Thursday, November 14, 2019

What A Character: The Ever Scandalous Estelle Winwood

This is my contribution to the What a Character! Blogathon hosted by this trio of magnificence, otherwise known as Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled and Paula of Paula's Cinema Club. Check out all three for all character updates.

Estelle Winwood
Hold Me! Touch Me!
Okay, I confess. It was this quote from Louise Brooks that made me want to look into Miss Winwood:

" When I was dancing with Dario at the Persian Room in the Plaza, after the midnight show I would walk down to the Gotham Hotel to visit Tallulah Bankhead. She would declaim Phaedre in lousy French and read the Bible in her lovely Alabama accent while everybody said she stunk and tried to do it better; and in a hooded corner sat Estelle Winwood nursing her latest dose of the clap from one of her little boys." 

Say what? So, I did a little digging and found out a few things about Estelle. First to her career.
Estelle appeared on stage with Bela Lugosi. There were rumors of an affair;
he allegedly broke her ribs with an overly passionate embrace.
Estelle seemed to have that effect on men.
Estelle was primarily a stage actress and prided herself on being such. This proper British young actress, born in 1883,  made her debut at age 20 and eventually made her way to the London stage. She moved to the USA in 1916 and had much success on Broadway. She continued to act in first class productions on both the Broadway and London stages, but the 1930s called for desperate measures, and nothing was more distasteful for this desperate actress during the depression than acting in the movies. But, desperate times do call for desperate measures, so Estelle, at age 50, dipped her dainty toes into movies. While her first film appearance was in 1931's "Night Angel," her scene was cut, so her official film debut was made in 1933 in the "House of Trent," with her first notable role having to wait for 1937's "Quality Street." She is the lady with the scandalous wink:
Estelle stayed away from film during the 1940s, but later found working on television not so awful. She can be found in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a Robert Montgomery Presents, an episode of The Donna Reed Show and even an episode of The Real McCoys.

But, Estelle was lured back to film again in the 1950s, appearing in supporting  roles in "23 Paces to Bakers Street," "The Glass Slipper," "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," "The Misfits," and "Camelot."

Estelle with Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in "The Misfits"

Of course, who could forget her as Hold Me! Touch Me! in Mel Brooks' "The Producers"?
Estelle, predictably, hated the role and the film and said she only did it for the money. 

Estelle also did a memorable stint as Aunt Enchantra on "Bewitched."

But, as memorable a personality as she was on screen, Estelle was an unforgettable character in real life. 

Estelle was married 4 times, her first husband being the renowned theater director and producer, Guthrie McClintic. Her second husband was actor Arthur Chesney, her third a New Zealand rancher and her fourth an actor by the name of Robert Henderson who was 21 years her junior, and of whom she said "I can't remember if I divorced him or not."  Estelle was most famous for her great friendship with Tallulah Bankhead. While a bit more lady-like (at least on the outside), she and Tallulah were great party girls and all around carousers.  She described her first meeting with Tallulah when they met at a party in New York in the 1920s. The host introduced Estelle to Miss Bankhead, who happened to live in the same building:

“Tallulah was so gloriously lovely that I hated her on sight. Later, to my horror, everyone had left the party and the host, who had been flirting with me all evening, had an affair with me. I began to panic and remembered that Tallulah lived in the same building. She let me in and when I explained what had happened she immediately ushered me to the bathroom and loaned me her douche kit and this was the beginning of our enduring friendship.”

She was smart, she smoked, she drank, she loved men and she looked down her veddy English nose at just about everyone. She lived to be 101 and remained feisty, irreverent and utterly charming in her crusty, dismissive and oh-so-British way.

And while we generally know Estelle as a woman of a certain age, she sure was a cutie back in the day, wasn't she?

Please check out more memorable characters!

Monday, October 14, 2019

"The Stars" and 57 Years of Fascination

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) 10 Year Anniversary Blogathon. For more musings on auspicious anniversaries, click HERE.

Anniversaries are important. Our first date, our first kiss, marriages, births, deaths - all landmarks that we mark with a card, a good wish, a present, a fond memory, joy or a prayer. Now, if you're a movie lover like me, I'll bet you remember the first time you fell under the spell of a film or an actor. For me, the film was "The Public Enemy," and the actor was James Cagney. However, there was another important moment; the one where I discovered "The Stars" by Richard Schickel for $3.95 in the bargain bin of the Cherry Hill Book Store and fell in love with those unforgettable faces.

These are the ones that did it:

Jean Harlow. She was kind of awful in "The Public Enemy," but she was positively mesmerizing to me in these photos. That hair! That white satin dress! Those jewels! And so it happened that my first intrigue with classic film stars really began with still portraits. Before cable and DVDs and VCRs you had to wait for classic films to be shown on television (usually in the early morning hours), so it would be many years before I could sample the work of these stars, but the photos were like catnip to me.

A few favorites:

Theda Bara: yikes! I could not stop looking at this one. Who was she? What happened to her?

Barbara Stanwyck: This was Victoria Barkley on TV's "The Big Valley"?? 

Cary Grant: hmmm... even then I was spellbound.

Clark Gable: Gosh he was handsome. And Carole Lombard was pretty cute, too.

Audrey Hepburn: loved her look, loved everything about her then and now.

Marilyn: Sigh. The book was published the year she died. And though I had yet to see her in a film, she was famous. I couldn't stop looking at this photo. Schickel offered this epitaph, a line from W.H. Auden's memorial poem to Yeats: "You were silly like us, but your gift survived it all."

Elizabeth Taylor: Schickel called her the last star, the last star manufactured and supported by a studio system, one created in its dying hours and gone forever.

The book ended with these 2 iconic images:

Chaplin, at the dawn of his career, awaiting a gift from the sea:

James Mason, playing a fading star in the 1954 version of "A Star is Born," walking into the same ocean to commit suicide.

I am guessing I was about 12 or 13 when I purchased this book, so this is probably more like a 54 year anniversary instead of 57 from the book's publication, but an anniversary that I cherish nonetheless. Plus, $3.95 was a mega bargain even then!

And, you guys know the rest. More books (does anyone remember the Cadillac Publish Company Film Series? I had and still have about 12 of them), more late nights with the Late, Late Show and yada, yada, yada..... here we are, hopelessly devoted.

A special note: This blogathon marks the 10 year anniversary of The Classic Movie Blog Association. Many thanks to the vision of its founder, Rick Armstrong, a true gentleman and author of the excellent blog, The Classic Film and TV Cafe. It has been an honor to rub elbows (blog-wise) with so many fine writers. 

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Liliom(1934): A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Hollywood.. or What Happened When 2 Germans and a Frenchman Met in Budapest

This is my contribution to the "Vive La France Blogathon" hosted by the dynamic duo of Christian at Silver Screen Modes and Patty a.k.a The Lady Eve at The Lady Eve's Reel Life. Click here for more cinematic inspiration from the land of the City of Lights and beyond.

Liliom (1934)

Why "Liliom"? This French film takes place in Budapest and was directed by Fritz Lang, who made a stop in France on his way from Germany to America. So, what makes it so French? Mainly, this guy:

Is that you, Charles Boyer?
Mon dieu! Was there ever an actor more French than Charles Boyer? The French typically do not transplant well to Hollywood. Yes, Chevalier was the charming boulevardier and Louis Jordan was quite dreamy in any language, but French mega-stars like Danielle Darrieux, Michele Morgan and Jean Gabin dabbled but headed back home after a few films. Even great directors like Renoir and Clair found the atmosphere in Hollywood inhospitable. But Boyer - boy was he the American's image of a French man. He was smooth, he was sophisticated, he paid attention to the fit of his clothes, his lower lip pouted in that sexy French way and he was slightly untrustworthy where the ladies were concerned. This was the Boyer I was used to:

Hmmm... I know you're a rogue, but you're so suave.....
But this is not the Boyer of "Liliom." In "Liliom" we get the pre-Hollywood stardom Boyer, and he is rougher, shaggier and more dangerous than the impeccably groomed continental into whom he was transformed.

The story of "Liliom" has had several incarnations, the most famous being the basis for the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, "Carousel." Based on Molar's play, it depicts the story of Julie, a chamber maid, and Liliom, a carousel barker, who flirts madly with the ladies to drum up business for the owner of the ride, who happens to be in love with him. The owner's control over Liliom makes his love affair with Julie difficult, but ultimately he decides to leave the carousel and strike out on his own with her. 

Liliom and Julie: love at first carousel ride
Having no particular skill or desire for honest employment, Liliom becomes filled with resentment towards society (shown in his self-fulfilling prophecy of his treatment by the local police) and towards Julie, whose devotion never waivers no matter how badly he treats her. Upon learning of Julie's pregnancy, Liliom allows himself to be dragged into a scheme of robbery and ultimately kills himself rather than be caught and confined to prison. On his deathbed, he confesses his guilt and accepts that he will have to face God for what he has done. Julie is left to raise their unborn child alone. 

We next find Liliom in purgatory, sitting before the magistrate who looks exactly like the police chief he faced on earth. He is given once chance to earn his way to heaven. Bringing something special (a star) to his daughter, he meets her and tells her of the himself, the father she never knew. He tells her the truth of himself, but she refuses to believe he was such a bad man and their confrontation results in Liliom reverting to type and striking her.  The magistrate is unhappy with Liliom, who simply states he can only be himself, and it appears that he is headed for a trip to hell, However, back on earth, when his daughter tells Julie of her meeting with the stranger, she asks if it was possible for someone to strike you and have it feel like a kiss. Julie says yes, and because his daughter, like Julie, felt the love through Liliom's anger, he squeaks his way into heaven.
Purgatory is a lot like earth... unfortunately for Liliom
If you know "Carousel, " you can see (and hear) how heavily it rests on this story. Songs are based on dialogue from the film and Billy Bigelow and Julie, although transported from Budapest to Maine, are exactly like the Julie and Liliom of Budapest.

Speaking of the love story of Julie and Liliom (or Billy), it is a hard one to watch. It's difficult not to be mad at Julie. Liliom beats his wife and treats her terribly, yet she stands by him and offers unconditional and gentle love. Of Course, Liliom knows he's a scoundrel - it's his signature move - but the story is not about Liliom's love for Julie. It is about the gift of Julie's love for the unworthy Liliom and how he squandered it. The cop on Heaven's beat gives him that one last chance and, true to character, he almost blows it. Because he is still the same man he was on earth, Liliom does not know how to show love, but, as we knew from Boyer's sensitive portrayal in those rare quiet moments, he does love. And so he is saved. Barely.

Lang's depiction of purgatory has the look of his German expressionist films. It is eerie, mesmerizing,  romantic, dark and somewhat magical. His view of justice, both on earth and beyond, validates Liliom's view that, for the non-privileged, it is a rigged system.

This cop is everywhere!
It is interesting to see Boyer in his natural French element, before the transformation. His star power is undeniable. Boyer had a few false starts earlier in Hollywood, never seeming to click, but shortly after this film he made one more trip across the Atlantic and made his mark. Poorly received at the time, "Liliom" was viewed as a French/Hungarian/ German mish-mash. Lang, however, always had a soft spot for the film and, seen today, it is impossible not to make those mental comparisons with "Carousel" or to deny that Charles Boyer was one Frenchman who was going to survive the transplant from his native land to Hollywood. An actor of charm, depth and staying power, he became our ideal of the sophisticated, romantic Frenchman, a true Hollywood creation.


Charles Boyer

With Hedy Lamarr in "Algiers."
Can you blame her for coming wiz him to the Casbah?
More than just a leading man, Boyer shared the screen with such imposing leading ladies as Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. From cads to heroes, his range and work remains impressive. I like him more and more each time I see him.

Terrorizing Ingrid Bergman in "Gaslight." 
He was married to the same woman, British actress Pat Patterson, for 44 years. 2 days after her death, Boyer committed suicide, a tragic end, yet somehow befitting our ideal of the romantic Frenchman.

Madeleine Ozeray (Julie)

Ms. Ozeray had a sterling and important career both on the French stage and in French film. Judging by her success in her native country, she was wise to stay put.

Fritz Lang

The master of German expressionism made a number of unforgettable classics in Germany ("M," "Metropolis") before making that one stop in France (to evade the Nazis) and then sailing on to Hollywood where he had a few more classics up his sleeve (Scarlet Street," "The Woman in the Window," "Rancho Notorious" - to name a few).

Franz Waxman

A German Jew who, in 1934, received a beating from Nazi sympathizers in Berlin. "Liliom" was his first original film score before relocating to America, where his great work included the scoring for such films as "Sunset Boulevard," "Rebecca," "The Bride of Frankenstein," "The Philadelphia Story," and "A Place in the Sun." Again - so glad he and Lang stopped in France on the way to Hollywood.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

This Magic Moment: The Apartment

While a film may be 2 hours or more in length, there are those special moments - unforgettable moments - that linger in the heart and mind. These moments can crystallize in a flash all we need to know about a character or their story. They are the poetry of motion or a word or a look that jolts the senses and tells us all we need need to know.

Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and a broken compact mirror from "The Apartment" (1960):

The set-up: C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), the up and coming executive who loans out his apartment to his cheating married boss, is sweet on Fran Kubelik, the company elevator girl. At an office Christmas party, C.C. shows off his new hat to Fran while Fran hands him her compact to check his look.

The moment: Looking into the cracked mirror, C.C. realizes that the girl he adores is the girl who is sleeping with the boss. 

The feeling: I'm heart broken for C.C.'s loss of innocence in his adoration for Miss Kubelik and also for Fran, as she states she likes the broken mirror because it makes her look like she feels.

Brilliance in a moment that tells us all we need to know about these 2 and that we must root for them to the end.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Biff Grimes: Character Crush 'Cause Character Counts

This is my entry in the Reel Infatuation Who's your Character Crush Blogathon hosted by the dynamic duo of Silver Screenings and Front and Frock. Click HERE for more cinematic affairs of the heart.
Oh for a man of character! They are few and far between in this world, aren't they? Thankfully we can escape into the world of movies where a man's word is as good as his heart because that's the kind of hairpin he is.

Father & son: Biff aspires to be a dentist and practices all
he learns from a correspondence course on his willing pop.

Biff Grimes of "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941) isn't your typical hero. Played in an incredibly sympathetic manner by James Cagney, he repeatedly plays second banana to his blowhard friend Hugo (Jack Carson) and is always a step behind his ne'er-do-well father (Alan Hale, Sr.). He has 2 critical weaknesses in his tough turn-of-the-century New York neighborhood: his basic decency and his romantic and chivalrous infatuation with the beautiful Virginia Brush (Rita Hayworth), the strawberry blonde of the title. 

All the boys at the barber shop long for Virginia

Biff is all bluff and bluster (in that charming Cagney way), but underneath he is honest, trusting, and maybe a bit naive (in the beginning). Outmaneuvered on that first double date, Hugo gets the luscious Virginia and Biff is stuck with suffragette wannabe  Amy (Olivia de Havilland). She, too, is all bluff and bluster, leading the shocked Biff to believe that she, a working woman (a nurse), smokes and, with the wink of an eye, might be open to premarital sex. Good girls in the 1890s didn't do or say things like that! As Amy later noted, she was without a date because "free thinkers usually have a lot of time on their hands."

Biff does manage a date with his strawberry blonde, but it is unsuccessful. While Virginia appreciates Biff's respectful ways, the material girl in her is drawn to sharpster Hugo, so much so that she runs off and marries him, leaving the ever hopeful Biff stunned and proposing to Amy as a consolation prize.

Virginia and Hugo: a deserving duo
As fate would have it, the gentle Amy and the trusting Biff were a good team, while the slimy Hugo and gilt-edged Virginia were also a match made in, if not hell, then at least purgatory. At Virginia's urging, Hugo hires Biff as an executive in his company. Virginia seems to enjoy torturing Hugo by keeping Biff around, as Hugo knows he sneaked in when a better man wasn't looking. 

Sitting behind a desk really wasn't Biff's style.
Biff is incredibly cute when he urges Amy to buy a new dress they clearly can't afford because he doesn't want Hugo and Virginia to show him up. But, Hugo, being Hugo, sets Biff up to take the fall for some shady practices  at his company and Biff goes to jail. Not only is Hugo dishonest, but he's also a coward (those 2 qualities usually go together, don't they?).

Biff kisses Amy goodbye before he is hauled off to jail.
It's upon Biff's release (with his dentistry diploma in hand) and his meeting with the patiently waiting Amy that reveals the truth about both characters: Biff has come to realize the depth of his love for Amy and Amy's patience is finally rewarded with the same love and appreciation she has shown all along.

Okay, so maybe I have a little girl-crush on Amy, too.

No pain killers for you, Hugo! We're doing this the manly way!
Fast forward to the present time. Biff is the neighborhood dentist (a dream fulfilled!) who finally gets an opportunity for revenge when, on a Sunday afternoon, he is the only dentist available to treat old nemesis Hugo's aching teeth. He's tempted to pay the lout back with a bit more gas than needed, but ultimately opts for pulling the tooth without any gas at all. Seeing the wedded misery of Hugo and Virginia only confirms what he has already learned: true love counts more than a pretty face. It took Biff a while, but this man of good character valued and loved the life he made with a woman of equally good character. Not only do they, presumably, live happily ever after, but a little Biff or Amy is on the way.

A note on the film: Rita Hayworth and Jack Carson make a dastardly duo, and some of the usual Warner Brothers suspects (George Tobias, Alan Hale Sr., Una O'Connor) are on hand (as well as a pre-Superman George Reeves ready to give Biff another black eye) to lend support, but it is the amazing chemistry between Cagney and de Havilland that gives this film its zest. There weren't many actresses that could hold their own in a great way against Cagney, but de Havilland matches him wink for wink and heartfelt look for look.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Me & Classic Film: Is This the End Of The Affair?

Warning: this conversation is personal

Me: It’s Me, Not You
I never thought we’d be having this conversation. Truly, I took for granted this could never end. You were everything to me. In this world of uncertainty, you were always there, a safe place. In a swirl of change, you remained unchanged. You and me – we had something special that no one person could pollute or corrupt.

Sigh, I guess we should go back to the beginning.

It was these ancient images and personalities, so powerful, which transported me to another world. It was a world of escape. So, yes, maybe at a tender age I needed a place that offered escape, comfort, familiarity, and acceptance. All of personal inner struggles melted when I became enveloped in your arms. You offered release of tears, of joy; you made my heart soar and you soothed the sores of a self a little too sensitive, a little too attuned to life’s slings and arrows, of the self’s fragility and self-doubt and the dreaded low self-esteem.

And suddenly, seemingly just like that, but really many decades later, I don’t need you for those things.

Classic Film: I get that you’ve changed, but may I present my argument?

Me: Of course, I owe you that.

Classic Film: While you may not need me for certain things anymore, there is much more that I can offer – things that have always been there, but you have not sought out.

Me: Tell me more.

Classic Film: Since your heart and psyche seems to be in good shape these days, I would suggest you concentrate on your head.

Me: How so?

Classic Film: I know you love a suspenseful story, yet you rarely venture into Film Noir. You should give it a try. And your exposure to foreign film classics is pretty thin, my dear. Why not watch a few? You might like them. And I know you love to observe fashion and costumes. Why not pay more attention to this? Bottom line: try something new with an open heart and open mind and give me a chance. I’ve been so faithful.

Me: Sigh… you’re making me fall in love with you all over again.You know me so well.

Classic Film: Remember… I’m always here when you need me.