Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Final Four Is Underway

No, no, not college hoops ("the two sweetest words in the English language after chorus girl," according to Robert Goulet), but the greatest actress tournament over at All Good Things. The semi-final pairings: Irene Dunne (Silent Era/1930s) versus Grace Kelly (1950s) and Vivien Leigh (1940s) versus Natalie Wood (1960s).

Click here to vote.

Due to some computer glitch, all the votes recorded on Wednesday, March 30, were somehow voided. So if you voted early, or haven't voted at all, be sure to get back over there. Don't let your candidate fall victim to a hanging chad.—MM, 3/31/11

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Best Actress Smackdown, 1960s Bracket

The finals of the 1960s bracket of the Best Actress March Madness Tournament is underway over at All Good Things. Doris Day versus Natalie Wood.

The Tale of the Tape

Doris Day
Birth Name: Doris Mary Ann Von Kappelhoff
Birth Place: Cincinnati, Ohio
Birth Date: April 3, 1922
Height: 5' 7"
Film Debut: Romance On The High Seas (1948)
Academy Awards: 1 nomination (Best Actress Pillow Talk)
Signature Song: "Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)"
Did You Know? She was referenced in the Beatles song "Dig It"

Natalie Wood
Birth Name: Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko
Birth Place: San Francisco, California
Birth Date: July 30, 1938
Date of Death: November 29, 1981
Height: 5'
Film Debut: The Moon Is Down (1943) (uncredited)
Academy Awards: 3 nominations (Best Actress Love With The Proper Stranger (1963) and Splendor In The Grass (1961) and Best Supporting Actress Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
The Monkey's Favorite NW role: Susan Walker, Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Sue me.
Did You Know? She dated Elvis Presley. "He didn't drink, he didn't swear, he didn't even smoke. It was like having the date that I never had in high school."

Click here to vote.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Pictures: Douglas Fairbanks And Mary Pickford

While I'm working away on my essay about Mack Sennett and the Keystone Studios, here's a photo of fan favorites Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. I stole it from one of my favorite blogs, Pictures. It's in French but true to the blog's name, the pictures are wonderful.

The blog's author, Dsata, describes herself thusly: "Je suis une femme et je ne suis pas disponible."

Can't argue with that, even if I knew what it means.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

All Good Things

The semi-final matches are set in the 1960s bracket of the best actress tournament over at All Good Things—Doris Day versus Shirley MacLaine in one, Natalie Wood versus Julie Andrews in the other. Tough choices.

Click here to head on over and cast your vote.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

I'm sure others would point to a different scene, but I think it was this moment with Montgomery Clift in 1951's A Place in the Sun that lifted Elizabeth Taylor to the status of film icon. R.I.P.

Two Years Before The Mast Blog

Yes, it was two years ago today that we here at the Monkey posted for the first time. What a wild trip it has been—we started with The General in 1927, crawled forward to 1933 and then allowed the tide of history to sweep us back into the first decade of film. But I promise we'll start moving forward again. One day. Maybe when the economy recovers ...

In any event, we here at the Monkey plan to party 'til dawn. Join us.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Stylish Blogger Award

Venus Armida of the blog "They Had Faces!" has bestowed upon the Monkey the "Stylish Blogger Award"—hey, good for me! Like the Monkey, Venus has devoted herself to, in her own words, "discovering, and helping others discover, the cool interesting world of silent films." A worthwhile mission, if I may say so myself.

According to the rules of the award, I have to post a link to Venus's blog, reveal seven facts about myself and pass the award along to seven more stylish bloggers. The first is easy (done), the last well-nigh impossible, the second is as follows:

1. I've been watching the animated series Archer on FX recently. A cross between James Bond, Charlie Sheen and Brewster Rockit, Sterling Archer is the sort of spy who can't quite grasp why it's not a good idea to loudly announce he's a spy everywhere he goes.

"M as in—what?!"
"Mancy. What'd you think I said?"
"Nancy! You idiot!"
"Oh. Yeah. I could see how you might—"
"Tell me what to do!"
"Uh, do you have parachutes?"
"Because that would be, you know, problem solved."

The entire first season is available for instant streaming on Netflix.

2. Speaking of Cold War jibber jabber, I ran across this photo on Unexplained Cinema, a blog I follow and that you should follow, too:

Yes, I used to tell my toys the same thing, but I recently had an epiphany, that our solar system's sun will one day burn out and when it does, the human race will vanish from the universe like a soap bubble, which not only means that the whole of human endeavor is completely pointless, but also that I can safely skip my law school reunion later this week. Win-win.

3. By the way, the kid is reading from the wrong text—this is Marxism for beginners:

4. No, actually the epiphany was, as Thomas Boswell put it in the Washington Post sports section this morning, "Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you have." And I woke up recently and realized I am a happy man. Probably after napping with Katie-Bar-The-Door while watching The Thin Man for the hundredth time.

"Nickie, can you reach the water? No, I just—I don't want it. I just wanted to be sure you could reach it."

5. Just to underscore that I'm not a nihilist, I built this train layout for my brother's kids a couple of Christmases ago:

Nihilists rarely build train layouts for their brother's kids, especially at Christmas. It's like a rule or something.

6. Speaking of brothers, I have two, which you may have surmised from careful reading of this blog over the years. My older brother is the one who lives in Auburn and saw the Beatles play live. My younger brother has played drums and guitar live with some of the finest session musicians Nashville has to offer—which is to say, the finest in the world. As our former neighbor and lifelong friend Bobby Bare Jr. once sang, "In Nashville, Tennessee ... the world's greatest living guitar pickers can deliver you a pizza." Talk about the boulevard of broken dreams!

7. And lastly, a family portrait:

I'm more of a speak-no-evil kind of Monkey myself, but I've seen and heard plenty. And I keep meticulous notes. So don't get any ideas.

As for passing this award on to seven more bloggers, well, that's easier said than done—I follow something like 160 blogs and I like them all. There are a few, however, I owe a favor for various reasons; perhaps this will balance the books:

Zoe at The Big Parade who once tagged me with the Kreativ Blogger award.

Hanner at Hanner's Blog Mmkay? who inspired one of my own favorite posts.

Who Am Us at Who Am Us Anyway who inspired the "Missed It By That Much Award."

Movie Nut 14 at Defiant Success who inspired the Movie Nut Trivia Award.

Mister Muleboy at The Mouth O' The Mule who buffaloed me into writing this blog in the first place.

Monty at All Good Things because, dammit, you need to get over there and vote in the 1960s bracket of the March Madness greatest actress tournament.

and Ginger Ingenue at Asleep In New York who has haunted this blog of late during her late night bouts of insomnia.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't check out The Vintage Vamp, Erik Beck (of the Boston Becks), Carole & Co., whistlingypsy at Distant Voices and Flickering Shadows, The Lady Eve's Reel Life, Dawn at Screwball Cinema, Thingy at Pondering Life who is practically family, Plain Chicken who is family, and hundreds of others who I encourage to leave a comment and demand a plug for their blog.

Postscript: Oh, and I forgot to mention KC at Classic Movies! Now I know why acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards run so long.

Oh, well, God bless what's his name, to quote Julie Andrews.

Post-postscript: ... and Page at My Love Of Old Hollywood, and Clara at Via Margutta 51, and Pink Champagne For Dancing and Sketches and Other Thingies and Classics Forever and Dr. Heckle and Flappers and Flickers and ... Lord, I read a lot of blogs.

P.P.P.S. ... Oh, and Cool Beveridge and She Blogged By Night and Open The Pod Bay Doors, Hal and Film Noir Photos ... cue the music.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Silent Oscars: 1906-1914—Part Four (a)

[To read part one of this essay, click here. For part two, here. And for part three, here.]

Early Silent Comedy
"In order to laugh at something, it is necessary
1. to know what you are laughing at,
2. to know why you are laughing,
3. to ask some people why they think you are laughing,
4. to jot down a few notes,
5. to laugh.
"Even then, the thing may not be cleared up for days."—Robert Benchley

The Earliest Comedies: 1890-1905
What you consider the first comedy in movie history depends in no small part on what you think is funny. The Internet Movie Database lists the first comedy as William K.L. Dickson's 1890 experimental film Monkeyshines No. 1, but given that the white blob at the center of the screen is barely identifiable as a human being, much less a funny one, I think its designation as a comedy derives purely from the short's title.

Then there's the case of poor Émile Reynaud whose "praxinoscope" allowed him to project hand-drawn cartoons to an audience. His animated short Pauvre Pierrot is a whimsical tale of a man serenading a beautiful woman beneath her balcony, but while the Internet Movie Database lists this as a comedy, I don't really see it as such. Reynaud made other films but when his business failed, he threw his invention and most of his films into the Seine. Did he make the first movie comedy only to destroy it later? The world may never know.

Other contenders for the title include boxing cats, boxing brothers, and vaudeville stars Robetta and Doretto performing a series of slapstick stunts for Thomas Edison's company. Each of these probably satisfy somebody's idea of comedy.

But personally, I credit the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, with having written and directed the first full-blown comedy. You remember the Lumière brothers, don't you? They invented the first truly portable and practical combination movie camera-projector; they were also the first moviemakers to charge admission for one of their films. L'arroseur arrosé (Tables Turned On The Gardener), premiered in Paris on December 28, 1895, and shows us the simplest of gags—a gardener is watering the lawn, a mischievous boy steps on the hose, the gardener looks at the nozzle to see what's wrong, the boys steps off the hose, the gardener gets a face full of water.

Lumiere - L'Arroseur Arrosé - 1895
Uploaded by superyiyi. - Full seasons and entire episodes online.

Admittedly, it's not particularly funny, but L'arroseur arrosé has a beginning, middle and end, creates a sense of anticipation and has a payoff. You've got to start somewhere, right?

Unfortunately, for the next decade or so, comedy pretty much ended there as well. In the early days of film, the only qualification one needed to become a director was access to a camera, and judging from the quality of the comedy made during this era, technical expertise and a sense of humor rarely went hand in hand. Gags tended to be no more sophisticated than that first one; the setups were obvious (boy steps on hose), the payoffs predictable (hose squirts man) and the resulting joke was not likely to elicit much more than a chuckle from anyone over the age of seven.

More elaborate variations on the theme—boy ties rollerskates to sleeping man, man wakes up and falls down—didn't make the films any funnier, just longer getting to the point. Turns out that where comedy is concerned, getting exactly what you expect every single time isn't all that satisfying.

Adding to the frustration for a would-be film historian is the fact that you see the same simple gags repeated note for note over and over again. This was not so much because the gag was particularly funny but because it was often cheaper for a theater owner to make his own version of a film than to pay the rental of the original. Thus, there are many more versions of the mischievous boy gag than you're ever going to want to see.

Even Georges Méliès, the most consistently original director of this early era, wasn't quite able to lick the comedy genre. Although he's primarily known now for his science fiction and fantasy films, Méliès also directed some three dozen comedies, mostly turning on surprising camera tricks —for example, the story of a man preparing for bed only to find it impossible to undress.

The trick photography, usually a series of jump cuts, was the most sophisticated of its day, but when observed in film after film, proves more tiresome than humorous. By his own admission, Méliès was never much interested in character or human situations, a real limitation given that comedy (and drama, for that matter) ultimately is about the inherent absurdity of being human. Without that essential element, his films wound up being about nothing at all and were successful only as long as the tricks were fresh and inventive. As soon as he began to repeat himself, his audience abandoned him for other novelties—he was broke and out of the business by 1913.

Indeed, comedies made before 1906 are more significant for their role in advancing editing techniques—the point-of-view iris shot and the cut-in to emphasize the key prop in a joke, the "wipe" in Mary Jane's Mishap (1903), the dissolve in Méliès's Les Cartes Vivantes (1904)—than for any humor they may contain. The Big Swallow (1901), for example, is remembered now only for what might be the first close-up in movie history (and no, Lillian Gish wasn't in it).

Historic though it may be, hilarious it isn't.

Max Linder (Again)
As I mentioned in Part Three of this essay, the first international film star was the French comic, Max Linder. He was also the first true film comedian—the first to develop a "language" of gesture and expression that not only overcame the limitations of silent film but took advantage of the relative intimacy of the medium.

Thanks to the close-up, a storytelling device unique to film, an actor no longer had to play to the back row of the theater—the camera brought the back row to him. Whether intuitively or by design, Linder realized the broad gestures and inane dialogue of music hall comedy were largely devices for indicating to an audience what to pay attention to as the actors set up a gag. On film, simply lifting an eyebrow would suffice.

While situational comedy had been around since the theater of ancient Greece, until film allowed for recognizable settings, and more importantly, recognizable characters with recognizable needs and desires, film comedy was limited to the most simplistic gags. With a reel of film growing longer—around ten minutes rather than the 45-seconds of the Lumière brothers' standard offering—it became possible for filmmakers to put fully-realized characters and situations on the screen, and so far as I can tell, Linder's "Max" was the first three-dimensional character in the history of movie comedy. You can imagine "Max" existing before the cameras started rolling, continuing to exist after they stopped, and in between, behaving on screen the way a real person would, albeit at the heightened levels required of farce comedy.

With the elbow room to portray an actual character, Linder could derive laughs from the juxtaposition of this character—the dapper aristocrat—and the chaos he created around it, a welcome breakthrough, believe me, if you've suffered through more than a hundred comedy shorts featuring mischievous boys and one-note gags.

Not to mention he was just better at it than anybody else, until Charlie Chaplin came along in 1914 to raise the bar.

Because, as I mentioned before, Linder worked during a time when it was cheaper to buy a camera and steal an idea than to pay the rental fee on the original film, it's easy to compare and contrast the way different filmmakers handled the same comic idea—a laboratory experiment, if you will, in what is and isn't funny.

For example, one of the favorite props used to generate laughs in turn-of-the-century comedies was glue—apparently, a hundred years ago pots of the stuff just sat around waiting for people to fall in it. Alice Guy's La glu (The Glue) (1907) is typical of the era: a mischievous boy brushes glue on various surfaces—a staircase, a bicycle seat—much to the consternation of various adults. Basically a one-joke pony repeated over and over again to no great effect.

Linder, on the other hand, in the one-reeler Max ne se mariera pas (Max Is Stuck Up) (1910), built on the idea the way a classic comedian would. On his way to his fiancee's for dinner, Max stops at a bakery to conduct a little routine business and accidentally gets stuck to a sheet of flypaper. What begins as a minor inconvenience, shrugged off with bonhomie and good humor, becomes a minor annoyance, then becomes a potential source of embarrassment when he arrives for dinner only to find he's still stuck, and escalates into a full scale disaster as he and his future father-in-law wind up wrestling over a serving dish and destroying the entire set.

You've seen this sort of progression in a hundred comedies, from the Marx Brothers to Adam Sandler, but you didn't see it before Max Linder, not in a movie anyway.

And now because I love you, I present my favorite Max Linder short, Max victime du quinquina (Max Takes Tonics) (1911). He made it three years before Chaplin, but if I had told you Linder copied it move for move from the little Tramp, I dare say you'd believe me. The intertitles are in French (with a German translation!), but there are only a couple and the gist is easy enough to figure out—feeling rundown, Max visits a doctor who prescribes a tonic of red wine and quinine bitters. Soon roaring drunk, Max is mistaken for a big shot and helped "home" by a helpful policeman.

Speaking of French comedy, you might also check out the work of Linder's fellow Frenchman, Ernest Bourbon, who performed under the name Onésime. A particular favorite of the surrealists, Bourbon relied heavily on trick photography in such shorts as Onésime horloger (Onésime, Clockmaker) (1912), in which to receive an inheritance more quickly, he builds a special clock to speed up time. I confess, he's not really my cup of tea—to me, he plays like the poor man's Méliès—but you might want to track him down nevertheless.

And finally, as if to prove that "French" and "sophisticated" aren't necessarily synonymous, film historian Matt Berry recently wrote about one of the earliest examples of scatological humor, 1903's Erreur de porte (The Wrong Door), in which a country bumpkin can't tell the difference between a telephone booth and a lavatory. It's bathroom humor—literally. You've been warned.

To continue to Part Four (b), Mack Sennett and the Keystone Comedies, click here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

P Is For Psycho

The results are in on the latest, inelegantly-worded Monkey poll: "Of the four biggest Oscar snubs in history as chosen by, which overlooked performance most deserved a nomination?"

22 of you agreed that of these choices, Anthony Perkins's performance in Psycho was the most deserving of a nomination—after all, it's probably the best in a horror film ever, one that influenced everything that came after it and still resonates with viewers.

15 went with's choice of Jimmy Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's classic Vertigo, 11 with Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca and 9 with Cary Grant in The Philadelphia Story. I suspect many of us agree that Grant deserved an Oscar at some point in his career, but that maybe there were better choices—The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and Notorious, for example.

Let's face it, more often than not, the Academy blows it come Oscar time. But that's why we have the Monkey and his Katie-Bar-The-Door awards, to correct these mistakes, and make new ones in the process.

Postscript: Don't forget to vote in the March Madness best actress tournament over at All Good Things. Today is the final of the 1940 bracket, with Ingrid Bergman squaring off against Vivien Leigh. And tomorrow, it's the 1950s bracket, featuring stars such as Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March Madness, The 1940s Bracket

Be sure to head over to All Good Things to vote in Monty's best actress March Madness tournament. Today it's round 2 of the 1940s bracket. The higher ranked seed won each of the first round match-ups, but I smell at least one upset in today's contests. The match-ups: Bette Davis v. Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh v. Lauren Bacall, Katharine Hepburn v. Gene Tierney and Ingrid Bergman v. Olivia de Havilland.

By the way, that's Vivien Leigh and Lauren Bacall meeting Kay Kendall and Noel Coward for a friendly drink before the main event. They won't be so nice once they take the court, though, that I can assure you. The elbows will be flying!

Oh, and who won the right to represent the Silent Era/1930s bracket in the Final Four? Ten-seed Irene Dunne, the Cinderella of the tournament so far. She knocked off Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck and Carole Lombard, heavyweights all. Congratulations, Irene!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Buster Keaton's Pie Recipe

An excerpt from my upcoming essay about early silent film comedy.

It's impossible to say with any certainty who invented the pie-in-the-face gag so much associated with silent film comedy. The pie itself was probably invented by the ancient Egyptians during the Neolithic Period, around 9500 B.C. and my best guess is that the first pie was thrown for laughs somewhere around 9500-and-ten-minutes B.C. The tomb of pharaoh Ramses II, who took power in 1304 B.C., included etchings of royal bakers preparing galettes, a thin-crusted pie stuffed with honey and nuts—maybe the first artistic representation of a pie in history.

Legend has it that Mabel Normand threw motion pictures' first pie, hitting an unsuspecting Roscoe Arbuckle in the short A Noise From The Deep (1913). The fact is though, it was the otherwise forgettable Mr. Flip (1909) starring veteran comic Ben Turpin that was the first film to feature an actor getting hit in the face with a pie. Famous for his crossed eyes and brush moustache, Turpin began his career in burlesque and vaudeville before making his film debut in 1907 at the Essanay Studios. Mr. Flip has all the appearances of being based on a stage routine Turpin had earlier perfected, leading me to believe that the pie-in-the-face gag was already an old one by the time it showed up on film.

Still, there are historians who insist Normand should get credit for throwing the first pie (as opposed to merely shoving it into the victim's face). Well, maybe. Even that much is hard to confirm. I've read that Normand in fact threw the first pie at a stagehand who had made a pass at her, and that the story has morphed over time into credit for inventing the thrown-pie gag. I've also read that it wasn't Normand who threw the pie at all but Arbuckle himself and that he hit co-star Nick Cogley. A copy of A Noise From The Deep resides in New York's Museum of Modern Art where it is screened periodically. If I ever see it, I'll let you know the scoop.

For those interested in the fine art of pie throwing, Buster Keaton described the process in some detail in an interview with Fletcher Markle in 1964:

"[N]umber one is we don't use a regular baker's pie," he told Markle, "and throwing the pie in a cardboard plate is no good because that plate flying off detracts. So, what we used to do is our prop man would get our baker—whoever is closest to the studio—to make pie crust, two of them, with nothing in them, and take just a little flour and water to make a paste, just enough to glue the two together. That was so that your fingers wouldn't go through the bottom of it. Now you fill it, about an inch, with just flour and water mixed, which clings like glue and stretches. Now, on top of it, if I'm going to hit somebody in dark clothes, a brunette, you put a lemon meringue type of topping on it and garnish with whipped cream, you see. When it was a light costume, a blond, something like that, you put in blueberry, and then enough whipped cream just to splatter.

"Then when you threw the pie, you shot put up to a distance of about eight feet. But from there on back, you brought that pie from here [points to shoulder] right overhand, 'cause with a little practice you can learn to make that pie come in this way [vertically] and not crossways." The better to maximize the splatter, he said.

Keaton was credited with once hitting a movie villain "plum in the pus" from a distance of twenty-seven feet.

The pie-in-the-face gag became passé around the same time comics such as Chaplin and Keaton began making feature films. "[T]he minute we got into features," Keaton said, "where an audience had to believe the story we were telling, we had to stop pie-throwing. There was never a pie thrown in any of our pictures once we started into features. No impossible gags were done."

The Three Stooges later revived the art of the pie fight in such shorts as In the Sweet Pie and Pie, and Mel Brooks staged one of the best known pie fights in Blazing Saddles. And then serious film fanatics are aware of the pie-fight-that-wasn't that was originally to end Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The fight was to have broken out in the war room and the sequence was filmed, but Kubrick later decided to delete it. If you look closely though you can still see the pies when the Russian ambassador partakes of the war room's lavish buffet.

Friday, March 4, 2011

March Madness, Trivial Pursuits, Favorite Songs And ... A New Poll

Lots of housekeeping to do today, blog-wise, so let's get to it:

1) The semi-final matches of the Silent Era/1930s bracket in All Good Things' best actress March Madness tournament is underway. Match-ups are number six seed Claudette Colbert versus ten seed Irene Dunne and four seed Carole Lombard versus nine seed Myrna Loy. Remember, democracy only works if you vote—and rarely even then—so click on over and do your part.

2) As for my own trivial pursuits, during Turner Classic Movies' 31 Days of Oscar marathon I passed along questions about Oscar history from TCM's monthly Now Playing magazine, 66 questions in all. No surprise, MovieNut14 answered the most questions correctly and wins the first annual Movie Nut Trivia Award, which consists of nothing more than worldwide recognition and a pat on the back. MovieNut14 is a self-described "Female teen living in upstate New York who's obsessed with movies and books." She also writes the blog Defiant Success. Check it out.

The final totals, quiz-wise:

Erik Beck—9
The Mythical Monkey himself—6
Jason Marshall—2
Ginger Ingenue—1
Mister Muleboy—1
Uncle Tom—1

Not to mention, the questions generated lots of comments, even from those who weren't answering the trivia, which is always fun. Thanks to everyone who participated—and, for that matter, to all those who didn't.

3) The results are in from the latest Monkey poll, "Of the top five songs in movie history, as chosen in 2004 by the American Film Institute, which is your favorite?" The results very nearly mirrored the AFI's list: "Over The Rainbow" (The Wizard Of Oz) was your favorite with 26 votes. "As Time Goes By" (Casablanca), which jumped out to an early 6-0 lead, wound up second with 16 votes. "Singin' In The Rain" (Singin' In The Rain), which was third on the AFI list, finished fourth here with 5 votes. "Moon River" (Breakfast At Tiffany's) tallied 6 votes and "White Christmas" (Holiday Inn) scored but a single vote.

You can listen to all five songs again here.

In case you're interested, Barack Obama, president of these here United States of America, mentioned earlier in the week that his favorite song from a movie is "As Time Goes By" from Casablanca. So said the Washington Post. Perhaps he's a secret reader of the Mythical Monkey. If so, welcome, Mr. President! It's a big tent we pitch here and whatever brings you to the party, here's hoping you stick around.

4) And how about a new poll? Of the four biggest Oscar snubs in history as chosen by, which overlooked performance most deserved a nomination?

Your choices are:

James Stewart (Vertigo)

Anthony Perkins (Psycho)

Cary Grant (The Philadelphia Story)

Ingrid Bergman (Casablanca)

As usual, cast your vote in the poll at the right hand side of the page.

Have fun.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Jean Harlow's 100th Birthday

Today is the centennial of Jean Harlow's birth. In her honor, I'm posting this Reader's Digest version of the four-part, 5000 word essay I wrote about her last year.

If she'd just been another pretty face, she would have been forgotten long ago, one of the thousands of beauties who for a brief season capture the fancy of the paparazzi and the tabloids and the fickle paying public and then quickly fade from our memory. But more than just a platinum blonde beauty, Jean Harlow also possessed an unexpected gift for comedy and self-parody, and as the pre-Code era drew to a close, she became not only America's premier sex symbol but one of its premier actresses as well.

Born to a Kansas City dentist and the daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, Harlean Harlow Carpenter tried out for the movies on a dare, got the job and later signed with the Hal Roach Studios. Working under her mother's maiden name, Jean Harlow played the "swanky blonde" in four Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts and appeared in uncredited bit roles in more than a dozen movies (including Chaplin's City Lights) before Howard Hughes cast her in Hell's Angels. Hughes epic about World War I flying aces proved to be Harlow's big break. Although she was as skittish as a newborn foal, barely able to speak her lines, the public immediately responded to her beauty—the expressions "platinum blonde" and "blonde bombshell" were coined to describe her—and she soon landed better parts, including that of James Cagney's love interest in William Wellman's gangster classic The Public Enemy, and the unobtainable society girl in Frank Capra's comedy Platinum Blonde.

Directors clearly had no idea what to do with Harlow in these early efforts and mostly she stood around, serving as a symbol of something the hero thinks he wants and learns the hard way that he doesn't. The bombshell image may have packed the theaters with the curious and the salivating, but it blinded directors and producers to her talent.

"The newspapers sure have loused me up," she complained cheerfully, "calling me a sexpot! Where'd they ever get such a screwy idea?"

It was MGM's legendary producer Irving Thalberg who determined to mold a screen image for Harlow beyond that of sex symbol. Thalberg bought Harlow's contract from Howard Hughes and cast her in the screen adaptation of Red-Headed Woman, Katharine Brush's racy novel about a woman who sleeps her way into high society. F. Scott Fitzgerald took the first crack at the screenplay, but couldn't solve the puzzle of how to make the audience like a character he himself didn't approve of, and it was instead Anita Loos, a veteran screenwriter and author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, who drafted the final screenplay.

Although Harlow played a manipulative gold digger—she seduces her married boss and breaks up his marriage—there was a sincerity to her transparent scheming, and with Harlow serving up the brassy bits with humor and wounded pride, audiences found themselves rooting for her. The result was one of the biggest hits of 1932.

Variety summed up the general reaction: "Jean Harlow, hitherto not highly esteemed as an actress, gives an electric performance."

Next up was an even better vehicle for Harlow, one that would both display her talent for comedy and pair her with fast-rising star Clark Gable. Based on a failed stageplay, Red Dust starred Gable as the overseer of a Vietnamese rubber plantation, Harlow as the "cute little trick" who falls for him, and Mary Astor as the wife of the plantation's latest hire, a woman Gable sets out to seduce.

"What a pleasant little house party this is going to be," Harlow quips. The women's rivalry is not just one of sex and love but of class, education and manners—everything Astor's Mrs. Willis takes for granted, everything Harlow's Vantine has struggled to survive without—and as the love triangle plays out, Harlow really hits her stride as an actress. As Vantine competes with Mrs. Willis (and Harlow with Astor), she is funny, bawdy, hurt, angry, and then as much as her Vantine wishes she weren't, compassionate, too, protecting her rival when she could just as easily destroy her.

Harlow's "uniquely effortless vulgarity, humor and slovenliness," wrote Movie Diva in her review of Red Dust, "create the rarest of Hollywood goddesses, the beautiful clown."

It's one of the best performances of the pre-Code era.

The following year Harlow gave what may be her best-remembered performance, that of none-too-bright social climber Kitty Packard in the comedy-drama, Dinner At Eight.

A successful play by Broadway legends George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber, Dinner At Eight is a loosely-connected series of vignettes about a group of wealthy Manhattanites preparing for a dinner party as their respective worlds fall down around their ears. For the movie adaptation, producer David O. Selznick assembled the brightest of MGM's stars, including the three male leads from Grand Hotel, and added America's most popular actress Marie Dressler as a faded Broadway star, Billie Burke as the twittery hostess of this train wreck, and Harlow as the spoiled young trophy wife of Wallace Beery's crooked businessman.

Director George Cukor, fresh off Katharine Hepburn's successful debut in A Bill Of Divorcement, cast Harlow over the objections of Louis B. Mayer, who felt she wasn't actress enough to keep up with her more experienced co-stars. But Red Dust had convinced Cukor that Harlow had a gift for comedy and with the director's help, she wound up stealing the show. Harlow's Kitty manipulates her men, bullies her maid, and otherwise lazes around, eating bonbons and complaining of boredom. Yet because she hungers to improve herself (even if she seems to think the surest path to knowledge is to sleep with an educated man), we find ourselves cheering her on.

"I'm going to be a lady if it kills me," she vows.

In terms of its complexity, the role of Kitty Packard was a leap for Harlow, but where she had been ill-equipped to handle early roles in Hell's Angels and Platinum Blonde, now she was ready. In Red-Headed Woman, she'd learned how to gain an audience's sympathy despite playing an unlikeable character. In Red Dust, she'd learned how to deliver tough wisecracks while conveying hurt and vulnerability. In Dinner At Eight, she found the last piece of the puzzle, "the ability," in the words of Frank Miller, writing for Turner Classic Movies, "to deliver lines as though she didn't quite know what they meant."

The result was the best performance of her career, and when Harlow finished her last scene for the movie, she went to her dressing room and cried, perhaps knowing that nothing she would ever do afterwards would top this performance.

"Harlow played comedy," said Cukor, "as naturally as a hen lays an egg."

Movie-going audiences loved Dinner At Eight and loved Harlow in it, not only because she looked great in her backless evening gown (designed by Adrian, it was known as the "Jean Harlow dress" and was so tight she couldn't sit down in it), but also because she had proven herself once and for all as one of Hollywood's great comedic actresses.

"Acting honors," said Variety at the time, "probably will go to Dressler and Harlow, the latter giving an astonishingly well-balanced treatment of Kitty, the canny little hussy who hooks a hard-bitten and unscrupulous millionaire and then makes him lay down and roll over."

"I was not a born actress," Harlow confessed later. "No one knows it better than I. If I had any latent talent, I have had to work hard, listen carefully, do things over and over and then over again in order to bring it out."

After the critical and commercial successes of Red Dust and Dinner At Eight, Jean Harlow leapt to the top of her profession, surpassing Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer as the most popular actress at MGM. And although Hollywood began enforcing the Production Code in 1934 and as a result toned down the more explicit sexuality of her movies, Harlow remained an audience favorite. In fact, from 1932 until her untimely death in 1937, Harlow had at least one movie, and often two, finish among the top ten grossing films of the year.

Despite her success with critics and audiences, Harlow was never nominated for an Academy Award—comedic performances rarely are—but she did rank twenty-second on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie legends and forty-ninth on Entertainment Weekly's list of the all-time greatest movie stars. In his cult classic Alternate Oscars, Danny Peary chose her performance in the screwball comedy Libeled Lady as the best by an actress in 1936.

In contrast to her movie career, Harlow's personal life was marked by scandal and heartbreak. Harlow's mother was overbearing and controlling, living out dreams of movie stardom through her daughter. In 1932, Harlow's second husband Paul Bern died of a gunshot wound under mysterious circumstances. In 1933, MGM arranged a quick, short-lived marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson to cover up Harlow's affair with a married man. Like her character Lola Burns in the 1933 comedy Bombshell, Harlow was hounded by greedy studio bosses, greedier family members, stalkers, fraudsters, slicky boys and the tabloid press, and treated more as a cash cow than a flesh and blood woman.

"She didn't want to be famous," said Clark Gable, "she wanted to be happy."

In 1935, Harlow fell in love with William Powell, her co-star in the movie Reckless, and finally after years of turmoil, her personal life began to match the success of her professional one. The two secretly engaged although never married—in his early forties, Powell worried about being linked to such a young actress, and Harlow also claimed MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer didn't approve of the union.

In 1937, during filming of her sixth movie with Clark Gable, Saratoga, Harlow fell ill with a serious kidney ailment and died before the end of production. The studio finished the film with long shots of a stand-in and released the film with much fanfare. It was the highest grossing film of 1937, a fitting tribute to her brief but brilliant career.

You can check out other tributes to Jean Harlow at the Kitty Packard Pictorial, a site devoted to all things Harlow. The Pictorial is also promoting a new biography, Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capital, 1928-1937 by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Vieira.