Friday, January 10, 2014

Jean Harlow, The Noir Forties

On film Jean Harlow often wore white satin gowns that, combined with her ivory skin and platinum hair, gave Jean Harlow an unparalleled luminous quality. Harlow glowed from the screen, reached out and grabbed the attention of the viewer, and never lost it. She was not an unreachable goddess like Greta Garbo but human with an earthy sense of humor, which made her a superb comedienne. As the original blonde bombshell, Harlow set the trend for actresses like Marilyn Monroe for decades to come. Harlow was known as "the baby" around the studio. She claimed she didn't know her real name 'Harlean' until she started school. Somehow the nickname suited her, and with her kewpie doll lips painted a deep red and her cherubic baby face, she played at being a femme fatale but with an underlying childlike quality that set her apart from her contemporaries.

No matter how tough the characters in her early films were supposed to have been, the audiences always loved her. Harlow would say about those characters: "I don't want to play hard-boiled girls. It's so different from the real me."

The crewmembers who worked in her films remembered her as being very kind, down-to-earth, and a great dice player! In those pre-Las Vegas days, one of her favorite getaway spots was Agua Caliente, a high-end Tijuana gambling resort. Harlow, with her heart of gold, was known to help out crewmembers who needed support financially.

There were two men that Mama Jean found to be formidable opponents: mobster Abner 'Longie' Zwillman and the love of Harlow's life William Powell. She met Zwillman when she was just twenty years old in Chicago. Harlow was appearing at the Oriental Theatre, and her con-artist stepfather Marino Bello, in an effort to impress Al Capone and Zwillman, invited them backstage to meet her. In David Stenn's book 'Bombshell: The Life of Jean Harlow', Lina Basquette recalled, "She loved to hang out with guys from the mob. She wanted to be a rebel herself but she didn't have the guts to go against her mother." -"True Hollywood Noir: Filmland Mysteries and Murders" (2013) by Dina Di Mambro

"In the first chapter, I will argue that the actress Jean Harlow, in her acting and bodily presence, uses her sexualized body to affect and seduce viewers away from any primary identification with those characters and their plotlines that are supposed to lead the film, and to instead identify with the kind of sexual empowerment and self-possession her characters consistently display. This sexual empowerment allows Harlow’s characters to manipulate the male characters to their own devices, thereby undermining previous feminist ideas about representations of women and audience identification in film only being constructed for the male viewer." -Jessica Hope Jordan in "The Sex Goddess in American Film, 1930-1965: Jean Harlow, Mae West, Lana Turner, and Jayne Mansfield."

"Red Headed Woman" (1932) is a famous pre-code film because Harlow's character Lil or “Red” as she is referred to, never get punished for her wrong doings. In fact, she prospers and is successful in climbing the social and economic ladder by blatantly using her sexuality. In the opening scene we see Harlow changing her hair color to a fiery red, and poking fun at the ways in which she can be sexy.

Red confides in her best friend (played by Una Merkel) that she wants to become a society woman by going after her boss, Bill Legendre, who is married. Then Red goes after Legendre’s richer partner, Charles Gaerste. Legendre hires a private eye to discover that while Red is having an affair with Gaerste, she is also sleeping around with Gaerste’s French chauffeur. Her shenanigans are discovered by all, and she ends up shooting her husband Bill Legendre. Although Legendre doesn’t press charges, Red flees town. In the closing scene, Red is seen in Paris at the horse races. Now she speaks French and dates a wealthy older man, whom she uses to her benefit. The two drive off in his limousine and the guy who drives their automobile is her French chauffeur lover.

"She was gay and humorous, always. Her vivacity and sincerity remain to inspire those of us who knew her and admired her as one of the most truly beautiful of all Hollywood's beauties." -Robert Taylor on Jean Harlow

"Personal Property" (1937) turned out to be the last full film Jean Harlow ever did. She had poor health throughout her life, beginning at the age of five when she contracted meningitis. Director Woody Van Dyke was nicknamed 'One Take' and "Personal Property" was completed in all of two weeks. At one point, Jean lapsed into a coughing spasm, possibly a precursor to the graver illness to overtake her later. There were other reasons behind the rush. The crew had been invited to Washington to celebrate President Roosevelt's birthday (the event was a way to raise money for the polio foundation). Attendance at the president's party was only part of the "Personal Property" press junket.

Jean Harlow during a visit to Washington for President Frankin D. Roosevelt’s Birthday (photo by Thomas D. McAvoy), 1937.

On the evening of January 30, 1937, the stars appeared at seven hotels hosting Presidential Birthday Balls, going from one, to the next. Prior to the main event in which the week of activities culminated, they were taken into Roosevelt's 'fireside chat' room, and introduced to the President and First Lady. This in particular was a trial for Taylor, who could not stand Roosevelt or his politics. The day after, Jean and Bob climbed wearily on the train and headed back to Hollywood. Jean seemed to get more ill with each mile traveled. Taylor periodically looked in on her to offer help and sympathy. She continued to fail, and by the time they reached home, she took to her bed. Jean Harlow died on June 7, 1937. -"Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism" (2008) by Linda J. Alexander

Two popular films of 1946, 'Blue Skies' and 'The Blue Dahlia,' similar in titles but opposing in genre, caught the ambivalent public mood of the times, which more or less oscillated between faith in the future and worry about problems that lay ahead. 'Blue Skies,' a musical, was realistic in its way. The plot hinged on marital troubles vaguely reflecting the real-life ones of returning vets. Jed (Fred Astaire) and Johnny (Bing Crosby) are song-and-dance men who vie for the love of Mary (Joan Caulfield, a placidly beautiful blonde). Crosby wins her, but they have marital problems.

A grimmer take on this theme was 'The Blue Dahlia.' In the script by crime novelist Raymond Chandler, Lt. Cmdr. Johnny Morrison (Alan Ladd) comes home angry and violence-prone to find his wife has been cheating on him. Blue Skies, The Blue Dahlia: two films that offered an almost manic-depressive vision—one, skies of blue (following a light rain); the other, stormy weather.

They were templates of the ideology of the postwar cinema, but 'The Blue Dahlia' presaged a series of crime films, later dubbed films noir, that would more deeply echo the American unconscious between 1945 and 1950. Paul Fussell writes in 'Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War' that people in America hadn’t been told about even 10 percent of the horror of this war: “The real war was tragic and ironic, beyond the power of any literary or philosophic analysis to suggest, but in unbombed America especially, the meaning of the war seemed inaccessible. As experience, thus, the suffering was wasted... America has not yet understood what the Second World War was like and has thus been unable to use such understanding to re-interpret and re-define the national reality and to arrive at something like public maturity.”

As a Marxist, Polonsky preferred to attribute the sense of jeopardy, uncertainty [of film noir], to capitalism. French critics like Frank, Borde, and Chaumeton, writing more from an aesthetic or philosophical perspective, tended to see it as a surreal or existential state of humankind. It produced the popular mood of those early postwar years, 1945–50, which I call “the noir forties” and other historians have labeled “the age of anxiety,” “the age of doubt,” “postwar blues,” “triumphalist despair.” These moods and emotions were the mass psychological subsoil in which sprouted the nation’s politics and culture at the time. But during and after the war, leading jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charles Mingus moved into bebop, a more cerebral, avant-garde form.

'The Lost Weekend' (1945) was shot by Charles Seitz in the documentary style he had used in 'Double Indemnity' mixed with subjective scenes of horror using expressionistic techniques. Harrowing shots of Third Avenue, which was then a drab street in the shadow of elevated tracks lined with pawnshops and sleazy bars, are used as a backdrop for Birnam’s agonized odyssey.

The nightmare vision was of  "‘domineering’ women and economic insecurity, all waiting to overwhelm the returning veterans hoping to get their jobs and their ‘girls’ back," writes the feminist historian Elaine Tyler May. This negative image infiltrated popular culture. In films noir she is a femme fatale; while in the best-selling adventures of Mickey Spillane’s private eye Mike Hammer, she is the sexy temptress who turns out to be a Communist spy.

If men’s fashions were aimed at the new company man, women’s fashions affirmed the glamorous but nonworking wife. Because of fabric shortages, women’s wartime fashions had been comparatively simple, eschewing frills and furbelows. But after the war the image of the patriotic, cloth-saving working woman who still looked pretty for her soldier boy gave way to conspicuous consumption, decked out in the “new look,” a style created by the Paris designer Christian Dior. He swathed women in voluminous fabrics, long skirts with amphora waists.

A rare film with an identifiable working-class hero was 'The Long Night' (1947), directed by Anatole Litvak with a script by John Wexley, a veteran noir writer with leftist views. Rather than simply reviving Carné’s saga, however, Litvak revealingly transformed it into a story of hope and (very subtly) struggle.

What is generally called the 'blacklist' —referring to a policy of not hiring Communist sympathizers —was adopted by the eight largest studios in a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in late 1947 presided over by Eric Johnston (head of the Motion Picture Producers of America). An idea of Johnson’s standards can be gleaned from his statement to a group of screenwriters not long after the 1947 HUAC hearings: “We’ll have no more 'Grapes of Wrath,' we’ll have no more 'Tobacco Roads,' we’ll have no more films that deal with the seamy side of American life. We’ll have no more films that treat the banker as a villain.” Films noir were also on the list. Average weekly attendance fell from its 1946 peak of 90 million [moviegoers]. In that year an average of 80 percent of the public attended a movie at least once weekly; that number would decline to around 36 percent in 1950 (with only 3.6 million TV sets in homes).

The atmosphere of suspicion and distrust created by HUAC and the blacklist also played a role in the rise of Hollywood noir. 'Naming Names' author Victor Navasky commented, “The blacklist itself has a noir quality since there was no literal, physical blacklist, and you can add in the role played in enforcing it by ex-FBI guys and clearance mechanisms, Red Channels, etc. and the so-called graylist.” In 'Force of Evil' (1948), Polonsky went beyond existential dread to depict a city of corruption exemplified by the numbers racket but represented by the street sign flashed at the film’s beginning: Wall Street. In the ending, Joe (John Garfield)  finds in himself a nub of humanity and starts climbing back up to redemption.

-Kathleen (Lucille Ball): "But, remember I can get any new tough guy for a dime."

-Bradford (Mark Stevens): "I felt all dead inside. I’m backed into a dark corner and I don’t know who’s hitting me." —The Dark Corner (1946)

Janey Place writes that the noir era “stands as the only period in American film in which women are deadly but sexy, exciting, and strong, not static symbols... intelligent and powerful if destructively so.” The emergence of this type of woman (different from the usually good-hearted gold diggers of the thirties) was unique to films noir. A typical noir with a poisonous female, Gilda (1946) was produced by Virginia Van Upp, the foremost woman movie executive of the postwar years. Like many women in movies and journalism, Van Upp had been given a chance because of the wartime manpower shortage.

The femmes fatales, like Joan Bennett, Jane Greer, Ann Savage, Yvonne De Carlo, and Rita Hayworth, -who exhibited varying degrees of destructiveness- reflect male ambivalence toward independent working women, an attitude compounded of their insecurity upon finding themselves back in a competitive civilian world, perhaps working for a large corporation.

California noir tended to show the visions of the German émigré filmmakers in Hollywood. The New York films, in contrast, emulated the [Richard] de Rochemont documentary model. -"The Noir Forties: The American People From Victory to Cold War" (2013) by Richard Lingeman

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

"Lucky Night" starring Myrna Loy & Robert Taylor

Scenes from "Lucky Night" (1939) directed by Norman Taurog, starring Myrna Loy & Robert Taylor.

1939 is considered one of the all-time great years in Hollywood history. Many critics consider it the greatest ever with regards to outstanding films being released in one golden year. Among the films that MGM released that august year were: The Women, Ninotchka, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and The Shop Around the Corner. The other studios had strong entries as well: Dark Victory, Stagecoach, Destry Rides Again, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Love Affair, Young Mr. Lincoln, Only Angels Have Wings and Wuthering Heights.

Bob Taylor’s first project of the year was a film that few thought could have missed: a comedy opposite one of the screen’s most popular actresses, Myrna Loy.

Loy had reached great popularity as Nora Charles in the Thin Man films and scored in other hits such as Libeled Lady, Test Pilot and Too Hot to Handle. In 1937 she was proclaimed “The Queen of the Movies” with Clark Gable voted as her King. Unfortunately, the film that Metro selected to pair Loy and Bob is not in the league of their better films.

Myrna Loy is one of the rare Taylor costars who didn’t particularly like him. “The studio thought it would be a good idea to team me with Robert Taylor, Metro’s reigning heartthrob,” she later wrote in her autobiography. “Our first day on the set I played records, which we did sometimes to fill those endless waits between shots... I was listening to some wonderful Cuban music when Robert Taylor approached, ‘Do you have to play that sexy stuff all the time? It’s the dirtiest music I ever heard.’

‘That was my first day with him. I thought, ‘Oh, brother!’ He was a bit stuffy, but we got along all right —during the picture, that is: later on I didn’t get along with him.” In fact, Loy’s overall opinion of Bob is clouded by the role he played in the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings of the late 1940s. Loy was a lifelong liberal who publicly opposed the hearings and the blacklist that resulted and took a dim view of those who supported the committee, the so-called “friendly witnesses.” She called Taylor one of the “tattletales.”

Loy also alleges that during the filming of 'Lucky Night' Taylor tried to cook up a “triangle” with hopes of making Barbara Stanwyck jealous. “He wanted her [Stanwyck] to think I was after him,” Loy wrote nearly forty years later. “Barbara’s maid mentioned this to Theresa [Loy’s maid], who assured her that nothing could have been further from the truth. I’m not sure Barbara believed her, because on the last day of shooting she came by in a limousine and whisked him off to be married.” (Not quite true, Bob and Stanwyck “whisked” off to be married during the making of his next film, Lady of the Tropics , with Hedy Lamarr.) -"Robert Taylor: A Biography" (2013) by Charles Tranberg

Film historian Lawrence Quirk later wrote, "The picture was obviously meant to be light and amusing, but it cried out for a sophisticated, subtle script, and the directorial touch of a Lubitsch or a McCarey." It's curious that MGM thought to put Taylor and Loy in a production like Lucky Night when the script obviously wasn't up to snuff for stars of their stature.

Nonetheless, both actors recovered quickly: within months, Loy would appear successfully opposite Tyrone Power in The Rains Came (1939),

while Taylor would soon score his own sizable -- and much-needed -- hit with Waterloo Bridge (1940). Lucky Night director Norman Taurog was never a significant stylist, but he was a workhorse in several genres. In early 1939, while in production on this film, he received an Oscar® nomination for Boys Town (1938); he lost the award to Frank Capra, for You Can't Take It with You (1938). Taurog had previously won the Best Director award for Skippy (1931). Source:

Barbara Stanwyck: more mysterious than Garbo

“Anyone who seeks constant happiness seeks the unobtainable. The moments of happiness are not like pebbles on the beach; they are as rare as emeralds, as bright and flashing as diamonds. Happiness is the most ephemeral of emotions - but it is the brilliance that points up living. I cherish my happy memories and hopes, as though they were jewels.” —Barbara Stanwyck

The director of photography on “Ladies of Leisure” was Joseph Walker, who made five more films with Stanwyck, and who used to grind special lenses for each of his favorite actresses, the better to catch and refine their look. The lighting, too, as in “The Miracle Woman”—Stanwyck, Capra, Walker again, released the following year—is of an almost wounding beauty, far in advance of the amateur acoustics, with rim-lit details picked out like stars against the semi-dark. From there to the shadows of “The Godfather,” as rich as chocolate, is really not so far.

The other note that rings out clearly from “Ladies of Leisure,” and that would toll like a bell through the rest of Stanwyck’s career, is the sound of a smart woman surveying, with a snicker and a sigh, the dumber sex. Kay Arnold, on first meeting the painter, lifts her gaze, and there is a cool, smoky steadiness about it that is hard to read. It doesn’t say, “Hello, big boy,” or “Come down and see me sometime.” The message it sends is “Hmm. Ain’t no mountain.” If she likes the fellow, she will scale him, but make no mistake: as a female, she is already a superior soul.

Should she choose to open her heart, it will be only on the most condescending of terms. “I love him because he’s the kind of a guy that gets drunk on a glass of buttermilk,” Sugarpuss eventually says of Professor Potts. “I love him because he doesn’t know how to kiss, the jerk.” Ouch.

The ouches would go off like firecrackers when Stanwyck was around, and she never let up, having learned her explosive trade before 1934, when the enforcement of the Hays Code—with its emphasis on “correct standards of life”—came along and dampened all the squibs. “Night Nurse” (1931), “Ladies They Talk About” (1933), “Baby Face” (1933): these are the kinds of Stanwyck projects that gave movies a bad, bad name.

In the first, she waltzes into a hospital, smiles her way into a job, then changes into her uniform, hiking one leg into the lap of her fellow-nurse Joan Blondell, whom she has known for minutes, and letting her peel off the stocking. At night, a leering intern puts a med-school skeleton in Stanwyck’s bed, so she hops into Blondell’s, and the two of them giggle together in undergarments and fright. Buñuel himself could not have done better. “Night Nurse,” directed by William Wellman, is a stirred-up soup of a movie. We get abused children, a drunken mother, a wounded bootlegger, and a young, unfriendly Clark Gable as a chauffeur in black jodhpurs. He looks like an Italian Fascist, and he slugs Stanwyck so hard that her chin bleeds.

There is a case for saying that Alfred E. Green’s “Baby Face” (which screens at bam on a juicy double bill with “Ladies They Talk About,” a female jailbird drama) didn’t just predate the Hays Code; it actually brought the code crashing down onto Hollywood heads. Stanwyck is Lily Powers, who escapes from the steel mills of Pennsylvania, where her father tries to pimp her to anyone he chooses. With her black friend Chico (Theresa Harris), Lily arrives in New York, where she proceeds to sleep her way up a company; as her conquests mount, the camera ascends the side of the office building. She starts in personnel (“Have you had any experience?” “Plenty”), proceeds through filing and mortgages, and winds up bedding the vice-president (“Did Fuzzy-Wuzzy enjoy his dinner?”). Lily: “I’m not like other women—all the gentleness and kindness in me has been killed.”

Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper in "Meet John Doe" (1941) directed by Frank Capra

Nobody knows for sure whether Capra and his leading lady were ever an item. His biographer Joseph McBride proclaims it as fact; hers, Axel Madsen, is less certain, one of the abiding mysteries of Stanwyck being that her public image—unlike Jean Harlow’s, say—could never be mapped in any detail onto the contours of her private existence. She was definitely there, funny and silvery, up on the screen, but the definition faded as you tried to peek behind. Her movies felt like cryptic clues to a backstory of will power and frustration, the truth of which would not have pleased her fans.

“Miss Stanwyck is not the sort of woman I’d have met in Nebraska,” Taylor had said. He was the more godlike performer, she the more racy. Their coming together was a gift to the fan magazines and the publicists: “They made you—made you—go out two or three nights a week,” Stanwyck said of her employers at M-G-M. Husband and wife were robust Republicans; both belonged to the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was responsible for, among other things, alerting Washington to what was perceived as the Communist menace in Hollywood. Stanwyck’s conservatism never did an inch of damage to her reputation, but Taylor is now remembered primarily, if unfairly, as a snitch, the guy who named names at the huac hearings in 1947. In the end, what led to their divorce, in 1951, was not political ardor, or even romantic gossip.

Taylor was seduced by Ava Gardner, but in the movie industry that was like pulling into a gas station for an oil check. He and Stanwyck just peeled apart, seeking different things. Revered for her calm at work, she was a scold and a shouter at home, and he, after wartime service in the Navy, couldn’t take orders forever. When Stanwyck led Gary Cooper by the nose, in “Ball of Fire,” it was a riot, but in real life the laughter died at her door.

“I need him like the axe needs the turkey.” That line always gets a laugh, as it should, for it springs from “The Lady Eve” (1941), one of the most liberatingly funny films ever made. Step back for a second, though, and you can still hear the “alert, precocious, and savage” tone that Stanwyck ascribed to her ruptured childhood. “The Lady Eve” is a Preston Sturges movie, which means that it does not and probably cannot stop, hurling Stanwyck headlong into the chase. First, she is a cardsharp who sucks money from a wandering heir (Henry Fonda) on an ocean liner; then, scarred by his rejection, she becomes an English grande dame, bewitching him into a series of emasculating pratfalls; finally, she reverts to her first persona, fooling everyone except Muggsy, the hero’s cynical valet. “Positively the same dame,” he growls in the final shot, refusing to believe that life is anything but a fix.

Stanwyck could turn on the chill—her performance opposite Van Heflin and a boyish Kirk Douglas in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946) appears to run on liquid nitrogen—but she could also throw out hints of tenderness when you least expected it, and languid little one-liners when they weren’t appropriate. Stanwyck’s greatest strength, in other words—her range—was also the reason that she is impossible to tie down and tame. No genre was beyond her, and no one movie sums her up. She motors from role to role like Heflin cruising into Iverstown, or Robert Mitchum in “Out of the Past,” drifting from town to town as though in and out of a fever.

You think that “The Lady Eve” marks her as the best and most devil-tongued comedienne of her time, up there with Katharine Hepburn and the Rosalind Russell of “His Girl Friday”? Correct, but consider the moment when Henry Fonda, an amateur natural historian, claims that snakes are his life. “What a life!” reads the published screenplay, but that’s not what Stanwyck delivers. “What a life,” she says, with mild wistfulness, as if noting for an instant what a loner this rich boy truly is, and how he might want to be wooed for something other than his cash.

Stanwyck spoke sparingly of her past; history, for her, had begun in Hollywood, and it would end there. She travelled a few times to Europe and loathed everything about it. (“All the charm of the Old World, and the Old World plumbing,” as Lily Powers says in “Baby Face.”) Her career was at its most hectic and fruitful in the thirty-two years between “Ladies of Leisure” and “Clash by Night,” in which she confided to Marilyn Monroe that all she required in a man was “someone to fight off the blizzards and the floods.”

Douglas Sirk found in her “an amazing tragic stillness,” while praising her discretion: “She gets every point, every nuance without hitting on anything too heavily.” The closeup of her tears, in the first of those films, as her character walks up the path to her family home, to the sound of violins, should be the merest hokum, yet it stirs us like the last dying echo from the age of Garbo. And remember: Stanwyck herself never had a family home.

Everything about Stanwyck, whatever the mood of the movie, bears a slight graze of screwball, as if, deep down, Ruby Stevens was sly enough to have rumbled mankind for the untrustable species that it was. That is why “Double Indemnity,” though it sweats blood and deals with the lowest of low morals, somehow streams along with the glee of black comedy. The damn thing flows like Mozart. I even worship the leading lady’s wig, with its radioactive spring roll at the front. (“We hire Barbara Stanwyck and here we get George Washington,” the head of Paramount said.) Watch the early scenes in Stanwyck’s home and try not to grin like MacMurray when he first spies her at the top of the stairs, wearing a bath towel and a look of infinite mischief. She gets dressed, for decency’s sake, although, given that her outfit includes high heels with pom-poms and an ankle bracelet engraved with the name Phyllis, it might have been better for MacMurray if she hadn’t. Decency was never dirtier.

In the world according to Barbara Stanwyck, all the mice are men. She was something else, with claws, and her genius was to show us plenty of fur but never let us agree on what that something was—the moll, the missionary, the bad mother, or the Keep Kool Cutie. On the set, she was a paragon of control, yet Capra used to run three or four cameras in an effort to capture her on the first and freshest take, believing that with every repeat she lost the shine of spontaneity. Listen to her in “Clash by Night,” fending off a dolt: “What kind of animal am I? Do I have fangs, do I purr? What kind of jungle am I from? You don’t know anything about me.” No, and it drives us mad. Crazy about you, baby. Source:

Frank Capra, her great early director, would say she “could grab your heart and tear it to pieces,” though Variety would observe, “Her chief virtue is poise, and her salvation is restraint.” Here we encounter that seemingly contradictory blend of reflectiveness and emotional intensity that defined her, and is perhaps not so surprising in one whose mantra was “acting is thinking.” Of course there were roles she couldn’t play. A movie star is defined as much by her limitations as her strengths. Hence, this tomboy street-fighter and scourge of phonies and swells couldn’t do period and she couldn’t do privilege. Even the artifice of an accent — the Irish brogue she used in several films — was a hit-or-miss affair, breaking the naturalistic spell. Capra loved her, and knew how to illuminate her, playing to her strengths. “When she wasn’t in front of the camera,” he once said, “she was almost mousy... But when the camera rolled, she turned into a huge person.”

Wilson reports an incident from Stan­wyck’s life that I found eerily reminiscent of the final scene in “Stella Dallas.” The star and her then-love Robert Taylor attended a preview of the film; Stanwyck wore street clothes with her hat pulled down over her face, hoping to pass unnoticed. She was clutching at the coattails of her crowd-magnet lover when a cop yanked her aside. “Oh, no, you don’t,” he said, “none of that stuff,” and the burly cop began roughing up the tiny actress until Taylor came to the rescue.

With Stanwyck as the star, these films are less simple tales of sacrifice and surrender than something both triumphant and spiritual: She doesn’t so much transcend the material as take it to another plane.

Most of all, Taylor, though a bit more social, conspired to keep Stanwyck in seclusion, away from the eyes of the world. The same veil of secrecy presents itself to her biographer.

Ultimately, she was more mysterious than Garbo. After all, Garbo’s mystery was there to see and bewitch, as obvious a part of her screen persona as her profile and her heavy-lidded look. Stanwyck’s, however, lay deep beneath the transparency of her emotions. Hers is not a mystery capable of being unraveled and Wilson wisely doesn’t try. What she gives us is a brilliant enigma, firmly grounded only in her artistry and sense of craft. Source:

Monday, January 06, 2014

Happy New Year 2014!

“Each age has deemed the new-born year the fittest time for festal cheer.” ―Walter Scott

Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard in "Swing High, Swing Low" directed by Mitchell Leisen

Gloria DeHaven

Ann Miller

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas in Weirdland: "Remember the Night"

"As long as we know in our hearts what Christmas ought to be, Christmas is." -Eric Sevareid

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in "Remember the Night" (1940) directed by Mitchell Leisen

From DeMille’s Irish postmistress at end of track to Clifford Odets’s worldweary “tramp from Newark,” Barbara, in her next picture, was to play a seen-it-all, light-fingered jewel thief on trial in New York for shoplifting a blindingly sparkling bracelet. Mitchell Leisen, one of Paramount’s leading directors, was assigned the picture. Each of Leisen’s fourteen pictures had been a box-office success.

Leisen was in great demand with actors. He was Paramount’s answer to George Cukor. Leisen wanted Barbara for the part of Lee Leander, jewel thief. He felt the part was written for her. Fred MacMurray was to be the hard-driving assistant district attorney prosecuting the case who, instead of sending her to jail, falls in love with her. Leisen thought MacMurray a goodlooking actor —with a beautifully built body and great legs, six feet four, tall and lanky —but MacMurray was quiet, genial, modest, and inexperienced. Though Preston Sturges came from the top and Barbara from the bottom —he from a European bohemian aristocracy and she from a showgirl street life— Barbara felt a great compatibility with Sturges. She thought him enormously talented and his script one of the best she’d ever read. “What’s on paper is on the screen,” she said. Sturges and Leisen were an interesting combination of sensibilities. Sturges wrote comedy with flashes of feeling and warmth; Leisen directed pictures that were warm with bursts of comedy.

The DA (Fred MacMurray) is getting ready to drive home to Wabash, Indiana, for the holidays to the family farm to see his mother and aunt. In the spirit of Christmas, he bails out the girl he’s about to prosecute so she won’t have to spend the holiday behind bars. The bondsman delivers her —with his compliments and a wink— to the DA’s apartment, the last thing he wants or expects (“What are you doing here?” he asks her. “I don’t know,” she says, “but I’ve got a rough idea”). Now he’s stuck with her; she’s been locked out of her hotel; she’s got nowhere to go, and she’s in his custody.

In the scene in which the family has gathered in the parlor around the Christmas tree, MacMurray plays the piano and sings “Swanee River,” and Barbara plays “A Perfect Day” on the piano as Willie (Sterling Holloway) sings. Leisen knew how to use visual business in a scene to create character, mood, story. His subtle eloquence and deftness was called the Leisen magic. Barbara teased MacMurray for being shy about filming love scenes. Barbara handled it by saying to the crew, “This is really going to be something, I am supposed to be kissed passionately by Fred.” She kidded Fred about it, as did the crew. When the day arrived, MacMurray gritted his teeth, determined to show them he wasn’t such a bad lover, and did the scene perfectly.

Barbara never looked more beautiful, more luminous, than she does in Remember the Night. In the end of Sturges’s script, “love reformed her and corrupted him, which gave us the finely balanced moral,” said Sturges, “that one man’s meat is another man’s poison, or caveat emptor.” In Remember the Night, Barbara is both classy and shopgirlish. Sturges was a loner, as Barbara had been before Bob Taylor came into her life. Barbara operates on many levels in 'Remember the Night': she is a believable crook; believably vulgar; believably sensitive and vulnerable; rebellious (in the scene with her mother, it is clear her defiance is bonded to her mother’s take on her). What Sturges gives Stanwyck is her longing for roots, her longing to go home for Christmas.

The combination of Barbara and MacMurray works: he is light and a good egg; she is breezy, grounded, larcenous, with a heart of gold and a yearning for home, like Sturges himself, who had such an uprooted childhood. “As it turned out,” said Sturges, “the picture had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office.” It was Leisen’s best picture to date and Barbara’s best performance. -"A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True (1907-1940)" by Victoria Wilson

They go out to eat and talk about their situation. “Sounds like a play, doesn’t it?” asks Lee, which is Sturges acknowledging the whole “movie pitch idea” of his basic screenplay, then mocking it when John replies, “Sounds like a flop.” In 'Remember the Night,' this exchange leads us directly into the most important scene in the film, where Lee tries to explain her concept of right and wrong to John. Mrs. Sargent, who knows the truth about her, gently warns Lee that she might spoil John’s career if they were to get married. Lee is standing in front of a mirror, and when Mrs. Sargent puts her hands on Lee’s shoulders, Stanwyck freezes, with her mouth wide open, one arm up holding a comb, a vision of complete Mouchette-style awkwardness. Mirrors always bring out Stanwyck’s deepest feelings. Leisen films the hushed parting between John and Lee with real tenderness, but the complexities of the early scenes get politely swept under the rug. In many ways, it was a kind of holiday movie for Stanwyck. She said that the atmosphere on a Capra set was “like a cathedral,” while on a Sturges set it was “a carnival.” -"Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman" (2012) by Dan Callahan