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Archive for the ‘Hattie McDaniel’ Category

Vivacious Lady

25 Jan

Vivacious Lady – directed by George Stevens. Comedy. 90 minutes Black And White 1938.

★★★★★

Charlie Chaplin said A Place In The Sun was the best American movie he had ever seen.

What was it that made George Stevens’ films so mesmerizing, so engrossing?

Those closeups of Elizabeth Taylor over the shoulder of Montgomery Clift? Yes, but you saw not just the beautiful eyes of a beautiful seventeen year old girl, you also saw she was in love.

You see the same in closeups of Joan Fontaine and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gunga Din.

And you see the same thing here in Jimmy Stewart looking at Ginger Rogers for the first time in Vivacious Lady. Jimmy Stewart told us that he lost his virginity to Ginger Rogers. She would have been 27 and he 30 at the time the film was made. And is that what we’re seeing in his agog eyes? Gratitude? First love? Surrender? It looks so real and dear.

It may just be that Jimmy Stewart was a marvelous actor. For certainly the love-scenes are delicious between them – funny, apt, sincere, clumsy. You just don’t want them to end.

George Stevens directed great comic love scenes. Tender and true. Or did he? When you look at The More The Merrier and you come upon the seduction scene on the stoop, if your heart isn’t filled with the humor of those passes and spurns, you must go back again to be born. How did Stevens do it? Was it luck?

I don’t know what George Stevens had for actors. As a film–maker of comedy before The War he is unrivalled in his visual grasp – he made no comedies after The War because he was the first to see Dachau and film it and the sight of is changed him permanently. His embrace of the actor is like no other, before or after The War. But before the war we have his trove of Americana comedy. Vivacious Lady is Stevens’ gift to us of ourselves.

Charles Coburn was an actor any director would thrill to have. (He won an Oscar later for The More The Merrier.) Coburn plays the heavy father of Stewart. He gives full value and a balance learned from playing many Shakespearean heavy fathers, which require comic high-horse just short of meanness. Beulah Bondi is lovely as his put-upon but shrewd wife. Ginger Rogers is as always willing to play the fool and give us an upside-down game when needed. And it’s great to see Jimmy Stewart deliver a full-on dressing down when the time comes. When someone like that gets angry, watch out!

Like the routine at the end of Woman Of The Year, the Vivacious Lady closing comes too long and too late. But never mind. Just enjoy yourself. When you’ve seen it once, watch how he films it. When you’ve seen it twice, watch how he lights it. When you’ve seen it thrice, watch how he details it. When you’ve seen it never before … just watch.

 

In This Our Life

18 Nov

In This Our Life –– directed by John Huston. Drama. A young Southern woman runs over the lives and loves of everyone in town. 97 minutes Black and White 1942.

★★★★★

I saw it when it came out and remember it well –– because of its closing scene in which Bette tells off Charles Coburn and then drives her convertible over a cliff. The scene was actually directed by Raoul Walsh, but what was impressive about it was the intensity and rashness of Davis’s ability to tell the truth. The question is not whether she is mean, selfish, immoral, or even sociopathic, but her daring to find in her guts and let loose the emotional truth. I never forgot it, and neither did anyone else who saw it. It was what I could not do at the time, nor for years to come. There was no major film star of Bette Davis’ era who was not a full embodiment of Women’s Liberation. This was Davis’ version.

Davis deplored the picture, which is incorrect, for she chews scenery already there for her digestion. She is never bigger than the part. And she is certainly never smaller than the part. Her costumes, by Orry-Kelly, are superb in their careful want of subtlety: she is always tricked out for game. Perc Westmore executed the makeup, which gives her a bee-stung upper lip and mascara flounces at the outside corners of her eyes. Her hair is free curling just above the shoulder with a disgraceful bang on her brow.

Bette Davis is the most kinetic of all major female stars. Her body is always engaged or about to spring. More than any other actress of her time, she brings to the screen the quality of someone no one has ever loved, and this gives her sexual seething. One way or another she is hot.

This picture is made in her heyday, between The Man Who Came To Dinner, which is her best screen performance, and Now Voyager, which is one of her most iconic. Once again she plays the brat. She had played it for years. And she played it successfully until All About Eve, after which she played it unsuccessfully, because, once over forty, it became barbaric, immature, and neurotic. After Eve, Bette Davis ceased to be an actress and became a persona, which is to say she became a statue in a public park forty years premature to her death.

But here she is giving vent to what all of us, males and females, only wish we could give vent to –– the suppressed life we’ve had to sit on, now released, fuelled, nasty or not, with the rage of our resentment at having had to sit on it so long.

This is John Huston’s second picture, and it is very well told. Ernest Haller who filmed Gone With The Wind makes beautiful light arrangements, and Ed Koch who will write Casablanca does a sound and economical script, particularly since the Pulitzer Prize- winning novel by Ellen Glasgow it comes from hinges on the Davis character’s attempt to incriminate a negro boy for a crime she herself committed. In a memorable jailhouse scene, Davis attempts to cajole and manipulate this boy to confess to it – a scene she plays well, as does the boy. Davis had found the actor, Ernest Anderson, as a waiter in the Warner’s commissary, saw his quality, and got Huston to use him; Anderson went on to have a long acting career. The handling of the negro truth has a moving first-time ever quality that rings true still.

His mother is played by Hattie McDaniel, and it is interesting to see her well-matched in a key scene opposite Olivia de Havilland. Both women were up for supporting Oscars for Gone With The Wind, and when McDaniel won it, de Havilland fled to the ladies’ room in a weeping rage. A friend shook her and said to her that McDaniel would never have another chance to win an Oscar and that de Havilland would, and it brought her to her senses. And here the two women are, face to face, filmed by Ernest Haller once again, while a score by that same Max Steiner strums by.

Olivia de Havilland gives a subtle, strong reading of Davis’ sister. Never in competition with Davis, because her instrument is essentially lyrical, the small telling registrations of her face bring this good woman to life fully. She’s wonderful to watch. She presents a formidable antagonist to Davis. It is one of de Havilland’s most fully realized characterizations.

But it is Davis’s film. Her leading men, Dennis Morgan and the penguin actor George Brent form part of a strong supporting cast which includes Lee Patrick as the care-free friend, and Frank Craven and Billie Burke as the parents. But it is Davis’ scenes with Charles Coburn that are exemplary of Davis acting at her best. Davis had more brass than a doorknocker and she and Coburn come alive to one another whenever they are together, because Coburn has brass too. Their incest scene on the couch is one for the books.

Bette Davis played The Brat for years: Jezebel, Of Human Bondage, The Letter, Dark Victory, Mr. Skeffingon, Elizabeth And Essex, The Little Foxes, and this is her quintessential take on it, and not to be missed. The title comes from the last line of a poem of George Meredith from Modern Love, a book inspired by his wife’s running off with another man. In In This Our Life, Bette runs off with another man. She also runs off with the picture.

 

Alice Adams

31 Mar

Alice Adams — directed by George Stevens. Family Drama. A young woman’s mother strives to upgrade her daughter’s social status. 99 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★★

Katherine Hepburn was 27 when she made this, and she went on starring in movies until she was 87, and you can understand why. She is an actress without repose. Even when acting repose she is actively doing it. Mind you, she has a very good script here and a first-class director, George Stevens, whose breakthrough film this was. Hepburn had played a series of high-strung, mettlesome, sophisticated girls, but here she plays an ordinary small town girl who wants to better herself. Alice Adams is a girl who loves her crude working class father, but takes after her mother who strives. She puts on airs, tells lies, and hides things to conceal her drab family background. The only result is that she is snubbed and picked on by the town’s worthies; she is not invited to other girls’ soigné parties, and wears handmade organdy when she is, and is a wallflower there. Why should we care about this pushy phony? It’s because in our lives when we were young we all wanted to be someone else, someone better, someone more popular. And because Alice is also kind and tactful, and, when home, direct and earnest, and because Hepburn herself is those things. So, well though we might wonder how tall, dark, handsome, Fred MacMurray, broad of shoulder, with wads of money, magnificent in tails, can stand this pushy dame with her coyness and strained lyricism and little half-laugh, it is because we see through her to Hepburn’s quality and harpsichord sensitivity to the truth about love. Booth Tarkington wrote the novel, and it’s a good one. The director and actress fought for the novel’s ending in which Alice has to go out and drudge as a secretary, but the studio forced this one on them, so it ends with a lecture. Except for Fred Stone as the father who sustains a whine of self-pity that is pitiless, the film is well cast and acted, especially with Ann Shoemaker as the mother, and Frank Albertson as the crude and rightly annoyed brother. Miss Hattie McDaniels is excruciatingly funny as a hired maid at a family dinner meant to impress McMurray, and she is but one example of Stevens’ quiet comic sense which infiltrates and supports many scenes: the look on the face of humanity is what Stevens is a master director of: a waiter asked to play a love song for the fifth time running.  As well as a sense of American mise-en-scene: you really feel you are walking down a small town street and not a back lot. As well as a stunning grasp of lighting, set to fit a mood: Alice coming back into the unlit shabby foyer from that wretched ball. As well as a revulsion to reaction shots in lieu of duets and closeups which enter the spirits of those explored: Hepburn and MacMurray’s kiss. How can Stevens like Hepburn so? For the same reason we do. Hepburn can create all that is false , affected, and pretentious about Alice, but she can also reveal how her feelings are hurt by the failure of her own folly, and how she is touchingly trapped in a cycle of groundless hope. Stevens’ strongest suit as a director was, better than any other director of his time, the creation of Americana: longing set against its conflicting background. The places we see are the places we knew. And the things hoped for are the hopes we hoped. This will eventually reach its fruition in his masterwork, A Place In The Sun. But here, for the first time, a master gathers his powers together.

 

 

China Seas

10 Feb

China Seas — directed by Tay Garnett. Low Adventure On The High Seas. A ship captain endures pirates, monsoon, and the forward attentions of two desirable dames. 87 minutes Black and White 1935.

★★★★

Drama at every turn, so, why are you complaining – ain’t you gettin’ your money’s worth? Yes, you are, but it’s a crazy film. Clark Gable is before us, aged 34 and at the peak of his masculinity. There’s a lot to say about Gable as an actor, for he loved his craft, was absolutely in earnest about being good at it. Technically he is the perfect film star, with the most beautiful head of hair, shape of head, face, eyes, mouth, nose, and photogenicality. He has a voice unmatched for male ardor. He is absolutely sure of his sexuality, which is really the foundation of his appeal, and which means not only that he can go after what he wants, but that he can decline what he does not want, both without shame. And what he does not want in this story is the neediness of the dame he has been screwing, played by Jean Harlow. How different a sex idol she was than Monroe, who has all the seduction of pliability, soft as perfume, whereas Harlow is rapacious and hard. The peroxide hair of Marilyn made her look soft, that of Harlow tough. Interesting huh? The difficulty with the material lies in these two stars’ acting. Gable had a lot more talent and technique than Harlow, but he barks and barks, and Harlow is cacophonous. She is so monotonously raucous in her playing that the character looks insane, and you never think that Gable would put up with her for a minutes, much less possibly end up with her. They needed a suggestion of more variety from the director. Rosalind Russell, such a tonic as an actress, plays the English lady Gable really loves, a gal friend from his better days. Aboard this ship of fools is Robert Benchley as a droll drunk, C. Aubrey Smith, that firm but kindly hatchet, as a bemused ship owner, Lewis Stone as a deposed captain, Edward Brophy playing out that great Somerset Maugham story about the necklace opposite Akim Tamiroff, he of The Moscow Art Theatre and Stanislavsky, along with Donald Meek, Hattie McDaniel delicious as the greedy maid, and, last but never least, Wallace Beery as the loveable heavy. Harlow’s and Russell’s dresses are by Adrian and are masterpieces of the costumers’ art. Dwell upon them. The story is by one of the most gifted screenwriters of the day, Jules Furthman. The filming of the typhoon at sea is worth the show – but all of it is worth the show. If only to just watch Gable, and see how good an actor he is, a factor almost impossible to scope past his personal presence, confidence, and beauty.

 

 

Gone With The Wind

08 Sep

Gone With The Wind – Directed by George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Sam Wood, Alfred Hitchcock. Drama. A selfish misguided flirt becomes a misguided survivalist. 220 minutes Color 1939.

* * * * *

It is the greatest movie ever made– because of its generosity of spirit. Everyone who made it hated everyone else who made it, and everyone hated David O. Selznick who produced it, produced it in the sense that he himself made it, and remade it, to his exact and exacting specifications. He was a terrible intruder, interloper, interferer, and one longs to know which particular details he interfered with. Perhaps and probably all details. I saw it when it came out. White dishes with red borders were the door prizes, given out in intermission at the Roosevelt Theatre in Flushing, now no longer existent. My mother took us, and I was restless; I was six. On its re-release I saw it, and was mightily moved. I thought it was the story of Melanie Wilkes. I took myself to be that devoted soul, though I lacked the deep kindness. I was more like Oona Munson as Belle Watling. Later on when I saw it, I realized it was the story of Scarlett O’Hara. The part is perfectly cast, because Vivien Leigh had a divinity’s charm, the inner hellcat, the greed for life’s rewards, and the daring to go for them, and it is her greatest screen work. Scarlett seizes other people’s property to gain her ends, and she is perfectly matched in this by Selznick himself. We hand it to Scarlett on the grounds of her sheer vivacity. And we never blame her. Why? Because she represents the triumph of what, despite our failings and meanness, we all deserve and what we will sacrifice for it. Scarlett is an accomplishment, Vivien Leigh’s performance is an accomplishment, and the film is an accomplishment, and it is all the same accomplishment, and that remains stirring to this day. The production is splendid. William Cameron Menzies sets, Jack Cosgrove’s backgrounds, Max Steiner’s moving score – all are exemplary, as are the pens of those responsible for its screenplay, Sydney Howard, Ben Hecht, Oliver Garrett and others. Olivia de Haviland wept selfishly at the Oscars when her Melanie lost to the first black actor ever to win an acting award, Miss Hattie McDaniel, who is tops. Everyone is at their best except Leslie Howard who, as an actor, in fact actually appears to be the milksop someone accuses Ashley Wilkes as being. And, above all, if he is forgotten for every other picture he ever made, he will be known and remembered perfectly for the part which captures his humor, his great charm, his mountainous masculinity, his physical beauty, his irresistible sexiness, and his great skill as an actor – in the part of Rhett Butler — Clark Gable.

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