Book Review: The Ice Cream Blonde

The Ice Cream Blonde Book Cover Michelle Morgan Chicago Review Press Large

While Thelma Todd‘s death often overshadows her work, Michelle Morgan has written the biography the actress deserves. Any book about Thelma must mention her death and the mystery that surrounds it, but Morgan spends the majority of The Ice Cream Blonde discussing the slapstick comedienne’s life and career.

Thelma Todd and Charley Chase

Morgan researched her subject well. The book is filled with details whose sources are carefully listed in the notes and bibliography sections. She shows how a prim and proper New Englander originally intent on becoming a schoolteacher became “Hot Toddy” roughhousing with a veritable who’s who of silent and early talkie comedy. Her famous co-stars included the Marx BrothersCharley ChaseBuster Keaton, Harry LangdonJoe E. BrownWheeler and Woolsey, and Laurel and Hardy.

Zasu Pitts and Thelma Todd in Asleep in the Feet (1933)

Producer Hal Roach sought to make a female comedy short duo as popular as his Laurel and Hardy pairing. He first paired Thelma with ZaSu Pitts, and when Pitts left his studio, he replaced her with Patsy Kelly. While the shorts’ detractors call them derivative and uninspired, Thelma and her co-stars draw laughs in their roles, and the films’ plots, while sometimes bizarre like The Tin Man, put slapstick into female realms, seemingly to offer a woman’s take on this comedy form despite being written and directed by men.

Buster Keaton and Thelma Todd in Speak Easily (1932)

Even though Thelma wanted a break-out role to lead to feature starring work, she was more concerned with expanding her talent and roles and securing her future than the fame associated with stardom. She was never too proud to not take a pratfall or to recognize and respect everyone working on-set. She knew the names of those working behind the scenes because she chatted with them about their families. As a consequence, she was beloved wherever she worked, at Roach’s or on loan.

Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly

Her generosity helped many a friend. When New York stage star Patsy Kelly wasn’t adapting to life on the West Coast or slapstick screen work, and her debts threatened to drown her, Thelma’s intervention prevented Patsy from returning east in defeat. When Patsy was fleeing California, Thelma became determined to save Patsy before the studio got word. Thelma hopped into her car and dragged Patsy off of her eastbound train. The two had an all-nighter, full of heart-to-hearts and advice. A lifelong friendship developed.

Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café

When her big break didn’t seem to be coming, Thelma’s practical side made her plan for her post-screen future by becoming a businesswoman. She partnered with former lover Roland West and his wife Jewel Carmen to open Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café. Initially Thelma was to provide her name and presence, while the Wests were to provide the financing and management, but Thelma became very hands on, learning to run most aspects of the business. She could be found hostessing and personally preparing food, and her presence attracted everyone from tourists to fellow film stars.

Roland West

Her business put her on the trajectory to tragedy. Soon after becoming partners with West, the two became romantically involved again, and Thelma moved into the café’s apartment in a room next to his, only separated by a sliding door. The pair’s relationship was volatile, and at least once resulted in physical violence. Her alleged mobster ex-husband Pat DiCicco had been physically abusive as well. The smart starlet was not so smart in her choice of men. The eatery’s success and perhaps secret on-site gambling of Hollywood stars attracted mob interest. Meanwhile Thelma started receiving anonymous blackmail threats in the mail. Whatever your theory about Thelma’s subsequent death in the café’s garage, these incidents provided possible motives for murder.

Newspaper Diagram of Thelma Todd's Death Scene

In dissecting the available evidence surrounding Thelma’s death and the subsequent inquests, Morgan carefully conveys which testimonies and pieces of evidence she finds credible and why. She reviews the theories relating to accidental death, suicide, and murder, and she favors one, but she doesn’t belittle those coming in with others. For instance, she asks if Thelma truly walked to the garage herself why was no mention made of the state of her hosiery? Thelma was wearing high-heeled sandals, and such a long walk in or not in non-protective footwear would have resulted in dirtiness and runs.

Thelma Todd's Shoes Worn at Death in 1935Don’t think Morgan’s fact-focused approached leads to a dry style, quite the contrary. While her style is non-sensationalistic, it is engaging and allows the personalities she describes to be experienced through her words, especially in the book’s concluding and haunting quote from the actress. Maybe Thelma truly had the last word. Always the planner, she had posted Christmas cards and presents early. Friends and family received them a few days after her death. Still trying to make others happy. Her true legacy.

Merry Christmas from Thelma Todd

Disclosure: I was provided a review copy by the book’s publisher, Chicago Review Press.

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Black Friday Treat: The Bargain of the Century (1933)

Thelma Todd Still from The Bargain of the Century (1933) sharpenned

Feeling Black Friday fatigue? Here’s a delightful Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts comedy teaming, The Bargain of the Century (1933), that pokes fun at battling for bargains for you! The duo’s slapstick antics bring humor to scenes best experienced secondhand. In their quest for a good deal, the women give and get bruises in a rough shopping crowd. Each lady does so in her own inherently idiosyncratic style. Thelma’s character is a scrapper, not afraid to get into the mêlée, and ZaSu’s character eventually gets a grabbing with her formerly timid, fluttering hands. Their shopping excursion ends up costing them more than they saved when they accidentally get a policeman (James P. Burtis) fired, whom they have to house and feed until they find him a new job. Of course, that task turns out not to be so easy! Watch the videos below to see how it all plays out.


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Happy Thanksgiving!

I hope everyone celebrating today had a lovely Thanksgiving! What kind of weekend do you have planned? I’ll be using a good chunk of my long holiday weekend to finish up Michelle Morgan‘s The Ice Cream Blonde, watch movies, and get some writing done.

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Criterion Blogathon: Judex (1963)

Why the fervor over the Criterion Collection?

When DVD technology was new, I read in Movieline and other magazines filmmakers and actors praising the technology and claiming watching DVDs was like taking a film class. DVDs offered extras that most VHS tapes did not. Today the content on DVDs and Blu-rays varies. They might contain supplements, but if they’re made-on-demand, bonus features are likely to be minimal–if they are even included. The Criterion Collection carries on the tradition of educating film fanatics about the movies they love.

The company focuses on world classics and movies otherwise deemed culturally important. It packages home viewing copies in carefully designed cases usually including booklets containing essays written by experts on the films or their subject matters. Aspect ratio police can relax when watching a Criterion disc. When buying one, they will never buy a pan and scan, essentially a new directorial version of the film sacrificing its full screen image by cropping it to fit yesteryear’s square televisions. The distributor standardized the letterbox format for widescreen films on discs.

Sometimes Criterion’s licensing for movies lapses, and it cannot produce new copies for sale. The threat of time limited editions pressures movie lovers to buy discs sooner versus later. Tardy and unlucky cinéastes risk having hunt for them on the used market, where hard-to-get out-of-print editions can be costly.

As of my writing this post, a Google search of the words Criterion Collection yields 9.3 million hits. Most of that content isn’t even produced by the company. Fans share their Criterion hauls across social media. Some make blog posts and podcasts about individual films. Others go even further devoting their entire blogs and podcasts to covering only Criterion’s offerings. This blogathon is another contribution to the cult of Criterion!

Judex (1963) Criterion Collection Cover

In order to best cover Georges Franju‘s Judex (1963) for the Criterion Collection blogathon, I’m reviewing not only the film, but also its packaging and bonus features. I bought the dual-format edition, so all details following below refer to that edition, but a one-disc DVD edition is available.

Packaging & General Contents

The set comes in a sturdy box, squatter than a traditional DVD case, but of the same width and length. While the case is classic Blu-ray size, the plastic is not blue. It is clear, so that it does not detract from the cover artwork. Inside is a thirty-seven page booklet and three discs. One disc is a Blu-ray, and the other two are DVDs.

Packaging Design & Booklet Artwork

Art directors for this set are Sarah Habibi and Eric Skillman. The packaging design is by Skillman, “a Brooklyn-based designer, art director, and writer, best known for his work with The Criterion Collection, where he has been firmly ensconced since 2002.” Ron Wimberly, best known as a comics writer and artist, provides the illustrations, including the cover image. He designed the box art for Criterion’s Zatoichi collection.

Wimberly Diana versus Daisy Booklet Illustration Judex 1963

Their challenge was to make the package and booklet visually tie into the Judex’s silent film aesthetics. They did a superb job! All design elements are in the color palette of silent film. They’re in whites, blacks, and grays with orange added as the one vivid, popping color. A modernized, meaning streamlined, art nouveau style is found in every design element. Major sections of the booklet are demarcated by intertitle-style boxes with art nouveau framing, and those frames are copies of ones in the movie’s opening credit sequence. Art nouveau embellishments mark essay and interview breaks. Wimberly’s illustrations have a simplified style. His subjects from the film are immediately recognizable, but they’re rendered in a style where the film’s decadent art nouveau aesthetic meets a graphic novel pop art style.

Booklet Contents

The booklet contains the film’s cast and credits listings, the essay The Secret of Heart of Judex by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien, selected commentary by the director entitled Franju on Judex, information on the transfer, special thanks and acknowledgements, and productions credits. O’Brien’s essay covers a lot of ground, from Louis Feuillade‘s cinematic contributions and rediscovery, to his original Judex (1916), to what both directors have in common, to an evaluation of Franju’s version, and to how a reimagining of Feuillade’s Judex could result in a highly personal film for Franju with a lasting contribution to pop culture. In his commentary, Franju discusses how he actually wanted to remake Fantômas, but was solicited to remake Judex and how he modernized the telling of the tale while attempting to keep the original film’s atmosphere. He reveals how he felt about his main actors and characters. For example, his muse and frequent collaborator Édith Scob gave him déjà vu when he first met her. A diversion into Le grand Méliès connects back to Judex, but before it does some wonderful anecdotes about Jehanne d’Alcy, Méliès second wife and widow, are shared.


According to the booklet, “Judex is presented in its original aspect ratio of about 1.66:1.” On my widescreen television, the film’s images filled my screen without any letterboxing, but on standard 4:3 televisions and some widescreen models, you may see black bars to maintain screen format. The new transfer “was recreated in 2k resolution on an ARRISCAN film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative.” During the restoration process, “thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, and warps were manually removed.” The resulting movie I watched has a gorgeous look, clear of signs of aging with the dreamlike silent film aesthetic intact and details in set design, clothing, and actors’ expressions readily studiable.


While this Judex is a near silent in some parts, it has spoken dialogue and a soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, another frequent collaborator with Georges Franju. From the booklet: “The original monoaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm soundtrack negative. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.” Again no signs of aging are audible in the movie’s soundtrack. The resulting soundtrack is clear.

Contents of the Three Discs

The single Blu-ray contains the movie, a searchable timeline, film chapters, supplements, and an option to turn off or on English subtitles (The default is on). DVD 1 contains the movie, film chapters, and the option to turn off or on English subtitles. DVD 2 contains the DVD version of all the supplements found on the Blu-ray disc.

Menu Screen

The menu screen design of the Blu-ray is quite clever. As you prepare to watch the movie or its extras, you see Judex’s observation screen. Images from the film play within its frame on a loop. The soundtrack has a shorter loop than the images. It features a segment sounding quite sci-fi. You’ll likely not leave on the menu screen too long before the sounds of such a short loop get annoyingly repetitive.

Bonus Features

  • The first bonus feature is an interview with Francine Bergé, who played Marie Verdier/Diana Monti. The interview was recorded in 2012 for Paris’s La Cinémathèque française. She talks about what it was like working with Franju and the other actors and what a fun time she had on the set. Franju’s main character direction was for her to play her role as “evil.” She relates a sad on the set tale about costar Channing Pollock.
  • The second is a 2007 interview with Judex cowriter Jacques Champreux. Franju credited Champreux for removing any aspect resembling movie serials in their retelling. He called Champreux “a habitué of the Boulevard of Crime” and one of “the most creative writers.” Champreux was involved with the project first, and he was the one who solicited Franju to participate. Champreux, also, happened to be the grandson of Louis Feuillade.
  • The third supplement is Franju Le Visionnaire. It’s a fifty-minute program consisting of interviews with Franju that spanned twenty-three years. The last was filmed shortly before his death. Clips of his better known films are spliced into the interviews, and works covered include his documentaries, like Le sang des bêtes/Blood of the Beastsas well as his fiction films, like Les Yeux sans visage/Eyes without a Face. Franju Le Visionnaire was originally broadcast as part of the French television series Cinéma, de notre temps in 1998. The interviews expand on the booklet’s material in Franju on Judex going deeper into his film-making philosophies and techniques and his work on Judex.
  • The fourth is short Le grand Méliès (1952). It’s a biographical tribute to early film pioneer Georges Méliès, whose movie career ended around the onset of World War I. Méliès started in magic theatre shows, and after seeing the Lumière brothers privately demonstrate their cinematograph, he knew it could be used for entertainment purposes. Franju’s film starts when elderly Méliès runs a toy store and jumps to the end of his pure theatre career as he segues into his movie career before ending in 1953, past Méliès death. His wife Jehanne d’Alcy plays herself, and Méliès’ son André plays his father. The movie is a creative way of teaching film history while demonstrating early film-making techniques.
  • The final extra is Hôtel des Invalides (1951).  It features music by Maurice Jarre and cinematography by Marcel Fraedetal, both collaborators on Judex. It’s an antiwar documentary short. Hôtel starts off seeming like a simple cinematic tour of the museum in the former hospital. We follow a young couple visiting the site. The movie ultimately shows the human cost of war. We’re shown the place’s burial site, and we’re shown physically and likely psychologically wounded veterans being celebrated for their service. Hôtel hints war is not over as one of its final shorts contains child soldiers, eager to grow up and serve.

Judex 1963 Poster

The Movie

If you have seen Louis Feuillade’s movie serials Judex (1916) and Les Vampires (1915), you’ll get the most enjoyment out of this film. While it functions as an entertainment on its own, including scenes of original, strong imagery, it’s a lot more fun to see the ways in which Georges Franju’s film remains faithful to its source material and when it deviates. Placed throughout the movie are what we now call Easter eggs to Musidora‘s performance as Irma Vep in Les Vampires. Franju was known for mixing documentary style with the dreamlike, and his Judex screens like we’re watching his fever dream that crosses Feuillade’s films and a groovy, sixties crime thriller.

Favraux in Judex 1963

Franju loved how monochromatic silent film made everything beautiful, even the mundane. He was influenced by surrealism, expressionism, documentaries, and the French “tradition of quality.” Aware of his influences, he was driven to pursue his own vision: “I like films that make me dream, but I don’t like anyone to to dream for me.” He discovered Louise Feuillade’s films in 1938. He and Henri Langlois “included some of them in a retrospective program at the Venice Film Festival.” Franju complimented Feuillade saying, his style “does not seem like a style. . .His way of telling the simple or crazy stories that are made still more extraordinary by the familiar natural settings whose reality–the truth–always makes them beautiful.” It’s hard not to read that description and see those elements in Franju’s works.

Channing Pollock as Judex 1963

Franju wanted to remake Fantômas, but its rights were not available, so he consented to work on Judex. He saw Judex, in the name of good, as being as horrible as Fantômas. In Franju’s film, Judex (Channing Pollock) loses his revenge tale. A backstory whose DNA can be found in pop culture creations like Batman is gone. Instead Judex metes out justice against the horrible banker Favraux (Michel Vitold) for no reason. Why did Judex decide to turn vigilante and punish Favraux for his crimes? Has Judex punished anyone else before? Is he letting out a dark side in the name of good? We never find out. Perhaps if Judex whims had turned another way, he’d be a criminal like Fantômas. Perhaps Franju’s Judex’s DNA can be found in television shows like Dexter.

Diana Monti in Judex 1963

Even though Judex’s targeting of Favraux starts the plot going, he becomes reactionary to the antics of Diana Monti (Francine Bergé), nanny to Favraux’s grandchild under the false name Marie Verdier. Diana has a scheme to marry Favraux, so she can get access to his wealth. Judex seems to kill Favraux at a party, and then Judex secretly kidnaps the comatose Favraux. Diana is the only one bright enough to realize the ruse. We’re never told what motivates her other than greed and jealousy, but Bergé is a better actor than Pollock and has more presence, so she makes the more use of her greater screen time. Her Diana is evil, sexy, and profane. A feat when following Musidora’s performances!

Jacqueline and Daughter in Judex 1963

Édith Scob’s Jacqueline Favraux is Diana’s opposite. She’s the good woman whose strong moral character survives despite being the pawn of so many in the story. Her father Favraux had married her off too young to a man old enough to leave her a widow with a young child. Her father plans to marry her off again for his convenience to a penniless man of low morals. After her father’s “death,” his true nature is revealed to her, and she renounces her portion of his fortune, while leaving her child’s in trust for her to decide what to do with it when she comes of age. Jacqueline’s suitor breaks their engagement, and her only remaining friend is family servant Vallieres. Thin Scob conveys a physical fragility later exploited by Diana, and Scob gives Jacqueline’s eyes a haunting, soulful look that replaces her initial sunniness and naiveté.

Diana about to Kidnap Jacqueline

Judex and Jacqueline stand in Diana’s way. She needs to find Favraux to “save” him so she can marry him. Judex knows where Favraux is, and Jacqueline is the heir who can make trouble for Diana and prevent her marriage. Diana repeatedly attacks Jacqueline, and while Judex doesn’t prevent the attacks, he’s too consumed in punishing her father, he repeatedly saves her. It’s sheer luck that Diana’s efforts don’t kill Jacqueline before Judex’s appearances. Further speaking to his impotency against Diana, it will be another female, Daisy (Sylva Koscina), more robust than Jacqueline, but also a wearer of white, who will prove to be more than Diana’s equal in a rooftop battle.

lion peugeot type va voiturette Judex 1963

The film’s setting exists in an alternate reality merging 1914 and 1963. All the cars driven are vintage, and one neat scene features headlights being lit by hand with flame. The characters wear sixties clothing that echoes their characters’ silent film origins. There’s a tribute scene to Les Vampires’ Apache dance sequence. Diana and her boyfriend Morales (Théo Sarapo), are dressed like mod reinterpretations of Irma Vep and her companion. Judex has gadgets and a secret lair like in the silent, but they’re upgraded for the sixties, like Judex’s observation mirror. Phones and decor remain vintage style. As in the original Judex and in Les Vampires, the decor offers much eye candy and design inspiration. My favorite set piece is Favraux’s art nouveau embroidered desk chair.

Jacqueline rescued and protected by German Shephard Judex 1963

Franju fills his film with beautiful and surreal and frightening images. A kidnap attempt on Jacqueline is foiled when German shepherds suddenly appear on the grounds. They drive Diana and her henchman away, and one dog rests his paw protectively on Jacqueline. The scene is like something out of a fairy tale. In another scene while dressed as a nun, Diana attacks Jacqueline with a hypodermic needle. It’s done in daylight and in public, and no one notices. Later Diana has drugged Jacqueline dropped into the river, where she floats away. Shots of her in the water evoke Ophelia. Near film’s end, Judex’s men carefully scale the wall of Diana’s hideout. They move slowly up it like insects.

Judex 1963 The Hawk

The movie’s standout scene is its masquerade ball. Pollock is best made use of in this sequence. The tall, handsome man stands outside the party. As the camera pans up his tuxedo, he’s revealed to be wearing a hawk’s mask, and its face looks toward the camera, breaking the fourth wall. He turns his attention to what appears to be a dead dove, picks it up, and carries it on his hand into and through the party onto the stage. With a sleight of hand, the dead dove becomes a living one and flies out toward the crowd. A crowd of people wearing bird and insect-like masks. Pollock was a stage illusionist best known for his grace in making doves appear out of nowhere. For a moment, Pollock has something in common with his director. Both skillfully make illusions to entertain.

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This post is an entry in the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings. To read other bloggers’ contributions, please click the banner above!

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Tab Hunter Confidential at CAIFF 2015

Tab Hunter Confidential Poster

Today we know that Hollywood heartthrob Tab Hunter had a secret. While he was working hard to become an actor appreciated for more than his looks, he was a gay man living in the closet, and that fact would have destroyed his career if it became common knowledge. It would have shattered his all-American boy image that peddled teenybopper magazines, records, and the periodic picture. The documentary Tab Hunter Confidential, an adaptation of the same-titled memoir, tastefully and lovingly tells his life story with a heavy focus on his performing career. The movie opened the 2015 California Independent Film Festival, the first time in the festival’s eighteen years a documentary was awarded that spot, at a sold out New Rheem Theatre.

Tab Hunter Confidential Q&A CAIFF 2015

Derek Zemrak, Tab Hunter, and Allan Glaser at CAIFF 2015

The Lamorinda-area crowd skewed older, and a great number of Tab Hunter’s peers and original fans were in attendance. During the screening, they gasped when later studio-era stars’ images from their heyday were flashed onscreen. I detected in the outbursts a mixture of reactions–admiration of beauty, recognition, and youth briefly recaptured. When idols were shown aged while discussing the past, much of the audience momentarily murmured as they discussed with their seatmates performers’ appearances. One of the loudest reactions came from the revelation that actress Dolores Hart had become a nun. Viewing the movie with such a vocal group added to my fun!

Tab Hunter in Grease 2

I wasn’t well-versed in Hunter’s story before the movie, and I was more familiar with his revival period films, like Polyester and Grease 2, than his “glory era” flicks, but I emerged from the screening impressed with his attitude and what he accomplished in his life.

Gertrude Gelien Tab Hunter Natalie Wood

Tab Hunter’s Mother Gertrude Gelien Visits Him and Natalie Wood on the Set of The Burning Hills (1956)

His German immigrant mother fled an abusive relationship and raised her two sons as a single mother. This would result in Hunter’s first name change. He was born Arthur Kelm, but his mother had the whole family revert to her maiden name Gelien. Finances were tight for the family, and Arthur Gelien started working at a young age. He was shovelling manure at a stable when he got word a film was being made nearby. He wandered over to watch the proceedings, and a chat with one of the actors, Dick Clayton, led to an introduction to agent Henry Willson, who specialized in representing pretty beefcake types. Willson invented Gelien’s third name. When Hunter rejected Troy Donahue as a potential moniker, Willson and Hunter agreed on Tab Hunter, a name inspired by the actor’s love of horses. A hunter is a type of competition show horse.

He soon landed his first lead role,  Island of Desire (1952), co-starring Linda Darnell. The stranded-on-a-deserted island plot meant that Hunter didn’t wear much in the part, and he photographed well, but he acted poorly. His embarrassment didn’t discourage him. He was determined to become a better actor and score better parts, but his studio Warner Brothers was content to market him as “The Sigh Guy.”

Tab Hunter Beach Still from Tab Hunter Confidential

There was repetition in the roles the studio assigned him. He was often cast as the younger love interest of an older or slightly older women (Island of Desire), as a soldier (The Sea Chase, Lafayette Escadrille, and The Girl He Left Behind), as a cowboy ( The Burning HillsGunman’s Walk, Gun Belt, and Track of the Cat), or some mixture of the other roles (Battle Cry and That Kind of Woman). He usually played the male lead and love interest and almost always the good guy. Gunman’s Walk gave him the chance to stretch his acting and play a villain, and he’d get a further chance to try edgier roles on TV like in Playhouse 90‘s live episode Portrait of a Murderer (1958).

Hunter had been a singer in his church choir, and to expand his career options, he cut a single for Dot Records called Young Love (1957). Unexpectedly it became a hit on the U.S. charts and knocked Elvis Presley‘s Too Much out of the number one spot. Young Love held the spot for six weeks. It fared even better in the U.K. where it was top of the charts for twelve weeks. Jack Warner was furious! He had Hunter under an exclusive contract, but Warner Brothers had no recording division, not since it sold off Brunswick Records. Warner’s releases were being licensed to other companies’ record labels, something that Jack Warner had been pressured to change by his executives. Hunter’s hit was the catalyst that caused Jack Warner to finally form Warner Bros. Records, and while Hunter never had such a big hit again, he steadily recorded for the label, and his singing inspired Warner to buy Damn Yankees‘ (1958) screen rights for the star.

Confidential Magazine Cover Featuring Tab Hunter

Hunter’s career had survived an attempted outing by Confidential in 1955. He had left agent Willson to be represented by Dick Clayton. The former actor had become an agent, and Hunter was more comfortable working with Clayton, whom Hunter trusted more. Willson’s client Rock Hudson was going to be exposed by Confidential unless Willson could make a deal. In exchange for Confidential dropping their Hudson story, Willson gave them stories on Hunter and Rory Calhoun. In 1950, Hunter had been arrested for disorderly conduct after leaving a pajama party attended by homosexuals. Calhoun had kept secret the time he had served in prison. Neither man’s career suffered. The public didn’t seem to care what Confidential implied about Hunter, maybe they didn’t believe its claim, and Calhoun’s bad boy reputation and roles were further enhanced.

Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood 1956

Jack Warner assured Hunter the incident would soon fade, and Hunter understood the role he was to play on and offscreen. The studio arranged dates for him, usually his latest co-star, and they would go out to functions together. Hunter enjoyed the dates. Even if he wasn’t interested romantically or sexually in the women he escorted, he had fun going with beautiful women to night clubs, parties, and premieres. He especially loved spending time with Natalie Wood, whom he adored like a “little sister.” Natalie never asked him why he never initiated anything romantic with her. They both knew they were out to promote their films and careers. Hunter remarked once they were done being photographed, they’d exit from the rear of a venue, and she’d run off to meet Dennis Hopper, and he’d go off to meet his real date. Debbie Reynolds was another beard, but she didn’t mind. She didn’t know Hunter was gay back then, but she had fun going out with him to events. “He wasn’t on the make, and women like that.”

Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins

Tab Hunter and Anthony Perkins with “Dates”

Living in a time more conservative and traditional about sexual preference and identities and working in a field where he was required to present a very specific image of manhood, Hunter compartmentalized his life. He didn’t let his career prevent him from becoming involved with men, but he didn’t talk about being gay (a word he wouldn’t have known back then), or having lovers or boyfriends, and his studio didn’t ask him about his private life. They would protect him as long as he played his part and was a valuable commodity. Being raised by a strict, traditional German mother, he viewed his private life as something to be kept private whatever his sexual orientation was. In a story shared at the screening, he talked about how he never came out to her, but he’s sure she knew. After a romance with Anthony Perkins ended, she asked her son why she never saw Perkins anymore, and when Hunter explained they had drifted apart as friends, his mother thought for a moment and replied, “I’ve never been in love.”

Operation Bikini Poster

Three things other than Hunter’s sexuality ended his early film career. The studio put him in lesser quality films as the sixties went on. Nothing can hurt a career worse than inferior product. The type of films and roles became an issue. The public’s tastes changed. Leading men were becoming more complicated and less wholesome as American counterculture influenced the movies. Hunter seemed like a throwback to an earlier era as stars like Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson became popular. The biggest blow to Hunter’s career was a strategic move that backfired. Unhappy with the films Warner Brothers was putting him in, he bought his contract and became a freelancer. Film work, good or bad, became even harder to get. He went to Europe and shot spaghetti westerns.

Polyester Promo Still Tab Hunter Divine

When John Waters contacted him for Polyester, Hunter was performing in American dinner theatre, and he was game to take a risk and spoof his former screen image. He treated Waters and Divine with respect, and Waters said Hunter made his part work by never winking at the camera and romancing Divine onscreen as he had his more famous leading ladies like Natalie Wood and Sophia Loren. Hunter’s gamble paid off, and he not only got offers and hired for roles (Grease 2), but also he went into producing, and that led to him meeting his life partner, Allan Glaser. After some health issues like a heart attack and stroke, Hunter retired from performing, even though he could have continued working. He decided that he was done with acting, and he settled back into private life.

Tab Hunter CAIFF Best Documentary Award 2015

Derek Zemrak awarding Tab Hunter for Best Documentary at CAIFF 2015 (From the Tab Hunter Confidential Facebook Page)

What motivated someone like Hunter to tell his life story? He heard somebody else was writing his biography, and he knew since it was unauthorized they’d be able to write whatever they liked, true or not, and not in the way he would. In the film and in interviews, he says, “Why not get it from the horse’s mouth, instead of some horse’s ass after I’m gone?” He co-wrote his memoir with Eddie Muller first, and later Hunter’s partner convinced him to turn it into a movie. While Hunter doesn’t seem comfortable being a gay rights spokesperson, he does seem happy having his career recognized and being accepted by his fans. During the question and answer session post-screening, he told one laudatory gay man, “I don’t understand you young people,” and he went on to say but if you get something from my story then I’m glad.

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The William Wellman Blogathon: Maybe It’s Love (1930)

Maybe It's Love 1930 Sheet Music

After William Wellman got sick of his treatment at Paramount Pictures, he showed why his nickname “Wild Bill” stuck. He covered Producer B.P. Schulberg‘s desk in manure and left a note on top of the pile reading: “Here’s what I think of your lousy script!” Despite his bad boy behavior, Wellman was in demand. He could make any script better by adding his distinctive touches, and he did it while staying on schedule and under budget. After he was done demonstrating his opinion to Schulberg, Wellman literally hopped into his roadster and sped from Paramount in Hollywood to Warner Brothers in Burbank, where he was signed for a two-year deal by Darryl F. Zanuck. While Zanuck promised that Wellman would get to make his own projects, the first picture Wellman worked on was an assignment, Maybe It’s Love.

The College Widow 1927

Dolores Costello & William Collier, Jr. in The College Widow (1927)

It wasn’t a hoary old chestnut like Charley’s Aunt, but the movie’s original source material was twenty-six years old, and it had been adapted in one form or another multiple times. The project’s original DNA came from a play. George Ade‘s The College Widow was a stage hit in 1904. The play kept its original title when it was filmed by the Lubin Company in 1915. That was the era of simply filming a play as is, and stage and film star Ethel Clayton played the title role. In 1917 Jerome KernGuy Bolton, and P. G. Wodehouse turned the play into a stage musical called Leave It to Jane. Its’ first run was a critical hit, but a modest commercial success. Another silent film adaptation followed in 1927, and again the play’s title was kept. Dolores Costello took her turn playing the college vamp. This last film was a Warner Brothers project, so the studio was remaking its own product three years later for the sound era.

Daryl F. Zanuck 1937 by Peter Stackpole

Daryl F. Zanuck in 1937 by Peter Stackpole

Why the studio interest in this material? Zanuck favored seeing the movie produced because he had co-authored a new take under the pen name Mark Canfield. The studio could exploit the subject’s sound possibilities and the college movie craze all at once. Wellman had little interest in the project, but he wanted to please Zanuck, whom Wellman held in high regard: “I admired him for his guts and the quality he had of grabbing a headline and generating the speed and enthusiasm all down the line to make a good picture quickly–at this he was a master and the hardest-working little guy you have ever seen in all your life.” Wellman accepted the assignment.

Maybe It's Love Flirting Tutorial

Joe E. Brown’s Speed Teaches Joan Bennett’s Nan to How to Flirt

The plot of the movie is as follows. Joan Bennett plays Nan. She’s the daughter of Upton College’s president, and he’s been threatened to lose his position by the school’s board if the football team doesn’t finally have a winning season. They’ve lost for the last twelve years to rival school Parsons. Joe E. Brown plays Speed. He’s the football team’s star player, and its only valuable one. The rest of the team would be bench sitters at another school with quality players. Speed convinces the “mousy” Nancy to turn herself into a college widow and seduce the nation’s best footballers to enroll at Upton. Nan is willing to do almost anything to save her father’s career, and she agrees. She gets a makeover and flirting lessons from Speed. The rest of the movie mixes comedy and drama. We see Nan’s choreographed seductions of football stars and how she tries to juggle multiple men on campus at once before falling for one of the lot, James Hall‘s Tommy Nelson. Of course, Nan’s machinations get found out, which puts the big game and her in peril.

Maybe It's Love Canoe Tipped Scene

There are plenty of pre-code elements in the picture. What a college widow can get up to is shown. Normally a college widow goes through a succession of men, not dating the whole team at once like Nan does! Then there’s an implication that maybe Nan goes to a greater extent in her seductions than simply flirting. We see Nan seduce fella after fella using different tricks. One lad goes canoeing to canoodle with her, only to end up tipped into the drink on purpose. When Nan emerges from the water, her thin dress is plastered against her body, and every curve is evident as are her pointing nipples. Her body is on display as bait. When Nan falls for Tommy, they take their romance behind a pillar. The audience is left to imagine at least necking if not heavy petting. There’s a dance scene in which the football team circle Nan and dance around her with their bottoms in the air. The oddest pre-code moments are Speed hiding, watching, coaching, and commenting on Nan’s shenanigans. He comes off very creepy. He seems pimp-like and to be taking too much pleasure in the goings on. When the players later turn on Nan after realizing her manipulations, there’s a momentary feeling of danger. They want to humiliate her as they feel humiliated by her. How far will they take their revenge?

Maybe It's Love Football Practice

Despite having Wellman as a helmer, Maybe It’s Love isn’t a successful picture. “Originally planned as a full scale musical, much of the music was removed before release because of the public’s apathy and aversion towards musicals in the autumn of 1930.” These cuts turned the picture into a comedy with some musical numbers. The film feels disjointed. Joe E. Brown would become a major star one year later, and he seems like he should be featured more throughout the movie as its billed second lead. His character is mostly sidelined after Nan’s real romance ignites, and James Hall becomes the film’s de facto male lead. Brown isn’t well shown either. His character comes off as weird, loud, and annoying. His comedic college athlete persona would be much better shown in 1931’s Local Boy Makes Good. Laura Lee appears as Betty at film’s start. She’s Speed’s girl, so I expected the Brown and Lee characters’ romance would parallel the one of the straight romantic leads like in 1930’s Top Speed, but she disappears until the film’s end. The energy and enthusiasm lacking in the shooting of most of the comedic scenes becomes even more apparent when the final game hits the screen. Those football scenes are much more dynamic and show more of Wellman’s directorial mastery.

William Wellman Directing “Young Eagles” in 1930

William Wellman Directing Young Eagles in 1930

Any Wellman fan watching this picture would look for evidence of his direction, and it can be found. As Frank Thompson once wrote, “No matter how slight the film seemed to be, no matter how trivial the subject matter, Wellman was able to leave his personal imprint on the finished product.” Maybe It’s Love falls on the slighter picture scale, yet there are undeniably Wellman moments. During Tommy and Nan’s falling in love scene, a long, slow dolly shot goes through the water bursts of a fountain to the lovers and pulls back as they disappear to continue their lovemaking offscreen. Before that moment, he shoots some of the love scenes so that his leading lady’s face is obscured by leaves and the pillar. He sacrifices showcasing his actress during a big moment for his signature preoccupation of making an audience work as they watch a scene. Wellman was a former football player, and he knows how to feature the sport. During the final game, Wellman intercuts newsreel or stock footage from at least one football game with his scenes to give a sense of scale. The crowd attending looks huge which makes the pressure on the athletes feel greater. A really clever moment has Wellman doing quick cuts between a referee and a player on the field. We get flashes of two different actions occurring simultaneously, increasing the sense of dynamism as our minds process the fast layering of images. Such flashes of brilliance momentarily elevate this lesser quality programmer.

If you’d like to view Maybe It’s Love look for it under the more salacious title of  Eleven Men and a Girl.  For television airing, the movie’s title was changed. It sometimes airs on Turner Classic Movies, and Warner Archive released a disc for those unwilling to wait for a repeat airing or wanting to add to their home collection.


This post is part of Now Voyaging‘s William Wellman blogathon. For other posts celebrating this director’s work and life, please click the banner below. Many great classic and silent film bloggers are participating, and they’ve written their hearts out. Visit their blogs and leave comments, and you will thrill them!

William Wellman Blogathon 2015

Additional Source

Wellman, William, Jr. Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel. N.p.: Pantheon, 2015. Print.


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Friday Fun: Betty Boop in Tokay

The latest music video vixen is–Betty Boop! About 85 years after her first screen appearance, Max Fleischer‘s cartoon flapper is back on screens dancing her way through pop rock band Dengue Fever‘s video for their single Tokay.

No new footage of Betty has been drawn. As the group stares into 3-D View-Masters, we see what they see: scenes of Betty and her friends from classic cartoons. Betty’s antics are cut into a new adventure to harmonize with Tokay’s sounds.

Dengue Fever merge Cambodian pop and psychedelic rock. Their singer Chhom Nimol‘s birdlike vocals seductively weave through the song. Her hyperfeminine voice plausibly could emerge from busty Betty’s mouth.

Nimol’s lyrics in Khmer tell of the Tokay, a gecko of Southeast Asia, whose cries have special significance for lovers. Yearning for auspicious signs, lovers count the cries to determine if they will marry their desired ones or remain single.

Even if you can’t understand the words, the vocals and the psychedelic sounds and the beat give a trippy effect. Fans of Betty Boop will find themselves entranced.

Kudos to my friend Toni from MergingArts Productions for pointing out this video!

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Coming Back from Hiatus!

Ever Felt Watched

I confess I took an unannounced hiatus from Spellbound by Movies. That doesn’t mean I’ve not been indulging in my movie love. I had an overwhelmingly good time at the twentieth San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and I flew out to New York state for my second Capitolfest, which remains a favorite. I’ll be blogging about both events belatedly here, so don’t worry about missing out on my observations of either. My pre-coverage of the fests here and/or on Twitter was only the start. I’ve been watching a lot of movies, reading about them, listening to some great movie podcasts, and even taking Hitchcock-inspired selfies, like the above. I’ve joined some upcoming blogathons. That means I have a lot to share with you. Watch this writer and blog become more active again!

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview, Why Be Good? (1929)

My San Francisco Silent Film Festival preview was interrupted due to being felled by a bug, but I want to mention a surefire hit of the fest screening today–Colleen Moore in Why Be Good? (1929).

Bodil Rosing & Colleen Moore in Why Be Good?

Bodil Rosing & Colleen Moore in Why Be Good? (1929)

Thanks to Ron Hutchinson and The Vitaphone Project, Colleen Moore returns to the festival in Why Be Good (1929)! Her Wild Oat Screened in 2008. Colleen may be eclipsed in current collective memory by another helmet bobbed honey Louise Brooks, but Colleen was the bigger star in her era. The loss of so many of her films, her lack of comparative screenings, a less dangerous, more girl next door sensuality than the troubled Louise, and those Pabst films helped history get revised to reflect contemporary popularity. Why Be Good? along with another new preservation effort, Synthetic Sin, will help Colleen get the attention and the acclaim she deserves today. Both films focus on the ideas of her being a good girl and what makes any woman good. They play around with Colleen’s good girl flapper comedienne image. Why Be Good? lays out how confusing being a modern maiden is for the woman and society. How game does she have to be to be considered fun and one of the gang before fellas, parents, and society misconstrue her character? There are plenty of gags, dancing, fashions, and Colleen to keep this upbeat. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompany this film.

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview, Part 2

SPEEDY (Paramount, 1928) Harold Lloyd, Ann Christie

Speedy (1928) Photo Courtesy of the Harold Lloyd Trust

Saturday morning’s program starts with the family-friendly Speedy (1928), and some parents likely will bring their tots for an outing to this screening. I love seeing kids getting their introduction to silents or enjoying a return trip to the festival. Comedies are a great gateway into silent film for all ages. In this slapstick feature, Harold Lloyd plays baseball obsessed Harold “Speedy” Swift, who can’t keep a job as well as he can keep up with his team. His being able to find a job every Monday after he’s lost one the previous week keeps dashing the marriage hopes of his honey, Jane Dillon (Ann Christy). While the younger generation discovers life’s tribulations anew, Speedy’s dad Pop Dillon (Bert Woodruff) moves more slowly. He’s the last horse-drawn streetcar driver in New York City, and a wheeler and dealer wants Pop’s track. Will big business push or buy him out? A son’s love for his father becomes an indefatigable force in a battle for a family’s future. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompanies the film.

Visages d'enfants Table Scene with Mother

Visages d’enfants (1925)

Visages d’enfants (1925), or Faces of Children, is another film that focuses on a family. It covers a theme that often appears at this festival–what makes a family. Son Jean Amsler (Jean Forest) is only a child, and he’s having a hard time coping with his mother’s passing. His father Pierre (Victor Vina) temporarily sends Jean away, and Pierre remarries during his son’s absence. Jean returns to a household changed once again. Not only does he get a Step-Mother (Jeanne Dutois played by Rachel Devirys), but also he gains a Step-Sister (Arlette portrayed by Arlette Peyran). He takes his resentment of Jeanne out on Arlette, and his actions escalate until they could cause a tragedy. Director Jacques Feyder‘s exploration of psychological family drama and childhood grief earned him critical acclaim, and it’s been called his best workStephen Horne accompanies the film.

Capra's The Donovan Affair (1929)

The Donovan Affair (1929)

Silent film purists might object to the The Donovan Affair (1929) being placed on the schedule. Technically it’s only a silent through circumstance. Director Frank Capra filmed the dark house mystery as a talkie. It was “his first ‘100% all-Dialogue Picture.’” “Its original soundtrack, recorded on transcription discs,” was lost. Ignore the pedants! The solutions to the challenges this screening presents are fun. Bruce Goldstein, director of programming at New York’s Film Forum, made it his mission to make screening the film possible. The original script was lost, but he found “half the dialogue in the archives of the now-defunct New York State Censorship Board.” He searched for actors with a feel for the era who could convincingly sound of it and become the voices of Capra’s onscreen cast. Goldstein’s actors became the Gower Gulch Players, and they helped him recreate the script further. They pieced together more of the movie’s dialogue through lipreading its actors. Pianist Steve Sterner created the film’s “new score.” This will be the troupe’s fourth public performance of The Donovan Affair. Frank Buxton is a guest performer.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)  Directed by Clarence Brown Shown: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) starring John Gilbert and Greta Garbo likely will be a sold-out screening, so you should get the the Castro Theatre early for this film! A crowd will turn-out to see Garbo and Gilbert sizzle on the screen. Their character’s onscreen romance was paralleled by the actors’ offscreen one, and because Gilbert fell hard for his leading lady, he made sure she would shine in what was only her third American picture. Gilbert was the bigger, more established star of the two, and Irving Thalberg, “banked on his highest paid player to help define an unknown entity.” Gilbert’s help went much further than agreeing to stare with the mysterious new discovery and share equal billing. He was an experienced actor, and he was a screenwriter and an assistant director. While she had “It,” he had the knowledge of what worked in front of the camera. He asked for retakes of any scenes where Garbo could have shone better,  and he didn’t object to camera angles designed or requested to show off her beauty. Garbo was grateful for his help. “If he had not come into my life at this time, I should probably have come home to Sweden at once, my American career over.” While the behind-the-scenes history of the movie overshadows its conventional romantic melodramatic plot of a friendship torn apart by a woman’s love, its luminous stars and their multi-layered romances show the power silent film icons had to seem more than us watching them on the screen. They were bigger in size, the most beautiful, grander in lifestyle, fuller of feeling, and capable of great love.

From the silent film community’s murmurings after 2014’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pan (1922) will be the sleeper hit of the San Francisco festival. Descriptions of Knut Hamsun‘s book make it seem a straightforward tale. Two disparate strangers are pulled together by an “overwhelming attraction“. She is a wealthy, educated townswoman, and he is an ex-soldier turned hunter living in a forest with his dog. Despite their love, they don’t understand each other’s ways, and they seem fated not to be together. It’s the rendering of this story that makes it outstanding. Silent London wrote, “Lush, detailed photography, delicately tinted, with epigrammatic intertitles, and many a layer of mystery to uncover, this was a film of great beauty and unique oddity.” Pan was a success, but it was Harald Schwenzen‘s only directing credit. He’s like the debut novelist who retires after writing a masterpiece. See why the Film Noir Foundation said Pan “secured Schwenzen’s reputation in cinema history.” Guenter Buchwald accompanies the film.

There it is (1928), a Charley Bowers Silent Comedy

There It Is (1928)

More all ages comedy kicks off Sunday’s screenings! There’s an entire program devoted to the shorts of The Amazing Charley Bowers.  He was almost forgotten in his home country the United States until “Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films revived his oeuvre in 2010.” The shorts he restored are thought to be a portion of Bowers’ existing work. More may exist in archives. What a shame it would be for Bowers’ works to be lost by lack of interest! His films are surrealistic slapstick outings mixing live action with animation and often featuring “complex Rube Goldberg gadgets.” The best comedians make us look at the world or life in a new way while we laugh, and Bowers had that talent and a singular vision. Who else would make a film starring a kilt mad laddie investigating a mystery with a cockroach detective also clad in a kilt? No wonder Bowers was beloved by André Breton and the Surrealists. Featured shorts include A Wild Roomer (1926, 24 minutes), Now You Tell One (1926, 22 minutes), Many a Slip (1927, 12 minutes), and There It Is (1928, 17 minutes). Serge Bromberg accompanies the films.

Ménilmontant directed by Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926

Ménilmontant (1926)

Avant-Garde Paris showcases two films from 1920s Paris that illustrate the creative experimentation of the city, making it a beacon for artists.

Emak-Bakia (1927, 16 minutes) is a cinépoème by visual artist Man Ray. The title is “Basque for Leave me alone.How that relates to the film is up to individual interpretation. After the title and credits, the first image seen is a man with his camera with human eye on its side, so everything that follows could be a film dreamed up by a crazed cinematographer. Light, image, double exposure, speed, rhythm, angle, extreme close-ups, and a sometimes unsteady camera are played with. Images range from the abstract to the identifiable. Fans of vintage personalities should know Kiki of Montparnasse (Alice Prin) makes an appearance. Earplay accompanies the film with a score created by Nicolas Tzortzis.

Ménilmontant (1926, 44 minutes) may look more conventional in comparison to Emak-Bakia, since the former film is a narrative, but Ménilmontant’s director Dimitri Kirsanoff experimented with techniques and images in telling a comprehendible story, and he didn’t use intertitles. His leads (Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu) portray two sisters. When the film starts, they look like innocent D.W. Griffith heroines. The girls are wearing big bows, running about, and playing with each other and their cats. An axe murderer kills their parents, and their lives are disrupted. When we next see them, they’re chaperoneless young women of the flapper era, and their bond is threatened by a man with no intent of joining the family.  Stephen Horne accompanies the film.

My San Francisco Silent Film Festival preview continues with Part 3 tomorrow. If you missed Part 1 of my preview, you can read it here.

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