Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood: A Renaissance of Joy

There is a touch of spring and youth in the air. Could that be Douglas Fairbanks?

It seems there is a Douglas Fairbanks Sr. restoration movement afoot. Notice any similarity?
How about now?

All of a sudden silent films are "in" and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., one of the most overlooked of super stars, is putting feelers out in the universe. While watching Jean Dujardin in "The Artist" I couldn't get over the obvious homage to Fairbanks. Just in case I was imagining it, Dujardin, in his Oscar acceptance speech, noted that Fairbanks was the host of the very first Academy Awards ceremony. He then went on to pay tribute to Doug in this very charming manner:
And just because the universe is like that sometimes, my wonderful local theater was showing the epic "Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood" last night (live music by the great Ben Model).

Douglas Fairbanks had a child's love of fantasy and adventure. The stories he loved as a boy influenced his cinematic persona and the stories he chose to tell. As his personality evolved from the go-getter young man to the swashbuckling adventurer, Fairbanks gave in more and more to his inner child. His cinema recreations of his favorite classics are told from the viewpoint of an adolescent boy. They are innocent, chaste, playful and athletic. Oh, and damn entertaining. Robin Hood was a perfect story for Doug with all of the right ingredients: a noble hero, dastardly villains (Paul Dickey as Sir Guy of Gisbourne and Sam De Grasse as oily Prince John are hiss-provoking), a virginal maiden with spunk, all taking place in the land of knights and castles and bows and arrows.

The 1922 production was one of the biggest the world had seen. The sets alone are amazing, Doug's stunts are eye-popping and, although the film is over two hours long, it zips along without any dead stretches. It also has Wallace Beery as a rather comical Richard the Lionhearted and Alan Hale as Little John (Hale reprises this role again in 1938's "The Adventure of Robin Hood"). The film had the added distinction of being the first film to be shown at the grand Egyptian Theater.
It's nice to be able to watch our favorite films on TCM in the comfort of our home, but it can't beat the special, shared experience of seeing a great silent film in a theater where the audience collectively holds its breath, chuckles with delight and generally falls under the spell of the magical Mr. Fairbanks. 90 years after the film was made, it still thrills, it still enchants. This is largely due to the vision and the artistry of Douglas Fairbanks, for this film is 100% his vision. By now, we've seen bigger, we've seen better, we've seen it all, but Doug is still a shining star. I think he'd be pleased.
There is a great temptation to compare the Fairbanks Robin Hood to the Errol Flynn Robin Hood. Though the characters are the same, the films are totally different in plot line, tone and style. Flynn is a devil-may-care charmer, but he's all man. Doug is virile, too, but he is a hero out of a story book, a man the way an innocent, adolescent boy sees a man. Doug, by the way, under his pseudonym "Elton Thomas" assisted in the screenplay.

Douglas Fairbanks communicates his love of movies the way a dancer communicates the joy of movement or a musician communicates the joy of song. His art transcends words and "acting" as we have come to know it. He is the embodiment of the early, joyous, mad, creative days of that great place that was Hollywood; a place the rest of the world suddenly wants to get to know. There is no better guide back to that wondrous world than one of its greatest creators. 

So, listen carefully: the universe is whispering "Douglas Fairbanks, Douglas Fairbanks...."

For an earlier post, "Douglas Fairbanks, the Greatest Romantic" click here.

Click here to read a letter from Doug's granddaughter, Melissa Fairbanks, to Jean Dujardin about his performance in "The Artist." Sweet.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

My Oscar Disappointments

I rarely back a winner. My candidates for public office often lose, any horse I pick stops to smell the roses, and I usually have my fingers crossed for a loser at the annual Academy Awards show. Most of the time I take the Oscar loss with good grace, but there are a few losers that get under my skin. I don't know why I get so emotional sometimes, but I do!

I was mad for "The Aviator" and was horribly disappointed when it lost in major categories. 
Although I admired "Million Dollar Baby," I really wanted "The Aviator" to win for Best Picture and Martin Scorsese to win for "Best Director." I was majorly disappointed when Jamie Foxx (for "Ray") beat Leonardo Di Caprio for "Best Actor." At least Cate Blanchett won for "Best Supporting Actress," but I was pretty bummed.

I was totally in love with "A Lion in Winter" (okay, the crush on Peter O'Toole might have had something t do with that), and enjoyed "Oliver!" but was crestfallen to have stayed up so later to be so disappointed.

"Chariots of Fire" over "Reds." I loved that movie to pieces and was quite sad that it lost "Best Picture."
This one really disappointed me. I'm pretty sure I turned off the TV when the winner was announced.

"The Silence of the Lambs" over "Bugsy."
Another snub for Warren when he was at the top of his game.

"Titanic" over anything. Sorry, but I really didn't like it. I recall being rather angry at the TV screen that night.

Peter O'Toole for losses for:
1962: Lawrence of Arabia
1964: Beckett
1968: The Lion in Winter
1969: Goodbye, Mr. Chips
1972: The Ruling Class (really, this was brilliant)
1980: The Stunt Man
1982: My Favorite Year
2006: Venus (furious over this one!)
Come on, the guy is beyond brilliant. The Honorary Oscar of 2003 just doesn't cut it. I fear Leonardo Di Caprio is developing into the next Peter O'Toole (snub-wise). I am praying that "The Great Gatsby" is a great hit and puts this to rest.

And my biggest disappointment for any category
Robert Preston's loss in 1982 for Best Supporting Actor in "Victor/Victoria"
This performance was brave, hysterical and just blew the others away (I thought). However, it was not to be and I was sad. 

Some Historical Boo-Boos That Bug Me (too late for these!)
"Going My Way" over "Double Indemnity." Sorry, Father O'Malley, I would have voted for sin.
Loretta Young in "The Farmer's Daughter" over Susan Hayward for "Smash Up" Susan is a power house, but she had to wait her turn.
Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard" and Bette Davis in "All About Eve" losing to Judy Holliday for "Born Yesterday." Aww, I love Judy in that role and she is a delight, but Norma Desmond and Margo Channing are on a totally different level.
"The Greatest Show on Earth" over "High Noon" and "The Quiet Man" and 2 other majorly great films left off  the list. Ugh. 
Gloria Grahame in "The Bad and the Beautiful" over Jean Hagen in "Singing in the Rain." Multiple pain here, since both films were NOT EVEN NOMINATED (see above: won by that circus flick). Both ladies are great in great films, but Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont is unforgettable.
and, my biggest peeve:
 No Oscar for Garbo!

Nominees I Have My Fingers Crossed For This Year
I haven't seen everything, so my picks are totally biased and could not be defended in a court of law or even on Judge Judy.

Best Picture
I am completely torn between "The Artist" and "Hugo." Either one would be okay by me.
Best Actor
I'm pulling for Jean Dujardin - the images of Fairbanks and Gilbert and even Gene Kelly that kept floating in the back of my brain while watching him makes it a very special performance for me.

Best Actress

Glenn Close was just amazing in "Albert Nobbs," so I am rooting for her. 

Best Screenplay

Here I am totally rooting for Woody Allen for "Midnight in Paris." The story was charming and original and the film was completely entertaining. Woody still has the right stuff and I'd love to see him honored (even though we know he won't be there).

Best Director

Rooting here for Martin Scorsese for "Hugo." The film is a beautiful achievement.

Well, I'll have my popcorn and will be prepared to stay up past midnight for the annual bash. I hope I'm not too disappointed this year!

Here are earlier reviews of some nominated films:
Click Here for "The Artist"
Click Here for "Hugo"
Click Here for "Midnight in Paris"

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

"The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969) is one of those films that I am never quite done with. No matter how many times I see it, there are things about it that disturb me and make me want to go back for more. I have also changed my view about Jean Brodie over the years, which is probably a good thing (being that she was a proponent of Fascism, Mussolini, Franco and all that).
Charismatic people are always fascinating. And scary. And often dangerous. The hold they have on their subjects can so easily be used for selfish or harmful ends, and I'm afraid Miss Brodie, in all of her fabulous-ness, does just that.

Based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark* (and more closely on the later play by Jay Presson Allen), "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" tells the story of the lady of the title, a teacher at the ultra-conventional Marcia Blaine School for Girls in 1930s Edinburgh, Scotland. How Jean got a job teaching there is a bit of a mystery, but, nevertheless, there she is.  Why she would rather teach there than, as arch enemy and headmistress Miss Mackay suggests, a more progressive school is evident. Miss Brodie loves to flaunt convention, to tickle the nose of authority, to push the boundaries and to be a resplendent peacock in a flock of peahens. 

"Little girls, I am in the business of putting old heads on young   shoulders, and all of my pupils are the creme de la creme. Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life."

The story centers on Miss Brodie and her chosen girls known as "The Brodie Set." They are: 
Sandy: known for her practicality and chosen as Jean's confidante.
Monica: known for her mathematical brilliance
Jenny: known for her beauty and sexual appeal
Mary McGregor: Jean's most impressionable scapegoat

The film follows these "gels" (as Jean pronounces them with her Scottish burr) from their pre-teen exposure to Miss Brodie to graduation. Long after they have left Miss Brodie's class, she still keeps them close at Marcia Blaine and basks in their adoration of her as she holds forth court on art, love, beauty and politics. She also exposes them to her messy love life. She is passionately in love with married art teacher Mr. Lloyd, and he with her, but his marital status and his religion (Roman Catholicism) makes her keep him at tortuous arms length. Ever the master manipulator, Miss Brodie schemes to have her cake and eat it, too. She dallies with the boring but respectable bachelor Mr. Lowther, and schemes to arrange an eventual affair between Jenny and Mr. Lloyd, thereby conducting a vicarious affair between the man she truly loves and the beautiful girl she can control. Sandy is to be designated as Miss Brodie's spy.
Unfortunately, in addition to her tastes in art and thoughts on love, Miss Brodie also imparts her romantic infatuation with fascism to her gels. Mary McGregor, impressionable and eager to please, leaves for Spain to join her brother (who is fighting in the Spanish Civil War). She goes with Miss Brodie's encouragement and a head filled with a romanticized notion of war and fascism and ends up a casualty in Franco's war when the train she is traveling on is bombed. Most unfortunate for Miss Brodie, she selected the wrong confidante. Not only does Jenny not have the planned affair with Mr. Lloyd (whose various portrait subjects all look like Jean Brodie), it is Sandy who ends up making love to the art teacher. Miss Brodie once declared Sandy to be "insightful, but not instinctive," intimating that she lacked the Brodie flair for life. But clever little Sandy had a few surprises up her sleeve. Jean Brodie could never imagine that any of her chosen set could betray her. How little she really knew them. 

Hurt over Mr. Lloyd's continual fascination with Jean, disgusted by Jean's attempts to get Jenny into a married man's bed and horrified at Mary McGregor's fate, Sandy is the one who finally has enough and confronts her old teacher. She lays Miss Brodie's crimes before her (Brodie did not bother to learn that Mary's brother was fighting against Franco), but Jean is unrepentant. It is Sandy who feels the pain of her adored teacher's influence so thoughtlessly and foolishly wielded over her creme de la creme. Before Sandy leaves to turn her in and get her fired, Jean Brodie yells "Assassin!" Mary McGregor's death, Mr. Lloyd's and Mr. Lowther's and Sandy's great disappointment in the person she admired most mean nothing to her.
The performances, along with the subject matter, raise this film above the ordinary. Maggie Smith won a much-deserved Oscar for her complex and affecting performance. She is stylish, outrageous, refined and utterly spell-binding as Jean Brodie. Never once does this narcissistic creature ever realize the real damage she has done to so many. Smith makes her hard to forget for all of Jean Brodie's failings.
Pamela Franklin, as Sandy, is her equal every step of the way. Her performance goes to the top of my list as one that should have not only received an Academy Award nomination, but one that deserved a win.
In the end, I have to  side with Sandy. When I was younger, I was just as enthralled with Miss Brodie as her students. I overlooked her faults because she was "special." However, Sandy, blindly misjudged and underestimated by Jean, only turns her former teacher in ("betrays" is the word Miss Brodie uses) to the dreaded Miss Mackay after her thoughtless actions lead to the death of poor Mary McGregor and her machinations attempt to start an affair between Jenny and a married man. Maybe Sandy was jealous of Miss Brodie's adoration of Jenny and of Mr. Lloyd's undying passion for her teacher, but Miss Brodie did real harm. Impressionable girls deserve better. The person who influences us the most has the capacity to hurt us the most.

There are some movies that just speak to us and draw us back for repeated viewings. For me, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" is one of those films.

* the film and the book differ in many ways. In the book, there are more girls in the Brodie Set. The emphasis on religion is muted on the screen, as is Sandy's eventual conversion to Catholicism and decision to become a nun.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

When Movie Stars Mate: A Valentines Day Hollywood Hug

Twinkle twinkle 
Movie Star. 
Your way of love might seem bizarre.
But who can know how just one glance
Can start a movie star romance?
♥ Some romances cannot be denied! ♥

The Look of Hollywood Love
Some romances don't endure forever, but they sure were fun while they lasted.

Mary Pickford & Douglas Fairbanks

Doug and Mary were the King and Queen of Hollywood in the 1920s and their home, Pickfair, served as their Buckingham Palace. Alas, their marriage failed, but neither one ever stopped loving the other.
Mary and Doug were married for 16 years. The pressure of being the "perfect couple" was just too much.

Greta Garbo & John Gilbert

Theirs was the white-hot romance of the 1920s. She was cool, he was hot and together they exuded sex appeal galore.
Unfortunately, Garbo wanted to be alone and went her own way without Gilbert. While it lasted, they were the power couple of their day.

Vivien Leigh & Laurence Olivier
Was there ever a more beautiful couple? A fairy tale romance that burned hot and then burned out. There is no doubt that each was the love of the other's life, but Vivien's health problems lead to the couple's demise.
Vivien and Larry were married for 20 years and, while it lasted, they were golden.

Rudolph Valentino & Pola Negri

Was it all just a publicity stunt? Maybe, but, gee, these hothouse flowers were glamorous. Rudy died before anything could go wrong with the romance, so we'll never know how it all would have turned out.
They sure seem to be happy and in love, don't they?

Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton

The tabloid couple that leaves all others in the dust. They were hot, they were reckless, they were married to others, they were in love and that love would not be denied! Liz and Dick were too dramatic, too beautiful, too extravagant, too much in love and just plain too much to last.

And they were the King and Queen (at least for a while), weren't they? Married twice (once for 10 years, and another try for 1 year), their love affair and the press coverage of it, is a Hollywood romance legend.

Katharine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy

When I think of "the look of love," I think of these 2. Because their love affair was an open secret in Hollywood, there are no public photos of life at home, no casual outings. Tracy remained married, but he and Hepburn were a couple for decades until his death.

Not just love, but mutual admiration. Nice.

Jean Harlow & William Powell

Oh, if only they had been given a chance. After Harlow's tragic marriage to Paul Bern, wonderful William Powell seemed like just the right man to make "the Baby" happy.

Another case of "who knows if it would have lasted?" Probably not, but Bill gave Harlow lots of happiness before she left this world much too soon.

Clark Gable & Carole Lombard

The Hollywood couple that everyone rooted for. The love affair between these two very special and likable stars was embraced by the public. Carole's tragic death and Gable's subsequent grief elevated their romance to one of the great 20th century love stories.
Would they have always been this happy? I'd like to think so.

Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall

This May-December romance was real love and the public adored them. Although only 21 when she married the 46-year old Bogart, Bacall seemed his equal in every way. And, it turns out, she really was.
Theirs was a happy union that lasted 12 years, until Bogart's death. They were a swell team on and off the screen.

Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward

This one stood the test of time. 
Dignified, private and unassuming, they lived their life out of the Hollywood spotlight and remained married for 50 years. An amazing record and a truly romantic pair.
Wishing you Valentine's Day filled with the love of friends, family, pets and some romance, too!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Miriam Hopkins (Bitch)/Warren William (Blaggard)

This is the second in the "Bitches and Blaggards" series; monthly posts devoted to my favorite movie bad girls and roguesA 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.

Miriam Hopkins
The reaction to Miriam Hopkins is usually one of you either love her or hate her - no in-betweens. Regardless of your feeling for her, it's hard not to admire the elevated level of bitchiness to which Miriam could rise in some of her  portrayals. Even when she wasn't quite a bitch, she sure seemed like one.

Miriam's bitch-career falls into two distinct periods - pre and post "code." The pre-code Miriam was often a saucy minx; a morally questionable cutie with spice and zest. Post-code Miriam had the minx sucked out of her. Apparently, a minx without sauce equals a bitch.

I would never classify Bette Davis as an all-out bitch. Although she played some very nasty ladies, with a few exceptions Bette always had the sympathy of the audience. Miriam, whose delivery was compared to "cracked ice" by film historian David Shipman, rarely played for sympathy. Like all good bitches, she was completely self-sufficient and focused on the mission at hand.  Her pre-code Becky Sharp, Lilly of Trouble in Paradise and Gilda of Design for Living, while not full-fledged bitches, are not burdened by any doubt whatsoever. They know who they are, make a play for what they want, are awfully cute doing  it, and, win or lose, move forward. A favorite of Ernst Lubitsch, Miriam was given some very choice roles in the early 1930s.

Post-code Miriam's bitch persona blossomed. And, just in case there was any doubt, she was actually dubbed a bitch by Bette Davis, who famously feuded with Miriam in 2 of her best films.
The Old Maid (1939)
In Miriam's first film with Bette Davis, she scores points for bitchiness as the spiteful Delia who wrecks Charlotte's (Bette Davis) chance for respectability and tries to steal her daughter's love, to boot. All's well that ends well, but the two divas antics off screen became legend. Bette resented Miriam's shameless scene-stealing and Miriam was convinced that Bette had an affair with her husband, Anatole Litvak. While Delia ultimately does the right thing and reunites mother and daughter, Miriam's bitchiness in 95% of the film is the real treat.

Old Acquaintance (1943)
As the jealous, trashy novelist to Bette's refined and elevated (but unsuccessful) author, Miriam is a dream (or nightmare, depending on how you look at it!). Her Millie is a scheming, devious bitch. But, while not quite BFFs, she and Bette eventually reconcile while the claws are just barely concealed. You just want to slap her - and when long-suffering Bette shakes Miss Miriam within an inch of her life - well, you just know how she feels!
Another great later bitch role for Miriam was Julia Hurstwood in 1952's Carrie. As the rejected wife of Olivier's Hurstwood, she refuses him the divorce he so desperately wants in order for him to act out his autumnal passion for the much younger Carrie. But really, why should Julia give up her social status just because her husband was having a mid-life crisis? Sometimes, a bitch has gotta do what a bitch has gotta do!

Warren William

Unlike Miriam Hopkins, Warren William's best blaggard-roles were pre-code. Prior to 1934, William was a rogue, a scoundrel, and an unscrupulous wolf. After the imposition of the code, he lost most of his mojo and became an  honest and, ultimately less interesting, fellow.

An imposing presence who resembled John Barrymore's slightly sinister brother, Warren William sometimes was called upon to play the good guy, but he was oh-so-much more fun as the embodiment of depression-era urban corruption. William's pre-code career is filled with nasty blaggards. Two of his best were The Mouthpiece and Employees Entrance.

The Mouthpiece (1932)
As corrupt city-slicker attorney Vince Day, William is in full blaggard bloom beating the system, living it up, making the innocent pay while the guilty go free. While cheating an equally dishonest man, William's Day is told "You're an unmitigated scoundrel," to which he replies, "Thank you, but I find it much nicer than being just an ordinary one."

As the successful mouthpiece for underworld criminals, Day lives it up with booze and broads.
Alas, the nice girl he is trying his best to seduce rejects him. Why do these scoundrels always fall for the virtuous girls? The story has him going straight (eventually), but he really was much more fun before being stupidly stung by Cupid's arrow.

Employees' Entrance (1933)
William at his blaggard best! As the soulless Kurt Anderson, he is the department store magnate from hell, a shameless seducer of women, abuser of employees and all-around creep. This film is pre-code at its most bitter and cynical. Poor little Loretta Young, down and out in the Great Depression, sleeps with Anderson to get and keep her job. Alice White frankly acknowledges her employment position as one of the horizontal nature - being the company on-call girl for entertainment purposes only. They are a sleazy, breezy bunch, and William is the king of the urban jungle.

After the enforcement of the Production Code, William kept busy, but he was never again quite as thrilling as he was in the heyday of the nasty man. For more information about the wonderful Warren William check out

Coming in March: Gail Patrick and Clifton Webb