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Thursday, December 30, 2010

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE...: Oh, Baby!

Olivia de Havilland eyes the baby she was forced to give up in
To Each His Own.

Back in the days when the "unwed mother' was ostracized for her immoral life choices, her options were few. She could either A) Keep her baby and deal with the hostile prejudices of an unsympathetic society and brave the world alone, B) Find a discreet doctor to help erase her... situation, or C) Leave the little bugger on a doorstep, and hope that the inhabitants would give it at better life. This seems outrageous in these modern times when pregnancy without a wedding ring is more readily accepted and single mothers are favorites of the magazine rack: from the latest mommy to be, Natalie Portman, to all those "Sixteen-and-Pregnant" girls I seem to be hearing about everywhere. Back in the days when there were more concrete rules for acceptable behavior and more vocal contempt against those who dared to stray outside the norm, one's reputation was everything. Thus, one would rather be caught dead than unwed with a bun in the oven. This spawned a plethora of films possessing a very similar plot: "good girl" finds baby and claims it as her own and is thenceforward labeled as a "bad girl." Comedy ensues. This time, I have not three movies to compare for you, but four: Tess of the Storm Country, It, Bachelor Mother, and Bundle of Joy. Let's move forward chronologically.

Tess of the Storm Country:

(I saw the 1922 version of this film, starring the incomparable Mary Pickford, thinking it was the only one. However, upon further investigation, it appears that this film alone has been made and re-made several times, the first of which was in 1914, also starring Ms. Pickford. Future versions were made in 1932 with Janet Gaynor and in 1960 with Diane Baker. As it is based upon a novel by Grace Miller White, I suppose the continued use of the story makes sense. However, I will refer to the 1922 version, as this is the only one I have viewed).

The plot of this movie involves a backwoods girl, Tess, who is squatting with family on the wealthy Elias Graves's land. Needless to say, Elias tries to remove the impoverished nuisances from his property. The usual battle of rich versus poor ensues, and in the meantime, Frederick Graves, son of Elias, becomes fond of Tess and takes her side in the argument. Meanwhile, Fred's sister Teola becomes pregnant out of wedlock by a law student who is quickly murdered, and thus unable to marry her and make the baby legitimate. Humiliated and suicidal, Teola is desperate. Enter Tess, who out of her good heart pretends that the newborn baby is her own to save Teola's face. The only problem is that now Frederick thinks that the girl he was falling for is really a no good scamp. Fred turns his back on Tess, and so Tess is left alone to raise the baby. The truth is eventually discovered when Tess brazenly tries to baptize the child herself after being initially denied the privilege by the church-- it's  a bastard child, after all-- and Teola and Elias witness the event. Teola is so moved that she spills the beans and confesses that the baby is hers. Fred feels like a cad and apologizes to Tess, whom despite her low class has more courage and goodness in her than anyone in his elite circle. After declaring his undying love, the two embrace, the two feuding families call a truce, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Tess and Fred, played by Lloyd Hughes, fall in love.

The plot of the film is quite bold in that it makes the unwed mother a sympathetic character, however it is still the innocent Tess that is lauded as the true hero. Yet, what she symbolizes also speaks volumes: the hypocrisy of prejudice. Tess is labeled as something she is not, and is shunned by the man she loves. The world looks down on her, but considers her behavior typical of a woman of "her kind," meaning poor, uneducated, and uncouth. By the end, we learn the age old lesson, "don't judge a book by its cover." Tess not only possesses more grace than the upper classes that are judging her, but it is also one of their own that is the true culprit of immoral behavior, Teola. The guilt of blaming one woman for another's crimes, and the imminent death of Teola, who dies shortly after her revelation of motherhood, causes people in the community to open their eyes and rethink the harshness of their own criticisms. If you live in a glass house, don't throw stones. So, the movie preaches open-mindedness, while at the same time being church-friendly in suggesting that we all try to be "good"-- it is much better to be a Tess than a Teola. The movie itself is an entertaining silent, and one of The best of Mary Pickford's remaining gems.


Lord love Clara Bow (right). This 1927 movie will forever be the one most associated with one of the hottest flappers to ever va-va-voom onto the silver screen. Clara wasn't known for her dancing, of course, but for her electric presence, which sizzled in the camera's adoring eye. This film was fashioned for her with the help of Elinor Glyn as a publicity campaign to boost the already rising star. Clara was labeled as the "It" girl: one completely possessing of that mysterious X-factor that separates the superstars from the rest of us civilians. Many are familiar with the concoction of Clara's title as "the It girl," but few are familiar with the film that awarded her this stamp. Upon comparison, it is quite clear that it is, or rather was, a more modernized version of Tess of the Storm Country but in the raw and bustling environment of the roaring twenties.

This time around, Clara stars as Betty Lou, a single working girl trying to get by, who has a job behind the counter of a posh store. Brimming with energy despite her financial woes, Betty is Miss Congeniality as far as her friends are concerned, but her low class keeps her from her recent crush-- the store Manager, Cyrus Waltham, Jr (Antonio Moreno). Cyrus is already involved with another woman, but when he finally notices the lovely Betty Lou, he can't help but be taken in. She takes him out for a night of fun at Coney Island, where for once he gets to let his hair down. However, things turn sour when he leans in for a kiss only to receive a slap-- Betty Lou isn't that kind of girl! Cyrus is a bit shocked, but still intrigued. However, any of Betty Lou's plans are foiled when her roommate gives birth to an illegetimate child, only to have welfare workers threaten to take it away. Betty Lou steps in, claims the child as her own, and insists that she is able enough to take care of it. Now, Betty has to walk around with a scarlet T on her face (T for Tramp), and any chances of love between her and Cyrus are ruined-- the heir to a fortune can't be swindled by some hussy who's clearly only out for a good time, particularly when she teased him with that left hook!

Clara shows her sales skills (to William Austin).

Instead, Cyrus offers a compromise: since she's obviously a loose woman, Betty can settle for being his mistress. She does not take well to this suggestion, believing that his love for her should be enough to see through any alleged past mistakes she's made, and at the very least he should not insult her with such an offer! Cyrus chooses appearances over love and kicks Betty to the curb, but she's not to be outdone. She shows up at a party on his yacht, seducing him with her innocent wiles once again, and she gets her sweet revenge when he finally proposes marriage. She tosses it back in his face with a defiant "Thanks, but no thanks" and  secures her pride once more. Afterward, she and Cyrus are thrown overboard, and they find themselves in each other's arms. Now that Betty Lou has taught Cyrus a lesson, and he knows the truth about the baby, they reconcile and live happily ever after. Again, the same themes of upper class hypocrisy and lower class... class. We see that Betty is more moral than those financially and socially superior to her in that she refuses Cyrus's attempts to make a whore of her, consequently making him the true embarrassment. Compassion for the unwed mother is too explored, but just as Tess, Betty Lou is put on a pedestal for her ability to be both decent and demure. Her raw sexual magnetism too makes a statement that a woman can be sexy without being a mere sex object. In both this and the aforementioned film, the baby and its destiny is less important than how it effects others' lives or at least the images of them. A silent classic, this too is one of the leading lady's best.

Bachelor Mother:

Baby makes three in 1939 with Ginger Rogers, David Niven, and everyone's favorite character actor, Charles Coburn. Hereafter, the plots remain quite similar to It in that the main character is a shopgirl trying to make a living who gets caught up in a case of mistaken motherhood instead. Love, of course, is always found in the process. Thus, Ginger stars as Polly Parrish, working at J.B. Merlin's department store (left). Polly is fired over the Christmas holiday, and soonafter sees a baby that has been left on the stairs of an orphanage. Fearing that it is going to roll right off and be injured, she hurries to pick it up. The baby is mistaken as her own, and she is left to care for it and defend the fact that the little thing isn't even hers. JB (Coburn) gives Polly her job back, feeling guilty about firing an unwed mother, especially during the holiday, and his son, play-boy David (Niven), becomes equally involved in the welfare of the baby and its mother. As a relationship between Polly and David grows, she no longer tries to deny that the baby is hers, if only because it is the one thing that keeps David in her life. He equally falls for her, but is too snobbish to admit that he has fallen for a lowly shop girl, let alone one with an illegetimate kid-- nevermind the fact that the Lothario probably has had his own fun around town. More hurdles are thrown into the mix when a search for the true father is begun, which includes JB's belief that his son is the true father. David is surprised to find this out, but is delighted to discover that his dad is fairly happy at the prospect of having a grandson and eager to have him settle down and make the family legit. David, after initially insulting Polly, finally admits his true feelings to himself and thus to Polly and Baby John. Soon enough, the fictional family becomes a real one. With this description, I can immediately jump to the next film, for it is a direct re-make.

Bundle of Joy:

In 1956, Bachelor Mother was remade as a musical to showcase the talents of married sweethearts Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, as well as to capitalize on the fact that the two had had their first child (Carrie Fisher). This film, therefore, has the exact same plot as the one mentioned above, but with more musical numbers. This time, Debbie is Polly and Eddie is Dan Merlin. Adolphe Menjou steps in as wealthy store manager, and proud grandpapa, JB Merlin. Both Bachelor and Bundle have their merits, but Bundle is more obviously cheesy. Debbie is her usual sunshine self, and her gift at comedy and charm is the saving grace of the film. Eddie does well enough, but doesn't possess the same charm as David Niven. Ginger, of course, is superb as ever in the earlier film, and it is her performance-- with a keen sense of timing and strong delivery-- that makes Bachelor a more graceful interpretation.

Modern family: David and Ginger play house.

The alterations in the script in these latter films make the male character a bit more likable in that he tries to become a part of the child's life from the beginning, even if just as a make-shift uncle, rather than turning up his nose in disgust and running away. The relationship between the leading actor and actress comes about because of and not in spite of the baby, as opposed to the first two films, and a sense of family is professed over that of romance, (though in Bachelor and Bundle the writers would have us believe that the two go hand in hand). In the enforced production code era, it should come as no surprise that the ideal set-up of husband, wife, and baby be extolled, and in both movies the sad mother who abandoned her child is never even seen by the audience. It is much nicer to just pretend that she doesn't even exist, and that no out-of-wedlock sex was ever engaged in. The child, therefore, just dropped from the sky. Indeed, sex is not an issue, especially in Bundle, where innocent kisses between Eddie and Debbie take the place of the sexual propositions of It. Thus, with the first two films, we are taught more of a lesson about social hypocrisy and moral prejudice and with Bundle we are taught "family first." Bachelor is somewhere in between. Also, the theme of mistaken identity plays a much bigger part to the central plot of the movie in the last two features than in the first two, wherein it was just another log on the fire to much bigger shenanigans.

It is difficult to recommend just one of these films, for they all have good points and are equally entertaining. However, as I am an obvious Clara Bow fan, It remains my favorite. If I were to suggest one of the latter two, I would offer up Bachelor Mother, if only for performance's sake. It is interesting to investigate these films, to watch them chronilogically, and to witness how clearly social attitudes changed with the times. The silent duo are more free and uninhibited, if only because they arrived before 1934's production code and the disarming alterations of the great depression. They too are a bit more ballsy, with Mary being brazen and almost naively heroic, and Clara pushing the envelope further by adding a dash of sex appeal into the mix. Their heroics were done not necessarily for any great moral stance, but simply because it was the right thing to do. The latter two films come after the end of the hooplah twenties, but Bachelor maintains a little more naughtiness than Bundle, which is pretty much family fun from concentrate. In Tess we were taught to stand for something, in It we were taught to stand up for ourselves, in Bachelor Mother we're encouraged to simply try to stand still while the chaos ensues around us, and in Bundle of Joy we're lectured to stand as a family unit. I guess the film you relate to the most, will equally tell you where you stand.

Have a Happy New Year!!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Judy Garland writes to her favorite movie star while singing
the classic, "Dear Mr. Gable."

In Tinsel Town, it could be said that a star is worth his weight in fan mail. Studios were able to gauge the popularity of their contracted players based not only upon their box office receipts but also upon the amount of gushing fan letters they received every week. This method also helped to predict soon-to-be stars, for when admirers sent letters requesting more of "that blonde" or asking "Who was that handsome chap...?" in such-and-such scene, studios would know who to beef up in the publicity department. In fact, before there even were "movie stars," film-goers were pestering Biograph and later IMP trying to find out the name of their favorite leading lady. Carl Laemmle would give them what they wanted, staging a huge publicity gag to introduce Florence Lawrence to the world, and thus dub her the first official Movie Star.

The biggest stars got bags, truckloads, thousands of fan letters a week. People wrote in to RKO, MGM, or Warner Bros. begging for a picture, an autograph, or-- God help us all-- a written response. Some celebs like Mae West and Joan Crawford, the true diva pros, would insist on answering all of their mail, however not every one was that ambitious. It was impossible to keep up, to respond to everyone, to sign that many photos without getting chronic carpal tunnel. Most leading ladies and gents would have had no time left over to make movies! For example, at one point, Veronica Lake (left) was receiving somewhere around 1,000 letters a week. Though she tried to answer at least 1/5 of them, she fully admitted that she couldn't answer them all. The majority of her mail was answered by an expert forger who would respond to hopefuls with a signed Ronni photo. (This is why you can't trust all of the "autographs" out there-- most are scams. Caveat emptor)!

However, the most touching of all Ronni's fan letters would reach her long after her hey-day in Hollywood. You see, Veronica Lake had a brief love affair with Marlon Brando (right). I'm a little uncertain when their relationship took place, though it is safe to assume that they crossed paths when Marlon arrived in Hollywood in the early '50s, coincidentally at the same time that Ronni's film career was taking a nosedive. (Though, it is possible that they rubbed elbows in New York as well, which is where Ronni moved after her immediate exit from California). In any case, their affair was heated, brief, and mutually and amicably ended. Reflecting on Marlon, the ever humble Ronni would say: "Our romance was short but sweet. He was on the dawn of a brilliant film career, and I was in the twilight of one. Of course, my career could never compare with his." However, despite his eccentricities, Marlon could be oddly loyal and was in truth a very compassionate person. When he read in the paper that his former flame, the Veronica Lake, was working as a cocktail waitress at "The Martha Washington Hotel" in NYC, he sent her a $1000 check. Ronni was floored! However, proud woman that she was, she never cashed it. Instead, she had it framed, and it adorned the wall of her later Miami home.

Marlon's respect for disappearing Movie Queens is equally reflected in his treatment of the eternal flapper and "It girl," Clara Bow. Long after her day as the #1 box office star at Paramount Studios, Clara (left) had succumbed to the increasing deteriorations of schizophrenia-- something she had in common with Ms. Lake. After her fear of the mic and the brutal treatment by the salacious tabloids all but chased her from Hollywood, Clara had spent the remainder of her life trying to make a go of it on her ranch with husband Rex Bell. Her increasingly erratic behavior led to her psychotherapy at "The Institute of Living," where-- after unearthing the shattering sexual abuse she had experienced as a child at the hands of her own father-- her mental disease was also diagnosed. Later, separated from her husband and two sons and living alone at the Los Altos Apartments, Clara's health continued to decline, and except for the occassional emergence of her old, spunky spirit, she faded easily from the public consciousness. She would get a little boost in her later days when she heard that Marlon admired her, for she was equally enthralled by his raw, new performances. She even made a visit to  meet him at his home, which the (by then) sheltered lady never did. Marlon must have been equally effected by the meeting for, a few days later, Clara received a signed photo of Marlon in the mail. It said: "To Clara Bow Bell, A Memorable Personality Who Has Given So Much To So Many, With Sincere Respects, Marlon Brando." It warmed her heart to no end and reassured her that what is temporarily forgotten is not always completely gone.

Interestingly, there was always one fan letter that Clara wished she had written-- to her favorite actress, Marilyn Monroe (right). When witnessing Marilyn's cataclysmic and whirlwind career, Clara couldn't help but draw comparisons between her own pressure-filled rise and fall and the latest blonde ingenue's journey. In fact, Clara would not be the first nor the last to note the similarities between the two ladies: sexual dynamos with a hovering shadow of mental illness (both of them had mentally ill mothers) who were constantly mistreated and abused by the press. For this reason, Clara always wanted to reach out to the little girl who reflected so much of her own torments and pains. She never did, and both ladies were too shy to ever meet. It was probably shocking to Clara when Marilyn suddenly died in 1962. Clara would outlive her by three years, finally passing away in 1965. So much was left unspoken.

Another unsent fan letter was penned by Olivia De Havilland. Still alive and kickin' today, this tough movie diva remains one of the final touchstones to the studio era, which she almost single-handedly brought to an end thanks to her daring court case ending in the "De Havilland Decision." Though she correctly fought against her mistreatment and abuse by the studios-- Warner Brothers more specifically-- she could still look with fondness on her glory days as a star and her countless cinematic works, most of which remain classics. Her fondest memories, of course, always went out to her constant collaborator, Errol Flynn. Errol would not fare so well as the resilient Olivia in his later days. After a lifetime of alcohol (et al) abuse, the once handsome swashbuckler had become a sad wreckage of his former self. Sometimes, friends could see the mischievous bad boy peeking out from his sad eyes, but a life of living hard and fast was driving him to an early death. For this reason, after watching a later screening of Robin Hood, Olivia decided to write to her old friend, extolling his talents and remarking on how their chemistry and partnership had truly stood the test of time. Then, before the ink was dry, she had a change of heart. Fearing that the wisecracker would find her a sentimental old fool, she tore the letter up. She regretted her decision, for Errol passed away not much later at the ripe young age of fifty. (The famous duo sit together between takes, left).

Jean Arthur ponders her opening words of praise... 
(Still is from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).

Luckily, these misfires are the exception and not the rule. While some may feel a bit silly before licking the envelope and sending their love to a comrade of celluloid, most simply see it as a way to pay their respects to those they continue to admire in the industry or new faces that they believe continue the legacy of integrity in film acting. Such was the case with Jean Arthur. Jean became enamored of Christopher Reeve (right) when she was introduced to his film work in the '70s. As a result, she made an out-of-character move when she wrote him a letter, gushing like a school girl in love. Jean was a woman not easily impressed, so Reeve must have been extremely flattered when he received her note. To be honored for his performances by one of the Queens of Silver Screen Comedy was a testament indeed! To show his gratitude and equally pay his respects, he sent her an autographed photo with a personal note.

A rare, legitimate Chaney autograph for Lt. Jay Roy Harlacher,
a Los Angeles fingerprints expert whom he conferred
with for his role in While the City Sleeps.

Lon Chaney was not a man apt to answer fan mail. Embarrassed by the attention, the notorious King of Mystery didn't get personal with his fans. Gracious, yes, but he preferred to allow the public to believe in the illusion of him over the truth. This is why a genuine signature from Lon is a rarity. They do exist, on his friend Jack Feinberg's violin for instance or in personal cards to friends, but the bulk of the pictures sent out to his multitudinous fans were signed by the studio itself. Lon always saw himself as just some guy, nothing special, so why all the hooplah? However, he too made an exception when he received an unlikely letter from stage actress May Robson. Acclaimed on the stage, May (left) was fairly unknown at the time, but would later gain further fame for her onscreen performances in films such as the original A Star is Born and Bringing Up Baby. May was deeply moved by Lon's performance as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and penned him a letter telling him so. The genuine regard of an equal talent for his own moved Lon, and to be given validation by someone he truly respected caused him to do the unthinkable: answer her. He sat in front of his typewriter and wrote his penpal back with "humble thanks and appreciation," stating also that he hoped to live up to the great honor she had bestowed upon him. 

A photo of a very relaxed Montgomery Clift, taken by
Stanley Kubrick.

Sometimes these communications between fan and star aren't always by note. After the telephone entered every home in America, it was, of course, common for fellow stars to call and congratulate each other on a supreme piece of work or perhaps set up a future collaboration. Both Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift would get frequent calls from a devoted fan who was eager to express his admiration for them. However, his attentions at times got a bit annoying too. It was only later that Marlon and Monty would compare notes and realize that they were both being phone-stalked by James Dean. The two thespians were initially flattered, but the equal sides of their nature that embraced acting, shunned celebrity and were irked and embarassed by the attention. Monty, whose talent Jimmy favored, entertained the young Dean's frequent buzzes as much as he could, sensing in the youth a familiar thirst for artistry (as well as perhaps the pressures of internal sexual conflict). In the end there was only so much he or Marlon could do for someone who was, in reality, a stranger. Dean's desperation to reach out to them is indicative of his search for both a father figure and a support system, and the fact that he aimed so high too communicates his desire to attain the greatness these men had already accomplished. Sadly, Dean would pass away before he could fully emulate Monty or Marlon's bodies of work but not before he became a legend. When Monty heard the news, he was so disturbed, he vomited. The loss of a like soul hit far too close to home. 

Jimmy Dean, equally relaxed but less at ease...

What is most interesting about these varied correspondensces between celebs, is that it brings them down to earth. In seeing their respect for their own individual idols, we too get to see the children in them-- the dreamers who wanted to be something more than and something better than themselves. They too looked up to their predecessors and sometimes contemporaries for guidance and inspiration. Thus, we get to see a wider spectrum of the close-knit community of Hollywood, which seems so big on the movie screen but is in truth a small family of co-workers, co-stars, and collaborators, who need just as much validation for their diligent work and efforts as the rest of us. As they say, one kind word goes a long way, and sometimes a pat on the back from a friend makes all the difference.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

HISTORY LESSON: "Kate the Great"

Hollywood is often referenced as the birthplace and home to the walking wounded. This city is overwrought with such a tragic history that it is difficult at times to see the beauty behind the beast. However, it should be noted that for every horror story, every drug-addicted end, every suicidal leap, there are an equal amount of career successes, envelope pushers, and obstacle anihilators. Those who fall into these latter categories normally possess either an innate or well-honed thick skin or an almost blissfully ignorant optimism. Oh, and of course an unstoppable ambition that oversteps the bounds of stubborness. Though it is unfortuante that the cream doesn't always seem to rise to the top-- despite what the old adage tells us-- it does appear that hungry, voracious, and spirited individuals are often able to stake their claim and maintain healthy, lengthy careers in the movie business.

One such person is Katharine Hepburn (above). Almost unreasonably optimistic, Kate was a solid actress and a dependable friend for all her years in Hollywood. Sturdy, intelligent, and determined, this class act and unconventional beauty was able to make it on her own terms. While she could be glamorous, she never lost her Kate-ness, opting to showcase her own unique personality and integrity over the glossy and spoon-fed images of the day. Let's face it: Kate was odd. Freckled, skinny, and ambiguous, her guts and talent carried her far. She won over the respect of the industry, the love of her fans, and along the way made quite the assortment of friends. Despite her flinty demeanor, Kate proved herself to be a loyal and warm-hearted individual who lent her kindness to many over the years. Her go-get-it spirit and can-do attitude became a crutch for many to lean on in a time of need, even if they were complete strangers. A pre-feminist in many ways, Kate most importantly was there for her fellow "sisters" in the industry, becoming the ever-present Ms. Fix-it during times of trouble or chaos. Here are a few examples:

Our December Lady, Veronica Lake (left), was not well acquainted with Katharine Hepburn in 1943. Certainly, they had at some point or other crossed paths at parties or Hollywood events, but they weren't good friends. One couldn't even refer to them as acquaintances. For this reason, Kate was the last person that Ronni would expect to show up during a time of emergency. Yet, when Veronica was in the hospital after losing her second child (William Anthony Detlie, born prematurely and thereafter succumbing to uremic poisoning), she would wake up to discover Kate sitting next to her bed, complete in a mink coat. Surprised, Veronica's eyes bulged! Kate had just stopped by because she was in the hospital visiting her secretary and heard about Ronni's sad news. She offered her condolensces and offered to help in any way she could. Deeply touched, the proud Ronni said that she was fine but appreciated the sentiment. The two sat chatting briefly before Kate got up and left, but Veronica was markedly cheered after this random visit. For a stranger to go out of her way to wish her well meant a great deal to her during a sad and lonely moment in her life, especially since she was often ostracized and gossiped about by many in the industry. Kate's final words to her were, "Remember Veronica, the calla lilies will bloom again." Ronni never forgot it.

Ava Gardner (right) too had a run in with Kate, who would reveal herself as a Jack-of-all-trades. Kate was a good friend of George Cukor. Indeed, the pair would make numerous movies together due to their chemistry as actress and director as well as their connection and understanding as people. Kate was a constant visitor at George's home, attending his many soirees, where the gay director always enjoyed inviting his favorite leading ladies. Cukor later became equally enamored of Ava, the devastatingly beautiful and underrated actress, though he was sadly unable to make more than one movie with her-- Bhowani Junction. Nonetheless, their friendship was lifelong. After they made this film together, George invited Ava and her constant, tag-along sister "Bappie" to one of his get-togethers (in 1978). But on the way, the sisters got a flat tire. When George found out, passing them at the right time in his own car with Mia Farrow, he knew just what to do. He sent for Kate! Without fluttering an eyelid, Kate came down from the party, crouched to the ground-- all 69 years of her-- spun a wrench, switched in a spare, and sent her two grateful new friends on their way. Ava was surprised and delighted. Of all the people to show up... Imagine getting a flat and having Kate Hepburn pull up in a tow truck!!!

Several years prior, in 1940, Viven Leigh and Laurence Olivier had obtained divorces from their mutual spouses and were ready to finally make their scandalous love affair legitimate. Calling up friend Garson Kanin, Viv and Larry (pictured left in Fire over England) asked him to be the best man at their secret wedding. Garson, who was dead asleep when the duo called, quickly agreed, but then he remembered that he was to have a script conference with Kate later that day. Thus, he suggested that he bring her along as a bridesmaid. The two lovebirds heartily agreed, and since Kate was always game for anything, she too jumped out of bed after her call to duty, threw on some clothes, joined the wedding party, and served as the maid-of-honor to a bride she didn't even know! Everyone had a blast, and soon Viv and Larry were off on their honeymoon aboard Ronald Colman's yacht.

Kate would again come to Vivien's aid after the latter woman's bipolar disorder had severely impaired her life. Already divorced from Larry-boy, Viv was in the constant company of her lover Jack Merivale by 1965. During shooting on Ship of Fools (see right), she had an extreme mental attack brought on by the dark  nature of her role. After displaying very erratic behavior at a party thrown by Rosalind Russell,  Jack felt that Viv needed to be taken to the hospital for emergency ECT treatments immediately. But it wasn't that easy: in her current state of mind, dragging Viv to the doctor was no easy task, and it was also a challenge to get her there without the scathing paparazzi taking advantage of the situation. Jack wanted to get her there quietly, before anyone found out and could make a stink about it-- he didn't want his beloved humiliated. He therefore called George Cukor, who in turn called on Kate. 

Kate dropped what she was doing to rush to Viv's side, despite the fact that since the wedding the two had had little interaction. After finding a discrete doctor, she hopped in the back seat of Jack's car, and he drove the three of them to the hospital. All the while, Kate ducked down in back so as not to be recognized and used her light-hearted humor to calm the situation. She talked casually with Viv about normal things, distracting her from the current stress. By the time they reached the hospital, Viv was no longer unmanageable and seemed like her normal self again. She was quietly escorted inside and received the proper care. Viv's ECT treatments were always a stressful and painful thing to endure, for both Jack and Viv (together, left), but again Kate lent her support and was also there for future treatments required after this initial visit. Jack emphatically thanked his red-headed hero for her generosity, but to Kate, it was all in a day's work.

But of course, the most notable charity work Kate ever did was for her soul-mate Spencer Tracy. Her deep love for the complex and tormented actor caused her to sacrifice her life in martyrdom to his constant upkeep and welfare. The fact that such opposing forces of nature and unlikely lovers should ever come together is a mystery in itself. Somehow, the two did fall in love, and their off and onscreen affair lasted from their official meeting prior to Woman of the Year to Spencers's death in 1967. An affair it was, as Spencer had been married to the long-suffering Louise Treadwell since 1923. Katharine was not his first extra-marital dalliance, nor would she be his last, and the same demons that sent him continuosly seeking refuge in the bottle equally found him bounding from bed to bed. His relationship with Kate was somehow different, and his main attraction was probably compelled by his sense of her strength.

Spencer and Kate in their first collaboration,
Woman of the Year, the film on which they would 
fall in love.

Though Kate certainly found Spencer's marital status a bit unsavory, as certainly many others did, she was perhaps quelled a bit by the fact that he had been estranged from Louise for many years and that their marriage was one that existed in name only. Since she herself had already been wed and divorced from Ludlow Ogden Smith and had no further penchant for matrimony, and because she understood the importance for Louise to continue being Mrs. Spencer Tracy due to her charity work on behalf of her deaf son, John, Kate never pushed the issue, never asked Spencer to get a divorce, never asked for anything more than the simple partnership they had. Mostly, Kate sensed in Spencer a challenge, and God knows she loved a challenge. Despite herself, she fell in love and became entirely devoted to the Irish fireball, who with all his power, willfullness, and intensity was the first to ever really shake the imperturbable New Englander up.

For their entire relationship, Kate was a crutch and pillar of strength for the temperamental and unsteady Spence to lean upon. A source of comfort during his tormented, guilt-ridden moments and a force to be reckoned with when he needed sobering up, Kate served as a care-taker, mother, nursemaid, friend, and lover. When Spence would disappear for weeks or even months at at time, Kate would be there to nurse him back to health when he returned. The fact that she stuck by him through thick and thin, despite his overly selfish tendencies, amazed and awed him. For once, he had found a place to be safe; a place where he was accepted warts and all, and could be at peace. Kate's allegiance can most obviously be seen in the last picture that the two made together, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. At this point, Spencer's unpredictable behavior and drinking habits endangered his casting in what would too be his last movie. Believing in his talent and his courage as a human being, Kate showed her faith in him by putting her own salary up as collateral to pay for his insurance. The studio accepted, and the duo delivered their most palpable and heartbreaking work together, and without incident.

Their last film together, 
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Spencer would pass away on June 10, 1967 after 25 years as Kate's unlawful husband. He remained, to her own dying day on June 29, 2003, the love of her life. Kate's relationship with Spencer falls into place with the other events of her life, wherein she played the game her own way, unapologetically, and with great spunk and spirit. The motivations that pushed her along, despite occassional appearances, where never selfish. This was a woman who could do only what she saw in her eyes as right and just, even if it went against the grain of what others thought or believed. When a person is secure in oneself, she can extend her good fortune and warmth to others, and there are many who were blanketed by the safety of Kate's generosity. So, while it is her onscreen talent that has solidified her place in pop culture history, it is the great humanity and depth in her personal character that makes her truly admirable. These selfsame things fueled her unparalleled filmic characterizations-- full of passion, gravity, and chutzpah. She earned her nickname for a reason: Kate truly was "Great."

Kate always adhered faithfully to her family's motto:
 "Listen to the song of life."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

MENTAL MONTAGE: What a diff'rence a bouquet makes...

Olivia De Havilland, looking lovely in
a floral garland.

When comparing notes about different celebrities, I can't help but notice a common trend of the floral variety. Flowers between friends isn't an uncommon theme, and for birthdays, Valentine's Day, or (sadly) funerals, they always do the trick to indicate sentiment and appreciation. In any case, here are a few tales of gardenia lore I have encountered, which I thought you too would enjoy. As they say, one should always take time to stop and smell the roses.

Our starlet of the month, Veronica Lake, (left) had quite a history when it came to flowers. When she initially arrived in Hollywood, she found herself a bit left out in the cold, despite the fact that MGM had summoned her to California in the first place. Told that her screen test was being placed indefinitely on the back burner, she kept herself busy attending the Bliss Hayden School of Acting, thereafter obtaining extra roles and bit parts in feature films. While the public was still ignorant of her existence, some people were taking notice, particularly men. Walking around the back lot, the petite but sensual young woman was a tasty bit of eye candy. Even among the throngs of gushing ingenues and "5 o'clock girls," Ronni had a way of standing out, perhaps because she didn't bat her eyes or coo at the men in charge. Her aloof impenetrability made her all the more desirable.

However, Ronni always remained ignorant of her beauty or her charms, so when she started receiving anonymous bouquets of flowers, she was bewildered. Who could they be from??? They started arriving every day for a month. Unable to piece the mystery together, Ronni was relieved when she finally got a phone call from her nameless suitor. John Detlie, an art director at MGM, had been one of the many men whose heart (and loins) had churned at the sight of Ronni. He became intrigued, and instead of being one of the abrupt oafs who simply accosted her and asked her out, he decided to woo her in the style of an old-fashioned Don Juan. Since Ronni thought most men were full of sh*t, she liked John and his approach. Enjoying the attention he lavished on her, she accepted an invitation to lunch at The Brown Derby, which her mother, Constance, attended as well. (By inviting her mother along, John had also endeared himself to the senior party).

Soon, Ronni and John were in love. Throughout their marriage, which began when they eloped during Ronni's first big hit, I Wanted Wings, John would always surprise her with flowers or stuffed pandas, her favorite animal. She had quite a collection filling her house, and even her engagement ring, which Detlie had designed, followed suit: it was a panda with a diamond. Sadly, their marriage didn't last-- after jealousy over Ronni's career interfered-- but during these early romantic days, flowers won John's way into her heart.

Ronni also had a notable encounter with a floral arrangement when she was working with Milton Berle (right) on his television show in the early '50s. After Ronni's film career faltered, as a result of a disastrous second marriage to Andre DeToth, an increasing addiction to alcohol, and a losing battle with schizophrenia, she had to return to her more resourceful ways to provide for herself and her three children: Elaine, Michael, and Diana. Though unnerved by the idea of performing live on television, it seemed to be one of the only viable options for an actress who was on the outs with Hollywood. Milton Berle did her a favor by asking her to participate, due to the fact that she had garnered a notorious reputation as a temperamental and difficult actress. However, during the show, Milton found Ronni to be anything but her alleged diva persona: she was professional, friendly, and most importantly funny. During her skit, Ronni was supposed to seductively walk onstage with her fur wrap, and instead she wrapped it around her head like a babushka. Milton almost lost it in tears of laughter. The next day, Ronni would find a bouquet of flowers at her front door from him. During a difficult time in her life, it was just the thing to pep up her spirits.

When not using flowers to woo, one often sends them just to say "Thank you." Such was the case for William Holden. When picked up to star in his first major role in Golden Boy, the cocky charmer found himself-- for perhaps the first time-- a nervous wreck. Given the lead role in a major motion picture opposite such acclaimed and studied thespians as Lee J. Cobb and Barbara Stanwyck seemed like a dream come true, but once on the set, he lost a little of his swagger. Stiff and awkward, even Bill's handsome looks couldn't save him from the atrocious work the studio was seeing in the rushes every day. His worst fear was being whispered-- he was going to be replaced! And he would have been, had it not been for Barbara Stanwyck (pictured with Bill, left). Beneath Bill's jitters, Babs saw an incredible amount of potential, if only he could learn to harness it. So, she took him under her wing and studied his lines and his character with him each night. Their friendly rehearsals bolstered Bill's confidence and turned his performance around. When the film premiered, it was a huge success, and Bill became an overnight sensation. He never forgot Barbara's generosity, and for the rest of his life, he would send her flowers on the anniversary of the film's first production day. Babs was equally fond of Bill, and when she won her Honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, she paid homage to her by then deceased friend: "Tonight, my golden boy, you got your wish."

Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, a Olivia de Havilland during
the filming of Not As A Stranger.

Frank Sinatra was a crooner who was notorious for his unique and powerful vocals as well as his reputation with the ladies. In his day, he knocked boots with some of the greatest beauties of the silver screen: from Ava Gardner, to Angie Dickinson, to Mia Farrow. Needless to say, he knew how to show a girl a good time and shower her with gifts, however it was a man who was on the receiving end of Frank's floral generosity. During the shooting of Not As A Stranger, the boys' club of Frank, Robert Mitchum, Lee Marvin, et al fraternized, drank, swore, and rose hell. Strangers became fast friends and lifelong buddies. The eternal lady, Olivia de Havilland, laughed their shenanigans off and enjoyed watching the testosterone hijinks. Specifically regarding the powerhouse actor and dominating personality of Mitchum, it was no wonder that the rest of the cast and crew looked up to him. He became a sort of leader in the group, engaging in all night benders yet brushing off the effects like he had been sipping tea. Indeed, he could roll out of bed and head to set with ease, but he had to put a little elbow grease into sobering the rest of the fellows up. One day, when Frank expressed his astonishment at Bob's remarkable rehabilitation skills, he responded that liquor was like "mother's milk" to him. As a result, the boys' club started calling him "Mother." The joke didn't end when the shoot did, for Frank always used to send Bob a bundle of flowers on Mother's Day.

William Powell and Myrna Loy established one of the most memorable screen duos in cinema. Witty and romantic lovers onscreen, offscreen they were simply pals. Their natural chemistry translated well into the world of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series (right), where they volleyed off each other like squabbling siblings one minute and then kissed like sweethearts the next. Making fourteen movies together, they became staunch allies and the greatest pair of lovers who were never in love. It certainly helped that they enjoyed each other's senses of humor, which kept them laughing between takes as well. When Myrna Loy was voted the #1 actress in 1938, making her and Clark Gable the "King and Queen of Hollywood," William was proud of her, even though he had only ranked #4 in the same poll. To express his happiness for her, but also maintain their dueling humors, William decided to send Myrna a little congratulations. He had a bouquet of dead, atrocious twigs, leaves, and sour grapes sent to her in a huge box with the greeting, "With Love, from William the Fourth." Myrna had a good chuckle.

William continued his relationship with flowers with Jean Harlow, albeit on a more somber note. Jean was madly in love with William (together, left) and desperate to get married, but he had his reservations. He had already been wed twice: first to Eileen Wilson and then to Carole Lombard. Though the second union had ended in a still strong friendship, he wasn't quite certain that another trip down the aisle was in the cards. That didn't stop him from loving Jean, nor from buying her a nearly golfball-sized sapphire ring, which she wore during the production of Personal Property. When Jean suddenly and tragically died of uremic poisoning at the age of 26, William was devastated. He regretted not being there for her more, nor doing the one service for her she had truly wanted: to make her his wife. In her memory, he had fresh flowers placed on her grave at Glendale Forest Lawn for several years, so that "Our Baby" would know that she was still remembered and loved.

Jean: the "Baby" and a bouquet.

Marilyn Monroe had a great love of flowers. Her favorite photo-- taken by Cecil Beaton at the Ambassador Hotel in 1956 (right)-- is the vulnerable and sexy shot of her lying in bed, pressing a carnation to her chest. She frequented her favorite florist, Parisian Florist, at 7528 West Sunset Blvd, ordering beautiful bouquets to dress up her home or to send to her beloved friends. Sometimes, Joe DiMaggio, her ex-husband, would accompany her to the shop, where he autographed a baseball for the owners. (The flower shop still stands, usually displaying a picture of their favorite customer. If you ask, they will too show you the infamous baseball). Joe and Marilyn's union was an emotional and devoted one. Unable to live together due to Marilyn's fragile yet independent nature and Joe's old-fashioned and jealous tendencies, they still cared deeply for each after the collapse of their marriage. Marilyn remained on good terms with stepson Joe Jr, and whenever she needed someone she could trust, she called on Joe Sr. for help. Indeed, he was there to get her out of the Payne Whitney psyche ward of NY Hospital in 1961 when she was wrongly confined-- she had merely checked in for bedrest.

Joe and Marilyn in happier times.

When Marilyn died, Joe was destroyed. All the wrongs he had done her wore on his heart like a weight. If only he had done this, if only he had done that... But it was too late. One of the women he had loved most in the world, perhaps most of all, was gone and there was nothing he could do this time to save her. But he, like William Powell, would honor her memory, sending flowers to her grave at Westwood Memorial for the next twenty years-- always bright, red roses. He ordered them from Parisian. The cold, marble wall where she was interred seemed far too stale. But with fresh flowers, the delicacy and beauty that Marilyn represented to the world was more accurately communicated, even in her death. To this day, fans still bring her flowers and cover her grave with a garden of lipstick kisses.

Gone, but not forgotten...