Jan 27, 2013

Quote of the Week

He's that unusual creature we call a happy person.

-Sean Penn, about Ernest Borgnine, 2011

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Jan 22, 2013

Review--Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips

Mae Murray: The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips
Michael G. Ankerich
University Press of Kentucky, 2013

Mae Murray was a huge star in the silent era. Her most famous role was as the glittering goddess of Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow (1925). The woman who gracefully swooned in John Gilbert's arms as they swooped around the dance floor in that grand film should have been immortalized with Garbo. And we would know her better today if she hadn't doomed herself with a couple of key decisions that shot her from the top of her profession to poverty.

It's a good thing she had friends.

Ankerich took on a daunting task: telling the story of a woman who, as Homer Simpson said, would rather write fiction with her mouth than acknowledge inconvenient facts. An amusing, and sometimes tragic, thing about Murray's artifice, was that she did not deny it. She once said, "I am not a realist by nature, and for me to try and become one would only make me acutely unhappy." The story in this book is a victory over those fantasies, but it does not ignore them.

I can't entirely blame Ms. Mae for insisting on only seeing the bright side, though it did destroy her decision-making skills. Once you know the whole truth about her life, it seems like such a waste. If only she'd she hadn't married "Prince" David Mdvani, who convinced her to give up her career at its peak, gave her a child, who she then lost, and left her after he drained her finances. If only she'd stopped waltzing down the streets of Hollywood humming the Merry Widow Waltz to herself and thought up a good career plan. Oh why didn't she stay married to Robert Leonard, who was loyal to her, and directed her in her most popular roles? Well he was jealous; I'll give her that one.

But these quirks also created the star Mae Murray. She was eccentric, romantic and dedicated to her public, which she always imagined to be enormous. While that was not always the case in later years, there was always at least a little love out there for the Ziegfeld Follies dancer who pushed aside a New York childhood of depressing poverty to become a Broadway star and the queen of MGM.

After hearing of her airs and artifice, I did not expect Murray to come off as kind as she did. She was amazingly generous. In the early days of her career, she would give free dancing exhibitions and teach steps to the children in her old Lower East Side neighborhood. As a young Hollywood star, she took Loretta Young and her cousin under her wing when Young's mother could not afford to keep them. She let the girls enjoy her luxurious home as they desired, and allowed them to return home for family time whenever they wished. In Bachelor Apartment (1931), one of her last films, she would intentionally ruin scenes so that she could coach young co-star Irene Dunne on how to appear to better advantage in the next take.

Murray also made loyal friends, among them Rudolph Valentino (who was also briefly her lover), director and actor Lowell Sherman and a young George Hamilton. Relationships like these saved her life when her fortune disappeared. Friends gave her money for groceries or tried to find her work, because while she could often seem entitled, she intrigued them. She also aroused their sympathy.

It seems that Murray's directors were not among her lifelong friends. She was defiant, opinionated and the queen of airs on her sets. As far as she was concerned, the star steered the ship. Even tough-willed von Stroheim was not authoritative enough to avoid the wrath of The Girl With the Bee-Stung Lips. It is a miracle that The Merry Widow was even made, let alone that it was a brilliant success.

Though I feared that the unpleasant aspects of Mae's story would make for uneasy reading, the book sucked me in, because her eccentricities amused me so much. She may not have been practical, but she was also never boring. Murray has often been compared to Norma Desmond, as portrayed by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). I can see the resemblance, but I always found that character pathetic, and while Mae did find her self in pathetic situations, I never felt that way about the woman. The fantasy she wove around herself did just enough to let her glide through life, and she knew it was a dream. Lasting love eluded her, she never won back her career and she died in poverty, but Murray clung to that glorious fog. I was happy to join her.

Having not seen many of Murray's films, I found it difficult to understand why she appealed to her fans. Yes, she was an oddball, and a symbol of the wild jazz age, but what did her audience see? I wanted more detail about her performances and more speculation as to what it was that made her attractive to her generation. As a document of her life, the book left me satisfied and thoroughly in love with Ms. Murray.

Thank you to University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of the book.

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Jan 20, 2013

Quote of the Week

Hollywood is a place where some people lie on the beach and look up at the stars, whereas other people lie on the stars and look down at the beach.

-Noël Coward

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Jan 13, 2013

Quote of the Week

So endemic to his personality was a certainty of his place on the planet that you tended to look for twisted, thick roots emerging from wherever he was standing.

-Frank Langella, about Charlton Heston

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Jan 10, 2013

Review--Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies
Edited by Christel Schmidt
University Press of Kentucky/Library of Congress, 2012

Mary Pickford was a pioneer on so many fronts in the film world that you could almost give up attempting to catalog her accomplishments. She was an actor, producer and businesswoman, among many other things, but perhaps the most significant thing about her is that she was the first international movie star. The industry thrives today because she found and captivated its audience.

While she deserves Chaplin-levels of reverence, Pickford has had an image problem for years. She has been strangled by her flowing curls--trapped by her little girl dresses. The woman who developed naturalistic screen acting and played everyone from Madame Butterfly to a French showgirl still lives in public memory as a sentimental relic of the past.

It's gotten better though. There have been excellent books, documentaries and DVD releases of Pickford's films in recent years. Her work can now be accessed easily. We can see that Little Mary was about more than kiddie roles, and that those child parts were a marvel in themselves and not to be dismissed.

Queen of the Movies is an important addition to these works. It pulls apart the pieces of her legacy to give them a deeper analysis, and then puts them back together again to demonstrate the nearly unfathomable influence Pickford had on the industry. It works as an introduction to her life and work, but having read every book I could about America's Sweetheart for my blogathon in her honor, I still found plenty of fascinating revelations.

Schmidt has collected both new and previously-published essays from some of the most highly-esteemed Pickford experts of the past and present, including biographer Eileen Whitfield, legendary film historian Kevin Brownlow and Robert Cushman, who was photograph curator for the Margaret Herrick Library from 1972 until his death in 2009. They cover a lot of ground, moving among the professional and personal aspects of Pickford's life. There's an essay about her famous curls and photos of her costumes, in addition to more complex pieces about her films and early life.

And there are pretty pictures. Film stills, portraits, posters and pages of Pickford's costumes in color. These images were so beautiful that I kept touching the page--like I could feel the beading on those fancy dresses.

I also liked the mix of new material and previously-published essays. It was fascinating to compare literary critic Edward Wagenknecht's 1960s perspective on Pickford with more recent views from Whitfield and Schmidt herself. I didn't realize that the fight to save the reputation of America's Sweetheart had been waged for so long. Film historians have been trying to educate a misled public for decades.

While I found it interesting that an essay about race and the films of Mary Pickford was included in the book, it was a weak spot for me. It stood out because it didn't seem as indispensable as the rest of the material covered. Still, I appreciated that the topic was covered, as I don't think it is widely known that Pickford played roles in so many nationalities: Japanese, Native American and Indian among them. I have to admit that I don't know what would have made this section more satisfying.

I've got to talk about the physical book too, because reading it was almost a sensual experience. Yes, dramatic, but I always feel a sense of awe when I read a book as carefully put together as this one. While eBooks have their good points, here is a strong argument for keeping print alive. Everything about Queen of the Movies is gorgeous, from the alternating white and tan pages to those beautifully-reproduced images. Even the drop caps are rendered in elegantly-coordinated colors. I felt the presentation in itself was a show of great respect to this mighty woman.

Thank you to the University Press of Kentucky for providing a review copy of the book.

Jan 6, 2013

Quote of the Week

You can't cry on a diamond's shoulder, and diamonds won't keep you warm at night, but they're sure fun when the sun shines.

-Elizabeth Taylor

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