The Seduction of SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)

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Josef von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS was the top grossing film of 1932 (in US and Canada)- at the apex of the salacious Pre-Code era. With good reason.

This exotic film takes us on a journey via rail in Northern China from Peking to Shanghai. There’s a uniquely diverse group of passengers that sometimes clash and sometimes simmer for the ride. Ultimately, each are surprised to find out who can be trusted, and who should be feared, when they become directly embroiled in local politics and civil unrest. And when old flames rekindle things really start to sizzle.

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Marlene Dietrich portrays Shanghai Lily, along with her traveling companion, Anna May Wong as Hui Fei, and they make a HELLUVA entrance. Shanghai Lily is mysterious, drop-dead gorgeous and with every little movement she poses draped in the most stunning fashions, enveloped in the most sensuous glowing light and shadows. Her boudoir reputation precedes her.

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Shanghai Lily: “It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”

As for Ms. Anna May Wong’s Hui Fei, she is one tough lady and not to be messed with. While Hui Fei projects street-wise, her striking companion is apparently bedroom savvy. Like Shanghai Lily, she also carries herself with high style and a penetrating beauty.

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Clive Brook plays Captain “Doc” Harvey. He’s a suave military man and a former lover to Shanghai Lily. He’s apprehensive to her flirtations at first with the promiscuous rumors. As hard as he tries to avoid falling for her, in the end, and via her sacrifices that reveals her love for him, her undeniable sexual appeal and their love prevail.

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As for the rest of the cast of key characters, Warner Oland (most famous for his many turns as Charlie Chan) is untrustworthy Mr. Henry Chang. Lawrence Grant is Reverend Carmichael, who discovers there’s more to Shanghai Lily than a tarnished reputation. Louise Glosser Hale is the uptight, prude Mrs. Haggerty.  And Eugene Pallette is spectacular as the hilarious Sam Salt.

For comic relief, Eugene Pallette’s Sam Salt delivers the most witty lines. Keep in mind that by today’s standards they are blatantly racist, but there’s something about his delivery (thanks to that lovable Pallette way) that makes us laugh at his non-PC ignorance of Chinese culture, rather than the 1932 audiences that likely laughed with him. As my daughter pointed out, he’s sorta a Pre-Code Peter Griffin (Family Guy reference):

Sam Salt: “I can’t make head or tail outta’ you, Mr. Chang. Are you Chinese, or are you white, or what are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “My mother is Chinese. My father was white.”
Sam Salt: “You look more like a white man to me.”
Mr. Henry Chang: “I’m not proud of my white blood.”
Sam Salt: “Oh, you’re not, are you?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “No, I’m not.”
Sam Salt: “Rather be a Chinaman, huh?”
Mr. Henry Chang: “Yes.”
Sam Salt: “What future is there in bein’ a Chinaman? You’re born, eat your way through a handful of rice, and you die. What a country! Let’s have a drink!”

Sam Salt: “I don’t know what you’re saying brother… but don’t say it again.”

Along with these inappropriately funny moments, the other characters provide us entertainment in just how uncomfortable they are just to be near Shanghai Lily, as though her ill-repute will somehow rub off. But what really makes this film is not these things, nor the story (although those are all great), it’s the visual telling of the story… through dramatic, jaw-dropping fashions and through the so-hot-the-screen-steams images of Marlene Dietrich.

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When you consider Marlene Dietrich’s personal life as well as her behind the scenes relationship with director Josef von Sternberg, this performance may not come as a surprise. She was brilliant in understanding how to convey her image on screen in just the perfect light and shadows. That is, she was the perfect student of Josef von Sternberg’s teachings in these skills (skills she utilized the remainder of her life.)

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But when you add in Dietrich’s own extremely sexual persona, it’s no wonder this film unravels as though we the audience are experiencing one long seduction directly from the empress of Pre-Code seduction herself. Let’s face it, she isn’t really seducing the ilk of glossy smooth Clive Brook. The camera is the object of her desire. And we all benefit in her aim.

This perspective on SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932) is my contribution to the “Hot & Bothered Blogathon” as hosted by those saucy bloggers Theresa of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Aurora of Citizen Screen, July 9-10. Explore both of their sites to read more lustful and licentious posts.

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Clara Bow is “IT”(1927)

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Elinor Glyn’s novel “It” may be a different story than the film adaption, but the concept of “It” remains the same. What exactly is “It”? To claim it simply meant sex or sex appeal is selling it short. According to Clarence Badger’s/Josef von Sternberg’s IT (1927), “Self-confidence and indifference as to whether you are pleasing or not – and something in you that gives the impression that you are not all cold. That’s ‘It’!”

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To be more specific, “It” was sex appeal enhanced with this description and the film’s star Clara Bow was ‘It’ in spades. She was the definition of the ‘It girl’ and it defined her for her entire career.

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In the film, Clara Bow portrays the beautiful, young, department store clerk, Betty Lou Spence who exudes an air of confidence and a bubbly zest for life. Betty has her sights set on the boss and son of the company, Cyrus Waltham (Antonio Moreno). But it’s his pal Monty (William Austin) that first sets his sights on her. Monty has read about a new book by Elinor Glyn referring to “It.” He discussed his intentions of finding a girl with “It” with his friend Cyrus as they walk the sales floor. Monty sees Betty and knows he’s discovered ‘It’! He asks her out and she insists on going to the fanciest restaurant in town, The Ritz.

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There’s a charming scene when she prepares her limited wardrobe for this event. Her friend helps her transform her basic black dress with a lace collar (appropriate for work but not The Ritz) into a cocktail dress. Later at dinner, she takes joy in adapting to high-end society life. She spies her conquest, Cyrus Waltham, who is seated at a nearby table along with his steady date. Playfully, she offers Monty a wishbone and with her winning end of the bone she prophetically claims, “I am going to get my wish” as she looks over sensually at Waltham.

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Cyrus’s date, blue blood Adela Van Norman (Jacqueline Gadsdon) is guarded because she assumes she will be Mrs. Waltham someday. Author Elinor Glyn (playing herself) walks in. Cyrus motions her over and asks her to explain “It” from her novel creating all the buzz (see her definition above.) Adela, completely lacking in ‘It,’ should be worried by now. Betty strategically forces a ‘bump in’ with Cyrus  in the lobby. The flirting and attraction is immediate and strong. Betty makes a bet with him that he won’t recognize her the next time he sees her. He takes the bet assuming his draw to her would make that impossible.

The next day at work, Betty is calling out a dishonest shopper, who chronically returns items she’s worn for six months then returns. Her manager sends her up to Cyrus’s office to be scolded. He finally looks up and serendipitously realizes he’s just lost their bet from the night before. She suggests a date at the beach “Fun House” (Coney Island?) will square their deal.

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After a delightful evening of fun, Cyrus sneaks in a kiss as he drops her off at her place. She slaps him for his presumptive action, “so you’re a Minute Man! The minute you know a girl you think you can kiss her!” She takes her stuffed toy souvenir and marches into her building. But inside she playfully smiles as she happily ponders her evening. She’s hooked and so is he.

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Later on, trouble has exploded back at her apartment. Betty shares a place with her friend and her friend’s little baby. But some meddling neighbors are trying to take her baby away from her. Her friend has been ill and unable to work so they assume she has no means to take care of the baby. The entire neighborhood rushes to the scene, including a young reporter (Gary Cooper) who takes notes as the drama unfolds. Betty and Monty arrive in time for Betty to claim the baby is her own to protect her friend.

Monty is alarmed to discover Betty is a fatherless mother. He shows up the next day to reveal the bad news to Cyrus with the newspaper article in hand. Not fully satisfied,  the snooping ladies arrive at Waltham’s office to confirm her employment. Monty acknowledges that the fatherless mother is the same as his target of affections, Betty. Cyrus is crushed. When bonus checks are passed out to staff, Cyrus is unable to even look at her face.

She sneaks a moment alone in his office. She flirts but is surprised by the cooler response. Assuming he’s upset by her slap, he instead offers a “left-hand arrangment” of bling and other materialistic offerings. She’s justifiably and visibly upset. He says, “I’m crazy about you, isn’t that enough?” She barks back, “is that what men like you call love?” Her pride prompts her to quit her job.

Monty later arrives at her place with enormous baskets of flowers and edible treats. “I’ve come to forgive you,” he proclaims. In a few exchanges the whole baby’s rightful mother confusion is cleared up. They laugh it off and Monty mentions that he told Cyrus the wrong baby story. Betty’s furious that Cyrus never gave her benefit of the doubt.

She forces Monty to take her as his mysterious ‘plus one’ on Cyrus’s yacht cruise. (Along with buying her a whole new wardrobe appropriate to high seas with high society.) Thirsty for payback, she plans to use her ‘It skills’ to manipulate Cyrus into proposing to her just to laugh in his face in rejection.

On board, Monty is visibly nervous and distressed in being placed in this awkward scene that is soon to unfold. Cyrus senses something is up. Monty only divulges, “I feel so low old chap that I could get on stilts and walk under a dachshund.” Then his mystery date enters the room on cue. Cyrus is a conflicted mix of excitement and pain in seeing her.

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Betty plays the part well. She acts coy knowing she has Cyrus’s full attention. Adela recognizes this woman looks familiar but can’t place her as the socialite she pretends to be. Regardless, she knows she’s a direct threat. And the games continue.

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In a moment alone, Betty gives him a look. She has him in her hooks now. He proposes on the spot. She laughs in his face and walks off. Immediately, she cries with regret. The payback didn’t feel as funny or sweet as she planned. She loves him.

Meanwhile, Monty breaks his secret to Cyrus, explaining the whole baby mix-up.  He runs after her, leaving Monty at the ship’s helm. Distracted Monty collides the boat with another. Both Adela and Betty go flying off the deck and into the waters.

Despite all that expensive education and breeding, somehow swim lessons were not covered because Adela appears to be struggling to swim or stay afloat. Betty attempts to rescue her. Adela’s jealousy bubbles up just as she repeatedly tries to push Betty underwater. Street smart Betty knocks Adela out cold then holds her head up. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to save a swimmer when they’re not busy trying to drown you.

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The fellas finally join the party: Cyrus swimming with a life-preserver and Monty in a row-boat. Adela is pulled into Monty’s boat so Cyrus can swim after Betty. She swims off stating she’s “going home.” Cyrus pursues and catches up with her at the hoisted anchor. They embrace in a kiss. As defeated and deflated Adela looks on, she knows she’s been licked. And Monty looks on to Adela announcing that they, the ‘non-Its’ should stick together.

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IT (1927) is a fun, sweet little romantic comedy. The premise and central characterization reminds me of Colleen Moore in William A Seiter’s WHY BE GOOD? (1929). The supporting cast does a fine job, especially William Austin as Monty with his heavy eye liner and comedic expressions. Or, at least that’s all it would be if it were not for Clara Bow. Wise casting placed Bow as THE flapper girl of the Jazz Age who embodied her era. In addition to a rocketing rise to mega stardom after this film’s performance, Bow also has the distinction of starring in the first ever Oscar winning Best Picture,  William A Wellman’s WINGS (1927), released the same year.

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Clara Bow’s real life was a complete nightmare. To say someone has “daddy issues” doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. So to see her perform with such illuminating energy, such radiant beauty, confidence, and well… “It” is even more impressive. From everything we know about Clara Bow’s personal life (the tragic details need to be detailed in another post), she was likely happiest throwing herself into her work. And it shows.

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circa 1925: American silent film actress Clara Bow (1905 – 1965), the original ‘It girl’, gives a wink and a smile for the camera. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This post was written expressly for the SEX! (now that I have your attention) Blogathon, hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog June 19-21, 2016. Look back to each day’s list of bloggers for sexy contributions. I chose to write about Clara Bow in IT because not only did her performance define sex for that entire era, and launched her career to mega star status, the film describes sex in a way that seems applicable to any era. Yet only the rare examples could compete with Bow’s level of on-screen self-assured confidence, effervescent presence and sexual magnetism in the decades following her reign.

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A PreCode Paralyzed Piranha: Walter Huston in A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931)

One of the many joys of attending a classic film festival such as the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, sometimes you get a chance to screen a film for the first time. When seeing a decades old film for the very first time, yet on the big screen, it’s like momentarily slipping back in time. I imagined what it may have been for audiences of the past.

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Recently at #TCMFF 2016, I experienced such a unique pleasure in screening William Wyler’s A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931). It’s a PreCode with such dark tones, that Czar of Noir Eddie Muller himself introduced this screening with a brief interview of Wyler’s son, David Wyler.

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The story takes place in a small fishing town, centered on the main character, Walter Huston as Seth Law. He’s a strong, mean, miserable son of a bitch. As low brow as that sounds, I’m underselling it. Seth’s wife has just died so he takes his son, Douglass Montgomery/Kent Douglass as Matt Law, to the local dive to get drunk. Initially we give him some slack in his aggressive handling of the situation, assuming temporary grief. Soon Seth’s true nature becomes clear as he cruelly berates his son to prove his manhood and by attempting to force him to drink heavily. Matt is uncomfortable and offended by his father’s behavior but not strong enough to stand up to him. In his aggression, the father openly manhandles women as he slings back shots then starts a violent brawl that finishes with Matt out cold.

In striking contrast to his father, Matt is a kind, gentle and handsome blond lad. Back home, Seth announces he will simply replace his wife with a mail-order bride of strong stock. He has plucked her from a simple description in a catalogue (in “Heart and Hand” magazine, selecting a 35-year-old, hard-working good cook named Ada Peterson); not unlike picking out the strongest draft horse for the farm. Calculated enough to know his son would make the more persuasive communicator, Seth tells Matt to write the letter. Matt gingerly approaches his domineering dad with a trade. Now that he’s older and there’s help on the way, he wants to branch out on his own. He’s never liked it there. And who could blame him?

On the day of the new bride’s arrival, Matt is unable to convince his father to ‘clean up’ to greet his betrothed. Instead, he treated it like any other day, went about his fishing business and left it up to Matt to welcome her. A true romantic. When a young, very attractive, slight wisp of a gal shows up at the door, Matt is confused.

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This nineteen year old is evidently not the Ada Peterson as advertised. Young Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler) explains that she came in her friend’s place because the original bride-to-be had already married another by his letter’s arrival. There is an instant chemistry between the two. She initially assumes Matt is her groom.

Reality comes crashing in soon enough after he explains the mix-up and Pops walks in. In his socially inept and jarring method, Seth inspects his new livestock with disapproval. Ruth begs for him to reconsider because she has no where else to go. Besides, if his son is so sweet, how bad can dad be, right? Ruth eventually convinces him to change his mind after he realizes his pretty new bride can provide assets that a housekeeper cannot. Now he inspects her with hungry eyes. She’s switched to deep regret. Apprehensive, she ponders her mistake yet reluctantly moves forward with the wedding. It’s clear that without someone to stand up to Seth, she is not strong enough, physically nor rhetorically, to persuade him otherwise.

At the wedding ceremony, a crowd of unruly, drunken locals align with Seth’s behavior yet widen her eyes to the grim future before her. She’s sunk. After the spectacle of ill manners, Seth approaches Ruth back at the house. He’s ready for bed time, looking at her like she’s a gazelle dinner at a lion den. She openly states she’s made a big mistake; she tries to talk him out of it. Her pleas fall flat on his ears. He wants his dinner and he doesn’t care if she doesn’t comply.

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Matt finally intervenes and a violent confrontation ensues. The fight ends with Matt assuming he’s accidentally killed his father. No such luck. The town doctor is called and he says Seth will likely never walk again. Ruth and Matt feel doomed and torn, trapped by an obligation to stay. Meanwhile, this tragedy and a bond of fear of Seth has only drawn them closer together.

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Seth is determined to grow stronger and defy the doctor’s diagnosis. He is more ruthless than ever before to assert his bullying power over his son and display his machismo to his young bride. It’s nighttime. An intense storm is brewing outside. Matt slips into Ruth’s room. She confides in him that she is too afraid to stay a moment longer. They plan to escape together.

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Seth, whose bed has been set up on the main floor downstairs for obvious reasons, picks up that something is going on. With paralyzed legs, he pulls himself off the bed and crawls along the floor towards the staircase. Slowly and surely, he drags his body up each spindle of each step, along the outside of the staircase. His strong and determined arms pull him up as he peers onto the second floor. There light coming from underneath Ruth’s door.

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Sitting on her bed, as Ruth and Matt find love and solace in each other’s arms, Matt attempts to convince her to stay until morning, after the storm settles down. Ruth expresses that she is too filled with fear to wait. Just then, Seth bursts in. What follows is a frightening, suspenseful explosion of violence, fear and a chase through a horrific stormy sea.

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I’ve never been so freaked out by a paralyzed cinematic figure before. When Walter Huston crawls and drags his way upstairs, you do not think of him as having the disadvantage in power. Not in the slightest. Instead, you are biting your nails and gripped by your own fears that his son Matt will meet his doom.

That’s how intense, strong and cruel he comes across. It also has an eery quality that reminded me heavily of Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) when you see them crawl in the muddy muck under the circus trailer, with knife clinched in teeth, to hunt down their deserving victim.

The violent explosion between Matt and Seth is indeed a nail-biter. Seth pulls his body around the room on the floor, posturing his body to block, shoving chests of drawers and beds around like they were kindling, and one-handedly throwing a chair down the stairs after Matt, knocking him out. Trust me, there is no handicap on Seth’s part.

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I won’t give up the exact ending but the climax is palatably intense, with Seth remaining a terrifying threat right up to the end. Walter Huston makes this role. In his PreCode days, he sometimes played a father figure, or a cop, but was a master as the villain. There is something about his presence. When he says something, you believe it. His face scrunches up in an evil snarl. He’s defiant, intimidating, menacing, with a confidence deep in his bones that comes across boldly on the screen. There are many great screen villains, but I guarantee you’ll never forget this one.

This was my contribution to The Great Villains Blogathon, hosted by those lovely blogging ladies Kristina of SPEAKEASY, Ruth of SILVER SCREENINGS and Karen of SHADOWS and SATIN, May 15-20.

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Happy #ClassicMovieDay! My 5 Movies on an Island

 

May 16th is National Classic Movie Day.

Rick of CLASSIC FILM & TV CAFE chose to honor this with the 5 Movies On An Island Blogathon. As Rick states, “the intent is for participants to write about the five classic movies they’d want to have with them if stranded on a deserted island. (Yes, you can assume you have electricity, a projector, big screen, and popcorn!)” I’m so glad Rick allowed us the popcorn. I’ll take it a step further and assume a comfy couch, dark chocolate and my family and friends.

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I’ve thought long and hard on this daunting task. Daunting, that is, for any true classic film fan whenever asked to narrow down their top films. Especially when one enjoys such an eclectic variety of film. But to add to the challenge, this isn’t as simple as listing off your favorite five films. Au contraire. One must consider these would be your ONLY five films.

So I thought of all the factors that must be considered. What films could be watched hundreds of times over? Staying power… check. What if you have nothing but the beautiful sunrises and sunsets, the warm sand, gentle ocean breezes and cocoanuts to entertain you? Alright, obviously that sounds beyond terrific, but even in paradise we Old Movie Weirdos need our cinema. Entertaining, got it. Also, what films (and charismatic stars) would keep you company over the years stuck on that island? Even Gilligan had an entourage after all. So, a large ensemble of cast may be in order. Hmmm… check.

Comedy has always been my favorite genre, especially when the chips are down. As my predictament of being separated from society would more than likely present an earnest challenge to my serious need for socialization, comedies would be a must. Check. But then I paused for a moment… I needed the inclusion for inspiration of the human spirit. It may be the magic elixar for the optimism required to keep hope of being rescued someday. Ah yes, that would be a nice feather in the cap, too.

Noting all of these factors with this belaboured process, I reached the following results:

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  1. THE GREAT RACE (1965). It’s no secret this has been a favorite of mine since childhood. It hit most of the check marks too. Definitely a comedy. And not just any comedy, but a comedy dedicated to the great Laurel & Hardy and director Blake Edward’s own way of paying homage to that entire wonderful era of comedic filmmaking. Ensemble cast. And what a terrific cast- Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood in their prime, with Jack Lemmon and Peter Falk that make me laugh until I cry, and a team of funny character actors like Keenan Wynn, Larry Storch and Vivian Vance, too. For for a full review and details on this one, click HERE.

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2.  IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963). Here’s another film that I’ve seen countless times over and have no issue in seeing it another hundreds of times more. Additionally, this one also checks the boxes for both comedy and ensemble casting. With a terrific sense of adventure, I know all of these comedy legends would keep me laughing and company on those lonesome nights with only the gritty sand in my toes. Click HERE for more details on why I think this film would be perfectly suited in my island of five.

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3. ARSENIC and OLD LACE (1944). I wouldn’t dare be stuck on a stranded island without my Cary Grant, of course. And a screwball or romantic comedy would be just the ticket. But the Sophie’s Choice faced me down. Which Cary Grant film? THE PHILADELPHIA STORY? BRINGING UP BABY? THE AWFUL TRUTH? MY FAVORITE WIFE? It was practically a coin toss but I finally came to the decision to go with the screwiest one of the lot. And while it may be Grant’s least favorite of his films, in many ways it’s my most. Besides, nothing makes you feel better about your crazy predicament than knowing at least you’re not with a bunch of murderers where insanity runs in the family so much that it “it practically gallops.”

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4. GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933). I knew a musical would be on my list. Oh sure, a grand and technicolor MGM sort would be delightful, or perhaps the SOUND OF MUSIC would be a fine choice for something uplifting with a plethora of earworms to sing along on the beach. Or even some Ginger and Fred or Gene Kelly? For me, a Busby Berkley vehicle from the deliciously naughty PreCode era is more my style. But again, the task of narrowing it down faced me. FOOTLIGHT PARADE ? 42nd STREET? Truly tough options but GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 was my first BB love. And with a cast that includes Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Warren William, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Ruby Keeler (hello, PreCode dream team!) with toe-tapping tunes as “We’re In The Money,” “Pettin’ In The Park” and “Remember My Forgotten Man,” my lonely troubles would easily melt away.

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5. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). When addressing the very last slot, it’s a real toughie. I won’t deny that films like THE THIN MAN, CITY LIGHTS and a variety of Hitchcock films ran through my mind. I wanted to pick an inspirational film. One that moves me to tears. One that’s so classic it will feel moving every time. With just the right amount of comedy and still uplifting in the end, despite the dark tones, Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE fits the bill. When straddled with a bleak outlook and challenging obstacles, George Bailey is my go-to guy.

Hope you enjoyed my list and process. As you can see, I enjoyed it too but it was not an easy endeavor. What are your classic five films if stranded on a deserted island? And why? Whatever your picks may be, go enjoy National Classic Movie Day this May 16th by enjoying one or several cinema treasures. If you’re a classic film freak like me, it’s a holiday to celebrate all year long.

TCM Film Fest 2016: Emotions Run High

gary_tcmff_line_sketchLast week I departed from a ten day stay in Hollywood. A grand adventure of exploring the origins of Old Hollywood- both via site-seeing and serving as a Social Producer for the 2016 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, which took place April 28-may 1. For us classic cinephile fanatics, this year’s schedule of screenings and events tapped deep into a range of emotions, appropriate to the official theme of Moving Images.

[For a full pictorial review of our discoveries into Old Hollywood, look for my pre and post fest coverage in a post coming soon. My travel companions Aurora @CitizenScreen, Annmarie @ClassicMovieHub and Jeanelle @NebraskaNellie and I spent time with pals Laura of @LauraMiscMovie, her hubby Doug, Elise of @EliseCD and Danny of @Cinephiled for unforgettable forays into site-seeing, off the typical tourist grid. ]

For a second year in a row, I was privileged to be selected to act as a Social Producer for this year’s fest. (Click here for that post.) As such, we SPs conducted a little bit of business, including attending the Press Conference, then set out to enjoy this classic movie marathon. Here are my highlights:

DAY ONE, Thursday 4/28:

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Reunited with actor James Karen after the trivia game win. (We’ve met at Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, KS in years’ past)

“So You Think You Know The Movies” is a popular trivia game, hosted by Film Forum’s hilarious Bruce Goldstein, held annually at Club TCM. SP and media archivist Ariel Schudson (@ArchivistAriel) gathered up a group of us to form a team or two. And lo and behold, our team won! We each contributed at least one answer but Cinematically Insane’s Will McKinley (@willmckinley) saved the day via classic film trivia world domination in a nail-biting tie-breaker.

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My first screening of the fest began with a punch to the gut. Famed film historian Donald Bogle introduced director of ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO, Larry Peerce. It was a film new to me and its impression will be forever etched in my memory. The ground-breaking film on interracial marriage was simple, thoughtful yet incredibly powerful story that left me in tears. I should note that minutes prior to an emotionally raw and unconventional ending, fire alarms sounded; evacuating the entire TCL Chinese Multiplex. We were able to return to complete our screenings; but for many of us, the unfortunate timing was a pinch of salt in our open wounds of emotion.

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Czar of Noir Eddie Muller/ Photo credit: Getty Images for Turner

My second screening took an Argentinian noir twist in Fernando Ayala’s LOS TALLOS AMARGOS. Another new discovery for me, the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller introduced this rarely seen gem which was restored by UCLA’s Film and Television Archive and partially financed by his Film Noir Foundation with rich cinematography by Ricardo Younis. Knee-deep in fraud and paranoia for profit, a reporter (Carlos Cores) pairs up with a Hungarian expat (Vassili Lambrinos) and unravels down a wicked path in this tale of self-destruction.

DAY TWO, 4/29 :
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The second day started with the sumptious Pre-Code feast with Joseph von Sternberg’s SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932). For a fashionista like me, this is a high-style feast for the eyes. Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong are unparallel visions in this gorgeous print. Author Jeremy Arnold introduced celebrated cinematographer and the director’s son, Nicholas von Sternberg, who contributed fun stories on Ms. Dietrich. A personal favorite, and my husband’s (aka @santaisthinking) first time viewing, this was a major highlight of the fest for both of us.

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Actress Jennifer Grant, daughter of Cary Grant

Like countless others, we were shut out of DOUBLE HARNESS so we headed over to the Roosevelt to catch a glimpse of Illeana Douglas’s (@Illeanarama) book signing, grabbed a bite (you remember food, right?) with friends before heading over to catch Cary Grant’s daughter Jennifer Grant introduce her dad’s rarely seen film, WHEN YOU’RE IN LOVE (1937). This was a silly romcom romp where we’re treated to the “Tennessee Nightingale” Grace Moore and Grant tickling the ivories. As he is my all-time favorite actor, this was a very special must-see!

Next up, we indulged in Bruce Goldstein’s Vaudeville 101, at Club TCM. This was a delightful peek at the history and some examples of the early vaudeville acts. Kept me laughing out loud and a few were snipets of the Vitaphone presentation I attended the next day.

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Actor Alec Baldwin interviews screen and stage legend Angela Lansbury/ Photo credit: Getty Images for Turner

We camped out early in front of Grauman’s TCL Chinese Theater in giddy anticipation to see charming Alec Baldwin introducing John Frankenheimer’s THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962) with special guest, legendary Angela Lansbury. This dark political thriller remains relevant after all these years and while all the performances were terrific, naughty mommy Lansbury is clearly the stand-out. What a thrill to witness how energetic and razor-sharp this stage and screen icon continues to be.

DAY THREE, 4/30:
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The crowds lined up early at the majestic Egyptian venue for my first event on Saturday with Ron Hutchinson’s presentation of the 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone.  As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, Hutchinson offered the packed house with a brief history of when sound was first synchronized with film, then entertained us with a variety of shorts. Captivating songs and hilarious vaudeville routines from George Burns and Gracie Allen, Baby Rose Marie, Shaw and Lee, Molly Picon and others kept the audience in stitches. What a happy way to start the day! Between our loud laughter that morning and the fact that I can’t stop thinking about those shorts, this presentation developed into my favorite one at the fest.
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Eddie Muller introduced David Wyler with our second feature, William Wyler’s A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931). As Muller pointed out, while it is technically a Pre-Code, it has major noir tones thanks to its cinematography and Walter Huston’s acting chops of his intensely dark character. Again, it was a joy to have a member of the director’s own family, who is also a vet of the entertainment industry and an experienced producer, introduce this early talkie on film.

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TCM Wine Club tasting with dear friends… Aurora (L), Theresa (R) and me (C)

After taking quick peeks at both Alec Baldwin’s interview with Elliot Gould at Club TCM and Rita Moreno’s book signing in the Roosevelt lobby, we took a nice break at the TCM Wine Club wine tasting. Situated poolside, this was a welcome and relaxing reprieve from the fast pace of running to screenings and passing out my #TCMFFSP ribbons to enjoy a few moments of crisp and cool Chardonnay. I recommend!

Then, we settled in back at Club TCM for a more casual view into Hollywood history with Hollywood Home Movies. From movie stars at the Beverly Hills Tennis Club to the Nicolas Brothers at The Palace with special guest Tony Nicholas himself in attendance with his family, this was such a fun and intimate presentation.

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Plethora of friends gather for MIDNIGHT screening

I was pleased to end my evening with a 1930s screwball romcom with Bonnie Hunt’s introduction of Mitchell Leisen’s MIDNIGHT (1939). With dream pairing of writers Billy Wilder and Charles Bracket and a cast that included the stunning and witty Claudette Colbert, a young stached Don Ameche, and an animated John Barrymore, they lit up the screen, scene after scene. I also appreciated that Bonnie Hunt joined us in the audience, sitting in a seat close by to our large group and laughed equally as hard and loudly as we did. Big props to you, Ms. Hunt!

DAY FOUR, 5/1:

I chose to sleep in a bit instead of being included the many who were turned away from DOUBLE HARNESS a second time. Instead, we camped out early to grab a good positioning for Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID (1921). Chaplin’s first feature as director, star, writer and producer, this premiere restoration was a compelling and emotional experience, further enhanced by a detailed intro by acclaimed Parisian film archivist Serge Bromberg.

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David Steinberg, Photo credit: Getty images for Turner

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HORSE FEATHERS screening- TCM Programmer Scott McGee and family- Ethan & Shannon, Photo credit: Getty Images for Turner

We quickly dashed over to comedy great David Steinberg’s intro to Norman Z McLeod’s HORSE FEATHERS (1932).  Groucho, Harpo and Chico are joined by Thelma Todd for this hilarious college football classic. I think the only one in the audience who laughed harder than me was TCM programmer Scott McGee.

Another quick turnaround rushed us back into the same TCL Chinese Multiplex House #1 for John Ford’s grand SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON (1949). Another homage to Monument Valley, this stunning vision on the big screen was another must-see for me. At last year’s #TCMFF, I was thrilled to see Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE introduced by Peter Fonda and Keith Carradine. Carradine was on hand to honor us with an intro again.

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CINEMA PARADISO star Salvatore Cascio and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz/ Photo credit: Getty Images for Turner

My final screening of the fest was the most emotional one of the long weekend. Writer-director Giuseppe Tornatore’s CINEMA PARADISO (1988) may seem like an unconventional choice to close #TCMFF to those who have never seen it, but for those of us who know and love this film, it was the perfect choice. A foreign film made in the late eighties, this film is a beautiful and deeply emotional tribute to classic film fans. I was not alone as tears streamed down my face for the entire last ten minutes and during other segments as well. Now all grown up Salvatore Cacsio, who played the central character of young Toto, charmed the crowd at Grauman’s TCL Chinese Theatre with his translated guest intro with Ben Mankiewicz. I compliment #TCMFF programmer Charlie Tabesh for this superb pick.

The last night ended with crowded Roosevelt of attendees’ goodbyes and photo opps followed by a late supper at Mel’s Drive-In with friends. My many gratitudes include:

Thanks to Debbie Lynn Elias aka @moviesharkd for including me along with other SPs Aurora @CitizenScreen, Annmarie @ClassicMovieHub and Kristen Lopez @Journeys_Film on her LA-based radio program, BEHIND THE LENS on Adrenaline Radio, generously providing us a platform to discuss our our roles of Social Producers and the #TCMFF. And all her supportive tweets!
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Thanks to my artist hubby Gary @santaisthinking for offering up creative and witty sketches, just for fun! You can probably still find them via #sketchTCMFF on twitter.

Thanks to the entire TCM staff and crew for all their hard work on another successful fest! Spotlight and Essentials passes sold out in a record 14 minutes and the Classic Passes sold out faster than ever before. According to the Press Conference, a projected 26,000 attendees enjoyed this year’s mega event. From a past gig in trade show management of a similar show size in my past life, I can assure you this takes organized planning, countless hours and months of hard work and skilled efficiency… KUDOS, TCM team!

Special TCM staff thanks to Noralil Fiores and Marya Gates for masterfully running the Social Producer program. I can’t imagine leading these initiatives, while TCM launches FilmStruck and TCM Backlots all at the same time. Whew!

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Pals Karen, Jessica, Raquel, Carlos and Danny

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#TCMParty class picture/ Photo credit: Will McKinley

And a VERY special shout-out to all my #TCMFF friends, new and reunited alike. So many which began and continue via the #TCMparty twitter experience and via the Going To TCM Film Fest Facebook page.

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Swapping childhood stories with actress, author and TCM friend Illeana Douglas (L), myself and husband Gary Pratt (R)

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Will McKinley (L), myself (C), TCM host Ben Mankiewicz (R) at the closing party

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Actress Monika Henreid, daughter of Paul Henreid (R) and me

Overall, it was another stellar fest that included star gazing, new discoveries, a ‘family’ reunion of meaningful connections with classic film friends (or #OldMovieWeirdos as we like to call ourselves) and fully cinematic range of emotions. If you love classic movies, love TCM, and you simply want to feel right at home like never before, this is it. Hope to see you at #TCMFF in 2017!

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Words, Words, Words! CMBA Blogathon: DEATH TRAP (1982)

 

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Who doesn’t love a strong whodunnit murder mystery with twists and turns and a thriller ending? Based on a record-breaking run on Broadway, Ira Levin’s play was brought to life on the big screen with Sidney Lumet’s DEATH TRAP (1982). You don’t know who or what to trust in this film based on a play about a play. Following me so far? Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. ALERT: It’s impossible to discuss this film without revealing some spoilers so expect it. However, I’ll hold back on some goodies.

After an astounding run of 1,793 runs on stage and four Tony noms, famed filmmaker Sidney Lumet brought in a stellar cast screen for this popular production. We begin the opening credits with a key figure in this story- a wall of torture devices. An old wooden planked wall of weapons of every sort imaginable proudly displays knives, machetes, pistols, chains, maces and more, all while cheery harpsichord music plays on. Who could possibly be the owner of such a wall of death? Michael Caine portrays Sidney Bruhl, a bitter, spoiled bully of a playwright and owner of this gruesome gallery.

Sidney’s in trouble. His current play is a bomb and he’s been in a career slump for some time. It’s been years since he had a hit on his hands yet he was once known as the creator of the longest running murder-comedy on the Broadway stage. Before heading home, he gets drunk. He prophetically admits that he woke up “at the end of the line” of the subway. Now daylight, he walks into his unique and stately home (replete with a windmill and a wall of horror tools as souvenirs from each of his play productions), hungover and gruff, he barks at his wife, Myra (Dyan Cannon).

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To say Myra is an easily startled woman is understatement. She screeches at the top of her lungs and jumps at the slightest unexpected peep. It’s written all over his face that the years of this behavior has pushed Sidney over the edge. Myra is also a sick woman, with serious heart problems. She nervously flits about as he angrily moves across their large open living room, sharing a recent discovery.

A prior student, Cliff Anderson (Christopher Reeve) is an avid fan and has submitted the draft of his first play, “Death Trap.” Sidney admits to Myra that the play is perfect in every way. He reads Cliff’s enthusiastic letter out loud. In his dry, sarcastic tone he openly fantasizes how wonderful it would be to oblige this protege with a visit to their home with Cliff’s only other copy in hand and murder him, then simply taking credit for his perfect play. He devilishly grins as he delights in how this would solve all his problems.

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Meanwhile, Myra nervously cackles, unsure if her husband is creating fictional murder plot details for a potential play, likely a common process he’s repeated across the years, OR… could he actually be serious?

After tense debate of implications ensues, their new neighbor unexpectedly arrives. Helga Ten Dorp is visiting from Europe and has taken up residence in their otherwise quiet, wealthy Long Island community. A mature woman of bright energy dressed in her jogging gear, she’s a quirky character with unique talents. Known as the psychic who has successfully assisted police in solving murders, her presence is oddly appropriate. She immediately goes through the room and starts pointing out areas of “pain.” Sidney and Myra brush off her insights and predictions, assuming she’s sensing his wall of stage props and his writing room of fictional deaths.

Later, Cliff arrives. Fearing the worst, Myra takes over the conversation, blurting ways that Cliff and Sidney could collaborate. Sidney scolds her and Cliff senses the weird tension. Cliff goes from bouncing in as the eager and grateful student to cutting his visit short, stating he appreciates their interest but he plans to show his play to others and must leave. On his way out, Sidney is cordial and invites him to try out one his famous stage prop inspirations, a pair of Houdini handcuffs. Being the polite student, he follows his former professor’s instructions. He sits dutifully in a chair, following Sidney’s steps and attempts to escape from the cuffs. To no avail, the cuffs won’t budge. Both Cliff and Myra are visibly nervous as Sidney casually looks for the key.

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Sidney breaks the palatable tension when he discovers the key. Myra and Cliff sigh and chuckle out loud with heavy relief. Sidney calls out the elephant in the room by openly pointing out that he suspects perhaps they thought he had no intention of finding the key. Just as they laugh off the awkward scene, Sidney strikes. Grabbing a rugged iron chain from his wall of torture, Sidney flings it around Cliff from behind, squeezing it tightly around his neck with all his strength. Cliff is thrust forward on the floor, struggling for his life. Sidney tightens his chain. Myra is screaming in terror as Cliff grasps at the blood chain.

This is just the beginning of many twists and turns to come. As promised, I won’t give away all the good spoilers. But I can assure you that one way or another, everyone gets what they deserve in scenes to come.

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Michael Caine is superb as selfish Sidney. He’s always been the master of vulnerable charm meets naughty villain. This performance proves that. Christopher Reeve excels in this role that requires quite a range from naive student to calculating sociopath. Quite a bold move, and a smart one, for Reeve when he was at the peak of popularity in the ongoing Superman series. As for Canon, she was actually nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award for “Worst Supporting Actress” for her performance here. I must say I found her constantly jumpy, screeching and submissive behavior incredibly annoying. But to her credit, that’s exactly what the role needed to further support credibility to Sidney’s motivation and dominant personality.

Here are some imdb tidbits of trivia:

-The name of the psychic ‘Ten Dorp’ is an anagram for ‘portend’ which means a phenomenon that is believed to foretell the future.

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-The exteriors of the beautiful home of Sidney and Myra Bruhl in the film was portrayed by a lavish mansion on Long Island complete with its own old-world windmill. Interiors of the house were filmed at the Pathe Studios in New York’s East Harlem. The stage scenes that bookend the film were filmed at Music Box Theatre on 239 West 45th Street, New York where the ‘Deathtrap’ stage-play was still running. The ‘Deathtrap’ play’s set was used for the two theatrical stage sequences in this film.

-According to director Sidney Lumet, “A melodrama like ‘Deathtrap’ requires a different set of movie muscles. You shoot, write, act and edit for story. The object is to have fun and, if you take yourself seriously, you’re dead. The line between good mystery and good comedy is very thin, a knife edge. Both take delicate timing. And when an audience is really scared, their natural reaction is to laugh.”

– Film and stage director Robert Moore who directed the ‘Deathtrap’ stage-play on Broadway did not direct this film version which was directed by Sidney Lumet. Moore had for the movies directed the related genre piece Murder by Death (1976) written by Neil Simon but was actually still directing ‘Deathtrap’ as well as ‘Woman of the Year’ on Broadway when this movie was made and released.

-Michael Caine once described his character of Sidney Bruhl in this movie: “He’s a very successful mystery writer, with expensive tastes and a sick wife, whose macabre muse has deserted him. He has always assumed that committing crime on paper siphons one’s hostilities. But now, after a lifetime of vicarious murder, Bruhl finds himself fantasizing the real thing. Even so, I kept asking myself – how do you explain his strange behavior? Childhood trauma? A deep-rooted compulsion? The stigma of a name like Sidney? No, that’s all too simple. The answer is that he’s mad – stark raving mad! It’s a lovely role.”

-Christopher Reeve once commented on his Clifford Anderson character he plays in this movie: “There’s a certain ‘gee whiz’ quality about Clifford when you first meet him. But once you get to know him better – an experience that’s just about as comfortable as dining with the Borgias – he’s a very peculiar fellow.”

-Michael Caine once said of this movie: “We all swore an oath in blood – well, perhaps it was chablis – not to spoil the fun by running off at the mouth. This thing has more twists than the Grand Corniche. And there is nothing worse than seeing a mystery after some twit has told you the butler did it. That’s hypothetical, of course. There’s no butler in ‘Deathtrap’. We’re very democratic that way.”

This review was my tardy submission to the CMBA Spring Blogathon: Words! Words! Words! And while it may be debatable as to whether this is a classic, it was made over thirty years ago, and something about this film has always had a classic-era feel to me. I love all the twists and turns, not unlike a fun Agatha Christy mystery, but here the murdering mayhem keeps us guessing for most of the film.

Final Week of 31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon: PICTURES/DIRECTORS

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It’s been a fabulous month of entries in our mega blogging event that celebrates everything Oscar. We’ve paid tribute to extraordinary ACTING, expressed outrage over OSCAR SNUBS, celebrated those talented CRAFTS artisans and now… we’ve come to our final week as we pay homage to Oscar-worthy PICTURES and master DIRECTORS.

Just like those last few nail-biting minutes of the Oscars ceremony, let’s honor the very best of the best. Here are this week’s terrific contributors:

PICTURES: 

Classic Film Observations & Obsessions finds “The Unexpected Beauty in SHANE (1953)”

Cracked Rear Viewer serves up some “Rough Justice: THE FRENCH CONNECTION (20th Century Fox 1971)”

Thoughts All Sorts reviews an all-time fave with THE STING

Pop Culture Pundit takes us on a journey with “Finding Elaine: UC Berkley in THE GRADUATE (1967)”

Old Hollywood Films reviews one of John Ford must beautiful masterpieces, “How Green Was My Valley”

Movie Rob revisits some of Oscar’s most popular films… TITANTIC (1997), FORREST GUMP (1994),  SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946), THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)

Sister Celluloid shares an intimate and fond memory of her father via celluloid with “Saying Goodbye to my Dad and CASABLANCA” 

Danny Reviews takes on a heart-breaking comparison with “Motion Pictures (Away From Her vs. Amour: Alzheimers and Dementia on Screen)”  

Jack Deth, guest blogger on Paulas Cinema Club, takes an detailed perspective on “The Films of 1987”

DIRECTORS:

Leading Auteur Directors honors the legend who rose to the challenge when we needed him most, Howard Hawks At War

Silver Screenings gives us a special treat with “Frank Borzage’s Spiritual Oscar-Winning Romance”

Danny Reviews takes a fascinating look at “Directors (Lina Wertmuller/ Giancarlo Giannini films)”

As we wrap up on this Oscar Sunday, a profound THANK YOU to all of our creative and talented contributors to this month-long event. We know in this rapidly growing blogathon world, writers have many choices so we appreciate you joining ours in the mix! It’s been a fun four years of honoring not only everything Oscar, but to coordinate nicely with Turner Classic Movie network’s 31 Days Of Oscar broadcast event. And of course a huge THANK YOU to my fellow co-hosts Aurora of Once Upon A Screen and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club! See you in the blogathon sphere…

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THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943) Kiss- Is it HOT in here??

It’s Valentine’s Day weekend. For some, that means honoring friendships by going out with a group of girlfriends, for young ones it’s likely exchanging cards and heart-shaped candy. For the romantic celebrators, perhaps dinner, flowers and those pretty Hallmark cards are in store. (Forgive the shameless plug- we’re a Hallmark family.)

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Gustav Klimt’s CITY PARK. Photo credit: MOMA

As for me, I became engaged on Valentine’s in New York City in front of a beautiful Gustav Klimt painting at the MOMA. So this day holds a special place in my heart. What better way to celebrate a day devoted to love than to watch a steamy kissing scene from a romantic comedy classic film? As part of the “You Must Remember This… A Kiss Is Just A Kiss Blogathon” hosted by Second Sight Cinema, let’s discuss George Stevens’ THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943).

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This romantic comedy is a charming movie centered on what happens to three strangers forced to room together due to the housing shortage in Washington DC during World War II. Jean Arthur is Connie Milligan, an exacting young woman who has her entire future figured out. Or so she thinks. She begrudgingly takes in two new tenants- Charles Coburn as Benjamin Dingle and Joel McCrea as Joe Carter, who do everything in their power to slowly dismantle Connie’s preconceived notions of her flavorless, beige future.

Connie has been engaged to Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines) for several years. He’s older than her by many years. She refers to their future marriage like a business plan, with all the focus on HIS plans for success. She even refers to him constantly as ‘Mr. Pendergast.’ Despite her loyal and defensive stance in discussing her fiancé, it’s immediately obvious to her roomies there isn’t an ounce of passion in her relationship with Mr. Pendergast. But we all see there’s a lot of feisty passion and romance potential untapped in Connie Milligan. Mr. Dingle does his best to show Connie that although stubborn and determined otherwise, she deserves so much more. So he constantly and annoyingly pokes, prods and chips away at the veneer of her ‘in denial’ mask. Meanwhile, chemistry is brewing between Connie and Joe as Mr. Dingle plays cupid as part of his master plan.

Sparks begin to fly. The fiery heat is most evident in the ‘stoop kissing scene.’ Many film fans have a favorite scene they claim as the most romantic or most sexy of the many kissing moments in classic celluloid. But for me, this particular scene in THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943) reigns at the very top. The sexual tension is steamy and palatable.

Let’s take a look at this scene (click on link below) and watch Joel McCrea’s hands carefully the entire time. His hands are always attentive, always touching her. At first they are simply talking and walking down the street. But listen to what she’s saying. Initially she keeps asking casually about what gals he may have back home. What she’s actually doing is eliminating any potential competition. She continues chatting while gently and seamlessly blocking his advancements. When he puts his hand on her shoulder, she shifts and twists, leaving the fur stole in his hands. Without skipping a beat, he carries her fur and attempts again. It’s very much like a dance. The chemistry continues to build.

They stop and face each other. We are peering at them through V-shaped tree branches. It feels intimate to the point we’re invading their privacy, like a secret lovers’ stolen moment. He leans in. They both speak softly, sweetly. He’s close enough to go in for a kiss. She slowly turns away. Meanwhile, she continues to ask detailed questions as to why he hasn’t married anyone back home.

The dance and the topic of marriage continues, now sitting on the brownstone porch stoop. He holds her hand. She notices her engagement ring and professes she predicts she’ll be happy being married to Mr. Pendergast. McCrea as Joe purrs agreement to every compliment she gives Mr. Pendergast as he literally kisses her ring hand. The contradictions are both hilarious and also leaves us (and Arthur as Connie) breathless as the sexual tension mounts.

The camera zooms in for a close up. She rattles on about Mr. Pendergast’s resume and Joe goes in to kiss her neck, exposed from her lace strapless dress. She’s rattled. She’s breathy as she muddles her words and her eyes start to roll up, just before she pauses to close her eyes and open-mouthed exhale. (Need any smelling salts yet??)

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The conversation proceeds on the most dull topics like her cousin’s stamp collection and Pendergast. Meanwhile, Joe’s working both of his hands. One wrapped around her, the other gently cradling her face and neck. She’s leaning in, both her hands on his chest and arm. Nearly four minutes into this hand dance, he finally kisses her on the lips. She struggles to pretend they’re just talking by finishing her sentence. But she’s only human. She can no longer hold back the tidal wave of sexual chemistry. She  turns to him, grabs his face and passionately kisses him.

She’s out of breath as she announces she must go. Stands up, bids him goodnight and formally addresses him as “Mr. Carter” and walks in the building. In turn, Joe wishes her the same, in the same formal address. He puts on his fedora, starts to walk away when Connie opens the door ajar and peeps out. Joe looks up: “I almost forgot where I live.”

The Stoop Kissing Scene (video clip)

I won’t go into fine details on the rest of the film as this is a scene review, not a film review. But I assure you, there are plenty of charming and funny scenes to go around in this sweet film. Charles Coburn deservedly won an Oscar for Actor in a Supporting Role for his delightfully meddling and mischievous cupid character. There were also five Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing Screenplay, Best Writing Original Story, and Best Actress in a Leading Role (Jean Arthur).

Enjoy reading all the other entries in this kissable blogathon. I wish you all a fun, feisty, sassy, sexy, romantic or whatever-you-wish-it-to-be Valentine’s celebration this weekend with these parting words… DAMN THE TORPEDOS, FULL SPEED AHEAD!! (Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean after watching this film.)

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Ford & Duke Bromance: STAGECOACH (1939)

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Hollywood is known for many storied collaborations. Duos that worked together so well that the results are of cinematic legends. Such is the case of director John Ford and actor John Wayne aka Marion Robert Morrison aka ‘the Duke.’ Theirs was a rugged bromance, often contentious and many would say dysfunctional; but hardly like those BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN boys.

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The two experienced a lifelong partnership that began with filming STAGECOACH (1939). Prior to this filming partnership, John Wayne had made eighty films yet was not even a big name. Up to that point, he only starred in various small roles and dozens of B level westerns. When David O Selznick was originally offered producer role, he wanted Gary Cooper (producer Walter Wanger’s pick) as the Ringo Kid and Marlene Dietrich as Dallas. Both Errol Flynn and Joel McCrea were considered for Ringo and Katherine Hepburn as Dallas. But Ford insisted on Wayne as soon as he felt the actor was ready. This was Ford’s first sound western. It was STAGECOACH (1939) that made John Wayne a household name.

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The story is a dramatic ride across the high desert, forcing a diverse group of strangers to get to know each other better, as they fight off their own prejudices, naive assumptions, the harsh terrain and waring Apache. This majestic western takes eight passengers on the Overland stage from Tonto to Lordsburg, New Mexico. Our diverse and fascinating travelers are: “Doc” Boone, a doctor with a drinking problem; Major Hatfield, a professional gambler and Southern gentleman; Dallas, a lady of ill repute forced out of Tonto by the gossiping spinster hens of town; a pregnant Mrs. Mallory, enroute to find her Army officer husband; Mr. Gatewood, a grouchy and absconding banker; Mr. Peacock, a feeble business man from Kansas City; Marshal Wilcox; his prisoner, the Ringo Kid, and Buck the driver.

  • Claire Trevor ~ Dallas
  • John Wayne ~ Ringo Kid
  • Andy Devine ~ Buck
  • John Carradine ~ Hatfield
  • Thomas Mitchell ~ “Doc” Josiah Boone
  • Louise Platt ~ Mrs. Lucy Mallory
  • George Bancroft ~ Marshal Curley Wilcox
  • Donald Meek ~ Mr. Samuel Peacock

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A critical character in this film not mentioned above is Monument Valley. Just like STAGECOACH (1939) marks the first collaboration of the Wayne-Ford partnership, it’s also the first of many historic Ford films on location in the spectacular Monument Valley in Arizona. As a matter of fact, there were no paved roads leading into Monument Valley prior to making this film. The visions of sagebrush, panoramic array of buttes, and the most stunning clouds billowing across the horizon defies the art of a Van Gogh. Its beauty is so striking it often distracts, taking center stage in every scene possible.

What works well in this film besides the dramatic plot points and thundering action is the breaks of comedic moments mingled amongst the colorful cast of characters. The contrast and tension between the characters is as palatable as it is charming. A stand out pairing contrasts John Wayne as the Ringo Kid and Claire Trevor as Dallas.

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Sometimes the social outcasts are the most well-mannered and hardest-working in the bunch

She’s been kicked out of town for her ‘whorish ways’ as is the doctor for his drinking and unconventional style. It’s fugitive the Ringo Kid, picked up along the way, who acts more humanely and well-mannered to Dallas than the others. He only sees her kindness, strength and beauty while the others shun her. He chooses to view her as a lady and naively never realizes she’s a prostitute. Based on her behavior on the ride, she deserves his admiration. Ringo Kid is treated with greater esteem, ironic for being a man who just escaped prison, attempting seek revenge against the men who killed his family. But based on his behavior on this journey, he earns his respect. Ultimately, despite all the contrasting personaes, tight quarters and shared life-altering experiences, it brings each a slightly more enlightened understanding. And Ford more Oscars to come, and Wayne a launch to mega stardom.

Part of what made these two- Ford and Wayne- click was a mutual admiration and some commonalities. Both were no-nonsense fellas that leaned into the bigger-than-life imagery they enjoyed projecting on-screen. The fact that they were both Americans proud of their Irish heritage later resulted in their legendary collaboration, ensembled in an Irish dream team, for THE QUIET MAN. John Wayne’s Irish ancestry can be traced to his great-great-grandfather, Robert Morrison; who was born in County Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1782. His grandmother Maggie Brown was an Irish Catholic born in County Cork in 1848.

Ford was even more enthusiastic about his Irish roots. According to the Irish American Heritage Month site:

John Ford was born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth Maine on February 1, 1894. His parents were Gaelic speaking immigrants; Ford’s father, a saloonkeeper and a Democratic Party Ward boss, was born in Spiddal County Galway, his mother from the isle of Inishmore in the Aran Islands. Despite being one of eleven children, several of his siblings not surviving childhood, Ford grew up in reasonably comfortable surroundings. However, the slights and offenses that he and his family endured as Irish Americans in Yankee dominated New England forged a pugnacity that would mark his later life. In an era when all Americans were expected to assimilate, Ford took a defiant pride in his heritage and culture. As actor and fellow director, Orson Welles would observe, “(Ford) had chips on his shoulder like epaulets.”

Ford was a tough director and a tough man. He knew how to push actors’ buttons in order to get the results he desired on screen. It generally didn’t win him any popularity contests, especially from his female cast members as he was known to be notably harshest on them. (Maureen O’Hara being the rare exception because Ford knew she was as tough as the boys and the mutual respect was there, although neither were likely to admit it.) But for those who knew how to handle his gruff and bullying ways, those were the actors who remained loyal and could be seen repeatedly in his films for they knew he was one of the most skilled directors in Hollywood. This resulted in some of the most beautiful and iconic films ever made. John Wayne became synonymous as the face of these Ford classics.

Ford on the Duke:

“Duke is the best actor in Hollywood.”

Ford kept baiting Wayne during filming STAGECOACH, yelling at one point: “Don’t you know how to walk? You’re as clumsy as a hippo. And stop slurring your dialogue and show some expression. You look like a poached egg.” Privately Ford said of Wayne at the time: “He’ll be the biggest star ever”.

According to imdb on their relationship on this set, Ford called him a “big oaf” and a “dumb bastard” and continually criticized his line delivery and manner of walking, even how he washed his face on camera. However, at least part of this was to provoke the actor into giving a stronger performance; Claire Trevor recalls how Ford grabbed Duke by the chin and shook him. “Why are you moving your mouth so much?” he said. “Don’t you know you don’t act with your mouth in pictures? You act with your eyes.” Wayne tolerated the rough treatment and rose to the challenge, reaching a new plateau as an actor. Ford helped cement the impression that Wayne makes in the film by giving him plenty of expressive reaction shots throughout the picture.

Duke on Ford:

His behavior on set angered Wayne, who said of the director “I was so f–king mad I wanted to kill him.”

“I don’t think John Ford had any kind of respect for me as an actor until I made “Red River” for Howard Hawks. I was never quite sure what he did think of me as an actor. I know now, though. Because when I finally won an Oscar for my role as Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit”, Ford shook my hand and said the award was long overdue me as far as he was concerned. Right then, I knew he’d respected me as an actor since “STAGECOACH”, even though he hadn’t let me know it. He later told me his praise earlier, might have gone to my head and made me conceited, and that was why he’d never said anything to me, until the right time.”

“John Ford was like a father to me, like a big brother. I got word that he wanted to see me at his home in Palm Springs, and when I got there, he said, “Hi Duke, down for the deathwatch?” “Hell no,” I said, “you’ll bury us all.” But he looked so weak. We used to be a triumvirate – Ford and me and a guy named Ward Bond. The day I went to Palm Springs, Ford said, “Duke, do you ever think of Ward?” “All the time,” I said. “Well, let’s have a drink to Ward,” he said. So I got out the brandy, gave him a sip and took one for myself. “All right, Duke,” he said finally, “I think I’ll rest for a while.” I went home, and that was Pappy Ford’s last day.”

Obviously their love/hate relationship was one only they fully understood. Or perhaps they didn’t. Perhaps they were just a couple of good drinking buddies that knew how to bring out the best in each other, even if in dysfunctional ways; to make memorable movie magic. To sum up the symbiotic collaboration of the John Ford/John Wayne filmography, all you really have to do is watch all of their mutual films. The results speak loud and clear up on that silver screen.

*Tandem Tumbleweed Thought to Consider~ Quentin Tarantino’s recent HATEFUL EIGHT features eight characters who are mostly strangers to each other, all thrown together as traveling companions along in an Overland stagecoach who make a pitstop and face extreme danger which forces them to learn more about each other. Sound familiar? It’s a surprisingly similar parallel to the basic story structure in STAGECOACH. While the social dynamics in HATEFUL EIGHT are much more ‘hateful’ and bloody, it makes me wonder if QT is a fan of Ford’s STAGECOACH, in addition to his spaghetti western love, and found some inspiration here.

**This was my contribution to CINEMAVEN’S ESSAYS FROM THE COUCH, Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, Jan 23-24, 2016. Explore all the fun and creative contributions on Theresa’s site this weekend.

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Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE (1933)

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It doesn’t get much more ‘Pre-Code’ than Barbara Stanwyck and her role in Alfred E. Green’s BABY FACE (1933). Decades later many have since crowned her the reigning queen of Pre-code after this film stirred up the censors in its direct look at the female power of sex.

Barbara Stanwyck is Lily Powers who has been raised by her slimy, abusive father (Robert Barrat as Nick Powers) in his illegal speakeasy in a hell-hole of a steel mill town of Pennsylvania, covered in black soot. Instead of going home to their families after factory shifts, the working men spend their hard-earned pay on beer and sometimes Lily is on the menu too, as her father has been prostituting her out from the age of fourteen. She’s young and beautiful but jaded and emotionally hardened by her bleak life.

Her only friend is Chico (Theresa Harris), who works at the speakeasy. When Powers attempts to fire Chico after she accidentally breaks some glasses, Lily threatens to leave. He barks: “I’m you’re father!” Lily quickly responds back, “That’s MY tough luck.” The only man in her life that hasn’t tried to exploit her, Cragg (Alphonse Ethier) introduces her books, specifically Nietzsche.

When the crowd has cleared out after a long night, a weasley big shot walks in. Chico: “He’s a big politician, ain’t he?” Lily: “He’s a big something and it ain’t no politician.” Soon he finds his opportunity to make a move with Lily. Even after pouring coffee on his hand and walking to another room and closing the door, the slimy politician pursues her. When she rebuffs a second time he insults, “Exclusive you are. The sweetheart of the night…everybody knows about you.”  She walks into the other room and pours herself a beer where he pursues and she rejects a third time- this time he grabs her from behind and she breaks a beer bottle over his head.

We see the father outside looking at his watch then he smiles. Earlier the politician hands him money. We know Powers not only prearranged for Lily to be prostituted out for the politician after a long night of slinging beer but it’s clear there is no ethical conflict for the father, just dollar signs. When the politician angrily walks outside nursing his head wound, he promises Powers he’ll no longer provide protection from the law for his illegal establishment and they’ll shut him down.

Powers is furious; he confronts Lily inside, insults her, threatens to throw her out and even to kill her. She remains emotionless, keeps her back to him. “What’s stopping you?” she states fearlessly. In the same conversation where he professes his ‘sacrifice’ of how he raised her without her mother (she’s in a ‘better place’), he adds the cherry to the chat by calling her a tramp. Lily: “Yeah, I’m a tramp and who’s to blame? My father. A swell start you gave me. Ever since I was fourteen, what’s it been? Nothing but men. Dirty, rotten men. And you’re lower than any of them. I’ll hate you as long as I live.” 

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Just then Chico runs in to say the still is smoking. Powers runs down to inspect and it explodes in his face, killing him instantly. After the funeral, Lily meets with Cragg. He asks what her future plans are and she suggests a bleak future of working as a stripper is her only fate. He’s frustrated with her and reasserts his Nietzsche philosophy. With only four bucks to her name she’s defeated, “what chances does a woman got?” Cragg empowers her, “More than a man. A woman, young, beautiful like you. You have power over the men. But you must USE men. You must be the master, not a slave.” He quotes from his book, ” all life no matter how we idealize it is nothing more than exploitation.”  He adds, “That’s what I’m telling you to exploit yourself. Use men! Be defiant! Exploit yourself to get the things you want!”

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Chico and Lily go train hopping, bound for New York. When a railman discovers them in a car, he threatens to kick them off the train and 30 days in jail to boot. This is the moment Lily begins to apply her sexual prowess as a tool to exploit men and get what she needs. She smiles, “now why don’t we sit down and talk this thing over.” Chico starts singing softly and walks to the opposite corner of the car, as we see the railman’s gloves come off and his latern dim.

Once in New York, Lily spies the tallest bank building she can find and the climb up the career and social ladder begins. She flirts with a cop on the beat to find the right floor to begin her ascent. On 47th floor in the Personnel department, she gets into an interview by seducing a Mr. Pratt (no, that’s not how I met my husband). When he asks if she has any experience, she rolls her eyes with a deadpan, “PLENTY.” She literally sleeps her way up the building, leaping two floors at a time.

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She wastes no time going from the Filing department with a young John Wayne (he’s the one who labels her “Baby Face”) to a Mr. Brody (Douglass Dumbrille) to make her way up to the Mortgage Dept. In her exploitation quest, she is caught with Mr. Brody in the ladies room after hours, by his boss, Mr. Ned Stevens (Donald Cook). Brody is immediately fired but she skillfully talks her way out by claiming to be the innocent victim. Stevens proves to be a bigger challenge because he’s reputed to be unlike other men with his high ideals and he’s engaged to his boss’s (Henry Kolker as Mr. Carter) daughter. Any other woman would find this a challenge, that is- not Lily. We soon discover Stevens is not so much of the high ideals as assumed.

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another seduction

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tools of the trade, ploy as an innocent victim

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Lily masterfully uses Stevens to aquire an even more prosperous exploitation gains in the Accounting dept. From here, she utilizes Steven’s engagement against him to seduce her way to even higher prospects. Without giving away any more details, things get even more remarkable in Lily’s undaunted ambitions.

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Still a maid, but Chico is also treated like a friend. Lily remains loyal and protective of her and shares some of her ill-gotten gains.

It’s only in the last 26 minutes of the film are we introduced to the only man who sees through her schemes, George Brent as Courtland Trenholm grandson of the founder and new President of the bank. Well, at first. Even when she’s booted to Paris to take a job instead of a scandal bribe/payoff, she manages her wiles to make the ultimate con- charming and then marrying Trenholm. He honestly loves her and in the end, she discovers he’s the only man she loves too.

What stands out in BABY FACE is first and foremost, Barbara Stanwyck. Her performance is astonishingly believable even when the circumstances are not. She is ruthless in her pursuits and who else could you believe would seduce that many men, all in the same building (does NO ONE gossip at the water cooler??) and have them yearning desperately for more, even when she leaves them in her rear view mirror without as much as a goodbye. Here’s how you know she’s an incredible actress- in addition to her jaded, often emotionless characterizations she evolves by the film’s end into a very human, emotional, and compelling woman. In a way only Barbara can show us.

For me, this film begs many questions and prompts deeper discussions that could apply even to today’s standards.:

Who is the “bad guy” here? Who or what should we blame for Lily’s path? Here’s a list of suspects:

Alcohol: This film was released the same year Prohibition was appealed. It’s hard to say how much this was an influence politically. But certainly everyone had a strong opinion on the matter at that time. There’s no doubt alcohol plays a role, not only as the ‘speakeasy lifestyle’ as a main ingredient in Lily’s dysfunctional childhood, but also later when she uses it as a tool when wooing her prey and they do so to her.

Bad Parenting/ aka Mr. Powers: Let’s face it, Lily’s father was the worst. It doesn’t help that her mother was not present in her life. Lily finds no fault in her mother’s absence but lays the blame firmly on abusive dad. Lily says her mother is better off dead than a life with him. And a life where you’ve been literally ‘whored out’ by your own father since the age of fourteen, it’s not a tough argument for bad parenting.

-Bankers: With exception of the railman on their journey to New York, every man she ‘used’ to reach her goals was not just a man but a banker. Keep in mind this film took place in the heart of the Great Depression. Trust of the banking industry was at an all-time low. Not a stretch to imagine this was a nod of the political pulse. Audiences likely found these particular men more palatable to be ‘used and disposed of’ than if from another industry.

-Nietzsche:  Not exactly an uplifting message, the Nietzsche philosopy does serve a purpose to thrust Lily forward to believing she has a future in the world. Bit extreme and misguided? Perhaps. But the argument remains- is she better off exploiting herself for her own gains or allowing others to prostitute her without her permission. Or- bottom line, is she still a prostitute?

-Lily/ aka loose or any nonconformist women: It would be easy to blame Lily herself as she is often portrayed as predator, not the innocent victim. But is she? Not innocent, but she’s still a victim of what society has handed her. Many conservative voices at the time likely challenged her choices as a slap in the face to the traditional woman, as a symbolic core to the family. A challenge to the institution of marraige, as well. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t give Lily options to use independence and ambition with happy results.

All of this begs other questions. Is this a feminist or anti-feminist film? On one hand, BABY FACE (1933) not so subtly promotes a negative vision of what happens when a woman seeks a darker path of ambition and promiscuity. Then again, it also shows what her life would be like if she hadn’t sought an empowered attitude. She would be left broke and stripping for a living in the same dingy town with all those same dirty, rotten men. Both paths would be immoral and demeaning to any woman. Is there a middle ground she could’ve chosen to find success? It’s hard to imagine because the early 30’s was not exactly an easy or profitable time for a career women. (Is it now?) While she did find love in the end, it took a lot of moral compromises to get there.

Also… Is this film realistic? Would this approach work today? Would she actually find more obstacles in a modern, more feminist world? As far as realism goes, I found her dire situation very plausible. Back then and unfortunately even now. It doesn’t have to be an illegal drinking establishment to find abusive, dysfunctional families that take advantage of young women. Her solution to sleep her way to prosperity is not unique. I would imagine this has been attempted by many over the decades since BABY FACE. But to the level of speed and progress as Lily, I think you’d have to only be Barbara Stanwyck to lure that many men that efficiently. All within one company and one building? Maybe not even Stanwyck could pull that off today. I’ll also debate that today’s modern world might have too many sexual harassment policies to allow Lily’s strategy.

More than eight decades have passed since BABY FACE (1933) but have women in situations similar to Lily found better solutions? Are women better off today than they were in 1933? In some ways, most certainly. In other ways, Lily serves as a reminder we still have much work to do. And thanks to this film, Barbara Stanwyck remains an unforgettable icon of the Pre-Code era, along with the full scope of her legendary career.

*This was my contribution to the REMEMBERING BARBARA STANWYCK BLOGATHON, hosted by In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood.

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