Sunday, July 28, 2013

My Favorite Movie Books: My Lunches With Orson

Orson Welles: hmmm.... well, as I read "My Lunches With Orson: Conversations Between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles" I liked him, admired him, didn't like him so much, was charmed by him, felt sorry for him, was awed by him and amused by him.
In real life, Orson had much better table manners

Edited by Peter Biskind, the book is essentially a record of a series of taped 1970s-1980s conversations between filmmaker Jaglom and Welles at Ma Maison. Welles had appeared in Jaglom's  A Safe Place earlier in the 1970s and the 2 men shared an irresistible camaraderie. Jaglom functioned as friend, sometimes agent, cheerleader and shoulder for Welles, who, in his twilight, refused to go quietly. Welles, for his part, supplied the good conversation.

Always the director
Having been brought up to revere Welles as a cinematic genius, it's a little shocking to see this great man in such dire financial straits at the end of his life. While he had many irons in the fire and projects on the drawing board, he could not get proper financing or cooperation for any of them. In his old age, he was a victim of his reputation for walking away from projects before they were finished. But the sly old magician was worth his considerable weight in gold for his insights, wit and occasional honesty.
Welles and Henry Jaglom
The main topic of the lunches (in which Welles always was accompanied by his dog, Kiki) was Welles' current projects of King Lear, The Dreamers and the unreleased The Other Side of the Wind. However, I think most folks will find his keen and often hilarious opinions about Hollywood to be the most entertaining aspect of the book. And if Welles was one thing, it was opinionated!

Here are some favorite observations by Welles.

On David O. Selznick's obsessive compulsion to win:

OW: I was close to David because friends of mine liked him. I used to go to his house on Sunday nights. everybody in Hollywood would be there, and we'd plan "The Game," which was just charades, you know. But Selznick wanted to win. Week after week after week. If our team lost, he would follow us in our cars down the driveway, screaming insults at us for having been such idiots, with his voice echoing through the canyons as we drove away. He would become so violent that it was worth it. I was funny just to watch him. And then he had us back the next week. "Now we're gonna win," you see?
Once Selznick wanted to have a fight with me This was at Walter Wanger's house. After the ladies had left, the gentlemen sat around drinking port. He said how disappointed he was not to have Ronald Colman in Rebecca. Because he had this fellow Olivier. Th"What's wrong with Olivier?" He said, "He's no gentleman." And I said, "David, what kind of shit is this? What are you talking about, 'no gentleman'?" "Well, he just isn't. You can just tell that. But with Ronnie - you know right away - he's a gentleman." And I said, "Why you pious old fart." So David stood up, took off his glasses, and assumed the fighting position. We went out in the backyard, and everybody held us back.
HJ: You were really going to fight?
OW: Oh yes. We used to do that all the time in Hollywood, always stepping out in the garden and fighting. While everyone held you, and nothing ever happened.

On Joan Fontaine in Jane Eyre:

OW: Oh her, Joan Fontaine. No, she's no good in it. She's just a plain old bad actor... Neither she nor her sister Olivia de Havilland could act. I never understood their careers.

A typical maddening observation that can only make you smile:

OW: My idea of art - which I do not propose to be universal - is that it must be affirmative.
HJ: Really?
OW: Life-affirming. I reject everything that is negative. You know, I just don't like Dostoevsky. Tolstoy is my writer. Gogol is my writer. I'm not a Joyce guy, though I see that he's one of the great writers of this century.
HJ: God knows he's not affirmative.
OW: No, and that's why I don't like him.
HJ: But wait a minute, Orson, what are you talking about? This is a stupid conversation. Touch of Evil is not affirmative.
OW: Listen, none of my reactions about art have anything to do with what I do. I'm the exception!

On rejecting Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro as too ethnic to play a presidential candidate for a proposed film.

OW: Oh, you want Dusty Hoffman? "Oy, vey, don't be such a putz, kill 'em."
HJ: You've got a very fifties, fucked-up idea of what looks American.
OW: You're my bleeding heart. I was more left than you'll ever be.

When Jaglom encourages Welles to make nice with the Head of the Cannes Film Festival:

HJ: Speaking of France, Gilles Jacob, who's now the head of the Cannes Film Festival, wants to stop by and say hello to you.
OW: Sucking up to the Cannes Film Festival people, eh?
HJ: I don't have to suck up to him. They love me. Now I just want you to be nice, Orson.
OW: He's a member of the "criminal class." Anyone connected with the Cannes Film Festival is a crook.
HJ: Please, Orson, don't be ridiculous.
OW: Don't worry. I'll be gentle. You have no  idea. I'm a hypocrite. A sellout.

Along the way there are lots of pithy comments about Irving Thalberg, John Barrymore, Carole Lombard, Charlton Heston, Joseph Cotten, The Love Boat, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and more. He has only warm things to say about Rita Hayworth and agonizes daily over the late-in-life success of his mortal enemy and former Mercury Theatre partner, John Houseman. While Welles lost his Paul Mason advertising gig ("we will sell no wine before its time") by publicly stating that he lost weight by omitting wine from his diet, Houseman was riding high with Smith-Barney ads and an Academy Award. He is extremely harsh on Chaplin, but 2 geniuses in the same room must have been 1 too many.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall!
So - can you tell that it is a terrific read? If you love great conversation, especially great conversation about old Hollywood, you will love this book. And, despite or because of all of his flaws, I think you'll like Orson, too.

"My Lunches With Orson: Conversations between Henry Jaglom and Orson Welles," edited by Peter Biskind is published by Henry Holt and Company, who graciously provided a copy for my reading enjoyment.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Barbara Stanwyck in “Christmas in Connecticut”: Just One of Us

This is my contribution to the Barbara Stanwyck blogathon hosted by Aubyn at The Girl With the White Parasol. Click here to see the many tributes laid at the feet of the great Missy.
I don't "do" diapers!
Barbara Stanwyck was the greatest movie actress. Period. Maybe not the greatest film actress, or cinema star (though you could make an argument for her in each case), but when it comes to plain old movies, the medium of the masses, she can’t be beat. Stanwyck is right up there with Davis, Crawford, and Garbo. Like those great screen actresses, her resume of fine performances is held in the highest esteem. Davis, Crawford & Garbo were actresses of great emotion, close-ups and drama. Stanwyck was the perfect middle-range actress. Most people don’t live their lives at the highest pitch offered by the great ladies. We live it in that middle range and that is why Stanwyck seems so real, so “one of us.”

There is another thing about Stanwyck that sets her apart from, and for me, above, those great ladies: she is funny! Davis, on film, didn't have a funny bone in her body, Crawford could do it, but never with a light touch, and Garbo, save for one performance, was simply not interested. But Stanwyck - ah, she was light as a feather, sharp as a tack and packed the subtle punch of a Singapore Sling. 

"Christmas in Connecticut" (1945) is a minor comedy, but it is so charming, and Stanwyck is so endearing that I find it irresistible. Playing Elizabeth Lane, a “bachelor girl” with no domestic talents, she writes a domestic column that presents her as the Martha Stewart of 1945, happily living on her farm in Connecticut with her husband and baby. In reality, she lives the single life in a New York City apartment. This masquerade is only known to her good pal, Felix (the adorable S.Z. Sakall), a gourmet cook who supplies Elizabeth with all of her recipes,  and to co-worker, John Sloan. Things are going so swell for her that she goes out and buys herself a mink coat. I just love that about her. When I got my first really important paycheck I went out and bought a designer handbag. I can relate!
I love this woman!
But trouble is in the wind. Wholesome and wounded sailor boy Jefferson Jones (an earnest Dennis Morgan) just home from the front, longs for a good home cooked meal. A nurse (Joyce Compton) who is sweet on him, thinks Elizabeth Lane’s life would be the just the thing to perk up her sailor, so she gets Alexander Yardley (an engaging and likable(!) Sydney Greenstreet), the publisher of Lane’s magazine, to agree to invite the boy to spend Christmas with Elizabeth in her idyllic home. Yardley thinks this would be great publicity for his magazine. Remember, it was during World War II.
Elizabeth cons her boss. After all, she has to pay for that mink!
Elizabeth is thrown into panic mode, but manages to hatch a plan by accepting a marriage proposal from Dudley, a stuffed shirt friend who just happens to have a farm in Connecticut  Felix is brought along to cook and Elizabeth and John seem to have everyone fooled. They even manage to procure the baby of a maid and pass it off as Elizabeth’s.

Felix teaches Elizabeth to make pancakes
and awakens her inner domestic goddess
Naturally, it all goes to hell once Jefferson Jones shows up. He and Elizabeth fall in love and eventually the truth comes out: she’s not married, she has no baby, she can’t cook and she’s mighty available. Joy to the world.
Aww... they're in love ♥
Cute story and a great cast, but it's no "The Lady Eve." Yet, this is the kind of role that Stanwyck turns into gold. She just is – no fuss, no muss, wearing that New York Ruby Stevens accent like a badge of honor. She is lovely and tender, but she is nobody’s fool. We like this girl. She is real. She is one of us.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden

John Gilbert's ex-wife Leatrice Joy compared him to mercury, but he was never swift enough to outrun his demons. In "John Gilbert: Last of the Silent Film Stars," Eve Golden gives us story of a great star whose fall was legendary.

The story of John Gilbert, in some form or another, has always been with us. Is he Don Lockwood in "Singin' in the Rain"? Is he George Valentin in "The Artist"? Rumors and conspiracy theories have never been laid to rest. Was his romance with Garbo manufactured by MGM? Did MGM sabotage his career? Eve Golden takes on the mercurial "Great Lover" of the silent screen and paints a detailed portrait of a man whose worst enemy was himself.
1923- Gilbert without his signature mustache when
he was known as Jack Gilbert (with Bebe Daniels in "St. Elmo")
Gilbert's story is well-known - or is it? He peppered his own history with many half-truths not, as some actors do to make their pasts prettier, but to make it even uglier. His mother was a stock company actress. They lived an itinerant life, moving from place to place. While his mother may not have won any awards as mother of the year, Golden claims she was not the abusive whore Gilbert claims that she was. Nevertheless, poor John Gilbert grew up with a sense that the world had robbed him of his just due, a feeling that never left him no matter how much fame was heaped upon him.

Gilbert paid his dues, starting as an extra with the Ince Studios in 1915. He served a long apprenticeship before signing with MGM and reaching stardom in 1924 with a string of hits that began with "His Hour," "He Who Gets Slapped," "The Merry Widow," and, most importantly, "The Big Parade."
Gilbert and Mae Murray in "The Merry Widow," a big hit for MGM and Gilbert
The tales of the making of "The Merry Widow" never fail to amuse. Gilbert actually comes off as Mr. Cool compared to the volatile personalities of Mae Murray and director Erich Von Stroheim, but he did have his moments, at one point stalking off the set and claiming to have quit the film.  Mae's account of running naked after him through the MGM parking lot (in only her tiny size 4 slippers) grew over they years. it seems that would have been a memorable sight, but no one but Mae seemed to remember it that way. Well, Mae was never one to let the facts stand in the way of a good story!
Gilbert and frequent co-star Renee Adoree in "The Big Parade"
These films cemented Gilbert's fame, not only as a romantic leading man, but as an actor of substance. He was MGM's biggest star. Yet, he was unhappy with his scripts, the quality of the filming and his treatment by his employer. Worse, he continuously groused to the press, raising the ire of studio boss Louis B. Mayer. He was perceived as an ingrate and Mayer was not entirely wrong. It is amazing to see how perpetually dissatisfied Gilbert was when he had achieved so much. His public moaning is hard to sympathize with and he tweaked the noses of many studio big wigs while he was riding high. This arrogance would come back to haunt him later.
Garbo and Gilbert set the screen on fire in "Flesh and the Devil"
1926 found Gilbert paired with MGM newcomer Greta Garbo in "Flesh and the Devil." He was top billed, but Garbo's star was rising. Their chemistry ignited the screen and spilled over into their private lives, as well. There has always been much speculation about the Garbo-Gilbert romance. Was it real or was it cooked up by the studio? Louise Brooks (who never met a conspiracy she didn't agree with when it came to Hollywood) thought it was manufactured to cover up Garbo's lesbianism, but it seems unlikely that the very private and shy Garbo would have gone along with such a sham. On the other hand, the stories of a planned wedding and the flowery love prose propagated by the purple press (mainly by Adela Rogers St. John), seems not to have been true, either. Instead, Golden gives us a story of 2 people who were in love for a time, one a little more than the other. Garbo and Gilbert made 3 silents together, all tremendous hits for both stars and their studio.
A rare outing for the lovebirds
Throughout the silent era, Gilbert was unstoppable. And then it all came to a crashing halt. He had signed a tremendous contact with MGM (which rankled Mayer) before the advent of sound and suddenly, he became an albatross around the studio's neck. Sound revealed his voice to be adequate, if a little thin and affected, but certainly not the high squeak of legend. However, his film persona, the great lover, became ridiculous overnight. Just as Chaplin knew his Little Tramp could never speak, the great lover needed to be silent. Dialogue like "I love you, I love you, I love you" repeated over and over again made Gilbert a figure of ridicule. One can only wonder what would have happened to Valentino had he lived.

Did MGM sabotage his career? Golden thinks not, but his past behavior made many loathe to help him. Clearly, the studio did not know what to do with John Gilbert once sound took over Hollywood. He belonged to an era of screen gods and goddesses. More down to earth stars like Cagney and Harlow and Gable were making the grade. Plus, Gilbert's salary was so large that it prohibited the studio from giving him a leading lady of real stature in any of his early sound films. After a string of fair to lousy films, he finally parted company with MGM in 1933. It was a bitter parting, as he had burned all bridges and alienated most friends.
Queen Christina: only Garbo's name above the title
But, he didn't stay away long. Garbo, who had survived the transition from silents to sound, requested him for her co-star in "Queen Christina." A young Laurence Olivier had originally been signed for the part of Christina's Spanish lover, but he proved inadequate. In a backward looking gesture to an old love and a glorious time, Garbo requested Gilbert and MGM agreed. The picture was a hit, but did little for Gilbert. He made one more forgettable film for Columbia.

During this period of decline, Gilbert systematically continued to drink himself to death. His marriages to Olivia Burwell, Leatrice Joy, Ina Claire and Virginia Bruce all ended in divorce. At the end, Marlene Dietrich attempted to help him both personally and professionally, but it was too late. At age 38 (in 1936), the bright star of John Gilbert burned and crashed when he died of a heart attack.

Eve Golden's "John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars," is available at Amazon.

Gilbert's daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, has also written a loving tribute to her father, called "Dark Star." It, too, is available at Amazon.

It is my good luck that Turner Classic Movies is running a John Gilbert marathon this Wednesday, July 10th (his birthday). My DVR is set. Please take some time to get to know this important and tragic star.

6:30 AM


A notorious womanizer falls for the woman he has bet he can trick into marriage.
BW-90 mins, TV-PG,

8:15 AM

SHOW, THE (1927)

In this silent film, a sideshow dancer secretly loves the show's amoral barker.
BW-76 mins, TV-14,

9:45 AM


Prejudice keeps a free spirit from the man she loves, triggering a series of tragedies.
BW-91 mins, TV-PG,

11:30 AM


In this silent film, diamond robbers get caught in a violent sandstorm.
BW-62 mins, TV-G,

12:45 PM


A man thought dead returns to find his wife has built a new life.
BW-65 mins, TV-G,

2:00 PM


A devoted sailor jeopardizes his love life for love of the sea.
DirSam Wood Cast:  John Gilbert , Wallace Beery , Jim Tully .
BW-85 mins, TV-G,

3:30 PM


A magician is charged with killing his fiancee's father.
BW-74 mins, TV-PG,

5:00 PM


A millionaire doesn't remember getting married but can't forget how much he hates his new wife.
DirHarry Beaumont Cast:  John Gilbert , El Brendel , Lois Moran .
BW-67 mins, TV-G, CC,

6:30 PM


A bond thief, a private eye and a drunken reporter wreak havoc on an ocean voyage.
BW-85 mins, TV-G, CC,

Gilbert heats it up with newcomer Joan Crawford in 1927's "Twelve Miles Out."