Silents are Golden: A Closer Look At – Tol’able David (1921)
One of the great joys of American silent film is
not only the “up close and personal” look at times gone by, but seeing how
people regarded even earlier times
gone by. We associate the early to mid-20th century with Americana today, but
during the silent era folks were more likely to associate it with their youth
in the 19th century.
By 1921 innumerable generations of Americans had
grown up in rural areas, or at least had a childhood out on a farm. It was only
recently that 50% of the population had started living in urban areas, and only
3% of American farms had electricity. People had a fondness for old country
traditions as well as a keen nostalgia for a way of life that seemed to be
fading. Children could quote homespun poems by James Whitcomb Riley,
rural-themed plays like Sis Hopkins were
wildly popular, and silent films abounded with quaint settings and comic
This was the type of Americana-infused atmosphere familiar to Henry King when he directed his rural melodrama Tol’able David(1921), certainly one of the great masterpieces of the 1920s. Films like D.W. Griffith’s True Heart Susie(1919) and Way Down East(1920) had paved the way for it, as well as rural-themed light comedies starring Charles Ray. But it was King’s own memories of his childhood in Virginia that gave the film its spirit, which still contributes to its power today.
King had gotten his start with stock companies on the stage and started directing at Pathé. He worked for Thomas Ince and studio Robertson-Cole for a few years and then joined the newly-incorporated Inspiration Company, which was headed by Charles Duell and young actor Richard Barthelmess. Barthelmess was fresh from his success in Way Down East and had just gotten the film rights to Joseph Hergesheimer’s short story “Tol’able David” from Griffith, who had been planning on adapting it to the screen but hadn’t gotten around to it. King was excited about the idea and would later say, “With part of the picture I relived the days of my boyhood.”
While scouting for filming locations King sent
an assistant to charming little Blue Grass, Virginia, located in a nook in the
Shenandoah Valley. He told him exactly what terrain to look for and the type of
split rail fences he wanted for his scenes–King had been born only eight miles
away, just over the Appalachians. The assistant phoned him from the location,
saying, “I stood on top of a hill and I could see everything you told me
about.” Without further ado, King brought his company to Blue Grass and work
began on Tol’able David.
The plot revolved around the theme of family
honor, a concept which feels foreign today but was supremely important in the
lives of the film’s characters. David Kinemon, played by Barthelmess, is the
youngest son of a family of tenant farmers. He wants to be treated like a real
man like his older brother, but he’s gently told he’s “tol’able, just
tol’able.” He also wants to impress the sweet Esther Hatburn (Gladys Hulette)
who lives with her grandfather on a neighboring farm.
The Kinemons’ humble, idyllic way of life begins
to change when the Hatburns’ distant cousins, the thuggish outlaws Iscah
(played by dependable character actor Ernest Torrence) and his grown sons Luke
and “Little Buzzard,” move to the Hatburn farm. Esther and her grandfather are
powerless to stop them, and they soon begin bullying and terrorizing the
Kinemons. They end up killing David’s dog and injuring his older brother,
turning him into a cripple. David’s father intends to avenge the family’s honor
himself, but perishes from a heart attack. This leaves David as the sole man of
the family, and he soon undergoes the ultimate life-or-death challenge to
uphold the Kinemons’ honor.
King greatly enjoyed the production of Tol’able David, as did the local residents who often played extras. He insisted on making it feel as authentic as possible, which at times made him a little at odds with his screenwriter Edmund Goulding, who was British and not as familiar with rural America. King later recalled: “I talked about the boy, the type of person he was, the family he came from. I talked about the family kneeling around the chairs each night, saying their prayers, which was done in my home for as long as I can remember.” He insisted on rewriting parts of the plot, amping up the drama. Goulding was nervous about altering Joseph Hergesheimer’s story, but Hergesheimer himself ended up being very pleased, telling King: “You put into this all the things that I left out.”
Tol’able David turned out to be hugely successful with both critics and audiences, and instantly lauded as a masterpiece. Photoplay magazine voted to give it their 1921 Medal of Honor, and stars like Mary Pickford would call it one of their favorite films. Lillian Gish recalled that Griffith himself, upon seeing it, embraced Barthelmess and “told him, with tears in his eyes, how proud he was.”
Today, Tol’able David is a classic that’s certainly stood the test of time, as powerful and engrossing as it was over a century ago. Even parts that seem melodramatic today, such as the scene where David’s mother stops him from seeking revenge, are strengthened by the actors’ sincerity. It feels as authentic as King had hoped, mixing gritty realism with warm sentiment and beautifully capturing the old barns and green valleys of the Virginia countryside. Above all, it has a reverence for an era long gone, a reverence that will still be apparent to viewers today.
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.
Silver Screen Standards: The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Despite the icy cold shade of Rita Hayworth’s hair, The Lady from Shanghai (1947) plays like a fever dream, confusing and sweat-soaked, long before it reaches its famous funhouse climax. It’s a favorite among classic noir fans even though it suffers from many of the usual problems of an Orson Welles picture, especially studio editing that undermined Welles’ intentions and eliminated huge chunks of the film. Perhaps the problems weaken the final product, and perhaps they only add to its disturbing vision of sharks in the water, mad for fresh blood. There’s so much going on beneath the surface of The Lady from Shanghai, and we only glimpse flashes of that hidden action in the final film, but what we see enthralls and repels us. It is the dark side of the sublime and, thus, the very essence of noir.
Welles is, of course, at the center of the picture, as director, producer, screenplay writer, and star. He plays an Irish sailor, Michael O’Hara, who reluctantly takes a job on the luxury yacht of powerful attorney Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane) after Bannister’s wife, Elsa (Rita Hayworth) takes a liking to him. Elsa entangles Michael in adultery and a plot to escape her husband, while Arthur’s partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) tempts Michael into an even more dangerous scheme that involves faking George’s death and having Michael confess to killing him. Everything goes sideways, as the plans of noir characters always do, and Michael ends up on the run from a murder wrap that threatens to send him to death row.
The third act is littered with plot holes and
questions, but it doesn’t matter because nothing in the film is designed to
make sense. It means to evoke dread and claustrophobia, paranoia and doubt, and
it does that in spades. It’s a post-war American remix of The Odyssey; behold
the weary sailor, far from home, cast upon strange islands and awash in
monsters. We see the name of the yacht, Circe, and then we see Elsa, a
siren on the rocks, beautiful and deadly. Arthur and George are monsters, too,
but less lovely, and the whole picture feels like a trip through the
underworld, especially the bizarre aquarium scene, the courtroom circus, the
pursuit through Chinatown, and the funhouse finale. Even in the sun these
characters seem to inhabit hell; only Elsa ever looks cool.
The performances increase our fascination and
uneasiness, especially Glenn Anders’ utterly unhinged George, whom we often see
in dizzying closeups that emphasize his sweaty face and madly lit eyes.
Arthur’s habit of calling Elsa “lover” drips with irony; there is no love here,
and both of them know it. Arthur’s crutches suggest weakness, but it’s a ruse.
He wields terrible power over both Elsa and George, and he enjoys toying with
them and with Michael. Welles doesn’t have to work very hard to play desire for
and distrust of Hayworth, his wife at the time but well on the way to divorce.
She, luminous in her shockingly short, blonde waves, is a mystery, a menace,
and a tragedy all at once. In the edges of her story we feel that she is more a
monster made than born, cursed perhaps for being too beautiful, like nymphs who
attract the lust of the gods. Who wouldn’t do terrible things to escape a man
like Arthur? The mirror sequence at the end shows the two of them, Arthur and
Elsa, reflected together and taking aim, shooting themselves as they shoot at
each other. Like so many noir couples, they share a fatal connection that ties
them together no matter what schemes they imagine.
Film critic Dave Kehr famously called The Lady from Shanghai “the weirdest great movie ever made,” but if you’re looking for equally strange bedfellows with a similar nightmare vibe I think Night Tide (1961) and Carnival of Souls (1962) both fit the bill. Welles is best remembered today for Citizen Kane (1941), but for more of his noir work see The Stranger (1946), The Third Man (1949), and Touch of Evil (1958). Rita Hayworth is iconic in Gilda (1946), but I love her brighter side in musicals like You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and Cover Girl (1944).
Let’s cast our votes for horror films on the National Film Registry
Every year when the slate of new movies going into the National Film Registry is announced, the list creates a buzz among film buffs.
Not only does the name National Film Registry sound
important, it is important.
Established by Congress with the National Preservation Act of 1988 to “showcase the range and diversity of American film heritage to increase awareness for its preservation,” the Registry works to make sure that a selected title has been or will be preserved for future generations.
Talk of preservation doesn’t matter for a sleek, new film like Jurassic World: Dominion, but it does matter to The Lost World: Jurassic Park, now starting to show its age at 25. It means much more to its distant film relative The Lost World, the 1960 adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel of the same name about adventurers and dinosaurs. And its vitally important for the 1925 Willis O’Brien silent film The Lost World as it approaches its centennial.
The value of preserving that 1925 film as well as Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Jurassic Park is evident in the fact that both are on the National Film Registry for their roles in bringing things to life that we once could only imagine thanks to the groundbreaking techniques created for each movie.
Each year, the National Film Registry selects 25 films for this designation that has been given to 825 titles as of Dec. 14, 2021. Note that it does not need to be a full film to be chosen. The earliest title is a film fragment called Newark Athlete from 1891; the newest is the 2010 documentary Freedom Riders.
The first year of induction was 1989 and included such important and diverse films as Modern Times, Casablanca, Citizen Kane and Star Wars. Those titles provide a clear indication of the qualities that embody the selections each year.
So what does this have to do with Monsters & Matinees
and classic horror films?
Well guess who can play a role in the movies chosen for the Registry? Yes, horror fans, we can.
No need to be an industry insider or member of an “Academy” like those who vote for the Oscars to voice your opinion. While the final decision is made by the Librarian of Congress (such a great job title) who reviews nominated titles and confers with the members of the National Film Preservation Board (NFPB)and Library film curators, “Public nominations play a key role when the Librarian and Film Board are considering their final selection,” according to the Library of Congress FAQ’s.
Since this column is dedicated to classic horror, it’s a
good place to spread the word that we can bring attention to horror films
worthy of being added to the National Film Registry.
When I learned this news, the first thing I did was check to see what horror films were on the Registry. The titles are not broken down by genre, so my search was subjective based on my definition of horror (as it would be for you).
I found 36 horror films on the Registry including a 1928 avant-garde silent version of The Fall of the House of Usher, the Universal great Frankenstein and the important modern horror classics, Jaws, Alienand Silence of the Lambs. I suspect some of you will disagree with the fact that I’ve also included Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Young Frankenstein. Yes they are comedies, but both films add to the rich legacy of the Universal Monsters (albeit with laughter). I did not count some great sci-fi movies because sci-fi and horror are not necessarily interchangeable. So while Forbidden Planet is on the Registry, I don’t count it among the horror films.
Though 36 films seems like a good showing for our favorite genre, we can do better. We have time – the deadline is Aug. 15, 2022 – to nominate more deserving horror titles to earn this honor.
To help, below are three sections: requirements/how to submit titles, a few of the films I will nominate, and horror films on the Registry.
To be eligible, a film must be at least 10 years old and be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Historically the Registry has only included films produced or co-produced “by an American film company or individual, typically for theatrical release or recognized as a film through film festivals or film awards.” (That, horror fans, is why Hammer films can’t be considered.)
Your first thought when perusing the films not on the Registry may be, as it was for me, the fact that so many of your favorites are not listed. I had to remind myself that the Registry isn’t about our favorite films, or even the best ones, but about movies that are bigger than themselves. Let’s use Jurassic Park as an example. Nearly 30 years after its initial release, it continues to spawn film offspring while also creating more technology to make us feel like we are seeing real dinosaurs. Now that’s a legacy.
And that’s part of the reason why Beast from 20,000
Fathoms is tops on my list.
My nominations (so far)
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Beyond being a fun giant creature movie, Beast laid the groundwork for similar creature features that defined the 1950s like Them!and inspired movies for decades including Godzilla. Plus, it was the first solo feature from special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. Without Beast, I shudder to think what films might not have been made including my beloved Tarantula. Speaking of Them! and Tarantula, both big bug movies would be good choices, too.
Blacula (1972). Though it received mixed reviews on its opening, Blacula is groundbreaking in that it featured the first Black vampire on film, started a horror genre for Black characters and may still be the only vampire movie with a funk score. It also included the important issue of slavery with the lead character, an African prince played by William Marshall, sought the help of Count Dracula in suppressing the slave trade. Instead, the Count did what he does and turned the prince into one of the undead. Marshall returned in the sequel Scream Blacula Scream (1973), also notable for starring Pam Grier.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1921). John Barrymore has three films on the Registry but this is not one of them. Instead, the “Great Profile” is represented in Grand Hotel(1932), Twentieth Century (1934) and Midnight(1939) – three deserving films that are all comedies. Barrymore’s dual performances as the title characters in this silent movie are stunning. His initial moments transforming into Hyde are done without any special makeup or film effects. Instead, it’s all him. Watching today, I still can’t grasp how he was able to dramatically draw his facial features so tightly together that they contort into a mask. It remains spectacular more than 100 years later.
The Fly(1958). Even people who admit to not seeing the original version of this tragic horror film have been known to mimic the movie’s iconic cry of “Help me.” For those who have seen the film, those two words uttered more than 70 years ago can still raise a chill on our arms. Made in CinemaScope, with color by Deluxe and a great cast including Vincent Price and Herbert Marshall, The Fly is heads and shoulders above most of the 1950s horror films.
Frankenstein (1910). Edison Studios produced this 16-minute silent that is the first film adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. For that fact alone, it needs to be on the Registry. It’s also a compelling film especially for its time and has a surprisingly powerful end.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)/The Unknown (1927). Lon Chaney earned his nickname of “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his many film innovations and characters. One of his most iconic was in Phantom of the Opera, a 1925 film on the Registry that includes one of the greatest unmaskings on film. There are two other Chaney films I would nominate to be on the Registry: The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Unknown. He was unrecognizable as the sympathetic Quasimodo in Hunchback, a film that made Chaney a star and set the standard for the many adaptations that have followed for nearly a century. It also started Universal’s foray into horror/Gothic films in the 1920s that would lead to the first Universal Monsters in the 1930s. Watching The Unknown, I was left speechless by his gutsy portrayal of a criminal hiding out in a circus who later maims and disfigures himself to win over the love of young woman (Joan Crawford). It’s a performance that needs to be preserved.
The Mummy(1932)/The Wolf Man (1941)/Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). The Registry currently includes Universal’s Dracula(plus the Spanish language Dracula), Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. Because of the importance of the Universal Studios horror films, the Registry needs to protect more of what are considered Universal’s original creatures. Yes, I’m cheating by having three of the films here, but these can be added over time.
Mad Monster Party (1967). Acknowledging the idea that anything with the Universal Monsters is fair game for this list, this animated film is also a way to give kudos to Rankin-Bass, the company that created so many family friendly stop-motion animated holiday films. This fits into that category except it’s a musical comedy with our monster friends including Baron von Frankenstein voiced by Boris Karloff, plus Dracula, the Mummy, Invisible Man and more.
William Castle. OK, that’s not a film but a man – a brilliant showman who could sell a movie like no other. And though he is represented in the Registry as a producer of Rosemary’s Baby, his true genius was in creating some of the greatest gimmickry in hugely entertaining horror films that are deserving of immortality in the Registry. For Macabre(1958) he bought life insurance policies for the audience and had a nurse on hand for anyone who fainted in fear. He created “Emergo” for the awesome House on Haunted Hill (1959), which was a skeleton emerging in the theater to fly over the audience at the same time it was doing so in the film. His “Percepto” was used in The Tingler(1959), where Castle had seats in movie theaters equipped with electrical buzzers that would go off in time with key movie sequences. There were more, too, but my votes go for House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler.
Those are just a few of the films I plan to nominate for the National Film Registry (don’t forget, we can name 50 titles).
Horror films in the Registry
Here are the films I consider horror that are in the Registry with the year they were made followed by the year they were selected. See the full list of films in the Registry to make your own conclusions.
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (made in 1948, inducted
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.
In April of this year, I attended the TCM Film Festival,
which was the first time in two years that the fest was an in-person event. It
was a sheer delight to be back in Hollywood for my eighth in-person festival –
there’s nothing like viewing classic films on the big screen, seeing old
friends and meeting new ones, and subsisting off of Raisinets, popcorn, croissants,
and Icees while you dash from theater to theater and line to line.
While basking in the afterglow of the TCM event the other day, I got the idea of creating an at-home film noir festival that would allow me to put my feet up, take restroom breaks at will, and enjoy healthy meals all day (with popcorn and Raisinets mixed in, of course)! In planning the movies, I was careful to include films that are first-rate, but not necessarily the most popular ones, like Out of the Past, Laura, and Double Indemnity. And in order to allow for maximum participation from all you readers out there in the dark, I made sure that I only included films that are accessible at no cost via YouTube. If you watch them all, back-to-back, starting around 9 o’clock in the morning, you’ll be able to see them in one day.
So if you’re going through withdrawal from the TCM festival, or you’ve never been to the TCM festival, or if you’ve never even heard of the TCM festival and just love your noir, I hope you’ll block out a day on your calendar, gather your snacks, and treat yourself to the following features from the first Noir Nook At-Home Film Noir Festival!
Lizabeth Scott stars as Jane Palmer, who yearns to keep up with the Joneses and gets her chance when a satchel full of cash is literally dropped into her lap while she and her husband are returning home one evening. Only problem is that her husband wants to turn the money over to the authorities, and Jane will do practically anything to keep it. It’s a quandary. Others in the cast include Arthur Kennedy as Jane’s hubby, Dan Duryea as the rightful recipient of the dough, and Don DeFore as a stranger who throws quite the sizable monkey wrench into Jane’s plans.
The Killing (1956) – 85 minutes
One of my all-time best-loved noirs, believed to have been an influence on several of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, The Killing unites a group of disparate dudes to pull off a daring and inventive heist at a racetrack. Unfortunately, the old saying about the best laid plans of mice and men proves to be all too prophetic here. Sterling Hayden plays Johnny Clay, the mastermind of the group – others involved in the robbery include Elisha Cook, Jr., as George Peatty, a mousy racetrack cashier’ Marie Windsor as his gold-digging wife, Sherry; and Vince Edwards as Sherry’s lover, who plays a bigger role in the heist’s aftermath than anyone would have anticipated.
New York Confidential (1955) – 88 minutes
On any given day, I could easily identify Richard Conte as my favorite classic film noir actor – I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s just something about him. And that something is on full display in New York Confidential, where he plays Nick Magellan (I even love the name!), a cool and capable hit man who becomes the bodyguard and right hand of New York syndicate boss Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford). Nick is a fascinating and multifaceted character whose life is impacted by those in Charlie’s circle, including Charlie’s attractive but troubled daughter (Anne Bancroft) and Charlie’s mistress (Marilyn Maxwell), who has eyes (who can blame her?) for Nick.
Sudden Fear (1952) – 110 minutes
What would a film noir festival be without my girl Joan Crawford? I first saw Sudden Fear on the big screen, and let me tell you, I was literally on the edge of my seat. Crawford is playwright and heiress Myra Hudson, who marries actor Lester Blaine (Jack Palance) after a whirlwind romance. Myra is blissfully happy, but what she doesn’t know is that Lester (1) married her for her money and (2) is carrying on with his ex-lover Irene Neves (Gloria Grahame). She also doesn’t know that Lester and Irene are plotting to kill her – but when she finds out… well, let’s just say she’s not a happy camper.
Erich Von Stroheim has the title role of a stern, hard-hearted vaudeville sharpshooter who performs with his assistants Connie Wallace (Mary Beth Hughes) and her alcoholic husband, Al (Dan Duryea). Unhappy with her marriage and eager to step up to a higher financial status, Connie uses every trick in the book to bulldoze her way through Flamarion’s stony carapace until he falls for her. And if you know your noir, you’ll know that Connie’s next step is to convince Flamarion to get rid of Al. Three guesses as to whether she succeeds – and the first two don’t count.
Released near the end of the classic film noir era, this film is rapidly climbing the charts of my film noir favorites. It’s so different from most noirs, but it’s undeniably gritty and absolutely riveting – and has moments of humor as well. The story centers on a hit man named Claude (Vince Edwards), whose latest job requires him to travel to Los Angeles to kill a heavily guarded woman who is slated to testify in a high-profile trial. The only problem for the efficient and cold-blooded killer is that he didn’t know that his target was a woman, and he doesn’t, as a rule, accept contracts on women: they’re too “unpredictable.” The cast includes Herschel Bernardi, a popular fixture on TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s, as one of the men who hires Claude for the job, but another character may just be the unique guitar score that is threaded throughout the film.
This is one of those films that I’d heard about for years, and then kicked myself for taking so long to see it. Set in Belfast, it stars James Mason as Johnny McQueen, the leader of an Irish separatist group who is injured during a botched robbery attempt and spends the remainder of the film on the lam from the law. While police comb the city looking for him, he’s also being sought by Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan), the woman who loves him. Also in the cast is Robert Newton, who you might recognize from Oliver Twist (1948), Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948), and Treasure Island (1950).
Detour (1945) – 68 minutes
I’m wrapping up the day with a low-budget gem – you may have seen Detour already, but you can’t see it too many times, if you ask me. It ticks so many film noir boxes – voiceover narration, flashback, shadowy scenes, rainswept nights, and a femme fatale who’s one of the nastiest dames you’re ever likely to encounter. The story centers on Al Roberts (Tom Neal), who makes his living playing piano in a New York dive bar and embarks on a cross-country hitchhiking quest to join his singer girlfriend in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for Al, he hitches a ride with a guy who winds up dead, assumes the dead guy’s identity, and then picks up a hitchhiker of his own (Ann Savage), who just happens to know that Al isn’t who he says he is. Clocking in at just a little over an hour, Detour packs a shadowy punch filled with non-stop action and some of the greatest lines in all of noir. It’s the perfect film to end your noir fest!
Enjoy! And please let me know if you participate in the festival – or what movies you’d choose for your own at-home noir fest!
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Father’s Day Films to Watch With Dad, Cult Heroes, and More!
so much happening in June – school’s out, summer begins, and Father’s Day
arrives on June 19 – our friends at Best Classics Ever are gearing up to
deliver an action-packed month that the entire family can enjoy.
first, a quintet of family flicks to enjoy with dad. This year’s Father’s Day
collection features classics starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor (Father’s
Little Dividend), Charlie Chaplin (The Kid), and Roy
Rogers (Song of Nevada), plus beloved classics Life With
Father and There Goes the Bride.
not all. Best Classics Ever is also bringing back its Get Dad Some Action collection,
starring John Wayne (Angel and
the Badman), Joe Namath (C.C. and Company), Cliff Robertson (Shaker Run), Jim Kelly (The Tattoo Connection),
and Robert Forster (Stunts).
PLUS, you can celebrate Movie Night
for Dads all month long on Best TV Ever
on PLEX, with Father’s Little Dividend, Life With
Father, C.C. and Company, The Squeeze, and Angel and the
Badman streaming FREE all month long.
Also debuting in June, the latest Best Classics Ever
Cult Heroes collection. This
one puts the spotlight on Spaghetti Western and action movie star Lee Van Cleef, whose career spanned
four decades in Hollywood, from the early 1950s to the late 1980s. Best
Classics Ever celebrates Lee Van Cleef’s career with his own collection,
featuring Death Rides a Horse, The Squeeze, Commandos, The Grand Duel, God’s Gun, Kansas City Confidential,
and The Big Combo.
Streaming FREE on the
Classic Movie Hub Channel
There are plenty of classic birthdays to celebrate
in June, and you’re invited to join the party on the Classic Movie Hub channel
on Best Classics Ever. We’ll be honoring the careers and legacies of Rosiland
Russell and Ralph Bellamy (His Girl Friday),
Jane Russell (The Outlaw),
Errol Flynn (Santa Fe Trail),
Basil Rathbone (The Woman In Green),
and Gail Patrick (My Man Godfrey).
Classic Movie Hub also brings you the Fond Memories collection in
June, featuring Life With Father, Father’s Little Dividend, My Favorite Brunette, Royal Wedding, and Abbott and
Costello’s Jack and the Beanstalk.
Here’s everything that’s happening at Best Classics
Ever in June 2022:
Father’s Day Collection
Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
The Kid (1921)
Life With Father (1947)
Song of Nevada (1944)
There Goes the Bride (1980)
Get Dad Some Action
C.C. and Company (1970)
The Tattoo Connection (1978)
Angel and the Badman (1947)
Shaker Run (1985)
Cult Heroes: Lee Van Cleef
Death Rides a Horse (1967)
The Squeeze (1978)
The Grand Duel (1972)
God’s Gun (1977)
Kansas City Confidential (1952)
The Big Combo (1955)
Classic Movie Hub Presents…
His Girl Friday (1940)
The Outlaw (1943)
Santa Fe Trail (1940)
The Woman In Green (1945)
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Classic Movie Hub Presents…
Life With Father (1947)
Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
My Favorite Brunette (1947)
Royal Wedding (1951)
Jack and the Beanstalk (1952)
About Best Classics Ever
Obsessed with classic cinema? So are we! At Best Classics Ever, you can stream an epic library of beloved films and television shows, including rare gems waiting to be rediscovered, from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Even better, Best Classics Ever is a community for film fans to learn more about their favorite movies and stars. Watch exclusive interviews and insight from today’s top cinema historians, hosts, and writers FREE without a subscription at our Hollywood Canteen. Best Classics Ever is available for mobile and desktop and on Roku, Amazon Fire TV, iOS, and Android devices.
Hoagy Carmichael was a beloved
American composer, songwriter, actor, and lawyer. In addition to appearing in
films and on television, he composed numerous hit songs, including “Stardust,”
“Georgia on My Mind,” “The Nearness of You,” “Heart and Soul,” “Skylark,” “Ole
Buttermilk Sky,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” and many more.
Hoagland Howard “Hoagy” Carmichael was born in Bloomington,
Indiana, on November 22, 1899, to Howard and Lida Carmichael. He was named
after a circus troupe dubbed “The Hoaglands,” as the group boarded at the
Carmichael home during Lida’s pregnancy. Howard worked as a horse-drawn taxi
driver and electrician, while Lida was a piano accompanist at movie theaters
during the Silent Era and performed at private parties. Howard and Lida also
had two daughters named Georgia and Joanne.
As Howard pursued various job opportunities, the family
moved on many occasions. Carmichael spent his early years in Bloomington;
Indianapolis, Indiana; and Missoula, Montana. During these years, Carmichael’s
mother taught him to play the piano. Though the family lived in Indianapolis in
1916, Carmichael returned to Bloomington three years later to finish high
school. He also assisted his family by working jobs in construction, at bike
shops, and in a slaughterhouse. During these difficult years, Carmichael found
solace in enjoying ragtime music, performing duets with his mother, and a
friendship with bandleader Reginald DuValle. His professional career in music
began in 1918 when he was paid $5 to play piano at a fraternity dance.
Tragically, Carmichael’s three-year-old sister passed away
from influenza in the same year. Carmichael reflected upon her as a “victim of
poverty,” stating that his family could not afford a doctor. As a result,
Carmichael vowed to never be broke again.
Carmichael progressed as a musician, soon meeting and becoming close friends with cornetist Leon “Bix” Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke later introduced Carmichael to Louis Armstrong in Chicago, Illinois, eventually leading to collaboration. Carmichael’s first recorded song was first called “Free Wheeling” and written for Beiderbecke, but was recorded as “Riverboat Shuffle” in 1924 at Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana. His recording of “Washboard Blues” from 1925 would mark the earliest recording in which Carmichael is featured playing his own songs, as well as an improvised piano solo.
Carmichael continued his educational career at Indiana
University in Bloomington, graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in 1925 and a
law degree one year later. He was active in the Kappa Sigma fraternity and
toured with his band, “Carmichael’s Collegians,” throughout Indiana and Ohio. Following
his graduation, Carmichael relocated to Florida and worked as a legal clerk at
a legal firm in West Palm Beach, Florida. He returned to Indiana in 1927 after
failing to pass the Florida bar exam. Instead, he joined the Bingham,
Mendenhall, and Bingham law firm in Indianapolis, passing the Indiana bar exam,
but ultimately focused more on his music. No longer interested in law, he moved
to New York City. There, he worked for a brokerage firm during the weekdays and
spent his evenings composing.
In 1927, Carmichael recorded “Stardust,” which would become
one of his most famous pieces. He recorded it at Gennett Records, while singing
and playing the piano. When Isham Jones and his orchestra recorded the song in
a slower, more sentimental style in 1930, it became a major hit and would be
recorded by many notable artists.
Throughout his career, Carmichael composed hundreds of
songs, fifty of which became major hits. Early on, he played in an
improvisational hot jazz style, ideal for the latest dances. Once he moved to
New York City in 1929, he crafted songs that stood alone, though still had a
jazz influence. His later years in California led him to compose instrumental
pieces, several of them written specifically for films.
As fate would have it, Carmichael met Duke Ellington’s
agent, Irving Mills, who was also a sheet music publisher. Mills and Carmichael
coordinated recording dates and Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair” was recorded by
Armstrong and Mildred Bailey. As the stock market crashed and Carmichael’s
savings declined, the success of “Rockin’ Chair” helped support Carmichael
through this period and became a jazz standard. He would go on to record
“Georgia on My Mind” and “Up a Lazy River” before joining the American Society
of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1931.
Carmichael later worked for the Southern Music Company as
big band and swing music grew in popularity. During this period, he befriended
lyricist Johnny Mercer, with whom he would collaborate on songs such as
“Lazybones,” “Thanksgiving,” “Moon Country,” “Skylark,” and the Academy
Award-winning “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”
Carmichael left the Southern Music Company to compose songs for Warner Brothers, beginning his connection to the film industry. His first song written for a film was “Moonburn,” performed by Bing Crosby in Anything Goes(1936).
In 1936, Carmichael married Ruth Mary Meinardi and the couple relocated to California. They would have two children—Hoagy Bix and Randy Bob—before divorcing in 1955. Carmichael signed a contract with Paramount Pictures as a songwriter but also worked as a character actor. His screen debut was in Topper(1937), starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, in which Carmichael played a pianist and performed “Old Man Moon.” This opened the door to other screen roles in which Carmichael tended to appear as a pianist and would play his own music. Carmichael appeared in 14 films, including To Have and Have Not (1944), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), and Canyon Passage (1946).
Outside of his studio obligations, Carmichael continued to
write prolifically. He wrote “Chimes of Indiana” and presented it to Indiana
University in 1937. Additionally, he collaborated with Frank Loesser to create
“Heart and Soul,” “Two Sleepy People,” and “Small Fry.”
As Carmichael’s family grew, he, Ruth, and the children
moved to the former William P. Wrigley, Jr. (of Wrigley chewing gum) home in
Los Angeles, California. The U.S. soon entered World War II and Carmichael
wrote many wartime songs, including “My Christmas Song for You,” “Cranky Old
Yank,” “Don’t Forget to Say ‘No,’ Baby,” and more.
Carmichael again paid homage to his Bloomington hometown by
composing Brown County in Autumn in
1948. The orchestral work was, unfortunately, not praised by critics.
In the 1940s, Carmichael also worked as a radio personality,
hosting variety programs such as Tonight
at Hoagy’s. Though his career slowed in the 1950s, he continued to perform
and transitioned to television, hosting Saturday
Night Review. After writing another orchestral piece—The Johnny Appleseed Suite—which was also unsuccessful, Carmichael
wrote over a dozen songs for children, such as “The Whale Song” and “Rocket
In his later years, Carmichael published memoirs and was
receiving over $300,000 per year in royalties. He enjoyed golf, painting, and
coin-collecting during his retirement, splitting his time between residences in
Los Angeles and Rancho Mirage, California. He made occasional television
appearances, including being the first celebrity to provide a voice on The Flintstones. He appeared as himself,
working for the fictitious Rockwell Music Publishers and playing a Stoneway
piano, and debuted a song called “Yabba-Dabba Doo!” on the show. He also
participated in the PBS television show Hoagy
Carmichael’s Music Shop, which featured jazz-rock versions of his songs, as
well as the Fred Rogers PBS show Old
Friends, New Friends. Carmichael married again in 1977, to actress Dorothy
Carmichael received many awards in his later years,
including an induction to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, an honorary doctorate
in music from Indiana University, and a birthday tribute at the Newport Jazz
Festival. His last public appearance was in 1981 as part of Country Comes Home with country
performer Crystal Gale.
Carmichael passed away on December 27, 1981, at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage from a heart attack. He was 82 years old. He was buried in his family’s plot at Rose Hill Cemetery in Bloomington, Indiana. Rose Hill Cemetery is located at 1100 W. 4th St., Bloomington, Indiana.
To this day, Carmichael’s legacy is celebrated in several
locations and is particularly beloved in Bloomington, Indiana.
In 1900, Carmichael resided at 325 E. 10th St., Bloomington,
Indiana, which no longer stands. His residence at 214 N. Dunn St., Bloomington,
Indiana, still remains.
In 1910, he lived at 706 W. Pine St., Missoula, Montana, which no longer
By 1917, Carmichael was living at 130 Neal Ave., Indianapolis, Indiana,
which stands today.
In the 1920s, Carmichael resided at 536 S. Washington St.,
Bloomington, Indiana. Parts of “Stardust” were written in this home.
Though the home sustained fire damage in 2013, it has since been restored and
is habitable again, with tributes to Carmichael adorning the entrance.
“Stardust” was also partly composed at one of
Carmichael’s favorite haunts, the Book Nook. The location is now BuffaLouie’s
and is decorated with Carmichael memorabilia. BuffaLouie’s stands at 114 S.
Indiana Ave., Bloomington, Indiana, and a historic marker honoring Carmichael
stands in front of the building.
Carmichael attended Bloomington High School South, which has
since named its school auditorium Carmichael Hall. The school stands at 1965 S.
Walnut St., Bloomington, Indiana.
The Monroe County History Center also has a small display
honoring Carmichael. Visitors can listen to samples of his music while learning
more about him and other Indiana composers. The Monroe County History Center is
located at 202 E. 6th St., Bloomington, Indiana.
Additionally, there are many tributes to Carmichael on the
Indiana University Campus. My favorite tribute to him is the statue, located in
front of IU Cinema. IU Cinema stands at 1213 E. 7th St., Bloomington, Indiana.
In 1986, Carmichael’s family donated his archives, piano,
and memorabilia to his alma mater, Indiana University. The university
established the Hoagy Carmichael Collection in its Archives of Traditional
Music and the Hoagy Carmichael Room to permanently display selections from the
collection. The room is able to be viewed by private appointment. My favorite
pieces were Carmichael’s piano, desk, and Oscar. Aside from very special
occasions, the piano is played once a year to celebrate Hoagy’s birthday. The
Hoagy Carmichael Room is located in the Archives of Traditional Music, Morrison
Hall, Room 006, Bloomington, Indiana.
Within the Indiana Memorial Union, visitors might stumble
upon a painting of the “Constitution Elm.” This painting happens to
have been painted by Carmichael himself and is on display. The Indiana Memorial
Union is located at 900 E. 7th St., Bloomington., Indiana.
Near campus, visitors can stay at the Showers Inn, which has
a Composer House. The various suites here are named after songs written by
Indiana composers, with a few named after Carmichael’s work. I happened to stay
in the “Stardust” suite. The inn is located at 430 N. Washington St.,
Outside of Bloomington, Richmond, Indiana has the Gennett
Records Walk of Fame. Carmichael is honored with artwork and a plaque. There is
also a mural in town in his honor. The Gennett Records Walk of Fame is located
at 201 S. 1st St., Richmond, Indiana.
Gennett Records comes to life at the Indiana Historical
Society, with a living history exhibit that allows visitors the opportunity to
engage with docents who are in character as the Gennett Records team. The
basement of the museum also features the Stardust Cafe, named after
Carmichael’s hit composition. The Indiana Historical Society stands at 450 W.
Ohio St., Indianapolis, Indiana.
In 1936, Carmichael resided at 121 E. 52nd St., New York, New York, which
does not remain today. Likewise, Carmichael lived at 626 N. Foothill, Beverly
Hills, California, which has since been razed.
Carmichael’s Rancho Mirage home exists today, albeit renovated, at 40267
Club View Dr., Rancho Mirage, California. Some parts of the home remain as
Carmichael would have recognized them; the wood ceiling in most of the living
room is original, as is the 1950s KitchenAid stove, river rock fireplace, and
an etched glass piece in the wine room. Carmichael purchased the glass piece on
Sunset Boulevard in the 1960s from his daughter-in-law, Mur Doherty.
Carmichael has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located
at 1720 Vine St., Los Angeles, California.
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.
“Like you said, it’s just one role of the dice, doesn’t matter what color they are.”
Robert Wise is a fascinating case study. In a medium built on radical storytellers and auteurs, Wise is the epitome of a craftsman; a filmmaker without a discernible style. Were it not for the credits, one would never guess that The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), and West Side Story (1961) were made by the same man.
Unfortunately, Wise’s invisible touch has come to signify a lack of talent rather than an abundance of it. His name has become synonymous with slick, impersonal Hollywood fodder, while names like Hitchcock, Welles, and Wilder have become pillars of idiosyncrasy and depth.
This is a tragic oversight. It’s also untrue. Wise was a chameleon, sure, but he used his chameleonic tendencies to forge one of the greatest careers of all time. He’s one of a handful of filmmakers who can claim a masterpiece in multiple genres, and given his dizzying success with musicals, he may in fact be the only filmmaker with a masterpiece in every genre. Don’t let the lack of thematic unity or signature shots fool you. Few could elevate a film like him.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is a devastating example of Wise’s talents. It’s film noir of the bleakest order, punctuated by a series of aesthetic risks and experimental choices. Its harshness is impossible to overstate, and while Orson Welles gets the credit for ending noir the year before with Touch of Evil, Wise (Welles’ former editor) proved that there was still plenty of blood to squeeze from the proverbial pulp stone.
Odds Against Tomorrow tells the story of three men on the ropes. There’s Burke (Ed Begley), an ex-cop with criminal ambitions, Johnny (Harry Belafonte) a musician with a gambling problem, and Earle (Robert Ryan), a bigot with a bad temper. They all need money, and despite their mutual contempt, they agree to come together to rob an upstate bank.
The screenplay by Nelson Gidding and the blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, tackles racism head on. Earle is curt and irrational when it comes to his dealings with Johnny, and despite wielding a more even temper, the musician makes it clear that he’d love to see Earle choke on his words. In contrast to other race-themed releases of the period (Blackboard Jungle,The Defiant Ones), which suggested hard-won but achievable solutions, Odds Against Tomorrowopted for catharsis. If Sidney Poitier was the movie star embodiment of Martin Luther King’s rhetoric, then Belafonte, who produced Odds Against Tomorrow and handpicked Polonsky, came closer to embodying Malcolm X’s perspective.
That’s not to say the film is overtly political. Odds Against Tomorrow is a noir at heart, and as such, the bitterness of the characters stems from their personal shortcomings. All three men engage in forms of degeneracy (bribery, adultery, gambling), and their inability to learn from their mistakes dooms them to criminal lifestyles. Johnny is positioned as the most virtuous of the trio, but the closer we get, the more we come to realize his charisma masks an emotional-stuntedness. After he gets shaken down by collectors at work, he boozes up and ruins a tune by one of the other performers. It’s funny, sure, but it’s also wickedly childish in ways we hadn’t previously expected.
Wise directed Robert Ryan in The Set-Up a decade earlier, and he once again finagles one of the actor’s best performances. They take a character that should be outright contemptible and make him tragic through an alternating series of outbursts and embarrassments. A chance visit to a bar leads to Earle punching a cocky soldier, and the realization that he was in the wrong leads to a brief moment of regret. There’s also Earle’s disconnected romance with Lorry (Shelley Winters), a woman he adores until she leaves and the sexy neighbor (Gloria Grahame) comes over.
Wise depiction of New York furthers the disconnectedness. It’s a wintery hellscape, with black asphalt and a bone-inducing chill that can practically be felt through the screen. The director wanted the city to feel slightly off-kilter, so he opted to shoot exterior scenes on infrared film. The results can be gleamed in the opener, when Earle walks down a street with ominous black skies and unnaturally white clouds. There’s also a slight distortion, which barely registers visually but furthers the feeling that something is wrong.
The director takes an even more radical approach when it comes to the heist. While most films build up to a show stopping set piece or spend the bulk of the final act depicting the heist itself, Odds Against Tomorrow prefers to show the little moments beforehand. The viewer is forced to sit with a pensive Johnny or a subtly anxious Burke as they wait for the right time to strike. It’s as if they know they’re doomed, and are given time to accept the idea before going into battle. Not that any of them bother.
The heist itself is shockingly anticlimactic, botched before anyone gets away. Burke is shot down by the police, and the other two attempt to recover the money from Burke’s limp body. Johnny is convinced that Earle mucked things up and vice versa, and without Burke to play peacemaker, they turn on each other and take their fight to a fuel storage. Their desire to kill each other proves to be literally explosive, as a misdirected bullet causes the whole place to blow. In the end, Johnny and Earle’s bodies are so mangled that the police are unable to tell them apart. Irony of the cruelest sort.
Odds Against Tomorrow screened at the most recent Noir City festival, and watching the film with an audience affirmed the power it still has. Wise may be most closely associated with the Technicolor musicals of the 1960s, but his talent for film noir was unimpeachable, and Odds is perhaps his greatest ever showcase. It’s ninety-five minutes of lean, mean storytelling with visual panache and a star-studded, well-utilized cast.
TRIVIA: Despite their contentious relationship onscreen, Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan got on famously during production and remained friends.
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.
This time around I’ll discuss a film at the other end of the spectrum, Samuel Fuller‘s Forty Guns (1957), a polished and deeply satisfying Western with so many layers that I suspect I will still be noticing new things several viewings from now.
Forty Guns grabs the viewer’s attention from the amazing opening set piece, with Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) leading a thundering group of riders on horseback. The horses race past a lonely wagon, leaving its occupants covered in dust.
In the wagon are former gunslinger Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan), who’s now a lawman, and his younger brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix).
The Bonells are headed
to Tombstone, and the Earp mythology is made clear time and again, including an
unfortunate death late in the movie. Griff and Wes stand in for Wyatt and
Morgan Earp; the genial Wes serves as his brother’s “second gun,” but
both Griff and Wes want more for their kid brother. The two older men know the
days of gunmen imposing order in the West are drawing to a close, and they want
Chico to have a nice, safe profession, like farming.
The powerful Jessica,
meanwhile, engages in shady activities and might be said to be standing in for
Ike Clanton, along with her troubled younger brother Brockie (John Ericson) and
her “forty guns.” But an erotic attraction develops between Griff and
Jessica which surely never existed between Wyatt Earp and his nemesis.
When Brockie causes
trouble early on, Griff is nice enough to knock him out with a gun, rather than
kill him. Jessica realizes that her brother is trouble, and when Griff saves
Jessica’s life in a dust storm, a long discussion leads to understanding
between two tough people who have carved out varying types of success in a hard
Problems, however, will continue to rear their head, not only from Brockie but from Sheriff Logan (Dean Jagger), who harbors a crush on Jessica and is none too happy that Griff seems to be moving in on his territory, both in town and with Jessica.
Though much of the story is focused around a “law and order” theme, the movie has some of the wildness and unpredictability of Nicholas Ray‘s Johnny Guitar (1954). There is so much that’s noteworthy about this film, including excellent performances of unusual characters; a string of memorable set pieces; and the stunning black and white widescreen cinematography of Joseph Biroc. And it all happens in just 80 fast-paced minutes.
Sullivan and Stanwyck had worked together previously on Jeopardy (1953) and The Maverick Queen (1956), and they have excellent chemistry. Some of the dialogue they exchange is mind-blowingly suggestive, though it would sail right over the head of a 10-year-old. The film’s unexpected moments occur right down to the final scene, when Griff confronts Brockie, who is holding Jessica hostage; Griff’s somewhat ungallant yet necessary solution is downright startling.
I especially like the unexpected women’s roles in this film; interestingly, they contrast with the movie’s theme song about a “high-ridin’ woman” who needs a strong man. In the end, Jessica does need a strong man — not to make her less, but because no one else could measure up! A set piece with Griff interrupting a dinner where Jessica presides as queen over a very long table of two seemingly endless rows of men is another memorable moment.
Sullivan is absolutely outstanding in a charismatic, layered performance as the confident gunman whose mere walk down a street strikes fear in the hearts of his opponents. But despite loving relationships with his brothers, the life of a successful gunman is a lonely one. Jessica clearly appeals to him, but her illicit activities and no-good brother? Not so much.
Along with Stanwyck’s Jessica, who rules Cochise County, there’s another wonderful female character in Louvenia Spanger (Eve Brent), the local gunsmith’s daughter.
Louvenia meets Wes
during a shootout, when she confidently and quickly selects a rifle and tosses
it to him to use. Wes and Louvenia continue to bond when her father (Gerald
Milton) makes Wes a custom rifle, sharing their love of guns amidst more
suggestive dialogue. My only disappointment with the film was how their story
concluded, but I’ll say no more.
One might say that the younger Dix as Chico is playing the “Tim Holt role” of the youngest Earp from My Darling Clementine (1946), but Samuel Fuller, who wrote the screenplay along with directing, wisely goes a different route with the character. The development of Chico’s character into a more mature, confident gunman in his own right is another somewhat unexpected twist in a film which often “zigs” when it could “zag.”
Western staple Hank Worden is also on hand as a hapless marshal losing his sight. The cast is rounded out by Jidge Carroll, Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward, Albert Cavens, Paul Dubov, and Neyle Morrow.
As a final note, it’s interesting that both Sullivan and Barry had overlapping TV Western careers not long after Forty Guns, with Sullivan starring as Sheriff Pat Garrett in The Tall Man (1960-62) and Barry as Bat Masterson (1958-61).
I highly recommed the
Criterion Collection DVD of Forty Guns, which has an excellent
33-minute look at the film by Imogen Sara Smith. Her commentary made me want to
watch the movie all over again!
Forty Guns is “must see” Western viewing.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.
Silents are Golden: Silent Superstars – The Sparkling Marion Davies
One of the most well-known actresses of the 1920s screen, Marion Davies is one of the few silent stars whose personal life was not only inseperable from her career, but in more recent decades tended to overshadow it. But nowadays, as more and more of her films are being restored and made available, it’s become clear that Davies was first and foremost a sparkling talent, and certainly one of our most important pioneering comediennes.
The youngest of five children, most of whom
would appear onstage in one way or another, Marion Cecilia Douras was born on
January 3rd, 1897 in Brooklyn. Thanks to a stutter that would persist
throughout her life, she was in and out of public schools and eventually
educated at a convent in Hastings, New York. She and her sisters (her one
brother Charles drowned when she was a baby) were encouraged to take ballet and
tap-dancing lessons by their mother Rose, who believed careers on the stage
would put them in proximity with wealthy suitors. Her stage name was settled
early on when her whole family adopted the name “Davies” after seeing it on an
advertisement, believing it less “foreign-sounding” than “Douras.”
Although very bright, Davies was bored by
school and decided to drop out and pursue the more exciting life of a showgirl.
She became part of a chorus line in the 1914 musical Chin-Chin and soon made it to Broadway revues. Her stage work was
supplemented by modelling for illustrators like Howard Chandler Christy, known
for his World War I posters and picturesque “Christy Girls.” In 1916 the
nineteen-year-old Davies became part of the famed Ziegfeld Follies, where she mainly did dancing routines due to her
The beautiful blonde with the winning smile
was soon attracting “stage door Johnnies,” but the most persistent turned out
to be William Randolph Hearst, the powerful newspaper tycoon. She recalled him
attending numerous Follies shows,
always sitting in the front row, and sending gifts of chocolates and trinkets.
Hearst, who was in his fifties, was already married and he and his wife
Millicent had five sons. Nevertheless, he continued to pursue Davies and she
soon became his official mistress.
Just prior to the relationship with Hearst,
Davies had written and starred in the modest film Runaway Romany (1917), directed by her brother-in-law. By now she
was making a name for herself as a performer and wanted to keep pursuing films.
In 1918 Hearst decided to helm her screen career, forming the Cosmopolitan
Production Company and giving her all the big budgets and rampant publicity she
could possibly need. While it seems certain that Davies would’ve been
successful in films on her own, having both talent and show business
connections, Hearst’s backing was definitely a huge bonus.
The first film under the new arrangement was Cecilia of the Pink Roses (1918), where Davies played a spunky Irish girl from a poor family. While it’s often assumed that Hearst insisted on putting Davies in costume pictures, most of her films were the kind of dramas and light comedies that were “in” at the time. Interestingly, The Belle of New York (1919) had Davies playing a young woman who joins the Follies, and The Cinema Murder(1919) focused on a love triangle between an actress, her young lover, and a Wall Street tycoon hoping to make her his mistress–both plots surprisingly close to home. All in all, she averaged two to four pictures per year and her star rose steadily.
By the early twenties Davies was playing more flapper-esque characters in films like the big hit Enchantment (1921). The following year Hearst would pour $1.5 million into When Knighthood Was In Flower (1922), making it the most expensive film made at the time. It was one of Davies’ genuine costume pictures, some of the others being Little Old New York (1923) and Janice Meredith(1924). But Davies was starting to prefer comedy, having a knack for timing and funny impersonations. Her turning point was probably Beverly of Graustark (1926), where she plays a student who impersonates her cousin Prince Oscar in order to protect the threatened throne of Graustark. She clearly has fun with the role, and it paved the way for her beloved comedies The Patsy (1928) and Show People(1928).
While not making pictures Davies spent much
time with Hearst and lived openly with him–Millicent wouldn’t consent to a
divorce. At the time Hearst owned multiple expensive residences, including a
14-room beach house in Santa Monica and even a Welsh castle. But these were
modest in comparison to his magnum opus, the Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
Designed by Julia Morgan under Hearst’s close supervision, it was an opulent
115-room mansion set amidst acres of gardens, pools and guest houses. For 30
years Hearst and Davies would be host to countless celebrities, from movie
stars to royalty, often dozens at a time.
Offscreen, despite her undeniable privileges Davies turned out to be a rarity: a warm, humble and extremely generous woman much-loved by her Hollywood peers. She contributed a great deal to charity and also established the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic. Throughout the ‘30s she devoted herself more and more to both Hearst and her charitable efforts, although happily she had discovered her stutter didn’t bother her while making talkies. Her last film would be Ever Since Eve(1937), released the year she turned forty.
Powerful as Hearst had been, his business
started declining in the ‘30s and Davies eventually started assisting him out
of her own pocket. In the ‘40s his health also declined and he and Davies left
San Simeon for Beverly Hills. She was at his side when he passed away in 1951,
although for his family’s sake she tactfully didn’t go to the funeral.
While she eventually married a man named
Horace Brown it wasn’t a happy union and they soon separated. Davies continued to
focus on charity work, especially on funding the prevention of childhood
diseases. Her long history with alcoholism contributed to her declining health
in the late ‘50s and in 1961 she passed away from jaw cancer. Numerous stars
attended her funeral and she was laid to rest in the famed Hollywood Forever
For a long time Marion Davies has been strongly associated with Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane(1941), where she was assumed to be the inspiration for the untalented singer Susan Alexander. This cast a shadow on her legacy which Welles himself tried to counter, stating “she was the precious treasure of [Hearst’s] heart for more than 30 years.” Happily, that shadow has been lifting ever since Davies’ films have been made available. Steadily, and not too slowly, she’s regaining her rightful stature as a bright star and an influential comedienne of the 1920s.
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.
So, how many versions of this movie are there, really? Well, most classic film fans would say a definite ‘four,’ end of story — which would be the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, the 1976 re-make starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and the latest version starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 2018. But, did you know that 1932’s What Price Hollywood? had a very similar storyline, aka the rise of an up-and-coming star and the fall of her alcoholic mentor, and that the plots were so similar that RKO almost filed a plagiarism lawsuit?
2) Whose on first?
Janet Gaynor and Fredric March were each nominated for an Academy Awards for this film (Best Actress and Best Actor) but did not win. However, did you know that Janet Gaynor won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Actress (in 1929, for her performances in 7th Heaven, Street Angel and Sunrise), and Fredric March was the first actor to ever win an Academy Award for a horror film (in 1931, for his performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)?
And, although it didn’t win, this 1937 version of the film was the first all-color film to be nominated for Best Picture.
3) Something borrowed
The Oscar that Janet Gaynor’s character receives in the film is her own Best Actress Oscar, which, as noted above, she won in 1929.
4) And the Grand Total is…
All told, the four versions of A Star is Born earned 25 Academy Award nominations, with three wins (1937 for Best Original Story, 1976 for Best Original Song “Evergreen” and 2018 for Best Original Song “Shallow”). The 1937 film also won an Honorary Award for W. Howard Greene for the color photography (not counted in the 25 because it wasn’t a competitive award).
5) You are my inspiration [insert name here]…
So, what real-life movie star couple is this movie based on? Well, I don’t know if we can really say for sure, but some believe that the 1937 version drew its inspiration from the marriage of Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay.
Well, those were my five facts. Would love to hear about any that you’d like to share 🙂
AND – as part of our partnership with Best Classics Ever – you can stream His Girl Friday for free this month on the Classic Movie Hub Channel. Just click here, join for free (no obligation), scroll down and click on the CMH Channel button — and watch for free. Lots of other free movies to watch every month as well, so feel free to explore.