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.
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.”
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.
At the end of every year since 2012, I’ve made a top ten list of favourite movies I saw for the first time in its 12 months. Four months into 2014, I was starting to think I might not make a list this year. While I liked most of the movies I’d seen, there weren’t any that enthralled me like my past list choices. “Mexican Spitfire” and “The Prize” changed that. Their stars are a big reason why. Once in awhile, I’m introduced to a star who is cute in a way that feels fresh and original. It’s like there are countless variations on the basic quality of ‘cuteness’, and Old Hollywood has an actress for each one.
My new favourite is Lupe Velez. She’s headstrong, hot-tempered, mischievous, and adorably energetic as the title character of “Mexican Spitfire”. 24 hours before seeing the movie, I wasn’t even aware of her existence. All it took was one performance to make me love Velez the way I’ve loved other actresses for years. It looks like typecasting (including endless weak sequels) and a tragic personal life prevented Velez from making many good movies. I am eager to track down and savour watching the rare few I can find.
“The Prize” features a star performance that was revelatory in a different way. It wasn’t a case of me not knowing the star. I just never knew he could be so fun. I’ve respected Paul Newman for many famous roles he did over five decades, without considering him a favourite actor. He lacked a certain offbeat quirky quality that is common among actors I like. In “The Prize”, he resembles them more than ever before, giving a light performance of dichotomies. He’s a womanizer who drinks too much and slurs, yet has articulate charm and a romantic side. When he works to expose a nefarious cover-up, he’s desperate, determined, wry, and freaked out at the same time – an appealing mix of qualities for a hero.
Written by “North by Northwest” screenwriter Ernest Lehman, “The Prize” sometimes riffs on that film. Watching “North by Northwest” for the second time recently, I noticed that it’s funnier than I remembered. Subtle, sly, and subversive humour is sprinkled throughout the exciting thriller. “The Prize” is similar, with more comedy. Newman and his female co-stars banter with the playful wit of a James Bond and his more assertive, independent women.
“The Prize” also conjured up memories of “All Through The Night”, another thriller-comedy about a man hot on the trail of creepy, droll, and intelligent villains. A comedic highlight of both movies is the hero making trouble by crashing a cult-like group’s meeting. My only complaint about “The Prize” is some draggy exposition scenes of characters recapping plot. Thankfully, even some of those are entertaining. I laughed hard at the one in which Newman gives leading lady Elke Sommer an outrageous report of his crazy night. Sexy, dignified, and gifted with smooth comedic timing, she’s an ideal match for him. Their scenes together are delightful.
I was partially attracted to “The Prize” because Edward G. Robinson is the second-billed actor under Newman. Robinson’s screen time is disappointingly minimal, yet offers modest pleasures for a fan of the man and his long, diverse career. The nature of his role brings to mind what he did in “The Whole Town’s Talking”, and like so many Robinson performances, demonstrates that he was an extremely underrated and versatile actor. As he did in “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet”, Robinson disappears into his role so completely that I think if I’d never seen him before, I might have assumed he was German.
I don’t know if I’ll make a top 10 list at the end of 2014. If I do, “Mexican Spitfire” and/or “The Prize”, will almost certainly be on it. The Nobel Prize-related plot of “The Prize” got me thinking about how my ‘favourites of the year’ lists are like my way of declaring winners for a ‘Nobel Prize in Film’ that doesn’t actually exist.
On top of everything else I love about “The Prize”, there’s a bonus detail that sounds like it was thrown in just for my pleasure. As soon as I noticed the movie took place in Sweden, I started hoping for a Greta Garbo reference. It always makes me happy to see evidence that she was still remembered by Hollywood writers after her retirement and death. Watching Paul Newman and co-star Diane Baker flirting, I fantasized about a Greta Garbo cameo.
Of course I knew this wouldn’t happen, since she’d stopped making movies by 1963. I told myself to forget about this silly dream of Garbo inclusion and just continue to enjoy the movie. Then, Newman and Baker referenced Greta Garbo AND Ingrid Bergman back to back! And they did it in a way that was both natural and funny! If I didn’t already love the movie, this would have certainly done the trick. Not a Garbo cameo…but probably the next best thing possible.
“It’s not the size, mate. It’s how you use it.”
– Michael Caine, “Goldmember” (2002)
Two qualities make Mary Astor one of my favourite actresses. First, she was so beautiful that I never tire of looking at her. Second, she inhabited a variety of roles comfortably and appealingly. She was up for anything, from wealthy women of privilege like a sweet, independent princess in “The Royal Bed”, to a clever, brave, dirty-faced race car mechanic in “Red Hot Tires”. One of Astor’s most noticeable physical characteristics was an unconventional hairstyle, cropped short and parted with curls piled in the front*.
Such an odd hair-do might make many actresses look foolish. Astor made it look natural in any type of movie. The same can be said about her equally distinctive face. She had wide set, angular eyes and eyebrows that were marvelously emotive in dramatic roles. They’d twist into some of the most intense displays of sadness I’ve ever seen. I believe only an extraordinarily heartless and unfeeling person could witness them without being moved (at least a little bit).
The teenage Mary Astor of silent movies is the epitome of tragedy and heartbreak. Her silent heroines seem to have direct access to my tear ducts and heart. Almost every time she cries out of fear or grief, I get watery-eyed right along with her. I want to yell, “Oh, Mary, no! Don’t cry!” at the screen. She moistened my eyes more than once playing devastatingly helpless victims of oppressive societies in “Beau Brummel” and “Two Arabian Knights”.
She is perfectly cast in “Don Juan” as the only woman whose purity and profound innocence can tame the world’s preeminent womanizer. After sound was introduced to movies, Astor was no less effective. When she eavesdrops on a man declaring his love for her in “Smart Woman”, her wordless facial reaction demonstrates how powerful silent acting can still be. In this scene, her face beautifully tells the story of what she feels. No words could possibly tell it better.
Voice ended up being another dynamic tool in the Mary Astor acting arsenal. Early into the age of talkies, she had already mastered using voice to convincingly illustrate character growth provoked by harrowing hardships. In 1931’s “The Sin Ship”, she begins as a dishonest woman who fakes vulnerability. Abuse by an evil man makes her truly vulnerable and the kindness of a good one inspires her to change. So much of the character’s emotional journey can be heard in her voice. Astor’s serious characters spoke with shaky urgency – another catalyst for harsh sympathy pains from me. In “Men of Chance”, my heart breaks right with hers as she confesses her sins to prove she loves a man, and he refuses to forgive them.
After watching Astor’s eyes take on a painfully melancholic quality in dramas, it’s uplifting to see them light up in comedies. She makes outrageously vain women both amusing and appalling. Her voice still vibrates, only with enthusiasm and spirit instead of sorrow and yearning. The best ‘light Mary’ performance is probably in “The Palm Beach Story”. She’s a talkative and flighty high society snob who brings wacky energy to every scene graced with her presence.
Flaunting wealth and a huge appetite for men, the character perfectly explains herself in cheerfully admitting, “I’m crazy, I’ll marry anyone!” Astor’s flair for comedy is obvious in “Paradise For Three” too, particularly when she acts demure to seduce a rich man at a costume party. She wears a ridiculous frilly ‘school girl’ outfit and lovable character actress Edna May Oliver made me laugh out loud with her reaction: “Heaven help the teacher!”
In addition to laughably greedy and egocentric characters, Astor played bad women who could be taken seriously, since their actions had disturbing consequences. Herbert Marshall (playing a mistreated husband for the umpteenth time) can’t stand her in “Woman Against Woman”. She’s selfish to a hideous degree, using lies about their child to manipulate him for attention and disrupt his life. In “The Maltese Falcon”, she’s the shady lady whose blatant deception intrigues Humphrey Bogart’s detective Sam Spade. When Spade responds to her dubious claims by stating, “You’re good. It’s chiefly in your eyes, I think, and that throb you get in your voice[…],” he sounds like he’s actually describing the performance of Mary Astor the actress as much as that of her deceitful character.
I’m not interested in learning too much about what my favourite actresses did and said outside of movies. I get sad if I hear they were mean or unhappy. It was inevitable that I’d absorb some information about Astor’s private life after a month of following her career through a few research methods and a marathon of Astor movies on TV. I like most of what I learned about her.
A few discoveries upset me, such as her struggles with alcoholism, domineering parents, and divorces. I was also disappointed to hear that Astor wasn’t keen on “The Little Giant”, which was her first movie with Edward G. Robinson, the start of his gangster comedies series, and one of my favourites in that run of films. I was glad to hear that Astor liked working with Mr. Robinson (as their cute interactions on screen suggest), even if she didn’t like the movie.
My favourite fact out of everything I learned about Mary Astor is that she turned down a lot of starring roles because she wanted to avoid the pressure of being expected to ‘carry’ a movie. She reasoned that if one is billed as ‘the star’, they’re held largely responsible for whether a movie succeeds or fails. This was an astute observation, especially true in the days of Old Hollywood. I really admire Astor’s deliberate attempt to be a ‘supporting player’ rather than ‘leading lady’. It was a shrewd move that shows her lack of ego and a bit of insecurity, making Astor seem more humble and human to me than arrogant stars who are greedy for stardom. Astor played supporting roles impeccably, making it clear that she was right to pursue them.
Mary Astor was modest and generous throughout her career. Consider how she responded when people said she stole “The Great Lie” from Bette Davis with her excitingly ferocious and passionate Oscar-winning performance. Referencing how Davis had the script re-written to beef up Astor’s character, she graciously declared, “I didn’t steal anything from Bette Davis. She handed that movie to me on a silver tray.” Astor has a small, yet important and eloquently-written role in 1948’s “Act of Violence”. She plays a cynical and world-weary call girl who consoles a suicidal young man.
Based on what I’ve gathered about Mary Astor’s tumultuous personal life and career, I believe this character’s dialogue must have resonated with her. She says, “I’ve seen ’em all. I’ve seen all the troubles in the world.” Astor’s eyes conveyed the distress of someone who internalized a great deal of trauma amassed over a tragic lifetime. Many actresses have beautiful eyes. Not many can do what Astor does with hers. Even if I shouldn’t, I feel inclined to believe everything her characters say and have sympathy towards them as they suffer. It’s not just the eyes, mate. It’s how she uses ’em.
* I’m not good at describing women’s hairstyles, so I had to get the description of Mary Astor’s hair-do from ‘Bright Lights Film Journal’. Thank you to the author for letting me quote her.
Sometimes movies are made to tell a story with real substance and insight. Other times, they’re made just to capitalize on a money-making formula. “There’s Always A Woman” was one of those movies made for greedy reasons. It exists mainly because Columbia Pictures wanted their own version of MGM’s successful “Thin Man” movie series about a husband and wife detective team.
The movie’s cynical origins are disappointing. Fortunately, they didn’t prevent it from being a satisfying experience for me, thanks to smart direction, writing, acting, and casting. I believe this movie’s greatest asset is leading lady Joan Blondell. I’ve loved her work in many supporting roles, but found her more memorable than ever before in “There’s Always A Woman”. She’s a familiar face, yet I felt like I was seeing her for the first time because I’d never seen her play such a substantial role so perfectly. It seems custom made for Blondell to show how lovable she can be and she plays it with joy.
Blondell’s character is playful, perky, and silly without being stupid. She reminded me of Jean Arthur in “The Whole Town’s Talking”. A highlight of both performances is an interrogation scene during which the breezy lady is hilariously unfazed by police pressure. The performances are also similar in how they changed my perception of an actress. I started out thinking of these women only as reliable supporting players in movies I watched for other stars.
Suddenly, they were great stars in their own right, and I wanted to see them in as many good leading roles as possible. The heroic couple in “There’s Always A Woman” didn’t become the popular pair Columbia Pictures wanted them to be. They only appeared in one sequel, with the wife character played by a different actress. Blondell couldn’t reprise her role because she was under contract to Warner Brothers and they wouldn’t let her work for a rival studio. I think there might have been more sequels if she’d been available.
Columbia Pictures didn’t get what they wanted from “There’s Always A Woman”. I got something even better. I got to see a star I’ve always liked reach her full potential. Her talent was brought into focus for me more than ever before. I enjoyed Joan Blondell’s antics and personality like those of some cartoon characters. With huge, always busy eyes and a giddy approach to physical comedy, she spends the movie scurrying around causing mischief.
Since I found this character so endearing, I understood why she was always loved and forgiven by her husband, even after being reckless and stubborn. At a crucial moment, the Blondell character’s policeman friend gives her a ride in his cop car. After dropping her off, he tells his partner, “There’s one fine little woman!” If I were the partner, I’d nod in agreement and reply, “You said it, pal!”
As a child, some of my favourite cartoon episodes brought together villains that usually worked alone. When such big personalities joined forces, I got anxious to see how their interactions would play out. It was fun to watch divergent styles applied towards a common purpose. I felt the same way about sports and music. Major League Baseball’s ‘all-star’ game was my favourite baseball event of the year and many of the albums I bought were by various artists. These things fascinated me because they involved many gifted people contributing to the creation of something irreplacably special. I remember feeling like a god when I played a baseball video game that let me make dream teams using real life players.
I wonder if movie studio heads felt similarly back when every studio was like a professional sports team with a talent roster they could mix and match. When I find out that my favourite actors or actresses are together in a movie, I hope they have some chemistry and give strong performances inspired by a good script. I also prefer if their characters don’t abuse each other. I know it’s all make-believe, but I still get upset when they treat each other badly.
For example, I love Herbert Marshall, so I hate how several movies cast him as a nice guy with a cheating wife. In “Woman Against Woman”, he’s married to Mary Astor, who I currently adore more than any other actress. The good news: she doesn’t leave him like his other movie wives. The bad news: they break up anyway! Ugh. Fortunately, the performances have depth. Marshall gets more dignity than his betrayed husbands. Astor succeeds at the tricky task of convincingly evolving from manipulative to benevolent.
I don’t think I’ll ever stop getting excited by the novelty of people or characters I liked in one context getting together in a new one. This was something I appreciated about “The Lego Movie”. My favourite moment is one I love because of the ‘dream team factor’. A huge audience gathers for a speech, and the spectators include Milhouse Van Houten from “The Simpsons”, Michaelangelo from the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”, and basketball icon Shaquille O’Neal.
Seeing these characters in the same crowd was as thrilling as seeing The Joker, The Penguin, and Two-Face together in a Batman episode for the first time. They may look odd together, but that’s part of what makes their juxtaposition so neat. Opposites attract, and as “The Lego Movie” asserts, unusual combinations of people and characters can create surprisingly wonderful sights and stories.
People like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane excite me as prospective movie subjects. I’m keen on women who thwart closed-minded sexism, transcend traditional gender roles, and achieve legendary status due to bravery and gun savvy. This explains some of my favourite moments in 1935’s “Annie Oakley”. I like how when the title character signs up for a shooting contest, the men are so incapable of imagining a female sharpshooter that they keep making silly assumptions to justify concluding that she’s a man. My favourite is their insistence that she must be named ‘Andy Oakley’.
When I found out that Jean Arthur played Calamity Jane in “The Plainsman”, I hoped she’d be as empowered as Barbara Stanwyck’s Oakley. I was disappointed. After showing sass and skill in her early scenes (i.e. playfully lassoing ‘Wild’ Bill Hickock’s hat), Arthur’s Calamity Jane spends most of the picture playing worried love interest, subservient sidekick, or helpless captive. I’d rather see a Jane that takes matters into her own hands and kicks butt.
In 1948’s comedy-western “The Paleface”, Jane Russell plays a more proactive Calamity Jane. She’s independent and forceful, which was very much what I wanted from Arthur’s version of the character. Her co-star is Bob Hope, and their roles are fun reversals of gender stereotypes. The man is hopelessly out of his element with a gun, relying on a woman’s superior shooting skills to protect him. Without he or anyone else being aware, she secretly saves him from certain death many times. As I watched Russell, I thought about what I like about her screen presence and the character she played.
She has sultry eyes, a kind heart beneath a brassy exterior, cool confidence, an adventurous spirit, and one of the brightest smiles I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t seem to have had a very distinguished career, being admired more as a sex symbol than actress. Her filmography is short and inconsistent. She apparently lacked the necessary gravitas for challenging roles. I believe she compensated by imbuing light roles with a robust energy that’s as special and worthy of reverence as dramatic acting prowess.
In several movies, I’ve seen Russell play a sexy, talented woman who is aware of her allure, yet not conceited about it. She uses her feminine wiles to help others instead of manipulating them. Her Calamity Jane guides a bumbling, juvenile Bob Hope towards discovering that he has courage and the potential to be a hero, despite being a awkward coward who is useless with a gun.
“The Paleface” won an Oscar for a song called “Buttons and Bows”. Hope endearingly performs it to express his nostalgia for the big city and its gentle, lavishly-adorned women. I love the song because it’s cute, catchy, and celebrates something I love about women. Like Hope’s character, I appreciate how they creativity put together outfits and accessories that make them distinctively colourful, expressive, classy, fragrant, and fancy in look and style…especially when they can do so with the panache of a Jane Russell.
Lately I’ve been feeling like the movies are a fisherman and I am a fish. And not just any fish – a masochistic one that wants to be hooked. By “hooked”, I mean engaged emotionally and intellectually by a movie that shuts down my defenses, overcoming pessimism and high standards. I am also a fussy, evasive fish. With every movie, there’s a struggle, not unlike fisherman and prey pulling in opposite directions. I’m hard to catch and hard to please. Not many movies have fine enough ‘bait’ to keep me on the line. I’ve recently established a 15 minute rule – it usually takes 15 minutes for me to know if the movie is going to reel me in. T.C.M has been showing Oscar nominees and winners for its ’31 Days of Oscar’ marathon. Many have lost me in the first 15 minutes. These movies that captivated mass audiences could not satisfy this stubborn fish.
“Crossfire” was one of the few that held my attention from start to finish. To describe its effect using my fishing metaphor, I can say I was reeled in fast and easy, cooked, and served for dinner. I was hooked from the first frame, with opening shots of two shadows violently clashing. Many of the movies I’ve rejected turned me off because there were just too many characters and too much story – so much chatter and so much going on. “Crossfire” has more pure and simple storytelling, narrowing a laser-like focus on one thing only. A man is murdered. Suspects are identified. They talk with friends and acquaintances. An investigating police captain does the same. The night of the murder is re-constructed from multiple perspectives. The murderer is revealed to the audience, but unknown to other characters, except an accomplice. I was in rapt suspense waiting to see if and how this person gets caught.
“Crossfire” has a social consciousness that impressed me. In a powerful scene, the police captain speculates about racism motivating the murder, eloquently explaining its profound effect on his life and country. I was disappointed to read cynical opinions online that call the movie outdated and limited in its view of prejudice. I agree with Leonard Maltin’s opinion that the issue is handled with “taste [and] intelligence”. I wanted to watch “Crossfire” mostly because its cast includes Robert Mitchum, but Robert Ryan was the highlight. I’ve seen him play a bad guy so many times that I automatically think, “Don’t trust this guy!” when he appears. It was fun to wonder if the movie would reinforce or contradict my expectation. I consider this typecasting a compliment, not a suggestion that the actor lacks range. It takes formidable presence to embody ‘the heavy’ so often and so effectively. Robert Ryan does it like with the ease of someone performing their calling.
“Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” tells the real life story of a German-Jewish scientist who discovered cures for several diseases by having chemicals shot into the body (hence the term, “magic bullets”). This was the final film shown on T.C.M in January for its month-long ‘Science in the Movies’ theme. Even without seeing the others, I’m fairly certain that they saved the best for last. “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” is uplifting, involving, sensitive, insightful, and educational. I felt inspired by the title character’s honesty, gentleness, passion, and generosity in the face of so many challenges and heartbreaks. By the end of the picture, I was in awe of this man’s work and his dedication to it. I think the beauty and power of what he did is best articulated by the quote that appears on screen as the film’s final shot. While many movie quotes have made me smile or feel contemplaitive, this was one of the few that made me cry.
“Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” is also meaningful to me because of its contribution to my journey as an Edward G. Robinson fan. I’ve learned that Robinson was more proud of his role in this movie than any other in his career. I can understand why. This is the 25th Robinson film I’ve seen and I believe Dr. Ehrlich is his best performance. I’m disgusted by the fact that he was not even nominated for an Oscar in 1941. I’ve seen most of the lead actor performances nominated that year. There’s no doubt in my mind that Robinson was just as worthy of recognition as the others.
The performance is not very flashy or original. It’s not the most entertaining one in Robinson’s career or my favourite (my choice for both is in “The Whole Town’s Talking”, and probably always will be). The reason I think Ehrlich is Robinson’s best performance is because more than any other I’ve seen, it made me periodically forget I was watching Edward G. Robinson. He accomplishes that effect with the help of a beard that hides his distinctive appearance and a speaking voice that’s in a more subdued tone than usual for him. Another reason I like this movie is because of what temporary T.C.M. host Sean Carroll (a theoretical physicist) revealed about its origin. According to him, producer Hal Wallis was compelled to make sure the movie got made after he heard Adolf Hitler say
“A scientific discovery by a Jew is worthless”.
In other words, the whole movie is a big “Fuck You” to Hitler!
I can’t think of many better reasons to make a movie.