Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage (1934) – a star is born

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Sometimes it’s hard to believe there was a time when Bette Davis was not a star. Yet, between 1930 and 1933 she was mostly a supporting player with little screen time, in Pre-Codes such as Three on a Match (1932, ir. Mervyn LeRoy), which we covered here. It wasn’t until 1934 that the Bette Davis we know and love came to be. John Cromwell’s adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934) is a rather simple story, with a few noticeable flaws, that is made great only by Bette’s fantastic performance as the vicious Mildred Rogers, my choice for this year’s Great Villain Blogathon.

In Of Human Bondage, Leslie Howard’s Philip Carey, a down-on-his-luck artist turned medical student, falls head over heels in love with Mildred, a waitress who really couldn’t care any less about him, and that, of course, is no good, to say the least. What starts off as a typical love-hate thing quickly turns into something else, something a lot more sour and unpleasant. The contrast between these two characters is of course the main factor: he’s nice, she’s mean; he’s emotional, she’s cold-hearted; he’s a pushover, she’s a taker. Eventually, Philip’s love for Mildred is ultimately his greatest weakness, in what is now a common relationship arc in storytelling. In fact, Of Human Bondage tackles a lot of the themes that we’ve come to know, namely Philip’s obsession with turning Mildred into the caring, loving woman he thinks she is at heart – she isn’t –, the whole thing about ‘saving her’ and his subsequent downfall. As for Mildred… she’s one of Pre-Code’s greatest creations, not least because they, and Bette in particular, weren’t afraid to go all out with her. Mildred is an ugly character. A cold, careless, greedy character that very nearly borders on being a sociopath. She uses Philip for her personal gain and even goes as far as to mock him for his feelings, and while Pre-Code is filled with characters like that, Mildred is particularly cruel. At a certain point, you have to wonder whether she enjoys tormenting him, to which the answer is most definitely yes – her memorable rage-filled speech aimed at him in the movie’s final act confirms this. A character that’s so virtually unredeemable was almost unheard of. What’s more, she’s not even glamourous, like you’d expect. Towards the end, especially, her clothes are raggedy, her hair scruffy and her make-up runny and uneven. Her final moments are not only still visually and emotionally impactful, but the preciseness and dedication with which they’re performed also reveal what we’ve always known: Bette Davis had guts.

For more posts on the Great Villain Blogathon, click here.

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COMEDY GOLD #15: Doris Day in Pillow Talk (1959)

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We sadly lost the great Doris Day on Monday, so I’ve decided to talk about one of my favourite performances of hers, and the only Oscar nomination she received, in the magnificent Pillow Talk (1959, dir. Michael Gordon), the first of three movies she made with her best friend Rock Hudson – the other two being Lover Come Back (1961, dir. Delbert Mann) and Send Me No Flowers (1964, dir. Norman Jewison).

Pillow Talk stars Doris Day as interior decorator Jan Morrow, who has the misfortune of having to share a telephone line with songwriter and massive manhoe Brad Allen (Rock Hudson), much to the annoyance of both of them. It’s not hard to imagine where this is going, but the beauty of Pillow Talk is that it doesn’t feel like just another predictable romantic comedy. The Oscar-winning screenplay is tight and full of easy-going charm, and the performances, both Day’s and Hudson’s, as well as the supporting cast – Tony Randall and Thelma Ritter (in an Oscar-nominated performance) in particular – are nothing short of wonderful. Doris Day is especially great. I couldn’t decide which scene to pick for this month’s COMEDY GOLD, because it is such a solid, consistent and confident performance in a film that enjoys all of those qualities throughout. It’s perhaps no surprise that she got an Oscar nod for it, considering that it pretty much showcases her many talents in a little less than two hours. Right from the off, we get to listen to her beautiful voice singing the title track, and throughout the film we’re treated to her perfect – PERFECT – comic timing, her ability to convey all of her thoughts and feelings with just an expression, not to mention the ease with which she balances it all out. Also, shout-out to the wonderful Rock Hudson, who, in my opinion, never got the praise he deserved. Their combined talents and chemistry with each other make them one of the greatest partnerships in the romantic comedy canon as well as one of my personal favorite showbiz friendships. I’d like to think they gave each other a big hug upon her arrival in Hollywood Heaven.

Farewell, Doris Day ❤

SCREENPLAY BY: Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon

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Today is Katharine Hepburn’s birthday, and because I’ve talked about her ad nauseam here on The Garden, I thought I’d focus on something else this year: Hollywood power couple and lifelong friends of Spencer Tracy and birthday girl, screenwriters and all-round talents Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon.

Born in 1912, Garson Kanin started out his career as a musician and comedian, and after graduating from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began appearing in plays on Broadway and in 1936, he directed his first play, Hitch Your Wagon. By this time, Ruth Gordon (b. 1897) was in Hollywood, playing mostly supporting characters, having acted in silent movies and on Broadway for over twenty years, starting in 1915, after also having graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. They married in 1942 and in 1947, they wrote the screenplay for A Double Life (1947, dir. George Cukor), for which they received an Academy Award nomination. By this point, Gordon was also writing her own plays, including the autobiographical Years Ago, later turned into the movie The Actress (1953, dir. George Cukor), for which she also wrote the screenplay, while Kanin had just directed Spencer Tracy in the play The Rugged Path, Tracy’s first play in fifteen years. Kanin and Gordon were very close friends of Tracy and Hepburn’s – as detailed in Kanin’s book Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir – and even incorporated some of their personality traits in their respective characters when they wrote the screenplay for Adam’s Rib (1949, dir. George Cukor), for which they got yet another Oscar nod. In 1950, Cukor directed the movie adaptation of Kanin’s 1946 play Born Yesterday, the most successful of his career and in 1952, he directed Pat and Mike (1952), another Tracy and Hepburn movie, for which Kanin and Gordon received their last Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. That same year, they also wrote the script for The Marrying Kind (1952, dir. George Cukor), their last official collaboration. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Kanin and Gordon continued to work in Hollywood and on Broadway, with Gordon winning an Oscar for Supporting Actress for Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski). Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon remained married until her death in 1985, fourteen years before his death in 1999.

The Joan Crawford Blogathon – Humoresque (1946)

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John Garfield’s untimely death at age 39 in 1952 may have robbed him and us of a long and prolific career, but the performances and movies he left behind more than make up for it. Not least his performance in Humoresque (1946, dir. Jean Negulesco), one of the most tragic of all 1940s melodramas.

Written by Clifford Odets and Zachary Gold based on the short story by Fannie Hurst, Humoresque tells the story of Paul Boray (Garfield), a violin virtuoso consumed by his love for party-girl socialite Helen Wright (Joan Crawford). Told in flashback, the film documents Paul’s life, from childhood to adulthood, in one of the most surprisingly accurate, if underused, depictions of what the life of an artist can be. As we see in the flashback, Paul has always wanted to be a musician. He navigates through his childhood years feeling like a misfit and an outsider, until he comes face to face with his destiny when he stumbles across a violin in a shop. His father (J. Carroll Naish) strongly advises him against it while his mother (Ruth Nelson) encourages him. Sure enough, he proves to be quite the talent and through the years, his career takes off, alongside his wise-cracking, piano-playing friend Sid Jeffers (Oscar Levant). Then one day, he meets Helen at one of her high-society parties and everything changes. Their relationship starts off as a love-hate thing but it quickly becomes serious. More serious than either of them expected…

John Garfield and Joan Crawford have the type of chemistry that melodramas are made of and while Garfield’s fantastic performance is the best thing about the movie, Crawford’s gloriousness takes it to a whole new level. Helen’s non-committal ways and resistance in accepting her feelings for Paul, along with the frustration that comes from the those feelings, result in a simultaneously restrained and over-the-top performance, that can only be described as a masterclass on how to make love to the camera, even when John Garfield is in the room. She knew just how much the camera loved her and if there has ever been any doubt about that, look no further than the famous beach scene, which, for lack of a better word, is… sensational. Garfield, on the other hand, turns in a performance that keeps Humoresque from the type of film that gives melodramas a bad name. One of the original Method actors, he seems to have understood the emotional turmoil that artists often experience and he puts that into action beautifully, in a carefully understated and nuanced performance. He is the yin to Crawford’s yang and the two of them wander through Humoresque challenging its melodrama status and elevating it to full-blown tragedy. Humoresque‘s lessons on life, love and showbiz may go unnoticed amongst the music, the shadows and Joan Crawford’s fabulousness, but they’re there. For all they’re worth.

Humoresque has always struck me as one of the quintessential Joan Crawford movies, so when Pale Writer and Poppity Talks Classic Film announced their blogathon, I knew I wanted to talk about it. Mostly because Helen Wright is probably the most Joan Crawford-y Joan Crawford has ever been – and that includes her entrance in Rain (1932), which is nothing short of unbelievable.

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COMEDY GOLD #14: Make ‘Em Laugh from Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

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One of the world’s most beloved movies, Singin’ in The Rain (1952, dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen) ticks all the boxes: a musical-comedy satire of 1920s Hollywood, full of great musical numbers, colorful sets and wonderful performances by Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen (in an Oscar-nominated role), Debbie Reynolds and the focus of this month’s COMEDY GOLD, Donald O’Connor.

In the Make ‘Em Laugh number, Cosmo (O’Connor) tries to cheer up his best friend, Hollywood star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), by, well, making him laugh. After telling him that the first thing an actor learns is that ‘the show must go on’, he delivers what is possibly one of the greatest musical performances of all time. Everything from playing the piano then effortlessly jumping on it, to pratfalls, wall-climbing and playing out an entire relationship with a dummy, all while singing perhaps one of the catchiest tunes in the movie. The scene is vaudeville-worthy and it’s physical comedy at its absolute best. So demanding was the routine that O’Connor was apparently in bed for three days after the shooting. The show must indeed go on!

Steve Cochran in Private Hell 36 (1954): homme fatale?

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Don Siegel’s criminally underrated Private Hell 36 (1954) can never seem to make its way onto any worthy ‘top noir’ list, perhaps justly so. It’s pretty solid, but there is probably no place for it amongst the giants. No category in which it fits and at which it excels. Apart from one: it has a homme fatale, rather than a femme fatale. That’s right, when you tear apart the metaphors, Cal Bruner (Steve Cochran) might just be one of the genre’s few hommes fatale.

The plot, penned by Ida Lupino and Collier Young, follows two LA police officers, Bruner and Jack Farnham (Howard Duff) as they investigate a drugstore robbery. A fake 50 dollar bill leads them to Lilli Marlowe (Ida Lupino), a singer in a nightclub, and after a few questions, she ends up helping them with the investigation. However, when they finally catch their man, Bruner decides to take the money himself and hide it in a secure place: trailer park #36…

What starts off as a rather typical noir – an ongoing robbery and the ensuing shootout in the dark streets of LA – turns into one of the most ambigious noirs of the 1950s. Not least because of its characters. We have two police officers and a nightclub songstress as our three leads and yet their roles are somewhat different than what you’d expect. Firstly, Lilli is far from a femme fatale. Yes, she’s down on her luck and lusts after money, but that’s only because she knows what it’s like not to have any. Her wise-cracking ways reveal more about her than she’d like to and her assertion that ‘she was framed for something she didn’t do, so today she doesn’t go around framing other people’ tells us that she has a good head on her shoulders and a heart of gold. She’s not trying to get anyone into trouble. She’s only trying to make some money, get by and look out for herself. Then there’s Jack Farnham, a level-headed, hard-working family man. His wife Francey (Dorothy Malone) and their daughter Bridget provide a contrast to his line of work, a safe haven and a happy routine. And then we have Cal Bruner. On the surface, he appears to be on the level. He’s our introduction to the world of Private Hell 36, as he chases after the robbers in the film’s opening sequence and straight-away, we know that we can probably trust him. His charisma and charm later on win us over – ‘I’m irresistible’, he says to Jack – and his relationship with Lilli gives the film its central romance. Which is why his deeds in the second half feel like such a blow. And this is why I think Cal Bruner is a ‘homme fatale’. At first, he appears to be safe. We trust him, because we see no reason not to. He’s good at his job, he’s charming and his friendship with Farnham is solid and endearing. That is, until about forty minutes into the movie. After this, everything changes and we start to see his true colors. Then we realize what has happened: he successfully seduced both Lilli and Jack. After his first encounter with Lilli in the club, he managed to work his way into her life by using his wits and attractiveness and he sweet-talked her into being with him. Their shared sleaziness and carefree attitude about commitment attracts them to each other and soon enough, her life as she knows it changes. And the same goes for Jack. By letting him in on it, Cal removes the safety and security from Jack’s life. His mere presence in his house threatens to disturb the peace and the happy, harmless family life he built for himself. Jack’s wracked with guilt and Cal’s effect on him is similar to that of a femme fatale on a fallen hero – it’s perhaps no coincidence that the relationship between the two of them is often addressed in homoerotic undertones. It is true that one could say Cal’s actions are motivated by his relationship with Lilli, but are they? Towards the end of the money, Jack tells him ‘You’re sick, Cal. I should have known that a long time ago. You don’t care about anything or anybody.’, so there’s that. Maybe he’s just a corrupt cop, God knows there are millions of those in the streets in film noir, but they usually make themselves known to us fairly early on. Nah. Cal Bruner is more than that. Maybe this wasn’t intentional, but his ambiguity as a character certainly makes him a strong contender for the title of film noir’s smoothest, slyest homme fatale.

SCREENPLAY BY: Dudley Nichols

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Everybody knows George C. Scott was the first actor to refuse an Oscar, but not many people know that screenwriter Dudley Nichols was the very first person to do so. Not only that, but he was also one of the most prolific and well-regarded story crafters of the 1930s and 40s.

Born in 1895 in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Nichols started his career as a reporter and feature writer for the New York Evening Post and the New York World, before moving to Hollywood in 1929. The following year, he co-wrote Men Without Women (1930), the first of many collaborations with director John Ford. After a string of Pre-Codes, dramas and comedies, including A Connecticut Yankee (1931), She Wanted a Millionaire (1932) and The Lost Patrol (1934), he won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for The Informer (1935), which he turned down, becoming the first person to do so. As a member, and later President, of the Screen Writers Guild, formed in 1933, his refusal was part of a boycott of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which the Guild felt was a ‘company union’, and part of the oppressive Hollywood studio system. In 1938, after a long dispute, the Screen Writers Guild was finally recognized as the sole representative of screenwriters, and Nichols accepted his Oscar at last. After this, he went on to write such movies as Bringing up Baby (1938), Stagecoach (1939), Scarlet Street (1945), and The Bells of St Mary’s (1945), among others and he received three more Oscar nominations  for The Long Voyage Home (1940), Air Force (1943) and The Tin Star (1957). He also wrote the screenplays for the only three films he directed, Government Girl (1943), Sister Kenny (1946) and Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) – Rosalind Russell was Oscar-nominated for the last two.

Dudley Nichols received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America, before passing away in Los Angeles in 1960.

Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and that chilling scene…

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Leon Shamroy’s stunning, ethereal Oscar-winning cinematography in Leave Her to Heaven (dir. John M. Stahl, 1945) is the perfect backdrop for one of the most despicable things any character ever did in a movie. But before that, here’s what we’re dealing with: Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney) and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) meet on a train and soon become attracted to each other. As luck would have it, they’re heading to the same destination, a beautiful ranch in New Mexico. Unsurprisingly, after a few mishaps that include Ellen breaking off her engagement to Russell Quinton (Vincent Price), she and Richard get married. But things start to take a turn for the worse, as Ellen’s possessiveness and jealousy start to show and her obsession with Richard turns deadly…

The film’s crowning moment, and one of the greatest moments in film history, comes about an hour into it and represents a clear, undeniable shift in the film’s tone and in the character of Ellen: on a beautiful, sunny day, Richard’s younger, disabled brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) and Ellen are on a boat in the lake. She’s been helping him with his swimming and he’s eager to show his brother how much he’s improved, so he decides to go for one last swim, so he can ‘show Dick tomorrow!’. He goes in and swims for a while, with Ellen right behind him on the boat, almost like a predator… After a few seconds, he gets a stomach cramp and starts to drown. He calls out for Ellen… But Ellen doesn’t come. She sits motionless on the boat, watching him drown, her eyes hidden behind her sunglasses, knowing that, with him gone, Richard will be all hers…

It’s one of the most horrifying scenes in any movie, particularly because of how unusual it is. Unlike its 1940s noir counterparts, Leave Her to Heaven is set against the backdrop of a breath-takingly beautiful place, making the most of its glorious Technicolor. So it stands to reason that its most dramatic moment should take place on that lake, surrounded by trees, not too far from their lodge, on a sun-soaked day. That’s all it needs, because Ellen is dark enough as it is. And that in itself is probably the biggest argument for Leave Her to Heaven‘s inclusion in the noir canon: that comfort, that security, that idyllic scenario, cruelly taken away from us by something extremely dark lurking underneath. From the moment she realizes what she could do, to the moment Danny drowns, her evilness is evident: her face barely hiding her contempt for Danny as she decides what she’s going to do; her lips pursed, and her eyes fixated on him as she makes sure he’s gone for good… And like that, silence. Nothing, apart from the ripples of the water as it becomes still again.

This was Gene Tierney’s only Oscar nomination, and while her performance had been good enough up until this point, I am convinced this was the scene that sealed the deal. It’s an extraordinary acting moment, one that doesn’t require a whole lot of dialogue, other than a few stone-cold responses as Danny looks back every once in a while, and one that only needs to be conveyed on her face. That’s it. There’s no music, no big argument, no nothing. Just Gene Tierney. Because that’s all we need.

COMEDY GOLD #13: The morning routine from The More The Merrier (1943)

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One of the most endearing rom-coms of all time, the premise of The More the Merrier (dir. George Stevens, 1943) is full of comedic potential: during the war, Connie Milligan (Jean Arthur), Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn) and Joe Carter (Joel McCrea) are forced to share an apartment following the housing shortage in Washington DC, with Dingle eventually acting as the matchmaker between Connie and Joe. The film is filled with hilarious situations and one-liners but, if pressed, I’d say the morning routing between Connie and Dingle is possibly the funniest moment: after seeing an ad in the newspaper, Dingle heads to Connie’s apartment and asks her to let him stay with her, despite her initial objections. She eventually says yes, and while the entire movie enjoys the comedic abilities and chemistry between the three leads, it is really Connie and Dingle who set the movie up for comedy glory right from the start. About ten minutes into it, the two of them have drafted an over-complicated morning schedule which, when acted out the following morning, relies on physical comedy so wonderfully, it borders on slapstick. Everything from pratfalls, to miscommunication to hilarious outbursts! George Stevens directs the scene – and the whole film – to perfection, while the two of them provide the laughs with their legendary comic timing. Jean Arthur was Oscar-nominated for her performance – the one and only time – and Charles Coburn actually won for Best Supporting Actor. No wonder!

SCREENPLAY BY: Frances Marion

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Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the 1920s and 30s were, actually, surprisingly kind to female screenwriters – as kind as the Hollywood studio system could be anyway. And none was more renowned than Frances Marion, the woman who is literally prefaced as ‘the most renowned female screenwriter of the 20th century’ in every bio. That acclaim, of course, is richly deserved.

Born in San Francisco, CA, in 1888, Marion worked as a photographer’s assistant and artist in her youth before becoming a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner. After her move to Los Angeles in 1913, she began working as a writing assistant in director Lois Weber’s film company. During that time, she worked as a war correspondent and eventually became the first woman to cross the Rhine after the armistice. In Hollywood, she wrote several scripts for her friend Mary Pickford, including Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917), Polyanna (1920) and The Love Light (1921), which she also directed. In 1925, she wrote the first film adaptation of Stella Dallas (1925), and in 1930, she won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Big House (1930), making her the first woman to win a Screenplay Oscar. In that same year, she wrote the hugely successful Min and Bill (1930), a vehicle for Marie Dressler, who won Best Actress. The next year, Marion won her second Oscar, for The Champ (1931), which in turn also earned Wallace Beery his Oscar. In 1933, she teamed up with Beery and Dressler again, in George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933), which she co-wrote with Herman J. Mankiewicz. The popularity of Dinner at Eight, so soon after Min and Bill, saw her being credited with having revived Marie Dressler’s career. This was due in no small part to her ability to work with specific actors and to highlight their strengths as performers, and in a variety of genres; she wrote comedies, silents, crimes dramas, tear-jerkers, among others, in the course of nearly four decades. She retired in the 1940s, having written over 300 scripts throughout her career. In 1973, Frances Marion died in Los Angeles, at the age of 84.