Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Eye's Delight: 10 Favorite Scenes

Why do we love movies?
What secret self does the celluloid embrace and make safe? We all have our favorite films, actors and actresses; the stuff our dreams are made of. And lodged between the opening and closing credits are the unforgettable moments that speak to us as if they have read our hearts and minds and souls.

And so, fellow movie lovers, in the spirit of sharing I lay bare my heart and list 10 of my favorite scenes. Roll 'em!

10. Wuthering Heights - Oh look, Cathy, they're praying.
Olivier looks like a Byronic hero - black hair, alabaster skin and broken heart. My heart broke for him, too.
9. The Producers - Springtime for Hitler.
Mel Brooks - tasteless, vulgar and hilarious. Laughter is the best medicine and Dr. Mel is the head healer!
8. Notorious - Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and oh, that kiss.
Cary Grant is my dream man and, yes, I have mentally bumped Ingrid out of the scene and replaced her with me!
7. Sunset Boulevard - Norma is ready for her close-up.
The great Norma Desmond, the greatest star of them all, has long been my muse (hence the name of the blog). If her love of the make-believe of movies makes her crazy, well... call me nuts.
6. Sherlock, Jr. - Buster enters the movies. Oh, the wonder of Buster. I could have easily filled all 10 slots with moments from Keaton's films, but this one speaks to the dream of cinema that lured our Buster and makes him dear to the hearts of all movie lovers.
5. Singin' in the Rain - Puddles of Joy. My heart swells and it fills me with pure joy. Each and every time. Period.
4. The Apartment - Billy & Jack Forever. Billy Wilder can do no wrong in my book, and neither can Jack Lemmon. He plays this scene beautifully (as does Shirley) and the little catch in his voice when he answers the phone makes me gasp every time.
3. Cinema Paradiso - The Magic of a Kiss. Love movies? Then you, too, are a true romantic.
2. City Lights - From Tramp to Suitor. Although that last scene from "City Lights" is gut-wrenching, this is so seamless, so perfect, and so worthy of the word "genius." In just a few motions, so much changes; in just one moment, so much romance.
1. Hannah and Her Sisters - Woody, a Tumor and the Marx Brothers. Exactly. If the world has the Marx Brothers (or Cary Grant, or Ann Dvorak or James Cagney - you fill in the blank), then this is a world worth living in.
So, there you have 10 of my most favorite scenes. Of course, there are scads more and additional posts may be required. 
And may I ask you to share those movie moments that  make your list of all-time favorites?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Gene Kelly in Marjorie Morningstar: Dig That Heel!

This is my contribution to the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association, honoring the actor, director, choreographer and all around charmer's 100th birthday. To view the other fantastic contributions about all things Gene, click here.
Not the Gene Kelly I first fell in love with
We all know Gene Kelly is one of the very best dancers in the history of musical film, his only serious rival being the incomparable Fred Astaire (you can easily switch their names in this sentence). Who doesn't love Gene in the rain, Gene in Paris or Gene in his Navy whites?

However, the Gene I first fell in love with is a drop dead gorgeous, doomed, womanizing heel by the name of Noel Airman in 1958's "Marjorie Morningstar." Back in the 1960s, local TV stations easily obtained rights to less than classic films. So, as an impressionable and tender tween stuck at home on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was introduced to May-December love with all of the glamour and caution Hollywood could provide. It planted a seed of a romantic vision that never left me.
Based on Herman Wouk's 1955 novel of the same name, "Marjorie Morningstar" tells the tale of nice Jewish girl Marjorie Morgenstern and her desire to live the life of an artist and break free from the conventions of the life her parents planned for her. We first meet Marjorie (played by an endearing, yearning Natalie Wood) as a lovely but restless student at Hunter College. She rejects the perfectly nice boy she is dating because she wants more than the predictable life he offers. You see, Marjorie wants to be an actress.

The restless Marjorie and her trouble-making friend, Marsha (played by Carolyn Jones) spend their summer as counselors at a girl's camp in upstate New York. Egged on by Marsha, the 2 girls sneak across the lake to an adult camp called "Southwind." This was the era of the Jewish Alps and the Borscht Belt, terms for resorts where performers went to learn their craft. There, Marjorie meets Noel Airman, the camp's social director and admitted big fish in the little pond. Marjorie also strikes up a friendship with Airman protege and aspiring playwright Wally Wronkin (Martin Milner), but Marjorie falls madly in love with Noel and he with her. He basks in her adoration and her belief in his genius and he encourages her to transform from Marjorie Morgenstern to Marjorie Morningstar (just as he had changed his name from Ehrman to Airman).
Marjorie and Wally openly adore Noel
And thus begins the undoing of Noel Airman. Marjorie's love makes him take a respectable job in advertising, but the office life is not for him. Cruelly, he cheats on Marjorie and flaunts his fling in her face. Still, Noel and Marjorie manage to patch thing up. When former protege Wally pens a hit play, Airman finally takes the leap into the big pond of Broadway professionals with his show "Princess Jones" and fails miserably. He goes back to Southwind, where he once again can be the object of the young girls' adoration and the big fish in the little pond. Marjorie reluctantly faces the truth and leaves him behind while faithful Wally, who has loved her all along, is waiting for her.
He knew the romance was doomed from the start
So, here we have Gene, the egotistical, womanizing, romantic loser - and I love him! He is every young woman's fantasy older man: gorgeous, charming and not too old. I remember feeling envious of Marjorie. If she had to have a doomed love affair, at least it was with Gene Kelly! I know that "Marjorie Morningstar" hardly registers as a blip on either Kelly's or Wood's resumes, but, being that tender, romantic tween at first viewing, I never forgot it. Gene does do some dancing in the film, but it's just a brief scene or two. Imagine how thrilled I was to later learn how well Gene could really dance! 

There are 3 things in this film that I can never forget.

One was Gene's rendition of "A Very Precious Love." I still know all the words. Sigh...
Another was Natalie's metallic weave black one-piece bathing suit that I coveted for years (and which sold for $6,000 at auction)
And, the last was the discovery that Gene was one great kisser.
All of this goes to show that Gene Kelly plays a great, sexy heel. This isn't news, since his great Broadway hit was as that all-time heel of heels, "Pal Joey." This darkness was also on display in "Les Girls" and "Christmas Holiday." 
Behind the blinding smile was a deep darkness that Kelly, the actor, "tapped" into with great result. He never was light as a feather, even when dancing. Instead, an earthly force seemed always to be pulling at him, making him conflicted, complex, intriguing, and oh-so desirable.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Lina Lamont Fan Club: We Will Not Rest!

Greetings from the Lina Lamont Fan Club!

Yes, loyal fans, we are still here. No matter how hard her enemies try to destroy her legacy, Lina Lamont's fans will not rest until the truth is known and Lina is awarded her proper place in the history of film.

He could too talk!
Just as John Gilbert's legacy was harmed by those who sought to destroy him, Lina's reputation has suffered. For those not familiar with Mr. Gilbert, he was a huge star whose career was destroyed when his enemies made his perfectly adequate voice seem inadequate when talkies changed movies forever. Once the great lover of Greta Garbo, Gilbert made powerful enemies and - poof! -  bad sound, bad scripts, good-bye. Garbo, on the other hand, had scripts tailor-made to her vocal abilities and the best directors, sets, co-stars and costumes. Funny how that happened.

Lina's story is not unlike that of John Gilbert. From 1923 - 1929, Lina Lamont was Monumental Pictures biggest and brightest star. Women copied her and men longer for her. She especially excelled in historical romances and, once paired with Don Lockwood, was one half of a screen duo that rivaled the aforementioned Garbo and Gilbert. During the height of her popularity, Lina received more fan mail than Swanson and graced the covers of more magazines than Bow and Brooks - put together!
Garbo and Gilbert could not compare to Lockwood and Lamont
Naturally, Lina was Monumental's highest paid star. When talking pictures took over, the "masterminds" (as Norma Desmond called them) saw a way to force Lina to take a giant cut in pay. They did virtually nothing to prepare her for talking pictures, giving her only a few lessons with a half-baked vocal coach. MGM not only gave Garbo time to get up to sound speed, but also waited until they found just the right screenplay for her talkie debut ("Anna Christie"). Poor Lina was forced to transition at the snap of a finger from the silent "The Dueling Cavalier" to "The Dancing Cavalier," which showcased the much lower-paid Lockwood's strengths and set the stage for Kathy Selden, the chippie who was sleeping with the star, to claw her way to the top on Lina's back.
Lina had a perfectly lovely speaking voice that
 was manipulated by Monumental Pictures
Lina was also falsely accused of being a "dumb blonde." Lina was a high school graduate with straight "B"s. Her business savvy was legendary. In fact, Mary Pickford was known to admire Lina's negotiating tactics.  But besides being Monumental's highest paid and most glamorous star, Lina also had a keen, inventive mind. Not many people know this, but Lina Lamont was the real inventor of the internet. 
Lina loved to keep current with the likes of gossip columnist Dora Bailey
Others stole the credit, but those who know Lina's keen interest in electronics and gossip know that she was in the forefront of merging technology with up to the minute information. Even today, the 512 x 512 pixel standard test image is known as a "Lena." Coincidence? We think not.

Fans of fashion know Lina as one of the best dressed stars in Hollywood. Whether it be in a period romance, as in this sumptuous costume from "The Royal Rascal,"

or this chic and modern monkey-fur trimmed jacked, Lina knew how to accessorize and always looked better than any star in the room.
So, here's to you, Lina Lamont. Your fans still love you and will never rest until you have been recognized as the ultimate shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.
Lina and whats-his-name
They have rediscovered Louise Brooks. Now it's time for a Lina Lamont revival!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

2 Nights, 2 Talmadge Sisters: 2 Cool 2 B 4 Gotten.

Movies are full of famous real-life siblings: there were the Barrymores, the Gishes, the Fondas, why even the Baldwins, not to mention Olivia and Joan and Shirley and Warren. But never were there two more glamorous and glorious sister movie stars than Norma and Constance Talmadge.
Norma and Constance Talmadge: Never were there such devoted sisters
Norma and Constance Talmadge were Hollywood royalty who reigned during the golden era of the 1920s. Norma's specialty was drama and Connie's was comedy.
Norma and "Dutch" - Happy in the California sunshine
The family franchise also included middle sister Natalie, who is chiefly remembered as Buster Keaton's wife, but Norma and Constance, known as "Dutch" to her friends and family, provided the family star power.
Natalie, Norma and Constance Talmadge
While they are largely forgotten today, Norma Talmadge and Constance Talmadge were much admired and adored. Women copied them, men wanted them and both sexes flocked to their films.

The driving force behind the sisters was mother, Peg Talmadge. Abandoned by the girls' father when they were small, Peg endured the poverty of a single mother in the early 1900s and earned a meager living by doing an assortment of menial jobs, including doing laundry. Peg may not have had marketable skills, but she was a shrewd woman who taught her daughters that poverty was to be avoided at all costs. All three daughters paid attention.

Considered to be the most beautiful Talmadge, Norma entered moving pictures in 1909 at the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn. Between 1909 and 1916 Norma made well over 250 films.
In 1916 Norma married producer Joseph M. Schenck, who guided her career ever after. Together they formed the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation, which featured Norma in a seemingly endless series of immaculately produced hits.
In 1922, Schenck moved production to the west coast, where Norma joined Constance and brother-in-law Keaton, both of who were also under contract to Schenck. Norma's west coast productions were even more elaborate and glamorous and her public continued to adore her.

Nothing lasts forever. Norma and Schenck divorced (she had a flaming affair with Gilbert Roland and later married George Jessel before settling into a happy marriage with Dr. Carvel James). By the time sound films came in, Norma had been around for almost 20 years. She proved to have a more than adequate speaking voice in her few sound films, but the public had grown tired of her and, it seems, Norma had grown tired of them. The story goes that a retired Norma, when approached by still-loyal fans for an autograph, told them "get away dears. I don't need you anymore and you don't need me."

Until just this week, I had never seen Norma act in a film. I knew her name and her face, but not her films. Luckily, Turner Classics decided to show "Kiki"(1926) and I finally got to see Norma in action!
Norma and Ronald Colman: he had a thing for the Talmadge girls!
"Kiki" is actually a very atypical Norma Talmadge film, since it is a comedy (one of the very few she made). Stealing a page from sister Constance's book, she is quite charming and natural. I would say that she was just a tad too mature for the role of a Parisian gamine who worms her way into Ronald Colman's revue and home and then heart (I kept thinking how cute Clara Bow would have been in this role), but she is always sparkling and never tries too hard.
Kiki's "question mark" hat: Mary Pickford wore it in the remake
The supporting cast of Ronald Colman, George K. Arthur and Gertrude Astor all lend charm and smiles to the proceedings, but it is Norma's show and it shows why she was such a tremendous star.

Like a glass of fine French champagne, Constance Talmadge had great sophistication and simply goes to your head.
The youngest of the sisters, Constance followed Norma into the movies at Vitagraph in 1914. In 1916 she achieved great fame as the spirited Mountain Girl in the Babylonian sequence of D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance."
Once in California, Constance found her true talent lay in sophisticated and bubbly comedies, many of them written by Talmadge family friend, Anita Loos. Throughout the 20s, fun-loving Constance was a fan favorite (it seemed she would have been the more compatible spouse for Buster). However, once sound came in, she saw the writing on the wall and quit acting while never making a sound film. She married four times, and like her two sisters, struggled with alcohol dependency. But her wit and wisdom remained solid. While Norma was struggling to find her footing in talkies, sister Dutch advised her, "Leave them while you're looking good and thank God for the trust funds Momma set up."

Her Sister From Paris
There must have been something in the air this week, because before it was over, I had seen both Norma and Constance Talmadge in one of their movies. I was indeed fortunate, because I saw Constance in "Her Sister From Paris" on the big screen with an audience and live music. Oh bliss!
"Her Sister From Paris" is a delightful piece of fun that stars Constance as dull sister Helen and Paris sister, La Perry. Helen's husband (Ronald Colman again loving up a Talmadge girl and George K. Arthur in support) is giving poor Helen a hard time and she thinks he doesn't love her. When twin sister, La Perry, shows up, hubby goes gaga over her, but we know that it is Helen is disguise. As the straight-laced Helen who bobs her hair and learns to let her hair down at the same time and as sophisticated la Perry, Connie is a dream and today, across the many decades, the audience still loved her.

The Talmadge Legacy
While the names of Norma and Constance Talmadge are remembered only by those who care about such things, the Talmadge legacy lives on in southern California.
Talmadge is a neighborhood in San Diego that was named for the Talmadge sisters (each has a street named after her). It was opened in 1927 as Talmadge Park, part of a family real estate development and is still, by the looks of it, a very charming community.

Norma's legacy also lives on right in downtown Hollywood. Legend has it that she accidently stepped in some wet cement in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater and started the trend of the footprints of the famous.
Norma's dainty prints were one of the first the first to grace Grauman's forecourt
By all accounts, Mother Peg was the power behind the throne of the royal sisters and it may be true that Anita Loos based the gold-digging wisdom of her Lorelei Lee on Peg's common-sense approach to life. Her motto was "get rich and get comfortable." All three sisters, though not always happy, were certainly rich and very comfortable long after the film stopped running and the lights came up.
Mother and her three students: Natalie, Norma, Peg and Dutch