Monday, October 18, 2021

The Producers (1967): Here's a Funny Story.....

Maybe it's the state of affairs all around us, but I've been in a particularly sensitive mood these days...for so many days, it seems. Almost anything can make me bust out in tears - usually something beautiful; a song, a moment from a film, a memory. And when it comes to comedy, I simply can no longer abide the joke cloaked in meanness. 

So, here's the funny story. When I saw the topic for the CMBA Blogathon, I jumped at the chance to select "The Producers," my go-to comedy that never fails to make me laugh. However, once I started to put a few thoughts down on paper, it all seemed vaguely familiar. And no wonder. I had written about this same film in in 2012 CMBA Comedy Blogathon and in the 2018 CMBA Outlaws Blogathon. What's that quote about insanity?

Anyway, I picked it yet again, so now I'm faced with the challenge of saying something different about it. I mean really, I felt I had said it all in 2 pretty decent articles. And yet here we are again - me, Mel, Max and Leo. So, here are the links if you feel inclined to read about the film:  

https://flickchick1953.blogspot.com/2012/01/producers-zero-bats-thousand-and-mel.html

https://flickchick1953.blogspot.com/2018/11/cmba-outlaws-blogathon-producers-1967.html

This time I'm doing something a little different.

First, let me bow down in awe of the great Mel Brooks. Almost all of my comedy gods are gone, some long gone before my time. But, praise whoever, Mel is still here with us and I firmly believe the world is a more joyful place because he is here (that goes for you, too, Jack Nicholson, but that's a whole 'nother story). 

Here's the great man accepting his Oscar for Best Screenplay (after some shtick from Sinatra and Rickles -ah those were the days when the Oscars were fun).


The tale of 2 swindlers who give us "Springtime for Hitler" is a love letter to the comedy traditions of vaudeville, burlesque and early television. It is humor put forth with the adolescent's complete conviction about what is funny. And who is braver and freer than the adolescent before the world of adults infects him or her with self-doubt? I am so grateful Mel never grew up.



The secret ingredient here - and all great comedies have one of those, don't they? - is love. The important presence of Zero Mostel as Max is offered with love for all that he is here - and all that he went through in the past. His Max is outrageous, venal, a joyous liar and an entitled thief, but somewhere in there, there is love. Somehow, one feels he is loving the moment, no matter how perilous. There is also love between Zero and his Leo (Gene Wilder, so sweet in his first big role). Mel's humor is based in love. That is why we can laugh at Hitler. That is why we can laugh at 2 Jews ditching their swastika armbands in a trashcan after they secure the rights to Franz Liebkind's Nazi-fueled fever dream of a play. Deep in our hearts we want to believe love wins.

When our hearts are so broken by the world, it takes a loving heart to mend them. And a funny loving heart? Even better. Well, leave it to that great humanitarian Mel Brooks to give us so generously what we need. "The Producers" says come play with me, come revel in the bawdy, uninhibited humor that obliterates hipness and coolness. Cleverness is merely humor without humanity. Artificial Intelligence can be clever. It takes a human being to give us Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva at Berchtesgaden


This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Laughter is the Best Medicine Blogathon. Click here for more needed comic relief. And boy, do we need it!




Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Love Me or Leave Me (1955) - A Bad Romance

 

This is my entry in The Biopic Blogathon, hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.  Click here for more favorite biopics. They’re all true, right?

My heart explodes with love for this film. It has everything that enchants me about the movies. It may never make the list of the greatest films ever made, but it weaves a tale of dangerous emotions and irresistible characters and features knockout performances of epic chemistry by two of my favorite actors, James Cagney and Doris Day. I absorb it. It creates its own world in my imagination. It makes me feel. It makes me care.

Marty thinks he's in control


“Love Me or Leave Me” is a fictionalized (what else) version of the unsavory and pretty appalling professional life of singer Ruth Etting. Ms. Etting was a popular singer in the 1920s and 30s, known as “America’s Sweetheart of Song,” who was married to her violent mobster manager, Martin “Moe” Snyder, charmingly known as “Moe the Gimp.” Once Etting managed to free herself from Snyder she entered a romantic relationship with her accompanist, Myrl Alderman, whom Snyder promptly shot. All of this really happened (Snyder’s teenage daughter was also caught up in the gun play, but there was only so much of this that the movie could show). Anyway, in 1955 Etting, Snyder and Myrl Alderman (now Ruth’s husband), all sold the rights to their story to MGM. So, while the film certainly sanitizes a lot, it also has that smidgen of truth that some biopics can’t claim.

Ruth gets canned from her 10 cents a dance girl job,
but bigger and badder things are on the horizon


The story opens in the Chicago of the 1920s where Etting is working as a 10 cents a dance girl and Snyder is the local hood shaking down the establishment. She catches his eye and he tries his luck for a quick pick-up, offering to help her get a job on stage. She is ambitious and takes the help (she is hilarious when first hired as a dancer who can’t remember her steps) and that’s the beginning of a twisted, sadomasochistic relationship that ends with the above-mentioned shooting.

What makes this film so damn compelling are the performances of Day and Cagney and how they breathe life into a couple entangled in a relationship that is, to say the least, complicated. Each party thinks they are in control, until one of them is not.

Marty is always mouthing off, but Ruth holds the reins (for a while)

Doris Day is no little miss innocent here. Looking sexy as all hell in skimpy, skin-baring outfits (as well as some other less revealing but no less beautiful outfits, all designed by Helen Rose), Day comes across as 100% believable as the overly ambitious, hard drinking singer whose moral compass is a little off kilter. See how she works Marty to get her more of what she wants.



Doris looking amazing


The music, mostly songs Etting made famous, as well as a few new ones, is Doris at her best. Because each song is presented as part of a performance, the musical numbers blend seamlessly with the story. It’s a beautiful soundtrack that was hugely popular in its time.


This was Doris Day’s first real dramatic performance and she is perfect. She goes toe to toe with Cagney in some heated arguments that are downright uncomfortable in their intimacy and she never backs down. There is a real, twisted sexual tension between these two; his combined with hope, violence and jealousy and hers mingled with self-loathing and an over-estimated confidence in her ability to control him.
 Cagney loved Doris, lobbied for her to play the role, insisted that she get top billing (what a guy – the first time he relinquished it since attaining star status in 1931) and thought she was a great actress. I have to concur. Next to Judy Garland, I think she is probably the most talented all around performer in film. There was nothing she couldn’t do, and she did it all with a never showy naturalness that is sometimes underrated due to her later undeserved reputation as a professional virgin (although she was married in so many of those later comedies. Go figure). Her transformation from a hopeful, joyous performer to a beaten down woman who drinks to numb the pain is harrowing and touching (her “Ten Cents a Dance” number masterfully illustrates the hardness and sadness she develops after her marriage to Marty).



Marty Snyder was Cagney’s last gangster role and he simply blows up the screen with raw appeal. Nothing is held back in reserve and he takes my breath away. His Gimp is crude, brutal, an animal and yet, at the same time, charming, and lovesick and you just can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Ruth knows he is nuts for her and initially manipulates him while managing to keep his romantic overtures at bay. She accepts the help he gives her with her career and doesn’t seem to mind that, initially, most of that help was obtained through shady methods. She plays the game well, but in the end pays a big price. After a scandal making altercation backstage during Ruth’s Ziegfeld Follies debut, the couple get into a vicious, heartbreaking argument that ends with an off screen sexual assault and a miserable marriage. When he furiously attacks her because she would never acknowledge their relationship to the Ziegfeld crew, she says she couldn’t and he practically sobs that he would have done it for her (a tough guy holding back a sob is always a gut punch). Whew. It truly feels like watching the most private moments of a couple’s awful argument, feeling like you somehow intruded upon them and you shouldn’t be there.  The 1955 censors apparently cut out more explicit scenes of violence and sexual assault. According to Day's biography, that disturbing scene continued with Marty pushing Ruth against a wall, tearing her dress and raping her. The remaining scenes are disturbing enough. 


This battle is about as emotional as it gets. Marty is a
dangerous and wounded animal and Ruth has run out of luck

Cagney’s Gimp eventually devolves into a man who has lost control of Ruth and his emotions, ending with a mean (and very real) slap across his soon to be ex-wife’s face and the eventual shooting of Alderman. It's debatable if Day knew the real slap was coming, but it was 100% real. Ouch. Audiences gasped at the shocking violence.




Of course, Cagney in the clink is always fun to watch. When Ruth comes to see him there he tells her it makes him feel like a kid again and that he is finally done with her. She realizes she is free, but she is not jubilant. Marty was like a bad addiction. You know it's so bad for you, but you can't imagine living without it.


Marriage to Marty means sadness and the end to sexy pjs

During each of Ruth’s performances the camera repeatedly gives us Marty’s reactions. At first, when a club owner is strong-armed into letting Ruth perform, Cagney is nervous and then relieved when he realizes the girl can actually sing. Next we see him filled with pride when he realizes that he doesn’t have to “stack the joint” with cronies and that customers actually want to pay to see her. Finally, we see the admiration fade to the realization that, after her smashing performance at the Follies, he has lost her and that she doesn’t need him anymore. All of these emotions are spelled out in a single look. I could go on and on about how towering this performance is, but I’ve always been a sucker for Cagney and this is one of  - if not my favorite – performance of his. He justly was nominated for an Academy Award (Ernest Borgnine won that year). Doris, unjustly, was not. The film did win the award for best story.

Marty fears the handwriting on the wall

So, what else? Cameron Mitchell as Alderman is very appealing and sympathetic and makes a nice, strong shoulder for Doris to cry on. 

Myrl Alderman becomes Johnny Alderman in the film

The gal who sings a nightclub jingle in the beginning is Audrey Young, who in real life was Mrs. Billy Wilder. The part of the agent who befriends both Ruth and Marty is played by Robert Keith, who was Brian Keith’s father. And three cheers to Harry Bellaver, who played Marty’s long suffering and ever present stooge and punching bag, Georgie. The look of the film is a little less 1920s and more 1950s MGM, but the lush orchestrations by Percy Faith are top notch. There are tons of little bits of business – Marty casually helping Ruth take off a bracelet during one of their nasty arguments, his inability to remember her name when they first get involved (calling her “Ettling”), Marty genially patting the back of the prison guard as he is led back to his cell – all serve to make these characters knowable to the audience.

Marty finally lands in a place he feels comfortable - the pokey

Ruth Etting was not very happy with the finished product (are they ever?) and would have preferred to have Jane Powell play her. Snyder was also unhappy with the way he was portrayed, but he should have been happy that he wasn’t portrayed more honestly. Ugly stories abound. Happily, after all the drama, Ruth and Myrl Alderman had a long and happy marriage, largely away from the spotlight. Marty, as his film character predicted, did eventually get sprung from prison. His exact fate is a little murky, but it seems he drifted back to Chicago and worked in a mailroom or a license bureau. Somehow I don't think all he did was sort letters....

Here are the real Ruth and Marty, as well as the recently shot Alderman with Ruth, and Marty’s daughter (who ended up living with Ruth - as I said, it was complicated), at his bedside.

 



And here is Ruth Etting singing her signature song, Love Me or Leave Me.

 


On a personal note, I have to say how grateful I am that I watched "Love Me or Leave Me" again for this blogathon. For quite a long time now I have been a little indifferent to classic film. It seemed the old spark was gone, and it saddened me. James Cagney was the very first actor, so many decades ago, who got me hooked on classic films. And here he is again, so many years later, reigniting that passion. Thanks for bringing me home, Mr. C. I better not stray too far from him again.

 


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Without the Lover There is No Beloved: An Appreciation of the Audience

This is a blogger's true confession.


How I admire all of you who make art, who write about art, who inform and educate and thrill me with your creativity and insight. Movies have been my passion for most of my life, and yet I hardly care to know who directed it, who wrote it, who provided amazing lighting or music or sound. For me, the Academy Awards could last no more than 1 hour with but 5 categories (actors, actresses and film). I am the person in the dark. I am the audience.


don't worry, Lina Lamont, your audience loves you

With bubbles of creativity gurgling in my brain, this has been deeply conflicting for me. I should care more, be more critical in my thinking, I should create more. But I don't. Instead, I am drawn into the magic of Chaplin, Keaton, Kay Francis, Ann Dvorak, James Cagney, Cary Grant, and most recently, Charles Boyer. It is always the stars, so magically presented, that lure me in. My rational mind knows that is it all make believe and that an army of artists and artisans have combined their creative forces to produce this moment of stardust. 

looking for the magic

This has always been a little upsetting for me. I read that Buster Keaton, upon his first encounter with a movie camera, had to take it apart to discover how it worked. Good thing that wasn't me! The damn thing would have been left in pieces!


can you feel the magic?

In so many ways, I have felt like a fraud when it comes to movie knowledge. But finally I have come to terms and accepted my place in this process. Without an audience, there is no magic. The audience, with its appreciation and love, breathes life into a piece of film, a canvas, a printed page or a beautiful fabric. So, in my way, I am playing my part in keeping these beautiful things alive. That is no small thing. As an added benefit, acknowledging this also gives me power over negative noises in our midst. I can chose my beloveds. The troubles of the world are of the moment; Bogie and Bergman, Fred and Ginger, and Scarlett and Rhett are forever as long as there is an audience for them. We grow old, but Chaplin is forever young as long as there is love for cinema.


Norma as Casandra

Norma Desmond was wise. She knew she owed it all to those wonderful people out there in the dark. And yes, I know those lines were written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, but let me have this. Sit back and enjoy the show. That is all that is needed.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Book Review: Vitagraph: America's First Great Motion Picture Studio

 I love the stories about the great movie pioneers, you know -L.B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor, the Warner Brothers. But, before the usual and more famous pioneers, there were the earliest pioneers, the dreamers who served as the scouts who cleared the path and laid the foundation for a road that lead to a great industry. D.W. Griffith remains a famous name, but many of those who came before the moguls have fallen into obscurity. While I had certainly heard of the Vitagraph Studio, the names of its founders - Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton - were unknown to me. Author Andrew A. Erish, in his book "Vitagraph: America's First Great Motion Picture Studio," gives them their due and tells the story of a great studio that, for a time, flourished in those exciting, early days.

While Vitagraph was established in Brooklyn, it also had a west coast studio

Two English fellows who had a hankering for show business, Smith and Blackton founded Vitagraph Studios in 1896 and set up shop in Brooklyn, NY. Starting with the days of the crude nickelodeon and progressing to shorts and feature films, the Vitagraph boys, like so many early pioneers, found themselves knee-deep in the endless patent wars with Edison, a financial struggle that would have defeated less determined men. They did prevail, but there always seemed to be bigger companies nipping at their heels.


A few Vitagraph stars. Jean Page became Mrs. Albert Smith


In their heyday, Vitagraph launched the careers of Maurice Costello (as well as his daughters Dolores and Helene as child actors), Corinne Griffith, Florence Lawrence, Florence Turner, Anita Stewart, Antonio Moreno and Norma Talmadge. Tribute is paid to forgotten superstars of the era, comedians John Bunny and Larry Semon. Even Moe Howard (the smart Stooge) makes an appearance as a teenaged extra. Life at Vitagraph seemed like a cozy, happy family.

Not quite the Dodgers, but a fine looking Brooklyn team


But, all good things must come to an end. The founders drifted in different directions and the company suffered. Eventually, the industry that they helped build got the best of them and, in 1925 Vitagraph was sold to Warner Brothers. 

Vitagraph founders Albert E. Smith (center) and J. Stuart Blackton (right),
as well as partner William T. ("Pop") Rock (left)

The book is a mixture of good gossip and heavy, important research. Zukor, founder of Famous Players and later, Paramount, comes across as a ruthless and power hungry philistine, the author never letting us forget he was a furrier. Norma Talmadge, one of the silent screen's greatest stars, is described as a bit dim-witted. Smith and Blackton, while flawed, are clearly held in high esteem by the writer, with Smith's Christian ethics praised to the end. The book can get technical at times, but it offers a thorough and detailed history of an important studio and a good glimpse at those more innocent times.

Still standing


Vitagraph is long gone, but, in Brooklyn, a reminder of this once great studio remains. The smokestack that displays the company name somehow has managed to survive. There are luxury apartments now on the old studio lot. The name of the apartment building is "The Vitagraph," and, after a campaign to save the old smokestack, the developer of the complex as left it intact. I'm sure those 2 English chaps with show biz in their blood would be happy to see that last remnant of their life's work still standing.





"Vitagraph" America's First Great Motion Picture Studio" by Andrew A. Erish was provided to me at no cost for review.

VITAGRAPH: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio

Andrew E. Erish
Kentucky Press | Screen Classics Series
298 pages | 6×9 | 46 b/w photos | hardcover | 


Wednesday, May 19, 2021

History is Made at Night: Walking on Stardust

This is my entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association Hidden Classics Blogathon. Click here for more hidden cinematic gems.


History is Made at Night (1937)

My love of film has to do with how they make me feel. While I don't always remember the exact plot lines, the camera angels or directorial strokes of genius, if I love a film I can always remember how it makes me feel. And the feeling I get from History is Made at Night is magically, unashamedly romantic... otherworldly romantic ....twinkling white star against a velvet midnight sky romantic.

See the look of love?

The chemistry between Charles Boyer (can you hear me sigh?) and Jean Arthur is bathed in enchantment. Now, I am not Ms. Arthur's biggest fan. Her quirky voice and quizzical manner seems a bit too much like a tightly wound corkscrew for me. However, here, with Boyer, she simply walks on stardust The way she looks at him and her quiet, delighted manner is an unapologetic surrender to love. In fact, the entire film makes no apology for it's singular devotion to love. There are no sly moments, no snarky comments that pass for sophistication.

Jean Arthur: still the American girl, this time with a continental glow

So why does this Jean Arthur wholeheartedly convince me she is more than the little list of annoyances she has presented to me in the past? Perhaps her appeal lies in the influence of a more continental partner in Mr. Boyer. Here he is the waiter who gives his all to his job and his all to romance. His charm is wrapped in his utmost and serious 100% devotion to love.

To the Romantic, food and love require total devotion

There is a pretty great villain here, too, in the person of Colin Clive. Man, he's a real stinker. 

Not the look of a happy wife

Mr. Clive suffered from severe alcoholism and would die in 1937 at the age of 37. His dissipation is evident in this film and only adds to the depravity of his character as Jean's evil and possessive husband.

Is it any surprise here that "History is Made at Night" was directed by Frank Borzage, a true master of romance? 

So, here's the bottom line: all the romantic, moonlit cinematic stars aligned for this film. There is a delightful plot, which I've totally neglected, and even a pretty exciting climax involving a Titanic-like ship sinking, but what stays with me is the feeling I get from this film. My heart aches for Boyer and Arthur, I root for them to succeed, they make my heart happy, I am enchanted by their charm and chemistry and, finally, I believe in the power of romantic love in its purest form. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

National Classic Movie Day: 6 Decades/6 Double Features

This is my entry into The Classic Film and TV Cafe's annual National Classic Movie Day blogathon. This year's theme is 6 films - 6 decades. Click here to see more personal choices by some awesome movie lovers.


If you're like me, you have a list of favorites. And, because they are favorites, I've written way too many times about them. So, in the spirit of not boring myself, let alone you, to death, I've decided to pair an almost- top favorite with an absolute favorite to create a National Classic Movie Day Double Feature (remember those? If you do, you're probably a classic yourself). I'm also tying them together with a (sometimes very loose) thematic thread...sort of. Here goes...

1910s: The Immigrant and The New York Hat: Big Apple Love and Longing

The main feature is one of my favorite Chaplin shorts, 1917's "The Immigrant." The second feature is 1912's "The New York Hat." Chaplin gazes at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor and Mary Pickford gazes longingly at a fancy New York hat in a shop window. There's always been something about New York.

$10 is a  fortune for Mary in "The New York Hat."

Have you seen this film? This is a charming little short with a hefty pedigree. Directed by D.W. Griffith and written by Anita Loos and Frances Marion, it stars Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore in Mary Pickford's swan song to her Biograph association. I love everything about this film, including its sly and humorous take down of small town gossips, but mainly I am always - always - astounded by Mary Pickford's incredible star power. It is impossible not to take your eyes off of her or be enchanted by her. After 109 years, she is undeniably a bright and shinning and ever lasting star.

1920s: Our Hospitality and The Thief of Bagdad: Go Big. 

The main feature for this decade would be Buster Keaton's great first feature, 1923's "Our Hospitality." I love the incredibly clever story and, of course, Buster's humor. But mainly I love this film for Buster's bravery and audacity in both his stunts and his incredible period recreation. The little guy went big in all ways.


The second feature pairing is Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 "The Thief of Bagdad." This film is epic in its splendor and size and in its romance. Photos cannot do it justice. Check out this beautiful trailer for a real flavor of this film, accompanied by a beautiful Carl Davis (and Rimsky-Korsakov score). Norma Desmond (more about her later) said "they took the idols of the world and smashed them." Here at the height of his star power, Fairbanks creates an over-sized fantasy that is a feast for the eyes and imagination. This was the golden decade of movie magic and romance. Never again would film speak to the entire world in such a singular voice, never again would the private imaginations of movie goers soar in such private and personal splendor.

1930s: City Lights and Love Me Tonight: I Humbly Apologize...

The main feature is Chaplin's great 1931 "City Lights." I've written way too much about it already, so let's just focus here on the beautiful story of a poor fellow who will stretch the truth about his humble conditions to win the heart of his lady love.

Chevalier and MacDonald sizing each other up

The second feature here is 1932's "Love Me Tonight." Ah, "the son of a gun is nothing but a tailor!" (so the song goes). Chevalier, the humble tailor who masquerades as a nobleman to win his princess, oozes his most cheeky French charm, Jeanette MacDonald is at her sexiest and least artificial, there's a score to die for by Rodgers and Hart, and it's all directed in the Lubitsch manner by Rouben Mamoulian. An added plus: A delicious Myrna Loy, Charlie Ruggles and Charles Butterworth are along for this joyous and carefree ride. "Love Me Tonight" is a perfect cinematic confection that tastes like desert but is as pleasing as a full course meal. Isn't it romantic? Yes! 

1940s: Double Indemnity and Leave Her to Heaven: Pretty Poison

"Double Indemnity" (1944) is one of my all time favorites. What more can I say? It is Billy Wilder perfect - which is perfect x 10 (at least). Barbara Stanwyck's unforgettable femme fatale is poisonously fatal to everyone, including herself. But, she had us at the ankle bracelet.

Please don't let Ellen take you swimming.....

The second feature for this decade is 1945's "Leave her to Heaven." Talk about a poison femme fatale. This noir in glorious color has everything: great locations, sympathetic secondary characters, and an irresistible potboiler of a plot. However, it all bows in service to Gene Tierney's psychopathic Ellen. Beautiful to look at, deadly to hold. I can't think of a femme fatale more beautiful and ultimately more loathsome.

1950s: Sunset Boulevard and Strangers on a Train: Kooks and Unrequited Love

Kooks and unrequited love seems to be a theme that runs through this decade. Sunset Boulevard is my favorite film of any decade and Norma Desmond one of my most favorite characters. Period. Poor Norma.... fruitcake mad for Joe Gillis... and poor Max...fruitcake mad for Norma. More Billy Wilder perfection.

Criss Cross....

Hitchcock's 1951 "Strangers on a Train," the other half of this nutty double feature, also has a kook who seems to be, if not in love, at least enthralled with his unwilling partner in crime. The way the word "Guy" drips out of Bruno's mouth is about as creepy as it gets. I kind of think even Norma Desmond would head for the door in Bruno's presence.

1960s: The Apartment and Charade: surrounded by baddies

Billy Wilder again! I guess all I need are Chaplin and Wilder films to feel happy. Aside from the complicated and adorable love story between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, one of the uncomfortable aspects of "The Apartment" is the casual immorality of of all those guys at Consolidated Insurance.

Seriously, what's not to love here?

1963's "Charade" finds Audrey and Cary (I'm on a first name basis with these 2) also surrounded by bad guys. That's about it for any connection to "The Apartment" (except maybe each has a memorable theme song). But, since this is one of my favorites from the '60s, I had to include it. It is beautiful, clever, thrilling and I love it. I never tire of it.

Oh wait! Can we have a triple feature for the 60s? I would gladly get more popcorn and sit through Mel Brooks' "The Producers" (1967) any time, any place. There are too many reasons why to count, but mainly because for the previous 4 years I kept repeating one line of the film over and over again (last line before the fade out):


Thank you, Mel Brooks, for all the laughs.

And many thanks to Rick at The Classic Film and TV Café for reminding us about National Classic Movie Day.. although for most of us, that's every day, right?



 


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.