck‘s 106th birthday on July 16, I asked TCM Party people their favorite Stanwyck movie. I personally feel that she was good to excellent in every movie she did, but everyone has one that stands out more than others. Actually not one. Usually many. As I quickly realized, it’s a tough choice to make. I also realized afterwards I had enough votes on my hands for a totally unscientific poll. Since I didn’t really specify a number of films, I counted each mention via Twitter and Facebook of a movie’s title as a vote for that movie. Yeah, yeah, I know…it’s completely unscientific!

And now…to the results…

5th place — Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

Stanwyck gets an earful of details of a murder...her own?
Stanwyck gets an earful of details of a murder…her own?

Stanwyck plays a bedridden invalid whose shady husband (Burt Lancaster) may or may not be trying to kill her. Plenty of flashbacks and suspense galore.

4th place – tie
Baby Face (1933), Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941)

Tied for 4th place (in chronological order) BABY FACE, STELLA DALLAS, BALL OF FIRE
Tied for 4th place (in chronological order) BABY FACE, STELLA DALLAS, BALL OF FIRE

I’m not gonna summarize these…if you haven’t seen them, go watch them now.

3rd place – The Lady Eve (1941)

Charles Coburn and Stanwyck work their magic on Henry Fonda under William Demarest's watchful eye  in THE LADY EVE
Charles Coburn and Stanwyck work their magic on Henry Fonda under William Demarest’s watchful eye in THE LADY EVE

Stanwyck, playing a con woman, sets her sights on “Hopsy” (Henry Fonda), the beer heir who can’t stand beer. Hopsy falls in love with her right away, but complications ensue when she realizes she loves him back.

2nd place – Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Christmas in Connecticut (1945)-low
Fake it ’til you make it…Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan in CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT

I was surprised how highly this placed, but I really shouldn’t be. Stanwyck plays a homemaking columnist who lives in an apartment, can’t cook, isn’t married, and doesn’t have any kids. Her friend, chef Felix (S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall), provides all the recipes and she fakes the rest. The arrangement hits some hilarious snags when her editor (Sydney Greenstreet) wants a war hero (Dennis Morgan) to stay at her non-existent farm (she totally made it up) for the holidays.

1st place – Double Indemnity (1944)

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are in a ton of trouble in DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are totally inconspicuous in DOUBLE INDEMNITY

No surprise here. Fine direction from Billy Wilder, stunning cinematography by John F. Seitz, and excellent performances from a perfect cast add up to possibly the best film noir — and one of the best films — ever made.

I know, I missed your favorite…mine didn’t get even one vote! (Hint: check out the feature image for this post.) So give me a piece of your mind in the comments. PS: if you like classic movies, and you watch them on Turner Classic Movies, you might want to join us for one of our live #TCMParty tweetalongs. For deets, follow @TCM_Party or get more info here.

What A Character: S.Z. Sakall

With his assortment of lovable supporting roles — befuddled yet helpful uncles and friends, slightly curmudgeonly shop owners, eccentric producers — S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall is pretty much the definition of a Hollywood character actor. His variations on a discombobulated theme, often tinged with sly wit, charmed American audiences from the early ’40s through the mid-’50s, yet he’d been acting for 30 years before he ever set foot in Hollywood.

Who the heck is Gerö Jenö? That is S.Z. Sakall’s birth name, sometimes translated from his native Hungarian as “Jacob Gerö,” which is what appeared on his U.S. citizenship paperwork. Most sources say he was born in 1883, on February 2 in Budapest. (In case you were wondering, he was a Capricorn Aquarius.) Edit: Someone rightly commented that Feb. 2 is Aquarius, it’s squarely in the sign, not sure I got Capricorn from.

By the early 1900s, Gerö Jenö was writing scripts for musical-comedy theatre in Hungary. Several sources mention that he took his stage name, S.Z. Sakall, from the Hungarian phrase “szoke szakall,” in English “blond beard,” which he apparently grew to look older. He started acting at the age of 18. In the early ’20s, he moved to Berlin and appeared in his first film in 1927.

He continued working on stage and in film in Vienna and Berlin, and briefly had a production company, until 1933, when the Nazis took over Germany. Sakall, who was Jewish, had to go back to Hungary. In 1940, Hungary joined the Axis, giving the Nazis control of most of Europe.  Many — Jews and others who objected to the regime — who were able to leave, did so. Those in the film industry made their way to either London or Hollywood, and formed an essential part of American and western European moviemaking for the next two decades, exerting tremendous influence on both the style and content of films. A look at the cast and crew list for Casablanca (1942) has a fair proportion of these refugees: director Michael Curtiz; composer Max Steiner; and actors Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, and Sakall.


RENAULT: Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.
CARL: I have already given him the best, knowing he is German, and would take it anyway.

I can’t help but wonder how Sakall was affected by these lines and others in Casablanca. Perhaps the proximity of art to life was the reason Sakall at first refused the role of Carl the math-professor-turned-headwaiter, even though his Yankee Doodle Dandy director and fellow Hungarian Curtiz was helming, and the cast included top-name talent. Pure speculation on my part. What I do know is that all three of his sisters, his niece, and his wife’s brother and sister were murdered by the Nazis.

1948 photo from The Baltimore Sun: HAPPY HOLLYWOOD WEDLOCK — S.Z. (“Cuddles”) Sakall and his spouse Boeszike (he can pronounce it) have enjoyed nearly 30 years of wedded bliss. Boeszike comes to work with Cuddles nearly every day to help him with his lines, and bits of business, and for them love’s young dream is still way up there on rosy cloud No. 1. Cuddles, assisted by Boeszike, is soon to be seen in Warner Bros.’ “Whiplash.” / From: Warner Bros. Studio / Burbank, California

I don’t know for sure when Sakall acquired his famous nickname, Cuddles, or who gave it to him — his TCM clip cites Jack Warner as the source, but I’ve also heard that Doris Day coined it. He was first credited as “S.Z. ‘Cuddles’ Sakall” in 1945’s San Antonio.* I’ve read that he wasn’t fond of his nickname, and also that his charm, basic niceness and, um, cuddly exterior made it entirely appropriate both in film and in life.
In 1954, Sakall published his wonderfully-titled memoir, The Story of Cuddles: My Life Under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolph Hitler and the Warner Brothers. The book is out of print and the one used copy I could find goes for $480.10. If anyone wants to buy me this for Christmas…I’m just saying. He passed away from heart failure in 1955.

It wouldn’t be going out on much of a limb to say Cuddles is best-known for Casablanca. So it is fitting that Humphrey Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet, John Qualen, the film’s producer Hal Wallis, its director Michael Curtiz, its composer Max Steiner, and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall were all laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.**

My Top Three Cuddles Roles

Ball of Fire Sakall plays one of 7 professors attempting to produce an encyclopedia. Because they’ve been cloistered in a mansion for 9 years, the group reacts strongly when showgirl Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) turns up. As kindly physiology professor Magenbruch, he delivers many of his lines with a touch of mischief…his area of academic study is sex.

Christmas in Connecticut Sakall reunited with Stanwyck for this screwball comedy about a homemaking columnist who isn’t married and doesn’t have any kids. Cuddles plays her good friend, a chef named Felix, who is soon promoted to uncle. In my opinion, this is the quintessential Cuddles role, featuring all the befuddlement and exasperation for which he is known, together with the classic phrase, “It’ll be hunky-dunky,” Cuddle-ese for “hunky-dory.”

Casablanca As mentioned above, Sakall was unwilling to appear in this film. He tried to get Warner Brothers to pay him four weeks’ work, but the studio would only agree to three. His name was misspelled in the credits. But the character is essential to the story and serves as a sympathetic counterpoint to Humphrey Bogart’s brusque Rick.

*San Antonio starred Errol Flynn as a cowboy fighting cattle rustlers and Alexis Smith as the singer who falls in love with him. Sakall plays the singer’s manager, who repeatedly refers to riderless horses as “empty horses.” This phrase was most likely borrowed from, and a dig at, Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, with whom Flynn and David Niven notoriously clashed while filming Charge of the Light Brigade. (Niven called his second autobiography Bring on the Empty Horses.) There is at least one other connection to Casablanca: Dan Seymour, who played the bouncer Abdul, appears uncredited in San Antonio. The entire film is available on YouTube.

** Sakall’s nearest famous neighbors at Forest Lawn are the Ruggles brothers. Actor Charlie is in the same row; director Wesley is in the next row, across from Charlie.

TCM Week – July 16-22

TCM has some really intriguing stuff scheduled for this week. Crank up the DVR and let’s go…as usual, all times are Eastern.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in GUNGA DIN

Monday, July 16
TCM’s Classic Adventure series continues with a full 24 hours of rip-roaring action. Must-sees include The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland at 2:00 Eastern; Gunga Din (1939) starring Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Victor McLaglen at 4:00 p.m.; and The Thief of Baghdad (1924) with Douglas Fairbanks and Anna May Wong at 3:45 a.m. Tuesday.

Joan Crawford in OUR MODERN MAIDENS

Tuesday, July 17
Today kicks off with a couple of silents, The Sheik (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino, and Our Modern Maidens (1929) with soon-to-be newlyweds Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The latter is the first of a block of eight ’20s and ’30s films directed by Jack Conway. Conway began as an actor in D. W. Griffiths’ Westerns and moved into directing, first at Universal, then at MGM, where he proved to be adept and prolific. He worked cost-effectively in all genres, bringing pictures in on time and within budget, a capability that endeared him to studio honchos Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer. He is probably best known for A Tale of Two Cities (1935), starring Ronald Colman and Elizabeth Allan, and one of my all-time favorites, Libeled Lady (1936). Enjoy his work until George Cukor takes over at 8:00 p.m. tonight.

Star of the Month: Leslie Howard
I am a huge fan of Leslie Howard, but even I have to admit he was horribly miscast in Romeo and Juliet (1936), scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Though the film is gorgeous, Howard, in his forties, and his Juliet, Norma Shearer, in her mid-thirties, are both too old to portray a teenaged couple caught up in their first love. (Shakespearean scholars estimate that a real Romeo would have been 16 or 17 years of age and it’s directly mentioned in the text that Juliet has just turned 13.) But the rest of Howard’s films tonight — A Free Soul and Smilin’ Through, both also with Shearer, and Outward Bound (Howard’s Hollywood debut) and Captured! both with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. — look pretty interesting.

Wednesday, July 18
Tonight’s block of early Francis Ford Coppola work includes You’re A Big Boy Now at 8:00 p.m., The Rain People at 10:00 p.m., Dementia 13 at 12:00 a.m. Thursday, and Finian’s Rainbow at 1:30 a.m. I wouldn’t recommend Finian’s but I’m keeping an open mind about the rest.

Thursday, July 19
Apparently today’s films have a theme: jail. Whether it’s women behind bars (Caged, House of Women (1962)), escape (House of Numbers) or riot (Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison), TCM has every kind of filmic incarceration one could want during the daytime hours. I’ll be sure to record Ladies They Talk About, which stars Barbara Stanwyck as a gangster’s moll sent up for her role in a bank robbery.

At 8:00 p.m., TCM is featuring The Science of Movie Making, a block co-hosted by sound designer Ben Burtt and visual effects supervisor Craig Barron, both Oscar-winners in their fields, who have chosen films that have inspired them.

Friday, July 20
Stanwyck Pre-codes
***TCM PARTY***
Presumably in honor of Ms. Stanwyck’s 105th birthday (July 16), TCM has scheduled four films she made before enforcement of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Production Code (aka Hays Code) began in 1934. The pre-codes include Shopworn (1932), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), Illicit (1931) and Forbidden (1932). Look for us on Twitter…watch and tweet along with #TCMParty.

Saturday, July 21
To Have and Have Not (1944)
***TCM PARTY***
In Martinique during World War II, a fishing-boat captain (Humphrey Bogart) gets mixed up with the French Resistance and a beautiful saloon singer (Lauren Bacall). This was Bacall’s first film and she was such a natural that screenwriter William Faulkner started adding to her part. The critics said it had “much more character than story” and that it was “confusing and klutzy, the ending is weak, and the secondary characters are poor substitutes for Casablanca‘s (1942) memorable cast of heroes and villains” but I think it’s great. Look for us on Twitter…watch and tweet along with #TCMParty. Guest hosted by @joelrwilliams1.

http://youtu.be/90IxpYZjCOE

Sunday, July 22
If you haven’t seen Christmas in July (1940) at 10:30 a.m., Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) at 2:00 p.m., or The Great Escape (1963) at 8:00 p.m., definitely tune in for those. There’s a silent at 12:30 a.m. Monday, The Mating Call, and at 2:00 a.m. there’s The Leopard (Il gattopardo – 1963), starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon. Set in the early 1860s during the turmoil that preceded Italy’s unification, the film follows the slow fall of aristocratic Prince Fabrizio (Lancaster) and the parallel rise of upstart Tancredi (Delon). This film has lavish detail, gorgeously shot, and is unfortunately dubbed (you can’t have everything). It’s also a very poignant film, infused with a sense of nostalgia for a lost time and the inevitability of one generation letting another take over.

TCM Week – June 4-10

Not that anyone noticed that I stopped doing my weekly TCM picks, but there’s a very simple reason. My subscription to Now Playing, the TCM monthly magazine, ran out and I forgot to renew. Evidently I’m quite reliant on it because I missed two months of it and it’s too difficult to do picks without it. Everything is back to normal this month. Just so you know 🙂

Apparently Bette Davis (as Queen Elizabeth I) slapped Errol Flynn (as the Earl of Essex) so hard during the filming of Elizabeth and Essex that he saw stars.

Monday, June 4
8:00 p.m. The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
***TCM PARTY***
Possibly in honor of Elizabeth II’s real-life Diamond Jubilee, TCM has two Elizabeth I-related films tonight, the #TCMParty Private Lives at 8:00 and The Virgin Queen (1955) following at 10:00, both with Bette Davis as Britain’s best-loved monarch. (I just conducted a scientific poll via Google search and she is the one royal about whom people have the least bad things to say.) Watching her run a country while trying to keep the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) and Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) in line is quite a treat. Apparently Davis and Flynn were no more well-matched than their characters and feuded during filming to the point of physically injuring each other. Despite this, or because of it, this is a great period drama, with beautiful costumes, sets and lighting. Watch for Herbert Marshall and Joan Collins in Virgin Queen. Watch and tweet along with #TCMParty.

There’s a couple other people in the picture but whatever.

Tuesday, June 5
12:45 a.m. (Weds) Union Depot (1932)
A rather racy-sounding pre-code picture chosen for the presence of Joan Blondell and the fact that it takes place in real time, 20+ years before High Noon.

Looks like Orson Welles borrowed heavily from Peter Lorre’s look in Mad Love for the older Charles Foster Kane.

Wednesday, June 6
TCM has scheduled a bunch of 1930s horror films for daytime, several of which —Island of Lost Souls, Mark of the Vampire, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) — have the gorgeous Expressionistic cinematography I love so. I’ve chosen two I’ve not yet seen. Doctor X (1932) at 7:45 a.m. was directed by the versatile Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and is sung about in “Science Fiction/Double Feature,” the first number in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Mad Love (1935) at 3:30 p.m. shares a cinematographer, Gregg Toland, and some details with Citizen Kane. This film is one of several based on the novel Les Mains d’Orlac and it will be interesting to compare to The Hands of Orlac (1924), which starred Conrad Veidt as the recipient of the titular evil hands.

Thursday, June 7
8:00 p.m. Jailhouse Rock (1957)
***TCM PARTY***
This is one of the best Elvis Presley movies, along with Loving You and Viva Las Vegas. Unfortunately, it’s also his only his third movie, and he made quite a few more. However, nobody delivers a classic line such as “That ain’t cheap tactics, honey. That’s just the beast in me” better than Elvis. With special #TCMParty guest host @CitizenScreen.Watch and tweet along

Friday, June 8
TCM has scheduled an unofficial block to honor Alexis Smith on her birthday. Born in 1921, this Canadian actress, though not as well-known today as some of her contemporaries, had a career in movies, stage and TV for more than 50 years.
7:45 a.m. Dive Bomber (1941)
Smith had uncredited roles in 12 films before landing this, her first credited role, opposite Errol Flynn and Fred MacMurray as the girl who comes between them in a WWII drama made just before the U.S. entered the war. (Her last film role was in Age of Innocence (1993)).

9:30 a.m. The Constant Nymph (1943)
I won’t even front like I like this movie. I find it very odd and at times ridiculous. Joan Fontaine is supposed to be a teenager who separates her composer cousin (Charles Boyer) from his wife (Smith). (Seriously, am I the only one who thinks this is weird?) By the end of the film, I felt they deserved each other. But I’m going to watch it again just for Smith, as I’ve read this was her breakthrough role which led to her parts in Night and Day (1946) and The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947).

There’s a great summary of today’s TCM Gothic offerings here, courtesy of Classic Movies Examiner Jennifer Garlen.

Saturday, June 9
5:30 p.m. The Train (1965)
***TCM PARTY***
In the waning days of World War II, a French railway inspector who is also a member of the Resistance (Burt Lancaster…just go with it) is ordered by the Nazi-in-charge (Paul Scofield) to get a train through to Germany no matter what. Which wouldn’t be a big deal, except that nearly every important piece of art left in France is on that train. Directed by John Frankenheimer, this excellent film is an unpredictable chess match that’s as near to an anti-war statement as you’ll get in a WWII picture. Look for us on Twitter with #TCMParty.

Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, and someone in a sombrero

midnight The Mad Miss Manton (1938)
The Lady Eve co-stars Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda made this lesser-known comedy three years before Eve. Let’s see…great chemistry in a comedy/mystery with Hattie McDaniel…i’m so there.

Sunday, June 10
JUDY GARLAND’S 90th BIRTHDAY
You can’t really go wrong with anything today.