Joan Crawford

Happy Birthday, John Waters!

John Waters as William Castle and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford on FX's FEUD

William Castle (John Waters) addressing the crowd at STRAIT-JACKET’s (1964) premiere as Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) listens on FEUD (2017) episode HAGSPLOITATION

I grew up in a John Waters household, so when I caught up with FEUD (2017), I was delighted to watch his cameo as shockmeister William Castle. My parents went to Waters’ movies, and my mom owns an ODODRAMA card gotten at a first run screening of POLYESTER (1981). Living in Massachusetts close enough to The Cape that Provincetown could be a day jaunt, she thinks she shopped in Dreamlander Divine‘s thrift shop, which he ran in his poor, pre-fame days. It was only a matter of time until we shared some of Waters’ movies together. I’ve now seen most of his films and read most of his books.

Which is how I know it was an honor for him to play Castle. Physically, the two men were very different. Waters has remained trim while Castle was heavier in comparison and thicker haired. FEUD show creator Ryan Murphy didn’t want Waters costumed to resemble Castle. No, fat suit as Waters said. Murphy was aware those in this know would delight in how meta it would be for Castle disciple Waters to appear as himself when portraying the other director.

If you haven’t read Castle’s memoir STEP RIGHT UP! I’M GOING TO SCARE THE PANTS OFF AMERICA, you need to. Waters wrote a loving and nostalgic introduction on how seeing Castle’s gimmicky movies as a kid inspired a love of cinema and the outrageous. There’s a joy in both directors’ works at defying convention to pursue their own visions. Keep on reading after the introduction, and you’ll learn a lot about B-movie making on shoestring budgets, including what it was like to work with Joan Crawford on STRAIT-JACKET (1964).

Happy birthday to John Waters, who doesn’t think he’s ever topped William Castle, but got to be him for a day! That must have been his best early birthday present.

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FEUD & the Costuming of Bette Davis, What I’ll be Watching for

Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis in FEUD Smoking

FEUD premieres tonight on FX, and like many classic film fans, I’m watching to see how legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford are portrayed, and I’ll be paying particular attention to one area of costuming.

Susan Sarandon plays Davis. The latter actress, while capable of glamour and being beautiful onscreen, always favored her performances over the strictures of the star machine that led more wary or canny actresses to compromise on characterization in favor of not lowering beauty standards too far. Davis felt no restriction. She wanted her Mildred Rogers in OF HUMAN BONDAGE (1934) to look as sickly as possible when the script called for that, and she pushed for her WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962) costume to be more extreme than as originally designed.

Sarandon has shown a willingness to deglam onscreen for the right roles, but offscreen she’s been a poster girl for not looking her age or letting it determine whether she should be sexy on the red carpet and how. A favorite outfit of hers to wear to movie launches, so much so it’s almost a uniform, is a suit with no shirt worn underneath its jacket, often leaving a pretty bra visible for all to see. If her bra isn’t in view, its push-up effects leave no doubt of its presence.

I’m finding it ironic that an actress sartorially famous for her bras and gravity defying chest is playing one who eschewed underwire bras, despite being as generously endowed. As the recent Orry-Kelly documentary, WOMEN HE’S UNDRESSED (2015) revealed Davis was convinced wearing underwire caused breast cancer. The costume designer was left having to camouflage that the leading lady was undersupported or braless by “using foulards, pockets, buttons, and other visual tricks.”

So while I’m watching FEUD, I’m going to be looking at Sarandon’s silhouette to see if series costume supervisor Katie Saunders incorporated this particular quirk when approving designs. Like Davis knew, it’s paying attention to the little details that help a performer build and inhabit a character.

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Merry Christmas!

Colleen Moore Singing Christmas Carols

 

Merry Christmas from Spellbound by Movies HQ! The woman serenading us with carols is actress Colleen Moore. I selected her to share glad holiday tidings because 2014 was a great year for the departed actress. Her long thought lost final two silent films, Why Be Good? and Synthetic Sin, were restored, and they toured specialty cinemas and archives this year. A whole new generation who might not have seen her small number of surviving silents fell in love with one of Hollywood’s original flappers. Today Colleen is often overshadowed by Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, and Louise Brooks. During her height of Colleen’s fame, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble.” Now audiences have two more chances to see how brightly she burned.

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Happy Fourth of July!

Joan Crawford on Rocket

Have a happy Fourth of July! Don’t be like Joan and get too close to fireworks.

After the holiday, expect posts on recent Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum events, Charlie Chaplin Days and the 16th Annual Broncho Billy Silent Film Festival, the upcoming San Francisco Silent Film Festival, and the PFA’s Raoul Walsh film series.

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A Completely Fluffy Post About Oscar & Film Fashion

It’s time to dust off Spellbound with a completely fluffy post about Oscar and film fashion. Over the weeks in-depth posts will follow, but for now some simple visuals.

I’m another gown watcher of the Academy Awards. One of the reasons I love to go to a movie theatre for the broadcast is to see the outfits and their details on the large screen. Ever since Sunday’s broadcast, I’ve had Joan Crawford on my mind thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow and Jane Seymour. Here’s how I made that leap!

Paltrow’s Tom Ford brought the cape back to Hollywood fashion:

 

 

When I saw Seymour’s gown I mentally combined the two–

 

 

and what I got was pure Joan:

 

The above still is from The Bride Wore Red (1937). The dress was designed by Adrian, and it was supposed to show how utterly unsuitable Joan’s character Anni was to wed an ensnared blue blood. When contrasted against her love rival’s understated, tasteful fashions, she looked like a jezebel, but something remains undeniable. She looks fantastic for any era in an outfit few others could carry off.


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The Bore Who Came To Dinner

The Man Who Came to Dinner Poster

My husband and I went on a holiday movie spree between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. In order to make the roster, the film had to be at least set during a holiday. It needn’t be a holiday classic. I kept putting off watching one of his selections, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942). I’d seen it before when I was much younger, and I wasn’t excited to watch the film again. To me the film should have been called The Bore Who Came to Dinner.

Monty Woolley plays the title character, Sheridan Whiteside. He’s a wit and a well-known radio personality. He milks his fame travelling the country giving lectures and enjoying the hospitality of the famous and/or rich. Basically, he’s a 1940s version of a media darling, save for the darling part. He’s really a holy terror who gives tongue lashings to those he perceives as beneath him or annoying, which would be most people. The few he spares are those rare folk as or more famous than himself. He sickeningly fawns over that small lot.

The plot starts with him visiting a small Ohio town to give a lecture. Before he does, a businessman and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Stanley (Billie Burke and Grant Mitchell) are to host him at dinner. The husband wasn’t looking forward to the dinner, and it turns into a disaster even before it can happen. Whiteside slips on their icy front steps, promises to sue them for criminal negligence for a frightful sum even by today’s standards, and takes their home hostage as he recovers.

He’s accompanied by his personal secretary, Maggie Cutler (Bette Davis). She’s the film’s female romantic lead. The break in her schedule gives her a shot at romance. She gets to know a local reporter Bert Jefferson (Richard Travis). His writing skills go beyond the headline. He’s a budding playwright. Cutler comes to love him and his work, which she champions to an uninterested Whiteside.

It’s interesting to see Davis in the sort of working girl role that Joan Crawford tended to play. Cutler’s role needed someone softer than Crawford, and Davis plays her as the reasonable presence in the household. She’s intelligent, capabale, and underneath her professional shell–nice. Most of her wardrobe are practical and plain, appropriate for a personal secretary. There are no flashy clothes or expensive fabrics that an image conscious star would want.

Davis looks on the older age range of acceptability for the role. Her hairstyle while typical for their period tends to look a little aging and matronly by today’s standards. Her hairdo isn’t as unflattering as Norma Shearer’s in The Women.  Travis was slightly younger than Davis, and the camera registers a slightly greater age difference.

This stresses the relationship may be Cutler’s last shot at love. She prepares to leave Whiteside, who refuses to break in a new secretary. He meddles in her love life as well as with the children of his hosts. The film’s second half deals with his machinations, their results, and the fall-out. Since this is a holiday comedy, I don’t think it’s spoilery to say things eventually work-out, but I never buy into the redemption of Whiteside. It’s not completely the fault of the original source material.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart wrote the play version of The Man Who Came to Dinner as a tribute and a vehicle for their friend Alexander Woollcott. For the American public, he has the lustre of having been part of the Algonquin Round Table. Kaufman and Hart were inspired by a real-life incident in which Woollcott took over Hart’s home like Sheridan Whiteside takes over the Stanley’s. They knew how Woollcott could entertain and terrorize, and they wrote some sharp lines that reflect that fact.

The fault lies more with Monty Woolley’s performance. He positively revels in Whiteside’s nastiness too much. His white teeth flash beneath his mustache when he clearly enunciates each insult like the bared teeth of a nippy terrier. Whiteside is a man whose intellect and achievement lifted him up from where he started as a cub reporter. The character has a lot of hubris about that, but where lies his charm? I’m not claiming the character has to be softened, but one of the shades needed for the performance is missing. A man like Whiteside is only allowed to continue his bad behavior because he charms, he has to let us in on his side, make us conspirators.

Woolley never does that, so Whiteside’s redemptive moment falls flat. When he gets that figurative mirror held up to his face and is shown all the horrible things he has done, I never got the sense that he was sorry. It seemed more like he couldn’t think of himself of capable of being that base and had to act to compensate for his almost shattered self-image, especially since he reverts back to type at the film’s end. Mr. Stanley was right to grouse about the bore coming to his dinner!

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.