WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? PART ONE

THE STUDIO GATES

This is a slightly different look at the Hollywood myth – mainly because we are going to take a ‘hardboiled” look at some of the ideas that nostalgic sites gloss over. Not all sites do yet this is an important part of the Hollywood story.  Gloss over, just as the major studios did when something reared its ugly head and effected the ‘moral clause’ in a star’s contract. In other parts, we will shine our opinion light on the censorship system and child stars growing up. First, we enter the world beyond the studio gates.

These gates would be any major studio – WARNER BROTHERS, UNIVERSAL, MGM, RKO and COLUMBIA to Poverty Row as in PRC, MONOGRAM, and REPUBLIC PICTURES. Let us examine the studio system idea more closely.

I once said in a presentation at a convention that we essentially buy back our childhood.  When one does that you tend to forget some of the poorer times we all had growing up or perhaps we compartmentalize them; yet they are still part of the our story.   Some of us do that when it comes to Classic Hollywood: it brings us a sense of comfort.  This Classic period took place during some of the most traumatic events of history such as The Depression and World War II. Was the studio system as a whole good for Hollywood? Mostly every star biography I have read said, “No.”  WARNER BROTHERS was a factory where actors and actresses went from picture to picture with little or no break.  Joan Blondell wrote that she and other performers often had to ride bicycles to different sound stages with scripts in hand in a basket. Why did stars like James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn all have incidents of refusing to report for work (which resulted in suspension)?

These were people with the clout to do things. What of the performers that made their careers playing policemen, magistrates, store keepers, and dancers that were forever in the background or brief scenes?  If it was so good why rebel?  The studio moguls once thought that they had made the stars and they should be grateful.  I keep thinking as I write this of a line from the Bette Davis come back film ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) when Hugh Marlowe’s  character,  writer Lloyd Richards, says to Margo Channing, “That it’s time that the piano realizes it did not write the concerto.” Could that have been the writers speaking to the studio heads or the moguls speaking to the actors?

The studio system turned into a double edged sword. It produced some of the most endearing myths and new Gods for people to look up to in darkened theatres.  It unleased dreams and imagination that flourish today and are constantly being given life to new generations.  The film makers, and Hollywood style of that time will never be forgotten as it is often referenced (even if unknowingly) by popular culture and future film makers. It brings a sense of nostalgia and stability to those that dip into it as the work with repeated viewings becomes like a visit from an old friend. The standards for morality were less graphic in terms of images; often disguised in clever dialogue or situations that took skill and finesse to do.

The salary of Hollywood people as we all know was astronomical compared to the average working family. Men and women saw the fashions, jewelry; the lifestyle of clubs, cars, and food that were beyond their reach. Was this a bad thing?  It happens today, but audiences now have more access to fashion and nightlife as manufactured by merchandising. The difference being that we don’t hear of actors fighting studios because they have done too many films in a row, and are on the verge of collapse.  The emphasis has moved to the actors and the directors with the ever present agent or deal maker in the middle.

The side light to the studio system was the use of wake up and sleeping pills for many performers.  How could one perform at such a pace of production and remain at your peak? Some pictures required dance training, horsemanship, or fire arms training for the role, so how could this all be poured into the performers?  Many a bio I have read has mentioned the use of these pills to the point of addiction in later life.  I look no further than Judy Garland who was introduced to these items at MGM early in her career. Garland was required to dance, to sing, to perform in these very strenuous pictures without break. The contract with the studio stated that if you were unable to perform in a role for whatever reason (even refusal), a contract could be terminated or the length of time you were off was added to the contract.  This was before the Screen Actors Guild and other unions were formed. It amounted to indentured servitude.

It is important to note that the studios were not evil, drug pushing businesses because the use of these pharmaceuticals was accepted behavior. The knowledge of addiction was not as well-known as today.  Many Hollywood people would succumb to opium, morphine, cocaine and, of course, alcohol.  The military in the war years and after permitted pilots and soldiers in the field to use wake up pills for night duties or tasks requiring long hours of attentiveness.  Elvis Presley was introduced to sanctioned stimulants when serving in the military as part of guard duties. Some blame this for his later drug troubles.  One had a regime of pills to get to the studio and to rest afterward so one could get up early to be on set at your best.  Not to mention the press duties, trips, photo sessions, and loaning out to other studios for roles. I am not saying every person in Hollywood used these to do their job, but the use was rampant.

The positives that come out of the studio system are undeniable in their scope and depth.  You have an entire generation of people discovering the stories and stars every day. You have film makers who were directly influenced by the classic studio system in their career choice. The tiered studio system with A features to B movies and below created a training ground for actors, directors and technicians to learn their craft.  Not to mention the publicity departments and other industries associated with picture making at that time.

Kevin Spacey once said at an Academy Award ceremony something to the effect that, “You think this is glamourous. It’s the only time we get dressed up and are together. We get up early to be on sets, etc.” Well, a lot of other people get up early to be somewhere like work.  Classic Hollywood has a legacy of love and hate; even indifference to some people but never the public.  Everything really does have a price. We all enjoy the dreams.

 

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THE JEFFREY LYNN TYPE

Hollywood was and still is filled with types – be they on the screen or not.  In fact, it was often remarked that you can expect anything to happen on Hollywood Blvd.  I remember making an inquiry in a bookshop only to have a person dressed in a red wool suit with Elvis side burns and glasses standing to my left near the till in over 80 degree heat. There are those that have unmistakable quality of “it,” who can carry a film and enthrall the audience.  Then there are those that, for some reason, are known only to a few.  They somehow do not have that star quality, yet deliver performance after performance, never quite getting there.  I speak of the Lyle Talbots of the world, or, in this case, Mr. Jeffery Lynn.

Jeffrey Lynn was born Ragnar Lynn in 1909 in Auburn, Massachusetts.  He had a BA degree from Bates College in Maine.  The stage beckoned.   He toured in a stage stock company production of the military farce BROTHER RAT that, was a curious foreshadowing of what to come in his life of having stardom allude him. The play BROTHER RAT was brought to Hollywood to be filmed by Warner Brothers without Lynn who was given a role in another short film.

I first saw Jeffrey Lynn in the role of Lloyd Hart in the James Cagney gangster picture THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939).  Lynn played the college man soon to be lawyer who eventually woos Jean Sherman played by blonde, smiley Priscilla Lane away from James Cagney’s character Eddie Barlett, who has been waiting for her to grow older than in the film’s beginning.  Lynn’s role was good solid work for an actor who gets to play a younger version of himself as he grows from a soldier in the trenches to a polished man of the law.

The one that really showed his skill in my opinion was the 1939 Lloyd Bacon directed Warner Brothers picture ‘A CHILD IS BORN’.  I have always enjoyed pictures about occupations such as the medical profession, MEN IN WHITE (1934), NIGHT NURSE (1931), steel workers, MEN OF IRON (1935), truck drivers, THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940) and THE VIOLENT ROAD (1958).   Jeffrey Lynn’s role as Jed Sutton, the husband of convicted murderer Grace Sutton (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who is about to give birth is interesting to watch as he fights frustration of not being able to see his pregnant wife.  It was a role that was similar of some early Clark Gable performances, particularly in MANHATTAN MELODRAMA (1934).     While Lynn’s Jed Sutton is on the right side of the law and Gable’s Blackie Gallagher is a grinning rogue, both show texturing and humor in their brushes with the law with different resolutions.  You could argue that it was a variation on the ‘good guy’ roles Lynn played so well and I would agree. Yet he carried it off so well. He was ably supported by Fitzgerald as his wife and the long neglected Gladys George as a show business dancer whose career in stalled because of a baby.

Lynn did go on to bigger roles in FOUR WIVES (1939)  and  FOUR MOTHERS (1941) which featured  expanded part of Felix Dietz that he had  done in the previous  FOUR  DAUGHTERS (1938).  Lynn went on to a huge career ending in 1990 with an appearance on the TV show KNOTS LANDING.  Lynn also has writing credits, music credits and hosting credits, just not the full stardom of having his name above the title which to me is a shame. The lucky actors who don’t mind playing typecast roles could make whole careers out of playing policemen, bankers, henchman, and doctors.  There are those that dislike it, fight the system for what they think are different roles; unfortunately, most do not gain that all important public acceptance.   Boris Karloff once remarked when asked later in his life if he ever tired of playing monsters and madmen to which he replied no that he was blessed to be an always working actor.

Such were the Lyle Talbots, Jeffrey Lynns and the David Manners the Golden Age. They had the looks, the voice, the stories, the directors and careers in supporting others. Some were happy about it. Others may have carried a secret bitterness that is forever silent. John Garfield’s cynical character of the chain smoking, unshaven piano playing Mickey Bordon articulated it so well in a towards the end of this clip from FOUR DAUGHTERS (1938); ironically with Jeffrey Lynn in the cast. He talks of God rolling the dice, life’s choice and in the best part not seen here remarks of “having just enough talent to make someone else look good but not yourself.”

 

 

Window dressing for people to play off of, perhaps yes, always capable of course. Whatever their feelings, we shall never know. It is still wonderful to see them on the screen. For that we thank them.

 

THE DREAM MACHINE RETURNS

 

Digital power has brought motion pictures to a new audience.  The discs (or the next format) gives us all an opportunity to hold motion picture history.  The recent TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL in Los Angeles may have looked at first glance like it was going backward from that. THE RETURN OF THE DREAM MACHINE, HAND CRANKED FILMS  FROM 1902-1913., brought history home.

This event was hosted by Randy HaberKamp, Managing Director of Preservation and Foundation Programs for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Beautiful prints of a hand color tinted version of A TRIP TO THE MOON (1909) by George Melies, Thomas Edison’s THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903), and D.W. Griffith early short film, THOSE AWFUL HATS (1909) from Biograph studios were just three of the eight gems that played.   The difference is that these prints were projected through a genuine 1909 hand cranked Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture machine operated by Joe Rinaudo and Gary Gibson. Pre-show music was played by Galen Wilkes on a 1908 Edison Phonograph featuring cylinders of popular music that one would have heard then. There was live musical accompaniment by Michael Mortilla on keyboard during the showings and between features. Each of these people were dressed in period costume that their occupations wore. The concession made to modern times is that the pre-show music was amplified by a microphone. Slides such as, “No spitting in aisles,” and “Ladies, remove your hats,” punctuated the experience between reel changes.

The prints were hand cranked, much the same as the cameras were during the filming of scenes in early motion pictures. The smallest deviation of speed by the projectionist could change to look of a film and subsequent audience feeling. These showings would take place in small towns and cities, sometimes outdoors in the evening, weather permitting, or in halls.  The wonder of the images, which seem very tame to today’s people, of trains going by, people dancing, and the first hand drawn animation such as the work of 1911  N.Y Herald cartoonist brought to life in his ‘ moving comics’ left the audiences awestruck.

This was the beginning of narrative film as the new medium of motion pictures was being developed.  Hollywood was in its infancy as the real power rested back east in New York were the money was and creator Thomas Edison. Ironically, the money has always been back East, even in the Golden Years of Hollywood.  Producers found the California climate, the lushness of the orange and walnut groves, the wide open unspoiled spaces, conducive to film making.  Lighting techniques were not fully developed so even when studios were built in California they had open glass roofs and windows to allow natural light in or they shot outside. What a perfect climate to do this in with year round sun. Hence, the studio migration.

This presentation was something you could only see at a festival or revival of this nature so we were lucky to take advantage of the opportunity. To actually see these pictures in the mode they were originally presented was a treat. One could say it’s similar to the resurgence of vinyl records now as music lovers re-discover or find their roots. There is a level of purity as well as one can respect how far the medium of film has come and wonder where it can go. It is a shame that basically less than ten percent of all the silent film produced by early Hollywood has survived. Great features by many names both big and small are lost though neglect as film was simply tossed away or by numerous fires due to volatile nitrate stock.  I also find even today with history that people simply do not realize what they have sitting in front of them and basically let the ravages of time take its course due to lack of funding. Will future people look at the pictures and technical prowess today with the same nostalgia?  The rest they say is history. One hopes that this history itself is still around for all to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GOODBYE TO ALL OF THIS

 

There comes a time when one must pack up and get back to actual life. If you’re lucky, you get to continue with your love of film.   For some it is their full time job; for others, it can be an all- consuming hobby or Labour of Love.

We try to attend as much as we can, including trying some new things such as getting on the red carpet which was a thrill in itself.  STARDUST AND SHADOWS tries to cover things from a slightly different point of view than other sites and I believe we have achieved it to an extent.   The thing about festivals is that you can’t really do it all, even the stuff you want to because of crowds or sometimes venue location if you need to walk to a venue.   The 2015 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL made that all easy with most of the film venues close together, however, they had no control over the traffic lights that were required to cross the major street or the everyday crowds.  It’s all part of going to one of these things.

The Christopher Plummer concrete ceremony (which we viewed from across the road along with many others) was well- handled.  You could hear many of the anecdotes; including Ben Mankiewicz wondering if he had pronounced Montreal correctly (which he had). The Canadian in me wanted to shout out when referring to Montreal, simply to say the phrase, “Twenty four Stanley Cups,” and you would know.

Bill Shatner made an appearance.  I somehow felt he would since both he and Christopher go way back to their days at Stratford Festival and share a Quebec heritage.

This festival shines in great part because of the people you meet. I mean not only the attendees, but the volunteers who have to stay inside these theatres in wonderful weather and answer questions, and move lines of excited film goers.  They get to be strapped up on headsets, trying to coordinate audience entrances, hand out cue numbers in lines etc., all the while being calm.  I can say from what I saw it worked.

In the weeks to come I will be writing more on a couple of pictures I did see as they inspired some article ideas.  I managed to see WHY BE GOOD (1929), a silent picture staring Colleen Moore who is not that well known, and some of you will shake your head why not, but should have been.  The picture was a restoration for the first time presented with the full sound disks of the orchestration and sound effects. The story was the disks of a print had become separated, but amazingly enough this picture was thought to be lost.  WHY BE GOOD (1929) featured a wonderful performance by Neil Hamilton, who had a wonderful career as a romantic leading man in full sound films. Audiences today remember him as Commissioner Gordon from the BATMAN TV series of the 60s.

The pre- film talk was presented by Cari Beauchamp, who wrote one of my favourite books on the women from those early golden years titled Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.  The print of WHY BE GOOD was excellent as it was digital, in the correct aspect ratio which I prefer for this style of film as it honours the original vision.

We managed to get into a screening of AIR MAIL (1932), directed by John Ford. I have a huge soft sport for airplane pictures and this did not disappoint.  A hobbled (from a twisted ankle) Leonard Maltin honestly introduced the picture by saying it was, “… a good film not a great John Ford film.”  One got to see so people like Pat O Brien as a womanizing, devil may care pilot go up against steadfast Ralph Bellamy.

I have always enjoyed the cracking dialogue of these pictures and AIR MAIL did not disappoint as Pat Obrien’s character Duke Talbot asks, “ Where do I park the body?” when asking where he was to sleep. Anne Dvorak’s real life husband Leslie Fenton was also on hand as in a small role as a disgraced flyer. AIR MAIL also had a particularly graphic sounding death by fire sequence that for me even today was disturbing but it did change the mood as the opening was light hearted.  This was a fine picture to see on the big screen in a glorious 35 mm, black and white print, which for me pretty cool.

STARDUST AND SHADOWS did many other things at the festival and they will come out as time permits. It was a wonderfully hectic time that I can say if any readers have a chance to do, they should do it at least once.  We feel lucky to be here in what TCM gave us in terms of access and other things that made things easier.  There is nothing like seeing the stuff that dreams are made of at its point of origin.

 

REFLECTIONS IN AMBER

 

The consuming of liquor has been a catalyst in Classic Hollywood since they were known as the “flickers.” The liquid has brought about the downfall of many a film character both on screen and off. I am writing this post in the TCM Club lounge during the 2015 Classic film festival with a proper glass of amber liquid before me, pondering  how the act of drink has been portrayed.

There are clips running on large screen of W. C. Fields stealing a nip from a flask. You have Henry Fonda pouring a shot for Victor Mature, Tyrone Power slamming down gin from NIGHTMARE ALLEY, and James Dean drinking from a bottle of milk from REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE  because both he and his character did not touch alcohol.

Booze has been the great trigger for stories of the gangster from silent film to today. Without drink you would not have the “hood” that rises to the top during prohibition. No Cagney, no Raft, no Muni, no Eddie G. laying on the pavement clutching his chest exclaiming, “Is this the end of Rico?” in LITTLE CAESAR.

Where would Rick’s Place in CASABLANCA (1942) be without drink.  Ray Milland would not have had been on THE LOST WEEKEND (1945).

Jack Lemon and Lee Remick would not have experienced THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962). Lee Marvin’s character Kid Shellen in CAT BALLOU (1965) would not have been as interesting.  Miriam would not have lost her mountain bar in the fire during the drinking contest in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981).  Where would James Bond be without his knowledge of wines and Scotch whiskey?  Where would Nick, Nora and Asta (their dog) of the THIN MAN series be without potent potables?  The list goes on and on with the same conclusion of not being as fun to watch. Society is against drinking to excess yet we do enjoy watching the train wreck of alcohol and people.

Actors on screen- whether we like it or not- have taught us how to drink. Some watch the elegance of David Niven,  Franchot Tone, William Powell, Clifton, Webb .  Women get their due with Joan Crawford in RAIN (1932) , Susan Hayward in  SMASH UP THE STORY OF A WOMAN (1947)  plus Anne Dvorak in THREE ON A MATCH (1932).

Women have been portrayed as fallen or evil when booze is involved which is a double standard; witness Dvorak’s portrayal of the doomed Vivian Revere.  Women who drink and are not “good mothers” will suffer consequences from the Law or by God.

You see people at the TCM FILM FESTIVAL dressing the part of Hollywood Glamour which adds a nice touch to things.

Yes, the materials to do this have changed, fabrics have changed, and knowledge to do this has changed. Some has been lost or adapted to today’s audience.  Why try and recapture something as elusive as Hollywood Glamour when it means different things to different people?  You can see it in different looks at the Academy Awards red carpet.  We should move forward towards our own images of glamour be it in nightlife, eatery or stepping out in clothes.  The classic clothes or look, the drinks, the manners, are sometimes neglected by people of both sexes as it’s not a thing to do.  The audiences, the public is different now and so is society.

The Legendary watering holes of old Hollywood are gone replaced by newer places that seem slightly disposable or cookie cutter in approach. A club or an Eatery is just bricks, or in some cases prefab bits of wood  it is the atmosphere and more importantly the people that make it different or unique.  This not a lament for the old days more a “Things have changed” and that’s ok as well.

Fun the remember that there was grand nightlife in the town of Hollywood then.

 

 

TIME TRIP

 

I can say that you lose track of the time of day and even what day it is when you attend a film festival. I have found myself asking what day it is. You are not in the real world of whatever it is you do.  You have stepped into a existence of viewing film, making decisions about what you want to see, trying to sneak meals in, and lining up for the pictures you decide to attend.  It’s all great fun.

The 2015 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL has been so far a whirlwind of fun, albeit hectic sometimes.  The venues for the majority of pictures are located across Hollywood Blvd at Grauman’s Chinese theatre complex of six cinemas of various sizes or down the road at Grauman’s Egyptian theatre where last year I attended GODZILLA (1954).  The Ricardo Montoban Theatre is also used which is farther down for interviews like the ones with Sophie Loren and Norman Lloyd.

There is the social aspect of the Festival where in elevators, queue lines, buying a drink or food  or  simply waiting at a stop light: someone will see your festival pass badge and strike up a conversation as to what you are seeing etc.   This has occurred for us many times as you meet people from various cities and accents all doing the same thing you are doing.  You share your stories and sometimes things that you missed for the same reasons. The cool thing is the togetherness that a good number of attendees have as you go about what your personal itinerary for viewing is.

I love the stories away from the crowds like one when we were in a local coffee shop away from the festival and a young fellow stuck up a conversation with us after we got our beverages because he saw our TCM badges.  We found out his mother was Canadian (from Prince Edward Island). He enjoyed film and did attend the festival by purchasing individual tickets, just not this year.   In contrast we stopped for some food at one of our favourite hotdog places (the hotdog can be a thing of beauty. That’s another story) and the proprietor saw our festival badges yet had no idea what it was about even though he was about three blocks away from it all.

I try to write with my voice, which sometimes I am still trying to find regarding the impressions of what we have seen or are doing. We get the pain in the feet from walking on the pavement as other do.  We have been very privileged to have been given excellent resources from the TCM staff for vantage points, pictures, and actually being on the red carpet

I would like to give a huge salute to the TCM STAFF and volunteers that are at each event. I am sure there have been incidents as there always will be when handling huge crowds of personalities and technical troubles. It’s how one handles those and so far from our end of things, it has worked with flying colours.

Some images of Canadian Christopher Plummer, Julie Andrews and the 50th Anniversary screening of THE SOUND OF MUSIC from inside Grauman’s or now its  TCL Chinese theater.  Mr Plummer’s footprints were ‘immortalized’ in special concrete along with other Hollywood legends.

 

Onward and outward we go

THE SEA HAWK SAILS AGAIN

Film festival attending can be a mixture of working the crowd, finding what you want to see, and having to make decisions when items are crossed booked.  There are no bad decisions if you attend an event such is what is happening with us at the 2015 TURNER CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL in Hollywood. Hence, I would like to pass on some bits and pieces of what is happening.

I was fortunate to get into the 10 p.m. screening of the Mike Curtiz directed 1940 picture THE SEA HAWK. Why is that worth mentioning? Because it was on the big screen; a 35 mm print complete with reel changes.   Organizers have respect for film of this nature and for me it was cool to see the curtains of today’s larger screens close to the smaller aspect ratio of the 1940s.  This was not a print that was blown up to fill the huge surface but the wonderfully non- claustrophobic look at what the film makers intended.  The image was clear with some obvious time worn troubles that affect us all. The sound on the print was crisp with Korngold’s magnificent score coming through.  Dialogue could be understood without the pops and crackles that show up.

This screening of THE SEA HAWK featured a talk by Errol Flynn’s daughter Rory Flynn, who imparted some insights into her late father, such as “You see the swashbuckling hero, I see my father.” She also took the opportunity to introduce her son Sean Flynn with a good deal of Mother’s pride.

It was pointed out that the print was listed in the program as running time of two hours and seven minutes, yet actually the running time was be one hour forty nine minutes.  Now for some people that is an abomination, some don’t care, and I admit I was slightly irked as I had thoughts of those ‘Real Art’ reissues of Universal Studios Horror pictures.  Real Art cut the films often to sixty to sixty five minutes to get them on television. THE SEA HAWK print was cut to fit onto a 1947 double bill format along with THE SEA WOLF (1941) with Edward G. Robinson as the ship’s tyrannical captain.  The scenes with actor Donald Crisp as the Queen’s advisor, Sir John Burleson, also were victim of editorial decisions.

The audience applauded when Flynn’s and Korngold’s name appeared on the screen. Clapping exploded when Flynn makes his entrance on the deck of his ship about ten minutes in. I found it particularly interesting that there was clapping for Una O’ Conner, who made a career of playing hand maidens, ladies in waiting, and other character types.  Her Irish accent and facial expressions have been in countless pictures so it was good to see the grand person of theatre get noticed.

The SEA HAWK rollicked, swords clashed, ships fired cannons, the evil Spanish were somewhat vanquished, urbane dialogue was exchanged and unrequited love was returned all in glorious black and white.

It has been a while since I had watched the picture of the style which made the experience full of enjoyment.   The current PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN franchise is the closest audiences have today to this style while it has its merits. It is effects dependent, which is what much of today’s audiences want.   Not a bad time on the old high seas.