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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE...: Love [in/and/is] War

Carole Landis and soldier hubby Thomas Wallace, 
wed January 5, 1943 in London. 

To pay homage to Carole Landis's wartime marriage to soldier Thomas Wallace, I thought it only appropriate to explore a similar cinematic theme: Love and War. This plot has revealed itself through multiple storylines in movieland, but there is one very specific tale that has metamorphosed over three different films. The plot mutated with each interpretation, but in essence the story is thus: a young woman and a soldier fall in love in the midst of war-torn London only to be ripped apart by fate... and the fact that the girl is a prostitute. All is fair...

~  ~  ~

Hollywood has decided, thus far, to take a stroll down Waterloo Bridge thrice. It first adapted Robert E. Sherwood's play in 1931, then remade it in more glamorous terms in 1940, and took a final stab in the plush studio bonanza of 1956's Gaby. As always, different directors, actors, and circumstances produced vastly different outcomes. The instigation of the censorship code in 1934 caused a stark contrast between the 1931 and 1940 version, but while little is changed plot-wise in the story between 1940 and 1956, the final film too bears the highly recognizable stamp of its time and conditions. 

In 1931, James Whale, the visionary and off-kilter director most renowned for his work on the horror classic Frankenstein, was assigned the task of directing the first Waterloo Bridge. At this time, America had long been at peace after WWI, the roaring twenties had been enjoyed and lost with the crash of 1929, and movies were daringly and provocatively reflective of the current human condition. As the cushy melodrama and slap-stick comedy of silent films matured into sinister and sometimes violent celluloid opuses and edgy testaments of darker humor, the time was ripe for filmic exploration. Directors were taking chances, writers were ruffling feathers, and for a brief time, studio heads were letting it all fly. Audiences needed to relate more than they needed to be elevated, which made a script whose main character was a "lady of the night" a welcome dish for salivating viewers.

In the lead role of Myra Deauville is Mae Clarke, who for whatever reason was never able to reach superstardom, but whose solid performances with relentless conviction allowed her to make a mark on many top films of the day, including The Public Enemy and Frankenstein (again with Whale).  Yet, her appearance in this picture may be her most striking. As Myra, Clarke is jaded, streetsmart, and emotionally damaged. Working as a chorus girl in London, her late night activities include picking up men on Waterloo Bridge with her friend Kitty (Doris Lloyd and Clarke, right).  A tough-cookie and survivor, Myra's mettle is threatened by the appearance of Roy Cronin (Douglass Montgomery), a young, American soldier on leave who is her very antithesis: innocent, naive, and romantic. Not realizing Myra's scandalous profession, Roy becomes quickly smitten with her, and the prospect of turning him into her next "John" disappears as Myra's cool heart starts melting. 

United by their American nationality, they are both lonely and isolated. Their connection is instant and intense, but Myra is goaded by her conscience. In a touching scene, she becomes threatened by her young suitor, whose kindness and genuine human interest she has not experienced in some time, if ever. Angered  by and envious of his sweetness and equally afraid of the damage she could do to him, she throws a tantrum to chase him away. As he picks up his things to leave her apartment, she slouches in the background, looking very small and meek, aware that she is letting the only pure thing in her life get away. An apology quickly follows, and soon Myra finds herself in love, though the cynic in her refuses to believe it at first. A woman mired in reality, she compartmentalizes these two conflicting parts of her life. After Roy finally leaves her apartment, she goes to the mirror and gives herself a hard look, applies her trashy lipstick, puts on her hat and sad little fur, symbolically dims the light, and returns to the bridge to find a paying prospect. The silent scene is pure, Whales-ian poetry.

The story thus becomes an internal struggle: a battle of right and wrong amidst the larger battle of war, which is essentially all the same. Myra cannot admit who she really is to her beloved, whose pure heart she cannot bear to break and whose honest love she cannot bear to lose. But, after Roy asks her to marry him, things become even more complicated. Her two lives, the light and the dark, threaten to collide. With his family involved-- including Bette Davis in an early role as Roy's sister, Janet-- Myra's paranoia at being discovered and her personal shame at her deceit of a good man haunts her (see repercussions, right). Any small hope of being revitalized by love and made clean again is quickly revoked by her would-be monster-in-law, (Enid Bennett) who delivers perhaps the most polite smack down in cinematic history. Sensing who Myra really is, Mrs. Cronin refuses her blessing on the upcoming union, and the martyred Myra agrees that this is the best decision. Thus, Myra flees, returning to her beloved bridge-- the only home for a streetwalker is the street. But, despite all logic, even after Roy has discovered who she is, he still loves her. When he comes looking for her on the bridge, he begs her to promise to marry him. As he is literally being pulled away to battle, she concurs, more to ease his mind than because she intends to keep her promise. The lovers are parted amidst the explosions of war, and Myra runs for safety, though it is not certain whether she runs from fear of death or fear of a future she doesn't believe in. It makes no difference, for it is the former that claims her. Struck by an explosion, Myra is killed-- her fur wrap lying like roadkill on the cluttered sidewalk.

What can be gleaned from this harsh and sudden conclusion is debatable. Are we to take that there is no love in war? Is that the height of its brutality? Is Myra a symbolic bad girl who cannot be redeemed? Or is her sacrifice more reflective of reality and how no one can be made new again? You cannot undo your experiences, good or bad, and your innocence is the price you pay for your life. Her death could be a tragedy, but it could be her salvation, her release. The hugeness of war and the immediacy it demands of its victims made the differences between Myra and Roy seem small in the midst of their romance, but could such a love truly exist in the daylight? Perhaps not. Perhaps Myra knew this all along.

The gritty, oppressive nature of this 1931 version stands in sharp contrast to what would occur in 1940. Mervyn LeRoy was this time at the helm, directing Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor (left). In every aspect, this Waterloo Bridge would be emblematic of the heights of studio splendor... and control. After the establishment of the censorship code, women of ill-repute were no longer considered favorable heroines. Indeed, any suggestive or controversial subject matter was unduly given the kibosh while whitewashed, glamorous, euphoric presentations of human life were created. When the decision to revisit the earlier film was thus made, it was equally decided to alter the script a bit. It begins in flashback, with Taylor asking to be taken to Waterloo Bridge, where the aged soldier stands, fondling a strange token that his true love gave to him-- a good luck charm-- and thinking back to the day they met. Thrown together on the bridge in the midst of attack, Taylor saves the beautiful young woman from being struck by a car after she bends heedlessly to pick her dropped charm off the street-- a premonitory event. After spending some time together, Myra gives Taylor the charm for good luck in his battles. They part, but-- struck by her beauty-- he later comes to see her perform. This time, Myra is not a chorus girl but a genuine ballerina. Portrayed as innocent and pure, her role is essentially switched with that of the youthful soldier of the former film, while the man who captures her heart is just that, a man and not a boy: charming, assured, masculine, and knowledgeable. The qualities that remain in both characters are the somewhat melancholy demeanor of Leigh's Myra, whom is jokingly referred to as defeatist before her fate has even been tested, and the boyish thirst for life extolled by Roy, whom Taylor injects with vigor and idealistic passion. 

The combination of these two qualities and the able performances of Leigh and Taylor create a perfect chemistry, which is very important in establishing an impossible romance. The difference, certainly instilled by studio stipulation, between this vehicle and the first is the belief that they are in love. Whereas the fates of Clarke and Montgomery seemed doomed from the beginning-- a forbidden love only able to thrive in the even darker casualties of war-- the audience is led to believe that Leigh and Taylor are truly meant for each other. This is vital, as their courtship, as opposed to the '31 film, is extremely fast. Having just met, they opt to marry after one date, although this attempt is interrupted after much effort when Taylor is called to service. He promises to return; she promises to wait. Unfortunately, Leigh's recklessness and negligence of her dancing over this three-day courtship has cost her her place with the ballet company, where the unforgiving Madame Olga Kirowa, played by the always superb Maria Ouspenskaya, makes it known in no uncertain terms that a true ballerina must put her craft above everything else. Of course, in the studio era, when a woman is given the choice of husband or career, she must choose a husband, which is what Leigh does. However, her penalty is shared by her martyr-like friend, Kitty (Virginia Field), who more closely resembles Mae Clarke's character in the first film. A true friend, Kitty vows to leave the company with the fragile Myra, whom-- as the stronger female-- she feels she must protect. Kitty's presence will become very important to the plot as it escalates (both women, right).

Despite her current unemployment and poverty, all seems well, until Myra reads in the paper that Roy is dead, which is doubly unfortunate, since she discovers this news while waiting to meet her soon-to-be mother-in-law for the first time. Emotionally destroyed and unable to communicate the information she has just learned, Myra is evasive and rude to Lady Margaret Cronin (Lucile Watson), purposely forcing a wedge between herself and the woman she now knows that she will never call her mother. Distraught and hungry, Myra learns that Kitty has resorted to prostitution to support them both. With a broken heart and nothing left to lose, Myra now finds herself doing the same. Leigh's actions, unlike her predecessor Clarke, are therefore fully explained and forgivable. Her virtue becomes the sacrifice of war, whereas love was Clarke's sacrifice. However, a wrench is thrown into things when Myra is casing the train station for Johns only to find her beloved-- who is very much alive and very much still in love with her-- stepping off a train (left). Myra is beside herself with shock. Again, she is forced to hide the self that she has devolved into from the man she no longer feels that she deserves. Clarke's heroin had to protect Montgomery from the woman she was, Leigh must protect Taylor from the woman she has become. Roy brings her home to meet the family-- the fairy tale is aided by the fact that Roy appears to be loaded-- and she and Lady Cronin reconcile, though Myra's guilt forces her to confess all of her sins to the matriarch. When a shocked but compassionate Lady Cronin questions Myra's chastity, Leigh pathetically utters: "Oh, Lady Margaret, you are naive." With that, Myra flees to Waterloo Bridge, and again Roy chases after her, enlisting the aid of Kitty who tells him the whole truth.

The ending proposes several distinct differences from '31, one of which is Taylor's dismissal of his fallen angel. When he cannot find her, he seems to accept the fate he knows is coming. Of course, he still loves Myra, but he knows the woman she has become is one he can no longer be with. He thus lets her go before she's gone. Myra finds herself alone on Waterloo Bridge (right), utterly broken and destroyed. Doomed. The same war that brought her and Roy together has in another way split them apart. Her shame in herself overpowers her love, and as military trucks pass by, one after the other, in rapid succession, she hurls her body in front of them. (This fallen, martyred woman is a role Leigh was familiar with and repeated in Anna Karenina and That Hamilton Woman). The lesson, again, may make a feminist cringe-- soiled women apparently don't deserve love. This theme of carnal crime and punishment runs rampant in the immediate post-code era. However, the tragedy can still be felt, as we return to Taylor, who stands on the bridge reminiscing about the woman he knew and the love that could have been had fate not been so unkind. He stands sadly-- older, wiser, world-weary-- showing that Myra was not the only victim of the war's harsh toll. Someone else died that day on the bridge. When Myra jumped, she took too the last of Roy's innocence with her. This is the film's true commentary on war, which mirrors 1931: it stifles and kills all that is good, and those who witness it cannot get that same goodness back. Only time and the cushion of future generations can create enough distance to rejuvenate these qualities.

Thus we come to the final installment, Gaby, produced in 1956 and directed by Curtis Bernhardt. If the '31 film exposed the sense of immediacy caused by war, and 1940's version was a psalm to the immediacy of true love, the obstacle and instigator in Gaby is the immediacy of youth. The film's stars are, unlike their predecessors, (save for Montgomery) young. And they look young. Everything about the movie is fresh and alive, completely absent of any of the grittiness of the aforementioned films, and very indicative of 1950s studio cinema. But, while it is stylish, coming on the heels of Rebel Without A Cause and the loosening censorship code, it is also more indicative of an increasingly rash and daring society. The ravishing Leslie Caron and boy-next-door John Kerr  take on the roles of the now named Gaby and Gregory, and while the location remains London, Caron of course maintains her true nationality to explain her luscious French accent. This makes her all the more enticing to Gregory, who finds her in all her porcelain beauty to be an exciting and exotic dream come true. The naivete and raging hormones of the lead characters are the driving force of the plot, which perhaps makes this version more believable in at least these terms. The plot remains almost identical to the 1940 version, putting Caron's dancing ability to use by again making her a ballerina, and again her loyalty to her passion to her craft is tested by her sexual and romantic passion for Gregory.

An interesting scene also identifies another quality in Gaby, heretofore undiscovered in previous versions: her sympathy. At a club, she finds a soldier crying fearfully, and based on her interaction with him, we not only see her sweetness but are given a glimpse into the intensity and stress of war, which masculates and emasculates its men at once. The desperation for human contact and the need to feel safe thus immediately comes into play and will be reflected in the romance of Gaby and Gregory, as will her compassion. It is clear from the beginning that Gaby in fact only entertains Gregory because she feels sorry for him, however as she becomes attached to him, she soon finds herself caring more than she ought. Because Caron lends her performance much more spirit and independence than her predecessors, the effect is more striking. When Leigh forsook her career for love, she didn't consider it a great loss, but Caron's more ambitious heroine is taken for a loop when she finds herself in love and forced to choose between the two. Again, it is her good heart that leads her to sacrifice all for a near stranger, and Gregory's thirsty soldier never lets up on her for a minute until she says "I do."

However, the same complications keep the duo from being married before Gregory is again forced to leave, but-- thanks to Gaby's best friend and roommate Elsa, who gives them her absence on what she thought would be their wedding night-- Gregory and Gaby find themselves alone in her apartment on what would have been their honeymoon. The audience feels the intensity of their mutual desire, particularly Gregory's, who-- polite as he may be-- clearly wants to be joined to Gaby in flesh if in nothing else before he goes to battle. The audience wants it too. However, the more practical and in some ways mature Gaby demurs, forcing her embittered fiance to leave for battle without the knowledge of her body. Disappointed, but not deterred, Gregory again swears to return and finally marry her. When he leaves, the same tragedy befalls. This time, after losing her place in the ballet and thinking that she has lost her beloved to death, Gaby's path to prostitution becomes, similarly to Leigh's voyage, one of self-flagellation (though it is never clearly ascertained whether Gaby is being paid for her transgressions or is merely committing them to assuage her guilt). The interesting difference, is that when confronted by her friend Elsa about her scandalous new life, Gaby admits that she is perfectly conscious of what she is doing and is doing it on purpose. Every soldier she makes love to, in her mind, is Gregory. She thus, punishes herself with sex because she refused sex to the only man she ever loved. So fully and passionately does she throw herself into her unreasonable atonement, that it has a devastating effect upon her when Gregory indeed returns unscathed, expecting to find the perfect and virtuous woman he left behind. Again he takes her home, again she admits her sins, only this time she does it directly to Gregory, who is crushed and angered by the destruction of the dream which has kept him alive.

Yet, what is indestructible is their love (see left), naive and hormone-driven though it may be. Even the knowledge of Gaby's betrayal cannot prevent Gregory from coming after her. This time, he finds her. As bombs explode around them, intensifying the surging, chaotic passion between them, he hurls his body against hers to save her life. They both emerge from the rubble unharmed. It seems that this time they shall have a happy ending. At first, such a tacked-on studio-mandated conclusion makes one balk, especially after enduring the more tragically palpable, and thus wartime befitting, endings to the other films. Yet, perhaps this time it makes sense. After all, why should Gaby be punished further? Why should she be shamed for the forfeiture of her purity when it was Gregory who demanded it of her in the first place? He is just as guilty, and his acceptance of his own guilt finally matures him into the man who is worthy of her love. Their life, their innocence, gives them the ability to survive the obstacles that the other couples of Waterloo Bridge could not.

Yet another interpretation of Waterloo Bridge by Monet.

Each film is fascinating and unique in its own way. Each too possesses its own precious offerings. The most interesting is the more controversial 1931 Waterloo Bridge, whose intense texture alone makes it a worthwhile picture. Waterloo Bridge of 1940 is for the true romantic, presenting the gossamer haze of studio splendor that all movie buffs drool over. Gaby of 1956 gives us a superb performance by Leslie Caron and a surprising deconstruction of the sexual (ir)responsibilities of youth. In all films, War is too a dominant force, a character in itself, whose macabre presence can bring all life to a halt, threatening to snuff out even the most prized of human abilities-- to love. In each version, it could be argued that it succeeds, but in truth it fails miserably. The fact that any romance could find a way to blossom and thrive at all is proof enough that man's horrid mistakes are no match for his most divine aspirations. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Carole Landis, poised for laughs.

Carole Landis's fun-loving attitude made her an eager participant in many a good-natured joke or game. A warm person, her mere presence seemed to flip the happy switch and put people in a better mood. This came in handy most particularly when she started entertaining the troops during WWII. Her heart went out to the battling soldiers, and she would do anything to give them a little peace and joy in the midst of the chaos that they daily faced. And I mean anything... During the war, radio became a useful outlet for the boys fighting abroad, and a steady stream of broadcasts gave them comforting reminders of home. One particular show, Command Performance, was based upon this concept. It took random requests from the boys and put them into action, making the oddest desires come true. Hopefuls called in with strange petitions, asking for various sound mementos from home or-- more daringly-- celebrity performances. On one interesting occassion, a huge Carole fan asked for very small favor. All he wanted was to listen to her "sigh." Carole must have gotten a good chuckle out of such an odd inquiry, but she gamely agreed to do it. So, on June 14, 1942, Carole stood in front of the microphone and softly proclaimed to soldiers all over the world, "Ahhhhhhhh...." It was a sensation and one of the best remembered moments of the show, as well as one which earned the most requests for replay.

The next jest is too tied to Carole, but there is debate over whether it was she who indeed committed the whimsy or her contemporary Lana Turner (left). In either case, one of these two ladies was again entertaining the soldiers in wartime and dancing with one fellow in particular-- who found his gaze continually traveling downward to the damsel's low-cut neckline. The soldier then humorously asked if the plunging cut was supposed to symbolize "V for Victory?" Not to be outdone, the lady in question quipped back, "Yes, but the bundles aren't for Britain!" Carole would later attribute the punchline to Lana, but some argued that she had in fact said it herself. I guess we'll never know. Both ladies were certainly capable of that kind of brazenly, silly stunt.

Beyond the Forest is most memorable for being the line in which Bette Davis uttered the eternal quote: "What a dump." However, there is actually a rather funny story involving another quote from the film. See, Bette didn't want to do the film in the first place. She thought both the story and the character were beneath her. Having constantly battled with studio head Jack Warner in the past, her fierce, stubborn streak was old news at this point. It was clear that both Bette and Warner Brothers were growing tired of each other. She fought, begged, and pleaded to get out of the role, even offering up casting suggestions-- she thought Virginia Mayo was better suited to play Rosa Moline, which was probably a back-handed compliment at the actress, who was more notorious for playing sexy, gangsters' molls. In the end, Bette's tenacity did not get her out of the movie, but it did end her contract. She threatened to walk off the picture, which was only half finished, thus inducing an ultimatum from Warners: if she finished the picture, she would be free from her home studio. She agreed. Finally, liberated after eighteen years, Bette was ecstatic... Until she learned that she had to return to do some voice over on a badly recorded scene. Glumly, she trudged back to say her last line at WB: "If I don't get out of here, I'll die." (See iconic moment, right).

Gary Cooper (left) was a quiet sort of guy, but that was part of his charm. Where most celebrity males of the time, and in fact today, walked with a confident swagger, he more gracefully strolled. Where many were loud and boastful, throwing their masculine weight around, Gary was quiet and soft spoken. Many a person, particularly women, spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what was going on inside that pretty, silent head of his, and certain gals like Carole Lombard threw up their hands in defeat after trying to figure him out. In the end, Carole preferred the brashness of Gable, thinking Gary was, well, boring. However, this was not so. Coop too had a great sense of fun and naughtiness, as Rita Hayworth and Veronica Lake would witness first hand... when they went on a bender together. This unlikely trio of shy outsiders banded together one fateful night while in Chicago on a War Bond tour. Determined to forget their stresses and throw caution to the wind, they soon found themselves at a strip joint watching the current female attraction on stage.

Gary, despite his bashful demeanor, was one of the notorious Hollywood "ladykillers," so it came as no surprise to Ronni and Rita when a girl plopped down next to him and started a conversation. Gary listened sympathetically, despite being schnockered, as this young woman explained that it was her sister who was dancing on stage and, "Oh dear, isn't it a horrible thing?" Veronica and Rita marvelled at the way Coop was able to draw the unsuspecting girl to him like a moth to a flame; how a complete stranger found herself babbling her innermost sorrows as he at least pretended to listen. He had such a wooing, calming effect. Eventually, having unburdened her conflicted heart, the girl made a drunken exit, leaving her stripping sister and famous cohorts behind, though she was probably not even aware to whom she had just been speaking. Feeling a bit guilty after this revelatory conversation, the three friends quieted their consciences by becoming equally inebriated and ambling down to another strip joint. And just who do you think should be dancing center stage? The very same girl who had just been mourning her sister's sad profession!  As eyes bulged and mouths opened, one can almost imagine Rita and Veronica looking at a surprised Gary and cackling at the twist of fate. The joke, it seemed, was on them! The girl recognized the coterie and humorously gave Gary a great deal of attention, for which he provided a generous tip. As they departed from their night of debauchery, the man of few words had, as usual, little to say. Smirking and shaking his head, he let it go with a: "Well, I'll be damned." (Gary and Rita reunite more soberly during They Came to Cordura).

Vicente Minelli, Judy Garland, and Kate Hepburn chit chat
on the set of Undercurrent.

After the disastrous shoot on Summer Stock, Judy Garland found herself permanently severed from her home studio MGM, which was bittersweet. Happy to be free, yet anxious without a home, her depression was only intensified by her deteriorating marriage to the homosexual Vicente Minelli. At the end of her tether, Judy disappeared into the bathroom and used some broken glass to slash her own throat. This suicide attempt was no laughing matter, of course, but it was typical of Judy, whose injuries were far from fatal. Mostly, she was crying for help, attention, and sympathy-- publicly proclaiming herself the victim of MGM's ruthless brutality. The message was received, and Louis B. Mayer, in a panic about what the negative publicity could do to his studio, sent for Hollywood's immovable pillar of strength, Katharine Hepburn, for help. She agreed to go talk to Judy and hopefully coax her out of the black hole into which she'd fallen. Kate arrived at Judy's home and was barraged by photographers, whom she told in no uncertain terms that if they took her picture, they would be punched in the face. Needless to say, the shutters stopped. In her typical, New England drawl, she then burst into Judy's room with a series of reprimands and supportive anecdotes. "Oh deah, you rally are in a bad way, ahn't you?" Kate offered Judy room and board at her place, where the patient could regain her strength and recuperate. Judy, grateful for the offer, was too terrified to accept. "Relaxing" with Kate surely would include swimming, jogging, and various other tough love rejuvenation tactics. Judy preferred to mope and enjoy the pitiful windfall of sympathy. Yet, Judy loved and respected Kate and felt truly victorious that one of Hollywood's biggest angels had been sent to help her. However, she was soon offered another consoling shoulder, which she did not find as appealing. During prayer at church, Jane Russell believed that she had been sent a divine message to reach out to Judy in her plight. So, she made a telephone call. Judy answered, at which point Jane went into Psalm 23: "The Lord is my shepherd..." Judy, who-- despite evidence to the contrary-- was in no mood to face her maker, quickly and embarrassingly interrupted with a "Thank you" and abruptly hung up. Perhaps at her next prayer session Jane offered up an "Our Father, return to sender."

Talk about "V for Victory..." Jane in her Sunday best.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Rita Hayworth throws herself into the bullring and takes
down Tyrone Power in Blood and Sand.

Blood and Quicksand

In the Golden Era, the battle of Stars vs. the Studios was a constantly waged and painstakingly contained one. A star could use his or her box-office power to get away with a lot of things that the top dogs would otherwise refer to as "deviant behavior," but the moguls too had ways of getting their performers to toe the line. One method was "career threat." When a celebrity got too pushy or started to go too far, another, younger actor would be presented-- one who was almost a double of the alleged offender. This was the studio's way of saying: "Go ahead. Misbehave. There are plenty of people waiting to take your place." This ominous warning would often cause whatever diva was having a tantrum to back down. It was but one of many games in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood, where biting the hand that feeds was the appetizer de rigueur. Victims and villains were hard to tell apart: moguls thought that they were betrayed by the childish, narcissistic stars they had helped to create, and stars thought that they were abused, overworked, and under-appreciated by the greedy men behind the metaphorical curtain. In such an environment, if you weren't a business mastermind, it was often hard to keep your head above water. Suffice it to say, there were rarely winners, and mostly losers.

Carole Landis (left) was one of the many who played the game and lost, though her complete victimization by the system is not up for debate. An actress who was very far from the accepted cinematic Drama Queen, Carole was selfless, friendly, and hard-working. This did not, however, leave her free from punishment. Just being a woman in Hollywood was burden enough on its own. When Carole was signed at Twentieth-Century Fox, she quickly became accustomed to this fact. Early in her career, her beauty, singing talent, and natural charisma in front of the camera made her a prime pawn of actress intimidation. Low on the totem pole, Carole wasn't immediately given leading roles, for her box-office power hadn't been tested. Thus, her presence was used to intimidate other actresses-- whom she resembled in some respect-- and keep them in line. Alice Faye and Betty Grable were two unenthusiastic recipients of this maneuver. Her presence reminded them of their own career vulnerability. Carole, of course, was innocent of these studio machinations, and merely used whatever opportunity she had to better her standing and hone her acting skills. Slowly, with the help of the publicity machine and the public's growing attentions, Carole found her popularity rising. She gained a little position and started using it. Thus, she in turn found herself being equally intimidated by other actresses, some of whom snagged plum roles right out from under her.

A favorite beauty that Zanuck loved to use against Carole was Rita Hayworth (right), who was signed at rival studio Columbia Pictures. Zanuck's disdain for Carole had nothing to do with her professionalism and everything to do with her refusal to go to bed with him. After an initial affair, Carole put her foot down and claimed her independence, refusing to be further manipulated or taken advantage of. Zanuck thereafter went about trying to destroy her career, finding that nursing a bruised ego was more important than cashing in on a viable, talented asset. When a remake of Blood and Sand was presented to Fox for production, Carole was a front-runner for the role of Dona Sol, and she wanted it badly. But, instead of giving Carole a rich part that she could really sink her teeth into, not to mention one that could help to further her career, Zanuck paid Harry Cohn five times Rita Hayworth's salary to borrow her on loan-out for the role. He would commit the exact same crime when My Gal Sal was filmed, though Carole was allowed to remain in this picture. However, that time around she was forced to play a minor role beneath her stature, still under the starring Rita Hayworth. Rita, like Carole, was not guilty of any malevolence. In fact, the two had a lot in common, and were simply sweet women stuck in a rotten game. Today, it is hard to imagine anyone else beside Rita playing the seductive and heartless Dona Sol opposite Tyrone Power's toreador, but with Carole's equal talent and sex appeal, it makes one yearn for what could have been had she landed the part. The reason for the final outcome had less to do with perfect casting, and more to do with the fact that-- between the two of them-- the sensitive Rita was more apt to do as she was told. Carole??? She had less of a problem speaking her mind.

Love Me or Leave Me? Given the option...

Speaking of feisty women and toreadors, Hollywood's favorite She-Wolf, Ava Gardner, didn't take too kindly to orders. She too had had her fill of harsh studio treatment, and after playing nice for many years, she was no longer in the mood to sit back and do as she was told. After an arduous shoot on The Barefoot Contessa and an enduring, tumultuous marriage to Frank Sinatra, Ava now found herself in the hospital suffering severe pangs from kidney stones. MGM ordered her back to work starting on Love Me or Leave Me, but Ava was having none of it. For starters, they were ignoring her illness, claiming that she was "faking it," which ticked her off. Then, they offered her a part in a biopic musical (about the life of Ruth Etting) in which her voice would certainly be dubbed, which ticked her off more. After the humiliation of singing her heart out in Show Boat (left) only to have her voice replaced by Annette Warren, Ava was not about to go through an embarrassing repetition. She refused, mostly because she didn't like lip-syncing and looking like "a goddamn goldfish." At her wit's end emotionally and physically, she said "hell no" and headed for Europe, leaving the way free and clear for Doris Day, for whom co-star James Cagney had been enthusiastically rallying. Doris was known up to now as a pretty, ever-smiling songstress, but this role allowed her to indulge in her underutilized talents. The depth and pain she gave to her interpretation opened a lot of eyes, though she would rarely get this serious again. She soon after hit her stride in romantic comedies opposite the likes of Rock Hudson. As for Ava, she preferred Spain... and its bullfighters.

James Cagney fought to have Doris Day star opposite him in 
Love Me or Leave Me. He chose a perfect sparring partner, and the duo
 produced some poignant and painful scenes together.

Opportunity Always Rings Twice

The hot and heavy film noir masterpiece The Postman Always Rings Twice, whose success depended very much upon the chemistry of its leading characters, could have been a very different film. Originally, Joel McCrea was offered the role of Frank Chambers. However, Joel was always very astute about his career and his star persona, and he turned the role down, not thinking himself right for it. So, the offer was given to the darker, more rugged John Garfield, who was ecstatic at the opportunity. Unfortunately, just as filming was about to begin, WWII came roaring onto the scene, and John backed out of the film to fight overseas. Then, John was refused entree into the service because of his heart condition. Deeply upset, he felt that he had missed out on two golden opportunities: the role of a lifetime and the chance of a lifetime to serve his country. Luckily, MGM offered him the role again, and this time Chambers was his. This was a fortunate result. The steamy connection between John and Lana Turner (together, right) remains one of the most romantic and dangerous cinematic couplings of all time. Becoming thick thieves and pals behind the scenes helped them to create a trusting and relaxed environment, which left them free to explode on the screen. Joel McCrea could certainly hold his own with the ladies, but his boy-next-door, "aw' shucks" persona did not have the same edge nor sexual dynamism of Garfield. John would recall this film as one of his favorites, and his partnership with Lana did not end when the filming stopped: they remained lifelong friends.

Queen Kong???

When Merian C. Cooper embarked on his now iconic adventure film, King Kong, he had a clear vision. From the outlandish story to the bold and fascinating new special effects that he intended to use, he was determined to create an incredible new world for his viewers. However, he was also aware that making a film that starred a huge, stop-motion monkey was going to be a hard one for audiences to buy. He needed to give viewers an emotional connection, one which would allow them to suspend their disbelief and get swept up into the unimaginable universe which he had invited them. The key was in casting the right girl to play Kong's captive/daughter/love interest, Ann Darrow. The actress would need to be able to relay sincere reactions and emotions, ranging from feminine sensitivity to abject fear. Merian needed an unparalleled beauty, both inside and out, to kill his beast. He found it in Fay Wray, (left) who seemed born for the role by name alone, as her horrified shrieks provided a vast amount of the film's resulting soundtrack. When Merian first offered her the part, he told her very little other than that she would be starring opposite the "tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." Fay's heart, which was all aflutter at the prospect of working with Cary Grant, was quickly palpitating for other reasons when she learned the truth! Her part in King Kong remains her most famous performance, which has kept her very much alive in the public consciousness. This is fortunate for her, since the role almost when to Dorothy Jordan...or Jean Harlow! Jean's version certainly would have been interesting and perhaps a bit more provocative, though it would be hard to imagine a sweet and sexy Jean screaming at an ape for an hour. With her demeanor, they probably would have hunkered down and played a hand of cards after the first 5 minutes... All the better for Merian's decision: he needed a girl who could scream, not seduce!

A match made in Movie heaven. Fay's probably missing Cary about now...

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: Hollywood at War

Bob Hope performs for the boys in Sicily, 1943.

For a brief period, film existed solely as a pure artistic venture blended with scientific innovation. Almost immediately, this sanctity was corrupted by business, which both heightened its possibilities and tangled its intentions. Cinema as a propaganda device was always forthcoming, but despite the expected birth of celebrity product endorsements, the most influential collision of stardom and salesmanship didn't occur until the Great War. The different ages of American War have revealed themselves in various ways through our movies, but perhaps the most interesting moments occurred not in the later rallying, reactionary cries of the Vietnam or Korean Wars, but in the earlier calls to arms of WWI and WWII. This equally paranoid and frightful time produced in Hollywood a profound moment of unity, patriotism, and brotherhood. On the screen or behind the cameras, an attitude of "One for all, and all for one" reigned supreme. The movies of the day were used to relay this message, as did its stars, who for once proudly took a back seat to the Stars (and Stripes) of the American Flag. Though contention and doubts did exist, an indestructible, unified front was always presented, which was perhaps simply due to the source of the battles being waged-- particularly the genocidal WWII. In a continuing celebration of Independence Day, here is a look back the impact of war on Hollywood, and the impact of Hollywood on the war.

While the Revolutionary War called upon a young and insecure landscape to defy its tormentors (and sometimes its own inhabitants) in order to proclaim itself a union, and the Civil War pitted brother against brother when incongruous versions of scruples and ethics threatened to tear the country apart, The Great War was entered into willingly by a freshly healed and newly thriving society. Its effect would render America not only unarguably the most powerful nation in the world, but-- as it was the lone combatant to emerge without war torn soil-- it too would rise victoriously as the film capital of the world. During a period of low economic peril that would lead to the euphoria of the roaring twenties, the strength and positivity of the nation was echoed loudly through its silent film players. Most memorably, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin would embark on a tour selling war bonds (left), using their popularity and charisma to maintain and enhance the country's participation in the movement. The films of the time showcased their dedication, such as Mary Pickford's The Little American, which put America's Sweetheart right in the throes of German atrocities. The picture was passionately directed by Cecil B. DeMille-- a strong supporter of both the war movement and the armed forces-- who had in fact established the Home Guard, via Famous Players-Lasky, as its Captain when the war began in April of 1917. Yet, it is Douglas Fairbanks who was perhaps most indicative of American patriotism at the time. Healthy, virile, in incredible shape, and possessing both an optimistic spirit and a zest for life-- which, if canistered, could probably have provided enough energy to power a large city for 100 years-- "Mr. Pep" was the era's masculine ideal. He proudly made several short propaganda films to get his brethren in the spirit of battle, such as Swat the Kaiser and Sick 'em Sam.

Chaplin too did a great deal to express his feelings about the war, but as a more calculating aesthete and a true humanitarian, his efforts most often revealed themselves through his own compelling work. The strongest statement he ever made about war came about prior to WWII in his defiant, tragicomic masterpiece The Great Dictator (right). While many remained blind to or even embraced the shocking new stratagems of Adolf Hitler during his rise to power, Charlie always remained aghast, dismayed, and disgusted by the Fascist's lunacy. When Hitler's administration mutated into abject madness, Chaplin was not surprised, and The Great Dictator became his impassioned wake up call to America. The artistry of the film remains pure poetry, yet at the time its honesty was under-appreciated: Hitler banned it in Germany and all other Nazi-occupied countries. It was the presence of Hitler, recalled quite accurately as one of the most crazed and demonic beings to ever live, that propelled Hollywood more emphatically into its support of the war, making WWII even moreso than WWI an interesting period to look at cinematically. While it was a Japanese attack that pulled America directly into battle, it was Naziism that more accurately identified the threat of the times. Yet, after the tragedies and losses of the Great War, there was a still a hesitant skepticism about entering into another foreign battle. Not surprisingly, most early support was coming from British actors like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, whose homeland was already suffering graphic actualities that America was only theoretically pondering. Then, the eternal day of infamy arrived at Pearl Harbor and erased all doubts. America went to war with a vigor that has yet to be matched.

A very vocal spokesperson at the beginning of America's entrance into WWII was Carole Lombard (selling bonds, left). Everyone's favorite and most beautiful kook definitely had a serious side when it came to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. She gave her staunch support to the cause and went on a nationwide war bond tour for which she was able to raise over $2 million in one day. Her shocking death while on her way home from this tour had a great impact on the American people in general but most specifically on her Hollywood friends. Jack Benny couldn't even bring himself to perform his radio show when he heard the news. Respectfully, Carole was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by FDR and given the notoriety of being the first woman killed in the line of duty. Carole had been prodding husband Clark Gable to enlist since before the war even began, but he-- fearing that he was not cut out for it-- had demurred. After her death and in honor of it, he did indeed enlist and, as many in his regiment would attest, started volunteering for the most dangerous missions. While fighting, he wore a locket containing the last remnants of his beloved wife: a few sparse pieces of her jewelry collected from the crash site.

Clark was not the only member of the Hollywood community to serve heroically. A large portion of the male actors fought, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (who enlisted before war was even declared), Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power (right), David Niven, Alan Hale, Mickey Rooney, William Holden, etc. Jimmy Stewart, who had to sweet-talk his way into the war (due to the fact that he was underweight), would become the most decorated actor to ever serve his country. Directors like John Huston, George Stevens, and Frank Capra too contributed by going overseas and filming raw footage, which was subsequently compiled for newsreels and war documentaries. This is not to imply that these fellas were blithely fearless. The old paranoia remained, which is perhaps why Jack Warner, fearful that his studio would be misconstrued from the sky as an army base, had "LOCKHEED" painted on the roofs in large, bold letters. However, the war department demanded that he have the label removed. This was an obvious overreaction on the mogul's part, but there was reason to worry. War is a very real thing, after all. Leslie Howard became another Saint of the cause, joining Lombard, when he and sixteen others were shot down by the Germans when flying over the Bay of Biscay.

The women also did what they could in terms of entertaining the troops, participating in war bond rallies, and making public service announcements and war propaganda advertisements. Veronica Lake (right) participated in a memorable campaign that persuaded women to wear their hair up at the factories, where so many females were seeking employment during the war effort. It turns out, too many of their copied, peek-a-boo hairstyles were getting caught in the machines! War was about social fusion not fashion! (However, it could be argued that this was a mere publicity ploy to publicize Paramount's latest, sexy star). Actresses too encouraged their sisters to ration supplies, including their precious silk stockings. Rarely recalled, as well, is the fact that a young Audrey Hepburn was a courier for resistance fighters in Holland at this time. 

However, there were some men who were unable to serve due to various injuries, ailments, or simply their age. If these reasons were explained thoroughly enough by the press, the public forgave the trespasses, but there was occasional, savage hostility directed at the men whose absence from the front identified them as cowardly or emasculate. Errol Flynn irritatingly received a 4F classification from the army-- a crushing blow to such a screen hero-- due to the ravages of past and recurring illnesses. His lung was marred by an unmistakable shadow-- an effect of TB-- and he too suffered recurring bouts of malaria. There also were alleged problems with his heart, though it was only after he was refused entree into the army that it was truly broken. (He does his part for the effort in The Dawn Patrol with David Niven, left). John Wayne was too left out of the loop due to an old knee injury, and Van Johnson's recent car crash and head injury extricated him from combat. Left at home, these boys carried on the tradition of screen heroism, and their careers boomed as Hollywood churned out more and more patriotically themed films.

John Garfield was another macho guy, ironically left behind due to his weak heart. Frustrated by inactivity, he yearned for a way to do something special for the war effort. He decided to team up with friend Bette Davis (left, serving her autograph to a serviceman) to form the Hollywood Canteen, the dream oasis and dance hall for soldiers with a night off. Instead of cruising around to the nearest local bar, fighters lucky enough to have landed in Hollywood now had a chance to go to the infamous Canteen and talk to, be served by, and even dance with, some of the most famous stars of the silver screen. This memorable hot spot is but one of many examples of Hollywood's selflessness during the war. The way these different celebrities turned the spotlight away from themselves and onto the brave men serving their country added a great deal of gravity and character into an industry that had grown increasingly self-absorbed. The bugle sound of battle had awakened more than just a need to defend human rights; it had brought the city of angels down to earth. Movie stars making thousands upon thousands of dollars a picture were reminded of their good fortune. Thus, the immortals, the untouchables, made a conscious effort to repay a great debt to the viewers who basically allowed them their lavish privileges, and what's more, were fighting for them. Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sheridan, Jennifer Jones, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert were some of the many beautiful ladies who dedicated their time to the soldiers, sometimes dancing with them until their feet started to bleed! But, the men came too, and Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and the Marx Brothers offered up jokes and laughs, chumming up to the brave men and doing their part. Before Tony Curtis became one of these elite, he came to the Canteen as a young navy officer to stare awestruck at such personalities. As such, John and Bette's landmark achievement became a Hollywood monument, (though it is rumored that Bette was a little overly patriotic in her attentions to some of the soldiers. Not that they complained).

The most dedicated and selfless offerings came from those stars who devoted their time to entertaining the troops. A majority of stars would make such a contribution, particularly to the local California army bases. Those who are truly noteworthy went overseas and into the heart of danger to bring a bit of home to the men abroad. Bob Hope's efforts are legendary as are Jack Benny's. But the army's number one girl during WWII was none other than Carole Landis (hitching a ride, right). The tom-boy knock-out was dedicated to the cause from the get-go, singing at bases, volunteering, and gamely donating both blood and money. She saw the war coming before it had reached American soil, and had even requested an acting job in England so that she could be closer to those who were already fighting. She earned her own pilot's license, hoping to enlist with the ATS, but she sadly withdrew when she learned that she would have to surrender her American citizenship, which was something the All-American-Girl was not apt to do. Her solution was to devote as much time as she could to "the boys." She remained as active as possible, and actually carried a trunk in her car filled with a variety of uniforms and wardrobe options for whichever random event should happen to claim her attention. She motored back and forth to countless benefits. By 1942, she was already made an honorary Colonel by Hollywood Post 43. She became a favorite of soldiers on leave, whom she honestly befriended. She offered up her beach house to them, and many a lucky gang found themselves taking a breather there and being served breakfast by Carole and her mother. (No funny business. She treated them as her own brothers, and they as their sister). Carole also always volunteered for the foxhole tours, which were considered the most dangerous. To her, the fellows here were the most in need.

Carole was aching to do more, and her most memorable gift to the servicemen came when she enlisted the help of actress Kay Francis, dancer Mitzi Mayfair, and comedienne Martha Raye to join her in a trip to entertain the troops stationed in Britain (all Four Jills in a Jeep, left). With her singing talents, the quadruple threat was a welcome relief to many young men whose first words to them often were, "I haven't seen an American girl in months!" Warm, fresh faces from home-sweet-home, and famous faces at that, were a dream come true in the hellish nightmare of war. Taking Cary Grant's advice to pack as many warm clothes as she possibly could, Carole and her talented retinue took on the dangerous task of spreading cheer with heart and courage. And it was dangerous. After a brief and unexpected stopover with the troops in Bermuda, the ladies traipsed on to England and later Africa. Carole documented her memories in a blue notebook that one friendly soldier gifted her early in her travels, which she would later turn into a book, and Fox would turn into a movie: Four Jills in a Jeep. However, this film, which does much to showcase the ladies' talents, does little to reveal the realities of the ordeals they went through. Carole would recall freezing nights, explosions that shook the girls to the bone and blew through their bedrooms, and life-threatening experiences-- such as a near-crash landing with the plane still ablaze! She and the ladies were once thrown into safety by some of their soldier friends, who protected their bodies from flying shrapnel. Though they donned their fancy duds on stage, where they performed a number of exhausting shows nearly every day, they wore army regulation clothing and boots on their off time, wherein they unglamorously clomped through the mud with the boys.

Carole's memories of the war and of the men she encountered would change her life and leave her with bittersweet feelings (with Mitzi at the Biskra Air Base, right). She committed herself fully, and at a cost (she would have recurring bouts of malaria and painful stomach ailments for the remainder of her short life). The height was meeting so many people, befriending them, and touching their lives; the downside was the pain of learning that they had been injured in battle or had lost their lives. Carole visited the hospitals devotedly, memorizing names, palling around with the nurses, and even refusing a private room when she herself became ill. When her tour was halted from proceeding further, Carole and Kay petitioned to Dwight Eisenhower himself for aid in allowing them to continue their mission to the frontline, come Hell or high water. He found it impossible to say no to them, and their persistence eventually got them to Africa. As tiring as the entire process was, doing eight shows a day over and over for thousands of men, traveling to strange and dangerous destinations, and getting little sleep, there was some time for fun. A few of her favorite soldiers took her and Mitzi especially around, showed them what remained of the wrecked local life, and indulged them in jitterbugging. Carole too found time for love, falling for soldier Thomas Wallace, and fulfilling what she must have believed was a patriotic duty in marrying him. The trials she had to get through merely to get this process done was arduous enough in wartime England, but with her usual persistence, a little luck, and the help of friends-- who offered up their wartime coupons, so she could buy a wedding dress-- she completed this ultimate fantasy on January 5, 1943. Another high point was being able to perform for the Queen of England. It was always Carole's singing finales that brought down the house. After four and a half months, Carole and her gal pals ended their unified journey. Carole would never forget it, nor the soldiers her.

Back at home, Carole motored on with radio work, filmmaking, writing her war memoirs, and continuing in her patriotic efforts-- even performing in the rain for an ecstatic public who came to see her. As the war ended-- and her storybook marriage to Tommy-- she found it hard to re-assimilate to the banal existence of a once again self serving Hollywood. It certainly contributed to the depression that would later claim her life. Perhaps she felt the impact of that brief moment of history a little too deeply. Perhaps her knowledge of it was simply more profound than so many others-- who had remained ignorantly comfortable on American shores-- to understand. Existing on war-torn terrain and returning to a land of glamour and phony prestige no longer seemed bearable. But then, this was not the total reason for her end. She had lived for the boys, and she would have continued to do so had it not been for other factors affecting her emotional life. Certainly, when she took her own life, she broke a million hearts. These hadn't been lads who had merely caught a glimpse of her, but those who shook her hand, knew her by her first name, had confided in her their fears, stories about their families, tragic tales about their battles, and the dreams that they had held for the future. (Carole sings in her favorite dress, in which she would also be buried, left). To say that she touched many lives would be the understatement of the century.

Ann Sheridan at the Hollywood Canteen.

Carole was one of the many who saw to it that, for once, this topsy-turvy world was inverted, and that honor was bestowed in the right place. During WWII especially, soldiers became the celebrities. They were the ones receiving admiration and unadulterated respect. That so many Hollywood personalities would step down from their ivory towers to make this known is still a mind-boggling and moving concept. This was an odd and unrepeatable moment of cohesion and certainty, which in our confused, modern world no longer makes sense. Normally our cinema reflects social turmoil, escapist fantasy, and the product of constant human questioning. Movies, thus, become the products of our disagreements. Rarely, as in these periods of war, it becomes instead of medium of complete agreement, when the living heart and the filmic heart beat in unison. When this moment ends, and our bickering continues-- our political debates and communal banter-- it only renders our artistic and actual freedom more perfect. Our ability to vocally, visually, and even vapidly express ourselves and the things that we always fight over, is the very thing we've always been fighting for. God Bless America and American Film!