Mar 25, 2016

Bogie and Bacall in The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948) on Blu-ray

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Warner Archive has released yet another pair of essentials on Blu-ray: the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall classics The Big Sleep (1946) and Key Largo (1948). These films capture the famous twosome at their best, and with casts of supporting actors so colorful that they are constantly in danger of being upstaged. Both discs have a sharp, clean picture; where image is concerned, these are two of the most successful of the studio's recent Blu-ray releases.

The Big Sleep is notorious for having such a complex plot that even Raymond Chandler, author of the source novel, didn't know who did what in his richly corrupt noir. Where the movie is concerned, it certainly didn't help that a couple of scenes that could have clarified the action were cut from the final film.

I've watched this noir for years though, and I find that I care less about those details with each viewing. This is a film not so much to understand, but to experience. When dialogue inspires prickles of pleasure as it does here, you're more focused on the moment and less concerned with deciphering the big picture.

The Big Sleep is drenched in sex. It's steamy and seedy with unchecked desires. Even hound dog-faced private eye Philip Marlowe (Bogart) finds himself the target of constant, hungry female attention.

It begins literally in heat, as private eye Marlowe meets with his new client, General Sternwood in a sweltering greenhouse. Propped up in a wheelchair, he is a dying man who is resigned to experiencing pleasure by proxy. He is played by Charles Waldron, a mesmerizing actor who would soon die himself. This scene sets up the amoral tone of the film, where the pursuit of pleasure is destructive, but irresistible. Sternwood complains that the flesh of orchids is too much like that of humans and compares himself to a baby spider, living on heat. You can almost smell the rot, and it is strangely alluring.

While the banter between Bogie and Bacall is one of the supreme delights of this movie, and movies in general, they are nearly overcome by a fascinating supporting cast. In addition to Waldron, there's nineteen-year-old Dorothy Malone as a boldly erotic bookstore employee; Elijah Cook Jr. in a quiet performance that is both sinister and sympathetic and Martha Vickers, who nearly steals it all as the General's thumb-sucking nymphomaniac daughter Carmen.

Special features include the 1945 pre-release version of the film, a comparison of the 1945 and 1946 edits, a trailer and an introduction by film preservationist Robert Gitt.

Key Largo is a sharper-eyed film than The Big Sleep. Instead of drifting through an erotic, gritty dream, it builds upon the more recognizable frustrations of real life. There are the human losses of World War II, the pain of racism, struggles with addiction and the fear of being lonely and aimless.

Though Bogart had a tough guy image, here is one of many cases he was actually cast as a pacifist, more interested in defusing a dangerous situation, and only resorting to violence as a last resort. He is Frank McCloud, an ex-GI checking in on Nora Temple (Bacall) and James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), the widow and father of a former war buddy, at their Key Largo hotel. The weary veteran seems uncertain of what to do with his life, but determined to approach his remaining days with honor and compassion. His dreams of peace are stalled when gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), his dipsomaniac moll Gaye (Claire Trevor) and a band of hoods take over the off-season hotel as they wait to complete a smuggling operation by sea.

Rocco is an odd character; he's terrifying, but the people around him seem to see through the bluster, at least a bit. He's big and beefy, and clearly willing to use his gun, but McCloud easily talks him out of an act of violence, and Papa Temple and Nora take turns attacking him, too angry and violated to be intimidated by this self-absorbed bully. Even his fellow hoods sometimes seem unimpressed with the mobster, either because they've seen it all, or they don't value their lives enough to care.

The pathetic, but tender Gaye is the only one who seems truly frightened of Rocco, and it's because he reinforces her own fears that she is worthless. Trevor is most deserving of the Academy Award she won for this role. Her heartbreak is visceral; she knows she's made too many wrong turns and she still cares. She's not yet hardened enough to stop wishing she could go back in time.

John Huston's direction is sharp and tense, but also oddly sentimental. He is just as likely to pull close to a tender moment as he is a moment of peril. That mix of emotions heightens the suspense; just as your heart swells for someone, there is a moment of danger, and it is more terrifying because you have been given a reason to care.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Mar 23, 2016

Book Review--A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright

A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright
Donald Spoto
University Press of Mississippi, 2016

A few years ago, a blogger I follow asked his readers what Hollywood biography they'd like to read that hadn't been published yet. I commented that I'd always been fascinated by Teresa Wright and wanted to learn more about her. Another commenter dismissed the idea, saying that she didn't seem interesting enough for a whole bio. I didn't engage him; I knew he was wrong. Now there is proof in prolific biographer Donald Spoto's intimate new book about the actress, the latest title in the invaluable Hollywood Legends Series from University Press of Mississippi.

While it's true that Wright didn't have a sensational, scandal-laced life, it was never dull. She was a complex person herself: sweet and unassuming, strong and independent, emotionally insecure and yet somehow unusually stable given her profession. The actress found varied success in the movies, on television and most of all on the stage, including several successful Broadway productions. She was hooked on performing, acting from high school until the final years of her life.

Wright had the talent and audience appeal to join actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford at the top of the heap, but for a lot of reasons she never reached those heights. She certainly had a good start, winning Academy Award nominations for her first three film performances in The Little Foxes (1941), Mrs. Miniver and Pride of the Yankees (both 1942) (she won for her supporting performance in Miniver), a feat that is yet to be duplicated. Under contract to independent producer Samuel Goldwyn, she won substantial roles in solid productions.

However, Wright tangled with Goldwyn over contract responsibilities, and found herself hurtling to the bottom as quickly as she rose to the top. She didn't help matters by taking much less than her usual salary to star opposite Marlon Brando in his first film, The Men (1950). Her value now permanently readjusted lower in Hollywood, the actress turned to the stage, which had been her first love, and found her greatest satisfaction. With a series of successful guest television roles to pay the bills she always found herself work and a certain level of financial and artistic satisfaction.

Despite the fact that Wright's twenty-seven feature films are such a small part of her legacy, they are undeniably important. Many actresses who worked in movies for decades did not appear in so many bonafide classics and cult curiosities. She strove for quality and her good taste served her well.

Among her best: that impressive debut trio, Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt(1943) and William Wyler's post-WWII classic The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). There were also less celebrated, but intriguing films like the psychological western Pursued (1947), the achingly bittersweet Enchantment (1948) and her first role as a mother opposite Spencer Tracy in The Actress (1953). Even in her later years she was stealing scenes, most charmingly as Matt Damon's landlady in The Rainmaker (1997). With quiet, sharp-edged devastation she did some of her best screen work in a small role as Diane Keaton's grandmother in The Good Mother (1988).

Spoto manages the complex task of placing all these scattered roles into perspective, so that they can be appreciated for the great works that they are, despite the lack of full industry acknowledgement of her gifts. He focuses on the often-mentioned skill Wright had for truly listening to other performers. She would focus on them intently, her eyes sweeping across their faces, striving to fully understand. It is this quality that made her such a sensitive and secure actress. The connections she made with cast members over the years came from that willingness to pay that ultimate respect: attention.

There were times I wished Spoto would dig a little deeper into why a particular performance succeeded, because when he does commit to a full analysis, his opinions provide great insight into Wright's special appeal. Of course not all of her roles were worthy of great attention, but even in small parts she could bring a fresh energy to otherwise predictable situations.

Spoto was friends with Teresa Wright for years, a fact which he considered carefully in the writing of the book. In order to fully share his personal insights into her personality, he had to insert himself into the narrative. While the passages including the biographer tend to have the weakest flow, they are also the most revealing.

For the most part Spoto handles a challenging situation well, and his long experience associating with and writing about famous people has helped him to approach his subject with sensitivity. He manages to remain loyal while acknowledging both Wright's strengths and weaknesses. This approach might have been less advisable with a more controversial or less reliable subject, but it works for Wright.

Wright's emotional life revolved around her complex marriages to writers Niven Busch and Robert Anderson and her children Terry and Mary-Kelly. Second husband Anderson was a particularly unusual character, seemingly equally insufferable and generous. Though Spoto is friend and fan of Wright's final spouse, he is honest about the writer's shortcomings; her relationship with this essentially insecure man reveals much about how her troubled past affected her.

Though she was known for being scatterbrained and an obsessive hoarder of magazine and newspaper clippings, Wright comes off as nice as she seems. The product of a horrifying childhood, which left her emotionally fragile and always certain she was not deserving of love and affection, it's remarkable that she was able to accomplish all she did. Though her romantic relationships were a constant source of pain for her, she became a reliable professional, good mother and loyal friend to many. It was just as satisfying as I expected to learn more about this under-appreciated actress who pursued her passions with remarkable mixture of curiosity, integrity and ferocity. I liked Spoto's approach; no one could have told her story the way he did.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

Mar 18, 2016

Five Things I Learned from Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design

Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design
Jan-Christopher Horak
University Press of Kentucky, 2014

Saul Bass is perhaps the only title sequence designer to have achieved superstar status among movie fans. His innovative take on the credits for films like Vertigo (1958), North by Northwest (1959) and The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) are almost as celebrated as the films they announced. In some cases, like with the mesmerizing cascade of bells in the opening of Otto Preminger's Saint Joan (1957), they were better than the film; a fact occasionally noted by critics, and which could inspire a cool reception from offended filmmakers.

Aside from credits sequences, Bass' posters, marketing campaigns and even his participation in aspects of making films were both controversial and highly influential. His style is still revered today, as can be seen in the very Bass-like design of titles and promotional materials for productions including Mad Men, Dexter, Catch Me if You Can (2002) and Django Unchained (2012). The influence was not only in the appearance of the sequences, but also in the way they engaged viewers from the first frame and prepared them emotionally for what was to come.

In his study of Bass, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive Jan-Christopher Horak examines the designer's cinematic career, influence and work in great detail. He also touches on the designer's early advertising designs, and how they evolved into the iconography that would sell films in much the same way he'd promoted other, less glamorous products. Horak addresses Bass' authorship, acknowledging his role as the leader of a creative team that was critical to his success, including Art Goodman, his wife Elaine Bass and most of all Herb Yager.

In addition to its thorough history of Bass' career in the film industry, the book is heavy on analysis, both technical and intellectual. There's lots of talk of "x-y axes" and "upper left quadrant" and each moment of Bass' title sequences is examined for various meanings. It's a volume best suited to design fanatics and academics, and I found myself glassing over as I waded through some of the details, but as a movie fan I learned many interesting tidbits about Bass.

Here are a few of the good ones:

1. Marketing films was only a part of Bass' decades-long career. His design studio is responsible for some of the most famous logos in advertising history, including images for Girl Scouts of America, Lawry's Seasoned Salt, United Way and Quaker Oats. Many of them are still in use today.

The Girls Scouts of USA logo is one of Bass' most enduring designs

2. Creating title sequences was a labor of love for Bass. They were expensive money losers, time-consuming and kept the designer from focusing on more lucrative work. Still, they were his lifelong passion. While there was a period where his style was out of vogue, he designed sequences for directors like Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas [1990], Cape Fear [1991], Casino [1995] and The Age of Innocence [1993]), John Singleton (Higher Learning [1995]) and Penny Marshall (Big [1988]) up until the final years of his life. This is a great compilation of Bass sequences from the early years to his final triumphs:

3. Movie posters were much more cluttered before Bass. They tended to be crammed with as many photos, credits and artist's renditions as possible. The designer had worked on film publicity for a few years when he changed all that by designing an elegantly simple poster for The Man With the Golden Arm which featured a graphic of a crooked arm, the names of the stars and a few colored blocks. Eventually the studio got nervous about the lack of glamorous faces and slapped a few photos of stars Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak and Eleanor Parker around the design, but his bold vision made a significant impact:

The more cluttered studio version of the poster

4. In the pre-digital days of its production, Bass and his team used manual means to create the high tension titles for Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). They painted dozens of six-foot aluminum bars, which they then pushed at precisely planned distances and speeds. The sequence required several takes, as the bars would not always track smoothly.

5. Bass made the short film Bass on Titles, in response to designers and film fans who were curious about his methods. It packed a few screenings at film festivals upon its release in 1977. While Horak notes that it is as much, if not more a promotional effort than an educational one, it is nevertheless interesting to hear the designer talk shop:

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

Mar 16, 2016

On DVD: Ladies of the Night Gina Lollobrigida and Ava Gardner

Go Naked in the World (1961) is a glossy, glamorous mass of big feelings. It's obsessed with horrible, naughty, glorious sex. The pre-code era is limping away though, so it's okay to talk about it, and even to indulge in eroticism, but somebody is going to pay.

Gina Lollobrigida is high-priced prostitute Julie Cameron. She attracts the attention of the aimless Nick Stratton (Anthony Franciosa), son of the famous, and overbearing self-made millionaire Pete Stratton (Ernest Borgnine). Nick does not know how Julie pays for her lush apartment, or that his father is one of her clients. He doesn't seem like the sharpest tool in the drawer.

In a flashy role that suits her perfectly, Lollobrigida glides around in furs, jewels and figure-skimming cocktail dresses. She carries herself with an expectation of luxury. Without it though she would still be entrancing, confident in her allure, and perfectly in control of every little shrug of the shoulder or elegant flick of the wrist. The actress doesn't have much of a script to work with here, but all she really needs is the spotlight.

While Franciosa can sizzle with Lollobrigida, he doesn't make much of an impression on his own. It's appropriate for his role as a man struggling to distinguish himself and escape from the shadow of his strong-willed father. Though he is younger and more handsome, you can't help fixating on Borgnine in their scenes together. Even when the elder Stratton is being an insufferable bully it's mesmerizing to watch him.

This is the sort of lavish drama where people announce ideas more than they actually communicate with each other. It flirts with being unintentionally funny, but doesn't quite rate as camp. Everyone has exciting, nostril-flaring emotions, and there's not much of substance to back them up, but this is a spectacle, and thanks to Lollobrigida and Borgnine, often a very entertaining one.

The Angel Wore Red (1960) is a more downbeat drama, set during the Spanish Civil War. Ava Gardner is Soledad, a so-called "cabaret girl". She falls for Father Arturo Carrera (Dirk Bogarde), a priest who has rejected his vows, though he is still hunted by Loyalists fighting the church.

This was a sad time in Gardner's life, and you can see it in her performance. The long nights and drinking show in the bags under her eyes, and there's a sort of weary resignation in her demeanor. She was starting to sour on making movies, and after the production she had planned to retire from the screen. Fortunately that did not happen, as Ava had a knock-out performance in The Night of the Iguana (1964) ahead of her.

According to Bogarde, Gardner lost her enthusiasm for the project when she was forced to wear glamorous make-up and a girdle after producers saw the early rushes. She wanted to be a respectable actress; they didn't want her to attempt an Anna Magnani impersonation. While it is odd to see the actress turned out so impeccably in what are supposed to be such trying times, not to mention Bogarde with his perfectly fluffed hair and pressed shirts, her, and his, beauty are undeniably thrilling.

Bogarde and Gardner got on well. Their friendship would last beyond the production, and they would even act together in another trying film, Permission to Kill, in 1974. Their mutual sympathy translates into a touching onscreen romance. I'd never put them together, but they're a charming pair.

Bogarde is warmer and more intimate than many of Gardner's screen partners. The actor brings out her more grounded side, because he doesn't treat her like a sex goddess. He cherishes her, and she responds with a less breathy and more down-to-earth performance than in her earlier films.

In a supporting role as a broadcast journalist, Joseph Cotton is uncharacteristically over-the-top. He made the odd choice to shout most of his lines in a misguided attempt to play an eccentric. Vittorio De Sica is equally unusual as a British soldier. His dialogue appears to have been dubbed, but there was no way to disguise his clearly Italian body language--especially those expressive hands.

In his memoirs, Bogarde wrote that The Angel Wore Red opened, "apparently to ten eskimos in North Alaska, closed the next day and sank without trace." Perhaps it's no tragedy that this film isn't better known, but it is definitely of interest, particularly because of the intriguing chemistry between Gardner and Bogarde.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Mar 10, 2016

Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess (1953) on Blu-ray

The swooning sadness of romantic yearning hangs over I Confess like a lonely specter. Not what I expected from an Alfred Hitchcock film, especially one featuring a priest and the Catholic church. This lesser known drama from the master of suspense is a departure for the director in many ways, though still familiar in theme and style. I recently had the chance to view the film on the newly-released Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Montgomery Clift stars as Father Michael Logan, a priest who lives in the charmingly old-world Quebec City. Late one night, Otto, a German immigrant who works as a handyman with his housekeeper wife at the church where Logan lives confesses to his employer that he has murdered the man he gardens for on the side. The dead man turns out to have a significant connection to Logan and his former love the wealthy Ruth Grandfort (Anne Baxter), and he soon finds himself under suspicion for the crime. As a sharp-eyed police detective, Karl Malden is especially wary of this reserved man of the cloth. Still, though things don't look good for Logan, he refuses to tell the police what he knows about the crime.

Whether or not Father Logan will betray Otto isn't a significant part of the conflict, at least as Clift plays the role. Of course he will keep a secret told in confession, even if it means he will hang for it. This makes him a simultaneously passive and heroic character. Without the ability to expose the true murder, and also being unwilling to risk the reputation of his former love, he is forced to observe an unjust situation without comment. Nevertheless, he is strong, because he never wavers in his devotion to his vows, always sure of what he must do as much as he wishes to save himself. If he breaks his promise to his faith, his whole purpose in life will be destroyed, so why save himself?

Clift was a fragile soul, and he appears especially vulnerable in I Confess. While he plays a reserved, unemotional character, the actor is such a sensitive performer that he's able to say all that he needs to with a brief, eye-crinkling smile or a pensive flash of the eyes. No matter what role he played, those eyes always seemed to say "help", he was not the sort for heroic parts and he was well cast as the anxiety-ridden Father Logan.

That Clift was able to accomplish such a subtle performance is due to a careful balancing act on the set. Hitchcock didn't like the star's method acting, or the way his acting coach was always hiding in the shadows, waiting for the actor to look to her for approval. Monty's drinking problem would also complicate filming; especially in an emotional scene with Baxter where he was so glassy eyed the actress struggled to make a connection with her costar. The confrontation-averse Hitchcock relied on Clift's old friend Malden to intervene, and his advice to the actor helped keep the production on track.

Anne Baxter was a last minute replacement for Anita Björk, who horrified Jack Warner when she arrived in Hollywood with an illegitimate child and her lover. It was too soon after the Ingrid Bergman scandal to take the risk on the director's first choice. Baxter was clothed in Björk's costumes, agreed to dye her hair a lighter blonde per Hitchcock's request, and felt that perhaps she was not as pretty her director wished.

That sense of unease serves Baxter well. Though Ruth has married well, she still feels overwhelming love for Michael, whom she lost to the church after he got the calling while serving in World War II. She always seems to be on the edge of her seat, never relaxing into the life for which she has settled. Her dreams of Logan haunt her.

In their scenes together, it is heartbreaking to see Ruth overwhelmed with lust for a man who no longer belongs to her. The lush romance of their youth together has disappeared and she cannot find another path to happiness. As he potentially faces the loss of his own love, an enduring connection with the church, Logan seems to understand her grief.

From the supporting actors to the bit players, this is one of the more interesting casts Hitchcock has assembled. The sharp wit of Malden's inspector is a fine contrast to the more gentile gloss of Brian Aherne as Crown Prosecutor Robertson, who tries Logan's case. In a performance even more sensitive than Clift's, German actress Dolly Haas is heartbreakingly vulnerable as the murderous Otto's wife Alma. That name was a direct reference to the director's wife; the film is in many respects a tribute to her personal and professional support of her husband. I also enjoyed a pair of school girls in bit parts as witnesses from the night of the murder. The way they played off of each other was quirky, natural and a nice bit of humor in an otherwise deeply serious film.

Hitchcock makes effective use of the elegant Quebec City locations. The old world feel enhances the feeling of romance, both in the heat of the moment and when it is only a lingering memory. It is a novel setting to explore the director's common theme of the wronged man, its beauty a contrast to the darkness of the story.

I'm glad I finally saw I Confess. I enjoyed it more than I expected. While it is a well-crafted story with strong performances, I found that I liked it most because it put me under a sad, sweet spell, infused with loss and longing. While this sort of mood is unusual coming from Hitchcock, he managed that different tone well.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Mar 8, 2016

Book Review--Hollywood on the Spot: Crimes Against the Early Movie Stars

Hollywood on the Spot Crimes Against the Early Movie Stars
Patrick Downey

From the time there were movie stars, there were also criminals who preyed upon them. Particularly during the Depression, the high concentration of wealth in Hollywood was tantalizing for those looking for an easy buck, from ex-convicts to teenage soda jerks. In a new book, Patrick Downey explores a wide range of Tinsel town crimes against famous actors and directors, from the minor to the life-threatening.

Hollywood on the Spot is a brief, amusing read, tackling everything from death threats to petty theft. Several of the stories are Hollywood legend, like the plot to kidnap Mary Pickford and death threats made against Shirley Temple. Others are interesting, more obscure tidbits, like the time Wings (1927) star Richard Arlen realized he would be charged less for groceries if he had his staff members purchase them under their own names.

Put together, what emerges is an interesting examination of the way the darker elements in the audience related to the stars in an emerging medium. It's a strange mixture of envy and love. In many cases, the criminals would inflict terror and lasting emotional damage on the very people they admired most. While money was a common objective, so was making some sort of connection with these glittering, glamorous figures. So absorbed in their own desires, the criminals would deny the performers they admired their sense of humanity, as if the exposure of the silver screen made them a commodity for audience exploitation.

As frightening as these threats could be for the victims, there's an almost amusing air of theatricality to the way the crooks presented themselves. Seemingly inspired by stage melodramas and radio shows, in their extortion letters they would give themselves names like, The Leopard, Yellow Hornet, or Ace, with a drawing of the ace of spades. It is as if they not only wanted to share in the stars' wealth, but also in the fame and dramatics.

One it gets rolling, the book has a good flow, but it takes a bit to pick up steam. The essentially solid first chapter, devoted entirely to the story of Pickford's attempted kidnapping, relies heavily on long passages of dialogue, which occasionally gives the narrative a stilted feeling. At least some of it would have been impossible to capture accurately, unless America's Sweetheart and Douglas Fairbanks were wired for sound. The remaining three chapters are smoother reading, as related crimes unroll one after the other, each outrageous in their own way, but also fascinating for their similarities.

There are several photos of the stars and criminals, most of them separate. The one exception is the infamous photo of Tyrone Power genially shaking hands with the notorious, and prolific Hollywood burglar, Ralph "The Phantom" Graham--one of the most fascinating characters in the book--after his capture. I loved the shot of a male detective dressed up like Mae West, ready to make a cash drop in an attempt to catch an extortionist who threatened to spray her face with acid.

This is an interesting look at risky side of Hollywood stardom, and the movie-worthy characters who often found that crime didn't pay nearly as well as they'd hoped.

Many thanks to Patrick Downey for providing a copy of the book for review.

Mar 3, 2016

On DVD: Merle Oberon in These Three (1936) and The Cowboy and the Lady (1938)

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Merle Oberon was one of the most unpredictable actresses in classic Hollywood. She was worthy of her stardom, and always interesting to observe, but her performances could be wildly uneven. When she had the right director, or a great story, she was a unique delight: elegant, romantic and seeming to conceal more complex emotions beneath the glamorous mask. Without the right elements though she would struggle to rise about it, becoming rigid and closed off to her audience. 

When she succeeded though, she was appealing in a way that was completely her own--a queen with the common touch. In a pair of new releases from Warner Archive, Oberon demonstrates the best of her dramatic and comedic skills in two of her more successful performances.

It is difficult, but so fulfilling to watch William Wyler's These Three (1936). Based on the Lillian Hellman play The Children's Hour, the director would be freed to acknowledge the lesbian aspects of the plot in his 1961 remake of the film. However, this censored, but thematically true original, which retains several lines from the stage production, is a more elegantly staged and emotionally satisfying version of the story.

Oberon and Miriam Hopkins star as Karen and Martha, two young college graduates who start a country boarding school for girls. They are successful, and beloved by their community, until a student with a bone to pick (Bonita Granville) tells a lie that destroys their careers and personal lives. Joel McCrea is a local doctor loved by both women, who always shows a preference for Karen.

Perhaps best known for his powerful collaborations with Bette Davis, Wyler knew how to inspire subtle work from volatile actresses. Hopkins is unusually restrained here and all the more effective for her reserve as the lovelorn Martha. She is most effective in her close-ups, where in her stillness she allows her face to flood with frustration and heartbreak. Oberon has never been more humble, keeping the elegant speech pattern, but allowing herself to be vulnerable. It is easy to understand why McCrea is smitten with her, because her emotions are easy to read and she is so hopeful that you want her to be happy.

While the titular trio draws you in with their charm and the subtle tension of the love triangle, it is the child actors who make this such an intense and unnerving classic. As the resentful, gossiping student Mary, Granville is frighteningly animalistic in her ferocity. She was understandably Oscar-nominated for this role in which she gives herself over completely to a hideous and deeply wounded character. She spits out angry accusations with her head completely still, the words shooting through her lips like well-aimed missiles. Marcia Mae Jones is also gut-wrenching as a student Mary blackmails into supporting her lies. She makes you feel the shame of a child who doesn't realize that mistakes can be forgiven and that they don't destroy all hope of happiness.

I always think I won't be able to bear the experience of going through this film another time, but while it can be excruciating, it is also romantic, occasionally sweet and always a compelling web of motives and disparate personalities.

With a well-worn mistaken identity plot and little verbal wit to counteract the clichés, The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) has the immediate appearance of being a routine, forgettable film, but it somehow ends up being something more exciting. It's got an intriguing sweetness to it, with a quirkily charming cast, and it showcases one of Oberon's most appealing comic performances.

Oberon is the daughter of a wealthy presidential hopeful. When the sheltered socialite kicks up her heels with her more liberal-minded uncle (Harry Davenport), and gets caught in a club raid, her father sends her to his Palm Beach mansion to wait out the scandal. There she attempts to escape her boredom by asking her maids to set her up with a date.

She meets a tall, handsome and adorably shy cowboy (Gary Cooper) and falls hard for him. Thinking she's just in it for a kiss, she pretends to be a lady's' maid and makes up a few dependent siblings and an alcoholic father to gain his sympathy. When she actually does fall in love, she struggles with her secret, which of course will eventually be discovered.

While Cooper and Oberon are perfectly cast as the respective cowboy and lady, they are an odd match. There's a sort of emotional chemistry, but no real sensuality. It isn't a bad coupling though, they make a loveable pair.

Oberon has never been so delightfully flirtatious. She really relaxes in this role, something she rarely, if ever seems to do in comedies. That lack of tension seems to free her to indulge in interesting bits of business, like the way she gently holds the sleeve of Cooper's shirt between her fingertips while they have their first conversation or how she draws him into her orbit by holding his gaze slightly longer than he can handle.

Though this is one of Oberon's less substantial films, it's one of her most charmingly nuanced performances. With her uncharacteristic looseness, she is more fun-loving and less haughty. Though she keeps her characteristic regal demeanor, she gives her character a playful naughtiness, as if she is an ingénue getting a little tipsy for the first time. She even manages a bit of slapstick with some flypaper, which works because she is so willing to have some fun with her own elegant image.

Cooper is awkward and sexy, basically in full "aw shucks" mode. If he is less successful than Oberon, it is partly because his role has some of the weakest, and most drawn out bits in the movie. However, as he does in his best films, he starts off mild, but once his heart is broken, he gives that indignant speech that makes you crumble.

One of the best parts of the film is the supporting cast, with Patsy Kelly and Mabel Todd as Oberon's savvy, but salt of the earth maids; Walter Brennan and Fuzzy Knight as their cowpoke beaus;
and Davenport as the affectionate and wise party-loving uncle who is always a few steps ahead of his ambitious brother. They all make the screenplay seem a lot better than it is and keep the action moving along at a good pace.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Mar 1, 2016

Book Review--Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption

Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption
Ellis Cashmore
Bloomsbury Academic, 2016

Most people go to the movies to watch characters do things they could never dream of doing themselves, let alone living with the consequences. Elizabeth Taylor behaved that way in real life; the drama she created often more outrageous than any role she ever played. In his new book, Ellis Cashmore explores the actress' effect on her public: how a life with little privacy affected her, how public life evolved throughout her lifetime  and the way her bold approach to living changed the role of women in society and the way we view celebrities.

Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963
Taylor was legendary for indulging in her many appetites unapologetically and with gusto. She took what she wanted, whether it be another woman's husband, expensive jewels or another drink, without worrying about the consequences. Her outrageous acts would frequently make her the center of controversy, but unlike more fragile actresses who found themselves the target of intense public speculation, such as Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, she was rarely intimidated or harmed by the attention.

Having spent a life in the public eye, Elizabeth Taylor never had to make the adjustment from private life to the heavy scrutiny of fame. Unlike many actresses, she was consistently in control of her own exploitation. Rather than finding it oppressive, she ensured she got maximum personal benefit from the exposure. She is also the rare star who continued to mesmerize her audience long past her screen career, and her ability to manage life in the spotlight has much to do with that enduring appeal.

Taylor and Richard Burton
While Taylor attracted plenty of negative publicity for her transgressions, the most memorable for stealing Eddie Fisher from wife Debbie Reynolds only to embark on another, very public affair with the also married Richard Burton, she was ultimately rewarded for her behavior. It is as if her lack of shame inspired her audience to rethink their feelings about her scandalous ways. By boldly taking sexual and other pleasures for herself, she was inhabiting a traditionally male role, rather than simply consenting to be the object of lust. It was as if she were asking her stunned public, "why not?" 

As Cashmore notes, "she was not just breaking rules; she was disputing their legitimacy." It's impossible to know how aware Taylor was of her influence, but in the screen roles she chose and the way she responded to the press, she seemed at least somewhat aware how intently people were listening and determined to make her intentions known.

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Cashmore is an academic who writes with the zest of a seasoned entertainment reporter. His well-researched, engaging text covers several decades of popular culture, making a case for Taylor's influence and exploring other groundbreaking public figures in the rapidly changing landscape of 20th century public life, like Jackie Onassis, Princess Diana, Madonna and Michael Jackson. He follows her from screen stardom through her years as an AIDs activist and perfume mogul, and on to the actresses' continued influence after her death in 2011.

The book is dense with compelling research and juicy gossip, as titillating as it is thought provoking. Sometimes the rush of facts and incidents can collapse into a confused jumble, and occasionally Cashmore goes off on bizarre tangents that derail the narrative flow, but for the most part he moves confidently through Taylor's history, the changing face of stardom and publicity, and how she influenced the nature of public life. It's an entertaining and thought-provoking read with fascinating observations about Taylor, feminism and the role of women in society in addition to its analysis of public life.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Academic for providing a copy of the book for review.