Friday, September 5, 2014

MATA HARI: Garbo goes undercover

This is my entry in the World War One in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and Silent-ology. Click HERE for more war to end all wars brilliance.


MATA HARI
Rhianna and JLo got nothing on this fashionista
"Mata Hari. She makes love for the papers."

Alicia Huberman, Notorious
Prostituting oneself for patriotism is apparently a virtue. Just ask 2 Hitchcock heroines Eve Kendall (North by Northwest) and Alicia Huberman (Notorious). Of course, they both ended with up with Cary Grant, so maybe it was worth it? But, I digress. Both of these ladies made fine spies, but they could never hold a candle to the original female spy, the woman whose name is synonymous with espionage and seduction, Mata Hari. And who better to portray the mystery, the sex, the cool that was Mata Hari than the mysterious, sexy and uber-cool Greta Garbo? That's what MGM thought in 1931. The result is an entertaining film of the Garbo formula: you know - an all-knowing woman of the world who is brought to her knees by the love of an innocent man/boy. Oh wait, is that Camille? The Kiss? Well, you get the picture....

And oh what a picture she is. Vamping around World War I Paris in costumes to die for, Garbo wears some of Adrian's most outrageous designs with panache and a much-admired seriousness. If anyone doubts Garbo was a great actress, just think of the great acting it took for her to wear some of these things with a straight and smoldering face. In fact, she never looked more beautiful.
Garbo really didn't need a hair dresser on this film

I like this colorization, as it is how I imagined the costume

But, back to the war. Garbo's Mata (I love that her lovers call her by her fake first name - Mata) is an exotic dancer/courtesan who is spying for the Germans. She's got French General Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) under her spell and spilling his guts and reports to her spymaster, Adriani (Lewis Stone). All is going well for Ms. Hari,as she is the toast of the town and no one can make the spy allegations stick. A fly enters the ointment in the person of Russian officer Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro). Well, I think he's Russian, but when he pronounces "mother" as "mow-ther" I think the family got sidetracked from Kiev to Juarez. Anyway, Rosanoff is hot and young and stupid and brave.  In other words, meat for Mata. 
Garbo looked incredibly uncomfortable during her cooch
dance, which one reviewer described as "polite"
But, because Mata is Garbo, love enters the picture and, as we all know, there is no room for love in the spy game. She shoots the jealous Shubin as he threatens to expose her and goes into hiding. But the Russian lover boy crashes his plane and loses his sight. Mata comes out of hiding to comfort her boy-toy and is arrested. Rosanoff remains blind in so many ways and Mata faces the firing squad like a man.
Basic black is always right for a firing squad
The film has lots of pre-code fun, and I must say that Ms. Garbo is quite a delight when she is pulling the wool over everyone's eyes. Her smile and laugh are adorable. I'm not so enamored of Mr. Novarro here. He is way too boyish to be of interest to such a worldly and glamorous creature. He acts as though he wants to carry her books rather than snuggle between the sheets. But, their scenes, thanks to Garbo, have some heat and the after-code release had some steamy moments cut out.


Was this film a dress rehearsal for Garbo?


The reclusive Garbo never tooted her own horn. While other stars publicly made contributions to the WWII effort (entertaining or fighting), secretive Greta, it seems, was actually in the employ of the British intelligence (MI6) Beginning in 1939, Garbo frequently left Hollywood for New York for "medical treatment." It turns out that "medical treatment" was her code word for a little espionage for the British.

Working with Alexander Korda (himself recruited by MI6), Garbo gathered information on Swedish millionaire Axel Wenner-Gren, a friend of Hermann Goering. This spying went on for several years and her missions resulted in great success (you can read more about Greta's spying days here).  Seems just playing Mata Hari was not enough for the great Garbo.

The real Mata Hari
As you can see, the real Mata Hari made Garbo, MGM, Adrian and the Pre-Code Hollywood look tame.




Mata Hari was a Dutch haus frau whose lousy marriage led her to Paris where she went from circus horse rider, artist model, exotic dancer and courtesan. In between it looks as though she did spy for the Germans and maybe even for the French. She did have a love affair with a Russian aviator and did end up on the wrong side of a firing squad. Whatever the truth, her name became synonymous with intrigue and seduction and dangerous women.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

MANTRAP: WARNING! CLARA BOW USES WEAPONS OF MASS SEDUCTION!

This is my entry in the Build Your Own Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Film & TV Cafe, featuring 20 bloggers over 20 days.

MANTRAP
Alverna does her daily flirting exercises. A girls has to keep in shape!
No, Clara Bow is not the mantrap of the title (yeah right). Mantrap is the name of the little Canadian outpost where our story takes place. It's a simple story. In New York City, divorce attorney Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont) has developed a distinct dislike for the opposite sex (agreeing that his client's husband was right to beat her – grrr… we already don’t like him). His buddy, hosiery salesman Woodbury (Eugene Pallette) suggests that what they both need is some male-bonding time in the wilderness. Prissy Ralph agrees and off they set to mantrap for some fishing, hunting and, presumably, belching.

Prescott and Woodbury:City Boys Gone Wild
Meanwhile, in Mantrap, good-hearted merchant Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence) is lonely for female companionship and decides to take a trip to Minneapolis to see what the big city has to offer. There, while getting spiffed up in a barber shop, he meets manicurist Alverna (Clara Bow). She's an adorable flirt, but senses that big-lug-small-town-Joe is a decent guy and agrees to meet him for dinner.


Next we catch up with campers Ralph and Woodbury, who are engaged in a fierce and juvenile battle over some wilderness supremacy. Joe happens upon the pair and figures the best way to solve the problem is to remove one of these citified gents from the fight. He offers to take Ralph back to his home in Mantrap for the rest of his vacation. Ralph agrees, thinking that is will be a blissful place to continue his pursuit of manly things without female interference.

Alverna and her 2 men - neither one quite worthy
This is when we find out that Joe has married Alverna. She greets her man at the dock and welcomes visitor Ralph with open arms. She is an incorrigible flirt, but before long she and Ralph do begin to have feelings for one another. After a spat with Joe, Alverna leaves with Ralph to head back to civilization. They endure a few hard nights in the wilderness (Alverna is more than up to the task and proves herself to be a tough survivor). Joe, frantic that Alverna has flown the coop, goes off after the couple in hot pursuit. Eventually he catches up to the bedraggled pair. While Ralph and Joe try to decide Alverna's fate, she declares that "no one is the boss of me," gets in Joe's motorboat and leaves both of those knuckleheads behind.

Alverna livens up the locals
Since this is Hollywood, alls well must end well. Fast forward a bit and Joe is still heartbroken over losing the flirtatious Alverna. His nasty neighbors try to tell him that he is well rid of the little baggage, but when she knocks on the door and declares she has missed her man, Joe welcomes her back with a grateful bear hug. Of course, when a manly Mountie happens by, Alverna can’t help but shift into flirt mode. But she asks Joe to keep an eye on her, just in case.
Clara Bow as 21 when "Mantrap" was made, but had already appeared in over 30 films. Given a good story and a great director, she rose to the occasion and set the screen on fire. Never was she more captivating and charismatic and beautiful. Director Victor Fleming was in love with Clara during this time and it is clear that he is truly besotted with his subject. Her close-ups are luminous. Publically, he compared Bow to a Stradivarius violin: "Touch her, and she responded with genius.” And what a genius – both Torrence and Marmont are hardly romantic ideals, yet Clara makes you believe that a girl like Alverna would actually give them a second look.

Lovebirds Clara Bow and Victor Fleming during the filming of "Mantrap."

He-man Fleming went gaga for Clara. Can you blame him?
"Mantrap" is based on a story by Sinclair Lewis which is apparently a misogynistic nightmare. However, in the hands of 2 female screen writers (Ethel Doherty and Adelaide Heilbron) and with the magical Clara at the forefront even that toughest of he-men directors Victor Fleming, could only see it Alverna’s way.

Clara Bow considered "Mantrap" to be her best silent film. I completely agree.

Impossible to resist



Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Art of Bill Jart

You can meet the most interesting people on Facebook. Who is Bill Jart? Well, I am not quite sure. I know that he is a regular on my Flickchick's Movie Playground Facebook page and that he generously posts his amazing classic film artwork. He posts them on the star's birthday or the day TCM is showing one of their movies. 

Take a peek at some tasty samples:
James Cagney

Carole Lombard

Cary Grant (sigh.....)

Kirk Douglas

Rex Harrison and Gene Tierney

Katharine Hepburn

James Stewart

Judy Garland

Luise Rainer and Paul Muni

Gregory Peck

Barbara Stanwyck

William Powell

Ronald Colman

Bill Jart - I don't know who you are, but you are an amazing artist. Thank you so much for sharing your talent with us - your work is beautiful.


Saturday, August 2, 2014

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD: SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952)

Since my slavish devotion to Lina Lamont is well known to anyone who might have stumbled by here in the past, I simply had to include Singin’ in the Rain as part of the Hooray for Hollywood series.

I can’t help viewing this film as a musical counterpoint to Sunset Boulevard; sort of the positive to the negative/the sun to the shade. There are those who made the transition to sound (Don Lockwood/Garbo) and those who didn’t (poor Lina/poor Norma Desmond). Filmed 20 years after the last of the silent films hit the theaters, it is an occasionally nasty, sometimes affectionate look at that moment in time when Hollywood was turned on its ear and then turned on its own.
 
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the film is based, in part, on the memories of producer Arthur Freed and costume designer Walter Plunkett, both who lived through those traumatic changes. At the advent of sound and musicals, Freed was a lyricist, working with composer Nacio Herb Brown (their music is used throughout the film) and Walter Plunkett was wrestling with sound in such early sound musicals as Rio Rita and Dixiana. He remembered only too well how the swish of a dress or the random fingering of a string of pearls could record like a thundering herd of buffalo during those early days. Singin’ in the Rain perfectly captures the panic and the joy of the new medium. It was a topsy-turvy world where great stars (John Gilbert/Clara Bow/Lina Lamont) were toppled from their thrones and virtual unknowns were elevated to star status (Kathy Selden/Alice White/Clark Gable). Some survivors thrived (Joan Crawford, Ronald Colman) while some merely or barely survived (Gloria Swanson).
 
Beyond the sorrow of the twilight of the silents lay the joy of those goofy, innocent early musicals. The Dueling Cavalier becomes the Dancing Cavalier. And Don Lockwood can dance! Who knew? Beyond the diction lessons and the technical mishaps was a feeling of joy and creativity. In the depths of the Depression, silly, gleeful musicals lifted the spirits (even if some of those chorus girls could barely lift their thighs). High spirits abounded, at least for a while. Here's the 1929 version of that famous song (from the finale of The Hollywood Revue of 1929). See how many stars you can identify.
 
Singin’ in the Rain is a bow to the Nancy Carrolls, the Buddy Rogers, the Zelma O’Neils and the John Boles - and all those crazy kids who made us feel like singing and dancing in the rain. Zelma who? Nany who? Check out Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers and Zelma and Jack from 1930's Follow Thu.
 
And really, what’s not to love? Kelly’s Don Lockwood is a dancing Fairbanks – dashing, masculine and a joy to behold. It is my favorite Kelly performance (and that’s saying a lot).
 
Gene and the Louise Brooks-inspired leg of the delicious Cyd Charisse
 
The great Donald O'Connor really gets a chance to show how talented he was. His signature number of Make “em Laugh is unforgettable.
 
Debbie Reynolds was cute, but probably the most expendable cast member. She was only 19 when this was made. Her tales of Kelly as a tough task-master legendary and her gratitude to him is a testament to her professionalism.
 

And of course, there is Jean Hagen, as Lina Lamont. There are few things in this world that are perfect and her performance here is one of them. Totally, 100% perfect. As a charter member of the Lina Lamont fan club I can only hope that she went on to buy the studio.
 

A lovely look back at themselves by the insiders who were there without the venom and with out the sadness that a parade had indeed passed by, Singin’ in the Rain remains a joy to behold.
 

Monday, July 21, 2014

COMFORT FOOD/COMFORT FILM

There is so much sadness and turmoil in the world lately that it is sometimes hard not to despair. No matter how much we try, the enormity of the state of the globe can be scary and downright depressing. Watching the global mess on TV only adds to the sense of helplessness. When I am feeling overwhelmed by the man made mess of the world, I always run for comfort food and comfort film. Here are a few that get me through the darkest times:

Food: Mac and Cheese
Film: Gone With the Wind


It’s the classic with cheese. Yes, at times the Mammy & Prissy things get painful to watch, but, hey, it is Scarlett and Rhett and it is beautiful and heartbreaking and somehow I never tire of it. Kiss me, Scarlett, kiss me…. Once…..

Food: Meat Loaf
Film: Double Indemnity

It is filling, it is substantial and it makes you strong! While Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are the star killers, it is Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes that fills my cinematic tummy. I am with him all of the way, and his support of that dog Walter throughout the film only makes me like him all the more.
The Little Man is never wrong.

Food: Coconut Cake
Film: City Lights

It is rare and sweet and deceptively simple. But if you have ever tried to make a good coconut cake, you know that it can be tricky. Chaplin’s story of the Tramp and a blind girl is paper thin, but the heart and emotion and love that flows from this film is shattering. I always have a good, cathartic cry at the end – and I always cry when I am down to the last piece of coconut cake.

Food: Chicken Soup
Film: Hannah and Her Sisters

While I have a special place in my heart for Manhattan, I think this is my favorite Woody Allen film (and that’s saying a lot). It is warm, it is healing and it contains one of my favorite scenes of all time:


Woody tells us that film can heal and help and restore. When it comes to that, he and I are forever on the same page.

Food: Mashed Potatoes
Film: Singin’ in the Rain

Ah, when mashed potatoes are done right, there’s nothing like it, and when musicals are done right, they can’t be beat. Oh, it was a tough choice – Astaire or Kelly? Gigi? Love Me Tonight? Show Boat? Love them all, but only one film has Lina Lamont, and for that reason alone Singin’ in the Rain gives me about as much pleasure as I can staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaad.


 
The great thing about comfort films is that they are not high in carbs or sugar (but may contribute to an enlarged butt if you spend too much time on the couch).
 
Send positive wishes out to the universe, pray or just think good thoughts for this poor old planet whose human residents insist upon making a mess of things too often.

 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Accidentally Hilarious: The Terror of Tiny Town

This is my contribution to the Accidently Hilarious Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently. Click HERE to read about sidesplitting cinematic misadventures of the unintentionally hilarious kind.

Jeff Buell owned his midgets?
The Terror of Tiny Town (1938)
Before we go any further, please accept my apologies – apologies for all of the politically incorrectness that must follow in order to discuss this film.

Music! Shetland Ponies! Midgets! Love!
So, in 1938 some grade Z producers must have been sitting around thinking – okay, you have your niche films – there are the negro films, the Spanish films, your Yiddish film…what can we come up with? Hey! How about a midget film? And just for good measure, let’s make it a western. With music. And let's get the schlockies director in town - Sam Newfield. And so, the terrible thing that is “The Terror of Tiny Town” was born.


Now, I know the word “midget” is wrong, but I’m going with it here because the cast is billed as Jed Buell’s Midgets. It seems Jed owned them... or not. Actually, a lot of the actors got jobs the following year in “The Wizard of Oz,” as part of the Singer Midgets, so I guess Jed did not have a corner on them.

Little drunks need big beers

Tiny Town is a Western town populated solely by midget cowboys and the like. Oddly, all of the town’s structures are built for people of average height. So, when a midget cowboy walks into the saloon, he either walks under the swinging doors or reaches above him to open the doors – macho style. And when he bellies up to the bar he uses a step stool. The barber keeps a giant comb behind his ear. They do, however, ride ponies rather than horses. Let me add that they do not ride well and at times look as though they are holding on to those little Shetlands for dear life. I guess there were no midget stunt riders available.


Of course, midgets are like you and I – there are good ones (who wear white hats), bad ones (who wear black hats) and corrupt ones (who wear a lawman’s star). There are also pretty damsels in distress. The plot could have been lifted from any one of any low budget singing western of the era. The bad guy (Bat Haines) tries to stir up trouble between 2 ranchers, but is brought to justice by the good man (Buck Lawson) in the white hat (who also gets the pretty girl, Nancy – who, at one point, runs under a desk instead of around it when leaving the room). Naturally, there is a saloon girl vamp, but there is also a penguin (don’t ask) and a duck who walks backwards (again, please don’t ask). The only average-sized human in the whole production is the guy who comes out before a curtain and introduces this whole shebang to us.

A western saloon would not be complete without a vamp

Check out the musical saloon scene with the big bass fiddle.


Oh, who are we kidding? This is a freak show. The acting is god awful, the premise is insulting and watching too long could cause your eyes to bleed. However, with the right mood/mind altering refreshments, it begins to look a bit like the Little Rascals story you never saw and could provide an hour or so of unintentional hilarity.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Bennett Sisters: It Runs in the Blood

No - not THOSE Bennett sisters. No pride and prejudice here. More like glamour, sophistication, scandal and men.  So take that Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Catherine and Lydia, and while we are at it Kim, Khloe and whatever, too. These sister ruled the Hollywood scene during the 1930s and 1940s and made all others who walked in their wake look ordinary.

Constance, Joan and Barbara Bennett: already cast in their roles

Mom and Dad: Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison

Richard Bennett and Adrienne Morrison
Our sisters came from a grand theatrical family.While not quite the Barrymores, Papa Bennett was quite a character, as well as a highly successful actor on stage and, later, screen.


A whole article could be devoted to Richard Bennett, he was that interesting, but the short story is that, by the late 1890s he had decided it was the actor's life for him and by the early 1900s he was a star on Broadway. He later gave silent films a run (acting and directing) and, at an advanced age, sound films, as well. You may know him from his role as Major Amberson in Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). He was a man of great wit and keen observation (calling the movie business not an industry, but a madhouse).

Adrienne Morrison was Richard's second wife and the mother of Constance, Barbara and Joan. While her success as an actress was marginal, she, too came from a theatrical family. She and Richard were married for 22 years and divorced in 1925. Both went on to wed again.

Constance

Constance Bennett, the oldest of the three sisters, was born in 1905 and, in between having a glamorous off-screen life, established herself first as a beautiful flapper, later as a beautiful pre-code honey and lastly as a beautiful comedienne. Through it all, she was just too busy for Hollywood.


She followed her father out to Hollywood in 1921 and her connections and beauty quickly landed her some important roles, most notably with Joan Crawford in 1925's Sally, Irene and Mary. Her career was going well, but Connie chucked it all to marry millionaire Philip Plant in 1926. Her contract with Metro was terminated.

The marriage didn't work out, so Connie was back in Hollywood, but she seemed to have an ulterior motive. Instead of returning to her metro (who had first dibs on her services), she signed with Pathe. This was most likely due to the influence of one of its executives, the Marquis  de la Falasie (soon to be Gloria Swanson's ex Connie's next husband).Throughout the early 30s she starred in a series of wrong-side-of-the-road romances (many times with Joel McCrea, that lucky wench). She made a lasting mark in the great What Price Hollywood? (1932) as the Brown Derby waitress whose story was surely the precursor to A Star is Born. Her own star wanted in the later 1930s (largely due to her boredom with Hollywood), but she got in a few good roles (notable Topper (1937) in and Merrily We Live (1938) in ) before settling into some B roles. She worked tirelessly during World War II for refugees and even found time to do radio work, lend her name to a line of cosmetics and fashion and even marry Gilbert Roland (1941-1946) and have 2 children with him.

A glamorous couple: Constance Bennett and hubby Gilbert Roland
Connie was always the last word in elegance and sophistication. Here she shows you how to be beautiful (doesn't everyone wake up looking like this?)

Her last film was "Madame X" (1961) alongside Lana Turner and there are some funny stories about how Lana was a little miffed that Connie was slimmer and could pass as her older sister, not mother.

This woman rocked it to the end and I love her.

Joan
Joan was a natural blonde
In 1941 Cole Porter's lyrics to Let's Face It included these pithy lines:

Let's talk of Lamarr, that Hedy so fair, 
Why does she let Joan Bennett wear all her old hair?


If ever an actress' career was defined by her hair color, it was Joan Bennett. Born in 1910, the youngest of the sisters followed daddy and big sister out to Hollywood in the late 1920s. But this was not before she had eloped at age 16 with the son of a millionaire (sensing a theme her with these girls?). Naturally, the marriage was a bust, so she hiked up her skirts and joined the family business.



Throughout the early 30s she was the personification of blonde innocence. Her role as Amy in 1934's "Little Women" brought her to the attention of future husband, producer Walter Wanger. Wanger would be her 3rd husband, as she was married to screenwriter Gene Markey in between the millionaire's son and Wanger. In 1938 she put on a brunette wig for "Trade Winds" and suddenly the world took notice.
With Fredric March in "Trade Winds."
She does look like Hedy Lamarr, doesn't she?
With a change of hair color the dainty little blonde (who was considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara) turned into an actress of substance. Her status as film noir goddess was sealed with 2 Fritz Lang classics: 1944's "The Woman in the Window," and 1946's "Scarlet Street."

Joan shows how noir is done
Joan kept on working, touring in stage plays and acting in films until scandal erupted in 1951. While Joan was having a chat in a parking lot with her agent, Jennings Lang, Wanger, who had been following them, shot Lang in the thigh and groin. He admitted to jealously (although Joan & Lang denied an affair, it is not clear if they were being totally candid) and served a 4-month prison sentence. Joan and Wanger reconciled and remained married until 1965, when they divorced.

Joan married again and continued her career. She seemed to be the one Bennett who like to work, continuing to appear on stage and on TV, eventually winning an Emmy Award nomination for her work in the cult daytime soap, "Dark Shadows."

Barbara
Barbara Bennett: One of these things is not like the others
It's not easy being the middle child. Poor Barbara Bennett. In a normal family, she might have had a chance. But, with a father who was a lion of the stage and 2 sisters who were world famous for their talent and beauty, Barbara Bennett (born in 1906) had no choice but to showcase her talents off-stage. Unfortunately, her talent was for dramatics, usually of the emotional kind.

As a young dancer who landed in New York from Kansas, Louise Brooks was lucky enough to be taken under Barbara's wing. From her, she got a first hand view of the Bennett clan (dad rarely rose before noon, Constance was too busy to pay attention to the Kansas native - though she gave her good advice concerning clothes, and little Joan always seemed to have her nose in a book). Barbara generously opened doors for young Louise.
Louise Brooks owed her job in the Scandals to friend Barbara Bennett
Barbara's influence got Brooks a job in George White's Scandals and the 2 remained friends. According to Brooks, Barbara made a career of her emotions. Not as beautiful or talented as her sisters, she struggled to find her place in the world.

Things seemed to have turned in Barbara's favor when she married singer Morton Downey in 1929. They had 5 children (one of them talk-show host Morton Downey, Jr.) and their marriage seemed to be a happy one.
Mr. & Mrs. Morton Downey
However, things were apparently not what they seemed. Around 1940, Louise introduced Barbara to Addison Randall, a B Cowboy star she had been dating. Barbara apparently went gaga over Randall and left her family. Downey crucified her in court and Barbara lost custody of her 5 children. She and Randall married in 1941, but life was never easy for Barbara Bennett. As a result of an accident while filming a western, Randall suffered an injury and died in 1945. Barbara married again, but, in 1958, committed suicide. Said friend Louise Brooks:

"Only her death, in 1958, achieved in her fifth suicide attempt, could be termed a success."


Hollywood Loves Sisters
Constance and Joan Bennett
Hollywood has always loved sisters. Besides the Talmadges, there were Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine and those gorgeous Gabors. But there was something special about those Bennet girls. Constance and Joan, besides being talented and beautiful, had that special sophistication of the theater about them (thanks for mom and dad) and, through their long and separate career, never had a public fight.