From Real to Reel: Real Life Photographers in the Movies – Alexander Gardner

First in a series I am doing on real life photographers who made it to the movie screen.

Twenty Four Frames

Alexander_Gardner_1863Photography was in its infancy when Abraham Lincoln was running for President. It was a cumbersome and deliberate process. Cameras were these large boxes, set upon sturdy bulky tripods, using wet plates and a slow exposure making the possibilities of the sort of images captured limited.

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The Best Years of Our Lives on TCM Nov. 11th

William Wyler’s Academy Award winning The Best Years of Out Lives will be broadcast on TCM Saturday November 11th at 5PM. You can read about the film and other classics in my book Lessons in the Dark. Below are a couple of excerpts.

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The Best Years of Our Lives has not dated at all. In fact, it remains extremely relevant to our lives today. Sadly, since World War II, we as a country, have been involved in wars or ‘conflicts,’ seemingly one right after another: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan being the major engagements and there have been numerous others, too many to list. In each case returning soldiers have faced emotional and physical adjustments and sometimes, like during the Vietnam War, were greeted with protests and indifference

Over the years there have been many films that have focused on returning soldiers coming home with uncertainty or shell shock or with battle fatigue or post war syndrome, call it what you will, in works like Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978) and more recently Home of the Brave (2006), and most recently, Stop-Loss (2008) and The Lucky Ones (2008). The Best Years of Our Lives was one of the first, if not the first, to focus on returning veterans coming home and adjusting to civilian life. It also remains the greatest.

You can read more about The Best Years of Our Lives and other films in my book Lessons in the Dark. Available at Amazon.

The Steel Helmet on TCM Nov. 9th

Sam Fuller’s gritty war film The Steel Helmet will be on TCM tomorrow, November 9th at 2PM. Below is an excerpt from my book, Lessons in the Dark.

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He has been called a guerrilla filmmaker, a primitive filmmaker and a tabloid filmmaker. Whatever title you want to label him with, Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet is a low budget masterpiece made for only $100,000 in just 10 days. It may just be the most honest and brutal look at war ever put on film. Produced, directed and written (he used his own diaries as source material) by Fuller, The Steel Helmet is the story of a battle weary Sergeant known only as Zack, the sole survivor in his unit massacred by the North Koreans. As portrayed by Gene Evans, a World War II veteran himself, Zack is cynical, bad-tempered and unemotional.

You can read more about The Steel Helmet and other films including Gold Diggers of 1933, M.A.S.H., Ace in the Hole and Brute Force in Lessons in the Dark available from Amazon.

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Pitfall on TCM Friday

PitfallAndre de Toth’s  1948 film noir Pitfall will be on TCM Friday, September 29th, at 11:45AM. The film stars Dick Powell as John Forbes, a bored insurance investigator, allegedly  happily  married to Sue (Jane Wyatt). His world falls apart when he meets sultry Mona (Lizabeth Scott) whose lover embezzled money from Forbes’ company. Complicating matters is the P.I. (Raymond Burr) the insurance hired who also has eyes for the femme fatale.

Pitfall1De Toth and his writers weave a downward spiraling tale with elements of suburban discontent, stalking, infidelity and murder. Aptly titled, “Pitfall,” the film reflects the consequences of one man’s actions on many. Forbes infidelity leads to at least one man dead. Mona is in jail, arrested for at least attempted murder, and of course Forbes’ own marriage is now in a fragile state. –    From Film Noir at Twenty Four Frames Per Second.

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Depression Blues and the Dance Marathon

they-shoot-horsesDance marathons were phenomena that began in the 1920’s. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel is a dark tale of losers desperately attempting to hang on to impossible dreams. Just like in Nathaniel West better known novel, Day of the Locust the characters all have unreachable dreams of being in the movies. Continue reading “Depression Blues and the Dance Marathon”

Niagara on TCM

marilyn_monroe_niagara_1953_movie_4Marilyn Monroe stars in the 1953 Henry Hathaway directed film Niagara. It will be on TCM Tuesday August 1st at 10 PM Eastern time.

Below is a short excerpt from my ebook, Film Noir at Twenty Four Frames Per Second. The book is available from Amazon.

Henry Hathaway’s “Niagara” opens with two great shots of natural beauty, first is the mighty Niagara Falls with millions upon millions of gallons of water falling with God given power. The second shot is our first view of Marilyn Monroe lying naked under a thin sheet in her motel bedroom. Light shines through the sheet giving us a silhouetted shape of her right thigh. In her hand, a cigarette dangles over the side of the bed. The look on her face is one of satisfaction making one wonder what she was doing while her husband, Joseph Cotton, was off admiring the Falls. We quickly come to learn this marriage is in trouble. When she hears her husband’s keys unlock the door, she puts out the cigarettes, rolls over, her back to the door.  – Film Noir at Twenty Four Frames Pet Second.

The Steel Helmet on TCM

TheSteelHelmetSam Fuller’s gritty Korean War film, The Steel Helmet,  will be on Turner Classic Movies on  Saturday May 27th (4:30pm ET) as part of its annual Memorial Day  Weekend  tribute. Despite being  over 60 Yeas old, the film is quite contemporary in its view of the  high cost of war. Gene Evans, Steve Brodie, Robert Hutton and James Edwards star in this under the radar film.

You can read more about it in my book, Lessons in the Dark, available at Amazon.

Here is an excerpt…

“Fuller has filled the screen with brutal battle scenes presenting one of the harshest views of the realities of war. Bloody, horrific and deadly. The men are dirty and scared. There are no heroes and no cowards, just men trying to survive and survival is precarious.  Fuller’s Americans are multi-cultural, from different backgrounds, filled with misfits and offbeat characters. From John Wayne’s patriotic war films to Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), we have seen the unit composed of the misfit, the hotheaded kid, the kid from Brooklyn, the kid from the mid-west, the pacifist and so on. What makes The Steel Helmet unique is a coarse quality that filters throughout separating it from the others”  – Lessons in the Dark 

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Bette, Joan and Baby Jane

Whatever-Happened-to-Baby-Jane-3-e1347980142212The new FX TV series Feud: Bette and Joan is a delightful and darkly funny look back at the notable and long lasting hostility between Hollywood Queens, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. How accurate the show is and who was at fault is all beside the point. The show is wonderfully acted, bitchy, and overall entertaining. Susan Sarandon, as Davis, and Jessica Lange as Crawford lead the cast, but the supporting cast of Alfred Molina (director Robert Aldrich) , Judy Davis (Hedda Hopper), Stanley Tucci (Jack Warner), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Olivia de Havilland) and Kathy Bates (Joan Blondell) are all superbly played.

There is a strong irony in the casting of two older actresses, Sarandon (70) playing Davis then 54, and Lange (66) playing Crawford then 56. Joe Baltake of The Passionate Moviegoer, takes an interesting look at the sexism that existed, and yes still does, in Hollywood back then that proclaimed women in their fifties were too old and no longer relevant. Click on The Passionate Moviegoer to read.

I originally wrote about Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? back in 2010 on my Twenty Four Frames Blog. With the show in the middle of its run, I thought I would reprint the original here with just a few minor modifications.

whatever-happened-baby-jane1Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a dark tragedy examining the underbelly of Hollywood in the tradition of films like Sunset Blvd or Day of the Locust wrapped up in a psychopathic thriller/horror film which it is generally lumped in with so often. Here are the outcasts, the losers, the has-beens and never was still clinging on to the hope that a chance of a comeback is in the making. It is also a story of sibling rivalry, jealousy, resentment and love all rolled up into a gothic nightmare that unravels into insanity and death.

The film brings together two icons of the Golden Age of Film, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the queens of MGM and Warner Brothers respectively, in their only big screen appearance together. Like the film itself, how the pairing of these two legends coming together is filled with drama, rivalry, and jealousy.

whatever-happened-baby-jane11How the two stars and the director came together is a demonstration of egos, vanity and maybe time playing tricks with the truth. Director Robert Aldrich claims he first had the idea of bringing these two stars together after reading the Henry Farrell novel while in Italy filming “Sodom and Gomorrah.”  He soon after acquired the rights to the book. Crawford’s version goes that she told Aldrich she wanted to work with him again (They previously did Autumn Leaves) and also wanted to work with Bette Davis. She went to see Davis, who was appearing on Broadway in Tennessee Williams The Night of the Iguana, and after the show went backstage to offer congratulations, also telling Bette about the idea of the two of them working together. Davis, on the other hand, originally stated she read the novel a few years earlier and wanted Hitchcock to direct, but he was already committed to other projects. She later recanted this statement, finally claiming Joan’s version was closer to the truth. Then there is the version told by Bill Frye, producer of the TV show Thriller who states he discovered the novel while doing research for the show. Realizing it was too intricate for a half hour show he gave copies to Davis and Olivia DeHavilland with a mention that Ida Lupino would direct. The project was turned down by Universal head Lew Wasserman who did not want to work with Davis. Where and how the actual order of events happened is anyone’s guess, however, after looking at multiple biographies of the two actresses and interviews with Aldrich, it seems reasonable that the truth is buried somewhere between the Crawford and Aldrich versions (on the DVD it is said Aldrich initiated the project). The result was these two volatile stars whose professional and personal lives clashed agreed to make this film.

The story begins in 1917 and Baby Jane Hudson is a big vaudeville stage star, singing her crowd-pleasing song “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy Whose Address is Heaven Above.” Offstage sweet Jane is an obnoxious spoiled brat who wants things her way because she is the one bringing in the money! When shortly after, Sister Blanche gets yelled at by their father, though she did nothing wrong, mother tells Blanche that someday she will be a big star and she wants her to be kinder to Baby Jane and father than they have been to her. Grimacing, Blanche swears she won’t forget!

joan_crawford_in_whatever_happened_to_baby_jane_trailerAs the years go by Blanche becomes a major 1930’s movie star supporting Jane’s fading career by having a stipulation in her studio contract that for every film she makes Jane gets to make a film too. A mysterious car accident involving the two sisters leaves Blanche wheelchair bound.

It is now the present time (1962), and the two sisters live together in a gothic mansion on the outskirts of Hollywood with crazy Janie taking care of her invalid sister. When Blanche decides she wants a fuller life she elects to sell the house and plans to commit Jane to a home. Learning of her plans, Jane seeks revenge by terrorizing Blanche; cutting her off from the outside world. Jane also makes a feeble attempt to revive her own career by hiring obese out of work mama’s boy  Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono), a composer, to help her musically with her comeback.

Bette Davis gives an appropriately over the top vicious performance as the mentality deteriorating Jane. Alcoholic, prone to fits of raging jealousy,  dressing as if she were still ten years old, applying too much makeup, a deliriously hideous caricature of her former child star self. Davis would continue to apply more and more makeup to her face making herself more repulsive as the film progressed.

Davis who loved to give high energy performances takes full advantage of her role here. Crawford, on the other hand, gives a subtle low key controlled performance of a self-sacrificing woman, a role type she knew so well (Mildred Pierce), held helplessly hostage, in dire need of rescue from her out of control sister.

whatever22The casting of Davis and Crawford brought their real life conflict to the screen. Sure other older actresses could have played the two roles, but none would have supplied the natural tension that existed between these two women; Davis the high wired actress and Crawford the ultimate movie star. Nor would they deliver the personas that these two legends cultivated over the years. On the set, each in their own way antagonized and criticized one another. They were malicious and derogatory toward each other; both looking to collect allies and find devious ways to anger the other.

On the set, Aldrich had to contend with Crawford the MOVIE STAR and Davis the ACTRESS. Davis would get into her part of a raging maniacal out of control bitch, while Crawford ever thinking of her image would attempt to slow the pace down. In 1988, author Shaun Considine interviewed Baby Jane screenwriter Lukas Heller who said, “Crawford never reacted to anything, she sat in her wheelchair or bed waiting for her close-ups. As the camera got closer, she would widen those enormous eyes of hers. She considered that acting.”  It was not all vanity for Crawford, she actually lost weight during the production to give herself a more gaunt look, though various sources have recorded how her breasts size actually changed all the time including the beach scene where she dies at the end.

Still, Aldrich states in an interview with Charles Higham in The Celluloid Muse that both ladies were profession during the shoot. He says, “The two stars didn’t fight at all on Baby Jane. I think it is proper to say that they really detested each other, but they behaved absolutely perfectly.”    They may have, but according to various biographies, there were many snide remarks and some questionable actions by both.  When Crawford wasn’t feeling well one day, she asked if they could take a break and Davis replied, “after all these years I thought we’d all be troupers.” Davis also accused Joan to others of spiking her Pepsi. As for Crawford, one story has it that in one of the final scenes Davis had to lift Crawford out of bed and carry her across the room. Davis had back problems and asked Joan not to make herself dead weight. After the one long scene, Davis screamed out in pain while Joan, looking a bit heavier nonchalantly walked off the set to her dressing room.  It is said Crawford added weights under her costume. Crawford refutes this story. Both actresses knew that the publicity of a feud between them was, if nothing else, good for the film.  Before working together, the two were probably professional rivals and not really personally feuding. By the end of the film, the two really hated each other.

whatever-lc1Davis was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the obvious, showy role of Jane while Crawford did not get a nod for her more restrained but equally effective role as Blanche. Far be it from me to make excuses for the Academy, but the Best Actress category for 1962 was a jammed pack group filled with superb performances. Along with Davis, there were Lee Remick for The Day of Wine and Roses, Katherine Hepburn for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Geraldine Page for Sweet Bird of Youth and Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. Still, Crawford’s performance was extremely effective and deserved some recognition, and she was not about to let her lack of a nomination stop her from outshining Davis on the night of the ceremony.

Bette Davis was positive she was going to win, adding a third statue to the two she already had. Crawford meanwhile had called all the other nominees mentioning to them that she would be available, on the chance they could not attend the gala, to accept the Oscar on their behalf. As it turned out, Anne Bancroft was unable to attend. When it was time to announce the Best Actress award, Davis was about to receive not one but two shocks. Anne Bancroft was announced the winner and accepting the award for her would be Joan Crawford! Crawford slid by Davis mumbling excuse me and walked up to receive the award basking in the limelight and attention. In Witney Stine’s book I’d Love to Kiss You…Conversations with Bette Davis, Davis says, “She pushed me aside backstage, and the triumphant look she gave me as she pranced around out on the stage, I’ll never forget…” She then adds, “She carted that Oscar around for a long time on her Pepsi tour, before she finally gave it to Bancroft.” Charlotte Chandler in her Joan Crawford biography, Not The Girl Next Door plays down the Oscar event calling Joan’s arranging to receive Bancroft’s Oscar, “a constructive approach.”

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is a surprisingly violent and gruesome film for two Golden Age stars to have appeared in back in those days. Many people were upset watching Davis as Jane serve Crawford a rat on a plate (from what I have read Crawford was not aware the rodent would be on the plate), and seeing her kick Crawford in the stomach while she lies helplessly on the floor. In another scene, she drags poor Joan across the floor, and then just before Bette plunges a hammer into Elvira (Maidie Norman) the maid’s head, we find Joan gagged, and her hands bound hanging in bed. This wasn’t some teenage slasher flick starring unknown kids; this was Davis and Crawford, Hollywood royalty.

There are two notable supporting characters in the film, Edwin Flagg, played wonderfully by Victor Buono, in his film debut. Aldrich saw Buono in an episode of the TV series The Untouchables which impressed him greatly and signed him on.  Buono received an Oscar nomination for his role. As Elvira the maid, Maidie Norman is a sympathetic soul who would not put up with Jane’s crap and became a victim of a violent death for her concern.

The film was the biggest financial shocker to come out since Psycho, just two years earlier, quickly earning back it approximate $1M budget. Speaking of the Hitchcock masterpiece, coincidently enough, the Hudson sisters’ next door neighbor is named Mrs. Bates. This Mrs. Bates though did not have a son named Norman, she had a daughter who was played by B.D. Merrill, Bette Davis’ real life daughter who would years later write her own tell-all book about mom. While the film is a classy thriller, Aldrich missed some opportunities to make this film more intense than it already is. For example, when Jane leaves the house and Blanche makes her way down stairs to reach a working telephone, the cross editing lacks any build up failing to register as much tension as a more effective editing style would have accomplished. On the other hand, there is some nice editing work in the sequence where Jane is kicking and stomping on poor Blanche. You can feel the pain of the swift kicks though you never really see any of the kicks make contact. Like the shower sequence in “Psycho” where you never see the knife enter the body but swear you do.

Davis went on a personal appearance tour when the film opened nationally in November. Apparently, Crawford was supposed to have joined in but backed out just before the tour was scheduled to begin. At one theater a fan yelled out, “where’s your sister?” Davis responded, ‘She’s dead on the beach” getting a big laugh.

Davis, Crawford, and Aldrich reteamed again for Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte however, deep filtered conflict, hatred, jealousy and illness pushed the production into turmoil. After weeks of production, Crawford was out and replaced by Olivia De Havilland. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane was the beginning of a subgenre in horror films starring older actresses of the Golden Age, reviving their careers, at least temporarily, by appearing in these thrillers. In addition to Bette Davis (The Nanny, The Anniversary, Dead Ringer, Burnt Offerings) and Joan Crawford (Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk, Trog) there was Olivia DeHavilland again in Lady in a Cage, Barbara Stanwyck in The Night Walker and a late entry, What’s The Matter With Helen? starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters.

 

References:

Bette and Joan – Shaun Considine

The Celluloid Muse – Charles Higham

Joan Crawford:  Hollywood Martyr – David Brett

This ‘n’ That – Bette Davis

More Than A Woman – James Spada

Dark Victory – Ed Sikov

Conversations With Bette Davis – Witney Stine

Not The Girl Next Door – Charlotte Chandler

 

Coming Soon to TCM

golddiggers-of-1933Two films featured in my book, Lessons in the Dark, will be coming soon to TCM. Tonight at 10:15PM (Eastern) the superb Great Depression era musical Gold Diggers on 1933. The film stars Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell along with an excellent supporting cast that includes Aline McMahon, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee and Billy Barty.

grapes-of-wrath-3On Friday (Feb. 10th) at 8PM (Eastern) don’t miss John Ford’s masterful production of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Henry Fonda stars as Tom Joad. The cast includes Academy Award winner Jane Darwell and John Carradine. Look for a very young Darryl Hickman (Dobie Gillis) in a small role.

You can read more about both of these films plus others in Lessons in the Dark. Below I have reprinted the Introduction to the book.

Introduction – Lessons in the Dark

Why these films, why this book and why this collection you ask? It’s simple enough to answer. A few years ago I did a series of articles for Halo-17, a now defunct Australian music and arts website. One of the editors discovered my blog, I assume liked it, and asked if I would be interested in writing a column about classic films. The only caveat was that I had to make the films I wrote about connect to what was happening in today’s world. I needed to show readers how these old black and white films were still relevant. Illustrate how history repeats itself and there are lessons to be learned even from a film that is seventy years old.

   Well, the requirement set forth by the folks at Halo-17 turned out to be simpler than I thought. As I began to look at films from this perspective I realized many films whether twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years old or more remain relevant. They had something to say about us today as well as years ago. Life and art repeat themselves. As the poet, novelist and philosopher, George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Classic films help us remember the past, both the good and the bad. Sometimes they even predict the future as it did in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), both which forecast the reality TV and political circus we are forced to endure today. A film like Black Legion (1937) teaches us about hating someone who’s different, how people get sucked into hatred or blaming immigrants for taking jobs from “real Americans.” Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of Will (1935) presented Adolph Hitler as Germany’s savior, a leader who would bring glory back to Germany by once again making it a great power! This Nazi rhetoric, the fear mongering, is awfully familiar to what we hear today from plastic gods with simplistic solutions promising to make America great again as they feed on the hate.

This collection of essays is divided into various sections focusing on specific themes. Each contains essays on films. Though “old” they speak about or reflect on the times we are living in today. Every one of these films remains pertinent to our current lives. Not all are great cinematically, yet there are lessons or messages to be learned. Some films are more direct in their ideas, others are more understated. There are even a few films that put forth a message or point of view for most of the film and then reverse course in the final moments. Why? Censorship sometimes exposes its ugly head or maybe the filmmakers or the studios got cold feet. Whatever the reason, it’s all part of what makes these films fascinating and worth watching and discussing.

    Part One looks at films from or about the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  As we continue to come out of our recent Great Recession that has been hanging over us since 2008, one can read into many of these films the similarities, the hard times and uncertainty we have all recently endured. In Part Two there are films exploring the absurdities of war and its effects on the men and women on the front line and back at home. Part Three contains a couple of films that reveal the influences of the news media on our lives. Part Four takes a look at social injustice. In Part Five we look at films about discrimination. In Part Six we see how the pre-code era gave us a look at tough, strong, independent and progressive women. Finally, in Part Seven, a section that is a catch all. It contains a variety of topics that we still deal with and affect our lives today.

   “Old” films are not just nostalgic. They entertain, or at least attempt to, however, they are also avenues for learning and a passageway to take a look at ourselves as we were then and are now. Movies hold up a mirror to both our past, our lives today and our future. We can see how far we have come; the mistakes that we made, the choices we made, both the good and the bad. Hopefully we are able to learn, realize the bad and not repeat them.

   The majority of these essays first appeared on my blog, Twenty Four Frames. I began the blog almost eight years ago, like many others, as a place to share my love of movies. The blog has evolved over time as I believe I have myself. During a lifetime of watching movies I have discovered new roads to travel and lessons learned. I hope you, the reader, will too.

Gold Diggers of 1933 0n TCM

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Set your DVR’s!

The great Depression era musical, Gold Diggers of 1933, is on TCM tomorrow at 6:30 AM eastern time with a repeat showing on February 9th at 10:15PM.

Hugely successful at the time of its release, Gold Diggers of 1933 is filled with tough streetwise characters, and wise cracking dialogue, ready to face the Great Depression head on. Like many of Warner Brothers films of the day, Gold Diggers of 1933 is not just escapism entertainment. Audiences of the day looking for a couple of hours to get away from their woes found themselves watching  a film filled with cynicism and grit.

You can read more about Gold Diggers of 1933 in my book. Available from Amazon. Just click on the link below.