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Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Didja know...

Truffaut and Hitchcock discuss the cinematic effect.
...why editing is so important?
In his conversations with Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock discussed the experiment, popular among cinema students, regarding Russian director Lev Kuleshov. In this study of the montage-- now known as "the Kuleshov effect"-- Kuleshov investigated the use of images to evoke a psychological reaction from the audience. It occurred thus: he provided an image of a little girl's coffin to a set of viewers and then showed an unrelated shot of actor Ivan Mosjoukine's face (left). Yet, because the two separately filmed moments were played one after the other, the audience read Ivan's alleged reaction as that of compassion or sorrow. In another test, Kuleshov showed an image of soup, then played the same clip of Ivan's face. The audience reaction interpreted his face this time as displaying "hunger." Oh, what a little film cutting can do... Hitchcock marveled at the technical implications Kuleshov had discovered, and put them to use in all of his films through specific angles, reaction shots, and most importantly editing-- especially when it came to his masterpiece, Rear Window. While this experiment revealed a great deal about the necessity of skilled editing, it also raised questions about film acting. If you had a good director, cameraman, and film cutter, it appeared that a good actor didn't seem to be all that necessary... But then, Hitch considered all actors to be "cattle," didn't he? Look left, look right, turn, stare, scream, etc. Are film actors real actors or merely talking props at the mercy of behind-the-scenes, cinema tacticians?
Greta Garbo was, of course, a phenomenal actress, who proved that she could deliver complicated and deeply felt performances so effective that her audiences were moved to tears or even lustful panting. However, even she participated from time to time in Kuleshov's methods. When filming the final scene in Queen Christina, Greta was uncertain how to proceed. Having just lost her lover in the film, she was to stare at the sea from the helm of a great ship as she makes her voyage to a mysterious new life. She conferred with director Rouben Mamoulian. What reaction did he want? Courage or sorrow? Hope or despair? Rouben instructed her not to give anything away. "Just stare," he said. The audience, he asserted, will fill in the blanks with whatever emotion they choose. Greta doubted, but delivered. Thus, after she walked from her lover's death-bed to the front of the ship, she stood and looked forward blankly (right). Rouben was correct. No acting nor tears were needed. The audience projected their own emotions on Greta's face and saw her great pain over her past and equally uncertain future. It was hailed as a brilliant moment of exquisite acting! Had Rouben inserted an image of cheesecake, the audience probably would have sensed her hunger too.
...what Garbo found so funny?
Queen Christina is notorious for another reason in Garbo's history. While Ninotchka is hailed as the film in which "Garbo Laughs" (left), Greta had actually laughed before, and often. Of course, most of her guffaws were lost to silence in the pre-sound era. However, the first sound film in which she truly "yucked it up" was Queen Christina. Obviously an innovative and skilled director, Rouben Mamoulian knew the importance of this moment. Greta's Christina is supposed to happen upon John Gilbert's hopelessly snowbound carriage and laugh it up at his expense. Naturally, both Greta and Rouben were nervous about the moment. Greta was known for her childish and delightful laugh among friends, but her screen persona was pretty much the opposite of light-hearted. She began putting a great deal of pressure on herself and was a ball of nerves. Rouben devised a plan to help her out. He pulled John and Akim Tamiroff aside and told them that when Greta rode up on her horse, they were to make childish and absurd faces at her off camera. In turn, he told Greta that, no matter what happened during the scene, she was to just continue on as scripted. She complied... and got a surprise! Thus, when Greta turns the corner atop her stead and starts laughing uproariously, she is not acting: she is truly cutting up at the twisted faces and outstretched tongues of John and Akim. Her little girl delight is as honest as it gets.
...the connection between Sean Connery and Dick Van Dyke?
Certainly no two actors could seem further apart, but it turns out that these two very different performers starred in different adaptations of a certain author's books. Ian Fleming is most popularly remembered for his creation of the character "Bond... James Bond" in his series of 007 novels. Mr. Connery (right) brought Bond to life on the screen in 1962. Yet, despite his thorough knowledge and interpretation of sex and espionage, Fleming is equally noteworthy for another literary offering, which was geared toward a very different audience: children. Indeed, Fleming penned Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car, which was published mere months after his death and transferred to the screen, with the help of Roald Dahl, in the 1968 film starring Mr. Van Dyke. One would hardly draw a comparison between the international man of mystery, who preferred things "shaken, not stirred," and a flying car, but there are parallels. After all, Bond had all sorts of sweet gadgets and weapons that made him a much more elegant looking-- and English-- Batman of sorts. One could imagine him getting his hand on a flying car, albeit a much sleeker one. Then, of course, from the man who gave us "Pussy Galore," the name "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" has a sort of sexual connotation that one could easily transfer to a Bond film... Perhaps we should all re-read the children's book and look for secret clues that Fleming hid within its pages. Maybe the Bond trail didn't go cold at Fleming's death after all??? 
...Margarita wasn't the only famous Cansino?
Before Rita Hayworth became Rita Hayworth, she was just a little girl touring in a dance duo with her father, Eduardo Cansino (left). An ambitious man of questionable moral character, Eduardo was determined to make something of himself, which he eventually vowed to do through his talented only daughter. However, he too had his day in the sun. Despite his lackluster human recommendations, Eduardo was a phenomenal dancer. When he moved his family of five to New York in the late 1910s, it was his effective feet that got him noticed. In fact, Rita's pop appeared in the movies long before Rita herself. He and his sister Elise were featured doing their tango in a special Warner Brothers exhibition that preceded the premiere of Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, in 1926. Eduardo also used to be one of the go-to choreographers for formerly extravagant film premieres, which at that time included more than just "light's out, start film." The massive pre-shows, with themes, costumed dancers, and actors, were almost as impressive as the increasingly awe-inspiring movies themselves. To make money for his family, in addition to giving dance instruction and continuing his regimental rehearsals with Rita, Eduardo directed many of these shows. Eduardo was such a recognized talent at the time that the likes of Fred Astaire and James Cagney were his fans. However, he never made it as a superstar. His last cinematic effort turned out to be the choreography he provided in Dante's Inferno, which Rita danced with partner Gary Leon in one of her first film performances.
...that Spike Lee is a copycat?
Well, that's putting it harshly... Let's just say that he made it clear that he was a Charles Laughton fan when he made an homage to the actor's sole directorial effort, Night of the Hunter, in his own Do the Right Thing. In Lee's film (1989), one of the main characters is the boom-box toting "Radio Raheem," who wears four-fingered rings on both of his hands that read alternately "Hate" and "Love." In a film centering around racial tension, prejudice, and the cataclysmic mayhem that misunderstanding can induce, the themes of man's inner and outer brutal battle between these two emotions is violently made. However, what few novices (cough, cough) know when watching this picture, is that the same imagery was used by Laughton 34 years earlier in Hunter. In 1955, Robert Mitchum starred as the murderous preacher conning his way through his latest batch of victims, whom he lures into his trust with his great orations of the eternal battle between good and evil. Tattooed on his fingers, which he balls into fists, are the self-same words "Love" and "Hate" (right). Another theme in this film more obviously broached is that between the evil that comes with knowledge versus the purity of innocence, displayed by the two child actors-- Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce--  who are left to combat Mitchum's Hellish monster. Clearly, Lee saw a bright idea and decided to marry it to his own opus. The use of the conflicting fists is effective in both films... but Laughton got there first!
...the identity of the Lady in Red?


Red has so many connotations. It indicates passion, romance, evil, anger, or even embarrassment. One thing's for sure, the fiery color tends to stand out. This is something Norma Shearer (left) knew very well, and she put it to use. At the 1936 Mayfair Ball, the dress code was specifically decreed as formal and white. Every one agreed to the stipulation and showed up bedecked in an assorted variety of white, off-white, egg-shell, etc. Everyone, that is, save for one. Norma conversely showed up in a sultry crimson gown! So impudent did many see the action that even the ever-mild and lighthearted Carole Lombard was left seeing red: "Who the f*ck does she think she is, the house madam?!" One can draw a parallel between the effect Norma caused and the stir that Bette Davis's character caused in Jezebel, when she showed up to a demure party in brazen scarlet, while everyone else was dressed in white. Of course, her character seemed to have a tinge of regret about her decision, which Bette indicated in her nervous, sidelong glances on the dance floor. Norma on the other hand??? It's pretty safe to say that she spent the whole night smiling and laughing at the uproar she was causing. Hey, the film business is tough. If you want to get to the top, you have to make your presence known. Norma's unstoppable ambition wasn't going to be ignored by anyone! With the combination of her chutzpah and her more than fortunate alliance to husband Irving Thalberg, Norma pretty much had fame and fortune in the bag. No wonder she made so many women heated... and so many men hot under the collar!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

HIGH CONTRAST: Little Girls Lost (and Found)

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie. When Marilyn Monroe began taking
acting classes with Lee Strasberg, she performed this scene
(with Maureen Stapleton in Marie Dressler's role.) The 
result was said to have been breathtaking.

In studying the life and career of Greta Garbo, the last person I expected to draw comparisons with was Marilyn Monroe. Certainly, the differences between these two women are easier to identify. Yet, somehow, the more I got to know Garbo, the more I was able to find commonalities between Marilyn and herself-- both in the strange oddities of their behavior and in their mutual effect upon the public.

The greatest commonality between these two cinematic figureheads is their personal drive. Marilyn's determination to become the biggest star in the universe is more obviously recorded, but Garbo too had a hidden, unquenchable desire to become, not necessarily a star, but a success in her craft. Both were arguably found and formed, or aided, in their ascent by important men-- Garbo by director Mauritz Stiller, and Marilyn perhaps most importantly by agent Johnny Hyde (left). Where the two women are divergent is in the impetus behind their agendas. Garbo seemed to seek out acting as a way of transformation, a way of hiding in fantasy. She wanted to control the eye while being hidden from it-- you think you see me, but you don't. The cloak of her characters was a protection, and the emotions she experienced as the vessel of their passions and torments provided a cathartic personal release that she would never have revealed so openly in reality. Marilyn, on the other hand, sought the human eye full stop. She wanted to be swallowed by it. Acting for her was too a method of metamorphosis, but while Garbo alternated personalities in various roles while always maintaining her separate self, Marilyn mutated from Norma Jeane Mortenson into Marilyn Monroe and lost Norma Jeane in the process. Her quest for love and respect made her seek the spotlight, and only after she conquered the gaze of the camera was she able to begin her education in the art of acting in earnest. Garbo's ambition made her refuse all forms of compromise in order to get to her goal; Marilyn made the compromise and paid the forfeit. Thus, one woman enchanted the world by saying, "You can't have me," and the other by saying, "You can have it all." Objectively, one seems to be the User, the other the Used.

Their appeal to the public is thus equal in power and different in effect. It is hard to say who the bigger star truly was within their own timelines, nor who has maintained the greater allure, although the mythic, pop-cultural stature that Marilyn Monroe has reached at this point makes her sacrifice for eternal stardom seem the more obvious winner. Both, in their equal reigns over Hollywood, were considered the pinnacles of female beauty. Garbo, as a skinny, angular, and almost clumsy culmination of an art deco female, totally redefined beauty in her era. Her beauty was in her face, her eyes-- which were at once inviting and closed off. Her sexual enticement was a dare, which was only enhanced by her androgyny (right). Conversely, Marilyn was all woman all the time. She adhered to the general staples of feminine sensuality by possessing the voluptuous, curvaceous, come-hither figure that not only invited but begged for objectification. Her beauty was in her entire demeanor, including her coy movements and soft voice. She became, thus, an answered and expanded upon prayer to the male sex-- the mother, daughter, lover figure.

Both women, whether emotionally open or closed, were equal in their photogenic presences. The camera has loved perhaps no two women in history more, and both were geniuses in the art of being still and invigorating at once. Yet, again, the camera seemed to need to seek Garbo out, as if she was caught almost off guard and haphazardly-- in her perpetual state of gorgeousness-- whenever the shutter clicked. Marilyn on the other hand, used her charisma to charge at the camera, willfully pulling it to her and continuing a lifelong game of follow the leader. She more finitely determined the image she projected, including her approval or disapproval of her proofs. What the camera saw was what she wanted it to see, always and forever. Garbo, therefore, remains hypnotic for her always exhausted lack of effort and hint of disdain, and Marilyn remains hypnotic for her overzealous devotion to fulfilling the American sexual fantasy. The mind wonders when looking at both women, "What is pulling Garbo away from us?" and "What is pushing Marilyn so violently off the page" (left)?

In both cases, there is an inviting allure, although in Garbo's case it is far more dangerous in its temptation. Yet, both figures, in both still photographs and in motion, possess the same emotional quality that renders them somehow non-threatening and, in turn, likable: vulnerability. This word is used frequently in the descriptions of both women in terms of their work. Both are eternally projecting personas, but what they are projecting over is their frail humanity-- their personal weaknesses, their fear. Garbo, so stoic yet so full of emotion, is always the woman putting on a tough impenetrable act to protect her actually breaking heart. Her desire is her greatest weakness, and her passion is so strong that she seems forced to stifle it lest the world explode (right). For women in 1920s-1930s America, who were seeking liberation, the hidden she-wolf within coupled with honest feminine yearning was a quality easily identified and appreciated in Garbo. Her control of her sexuality spoke to them. She may have been a vamp, but she too had a little girl quality that just wanted to be loved. A woman, at last, could be powerful and emotional at once. Our annoying "hysterics" were for once not a malady but a centrifugal force of our character. 

Marilyn too had a bold face covering her inner complexity, though her projection is one of the utmost girlishness and passivity (left). She is the ignorant blonde, harmless in her sexuality, because she doesn't even know who she is. She's projecting what she thinks the world wants. And we do want it, particularly the male sex, who saw in Marilyn the perfect representation of the beautiful, appeasing, non-confrontational female. Yet, because we see the little girl peeking out from inside, we too sense her suffering. This is why she was and is equally embraced by the female population. Women identify with the great effort she put into her appearance, knowing first-hand the exhaustion it causes and the painful stakes one must endure to be an "attractive woman." They recognize the charade, because they all participate in it in the hopes of landing "the guy" who will love them for who they really are inside-- the mess beneath the facade. It is the internal "mess" of both women that still makes them more complicated and thus more fascinating. Garbo's vulnerability lay in the fact that she suffered under the weight of her rebellion, and Marilyn's lay in the fact that she suffered under the weight of her acclimation. Men were drawn to both figures because they represented the combination of both the virgin and the whore-- they were excited by the perfect extremities (whore) and attracted by the endearing internals (virgin).

It is actually the way Garbo and Marilyn's mutual but exclusive allure manifested itself in their private lives that indicates the greatest parallel between the two women. Their vulnerability, their eroticism, their fame... The culmination caused the same reaction. People wanted to be close to them, at first to worship and later to possess. Friends of both Marilyn and Garbo would talk about how "drawn" they were to the stars; how even off-putting behavior-- Marilyn's addictions and Garbo's eccentricities-- could not deter one from their company, at least not for long. Beneath their gorgeous exteriors existed a sadness that one wanted to quell. Everyone wanted to save Garbo from herself; everyone wanted to save Marilyn from herself. Lovers wanted to be saviors and protectors, in the likes of John Gilbert and Arthur Miller. Yet, total submission was never in the cards for either woman, whose independence was in constant conflict with their loneliness or desperation. No man could obtain them nor change them. One could only hope to forge a relationship by becoming somehow indispensable. Garbo came to lean on people like  professional confidante Salka Viertel and harmless friend Sam Green; Marilyn on acting coach Lee Strasberg and psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Greenson. Their uncertainties and little insecurities were played upon and used, most extravagantly in Marilyn's case, in order for the outside party to maintain proximity to their otherworldliness. Like moths to a flame, people were driven toward them, but strangely, it was most often Garbo and Monroe that were burned. In most cases, people flocked to these women not simply to experience excellence by association, but, in some perverted sense, to dominate and conquer the world's greatest star, thus becoming the greater and more supreme being. Their friendships became addictive, like "chasing the dragon" or pursuing the ultimate high.

Naturally, with all this attention cast upon them, both women could be wary of strangers and a bit frightened of fans. Marilyn had a much more open and inviting relationship with her "public," but she too was nervous around large groups of people. Though fans professed to adore her, they too often seemed to be almost out for blood. Marilyn took personal judgments and attacks in the press very personally and when fans became over-eager or predatory, she certainly learned the lesson behind "Be careful what you wish for." Garbo's reaction to this same phenomenon was to remove herself completely. She used her trusted friends as shields from fanatic trespassers, avoided large publicity fueled situations, and de-glamorized herself as much as possible in her private life to detract attention. Marilyn too had an on and off switch that she could flick at will, but she often struggled with whether or not she wanted it on or off. She needed the constant reaffirmation of her worth (Greta avoids the wolves, right).

Both women in turn were suspicious of the new people that entered their worlds, who were certain to have some sort of agenda up their sleeves. Most often, the starlets would find themselves pulled to people who professed ignorance or indifference to their celebrity. Both would also seek out surrogate parental figures to fill the places left vacant by their own absent or deceased parents. Internally, they were both sensitive women, an issue only exacerbated by their feelings that they were intellectually inferior. The more Marilyn tried to improve her mind, the more society seemed to laugh at her (left). Garbo solved the problem by remaining almost universally silent. Mistakenly, people assumed that these ladies were great powers and forces of nature, which in one respect they were, but in truth, they were both evasive and non-trusting, due to vast inferiority complexes. Occasionally, the walls would come down, and the great sadness and personal disappointments that they had would be revealed-- inside, they were outsiders, no matter that they seemed to rule the world.

Maurice Chevalier once recalled chatting it up with a surprisingly candid Garbo. She let her guard down with the debonair Frenchman and seemed at ease. She playfully suggested that they go jump in the ocean, to which the conservative Chevalier expressed confusion and politely declined. The course of their entire conversation changed. After his refusal, Garbo looked as if she had been slapped like a naughty child. She withdrew, became silent, and the girlish light of mere moments before vanished. She quickly left. An honest slight or mistaken insult to an already shaky sense of self would always seem to turn the ever-invasive Garbo back inward (right). Carroll Baker recalled a similar interaction with Marilyn. Marilyn had originally hoped to play the lead in Baby Doll, the role that made Carroll a star. At the premiere, Marilyn, with husband Arthur Miller, graciously congratulated Carroll on the film's success. Carroll, who had endured a great deal of controversy and a negative publicity storm due to the subject matter of the film, responded thoughtlessly, "Thanks, but I don't know if congratulations are in order." In a quick moment, the warm, friendly Marilyn was gone. It was as if she had stepped back deep inside herself. In shock that her kindness had been rebuffed, she too turned inward. Indirectly hurt by Carroll's comments, which the latter was kicking herself for, she simply shut down and compartmentalized, as if to keep her pain under wraps. Both Garbo and Marilyn used this survival technique. Thin-skinned and ever-uncomfortable, they seemed to find no solace but in their own isolation-- sacred cocoons.

So similar and so different, both women suffered and triumphed in their different experiences through life and celebrity. Marilyn suffered a much more tragic end simply because the little girl in her cared too much. She had never received the life lessons of what mattered most versus what was superficial. She learned these lessons, of course, on the way, but too late to be protected from the repercussions of her own early misdirection. Garbo was more blessed in this respect, having grown up in a more conventional household and family that instilled in her the values and confidences that would carry her through her most turbulent moments. Garbo had no problem saying "to Hell with it." "It" was all Marilyn believed she had to hold onto, and the weight of this need led to her ruin. Had Garbo not had a strong family unit in her tender years, her endings could perhaps have been just as tragic, since both women seemed to merely hold themselves together through the same tenuous force of will. (Marilyn objectifies herself yet again for our benefit, left).

Both ladies took a final swim in their last films: Greta in
Two-Faced Woman...

There is something fascinating about the parallels and perpendiculars in these artists' relationship to each other. Both are beauties: one hard and one soft. Both are strong personas: one cold, one warm. Both are sexual representatives: one evasive, one inviting. In their comparisons and their separations, there is much to discover about our own desire and what it craves and seeks in others. Would there have been room for Marilyn in Garbo's time, or room for Garbo in Marilyn's? Were their appeals specific to their personal eras, or was their universality equally timeless? Historically, these women are equal artists who were themselves the product of their own art and, in turn, became the artistic statements of their public. There is no best, no ultimate, no winner in the subjective game in which they found themselves the pawns-- the game of our watching. Both are one of a kind creators and creations. We remain enthralled because they were so distinct, quizzical, loved, and hated in their own lifetimes. We responded to their secret depths and continue to swim in them, for in both there is so much more than meets the eye, and so much more we will always want to know.

... and Marilyn in Something's Got to Give.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


Garbo suffers as Anna Karenina. Again.

You may recall some months back when I wrote an article referencing certain duplications a specific actor or actress has made in his or her career. My recent research into the work of Ms. Greta Garbo has unearthed another example of this double-take phenomenon, and so I present it amidst my latest batch to you now. It seems fitting, since last week's topic referenced "The Way We Never Were," that this week we delve into "The Way We Were... Twice." Enjoy!

After the tremendous success of the Gilbert-Garbo teaming in Flesh and the Devil-- an erotically charged vehicle that instigated a public fascination with the on and off screen love affair of the two hot stars-- MGM did what all studios do: capitalize. Hence, another pairing with "Jack" Gilbert and Greta in an adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy classic Anna Karenina. Forbidden romance? A foreign, chilly terrain that features Garbo's remote persona? The effect of Jack's passion melting her heart? Sold. To sensationalize things further, the film was given a new title and the studio advertised it thus: "John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love" (see left). The film was a huge success, further cementing Greta's rapidly growing reputation as the (reluctant) femme fatale of the film business. Brandon Hurst portrayed her cuckolded husband Karenin in the film, and Philippe De Lacy  assumed the role of her son, which gave her the rare opportunity to play a mother. It was a role that surprisingly fit her naturally and provided perhaps the greatest relationship in the entire film. Lots of things had changed a mere 8 years later in 1935. "Garbo talked," and her relationship with Jack Gilbert was over romantically. Greta's characters on film, while maintaining their complexities, had become somewhat less venomous. Prodded by Salka Viertel, Greta agreed to do a re-make of her former success in sound: Anna Karenina. Thus, she stepped back into the tragic heroine's elegant shoes once more, but this time her love interest, Vronsky, would be played by Fredric March, her spurned husband by Basil Rathbone, and her child by Freddie Bartholomew. While still a fascinating, well-performed picture, it failed to live up to either the passion or emotion of the original. It is hard to find the drama beneath the stale, screeching plot points, and while each individual part performs beautifully on its own, the chemistry between all of the main characters is lacking. Thus, while Love remains a tragic opus to love, Anna Karenina exists as more of a fraternal twin, which represents love as a villain that disturbs, dismantles, and clumsily destroys lives. One film is about blind bravery; the other about mere blindness. Because both are Garbo, both are classic.

In 1929, Jeanne Eagles was hot property. One of the most talked about female talents in the theater, she had been poached by Hollywood in an attempt to use her reverberating dramatic gifts to bring another dimension to their two-dimensional heroines-- one of whom was murderess Leslie Crosbie in The Letter. Unfortunately, this little spark plug was about to burn out. After her invigorating performance in but one more film, she was to succumb to her own demons and perish-- in part-- due to her heroin addiction. Her legacy is left behind almost entirely in this film, which is one of the few scraps that remain of her acting work, so legendary in her own time. When Jeanne passed away in 1929, many of her fans probably assumed that the world would stop turning. However, it did not-- the show must go on. That it did, and to bigger and better results. In 1940, William Wyler directed another interpretation of The Letter, but this time with Bette Davis. There was one member of the cast, however, who had performed in both the '29 and the '40 versions: Herbert Marshall. In the earlier film, he had played the role of the soon-murdered lover, Geoffrey Hammand (right with Jeanne). In the latter film, he played Leslie's devoted, oblivious husband, Robert. Certainly, the compare/contrast of the experience must have been entertaining for him. In one film, he got to stare into Jeanne's blazing eyes as she maliciously shot him. Repeatedly. In the other, he got his heart metaphorically staked by Bette's conniving philanderer. In one, he is young, arrogant, and invincible-- until it's too late. In the other, he is warm, enamored, and trusting-- until it's too late. So many of Wyler's stylistic choices make the more polished 1940 version a clear victor over Jean de Limur's take, but the trophy for bad Marshall vs. good Marshall is still up for grabs. How can one outdo oneself? The audience's decision will totally depend on whether you like your Herbert naughty or nice. It is safe to say that both of his performances contributed to the excellence of both films.

Irving Thalberg remains a visionary in the film business. This is doubly surprising, not just because of the "boy wonder's" young age at the beginning of his career, but because he was a studio big-wig. As one of the pillars of MGM, Thalberg was unlike the overly greedy LB Mayer who rarely saw beyond box-office receipts. Thalberg was both the entrepreneur and the artist. His sixth sense about story and talent led to some of the best made films and collaborations of the studio era. A forward-thinker, he saw his job as a responsibility to push forward films with meaning-- to make a point while making a buck. Many actors of the time considered him a friend and protector-- and buffer against LB-- because while LB had the muscle, Irving had the brains. The pen is always mightier than the sword. He almost single-handedly kept Jack Gilbert from Mayer's wrath, because Jack was a friend and too a major talent. He too pushed for the homo-erotic undertones in Queen Christina, because he knew that it would add layer and intrigue to the story. Another example of his fine brain came earlier when he caught wind about a little film called The Unholy Three, which he produced in late 1924 with Tod Browning as director and the uncanny Lon Chaney as the lead. The creepy, unlikely thriller was a bonanza at the box-office, despite the fact that some scenes were rendered so shocking and violent that they had to be cut-- including a murder sequence performed by Harry Earles as Tweedledee (above with Granny Lon and Victor McLaglen). The success of the film helped the newly formed MGM thrive. Of course, it was because of Irving that Tod and Lon had made the switch to MGM in the first place, and their combining talents continued to keep MGM running at full throttle for the rest of the decade. Lon Chaney always respected Irving and vice versa, and it was fairly poetic when Lon's first talkie and last film was chosen as a remake of their prior collaboration: The Unholy Three (1930). The cast, minus Lon and Harry Earles, had changed, the ending was altered, but all in all it was a direct re-hash. While the silent version remains a bit superior, this latter film became a sign-post of the beginning and ending of a tremendous era of film.

Quick Little Two-Steps:

Lon also made a re-appearance in the film Kongo, which was a remake of his earlier triumph West of Zanzibar. Since Kongo was made in 1932, two years after his death, one may find this a bit... odd. But hey, when an actor's good, he's good! Actually, only a brief clip of Lon from Zanzibar made it into the later Walter Huston and Lupe Velez film (both right). Chaney's multi-facial arts are unfortunately covered with a tribal mask. In the footage, he is seen briefly crawling to a burial ceremony.

There are no two ways about it: Sophie Loren was and is gorgeous. She once said that she owed everything she had to spaghetti, but I think the mythic Gods of Rome may have had something to do with it as well. In addition to her great beauty, she had the acting chops to back it up, a fact she made well known when she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress by performing in a foreign language film-- the gut-wrenching Two Women. (Pause for applause). However, her sexuality often came into play for both her and our benefit. For example, she performed a very memorable strip tease for Marcello Mastroianni in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in 1963 (left). She performed the same memorable striptease for Marcello Mastroianni 31 years later in Ready to Wear. She had lost none of her allure.

Spencer Tracy dreaded shooting Stanley and Livingstone. Why? Because he was in agony over delivering the infamous line/punchline, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" How to do it seriously? How to say it and not get the expected guffaws? It. Was. Torture! However, as only Spence could do, he did it perfectly... after a few takes, of course-- he couldn't help giggling a little himself. He clearly must have gotten over his anxiety about the experience by the time he made Woman of the Year in 1942. Perhaps to have a little fun at his expense, George Stevens had him use the line at an uncomfortable, international party in the film, where his character, Sam Craig, knows no one... and rarely speaks their language. To show him bashfully trying to edge his way into one particular conversation, Spence boyishly rolls out, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" His cocky smile is met with stony glances and foreign gibberish. Guess they didn't get it...

The 1990 film Pretty Woman was a surprising success. A romcom about a hooker? Mmmmkay... Somehow, with the arrogant charisma of Richard Gere and the girl-next-door charm of Julia Roberts, the audience bought it, and then some. One of the best remembered moments comes at a business dinner when Julia's Vivian tries to act the lady while eating snails. They turn out to be "slippery little suckers." After one morsel shoots across the room from her utensil, she is comforted by the kindly James Morse, who few recognize as Goldern Era studio actor and Irish Mafia alum Ralph Bellamy (left). One wonders if Garry Marshall put this episode in the film specifically because of Ralph. See, Ralph had had his own experience with snails in a prior film: Fools for Scandal. He too had had problems eating the slimy slugs, one of which he dropped under the table. His dining partner that time was equal, cooky beauty Carole Lombard. He admits to her, as he desperately tries to propose marriage, that snails give him an "inferiority complex."

King Kong was the brain child of renegade writer, producer, director Merian C. Cooper. The unbelievable story of a tropical romance between girl and gigantic ape became positive proof of the possibilities of the movies. Not only were the innovative special effects noteworthy, but the landscape of what creative minds could do with cinema significantly broadened with this film. It too became a piece of work that actress Fay Wray (right) would be forever thankful for. Her name, her face, and her scream, made the perfect combination and foil to moviedom's most surprising leading man, or rather, primate. When acclaimed and equally imaginative director Peter Jackson approached the classic with modern technology and a new actress, Naomi Watts, in 2005, he decided to keep a couple of things from the original: 1) compassion for the beast, and 2) Fay Wray. At the end of the original film, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) utters the iconic words: "It was beauty killed the beast." Jackson got the idea that it would be great for Fay to say that immortal line herself in his version. Sadly, right before filming, Fay passed away, and the pressure was put on Jack Black to fulfill the duty again as character Carl Denham. Thus, this double take was not to be. Perhaps Fay, as a lady, was simply bowing out and graciously making way for the next generation.

Until next next time...

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

HISTORY LESSON: The Way We Never Were

Greta Garbo "reflects" on possible acting projects and their outcomes.

It is often said with regard to our most beloved, classic films that life without them would not be the same. This makes one wonder about all of the possible projects in cinema history that "fell through," either prior to shooting or before completion. Some scripts or concepts never make it past the pitch table; others fall apart due to financing, conflicting egos, drop-outs, or even deaths. If we choose to believe in fate, then it is safe to say that all of the films in Tinsel Town "churned" out the way they should have. However, pondering some of our never-realized movies can weigh on the mind. Their unattainability makes their absence too hard to swallow, much like so many lost silent films of the past. Here are a few examples of what might have been. Might it have been grand???

Greta Garbo (left) was, on the one hand, a force to be reckoned with. She once told her great-nephew (is that accurate lineage terminology?) that she would have been a success no matter what she decided to do with her life. On the other hand, despite her serious dedication to both her career and her craft, her business sense was not always on par. She relied heavily on friends and advisers for help when deciding which projects to take on and which to refuse. John Gilbert, her first Hollywood lover, filled this role only too gladly, even encouraging her to hold out on old LB Mayer for more money-- a ploy that worked. After Greta lost, or rather, "passed" on John, she looked to writer, actress, and den-mother to all Hollywood foreigners, Salka Viertel, for guidance. Mostly, Greta just wanted to act and be passionate about what she was doing. Early on, she took whatever temptress roles were thrown at her; later she got pickier, holding out for pieces she considered more interesting, though she let others do most of her bargaining for her. In her later career, she found herself almost exclusively doing projects suggested by or even written by Salka, which makes one wonder if Greta was her friend, muse, or cash cow. Perhaps all. 

Nonetheless, throughout her career, Greta did have a mind of her own, and she often dreamed of roles that she would like to play. Ironically, a great deal of them were typically male roles. For example, Greta once mentioned that she would love to do an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray," with herself as the title character. She also stated that her ideal leading lady would be Marilyn Monroe as "Sibyl Vane." This casting, of course, was not to be, because of its overt, homosexual connotations. However, Greta did not have a great same-sex agenda or national statement in mind by making this project. Mostly, she was just a woman who understood that the more interesting roles in history seemed to be written for men. She wanted the meaty stuff. Her own androgyny, of course, was a factor, for Greta was always up for any role that would allow her to explore her masculine side and, most importantly, afford her the chance to wear trousers. This begs the question: did she intend to play the role of Dorian as a man, or was she was indeed willing to embark on perhaps the first unabashed same-sex romance in film history? The truth is that the social implications probably never entered her mind. Since Greta often referred to herself in the masculine gender,-- "I've been smoking since I was a small boy"-- she probably wouldn't have seen the issue as an issue. Needless to say, this dream role never came to fruition, and it's too bad, because imagining what she could have done with it-- playing the notoriously vain and twisted character of Dorian with her own epically beautiful face-- is a tantalizing train of thought. Other male roles that Greta longed to play include Shakespeare's famous Dane, "Hamlet," as well as Homer's iconic "Odysseus" in a failed GW Pabst directed interpretation. She also longed to pull a Chaney and play a male clown. (Greta "man's-up", right, with C. Aubrey Smith and John Gilbert in Queen Christina).

Another reason Greta Garbo continues to live on as such a legend is this unity of gender. She seems to be almost the being into whom all human beings are trying to evolve-- the perfect blend of male and female. While women and men can both be boxed in by stereotypes-- ditzes or meat-heads, sluts or cads-- Garbo transcended any type of labeling by creating her own definition of existence. Unlike the effeminate male, the masculine female has always been a more accepted form of sexual fusion, which perhaps has some sort of sexist connotation in terms of embracing the masculine ideal. Yet, in her hands, it worked. When she hams it up like an overgrown boy in Queen Christina, it is like witnessing her come alive at her most perfect. This is Greta's male alter ego at its best. However, she did have a feminine side, and her femme alter ego came to its most brilliant fruition as the tragic, romantic heroine of Camille-- what some hail as her greatest performance. In Greta, womanhood was best defined not in terms of poise, manner, or dress, but in sincere affection and devotion, whether it be maternal or passionate. Some other famous ladies that she nearly played in epic biopics were Isadora Duncan, Joan of Arc, and Mother Teresa. The latter is particularly intriguing... There is much martyrdom in Garbo's later talkies, evoking images and ideas of sainthood, but could Garbo de-sensualize herself enough to embody a true life Saint? (Greta tries martyrdom on for size in The Painted Veil, left).

Charlie Chaplin (right) was an enormous Garbo fan, and she in turn had a mutual respect for his equal genius. Getting these two icons on the silver screen together would have been quite the experience, which could only be made more outlandishly divine by a third egomaniacal interloper: Orson Welles. In fact, Orson did concoct an entire screenplay that he hoped the two divine idols would star in: The Loves of D'Annuzio and Duse. Since Charlie was a fan of Orson's work, and Greta was not un-interested in working with either man, the film seemed for awhile to be a major possibility. However, with all things Orson, the story was very high-concept, abstract, and in the end, unsettling. In his words, the plot revolved around "two crazy monsters" and explored themes of "degenerate hyper-romanticism." Ummm... okay. Obviously, the description did not reflect the general images of the King of Comedy and the Goddess of Love. As such, both famed actors turned the project down. They probably adhered to the age-old rule that if you can't understand it, no one else will.

Speaking of Orson, his first foray into the movies was very nearly not the pivotal film that changed cinema forever, Citizen Kane. In truth, he was kidnapped by Hollywood with no clear idea in his mind for his great filmic introduction. Several ideas flitted around in his head, including the play "Cyrano de Bergerac," but the story that he temporarily decided on was an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's intense classic Heart of Darkness. It very nearly happened! Orson had storyboards, a hefty plot outline, and visual tricks all lined up after he came to RKO in 1939. He set about learning the art of film craft-- watching Stagecoach in particular repeatedly. In addition, with his typical, intellectual fervor, he set about studying anthropology to better familiarize himself with certain, untapped levels of the story, and he too decided to make some changes. First, he would move the locale from turn of the century Africa to contemporary South America. Then, he would turn the book's anti-hero "Kurtz"-- his role in the film-- into a fascist, which was a subtextual reading he uncovered in the original novel. He declared proudly that the film would be an attack on the violent Nazi system. He then combined the artist and the magician in himself to develop one heck of an opening sequence, which was totally un-related to the plot. His famous voice would boom out at the audience from a black screen declaring, as he had on his radio show, "This is Orson Welles..." A montage of images would thus flash across the screen: his mouth, a firing gun, an electric chair, a caged bird, etc. Finally, the succession of shots would land on an eye (left). All of this was meant to communicate his new technique of the "subjective camera," which throughout the film would act as its own character. He would then declare: "You're not going to see this picture-- this picture is going to see you." Unfortunately, the idea became a bit too avant garde... and expensive. The idea for Kane entered his mind, and that became the path he followed. (Later, his overly ambitious nature also nearly led to his adaptation of War and Peace with English producer Alexander Korda, but this too was not to be).

Errol Flynn also had to let go of one of his cinematic babies. By the mid '50s, Errol was past his prime as a leading man. Recently wed to Patrice Wymore and outrunning his own scandalous past, he hoped to approach the business from a new angle, and perhaps at last pursue more interesting roles that allowed him to "act." Of course, the glory of Errol's lengthy filmography proves that this guy more than knew what he was doing in front of the camera, but still, he hoped to take matters into his own hands and create his own personal epic. Thus, he set about producing an adaptation of the story of "William Tell." While hoping for something different, he clearly was also trapped in the mindset of his swashbuckling days and fearful that his audience would not whole-heartedly follow him into character dramas. Things started out positively with a sound crew, including camera guru Jack Cardiff (see right). However, financial issues clouded the horizon, and despite some impressive scenes caught on film and a devoted crew that was willing to hold on for months without pay, Errol was forced to throw in the towel, leaving the film forever uncompleted. It was one of the greatest disappointments of his life, particularly after his "friend" Bruce Cabot, a performer in the film, sued him for $17,000, even though Errol only owed him $5000 for his work on the project. Coming on the heels of the news that his business manager, Al Blum, had stolen over a million dollars from him as well, Errol hit rock bottom. Errol had hoped to make his best film ever and dedicate it to his latest daughter, Arnella. It tragically was not to be. All that remains of William Tell are a few feet of film, and these without sound. Yet, Errol would accomplish his goal in other ways, turning out impressive and nuanced performances in both The Sun Also Rises and Too Much, Too Soon. His pet project was sadly, too little, too late.

Barbara Stanwyck (left) was at the tail-end of her cinematic hey-day when she filmed the cult-classic Forty Guns with director Sam Fuller. Sam was completely hypnotized by her abilities and her jaw-dropping performance as the intimidating, salivating, yet desirous "Jessica Drummond. " He always hoped to work with her again, realizing that her potential as a character actress could easily be utilized in more mature and gritty roles that suited her age. Unfortunately, this film became Babs's cinematic swan song. She turned the majority of her attention to television thereafter, sensing that the new medium would offer her more opportunities than the youth-centric movie world. It had become a running theme: an acclaimed film star was essentially booted from the studio when he or she became too old, but was then more readily embraced by the TV studios, who were always looking for big names and former idols to pull in viewers. Talk about your back-handed compliment... Filmdom should have been sad to lose Babs, and Sam Fuller certainly was. He had planned to film a biopic of Evita Peron with Babs in the lead. Watching this hard-knock Brooklyn girl sink her teeth into the First Lady of Argentina was more than an opportunity missed, it was a tragedy. At least Sam knew talent when he saw it!

After the great success of All About Eve, Bette Davis (right) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz used to talk on and off about making a sequel. The actress-director duo had gotten on so well during filming and had collaborated so flawlessly that a reunion seemed to be more than in order. Thus, before What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, there may have been a "What Ever Happened to Margot Channing (and That Bitch Eve Harrington?)." Bette was always in earnest about pursuing the project, but just how serious Joe was remains debatable. He probably merely kicked the idea around with her as a means of personal entertainment, while Bette hung on his every word and started crafting out her character in her mind. As the years passed, it became pretty clear that the project was not going to happen, and all for the better-- a classic of All About Eve's stature should remain untainted by a string of re-evaluations and re-imaginings. In the end, there were no hard feelings. Later, after Bette had survived a disastrous and abusive marriage to Gary Merrill-- her co-star and love interest in the previous film-- Joe mentioned the sequel project to her in passing. Bette looked him in the eye, and with a twinkle in her own, told him to scrap the whole idea. With regard to the continuing saga of Margot she spouted: "I lived it. It doesn't end well!" Thus, the tale of life after Eve will never be told in celluloid. At least this way, Bette gets to metaphorically ride off into the sunset with her soul mate on the screen, whereas she had to endure the harsh loss of Gary and all hopes of love in reality.

This one hurts. After the usually stellar collaboration of Tracy and Hepburn failed to pull in astronomical numbers at the box office in Desk Set, the studio began looking for Spence's next project. Producer Buddy Adler thought he had discovered just the right one. In order to break out of the familiar pattern of "Spence and Kate," Adler wanted to try a new angle... or rather an old one. Thus, it was announced that Spencer Tracy would portray "Professor Unrat" in a colorized revamp of The Blue Angel-- the German film that had made Marlene Dietrich a phenomenon. His leading lady would be none other than Marilyn Monroe. It sounded like gold! Money in the bank! An acting match made in movie heaven!!! For Spence to play the aging, love-struck, then clowned and castrated Unrat would have been a challenge worthy of such a complicated and dedicated actor. To see Marilyn step into Marlene's stilettos as "Lola Lola" too makes the mind reel at the sensual possibilities. As Marilyn had already started to regain respect as an actress after her turns in Bus Stop and The Prince and the Showgirl, it seemed that she may have been able to bring something new and deeper to the table, perhaps even giving Marlene a run for her money, as only Marilyn could. Unfortunately, this dream engine too went kaput. Spence was skeptical about working with Marilyn, who was known to be... unpredictable. Certainly, he had his own issues as a man who battled alcoholism, so Marilyn had his sympathy on that count. However, at the first scent of trouble and "Marilyn" antics, he backed out. Even with the agreement that he would receive first billing, he was unmoved. He just wanted to make movies; he didn't need the extra complication of MM's neuroses (and lateness). He went on the make The Old Man and the Sea and Marilyn went on to terrorize the set of Some Like it Hot. Her film was still a bigger hit. (Marilyn poses as Lola Lola in the famous Richard Avedon photo session, left).

And then there was Lon. Lon Chaney was very involved in the story selection process when it came to his career. Once he had enough power in the industry to pursue and choose his dream projects, he did just that. History has shown that he was directly responsible for seeking out his two most famous roles as the Hunchback and the Phantom in addition to many others. While Lon did his role fishing, the studios did too, and as a top commodity, films were crafted completely around and for him and what he could do with his special talents. In his book The Films of Lon Chaney, Michael F. Blake not only goes into detail about the many completed films of his hero, but also of the handful that didn't make it before the camera. The sad lot includes the following:
  • An untitled Gouverneur Morris film, in which Lon was to portray four or five different characters, fell through in the early twenties. Since Lon had made such a splash in another Morris adaptation, The Penalty, there is no telling what a continued combination of Morris's macabre genius and Lon's contortion could have produced.
  • A young David O. Selznick himself penned a script for Lon entitled "The Man Who Lived Twice." The title alone makes this one intriguing, but the reasons as to its dissolution remain a mystery. This was a fate also belonging to an English production entitled "The Lancashier Witches," to which Lon was also assigned but did not complete. Too bad... it may have gotten the Colorado boy out of the country for once!
  • Lon also had a missed collaboration with his favorite partner, Tod Browning, titled "Hate." I am still angry about this one, and I am sure Tod is equally still fidgeting in his grave about it. In it, Lon was set to play the leader of an Apache band of thugs in war torn Paris. (Yes, you read that correctly). In any case, the bigger demands of national combat bring foes together in battle, and war with within war ensues. It was slated to be quite bloody. But, the duo skipped it and made The Big City instead.
Lon gets violent in The Big City.
  • Perhaps the most interesting lost relic of Lon's career would be "The Wandering Jew," a film purchased by Louis B. Mayer in the early twenties that was shelved until 1927, when it was finally announced for Lon. The plot involved the burdened and cursed life of a man who struck Christ on the day of the Crucifixion. As Lon was always a man of faith, a fact that Clarence Sinclair Bull would relate in a story about a secret photo session that he did with the actor (see great article here), the martyred role of a man paying his penance before God must have been very interesting to him, not to mention incredibly fitting with his always suffering on-screen persona. Yet, no dice. Que sera sera...
If there is anything positive we can derive from these missed opportunities that could have been either home runs or total nightmares, it is the knowledge that we still have many stories left to tell. You look at some of these creative gems just sitting there waiting to be picked up and wonder why Hollywood keeps making movies about... well... nothing. And so, we are left to sit here and wonder how the history of film could have been different, better, worse, and thusly how even our lives would have been effected had we had these different films to relate to or to make us question ourselves. But, we only have what we have, don't we? There is no "if." It kind of reminds me Milan Kundera's classic, The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

“There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, "sketch" is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketch that is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.”

That comparison may have resulted from a bit of over-analysis, but... fitting, no?