An Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927)

In honor of National Flapper Day, I’ve reposted my essay on CHILDREN OF DIVORCE (1927), which was originally published on Flicker Alley‘s blog.

Children of Divorce Cropped Poster

Before they were jazz babies, they were jazz orphans. Their parents’ marriages dissolved under the influence of new post-war mores, and childhoods became a belated war casualty. Lacking role models, another generation seems doomed to repeat their elders’ mistakes. That’s the world CHILDREN OF DIVORCE portrays, and at its center are two women who share an unbreakable bond of sisterhood forged by the shared trauma of neglect.

If the movie sounds like a weepie, be warned, it is! Heartstrings are pulled starting when cherubic Kitty Flanders (Joyce Coad) is left at a Parisian convent by her mother (Hedda Hopper). Only one girl, Jean Waddington (Yvonne Pelletier), befriends Kitty. When she’s terrified her first night, Jean shelters Kitty in her bed, and a precedent is set for their relationship. Jean becomes an adoptive and protective big sister.

Children of Divorce Kitty and Jean First Night

Joyce Coad & Yvonne Pelletier in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

A second precedent is sent when the girls meet Teddy Larrabee (Don Marion). He climbs over the grounds’ wall one day. He’s escaping bickering grown-ups and a woman mockingly flirting with him. He’s, also, a child of divorce. When the close-in-age Teddy and Jean meet, they are smitten. Sad and envious, Kitty laments she has no one. Kitty will continue to see others’ happiness and want it.

Kitty’s a classic little sister. Since Jean was slightly older than Kitty when her parents divorced, Kitty doesn’t have the background of family stability, albeit brief, Jean had. Jean easily slips into the caretaker role, and Kitty assumes the one of needing help and understanding. Jean loves Kitty, but that can’t cure her hurt.

Since Jean’s rich after her parents’ divorce, and Kitty isn’t, she must find a way to afford remaining in elite social circles. As she grows up, Kitty’s taught by her mother that money comes before love. There’s an implication that her mother isn’t simply concerned for Kitty’s well-being, but also that Kitty’s mother will use her daughter to achieve security. Jean can marry at her leisure.

Under such circumstances, it’s easy to see why Kitty ages into a partying, gold-digging flapper (Clara Bow) and Jean grows into a noble patrician (Esther Ralston). Despite their differences, the women are delighted when life reunites them. Their bond has lasted. Their relationship becomes complicated because of Teddy, now going by Ted (Gary Cooper).

Children of Divorce Ted Kitty Jean Reunited

Gary Cooper, Clara Bow, & Esther Ralston in CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

When Jean bumps into him at a party of Kitty’s, old attractions resurface, but Jean disapproves of his hedonistic lifestyle. She encourages him to get a job in order to become worthy of being her husband. Love reforms Ted, but it can’t save him from Kitty’s machinations. He’s wealthy, and he’s wanted by someone Kitty admires. Once she gets Ted drunk at a party, he doesn’t stand a chance. He wakes up tousled and marriedto Kitty!

This is the biggest test of Jean and Kitty’s love. Of course, Jean is angry about Kitty’s betrayal and Ted’s haplessness and unfaithfulness. Perhaps Jean sees this as an indicator she and Ted weren’t meant to be, but Kitty comes first when Jean makes her decision of what to do.

As the movie’s moral voice, Jean doesn’t believe in divorce, and she can’t deny Kitty a shot at happiness. Jean naively believes her friend and sweetheart can make a marriage work despite their incompatibility and lack of love. When Kitty insists that she will be a good wife, Jean relents and gives Ted to Kitty by not fighting for him—a decision that will lead to misery and tragedy.

Despite the love triangle, the movie’s central relationship is clearly Kitty and Jean’s. They get the most screen time. For one, Bow and Ralston were the experienced performers. Ted was Cooper’s first major role, one he was cast in at his lover Bow’s insistence. While in the final product he’s handsome and charismatic, on the set he was unsure and afraid, and he blew many takes. Panicked, he even fled filming and had to be brought back. He couldn’t be trusted to help carry the picture.

The result was the actresses were given the opportunity to explore their characters’ dualities. Ralston’s role is not as flashy as Bow’s. Ralston has to be the perfectly good friend. She has to be beautiful yet believably tossed over for Bow. She manages to be a strong, sympathetic presence. It would’ve been easy for Bow’s character to simply be the manipulative vamp, but she makes sure the audience knows every bad, later-regretted act comes from Kitty’s place of pain.

There’s symmetry in imagery emphasizing the women’s relationship. A powerful, early shot shows young Jean comforting young Kitty in bed at the convent. A second, equally affecting shot reminiscent of the first occurs near the film’s end. A grown-up Jean comforts a grown-up Kitty in bed. We never see either woman in bed with a man. For the women, the bed isn’t a sexual place, but a shared place of refuge. Whether escaping adult-caused problems or their own adult problems, it’s a place they return to together. Whatever happens, each has a sister to love her no matter what.

Children of Divorce Kitty and Jean Last Time

Interested in seeing this movie? Flicker Alley releases it to dual edition disc on December 6, 2016. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra provides the score.

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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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The Pre-Code Blogathon: Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Trouble in Paradise Poster

It’s hard not to get seduced into enjoying Trouble in Paradise. Ernst Lubitsch‘s 1932 pre-code delights on all levels. Leads Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, and Herbert Marshall look their best while giving career high performances. The dialogue they speak with ease is witty, naughty, and quotable. They move about in gorgeous art deco sets. The celebrated Lubitsch Touch makes everything tastefully titillating as word, image, and actor chemistry combine in a tale of triangular romance that leaves no doubt about consummation between its male and female pairings. The question of which lady will win the man solely seems predetermined along class lines, but digging deeper it’s the characters’ attitudes toward work which will divide them.

Trouble in Paradise Dinner Assignation

When Miriam’s “Countess” meets with Marshall’s “Baron,” they’re both working, but they don’t realize that right away. The Baron’s invited the Countess to an assignation in his hotel room. We’ve been shown clues that the Baron is not what he seems. The film starts with a robbery, which we become sure that the Baron committed. There’s a tension in watching what may be a scene of romance or a seduction designed for further larceny. The Baron told his waiter he wanted a clandestine meal that would turn his Juliet into Cleopatra. He will soon learn how calculating the Countess really is! A phone call we’re privy to both ends of dispels her carefully crafted cover.

The Countess shows some signs of recognition first. “You know when I first saw you, I thought you were an American. Someone from another world. So entirely different. Oh. One gets so tired of one’s own class. Princes and counts and dukes and kings.” Her sharp eyes detected something about him from a distance that betrayed the role he was playing. He is from another world and another class. Her boredom of royalty and aristocracy sounds real. When she discovered he is like her, she was happy and “very proud.” What does she know? In which way are they alike? Her words sound equivocal.

Trouble in Paradise Garter Scene

Over dinner, she is the one to speak first. She admits visiting him for “a little adventure, but that “something’s changed” her, “and it isn’t the champagne.” What seems to be leading up to confession of love turns into an accusation! “Baron, you are a crook. You robbed the gentleman.” As she returns to eating her meal, he tells her he would have told her everything before she left his room. He, “with love” in his heart, says, “Countess, you are a thief.” He tells her she “tickled” him when lifting his wallet, but he did not mind since her embrace was “so sweet.” A game of one-upmanship becomes foreplay. Each shows what the other stole–his wallet, her pin, his watch, and her garter. The last item earns him gasps of respect and causes her to jump into his lap.

They introduce their real selves to each other. When she asks who he is, he starts by mentioning his most famous theft. He entered the The Bank of Constantinople, and he walked out with it. She’s delighted to learn he is The Gaston Monescu. While she, Lily, is not as well known as he, he gushes, “I loved you the moment I saw you. I’m mad about you.” His terms of endearment are all work-related. To him, she’s “my little shoplifter, my sweet little pickpocket, my darling.” He admires her and her craft. They are alike, and they are in love. A night together turns into almost a year of love and thievery.

Trouble in Paradise Purse Return

Their mistake is stealing from a peace conference. He is caught and relieved of their loot by the police, but he escapes. That leaves them looking for more jobs, like stealing a jewel-encrusted purse from Kay Francis’s Madame Mariette Colet at the opera. She’s a young widow quite loose with her inherited money, and she paid 125,000 francs for a purse evaluated by Gaston to be worth only 40,000 francs. She’s innocent enough to believe it lost, so she advertises a reward of 20,000 francs for its safe return. Since the purse is worth less on the black market, Gaston and Lily decide to return the purse and use the money to celebrate their anniversary.

While returning the purse, Gaston sees the possibility of a longer con. Madame is bored “to distraction” by work and detail. She relies on others to maintain her interests and lives a care-free life in pursuit of pleasure and amusement. When she hints she’s uncomfortable bringing up the reward money, Gaston lets her know he’s not to proud to accept it being part of the “nouveau poor.” She’s attracted to him and intrigued by his flirting, so she offers this jobless man the position of personal secretary. Mariette had to let her last one go for having too much fun. He accepts, and over the months he manipulates the situation to be in control of her figure, assets, and household.

Trouble  in Paradise Assistant and Mistress

He even installs Lily as his assistant. She’s uncomfortable with the gig because “this woman has more than jewelry.” Gaston assure Lily that Mariette’s only “sex appeal” is her safe full of money and jewels. In order not be be seen as competition by Mariette, Lily reduces her own sex appeal by wearing glasses and zipping up her tops. She’s Miriam Hopkins, so she’s gorgeous. Mariette decides to increase Lily’s salary by 50 francs so she’ll work harder to make Gaston freer from work, but only if Lily is gone by 5 PM each day. Mariette wants Gaston to herself in the evenings.

There’s the whole question of what kind of man Gaston is becoming. Is he falling in love with Madame and becoming redeemed? Is she in love with him or making him her latest amusement? She’s had string of buffoonish suitors she’s let hang around her for laughs. Will the thief be ruined by the widow? Lily is afraid the answer is yes, that Gaston with all of his skills and intelligence will fall into the lowest category of conman and manhood. “Darling, remember you are Gaston Monescu. You are a crook. I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal! Swindle! Rob! Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good for nothing gigolos.”

Trouble in Paradise Bed Shadow

Gaston realizes his identity will be discovered soon, and though he makes plans to flee with Lily, Mariette and Gaston get closer. He tries to be the gentleman that Lily feared he will become and make sure association with a secretary won’t ruin Mariette’s reputation, but she doesn’t care about ruining his reputation. She promises him a long time ahead of them–“weeks, months, years.” She doesn’t care about their class or position differences or gossip. Her suitors figure they’ve lost her to this boring, “dependable,” “insignificant” man, the type women marry. They’re confusing their types with his, and they’re soon shocked with the revelation of who Gaston is!

Mariette goes to Gaston when she hears who he is. She must discover the truth for herself. Unlike Lily, criminality holds no appeal to her. She would act if she discovered she was robbed. She’s becoming embittered because she thought he loved her, not her money. She doesn’t understand a man who started with nothing and worked his way up, even if he started off the wrong way at first. No matter their love and how “marvelous” life could have been together, there will always be the threat of the policeman at the door with a warrant. Gaston’s profession has precluded their chance at happiness, even if she forgives his deception. They understand each other and their situation at last.

Trouble in Paradise End

Gaston returns to Lily with a present taken by him but knowingly given by Mariette, an apology of sorts by both. Gaston and Lily resume their foreplay of mutual thievery from each other’s person, and she knows he has returned to her fully. She embraces him in delight. The crooks get a happier ending than the traditional heroine! They’ll live, love, and work side-by-side. Perhaps their eventual offspring will enter the family business.

Pre-Code Blogathon 2015 Banner

This post is part of The Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Danny of Pre-Code.Com and Karen of Shadows and Satin. Please click the banner above to read more great entries about this fun time in motion pictures!

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World War One in Classic Film Blogathon

Dark Journey

“Art is a wound turned into light,” said painter Georges Braque. It’s only fitting then that the place of light and shadows, the cinema, was where those early generations turned to make sense of The Great War. As soon as it was over, the first films featuring it as a subject came out. They still come out today. Current generations are far enough removed that even fictional films teach them the facts of World War One.  They think their films grittier, so they’d be shocked at what some silent and classic films show.

In honor of World War One’s centennial, Fritzi from Movies Silently and Lea at Silent-Ology are hosting a blogathon to shine light on this complicated piece of the past and the fine films of the classic and silent eras depicting it. Their blogathon called World War One in Classic Film runs September 6-7, 2014. Besides Fritzi and Lea, a number writers from the classic film blogosphere are participating. They include Danny from Pre-Code.Com, Aurora from Once upon a screen, Caftan Woman, Cliff from Immortal Ephemera, Janet from Sister Celluloid, and Ruth of Silver Screenings.

As you may have guessed, Spellbound by Movies is participating! The above still is from the movie I’ll be writing about–Dark Journey starring Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt. Set in neutral, but hardly inactive Sweden, they play two spies working for opposing sides. Their latest assignments require spying on each other, and they fall in love. Check back here next month to learn more about their tragic romance.

WWI Blogathon Banner of the Big Parade


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Tune in Tonight or Set Your DVRs! Souls for Sale Re-Airs on TCM.

Image Courtesy of Silents Are Golden

Image Courtesy of Silents Are Golden

This month marks the eighth anniversary of the Turner Classic Movies broadcast premiere of Souls for Sale (1923), and the network obliges silent film buffs by re-airing the film tonight at 9 PM PT/Midnight ET. Viewers who have never seen Rupert Hughes‘s film before or those who love movies about making movies are in for a treat!

Souls for Sale was once thought a lost film. Copies began being found in archives or shared by collectors in the eighties and nineties. Most were in rough shape and not all were complete. A collaboration between Turner Classic Movies and MGM resulted in a restored version of the film. Marcus Sjöwall won The Young Film Composers Competition to provide its soundtrack.

Roger Ebert called it, “drama, melodrama, romance and satire all at once–wrapped up in a behind-the-scenes look at how a desperate young woman fell into the movie business by accident and became a star.” That young woman, Remember “Mem” Steddon, is played by Eleanor Boardman in her lead debut. She’s given plenty of material.

Mem flees her quickly wed and highly suspect husband Owen Scudder (Lew Cody) on their wedding night. She hops off their honeymoon train and ends up lost in a desert before being rescued by a Sheik on a camel (Frank Mayo). Mem’s not hallucinating! She’s stumbled upon a film set. Despite Mem not initially being interested in a film career due to the industry’s scandalous reputation, she ends up an actress and caught in a love polygon completed by Richard Dix and Mae Busch. If that’s not enough to tempt you to watch, would a climactic scene taking place under a big top during a lightning storm?

Besides delivering plenty of plot, the movie offers many cameos. Actors and actresses like Blanche Sweet, Patsy Ruth Miller, Zasu Pitts, Dale FullerRaymond Griffith, Anna Q. Nilsson, Jean Hersholt, and Chester Conklin appear. Directors Erich von StroheimCharlie ChaplinKing Vidor (later Eleanor’s spouse), Fred Niblo, and Marshall Neilan are caught in front of the camera. Stroheim fans get the gift of a scene shot on Greed‘s set. Even rarely filmed screenwriter and editor June Mathis appears.

Overall, a fun movie offering plenty of silent film Easter eggs!

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Happy New Year!

Wishing you a wonderful New Year’s Eve and New Year! May both be filled with everyone and everything you love–like movies! As a special holiday treat for you, here is a scene from one of my favorite screwball comedies, Bachelor Mother (1939).

Its plot seems inspired by Clara Bow‘s It (1927). A salesgirl named Polly Parrish (Ginger Rogers) falls for a department store heir, David Merlin (David Niven), and he for her. There’s even a baby he mistakes as hers. All those elements are in the Bow vehicle, but where the infant temporarily complicates her film’s plot, he’s the focus of Rogers’s. Polly finds an abandoned baby on a stoop, and everyone mistakes her as the mother. She can’t give the baby up. No one will let her! No one will believe the baby isn’t hers. Due to her being his employee, David makes her his project. He’s going to make sure she’s a good mother. His task isn’t hard because she soon loves the baby.

In the clip, he’s giving Polly a Cinderella night out. Decked out in finery from his store, she’s his stand-in New Year’s Eve date after getting the dust off from his girlfriend. Since this is a screwball comedy, he overcomplicates Polly’s presence by saying she’s Swedish and doesn’t speak English! Despite this impediment, she charms most of his friends. The scene starts with their departure and ends with a well-deserved zinger.

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The Valley of the Giants (1927) Bill

Saturday night I made a trip back in time to enjoy early cinema; I caught the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum‘s program. Judith Rosenberg, who’s well known in the Bay Area and beyond, she participated in the Master Class for silent film musicians at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, played piano scores for each film. Featured were two short comedies and the one full-length drama.

Jimmie Adams Doris Dawson in Swiss Movements

Swiss Movements (1927)
Directed by Robert P. Kerr
Written by Frank Roland Conklin
Starring Jimmie Adams, Doris Dawson, Billy Engle, William Irving, Cliff Lancaster, & Stella Adams
Production Company: Christie Film Company

This comedy short stars Jimmie Adams, sometimes called the poor man’s Charley Chase. The premise is very simple. Jimmie’s character Freddie wants to marry Doris Dawson’s character, but she’s thrown him over for a blowhard called Yodel. The two men compete for her hand in a mountain climbing contest. Scrawny Freddie looks like no match for his burly lederhosen-clad foe. Freddie’s tethered to his potential father-in-law, and even then two cannot compete against one, but their opponent isn’t content to rely on his athleticism to win. Yodel cheats multiple times mostly in telescopic view of their sweetheart, who refuses to cheer on someone who won’t play square. One of his tricks elevates this climbing comedy from purely being pedestrian. He enlists a friend to dress in a bear costume to scare off his opponents. The bear scenes and those of a mountain goat bring the greatest laughs in a picture that could use a few more.

Charley Chase & Buddy in Bath in Dog Shy

Dog Shy (1926)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by H.M. Walker (titles)
Cinematography by Floyd Jackman
Starring Charley Chase, Stuart Holmes, Mildred June, Josephine Crowell, William Orlamond, & Buddy the Dog
Production Company: Hal Roach Studios

Mildred June’s The Girl has a problem. Her family wants to marry her off to a nobleman. The Duke’s an older, self-absorbed bore. Lucky for her Charley Chase intercepts a phone call and hatches a plan to help the honey sight unseen, but her mother hangs up before he can get an address, phone number, or even a name. As filmic luck will have it, Charley accidentally gets a job as a butler–in her house and finds the girl! Adding to his troubles, he’s been dog shy his whole life, and chief amongst his duties is taking care of the family dog, Duke. Charley the actor’s funniest scenes are the ones he shares with the dog. They work well together. The comedic potential of having The Duke in a house with Duke are further wrung out when Charley misunderstands the command to bathe the dog. A plot twist allows Charley to become the hero to his future in-laws. Before Charley saves the day, there’s a very silly, but fun scene of six adults pretending to be howling dogs.

Kenyon & Sills in Valley of the Giants

The Valley of the Giants (1927)
Directed by Charles Brabin
From a Novel by Peter B. Kyne
Written by Wid Gunning & Gordon Rigby
Cinematography by Ted D. McCord
Starring Milton Sills, Doris Kenyon, Arthur Stone, George Fawcett, Paul Hurst, Yola d’Avril, Phil Brady, & Charles Sellon
Production Company: First National Pictures

This was my second viewing of Valley of the Giants, and I remain baffled why its director Charles Brabin became a footnote in film history. He’s often referred to as Theda Bara‘s husband, but he was a director before and during their marriage. He worked in film for over three decades. Even if his other movies were lost or not as strong as Valley of the Giants, he deserves credit for making a film that plays well in any era.

This was the second adaptation of the novel by Peter B. Kyne. The first was made in 1919 and starred Wallace Reid. A train accident during that filming led to his morphine addiction. At least two other adaptations followed. One was made in 1938 and starred Wayne Morris, and the other was made in 1952 and featured Kirk Douglas.

In this adaptation, Bryce Cardigan (Milton Sills) returns from Europe to his hometown Sequoia in Northern California. His father John Cardigan (George Fawcett) is a lumber baron of Humboldt county. Bryce returns to problems. His father has gone blind, and even worse an unscrupulous competitor named Seth Pennington (Charles Sellon) wants to destroy the Cardigans and monopolize northern lumber. Romantic complications are added in the form of Pennington’s niece, Shirley (Doris Kenyon). Bryce and Shirley fall in love during and despite the business battle between their families.

One of my main pleasures in watching this film is the location shooting. This outdoors film was shot in Humboldt county amongst the redwoods. Scenes of the trees, the coast, and the lumber industry give the movie an authenticity of place that’s also enticing to the eye. There’s a certain privilege in seeing a landscape before it changed more over time due to the logging industry and development. Today’s vantage point makes the in film threat of felling the Valley of the Giants particularly anxiety provoking.

Real-life husband and wife Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon have screen chemistry. Playing romantic foils doesn’t often work for spouses. Some actors hold back, afraid to exploit intimacies, preferring to keep the personal personal. Other pairings are so awkward onscreen they give off the whiff of contract relationships arranged to bolster careers. Not so here. There’s a sweet moment after Bryce saves Shirley’s life during a train accident. As they wait for rescue, she looks down. He leans toward her to sniff her hair a moment, but changes his mind and tries to kiss the top of her head. She looks up and ruins that moment, but when she realizes what was about to happen, Kenyon radiates happiness, which in response is reflected back at her by Sill’s Bryce. They seem like two people falling in love and connecting.

Kenyon makes an impression. Her part is essentially a supporting one. She doesn’t have the same amount of screen time as Sills, and her part is not as fleshed out. She looks beautiful and is believable as the romantic interest, but also she makes her character a presence even during her quiet moments. There’s a scene when Shirley thinks Bryce won’t like her anymore because of her uncle. She sits, and her body language shows dejection. The tilt of her head and shoulders combined with stillness conveys her upset.

Sills takes advantage of his big role as the loyal son driven to save the family business. He’s likable and believable playing the All American good guy. He’s a Romeo to his Juliet. He’s a fighter for the cause in some brutal and well choreographed fight scenes. Any viewer will want him to win the fight and the girl.

The supporting casting is great. Arthur Stone’s Buck Ogilvy, Bryce’s friend, is convincing as a city playboy who grows up and becomes dependable as he aids his friend. Paul Hurst’s Jules Randeau oozes despicability and brings menace. Phil Brady’s Half Pint adds some comic relief as does the corrupt city council won over by spiked lemonade. Even George Fawcett whose role’s actions are limited by his character’s blindness makes his presence felt. He’s a combination of determination, saintliness, and paternal love.

Briefly there’s a sense that foreigners of different sorts are the causes of problems in Sequoia. Seth Pennington is an Easterner. Jules Randeau is likely French Canadian. Even a member of the city council is suspicious of Buck as a “furrignor.” Buck and Shirley disprove that “outsiders” are the problem, and the council demonstrates that many insiders are.

What’s really being examined are two kinds of capitalism. John Cardigan started his business from scratch with only the love of his wife to support him. He remembers and honors his wife and how he started. He has made his fortune but he shares his profits with the men who work hard for him. He thinks of them, their families, and homes when his business is threatened. He’s an ideal model of compassionate capitalism.

Seth Pennington is the model of an out of control, dehumanizing capitalism. He implies that John is a fool that overpays his workers. It’s not enough for Seth to do well. He has to maximize his profits even to the detriment of his men, and he attracts a motley, violent crew. He doesn’t want to continually expand his business and his market share. He wants to drive any competitor out of business. It’s not enough for him to do well. He has to make others do poorly in comparison, and he plays dirty.

Besides business dealings, romance, and scenic shots, there’s a great deal of action in this film. A runaway train scene is made even more impressive by not resorting to models. There are multiple fight scenes. During the first scrap between Bryce and Randeau, there’s a moment when he tries to jump on Bryce’s head. The camera cuts to the metal cleats coming toward the audience giving an almost 3D effect. During their last fight, extreme close-ups of their sweaty and bloody faces are intercut with fuller body action shots, making their battle personal and its outcome determined by drive and will. You’ll want to see who wins these smaller battles and the bigger one.

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival Silent Winter 2013

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival‘s annual Silent Winter closed with the grand sounds of the Mighty Wurlitzer last night. I had to sit in my seat overwhelmed by the last film and the day for a moment. Before the festival’s end, we were treated to fairy tales, laughs, romance, heartbreak, and redemption. All this filled a thirteen-hour day, but it was worth sitting for so long. Any San Francisco Silent Film Festival event event offers the rare chance to see silents accompanied lived and with a grateful and appreciative audience, making it easy to feel like a time traveller for a day or weekend.

My impressions of the day’s films follow below!

Snow White Dances with Prince

Snow White (1916)
Marguerite Clark revises her hit stage role for this adaptation. While she was thirty-three when she made this movie, her movements, manner, dress, and styling come together to give an impression of youth. She’s the sweet soul whose fairytale existence turns into a nightmare.

Her beautiful mother dies young, and her father the King dies shortly after marriage to an evil, formerly ugly woman (Dorothy Cumming), who promised the heart of Snow White to Witch Hex in return for possessing a greater beauty than the girl’s. The witch strikes the deal due to her vanity–she’s bald and wants a full head of hair.

The newly widowed Queen Brangomar makes the rightful heir to the throne a household slave like that other fairytale heroine, Cinderella. There’s even a moment when her former handmaids act like Cinderella’s fairy godmother and dress Snow White in their clothes and accessories to attend a party, where she turns a princely head before having to flee. The Queen is enraged. She wanted the younger man for herself.

More trials upon the good are shown in the form of the hunstman Berthold (Lionel Braham). He’s an honorable man and father, but the Queen threatens to kill his brood unless he brings her Snow White’s heart. His attempt to save his children, yet spare Snow White, sets in motion the rest of the film.

There is more darkness to this retelling than later film versions. Jealousy, threats, dark magic, and death color scenes with dread and danger. This is countered by beauty, whimsy, and nature. The good are all beautiful or handsome or funny. They’re in harmony with the world and order (like Snow White led to safety by a bird) or work in the natural world (like Bethold and the dwarves). The dwarves provide humor, but their love and kindness makes them protect Snow White. Despite the happy ending, there’s the threat of potential chaos after-the-fact. A now hirsute Witch Hex and her strange humanoid cat not only survive, but also celebrate with the court.

One Week with Keaton & Seely

Think Slow, Act Fast: Buster Keaton Shorts (1920-1921)
Before attending the festival, I told my friend new to seeing silents live that Buster Keaton was handsome when he was young and that his segment was one she’d enjoy. She told me I was right on both accounts! Buster won over another filmgoer to silents.

The shorts screened were One Week (1920), The Scarecrow (1920), and The Play House (1921). When Buster is at his best, it’s easy to feel like Sybil Seely in a favorite scene from One Week. Chaos surrounds her. She sits inside a spinning house on a spinning chair, and she enjoys every moment laughing the whole time. Buster’s clever gags and freneticism take us all on a wild, fun ride. The only down moment was the audience’s palpable uncomfortableness at the minstrel scenes in The Play House, but it relaxed and laughed again once those scenes had passed.

Thief of Bagdad with Fairbanks & Johnston

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
Douglas Fairbanks plays the titular thief, a lazy, self-absorbed, chaos bringer made less threatening and redeemable by the actor’s charms. When we first see the thief Ahmed, he’s like Aesop’s grasshopper. He lounges and plays. When he has a need to be met, he steals from one of the ants, the people whose work have provided them homes he loots for food and fun. What he wants, he takes with no thought to others. After stealing a magic rope, he breaks into the Caliph’s (Brandon Hurst) home, and the sight of the sleeping Princess (Julanne Johnston) makes him pause. She awakens him.

After getting chased off from the palace, he returns as an imposter and suitor. The Caliph is trying to marry off the Princess, so princes from around the world are presenting themselves for consideration. Marriage to her means inheriting and ruling the kingdom once her father dies. Ahmed as false prince actually fulfills a prophecy. One of the Princess’s slaves has the gift of sight-seeing. Whoever touches the rosebush first will marry the Princess. Ahmed gets thrown into the bush by his horse!

While he successfully woos the Princess, he falls in love and cannot lie to her anymore. A spy for one of the other suitors (Anna May Wong), the Mongol Prince (Sojin), overhears his confession, which she shares. This competitor uses the information to his advantage, and he informs the Caliph of the deception.

After a discovered Ahmed is once again chased out of the palace, the Caliph wants to force the Princess to make a choice. Her loyal soothsayer once again helps. She devises a delay. The Princess will marry after seven moons the man who brings her the rarest gift. The princes and Ahmed then travel the world seeking the rarest gift to win the Princess.

This fantastical world is created through grand sets and inhabited by mysterious beings and dangerous creatures. Fairbanks shows off his athleticism jumping, swinging, and battling man and creature through these sets. Their scale often dwarf him until close-up.

Everything proceeds very straightforwardly. If you want a simple tale of the hero’s journey, then this film succeeds. If you want more of the wit that glints in Fairbanks’ eyes, then you’ll wish that Anita Loos had punched up the intertitles or scenarios like I did. Despite this quibble, the film entertains and teaches. Who can argue with the moral of this tale? Happiness must be earned, and it is.

Mary Pickford & Charles "Buddy" Rogers in My Best Girl (1927)

My Best Girl (1927)
This sweet film goes down like a bon bon, but it also contains another false suitor and adds class angst. Mary Pickford plays Maggie Johnson, a working class girl. She takes a shine to the new stock boy at the five and dime, Joe (Buddy Rogers). At first he’s terrible at his job, but under Maggie’s tutelage he earns a promotion. The two fall in love during their time together. Maggie doesn’t know two important things. Joe already has a girlfriend, and his family owns the store. Their love gets tested by these revelations, his family’s disapproval, and her home life complicated by a troubled and trashy sister.

Some say you can see Mary and Buddy fall in love while making this picture. I’m not sure about that, but they have onscreen chemistry. Despite the out-of-date clothes Maggie wears, Mary looks pretty as Maggie. Her looks and sweetness make it believable that Joe would fall in love with her. Buddy is full of boyish charm and good looks. His clothes, energy, and any make-up used give him a modern, youthful look. If you look a little too closely at the pair and their scenes, Mary screens a little older than he. That’s due to her make-up, the sometimes hazy close-up lenses, and the unfashionable clothing, yet there is youthfulness in her looks and energy and that chemistry, so the pairing works.

This movie shares the theme with The Thief of Bagdad that happiness is earned. Maggie and her father (Lucien Littlefield) work to provide for the family. In fact Maggie often acts as their mother figure. Her mother (Sunshine Hart) is more interested in attending funerals than running her own home, and Maggie helps her sister Liz (Carmelita Geraghty) get out of constant scrapes. Liz is content to take anything given to her by her family. She doesn’t work, so she has time to get involved with ne’er-do-wells.

Maggie’s enmeshment with her family is presented as more of an obstacle than the class difference. Her first date with Joe runs long. No one in her family cooked dinner because they expected her to. Worse her sister gets in trouble with the law, and her parents don’t know what to do. Whether or not she can break away from them and their dependence on her provides drama to the comedy.

The most dramatic scene occurs in the family’s kitchen. I do not want to spoil the impact or surprise of the scene, but Maggie shows how much she loves Joe when Mary shows off her range of acting ability within minutes. It’s saddening and upsetting. Before long the sugary goodness of this romance returns. The film’s end uplifts and affirms romance.

Faust, Gretchen, & Mephisto

Faust (1926)
At first I was not going to stay for Faust. I’ve seen it before on the small screen, but I couldn’t remember a lot of this version, so I stayed. The high brought about by My Best Girl was destroyed. When the scholar Faust (Gösta Ekmann) makes deals with the Mephisto (Emil Jannings), Faust brings suffering to himself and anyone he loves, like the innocent Gretchen (Camilla Horn). She loses everything, her family, good name, baby, and eventually her life. The misery of what occurs onscreen is supposed to be tempered by the redemption of Faust’s soul and their love living on into the afterlife.

The film is a prime example of German Expressionism. The scenes are striking. Any still from the film likely looks like a piece of art. Strange angles and bold shadows dominate. They are anxiety-provoking. Within these sets and shots, Jannings runs through his arsenal of mannerisms and expressions. Some could be nightmare provoking, particularly when he’s in Mephisto’s true form.

Although all accompanists were excellent this day, Christian Elliott‘s performance on the Mighty Wurlitzer for this film was outstanding. At times the sound was booming and domineering, other times it was more subtle and sad. During the devil’s scenes, the organ’s sinister sounds amped up his awfulness. The organ’s final tones were exhilarant for Faust’s and Gretchen’s souls ascension to heaven.

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

For Valentine’s Day, here is one of my favorite romantic scenes from a musical. The film Lovely to Look At, a remake of Roberta, may not be memorable as a whole, but it showcases some imaginative dance sequences featuring Marge and Gower Champion. While they had the unenviable task of replacing Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, the Champions were gifted with not recreating the earlier pair’s routines. The Champions’ dances were mostly freed from the show within a picture’s stagings. In Lovely to Look at, the big performance to save the fashion house remains, but their other dance scenes show their characters’ flirtations that lead to romance and to them falling in love.

In the above scene, their characters have spent the night accompanying their friends from boîte to boîte. Left alone, they have no distractions. He wants to dance with her one more time, that’s the only way he can hold a girl in his arms in a crowded room and have her all to himself, and she agrees after initially resisting. They have fun, and dance well together, and then the camera moves in for a close-up when they pause in front of a window. When it pulls back, we see the nightclub set has vanished, and only the starry night remains. In multiple long takes, they dance on and among the stars. They’re the only two people in their universe at that moment, and they both hear, feel, and move to the same song. They’re a perfect pairing. Long before they walk off together into the night, we know they have fallen in love. We’ve watched it happen.

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Elsa Lanchester as Queenie in Bell, Book and Candle

What A Character Blogathon 2012 Badge

This post is part of the What A Character! Blogathon. It runs September 22 through 24. It celebrates the character actors who helped make classic film as great as it was.

Bell Book and Candle Title Screenshot

One of my favorite movies to watch at Christmas-time is Bell, Book and Candle. Growing up, I’d often watch it with my family as we trimmed our tree. It starts off at Christmas time, so that’s how a film about New York City witches and romance came to be associated with the holiday for me. I would have watched it anyway and at other times, and I did. Like many little girls I was impressed by the image and intensity that Kim Novak brought to her role of Gillian Holroyd. Here was an antidote to suburban life. She had a Jean Louis wardrobe to die for. She dressed in mostly knits or velvet in rich or dark jewel tones with a lot of black thrown in. She had a talkative cat as her best friend. She could live and do what she wanted, and she could cast spells. She was anything but boring at first. Repeated viewings of the film made me appreciate another character—that of Elsa Lanchester’s Aunt Queenie—and the actress that played her.

Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein

Many best remember Elsa Lanchester for her performance in The Bride of Frankenstein. Despite playing the titular role, she filled a supporting part. Even counting the sometimes cut from the print dual role of Mary Shelley, she had far less screen time than any of the leads, and her bride only appeared at film’s end. She was friends with the director James Whale, another British expatriate who cast her in the role. When Lanchester was younger and skinnier, she seemed a little more exotic than eccentric, and the role makes good use of that, but she made better use of the role. Her body language doesn’t seem human. Her head-twisting is bird-like, and her unnatural scream at the sight of Frankenstein’s monster is deeply disturbing. Lanchester’s long experience as an actress and a dancer was another element at Whale’s disposal to make his superior sequel. Lanchester made her bride more than her now iconic hairstyle, and a lesser actress couldn’t have succeeded under so much “look.”

Charles Laughton & Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lanchester had both the blessing and misfortune to be married to another actor, Charles Laughton. Both were talented, but Laughton was the more marketable and employed one. People tend to say he was a success despite his lack of leading man looks, but I’d argue that his looks complemented that types of roles he excelled at, ones usually calling for big personalities and employment of actorly tics, but he could be more subtle under the right direction. Before their marriage, Laughton was cast in three silent films starring Lanchester expressly written for her by H.G. Wells. After their marriage, he often would get her cast in his latest production. Sometimes she would appear in featured role, but at other times it was more of a bit part. Not counting their stage roles, they appeared in over a dozen movies together. Via a photographic cameo, he even intruded into her only billed lead, Passport to Destiny.

Charles Laughton & I book cover

She outlived her husband, but their much speculated upon marriage and its effect on her career appeared to have a lasting effect on her. She wrote two memoirs, Charles Laughton and I and Elsa Lanchester, Herself, but both focused more on her husband, his career, and their relationship than her career. The first was published when he was alive, and the second was published after his death and not too long before hers. Maybe she was giving the public what she knew they wanted, or maybe she had a hard time distinguishing herself as an individual after a while? Both books are out-of-print, and it may be telling that his biography sells for a much steeper price as a collectible than hers.

Edith Lanchester

Edith Lanchester

Before it segues into their marriage, her memoir details her hard childhood. Her mother Edith Lanchester fled her bourgeois life to cohabit with working-class socialist James Sullivan. Her family responded by kidnapping and institutionalizing her, but political pressure led to her release. Edith was the more extreme of the pair. She forced her children into a life of poverty and trying to live off the radar. Elsa learned how to evade landlords, bailiffs, and the census man before she learned some other childhood skills. She wore shabby handmade clothes. She wasn’t allowed meat, even though her father ate the cheap garbage cuts, because her mother was a vegetarian. Going to school was an adjustment for her, but her mother was supportive of Lanchester learning and managed to get her arts and dance lessons. She began to work as a child to earn money for her family and her independence. In some ways it looked like she escaped one strong personality only to be grabbed into the orbit of another, but she seemed to like her mother much less than she loved her husband.

Elsa Lanchester as Amelia Potts

One of the ironies of Lanchester’s career is that for a woman so famous for being married in real life to Laughton and in reel life to Frankenstein’s monster, she ended up playing many spinsters, some of them painters (Come to the Stable), nurses (Witness for the Prosecution), servants (The Spiral Staircase, Mary Poppins, Les Misérables, The Bishop’s Wife), social secretaries (The Razor’s Edge), mad sisters (Ladies in Retirement), aunts (Bell, Book and Candle), and even a bearded lady (3 Ring Circus). She did play some wives and widows as well, and not all of them were married to her husband’s screen characters (Lassie Come Home), but a good deal were (The Private Life of Henry the VIII, Passport to Destiny). Out of her many roles, she received two Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress—in 1949 as the religious painter in Come to the Stable and in 1957 as barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts frustrated nurse in Witness for the Prosecution. Neither were the showy type of supporting roles that normally win the supporting Oscar, and she lost to Mercedes McCambridge in All The King’s Men and Miyoshi Umeki for Sayanora respectively.

Elsa Lanchester's Mask

In Bell, Book and Candle, she plays one of her aunt roles. The opening credits give us a hint of what type. Each actor in the film has their name shown next to an African mask or sculpture. When Lanchester’s name appears next to a mask with a beard, the soundtrack briefly shifts from melody to a funny-sounding cacophony. Her role is full of all the disorder that implies; she plays a comedic part. Queenie Holroyd is aunt to Gillian and Nicky Holroyd (Jack Lemmon). They come from an old Massachusetts family, which might be a hint at Salem origins. All three live in New York City. Queenie lives in an upstairs apartment in Gillian’s building. Gillian lives in the ground floor combination flat and shop. We would imagine that Aunt Queenie looks after her niece and nephew, but really Gillian looks after the other two. She’s the most responsible one.

Queenie Behind Desk

We’re introduced to Queenie right away. Jimmy Stewart’s Shep Henderson has returned home to his apartment in the Holroyd building. He unlocks and opens his door to discover Queenie behind his desk. She tries to act as though everything is normal, and she claims she was being helpful. He had left his window open, so she shut it to prevent the snow from coming in and ruining his belongings. He doesn’t understand why his door was locked then, and she offers no explanation. He assumes she is studying dramatics, and he asks her what she is reciting at night. She’s most relieved when he can’t understand what she has been saying. After she lets it slip she not only tidied his desk, but also read his correspondence, he kicks her out for some “personal telephoning.” She tells him her version of an insult, “Before you moved in here, a theosophist lived here, and he was very pleasant.” Before she leaves, she stares at his phone and thinks an incantation. His phone then makes otherworldly sounds.

Shep's Goblin Phone

His phone problem forces him to go downstairs and ask to use Gillian’s phone. She’s pleased she gets to speak to him. She’s been fancying him through her windows. Queenie intrudes again. This time to beg Gillian to accompany her to a nightclub called the Zodiac. She talks it up and enlists Shep to persuade Gillian to go. She also confesses to both that she’s “afraid he thinks I’ve been naughty.” Before long Gillian deduces that Queenie fixed his phone. Once Shep leaves, Gillian angrily reminds Queenie of her promise to be careful. Queenie claims no harm was done, all she did was read his letters. She then claims not to make use of them, but in the next breath tells an interested Gillian he’s about to be married. She’s too ethical to pursue another woman’s man.

Too Bad He's Getting Married

Through all of this, we see that Queenie loves being a witch. She takes advantage of her powers to snoop and play pranks and to gossip. Even though she’s older than Gillian, she’s child-like and impulsive. She’s never quite grown up, and her amusements make her giggle to herself like a little girl. One of those amusements is hiding in plain sight. When she talks about how unsuspecting and unimaginative humans are, she says, “I sit in the subways sometimes, on buses, or in the movies, and I look at the people next to me, and I think what would you say if I told you I was a witch?” She laughs and continues, “And I know they would never believe it.” All this makes Queenie a wildcard, and Gillian makes her vow not to do any more magic in the home, lest they get discovered.

Queenie & Bianca de Passe

We next see Queenie at the Zodiac. Drink in hand, she flits from table to table and then pauses at that of Bianca de Passe (Hermione Gingold). Like Queenie, Bianca is another redheaded witch. She’s not the least child-like. She has a crazy mop of what’s either hennaed hair or a wig, and she’s dressed the part of a grande dame in all her scenes. She tends to wear lace, velvet, bold prints, and statement jewelry. Her garb is less modern looking than Queenie’s and very aging compared to Gillians’. She’s friendly to Queenie, who’s not perceived as a rival, but Bianca dislikes Gillian, who’s a stronger, less hammy in performance witch. Unlike either Holroyd female, Bianca attempts to profit from the craft which gets her labeled as mail order sorceress by Gillian.

Moping Gillian

Queenie returns to her table and finds a moping Gillian. She wants to cheer her niece up, and she cannot understand why Gillian would like to be in a church on Christmas Eve hearing carols for once instead of bongo drums in a nightclub. They’re interrupted when Queenie discovers her hyping up the nightclub has led to Shep bringing his date to the club. She’s snobby and laughs that one of the other patrons would never be spotted at El Morocco. Before they make it to the Holroyd table, Queenie says the woman must be the fiancée because Queenie saw the woman’s snapshot in his desk. Gillian is astonished to recognize the redhead. She’s Merle Kittridge (Janice Rule), an old rival from Wellesley College that reported Gillian to the dean for not wearing shoes.

Merle Freaking Out

After the woman insults Nicky, who’s playing with the band onstage, without know he’s Gillian’s brother, Gillian admits that “all the Holroyds are a little sinister.” Maybe that’s what having access to magic can do to someone, the power is easy to access, abuse, and become addicted to. Gillian in anger and maybe jealousy brings up Merle’s quirk of being afraid of thunderstorms. She talks about all the awful storms that happened during one of their terms. During this, she’s signaled Nicky to switch to stormy weather. They play an uptempo version with horns blaring, and the band surrounds the table as the lights happen to flicker mimicking lightning. It’s too much for Merle who gets up to leave and flees after Nicky screams. Queenie is delighted and cackles.

Queenie Cackles

So now we have three redheaded woman who all contrast each other–impulsive and magic-abusing Queenie, the charlatan-like Bianca, and the very human, but witchy in personality Merle. They represent paths that Gillian could take. Does she continue to live differently and selfishly, try to profit from her craft professionally, or does she not use magic, but settle an old score out of revenge? Two out of the three are spinsters that live alone, and the third uses feminine tricks to get her man.

Oh, Nicky!

During the following street scene when the Holroyd’s walk home, Gillian explains her history with Merle, while Nicky demonstrates his new trick of turning off streetlights. Queenie thinks him clever, while Gillian thinks him juvenile and asks him if he will ever grow up. Gillian is considering whether to compete with Merle on a fair playing ground and not use her powers to get him. Queenie becomes scared that Gillian has fallen in love with him and lost her powers, but Gillian says that’s an old wives’ tale, and it’s the other way around. They can’t fall in love. Queenie’s served another one of her purposes of saying expository dialogue that will become important later on.

Queenie & Her Present

After the reach Gillian’s apartment, they go inside to exchange Christmas presents. They discuss why previous witches were never rich if they had powers. Queenie says that they weren’t any good at it any more” they are. “We can turn out street lights, but we can’t make anything turn to gold.” Nicky believes Gil could because she’s the most powerful of them, but she’s afraid of the repercussions. They then exchange presents. Nicky gets records from Gillian, but he hasn’t a phonograph. He’s sold his. Gillian says he’ll find one at home. When he wants to know if she bought it or conjured it, Queenie hushes him for being rude. When Queenie opens her present, and finds a beautiful, black, lace scarf, she says, “This is delightful. What does it do?” She can’t conceive of an object not having a magical purpose, so when Gillian replies it makes Queenie look fascinating, she momentarily believes it has glamouring powers. She’s confused when Gillian tells her it has no powers, that she thought it was pretty. Queenie agrees, “It is. It’s very pretty. I love it.” Again magic is thought of as getting or supplying something.


Nicky has the bad taste to regift a magic potion that failed to work for him and to admit it to Gillian. She gets it to work to her family’s delight, and it puts on a strange light show. She uses the potion to summon the author Sidney Redlitch (Ernie Kovacs) that Shep wants to sign. First it brings Shep, who’s convinced her place is on fire. Queenie rushes Nicky out with her to Gillian and Shep time alone. Gillian then tries embarrassing lines that a woman as beautiful as she shouldn’t have to utter. She’s so used to making magic her shortcut to get what she wants that she’s failing in her seduction of him. When she hears Merle has moved up their wedding date to that day, perhaps out of nervousness to Gillian’s close proximity to him, she becomes desperate and grabs Pyewacket. She uses her familiar to cast a spell over Shep. She resorts to magic to get what she wants despite telling her family they are better than that. She’s backslid.

Queenie, Nicky, & Gillian Listening

When we next see Queenie, she’s seated on the sofa with her family, and all three are looking very uncomfortable. Gillian’s summoning spell worked, and she made Sidney Redlitch go to Shep, and he in turn has brought the author into Gillian’s home. She doesn’t like him saying he’s going to write a book about the witches of Manhattan, and he knows just enough to maybe make this book more realistic than his previous one. Redlitch claims to be able to recognize witches, yet he has no sense that three are in the room with him at that very moment. He happens to mention the Zodiac as a witch hang-out, and then he mentions how cats are used as familiars when he sees Pyewacket. Queenie departs, lying that she forgot something on the stove. Gillian doesn’t want their family secret uncovered. She sets Nicky the task of throwing Redlitch off their trail, but Nicky hopes to cash in on his heritage and partners with Redlitch on his book.

Gillian Confesses to Shep

Later Shep proposes, but Gillian doesn’t want to change her lifestyle. She says she’s “lived for and by the special, not the ordinary.” Shep can’t understand her refusal to accept his proposal and commit. Suddenly she changes her mind and accepts. She’s chosen her path to be different from what she knows, even if that difference is being ordinary. The trouble is she’s used magic to get revenge on Merle like Queenie wanted; she’s profiting from it like Bianca by getting married; and she’s dishonestly snagging a man like Merle. Gillian’s too honest to let Shep marry her without knowing who she is and what she did. She goes to his office and confesses she’s a witch who has put him under her spell. Shep won’t believe her, and he brushes off her incidents of proof as the fantastical imaginings of her female mind. In this scene, Gillian appears her most stereotypically “witchy.” She’s dressed all in black and even wears a cowl over her head. While she’s baring all verbally, she’s the most covered we’ve seen her indoors.

Shep Trying to Get Queenie to Do Magic

Queenie bumps into Shep soon after. She’s thrilled. She cannot believe that Gillian is getting married to an outsider to whom she’s revealed herself. She exclaims that is unprecedented. She tells Shep to call her Auntie now. Shep’s confused. Gillian didn’t reveal that her family are witches to him, only that she is. He asks Queenie if she believes herself to be one, too. She tries to prove it by replying how else could she get into his locked apartment. He tries to get her to unlock the front door, but she refuses saying she took the oath for Gillian, who’s the gifted one in the family. Strangely Shep isn’t too bothered until Queenie accidentally reveals that Merle and Gillian had a history and that Gillian swiped him out of revenge. When he hears his first attempted marriage was precluded because Gillian only liked him, that’s when he becomes angry. Queenie worsens it by saying that liking someone is a big deal for them, that and hot blood are allowed, but not love. Queenie’s talking leads to a fight between Shep and Gillian that causes them to break-up, once he’s used Bianca to break the love spell.

Gillian & Queenie Staring at Tears

When he visits Gillian for a final insult, she get angry and threatens revenge, but she can’t find Pyewacket to cast a spell against Merle. Shep flees to check on Merle. Meanwhile Queenie finds the cat. He was on the roof, so she brings him back to Gillian. He flees from her and climbs up the statues on the wall. She gets him down, but he leaps away from her and runs out his cat door into the city streets. Gillian is crying, and when she returns home. Queenie stares at her in amazement. There are “tears, real tears.” She picks one up on her finger and stares at it as Gillian collapses crying in front of a mirror. She’s done something else Queenie has never been able to do, fall in love. She wants to know, “What is it like, Gillian? I’ve never has it. Is it wonderful?” Gillian feels awful.

Queenie Worrying

The following scene takes place in the Zodiac, where Queenie and Nicky are hanging out. Queenie has her head in her hands and looks down. When she says that Gillian has looked so sad the last couple of months, we know time has passed. Pyewacket won’t go back to her, and Gillian won’t go out. She tries to plot how to help Gillian, but Nicky can’t understand that Gillian’s in love. He wonders if she wouldn’t “rather be dead?” Queenie has been forbidden to tell Shep what has happened, but she thinks aloud that “nature might take its course” if the two of them are in a room together. When we see Pyewacket enter Shep’s office in the very next scene we know Queenie decided to meddle, only without using magic. She sent the cat to bring back the man.

Queenie & Nicky Watching Shep & Gillian

When Shep arrives at Gillian’s, we see her shop is now called Flowers of the Sea. She sells seashells and arrangements that look like floral displays, but are crafted with seashells and other natural materials. Gillian is wearing a white dress. It’s the first time we’ve seen her dressed in that color. She admits that Pyewacket is not her cat anymore, and she apologizes for Queenie’s meddling. It doesn’t take Shep long to notice that Gillian is changed and that she’s lost her powers, which only happens for one reason. Nature does take its course as Queenie and Nicky watch through the window. Queenie looks delighted to have made her niece happy, and she looks a little wistful. Nicky makes a disgusted expression. The two of them head off into the night, and Nicky shuts off the streetlights they pass, including the one that Pyewacket, mission accomplished, sits upon.

Pyewacket on Street Lamp

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