The Impressions That I Get

Between 1929 and 1949, studios like Warner Brothers and M.G.M brought together some of their biggest names for a few ‘all-star’ movies. The movies were made for two reasons. One was to show off the diversity, charisma, and versatility of a studio’s players. The other was to thank and support American soldiers fighting the war.

“Hollywood Canteen”, for example, promoted a real restaurant that let soldiers hang out with celebrities. Bette Davis and John Garfield host the festivities at this restaurant they established. Various stars perform within or talk with the movie’s soldier main characters. These films can be hard to watch because their plots tend to be shallow and corny. This flaw is counterbalanced by the pleasure of seeing familiar stars reinforce or contradict their personas. They reveal different sides of themselves and express affection for each other through interactions or impressions.

In my early days as a fan of Old Hollywood, I was always getting excited about discovering stars, movies, and directors for the first time. Through movies like “Hollywood Canteen” and “Thank Your Lucky Stars” I’ve gotten into a different habit. Instead of finding new personalities to love, I’m starting to spend more time getting joy from being surprised by ones I already know. Sometimes I’ll even like a star more than I did in the past because of how well they impersonate a favourite. I wasn’t too fond of Joan Leslie until I saw her homage to James Cagney in “Thank Your Lucky Stars”.

I’m sure memories of working with Cagney in “Yankee Doodle Dandy” had some influence on her ability to so amusingly capture the distinctive rhythm of his speaking patterns. I never liked Mickey Rooney much until I saw his Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore impressions in “Thousands Cheer”. Channeling both men, he re-creates a scene from “Test Pilot” and somehow sounds both grotesquely over-the-top and dead-on accurate at the same time.

“Thank Your Lucky Stars” has a dumb, unfunny, insignificant plot that is made endurable by scenes of various Warner Brothers singing, dancing, or just clowning around. Humphrey Bogart kids his tough guy reputation by failing to intimidate plump, blustery character actor S.Z. Sakall (who I will always love because of “Christmas in Connecticut”), then getting flustered when Sakall yells at him. In one of his all time cutest moments on screen, Bogart says to himself, “Gee, I hope none of my movie fans hear about this!”

One of the best scenes in “Thank Your Lucky Stars” presents Errol Flynn singing a song called “That’s What You Jolly Well Get”. He performs with a hammy British accent, bowler hat, and silly fake mustache. Strutting around a pub merrily, Flynn sings to boozehounds about a life of macho adventures and celebrates the action hero typecasting that dominated and advanced his career.

Flynn and Bogart alone made the movie worth watching for me, but my favourite performance in it is from Olivia de Havilland.

Even though I saw de Havlliand in a screwball comedy called “Four’s A Crowd” last year, I always think of her first and foremost as a serious actress, remembering her roles as poised and dignified women in films like “Gone with the Wind”, “The Heiress”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. That’s why I got such a kick out of seeing her mug like a cartoon character as she dances next to a singing Ida Lupino (another actress I associate with mature roles) in “Thank Your Lucky Stars”. It’s too bad De Havilland’s voice had to be dubbed. I can forgive her inability to sing because she makes up for it with adorably goofy facial expressions and lip syncing.

“The Adventures of Don Juan” (1948) is another movie that perfectly casts an actress I like in a very different role from what made me like her in the first place. The actress is Viveca Lindfors, who I’ve liked since first seeing her play my favourite kind of movie English teacher in 1985’s “The Sure Thing”. She’s a wise, whimsical soul who encourages students to live and write with passion.

In “The Adventures of Don Juan”, she’s a world away from that performance, playing Queen Elizabeth I of England! Only in the movies can you see the same woman be equally convincing as a 16th century royal and 1980s university professor. As I watched her scenes with Errol Flynn, I kept thinking about how cool it was that Lindfors had the necessary talent and career longevity to believably occupy such contrasting roles and periods in movie history.

Like “Queen Christina”, “The Adventures of Don Juan” sensitively tells the bittersweet story of a queen and commoner whose love is constrained by the values of their society. Lindfors and Flynn play some of my favourite people to ever find themselves in such a dilemma. It takes a woman of considerable beauty, heart, and grace to make one of history’s greatest lovers give up womanizing and choose love instead. Lindfors had all the qualities needed to embody such a woman. So did Mary Astor, who was ideal as Don Juan’s beloved in a 1926 silent picture about the notorious hedonist.

I think “The Adventures of Don Juan” has changed how I will perceive Viveca Lindfors in “The Sure Thing”. When I watch her tell students they should live life to the fullest, I can remember how she did that 37 years earlier as a queen whose beauty and intelligence could understandably captivate the legendary Don Juan.

I learned something from movies like “Hollywood Canteen”, “Thank Your Lucky Stars”, “Thousands Cheer”, and “The Adventures of Don Juan”. They demonstrate why I don’t have to constantly look for new stars to admire. Old favourites can be all I need. It’s a lot of fun finding new reasons to love them and even more fun watching them be loved and respected by their peers.


Christina and Zombina

There’s a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” moment that reminds me of my favourite movies. A father says to his son, “I can see in your face all the people I’ve loved in my lifetime.” He mentions the boy’s mother and grandparents as examples. I feel similarly about my favourite movies. Like loved ones with different personalities, their details vary (genre, director, cast, and decade), yet they share defining characteristics with the things I love most dearly in life.

I’ve been an avid fan of 1930s movies for almost 2 years now. “Queen Christina” is the only ’30s movie that I’ve loved as much as my most treasured films from the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. After watching this movie again, I realized it shares with them an idealistic heart and writing of a rare, distinguished sophistication.

Exploring the Swedish countryside, Christina discovers a kindred spirit when she meets a man who matches her eloquence and romanticism. Watching them discuss love, travel, and the necessity of independence in life, I recalled conversations that made me enamoured with friendships and relationships in movies like “Before Sunrise”, “The Sure Thing”, and “Lucas”. Later in the movie, Christina reflects on the demands of being a queen:

I have grown up in a great man’s shadow. All my life, I’ve been a symbol. A symbol is eternal, changeless…an abstraction. A human being is mortal and changeable, with desires and impulses, hopes and despairs. I’m tired of being a symbol, Chancellor. I long to be a human being! This longing I cannot suppress.

These words brought to my mind those of a man in another movie who decided that he actually wants to be a symbol…

As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol…
As a symbol, I can be incorruptible.
I can be everlasting.

Connecting “Queen Christina” to “Batman Begins” made me remember why I felt so grateful for that movie in 2005. I think my feelings echoed those of many Batman fans who grew up in the 1990s. After living through several Batman movies that were more fixated on images than ideas, it was refreshing to have one that focused on the hero’s philosophy more than gadgets and gimmicks. It just goes to show that directors, writers, and actors always make movies better (especially for me) when they delve deep into the hearts and minds of intelligent and likable characters.

I’m also excited to have found harmony between “Queen Christina” and some music I like. In the 2000s, I became aware of a band from England called ‘Zombina and the Skeletones’. As the name suggests, they’re a horror rock-themed band that performs songs related to subjects like scary movies, monsters, Halloween, and goth culture. Some of their songs are too silly and trivial for my tastes.

Others satisfy me on a superficial level because they’re catchy and fun. My favourites actually have poignancy and sincerity in their emotion. One of them is called “Christina”. Over the past year, I’ve been thinking about “Queen Christina” every time I listen to it. The song’s lyrics remind me of Queen Christina’s troubled life and its melody reminds of her 1933 movie’s melancholy ambiance.

Since the song wasn’t written specifically for “Queen Christina”, some of its lyrics are ill-suited for the movie and characters in it. One line that’s especially incongruous with them is “The ugliest angel of them all”. This is not the correct way to describe Greta Garbo or her charming co-star John Gilbert. When I listen to the song, I mentally re-write those lyrics so that they become ‘The loveliest angel of them all’. The idea of someone finding Greta Garbo ugly is ludicrous to me. It doesn’t make any sense. Maybe some people think Greta Garbo is ugly. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t wanna know.

Ever since “Christina” by Zombina and the Skeletones first reminded me of “Queen Christina”, I’ve wanted to make a music video that combines the two. I was inspired to go ahead and do it after recently watching “Queen Christina” for the third time in my life. You can watch the video below. If you click here to watch it on Youtube, you’ll find lyrics under the video. I encourage you to use my alternate lyrics for that ‘ugliest angel of them all’ line. Garbo and Gilbert both deserve a much better description. I can see one right in the song. Without giving away any of the movie’s significant events, I think it sums up Garbo’s performance quite well: “A dead star will fall…burning intensely much brighter than any other.”

“You Only Need One”

One time Orson Welles was waxing eloquent to me on the subject of the divine Greta Garbo, whose mystery and magical artistry he adored[…]

I said[…]wasn’t it too bad that, of all her more than two dozen silent and sound films, she had acted in only two really great pictures?

Welles looked at me for a long moment, then said quietly, “You only need one…”

– Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich says Greta Garbo’s only ‘great movies’ are “Camille” and “Ninotchka”*. I consider “Queen Christina” her third great movie next to those and agree that it’s too bad she didn’t make more. Like Bogdanovich, I want my favourite stars to be in many. At the same time, I think it’s healthy to think like Orson Welles and just be grateful if a revered star gets to make even one great movie. There’s no guarantee that any star ever will.

I realized this after watching some films starring an actress who seemed to spend most of her career being a consistent pleasure of inconsistent movies. In her prime, she made two major movies. One won a best picture Oscar. The other made her an icon. Neither achieved greatness more than fleetingly. This was Clara Bow’s fate.

Bow was one of the most gorgeous, pure, and engagingly charismatic women ever captured on film. Her every gesture and movement feels excitingly uninhibited. It’s a shame when one with such presence can rarely find productions worthy of her gifts. She earned iconic status with a magnificently spirited and modern performance in “It”. I wish the movie’s plot and other characters had matched her energy and originality. She is at a higher level.

The Oscar-winning “Wings” is a painfully bloated epic that triumphs in technical achievement much more than storytelling. Powerful moments are outnumbered by clunky scenes that go on too long. Provoked by my experiences watching these flawed Clara Bow movies, I embarked on a quest to find a more satisfying one. I wanted to see Bow’s always ebullient acting serve a story told with restraint and substance. I wanted a movie that deserved her.

My search for the ultimate Clara Bow classic took a promising turn when I found a quote from her fellow 1920s movie legend Louise Brooks. A film historian once neglected to mention Bow in a book about silent cinema. Brooks responded to his oversight with a letter that included the following words of self-deprecating outrage:

“You brush off Clara Bow
For some old nothing like [me].
Clara made three pictures
That will never be surpassed:
Dancing Mothers, Mantrap, and It.”

I have read reviews for many Clara Bow movies, including “It” and “Dancing Mothers”. They all have the same basic opinion: “She’s great. The movie is not.” I agree with this assessment of “It”. “Dancing Mothers” sounds very similar to “It”. “Mantrap” is a different story. I immediately became excited when I discovered that it was directed by Victor Fleming and places Bow (she of the hip ‘city girl’ persona) in Canadian wilderness! I remembered Fleming’s sumptuous visual style from seminal films “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” and I always get a kick out of seeing my home country showcased in a classy Old Hollywood production.

I was further intrigued after learning about Bow’s opinion of “Mantrap”. She once sent photos from it to her children. In an attached note, she wrote: “From the best silent picture I ever made”(!) I’m not sure if “Mantrap” is her best movie. It’s certainly special.

In some moments, Bow has the funny, goofy enthusiasm of a child. In others, she beguiles male co-stars with the very adult confidence of an exquisitely sensual coquette. I’ve said Kay Francis is my favourite flirt in the movies. Clara Bow challenges Francis for that title in “Mantrap”. Victor Fleming directed the movie beautifully, giving it a dreamily romantic ambiance. Bow and the Canadian landscape are shown off in luscious detail, her beauty at its peak.

“Mantrap” was a welcome change and an improvement from the last few Clara Bow movies I’d watched. While probably not the best Clara Bow movie ever, it’s at least a treat for her fans. I feel lucky to have observed another enchanting performance from the star, this time in distinctively lush surroundings. She does things I loved in her urban movies, while fascinatingly dealing with new challenges.

The flaws of “Mantrap” are a derivative plot, weak male leads, and disappointing story developments. Despite such problems, the movie and its leading lady are always beautiful. I want the films of my favourite stars to have many qualities. Sometimes I only need one.

* Peter Bogdanovich’s blog entry about “Camille” can be found here.