This posting is my contribution to the Marathon Stars Blogathon hosted by Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema and Crystal at The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blogs. Please do visit and read the other postings!
The challenge for the Marathon Stars Blogathon was to watch 5 films featuring a star whom I’d only seen in up to 3 movies previously. I found it quite difficult to pick someone, since often as soon as I notice an actor I rush to see as many of their films as possible, promptly ruling them out for this particular blogathon!
However, I realised I had seen just two films starring Hedy Lamarr, and that she had made a favourable impression on me in both. She is on something of a hiding to nothing in Algiers (John Cromwell, 1938), which is almost a frame by frame remake of the great French drama Pépé le Moko, made only a year earlier – but she still gives a good performance. However, the film I had really liked her in wasCome Live With Me (Clarence Brown, 1941), a bitter-sweet romantic comedy where she plays a Viennese exile in the US who gradually falls for awkward young writer James Stewart. That’s still probably my favourite of hers even after seeing the 5 new-to-me films that I’ve watched for this marathon, which covered a range of genres and were all highly enjoyable.
Continuing my efforts to watch as many William Wellman pre-Codes as possible, I’ve now seen Lilly Turner a couple of times. This movie sadly isn’t available on DVD as yet – I believe it sometimes turns up on TCM in the US, though, and is well worth looking out for. It strikes me there are easily enough early Wellman movies for a second Forbidden Hollywood collection focusing on him, though it’s more likely the lesser-known titles will turn up as Warner Archive releases.
This was the second time Ruth Chatterton had starred in a Wellman film (the first was Frisco Jenny the previous year. Once again she plays a woman who is forced to be tough by circumstances, but who still clings to a few battered ideals. This time, her character, Lilly, is a woman working in a succession of travelling carnivals. Wellman clearly enjoys creating the sleazy, down-at-heel circus atmosphere. The whole film feels varied and lively and, packing a lot of plot, dialogue, melodrama and black humour into just 65 minutes, moves at a breathless speed. (As with Wellman’s So Big!, it was originally longer and some footage was cut before release – Walter Brennan was among the actors whose scenes were deleted.) George Brent gets top billing opposite Chatterton, but he only comes into the film fairly late on – and to my mind Frank McHugh really has the main male role, as the heroine’s second husband. Robert Barrat is also superb as a tormented strongman, with a heavy German accent he was breaking in for Heroes For Sale.
After thoroughly enjoying William Wellman’s pre-Code comedy-drama The Purchase Price, I was delighted to get the chance to watch So Big!, another film he made the same year, just a couple of months earlier, also starring Barbara Stanwyck as a farmer’s wife. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber, this is an even bleaker portrayal of rural life than the one given in The Purchase Price, portraying a back-breaking existence which makes the people living on farms old and exhausted before their time – although there is still a lot of humour mixed up with the melodramatic elements. This book was filmed three times, first as a silent with Colleen Moore and then again in the 1950s starring Jane Wyman, but this middle version is the only one I’ve seen.
I enjoyed this film, but, at just 81 minutes, it is very short for the large span of time it tries to cover, and there are some abrupt jumps. It looks from the list of characters at the imdb, which includes several who are not in the finished film, as if some of the story must have been deleted – I’d love to see the sections which were cut out before release and find out if they would have made the film flow any better.
Stanwyck has a luminous, indomitable quality in this film, just as she does in The Purchase Price and the other films she made with Wellman – he seemed to like casting her as someone who can’t be defeated, however dire her situation might seem, but carries on working tirelessly and hoping against hope. She also has another self-sacrificing role in this film, as in The Great Man’s Lady, a later film she made with Wellman, which I hope to write about here soon (I have a terrible backlog of films I’ve watched but haven’t written about!)
In interviews with William Wellman included in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume 3 box set, he suggests that he sometimes had problems working with actresses, recalling arguments with some of his leading ladies when he refused to let them look glamorous. (To be fair, he also mentions falling out with male actors for similar reasons – he always wanted people to look as real as possible, rather than being smothered in make-up, and he didn’t go in for his stars wearing designer gowns and smart suits in unlikely contexts, as happens in some other directors’ movies!)
However, from the early movies of his I’ve watched so far, one of the main things that strikes me is what strong lead roles he had for women – from Clara Bow as an ambulance driver in Wings and Louise Brooks as a teenage runaway in Beggars of Life through to Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Blondell as nurses in Night Nurse. The Purchase Price, made the year after Night Nurse, has another strong role for Stanwyck, this time as a torch singer who decides to get away from it all by taking a friend’s place as a mail order bride.
Adapted from the story The Mud Lark by Arthur Stringer, with a screenplay by Robert Lord, this is is a lighter film than the others by Wellman I’ve written about here so far. There are many comic scenes, though there is some melodrama too. Also the whole film has an early Warner grittiness to it, though set in the country rather than the city. I’m amused by how misleading the sexy advertising poster with Stanwyck and George Brent is – the words are just about true, I suppose, but give a completely false idea of the film, especially when combined with the glamorous picture. You’d never think from this poster that most of the movie is set on a freezing cold farm in the wilds of North Dakota, with Brent in an overall and Stanwyck in an apron!
After thoroughly enjoying Old Acquaintance, which teamed Bette Davis with Miriam Hopkins, I was keen to see their earlier film together, The Old Maid. I’d seen this movie described somewhere as a “soap opera”, but I think that’s very misleading. In fact, it is an adaptation of a stage play based on a novella by Edith Wharton, in her collection Old New York. While it does have elements of melodrama, it also has complicated characters, painted in shades of grey, neither impossibly good nor impossibly bad.
Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins
Once I’d seen the movie for the first time, I got hold of Wharton’s novella and read it and then watched the film again. If anything, I was even more impressed the second time round. There are some changes to Wharton’s plot, notably moving the story to the period of the American Civil War and stepping up the character of Clem Spender, played by George Brent – but to me the portrayal of the two central women seems essentially true to the original story.
Hopkins stars as the beautiful, spoilt Delia Lovell, with Davis as her cousin, Charlotte, who is somewhat under her shadow and later becomes the embittered “old maid” of the film’s title. Davis originally wanted to play both main female roles but in a way she is already playing two parts, since Charlotte later in the film is so different from the lively young girl in the opening scenes. I’m glad the dual role was decided against, since there is so much chemistry between her and Hopkins. Watching the two portray lifelong friends, it’s hard to believe that they disliked one another so much in real life.
By a pure fluke, I watched The Golden Arrow (1936), starring Bette Davis and Platinum Blonde (1931), starring Jean Harlow, on successive days (a couple of weeks ago now, so my memories are already starting to fade). I was startled by how similar the plots of these two 1930s movies are – although, unsurprisingly, the pre-code is by far the more daring of the two.
In both, the leading man is a journalist who is thrown together with a beautiful heiress in the line of work and marries her very quickly – and, in both, the relationship then turns sour when the man finds his new wife and her family trying to groom him and using him for publicity purposes.
I’m noticing that the leading man in 1930s movies often seems to be a journalist – I suppose because it seemed like quite a glamorous, hard-boiled profession and also gave him opportunities to mingle in all kinds of different social worlds. (Both these movies also suggest how during hard times like the Great Depression one form of uneasy escapism was to watch the lives of glamorous people – I’ve read of how some of the Warner stars felt awkward when they were sent on publicity tours on a ‘golden train’ through impoverished areas.