DAYS OF LETTERS

CELEBRITIES I HAVE KNOWN

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

When I was growing up Ginger was dancing.  Judy was singing.  And Vivien Leigh was outacting everybody.  And people wrote letters.

I have always had good luck hearing from celebrities.  Over the years I have composed and sent off dozens of admiring missives, some of them fan-atically adulatory.  And the ratio of response has been gratifying.

I have often been sparked to write during awards season.  I have seldom agreed with the Oscar choices made by voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.  The New York Film Critics, as the group was called at the time I am remembering, appeared to me to make the better choices.  They were the only other film award group attracting any considerable attention then.

I tended to write actors and actresses, and directors and photographers, whose work that year I had admired, if they had been ignored by the award givers or had seen the award go to another nominee.  That was when I wrote Jack Hawkins.

Jack Hawkins.  Hawkins in The Black Rose had been brusquely touching as Tristram Griffin who dearly loved his friend, and loved England even more.  I wrote Jack Hawkins, and he responded in ink.  His few words conveyed an unmistakable humility that was genuine.  He wrote an appreciative note, declaring himself “staggered and gratified,” that I thought him the best supporting actor of the year.  (The Black Rose, Henry Hathaway, 1950.)

Richard Hylton.  If any of my readers are not familiar with Richard Hylton, I hope you will find Lost Boundaries and watch him.  Made outside the studio system and one of the earliest American films to look at racism, Lost Boundaries is far from a complete success.  Gavin Lambert said it well:  “It cannot be said to betray its subject but is, rather, unequal to it.” (quoted in Halliwell)  But Hylton is impressive in a sensitive, wrenching performance.

In response to my letter Hylton sent a handwritten note and  —  to my surprise  —  an unrequested photograph, signed.

Hylton would make only three more films.  He took his own life at age 41.  (Lost Boundaries, Alfred Werker, 1949; Halls of Montezuma, Lewis Milestone, 1950; Fixed Bayonets!, Samuel Fuller 1951; The Pride of St. Louis, Harmon Jones, 1952.)

Joseph Wiseman.  I first experienced Joseph Wiseman on the New York stage.  In his first film he reprised his stage role in Sidney Kingsley’s Detective Story (William Wyler, 1950).  My other favorites among his film portrayals are Viva Zapata!, Elia Kazan, 1952;  The Unforgiven, John Huston, 1960; The Happy Thieves, George Marshall, 1962.  He would confound me by eventually playing Dr. No.

I still possess the short letter he wrote me, in his own hand, to thank me for mine.  The scary guy’s brief words are touching and sincere.

Celebrities today seem to have caught our societal bug.  I no longer receive the rate of response to which I became accustomed.  In the last several years the only famous names who responded  —  and they responded right away  —  have been Alistair Cooke, Ginger Rogers and Tom Cruise.

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 29

Until then,
See you at the movies?
Rick

 

IN CLASS WITH THE GREAT DAVIS

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

The prof who brought her to speak to us  —  brought her to the UCLA campus in his own car  —  came into the room alone and told us that she was outside having a final cigarette.  He also told us  —  would she have killed him if she knew?  —  that she was “a little nervous”  about her first classroom appearance.

in Mr. Skeffington

He went outside and brought Bette Davis into us.  I was sitting in the fourth row of an eight-row classroom.  I was that close to the actress I had admired since my childhood, since the time when my mother and my aunts referred to Bette Davis movies as “deep pictures.”  In reality most of her films were melodramas lacking, as were most Hollywood films of the era, psychological sophistication or profundity.  I think that by deep, my family meant somber, with the possibility  —  rare then  —  of an unhappy ending.  But Bette Davis starred in some good films.  She was three times directed by William Wyler.  During her major creative years, 1936-1952, she certainly had overall, scripts of better quality than did Greta Garbo, who spent her entire career elevating hokum.  Of course Davis, too, did her share of making mediocre material watchable and interesting.  From her earliest screen appearances it is impossible NOT to watch Bette Davis once she enters a scene.

On this evening she was wearing a dark blue semi-formal dress.  She and our teacher sat in chairs on either side of the small desk at the front of the room.  She did not begin with a presentation.  He introduced the person who, for once, needed no introduction, then invited us to ask questions.

I remember her responses about four films.

Storm Center.  She displayed a bitterness about the fate of this film in which she played the town librarian who refused to remove a book from the library’s shelves when someone claimed that it promoted communistic ideas.  The Legion of Decency, at the time a powerful force on filmmaking and film distribution, had seen fit to give Storm Center a designation of “condemned,” a category usually reserved in that time for sexy French and Italian imports.  Storm Center, not that well received by critics, also did not perform well at the box office.  Rightly or wrongly, Davis blamed the Legion of Decency for the film’s failure.  “Once you get that Catholic rating…” she said, there was no chance of success.

Mark Harris in his book Five Came Back suggests that there were those in Hollywood who actively worked to punish Davis for her participation in the film and that this played a part in her difficulty finding roles in this crucial period of her career.   (Storm Center, Daniel Taradash, 1956.)

The Virgin Queen.  Davis was particularly interesting talking about this mid-fifties film which had a mixed critical success and was a box office failure.  I had always felt that she and the film were better than the conventional wisdom; and  —  lo!  —  she certainly agreed with me.  But she gave no indication that she regarded it as meeting less then her highest standards.  I would venture that she estimated it as equivalent to her Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).   She is not that good (the earlier outing is one of her outstanding performances).  Neither is the film, though its brilliant color is handsome, and it tries for a thorough sense of period.  Directed by Henry Koster, it features Richard Todd as Raleigh and Herbert Marshall as Leicester.  (The Virgin Queen, Henry Koster, 1955.)

Another Man’s Poison.  A student in our class remarked to her that she had often read that in her performance in Another Man’s Poison, Bette Davis had intended to parody her films and the kind of role she usually played.  She did not at first grasp the intent of the question; but  —  OH!  —  when she did:  When the questioner explained what she was asking, Davis said, “You mean making fun of my own work?  I would NEVER do such a thing.”  Another Man’s Poison, Irving Rapper, 1951.)

All About Eve.  Hearing the actress speak briefly about the famous Mankiewicz film, I became aware for the first time that performers had often not seen the completed versions of their films.  That is probably no longer true.  Davis was speaking to our group before VHS and DVD and streaming.  But I wonder if sometimes today this still happens  as I reflect on the fascination with which actors sometimes watch clips of their performances during award shows.  They appear sometimes to be discovering and learning.  It is only Barbra Streisand who can clearly be seen enthralled in admiration of her own work.

Bette Davis had been speaking to us of some of her films that she had never seen.  She then said that she had seen Eve.     “That is one I can sit through and never have to close my eyes.”  She said only that about the film, and it was enough.  (All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950.)

At another point in the evening one of the lesser lights in our class told Bette Davis that he was interested only in directing .  “How long might I have to work at a silly-assed job like editing before I get to direct?”  She was kinder than she might have been.  She first snapped:  “Editing is not a silly-assed job.”  Then she only said, “Editing can create a movie, it can make or break a film.”

When the session was over, without her having smiled once, our prof thanked her; and, with the great woman sitting right there, said:  “I think we would all prefer having heard honest pride to false modesty.”

See Rick’s Flicks post of 2/5/16 for a discussion of Bette Davis’ career, Rick’s Flicks’ choice of her greatest performances and choice for the single greatest one.

DAVIS QUOTE:  On turning down the role of Mrs. Dudgeon in The Devil’s Disciple, she said that after twenty-five years in the business and two Academy Awards, “I’m damned if I’ll play Kirk Douglas’s mother.”

NEXT FRIDAY POST September 15
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

RENOIR AT UCLA

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

MEANWHILE     –     back at UCLA

Hugh Gray brought Jean Renoir to us as well.  I sat in the third row of a small projection room.  I was that close to one of the world’s greatest living men.  And the great man was down-to-earth, close to self-deprecatory, but aware, I don’t doubt, of the timeless quality of his body of work.  Time proves him right about that.

THE SOUTHERNER, one of Renoir’s American films

He was generous in the question and answer session after he spoke.  We of course asked him about Grand Illusion  and Rules of the Game; but I easily recall the most surprising thing he said  —  that, for him, the most beautiful films ever created were the silent films of Hollywood in the twenties.  I am sorry now that I did not ask him if he meant to refer to Hollywood’s silent era in general of if by noting the twenties, he meant to exclude the films from the previous decade.

It must have been Arthur Ripley, our directing prof, who brought George Seaton to us as guest speaker.  (He twice won the Academy Award for adapted screenplay:  The Miracle on 34th Street and The Country Girl.)  Seaton was debonair, tailored and in manner sophisticatedly reserved.  I remember only one point that Seaton made, and I will be grateful if any of my readers can comment on it.  He spoke about music as background in film, something he considered crucial to successful film making.

writer/director George Seaton

He then said that almost any dramatic music  —  I do think he said almost  —  that almost any dramatic music will work with any dramatic scene; that if you play the music against a playing scene, the music and the scene will rise in tension together and dramatically merge and climax.

He really said that.

Comments?

NEXT Friday POST August 18

Until then,
See you OUT and AT the movies,
Rick

STRANGE THRESHOLD OR BEHIND THE DOOR FROM PETER LORRE

Rick’s Journal  —  MY FILM CAREER

When I was a student at UCLA the perks included not just the regular experience of hearing Colin Young and Hugh Gray and Arthur Ripley as regular classroom instructors.  They were always bringing outstanding  —  nay!  THRILLING  —  guest speakers for us.

I was late for class the day Mr. Ripley brought Peter Lorre with him.  I could see through the open door that not a seat was left.  I was able to stand in such a way that our guest could not see me but I could see him.  Even from outside the room, though, his presence was still vivid.  From where I crouched, I seldom distinguished any of his words; but I could hear the buzzing nasal hum of an internationally recognizable voice.

The Speaker

Right there, before my squinting eyes, stood M, a redder-faced, heavier M, heavy but not sloppy, neat in an expensive gray suit.  I was looking at Ugarte, at Joel Cairo, at Julius O’Hara.

In those good and glamorous days at UCLA, Peter Lorre was the only speaker I had to hear from such an uncomfortable distance.  I was close to all the others, usually in intimate classroom settings  —  small classrooms.  Billy Wilder  —  when only three of us showed (!), and we had him all to ourselves; and he graciously gave us an hour and a half.  Bette Davis  —  in a small classroom.

Dalio in CASABLANCA (photo courtesy of reader dmg)

 

I can’t remember why Marcel Dalio was in town when prof Hugh Gray brought him to class to talk with us.  And blithering, often hungover youth that I was, I cannot now report much of what he said to us.  He was candid, unsentimental and quintessentially French relating anecdotes from the sets of Casablanca but especially The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion.

Coming Soon:  George Seaton.  Billy Wilder.  Jean Renoir.  And Bette Davis:  dynamite in a small classroom.

Coming Soon:  Farrell, Kidman and Dunst in Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled.

Note:  Consult imdb for Arthur Ripley, Hugh Gray and Colin Young.

NEXT FRIDAY POST July 28

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

AT THE STAGE DOOR – NEWCOMER, OLDTIMER

Rick’s Journal    —    MY FILM CAREER

THEATER ALLEYS AND STAGE DOORS IN NEW YORK

One of my prime reasons for wanting to go to New York the first time was to see Richard Hart on stage.  He was appearing in Goodbye, My Fancy with Ruth Hussey.  I had been more than impressed by him in MGM’s version of Elizabeth Goudge’s novel Green Dolphin Street.  He was dashing and talented, and he was believable as dull, self-centered, good-hearted William, the center of two women’s worlds.  A new star was alight in the screen’s sky.  But he would make only two more films and die of a heart attack at thirty-five.  I would come to a re-evaluation of Green Dolphin Street as a botch of a lengthy but intriguing novel.

At the time I am recalling, though, Richard Hart was my latest discovery, and he was back on Broadway where, before his first film, he had achieved solid success playing the witch boy in Dark of the Moon.  And after his current play, I was sanding at the stage door with my Playbill.  I told him that I had come all the way to New York to see him.  He was unimpressed and was really interested only in the small attractive young woman on his arm.  But he signed my program and thanked me.

I watched them walk to the end of the theater alley and turn right; and I was still at the stage door when lovely Ruth Hussey appeared.  She signed my Playbill, too.  She was alone and looked tired through her prettiness.  She made an effort, though, and thanked me.

Finally Conrad Nagel, also in the cast, signed for me, too.  I told him that my mother had played hooky from school to see him in the silent film Three Weeks.  I fear he did not appreciate the comment of which I was so proud.   With a sigh he said, “That was a LONG time ago.”  Like Richard Hart, he too had a very attractive young woman on his arm,  But he did graciously sign my program.

NEXT FRIDAY POST June 9
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

THE ANDREWS SISTERS JOIN THE NAVY

Rick’s Journal    —    MY FILM CAREER

In the Navy
Arthur Lubin
1942
music & lyrics by Gene de Paul and Don Raye

I remember my surprise when reading a statement by a British journalist that Dwight Eisenhower had won World War ll.  I grew up believing that the Andrews Sisters had.

The Andrews Sisters in action.

In this outing, though, they perform three not very impressive numbers.  To my knowledge “Gimme Some Skin, My Friend,” is the only one of the three they recorded.  Accompanying it in the film they do a bit of their dancing, with LaVerne especially letting herself go.

The other songs:

“We’re Off to the See the World”
“Hula-Ba-Luau”

In an all-cast finale at the end they reprise two songs that Dick Powell had sung earlier:  “Starlight, Starbright” and “You’re in the Navy.”

They are a little outrageously hula-ish and somewhat wildly costumed in the hula number; but as is always the case when they offer something like this, there remains a 40’s innocence about them.

They figure in the plot of this film and have plenty of lines and several scenes.

Powell, always in fine voice, is perfectly cast as a successful and well-known crooner who enlists under a false name so that he can escape his career and hide in the Navy.

I don’t enjoy Abbot and Costello very much in this.  There is a meanness in much of the humor which, as usual, involves even physical cruelty on the part of Abbot towards his supposed chum.  Watching In the Navy this time I found myself wondering if there is hostility between the actors as well as between the characters.

Check out Rick’s Flicks for 3/24/12:  “The Andrews Sisters in the Movies.”

NEXT FRIDAY POST April 21

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick