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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

DIDJA KNOW: Didja Catch That?

This edition of "Didjas" includes a motley assortment of near misses. For one who is unaware, unobservant, or perhaps simply uninvested, these quick little ditties and bits of info may slip right past your nose, eyes, and ears. Perhaps now with a second look, you'll be able to catch them!

John Wayne, Monty Clift, and Walter Brennan in Red River
their belt buckles were about to be upgraded.

The film Red River turned out to be a triumph for everyone involved. Howard Hawks crafted one of our most perfect Westerns, John Wayne proved that he could act (and age) with great grace and conviction, and Montgomery Clift made an astounding cinematic debut. Hawks was so proud of the film and all those who took part in it that he gave the cast and crew members a piece of memorabilia: a belt buckle with the infamous cattle brand featured in the film-- which symbolized one of the plot's major sources of contention between the main characters. The design included a "D" for Thomas Dunson-- Wayne's character-- two wavy lines signifying the river, the words "Red River," the date, and the recipient's initials. But didja catch a sight of this belt onscreen? The Duke wore his belt-buckle on camera in several of his future movies, including Rio Bravo and El Dorado. Allegedly, in order to honor their professional and personal relationship, Duke wore the buckle in all of his later Hawks-directed films. It has been spied in his wardrobe in nine films total. If you squint, maybe you'll see it too.

A sample of the Red River Belt Buckle.

Duke had a habit of honoring those who had helped him in some way. Just as Hawks helped boost his career and earned him respect in the industry, idol Harry Carey had inspired and aided him in his early days as a prop boy and B-Western star. They would even appear in several films together and, in addition to Duke befriending Harry's wife Ollie Carey, he too would take his son, Harry Carey, Jr. under his wing and treat him like family. After Harry passed away in 1947, Duke was despondent and missed his friend and mentor terribly. He was too supportive of Ollie in her grief, which was still palpable when they began filming another classic, The Searchers, even ten years later. In this film, Duke would find a way to pay homage to his late, great friend. Didja catch that stance he does at the very end of the film? After Duke's Ethan Edwards returns niece Debbie (Natalie Wood) to the arms of the rest of her kin, he stands alone in the doorway, grabs his right elbow as he takes in the reunion, and slowly turns and saunters off (see left). This posture was reminiscent of Carey and wasn't even in the original script. While filming, Duke was going through the scene as rehearsed when he happened to glimpse Ollie standing behind the camera. Stopping to honor her late husband, he prolonged the already poignant moment by grabbing his arm as Carey would have done. Thus, as he completed one of the best Westerns ever made and sealed his place in time as America's favorite cowboy, he too gave tribute to one of the ghosts of its past. The moment brought tears to Ollie's eyes and to a great deal of fans' as well. (An interesting side note is that Duke, who had typically been imbibing the night before-- most probably with Ward Bond-- was incredibly hung over during the scene. Later, an equally touched Harry Carey, Jr. arranged to have a sign placed on Duke's hotel room door at Goulding's Lodge. It read: "In this room, John Wayne got drunk before he shot one of the most famous scenes in motion picture history").

 Keeping up with the frenetic pace and overlapping dialogue of Howard Hawks's His Gal Friday would give anyone a migraine-- albeit one that they would thoroughly enjoy. The film in its day was groundbreaking in portraying human speech the way it truly occurs-- with one person talking over another and interrupted thoughts cut off mid-sentence. This tactful style created a more believable atmosphere for the fast-talking reporters of the newspaper world, in which lead characters and divorcing spouses Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell battle with verbal spears (right). Russell and Grant, both British, pulled off the speedy American banter effortlessly and made Hollywood history in the process. People may not have understood everything they were hearing all the time, and some viewers certainly struggled with choosing which eclipsing voice to listen to, but box-office revenue proved that no one minded. Thrown into the mix was a reference that many may have missed. Didja catch that zinger Cary made to an ominous politician? He stated: "The last fellow who tried to threaten me was Archie Leach. He cut his own throat two weeks later." Archie Leach, of course, was Cary's born name. For those who noticed, it was yet another cherry on a rip-roaring, nearly indiscernible sundae. 

D.W. Griffith is notorious for his star-making relationships with his ingenues, but he also did a great deal for Wallace Reid. By casting the struggling artist in his controversial classic, Birth of a Nation, he ignited Wally's career, which was a bittersweet event for Wally, who would have preferred a career behind the camera. Nonetheless, audiences responded to him heartily-- mostly because the handsome actor appeared shirtless and consequently showed his brawn in an impressive fight sequence. But Wally's role as the savory Blacksmith was not his only contribution to the film. Didja catch those cameos by Jesus Christ? Well, it wasn't Jesus, it was Wally. It turns out that Wally performed in several of the tableaux Griffith had concocted featuring the Son of the King, though most them hit the cutting room floor. One such sequence featured Abraham Lincoln and Christ shipping the African slaves back to their native land. Another featured Jesus hanging from the cross-- the filming of which was very difficult on a shivering, scantily clad Wally. The crew continuously fed him brandy to keep him warm, and as a result he was so drunk when he was finally pulled down that he had to be carried off the set. Most of these images featuring Christ were considered too graphic and were cut after the Los Angeles premiere, but his superimposed image is still see at the film's end (left), which I am assuming is all Wallace Reid. (In addition: Didja catch those faces in Griffith's Intolerance? Many of Hollywood's elite, Wally included, made uncredited cameos in the Babylonian battle sequence. Some of the stars to take a piece of another controversial Griffith pie were Douglas Fairbanks, Seena Owen, Erich von Stroheim, King Vidor, Monte Blue, and Owen Moore. Most notoriously, Lillian Gish appears as the woman rocking her baby in the intermittent sequences bridging the film's four storylines together: "Out of the cradle, ceaselessly rocking").

Douglas Fairbanks (right) was Hollywood's favorite hero during his reign as the ultimate swashbuckler and carefree righter-of-wrongs. The films made at his summit, from The Three Musketeers to The Iron Mask, came to define and perhaps even create the cinematic epic. A physical dynamo and equally creative chap, he had a direct hand in pushing the envelope of filmic possibilities technically and artistically. By the time he made The Black Pirate, he was one of the biggest stars in the world, and he showed this by using his clout to implement the new color process into this film as well as staging one of cinema's most famous and thereafter oft-repeated stunts: his character slices through a ship's sails and slides down. But, another interesting moment happens amidst his outrageous actions of daring do. Didja catch that kiss? When Doug finally plants a wet one on his leading lady, the camera hones in on the embrace behind the girl's back, showing only the back of her head. In fact, it was not the movie's actress Billie Dove giving Doug a smackaroo-- it was his wife, Mary Pickford. Turns out she was on the lot shooting Sparrows and decided to stop by for the scene, not out of curiosity but jealousy. She insisted on being the woman Doug kissed, so director Albert Parker staged the scenario so that it could be done. Doug probably didn't mind, since he always loathed romantic sequences. He was always more comfortable working with a saber than with his lips.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was a phenomenon. The comedic performances of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe in their roles as the feisty Dorothy Shaw and the deceptively dimwitted Lorelei Lee caused a sensation. The musical numbers, ridiculous plot, and show-stopping "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" sequence resulted in a bona fide hit, thanks again to this column's apparent savior-- director Howard Hawks. The costuming by Travilla was also something to behold, with lavish gowns that adorned two of cinema's favorite figures with great panache and sex appeal. One glorious gown barely made an appearance but remains a notorious piece of cinematic fashion history. Didja catch that gold dress? Marilyn wore it while dancing with Charles Coburn (Piggy) in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it aside. It is more memorable as being the dress that Marilyn wore in one of her most famous photos, where she lusciously entices the camera as only she could do (left). Yet, though she was the actress to make the gown famous, she was not the first to wear it. In truth, Ginger Rogers gave the glittering threads their debut when she wore the same gold lame gown previously in Dreamboat. Marilyn, with whom Ginger had become friendly while filming Monkey Business, happened to stop by the set of Dreamboat one day and saw the dress. She liked it and asked to wear it in Blondes, which is exactly what happened. Of course, Marilyn totally stole Ginger's thunder, and the latter lady is rarely given credit for debuting this piece of cinematic gold.

Ginger models a slightly more demure version of the dress in Dreamboat.

The dress where it is currently on display at Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
(The reflection of the girl to the right is me, not a ghost).

Keep your eyes peeled until next time!!!

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