Libeled Lady

 

It’s amusing to think that the most elegant and sophisticated couple in film history met in the back seat of a car. Myrna Loy and William Powell were making Manhattan Melodrama, a movie as formulaic and dull as it sounds, and the director W.S. Van Dyke was in a hurry as usual. “My instructions were to run out of a building, through a crowd, and into a strange car,” Loy wrote 50 years later. “When Woody called, ‘Action,’ I opened the car door, jumped in, and landed smack on William Powell’s lap. He looked up nonchalantly. ‘Miss Loy, I presume?’ I said ‘Mr. Powell?’ And that’s how I met the man who would be my partner in 14 films.”

 

The key word in that anecdote is “nonchalantly.” That was the style Powell and Loy developed in the mid-’30s—cool, dry, and airy despite whatever melodrama, Manhattan or otherwise, happened to be unfolding around them. In fact, the more dramatic the situation (for example, a wife catching her husband with another woman, or someone waving a gun around) the more distant and amused they became. Trapped, like all the other actors of their generation, in clichéd plots and by-the-numbers scenes, they looked at each other skeptically — he with lips pursed, watching to see how she would react; she with narrowed, suspicious eyes as if he had arranged it all in a transparent, failed attempt to please her.

 

Their impact was so strong that their detached superiority itself became a cliché — dozens of actors from Dean Martin to Maggie Smith to Bill Murray have used it over the years to signal cynical disbelief at the movies they’ve been stuck in. What Powell and Loy had that nobody ever quite duplicated was a deep mutual understanding and respect. They were peerlessly adult and worldly (they were never called by their first names, like Fred and Ginger — that “Miss Loy” and “Mr. Powell” is very telling). But they weren’t stuffy about it. They may have treated the plots and characters around them as a private joke, but they locked in on each other with tremendous focus. After their first film, Van Dyke paired them in The Thin Man, which made them a world-famous team and bonded them forever in the public’s mind. But it’s their fifth film, Libeled Lady, in which their romantic chemistry is at its most potent and moving. It’s probably their best movie.

 

One measure of how wonderful Powell and Loy are in Libeled Lady is that they turn the other actors into run-of-the-mill supporting players. When your co-stars are Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy, that’s saying something. Harlow and Tracy play the contrasting couple — the floozy and the tough mug who go toe-to-toe with the two urbane sophisticates. They’re good, but in this case they’re not in Powell and Loy’s class. The movie was made a couple of years after the enforcement of the Production Code, when MGM was trying to fashion a new persona for Harlow. She had become famous playing trollops, poured into skin tight satin gowns, her unworldly platinum hair and hard, angled face shining in the key light. Once the Code was in force, they began to tone her down, and here she has evolved into a fairly standard movie tart: loud and ungrammatical, but with a slightly dinged heart of gold. Harlow gets top billing in Libeled Lady, and she’s capable and likable, but she’s also a bit tiresome as she stomps her feet and launches into yet another tirade.

 

I don’t know what to say about Tracy. Katharine Hepburn once compared him to a potato (she meant it as a compliment), and that’s pretty apt. He’s solid and meaty. He’s there. But he’s not very exciting. There’s a case to be made for Tracy as the most overrated actor of his generation; he’s still considered some sort of giant, but it’s more residual reputation than actual achievement. He never could play comedy, or more accurately, he wasn’t personally funny aside from whatever business or line they gave him. In comedies, he tended to act like an overgrown puppy, putting his head down, looking up with his big brown eyes, shuffling and stumbling, raising his voice to bark at the other actors. In Libeled Lady, he plays a standard ’30s part—the ruthless, manipulative, anything-for-a-story newspaper editor. Cary Grant made the same character charismatic and hilarious in His Girl Friday, but the best Tracy can manage is to be a good sport.

 

Here’s the plot: Loy is the richest girl in the world, who is suing Tracy’s paper for libel over a false story about a romantic entanglement. The suit would ruin the paper, so Tracy hires Powell to seduce Loy and put her in a compromising position; in order to make Loy look like a homewrecker, he convinces his own fiancée Harlow to marry Powell… platonically. It’s a tightly woven farce plot, none of it very original even at the time, but it serves to keep the four stars at cross-purposes so they can bicker and double cross each other. It’s like the ancestor of a sitcom. The director was Jack Conway, an anonymous MGM hack whose chief virtue was that he knew how to keep things moving briskly. Libeled Lady is almost a perfect catalog of ’30s movie comedy situations and devices — people bite each other, elegant gowns are kicked away impatiently, insults are hurled and then topped. As written by Maureen Watkins, the author of Chicago, some of the wisecracks are pretty good — for example when Harlow complains that someone talked to her like a house detective. “How do you know what a house detective sounds like?” Tracy demands and she fires back: “Doncha think I read?”

 

What makes Libeled Lady memorable is the delicacy and heart of Powell and Loy’s playing. At first, of course, they’re adversaries. Hired to make love to her, he begins by trying to ingratiate himself with her on a trip on an ocean liner: isolating himself with her, subtly arranging for physical contact, telling her what beautiful eyes she has. As he comes up with one sleazy strategy after another, she regards him with infinite and increasingly open shades of distaste. Her father (Walter Connolly, the perennial sputtering father of screwball comedy) is an avid fisherman, so Powell works that one, pretending to be a fishing expert. When Connolly excitedly tells Loy that Powell is an angler, she replies that yes, he seems like quite an angler. This leads to an extended scene in which the three go trout fishing in a raging river, and Powell takes a series of pratfalls and spills while trying to appear like a world-class fisherman — he has a very wet instruction book in his creel basket, though he can’t hang onto it for long. One of the great comic sequences of the decade, it led to Howard Hawks making an entire movie around the same premise called Man’s Favorite Sport? (unfortunately, Rock Hudson was no William Powell).

 

Eventually, Powell’s pursuit of Loy leads to them falling genuinely in love, and at that point something wonderful happens. With all the mechanical farce conventions ticking away around them, you expect him to be exposed, and he is. You’re ready for the inevitable confrontation, hurt feelings, and breakup that lasts up through the final explanation and forgiveness, but it never comes. She instantly understands what’s happened, and there are no recriminations…even though he’s still technically married to Harlow. Powell and Loy are too mature, too wise, too grown up for tedious spats. Audiences loved The Thin Man movies, and still do, for their portrait of a witty, companionable marriage full of teasing and wisecracks. Libeled Lady shows the courtship phase of that same relationship, and it’s as satisfying as you always hoped it would be.

 

First published on Edward Copeland on Film.

 

Dodsworth

The Beautiful American

Why isn’t Dodsworth better known, even among film buffs? It premiered in 1936 — a great year for movies — and it was nominated for the best picture Academy Award. Maybe if it had won, as it deserved to, more people would be aware of it. The actual winner, an endless, tedious “musical” biography called The Great Ziegfeld, would almost certainly be forgotten today without the dubious distinction of a best picture Oscar. Dodsworth’s other unrewarded nominations were for actor, screenplay, direction, supporting actress, and sound recording, and it should have won the first three as well. The only Oscar it did receive was for Richard Day’s outstanding art direction, which conjures up a trip across Europe on a series of Los Angeles sound stages, subtly echoing and intensifying the emotional states of the characters in any given scene.

The story is about Sam Dodsworth, an auto tycoon who has just sold the company that bears his name. We first see him as he stands alone in his office looking out over his factory, with a newspaper announcing the sale…and then as he walks through a crowd of employees who offer their thanks and goodbyes. Due to the immense skill of the director William Wyler, we learn a great deal about Sam in these brief, wordless moments. In the first shot, his slightly slumped and motionless posture expresses his regret, and the fact that he has his back to us makes him seem remote and slightly larger than life. His back is still to us in the next scene, but the camera is tracking close behind, so we experience his point of view as the huge group of blue collar auto workers parts slowly and respectfully. We understand that Sam is a good and beloved man, a leader, who is on the cusp of a major life change and full of mixed feelings about it. We like him and identify with him before we’ve even met him.

He’s driven home, taking a last look at the factory receding behind him. At his big, luxurious but cavernously impersonal house, he’s greeted by Fran, his wife. Fran, at least, has no regrets about Sam’s retirement. She tells him that they’re free to start life over from the beginning and she’s eager to go to Europe and leave behind “this half-baked Middle West town.” She’s spent the past 20 years raising their daughter and being a dutiful wife, belonging to dull women’s clubs and keeping up appearances. It’s supposed to be a pep talk for Sam’s sake, but there’s an edge of self pity and resentment in her voice; she brightens up when he calls her on it. She wants to start enjoying life, that’s all, while she still can. After all, she says, “no one takes me for over 32 — 30 even.” And in Europe, a woman such as her is just getting to the age when a man starts taking a serious interest in her. Sam reacts to this ludicrous assertion with a blend of incredulity, awareness and affection, but he doesn’t challenge it. He adores Fran and he’s ready to indulge her and learn more about Europe while he’s at it.

And so the stage is set. You can feel what’s about to happen. The Dodsworths are a happy, devoted couple, but for 20 years that happiness has depended on their roles — he’s had his company and his career, she’s had their daughter and social position. Now, in middle age, the differences are starting to show. He’s open-minded, curious, action oriented, plain spoken and direct, and the giver in their relationship. She’s judgmental, superficial, deeply unhappy with herself and taking it out on others. The movie shows the fissures in their relationship widening sharply and alarmingly, with his patience and affection tested by her deluded and increasingly reckless behavior. She starts out by flirting with gigolos and ends up in full-blown affairs with wildly inappropriate men, subtly and then openly blaming Sam for it all because he’s middle-aged and unsophisticated.

On the surface, Dodsworth is a calm, decorous drama about the troubles of two rich white people, but just below the surface, it’s an emotional horror story. Fran isn’t the monster, exactly. It’s her selfishness that’s the beast — and it does as much damage to her as to Sam. “I’m ashamed deep down inside me,” she tells him after her first shipboard flirtation leads her into deeper waters faster than she’d expected. “I don’t trust myself. I’m afraid of myself.” Ruth Chatterton, who plays Fran, gives these lines a harrowing urgency and truth, as she lets us see the baffled, suffering person beneath the foolish, phony-baloney surface. A serious, somewhat upper-crust and “dignified” actress, she achieved greatness just once, with this performance. Not that it helped. Chatterton was 43, a shade too plump, and fiercely intelligent. Three strikes and you’re out—this was her last appearance in an American film. She didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar, probably because her dead-on portrait of vanity and self-deception made a lot of people in Hollywood very uncomfortable.

Walter Huston, as Sam, did get nominated, and won the New York Film Critics’ award for best actor. He’d played the role on stage and was legendary in it, but there’s no trace of staginess in his film performance. It’s not all that easy to play a virtuous character, and Sam isn’t just virtuous but a wealthy captain of industry without a trace of greed, ruthlessness or ego. Unlikely, to say the least. Huston disarms us and draws us in by showing the eager young boy who still lives inside the 52-year old man. Sam’s enthusiasms are sudden and unguarded, and so is his vulnerability. He’s not a fool — he has a shrewd understanding of other people, and nothing much gets past him. There have been lots of movies about the Ugly American, but Dodsworth is the Beautiful American encountering corrupt, cynical, decadent old Europe. He’s the idealized American of a vanished age, the sort of guy Ronald Reagan was playing when he acted the part of the president: tolerant, wryly humorous, deceptively tough and patient with the failings of others…to a point. Except that Sam actually begins to crack under the unrelenting pressure of his wife’s emotional abuse, and as played beautifully and sensitively by Huston, he goes through some very convincing stages of grief.

The third great actor in Dodsworth is Mary Astor, playing Edith Cortright, whom the Dodsworths meet on the boat to Europe. Divorced and rootless, she lives in Italy because, she says frankly, it’s cheap. Like Fran, she has reasons to be bitter…but unlike her, she has accepted life’s inevitable disappointments and found a way to live with them. She’s open and direct like Sam, and becomes a friend to him as Fran begins to pull away. By the end of the film, the movie is all Astor’s, and you just want to be rid of Chatterton. In her memoirs, she noted that Chatterton was unhappy with her role, and fought with Wyler, because like Fran, she was faced with losing her youth. Interestingly, both actresses turned to writing novels when their acting careers dried up. In contrast to Chatterton, of course, Astor got the chance to prove her immense talent in dozens of movies over four decades, usually as a very complicated woman: Red Dust, The Palm Beach Story, The Great Lie, The Maltese Falcon, Desert Fury, Act of Violence, A Kiss Before Dying, and Return to Peyton Place (no, really) among them. Here, like Huston, she pulls off the difficult task of making decency interesting. She has a wonderful moment when she accidentally catches Fran murmuring sweet nothings with Arnold Iselin (Paul Lukas), a Eurotrash “financier” and ladies’ man. Edith, who really does have the old-world sophistication Fran tries to fake, sizes up the situation immediately. “My dear,” she says softly and gravely, looking Fran in the eyes, “don’t.” Astor gives this single word of girl-talk warning all the impact of a sudden smack in the face.

In real life, Astor was undergoing a personal ordeal during the filming of Dodsworth: her divorce and custody battle were getting ugly and a purported diary full of lurid sexual details was leaked to the press. Years later, she said that playing Edith Cortright saved her — that she drew on Edith’s serenity and groundedness throughout the court case and its screaming headlines (Chatterton sat with her in court for support). Among other things, Astor underwent the humiliating experience of being called to producer Samuel Goldwyn’s office and being grilled about it by all the major studio heads, for whom she was a popular free-lancer. To his credit, Goldwyn kept her on the picture. In fact, the whole movie — a courageous exploration of serious themes without big stars or any other box-office concession — is to his credit. It wasn’t a financial success, but it was an artistic one; in a career full of tripe and misfires, this film and The Best Years of Our Lives are Goldwyn’s monuments.

Dodsworth could have been made today, except for the sad fact that movies this beautifully written, directed and acted are even rarer now than they were then.

My Man Godfrey

Games With Human Beings as Objects

The opening of My Man Godfrey constitutes a little movie in itself — a perfectly balanced mixture of satire, wit, anger, and glamour that may be the greatest single scene in 1930s cinema. It starts with the credits, which are integral to its meaning. We see the Manhattan skyline at night, and to a fanfare the names of the cast and crew light up in neon signs that flash on and off, reflected in the East River below. The camera pans across buildings that slowly become less grand, more industrial, more forgotten and squalid, and finally it comes to rest at the city dump underneath the end of the Queensboro Bridge. The brash music subsides into the first few plaintive notes of the Depression anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” The camera moves in and we see a lonely shanty, a hobo tending a fire, a dog sniffing through the trash. A dump truck backs up and adds more garbage to the pile, a cascade of cans and rubbish that glitter like diamonds in the moonlight. And then we see him. The hobo tending the fire, we discover, is William Powell.

Even today, it’s a bit of a shock to see this actor playing a bum. Powell, the epitome of class, the man about town who wore clothes beautifully, smoked and drank cocktails with peerless elegance, and spoke with impeccable clipped diction. With one twitch of his pencil-line moustache, William Powell could register infinite degrees of skepticism and wry sophistication. And here he is, bearded and shabby, speaking in a low, hushed, defeated tone of voice. He trades a few bitter observations with another bum as a couple of snazzy cars pull up at the edge of the dump. Three well-dressed people rush out: two women and a man. The women are sisters, played by raven-haired Gail Patrick and blonde Carole Lombard. The darker one, Patrick, gets to Powell first. How’d you like to make five dollars? she asks. Powell doesn’t quite get it. Brusquely, she offers the money again and tells him all he has to do for it is go with her to the Waldorf Ritz hotel where she’ll show him off to some people. She’s on a scavenger hunt and her next item is a Forgotten Man — the evocative, accusatory Depression-era term for a homeless person. Do you want the money or don’t you? she snaps at him. That’s enough. He advances on her with barely controlled aggression, his voice quiet but vibrating with resentment. She falls back and lands on her ass, then runs off in fear with her escort. Powell, still furious, strides in the other direction and runs smack into the blonde.

Her name is Irene, she tells him, and that was her sister Cornelia and she’s always wanted to do what he just did — push Cornelia into a pile of ashes. He offers to push her in too, and now she’s the one to decline the offer, but not angrily. She’s a ditz, rattling off disconnected observations and thoughts a mile a minute. The moonlight illuminating her fluffy head of hair and shimmering satin gown, she’s like an angel come to rest on the dump. Powell’s irritation turns to curiosity. Would you mind telling me just what a scavenger hunt is? he asks. She takes a deep breath. “Well, a scavenger hunt is exactly like a treasure hunt, except in a treasure hunt you try to find something you want and in a scavenger hunt you try to find something you don’t want.” Like a Forgotten Man, he says. “That’s right, and the one who wins gets a prize, only there really isn’t any prize, it’s just the honor of winning, because all the money goes to charity, that is if there’s any money left over, but then there never is.”

With this and her other long screwball speeches in this movie, Lombard plays a subtle trick, her voice trailing off at the end as her character becomes vaguely aware that something is wrong. It isn’t that she’s dumb. She’s infantile. She has grown up in a bubble, insulated from the world by her wealth. Ease and luxury have stunted and stupefied her. Confronted with Powell’s steady gaze, her voice begins to wobble and her scattered attention focuses on him, like a baby seeing its parent and calming down. So they sit and talk, the rich girl and the bum becoming interested in each other. It even makes her philosophical. “You know,” she says, “I’ve decided I don’t want to play any more games with human beings as objects. It’s kind of sordid when you think of it, I mean when you think it over.”

This little quip goes by in a flash, but it’s amazing when you think of it. I mean when you think it over. Like the whole scene, it expresses a bristling sense of moral outrage. The Forgotten Men come out of the shadows after Powell threatens to punch Cornelia’s top-hatted escort, asking if he needs any help. They’re a little society, watching out for each other, keeping their dignity despite being literally at the bottom of the heap. In an era and an industry in which conservative values dominated (don’t they always?), here is a full-throated cry of humanism and populism. The movie makes us vaguely, uncomfortably aware that we’re tourists, just like the three rich people. We’re drawn to Powell by his toughness, his intelligence, and his irony, but we’re also a little appalled. He looks like shit. He lives on a garbage heap. How did he get here? And how can he — and we — get out?

The rest of the movie is the answer to those questions, and it’s not an entirely satisfying answer. Lombard takes Powell back to the scavenger hunt, wins the prize, and hires him to be her family’s butler in their Park Avenue mansion. It’s a screwball comedy out of P.G. Wodehouse: the level-headed servant civilizes the house full of wacky rich people, and the boy and girl fall in love. Although the rich are satirized and vilified, and the value of good honest work is celebrated, the movie can’t sustain the brilliance of its beginning. It’s well acted by a team of expert farceurs including Eugene Pallette, Alice Brady, and Mischa Auer. It looks great, with its sleek art deco sets and sparkling cinematography by Ted Tetzlaff. And it sounds great, with its flow of wisecracks by Marx Brothers writer Morrie Ryskind, but in the attempt to create a box-office romance, something goes awry with the plot. We learn that Godfrey, Powell’s character, is actually from a wealthy family himself, but a broken love affair left him devastated and he fell into poverty and homelessness because he didn’t care what happened.

This is a major letdown — we’re supposed to be soothed by this reassurance that Powell is “respectable,” but in fact we were much more on his side when he was a bitter bum of ambiguous origins. The romance between Godfrey and Irene works only because Powell and Lombard, real life ex-spouses and good friends, have genuine chemistry. Unlike most comedies of its era, in this movie the man is much smarter than the woman, and just like in real life, that’s not very romantic or particularly funny. On Park Avenue, the movie is pleasant and enjoyably proficient, but back on the city dump it was, briefly, extraordinary.

Joan Crawford: If You Want to See the Girl Next Door… Go Next Door

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More than anything else, it was a book that turned me into a movie buff: David Shipman’s The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. This was the first comprehensive set of star biographies, and in those pre-video days of the early ’70s, it told tantalizing tales of films I had no hope of seeing unless they turned up on the late show. Shipman wrote marvelously about many actors and actresses, but maybe too well — his opinions had a way of soaking in. The actors he cared about (Judy Garland, Buster Keaton, Greta Garbo, Deanna Durbin) got love letters, while those he didn’t were pretty much excoriated.

Joan Crawford was one of the latter. The entry on Crawford starts with a putdown by Humphrey Bogart, and Shipman goes on to call her “not much of an actress…as tough as old boots” and to conclude that “she achieved little…her repertory of gestures and expressions was severely limited…(her shoulders) were always so much more eloquent than her face.” And that’s just the introduction. His survey of her career is peppered with words like “artificial,” “heavy,” “monotonous” and “hysterical.” So even before I’d seen most of her work, I was a bit prejudiced against Crawford.

When I finally did, she made it hard to disagree. Her appearance, for one thing. Increasingly through her career, she covered her face in grotesque Kabuki makeup — huge outsized lips, big Groucho eyebrows, piles of dead-looking hair. Her body language was stiff and somewhat mannish, and she did throw her shoulders around a lot. She was especially fond of squaring them off when confronting some hapless male — often a weakling such as Van Heflin, Zachary Scott or Wendell Corey. Although, to be fair, she made most men look weak, even big macho guys such as Jeff Chandler, Jack Palance or Sterling Hayden. When she turned her huge, furious, reproachful eyes on them, they all seemed to shrivel. So did I. If a movie star is someone you idly daydream about making out with, Miss Crawford did not do it for me.

Maybe I just needed to grow up, because sometime in my 40s, I started to change my mind. By then I’d seen some of her best work: Possessed, Grand Hotel, The Women, Strange Cargo, Mildred Pierce. Of course, in these movies she had vivid co-stars and wasn’t the whole show; I still didn’t think she was a very good actress, or even particularly attractive. What finally turned me around was Humoresque. It’s a big, thundering ’40s soap opera about a struggling young violin prodigy from the New York ghetto (John Garfield) who is taken up socially, artistically and sexually by a rich older married woman. This role is a field day for Crawford, who gets to fling diamond-hard insults (written by Clifford Odets), ride a horse passionately, have an orgasm during a violin concerto, smash martini glasses against the paneling of swanky bars, and walk into the surf in full evening wear. Ridiculous. And yet she’s gorgeous to look at and completely persuasive as an actor. At every moment, she makes you aware that this is a woman who doesn’t like herself, whose loveless marriage for money has left her bitter and empty. Her awakening from cynicism into love, and her desperate awareness that it’s come too late to help her, is finally quite heartbreaking.

She was a hard woman, no doubt about it. She had a terrible childhood — abandoned by her father, carted around the slums of El Paso by her impoverished mother, learning much too early that men were a meal ticket and what the price of that ticket was. She was rumored to have made a stag film, to have been a stripper and a hooker. When she arrived in Hollywood in her early 20s, one observer remembered her as “an obvious strumpet.” Show people can be terrible snobs and the unconcealed disdain of her colleagues must have marked her deeply. Her whole life seems to have been an effort to scour off the dirt of West Texas and make a lady of herself. More than most performers, she kept reinventing herself and assuming new identities. Born Lucille LeSueur, she became Billie Cassin and then Joan Arden before the studio ran a contest to come up with Joan Crawford. She often spoke of how the movie industry educated her about virtually everything. When you watch her, you can feel the untold hours of effort she has put into her appearance, her diction, and her carriage, to covering up her dark, freckled skin. Much of her falseness comes from this fierce determination to be someone else — someone better.

But it’s also where her power comes from. For example, in Strange Cargo, she plays a prostitute in everything but name (the Production Code was in full force). Although she was at the height of her stardom, and working with Clark Gable in his first movie after Gone With the Wind, she gives absolutely no quarter. Her wardrobe consists of three print dresses that reportedly cost a total of $40 (and she looks fantastic in them). Whatever her own experiences, she makes a mighty convincing whore — cold and hardened on the surface, bitter and hurt underneath, and deeply wounded and desperate at the core. She has a great moment where she tries to pretty herself up a little bit after days of crawling through the jungle, and Gable mocks her in the cruelest and most disrespectful way. She maintains her toughness with him, but as Frank Borzage’s camera moves slowly in on her, she lets you see the immensity of her shame and self-loathing. She handles the character’s transformation into a sweet and hopeful woman very subtly and convincingly as well. At no point does she signal that she’s a big star, or a lady pretending. She doesn’t ask for sympathy — she earns it.

Crawford didn’t act in many comedies, and when she did she was often completely humorless (They All Kissed the Bride, a misogynistic screwball farce intended for Carole Lombard, is Exhibit A). She did have a sense of humor, but it was too black and caustic to work in the frothy nonsense of her era. However, just once she was awesomely funny: in The Women, playing a comic version of her own tough persona. She plays Crystal Allen (a wonderful name for a hard, glittering woman). In her first scene, she’s on the phone with her married lover, who is trying to cancel his date with her to be with his family. On the phone, she’s a parody of a sweet innocent young thing. But fending off the interjections and insults of her disbelieving co-workers, she’s matter-of-factly rapacious and cynical. When she finally gets him to cancel on his wife and come to her place instead, she does a silent little shoulder-shaking fist pump of victory… the kind of moment that makes you fall in love with a performer. “How do you like that guy?” she snaps, and then spitting out the last word: “He wanted to stand me up for his wife!”

Let’s also take a moment to consider her fine work in Grand Hotel, the first all-star film. She shares much of her screen time with John and Lionel Barrymore, acting royalty of the time, and she’s pretty much their equal. It’s not saying much in Lionel’s case, I know, but she’s great with him. He has a banal role: a meek desk clerk who’s dying and on a last spree, and as usual he overdoes it and acts all over the place. Crawford’s secretary is at first professionally kind and slightly amused, later genuinely interested and concerned, and finally loving and protective. They have the only happy ending in the movie, and again, she earns it. In the meantime, with John Barrymore she’s poised, if a bit self-conscious… until they too make a connection based on mutual disenchantment. She also has a terrific scene with Wallace Beery in which she tacitly agrees to be his mistress and subtly masks her visceral disgust with a brilliant smile. Great stuff. Greta Garbo is the other star of the film, playing a prima ballerina with grotesque theatricality (she’s prima, all right), leaving Crawford the clear winner among the five of them.

And, of course, there’s Mildred Pierce, her famous Academy Award-winning role. Earlier this year, in HBO’s epic miniseries, Kate Winslet played Mildred exactly as written by James M. Cain — a mixture of likable and dislikable qualities. Mildred is plucky, determined, indomitable and cunning but also naïve, clueless, misguided and weak. This is not the woman Joan Crawford played. Her Mildred may be determined, but she has only the noblest intentions. The drama of the movie is the series of betrayals and humiliations Mildred undergoes at the hands of virtually everyone she trusts. Many commentators over the years have pointed out the obvious irony of Crawford, the abusive mom-from-hell of Christina Crawford’s Mommie Dearest, winning an Oscar for playing an over-indulgent mother whose only sin is loving and spoiling her daughter to excess. But clearly it was more complicated than that — Joan and Christina’s relationship seems to have been a pitched battle of wills that extended beyond the grave. Something many of us can relate to, in fact.

But Joan Crawford didn’t want complexity. Life, as she knew better than most, is a messy, dirty, terrifying business. Her response was to envision something better, and go after it with laser-like intensity. In 1931’s Possessed (the first of two movies she made with this title), she plays a poor girl in a working class town who can’t reconcile herself to marriage to a cloddish boyfriend and a life of drudgery. One evening, a train pulls into town. She stands there in her cheap dress, looking at the train windows as they pass slowly by, revealing a series of elegant tableaux: rich passengers dressing up, dancing, drinking cocktails, being attended to by servants. Her longing is palpable. She’s still years away from becoming the implacable survivor staring down the world. She’s young and full of hope, and you’re with her all the way when the next scenes show her penniless but ready for anything in New York, having decisively left her squalid life behind her.

Of course, we don’t leave ourselves or our demons behind when we try to move onward and upward — that’s only in the movies. Shipman’s book includes a famous put-down of Crawford’s unnuanced acting by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote screenplays for her during the ’30s. He missed the larger truth about her, the larger performance that her life was all about. He’d have recognized her if he’d looked more deeply, because in her unwavering faith that poise, money, and class can erase all the compromises necessary to achieve them, Joan Crawford was as quintessentially American as Jay Gatsby.

Show Boat

The landmark musicals of theater history haven’t fared very well on film. Usually, they’ve had their scores trashed (such as Lady in the Dark and Pal Joey), suffered from big-movie-star miscasting (such as Guys and Dolls, Gypsy and Chicago) or been presented intact but with such fussy over-fidelity that they’re dead on the screen (such as South Pacific and My Fair Lady).

So it’s something of a miracle that the first great musical, maybe the greatest stage musical of all — Show Boat, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein — reached movie theaters with its beautiful score intact, with the best and most legendary cast members playing their original roles, and filmed with cinematic intelligence by a great director. And most miraculously of all, the movie Show Boat came from the cheapest, blandest and most mediocre studio in Hollywood history — Universal Pictures.

Universal had tried before in 1929. They had bought the film rights to Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel, which had been a big best seller, and were filming a silent version when lightning struck twice. First, Ferber sold the stage rights to Florenz Ziegfeld and the resulting musical became Broadway’s biggest hit and a groundbreaking leap forward in terms of seriousness of story and theme. Second, the movies were swept by the craze for talking pictures. So here was Universal, having just finished making a silent version of a book for a public that wanted to see a famous musical. The solution was to add a talking prologue, with songs performed by a few original cast members, like a variety show, and shoehorn a couple of songs by other composers into the movie randomly. Though it was a financial success, the result was widely regarded as a hodgepodge and an artistic failure, as it is today.

I’d be hard pressed to think of another time in the history of movies that something like this happened, but Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, decided to try again and do it right. Only seven years after the first film, he hired Oscar Hammerstein, who had written Show Boat’s libretto, to write a screenplay with story and songs true to the original. The score was largely retained; a couple of fine new Hammerstein/Kern songs were added (in fact the two went on adding and subtracting songs to Show Boat into the 1940s). Paul Robeson and Helen Morgan were signed to repeat their stage performances, which was very brave of the studio — Robeson was a pariah due to his left wing politics and refusal to kowtow to anyone; Morgan was on a career slide due to alcoholism, and Hollywood had long since washed its hands of her. The decision to include them shows how serious Laemmle was about rectifying his earlier error. And so Show Boat offers the opportunity to see two of the most legendary performances in the history of American musical theater in one film.

Laemmle also put his best director on the project. James Whale is famous for a quartet of Universal monster movies (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man), so much so that horror has taken over his resume. But what makes his horror films among the best, if not the best, is the kinetic aliveness of his direction (which sometimes meant that his shots don’t match; the film’s only flaw is that it’s choppy in places). Show Boat could have been a static record of a famous stage production, but in Whale’s hands, it’s a movie. There’s so much going on in every frame that it almost feels like 3-D, and you’re always aware of the characters watching each other and reacting to each other. When Helen Morgan sings her great torch song “Bill,” with its famous lyric by P.G. Wodehouse, chorus girls, janitors and washerwomen slowly stop their work and gather at the edges of the room; one discreetly wipes away a tear with her apron. When Paul Robeson sits on a dock and sings “Ol’ Man River,” maybe the most famous performance of the most famous song in theater history, Whale’s camera circles him ecstatically, finally ending on a sustained closeup that you hope will never end. Sadly, it does: someone foolishly intercut scenes of Robeson acting out the lyric (toting barges, lifting bales, getting a little drunk and landing in jail). But then we go back to Robeson singing, and it’s one of the most beautiful, stirring sights anyone ever saw.

The leads are great as well. It can’t be the easiest thing in the world to play Magnolia Hawkes and Gaylord Ravenal, Southern belle and riverboat gambler, and not look just a little bit ridiculous. And singing, yet. I’m not a big fan of operetta, with its stilted and formal performance style, but Irene Dunne and Allan Jones are the two best performers who ever attempted it. Dunne is particularly skillful, convincingly aging from innocent late teens to worldly wise 50s (she was about 38) without hitting a single false note. She does a crazy, eye-rolling shuffle to “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and performs “Gallivantin’ Around” in blackface, and manages to keep her dignity as an actress and keep you focused on Magnolia, not on Irene Dunne. And it must be said that she never looked more girlish or more radiantly beautiful than in this film.

If Jones is remembered at all today, it’s as the only bearable male lead in the Marx Brothers’ film career (in A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races). In Show Boat, he has a tricky role, as a riverboat dandy who’s dashing and charming but also weak and irresponsible. He’s a gambler who loses spectacularly, and losing doesn’t bring out the best in him. He’s much softer than Magnolia, who turns out to be the strong and resilient one. Late in the movie, he takes a menial position just to be around his grown daughter, who doesn’t know him. You accept this melodramatic, masochistic turn of events largely because of the gentleness and simplicity Jones brings to it. His daughter is his legacy; she’s all he has. He makes you understand that Ravenal is a sensitive man who doesn’t like himself very much and clings to a dignity he doesn’t really feel; it’s a terrific, subtle performance.

But everybody in Show Boat is great. As Magnolia’s parents Captain Andy and Parthenia, Charles Winninger and Helen Westley bring out all the comedy and pathos in their parts without overdoing it. Not easy: in the MGM remake from 1951, it’s hard to even look at Joe E. Brown and Agnes Moorehead thrashing around in the same roles. Winninger is particularly outstanding in a scene near the end where he saves his daughter’s singing career by coaching her from the footlights, and his emotion is so full that he can only express it by leading the entire audience in a sing-along reprise. All through the movie, song is a vehicle for emotion rather than an excuse to wow you with a big production number. “Make Believe,” the gorgeous love song that brings Magnolia and Ravenal together, also is a brilliant foreshadowing of their self-delusion and ultimate missed connection.

Maybe the most remarkable thing about Show Boat is the relationships between the black and white characters. In no other ’30s movie, and maybe no other movie before the 1970s, do blacks and whites mingle so freely and with so much ease. Though the movie shows you a world in which African Americans are subservient, poor and ignorant, it’s not trafficking in stereotypes or endorsing prejudice. Far from it. The most sympathetic character is Julie (Morgan), who has mixed blood and loses her job and her husband after being hounded by the law. The movie, like the show, is suffused with the idea that racism is evil, ugly, and ruinous. The characters, living in the post-Civil War South, can’t change the world around them but nonetheless treat each other like human beings. When Irene Dunne does her shuffle and her blackface number, it isn’t condescending — Magnolia has been brought up and nurtured by African Americans; she’s one of them.

Quite a progressive movie for 1936, and for a minor studio in some financial trouble. Laemmle had a lot riding on Show Boat. Like Ravenal, he was a gambler. And he lost: the movie was a hit, but due to the time and care he’d invested, it was so expensive that it failed to turn a profit. As a result, the receivers moved in and he was ousted from the studio he had founded. But again, like Ravenal, he left quite a legacy. Show Boat is many things… an irreplaceable record of a key moment in theatrical history, a high point in classical Hollywood filmmaking, a moving bit of make believe, and an eloquent understated plea for tolerance and decency. And for all its antiquated technique and performing style, maybe the finest movie musical ever made.

The Lady Eve

She takes a bite from an apple, then wonders aloud what would happen if she “clunked him on the head with it” … just before dropping it on him from a three-story height. She sticks out her foot to trip him, and when he gets back up, berates him for damaging her shoe. She cozies up to him so her crooked associates can cheat him at cards. She calls him by a babyish nickname he loathes. She blatantly cock teases him, and when he’s bashfully choking on his own desire, tells him “you should be kept on a leash!” Later, she has him tripping over himself without any help, as he takes a series of embarrassing stumbles in front of his entire family. Finally, she marries him, and then on the honeymoon coldly and ritually humiliates him sexually. Mustering up the tatters of his shredded self respect, he leaves…and takes his final inexorable fall into a huge oozing pit of mud.

It’s a love story.

It’s also a romantic comedy, maybe the greatest. The Lady Eve, written and directed by Preston Sturges at the peak of his powers in 1941, is not a boy-meets-girl story. It’s a Paradise Lost story, only in this case “paradise” is living in a comfortable, smug world of ignorance and illusion. A woman introduces sin into a backward young man’s life, he responds by being hurtful and unforgiving, and she makes him pay the price for his narrow-minded weakness by reappearing in a new incarnation and making him fall in love with her all over again. Despite the dazzling wit and slapstick comedy, it’s a fundamentally serious movie, starring two fundamentally serious actors — Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda.

Stars of the classic era were expected to be able to do everything, but Stanwyck and Fonda made few comedies in their long careers, and most of the others are dismal. She usually played tough lower-class women fighting for respect, and he’s remembered as a prototypical mid-century liberal hero: quiet, slow to anger, judicious, and upright. Their skill at drama gives The Lady Eve an unusual undertone of seriousness — when they wound each other, you really feel it. In most classic movies about the battle of the sexes, especially movies of the 1940s, the woman has to be tamed, subjugated, put in her place. In this movie, the man has to be stripped of his immaturity, insensitivity, and self righteousness — his unconscious belief that the woman is an extension of his own vanity. What’s remarkable is how exhilarating it is to watch that happen.

Some of it is Fonda. With his open face, drawling Midwestern speech, and lanky physical coltishness, he’s basically asking for it. There’s something vaguely infuriating about Henry Fonda; maybe it’s all that goodness. In the late ’60s, he finally played a villain, in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and it’s revelatory to see cold menace finally glaring from those blue eyes — the meanness that seemed to be there all along, buried beneath his sanctimonious blandness. In The Lady Eve, the repeated humiliations he undergoes aren’t just funny, they feel almost liberating. The air of the film is charged by the excitement of watching her slap him around. “I need him,” she murmurs at one point, staring off in the distance, “like the axe needs the turkey.”

Sturges created the script for Stanwyck, after her remarkable performance in Remember the Night, a movie he wrote (but didn’t direct) the previous year. In Remember the Night, she plays a hardened shoplifter who gradually rediscovers her own humanity and goodness during a Christmas holiday in the heartland. It sounds terrible, but it’s beautifully written and Stanwyck makes the character’s evolution utterly convincing and deeply touching. She makes you feel how precarious vulnerability is, and how much strength it takes to maintain it. In The Lady Eve, the same dynamic is at work, but the balance is shifted. We feel the tenderness, shame, and hurt feelings underneath her tough exterior. She’s a grown up: she shows how idealism and cynicism can reside in the same heart in an uneasy truce. She has a wonderful little riff about her ideal man — a little short guy, a practical ideal you can find in any barber shop — that would be typical screwball-comedy dizzy-dame chatter if it weren’t for the genuine world-weariness Stanwyck and Sturges convey beneath their bright remarks.

Maybe the greatest joy of Preston Sturges is his unique, but very accurate, vision of America as a nation full of wiseasses. In his movies, the leads don’t get all the jokes; every character has something snarky to say. In The Palm Beach Story, he gives the best line in the script to a Pullman porter (“Gentleman tipped me a dime all the way from Jacksonville to Palm Beach — she’s alone but she don’t know it.”). He loved his actors, but his sin as a director was his weakness for letting them amp up the comedy with too much shouting, running around and arm-flapping. That wild energy becomes a muted, urgent subtext in The Lady Eve. Because Stanwyck, her father and his gang are criminals moving among the rich in their world of steamships and country houses, their acerbic comments are subtle signals to each other (and us) that they’re the most trustworthy people on the screen, because they’re the most experienced, and the smartest. Watching Stanwyck take Fonda for a ride and give him the shellacking he deserves, we get to share in and enjoy that smartness.

Even their tenderest love scenes contrast her hard-earned wisdom with his obtuseness: “I don’t deserve you,” he says at one point (most of his remarks are just about that fatuous), and she reveals a world of complicated self-awareness as she answers ardently “oh, but you do… if anybody ever deserved me, you do… so richly.” Most romantic comedies come down to this: will they/won’t they, and when? The Lady Eve asks more timeless questions. Will he finally see her as more than a mere appendage? Will she wise him up and make a man of him? Can love survive the loss of innocence?

One Way Passage / Two Seconds

Daydream and Nightmare

Think these are hard times? Try 1932.

It was the worst year of the Great Depression. The economy had already been in free-fall for three years. The latest in a series of oblivious and inept Republican presidents had helped further deregulate markets, which had then spun out of control. Since the crash, Herbert Hoover had been preaching the standard Republican doctrine: self reliance and charitable giving. The tent cities that sprang up all over America to house the legions of newly homeless were named in his honor: Hoovervilles. In June of 1932, when veterans of the previous World War marched on Washington demanding payment of their bonuses, Hoover’s Administration met them with tear gas and bayonets. By the end of the year, 40% of U.S. banks had failed. Drought decimated the Midwest, turning farmland into the “Dust Bowl,” and food was scarce. Some farmers burned their crops for heat, as the coldest winter in history — and a mood of real despair — settled over the country.

Only one thing got better in 1932, and that was the movies. The coming of sound five years earlier had brought a number of technical problems, but these had finally been ironed out. There’s an enormous difference between movies made in 1931 and 1932. The former are static and stiff, with performers who stand and declaim their mostly gawdawful dialogue to the back of the theater. But the movies of 1932 began to move again, with the camera venturing outdoors, the film stock brighter and more textured, and the performers lighter on their feet and acting for the camera instead of imitating stage technique. Movie attendance was down, and so the studios took advantage of the unenforced censorship Code of the time and lured patrons back with sex and violence, to a degree that’s still startling today. And with the economy so bad and life so hard, the movies began to reflect the tough, cynical outlook that was in the air.

Among a bunch of terrific pictures made in 1932, two especially stand out. The first, One Way Passage, is a perfect little daydream of a movie, with the absurd gallantry of the characters nicely set off by the crude pre-Code realism of the settings and details. The other, Two Seconds, is pure Depression-era nightmare.

One Way Passage begins in a Singapore gin joint. To an American audience in its 12th year of Prohibition, the daydream had already begun right there. A bartender is talking to an unseen customer while making a Paradise Cocktail and lovingly describing each step. By the time he makes a flourish out of twisting a lemon rind over the top, you want it as badly as the customer. He turns out to be exactly the actor you’d expect to see at a bar in the 30s — William Powell. The epitome of suavity and sophistication, and that rarest of things: a grown up. He holds the glass out to savor the cocktail and leans in for his first sip, only to be jostled from behind and have most of it slosh out. Turning to curse out the jostler, he finds that it’s a beautiful girl. She’s Kay Francis, an ineffable, strange actress known mostly for being a clotheshorse and for her inability to pronounce the letters R and L. It’s love at first sight, maybe helped by the fact that this was Francis and Powell’s fifth movie together. She smiles brightly and then sees what she’s done.

“Always the most pwecious, the wast dwops,” she comments breathlessly. It’s not just positive thinking. She is, you see, dying of an unnamed but incurable disease. Her doctor has ordered complete rest, but she’s determined to live life to the fullest before she goes. What she doesn’t know, but we soon find out, is that Powell is doomed also. He’s a convicted killer who was sentenced to death in the States and has (as they said back then) taken it on the lam. He can’t stay and chat up Francis, so they drink to their mutual health and then break their glasses on the edge of the bar and lay the stems over each other in honor of their brief meeting. Powell hustles out of the bar, but not fast enough. He’s immediately arrested. A San Francisco cop has been hot on his trail, and plans to take him back to face his fate in the electric chair. His consolation is that he and Francis are on the same boat.

And so romance blossoms, with each aware that doom is around the corner, but neither telling the other. The very real doom that threatened the audience in 1932 is refracted and stylized, but still hangs over the movie and gives it a bitter edge. And the silly old-movie tropes, like the love theme that plays each time Powell and Francis meet, and their ritual of breaking their glasses, pay off beautifully in the final scene. Like the first scene, it’s set at a bar—the movie comes full circle. It’s ridiculous and yet it’s powerfully, hauntingly romantic. You laugh at yourself, but you choke up anyway.

In fact the whole movie is corny as hell, yet it never comes off that way. The actors defuse the sentimentality of the material by underplaying it and playing against it. This includes the supporting cast. Warren Hymer and Frank McHugh, usually quite unendurable little toads, have the good luck to share their scenes with the serenely grounded and generous Aline MacMahon, whose sure touch turns them both into princes. The three of them play, respectively, the arresting cop, a drunken thief, and a phony countess who get involved with the lovers and turn out to be their guardian angels. What’s so wonderful about One Way Passage is the balance between the frankly silly fairy-tale plot and the toughness of the characters. Life has battered these people, and their futures are grim. They respond, ultimately, with integrity and generosity. It’s a beautiful vision of Americans: back them against the wall, and they reveal their best selves.

Or… not. In Two Seconds, the hardship of the Depression doesn’t bring out the nobility of the characters. It brings out fear, greed, lust, despair, and ultimately madness. Two Seconds also features a hero who’s on his way to the Chair — John Allen. A crowd of reporters and jail officials has gathered to watch the execution, and one of them comments that after they flip the switch, Allen will have two seconds of consciousness left. Gosh, says one, in those two seconds he’ll remember everything about what brought him to this moment. They flip the switch. And the rest of the movie is those two seconds.

The hum of the electric chair blends into the noise of a riveter. Two men are standing on the girders of an unfinished skyscraper. It’s John and his best friend Bud, played by Edward G. Robinson and Preston Foster. They’re a couple of young guys who are making good money in the Depression, but only because they’re doing this frightening and dangerous work. Bud is a hedonist who blows the money on gambling and women, but John is an idealist. He has big dreams for himself, and he’s picky about women. The truth is he’s the runt who gets stuck with his studly friend’s castoffs, and as the movie proceeds like dirty water swirling down a drain, his aspirations and airs of superiority get thrown back in his face in breathtakingly and increasingly cruel ways.

At first, Preston Foster is slightly hard to take as Bud. He had recently played the role on stage, and he’s still a bit “big” for the movie. I always thought Foster was a lousy actor until I found out that he was also a guitarist and composer; he wrote the Muddy Waters classic “Got My Mojo Working,” which makes him a hero in my book. Essentially he was a proto-beatnik, and maybe too hip to take seriously the cardboard roles that usually came his way. Despite his overemphasis, he’s intensely likeable as Bud. His love for John is the motor of the movie and one of its few grace notes.

The other grace note is Edward G. Robinson. You wouldn’t think he could play John Allen, who is a muscular, working class, somewhat stupid young guy who gets in way over his head. But Robinson was one of the most skillful of all performers, and he does much more than play the character. He takes you on a journey. I can’t improve on Mick LaSalle’s description, in his book Dangerous Men, of Robinson’s final speech as he’s being sentenced to die. “This is Robinson, great American actor, in the most intense minutes of his film career. He endows the speech with the shape and size of melodrama but maintains the precision of a ballet dancer. Remaining true to his core and so in control, he goes to a deep place, without fear, hesitation, or bluffing, using himself unflinchingly. No movie star ever looked like Robinson, and he’s beautiful.”

I don’t want to say any more about the plot. We know from the beginning that Robinson is going to fry. The drama is seeing the steps by which his ordinary life, and ultimately his mind, comes completely unraveled. As with One Way Passage, the sense of fate closing like a trap is clearly a metaphor for the Depression, and the feeling that ordinary hard times were deepening into something more existentially threatening and terrifying. The movie itself changes from stark realism to near-abstract expressionism. And the ending hits you with the force of a brick hurled in your face. This nightmare offers no salvation, except the sweetness and humanity of Robinson’s art. That’s more than enough.

Each one of these movies runs about an hour, and each packs more story, more honesty, and more maturity into that hour than 90% of the movies being made today. Maybe hard times were good for something.

 

 

Originally published on Edward Copeland on Film.