When I viewed this month’s TCM “Now Playing” Guide and saw that Double Harness was airing, I knew in a flash that it would be my Pre-Code Crazy pick for May. Not only is it a first-rate pre-Code that stars two of my favorite performers, but it was also screened at the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival! Win, win, win!
Double Harness stars Ann Harding (and if you’re not familiar with this talented actress, you simply must check her out!) as Joan Colby, who has very definite ideas on the subject of marriage. According to Joan, marriage is a woman’s business, and love has nothing to do with it – love is an emotion, she maintains.
“A man doesn’t let emotion interfere with his business,” Joan explains. “And if more women would learn not to let emotion interfere with theirs, fewer of them would end up in the divorce court.”
Joan sets her matrimonial sights on her lover John Fletcher (William Powell), a wealthy playboy who is allowing his family’s shipping business to slip down the tubes. Despite Joan’s firm convictions, she soon finds that she has fallen for John. Since John makes no secret of the fact that he’s not the marrying kind, Joan employs trickery to coerce him into a walk down the aisle, and enlists her sister, Valerie (Lucile Browne), to aid her in her scheme.
After Joan’s father “accidentally” finds her in a state of undress in John’s apartment, John takes the noble road and marries Joan, but in a strikingly civil exchange on their honeymoon, Joan learns that John expects her to divorce him. He only agreed to marry her because of the ease in securing a divorce, he tells her, adding that “I assumed that your sportsmanship would at least be equal to mine.” Although the two decide that Joan will wait six months before filing the papers, Joan doesn’t throw in the towel – instead, she works on being the ideal wife, from showing their cook how to prepare delicious dishes, to encouraging John to regain his interest in his family’s business. She even displays grace under pressure when she discovers John dining with his former girlfriend, Monica Page (Lilian Bond). Rather than cause a scene or undertake a furtive exit from the restaurant, Joan graciously greets the pair and actually invites Monica to their home for an upcoming dinner party. After Joan’s departure, even Monica has to grudgingly admit, “She’s a very clever woman.”
Just when John begins to realize that he returns the love Joan has for him, Joan’s sister, Valerie, pops up with the proverbial monkey wrench in hand. Valerie, incidentally, is Joan’s diametric opposite; flighty and an enthusiastic proponent of the cocktail hour (if you know what I mean), she’s also quite fond of the material things in life, even if she doesn’t have the means to pay for them. When her overspending habits cause a rift in her marriage, Valerie first turns to Joan for financial aid, and when her sister is all tapped out, Valerie puts the squeeze on John – and it’s this action that sets in motion a series of events that you’ll just have to see for yourself.
I’ve only seen Double Harness twice – the first time was a couple of years ago, and then at the recent TCM film fest – but it is fast moving up my list of favorite pre-Codes. Ann Harding is quietly luminous; her character is at once intelligent, vulnerable, thoughtful, and tenacious. And, then there’s William Powell, who adds panache to any film and, for me, is more attractive and appealing in this film than any other. These two are more than ably backed by the film’s supporting cast, especially Bond, who’s perfectly cast as Powell’s nice-nasty former flame, and Browne, who will make you want to give her Valerie a swift kick. Or a sharp slap. Either one.
Double Harness is airing on TCM on May 27th – do yourself a huge favor and check it out. You won’t be sorry.
Don’t forget to pop over to Speakeasy to find out what pre-Code gem Kristina is covering for this month!
The adventure continues . . .
At the last two TCM Film Festivals, I had an “Essential” pass, which allowed me to walk the red carpet for the opening night film. For this event, you get all gussied up and kind of rub elbows with the stars. Only trouble is, you’re hustled so quickly down the carpet, you really don’t get to see anyone. At least I didn’t.
But this year was a whole ‘nother thing! This time, I covered the red carpet from the bleachers, which was a total blast! Kim and I sat behind Jessica of Comet Over Hollywood and Angela of The Hollywood Revue, who added to the fun!
First off, the event was hosted by Sean Cameron, Vice President of Studio Production for TCM, who is, bar none, one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever come across. He was the perfect emcee, and kept the bleacher fans in stitches with his winning personality, sparkling wit, and razor-sharp sense of humor.
For a long while, we just applauded and woo-hooed for the passholders walking the carpet on their way into Grauman’s Chinese Theater to see the opening night film, All The President’s Men (1976). Meanwhile, we could see the line of celebrities slowly making their way toward us, as they stopped to be interviewed and photographed by the members of the press. At last, the celebrities reached the eagerly waiting bleacher fans, and most stopped for a brief exchange with Sean Cameron.
It was a great thrill to see the celebrities close up – talk about star-struck! Here are pictures of some of the many stars who passed by, almost close enough to reach out and touch (I also included the name of each star’s film(s) that aired at the festival or, if their film was featured, I provided the films they introduced).
Hope you enjoyed sharing my red carpet experience! Stay tuned for more from the 2016 TCM Film Festival…
It was the best of times, it was the best of times.
The 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood, California, was the bomb dot com. The bomb diggity. It was off the chain. Off the hook. Off the heezy. For sheezy.
If you know what I mean.
This year marked my fourth time attending the fest with my friend and neighbor, Kim, and, as usual, TCM did not disappoint, serving up four fun-filled days of movies, celebrities, and friends. Now that another fest is behind me, and while I’m still basking in my post-festival glow, I hope you’ll come along with me during the next few days and weeks as I recall, reflect, recap, and relive!
My first official event of the festival was the “So You Think You Know Movies?” trivia contest, hosted by Bruce Goldstein of New York’s Film Forum. Unfortunately, as in the previous years when Kim and I participated in the contest, we didn’t make it onto a team and didn’t even receive a ballot. (Boo.) Still, it was great fun playing along and it was exciting to see several special guests in the audience – this year’s crowd included actor James Karen, who has appeared in such films as The China Syndrome (1979), and Mulholland Drive (2001); Illeana Douglas, actress, author and granddaughter of Melvin Douglas; Ann Robinson, who appeared in the film version of Dragnet (1954); Suzanne Lloyd Hayes, granddaughter of silent actor Harold Lloyd; and Tony Nicholas, son of dancer extraordinaire Fayard Nicholas, one half of The Nicholas Brothers.
As always, this year’s contest questions were really (REALLY) hard – for me, at least. I only knew the answers to three of the questions. (Which is one better than last year! Woot!) Maybe you can do better! Here are the questions to the entire 13-question contest. The answers will be listed at the bottom of the post.
Good luck! I’ll be back soon with photos from my next event – the Red Carpet!!
Questions to the “So You Think You Know the Movies” Contest – 2016 Edition
- Who played Norman Bates’s jailer in Psycho (1960)?
- Which of the Little Rascals appeared in It’s a Wonderful Life (1939)?
- What actor or actress introduced Cole Porter’s song, “Easy to Love”?
- In Sunset Boulevard (1950), who played The Waxworks?
- The voice of Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons was inspired by an actress who appeared in what film?
- How many live-action Frankenstein movies did Boris Karloff appear in?
- James Karen did not appear in which of the following movies: Friday the 13th, Poltergeist, Return of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead 2, or Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.
- Fayard Nicholas named his baby brother after which silent film star?
- Who was Greta Garbo’s first leading man in Hollywood?
- Who was the first actor to play Superman?
- Who was the first actor to play Batman?
- What comic book hero was modeled after Fred MacMurray?
- Who was Gene Barry’s leading lady in War of the Worlds (1953)?
The answers to the contest can be found below . . .
No peeking . . .
And no fair looking up the answers on the World Wide Web!!!!
Answers to So You Think You Know Movies?
- Ted Knight
- Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer
- James Stewart in the 1936 movie Born to Dance
- Anna Q. Nilsson, Buster Keaton, and H.B. Warner
- Greed. The actress is Zasu Pitts.
- Friday the 13th
- Harold Lloyd
- Ricardo Cortez
- Bud Collyer (played Superman on the radio)
- Lewis Wilson (played Batman in the 1943 film serial)
- Captain Marvel
- Ann Robinson
How’d you do???
(Stay tuned for more adventures from the 2016 TCM Film Festival!)
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!
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.)
- What is the name of the movie that starred Illeana Douglas’s grandmother?
- What is the name of the movie that parodied the famous hitchhiking scene from It Happened One Night?
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.)
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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
ShaftRichard 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?
- She (1935) – Illeana Douglas’ grandmother was Helen Gahagan
- Way Out West (1937)
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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 here to read the great posts offered as part of this year’s event!
You only owe it to yourself. And the writer in you.
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!”
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.
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.”
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 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.)
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.”
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.
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.
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.