Classic Movie Chat with Victoria Riskin (Daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin)
I’m so excited to share our Facebook Live Chat with Victoria Riskin from a few weeks ago (now posted on YouTube as well). Aurora from Once Upon a Screen and I were able to spend some quality time with Victoria to chat about her very famous parents – actress Fay Wray and screenwriter Robert Riskin. We talked about their careers, their marriage, and the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Victoria also shared some very special memories about her parents and the stars that were their neighbors and friends.
We probably all know this, but I’ll say it here anyway for context — Fay Wray starred in over 100 films and TV episodes but is probably best remembered for her role as Ann Darrow in the iconic 1933 film, King Kong. Robert Riskin was an American Academy Award-winning screenwriter, best known for his work with Frank Capra including It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, You Can’t Take It with You, and Meet John Doe.
Grace Kelly is a legend unlike any other: both classic Hollywood star and real-life princess. She seemed to embody the glamour and class of Hollywood’s Golden Age. With her timeless sense of style and effortless beauty, she is still a role model to many women around the world. She made it look so easy: becoming a world–famous actress, then quitting at the top of her game to become European royalty. And she did it all, excuse the pun, with grace. But behind the ease and elegance, Grace was a woman who fought to make something of herself, trying to be her own person against a dominant force throughout her life: her family. It may come as a surprise to some, but Princess Grace was an ‘outsider’ to her family. However, if it was not for this family dynamic, Grace may have never made it to Hollywood or Monaco.
Grace was born into a ‘new money’ family in Philadelphia that enjoyed a
significant amount of status within their community. Grace’s father, John
Sr. (Jack), had
won three Olympic gold medals, owned a successful brickwork contracting company, and was almost elected Mayor
of Philadelphia in 1935. Her mother Margaret was the first woman to coach women’s athletics at the University of Pennsylvania. Quite an accomplished
pair! Her parents valued athleticism and a grounded attitude above all, but Grace was a sensitive, shy and creative little
girl. Her parents, particularly her father, made no secret of the fact that
they did not understand her. Grace’s three siblings all took after their
athletic and boisterous parents, making her the odd one out. As a child, she was usually putting her creative imagination to
good use, playing make-believe with her dolls.
Grace also had poor timing when it came to siblings: her older brother Kell was the only son, and her older sister Peggy was the first (and favorite) daughter. The only thing Grace had going for her, as the third born, was being the baby of the family, but this changed when her younger sister Lizanne was born when Grace was four years old. Grace openly stated that she resented Lizanne, and Lizanne later admitted that she truly was a ‘brat sister.’ Lizanne loved to make Grace’s life miserable, and older sister Peggy would make Grace do her chores for her. Meanwhile, Kell was busy being groomed to be his father’s successor. Grace was left to fend for herself. ‘We were always competing for everything – competing for love,’ Grace later admitted. Still, she loved her family deeply. But the only person in her family she could really relate to, was her uncle George. As a gay, Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter, he was just as much the odd one out as Grace, in their rough and tumble family. They had a great bond and, to Grace, he was a role model in sophistication.
Even though she was ridiculed by her family for her acting aspirations, Grace was
undeterred. Acting was her passion and she couldn’t
wait to start her life as a young adult in New York City. She turned to her
uncle George who helped her get into the Academy
of Dramatic Arts. While there, Grace worked hard to get rid of her nasal voice
and Philadelphia accent, ending up with a slight British accent instead. Imitating her new accent became the
latest joke in the Kelly family. Still, Grace was determined to make something
of herself. Her sister Lizanne later admitted that Grace ‘wanted to show daddy
she could do it’. Grace would later look at her college days as some of the
best days of her life. Finally, she was among like-minded people. She had
inherited a strong work ethic from her parents; she
worked hard to perfect her craft and made money by modeling on the side.
Perhaps as a result of the troubled relationship she had with her father, Grace almost exclusively dated older men. One of the first, was her acting instructor Don Richardson, who was married. This seemed to be a theme in Grace’s love life, as rumors of her dating married men in the industry were rampant once she became a star. The most controversial one was her affair with Dial M For Murder co-star Ray Milland. He reportedly left his wife of 20 years for her, and the press branded Grace as a home-wrecker and worse. Milland ultimately went back to his wife, but Grace’s Catholic family, who had worked hard for a respectable place in the upper echelons, was fed up with the scandalous news reports. So when a story about Grace and married actor William Holden hit the press, Grace’s father and brother stormed into the office of gossip magazine Confidentiality and roughed up some reporters.
Grace was embarrassed about her family, and her Catholic upbringing made her feel guilty. At the end of the day, what she really wanted was a family of her own. Grace felt she finally found that in designer Oleg Cassini, Gene Tierney’s ex-husband. He was the first man Grace publicly acknowledged as her partner. But tension already set in before he ever even met her family, with her brother Kell telling Time Magazine: ‘I don’t approve of these oddballs she goes out with. I wish she would go out with more athletic types.’ Although her mother kept a more open mind, the very Catholic Jack Kelly refused to accept the twice-divorced designer. Grace privately ranted about her family and told Cassini they should just elope, but in the end, she just couldn’t go against her father. Her family was too important to her.
Grace’s love life might have been messy, but
she was still a superstar. She had won an Academy Award, starred in back-to-back
box-office successes and was on the cover of
magazines everywhere. Unfortunately, her family was a lot harder to impress
than the public —
especially her father. When asked about her success, her father said: ‘I thought it would be
Peggy. Anything that Grace could do, Peggy could always do better.’ Needless to say, Grace felt embarrassed that her
father didn’t keep his condescending remarks in the family. She was also concerned about the press attacks on her, and worried that her career had nowhere to go but
A solution presented itself in the form of Prince Rainier of Monaco. After meeting when Grace was in France for the Cannes Film Festival, the pair enjoyed a short courtship. Each party was charmed by the other. They wrote each other letters, and romantic feelings soon developed. It wasn’t lost on Grace that this romance could solve her problems. She was incredibly disillusioned with Hollywood, and becoming a Princess could be an exciting new chapter in her life. The rumors about her love life made her feel like a joke and Rainier could finally give her the respectability ánd the family of her own she so craved. Her family was also on her mind as well — after becoming a world-renowned star, they still would not give her the pat on the back she needed. Surely marrying a real-life Prince would suffice? It would give her ‘new money’ family, the ‘old money’ status that eluded them. Something her hard-working father would appreciate.
Rainier was looking to solve a problem too. Monaco was not doing well financially, and without an heir, it would lose its independence. Grace’s Hollywood glamour could rub off on Monaco and attract tourists, and their marriage would hopefully produce an heir. More importantly, they were both ready to settle down and felt that they had found their perfect match. They married after a quick courtship and Grace moved to Monaco. The small principality was over the moon with their glamorous princess.
Grace’s mother was delighted that her daughter was now royalty. But if Grace married Prince Rainier for her father’s approval, she should not have bothered. Jack Kelly was used to being the most important man in any room, and he did not appreciate having a son-in-law who overshadowed him. When he visited the palace, he would ridicule the pretentiousness and protocol. In the six years between the wedding and his death, he only made two trips to Monaco. Still, Grace was heartbroken when her father passed away, and she was reportedly despondent for months after. As Rainier later said: ‘She was oversensitive to her family. They mattered terribly much to her – more, it certainly seemed, than she mattered to them. Though there were strong family ties with the Kelly’s, there wasn’t a lot of heart.’ But Grace refused to give up on them.
Although Grace struggled to adjust to palace life, the birth of her three children brought her much joy. She had hoped to return to acting with the lead in Hitchcock’s Marnie, but after outrage from the public, she accepted the fact that acting was a thing of the past. Instead, she found a creative outlet by making dry flower collages and doing poetry readings. Philanthropy also became important to her as well; among other things, she founded AMADE Mondiale, which promotes and protects the well-being of children around the world.
When Grace finally hit her stride in Monaco, she became the one her family could always turn to. She supported her sister Peggy through two divorces, as well as her brother Kell, when he left his wife for a transsexual woman and subsequently lost his nomination for mayor. She proudly told her friends that she was ‘mother confessor’ to her many nieces and nephews, and they teased her about her tendency to help solve all of her family’s problems. At the end of the day, it was Grace who was always there for her family. She never closed her heart to them and was proud to become the person her loved ones could always turn to.
In hindsight, Grace’s struggles with her family may well have given her the motivation and perseverance she needed to become the person she wanted to be. Her creativity and sensitivity were a family oddity, and it’s a testament to her strength that she never changed to fit in, or pretended to be something she wasn’t. On the contrary, she fine-tuned these qualities, using them to make a living doing what she loved, and be the best person she could be. Although she felt unaccepted by her family, she always accepted them and reveled in her role as the one her family could always turn to when they needed help.
Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.
So if you ask me, one of the best things about the big, zany, timelessly entertaining world of silent comedy is also one of the most dated – that crazy makeup.
White faces, fake mustaches, painted-on eyebrows…it all has a weird, grotesque charm. And you might wonder – just why did comedians in the 1910s and 1920s have such cartoony looks? And why did the tradition stay mainly in the silent era (not counting Groucho Marx)?
Wearing exaggerated makeup was a centuries-long tradition in theatre. Candlelight or oil lamps were used to illuminate the stage, and thick makeup was necessary so audiences could make out the actors’ faces. The dimmer light usually hid the flaws of heavy makeup, although it could still look garish at times. Different types of characters had particular makeup looks, too, such as “youthful” characters having brightly rouged cheeks, or “elderly” characters having heavily lined faces.
Comedians adopted some of the most garish makeup
of all, of course, and the tradition seems to have stuck even as theaters
switched over to brighter gaslights in the 19th century. By the era of
vaudeville in the U.S., comedians looked practically indistinguishable from
The foundation of this makeup was always pale
greasepaint (a step up from the lard or butter concoctions from the candlelight
days) spread evenly over the face and then set with plenty of powder, which was
smoothed away with a brush. A few layers of powder and the comedian had his
canvas for the rest of the look.
The next step was using a black or brown liner to carefully draw on the eyebrows and line the eyes. This liner tended to come in a tiny pan that had to be warmed up with a match before being applied. Putty could be used to create bulbous noses, warts, or rounder cheeks. And one of the most popular additions to any comedian’s makeup was a crepe mustache. The crepe was made of wool and came in a long braid. Pieces could be clipped off, combed out, and fashioned into a mustache or chin beard of any shape or size. Spirit gum was used to paste it to the face.
Men and women alike sported whitened faces and boldly lined eyes and eyebrows – it was all part of the fun. And in the early 20th century certain comic characters had specific looks that would’ve been easily recognizable to audiences back in the day. In a time of increased immigration in the big cities, ethnic humor was popular (although it tended to signal “low” slapstick comedy), and some actors specialized in particular ethnic personas. An “Irish” comic would often have a bald cap and side-whiskers, a “French dandy” usually had a goatee and mustache, and a German character (called “Dutch” back then) had a round chin beard and spectacles. Blackface was also common on the stage – as you’re doubtless aware – and some black performers like the famed Bert Williams wore it as well. It’s no secret that anything and everything was up for spoofing in vaudeville, and the unpretentious power of heavy makeup was essential.
By the time film became popular, comedians
carried their exaggerated looks over to the big screen. The limits of the old,
orthochromatic film made the contrast of white faces and black-lined eyes even
stronger than before, adding to the clown effect. The simple touches of liner
and crepe also kept goofy reactions from disappearing under the klieg lights.
The 1910s was probably the height of the exaggerated makeup style, pairing
perfectly with the frenetic slapstick that characterized countless one- and
two-reel shorts made by Keystone, Joker, Essanay, and many other studios.
What was one key to becoming a successful screen comedian? Adopting a signature makeup look, of course. The most obvious example is Charlie Chaplin, whose small, neat “toothbrush” mustache, curving eyebrows and lined eyes were both expressive and instantly recognizable. More than one comedian literally copied Chaplin’s look, such as Billy West and the shameless Charlie Aplin (yes, Aplin).
Ford Sterling was another popular comedian who had a signature look, a “Dutch” getup complete with chin whiskers. Billy Bevan had a drooping, cartoony mustache and arching eyebrows. Louise Fazenda had big lined eyes and spit curls. Larry Semon always had bold black eyebrows, and the slapstick duo Ham and Bud always sported chunky mustaches.
Some comedians had more fearless styles than others, with varying results. Mack Swain had a wide mustache, heavily darkened eyes (the entire eye area, in fact), and a single lock of hair stuck to his forehead. Harold Lloyd initially tried to imitate Charlie Chaplin by adding two little dots of a mustache instead of just the toothbrush (it didn’t last long). Jimmy Aubrey had one of the most bizarre getups, with heavy eyebrows and a mustache that looked like two melting caterpillars.
By the 1920s, the old exaggerated makeup was going out of style, along with much of the ethnic humor (to the relief of some immigrant organizations). The crude, frenzied slapstick of the 1910s was replaced by subtler, toned-down comedy. And accordingly, comedy makeup got toned down too. Some comedians eventually stopped wearing crepe, while others kept their signature mustaches but made them more natural-looking and ditched the heavy liner. Some adopted clean-shaven “everyman” looks – even Larry Semon gave it a shot. And others, like Louise Fazenda, let go of their signature looks but found steady work in character parts.
And yes, there were a hardy few who continued on
their merry greasepaint ways, particularly the iconic Charlie Chaplin. But by
the talkies, the heyday of bold eyeliner and eyebrows and wacky mustaches was
largely in the past.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, the old silent comedy makeup style was nostalgic to many folks who remembered the silent clowns fondly. Nowadays the greasepaint and crepe mustaches seem old-timey to the point of being surreal. But I’d say that this very surrealism, combined with the joyous lack of pretension, will attract curious viewers – and new fans – for years to come.
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.
It could have been the colossal ants. Or the big locusts. Maybe the giant leeches. Most likely it was that house-sized tarantula. I’ll never really know the one film that started my obsession with big-bug movies (“bug” being used loosely), but I know why it happened: I was introduced to them by my dad whose whose unapologetic enjoyment of these films I still carry today. (Giant rabbits? Where?)
Although they necessarily scary by today’s standards, they are fascinating enough to get the imagination going while drawing out a few eewws along the way.
Giant bug movies were a hit as soon as they invaded the big screen in the early 1950s and it’s easy to see why in the context of the time. Fears of nuclear bombs and communism in post-war America were manifested in these attacking hordes of ants, locusts and pretty much any small creature you could blow up 100 times its size and have it destroy a a small town. (Invading aliens similarly mirrored fears at the time, but bugs are more fun.)
Interestingly, it was a dinosaur that led Warner Bros. to later make the film credited with starting the big-bug craze. In 1953, the studio released The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a true classic about a hibernating dinosaur jostled awake by A-bomb testing in the Arctic Circle that terrorized the East Coast of North America. The film’s unexpected box-office success – thanks to stop-motion animation genius Ray Harryhausen and his fictional Rhedosaurus – stirred up interest in other giant creature films.
George Worthing Yates – who would go on to write such B-movie gems as It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958) – had written a story treatment about giant ants terrorizing the New York City subway system. Warner Bros. bought the original story and a screenplay was written by Ted Sherdeman and Russell Hughes with the setting moved to the more cost-efficient California. (The movie also was planned to be shot in color and 3D but was eventually made in black and white – again for budget reasons – with only the film’s title in color.)
Not only wouldThem! be the highest grossing film of 1954 for Warner Bros., it opened the door to big-bug films that were only limited by the imagination. That they had the bonus of the easy-to-follow formula provided by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them! made these films easy to replicate: Start with mysterious deaths and destruction; add a scientist(s) and the military; have fantastic proclamations and explanations (“We may be witnesses to a biblical prophecy come true!”); and show throngs of people running and screaming in terror.
The public was hooked and the shift was felt throughout the industry.
As Bela Lugosi (played by Martin Landau) said in Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood: “Nobody wants vampires anymore. Now all they want is giant bugs.”
The best remains Them!
with a mystery.
An adorable little girl is found wandering the desert in her pajamas by highway patrol officers. Clutching her doll, the unresponsive child appears to be in shock. The officers take her to a nearby camping site to find her family, but it’s torn apart and no one is around.
“This wasn’t caved in, it was caved out,” Officer Ben Peterson (played by James Whitmore) proclaims as he examines the wreckage where he notices, oddly enough, that sugar cubes are missing.
high-pitched sound comes from the desert, temporarily waking the little girl
who returns to her catatonic state as quickly as the sound subsides without
anyone noticing. (“It’s the wind – it’s freakish in these parts,” is an explanation
neither officer believes.)
As an atmospheric sandstorm brews creating even more odd sounds, they discover the nearby general store is also destroyed.
“This wasn’t pushed in, it was pulled out,” Ben says examining the missing store wall. Sadly, they discover the body of kindly Gramps Johnson. Once again, sugar is missing but money hasn’t been touched and that leads to the logical conclusion that it’s the work of a homicidal maniac.
“No money stolen, violent wreckage, just sugar taken,” Ben says.
Just sugar taken – nothing
strange about that.
Brought in to help with the mystery are FBI agent Robert Graham (played by a handsome and blond James Arness) and scientists from the Department of Agriculture Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter Pat (Joan Weldon).
When Dr. Medford learns the destructive activities are all taking place near Alamogordo, New Mexico, where in reality the first atom bomb tests took place in 1945, that seems to confirm his suspicions. (Using the example of real A-bomb tests surely would cause unease with moviegoers.) Dr. Medford puts a glass of formic acid – a compound in ant venom – under the catatonic girl’s nose leading to one of the most effective and timeless scenes in 1950s horror as she jumps awake screaming “Them! Them! Them!” – giving the film its title.
It’s one of a surprising number of effective scenes in this taut sci-fi thriller that include a giant ant slowly rising over a scientist’s head; an officer turning lights off one by one, shrouding himself in darkness as the winds and that awful whistling sound return; and the chilling image of an ant throwing a human rib cage down a small dirt mound as it lands among other bones and debris including a gun holster. (“You just found your missing persons.”)
The film’s documentary style also builds tension. There are moments watching it in 2021 that we can imagine we are viewing live cable news.
Dr. Medford also shows a very short and efficiently informative film on ants to educate a meeting of leaders – and moviegoers. (Not all films were successful with this tact: Deadly Mantis would be better off without the long opening explainer that includes a lesson in radar.)
Although they find the ants and destroy their nest, it’s not even close to being over. Two egg cases that belonged to the queens – who can fly – are empty and the rest of the film details the methodical nationwide hunt for them. The final sequences, which include a search for two missing boys, make the most of the atmospheric Los Angeles storm drain system – a perfect place for big ants to hide.
“We haven’t seen the end of them. We’ve only had a close view of the beginning of what may be the end of us,” Dr. Medford says with the same requisite deference to an end of the world scenario seen in other films including one that even has the name The Beginning of the End
Though Warner Bros. started this craze, the studio didn’t keep it going. Luckily, others stepped in, going beyond bugs to include an octopus so big it could wrap itself around the Golden Gate Bridge (It Came from Beneath the Sea) and people who towered over power lines (The Attack of the 50-Ft. Woman, The Amazing Colossal Man).
“When man entered the atomic age, he opened doors to a new world. What we will eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict,” Dr. Medford warns at the end of Them!
Not surprisingly, neither science nor the movie world have closed that door yet. The results of humans destroying nature remain a subgenre of sci-fi and horror films. In the 1970s, environmental concerns were especially prevalent in films that went for quantity of creatures over size as armies of creepy crawlies attacked in films such as Bug (1975), produced by William Castle; Empire of the Ants (1977) based on an H.G. Wells story; Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), and The Swarm (1978).
Other big-bug films
Here are a few suggestions of other 1950s films to add to your watch list.
Tarantula (1955). Directed by Jack Arnold, this is film of my nightmares. An experiment by a benevolent scientist trying to create a super nutrient to help feed the world goes wrong, causing an arachnid to grow to giant proportions. The tarantula goes solo in this, but he grows large enough to tower over a house and that’s a terrifying site.
Beginning of the End(1957). Bert I. Gordon directs Peter Graves in this melodramatic take on giant grasshoppers overtaking the world. Not quite up there with Them! but still a good time.
Black Scorpion(1957). This time a volcanic eruption in Mexico is to blame for unleashing an army of scorpions that are bigger than men. If you are creeped out by the thought of being crushed to death by giant claws this might not be for you. Willis O’Brien (King Kong) was the special effects supervisor. Richard Denning and Mara Corday co-star.
Deadly Mantis(1957). Another volcanic eruption, another giant creature awakens from a frozen slumber. Recommended viewing if you can ignore the talky opening explanation. (Just give us the bugs, please.) Craig Stevens,William Hopper and Alix Talton help the U.S. Army battle the giant insect.
Attack of the Giant Leeches(1959). There’s something strange in the swamp waters leading to a string of mysterious deaths in this film from executive producer Roger Corman.
The Killer Shrews (1959). Once again, research to stop world hunger goes terribly wrong causing an accidental growth spurt in rodents. Action takes place on a remote island where a captain and first mate are stuck by a storm after delivering supplies to a group of researchers.
Key players in Them!
The film had a cast of future all-stars.
After Them!, James Arness put on a cowboy hat for his next role as Sheriff Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, a series that lasted for 20 seasons.
Fess Parker is only in the film for one scene as a pilot put in an insane asylum after seeing flying saucers that looked like ants. The day of shooting, representatives from Disney were on set to check out James Arness to star in Davy Crockett. They were so impressed by Parker, they cast him instead.
Leonard Nimoy has a cameo as an officer who grabs a report off a teletype machine.
William Schallert, who would later star in such popular TV series as The Patty Duke Show, is in an early scene as an ambulance driver.
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.
First impressions, Mama always said, are important.
Our introductions to film noir features aren’t necessarily
indisputable predictors of the quality of the picture ahead, but there are
certainly those that grab you within the first few minutes and never – to our
benefit – let go.
This month’s Noir Nook takes a look at more noirs whose
distinctive beginnings accurately telegraph the film’s shadowy sins and
This film, which is one of my all-time favorites, centers on the efforts of a tenacious police lieutenant (Cornel Wilde) to bring to justice a local mob boss known only as Mr. Brown (Richard Conte) – all the while falling for Brown’s mistress (played by Wilde’s then real-life wife, Jean Wallace). The first thing you’ll notice is the film’s unique jazzy score; it puts you on notice that you’re in for a hot time. As the film begins, we focus on a boxing arena, but we’re not there for the fight. Instead, we’re taken into the bowels of the building, where we see a young woman dressed in a strapless cocktail dress and heels, running from two men (Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman). Before long, the men catch up to her, but she promises to return to her seat if they’ll unhand her and allow her to return on her own. They agree, and she expresses her gratitude by smacking one of the men square in the face with her sequined evening bag.
Yet another of my favorites, They Live By Night has one of the most unusual openings that I’ve ever seen. It shows stars Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell, filmed in close-up, kissing and cuddling before what appears to be a flickering fireplace, accompanied by a sweet and innocent score. The captions inform us: “This boy and this girl were never properly introduced to the world we live in. To tell their story …” The couple then abruptly stops kissing and looks with surprise-slash-concern-slash fear toward the camera, and the film’s title fills the screen, along with a radical shift in the music. Beneath the credits, we see a car populated by four men, recklessly moving along highways and through unpaved fields, until it blows a tire, pulls off the road, and the action begins.
Picture this: Edmond O’Brien is purposefully walking down a dark, secluded street, when he pauses in a doorway, observing a man nearby who is completing some sort of financial exchange with two gents in a parked car. O’Brien withdraws a gun from his pocket, fits it with a silencer, then throws a casual arm around the other man’s shoulders after the car pulls away. As O’Brien leads him toward an alley, the man’s eyes widen with fear, and with good reason – seconds later, O’Brien shoots the man in the back, removes a thick envelope from his coat, and then shouts, “Stop or I’ll shoot!” before firing his gun into the air. What O’Brien doesn’t know – but we do – is that this entire chain of events has been witnessed by a man living in an apartment above the alley. And it’s not until this point that the opening credits begin to roll.
It’s nighttime in the big city. The camera focuses on a high-rise office building, then goes inside to show the lobby elevator. When the doors open, we see a man dressed as an elevator operator carrying a leather satchel. When he exits, we see something else – a dead man on the elevator floor. The man runs to a nearby getaway car, which disappears into the night as a voiceover intones: “The crime: murder. The motive: money. Three hundred thousand dollars, which never reached the bank’s night depository. The place: New York City. The killer and the money vanished, a slick, cold-blooded job.” We’re further informed by the narrator that the case came alive again a year later, in Los Angeles, where off-duty Det. Sgt. Calvin Bruner (Steve Cochran) spied some suspicious activity in a downtown pharmacy. As Bruner begins to investigate, the opening credits roll, and once he’s inside the building, he commences to participate in one of the best fight scenes I’ve seen since the climax of Red River (1948).
Once again, we start at night. This time, we’re shown a car
driving down a deserted highway. When it comes to a halt beside a sand dune, we
see that there are three men in the front seat, but only two of them are
breathing. These two remove the third man from the car and dump him
unceremoniously over the edge of the dune. The next morning, the body is
discovered by a couple of surveyors, who contact the local police. “Well,” says
one of the cops when he recognizes the dead man, “they finally got him.”
Incidentally, each of these first-rate noirs can be found on
YouTube. Tune in and see what happens after these attention-grabbing openers.
You won’t be sorry.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
For those of you who are unfamiliar
with Cinemallennials, it is a bi-weekly podcast in which I, and another
millennial, watch a classic film that we’ve never seen before, and discuss its
significance and relevance in today’s world.
In today’s episode, I’ll be talking with Nick Reed about Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 anti-war film, Paths of Glory– a film that is often thought of as one of the most shocking criticisms of war, its futility, and what it does to both its participants and the civilians that are affected by its consequences.
Stanley Kubrick is often considered to be one of the most innovative filmmakers of all-time. Kubrick’s technical achievements, combined with his meticulous focus on realistic detail, his thought-provoking stories and his use of painterly cinematography, are all examples of what makes him one of the greats. In addition to his methodical and visual hallmarks, Kubrick’s philosophical approach to filmmaking appeals to both intellectuals and the common man as he is able to balance the fine line of simple, but not uncomplicated. Spartacus,Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket could never have been realized in their finalized state as some of the greatest films of all time — if it wasn’t for Paths of Glory.
Paths of Glory follows the story of Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who is ordered by his arrogant and grandiose commanding officer, General Mireau (George Macready) to capture an impossible strategic position in no man’s land, most likely leading his troops to their certain deaths. After the attack fails, and with his pride hurt, Mireau singles out four of Dax’s men for court-martial which could lead to their execution. Dax must defend these men against Mireau’s words and, as one of the best criminal lawyers in all of France prior to the war, he is the only one capable to do so. Or is he?
During the episode, Nick and I will
be discussing the horrors of the First World War, how it is insufficiently
discussed in the United States, the ill-guided romanticization of war in
general, and how that view of it can change the human condition.
Stanley Kubrick once told Craig McGregor of the New York Times that: “Man isn’t a noble savage, he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved – that about sums it up. I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him. And any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.” This quote is what really drives both Paths of Glory and Kubrick’s often absurdist depiction of war and its institutions.
In Paths of Glory, the French trenches are realistically grim and full of reproduced sights and sounds that soldiers would have likely witnessed and heard — as one can see from the most famous scene of the film in which Colonel Dax trudges through the mud, flanked by his men with shells exploding on all sides. While Kubrick presents a fraction of what was actually in the trenches with its sound and fury, what makes Paths of Glory stand out as an anti-war film is his use of dialogue and music to mock the absurdities of the war and its officer class, and show how that class can change the future of the lower classes’ human condition without any real consequence.
Through this exploration of the First World War and in the way its romanticized, we as the younger generation should learn how the supposed “War to end all wars” still affects us today as a result of the millions of unnecessary deaths. Not only was it the inspiration for Paths of Glory, amongst other great feats of cinema - as recently as Sam Mendes’ 1917 – but its direct consequences have led to some of the problems that we still are facing today.
I hope you enjoy this episode of Cinemallennials, which you can find here on apple podcasts or on spotify. Please reach out to me as I would love to hear your thoughts on Paths of Glory, especially if you’re a first-time viewer too!
Dave Lewis is the producer, writer, and host of Cinemallennials, a podcast where he and another millennial watch a classic film that they haven’t seen before ranging from the early 1900s to the late 1960s and discuss its significance and relevance in our world today. Before writing for Classic Movie Hub, Dave wrote about Irish and Irish-American history, the Gaelic Athletic Association in the United States, and Irish innovators for Irish America magazine. You can find more episodes of Cinemallennials, film reviews and historical analyses, on Dave’s website dlewmoviereview.com or his YouTube channel.
Twenty years after the silent hit with Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power donned the iconic mask for The Mark of Zorro (1940), a truly delightful swashbuckler packed with action, comedy, and romance that still enchants new audiences today.
The Zorro movies are, in many ways, the direct forebears of the superhero blockbusters of our modern age, a heady mix of popular culture in both their history and their influence, and as such ought to be watched by anyone with an interest in comic books, action movies, superheroes, and American movie culture. You don’t, however, need to be obsessed with the cultural origins of Batman (as relevant as he is) to love The Mark of Zorro. It’s a grand romp with a cast of favorite stars that perfectly demonstrates the appeal of the swashbuckler genre and the dashing Tyrone Power, with lively direction from Rouben Mamoulian and a rousing, Oscar-nominated score from Alfred Newman.
I’ve always loved swashbuckling action heroes, and Power’s Zorro – along with Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood – is one of the best for introducing older kids and teenagers to some classic movie magic. Power is utterly charming as the duplicitous Don Diego, who assumes the manner of a fop on his return to California in order to keep the corrupt rulers from suspecting his escapades as the masked vigilante. As thrilling as he is when playing the hero, Power really shines with the comedy and romance, especially when confronted by the irresistible Linda Darnell as Lolita. At every moment Power’s Diego hides a smile at his own audacious deception, even when his father (Montagu Love) despises his seemingly useless son. We often talk about how the classic film camera loves iconic actresses, but the camera loves Tyrone Power just as much. He’s absolutely captivating, the embodiment of roguish masculine sex appeal poured into very tight pants. Whether he’s dancing with Lolita, fending off the advances of her aunt, Inez (Gale Sondergaard), or fencing with the villainous Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone), Power is a delight to behold.
It helps tremendously, of course, that Power enjoys the support of an amazing cast, especially Darnell as his lady love and the elegantly menacing Rathbone as his nemesis. As one of the great heavies of classic movie history, Rathbone is very much in his element and at home with the swordplay, having been the British Army Fencing Champ twice during his military career. Rathbone is one of those truly brilliant actors who makes every role memorable, but the jealous, violent Captain Esteban ranks high among his most thrilling characters. Other cast members highlight the comedic elements of the story, especially J. Edward Bromberg as the craven Quintero and Gale Sondergaard as his scheming, preening wife.
Eugene Pallette is also great fun as the feisty friar, Felipe, who encourages Diego to fight for the people. For Pallette, it’s almost the exact same role he had already played as Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) just two years earlier, in which Rathbone and Montagu Love had also appeared. They overlap in so many fascinating ways that I tend to think of The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro as the perfect swashbuckling double feature, although you could make a whole film festival out of it by adding The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), Captain Blood (1935), The Black Swan (1942), and The Flame and the Arrow (1950). As a collection, the films reveal the genre’s most enduring conventions and character types, from heroes and heavies to ladies and lackeys.
While Fairbanks returned to the character for Don Q, Son of Zorro in 1925, Power only played the role of Zorro once, but both of them helped to create a character who has endured in many different forms. Like modern superhero movies, swashbucklers make for great escapes from a troubled world; they give us heroes to believe in and cheer for as well as villains to hiss. Zorro occupies a special place because of his role as a particularly American hero after the continental adventures of Robin Hood and The Scarlet Pimpernel. (It helped, too, that Hollywood could make Southern California represent itself for a change, instead of pretending to be Sherwood Forest or some other faraway location.)
After Fairbanks and Power, other actors would go on to play the heroic outlaw; Robert Livingston took the part for The Bold Caballero (1936), and Guy Williams became Zorro for a generation of viewers in the Disney television series that ran from 1957 to 1959. More recently, Antonio Banderas donned the costume as Zorro’s successor in The Mask of Zorro (1998) and The Legend of Zorro (2005). Each version has its appeal, but the 1940 film is still a quintessential example of the swashbuckler genre and a great place to start an exploration of the connections between classic movie heroes and modern ones.
If, like me, you’re a sucker for Tyrone Power’s dark-eyed charms, be sure to see him in Blood and Sand (1941) and Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942) as well as The Black Swan(1942). For a shocking change of pace, catch him in the fascinatingly gritty circus noir, Nightmare Alley (1947), or see his last great performance in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) before his death in 1958 of a heart attack at the age of 44. To get back to the original story of Zorro, read Johnston McCulley’s 1919 novel, The Curse of Capistrano, which was originally released as a serial and then appeared as a book in 1924 with the title, The Mark of Zorro.
Classic Movie Travels: Lucille Bremer – New York and Mexico
Lucille Rita Bremer (pronounced “Bray-mer”) was a film actress and dancer, particularly remembered for her work in MGM musical films. Born in Amsterdam, New York, to Richard Bremer and Sarah E. Nichols on February 21, 1917, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Bremer’s father was of German descent and worked as a barber, while her mother was of Scottish descent and worked as a homemaker. Bremer was the youngest of two children. She had an older brother named Walter, who was 11 years older than her.
When her family settled in Philadelphia, she developed a strong interest in
dancing. She studied ballet as a child and later went on to dance with the
Philadelphia Opera Company, sparking an appreciation for the performing arts.
As the years went on, Bremer aimed to pursue dancing professionally. She returned to New York to dance at the 1939 World’s Fair and soon secured a career as a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall by age 16. She was typically 5th from the right in the lineup and toured with the show.
In addition to her work as a Rockette, Bremer actively sought additional dance roles, including appearances in Panama Hattie, earned a featured role in Dancing in the Streets, and the ingénue role in Lady in the Dark. At the same time, she attempted to begin a career in films. After an unsuccessful screen test for Warner Brothers, she once again turned to dance. However, her luck changed when MGM producer Arthur Freed discovered her dancing at the Copacabana and Club Versailles.
Ultimately, Freed invited Bremer to Hollywood for a screen test with MGM. There, she tested with a passage from Dark Victory(1939). She was offered a contract to showcase her talent as a dancer, soon studying acting in an effort to become a star for the Freed Unit.
Disenchanted with Hollywood, Bremer left the industry and focused on her private life. She married Abelardo “Rod” Luis Rodriguez, son of a former president of Mexico, at Catalina Island in 1940, later moving to California Sur, Mexico. The couple started a private resort called Rancho Las Cruces, in addition to the Palmilla and Hacienda Hotels in Baja. Her connection to Hollywood piqued the interest of her former film colleagues, eager to vacation in Mexico. In addition, the couple also found business partners in Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, as well as Bing Crosby.
The couple would go on to have four children: Nicolas, Cristina, Torre
Richard, and Karen Rodriguez. They divorced in 1963.
Following her divorce, Bremer moved
to La Jolla, California, where she owned a clothing boutique for children. She
balanced her time between La Jolla and Baja, traveling frequently, until her
passing from a heart attack on April 16, 1996, at a La Jolla hospital. She was
79 years old.
Today, very few tributes or locations of relevance in relation to Bremer
remain. Her 1920 home at 1135 Miller St. in Utica, New York is long-gone.
she lived in an apartment at 307 79th St in New York, New York,
which does remain today.
ashes were partially scattered in the Sea of Cortez as well as next to the
church that she and her husband had built on the resort property. A plaque
honoring Bremer as well as Desi Arnaz is affixed to the church.
While Bremer left behind a brief filmography, her work continues to entertain fans of classic Hollywood musicals.
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.
That said, here are some of our March picks available for FREE STREAMING all month long on the CMH Channel. All you need to do is click on the movie/show of your choice, then click ‘play’ — you do not have to opt for a 7-day trial.
In celebration of March Birthdays, we’re featuring Joan Crawford (born Mar 23, 1905) in the 1932 Lewis Milestone-directed drama Rain, opposite Walter Huston. We’re also celebrating director David Lean’s birthday (Mar 25, 1908) with his 1948 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist starring Robert Newton and Alec Guinness — as well as David Niven’s birthday (Mar 1, 1910) with Happy Go Lovely and Jennifer Jone’s birthday (Mar 2, 1919 ) with Beat the Devil. We’ll also be showing two of my favorites, Little Lord Fauntleroy starring Freddie Bartholomew (born Mar 28, 1924), and And Then There Were None starring Barry Fitzgerald (born Mar 10, 1888).
We’re also celebrating some Vintage Westerns this month with some iconic western film stars including Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter! And more…
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the service, Best Classics Ever is a new mega streaming channel built especially for classic movie and TV lovers. The idea of the channel is to make lots of classic titles accessible and affordable for all. That said, Classic Movie Hub is curating titles each month that our fans can stream for free on the Classic Movie Hub Channelat Best Classics Ever. If you’d like access to the entire selection of Best Classics Ever titles, you can subscribe to everything for a low monthly fee of $4.99/month (Best Stars Ever, Best Westerns Ever, Best Mysteries Ever, Best TV Ever) or for an individual channel for only $1.99/month.
You can read more about Best Classics Ever and our partnership here.