Film Noir Review: He Ran All the Way (1951)

“I wish I knew how you wanted me to be. If only you’d tell me.”

Most fans who make their way through film noir will invariably stumble upon the tragedy of John Garfield. A remarkably naturalistic actor, Garfield was adept at taking hateable characters and humanizing them so much that their fates seemed unjust. Audiences knew he was wrong, but they couldn’t bring themselves to root for his downfall. He was one of them. If Humphrey Bogart was the patron saint of noir cool, then Garfield was the born loser, doomed to fumble the bad hand he’d been dealt.

Unfortunately, the doom that colored Garfield’s film roles bled over to his personal life. The actor was asked to speak before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1951, but his reluctance to testify landed him on the dubious Hollywood blacklist. Garfield was devastated by the decision, and he suffered a massive heart attack before he could regain any career momentum. He died at age 39, not far from his New York birthplace. He left behind three Oscar nominations, a slew of classics, and a death that made him all but inextricable from his screen persona.

Garfield and Winters bring dynamite chemistry to the film’s poster.

The overlap between Garfield the man and Garfield the persona is what makes He Ran All the Way (1951) such a remarkable sendoff. It was the last film Garfield completed during his lifetime, and the plight of his character, Nick Robey, hits so close to his offscreen paranoia that one can’t tell where the performance ends and the truth begins. It’s as though he knew the clock was ticking, and saw Robey as an outlet for his tortured real-life predicament. Try as he did, the film wasn’t cathartic so much as it was prophetic.

He Ran All the Way has a stronger fatalist slant than most noir films, as evidenced by the opening scene. Robey is seen having a nightmare in his rundown apartment, and the experience leaves him reeling. He urges his partner to delay their heist on the grounds that he’s “got no luck” today, but the plea falls on greedy ears and they proceed. Robey’s dream is treated as a moment of clarity, a moment in which he could have turned things around, but the allure of quick cash proves too much to resist. Robey ignores his bout of common sense and winds up shooting a cop. Suddenly, this nobody is a wanted man.

“You read that in a book somewhere. I think you’re dead wrong.”

Robey gets nearly cornered at an Amusement Park, but a chance flirtation with a woman named Peg Dobbs (Shelley Winters) gives him an out. He plays up his interest in her, and insists she invite him over for some coffee. Once inside, however, Robey’s fear takes over and he takes the entire Dobbs family hostage. It’s familiar noir territory, but the script adds a wonderful little wrinkle when Robey looks over the family newspaper. His paranoia is so strong that he gives himself away as the cop killer, when his name hadn’t even been in print. It’s a gut punch of a reveal, and one that Garfield delivers with withering self-despair. He can’t seem to catch a break.

The rest of the film takes place in the Dobbs household, with sporadic cuts to the outside. It begins to resemble a play, as characters bicker while moving in and out of the same space. Garfield shines in these lengthy scenes, casually alternating between cruelty and unexpected flashes of warmth. His character bonds with Peg’s little brother Tommy (Bobby Hyatt), and he even shares a moment of understanding with the Dobbs matriarch (Selena Royle). Conversely, he berates Peg for her looks and tosses out verbal abuse when he’s not lusting after her. The film never feels the need to categorize Robey as a bad seed or a misunderstood good guy, and it’s all the better for it. Instead, the film lets the viewer sift through his impulsive decisions and decide for themself. It’s a refreshingly modern approach and a reminder that noir’s ambiguity often allowed it to go places that other genres could not. 

Robey’s paranoia repeatedly gets the best of him.

The doom that lingers over the film is promoted by Garfield, but he isn’t solely responsible. He Ran All the Way also benefits from the Dalton Trumbo-Hugo Butler script and the taut direction by John Berry. All three men were privy to the Red Scare that was sweeping the industry, and given their liberal views, one can’t help but place an allegorical reading on their approach to the Robey character. Robey’s crimes are not analogous to Communism, but the paranoia that was sweeping Hollywood is present in every frame, and the passing swipes at classism and American greed are commonplace in the works of Trumbo, Butler, and Berry. Not surprisingly, they would join Garfield on the blacklist by year’s end.

Robey’s premonition about being unlucky comes true when he entrusts Peg with his getaway plans. Once again, his paranoia proves his undoing. He accuses Peg of setting him up and makes a run for it, only to be cut down by the police. As he slumps down on the sidewalk, he realizes that Peg kept to her word. Too little, too late. The sequence is shot in devastatingly tight closeups, and Garfield’s pained expression is topped only by the image of his character crawling towards the headlights of a parked car. In a final, haunting moment of futility, he keels over before he can reach the light. All that’s left for noir’s patron saint is the black asphalt.

Robey makes one last attempt to run all the way.

He Ran All the Way will always be a notable release by virtue of it being Garfield’s last film. The parallels between his life and his character’s predicament are innumerable, and his performance is staggering, but even without the real-life context, the film is a remarkable piece of noir storytelling. The screenplay packs an ironic punch, and the cinematography by James Wong Howe is among the finest of the time period, particularly on the back end of the film. As far as swan songs go, it doesn’t get much better.

TRIVIA: Due to the blacklisting of Trumbo, Butler, and Berry, all three men’s names were removed from the film. Their credits have since been restored.

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–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub

Danilo Castro is a film noir aficionado 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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Lives Behind the Legends: Doris Day – Looking For Love

Lives Behind the Legends: Doris Day – Looking For Love

Doris Day
Doris Day

When you think of the iconic Doris Day, you probably think of a picture-perfect blonde who had it all — the all-American girl, the perfect housewife, the happy-go-lucky sweetheart. Doris almost seemed to personify the ideals of the 1950’s: her image was virtuous, sweet, joyous, and proper. Men wanted to marry her, and women wanted her to be the neighbor who gave them cooking advice. In reality, Doris’ life was far from a white picket fence dream. Though Doris always wanted a loving husband to make a happy home with, this dream eluded her time and time again. Eventually, she found that happiness can be achieved in many different ways and that love comes in many forms.

Doris had a complicated relationship with the first man in her life. Her father was a strict and old-fashioned man, who rarely showed affection. Still, for the first few years of her life, Doris seemed to have an idyllic home life. Her father’s job as a music teacher made sure that the family was surrounded by music and instruments, her mother was a loving housewife and Doris got along well with her big brother. They lived in a tight-knit community in Cincinnati, where the children were free to play to their heart’s delight. But this community would soon be rattled by a scandal, which was preceded by a traumatic night for ten-year-old Doris. As she tried to fall asleep while her parents were having a party downstairs, she heard her father and a close family friend come up the stairs. ‘My father and this woman came in and tiptoed to the bedroom beyond. I heard everything. God help me. I pulled the pillow over my head but there was no way to shut it out. I cried myself to sleep,’ Doris later admitted in her autobiography. Little Doris kept this information to herself in hopes of keeping the family together. It was no use; her mother found out about the affair soon after. Her parents divorced, and Doris’ father married his mistress. She would see him for dinners once a week as an early teen, but contact ceased after a while, and she did not have a relationship with him as an adult. Although this upset her, she was never angry with her father. ‘It is my nature to forgive’, she later lamented. Her friend Mike DeVita said that her parent’s divorce and the lack of a relationship with her father had a profound effect on Doris, even suggesting that she went on to look for the father she never had in her future husbands.

The idyllic home life that had been her early childhood, was something Doris desperately wanted as an adult. There were multiple twists and turns in Doris’ life that eventually led to fame and fortune, but becoming a movie star was never her dream. As Doris herself said: ‘I could have happily lived my entire life in Cincinnati, married to a proper Cincinnatian, living in a big old Victorian house [and] raising a brood of offspring’. Although she was already a singer in a popular band at age sixteen, she saw this as something to do until she could start a family.

Doris Day as a teenager
Doris Day as a teenager

So when she fell for 23-year-old trombone player Al Jorden, she did not waste any time. Despite objections from both her mother and her bandleader, the 17-year-old Doris married the unpredictable Al. The pair moved into a dingy apartment in New York, where Al had a job in a new band. Soon enough, Al turned out to be pathologically jealous and abusive. It was only the day after their marriage that this side of him surfaced; when Doris kissed his bandmate on the cheek after he gave her a wedding gift, Al dragged her to their apartment, blind with rage. His physical abuse became a pattern in their relationship and Doris lived in constant fear of him. As he became more brutal, she realized she had to leave their marriage. Then she found out that she was pregnant. Doris hoped that this would soften Al and she decided to stay. Unfortunately, her pregnancy brought out an even darker side to him. He did everything he could to get her to terminate the pregnancy, culminating in him trying to shoot her. She was able to talk him out of it and secretly started making plans to leave him. As soon as her baby boy Terry was born, Doris left Al and moved back in with her relieved mother. She would never see Al again: he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed suicide.

At this point, Doris was a 19-year-old single mother and divorcee. Although she was thankful to have escaped her traumatic first marriage, this was not how Doris had imagined her life to go. But there were more pressing matters: she had to put food on the table. So Doris re-joined her old band and went out on the road, leaving Terry in the care of her mother. After two years, the band released the song Sentimental Journey and it became a huge hit. More chart-topping songs followed, but that did not matter much to Doris. She had fallen in love with a fellow band member once again: saxophonist George Weidler.

Doris Day and second husband George Weidler
Doris Day and second husband George Weidler

Their bandleader reportedly was not fond of his band members sharing a hotel room, so the loved-up pair quit the band. They subsequently decided to get married and moved to Hollywood, where there would be more job opportunities. Their marriage was a rocky one from the start. Despite the passionate nature of their relationship, George had a wandering eye. More worryingly, was that George was anything but excited about the prospect of being a stepfather when Doris suggested that her mother and son should move in. Still, their marriage was going strong until Doris found an agent and was getting more job opportunities as a singer. After only eight months of marriage, George let Doris know that he was filing for divorce because he did not want to be known as ‘Mr. Doris Day’. Doris was blindsided by the failure of her second marriage. She visited her mother and son in Cincinnati to recover. She quickly found that what she really needed was a distraction. So Doris went back to Hollywood and threw herself into her work. She was right on time.

The creators of the film Romance on the High Seas were struggling to find their leading lady. They needed a wholesome, all-American girl who could sing. Newly returned from Cincinnati, Doris was dragged to an industry party by her agent Al Levy. One of the creators of the film was there as well, and after meeting Doris, he knew he had found the one. Warner Bros., the studio making the film, saw the potential in Doris as well and signed her to a seven-year contract. Doris never expected to become a star, but things happened fast. Only two years after her screen debut she found herself starring opposite her idol Ginger Rogers in Storm Warning and dating future president Ronald Reagan. Doris had made it. She thoroughly enjoyed this rollercoaster ride to stardom, and being a career woman unexpectedly suited her. She had a strong work ethic, and receiving accolades, such as being named ‘favorite star’ by servicemen in Korea, touched her deeply. Her romance with Reagan didn’t last, but Doris had no time to wallow; she was making films back to back. Her agent Al put a lot of effort into her career, but not just out of professional interest. He was developing an obsession with his client, and things got so out of hand that Doris had no choice but to contact his agency. Al was swiftly sent to New York, and Martin Melcher took over for him. Doris and Marty took an immediate liking to each other and they were married on Doris’ 29th birthday. The newlyweds moved into a big, beautiful home, and Marty adopted her son Terry. Finally, Doris had the family she always wanted.

Doris Day, husband Marty and son Terry on the set of Calamity Jane
Doris Day, husband Marty and son Terry on the set of Calamity Jane

At this point, Terry was nine years old and had always lived with his grandmother. Although he was now a part of Doris’ new family life, he would later state that it was his grandmother who raised him. Doris also admitted that they were more like brother and sister, since she had him when she was only 18. Still, they had a strong bond that would last their entire lives. The same cannot be said for Terry and Marty. Marty was an incredibly strict disciplinarian, who sent the boy to military school to ‘make a man out of him’. As Doris’ agent, Marty was the opposite of her second husband. He wanted her to work and was involved in every aspect of her career, including handling her finances. Some people in the industry called him her Svengali, but Doris would not hear of it. She was incredibly happy and said that she seemed to have found ‘the solid, serene life’ she had been seeking. Her career was still soaring as well; it was during this time that she starred in one of her most popular films: Calamity Jane.

Despite entering her third marriage before her thirties, her image was as prim and proper as ever, making Oscar Levant quip: ‘I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin’. Doris was never a fan of her image. She would later say, ‘My public image is unshakably that of America’s wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness. An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played. But I am Miss Chastity Belt, and that’s all there is to it.’ Nonetheless, Doris loved her work. She founded her own film and music company with Marty, she had her own radio show and still managed to make popular movies and chart-topping songs. At one point, she had a complete burn-out, exacerbated by a hysterectomy for a benign tumor that left her unable to have any more children. By now, her marriage to Marty was all about business, and she came to resent his dominance. The final straw was Doris witnessing Marty hitting her son. She found out that this had been happening for years and she decided to separate from Marty. They never officially divorced and he would stay on as her agent. Doris was unsure if she should continue acting at this point. The swinging sixties had not embraced her and the press jokingly referred to her as ‘The World’s Oldest Virgin’. Besides, she had worked tirelessly for decades and was ready to slow down. In 1968, Marty fell ill, and Doris insisted on nursing the man she had loved for so long. He passed away a few months later and Doris mourned her third husband, who had still been a big part of her life. But she was in for a nasty surprise. Instead of millions of dollars in her bank account, she was actually hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Marty and his business partner, Jerome Rosenthal, had squandered her earnings. Despite Doris wanting to quit acting, she found out that Marty had committed her to a television series, The Doris Day Show, and it turned out that she was going to need the money made from that show. Her court case against Rosenthal would take years and require a lot of money in legal fees. She later said about Marty that she was ‘mystified by this man who had slept with me, adopted my son, managed my career and business life.’ Still, she felt that Marty had never intended to betray her and that he had simply trusted the wrong person. The court case against Rosenthal dragged on until 1985, when she was finally awarded only a fraction of her once large fortune.

After The Doris Day Show, Doris mostly retracted from the limelight. She focused on the two loves of her life: her son and animals. She founded The Doris Day Animal Foundation and started a pet-friendly hotel with Terry. She gave love a shot one more time when she married maître d’ Barry Comden in the seventies. The marriage was over after three years, and Barry said that Doris had preferred the company of her dogs. He may have been right, since she admitted to a friend that she had originally thought marriage was the way to live, but felt it was ‘so confined’. In her old age, Doris could live life on her own terms. She lived happily in her beautiful home in Carmel, spoke to her son daily and took in every stray dog she wanted to take in.

Doris Day and dog

About her love life, she would joke, ‘Boy, I know how to pick ‘em, don’t I?’ She suffered one more tragedy when her beloved son Terry passed away in 2004. She subsequently released the album My Heart, with songs produced by Terry, who was a successful music producer in his own right. The proceeds went to her animal foundation. In 2011, at age 92, she told People Magazine, ‘I love life. I have my pets around me and good friends. I’m young at heart and I love to laugh. There’s nothing better.’ She stayed committed to her animal foundation until her death in 2019 and loved reading and answering her fan mail. Every year on her birthday, a growing fan base would gather in Carmel to celebrate their icon’s life. In her final years, she admitted that her status as a national treasure was ‘so delightful’ it made her cry. In the end, the love Doris felt from her son, her animals and her fans brought her the happiness and warmth she had always longed for.

The sources for this article are Doris Day: Her Own Story by A.E. Hotchner, Doris Day: Sentimental Journey by Garry McKee, Doris Day: A Reluctant Star by David Bret, People.com, and PageSix.com.

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— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Arancha’s Lives Behind the Legends Articles Here.

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.

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Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Eternally Glamorous Gloria Swanson

Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Eternally Glamorous Gloria Swanson

If you hear the words “glamour” and “movie star,” which famous name comes to mind? Chances are someone like Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren. Or perhaps – hopefully! – you thought of Gloria Swanson. Heck, her name even sounds like “glamour”. For a small gal (she was about 5’ 2”, and didn’t mind joking about it), she left a big legacy.

Gloria Swanson Headshot
Gloria Swanson

A former “military brat” growing up around various army bases, by the time Swanson was a teenager her family was living in Chicago. She developed a crush on screen heartthrob Francis X. Bushman, which gave her Aunt Inga the idea of taking her on a tour of Bushman’s Chicago-based Essanay studio. This was a dream come true to young Swanson, and delightfully, it led to another dream also coming true. Swanson, who had decided to doll herself up, was spotted by an Essanay casting director and he allowed her to do a walk-on role in a Gerda Holmes film. Meeting Essanay’s approval, she was then hired as a bit player and extra. The girl’s life-long career had begun.

Gloria Swanson Young
Gloria as a young girl.

Deciding to drop out of school and work in “moving pictures” full time, she stayed busy at Essanay and was soon graduating to larger roles. In 1915 she acted in the comedy Sweedie Goes to College starring Wallace Beery (known today as one of the silent screen’s go-to villains). When Beery was hired by Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio in Los Angeles, Swanson also headed west. She and Beery married in 1916.

Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery at Essanay Studio
Swanson and Wallace Beery at Essanay Studio.

The marriage didn’t last long–Swanson had regrets about the mismatched union almost immediately–and Beery only worked in a few films at Keystone before being fired. But happily, Swanson was a hit at Keystone. She was costarred with the equally diminutive Bobby Vernon in comic romances such as The Nick of Time Baby and Teddy at the Throttle (both 1917). And contrary to popular legend, she had never been one of the Sennett Bathing Beauties – frequently-circulated photos of her in an old-timey bathing suit were publicity for her starring role in The Pullman Bride (1917) (Bathing Beauties always acted as an uncredited group).

Gloria Swanson with Reggie Morton and Bobby Vernon in A Social Club (1916).
Gloria Swanson with Reggie Morton and Bobby Vernon in A Social Club (1916).

While she was popular, the lofty-minded Swanson disliked the Sennet slapstick and aspired to more “moonlight and magnolias” types of roles – in later years she drily said, “In those days, I was rather a prissy young lady.” She got her chance in Triangle’s 1918 dramas Her Decision and You Can’t Believe Everything. These films caught the attention of legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, who offered her a contract. Moonlight and magnolias were finally within reach.

Gloria Swanson Fashion
Gloria in her element.

DeMille would direct six of her films, where she often starred alongside matinee idol Thomas Meighan. These light comedy-dramas, centered around romantic complications, were set in wealthy homes and featured ballgowns and pricey parties aplenty. Swanson proved game for more than posing in elegant frocks, too–in a fantasy sequence in Male and Female (1919), she insisted on acting in a dangerous scene with a real lion. Under DeMille’s direction, she quickly attained her rightful place as one of the 1920s’ biggest movie stars.

Of her many popular 1920s features, noteworthy appearances included sharing the screen with Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922), starring in the French-American Madame Sans-Gêne (1925) filmed at historic Napoleon-related sites, and starring in the eyebrow-raising Sadie Thompson (1928), filmed by her own Gloria Swanson Productions. The latter became noteworthy for the number of curse words lip-reading moviegoers were able to spot.

Gloria Swanson with Rudolph Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922)
With Valentino in Beyond the Rocks (1922).

Swanson was not only known for her beauty and talent, but her extravagant lifestyle befitting one of the Jazz Age’s most bankable stars. She was said to receive 10,000 fan letters a week and had a mansion in Beverly Hills staffed with a dozen servants. She recalled later on: “We lived like kings and queens, and why not? We were in love with life…We had just fought the war that was to end all wars, and everyone believed there was nothing but peace and pleasure ahead.”

Gloria Swanson in The Impossible Mrs. Bellew (1922)
An exceptionally glamorous still from The Impossible Mrs. Bellew (1922).

Her personal life also frequently made the gossip columns, since she would marry six times in all. One marriage was to a marquis (albeit not a wealthy one), and in between husbands she was usually involved in affairs (both real and rumored). Her final and longest-lasting marriage was to William Dufty in 1976, which would last until her death.

As talkies became popular at the end of the 1920s she attempted a final silent: Queen Kelly, directed by Erich von Stroheim. The expensive production was riddled with problems, including long hours and Swanson’s objections to unnecessary innuendo and a “grim” storyline set in Africa. Stroheim was eventually let go and an edited, milder Queen Kelly would have a limited release in 1932.

Gloria Swanson Queen Kelly Sunset Boulevard
A scene from Queen Kelly later used in Sunset Boulevard.

With her busy career finally winding down throughout the 1930s, Swanson began to make fewer screen appearances and turn her attention to other pursuits. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, she was an avid painter and sculptor, designed clothing, appeared on radio and on the stage, advocated for healthy lifestyles (she was a vegetarian), was a politically active Republican, and even hosted her own television show, The Gloria Swanson Hour. Always staying busy, in 1954 she also distributed a newsletter called Gloria Swanson’s Diary.

In 1950 she was offered a prominent role: the aging former silent film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Swanson was game to play the role, which other former silent-era actresses had turned down and threw herself into it. Surreally, Erich von Stroheim played her butler, and in one scene he runs a projector so Norma can give a showing of Queen Kelly. Her “comeback” of sorts (maybe we should call it a return) earned her an Academy Award nomination.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) cast
Posing with the stars of Sunset Boulevard.

For the remainder of her career, Swanson would frequently appear on talk shows and make appearances in television shows like Burke’s Law and The Beverly Hillbillieswhile not appearing on the stage. Her final film appearance was as herself in the hit drama Airport 1975 (1974). She and her husband William Dufty would also give talks about nutrition, especially macrobiotic diets. After a full and busy life, she passed away in 1983 at a New York City hospital from heart disease. An icon in her time, she remains so today, an elegant symbol of the glamour Hollywood used to have.

Gloria Swanson Roxy Theater The Love of Sunya (1927)
Posing amid the ruins of the Roxy Theater. The first film the 1920s-era theater had played was Swanson’s The Love of Sunya (1927).

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

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.

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Silver Screen Standards: Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Silver Screen Standards: Dangerous When Wet (1953)

Dangerous When Wet (1953) Movie Poster
Williams was at the height of her career as the star of MGM’s “aqua musicals” when she made Dangerous When Wet in 1953.

In June, I was finally able to return to the retirement community where I present classic movie programs for the residents, and I knew that Esther Williams was the perfect star to celebrate summer and the sense of joy we all felt at being able to gather again. We watched three of Williams’ pictures, including Bathing Beauty (1944) and Neptune’s Daughter (1949), but Dangerous When Wet (1953) was the crowd favorite and for good reason. Most of Esther Williams’ movies are fun, light-hearted musical and romantic comedies, but Dangerous When Wet combines all of these elements with a more coherent story that uses Williams’ talents as a swimmer to the fullest. We get a great sports story, plenty of romance with Fernando Lamas, some wonderful family elements, and a fabulous animated sequence that pairs Williams with cartoon stars Tom and Jerry. It’s no wonder that Dangerous When Wet was a box office hit when it first appeared in 1953 and remains a favorite today with classic movie fans.

Dangerous When Wet (1953) Esther Williams Tom and Jerry
The highlight of the movie is an extended dream sequence in which Williams swims with cartoon stars, Tom and Jerry.

While Bathing Beauty and Neptune’s Daughter are both thin on plot and heavy on musical numbers from performers like Xavier Cugat, Dangerous When Wet settles into a proper story about the healthy, happy Higgins family, who run a dairy farm in Arkansas and keep in shape with lots of exercise – especially swimming. Promoter Windy Weebe (Jack Carson) discovers them while hawking a health tonic called Liquapep, and he quickly engineers a scheme in which the Higgins family will travel to England to swim the English Channel as an advertisement for the tonic. Windy has a particular yen for the eldest daughter, Katie (Esther Williams), but while swimming in the heavy English fog Katie meets handsome Frenchman André (Fernando Lamas), who distracts her from training with his ardent attention. When the rest of the Higgins swimmers are disqualified, the family’s hopes and future all depend on Katie successfully completing the grueling Channel swim, especially because her father (William Demarest) has already bought expensive dairy upgrades on credit with the intention of paying for it out of their winnings.

Dangerous When Wet (1953) Jack Carson Liquapep phone
The Higgins family gathers around as Windy (Jack Carson) pitches his promotional idea of them swimming the English Channel to his boss at Liquapep.

Of course, we also get the colorful musical spectacles we expect from an Esther Williams “aqua musical,” although these are less Busby Berkeley style showstoppers and more musical moments woven into the narrative. The movie opens with a song from the Higgins family, “I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side,” which sets the tone and introduces us to this peppy, can-do crew. Barbara Whiting, who plays second daughter Suzie, performs a fun number called “I Like Men” at the Liquapep talent contest, which gives Windy the opportunity to recruit the family for his English Channel scheme. We also have songs featuring Fernando Lamas, including “In My Wildest Dreams” and “Ain’t Nature Grand,” but as handsome as he is the Argentine actor gets upstaged by Tom and Jerry in the extended animated sequence. Like the similar segment in Anchors Aweigh (1945), this portion of the film combines live-action footage of the star with the animated characters and is a crowd-pleasing highlight of the picture. Ironically, the lack of synchronized swimmers and elaborate staging helps us really see and appreciate Esther Williams’ ability to “swim pretty” throughout this part of the movie, and it’s clear that she’s performing underwater and holding her breath for long stretches to get the unbroken takes of her cavorting with her animated companions.

Dangerous When Wet (1953) Esther Williams Swimming Channel
As her worried family watches, Katie (Williams) prepares to swim the icy English Channel with only her goggles and a layer of goose grease to protect her.

Williams is very much the star in her prime, with almost a decade of leading roles behind her after her big breakout appearance in Bathing Beauty, but I really enjoy the supporting cast for this outing, too, especially William Demarest and Charlotte Greenwood as Katie’s loving if somewhat unconventional parents. Greenwood gets a chance to demonstrate her famous long-legged high kicks during the “Ain’t Nature Grand” number, but she’s solid throughout as the mother of the family, while Demarest is typically gruff but lovable as the dad. Fernando Lamas, in real life a champion swimmer and thus a perfect partner for Williams, has such good chemistry with his leading lady that he ended up becoming her third husband in 1969, a union that lasted until his death in 1982. Lamas and Williams have a terrific swimming scene together that cements their rightness as a couple, but the climactic end of the Channel swim adds dramatic emotional realism to their earlier flirtations. You won’t think for a minute that Jack Carson’s Windy is the man for Katie, but he’s more fun when the tables are turned by Denise Darcel as the spunky French swimmer who sets her swim cap at him.

Dangerous When Wet (1953) Hail, Caesar! Scarlett Johansson parody
For a fun homage to and parody of Williams’ aquatic stardom, see Scarlett Johansson in Hail, Caesar! (2016).

While Dangerous When Wet is probably my favorite of the Esther Williams pictures, plenty of her other movies are worthwhile if you’re in the mood for splashy summer romance. See her first real film appearance in Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942) and then the breakout role in Bathing Beauty to understand Williams’ rise to stardom, or go with Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) for other high points in her career. Don’t miss the loving parody of Williams’ unique kind of stardom in the 2016 Coen brothers picture, Hail, Caesar!, in which Scarlett Johansson plays a pregnant swimming star struggling to fit into her spangled mermaid costumes.

— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub

Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.

Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.

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Monster and Matinees: Georges Méliès and the Creation of the First Horror Film

Georges Méliès and the Creation of the First Horror Film

It started with a bat.

And what a perfect opening image it was for the world’s first horror film. After all, the bat has been one of the most iconic images in movies for more than century thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Yet Le Manoir du Diable – also known as The Haunted Castle (U.S.), The Devil’s Castle (Britain) and House of the Devil – was made in 1896, the year before Stoker’s Dracula was published.

The film came from the fertile imagination of the film’s writer, director and star Georges Méliès, a master illusionist and film pioneer who was always ahead of his time. In this case, he not only made the first horror movie, but the first vampire film as well since the bat also transformed into a demon as it would in countless vampire films since.

In a scene played out in horror films for more than 100 years, a crucifix is raised before a demon in the first horror film, the 1896 film Le Manoir du Diable by Georges Méliès.

And let’s go for the horror triumvirate by calling Méliès, the auteur best known for decades of whimsical fantasy films, the first horror film director. (There would be other “firsts” for Méliès, not the least of which was making the first sci-fi film, A Trip to the Moon in 1902.)

That’s a lot of accolades for a film that barely clocks in at 3 minutes, but had a starring role in film history.

This would not have been the case except for a simple twist of fate involving a jammed camera. To get to that tale, we must first know more about Georges Méliès. Here is the shortest biography you will ever read about him.

Georges Méliès was a master illusionist who took what he did on stage and transformed it to the screen.

Méliès was born in Paris in 1861 and showed an interest in the arts, including puppetry, as a child. His father owned a footwear factory and Georges was expected to follow in the family business. Sent to London for an apprenticeship in textiles and to learn English, he found a city filled with magic shows and returned to Paris obsessed with them. He studied and experimented while working for his father. When his father retired in 1888, he sold his share of the business to his brothers to buy the famous house of illusion Thêatre Robert-Houdin, where he created his own magic shows. And he was excellent at it.

In less than a decade, however, a demonstration of the Lumière Brothers cinematograph (a camera and projector) in 1895 changed his life. Soon Méliès was taking the illusions he crafted for the stage and transforming them on screen, creating the “cinema spectacle” and becoming the father of special effects, thanks again to that jammed camera.

Here’s what happened.

Méliès was filming a street scene in Paris when his camera momentarily stuck. Later while editing the film, Méliès was surprised to see there was a shift in the location of objects including a Madeleine-Bastille bus that turned into a hearse with a family following behind. The accident would be known as the camera freeze, becoming the first cinematic special effect and one Méliès exhaustively used in creating his worlds of fantasy.

That’s what he did in Le Manoir du Diable as all sorts of people and props appeared and disappeared as he stopped and restarted the camera.

That flying bat in the opening seconds turns into a demon with dark powers before our eyes. He conjures a small assistant and a cauldron from which a woman rises in a billow of smoke. Two men arrive but one is driven off by fear, while the other stays and is taunted by demonic activity. A skeleton turns into bat then the demon. A beautiful woman becomes a hag, and specters and witches appear. Those effects are all packed in under 3 minutes – imagine what Méliès would have done with another minute!

Is our first horror film horrifying? Not to today’s audiences. But in 1896, movies were under 30 seconds long and showed real-life images like a train famously moving toward them in L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat by the Lumière Brothers. (Two of the earliest shorts by Méliès were called Playing Cards and Watering the Flowers for a very good reason.)

In the Georges Méliès short film Le Manoir du Diable, a skeleton suddenly appears on a bench which must have been a terrifying sight for 1896 moviegoers.

For those audiences, watching a “long,” 3-minute film with a demon making things appear and disappear would have been terrifying.

But it’s doubtful Méliès was looking to scare people. Judging by his decades of work on stage and film, you can see how he enchanted audiences with illusion and fantasy. In fact, these early Méliès films were considered horror comedies through their use of pantomime and gags (a man getting poked with a pitchfork in the rear will always get laugh). Yet the film carries imagery still familiar in horror films today like the shadow of a cross on a wall and what appear to be vampire brides in long white coverings stalking a man.

Méliès would make more than 500 films in his career that was unfortunately filled with as many lows as highs while the infant film industry was finding its way. In 1923 he became so despondent over what was happening to his films, that he burned most of the negatives stored at his studio in Montreuil, a suburb outside Paris. Thankfully, preservation efforts have uncovered about 200 films.

One of those was Le Manoir du Diable, which was discovered in 1988 at the New Zealand Film Archives. We owe the person who originally bought it in a junk shop around the 1930s or ‘40s in Christchurch, New Zealand a debt of gratitude for finding the world’s first horror film.

* * * *

To learn more about Méliès, his career and the search for his films, watch the excellent new documentary The Méliès Mystery, which recently had its U.S. premiere as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

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More from the horror master

Méliès churned out an incredible 81 shorts in 1896, the year he made
Le Manoir du Diable. Here are a few of his other “horror” works he filmed around the same time.

Une nuit terrible (A Terrible Night), 1896. A man (Méliès) fights a giant bug in his bed.

L’auberge ensorcelee (Bewitched Inn), 1897. A hotel guest (Méliès) is haunted by a mischievous spirit.

La Caverne maudite (The Cave of the Demons), 1898. Translated into the “accursed cave,” a woman stumbles into a cave with spirits of those who died there. This presumably lost film marked the first film Méliès used double exposure.

Le Diable Geant ou Le Miracle de la Madone (The Devil and the Statue), 1901. A young maiden attacked by the devil prays to a statue of the Madonna to save her while her love is trapped outside by barred windows.

In the Georges Méliès short, La Chaudron Infernal (The Infernal Cauldron), the devil sacrifices three women who then rise from the dead in visions of white.

Le Chaudron Infernal (The Infernal Cauldron), 1903. Satan sacrifices three young women into a fiery cauldron but when their spirits rise from the dead, they turn the tables on him.

Damnation of Faust. Méliès filmed multiple versions of the story of Faust including in 1903 and 1904, and impressively used such techniques as dissolves, pyrotechnics and superimposition.

 Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.

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. 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.

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What’s Streaming in July on the CMH Channel at BCE? The Proud Rebel, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Captain Kidd

Our July Picks on the Classic Movie Hub Channel
July Birthdays and Fan Favorites!

Here we go… This month’s free streaming picks for our Classic Movie Hub Channel at Best Classics Ever (BCE) – the mega streaming channel for classic movies and TV shows!

These titles will be 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 July Birthdays, we’re featuring the lovely and talented Olivia de Havilland (born Jul 1, 1916 in Tokyo, Japan) with Michael Curtiz’s The Proud Rebel, co-starring Alan Ladd. We’re also celebrating Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday (born Jul 16, 1907 in Brooklyn, NY) with the critically-acclaimed film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, directed by Lewis Milestone. We’ll also be featuring films starring Charles LaughtonJames Cagney and William Powell, born Jul 1, 1899, Jul 17, 1899 and Jul 29, 1892, respectively.

the proud rebel
captain kidd

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We’re also celebrating Fan Favorites this month with some personal favorites 🙂

my favorite brunette
and then there were none movie poster
a star is born janet gaynor

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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.

Hope you enjoy!

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–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in Best Classics Ever BCE, Posts by Annmarie Gatti, Streaming Movies & TV Shows | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Noir Nook: Uncommon Ladies of Noir – Susan Hayward

Noir Nook: Uncommon Ladies of Noir – Susan Hayward

Susan Hayward
Susan Hayward

Susan Hayward has long been one of my favorite actresses. When I was growing up, I thrilled with her performances in such films as Smash Up: The Story of a Woman (1947), for which she earned her first of five Oscar nominations; I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1951), where she starred as a ruthlessly ambitious fashion designer; and I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955), based on the life of singer Lillian Roth. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that she had quite a presence in the realm of film noir, with appearances in four features from the era: Among the Living (1941), Deadline at Dawn (1946), They Won’t Believe Me (1947), and House of Strangers (1949). This month’s Noir Nook shines the spotlight on this talented, versatile, and often-underrated actress.

Hayward was born Edythe Marrenner in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York. At the age of seven, she was hit by a car, suffering a fractured hip. Although her doctors predicted that she would never walk again, the future star was able to get around on crutches after six months and a year later, she returned to school. The accident left her with one leg shorter than the other – she wore a lift in one shoe, contributing to the sexy, strutting walk that would become her trademark in years to come.

Edythe showed an early affinity for acting, performing in numerous plays at Girls Commercial High School, and started her career as a model for the Walter Thornton Agency. Shortly after she was featured in a spread in the Saturday Evening Post, she signed a test contract with Selznick Studios and became one of the countless young women who tried out of the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind(1939) The part, of course, ultimately went to Vivien Leigh, but Edythe was undaunted. She boarded a train to California and before long had engaged an agent, signed a six-month contract with Warner Bros., and changed her name to Susan Hayward.

Although she was dropped by Warner’s at the end of her contract, Hayward was snapped up by Paramount, where she appeared in a small but memorable role in Beau Geste (1939) and a couple of programmers before entering the shadowy world of noir.

Among the Living (1941)

Susan Hayward and Albert Dekker in Among the Living (1941)
Susan Hayward and Albert Dekker in Among the Living (1941)

Released near the start of the noir era, Among the Living stars Albert Dekker in a dual role as twins – John Raden is a millionaire and his brother, Paul, who was thought to have died in his childhood, is a criminally insane serial killer. Hayward plays Millie Perkins, whose father owns the boarding house where Paul rents a room. Unaware that Paul is a killer, Millie uses her flirtatious ways to solicit his help in securing the reward for finding the murderer – who everyone thinks is John.

Deadline at Dawn (1946)

Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas in Deadline at Dawn (1946)
Susan Hayward and Paul Lukas in Deadline at Dawn (1946)

In this feature, Bill Williams is Alex Winkley, a naïve sailor on a 24-hour leave who finds himself in hot water when he learns that a woman he encountered while drunk has turned up dead. Alex enlists cynical-but-good-hearted dance hall girl June Goth (Hayward) to help him track down the killer. (A bit of trivia – and who doesn’t love trivia? – Bill Williams later married actress Barbara Hale, of Perry Mason fame, and the couple had three children, one of which was William Katt, who would later star in the 1976 horror classic Carrie and on TV’s Greatest American Hero. You’re welcome. Back to Susan.)

They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

Robert Young and Susan Hayward in They Won't Believe Me (1947)
Robert Young and Susan Hayward in They Won’t Believe Me (1947)

I was always fond of this noir-with-a-twist, but I liked it even more after seeing it with 20 minutes of restored footage as part of the 2021 TCM Virtual Film Festival. In this film, Hayward is Verna Carlson, one of three women involved with womanizing – and very married – stockbroker Larry Ballentine (Robert Young). Most of the film is presented in flashback, as we learn from Ballentine the circumstances that led to him being on trial for the murder of his wife.

House of Strangers (1950)

Richard Conte and Susan Hayward in House of Strangers (1950)
Richard Conte and Susan Hayward in House of Strangers (1950)

Richard Conte stars here as Max Monetti, whose bank owner father, Gino (Edward G. Robinson), and three brothers comprise the strangers of the film’s title. When Gino is arrested for his often illegal banking practices, Max is the only son to come to his father’s aid – but his methods land him in prison. As Max’s girlfriend, Hayward is devoted and passionate, but also strong-willed and independent – just what Max needs after a seven-year stint in the pokey.

Away from the big screen, Hayward was married for 10 years to actor Jess Barker; the couple had two children, but by all accounts, the union was a stormy one. Hayward fared far better with her second marriage, to Floyd Eaton Chalkley, an attorney and former FBI man from Carrollton, Georgia; they were together from 1957 to 1966, when Chalkley died of hepatitis. In 1973, Hayward’s son, Tim, revealed that she was suffering from several inoperable brain tumors and was only expected to live another six months. Like the strong-willed little girl who’d been told she would never walk, Hayward proved the doctors wrong; a year later, she appeared as a presenter at the 1974 Academy Awards, and she hung on nearly a year after that, finally succumbing on March 14, 1975, at the age of 56.

Hayward herself once summed up the determined, unyielding persona that propelled her to fame and saw her receive numerous accolades throughout her career, including the Academy Award for Best Actress for I Want to Live! In 1958: “I had to slug my way up in a town called Hollywood where people love to trample you to death. I don’t relax because I don’t know how. I don’t want to know how.

“Life is too short to relax.”

– 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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Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It – Book Giveaway (July)

“Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It”
We have Four Books to Giveaway this Month!

CMH is happy to announce our next Classic Movie Book Giveaway as part of our partnership with University Press of Kentucky! This time, we’ll be giving away FOUR COPIES of “Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It” by Eve Golden, in celebration of the book’s release just a few days ago, on June 29th!

And — please join us on July 11th for our next Screen Classics Discussion Video Series Event with University Press of Kentucky and co-host Aurora from Once Upon a Screen, in which author Eve Golden will be discussing the book! It will be a live Facebook Chat, so you’ll be able to comment and ask questions!

In the meantime, please don’t forget to check out our other author discussions in the series, embedded for your convenience way down near the bottom of this post: “Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio,“Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend” and “Growing Up Hollywood”.

jayne mansfield the girl couldn't help it

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In order to qualify to win this book via this contest giveaway, you must complete the below entry task by Saturday, July 31 at 6PM EST. Winners will be chosen via random drawings.

We will announce our four lucky winners on Twitter @ClassicMovieHub on Sunday, August 1, around 9PM EST. And, please note that you don’t have to have a Twitter account to enter; just see below for the details.

To recap, there will be FOUR WINNERS, chosen by random, all to be announced on August 1st.

jayne mansfield edmond o'brien tom ewell the girl can't help it
Edmond O’Brien, Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell in The Girl Can’t Help It

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And now on to the contest!

ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday, July 31, 2021 at 6PM EST

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

2) Then TWEET (not DM) the following message*:
Just entered to win the “Jayne Mansfield: The Girl Couldn’t Help It” #BookGiveaway courtesy of @KentuckyPress & @ClassicMovieHub – #EnterToWin http://www.classicmoviehub.com/blog/jayne-mansfield-the-girl-couldnt-help-it-book-giveaway-july/

THE QUESTION:
What is your favorite Jayne Mansfield film and why? And, if you’re not familiar with Jayne’s movies, why do you want to win this book?

*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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Classic Movie Hub chat with author Eve Golden
Join us on Sunday, July 11 at 9pm ET (6pm PT) for a Facebook Live Chat with Author Eve Golden

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If you missed our other chats in the Screen Classics Discussion Series, you can catch them on Facebook and YouTube:

Vitagraph: America’s First Great Motion Picture Studio – with Author Andrew Erish:

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Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend – with Author Christina Rice:

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Growing Up Hollywood with Victoria Riskin and William Wellman Jr:

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About the Book: In the first definitive biography of Mansfield, Eve Golden offers a joyful account of the star Andy Warhol called “the poet of publicity,” revealing the smart, determined woman behind the persona. While she always had her sights set on the silver screen, Mansfield got her start as Rita Marlowe in the Broadway show Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?. She made her film debut in the low-budget drama Female Jungle (1955) before landing the starring role in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956). Mansfield followed this success with a dramatic role in The Wayward Bus(1957), winning a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year, and starred alongside Cary Grant in Kiss Them for Me (1957). Despite her popularity, her appearance as the first celebrity in Playboy and her nude scene in Promises! Promises! (1963) cemented her reputation as an outsider.

Sophia Lauren shoots Jayne the world's most famous side-eye, April 12, 1957
Sophia Lauren shoots Jayne the world’s most famous side-eye, April 12, 1957

By the 1960s, Mansfield’s film career had declined, but she remained very popular with the public. She capitalized on that popularity through in-person and TV appearances, nightclub appearances, and stage productions. Her larger-than-life life ended sadly when she passed away at age thirty-four in a car accident. Golden looks beyond Mansfield’s flashy public image and tragic death to fully explore her life and legacy. She discusses Mansfield’s childhood, her many loves―including her famous on-again, off-again relationship with Miklós “Mickey” Hargitay―her struggles with alcohol, and her sometimes tumultuous family relationships. She also considers Mansfield’s enduring contributions to American popular culture and celebrity culture. This funny, engaging biography offers a nuanced portrait of a fascinating woman who loved every minute of life and lived each one to the fullest.

Click here for the full contest rules. 

Please note that only United States (excluding the territory of Puerto Rico) and Canada entrants are eligible.

Good Luck!

And if you can’t wait to win the book, you can purchase them on amazon by clicking below:

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–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in Books, Contests & Giveaways | Tagged , | 15 Comments

Classic Conversations: Debbie Wileman Channels Judy Garland Like No One Else

Debbie Wileman as the incomparable Judy Garland

The COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for the entire planet, to say the least, but it has also produced some unexpected gifts. If not for the pandemic, a British woman named Debbie Wileman, who hadn’t sung professionally in years, would never have started her “A Song a Day” project on Facebook where she simply wanted to entertain her friends in lockdown. To Debbie’s shock and surprise, her videos began to go viral, turning countless people around the world into avid fans who looked forward to her incredible videos. Debbie has a gorgeous voice that she uses to sing a range of songs — as herself and in the style of various singers including Shirley Bassey, Dusty Springfield, Cass Elliott, Janis Joplin, Barbra Streisand, and Marilyn Monroe. But it is Debbie’s ability to take on the persona of her lifelong idol, Judy Garland, that really got the Internet buzzing. It’s an astounding recreation that borders on channeling. I was thrilled to talk to the delightful Debbie Wileman by phone from her home north of London. 

Danny Miller: Debbie, I can’t begin to tell you how much pleasure you’ve given me and my family over the past year. To get my kvelling out of the way, I’ve seen many amazing singers, I’ve seen lots of people do tributes to Judy Garland, but there’s just nobody that can compare to what you do, it’s pretty insane. I love when you sing as yourself, I love your tributes to other singers, but your Judy Garland videos are just astounding. Before you started doing these videos during the pandemic, you were singing all the time, right?

Debbie Wileman: I mean, not really. To be honest, just in the shower for myself, and I hadn’t been doing the Judy Garland singing for ages. 

That’s incredible. In addition to your amazing voice, what kills me is that you seem to get every speech pattern, every nuance down perfectly. Have you been studying Judy for years?

It started when I was at university getting a performing arts degree. At the end of my three-year course, you could write a thesis or put on a performance. I just thought, “Ooh, what would I like to do?” Well, I loved Judy Garland and decided to write a play where I’d get to be Judy Garland so I could sing her songs. That’s when I really started watching her very closely. I was already a huge fan, obviously. I had watched all of her films and her TV shows, and had loved her since I was six. It was my Nana who introduced me to her originally, we both shared a love of Old Hollywood, and I used to try to sing like Judy when I was a little girl to make my Nana laugh. But that was just the singing, it was only when I decided to do this play that I started studying her mannerisms.

Did anything happen with that play?

Yes, I did it at this small theater that was part of my university — this was the University of Salford in Manchester. Someone from a gay bar theatre in Manchester saw it and asked me if I’d like to make it a bit longer and perform it there. So I wrote a bit more and did it for a week. I was 21 at the time. And then I got a chance to do it at a few other places including London at the King’s Head Theatre in London. It was a lot of fun. 

Did this lead to other acting and singing engagements? 

Some, but unfortunately I just didn’t get enough work to make a living. I tried for a few years but I’m not from a rich family or anything and I just couldn’t afford to keep doing it. I had to go and get a job and that was it, really. I haven’t done much singing for years because I was an honest working stiff as they say!

And then when the pandemic happened, you just had the idea to start putting some videos out?

Yeah, it was when everyone was in lockdown last year. It was a really scary time and so many people were by themselves. I just thought, well, it might be nice to sing a song on Facebook every day, just for my few friends. It would give me something to do and it might be nice for people who were isolating by themselves. I had no idea that anything would come of it — I really doubt that I would have done it if I had known. I would have thought it was a bit cringe-o, if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t have put myself out there like, “Look at me, world, I’m singing a song!” If not for the pandemic, I never would have done any of this. 

Wow. And how long did it take before you realized your videos were really catching on and spreading like wildfire?

 It was so crazy. The first one I did was just me singing a Johnny Mathis song. Then I think I did the Etta James song, “At Last.” And then on Day 3, I thought, oh, go on, I’ll go find my old Judy wig that’s somewhere in the attic, and I’ll sing “The Man That Got Away.” Why not, that will be fun! 

And that’s the first one that went viral?

Well, I had the idea to share it with the Judy Garland group on Facebook and that’s what did it. I suddenly started getting all of these friend requests, and not knowing any better, I just accepted them all. “You want to be my friend? Sure, okay, accept, accept, accept!” I didn’t know who any of them were. It was mostly excellent but I did get a few unsolicited ‘images’ coming my way!

Oh my, is nothing sacred?

Judy Garland with John Meyer

I know! All these people friended me but I had no clue who they were. For example, I had no idea that the person I had accepted called John Meyer was THE John Meyer, the man who had dated Judy Garland in the 60s! Much later, when I did Judy’s “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning,” he commented on that post and I couldn’t believe he was already my friend! I sent him a photo of me reading his book, Heartbreaker!

I remember the first time I saw someone post a link to one of your Judy videos. To be honest, my first thought was, “Oh, no, not another one! Who is this woman and how dare she think she could perform as Judy Garland!”

(Laughs.) I’m exactly the same! Very protective of Judy!

And then when I watched it I thought, “Oh, she must by lip-syncing.” When I realized that was actually your voice, I thought, “Oh, this is something different!” I’ve watched every video since. I love watching you get into character. It reminds me, forgive me, of someone like Sybil when she’s transforming into one of her other personalities and you just see that change come over her face, like she’s accepting another entity into her body. Does it feel like that for you? Or can you just pop into it without any notice at all?

[switching to perfect Judy Garland voice] Well, no, Danny, it just kind of happens, I can’t really explain it. I have to think about it a little bit but not that much!

Oh my God, I’m talking to Judy Garland! Goosebumps! I love all your Judy videos but the one I saw the other day when you’re singing “Happy Harvest” from Summer Stock sitting in the tractor may have been my favorite, including your young daughter’s cameo. How the hell did you find that tractor that was so much like the one Judy is sitting in for that song?

I live in North Essex, just above London, and were driving to the next village one day when I saw this tractor in the park and I thought, “Ooh, I have to use that!” Now I’m constantly looking for things that I can use as props for these songs. I was visiting my parents on the South Coast last summer and discovered this miniature steam railway down there. I spoke to the woman who ran it and asked her if I could record a video on it. She said it would be fine but then we had another lockdown and a bunch of new restrictions in the UK so I haven’t been able to do it yet, but I still plan to. That’s a bit of a spoiler alert, I think you can guess what song that will be! 

Then you pull that throttle, whistle blows
Huffing and puffing and away she goes
All aboard for California
On the Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe!

I can’t wait! I notice that when you’re speaking as Judy, it’s usually Judy in the 1960s, but I love how you can change your voice depending on what era you’re trying to emulate. Have you done any of the songs she sang as a young girl in the 1930s?

Not too many of the songs when she was properly young which is good because I still have a lot more to do. I have done “I’m Nobody’s Baby” and “But Not for Me” and I even did those in black and white for the effect!

As the pandemic begins to recede, you have to start doing live performances. Could you imagine doing a whole evening as Judy?

Yeah, of course, I would love it! I did it in my early twenties and I think I’ve gotten better at it since I’m older now and my voice has matured.

I assume you’ve seen the play End of the Rainbow, and the film Judy?

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the doom and gloom aspects that always seem so popular when people do things about Judy. It’s always very tragic and miserable and I’m like, “No!” Every person I’ve spoken to that knew her has said how fun she was and she wasn’t in any way a tragic figure. 

That’s exactly the message that her good friend Dottie Ponedel wanted to get across and why her niece Meredith Ponedel and I published the book About Face, about Dottie’s friendship with Judy. 

Debbie reading About Face

Yes, I always heard that she was such a fantastic friend and so warm and fun. That’s why I hate the doom and gloom portrayals. Yes, it’s sad that she died so young but she was so funny and talented and great and witty that you want to celebrate that. I think that would make a much more entertaining film.

Does the thought of hearing from any of her children make you nervous? 

Not nervous, I would be overjoyed! I think Liza is absolutely brilliant, I love her and have seen her in concert twice. Apart from the Judy connection, Cabaret is one of my favorite films ever. Even if she wasn’t Judy Garland’s daughter I would still absolutely adore Liza Minnelli, so if I ever did hear from her that would be brilliant. I know that all of the children are understandably a bit wary about people doing their mum, which is completely fair, but I would hope that if they ever did hear me, they’d know that it was done with so much love and respect.

I love your Liza songs as well on your videos! 

If I put you on the spot and said, what are your three favorite Judy Garland movies off the top of your head, what would you say?

Easter Parade, definitely, that is my favorite. Next, I Could Go On Singing, possibly because I’m a Londoner and I love it, and third, probably Summer Stock!

All excellent choices, although her final film, I Could Go On Singing, is a bit of an outlier. Are there other classic movie stars that you’re obsessed with?

Oh, lots, but the biggest for me are definitely Judy and Marilyn. I really love Marilyn Monroe.

Oh, let’s see one of your Marilyn songs!

You did a song a day for a while but now you’re doing three a week, which is still a lot!

Yes, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. I usually do them at night after my daughter goes to sleep. Which is why I often end up doing them from my car because my neighbor complains. 

He complains? If you were my neighbor I’d set my clock to your performances and invite people over to listen!

Oh, they don’t like it if it gets too late! So I have to get into my car and drive to an empty car park. I got stopped by the police once. I was dressed as Judy with the wig and full makeup and I had a skipping rope I was using as my long corded microphone! The police officer knocked on my window — he was very suspicious because, as I later found out, there are a lot of naughty goings-on in small Essex car parks! Who knew? [switches to Judy voice] “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!” 

I hope that when the officer knocked on your window that you spoke to him as Judy Garland,

Oh, I wish I had! He was like, “What are you doing in there?” And I said “Well, I’m singing a song and recording myself.” And he said, “What?”

I love it! 

You have to be very resourceful dong this work with no budget!

I just saw the great video you did for “The Boy Next Door” from Meet Me in St. Louis. It looked like you had a full costume for that one. 

Look closer, Danny, that bow I’m wearing is made out of toilet paper!

Oh, the glamour! 

Check out Debbie Wileman’s fantastic YouTube Channel. My fantasy is that she’ll be invited to next year’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood to help celebrate Judy Garland’s 100th birthday! 

….. 

–Danny Miller for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Danny’s Classic Conversation Articles Here

Danny Miller is a freelance writer, book editor, and co-author of  About Face: The Life and Times of Dottie Ponedel, Make-up Artist to the StarsYou can read more of Danny’s articles at Cinephiled, or you can follow him on Twitter at @dannymmiller

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Classic Movie Travels: Vernon & Irene Castle

Classic Movie Travels: Vernon & Irene Castle

Vernon & Irene Castle
Vernon & Irene Castle

Long before Fred and Ginger, Vernon and Irene Castle were lauded as an exceptionally talented dancing duo. Though a tragedy ended their partnership, their influence as dancers as well as Irene’s activism continues to live on.

Irene Foote was born on April 17, 1893, in New Rochelle, New York. Her father was a physician and her mother was a homemaker. As Foote grew, she developed an interest in dancing and studied the art, participating in a variety of performances before meeting established dancer and comedian Vernon Blyth. The two were introduced at the New Rochelle Rowing Club and, with his influence, Foote was hired for her first professional dancing role in “The Summer Widowers.” Their friendship quickly blossomed into a romance, leading them to be married on May 28, 1911, in New Rochelle.

Blyth worked under the stage name of Vernon Castle, which Irene adopted as they began performing together. They worked in The Hen-Pecks (1911) and toured Paris, performing numerous American ragtime dances, including the Turkey Trot and Grizzly Bear. They returned to New York with great fanfare, finding that they were in high demand on the stage as well as in films. They appeared on Broadway regularly, including roles in Irving Berlin’s Watch Your Step (1914), for which he wrote his first score with the Castles in mind. Along the way, the Castles popularized the Foxtrot.

A young Vernon & Irene
A young Vernon & Irene

In the same year, the Castles opened “Castle House” in New York, which was their dancing school. They also opened up a restaurant called Sans Souci as well as the Castles by the Sea nightclub in Long Beach, New York. During the day, they would teach at Castle House, while by night, they would perform at their nightclub. In addition, they offered private lessons and appearances at parties.

Irene Castle fashion trendsetter
Irene was noted as a fashion trendsetter of the time

In addition to their success as a team, the Castles made close dancing respectable to the tune of ragtime and jazz. Irene even became a popular fashion trendsetter, showcasing short, full skirts and loose corsets and frequently designing clothes herself. She is also credited with bringing the bob to America.

Though Vernon and Irene never had children, they loved animals and had numerous pets. Many of these animals were performing animals that they rescued. Among their many pups — including a beloved dog named Zowie — was also a pet monkey. They eventually purchased an estate near the Long Island Sound with kennels and stables for their 24 dogs, 5 horses, a donkey, and many more animals.

Irene and her beloved dog, Zowie
Irene and her beloved dog, Zowie

Unfortunately, Vernon died in a plane crash at the age of 30 after sailing to England to enlist as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during World War I. During training over Benbrook Field in Texas, his plane stalled and he was not able to regain control. Irene wrote My Husband as a tribute to Vernon.

Irene would marry three more times after Vernon, having two children with Fredric McLaughlin, founding owner of the Chicago Blackhawks. Upon relocating to Chicago, Irene was credited with designing the original sweater for the Blackhawks Hockey Club.

Beyond dancing, Irene heavily invested herself in animal rights activism. She founded Orphans of the Storm animal shelter, named after D.W. Griffith‘s Orphans of the Storm (1921), in Deerfield, Illinois, aiming to save the lives of Chicago animals and place them in loving homes.

Irene Castle and some of her many rescued pets
Irene and some of her many rescued pets

Irene passed away at the age of 75 in her Arkansas home on January 25, 1959. Vernon and Irene are buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in New York. At the time of Vernon’s death, Irene posed for the weeping ballet dancer memorial marker, entitled “End of the Day.”

Vernon Castle's grave with a ballet dancer sculpture modeled by Irene
Vernon Castle’s grave with a ballet dancer sculpture modeled by Irene

Today, the Castles are honored in numerous ways. The story of the Castles was turned into a film called The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Though Irene served as a technical advisor for the film, she argued with Rogers, who did not wish to wear Castle’s bob or darken her hair. Castle was also against the casting of white actor Walter Brennan as the Castles’ manservant in the film, who, in real life, was black.

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

The Castles split their time between residences in Long Island and New York City, with a townhouse at 120 Lexington Ave. in New York. Here is the property today:

120 Lexington Ave., New York, NY
120 Lexington Ave., New York, NY

Vernon’s crash site now has a memorial in his honor, located in Benbrook, Texas. It can be located after taking the I-20 exit 429 onto US 337/Benbrook Blvd, heading south a little over a mile, and left onto Sproles Drive.

The memorial at the site of Vernon Castle's fatal plane crash
The memorial at the site of Vernon’s fatal plane crash

In 1954, Irene and her fourth husband relocated to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, living at Destiny Farm. The sign, which Irene helped design, still remains.

Destiny Farm at Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Destiny Farm at Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Seven of Irene’s many pets were buried in the Castle plot at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery in New York. Each pet has a special epitaph. Her beloved Zowie’s reads:

To My Adored Zowie.
I do not cringe from death so much,
Since you are gone, my truest friend,
Thy dear, dumb soul will wait for me.
However long before the end.

Irene Castle's pet cemetery plot in Hartsdale, NY
Irene’s pet cemetery plot in Hartsdale, NY

Orphans of the Storm, Irene’s pride and joy, continues to operate to this day. While their mission is going strong, aside from a short YouTube video, little is celebrated and discussed regarding its history and connection to Castle. My inquiries relating to their history went unanswered and, unfortunately, the name Irene Castle did not seem to ring a bell to the staff. Nonetheless, I think Irene would be pleased to see her work carrying on as animals continue to be adopted from Orphans regularly. Upon my visits, I enjoyed playing with the cats and giving them some extra cuddles–getting pretty attached to one named “Pigeon,” in particular! Sadly, I wasn’t in a place to adopt a pet at the time but I’m happy to say that my favorite cat of the bunch is now in a happy home. (…and I have since adopted a sweet dog!)

Orphans of the Storm cat adoption Pigeon
Meet Pigeon!

Though the Castles may not be discussed quite so often today, their influence in dancing and dedication to the welfare of animals lives on.

–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub

Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. 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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