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Archive for the ‘FILMED BY Ernest Haller’ Category

Winter Meeting

29 Jun

Winter Meeting – directed by Bretaigne Windust. Melodrama. A WW II hero courts a well-to-do spinster and breaks down her barriers to love. 104 minutes Black and White 1948.
★★★★
In its day, the picture was not successful, in the sense that other Bette Davis vehicles had been, which does not mean it lost money. It was concurrent with Davis’s huge salary boost to over $10,000 a week, and she is worth every penny of it if quality of performance is any standard. She is wonderful from beginning to end. It is not one of her bitch ladies, such as she crowded out her career and her talent with by playing for the last 40 years of her acting life. It is a quiet performance of a subdued intelligent woman; her transitions from mood to mood, from reception to speech, are an acting lesson to behold. She is always present and she is always free.

She talked about this film as the turning point of her career. One wonders what she meant. Did she mean she no longer looked young enough to hold the screen to a romantic possibility? She certainly looks great, though: she has lost the weight from her pregnancy. Davis had her first child when she was pushing forty. She was a tiny woman and extra weight showed on screen. Here she is svelt and limber. She walks with elegance and ease. Her training with Martha Graham shows in every move she makes, both physically and emotionally.

The top-of-the-line Warner’s staff backs her: Max Steiner does the score; she is beautifully dressed, and Ernest Haller once again masterfully lights her. Janis Paige and John Hoyt and Florence Bates support her.

But Davis said later that she should have gone to Hal Wallis and told him to shelve the production because it wasn’t working. What she meant by that may have related to James Davis as her leading man. They couldn’t get the actors they wanted, so they used an unknown. But, seeing it now, James Davis works OK. He’s not a conventional Hollywood handsome guy. He’s massive; his eyes are dark, recessed, and unreadable. He looks like he’s going to off the deep end, and that works fine, for indeed he is playing a troubled soldier hiding more than one bad secret.

In the course of their association, they have long talks, and these are intelligent explorations of their lives both now and before. Her tiny figure next to his mass is arresting. She is a much better actor than he could ever have become, or rather his style is that of a cowboy, so that you know that they would never really mate well, even had it all worked out between them, which I hope I do not betray your expectations by whispering to you that it does not.

But here she is at the peak of her powers, which in her case was very close to the end of them, and she is grand to watch, an honorable practioner of her craft.

 

That Certain Woman

07 Feb

That Certain Woman – directed by Edmund Goulding. Women’s Pulp. A widow raises her baby while men two-time their wives for her favors. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.
★★★★
Claptrap. Edmund Goulding wrote and directed it, and it shows. The plot is ruthlessly confined to coincidence. No sooner does one melodramatic catastrophe befall than the telephone rings to report another. No sooner does Henry Fonda resolve to run off with Bette Davis than Fonda’s wife appears in a wheelchair in Bette’s apartment. Get it?

Davis acknowledged this falseness, but she also liked Goulding’s treatment of her as a star, rather than a prominent member of a cast. She also liked the glamor close-ups of her, executed by the great Ernest Haller, who filmed her many times in the years to come.

Bette is in her late 20s when this film is made, and it did establish her as a star in the sense that her stories were now to be all about her: which means that when the camera was not on her, everyone was talking about her. She is also housed in an apartment and gowned by Orry-Kelly in clothes of a glory which as a private secretary she could never have afforded. Still, it is nice to see her in them, isn’t it? And all, and I do mean all, of the male sexual attention is directed at her, and the entire story hangs upon this supposition. Whether you find Bette Davis sexy is not the point; she is always, always highly sexual.

And she is for one of the few times in her life given a co-star, in Henry Fonda, equal to herself – for Bette Davis was the only female star of her era seldom to act opposite a man equal to herself in power. You could strike a match on George Bent, and he  wouldn’t notice it. Whether this was an economy on the part of Warners, or a recognition that she was making movies only for women, or whether it was thought she was masculine enough in her power already, she is asked from now on to carry virtually all of her films alone – a precarious burden for a female in those days. Nevertheless, from this point on until she left Warners, she made a fortune for them carrying it.

As usual she is given great support and a high class production. Max Steiner does an undistinguished score, but at least he does it. Donald Crisp plays the stiff-necked tycoon in his usual righteous manner, that is to say, in a manner fit to bore the toenails off of you. Henry Fonda, in an unusual display of aliveness for him, plays the playboy son like a happy monkey. It’s a great way to play it, and worth seeing, since Fonda’s usual manner as an actor is steady/withdrawn. Fonda’s character is a weakling, which is unavoidable, but at least Fonda is having fun being one. He is also heartbreakingly beautiful at this stage of his life. With Fonda as the volatile one, Davis plays the quiet one, and, actually, this suits her. Until the plot goes melodramatically berserk, her responsiveness, particularly to Ian Hunter, as her doting boss, is a model of fine, quiet, spontaneity. Hunter is really good in his role, and is perhaps the only one one cares about at all in all this.

Davis as an actress is an interesting presence and always entertaining, but, in a picture like this, which is over-written, which is plot-heavy, the space for the actors to react is reduced to a nubbin. Here we have The Noble Style Of The Thirties, which consists of the actors “giving speeches,” always in a high pitched voice, with a rapid delivery stained with the red, white, and blue of pained self-sacrifice. You will recognize the trick. It is no longer employed by actors. But that is because there are, thanks goodness, in movies now, no more Noble Roles.

 

Lilies Of The Field

24 Dec

Lilies Of The Field – written and directed by Ralph Nelson. Drama Lite. An itinerant handyman finds himself inveigled to build a chapel in the desert by a sharp-tongued German nun. 94 minutes Black and White. 1963.

★★★★★

Sidney Poitier created in the middle of The United States a lake larger than Superior. It was and is a lake that has its shores in every state in the Union.
What was he?

The first black movie star. It wasn’t like Ella Fitzgerald coming in over the airwaves; you actually had to go see Sidney Poitier. The public was part of it, and was ready for it. We all went to see a black man. It was easy.

But Sidney Poitier was, after all, only an actor.

As such, what did he bring?

Always the same: dignity, innocence, wariness. Also reserve. And, as an actor, he was always game. Also, he was a good-looking man of good figure with a marvelous smile and a distinctive speaking voice.

Whom would I be describing here, if I were not describing Sydney Poitier, but Barrack Obama?

Poitier paved the way and continues to pave the way for Obama, and there is no distinction between them in that way. Obama exists because the Poitier Lake exists. Obama swims in and exists in that Lake.

They have another point in common which accounts for their preeminence, their success, their possibility – and that is that both were born on far offshore islands, and neither of them were of American origin. Poitier is from Jamaica and returned to it as his home base. Obama’s father was from Kenya; neither was reared in the black male diminution of the mainland: Obama lived a significant portion of his childhood in Southeast Asia. Both men appeared to be U.S. citizens, not from charlatanism but by common public error, but they were not. Poitier is a naturalized citizen; Obama is first-generation. They are Americans once remove. Their appearance is African-American, but the truth is they are African-sports, Maverick-Americans. They are travellers. Their true home is not America but in themselves alone. America is a congeries of fifty-two nation-states. To have a home in the joy and jingoism of none of them is for both of them, naturally, to make a home of all of them. Distance is their intimacy.

Poitier made the Lake, Obama deepens its color.

And what is that color?

That color is the undeniable truth that this country is unthinkable without African American people.

Poitier gave gills to every black actor after him. Few resembled him, for Poitier was a leading actor always of limited but commanding presence. But his existence permitted the actors who followed him to play characters who were not innocent, reserved, dignified, wary, game, or even leading-man-good-looking. Wesley Snipes, Danny Glover, Matthew Perry got their license to act because the Poitier Lake already existed for them.

~ ~ ~

Lilies Of The Field is essentially a TV play of the kind that was done in the ‘60s live, and as such it has its satisfactions. To describe its predicament of a roving handyman asked to stand still and build a church is to say enough about it. It’s filmed by the great Ernest Haller. Poitier is good in it, although he overplays the first scene in the greasy-spoon. However, Poitier never does blackface, as Sammy Davis Junior sometimes lost himself in doing. Poitier’s another thing entirely, a black actor who never heard of blackface. He won the Oscar for it. It’s a good family film, worth a visit, if only to witness how astutely it ends.

 
 

Deception — The Bette Davis Series 6

04 Dec

Deception – directed by Irving Rapper. Drama. The reunion of two musicians after separation by The War leads to big prevarications by the woman about her sugar daddy.
110 minutes Black and White 1946.
★★★★★
Twice I saw Bette Davis on the stage: once in Tennessee Williams’ Night Of The Iguana and once in a musical review, Two’s Company. Mildred Dunnock, who liked Bette and had made The Corn Is Green with her, said she didn’t believe Davis for a minute: “When she looks out over the audience for that ship, she doesn’t see a thing.” What I saw in the Williams was a performer throwing herself about the stage in a way that had nothing really to do with the motivation of the character at all. And as a vaudeville player she was, to be kind, misplaced. It wasn’t because Bette Davis had no stage experience, for she had plenty. It was that her craft, through her misuse of it, her distortion of it, her misprision of it, her exaggeration of its tics, her creation of a star-persona for it, had deteriorated it to the level of the amateur – and I use the word in its pejorative sense –– to the level of community theatre. This is not to say she was not professional. She had simply lost her basic craft. This was largely the case with her after All About Eve. It is sad to think of this happening to a human being, and especially through their own contrivance.

When you consider her next to the big female stars of her era, it is startling. Bette Davis could do comedy, though not often did she do so. Joan Crawford could not. Stanwyck and Hepburn and Colbert could. Davis could appear convincingly in costume drama, by which I mean costume drama in eras before the living memory of anyone involved in presenting it. Hepburn could not, neither could Crawford, and Stanwyck was barely acceptable. Davis was better at drama than Hepburn, whose specialty was high comedy.

And when you consider Hepburn’s career with that of Davis, you see Hepburn going on to essay the classic roles in her middle-age. The Madwoman Of Chaillot, The Trojan Women, Suddenly Last Summer, The Glass Menagerie. Hepburn was to act with the big classic actors of her era, Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier. Davis was never to appear with such powerful costars. Hepburn took on Shakespeare: The Merchant Of Venice, Taming Of The Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Othello, and even, if you will, Anthony and Cleopatra. Davis never tried anything along those lines. Hepburn did it to stretch her instrument, and she succeeded. Mildred Dunnock said of her that she was one of the few actresses of her era who had grown, and she was saying this about an actress who had played parts she herself had played. (Mildred Dunnock was the greatest Mary Tyrone of her era.) But Millie also said of Bette Davis that, when Millie was in Hollywood to make a movie, “You called Bette. She didn’t call you.”

And that seems typical of the petrified ego we see displayed in Bette Davis’ work for the last 40 years of her life. What we see is an actress who isn’t really calling you. What she is addressing is always her position.

This was not in full force with Deception. It is one of her best pieces because of her most restrained.

That is because she is playing a liar. She does it rather melodramatically, rolling her eyes at the audience from time to time to telegraph to us a different story than the one unfolding on stage. But she is generally sweetened under the role because she has to play a once in a lifetime love for Paul Henreid, an actor she liked. But, as we know, she is an actress who can play only one thing at a time.

This means that she has no subtext. She was an actress of big effects, and they are often enjoyable. So the reason she deceives Paul Henried about being a kept woman by Claude Rains is never because she is ashamed of it, but rather to spare Henreid’s feelings, at least that is the it-wont-wash reason given. Yet, she plays it well on the only level she knows how to play, which is physically. She is blithe about deceiving Henreid, and that would work were she consistent in not letting us know that she is deceiving him, improbable as the deceptions are. She switches from one thing to another like courses in a meal, but each with one vegetable only. To deliver subtext, behind Henreid’s back, she blares her eyes at us; Bette Davis’s eyes were no match for subtlety; subtlety was not within her range. Subtext is a subtlety.

She’s good, because so willing, but the pleasures of the film also lie in adjacent areas: in the decor, which is executed by George James Hopkins and art director Anton Grot. Two massive interiors appear before us as plot elements, and their impressive presence is a treat to see. Nothing rich was spared. For it, Korngold himself wrote the cello concerto Paul Henried plays, a concerto performed to this day around the world. And John Collier wrote the brilliant dialogue. If you like talking films to talk, this is one of the best. And the spaces of non-talk are equally eloquent, for Ernest Haller photographed it, as he was to do with seven of her films, wonderfully. He took care not to look at Davis too closely, for she at 38 was a bit long in the tooth for the role and looked it. She did not age well. Indeed, she was pregnant with her first child as it was made, so she is a little thick in the waist. He shoots her in three-quarter shots, and spares the close-ups. “Oh, Ernest how come you can’t make me look like you did in Jezebel?” she cried. “Well, Bette,” he said, “I was eight years younger then.” Bernard Newman costumes her powerfully.

It’s a four-character piece, not camp and played seriously by everyone. John Abbott plays the cellist understudy perfectly, and Paul Henreid is fine as the cellist. But if you want a good time rollicking in guilty pleasures, Claude Rains gives the performance of his career as the richly-spoken composer Hollenius who desires to drive everyone crazy and succeeds. You must not deny yourself the indulgence of this display of acting genius. The pictures was her first box office failure. But along with The Corn Is Green, The Little Foxes, The Letter, In This Our Life, and The Man Who Came To Dinner, it is one of her best.

 

Dead Ringer

20 Nov

Dead Ringer – – directed by Paul Henreid. Murder Melodrama. Twin sisters have at one another in an impersonation slay-fest. 118 minutes Black and White 1964.
★★
The Bette Davis’ pictures still worth seeing all have a good story, a good cinemaphotographer, a good cast, a good director, and a part she was meant to play. They would include All About Eve, The Little Foxes, In This Our Life, and The Letter. But even when the entire crew is on board, Bette Davis can still steer the vessel in direction it was never intended to go. This she does here.

In the case of Dead Ringer, she also does not have a good director.

In a movie the key ingredient is the story, and the director’s job is to tell the story, and just as Faulkner does not tell a story the same way as Erskine Caldwell does, John Huston does not tell a story the same way as George Stevens does, for each director has a way of releasing the material to the eye that is a force in itself, a style in itself, a value in itself. The job also is to bring out what is best and right in the actor. In the case of Dead Ringer, Davis has her old friend Paul Henreid, but he is not a director of merit in these matters.

So you will see, for instance, that the power and influence of the great Doheny Mansion is never used as a narrative character. Its interiors are simply filmed well, but they never tell a story, because the director does not have a narrative imagination, and this exhausts the audience. Nor does he have the ability to bring out what is best and right in the actor.

The great Ernest Haller films her (as he had many times before) one final time before he died, and the movie even has a fine score by André Previn. It has the great Jean Hagen (her last film), Estelle Winwood, and George Macready. It has Karl Malden as a love interest, and an exquisite performance by Cyril Delevanti as the butler. But Davis is allowed to perform these sisters in a way that discourages her best work with them, and that is because of her makeup.

She uses star-persona makeup for both characters and in all situations. To youthen herself (she’s 56), she masks both faces almost in clown white, the neck a quite different tone. She uses heavy false eyelashes for both sisters, with too much upper lid mascara, curling the corners with it, so that, when her eyes are fully open, she is a Cupie Doll. Her mouth is painted a down-turned bow in a rictus of contempt and distaste. The corners extend slightly and the dip in the middle of the upper lip is painted over to make the arc of the bow unbroken — a mouth meant to emit arrows of vitriol — a demolition mouth. None of this makeup has anything to do with either character. It has only to do with the star who is playing either character. The result is that she very much resembles Joan Crawford and never resembles either character one bit.

So, whether she can actually play either character we never really know. She can wear different hairdos and costumes, but that’s it. There she stands, a tiny woman barely over five feet tall, Niagara Falls in a teacup. And from All About Eve on, this makeup is what she called acting. It is touching because it is so lost.

A star is someone who, once called that, is never able to act again?

 

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.

 

The Roaring Twenties

15 Mar

The Roaring Twenties — directed by Raoul Walsh. Gangster Drama. 106 minutes Black and White 1939.

★★★★★

~

The Story:A WW I vet can’t find work and so starts up a bootlegging business which gains control of him.

~

Warner Brothers laid on the A-team for this one. Milo Anderson did the clothes: the ladies’ song costumes place a premium on our tolerance for the tacky, but they are right on the money and the period. Ernest Haller shot it; the same year he shot Gone With The Wind for which he won an Oscar, most of Bette Davis’s big films, Mildred Pierce, and later Rebel Without A Cause. And that sweet toughie Raoul Walsh directed it. It was made the wonder year of 1939, and would have won the Oscar any other year, had Oscars ever been given out for gangster flicks.

The picture is set up as a March Of Time documentary of a period 15 years before it was made; it is a montage interspersed with montages – brilliantly shot by Don Siegel and organized by Byron Haskin. They are simply tremendous. Big male character talents fortify the story from the bottom up, topped off by Paul Kelly as the nasty ur-don, and Frank McHugh as the star’s pal played by James Cagney.

Walsh and Cagney loved working together, and this picture is Cagney’s supreme performance as a motion picture actor. Until I saw it I never thought Cagney could act at all. All I ever saw in him was a bully with a tommy gun for a heart. And for the most part in his career, that is what he is. I steered clear of him. But in this piece he is quite something else besides. One sees him as if for the first time. For here he is — with his dancer’s wrists and carriage. He is open, he waits, he responds, his feelings are hurt, he ponders before he speaks, he does not fall back on his rapid timing for every reaction, he wants something he can’t have and doesn’t know he can’t have it, that is to say, for once, he isn’t entirely smart, he is a mess. You can’t take your eyes off him – because he is so real and because his body is fully alert and engaged. It is a pity this side of him was not ever used elsewhere again.

Humphrey Bogart plays his crumby army pal, excellent especially in two execution scenes. And Jeffrey Lynn is the third musketeer, the one who gets the girl. She is played by Priscilla Lane, who has full lips and a sweet soft open look, rather like Betty Grable. She does her own singing, although the lip-sync is slightly off, as it is with Gladys George who plays Panama Smith, in a sketch of Texas Guinan. She is superb in the subtlety of her response in her every scene: she is an actress who can tell a story without spelling it out.

But it is the director, of course, whose triumph this is. Look at the way he sets up his shots for the crowd scenes, the saloons, the brawls. Look at the time he gives to the love scenes – as an action director Walsh is unique in taking his time for these and in giving equal range and ambiguity to all parties concerned. But what is especially powerful is his sparing use of close-ups and his refusal to do reaction shots. If two people are on camera, they are both always in frame, no matter which point of view is cut to. This means that you can always see the response of both actors at the same time and you never have a break in the animal energy between them. Kurosawa later used to do the same.

McHugh and Cagney improvised their scenes together and you can see the freshness of them. Cagney, Walsh, Bogart and especially Frank McHugh rewrote the script as they went along and had a grand old time, and you can enjoy it in the choices, large and small, that animate the scenes as they unfold. Snappy dialogue throughout. Walsh’s first film at Warner’s and first of four with Cagney. The film actually speaks for a moral rather than a chronological era, and the era is not over. It was a huge hit. It still is. Don’t miss it.

 

 

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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All This, And Heaven Too

23 Jul

All This, And Heaven Too – Directed by Anatole Litvak. Women’s Romance Drama. A mismatched royal couple takes into their palace a governess, despite all warnings to her not to enter therein. 2 hours and 23 three minutes. Black and White. 1940.

* * * *

She enunciates every syllable as though her tongue were pinking shears. Jack Warner sent down messages to her to cut it out. She didn’t. But he was right. No one talks that way. And such antics bring into question not what sort of an actress Bette Davis was but was she an actress at all. She had very little training when she left John Murray Anderson’s drama school to go off to play stock. She had appeared in lots of movies by the time this film was made and won the two Oscars she would ever win. She was 35. She was in her heyday, which would end with a triumphant clang in 1950 with All About Eve. She had come into films in the early 30s and made her way to Warner Brothers where she made a series of films that enraged her. She was always enraged. Sometimes it was hidden, as here. But it is still implicit. In the clipping of those clipped syllables. Was she an actress, or was she someone who was just so mad it carried a force-field around her that others called stardom. Was that anger what her female audience actually wanted to see, acting be damned, for she surely was a woman’s film star, and as such made a mint for Warners? Here she plays a governess of four children, and she says she loves them, and everyone says she loves them, but it looks to me that she is just doing a favor by being nicer to them than their dreadfully neurotic mother (a Bette Davis role), played with all out saliva in an Oscar-nominated performance by Barbara O’Neil, who had just come off playing Scarlet’s mother in Gone With The Wind. Davis has opposite her here one of the few strong male actors ever to appear with her, the great Charles Boyer. Davis never has a real moment in the entire film. Except one. Watch for it. It comes at the end of the long candle-snuffing scene. Litvak said this film, got lost in the decor, gagged by too many candelabra. I don’t think that’s the trouble. All Bette Davis’s films of this era are like this, like Hamlet. They are dramas about a single person; when Hamlet is not on the stage, everyone is talking about him. So here. Underlying everything, an ego swollen by anger mobilized to hide the fear that her own natural talent was insufficient to the task. All her fabled confidence is bravado.

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God’s Little Acre

01 Jul

God’s Little Acre – Directed by Anthony Mann. Tragicomic rural drama. A farmer spends fifteen years digging for gold on his farm instead of farming while all his children go to pot and pieces around him. 118 minutes Black And White 1958.

* * * * *

Celeste Holm had seen The Misfits the day before at the Roxy. “You coulda shot moose in there,” she said to me. (Gable and Monroe were dead before it opened; no one wanted to face the ghosts of gods.) “She can’t act,” said Celeste Holm. If you wonder what she meant (she had been in All About Eve with her) take a look at Monroe in the clip in Roy London’s film where it is obvious that what she brings to a simple scene of buying a train ticket has nothing to do with acting but everything to with being. Listen to what London says. She brings something enormous onto the screen, but, no, she cannot act. Robert Ryan really falls into the same category, and one can see why he was cast, in place of Walter Brennan, a much greater actor. Aside from Ryan’s good looks and his ability to foist a certain eccentricity off on us, one sees an actor always pushing his effects, sometimes slightly, sometimes hugely – but one also sees something awkward and helpless in him. Something touching, just as there was in Monroe, and such a quality can carry an entire film, and this Ryan does, whereas Walter Brennan (three-time Oscar winner) might not have been able to. As to the material, Erskine Caldwell is the greatest short story writer this country has ever produced, and Faulkner and Hemingway and Dos Passos, all name him the great novelist. Commercially more successful than all of them combined, his work, scandalous in his day, is not much read nowadays, but modern Southern literature is unthinkable without it. It ought to be read: it’s very very funny. It’s the ashcan school of writing, the Southern poor – and, boy, are they comical sticking their tousled heads out of those ashcans and pursuing their comic obsessions to and beyond the limit! I would never have dreamed of casting Buddy Hackett as Plato, the man-who-would-be sheriff, but he is superb. Aldo Ray, going to fat and perfectly cast as the going-to-fat lecher for Ryan’s tasty daughter, brings lust to the point of tragedy. The scenes between him and Tina Louise are inconsolably sexual and steamy. But Aldo Ray is really lower class; Ryan isn’t. He’s best as a criminal in a business suit. So the whole enterprise would be just slightly off if it were not directed by Anthony Mann (director of Jimmy Stewart’s fine Pie Westerns) and beautifully filmed by Ernest Haller (Mildred Pierce, Gone With The Wind, Rebel Without A Cause), and scored by Elmer Bernstein. And so instead, we have a masterpiece of cotton gin art, one to be seen and, surely Ty Ty, heard!

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