Wednesday, September 26, 2012

PARAMOUNT AT 100: Isn't it Romantic?

This is my contribution to the Paramount Centennial Blogathon hosted by the Hollywood Revue. The studio that defines Hollywood is 100 years young! For a look at more Paramount Centennial celebrations, click here.
A Paramount Pictures "wheel of stars" featuring the best of their female stars of the 1920s
Love Me Tonight

In 1932 Paramount Pictures produced one of the world's most perfect films. "Love Me Tonight" is a musical box of bon bons that makes you close your eyes and say "my, that is perfectly delicious." Directed by Rouben Mamoulian (with a Lubitsch touch), scored with brilliance by Rodgers and Hart, and starring Maurice Chevalier at his most charming and Jeanette MacDonald at her pre-code best, it is a reflection of the sophisticated and cosmopolitan product that Paramount was famous for. Unlike the sometimes stately but empty mansions of MGM, Paramount's depiction of the screen elite was infused with wit, cheek and utter comfort. Is there any doubt that Princess Jeanette belongs in a castle?
Jeanette MacDonald before Nelson Eddy:
sexy, kittenish and not afraid to wear lingerie with panache
This is an adult fairy tale that has it all - a charming story, a cast of unforgettable characters (Myrna Loy's man-hungry but castle-bound Valentine is a hoot), two leads that have enormous chemistry and a score that elevates the tale to greatness.

The story is a sweet and light confection. Maurice Courtelin (Chevalier, of course), a humble Parisian tailor, is stiffed for his services by the spendthrift and usually broke aristocrat, Viscount Gilbert de Vareze (the always welcome Charlie Ruggles). He promises Maurice the money once he can get it from his tightwad uncle, the Duke d'Artelines (C. Aubrey Smith). Tired of waiting to get paid, Maurice decides to storm the Duke's castle and demand payment for his services.
Castle inhabitants: the spendthriftthe nympho, and the stuffy Duke
On his way to the castle, Maurice has a chance encounter with the Princess Jeanette. For him, it is love at first sight. She rejects him, but maybe something stirred inside of her. Only 22, we learn that she was a widow at age 19 to a husband old enough to be her grandfather. Clearly, the Princess has needs!
There's something about Maurice...
Upon entering the castle, Viscount Gilbert introduces Maurice as the Baron Courtelin in order to hide his true identity as a lowly tailor. There Maurice not only manages to fool the Duke, Valentine, Jeanette's other suitor, the Count de Savignac (a very funny Charles Butterworth) and Jeanette's three aunts, but he also manages to fool the Castle's domestic staff, who wait on him hand and foot.
Dreaming of their lovers
While the Viscount tries to get Maurice's money, Maurice makes headway in his play for Jeanette until she finally succumbs to his charms. But, Maurice cannot help himself! Seeing how poorly Jeanette's riding suit is crafted, he proceeds to not only criticize her tailor, but to also create a new outfit for her. Maurice measures Jeanette for a new riding suit and, when discovered in mid-measure, he is forced to admit the truth: he is nothing but a tailor. 
Making sure the measurements are just right
Of course the castle's royalty is outraged, but even their anger can't match the utter disgust of the domestic staff who were forced to wait upon someone of their own class. All of this is done with great, sly humor. 

As if there was any doubt, all's well that ends well. Jeannette realizes that she can't live without her tailor and they are at last reunited. Peace and love reign once again.
The Men Behind the Music: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart
The Score, one of Rodgers and Hart's very best, is integrated beautifully into the story. Each song is presented in a wholly organic and cinematic way. The score includes:
"Lover" - beautifully sung by Jeannette, but to her horse, not Maurice.
"Mimi" - one of Chevalier's signature songs, but also sung by the inhabitants of the castle.
"A Woman Needs Something Like That" - sung by Jeannette and her doctor (Joseph Cawthorn), a song that makes the case for sex for the Princess.
"That's the Song of Paree" - a breathtaking opening scene of the sights and sounds of Paris woven into a song of celebration for the City of Light.
"Love Me Tonight" - another lovey love song for Maurice and Jeanette.
"The Son of a Gun is Nothing But a Tailor" - a hilarious complaint of being duped by a commoner.

Isn't it Romantic?
However, the iconic and lasting musical moment of "Love Me Tonight" is an enduring love song that defines romance as more than sexual love. Romance as joy, happiness and fulfillment is first defined by Maurice in his joy for his friend's wedding, next by a cab driver getting a fare and soldiers in the field, then by the beautiful violin music played by a gypsy and, finally, all tied together by Jeanette MacDonald, as the unhappy Princess, who is stirred by the beautiful music of the night as she expresses her longing for love to the stars. A perfect presentation of a perfect song that can only be produced when all of the stars align and the heavens bestow a kiss upon we mere mortals.

"Isn't it Romantic" has been a musical thread woven over the decades that pays tribute to the glamour and glory and genius of the very best of Paramount. The song has come to be  the siren song of the great studio (Billy Wilder especially loved it) and can be heard in these later Paramount productions:
"The Lady Eve" (1941)
"The Palm Beach Story" (1942)
"A Foreign Affair" (1948)
"Sabrina" (1954)
"The Day of the Locust" (1975)
"The Out-of-Towners" (1999)
Paramount also produced a film titled "Isn't it Romantic?" in 1948, but the song wasn't used.

If you hear the strains of this song in a movie, it must be a Paramount production.

Happy Birthday, Paramount Studios!

Paramount, the studio of Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Claudette Colbert, the Marx Brothers, Carole Lombard, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Paulette Goddard, and so many more, still stands tall in Hollywood. So much as changed, so much has been lost, but still, there is Paramount. She's gone through more changes than Joan Rivers' face, but she she has survived.

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Today, I was fortunate to see "Chaplin: The Musical" on Broadway. I can only write my review of this show as one who truly, madly, deeply loves Chaplin the artist and the man. If you want objectivity, sorry, I can't oblige.
First things first: the show (book by Thomas Meehan and Christopher Curtis; music and lyrics by Christopher Curtis) is neither a biography nor an examination of his work, although both are included. Instead, it is a musical portrait of a time and a colossus of the era. America at the dawn of the twentieth century was a place where dreams could be lived and the past could be obliterated. Like Gatsby, those with a shady, painful, uneducated - you fill in the blank - past could reinvent the present and no place provided a better opportunity for all of life's refugees to start anew than Hollywood, California, USA. All you needed was determination and a dream.

The early Hollywood scenes were especially well done. True, Mack Sennett is reduced to a rather bombastic bully, Mabel Normand is barely mentioned and Edna Purviance is totally omitted (I was sad about that), but, as I said, this is not a biography. The freewheeling, frenetic pace of the early movie-making era is joyfully presented and the audience loved it. The entire production is done in shades of black, white, sepia and gray. Only one special occasions do we see red, usually in the form of a rose, as a symbol of love.
Chaplin's personal story is well known. The show focuses on his adoration of and traumatic separation from his mentally ill mother, Hannah. The complicated relationship Chaplin had with her as a child and as an adult are beautifully portrayed. His pain, sadness and shame in her and himself are the thread that was woven over and over again into his work his entire life. In a film, order can be restored. In a film, a mother's love can triumph. In a film, a little boy is safe.
The women, the marriages and divorces, the political damage - all are touched upon, as are many of the great films. The music is fine and touching and blends well with the story. We know that exile is coming, but we also know that he will find the love of his life, Oona O'Neill. Their courtship and love affair are charmingly portrayed, culminating in his 1972 appearance at the Academy Awards.
No matter how wonderful all of the above is, however, there would be no show without Rob McClure. He is magical as Chaplin, never a caricature, always a whole human being. He moves like him, looks like him, and for those of us who love Charlie, this is about as close as we will ever get.

Ultimately, this is the story of a great man, a genius, whose fame is immortal. Almost 100 years after his first film, his image is still vital. There are many stars of bygone eras whose photos would draw a blank if you asked a young person to identify them. But Chaplin never draws a blank stare. They might not know his work, but they know the image. The Little Tramp is forever because he touched that innocent, undamaged yearning in our hearts. It was a creation of genius. Once you open your heart to him, he will never leave.

And now, I am going to watch a Chaplin DVD (preferably one with Edna Purviance) because I just love that man!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Norma Desmond & Lina Lamont: Silent Sweeties on the Town!

Your intrepid Hollywood reporter Dora Bailey here reporting on the latest sightings in tinsel town!

What 2 silent sweeties have become BFFs and have formed what some might call an unholy alliance? Our sources tell us that former greats and current cougars Norma Desmond and Lina Lamont (you remember them, don’t you?) are joining forces and are planning to stage a double-pronged comeback.

Word on the boulevard is that Norma is penning an epic version of “Salome” for CB DeMille's eyes only, while Lina is angling for a star turn as Marie Antoinette. Norma and Lina have been spotted together around town shopping and lunching, always with their precious little heads together in a conspiratorial huddle. Norma has stormed the gates of Paramount and Lina as been sniffing around MGM (that other Norma better watch out).
Lina Lamont: longing to tell them to eat cake

Norma as Salome: is that a studio
exec's head on that platter?
Can the ladies make a comeback? We hear that Norma hates that word and prefers “return, but no matter how you word it, the question remains: will the movie-going pubic will take these 2 former divas of silent emotion back into their hearts? After all, it is a new world. 

Lina & Norma face their fears
Talkies Ain't For Sissies
The boys and girls of today's silver screen not only have to act, but speak, as well. Our sources confirm that Norma has an excellent speaking voice. Her challenge will be to shed the drama queen image of the silent era. Fans today like their stars more down to earth. Word is that our Miss Norma actually believed all of that publicity (can you imagine?). But, we hear she has a younger writer helping her whip that "Salome" script into shape. Let's hope he can steer La Desmond into modern times.
Norma and her writer work on the script.
Lina's voice may be more problematical and maybe, just maybe, the role of Marie Antoinette might not be the right return vehicle for her (especially if it is a musical). True, she looks gorgeous in period costumes, but unless Marie was born in the Bowery, it might be hard for the public to accept her as the French queen of opulence. And since the collapse of Monumental Pictures, Lina may have some difficulty finding another studio to call home.
Lina works the MGM executives and angles for a good part

Our humble suggestions:
Norma: Darling, try to remember that you are an actress first and a star second and maybe you and that script writer if yours can convince Paramount to take a chance on you.
Lina: Honey, your fortune may well rest in comedy. There can never be enough zany blondes and we all know that you can take a pie in the kisser!

All we can say is – good luck ladies and we who once worshiped you wish you the greatest success! We'll be watching. Until next time, this is Dora Bailey from the streets of Tinsel Town!
Paramount & MGM: Watch out!
" I caaaaaaaaaaaaaan't wait to see my new movie!!"

* For those who still hold Lina Lamont dear to their heart, her fan club is still out there, refusing to let her be forgotten. For more info, click here.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bitches and Blaggards: Theda Bara and Richard Widmark

This is the eighth in the "Bitches and Blaggards" series;  posts devoted to my favorite movie bad girls and rogues A bitch is a selfish, malicious woman. A blaggard is a villain, a rogue and a black-hearted man. Both are bad, both are devastatingly alluring. 

Theda Bara: Bad to the Bone
The original vamp, this bitch and bad girl was a sexually independent and unrepentant woman. No wonder we still love her!

The story of Theda Bara is well known: the demure Theodosia Goodman from Cincinnati Ohio is transformed by the Fox Studio Publicity Department into the screen's first sex symbol, a woman of exotic mystery whose name was an anagram for Arab death. Theda was the anti-Mary Pickford/Lillian Gish,  but the heavy perfume of the vamp was actually a breath of fresh air for her fans.

And boy did she have fans! Between 1915 and 1919 Theda was her studio's biggest star and in such extravaganzas as "Cleopatra" and "Salome," Fox spared no expense. Sadly, almost all of Theda's films have been lost. We are left with just a few glimpses of her allure in action and a boatload of enticing stills that only make what has been lost all the more painful.

A Fool There Was
This is the film that put Theda on the map as the vamp supreme. Thankfully, it is still with us. As the "vampire" who literally drains the life from her men, Theda, behind 1915 heavy make-up, is cool, purposeful and surprisingly pretty. She is a sexual predator who goes about her business with great focus.  It's not her fault that her victims are ultimately fools and oh so boring.
Those Photos: A reminder of lost treasure

All that remains of Theda's great epic "Cleopatra" are these few, tantalizing moments.
 Your work as been obliterated and still, Theda, we remain in awe of your power, your allure, your bad to the bone badness.
 Richard Widmark
I admit I am a little conflicted about Mr. Richard Widmark. He was a fine and versatile actor, but every time I see him I just can’t get the image of giggling Tommy Udo pushing the old lady in the wheelchair down the stairs. Blaggards are supposed to be charming and bad, but Widmark, especially early in his career, was more psychotic and bad. Still, he could be a not-so-bad guy. He was awfully good looking, so he never had a hard time attracting the ladies. Now, if he wasn’t so darn good at being murderous….. 
Kiss of Death 
Widmark is horrifying and unforgettable. His performance as the menacing psychopath Tommy Udo is fearless. Shudder....
The Cobweb 
I’m including this film here, not so much for Widmark’s performance, but because this is a film about drapes. Granted, drapes as therapy in a mental institution, but still drapes. With a cast consisting of Widmark, Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame (terrific as always), Charles Boyer and Lillian Gish, this is a film where most of the inmates are saner than the caretakers. Widmark is handsome, but way too obsessed with the drapes.
In real life, Richard Widmark was one of the good guys. A man of peace who loved his ranch, Widmark got to show a much broader range as he aged, playing many a good and decent guy. But the thing I really liked learning about Richard Widmark was that, not only was he a movie star, he was, from an early age, a real movie fan. How nice for him that he got to fulfill his heart's desire. The Bitch and Blaggard of October: Glenn Close & Michael Douglas