Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wallace Beery Attacks John Barrymore, Demands Award As Biggest Ham!

In an uncanny repeat of 1932's Oscar award ceremony, no sooner had John Barrymore been named "the greatest ham in movie history" at this year's Katie-Bar-the-Door Awards than Wallace Beery jumped on stage and insisted that it was he, not his Grand Hotel co-star, who was the greatest ham actor of all time.

"You are not a ham," Beery growled as he beat Barrymore about the head and neck with—inexplicably—a rotary dial telephone, "you are a drunk! There's a difference!"

"Dear boy," said Barrymore, " I most certainly am too a ham! You've never heard of a bourbon-glazed ham?"

"Glazed?!" spluttered Beery. "Try soaked, you rumhead!"

Some measure of order was restored when Academy president Conrad Nagel announced that Barrymore and Beery had
in fact tied for the honor. "There's plenty of chewable scenery in Hollywood to go around."

Panic set in, however, when it was learned William Shatner was in the house.

"Gangway!" yelled Beery as he muscled his way into the wings where the Emmy-winning star of Boston Legal was chowing down on the last of the set and starting in on the costumes.

"Cripes!" said Barrymore. "I better hurry—there won't be a morsel left!"

Sulking in the front row of the theater was a stunned Al Pacino. "Ham?" he muttered. "What am I? Chopped liver?"

Monday, March 29, 2010

Best Actor Of 1931-32: Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)

The title role in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is an actor's dream: a dual role playing both a prig and a monster with a dramatic physical and psychic transformation from one to the other requiring the actor to hit a wide range of emotional notes. But the part also presents the actor with a dilemma, too. Ground the performance too firmly in Method realism and the action implodes; play it too broadly, and the horror becomes campy comedy.

John Barrymore, who was without doubt the greatest ham in movie history (sometimes brilliantly so), chewed so much scenery in the 1920 silent version of the story, the performance became the gold standard for over-acting—watch Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s imitation in Our Modern Maidens sometime if you don't believe me.

On the other hand, Spencer Tracy, the most empathetic actor ever to grace the screen, never really convinces us in the 1941 version he's either the priggish Jekyll or the brutal Hyde precisely because he can't convince us he's oblivious to the feelings of his fellow beings. (He probably wasn't helped much by a Production Code-era screenplay that dialed down both the violence and the sex.) It's one of the few performances of his great career that doesn't work for me.

It took Fredric March in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde to thread the needle between the two extremes and give the definitive performance in the role. The Academy recognized it as the best performance of the year and for once, I agree.

These days we like to pretend we've advanced well beyond notions of moral rectitude, repressed desire and a secret id run wild. As the A.V. Club put it just last month in writing about Stevenson's novel, "Today’s worst impulses run cheek-and-jowl with the best mankind has to offer, and the idea that some saintly seeming public figure might like to drink and whore around in private isn't so much unsurprising as it is a job requirement."

Oh, yeah? Let me just say two words: Tiger Woods.

If the apparently genuine public shock and, in any event, the nonstop tabloid Sturm und Drang over Woods's professed infidelities tell us anything, they tell us we haven't come anywhere close to getting a grip on the notion that a public figure can have a dark side. And as long as fans expect their heroes to be saints, as long as parents expect their children to be perfect, heck, as long as spouses expect their mates to stop banging cocktail waitresses, the story of a man who tries to repress his dark side only to see it destroy him is always going to be relevant.

Thomas Boswell wrote recently in the Washington Post that everyone has a public face and a private face and that "Our interior life, our soul, our truest sense of ourselves, whatever you call it, is too difficult and changing a thing to summarize easily or share widely.

"But," he went on to say, "when the gap between the public face and the private self becomes a vast gulf, people go into crisis. The split inside you becomes intolerable. You feel that are 'living a life of a lie.' You becomes reckless, partly out of self-hatred ..., but also because you want to put the warring sides of yourself back together, even if the cost is huge."

Jekyll suffers from the same intolerable split—"It's the things one can't do that always tempt me," he confesses—but unlike the rest of us, he doesn't want to put the warring sides back together; he wants a permanent split, and not just psychically but physically as well. He works feverishly to perfect a potion that will accomplish this dream, reasoning that once freed of the constraints of conscience and societal norms, the private self will fulfill its dark desires and trouble him no longer.

It's a nutty notion since as we all know (or ought to) once the baser self is allowed to run free, it wants only one thing: to quote Johnny Rocco, "More." Jekyll discovers this truth the hard way and pays the ultimate price for his knowledge.

Director Rouben Mamoulian introduces Jekyll with a tracking shot from Jekyll's viewpoint, starting in Jekyll's laboratory, following his butler through his manor house, and ending with him gazing at himself in a mirror, preening prior to an important speech before his colleagues in the medical profession. Coming from most directors, this point-of-view tracking shot would be a mere film school stunt, but here, it's an inventive way to introduce the main theme of the movie, the two faces of a man, the one people see (i.e., the face in the mirror) and the one we hide away, in Jekyll's case, even from himself.

Tellingly, director Mamoulian has Jekyll return to the mirror when he first drinks the potion and we see his transformation into Hyde in reflection—the handsome public face becoming the hideous private one. (As a side note, listen for Mamoulian's imaginative use of sound in this sequence, typically cutting-edge. The heartbeat on the soundtrack, by the way, is his own, recorded after running up and down a flight of stairs.)

A key to the movie's success is, of course, how well it shows the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde. The special effects work of Wally Westmore is very good, astounding really considering the movie will be eighty years old next year. Westmore created Jekyll's transformation to Hyde using layers of makeup, each a different color, each revealed with a different filtered camera lens, so that without clumsy cut-aways or overlapping dissolves, Jekyll's face changes before your eyes.

Well, and then they put in some big teeth and a Neanderthal's nose. But it's impressive work.

Still, if clever effects, no matter how good, are all a movie has to offer, within a few years of its release, you wind up with something akin to, say, Tron, a special effects extravaganza from 1982 that made lots of money, inspired an arcade game, and is now remembered, if at all, as an insufferably stupid movie with dated special effects. Something to keep in mind as you champion this year's special effects wonder, Avatar.

That Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde continues to speak to an audience nearly eighty years on is a testament to the screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath which takes the original Stevenson tale and adds depth and action; to Miriam Hopkins terrific supporting performance; to Mamoulian's inventive direction—the only horror movie he ever directed, and one he was justly proud of—and above all, to the skill with which March convinces us he is both the pompous, repressed Jekyll and the gleefully brutal Hyde.

"One aspect that amazes me about March's performance," Bill Cooke said as part of a roundtable discussion at Video Watchdog, "is that I don't at any point feel it's the same actor playing both roles. That certainly can't be said of every other version I've seen featuring one actor in the part."

And at the same discussion, Richard Harlan Smith argued, "March remains unmatched as the definitive Victorian throwback. His performance ("I'll show you what horror means!") still unnerves, almost 80 years later."

I agree with both assessments.

It was director Mamoulian who insisted on casting March. The studio was pushing Irving Pichel, who had earlier that year played the key role of district attorney Orville Mason in An American Tragedy, and who had a wonderful voice—he later narrated She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (he also became a director)—but who didn't fit Mamoulian's conception of the role.

"[M]y concept all along for the character of Hyde," Mamoulian later said, "was that of a Neanderthal man, not a monster, because it is the animal side of human nature that attracted me to the piece. At the time I was offered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had seen Freddie March in some comedy, and I knew he would be perfect. Now I had never met this actor before in my life, but I took a risk and told Paramount that I would not make the film without Fredric March. And he gave an inspired and dazzling performance!"

If you know where to look, you'll discover that March gave a number of great performances throughout a career that stretched across fifty years, from the silent era to the Seventies. He was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two, for Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, of course, and for the classic film about the difficulties of coming home from war, The Best Years Of Our Lives. He played comedy and drama equally well, for example, starring with Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins in Ernst Lubitsch's ode to the menage-a-trois, Design For Living, and with Carole Lombard in the screwball classic Nothing Sacred; but also in 1937's super-soaper A Star Is Born (later remade with James Mason and Judy Garland) and the Rod Serling-scripted political thriller, Seven Days In May.

In 1960, March and fellow Jekyll, Spencer Tracy, squared off in a fiction- alized account of the Scopes' Monkey Trial, Inherit The Wind. That movie proved to be a showcase for the two actors contrasting styles, with the naturalistic Tracy and the more formal March playing off each other to great effect. If the Academy Awards are any judge, Tracy won that battle, garnering an Academy Award nomination for best actor. But when it came to the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde, March was the hands-down winner.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Late Programming Notes For My American Customers

Tomorrow I'll be back to my regular blogging schedule, starting with my choice for best actor of 1931-32. In the meantime, there's a Buster Keaton double feature on Turner Classic Movies tonight starting at midnight, Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, both from 1924, both on a short list of Keaton's best.

Here's what TCM has to say about them:

12:00am [Silent] Sherlock Jr. (1924)
In this silent film, a movie projectionist dreams himself into a mystery movie.
Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward Crane, Joseph Keaton Dir: Buster Keaton BW-44 mins

1:00am [Silent] Navigator, The (1924)
In this silent film, two members of the idle rich have to move fast when they're stranded on an abandoned luxury liner.
Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Frederick Vroom, Noble Johnson Dir: Donald Crisp BW-60 mins

Tomorrow night on TCM starting at 8 p.m. are six Marx Brothers classics, including Katie Award nominee for best picture of 1931-32, Monkey Business.

8:00pm [Comedy] Monkey Business (1931)
Four stowaways get mixed up with gangsters while running riot on an ocean liner.
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx Dir: Norman McLeod BW-78 mins

9:30pm [Comedy] Horse Feathers (1932)
In an effort to beef up his school's football team, a college president mistakenly recruits two loonies.
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx Dir: Norman McLeod BW-67 mins

10:45pm [Comedy] Duck Soup (1933)
When he's named dictator of Freedonia, a con artist declares war on the neighboring kingdom.
Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx Dir: Leo McCarey BW-69 mins

12:00am [Comedy] Night at the Opera, A (1935)
Three zanies turn an operatic performance into chaos in their efforts to promote their protege's romance with the leading lady.
Cast: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle Dir: Sam Wood BW-91 mins

2:00am [Comedy] Day At The Races, A (1937)
A group of zanies tries to save a pretty girl's sanitarium.
Cast: Groucho [Marx], Chico [Marx], Harpo [Marx], Allan Jones Dir: Sam Wood BW-109 mins

4:00am [Comedy] At The Circus (1939)
The Marx Bros. team up to keep a circus from going bankrupt.
Cast: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kenny Baker Dir: Edward Buzzell BW-87 mins

This is the Marx Brothers at their best. You don't want to miss it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

One Year

It's March 23, 2010, and we here at the Monkey are celebrating the first anniversary of being able to say "We here at the Monkey." I don't know if you're getting anything out of all this blogging business, but I sure am: a chance to re-watch old favorites like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, discover new favorites like Anita Page, Douglas Fairbanks and René Clair, and hear from movie fans, both the living and the dead, from all over the world.

Katie-Bar-The-Door and I are keeping the celebration pretty low key, just the usual collection of jugglers, bikini dancers and session musicians in gorilla suits. We might even squeeze in time for a movie or two.

If you're in the neighborhood, stop on by. We'd love to see you!


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Nominees For Best Actor Of 1931-32

Wallace Beery (The Champ)

Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde)

The Marx Brothers (Monkey Business)

Paul Muni (Scarface)

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Note on Norma Shearer's Private Lives Co-Star, Robert Montgomery

I grew up thinking of Robert Montgomery as a movie tough guy, but watching all these pre-Code Hollywood movies recently, I was surprised to discover that MGM largely wasted him in the 1930s by assigning him an endless series of flaccid pretty boy roles supporting Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and pretty much any other actress who needed a handsome man to gaze vacantly at her while she did her thing.

Made me wonder if the same thing would have happened to Clark Gable if he hadn't been loaned out to Warner Brothers for a particularly nasty turn in Night Nurse, and then a couple of years later to poverty row studio Columbia Pictures for a little ditty called It Happened One Night, where he got to show, respectively, his roguish menace and comedic flair and win an Oscar in the process.

Anyway, here are a few facts about Robert Montgomery, some I knew, some I didn't.

● He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but the life of privilege didn't last—his father jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and the family lost everything.

● While working as an actor in New York, Mont- gomery met then stage director George Cukor. It was Cukor who later convinced him to give Hollywood a try. Montgomery made his debut as an uncredited extra in 1929's The Single Standard. A year later he was co-starring with Norma Shearer in The Divorcee, a role that won Shearer an Oscar. That same year, he also had an important role in The Big House, a prison drama that won Frances Marion as Oscar for screenwriting.

● Montgomery received two Oscar nominations, the first for playing a murderer in 1937's Night Must Fall, the second playing a dead boxer in search of a live body in the comedy Here Comes Mister Jordan.

● He served in combat in the Pacific during World War II, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander.

● His official directorial debut was The Lady in the Lake in 1947 (two years earlier, he had directed some scenes in They Were Expendable during John Ford's illness). Based on a Raymond Chandler mystery, The Lady in the Lake was an experimental attempt to film the entire movie from the lead character's point of view. We only catch a glimpse of Montgomery in a mirror. The film received a mixed reception critically and was not a hit. He directed four more movies between 1947 and 1960.

● Montgomery was twice the president of the Screen Actor's Guild. He was active in politics as a Republican and advised President Eisenhower on his television appearances. Ike later commented that had Richard Nixon followed Montgomery's advice before the first televised debate with John Kennedy, Nixon likely would have "won" the debate and the election.

● He was the father of actress Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of television's Bewitched.

Here are five Robert Montgomery performances I can recommend to you:

1) The Big House—he's quite convincing as a rich, sniveling weasel who doesn't cope well when he's thrown into a prison cell with murderer Wallace Beery.

2) Private Lives
in this screen adaptation of the Noel Coward comedy, he plays Elyot, a man who would rather spar with his ex-wife (Shearer) than honeymoon with his current one.

3) Night Must Fall—playing a caretaker of Dame May Whitty's cottage, Montgomery isn't quite the nice guy he seems to be, and Rosalind Russell can't decide whether to kiss him or turn him over to the police.

4) Here Comes Mister Jordan—probably his best performance, here he plays a boxer frustrated with a celestial bureaucracy that has accidentally killed him before his time and then can't make things right. And you thought the Department of Motor Vehicles was a pain! (Warren Beatty later remade this as Heaven Can Wait.)

5) They Were Expendable—John Ford's classic downbeat war movie about the ones who were left behind. Inspired by the real-life heroics of John Bulkeley, Montgomery plays an American PT boat skipper battling both the Japanese and U.S. Navy brass during Japan's invasion of the Philippines. Co-starring John Wayne, this was not only the best movie Montgomery ever starred in, it's on a short list of the best movies ever to come out of World War II.

And here's one more, a movie I haven't seen, but would like to: Ride the Pink Horse. No, it's not a porn movie, it's a film noir directed by and starring Montgomery based on a script by the legendary Ben Hecht. Co-star Thomas Gomez received his only Oscar nomination for this one.

"If you are lucky enough to be a success," Montgomery once said, "by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public. But never, never believe it."

That's it. That's all I've got. It's enough, isn't it?

Look For Buster Keaton On TCM

This week's entry on Turner Classic Movie's Silent Sunday (technically Monday morning at 12:15 a.m., EDT) is Buster Keaton's Our Hospitality from 1923. It was his first really great feature-length film and started an incredible six-year run that included Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and The Cameraman.

If you haven't seen this one and you have access to TCM, I highly recommend it.

From TCM's website:

12:15am [Silent] Our Hospitality (1923)
In this silent film, a man returns home to the old South and gets caught between feuding families.
Cast: Buster Keaton, Natalie Talmadge, Buster Keaton Jr., Joseph Keaton Dir: John Blystone BW-73 mins

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Best Actress Of 1931-32: Norma Shearer (Private Lives)

Choosing the best actress of 1931-32 was a bit problematic—the two best performances by an actress during this award season, Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Joan Crawford (Grand Hotel) were both supporting ones, Hopkins's obviously so, Crawford's not so clearly, since she and her co-stars all received star billing, but Grand Hotel was an ensemble piece, the first in Hollywood history, and to my mind at least, none of its stars were on screen long enough to receive a nomination in the lead category. The Oscars didn't have a supporting category back in those days so it's difficult to say which if any of the film's stars the Academy might have nominated in a supporting category; but none were nominated as lead performers and I'll follow suit here. (The Academy would be faced with an identical dilemma the following year with the star-studded ensemble piece Dinner At Eight and arrived at an identical solution—none of those wonderful performances were nominated then either.)

Which is not to say there were no good choices for the award. The Academy nominated three fine actresses—the ever-popular Marie Dressler (Emma) who had won an Oscar the year before for Min and Bill (and who won a Katie award for her supporting performance in Anna Christie); stage legend Lynn Fontanne (The Guardsman) in the only film appearance of her career; and eventual winner Helen Hayes (The Sin of Madelon Claudet), another stage legend making her feature-film debut. (Hayes would win a second Oscar in 1970 for Airport.)

And then there were unnominated performances such as Constance Bennett in What Price Hollywood?, Joan Blondell in Blonde Crazy and Dorothea Wieck in Mädchen In Uniform. The Academy similarly ignored all four of my nominees—Mae Clarke (Waterloo Bridge), Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express), Norma Shearer (Private Lives) and Barbara Stanwyck (The Miracle Woman).

I'm guessing that Marlene Dietrich would be the popular choice. The first phase of her career was in full swing, she was working with a great director, and Shanghai Express is one of the tastiest collaborations. But I gave Dietrich the award just last year for her Hollywood debut, Morocco, and I can't see giving her back-to-back awards, especially when Shanghai co-star Anna May Wong completely out-cools her and steals every scene they're in together. (Still, it's a must-see performance in a must-see movie. Go watch it. Now. I'll wait.)

As for Stanwyck, she was one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood history, and she has not one but two best actress awards in her future—I'm thinking The Lady Eve and Ball of Fire in 1941 and Double Indemnity in 1944. But while The Miracle Woman, a biting look at the sordid intersection of religion and money, is one of her most interesting pre-Code films, Stanwyck's best work is still ten years in front of us. She'll have to wait a little longer.

Which leaves Mae Clarke and Norma Shearer.

If you only remember Clarke as the good- looking blonde who got James Cagney's grapefruit in the kisser, you really should take time to explore her work during this period. No actress in 1931 appeared in more must-see movies than Mae Clarke. In addition to her memorable supporting role in The Public Enemy, she also played Molly Malloy, a hooker with a heart of gold who befriends a death row inmate in the comedy The Front Page; a mad scientist's much put-upon fiancee in Frankenstein; and in one of the few lead roles of her career, American chorus girl-turned-prostitute Myra Deauville in the first and best version of the tragic romance Waterloo Bridge. Myra meets a naive soldier boy on the bridge where she plies her trade and this being wartime, he falls in love quickly and asks her to marry him. Based on a play by Pulitzer Prize winner Robert E. Sherwood, there is no villain in this piece other than cold, hard reality. It's the sort of movie that critics of the day dismissed as a "woman's picture"—and dismiss now as a "chick flick"—and if you're tempted to do the same and give this one a miss because it features tears and romance, I urge you not to. In fact, if I thought doing so would convince you to expand your film-watching repertoire enough to include Waterloo Bridge, I would hand Clarke the award as best actress of 1931-32. And maybe she'd deserve it.

But there was another actress from 1931 who I think deserves your attention, certainly if you want a well-rounded sense of the era; and just coincidentally, her wickedly comic portrayal of a recently remarried divorcee who would rather fight with her ex-husband than honeymoon with her new one is my favorite performance of the year.

Much celebrated in her day, Norma Shearer's name is now met by many largely with derision, including I confess by me. Choosing her as the best actress of this or any other year will no doubt get me drummed out of the very exclusive alternate Oscar club—a year ago, in fact, I would have voluntarily resigned my membership before I would have chosen Norma Shearer for an award. But only a schmuck won't admit when he's wrong and I was wrong to dismiss Norma Shearer without first seeing her pre-Code work (and a few silents, too). As it happens, before she got culture and started playing those maddeningly starchy good girls in bloodless MGM literary adaptations, Shearer turned in some fine performances playing against type, including a terrific one here in the film adaptation of Noel Coward's comedy, Private Lives. It's the best of her career—sharp, witty, and here at least, appropriately theatrical. In an essay for Bright Lights Film Journal, Dan Callahan called it "Shearer's finest, most well-rounded performance, and it's the only film that you can show to the uninitiated without fear of the dreaded Shearer-isms."

If she'd made more movies like this one, you could safely admit to liking her without fear of making a fool of yourself in mixed company.

"She was hotter than a half-f***ed fox in a forest fire," said the ever-classy Mickey Rooney years later, and for those who find that assertion at odds with their preconceived notions of Shearer, well, it's time to dip into her pre-Code work.

Private Lives is what I'd call a divorce comedy, of which there were several in Hollywood's golden age, most of them starring Cary Grant for some reason—perhaps because he was so unbelievably good in them—comedies such as The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. The formula required discord, divorce (or its threat), laughs arising from screwball attempts to undermine a new relationship and salvage the old one, and by the movie's end, of course, a tender reconciliation.

In Private Lives—a faithful adaptation of Noel Coward's popular stageplay—the twist is that two recently remarried divorcees, Robert Montgomery's Elyot and Shearer's Amanda, find themselves honeymooning in adjoining suites at the same resort. While most divorce comedies lean to varying degrees on the screwball comedy, Private Lives leans heavily on the discord. The two ex-spouses are less interested in tenderness than in tearing into each other, preferably with a wit so biting, the quips leave teeth marks, and when that's not enough, they turn to actual biting, along with fisticuffs and furniture throwing. (Indeed, while filming one particularly physical encounter, Shearer accidently knocked her co-star unconscious.)

"I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives," Amanda observes in one of her few introspective moments. "It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic thingummys fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there's no knowing what one mightn't do. That was the trouble with Elyot and me, we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle."

You'd be tempted to call this a comedy of mutual spousal abuse but for the fact that the two participants so thoroughly enjoy themselves. Elyot and Amanda are natural-born performers—drama queens, we'd call them now—and after a season apart, they realize each is the other's best audience. They can't live together, but to live apart means they'd have climb off their private little stages and start living with themselves, or more to the point, with their brand new spouses who, they quickly discover, bore them to tears.

"There isn't a part of you that I don't know, remember, and want," Elyot confesses to Amanda even while calling her a "slattern" and threatening to beat her like a gong.

In order to help both Shearer and Montgomery prepare for their parts, the studio filmed a stage performance featuring Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward himself in the leads. The result was what Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times called "a swift and witty picture ... one of the most intelligent comedies that has come to the screen." Coward was so pleased with the result, he immediately sold more of his plays to Hollywood.

So why don't we have a similarly positive reaction to the name Norma Shearer?

Well, for one thing, if it's true that the history of war is written by the winners, then it's equally true that the history of Hollywood is written by the ones with the biggest mouths, and a great deal of what we think we know about Norma Shearer is a product of one of the biggest, Joan Crawford's. "What chance do I have now?" she quipped when Shearer won an Oscar in 1930. "Norma sleeps with the boss."

But while it was true Irving Thalberg, as MGM's producer boy wonder could procure almost any role for his wife, if anything, Shearer's career and reputation suffered for her husband's interference. As Walter Clemons once wrote for EW.com, "Thalberg was fatally afflicted with gentility. He cast his wife in movies with literary pretensions—O'Neill's Strange Interlude, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and as a mature Juliet in a suffocatingly tasteful rendition of Shakespeare. Norma gets a bad rap for these turkeys, but the reverence in which Thalberg's contemporaries held him is an unexamined delusion."

And maybe, too, Shearer craved the respect that roles such as Juliet promised. If only she'd always maintained the same cavalier attitude toward the so-called "legitimate" theater she evinced in answer to Noel Coward's early reservations about her ability to play Amanda. "I don't care what he thinks—he thinks in theater terms—I think in film terms. It doesn't seem to occur to Mr. Coward that we both may turn out to be right!" I suspect, though, that the forced smile she always seemed to wear masked a crippling insecurity, and in retrospect it's a wonder she was able to act at all. After her father squandered a fortune in her youth, leaving the family in poverty, Shearer's mother left him, taking Norma and the other children to New York. Shearer coped by retreating into a carefully-constructed fantasy world, and to a degree, she lived in that world for the rest of her life. That bipolar disorder ran in her family as well with Shearer herself suffering from depression, makes her subsequent climb to stardom all the more remarkable.

Her acting career was a sheer act of will.

"How did you ever become a star?" asked an incredulous Robert Morley on the set of Marie Antoinette.

"Because I wanted to!" she laughed.

Unfortunately, as Gary Morris points out (again in Bright Lights Film Journal), "While this description seems to point to Shearer as a sympathetic, even tragic character, she rarely moves far enough inside her characterizations to create a genuine sense of pathos. She seems to work too hard for her effects, almost desperately concerned with image and the mechanical aspects of performance, with measuring up to 'legitimate theatre' standards with their attendant excessive mannerisms."

He may be right. But at the same time, I am reminded of some- thing Norman Mailer wrote about Ernest Hemingway, not long after the latter's suicide. "It may even be that the final judgment on his work may come to the notion that what he failed to do was tragic, but what he accomplished was heroic, for it is possible he carried a weight of anxiety within him from day to day that would have suffocated any man smaller than himself."

The question is not why Norma Shearer made so many bad movies, but how she managed to make so many good ones.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Ever Popular Douglas Fairbanks

You'll be glad to know that on NCIS tonight, not only was the great Douglas Fairbanks mentioned, but two of the characters, Tony and Ziva, sat down to watch the silent Fairbanks classic The Black Pirate at the end of the show. (Yes, the Monkey occasionally watches something other than movies.)

Perhaps Doug has been courting the writers of NCIS with the same enthusiasm with which he lobbies his case here at the Monkey. Or maybe they, like us, know quality when they see it.

Anyway, why should two fictional characters have all the fun? Pull up a chair and join Anthony DiNozzo, Ziva David and yours truly as we watch this legally-available copy of the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler classic, The Black Pirate.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Word About Constance Bennett

Probably best known now as a fun-loving ghost in the 1937 comedy Topper, Constance Bennett was glamourous, shrewd and outspoken, a combination that made a favorite with both audiences and tabloids throughout the 1930s. The older sister of the better known Joan Bennett, Constance made fifty-six films in a career than spanned six decades.

Born in New York to actor parents, Bennett made her silent film debut in 1916 at the age of twelve, and appeared in three more New York-based silent films before she caught the eye of Samuel Goldwyn and moved to Hollywood in 1924. A brief marriage (her second of five) interrupted her career, but she returned after the introduction of talkies, starring in the now lost drama, Rich People. In 1931, her two-picture deal with Warner Brothers, valued at $300,000, temporarily made her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood.

Her first great role was in the 1932 drama What Price Hollywood? The story of a waitress who becomes a star after she befriends an alcoholic movie producer—later reworked into the classic A Star Is Born—the movie was a breakthrough for director George Cukor who had served a rocky apprenticeship at Paramount before leaving to work with producer David O. Selznick at RKO Pictures.

Bennett excelled in comedies such as Topper, Merrily We Live and Two-Faced Woman (the latter remembered mostly as Greta Garbo's last film), but showed her versatility in the 1947 noir thriller, The Unsuspected, co-starring Claude Rains.

Bennett didn't work much once the United States entered World War II, spending most of her time touring with the USO, both during and after the war. In 1946, she married future Brigadier General John Theron Coulter to whom remained married until her death. Except for a small role in the 1966 movie Madame X (released after Bennett's death), she made no movies after 1951, concentrating instead on marriage and lucrative business ventures. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Fort Dix, New Jersey, at the age of sixty. She is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Nominees For Best Actress Of 1931-32

Mae Clarke (Waterloo Bridge)

Marlene Dietrich (Shanghai Express)

Norma Shearer (Private Lives)

Barbara Stanwyck (The Miracle Woman)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Best Director Of 1931-32, Part Three

[To read part one of this essay, click here. To read part two, click here.]

III. And The Winner Is...
... René Clair for À Nous La Liberté.

That's not the name I expected to see on my computer screen when I put my fingers on the keyboard. I fully expected to type "Howard Hawks for Scarface"—after all, Scarface is the best gangster movie of a decade characterized by great gangster movies, and it may well be the best gangster movie made before The Godfather—but in the end my heart decided that Scarface contained too many compromises to appease the censors, too much clumsy footage filmed by assistant director Richard Rosson, to make me comfortable telling you that this is the movie you want to see when you go exploring the films of Howard Hawks. And given the lack of so many signature Hawks elements—male comradery, strong women, fast dialogue, slow songs—giving Hawks the award for Scarface felt a little like giving Alfred Hitchcock an award for a screwball comedy; yes, he directed one, but it's not really what I'd think of a Hitchcock movie.

The other choice I strongly considered was James Whale who directed what I think is the most iconographic picture of the year, Frankenstein, which along with its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (also directed by Whale), is the best of Universal Picture's cycle of horror pictures that began earlier in 1931 with Dracula and runs right up to this year's remake of The Mummy. The imagery of Frankenstein is so unforgettable that I could probably describe the movie to you in terms of its key scenes—the graveyard, the laboratory, the electrical storm, the tragedy of the little girl—and you could picture the movie in your head (and not just because Mel Brooks spoofed it so well in Young Frankenstein). Plus, Boris Karloff as the monster is easily the most recognizable creation in the long history of horror movies. But let's face it, there are aspects of Frankenstein that are pretty creaky by modern standards, and while I won't hold that against the finished product come best picture time, it is just enough to separate Whale from my choice, René Clair.

And why Clair? It's not just because he was Katie-Bar-The-Door's choice in the recent poll I conducted on the question—although any eighty year old movie that can make your wife's eyes light up deserves some sort of award—it's mostly because of all the movies that came out during the year in question, À Nous La Liberté comes the closest to being what I'd call a perfect little film, entertaining, inventive, insightful and without a false step. Plus in 1931 Clair also wrote and directed Le Million, another classic little comedy, making him one of the very few directors to have ever produced two must-see classics in the same calendar year. In the end, those factors were just too great to ignore.

À Nous La Liberté begins in prison where the inmates work at an assembly line making toys to earn their keep. The joke is that one of the inmates (Henri Marchand) escapes and winds up running a factory with an assembly line he models on his prison experience. His cellmate (Raymond Cordy), who was not so lucky during the escape attempt, winds up working at his friend's factory after his release. When the two meet, conflict is inevitable—but not the kind you'd expect, things like blackmail, scandal or any of those garden variety complications. No, the threat come from the anarchy that a true free spirit can unleash on the established order if he infects his fellow workers with his indifference to the inducements of materialism.

The result is a quirky blend of slapstick comedy and social criticism that has delighted audiences and influenced filmmakers for decades.

Not that À Nous La Liberté is a socialist screed straight out of Das Kapital, no matter what some critics have wanted to read into it. It's political in the way Duck Soup is political—a call to rebellion against regimentation wherever you may find it, whether at school, at work or at home—whipped up into a souffle so light even the staunchest plutocrat will want to tuck into it.

Actually, Clair's philosophical insights remind me mostly of Henry Miller who, once you get past the famously raunchy sex bits, was primarily focused on one question: why should I work for a living when what I want to do is write? For "write," Clair might substitute "make movies and nap in the sunshine," but it's the same question and given that the same yawning grave awaits you regardless of what path you choose, a fundamental one.

Besides, anyone here who has worked on an assembly line and can honestly say they found it fulfilling, interesting work, raise your hand. My own experience is limited—a summer job in my youth filling up plastic bottles with fruit juice—but it was the worst job I ever had and I don't think saying so makes either me or René Clair a left-wing anarchist.

The other theme of the movie, one Clair explored in Le Million, is the deference we pay to money and the people who have it, regardless of their underlying worth as human beings. Put a criminal in a suit, Clair says, give him money and a position of power, and suddenly we're kowtowing to him even when we'd have hauled him away in irons just the day before, and our reflexive willingness to do so goes a long way toward explaining the dot.com debacle, the housing bubble, Bernie Madoff and the seemingly endless parade of public figures who wind up in prison shackles for real. A criminal is a criminal, Clair reminds us, whether he's in prison stripes or pinstripes.

To make even this mild political message palatable, Clair set the entire movie, which is pretty near silent, to music with most of the dialogue coming in form of songs sung by an unseen chorus. The compositions by Georges Auric are bright and whimsical:

In life, liberty is all that counts
But man invented the prison cell
Codes and laws, do's and don'ts
Work, offices and houses as well
My old friend, life is great
When you're free to be yourself
o come on, let's emancipate

Here's to us two and liberty!

À Nous La Liberté was an international hit, and it was the first foreign language film nominated for an Academy Award in any category (for Lazare Meerson's art direction and set design).

Questions persist to what degree Clair's cinematic critique of industrialization influenced Charles Chaplin's 1936 critique of the same, Modern Times. The film's distributor, Films Sonores Tobis, filed suit against Chaplin, claiming plagiarism, and the suit dragged on for years as lawsuits often do. Clair himself refused to join the suit, considering any inspiration Chaplin might have drawn from À Nous La Liberté to be a great compliment. Personally, I take Chaplin at his word that he never saw Clair's movie, and in any event, as a lawyer I find the legal basis for the case against Chaplin thin at best. Clair was hardly the first person to lament the de-humanizing effects of the industrial age—indeed, Fritz Lang's Metropolis predates À Nous La Liberté by four years—and being one of the primary questions of the day, of interest to painters and politicians alike (not to mention, workers and factory owners), it should come as no surprise that two artists such as Clair and Chaplin would wish to address it.

Nor can an artist copyright an idea; it's the concrete expression of the idea that he owns, and to me at least, what Chaplin had to say in Modern Times bears less of a resemblance to À Nous La Liberté than does, say, Scarface to Little Caesar or The Terminator to Colossus: The Forbin Project; Gone With The Wind to Jezebel; To Have And Have Not to Casablanca, and on and on. As Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, there are only twelve basic plots which we have been repeating for thousands of years and the question is not what happens but how it happens. And, to me at least, how Modern Times happens is wholly different from how À Nous La Liberté happens.

In any event, it doesn't much matter to me. To tell you the truth, even if Chaplin had broken into Clair's house and taken the movie right out of his wall safe, it wouldn't alter the fact that Modern Times is one of the greatest comedies ever made. As is À Nous La Liberté. Enjoy them both.

That's my opinion anyway and good luck proving otherwise in a court of law.

In any event, the suit was eventually settled for a nominal sum and Chaplin and Clair remained friends.

Clair never again had a year like 1931. He left France for Britain in 1935 and then for Hollywood after that, making amiable but mostly forgotten movies such as I Married A Witch and It Happened Tomorrow. He returned to France after the war and three times won the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics' award for best film. In 1960 Clair was elected to the Académie française, a highly-select group of so-called "immortals" who hold court over matters regarding the French language. That body's prize for the year's best film is named for René Clair.

Clair directed his last movie in 1965 and died in 1981. He is regarded as one of the most significant figures in French film history.