Universal Horrors: a Film Study

In the Autumn of 2022, I instructed a film study course on a selected filmography of Universal Pictures. I’ve been teaching for many years in the college town in Lawrence, Kansas. As I have done so across many topics of classic film, I start with an overview of the film genre, director including signature elements, historical context and background. Then we screen and discuss the films- like a book club for classic film. In this case, I guided the class through the most influential period of horror films. I’ll share my notes with you here- let’s start with the overview…


We’re embarking on a cinematic journey this Autumn that takes us back to the early pioneering days of horror films. Horror stories did not begin with cinema, nor did horror films initiate via sound films. But in the early years of “talkies,” there was one studio in particular- Universal Pictures- that created horror films so thrilling that they influenced the genre to this day.  

Through a study of the iconic films of this specific time and place, we will also take a deeper look into the artists, technology, and historical influences that helped create these masterpieces of the silver screen. Yes, we’ll enjoy the fright of these “monsters of madness” as we did in our youth, but perhaps we’ll walk away appreciating the art form and hopefully learn something, too.

Our films will be as scheduled:

Sept 6- Intro and Kevin Brownlow’s documentary, UNIVERSAL HORROR (1998), narrated by Kenneth Branagh

Sept 13- DRACULA (1931)

Sept 20- FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

Sept 27- THE MUMMY (1932)


Oct 11- THE BLACK CAT (1934)





You cannot discuss the early years of Universal studio without Carl Laemmle. Laemmle was born on January 17, 1867 as Karl Lammle in (what is now) Germany. He emigrated to the United States in 1884, working in Chicago. 20 years would pass (he also worked bookkeeping awhile in Oshkosh, WI) when he started in the motion picture industry- first in distribution by buying up a string of nickelodeons*, under the title, “Laemmle Film Service.” He expanded west and into Canada. But he resented having to pay royalties to Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company. He moved into film production and founded IMP (Independent Motion Picture Co.) out of New York. Like many other struggling independent producers (such as future studio heads Jesse L. Lasky and Adolph Zukor), Laemmle fought Edison and his “General Film Company” (aka “the Trust”) in hundreds of legal action cases. He fought against Edison’s monopolization tactics. And won. While others headed west to Hollywood to avoid the Edison battles, in 1912, Laemmle co-founded Universal Pictures in the heart of the American filmmaking industry… Fort Lee, New Jersey.  

*[A nickelodeon was a pioneering pre-cursor to the modern-day movie theater. Brief in time, the height of popularity was from 1905 to 1913. For a nickel, audiences could enter converted retail space that was elaborately plastered in promotional posters on the outside but bare inside, minus the hard wooden chairs. In competition with vaudeville houses, the films were 10 to 15 minutes in length and showcased a variety of content. As spectators demanded more, intertitles became more frequently used and the movies grew in length, ushering in “features.” Motion pictures were evolving into longer, more coherent stories, and audiences upscaled into bigger venues that offered comfortable seating for those longer features and a nickel was no longer enough.]  

The years 1912 to 1914 was a fast and furious period of change and growth for Carl Laemmle. IMP morphed into Universal Pictures. A few additional independents were included in this transition. During this time, Laemmle moved his filming operations from the east coast to California- which included both Hollywood and “Oak Crest Ranch” in San Fernando valley. By 1914, he built an entirely new studio in Hollywood for Universal Pictures at the “Taylor Ranch.”  

Up until 1925, “Universal City” was the largest, most productive studio in the world. “Uncle Carl” as he was often called, treated his studio like family. Quite literally, as he employed family members frequently, including his nephew William Wyler. His son Carl, Jr. would step up in production roles (head of production from 1929 to 1936) and his niece Carla had a bit part in DRACULA (1931)- the first speaking lines in Universal’s first horror talkie.


The monster films at Universal began with Lon Chaney in the 1920s with hits like HUNCHBACK of NOTRE DAME (1923) and PHANTOM of the OPERA (1925). With well over a hundred roles for Universal, Chaney proved that not only was he “a man of a thousand faces” with his unparalleled artistry in makeup, and mastery of pantomime, but he also possessed magnetic acting prowess. By 1917, Chaney’s contract with Universal was allowed to lapse and he was a free agent. His career progressed untethered with some of his very best work with both MGM and Universal studios. His trajectory came to a screeching halt when his health issues intervened. He died of cancer in 1930, resulting from a throat hemorrhage.  

By the end of the 1920s, the film industry had embraced sound productions as its exhilarating new future. Jewish German emigrant Carl Laemmle, motivated by the threat of Hitler’s rise of power, pushed hard to make a serious anti-war film, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930). It won Universal’s very first Academy Award for Best Picture that following year. With Lon Chaney’s absence, Universal needed to find a replacement for audience’s growing fascination for horror. Soon, actor Boris Karloff and makeup genius Jack Pierce would forever alter Universal history. But, not before a thick-accented Hungarian would come along to set the tone. Instrumental in creating these epic Pre-Code monsters, directors including Tod Browning and James Whale would bring their visions to the big screen.

Making up from losses from the Depression combined with overspending on productions (“Junior” had the reputation of not controlling costs he incurred with his successful talkies), both Sr. and Jr. Laemmle were forced out in 1936. Carl Laemmle died in 1939 at the age of 72 years old. Universal would rebound, and even shed new light on their beloved monsters- often via comedy. 

Another legacy that Carl Laemmle must be remembered for was his life-saving humanitarian actions. From 1932 to his death in 1939, Laemmle personally saved over 300 Jewish families- that’s more than 1,000 men, women, and children- from Nazi extermination. Like an American version of Oskar Schindler, he fought the many obstacles of government red tape by personally financing their passage to the U.S., by housing them, and by signing affidavits to prove they would be covered and not a burden to Depression-worn United States. He also convinced his children and Hollywood friends to do the same on his behalf (although he was financing it) when the State Dept. grew concerned in case these refugees outlived their benevolent benefactor, “Uncle Carl.”     

We will explore seven films that each reflects the essential elements and style of these early Universal horrors. We will further discuss:

-German expressionism**

-European influence (and “the Nazi problem”)

-Pre-Code elements

-sex factor in horror

-story origins

-the Great Depression

-supernatural themes (religion vs secular) and religious objections

-tricks of the trade

-less is more with horror

-mad scientists, “the outsider,” and other themes

-Boris Karloff

-Jack Pierce makeup artistry

-Bela Lugosi

-Karl Freund

-Tod Browning

-James Whale

-sequels, spinoffs, parodies, teaming up characters (monster mashups), and enduring influences

** By definition, German Expressionism “was an artistic movement that began in earnest at the start of the 20th century. It is characterized by the use of twisted shapes, vivid colors, and jarring contrasts to create images with emotional intensity.” What exactly does that mean? Visual elements that are hyper exaggerated and reflective of the fears and inner angst of the German society of the 1920s can be best described via on-screen examples such as: THE CABINET of DR. CALIGARI (1920), NOSFERATU (1922), METROPOLIS (1927). We will revisit terms like ‘German Expressionism’’ as we delve deeper into each film and the artists.   



1931… DRACULA, DRACULA (Spanish version), FRANKENSTEIN



















PAUL LYNDE: Sardonic Clown

It’s difficult to say what role I first discovered Paul Lynde. I was born in the winter of 1966, and throughout my childhood in the late sixties and seventies, he was everywhere. Never a leading man, yet he was a standout in small roles in the most popular films, tv shows, and game shows. For a comedic actor who always got the minor roles, he was so beloved that he had his own television show- even his own Halloween special.

Paul Edward Lynde was born June 13, 1926 into a large family (2 sisters and 3 brothers) in Mount Vernon, Ohio. His parents were Hoy Corydon Lynde and Sylvia Bell Doup. His father owned and operated a meat market and was also a local police officer, including time spent as the sheriff of the jail. Both Hoy and Sylvia died in 1949, months apart, in their early 50s. The family tree bad ticker would be passed down as an early death for their son, Paul, too.

Inspiration for a life as an entertainer came early to Paul. When he was barely five years old, his mother took him to see the dramatic silent epic Ben-Hur (Ben-Hur: The Tale of Christ, 1925). His dreams were locked in from that moment forward. He was musically inclined- played the bass drum in the Mount Vernon High School band. Paul graduated from Northwestern University in 1948 where he studied drama, then made his way to New York City. His fellow Northwestern classmates included Cloris Leachman, Jeffrey Hunter, and Patricia Neal. Upon revealing his plans for pursuing an acting career in the ‘big apple,’ PL was quoted, “my dad hit the roof and I hit the road, simultaneously.” After juggling odd jobs, he started doing stand-up acts in the supper club, “Number One Fifth Avenue,” then eventually landed acting on Broadway.

His big Broadway break was in the musical revue, “New Faces of 1952” which included comedy and musical skits and introduced rising newcomers Eartha Kitt, Alice Ghostley, Robert Clary, and Carol Lawrence. After hundreds of runs, it was later filmed as, “NEW FACES” in 1954. In 1956, Lynde co-starred with Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett in the sitcom, “Stanley” and “The Martha Raye Show.”

The 1960s was Paul Lynde’s sweet spot. He was constantly working on every medium, in high-demand. He began his role as the father Harry MacAfee on the original Broadway production of “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1960. He would later reprise that same role in the popular 1963 film. Noting the eclipsing popularity of co-star Ann-Margret, Lynde recalled, “I was in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ on Broadway – played the father. I was in the film version, but they should have retitled it ‘Hello, Ann-Margret!’ They cut several of my and the other actors’ best scenes and shot new ones for her so she could do her teenage-sex-bombshell act.”

In 1960, he wrote and released a comedy album, “Recently Released.” All six tracks are his original material. But, television would be his most popular home during this decade. Starting in the early sixties, he would pop up as a familiar face on variety shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Dean Martin Show,” and many sitcoms including “The Munsters,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Gidget,” “That Girl,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “The Phil Silvers Show,” “The Patty Duke Show,” “The Flying Nun,” and “F Troop.” He was also a regular on “The Red Buttons Show” and various Perry Como shows/specials.

This decade ushered in his film career beyond BYE BYE BIRDIE (1963), with hits like: SON OF FLUBBER (1963), UNDER THE YUM YUM TREE (1963), FOR THOSE WHO THINK YOUNG (1964), SEND ME NO FLOWERS (1964), BEACH BLANKET BINGO (1965), THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966), and HOW SWEET IT IS! (1968). Two of these films he co-starred with my personal favorite funny leading lady, Doris Day.

In his typical scene-stealing hilarity, Lynde performs in drag for a bathroom scene. He noted,” I had a drag scene in Doris Day’s The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). An elegant gown. Actually, it was more expensive than any of the ones Doris had to wear. That day that I came in fully dressed and coiffed, I was the belle of the set! Everybody went wild! Doris came over and looked me up and down and told me, ‘Oh, I’d never wear anything that feminine.'”

Beginning in 1965, Paul Lynde took on his most famous television role, Uncle Arthur on “Bewitched.” He was so beloved as the prankster warlock that many would assume his performances well outnumbered the only 11 episodes he acted. In fact, his initial role on “Bewitched” was a completely different role. During the first-season episode “Driving is the Only Way to Fly” (air date March 25, 1965), he portrayed a mortal, “Harold Harold,” Samantha Stephens’s nerve-wrecked driving instructor. Audiences clamored for more Lynde. Star Elizabeth Montgomery and her husband director/producer of the show William Asher agreed. Thus the recurring “Uncle Arthur” was created. “The Joker is a Card” (air date October 14, 1965) was his debut. His final appearance was in “The House That Uncle Arthur Built” (February 11, 1971) in the series’ seventh season.

One of the most distinctive traits about Paul Lynde is his delivery of lines. His uniquely sarcastic, drawn-out speech often followed by his own laughter became his signature. This allowed him a career in animation. His voice work included one of my warm memories from my childhood, the cranky but lovable rat “Templeton” in “Charlotte’s Web” (1973). His other voice works include: “Mildew Wolf” from “Cattanooga Cats” (1969 – 1971, Hanna-Barbera), “Claude Pertwee” on “Where’s Huddles?” (1970, Hanna-Barbera), and “Sylvester Sneekly” on “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” (1969 – 1970, Hanna- Barbera).

His longest running role is undoubtedly on the game show, “The Hollywood Squares.” A simple premise of tic-tac-toe hosted by Peter Marshall premiering in 1966, Lynde was an immediate hit with his sharp one-liners that often took on a double-entendre edge. He was placed as “center square” regular on the show which provided a higher likelihood for his frequent appearances. The show ran for over a decade, with both daytime and primetime time slots. Lynde appeared in a whopping total of 707 shows. He left the program in 1979 over a dispute on salary, and was persuaded to return in 1980 after ratings slipped after his absence. He remained until the show’s cancelation in February of 1981.

His one-liners from those fifteen years on “The Hollywood Squares” are so hilarious they are still considered comedy gold to this day. You can find clips on YouTube and I highly recommend if you ever need a pick-me-up from an arduous day. (The Best of Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares: https://youtu.be/ebBh2pjpIXc )

Lynde’s life was not void of controversy and heartache. His sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood. His jokes were often veiled jabs at his closeted homosexuality. Hiding and then mocking his own sexuality was likely a major contributor to his own alcohol and drug abuse. Like so many brilliant artists that excel in comedy, there is often a mask hiding the pain. For Lynde, he lived in a time when Hollywood wanted queerness hidden- or the center of the party joke. Lynde had to deliver both.

Tragedy hit July 13, 1965 when Paul Lynde and his friend, a 24 yo struggling actor from Nebraska James “Bing” Davidson, returned to their hotel room at the Sir Drake hotel in San Francisco after a night of hard partying. Drunk and loud, Davidson was known for his pranks and tempted fate at the balcony. According to sfgate.com,

“Davidson, heavily intoxicated and in a jocular mood, turned to Lynde and told him, “Watch me do a trick.” Lynde watched, laughing, as Davidson opened the eighth-floor window and climbed out. For a moment, Lynde thought Davidson had his feet on a ledge down below. But then Davidson’s face turned ghastly and he gasped, “Help me, I’m slipping!” 

Lynde ran to the window, reaching for his friend’s wrists. Down below, a pair of passing beat cops heard screams and joined a gathering crowd staring up at the Sir Francis Drake. Davidson could be seen scrambling, trying desperately to boost his leg back up to the open window. He tried three times before his hands lost their weak grip and he fell to the pavement below. He died on impact.”

That horrible accident didn’t affect his career. But I have a hard time believing that Lynde’s mental health was not forever and deeply rocked by this event. Likely deepening his already present substance addictions. The 1970s brought fewer roles and more frequent public intoxications. After appearing as an occasional guest on “The Donny and Marie Show” (1976 – 1978) for a couple of years, Lynde engaged in a drunken argument with the police outside a local tavern and never appeared in the show again.

According to his biographers, Steve Wilson and Joe Florenski of “Center Square: The Paul Lynde Story,” (2005), Lynde was ‘Liberace without a piano’ and that most 70s viewers described him as “a frustrated bit player and character actor on a daytime game show.” Well, I certainly hope not.

By the early eighties, Paul was ready to become sober for a comeback. Yet it was too little, too late. Paul Lynde died of a massive heart attack at the age of 55 in 1982, discovered at his Beverly Hills home after failing to appear at a birthday party. He is interred at the Amity Cemetery in Mount Vernon, Ohio next to family, including his beloved brother Private Coradon Lynde, who died at the Battle of the Bulge in WW2. Paul’s estate was willed to his two surviving sisters.

Paul Lynde brings me so much joy whenever I see him, no matter how brief the role. To me, that level of scene-stealing talent is the very definition of “what a character!” I’ll leave you with a few highlights of Paul Lynde’s witty zingers…

Peter Marshall: “In “Alice in Wonderland,” who kept crying “I’m late, I’m late?” Paul Lynde: “Alice, and her mother is sick about it.”

Peter Marshall: “Paul, can you get an elephant drunk?” Paul Lynde: “Yes, but he still won’t go up to your apartment.”

Peter Marshall: “What is a pullet?” Paul Lynde: “A little show of affection…”

Peter Marshall: “Paul, Snow White…was she a blonde or a brunette?” Paul Lynde: “Only Walt Disney knows for sure…”

This article is my contribution to the 11th annual What A Character! Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of (https://aurorasginjoint.com/2023/01/08/what-a-chacracter-11-morning-edition/ )Once Upon a Screen/ @CitizenScreen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club/ @Paula_Guthat, and yours truly. We encourage you to read all the participating bloggers’ articles published throughout today.

A Dog, a Dinosaur Bone, and a Delinquent… Go to the Beach with BACHELOR FLAT (1962)

After an unusually cold April, May suddenly feels more like a scorching July and makes me yearn for the beach. Or, classic beach movies. When I nostalgically recall of summers of my youth, silly sex comedies of the 60s often filled my days. I wasn’t old enough to see them first-run so my screenings were likely a decade or two later, running in syndication on television. Squeezed in amongst the carefree flicks of Annette and Frankie and Elvis, I have fond memories of Frank Tashlin’s BACHELOR FLAT (1962).

The story is simple enough and whips along with chaotic energy, driven by the basic premise of mistaken identity… and sex. Starring Tuesday Weld, Richard Beymer, Terry-Thomas, and Celeste Holm, BACHELOR FLAT offered a popular cast. Terry-Thomas portrays British professor Bruce Patterson, a highly-disciplined and mild-mannered college professor who seeks the calm, simple life: digging up dinosaur bones, the serenity of his beach house, and the love of his fashion designer fiancee, Helen Bushmill (portrayed by Celeste Holm). Problems arise when this (until recently) lifelong, shy bachelor is hounded by sex-starved women; many are his students, who find his old school British accent and stoicism more than just charming- also challenging and irresistible. The professor rents his beach house from Helen while she’s out of the country, building her international fashion career. Helen also rents her parking pad adjacent to her beach house to law school student Mike Pulaski (Richard Beymer), who lives in his modest camper with his cute dachsund dog, “Jessica.” Trouble brews again when a seventeen year old girl named “Libby” (Tuesday Weld) shows up, who claims to be a street-wise teenager delinquent on the lam from the law. She manages to charm both bachelors Bruce and Mike before her true identity is revealed. Even sweet “Jessica” finds trouble in a way that echoes a famous dog (Skippy) character, “George” from BRINGING UP BABY (1938).

At the time of filming, Tuesday Weld was eighteen years old yet had been acting since early childhood- a childhood where she was expected to be the bread winner and grew up fast. Very fast. By the time she turned a mere twelve years old, she had already spent the last 2 years battling heavy drinking, love affairs, a nervous breakdown, and a suicide attempt. Her ability to play a teen role for many years, coupled with her acting skills and professionalism, kept her in high demand. Weld’s private life was about as famous as the roles she turned down, including: LOLITA (1962), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), TRUE GRIT (1969), CACTUS FLOWER (1969). In this film, she seems much older than her character’s high school senior status, even though she’s playing someone her own age. Not surprising.

Not even 2 months after wrapping up his role as “Tony” on WEST SIDE STORY (he was nominated for a Golden Globe for this performance, Best Actor, Comedy or Musical), Richard Beymer began production on this light comedy, filmed over at 20th Century Fox studios and on location along the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. No doubt this young actor was a hot ticket and on the rise to stardom. He was nominated in 1962 for another Golden Globe for “Most Promising Newcomer, Male” and a Golden Laurel award for “Top Male New Personality.” He continued to work, mostly in television, including his iconic return to the David Lynch famed “Twin Peaks” series (1989 – 1991, 2017). Beymer discovered his creativity exceeded beyond acting and pursued writing, cinematography, and filmmaking documentaries.

British born Terry-Thomas was an actor who found international appeal and fame. Born Thomas Terry Hoar-Stevens, he chose the stage name Terry Thomas when he tried his hand at theater after a long string of vocations that failed to pan out. He later added the hyphen, which he felt represented his signature gap between his teeth. With his trademark looks and catchphrases (“jolly good show”), Thomas was equally popular in films on this side of the pond. By the 1960s, he became a beloved actor in meatier character roles, often with a low-brow comedy edge, such as: IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1963), HOW TO MURDER YOUR WIFE (1965), THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES… (1965), HOW SWEET IT IS! (1968). Thomas was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1971. He tried to pick up parts here and there in the 1970s and 1980s, but it grew more difficult to act as the disease progressed. He became nearly destitute financially, selling off his estate, living in a meager flat with growing medical costs and unable to work. Friends and fellow actors created a fundraiser on his behalf so he could live out his days in dignity. He died in 1990 at the age of 78 years old.

Celeste Holm was a successful and prolific actress across stage, television, and film. She gave strong performances early in her film career including GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, 1947 (she won both an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for her performance as Best Actress in a Supporting Role), THE SNAKE PIT, 1948, COME TO THE STABLE, 1949 (she was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress in a Supporting Role), ALL ABOUT EVE, 1950 (again nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role). Starting early in the 1950s, Holm transitioned to mostly television roles for the rest of her career, which continued right up until her final year. She passed away at age 95 in 2012, after working over a hundred acting credits.

Holm was a popular actress with a highly likable screen persona but somehow got stuck always playing second fiddle to the lead. Ya know, that Eve Arden type who was a gal’s best pal who would repeatedly play the bridesmaid, but never the bride. (In regards to both Holm and Arden, I’d say I’m dumbfounded as to why these first-rate actors could ever be considered second bananas.) Interestingly, Celeste Holm is finally the bride in BACHELOR FLAT, although we never quite make it to the wedding. It’s disappointing we don’t see more of Holm in this picture, as we do the other main cast. I would blame the youth-focused 60s for pushing the Weld and Beymer romance more, but Thomas gets a lion’s share of screen time in comparison. Then again, he’s being chased by bikini-clad young women (who also look too old to be in school) so that may explain his more generous screen time.

Director Tashlin was ready for a rom-com in familiar waters. He began his directing career with animated Looney Tune features in the 1930s and 1940s. With a strong instinct for slapstick and physical comedy, Tashlin transitioned to feature films, directing films starring powerhouses such as Bob Hope, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Jayne Mansfield, and Doris Day.

Fascinating trivia. What do Marilyn Monroe and Debbie Reynolds have in common with this film? There’s a little mystery surrounding a dress worn by Roxanne Arlen as “Mrs. Roberts,” a neighbor. At first sight it is clearly a copy of one of the most famous dresses in fashion in film history, the ‘subway dress’ worn by Marilyn Monroe in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. But could it be the actual Marilyn dress designed by Travilla, which was later auctioned as part of the Debbie Reynolds collection? Was it loaned out by the studio for this film and altered to fit this actress? Many rumors and speculations have circled over the decades to this mystery. This article from The Marilyn Monroe Collection site breaks down the details. What do you think?

Is this the real deal- or a knock-off?

I believe 60s sex comedies are highly misunderstood. They’ve been given a bad rap as too silly and misogynistic. But I contend these films like BACHELOR FLAT are actually a parody of sexism and rooted in a deep history of physical comedy with nods to slapstick and screwball comedy. And who doesn’t long for the nostalgia of the summer flicks of our youth?


This piece on Frank Tashlin’s BACHELOR FLAT (1961) is my contribution to the CMBA (Classic Movie Blog Association) Spring Blogathon. I am a proud member of this group of talented writers. Please explore the other bloggers’ submissions for this year’s “Fun in the Sun” theme.

A Sunny Tribute…THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966)

When the classic film community discovered the sad loss of a beloved fellow blogger recently, Paddy aka Patricia Nolan-Hall of CAFTAN WOMAN, ANOTHER OLD MOVIE BLOG and LADY EVE’S REEL LIFE mobilized to create a blogathon to honor her memory.

When I think of Paddy, I am moved by her generosity and kindness. She was very committed to not only participating in nearly every single blogathon of her fellow bloggers, but she was also the most reliable blogger in our community to actually read all of our articles and reply with positive feedback. Her consistently kind and generous comments brought sunshine into all of our hearts. So, how do I possibly pick a theme or classic film to reflect her spirit?

It’s likely no secret that Doris Day is my favorite classic era actress. When I think of Doris Day, I would describe her as possessing many shared qualities as Paddy. I think they’d both appreciate a tribute via Frank Tashlin’s THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT (1966).

In the midst of the Russian/American space race (1957 – 1969), this film emerged, which reflected the pulse and the styles of the day, all with a light-hearted, comic twist. The silly premise involves Doris Day as a bubbly, clumsy widow, “Jennifer Nelson,” who works PR at an aerospace research lab while also working part-time on her dad’s (Arthur Godfrey) glass-bottomed boat as a “mermaid.” In one of her entertaining dives in the Catalina bay, she gets tangled up with Rod Taylor as “Bruce Templeton” – who turns out to be the genius inventor at the lab where she works. Romance blossoms and slapstick ensues as Taylor works to keep his top secret formula hidden from Russian spies. But could his new girlfriend be a space age Mata Hari herself?

Here’s my top reasons this film brings joy, worthy of Paddy’s sunny smile…

Physical Comedy. Director Frank Tashlin was no stranger to slapstick. His background prior to this film was directing cartoons for Warner Brothers from the 1930s and several Jerry Lewis films. When THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT runs through frenzied scenes of chaotic comedy and pantomime, it was by the director’s design. One such example is a silly, crazed scene between Doris Day and Dom DeLuise. He’s a technician up on a ladder. She’s carrying in a banana cream cake. You can imagine where it goes from there. Both Day (a PRO and veteran in physical comedy) and DeLuise (a relative newbie at this point) play this out with brilliance.

Character Actors Galore. For me, one sign of a great film, especially a classic comedy, includes a treasure trove of reliable supporting actors that really make a movie sing. In the 1960s and 1970s, many favorite character actors from the big screen found a plethora of work on the small screen, too. In this film, many are recognizable from popular tv series of the day including “Bewitched” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” You’ll recognize John McGiver (too many to list), Ellen Corby (of “The Waltons” fame), Edward Andrews (in addition to a ton of tv roles, he worked with Day in both THE THRILL OF IT ALL (1963) and SEND ME NO FLOWERS (1964)), Dick Martin (a comedian on the rise who would premiere “Laugh-In” two years later and eventually directed comedy tv series including “The Bob Newhart Show”), Paul Lynde (who co-starred with Day in SEND ME NO FLOWERS), plus George Tobias and Alice Pearce. They essentially reprised their “Bewitched” roles as Mr. and Mrs. Kravitz, with Pearce again as the neighborhood snoop. Both Tobias and Pearce worked frequently across stage, film, and tv. Alice Pearce began her on-screen career as the sniffling, chinless character in ON THE TOWN (1949) and ended it just 2 weeks after her final performance on the tv series “Bewitched,” losing her battle to ovarian cancer. She won an Emmy posthumously for her beloved nosy neighbor character. There’s also a Robert Vaughn cameo with a nod to “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” He pops in and out quickly, so don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

Paul Lynde in drag. In this era of Hollywood, drag was a gag. While used for humor, you just know Lynde was having the time of his life because he does it so well. He and Day pull off a rather funny bit in the ladies’ bathroom. Paul Lynde is one of the funniest comedy actors in the biz and he always delivers. Side note: I thought it was witty to use the “Templeton” name as Rod Taylor’s role because Day’s role in LOVER COME BACK (1961) is named “Carol Templeton.” And later, Lynde’s role as the gluttonous rat in the animated feature CHARLOTTE’S WEB (1973) was also named “Templeton.”

Spy spoof. This film was made when America was on course to reach the moon, with a contentious rivalry with Russia. Not unlike today, America was racing to master technologies first and held a deep mistrust of their biggest contender, Russia. The theme of the day was not only space age, but also of espionage. While the Cold War was an era of geopolitical tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States from 1947 to 1991, the James Bond books and subsequent films (first film, DR. NO released in 1962) were introduced, reflecting the tone of this time. As pop culture often dictates, comedies and parodies followed. While not as farcical as the spy parody CASINO ROYALE (1967), this film takes on these themes with a burst of comedic punch.

Homes of the Future. If the inventor of the “roomba” robotic sweeper tells you they weren’t inspired by this film, they’re outright lying. Well, perhaps they were inspired by the Jetsons cartoons first. At the center of this space age spy comedy is a very futuristic house. It’s supposed to be a reflection of its owner, the future-thinking inventor, Templeton (Rod Taylor). As a fan of Mid-Century Modern architecture and design, this concept was very on trend across America. In post WW2 America, housing was booming and practical. As we entered the space race era, designers/architects/home builders took it a step further by creating homes that captured both the aesthetic and high tech function of what they perceived to be the future. From the egg beater that pops up from below the counter to the robotic sweeper that goes rogue, these gadgets went on to be in everyday homes in real life but were first met with slapstick fodder with clumsy “Jennifer” (Doris Day), not unlike her character “Cathy Timberlake” in THAT TOUCH OF MINK (1962) when she creates punch card chaos.

Another draw to this funny flick are the costumes. Always impeccable in her fashions, Doris Day looks incredible in a bright sunny yellow. But even in the more casual outfits befitting this character, Day manages to squeeze in some stellar looks in array of offerings. The costume designer was Ray Aghayan, who was nominated for multiple Oscars and famous for his costumes in FUNNY LADY (1975), LADY SINGS THE BLUES (1972), and “The Judy Garland Show” just to name a few. He was also the lifetime partner of Bob Mackie, who famously worked on “The Carol Burnett Show” and dressed stars, such as the iconic gowns of Cher.

This comedy was a film I discovered later in life. I’m not sure how I somehow missed this gem earlier in my Doris Day collection of classics. But it’s worthy of screening, in case you’ve overlooked it, too. Of course the number one reason to see THE GLASS BOTTOM BOAT is Doris Day herself, paired with hunky Rod Taylor doesn’t hurt the eyes either. If you believe in heaven and such, I like to imagine that Paddy is reading this and it brings her a smile. I wish I could read the sweet and delightful commentary she would undoubtedly leave here, too.

Announcement: 9th annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON

Borrowing a catch-phrase from our favorite home of the classics, Turner Classic Movies, Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled / @IrishJayHawk66), Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club / @Paula_Guthat) and Aurora, of Once Upon a Screen / @CitizenScreen) dedicate a blogathon to character actors for the ninth consecutive year. To the faces, the laughs, the drama presented by these wonderful actors whose names all too often go unrecognized we dedicate WHAT A CHARACTER! 2020.

The hosts extend this invitation to the WHAT A CHARACTER! Blogathon 2020, a slightly different event than in the past. We will all host the event on one day promoted across all three blogs. Please join us on December 5, 2020 as we pay tribute to the brilliance of the supporting players and the many films they made better.

Our objective with this TCM-inspired event has always been to spotlight lesser-known actors with talent to spare. We hope you are up for this challenge and are ready to have a bit of fun. All you have to do is adhere to the following guidelines and leave a comment with your choice of actor.


  • Let at least one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.
  • Do not take it for granted we know exactly who you are or where your blog resides – please include the title and URL of your blog and your Twitter handle if you have one.
  • We will not accept previously published posts, or duplicates, since there are so many greats worthy of attention, but your choices are not limited to classics. You can choose any character actor from any era and from the movies or television, which has featured talented regulars since the beginning
  • Publish your WHAT A CHARACTER! post on or before December 5, 2020. 
  • Please include the gorgeous event banner in your What A Character! post. It would be great if you could help us promote this event.
  • Thank you for sending any of us the direct link to your post once you have published it. Searching on social media sites can lead to missed entries.
  • HAVE FUN and happy blogging!


BEULAH BONDI … Aurora/@CitizenScreen of Once Upon A Screen

RICHARD ERDMAN … Paula/ @Paula_Guthat of Paula’s Cinema Club

BARRY FITZGERALD … Kellee/ @IrishJayhawk66 of Outspoken & Freckled

EVE ARDEN … Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

GEOFFREY KEEN … Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

HARRY CORDING … Paddy/ @CaftanWoman of Caftan Woman

ANNE REVERE … May of Brizzy Mays Books And Bruschetta

HERBERT MARSHALL … Tonya/ @tonyalit of Goosepimply All Over

RAYMOND MASSEY … Rich/ @ratzo318 of Wide Screen World

MARY ASTOR … Lesley/ @zleegaspar of Second Sight Cinema

DIANA RIGG … @realweegiemidge of Real Weegie Midget Reviews

SZ “CUDDLES” SAKALL … Kayla of Whimsically Classic

ERNIE MORRISON … Le/ @startspreading of Critica Retro

CELESTE HOLM … Ruth/ @925screenings of Silver Screenings




Billy Wilder was known for his reverence for the structure of a screenplay, and subsequently, it influenced his films. In particular, he preferred that all screenplays and films be constructed in a three chapter format like a good play. Agatha Christie’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was an international success on stage, and being tossed around as a possible film adaptation by producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. The producers approached Marlene Dietrich to play the iconic role of Christine Vole (Vivian Leigh was also considered). Her only condition was that her friend, Billy Wilder, direct.


Directed by: Billy Wilder

Produced by: Arthur Hornblow, Jr. (Edward Small Productions)

Screenplay by: Billy Wilder, Larry Marcus, Harry Kurnitz

Based on Agatha Christie’s 1925 original story


Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, the accused

Marlene Dietrich as Christine Vole/Helm, the accused’s wife

Charles Laughton as Sir Wilfrid Robarts Q.C., senior counsel for Vole

Elsa Lanchester as Miss Plimsoll, Sir Wilfrid’s private nurse

John Williams as Mr. Brogan-Moore, Sir Wilfrid’s junior counsel in the trial

Henry Daniell as Mr. Mayhew, Vole’s  solicitor who instructs Sir Wilfrid on the case

Ian Wolfe as H. A. Carter, Sir Wilfrid’s chief clerk and office manager

Torin Thatcher as Mr. Myers Q.C., the Crown prosecutor

Norma Varden as Mrs. Emily Jane French, the elderly woman who was murdered

Una O’Connor as Janet McKenzie, Mrs. French’s housekeeper and a prosecution witness

Francis Compton as Mr. Justice Wainwright, the judge

Philip Tonge as Chief Inspector Hearne, the arresting officer

Ruta Lee as Diana… She’s a young woman watching the trial, waiting for Leonard to be freed.  *(I had the immense pleasure of screening this film with Ruta Lee presenting a Q & A intro of her experience in this film at the 2018 Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. She was even more of a crowd-cheering delight than you could even imagine- with all the Hollywood glamour and effervescent energy decades younger than her eighty-five years.)



Billy Wilder’s WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION is essentially the same courtroom drama as Agatha Christie created, but Wilder enhanced the plot by playing up an extended focus on key characters. This was especially true for the witty banter between Elsa Lanchester’s nurse Plimsoll and Charles Laughton’s Sir Wilfrid. I don’t know what the Hollywood obsession is with fawning over cantankerous, obstinate men, but the formula has worked well. The two actors were married in real life, in a marriage of mutual convenience as Laughton was gay and Lanchester had more ambitions for a career than for a traditional family dynamic. It was said that both Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton had a crush on Tyrone Power.

Elsa Lanchester and husband Charles Laughton on the French Riviera in 1938

Elsa Lanchester, Charles Laughton on the French Riviera- the couple were married (of convenience) in real life.

Tyrone Power; Marlene Dietrich; Witness for the…

Both Dietrich and Laughton had crushes on Tyrone Power- can we blame them? 

The film starts with barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Laughton) coming back home after several weeks of recovery from a heart attack. His doctors’ orders are to avoid stress; no murder trials especially. And yet, that’s exactly what he does. His new client, Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) challenges his curious mind through a maze of challenges of incriminating evidence, including a surprising show of loyalty from his wife, Christine (Marlene Dietrich).

There were concerns that Power looked older than his part due to years of alcoholism. In an odd twist of fate, even though it’s Laughton’s character that is constantly under a microscope for a bad ticker, Tyrone Power is the one who (in real life) succumbed to a heart attack during filming of his very next film, SOLOMON AND SHEBA (1959). As such, he was unable to complete that film, and Yul Brenner was brought in to complete. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) was also the last motion picture feature for Una O’Connor. Her role provides comic relief, thanks to the enhanced dialogue.

Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Charles Laughton and director Billy Wilder on the set of _Witness for the Prosecution_ 1957_

Billy Wilder enjoyed working with both Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton, admiring their professionalism greatly. From “Conversations with Wilder,” Wilder chatted about this in detail with Cameron Crowe…

BW: “Laughton was everything that you can dream of, times ten. We would stop shooting at six o’clock, and we would go up to my office and would be preparing for next day’s shooting. There were twenty versions of the way he could do a scene, and I would say, “ That’s it! All right!” And then the next day, on the set, he comes and he says, “I thought of something else.” And that was version number twenty-one. Better and better all the time. He was a tremendous presence. Tremendous presence, and a wonderful instrument, wonderful vocal instrument. When he spoke to the audience, they were very quiet. Because they knew. He did not just speak. He said something. And the sum total of it was a great performance. He only got one (Academy) Award, for THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY the VIII (1933). But he was an absolute marvel.”    

Vista on Instagram_ “Witness For The Prosecution (1957) An American Thriller Film Directed And Co-Adapted By_ Billy Wilder Based On A Novel Of The Same Name By…”

Secrecy is a critical element to the success of this film. Not unlike how Alfred Hitchcock handling of PSYCHO, the audience is firmly instructed to not reveal the climatic ending. Even the cast and crew were sworn to secrecy with the last 10 pages of the script saved until the final day of shooting.

The setting is prepared for Billy Wilder's fabulous courtroom drama _Witness for the Prosecution_, 1957_

Prepping the set

The Sketch Artist_ 18 Classic Film Costume Designs by Edith Head

Edith Head costume design for Marlene Dietrich in WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957)

As for the Hitchcockian feel of this film, Alfred Hitchcock said, “Many times, people have told me how much they enjoyed WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957). They thought it was my film instead of Billy Wilder’s. And Wilder told me people asked him about THE PARADINE CASE (1947), thinking he had done it.” 


It was well-received by critics, fans, and at the box office. Even Agatha Christie herself said at the time that it was the only film adapted from one of her stories that she actually liked. (Later, she also enjoyed the Sidney Lumet version of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974).) While WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION was nominated for several awards, including 6 Oscars (including Best Picture nom), Marlene Dietrich was not one of them. She was so confident that she would be an Academy Award nominee, however, that she prepared the news to be included in her Las Vegas show opener. Alas, that never came to fruition.

Tyrone Power admires Norma Varden's hat in…

One more tidbit that I found of personal interest (and yes, spoilers abound). Ageism is a running theme in this story- with the challenge of aging actors behind the scenes. We see Tyrone Power as Leonard Vole, portrayed as the gold digger wooing Emily French (Norma Varden), depicted as the older widow of means. Furthermore, we are led to believe Dietrich as his war bride is somewhat more age appropriate to him than, say, a 22 year-old Ruta Lee. The 43 year old actor Tyrone Power’s aging reflected his ill health, but his charm and good looks persuade us to not believe our own eyes. Meanwhile, Dietrich’s master skills in camera lighting and makeup make us believe that there was a much wider age gap between Christine Vole and Emily French than in reality. (Dietrich was 56 years old and Norma Varden was 59 at the time of this film’s release.) I may chalk this up to yet another case for women actors being forced to play either much younger roles, (with the enhancement of makeup, lighting, and plastic surgery) or spinsters in their 40s and 50s. Despite the hodgepodge of ages, we are pulled into the superb performances and timeless storytelling for a classic courtroom drama of suspense that continues to captivate.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place



This is one of many postwar films where Hollywood takes an introspective, and in the case of the film noirs like this, a darker view of itself. Not unlike private dicks such as Sam Spade, here it’s a Hollywood screenwriter who is showcased as the loner, cynical figure. Going deeper, darker, and more complex than Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is as hardened as his name projects.


In addition to placing Hollywood as an industry under the microscope, Nicholas Ray’s IN A LONELY PLACE studies the concept of perspective into main focus. How does Dix view himself, how do others who interact with him view him, and how do we as an audience view him? Look closely at the camera angles from the very beginning. There are times when it seems the characters are looking and speaking directly to us in the audience. Note when the characters are perceived in deep close up shots.


As Hard As Dix Steele…

What can we tell about Dixon Steele’s character from the early scenes? What do others around him tell us about his talent, his temperament, his aggression, his empathy/compassion towards others? Does he possess a sense of entitlement? How much do we view this storytelling from Dixon’s point of view?

Dix is a man who has a past of violence, where his past appears to be catching up to him. Bogie (Humphrey Bogart) has mastered the art of portraying the tortured soul, who is both very masculine with moments of vulnerability under the surface. When we initially observe his exchanges with Detective Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), it becomes apparent that their relationship is complex. Both served in the war, both experienced violence, but are they truly pals? This concept of the postwar vet who internally battles the violent ghosts of his past is a frequent theme in Film Noir. It is revealed that Dix has a police file, indicating more than one incidence of potential violence. There is an obvious tension. Dix is under constant study and interrogation.


With Captain Lochner- there is sarcasm, quips exchanged, while being screened. Dix does not take any of this seriously. Does he not take it seriously because he’s innocent or because he projects lack of empathy? Meanwhile, Detective Brub is forced to play the dual role of pal and cop. The friendship side of their relationship is frequently tested along the way as Dix’s violent nature bubbles up. This tension forces Brub to question his own nature.

Screen Shot 2020-04-29 at 8.22.00 PM

Art Smith as agent Mel Lippman– he portrays the nervous character who embodies the typical Hollywood agent archetype. While he worries about how this situation can result in a true scandal, the parallels to real-life Hollywood paranoia of jobs being easily yanked away to the undercurrent of Communist paranoia of the 2nd Red Scare. Ironically, Art Smith was himself a victim of the witch hunts and subsequently blacklisted in Hollywood.

Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray


Gloria Grahame is Laurel, Dix’s neighbor and knows very little of him initially other than the casual glance across a courtyard. That is until the overzealous coat check gal, “Mildred” that Dix brings home one night who lands up murdered.

Martha Stewart in In a Lonely Place (1950)

Laurel is very different than Mildred. Mildred (actress Martha Stewart, b. in October of 1922 is still with us at age 97 as of this article’s publication) is presented as lively, decidedly naïve, and a bit of a sychophant. In contrast, Laurel is a woman who knows what she wants, is more ambitious, and less naïve about the Hollywood game. There appears to be more of a kindred spirit between Laurel and Dix. Is this why she offers an alibi when it does not appear she actually saw Dix leave with Mildred? Laurel studies Dix deeply in the interrogation, sizes him up. She seems to be flirting throughout the interrogation.


In the mid fifties, Grahame career was skyrocketing. From the heart-warming small role in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, to appearing in 4 major releases in 1952, Grahame was much more than a familiar face of film noir. She was nominated for an Oscar in a Supporting Role for her performance in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL. But it was her personal life and loves that made her more ‘femme fatale’ than her many iconic film noir roles. She was incredibly shy and insecure in real life and her scandalous relationships with the men her life didn’t help her charm the Tinsel Town tabloids. Her first marriage to Stanley Clements left her black and blue. Her second marriage was to director Nicholas Ray. He was an addictive gambler and equally addicted to sleeping with a lot of actresses who were not his wife. One day, the director came home to find his wife in bed with his son (from his first marriage, her stepson) who was home from military school. He was a mere 13 years old.


And yet, this scandal seemed to actually boost her career as the offers continued to pour in. Her 3rd doomed marriage was to scriptwriter Cy Howard. But soon the fighting erupted and she replaced him with a fresher take on her trademark pouty mouth and sleepy eyes via plastic surgery. When it came time for her 4th marriage, Tony Ray, her former stepson of source of scandal, was now legally able to marry and she was single again. He was 23 and she was 37.  They initially kept their marriage a secret but when tabloids exposed them, the public was less forgiving this time. The stress resulted in mental breakdowns and shock therapy for Grahame and the two divorced in 1974. Her final relationship, and many say her true love of her life, was with Peter Turner, who was 3 decades younger. She remained with him until her battle with cancer took her life at age 57. Tony Ray died relatively recently- June 29, 2018, at age 80.


According to imdb, Producer Robert Lord was worried about having Nicholas Ray and Gloria Grahame, then husband and wife whose marriage was on the rocks, working together. He made Grahame sign a contract stipulating that “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct, and even command my actions during the hours from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., every day except Sunday. I acknowledge that in every conceivable situations his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine, and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease, or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.”

Nicholas Ray and Humphrey Bogart were friends (drinking buddies) so one can only imagine how Bogie worked to help keep the peace on set. It was Ray’s idea to cast Grahame and the closeness of their work only forced the demise of their marriage. As such, it was Ray who rewrote an ending from the novel of a violent serial killer to a screenplay that was more palatable but still reflected the darkness of his own relationship. It wasn’t a box office success but it affirmed Ray’s respect by his peers in the industry.


Questions to ponder…

~What does this film convey about secrecy, privacy, trust, suspicion?

~How many times do we see a character sizing up another character? What does this reflect about psychosis of Dix, and about psychology as a theme within noir?

~Is this equally a woman’s film as much as it is a man’s film?

~What does this film explore about postwar domestic lives/marriage dynamics?

~Is this a voyeur film?

Bottom line, IN A LONELY PLACE is a film that intentionally, and uncomfortably, places the audience in a position to ask more questions than assert firm answers. By questioning the morality of Dixon Steele, we ponder the shades of morality in all of us.


Directed by Nicholas Ray

Writing credits: Andrew Solt (screenplay), Edmund H North (adaption), and Dorothy B. Hughes (story)

Produced by Robert Lord/ Henry S Kesler (assoc producer)

Music by George Anthell (score)

Dir of Photography: Burnett Guffey

Film editing by Viola Lawrence

Art direction by Robert Peterson

Gowns by Jean Louis

Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart, Robert Warwick, Morris Ankrum

*look for James Arness as an uncredited young detective


Billy Wilder Film Study: SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959): Film Study

*(the following is based on a prior article on this film but with substantial research and content added for the purpose of a Billy Wilder Film Study course taught by Kellee Pratt in the Fall of 2019.) 

“I think that Billy as at the height of his powers. I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done, comedy or drama. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.”

… Jack Lemmon reflects on Wilder’s SOME LIKE IT HOT

Written (along with long-time writing partner IAL Diamond), produced, and directed by Billy Wilder, this film is a comedy that’s both classic and contemporary. Then and now.


It was a slight change of pace for Wilder who was better known for his darker edge in filmmaking as evident by the majority of his films up through this time. (And they continued thereafter.) But here was a Billy Wilder film that was pure light-hearted fun, with a slapstick tone reminiscent of the silent comedies.

The story is simple enough. Two broke and struggling musicians (Tony Curtis as Joe and Jack Lemmon as Jerry) in 1929 Chicago witness a mob hit after a speakeasy raid and find themselves desperate enough (both financially and eager to hide from the mafia) to take on a gig with impossible odds. They’ve got the musical skills to fit the bill and the sojourn to breezy Seminole Ritz in Miami would be a warm welcome from the freezing Midwest winter. But the cross-dressing in order to join this all-female band requires a leap in courage – and adaptation, in more ways than they bargained for.

The simple act of walking becomes their first lesson on the challenges of being female


like Jell-O on springs…

Early on, they discover the challenges of passing as women; from the wardrobe, even down to the walk. They meet the beautiful Marilyn Monroe as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, one of the members of their new troupe and Joe (dressed as ‘Josephine’) is fully smitten. Meanwhile, Jerry (dressed as ‘Daphne’) finds he’s become a target of cupid’s arrow himself. Joe E. Brown portrays the wealthy ‘mature playboy’ Osgood Fielding III, in dogged pursuit of Daphne. As you might imagine, it doesn’t take long before the mafia tracks the boys down to their beach side hideaway. The hilarious antics and chaotic pace entangle as the fellas do their best to keep their gender roles in check, and balance their romantic pursuits, all while trying to save their skin from the mob’s hunt.




Billy Wilder exemplifies that he could handle anything… from light-hearted comedies like this, to thought-provoking dramas. His legacy as one of the very best writer/directors in Hollywood reflected dramas that had some elements of dark comedy in it, and comedies with flickers of darkness underneath, as well. Let’s face it, we all know that tragedy and comedy are just 2 sides of the same coin of storytelling. And Wilder was the master like none other.

Some highlights of Wilder’s brilliant mastery in SOME LIKE IT HOT…

The Cast: It takes a skilled actor to command a great performance. But it takes a master director to bring out his/her very best. It helps to start with a stellar cast (no problem here) but you can’t fake chemistry. Curtis and Lemmon are a dynamic duo – both adept at comedy and drama and play off each other like they’ve been close chums their entire lives. I’m a bit biased; but for me, Jack Lemmon can do no wrong. He worked very well with Billy Wilder and their partnership across seven films remains one of the best actor/director collaborations in Hollywood history. And while it’s no secret that Wilder did not enjoy working with Monroe, it speaks volumes to their professionalism and skills to bring such iconic results.

The Writing: Billy Wilder would often take rather unexpected situations (like cross-dressing jazz musicians in the roaring twenties on the lam from the mob) for his stories then highlight the most fascinating characters that become vibrantly alive and real, thanks to his writing. We are pulled in and can’t get enough. Here’s an example of one of my favorite scenes that showcases this; starting when Joe asks Jerry (giddily shaking maracas, still dressed up as Daphne from his date), “who’s the lucky girl?” to which Jerry responds “I am”:

Some other fabulous lines:

Sugar: “Water polo? Isn’t that terribly dangerous?”

Junior: “I’ll say. I had two ponies drowned under me.”


Sugar: “Real diamonds! They must be worth their weight in gold!”


Sugar: “Story of my life. I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”


Sweet Sue: “Are you two from the Poliakoff agency?” 

Josephine: “Yes, we’re the new girls.” 

Daphne: “Brand new!”


Sugar: “I come from this musical family. My mother is a piano teacher and my father was a conductor.” 

Joe: “Where did he conduct?” 

Sugar: “On the Baltimore and Ohio.”


Osgood: “I am Osgood Fielding the third.” 

Daphne: “I’m Cinderella the second.”


Osgood: “You must be quite a girl.” 

Daphne: “Wanna bet?”

Note, cross-dressing is not as relevant today as a vehicle for comedy as it once was as a premise, simply because we have evolved as a society that is more aware and accepting of transgender, transsexual, and cross-dressing populations. Keep in mind, the ‘high jinks of cross-dressing’ as a comedy tool has been utilized in a multitude of films and TV shows. But SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) holds up better than most because it doesn’t rely upon that element as a singular joke or gag to occupy the entire film. Billy Wilder was smart enough to know that. His talents of layering multiple characters and sub stories, while creating delightful obstacles of chaos resulted in cinematic magic. Magic that is still as contemporary as it is a classic.

Pre-Production… How it All Came Together:

The Mirisch Production company, ran by brothers Walter, Marvin, and Harold is where this film’s production started. Mirischs’ association with Billy Wilder began with LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (when the Mirisch brothers were with Allied Artists) and lasted seventeen years. LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON was also Billy Wilder’s first teaming with writing partner IAL “Izzy” Diamond (Izzy was born Itec Domnici on June 27, 1920 in Ungheni Basarabia, now Moldova.) Wilder agreed to do various projects with their new independent production company with a film concept based on a West German film, FANFARES OF LOVE (1951), which was a remake of a French film, FANFARE OF LOVE (1935.) Its premise was of two musicians who dress in women’s clothing as a hide-out. Based on this simple vaudevillian joke, Walter Mirisch said, “I remember making the first deal for Iz’s services to collaborate with Billy, and Billy indicated that he would again like to work with Iz on SOME LIKE IT HOT.”

Along with many in the Hollywood networking circles, Tony Curtis used to watch movies at Harold’s house (on Lexington Drive, behind the Beverly Hills Hotel). Lew Wasserman was Tony’s agent and Lew was the master orchestrator of setting up social interactions to help broker film deals in the industry. Curtis had met Wilder years prior, then met Harold through Billy. Harold asked Tony to come early to one of these film parties to chat with Billy Wilder. This is when Wilder approached Tony about a part, and he agreed before even knowing any details.

BW: “Well let me tell you about it. These two guys see a murder and they’re recognized by the gangsters and they have to dress up like girls to get away and work in a girls’ band, that’s the story.”      

TC: “Sounds good to me.”

BW: “You’re not worried about it?”

TC: “No.”

BW: “I’m going to get Frank Sinatra and Mitzi Gaynor, that’s the cast.”

TC: “Great.”

A week later, Curtis runs into Wilder…

BW: “I’m not going to do it that way. I saw Jack Lemmon in a movie (OPERATION MADBALL) and I liked him so much I’m going to have him play the other guy, and I’m going to try to get Marilyn Monroe.”

The three main parts were then signed on. (Marilyn and Tony signed on first. Each got 5% of the gross, with $250k cash, Lemmon got slightly less cash with no gross, as the lesser name of the three.) Casting was laid out except for one hiccup. Wilder planned to have Edward G Robinson Sr. play the rival mob boss, poised against George Raft as the other mob boss, in reference to another film they made together, SCARFACE, with a coin of flipping a coin. A similar scene was drafted as an insider joke, this time with Edward G Robinson Jr. flipping the coin. But things take another flip when Wilder discovers that Raft and Edward G Robin Sr. got into a fist fight on set once and Edward refused to ever work with Raft again. So, Wilder was forced to keep his son (Edward G Robinson Jr.) in the role of “Johnny Paradise,” George Raft as “Spats Colombo,” and inserted Nehemiah Persoff as “Little Bonaparte.”

Jack Lemmon described his first pitch from Billy Wilder as bumping into him, and Billy’s wife Audrey, at a restaurant. Billy summarized the role as two fellas running from the St. Valentine’s Massacre mobsters by crossdressing as disguise and that he should expect to be in drag a minimum of three-quarters of the film.

JL: “I said yes, no script, no nothing. And I did it because my first thought was. Oh Jesus Christ, we’re in drag and everything, but wait a minute, Billy Wilder is doing it, it’s not going to be in bad taste and the man is a bloody genius and so forth.”  Two or three months passed when he received 60 pages of the script, with the final act missing. Lemmon soon discovered that Billy and Iz never finished the script before shooting began. Jack described his first reading of these pages: “I fell off the goddamn couch, literally, fell off the couch. They were the greatest sixty pages I ever read.”  

Working with Marilyn…

From multiple interviews with cast members and Billy Wilder himself, there is no doubt that Marilyn was a serious challenge to work with. There are several comments indicating that she would have extreme difficulties showing up less than 2-3 hours late to set, and that her acting coach Paula Strasberg was so hands-on with her that it was to the point of emotionally dependent abuse, not to mention Paula’s presence being an uncomfortable slap in the face to the director.

Several interviews reflect scenes here she was required to say only two lines but it would take 60 – 80 takes. And then there were other scenes that ere several pages long and she’d do it in one take. They would allow extra time in the scheduling because of this. They also had to write her lines and sneak them behind the camera, or into drawers when such challenges popped up on set. So why did Billy Wilder want to work with Marilyn again (after similar conditions on SEVEN YEAR ITCH)? Because he knew Marilyn had star power and the results were always brilliant.

But in fairness, Marilyn became pregnant during filming of SOME LIKE IT HOT. This created its own challenges in wardrobe and promotional photo shoots.  Tony Curtis, many years later, in his book claimed her pregnancy was a result of a rekindled affair they had during filming. She was married to Arthur Miller at the time, as was Curtis to Janet Leigh. She miscarried that mid-December and her marriage was falling apart, but she admitted to taking barbiturates and alcohol while dieting during this time, as well. Everyone referred to Marilyn’s emotional state as the cause for her on-set difficulties but I think it’s clear there were MANY challenges she had to overcome.

Excerpts from “Marilyn Monroe” by Donald Spoto:

Page 405:  Professionally idle, dependent on his wife’s income, humiliated by what he saw as her childish caprice and contemptuous of Hollywood in any case, Arthur could no longer tolerate her or the marriage.  But there was another problem, and that autumn, the atmosphere on location in Coronado was thick with tensions.  “Arthur told me he would allow Marilyn to work only in the morning,” (Billy) Wilder recalled.  He said she was too exhausted to submit to outside work in the afternoon sun.  “The morning?  She never shows up until after twelve!  Arthur, bring her to me at nine and you can have her back at eleven-thirty!”  We were working with a time bomb, we were twenty days behind schedule and God knows how much over budget, and she was taking a lot of pills.  But we were working with Monroe, and she was platinum – not just the hair, and not just her box-office appeal.  What you saw on the screen was priceless.  The reason for Arthur’s request was simple:  in late October, the Millers learned that Marilyn was pregnant again.  Fortunately, her most strenuous scenes were already shot and the filming of Some Like It Hot was completed on November 6.  By this time, director and star were barely speaking.

Page 407:  Returning to New York before the end of November, Marilyn was determined to rest during the early stages of her pregnancy.  But on December 16, she miscarried; it was the last time she tried to be a mother.  Both for sleep and as a tranquilizer, she had been taking Amytal, a brand name of the barbiturate amobarbital, and now she guiltily recalled Leon Krohn’s warning, as she wrote the Rostens: “Could I have killed it by taking all the Amytal on an empty stomach?  I took some sherry wine also.”  For weeks she was inconsolable, convinced that the drug abuse she now freely admitted had caused the spontaneous abortion.

I’ll leave you with some behind-the-scenes snapshots and the man behind the magic, Billy Wilder, as he orchestrates his talented cast in SOME LIKE IT HOT…


Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe get direction from Billy Wilder- in matching swimsuits


getting in the drag mode, in slippers


Tony Curtis in Josephine wardrobe, as Wilder checks details


Billy Wilder shows Jack Lemmon how to cut a rug in full Daphne garb

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Joe E. Brown (Osgood Fielding III) teaches Jack Lemmon (Daphne) how to tango. Director Billy Wilder observes.


Billy giving direction to Marilyn for the ‘train station runway’ scene.


Makeup was an essential factor in convincingly playing Josephine and Daphne. Tony Curtis pictured here in the makeup chair.


“Does this make my ass look big?” Wardrobe also played a key role in convincing cross-dressing. Here, famous designer Orry-Kelly checks for details and fit.


Film Study: ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)

(The following are my notes from my Billy Wilder Film Study class, from the Fall of 2019. It goes deep into details and background. I don’t recommend reading any further if you haven’t already screened this film prior- expect spoilers. Enjoy!)




Welcome to the dark, morally corrupt media circus. Billy Wilder’s film noir under a blazing New Mexican sunlight shows us an ambitious reporter’s consequences when he faces moral choices, and picks poorly. Over and over again, until the wakeup call comes too late.


There are no nighttime shots of rain-soaked streets reflecting the flickers of street lamps through the fog, hinting of crime and doom. Here, noir can be found in a dark cave in a desolate desert. But even more dangerous than falling rock and choking dust are the ruthless ambitions of a man willing to trap you there, for the sake of a buck and 15 minutes of fame. That anti-hero’s true darkness comes from within. But he isn’t the only one willing to sell his soul under the big top.

Also titled THE BIG CARNIVAL, Billy Wilder followed up his success from SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) by going even darker in ACE IN THE HOLE. This is the first film in which Billy Wilder played the triple threat of writer, producer, and director. It also marks the first film Wilder made following his break off from writing partner Charlie Brackett.


In the classroom, we’ll skip the introduction (approximately 16 minutes’ worth) for the sake of time allowance. This is an interesting cut for me to make because it was Billy Wilder who chose to add the intro, which is essentially laying the background into our leading man’s character and sets up the story. His co-writer Walter Newman didn’t feel it was necessary, because he believed the real story begins at the cave-in. As with any Billy Wilder film, it’s obvious Wilder won that debate. The first chapter to this corrosive tale is valuable as a predictor of the doom Tatum will face as hard as he hits the floor in the last frame. Here are some takeaways from what we’re skipping…



Proudly perched in a broken-down convertible dragged behind a tow truck, Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum rides into the rustic town of Albuquerque, with odd mix of desperation and bravado. He’s been fired from the big city newspapers and he arrogantly pitches for a job at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. As he rudely insults everyone in the newsroom while also being brutally honest about his occupational sins (mostly drinking) that landed him seeking new employment, his salary offers decline lower and lower as he boasts. Of visual note is the “Tell The Truth” embroidered sign hanging on the wall, which Tatum prophetically toys with. Despite the warning signs, editor Boot (Porter Hall from DOUBLE INDEMNITY) offers him the gig. A year has passed by, and restless Tatum is agitated and weary of this small town’s quiet and slow pace. Things are about to pick up speed.


[Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum: Douglas’s performance is perfection in this role. This film follows his successful turn in CHAMPION (1949), which was his first Oscar nomination. It’s hard to believe that Kirk’s big screen debut occurred only a few years earlier with THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). His career successes continued for decades, and he continued to make public appearances beyond his 100th birthday. He thought highly of his experience working with Billy Wilder, as one of the greatest filmmakers in history.]


In pursuing a story on rattlesnakes, Tatum and junior reporter Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur) go on the road and pull over at a touristy trading post for gas. Herbie cannot find any attendants, but eventually walks in on an old woman who is so engrossed in prayer, she doesn’t notice him. This is a foreshadowing cue of strange tidbits to come. A police car with siren blaring rushes blast them, speeding up the hill to an old Native American cave ruin.


Now let’s begin…

The two follow the siren, then pause long enough to meet Lorraine Minosa (Jan Sterling). Her husband Leo Minosa is trapped in a collapsed section of the cavernous dwelling. We immediately know how she feels about him (“the dumb cluck”). She’s not worried about the predicament of her husband, she’s annoyed. It’s also apparent she dislikes everything about her surroundings and lifestyle. Up the hill, we are introduced to the deputy sheriff (corrupt law figures will only worsen as the story unfolds), and Leo Minosa’s father Papa Minosa (John Burges) who is, in stark contrast to a majority of the characters in this film, one of the most humane and loyal. We additionally witness the local Native Americans and their stance on the issue, as they state they believe the ground is too sacred to enter. They refer to it as “Curse of the Seven Vultures.” This will become a headline exploited by Tatum, as he leaps at the chance to dominate this scenario, on his own terms. On a deeper level, there is profound social commentary and foreshadowing of those who have already exploited that dwelling- and those who are yet to come.

  • Were the Indians correct? Was this a curse that Leo himself triggered? Note the contrast of Lorraine and Papa Minosa, as Tatum and Bernie enter the cave- Papa does the sign of the cross in hopeful prayer, as she appears coldly detached, smoking a cigarette.
  • Note: the conversation regarding “human interest.”
  • These interior shots are traditional camera stylings of noir, with low lights (thanks to the flashlights), claustrophobia, and shadows cast by the dust, lurking dangers.
  • Is the cave a parallel for Tatum’s ‘digging himself into a hole’?
  • Pinned in under rumble, Leo comments that his found artifact may have possibly started an Indian curse. Is he already aware of his sealed fate?
  • How does Tatum “embroider the truth”?
  • Note: some exterior shots were in Gallup, NM


Jan Sterling as Lorraine: She’s aloof and cold and her cynicism is overt. She’s a parallel to Tatum in her cynical, twisted morality. She’s on to him and has assessed the score of the situation by the time Tatum first alerts his editor with giddy enthusiasm. She bites into an apple like Eve in a corrupted Eden. Wilder gives her character some of the best lines. Later, when Tatum wants her to play the worried wife and asks her to attend a rosary vigil, she explains she’s not the church type, “I don’t go to church. Kneeling always bags my nylons.” Wilder credited this line to his wife, and it’s easily one of my favorites. Jan Sterling was an actress on stage, film and tv. During this point in her career she was married to her 2nd husband, actor Paul Douglas. She was most active in the 1950s with memorable and hardboiled films such as JOHNNY BELINDA (1948), CAGED (1950), and MYSTERY STREET (1950). But it was in 1954 that she was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for her role in THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY.

  • In what ways to do we see a parallel between Lorraine and Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMNITY?
  • Do we feel sympathy for her? She says she was duped by Leo. He lied to her.
  • “Honey, you like those rocks as much as I do.” (Lorraine to Tatum, she sees him all too clearly.)
  • Tatum frequently forces her to bend to his demands with violence. He often feels threatened by her ability to see right through him or mirror him; holding up a mirror into his own darkness. They are very similar creatures.


Ray Teal as the Sheriff Gus Kretzer: He’s another unsavory opportunist. His rattlesnake in the box feels symbolic. Dangerous, untrustworthy, an omen of warning. But of whom? The sheriff? Tatum? Lorraine? Perhaps all of them? At one point we see a ‘Re-elect Sheriff Kretzer” banner draped across the mountain. At this point it feels like an unholy dance on sacred ground; spitting on a graveyard. You may recognize this character actor from several western tv series such as “The Lone Ranger” and as another Sheriff, Roy Coffee, on the popular “Bonanza” show. But he also played bit roles in film, such as THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) and JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961).


Charles Lang, Jr: He did the camera work for several Wilder films: A FOREIGN AFFAIR, SABRINA, and SOME LIKE IT HOT. When we see the big drill atop the mountain, there is a wide, aerial shot of the media circus with cars lined up like a drive-in movie as they watch the entertainment unfold before them. It’s a very startling, almost breathtaking, view, amongst many of the beautiful shots in the film. Charles Lang had 151 film credits to his name as cinematographer. He was the youngest to ever be nominated for the Academy’s Best Cinematography Oscar at age 28, and the youngest to win, at age 30. He was nominated as a Director of Photography 18 times, with 5 of his films winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

Frank Cady as Mr. Al Federber: Is this character a reflection of the sheep-like mentality of the general public? It’s certainly a morbid interpretation, not unlike those who clamor to watch the aftermath of a car accident. But here, he’s gone out of his way to make the catastrophe into his family vacation. How would this persona be reflected in today’s society? Is this characterization even more accurate in real life today? Frank Cady is a character actor you may readily recognize from popular TV shows like Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, as “Sam Drucker.” But he was also a prolific character actor on the big screen in films like Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW.


At one point, after we see Tatum visiting Leo a 2nd time, the tone is more somber. He has a tougher time lying the feigned optimism when Leo discusses his anniversary coming up. The media circus spins at its most frenzied after Tatum returns. He forces his way through the crowds. We also notice that Tatum is now drinking, another signal to his decline into ruin. He faces his boss, Mr. Boot, who stands as his polar opposite in the world of journalistic ethics and their conversation reflects that. There’s a certain fatherly role that Boot provides. But Tatum doesn’t take his fatherly advice. Boot attempts to save Herbie, as he reluctantly realizes that Tatum is likely a lost cause now. Too late to save him.

Enter Richard Gaines as Tatum’s former big city boss, Nagel. Tatum has Nagel over the barrel, and he knows it. This is the moment Tatum has been looking for, all along. Nagel’s demeanor is very different from the fatherly, ethical journalistic stylings of Mr. Boot. Gaines may seem familiar to you as Mr. Norton in DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) or as Charles J Pendergast in THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943), amongst 78 other acting roles from 1940 to the early 1960s.


I think one of the most obscene moments arrives when the camera follows the mobs of the crowd, as we hear a band selling sheet music to the profane lyrics, “We’re coming, we’re coming Leo, Leo don’t despair. While you are in the cave hoping, we are up above you groping, and soon we’ll make an opening, Oh Leo.” The song was written by the infamous songwriting teaming of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, who also wrote a slew of classic tunes for Paramount and other studios like “Buttons and Bows” from Sunset Boulevard, “Streets Of Laredo,” “Vertigo,” and “Que Sera, Sera.” There were over 500 extras in this vast scene, and Wilder noted that the numbers in the crowd actually grew as onlookers blended in during filming, out of curiosity.


It is in this final chapter of the film (approximately the last 30 minutes), Leo’s options have run out and any hopes for survival look grim. Throughout the film, Tatum has grown increasingly violent and spirals more out of control. Tatum’s options have run out as well. Like other Wilder anti-heroes (Fred MacMurray in DOUBLE INDEMNITY and Bill Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD), Tatum’s change of heart comes too late. The scales of justice have already rendered their verdict as guilty.

Being a film that was made following the tremendous success of SUNSET BOULEVARD, plus the first film made post Brackett breakup, it’s been suggested that Paramount gave Wilder free rein to make a thoroughly Billy Wilder film. This unyielding, dark view into human immorality is quintessential Wilder, through and through. It was considered a failure at the box office in America at the time, although it did well in Europe. As Wilder explained why audiences stayed away, “they went to the theater with the idea that they (to see ACE IN THE HOLE) were going to get a cocktail, whereas instead, they got a shot of vinegar.”


Despite the lack of popularity at the time with mainstream audiences, it went on to become a critical favorite many years later. Today, the chilling spectacle and sensationalism of journalism is almost commonplace. These glimpses into human depravity are not unexpected from someone like Billy Wilder who barely escaped being murdered in Hitler’s concentration camps, unlike his family’s fate. We’ve witnessed this dark side of Wilder before, and we’ll see it again as we explore more of his filmography.

Other questions to consider…

With themes of darkness and corrosive journalism ethics, does Wilder relate to Tatum’s character at all?

Are there any redeeming qualities to Tatum?

Is Tatum’s finally telling the truth his last Ace in the hole? Why doesn’t it work?


Produced/Directed by: Billy Wilder

Written by: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman

Associate Producer: William Schorr

Director of Photography: Charles B Lang Jr. ASC

Editorial supervision: Doane Harrison

Music score: Hugo Friedhofer

Art direction: Hal Pereira, A Earl Hedrick

Edited by: Arthur Schmidt

Costumes: Edith Head


Chuck Tatum ~ Kirk Douglas

Lorraine Minosa ~ Jan Sterling

Herbie Cook ~ Bob Arthur

Jacob Q Boot ~ Porter Hall

Mr. Federber ~ Frank Cady

Leo Minosa ~ Richard Benedict

Sheriff Kretzer ~ Ray Teal

Smollett ~ Frank Jacquet

Do Moms Deserve a 2nd Chance For Love?

Motherhood is historically a symbol of nurturing love and sacrifice. If a mother is married, and her partner/spouse dies, as a widow her role as mother marches on. But does that mark an end to her shot at happiness beyond parenting? Doesn’t mom deserve romance… again?

As we approach the month of mothers’ special day (May 10th), I want to explore the notion that romantic love is attainable- yes, even for moms. It’s not just modern-day definitions that reflect the burning questions of what is or is not socially acceptable in the vast category of love. Even in the most socially conservative and traditional eras, two classic films debate this conventional norm.

The parallels between Curtis Bernhardt’s MY REPUTATION (1946) and Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955) are striking. At the center of both films, a widow/mother is essentially put on a societal trial of sorts, with all fingers wagging in judgement at her audacity to seek love a second time. In each story, the widow is relatively young (each actress was in her upper 30s) and attractive, with a good pal (Eve Arden and Agnes Morehead), and a swirling rumor mill of country club hens that condescendingly feign caring for her best interest while simultaneously whispering gossip behind her back.


Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Douglas Sirk, and Agnes Moorehead on the set

Catherine Turney adapted the script from Clare Jaynes’ 1942 novel, Instruct My Sorrows, to guide the story of MY REPUTATION (1946). Starring the dazzling Barbara Stanwyck as Jessica Drummond, she’s a recent widow and mother of 12 and 14 year-old sons, Keith (Bobby Cooper) and Kim (adorable Scotty Beckett). In her well-appointed, upper-class lifestyle, she has endured 2 years of her husband’s lost battle to a terminal illness, followed by grief and loneliness.

As Jessica attempts to connect with old friends and succumbs to the pressures to date, she finds herself feeling even more adrift in a sea of gossips and wolves. Her only true friends are the Abbotts (reliably witty Eve Arden as Ginna and John Ridgely as Cary) and Anna her housekeeper (Esther Dale). During a ski trip chance encounter, she initially pushes away the charms of Major Scott Landis (George Brent). Soon enough, fate brings Jessica and Scott together again. To spite the overly-critical town gossips and her domineering mother (Lucile Watson), she ruffles community feathers by leaving a holiday party with Scott. Romance crackles.

As their relationship blossoms, the tight social circle tightens their chiding votes of disdain. Soon, even the children embrace the mob mentality with verbal pitchforks aimed at Jessica as the target. Guilt is a heavy weapon played out by small-minded small town. The jury demands she make a choice- her personal happiness via the spark of new love, or succumb to the well-worn comforts of miserable, peer-approved conformity.

Meanwhile, we momentarily leave this beautiful black-and-white beauty of famed cinematographer James Wong Howe with sweeping music of Max Steiner and zoom nine years into the future of the technicolor melodramatic dream world of Douglas Sirk’s ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955).

Here, we also see a widow in the cross-hairs of the judgements swirling around her. In ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1955), Jane Wyman stars as recently widowed Cary Scott who falls in love with a free-spirited landscaper, Rock Hudson as Ron Kirby. The premise rests on the idea that Cary’s friends and family cannot accept their relationship because he is so much younger and due to classism. (Surely, he must be a gold digger!)

Truth be told, Jane Wyman was a mere 38 years old when filming ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS in her portrayal of an upper class widow with two youngish adult children (old enough to go off to school anyway). Rock Hudson was only 8 years younger than Wyman, but his age appears appropriately cast. This was less of a May-December romance, and more of a May-July. But why quibble the semantics on the Hollywood standards for women and aging?

Agnes Moorehead attempts to fit into a Technicolor world

Cary’s social circle includes her good friend Sara Warren (Agnes Morehead) who wants to be supportive but feels the pressures of societal conventions a bit too much than a loyal friend should. Cary’s children are brazenly selfish. They repeatedly attempt to force their mother to date an older man of absolutely no interest to her and assume she should retire the rest of her life away, half-comatose in front of a television. When Cary finally succumbs to peer pressure to appease her self-absorbed children, she falls into a reclusive depression and after a short time realizes just how little her kids gave her needs and her heart any thought. In an eye-opening moment of betrayal, the son, completely unaware of his mom’s distraught emotional state, confidently announces his ambitions. He casually blurts out his assumption of selling her home (as it no longer fits his needs) in a stunning suggestion that his nearly forty year old mother must be ready to put out to pasture. In contrast, Ron has a diverse mix of friends who appear to welcome Cary with open arms and support his independence. I wonder, would they look upon Ron differently if he was a mother?

Motherhood has its emotional hurdles

These two films tackle the core theme that unwed mothers (in this case widows, but one could make the case for divorced, single otherwise, etc.) continue to face this issue of their maternal identity in society. Can a mother be a good parent and have romance- after the father is out of the picture? Is the act as a mother, especially a single mother, a sudden acceleration of aging/ones station in life? Does expectation from society dramatically differ for other women? Or for fathers? How does guilt fit into these inequitable standards?

David Niven and Ginger Rogers attempt unexpected parenting

Ron Howard and Glenn Ford navigate life without mom

An honorable mention falls to Garson Kanin’s BACHELOR MOTHER (1939). And while Ginger Rogers as Polly Parish is not a widow in that film, and the role of motherhood falls into her lap accidentally, it was ahead of its time in tackling this issue, even if comedically. To throw a paternal twist into this debate, I find the widower role is viewed in nearly opposite fashion in Vincente Minnelli’s THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER (1963), where Glenn Ford as widower Tom has an endless parade of beautiful women seemingly thrown at his feet as he attempts to balance parenting his son, Eddie (portrayed by an adorably young and talented Ron Howard). Looking closely at these cinematic comparisons, or not that close, it’s obvious the standards fall differently for the single mothers.

Circling back to our widows looking for love- Barbara Stanwyck’s Jessica and Jane Wyman’s Cary, these stories do take their conclusions in different directions. Part of Jessica’s obstacles to her romantic aspirations center on the younger ages of her boys vs. the essentially empty nest Cary faces. But I imagine the undercurrent wartime theme had a lot of influence in Jessica’s outcome, too. The novel that MY REPUTATION (1946) was based upon was written during WW2. By the film’s release, the societal pressures were intense in this freshly postwar era for mothers to be loyal to a stereotypical motherhood role, not to abandon their families, just as many families were torn apart by death and trauma and many women were transitioning from working the factories/other wartime jobs and back into a more traditional patriarchy again. This fear of ‘losing mom’ as the world began picking up the pieces of rebuilding families became a particularly sensitive message in the immediate postwar era. While the mid 1950s was still a Production Code-heavy timeline, audiences were by then ready for a glossier, colorful melodrama that allowed mom to face such identity crisis, while ultimately becoming the driver of her own life- and put more sizzle in the romance, too.

But to answer the question: do widows -and other mothers- deserve a second chance at love? Most definitely. Speaking from my own experience, I found love the second time around, at age 40, as the single mom of two beautiful daughters. Today, I’m happily married and the mother of a blended family of our four great kids, now all grown. I feel no guilt that I pursued love while I also worked hard to be a great parent during my single mom years, even though during that dating phase many weighed in with their opinions. Moms deserve romance, too.


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