Monday, April 5, 2021

I'm Smitten: The Fetching Bernice Claire and the 2 Mr. Grays

It's been a while since I have been smitten with a new-to-me find (classic movie wise). Being a fan of those early days musicals, Bernice Claire has been on my radar, but I have never seen her in anything. Thanks to good old TCM, I finally got to see her in "Spring is Here," one of those impossibly awful but utterly charming early movie musicals.


In his book "A Song in the Dark," Richard Barrios describes Bernice Claire as "fetching," a word that perfectly describes her screen presence. Before there was Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy there was Bernice Claire and Alexander Gray. In that first flush of florid movie musicals their voices blended to produce musical magic. More about Mr. Alexander Gray later.

Just take a look at her... the smile, the pert little nose, the natural manner and the lovely voice. Oh, and please ignore that other Mr. Gray - Lawrence of the nasally, annoyingly ordinary voice. Here they are singing "With a Song in My Heart," from "Spring is Here" (1930) - courtesy of Rodgers and Hart.


Her more permanent partner in song was Alexander Gray. Like Nelson Eddy, he possessed a booming baritone, and like Nelson Eddy he did a great imitation of a piece of wood. I had seen Mr. Gray in "Sally," when he supported Marilyn Miller, but since her talent was dance, there were no big voice duets for him. He and Bernice Claire had performed together on stage prior to arriving in Hollywood, so First National (home to such wonderful early musicals) brought Bernice along with Alexander.  


Cute as a button
Their first film appearance together was in the extremely popular "No No Nannette" (1930). Sadly, this movie, filmed entirely in Technicolor, is lost, except for an incomplete black and white version that exists at the British Film Institute National Archive. 



Here they are with another number from "Spring is Here.
"




For a hot moment, musical were all the rage in 1929 and 1930 - until they weren't. Audiences turned on them in an almost vicious way and songs in already filmed movies were suddenly cut before they were released to the public. Take, for instance, 1930's "Top Speed," starring Bernice along with Joe E. Brown. Aside from being a really racy pre-code, there are moments when a set up to a song is begun, a little music plays and then the film abruptly and awkwardly cuts away to another scene. 

Bernice gets second billing, but since most of her songs
 were cut, she is almost the secondary love interest.


"Top Speed" is actually an interesting little film. While I do not appreciate the big mouth shtick of Joe E. Brown, I am always surprised at his innate musicality (his dance with Marilyn Miller in "Sally" was quite appealing).  Also, the film starred a fellow by the name of Jack Whiting, who was entirely new to me.


Jack Whiting woos Bernice Claire in "Top Speed."


Now, he wasn't much of a leading man for Bernice, but when I did a little research on him I found that he was the last husband of the first Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks, Beth Sully. Of course, I had read how Doug's mad love affair with Mary Pickford wrecked his marriage to Beth, and she was always portrayed as the poor gal who stood in between the future king and queen of Hollywood. I was happy to learn that she and Mr. Whiting had a long and happy marriage.

Here she is in "Kiss Me Again" (1931), singing a song she was often requested to perform, but which barely survived all musical cuts from the film.



Bernice Claire made exactly 13 films from 1930 to 1938. She then concentrated on radio and stage performances, so for her, movies were just a brief interlude in her career. One of the reasons I love those early, goofy musicals is that it gives us a chance to see popular stage performers of the era. In those early days, studios imported established musical performers for those films. Because
 of them, we get to see performers like Bernice Claire and Alexander Gray, Fannie Brice and Marilyn Miller, just to name a few. Not all of them made the grade in Hollywood and their stars dimmed long ago, but thanks to film (at least the ones that have survived) we are blessed with the opportunity to see them.  





Monday, February 8, 2021

High Noon: The Cowards Among us

 So, this is what happened the other day. 

Alone
For some strange reason, the theme song from "High Noon," the 1952 western, invaded my brain. Now, you should know that I am not a western fan by any stretch and this song is never one that is on my playlist. Still, it persisted, first in the shower and later over coffee. 

Now, normally I would push it out as best I could and go on about my day. But this time I decided to listen. Maybe the universe was telling me to watch that movie. And so I did. And so I was  - what - blown away? Impressed? Kind of shattered and overwhelmed with the love of the power of film.

She stands by her man

Like I say - I'm not a big western fan, but "High Noon" is a morality parable disguised as a western. I think I know that is the case with many westerns, but I really don't like to see horses fall down, so....

Anyway, back to "High Noon." Somewhere in the recesses of my movie brain, I knew this story was a commentary on the 1950s blacklisting of writers with supposed communist ties. 

The general consensus of the town is for Kane to cut and run

And, truth be told, I am not a big fan of the older Gary Cooper. The ick factor of "Love in the Afternoon" still lingers for me. But it is his weariness that comes with age that makes him so perfect for the role of Will Kane. I read that John Wayne was the original choice for the role and that he turned it down because he disagreed with the overt politics of the story. Thank goodness he did. I doubt Wayne would have conveyed the honest desire to retire and ride off to open a store with his new bride (although what man wouldn't be tempted to run off with Grace Kelly?). And just in case you're feeling none to kindly (western influence seeping in here) towards the Duke, he was mighty gracious in accepting Cooper's Oscar for the role.


Beautifully and simply filmed with nail biting suspense as the clock ticks towards high noon and Kane's moment of truth, the question looms - who will stick their neck out for what is right? Who will risk everything for the truth? Who will stand with those who have stood for us? 


What would you do? May we never stop asking the hard questions.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" at 80: Dreamers and Doers

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Politics in Film Blogathon. For more examples of how this red hot topic is handled on the silver screen, click here.

Spoiler alert: this is going to get political. Typically, I try (sometimes not always successfully) to keep politics off this site, but since politics is the topic, I'm going all in.

Did Hitler steal Chaplin's mustache?

Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" is 80 years old this month. All these years later, after all of our history that came after, it still stands as a work of passion, of vision, of courage and humanity. And as a lesson that, in so many ways, we have learned so very little while hoping for so much.

For Chaplin's first true and total sound film he made the courageous choice of skewering Hitler, the Nazis, Mussolini and fascism with his 2 greatest tools, humor and humanity. When filming began in September 1939, Hitler had invaded Poland and Great Britain had declared war. Upon the film's release in October 1940, the United States was still at peace with Nazi Germany. Then, as now, the public was sharply divided over America's position on the world stage. Chaplin came firmly down on the side of global humanity, leaving an audience whose country was on the brink of war to view the choice through a moral lens.

Trouble in the ghetto of Tomania

Have you seen this great film? You should. Really. Briefly, Chaplin plays 2 parts: that of a WWI veteran Jewish barber who, as a result of a war explosion, lost his memory, and his exact double, dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the dear Phooey of Tomania, who looks so very much like Adolph Hitler, the dear Fuhrer of Germany. (Chaplin's hilarity with Hitler would be repeated - brilliantly - decades later by Mel Brooks in "The Producers." )

Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel. The infamous swastika
is now the sign of the double cross in Tomania.

Chaplin has a lot of fun mangling and ridiculing Hynkel's henchmen. The Goebbels character, the Secretary of Propaganda, is called Garbitsch. Goring becomes Herring, and most memorable of all, Mussolini becomes Benzino Napoloni, Dictator of Bacteria, brilliantly played by Jack Oakie.

Jack Oakie as Napolini. Remind you of anyone?

The power-mad Hynkel has only one dream: to rule the world.


Conversely, the little Barber is a kind and gentle soul. Despite the persecution he and his fellow Jews suffer in the ghetto, he does get to enjoy a love affair with Hannah, his beautiful and spirited comrade in arms played by Chaplin's then-wife, Paulette Goddard.

Hannah and the Barber on the run from persecution

As the Barber, Chaplin even gets to update an old barber shop joke (deleted from the final version of his 1919 short film, "Sunnyside") with one-time Keystone co-star, Chester Conklin. Chaplin, like so many great comedians, was always ready to recycle a good joke.


The Barber is not exactly The Little Tramp, but he retains so much of him that the character becomes a gentle farewell to an iconic character. The Tramp could not really live in a world of sound, nor should he have had to live in a world of fear and hatred.

While there are many moments of humor, the actual story is quite terrifying and sadly prescient. The barber is saved from hanging and death in a concentration camp by the disgraced Commander Schultz, who, in gratitude to the Barber for saving his life so many years ago, refuses to kill him and defies Hynkel's orders. A series of events lead to the Barber having to stand in for Hynkel, who was mistaken for the Jewish Barber and hauled off to a concentration camp by the authorities (karma!). The Barber must speak to the people of Tomania, and, through he has never spoken to so many in such a public way, he finds his voice:


Chaplin added this speech* after Hitler had invaded France.

Today, we are hearing this speech more and more. It has been part of a Lavazza Coffee commercial called "Good Morning Humanity," and it has been popping up all over the internet. 


For those who always insist on getting in the pointless Keaton vs. Chaplin debate, or give the knee-jerk reaction to Chaplin of "he liked young girls," I say this to you: Chaplin was a human being, a man of flaws and foibles. But he had a gift, and, at a terrible time in human history, he chose to go all in on a message of hope and humanity and to firmly and bravely come down on the side of right. Like most artists, he was a dreamer. But, by using his voice in such a powerful way, he was also a doer.

Be a dreamer. Be a doer. Vote.

* Here is the full text of Chaplin's speech at the end of "The Great Dictator."

We all want to help one another, human beings are like that.

We want to live by each other's happiness.

Not by each other's misery.

We don't want to hate and despise one another.

 

And this world has room for everyone,

and the good Earth is rich can provide for everyone.

You have the love of humanity in your hearts.

You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful,

to make this life a wonderful adventure.

Let us fight for a new world - a decent world that will give men a chance to work -

that will give youth a future and old age a security.

Let us fight to free the world - to do away with national barriers -

to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.

Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.

 

Let us all unite!





Thursday, October 8, 2020

Then and Now: If Walls Could Talk

Have you ever walked into an old house and wondered about the stories the walls could tell if they could talk? Or imagine the tales the trees in a forest could spin we spoke their language? Or, better yet, the locations in Hollywood that were silent witnesses to genius?

In my previous post I challenged myself to keep my eye out for Chaplin sightings and...voila! John Bengston of silentlocations.com has created this amazing video of this very unassuming little Hollywood alley. Take a look: 



Not just Chaplin's "The Kid," not just Keaton's "Cops," but Lloyd's "Safety Last"! Oh, if only that little alley could talk.

And just for some added fun, imagine if the ground could tell you about this wild car chase!



Well, here's a then-and-now of almost every shot of his amazing ride:



Thank you, John, for this fascinating look at Hollywood history that is still there if you know where to look.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Charlie Chaplin Sightings....Will You Join Me?

 So, here's the thing. I am endlessly fascinated with and amazed by Charlie Chaplin.

For all you Buster folks, this is not a comparison. I really love Buster, too. What amazes me about Charlie (we are on a first name basis, just so you know), is how he remains relevant even 100 years after his first film.

I have been casually amazed at 1) how enduring his image is, and 2) how his face or his words or some subtle reference to him sneaks into our every day life if we pay attention. This growing awareness has been rattling around my brain for a while now (okay, for years now), but this latest commercial by, of all things, Lavazza Coffee, made me think that I had better start paying attention.


His remarkable words from 1940's "The Great Dictator" are as relevant and true as they were then, and his remarkable life and work has never faded from our collective consciousness. Ask a young person to look at his image and see if they can identify them. Chances are, they can, even if they have never seen a snipet of his films. I tried this little experiment the other day on a younger friend of mine and she answered without hesitation that it was Charlie, admitting that she had never seem a complete Chaplin film. 

So, I was thinking of embarking on a little experiment - looking for clues of Chaplin in my daily life in ways great and small. It could be a quote, an image, a subtle reference... all to remind me of the endless well of brilliance and deep feeling he had for humanity and how mysteriously prevalent he remains after so many decades. I'm starting (and hoping to maintain) a weekly journal. If you have any Charlie sightings in every day real life, please feel free to share them with my Facebook group (FlickChick's Movie Playground) and I will include them on my Sunday roundup of Chaplin sightings right here. I have a tendency to poop out on these things, so any extra nudges are always appreciated! 

Street art spied in France
And now, I'm keeping my eyes and ears open for signs from the Master!


Sunday, June 28, 2020

Book Review: Martin Turnbull's "The Heart of the Lion": The Room Where it (Really) Happened

Hey movie lover - haven't you often heard behind the scenes conversations in your head? You know, the ones between Clark Gable and Carole Lombard? Or Garbo and Gilbert? Or maybe, just maybe, Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer? Or better  yet, all those mop up men at the Harlow home discussing how to handle Paul Bern's death while he lay there cold as a cucumber? Well, imagine no more, because author Martin Turnbull takes you to all of those rooms where it all really happened (the rooms we really care about) in "The Heart of the Lion," his new novel about the MGM Boy Wonder, Irving Thalberg.


Anyone who is anyone makes an appearance in Turnbull's fictional telling of Thalberg's final years. Lillian Gish nurses a sidecar* at a Hollywood party, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. complains about Mary Pickford, foreshadowing the end of a fairy tale union, and Garbo is a sly minx who never has her head in the clouds. But the central stars of this tale are Louis B. Mayer, the crude but knowing head of the great studio, John Gilbert, the fading silent star who was one half of an unlikely friendship, and Norma Shearer, the determined star whose gentle love and patience brought great happiness to her boss, who also happened to be her husband.

The wedding. Irving's mom wasn't too happy, but Norma got her man
"The Heart of the Lion," covers the years 1925 though 1936, the year of Thalberg's death at age 37. A frail and sickly child, raised in fear by an over-protective and over-bearing mother, Thalberg's health was always precarious. The fact that he was not expected to live past the age of 30 was drummed into him as a child. Turnbull presents a young man who, believing himself to be living on borrowed time, feels compelled to achieve, achieve, and achieve. And achieve he did. You can almost hear the tick tick tick of time running out in Turnbull's prose, as Thalberg tries valiantly to grab the most life has to offer while all the while knowing that the shadow of death lurked nearby.

Turnbull paints a vivid picture of Hollywood in the 20s and 30s, the time when silent stars were gods, sound and the Great Depression shattered their west coast Mount Olympus and the subsequent rebuilding of MGM into a new kingdom that boasted more stars than there were in heaven. The sad demise of John Gilbert, Thalberg's great friend, is handled as a fate inevitable as it is heartbreaking. On the other hand, Joan Crawford is a brassy hoot and Harlow is a sassy charmer. It's great to spend time with them. However, the most important moments are reserved for those between Thalberg and Mayer, his feckless father figure who threw him over for son-in-law David O. Selznick, and Norma Shearer. The imagined scenes between Thalberg and Norma are beautifully done, with their intimate conversation at Carole Lombard's Mayfair Ball bringing a tear to my eye.

Oh yes she did! Norma (pictured here with David Niven, Merle Oberon
and Thalberg) did a Jezebel and wore red to
Carole Lombard's white-gown-only-please Mayfair Ball
For the record, this is a fictional biography, a novel, but the research is impeccable. Trust me: I consider myself a great repository of useless Hollywood history and detail and a few times I thought - aha! I spy a mistake! - only to find out I was wrong and Martin Turnbull was right. 

Irving and Norma: Happy
Thalberg's name never once appeared on screen as a film's producer, but as MGM's Head of Production from 1925 until his death, his was the unseen hand that built a dreamland that endures in the heart of every classic movie lover to this day. Leo the Lion might have been the face and the roar of the great studio, but Thalberg was its beating heart, a heart that was filled with love for the movies and one that was taken from the world much too soon.

You can purchase "The Heart of the Lion," as well as Turbull's Garden of Allah novels Here

*Since Lillian Gish is downing a sidecar at a prohibition era Hollywood party, she might just have been sipping it primly from a teacup, don't you think?

Sidecar Cocktail recipe
1.5 oz Dudognon Cognac
1 oz Cointreau
.5 oz Lemon juice
Lemon twist

Shake over ice and strain into a cocktail glass, garnishing with the twist.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Gatsby and Me and Hollywood and the Heartbreak of the American Dream


Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.


From the get-go, I was the perfect food for the Hollywood hunger machine. And from my first reading of that slim miracle, I knew the meaning of that green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. I didn’t need an explanation because I felt it in my bones, the same way I instinctively felt the meaning of a Hurrell portrait of Jean Harlow or Doris Day’s twinkle.



Simply put: like so many adolescents, I did not want to be me. The wonderful thing about that green light is that we can all attach our private meaning to it, but it all boils down to the same thing: The hope and the lie of the American Dream. If you will it, it will come. If you work hard and commit yourself and believe, it will come. You are not bound by social class, ethnicity, name or the sins of the past. What a perfect message for 1925, the year of Gatsby’s publication. Everything seemed possible.

At the same time there was Hollywood, standing astride the world’s film industry that saw European markets devastated by World War I like a king. And what royalty they created! They had been working at it for years, but during the 1920s, they perfected the machine that produced glamour and dreams and fed off the dreams and desires it created in the hearts of the world.

Gloria Swanson, once a ribbon clerk, was now a real-life marhioness, or whatever you call someone married to a marquis. Did she ever scrape Chicago off of her shoes?  Did Clara Bow ever escape the Brooklyn girl who was uneducated and raped by her father just because she lived in a dream world and was adored by millions?



And, if your name didn’t fit the dream, you could change it, just as you could change your appearance or your back story. Name changing in the entertainment world wasn’t new. Mary Pickford ditched Gladys Smith before she ever stepped in front of a camera. In the early days of film, Theodosia Goodman of Cincinnati became Theda Bara, the daughter of an Arab Sheik and a French woman, raised in the shadow of the Pyramids.  That kind of malarkey was purely for fun and probably no one really bought it, but it made for a good vamping story that bought folks to the theater. However, somewhere in the 1920s, it all got very serious. After all, millions were at stake and more and more people started really believing make believe.  Did Greta Garbo ever miss Greta Gustafsson?   Was Mary Astor able to shed Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke? Did Rodolfo Pietro Filberto Raffaello Guglielmi di Valentina d’Antonguella ever really feel like Rudolph Valentino?



It’s a beautiful dream, but it is a dream, a fantasy. And when you come to realize that, it is the ultimate heartbreak. That is why there is always a tender spot in my heart for Gatsby, for Clara and, later, for poor Norma Jean Baker. They believed and their hearts were pierced. As was mine, when I realized I could not become anyone other than myself. Yet the allure persists. It is powerful, this desire to alter the reality.

Daisy and Nick and Tom, those philistines, never had to long. They could graze in another pasture, sample the “other,” but they were secure in their beings. They did not long to be anyone other than themselves. Pity their untortured souls, for no magic comes from the satisfied.

The eternal truth of Gatsby smashes the lie of the American Dream, so well perpetuated by Hollywood – or what passes for a universal “Hollywood” these days. Jay Gatz could give himself a new name and fancy clothes and new wealth, but the truth was cloaked in the lie. Believing the lie is the mistake that leads to the heartbreak. Somehow, the truth always wins.



As a little girl I spent endless hours pouring through movie magazine and classic Hollywood photo books. My dreams were built on those images. Oh what magical lives Hayley Mills and Sally Field and Audrey Hepburn must have had!  I’m a big girl now and I have learned that who you are, at your core, is the only truth and your true identity. It’s fun to take flights of fancy and indulge in a little make believe, but the trick is to never believe it is real. Cary Grant famously said “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant. I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until finally I became that person.” Based on what we know, even the great Cary Grant spent endless hours trying to figure out the intersection where Archie Leach met Cary Grant.



And still, like so many, who continue to watch and watch and maybe hope and hope, I am spellbound by the magic of film, especially Hollywood films of old.
The green light at the end of the dock is no different than the thrill of the simultaneous darkening of the theater and the light of the projector and the hope, the excitement that we can enter a new world, if only for a short while. Unlike Gatsby, we don’t have to really believe it, unlike Marilyn we don’t have to run head first to the green light. A person could get burned if they linger there too long.