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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.

18 February 2017

Don't Miss This British Classic!

Among the other gems in TCM's 30 Days of Oscar programming is a delightful but unfortunately little known British film from 1944, Vacation From Marriage. I can't help feeling that one reason it's little known is the stupid title, which has absolutely nothing to do with the story; the original title was "Perfect Strangers."
Cathy provides a cup of tea despite her cold

It's a wartime story of an average middle class couple, Robert and Cathy, living an average, rather boring life; he's a clerk in a big insurance firm, and she's a housewife. (You know they're not going to seem average for long because they're played by Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr.) He's getting to the age where he puffs a little climbing two flights of stairs to their apartment, and she potters around all morning in her woolen dressing gown, sniffling from a perpetual cold in the head.

But as the film opens, he has been drafted into the Navy, and is just about to leave. They are both worried and uncertain about this. She sees him off to training camp at the railroad station, waving a damp handkerchief as his train pulls away.
Peter at sea

We see Robert next experiencing his first weeks at sea, desperately trying to avoid looking at the swaying masts, and finding himself unable to dine happily on pork and beans. And he is astonished to receive a letter from his wife informing him that she has joined the WRENs, the women's Naval service.

Next we see Cathy arriving uncertainly at her training station, feeling very much out of place. Eventually she is taken under the wing of another girl, the smart and stylish Dizzy, played by Glynis Johns.

Both of them have adventures on their own -- in fact, both display a certain amount of heroism. And as the conflict goes on, both are tied up with their duties, and it so happens that they don't both get leave at the same time until three years have passed.
Dizzy and Cathy, WRENs

When they do finally meet again, neither is entirely pleased -- not at first -- to see how the other has changed, though anybody else would say it's for the better.

This is a wonderful story, straightforward but with hidden depths, and so charmingly played by all the lead actors. And it's more than a light, romantic comedy; it really has something to say, namely that people are stronger, and more resourceful, than they realize, and can achieve more than they thought possible.

They meet again

Vacation From Marriage (AKA Perfect Strangers) is going to be shown Wednesday, March 1, at 8:00 P.M. on Turner Classic Movies.

25 January 2017

Inspirational Woman At War: Not the Ones You Might Expect

There were serious plays and films about women's service during World War 2, like Cry Havoc, So Proudly We Hail, or even Since You Went Away, where Claudette Colbert ended up working in a defense plant. I was particularly interested in the subject, I think, because not only was my aunt a WAC, but that's how she met my uncle, who was also in the Army. It was an occasion of great excitement when she showed me her army drab, padded-shouldered uniform, which had been packed away in a trunk for 20 years.

When I was a child, I have to say that my favorites of the Women at War movies were not the A-movies; I didn't really care about production values when I was nine. Or acting, particularly.

But I loved the Loretta Young starrer Ladies Courageous (also known, rather ridiculously, as When Ladies Fly -- as if Ladies Courageous wasn't bad enough!) This film followed the story of the development of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, a corps of female pilots who ferried planes from wherever they were to wherever they were needed.
June Vincent, Loretta Young, Anne Gwynne

The plot has the women pilots proving themselves worthy (despite a lot of silly romantic entanglements and pretty childish behavior), but frankly I never cared about that; I just loved their businesslike rolled hair and snazzy khaki-trousered uniforms. The cast is very interesting, featuring Loretta Young, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Evelyn Ankers, June Vincent, and Diana Barrymore (who gives a perfectly acceptable performance), but the story has some pretty hackneyed Hollywood moments. But who cares? It's about women stepping up to the plate -- and hitting a homer.

The WASPs also appear tangentially in A Guy Named Joe, a strange supernatural wartime romance that somehow works, probably due to the wonderful performances by Irene Dunne, as one of the women pilots, Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, and Ward Bond (who never gave a bad performance or even an indifferent one, as far as I know). Director Victor Fleming, too, was always good at an adventure-romance. In this story a couple of pilots, male (Tracy) and female (Dunne) dedicate themselves to the war effort, putting their love for each other second, and then he is killed. So far, so normal. But the next thing you see is Tracy's character, Pete, arriving at a military institution set in the clouds -- literally -- and headed by The General, who is known by no other name, and who is played with calm authority by Lionel Barrymore.

Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy -- Pilots in Love
In the war against evil, Heaven is apparently mobilizing on our side -- very reasonable. Tracy has been assigned to the flyer's wing (so to speak), and it's explained to him that he will be assigned to invisibly support a fledgling pilot. Unfortunately for him, the pilot he is assigned to is an attractive young man, played with charm and sincerity by Van Johnson, whom his bereaved sweetheart is beginning to fall in  love with.

My other favorite was Four Jills in a Jeep, a musical comedy-ization of the very real tour taken by Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair to England and North Africa to entertain the Allied troops. These formerly pampered glamor girls left all that behind to travel close enough to the front lines that they were required to wear helmets by their military hosts, something that was not done just for show.

The Four Jills in a foxhole, plus Phil Silvers
Basically, these four women were willing to do whatever it took to reach the guys and let them know that people back home were thinking of them. Since the story, based on a memoir Carole Landis wrote about it, was basically turned into a musical, there are performances by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Alice Faye, Dick Haymes, George Jessel, and Carmen Miranda. None of these were on the actual tour, but that's showbiz. One of my favorite scenes, however, did really happen, when Kay Francis, having just arrived at a busy hospital which is preparing to receive casualties, is mistaken for a nurse by one of the doctors and asked to scrub the floor. So she does.

Then there's The Doughgirls, a light-hearted -- and pretty light-headed -- comedy agout the famous housing shortage that afflicted Washington, D.C,, throughout the war years, which was the springboard for several movie plots, including the delightfully sexy The More the Merrier, with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea making a pretty steamy pair under the appreciative eye of Charles Coburn. The Doughgirls involves three honeymoon couples all claiming the same bridal suite in a fancy Washington hotel, with accompanying hi-jinks. The charming and enthusiastic cast includes Jane Wyman, Alexis Smith, Ann Sheridan, Jack Carson, and Charles Ruggles, but even in this company Eve Arden steals the show as an alarmingly chipper Russian female soldier, always joyously ready to fire her rifle out the window in honor of anything from a birthday to a victory, or to teach the hotel staff a jolly folk dance. (In a lot of ways this film, flighty as it is, shows clearly the way American audiences were encouraged to view the suddenly friendly Soviets, which increased the shock of our former ally's seizure of post-war Berlin tremendously a few years later.)
Eve Arden didn't need a rifle to steal this movie

None of these are what you would call great art, I suppose, but I think we're too hard on movies sometimes. Despite the glamorized and unrealistic portrayals and the downright wacky plots, these films (plus others like Buck Privates and Caught in the Draft) spurred my interest in the real history of World War 2, just as other exotic Hollywood productions like The Time of Their Lives, a bizarre but very enjoyable Abbott and Costello starrer whose main characters were ghosts from the American Revolution, and Down to Earth, which showcased a radiant Rita Hayworth as the Greek goddess Terpsichore, led to my interest in those particular historical eras.

A movie is not a dissertation, after all, and when you're nine years old you don't care whether or not Ancient Greeks really wore togas of magenta chiffon or girls in the 1780s permed their hair. These films were made to amuse, to enthrall, to charm, to thrill -- in short, to entertain, and the fact that they still do so after 50, 70. 100 years is a real tribute to the skills of the hundreds people who labored to create them.