Gilda (1946) and my greatest love affair

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I created The Old Hollywood Garden because I wanted to express my love for the classics. I wanted to make people want to watch them, and I wanted to share my undying fascination with Hollywood’s Golden Age with the world. I’ve shared stories with you guys, more recently about how I underestimated Detour (1945) the first time I watched it and how a second viewing of it completely changed my mind about it, but one thing I never wrote about is how I became a classic movie buff. More precisely, what my very first classic movie was. Well, it was Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946). All the way back in 2007 when I was fifteen years old. I was flipping through the channels, and I stumbled upon it on an retrospective type of channel which shows old films and TV shows. Its black and white cinematography caught my attention straight-away and I put the remote down and watched it. I had no doubt in my mind this would be the start of something great for me and I couldn’t wait for it. I was barely half way through it and I already knew that I wanted to consume as many of these wonderful movies as possible. I was mesmerized by Rita Hayworth – who isn’t? – and I loved the love-hate relationship between Gilda and Johnny (Glenn Ford). It was hot. It was exciting. It was a masterclass in screen chemistry. Years later, I still think it’s the sexiest movie ever made. I was drawn in by them mostly, but right from the start, I thought Gilda was so fascinating. Johnny’s voice-over narration in the beginning (‘To me, a dollar was a dollar in any language…’) was everything I’d imagined these things to be. Great lines, no non-sense attitude; straight-up cool. The plot was interesting enough – small-time gambler Johnny is hired by Ballin Mundson (George Macready) to work in his casino, not knowing Ballin’s wife is his ex-lover Gilda – and the performances were fantastic. Especially Rita Hayworth’s. Her most iconic role was also her greatest. A flawed character, multi-layered and yet mysterious. Confident and yet vulnerable. A sort of anti-heroine that no doubt paved the way for many female characters that followed it. It is still one of my favorite performances of all time and the reason I couldn’t take my eyes off Gilda the first time I saw it. A ‘femme fatale’, I later read. I was transfixed by this. Film noir was intriguing. Years later, of course, I realized that Gilda isn’t quite a film noir (noir melodrama?) and Gilda isn’t really a femme fatale. Not in the traditional sense anyway. Looking back, Gilda was ahead of her time, in many ways. But back then, I just knew that this was endlessly fascinating. I had to watch more of these. So many more. I had to watch more stuff with Rita Hayworth in it. And Glenn Ford. I had to watch all of these films noirs. And the screwballs and the Pre-Codes. And the musicals! I had to watch all the Golden Age of Hollywood had to offer. Needless to say, I’ve been doing just that for twelve years and it has been absolutely blissful.

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COMEDY GOLD #11: The conga from Ball of Fire (1941)

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Ball of Fire (dir. Howard Hawks, 1941) seems to be one of those movies that everybody loves. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s sweet, it’s romantic, it’s funny and it’s got Barbara Stanwyck singing ‘Drum Boogie’, not to mention the ‘yum-yums!’

In it, a group of professors have been working on an encyclopedia for a few years while living together in the same house. Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), professor of English, decides to take a day trip around New York in order to update his modern American slang. He goes to a joint where he meets Sugarpuss O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck), a nightclub singer who is wanted by the police. Not knowing this, he lets her stay at their residence, and soon their lives begin to intertwine. Sugar’s street-smarts and carefree attitude is a wonderful contrast to the booksmart nature of the professors (in particular, Potts), and the conga scene is the best example of this: summoned by Prof. Jerome (Henry Travers), Sugar comes down one morning to find the professors trying to learn new dance moves, chalk markings on the carpet and all. Prof. Gurkakoff (Oscar Homolka) tells her he can’t figure out the ‘common denominator between the steps and the music’, to what she says is because they’re trying to learn the conga while playing the polka. She then proceeds to show them the moves, to the right beat, in a moment that is both funny and endearing.

Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, Ball of Fire might just be one of, if not the sweetest screwball ever, which is saying quite something for a picture that has gangsters in it – Dan Duryea and Dana Andrews, no less!

Pre-Code Perfection: Three on a Match (1932)

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Three on a Match (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) might just be my favorite movie from what is possibly my favorite year in cinema, 1932. A Pre-Code masterpiece that stays with you long after the credits roll and I, for one, can never help but get a lump in my throat every time I watch it.

Three on a Match follows the lives of three women from their days as elementary school girls to adulthood, in the present day. As it turns out, Vivian (Ann Dvorak), Mary (Joan Blondell) and Ruth (Bette Davis) have led very different lives: Vivian was always the most popular girl in school and is now married with a child, living in a big, beautiful house; Mary went to reform school and now works as a showgirl under the name Mary Bernard; Ruth was always the smartest of the three and is now a stenographer. The three meet for lunch after not having seen each other for a number of years, and Vivian confides in them that, despite everything, she is not happy. Later on, she tells her husband, Robert (Warren William) that she needs to get away for a while. She decides to go on a cruise with the boy, Junior (Buster Phelps) and, while there, she meets Michael (Lyle Talbot), a smooth-talking gambler, who persuades her to go away with him. What follows are some of the most heart-pounding, gut-punching and downright brutal moments in all of Pre-Code as Vivian’s life takes a turn for the worse…

Three on a Match is the perfect example of why Pre-Code was so utterly fascinating. Clocking in at just 63 minutes, there is more than enough in it for a three hour picture. Everything from substance abuse, to depression, to extra-marital affairs, to kidnapping. And that’s before Humphrey Bogart even makes his entrance, as the two-bit hood hired to take care of things. Three on a Match makes the most of what it has to offer, and it is glorious. I suppose the most notable aspect of it is the message; whichever way you look at it, there’s something to take away from it. Vivian, seemingly the most successful and presumably happiest of the three, is utterly miserable for reasons that she herself doesn’t even know. She has everything she could ever have hoped for, and yet she’s unhappy. Maybe she never hoped for this. Maybe she never fought too hard for it either. Maybe that’s it. Things have always come easy for her, and now she doesn’t know who she is anymore. She probably never has. And now she’s craving something else. Anything else. Some excitement. Some fun. Somewhere away from her current life. This leads to her ultimate destruction and her punishment for it is one of the harshest lessons in a film. Her poor decisions led her to this point and there is no going back now. Her life spirals out of control in a matter of weeks and if she didn’t know who she was before this, she certainly won’t be able to find out now. In fact, when it gets to this point, she is a shadow of her former self, virtually unrecognizable in every way. And just when you think you’re ready to sympathize with her again, she lets us down. The main message is clear, but what if there is another message behind it? There is no doubt she was suffering from a severe depression, and sadly it went undiagnosed and untreated. It’s no secret that this kind of stuff wasn’t as talked about back then as it is today, but one can’t help but think that there might be something in it. Maybe Vivian needed help all along. Maybe it wasn’t her fault. Maybe we can sympathize with her again?

The recurring theme of Three on a Match is reflected in all of their lives, not just Vivian’s. Mary, for example, went to reform school right after elementary school, and is now working as a chorus girl in what we can assume is a relatively stable career. At the very least, she’s learned from her mistakes and she’s made a life for herself. Her time in reform school gave her the social tools she needed in order to survive in this world, and led the way for her to become an independent, intelligent and confident person. She goes from rags to riches, whereas Vivian goes from riches to rags. The way the lives of these two women mirror each other and switch places so drastically is poignant and it makes you think. Ruth, on the other hand, was the smartest girl in school and everybody knew it. She went to business school and started working as a stenographer, and her current life is seemingly uneventful, which also mirrors Vivian’s life in a way. Ruth is the least showy character of the three (something Bette Davis never had to worry about after this!), but her few moments onscreen tells us all we need to know about her: her life is rather boring and when she reunites with her former friends, their rekindled friendship and her subsequent attatchment to Vivian’s child seem to give her life some meaning. By the end of the picture, the lives of these three women have turned around completely and we’re left with all the ‘what ifs’ that come with it, but also a sense of closure.

Pre-Code is fearless and Three on a Match is a testament to it. An emotional roller-coaster, with a beautifully delivered message and a brutal, heart-breaking climax. Not to mention the tremendous performance by Ann Dvorak, who might just be the most underrated actress of her generation.

SCREENPLAY BY: Morrie Ryskind

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2019 is here and The Old Hollywood Garden is starting it off with the first installment of a new series of posts, SCREENPLAY BY. As a screenwriter and playwright myself, I thought I would pay tribute to the much-overlooked geniuses that craft the stories of so many of our favorite movies. And who better to start it with than with screenwriter, dramatist and song-writer Morrie Ryskind?

A frequent collaborator of George S. Kaufman and George and Ira Gershwin on several Broadway several in the 1920s and 30s, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Of Thee I Sing in 1933. By then, he’d already made his Hollywood debut, with the screenplay for The Cocoanuts (dir. Robert Florey and Joseph Santley, 1929), the Marx Brothers comedy, which he adapted from the Kaufman play. Animal Crackers (dir. Victor Heerman, 1930) and A Night at the Opera (dir. Sam Wood, 1935) followed, and in 1936, he received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of My Man Godfrey (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1936), along with Eric S. Hatch. The following year, he received another screenplay nomination for Stage Door (dir. Gregory La Cava, 1937), with Anthony Veiller. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the satirical tone and social commentary of both of these films – the upper classes and showbusiness, respectively – still stands to this day, and both of them are considered to be some of Ryskind’s finest work in Hollywood. He and La Cava were known for their ability to hold a mirror up to society and Ryskind’s scripts, particularly, take no prisoners – who can forget William Powell’s scathing monologue to Gail Patrick about her upbringing in Godfrey?

In 1938, he wrote the film version of Room Service (dir. William A. Seiter, 1938), the last of the Marx Brothers vehicles he would write for, and three years later, he wrote the screenplay for the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne drama Penny Senerade (dir. George Stevens, 1941). Throughout the 1940s and 50s, he continued to write, mainly story outlines and additional dialogue, before dedicating the rest of his life to political activism. Morrie Ryskind passed away in 1985 at the age of 89.