Top 10 Most Persuasive Film Noir Femmes

•October 13, 2014 • 5 Comments

How do I love film noir femmes fatales? Let me count the ways.

I love them for their striking beauty – how did Virginia Christine expect to stand a chance with Ava Gardner slinking around in that single-strap black dress in The Killers (1946)? Or Alice Faye as long as sexy diner waitress Linda Darnell was serving it up in Fallen Angel (1945)?

I love them for their sheer audacity. When Lizabeth Scott wanted to keep that satchel of cash that was mistakenly tossed into her car in Too Late for Tears (1949), she not only killed her second husband for it, but also the guy who was the bag’s rightful owner. (Oh, and did I forget to mention what happened to her first husband?)

And I love them for their persuasiveness – a seemingly innate ability to know just what to say to get just what they wanted – be it tearful begging, dispassionate urging, or aggressive insistence. And they almost always accomplished it in one sitting, with one well-spoken, highly effective pitch. No matter the objective, these shadowy dames simply didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They didn’t even think about it.

It’s a pleasure, then, to offer up 10 of my favorite persuasive femmes fatales from noir’s classic period. Dames that were decisive, determined . . . and just didn’t give a damn.

Margot knew how to pull out all the stops.

Margot knew how to pull out all the stops.

Margot Shelby (Jean Gillie) in Decoy (1947)

What did she want?

For her lover (well, one of them), Dr. Lloyd Craig (Herbert Rudley), to be her accomplice in her quest to – bear with me here – resuscitate her executed convict boyfriend, so that said boyfriend could lead her to his buried stash of stolen loot. Not surprisingly, her respectable, highly principled lover is less than enthusiastic about joining Margot in this enterprise – no matter how much he lusts after her. So Margot pulls out all the stops with a sure-fire whopper.

What did she say?

“Do you remember the first time I came to see you in your office? Your dingy, gloomy office on that dingy, dirty street? The rotten smell from the factory chimneys pressing down on the shabby little houses? The slovenly women? The gray-faced, dirty little children starting out with everything against them? I remember that street. I remember every little thing about it. And if I’d never seen it, I still could’ve described it. Because that street runs all over the world. I know. Because that’s the street I came from. Six thousand miles from here. In a little English mill town. But it’s the same rotten street. The same factories, the same people. And the same dirty little gray-faced children. I can’t go back to that sick, unhealthy street. The street I came from. I can’t go back to it. I can’t, Lloyd – I won’t.”

Did it work?

Not at first, but it didn’t take long for Dr. Craig to come around.

"He's so mean to me. So...kill my husband, 'kay?"

“He’s so mean to me. So…kill my husband, ‘kay?”

Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) in Double Indemnity (1944)

What did she want?

For her new beau (and when I say “new,” I mean that this was only their third encounter, and the first that lasted more than 10 minutes) to help her kill her boorish husband. This wasn’t the first time she’d broached the subject (see what I mean about the nerve of these dames?), but she opted for a different tack this time around. Instead of the direct, no-nonsense approach, Phyllis decided to tug on a heartstring or two.

What did she say?

“I feel as if he was watching me. Not that he cares, not anymore. He keeps me on a leash so tight, I can’t breathe. . . . He’s so mean to me. Every time I buy a dress or a pair of shoes, he yells his head off. He never lets me go anywhere. He keeps me shut up. He’s always been mean to me. Even his life insurance all goes to that daughter of his. That Lola. . . . Walter, I don’t want to kill him. I never did. Not even when he gets drunk and slaps my face. . . . The other night we drove home from a party. He was drunk again. When we drove into the garage, he just there with his head on the steering wheel and the motor still running. And I thought what it would be like if I didn’t switch it off. Just closed the garage doors and left him there.”

Did it work?

You betcha. In fact, Walter was way ahead of her.

Cora didn't have to say much to get Frank to say yes.

Cora didn’t have to say much to get Frank to say yes.

Cora Smith (Lana Turner) in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

What did she want?

For her lover, Frank (John Garfield), to help her knock off her husband.  Like many a hapless paramour, Frank was initially appalled at the very notion of murder. So Cora ramped up the stakes and pulled out a trio of trump cards from her persuasion deck: the Love Card, the Sympathy Card, and the Ego-Stroking Card. Frank didn’t stand a chance.

What did she say?

“What are we going to do? Oh, Frank, if only I’d met you first. Frank, do you love me? Do you love me so much that nothing else matters? There’s one thing we could do that would fix everything for us. . . . Listen to me, Frank – I’m not what you think I am. I want to keep this place and work hard and be something, that’s all. But you can’t do it without love. At least, a woman can’t. I’ve made a big mistake in my life, and I’ve to be this way just once to fix it. . . . You’re smart, Frank – you’ll think of a way. Plenty of men have. Darling, can’t you see how happy you and I would be together here? Without him?”

Did it work?

Like a charm.

That sweater almost did the trick, but not quite.

That sweater almost did the trick, but not quite.

Vicki  Buckley (Gloria Grahame) in Human Desire (1954)

For her lover, Jeff Warren (Glenn Ford), to kill her abusive spouse (are you sensing a pattern here?). Vicki put on a persuasive little pity party in her effort to achieve her goal.

What did she say?

“Carl’s been fired. He’s selling the house and we’re leaving town tomorrow. He says I’ve got to go with him.  I don’t want to go. But there’s nothing else for us to do. . . . If he finds out about us, he’ll kill me. What is there to do? Say goodbye to each other. I’ll go with Carl, and when I can’t bear the sight of him any longer, I’ll . . . You’ll forget me. It’s no use. There was nothing for us to look forward to, even if I weren’t going away. . . . We weren’t meant to be happy. It won’t be as difficult for you – at least you’ll be free. If I’d met you long ago, everything would’ve been different. But now it’s too late. It’s always too late, isn’t it? If only we’d been luckier. If something had happened to him. In the yards.”

Did it work?

At first, it appeared to, and Jeff headed right out, like a good little boy, to carry out the dastardly deed. But at the last minute, he couldn’t follow through. Fail.

Effective? Yup.

Effective? Yup.

Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) in Gun Crazy (1950)

What did she want?

For her husband, Bart Tare (John Dall), to abandon the notion of earning a living the old-fashioned way and try something new and unique. Robbery. She wasn’t coy or entreating, she didn’t bite her tongue, and she didn’t whitewash the facts – Laurie told Bart, straight out, without question, exactly what she wanted.

What did she say?

“Bart, I want things. A lot of things. Big things. I don’t wanna be afraid of life or anything else. I want a guy with spirit and guts. A guy who can laugh at anything, who’ll do anything. A guy who can kick over the traces and win the world for me.”

Did it work?

I’ll say. She topped off her spiel with a seductive kiss, and before you could say “Bob’s your uncle,” Bart was pointing his gun at some poor slob at the Traveler’s Aid.

Kitty could even persuade Chris to paint her toes!

Kitty could even persuade Chris to paint her toes!

Kitty March (Joan Bennett) in Scarlet Street (1945)

What did she want?

For her would-be lover, Chris Cross (heh), to be her Sugar Daddy.

What did she say?

“I’m sort of keeping things bottled up, too, Chris. The truth is I’m in a jam. Ah, you probably guessed it – I’m broke. Even this dress belongs to Millie. I can’t afford to pay my rent. Oh, forget it. I shouldn’t have told you. It’ll spoil your day. I’ll get out of it somehow. I couldn’t take anything from you. No, no, I couldn’t – I’ve never taken money from a man, and I’m not going to now. And I’m not going to spoil our friendship. I couldn’t pay you back.”

Did it work?

Sure did. Within days, Chris (Edward G. Robinson) had set Kitty up in one of the swankest apartments this side of Mad Men. If you know what I mean.

Close, but no cigar, Martha.

Close, but no cigar, Martha.

Martha Ivers (Barbara Stanwyck) in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)

What did she want?

For her lover, Sam (Van Heflin), to murder her husband, the alcoholic, spineless, and altogether rather pitiful local District Attorney, Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas). Of all the dames on this list, Martha’s mode of persuasion was the most concise and to the point. Pithy, even.

What did she say?

“Now, Sam – do it now. Set me free, set both of us free. He fell down the stairs and fractured his skull, that’s how he died – everybody knows what a heavy drinker he was. Oh, Sam, it can be so easy.”

Did it work?

She thought it did, and for a couple of moments, it looked like she was right. But I doubt that Sam ever seriously considered taking Martha up on her succinct suggestion.

"I'm just warning you." (Sheesh!)

“I’m just warning you.” (Sheesh!)

Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) in Born to Kill (1947)

What did she want?

It was more what she DIDN’T want – which was for Reno boardinghouse owner Mrs. Kraft (Esther Howard) to continue her quest to bring Helen’s lover to justice for murder.

What did she say?

“If you go to the police, you’ll see Laurie sooner than you think. I’m just warning you. Perhaps you don’t realize – it’s painful being killed. A piece of metal sliding into your body, finding its way into your heart. Or a bullet tearing through your skin, crashing into a bone. It takes a while to die, too. Sometimes a long while.”

Did it work?

Sadly, yes. Mrs Kraft was defeated and deflated by Helen’s cold-blooded commentary. Still, she did manage to get one good dig in – as Helen was leaving her motel room, Mrs. Kraft spit on her and slammed the door in her face.

Would YOU say no to this femme? (I didn't think so.)

Would YOU say no to this femme? (I didn’t think so.)

Lona McLane (Kim Novak) in Pushover (1954)

What did she want?

For her policeman lover, Paul Sheridan (Fred MacMurray), to kill her bank robber boyfriend so the two could pocket the proceeds from her beau’s most recent venture.

What did she say?

“We could have that money, Paul – you and I. Harry’s going to die no matter what we do. So what difference will it make if he shows up and he’s killed? Think what that money could mean to us, Paul. You and me.”

Did it work?

Paul was initially insulted at the very idea. But it didn’t take him long to come around to Lona’s way of thinking.

Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) in The Killers (1946)

What did she want?

For her boyfriend, Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster), – known as the Swede – to do something, ANYTHING, so she wouldn’t have to take the rap for the stolen brooch she was sporting. Kitty pulled out all the stops – in a rare public display – babbling, pleading, sobbing, the whole nine yards.

With that look, Kitty could get Swede to do anything.

With that look, Kitty could get Swede to do anything.

What did she say?

“It’s not true, Swede, I didn’t take it. I had no idea it was stolen. Oh, Swede, make him listen. I’ll give it back, I’ll do anything if he’ll just let me go. Please, don’t let him take me in, Swede, or they’ll throw the book at me.”

Did it work?

Sure did. The Swede, rendered figuratively sightless and literally senseless by his love for Kitty, ended up confessing to the crime and landing a three-year stretch in the Gray Bar Hotel. Ah, love.

So that’s my top 10 of noir’s most persuasive femmes – the dames with the disarming smiles, the influential whispers, and the thoroughly compelling caresses. What are some of your favorite persuasive film noir femmes?

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 “Femmes Fatales” issue of The Dark Pages.

O Canada Blogathon: Norma Shearer in Strangers May Kiss (or, The Dumbbell and The Jackass)

•October 9, 2014 • 13 Comments

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but Norma Shearer is one of my all-time favorite actresses.

Her unaffected style, graceful manner, and infectious, girlish laugh combined to make her altogether delightful to watch. Not to mention that she looked darned good in a gown, and she could summon up tears like nobody’s business. Plus she could ACT! And her films are among my favorites, too – I could watch The Divorcee, Private Lives, and A Free Soul every day of the week.

But there is one Norma Shearer film that, quite frankly (and, sorry, Mommy, if you’re reading) pisses me OFF: Strangers May Kiss (1931). Not that this has stopped me from watching it over and over – it’s the Norma effect, dontcha know – but I watch it with a jaundiced eye, knowing what’s in store for our heroine (and my blood pressure) by the final reel.

I’m giving you fair warning, this post is going to contain a goodly number of spoilers. So watch your step.

Norma stars as Lisbeth Corbin, a modern, free-thinking young woman whose liberated philosophy is illustrated through her relationship with globe-trotting reporter Alan Harlow (Neil Hamilton). In the film’s opening scene, Lisbeth and Alan are seen flying back to New York after a weekend idyll where they obviously weren’t just playing tiddlywinks, if you know what I mean. And while Lisbeth acknowledges to a friend that she loves Alan “more than the Earth and the Sun and the moon and the stars,” she’s also quick to point out that neither she nor Alan believe “in the awful necessity of marriage.”

Aunt Celia...before.

Aunt Celia…before.

What’s my problem with all this, you might ask? My problem is that Alan is a little bit of a jackass and Lisbeth, as she’s described by one of her best pals, is “a little bit dumb.” And in both cases, a “little bit” is putting it mildly. Here’s the proof:

  1. Lisbeth has an Aunt Celia (Irene Rich) who’s been blissfully married for 10 years. One night, while at a nightclub with Lisbeth, Alan, and a few other friends, Aunt Celia spots her husband with another woman. Celia is so distraught at the abrupt end of what she thought was the perfect union, she commits suicide. In the next scene, we see Lisbeth at Christmastime, mournfully picking out “Silent Night” on the piano, with Alan nowhere in sight. We learn that he’s been gone for a month, and that Lisbeth hasn’t heard a word from him. (He can write for his newspaper, apparently, but he can’t take a minute to drop her a friggin’ postcard?) He finally turns up, and informs Lisbeth that he left because of her aunt’s reaction to her husband’s infidelity. “She reminded me that women are likely to get tied up with hysteria. Emotion,” Alan says. “I didn’t want to get your life so involved that you couldn’t handle it.” (Nice.)
  2. Notwithstanding his “noble” disappearing act, Alan asks Lisbeth to accompany him on a trip to Mexico that may last for two or three years. After a little coaxing from Alan, and despite a warning from her girlfriend (“Any use in my telling you that you’re making a mistake?”), Lisbeth decides to throw caution to the winds and go with him. And what’s the deciding factor? “I may never see him again if I don’t,” she says. (Deliver me.)

    The Mexican Idyll. Too bad it didn't last.

    The Mexican Idyll. Too bad it didn’t last.

  3. For a while, the couple’s stay in the remote Mexican village is like a dream. Lisbeth is absolutely radiant, basking in the glow of the summer sun and Alan’s adoration – but it all comes to an end when Lisbeth gets a one-two punch of reality. First, Alan reveals – completely out of the blue, mind you – that he has a wife in Paris. (“It isn’t very important. We don’t bother about it very much. Haven’t for years,” he explains. “It struck me just now that I was keeping a secret from a friend. No reason why I should do that, is there?”) And then, as if that weren’t enough, Alan gets word from his newspaper that he is to travel immediately to Panama. Poor Lisbeth thinks she’s going along, too, but Alan soon cures her of that mistaken notion. “I played it fair, sweetheart. You said that you knew what you were doing,” Alan tells her. “I expected you to say, ‘Goodbye. Good luck.’” (Seriously????)
  4. Lisbeth mends her broken heart by spending the next two years sleeping her way through Europe – from London to Berlin to Monte Carlo to Spain – with a series of admiring gents. “I try to find one kick for every 24 hours,” she says. “I’m in an orgy, wallowing. And I love it.” Then one evening, out of the clear blue, Lisbeth receives a telegram from Alan, informing her that he has gotten a divorce and wants to marry her. And, like a dumbbell, Lisbeth doesn’t hesitate for a single second – just packs her duds and jets off to Paris to meet her man. Whom, as I mentioned a couple of sentences back, she hasn’t seen or heard from IN. TWO. YEARS. (Two years, y’all.)

    Lisbeth slept with everybody except Robert Montgomery. (Told you she was dumb, didn't I?)

    Lisbeth slept with everybody except Robert Montgomery. (Told you she was dumb, didn’t I?)

  5. But wait! There’s massive jackassery ahead! When Lisbeth arrives in Paris and excitedly calls her soon-to-be-husband-she-thinks, Alan gives her the cold shoulder and hangs up in her face. Turns out that he heard all about her European escapades and has decided he wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot pole. So to speak. Lisbeth goes to see him, begging for his understanding: “I didn’t think I was ever going to see you again,” she explains. “Don’t you see, I had nothing?”  But Alan isn’t listening, calling her everything but a child of God: indecent, promiscuous, cheap, contemptible. “If you loved me as you said you did,” he bitterly insists, “no other man in the whole world could ever put a hand on you.” (Unrealistic, much?)
  6. Instead of slapping Alan’s face or, at the very least, sweeping grandly from the room, Lisbeth concludes that his reaction means that he really and truly loves her. “You couldn’t be so brutal if you didn’t.” (Good GRIEF.)

    Lisbeth, in happier times. Which are kinda few and far between, actually.

    Lisbeth, in happier times. Which are kinda few and far between, actually.

  7. Time passes – we don’t know how much – but we do learn that since her confrontation with Alan, Lisbeth has kept herself as pure and pristine as newly fallen snow. If you know what I mean. So when she just happens to run into Alan outside a local theater, she tells him that he shouldn’t feel sorry for any of the things he said to her in Paris. “You were right. I should have waited. Even if you’d never come back,” she says. “I’m glad you expected so much of me. I don’t know what you want to do, but there’ll never be anybody but you. As long as I live.” (Are you KIDDING me.)
  8. And of course, Lisbeth and Alan wind up in the final clinch together.
  9. Blecccch.

Because it’s Norma Shearer (and, though I didn’t mention this earlier, Robert Montgomery’s in it, too – BONUS!), I can’t exactly say that I hate or even dislike this movie. It’s more like I can’t believe my ears. I mean, SERIOUSLY. It’s really jaw-droppingly awesome, though. If you haven’t seen it, make it your business to check it out. Just be sure you don’t have any blunt objects around, or you might feel compelled to chunk them in the general direction of your TV screen.


This post is part of the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by two of my favorite Canadians:  Kristina over at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings.

Visit these blogs and take some time to check out the many great posts being presented as part of this event!

Pre-Code Crazy: The Reckless Hour (1931)

•October 1, 2014 • 7 Comments

Pre-Code crazy – that’s what I am!

And that’s why “Pre-Code Crazy” is the perfect name for my new venture with fellow blogger (and Dark Pages Senior Writer) Kristina, over at Speakeasy – she’s pre-Code crazy, too! So the two of us have decided to team up, on the first of every month, to highlight what each of us think is the juiciest pre-Code airing in the next 30 days on Turner Classic Movies. The best part is that neither of us knows what the other is going to pick until we post – so I’ll be finding out her choice along with all of you!

My selection for the inaugural edition of Pre-Code Crazy is The Reckless Hour (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill. The Reckless Hour isn’t my first Mackaill outing – I’ve seen Safe in Hell several times (including on the big screen at my inaugural visit to the TCM Film Festival), as well as The Office Wife, Party Husband, Kept Husbands (what’s with Mackaill and husbands, anyway?), and Their Mad Moment – but it’s definitely one of my favorites.

Margie was the apple of her father’s eye.

What’s it all about?

The film centers on Margaret “Margie” Nichols (Mackaill), a dress model by profession, who lives at home with her parents and her little sister. In the film’s opening reel, Margie meets Allen Crane (Walter Byron), the handsome heir to a railroad fortune. Before long, Allen is taking Margie out on the town every night and gifting her with expensive jewelry – but he always manages to come up with a convenient excuse to avoid introducing her to his family. And you know what that means. Unfortunately, it appears that if we – and Margie’s sharper-than-he-seems Dad – know that Allen is a cad long before Margie does.

And that’s just the beginning. The rest of this economical, 71-minute feature is chock-full of pre-Code goodies, including pre-marital sex, pregnancy, marital infidelity, divorce … and Conrad Nagel!

Blondell is a standout in this scene. (As usual.)

Blondell is a standout in this scene. (As usual.)

What’s my favorite scene?

Early in the picture, we’re introduced to Margie’s family and, for my money, it’s one of the best scenes in the film, filled with first-rate writing and rich characterizations. You’ve got Margie, easy-going and lighthearted, and never one to shy away from a good time; Myrtle (the always awesome Joan Blondell), Margie’s feisty little sister, pea-green with envy regarding just about everything having to do with her sibling, from her job to her boyfriends; Margie’s status-hungry mother, Harriet (Helen Ware),  who would sell either of her daughters to the highest bidder in exchange for a fur jacket; and Margie’s seemingly absent-minded but highly moral father (H.B. Warner), a bookstore owner who dotes on his older daughter. During the brief scene, the personalities of each of the characters are on full display – Myrtle grouses about Margie’s failure to help out around the house, calling her “duchess” and disdainfully referencing her “lily-white” hands, while Harriet fusses at her husband for forgetting to buy milk, snipes that Margie does nothing but “tail around in beautiful clothes,” and complains that her daughters ought to “be living in a place where they can have friends.” Walter divides his time between burying his nose in a book and defending Margie, while Margie herself seems to get a kick out of the entire proceedings.

(Honorable mention for the scene where Margie does the Tiptoe of Shame after getting dropped at home by Allen’s driver, only to discover that her father is waiting up for her. Busted!)

Who sez my favorite quote?

Even though it’s from the mouth of a dyed-in-the-wool heel, my favorite quote was this one from Allen:

“I’m awfully fond of Margie. I like her a lot. I think she’s a peach of a girl. I tell you, if I was going to marry anyone, it would be Margie. But I’m too young to get married. I don’t want to settle down. Not yet, anyhow. We just played around together.”

Anything else?

The Reckless Hour was directed by John Francis Dillon, who also helmed Clara Bow’s “comeback” film, Call Her Savage (1932). He suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 49.

Speaking of Clara Bow, both she and Dorothy Mackaill were named Wampas Baby Stars of 1924.

The screenplay for The Reckless Hour was adapted by Florence Ryerson from a play called Ambush. Ryerson also worked on the screenplay for The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Dorothy Mackaill and Joan Blondell were seen the previous year in The Office Wife (1930). They played sisters in that film, too.

The Reckless Hour is airing on TCM on Friday, October 10th. Check it out and go pre-Code crazy! You only owe it to yourself.

Happy 92nd birthday, Lizabeth Scott!

•September 29, 2014 • 8 Comments

Lizabeth Scott, a champagne blonde with ice-blue eyes and a husky, low-pitched voice, was best known for her on-screen portrayals of the duplicitous dame who more often than not received her comeuppance in the last reel. Labeled as “The Threat,” Scott was one of the quintessential bad girls of film noir, starring in seven pictures from the era: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Dead Reckoning (1946), I Walk Alone (1947), Pitfall (1948), Too Late for Tears (1949), Dark City (1950), and The Racket (1951).

On the occasion of Lizabeth Scott’s 92nd birthday, I’m taking a look at her early years and the journey that this unique actress took to Hollywood. So grab a piece of cake and join the party!

Scott was born Emma Matzo on September 29, 1922, the eldest of six children of an English-born father and a mother of Russian descent. A native of Scranton, Pennsylvania, an industrialized mining town, Emma was raised in a culture-filled home and participated for several years in a variety of lessons, including piano and elocution. By her own account, however, the future star was frequently rebellious and outspoken: “As a child, my mother used to tell me to keep my emotions subdued, to be ‘a lady.’ Instead of which I was a noisy, screaming little brat, definite about everything.”

Working in her father’s grocery store, Emma fostered many ambitions, including becoming an opera singer, a journalist, or a nun – a notion that was promptly vetoed by her mother. During the summer after her graduation after her graduation from Central High School, Emma worked with May Desmond’s stock company at Lake Ariel, New York, and the following fall, she enrolled at Marywood College, a Catholic school near Scranton. However, after only six months, she left the school, later recalling, “I never wanted to finish college because of the feeling I had . . . that life was very short and there were so many more important aspects of life to be explored.”

Instead, Emma turned her signs toward an acting career, moving to Manhattan to attend the Alvienne School of Dramatics. She landed her first professional job in the national company of Hellzapoppin’ – after a year-long tour, she did summer stock in New York. One of her many roles with the 52nd Street Stock Company was the lead in Rain, for which she was billed as “Elizabeth Scott.” The actress later explained that she chose the first name “just because I always liked [it],” and the last name in honor of one of her favorite plays, Mary of Scotland.

It appeared that the aspiring actress may have gotten her big break when she was hired for a walk-on in Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, and was asked to serve as understudy to the star of the play, Tallulah Bankhead. But for the next seven months, Scott remembered, she “waited for the Long Island train to break down or for Tallulah to get a cold. But the train ran and she remained robustly healthy.” Later, after Bankhead had been replaced by Miriam Hopkins, Scott quit the play, making ends meet by landing several modeling assignments, including a full-page spread in Esquire and a number of appearances in Harper’s Bazaar.

Coincidentally, three months after leaving The Skin of Our Teeth, Scott received a call from the play’s producer, who requested that she step in for a one-night replacement of Miriam Hopkins, who was ill, a several months later, she filled in again, this time for a three-week run. She received favorable notices for her performance, but when the play closed, she was force to resume her modeling activities. Before long, her four-photograph layout in Harper’s Bazaar caught the eye of agent Charles Feldman, who asked her to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Of the request, Scott later said, “I wanted to be a great stage actress. I never once thought of movies. But, it was off season on Broadway . . . and since I wasn’t able to find a job there, I thought it might be a good experience to come to Hollywood and find out what it was all about.”

Once in Tinseltown, Scott made screen tests for Warners and Universal-International that were less than well-received, but she wasn’t idle for long – in August 1944, Feldman informed her that producer Hal Wallis wanted to sign her to an exclusive contract, and a few months later, she was cast in a starring role in what she termed “a lovely film,” You Came Along (1945), with Robert Cummings and Don DeFore. The following year, Scott entered the realm of film noir with a featured role with Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, and Kirk Douglas in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) – and the rest is history. During her screen career, she would only appear in a total of 22 films, but she made an indelible mark on the film noir era, and she remains a uniquely talented product of Hollywood’s Golden Age; in a 1996 interview, Scott said, “There was something about that lens that I adored – and it adored me back. So we were a great combination.”

You said it, Liz. Happy birthday!

Rest in Peace, Audrey Long

•September 22, 2014 • 4 Comments

Her name may not have been a household word, but if you know your noir, you know Audrey Long.

The luminous blonde with the soulful eyes and the girl-next-door smile was a standout in back-to-back noirs in 1947: Born to Kill, where she held her own as Claire Trevor’s sister and Lawrence Tierney’s wife, and Desperate, where she and her spouse, Steve Brodie, were chased across the country by the psychotic Raymond Burr.

Born on April 14, 1922, in Orlando, Florida, Long got her big break during her teen years when she was signed to a Warner Bros. contract and debuted in a bit part in The Male Animal (1942), starring Olivia deHavilland and Henry Fonda. The following year, she was seen in a small role on Broadway, in Sons and Soliders, with Gregory Peck. She later signed on with RKO, for whom she made her two noir appearances. Long’s non-noir credits included Tall in the Saddle (1944), a John Wayne starrer.

In 1952, she married Leslie Charteris, author of The Saint series, and retired from acting. She and Charteris remained together until his death in 1993.

We were saddened to learn that Long died on September 19, 2014, at the age of 92, following a long illness. She won’t be forgotten around these parts.


Summer Reading Challenge: So Many Books, So Little Time

•September 1, 2014 • 14 Comments

As the irreverent, mustachioed bandit said in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), “Badges? We don’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! We don’t have to show you any stinking badges!”

What does that have to do with today’s post?

Nothing. I just really, really like that quote.

But seriously, folks – today’s post is designed to celebrate my completion of the second annual Summer Classic Reading Challenge spearheaded by Raquel over at Out of the Past, where participants are challenged to read six classic film-related books. Huzzah! I joined in the fun last year, but I only managed to get four books under my belt. So when Raquel announced this year’s event, I was determined to make it through all six. And I made it – just barely, by the skin of my teeth – but, doggone it, I made it!

In addition to reading six books by September 1st, part of the challenge is to write a review of the books you read, so here goes – my six entries in the 2014 Summer Classic Reading Challenge!

Life With Father (1935) by Clarence Day

The 1947 movie Life With Father, starring William Powell and Irene Dunne, is one of my favorite films. So a few years back, when I saw the book upon which the film was based, I grabbed it. And even though it wasn’t quite what I expected, I did enjoy it. Written in 1935, Life With Father consists of a series of humorous autobiographical essays, focusing on the author’s family in the late 1890s. The central figure is the author’s father, Clarence “Clare” Day, Sr.; having viewed the screen version numerous times, I had the film’s cast in my head the entire time I was reading it – and I must say, William Powell was perfectly cast as the blustering, profane, highly principled and even more highly opinionated patriarch. The chapters centered on such incidents as Clare’s effort to coax his long-suffering wife, Vinnie, into keeping accurate household accounts; his decision to have a telephone installed in their home; and his insistence that each of his sons learn to play a musical instrument. My favorite was the chapter entitled “Father Wakes Up the Village,” which described a hot summer day when the iceman failed to show up at the Day home, and Clare’s never-say-die efforts to ensure that his glass of water was properly cooled. At the end of the day, when a fully stocked, brand-new icebox had been delivered to the Days, Clare offered up what was, for me, the book’s funniest line: “Clarence,” he told his son solemnly, “King Solomon had the right idea about these things:  ‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do thy damnedest.’” Interestingly, there were only two specific scenes in the book that were recreated in the screen version, which is what I referred to when I stated earlier that the book wasn’t what I expected. (I kept waiting for chapters depicting the young Clarence’s infatuation with the family’s young visitor, played in the film by Elizabeth Taylor; or Clare’s refusal to be baptized, but these were nowhere to be found.) This didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this entertainingly written book, though, with its amusing situations, turn-of-the-century charm, and well-drawn characters.

Dark History of Hollywood: A Century of Greed, Corruption, and Scandal Behind the Movies (2014) by Kieron Connolly

I can’t get enough of books about the seedy side of Hollywood – so when I spotted this one on the bargain table of my local Books-A-Million store, I didn’t hesitate to snag it. And while there was a great deal of information that is common knowledge among classic film lovers – Fatty Arbuckle’s trials (both figurative and literal), the death of Thelma “Hot Toddy” Todd, the murder of Lana Turner’s boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, and the anti-Communist witch-hunts – the book not only presented much of this in more detail than I’ve read previously, but it also contained any number of fascinating nuggets that were new to me. First off, before starting with the silent era, the author provided a foundation for the book’s information by laying out extensive details on the founding fathers of the film industry. Connolly went on to cover such interesting personages as Olive Thomas, the beautiful young silent screen star who was married to Mary Pickford’s brother, Jack, and died at the age of 25 after “accidentally” ingesting a topical treatment for her husband’s syphilis. Then there was the 1924 death of producer Thomas Ince – the initial newspaper story stated that he was shot aboard a yacht belonging to famed media baron William Randolph Hearst, but later reports claimed that Ince was suffering from stomach ulcers and was felled by a fatal heart attack – at home. (Right.) I was also shocked and saddened to read the story of Karl Dane, a silent comedy performer who starred with John Gilbert and Renee Adoree in The Big Parade (1925). His career stalled with the talkies – his thick Danish accent didn’t transfer – a mining business venture failed, he lost jobs working as a mechanic and a waiter, and by 1934 he was selling hot dogs outside of Paramount Studios. He killed himself later that year. The rest of the book – with chapters including “The Studio System,” “The Mob,” “Sex” and “Stars” – contains equally interesting information. I didn’t know, for instance, that even the sexy cartoon character Betty Boop was subject to the conventions of the Production Code – in the 1930s, she became “more demure with a less revealing dress, less jewelry, and even fewer curls.” Or that during the filming of Rebel Without A Cause (1955), director Nicholas Ray was having an affair with the film’s star Natalie Wood (Ray was 43 and Wood was 16). Overall, I found this to be an absolutely fascinating book, one of the best I’ve read of its kind. In fact, the only sour note I encountered throughout the entire text was this comment on Marilyn Monroe: “Apart from Some Like It Hot, which, 50 years after her death, is considered classic, none of her films is screened much or even rated that highly.” Perhaps it’s because the author does not live in the United States, but hello? Bus Stop? The Seven Year Itch? Niagara? Don’t Bother To Knock? Not to mention The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve, where Monroe was a memorable standout despite her brief appearance. Okay, I’m getting steamed now – let me stop before I retract my favorable review!

Bette and Joan: The Devine Feud
(2000) by Shaun Considine

This is, if not THE best, then certainly one of the top two or three celebrity biographies I’ve ever read – I don’t know how accurate it is, but it sure is loads of fun. As the title suggests, it’s all about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford (my two favorite actress, by the way), and the – shall we say – intense dislike that the two harbored for each other for decades. Let me concede, at the outset, that the book contains several inaccuracies about the movies in which these two stars appeared, which is one reason why I must take the entire contents – no matter how enjoyable they were – with a grain of salt. For example, of Crawford’s 1931 pre-Code film Possessed, the author describes “a restaurant scene [in which] Joan sang multilingual snatches of songs to a trio of dining guests, prompting a nearby patron to ask, ‘Say, what is this? Ellis Island?’” If you’ve ever seen Possessed, you’ll know that Crawford’s character was in the home of her lover (Clark Gable), hosting a lush dinner party when she sang versions of a song, “How Long Will it Last,” in several languages. And that it was later in the party that another character arrived, met the “trio” of foreign dignitaries, and delivered the “Ellis Island” remark.” In another instance, the author discusses Bette Davis’s 1942 film In This Our Life – he incorrectly states that she steals her sister’s husband, drives him to suicide, “then, on the way back from his funeral kills a little boy with her car.” (She wasn’t on her way home from the funeral when the car accident occurred – in fact, his funeral wasn’t depicted in the film at all.) These goofs notwithstanding, Bette and Joan is a real page-turner, full of catty comments (“I wouldn’t mind her personality if only she could act,” Bette once said about Joan), juicy gossip (three days after divorcing Davis, her third husband, William Grant Sherry, married their nanny), and tidbits of information that I’d never read before (everything related to the 1939 film The Women was female – from the authors of the books on the library shelves, to the dogs, monkeys, and horses that were in various scenes). It’s also filled with entire conversations, at least some of which are undoubtedly a figment of the author’s creative imagination – but even that doesn’t detract from the book’s overall yummy factor. Neither of the actresses emerges from the book smelling like a rose, but the look inside their longtime feud only made me love them both all the more. After all, who better than Joan Crawford to serve up life lessons like this one: “You can have your cake and eat it. If you nibble at the edges, it lasts longer.”

Center Door Fancy (1972) by Joan Blondell

Did you know that Joan Blondell wrote a novel? Based on her life? Well, she did – and it. Is. AWESOME. I loved this book – even more so because I knew who she was writing about. In the novel, Blondell is Nora Marten, and Center Door Fancy covers everything from her father’s start in vaudeville, which eventually expanded to an act featuring Nora, her mother, and her two siblings, through her third marriage. (Incidentally, according to the book, the title refers to an ornate, painted archway in the middle of a stage set, through which the vaudeville performers would enter.) From the first page, Blondell manages to create a world that you feel a part of: you can practically see the world-weary vaudeville performers, smell the hot dogs and carrots cooked in a hotel room over a can of Sterno, feel the cramped muscles from criss-crossing the country in a second Ford Model T. She takes us through the vaudeville years, her big break on Broadway, her entrance onto the Hollywood scene, and her three failed marriages, to a cinematographer, an actor, and a producer. And she doesn’t pull any punches – the book depicts Nora’s rape by a policeman, her hit-or-miss education, her mother’s numerous extramarital affairs, her first husband’s alcoholism and the series of abortions he arranged for her because he “wanted all of [her] love” for himself. While giving fictional names to the people closest to her and a select few others (her parents, siblings, three husbands, June Allyson, Marion Davies, Warner Bros. studio), Blondell cleverly weaves in mentions of such real-life stars as James Cagney, Clara  Bow, Ruth Chatterton, George Brent, Greer Garson, Bette Davis, Frank McHugh. The overall effect is like stepping into Blondell’s life and listening, enraptured, while she tells you all her most intimate secrets.  (And let me tell you, it certainly gave me a different impression of several personages, especially Dick Powell, June Allyson, and Mike Todd.) I can safely say that this is one of my favorite books of all time – I get all warm and fuzzy just thinking about it. And then I want to pick it up and read it again.

Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (2007) by Matthew Kennedy

After reading about Joan Blondell’s fictionalized life in Center Door Fancy, what better than to read her biography? In my experience, most celebrity biographies are difficult to read – they just don’t flow like I’d like, and I usually give up before getting very far.  But this isn’t one of those. Author Matthew Kennedy did an outstanding job bringing Joan Blondell to life, and it was quite an amazing experience, especially after having just read Center Door Fancy. Kennedy’s biography fills in the blanks, career-wise, covering Blondell’s vaudeville and Broadway career, and giving extensive attention to her many films, from such well-known gems as The Public Enemy (1931) and Golddiggers of 1933, to lesser-known fare like I’ve Got Your Number (1934) and The Traveling Saleslady (1935), as well her extensive television career. Kennedy also takes us inside Blondell’s family life, giving us access to her siblings, Edward, Jr., (known as Junie) and Gloria; her three spouses, George Barnes, Dick Powell, and Mike Todd; her children, Norman (who was fathered by Barnes but later adopted by Powell) and Ellen; and a host of in-laws and grandchildren. I finished reading this book just a few days ago, while seated in a Forever 21 store, waiting for my youngest daughter as she tried on school clothes. When I came to the end which covered Blondell’s death from leukemia, I was shocked (and a little mortified) to find myself in tears – that’s how good of a job Kennedy did with bringing the reader into Blondell’s life. This is a good one.

Palm Springs Babylon (1993) by Ray Mungo

Ugh. This was the last book I read and, by far, my least favorite. I’ve had it in my collection for years – I bought it on August 14, 1993 (good grief – that was before my children were born, and my oldest just started college!). And now I know why I never read it. It purports to be a fascinating tell-all, offering “sizzling stories from the Desert Playground of the Stars” and “a secret history of [Palm Springs] at its sleaziest, most corrupt, and most deliciously indecorous.” Instead of that juicy tome, though, what I got was a lot of offensive innuendo, spurious gossip, and rehashed speculations. The book, for instance, refers to Clark Gable’s “bisexual liaisons in Palm Springs” as “the stuff of undocumented rumor.” So why even mention it? The author also makes a point – literally, it’s mentioned three times in the book, in three different chapters – of insinuating that former first lady Mamie Eisenhower had a drinking problem. In one case, he states that Eisenhower was “frequently perceived as unstable on her feet” and in another he refers to her as the president’s “always unsteady wife” and notes the “undying rumors of [her] little drinking problem.” According to what I’ve been able to find out, Mamie Eisenhower had an inner ear problem that sometimes affected her balance. That’s all. End of story. The entire book is like that – a bunch of slanderous labels tossed around like so much confetti. This person was a big drinker. That person slept around. And that one had a son who was addicted to drugs. Blah, blah, blah. Another thing about the book – it’s arranged into chapters that ostensibly are focused on specific subjects or individuals. But a couple of the so-called chapters are merely lists – one, which is supposed to provide “vital statistics about Palm Springs,” includes such scintillating information as the number of plastic surgeons in Palm Springs (17), the number of daily newspapers (1), and the number of t-shirt shops (“countless”) (seriously, it says “countless,” y’all). Another chapter, called “Just Hangin’ Around,” consists of four short paragraphs and informs us that singer Sarah Vaughn met Frank Sinatra in Palm Springs in the early 1970s, was a regular at several area hotspots that were also frequented by Sinatra, and that after her 1990 death, Sinatra called her “one of the finest vocalists in the history of pop music.” What is the point of all this, you may ask? I DON’T KNOW. Bottom line: skip this one.

And that’s it! I’m sad that the summer has come to an end, but I’m jazzed that I spent this one indulging in some first-rate classic film reading material. Thanks for coming along for the ride!

Remembering Lauren Bacall: The Early Years

•August 13, 2014 • 13 Comments

Lauren Bacall was the girl with “The Look,” a sultry, sensuous beauty with a husky voice and a hard-as-nails façade that let the world know that she was a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps best known for her marriage to actor Humphrey Bogart, Bacall was once described as a combination of Marlene Dietrich, Katharine Hepburn, and Bette Davis, with overtones of Veronica Lake and Barbara Stanwyck and undertones of Mae West and Jean Harlow.

Bacall was born Betty Joan Perske in the Bronx, New York, on September 16, 1924, the only child of William, of Alsatian descent, and Natalie, who was born in Romania. When young Betty’s parents separated in 1932, Natalie assumed the last half of her maiden name, Weinstein-Bacal, and her daughter became Betty Bacal. Betty moved with her mother to Manhattan and attended the Highland Manor school for girls in Tarrytown, where she experienced her first taste of life as a performer in the school’s weekly dramatic programs. Next, Betty enrolled at the Julia Richman School for Girls. As the actress wrote in her 1995 book, Now, attending girls’ schools and being raised by her mother fostered her belief that “women had the upper hand – got things done – were listened to.” This would be a conviction that would typify the star’s actions throughout her personal and professional life.

During her high school years, Betty participated in Saturday classes at the New York School of the Theatre, and her high school senior yearbook photo featured the caption, “May your dreams of being an actress overflow the brim.” After her graduation, she set about making those dreams come true. She spent a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (while there, she dated fellow student and future co-star Kirk Douglas), but could not return because her mother was unable to afford the tuition. Instead, she turned to modeling, securing her first job at the age of 16 and earning $30 a week.

While working as a model, Betty spent much of her time pursuing her big break on Broadway. Walgreen’s Drug Store on 44th Street was one of her favorite haunts, where she poured through copies of Actor’s Cue, a publication that included listings of road tours and plays being cast. She also sold Actor’s Cue outside Sardi’s Restaurant, a popular theatrical retreat, boldly making herself known to a variety of notables, including producer Max Gordon, director George Kaufman, and actor Paul Lukas, whom Betty called her “first important friend in the theater.” After six months of modeling, Betty got a night job as an usher, spending her days seeking work in the theater.

Betty’s first job on the stage was a walk-on in Johnny 2 x 4. (By the time she’d signed the contract to appear in this play, Betty had added an extra ‘l’ to her last name, to avoid mispronunciation.) Her excitement over securing her first job in the theater was short-lived, however; the play closed after eight weeks. In 1942, she landed her first speaking part in Franklin Street, but following tryouts in Washington and Wilmington, this show, too, was unsuccessful.

Undaunted in the wake of her disappointing entry into the world of the theater, Betty returned to modeling, landing a job with Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Her second appearance in the publication featured the lithe young beauty in a two-page spread and, although she was incorrectly identified as “Betty Becall,” her pictures attracted the attention of a number of Hollywood big shots, including David O. Selznick, Howard Hughes, and Howard Hawks. A photo on the magazine’s cover led to an offer by Hawks for a screen test in Hollywood, and on April 3, 1943, Betty boarded the train for California. She was 18 years old.

Betty’s test resulted in her signing a seven-year contract with Hawks, starting at $100 a week and increasing to $1,250 in the seventh year. Her mother moved to California and the two settled into a small furnished apartment in Beverly Hills. Betty spent the remainder of the year taking singing lessons, reading aloud for voice training, and hounding Hawks’s agent, Charlie Feldman, for a screen role. Shortly after Christmas 1943, Hawks gave Betty what she called “the only present I wanted from life,” a test for his new film, To Have and Have Not (1944). She got the part and a new moniker – which Hawks instructed her to tell the press had been her great-grandmother’s name – and the world was introduced to Lauren Bacall.

In addition to being her film debut, To Have and Have Not was also notable for its introduction of Bacall to her future husband, Humphrey Bogart. From the first day of shooting, Bacall said that Bogart made a special effort to put her at ease: “He was quite aware that I was a new young thing who knew from nothing and was scared to death,” she stated. The on-screen rapport between the two soon developed into something more. Although Bogart was married to actress Mayo Methot (together they were called the “Battling Bogarts” because of their frequent fights – Methot once stabbed Bogart with a knife and set fire to their house), Bacall and Bogart began seeing each other off the set. “Anyone with half an eye could see that there was more between us than the scenes we played,” Bacall said.

Despite the difference in their ages – Bacall was 19 and Bogart was 44 – the couple fell head over heels in love. “We shared so much, understood so much about each other,” Bacall once said. Bogart loved Bacall’s fun-loving, down-to-earth nature (“She’s a good joe,” Bogart said), and Bacall found Bogart to be gentle, sentimental, and loving – quite unlike his hard-boiled screen image. After several separations, Bogart and Methot were divorced on May 10, 1945, and he and Bacall were married 11 days later.

Meanwhile, Bacall’s first film catapulted her to stardom, with one critic raving, “Lauren Bacall has cinema personality to burn. . . . She has a javelin-like vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence of movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness . . . plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice.” With her standout performance in this feature, Bacall was on her way – and the rest, as they say, is history.

The world lost this “fierce female” on August 12, 2014 – but Lauren Bacall’s striking beauty, undeniable talent, and indomitable spirit live on. As she once said, “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I’m not foolish enough to think I’ll never make another one. I’ve lived well, but I’m not going to sit around. What else could I do – sit around and give soirees for the rest of my life? That’s not where my head is at. I’ve got to keep moving. If I fall on my ass, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off, and go on.”

“This adventure is not over.”


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