Favourite Movies: Notorious (1946)

“It is customary […] to maintain a certain knowing distance from the action, to view everything through a sophisticated screen.

[A good movie] slips around those defenses and engages us.”

– Crtic Roger Ebert, from a 2008 movie review

Movies are really nothing more than scenes, dialogue, and performances, arranged to look and feel certain ways by directors and others whose styles and sensibilities determine their pace and visual characteristics. As someone with an often overly analytical mind who has watched hundreds of movies released between 1920 and 2016, this is something I’m almost always aware of when watching them.

My thought process and experience make it increasingly difficult for me to enjoy the entirety of movies. Too often I find them to be frustrating mishmashes or complete wastes of time. These days, I’m likely to skip about 75% of those I attempt to watch. A lot of them lose my interest early and never get it back. Others are slightly better and still frustrating movies because they’re so damn inconsistent. Good scenes are followed by bad ones. Weak, forced, phony writing coexists with naturalistic, insightful dialogue. Strong characters and performances are tainted by close proximity to weak ones.

I quoted a review above because its reference to ‘defenses’ reminds me of my recent tendency to stubbornly reject movies. I’ve become so picky that it’s hard for most to crack through my ‘defenses’. Knowing a lot about movies and remembering so many of the past makes me painfully aware of how and why so many don’t work. I’ve come to the conclusion that very few movies are good or great from start to finish. The majority are much less, in my estimation…not very good at all, only good occasionally, or mostly bad, with the occasional flash of inspiration or appeal in individual performances, lines, and visual flourishes. I love good movies more than most things in life, but they’re so rarely better than inconsistent that I don’t like many.

Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” is one of those blessed productions that excels in every area of film making and never falters. To paraphrase Roger Ebert describing “The Dark Knight” relative to its comic book brethren, this is the kind of movie that slips around my defenses and engages me. I’m not a big fan of Cary Grant or Alfred Hitchcock. I’ve watched all of Hitchcock’s most revered movies and don’t like most of them. The only three that completely enthrall me are “Notorious”, “North By Northwest”, and “Psycho”.

Having just watched “Notorious” for the second time ever, I’ve come to the conclusion that part of what makes “North By Northwest” and “Psycho” so successful is how they draw inspiration from their 1946 predecessor. A crucial element in “Notorious” is the premise of a son being compelled towards evil by his mother’s influence.“Psycho” expands on that idea with dread fascination and deliciously terrifying results. In both “Notorious” and “North By Northwest”, Hitchcock proves that no one could harness, exploit, and highlight Cary Grant’s potential as a dramatic leading man better than him.

Before “Notorious”, I wasn’t even sure if Cary Grant had any talent. Women obviously found him very handsome and charismatic as a screen presence, but that doesn’t mean he could act. This way of thinking is probably a reason why the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences never gave him one of their acting awards for any of his individual performances. For the longest time, I believed they shouldn’t. I thought he was a fraud who just got by on his looks.

I don’t feel that way anymore, because of his performance in “Notorious”. He has a tricky part, playing a man who must be evasive, reserved, and guarded with emotions. He does that impeccably, while giving the audience hints of inner turmoil expertly suppressed. There is a scene he plays looking out the window isolated from other characters as they converse. Listening to Bergman and his bosses discuss disturbing news, he looks quite composed, putting on a straight face for those around him. Due to an excellent handle of understatement that he’d demonstrate even better later, I could sense his pain while he appeared calm to everybody in the room.

In “Notorious”, Cary Grant’s character falls in love with a woman after being assigned to have her become another man’s consort so she can spy on criminal activities. Grant’s Devlin is a man of high values. At first he doesn’t like the woman, believing that she’s impure and vulgar – a promiscuous drunk. Then he gets to know her and discovers how good she is. Their hasty courtship is all at once comedic, tragic, and romantic. She is so affectionate and eager, we understand why he comes to love her so easily. At the same time, there’s agony of her begging him to admit his feelings while he can’t. He wishes it were possible, but it’s his job to give her away.

Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman occupy the roles of two people at the mercy of an excruciatingly stifling dilemma in “Notorious”. The irony of their situation is devastating and they have to play some very complicated emotions as actors and characters. They have many reasons to despise both each other and themselves. These are always contradicted by the love that organically developed between them before their responsibilities got in the way. He loves her for who she really is, yet his assignment is forcing her to be the opposite.

She loves him for who he is and hates what he’s making her do. Resentment sets in when he reacts coldly to her reports of what she’s done for him. He has to appear unsympathetic because they could be (and sometimes are) seen by the enemy. We can understand why she is angry at degrading herself for him and the mission. There’s a scene where she conveys it through passive-aggressive smugness. Pretending to be flippant when she’s actually ashamed and bitter, Bergman casually says, “Just a minor item that you may want for the record. You can add Sebastian’s name to my list of playmates.” Sift through the discreet, production code-mandated 1940s language of her statement and you’re left with a disturbing implication:
“Oh, by the way, I fucked this guy for you.”

Cary Grant’s reacting facial expression shows masterful subtlety – perhaps the movie’s best example of how superbly he can act. He barely drops his unshakable facade of suave indifference, reacting just briefly and quietly enough for us to sense his pain. His hurt is hidden well, as it should be by a man in his secret agent position. Being watched, he can’t let her or anyone else know how much the news upsets him. He does just enough for us to know.

Further enhancing the picture’s depth and originality in story and characterization is Claude Rains as target of an intricate ruse being perpetrated by Grant, Bergman, and the American government. Rains provides another character and performance with so many more layers than most in movies. He is an associate of Nazis. Like Norman Bates in “Psycho”, he’s a man whose mother inspires him to harm others and it’s repugnant. He agrees to a cruel scheme that involves slowly poisoning his wife over an extended period. He creepily does horrible things, yet is one of the movie’s most pitiable characters, possibly second, behind Bergman and ahead of Grant.

The Rains character may be a weak-willed man with unsavoury alliances who willingly does something abominable to the heroic Bergman, but he also deserves sympathy. This is a man who has been in love with someone for years, and when she finally marries him, it’s under false pretenses. She does it just to dig up dirt on he and his so-called friends, who he knows will kill him if they find out. He’s also the only character in this movie who never lies about his feelings.

What we have in “Notorious” is Alfred Hitchcock proving the breadth of his directing prowess better than at any time before and three of movie history’s best performers doing their finest work…all at once! I don’t care much for most of Alfred Hitchcock’s work after and especially before “Notorious”, but believe this movie alone justifies his place in the pantheon of most honoured movie directors.

The way Hitchcock uses the camera in this movie is absolutely spectacular. From the early scenes, I was quite mesmerized by it. Right at the beginning, there are many examples of how he sets up shots that have exciting innovation, style, and impact. It’s so clever how he shows Ingrid Bergman’s point of view while driving with hair blowing in front her face by having it seem to hit the camera.

Tension is generated by shots of Cary Grant’s hands tentatively advancing towards her car’s steering wheel, nervous that he might have to intervene as she drunkenly swerves all over the road.

More obvious, yet no less creative and effective is another point of view shot with the camera spinning to show hungover perception.

Ingrid Bergman’s performance in this movie is so dead-on suited to her strengths that after first seeing it in 2012, I was motivated to seek out as many of her movies as possible. I got so anxious to find other movies that made such exquisite use of her. This is exactly what happened with Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins after I watched “Trouble In Paradise” for the first time. It was such a transcendent experience and they were all so glorious together. I was left consumed by a desire to recapture that thrill of seeing them again in roles they owned better than anyone else ever could.

I have watched so many Ingrid Bergman, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, and Miriam Hopkins movies because of “Notorious” and “Trouble in Paradise” because those productions taught me that when these people are paired with a right director and script, the results are as good as movies get for me. Ultimately, that’s how I define “Notorious”. It is a movie that almost makes me afraid to watch others (especially recent releases) because I know they’ll suffer by comparison. Like “Trouble in Paradise”, it brings to mind the concept of alchemy, which I know as a brilliant convergence of different individual elements into a perfect whole.

Five extremely talented people (Three cast, one director, and one writer) came together and created something that showcases them at the peak of their considerable powers. In its context, they are better than they’d ever been and ever would be. When it’s over, the entire movie is like a puzzle’s final piece clicking into place and rewarding us with a picture of overwhelming beauty and unexpected originality. Parts and whole, ends and means, all equally gratifying. Every aspect makes me grateful for where it goes and the journey getting there.

I’ve declared Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” my second favourite movie of the 1940s. I also made a GIF for it and my other favourites of the decade here.


A Woman of Action

There is no way Clara Bow can compare to Greta Garbo! But if you think about it, why not?

Had Clara’s screen image been as carefully crafted as Garbo’s, screen immortality would have been hers. Garbo had the luxury of having the great leading men opposite her. Clara did not.

Garbo had a great camera man in William Daniels, and had great directors.

Clara, for the most part, did not. Being thrown bad stories and little preparation for the talkies, Clara was set up for disaster.

Clara would later say,

“I had made [Paramount] millions with what I and many critics thought were lousy pictures,
but I received nothing but a salary,
untrained leading men, and any old story they fished out of the wastebaskets.”

– From article “The ‘It Girl’ of the Twenties”,
Written by Rudy Behmler
Published through “Films in Review” magazine

For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about this question: can someone be a great star without making a lot of great movies? Some people say “no”, because value as a star is determined largely by the quality and consistency of one’s films. I used to agree…until I discovered Clara Bow movies. Over the past 12 months, I have watched 7. I don’t consider any of them classics. I believe they’re full of wasted potential, disappointing writing, undercooked characters, implausible plot developments, and unsatisfying endings.

In spite of these issues, Clara Bow is without a doubt my favourite of all the movie stars I’ve watched in 2014. No matter what problems may plague them, Clara Bow movies will always have a key advantage over countless others: her. Some of my favourite film critics have eloquently reflected on what makes her special. Their words were an inspiration towards my attempt to explain that.

The manic, wide-eyed flapper Clara Bow[…]

Clara Bow, whose vitality was awesome and was combined with a childlike vulnerability, was for her period something like what Marilyn Monroe was for hers (and when she was past her peak, she, too, was celebrated by intellectuals.)

Bow’s infantile sexuality is high-voltage; she’s both repulsive and irresistible.

– Pauline Kael, Film Critic

Critic Leonard Maltin has called Bow “irrepressible”, “uninhibited”, “indefatigable” and “amazingly sensual”. Bow’s appeal has two sides and these words address each. She moves and speaks with the enthusiasm and playfulness of an anxious child, yet there’s an undeniably adult element to her. She is confidently, proudly, and openly flirtatious. The phrase “infantile sexuality” is accurate.

Children can have a sense of wonder in their eyes that isn’t possible later in life…except when Clara Bow has it. I see that in her eyes when she’s attracted to a man in my favourite of her performances. She comes up with methods of winning his affection that are immoral, dishonest, selfish, or dangerous…and makes them adorable too. Her actions are never mean-spirited. She seems to flirt because it feels more natural to her than anything else in the world.

Clara Bow wasn’t as elegantly dressed and groomed or fluid in movement as many desirable Old Hollywood stars. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, for example, had their hair and make-up very carefully arranged before slinking across the screen in smooth, aristocratic motions. Much of the time, Bow had messy hair, unglamorous clothing, and a rather dirty look. The description “both repulsive and irresistible” makes sense to me. I can see how her sloppy, aggressive quality could be a turn-on and a turn-off.

We’re pretty much playing basic emotions: love, anger, fear, pity. So the trick is whether you can come up with any fresh choices to present these common emotions.

– George C. Scott, Actor

From time to time I’m reminded of George C. Scott’s Rule No. 3 for judging movie acting: “Is there a joy of performance? Can you tell that the actors are having fun?”

– Roger Ebert, Film Critic

There’s so much joy of performance in Clara Bow’s acting. Many of her characters look high on life…as if just released from a cage and placed where they most want to be. She moves and expresses herself more freely and joyously than anyone else. Bow’s performances remind me of the old saying ‘Like a kid in a candy store’. Bow has been called a ‘whirlwind’, ‘wild child’, and ‘dynamite’. She could also be described as a ‘Human tornado’ and ‘Human fireworks display’.

I hate talkies. They’re stiff and limiting.

You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there’s no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me. [But] I can’t buck progress. I have to do the best I can.

– Clara Bow,
“Motion Picture Classic” magazine, 1930

Bow felt most comfortable in action-heavy roles. That doesn’t mean she was over-the-top or incapable of subtlety. She had a lot of naturalness and sincerity. Her facial expressions infused words on silent movie title cards with tangible emotion, attitude, and personality. I can’t think of any actress who did that better. Her characters had enormous passion. Once a Clara Bow character starts to love a man, you can be sure she’ll never stop, and there’s gonna be some big trouble for him if he doesn’t love her back!

My introduction to Clara Bow was 1929’s “Dangerous Curves”. In that movie, she plays someone in love with a weak, foolish character. This guy was like a metaphor for most movies in her career – unworthy of her heart, soul, and effort. Watching “Dangerous Curves”, I immediately liked Bow’s eager, high-pitched voice and rough New York accent, but didn’t quite love her yet.

I think the movie’s dumb, obvious characters and story got in the way of me fully appreciating Bow, even though I found her performance cute, genuine, and touching. After “It” (another movie I don’t like very much), my feelings towards Bow changed. I knew that even if her movies have huge deficiencies, I’d always be happy to watch her. Once I’ve started, I can’t stop. Just like her.

Further reading:

1. The Unknown Clara Bow
2. ‘You Only Need One’ (my first Clara Bow post)

Telescopes and Transportation

What makes a movie great is not its message or philosophy, but its immediate human experience, and the texture of that experience.

When we go to most movies[…]we remain aware that we’re sitting in the theater watching a movie. But sometimes, a few times a year, we grow so absorbed in the experience of a movie that we literally forget ourselves.

It’s sort of an out-of-the-body experience, we seem to be sharing the identities and experiences of the characters in the movie. In other words, the movie seems to be happening to us. We’re not watching it, we’re living it.

– Roger Ebert, Film Critic

I like movies[…]full of characters that we could discuss like we might discuss members of our own family. I love movies that create a complete world that you could talk about[…]after you leave the theater. The great movies take us to worlds we’ve never been before.

– Gene Siskel, Film Critic

My favourite movies in 2013 could be called ‘star vehicles’. They were designed to make stars look good (like a fancy car). Their actors and actresses play versions of characters that made them (or would make them) popular in other films. I think such productions could also be called ‘telescope’ movies’, because like telescopes, they allow us to see stars at their biggest and brightest.

“What’s the difference between an actor and a movie star? An actor is somebody who pretends to be somebody else. A movie star is somebody who pretends that somebody else is them.”

Nicholas Meyer, director of “Time After Time”, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan”, and
“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country”.

Most of my favourite movies in 2014 are less about stars and more about feelings and ideas. Only two are “telescopes” for their stars. I want to call the others ‘transportation movies’. Instead of establishing or reinforcing my affection for a star, they drew my attention to physical and emotional spaces of characters and their lives. The stories of these people transported me to perspectives, situations, and worlds I will never enter and examine in my life.

[Movies] allow us to enter other minds[…]by seeing the world as another person sees it.

We all are born with a certain package[…]We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people.

And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.

It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears.

It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Roger Ebert

The best-written movies I watched this year revolved around performances by people who weren’t familiar to me. Through passion, realism, and insight of writing and acting, they made me feel like everything happening to a character happened to me. I thought about characters instead of stars. I had sympathy and empathy for fictional people like I would for friends or family. Imaginary lives taught me so much about fears, dangers, choices, and possibilities that must be faced by humans in distress.

The best-paced movies were a series that transported me to film noir worlds. They were models of efficient and powerful storytelling, consistently suspenseful and never rushed, despite being under 80 minutes (with one even running only 60 minutes)! They illuminated the psychological motivations of cops and criminals. I watched heroic men who were so disciplined and committed to duty that they’d put aside all personal desires for the sake of justice. I saw the fear, resourcefulness, selfishness, and arrogance that motivates intelligent crooks to pull their enemies into dark, dangerous worlds.

Some European films have recently shown me the universality of certain human experiences. For example, adolescent growing pains. I keep thinking about a scene that brought back memories of my teenage angst. It shows teens alone in their rooms, obsessing over someone they barely know, surrounded by music that reflects their feelings in lyrics. I remember doing the same thing at 17 years old.

I will always love movies, but not always for the same reasons. This year, I appreciated how movies immersed me in identities, experiences, and worlds of characters who became like friends or family. I loved and cared about them. I could relate to them because we had similarities, while also learning from our differences.

Applying what I’ve learned from such characters and their experiences could help me become a better person. In 2013, I loved movies most for making me happier. This year, I loved them most for making me smarter. They gave me access to complicated and challenging lives. By visiting those lives, I’ve gained wisdom and memories that I’ll be grateful to have for the rest of mine.

The Lasting Miss Crawford

As the end of this year gets closer, I’m thinking about movies, actors, and actresses I’ve loved most over its 12 months. I’m also looking back on the history of “Garbo Types!” as I revisit subjects addressed in the past. It’s like making sequels. After my loosely connected posts related to “The Paleface” and “Son of Paleface”, I’m doing a more ‘direct sequel’ by reflecting on Joan Crawford again.

I remember how I felt when I wrote about her way back in January. I was so moved by 1931’s “Possessed” that I wanted to immediately go online and announce my love for this woman to the world. I can never forget how she looked into Clark Gable’s eyes while singing “How Long Will It Last?” and wondering about his feelings for her. I questioned my feelings too. Would other movies and performances disappoint me and diminish my affection for her? Or would I continue to find ones that reinforce and sustain it?

9 months later, I’m still a Crawford fan, thanks in part to her performances in several ‘rags to riches’ stories. I recently learned that audiences in the ’30s loved watching her play low class working girls who attain high class lives. Girls in movies may do that either by being honest and hardworking underdog heroes or gold digging villains. Joan Crawford has played characters who didn’t fit into one category or the other, landing in between the two extremes.

They support their families by doing such difficult jobs as waitress, maid, or burlesque dancer…like good girls. They choose men based on wealth instead of love…like bad girls. I’m emotionally engaged by contradictions of these characters and conflicting feelings they provoke. I find myself switching between sympathetic and disappointed. When a girl exploits or hurts rich men because she doesn’t want to be poor anymore, I understand the why behind actions while disapproving of the how.

In movies like “Possessed” (1931) and “Sadie McKee” (1934), I can’t keep my eyes off Joan Crawford…and not just because of her beauty (although it’s definitely a factor)! A more significant cause of my fascination is complexity of her characters. Depth, vulnerability, and conviction make them (and my feelings) unpredictable and changeable. In spite of their sins, I want Crawford’s characters to be redeemed, not punished. She makes them forgivable with heartfelt acting that conveys how much they want to do the right thing.

Crawford’s social climbers were never passive and always flawed, with passion that gave resonance to their stories. This year, Joan Crawford has been responsible for many of my favourite characters and performances in movies. I can think of one reason that’s more important than any others. It may explain why her career started in the 1920s and continued until 1970: She was built to last.

Trigger Happy

I’ve been thinking about how the Internet has negatively affected me as a movie fan. A lot of people online are fixated on ratings and analyzing movies to excess. I got caught up in that for awhile. Every time I finished watching a movie, I made all this extra work for myself. First, I’d have to determine why it should be deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Then, I had to figure out an appropriate star rating or number out of ten to assign it. Lots of pretentious judging. I think it’s better to politely and maturely explain one’s reaction to movies, instead of just arrogantly dissecting, labeling, or insulting them.

I’ve adapted a new approach to watching movies. Its purpose is to help me avoid being smug towards them. Now, I almost always watch nothing but movies I like from start to finish. If I can’t do that, I usually skip the movie. This way, I can focus on positives. Ratings would be redundant because they’d all be the same (i.e. between 8 and 10 out of 10 or 4-5 stars). I can’t believe I ever wasted my time watching movies I don’t like, then going online to broadcast mean comments or stupid ratings. These days, I usually only put up with frustrating movies if they feature a favourite actor or actress. I trust these people and their charisma to make any movie bearable.

It has been difficult to let go of my old hypercritical attitude. “Son of Paleface” made it easy by reminding me of what it’s like to be so busy having fun with a movie that I can’t think about things like ratings and criticisms. This is a loose sequel* to “The Paleface”. It reunites Bob Hope and Jane Russell as new characters. Hope is absurdly cast as son of his character from the previous movie.

Russell does everything I loved seeing her do in the first ‘Paleface’ movie and more. Once again, she plays a tough girl who is handy with a gun. What’s new (and a welcome change) is how she divides her time between being a singing saloon girl and notorious bandit. As saloon girl, the star gets a chance to show off musical talent and a voluptuous figure like she did in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (the movie that introduced me to Russell and made me love her).

The songs she sings are energetic, cheerful, and cleverly-written. The Oscar-winning “Buttons and Bows” from “The Paleface” (still among my favourite songs heard in movies this year) gets a reprise, sung as a duet by Russell and Roy ‘The (Singing) King of Cowboys’ Rogers. Bob Hope repeatedly interrupts them with new spoken word lyrics. Somehow, he’s simultaneously annoying and amusing.

“Son of Paleface” is the kind of sequel that strives to be bigger and better. More songs and characters, more elaborate stunts, and more ambitious action sequences. The cast is expanded by both Roy Rogers and ‘Trigger’, his horse. Introduced in opening credits as ‘The Smartest Horse in Movies’, Trigger lives up to his reputation. In a hilarious scene, he and Bob Hope fight over bed covers. Every time Trigger pulled the covers with his teeth, I laughed harder.

Other highlights include a surreal desert mirage, Russell taking a bubble bath, her secret hideout (which looks like something out of a comic book movie), and a comedic action sequence that immediately brought to mind a classic scene from “The Simpsons”.

I like the first ‘Paleface’ movie a little more than the second. I wasn’t always pleased to see Bob Hope and Jane Russell sharing screen time with Roy Rogers. His heroics bring some exciting action to the plot, yet he feels like a bit of a ‘third wheel’ who needs to lighten up. I love Hope’s reaction when he asks Rogers, “Don’t you like girls?” and the stolid dork replies, “I’ll stick to horses, Mister”.

Both of these movies feature an Oscar-nominated song that I love. In “Son of Paleface”, it’s called “Am I In Love?” The lyrics remind me of what I’ve been saying about how people should try not to risk making movies less enjoyable by analyzing and evaluating so much.

Am I in love?
Well, I really couldn’t say!
I don’t know why I’m feelin’ this way
But the feelin’ feels okay!

“Am In Love”
(Lyrics by Jack Brooks)

Like love, movies are sometimes better experienced without strained reflection. There is no need to rigidly assess and define. The pleasures of something can render a cataloging of its flaws pointless. “Son of Paleface” is broad, silly, and corny. It lacks believable character development and the flimsy, implausible plot is mostly an excuse for visual and verbal jokes. I’m sure many folks would happily put down the movie and rate it poorly for those reasons. If they do, I don’t want to hear about it. Is this a ‘good’ movie or a ‘bad’ movie? It’s a movie that makes me smile. That’s enough.

* Just like “Son of Paleface” is loosely a sequel to “The Paleface”, what I’ve written above is kind of a sequel to something I wrote in February.

Suffers in Dresses

Her films were invariably melodramatic, often illogical, always peppered with bizarre situations.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a line, a situation, even a moment[…]which has any check on reality. [This] is the main reason people went to movies back in the 1930s…

Audiences didn’t want reality.

Kay suffers, and then suffers some more, as she constantly changes clothes[…]and few wore clothes more attractively than Kay Francis[…]

A perfect example of what was then known as ‘The Kay Francis Formula’. Movies like this kept Warner Brothers in the money for years.

– Robert Osborne,
‘Turner Classic Movies channel host

I became a Kay Francis fan based on her performances in comedies. Over the past two years, I’ve been wondering why she made so few, spending more time in melodramas. Thanks to the enlightening explanation above, her career choices now make sense to me. Francis made those movies because they were what people wanted from her. Moviegoers liked seeing her play characters whose defining characteristics are emotional turmoil and striking outfits.

People can see the same actress very differently. Kay Francis is one of three performers who recently reminded me of that. Joan Blondell and Claudette Colbert are the others. My favourite Colbert performance is in “It’s a Wonderful World”. I like Blondell most in “There’s Always A Woman”. I assumed that anyone who likes the two actresses would agree with me. I was shocked to discover that some people think they were miscast in those films! It has been suggested that Colbert and Blondell were better off playing more mature characters. I marvel at the diversity of human opinion.

Many Kay Francis fans must have thought “I Found Stella Parish” and “Stranded” were good, because her popularity did not begin to wane until years after them. My reaction to both movies was mostly one thought: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste…so is Kay Francis”.

“Trouble in Paradise” contains what I define as a perfect Kay Francis performance. I doubt she ever played another person who was as glamourous, sexy, saucy, and desirable as Madame Colet. To me, she is the ultimate ideal Kay Francis character – fashionable and eloquent, oozing style through both words and wardrobe.

“Jewel Robbery” is another movie with a Kay Francis performance that I can treasure. She acts with giddy enthusiasm, a breath of fresh air after being subjected to her more oppressive downbeat movies. The only thing I love more than what Kay does in this movie is the way she does it, especially in her first and last scenes. If I had to choose my favourite last shot in movie history, it would be hard to decide between “Jewel Robbery” and “Queen Christina”.

There’s an episode of “The Simpsons” that starts with Bart and Lisa playing a game using made-up Native American names. Inspired by the 1990 film “Dances with Wolves”, Bart chooses ‘Dances In Underwear’ for himself and refers to his brainy sister as ‘Thinks Too Much’ (a good name for me too). I think the most appropriate name for Kay Francis in such a game would be ‘Suffers in Dresses’.

It sounds like many 1930s film fans were pleased to see her do that and not much else. As long as the majority liked Kay as victims in gaudy costumes, she was justified in sticking to that formula. After all, embracing her typecasting kept Kay popular and financially stable for years. I’m trying to just be grateful for my favourite Kay Francis performances, instead of being frustrated that so few exist.

It’s difficult for me to be okay with Kay’s career trajectory. I watch some of her movies and wonder how people could be satisfied with them. I feel like fans should have demanded more from her. I don’t know if doing so would have inspired Kay to be pickier about roles. If I could, I’d take a time machine into the 1930s and set myself up as an agent to stars like her. After successfully giving career advice to ‘Suffers in Dresses’ (i.e. do more comedies!), I’d go on to help Greta Garbo (‘Wants To Be Alone’) and Clara Bow (‘Flirts With Everyone’).

I have a lot of love for these actresses. If only more of their performances reinforced that love, instead of testing how much disappointment it can endure. Greta Garbo played too many misguided women who cheat on lovers (often without convincing reasons), instead of roles like ‘Ninotchka’ and ‘Marguerite Gautier’, which expanded her horizons as an actress. Clara Bow deserved better men to flirt with in movies, instead of being stuck with wimps and weirdos. As for Kay…imagine if most of her films had been as interesting as her clothes in them. Instead of ‘Suffers in Dresses’, she might have been better described as ‘Makes Good Movies’!

The Half-Time Report

These days, a lot of people worldwide are watching a certain sport’s championship tournament on television. So am I. Every game has a ‘Half-Time Report’ between its two periods of play. Analysts use it to reflect on what’s happened so far. Some film critics do a movie version halfway into the year, presenting ‘half-time highlights’ after 6 months of screenings. I’m doing one here. I can’t create a top ten only made up of movies because I haven’t seen enough that meet my standards for such a list. I’m mixing movies with performers instead.

Favourite Movies: “The Prize” and “The Richest Girl in the World” are not the best movies I’ve seen this year…just two that made me happier than most. “The Prize” reminded me of some movies I love and felt fresh at the same time. Paul Newman is ingratiating as a mellow, lazy, and witty drunk who becomes a sincere and desperate hero. I was pleased to see Edward G. Robinson in an important small role, making a smart career choice long after his ‘glory years’.

“The Richest Girl in the World” gave me something I’ve been wishing for ever since I saw “Trouble in Paradise” two years ago –
a funny and touching movie with Miriam Hopkins in the lead role, showing off all the personality traits that made me love her in that movie. She brings her endearing nervous energy, insecurity, and stubbornness to the part of a wealthy, romantic idealist in love.

Favourite Performances By An Actor: I’ve liked Gary Cooper and his acting in the past. A Cooper performance had never made me emotional until I saw “Pride of the Yankees” and “Sergeant York”. Coop plays passionate characters more subtly than many actors, not ever talking loud and fast or having wild facial expressions and body movements. He suggests deep feeling with calm dignity. He can express and inspire emotion while being fun too. I love his playful courtship of Teresa Wright in “Pride of the Yankees” and pious, polite manner with a cute Southern accent in “Sergeant York”.

Favourite Performances By An Actress: In “The Great Lie”, Mary Astor is fussy, self-absorbed, and egotistical. In “Dodsworth”, she is full of kindness, sympathy, and generosity. To look at the two performances is to see the breadth of her range as an actress. I’ll never forget her most dramatic scene in “The Great Lie”. I think it’s best described as ‘ferocious’. I love that word. I so rarely get to use it in a sentence. I wish Astor had more screen time in “Dodsworth”. She makes every minute precious, especially at the end. Her presence and performance are key to its impact. I’ve seen more movies starring Mary Astor than most people will ever see starring anyone. I can’t get enough of them. If she’d changed her name to ‘Mary Awesome’, it wouldn’t be arrogant…it would be accurate!

Favourite Adolescent Performance: In my eyes, no movie teenager has ever grown up as movingly as Anne Shirley in 1934’s “Anne of Green Gables”. The evolution of her “Steamboat ‘Round the Bend” character is even more uplifting because she starts out so hateful. Shirley often conveys this character’s vulnerability with hands. Her fingers bend and clutch with eager longing in lovely, melancholy body language. Twice this year, Miss Shirley has captivated me through delicate portrayal of a naive, reckless child who overcomes humble beginnings and blossoms into a sweet, sensitive young lady.

Favourite ‘New Discovery’ Actor: “International House” features a huge cast of big personalities. When W.C. Fields shows up, he surpasses everyone in bravado. His scenes made me immediately want to see the mercurial loudmouth in his own movie. I started with “It’s A Gift”. This movie shows that in addition to ‘life of the party guy’, Fields could also play a simultaneously grumpy and likable regular fella. Watching him deal with a nagging wife, selfish kids, and obnoxious neighbours, I realized something. Even though W.C. Fields has an Old Hollywood look, his comedic attitude and perspective are as relevant today as they were 80 years ago.

Favourite ‘New Discovery’ Actress: In “Mexican Spitfire” and “Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event”, Lupe Velez is a true screwball original. She kept me on her side at all times, despite being shrill and petulant like a spoiled brat. Her manic antics made me laugh harder and more often than any other actress I’ve watched this year. A woman who constantly argues, deceives, and bosses others around to get her way sounds like a nightmare. The energetic Velez made these actions adorable to me. She giggles, shouts, winks, and runs around through two righteously wacky performances. They made her my favourite actress of those I’d never seen before 2014.

For me, movie watching is sometimes similar to playing a sport, except without physical exercise (unfortunately)! I can win or lose, winning when I like a movie, and losing when I don’t. I also think of myself like a coach hoping to find new players for my ‘dream team’. I find new all-stars every time I’m exposed to the work of actors and actresses like those I wrote about above. If I find more, perhaps I’ll expand my 2014 dream team in December. I need to see more silver screen players in action before I ‘draft’ again. Until then, stay tuned…and thanks for reading! Now…back to the game in progress!

Born to Play Death

I became interested in the film “Orpheus” when I was doing research about Greta Garbo last year and came across critic Roger Ebert’s review of it. Here are the lines that got my attention:

The weakness in the cast is Maria Casares, as the Princess, death’s embodiment.

She lacks the presence for the role. Despite all the tricks of costuming and makeup, she is slight and inconsequential. Cocteau wanted either Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich,

And to imagine either one as the Princess is to see the film with its final piece in place.

(There is a moment that would have become famous if performed by either one[…])

Ebert’s review made me curious to see what this Princess character was like. I wondered if I’d agree that she’s an ideal role for Garbo or Dietrich. When I watched the movie, I not only agreed…
I felt cheated by the absence of both actresses! I just kept thinking:
It is TRAGIC that this character wasn’t played by Garbo or Dietrich!

“Orpheus” is inspired by a story in Greek mythology. It’s about how characters from the ‘underworld’ (the place where people supposedly go after dying) interfere in a man’s life. Maria Casares plays ‘The Princess’, who is actually death itself. She reminds me of the Death character in “The Seventh Seal”. Both are ominous, intimidating figures whose interactions with humans have a fascinating solemnity. Watching “Orpheus”, I found it quite obvious that Casares was cast partially because she looked a bit like Garbo. Her make-up even seems designed to emphasize their resemblance.

Based on her performance in “Orpheus”, I think Casares is a good actress, yet I share Ebert’s belief that she “lacks presence” and “seems inconsequential”. In having this reaction, I’ve realized something about acting that never occurred to me before: someone can play a role perfectly, yet not be the best possible person for it!

Casares is an intriguing guide through the movie’s bizarrely twisted world as it veers between melancholic and darkly humourous. I see a lot of talent and effort in the performance she gives. Her problem isn’t being a bad actress. It’s simply not being Garbo or Dietrich!
The original way that they moved, spoke, or conveyed thoughts and feelings with their faces had a bewitching and magnetic elegance.

No actress could command attention on screen and deliver dialogue with the magic they had. Critic Gene Siskel once made an insightful observation about Greta Garbo’s acting that explains a key reason why I think she’s just right for the role of a supernatural being.

Siskel said that Garbo had an “ethereal” quality. She seemed angelic in performances, often wistfully looking to the sky during scenes. It was as if she received signals from some unseen heavenly force, emoting like a woman possessed. This sort of movement befits a majestic female character who is beyond human and capable of confidently going back and forth between worlds of life and death.

The Princess/Death is a cold, harsh, authoritative force of nature who secretly harbours a romantic longing. Those qualities connect her with Marlene Dietrich, another woman I see as otherworldly. She specialized in playing women like The Princess who were icy on the surface, concealing a tender heart beneath her cool exterior.

Deep voices, extraordinary accents, alluring faces, and lavish make-up give Garbo and Dietrich auras that cannot be duplicated. Some people call them goddesses, and I approve of that description.

Several times in their careers, these two actresses gave fans the gift of seeing them in a role they were clearly born to play. Greta Garbo blessed us with “Queen Christina” and “Ninotchka”. Marlene Dietrich did the same in “The Scarlet Empress” and “Desire”. Such events exemplify perfect marriages between actress and character.

Jean Cocteau offered Garbo and Dietrich another of those marriages through ‘Death’ in “Orpheus“. I wish they hadn’t rejected it. What a missed opportunity. Of all the potential roles they didn’t play, I consider this the most unfortunate case of ‘One that Got Away’.

Lessons From Wendy Hughes

On March 8, 2014, Australian actress Wendy Hughes died. For years, I’ve known her only from a single TV performance. She was on the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in a 1993 episode called “Lessons”. She played a co-worker of main character Captain Picard. They fell in love. Their courtship unfolds with thoughtful writing and performances, creating one of Star Trek’s finest love stories. The reserved and dignified Captain Picard character had very few love interests. Hughes was my favourite. She’s perfect for her part, always convincing as someone defined by ambition, pride, maturity, intelligence, professionalism, and a gentle heart.

The death of Wendy Hughes got me thinking about how much I loved the only performance I’d ever seen from her and made me want to see others. I got my first chance last month when the movie “Lonely Hearts” was on TV. I was surprised to see her in a physically unflattering role. She plays a shy, nervous, and frumpy young office worker who dates a troubled older piano tuner.

Her natural beauty is muted and concealed by scraggly hair, big glasses, and assorted boring clothing. The movie is a sad love story about two goodhearted characters who like each other, yet have a difficult time because of their insecurities. The characters’ lives are depressing and the sluggishly-paced plot takes them in some disappointing directions. I liked the movie in spite of these negative characteristics because of its sensitive writing and acting.

Hughes was dubbed Australia’s ‘hottest leading lady’ in the 1980s, winning the Australian Film Institute’s equivalent of a best actress Oscar. Admirers give her credit for influencing Australian stars like Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, and Judy Davis. She never achieved their level of success in America and didn’t seem to mind. As a private person devoted to her craft, she probably had no desire for fame. Even if it wasn’t important to her, I wish more people outside of Australia had appreciated Wendy Hughes. When I really like an actress, I just want everyone else on earth to follow my lead.

The movie poster for “Lonely Hearts” has a tagline that I love: “She’s afraid it may be too soon. He’s afraid it may be too late”. This line eloquently explains the main cause of conflict between the movie’s couple. I’m sure it applies to so many lovers in other films and real life as well. The line also reminds me of Wendy Hughes.

Dead at 61, she left this earth too soon, but it’s never too late for one to start watching and enjoying her work. That’s what I hope to do in the coming months. If I’m lucky, most of it will be more upbeat than “Lonely Hearts” and show Hughes with the beauty, charm, and sweetness that made me love her Star Trek performance. I’ve learned a few lessons from re-discovering Wendy Hughes:

1) If I like a person’s acting in anything (even just one episode of a TV series), I should find out what else they’ve done. There’s always a chance that many lovely performances and films await me.

2) Just because someone never became a star in America doesn’t mean they weren’t talented and their career isn’t worth exploring.

3) Any woman good enough for Captain Jean-Luc Picard deserves further examination. Especially if she’s played by Wendy Hughes!

4) With Wendy Hughes in the right romantic role, I can be sure of the following: No man is too good for her, few are good enough, and when she finds one who is, I’m going to see something very sweet.