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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

YOU SHOULD SEE: Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein

The gang gets spooky. Sort of...

Granted, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) is not categorically a horror film. However, it is a comic horror spoof of fantastically entertaining proportions. The A&C style of WWII spawned humor is the same as in all of their other films (Hold That Ghost, Buck Privates), with Bud Abbott playing the irritable straight man who is somehow always duped by the adorably idiotic Lou Costello. This time, the wrench in their plans for holiday romance-- with two beautiful women who are, of course, both in love with Lou's character-- is perfectly monstrous. Banking on the continuing success of Universal's monster pictures, the boys find themselves stuck in a diabolical plot involving The Wolf Man, Frankenstein's Monster, and Dracula. This, my friends, is the good stuff.

The cast is what makes the film so exquisite-- a truly iconic moment in history. Bela Lugosi gamely put on his Dracula cape for the fist time since his appearance the groundbreaking 1931 classic to play this caper's mastermind, and he performed with the same sinister charm this time while cleverly adding a humorous wink. Lon Chaney, Jr. is back as the Wolf Man, who with his usual overwhelming depression tries to help the good guys out, but is reluctantly mutated every full moon into one of their worst enemies. Sadly, Boris Karloff didn't sign on to play the Monster, whose overly large shoes were instead filled by Glenn Strange. (Boris would regret his not so tactical business decision when it didn't pay off and would go on to join Bud and Lou in both The Killer and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Even Vincent Price made a cameo of sorts, tough purely vocal, as the Invisible Man. Of course, holding it all together is the ridiculous chemistry of the two leads, whose series of bumbling mistakes somehow foil a plot contrived by the greatest villains in the history of the world. I Heart This.

THE REEL REALS: Gail Patrick

Gail Patrick

Gail Patrick is known for her performances as the snide, straight gal in classic films like My Favorite Wife. As a result, her roles throughout the Golden Studio Era pretty much label her as 'My Favorite Bitch.' Gail was kind of fantastic. She was the catty female on the outside that all girl secretly were on the inside-- the villainous Yang to the Yin of the more sterling leading ladies of the time, like Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, and Irene Dunne. While Gail did play the good girl sometimes, in films like the cult classic Murders at the Zoo for example, she hit her stride by playing the dame who's trying to elbow her way to the prize-- generally the man. Gail was an atypical star. Not just because her height, intelligence, and countenance communicated an intimidating inner strength, but because she, as a general rule, wasn't an overly emotive actress. Much more cerebral and business savvy than many of her contemporaries, acting for Gail seemed more like a calculated investment that paid off. She was serious about it, but didn't take it seriously. The glamour was nothing, the fame was nothing, and her integrity and character reacted to these things irreverently. She considered them mere tools of the business and not the self-obsessive realities that too many celebrities get caught up in.

Gail lived a fascinating and multi-faceted life, one in which she attacked her many ambitions-- studying law, starting a children's clothing line, becoming an executive producer for "Perry Mason," (WHAT?!)-- and refused to settle for anything less than everything of which she was capable. Ambitious, beautiful, and well-educated, Gail was a force to be reckoned with, a feminist before her time, and her independent nature is probably partially responsible for her multiple marriages and divorces. I mean, who was really man enough to go toe-to-toe with this diva? While in cinema she remains the girl you hate, in reality she is the girl you love to hate. In the end, at least her characters were honest. They weren't sugar-coated goody-two-shoes with saccharine personalities and fairy tale endings. Gail was the real thing-- a tough broad holding it together and determined to survive this maelstrom of life no matter what it took. What would My Man Godfrey or Stage Door have been without her? Every good story needs a good, bad girl.


Faye Wray

Fay Wray will forever be known as "The Queen of Screams." Before Jamie Lee Curtis became "the Scream Queen" of slasher movies, Fay was wailing hysterically against the most grandiose of monsters-- though Kong was really just an oversized ape. Some classify King Kong as a horror film; others place it in the action/adventure category. In truth it is a blending of both. It is One Million B.C. meets The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Fay, in her role as the down on her luck beauty whose sacred femininity is stalked by the dark, beastly harbinger of man's lust, gave the most important performance in the classic film. This is not just because her main co-star was actually an innovative creation of puppetry, but because the audience's response to the anti-hero depended solely upon her own reaction. When you break it all down, Kong wasn't really that scary, was he? He was just a lonely, juiced up primate with primal needs. Fay was quite safe, from bestial penetration at least (which appeared to be physically impossible), yet the sexual tension was still there. Kong wanted a girlfriend, and with Fay's scant clothing a gorgeous physique, I mean... Well, at the end of the day, we're all part of the same family, aren't we? In any case, were it not for the sheer panic in her eyes, the audience may not have had any aversion to Kong at all. The guy was adorable. Under Fay's gaze, however, he was the unholiest and most fearful creature in Jesus's jungle.

While Fay in irrevocably and eternally tied to Kong, she performed in over a hundred projects over her career, a great many of which were B-pictures with a suspenseful edge. While she got her start in Westerns and performed in her share of dramas, it was films like Doctor X, The Most Dangerous Game, The Vampire Bat, and Mystery of the Wax Museum that were to be her most memorable. With a name like 'Fay Wray,' which was NOT an invented stage moniker, this chronic damsel in distress seemed destined for exactly the life she fell into. With a name that sounded like the hot howl of a hell bent banshee, Ms. Wray obtained glory simply by giving herself a sore throat. Yet, because of the vulnerability, emotional abandon, and maturity with which she approached her very unusual roles, she too has been able to maintain her very unusual and notorious place in the Hollywood lexicon of stars. Her performance as Ann Darrow- the Helen in the contemporary, Sci-fi Troy story- continues to reiterate the ever relatable saga of mankind's perpetual defeat by the most dangerous monster of all-- his heart. Whether fighting with guns, swords, wooden horses, or giant Gorillas, in this particular story-- and in most others--
was beauty killed the beast."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

YOU SHOULD SEE: A Raisin in the Sun

L to R: Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands

A Raisin in the Sun (1961) will kick you in the guts and leave you weeping. Every time. Not only is it one of the first truly intelligent portrayals of the economic, excruciating, emotional, and psychological effects of racism on the target of such prejudice, but it also explores the cataclysm of generational shifts-- past, present, and future represented by a mother, her son, and her daughter. As each character searches for identity while battling their own versions of pride and hope, all start to succumb to the disease that praises a world of "takers" as well as their own prejudices, born of bitterness. The only solidarity found between them, for all their distinctive differences and independent ways, are the familial roots that bind them together and are strong enough to circumvent their loss of self and self-respect. A simple plot revolving around a check for $10,000 managed to cement this film as a priceless addition to the list of truly great movies. A sublime cast, a story with conscience, and a memory that will stay with you forever. Look for a young Louis Gossett, Jr. as well.

YOU SHOULD SEE: A Letter to Three Wives

Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell and Jeanne Crain

A Letter to Three Wives is yet another triumph on director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's resume. With his unparalleled gift at both literal and visual storytelling, "Mank" presents a snappy, intelligent, well-polished script with his uncanny brand of woman's intuition. (It's no secret that women loved working with him, and this film is a prime example of why). In three stellar performances, Ann Sothern, Jeanne Crain, and Linda "What I got don't need bells" Darnell, this film tells the story of a trio of pals and their worst frenemy: Addie Ross. Addie is the cat's meow... And she has fangs. Simply for the sport of it, she has cast a shadow over the unions of all three women, and when she sends a letter announcing that she will soon be running away with one of their husbands, the ladies' true natures erupt and the strengths of their marriages are tested. With Kirk Douglas and Paul Douglas turning out equally compelling and surprisingly humorous portrayals as two of the husbands, the story is dynamite, and little Miss Addie echoes the power of Orson Welles's Harry Lime in The Third Man, as she is one of the most impactful yet faceless villains of film. Will love triumph over lust?


8 1/2 (1963) was my first Fellini film. (Well... second, but Toby Dammit is more like a short, so I don't count it). As I consider, "What the Hell is going on?" to be the most refreshing of sensations, I find all of Fellini's work (at least all that I have witnessed thus far) highly enjoyable. It's not pure entertainment, however. There is a gravity to the often raucous absurdity, as evidenced in this piece. His work is heady. It demands participation. His camera work is assertive to the point where the audience can often feel like the characters/actors are invading their personal space. The effect is absorption to the point of losing oneself.

But then, this is just the point, isn't it? Fellini breaks the fourth wall and makes the screen not just a projection but a reflection of the interior world. The heightened and exaggerated attitudes and manners of his actors/storylines (Juliet of the Spirits, La Dolce Vita) are unreal in their physicality but authentic in their representation. His is not a camera turned around on the world but one that instead turns the world inside out, letting all the mania, sadism, fear, and loneliness drip out-- sometimes from a fountain. In this case, it is a depiction of himself-- a director in search of a film-- that sets the stage for one of his most iconic works. 

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a filmmaker at the top of his game who feels the ground caving under him. The pressure to come up with another feat of cinematic genius haunts him like the artistic plague, and to avoid confrontation with possible failure, he becomes a victim of his own fantasies. His interactions with the ghosts of his past-- memories of encounters from his childhood that effected his perceptions of men, women, sex, religion, power, etc-- sometimes assault him as a cavalcade of alarming indiscretions and other times comfort him with innocent indulgence and escapism. 

In the end, the film isn't Portrait of the Artist as a Madman but as a man period-- an average man, cloaked with decades of life and personal experiences that are carried inside him, affecting his work, his sanity, his marriage, and his confidence. We are all gratuitous mirages of ourselves who seek to camouflage the meek child within, hounded by the knowledge of what we have seen and done and forever trying to either compensate or outrun these alleged sins in order to accomplish... something we can't even define. Heaven? Happiness? Reprieve? Liberty? Death?

The question for Guido is: will his next work be able to purge his soul for a few brief moments before the next harassment begins? Can we ever be free of ourselves or are we condemned to suffer, suffocate, and finally submit to our burdens? As a director and perpetual storyteller, Guido's curse is his pleasure is his curse. Or Fellini's curse:

"I thought my ideas were so clear. I wanted to make an honest film. No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves. Instead, I'm the one without the courage to bury anything at all. When did I go wrong? I really have nothing to say, but I want to say it all the same."

THE REEL REALS: Evelyn Ankers

Evelyn Ankers

Evelyn Ankers was not blessed with superstardom, but she did all right for herself. In a career that spanned less than 25 years, she was still able to rack up over 60 film and television appearances, her most notorious being-- of course-- in the realm of horror. A fish out of water by nature, Evelyn was born to English parents in Chile. After returning to England, she developed an incurable affliction for theatrics and pursued a career as an actress. While still a teenager, she was performing opposite Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in Fire Over England, though her part was a mere featured role. However, her strange allure as a beautiful woman with intelligence (and tinge of cynicism) made her a natural for movies with a mysterious bent-- dark pictures for thinking viewers. When partnered opposite Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man, her career in America would begin in earnest, though she'd managed a role in the Abbott and Costello haunted house spoof Hold That Ghost. After the furry monster cub of the monster club became her onscreen boyfriend, she suddenly became one of the Universal lot's "scream queens," her touching portrayal of the woman falling in love with the man falling under a curse earning her a permanent place in the scary movie rotation. In fact, she would partner with Lon Jr. in several more films, two of which were Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula.

While these roles may have been limiting talent wise, they provided steady work for Evelyn. Few women have such interesting titles on their resumes: The Mad Ghoul, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror, The Pearl of Death, The Frozen Ghost, Captive Wild Woman, Weird Woman, Jungle Woman... (Perhaps that Whitney Houston song was written for her)??? Apparently, a schlocky horror film didn't seem legit during the hey day of the genre unless this heady damsel in distress was involved. That was part of Evelyn's charm, however. She was smart. She may have had some fainting spells, bit her fist, and screamed bloody murder, but when these token mannerisms were partnered with her direct acting style and genuinely down to earth persona, it made her fear seem more genuine. When the weak little girls in tight sweaters screamed, they evoked eye roles. When Evelyn screamed, it was like, "Oh sh*t... This is serious..." Sadly, her career lost momentum when horror temporarily lost its luster, and the thanklessness of the industry soon sent her into early retirement. After a small slew of pictures, Evelyn spent the majority of her remaining days with her soul mate, husband Richard Denning, before succumbing to ovarian cancer at the age of 67. Today's horror films miss strong, competent women like herself. Evelyn didn't need to run topless through the smog to keep an audience fixated on her. All she needed was her throat.

THE REEL REALS: Erich von Stroheim

Erich von Stroheim
Lord knows I love a good Austrian, and it could be said that Erich von Stroheim is the best of the worst. He cut his teeth in Hollywood by banking on his Germanic heritage by playing sadistic foreigners in the push for propaganda films during the Great War. In a way, he maintained his "soldier's position when he turned to directing, strutting around like some combination of a General and a Monarch in his boots, riding crop, and monocle. All this, while absurd from the outside, was but a calculated way for him to differentiate himself from the rest of the pack. No one remembers "normal" or "average," after all. (Think of him as the Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga of his day). Of course, Erich's penchants for grandiosity and making a bold statement also interfered with his creative process. He never quite learned how to edit himself-- either in behavior or in artistry-- which brings us to the best and the worst of him.

Erich's unique talent as a filmmaker was his eye for detail. (See, the monocle helped)! His films are by nature all epics. The lush compositions of his sets, mise en scenes, the wardrobe, etc, make his jaw-dropping even today: the screen still seems to drip with his startling authenticity. In terms of story, Erich pulled no punches, standing in as the precursor to Orson Welles, directing movies that turned a pointed finger at the audience. Unfortunately, his aesthetic sensibilities, while savory to the eye and intellect, were uncomfortable for tooshies and equally drove MGM crazy as he bled them dry reshooting and perfecting every project, making them bigger and bigger, longer and longer. Irving Thalberg had to fire him from Merry Go Round, Gloria Swanson did the same when Queen Kelly started spiraling out of control, and his ultimate success, Greed, which clocked in at somewhere between 7-10 hours had to be cut to shreds in order to be both bearable to audiences and releasable-- some theaters weren't even open that many hours! 

Finally, his overzealous penchants put an end to his directorial efforts, but Erich was able to continue his acting career, as his notoriety had guaranteed him an eternal place in the spotlight. He churned out impressive and iconic performances in Le Grande Illusion, Portrait d'un Assassin, and of course, Sunset Boulevard. While Hollywood may have shunned his filmmaking, film lovers sure haven't, and we continue to be enchanted, bewitched, and transfixed by his efforts-- still remarkable and some of the best examples of cinematic genius from the silent era.

THE REEL REALS: Elsa Lanchester

Elsa Lancester (Shelley)?
Elsa Lanchester would forever be overshadowed by two things: her most famous characterization "The Bride" and perhaps the even more ominous presence: her husband, Charles Laughton. On the one hand, she had the role that would make her famous but that would equally eclipse any other work she later did that had, in her estimation, more merit. On the other, she was never held is as high esteem as her husband, considered one of the greatest actors of all time. (She was "shocked" to learn that her hubby was actually a closeted homosexual, but their union lasted a lifetime as they enjoyed an open and unabashed relationship). Fortunately for Elsa, she was imbued with a sharp sense of humor, keen intellect, and personal ambition and lust for life that made such irksome facts trivial. A native of London, she was raised with the compulsion for utter independence by her forward thinking parents. Her early study of dance educated her well on the movements that would later help her cultivate more physically articulate and alive characters, and her experiences dancing in and even running her own Club gave her ample opportunity to practice playing for and to an audience. 

Elsa was always in it for the sensation. She took her craft seriously but never herself, and her intellectual appetite kept her in good company with many of the greatest artists of her day. Her open and liberal-minded ways allowed her to transform from one character to another with seeming ease, and though an attractive woman, she would find her niche as a character actress of great verve, spirit, and often humorous abandon in films like Witness for the Prosecution, Mary Poppins, and Bell, Book and Candle. Her great talent allowed her career to continue with minimal interruption over the course of over 30 years, though she always admitted that she was more in love with the stage. An unabashed ham, it was the live performance and the interaction with an audience that truly inspired her, but her work in film and television is nothing to sneer at-- or should I saw shriek?

Elsa's Bride in The Bride of Frankenstein had no dialogue, but she was able to communicate everything within her patched up heroine's borrowed mind with her quick, birdlike movements and iconic hiss-- both literally borrowed from her studied observations of swans. The not too thinly veiled subtext in James Whale's masterpiece of horror painted a portrait of the absurd, macabre, and even hilarious roles of both the male and female in the ever popular mating ritual of life. Though Elsa's time on the screen in the picture was very brief, she still stole the show, and with the incomparable Boris Karloff, she enhanced the film that has come to be known as perhaps the greatest offering of the Universal Monster era. She considered this piece of her career a bit of a lark and but one chapter in a long narrative of experiences and performances, but to us it is one of the most intriguing, sexually potent, disturbing, and glorious moments in the realm of horror.

THE REEL REALS: Edmund Gwenn

Edmund Gwenn aka Kris Kringle
Edmund Gwenn performed a miracle, not just on 34th Street, but in Hollywood: he won an Oscar for playing Santa Claus. How is that even possible? He is now so deeply ingrained in the public consciousness-- as familiar as Dr. Suess or the Statue of Liberty-- that few take stock of the great artistic feat fleshing out such a fantastical, fictitious character was. He took one of the most beloved mythological personalities of all time-- a cartoon of our hopeful delusions-- and made him real. He gave Kris Kringle a personality and a warmth that was genuine and full of heart when a lesser performance would have registered as cheesy, or worse, creepy. Today, we make holiday spirit spoof films like "Bad Santa" or "Elf." This isn't because we have necessarily lost our sentiment-- mankind has always been cynical. This transition is simply due to the fact that we need no more translations of Father Christmas and all that such a nostalgic spirit represents to our deeply hidden, childlike hearts in overgrown bodies. Ed marked that territory already. Game over. In one film, Ed saved Christmas for all time. 

Of course, while he is forever attached to this one characterization, Ed has many more accomplishments on his performance platter. He portrayed the similarly light-hearted and amiable priest who tries to convince William Powell's hilariously resistant, atheistic patriarch to be baptized in Life with Father. He was a Hitchcockian linchpin in both the macabre comedy The Trouble with Harry and the political thriller Foreign Correspondent, the latter of which makes you stop and go, 'Hey, wait... Santa? Wh-what are you doing, Santa?!?!" He contributed to Pride and Prejudice with Larry Olivier and Greer Garson, A Yank at Oxford with Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh, and Of Human Bondage opposite Eleanor Parker (RIP) and Paul Henreid. And yes, he appeared in the iconic "Them!" In general, Ed took on the role of the moral father figure: the sturdy, aged man with the wisdom of life experience and a trustworthy face. His touches of comedy, grounded realism, and surprising character choices made him an eternal audience favorite. He would not be the star but once (when he went to the North Pole), but this was mostly due to the fact that he was in his fifties when he really started to make his mark in Hollywood. His fortune was better, in the end, for he was even more beloved than the model-T(insel town) stars of the era.

Ed was born with an adventurers spirit that he was finally able to hurl into his creative penchants, as well as athletic. Frustrated at his landlocked life (he had wanted to enlist in the Navy), the eternal, cuddly grandpa was quite the rebel in his younger days. His father opposed his career choice and predicted failure, but Edmund, his determination, and his talent, would prove his pappy wrong. It was a fortunate partnership with George Bernard Shaw that really opened doors for him as an actor, and after becoming a war hero, despite his poor eyesight, Captain Gwenn returned to the theater with full force, later doing some sparse silent pictures that eventually earned him a permanent place in Hollywood. Hitting his stride by the '30s, he enjoyed nearly thirty uninterrupted years on the silver screen before passing away at the age of 81. Had he not been struck down by a stroke and a following bout of pneumonia, he most certainly would have kept cracking the whip of creativity. Naturally, he will live forever as one of the most famous people in the history of cinema. More people know him than Gable. He's Santa Claus! 

God rest ye', merry gentleman. Thanks for the cinematic presents!


Dwight Frye
Dwight Frye may have given the most horrifying performance in the Universal monster era. "Renfield" of Dracula-- the real estate agent turned vampire groupie and madman-- was absolutely bone-chilling. Even beside Bela Lugosi's iconic ghoul, the lingering presence of his abysmal son, trapped in limbo between insanity and death, demands attention, and in many ways improves the power of Count Dracula's evil menace. Renfield's creepy, drawn out laugh (how did he come up with that?!), his wide, vacant, yet penetrating eyes, and that look he gives staring up the ladder from the boat's gallows, were all dynamic choices that left an unshakable impression on the viewer and contributed to the film's classic status.

Dwight is known for his versatile abilities of metamorphosis in the horror genre. A truly gifted actor who left Kansas to hone his skills on the Broadway stage, he was respected by critics, audiences, and the directors he worked with for his commitment and creativity as well as his utter shamelessness in throwing himself into a role. Capable of performing both drama and comedy, he would sadly find less of an outlet for his many gifts when he made the move to Hollywood, where his amazing performance in Dracula soon kept him type-cast as the creeper or maniac in the films that followed. His role as "Fritz" the hunchback in Frankenstein is equally memorable for his taunting and monstrous behavior toward the Monster. Bride of Frankenstein followed, as did The Shadow, Invisible Enemy, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and Son of Frankenstein, the latter film from which his scenes were left on the cutting room floor. 

To vent his frustrations, Dwight often returned to the stage where he could find more diversity in roles. He landed a game changing gig in "Wilson," but unfortunately he passed away before shooting began. His secret heart condition would claim his life at the age of 44. As one of Hollywood's unsung heroes and yet most influential character actors, his  short career in cinema remains a bittersweet gift to the legions of horror fans who come to know and love him through his macabre translations of psychological disfigurement and outright hysteria.

THE REEL REALS: Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy Arzner

Dorothy Arzner holds the prestigious position of being not only the first but the only female director during the early sound era. While there were several ladies that got the ball (or camera) rolling for women by making silent features during the initial appearance of cinema as it began to take shape as a narrative artistic movement, once filmmaking became a legitimate "business," the ladies found themselves almost completely ostracized from the creative process-- aside from acting of course. As such, Dorothy's rise from the bottom to the top of the profession incredibly impressive, though her name is less celebrated than the typical director giants of the era. Ironically, it was the brother of one of these giants, William DeMille, who gave her her first gig... as a stenographer. She worked her way up to scenario writer, to editor, to finally director.

Working for Paramount, Dorothy became the first filmmaker at the studio to direct a sound picture, Manhattan Cocktail and incidentally the first woman period to direct a sound picture. Her career gained increasing recognition as she worked with
Clara Bow on her first talklie The Wild Party, Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, and Joan Crawford in The Bride Wore Red. A strong force for women and homosexuals (she was a lesbian), Dorothy presented interesting, female driven stories with style (Craig's Wife) and substance (Sarah and Son). After her efforts during WWII, Dorothy retired from film, particularly due to health reasons. Gone, but not forgotten.

Monday, January 5, 2015


Donna Reed
The ultimate cinematic, Christmastime heroine remains a dead heat competition between Maureen O'Hara and Donna Reed. One's choice of femme phenom depends on taste: do you prefer the hard nosed, no-nonsense career woman of A MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET whose heart is eventually melted or do you go for the intelligent and passionate girl-next-door of IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE who is the source of such heart melting prowess??? In all honesty, I'm an O'Hara girl, but today I pay tribute to Ms. Reed who is just as deserving of admiration and annual yuletide respect.

Donna was a wo-man. (Yeah, I said it). Though beautifully blessed when it came to her looks, she was far from a pin-up, glamour girl. What she offered was an astute candor and an awareness of herself that created in her characters a solid, feminine force. She relayed deep emotion, and she subtly insinuated her vulnerabilities, but she was too shrewd and self-assured to portray herself with anything less than 100% command. More earthy than Bergman and less savage than Gardner, she came off like a regular, every day human who just happened to land in a Hollywood film and accidentally inject it with a little authenticity. 

Her rationality, romantic cunning, and depth of feeling opposite James Stewart's volcanic rebuffs and ultimate disintegration in Wonderful Life leveled the playing field between them and rendered what was essentially a contemporary but still very fantastical Christmas Carol concept into a raw and sympathetic opus to family and love. She gave the film the sturdy roots from which could grow the honesty of devastating personal saga while epitomizing the beauty that still somehow thrives through human rubbish and heartbreak. Any other actress would have been too saccharine, too soft, or too immature to balance George Bailey's often raving lunacy and selfishness and call him back home to herself. Donna was home. She was the 'wonderful' of Bailey's life story that made the statement IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE true.

Of course, though IAWL remains her most lasting film, Donna's career was much more than 1 drop in the Holiday Bucket-- though this single offering continues to resonate. An Academy Award winner for her portrayal of the cynical and sapient prostitute in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and a Golden Globe winner for her work on THE DONNA REED SHOW, she consistently utilized and reinvented her strongest qualities in each project to convey the varying shades of nuance of each performance. While the nuclear family role model, she was actually a political activist and anti-nuclear, anti-war protester. However, instead of ruffling feathers, the Iowan farm girl's intuition and openhearted generosity made her a comfort and an inspiration to women across the country-- and even the world. It was her strength that was appealing, but it was her indication of submerged frailty that earned loyalty. She was a powerful example of what one could independently have, do and be as she progressed through both her life and career with savvy, elegance, and absolute self-respect. 

Starting her career with the wholesome, bright, girl-next-door badge emblazoned across her breast, she was able to transcend stereotype and bring more intrigue to the table, which is why her work in the Dr. Gillespie films or THE COURTSHIP OF ANDY HARDY were easily left behind for more head-turning, mature roles in THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THEY WERE EXPENDABLE. Holding her own against the most intimidating and larger than life actors of her day-- John Wayne, George Sanders-- she struck gold when cast in the aforementioned iconic Xmas classic, though it took her years to realize it-- it was a flop at the time. She continued working consistently in television and film for the remainder of her life until succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the age of 64, but she left behind a remarkable legacy of class and distinction but, most importantly, heart, which is why we continue to love her and be 'melted' by her every holiday season.

THE REEL REALS: Donald O'Connor

Donald O'Connor
Donald O'Connor was a wiry, rubber-faced, exuberant motherfu... Fudge. Fudger... Motherfudger. You know what I mean. This guy wasn't human. He was like a super-jolt of positivity personified, a wholesome humdinger, a jitterbuggin' razzmatazz madman! Like his fellow cinematic, dancing legends-- Astaire, Kelly, Charisse, Rogers-- he had a talent that was hypnotic in its effect. However, while Astaire & Rogers led with romance and Kelly & Charisse led with sex, O'Connor led with humor. He did the most heavenly and obscene things with his body, stretching and projecting himself like both a slingshot and its missile across the screen-- a trick he'd learned on the vaudeville stage, where he'd gotten his start. What he created looked natural, and even painful, but it was always flawlessly executed. His work and craftsmanship, the dedication to his artistry as the physical buffoon, are often still underappreciated. No Gods are born; they are made. Respect.

Descended from a family of circus performers-- acrobats and bareback riders-- Donald grew up with the same daredevil masochism that made fellow clowns like
Chaplin and Keaton greats. The game from day one was "entertainment." He'd go as far as you can to "Make 'Em Laugh," even if he needed several days of recuperation afterward-- which was indeed the case in the infamous Singin' in the Rain sequence. Equal to these comics, his hilarity was born of his tragedy. He survived the car crash that claimed his sister and also witnessed his father die from a heart attack while the elder man was dancing on stage. The ceaseless inner motor that churned was one of escapism, pushing the pain of circumstance outward to overcome it. However, the result of such constant, vigorous exorcism certainly took its toll, especially after Paramount and later Universal-- his main home-- began using him as one of its most trusted workhorses. Starting his career at the age of 12, he barely stopped to breathe for the next 40 years of his career. The constant stress led to alcoholism-- another trend among his peers, including good friend Judy Garland who shared a similar energizer-actor frustration. Eventually, Donald was fortunately able to overcome this disease and come out swinging, as he always did.

Needless to say, audiences never saw these demons on the screen, though they were witnessing their energy-- the buoyancy with which Donald tried to out-act, out-dance, out-sing, and out-maneuver them. His filmography is nothing to sniff at: Beau Geste, Mister Big, Francis (and its sequels), Anything Goes, There's No Business Like Show Business, and, of course, Singin' in the Rain. In addition, he performed on his own briefly lived television series, made quest appearances on everything from "The Love Boat" to "Tales from the Crypt," and had a brief cinematic re-emergence in the '90s in Toys among other films. He would pass away at the age of 78 in 2003 leaving those that loved him with a song in their hearts and an indescribable fondness for a one of a kind character. A fascinating figure with his own particular and admirable touch, he kept things interesting on the screen and took audiences to places they had never been before. But hey, ya' know... Anything for a laugh.


Clark Gable
The continuing fan worship of Clark Gable is so obvious that it seems a boring choice to even investigate the actor. He's not one of the forgotten ones, those whose work has been swept under the rug of time. He remains very much alive. He's one of the big ones. Perhaps the biggest. While Bogie is often hailed by general consensus as the most popular film actor of all time, it is Gable that was and is King. Perhaps this is because, despite the occasional ne'er do wells and scalawags that he would play, there was always an underlying elegance, intelligence, class, and a level of sophistication that enhanced and somehow did not contradict his down and dirty personifications. In conjunction, his regular guy transformation into a cinematic God made him mythic-- desirable yet relatable; down to earth yet elite. He placed on a pedestal, but he looked down on no one.

Clark Gable was indeed born Clark Gable of Cadiz, OH, but it would take time for him to make this name synonymous with silver screen royalty. Losing his mother in his youth and having little in common with his father, his life would be marked by both a perpetual quest for maternal comfort-- which initially drew him to older women-- and a determination to recreate himself as a masculine force of whom his father could be proud. Clark, you see, had a poet's sentiment. He possessed an immediate adoration of literature, but his brewing internalism of unanswered questions and a restless need for discovery would in time be calculatingly hidden by the He-man persona he borrowed from Hollywood father figure
Victor Fleming. Again, the duality, the idea that he was hiding secrets, gave him a seductive power on the screen.

For women, he was the perfect challenge. He was the guy who didn't need anyone and wasn't going to fall for any "dame" nor be owned by one. At least, until his heart fell prey to
Jean Harlow, Vivien Leigh or Joan Crawford. Viewers fantasized about being the woman chosen to unlock his secret depths and know the vulnerable child he hid so well. Men appreciated his cocky attitude, envied his access to beautiful women, and appreciated the sensitivity that he would casually and almost accidentally reveal. It gave them permission to house the same emotions that they too caged for appearance's sake. Gable, all around, made it all right to be a man and everything that meant.

Of course, he had a little help from MGM when it came to filing down his rough edges. With gold-capped teeth that he would have to paint white, thick eyebrows, and prominent ears, the studio at first wanted nothing to do with him. Gable's passion for an almost spiritual adventure in the world of art compelled him to accept a free makeover-- new teeth and all-- and the gamble paid off. He never forgot the clown beneath the paint, however, and it is the concerted construction of the new and improved "King Clark Gable" that led him to doubt his talent and distrust his success. It wasn't until he wed Carole Lombard, another self-acknowledged clown, that he allowed himself to have a little more fun. Sadly, the loss of her in her ill-fated plane crash during WWII pushed him deeper than ever into his mistrustful, self-imposed isolation.

Hardened by the tragedy, Gable would never be the same. His acting matured with his life experience, and when one compares the the swindling "Ace Wilfong" from A Free Soul with the mammoth embodiment of "Rhett Butler" in Gone with the Wind with his nakedly raw performance in the
Huston/Miller late bloomer The Misfits, his intricacy as a man can be seen to grow, change, and intensify with each film. Cockiness turns to confidence turns to humility. Gable grew up on celluloid, as many actors and actresses of his time did. His life, therefore, is the story of Hollywood itself.

There is much to admire in his film work from his brutal and painful confessions in GWTW, to his conflicted egoism and desire in Red Dust & Mogambo, to his gravitational pull as a smooth, accidental comedian in It Happened One Night. He never thought much of himself, no; but he was something spectacular. His work, his personality, his desire to give of himself and seek truth, freedom, and sanctuary-- though he would never admit it-- has afforded us a rich kingdom of cinematic adventure. Easily embarrassed in reality, on the screen he always owned it-- the frame, the film, the fans. Indeed, the King ruled. Sorry, "rules." Now and forever.

THE REEL REALS: Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert was a woman of supreme control. Petite in size, with large eyes and soft features, her air of authority overshadowed her beauty without camouflaging her humanity and vulnerability. What would be considered a "modern woman" even by today's standards, she was ambitious, talented, and liberated, and the strength and unapologetic passion with which she approached life made equally appealing as an actress. Perhaps for this reason alone, her work continues to inspire and attract men and women alike. She was there, front and center: no excuses. Like it or lump it. 

This did not detract from her seriousness as an actress. All that she did, she did with absolute concentration. She knew her stuff, so much so that she didn't shy away from throwing her weight around with Cecil B. DeMille or re-positioning a young Shirley Temple so that her own "good side" would face the camera. She understood the game of Hollywood, and always played the ace. This was as much to maintain her own career as confirm the best possible characterization in any given role. Sensitive to the responsibility of acting for millions, she was eager to cooperate with directors and fellow actors in order to form and inform her work with the utmost integrity and authenticity. She was, as is the popular contemporary phrase, "in it to win it."

The French-born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin moved to America at the age of three, bringing with her the strong work ethic of her baker father. Drawn to drama with a marked intensity from her youth, and put herself through acting school by working at a dress shop. By the age of 20, she was Claudette Colbert and appearing on Broadway. She transferred to film for more lucrative opportunities and built up a fairly respectable reputation for herself, her onscreen charm and natural aura earning fans quickly. However, her partnership with DeMille in The Sign of the Cross (remember the nude milk bath scene?), Four Frightened People, and Cleopatra really amped up her career. Of course, it was after her partnership with that Mr. Gable fellow in It Happened One Night that the "Walls of Jericho" came down, and the love affair with Claudette and the world began. 

Claudette engaged in a varied and intriguing career that spanned 60 years, doing everything from melodrama to screwball comedy-- The Smiling Lieutenant, Imitation of Life, Midnight, Boom Town, The Palm Beach Story, So Proudly We Hail, Thunder on the Hill, television appearances, and continued work in live theater. With her always was her intelligence and intuition-- and a touch of controversy for good measure. Rumors abound of her sexual liaisons with some of the most popular leading men and women of the day, but all even murmered scandals could do nothing to disturb her position as one of the most hailed screen stars of all time. 

After her onscreen career faded out with the fifties, she lived peacefully in Barbados with her husband Dr. Joel Pressman until passing away at the age of 92 after suffering a series of strokes. A fighter until the end, she came, she saw, she conquered, and she made her glorious exit. She was an emotional, uncontrollable universe that was somehow always in control, leaving no stone un-turned and not a dry seat in the house. Hard like a rock and soft as a Lily, the sense of her envelops the idealism of Hollywood past like a comforting friend you can always turn to. She's got your back.

THE REEL REALS: Brigitte Bardot

Brigette Bardot

Brigette Bardot was beautiful. This is what we know. We also 'know' that 'was' is the key word in that statement, because now she is has, in the true fashion of tragic Hollywood, become "old and fat." How dare. Fortunately, I think it is safe to say that Brigette doesn't give a sh*t.

It's fascinating the way beauty is perceived, received and reacted to, which is generally with some measure of violence. A beautiful woman is at once some 'thing' immediately admired and equally the focal point for a mysterious hatred that generally manifests itself in varying forms of revenge. Catty women are jealous, and lesser men are angry. The fact that such a creature exists and, for the male part, is not possessed incited the need to debase the woman through masturbatory fantasy, the robbery of her identity through invented condescension or, most vindictive, the mockery made of her when her youth fades. She is punished at her zenith; she is punished after. As such, the continued celebration of Bardot-- much like Monroe-- has little to do with the woman and much to do with the imagery of physical perfection and the love/hate relationship America has with the sexual object. Brigette's beauty had one Hell of a commanding power, and our defense, as with most, is to label her as nothing more than a pretty face.

A native Parisian, Brigette worked fairly consistently for 2 decades, stretching from the early '50s to the early '70s. She was a ballerina, turned model, turned actress, which was an understandable transformation, considering her beauty and heavenly body-- including her iconic waistline. In her early career, she was essentially used as a pretty prop in a slew of romantic comedies in France, which capitalized on her gorgeous presence, even if she were only onscreen for mere seconds. She was definitely on the public radar, but it was And God Created Woman (1956) that made her an international sensation.

Idolized as a modern, sexual woman, she was labeled a "sex-kitten"-- the pouty "I want it but I don't want it" enticement-- and her fashion, hair and manner was copied ad nauseum by a society undergoing yet another identity quest and cultural shift. As the nuclear family made way for the free love sixties, Brigette's barely clad and occasionally totally nude appearances in films was but more kindling in the fire of America's already brewing need for extroverted sexual discovery. She had the pout of a little girl, which satisfied the "Lolita" fetish, but she also had the un-apologetically carnal passion of a flesh and blood woman. While few of her films would be described as works of art, they drew good box-office in their day, solely because of the star's naturally scintillating appearance.

Obviously, there was more to the woman than her appealing curvatures, and perhaps because of her need to distinguish herself from the goddess template she'd accidentally created, she endured excruciating personal setbacks and obstacles. The typical existential confusion of the dual identity star-human eventually led to her retirement by the age of 40. Four marriages, one estranged son, multiple affairs, and her supposed generous spirit, (which was allegedly beaten to a pulp), influenced Bardot's need for escapism to a space that she could call her own-- un-infiltrated by the damaging impact of public life.

She has dedicated the majority of the last 40 years (she is now nearly 80) to animal rights, a fact that continues to draw attention and keep her in the headlines. She has often lashed out at both the Jewish and Muslim community for "ritually slaughtering sheep," which is done as a part of their traditional religious practices. Often caught with her foot in her mouth, the quiet and silent beauty has become quite the opposite in her old age, and she ruffles as many feathers as she once raise temperatures. Of course, her antics and her identification with animals over human beings perhaps says it all concerning the crippling experiences she must have had in show-business. People aren't to be trusted. Today, the love demon protects the innocent of the four-legged variety.

With these clashing and contrasting images, Brigette Bardot remains unknown, though this is a personal choice on her behalf. Just as her cinematic persona, she is divided and indecipherable-- an angel and devil in one; a temptation that leads to both reward and punishment. She is a beautiful yet fierce creature, using her looks as distraction while she fuels the fires of her secret self and carries out personal agendas. She is more than what she reveals-- an imperfect yet physically perfect specimen/vixen to whom virtue is honesty-- the embrace of immorality and decadence in the face of all evils. Through Brigette, sex wasn't sin; it was freedom. The only danger, it seems, was in having too much.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Ava Gardner

Ava Gardner's beauty was insane. INSANE. Labeled "the Love Goddess" by the Hollywood publicity machine, the title was both an accurate description of the sensual feelings she inspired (merely by purring) and an equal misnomer, considering the reality of her romantic life. Ava was far from the dynamic seductress she would become as a Hollywood star. Growing up an impoverished tomboy in North Carolina, she became a surprise beauty queen when a talent scout spotted her picture in her brother-in-law's shop window. What followed was an uncomfortable for her, yet extraordinary for us, ascent as one of the most beautiful women in cinematic history.

However, Ava was far more than her luscious extremities. A down-to-earth, unpretentious, accidental femme fatale, her persona would be turned upside down through her progression in Hollywood from a shy kid from the sticks to the ultimate tiger woman. Unschooled in acting, she would have preferred to be a singer, which explained her brief love affair and infatuation with Artie Shaw. However, her abilities on the screen were more than enough to garner public affection. To say she was charismatic is the understatement of the millennium. Ava was fierce. In contrast to Marilyn Monroe, for example, she was not as openly vulnerable. The sharp features of her face as accompanied by her full mouth were intense, alluring, and unforgiving in a predatory sense. When paired with her sultry voice, the effect was devastating. She wasn't a sex-object so much as a a dominatrix. Women admired her intensity and related to the broken woman hiding underneath her veneer. Men... they just wanted to be destroyed by her. 

As many of the scout-found talents of her era, one can literally watch Ava's abilities grow on film. The awkward and uncertain girl (who married Mickey Rooney) artfully evolved into a courageous and dangerous actress. To see her blink-and-you'll-miss-it-featured roll in Calling Dr. Gillespie, to her poetically aggressive presentation in One Touch of Venus, and her comfortable, sexual masterdom in Mogambo is a fascinating experience in itself. By the time she appeared in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach, she was a seasoned veteran, through with pretense and totally embracing the raw, rough and tumble aspects of her true nature. Ava had little use for BS. The older she got, the more she was able to shirk the accepted affectations and just be the edgy, emotionally abandoned, and even frightened woman she was underneath. Few actresses had such courage.

Her personal life was less savory. She suffered a slew of broken hearts, most notoriously from her intense marriage to Frank Sinatra, a soul mate that would never fully recover from her nor she from him. Unrepentant for the woman whom she developed into, Ava left the world of Hollywood behind for the most part in her later years, moving to her beloved Spain and dancing "barefoot," as was her way. As she aged, her iconic beauty remained but was faded by harsh years, hard knocks, and alcoholism. The real Ava, who was built into a star, got lost somewhere in the Hollywood machinery and spent the majority of her life trying to find herself again.

Still, the love Goddess remains, and on this day, the day of Lovers, it seems appropriate to honor her and the impassioned, unarguable, unbreakable imprint she left behind. An accidental pioneer in the world of feminism, her example of confidence, a healthy sexuality, and chronic defiance still coaches the women of the world on their own quest for pride in identity. And the dudes still dig her too.


Ann Dvorak

Ann Dvorak didn't have time for bull sh*t. A gifted and daring actress who graced the screen-- large and small-- from the late 'teens to the early fifties, she was too much of a free agent to be reined in by studio stipulation, general opinion, or flat out nonsense. A child of divorce, she learned self-resilience early, and her exploratory heart and avaricious curiosity compelled her to thrust the tough but elegant woman she was into the artistic realm where her passion could rule. She luckily brought along her common sense.

She had an early start, growing up on film sets, but it would be in the thirties that she had her big break. After serving as a dance instructor, her gal pal Joan Crawford introduced her to Howard Hughes who soon cast her in Scarface as Cesca-- the sister whom Paul Muni's gangster has quite obvious, incestuous feeling for. Unabashed at such controversial subject matter, she became one of the go-to girls during the sultry pre-code days, her other most popular piece being Three on a Match in which she portrayed a fallen woman, drug addicted mother, and eventual suicide victim. Pretty heavy.

However, almost as soon as her career started taking off, she ran into trouble with studios, mostly because she had a habit for ignoring contracts or all out defying them. Her life belonged to herself and no one else, which was an outlook the grinding Hollywood machine did not take to kindly. She ran off to get married, was suspended, then brazenly combated her low salary rate as well as the poor quality of her films and roles. The result was an eventual and tedious escape from her contract to freelance. She would never become as big a star as some of her contemporaries because of this. She quite simply didn't like to play games. She preferred to increase the lexicon of her ever-growing library and expand her mind and horizons instead of her celebrity.

She spent the last nearly thirty years of her life off screen and away from the public eye, most probably enjoying the fact that she was actually living life instead of merely pretending to live someone else's. Unlike many others, she merely hovered around Hollywood instead of allowing her soul to be immersed in it and therefore stolen. She had her own plans and left us with exactly what she was willing to give and nothing more. This isn't the best news for us, because her remaining work makes one want to see more, but you have to respect a woman with boundaries.


Alan Hale

Alan Hale, Sr. (not to be confused with his son, the Skipper of "Gilligan's Island") was a very unique personality in both silent and studio era cinema. A big lug, generally mustached, he would become familiar with audiences by portraying the befuddled man's man with a loud, raucous laugh, clumsy yet aggressive physicality, and his very expressive eyes-- usually twinkling. Appearing in nearly 250 films (that we know of) in a less the 40-year career, his energy, comic skill, and integral depth allowed him to easily traverse multiple genres and play the bad guy, the good guy, the drunk guy, the oaf, the clown, the tough, and most often, the best friend.

Alan's big voice encouraged him to pursue a career in the opera, which makes it interesting that he found a home for himself in silent cinema. However, the creativity and curiosity of his ever-spinning mind-- which led him to an initial career as an inventor (of foldable theater seats among others)-- also instilled within him a natural penchant for unique characterizations. For a man constantly tinkering with objects to see how they worked, cracking a fictional character open and making it tick was an easily adapted talent. His hammy, fun-loving personality only bolstered his appeal, giving him an unlikely charisma onscreen, which made him one of the most popular and beloved character actors of his generation.

 While as a fresh-faced 20-year-old he was able to land the lead in several pictures, it was his uncanny knack at supporting parts, those that added flavor and drove the plot of the story, which would provide for him a comfy position on the Warner Brothers roster. As such, he moved from a series of short film appearances to playing opposite  Rudolph Valentino in The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Lon Chaney in The Trap, and Douglas Fairbanks in the epic Robin Hood. His role in the latter was that of Little John, one that he would repeat sixteen years later opposite his good friend Errol Flynn in the 1938 version, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In fact, it is with Errol that Alan is most associated, as these hard-living, boisterous boys in cahoots got along swimmingly both on and off screen. They appeared in several features together, including The Prince and the Pauper, Dodge City, and The Sea Hawk. Alan's success at WB after the talkie revolution is beyond impressive. He was an uncouth buffoon in Stella Dallas, the notoriously flagged down driver (or should I say "legged") in It Happened One Night, and the ne'er-do-well married lover of Bette Davis in Of Human Bondage. He appeared in Great Expectations, Imitation of Life, They Drive By Night, Algiers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Strawberry Blonde, etc, etc, etc, always lending the lead players his support and improving their performances with his own reliable and inspirational characterizations. One might even say that he was a bit of a scene stealer. He created a natural effect in his scenes, locking them in reality and adding nuance and complication to even the most saccharine or melodramatic plots. 

Alan passed away at the age of 57 far too soon. His talents could have easily translated to television had he more time to continue his thespian explorations. However, problems with his liver and a viral infection led to his untimely, premature passing, leaving behind his wife of 35 years and 3 children-- including his equally famous, doppleganger son Alan Hale, Jr. Less recognized than his contemporaries for his contribution to the cinematic arts, his presence in retrospect seems so fundamental to the success of so many classic films that is hard to imagine Hollywood history without him. When he appeared on screen, audiences knew a little something extra was coming their way. That 'something' was usually just having a more thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable night at the movies. At the very least, it meant life was about to get interesting.