Pre-Code Crazy: Queen Christina (1933)

•July 7, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Catch the luminous Garbo on TCM July 21st.

Thanks to a glut of Westerns on TCM this month, there’s not a whole lot of pre-Codin’ going on right now. Still, out of the handful of pre-Code films airing in July, I did manage to find one for my pre-Code pick: Queen Christina (1933). Starring Greta Garbo in the title role, along with John Gilbert, Lewis Stone, and Ian Keith, the film tells the story of the real-life queen of Sweden, who reigned for more than 20 years.

The unorthodox and independent queen assumed the throne at the age of six, after the death of her father, who’d ordered her raised as a boy. After introducing us to this tyke (played by Cora Sue Collins) on the occasion of her coronation, the film fast-forwards to the adult Christina, centering on a relatively brief span of time, during which she calls for an end to the Thirty Years’ War, falls in love  with Spanish envoy Don Antonio de la Prada (Gilbert), and abdicates her throne.

Action-wise, that’s pretty much Queen Christina in a nutshell. But it’s not the plot that makes the film worth your time – it’s primarily Garbo that’s a must-see. She’s beautiful, of course, but she also delivers an engaging portrayal of the young queen that makes her someone you’d like to know. Also, her luminous, unforgettable performance features two well-known scenes. The first comes after Christina has spent the night with Don Antonio in a snowbound inn and fallen in love with him. Knowing that she must soon return to her palace, she languidly takes a tour of the room, pausing to run her fingers over the various items – a spinning wheel, the bed, a religious painting.

The film's most memorable scene.

The film’s most memorable scene.

“I have been memorizing the room,” she tells Antonio. “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.” It’s really lovely and quite moving. The other well-known scene is actually the final shot of the movie, which shows Christina after she has left the throne, at the helm of a ship that is bound for the next phase of her life’s journey. There’s no dialogue, just the lingering view of Christina’s face. It’s said that in order to help Garbo achieve the expression of combined sorrow, strength, and determination, director Rouben Mamoulian told the actress to think of nothing and avoid blinking, so that audiences could write the ending of the film themselves.

Sweden in the 1600s – Pre-Code?

As a period piece, Queen Christina isn’t your typical pre-Code feature, but fret not – it definitely has enough pre-Codian characteristics to go around! Here are a few:

Hello!

Early in the film, Christina plants a tender, on-the-mouth kiss on her lady-in-waiting, Ebba (Elizabeth Young), who complains that the queen doesn’t have time to spend with her. “You’re surrounded by musty old papers and musty old men, and I can’t get near you.” Christina consoles her by promising that the two will go away together to spend a few days in the country. (It was rumored that the real-life Christina and Ebba were lovers.)

In an off-the-beaten-path tavern, two drunken patrons approach Queen Christina (who they think is a man, like everyone else in the tavern, because of her clothing and hairstyle) and ask her to decide a bet. One man insists that the queen has had six lovers in the last year. “I claim that’s a disloyal, libelous statement,” the other one offers. “I say there were nine!”And Christina’s decision? “The truth is that the queen has had 12 lovers this past year. A round dozen!”

Antonio has a brief exchange with a maid at the inn: “You’re very pretty, Elsa,” he tells her. “Are you also good?” And Elsa rejoins, “When I do not like a man, yes.” (Holy mackerel, what a line!)

Elsa flirts with Christina, telling her that the innkeeper says Christina is to have “everything you need.” She suggestively removes the scarf that had been covering her shoulders and gives Christina a lingering look before adding, “If you should need anything, my room is at the end of the passage.”

After Christina and Antonio first make love, Christina gushes, “This is how the Lord must have felt when he first beheld the finished world.” Censors objected to this line, but it remained in the film.

Other Stuff

Queen Christina was one of John Gilbert's last movies.

Queen Christina was one of John Gilbert’s last movies.

Originally, Garbo requested Laurence Olivier to play opposite her – she’d been impressed by the actor’s performance the year before in Westward Passage. Olivier was released, though, after rehearsals showed that the two had little chemistry. Olivier received his negotiated salary and was replaced by John Gilbert, whose career was in a tailspin at the time. Unfortunately, despite a good performance, the film did nothing to revive his prospects, and he only made one more picture after this one.

Queen Christina was the number one box office movie in the United States for 1933.

Garbo wears an elaborate, jeweled gown in the scene where she receives Antonio at court. The dress was featured in the “Hollywood Costume” exhibit seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2012 and at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles in 2014.

The real Queen Christina, who ruled from 1632 to 1644, did abdicate the throne at the age of 27, but it was not for romance, as depicted in the film, but because she had secretly converted to Roman Catholicism, which had been outlawed in Sweden. She never married.

Catch Queen Christina July 21st on TCM. You only owe it to yourself.

————

Don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to see what pre-Code gem my pal Kristina is recommending for this month!

The 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival: Even More Adventures in Paradise – Part 3

•June 24, 2016 • 8 Comments

The adventure continues . . .

I know that there’s been a pretty hefty gap since my last post on this year’s TCM Film Festival – I have to admit that a series of real-life events, like my younger daughter’s prom, ballet recital, and graduation (sniff!) intervened, and knocked me a bit off track. But I’m back with a vengeance now, still basking in the TCMFF glow, and hoping you won’t mind coming along on this slightly delayed, continued adventure!

The first three films I saw at the festival could hardly have been more different from each other in tone, content, and era. The first was Los Tallos Amargos (1956), an Argentinian feature described by noir historian Eddie Muller as “hard core noir.” Winner of Argentina’s Silver Condor Award (the equivalent of an Academy Award) in 1957 for Best Picture and Best Director, the picture was considered lost until it turned up in a private collection in 2014 and was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The cinematography in Los Tallos Amargos was something to behold.

The cinematography in Los Tallos Amargos was something to behold.

Los Tallos Amargos, which means “The Bitter Stems,” focuses on a reporter who, along with a Hungarian expatriate, cooks up a lucrative scheme for a fake journalism correspondence school. Things start to slide to the left, though, when the reporter begins to suspect his partner’s motives, resulting in a shocking murder and a satisfying noir twist at the end. The cinematographer on the film was a protégé of Gregg Toland (the photographer for such films as Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes, and Wuthering Heights, for which he won an Oscar), and the score was composed by Astor Piazzolla, the innovator of nuevo tango music.

“It is an exemplary example of film noir – an extraordinary film, really,” Muller said when introducing the film. “If you entered the theater in a good mood – sorry. Because you are about to experience film noir the way film noir is supposed to be.” (I didn’t quite share Muller’s effusive view of the movie, but it was definitely worth my time, and one which I’d like to see again.)

Dietrich was AWESOME in this film. As were her clothes.

Dietrich was AWESOME in this film. As were her clothes.

The second movie I saw was Shanghai Express (1932), starring Marlene Dietrich and directed by Josef von Sternberg. Before the film was aired, von Sternberg’s son, Nicholas, was interviewed by film historian Jeremy Arnold (author of the recently released The Essentials: 52 Must-See Movies and Why They Matter). Nicholas told the packed crowd that his father, born Jonas Sternberg, came to this country from Austria at the age of 7 and started his Hollywood film career in 1921. In an effort to “Germanize” his name, the director added the “von,” which elicited a negative reaction from Variety.

“My dad liked that [reaction], so he kept the ‘von,’” Nicholas sad.

Von Sternberg discovered Marlene Dietrich in a play, leaning up against a wall, Nicholas said, and felt that she would be perfect for the part of Lola Lola in The Blue Angel (1930), according to Nicholas. The two went on to do a total of six pictures together; the biggest success was Shanghai Express.

This was my first Anna May Wong movie. She was all that.

This was my first Anna May Wong movie. She was all that.

“Marlene did everything my father asked her to do, and then she also added to it,” Nicholas said. “She was the perfect person to use in front of the camera for him.” (Nicholas received a rousing response from the audience when he shared that he knew Dietrich as well: “She was wonderful to me,” he said. “I used to sit on her lap when I was growing up.”)

In Shanghai Express, Dietrich plays Magdalene, a prostitute better known as Shanghai Lily, who encounters an old flame (Clive Brook) aboard a train headed for Shanghai. The train is populated by a mélange of quirky characters, including Mrs. Haggerty (the always outstanding Louise Closser Hale), who is focused on smuggling her beloved dog across country; Hui Fei (Anna Mae Wong), Lily’s friend and fellow lady of the night; Henry Chang (Warner Oland), a mysteriously sinister Eurasian; and Sam Salt (Eugene Pallett) who, according to his self-assessment, will “bet on anything under the sun going right or wrong.” Like the other two features that served as my opening to the TCM film festival, I’d never seen Shanghai Express before – and I loved every second; the performances, the dialogue, the cinematography, the fashions! It was the bomb dot com.

Coppola providing direction to Hackman in The Conversation.

Coppola providing direction to Hackman in The Conversation.

The last of my first three films was The Conversation, which was preceded by an interview with director Francis Ford Coppola. In introducing Coppola, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz told the audience that in 1970, Coppola co-wrote the screenplay for Patton, in 1972 co-wrote and directed The Godfather, in 1974 wrote and directed The Conversation and The Godfather Part 2, and in 1979 co-wrote and directed Apocalypse Now.

“I defy you to find any director in American history,” Mankiewicz said, “that had a better decade.”

The Conversation stars Gene Hackman as a paranoid surveillance expert who overhears a conversation that leads him to believe that a murder is going to be committed. The film opens with an extended scene featuring Hackman’s character and co-star John Cazale taping the conversation of a couple in a park.

Coppola actually placed cameras on the tops of nearby buildings.

Coppola actually placed cameras on the tops of nearby buildings.

“We did it the way they would have done it. We actually put the cameras on these tall buildings, as if we were really doing this surveillance job,” Coppola explained. He also recalled that Hackman was very uncomfortable portraying such an unpleasant character. “He later told me that it was the favorite performance he had ever given.”

Of the three movies, The Conversation was my least favorite, but it’s so highly acclaimed that I feel I must’ve missed something and should give it another try. I’ll work on it.

Inside the Chinese Multiplex. The calm before the storm.

Inside the Chinese Multiplex. The calm before the storm.

Miscellaneous Stuff:

On the first evening of the film festival, my friend Kim and I stayed so long at the red carpet (Margaret O’Brien took a REALLY long time to make her way through the reporters, and I refused to leave without seeing her close up!) that we missed the first movie that we’d planned to see. So, while waiting for Los Tallos Amargos, we decided to pass the time at the bar inside the Chinese Multiplex, where we had a great conversation about old movies with the bartender, Josh. We’d been there about an hour when the theater’s fire alarms went off, and the entire place had to be evacuated. So there we were, with hundreds of other TCM classic film fans, standing in the hallway in the mall. It was actually a lot of fun – I saw several friends, took some pictures, even did an Instagram video where I re-enacted a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (“What. A dump!”)

In the Chinese Theater, while waiting for The Conversation to begin, I chatted with a lady sitting next to me. It turned out that she was the wife of Charlie Tabesh, TCM Senior Vice President for Programming and Production. And after a few minutes, her hubby stopped by, so I got to meet him! I was uncommonly excited about this serendipitous close encounter.

Stay tuned for more from the 2016 TCM Film Festival . . .

List o’ the Week: Stars I Don’t Care For

•June 23, 2016 • 27 Comments
Yawn.

Yawn.

I think we can all agree that anyone who writes or reads a classic movie blog is more than fond of classic movie stars, right?

Still, it also can’t be denied that every classic movie fan is not a fan of every classic movie star.

With that in mind, this week’s List o’ the Week (yes, I know that a whole lot of weeks have gone by since I last posted a list!) focuses on those actors and actresses who just don’t do it for me. I know that my list is bound to include some of your favorites – but remember, some of my favorites may not do it for you, either! In any event, I hope you won’t be too offended by my choices – and that you’ll share your non-faves in the comments!

John Boles

I’m not positive how John Boles got into the movies. I feel like he must have been the son of Carl Laemmle’s favorite sister or something. I’ve seen Boles in a number of films – Back Street (1932), Only Yesterday (1933), The Life of Virgie Winters (1934), and Stella Dallas (1937) come to mind, and in each one, he’s got women falling all over him like he’s got charm and panache oozing from every pore. And I’m like . . . what? It’s not that he’s not attractive, in a button-down, stiff-upper-lip kind of way. It’s just that when it comes to acting, he’s no Marlon Brando, if you know what I mean.

Meh.

Meh.

June Allyson

June Allyson makes my teeth hurt. I really only like her in one film – The Shrike (1955), where she portrays a completely horrible woman who nearly drives her husband completely bonkers. But other than that one flick, she totally gets on my nerves. I’m not sure if it’s her voice, or her whole vibe, or what, but I’ve never cared for her and I suppose I never will. Wait, let me take that back. I actually kinda liked the Depends commercials she used to do. So, there’s that.

Jennifer Jones

First off, I have to say two things about Jennifer Jones. One, I love her in Duel in the Sun (1946), which is so ridiculous how can you not love everything about it, and Cluny Brown (also 1946), in which Jones displays a rare comedic flair. And, two, I recently finished reading a book that focused on Jones’s relationship with her first husband, Robert Walker and her second, David O. Selznick, and let me say that she didn’t exactly come out of the pages smelling like a rose. I suspect that my exposure to her rather shabby treatment of Walker (who was the bomb diggety in Strangers on a Train [1951]) may be part of the reason why I’m not feeling the Jones love right now. In fact, it’s probably a big part. But even without the inside scoop on her personal life, I’m simply not a big fan.

Nope.

Nope.

Loretta Young

Let me clarify. I adore pre-Code Loretta Young, when she was all cute and feisty and whatnot. (Have you seen Platinum Blonde (1931)? Midnight Mary (1933)? Born to be Bad (1934)? Boy, she was something else.) But after 1934? Not so much. She’s just a little too The Farmer’s Daughter for me. In everything. BO-rinnng.

Van Johnson

I’ve tried to like Van Johnson. Really tried. And he was okay in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). But on the whole, there’s not a lot of THERE there.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr is one of the screen’s great beauties and I love the fact that she helped invent a secret communications system that formed the foundation for cell phones, fax machines and other wireless technology. But as an actress, she leaves me completely cold.  COLD. She’s all accent and hair and eyebrows. That’s about it.

Um.

Um.

George Brent

In a post I read once, a blogger likened George Brent to Irish lumber (I wish I could find the post – it was a positive scream. I’ll keep looking). I don’t think he’s as wooden as, say, John Boles, but I can appreciate the comparison. Still, George Brent is such a likable guy, I hate to even include him on this list – but as an actor, I have to admit that he’s a bit on the bland side.

Claudette Colbert

I was a little torn about including Claudette Colbert here; there are several Colbert movies that are among my all-time favorites: The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Three-Cornered Moon (1933), Midnight (1939), and The Palm Beach Story (1942). But there are as many – if not more – where I can’t stand her. She’s got this thing about biting her lip to convey emotion that makes my eyes roll involuntarily, and basically, I don’t think her acting is all that. The bottom line, I’ve realized, is that while she’s more than palatable, and even enjoyable, in comedies (especially the pre-Code or screwball variety), I cannot abide her in dramas. She’s just too, too.

Hmm.

Hmm.

Honorable (Dishonorable?) Mentions:

I’ve only seen the following performers in one movie each, if that, so I didn’t think it was quite fair to include them in the full-blown “don’t care for” category. Still, I’ve seen enough of them to have decided that I don’t need to see any more:

Randolph Scott

Stewart Granger

Kathryn Grayson

Ronald Reagan

Esther Williams

So whaddya think of my list? And who are the stars you don’t care for? C’mon, give!!

Happy Blogiversary to Me — 5.0!

•June 23, 2016 • 11 Comments

“My formula for living is quite simple: I get up in the morning and I go to bed at night. In between, I occupy myself as best I can.”

I love this concept from Cary Grant – talk about words to live by! I’ve decided to adopt it as my own motto, and one of the ways I “occupy myself as best I can” is through this blog, which I started five years ago today. It’s become one of the great pleasures of my life, not just because it gives me an outlet for two of my favorite things – writing and classic movies – but also because it’s introduced me to a whole community of awesome people who I’d never otherwise gotten a chance to know.

As always at this time of the year, I’m tipping my hat to my friend, fellow blogger, and Dark Pages Senior Writer, Kristina over at Speakeasy, for giving me the nudge I needed to start my own blog. I’m also honored to offer my heartfelt appreciation to anyone who’s ever read anything I’ve ever written here. Y’all are the starch in my collar and the lace in my shoe. Not to mention the cream in my coffee.

To celebrate my five-year blogiversary, I’m continuing my annual tradition by leaving you with a film quote from one of my favorite actresses – this year’s is from the incomparable Barbara Stanwyck and my favorite film noir, Double Indemnity (1944). If you’ve never seen it, or it’s been a while since you’ve given it a re-watch, why not treat yourself to some shadowy, Stanwyckian deception today?

You only owe it to yourself, ya know.

“The tough part is all behind us. We just have to hold on now and not go soft inside. Stick close together the way we started out . . . I loved you, Walter, and I hated him. But I wasn’t going to do anything about it. Not until I met you. You planned the whole thing. I only wanted him dead. And nobody’s pulling out. We went into this together and we’re coming out at the end together. It’s straight down the line for both of us. Remember?” – Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck)

The Reel Infatuation Blogathon: Sgt. J.J. Sefton of Stalag 17

•June 16, 2016 • 10 Comments
Sgt. J.J. Sefton of Stalag 17. Hubba hubba!

Sgt. J.J. Sefton of Stalag 17. Hubba hubba!

When I learned that Silver Screenings and Font and Frock were hosting a blogathon about favorite silver screen crushes, I was on board like a sailor after a weekend pass. (Or something like that. You know what I mean.)

Why was I so excited about this particular event? Because several years ago, I wrote a book entitled Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, and one of the chapters was devoted to actor William Holden. While I was immersing myself in Holden’s life and career, I totally found myself falling head over heels for him – I mean, I was completely obsessed! I started scouring eBay for pictures of the actor, watching every Holden movie that aired on TV, and tapping all of my resources for copies of every Holden film that I didn’t already own. It was kinda crazy – but fun! Like every fire, my intense fixation on William Holden eventually died down to a few burning embers and, finally, to cooling ash, but while it was still raging, boy, was it hot!

I’m taking a rare detour today from the worlds of pre-Code and film noir to shine the spotlight on the one William Holden character who most sparks my interest, lights my fuse, and just plain butters my biscuit: Sgt. J.J. Sefton in Stalag 17 (1953).

Sefton takes bets on his comrades' success.

Sefton takes bets on his comrades’ success.

This Billy Wilder-written-and-directed feature tells the story of a group of American airmen, held captive during WWII in a German prisoner of war camp located “somewhere on the Danube.” The film follows the day-to-day existence of the men housed in Barracks Number 4, their never-ending efforts to subvert their captors, and their growing suspicions that one of their number is an informant. And it just so happens that the suspected stoolie is none other than J.J. Sefton. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The film opens as the prisoners are finalizing an intricately planned scheme for two of the men to make an escape and head for neutral territory in Switzerland. They’ve got their parcel of necessities at the ready, they’ve reviewed and re-reviewed every step, and every one of their fellow prisoners is filled with the kind of hopeful confidence that is best known to those in the most desperate situations – every one, that is, except J.J. Sefton, who sardonically interjects: “Once in Switzerland, just give out with a big yodel so we’ll know you’re there. It’s a breeze,” he says, as he coolly lights his ever-present cigar. “Just one question: did you calculate the risk?”

Whaddya want? Stockings? Cigarettes? Wine? J.J. Sefton’s got it. (And if he ain’t got it, he can get it!)

It’s a perfect introduction to this character, as we witness, in just a few seconds, Sefton’s nonchalant cynicism and his obvious indifference for how he’s regarded by others. More keys to his persona are offered up when, after the men depart, Sefton actually takes bets on whether they will make it to their destination, with Sefton wagering packs of cigarettes that they won’t. In this scene, we learn even more about Sefton: he operates a kind of black market enterprise within the camp, making strategic trades with his German captives to secure all sorts of desired goodies, including cigars, silk stockings, even bottles of wine. And the operation is supervised by Sefton’s sidekick (and the only one of the prisoners who doesn’t dislike him), a young airman with a slight stutter who goes by the name of Cookie (Gil Stratton).

Now, after this brief introduction to Sefton, you might be wondering what on earth could I possibly find attractive about him – how could I have a crush on such a shamelessly self-absorbed gent? Well, sometimes in the movies, just as in real life, you have to look beneath the surface. (Although, speaking of surfaces, I must say that even with an unshaven face and slightly grubby t-shirt, Sefton is no slouch in the looks department, if you get my drift. Hubba hubba! Sorry – I digress.) For instance, not long after the table in the barracks is covered with loose cigarettes from the men betting in favor of their comrades’ success, a volley of automatic gunfire apprises them that, sadly, the two didn’t get very far. Sefton doesn’t speak, but just before he starts gathering up his winnings, he tosses away his cigar butt and stares briefly but stoically at the floor in a way that tells us he’s feeling a lot more than he’s letting on.

Nobody but J.J. Sefton would fry an egg in front of his fellow prisoners (and then offer them the empty shells as a consolation)! How can you not love this guy?

Don’t get me wrong, though – Sefton’s ooey, gooey soft center is seldom on display. Instead, more often than not, Sefton is either cheekily responding to the other men’s growing suspicions that he is an informant, or gaily enjoying such black market spoils as a bar of soap or a fresh egg, or boldly rationalizing his unique point of view:  “The first week I was in this joint, somebody stole my Red Cross package, my blanket, and my left shoe,” he says. “Well, since then, I’ve wised up. This ain’t no Salvation Army – this is everybody for himself. Dog eat dog.”

Sefton’s hard-nosed outlook aside, you can’t help but admire his intelligence and sense of enterprise, as evidenced by a “horse” race he operated every Saturday and Sunday night, charging the men cigarettes to place their bets. Sefton, we learn, was the “presiding steward, the chief handicapper, the starter, the judge, the breeder, and his own bookie.” And, we further learn, the “horses” were mice, who raced three laps around a track constructed from wood and cardboard. Sefton also ran a bar, featuring hooch made from old potato peels and string, and set up an “observatory” that allowed the men – for a fee, of course – to gaze into the nearby Russian women’s compound. Oh, he was a wily one; how can I not be charmed by such bold resourcefulness and boundless creativity?

In facing his accusers, Sefton is as cool as the other side of the pillow.

In facing his accusers, Sefton is as cool as the other side of the pillow.

Another selling point for Sefton? His bravado in the face of certain peril. Due to purely circumstantial evidence, the men of Barracks Number 4 finally become convinced beyond all doubt that Sefton is a stoolpigeon. (Heck, even I might have thought him guilty if I weren’t in the throes of a major crush!) First, Sefton is seen leaving the barracks with a bottle of wine, a carton of cigarettes, and a pair of silk stockings. Next thing you know, one of the German sergeants enters the barracks and knows exactly where to find a pilfered radio the men have hidden in a bucket. Things get even more hairy when a newly arrived American lieutenant is detained for his involvement in an incident that was only known to the men of Barracks 4. So when Sefton returns, he faces the silent, accusatory glares from 25 fellow POWs, each of whom is certain that he’s been selling their secrets to the Germans. But Sefton doesn’t miss a beat. “Hi. Too late for chow?” he asks casually, looking each man in the eye as he takes off his jacket. “What’s the matter – is my slip showing?” Later, all joviality aside, he tells the others straight out:  they’ve got the wrong guy – but when they refuse to believe him, and move in to administer a vicious beating, Setfton accepts his fate with steely, unfaltering resolve. And there’s something mighty sexy about a man who can take punishment without complaint. (Also, I don’t mind saying that even with a black eye and a busted cheek, Sefton’s still got the stuff!)

Good looks and a sharp mind — a winning combination in my book!

But Sefton’s silent acquiescence doesn’t equal to surrender – not by a long shot. He’s now determined to find out who the real informant is – and believe me when I tell you that his righteous fury is just as appealing as his good-humored insolence: “There’re two guys in this barracks that know I didn’t do it. Me and the guy that did do it,” Sefton tells the other prisoners. “And he better watch out, the guy that left me holding the stick.” It doesn’t take Sefton long, just by being quietly observant and using the old noodle,  to figure out which of his comrades is the real stoolie. In case you’ve never seen the movie, I won’t spoil it by revealing the man’s name, but I will tell you this: the scene where Sefton exposes the informant is absolutely riveting – not to mention completely swoon-worthy. He doesn’t just come right out and call the mole by name; first, he toys with him a bit, like a masochistic cat with a cowering mouse – and then he delivers a rapid-fire triple slap to the guy’s face that would’ve made Humphrey Bogart proud. I tell you, I can watch that scene over and over, and it’ll leave me breathless every time.

I need a hero. I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night...

I need a hero. I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night…

I guess I don’t have to tell you that this cynical, self-serving, irreverent gent turns out to be the hero of the film – and I’m here to tell you that Sgt. J.J. Sefton (we never do find out what those Js are for!) is one of the most fascinating heroes this side of Atticus Finch. Handsome and charming, intelligent and inventive, brave, shrewd and quick-witted – with a heaping helping of just-don’t-give-a-damn that makes him undeniably, indisputably desirable. Yowza!

But get your own fella, ladies. This one’s taken.

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This post is part of the Reel Infatuation Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. Click on the banner below and treat yourself by reading about the crushes of the other blogathon participants!

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Pre-Code Crazy: Dinner at Eight (1933)

•June 5, 2016 • 8 Comments

As much as I love, and as many times as I’ve seen, Dinner at Eight (1933), I was astonished when I realized that I’d never written about it here. So when I was reviewing TCM’s pre-Code offerings for June and spied this first-rate feature on the list, I instantly knew that it would be my choice for this month’s Pre-Code Crazy. Even if you’re like me and you’ve seen it over and over (and over), you deserve to treat yourself to Dinner at Eight.

A whole lotta stuff goin’ on!

The title event serves as Ground Zero for the film’s various goings-on, and all of the guests invited to the dinner party have a connection with one or more of the others in some way. First, we have the host and hostess, Oliver and Millicent Jordan, played by Lionel Barrymore and Billie Burke. The owner of a shipping business who’s struggling to keep his company afloat (if you will), Oliver was in love years before with stage actress Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), who’s in town to raise some much-needed cash by selling the stock she owns in Oliver’s company. And Carlotta is staying at the Versailles Hotel, which happens to be the site of an illicit affair between Oliver’s (soon-to-be-wed-to-someone-else) daughter, Paula (Madge Evans), and washed-up, alcoholic actor Larry Renault (John Barrymore).

Larry only has eyes for Paula. (And the bottle.)

Larry only has eyes for Paula. (And the bottle.)

Oh, and back to Oliver – the stock in his company is being secretly purchased by local businessman Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), whose wife Kitty (Jean Harlow) is having an affair with the doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe), who is treating Oliver for a heart ailment. Flitting around the edges of this circle are Millicent’s snarky cousin Hattie (Louise Closser Hale), Dr. Talbot’s long-suffering wife, Lucy (Karen Morley), Larry’s hard-working agent, Max Kane (Lee Tracy), and Paula’s oblivious fiancé, Ernest (Phillips Holmes).

It’s so great!

Directed by George Cukor, Dinner at Eight seamlessly weaves together comedy and drama, and the film is fairly chock-full of memorable scenes. I love the scene where the Jordan’s cook, Mrs. Wendel (May Robson, in an hilarious performance), breaks some bad news to Millicent, which starts out with a bad tooth and ends up with the chauffeur in jail after stabbing the butler. And the one where Jean Harlow’s character turns on her sexy-baby charm to coax her husband into taking her to the Jordans’ dinner (“Dan-ny,” she coos in a singsong voice. “Kitty wants to go see all the great big lords and ladies in the big, booful house!”). And the scene where Carlotta pops up unexpectedly at the Jordan house, just hours before the dinner is to begin, asks Millicent for a whiskey and soda, kicks off her shoes, and shares her exhausting day. When the maid shows up with the makings of her drink, Carlotta allows her to pour a half a glass of whiskey before stopping her, and when the maid starts to add the soda, Carlotta pushes the bottle away: “Oh, my dear, wait a minute,” she says. “Don’t spoil it.” (A clip from the entire scene is below. You’re welcome!)

Speaking of great scenes, those scenes are brimming with some equally great lines. Here are some of my favorites:

“Politics? Ha! You couldn’t get into politics. You couldn’t get in anywhere. You couldn’t even get in the men’s room at the Astor!” – Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow)

“You’re a corpse, and you don’t know it. Go get yourself buried!” – Max Kane (Lee Tracy)

“One thing I shall always remember. The day you were 21, you asked me to marry you, Oliver. I thought it very sweet of you. You see I was 30-ish. I remember I went home and wept a little. They didn’t often ask me to marry them.” Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler)

"No wonder she died!"

“No wonder she died!”

“Who do you think you’re talking to, that first wife of yours out in Montana? That poor, mealy-faced thing with the flat chest that didn’t have nerve enough to talk up to you? Washing out your greasy overalls, and cooking and slaving in some lousy mining shack? No wonder she died! Well, you can’t get me that way – you’re not going to step on my face to get where you want to go, you big windbag!” Kitty Packard (Jean Harlow)

“I wouldn’t trust that man as far as I could throw a bull by the tail.” Fosdick (Harry Beresford)

“Ask that common little woman to my house? And that noisy, vulgar man? He smells Oklahoma.” Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke)

“If there’s one thing I know, it’s men. I ought to – it’s been my life work.” Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler)

“Ed hates anything that keeps him from going to the movies every night. I guess I’m what’s called a Garbo widow.” Hattie Loomis (Louise Closser Hale)

“Freddy Hope! My extra man, he’s got pneumonia. Well, of all the thoughtless, selfish – on the day of my dinner party, too!” Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke)

"They're invited for dinner, not mating." (Heh.)

“They’re invited for dinner, not mating.” (Heh.)

“I never could understand why it has to be just even, male and female. They’re invited for dinner – not for mating.” Hattie Loomis (Louise Closser Hale)

“The minute I see Oliver, I’m going back to my hotel, and pop myself into bed, and I’m not going to get up until tomorrow at noon. Thank goodness I don’t have to go to one of those dreadful dinners tonight.” Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler)

“Listen, you piece of scum, you. I’ve got a good notion to drop you right back where I picked you up in the checkroom of the Hottentot Club, or wherever the dirty joint was. And then you can go back to that sweet-smelling family of yours, back of the railroad tracks in Pasaic. And get this – if that sniveling, money-grubbing, whining old mother of yours comes fooling around my offices anymore, I’m going to give orders to have her thrown those 60 flights of stairs. So help me!” Dan Packard (Wallace Beery)

“At a time like this, you talk to me about a business thing, and feeling rotten. This is a nice time to say you’re feeling rotten. You come to me with your – and you, whimpering about Ernest. Some little lovers’ quarrel. I’m expected to listen to Ernest and business and headaches, when I’m half out of my mind! Do you know what’s happened to me? I’ve had the most ghastly day anybody ever had. No aspic for dinner. And Ricky in jail, and Gustave dying, for all I know. And a new butler tonight, and that Vance woman coming in. And havng to send for crabmeat. Crabmeat! And now, on top of everything else, the Ferncliffs aren’t coming to dinner. They call up at this hour, the miserable cockneys. They call up to say they’ve gone to Florida. Florida! Who can I get at this hour? Nobody. I’ve got eight people for dinner. Eight people isn’t a dinner. Who can I get? And you come to me with your idiotic little . . . I’m the one who ought to be in bed. I’m the one who’s in trouble. You don’t know what trouble is, either of you!” Millicent (Billie Burke)

Other stuff!

  • The screenplay was written by Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewicz, from a stage play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. The play opened at the Music Box Theater on October 22, 1932 and was a smash hit.
  • This was the first film produced by David O. Selznick for MGM.

    Talk about a tasty dish!

    Talk about a tasty dish!

  • The film introduces the cast in the opening credits by showing the major players as part of a formal place setting. Each performer’s face can be seen smack in the middle of a dinner plate.
  • Keep an eye out for some wacky editing in the very first scene. One second Billie Burke is facing the seated Lionel Barrymore, standing just an arms-length from him, and the next, she’s several feet away, facing in a different direction.
  • Carlotta Vance has a tiny dog that she sometimes carries around with her. Originally, the dog’s name was Mussollini, but the political climate of the day led to a change in his name to Tarzan. Watch for the scene where Carlotta shows up with the dog at the dinner party. If you listen carefully and watch Dressler’s lips, you can tell that the name “Tarzan” was dubbed in later.
  • Billie Burke, perhaps best known for portraying Glinda, the Good Witch, in The Wizard of Oz, was married to famed Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfield. Burke was played by Myrna Loy in The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Dinner at Eight was released a year after Ziegfeld’s death.
  • Marie Dressler underwent cancer surgery shortly before accepting the role of Carlotta Vance. She died from the disease in 1934, not long after the release of Dinner at Eight.

    Not one Oscar nomination? Come ON!

    Not one Oscar nomination? Come ON!

  • Joan Crawford was among the actresses considered for the part of Paula Jordan, and Clark Gable was one of the actors considered for the part of Dr. Wayne Talbot.
  • Dinner at Eight didn’t receive any Academy Award nominations, but it was number 85 on the American Film Institute list of the top 100 comedy movies of all time in American cinema, and it was named one of the 10 best films of 1933 by the New York Times and Film Daily.
  • Lee Tracy was filming another MGM picture, The Nuisance (1933), at the same time he was making this film. The Nuisance also featured actress Madge Evans, who played Lionel Barrymore’s daughter in Dinner at Eight.
  • Dinner at Eight was one of five films in which both Lionel and John Barrymore appeared. They didn’t share any scenes together in this feature, though.
  • In one scene, Dan Packard makes a crack about the age of Oliver’s office: “Say, who put up this building,” he asks. “Peter Stuyvesant?” Stuyvesant was the Director-General of the colony of New Netherland from 1647 to 1664, when it was renamed New York.

    Dinner at Eight. Like the aspic, it's too divine!

    Dinner at Eight. Like the aspic, it’s too divine!

  • Marie Dressler and Jean Harlow had quite a mutual admiration society after working on Dinner at Eight. Harlow said that being in the cast with Dressler was “a break for me. She’s one trouper I’d never try to steal a scene from. It’d be like trying to carry Italy against Mussolini.” And Marie Dressler said of Harlow, “Her performance as the wife of the hard-boiled, self-made politician played by Wallace Beery belongs in that limited category of things which may with reason be called rare. The plain truth is, she all but ran off with the show!”

Dinner at Eight airs on Monday, June 27th on TCM. If you’ve never seen it, mark your calendar and don’t miss it! You will not be sorry. And if you’ve seen it more times than you can count, give it another rewatch.

You only owe it to yourself.

(Thanks to Danny at Pre-Code.com, from whom I swiped some of these great images!)

——–

Don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is recommending for the month of June!

The Great #Villains2016 Blogathon: Day 6

•May 20, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Speakeasy

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It’s the final day of the Great Villain Blogathon 2016. Before you peruse today’s huge and diverse group of movie nasties, your hosts, Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy want to say a huge thank you to everyone who took part, visited the participating blogs, and helped spread the word via #Villains2016. A blogathon is only as good as the people who join in, and you all made this a great 3rd year of the event!

The #Villains2016 main page has been updated to archive all 6 daily recaps so you can revisit the posts anytime. Bloggers who post after this, just let us know and you will be added to this recap.

Thanks again everybody, you were wicked good. See you next year!

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Now please enjoy today’s writing:

The Last Drive-in: True Crime Folie à deux: In Cold Blood (1967) & The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Life Magazine NIghtmare RevistedMarvel Presents Salo: Eve…

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