Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tragic Star: Ramon Novarro

2015 is the year of the tragic star on A Person in the Dark. May's tragic star is Ramon Novarro.

In 1925, Latin lover Ramon Navarro seemed to have it all. Coming off a starring role in the epic Ben Hur, he was poised to take a place at the top of Hollywood's Mount Olympus of stars. 

But storm clouds gathering inside of him and around him would prevent Novarro from finding true happiness and lasting success. Sadly, the thing now most remembered about Novarro's life is his death.

By the time Ramon Novarro had hit Hollywood, he had already known adversity. Entering the world as Jose Ramon Sanmaniego, Ramon was born to a large and well-to-do family in 1899. His father was a prominent dentist in Durango, Mexico, but the family lost their standing and were forced to flee their home at the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). Young Ramon had 12 siblings and felt responsible for his family for all of his life.

By 1917  Ramon was working as a singing waiter in Hollywood and looking for work in the movies. After some frustrating bit parts that lead nowhere, Ramon was fortunate to catch the eye of director Rex Ingram. As Ramon Novarro, Ingram cast him in an important role, along with Ingram's wife Alice Terry, in Metro's 1923 version of Scaramouche. His leading man good looks and his sensitive and romantic style put him on the road to stardom. Ingram was one of Novarro's greatest supporters in this early phase of his career.

Novarro makes an impression in Scaramouche with Alice Terry (1923)

His stardom was solidified in 1925 with the release of the epic Ben Hur. After a tortuous effort to bring this tale to the screen (begun in 1923, it went through major changes in directors, actors and script) and expending so much time and money on the production, Metro had a hit with Ben Hur and one of the primary reasons was Novarro. Touting him first as a rival to Valentino, Novarro became the Hollywood Latin Lover after Valentino's death in 1926. 
The birth of a star: Novarro in Ben Hur

Novarro stares down Francis X. Bushman in Ben Hur
From 1926 to the dawn to talking pictures, Novarro made a sting of successful films at Metro (later MGM), including the delightful The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), co-staring with Norma Shearer and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. 

Ramon and Norma Shearer at their most charming in The Student Prince
He was the dream lover supreme and the romantic ideal of millions of women. He was also a devout Catholic and gay.

Looking sexy for MGM
Ramon Novarro never would play the studio game. His homosexuality was known to everyone but his fans. Bucking the studio's demands, he refused to be bullied into a sham marriage for the sake of publicity. He was also devoted to his religion, so much so that he had once considered becoming a monk. The conflicts and the secrets and the lies caused the sensitive Ramon great pain, a pain he numbed with alcohol.

As if life hadn't thrown Ramon enough curve balls, the advent of talking films marked the end his brand of romantic hero. His voice was good (he had a fine singing voice), but his luster dimmed when MGM failed to find the right vehicles for him. By the mid-30s he had faded from view. His last important film was opposite Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1931).

Novarro and Garbo in Mata Hari.
His Russian accent was by way of Duango, Mexico
Ramon had managed to provide financial security for himself and his family and  worked sporadically during the next decades in supporting film and television roles in between bouts of alcoholism and multiple DUIs.

On October 30, 1968, the lonely 69 year old former heart throb called an escort service for some male company. Instead of pleasure, he encountered a brutal death at the hand of 2 brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson. The brothers mistakenly thought the actor had money hidden in his home, but after hours of torturing Novarro and finally killing him, they left his home with $20. Both were arrested and served prison terms.

The romantic idol
It was a sad and sensational end for a sensitive man whose search for happiness was always tempered by inner conflicts. An excellent book about Ramon Novarro is "Beyond Paradise" by Andre Soares.

Friday, May 15, 2015

National Classic Movie Day: Can't Get Enough of "Sunset Boulevard"

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon hosted by Rick at the Classic Film and TC Cafe in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon. 

When Rick asked that we write about our favorite film I immediately selected "Sunset Boulevard" and then almost immediately regretted my choice. I have written endlessly about the film, expressing my love for it and mostly having fun with the beyond-fabulous character of the great Norma Desmond.

So, rather than go over all that again, let me just give the top 10 reasons why "Sunset Boulevard" tops them all for me.

1.Norma Desmond

One of the greatest - if not the greatest - film characters of all time. And like all great characters, she is as deep as the ocean. In my ignorant youth I saw her as a cartoon, a pathetic and washed up relic. Now (washed up relic that I am) I view her with compassion. She is 50 and she is viewed as repulsive. But she is not repulsive at all! She is alive, she is vibrant, she is the cougar supreme. She wears leopard whenever possible (even poolside) and has a cigarette holder that looks like it was robbed from Valentino's night table. She is a star and she knows how a star should look and act. She loved her movie career and treats it with reverence. What's not to love?

2. It's a movie about movies

Billy Wilder seems to be poking fun at the silent age, but he can't hide his affection and admiration for it. Those wonderful Paramount gates, the extras and behind-the-camera folks who gather to Norma's side, Jonsey, the security guard; all reaffirm the lingering stardust that was still visible long after the parade had passed.

3. It has my favorite line from a movie: "If you need any help with the coffin, call me."

In a film full of great lines, this is my favorite, I don't know why, but it makes me laugh every time.

4. It has a funeral for a dead monkey

It is not often that you see a funeral for a dead chimp. One thing we never learn: did Norma select pink or red satin for the lining of the coffin? I'm voting for hot pink. Or leopard.

5. Jack Webb asks William Holden if he got his tux from Adolphe Menjou

Not only is Adolphe Menjou referenced, but so are John Gilbert, Mable Normand, Valentino and even Marie Prevost. I'm impressed that Joe Gillis even knows their names (I guess he really did love movies back behind that copy desk in Dayton) and it makes my heart happy to hear their names spoken out loud. Which brings me to....

6. The Waxworks

It is so wonderful to see Buster Keaton looking so adorable, not to mention H.B. Warner and Anna Q. Nilsson. Billy Wilder was genius to include them. I wonder how many people in the theater in 1950 felt the joy (and slight pang) one feels when a long lost friend appears. The movies may talk, but the glamour of the silents had not completed faded for Wilder or the audience.

7. The Isotta Fraschini

"We have a car. Not one of those cheap things made of chromium and spit, but an Isotta Fraschini. Have you ever heard of an Isotta Fraschini? All hand made. It cost me $28,000."

According to Wikipedia: $28,000 would be $384,566 in 2015. The car had a phone in the car and the seats were covered in leopard. This car is on display at the Museo Nazionale dell'Automobile in Italy. Norma Desmond's initials are on the rear doors of the car.

8. William Holden wears a swim suit.

Need I say more?

9. Erich Von Stroheim

The Man You Love to Hate playing a man who used to be director. Talk about blurred lines. I imagine Von Stroheim's office walls were covered in black patent leather, just like Max's. Von's Max is a masterful performance - a slave to love...twisted, mad, movie-mad love. Brilliant.

10. Gloria Swanson

Without Madame there is no film. When Max proclaims Norma as the greatest star of them all, he might as well have been talking about Gloria Swanson. Her storied career, her colorful life on and off camera, her grand manner -  all added depth and truth to her compassionate rendering of Norma. Her performance is towering and utterly fearless and impossible to forget.

I wrote this entry with the assumption that you have seen this film. If not, you owe it to yourself. It is one of the very best.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Katharine Hepburn Style: She Puts Her Pants on One Leg at a Time

This is my entry in the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon  hosted by Click here for more about the Great Kate.  

What is style? Merriam Webster says it is:
* a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed
* a particular form or design of something
* a way of behaving or of doing things

Katharine Hepburn is one of those rare individuals who incorporate all 3. She is organic, unmistakable, unique and wholly organic. The face follows the form, the voice follows the personality and the style follows the philosophy.

a particular way in which something is done, created, or performed

Naturally, this wonder did not spring forth from thin air fully formed. She had a progressive upbringing. The thought that she was somehow “less” because she was a woman was never imparted. To be yourself meant being a rebel.

“Most people are brought up to believe they are as good as the person next to them. I was told I was better.” KH

“If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.” KH

“Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere.” KH

 “We are taught you must blame your father, your sisters, your brothers, the school, the teachers – but never blame yourself. It’s never your fault, But it’s always your fault, because if you wanted to change you’re the one who has got to change.” KH
“Without discipline there’s no life at all” KH

“If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” KH

“If you want to change attitudes, start with a change in behavior.” KH

“Children needs boundaries so they can know how far they have to go to get beyond them” KH

a particular form or design of something

Being young and quite sure she was destined to be special, she set forth for a life upon the stage. She was armed with a carefully constructed and self-conscious bravado that turned all eyes on her.

“Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking.” KH
“When I started out, I didn’t have any desire to be an actress or learn how to act. I just wanted to be famous.” KH
“Acting is a nice childish profession – pretending you’re someone else and, at the same time, selling yourself.” KH
What was Hollywood to do with her?
In a town where beauty is defined as the best of the usual, this unusual woman was a puzzle.
She could be silly

She could be elegant

She could be regal

But she wasn’t Constance Bennett or Carole Lombard of even Jean Harlow.
“The average Hollywood film star’s ambition is to be admired by an American, courted by an Italian, married to an Englishman and have a French boyfriend” KH
Clearly, she was never average at anything.
 a way of behaving or of doing things

But, somehow the world was getting ready for this individual and she became a light of possibility for women, not a shadow of someone’s conception of what a woman should be.

And it is only fitting that this woman should wear the pants.

Unlike Dietrich or Garbo, her pants were not a sexual gender-bending tease. No, this woman wore them because they were a projection of her style – her way of doing things: straight forward, simple, no nonsense, humorous and kind of lovely.

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I've done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” KH

“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” KH

“You can’t change the music of your soul.” KH

“I have loved and been in love. There’s a big difference.” KH

“Dressing up is a bore. At a certain age you decorate yourself to attract the opposite sex, and at a certain age I did that. But I’m past that age.” KH

“I never lose sight of the fact that just being is fun.” KH

Kate, you are now as you were then: a very fresh and sassy and wholly admirable breath of Yankee American air. Ah!!!!!!