Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon: "Morning Glory" (1933)

Directed by: Lowell Sherman

Writing Credits:
Howard J. Green (screen play)
Zoe Akins (from the play by)

Starring: Katharine Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Adolphe Menjou, Mary Duncan, C. Aubrey Smith.

Released by: Radio Pictures

"Every year, in every theater, some young person makes a hit. Sometimes it's a big hit, sometimes a little one. It's a distinct success, but how many of them keep their heads? How many of them work? Youth comes to the fore. Youth has its hour of glory. But too often it's only a morning glory - a flower that fades before the sun is very high" 

On March 16th, 1934, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, unbeknownst to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, one of the most prestigious and respected records in Oscar history would well be on it's way. To this day, Katharine Hepburn holds the record for the most wins in the Best Actress category with four wins (though, it's incredibly important to mention that this feat has also never been matched by any of her male counterparts) and it's doubtful whether her record will ever be toppled.

Katharine Hepburn's four Oscars.

"My first Academy Award. I couldn't believe it!" - Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn's first Oscar win was for the Radio Pictures (later RKO) film Morning Glory (1933). It was only her third film in a career that would span 8 decades! Remarkably, to further prove the longevity of her illustrious career, it would be another 34 years before she won her second Academy Award (in 1967 for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner). Throughout her career, she racked up a startling 12 nominations (a feat only surpassed in recent times by Meryl Streep) and, in true Hepburn fashion, none of her Oscar nominations were in the Best Supporting Actress category.

I went into Pandro Berman's office, saw the script on his desk, picked it up and started to read it. Was fascinated....Went to Pandro and said I must do it. He said no. It was for Connie Bennett. I said No- ME. I won" - Katharine Hepburn

Morning Glory is the story of young, aspiring actress Eva Lovelace (Katharine Hepburn), who dreams of being the next Sarah Bernhardt. After staking out the offices of theatrical producer Lewis Easton (Adolphe Menjou), she befriends aging character actor Robert Harley Hedges (C. Aubrey Smith) who introduces her to Eaton himself, as well as Eaton's protégé, playwright Joseph Sheridan (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). As Eva's ambition kicks into overdrive, she begins to insinuate herself into the lives of Eaton, Sheridan and Hedges, in the hopes of securing her first Broadway role- the first step on the road to eventual stardom.

Aside from establishing Katharine Hepburn as a bonafide movie star (and providing her with her first of four Oscars), Morning Glory is an incredibly entertaining fare that, in hindsight, encapsulates all that Hepburn was capable of as an actress (and, in many ways, all that she would become). Though the film is rounded out with a stellar supporting cast (featuring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Adolphe Menjou, C. Aubrey Smith and Mary Duncan), there's no denying that Morning Glory is Katharine Hepburn's film. Though it is only her third feature film, Hepburn holds herself with such self-assured ease that it's hard to imagine she hasn't already been acting for decades. It's as though Hepburn isn't acting, such is the way she encapsulates this character. Kathrine Hepburn is Eva Lovelace.

"In 'Morning Glory' I play myself, only more so" - Katharine Hepburn

The main character of Morning Glory, Eva Lovelace, is brave, confident and vulnerable, with Hepburn's performance simply awe-inspiring. I think what, ultimately, makes this film work is that you have a 26-year old Katharine Hepburn portraying an aspiring actress on the brink of stardom when she herself was an aspiring actress on the brink of stardom (and, arguably, the greatest acting career- especially in the way of accomplishments and awards- that any actor has ever known). There are a lot of similarities between Eva Lovelace and the actress portraying her- heck, even Kate herself admitted that her character in Morning Glory was very reflective of her own ambition and enthusiasm for her craft. While perhaps not as intense or naive as Miss Lovelace, Hepburn was fiercely independent and always carried herself with confidence when it came to matters of her career. Also, like the character she portrays in Morning Glory, Hepburn was a truly great actress...and knew it.

One of my favourite scenes in Morning Glory is when a drunken Eva begins to perform for the patrons at Mr. Eaton's party. The way she carries herself as she stands on the balcony, crooning Shakespeare to a room full of strangers with a white shawl wrapped around her shoulders, always makes me think of Hepburn herself. Somehow I imagine that, in real life, Hepburn was just as self-assured as Eva Lovlace when it came to her own acting ability and would never shy away from self-promotion to secure a coveted role. There is a reason she was and remains, to this day, Kate the Great. When it came to her own ability, she was confident and always fought for the roles she wanted. She knew the range and limitations (not that she ever showed any) of her own talent and never allowed herself to be miscast or degraded to mediocre, supporting roles. She was always the star and, accordingly, reaped the benefits.

It's fair to say that Morning Glory is a humble film. It's not flashy by any means. It's a character and performance driven film and, as a result, perhaps not to the modern movie-goers taste. In my opinion, however, it's also an extremely captivating film and one of my personal favourites. 

It's interesting to note that Morning Glory has a distinct theatrical quality and, accordingly, has three very deliberate "acts", much like a stage play (with a brief montage bridging acts two and three). The first act takes place in Eaton's office, where the film's major characters are all introduced and the relationships begin to be established. The second act takes place in Eaton's apartment, where Eva's ambition (and her crush on Mr. Eaton) come hurtling to the forefront of the film in dramatic fashion. It is also in this act that we learn of Joseph's love for Eva. Between acts two and three, Eva is cast off on her own and the audience, through montage, is shown the lowly work she is subjected to while trying to become a Broadway star. The third and final act takes place on the opening night of Joseph's crowning theatrical achievement, The Golden Bough.

There is considerable commentary in regards to Morning Glory's pacing and structure- with most film historians in agreement that the screenplay (and, as a result, the film itself) is let down by an awkward and somewhat frenetic hurtle towards the finish line at the 53 minute mark. It's at this point in the film that the aforementioned montages are utilized and the film's overall character development lapses considerably. While I'll admit that the pacing of the film isn't quite right, I don't feel as though it lets the film down as a whole. As for the film's structural issues, due to the theatrical nature of the screenplay (which I detailed above), Morning Glory was always going to feel more like a stage play than a feature film. In my opinion, Director Lowell Sherman delivers on that in the best way he possibly could. Because of the film's propensity for rigid, static direction, I again acknowledge that Morning Glory may not be to everyone's individual filmic taste.

I feel that, at this point (as we reach the end of the review), I must admit that I have a recognized and long-standing weakness for classic films that were pulled directly from the Broadway stage- especially films that feature very little script augmentation in relation to their Broadway counterpart and limited use of constructed sets. I don't know why but these films (Morning Glory included) always resonate with me and I find the lack of distraction- in the way of elaborate sets and extensive camera maneuvering- very emotionally appealing. I also feel I must admit that I cry at the end of Morning Glory, without fail, every single time. There's something about Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s character in this film that makes me very emotional. Can you blame me?!


"Nellie, they've all been trying to frighten me. They've been trying to frighten me into being sensible, but they can't do it. Not now. Not yet. They've got to let me be as foolish as I want to be. I- I want to ride through the crowd. I want to- I want to go buy me a mink coat. And I'll buy you a beautiful present. And Mr Hedges! I'll buy Mr Hedges a little house. And it'll have rooms full of white orchids. And they've got to tell me that I'm much more wonderful than anyone else because, Nellie - Nellie, I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid of being just a morning glory. I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid. Why should I be afraid? I'm not afraid" 

My Rating

The post is part of The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Margaret Perry;


You can view all the Blogathon entries by clicking the poster above.

Resources: I Know Where I'm Going: A Personal Biography of Katharine Hepburn by Charlotte Chandler (2010), Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn (1991).

Monday, 4 May 2015

Shorts! A Tiny Blogathon: "Kid Auto Races at Venice" (1914)

Directed by: Henry Lehrman

Writing Credits:
Henry Lehrman

Produced By:
Mack Sennett

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Henry Lehrman

Released by: Keystone Film Company

"I had no idea of the character, but the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born" - Charlie Chaplin

It only took 45 minutes for the most recognizable character in cinema history to be born. The year was 1914. The setting, the Junior Vanderbilt Cup races in Venice, California. Mack Sennett, the studio head at Keystone Pictures, had a penchant for using real-life events as a backdrop for comedic improvisation, and the Junior Vanderbilt Cup was the perfect opportunity to showcase his recently acquired English vaudevillian, Charlie Chaplin. Legend has it that Director Henry Lehrman and Chaplin only spent 45 minutes shooting on location in Venice- with the resulting short running a little over 6 minutes. When released to the public, it was packaged in a split reel with a short documentary on the production of olive oil entitled Olives and Their Oil. Regardless of it's less than glamorous theatrical debut, it was the first time the public would experience "The Tramp", thus the official beginning of Chaplin's illustrious and iconic acting career. 

The plot of Kid Auto Races in Venice is literally as the title card states below;

Kid Auto Races is simple to a degree seldom seen in filmmaking (past or present)- and yet it works. Chaplin elevates the premise from forgettable to memorable purely through his comedic improvisation. "The Tramp" persona has been so closely associated with Charlie Chaplin for over 100 years that it's incredibly easy to forget how great an actor (not just a comedian) he actually was. It's no mean feat to successfully carry an entire film on your shoulders (regardless of runtime)- especially with a premise akin in substance to a home movie. Chaplin made it look easy. He always made it look easy and perhaps that's why it's so hard to separate Chaplin from his "Little Tramp".

The reason I chose this film for the Shorts! Blogathon is that, every single time I watch it, I can't help but burst out laughing! I don't know what it is exactly, but there is something about Charlie Chaplin's style of comedy that really gets me. Perhaps it's the way he sashays throughout the frame, with a sense of self-importance that is clearly misplaced. I can't help but find him endearing.
"You know, this fellow is many-sided, a tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure. He would have you believe he's a scientist, a musician, a duke, a polo-player. However, he is not above picking up cigarette butts or robbing a baby of it's candy. And, of course, if the occasion warrants it, he will kick a lady in the rear- but only in extreme anger!" - Chaplin's own description of "The Tramp" to Mack Sennett

To me, Kid Auto Races in Venice exemplifies what the "The Tramp" character would become. He's brazen, brash, unapologetic and yet, somehow, entirely likable and relatable. There's no denying that this is only an early incarnation of the character Chaplin spent the next decade perfecting and fine tuning in dozens of silent short and feature films. And yet, the framework is there. Most of the personality traits and physical characteristics that define the character are all evident in this short film. The notable omission, however, is the emotional layering and depth that has kept "The Tramp" (and the films of Charlie Chaplin) relevant in the 21st century.

It's important to note that, despite being released first, Kid Auto Races was not the first film in which Charlie Chaplin portrayed "The Tramp". Mabel's Strange Predicament was the first time Chaplin donned his signature attire- however, due to it's superior run time (meaning more time had to be spent on editing and printing for distribution), Kid Auto Races pipped Mabel at the post by two days. A lot has been written about the timing of both features, with most film historians now convinced (due to the weather patterns in California in 1914- yep, film historians study weather patterns!) that Kid Auto Races was filmed during the production of Mabel's Strange Predicament, rather than after (as was thought for many years). 

In contrast to Mabel's Strange Predicament, Kid Auto Races is entirely Chaplin's film. Mabel's Strange Predicament was a showcase short directed for and by Mabel Normand, Keystone's most prominent comedienne. Chaplin's role is admittedly significant- but he is not the focus. "The Tramp" isn't a fleshed-out character, rather a catalyst for Mabel's own comedy. Kid Auto Races allows Chaplin to experiment with his character and, accordingly, he is the only star given screen-time (Director Henry Lehrman also appears as the frustrated victim of Chaplin's antics, but his role is entirely inconsequential).

The creation of Chaplin's on-screen persona happened by no grand design. Though he was under contract to Keystone, Sennett was unsure of how to use Chaplin and left him meandering around Keystone's Edendale Studios for several weeks before actually putting him to work. While producing Mabel's Strange Predicament, Sennett was conscious that the film didn't have enough gags, and asked Chaplin (who was merely observing the proceedingsto "Put on comedy make-up. Anything will do". In Chaplin's own words;

"I had no idea what make-up to put on....However, on my way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression".

One of the best things about this short is that it was shot on location, without extras. The people in the background witnessing Chaplin's antics are real people. When Mack Sennett sent Chaplin and Henry Lehrman to a soap box derby to make an improvisational comedy short, the American public had never seen "The Tramp" before. When you watch Kid Auto Races, pay particular notice to what is happening in the background. Instead of stone-faced extras (as you would see today), there are people laughing and pointing at this bizarre little man and his antics. As a modern audience, we get to witness the public of 1914's first impressions of the immortal Charlie Chaplin! That is pretty incredible when you think about it.

In  my opinion, Kid Auto Races succeeds as a film because it feels real. Shot on location with actual spectators, the film's premise heavily depends on realism...and it succeeds. "The Tramp" appears to be a real human being, watching the races and trying to get himself on camera. It's a testament to Chaplin's comedic prowess that the audience never once thinks "this would never happen". It's funny, real and epitomizes everything that Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" would become. Do yourself a favor and watch this hilarious short film. I promise you won't regret it.

You can watch Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) here;

The post is part of Shorts! a Tiny Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently;

You can view all the Blogathon entries by clicking the poster above.

Resources: Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios By James L. Neibaur (2011), Charlie Chaplin and His Times By Kenneth Schuyler Lynn (2002), Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies  By Eric L. Flom (2008),Early Charlie Chaplin: The Artist as Apprentice at Keystone Studios  By James L. Neibaur (2011),The Art of Charlie Chaplin: A Film-by-Film Analysis  By Kyp Harness (2007),My Autobiography by Charles Chaplin (1964) .

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Pre-Code Blogathon: "Merrily We Go To Hell" (1932)

Directed by: Dorothy Arzner

Writing Credits:
Cleo Lucas (novel)
Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay)

Starring: Sylvia Sidney, Fredric March, Adrianne Allen, Richard 'Skeets' Gallagher, George Irving, Esther Howard.

Released by: Paramount

"Gentlemen, I give you the holy state of matrimony, modern style: single lives, twin beds and triple bromides in the morning"

During the glorious studio years of Hollywood, there was only one major female director; Dorothy Arzner. Her career began in 1919, where she was hired as a typist at the Famous Players-Lasky studios (later Paramount). From typing, she graduated to script-writing and editing, before directing her first feature film in 1927 (the silent drama Fashions for Women). Unfortunately, most of the prominent female silent film director's lost their place in the industry once talking pictures were introduced. Arzner is the notable exception. Her directing career began only seven months before the release of The Jazz Singer- the film that would change the cinematic landscape forever. As a result, Arzner directed only three silent films before making a successful transition to "talkies", the only female director to do so. 

During her first years directing at Paramount, Arzner was fortunate enough to work with the iconic screen siren, Clara Bow, on two occasions. Most notably, Arzner directed Bow in her first talking picture, The Wild Party (1929). Seeing that her star was visibly agitated by the technical changes the "talkies" invokedArzner decided to put a microphone on the end of a fishing pole, allowing Bow to move freely throughout the set, without limitations. This makeshift device was the first incarnation of the boom microphone. While Arzner didn't patent her device, she is credited as the inventor of, what we refer to today simply as, the 'boom mic'.

Dorothy Arzner and Clara Bow in on the set of The Wild Party (1929).

After more than two decades (and 10 feature films), Arzner decided to leave Paramount in 1932 and, for the remainder of her career in Hollywood, worked as a freelance director. Judith Mayne, author of Directed by Dorothy Arzner, noted of her decision to leave that, despite giving her a contract extension in 1931, Paramount demanded Arzner take a pay cut the following year (a pay cut that was mandatory for all Paramount staff). Also contributing to her decision to leave was the departure of production head B.P. Schulburg, who had been responsible for Arzner's first contract at the studio. 

In the years that followed, her career was nowhere near as successful or prosperous as it had been at Paramount in the 1930's. However, this period provided Arzner with creative independence and, as a result, she was afforded the opportunity of working with some of the most talented actresses of the time; Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Maureen O'Hara and Lucille Ball. While no definitive reason has been given for her eventual retirement from filmmaking in 1943, there were several contributing factors which lead to her departure from Hollywood. After last minute script changes altered her original vision for the 1937 film The Bride Wore Red, Arzner became increasingly selective about which projects she tackled, which lead to Louis B. Mayer labeling her as "too difficult" (the ultimate death-nail for a career in Hollywood). It was three years before Arzner would step behind the camera again. RKO began production on Dance, Girl, Dance in 1940 with Director Roy Del Ruth at the helm. After two weeks, Ruth walked off the picture, citing creative differences, and RKO hired Dorothy Arzner as his replacement. The film, starring Maureen O'Hara, Lucille Ball and Louis Hayward, was a critical and commercial failure (though it is fondly remembered today, especially by feminist film critics). 

Her next (and ultimately last) film came three years later- Columbia's First Comes Courage (1943). Despite receiving full directorial credit for the film, Arzner pulled out half-way through production due to a bout of pleurisy, and First Comes Courage was completed by Charles Vidor (who would go on to direct such classics as Cover Girl (1944), Gilda (1946), Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Swan (1956). Through the course of her career, Arzner directed only 17 feature films and, while none of them reached the financial success of Gone with the Wind (1939) or the critical success of Citizen Kane (1941), her considerable contribution to filmmaking cannot be denied. In an industry dominated by men, Arzner's intelligence (she was studying Medicine at University before she came to Hollywood) and business savvy allowed her to prosper. When she got behind the camera, her work represented the changing values of society, especially in regards to the representation of women on-screen.

Unlike her more progressive male counterparts (George Cukor, Howard Hawks, George Stevens and Leo McCarey are just a few director's who averted gender stereotypes and consistently presented women in an equal- and sometimes superior- light to their male co-stars), Arzner didn't just present her female characters as "strong", "self-assured" and "independent". There's nothing wrong with a strong, independent woman- but Arzner didn't allow those qualities to define the female gender. She played with the expectations of a "modern woman" (which was re-enforced during the pre-code era) and showed audiences that a true modern woman is an individual and- you guessed it- every individual is different. Most importantly, through her filmmaking, she demonstrated that vulnerability isn't always a weakness. You can be strong, but also vulnerable where matters of the heart are concerned- and that's not a bad thing. Which brings us to Merrily We Go To Hell....

"The only thing worse than a drunkard is a reformed drunkard"

While this is a film review, in my opinion, it is impossible to discuss Merrily We Go To Hell without first discussing it's director, Dorothy Arzner. The experience of watching this film is undoubtedly enhanced by the knowledge that a woman was sitting behind the camera lens, directing every scene. On the surface, this is a typical pre-code drama about sexual promiscuity and alcoholism. While uncommon after 1934, this particular subject matter was readily tackled in the early 1930's and, in my opinion, the Edwin Justus Mayer screenplay does nothing to set it apart from such era-defining films as The Divorcee (1930), Red-Headed Woman (1932) and, what many believe to be the pre-eminent example of a pre-code film, Baby Face (1933). What makes Merrily We Go to Hell memorable is it's unmistakable feminine aesthetic, influenced (of course) by Arzner's direction. 

Look, I'll admit it- Dorothy Arzner was not the greatest filmmaker of all-time, nor was she even the best filmmaker of her era. Of her 17 films, only a handful are fondly remembered today (with the 1940 film Dance, Girl, Dance standing above the rest). She was never nominated for an Oscar and her films never won Best Picture (nor were they even nominated). However, her films are unmistakably unique and deserve considerable commentary, regardless of her gender. Arzner never considered herself a feminist- yet there is something unmistakably feminine about her films. I think David Thomson's (rather blunt) summation in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film expresses her influence much better than I ever could;

"She was not a great filmmaker, and her pioneering should not inflate her reputation. But she turned out some fascinating pictures and clearly was able to pursue a personal, if undoctrinaire, interest in the issue of 'women's identity'".

There is no doubt that Merrily We Go To Hell is a better film under her direction, whether indirectly or directly. Her sensitivity and discretion in dealing with the film's "pre-code" material is evident throughout. There is no sexually explicit material, nor is there any nudity. Arzner never panders to the expectations of her audience (who were, it's fair to say, largely female since Merrily We Go To Hell was essentially classified as a "woman's film"), always putting the characters and their motivations front and center. The performances by Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March are exceptional and, under Arzner's direction, they save this film from certain mediocrity. 

Merrily We Go to Hell follows alcoholic writer Jerry Corbett (Fredric March) and his relationship with socialite Joan Prentice (Sylvia Sidney). They meet at a party and, despite Jerry's inebriated condition, Joan falls madly in love with him and the pair are shortly thereafter married. Despite promising to remain sober once they are married, Jerry finds his way back to the bottle when ex-girlfriend (and "the one that got away"), Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen), comes back into his life. Distraught by Jerry's obvious feelings for another women, Joan decides that the pair should experiment with a "modern marriage"; indulging in both sex and alcohol, without worrying about each others' feelings.

The plot is very risque, even for a pre-code film. While the film never directly shows the act, sex is alluded to on several occasions. One prominent example is during a crowded party scene, when Joan emerges from a guest bedroom, casually fixing her make-up, with a handsome actor in tow (played by a man who knew a thing or two about being a handsome actor; Cary Grant). Despite the salacious subject material, Merrily We Go to Hell never feels as though it's being risque just for the sake of being risque. From the very beginning, Joan's promiscuity is not recognized as an unleashing of her repressed sexuality, but rather as a desperate (and somewhat misguided) attempt to save her marriage. The performance by Sylvia Sidney, as she struggles with her new life as a "modern married woman", is absolutely heart-wrenching. She plays every scene to perfection, maximizing the brutal impact of Jerry's indifference to her suffering.

I think what makes Sidney's performance so powerful and strong is that, ultimately, she isn't afraid to look vulnerable. Joan loves Jerry and all of her actions throughout the film are a direct result of that love. She orchestrates their. essentially, open marriage in order to regain Jerry's affections, manipulating his philandering and alcoholism in a misguided attempt to make him jealous. As a result, Joan suffers unimaginable pain- and yet she proceeds because she recognizes that it's the only way to save her crumbling marriage. Joan abandons her principles and succumbs to a life of sexual promiscuity- all in the name of love. This powerful, strong, intelligent and vulnerable female characterization is a direct result of Arzner's influence.There is a reason formidable actresses (such as Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford) wanted to work with her. Arzner subverted the filmic expectations of female characterizations and allowed her women to be living, breathing, realistic human beings. Arzner may not have been a great director, but the way women are consistently represented in her films deserves commendation and respect.

I think this film's portrayal of alcoholism also needs to be commended. Thanks to Fredric March's gripping portrayal, the character of Jerry never feels fake, stereotypical or overplayed. He is a man struggling with addiction and Merrily We Go to Hell never sensationalizes that fact. Jerry is exposed for all his flaws and weaknesses and, as the film progresses, the audience gets to see him recognize his failings as both a husband and a man (and, ultimately, improve upon himself). While this film is predominately about Joan's love, strength and perseverance, Jerry's constant attempts at redemption and recovery are just as captivating (again, in large part due to March's wonderful performance). 

Fredric March thrived during the pre-code era because of his considerable versatility and range as an actor. Because of his intense, dark eyes and chiseled facial features, he was a convincing and likable leading man- even when his character was a downright heel! He could be an alcoholic, a womanizer and even a murderer, and yet the audience could (and would) still root for his redemption (see his Oscar-winning performance in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)). In Merrily We Go to Hell, Jerry constantly treats Joan with utter disdain and contempt- and yet the audience still wants to see them end up together (I know I did!). It's what made Fredric March such a valuable commodity in Hollywood, especially during the pre-code era (when screenplays and characterizations were much more explicit). No matter how flawed or how seemingly irredeemable he was, Fredric March could always win over his audience (especially in the early 1930's, when he was at the peak of his talent and beauty).

Buoyed by the sensitive, unmistakably feminine direction of Dorothy Arzner, this film shines as a captivating example of what the pre-code era could (and frequently did) produce. While I wouldn't say it was a great film, it is an enjoyable film with realistic and relatable characters (despite the more than 80 years since it's release) and I could definitely see myself returning to Merrily We Go To Hell for repeat viewings in the future.

My Rating

More Screencaps

The post is part of Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Pre-Code.com and Shadows and Satin;

Resources: Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne (1994), Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century, Volume 5 by Susan Ware (2004), Feminist Film Studies by Karen Hollinger (2012), Women Directors and Their Films by Mary G. Hurd (2007), Feminism and Film Theory by Constance Penley (2013), The New Biographical Dictionary of Film by David Thomson (2004), Dangerous Men: Pre-Code and the Birth of the Modern Man by Mick LaSalle (2014).

Friday, 27 March 2015

Book Review: The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger

The star making process - like everything else during Hollywood's studio years - was contradictory, unpredictable, and ambivalent, but none of that slowed the system down.

When a young hopeful recieved a studio contract, their every flaw was immediately put under the microscope. Slightly overweight? You were put on a diet. Slightly balding? A hairpiece was created to match your hair color. Teeth not straight? The star would be whisked off to the dentist's chair. Hairline too low? The studio would use hairline electrolysis, a painful procedure designed to manufacture a more glamorous hairline. If you required extensive work on your appearance, surgery was not out of the question. Every aspect of a star's appearance was dissected and, subsequently, altered. And that was only the beginning....

Rita Hayworth before and after her hairline electrolysis.

Released in 2006, Jeanine Basinger's methodical deconstruction of the studio system's "star making" process makes for a highly entertaining read. With confidence, finesse and a voice uniquely her own, Basinger introduces us to stars who prospered- and stars who floundered- under the harsh studio lights. 

While a considerable read at 608 pages, I promise if you invest in Jeanine Basinger's The Star Machine you will never once be bored. Her exploration of the studio system is intricate and extensively researched, presenting the reader with a treasure trove of information- yet it never actually feels as though you are learning, such is the nature of Basinger's light and entertaining writing style. Don't misunderstand me, I know much more now than I did before reading The Star Machine (it is littered with historically accurate information about the studio system and it's stars)- and yet, the information is presented in such a way that I didn't feel as though I was reading a work of non-fiction. It was both fun and informative! Basinger's deconstruction is laced with humor, poking fun at the studio system's archaic ways, while also remaining respectful of the process and it's subsequent results (afterall, say what you will about Louis B. Mayer, he was the envy of every studio head in Hollywood for over 30 years). 

I think what makes this book so interesting is the stars Basinger has chosen to examine. Instead of simply trotting out the old favourites (Garbo, Crawford, Davis, Gable, Grant- though they do get a mention here and there), she instead selects actors and actresses who are seldom put under the microscope. Eleanor Powell, Van Johnson, June Allyson, Tyrone Power, Loretta Young, Deanna Durbin, Jean Arthur, Charles Boyer and more...Basinger expertly identifies how they were all molded into profitable commodities for their respective studios and details their rise and fall in the eyes of the public. With Tyrone Power, she explores his rebellion against the studio system that had nurtured his career and made him the crowned "King of the Movies" (he actually did receive a crown for that honor- in 1939, The Chicago Tribune ran their annual "Movie King and Queen" poll, surveying over 20 million readers. Tyrone Power was pronounced the king- his queen, the lovely Jeanette MacDonald). Through Jean Arthur, she re-iterates the need for actors and actresses to have a defined "type" to survive and thrive during the studio era. She even pinpoints the exact moment Arthur's "type" was established (her performance, under the direction of Frank Capra, in the 1936 film Mr Deeds Goes to Town) and chronicles her career successes in recreating this "type" in the years that followed

More than anything else, this book is a tribute to the Hollywood studio system, which thrived for over 40 years. In the book's final chapter, Basinger looks at modern actors and actresses (such as Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angeline Jolie, Mel Gibson, Sandra Bullock etc.) and deconstructs how there careers would have differed had they been under studio protection. The most prominent modern example explored is Tom Cruise. The book was published in 2007, just as Cruise's career was beginning to unravel, and Basinger notes how studio protection would've prevented his reputation and image being irretrievably damaged. While some modern examples suffer as a result of the book's publication date (Brendan Fraser is a notable example- unfortunately, his career has taken a considerable nosedive in the years since 2007 and I'd wager that nobody in 2015 would compare him to Tyrone Power), for the most part Basinger correctly predicts the career trajectory of the stars she has dissected- a testament to her considerable knowledge in regards to Hollywood (both past and present) and how it functions. 

Her most impressive deconstruction of career trajectory is that of Matthew McConaughey. In 2007, I'd wager that most of us would never have predicted that McConaughey was capable of winning an Oscar. Basinger, demonstrating a profound (and almost psychological) understanding of actors and actresses, assesses his career to date and (correctly) predicts the trajectory it will take. While she doesn't outright say "he will win an Oscar", she boldly predicts that his star will continue to rise and that he will find roles more suited to showcasing his unique acting talents showcase (in 2007- after Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, Sahara, The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days etc.- who knew he had any real acting talent). 

This book is a true testament to Jeanine Basinger's standing as one of the most respected film historians of our times. Her considerable knowledge of Hollywood (both past and present) and her methodical analytical skills make this a book to remember. It's both entertaining and informative- a fascinating read that will keep you captivated from start to finish.

My Rating

Interested in purchasing The Star Machine? The book is available in paperback and for the Kindle via Amazon.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Warner Archive: "You Said a Mouthful" (1932)

Directed by: Lloyd Bacon

Writing Credits:
Robert Lord (screenplay)
Bolton Mallory (screenplay)
William B. Dover (based on a story by)

Starring: Joe E. Brown, Ginger Rogers, Preston Foster, Allen 'Farina' Hoskins, Harry Gibbon, Edwin Maxwell.

Released by: First National and Vitaphone Pictures.

It should be noted that I am not a Joe E. Brown fan. I am a Ginger Rogers fan. This is the second Joe E. Brown vehicle I have watched for Miss Rogers- the first being The Tenderfoot (1932)- and I am grateful that it will also be the last. While I didn't dislike this film, I just don't find Brown to be particularly funny. Amusing, yes...but rarely funny. Of course, his performance in Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959) is a notable exception- but it is one in a sea of many.

While I am admittedly not a fan, there's no denying the impact Joe E. Brown had on the film industry in the 1930's. He become a star during the most tentative period in Hollywood history (and when most actors and actresses were losing their star appeal, not gaining it)- the transition to "talkies". For a period, he was one of Hollywood's highest paid stars and also one of the top box office draws (in 1932, Joe E. Brown ranked 10th on the list of top box office stars, alongside Gable, Crawford, Shearer and Garbo). Unfortunately, unlike comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, The Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello etc., his comedy has been unable to stand the test of time.

Joe E. Brown's road to Hollywood stardom was certainly unique. In 1902 (at the age of 9), Joe ran away and joined the circus- oddly enough, with the full consent of his parents! After touring circus arenas and vaudeville theater's for several years with a tumbling act called The Five Marvelous Ashtons, Joe left show business to pursue a professional Baseball career. Despite his considerable talent and a contract on the table from the New York Yankees, Joe decided he preferred the entertainment industry and promptly returned to the circus. In 1920, he made his Broadway debut in the musical comedy revue Jim Jam Jems and, as the years progressed, his popularity began to soar. In 1928, Hollywood came knocking and Joe was quick to answer. While he recieved several supporting roles upon his transition to films, it wasn't until he was signed to a long-term contract with Warner Brothers in 1929 that he began to register with the public.

After starring in a slew of lavish technicolor musical comedies for Warner Brothers in 1930 and 1931, Joe E. Brown became a star in his own right and, accordingly, found his name above the title. He was showcased in a series of films tailored to his specific comedic talents and the audience responded favorably. Films such as Fireman, Save My Child (1932), The Tenderfoot (1932), Elmer, the Great (1933), Son of a Sailor (1933), A Very Honorable Guy (1934) and Alibi Ike (1935) cemented his status as a top-box office draw for Warner Brothers and made him one of their most valuable comedians.

You Said a Mouthful was made in 1932, the year in which Joe E. Brown featured in the list of the top 10 box office perfomers. At the height of his popularity and appeal, this film is a typical showcase of his talents. The film clocks in at 72 minutes and stars Joe E. Brown as Joe Holt, a hapless shipping clerk who heads to Los Angeles after being told he is the sole heir to his Aunt's million dollar fortune. Unfortunately, upon arrival in L.A., he learns he was misinformed as to the size of the fortune and, in fact, has only inherited a handful of dollars...as well as the young son of his Aunt's faithful maid (portrayed by the extremely talented young actor, Allen Hoskins). After being forced to take up residency on a park bench, Holt unwillingly accepts a minimum wage job as a bus boy on Catalina Island. While waiting to board their ferry (and accept their measly fate), a case of mistaken identity ensues and Holt (with his new son, Sam, in towe) is promptly whisked away by the young, beautiful socialite Alice Brandon (Ginger Rogers). He soon learns that he has been mistaken for a champion marathon swimmer and is expected to compete in a swim from Catalina Island to the mainland in a matter of days. Determined to win Alice's love- and steal her away from the handsome Ed Dover (Preston Foster), who also happens to be a professional swimmer- Holt (with Sam's help) begins to train for the event. There's only one major complication to his otherwise foolproof plan (ha!)- he's terrified of water and can't swim.

To it's credit, You Said a Mouthful makes the absolute most of a less-than-flimsy plot line. Filmed on the beautifully scenic Catalina Island in California, this nonsensical comedy is actually quite enjoyable (as long as you don't think too hard about what's happening). Ginger Rogers is a little shaky (and very high-pitched) in her performance as Alice Brandon- but it's inconsequential to the plot. Ginger is merely an explanation for Joe E. Brown's zany antics and she serves her purpose accordingly. The real highlight, for mine, was Allen Hoskins as Holt's adopted son, Sam. Better known as Farina from the Our Gang series, his performance oozes with self-assured confidence (no doubt a byproduct of his age and encouraged by his considerable talent). He never once allows himself to be outclassed by the more experienced Brown and, in fact, enhances the latter's performance. Unfortunately, as I intimated earlier, Brown's comedy style comes across as rather dated. The film is predominately comprised of sight gags, most of which utilize his considerably large mouth (and, as expected, it gets pretty old, pretty fast). There has been over 80 years of comedy (and comedians) since Joe E. Brown first started in pictures and, unfortunately, his particular brand of comedy is not unique enough (or funny enough) to separate him from the pack and ensure a long-lasting legacy. While I enjoyed this film, I don't think I would ever find myself going back for a repeat viewing.

Print Quality

As with all the recent Warner Archive releases, this film is restored to the highest possible quality. There are still quite a few scratches throughout (which is to be expected), but overall the picture is clear and the frame is soft while still maintaining contrast. The film's gorgeous location shooting is immaculately presented in this print, enhancing the overall movie watching experience.

My Rating

Warner Archive releases can be purchased through their website or through Amazon. This review is in no way affiliated with either website.