Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Exotics: Orchids of the Silver Screen

Movies have always defined "types." For example, we all know stars who fit into the types of the all-American, the sexpot, the sweetheart, the hero or the rogue. One of my favorite "types" is the Exotic; women - and sometimes men -  who usually come from a foreign land (but a few were home grown), are frighteningly beautiful and have an air of mystery about them. These creatures were mostly, but not always, dark, had heavy eyelids and smoked. They all seem only to be able to thrive in a hot-house environment, like a beautiful orchid. While the Exotic was definitely a type that was more popular in the past, there are a few out there today who might be able to carry the mantle of mysterious heart breaker from parts unknown.

Enter the Hot-House and View the Orchids 
(but don't touch)

Theda Bara

Theda was certainly a totally manufactured Exotic. It is well known that she was, in reality, the modest and demure Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati, Ohio. However, it's not where a vamp begins, but where she does her damage! Theda exploded upon the screen in 1915's "A Fool There Was" and vamped her way into the movie-goer's consciousness. She was the stiff drink antidote to Mary Pickford's Sasparilla.

Rudolph Valentino
Still the gold standard for the male foreign heart throb. Valentino's image was sealed as the exotic sheik of the desert. His most popular films showcased him in those larger than life romantic roles that still have the ability to hit the female audience in their weak spot. Oh Rudy, if only we could have more!

Pola Negri

The first female foreign film Exotic and one who showed all the other gals how to behave like a star. Not only did her early Hollywood films show off this Polish diva's femme fatale qualities, but she was also a fashion trend setter who showed American ladies how to dress (red painted toenails and turbans, anyone?). Her chief rival at Paramount Studios was the very American Gloria Swanson and the press had a field day with their supposed "feud." But even the great Swanson could not top Pola's antics at former lover Valentino's funeral (an over-the-top outpouring of grief that stole the show from poor Rudy). A real diva if there ever was one.

Greta Garbo

While Swedes are not normally thought of as hot-house flowers, there was something of the tropical passion about her. The icy landscape of Sweden may have been her home, but, at least on screen, she was equally at home in a tropical environment. In fact, she did her best silent seductions in a warm climate ("The Torrent," "The Temptress," "Wild Orchids"). Sound robbed her of a tiny bit of the exotic factor. Without even trying, she was probably the sexiest of them all.

Dolores Del Rio

A genuine Exotic, this actress was described as orchidaceous, as she was rumored to eat orchid petals and sleep 16 hours per day. Long considered one of the most beautiful women in films, Del Rio was a wealthy woman whose beauty makes her dramatic ability almost impossible to assess. She was exotic to the max and (shades of "Sunset Boulevard") even brought her pet monkey on the set with her

Rita Hayworth

An interesting blend of all American good health and foreign glamor, Hayworth could project the allure of the Exotic. "Gilda" is appropriately set in Argentina, as all of that steam could only be handled in the tropics!

Charles Boyer

The French don't usually transplant too well in Hollywood, but Boyer became the romantic Frenchman and Exotic male for American moviegoers. Under his lazy gaze, he smoldered, he pouted, and even if he didn't actually say it, women who fell under his continental spell would have gladly come wiz him to ze Casbah.

Hedy Lamarr

A beautiful and exotic actress who may have been too intelligent in real life for the roles she was offered in Hollywood. Her talent is a little static, and because many of her films were made during a time when Exotics were a bit out of favor (WWII), her true potential never came through. She was, however, stunningly beautiful and somewhat other-worldly. Maybe, at the peak of her career, she was just a little too exotic for Hollywood. She did get to lure Boyer from that Casbah in "Algiers," and, after seeing her in that film, the rest of the world was ready to follow.

Ramon Novarro
The Latin Lover rival to Valentino, Ramon Novarro was a very sexy Exotic. He was a great success (and greatly under-dressed) in "Ben-Hur" and later silents and early talking films. Certainly not your all American boy-next-door, he was more heroic than Valentino, but he could smolder with the best of them.

Gene Tierney

This American lady always seemed to me to have the touch of the Exotic about her. In fact, in several films she was called upon to play just that ("The Shanghai Gesture," "China Girl," "Sundown"). Gene had some of that seething passion just below the surface that is the mark of the Exotic and her lush beauty made her seem at home in that hot-house environment.

Marlene Dietrich

She says she's German, but really - she must be from some exotic galaxy where all women sip champagne in furs and diamonds by day and drive men wild by night. There can be no other explanation. Although not at all like Garbo, she has that same Continental/Exotic glamor and effortless sophistication that can't be equaled.

Maria Montez

The Technicolor Queen of such exotic adventures as "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," "Arabian Nights," and "Cobra Woman," Maria Montez was a tongue-in-cheek Exotic. She was as beautiful and vivid as any of them, and those wonderfully fun adventures showcased an impossibly beautiful woman who starred in the dreams of many viewers during her reign.

Bela Lugosi

Ouch - but we know Vampires are exotic and sexy. Notice how the recent ones all hang around in hot climates?
Vivien Leigh

An English Rose with an exotic cast. Although she tried to be prim and proper on the outside, she was hot and luscious on the inside (and it always showed just enough to make her mysterious). Hollywood knew how to best bring this side of her to light. And after all, didn't this lady do her best work in Georgia and New Orleans? London was just not hot enough for her brand of exoticism.

Dorothy Lamour

This American Exotic hailed from New Orleans, so the tropical seductions came naturally. She seemed at home in a sarong with a flower in her hair in films like "The Hurricane," "Her Jungle Love," and "The Jungle Princess," until she joined Crosby and Hope on a few road trips and changed her image. But she was a fun Exotic while it lasted.

Angelina Jolie

Angelina certainly qualifies as a modern Exotic. She has all of the qualities (she looks like Gene Tierney to me in some photos) and she certainly is a mystery!

I'm sure I missed a few, but I always welcome the screen presence of an Exotic - they're just so - well - exotic!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What is it About Those Westerns?

I never say that I am a fan of the Western film. Ask me what kind of movies I like, and they are generally anything but Westerns or war movies. But something funny happens to me when watching a Western. Admittedly, I have to be dragged kicking and screaming, but I almost always like them. I just don't know why I resist them. What is it about those Westerns?
Now, I am a urban/suburban kind of gal. My idea of a town is Manhattan, not Tombstone. My idea of the West is Manhattan's upper west side, not west of the Mississippi. My idea of a wardrobe is anything worn by Audrey Hepburn, not gingham dresses that trail in the dust. My ideal mode of transportation would be a limousine, not a covered wagon, and my ideal man would be Cary Grant, not Randolph Scott (although Randy might have been Cary's ideal man, but I digress).

So, what is it about those darn Westerns that get me every time?

The Silent Western
I think I first became a convert to the genre while watching silent Westerns. Aside from the likes of William S. Hart and Tom Mix being so darn entertaining, there is an air of real authenticity in the silents that diminishes with every decade. Tom Mix was a real cowboy and even a notorious bandit, Al Jennings of Oklahoma, was a technical advisor on films that depicted life in the West and all of its hardships. Westerns of the 1920s and before that were made out West (not "The Great Train Robbery" shot in the wilds of New Jersey) had the chance of being made by people who actually lived during those times. The great Western migration was still a living memory.
"The Covered Wagon," filmed in 1923, has great footage of  a buffalo hunt and stampede over a landscape that no longer exists. These films are as close as we can ever come to really knowing what the Old West looked like.

John Ford and Howard Hawks
Later decades brought a more romantic vision of the West. As time passes, it is only fitting that great episodes in history are seen through a romanticized vision, and no directors captured those visions better than John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Through the films of these two directors, the legend of the Old West has been elevated, romanticized and sealed in our dreams. Aside from the action and scenery, they are stories of who we are. Americans came from another place to this place, this hard, rough place, for the promise of a better life. No non-Native American sprung up in the West. They had to come from somewhere else, and it was usually one hell of a journey. Once there, even more obstacles were to be faced, some from without and some from within. The man in the figurative white hat usually won, but always there was a price and sacrifice. Favorites from John Ford: "Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine," "Fort Apache," and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." Favorites from Howard Hawks: "The Big Sky," "Rio Bravo," and "El Dorado." Not a bad one in the bunch.

"High Noon" and "The Searchers"
"High Noon" (directed by Fred Zinnemann) and "The Searchers" (directed by John Ford) are my two favorite Westerns.
I love "High Noon," not only because it is such a compelling story told in an edge-of-your-seat way, but because there is a rugged  and tired melancholy about Gary Cooper's Will Kane. He wants to get out of town with Grace Kelly, but his fundamental goodness and sense of duty and justice won't let him. The stark black and white photography makes it all the more haunting. A simple story, simply shown, it could be set in any place or time, but the Old West makes a great setting for a tale of morality. Plus, who doesn't know a bunch of spineless you-know-whats like the ones that desert our hero in his time of need?

"The Searchers" is just about perfection. That monument of the Western, John Wayne, was never better. As much as "High Noon" is a deceptively simple tale, this one is complex and fraught with emotion. Is it hatred that drives Ethan or is he Debbie's father (my suspicion)? Everything about this film is epic, from the scenery to the script to the unspoken and spoken passions of the characters, not to mention John Ford's poetic framing of this legendary film. It's breathtaking on so many levels, no matter how many times you see it.

The Round-Up
So, there you have it. I suppose it is something in the collective American consciousness that draws me to those open spaces and legends of our past. Although some of my ancestors didn't come to these shores, until the West had been settled, some were here during those times (though it seems they never got west of Pennsylvania). No, I think it has something to do with being an American - not right or left or center - but just an American. While our individual stories differ, we share a common history, even it it is by virtue of just living here. Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land," and it must be true. We are not continental, European sophisticates or whatever, no matter how hard we try. We are Americans - a little dusty, rugged and unrefined in the eyes of the rest of the world, but ultimately straight shooters, plain and simple. And, at least for this American, I find I am always more than a little surprised that I feel that way; surprised and proud. I wonder if new generations of immigrants who come here for a better life will someday see these stories on the screen and say "I am a part of this and this is a part of me." I think so. I hope so.

My Favorite Western Movie Heroes and Heroines

John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, "The Searchers"

Gary Cooper as Will Kane in "High Noon"

Tom Mix (and Tony) as Tom Mix (and Tony)
 in all of their movies!

Clint Eastwood as Bill Munny in "The Unforgiven"

Jane Russell as Calamity Jane in "The Paleface"

Doris Day as "Calamity Jane"

Jean Arthur as Marian Starrett in "Shane"

Alan Ladd as "Shane"

And honorable mention to William S. Hart, Joel McCrea, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Randolph Scott and all of the other great actors, writers and directors too numerous to mention who made the characters and the legends of the Old West come alive.

And a special nod to the Coen Brothers and Jeff Bridges 
for keeping the tradition alive and well and thrilling.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Massive Movie Crushes From A-Z: Swooning Through The Alphabet #3

As you may have read, I have developed so many massive movie star crushes over the years that I have had to catalog them alphabetically (click here for A-F and G-M). Bringing up the rear alphabetically, but not in my heart, I bring you my crushes N-W (still waiting for those X, Y and Z heartthrobs!).

N O P - I Could Go On All Day
Jack Nicholson
Oh Jack - you are such a rogue, but I confess I love the rogues the most. Jack has that old-time Hollywood charisma that still twinkles, even now. Loved him most in "Reds" where he broke my heart as Eugene O'Neill. I know he's a bad boy, but I'd never expect him to be anything but!

Paul Newman
What's not to love here? One of the handsomest and most decent guys ever to grace the screen. He was hot in "Sweet Bird of Youth" and "The Hustler," but it was "The Sting" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" that sealed the deal for me. A class act, but this was a respectful crush, as I knew his heart belonged to Joanne Woodward.

Laurence Olivier
A major crush - a real love affair. In "Wuthering Heights" he literally stole my heart, and I followed slavishly thereafter all things Larry -  so much so that I started reading Shakespeare! My love for him was positively poetic and his Maxim De Winter was only second by a nose to Heathcliff, that mope of the Moors. I found him dreamy in everything, even when he was not trying to be. He and Viv - what a pair. Why can't life cooperate with dreams?

Peter O'Toole
Another massive crush. Come one now - he was just beautiful in his youth. True, he grew a little ragged and rough around the edges, but that vibrant spirit still shines through. I'd follow him through the sands of the desert as "Lawrence of Arabia," but would prefer to be trapped in a Parisian museum closet with him in "How to Steal a Million." I love him still and admire him extravagantly!

Gregory Peck
Finally - a crush that I could share with the rest of the world. Everyone was mad for Gregory Peck! Drop dead handsome and just quirky and charming enough to be more intriguing than the run of the mill handsome leading man piece of furniture. He had me "Spellbound" and was just so damn wonderful in "To Kill a Mockingbird," but it was "Roman Holiday" that sent me swooning. Hey - notice how Audrey Hepburn got all the good ones?

Robert Preston
I don't know....maybe it was that fine head of hair, but I was always a sucker for boatloads of charisma, and this guy had plenty to spare. I would never have kept him waiting at the footbridge, that's for sure! He was a true manly man, virile to the max  (and that little sparkle in his eye didn't hurt, either). A minor crush, but one I throughly enjoyed while it lasted.

R S T - Alphabetically Speaking, You're Okay

Gilbert Roland
No matter what, no matter how many crushes come and go, I still think Gilbert Roland was one of the handsomest and sexiest men in film. Maybe not the greatest actor or the biggest star, but ay caramba, what a hot Latin lover! From silents with Clara Bow all the way to Gaucho in "The Bad and the Beautiful," Amigo never disappoints me. Grade "A" swoon-worthy forever and always!

James Stewart
Aw shucks, Jimmy is actually pretty sexy, isn't he? From "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," to "The Philadelphia Story," and the wonderful Hitchcock collaborations, he was the perfect uncomplicated American man who just happened to have more of a way with the ladies than you'd think. And he looked like he was a good kisser, too.

Kevin Spacey
A fairly recent crush(can you believe it?). I know what they say, but Kevin does it for me! He was quite sexy in "L.A. Confidential" and "Midnight in the Garden on Good and Evil," but the real kicker was a current crush playing another crush (Bobby Darin in "Beyond the Sea."). His choice of roles don't usually accentuate the sexiness, but that makes me like him even better. What can I say?

Spencer Tracy

A very short-lived crush, as I found him to be a bit cruel (I don't really know why). But he was just a too cute with Katharine Hepburn and I think the obvious love and admiration for her just warmed my heart. Okay, Spence, you still get a thumbs up from me.

V - Means You're Very Sweet

Rudolph Valentino
Rudy, it took me a while to appreciate your charms, but I guess that's because I had to go from girl to woman to fully appreciate you. So smoldering, so smoking,  so hot and steamy; I need one of those paper fans to cool my rising temperature! Could he act? Who cares. He was a god of the silent screen and I bow to him. Long live Valentino!

W (and XYZ)

John Wayne
Didn't expect to see him here, did you? Me either! But, count me among those who have fallen under the spell of the Duke. He sure was a handsome monument, wasn't he? Star power, ruggedly handsome and a real icon - who could say no? Not a deep love, but he always made me weak in the knees (and I miss him so much). The world seems a little poorer without him.

It's Fun to Wander Through The Alphabet With You and Tell You What You Mean to Me!

Whew! I must rest now. All of this romance has given me the vapors!
Excuse me while I slip into something more comfortable

Well, those are my crushes. Did I miss any of your favorites, ladies?

Monday, May 16, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: LOVE AFFAIR

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's "Blogothon" about movies made in that incredible year of 1939. Click here for a complete listing of all entrants and turn back the setting on your time machine to 1939!

Just as the Empire State Building looms large in the background of this film, so, too, does the shadow of its remake, 1954's "An Affair to Remember" (both films directed by Leo McCarey). Everyone knows and loves that film, both for itself and it's inspiration for "Sleepless in Seattle" (not to mention the 1994 re-re-make starring Warren Beatty, Annette Bening and Katharine Hepburn). What could this neglected original possibly have to offer? In a word: EVERYTHING!

Let's talk about Irene Dunne. I am currently in the midst of a 2011 love affair with Ms. Dunne, so I was especially happy to review this movie. She is the essence of 1930s elegance, humor and sophistication. I ask you: did any woman ever wear satin gowns, jeweled bracelets and furs with such easy elegance? And I don't care what Pauline Kael said about her, I am mad about that little thing she does with her tongue or her teeth that makes her sound so completely and charmingly unique. She is lovely, of course, but she is always a mature woman; a gorgeous, appealing, wonderful mature woman. Deborah Kerr was a fine actress, but she was earth-bound and earnest. Irene Dunne was of the heavens. It's hard to compete with an angel.

Charles Boyer is a more complicated matter. When this film first premiered in 1939, he did not have to compete with the memory of Cary Grant in the same role. Because Cary (and that song) are seared in my brain, I was prepared to have a hard time accepting Boyer in Cary's role (even though Cary hadn't played it yet). In addition, my most lasting impression of Boyer was mainly as Ingrid Bergman's murderous husband in "Gaslight" ("Powla, where iz ze leetle peek-ture?"). After watching this film, I now know why Boyer was such a big star and such a heartthrob. He is the perfect continental charmer and the perfect leading man. He never steps on his leading lady's toes and he always makes sure she is seen to her best advantage. A true gentleman.

International playboy and soon-to-be married layabout Michel Marnet meets former nightclub singer and soon-to-be married Terry McKay on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic from Naples to New York. They flirt like mad. Irene Dunne is particularly delicious in these scenes, flirtatious but wary of this continental honey bee whose charms she finds irresistible. Boyer, however, is the revelation here. He is a cad looking for a casual dalliance and his body language suggests nothing short of a wolf on the hunt. He is the pursuer, she is the pursued (while Grant usually pursued with reluctance, Boyer does so with gusto).

After a little romantic hide and seek, they kiss and fall in love. They agree that their love affair should be light and bubbly, like the pink champagne cocktail they both adore. No dark clouds allowed. At a stop in Madeira, Michel takes Terry to meet his sweet grandmother (played by Maria Ouspenskaya) in her idyllic home. Grandmother approves of Terry for her wayward grandson and here Terry (and the audience) gets to see a tender side of Michel. Naturally, both she (and we) fall in love a little harder. Terry also learns that Michel is a talented painter, although he has chosen to live the life of a dilettante rather than that of a starving artist. Upon bidding her farewell, Terry admires Grandmother's lovely lace shawl. Both Terry and Michel agree it has been a magical day.

Back on the ship and pulling into New York harbor, both lovers agree to take six months to get their lives in order and then to meet at the top of the Empire State Building to begin their new life together. Terry picks the spot because it is the "nearest thing to heaven."
In the ensuing six months, both Terry and Michel ditch their fiancées and pursue honest work (Terry makes her decision standing on a balcony at night, the Empire State Building seen in reflection). She finds work in Philadelphia as a singer and he pursues his art (and paints billboards while he waits for someone to buy his paintings). They are on course for their rendezvous atop Manhattan when Terry, in her haste to meet her lover, carelessly rushes through a traffic-clogged city street and is struck (mercifully off screen) by a car. Naturally, she does not keep her appointment, but Michel waits and waits and waits (in a thunder storm, no less). Hope turns into disappointment; disappointment turns into despair.

Terry, now wheelchair bound, takes a position teaching children at an orphanage. Although her ex-fiancée urges her to tell Michel what has happened, she refuses. For all of her sacrifice, she does not have faith that he will be able to accept her as she is now. She does not believe in the depth of his character. If she is not all pink champagne and cloudless skies, she fears rejection.
On Christmas Eve, both Michel who now is bitterly pursuing the high life (but who continues to paint), and Terry meet by accident at a show. Both are with their former partners. They are cordial, but shaken. As Terry was seated, Michel could not see her condition.

On Christmas Day, Michel finally tracks terry down at her apartment. She is on her couch, legs covered with a blanket, so Michel still does not see her plight. His manner is brittle and angry, and it is clear that his heart has been broken. He comes bearing a gift - Grandmother's shawl, which she left to Terry upon her death. Terry, overcome with emotion, still refuses to tell Michel why she failed to keep their appointment. He tells Terry that he is going to sail to Europe that night, but then tells her a story about a painting he did of her in Grandmother's shawl. As he relates the story of how he had the painting given to a woman in a wheelchair who admired but could but afford it, he realizes that Terry was the woman in the wheelchair. Seeing the painting in her bedroom confirms his suspicion and at last he understands all that she has sacrificed for him. Michel proves his depth of character and love by vowing to stay with Terry no matter what the future holds. They are, indeed, the real deal.


The fact that this movie was made in 1939 is the reason it succeeds better than the 1954 version of this story. In 1954, this was just a love story (although a very affecting one that still touches the heart) and it was presented as a straight-forward romance. The original version has all kinds of background shadows and "noise" (including the noise in the hearts and minds of the audience).

1939 finds the United States on the brink of the unthinkable, determinedly in denial of how little furs, big bracelets and pink champagne will soon mean. The deco charm and elegant penthouse sophistication were fantasies with which movie audiences still connected, even as the threat of evil was on our doorstep. Soon, ships of a different kind would dominate the world's seas. How necessary, then, were those wonderful fantasies; how important they were to sweep the anxiety and cares away, if only for an evening. 

Boyer and Dunne are always play acting in their flirtations, never letting the other know the depth of their love or their fears. Just as a more serious tone would invade the free world, so did the realities of life eventually invade the make-believe love affair that became all too real for our hero and heroine. Heart break, loneliness, loss and paralysis were not part of the bargain. But Hollywood always personified the American spirit of optimism, even as those storm clouds gathered in the distance. Just as Terry and Michel vowed to face adversity together, Dorothy returned to Kansas, Scarlett faced her losses and the passengers of a western Stagecoach battled the evil in their path.

Despite insurmountable odds, there was never any doubt that all would triumph.

This was the world of 1939 and the story of "Love Affair,"  a tale that was more than a love story. Seen from a 2011 perspective, it is a film that is true to its time and one whose echoes are relevant to our own.