Announcing the 7th Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON

Announcing the SEVENTH ANNUAL What A Character! Blogathon
December 14-16, 2018

GoldDiggersOf193324-650x493When you re-watch your favorite films, what keeps you coming back for more? A great story with sharp writing? No doubt. Beautiful costumes, swanky set designs, and stunning cinematography? Most assuredly. But the performances are key to any movie. While we all look forward to the popular leading actors, it is the stand-out, scene-stealing supporting actors that feel like “home.”

Wise-cracking Eve Arden, nurturing Louise Beavers, sassy Thelma Ritter, double-take pro Edward Everett Horton, tart-tongued Edna May Oliver, gravelly-voiced Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, fatherly Charles Coburn, frazzled Franklin Pangborn, bull frog voiced, barrel-chested Eugene Pallette, cigar chomping Ned Sparks… these and so many more lovable character actors are who we look forward to seeing as our dearest ole chums. We all could use a trusted sidekick.

For the seventh consecutive year, we as the blogathon hosting trio of Aurora of Once Upon A Screen/ @CitizenScreen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club/ @Paula_Guthat, and yours truly Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled/ @IrishJayhawk66 invite you to join us for the WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON 2018, December 14, 15, 16, as we pay tribute to the brilliance of the supporting players.

Our objective for the What A Character! Blogathon has always been to shed the spotlight on these lesser-known but equally talented thespians, whose names usually appeared below the title. If you wish salute your favorite on-screen character actor- the quirky maid, that ornery hotel manager, frustrated maître D’, sassy best friend, a hot-tempered heavy, flabbergasted father, sarcastic sidekick, grumpy boss, gobsmacked butler- then you’ve come to the right place. Please review the guidelines below first, and leave me a comment.

  • Let at least one of the hosts know which character actor is your choice.
  • Don’t take it for granted we know exactly who you are or where your blog resides – please include the title and URL of your blog, also your Twitter handle if you have one.
  • We will not accept repeats (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 medium of television, which has featured talented regulars since the beginning, and continues to do so.
  • Publish your WAC! post on either December 14, 15, or 16, 2018. Let us know if you have a date preference; otherwise, we’ll split publicizing duties equally among the three days.
  • Please include one of our banners (see below) within your What A Character! post.
  • Additionally, we appreciate when you include [one of] the WAC! 2018 event banner[s] included in this post on your blog itself to help us promote the 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.
  • My contact info: prattkellee@gmail.com / twitter~ @IrishJayhawk66 ~or, simply leave a comment below
  • HAVE FUN and spread the word!

Here are the spectacular banners Aurora has created for you to promote on your blogs…

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Participating blogs and their choice of actors:

Walter Abel ~ Another Old Movie Blog

Sara Allgood ~Maddy Loves Her Classic Films

Lionel Atwill ~ Paula’s Cinema Club

Beulah Bondi ~ Once Upon A Screen

Elisha Cook, Jr. ~ Outspoken & Freckled

Jean Dixon ~ One Gal’s Musings

Alan Hale (Sr) ~ Silver Screen Classics

Margaret Hamilton ~ Wide Screen World

Ed Harris ~ Reel Weedgie Midget Reviews

Eileen Heckart ~ The Last Drive-In

Frieda Inescort ~ Sister Celluloid

Skelton Knaggs ~ Bill Shaffer, guest blogger on Outspoken & Freckled

Jack Lambert ~ Caftan Woman

Charles McGraw ~ The Old Hollywood Garden

Stephen McNally ~ CineMaven’s Essays From The Couch

Agnes Morehead ~ In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood

Eugene Pallette ~ Carole & Co.

Elizabeth Patterson ~ Backstory: A Guide To Classic Film

Nat Pendleton ~ Sarah as guest blogger on Once Upon A Screen

Thelma Ritter ~ A Shroud Of Thoughts

Everett Sloane in LADY FROM SHANGHAI ~ Silver Screenings

Kay Thompson ~ The Lady Eve’s Reel Life

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*This WAC! Blogathon is dedicated in memory to two very fine character actors whom we lost this year. James Karen (1923 – 2018) was a hard-working actor who was a personal friend of Buster Keaton and frequent attendee of the Buster Keaton Celebration in Kansas and the TCMFF. Vanessa Marquez (1968 – 2018) was an extraordinary actress of film and TV and an even better friend. She is greatly missed and we continue to hold her close in our hearts.

Thank you to TCM for the tagline inspiration and to all you bloggers and film fans for your ongoing participation and support for seven years running! And a big ShoutOut to my fellow co-hosts who inspire me all year long for being such marvelous and lovely characters themselves!

~Kellee

 

 

 

Film Class: SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950)

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I teach a series of classic film classes in my town. Currently, I’m instructing my second Film Noir course. Each course is structured similar to a Book Club but with my guiding contributions of background, trivia, history, influencers, and more. The first class is my overview on the style/genre plus the outline of films we’ll review each week. The participants watch the assigned film at home, then we screen selected clips and engage in discussions in class. In the 2nd week we screened Billy Wilder’s timeless classic noir, SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950) and I thought I’d share my notes with you…

Basic Info:

Director: Billy Wilder

Writing Credits: Charles Brackett (also the Producer), Billy Wilder, DM Marshman Jr

Music: Franz Waxman

Dir of Photography: John F Seitz

Costumes: Edith Head

Starring: Gloria Swanson, William Holden, Eric von Stroheim, Nancy Olson…

Cameos: Cecil B deMille, Buster Keaton, HB Warner, Hedda Hopper, Anna Q. Nilsson

Notes:

The original opening scene, depicting corpses including a toe-tagged Bill Holden in a morgue chatting, was cut. Test audiences roared with laughter- was meant to be subtle dark humor, not slapstick camp. Switched to striking pool scene. Special difficulties loomed in filming to get this opening shot right- water exactly 40 degrees, shot from above with mirror below.

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The famous “Phantom Mansion” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_O._Jenkins_House) – exterior was a real house on Wilshire Blvd, owned by J Paul Getty, originally built by robber baron William O Jenkins. Both Jenkins and Getty families had a knack for acquiring wealth and ignored the estate as much as they did their own families. It sat empty for many years, while occupying a full block as the source of many neighbors’ frustrations by the time Wilder used it for this film. An outdoor pool was dug/created for key scenes and later emptied- this was later used in “Rebel Without A Cause.” The lonely mansion was torn down. A modern-styled building, the Tidewater Oil Co., exists there now. Rest of it was shot on a studio set.

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Wilder was very EXACT and super detailed in his directing approach. As a writer himself, no one was allowed to deviate from the script. He and Charlie Brackett were notoriously talented as a team, yet didn’t actually like each other and were even sarcastically called, “the happiest couple in Hollywood.” Masters of both Screwball Comedy and Film Noir, the end results were cinematic gold. His family was murdered in the Holocaust. Wilder brought his biting, dark humor from Europe with him and it can be seen in all of his films.

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When asked why Billy enjoyed the use of voice-over narration so much (we see in SUNSET BLVD but also in his other films and a common technique in other noirs), he said: 1) It does an excellent job of catching the audience up to speed quickly and 2) It allows a writer like himself to express clever plays on words.

ALL the Norma Desmonds:

Various ‘aging Hollywood starlets’ were considered, approached and/or test-screened to play Norma Desmond… Mae West (she wanted to rewrite dialogue so that was an automatic no), Pola Negri (too strong of a Polish accent), Mary Pickford (she insisted on owning her own negatives as she had with all of her films, plus she feared the role may come across as demeaning and mocking of legendary silent stars such as herself, so she was a no), then George Cukor suggested Gloria Swanson, who was very similar to Norma Desmond in terms of great popularity during Silent era. She landed up being the absolute perfect actress for the role as she worked hard, nailed the performance into legend, and while she was no Norma, it landed up being a true “comeback for an otherwise has-been” plum role. Swanson was a very fascinating woman in real life, having lived through many rags-to-riches life stories, several times. At this point in her life, she had married and divorced 5 husbands and was a faded star.

Although Norma is supposed to be a fictional character based upon a composite collection of Hollywood stars, some have suggested the ND name may have been inspired by silent star Norma Talmadge –or- a combination of the names of the actress Mabel Normand and director William Desmond Taylor. Normand was a very successful actor/writer/producer/director in the silent era but was frequently connected to scandal. In 1922, Taylor was murdered. Normand was a close friend and the last person known to see him alive but was ruled out as a suspect, after a rough police interrogation. The case has never been solved.

Before William Holden, Montgomery Clift was offered the role. He agreed initially, went off to a ski trip then declined. Almost like Swanson, Holden while working more actively than Gloria, was also in a bit of a career slump (more second fiddle than A lister leads) yet Wilder saw the potential in each of them as much deeper than their prior films had allowed them to fully realize.

Eric von Stroheim– like Swanson, he too possessed striking parallels to his character so made for the ideal “Max. “ He was one of the most famous directors of the silent era. His career suffered when he was more interested in art than commercial success when he made 7 hour long films and gave investors a hard when asked to edit to a standard length (“GREED”) Ironically, when Stroheim directed Swanson in “QUEEN KELLY” a film (that her then lover Joseph Kennedy convinced Gloria to do) it was a bust at the box office and the two had a falling out. Apparently, von Stroheim and Swanson resolved their differences by SUNSET BLVD because there were never any reports of any issues on set.

Nancy Olson– considered perfect for the role. I personally saw her introduce SUNSET BLVD. on the mega screen at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre for TCM Film Fest and she told us lovely stories about Edith Head and mentioned her nickname in school was “Wholesome Olson.”

Here are some of the questions and topics I prepared and posed to the class to prompt discussions:

~In what ways SUNSET BLVD a Film Noir, how does it differ from other ‘typical’ noirs?

~Discuss the themes: duality of a film this is both about the Movie Biz, but also a Film Noir

~The intro sets the tone… of decay, of cynicism, of fated doom.

~While it is a black and white, but it was big budget- how do you think Wilder gave it ‘Noir’ touches stylistically?

~The characters; who do we root for? Who is vulnerable? Do we feel sympathy for them?

~What does this film say about the movies/of Hollywood/ of the studio system/ of screenwriters?

~What double meanings does the writing cleverly reveal?

~Where do we see and who demonstrates disillusionment?

~What examples of symbolism do we see?

~Why do you think it has remained such a timeless classic?

~Why did Joe not see/not choose all the exit signs (would he land up as the next dead monkey, or the next Max?)- was he too as fated for doom as Norma?

~Nancy Olson quotes Billy Wilder that “all the characters in SUNSET BLVD are opportunists”… in what ways does this film show us opportunists and their consequences, and about ‘selling out’?

~What does this film say about aging actresses in that industry back then- and even to this day?

Members of my class had interesting insights and additional commentary to contribute as we watched key scenes. Many debated whether Swanson’s performance was too over-the-top to the level of ‘camp.’ This poses a good question. My two thoughts on the matter for those who thought she was too campy… 1) Did you see Carol Burnett’s parody of Norma Desmond BEFORE seeing the actual film your first time, and could that have subconsciously planted that parody seed of perception? 2) Keep in mind that over-the-top dramatic gestures and mannerisms is inherit to the Norma Desmond character as she lives in her silent film star world, even prior to breaking down completely and detaching from reality at the end.

One student whom had seen this film a few times prior added that it never occurred to her until our discussion that this film was a darker criticism of Hollywood and the movie industry. Another student pondered how much this film was pivotal in turning Bill Holden’s career from a relatively B list actor to much stronger roles post- SUNSET BLVD success. Another student added that Ronald Reagan had similar B list roles until he became political in his aspirations. I joked, “just think, if it wasn’t for SUNSET BLVD, perhaps we would have had a ‘President Holden.’

We discussed, how much sympathy do we have for Norma, especially after Cecil B deMille explains what ‘a dozen press agents working around the clock can do to the ego.’ After all, we see mercurial sides of Norma- often insulting, unyielding, selfish, and brutal, and yet quite lonely and vulnerable. What factors contributed to her delusions and ultimate demise, and why were the other ‘wax figures’ of her contemporaries not affected the same way? One answer could be that her peers may have been forced to adapt because they may not have profited into mega wealth as well as she did. And yet, CB de Mille transitioned successfully from the silent era and remained active in the industry- was being a male director with strong adaption skills (vs. an aging female in front of the camera) key? Was Max to blame for keeping her in her fantasy bubble? Or, were her peers quietly suffering in their own ways yet managed to cope just enough to be functioning? (At least enough to still make it until the next gathering of playing a game of Bridge.)

My final thought for the class was focused on Max, the character portrayed by Eric von Stroheim. Who was the more ‘crazy’ of the two? Norma, for remaining too deeply fastened into her past and the subsequent lack of reality? Or Max, even as her former director and husband, for dysfunctional worshipping her as an indentured servant and enabled her fate? In the end, Max was most likely to be the sole beneficiary of that big estate so maybe he was motivated in his madness.

For me, SUNSET BOULEVARD is easily a nominee for the best film ever made. It’s a blend of so many themes and genres… a film noir, a thriller, a movie about the movie industry, and perhaps even a horror film. In addition to the compelling performances and fascinating story, it is a reflection of the brilliance of Billy Wilder. It remains a haunting, genius piece of storytelling and art, which is why it continues to be a timeless classic, just like Norma Desmond herself.

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Here are some additional resources/other views on this film that I found interesting…

From YouTube:

Sunset Boulevard Explained: The Hollywood Nightmare (ScreenPrism)

https://youtu.be/5gbknao5D-U

 

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard- a look back (cinematographos)

https://youtu.be/aIp8rK8vG8s

 

From Wilshire Boulevard Houses:

https://wilshireboulevardhouses.blogspot.com/2013/02/641-south-irving-boulevard-please-see.html

 

From Cinematheque, “Strange Magic, The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder” http://www.thecinematheque.ca/strange-magic-the-films-of-charles-brackett-and-billy-wilder

“One of the most famous comments about the two apparently competing theatrical genres of comedy and tragedy is that “Comedy is simply tragedy plus time.” This remark is often attributed to the great Carol Burnett. It was in fact uttered by Charles Brackett to Billy Wilder in the studio office of a Hollywood executive who was desperately trying to understand their original intention of making Sunset Boulevard as a comedy!”

Relationship and Marriage Advice from THE THIN MAN

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Whether you’re married, in a significant relationship, or hope to be in one someday, I think Nick and Nora Charles from THE THIN MAN series have a lot of good relationship advice to offer. My husband and I are big fans of THE THIN MAN films with William Powell and Myrna Loy as Dashiell Hammett’s most popular crime-solving and Rye-sipping couples. Much of the enduring appeal of this classic on-screen duo is that in many ways, they appear to be the perfect couple.

Here’s what I’ve discovered as key to the Charles’s marital success…

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*Don’t get more than 5 drinks ahead of your spouse. And if you see that your significant other has arrived to the neighborhood bar much earlier than your entrance, do the classy thing and catch up.

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*There’s no room for jealousy in a strong relationship. It’s all based on mutual trust. In every unusual predicament, be on the same page and assume the benefit of the doubt for your partner. Nick and Nora mastered this. Such as…

—the time when Nora was found surrounded by eager suitors as she sits in a gorgeous gown at a nite club, trying her best to help in a case. Then Nick swoops in to save the day (NOT flying in like a jealous hubby and NOT that she actually needed saving because Nora ) and adds a healthy dash of sublime humor, as the two conjure up a quarantine-level of contagion to clear out the crowd. Their impromptu funny fib shows how well they work in tandem. Only a partnership based on implicit trust, and one where you truly know your partner well, can this scenario work. Relationship goals indeed.

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This leads me to another lesson I’ve learned via the Charles relationship. Sometimes it’s best, especially when life gets chaotic and complicated, to simply roll with the punches. Keep calm and have each other’s back.

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*Being charming with witty one-liners is always your best accessory. Whether you’re a cop on the beat, an uncouth mug, a world-class detective, and average Joe or dame, or even a lanky brunette with a wicked jaw… pour on the class, drape the sharp wit, and you’ll always fit in any crowd and in every situation. As Mr. Pratt and I have already discovered, humor and communication are indispensable tools for a successful marriage.

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*Like ASTA, always be a smart cookie, but it’s okay to be a coward. In other words, it’s all about being a survivor and knowing your strengths (and weaknesses). Not everyone has the confidence and calm-in the-storm nerve of Nick and Nora Charles. And that’s okay. In those moments, lean in to your ‘inner Asta’.

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*Always be well mannered, well-educated and cultured. This is not essential for a good relationship, but it doesn’t hurt. You just never know when your etiquette IQ may come in handy- for either proper seating arrangements at a dinner party, or helping to solve a murder mystery.

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*Bottom line, remember to be affectionate and be playful. When you’re both ready to move on to the next step, or next room, or run a detective errand (that is, assuming your spouse doesn’t trick you into a trip to Grant’s Tomb)… don’t simply walk together- SKIP together, hand-in-hand! And if being playful is key to your connection, you’ll need some toys. Just be careful if you decide to give a BB gun as a holiday gift. The inner child of your partner in crime might just break a window then fold up into a fetal position to avoid blame. Nick and Nora know playfulness is an essential part of romance. Wise advice, Mr. and Mrs. Charles.

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Lastly, today happens to be National Martini Day. Oh sure, many may say The Charles duo have a serious drinking issue. But keep in mind that glasses were much smaller back then in comparison to today’s magnum portions.

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So it only seems appropriate to honor the fun and charming wisdom of Nick and Nora. CHEERS! (or, Slainte! as we say in our house…)

5 Reasons Why THE AWFUL TRUTH is my Classic Comfort Movie

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May 16th was National Classic Movie Day! On that date we celebrate those films we love from the golden era of Hollywood. To list just one film that brings me joy or comfort like an old friend is frankly impossible. But one of many that I have seen countless times and brings me laughter without fail, even on the bluest of days, is Leo McCarey’s THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937).

A screwball comedy in its truest form, the writing, the silly premise, and the performances absolutely deliver. Starring the king of screwball himself Cary Grant as Jerry Warriner and Irene Dunne as Lucy Warriner. Here are my reasons (in no particular order) of why I find endless satisfaction with this film as my go-to classic comfort…

STYLE and FASHION:

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The gowns draped on Irene Dunne are positively gorgeous. Stunning and stand-out, designer Robert Kalloch is in his prime in this film. With over 150 film credits from 1932 to 1948, he was often uncredited early in his career but became known for his costume design work in such memorable classics as Claudette Colbert in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934), Carole Lombard in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934), Katharine Hepburn in HOLIDAY (1938), and Rosalind Russell in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), including several “Lone Wolf,” “Blondie,” and “Maisie” films.

SKIPPY! aka MR. SMITH:

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The beloved wire fox terrier, “Mr. Smith”  was not only the main source of a custody battle between stars Dunne and Grant in THE AWFUL TRUTH, this perky pooch (real name ‘Skippy’) was also known as the charming comic relief “Asta” in THE THIN MAN film series, and “George” in BRINGING UP BABY (1938).

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The popularity of this particular pup was so immense that Humphrey Bogart suggested a canine award. A silver statuette was presented to Skippy on March 11, 1938 based on the results of a popularity poll. To illustrate the scene-stealing talents Skippy displays in this film, watch “Mr. Smith” play games with Dunne, sing along with Grant at the piano, and go full-on slapstick in a game of revealing hats while bringing down wall mirrors.

SNAPPY DIALOGUE: 

Irene Dunne as Lucy: “I’ve seen your picture in the paper and wondered what you looked like.”

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Irene Dunne as Lucy: “I guess it was easier to her to change her name than for her whole family to change theirs.” 

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Ralph Bellamy as Dan Leeson: “I certainly learned about women from you.”

Cecil Cunningham as Aunt Patsy: [handing him the letter Lucy intended to break up with him in] “Here’s your diploma.” 

 

HILARIOUS SCENES:

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Some of the funniest scenes of classic comedy are found in this one film. One in particular stands out. As Lucy (Irene Dunne) pulls all punches to get her fella back, she mimics a character and song from earlier in the story, in of course the most hilarious way. Watch as Dunne masters the fine art of physical comedy and perfect timing, as she throws “Jerry the Nipper’s” prospective in-laws for a loop…

YouTube video clip: https://youtu.be/Oxhv4zZy0EU

THAT IRENE DUNNE/ CARY GRANT COMIC CHEMISTRY:

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Cary Grant is my absolute favorite classic movie actor, so I’ve seen plenty of his films many times over. As such, I’ve watched him paired with Hollywood’s top leading ladies in both dramas and comedies. For me, he was best matched with Irene Dunne for his romantic comedy roles.

What’s challenging about playing the leading lady in a screwball, you must balance the elegance and confidence of a socialite in exquisite fashions while mastering the silliness required of farcical slapstick. To keep up with the unparalleled skills and charms of Cary Grant is no small feat. Not to mention the script calls for both actors flipping back and forth of one playing the straight and the other the clown. Yet Irene Dunne matches wits with zany precision and infectious appeal.

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Aunt Patsy (Cecil Cunningham, R) delivers the witty lines as sharply as her tailored fashions.

Throw in the supporting cast with veteran talents like Cecil Cunningham and a reliable third wheel like Ralph Bellamy, you’ve got the perfect set-up for a film that never grows old or feels tired. Every time it’s the just-right tonic for whatever ails you.

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I share this with you as part of the Classic Comfort Movie Blogathon, hosted by Rick of the Classic Film & TV Cafe as a fun way to honor National Classic Movie Day/ May 16, 2018. How did you celebrate Classic Movie Day?

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Day One: 31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON

It’s here! The time has finally arrived to celebrate that marvelously golden man, Oscar. For an entire month, Turner Classic Movies network puts on a grand gala tribute to the winners of that coveted statuette, and for six years we’ve joined the party.

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Please join my co-hosts Aurora (aka @CitizenScreen) of Once Upon A Screen, Paula ( aka @Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club, and me this weekend as we showcase bloggers’ works on this glorious subject. For Day One, here is today’s lineup:

Danny of Danny Reviews (twitter @danny_reviews ) perseveres as he chats about MOTION PICTURES (“CHARIOTS OF FIRE” and “THE KING’S SPEECH” : FILMS ABOUT PERSEVERANCE) 

Paddy of Caftan Woman details the BEST DANCE DIRECTION Nominee: SHE (1935) for that category’s first year as an Academy Award. twitter: @CaftanWoman

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Steve of Movie Movie Blog Blog (twitter: @MovieBlogger61 ) outlines his picks for 10 EMBARRASSING ACADEMY AWARD MOMENTS .

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Daniel of Movie Mania Madness (twitter: @dsl89) honors the 39th winner for Oscar’s Best Picture, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS.

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The Gal Herself of One Gal’s Musings takes a look at 1954’s Best Actress Competition with A STAR IS ROBBED: THE 1954 BEST ACTRESS RACE. 

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Annette of Hometowns To Hollywood (twitter: @Home2Hollywood ) reviews how the Academy Awards Ceremonies celebrated with humor and Hope: THE ACADEMY AWARDS AND PLENTY OF HOPE.

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Ruth of Silver Screenings (twitter: @925screenings ) goes deep on the Oscars’ origins and answers the question, WHY DO WE HAVE THE OSCARS?

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The Story Enthusiast laments over the CLASSIC FILM STARS WHO NEVER WON AN OSCAR.

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Dan of Top 10 Films (twitter: @top10films ) lists the TOP TEN HORROR SUCCESSES AT THE OSCARS. 

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Finally our last entry in today’s offerings, Gill of Real Weegie Midget Reviews (twitter: @realweegiemidge ) extols the talents of OSCAR WINNING ACTRESSES IN RETRO ROMANTIC COMEDY MOVIES.

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Enjoy reading all of these superb contributions in Day One of our blogathon event. We encourage you to leave glowing feedback for these writers- share the Oscar love! Tomorrow, pop over to Aurora’s site for Day Two entries, followed on Sunday at Paula’s site for Day Three.

day 2: once upon a screen

day 3: paula’s cinema club

Thanks so much for joining us this weekend! Be sure to watch the 90th Oscars Ceremony on ABC this Sunday, March 4th 8pm ET.

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Announcement: 31 Days Of Oscar Blogathon

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out the first Awards at a dinner party for about 250 people on May 16, 1929 to honor movies released from August 1, 1927 – August 1, 1928. The first Academy president, Douglas Fairbanks, hosted and presented in the ceremony held in the Blossom Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. The brainchild of MGM studio mogul, Louis B. Mayer, the Academy was formed in 1927 as a non-profit dedicated to the advancement and improvement of the film industry. Some might argue about some of those achievements, but there is one thing that is sure to impress classic movie and Hollywood fans – when the music plays to open this year’s Oscars on March 4, 2018 it will be the 90th time the film industry honors achievements in movies.

Here are the 1929 Winners and Nominees

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If you take the time to look through all of the moments in 90 years of Oscars ceremonies, you’ll find numerous surprises, disappointments and controversy any number of which may spur debate from film aficionados. That’s where we come in. For the sixth consecutive year, I am joining forces with Aurora of Once Upon A Screen aka @CitizenScreen and Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club aka @Paula_Guthat to bring you the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon. Given Oscar’s special anniversary and all of the memories, we hope you’ll consider joining us to make this the best and brightest outing yet.

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As you know, this blogging event is inspired by Turner Classic Movies’ 31 Days of Oscar marathon, which begins its 23rd installment on February 1. This year the network is presenting the movies based on the categories in which they were awarded or nominated. February 1st will honor Best Original Song Winner and Nominees and the festival kicks off with Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935). William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) will end the 31-Day presentation on March 3, the day dedicated to Best Picture Winners.

Since both TCM and the Oscars bring to mind our beloved host and favorite historian, Robert Osborne, we thought we would kick off our Blogathon with his words about the 31 Days of Oscar marathon…

“One thing seems to stir the souls of our Turner Classic Movie loyalists like no other: the 31 Days of Oscar salute.” 

Blogathon Details

Rather than hosting the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon for the entire month of February, as we’ve done in the past, we will host all entries the weekend before the Oscars this year. That is from Friday, February 23 through Sunday, February 25, which leaves Oscar weekend free for last minute movie watching. We’re also combining all topics this year and simply presenting them over the three days. Any Oscar-related topic is fair game. We are not limiting this event to classic film fare as we’d like to see entries covering the entire 90-year history of Oscar, including this year’s nominees. To help get you motivated here are the categories we have used in the past…

  • The Actors
  • The Directors
  • The Motion Pictures
  • Oscar Snubs
  • The Crafts (music, costumes, etc.)
  • New Idea – Oscar Controversies

Most of you know the drill, but as a reminder, adhering to the following is necessary:

  • Let us know what your desired topic is by leaving a comment on any of the host blogs
  • Include the title and link to your blog in the comments area
  • Advise if you have a date preference – Friday 2/23, Saturday 2/24 or Sunday 2/25
  • Include the event banner on your blog and in the entry post to help us promote the event

Restrictions – just two:

  • Please do not submit previously published posts
  • No duplicates will be accepted to ensure we cover as much of Oscar history as possible

We look forward to hearing from you and to reading your entries. As many entries as you want, actually, so get to it!

Until then here’s to Oscar, to TCM and to YOU! Happy Blogging!

Participating Blogs and Topics

Caftan Woman – 1936 Best Dance Direction Nominee, Benjamin Zemach for Hall of Kings from Merian C. Cooper’s SHE (1935)

Blog of the Darned – 7 Films that Should Have Been Nominated for Best Picture

One Gal’s Musings – The 1954 Best Actress Competition

Silver Screenings – How the Oscars Began

Movie Movie Blog Blog – Embarrassing Oscar Moments

Old Hollywood Films – Janet Gaynor’s Three Oscar Wins

Hometowns to Hollywood – Wings (1927)

Critica Retro – The Trouble with Thrillers

Realweegiemidget Reviews – Oscar-winning Actresses in Superhero Movies

Moon in Gemini – Forgotten Winners and Nominees

Cracked Rear Viewer – Claire Trevor in Key Largo

Once Upon a Screen – Why Barbara Stanwyck Should Have Taken Oscar Home in 1942

Danny Reviews – Chariots Of Fire (1981) and The King’s Speech (2010), Best Picture films about perseverance

 

Busby Berkeley Choreography: Geometric Gems

 

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He’s been called many things: an artist, a visionary, a perfectionist, a genius, a legend, even a fascist. But what Busby Berkeley did for musical numbers of the silver screen was simply unforgettable. While Berkeley had a long and successful career that included being a choreographer and a director, today I only want to address the choreography of his musical numbers that highlights his mastery of geometric patterns in dancing harmony.

From conducting military parades and staging camp shows for soldiers in WW1, William Berkeley Enos aka “Buzz” returned home and quickly became one of Broadway’s top dance directors. By 1930, Ziegfeld gave him his big chance to transition to film so he moved to Hollywood. Beginning with choreographing musical comedies like, WHOOPIE! (1930) with Eddie Cantor, he started to get noticed. Producers Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl F. Zanuck each gave him opportunities to have greater creative control. It was Zanuck that offered him the big break at Warner Brothers with the film 42nd STREET (1933) that forever changed his destiny.

In Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd STREET (1933), Berkeley directed the key musical numbers that made the film a huge hit, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo”, “Young and Healthy” and the “Naughty! Bawdy! Gaudy!“, depression-era story-telling finale, “42nd Street”. In these numbers, we see the enormous ensemble of dancers and grand scale perspective begin to emerge.

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In “Young and Healthy,” the circles and rows of dancers, including unique camera techniques like snaking underneath a bridge of continuous legs, creates magical human kaleidoscopes for which he soon became famous. In this number, we are also witness to BB’s frequent use of glowing shades of white in repetition contrasting against a black backdrop, another sign of his artistic-meets-tech mastery to achieve the greatest effect.

What followed was an astounding surge of creative output of some of the most iconic musical numbers ever put to film. Although he went on to direct and choreograph dozens of films and musical numbers until the 1960s, it was the massive production in the Pre-Code years that reflected his crowning achievements in geometric patterned brilliance.

In Mervyn LeRoy’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), Buzz reaches new heights. Working again with catchy, Oscar nominated songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, BB created four spectacular musical numbers: “We’re In The Money,” “Pettin’ In The Park,” “The Shadow Waltz,” and “My Forgotten Man” made the final cut. (“I’ve Got To Sing A Torch Song” number by Ginger Rogers was cut; instead given to Dick Powell, but not as a full production number.)

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In “The Shadow Waltz,” Berkeley showcases some of his signature moves such as the use of a reflective flooring that was used as a mirror to further create the kaleidoscope effect. In color, this would be too busy visually to simply use a mirrored floor. But in black in white, he knew that a shiny, black flooring with glowing shades of white elements- including neon violins- would create this effect with maximum results.

Another BB signature element is to have the rows of dancers move in a way that makes it appear alive. In “The Shadow Waltz” we see spinning, flowing movements that appear like a flower opening and closing its petals. One way he is able to create this effect is to have the camera often go from deep closeups shots to extreme ariel shots. In this case, each dancer twirls and the dresses are like spinning, inverted plates but from a distance, whether in a row or in circles, it takes on a new, and different form. To ponder how many hours of detailed planning was required to achieve this makes my head spin!

In Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE, Berkeley leaves the gritty, marching rows of ‘forgotten men’ from his last film and takes a dip in the waters. From numbers that range honeymooners to back alley cats, in the “Shanghai Lil” musical number, he takes on prostitution and opium dens (and asian stereotypes) but ultimately returns to rows of marching military. Musical numbers:

  • “Honeymoon Hotel” – by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
  • “Shanghai Lil” – by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
  • By a Waterfall” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
  • “My Shadow” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
  • “Ah, the Moon Is Here” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
  • “Sitting on a Backyard Fence” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)

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Buzz was known for coming up with his best ideas for his elaborate choreography from daily soaks in his bath tub. In “By The Waterfall,” synchronized swimming takes geometric patterns to new heights, and greater depths, than Buzz had ever gone before… or since.

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In Ray Enright’s DAMES (1934), “Beautiful Girls” is arguably the finest example of kaleidoscope inspired use of geometric patterns in a Busby Berkeley musical number. Additionally, in “I Only Have Eyes For You,” surreal, large Ruby Keeler heads dance around, but otherwise all the signature BB markers are present, from rows and circles of white twirling dresses against a black backdrop, with zooming extreme closeups and ariel shots.

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In GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, Berkeley sits in the directing chair beyond just the musical numbers. The “The Words Are in My Heart” number takes the phrase “go big or go home” to heart with dancing pianos. A plethora of baby grand pianos are constantly moving and spinning on elaborate staircases and flowing in waving rows. To complete the kaleidoscope patterns, rows of women wave their flowing white skirts. In his masterpiece “Lullaby On Broadway,” he ambitiously tells a dark tale with armies of dancers in a mini film-in-a-film that lasts nearly 15 minutes.

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Busby Berkeley continued with directing and choreographing films and musical numbers so the examples above are only highlights. I know what you’re thinking. What’s the deal with that ‘fascist’ comment? According to a Busby Berkeley documentary, a few people called him that more in jest simply because of his obsessive work demands from dancers and the set crew, combined with his infusion of military-influenced marching formations.

Apparently, his demands were so intensely high that he was known to push people to extremes with zero sympathy, in order to achieve his dazzling results. He was also known to be anti-social to the point he preferred discussing tech over chatting with dancers. If you consider how he utilized his dancers- often dressed the same, and in formations like parts in a big machine, I guess it’s not that surprising. So I’m also not surprised to hear he was married six times, with each marriage lasting less than a couple of years. His last marriage being the only exception.

He lived a long life with a successful career but I wonder how his scandal of being tried for manslaughter for the deaths of two people affected him personally, and his relationships with others. It is said that alcohol was a contributing factor to him plowing into two vehicles one night in 1937 while driving home after a party that resulted in two deaths and five injured. He also attempted suicide and was placed temporarily in a psychiatric hospital following his mother’s death in 1946.

He was acquitted for the car crash deaths, but did that haunt him? Was work his salvation? Perhaps being a perfectionist helped him in some way. The brilliance of his geometric patterned wonders may not give us the answers, but they can provide us joy for decades and decades to come.

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This was my contribution to the Busby Berkeley Blogathon, hosted by Annette of Hometowns To Hollywood, January 25th- 28th. Be sure to read all the entries!

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Zasu Pitts, Funny Lady with a Funny Name

 

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First things first. Before I can gush on about this distinctively funny lady with the fluttering hands that stole every scene, one must learn how to say her name correctly. Oh sure, many of my ‘old movie weirdo’ friends may know, but it’s a common mistake. To honor her properly, let’s begin with this lesson, provided via Thelma Todd and ZaSu herself:

YouTube: ZaSu Pitts: Learn My Name!

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Now that we all know how say “Say-zoo,” a name which is a combo of her aunts Eliza and Susan, let’s explore the memorable ways this distinctive lady who began life not too far from me in Parsons, Kansas, became one of the most recognized faces in Hollywood.

Her most notable characters were the woeful worrywarts. Physically, her appearance was defined by delicate, thin lines and a frequent focus on her ever- waving, fidgeting fingers. Her tiny mouth was shaped like a kewpie doll with the corners often turned down. Her large, soft eyes were doe-like and she usually looked upward. Her voice had a distinctive mumbling of melancholic concern, often with an “oh dear…” muttering to herself. She gained the reputation of stealing every scene.

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ZaSu’s signature characterizations were such a fan favorite she was parodied in cartoons, a reflection that she was immersed in pop culture. If you’ve seen Olive Oyl from Max Fleischer’s Popeye the Sailor cartoons, you are already familiar with the signature ZaSu Pitts tone and voice. She was also featured in Looney Tunes, in Hollywood-ribbing toons like “Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.”

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Pitts often faced the challenge of looking too similar to Lillian Gish. Here, with Mary Pickford, THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1917).

Born Eliza Susan Pitts on January 3rd, 1894 (her 124th birthday is next month), the family moved to Santa Cruz, California seeking sunnier opportunities. Despite her shy demeanor and bird-like qualities, Pitts was a natural performing on stage and moved to LA by age twenty-one. Working a small part with icon Mary Pickford, A LITTLE PRINCESS (1917) was her first break on the big screen.

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Erich von Stroheim’s masterpiece GREED 

Soon, she was starring in one-reelers and feature films, working with greats like directors King Vidor and Eric Von Stroheim (i.e. the silent masterpiece, GREED)- in a range of parts from tragedy to comedy to drama. Her popularity increased in the 1930s, with a demand for her in character roles in comedies. She was partnered in series with Thelma Todd (Hal Roach promoted the two as a female Laurel and Hardy) and with Slim Summerville.

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mastering comedy with Thelma Todd

The 1940s brought her success to radio, vaudeville and Broadway, working with the biggest names in entertainment. She transitioned easily to television in the 1950s, in popular roles like cruise ship beautician Elvira Nugent on “The Gale Storm Show.” But this decade also introduced ill health, with a cancer diagnosis. As a fitting tribute to her own career, her last role would be in the epic ensemble of comic legends, in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963). Even with health battles, she continued working until her death at the age of sixty-nine on June 7, 1963.

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Pitts’ last role in IT’s A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD

ZaSu Pitts was a true wallflower success story. She proved that a shy girl from Kansas, with more matronly than cover-girl looks, could be a huge star as a character actress. She worked from the silents to the sixties, in every entertainment medium (film, radio, vaudeville, television and on Broadway), from dramatic roles to comedy, and she worked with some of the biggest stars and filmmakers in Hollywood’s heydays.

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The more ZaSu films I watch, the more I am thoroughly charmed by her. And to see her range from tragic epic dramatic roles like GREED to super silly shorts with Thelma Todd, I am also in awe of her talent. What a character!

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This article on character acting legend ZaSu Pitts is my contribution to the 6th annual WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and yours truly. You can read the other entries on character actors from this blogathon from days one, two and three:

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