Monday, November 17, 2014

WHAT A CHARACTER! ANN DVORAK and the road less traveled

This is my entry in the What A Character Blogathon hosted by Paula at Paula's Cinema Club, Kellee at Outspoken and Freckled and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Check out their sites for more fabulous film characters.  

I admit to being an Ann Dvorak freak and have written about her often. However, most of my gushings have been over her as the almost A-list star and rarely about her later shift into secondary and character roles.
Ann was a limber veteran of the chorus

Ann Dvorak did it all. The daughter of silent film actress Anna Lehr, Ann did a short stint as a child actress and then, as a teenager, because a member of the chorus in early MGM musicals (she is all over the chorus in 1929's "The Hollywood Review"). She exploded on the screen as Cesca in 1932's "Scarface," and made a dramatic impression in such films as "Three on a Match," "The Strange Love of Molly Louvain," and "Housewife." It was a testament to Warner Brothers' faith in Ann that she was top billed over Bette Davis in both "Three on a Match" and "Housewife" (later re-issues featured Bette, but originally Ann was billed first). 
As Cesca in "Scarface"

Coked up and ready to jump out of the window
to save her son in "Three on a Match"

In 1932-1934, Ann seemed to be on her way to super-stardom, but she lacked something that Bette Davis had in abundance: a single-minded dedication to her career. She placed her marriage to actor/director Leslie Fenton  before her career and simultaneously took on Warner Brothers in a lengthy, and ultimately futile, pay dispute. After that Ann free-lanced, but never again got a shot at a starring role in a top flight film. She veered between leading roles in poor films and supporting roles in good films. But, whatever Ann did, she always improved the quality of the film just by being there. She was quirky, individualistic and not at all like anyone else.

Three of Ann's most notable character roles were in these films:

Out of the Blue (1947)
No star billing for Ann, but she stole the show
George Brent and Virginia Mayo were the stars and Carole Landis was getting the star treatment, but Ann, as the perpetually drunk Olive steals the show. In a rare chance to show some comedy flair, Ann is the only reason to see this fluffy, kinda-like weekend at Bernie's affair.
Ann spent a great deal of her time passed out in "Out of the Blue"

Our Very Own (1950)

As the unwed birth mother who gave up Ann Blyth, Ann gives perhaps her strongest supporting performance. In a part that could easily have become a cliche, she gives the part of Gert great depth and complexity. She is a poor soul, a miserable housewife trapped in miserable marriage and resigned to her fate. She doesn't want her husband to know she had a child out of wedlock, but she agrees to meet her birth daughter nonetheless. It is a small part, but showy and Ann Dvorak showed audiences what they had been missing.
Ann Byth was sure glad to get home to her adoptive
family after meeting Gert

A Life of Her Own (1950)

Ann only had 10 minutes of screen time in this film, but she is unforgettable as the aging model whose decline and demise proves a cautionary tale to Lana Turner. As Mary Ashlon, Ann wipes the floor with poor little Lana. As her career fades, a bitter Mary turn to drink and finally commits suicide by taking a swan dive out of a high rise window (just as she did when Ann Dvorak's career was on fire in "Three on a Match." Turner Classic Movies named Ann's performance as Mary Ashlon one of its 10 great overlooked performances.

Ann as the chic, doomed Mary Ashlon
Ann Dvorak was always more than her career. She was a passionate wife (3 times), an ambulance driver in WW II London, and a woman of many non-theatrical interests. Unfortunately,her acting talent was her bread and butter and, in that, she faltered. While she always played a prominent part in all of her films, she never again found that comeback hit. Her last film was a supporting role in the Humphrey Bogart/Gene Tierney film "The Secret of Convict Lake." She made a few TV appearances after that and then quietly chucked it all for a retirement in Hawaii, where she died in 1979.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

RUBBAH!! Jeanne Eagels in THE LETTER

This is my entry in the British Empire Blogathon, hosted by Phantom Empires and The Stalking Moon.  Click HERE for more fabulous entries!

What happens when you plunk a cool, icy Brit down in the middle of the steamy tropics? Do you really have to ask? Why, illicit sex, mayhem and usually murder, of course. All done with a bit of a stiff (if slightly trembling) upper lip. The British Empire was not kind to the women who followed their men to the colonies.

Take that!
Bette Davis and William Wyler knocked it out of the park with their version 1940 of Somerset Maughm’s “The Letter.” Who can forget Bette’s skill with that pistol? But, before Bette got all hot and bothered down on the plantation, there was 1929 version of this tale of passion starring the legendary Jeanne Eagels.

Poor little Leslie Crosbie, wife of a plantation lord who loves his rubber (or as Leslie pronounces it – rubbah) better than her. Spirited from the comforts of Mother England to the depths of the colonies, she is lonely and bored. What oh what is a neglected wife to do? Especially when it is so darn HOT? Why, dally with a fellow Brit, Geoffrey Hammond, of course (note: always watch out for someone who spells his name “Geoffrey’ – shifty in my book). But, the damn dog likes his Chinese mistress (Li-Ti) even better than Leslie, who becomes yesterday’s news. Imagine! Not only is it an affront to white women everywhere, but an insult to the Mother Country, as well. Leslie can’t bear to be rejected for an Oriental, of all things, and, in a fit of passionate rage, she shots the scoundrel. Dead.

Geoffrey is unmoved
Ah, but those Brits take care of their own. They have their own form of justice and see what they want to see. Presenting herself as the picture of British Womanhood on the stand, Leslie blatantly lies, claiming that she had nothing to do with old Geoffrey and that she shot him because he tried to – GASP! – rape her.  She is found to be innocent of murder, but all is not well on the rubber plantation. Li-Ti has a letter written by Leslie to Hammond which contains proof of their relationship. 

Li-Ti: Geoff preferred her charms and she had the letter

Li-Ti offers, through Leslie’s attorney, to sell it to the lying wife for $10,000. Leslie’s attorney advises her to pay for the incriminating missive and she retrieves it, but not until Li-Ti gets to verbally humiliate the woman who got away with murdering the man she loved.

"on my honor..."
Of course, hubby wants to know where the $10,000 in his bank account went and Leslie, guilty as sin yet filled with contempt for her rubber lord, spills the beans. All of them. Beans all over the place. Her punishment? No more money and a life sentence on the plantation. No more Harrods for you!

This 1929 version is pretty creaky, but it is worth seeking out for a rare view of Jeanne Eagels. I swear, I thought that if I touched the TV screen while she was on I was going to get an electric shock. She is a raw nerve, over the top for sure, but impossible to ignore. And when she declares to that pill of a husband that “with all my heart and soul I still love the man I killed,” it is impossible not to be in the moment with her – the very definition of great screen acting.

The 1940 version is smoother in every way, but this version has other pleasures besides Miss Eagels' feverish performance. Because it is pre-code, the original ending where Leslie gets away with murder is retained. Poor Bette must pay for her crime and is stabbed by Hammond's woman (who is now his wife rather than lover). 

Another treat is Herbert Marshall as the callous Hammond. He plays the bore of a husband in the 1940 version (as Hammond never appears in that version at all).

In the end, it is all about the chance to see Jeanne Eagels in action. Dead by the time the movie came out, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, but did not win. She paints a compelling portrait of a woman gone mad with tropic fever and passion. I swear, Bette Davis looks positively sedate next to this woman and that is no mean feat.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Forgotten Stars Blogathon: Evelyn Brent

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Forgotten Stars blogathon. Click HERE to read more entries about stars who were once at the top of the heap.

The Scowling Seductress of the Silents
the beauteous Evelyn Brent
The rise and fall of Evelyn Brent is a true Hollywood story. Born Mary Elizabeth Riggs in either Tampa, Florida or Syracuse, New York in either 1895 or 1899 or 1901, Betty, as she was always known to friends, shook off her drab beginnings and, starting in 1915, she began appearing in silent films made in Fort Lee, New Jersey. After an initial start under her own name, she soon became Evelyn Brent. After World War I, Evelyn moved to London,where she worked steadily on the stage and in films until 1922 when she decided to try her luck in Hollywood.

Possessed of a mature beauty and an alluring scowl, Evelyn hit the ground running in Hollywood. Besides being named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1923 (along with other budding stars Eleanor Boardman, Laura La Plante and Jobyna Ralston) and was signed to an exclusive contract with Douglas Fairbanks. Unfortunately, Doug failed to find a role for her, and she left his company to work for Associated Authors, FBO, Fox and eventually Paramount, carving a niche as the ultimate lady crook and moll. While most beautiful women are known for a beautiful smile, Evelyn was known for her scowl.From her first role in 1915 through her last silent film made in 1928, Evelyn made  over 65 films. Sadly, most of Evelyn's silent films are lost. Although most were programmers, Evelyn was always singled out for her beauty and acting.

By 1926, Evelyn was an experienced pro and finally was making her way into the front rank of stars. In 1926 she was top billed over a scene stealing Louise Brooks in "Love 'Em and Leave 'Em" and garnered great reviews in a sympathetic part.
Louise Brooks later had some rather unkind things to say about Evelyn and her acting style, but when did Louise ever give another female co-star a break?
Seriously glam
Things got even better for Evelyn when Joseph Von Sternberg selected her to star in his next 2 films. As Feathers McCoy in the 1927 classic "Underworld" Brent showed that she had the stuff day dreams are made of. Draped in feathers by Travis Banton, Evelyn proved herself a star who could hold her own with the best.
Evelyn as sexy Feathers McCoy
Things got even better when Von Sternberg chose her again for 1928's "The Last Command." Starring opposite the great Emil Jannings, she garnered great reviews and was poised for super-stardom. 
Evelyn and Emil Jannings in "The Last Command"
Evelyn as Cleopatra: a film that never was
Unfortunately, 1928 was the to be the height of Evelyn's career.  Her 2 greatest performances were under Von Sternberg's direction. One wonders if Evelyn's professional fate would have been different if Dietrich had not shown up. Shortly after those 2 great films sound and some bad luck would find Evelyn on the outside looking in.
Evelyn rocked it in this butterfly hostess gown in "Interference"
Having had stage experience, Evelyn did not fear sound and appeared to good notices in Paramount's first talking feature "Interference" (1928).  Her voice was good, but not especially distinctive and, somehow, the allure of her silent scowl lost a little luster when she spoke. In addition, her personal woes seemed to tarnish her professional reputation. 2 bad marriages and lots of money troubles left Evelyn broke and, by the early 1930s, playing secondary roles in bad films and touring in vaudeville.
A star has to keep track of her shoes

The sent of a star is a complicated thing
In typical Evelyn fashion, she seemed not to mind the loss of luxury and life on the road, but she soon came back to Hollywood (with husband #3: Harry Fox of foxtrot fame) and settled into a life of low budget films and small parts. She almost always received good reviews and the critics and audiences alike always seemed to welcome her presence, but the star ship had sailed for Evelyn Brent.
By 1937 former stars Brent and Louise Brooks were
posing as also rans in a low-budget film. Louise's part was cut
and Evelyn is barely seen in "King of Gamblers"
Evelyn Brent once represented the femme fatale glamour of a true Hollywood star, but as time went on she became a forgotten star. She worked steadily through the 30s and 40s, always getting good reviews and always appearing in forgettable films. She worked for a while for a talent agency, but had retired by 1950. She was still on the casting lists for small roles and extra work when she died in 1975.

In 1972 film historian John Kobal sought her out and found a "gaunt old woman with wiry hair" who lived modestly and spoke candidly and freely about her former life. What is clear from the interview is that Evelyn Brent never really wanted to be a star. She lacked the drive of a Crawford or Davis and when the going got tough Evelyn did not fight for her position as a star. Instead, she was content to fade into the background with her third husband (a happy marriage at last). She was proud of her career, especially of the films made with Von Sternberg, and she harbored no grudges and nursed no grudges. She had a bite of the apple and was content. Mr. Kobal summed up Evelyn perfectly:
"In 1927, the year of "Underworld," Evelyn Brent had appeared in films for thirteen years; that year she had starred in four films. In 1928 she starred in seven; seven in '29; five in '30. In 1933 she made only one film, and none in 1934. When she returned in '36, she appeared in bit parts. She was born in 1899 and died in 1975 of a heart attack. There was no failure in Evelyn's life - the failure lay in others, those who tried to make her a star. Evelyn didn't want to be a star, she just wanted to work.  And, at that she was a success, right to the end."

Gary Cooper was once head over heels in love with Evelyn.
Can you blame him?

Evelyn claims her place on the Walk of Fame
Source material included  John Kobal's "People will Talk" and "Evelyn Brent: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Lady Crook" by Lynn Kear and James King. The latter has an extensive Evelyn Brent filmography.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

2015 FlickChick Calendars Are Here!

The 2015 FlickChick Calendar theme is "Stars and Their Pets." This year I went for a nicer, sturdier stock paper, so this wall calendar will withstand anything 2015 can throw at it.

Here is the year of stars and their pets:

Cary Grant and his pooch, Archibald Leach. Clever name, no?

Vivien Leigh and her beloved Siamese

James Cagney and his pups

Theda Bara and her elegant borzoi

Peter O'Toole and his tea party pals

Audrey Hepburn and her pet fawn

John Boles and his stubborn schnauzer

Clara Bow and her chow chow

Chaplin and his feline friend share a moment

Jean Harlow and her fluffy friend

Rudolph Valentino and Kabar

Gable and Lombard and friends at their ranch

Ava Gardner and her corgi

The price is $16. If you are interested, just send me an email at and I'll give you the details.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stage to Screen Blogathon: Marilyn Miller in "Sally"

This is my entry in the Stage to Screen Blogathon hosted by the Rosebud Cinema and Rachel's Theater Reviews. 
This article is a pastiche of several articles I have written about Marilyn Miller

Back in the 1920s it was inconceivable that Marilyn Miller would someday be largely forgotten. I came upon her quite by accident, seeing her name in books about early Hollywood musicals. I had no idea who this great Broadway star was or why she was so famous. After some furious research I got up to speed, read all I could lay my hands on about her and poured over tons of photos. She was a huge star! Why had I never heard of her? And - more important - how could I see her? Photos are one thing, but I hungered to see her perform.
Marilyn Miller: One of Ziegfeld's greatest stars
Marilyn Miller was of the theater. She was a Ziegfeld star in the most rarefied galaxy. Her greatest triumph was in the Jerome Kern musical "Sally," a show that featured her signature song, "Look for the Silver Lining." Before her fame, the name Marilyn was barely found in the U.S. Census records. After America fell in love with her, it was the 16th most popular name in the country. She was known for her talent, her younger than springtime beauty, charm and devotion to her craft. She was also a fashion plate who was equally famous for her many love affairs, salty vocabulary and fondness for alcohol. She worked hard and played hard. She was an authentic diva.

The first Marilyn
Marilyn had a brief brush with silent films and Hollywood in the 1920s when, in 1922, she married Jack Pickford, thus becoming Mary Pickford's sister-in-law (by all accounts, Mary and Marilyn did not hit it off too well). As you can see from this video, everyone who was anyone was there and the star-studded affair held on the grounds of Pickfair.

Newlyweds Jack Pickford and Marilyn Miller
After the honeymoon, the marriage quickly turned toxic and Marilyn, by way of a Paris divorce, beat it back to Broadway. 

Once movies were all talking, all singing, all dancing, Marilyn seemed a good bet for Hollywood stardom. "Sally" was brought to the screen by Warner Brothers in 1929 and Marilyn was famously part of the package. Her salary was exorbitant and her demands that of a diva. Thrifty Jack Warner acquiesced to her demands and fell for her charms. Marilyn was a gal who knew how to get what she wanted. Filmed entirely in early Technicolor, "Sally" only survived for many years in a tattered black and white version. Seeing Marilyn like this it is hard to fathom her appeal. She looks like a painted doll, as the Technicolor make-up looks flat and harsh in black and white. Added to unflattering looks, her singing voice is less than attractive. However, once she starts dancing, well, it all becomes clear. Filmed in full body shots like Fred Astaire a few years later, her love of dancing and entertaining cuts through all of the technical drawbacks of the era. 

Her leading man, Alexander Gray, was a wooden manly baritone, but she has some sweet scenes with Joe E. Brown as a displaced royal down on his luck. One of the supporting stars is Pert Kelton, later the mom in another Broadway to Hollywood film, "The Music Man."

After 2 other films, Marilyn Miller headed back to Broadway. Musicals were dying at the box office and this diva was not interested in failure. Sadly, after one last stage triumph, Marilyn Miller would die in 1936 at the age of 38 from complications related to a sinus infection. 

The footnote that Hollywood was to her fabulous career preserved her great stage success. The late twenties and early thirties movie musicals drew scores of Broadway performers to Hollywood. Most tried their luck and headed back east after one or two attempts. The stage and the screen have very little in common when it comes to star power. Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, who found success in films, were the exceptions. Big stage stars like Fannie Brice, Gertrude Lawrence, Helen Morgan, The Duncan Sisters, Charles King, Harry Richman and Marilyn Miller came and went. In a twist of irony, the medium scorned by the stage served to preserve the work of these artists for future generations.

Sally's famous "Butterfly Ballet" on Broadway.
How great it would have been to see this in color
Miracles of miracles, a snippet of "Sally" in its original Technicolor was found. It is the "Wild Rose" number and, in it, she is youthful, adorable and flirtatious. Here, she is much lovelier (the make-up now giving her a flattering glow) and her elegance, joie de vivre and enthusiasm is on full display. Filmed on a set that was over 90 degrees, the energy of the dancers is impressive.Her joy in performing is evident in every kick and twirl and here, preserved forever, is Marilyn Miller in all her glory. We catch a glimpse of her magic and she is no longer a mystery, just a name or photo in a book.We understand what made her a Broadway legend.

"Sally" in her wedding dress - the full Hollywood treatment

Marilyn Miller, though no longer a household name, continues to be ever-present on Broadway, her true home. In the late 1920s the I. Miller Shoes (no relation) building was adored with statues of four great theater stars: Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, representing drama, Rosa Ponselle as Norma, representing music, Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy, representing film, and Marilyn Miller as Sunny, representing dance (I wonder how Mary feels being frozen in time next to her despised ex-sister in law?). The building, located at Broadway and West 46th Street in Manhattan, now houses an Express clothing store on street level. But if you stand on the corner and look up, there is Marilyn, surveying her empire. Still.