Review: Debra Paget, For Example (2015)

Beautiful, classic film era actress Debra Paget never quite became an A-list star. Despite being in some high profile films, she was mostly relegated to genre roles, usually playing exotic parts and often wearing skimpy and skin-tight costuming. Filmmaker Mark Rappaport chose her as the subject of one of his latest video essays, Debra Paget, For Example (2015), that’s part career biography, part examination of studio era Hollywood, and part personal digression into side topics or characters that interest him.


Rappaport performs a sort of archaeology with classic film elements. The majority of his movie is comprised of clips from Paget’s films. He allows some excerpts to play straight through, while with others he creates new scenes by making collages with with his selected images and moments. At times the material shown simply supports the biography. Other times it’s used to illustrate points. Because of the material he’s working with, a video made in his Paris apartment on a Mac with Final Cut Pro has an expensive, glamorous look. Aspirational DIY filmmakers could be inspired by how easy it would be technology-wise to create their own movies without ever leaving home.


When the documentary opens, Rappaport repeatedly superimposes the 2oth Century Fox logo over Paget’s face. This happens first in black and white and then in Technicolor. During her fifteen year film career, she was a contract player for the studio for eight years. Those were her career’s glory years. She once was third in the volume of fan mail received there, only being bested by Betty Grable and Marilyn Monroe. Getting beyond the surrealism of a logo appearing and disappearing through fade and reverse fade over her visage, the imagery suggests she was part of the studio, branded by it, and never bigger than it. She will always be part of its story and vice versa.


The director narrates the documentary and he attempts to provide a female companion voice by having Caroline Simonds periodically speak Paget’s thoughts. Simonds never really says anything to counter to Rappaport’s narration. Instead her lines bolster his point of view. Her lines don’t always ring true or come from a female point of view.


Rappaport brings up that in Paget’s film debut, Robert Siodmak‘s film noir Cry of the City (1948), it is weird that a fourteen year-old is the romantic love interest of thirty-eight year old Richard Conte‘s character. Simonds retrogradely asks, “Why is my mother allowing this?” Paget’s mother was a stage mother and pushed all of her children into performing careers, but her father was part of their family life. Either parent could have reviewed her potential roles and rejected parts or scenes. Ultimately that’s not the perspective of a fourteen year-old girl. Someone that age tends to think they’re more grown-up than they are. Paget might have thought Conte ancient as the young feel about anyone that much older than them, or she might have been so excited about playing such a dramatic role that the age difference might not have been on her mind, or she could have had an age inappropriate crush. Those are possibilities.


The filmmaker points out that Paget is repeatedly cast as older than her age. She later plays a college coed when she’s really high school age. There’s a suggestion that she was pushed into maturity working in an adult business. There’s a suggestion of how movies do sell us illusions. There’s a suggestion that the commodification of her charms had begun.


Rappaport evaluates Paget’s talents. In “her very first shot in her very first film,” he sees skill. “She knows how to walk across a room. Not as easy to do as you might think.” He praises her for being able to cry on demand. Essentially he goes on to say and show she could act, dance, and sing. She might have had a very different career as the musical film biography of John Philip Sousa Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) showed, except musical movies were on their way out.


The dark-haired-but-blue-eyed Paget found herself the studio’s go to woman for ethnic roles. She played Middle Eastern, Native American, South Sea island, and East Indian parts. For some films, she’d wear contact lenses to turn her eyes brown. She hated that because Kleig lights would heat the lenses up. Her thoughts on having her skin darkened for roles might not be recorded. Rappaport creates a sequence showing her many exotic parts. Not only does it highlight the absurdity of the films she was cast in, but also it acts like an odd sort of fashion show, and while the castings and characters were ethnically tone deaf, there’s a pleasure in seeing a beautiful woman wearing outlandish fashions in glorious Technicolor that makes everything prettier than it should be.

He discusses how sexualized her roles were. There’s the aforementioned skimpy and skin-tight outfits. In the Biblically inspired Ten Commandments (1956), her character was a sex slave, and the costuming had her braless. In Fritz Lang‘s The Indian Tomb (1959), she performs a bump and grind dance routine more suited to Las Vegas stages. Because of her image, Rappaport mentions how Paget was the first crush of many a boy. Those crushes may or may not have been innocent. I’m sure there was many a lad (and a lassie) who didn’t know why they adored the actress, who were getting a hint of what their budding sexualities were. Rappaport chooses to focus on the masturbatory fantasies she inspired. No mention is made of those who may have been influenced to be like the Paget they saw on the screen, a very different kind of wanting.

When the director digresses, parenthesis appear on the screen. They look like crescent moons, tying into the exotic mysticism of some of Paget’s parts. Digressions can be relevant, like when he compares Paget to Maria Montez, “The Queen of Kitsch.” Montez’s roles surpass Paget’s in outrageousness of performance and costuming as a montage shows. He appoints Paget “The Princess of Kitsch,” and then he says that one person’s kitsch may be another’s nostalgia, and he seems not to want to rob anyone of their pleasure in that nostalgia. Momentarily, he’ll focus on other performers because of their Jewishness or sexuality, Paget being the launching pad to that discussion. Despite the tangents, Rappaport covers a lot of of her life in little more than a half hour.


Even if I didn’t always agree with Rappaport, Debra Paget, For Example was a fun way to spend time. I’d seen the actress in multiple movies, but I’d never investigated her, and the documentary piqued my interest in seeing more of her films. I enjoy kitsch and camp. Within films not successful at being what their creators hoped them to be and getting remembered for the wrong reasons, there were performers like Paget working hard to make something out of a role and lucking into starring in moments of stunning imagery.

Note: I watched this movie as a paid subscriber to Fandor. You can view it here.

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TCM Classic Film Festival Media Credential Awarded to Spellbound!

TCM Classic Film Festival Logo Banner

This week has been like Christmas to me! I’ve been more excited than Ralphie discovering that last obsessively desired present–his official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle–hidden behind a desk. I was awarded my first ever media credential to cover the TCM Classic Film Festival! Attending has been a long-term goal. Expect to see pre-festival coverage, posts during the course of the event, interviews, reviews, live tweets, Instagram pics, and more. You may find my festival writings appearing outside of this blog. Friend and Hollywood historian Karie Bible runs Film Radar, a site focusing on revival and specialty films. She’s asked me about contributing additional festival content to Film Radar. This next month will be an exciting one as we head on the road to Los Angeles and to the TCM Classic Film Festival together!

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Quote: Her One Wild Extravagance

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day Still Featuring Amy Adams in Peignoir

“In a dull, miserable existence her one wild extravagance was her weekly orgy at the cinema, where for over two hours she lived in an enchanted world peopled by beautiful women, handsome heroes, fascinating villains, charming employers, and there were no bullying parents, no appalling offspring, to tease, torment, terrify, harry her every waking hour. In real life she had never seen any woman arrive to breakfast in a silk, satin and lace négligé. Every one did on the films. To see one of these lovely visions in the flesh was almost more than she could believe.”

–Excerpt from Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

 

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The Casting That Almost Was–Louise Brooks as Dorothy Shaw

Louise Brooks Reading Gentlmen Prefer Blondes

When refreshing about Anita Loos for my post on the writer, I stumbled across a reference in ‘s excellent silent film column Silent but Deadly! about a casting that almost was–Louise Brooks as Dorothy Shaw.

Louise was the studio’s choice to appear in the first screen adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928). If she had been cast, this would have been her third film working with director Malcolm St. Clair. Louise had acted for him in two prior films, The Show Off (1926) and A Social Celebrity (1926). Instead another film was their third pairing.

Even though Louise’s The Show Off character was a Lorelei, the Dorothy casting wouldn’t have been against type. The character was a chooser of the road less travelled. While Lorelei pursued men with status, money, and jewels, Dorothy romanced who attracted her for himself, whether he was a writer, tennis player, or ballroom dancer, and she ended up having adventures like meeting the Prince of Wales and teaching him American slang. Everything depended on whom was cast as Miss Lee for Louise to appear the more romantic, less scheming, and in her own way, less conventional one.

Louise got as far as the screen test, which she bombed. Anita Loos viewed the test, and she was bitingly honest to the actress saying, “If I ever write a part for a cigar-store Indian, you will get it.” Likely due to lasting bitterness at losing such a high profile part, Louise “was partly responsible for the low regard that St. Clair’s films later fell into.” During her late in life rediscovery by cinephiles, she would tell interviewers what a terrible director he was, but she was critical of most of her directors.

We’ll never know what kind of Dorothy Louise would’ve been once she relaxed into the role, and we have to read period reviews  to know how the movie turned out. It’s a presumed lost film. It earned lukewarm reviews in which the cast were more praised than the project. Motion Picture News‘ critic Laurence Reid said it was missing “the sparkle of the book and the play.” We’ve the above picture of Louise to taunt us with the film that could’ve been, one we’d likely be lamenting as lost. Maybe we’d even be claiming that as Flaming Youth is to Colleen Moore, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is to Louise Brooks.

 

References

Foote, Lisle. “Malcolm St. Clair.” Buster Keaton’s Crew: The Team behind His Silent Films. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 102-03. Print.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928 Film).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (novel).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Hutchinson, Pamela. “Anita Loos – Sharp, Shameless Humour of the ‘world’s Most Brilliant Woman‘” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Kramer, Fritzi. “Lost Film Files #9: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928).” Movies Silently. Fritzi Kramer, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Louise Brooks.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Malcolm St. Clair (filmmaker).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.
Reid, Laurence. “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Entertaining Enough But Lacks Color.” Internet Archive. Motion Picture News, 1928. Web. 09 Mar. 2016.

 

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Happy International Women’s Day 2016!

Anita Louise Autographed Picture

For International Women’s Day, let’s take a moment to remember a woman of words, Anita Loos.

She started screenwriting in the silent era, and she’s credited for elevating the intertitle beyond the functional into an art form. A wordsmith, wit, and satirist, her intertitles had zing. Yes, they had “It.” It’s likely her exposure to the family tabloid and her own newspaper writing made her value succinctness. Would it be even more of a stretch to suppose that this early education schooled her in the art of equivocal, particularly innuendo? She could write a line explaining a scene and poking fun at a star’s persona. When describing yet another one of Douglas Fairbanks‘ characters designed to show off his athletic prowess, she wrote he had “a vaulting ambition which is likely to o’erleap itself and fall on the other side.” She was getting meta before that became a thing!

She had an aversion to societal hypocrisy and the pitfalls of her sex, threads that run through her work, like in this line from Intolerance (1916): “When women cease to attract men they often turn to Reform as a second choice.” Instead she had a fondness for hustlers, loose women, and other characters usually viewed as disreputable undesirables. Exposure to San Francisco’s Barbary Coast and piers, when accompanying her father on drunken wanderings and fishing trips, gave her a glimpse of those types at a young age, and she never lost her fascination for them, and they populate her work.

The most famous example is Gentlemen Prefer Blondes‘ Lorelei Lee, a ditzy, gold digging flapper. Loos wrote the comic novel as an act of revenge. She was tired of seeing her male intellectual friends (and crushes like H.L. Mencken) fall for women with more “downstairs” than upstairs. Despite Loos’ upset over the inspirational situation, there’s an admiration for Lorelei’s wiles and ambition. Loos was a hard worker, and so was her creation, who through her kooky logic and machinations ultimately wins.

Despite a disastrous love life that included marriage to a controlling, abusive, narcissistic, spendthrift schizophrenic, she kept working and didn’t turn to drink or idleness unlike other contemporaries. She survived film’s transition into sound writing more screenplays and expanded her oeuvre to include additional novels, (likely fictionalized, but so much fun to read) memoirs, Hollywood biographies, and Broadway.

She even became a script doctor. My favorite example of this was her being called in to work on a property other male writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, couldn’t get right. They couldn’t relate to the source material. Fitzgerald thought it “a spiteful portrayal of femininity.” Loos loved the Clare Boothe Luce play. Loos was very familiar with its subject matter, an exposé of the cattiness, gossip, men-stealing, and gold digging of Park Avenues socialites and the wannabees. She delighted in dishing on what occurs behind the scenes in women’s spaces. She turned out a script in three weeks that remains a classic beloved for its zingers to this day–The Women (1937).

When she died in August of 1981, her drive resulted in a body of work spanning about 65 years. She remained a celebrity. The gamine, 4’11’ girl with the pixie cut had aged into a grande dame of the New York social scene, active and vibrant close to her end. She frequented the party, fashion, and arts circuits. She enjoyed being among the surviving few of the silent era able to share what ever stories she remembered or fabricated. Film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow interviewed her for his television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980), and he must have had a fun time sorting fact from embellishment. “At the memorial service, friends Helen Hayes, Ruth Gordon, and Lillian Gish, regaled the mourners with humorous anecdotes and Jule Styne played songs from Loos’ musicals, including “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The storyteller would live on in others’ tales and through her work.

Anita Loos Reading

References

Anita Loos.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Anita Loos.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Anita Loos.” Women Film Pioneers Project. Women Film Pioneers Project, n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.
Hutchinson, Pamela. “Anita Loos – Sharp, Shameless Humour of the ‘world’s Most Brilliant Woman‘” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Jan. 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.
Somerville, Kris, and Speer Morgan. “Anita Loos: The Soubrette of Satire.” TMR Content Archives. The Missouri Review, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2016.

#52FilmsByWomen

52 Films by Women Dance Girl Dance

During my recent blogging hiatus, I took a movie-watching pledge that’s perfect to share with you during March, which is Women’s History Month. I pledged to watch 52 Films By Women. I’m watching at least one film directed by a woman a week. I started fulfilling my pledge in January. I’m not alone in joining the campaign. As of today, 6,546 other people have made the same promise and are seeking out movies made by women film directors.

Women in Film (WIF) came up with the idea. They’re an advocacy group for women in media. Their goal is to see “gender parity reflected on and off screen” and ensure that “rich, diverse experiences of women’s lives are reflected on screen.” WIF “found that one of the barriers for female directors is a perceived scarcity of talent pool and experience.” Their 52 Films By Women project is a way to draw attention to the wide body of work from the silent era to today that’s available to be viewed, enjoyed, discussed, shared, and inspire future films.

If you’d like to participate, it’s very easy to. Fill out their pledge form here. Start watching films made by women. Share what you see with others. Tweet about the movies. Blog about them. Make Instagram, YouTube, and Vine posts. Remember to use the hashtag #52FilmsByWomen where appropriate. Talk to people about the movies. Organize your own home or theatre viewings. Have fun finding the work that is out there!

I’ve been sharing what I watch on Twitter, but moving forward I plan to feature the films on this blog. I’ve been selecting from the full time range of available offerings from the silent and classic eras to the present day, and the genres have varied within the formats of narrative film, animation, and documentary. I’ve been trying to make all movies first viewings and seek ones I’ve not seen before, but I was away on a trip last weekend, and while I watched a woman directed film in a theatre, it was one I’d seen previously. Maybe one week I’ll watch two to make up for that!

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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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