Monday, June 1, 2009

Best Supporting Actress Of 1928-29: Anita Page (Our Dancing Daughters)

Those of you with sharp eyes and long memories are no doubt scratching your heads to see Anita Page listed here as the best supporting actress of 1928-29. Didn't I choose Olga Baclanova in Docks of New York that year? Well, yes. Yes, I did. But because of a technical glitch we in the trade call "changing my mind," I'm going back in time and choosing Anita Page instead.

The fact is, Anita Page's performance in Our Dancing Daughters still resonates for me nearly a year later whereas Olga Baclanova, despite a fine effort, has pretty much slipped the surly bonds of my memory, the only Katie winner I can say that of.

Moreover, Page's performance resonates with other movie fans as well, showing up more often on other "Alternate Oscar" lists than any other actress in the mythical supporting category for 1928-29 (supporting performances wouldn't be officially recognized until 1936).


Anyway, I have cobbled together a short essay about Anita Page from everything I've written about her over the course of the year and substituted it for the original essay on Best Supporting Actress of 1928-29, leaving the original essay about Olga Baclanova as an addendum.

Sue me.—The Mythical Monkey (2/10/10)

I have to confess, before I started writing this blog, I had never heard of Anita Page, but now that I've seen half a dozen of her movies and read a bit about her, it's clear that she was just as cute as the proverbial bug's ear and no doubt somebody you would have been lucky to know. Certainly Herschel House must have thought so—the Navy pilot was married to her for fifty-four years, until his death in 1991.

Mostly Page played sweet innocents who found themselves in a melodramatic load of trouble (see, for example, Our Modern Maidens), but her turn in Our Dancing Daughters as a self-absorbed, gold-digging be-yotch who tricks Joan Crawford's millionaire boyfriend into marrying her was unforgettable and should have presaged a longer career. Louis B. Mayer, a warped frustrated old man, and Irving Thalberg, a warped frustrated young man, saw to it that it didn't.

Well, you take what you can get.

Our Dancing Daughters was the first movie written specifically for Joan Crawford and it made her a star. It's the story of a rich, wild girl (Crawford) with an addiction to short dresses and the Charleston who loses the love of her life to an even richer, wilder girl (Page, also in a star-making role), all while soaking up Jazz and bootleg booze in fabulous art Deco palaces that could only have existed on the set of an MGM movie. None of this is meant to be taken seriously—just another Hollywood studio clucking its tongue at girls gone wild even as it exploited the phenomenon to rake in box office bucks.

What's not to like?

Although she had only just celebrated her eighteenth birthday when the movie hit the theaters, Page is absolutely convincing in her ruthless pursuit of the man, first putting on an act of virginal innocence to entice him then exploiting him to the hilt after she lands him.

In the movie's penultimate scene, Page is drunk, evil and standing at the top of a staircase. No prizes for guessing what happens next.

"Our Dancing Daughters was my picture," she said years later. "I say that because I did the acting. Joan Crawford danced her way through it. I acted my way through it."


Our Dancing Daughters was one of a series of Hollywood movies seeking to both exploit and condemn the Jazz Age flapper phenomenon. The script called for an undercurrent of tension between Page and Crawford and, boy, is there ever. Years later, Page claimed Crawford physically assaulted her on the set but the mutual hatred didn't hurt their on-screen chemistry any. In fact, despite their mutual loathing, Page and Crawford made two more movies together, Our Modern Maidens and Our Blushing Brides, trading the good girl/bad girl roles back and forth, to great commercial, if not artistic, effect.

Page also starred in the year's Oscar winner for best picture, The Broadway Melody, and received over ten thousand fan letters a week, including nearly a hundred from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who was infatuated with the young actress.

"Are you starting to believe your own publicity?" director Harry Beaumont asked Page during the filming of one of their six pictures together.

"Of course," she said, "Aren't you?"

Our Dancing Daughters is one of those odd silent-sound hybrids of the very early sound era. Made not long after The Jazz Singer, the film has a soundtrack, including several prominently featured songs, but no dialogue, only title cards. I actually find this approach preferable to early talkies such as The Broadway Melody where, for example, Anita Page's dialogue competes with the rustling of her own dress.

Fortunately, sound technology improved rapidly over the course of a year.

MGM's The Broadway Melody, billed as the first "all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing" musical, was the top grossing movie of 1929 as well as the first sound picture to win the Academy Award for best picture, and further cemented sound's commercial future. The Broadway Melody was the top box office movie of 1929 and also featured "You Were Meant For Me" and "Give My Regards To Broadway."

Douglas Shearer out of necessity invented the concept of the "playback"—pre-recording a song that performers would then dance and lip-synch to—when the choreography on a huge dance number that had already been performed and recorded was deemed unsuitable. Rather than bring the orchestra back to the sound stage, Shearer figured out how to reuse the sound from the previous take, and the cast performed the dance number with its new choreography to a playback of the song. This technique became the industry standard for decades.

"I thought Our Dancing Daughters was my picture," she said later, "but Broadway Melody was Bessie Love's. I love good English, and I hated saying things like, 'Gee, ain't it elegant?' In my opinion, silents were much better than talkies. One thing you could have was mood music, which you could have playing throughout your scene to inspire you. The trouble with talkies was, they let you have the music, but they'd stop it when you had to talk, and that was always a let-down for me."

After The Broadway Melody, Page made two more movies with Joan Crawford, and appeared in films with Lon Chaney, Buster Keaton and Clark Gable.

Her final movie for MGM was 1932's Prosperity, starring Marie Dressler and Polly Moran. On the outs with studio head Louis B. Mayer after twice refusing to sleep with him (the second proposition made in the presence of Page's mother), Page served out the remaining years of her MGM contract on loan to poverty row studios, making such low-budget bombs as Jungle Bride and Hitch Hike To Heaven. It was an ignominious end for an actress who just a couple of years before had been second only to Greta Garbo as the studio's top draw.

Page left Hollywood and married Navy flyer Herschel House in January 1937. After his death, she began to make films again, mostly low-budget fare such as The Crawling Brain and Witchcraft XI. On the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Page received a standing ovation at a special screening of The Broadway Melody. She was last surviving attendee of the first Oscar ceremony and died in 2008 at the age of ninety-eight.

(Original essay follows):
For the best supporting actress award, I've nominated a trio of superficially similar actresses—each blonde, beautiful, at the peak of their careers in 1928 or 1929, two playing hookers, the third playing a heartless gold digger—but who arrived on and departed from the Hollywood stage by very different paths. All of them turned in tiptop performances during what proved to be the last year when silent movies still had an outside chance of finding an audience and I'm sorry their careers, which cracked up for a wide variety of reasons, weren't longer or more celebrated.

The most visible of the bunch, at least at the time, was no doubt Anita Page whom I've nominated here for her performance as a gold digger who tricks Joan Crawford's millionaire boyfriend into marrying her in the Jazz Age flapper picture, Our Dancing Daughters. Although she had only just celebrated her eighteenth birthday when the movie hit the theaters, Page is absolutely convincing in her ruthless pursuit of the man, first putting on an act of virginal innocence to entice him then exploiting him to the hilt after she lands him.

In the movie's penultimate scene, Page is drunk, evil and standing at the top of a staircase. No prizes for guessing what happens next.

Our Dancing Daughters was one of a series of Hollywood movies seeking to both exploit and condemn the Jazz Age phenomenon of young girls gone wild. The script called for an undercurrent of tension between Page and Crawford and, boy, is there ever. Years later, Page claimed Crawford physically assaulted her on the set but the mutual hatred didn't hurt their on-screen chemistry any. In fact, despite their mutual loathing, Page and Crawford made two more movies together, Our Modern Maidens and Our Blushing Brides, trading the good girl/bad girl roles back and forth, to great commercial, if not artistic, effect.

Page also starred in the year's Oscar winner for best picture, The Broadway Melody, and received over ten thousand fan letters a week, including nearly a hundred from fascist dictator Benito Mussolini who was reportedly infatuated with the young actress.

"Are you starting to believe your own publicity?" director Harry Beaumont asked Page during the filming of one of their six pictures together.

"Of course," she said, "Aren't you?"

On the other hand, the least visible of my trio of nominees was Mary Nolan—and apparently she wanted it that way. Earlier in the decade Nolan, whose real name was Imogen Robertson, had been a Ziegfeld girl performing under the stage name "Bubbles Wilson." But she had the misfortune to fall in love with married comedian Frank Tinney who routinely abused her and finally beat her so savagely, she landed in the hospital.

She also landed in the tabloids, which battered her reputation nearly as savagely.

Robertson/Wilson fled the United States, and after two years working in the German film industry, returned to work under the name Mary Nolan. In Tod Browning's West Of Zanzibar, she plays a victim as ill-used as Nolan was in real life. Lon Chaney is crippled in a quarrel and takes revenge on Nolan, believing her to be the child of his late wife and her lover, not realizing she is in fact his own flesh and blood. First he forces Nolan to work in a brothel. Then he arranges for cannibals to burn her alive. Then he really gets mad.

Either of these actresses would be fine choices for a Katie but I'm reserving the award for the third beautiful blonde in this trio, Olga Baclanova, who co-starred in one of the best movies of the year, Josef von Sternberg's The Docks Of New York.

You might recall that I mentioned her as a potential supporting actress nominee for 1927-28 for her performance as a kinky countess with a fetish for the disfigured Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. In The Docks Of New York she plays Lou, an abandoned wife making ends meet as a prostitute in a waterfront bar.

Two of Hollywood's most successful writers, Jules Furthman and John Monk Saunders, wrote this story in the style of Eugene O'Neill, with all the action taking place in one evening and the following morning. A sailor on shore leave (George Bancroft) pulls a suicidal young woman (Betty Compson) out of New York's harbor and over the course of an evening, takes a liking to her and proposes marriage.

It sounds like the stuff of Hollywood fantasy, an early stab at Pretty Woman, say, but everyone involved handles the story soberly and realistically and the movie reminds me more than anything of O'Neill's Anna Christie which would be adapted the following year as a vehicle for Greta Garbo's first talkie. Baclanova in particular breathes life into what could have been a stock character, playing Lou as a hardened cynic when plying her trade in the dive bar that sees most of the movie's action but as a beaten down survivor in private, defeated and without illusions.

"Do you think he can make you decent by marryin' you?" she asks Compson after hearing of Bancroft's proposal. "Until I got married, I was decent!"

Lou surprises herself and us with a pivotal act of violence in the film's third act that reveals just how much her estranged husband's thoughtless cruelty still hurts her.

Soon after this film, director von Sternberg would enter into the cinematic (and personal) relationship for which he is best remembered, the six films he made with Marlene Dietrich. These movies, while highly-regarded by cinephiles and showcasing some of Dietrich's best work, were increasingly characterized by wretched excess and a voyeuristic interest in Dietrich (Literally. In The Scarlet Empress, for example, the royal wedding night consists of the groom watching the bride through a peephole) that's inaccessible to most audiences.

While The Docks Of New York is not as visually interesting or cinematic as von Sternberg's later work, it's more moving and from my perspective more worthy of attention. Here, the director was still in touch with the needs and interests of his audience, still trying to tell a story, still trying to connect with real universal human emotions. I think it's possibly the best work of his career.

As for Baclanova and my other nominees, all three were pretty much out of the movies by 1936.

Anita Page, who only just passed away last year at the age of 98, said late in life that her career was unfairly sabotaged when she refused to sleep with producer Irving Thalberg and studio chief Louis B. Mayer (hopefully in response to separate propositions and not as part of some twisted, resentment-fueled three-way). She left Hollywood in 1936, but came out of retirement a few years ago to take small parts in a few low-budget horror films, including one, Frankenstein Rising, which is listed on the Internet Movie Database as being in post-production and due out later this year.

Mary Nolan made a handful of fine movies at the end of the Silent Era, including Desert Nights with John Gilbert, but she didn't adjust well to the demands of sound and was soon out of work. She developed a heroin habit and died penniless at the age of forty-two.

When talkies became the norm, Olga Baclanova's heavy Russian accent limited her to "exotic" parts and B-pictures. She made one more unforgettable movie, playing the cruel circus performer Cleopatra in the cult-film Freaks, the role for which she is probably now best known. She returned to the Broadway stage in 1933 and had at least one big hit, Claudia, which ran for two years. Baclanova returned to Hollywood briefly in 1943 to make a screen version of her Broadway hit and then retired from the movies permanently. She died in 1974.

Note: I want to mention one other actress, Dorothy Mackaill, who was blonde, beautiful and turned in a well-received supporting performance as a tough-as-nails bad girl in 1928.

Once thought to be lost, a lone copy of The Barker languishes in UCLA's Film and Television Archive, unavailable on VHS or DVD. The handful of people who have seen it cite Dorothy Mackaill's performance as possibly the best of the year and certainly the best and most complex in this Oscar-nominated movie. As of this writing, at least, I'll have to take their word for it.

If you're in the mood for a road trip, The Barker will be shown at Noon on August 8, 2009, as part of the annual Capitolfest film festival at the Capitol Theater in Rome, N.Y.

1 comment:

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