The Weepiest Man

“The Pride of the Yankees” is a biopic and a baseball movie. I appreciate it most as a love story. I’ve admired Gary Cooper in many films. This is the first in which his performance had a strong emotional effect on me. Teresa Wright’s performance as his wife was equally potent. The love between their characters is summed up in a song that foreshadows what it will be, right at the moment when it’s about to blossom. Like “How Long Will It Last?” in “Possessed”, Irving Berlin’s “Always” resonates with me because it has a beautiful melody and poetic lyrics that remind me of my own feelings while expressing something meaningful about certain people and their story. When Gehrig dances for the first time with the girl he will marry, they hear a woman singing lyrics that are the most perfect description of an ideal spouse I’ve ever heard:

“When the things you’ve planned
Need a helping hand
I will understand
Days may not be fair
That’s when I’ll be there
Not for just an hour
Not for just a day
Not for just a year
But always.”

“The Pride of the Yankees” really got to me, even when it went for emotion in obvious, predictable, and familiar ways. For example, a scene in which Gehrig visits the hospital and makes this deal with a bedridden sports fan: I’ll hit two home runs for you if you promise to fight for your recovery. Years later, the recovered boy approaches and thanks Gehrig. I couldn’t help but shed tears, despite knowing that the boy’s situation and character arc were pure melodrama clichĂ©. I remember seeing it parodied on “The Simpsons”, when Mr. Burns announced the following to a football team:

Men, there’s a little crippled boy sitting in a hospital who wants you to win this game.
I know because…
I crippled him myself to inspire you.

My most copious tears flowed in sync with those of Gehrig’s wife when she wept right before and during Gehrig’s historic speech that concludes the movie. My reactions to the crippled boy and speech (also parodied memorably on “The Simpsons”, complete with the echoes that famously punctuated it) made me realize something. If a sincere emotional moment is done well, its power over me can’t be diminished by a good parody. “The Pride of the Yankees” has now surpassed “Camille”, “Stella Dallas”, and “Imitation of Life” (1959) as the movie that made me cry harder than any other. I blubbered so embarrassingly that I’m glad no one else was in the room with me. I sounded like a whimpering puppy. Today, I consider myself the weepiest man on the face of the earth.


Wavishing Kay Fwancis

January 13 marks the birth of Katharine Edwina Gibbs, better known by her stage name of ‘Kay Francis’. This year, I spent much of that day watching some of the Turner Classic Movie channel’s 12 hour Kay Francis movie marathon. I can sit through just about anything if she’s in it. Even if a movie isn’t completely satisfying, she makes it worth watching with her luminous screen presence, through which she conveys infectious enthusiasm and amusement.

Of six time Kay Francis co-star William Powell, Roger Ebert once said, “William Powell is to dialogue as Fred Astaire is to dance. His delivery is so droll and insinuating, so knowing and innocent at the same time, that it hardly matters what he’s saying”. I have a similar perception of Kay Francis. I love listening to her no matter what she’s saying and when she speaks words that are actually funny and clever in her melodic voice, it’s like listening to music with superior vocals and lyrics. Sometimes I just love Kay’s lines because her tendency to pronounce ‘Rs’ like ‘Ws’ (hence the nickname ‘Wavishing Kay Fwancis’) makes them cuter than they’re supposed to be. I kept smiling during “Secrets of An Actress” as she repeatedly addressed her friend “Marion” as “Mawian”.

I love how when Kay Francis is in a good mood on screen, she looks happier to be alive and herself than anyone, always game for some banter or verbal one-upmanship with a worthy partner. Fed up with fame, Kay Francis once said, “I can’t wait to be forgotten”. She got her wish. The one-time ‘Queen of Warner Brothers’ is almost completely unknown today. I know I’ll never forget her. Movies that would be forgettable without her are the domain of lines that reside in my memory, ready to be accessed when I want to smile. Unfortunately, very few of Kay’s movies provided co-stars and scripts that consistently put her life force and gift of gab to their best use. I cherish the movies that did, like “Trouble In Paradise”, “One Way Passage”, “Girls About Town”, and “Jewel Robbery”. When a movie gets it as right as those do, my heart soars. SEWIOUSLY.

How Long Will It Last?

One of the easiest ways for an actress to win my heart is through song. I got hooked on Marlene Dietrich from the moment her rendition of “Falling in Love Again” met my eyes in “The Blue Angel”. I wanted to watch every Ginger Rogers movie I could find after “Gold Diggers of 1933” started with her performance of “We’re in the Money”. Jean Arthur captivated me for the first time belting out “The Iowa State Song” in “A Foreign Affair”. Now I’ve got a new perspective on Joan Crawford. As with those other women, it was inspired by a good performance that includes memorable singing.

In “Possessed”, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable are a beautiful couple. Gable is a perfect screen partner for any actress. Crawford’s performance is by far my favourite I’ve seen from her. She’s daring, brutally honest, and like many great movie heroines, willing to bravely make a painful, selfless sacrifice out of love. On top of all that, she sings an unforgettable love song in THREE languages!

This is something I love about classic Hollywood. The stars made so many movies that even after I’ve been unimpressed by several, I can never be completely sure that my feelings towards them won’t change. How long will my new affection for Miss Crawford last? I don’t know. I’ve learned from it that one can never count these actresses out. There’s always a chance they’ll surprise you.

It Started with Eve (1941)

I love how a movie with this title ended up being the first I watched in a new year. So appropriate, and totally unplanned. The title is never explained in the movie. I assume it refers to women meaning trouble for men since time immemorial. This is the second picture I’ve ever seen starring Deanna Durbin. It was shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel to commemorate Durbin’s 2013 death. I didn’t care for Durbin when I saw her on screen for the first time in 1940’s “It’s A Date”. I don’t think she gave a bad performance. I just felt she and Kay Francis (the reason I watched the movie in the first place) were undermined by the weakness of its writing. The whole project felt like a flimsy excuse to show off Durbin’s talent at singing opera style and it didn’t matter to me since that style turns me off.

“It Started with Eve” was a big improvement, giving Durbin a good character to play in a well-told story. She stars as a woman who agrees to be a man’s pretend fiancĂ© in order to appease his dying father. The man is played by Robert Cummings, who I found mostly annoying (although he and Durbin have one very amusing scene together). The father is played by Charles Laughton, who I’ve enjoyed in every role I’ve seen him play except “Mutiny on the Bounty”. Interactions between the Laughton and Durbin characters were my favourite parts of the movie. In addition to several funny scenes, they also share serious moments that reminded me of the moving father and daughter-in-law relationship of the emotionally effective “Tokyo Story” .

Durbin has impressive comic timing in her lighter scenes and when she cried for the dramatic ones, I really cared and felt sad for her. The only part of Durbin’s performance I didn’t enjoy was her singing because I never like opera singing. Durbin is always either touching or fun in the movie, just as her role requires. I quickly realized that she truly was a REAL actress, not just the singer of limited acting talent that I assumed she was based on “It’s A Date”.
I only wish she hadn’t sang in a style I find grating, no matter who is singing. When Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne introduced “It Started with Eve”, he suggested that anyone watching the movie would understand why Durbin was so adored. Speaking for myself, I can say he was right.