Susan and God (1940)

Norma Shearer may have turned down the role of Susan because she thought the role aging (She couldn’t admit to being old enough to have a teenaged daughter), but she would have shown better instincts for avoiding such an unlikeable character in order to protect her screen persona.

Joan Crawford shows no such compunction. She throws herself into the role, and at times she appears to be playing Norma Shearer playing Susan. If you’ve seen Norma Shearer playing the fast-talking, scatterbrained heroine of Noël Coward‘s Private Lives, you’ll know what I mean. Compare those heroines’ mannerisms.

Susan is a nasty piece of work. A socialite, she follows every new fad, always eager for a new experience and never once thinking of the shattered family she left behind. She joins a movement and claims to have found God, and in the name of her new calling, she plays with her friends’ lives. She zeroes in on their weaknesses and indiscretions and then confronts them to confess their sins to their peers.

Susan herself is guilty of spiritual bypass. The only sin she’ll confess is touching up her hair, but she’s neglected her daughter and let her husband (Fredric March) slide into alcoholism with nary an effort to save him. She’s too busy focusing on herself and “saving” others.

It’s only when March’s Barrie strikes a deal with Susan that she deigns to spend any time with her family. If Barrie cannot stay sober while Susan lives with them for the summer, then he finally will grant her the divorce she’s been haranguing him for. Over the season, he hopes to win back his wife and give his daughter a mother, while Susan awaits his relapse.

Frankly it’s hard to see why Barrie still carries a torch for Susan, even if she’s Crawford during her most glamorous period, but it’s easy to see how badly their socially inept daughter Blossom needs her mother. Rita Quigley‘s Blossom is heartbreaking in how easily she lights up and then gives up whenever Mother’s momentary attention is withdrawn. It’s for her sake you’ll wish for Barrie to win his wager.

Holiday Affair (1949)

Holiday Affair Poster

I’d never heard of Holiday Affair until my husband rented the DVD from Netflix. I’m sure most others haven’t either, except for dedicated TCM viewers (It’s an RKO release) or hardcore Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum fans. It’s a little movie. It was a disappointment at the box office, and it doesn’t have the hook that makes a movie a cult fave, yet it’s a reliable and entertaining programmer that whiles away the time pleasantly, and its predictable ending doesn’t marr the proceedings.

Janet Leigh stars as Connie Ennis, the worst secret comparison shopper I’ve ever seen captured on film. Connie works hard, but not well at her job to support her son Timmy. She’s a war widow who’s almost alone with him. Wendell Corey as Carl Davis has been wooing her patiently for two years, and he’d like to become spouse to Connie and father to Timmy.  Connie can’t quite get over her husband, and Carl is too nice to push her.

And then Robert Mitchum’s Steve Mason enters the film. He’s a toy salesman, and he spots Connie for the fake she is. She buys an extremely extravagant toy train set from him without any questions, and she has the exact change including tax in hand. When she goes back to the store the next day to return the set, he’s made her and he’s obligated to report her, but doesn’t out of kindness. He ends up fired and tags along with Connie for the day and romantic complications ensue.

Janet Leigh embodies Connie with nervous energy. She’s in denial about living in the past, and Steve is the catalyst that stirs her up. She’s believable in not being able to help herself around Steve, she somehow keeps getting entangled with him, but she does not understand the obvious until the very end. She somehow dresses fantastically on her small budget.

Carl is suitably nice. He’s not too handsome, but not too plain. He’s just too understanding. There’s a scene that underscores how too comfortable he and Connie are. He calls her from bed underneath a pretty, shiny comforter. That instance reminded me of that scene in Sleepless in Seattle when Bill Pullman lies in bed with Meg Ryan. He’s got her and his tissues. They’re dropped any romantic pretensions of coupledom. They just are. Carl and Connie don’t have any big romance either, but Carl does present emotional and financial stability.

Gordon Gebert’s Timmy doesn’t want change. He’s been the verbalized man of the house, and his mother constantly compares him to his father. A husband wouldn’t be replacing not only his father, but also him. The sciptwriters  and actor show how intelligent Timmy is without making him sickeningly precocious while making him seem like a real kid, sweet at times and manipulative at others. Timmy understands that Carl is a good man, but he prefers Steve.

Steve fought in the war and took up a conventional life when he returned. He meets Connie when he’s preparing for another life change. He wants to build boats, and he’s going to follow his dream. Maybe his enthusiasm rubs off on Connie, who tells him a lot about herself in one afternoon. He teaches Timmy to dream, too. Connie’s trained Timmy not to dream because she doesn’t want him disappointed, but Timmy can’t help himself, and Steve calls her to task for not fulfilling any of Timmy’s dreams ever.  Steve’s the kind encouraging paternal figure Timmy’s been needing. Mitchum’s scenes with Timmy work because Mitchum talks to Timmy like a person.

There’s a lot of humor in this romantic Christmas comedy where no one is the bad guy. All the male characters are much more self aware and straightforward than confused Connie. They say and do what they mean. There’s a funny scene where Steve and Carl accidentally meet. Connie hasn’t informed either of the other, and their introduction is awkward. Connie abandons them at one point, and they don’t come to blows; their talk goes from competitive to begrudgingly mutually respectful. TCM has that scene available for viewing here.

Like a lot of Christmas movies, Holiday Affair actually ends on New Year’s Eve. Connie finally makes a decision about her lovelife that may not surprise any viewer, but feels deserved for all the characters, and leaves us on an up note–an important trait for any holiday film.

Julie London, The Girl Can’t Help It

After hearing Julie London on String of Pearls, I searched for examples where her music not only intersected with film, but also the performer herself. I discovered she made over twenty films, and I found the gem below, an interlude in the Jayne Mansfield flick, The Girl Can’t Help It. London performed with a limited vocal range, but when paired with the right material, usually slow and sultry, she exuded a sensual, mesmerizing star quality. Even though her career heyday lasted only from the fifties through the sixties, her back catalog endeared her to new generations of fans thanks to the eighties and nineties lounge music revivals. In this clip the male lead Tom Ewell plays her version of Cry Me a River. Her song causes the singer literally to materialize and haunt Ewell’s character during a drunken hallucination.

String of Pearls

At Chez Gallagher, we’ve been listening to String of Pearls. Film lovers of Hollywood’s golden age will enjoy this broadcast of “music from the golden years of entertainment”. BBC Wales host Dewi Griffiths’s program could be called stream of consciousness radio.  Like a string of pearls where one pearl leads to another, one song leads to another. Griffith’s encyclopedic collection of trivia and personal reminiscences connect each song. Many featured songs were featured in classic era films, so Griffiths discusses as much film history as musical history. Selections come from the 1920s through the 1950s, making the show perfect for nostalgics even if they never lived in the eras they miss.

In Memoriam

I went to the Cerrito Oscar party. Last year was my first time attending. Once I saw the Oscars on the big screen, I couldn’t go back. I love the audience interaction with the telecast. Shushers are not welcome because they’d only interrupt the communal experience. Old time audiences were not silent. They vocally shared their reactions, and the Cerrito audience didn’t disappoint.

I was disappointed with this year’s In Memoriam. That clip reel is my favorite part of the broadcast. I eagerly await the tribute, and I wish the Oscars producers would lengthen it. They could find the time if they cut a song and dance routine or dropped a bad skit.

This year Queen Latifah introduced the montage and sang over at least half the footage. Her voice overpowered the clips. She was too much at the forefront, overshadowing the departed. Worse the live music meant the editor couldn’t feature much dialogue. Film may be a visual medium, but dialogue punctuates the experience.

I plan to ask a friend who attended in person how she experienced the visuals. Even blown up on a theatre screen, the use of multiple monitors to display the deceased and their work diminished them and their moment. I was confused where to look, and the images flew by too quickly. I imagine the impact was worse for those watching on televisions at home.

One YouTube poster tried to solve this problem by editing together his or her own version of the montage:

I like to see cinema’s history honored and its participants remembered. I listen for the Academy audience’s reaction to certain individuals. Obviously there are gaps in their knowledge. A Van Johnson doesn’t get as much applause as a Paul Newman because the latter worked more recently, but the former was no less important in his day. He kept his studio afloat with big box office results.

Perhaps some actors are chilled by the fear of being forgotten. Not all want to pull a Deanna Durbin and retire when big and wealthy. Many aim for screen mortality, and a forgotten big deal hints that they too may be forgotten one day.

Worse is the exclusion of people who really contributed to film. Last year Yvonne De Carlo earned no mention, but she was a box office babe during Hollywood’s golden era. The latter part of her career as a television star (and as Lily Munster) seemed to eclipse her Hollywood contributions. The industry’s memory can be fickle, and its history constantly rewritten.

Sometimes social politics come into play. Brad Renfro wasn’t included in this or last year’s clips. He died before Heath Ledger. Both men reportedly had trouble with substance abuse; one died of illegal drugs, and one died from perscription drugs. Renfro contributed to the industry since his childhood, but he died during a career downturn. Since Ledger went out on a career high, he was the one showcased last year, while the Academy chose not to mark Renfro’s passing due to “time constraints”.

The 2009 Screen Actors Guild Awards featured a more extended reel:

Yet there are notables missing like Ann Savage. Her overall filmography may not have earned her an award or an extended career, but her work in the film noir cult favorite “Detour” immortalizes her. She will inspire others to act and to make film, and she was rediscovered in time to die a working actress, so she must have been a SAG member. I haven’t seen her last screen appearance in Guy Maddin‘s “My Winnipeg” yet, but I will.

At least Savage knew she was appreciated before she died. I found a clip of her last day on Maddin’s set where those around her devolve into fangirls and boys:

Savage is lucky another way. The Film Noir Foundation is rectifying her slight. The final day of Noir City in Los Angeles pays tribute to Savage with guest speakers, film clips, rarities, and her last film.

Someone needs to champion those behind the scenes like Irving Brecher. Despite penning many notable scripts like “Meet Me in St. Louis” and the Marx Brothers“At the Circus” , he warranted no mention, and he leaves a widow who may have felt the snub.

Tributes like the Oscars’ are enjoyed by the living, so maybe the Academy should make sure to honor Hollywood’s old timers before their actual passing, so they know they are remembered and not discarded like yesterday’s memorabilia. Maybe Hollywood would make better product if more of its denizens learned its real/reel history and extended their collective memories past less than twelve years ago.

Europa Film Treasures

Even if you’re not stuck inside due to snow or a cold, you must make time to visit Europa Film Treasures. The site offers cinéastes access to twenty-eight European archives and cinémathèques for far less than the cost of a transatlantic flight–for FREE. Films are streamed on-demand, and the offerings encompass all eras and genres. Silents feature scoring by Lobster Films. While films remain in their original language, subtitles are available in five languages. The database is highly searchable. You can conduct look-ups by archive, time period, country, genre, film stock color, soundtrack, and keyword. You can entertain yourself for hours with these world cinema rarities.


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Er’way in-hay the oney-may.

I’ve been reading Ginger: My Story by Ginger Rogers. My favorite parts of the book are the behind-the-scenes scoop. Rogers doesn’t offer too much gossip. She focuses more on the making of her films and stage shows. Driven, she sought comfort in work even when her personal life went on the fritz. Sometimes she skimps on the personal details, and I can’t decide if she’s witholding some material to protect her privacy or if the details simply weren’t important to her. Even though she wrote a memoir, self-reflection doesn’t seem as key to her as telling her story and witnessing her faith. Occasionally she sets the record straight about an infamous incident or her celluloid contributions.

For instance, she reveals the pig latin sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933 was her idea:

One day on set, I was handed the opening song and told to learn it by that evening. The scene was to be shot the next day and we had to be up on the number. I pleaded with Malcolm Beelby, the pianist, to forsake his lunch hour to help me learn my lyrics. Malcom kindly obliged. We went into a corner of the sound stage and started to rehearse. After about three hours, I started getting a little slap-happy, so instead of singing the lyrics as they were written, I translated them into pig latin.

Darryl F. Zanuck observes her, likes it, and has the improv put into the final film.

The pig latin bit makes that production number. In close-up, Rogers the beautiful girl has enough American chutzpah to make light of all the money her depression era audiences didn’t have enough of. She’s verbally winking at them, saying I am one of you, that things will be okay as long as we can have fun. We may not be in the money, but we are in on the joke. For a moment we are her conspirators, the wall has broken down, and we are taken away from our troubles.
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Event: The Pre-Code Follies

The highlight of my weekend mail was the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum Newsletter. Each month I scan their listings looking for goodies. Lately they’ve been experimenting with their offerings. They used to hold screenings only on Saturdays, and they’ve expanded to Sundays and even the odd Friday. They’re also veering away from movies mostly from the teens and early twenties. Now there are even some sound films on their schedule.

Here’s my pick of the month from their offerings:

The Pre-Code Follies
Friday, January 30 at 8:30 PM
Edison Theater
37417 Niles Blvd, Niles (Fremont), CA
Suggested Donation $9

Get royally bent and inspired with Busby Berkeley clips, lecherous 1930s comedy shorts, Cab Calloway, salacious soundies, Betty Boop cartoons and more, hosted by the fabulous Kitten on the Keys. Enjoy a great evening of music, comedy and outrageous classic movie fun.

I imagine cartoons like the following on the programming.

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