A Star Is Born (1954)

What Price Hollywood?

It’s hard to believe a mainstream film made as late as 1954 has strands of lost footage, yet that is the case with A Star Is Born. The inserts of production photographs over the surviving audio track in the restored version is a mildly irritating, so I can just hope and wait that an uncut version of the film will surface one day.

A Star is Born is the ultimate showcase for the incomparable talent that is Judy Garland. The film’s title couldn’t be more apt as this is the role she was born to play in the film her career had been building up to. Every song to come out of her mouth is sang with such emotional intensity, and with this being as much a drama as it is a musical, Garland acts her little heart like never before with her monologue at the end of film always leaves me stunned. Her performance is surely contributed by the movie very evidently tapping into Garland’s own past insecurities; such as the scene with Esther and the makeup department men.

As much as A Star Is Born is Garland’s big moment in the sun, it is also one of the high points of James Mason’s career in a performance which is nothing short of magnificent (thanks in part to that heavenly voice of his). The character of Norman Maine is right out of a classic tragedy; a man who has accepted his doom rather than fighting against it. He is a tragic figure wearing a mask while joking and makes light about his failing career and his dependence on alcohol. His only remaining hope is that his name will continue to be remembered through the success of his wife’s career (a career from a star which he created) if he dies he will continue to exist through his wife. George Cukor had tackled this material before, first in What Price Hollywood? (1932) and later in Dinner at Eight (1933) in which John Barrymore played the alcoholic, washed up actor Larry Renault. Like Norman Maine, Renault succumbs to the bottle, although has a demise without any optimistic ending that Norman Maine has. The other real standout member of the cast is Jack Carson as Matt Libby the publicity department executive. Carson often played roles such as PR agents but it’s not hard to see why as the man has the born look of a con man.

There is real movie magic within the structure as well as individual moments throughout of A Star Is Born. The entire first act for example takes place over the course of one night and within this single portion of the film we have a whole gauntlet of human emotion (fear, uncertainty, pity, joy, optimism). That scene in which Norman meets Esther for the first time and writes on the wall with lipstick has so much more poignancy when watching the film again.

With The Man That Got Away number, the song itself is amazing but the setting really sells it; a band playing in the early hours of the morning in a club after it’s closed, with the chairs on the table and the lights dimmed, just playing in order to unwind. Not to mention Garland’s vocals, just incredible. Likewise the scene in which Norman tells Esther to stay behind and start a Hollywood career to a backdrop of city lights – you can feel the world on her shoulder. There is also the publicity department sequence in which Esther is thrown from person to person only to literally end up where she started at the beginning of the scene. I can’t quite put my finger on it but I do smell a metaphor here. For the final portion of the film it goes right into classic melodrama territory, taking place in a home by the sea with the sound of crashing waves and hard winds.

It’s impressive considering this was George Cukor’s first film in widescreen, his first film in colour plus his first musical, yet watching the film you would he was already a long established master of these forms in a movie littered with eye pleasing compositions and a three hour run time which feels shorter than it is. A Star Is Born is a great movie to have playing in the background to enhance of the atmosphere of the room or just listen to the highly lush film score; I can happily listen to orchestral variations of The Man that Got Away over and over again. Likewise the film’s use of locations in L.A. as well as the Warner Bros studio makes the film a time capsule of Hollywood circa 1954.

Like Singin’ in the Rain, A Star Is Born is a movie which satirises Hollywood with its exposure of the actions of publicity departments and the lengths they go to in order to retain their public relations, however at the same time it is a movie which celebrates Hollywood; an ideal balance between celebration and self-deprecation. A Star Is Born is an ecstasy explosion of old Hollywood glamour; a world of spotlights, big bands, big costumes, high end nightclubs, back stage drama and the extravagance that comes with it. Likewise the number Born in a Trunk is Warner’s attempt to create the type of impressionistic ballet sequence which MGM had perfected – and they certainly succeed, with movies like this it’s hard to look away from the screen.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Another Philadelphia Experiment

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Philadelphia Story, Cary Grant pushes Katharine Hepburn to the ground by putting his hand in her face. With any other actor this would be a vile act against a woman but because it’s Cary Grant, it works and thus showing the power of these three acting titans, Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. The Philadelphia Story gives an insight into the lives of the rich and famous, something which would be harder to pull off in later decades not to come off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. I do find myself trying to figure out why this is? Could it be the incredibly high standards of writing and filmmaking craft on display here and the love of these performers; even more so when compared to the poor standard of romantic comedies today?

Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is not a ditzy socialite. In this role written for Hepburn it’s clear that she is a symbol of first wave feminism; wearing pants and an emasculating suit and being an influence on her younger tomboy sister but more importantly it’s not to be undermined the complex characterisation of Tracy Lord. Like in Holiday, Grant and Hepburn share some very poignant and hard to decipher dialogue in which he tells her about her standing as a goddess and her lack of human frailty. Despite her ego, she claims in a sincere manner “I don’t want to be worshipped, I want to be loved”. Under the surface of the usual Cary Grant charm and elegance, C.K. Dexter Haven is one the darker characters Grant ever played. Apparently he “socked” Tracy on occasions, destroyed the cameras of multiple photographers on a boat and is a recovering alcoholic. This is Cary Grant at his most knieving with no remorse and enjoying it, displaying the darkly comic side of The Philadelphia Story.

However this is Stewart and Hepburn’s film. Macaulay Connor is the moral, do gooder James Stewart is known for (at least at the beginning that is); objecting to having been given the assignment of snooping in on the wedding of a Philadelphia socialite, as opposed to something with more journalistic integrity. He is appalled by the rich and their lifestyle but unlike Jefferson Smith he throws this out the window when he falls in love with Tracy; a piece of subtle cynicism on the movie’s part? I also really appreciate the relationship he shares with his work partner Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey). Her character is very cynical throughout most of the film but later reveals her more idealist side. She shares a platonic friendship with Macaulay but there are hints they have deeper feelings for each other. Virginia Weidler on the other hand is a real scene stealer. Just look at her speaking French in an overdramatic manner then singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady by the piano; a pointless scene but funny.

I can’t call The Philadelphia Story a predictable movie as I couldn’t see where the story was going at the end. I could have sworn she would end up with Jimmy but at the last minute and totally out of nowhere she goes with Cary and with it coming off as contrived. Likewise a drunken Stewart carrying Hepburn in his arms while singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow is surely one of the greatest things ever caught on celluloid.

The Women (1939)

Estrogen: The Movie

The Women explores the tribulations and dilemmas of weather sleeping dogs should lie. Unless you’re easily offended by a movie in which majority of its female cast are vicious gossips then stay away. The gossiping stereotypes here are greatly exaggerated to the full, being all part of the film’s humor; as Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) puts it, “you know how those creatures are, babble babble babble babble babble, never let up for a minute”. That’s probably the best way to describe The Women, like the other notable female ensemble Stage Door, the dialogue in The Women is delivered so furiously it’s impossible to keep up with it; after all how many people can talk as fast as Rosalind Russell.

Joan Crawford is delightfully mean as Crystal Allen, particularly with her scene in the bathtub which so ridiculously villainous she could be playing a mafia boss. Likewise the pairing of Crawford and her screen rival at MGM Norma Shearer as Mary Haines is the closet thing at that point to a Baby Jane showdown in a battle of the egos. To choose the show stealer for this gargantuan cast is a hard choice between Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell.  Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo on the other haand where the only two major actresses at MGM who did not appear in the film. I can picture Myrna Loy in Norma Shear’s role although she would have been too big a star otherwise to play a supporting role, while Garbo is well, too much of an odd ball to fit in with an ensemble like this. Also being a heterosexual male this movie earns some bonus points.

Although made into the era of the production code, several sexual references still manage to slip through (“Whatever Stephan doesn’t like I take it off”) while also look out for the topless woman in the mud bath at the beginning of the film not to mention Paulette Goddard’s clear lack of a bra, no really. I also found it interesting when Norma Shear speaks of how she and her husband are equals and how things have changed from her mother’s generation, this being in 1939 of course.

This kind of being made today (which it unfortunately was in the form of a remake) with the likes of the Sex and the City films would come off as a ghastly exercise in consumerist pornography. But the overall innocence of this period of the late 1930’s makes The Women come of a piece of harmless escapism, even if it is one of the most decadent movies of the depression era, maybe even the most. The majority of the cast is dressed like a million dollars, every actress is light like a goddess and inhabiting a world which largely consists of retail stores and beauty salons. There is even time for a Technicolor fashion show it has no relevance for the rest of the plot, but it looks pretty.

With two hours of some of the finest actresses of the 1930’s spewing nonstop machine gun fire dialogue, scenery chewing and competing for the camera’s attention amongst an art deco wonderland, then I’m in movie heaven.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

Two Faced Woman

 

A Woman’s Face is a trashy, pseudo horror movie like film but one presented as an A-picture melodrama. I’ve watched A Woman’s Face five times as of writing this review and gets better every time I watch it. Within the last year I’ve felt the motivation to watch the film three times, something which is almost unheard of for me; this movie is that good. I’ve now decided, screw it, this is my favourite Joan Crawford film and considering there’s tough competition from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Mildred Pierce and The Women, that’s saying a lot.

Every major cast member in A Woman’s Face is superb. I know that sounds like a generalization but it’s true. Firstly there’s Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring. I adore every second this man is on screen; he’s just so delightfully sinister but in the most absorbingly charming manner – I’m swept of my feet by his presence. I can completely buy into the romance he shares with Anna Holm (Crawford) because he looks past her facial disfigurement and is unbothered by it. Melvyn Douglas is the other great charmer of the cast, whom I’ve yet to see paired with an actress who he didn’t share great chemistry. Ossa Massen, Reginald Owen, Albert Bassermann, Marjorie Main (unrecognisable here) and Donald Meek are also all equally memorable and stand in the strong characterisations of their roles. Likewise on re-watching look out for the moments of foreshadowing (“You love children? I loathe them”).

Then there’s Crawford herself in a once in a life time role as a facially disfigured woman, a part few actresses would be prepared to play. Her character of Anna Holm only engages in deceitful acts because of society’s mistreatment of her since childhood but is otherwise good at heart. Anna tries to make the best for herself and doesn’t dwell into a victimhood complex (“I don’t care for pity ether”); she runs her own tavern, pursues different talents and less virtuously is involved in criminality. Regardless throughout the film my heart pours out for the poor woman and yet even with the disfigurement I still find Crawford to be incredibly beautiful in this film, nor does the disfigurement ever take away from the asset that is her stunning body. If anything the moment in which Anna returns from a shopping trip and is wearing a very excessive blouse to take attention away from her face is the one moment in the film in which her character comes off to me as pathetic sight.

A Woman’s Face is one of the few thrillers George Cukor directed with echoes of Hitchcock throughout, such as the shots of the smelter plant and a waterfall in the background (similar to the scenery in films such as Foreign Correspondent), to the film’s suspenseful scenes such as that atop the cable car. This sequence itself is absent of any music, simply allowing the sound of the nearby waterfall and the smelter plant increase the tension while the film’s climax on the other hand offers a sort of Ben-Hur on sleds finale. Since I consider this film far superior to Hitchcock’s thriller offering that year of Suspicion, Cukor out Hitchcocked Hitchcock. With Cukor being one of the great masters of his trade, the cinematography of A Woman’s Face is a feast for the eyes. Technically speaking, the scenes at the hospital and Anna’s subsequent unbandaging are my favourite part of the film. Along with A Woman’s Face and the 1934 medical drama Men In White, it makes me wonder if it’s just me or do medical interiors and apparatuses make for some of the best subjects to capture on film.

Being a remake of a Swedish film, there’s something somewhat unconventional about A Woman’s Face for a Hollywood film. The movie does manage to capture the essence of its Northern European setting (despite much of the cast supporting American accents) and offers a slice of Swedish culture with its dancing sequence.

I consider 1941 to be the greatest year in history of cinema. The output of this single year is the jealous vain of entire decades and A Woman’s Face just adds to this. Melodrama seems to have a bad reputation for no good reason. Like many things it can be done well and done poorly. A Woman’s Face represents the old Hollywood melodrama tailored to perfection.

Syliva Scarlett (1935)

Some Like It Odd

The sheer bizarreness of Syliva Scarlet is largely what keeps the film afloat. Watching it you certainly must question what everyone involved was thinking.

Sylvia “Sylvester” Scarlet (Hepburn) is supposedly French and can speak only a little English or so the movie claims despite the fact that she speaks perfect English throughout the entire film nor are the reasons why Sylvia must dress in drag really make much sense but I digress; I could go on listing the inconsistencies present in this film. It’s not hard to see why this film became a cult classic instead of falling into obscurity. Firstly there is Katharine Hepburn cross dressing, although with Hepburn’s masculine facial features the idea that anyone would mistake her for a man is more convincing than some other cross dressing movies. This makes the movie full of homosexual undertones; most prominently in the scene in which a woman played by Dennie Moore clearly expresses an attraction towards Sylvia, unaware she is a woman in drag; commenting that her skin is as smooth as a girl’s and kisses her after drawing a Ronald Coleman moustache on her. Make of that what you will.

On top of that Cary Grant sprouts a cockney accent. Along with Hepburn and her father played by Edmund Gwenn they make for an enjoyable trio of not very good con artists who don’t adhere to the philosophy Syliva proposes at one point in the film, “Why don’t we all get jobs and go to work”. I’m not sure if I can even distinguish the film’s moments of humor between intentionally and unintentionally funny. Either way, the whole thing is ridiculous, funny stuff.  Infact I could have given this film a higher score but I felt the romance dominated second half slowed the film’s pace; I guess you could say the film started to drag (bad dum tiss). Sylvia Scarlett is one of those films which has to be seen to be believed. The first film of the Kate and Cary quadrilogy can be classified as many things but “forgettable” isn’t one of them.

Holiday (1938)

Is This Where the Club Meets?

Holiday is my favourite Cary Grant film and my favourite of Katharine Hepburn & Cary Grant’s partnership. Between this, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. It’s almost like having to choose my favourite child; yes all three are that good but ultimately Holiday is the most beloved of my offspring. I find Kate & Cary to be one of the five greatest instances of chemistry I’ve seen between an actor and actress (my other selections being Astaire & Rogers, Powell & Loy, Stewart & Sullivan and Fonda & Stanwyck), even preferring them to the longer running Tracy-Hepburn partnership. However the two of them aren’t actually romantically engaged throughout the film, with Grant preparing to be married a different woman. Yet the whole time I’m thinking to myself Kate & Cary are beyond perfect for each other; the coming together of two intellectuals. I don’t want to see him being involved with someone else.

I also feel Cary Grant has every looked more youthful than he does in Holiday and even gets a rare opportunity to show off his acrobatic skills, with Hepburn even getting in on the action. I’ll also take this opportunity to mention that man sure could wear clothes like no other. Katharine Hepburn had the opportunity in her career to play roles which reflected her real life personality as a non conformist odd ball, here playing just that; the black sheep in a wealth, business driven family. The discussions Kate & Cary engage on what their characters want to do with their lives are so deep and profound. The difficulty of finding their place in life, the obstacles of trying to live it and not wanting to miss out on an ever changing world full of ideologies and ideas, all while trying to get by with an optimistic attitude despite the imperfections in their life. It’s hard to take it all in on and decipher in a single viewing, which makes Holiday one of my most life affirming movies.

The scene in which Kate & Cary welcome in the new year in the playroom (also that playroom looks so much fun! You could almost set the entire movie in there) is one of the most powerful and harrowing moments I’ve seen in any film, with the sadness of spending New Years alone is something I can relate to. I do make it an aim during a future new year’s eve to watch Holiday with the film synchronized with real time so I can introduce the new year at the exact same time the character’s in the movie do so.

Dinner at Eight (1933)

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Ah the 1930’s. No decade in cinema has since captured such an aurora of class and sophistication from the clothes worn to way people talk; a world so removed from our own. It feels like there is no other time period in which it was as easy to make a movie about rich people and their rich people problems without it coming off as a metaphorical dick waving display of wealth. There are few better representations of this than Dinner at Eight. With the heavenly, dream like music from the film’s opening titles; the viewer is transported to a world long, long gone. All of the stories in Dinner at Eight have tragic to say the least, but Billie Burke as the socialite holding the impending dinner helps bring comic relief to the proceedings with her histrionics as well simply the sound of her voice. Aside from the largely carefree Burke, the rest of the characters don’t have much to look forward to with their impending affairs, bankruptcy, failing careers and illnesses.

John Barrymore’s story is my favourite; the quietly tragic demise of washed up film star Larry Renault. His tender love scenes with Madge Evans are largely the opposite of the grandiose interaction with Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel; this is far more down to Earth. It’s not apparent when Renault first appears just what a bad state his career is in. As his segment progresses he becomes more and more pathetic as he becomes increasingly drunk and we learn more about his current state that he is only being offered a bit part in a play, he only has seven cents on him and the ultimate blow when his manager tells him he’s been a joke for years and never taken seriously as an actor; he had his good looks but he doesn’t even have that anymore. The sub plot is prophetic of Barrymore’s own future as he spent his last few years as a washed up actor and succumb to alcohol. There are hints in his performance to the egomaniac he would play the following year in Twentieth Century with his hotel room being littered with photographs of his own profile. With its haunting cinematography Renault’s final outcome had me holding my breath with part of me wishing this could be its own film; a sort of predecessor to the story of Norman Maine in A Star Is Born.

The other story line which particularly strikes me is Edmund Lowe’s. Once his wife confronts him about his ongoing affair with Jean Harlow, the two have a long serious chat in which she is completely understanding and forgives him. A stark contrast to any modern romantic comedy in which two character would break up after a lengthy argument of one has betrayed the other, then get back together 20 minutes later. Are modern romantic comedies just so contrived and unreflective of real life, was adultery less frowned on back then or is it just a pre-code thing?

The early 30’s seems to be the one brief period in cinema history in which there was a number of older aged movie stars who box office draws; Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore. There has never been another decade like it.

A Bill of Divorcement (1932)

A Star Is Born

Katharine’s Hepburn’s screen debut proved to be a stronger film than I expected, starring alongside the great John Barrymore in this tragic mental illness melodrama and when I say tragic, I do mean tragic. Boy does this movie lay it on thick but it sure made this viewer’s hear sink. Even before Barrymore appears on screen I was already starting to feel sorry for this character upon learning he’s spent years at a mental asylum with shell shock and couldn’t pursue his music, and that’s only the beginning. You know that dirty word people like to throw around, “manipulative”; well this movie certainly manipulated me. Yet despite the story laying additional tragic layers after another, the performances make it work and prevent it from coming come off as totally ridiculous.

Watching Katharine Hepburn I would never have guessed this was her first film, she is entirely natural and gives the impression of someone has much acting experience. Plus she was never more youthful than she is here, springing full of energy and life. Supposedly director George Cuckor inserted shots in the film which did nothing to advance the story nor deepen character but were simply lingering shots of Hepburn in which the audience could adjust and get acquainted with her.

John Barrymore however is the main star of the show. Throughout the film there is a sadness and fragile nature of his voice while he denies the reality of the situation to himself and pulling the puppy dog eyes; with the occasional scenery chewing outburst. He’s a ham but a loveable ham. I feel the most powerful moment in the film is the scene in which Barrymore breaks into tears into the arms of his neglectful wife (Billie Burke) while she can’t even bare to look at him; I almost broke into a tear myself.

I’ve read many comments describing the film “stagey” – not at all. Shots are framed with depth, often at different angles and with objects framed in the foreground; George Cukor was a better director than that. A Bill of Divorcement is a heart sinker if there ever was one.