Friday, June 26, 2015

Classic History Movie Project Blogathon: Early Musicals: Throw it on the wall and see what sticks

This is my entry in the Classic History Movie Project Blogathon hosted by the 3 divinities, Fritzi at Movies Silently, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Please be sure to check out the great entries representing the entire history of the medium we love best.


By 1927 the silent film had evolved into a high art form. The language of film was set and the world of glamour and the stars had captured the imagination of the globe. Life was good. And then Jolson spoke...and sang.... and the universe of film changed forever.

People line up to see and hear Jolson
As so grandly depicted in "Singin' in the Rain," Hollywood was thrown into a tizzy by sound. Silent stars were not only forced to speak, but in many cases were forced to sing, dance and do other musical things (think Buster Keaton and Clara Bow). But silent films were never really silent. From big orchestral accompaniments in big cities to the lone piano player in the small towns, movies always had music. Theme songs were common (for example: "Diane" was the theme song played to "Seventh Heaven"). One could argue that silent film had more in common with dance than it did with talking films. 

From 1927 to 1933, Hollywood's musical trial and error was was on display for all the world to see. Sometimes the results were glorious, sometimes they were interesting and sometimes they were just plain embarrassing. But never before or since has the movie-going world been treated to so many creative achievements and so many diverse talents from all forms of entertainment. It truly was a time of throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

The Prologues: dipping a toe in the water
Technology is here to stay
Warner Brothers and Vitaphone lead the way with sound. Even before "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, Warners offered a full recorded score for 1926's "Don Juan." Included with the program was a prologue of short sound performances featuring musical stars from the NY Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Spoken words were heard only from Will Hays, who introduced the program.

And so, from radio, vaudeville and Broadway came the storied stars. Sound provided the world a glimpse of performers that most would never have the opportunity to see. From the heights of the Metropolitan Opera to the common clay of burlesque, prologues and musical shorts created a hunger for musical entertainment at the movies. 

The Stars: oh, silent stars, why are you still here?
1928 solidified Jolson's stardom in "The Singing Fool," while a certain mouse made his whistling debut in "Steamboat Willie."
Mickey was a musical mouse
Audiences were treated to performances by the great Broadway stars Marilyn Miller in "Sally" and "Sunny," and Fanny Brice in "My Man." Other stage and radio luminaries such as Sophie Tucker, Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence and Helen Morgan took a crack at musical features, shorts and studio extravaganzas such as "Paramount on Parade" and MGM's "Hollywood Review of 1929." None of them made a dent and headed back to the stage without a backward glance.

Many Hollywood stars did not make the sound cut musically or otherwise. However, there were some surprising survivors and even thrivers.

Ramon Novarro proved he could sing when he crooned "Pagan Love Song," Bebe Daniels and John Boles thrilled audiences in "Rio Rita" and the glorious Gloria Swanson stepped up to the plate in 1929's "The Trespasser" with a throbbing rendition of "Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere."

Janet Gaynor became a musical sweetie for a while, as did the adorable Nancy Carroll, who was frequently partnered with Charles "Buddy" Rogers.
Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers: cute cute cute!
The Hits and Misses: can't get enough
Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King have music on their minds
By far the luckiest silent sweetie to make in dent in sound musicals was Bessie Love in 1929's sensational "Broadway Melody." Though it looks pretty creaky today, "Broadway Melody" proved that feature length films could talk, sing, and dance in a cinematic fashion that did not simply photograph a stage play. Broadway star Charles King provided the male lead, starlet Anita Page provided the beauty and Bessie Love provided the depth and heart of the film. Songs written specifically for the film by Nacio Herb Brown and  (including the title song, "You Were Meant For Me," and "The Wedding of the Painted Doll") and the all talking! all singing! all dancing! musical numbers (filmed in color - now lost) left the audiences wanting more.
So successful was this film that it won the 1928-1929 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Suddenly, the movie market was flooded with musicals. The public could not get enough of backstage musicals, operettas, Broadway-to-Hollywood musicals and all star extravaganzas.

This is NOT a Musical: too much of a good thing
And just as fast as it started, it stopped. Too much cake, even if it is good cake, can cause you to get sick of it. And by 1930 the public had had too many musicals. Films that were started as musicals were suddenly changed to non-musicals in mid-production. Broadway musical star Marilyn Miller has started "Her Majesty Love" as a musical only to finish it as a non-musical. She packed her bags and dancing shoes and went back to New York. Hollywood released over 100 musical films in 1930. 14 musicals were released in 1931.

A lone musical success in 1930 was "Whoopee!" starring Eddie Cantor. Straight from the successful Ziegfeld production, Cantor was an immediate musical success. Goldwyn's production not only had the star and the Ziegfeld name, but Technicolor (that still survives) and choreography by a guy named Busby Berkeley, who would soon head over to Warner Brothers and change the way dance is seen on film.

There were some successes (1932's "Love Me Tonight," for example), but, for the most part, audiences had tired of musical films.

42nd Street, Crosby & Astaire: all set now
And then the cycle started up all over again. By 1933 Warners had discovered the winning formula of "42nd Street": stars, chorus girls, a fast pace, memorable songs, snappy dialogue and true cinematic style. 

Over at RKO, Fred Astaire set the standard for intimate dance and elegant style, while at Paramount, Crosby set the style for a singer whose stardom rested on a voice and a personality.
This is how you do it
Silent star Marion Davies gets a lift from up and
coming crooner Crosby in "Going Hollywood"
All that followed would one way or another imitate these patterns. Never again would there be room for slightly out of step dancers, turquoise Technicolor skies, new voices and the trial and error of new technology right before our eyes.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tragic Star: Ramon Novarro

2015 is the year of the tragic star on A Person in the Dark. May's tragic star is Ramon Novarro.

In 1925, Latin lover Ramon Navarro seemed to have it all. Coming off a starring role in the epic Ben Hur, he was poised to take a place at the top of Hollywood's Mount Olympus of stars. 

But storm clouds gathering inside of him and around him would prevent Novarro from finding true happiness and lasting success. Sadly, the thing now most remembered about Novarro's life is his death.

By the time Ramon Novarro had hit Hollywood, he had already known adversity. Entering the world as Jose Ramon Sanmaniego, Ramon was born to a large and well-to-do family in 1899. His father was a prominent dentist in Durango, Mexico, but the family lost their standing and were forced to flee their home at the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Young Ramon had 12 siblings and felt responsible for his family for all of his life.

By 1917  Ramon was working as a singing waiter in Hollywood and looking for work in the movies. After some frustrating bit parts that lead nowhere, Ramon was fortunate to catch the eye of director Rex Ingram. As Ramon Novarro, Ingram cast him in an important role, along with Ingram's wife Alice Terry, in Metro's 1923 version of Scaramouche. His leading man good looks and his sensitive and romantic style put him on the road to stardom. Ingram was one of Novarro's greatest supporters in this early phase of his career.

Novarro makes an impression in Scaramouche with Alice Terry (1923)

His stardom was solidified in 1925 with the release of the epic Ben Hur. After a tortuous effort to bring this tale to the screen (begun in 1923, it went through major changes in directors, actors and script) and expending so much time and money on the production, Metro had a hit with Ben Hur and one of the primary reasons was Novarro. Touting him first as a rival to Valentino, Novarro became the Hollywood Latin Lover after Valentino's death in 1926. 
The birth of a star: Novarro in Ben Hur

Novarro stares down Francis X. Bushman in Ben Hur
From 1926 to the dawn to talking pictures, Novarro made a sting of successful films at Metro (later MGM), including the delightful The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), co-staring with Norma Shearer and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

Ramon and Norma Shearer at their most charming in The Student Prince
He was the dream lover supreme and the romantic ideal of millions of women. He was also a devout Catholic and gay.

Looking sexy for MGM
Ramon Novarro never would play the studio game. His homosexuality was known to everyone but his fans. Bucking the studio's demands, he refused to be bullied into a sham marriage for the sake of publicity. He was also devoted to his religion, so much so that he had once considered becoming a monk. The conflicts and the secrets and the lies caused the sensitive Ramon great pain, a pain he numbed with alcohol.

As if life hadn't thrown Ramon enough curve balls, the advent of talking films marked the end his brand of romantic hero. His voice was good (he had a fine singing voice), but his luster dimmed when MGM failed to find the right vehicles for him. By the mid-30s he had faded from view. His last important film was opposite Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931).

Novarro and Garbo in Mata Hari.
His Russian accent was by way of Duango, Mexico
Ramon had managed to provide financial security for himself and his family and  worked sporadically during the next decades in supporting film and television roles in between bouts of alcoholism and multiple DUIs.

On October 30, 1968, the lonely 69 year old former heart throb called an escort service for some male company. Instead of pleasure, he encountered a brutal death at the hand of 2 brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson. The brothers mistakenly thought the actor had money hidden in his home, but after hours of torturing Novarro and finally killing him, they left his home with $20. Both were arrested and served prison terms.

The romantic idol
It was a sad and sensational end for a sensitive man whose search for happiness was always tempered by inner conflicts. An excellent book about Ramon Novarro is "Beyond Paradise" by Andre Soares.

Friday, May 15, 2015

National Classic Movie Day: Can't Get Enough of "Sunset Boulevard"

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon hosted by Rick at the Classic Film and TC Cafe in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon. 

When Rick asked that we write about our favorite film I immediately selected "Sunset Boulevard" and then almost immediately regretted my choice. I have written endlessly about the film, expressing my love for it and mostly having fun with the beyond-fabulous character of the great Norma Desmond.

So, rather than go over all that again, let me just give the top 10 reasons why "Sunset Boulevard" tops them all for me.

1.Norma Desmond

One of the greatest - if not the greatest - film characters of all time. And like all great characters, she is as deep as the ocean. In my ignorant youth I saw her as a cartoon, a pathetic and washed up relic. Now (washed up relic that I am) I view her with compassion. She is 50 and she is viewed as repulsive. But she is not repulsive at all! She is alive, she is vibrant, she is the cougar supreme. She wears leopard whenever possible (even poolside) and has a cigarette holder that looks like it was robbed from Valentino's night table. She is a star and she knows how a star should look and act. She loved her movie career and treats it with reverence. What's not to love?

2. It's a movie about movies

Billy Wilder seems to be poking fun at the silent age, but he can't hide his affection and admiration for it. Those wonderful Paramount gates, the extras and behind-the-camera folks who gather to Norma's side, Jonsey, the security guard; all reaffirm the lingering stardust that was still visible long after the parade had passed.

3. It has my favorite line from a movie: "If you need any help with the coffin, call me."

In a film full of great lines, this is my favorite, I don't know why, but it makes me laugh every time.

4. It has a funeral for a dead monkey

It is not often that you see a funeral for a dead chimp. One thing we never learn: did Norma select pink or red satin for the lining of the coffin? I'm voting for hot pink. Or leopard.

5. Jack Webb asks William Holden if he got his tux from Adolphe Menjou

Not only is Adolphe Menjou referenced, but so are John Gilbert, Mable Normand, Valentino and even Marie Prevost. I'm impressed that Joe Gillis even knows their names (I guess he really did love movies back behind that copy desk in Dayton) and it makes my heart happy to hear their names spoken out loud. Which brings me to....

6. The Waxworks

It is so wonderful to see Buster Keaton looking so adorable, not to mention H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. Billy Wilder was genius to include them. I wonder how many people in the theater in 1950 felt the joy (and slight pang) one feels when a long lost friend appears. The movies may talk, but the glamour of the silents had not completed faded for Wilder or the audience.

7. The Isotta Fraschini

"We have a car. Not one of those cheap things made of chromium and spit, but an Isotta Fraschini. Have you ever heard of an Isotta Fraschini? All hand made. It cost me $28,000."

According to Wikipedia: $28,000 would be $384,566 in 2015. The car had a phone in the car and the seats were covered in leopard. This car is on display at the Museo Nazionale dell'Automobile in Italy. Norma Desmond's initials are on the rear doors of the car.

8. William Holden wears a swim suit.

Need I say more?

9. Erich Von Stroheim

The Man You Love to Hate playing a man who used to be director. Talk about blurred lines. I imagine Von Stroheim's office walls were covered in black patent leather, just like Max's. Von's Max is a masterful performance - a slave to love...twisted, mad, movie-mad love. Brilliant.

10. Gloria Swanson

Without Madame there is no film. When Max proclaims Norma as the greatest star of them all, he might as well have been talking about Gloria Swanson. Her storied career, her colorful life on and off camera, her grand manner -  all added depth and truth to her compassionate rendering of Norma. Her performance is towering and utterly fearless and impossible to forget.

I wrote this entry with the assumption that you have seen this film. If not, you owe it to yourself. It is one of the very best.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Katharine Hepburn Style: She Puts Her Pants on One Leg at a Time

This is my entry in the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon  hosted by Click here for more about the Great Kate.  

What is style? Merriam Webster says it is:
* a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed
* a particular form or design of something
* a way of behaving or of doing things

Katharine Hepburn is one of those rare individuals who incorporate all 3. She is organic, unmistakable, unique and wholly organic. The face follows the form, the voice follows the personality and the style follows the philosophy.

a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed

Naturally, this wonder did not spring forth from thin air fully formed. She had a progressive upbringing. The thought that she was somehow “less” because she was a woman was never imparted. To be yourself meant being a rebel.

“Most people are brought up to believe they are as good as the person next to them. I was told I was better.” KH

“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.” KH

“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” KH

 “We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault, But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.” KH
“Without discipline there’s no life at all” KH

“If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” KH

“If you want to change attitudes, start with a change in behavior.” KH

“Children needs boundaries so they can know how far they have to go to get beyond them” KH

a particular form or design of something

Being young and quite sure she was destined to be special, she set forth for a life upon the stage. She was armed with a carefully constructed and self-conscious bravado that turned all eyes on her.

“Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking.” KH
“When I started out, I didn’t have any desire to be an actress or learn how to act. I just wanted to be famous.” KH
“Acting is a nice childish profession – pretending you’re someone else and, at the same time, selling yourself.” KH
What was Hollywood to do with her?
In a town where beauty is defined as the best of the usual, this unusual woman was a puzzle.
She could be silly

She could be elegant

She could be regal

But she wasn’t Constance Bennett or Carole Lombard of even Jean Harlow.
“The average Hollywood film star’s ambition is to be admired by an American, courted by an Italian, married to an Englishman and have a French boyfriend” KH
Clearly, she was never average at anything.
 a way of behaving or of doing things

But, somehow the world was getting ready for this individual and she became a light of possibility for women, not a shadow of someone’s conception of what a woman should be.

And it is only fitting that this woman should wear the pants.

Unlike Dietrich or Garbo, her pants were not a sexual gender-bending tease. No, this woman wore them because they were a projection of her style – her way of doing things: straight forward, simple, no nonsense, humorous and kind of lovely.

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I've done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” KH

“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” KH

“You can’t change the music of your soul.” KH

“I have loved and been in love. There’s a big difference.” KH

“Dressing up is a bore. At a certain age you decorate yourself to attract the opposite sex, and at a certain age I did that. But I’m past that age.” KH

“I never lose sight of the fact that just being is fun.” KH

Kate, you are now as you were then: a very fresh and sassy and wholly admirable breath of Yankee American air. Ah!!!!!!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Fabulous Films of the 1930s - Love Me Tonight (1932)

This is my entry in the "Fabulous Films of the '30s" Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Click HERE to view more fabulous posts about that fabulous decade and to earn more about this article's participation in an eBook for your reading pleasure. 


Maurice and his fan club

If movies are a dream of what could be, Love Me Tonight (1932) is a delicious one; a flight of fancy wrapped in a sublime and romantic reverie.

Just what is romance? Romance is much more than just sexual attraction. It is a big word with a big definition. Romance is grand, it is seductive, it is glorious, it is adventure, it is imagination, it is possibility, it is joy. In Love Me Tonight’s most enduring melody, composer Rodgers and lyricist Hart tell us that all romance can be found in all of these things:

* A beautiful day in Paris;
* A wedding;
* A well-tailored and beautiful suit;
* Children;
* The domestic bliss of ordinary life;
* A taxi ride;
* Artistic inspiration;
* Being moved by beautiful music;
* The camaraderie of soldiers;
* The hope in a lonely heart gazing at the moon;
* And yes, love, BIG romantic love.

The films of the early 1930s had not yet totally dispensed with the romance of the silent era. At times, even the grittiest story is tinged with stardust (especially at Paramount).  Therefore, the tale of a down on his luck tailor and an even more down on his luck royal has a storybook sparkle imagined without a trace of the Depression.

 Here is the cast of characters:

   The city of Paris: 
The Paris of 1932
  beautiful, noisy, bustling with life, humor,     humanity  and love.

   A tailor – and not just any tailor, a Parisian tailor so  debonair and bon-vivant. 
Oh! So Charming!
   He knows how to tailor a tux and a riding habit fit   for  a Royal.

   A princess: lonely, widowed, hungry for life and   love  and a widow of 22. 

A Princess longing for love

   She rides a horse.

   Her court: a playboy Vicomte who doesn’t pay his    bills, a count who is a less-than-inspiring-would be-    lover, a sex-starved and vixenish countess, and 3    spinster aunts as giggly as a gaggle of tweens. 

French Royalty of the Depression:man-hungry meets flat broke

   All presided over by a stodgy, stingy and drier than    dust Duke.

   The help: the doctor, the majordomo, the maids   and  others who keep the wheels turning at the   palace.

The help will not fluff and fold for a commoner!

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian with a skill and style that lies somewhere between Lubitsch and Renee Clair yet somehow surpasses both, Love Me Tonight is a tale of the joy of life and youth with a little class-war fun thrown in.

You see, our tailor, Maurice Courtelin (played by Maurice Chevalier with more youthful charm than he ever displayed before or since on screen), is a struggling tailor in this time of economic struggle. He feels blessed that he has such a prestigious client as the Vicomte Gilbert de Vareze (Charles Ruggles).  There’s only one thing wrong with the Vicomte: he never pays his bills. Outraged, Maurice, as a representative of all of the other tradesmen stiffed by the Vicomte heads off to the palace of the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith) to claim his due.

Maurice and his deadbeat client. Clothes do, indeed, make the man

Meanwhile, life at the palace is dull, dull, dull. Countess Valentine (Myrna Loy) is bored to tears and can only think of sex. The Vicomte needs money, but the old Duke won’t give him an advance on his allowance. And Poor Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald funnier and sexier than she has ever been), married to an old man at 16, widowed at 19 and starved for love at 22, suffers from an unnamed malady (her doctor tells her “you’re not wasting away, you’re just wasted”). She has a bumbling suitor in the Count de Savignae (Charles Butterworth), but he leaves her cold.

No wonder the Princess is frustrated with friends and family like these

On his way to the palace, Maurice and Jeanette meet. He is smitten and she is haughty (but attracted). When he arrives at the palace, a mortified Vicomte introduces him as the Baron Courtelin and pleads for some time to get Maurice his money. Maurice doesn’t like the idea, but once he see Jeanette, he changes his mind. He goes on to charm the entire household (except Jeanette), but his identity is revealed when he simply can’t help adjusting Jeanette’s badly tailored riding habit. Everyone is outraged, but none more so than the help, who are appalled that they have been waiting on a commoner (The Son of a Gun is Nothing But a Tailor is a musical highlight).

Maurice takes the measure of Jeanette

Of course, in the end class does not matter and Jeanette and Maurice are united because, as we know, love conquers all.

Being a pre-code production, sly jabs, innuendo and lingerie abound (15 minutes of the original film was cut after the code for naughtiness). It is a work of genius (the Rodgers and Hart score is incomparable – Paramount used 2 signature songs from this film – Isn’t it Romantic? And Lover in many of its subsequent productions), but lighter than air. Isn’t it deep? Isn’t it scintillating? Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it romantic? Yes to all of the above.

It really is romantic ♥