You want film noir? You want pre-Code? Then TCM in April is the place to be. The network is so chock-full of goodies from these eras, in fact, that I decided to forego my single picks of the month, and give you big ol’ overview of the surfeit of noir and pre-Code films that you’ll want to put on your viewing calendar. Catch ‘em if you can!
High Sierra (film noir)
This feature stars Humphrey Bogart as ex-convict Roy Earle, recently released from prison and ready for one last big score. But he doesn’t just have eyes for the greenbacks he’s trying to pocket – he also falls for a young crippled girl, played by Joan Leslie, and in turn, attracts the ardor of a wayward dime-a-dance girl, beautifully portrayed by Ida Lupino. (This film holds a very special place in my heart – at my one and only appearance at a film noir festival – several years ago in Peoria – High Sierra was the movie I introduced. So I kinda love it.)
Red Dust (pre-Code)
The second of six films featuring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, this one is as steamy as the Indochinese rubber plantation that serves as the setting of the picture. Gable is Dennis Carson, owner of the plantation, who finds himself squarely in the middle of a love triangle featuring the wife of one of his workers, and a saucy, sassy prostitute. Guess which one Harlow plays? (For more on this film – which is one of my favorite pre-Codes – click here.)
The Naked City (film noir)
I confess that The Naked City is not necessarily one of my favorite noirs, but I’ll be the first to recommend it (well, maybe not the first, but you know what I mean). It’s done in the style of a police procedural, which isn’t my favorite tango (to borrow a term offered by Jean Harlow’s character in Red Dust). Still, it features a spate of good performances from the likes of Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Ted deCorsia, and Dorothy Hart – AND it’s directed by the great Jules Dassin. So there.
The Blue Gardenia (film noir)
This film serves up a great song by Nat King Cole, a drunken, self-pitying, and possibly murderous Anne Baxter, an especially creepy Raymond Burr, and Richard Conte (who merely needs to appear in a film’s credits in order for me to climb aboard). Oh – and did I mention that it’s helmed by Fritz Lang? Pour yourself a big blue drink with an umbrella and tune in.
Blondie Johnson (pre-Code)
This is yet another can’t miss – it stars two of my favorite pre-Code performers – Joan Blondell and Chester Morris – with Blondell in the title role of a dame who escapes a life of poverty and pain by becoming a feared gangland boss. I love, love, love this movie – there’s nothing like watching a bad-ass babe who’s large and in charge.
Jean Harlow again – this time she’s in a comedy that seems to offer a peek inside the actress’s real life. In fact, though, the script bore more than a passing resemblance to the world of actress Clara Bow, complete with freeloading relatives and a duplicitous assistant that called to mind Bow’s personal secretary Daisy DeVoe. More on this fun, freewheeling film can be found here.
I love this movie so much, I could marry it. (Or at least have a lengthy back street affair with it.) My girl Joan Crawford stars in the titular role of a divorced housewife who will do anything – and I do mean anything – to ensure the happiness of her bratty, self-absorbed daughter (played by Ann Blyth – who I stood about four feet behind at last year’s TCM film fest! Sorry. I digress). Others in the film’s great cast include Eve Arden, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Bruce Bennett, and Butterfly McQueen. And, in case you’re interested, here are some of the reasons why I love this movie so much.
The Maltese Falcon (film noir)
An early entry in the noir canon, this film introduces us to private dick Sam Spade who’s hired to find a jewel-encrusted black bird and encounters a motley crew of quirky characters who are all in search of the bird. Humphrey Bogart plays Spade with the utmost of cool, and others along for the ride are Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and one of my all-time favorites, Elisha Cook, Jr.
Joan Crawford stars here as a wrongfully convicted shopgirl who vows revenge on her former employer. Besides Joanie, the next best thing in this movie is Marie Prevost, who is always worth a look-see. Incidentally, the starring role was initially given to Norma Shearer, but when she learned she was pregnant, hubby Irving Thalberg insisted that she give up the part. Of her performance, Crawford was later quoted as saying that Paid offered up her first “really heavy dramatic role” and “I did a good job with it, a damned good job.” I concur.
The Sin of Madelon Claudet (pre-Code)
In the tradition of Madame X, Stella Dallas, and Mildred Pierce, The Sin of Madelon Claudet gives us another screen mother who will sacrifice everything she is and everything she has for her beloved child. This time, it’s Helen Hayes who delivers the goods in a feature that, in the words of Birdie Coonan, has everything but the bloodhounds snapping at our heroine’s rear end.
Dinner at Eight (pre-Code)
Yet another of my favorite pre-Codes, this one is a star-studded affair that examines the lives and loves of the hosts and guests of a high-falutin’ dinner party. The stellar cast includes Jean Harlow, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke, Marie Dressler, and Lee Tracy. It’s a wild and witty ride that grabs you from the opening reel and never lets up for a second.
Grand Hotel (pre-Code)
The big brother to Dinner at Eight is Grand Hotel, another feature that’s chock-full of stars from the MGM roster. This one also features the Barrymore brothers and Wallace Beery, along with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, in a plot that serves up everything from depression to murder. Want more? Click here.
The Postman Always Rings Twice (film noir)
Another favorite. Lana Turner in a nearly all-white wardrobe. John Garfield as the most appealing and attractive tramp you’ll ever want to encounter. Hume Cronyn and Leon Ames as a pair of scarily unscrupulous attorneys. And Audrey Totter, who knows what to do in a brief appearance that features a thin skirt on a hot leather seat. Incidentally, here’s why Turner’s character is one of my favorite in all of film noir.
Laura (film noir)
One of noir’s best-known entries, Laura stars Gene Tierney in the title role of a woman whose murder attracts more than a passing interest from the detective investigating the case. Laura features a totally awesome set of noir characters, including the venomous columnist Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), professional loafer Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price), Laura’s man-hungry auntie (Judith Anderson), and obsessive detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews).
Where the Sidewalk Ends (film noir)
This film reteams Laura stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney – here, Andrews plays another cop, but this time, he’s Mark Dixon, a hot-headed, over-aggressive detective, and Tierney is the estranged wife of a man Dixon accidentally kills. The cast also includes Gary Merrill as a mob boss who pushes Dixon’s buttons like nobody’s business.
Baby Face (pre-Code)
An essential pre-Code, Baby Face stars Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who uses her feminine wiles (and that’s putting it mildly) to climb her way from an impoverished life to one where she keeps her jewels in a suitcase. And as she makes her ascent, she uses a series of hapless men as her stepstools – including, briefly, a very young John Wayne.
Gun Crazy (film noir)
Do I even have to say that Gun Crazy is yet another favorite? Peggy Cummins and John Dahl star as two nutty kids whose fondness for each other is superseded only by their affinity for firearms. Seriously, if you have not seen this movie yet, what are you waiting for?
Guilty Hands (pre-Code)
This slightly offbeat pre-Code has two main things going for it – Kay Francis (who could be on screen doing her nails and I’d watch) and the unexpected ending. It’s all about a former district attorney who is certain that he has the skills and the know-how to commit the perfect murder – and gets the chance to test his theory when his daughter turns up with a notorious no-goodnik on her arm. The film also stars Lionel Barrymore, by the way – always a good sign, in my book. Read more about Guilty Hands here.
Angel Face (film noir)
Speaking of endings, you simply have to see the denouement of this feature, which centers on a deceptively dangerous femme with a face like an angel, played by Jean Simmons. The film also stars Robert Mitchum, playing a character who, like those he portrayed in Out of the Past and Where Danger Lives, encounters more than he bargained for when he falls under the spell of a dark-haired dame.
And we close out the month with yet another outstanding pre-Code that’s at the top of my list of faves – with a cast that includes Kay Francis, Lyle Talbot, and Ricardo Cortez, how could it possibly miss? Mandalay tells the story of a woman who, after being abandoned by her lover (and “abandoned” is being kind) in Rangoon, Burma, transforms herself into the island’s most notorious and sought-after prostitute, with the ironic name of “Spot White.” Here’s more stuff about this totally awesome must-see.
And that’s it! (Whew.) See what I mean about this month? Time to start making plans – so grab your blank tapes, dust off the DVR, or start emitting some telltale coughs at the job, ‘cause you’ve got some great noir and pre-Code viewing ahead!! You only owe it yourself.
Nearly 15 years ago, in spring 2000, the editor of the Classic Images newspaper, Bob King, invited readers to share their top 25 classic movies. I recently came across the list that I sent in, and was interested to see how my favorites have changed over the years. So for my list of the week, I decided to create another top 25 list, 2014 style.
Every film on the list had to meet my personal criteria: (1) it had to be one of those movies that I’ve watched over and over again, and (2) when I thought of it, I had to say, “OH! I LOVE that movie!”
A total of 15 films from my first list made it onto this year’s version. But a whopping 10 did not: Strangers on a Train, Laura, My Man Godfrey, Sunset Boulevard, Midnight, Born Yesterday, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wizard of Oz, Gilda, and Come Back, Little Sheba. (Come Back, Little Sheba?? I mean, it’s a great movie, but come on. What was I thinking?)
Here’s this year’s funky-fresh edition of my 25 favorite movies – the films that are new to this list are marked with an asterisk.
All About Eve
The Big Heat *
Criss Cross *
Dinner At Eight
The Divorcee *
Gone With the Wind
His Girl Friday
Imitation of Life (1959 version)
It’s a Wonderful Life
The Little Foxes
Platinum Blonde *
Possessed (1931 version) *
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Red Dust *
Twentieth Century *
You Can’t Take It With You *
Young and Willing (1943) (You may never have heard of this one – I don’t know anybody else who’s ever seen it, but it’s a hoot! I watch it ALL the time.)
What are your top 25 films? List them here, or share them on your blog! It might be hard to come up with a final list, but it’s a lot of fun!!
What is there to say about Mickey Rooney that hasn’t already been said? The world’s biggest movie star at 19, he was a has-been at 30. He’s had eight wives, fathered eight children, battled drug addiction, and been forced into bankruptcy on more than one occasion. In his best-selling autobiography, he maintained that he had affairs with such Hollywood luminaries as Lana Turner and Norma Shearer; he later claimed responsibility for discovering Sammy Davis, Jr., and Red Skelton; and he once asserted that it was his idea to change the name of Norma Jean Baker to Marilyn Monroe. Conquering nearly every performing medium, he has manifested his multifaceted talent as an actor, dancer, singer, songwriter, musician, and author. And during a career that spans an almost unimaginable 10 decades, he has earned five Emmy nominations, four Academy Award nominations, and received two honorary Oscars – one for lifetime achievement.
When one speaks of Mickey Rooney, however, the shadowy realm of film noir is not exactly the first image that springs to mind. He is far more likely to be envisioned as the wholesome Andy Hardy, dancing in a spur-of-the-moment musical number with Judy Garland at his side, than he is with a gat in his hand and his fedora cocked to one side. His most familiar screen persona notwithstanding, Rooney earned a solid place in the era of film noir with starring roles in four features from the period: Quicksand (1950), The Strip (1951), Drive a Crooked Road (1954), and Baby Face Nelson (1957).
The five-foot, three-inch actor once crowned “The King of the Movies” was born Joe Yule, Jr., on September 23, 1920, to vaudeville performers Joe Yule and his wife, Nell Carter. Young Joe was first seen on the stage at an early age; during the actor’s career, more than one colorful anecdote surfaced to describe this debut. According to one account, the lad first appeared in his parents’ act at the age of 15 months, portraying a midget and equipped with a tuxedo and a big rubber cigar. Another version states that Joe crawled into the orchestra pit during his parents’ onstage routine and started pounding on the drums, while a third claims that he escaped from the dressing room in a Rochester, New York theater, toddled out to the center of the stage, and stood on his head. According to Rooney himself, however, his foray into show business occurred by happenstance while he was watching his father perform at a Chicago theater. After he let out a sneeze, the spotlight focused on the two-year-old, who immediately shifted into performing mode.
“I had a harmonica I kept playing like mad,” the actor said in a 1957 McCall’s magazine article, “and I loved it out there with all those lights. It was so pretty.”
Before long, the youngster was a regular part of his parents’ act, but they separated when Joe was four years old and he wound up in Hollywood with his mother. It didn’t take long for Joe to pick up his budding career where he’d left off, performing in a local musical revue at the Orange Grove Theater, and making his screen debut as a midget in the 1926 silent feature, Not to be Trusted. Two years after his first film, Joe landed the role of Mickey “Himself” McGuire in a series of comedies released by the Standard Film Corporation, appearing in nearly 80 episodes between 1928 and 1932. During the run of the series, Joe’s name was legally changed to Mickey McGuire, but it was later altered again, and Mickey Rooney was introduced to the world.
Rooney’s career really took off in 1934 when he was placed under contract by MGM, beginning an association that would last for the next 14 years. During that time, Rooney appeared in a number of Hollywood gems, including Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where he played Clark Gable’s character, Blackie, at age 12; a Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935), in which he turned in a memorable performance of the mischievous Puck; Captains Courageous (1937), starring Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew; Boys Town (1938), where Rooney demonstrated his dramatic range as delinquent teen Whitey Marsh; and National Velvet (1944), co-starring Elizabeth Taylor. In addition to these features, Rooney appeared in 1937 in A Family Affair, a comedy focusing on a small-town family named Hardy. The film was an unexpected hit and led to a popular eight-year, 15-episode series starring Rooney as Andy Hardy. One of Rooney’s co-stars in the series was actress Judy Garland, who portrayed Betsy Booth in three of the Andy Hardy features; following their first screen appearance in the 1937 film Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, Rooney and Garland would become one of Hollywood’s most popular duos and appear in a total of 10 features together.
By the late 1930s, Rooney had become one of the most successful and celebrated actors in the country and in 1938 was honored, along with Deanna Durbin, with a special Academy Award for “bringing the spirit and personification of youth to the screen.” The following year, the actor received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his role opposite Garland in Babes in Arms (1939), and earned a second nomination in 1943 for his touching performance in The Human Comedy. Although he lost both times (the first to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and later to Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine), Rooney was at the height of his success, and reigned from 1939 to 1941 as the top box-office actor in Hollywood. As a testament to Rooney’s fame – as well as his versatility – the actor performed with the National Symphony Orchestra at the 1941 inaugural ceremonies for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, playing one his own compositions, entitled “Melodante.” In addition to this work, Rooney composed hundreds of songs throughout his career, and in the late 1950s, he recorded an album, “Mickey Rooney Sings George M. Cohan.”
Meanwhile, Rooney had by now embarked on what he once referred to as “a lifetime of marriage.” In 1942, at the age of 21, he married actress Ava Gardner, but the union lasted only 18 months. Wife number two was a 17-year-old blonde named Betty Jane Rase, a former Miss Alabama.
“I knew her two weeks, and then we got married,” Rooney later recalled. The actor’s first child, Mickey Rooney, Jr., was born in 1946, but the marriage ended shortly after the birth of his second son, Timothy, in 1947. Rooney wasn’t unattached for long, however; shortly after his divorce, he began seeing actress Martha Vickers.
“I’d admired her so much on the screen that I tracked down her telephone number and we made a date,” Rooney later recalled. “I guess we were both lonely at the time. We married fast, and stayed married for two and a half years.” During that time, Rooney welcomed a third son, Theodore, born in 1950.
In 1952, a year after his divorce from Vickers, Rooney married former model Elaine Mahnken, telling one reporter, “I wish Elaine had been the first girl in my life. Things would have been a lot different.” But six years later, after the actor’s affair with local beauty queen Barbara Ann Thomason, this union, too, ended in divorce. A few weeks after his May 1959 divorce, Rooney and Barbara were married – and three months later, his fourth child, daughter Kelly Ann, was born. The couple would go on to have three more children, Kerry Yule, Michael Kyle, and Kimmy Sue, but this union, Rooney’s longest to date, would end in tragedy.
In the mid-1960s, reportedly as payback for Rooney’s infidelity, Barbara became involved with an aspiring actor named Milos Milosevic and Rooney filed for divorce, seeking custody of their children. Rooney and Barbara later reconciled, but on February 1, 1966, Milosevic shot Barbara to death in the couple’s Brentwood home, then killed himself.
“I died, too,” Rooney wrote in his 1991 autobiography, Life is Too Short. “Something like a steel band seemed to encircle my chest. And I didn’t take a full breath for three years.” (In later years, Rooney sued for custody of his four children with Barbara, but the court ultimately ruled that they should remain with the woman’s parents.)
A year after Barbara’s murder, Rooney married her closest friend, Marge Lane, but this ill-advised union ended after only 100 days, and Rooney wed wife number seven, secretary Carolyn Hockett, two years later. Rooney and Carolyn welcomed the actor’s youngest child, Jonell, in January 1970, but by 1974, the marriage was over. Finally, in July 1978, Rooney took his eighth trip down the aisle – “This time for keeps,” the actor once said – to Jan Chamberlin, a country-and-western singer who was nearly 20 years his junior. Although this marriage would, indeed, turn out to be his longest, he and Jan separated permanently in 2012, a year after Rooney filed elder abuse and fraud charges against Jan’s son, Christopher Aber and Aber’s wife, and testified before a U.S. Senate committee about his experience. “I felt trapped, scared, used, frustrated,” Rooney testified, “and overall, when a man feels helpless, it’s terrible.”
Between marriages, Rooney had seen his screen career fall as swiftly and as surely as it has risen. After serving from 1944 to 1946 in U.S. Army, during which he entertained thousands of troops overseas, Rooney returned to Hollywood to discover that he had been dethroned as “The King of the Movies.” In the late 1940s, he severed his ties with MGM and started his own production company, a move he later called “one of the dumbest things I ever did.” With few offers coming his way, Rooney was seen in a series of low-budget features, including his entry into the world of film noir, Quicksand (1950).
Here, Rooney starred as Don Brady, a womanizing auto mechanic who finds himself mired in a series of misdeeds after a sexy blonde cashier catches his eye. Although Quicksand is tension-filled and well-acted for most of its 79 minutes, it takes a wildly implausible turn near the end and peters out to an unsatisfying conclusion. Rooney himself wrote in Life is Too Short, “The less said about Quicksand, the better, except to note that it was aptly titled. We sank in it.” Despite the actor’s opinion, for my money, it’s a great ride, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
The actor fared only slightly better the following year when he returned to MGM for his second film noir, The Strip (1951), playing jazz drummer Stanley Maxton. The Strip managed to turn a slight profit, but the “B” level picture was dismissed by critics, including the reviewer for Variety, who wrote that the “performances are generally ineffective, as characters are not real enough to be believable.” The same critic acknowledged, however, that film’s best moments were its musical numbers, and noted: “Rooney beats his drums solidly.”
After a handful of mediocre features, Rooney rebounded with a starring role in his third film noir, Drive a Crooked Road (1954). In this well-done feature, Rooney portrayed a lonely garage mechanic, Eddie Shannon, who signs on as the wheel man for an intricate heist at the urging of a beautiful brunette. The film was a disappointment at the box office, but it was named “Picture of the Month” by famed columnist Louella Parsons and Rooney earned raves for his performance. Margaret Harford of the Hollywood Citizen-News praised the actor’s “earnest, sympathetic” portrayal; Philip K. Scheuer wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “Rooney and every one else in the cast deliver performances that scarcely could be bettered”; and in the Los Angeles Daily News, Roy Ringer opined: “[The film] will come as a surprise to those who can imagine Mickey Rooney only in comedy or song and dance roles. In Drive a Crooked Road, he switches to tragic drama and turns in a skillful and sympathetic performance.”
After starring in his own television series (which aired against the popular Jackie Gleason Show and only lasted a year) and earning an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Bold and the Brave (1956) – losing to Anthony Quinn in Lust for Life – Rooney starred in his final film noir, Baby Face Nelson (1957). This feature – described in the prologue as a “re-creation of an era of jazz, jalopies, prohibition, and trigger-happy punks!” – depicted the transformation of ex-convict Lester M. Gillis into the violent gangster known as Baby Face Nelson. Although one critic wrote that Rooney’s portrayal of the infamous gangster “lacks . . . understanding of the lust that drove Nelson to kill,” other reviewers were more favorable. John L. Scott of the Los Angeles Times described the film as “a hard-hitting story in which a snarling Rooney in the title role blazes a trail of murder with his machine gun,” adding that “the energetic star never goes halfway in any characterization,” and the critic for the Hollywood Citizen-News wrote, “Rooney delivers a most convincing performance as the gun-happy gangster, Baby Face.”
Rooney continued to regain a measure of his former prominence during the next several years with Emmy-nominated roles in three television shows, and exhibited a flair for character acting in such films as Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). Rooney also appeared in record-breaking performances during a nightclub circuit tour with Bobby Van in 1964, and in a three-week revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in Los Angeles, earning praise from one critic who termed his performance a “personal triumph.” But Rooney was by now facing more pressing concerns than his acting career.
In 1962, Rooney filed for bankruptcy, claiming that, while he had made more than $12 million during his career, his income had been chipped away through alimony and child support payments to his various ex-wives, his penchant for gambling, and bad business deals.
“I spent, lent, married, and I don’t know how, I went through twelve million dollars,” Rooney wrote in his first autobiography, i.e., released in 1965. “It isn’t as if my bankruptcy can be traced to any single cause, placed in any single period of years, explained with a single flip phrase. If I knew how I did it, I wouldn’t have done it in the first place. Ask a drunk where the booze has gone. That’s like asking me about my money.” (Although Rooney eventually recovered from this financial blow, the actor filed for bankruptcy a second time in 1996, revealing that he owed the IRS approximately $1.75 million dating back to 1974.)
The 1960s also saw an escalation in Rooney’s use of barbiturates, which had started during the previous decade and escalated following the 1966 murder of his fifth wife, Barbara. In his 1991 autobiography, the actor wrote that he was so “drugged out” during his subsequent marriage to Marge Lane that “I hardly remember her now.”
After managing to kick his addiction to pills in the early 1970s (“It wasn’t easy . . . [but] I looked to a Power higher than myself,” Rooney recalled), the actor continued his varied professional appearances, and although the vehicles he chose were not always first-rate, the energetic actor was seldom idle. And his luck took yet another upswing late in the decade, when he earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as a former horse trainer in The Black Stallion (1979) (he lost to Melvyn Douglas for Being There); earned raves for his performance opposite Ann Miller in the three-year stage tour of Sugar Babies (1979); won an Emmy Award and a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a retarded man in Bill (1982); and received an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement (1983). In presenting the latter award to Rooney, veteran comedian Bob Hope called the actor “the kid who illuminated all our yesterdays and the man who brightens all our todays.”
Now in his 90s, Mickey Rooney is still going strong. After earning a fifth Emmy nomination for Bill: On His Own (1983), the actor continued to accept roles in a variety of films, television shows, and stage productions, and also took time to pen his first published novel, The Search for Sonny Skies, in 1994. In the decades that have followed, he appeared in such feature films as Babe: Pig in the City (1998), the sequel to the hit 1995 film, Babe, and The First of May (2000), starring Julie Harris; guested on television series including The Simpsons (1995) and ER (1998); served as television spokesperson for the Garden State Life Insurance Company; played the title role in a long-running, well-received tour of The Wizard of Oz; and performed in a stage show with wife Jan Chamberlin entitled One Man–One Wife (in the midst of a tour for the latter production, Rooney underwent heart bypass surgery, but was back on stage a few months later). His best-known films in recent years were Night at the Museum (2006), starring Ben Stiller, and The Muppets (2011), with Amy Adams and Jason Segel.
Mickey Rooney – from whom, according to the actor, famed rodent Mickey Mouse received his name – is truly a national treasure. Essaying more comebacks than he might care to remember, and triumphing over an often rocky and sometimes tragic life off-screen, Rooney demonstrated during his phenomenal career that he possessed a versatility, determination, and longevity that nearly defies description. A few years ago, the nonagenarian shared his outlook that “age is experience – and some of us are more experienced than others.”
“Inspire, don’t retire,” Rooney advised. “Life is too short to be in pain all the time or wish you could change who you are. It’s being a participant in the game called life that’s important.”
You don’t hear a lot about Van Heflin these days.
When the classic conversation rolls around to actors of the Golden Age, you can pretty much count on the names of Clark Gable and Cary Grant popping up, along with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney – maybe William Holden, Gary Cooper, and Spencer Tracy. James Stewart. Gregory Peck. Edward G. Robinson.
I think you’d have to be talking for a long time before someone mentioned Van Heflin.
And that’s a shame, because Heflin had some acting chops that could rival the best of them, as he proved in such features as The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), Madame Bovary (1949), The Prowler (1951), Shane (1953), and the film that earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – Johnny Eager (1941).
Released relatively early in Heflin’s three-decade-long career, Johnny Eager stars Robert Taylor in the title role – a sort of wolf in deceptively handsome sheep’s clothing. On the outside, Johnny is a mild-mannered parolee who’s paid his debt to society and is working his way through the right side of life as a taxicab driver.
On the inside, he’s a ruthless racketeer who’ll stop at nothing – even murder – to achieve his illicit aspirations. Heflin portrays Jeff Hartnett, Johnny’s right-hand man. And Heflin doesn’t just portray Jeff – he inhabits him.
Jeff’s primary and most outstanding character trait is his, shall we say, fondness for the bottle. In fact, we can say that Jeff and the bottle are having quite the steamy love affair. But that’s not all there is to Jeff – Heflin (assisted generously by screenwriter John Lee Mahin) creates a multifaceted character who’s intelligent, well-read, and sensitive. He quotes Shakespeare at the drop of a hat, uses polysyllabic, 12-dollar words, and makes literary references that would make a head librarian beam with pride. And although he’s firmly ensconced in the life of the underworld, he seems to be in a constant struggle, with the reality of his vocation battling against his deep-seated morals and values. In fact, when once asked by Johnny why he drinks so much, Jeff responds, “Every now and then I’ve got to look in a mirror.”
We get our first hint of Jeff’s persona before we see him – Johnny’s flavor-of-the month, Garnet (Patricia Dane), is complaining to Johnny about something Jeff has said to her: “If you’re looking for Mr. Hartnett, he was here earlier this morning . . . but he wandered away, full of gin and big words. Say, who was Herod Agrippa? He said you were the modern-day Herod Agrippa. And then he said I was your inamorata. I’m going to get a load of what that means, too.”
Jeff doesn’t show up in the flesh until more than 20 minutes into the film, but when he does, he makes an instant impact. He’s in a state that we’ll come to expect – three (or possibly four) sheets to the wind. And when Johnny points out his drunken state, the ever-erudite Jeff rejoins, “Now, Eager, that’s obvious. Very obvious. Don’t be obvious. You’re out of character when you’re obvious. Adroitness is your racket. Hard, clever and adroit – that’s your description.”
Jeff is more than Johnny’s aide-de-camp. Despite the fact that he’s either drunk, on his way to getting drunk , or recovering from being drunk, he serves as Johnny’s highly perceptive conscience, never hesitating to analyze his boss and share the results of his scrutiny. Take the scene where Johnny sends his soon-to-be-former gal, Garnet, off to Florida. Jeff sits silently by, sipping brandy from a teacup while Johnny lowers the subtle boom, but the moment Garnet leaves, Jeff doesn’t bite his tongue. “Poor Garnet, she’ll hang around in Florida eating her heart out until it finally dawns on her that Lancelot is not coming. Johnny, why didn’t you tell her the truth, the poor kid.” Jeff also acknowledges that he doesn’t care for Garnet, but he does feel sympathy toward her, explaining that “you can feel sorry for someone you don’t like if you’ve got a heart or soul or decency. I guess you don’t know what I’m talking about.”
But while it cannot be denied that Jeff “tells it like it is” when it comes to Johnny, it is also clear that he loves Johnny more than anyone in the world – more than Garnet, and more than the woman who steals Johnny’s heart, Lisbeth Bard (Lana Turner). And nothing can diminish that love. Not Johnny’s misdeeds, not his insults – not even a punch Johnny lands on Jeff’s chin (and which lands Jeff on the floor) after Jeff makes an especially insightful and stinging observation. No matter what Johnny does or is, Jeff doesn’t give up on him. And in the final reel (spoiler ahead – sorry!), when Johnny meets his end, it’s Jeff who cradles him and cries over his lifeless body.
Van Heflin’s competition in the Best Supporting Actor race of 1941 was William Bendix (Wake Island), Walter Huston (Yankee Doodle Dandy), Frank Morgan (Tortilla Flat), and Henry Travers (Mrs. Miniver). It was Heflin’s first and only nomination, and at the time he won the golden statue, at age 32, he was the youngest-ever actor to win an Academy Award. I’ve never seen Wake Island or Tortilla Flat, I don’t remember Henry Travers’s character in Mrs. Miniver, and I wasn’t exactly blown away by Walter Huston’s performance in Yankee Doodle Dandy. But whatever his fellow nominees did in their films, there’s no doubt that Heflin’s performance in Johnny Eager was of Academy Award caliber – it was just that good. When he’s on the screen, you can’t take your eyes off of him, and when he’s not, you find yourself watching and waiting for his return.
If you’ve never seen Johnny Eager, do yourself a huge solid and check it out.
It might just make you start talking about Van Heflin.
This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. Do yourself a favor and visit these sites to check out the wealth of great posts being offered as part of this fantastic event!
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” So said one of the greatest movie villains ever, but many classic films have convinced us quite thoroughly that evil does indeed exist, and usually in the form of a compelling, riveting, powerful character, a villain brought to life by superb writing and acting, then seared into the memory of movie fans.
And so we announce that you are cordially invited to participate in the Great Villain Blogathon, a celebration, an examination, a rumination on your choice of classic movie menace, whether monster or family member. Whether human, fantastical, alien, mineral or animal, whether on horseback or spaceship, clad in toga, trenchcoat or cardigan, whether mantrap, mild mannered or commanding vast armies, write up a post on your favorite movie baddie, doer of dastardly deeds or offender of moral order.
Your co-hosts in this exploration of villainy are
Ruth of Silver Screenings 925screenings [at] gmail.com
Karen of Shadows & Satin thedarkpages [at] yahoo.com
Kristina of Speakeasy mail.speakeasy [at] yahoo.com
If you wish to take part, please leave a comment or send an email, help yourself to one of these banners to paste up on your blog, and prepare to share who you think is filmdom’s worst.
This event will unfold over the week of APRIL 20 – 26, 2014, so if you want to post on a certain day make sure to mention that, otherwise you will be assigned a date.
Here’s the lineup so far:
Ruth @ Silver Screenings: Angela Lansbury / The Manchurian Candidate (April 24)
Karen @ Shadows & Satin: Dan Duryea / Scarlet Street (April 20)
Karen @ Shadows & Satin: Clark Gable / Night Nurse (April 26)
Kristina @ Speakeasy : Henry Fonda / Once Upon a Time in the West (April 21)
Kristina @ Speakeasy : Terence Stamp / Superman II (April 25)
Mike @ Mike’s Take on the Movies: Eli Wallach / Magnificent Seven (April 23)
Stephen @ Classic Movie Man : Joseph Cotten / Shadow of a Doubt
Pete @ Furious Cinema : Rutger Hauer / The Hitcher
Fritzi @ Movies, Silently: Les Vampires (April 20)
Dorian @ Tales of the Easily Distracted : Anthony Perkins / Psycho (April 26)
Maedez @ A Small Press Life : Gene Tierney / Leave Her to Heaven (April 25)
Emily @ The Vintage Cameo : Bette Davis / Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Kellee @ Outspoken & Freckled; Orson Welles / The Stranger
Aurora @ Once Upon a Screen : Robert Mitchum / Cape Fear ‘vs’ Night of the Hunter (April 26)
geelw @ Destroy all Fanboys : Ann Savage/ Detour
Ivan @Thrilling Days of Yesteryear : Henry Brandon / Babes in Toyland & Our Gang Follies of 1936 (April 22)
Paul @ Lasso the Movies : Maleficent / Sleeping Beauty (April 21)
Craig @ Viking Samurai Peter Sellers/Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu
Aurora @ Once Upon a Screen Lionel Barrymore / It’s a Wonderful Life (April 23)
Kristen @ Journeys in Classic Film: Terence Stamp / The Collector
Le @ Critica Retro: Peter Lorre / The Man Who Knew too Much
Jennifer @ http://virtualvirago.blogspot.com Laird Cregar / Hangover Square
Tom @ http://motionpicturegems.blogspot.com Robert Ryan / Billy Budd
Ginny @ http://oldmoviesnostalgia.com Orson Welles / The Third Man
Todd @ http://forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com/ Butch & The Woim /Our Gang AND William Zabka / The Karate Kid, Back to School, Just One of the Guys
Todd @ http://forgottenfilmcast.wordpress.com/ William Zabka / The Karate Kid, Back to School, Just One of the Guys
Anna @ http://filmgrimoire.wordpress.com/ Death / The Seventh Seal
Marlee @ http://marleewalters.com/ Moriarty Incarnations
Vincent @ http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/ C. Aubrey Smith / No More Orchids
Vicki @ http://girlsdofilm.wordpress.com/ Margaret Hamilton / The Wizard of Oz
Debbie @ http://debravega.wordpress.com/ Waldo Lydecker / Laura
Madeline @ http://classicmoviegab.com/ Broderick Crawford / All the King’s Men
Jo @ http://thelastdrivein.com/ Gloria Holden + Gloria Swanson as sympathetic anti-heroes
Jo @ http://thelastdrivein.com/ James Caan / Lady in a Cage
Gary @ http://midnightpalace.com Olga Baclanova / Freaks
Parker @ http://theartisticpackrat.wordpress.com/ The Joker / The Dark Knight
Patricia @ http://caftanwoman.blogspot.ca/ Andrea Spedding / The Spider Woman
Becky @ http://movielottery.wordpress.com/ Bela Lugosi / The Human
Jill @ http://sittinonabackyardfence.com Claude Rains / Notorious
Leah @ http://hardboiledgirl.wordpress.com/ Richard Widmark / Kiss of Death
Jenni @ http://portraitsbyjenni.wordpress.com Conrad Veidt / A Woman’s Face
jtr @ http://thabto.wordpress.com/ Raymond Burr / Rear Window
Andrew @ http://1001movieman.blogspot.com/ David Carradine / Kill Bill
Eve @ http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com/ Robert Walker / Strangers on a Train
Adam @ http://ocdviewer.com/ Kjell Nilsson / The Road Warrior (Mad Max 2)
Joe @ http://fadedvideolabels.blogspot.com/ Orson Welles / Touch of Evil
John @ http://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/ Michael Powell / Peeping Tom
Aubyn @ http://thegirlwiththewhiteparasol.blogspot.ca/ Vincent Price / Dragonwyck
David @ http://moviedavid.blogspot.com/ Otto Kruger / Saboteur
Beth @ http://www.mildredsfatburgers.com/the-blog.html Geraldine Fitzgerald / Three Strangers
Leah @ http://carygrantwonteatyou.com/ Charles Boyer / Gaslight
Dan @ http://dandayjr35.blogspot.com Michael Gough / Konga
ImagineMDD @ http://imaginemdd.blogspot.com/ Judith Anderson / Rebecca
Constance @ http://silverscenesblog.blogspot.com/ Professor Fate / The Great Race
Sean @ http://lipranzer.wordpress.com/ John Huston / Chinatown
Sean @ http://lipranzer.wordpress.com/ Al Pacino / The Godfather, Part 2
Judy @ http://movieclassics.wordpress.com/ Laurence Olivier / Richard III
Kerry @ http://prowlerneedsajump.wordpress.com/ Gary Oldman / Take as Directed
Angelica @ http://madwomenandmuses.com/ Bette Davis / The Little Foxes
Margaret @ http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/ Disney Villainesses
Patti @ http://classicmoviesnippets.blogspot.ca/ Steve Cochran / Private Hell 36
Bill @ http://friscokidtx.com/ Al Pacino / Devil’s Advocate
Vanessa @ http://www.bwallover.blogspot.ca/ Porter Hall / The Thin Man
Robert @ http://www.dejareviewer.com/ Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker /RoboCop, Loki /The Avengers, Bob Parr’s boss /The Incredibles, The Grim Reaper /Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, The Wet Bandits /Home Alone, Greedo /Star Wars, the Corleones /The Godfather Part II
Marcie @ http://thecinematika.com/ Dennis Hopper / Blue Velvet
Danny @ http://pre-code.com/ Impotep / The Mummy
Charlie @ http://iloveterriblemovies.wordpress.com/ Mocata / The Devil Rides Out
Captain Video @ http://captainvideossecretsanctum.blogspot.ca/ Ming the Merciless / Flash Gordon movies
Emily @ http://funkyforestfirstcontact.wordpress.com/ Satan / The Exorcist
Sofia @ http://filmflare.wordpress.com/ Cary Grant / Suspicion
Gary @ http://moviefanfare.com/ Frank Gorshin, Burgess Meredith, Lee Meriwether and Cesar Romero / 1966 Batman movie
N.R. @ http://thegreatbaz.wordpress.com/ Necessity of Villains featuring Basil Rathbone
Terry @ http://mercurie.blogspot.ca/ Henry Frankenstein / The Hammer Films
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There’re a whole lot of first-rate Oscar-worthy films airing on TCM in February, but not a whole lot of noir. But that’s okay, because on February 20th, TCM is airing Leave Her to Heaven (1945), a rare color noir that you’re not going to want to miss. (Some say it isn’t noir at all, but I’m not one of those people, see). (That was to be read in a sneering Edward G. Robinson voice.) Sorry – I digress.
Gene Tierney stars as the beautiful and cultured Ellen Berent, whose all-consuming love for her husband (Cornel Wilde) threatens to destroy everyone who gets in her way.
I don’t want to give away any major plot points, so I’m going to steer clear from my actual favorite scene. (If you’ve seen the film, just think of Ellen, sunglasses, rowboat, and Danny, and you’ll know the one.) Instead, I’ll share another that’s fascinating to me – and which gives a perfect glimpse into Ellen’s persona. The scene takes place near the start of the picture and Ellen has recently met writer Richard Harland on a train. Turns out they’re both headed for the same town in New Mexico and are, coincidentally, both staying with the same family, the Robies. On the day after their meeting, as Richard sits typing beside a huge natural pool, Ellen surprises him by surfacing from beneath the water. “I do hope I’ve interrupted you in your work,” she tells him frankly. Throughout their conversation, she flirts with her body, first swimming toward him, then pushing away in a sultry back float. At one point, she makes sure that he sees her left hand, which is now missing the engagement ring she’d been sporting the night before. “I took it off an hour ago,” she explains. “Forever.” When Ellen is joined by the two Robie children, Lin and Tess, Ellen challenges them to a race across the pool, and they take off, with Richard watching and cheering on the young boy. “Lin’s going to win,” Richard remarks. A second later he’s contradicted by the children’s father, Glen (Ray Collins). “No – Ellen,” Glen says with certainty. “Ellen always wins.” Sure enough, a few seconds later, Ellen emerges first from the water and for just a moment, stands rather triumphantly over the children as she crows, “The winnah!”
“I have no intention of hiring a cook. Or a housekeeper, or any other servants. Ever. I don’t want anybody else but me to do anything for you. I want to keep your house, and wash your clothes, and cook your food. And besides, I don’t want anyone else in the house but us. Ever.” Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney)
“I don’t envy you, Ellen. All my life I’ve tried to love you, done everything to please you. All of us have – Mother, Father, and now Richard. And what have you done? With your love, you wrecked Mother’s life. With your love, you pressed Father to death. With your love, you’ve made a shadow of Richard. No, Ellen, I don’t envy you. I’m sorry for you. You’re the most pitiful creature I’ve ever known.” Ruth Berent (Jeanne Crain)
The screenplay for Leave Her to Heaven was written by Jo Swerling (who, up until I did the research for this post, I thought was a woman!) (Boing.). Swerling contributed to the screenplay for Gone With the Wind (1939) and also wrote the screenplays for such classics as Blood and Sand (1941), Pride of the Yankees (1942) (for which he received an Oscar nomination), and Lifeboat (1944).
In Leave Her to Heaven, Vincent Price plays the man to whom Ellen was engaged before she dumped him in favor of Richard. The previous year, in Laura (1944), Price played another man who was engaged, for a time, to Gene Tierney’s character.
The film’s director, John Stahl, helmed the original versions of three pictures with well-known remakes: Back Street (1932) with Irene Dunne and John Boles, Imitation of Life (1934) with Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers, and Magnificent Obsession (1935) with Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor.
The music for the film reminded me, in places, of the score for All About Eve (1950). When I looked it up, I saw that the same man, Alfred Newman, composed the music for both pictures. (Score!)
Gene Tierney was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance – the only one of her career. Also nominated that year were Ingrid Bergman (The Bells of St. Marys), Greer Garson (The Valley of Decision), Jennifer Jones (Love Letters), and Joan Crawford, who won for Mildred Pierce.
The picture did win a well-deserved Oscar for best color cinematography, which went to Leon Shamroy. During Shamroy’s five-decade-long career, he earned 18 Oscar nominations and four wins. (The film was also nominated for Best Sound Recording and Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Color.)
The movie was based on a novel by the same name by Ben Ames Williams. The title was taken from a passage in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge to prick and sting her.”
The extras for the DVD of Leave Her to Heaven include the Hollywood premiere for the picture. (I love seeing these.) Attendees included Roddy McDowall and Jane Powell (both looking SO adorable), Victor Mature and June Haver, and Tyrone Power and his wife, Annabella. The extras also include commentary by co-star Darryl Hickman, who portrayed Cornel Wilde’s disabled brother, Danny – and who had nothing much good to say about anybody.
The role of Danny’s doctor was played by Reed Hadley, who was famed for his roles off screen, doing the narration for such films as Guadalcanal Diary (1943), The House on 92nd Street (1945), T-Men (1947), Canon City (1948), He Walked By Night (1948), and The Killer That Stalked New York (1950).
If you’ve never seen Leave Her to Heaven, you’re in for a treat. Mark your calendar, set your DVR.
You only owe it to yourself.