Archive for the ‘Rosalind Russell: SCREEN GODDESS and ACTING GODDESS’ Category


05 Oct

Reckless – directed by Victor Fleming. Dramedy. 97 minutes Black And White 1935.


The Story: A Broadway musical comedy star is in love with her producer who is too above it all to propose, and tragedy ensues.


This was the product of David O Selznick during his brief stint at MGM while Irving Thalberg was recuperating from a heart attack in Europe, and it reveals two things plainly. One is how well-produced the film is, and Two is how ungainly his story ideas were. For the screenwriter is actually an alias for Selznick himself, and the story falls into traps which are fascinating to behold the actors climb out of or fail to climb out of. It’s worth seeing in all respects.

Selznick was L.B. Mayer’s son-in-law, and Thalberg had not been told of his replacement, so there is a certain shame before us here. The plot also hinges on a matter unspoken. Selznick resigned before long; he went into independent production, produced Gone With The Wind, using Victor Fleming to direct it; Thalberg returned to MGM and never trusted Mayer again.

What we have is a handful of terrific actors playing out a sophisticated backstage comedy, which turns violent. It was based on the Libby Holman scandal. And it starts with William Powell, that master of insouciance, playing a gambler with Damon Runyan sidekicks. He has backed the career of Jean Harlow as the actress. In a superb proposal scene you see Powell at his comic best; in a too-long drunk scene you see him ill served.

From the start, everything depends upon the skill of the playing of every actor before us. As a substitute for the absence of reality in the story, each must perform at the pitch of their talents, and they do.

Harlow is exuberant, convinced, lithe, and on target. Her grandmother is played by May Robson, and fortunately given a lot to do. Franchot Tone as the millionaire playboy is almost too good in the role. If he had been a bad actor the film might be better, but he isn’t. His is a portrait of a balloon bursting. Henry Stephenson as his father is a mystery of probity; is he kind; is he cruel? Rosalind Russell plays the jilted fiancée with a nobility so humorous you cannot but root for her. And Mickey Rooney as a child is so alive on the screen, you don’t wonder Spencer Tracy called him the best actor in Hollywood.

None of these players can extract the rotten tooth inflaming this material, which is a front-page story of the sort Warners did better. Fleming is a dynamic director; he never shows too much when he can help it. But you can just hear Selznick whispering those logorrheac memos over his shoulder. Still, Harlow triumphs in a closing closeup. Her voice is badly placed but her energy is winning. There is a wonderful moment she has picking up a hat and tossing it back. Watch for it. Audiences loved her not because she was sexy and didn’t wear underwear, but because she was so alive! She still is.


Tell It To The Judge

06 Jul

Tell It To The Judge –­– directed by Norman Foster. Romantic Comedy. A to-be judge tries to escape from her embarrassing husband who adores her. 87 minutes Black and White 1949.


Did this lame comedy even look good on paper? You have three of the most consummate high comedians of our era, Rosalind Russell, Gig Young, and Robert Cummings, all asked to rise to the high humor of hitting their heads repeatedly on beams. They do all they can, but they are gravely miscast. Proper casting? Moe, Larry, and Curly. How could they have missed this opportunity!

So it’s interesting to see how actors this skilled can use their big gifts to serve such small potatoes. Russell does her usual haughty lady, and we love her for it, because of the humor lying in wait like a panda to spring. She is gowned by Jean Louis and the truth is she looks a lot better than she ought, although it’s wonderful to see her in such capes, such furs, such evening clothes, out of which she is never, even upon rising. Russell was once a fashion model, has a superb figure, and knows how to go about things.

Gig Young plays the louche roué of dubious provenance, as usual, and he is funny, quick, and sexy. You can see how skilled the actors are when they mix it up with ancient Harry Davenport whose up to the good old actor rapid fire monkey-shines, equal to Russell and Cummings, no quicker draws in all the West.

Robert Cummings is exactly in his right milieu, light comedy, and his usually sissy affect is nowhere in view here, for his playing is strong, real, and imaginative.

Werner R. Heymann wrote the musical score and it is far better than the movie. It lends punch and charm to a film which needs it like an oasis. It bounces and comments and tickles and burbles, and is a perfect example of a score telling you what to feel and being absolutely right to do so. It is a model for film composers, at least for films of this order.

Joe Walker, who had filmed many top films (The Lady From Shanghai, It Happened One Night, Born Yesterday), was Frank Capra’s favorite photographer, and had filmed many of Russell’s films, is in sad demerit because of the awkward way the film is directed. Directorially nothing works. Crispness fizzles. Mots fall flat.

Loved them; hated it. The story is awkward. It takes improbability off new heights of cliff. Nothing works, nothing is funny, except that (given the talent) nothing is funny.






The Guilt Of Janet Ames

09 Jun

The Guilt Of Janet Ames –– directed by Henry Levin. Drama. A WW II widow searches out the five men her husband’s death valiantly saved and learns the truth about herself from one of them. 83 minutes Black and White 1945.


Casting a movie. How do they do it?

For instance, of the great stars of the Golden Age of Film from 1930 to 1950, how many could actually portray intelligent women? Judy Garland? No. She was an intelligence and a rich one, but she was not intelligent. Paulette Goddard? No. She was a delightful minx, but you would never put her at the head of a finishing school. Barbara Stanwyck? She could play a shrewd woman, but an intelligent one? Ginger Rogers? Maybe. Irene Dunne? Absolutely. Katharine Hepburn? Why not. Claudette Colbert? Positively.

Casting has something to do with acting ability. But has first to do with an actor’s essence. It has to do with something inherent in them. Intelligence has something to do with IQ, perhaps, but has more to do with an inherent approach to life. Rosalind Russell was certainly one who could play an intelligent woman.

And did so, and does so here, opposite Melvyn Douglas, who has some sort of corner on authority rare to be found in leading men nowadays. The two are well sorted. For they are both intelligent and their talents match in scale. Douglas is earnest and focused and sensitive to what’s coming towards him. And Russell structures her performance to a certain order which it will be Douglas’s task to break down. For that’s the story.

It’s a quite interesting film, because it is the ur type for the Film Noir. That is to say, there is something wrong with each of the characters and it manifests as a disconnect to and hangover from the War. Shell shock is what PTSD was then called, and women on the home front experienced it too. They grew bitter and loveless, and quite right too, and then, as now, the men drank too much and went under. The film is not Film Noir but it is what Film Noir is about.

The picture is remarkable in the scheme of its story, but also in the use of schematic sets. This is the first film I have ever seen them used to such an extent. Later you find them in Red Garters and Dogville. And it was frequently used in Golden Age TV, and may have first found prominence in the sets for Our Town. Here they are used in hypnosis sequences in which Russell visits the survivors, Nina Foch, Betsy Blair, and Sid Caesar.

Another remarkable ingredient, making the film a really memorable visit, is the long and hysterically funny monologue Sid Caesar does as a nightclub act, an astonishing and delightful display of comic genius. As you watch him, you will not believe what is happening before your eyes.

But it is happening. And, surrounding it, the film and the story provide solid and unexpected satisfaction. Rosalind Russell and Melvyn Douglas and Guilt. What a combo!


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.



Auntie Mame

08 Mar

Auntie Mame.  Directed by Morton Da Costa — Low Comedy — A rich bohemian woman with a flair for life takes in her orphaned nephew. 143 minutes Color 1958.

* * * *

Oh dear. This was much funnier on the stage, wasn’t it? What it gave us was the generosity of spirit of its star Rosalind Russell. She is so full of fun that she is oblivious of the mess around her, and this is part of her fun. The film however, destroys much of this with the vulgarization of its setting. Beekman Place never looked like this; it still doesn’t. But worse still, the script has been tortured into being cruel to the objects of its derision — and this does not work one bit. Her bigoted, class-conscious, to-be in-laws are put through physical torment with mechanical furniture that humiliates them, and that is no more funny than a thumbscrew. Coral Browne is excellent as Mame’s actress friend, and Peggy Cass repeats her stage role as Gooch, the unwary secretary who is taken in by a fraudulent Welsh writer. However, despite all this, the film is still a super vehicle for Rosalind Russell. We get to see her fantastic timing, her droll eyes, her multifarious takes, her way with a cigarette holder, her drive, her wonderful face always ready to break into a naughty merry smile, her comic haughtiness, and the fabulous velocity of her delivery, her quickness of wit, the lightness of her touch, and her forgiving spirit. These are great artistic qualities for a comedienne or a human. And here we have them in banquet array. Don’t starve yourself. Dig in.



The Trouble With Angels

08 Mar

The Trouble With Angels – Directed by Ida Lupino. Low Comedy. The mother superior of a Catholic girls boarding school meets her nemesis in the person of a recalcitrant young miss. 110 minutes Color 1966.

* * * * *

A beautifully directed, conceived, and written film by Ida Lupino. She strikes exactly the right balance throughout. It’s such a treat to see this sort of young adult picture made without stretches of dumb dim sentimentality. Haley Mills is super as the naughty young boarding school student. Marge Redmond is excellent as the chum of the Mother Superior, and the great Mary Wickes is in there pitching for all she’s worth, as usual. What a lot of fun she always was! Of course, as the patient, all-knowing Mother Superior we have Madame Mischief herself, Rosalind Russell. What an inspired piece of casting! We see always beneath her demeanor the possibility of the young rapscallion she herself once was. A treat without treacle. I gave  it a shot thinking it was going to be gooey with goodness, but I was pleasantly surprised. A director’s picture if ever there was one. Lupino knows exactly how not to over-milk a scene. Thanks Ida.



Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows

08 Mar

Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. Directed by James Neilson. Low Comedy. Conflicts in that girls Catholic Boarding School once again.  93 minutes Color 1968


Not a patch on The Trouble With Angels, alas, which was easy, lively, just off-beat enough to work, and boasted the invaluable presence of Hayley Mills.  This one still has Binnie Barnes, Rosalind Russell, and the wonderful Mary Wickes. There is no moment Mary Wickes is given that she does not fill to the full. Her enthusiasm for her craft is unbridled. Rosalind Russell maintains her aplomb and plays her scenes marvelously. But the episodes are forced, trite, and demeaning to females. What a conglomeration of nit-wittery!  What a bore! It needed a script-burning! Or the sure and wise hand of Ida Lupino who directed the first version so ably.



Stage Door

08 Mar

Stage Door — Directed by Gregory La Cava —  Comedy Melodrama. A boardinghouse for aspiring actresses is the poison bowl where an ambitious amateur and her hardbitten roommate machinate for success on The Great White Way. 92 minutes Black and White 1937.

* * * * *

If you like 30s movies with Fast Talkin’ Dames, this will make your eyeballs pop! Everyone is completely at home with the (proleptic of Altman) overlapping dialogue by Edna Ferber and George F. Kaufman who wrote Dinner at 8 and You Can’t Take It With You and this. A nifty gab-fest by world class reparteuses — Eve Arden, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, Ann Miller (ae 14), and Lucille Ball (who discovered her, ae 13). Hepburn’s hold on her public is never plainer than here, for she talks with an Hartford high society twang but she always levels with you. Her directness and her common sense are a passport in any country and any society. And Roger’s drunk scene is brilliantly played (and written) revealing that Jean, the lady with the snappy tongue, is a lot more ignorant of the ways of the world than she would have us believe. The ladies are catty, of course; indeed Eve Arden actually wears a live cat around her neck! The extras include a Lux Radio Broadcast with Rogers in her old part, Eve Arden in a different part, and Roz Russell in Hepburn’s part. Talk about collection of distinctive voices!  Talk about talk! Choice!



She Wouldn’t Say Yes and My Sister Eileen

02 Feb

She Wouldn’t Say Yes  — directed by Alexander Hall – Romantic Comedy. A society bitch is wooed by a GI.  97 minutes black and white 1944


My Sister Eileen – directed by Alexander Hall – Comedy. Two country girls  land in Greenwich Village. 96 minutes black and white 1942

* * * * *

With the wonderful hauteur of her hands, Rosalind Russell ruled high comedy in her era, a throne she shared with Katharine Hepburn. Kay Francis and a few others held the outlying territory, but Rosalind Russell was the dame. Watch her here negotiate a cigarette.  At one point, all the time conducting a complicated bedroom scene with Lee Bowman, without looking and by braille, she picks a cigarette out of a box and even finds the matches, and lights it. Was there ever such aplomb! Her rich inner humor brings glad tidings to us all. Her sensual mouth and huge lovely eyes and gorgeous black hair, her bearing, and her inner stance gave us a frame for wit. She Wouldn’t Say Yes is a piece written and produced by Virginia Von Epp, who did the same for Irene Dunne’s Together Again — and a skilled job she does, too. These comedies are all about the same thing; a dish of cold fish meets a master chef. Sometimes the cold fish is a female, as in Philadelphia Story and here, and sometimes it’s a male as in Bringing Up Baby and The Lady Eve. This particular version is a little masterwork. We don’t expect a comedy by Shakespeare or Congreve to look like a modern comedy and we don’t expect these black and white comedies of the Thirties and Forties to look like them either, so no one asks them to be. On the same DVD, Russell also plays the My in My Sister Eileen, a piece she did on Broadway later as a Leonard Bernstein musical, Wonderful Town with Edie Adams. As I recall, she sang in a hoarse voice, and was beloved by all who heard her ask, when the sisters are broke and reduced to eating lettuce and other roughage, “I’d like a little smoothage to help the roughage down — like a steak.”  Today we have the great Allison Janney as the only modern compeer of this peerless comedienne, but Janney is not given principal parts in movies, alas. We would all go if she were. As it is, we treat ourselves here to the incomparable Rosalind Russell.


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