A HIGH-POWERED HOWARD

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest (courtesy Verduno)

Leslie Howard in The Petrified Forest

Howard in his prime (courtesy Verduno)

Howard in his prime (courtesy Di Verduno)

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday

Leslie Howard in his Hollywood heyday (courtesy Di Verduno)

During his fabulous decade in Hollywood Leslie Howard received two Academy Award nominations.  His first was for the leading role in Berkeley Square, the part he made his own on stage and screen.  The second nomination came in 1938, the year before he would appear as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind  —  a nomination for his performance as Henry Higgins in the British film Pygmalion,a role for which he was eminently suitable and one which he played to the hilt.  As excellent as Wendy Hiller and everyone else are,  Pygmalion is Howard’s picture  —  as Of Human Bondage is his despite the fact that these days it tends to be discussed only in reference to Bette Davis.

Viewing Pygmalion for the first time in several years, I am aghast at how slow a start it takes, and how belabored some of the Shavian wit occasionally sounds.  This is a play, and no amount of opening up, no amount of montage-ing by the writing and direction and editing can disguise that this is a play, though contemporary (and some present-day) reviews seem so untroubled by this that I suspect I may owe the film yet another look.

But once these fine actors go to work, everything picks up, and the camera persistently catches an array of subtleties in the Howard face.  Most amazing of all, for a 1938 British film, is the richness of sexual dynamism In Howard’s portrayal.  As he begins to respond to Wendy Hiller’s growing interest and flirtatiousness, his eyes give us surprising erotic messages for a film of this vintage.

And speaking of its vintage:  Pygmalion was released the year before Clark Gable made a legendary exit in Gone with the Wind.  In Pygmalion Leslie Howard says damn four times.

In addition to his damns, Howard offers us another of his instances of seeming born to play the part.  He handles the Shavian lines like the professional he is, the Englishman he is  —  and solid actor and shining star.

Pygmalion
Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard
1938

Rick’s Flicks is grateful to Ginevra Di Verduno for permission to use photographs featured on her blog.  If you are not familiar with her INAFFERRABILE LESLIE HOWARD, you have a treat ahead of you. The blog is picture-filled with a wide range of portraits, on- and off-screen; it features history and interviews and memoirs; and embraces the latest in Howard scholarship.

https://inafferrabileleslie.wordpress.com

NEXT FRIDAY POST February 24

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

BACK ON THE TRAIL

Rick’s Journal     –  MY FILM CAREER

BACK ON THE TRAIL IN THE ROXY AT THE END OF THE STREET

(This is a revision and expansion of a blog I posted 9/26/14.)

The town where I grew up boasted a Roxy.

AT THE ROXY

AT THE ROXY

In my movie childhood  —  which chimes with all my childhood because my life has been lived at the movies  —  one of our downtown theaters, the Roxy, often showed on Saturdays what their ads called reissues.  Was the rest of the world calling them re-releases?  Or was everyone saying reissues then?

There were eight movie theaters downtown within a five-block area, seven of them on the same street, three of them in a row on the same block, right next to each other.  All of them, on their signs and their marquees and in their ads, used the British spelling theatre.  The later and  eighth house, on a side street, was called the Temple, and it would eventually become my temple because it showed older movies almost exclusively.

Occasionally the management interspersed an Adults Only documentary shot on location featuring barely clad tribes for the titillation (pun intended) of my budding adolescent urges and surges.  But the standard fare was thirties/forties Hollywood.  And I ate it up.

I saw It Happened One Night there.  And Mr. Smith and Mr. DeedsScarfaceThe Public Enemy and Little Caesar (a double bill!).  Jezebel.  And I recall a lone British film, called in America The Invaders (English title The 49th Parallel).  I was trying to see  —  and it wasn’t easy then or there  —  as many Leslie Howard films as I could.  He was special to me because he had been Vivien Leigh’s Ashley.  (The Invaders featured Laurence Olivier and Anton Walbrook, too.)

The Florida Theatre was downtown’s showplace.  Three stories.  Three balconies.  Three lobbies.  Even a Colored Entrance sign over a door on the side street.  The Florida was the site of my first movie.  According to my mother, the witch in Snow White so frightened me that I claimed to be sick and had to be taken to the rest room.  And that reminds me that at the Florida there were also three men’s rooms and in one of them I learned about what the Boy Scout manual used to call self-pollution, learned about it through an incredible exhibitionist demonstration about which one of my tender years in that era neither complained nor sued.

The Florida would later be where I first saw The Yearling and where my teen loins first lusted after Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez in Duel in the Sun.

In the next block from the Florida were those three-in-a-row theaters; a regal block:  the Palace, the Empress and the Imperial.    The Palace was a first-run house, usually for programmers and sometimes for double features.  All these theaters had but a single screen, of course, showing just one film or, at most, two.  The Palace was where I would see and fall for the Andrews Sisters (cf. Rick’s Flicks 3/24/12 and 2/1/13).  And it was where my brother would take me for my first view of The Wizard of Oz.  In those days a theater ran a film continuously  —  no breaks, no bringing up of the lights.  And like most people  —  except for my father who always found out when a movie started and and would never see one except from its beginning  —  we just walked into a movie at any convenient time.  And my brother and I entered the land of Oz as Judy Garland, scouting apples, found the Tinman’s rusted foot.  She was, from my first moment, never only Dorothy.  She was JudyGarlandasDorothy.  Older brother Joe and I were seldom friends.  There would come a time when we were  near sworn enemies.  But he gave me The Wizard of Oz, and I must be ever grateful to him for that.

I have just remembered that the Palace also offered vaudeville  —  vaudeville in its last days and on its last legs.  A double feature AND a stage show.  Magicians.  My first singing Alaskan princess (probably from the Bronx, had I known).   My first strippers.  Stand-up comics with raunchy jokes.  I started out at the Palace in my grade school years, but you can be sure I understood the jokes.  I still remember one of them.

VivienLeigh1948And while the Palace was a first-run house, it showed Gone with the Wind after its initial release at the Florida a block away.  So, it was at the Palace that I first saw a preview of the Wind and felt crushed that the trailer was all drawings and paintings.  No advanced live footage of the Wind in those days.  I had about a year to go before I would fall in love, once and forever, with Vivien Leigh.

The Empress and the Imperial featured second runs, the Empress often opening with what had closed at the Florida the previous day.  It was at the Empress that I first saw Gone with the Wind two days in succession.  I had already seen it in two neighborhood theaters, as they were then called.  Then I saw it on a Saturday and a Sunday at the Empress.  My mother was going to go with me on Sunday, but when my Dad drove us past the theater, we saw a two-block line.  My mother changed her mind; but they dropped me off, and I waited in that line to see my Vivien Leigh.  In those days our city, with its navy base, and our theaters were filled with sailors.  I remember a gob in the men’s room at the end of the movie that Sunday saying to everyone there, “If that movie had lasted five more minutes, I’d have pissed all over myself and all over the theater.”

One of the most exciting aspects of Gone with the Wind was its length  —  unusual then.  (At the time I did not know about Italy’s Cabiria or France’s La Roue or any other Gance or the trials  and tribulations of Greed.)  I was captured by the very idea of the length of Gone with the Wind.  I remember being angry when I had first learned about the length of the 1959 Ben-Hur.  William Wyler or not, who did Ben-Hur think it was?  Soon there would be a slew of lengthy blockbusters as studios  —  they were still trying to exist, then, in the old way  —  sought to make films, often of inflated length, that would consume all of an evening.  When you got home from your movie it was too late , in those days, to settle into television.

The last of the theaters to be built downtown, the St. Johns, was a studio theater.  It was Warner owned and showed Warner films only and was open, of course, seven days a week all day.  That’s how many films a studio turned out in those immediate postwar days.  I remember a flitty friend from school days describing the theater as “too severe,”  something he must have heard his mother say.  But the St. Johns  was unusual, to be sure.  Tomato red walls in the lobby.  No decorations on those walls.  I visited this severe place less often than I visited the other theaters I’ve fondly named and remembered.  Was I already reacting unconsciously to what would become a definite adult perception?  —  that Warner Brothers movies were filled with unlikable characters who talked too fast.

Once more unto the Roxy and its reissues.  I can still see a poster outside the Roxy Theatre, Ann Sheridan sprawled across a tabletop in Navy Blues.  I never did get to see the movie.  It became one of those movies that you somehow always miss.  It would have already shown at the other downtown theaters, and the Roxy was its last stop on the way out of downtown.  The Roxy was the place to see things before they got away.  But my mother wouldn’t let me go see Navy Blues that Saturday.  I called home to ask.  It would have been my fourth movie that day.  A single feature at the Florida, followed by a double bill at the Imperial, with Krystal hamburgers in between.  She drew the line at a fourth movie because, without older brother Joe, I would be getting home alone after dark.

I was sometimes, though, allowed two double features, in fact often.  And I  saw everything I wanted to.  I can’t remember ever being advised, as a child, against a movie  —  except that she spoke against Duel in the Sun which I was seeing weekly, following it from theater to theater.  I was in high school then, hormones a-rage.  My father exhibited no interest in what I saw.  When I was smaller my parents  —  I realize, now, always happy to have me out of the house  —  would drop me off at a theater and come back for me afterwards.  Sometimes I would be left at one theater in the afternoon and picked up at another one in the evening.

Before the Temple had reopened and been sanctified, my Roxy periodically had films from the past.  How did a grade school kid get hung up on older films?  I lived for the “Current Week,” a feature of the Saturday evening paper.  All theaters listed their programs for the coming seven days.  My brother never dived for his sports pages with more thrill than I lunged for the “Current Week.”  It contained the programs not just for those eight theaters concentrated in the holy five-block downtown area but for all the neighborhood second-, third- and fourth-run houses as well.

In my earliest discovery of the “Current Week,” I had no idea of the meaning of the word current.  I don’t know how I even knew its pronunciation.  In my life at the time it meant my movie week.  A poet’s heart leaps.  My stomach did when I would reach the Roxy  towards the end of the alphabetical list of theaters in the “Current Week” and find, in parenthesis after the title of next Saturday’s movie, the word reissue.   The Roxy changed its program four times each week.  They offered one movie on Sunday and Monday, a different one on Tuesday and Wednesday, yet another on Thursday and Friday and, finally, one which ran for one day on Saturday.  I deliberately read through the theaters in order, saving the Roxy till last where it naturally stood until the St. Johns was added.  The Roxy’s add for Saturday would read TODAY ONLY.  Saturday was reissue day  in a week when they were showing a reissue.  Oh, and the ad in the paper on Saturday would contain, under the title, in parenthesis, the word reissue.

I am still unable to answer my own rhetorical question.  I don’t know why I was so attracted to what was not new and preferred the Roxy’s Saturday programs and those reissues at the Temple.  Some of it may have been my mother’s telling me about her own moviegoing days as a youngster.  I knew about Rudolph Valentino and Clara Bow and Mary Miles Minter and Ramon Novarro and Doug and Charlie and the man who would become my beloved Buster  —  I knew about them long before I had the opportunity to see them.  But until that chance came, I had my Roxy and my Saturdays there.

I remember Too Hot to Handle.  I went to the movie already liking Clark Gable and Myrna Loy because my parents enjoyed them so much.  And Red Dust.  My parents loved Jean Harlow, too, though I confess that at the time she never looked real to me.  I also saw Algiers at the Roxy.  Mom and Dad had Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, but I discovered Hedy Hedy OneLamarr myself.  There was Tugboat Annie, though as a grade school-er I was incapable of realizing the wonder of Marie Dressler.

AT THE ROXY

AT THE ROXY

But the brightest of those early memories of the Roxy is still The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.  Bright indeed.  The first Hollywood film shot outdoors in color.  The color is rich but never garish; the photography is careful and quietly artful.  In the overall running time, there may be two mattes.  Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda and especially Sylvia Sidney compel us to believe this unbelievable tale of sentimentalized mountain folk from the popular novel by John Fox, Jr. which also became popular as a play.  (See Pine note below.*)

There is just enough of a hard edge to the characters  —  and the playing  —  of MacMurray and Fonda to assist their credibility.  There is a surprising and even harder edge to June, the Sylvia Sidney character, a facet the actress grasps and delivers.  She is a mountain girl who for years has had an understanding, as it used to be called, with Dave, a cousin (Fonda), an understanding that she has never fully accepted and from which she periodically frets and revolts.  To their mountain area comes the railroad, hungry for their land.  June finds herself attracted to the railroad’s business representative Jack Hale (MacMurray) who is attracted to her as well but proves a man of mature responsibility, refusing to take offered advantage.  When June is given a chance to go to the city, she is fierce in her determination to take it, a chance finally “to have my fancies.”  As a small child I somehow knew what she meant.  She wanted pretty clothes and pretty things, which were her dreams.  The background of the story is a Hatfield/McCoy-like feud.  Here they’re the Tollivers and the Falins.

Fuzzy Knight has two memorable songs in the movie, and they actually belong in the story.  And while later, seeing this film as an adult, I had to suffer a supposedly cute Hollywood kid, at least Spanky McFarland as Buddy is not a smart aleck and does not even feel superior to all the adults around him.  I always enjoy glimpsing Clara Blandick before she became Auntie Em, and she has a small role as a landlady.

Sylvia Sidney gave many outstanding performances during a long career.  Well worth watching:  Sabotage (Hitchcock); Fury (Fritz Lang) (both from the same year as The Trail of the Lonesome Pine); Dead End (William Wyler); The Searching Wind (from the play by Lillian Hellman);  Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (Academy Award nomination).  She also had stage successes, one of which was the role of the governess in The Innocents, a dramatization of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

+Pine note:  The novel  was filmed in 1914; in 1916 (directed by Cecil B. DeMille); and in 1923 starring Mary Miles Minter, Antonio Moreno and Ernest Torrence.

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine     Henry Hathaway     1936

NEXT FRIDAY POST June 3

Until then,
Let’s go the movies.
See you there,
Rick

 

REVISITING CLASSIC GRIFFITH

Rick’s Journal  –  MY FILM CAREER

CLASSIC REVISITED

Orphans of the Storm     D.W. Griffith     1921

Robert E. Sherwood (!) wrote:  “There is scarcely a scene or an effect in the entire production that is not beautiful to look upon, and there is scarcely a moment that is not charged with intense dramatic power.”

There is no accounting for taste.

This was my second viewing of Orphans of the Storm, and I am much less impressed this time.  The story, of two devoted sisters separated during the French Revolution, is implausible and foolish.  Almost all the acting is over-wrought, including that of both Gishes.  In the violently emotional scenes of which there are several and which are always too long, Lillian is embarrassing and unbelievable.  Dorothy, whom increasingly I consider the better actress, is even more over the top here.   Lillian is usually good at sex, and she is excellent in the scene where she grasps the villain’s intentions.  She is rarely as good at love, and she regularly spoils love scenes with what I find myself thinking of as her simper.

Lengthy Griffith never cuts to the chase, but he always get there.  The cross-cutting is excellent here.  If cross-cutting did not originate with Griffith, by this time he owned it and revels in it; but it is diluted by a foregone conclusion.

Griffith through and through:  There is a scene in which our villain’s coach runs over and kills a small child, and he asks if the horses are hurt.  It is an obvious and overdone scene, but it might have been moving had not Griffith inserted a mood-shattering title to inform that it is an actual historical incident.

The script is based on a play.  The Charles Affron biography of Lillian Gish gives the authors as Adolphe D’Ennery and Eugène Cormon.  Variety gives the play title as Les Deux orphalines.

Robert E. Sherwood wrote the cited comment for Life.  It is quoted in Halliwell’s guide.

TCM ALERT

On Saturday October 17 at 10:00 PM (Eastern), Turner Classic Movies offers an opportunity to  see Leslie Howard in his heyday as popular star and critical success.  The Petrified Forest also has Bette Davis in a performance coming between her two Academy Awards and in one of three appearances with Howard.  Humphrey Bogart has the supporting role of a lifetime as Duke Mantee, and he and Howard are excellent together  —  as they will be again the following year (Stand-In).  The Petrified Forest, 1936, is from the play by Robert E. Sherwood and is directed by Archie Mayo.  Tay Garnett directed the two men in Stand-In.

NEXT POST FRIDAY October 23

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

LESLIE HOWARD ALERT

TCM SHOWING

Stay awake Monday night until 12:30 AM Tuesday morning and watch the great Leslie Howard in Five and Ten from 1931, directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  This is Howard’s only pairing with Marion Davies.  Irene Rich and Halliwell Hobbes are also in the cast.  British title is Daughter of Luxury, from a novel by Fannie Hurst.  (The 12:30 AM is Eastern time.)

NEXT REGULAR POST is Friday October 9.

LESLIE HOWARD IS BACK

On Sunday August 2 at 8:45 AM (Eastern Time), Turner Classic Movies is showing It’s Love I’m After, a romantic but sophisticated comedy with a theater setting.  This is an opportunity to see Leslie Howard at his peak, co-staring with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland.  Halliwell’s guide , in an interesting quotation from the American Film Institute, notes that Howard and Davis here are “surrounded by that set of millionaires, valets and heiresses that were at one time as much of a convention in American comedy as the fops of Restoration theatre.”

Those who puzzle over the character of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and puzzle even more about the casting of Howard for the role can get a good look here at the popular star American women found dashing.

It’s Love I’m After          Archie Mayo          1937

NEXT REGULAR POST FRIDAYAugust 7

Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick

PAST AND PRESENT, MAINLY PAST – INCLUDING SILENT FILM

ONE MORE FRANJU

Rick’s Journal  –  MY FILM CAREER

La Première nuit
Georges Franju
1958

This glowing example of poetic documentary captures light and contrast and lines and shapes, utilizes silences against sounds, and benefits from two perfectly cast faces  —  the boy who spends the night underground in trains and the glimpsed girl who becomes the girl of his dreams.

Does he earlier decide he wants to spend the night with the trains?  Or does he happen to and/or have to?

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PRESENT AND PAST

The inafferrabileleslie blog devoted to the career of Leslie Howard offers a delightful letter written by Howard in July, 1940 in which he describes Vivien Leigh at work at Selznick International when they both were starring in Gone with the Wind.  An insider’s look  —  and a gem.   http://www.inafferrabileleslie,wordpress.com.

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ANOTHER EXPRESSION of what silent film really was (is) and NOT just film without audible dialogue:  “For many sound spelt the death knell for what seemed so necessary  after the fatal misunderstandings that had led to the First World War:  a universal language.  For others of a more aesthetic persuasion, sound mired cinema in a realism that the mute image had promised to transcend.” (emphasis mine)   The quotation is from Colin MacCabe’s fine Godard:  A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, Faber and Faber, 2003.

NEXT FRIDAY POST March 6
Until then,
See you AT the movies,
Rick

 

INDIAN SUMMER, LESLIE HOWARD, LEATRICE JOY

MOVIES ARE EVERYWHERE

Lynn, in John Knowles’ novel Indian Summer,  is a young adult but not too old to run away  —  away from a family and a place that are stifling her.  Walking through the Connecticut night she heads for a big enough town “where the movie houses seemed the kind of palaces she loved, so much more magical than a real house…movie palaces with their functionless theater boxes, tormented Vatican pillars lining the lobbies, rococo balconies encrusted with crust, lost Arabian courtyards featuring one drinking fountain, fake stars winking from the satiny ceiling; above all, their huge screens, where she could watch huge people doing huge things and be happy until the arid moment when the lights came on and she had to withdraw into her own somewhat undersized self again and step back onto the bleak, unintelligible treadmill called real life.”  (John Knowles, Indian Summer, Random House, 1966.)

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LESLIE HOWARD IN WORDS AND PICTURES

The magazine/book “Gone With the Wind, 75th anniversary of the first blockbuster movie,” does better by Leslie Howard  than the other current magazine/book (Life’s) mentioned in my blog of 11/21/14.  Howard was omitted from the latter in the section on the post- GWTW life and work of the film’s stars.  But here he is included with mention of his death in WW ll in a plane crash following Nazi gunfire.  The two pages of information capsules contain stills from The Petrified Forest, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and his two Oscar-nominated roles in Berkeley Square and Pygmalion.  There is also a very good studio portrait as well as a black and white study of him as Ashley Wilkes.  (“Gone With the Wind, 75th anniversary…”, 1-5 Publishing, Irvine, CA.)  (For an outstanding gallery of Leslie Howard photographs I refer readers to Ginevra di Verduno’s blog http://www.inafferrabileleslie.wordpress.com.)

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On her blog “John Gilbert, St. Elmo and Me” Sheryl Stinchcum currently offers a farewell to the late Leatrice Joy.  (www.johngilbertandme.wordpress.com)

NEXT FRIDAY POST FEBRUARY 6, “An Open Letter to the Academy”
Until then,
See you at the movies,
Rick