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Wednesday, November 23, 2011


More close encounters of the celeb kind. Enjoy!

James Cagney's many talents would help pave his 
way to Hollywood.

In 1921, James Cagney and his girlfriend Willie Vernon were traveling around with different vaudeville troupes trying to save enough money to start a life together. There were highs and lows, but Jim was a determined guy devoted to doing whatever it took to earn money to keep himself and his family back home afloat. If that meant taking a job outside the entertainment business, he was fine with it. However, Willie always pushed him to pursue his stage talents, even if it cost them the extra dough. Every once and awhile, Jim would get a lucky leg up. One such opportunity was taking a gig with a trio that had just lost it's third member. Thus, the group Parker, Rand, and Cagney was born. Unfortunately, the comic trio did not fare well and reviews were poor. Apparently, the writing and gags were old hat and not very funny, which is perhaps why the original member had ducked out. Originally, the group had been called Parker, Rand, and Leach. James would later bump into Archibald Leach after both men had gone Hollywood and the latter had changed his name to Cary Grant. One wonders if they ever laughed over their shared stage mishap.

The young Archie Leach, after he had become the more 
polished Cary Grant.

Jim may have never gotten to Hollywood at all had it not been for the help of another famous fellow. It turns out that Al Jolson (left) owned the rights to the smash play, "Sinners' Holiday," in which both Jim and pal Joan Blondell had had success. Jolson was impressed with their performances. When he worked a deal with Warner Brothers to have the play produced into the film Penny Arcade, he urged Jack Warner to see the staged version himself and check out the new talents before he went about making casting decisions. Jack agreed and was impressed. He wound up giving both Jim and Joan contracts with Warners and they appeared in the same supporting roles in the film. Jack would both enjoy and regret his decision, since Jim would prove to be one of his biggest moneymakers, but also one of the largest thorns in his backside. Interestingly, Al Jolson would be indirectly responsible for getting Jim's good friend Pat O'Brien a movie contract with Warners as well, because Jack also happened to go and see Pat's latest play when he was in town at this time.

Joan and Jim break into the biz in Penny Arcade.

In the entertainment industry, it's all about who you know. Grace Kelly (right) was very fortunate that, in addition to her own strength and determination, she had an "in" in the theater world through her playwright uncle: George Kelly. After studying drama and appearing in her 31-second film debut in Fourteen Hours, Grace was ready to start treading the boards for real, and after a few roles in various plays, she was looking for a part to showcase her range. Luckily, a plum role fell right in her lap via producer Grant Gaither in New York. Gaither had worked with George Kelly in the past on his hit play "Craig's Wife," so when discussion began about casting a beautiful ingenue to play the role of a society girl who becomes a nightclub singer in Gaither's latest production "Alexander," Grace's name came up. She was quickly cast and went to work at the Albany Playhouse. Sadly, the play premiered to modest reviews and didn't run long. One bonus that came out of the play, aside from the experience, was the chance to spend time with a famous co-star: Leatrice Joy, the silent film siren. The two got along well, and Leatrice certainly saw in the young actress a bit of herself. In a way, she certainly felt that she was passing the torch to Grace, whose fame would later far surpass her own former but equally impressive glory.

Leatrice Joy defined what a star beauty was before 
Grace Kelly cornered the market.

Every good parent understands the importance of introducing art to their children. This is why, despite the unbalanced nature of Norma Jeane Mortenson's mentally ill mother Gladys, one can give her kudos for trying to bring music into her little girl's life. After losing her two older children when they were taken from her by her husband, Jasper Baker, Gladys projected a lot of animosity against her "illegitemate" daughter, whom she blamed for her wreck of a life. But, at times, Gladys had moments of clarity and displayed her love for the only person who truly loved her, and she worked diligently at several jobs to be able to afford a nice home for the two of them. Having lived in a topsy turvy world where she spent a lot of time with random relatives and babysitters, Norma Jeane was excited to finally be living with her mother, who continued to run hot and cold. In one of her warmer moments, Gladys bought a white baby grand piano for Norma Jeane and paid for her to receive lessons. The little girl was not a natural, but it gave her and her mother great pleasure to know that she was tickling the ivories of an instrument that had once belonged the movie star Fredric March. Eventually, Gladys went broke, lost the house and the piano, and Norma Jeane was farmed out once more. When she grew older, Marilyn Monroe hunted for the piano, which represented to her one of the happiest and most innocent periods of her life. In time, she found it (see left). Billy Wilder too privileged from Marilyn's limited knowledge of the instrument: the scene in The Seven Year Itch, in which Marilyn plays chopsticks, was the only one she completed in one take. Today, the piano belongs to Marilyn fan and songstress Mariah Carey, who has stipulated that upon her death it be placed in a museum.

Little did Fredric March know, his musical appreciation 
effected more people than himself.

The premiere of Cecil B. DeMille's infamous religious masterpiece The King of Kings was-- in keeping with all things Cecil-- stupendous. Debuting at the newly built Grauman's Chinese Theatre (as it would have appeared at the premiere, right), the pre-show was as jaw-dropping as the film itself. An intricate series of prologues were staged, depicting infamous scenes from the Bible. In total, 100 performers were cast to put the production together, and each scene depicted a different tableau from the scriptures, chronologically leading up to the tale of The King of Kings. All of the famous glitterati were there, including Mary Pickford, who pressed the button to open the curtains. So incredible was the production, that the actual film didn't begin until well after 11pm. One avid film-goer would remember the experience vividly, even after he later rose in the ranks of filmdom himself. Watching then as a young, 12-year-old boy, Gregory Peck, a pharmacist's son, was enraptured by the ornate splendor. He would recall the costumed, Mandarin ushers, the scent of the incense, and the plush carpeting leading to the screen. He could easily see why the fanfare cost $5,000,000 all said. Such an experience only inflamed the secret desire in him to be in the film business. His original plan to become a doctor would be brushed aside in the hope that one day he too would enjoy being a part of such a rich, heart-wrenching piece of artistry. Wonder if he ever thanked Cecil for the sign from God?

Gregory Peck would ditch the medical books for the stage.

Growing up in Jamestown, it was apparent to several local people that Lucille Ball (left) was destined to be an entertainer. It was especially clear to her mother, who encouraged Lucy to enroll at the prestigious Robert Minton-John Murray Anderson School of Drama. Of course, this was also probably done to keep the young girl out of trouble and keep her focused on her future-- after all, she was hanging around with thugs. It took a lot of hard work, and scrimping and saving for Lucy to afford a spot at the notable academy, which was also the only one of its kind. Previous generations hadn't been "taught" how to act; they had simply taught themselves when traveling the vaudeville circuits. Lucy's experience was limited, but it was her same natural, self-taught ability and her limited vaudeville experience that landed her a spot in the exclusive school. Earning her spot, she was on a high when classes began in Manhattan, but her confidence quickly dwindled. The competition was fierce, and Lucy came off as an unstudied, uncoordinated ham. The teachers' criticisms were harsh and very damaging to her self esteem. Her former assurance in her abilities disappeared, particularly because all the attention at the school was going to another talented ingenue, who had both students and faculty alike astounded by her passion and abilities. With all eyes on Bette Davis, Lucy had little chance of success. When cuts were made after the first term, all but 12 of the original 70 students were sent home. Bette made it; Lucy did not. While Bette would consider her courses there a mere stepping stone on her way to fame and notoriety, Lucy would consider the whole thing a serious hurdle between her and the prosperous life she finally found after decades of struggle. She would later state, "All I learned in drama school was how to be frightened." Luckily, she later taught us all how to laugh.

The eyes have it: even as a young woman, Bette's 
determination was obvious.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


All they needed was a good father figure: the Dead End Kids pose during  
Angels with Dirty Faces. Jim Cagney rarely played family guy roles, and
his relationship with these characters is perhaps the closest he ever

As much as we love our dear stars, they too make mistakes. Despite their grand, seemingly impenetrable reputations, they are in fact fallible, flawed, dare I say, "human." Even some of the celebrities I adore the most have at times exhibited such uncharacteristic and "off" behavior that it sort of left me doing the dumb dog look-- the ol' head tilted, one eyebrow up, "huh?" kinda thing. While occassional, deviant star behavior hasn't turned me against anyone, the consternation at the discrepancy between the perfect individual I had imagined and their imperfect actions does make an impact. At the very least, it reveals another level to the idol, which in turn only makes him or her more fascinating. Just when you think you have someone figured out, you realize you don't. Here is a cluster of out-of-character moves some of my favorite screen stars have made. After getting over the original irked feeling I received upon these discoveries, I was left trying to wrap my brain around them, and eventually I was able to conclude what I felt to be the source of their surprising, quirky moves. To err is devine...


Perhaps of all the guffaws I've encountered, this one most particularly made me go, "Who? What? Why?!" James Cagney (right) came from a big, gregarious and supportive family. A warm and nurturing man himself, it only made sense that he want to become a father and pass on the same familial tidings to his own young brood. Well, apparently the will was there but the follow-through was weak. Jim had wanted children for some time, but discovered that he was sterile, so to fulfill his parental destiny he and wife Frances adopted two children, son Jim, Jr. in 1940, followed shortly by daughter Casey. While the outcome is not as notorious as the Joan Crawford/Mommie Dearest episode, it was far from a happy ending. See, Junior and Casey didn't even live in the same house as Jim and Frances! They had their own cottage out back, where they were mostly looked after by their own housekeeper. Jim was always kind to them and saw them when he could, but since he was a busy man focused on his work, he rarely had time to indulge full-time in a father-child relationship. Frances would claim that they built the house simply so the children would not be in the way while Jim learned his lines and prepared for the next day's shoot. He needed quiet and the space to focus and craft his characters. Obviously, one can understand that Jim was a busy man who was very dedicated to his art, but he too was a homebody. He never really went out unless to meet his buddies in the "Irish Mafia," so a normal domestic style would seem in keeping with his personality. It doesn't add up. So, what's the deal Jimbo? Why even adopt the kids if you don't want a real family?

DIAGNOSIS: The jury is still out on this one, but there are hints into the peculiar nature of Jim's home life. The only apparent glitch in the Cagney family system that raised a red flag was the relationship between his mother and siblings vs. his wife. Apparently, Frances aka "Willie" never fully got along with the rest of the Cagney clan. One suspects that this was because she and matriarch Carrie Cagney were both strong women vying for Jim's attention. When family get-togethers were had, Jim was always happy to go, but Willie was rarely invited, and when she was, she still didn't attend. Being the driving force behind Jim and his career, on paper it seems like Willie was a controlling, dominating woman-- albeit a devoted one. There is no argument that she deeply loved Jim, and indeed it was her suggestion that they even adopt in the first place. Unfortunately, she soon found that parenting wasn't her style. It is remembered by friends that Jim was always closer to the children than Willie. It is also recalled that Willie had a bit of a temper-- a trait which neighbors would witness from time to time-- while Jim always remained level and calm. For Willie, Jim came first, and clearly, the kids were a distant second. Perhaps, it was truly Willie who liked her space? Perhaps she convinced Jim that it would be better if the kids lived out back in their own house and left them to themselves? But then, it seems cruel to simply blame "the wife." Who knows... Since Jim was always kind to neighborhood kids and his pals' children, he clearly wasn't some emotionless monster. Whatever the cause of the odd decision, the result was not good. Both Junior and Casey became emotionally estranged from their adoptive parents as a result of their detached upbringing.


Every movie lover has their number one favorite: the star that he or she thinks hung the moon. If one lives outside of Hollywood, the chances of seeing this personality in person are slim to none, so there are very few places one can turn for fanatic satisfaction: the theater, the movie magazine, or... the fan letter. As film personalities in the early days of cinema slowly turned into those glowing figures that we now know as movie stars, the desire to reach out and touch one became, well, Paramount in an avid viewer's mind. The need to make contact with or forge a connection with someone valued as larger than life could be an obsession to some, and soon enough random guys and gals began picking up their pens to write gushing letters to all the Gods and Goddesses on Mt. Olympus. Some were ridiculous, others erotic, some crazy, but most were just honest indications from a grateful public that one's screen work was affecting lives. It is always difficult to go out on a limb and open your heart to someone, especially someone you admire, but every day hundreds of people took the chance and crossed their fingers that their favorite "One" would respond to them with some token of him or herself: a photo, an autograph, or even a reply! In all his years, Lon Chaney (left in The Blackbird), who was one of the biggest and most worshipped of all film personalities, rarely ever answered his fan mail. He could often be seen toting his latest large bag of fan letters to the nearest dumpster bin, thus depositing numerous broken hearts into his "high-priced secretary." Why the cold shoulder Lon? Don't you love the fans that love you?

DIAGNOSIS: This one is fairly understandable when you break it down. Considering the number of fan letters Lon was certain to have gotten in a week, plus the amount of time he spent working, it is doubtful that he had any real time to go through his numerous letters. Nor did any other star for that matter. Taking exception to people like Mae West, Joan Crawford, or John Wayne, who lived for their fans, very few celebrities actually took the time to sit down and sift through their fan mail and send personal responses. Occassionally, one may respond to a letter here or there, but let's face it: the majority of autographed pictures sent from the studios were signed by an assistant, not the star himself. In addition, Lon was never in the business for the adulation. It was a job. Pure and simple. He publicly stated that he believed performers should pay more attention to their work and less to their fan mail, which he considered an inaccurate measuring stick for one's popularity. While he certainly respected the fans that kept food on his table, he was always uncomfortable with fantaticism. His dark brown eyes were notorious for boring holes into strangers with a pondering, "All right bub, what's the agenda?" He didn't want to either feed into the idea that he was extraordinary nor play the celebrity game of inflated egos begging for attention. He wanted too to maintain his station as the man of mystery, not just as a publicity coup, but because he sincerely wished for a private life away from the set. When the director yelled "cut," that's just what he did: cut and run. So, while it may make one chafe that he wasn't more attentive to his fans, you can't really blame him either. In person, he was always warm and pleasant, but he didn't suffer fools gladly and he even moreso tried to prevent himself from looking like one.


In the same vein as Lon and his fan mail was Cary Grant's (right) reaction to his live fans. A strange phenomenon occurred later in Cary's career when he was accosted by a salivating worshiper. When asked for his John Hancock, he would ask for 25 cents. Eh? What's that? Yeah, I know. I had the same reaction. Why in God's name would a man who had more money than God ask for 25 God darned cents? It seems inconceivable that the man who was so light-hearted, charismatic, and often goofy in his films could be such a miser. In fact, it became a bit of a running joke in Hollywood that he was, for lack of a better word, a cheapskate. In effect, he was in life what comedian Jack Benny played on screen. Of course, there is no harm in knowing the value of a dollar, and in fact it's an admirable quality, but the whole concept of charging fans seems to be a bit overkill. One wonders what happened to the people that didn't happen to have a quarter on them. Did they just glumly skulk away? Were there revolts? Tears? Tirades?! The contrast between the witty, warm and caring pal that Hollywood friends recall and the man who would make such a demand of his fans-- who equally adored him-- seems a pill too hard to swallow. What's the deal Cary? Are you as cold-hearted as all that? Should we change your name to Ebenezer Grant?

DIAGNOSIS: From the lips of Eva Marie Saint: "He felt if you put a price tag around your neck, people appreciated you more." What few seem to realize about Cary is that he wasn't born the suave, polished dominant male force he appeared to be on the screen. His childhood memories were as bleak and cold as the chilly British air that used to freeze him to his bones. Little Archie Leach would lose his mother when she was placed in a mental facility for her chronic depression. He was then abandoned by his father when he found a new wife and family. Lonely, hungry and with no desire to finish school, Archie just wanted to escape, which he did when he joined a vaudeville troupe and hooked a ship to the US of A in 1920. After more struggles in the acting world, his determination to make something of himself and shake away the melancholy of his past paid off. After being handpicked by Mae West for a plum role in her first major film She Done Him Wrong, the new Cary Grant took off professionally and never looked back. But, his impoverished childhood always haunted him, and while he was secretly very charitable, he too had a reputation for being tight with a penny. Yet, while Eva's assessment can thus be considered accurate-- that Cary wanted to both maintain his position and prove his worth, while making a bit of a profit-- he too, I believe, used this tactic as a form of protection. Proud of his accomplishments, but always insecure of himself, he would once quip: "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. I want to be Cary Grant." He wasn't joking. Public attention, while appreciated, also made him uncomfortable, as if sooner or later the fans were going to catch on that he was just a hack in a fancy suit. Thus, the 25 cent deversion tactic became a way to keep the wolves at bay. Hell, I woulda paid it. He was worth much more!


Katharine Hepburn (left) was considered by many in the film industry, and outside it as well, to be a person of considerable loyalty and strength. The number of times she was called upon to help a friend, a random acquaintance, or even a complete stranger are numerous, a fact that I have recorded in past blogs (see example here ). Her optimistic spirit and sturdy, level-head made her the typical Taurus-gal, which may explain why, while others came and went, lost their careers, or succumbed to mental or physical ailments, Kate always seemed to be as happy and healthy as a horse-- or rather stubborn bull. There too are accounts of her coming off a bit haughty, which is a characteristic she put to brilliant use in films such as Stage Door and The Philadelphia Story. She could rub a more sensitive person the wrong way, merely because she was a bit distant-- flinty. While on the screen she let her emotions unravel, in life she seemed to lead with her head not her heart. She was a woman of wit and gumption, not warmth and tears. Yet the lives she touched and the impact she made is extraordinary, which makes the memories of Ginger Rogers seem so peculiar. Apparently, the two had a bit of a competition going on, although both would deny it. As the top female stars at RKO during their mutual reign, the press made much of their alleged clash of egos, but how factual this rivalry was is debatable. However, while Kate kept mum, Ginger did let loose a couple tales of "off" Kate behavior. One episode recalled Kate kicking Ginger in the shin during a screen test for Mary of Scotland. Another account has Kate tossing a glass of water at Ginger's new mink coat to see whether or not it was "genuine" fur. Ginger expressed no hate at these deeds, but rather consternation. Why the hate, Kate? What did lil' Ginger Snapper ever do to you?

DIAGNOSIS: I think this one comes down to a simple and unfortunate misunderstanding. As Kate is one of my all time favorites, it is natural for me to want to jump to her defense, but I don't think such a inclination is unfounded. Proof in her past shows that she truly was a woman of good character and selflessness. Thus, the strange Ginger fiasco remains a pickle. However, I think it can be traced back to the original incident on Mary of Scotland. At the time, Ginger (right) was sick of playing the same roles over and over and wanted to prove that her talents went beyond her taps. So, she finagled a "fake" audition for the role of Elizabeth Tudor in the film opposite Kate. Ginger was known for her pranks, and with the help of director John Ford, she planned to come do the screen test in makeup under the alias Lady Ainsley in order to convince producer Pandro Berman that she was right for the part.When she hit the set, no one recognized her, except of course Ford and Kate-- who would be doing her "audition" scene with her and had been let in on the scheme. Ginger could sense that Kate wasn't happy, and when they started going through their dialogue, suddenly Kate let out: "Who do you think you're fooling?" and kicked Ginger beneath the table. As this came out of nowhere, I can only imagine that Kate felt that Ginger's shenanigan was devised merely to cause trouble and unnecessarily slow production. She probably thought the whole thing was a gag and was unaware that Ginger was serious about obtaining the role, a theory that Ginger's elaborate wardrobe and fake name encouraged. A pro, such a waste of time certainly miffed Kate, though perhaps she overreacted when showing Ginger where she stood. Ginger didn't get the role, needless to say, and Elizabeth was played by Florence Eldridge.

The RKO divas size each other up in Stage Door.

However, with this bad blood already between them, Kate must have formed the opinion that Ginger was an attention-hungry wise-ass, more interested in fame and games than doing good work. This would explain why she took pleasure in the second event. Ginger had stopped beneath George Stevens's office window on the lot to say "hello" and show off her new coat when Kate jokingly tossed out the water, probably thinking it funny that the superficial diva's silly new coat was in jeopardy-- though as a real mink it obviously went unharmed. The humor did not translate. Ginger made a few efforts over the years to get Kate to warm up to her, though the two would never be friends. Yet, over time, it appears that Kate did soften, perhaps finally realizing that Ginger was a good egg and not the miscreant she had originally thought her to be. When Ginger beat her out for the Oscar, winning for Kitty Foyle against Kate's comeback role in The Philadelphia Story, Kate sent a nice letter of congratulations, and publicly stated that she thought Ginger's performance had been great. Perhaps this event alone proved to her that Ginger was indeed a serious actress. Yet, it may just be a good, ol' fashioned cat fight, which, sadly, all females engage in at one time or another. After all, the two were polar opposites playing the same game: they both were engaged to Howard Hughes at different points, starred in films to equal acclaim, and perhaps just rubbed each other the wrong way. Since Kate never let us in on her side, and we only have Ginger's recollections to go by, it also leaves the question of how trustworthy our narrator is. After all, despite the fact that Ginger was a naturally sweet and well-liked person, no party is completely innocent in a feud. She quite possible could have done something equally out of character to peeve Kate off. In the end, it doesn't really matter since both women walked away equal winners, box office champions, and eternal film idols. The history of film would be lacking without either them, and at least their confrontations make said history more interesting.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Didja Know: Part III

Here are the latest facts that were "news to me." Didja know that...

Cagney gets a little rough with Bogie in Angels with Dirty Faces.

... James Cagney almost slept with the fishes???

In 1939, James Cagney and George Raft went to work on the intense prison film Each Dawn I Die (left). The two leading men knew each other and got along well. Both had grown up "in the hood" as it were, and had rubbed elbows with some of the nastiest ne'er do wells-- some of whom would go on to become leading gangsters and Mafiosos. However, both managed to keep themselves from becoming too deeply involved in the mobster lifestyle. For his part, Jim stayed completely away from the men he considered morally reprehensible. George, on the other hand, forged certain alliances when acting as a chauffeur for certain goons in his Hell's Kitchen days, yet he never got into the deep stuff. A suave guy, he knew how to play the game, kept things social, and stayed out of the business, while giving the bad guys just enough allegiance to maintain their respect and his own separate life. These connections would come in handy. James and George met again in Hollywood, and Jim got George one of his first big breaks dancing the "Peabody" in Taxi. Later, George would return the favor.

During the big Hollywood shakedown, when gang warfare had resulted in physical and financial intimidation of the studios-- who were forced to use mob managed union workers-- the notoriously stubborn Jack Warner must have been causing the big guns a little bit of irritation. While on the set of Each Dawn I Die, George happened to see his old pal Willie Bioff wandering around the set. Bioff's eyes landed menacingly on Cagney, no friend to the mob, then moved up to a large klieg light hanging above. George then witnessed Bioff give a signal to a worker standing in the rafters. What George didn't know, was that Bioff was planning a celebrity assassination: he wanted to take Cagney out by dropping a light on his head! Offing one of Warner's biggest stars was a definite way of sending the big-wig a message. It has been popularly recalled that George stepped in to save Jim's life, but this is only partially true. George clearly knew that something was afoot, but he didn't know what, and he also knew better than to get in the middle of it. Later, after the film wrapped, Bioff told George that he was indeed going to bump Cagney off, but had been halted because they didn't want to screw up filming for George. So, in effect, George did save Jim's life, even if indirectly. One wonders if Jim ever knew how close he came to curtains???

Of course, Jim always knew that life on a film set was dangerous. Not only is a film celebrity's career constantly in jeopardy due to changing public tastes, competitive talent, or demanding moguls, but before the advent of the Screen Actors Guild-- of which Jim was a proud member and instigator-- performers were often put through the mill emotionally and physically. Overworked, underpaid, and unprotected, the company brass had little concern for the pawns in their money game. After all, if you lose one actor, you can just hire another. This mentality led to the lackadaisical way actors were put in danger. Ever notice how in those old Cagney pictures and likewise gangster films, the shooters are always pointing their guns at a downward angle? This was because they were often shooting with live rounds. For those big productions, when Jim had to outrun or dodge an array of bullets, he wasn't acting. When working on The Public Enemy, for example, a man named "Bailey" was hired as a professional sharpshooter. Having served in the Great War, Bailey was an ace shot. The director would set up the scene and direct the movement, then Jim's character would be instructed to run this way or that away from the spray of bullets, which Bailey, from his gunner platform, calculatingly fired behind him, leaving authentic bullet holes along the walls of the set. Filming these scenes took a lot of guts-- or stupidity. As good a shot as Bailey was, it took a lot of trust for Jim to perform knowing that if he moved a hair out of place, he might lose his whole head! Luckily, the miracle of special effects has made this method of gun play obsolete on the sound stage.

... John Barrymore had one up on Al Jolson?

Everyone recalls The Jazz Singer as being the miracle film that moved cinema from a land of silence to a world of sound. However, this transition did not occur overnight. Even The Jazz Singer itself was not an in toto sound film from start to finish. Instead, it is a silent piece with synced music in various places, into which Al Jolson stealthily added a line of dialogue or two. Before continuous music and dialogue became the norm, there were films produced with random sound effects, profiting off the gimmick of the new innovation. Inserted into the fray were a whistle here, a car horn there, and occasionally entire songs. But, before The Jazz Singer was released in 1927, John Barrymore's romantic epic Don Juan was produced in 1926 (left). It represented another step toward sound film in that it was actually the first film Warner Brothers released with the use of the novel "Vitaphone." Warners really spearheaded the sound film movement by investing in and acquiring this new apparatus, while the rest of the industry remained hesitant both about the change and the huge costs it would incur-- not only in production but in restructuring theaters to suit the new technology. The first Vitaphone feature film, Don Juan was synced from start to finish with sound effects and music, though dialogue was still noticeably absent. When played to packed houses, it was often accompanied by more talkie shorts and even an intro by the fearful censor boss, Will Hays.The film was a huge success as a result, but despite big box office, it failed to recoup its financial losses. This put Harry Warner off a bit, but Sam Warner-- the most forward thinking of the brothers-- really pushed for continued use of the device. His pegged the next Vitaphone feature as The Jazz Singer. Though not the first film produced with the Vitaphone, it would in time prove to be the most vital. Ironically, Sam would pass away one day before the premiere of his greatest success.

... the Egyptian was the first Hollywood movie theater?

Back in the early Hollywood days, the awkward transition from live performance to recorded film was evidenced in the film premiere. These days, one merely sits back as the opening credits start to roll, but in the 1920s especially, the film premiere was made to be almost as big a production as the film itself. Sid Grauman personified the extremities of cinematic extravagance with his plush movie palaces, complete with vast stages for elaborate pre-show performances, skits, dance numbers, and songs. The theater-going experience was just that-- an "experience," and one ripe for the senses. In addition to transporting his paying customers and clientele to various different places as they watched the screen, Sid too constructed his theaters to resemble far off, exotic locales. Grandeur, splendor, pleasure-- there was no holding back, and customers paid to be awed. While his Chinese Theatre is best remembered, he too had great success with a previous venture, The Egyptian Theatre, which opened 5 years earlier in 1922, mere blocks away on Hollywood Boulevard (right). This was the first official Hollywood movie theater because it was built specifically for cinema and was not a transformed storefront or vaudeville theater like the others, including The Iris.

Modeled after the infamous African country, and cashing in on the invigorated interest in the recent King Tut phenomenon, Sid covered the Egyptian's walls with ancient artwork and hieroglyphics, convincing audiences that they were sitting in the midst of a desert mirage. Lining the red carpet entrance, where fans stood to watch their favorite stars attend premieres, there too were rows of vendors offering souvenir items and showcasing costumes and props from the latest flick. Needless to say, the largess made it a huge success. To Sid, it was all in the details. He even had a sentinel fully costumed, standing on the roof of the theater to announce when showtime was about to commence. After the pre-show hooplah, the fan mayhem, and the dancing girls, it's a wonder anyone had any energy left to even watch the scheduled movie. Because Sid created this first massive theater, he literally brought film to Hollywood, which until then wasn't considered the hub of the industry it is today. With studios scattered all around Los Angeles, Hollywood and cinema had little connection until Sid came along, which is why he was given the name "Mr. Hollywood." After nearly 90 years of operation, the Egyptian is still going, though it's interior has changed a great deal. Nonetheless, it remains the oldest running 100%-movie-theater in Hollywood.

... "virgin" is a dirty word?

In 1953, Otto Preminger decided to tackle Hugh Herbert's smash play and turn it into a film. The Moon is Blue, a comedy of wit and manners, may have read like a modern Oscar Wilde play, but it translated like a bombshell. Opposing forces took offense to the very open and lighthearted dialogue with regard to sex. The film's heroine is a young, outspoken, and charming girl played by newcomer Maggie McNamara, who just happens to be a virgin and makes no apology about it. After she meets architect William Holden on the Empire State Building observation deck (where else?), he becomes completely smitten, but is mostly consumed with the idea of-- politely-- ridding her of the tedious "virgin" label. What results is a inept seduction with fellow suitor David Niven thrown into the mix and both boys realizing that they're no match for Maggie's smarts. Despite the fact that all ends well, in matrimony, MPPDA head Joseph Breen was hot under the collar due to the casual way with which sex was discussed, not to mention the open way in which the characters of Holden and Niven went about hatching plans to seduce their innocent prey. Breen refused to give the film the censorship's seal of approval, but Preminger released the film anyway with the help of United Artists. Such a thing was unprecedented. Due to the film's themes and the use of words like "seduction," "mistress," "pregnant," and "virgin"-- the latter of which had never been used in such context in a film before-- several theaters refused to show it. It started at small venues, slowly drumming up a fan following, and eventually earned a hefty $3.5m dollar profit. "Virgin" thus became the word that started the toppling of the production code administration. The film was additionally successful in earning McNamara an Academy Award nomination and winning Niven a Golden Globe, (which was doubly eventful for him, since originally the studio didn't want to cast him, thinking he was old news). 

... porn is nearly as old as film itself?

That's right. We've all been dirty perverts a long, long time. It's nothing new. While some pinpoint early German sexual education/health films as the earliest source of pornography, the movie labeled as the first official stag film is 1915's A Free Ride (right). There is some debate as to the year of its release, which may actually have been later, around 1923, but thus far it is the oldest surviving product of our cinematic debauchery. The plot is about as intricate as those today: some random guy picks up some random girls on the side of the road. After he pulls to the side to relieve himself in the desert, one of the two females follows him to do the same. The sight of her panties dropping apparently is more than he can handle, and before you know it... Yadda yadda yowza! Because such levels of sexuality and outright raunchiness were illegal, the film was not released publicly but was instead shown in all-male clubs, so as not to offend delicate, female sensibilities-- excluding of course the two female leads. What can be said about this now hilarious attempt at celluloid erotica, is that the filmmakers apparently embraced its comedy. The director is credited as A. Wise Guy, the DP as Will B. Hard, and the title writer as Will She.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011


James Francis Cagney

To his fans, he is the eternal gangster; to his friends he was "the faraway fella'." His reputation on film is that of a man toting guns and intimidating enemies, yet he won an Oscar for his portrayal of song and dance man George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Passionate and intense in his craft, he was warm, well-read, and private in his personal life. There is little, if anything, negative that someone could say about James Cagney the man, and while one could certainly make incriminating statements about the characters he played, even this would be done with a knowing and respectful intonation: even Jim's crooks were somehow likable. James Cagney-- who preferred 'Jim' to 'Jimmy'-- was a successful actor because he knew where to draw the line between fact and fiction, between right and wrong, between business and nobody's business. Along with his troupe of pals, jokingly called the "Irish Mafia"-- Spencer Tracy, Pat O'Brien, Frank McHugh, Ralph Bellamy, and Robert Montgomery-- Jim would help to define not only what it meant to be a man in depression-era America, but what it meant to be an American full stop. Whatever road he led us down, we would follow; we trusted him even when his characters were mistrustful, because beneath it all, we knew that Jim was being honest. It would be easy to merely reiterate the stories of Jim the film heavy, Jim the original hood, and, of course, Jim and that grapefruit... But there was much more to the man than that. So much, in fact, that his conflicting screen image and the salt of the earth guy he truly was are nearly irreconcilable and very, very hard to articulate. Here goes nothin'!

Jim in one of his personal triumphs: Yankee Doodle Dandy.

Beverly Hills was a long way from James's impoverished youth in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. His alcoholic but warm-hearted father's premature death would have a devastating effect on him-- the second born of what was to become the 5 child brood of James and Carrie Cagney. Jim's memories mixed the bitter and the sweet: his father's jokes, pitchy singing, and friendly rough-housing were too co-mingled with the patriarch's painful migraines and intense physical spells that sent him wailing like a banshee. The breadwinner of the family was lovable but undependable, and a great deal of the financial hardships fell on the determined Carrie and her children. Luckily, where James Sr. was weak, Carrie was strong. The family rock, she coached all of her children to be fighters, to use their heads, and to live right and honestly in the land that had afforded them so many privileges-- even when those privileges were difficult to see. An unspoken truth among the siblings was that the shy but sturdy Jim was her favorite. When he showed talent in drawing, she hoped that he would go on to become an artist. He didn't shrink from the idea, but he had trouble deciding upon his life path. He always seemed to be off on his own, moving through the world without really being a part of it, which was fortunate, since most of his friends got sucked into a life of crime. In his youth, he witnessed pals being arrested and men dying in the streets. While not immune to these tragedies, Jim's familial love and natural optimism pulled him through. Quiet but resilient, he could be counted on in neighborhood fights when there was a wrong to be righted or a smaller kid that had to be defended, but he never started brawls. He finished them. He preferred reading or daydreaming about living on his own farm, splendoring in the earth, and riding horses. The city boy was a country bumpkin at heart.

James put his childhood bouts to use as a boxer in City for Conquest.

Early in life, Jim considered becoming a boxer. With his mobile dexterity and fancy footwork, despite his short stature, he packed quite a wallop. However, Carrie put the kibosh on that rather quickly by challenging him to a duel of fists with her-- she wanted her son tough not dead. Jim instead transferred his physical prowess to a more graceful outlet: dance. His introduction to stage performance was a bit serendipitous. He wound up taking on a role in a play for his brother Harry when he became ill. His natural ability, straightforward delivery, and knack for actually listening to the other actors, made him stand out-- even if he did talk a little too fast. Later, that would become one of his trademarks. Jim graduated from a theater doorman (a job through which he absorbed a true appreciation for the art of performance) to a vaudeville performer uneasily. He loved life on the stage, but he was mostly concerned with finding work that paid. After he met and fell in love with Frances Vernon-- who had a crush on the "cute, quiet, red-headed boy"-- he realized that he could have both. The second strong woman fighting in his corner, Frances, whom Jim called "Willie," pushed him to hone his abilities and embrace his potential. Her belief in him would keep the two of them going when Jim was ready to give it all up to become a doctor, like two of his three brothers. After he and Willie were wed, they started performing in a vaudeville song and dance act together, performed separately when money was needed, and even temporarily opened a dance school to stay afloat. While their professional union ended, the marital one lasted until Jim's death.

Jim and Jean Harlow in a The Public Enemy, a big break for 
both of them.

Hollywood entered Jim's life, or vice versa, when he had some success starring opposite lifelong friend Joan Blondell in the play "Penny Arcade," which was made into the film Sinners' Holiday at Warner Brothers. Jim wasn't sure about Tinsel Town and figured he would make one picture and return to the stage, but he was offered a contract and took it. He and Warners would endure a hot and cold relationship for their remaining years together, not because of Jim's vanity or temperament, but because he quite simply didn't need the fame or the BS that went along with it. He only wanted to work. When Warners started giving him lousy roles, or when he saw the sharp contrast between his hefty box-office revenue and his minuscule paycheck, he would simply revolt. With his crafty and business-savvy brother Bill acting as his manager, Jim was able to play the Hollywood game his own way. By sticking to his guns, he would usually get what he wanted, while maintaining his artistic, personal, and professional integrity in the process. This did not always make Jack Warner happy, but he couldn't argue with receipts. This sense of genuineness and innate goodness is what drew audiences to Jim. While Sinners' Holiday was his introduction, he would really burst on the scene in The Public Enemy, using the mannerisms and character traits he had witnessed on the streets of New York to pepper his performance with a startling authenticity that had critics raving. Nasty, selfish, and unapologetic, Jim still managed to be somehow adorable. His approach to his characterizations gave audiences room to breathe and enjoy the fantasy without becoming too emotionally entangled. There was always a glint in his eye, as if to say: "I'm serious about this, but don't take me seriously." With his charm, good looks, and comedic edge, he was quickly tagged as a fan favorite and would hold the title of one of Hollywood's top leading men for the majority of his career.

Jim returned to his gangster roots for White Heat, because he found the 
character so compelling. This sequence is one of the most famous 
in film history.

Jim is best remembered for these early hoodlum roles, but he portrayed a wide-array of faces over his career. Often cast as a low-class, wise guy with an eye for the ladies, his role in 'G' Men would help to expand his horizons. Playing the role of a guy from the slums who made right and devoted his life to fighting crime, audiences caught their first glimpse of a character much closer to Jim himself. While he slowly edged away from his bad boy roles in films like Angels with Dirty Faces, he would return with a vengeance in the demented, Oedipal role of Cody Jarrett in White Heat. In between, he delivered performances with great humanity, humor, and color in City for Conquest, West Point Story, and The Oklahoma Kid. He was deeply honored to be able to portray one of his childhood heroes, Lon Chaney, in his biopic The Man of a Thousand Faces-- a title that also described Jim himself. But who was he off screen? His costars would remember him as a giving, devoted, and easy-going guy who wasn't afraid to stand up to a dictatorial director and was equally nurturing of new talents. The friends he had, he kept for life, and new ones knew that they were safe under his wing. He did his part in the war effort, doing radio broadcasts and making tours to support the troops, and as he aged he became more and more devoted to land conservation. His love for the outdoors and nature made it important to him to save the pure patches of green as yet untouched. Politically, he was open-minded, starting out left-wing (and at one point even being accused of membership in the Communist party) only to end up a seasoned conservative along side pal Bob Montgomery. Fluent in Yiddish, he enjoyed tossing in a line here or there in his favorite language, whether among friends or in his films. He too would add little mannerisms into his acting roles that had belonged to his father, which would induce his mother to nostalgic tears. Above all, family came first, and he remained close to his siblings and mother for all his years, even helping sister Jeanne when she began pursuing acting. In his work, he played as long as he could, and when he grew old and tired, it was Willie who pushed him to get back into the ring, where she knew he was happiest. 

As dastardly as some of his characters, Jim too possessed a certain poise and an 
elegance that not only made him attractive to the opposite sex but 
enabled him to pursue more varied roles.

James Cagney... What is there to say? As I sit here, writing and deleting what is certain to be a disjointed memorial, I find it difficult to describe who Jim really was, what he represented, and the legacy he left behind. A cinematic icon, he has been an influential force in the careers of film Gods like Eastwood and Scorsese and has left an indelible imprint on the history of film. Throughout his life, he presented vastly different portraits of what it meant to be an American, and as a man who considered himself a true patriot, this is perhaps the best compliment anyone could pay him. From the gritty realism of his gangster portrayals to his embodiment of the ultimate portrait of liberty in Yankee Doodle Dandy, Jim was both sides of the coin and 100% American tender. In later life, as his health failed, he enjoyed time on his farm (the one he had always dreamed of) and painting. Always a positive person, while he shirked the ballyhoo and public attention, he always remained grateful to his peers for their respect, and befriended many young fans who were curious about the aging icon and his unparalleled career. Jim passed away peacefully and with a wink (literally) on March 30, 1986. Having seen many of his friends go before him and seeing the world of Hollywood change around him, the straight shooter-- who could make no sense of the new "method" style of acting-- felt it was the proper time to take his final bow. He would remember his youthful vaudeville days with Willie as the happiest of his life and the enduring hardships of his youth as the most impactful, but it was his Hollywood years that remain with fans. In those years, he lent us his strength, passion, charisma, and swagger, and showed us that there is no moment in life so brutal that you can't handle it with equal parts guts and grace.