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19 March 2017

Bighearted Beauty: Mae West's First Appearance in Night After Night

Mae West’s first screen appearance in the vaguely Damon Runyon-esque George Raft vehicle Night After Night, 1932 (actually from a story by the prolific Louis Bromfield) sets the pattern for her own eight features. Her role in the film, like her other films and plays, is self-penned; she only agreed to do it if she could write her own scenes. And the freshness and vigor of these scenes electrify the whole movie, which is otherwise a pretty conventional tough guy/classy girl romance. Though I must say Raft is at his best here, in a very appealing performance as Joe Antone, a former gangster turned nightclub proprietor who’s trying to better himself. He owns a speakeasy housed in an old New York mansion, which turns out to be the childhood home of a society girl, Jerry Healy (Constance Cummings), who has lost her fortune. Out of nostalgia, she visits the club alone, and Joe falls for her.

Mae’s character, Maudie Triplett, an old flame of Joe's, doesn’t even appear until the film is half over. When she does appear, she’s pursued by such a crowd of admirers that she can hardly be seen; sending them about their business, she enters the ritzy nightclub where all the action takes place and sets the tone for the future with one of her most famous wisecracks. As she drops her gorgeous pale velvet white fox trimmed wrap off with the cloakroom attendant, the dazzled girl exclaims, “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!”
Maudie arrives with panache

“Goodness had nothing to do with it, dearie,” Mae replies cheerfully, sashaying in her glittering splendor towards the stairs leading to the main room. There is nothing crass or snappish about her reply; on the contrary, she wears a happy smile, proud of her successes as symbolized by the array of diamonds.

She looks almost like the Mae of her own vehicles; she had finalized her golden blonde look in this, her first major movie appearance, but her hair and makeup are not as becoming as they would be in later films where she had total control. And instead of an 1890s hourglass gown, here she wears a typical evening gown of the period, of heavy white satin, beaded, low cut and low backed, with wrists full of sparkling diamonds, a sequined evening bag, and white kid gloves to carry. She strides — as much as a lady as tiny as she was can stride — across the crowded room with perfect self assurance, greeting her old flame with every expectation of a warm welcome.

The following scenes display the basic mores of her character. After some reminiscent chit chat with Joe, the star-crossed couple go off to tour the house, throbbing with mutual angst, and Maudie is left to make friends with Miss Mabel Jellyman, the upper-crust lady Raft has hired to teach him culture. Maudie determines that Miss Jellyman needs to loosen up and learn to enjoy herself.

"You've been buried, dearie," she says. After a few more glasses of champagne, the two ladies seem to bond, with Maudie encouraging Mabel to live a little. She's never been offered all the champagne she can drink before.
"Maudie and I have a great deal in common," Mabel tells Joe sentimentally, on his return.
"You said it, baby," Maudie says.
"Maudie, do you really think I could get rid of my inhibitions?"
"Why, sure, I've got an old trunk you can put 'em in."
"Hotcha!" Mabel downs another glass of bubbly.
Mabel and Maudie bond over champagne

Now the boring romantic plot intervenes; Joe runs into trouble with another old flame (Wynne Gibson) -- this one none too friendly -- and some rival gangsters looking to take over his place. But in the next scene written by Mae, we see Mabel lying miserably in bed, clad in a slip, moaning, next to Maudie, who seems to be as perky as ever. It seems to be the next day. Maudie arises and, in a helpful spirit, brings her friend a hangover cure and an ice bag for her head.
"Conscious now, dearie?" she says.
Mabel sits up, horrified. "I've got to teach a class this morning!" she exclaims.
"Not this morning, dearie," Maudie says. "It's 4:30 in the afternoon."
Mabel is even more distressed. "What will Miss Prinny say? It's my livlihood."

Maudie, clad only in an extremely revealing satin nightgown, and showing a great deal of perfect, fair skin (Mae's back is beautiful), encourages Mabel to make this the turning point in her constricted life — and offers her a job. Somewhat to Maudie’s surprise, Mabel — who has been bemoaning her boring teaching job since the night before -- hesitates.
Miss Jellyman tries to refuse politely

There follows a marvelous exchange, funny, original, and probably a real headache for the censors, because it becomes clear that Mabel assumes Maudie is a prostitute or at least a madam, and nervously tries to refuse this surprising offer without offending her new friend.

"Why, a gal with your poise and class would make thousands in my business," Maudie declares.
"Your business? Are you asking me to come into your business?"

"Why, of course, why not? It's one of the best paying rackets in the world."

"Well ... I realize that your business has been a great factor in the building of civilization... and of course it has protected our good women, and thereby preserved the sanctity of the home. And there were such women as Cleopatra .. and France owes a great deal to DuBarry. But me, dear," Mabel falters, "Don't you think I'm just a little old?"

"Say, " Maudie says, "what kind of a business do you think I'm in?"

"Oh, please, don't lets say any more about it."

Maudie finally realizes what the problem is, and reveals that she’s the owner of a chain of beauty parlors. She thinks Mabel would be an excellent choice for a refined and classy hostess for her new salon in Manhattan (the Institute de Beaute), at one hundred dollars a week plus a percentage. Mabel is incoherent with joy, and has to hug the forgiving Maudie. And notice that this whole misunderstanding is cleverly structured so that the person mentioning the unmentionable is the innocent, high-class lady, not the sexy entrepeneuse.

All is forgiven
In fact, none of Maudie’s dialog classifies as double-entendre; she’s simply an irresistibly attractive woman of the world, and glad to be one. She likes men, and men like her. What’s the problem?

The rest of the plot resolves itself rather unconvincingly with Joe evading the gangsters and, despite some harsh words and turmoil, winning the girl. But it's hard to care very much, though, again, Raft is very good in this one.

But most people, it turned out, would rather see Maudie. This character and these scenes, though not as developed as her later work — Maudie is a little more raucous than her later characters — define Mae’s vision. They show the three pillars of her iconic status, her entirely original view of what a hero is, and what life should be. An artist puts what is most important to her in her art, not necessarily in interviews or biographies. I don’t know if Mae was ever quoted as saying what she believed; I just know what her body of work says.

"I know just how you feel, honey!"
First — and this is perhaps what remains so refreshing about Mae West, nearly 100 years later  — sex makes her happy. There is no guilt or shame or self-denial or self-hatred in her approach to sex; it is not a cause for hand-wringing or recrimination. It’s joyous. It’s as if she’s saying, Wow, isn’t it great that we can do this? Think of the fun we can have! It’s something of a sad commentary that after all the liberation of the last century we still need to see this.

Next is her approach to self development. Mae always has supreme confidence in herself. If she wants to learn how to do something, she does, whether it’s riding an elephant, singing an aria from grand opera in French, speaking Chinese, preaching a sermon, or singing a torch song with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. You'll never see her standing around waiting to be rescued; she's the hero, and she does the rescuing. The problems that come up in the story she's telling are solved by her actions. You can achieve what you want to achieve — believe in yourself. That’s her advice to everyone.
Klondike Annie: Rose chats with Fah Wong -- in Chinese

And the third of Mae’s great values is her willingness to help other people, male and female. She is not the type of femme fatale that hates other women; on the contrary, she wants to help everyone be all that they can be. She helps the Mission next door in She Done Him Wrong, talks her friend Thelma through her man troubles and freely gives walking around money to her ex-con ex-boyfriend in I’m No Angel, rescues her Chinese maid, cares tenderly for her friend Annie when she becomes ill, and helps out a pitiful drunk at the mission she has established in Klondike Annie. She’s always kind and encouraging. She’s friendly to scrubwomen, chauffeurs, waiters, stage extras, messengers, and especially to her maids, with whom she always has a special, confidential relationship, which carried over into real life.These actresses are playing maids, it's true; but they had screen time, lines, and screen credit.

Tira and the girls do a spontaneous song and dance
Mae West’s continuing fame today, thirty years after her death is partly because all of these things are so positive, so loving, and so eternally valuable to all of us. Some contemporary critics remarked that she seemed to have a special relationship with her audience — that they loved her, and she loved them. I don’t think Mae was, and is, loved because she was outrageous, titillating, or shocking, but because of her joy at being human. She’s not a femme “fatale” at all, but a femme “vitale.” Her humor is not mean; her double entendres are not degrading. Because she was ultimately responsible for her films more than any other star, her voice and message are more consistent, without interference from studio, screenwriter, or director. The viewer could be sure a Mae West film would not be denigrating to people of any sex, race, ethnic group, or class, but would instead celebrate life, and turn out to be, in her inimitable way, uplifting.

01 March 2017

Warnings From the Past: Stewart and Sullavan in The Mortal Storm

A Nazi book-burning
In The Mortal Storm, we see a country ruled by a "leader" whose world view is based largely on self- aggrandizing fantasy, establishment of one religious group as a scapegoat for social ills, contempt for women, demonizing other  cultures and nationalities, and promoting "alternate facts" above scientific reality.

Perhaps it’s time to look again at this great anti-Nazi film from 1940. The Mortal Storm begins to look like a warning cry from the past that we ignore at our peril.

This film is about the Nazi takeover of Germany, and it starts with an election. Many of us may have forgotten that Adolph Hitler was legally elected to office in 1933. But here we don’t see the politics, the plots, the famous men, the workings of government; instead we witness the disintegration of a family, and the slow death of love, trust, and friendship. We see at first hand how Hitler’s Nazi Party corrupted the sincere patriotism of his deluded followers, twisting every honest thought and feeling into something brutal and vindictive. Some individuals resist the seduction of yielding to the will of a leader; but others, in return for group identity and the strength and power it gives, surrender themselves.

Morgan, Stewart, Young

The story follows Professor Victor Roth (Frank Morgan), a teacher of physiology at an ancient university, and his family, including his wife, Amelie (Irene Rich), his daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan), his teenage son, Rudy (Gene Reynolds), and his stepsons, Erich (William T. Orr) and Otto (Robert Stack), and their friends Martin (James Stewart) and Fritz (Robert Young). These young adults have all grown up together. At first it is hardly mentioned that the respected professor is Jewish, and his wife is not. As the story begins, the Professor is feted in the classroom and at home on the occasion of his 60th birthday. His students, male and female, gather and sing “Gaudeamus Igitur,” the medieval song of learning, knowledge, and truth that celebrates the centuries old liberal tradition of German education. It’s actually a light-hearted drinking song, but it contains these lines (in Latin):

Long live our fellowship,
Long live the students;
May truth alone thrive
May brotherhood flourish

These words were soon to disappear from German universities.
At the family party, Roth’s stepsons express their love for him, saying he has been the best father they could ask for. Adding to the celebration, Fritz tells the family that he and Freya have become engaged, and the party proceeds with cake and presents. But soon some news disrupts the happy evening — Adolph Hitler has become Chancellor of Germany.
A happy family party for Professor Roth

To Professor Roth’s carefully hidden dismay the young men, except Martin, greet this with enthusiasm. They turn on the radio to hear live coverage of the announcement, and we hear the first mass chants of “Seig Heil!” Fritz, Otto, and Erich smile proudly at each other, feeling a warm glow of triumph.  Many Germans saw their country’s defeat in World War 1 as a deep humiliation, one that these young men burn to avenge; they are excited at the prospect of making their country "great again."

“We’ll see a new Germany! Nations who want peace have nothing to fear.”
“But if they want war, by Heaven, they’ll get it!” Fritz adds.
Mrs. Roth looks worried. “But what about people who think differently? What about those who are non-Aryan?”
But Otto reassures her. “Men like Father are an honor to Germany,” he says. The boys are not happy with Martin’s lack of enthusiasm, however.
“Now there’ll be one Party, and only one!” Fritz says.
“A man’s got to take a stand — if he’s not for us, he’s against us, and against Germany,” Erich says.
Freya demurs. “You’re getting very intolerant, all of you.”
“Well, we should be intolerant — of anyone who opposes the will of our leader,” Otto says flatly.

They have already begun to think of the “leader” as the embodiment of the country; to disagree with him is to insult Germany. This is the beginning of the end of civilization — the idea that the “will” of one individual should replace the will of the people, or the very concepts of law, ethics, and morality.

The young men get a phone call causing them to hasten off to a political meeting — all except one. Martin, the veterinary student, isn’t interested in going along. “Peasants don’t have any politics; they keep cows.”
“Well, if they want to keep their cows they’d better have the right politics,” Fritz answers sharply. Martin does not back down, however.

Professor Roth, portrayed by the great Frank Morgan, sadly watches them leave. Hitlerism has already begun to divide the formerly loving family, its tendrils wrapping around the young men, fed by their desire for status and approval from their peers. But this is only the beginning.

As the weeks and months go on, everything changes. Hitler soon consolidated supreme governmental power in his own hands; his word alone was the law, and no elected bodies had legal standing oppose him. All government entities, from the civil service to the court system to the armed forces, were ruled by decree. Soon all the young men are wearing uniforms, and the streets are patrolled by aggressive squads looking for signs of disobedience to the Chancellor’s will. Schoolchildren are taught that the leader always does what is right. Jew are blamed for all social ills, and Jewish businesses are targeted for harassment. Liberals and others who disagree with "might makes right" rule are dismissed from their jobs.
Singing the praises of the leader. Or not.

A turning point comes when Freya, Otto, Erich and Martin meet in a tavern in the mountains where they spent convivial times in the past. But everything goes wrong. First everyone in the tavern stands, gives the Nazi salute and sings a tribute to “our great leader,” which contains the words
“…no race on earth can keep our land from glory; we are by birth the rulers of the world.”

Martin and Freya are aghast to see their friends and brothers take part in this ritual.
Only Martin stands up for Mr. Werner

Then they witness a gang of Nazis harassing an elderly man — who turns out to be Mr. Werner, a former schoolteacher of theirs, who has failed to return the Nazi salute. Freya is outraged when Otto and Erich allow this to happen. Only Martin is willing to take a stand and protect the old man from the thugs (the thug-in-chief is played by a very young and extremely effective Dan Dailey.).
Fritz, Otto, and Erich, however, don’t seem to see anything wrong with a mob of able-bodied young men roughing up one elderly one, if it is the will of the leader. In fact, Fritz says anyone who opposes the leader is an enemy of his country.

Freya attempts to remonstrate with him and is told,
”Keep out of this, Freya — this is no woman’s business.”
Fritz reprimands Freya for interfering in politics "no woman's business"

Just then someone yells out that the Nazis are beating the teacher — they waited to get him alone outside and attacked. Martin rushes out to assist him, followed by a furious Freya.
When she returns home by train, accompanied by Fritz and her brothers — who look a little ashamed — Fritz tells her that women shouldn’t mix in public affairs. First they argue; then, seeing that she might actually be willing to break up with him, he becomes conciliatory and say she needn’t bother her head about such things. This does not noticeably mollify her.
Freya doesn't conceal her anger

As things continue to change, Fritz’ ideas about women’s place seems to be the new norm. At the university, girls are suddenly banished from classes, to be replaced with row upon row of uniformed, hostile youths in Nazi uniforms who will accept only he rigidly doctrinaire views of their leader. Professor Roth, who is an expert on blood groups, is now being pressured to declare that “Aryan” blood is different, and purer, than “non-Aryan” blood. Science is being replaced with “alternate facts.” But since this is not true, he cannot say it — so the Nazi students stage a walkout, and soon Professor Roth is dismissed from his proud position. As he leaves the university where he spent so many years, he witnesses an organized book-burning, with volumes by Freud, Heine, Thomas Mann, and Einstein — any thinker who challenges the worldview of the leader — being tossed into the flames as the crowd chants mindlessly, “We burn you! We burn you!” The professor sees that his stepsons and Fritz, their lifelong friend, are part of this crowd, their eyes glazed, their faces red in the firelight. He passes on. The intellectual life of the great university that he loved has ended.

Freya breaks off her engagement to Fritz. He is angry and pained; it seems he really does love her, as far as he can. But he is also in love with the mystical dream of racial superiority and the “natural” right to rule the world. Freya firmly tells him it’s all over, and he storms out, simmering with resentment
Stewart, Sullavan, and Ouspenskaya

Martin and Freya become more friendly than ever. She admires his strength of character and the gentleness with which he tends the animals on his mountain farm. His mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) welcomes her.  One night as he sees her home they meet her two brothers, Otto and Erich, and several other youthful Nazis just leaving. Otto angrily orders Freya to stop seeing Martin, and orders Martin to stay away from their home. Freya, with equal anger, tells him to mind his own business, and another unequal fight ensues, only to end when Mrs Roth runs from the house to reprimand her sons for fighting with Martin, who has always been welcome in her home.

“I’m so ashamed,” she says. The boys are more concerned with losing face in the eyes of their cronies than their mother and sister, and decide to leave their parents house for good. Professor and Mrs. Roth are distressed, but Freya angrily tells them to get out.
Otto and Erich threaten Martin

The family’s disintegration gathers speed; Professor Roth has written a textbook about blood groups, and plans to go to a conference in Vienna (which is in Austria, and not part of the Third Reich — yet) to lecture on the subject. But he never arrives, and never returns from this trip. Mrs. Roth and Freya are frantic with worry. They are unable to find out anything about what has happened to him. Finally Freya approaches Fritz, who is now a minor official. She’s willing to swallow her pride to plead with him for information about her father; finally, apparently feeling a touch of remorse, which he strives to conceal, Fritz tells her that Professor Roth has been arrested for denigrating the “alternative facts” preferred by the leader and sent to a concentration camp.
Freya begs Fritz for news of her father

And here a word should be said about Robert Young’s performance as Fritz, which is brilliant. His conflicting emotions, the war between self-
importance and shame, the initial idealism turned to mindless obedience to the leader — even when he is asked to do what he would never have dreamed of doing a few years earlier — are clear to see. Fritz is in a constant state of struggle; his actual love for Freya has to be crushed once she gives her allegiance to her non-Aryan father, yet he cannot crush it.
He argues to himself that individuals must sometimes be sacrificed to the greater good, regardless of their actual innocence — yet he can’t help knowing that the persecution of people like Professor Roth and Mr. Werner is fundamentally dishonorable. He began as a patriot, willing to work for the good of his country; now he’s on and endless treadmill, where he can never relax, never rest. Every minute of every day must be spent in calculating how to placate his superiors in the party — and bracing for what they will ask of him next.
Frank Morgan as Prof. Roth

Mrs Roth gets permission to visit her husband in the camp. His hair and beard are entirely white, and he wears a prison-like uniform with a “J” on the sleeve. Though she tells him everything she’s prepared to try to obtain his release, he knows he will never see her again. Frank Morgan powers this wrenching scene; every look, every word, is laden with the pain of this loss that he doesn’t want her to see.
When they part, after just a few minutes, she says, trying to smile, 
“You’ll be free soon.”
He looks at her for the last time, and says, with a different meaning, 
“I’ll be free soon.”

From this point, the plot snowballs; soon they hear of Professor Roth’s death in the camp. There is nothing to keep what's left of the family in Germany. Mrs Roth, Freya, and Rudy make plans to leave the country. But when they reach the border with Austria, their luggage is searched and Professor Roth’s unfinished manuscript -- containing facts contrary to the leader's "sacred vision" -- is found in Freya’s suitcase. She is detained in Germany as her mother and brother cross the border into Austria, waving goodbye out the train window.

But Martin is in Austria, having helped the teacher Mr. Werner escape through a secret pass through the mountains that only he knows. And he arrives to rescue Freya. As they prepare to ski through the steep ravine that will take them to freedom. Freya's former fiancee Fritz and her half-brothers Otto and Erich  are meeting with their superiors. The Nazis have discovered Martin's plan, and are determined to stop them. Fritz requests that he be relieved of the responsibility, saying that Freya and Martin were once his closest friends. His commander says that that is why he is being assigned this task -- he must choose between his personal loyalty and his leader. Fritz obeys.
Fritz is ordered to hunt Freya and Martin down

Martin and Freya leave via the secret pass but they are followed by a posse of guards, led by Fritz. Their journey is strenuous and harrowing, and they are near the Austrian border when one of the guards takes a shot. Freya falls. Martin manages to carry her across the border but it is too late.

Fritz is seen meeting with Otto and Erich. He tells them what happened, and, faced with their stunned expressions, cries "It was my duty!" Otto and Erich, shocked, disagree sharply, and Otto runs from the building, apparently heading for Austria to find his mother and stepbrother. The family has totally shattered. Family loyalty, friendship, love, and trust have been destroyed. 

Seeing people surrender their own moral judgement to doctrines that civilized men and women know are wrong, give themselves over to predjudice, injustice, and outright cruelty, we ask ourselves, "How could they do it? How could the kill every good impulse in themselves, and do such vile things?" This is how. 


22 February 2017

Garbo's Artistry on Display in an Old-Fashioned Romance

Garbo as Madame Cavallini

Amidst the new content recently added to the Warner Archive streaming channel is a 1930 vehicle for MGM's biggest star, Greta Garbo, entitled Romance, based on a play that was old-fashioned at the time. At first this seems like an odd project, but that's because today we don't know the story behind it -- in 1930, everybody did. And the personal significance this production had for most of the people involved gave it added resonance.

This is the backstory: The play was a Broadway hit of 1913, starring Doris Keane, and was successfully revived on Broadway in 1921 after a silent film version was released in 1920. It is charming and well-crafted, but there was another reason for so many productions.

Romance was written by Edward Sheldon, a very talented writer who scored an enormous hit at the age of 23 with the play "Salvation Nell," which was so popular that it was revived on Broadway several times, and made into movies three times. He was not only professionally accomplished, but also extremely well-liked around the New York theater scene, frequently acting as a script doctor, director, and acting coach.

You can see from this film version of Romance that Sheldon perfectly understood the construction of a well-made, popular play that would not be too difficult to produce, provides satisfying starring roles for established players, and wouldn't require either expensive sets or a large cast, so it wasperfect for regional and repertory theaters. (Of course, MGM didn't have to worry about keeping the budget under contol on a Garbo picture, so they were happy to go all out.)

The story, set in New York in the 1860's (allowing for beautiful, nostalgic costumes for the leading lady), is about a famed Italian operatic diva and her hopeless love affair with an innocent young American clergyman. The central character, Madame Cavallini, is lovely, tempestuous, emotional, and has a hint of scandal in her background -- enough for audiences of 1913 to find a bit naughty but not actually sinful, making them feel quite agreeably sophisticated. Her doomed romance is quite touching, if rather obvious; but it makes a satisfying story. What Romance really depends on is star quality -- Mme. Cavallini must be irresistably attractive and bewitching.

And so she is. Garbo is simply brilliant in this role. In her lush costumes, elaborate hairstyles, and glorious beauty, she transforms into an exotic, mercurial, exquisite artist, obviously the toast of any town she happens to visit. (How the great designer Adrian must have enjoyed creating these gorgeous costumes!) The young men of New York literally pull her carriage through the streets. She is completely convincing.
Her supporting players Gavin Gordon and Lewis Stone, are also excellent, but this was designed as a star vehicle, and Garbo is it.

Now back to the frequent productions. In 1919, the playwright, Ned Sheldon, having made a place for himself in the theater world, suddenly became crippled with an extreme form of rhumatoid arthritis. Over the next few years, he almost completely lost the ability to move at all, and eventually went blind, as well. You would think this would be the end of his career.

But since he could no longer see plays, go to first nights, and direct shows and performances, through the following years, week after week and day after day, the New York theater world went to him. For the rest of his life, the top stars, directors, and theater folk made time in their crowded, reputedly self-absorbed lives to visit Sheldon regularly; not a day went by without a Barrymore, a Cornell, a Hayes, a producer like Tyrone Guthrie, or a writer like Alexander Woolcott or Thornton Wilder spending time with him. (This included, by the way, a very young Orson Welles.) From his darkened bedroom, without being able to move or see, he was still able to collaborate on plays and even continue as an acting coach. The world that he loved so much loved him back.

When this movie was made, this story was well-known. Cynical denizens of the Great White Way did not brag about it but I can't help feeling that they might have been quite proud of how they cared for one of their own.