Vitaphone View: Where is “Convention City” Hiding?

Where is Convention City Hiding?

Film mythology tells us that the 1933 Warner Brothers Vitaphone Pre-Code feature Convention City was so hot and so outrageous that after its initial run, Jack Warner recalled every print and burned them. To this day, not a single copy of the film, or even its coming attractions trailers, is known to survive. So the myth sounds like it could be true.

But it isn’t.

1933 Ad for Convention City1933 Ad for Convention City.

“Me, I was the one. Single-handedly I brought on the whole Code,” boasted Warner Bros producer Henry Blanke. “Yeah. Ask Joe Breen. He’ll tell you. Ask him about Convention City.” Blanke produced the film for an economical $239,000 despite its impressive cast. And it was extremely popular at the box office. It was distributed throughout the world, with foreign versions translating the title to mean “what a week”. In Spanish speaking countries, it was Que Semana! and in France, La Folle Semaine. Dubbed or sub-titled versions were also made for Denmark and Sweden. In all, there were likely 500-800 35mm prints of Convention City upon its release.

And yet, not a single copy is currently known to exist.

Convention City Special Publicity 19331933 publicity Convention City train used to promote the popular, but now lost, film.

So, where did it go? The myth that Jack Warner recalled and burned every copy makes a great story, but there is no truth to it. Warner Bros maintained voluminous records of virtually every bit of studio correspondence, and nothing exists to back up the tale. More importantly, it would be physically impossible to recall EVERY copy of Convention City, considering the number of prints, spread all over the world, that existed. And no such action was alleged for any of the drastically racier Pre-Code features that the studio made. Further putting this myth to bed is the fact that the studios’ own records show they had a print of Convention City in their vaults as late as 1948. At that time, a routine inspection indicated that the sole print had already begun to decompose, and it was destroyed. For safety, not lewdness.

Convention City Ad 1937 illicit screening1937 Ad showing the illicit post-Code screening of Convention City, 3 years after it was banned.

Another permutation of the disappearance tale says that Jack Warner was concerned that the many requests he got from real conventioneers to show the film could get him in trouble with the Motion Picture Producers Association, as Convention City was on the list of films not allowed to be shown publicly anymore. In 1936, Jack Warner submitted a list of titles to the PCA’s censor head, hoping for permission to re-release them. One of them was Convention City. On September 3, 1936, Joseph Breen wrote him that no amount of cutting could make these films suitable for re-release. Recent research has proven conclusively that the studio’s film exchanges were still (contrary to the Code) renting out Convention City to theatres as late as 1937. Ads in Chicago and other big city newspapers show it being paired on double bills and heralded as a return of a beloved all-star comedy.

Convention City Frank McHugh and ConventioneersFrank McHugh with conventioneers in Atlantic City in Convention City.

Digging further into the mystique of Convention City’s disappearance, we have learned it was shown in a Madrid theatre in 1942. That same year, a British soldier noted in his diary that he had seen it at a military film program. This tidbit supports the belief that 16mm copies of Convention City, and many other Hollywood productions, were made for the military. This would mean even hundreds more prints were in circulation.

Because the lone Warner Bros print of Convention City was gone by 1948, it was never released to television. As with many other “lost” films, like Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight or Laurel & Hardy’s Hats Off (both 1927) rumors of sightings constantly surface, but never pan out.

Convention City Adolph Menjou and Joan BlondellAdolph Menjou and Joan Blondell in Convention City.

Cast member Joan Blondell mentions in her autobiography that for laughs she would screen Dick Powell’s print of Convention City for guests. All leads, including her two sons, have been pursued. Nothing.

So, do I believe Convention City will be found one day? Absolutely! Lost films are being found every year. And considering the sheer number of circulating prints — easily over 1000 when both 35mm and 16mm are considered —- one would think at least one will eventually turn up.

And when it does, it is not likely to disappoint. Consider the cast, the typical Warners fast pace, quick cutting, and racy plot. New York’s Film Forum has presented Convention City twice with seasoned Broadway actors performing from the original script. The venue’s Repertory Director, Bruce Goldstein, carefully selected each actor, with particular success for the Guy Kibbee and Mary Astor roles. He decided to take on the drunken Frank McHugh part himself, relishing every line and the McHugh signature laugh.

The Vitaphone Project has spent nearly thirty years trying to find Convention City. Circa 1994, we were contacted by the late Phil Serling, who founded and ran the annual Cinefest film event in Syracuse, NY. He told me a person in Italy had a subtitled nitrate print but was concerned about how to ship the flammable material. This, of course, is done all the time, following stringent packaging and labeling protocols. But the trail quickly went cold and Phil died soon after. Virtually ever surviving relative of the film’s cast and production members have been contacted. Still nothing. Every archive has been checked, under both Convention City and foreign release titles. While nothing has turned up, it is not unheard of for an archive to have a film misfiled or not recorded in a database.

Convention City Window CardWindow Card for Convention City.

Eighty-five years after its release, and seventy years since that last known print decomposed in the Warner vaults, the most likely scenario for re-discovery is for a 16mm military or 35mm theatrical print to be found in a far-flung part of the world. Australia has yielded many lost films in recent years. Prints sent there were too expensive to return, so they stayed there.

For more details on the quest to find Convention City, you can read my essay at http://www.jazzage1920s.com/conventioncity/conventioncity.php

Meanwhile, please keep your eyes peeled for this most sought-after of all lost sound films!

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– Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Ron’s Vitaphone View articles here.

Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has  been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.

And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon:

               

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Sophie Tucker Book Giveaway (Facebook/Blog)

“Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker”
Book Giveaway via Facebook and this Blog

Okay, now it’s time for the Facebook/Blog version of our of  of  “Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker” Giveaway Contest! This time we’ll be giving away one copy of the book via Facebook and this blog, courtesy of University of Texas Press. And, remember, we’re also giving away FIVE MORE copies via Twitter this month as well, so please feel free to enter that contest too…

In order to qualify to win this prize via this Facebook/Blog contest giveaway, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, May 12, 2018We will pick one winner via a random drawing and announce him/her on Facebook and here on this Blog the day after the contest ends (Sunday May 13).

If you’re also on Twitter, please feel free to visit us at  @ClassicMovieHub for additional giveaways — because we’ll be giving away FIVE MORE books there as well! PS: you don’t even need a twitter account to enter! (Click here for twitter contest details as well as more information about the book.)

red hot mama: the life of sophie tucker

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ENTRY TASK to be completed by Saturday, May 12 at 1oPM EST —

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

THE QUESTION:
What do you admire most about Sophie Tucker? And, if you’re not familiar with her work, why do you want to win this book?

NOTE: if for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

ALSO: Please allow us 48 hours to approve your comments. Sorry about that, but we are being overwhelmed with spam, and must sort through 100s of comments…

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About the Book: The “First Lady of Show Business” and the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker was a star in vaudeville, radio, film, and television. A gutsy, song-belting stage performer, she entertained audiences for sixty years and inspired a host of younger women, including Judy Garland, Carol Channing, and Bette Midler. Tucker was a woman who defied traditional expectations and achieved success on her own terms, becoming the first female president of the American Federation of Actors and winning many other honors usually bestowed on men. Dedicated to social justice, she advocated for African Americans in the entertainment industry and cultivated friendships with leading black activists and performers. Tucker was also one of the most generous philanthropists in show business, raising over four million dollars for the religious and racial causes she held dear. Drawing from the hundreds of scrapbooks Tucker compiled, Red Hot Mama presents a compelling biography of this larger-than-life performer. Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff tells an engrossing story of how a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants set her sights on becoming one of the most formidable women in show business and achieved her version of the American dream. More than most of her contemporaries, Tucker understood how to keep her act fresh, to change branding when audiences grew tired and, most importantly, how to connect with her fans, the press, and entertainment moguls. Both deservedly famous and unjustly forgotten today, Tucker stands out as an exemplar of the immigrant experience and a trailblazer for women in the entertainment industry.

…..

Click here for the full contest rules. 

Please note that only Continental United States (excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and the territory of Puerto Rico) entrants are eligible.

And — BlogHub members ARE eligible to win if they live within the Continental United States (as noted above).

And if you can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase the on amazon via the below link (click on image):

Good Luck!

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–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

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Classic Movie Travels: Glenda Farrell

Classic Movie Travels: Glenda Farrell – Wichita, San Diego and NY

Glenda FarrellGlenda Farrell

There are so many actresses to celebrate when it comes to Depression Era films, and Glenda Farrell is certainly one of them. Shining with snappy dialogue in several cleverly construed plots, it is no surprise that Glenda’s career was a success throughout the 1930s and paved the way for her 50 years in the business as an accomplished actress of film, television, and theater.

Glenda Farrell was born on June 30, 1901, in Enid, Oklahoma. Like many of her peers, however, she would shave a few years off of her age an claim that she was born in 1904. She was born to Charles and Wilhelmina “Minnie” Farrell. Her father was of Irish and Cherokee descent, and worked as a dog and horse trader. Her mother, on the other hand, was of French and German descent and aspired to be an actress. Wilhelmina instilled a love of acting in her daughter, dreaming that Glenda would one day be an actress.

When the family moved to Wichita, Kansas, Glenda took on her first acting role as Little Eva in the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin at age seven. Later, she enrolled at Mount Carmel Catholic Academy in Wichita.

After living in Wichita, the Farrells moved once again to San Diego, California. There, Glenda worked as part of the Virginia Brissac Stock Company. Her picture appeared in the April 1919 issue Motion Picture Magazine, featuring her picture and a brief description of her work in chorus, vaudeville, and camp entertainment. The article also notes that Glenda has light brown hair, dark grey eyes, and stands at 5’3″.

Glenda met her first husband, Thomas Richards, when she was hired as a dancer for the San Diego Navy benefit ball. They were married in 1921 and had a son named Tommy. The couple divorced in 1921.

By 1928, Glenda was cast in her first lead role in the play The Spider. She made her film debut in the same year as part of the film Lucky Boy, carrying out an uncredited bit role. She moved to New York City the following year, replacing Erin O’Brien-Moore in the role of Marion Handy in the play Skidding; the play would later act as the basis for the Andy Hardy film series. After portraying Marion Handy 355 times, Glenda went on to appear in several other plays, including Divided Honors and Recapture. She also performed in Love, Honor, and Betray, with the likes of George Brent, Alice Brady, and Clark Gable.

Glenda FarrellGlenda Farrell poses for a picture in studio.

In 1930, Glenda performed in the film The Lucky Break and as the female lead in Mervyn LeRoy’s Little CaesarWhile Glenda once again returned to the stage, she felt that films offered larger salaries in comparison; however, she saw theater as an important foundation for any actor. Her starring role in the 1932 play Life Begins came to Jack Warner’s attention. He signed her to a long-term contract with Warner Brothers to perform the same role in the film adaptation of the play. Glenda would not return to live theater until 1939.

Glenda starred in a total of 17 films during the first two years of her contract with Warner Brothers, most notably appearing in Columbia Pictures’ Lady for a Day (1933) by director Frank Capra. It was typical for her to be working on four films at once and she transitioned seamlessly from role to role. Between 1934 and 1936, Glenda appeared in over 20 films, with roles in Go Into Your Dance (1935)Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), and Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). Along the way, she became good friends with co-stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell and was paired with Blondell as one-half of a comedy duo in a series of five films: Havana Windows (1933)Kansas City Princess (1934)Traveling Saleslady (1935)We’re in the Money (1935), and Miss Pacific Fleet (1935). They would work together in four more films, firmly establishing personas as smart, witty, wisecracking women of the early screen.

Joan Blondedd and Glenda FarrellJoan Blondell and Glenda Farrell in We’re in the Money (1935).

By 1937, Glenda was cast in her most notable role as Torchy Blane, “Girl Reporter.” Warner Brothers adapted a set of “MacBride and Kennedy” detective stories by novelist Frederick Nebel and changed the Kennedy character into a woman named Teresa “Torchy” Blane, who is in love with the MacBride character. Director Frank MacDonald cast Glenda in the role, alongside Barton MacLane as Steve McBride. Glenda portrayed Torchy in seven of the nine Torchy Blane films, including: Smart Blonde (1937), Fly Away Baby (1937), The Adventurous Blonde (1937), Blondes at Work (1938), Torchy Gets Her Man  (1938), Torchy Blane in Chinatown (1939), and Torchy Runs for Mayor (1939). In fact, co-creator of Superman Jerry Siegel holds that Glenda’s depiction of Torchy served as the inspiration for Lois Lane. While working in the Torchy Blane series, Glenda appeared in many other films, including Breakfast for Two (1937)Hollywood Hotel (1937), and Prison Break (1938). She also performed in several radio programs.

Glenda Farrell as Torchy BlaneGlenda Farrell as Torchy Blane

At the same time, Glenda also participated in a 1937 Warner Brothers publicity stunt, which found her elected to a one-year term as the honorary mayor of North Hollywood. She beat her competition, which included Bing Crosby and Lewis Stone, and took the position quite seriously. Glenda was spotted attending functions, presentations, and ceremonies throughout the North Hollywood area. She also held a leadership role when the North Hollywood Chamber of Commerce announced it wished to put sewers along Ventura Highway and began the groundwork for the project.

Longing for more experience on the stage and the immediate connection a live audience provides, Glenda left the studio in 1939. She had been under contract for eight years with Warner Brothers, and was eager to return to theater upon the expiration of her contract.

Glenda performed in several plays until 1941, when she decided to return to motion pictures. In the same year, she married Dr. Henry Ross on January 19th. Dr. Ross was a staff surgeon at New York Polyclinic Hospital and served as chief of the public health section on General Eisenhower’s staff. The couple met when Glenda Sprained her ankle while performing in a play and was treated backstage by Dr. Ross, who had been summoned from the audience. The couple remained married until Glenda’s passing.

Glenda Farrell Husband Dr.Henry RossGlenda Farrell and her husband, Dr.Henry Ross

From the 1940s to the 1960s, Glenda continued to work in numerous films. Two of her later films, Kissin’ Cousins (1964) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964), also featured her son, Tommy Farrell. She made her television debut in 1949 as part of the Chevrolet Tele-Theatre and appeared in over 40 additional television series programs, including Bonanza and Bewitched

Though Glenda retired  in 1968, she once again returned to acting. Her final role was in the Broadway play Forty Carats, in which she starred until her health caused her to leave the production. She was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away at age 66 in 1971.

Today, a few places in existence are relevant to Glenda’s early years and legacy.

Mt. Carmel Academy, the school at which she received her formal education, exists in Wichita but has changed locations. Presently, the original school buildings have been replaced by an apartment complex called Mt. Carmel Village. Mt. Carmel Village is located at 3000 West Douglas in Wichita. This is the property today:

Mt. Carmel Academy, Wichita, KansasMt. Carmel Academy, where Farrell recieved her formal education

Glenda and her family moved on many occasions, but the address of her San Diego home is documented. Here is a picture of the property today at 2320 Broadway in San Diego, California:

2320 Broadway, San Diego, CaliforniaThe home of Glenda Farrell and Dr. Ross at 2320 Broadway, San Diego, California

When Glenda passed away, her husband, Dr. Ross, donated 38 acres of land to the Putnam County Land Trust in her memory. In doing so, he established the Glenda Farrell-Henry Ross Preserve in southeast New York. The preserve remains to this day.

Glenda Farrell - Henry Ross Preseve in Putnam, New YorkThe Glenda Farrell – Henry Ross Preserve in Putnam, New York

Whether you watch one of Glenda’s many movies, or hike through the forest preserve named in her honor, take a moment to remember Glenda Farrell.

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–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.

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Noir Nook: Johnny O’Clock

YouTube Spotlight: Johnny O’Clock

Back in the day, you had to rely on late-night TV or cable, or fork over your hard-owned dough for VHS tapes and DVDs in order to experience the shadowy world of film noir.

But no more.

All you need now is access to the internet and you can dive headfirst into a veritable noir feast on YouTube which, for those of you who may not be acquainted with it, is a free video sharing website. Created in 2005, the site is now one of the most popular on the World Wide Web – visitors reportedly view more than six billion hours worth of videos every month! And among those billions are countless full-length noirs, from well-known classics like Detour (1945), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), and D.O.A. (1950), to obscure features starring performers that you’d never expect to find in a noir, like Jimmy Lydon (Henry Aldrich!) and Warren William in Strange Illusion (1945).

Johnny O'Clock - Dick Powell, Evelyn KeyesDick Powell, Evelyn Keyes in Johnny O’Clock

For this month’s Noir Nook, I’m starting up a new series that shines the spotlight on first-rate noirs that can be found on You Tube. For my inaugural post, I offer you Johnny O’Clock (1947), starring Dick Powell.

In the 1930s, Dick Powell rose to fame as a crooner in more than 30 Warner Bros. musicals, but over time, the actor grew frustrated with his casting as the “eternal juvenile.”

“It got so I’d get a part, do my songs, and then do my best to forget all about the darned pictures,” Powell once said. “I made four or five of those things a year – and always the same stupid story. I just wore different clothes.”

In 1945, when he landed the lead in Murder, My Sweet, Powell got the chance to point his career in a whole new direction – and he never looked back, offering filmgoers a series of characters that couldn’t be more different from his former glamour boy image. Two years after Murder, My Sweet, Powell starred in his third film in the noir canon – Columbia’s Johnny O’Clock (1947).

Johnny O'Clock - John Kellogg, Nina Foch, Dick Powell, Lee J. CobbJohn Kellogg, Nina Foch, Dick Powell, Lee J. Cobb

In Johnny O’Clock, Powell plays the title character, a gambling house owner described by one character as the type of guy who “looks at a situation, says ‘What’s best for me?’ and acts accordingly.” Smooth, debonair, and cool as the other side of the pillow, Johnny’s  unflappable demeanor is shaken when he finds he’s suspected of killing a dishonest cop (Jim Bannon) and his naïve girlfriend, Harriet Hopson (Nina Foch). In addition to the always-watchable Johnny, the film is peopled with a variety of fascinating characters, including Johnny’s gambling casino partner, Guido Marchettis (Thomas Gomez), who tries unsuccessfully to mask his rough edges with pricey possessions; Guido’s wife Nelle (Ellen Drew), who is Johnny’s ex-lover and still has the hots for him; Harriet’s beautiful but fearless (and somewhat reckless) sister Nancy (Evelyn Keyes); Charlie (John Kellogg), Johnny’s loyal right-hand man who may not be quite as loyal as he appears; and Inspector Koch (Lee J. Cobb), the relentless detective who’s determined to solve the murders.  (And keep your eyes peeled for a brief appearance by a young, uncredited Jeff Chandler, in his second big screen role).

Johnny O'Clock - Ellen Drew, Dick Powell, Evelyn KeyesEllen Drew, Dick Powell, Evelyn Keyes

Rife with plenty of hard-boiled dialogue, appropriately shadowy scenes, and a typically labyrinthine noir plot, Johnny O’Clock is well worth your time. Tune in to YouTube and see for yourself!

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– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.

Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
If you’re interested in learning more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them on amazon here:

 

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Pre-Code Corner: The Censorship Woes of One More River

One More Hurdle to Cross: The Censorship Woes of One More River

In between the credits and the opening shot of One More River, a certificate proclaims that the picture has been passed by the Production Code Administration (PCA), the 122nd film to do so.

So why am I writing about it for Pre-Code Corner? Released on August 6, 1934, One More River entered production before the establishment of the powerful PCA and the Code’s strict re-enforcement beginning in mid-June and early July 1934. I’ve always been intrigued by movies that straddled the line, with one foot rooted in the pre-Code era and the finished product forced through the industry’s rigorous moral sterilizer. I was also entranced by TCM’s logline: “An abused wife flees her husband and finds love, but at a price.” Now, physical abuse towards women was, unfortunately, not an uncommon sight in pre-Codes, though women could pack a wallop, too. However, a term as frank as “abuse” was not, to my knowledge, bandied about often, which made me curious as to exactly what cruelty the film displayed.

One More River 1934 movie poster One More River, 1934

When One More River opens, Claire (Diana Wynyard) has fled her vicious husband, Sir Gerald (Colin Clive), and meets Tony (Frank Lawton) on route back to England. Tony falls for Claire, and though she doesn’t return his affection, she welcomes his company at home. After warding off Gerald’s physically aggressive attempts at reconciliation, Claire is caught spending an innocent evening with Tony, furnishing Gerald ammunition for a divorce. The ensuing trial brings Claire’s relationship with both men into question. With Claire proudly refusing to divulge details of her marital life and fervently defending Tony’s honor, the hearing results in a win for Gerald – and freedom for Claire.

Gerald’s “aggressive attempts” involve spousal abuse and implied rape, both subjects explored in pre-Code titles, but generally not as bluntly and seriously as the proceedings are examined here. Director James Whale and scripter R.C. Sherriff, using John Galsworthy’s posthumously published novel as a source, weren’t able to deliver as frank a picture as they would have liked to, as exhibited through several pages of dialogue modifications the Studio Relations Committee (SRC) requested in the script in April 1934, some of which was left untouched.

Colin Clive as dastardly Gerald in One More RiverColin Clive hit the bullseye with his dastardly performance as Gerald.

The overarching concern the SRC cited was the story’s anchor in sadism, a “definite” Code infringement. As highlighted in notes given on the original script, Gerald initially educed a perverse pleasure from abusing his wife, which was a no-go. “We can see no objection to your developing the character of Corven [Gerald] as that of a brutal man who has beaten his wife and thus compelled her to leave him, but we cannot allow any suggestion, directly or indirectly, referring to sadism,” Joseph Breen, future head of the PCA, wrote Universal’s Harry Zehner. So, spousal abuse was A-OK, but any sexual deviance it suggested crossed the line. Breen struck down such provocative lines from Gerald as: “It was only an experiment. Some women adore it” (the second part wound up: “Some women like rough handling”) and the underlined portion of: “I’m a sensualist if you like – a bit of an experimentalist – what does it matter? Sex naturally wanders from the paths laid down for it by morality.” In many cases, individual words caused a stir, too, including “physiology” and “beast” (altered to “brute” or “cad”).

Diana Wynyard and Colin Clive One More River Diana Wynyard and Colin Clive One More River Two words: Body language. If your wife (Claire – Diana Wynyard) steels herself like this when you’re around, there’s something very wrong with your marriage.

As exhibited above, some of Breen’s objections were pacified by swapping indecorous expressions for diluted synonyms. For instance, “I see. I’m fruit – not blossom” was initially found “highly objectionable” and thus edited to: “I see. I’m not blossom any more.” (So, the mention of “fruit” was what deemed the original “highly suggestive”?) Also, the dialogue: “There are some things that can’t be done to me, and you’ve done them” came out the ringer as: “There are some things I won’t stand for from any man.” In this case, verbs insinuating negative action on Gerald’s part (“you’ve done them”) were substituted for an impassioned declaration on Claire’s end (“I won’t stand for”), which actually takes her from a victim to a resolute woman standing her ground, though I’m guessing that’s simply a byproduct of watering down Gerald’s abuse and not some kind of covert feminist intent to empower Claire. In the end, audiences probably still perceived the same type of behavior alluded to despite the edits; after all, Claire’s mix of resilience, restraint, and resolve and Gerald’s sneering, heartless demeanor convey the same underlying point, regardless of the specific language delegated to their characters.

Diana Wynyard and Colin Clive One More River You don’t need the word “sadism” to describe what happened before this shot.

Compared to other pre and post-Code files I’ve reviewed, One More River counted substantially more requested edits from the SRC and PCA both before and after filming. It can be argued that timing certainly played a role in this significantly scrutinized feedback, as the campaign against immorality reached new heights around the time cameras were getting ready to roll on One More River in May 1934. Movie condemnations, in the past a potential box office boost, really intimidated business this time, and the looming threat of federal censorship drove studios into a panic in which they “applied soap and water to thousands of feet of questionable film,” Andre Sennwald recounted in 1935.

It was under this tense atmosphere that One More River was filmed, edited, re-shot, and re-cut. The pressure was such that in late July 1934, Breen wrote the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America’s (MPPDA) Vincent Hart a cautionary, yet emboldening note in which he mentioned One More River’s trials and tribulations before broaching the subject of the PCA’s newfound power: “We are on a magnificent spot – both of us. And I need not tell you how important it is that we be scrupulously careful with every decision we render… Everybody in America is censor-conscious; and everybody will be a law to himself, finding fault with our decision. Be prepared for this – keep your chin up – do the best you can – work conscientiously – and let the chips fall where they may.” Perhaps to cover his bases, Breen mandated more than 30 cuts upon reviewing One More River, many for items contested in the script phase, resulting in feverish edits and re-takes. Whale, however, triumphed with some lines, including one in which Claire tells her father that Gerald used a riding whip on her.

Diana Wynyard and Colin Clive One More River

Diana Wynyard and Colin Clive struggle One More RiverOne scene, two sexually violent attempts. The second looks like Gerald was actually about to break Claire’s arm – or neck.

Despite – or perhaps due to – the severe examination One More River underwent in Hollywood, state censor feedback proved relatively tame. New York State passed the picture without eliminations, while Kansas requested one cut and Pennsylvania made three.  A few distinct points that raised flags across several boards included shots of a bed during Gerald’s forced entrance into Claire’s apartment and an exchange with Claire’s sister Dinny right after the aforementioned drop-in, in which Claire apologizes for not letting her in because Gerald only just left. (The latter, I assume, drew ire because it insinuated what Gerald and Claire were doing.) Additionally, entities took issue with the words “adultery” and “debts,” ones Claire insinuated paying to Tony with her body. “Marital,” normally not a term to be concerned about, came under fire as well, as a war waged during the film’s courtroom scene over whether Gerald and Claire resumed “marital relations” after he showed up at her apartment; he affirms it and she vehemently denies it, as she realizes rape doesn’t – or at least shouldn’t – qualify as such.

Diana Wynyard and Frank Lawton in One More River Oh look, a nice man! Tony (Frank Lawton) is trying hard to suppress his feelings for the emotionally shattered Claire.

Though the censors targeted hot button topics that Breen had already pointed out to Universal, all in all, the damage did not appear too severe, and One More River enjoyed exceedingly positive critical reviews. (Interestingly, a few periodicals called out Gerald’s nature using the very word the SRC originally struck, “sadism,” with some even commenting upon the extent of the violence, including the riding whip.) Universal praise was bestowed upon Whale’s outstanding, intelligent direction and astute attention to details; Sherriff’s sincere, honest script; and Wynyard and Clive’s compelling performances. Less unanimously commended traits included the picture’s through and through Britishness (as Americans may have found the laws of the country foreign or dull), Lawton’s turn as Wynyard’s prospective lover (mainly due to his youthful look, as he played Wynyard’s son the year prior in Cavalcade), and the fact that the film’s sophistication would limit its audience, and thus, ticket sales (Variety noted that while it “will delight cultivated audiences,” in the end One More River is “a prestige, rather than a money offering”). On that last note, One More River actually surprised many. The New York Times reported the movie’s “unusually good business” at Radio City Music Hall, where it earned a respectable $86,000 in its first week. Even rural areas responded favorably. According to Motion Picture Herald, a Kansas theater manager initially concerned the refined film wouldn’t be received well confirmed that “everyone who saw it here went for it in a big way. We feel that the picture is good enough for any man’s town.”

Frank Lawton and Diana Wynyard in car One More River Innocently sleeping in a car is illegal now, Claire and Tony. Or at least it gets you into just as much trouble.

Ironically, the movie’s glowing reviews, many of which stressed how human, thoughtful, and realistic the story was, did not save it from denunciation. In fact, One More River earns the distinction of being the first post-Code picture to be condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, in mid-August 1934. In a letter relaying this news to Universal production head Carl Laemmle Jr., Breen surmised the film’s divorce storyline brought about the criticism and conceded: “In the face of their very definite viewpoint on the subject of divorce, we are helpless under the circumstances.” But being Breen, he had to chastise Laemmle Jr., reminding the producer that his office warned certain “dangerous” dialogue was likely to face censure and prevailing upon him to “appreciate that our purpose in this office is to save the picture” from mutilation. Breen used Ohio as an example of One More River receiving “rough treatment,” despite the fact that the movie faced only about 5-6 edits of varying degrees in that state, on par with Ontario and Alberta and far fewer than Quebec and Japan.

courtroom scene Lionel Atwill and Colin Clive One More RiverThe excellent courtroom scene was a highlight for reviewers and a source of contention for censors. Defending the sexually perverse Gerald is Lionel Atwill, who would find himself in Gerald’s spot less than a decade later on a morals charge.

In a 1984 Los Angeles Times piece analyzing rediscovered films, Kevin Thomas proclaimed star Diana Wynyard’s “timeless cool elegance and directness… highly contemporary, and today ‘One More River’ seems more strongly feminist.” I agree with this 34 year old statement on the 84 year old picture, despite the fact that today it’s readily apparent that Claire’s actions still confine her firmly to the discretionary and honorable values and laws of 1930s Britain, as antiquated as they even were for that time. As evidenced in the movie, obtaining a divorce on the grounds of cruelty is not really an option, especially since the dignified, proud Claire doesn’t want to parade her husband’s abuses, nor does she want him and his position to suffer publicly; thus, the only way she can end the marriage is if Gerald claims adultery, essentially throwing her under the bus to obtain her freedom. As Motion Picture Herald termed it at the time, Claire’s a “complete woman, fighting, sacrificing, losing.” Though the battle she put up, one that accentuated her buoyancy and independence, was certainly admirable for the period, I’m glad our attitudes have changed on those last two points and “sacrificing” and “losing” are no longer automatically synonymous with womanhood. Today, real life abuses like these are pouring out precisely because they have been protected and kept secret for so long in a twisted sense of loyalty, decency, and expectation, all the while suffering victims like Claire have been shamed and shushed.

Diana Wynyard courtroom scene One More River Go girl! This low angle shot of Claire on the stand heightens her ethereal presence and tenacious testimony during One More River’s climatic courtroom sequence.

If Claire’s dilemma still sounds antiquated to you, compare that to her aunt’s anecdote about a husband who kidnapped his wife years prior, and her jest that men couldn’t get away with that behavior anymore. From that sentiment, to Claire’s tribulations (deemed immoral by the Catholics), to today – sure, we’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got quite a path ahead of us to repave.

Note: An analysis of the film’s extensive PCA file and its resulting implications could fill a small book, or at the very least a chapter – and it did. I was surprised to stumble upon an entire detailed section dedicated to this movie in The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema, which I dove in to research for last month’s piece on Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum and ended up using as a valuable source for both articles. If you’d like to read more about One More River, I highly recommend Gregory W. Mank’s book.

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–Kim Luperi for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Kim’s Pre-Code Corner articles here.

Kim Luperi is a New Jersey transplant living in sunny Los Angeles. She counts her weekly research in the Academy’s Production Code Administration files as a hobby and has written for TCM, AFI Fest, the Pre-Code Companion, MovieMaker Magazine and the American Cinematheque. You can read more of Kim’s articles at I See A Dark Theater or by following her on twitter at @Kimbo3200.

 

 

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Win Tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics: Sunset Boulevard” (Giveaway runs through April 28)

Win tickets to see “Sunset Boulevard” on the big screen!
In Select Cinemas Nationwide Sun May 13 and Wed May 16!

“They took the idols and smashed them, the Fairbankses, the Gilberts, the Valentinos! And who’ve we got now? Some nobodies!”

CMH continues into our 3rd year of our partnership with Fathom Events - with the 5th of our 13 movie ticket giveaways for 2018, courtesy of Fathom Events!

That said, we’ll be giving away EIGHT PAIRS of tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics: Sunset Boulevard – Billy Wilder’s masterpiece — the way it was meant to be seen — on the Big Screen!

In order to qualify to win a pair of movie tickets via this contest, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, April 28th at 6 PM EST.

We will announce the winner(s) on Twitter on Sunday, April 29, between 6PM EST and 7PM EST. If a winner(s) does not have a Twitter account, we will announce that winner(s) via this blog in the comment section below.

TCM Big Screen Classics Present Sunset Boulevard

The film will be playing in select cinemas nationwide for a special two-day-only event on Sunday, May 13 and Wednesday, May 16 at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. local time. Winners will be responsible for their own transportation to the Event. Only United States entries are eligible. Please click here before you enter to ensure that the Event is scheduled at a theater near you and that you are able to attend. (please note that there might be slightly different theater listings for each date)

ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday, April 28 at 6PM EST…

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

THE QUESTION:
What is it about “Sunset Boulevard” that makes it a classic? And, if you haven’t seen it, why do you want to see it on the Big Screen?

2) Then TWEET* (not DM) the following message:
I just entered to win tickets to see “TCM Big Screen Classics Presents: Sunset Boulevard” on the Big Screen courtesy of @ClassicMovieHub & @FathomEvents #EnterToWin #CMHContest link here: http://ow.ly/VS9430jnj6B

*If you don’t have a Twitter account, you can still enter the contest by simply answering the above question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog — BUT PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU ADD THIS VERBIAGE TO YOUR ANSWER: I do not have a Twitter account, so I am posting here to enter but cannot tweet the message.

NOTE: If for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

ALSO: Please allow us 48 hours to approve your comments. Sorry about that, but we are being overwhelmed with spam, and must sort through 100s of comments…

William Holden and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard

About the film: Gloria Swanson, as Norma Desmond, an aging silent-film queen, and William Holden, as the struggling young screenwriter who is held in thrall by her madness, created two of the screen’s most memorable characters in \”Sunset Boulevard.\” Winner of three Academy Awards®, director Billy Wilder’s powerful orchestration of the bizarre tale is a true cinematic classic. From the unforgettable opening sequence — a body found floating in a decayed mansion’s swimming pool — through the inevitable unfolding of tragic destiny, \”Sunset Boulevard\” is the definitive statement on the dark and desperate side of Hollywood. Erich von Stroheim as Desmond’s discoverer, ex-husband and butler, and Nancy Olson as the bright spot amidst unrelenting ominousness, are equally celebrated for their masterful performances. This two-day event includes exclusive insight from Turner Classic Movies.

Please note that only United States residents are eligible to enter this giveaway contest. (see contest rules for further information)

BlogHub members ARE also eligible to win if they live within the Continental United States (as noted above).

You can follow Fathom Events on Twitter at @fathomevents

Good Luck!

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in Fathom Events | Tagged , , , , , | 28 Comments

Sophie Tucker Book Giveaway (via Twitter in April)

“Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker”
Book Giveaway via Twitter

“an engrossing portrait of this oft-overlooked legend of early Broadway.” -Playbill

It’s time for our next book giveaway! CMH is happy to say that we will be giving away FIVE COPIES of  “Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker” by Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff, courtesy of University of Texas Press, from now through May 5, 2018. (plus ONE more copy via Facebook and this Blog, details to follow in a few days).

red hot mama: the life of sophie tucker

In order to qualify to win one of these prizes via this contest giveaway, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, May 5 at 10PM EST. However, the sooner you enter, the better chance you have of winning, because we will pick a winner on five different days within the contest period, via random drawings, as listed below… So if you don’t win the first week that you enter, you will still be eligible to win during the following weeks until the contest is over.

  • April 7: One Winner
  • April 14: One Winner
  • April 21: One Winner
  • April 28: One Winner
  • May 5: One Winner

We will announce each week’s winner on Twitter @ClassicMovieHub, the day after each winner is picked at 10PM EST — for example, we will announce our first week’s winner on Sunday April 8 at 10PM EST on Twitter. And, please note that you don’t have to have a Twitter account to enter; just see below for the details…

If you’re also on Facebook, please feel free to visit us at Classic Movie Hub on Facebook for additional giveaways (or check back on this Blog in a few days) — because we’ll be giving away ONE MORE cop via Facebook/Blog as well!

sophie tucker

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ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday, May 5 at 1oPM EST — BUT remember, the sooner you enter, the more chances you have to win…

1) Answer the below question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog post

THE QUESTION:
What is that you love about Sophie Tucker and why? And, if you’re not familiar with her or her work, why do you want to win this book?

2) Then TWEET (not DM) the following message*:
Just entered to win the “Red Hot Mama: The Life of Sophie Tucker” #BookGiveaway courtesy of @UTexasPress & @ClassicMovieHub #CMHContest link: http://ow.ly/cohM30jgcSa

*If you do not have a Twitter account, you can still enter the contest by simply answering the above question via the comment section at the bottom of this blog — BUT PLEASE ENSURE THAT YOU ADD THIS VERBIAGE TO YOUR ANSWER: I do not have a Twitter account, so I am posting here to enter but cannot tweet the message.

NOTE: if for any reason you encounter a problem commenting here on this blog, please feel free to tweet or DM us, or send an email to clas@gmail.com and we will be happy to create the entry for you.

ALSO: Please allow us 48 hours to approve your comments. Sorry about that, but we are being overwhelmed with spam, and must sort through 100s of comments…

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Thanks to University of Texas Press for this clip of author Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff talking about Sophie Tucker and her non-traditional body image:

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About the Book: The “First Lady of Show Business” and the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Sophie Tucker was a star in vaudeville, radio, film, and television. A gutsy, song-belting stage performer, she entertained audiences for sixty years and inspired a host of younger women, including Judy Garland, Carol Channing, and Bette Midler. Tucker was a woman who defied traditional expectations and achieved success on her own terms, becoming the first female president of the American Federation of Actors and winning many other honors usually bestowed on men. Dedicated to social justice, she advocated for African Americans in the entertainment industry and cultivated friendships with leading black activists and performers. Tucker was also one of the most generous philanthropists in show business, raising over four million dollars for the religious and racial causes she held dear. Drawing from the hundreds of scrapbooks Tucker compiled, Red Hot Mama presents a compelling biography of this larger-than-life performer. Lauren Rebecca Sklaroff tells an engrossing story of how a daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants set her sights on becoming one of the most formidable women in show business and achieved her version of the American dream. More than most of her contemporaries, Tucker understood how to keep her act fresh, to change branding when audiences grew tired and, most importantly, how to connect with her fans, the press, and entertainment moguls. Both deservedly famous and unjustly forgotten today, Tucker stands out as an exemplar of the immigrant experience and a trailblazer for women in the entertainment industry.

sophie tucker

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Click here for the full contest rules. 

Please note that only Continental United States (excluding Alaska, Hawaii, and the territory of Puerto Rico) entrants are eligible.

And — BlogHub members ARE eligible to win if they live within the Continental United States (as noted above).

Good Luck!

And if you can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase the on amazon via the below link (click on image):

Good Luck!

…..

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

 

Posted in Contests & Giveaways, Posts by Annmarie Gatti | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Looking at the Stars: William “Billy” Haines

“I like what I’m doing now. It’s clean. No makeup on the face.” - Billy Haines on his interior decorating career.

During my last road trip, I listened to Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines, Hollywood’s First Openly Gay Star by William J. Mann. Not only is Mann’s book entertaining, one of the best Hollywood biographies I have listened to, it is also fascinating just like its subject who could boast success in two highly competitive careers, acting and interior design. For April, which is National Decorating Month, Classic Movie Hub looks at William “Billy” Haines (January 2, 1900 – December 26, 1973).

1926 MGM publicity shot of William HainesBilly Haines

Billy Haines won the “New Faces of 1922″ contest sponsored by Samuel Goldwyn, Co., which awarded him a movie contract that later shifted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) upon company merger. His career rose slowly, but such films as Jack Conway‘s Brown of Harvard (1926), King Vidor‘s Show People (1928), and Charles Reisner‘s Hollywood Revue of 1929, coupled with his talent for the quick quip helped make Billy Haines the top box office star by 1930.

The on-screen spotlight on Billy Haines dimmed soon after, however, as the openly gay actor refused to play by the moral standards dictated by Hollywood power players. The story goes that when MGM chief, Louis B. Mayer gave William Haines an ultimatum to leave his lover, Jimmy Shields, and get married or lose his career, Haines responded, “I am already married.” Moreover, he meant it. Billy Haines and Jimmy Shields remained together until Haines’ death, making their five-decade relationship one of the longest couplings in Hollywood.

William Haines appeared in movies through 1934, but he was no longer the star player among his more famous friends like Joan Crawford and Marion Davies. By that point Haines’ star as an interior designer was rising, however. In 1930, Billy became part owner of an antiques shop in Hollywood and soon after turned his home into a showroom. His famous friends became his clients and word of mouth spread like wildfire. Among his decorating creations were the homes of Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Jack L. Warner, Claudette Colbert, William Powell, Joan Bennett and Constance Bennett.

“I can only tell you this – I would rather have taste than either love or money.” – William Haines

Carole Lombard in her Hollywood Boulevard home decorated by William HainesCarole Lombard in her Hollywood Boulevard home decorated by William Haines
Joan Crawford in the sitting room of her home designed by William HainesJoan Crawford in the sitting room of her home designed by William Haines

As if creating a memorable home for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars were not enough, Haines’ eye for design would take him even further up the social ladder. In 1939, he created a living room for exhibition at the World’s Fair in San Francisco. Haines’ designs with long-time friend and business partner, Ted Graber, have graced the homes of the Bloomingdales, the Annenbergs, British royalty, and even the White House for President and Mrs. Reagan. William Haines’ timeless designs are still featured in Architectural Digest today, which goes to show good taste never goes out of style. Neither does Billy Haines.

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Additional pages to visit…

William Haines CMH page

LGBT movies page

Pre-Code cinema

Joan Crawford page

Marion Davies page

Books and Plays

Until next month,

–Aurora Bugallo for Classic Movie Hub

Aurora Bugallo is a classic film-obsessed blogger, and co-founder and co-host of the Classic Movies and More Youtube show. You can read more of Aurora’s articles at Once Upon a Screen, or you can follow her on Twitter at @CitizenScreen.

Posted in Looking at the Stars | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Announcement: Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon

 

Announcing the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon

The Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon just got more exciting. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Kino Lorber, we are giving away eight DVD prizes! The winners will be chosen at random from the participating bloggers, 4 each on May 19 and 20. All DVDs will feature classic movie duos and a fun assortment is in store. GOOD LUCK!

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Long ago and not so far away I teamed with the fabulous Once Upon a Screen to form a partnership in honor of memorable movie duos. Time, work and numerous other events have prevented us from resurrecting this topic, which was met with great enthusiasm throughout the blogosphere. That is, until today. I’m thrilled to announce this reunion with a great friend and movie lover and to spotlight once again the duos that have made us laugh, cry, fear or that have taken us on great adventures. It’s the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon! and we hope you’ll join us.

Stanley: Ollie?
Oliver: What’s the matter?
Stanley: I’m scared.
Oliver: Well, that’s nothing to be afraid of!

Don’t fret! You can choose on-screen pairings that have enjoyed romantic entanglements or professional partnerships. Perhaps memorable adversaries are your poison. Or maybe you prefer siblings and family values. Any one of the many perilous, precarious and/or personable pairs – including the non-human variety – will be great. The only rule is that they must be classic in the traditional sense, which for this event is designated to any film, character, personality, etc. before 1970.

Dynamic Duos in Classic Film  Blogathon

The details:

When: May 19 – 20

If you are interested in taking part, and we hope you are, please follow these simple steps:

Leave a comment on either host blog, contact us via Twitter or by email:

Aurora at Once Upon a Screen and @CitizenScreen and citizenscreenclassics@gmail.com

Annmarie at this page and @ClassicMovieHub and classicmoviehub@gmail.com

Include the following in your comment or email:

  • The Name and URL of your blog
  • Your email address
  • Your Twitter tag if you have one
  • Your choice of film/characters/personalities, etc. (Although all entries are welcome, there are so many wonderful Duos to be discussed, we will take no prisoners…er, repeats)
  • Your post date preference if you have one (either May 19 or 20)
  • AND, please help us promote the event by placing one of the banners included in this post on your site along with a link to the host sites.

We look forward to hearing from all the fabulous classic film bloggers out there in the dark.

One more thing – be on the lookout for many more classic film events this summer. Stay informed through the Events Calendar featured here at the Classic Movie Hub website.

Dynamic Duos in Classic Film  Blogathon

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Participating Blogs and Chosen Duos:

Silver Screen Classics – Abbott and Costello

In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood – Bogart and Bacall

Nostalgic Italian – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin

Classic Movie Hub – Doris Day and Rock Hudson

Caftan Woman – Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog

Real Weegie Midget – Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

A Shroud of Thoughts – Hope and Crosby

Cinematic Scribblings – Amedeo Nazzari and Yvonne Sanson

The Dream Book Blog – Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland

Moon in Gemini – Paul Newman and Robert Redford

The Old Hollywood Garden – Anthony Mann and John Alton

Critica Retro – Laurel and Hardy

Silver Screenings – George Burns and Gracie Allen

Champagne for Lunch - June Allyson and Van Johnson

Reel Charlie – Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) and Brandon Shaw (John Dall) in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948)

Overture Books and Film - Linda Darnell and Tyrone Power

Love Letters to Old Hollywood - Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams

Blog of the Darned - Rock Hudson and Tony Randall

Midnite Drive-In - Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck

The Story Enthusiast – Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery

That William Powell Site – William Powell and Clara Bow

Popcorn & Flickers – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Once Upon a Screen – Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle

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Happy Blogging!

–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

 

Posted in Blogathons, Posts by Annmarie Gatti | Tagged | 10 Comments

Film Noir Review: Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)

 

“Operator, I’ve been ringing Murray Hill 35097 for the last half hour and the line is always busy.”

While the film noir continues to thrive in the modern day, a stylistic shoot-off, the melodramatic noir, remains frozen in the ember of classic Hollywood. This shoot-off reigned supreme during the 1940s, when actresses like Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis doled out performances just as tough and morally knotted as their male counterparts. Through their unapologetically female gaze, however, they provided an empowered alternative to the virility found in most film noirs.

We all remember the classics, from The Letter (1940) and Mildred Pierce (1945) to The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), but the inactivity of melodramatic noirs (melo-noirs?) have made it so that some have been unfairly ignored throughout the years. Perhaps the sight of a woman clutching a handkerchief or groveling for love, like so many of her male peers, seems passé by modern standards. Or perhaps, given that it continues to thrive, the femme fatale is thought to be the only role of substance for women in film noir. Either way, there’s absolutely no excuse for a film like Sorry, Wrong Number to get the shaft, seeing as it bears one of the most striking and tragic female characterizations of the period.

Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster pose for a misleading poster.

Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster pose for a misleading poster.

The first thing to note about Sorry, Wrong Number, which turns eighty this year, is its tantalizing premise. It is pulp fiction at its most outlandish, the sort that Cornell Woolrich would surely have given a pint of his finest whisky to have written: Leona Stevenson (Stanwyck) is a bedridden heiress who’s attempting to call her husband Henry (Burt Lancaster). Fate, being noir’s consummate troublemaker, impedes, and connects Leona to the wrong line, where she overhears two men discussing plans to commit a murder….

Played out in what’s essentially real time, the film squeezes every bit of tension it can from Leona’s horrific discovery. The telephone is her lone connection to the rest of the world, and director Anatole Litvak outwardly fetishizes it, as she does. Nary is there a shot where she isn’t holding the phone, dialing it, or pensively twirling the chord in her hand. The camerawork is restrictive, closed off, so as to suggest that her entire life exists within the space between her bed and the receiver on the nightstand. Posited as a source of domestic comfort, this closed off space quickly becomes an obstruction. Leona’s immobility spoils any chance she has to stop the murder, as neither the police nor her patronizing father (Ed Begley) take her seriously. Stripped of power, she finds herself in the futile position of piecing together a crime that no one cares to stop.

Leona (Stanwyck) desperately clings to her sanity.

Leona (Stanwyck) desperately clings to her sanity.

From here, the film plays out in a series of hushed phone conversations. Leona calls, and is called by, a number of Henry’s affiliates, each of whom provide her with a piece of the larger puzzle. These pieces, presented as dreamlike flashbacks (sometimes within other flashbacks), are broken up and narrated by different characters so as to bring their authenticity into question. We accept them on good faith, but we never really know for sure. Litvak was fond of this structured paranoia, as evidenced by its use in films like The Long Night (1947) and The Snake Pit (1948).

We also get flashbacks of Leona and Henry, and it’s here that the dynamic between them, as well as the impending murder, is given perspective. At first Leona is posed as the victim, the pathetic housewife with a careless husband. In the past, however, she’s shown to be something else entirely. The younger Leona is a shrewish daddy’s girl with a deep purse and a desire to steal the lower class Henry from her college chum (Ann Richards). She wills the reluctant Henry into marrying her, then bullies him when he tries to start a career of his own, or suggest they move out of her father’s mansion. It’s only when Henry begins to disobey Leona that their marriage (and her mental health) falls apart.

Lancaster and Stanwyck behind the scenes.

Lancaster and Stanwyck behind the scenes.

The screenplay by Lucille Fletcher (adapted from her own radio play) is pleasantly sparse on cliché, as both the Leona and Henry characters are given a fair shake. The former is insufferable until she loosens her domineering grasp, and the latter is relatable until he gets in deep with a gangster (William Conrad), and is forced to come up with $20,000. Neither are overtly virtuous or villainous, but rather the victims of bad timing and circumstance. We’re forced to consider whether Henry would have taken such drastic steps had Leona allowed him a legitimate career path, just as we wonder if Leona would be such a sympathetic heroine in the present had she not taken ill.

Lancaster, in only his third film, projects the wounded masculinity of a man twice his age. It’s remarkable, really, how he’s able to walk the line between breezy sex appeal (he actually sells the line “What does a dame like you want with a guy like me?”) and biting marital strain. He plays Henry as a man in constant conflict, too decent to embrace his homme fatale status yet too weak to confront his wife with the truth. (He too has a kink for phones, as evidenced by the scene when he fumes over Leona and wraps a chord around his fingers.) But, as I alluded to earlier, this is Stanwyck’s show through and through.

"I'm a sick woman!"

“I’m a sick woman!”

The iconic actress is indescribably fierce as the fearful Leona. She carries most of the film single-handedly, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider she’s acting with only her upper torso. Within this limited mobility, she delivers an Oscar-nominated breakdown from beginning to end, from manicured beauty to ragged, perspiring panic. Stanwyck was always reliable when it came to playing ice queens in Double Indemnity (1944) and Martha Ivers, but here, she puts a vulnerability and weakness on display that’s devastating to watch. When she cries out that she’s a sick woman over the phone, you believe her. Stanwyck later cited the role as the cause of her prematurely graying hair.

The final scene, where Leona discovers that she was the intended victim all along, is perhaps the key instance of this devastation. Henry calls and admits that he set her up, but that the murder doesn’t need to go through anymore (tellingly, he regains his conscious out of convenience). He demands that she leave the house before it’s too late. Leona, dumbfounded and heartbroken, tells him that she would have gladly given him the money if it meant keeping him safe. It’s with this simple exchange that the tragedy of Sorry, Wrong Number is made clear. It is the film noir as fable: everything could have been avoided had communication — the hallmark of a good marriage — been put into play. Instead, Leona is viciously strangled, and Henry, the emasculated fool, is forced to listen over the phone. He tries calling back, and a voice on the other line puts an appropriately twisted end to the evening. “Sorry,” he says, “Wrong number.”

Henry (Lancaster) overhears the murder he helped orchestrate.

Henry (Lancaster) overhears the murder he helped orchestrate.

It’s a shocking closer given its brutality, but also in how little it deviates from what was stated in the opener. At 11:15 p.m. a woman was set to be murdered, and sure enough, she was. Fate is many things, but sloppy is not one of them. We should have known Leona never stood a chance.

As far as melodramatic noir is concerned, Sorry, Wrong Number sits comfortably near the top. The damsel in distress hook may be misleading to fans of the hardcore stuff, but the points it makes regarding marriage, and the distrust of loved ones, are surprisingly poignant, and lend a lot to the film’s grittier aspects. It has heart, it has fatalistic punch, and best of all, it has Barbara Stanwyck, giving the performance of her career.

TRIVIA: In the scene where Henry is on a lunch date, he asks if the waiter knows the man sitting at the table behind him. The man is director Anatole Litvak.

…..

–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub

Danilo Castro is a film noir specialist and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.

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