Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Happy Birthday, Anita Page!

Anita is a nice, round 100 today. Well, she would be if she hadn't died at the age of 98. But like Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks, I'm sure she's still out there somewhere.

Tomorrow, I'll be back on the Greta Garbo kick. In the meantime, here's a repost of an essay I wrote about her some time ago, coupled with my favorite pictures of her.

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, 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 pub- licity?" 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 the last surviving attendee of the first Oscar ceremony and died in 2008 at the age of ninety-eight.

6 comments:

anita said...

oh, mister monkey, thank you for republishing this exciting essay. But more importantly, thanks for republishing the phot of me with mister keaton.

You know, each passing year makes his bestest gag [the serious visage masking his hilarity] just that much better.

My contretemps with Miss Crawford is quite well known, and you've captured it.

But what you didn't know was that the little whore couldn't act her way out of a sack. I was never one to criticize my peers (or competitors) -- but in her case, I'll make an exception!

I shudder to think what I'd have done with her had I had a dark alley and a sock full of pennies.

Of course MAN that she was, I might never have survived.


Now how ever did I end up writing about her?

Let's leave that be, and just rest with my thanks to you and all of your readers.

Yours,

Anita!

Mythical Monkey said...

I knew you weren't dead, Anita, just napping. Nobody ever dies on the internet.

thingy said...

Wow.

Mythical Monkey said...

Wow.

My experience is that movie stars are very temperamental. Especially the dead ones. Must treat them with kid gloves ...

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