Adventures in Paradise Revisited: Turner Classic Movies Film Festival 2015

•April 25, 2016 • 2 Comments

There ought to be a word for being so late that you’re not even considered late anymore.

That would be me, writing about the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. (Yes, you read that correctly. 2015.)

I’m not even going to bother to give excuses on why it has taken me more than a year to write this post. I will say, though, that once I passed the six-month point, I decided to purposely hold off until closer to this year’s event. Kind of like why my Christmas tree is still up. I mean, it’s almost May already – why take it down now? Christmas is practically right around the corner! (Of course, I’ve been saying that for four years now, but that’s another story for another time.)

So, as my opening salvo for this year’s TCM Film Festival – which, incidentally, I’ll be covering for this blog as a member of the press! – I’m pleased to take a step back in time, to spring 2015, and share with you my TCM Adventures in Paradise: Part 3!

The trivia contest was held in Club TCM, which is in the Blossom Room -- site of the first Academy Awards banquet.

The trivia contest was held in Club TCM, which is in the Blossom Room — site of the first Academy Awards banquet.

Trivia Contest: So You Think You Know Movies?

My first event of the festival was participating in a trivia contest, So You Think You Know Movies, hosted by the witty and erudite Bruce Goldstein, of New York’s Film Forum. And seated in the audience were Illeana Douglas (granddaughter of Melvyn Douglas), Rory Flynn (daughter of Errol Flynn), and William Wellman, Jr., son of the famed director. The contest provides the opportunity to meet new people (you can join a team on the spot), and it’s loads of fun, with Goldstein regularly cracking wise, but for your average classic film lover, the questions were pretty darn hard. Here are two of them – try your hand at the answers, which I’ll provide at the end of the post. And no fair using the Internet for intel! (By the way, I knew the answer to the first question, but not the second.)

  1. What is the name of the movie that starred Illeana Douglas’s grandmother?
  2. What is the name of the movie that parodied the famous hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night?
Andrews and Plummer are still good buddies.

Andrews and Plummer are still good buddies.

The Sound of Music (1965)

The opening night film for 2015 was The Sound of Music, that sweeping, classic musical about a postulant who leaves an Austrian abbey to become the governess in the home of a Naval officer and his seven children. (Who just happen to all be great singers.) Before the film was shown, the packed audience in Grauman’s Chinese Theater (yes, I know it’s called something else now, but it’ll always be Grauman’s to me) was treated to an interview by Ben Mankiewicz with the film’s stars, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

“It’s the primal family movie of all time,” Plummer said. “This is an extraordinary sort of fairy story brought to life. It’s the last bastion of peace and innocence in a very cynical time.”

Andrews recalled the shooting of the film, stating that “everyone was at the peak of their strength.”

“It has glorious music, beautiful alps, the children and the nuns, it’s about family,” Andrews said. “You can pick any one of those.”

Plummer and Andrews – who appeared to have maintained a delightfully close relationship (“We’re great, great chums,” Andrews affirmed) – both praised the different performers in the film, three of which were in the audience: Heather Menzies (Louisa), Debbie Turner (Marta), and Kym Karath (Gretl). Also present were three of Andrews’s real-life daughters, Jennifer, Amy and Joanna.

Hoffman turned in a riveting performance as Lenny Bruce.

Hoffman turned in a riveting performance as Lenny Bruce.

Lenny (1974)    

The festival’s many highlights included the presentation of the 1974 film Lenny, which portrayed the life of controversial stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce. Not only was it the first time I’d ever seen this outstanding picture, but before the showing, the film’s star Dustin Hoffman was interviewed by actor Alec Baldwin. WOW.

Both Baldwin and Hoffman had entertaining and unsurprisingly sharp senses of humor – the word “riveting” is the best descriptor I can think of when trying to convey the experience of watching these two in conversation.

Baldwin told the packed house that he’d seen Lenny many times – it was his introduction to the work of director Bob Fosse, the life of Lenny Bruce, and the music of Miles Davis. “I’m kinda speechless whenever I see this film,” he said.

Hoffman praised the “extraordinary” performance of actress Valerie Perrine, who played Bruce’s wife, Honey, in the film, and Baldwin echoed the sentiment: “I don’t think I’ve ever believed two actors as much as [Hoffman] and Valerie,” he said.

The film, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, was presented in a documentary style, driven by interviews conducted with those closest to Bruce, including his wife and his mother, played by Jan Miner. Hoffman’s preparation for portraying the comic included writing down his routines longhand. He also visited Bruce’s mother and his best friend.

Hoffman had high praise for the film’s director, Bob Fosse. “One of the things I objected to with Fosse was the way he posed me. But when you see it, it looks great, so he was right and I was wrong. I admit a lot of stuff 40 years later,” Hoffman joked. He told the audience that another example of Fosse’s genius was that he cast Valerie Perrine before he met Honey Bruce. “Valerie was the reincarnation of Honey Bruce,” he said. “They were like mother and daughter. It was unbelievable casting.”

Hoffman also talked about his experiences starring in The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy, but one of the best parts of the interview came when Hoffman and Baldwin shared stories about famed comedian Buddy Hackett, each mimicking Hackett’s distinct voice. It was a positive scream, y’all. Here’s a clip. (Please note that the clip contains profanity – if you’re easily offended, you might want to skip it.)

Presentation: A Surreal Existence

One of the most fascinating special presentations at the festival was “A Surreal Existence,” which featured three men whose real-life stories were told in feature films. Interviewed by TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz, the men shared what it was like to have their lives depicted on the big screen.

Mark Schulz, played by Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher, is an Olympic and world-champion wrestler whose brother, Dave, was shot and killed by the eccentric millionaire John DuPont, who was sponsoring both men. Schulz disputed some of the specifics of the film, but “as far as letting the audience know how it felt to be Mark Schulz, it was 100 percent accurate,” he said. He also told the audience that he enjoyed Channing Tatum’s performance and was disappointed that he wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award. “I thought the actors and the director all did a great job.” He admitted, though, that seeing his brother’s murder depicted on screen was “pretty awful.”

Ben Mankiewicz with Tony Mendez, Mark Schulz, and Aron Ralston.

Ben Mankiewicz with Tony Mendez, Mark Schulz, and Aron Ralston.

“I cried my eyes out,” Schulz said. “When I saw it on the screen, how it really happened, I just can’t imaging the physical pain that he must have gone through, and the confusion mixed with the pain.”

Aron Ralston is the outdoorsman who was trapped between boulders during a canyoneering accident and cut off his own forearm to extricate himself. His story was portrayed by James Franco in 127 Hours – which was the amount of time that Ralston was trapped. Ralston said that Franco “nailed” his performance – “he knocked it out of the park,” he said – but emphasized that his mother was the real hero of his story.

“She went into decisive action – in 2003, she managed to break into my online email account, reset my password, and get word to all my friends. She spearheaded the entire [search] operation.”

In Argo, CIA operative Tony Mendez was portrayed by the film’s director, Ben Affleck (Mendez joked that Affleck “wasn’t good looking enough”). In 1980, Mendez spearheaded the “Canadian caper” – an intricately planned scheme to rescue six American diplomats trapped in Iran. To pull off the plot, Mendez arranged for the diplomats to pose as a Canadian film crew making a fake movie called Argo.

The story of the successful ploy was declassified by the CIA in 1997, when it was revealed to the public. Mendez maintained that the declassification was “not to my liking.”

“It was not a choice that I would have made,” Mendez said. “Why would we expose our best secret? I could have taken that to my grave.” Ben Mankiewicz called Mendez “the most reluctant hero of reluctant heroes.”

Rififi (1955)

This was my second time seeing this Jules Dassin-directed French language noir about a well-planned heist that goes terribly awry. In introducing the film, author Eddie Muller told the audience that they were “officially the smartest people at this festival.”

The film was based on a novel by Auguste Libertant, who grew up as a street kid in France and “decided when he saw The Asphalt Jungle that he had to write the French version of that.” Indeed, Rififi is quite reminiscent of The Asphalt Jungle, with its mélange of flawed, disparate characters who come together to carry out the heist and then, one by one, meet their respective dooms.

Incidentally, “Rififi,” we learned, is not a real word – it’s a slang term. The American equivalent is “rumpus” or “dust-up.”

You’re welcome.

Ron and Allen Fields, W.C.'s grandsons, strike a pose with Illeana Douglas. (Photo courtesy of

Ron and Allen Fields, W.C.’s grandsons, strike a pose with Illeana Douglas. (Photo courtesy of

The Bank Dick (1940)

This W.C. Fields vehicle has long been one of my favorite comedies – there’s no point, really, in trying to describe the wacky plot – suffice it to say that if you like to laugh and you’ve never seen The Bank Dick, you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Before the screening of the film, Illeana Douglas interviewed Allan and Ron Fields, the grandsons of the famed comedian. From Ms. Douglas and the actor’s grandsons, brothers, I learned a great deal about Fields:

  • Fields made his film debut in 1915.
  • He was the oldest of five children.
  • One of his first jobs was a professional drowner. It was “one of the reasons why he later hated water so much,” said one of the grandchildren.
  • Fields was a Franklin Roosevelt fan until FDR said that no movie star should receive more than $25,000 per movie.
  • All of his films were written by Fields under a pseudonym.
  • Fields and Mae West did not get along on My Little Chickadee.
  • Fields never followed the script: “He just went off on other tangents.”
Colleen Moore was a joy to behold.

Colleen Moore was a joy to behold.

Why Be Good? (1929)

This was my only silent screening of the 2015 fest – and it was a sheer delight. Why Be Good? is a romantic comedy starring Colleen Moore as a salesgirl who falls in love with the wealthy heir of the store where she works.

Author Cari Beauchamp (whose last name, I’ve now learned, is pronounced BEE-chum) was on hand to introduce the film and provide information about its star, noting Moore’s “charm and effervescence.” By 1923, Moore was the personification of the Jazz Age, and in 1927 and 1928, she was the biggest female star in Hollywood. In 1929, Clara Bow emerged as a major personality and Why Be Good? was First National Pictures’ attempt to give Bow “a run for her money,” Beauchamp said.

Seeing 1776 was a highlight of the festival. (Sit down, John!!)

Seeing 1776 was a highlight of the festival. (Sit down, John!!)

1776 (1972)

Planning one’s TCM film fest schedule is an exercise that is notoriously fraught with agonizing conflicts. My worst one of the 2015 fest involved the screening of 1776, which featured two of the film’s stars – William Daniels and Ken Howard – and the screening of Malcolm X, introduced by the film’s director, Spike Lee. Both took place at the same time. I’ve been a Spike Lee fan since I saw his first movie, She’s Gotta Have It, in 1986, which was screened at a journalism convention I attended in Dallas, Texas. On the other hand, 1776 is possibly my very favorite musical – and y’all know that I’m no musical fan. But 1776? I have the soundtrack on CD and I know every word to every song. In the end, I decided I just couldn’t pass up the chance to see John Adams (Daniels) and Thomas Jefferson (Howard), or the opportunity to sit in a darkened theater and sing all the songs. (And you can imagine, when Ken Howard passed earlier this year, how gratified I felt that I got the chance to see him.)

Hollywood Home Movies featured the son of Henry Koster, Steve McQueen's first wife, and Jane Withers.

Hollywood Home Movies featured the son of Henry Koster, Steve McQueen’s first wife, and Jane Withers.

Presentation: Hollywood Home Movies

This Club TCM special presentation featured actual home movies from Robert Koster, son of director Henry Koster; Neile Adams, first wife of Steve McQueen; and former child actress Jane Withers. This event was fascinating – the movies included shots of Gary Cooper and Esther Ralston aboard a yacht in 1928; the two were filming Gregory LaCava’s Half A Bride, a silent film which is now lost. Another showed a 1935 party at the home of Cedric Gibbons and his wife, Dolores Del Rio – the guests included John Gilbert, David O. Selznick, King Vidor and Gary Cooper. There was also Danny Kaye and Walter Slezak on the set of The Inspector General, along with Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, Alan Hale, and Barbara Bates, and Steve McQueen, seen both at work (on the set of the Thomas Crown Affair) and at play (with his children). During the segment on the McQueen home movies, Neile Adams recalled that the couple’s first house was in Palm Springs, “on the wrong side of the tracks.” Adams said that actor Kirk Douglas stopped by the house one day and told McQueen, “’You’re a #$@%-ing movie star – move out of here!’ So we did.”

The highlight of this event, for me, was Jane Withers’ narration of her many home movies – she was a sheer delight. I wanted to bundle her up and take her home with me. “Good gravy – look how fat I am,” she said while looking at one scene. “I got about three thousand letters from girls that said ‘I’m glad you’re fat like I am.’” Withers’ home movies ranged from scenes with her dogs in her swimming pool to co-stars such as Jackie Cooper (“I just adored him!”), Warner Baxter (“He was so gracious to my mother and I when we first came to Hollywood in 1932.”), and Freddie Bartholomew (“What a nifty person he was!”).

“Oh golly,” Withers said, “I’ve had such a lovely life.”

The view from my seat was gorgeous! (And Richard Roundtree was, too!)

The view from my seat was gorgeous! (And Richard Roundtree was, too!)

Earthquake (1974)

I had no great desire to see the movie Earthquake – one of those big-budget, star-studded disaster films from the 1970s – but this screening had two things going for it: (1) it was presented poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and (2) Richard Roundtree.

Enough said.

Roundtree, who is perhaps best known for his portrayal of John Shaft (that black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks), had a featured role in Earthquake, as a motorcycle stuntman.

“That was one of my earlier attempts to get away from the Shaft character,” Roundtree told Illeana Douglas, who interviewed him prior to the airing of the film. “It did wonders for me, but not for my career.”

In his younger years, Roundtree played college football (“And not bad,” the actor recalled).

“I loved the cheering of the crowd,” he said. “The applause was the motivating factor for me to become an actor. The applause at the end of the night is the biggest paycheck that an actor can have.”

Una Merkel (left) walked off with the whole picture.

Una Merkel (left) walked off with the whole picture.

Don’t Bet on Women (1931)

This was one of the two pre-Codes I saw during the festival – and, boy, was it a gem! Introduced by Ann Morra of the Museum of Modern Art, Don’t Bet on Women had not previously been seen in nearly 45 years, and its preservation was supported by TCM.

In this smart and funny feature, Edmund Lowe stars as Roger Fallon, a notorious woman-hater who believes that all women are bad (which is actually the original name of the film). Fallon’s best friend, the blissfully married Herbert Drake (Roland Young), bets Fallon that it will take him more than 48 hours to snag a kiss from the first woman he sees. As luck has it, though, the first woman Fallon sees is Drake’s wife, played by Jeanette MacDonald.

Notwithstanding the first-rate performances turned in by Lowe, Young, and MacDonald, the picture was stolen by Una Merkel, who played MacDonald’s delightfully dippy pal. If you haven’t seen this one yet, keep an eye out for the next time it airs on TCM. You won’t be sorry.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

My second pre-Code of the festival was The Smiling Lieutenant, starring Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins, and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  As mentioned in an earlier post, I didn’t have high hopes for it – first off, it’s a musical, and second, as a rule, I’m not all that wild about Claudette Colbert. So I was more than pleasantly surprised to discover that I loved this film, which focuses on a triangle between an officer of the Royal Guard (Chevalier), a leader of an all-girl band (Colbert), and a Viennese princess (Hopkins).

The film was introduced by Cari Beauchamp, who shared several juicy tidbits (my favorite!) about the film’s stars:

  • Colbert and Hopkins did not like each other in real life.
  • Hopkins had an affair with Chevalier during the making of the film.
  • Both Colbert and Hopkins only wanted to be filmed from their right side – Hopkins won that battle.
  • The film was made in both French and English. A native of Paris, Maurice Chevalier learned English while in a German prison camp during World War I.
  • At the funeral of Ernst Lubitsch, famed director Billy Wilder sighed, “No more Lubitsch.” And equally famous director William Wyler sadly responded, “Worse – no more Lubitsch films.”
Noir? NOT.

Noir? NOT.

Reign of Terror (1949)

This feature was my least favorite film of the festival. Set in the 1790s, it tells the story of a patriot (Robert Cummings) who is employed by a group of political moderates to bring down the regime of Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre (Richard Basehart). Touted as film noir, the film was introduced by author Eddie Muller, who said, “They turned a movie about the French Revolution into a gangster movie.”

While I found the film to be mildly diverting, though, I certainly wouldn’t categorize it as noir – despite the fact that it was helmed by one of the era’s premier directors, Anthony Mann. And that’s all I have to say about that.

This movie is SO good, y'all.

This movie is SO good, y’all.

Out of Sight (1998)

The most modern film of the festival was this feature, edited by Anne V. Coates, who was labeled by Ben Mankiewicz as “one of the great editors of all time.” Coates, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her work on the film, also edited Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Becket (1964), The Eagle Has Landed (1976), In The Line of Fire (1993), and Erin Brockovich (2000), among many others.

This was my second time seeing this feature – I saw it when it was released – and I enjoyed it even more this time around. This neo-noir stars George Clooney as an escaped convict and Jennifer Lopez as the federal officer who nabs him – and falls for him. If you’ve never seen it, take my advice – check it out. Today.

Sophia Loren was a knockout. (Photo courtesy of

Sophia Loren was a knockout. (Photo courtesy of

Marriage, Italian Style (1964)

On the last night of the film festival, I got the chance to see screen legend Sophia Loren, live and in person, before the presentation of her film Marriage, Italian Style. Her co-star in the feature was Marcello Mastroanni, in one of 12 movies the two made together.

“I don’t think you can work on chemistry – either there is or there isn’t,” Loren said of her on-screen partner. “And as soon as I saw Marcello – there is.”

Loren also recalled winning the Academy Award for Best Actress in 1962 for her performance in Two Women. She told the audience that she was not present to receive the award.

“I said if I win, I’m going to faint, so if I faint in my house, it is okay, but if I faint on the stage, it’s going to be a disaster,” Loren said, adding that actor Cary Grant called to tell her that she won. “It was the most beautiful, beautiful moment of my life.”

Other Festival Stuff:

  • The festival gave me the opportunity to meet, for the first time, the Dark Pages senior writer, Kristina, author of the Speakeasy blog. We’d been corresponding for 10 years, but we’d never met in person. It was a gas.
  • After the Lenny screening, I went to the restroom and found that the line stretched outside the door into the hallway. I joined the end of the line and who was standing right in front of me but actress Diane Baker! I took a deep breath and offered up this capitvating line: “Excuse me, aren’t you Diane Baker?” Then I introduced myself, told her it was a thrill to meet her and then, I don’t know, I think I passed out from excitement.
  • Seated in the audience of the Surreal Existence presentation was famed astronaut Jim Lovell, who was a special guest at the festival to introduce the film Apollo 13.
  • Speaking of the Surreal Existence, while I was poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel, waiting for Shaft Richard Roundtree to come out, I discovered that Tony Mendez (the CIA operative whose life was depicted in Argo) was sitting about 10 feet from me. At first, I was content just to be sitting so close to him, but then I had another sip of my gin gimlet and I got up, shook his hand, and thanked him for his awesome service. So exciting!

And that wraps up my better-more-than-a-year-late-than-not-at-all look at the 2015 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. Just when I think it couldn’t possibly get any better, it always does. I can’t wait to see what this year’s event will bring! (And this time it won’t take me nearly as long to share it with y’all!)

One more thing – below are the answers to the questions posed at the So You Think You Know Movies event. How’d you do?

  1. She (1935) – Illeana Douglas’ grandmother was Helen Gahagan
  2. Way Out West (1937)

The CMBA Spring Blogathon: The Writers of Sunset Boulevard

•April 12, 2016 • 8 Comments

“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.”

An interesting quote in a film that’s chock-full of writers, am I right?

Sunset Boulevard (1950) tells the tale of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), faded silent film star who lives in a world built on the shaky foundation of yesterday’s fame. By sheer happenstance, Norma makes the acquaintance of one Joe Gillis (William Holden), and their relationship, as well as those with whom they interact most intimately, serves as the basis of this twisted, noirish yarn.

But beyond Norma’s eccentricities, and Joe’s self-absorbed actions, the devotion of Norma’s first-husband-now-butler Max von Mayerling (Erich Von Stroheim), and the sweet naivete of Joe’s friend, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), there’s a whole ‘nother lens through which to view this film:

The story as seen through the words of the writers.

“Before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts. The whole truth.” – Joe Gillis

Two original stories a week. TWO, y'all!!

Two original stories a week. TWO, y’all!!

When we first see Joe, he’s at a typewriter. Wait – scratch that. The very first time we see Joe, he’s lying face down in a swimming pool, speaking to us from the Great Beyond. But the second time we see him, he’s sitting on the bed in his apartment, clad in a bathrobe, pounding with great determination on his portable typewriter. We learn from Joe’s ever-so-helpful voiceover that he’s been grinding out two original stories every week, but that he hasn’t had much success: “Maybe they weren’t original enough. Maybe they were too original. All I know is they didn’t sell.” And we see the consequences of Joe’s failed efforts when two behatted gents show up at his door and announce that they are repossessing his 1946 Plymouth convertible for lack of payment.

But Joe’s mama didn’t raise any fools. A quick on-his-feet-thinker, he tells the fellas that he loaned the Plymouth to a pal, and when they depart, he quickly nabs the car from its hiding place in a nearby parking lot, behind Rudy’s Shoeshine Parlor. (“I was way ahead of the finance company. I knew they’d be coming around and I wasn’t taking any chances,” Joe confides. “Rudy never asked any questions about your finances. He’d just look at your heels and he’d know the score.”) And where does Joe head with his sought-after car? Straight to Paramount Studios where he had another one of his “original” stories floating around. Even though his agent had previously informed him that the story was “dead in the water,” Joe was no quitter. He knew a big-shot producer at the studio, and decided to give the story one last try. After all, he had his car to think of.

“I just think that pictures should say a little something.” – Betty Schaefer

Miss Schaefer found Joe's writing to be flat. And trite.

Miss Schaefer found Joe’s writing to be flat. And trite.

At Paramount Studios, we’re introduced to Betty Schaefer, a member of the studio’s Readers Department. She summoned to the office of Joe’s producer pal, Sheldrake (Fred Clark), who asks her for an overview of Joe’s story, “Bases Loaded.” When she enters the office and provides her opinion on the piece, Betty is unaware that the author is also present – so she doesn’t bite her tongue when she tells Sheldrake that the story is “just a rehash of something that wasn’t very good to begin with.” When she’s introduced to Joe, she has the good graces to be properly chagrined, but she’s not so embarrassed that she backs down from her stance on the story: “I just didn’t think it was any good. I found it flat and trite.”

“Don’t you know that the finest things in the world are written on an empty stomach?” – Joe’s agent

After he’s shot down at Paramount, Joe hunts down his agent. It’s not too much to ask, surely, for a three hundred dollar loan to make the past-due payments on his car. But Joe’s agent, Morino (Lloyd Gough), has other ideas. Sure, he could loan him the money – but he refuses. Losing his car would be the best possible thing for Joe, Morino opines. Forfeiting his means of transportation would force Joe to focus solely on his writing: “Now you’ll have to sit behind the typewriter.”

But Joe’s not picking up what his agent is putting down, if you know what I mean.

“Writing words, words, more words. Well, you’ve made a rope of words and strangled this business!” – Norma Desmond

Talk about epic!

Talk about epic!

Just when Joe has almost decided to hock all his belongings, buy a bus ticket back to Ohio, and return to his old $35-a-week job writing copy at the Dayton Evening Post, his fortunes take an upward swing. (For a while, at least.) After spotting the repo guys at a stop light, Joe leads them on a merry chase, then gives them the slip by pulling onto the property of a sprawling old mansion, which just happens to be owned by ex-silent film star Norma Desmond. Norma first spouts off her less-than-stellar opinion of talking pictures, but she changes her rancorous tune when she learns that Joe is a writer. Turns out that Norma is a bit of a writer herself – she’s been working for years on the story of Salome (“I think I’ll have DeMille direct it,” she declares).

“Sometimes it’s interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be. And this promised to go the limit.” – Joe Gillis

"A silly hodgepodge of melodramatic plots." (Everybody's a critic.)

“A silly hodgepodge of melodramatic plots.” (Everybody’s a critic.)

Norma initially asks Joe to review a few scenes of the massive screenplay she’s writing, but before long, Joe sees an opportunity to line his pockets with more than lint. Although he judges her writing as a “silly hodgepodge of melodramatic plots,” he tells Norma that the work is great – that it only needs a little editing and organization. Using a bit of reverse psychology, he craftily informs her that he’s far too busy for the job – and before you can say “Bob’s your uncle,” Norma has hired Joe as her editor and moved him into her home. (“I dropped the hook, and she snapped at it,” Joe gloats.)

“I don’t want to be a reader all my life. I want to write.” – Betty Schaefer

They even talked about writing at Artie's party!!

They even talked about writing at Artie’s party!!

After working diligently for several weeks on Norma’s rambling screenplay, Joe finds that his role in the household has slowly but surely shifted. One day he’s painstakingly reading through Norma’s work, and the next, she’s buying him a new wardrobe and throwing a cozy New Year’s Eve party for two. When he rejects Norma’s none-too-subtle advances, Joe escapes to the home of his pal, Artie (Jack Webb), where he encounters Betty Schaefer – the gal at Paramount who’d labeled his writing as “trite.” As it happens, Betty had been hoping to run into Joe again – and not, as Joe snarkily suggests, so that she can “recover the knife she stuck in [his] back.” On the contrary, Betty has been reading over some of Joe’s old stories and found some material in one of them that she found to be worthwhile. But before she can share her own ideas for fleshing out the story, Joe learns that Norma has attempted suicide, and he rushes to her side.

“Yes, I was playing hooky every evening along in there. It made me think of when I was 12 and used to sneak out on the folks to see a gangster picture. This time it wasn’t to see a picture. It was to try and write one.” – Joe Gillis

The place to be for writers.

The place to be for writers.

A couple of chance meetings – one at Schwab’s Drugstore, the meeting place for struggling writers and other starving artists – leads to a series of late night collaborations between Joe and Betty, as they work together on creating a screenplay. Between writing sessions, Joe and Betty walk the streets on the Paramount backlot, sharing their thoughts and their pasts – and falling in love.

“And may I suggest that if we’re ever to finish this story, you stay at least two feet away from me.” – Joe Gillis

But Joe and Betty never get the chance to finish the script. Once Norma finds out that Joe is sneaking out each night to meet a woman, the proverbial poop hits the fan. Like Columbo on a case, she finds out Betty’s name and phone number, and gives her a call, asking her if she knows where and how Joe lives. “Miss Schaefer,” Norma purrs, “I’m trying to do you a favor. I’m trying to spare you a great deal of misery.” But Norma’s plan backfires. Joe does end his relationship with Betty – but he also packs his suitcase and prepares to leave Norma, as well, telling her that the trinkets she bought him are “just a little too dressy for sitting behind a copy desk in Dayton, Ohio.” Sadly for Joe, he doesn’t make it back to that copy desk. Norma – and her new revolver – see to that.

Even columnist Hedda Hopper gets in on the act.

Even columnist Hedda Hopper gets in on the act.

And in one of the film’s final scenes, we’re left with yet another writer – famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, playing herself, calling the city desk of the L.A. Times and giving them the story about the murder committed by the famed star of yesteryear:

“I’m calling from the bedroom of Norma Desmond. Don’t bother with a rewrite. Take it direct.”


This post is part of the CMBA Spring Blogathon: “Words, Words, Words!” Click the pic below to read the great posts offered as part of this year’s event!

You only owe it to yourself. And the writer in you.

Detectives and Dames Blogathon: The Life and Times of Arthur Kennedy

•April 11, 2016 • 10 Comments

Arthur Kennedy was once described as “one of the subtlest American supporting actors, never more so than when revealing the malice or weakness in an ostensibly friendly man.” But while he was certainly acknowledged for his undeniable talent and versatility, he might also – unfortunately – be counted among the most underrated character actors from Hollywood’s golden age.

And that’s a real shame.

A five-time Academy Award nominee who appeared in nearly 100 movies over a span of six decades, Kennedy was seen in a variety of screen gems, including Rancho Notorious (1952), The Man From Laramie (1955), Peyton Place (1957), Elmer Gantry (1960), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Kennedy was also a significant presence in the film noir era, with five features to his credit: High Sierra (1941), The Window (1949), Champion (1949), Chicago Deadline (1949) – and the soon-to-be-released Too Late for Tears (1949).

John Arthur Kennedy was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 17, 1914, the only child of dentist John Timothy Kennedy and his wife. After receiving his secondary and preparatory education in Worcester at South High School and Worcester Academy, Kennedy studied drama at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1936, after his graduation from Carnegie, Kennedy headed for New York, where he lived in a brownstone with several actors, including David Wayne and Ben Yaffee.

“Half of us slept on cots. We’d pound at Shubert Alley doors during the day and then try to whip together enough to eat for supper,” Kennedy said in a 1952 interview. “With a dollar, Yaffee could somehow bring back half a delicatessen. When things were really rough, Wayne used to cook griddle cakes like crazy – when I think of the stuff I’ve put in my stomach!”

Young Kennedy.

Young Kennedy.

After 10 months in the Big Apple, Kennedy landed a job with the Globe Theatre traveling repertory company, and a year later, he made his Broadway debut in King Richard II. Initially billed as John Kennedy, the actor later changed his stage name to J. Arthur Kennedy because there was already a John Kennedy on the rolls of Actors Equity. After a few years, he dropped the first initial, saying that he considered it “unnecessarily pretentious.”

With his professional stage career underway, Kennedy took time out in 1938 to marry actress Mary Cheffey, whom he had met while both were students at the Carnegie Institute. The couple went on to have two children, Terence Gordon, born in 1943, and Laurie Ewing (who later became an actress herself) in 1945. Kennedy and Mary remained together until her death in 1975.

Professionally, Kennedy was seen as a dancing cab driver in Madam, Will You Walk, starring George M. Cohan, who termed the actor “the most brilliant actor on Broadway.” But Kennedy was about to leave the bright lights of New York – while performing in Life and Death of an American, he was spotted by a talent scout from Warner Bros., who recommended him for the role of James Cagney’s younger brother in City for Conquest (1940). After a screen test, Kennedy won the role and a contract with the studio.

Receiving sage advice from Bogart in High Sierra.

Receiving sage advice from Bogart in High Sierra.

In the year following his well-received screen debut, Kennedy appeared in five features, including his first film noir, High Sierra (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, and Air Force (1943), one of the best aviation films of the era. Following the release of the latter film, Kennedy himself joined the Army Air Forces, where he traveled the country in the same unit as such stars as William Holden, Ronald Reagan and Robert Young, making a series of training films that included How to Fly the B-17 and Resisting Enemy Interrogation.

The actor’s first feature after the war was Devotion (1946), which had been shelved for three years. Kennedy later admitted that the film, a fanciful biography of authors Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, “impressed neither the critics nor the movie-going public,” but he counted his role as Branwell Bronte among his favorites.

“Like the picture, Branwell was a failure,” Kennedy said. “However, the role was tremendously interesting . . . and I’d far rather play the part of an interesting failure than a so-called successful role in a successful picture that has been written strictly according to formula.”

After the traditional horse-opera Cheyenne (1947), Kennedy’s final film under his Warner’s contract, the actor appeared as a freelancer in Boomerang!, helmed by actor-turned-director, Elia Kazan, with whom Kennedy had appeared in City for Conquest. (Years later, the famed director hailed Kennedy as “an exceptionally honest, fine actor, and an exceptionally nice person.”) Kennedy then made a triumphant return to Broadway in All My Sons (1947), portraying a war veteran who discovers that his father (Ed Begley) was responsible for selling defective airplane parts to the government. For his performance, the actor was applauded by Brooks Atkinson, who wrote in the New York Times that Kennedy gave “a superb performance with great power for the climax and with insight into the progress of the character.”

Kennedy and Barbara Hale as the parents in The Window.

Kennedy and Barbara Hale as the parents in The Window.

Back in Hollywood, Kennedy entered his biggest year for film noir – in 1949, he appeared in a whopping four features from the era:  The Window, Champion, Too Late for Tears, and Chicago Deadline.

In The Window, Kennedy played Mr. Woodry, a harried father whose son, Tommy (Bobby Driscoll), is notorious for his fanciful imagination. When Tommy witnesses a murder committed in the tenement building where the family lives, he finds that he is a victim of the boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome, as no one believes his story. Although co-stars Driscoll, Paul Stewart, and Ruth Roman had the showier roles, Kennedy was singled out in reviews for his “believable” and “altogether natural” performance.

Next, in Champion, Kennedy turned in a first-rate performance as Connie Kelly, the crippled brother of boxer Midge (Kirk Douglas), who will stop at nothing to fight his way to the top. In a film fairly brimming with outstanding performances, Kennedy was a standout, and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He lost, however, to Dean Jagger in 12 O’Clock High.

Kennedy didn't care about "The Joneses" in Too Late for Tears. Too bad his wife did.

Kennedy didn’t care about “The Joneses” in Too Late for Tears. Too bad his wife did.

Kennedy followed this first-rate noir with one of my favorite noirs, Too Late for Tears, appearing in the role of Alan Palmer, whose wife, Jane (Lizabeth Scott), is frustrated by her couple’s inability to “keep up with the Joneses.” When a satchel full of money is inexplicably tossed into their car, the upstanding Alan insists that they turn it in: “We’ve got as much right to that money as if we went into a bank and lifted a bag full off the counter,” he tells his spouse. Unfortunately for Alan, he woefully underestimates his spouse – and he’s not the only one.

Noted for his “smooth” portrayal in Tears, Kennedy next appeared in his final noir, Chicago Deadline, portraying Tommy Ditman, whose sister, Rosita (Donna Reed), is found dead in a dilapidated boarding house. For his small but memorable role as the dead girl’s mournful sibling, Kennedy was praised as “top-calibre” in the Los Angeles Examiner.

Between his noir appearances in 1949, Kennedy found time to accept the role of Biff in the Broadway production of Death of a Salesman, and wound up with a Tony Award for best supporting actor. (When the play was made into a film by Columbia in 1951, however, Kennedy’s role was given to newcomer Kevin McCarthy.)

Yet another Oscar-nominated performance in Bright Victory.

Yet another Oscar-nominated performance in Bright Victory.

During the next decade, Kennedy turned in outstanding performances in such films as Bright Victory (1951), in which he starred as a WWII veteran who was blinded in the war. His superb performance in this film earned him the Actor of the Year award from the New York Film Critics and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (he lost to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen). To prepare for the difficult role, Kennedy worked with real-life blind veterans and wore opaque contact lenses over his eyes.

“You can’t see very well through them, but that, of course, was the idea, and they helped me in the part,” Kennedy said in a 1952 interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Philip K. Scheuer. “You do things instinctively with them on that you wouldn’t without them. More importantly, you think differently.”

In Peyton Place, Kennedy was a standout.

In Peyton Place, Kennedy was a standout.

Other top-notch vehicles in which Kennedy appeared during the 1950s were Rancho Notorious (1952), an absorbing western in which he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich; Trial (1955), which saw Kennedy nominated for his third Academy Award (this time losing to Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts); The Desperate Hours (1955), starring Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict who holds a family hostage in their home; The Man from Laramie (1955), where Kennedy starred as the adopted son of a megalomaniac rancher; Peyton Place (1957), in which Kennedy’s exceptional portrayal of an alcoholic who rapes his stepdaughter landed him yet another Oscar nod (he lost to Red Buttons in Sayonara); and Some Came Running (1958), where he earned his final Academy Award nomination portraying a rigid businessman who is having an affair with his assistant (he lost this time to Burl Ives in The Big Country).

Despite his numerous screen appearances, Kennedy managed to find opportunities to continue his involvement in the theater. In 1951, he formed a theatrical group known as the Theater Workshop (later renamed the Stage Society), which was designed to provide local actors with a forum for honing their craft.

“It’s not a showcase for talent, nor a professional school. We charge $20 a month, enough to rent the theater,” Kennedy told columnist Hedda Hopper. “Actors need this. Painters paint alone, musicians play or sing alone, but what can an actor do when he isn’t working?”

The quality of Kennedy’s films began to diminish with the onset of the 1960s, but he still appeared in several memorable features, including Elmer Gantry (1960), starring Burt Lancaster in the title role of the charismatic con man; Lawrence of Arabia (1962), in which Kennedy played a character based on journalist and commentator Lowell Thomas; and Barabbas (1962), where Kennedy was singled out by critics for his standout portrayal of Pontius Pilate. More often, however, Kennedy was stuck in a series of duds, including Claudelle Inglish (1961), a drama about a farm girl who goes to pieces when she is abandoned by her soldier boyfriend, and such foreign-made films as Anzio (1968), which flopped at the box office despite a first-rate cast that included Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Peter Falk.

“You have to make a dog once in a while to keep up with the economic situation,” Kennedy said once.

In his final film, Signs of Life, with Vincent D'onofrio.

In his final film, Signs of Life, with Vincent D’onofrio.

Having made his television debut on Ford Theater in 1954, Kennedy was infrequently seen on the small screen, but he did appear on several dramatic anthology series, served as host and narrator for 27 half-hour documentaries on the life of the Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was in several made-for-television movies. The actor also returned to Broadway in 1968 for The Price, his fourth and final play written by Arthur Miller, and in 1973 for Veronica’s Room.

On the big screen, Kennedy continued to appear almost exclusively in foreign films (he later labeled these movies “stinkers” and termed his appearance in them “a major career mistake”). After the death of his wife, Mary, in 1975, the actor’s interest in acting began to wane, and he “threw in the towel” after a series of medical maladies during the late 1970s, including thyroid cancer and corneal transplants to regain his sight after a battle with cataracts. The actor also stopped drinking during this period, following an on-again, off-again battle with alcohol that had lasted for several decades.

“The doctor told me if I didn’t stop drinking, I’d soon be dead, so I stopped,” Kennedy said in a 1989 interview in the New York Times. “My only regret is that more than a few of my brain cells have been a bit singed by alcohol.”

But after a 10-year absence from film, Kennedy returned in 1989 for Signs of Life, playing a curmudgeonly shipbuilder who fights to prevent the closing of the boatyard that bears his father’s name. Kennedy learned of the role through the agent of his daughter, Laurie, a New York-based actress.

“I didn’t give it much thought, but true to his word, [the agent] called back and set up a meeting with the producer and director,” Kennedy said. “I read the script and was mighty impressed . . . I needed a good part and here it was.”

Shortly after the release of Signs of Life, Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was admitted to the Connecticut Hospital in Branford, Connecticut, in October 1989, and he died three months later, on January 5, 1990.  He was 75 years old.

An actor's actor and a director's director.

An actor’s actor and a director’s director.

While seldom discussed today, Arthur Kennedy was truly one of Hollywood’s finest acting talents. In his five Oscar-nominated performances, as well as numerous others, he demonstrated an brilliant ability to adapt himself to any character and make him come alive. Director Mark Robson, who helmed two of Kennedy’s finest films, once offered a fitting testament to the imagination, integrity, and perspective that Kennedy brought to his roles, as well as the esteem in which he was held by his peers.

“On Broadway they told me Arthur Kennedy was an actor’s actor,” Robson said. “There exists a certain reverence among stage people for him that is not unlike the way they consider Alfred Lunt or Laurence Olivier. After directing Art in Champion and Bright Victory, I’d say he’s a director’s actor also. He knows instinctively what you wish him to convey on the screen and has a profound sense of real-life drama.”


This post is part of the multi-week “Detectives and Dames” noir blogathon, presented by Flicker Alley in celebration of the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD releases of Too Late for Tears (1949), featuring Arthur Kennedy, and Woman on the Run (1950), starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe. These first-rate noirs can both be pre-ordered from Flicker Alley – click here to pre-order Too Late for Tears, and here to pre-order Woman on the Run. Do yourself a favor and check ’em out!

You only owe it to yourself.

Pre-Code Crazy: A Farewell to Arms (1932)

•April 4, 2016 • 3 Comments

On the surface, my Pre-Code crazy pick for this month doesn’t seem to have a whole heck of a lot of pre-Codiness going on. A Farewell to Arms (1932), based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway and starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper, tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers – an American ambulance driver and an English nurse – in World War I Italy.

Not exactly the stuff that pre-Code is typically made of, right?

But don’t let the setting, the time period, the uniforms, and the presence of pure-as-the-driven-snow Helen Hayes fool ya. Despite these elements, A Farewell to Arms still manages to pack a satisfactory pre-Code wallop. Here’re just a few of the pre-Cod-y characteristics of this feature.

He just couldn’t wait to take that shirt off.

Shirtless Gary Cooper

Not six minutes passes before Gary Cooper’s character – Frederic Henry – is out of his uniform and in all of his bare-chested glory. You’re welcome.

Terms of Endearment

Frederic is pals with Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), an Italian doctor with an ever-active eye for the ladies. In one scene, Rinaldi tells Frederic about a nurse he’s interested in, and asks to borrow money from Frederic so that he can impress her. “Thank you,” Rinaldi says when Frederic puts a few bills in his pocket. “You are my great and good friend, and financial protector.” To which Frederic blithely responds: “And you’re an ass.”

If this ain't pre-Code, I don't know what is.

If this ain’t pre-Code, I don’t know what is.

Sexy Meet Cute

Frederic is sitting in a local café, three sheets to the wind, holding a woman’s shoe in his hand while he converses with her bare foot about the virtues of architecture. When an air raid siren sounds, the café’s patrons run for cover, and shortly after Frederic seeks shelter in a small enclosure outside, he’s joined by a shoeless young woman clad only in her nightgown. Continuing his drunken diatribe from the café, Frederic grabs the young woman’s foot and proceeds to explain about the relationship between architecture and the arch of the foot. A scene or two later, we discover that this young woman and the nurse with whom Rinaldi is infatuated – Catherine Barkley (Hayes) – are one and the same. (Betcha can’t guess how long it takes Frederic to discover her unique charms for himself.)

They just met, y'all.

They just met, y’all.

Holy mackerel, what a line!

Frederic and Catherine go for a walk, and settle in a dimly lit wooded area. Catherine asks Frederic what he’s thinking, and he tells her he’s thinking of whiskey, and about how nice it is. “You’re nice, too,” he adds, before moving in for the kill – I mean, a kiss.

First Date Follies

Frederic and Catherine’s first kiss turns into much more. Although we don’t see it, of course, it’s apparent that the couple tapped first base, leapt over second, rounded third and went all the way home – if you get my drift.

Fever all through the night.

Fever all through the night.

You Give Me Fever

Frederic is wounded by a bomb blast and sent to the hospital in Milan where Catherine is working. When she learns he’s there, she pays a surreptitious visit to his room, gifting him with several passionate kisses before she departs. Seconds later, the head nurse arrives, and expresses concern over his temperature. “It’s a miracle you’re not delirious, with such a fever,” she exclaims. Frederic assures her that he doesn’t have a fever, then laughs impishly and allows his eyes to flicker, ever so quickly, toward his, shall we say, nether regions. “It’s not what you think,” he says. Whoa dere!

Just keep lying.

How Many?

During a stroll with Frederic, Catherine inquires about the number of other women he has loved. “None,” he tells her. So she then asks, “How many have you . . . um . . . loved?” And when he again says there haven’t been any, Catherine says, “You’re lying to me. That’s right – you just keep on lying. That’s what I want you to do.”

I’m going to stop here – I don’t want to give away the whole movie! – but if you want to see some top-notch acting in an unusual but time-worthy pre-Code vehicle, be sure to tune in to TCM on April 7th for A Farewell to Arms.

You only owe it to yourself.

And don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for the month!

Musings on Clarence Muse

•March 27, 2016 • 6 Comments

The first time I saw Clarence Muse in a movie was in 1972, in the all-black western, Buck and the Preacher, starring Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. He portrayed a respected, elder member of a wagon train bound for a new territory, who was able to foretell the future by reading a bag of bleached bones.

I next saw Muse several years later in Car Wash (1979), a comedy about the lives and loves of a ragtag bunch of employees at an inner-city car wash. Muse’s character had a shoeshine stall at the car wash and in his only scene, he was given the honor of shining the shoes of “Daddy Rich,” a wealthy preacher played by Richard Pryor.

The next time I noticed Muse was a few years ago, when I saw the pre-Code film Safe in Hell (1931), which starred Dorothy Mackaill as a prostitute who flees to a remote island after she accidentally kills (or does she?) a former client. Muse played Newcastle who, along with Leonie (Nina Mae McKinney), operated the hotel where Mackaill found refuge. He spoke with an English accent and was far more refined than the assembly of miscreants who were guests of the hotel.

Then I saw him in another pre-Code, Night World (1932), in which he portrayed a nightclub doorman. His character, Tim Washington, enjoyed an amiable relationship with a local beat cop (who was white), with whom he shared several meaningful discussions throughout the film.

At the time I saw the pre-Code features, I took note of the actor because there was something about the way he carried himself, a kind of regal bearing that set him apart from the other characters.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that I realized that the aged, eye-catching gent from the 1970 films, and the dignified, memorable performer from Safe in Hell and Night World were all the same man.

With Robert Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

With Robert Donat in The Count of Monte Cristo (1934)

I began to realize that I’d seen Clarence Muse in small roles in a variety of classics – Huckleberry Finn (1931), The Count of Monte Cristo (1934), Show Boat (1936), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Double Indemnity (1944), Scarlet Street (1945). And the more I contemplated Muse’s performances, the more I wanted to know about the man behind them.

Clarence Edouard Muse was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 7 (or 14th), 1889 (or 1895). His grandfather was a native of Martinique and his father, Alexander, was a deacon in the Perkins Square Baptist Church, sang bass in the church choir, and owned a chain of shoeshine stands. His mother, Mary Sales, was a seamstress and, Muse maintained, “the best soprano in Perkins Square in Baltimore.”

After his graduation from Baltimore’s Douglass High School (“My mother was quite a stickler for education,” Muse said), the actor-to-be attended the Dickinson School of Law in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, using an inherited singing talent to help finance his education.

“I sang my way through school and had to keep singing in order to raise enough money to practice law,” Muse recalled. “I’ve never stopped singing.”

The details of Muse’s personal and professional life around this time are murky – not from lack of information, necessarily, but more because of conflicting information. One source states that Muse got married in 1907 – four years before his graduation from Dickinson – to one Frieda Belle Moore, and that the two had a son in 1910. Most references, however, make no mention of Frieda; instead, they maintain that Muse’s first wife was Willabelle Marshbanks (also referred to as Willabelle Burch West), a fellow performer who was billed as Ophelia Muse, and that Muse and Ophelia had two children together, Dion and Mae. (Maybe Frieda Belle and Willabelle are the same person!) Also, it’s hard to pin down when and why this marriage ended, but I can say with certainty that in 1953, Muse married Irene Ena Kellman, a Jamaica native who was 33 years his junior, and the two remained together until the actor’s death in 1979.

Meanwhile, after his graduation from Dickinson, Muse got a job at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, performing as part of a quartet in order to earn enough money to open a law office. But Muse later abandoned his plans for a law career: “There wasn’t much call for black lawyers in those days,” he recalled years later. “I saw lawyers chasing ambulances and they all had patches in their pants.”

At the end of the season in Palm Beach, Muse reportedly won several thousand dollars in a poker game and embarked on a train back to New York, but he never reached his destination.  Instead, he got off in Jacksonville, bought a new suit of clothes, and found a hotel room. A short time later, Muse met an “important personality around the town” named Broadway Jones.

“He introduced me around, and I had a few sheets of . . .  professional music. So I gave him that. We became great buddies,” Muse recalled years later.

Muse's first Hollywood film was Hearts in Dixie.

Muse’s first Hollywood film was Hearts in Dixie.

Muse got jobs singing in local venues including the Airdome Theater and the Globe Theater, and later helped organize the Freeman-Harper-Muse Stock company, touring the South with the company. Several years later, Muse finally made it to New York, where he joined the Lafayette Players (many sources claim that he was the founder and originator of the group, but he was not. He was, however, one of the first members). Muse performed for seven years with the Lafayette Players; his final production was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where he played the dual title roles in whiteface makeup, becoming the first black actor to do so. (Muse said that the play was relevant to black actors and audiences because “in a way, it was every black man’s story. Black men too have been split creatures inhabiting one body.”) During his years with the Lafayette Players, Muse became one of the founding directors of the Delsarte Film Corporation, a black independent film company, for which he wrote, produced and starred in several films.  Muse then moved on to the Royal Gardens Theater in Chicago, and to Columbus, Ohio, where he began producing his own stage plays at the Ogdeon Theater.

Around this time, Muse made his move to the silver screen – although here, as with many other aspects of Muse’s story, sources disagree on the exact course. Some say he was performing in Chicago when he got a call from Fox Studios. Others say he was in Columbus and he received a telegram. And one – which happens to be my favorite – contends that he was already in Hollywood, struggling to find work, when he was hit by a car driven by Fox producer Winfield Sheehan. By the time it was determined that Muse was unhurt, he’d agreed to a screen test – and he made his film debut in 1929’s Hearts in Dixie. In the film – the first to have an all-black cast – Muse played a noble, 90-year-old tenant farmer. Of his performance, author and documentarian Miles Krueger later wrote, “Clarence Muse brings to the principal role an aura of wise, quiet strength, and dignity that often carries the story through passages which might otherwise seem condescending.”

Shortly after he finished filming for Hearts in Dixie, Muse decided to remain in California. “I began to say to myself, ‘What am I leaving this country for? This looks like a new world in Hollywood,’” he recalled. “I didn’t know where the next job was coming from, but making money like this was something unusual.”

Muse's song, "When It's Sleepytime Down South," was heard in Safe in Hell and Hell's Highway.

Muse’s song, “When It’s Sleepytime Down South,” was heard in Safe in Hell and Hell’s Highway.

Muse wasted little time finding more picture work, and worked nearly non-stop over the next two years. One of his films during this time was Rain or Shine (1930), directed by Frank Capra, who “became my buddy all through my career,” Muse said. Another was Safe in Hell (1931), starring Dorothy Mackaill and featuring Muse as Newcastle, the porter in a hotel located on a Caribbean island. The film was directed by William Wellman; in 2013, his son, William Wellman, Jr. spoke of Muse at the Turner Classic Movies film festival: “When you hear him speak,” Wellman said, “you know that he is part of the intelligentsia.” The film also featured Nina Mae McKinney – known as “The Black Garbo” – who, in one scene, sang a song titled “When It’s Sleepytime Down South.” The song was co-written by Muse, and would later be used by Louis Armstrong as his theme song. Also in 1931, Muse returned to the stage, starring in a Los Angeles production of Porgy; his portrayal of the title role was selected by the Los Angeles Critics as one of the best 10 stage performances of the season. A fitting observation of Muse’s work around this time appeared in an article in the Baltimore Afro-American, which stated: “Somber or tragic, or gay or frivolous, whichever his next role may be . . . Muse will play it to the hilt, adding lustre to his name and that of the race.”

Muse had numerous fan clubs and was receiving fan letters by the thousands by 1932, which turned out to be a banner year for the actor – and it was the busiest of his career; he was seen in close to 20 feature films, including The Cabin in the Cotton, in which Bette Davis famously declares, “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” That same year, Muse was sent by Warner Bros.’ First National Studios on a personal appearance tour of America. He later said that one of the high points of the trip was visiting a mixed-races kindergarten class and teaching “a bunch of yelling kids to sing When It’s Sleepytime Down South.” Also on the trip, Muse got the opportunity to meet President Franklin Roosevelt shortly after his first inauguration; the actor stated that he found Roosevelt to be “an honest, sincere, straightforward person.”

Taking a stogie break with a few pals.

Taking a stogie break with a few pals.

Muse’s series of fortuitous experiences appeared to hit a snag in August, when the Committee for the Olympics – which were held in Los Angeles that year – barred the actor from a program supplied by a local radio station because of his race. But even this negative turn of events ended up with a notch in the positive column. After word of the Committee’s action got out, a number of white Hollywood stars refused to participate in the program. Days later, the Olympic Committee apologized to Muse and invited him to appear at an entertainment that was put on for the athletes. The committee even gave Muse a personal escort to and from the Olympic village.

Muse’s prolific screen career made him one of Hollywood’s highest-paid black performers; he not only maintained a home in Los Angeles, but in 1934, the actor purchased 300 acres of land near Perris, California, and built a 160-acre ranch, which he named “Muse-a-While.”  Despite his wealth, however, Muse never forgot those who were in need. During Christmas each year, he raised money to provide food baskets to the less fortunate people of his race, and in the early 1930s, the Baltimore Afro-American reported that Muse partnered with seven charity organizations to present a charity benefit at the Lincoln Theatre in Los Angeles. Numerous performers who’d appeared in films with Muse participated in the show, including Pat O’Brien, Dorothy Mackaill, Una Merkel, Ralph Bellamy, Marie Dressler, George Raft, Wallace Ford, Ruth Chatterton, Ann Harding, and Warren William.

Muse prays over his dying son in Broken Earth (1936).

Muse prays over his dying son in Broken Earth (1936).

Throughout the remainder of the decade, Muse continued his film appearances as well as performances on the radio and the stage, including a starring part in an 11-minute experimental film called Broken Earth in 1936, and the title role in Emperor Jones that same year at Los Angeles’ Wilshire-Ebell Theatre. He also produced Run, Little Chillun for the Federal Theatre Project (and directed its Broadway revival in 1943); wrote the music and sang in Harlem Heab’n, a symphony performed at the Hollywood Bowl; and teamed up with famed author Langston Hughes to write the screenplay for Way Down South (1938), the first Hollywood feature film penned by black screenwriters. He also wrote, starred in, and partially financed Broken Strings (1942), an all-black drama about a classic violinist whose career is threatened by a car accident. The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s most popular black newspaper at the time, declared the film an unqualified hit and applauded Muse’s performance. “Here is a Negro movie that tops anything and everything that has been done,” the paper’s reviewer stated. “Clarence Muse can well be proud of his role in this picture.” Off-screen, Muse was a vocal and fearless champion for his race; in 1937, in a feature that appeared on Christmas Day in the Baltimore Afro-American, Muse said that his Christmas wish was “that our people will continue to think for themselves, without prejudice and without bias; that the anti-lynching bill will not only become a law, but that it will be unnecessary by next Christmas.”

Notwithstanding Muse’s favorable reputation away from the cameras, on-screen he’d portrayed so many stereotypical roles that he was referred to in some circles as “Hollywood’s perennial Uncle Tom.” The label didn’t sit well with the actor – he reportedly once sued a newspaper that described him that way, and he maintained that there were two audiences: a white audience that wanted to see blacks as buffoons or in song, and a black audience “with the desire to see the real elements” of black life portrayed. Muse also published a 26-page booklet in which he addressed the history of black actors and bemoaned the fact that “America just won’t let Uncle Tom die.”

Muse’s motto: “In my entire life, I have never met a man or a woman with enough intelligence to insult me.”

Still, in the early 1940s, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) took a stand against the depiction of blacks in film, Muse was one of Tinseltown’s biggest supporters. After meeting with celebrities and other “movers and shakers” in Hollywood, NAACP Executive Director Walter White announced that black audiences “resent the fact that their billed stars are almost without exception placed in the roles of servants when appearing in pictures.” White also worked with studio execs to establish an ad hoc committee to monitor the image and portrayal of blacks on screen. Muse, however, was concerned that the NAACP’s position would lead to a decrease in screen roles for blacks, and he was one of numerous black performers who criticized White for failing to consult with them first.

“Actors are not gangsters, playing parts to destroy colored dignity,” Muse told reporters. “They are earning bread like lawyers, doctors and workers, and deserve the same consideration. If Mr. White will change his procedure and become democratic instead of a dictator, he may earn a bigger salary and do a great service for the colored people in the realm of motion pictures.” Several years later, Muse would also be an advocate for the controversial TV series Amos ‘N’ Andy. He would emphasize that, despite the broad caricatures of the title characters, the series allowed black performers to portray doctors, bankers, judges, professors, and other parts generally denied them in “white” shows.

During the next two decades, Muse was seen in such feature films as Heaven Can Wait (1943), The Thin Man Goes Home (1945), Night and Day (1946), and The Las Vegas Story (1952). He also began making appearances on TV that included the series Casablanca, where he played Sam, the piano player in Rick’s Café Americain (the role portrayed by Dooley Wilson in the 1942 film). And during the World War II years, Muse made hospital tours to entertain wounded soldiers and served as a member of the Hollywood Victory Committee, which arranged the appearances of stars overseas.

Muse went into semi-retirement after this film.

Muse went into semi-retirement after this film.

In 1959, Muse played “Honey-Man” in Otto Preminger’s Porgy and Bess, a film that he called “one of the last great masterpieces I got hung in.”

“That was great as a picture,” Muse recalled. “It was certainly great as a job. It was like some of the stuff we used to do with Frank Capra.” But after this feature, Muse went into semi-retirement, taking on only a handful of roles during the 1960s and 1970s. These included several episodes of The Swamp Fox on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1960 and Buck and the Preacher in 1972. After his appearance in the latter film, Muse demonstrated his continued encouragement and support for blacks in entertainment when he praised the picture’s producers and stars, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.

“Not only are they securing the black actor’s position in the industry,” Muse said, “but when you’ve got your own money in the enterprise, your voice gets bigger.”

Muse also appeared in A Dream for Christmas (1973), a made-for-TV movie with an all-black cast that was originally designed as the pilot for a never-sold TV series called The Douglas Family. Written by Earl Hamner, Jr., the film starred Beah Richards, Hari Rhodes, and Juanita Moore. (The same year of the film’s release, Muse was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.) A few years later, Muse was seen in Car Wash (1976), a box-office smash whose score won a Grammy and the Best Music award at the Cannes Film Festival. Away from his acting appearances, Muse and his wife were active members of their community in the southern California town of Perris. The two regularly attended city council meetings, where Muse was apparently a vocal presence on community arts and senior citizen issues.  According to a local newsletter, Muse didn’t take any “guff from anyone in seeing that his concerns were addressed. He may have seemed like a handful to some, but everything he did was with good will and to benefit the Perris Valley.“

Muse was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1973.

Muse was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1973.

Muse also frequently entertained young performers and writers who made pilgrimages to the Muse-a-While ranch, and when he was in his 70s, the actor created the Perris Arts Festival, which gave local children an opportunity to draw and paint, make pottery, sing, dance, and read poetry.  Muse also held community picnics on his ranch, spearheaded a beautification effort by planting pine trees throughout the town, and came up with an event where Santa Claus would visit the town for two weeks each winter, listen to the children’s wish lists, and distribute gifts.

“He seemed to be everywhere in the community,” one Perris resident told the Press-Enterprise newspaper, recalling when she met Muse as a high school student. “He made you realize that you can accomplish goals and that the impossible is not impossible.”

In September 1979, the 89-year-old actor suffered a stroke at his ranch and was admitted to the Community Hospital of Perris Valley. He died there less than a month later, on October 13th, of a cerebral hemorrhage. His last film, The Black Stallion, starring Mickey Rooney and Teri Garr and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, was released a few days after his death.

Muse with his graduating class from Dickinson School of Law. He received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the school in 1978.

Recognition for Clarence Muse has continued over the last several decades; in the early 1980s, a festival and film retrospective – “Clarence Muse: Star of the Silver Screen” – was presented at the Central Pratt library in the actor’s hometown of Baltimore, and in February 2010, in honor of Black History Month, the Perris Valley Museum and Historical Association sponsored a special exhibit about the life and accomplishments of the actor and his contributions to life in the local community. Today, a theatre in Dallas, Texas, bears his name; the Clarence Muse Café Theatre is part of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, founded in 1977 (the academy’s website states that Muse was the first person to make a substantial contribution to the organization). And currently, an effort is underway to secure a star for Muse on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

"One of the outstanding character actors in Hollywood."

“One of the outstanding character actors in Hollywood.”

Known as the “Dean of Black Actors,” Clarence Muse was a true film pioneer, an actor that British film critic Peter Noble described as “one of the outstanding character actors in Hollywood — a man who ranks with the Lionel Barrymores, Frank Morgans and Hume Cronyns.” Muse arguably appeared in more films than any other black performer in the history of cinema. He was the first black man to appear in a talking motion picture. The first black man to earn a screenwriting credit on a Hollywood film. The first black director of a Broadway show. He was a tireless advocate for black entertainers, and a champion for children of all races. And although the roles he played throughout his screen career consisted primarily of porters, butlers, stablehands, and cooks, Muse, according to historian and author Donald Bogle, tried to “invest his servant roles . . . with a semblance of dignity and a seriousness of purpose.

“The fact that he played torn characters cannot be denied. The fact that he played those figures with great intelligence and thoughtfulness has often been overlooked.”

Announcing The Great Villain Blogathon 2016!

•March 15, 2016 • Leave a Comment


PrintThe big bad blogathon celebrating cinema’s greatest villains is back!

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Pre-Code Crazy: The Purchase Price (1932)

•March 3, 2016 • 9 Comments

I have to be honest – my Pre-Code Crazy pick for this month, The Purchase Price (1932), is not exactly one of those films that makes me all ga-ga and gooey inside. But while I can’t say that I count it among my favorite pre-Codes, it does star Barbara Stanwyck and, really, what else do you need? (Also, it’s kinda bizarre, and the more I see it, the more I like it!)

The Purchase Price starts out with Stanwyck’s character Joan Gordon warbling a bluesy love song (in Stanwyck’s own voice, mind you!): “Take me away, my heart only belongs to you.” (She’s kinda pitchy but, hey, who cares – it’s Stanwyck.)

We learn that Joan has a part-time lover, Ed Fields (the always fabulous Lyle Talbot), as well as a full-time boyfriend, Don Leslie (Hardie Albright), who she hopes to marry. Ed warns Joan that Don will never marry her – his family is wealthy and socially prominent while Joan is, as she herself describes, “just a little gal who sings torch songs in a naughty nightclub.”

After Joan gets dumped by Don.

Post-Don dumping.

But Joan wants a change in her life, and marriage to Don is her ticket out. Unfortunately for Joan, Don’s dad has hired a private investigator to do some digging and he’s unearthed Ed’s existence. Don drops this bomb on Joan in the lobby of the hotel where she lives: “Of all the men in the world, Eddie Fields,” Don grouses. “A bootlegger, a racketeer, a crook.” And with that, he’s out the door and Joan’s dream of escaping her current existence disappears like so much smoke in a windstorm.

But she’s no quitter – not this dame. When Eddie comes tipping back in her life, Joan takes a powder, traveling all the way to Montreal, Canada, to get away from him and landing a job singing under the name of “Francine LaRue.” Before long, Eddie’s boys have tracked her down, but the ever-resourceful Joan finds another opportunity to escape. It turns out that her housekeeper, Emily (Leila Bennett), has signed on with a matrimonial agency and is leaving town to marry a wheat farmer . Joan offers the housekeeper a hundred dollars and the next thing you know, Joan’s on her way to North Dakota in Emily’s place.

The wedding night. Not good.

The wedding night. Not good.

Joan’s new spouse is Jim Gilson (George Brent), who gets off on the wrong foot (and that’s putting it mildly) on their wedding night when he aggressively tries to put the moves on Joan. She’s not playing that game, and slaps him so hard that he ends up sleeping in the barn with the pigs. Over time, Joan falls in love with Jim, but he keeps her at arm’s length, with his treatment of her ranging from indifference to downright jackassery. “Our marriage is hopeless,” he tells her at one point. “We started all wrong. Like going into a race blindfolded.”

There’s more (much more) to this little tale, but I’ll let you discover the rest of the goings-on for yourself. I will give you this little tidbit, though – you ain’t seen the last of Mr. Eddie Fields. Tune into TCM on March 15th; it’s worth your time.

Favorite quote:

I have two favorites:

“You daffy little tomato, I’m bugs about you. I’d marry you myself if I wasn’t already married.” – Ed Fields (Lyle Talbot)

“I’m fed up with hoofing in shows. I’m sick of nightclubs, hustlers, bootleggers, chiselers and smart guys. I’ve heard all the questions and I know all the answers. And I’ve kept myself fairly respectable through it all.  The whole atmosphere of this street gives me a high-powered headache. I’ve got a chance to breathe something else. And, boy, I’m grabbing it.” – Joan Gordon (Barbara Stanwyck)

That's Clyde in the middle. More about him later.

That’s Clyde in the middle. More about him later.

Favorite scene:

Joan and Jim get married by the local Justice of the Peace (Clarence Wilson), who gathers up a couple of witnesses – his wife (Lucille Ward), who’s in the midst of making a cake and keeps stirring her batter during the ceremony, and Clyde (who, I assume, is the couple’s son), whose attention is captured by a fight outside the window between two snarling dogs. Throughout the brief service, the Justice of the Peace is chewing on a piece of tobacco, and at the conclusion of the vows, he declares, “I now pronounce you man and wife – three dollars please.” The wife, still clutching her bowl o’ batter, vigorously shakes Joan’s hand and wishes her happiness, but when Joan’s too-big ring falls off her finger, chaos ensues. The wife’s ample bottom bumps into the pot bellied stove, causing the pipe to topple, and all three end up on the floor as the bowl tips over, slathering the ring in batter.

What else?

Look for a young Anne Shirley in one scene – she plays the older daughter of a neighbor who has a newborn baby and gets some much-needed help from Joan.

Near the end of the film, Jim and Ed get into a rip-roaring fist fight. Reportedly, during the action, Lyle Talbot struck his head on a nail protruding from the wall and was bleeding profusely.

The blond is not happy.

The blonde is not happy.

In the opening scene, when Joan is singing, she pays special attention to two men in the audience. One of the men is with a date – don’t miss the funky look on her face while Joan is singing to her man. It’s a hoot.

The film was directed by William Wellman, who also directed Barbara Stanwyck and George Brent in So Big (1932).

Clyde (Victor Potel), who was so fascinated by the fighting dogs during Joan and Jim’s nuptials, pops up again late in the film. In the nearby town, Clyde encounters both Joan and Jim separately, and on both occasions, he barks and howls at them like a dog. It’s really weird, y’all.

There are several lines of dialogue that point to the film’s pre-Codiness. In the scene where Joan pays the housekeeper, Emily, the hundred dollars, Emily tells Joan that she can use the money to get herself a husband right there in town. “And then,” she adds with a giggle, “I’d sort of have a chance to try the goods before I bought it.” (Whoa!) More spicy lines can be found while Joan is riding on the train to North Dakota with three other women, also on their way to be wed, who are sharing raucous stories about their spouses-to-be.  One woman holds up a banana and proclaims, “You know what they say about men with bushy eyebrows and a long nose!”


Be sure and pop over to Speakeasy to check out Kristina’s Pre-Code Crazy pick for this month!


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