Silver Screen Standards: The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Silver Screen Standards: The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Gay Divorcee (1934) Movie Poster
The Gay Divorcee (1934)

I knew I wanted to write about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for this month’s column, but with ten movies to choose from the hard part was deciding which one I particularly wanted to watch again. Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936) are the most obvious choices, but I settled instead on The Gay Divorcee (1934), the second of the pair’s pictures following their debut team up in Flying Down to Rio (1933). I’d like to say that I had very carefully considered reasons for going with The Gay Divorcee, like its importance as the film that settled Astaire and Rogers into a proper partnership, or its distinction as the first film awarded the Oscar for Best Original Song for “The Continental,” but I picked it simply because Erik Rhodes’ scene-stealing performance as Tonetti always makes me laugh. There’s a wealth of wacky supporting character action going on in The Gay Divorcee, and it’s just a delightfully silly picture from start to finish.

The Gay Divorcee (1934) Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire Dance The Continential
Although their characters argue constantly, Astaire and Rogers work in perfect harmony during their dance numbers, as they do during the extended sequence for “The Continental”.

The plot comes from Gay Divorce, the 1932 Cole Porter Broadway hit in which Astaire also starred. Astaire plays American dancer Guy Holden, who falls in love at first sight with fellow American Mimi (Rogers) when he spots her in a London train station. Mimi, however, rebuffs his advances, mainly because she’s already in a jam thanks to her marriage to an absent geologist who only turns up when he wants her money. Mimi enlists her dotty Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) to help her secure a divorce, so Hortense acquires the legal services of her former flame, Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), who also happens to be Guy’s roommate and pal. Miscommunication then causes Mimi to think that Guy is the professional co-respondent Egbert has hired to bring about the divorce, much to the frustration of the actual co-respondent, the surprisingly domestic Tonetti (Erik Rhodes).

The Gay Divorcee (1934) Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
Guy is ever eager, but Mimi constantly puts the brakes on their romance, especially when she thinks Guy is the hired co-respondent for her imaginary affair.

Fred and Ginger’s characters in their films tend to be variations on a theme; his pursuits and her refusals keep the action going around the big musical numbers but also raise some questions about men who won’t take no for an answer. Guy is an especially dogged stalker who drives around London searching for Mimi after she declines to give him her name and number; there’s even a car chase sequence that ends with him trapping her vehicle and forcing her to interact with him. Instead of having to sing the “Sprayed Mace Blues” as a result, Guy gets Mimi’s attention, but their romantic troubles are far from over. The fractious dialogue between the two provides contrast to the swoony romance of their dances, where they float together over the floor as Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” swells the score. Ginger wears some especially lovely gowns designed by Walter Plunkett during the dance sequences, and all of these elements being established in The Gay Divorcee provide a formula for the many Fred and Ginger pictures that follow. They’re not indistinguishable, but they don’t tend to stray too far afield from a format that repeatedly brought success for the stars and their films.

The Gay Divorcee (1934) Erik Rhodes
I enjoy all of the performers in the film, but it’s Erik Rhodes who always makes me laugh with his antics as the hired co-respondent, Tonetti. He first played the role in Gay Divorce on Broadway.

Of course, Fred and Ginger aren’t the only actors in their movies, and for me, it’s the supporting cast that really makes this one memorable. Erik Rhodes goes over the top as Tonetti, a flamboyant Italian who romances would-be divorcees but has very strict rules of engagement. His motto is “Your wife is safe with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti!” The ubiquitous Edward Everett Horton acts as Astaire’s sidekick and has his own weird, reluctant romance with Alice Brady, which gives both Horton and Brady some truly funny moments. You’ll think of them whenever you hear someone say “peanuts.” Brady’s Aunt Hortense is just a few corpses shy of matching the Brewster sisters for cheerful insanity, but she fits right in with Tonetti, Egbert, and Eric Blore’s equally wacky waiter. The icing on this cast of characters cake is Betty Grable as the specialty dancer for the “Let’s Knock Knees” number, still years away from real stardom but delightfully energetic and adorable. These characters exist in a world where massive, elaborate dance sequences with dozens of outrageously costumed performers appear by magic, so we’re not surprised if the inhabitants of such a frothy wonderland are a bit mad. Guy and Mimi only appear sane by contrast; they are, after all, a man who falls in love with a woman he just met and a woman who was impulsive enough to marry a man she barely knew.

The Gay Divorcee (1934) Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton
Betty Grable knocks knees with a smitten Edward Everett Horton in the “Let’s Knock Knees” number, but sadly it’s Grable’s only appearance in the picture.

As iconic as Astaire and Rogers are together, it’s useful to see and appreciate them apart. Astaire made musicals with a number of other partners, but I particularly like him with Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948) and with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). Some of my favorite Ginger Rogers solo outings are Bachelor Mother (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and the really perversely funny Billy Wilder comedy, The Major and the Minor (1942). The dramatic turn in Kitty Foyle is a huge departure from the musical comedies and won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. For a double bill of Fred and Ginger, I’d follow The Gay Divorcee with Top Hat (1935), which also reunites them with director Mark Sandrich and costars Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, and Eric Blore. Sadly, Alice Brady died in 1939 of cancer when she was only 46, but she left behind other memorable performances in My Man Godfrey (1936) and In Old Chicago (1938). Both roles earned her Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, but she won for the latter film.

— 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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Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend – Book Giveaway (May)

“Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the
Marketing of a Hollywood Legend”
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 “Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend” in celebration of the book’s release on June 15th!

And — stay tuned right here on the CMH blog, because in a few days we’ll be announcing 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 Christina Rice will be discussing the book! This time 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 first video of the Series, in which author Alan Rode chats with Victoria Riskin and William Wellman Jr. about growing up in Hollywood. We’ve embedded it down below for you as well.

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jane russell bio Mean…Moody…Magnificent!- Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend

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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, June 5 at 6PM EST. Winners will be chosen via random drawings.

We will announce our four lucky winners on Twitter @ClassicMovieHub on Sunday, June 6, 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 June 6.

Marilyn_Monroe_Jane_Russell_Gentlemen_Prefer_Blondes_movie_still
Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

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And now on to the contest!

ENTRY TASK (2-parts) to be completed by Saturday, June 5, 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 “Mean…Moody…Magnificent!: Jane Russell and the Marketing of a Hollywood Legend” #BookGiveaway courtesy of @KentuckyPress & @ClassicMovieHub – #EnterToWin here: http://www.classicmoviehub.com/blog/mean-moody-magnificent-jane-russell-and-the-marketing-of-a-hollywood-legend-book-giveaway-may/

THE QUESTION:
What is your favorite Jane Russell film and why? And, if you’re unfamiliar with her work, 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…

jane russell the outlaw
Jane Russell in The Outlaw

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If you missed the premiere of our Screen Classics Discussion video event, you can catch it here on YouTube:

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About the Book: By the early 1950s, Jane Russell (1921–2011) should have been forgotten. Her career was launched on what is arguably the most notorious advertising campaign in cinema history, which invited filmgoers to see Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw (1943) and to “tussle with Russell.” Throughout the 1940s, she was nicknamed the “motionless picture actress” and had only three films in theaters. With such a slow, inauspicious start, most aspiring actresses would have given up or faded away. Instead, Russell carved out a place for herself in Hollywood and became a memorable and enduring star. Christina Rice offers the first biography of the actress and activist perhaps most well-known for her role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). She worked with some of Hollywood’s most talented directors―including Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, and Josef von Sternberg―and held her own alongside costars such as Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, Clark Gable, Vincent Price, and Bob Hope. She also learned how to fight back against Howard Hughes, her boss for more than thirty-five years, and his marketing campaigns that exploited her physical appearance. This stunning first biography offers a fresh perspective on a star whose legacy endures not simply because she forged a notable film career, but also because she effectively used her celebrity to benefit others.

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

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Monsters and Matinees: Modern Sci-fi owes a Debt to ‘Day of the Triffids’

Modern Sci-fi owes a Debt to ‘Day of the Triffids’

In a continuing quest to enjoy as many classic movie monsters as possible, it was time to revisit The Day of the Triffids.

Seeing it with fresh eyes after so long brought a sense of Déjà vu in the most unexpected way. There, in Day of the Triffids, was one of my favorite sequences from The Walking Dead, plus a similar scene from the 2002 horror film 28 Days Later. Both had a man waking up in a hospital room to find a world where people have inexplicably turned into a some version of a zombie. Each man wanders empty, decimated streets looking for people and for answers. Chaos ensues, society disintegrates.

This still is one of the better looks at the triffid as one attacks Janette Scott in The Day of the Triffids.

Watching a similar early scene in Triffids was an immediate reminder of those other two well-known sequences. Both 28 Days Later screenwriter Alex Garland and The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman have acknowledged being inspired by Day of the Triffids and it’s easy to see why.

It’s a chilling narrative with haunting imagery that works as well in those modern instances as when it appeared in author John Wyndham’s 1951 sci-fi book The Day of the Triffids, and the 1962 movie adaptation.

Howard Keel walks the empty streets looking or answers in The Day of the Triffids, a scene reminiscent of modern post-apocalyptic films.

And there was more. As Triffids continued, it was filled with images that have become standard since its 1962 release in such post-apocalyptic and zombie films as The Last Man on Earth/I Am Legend, The Omega Man, Dawn of the Dead, Zombieland, The Happening – the list is endless.

While it wasn’t the first film for these tropes and many of the later films are better, it’s a thrill to see the far-reaching influence of this B-movie in modern film and television.

What’s a triffid?

The Triffidus celestus – was invented by Wyndham in his novel as a flower that rapidly grows taller than a human and is aggressive, venomous and carnivorous with a stinger that could lash out 10 feet with enough venom to kill a human on contact.

And it was mobile. Yes, be prepared to be chased by a flower.

A look at the triffids in smaller form.

Wyndham was the pen name of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon who mixed and matched those names to create other pseudonyms in his career. For an idea on his sci-fi street cred, he also wrote the novel Micwich Cukoos (1957), the basis for the film Village of the Damned.

It starts with a light show

A meteor shower in the skies above Earth entertains with a glorious light show and bright bursts of blue, orange and green. It’s also spreading white spores that look like harmless fireflies.

A spectacular meteor shower has unexpected consequences in The Day of the Triffids.

A voice on the radio  – which becomes its own character providing both drama and information – can’t get enough of the “thrilling once-in-a lifetime spectacle that must be seen,” urging people to get out to see the “spectacular display of fireworks.”

Navy officer Bill Mason (Howard Keel) can’t see it because he’s in a London hospital with bandages over his eyes after an operation. In the scene that was inspiration for the two famous sequences in 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead (for starters), Bill awakens the next morning to – nothing. He knows something is off and stumbles out of bed to call for help. No one answers. Ripping off his bandages, he’s puzzled by the deserted hospital littered with overturned tables, chairs and food trays.

Howard Keel plays a Navy officer who wakes up in a hospital after a disaster in The Day of the Triffids. Versions of this scene were in 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead.

In an odd sequence used as a quick explainer, his doctor appears and asks Bill to give him an eye test where the doctor proclaims his optic nerves are gone from the glare of the meteorite shower. “You’re probably one of the few people left in London who can still see this morning,” Doc tells Bill.  “I don’t envy you. I don’t think I’d care to see the things you are going to see.” He was right.

Bill walks the empty streets searching for anything. Slowly, we see others. Just one at first, then another and another. Their arms are outstretched, their walking is staggered. They are blind, like most of the world we learn, and are wandering aimlessly. A few are waiting in a train station, falling over luggage and chairs, reaching out for help. Bill picks up a man who has fallen, then realizes it’s futile – there are too many in need. “It all suddenly went dark,” someone says. In a highly effective scene, a train crashes and people tumble out of doors and windows, screaming and falling on each other. There is more horror in this film beyond the triffids.

Among the crowd is young Susan (Janina Faye) who was hiding in a luggage car. Bill rescues her from the crowd, and they head to his ship where they learn how bad things thanks to the radio. (“Everyone is blind!”…. “Stay where you are!” … “Don’t go outside!”)

Howard Keel and Janina Faye learn from a ship radio just how bad things are in the world in The Day of the Triffids.

But mass blindness isn’t the only crisis facing the world as thousands of triffids are on the move killing people with their stinger. They move at the pace of a person leisurely walking with an odd “lurching effect” like they are dragging themselves along. But like zombies, they somehow reach their prey.

Bill and Susan travel from England to France and Spain by car, boat and at one point, an adorable horse-drawn cart. They meet other survivors – with and without sight – including a large group at a French chateau, a band of convicts, a man and his pregnant wife and plenty of triffids as they try to reach a naval base that is serving as a rescue point. And there, in a sentence, is the plot of many modern post-apocalyptic and zombie movies, just substitute your creature or virus for the triffids.

An ill-tempered scientist (played by Kieron Moore) and his wife (Janette Scott) cut apart a triffid to see what makes it tick.

The story splits its time between Bill and little Susan’s journey and that of a couple doing scientific research on a tiny island. Working in a claustrophobic lighthouse are Tom (Kieron Moore), an ill-tempered but brilliant scientist, and his wife Karen (Janette Scott) who try to solve the mystery of the triffids while under attack by them.

More than killer flowers

It’s been easy to get wrapped up in the near silliness of killer flowers and underestimate The Day of the Triffids. It could have simply been a movie with a monster, but Wyndham adds depth by having the world affected by blindness. It’s a secondary layer of horror as millions are left vulnerable with only a few able to save the world. It’s hard not to think of what will happen to the people who are left crawling on the ground with outreached arms toward a destination they’ll never reach.

The looks on their faces says it all: A blind stewardess and pilot face the truth in “The Day of the Triffids.”

Billl and Susan listen to the somber May Day calls on the radio. There’s a passenger cruise ship sailing aimlessly and a blind flight crew pleading for an emergency landing as it runs out of fuel. “Tower, please talk us down,” they ask repeatedly, but no one answers.

In those moments, The Day of the Triffids is filled with a grave hopelessness that goes beyond B-movie status. No wonder it still resonates today – even if it is about killer flowers.

Other adaptations

Radio: The Day of the Triffids was adapted in three radio dramas in 1957, 1968 and 2001.

Television: The BBC produced the story in 1981 and 2009. The 2009 miniseries had an interesting cast of Dougray Scott, Eddie Izzard, Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson, Brian Cox and Jason Priestley.

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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 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.

Posted in Horror, Monsters and Matinees, Posts by Toni Ruberto | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival is Here!

Four Fantastic Days of Films, Interviews,
Special Presentations and More!

Well, what can I say, except that, year after year, I look soooo forward to attending the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. And, although times have changed over the past year (understatement), I have to give big kudos to TCM for not missing a beat here, as they put together yet another great virtual film festival! So, thank you TCM, for allowing us all to attend the 12th Annual TCM Film Festival virtually! Classic film fans everywhere are grateful!

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The Festival runs Thursday, May 6 – Sunday, May 9, on both the TCM network and, for the first time, HBO Max. It kicks off with a 60th-Anniversary Screening of West Side Story with Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn giving exclusive interviews, and continues with four days of movies, interviews, presentations, and more. All-in-all, there will be over 100 films and events to enjoy!

You can find the full schedule here:
TCM: features new interviews, special presentations, archival content, and clips from past TCM Classic Film Festivals.
HBO Max (streaming): features exclusive new interviews with actors and filmmakers, special presentations by notable film experts, rarely seen archival content, and a wide selection of classic movies curated by TCM.

And, here are some docs to help you navigate the Festival:
‘How to Fest’ guide
FAQs

And, for a little something special, you can check out Classic Conversations’ Danny Miller’s interview with Jacqueline Bissett, the stars of West Side Story, and several beloved TCM hosts and executives. 🙂

Hope you enjoy!

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–Annmarie Gatti for Classic Movie Hub

Posted in TCM | Leave a comment

Classic Conversations: Jacqueline Bissett and the Stars of ‘West Side Story’ Talk About the 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival

George Chakiris, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story

I have attended all of the TCM Classic Film Festivals since TCM premiered the festival in Hollywood in April 2010. It is my favorite classic movie event and many of us look forward to it all year long, talking about it on our Facebook group, speculating about the schedule and the special guests, and obsessing on our choices since many films at the festival run concurrently (the agony of choosing which screenings to attend is part of the fun!). When the in-person festival had to be cancelled last year because of the pandemic, we were devastated, but happy that TCM managed to put together a version of the festival online so we could still connect and see some special events.

This year, however, while things are finally looking up, the network knew that an in-person event would still not be possible this spring so they planned a much more elaborate and engaging four-day virtual festival that begins tonight, May 6, 2021, with a 60th anniversary screening of the brilliant Oscar-winning West Side Story (1961) that will include a cast reunion conversation with Rita Moreno (Anita), George Chakiris (Bernardo), and Russ Tamblyn (Riff). This year the virtual festival will take place both on TCM and HBO Max. Included in the more than 100 films and events are a conversation with actress Jacqueline Bissett who will be introducing a screening of Bullitt (1968) in which she co-starred with Steve McQueen, Debbie Allen introducing Fame (1980), Michel Douglas introducing the powerful One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, along with world premieres and a range of special guests including Barry Levinson, Rob Reiner, Barbara Kopple, Martin Short, and many others.

I was delighted to have a chance this week to chat (via Zoom) with the talented Jacqueline Bissett, the stars of West Side Story, and several beloved TCM hosts and executives. I went from room to room talking to these folks with four other journalists, getting more and more excited about this year’s festival. (And rest assured, festival fans, all of them said there was every intention to bring back the in-person festival next year!). Here are my parts of the conversation with this illustrious group. 

Steve McQueen and Jacqueline Bissett in Bullitt

First up was the gorgeous and talented Jacqueline Bissett who has attended the festival in person and this year will be introducing the action thriller Bullitt, one of her first films. 

Danny Miller: Miss Bissett, since you were new to the industry and this was one of your first big roles, did you feel intimidated at all by working opposite such an icon like Steve McQueen on a big studio film?

Jacqueline Bissett: Oh, I had no sense of what a big studio film was! Everything looked big to me. I had made Cul-de-Sac with Roman Polanski but it was a tiny part so I didn’t really have a lot of reference. I came to the Bullitt set just looking for a friendly face, I was still fighting my shyness, trying get out there, but I didn’t want to be an annoying actress talking and asking too many questions. Over the years, I sort of figured out that you’ve got to get the questions out of the way before you start, if you can, and then you don’t annoy the director when they’re so worn out by everything. 

I remember that Steve was very hyper during this time because it was his first movie with his own production company, Solar Productions, that he ran with Bob Relyea. Steve would come rushing up on his bike and sort of sputter a few words. And I was like, “Okay, when am I going to work?” I had to wait around nine or ten weeks before they finally got to my stuff!

I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated exactly, I just wanted to be better than what my body was telling me that I was! I can’t say I was very relaxed, but I wasn’t unhappy, I just wanted to learn. I was always very enthusiastic about learning but I was pretty quiet and just tried to stay out of the way, not making a big deal about anything. At that time, I did not dare call myself an “actor.” I would tell people that I was dong a little acting but I couldn’t say the word, it took me a long time to get over that! I remember doing some difficult scenes in Bullitt, like the scene by the water, and I was standing there thinking, “Oh my God, I have so much to learn!” Thank God the director, Peter Yates, and Steve were so patient and kind!

Danny Miller: You had already had a small part in Two for the Road with Albert Finney and Audrey Hepburn, which is one of my all-time favorite films. Do you remember how you got that role?

Jacqueline Bissett: I just tested for it. I went to see Stanley Donen and got the part, it was pretty simple. It’s funny–I didn’t really know who Donen was, I had no idea what he had done. We were all in Saint-Tropez for the shoot and went out to a club one night. Stanley asked me to dance and I thought, “Oh, God, how will he manage that? He doesn’t look like someone who knows how to dance!” I was absolutely stunned when he got up and started moving around like the dancing genius that he is. I was like, “Wow, what an idiot I am. Never judge a book by its cover!”

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Bissett went on to talk about how she wasn’t able to call herself an actor until she made Rich and Famous years later (George Cukor’s last film) with Candice Bergin. Other memorable Jacqueline Bissett films include François Truffaut’s Day for Night, Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, John Huston’s Under the Volcano, and Claude Chabrol’s La Cérémonie. 

I then got to talk to Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris about tonight’s West Side Story screening. I told Tamblyn that we’d been having a mini-Russ Tamblyn Film Festival in my house during the pandemic, showing my 11-year-old son his amazing work in West Side Story, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and other great classic films.

Danny Miller: The other day we watched the wonderful Father of the Bride. I had totally forgotten that you played Elizabeth Taylor’s little brother in that film. Taylor is so gorgeous in that film it almost hurts to look at her. What was it like being with her and Spencer Tracy on set?

Russ Tamblyn: That was an incredible experience. The thing that comes to mind about working with Spencer Tracy is this one time we were waiting for him on set. Vincente Minnelli was directing the scene and Tracy came out holding the script in his hand. They were walking around and Tracy was asking all these questions, “Where do I do this? When do I say that?” He had a big speech in the scene and I thought to myself, “Oh my God, we’re going to be here all day waiting for him to learn this.” Finally, Minnelli said, “Okay, do you want to run through it?” And Tracy said, “No, let’s just shoot it.” I thought, “Oh, boy, this is going to be awful.” Well, Minnelli called “Action” and Tracy just lit into it, he got every line, every moment perfect, the whole thing! Minnelli said “Cut! Print!” and that was it. That was really surprising!

I was in school with Elizabeth at the time at MGM and she was graduating that year. We all went to her graduation and I remember a photographer was there to take some pictures of her and asked her to go outside. Dean Stockwell and I were playing ping pong when all of a sudden we hear this scream. We all ran outside. The photographer had asked Elizabeth to throw all of her books up in the air for a photo and she had a fit! She grabbed his camera and actually tore the film out of it! She was so infuriated that he would have the nerve to ask her to throw her beloved school books up in the air like that!

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Tamblyn went on to tell many great stories, including that the whole idea for turning Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story came from Montgomery Clift who he said was in a relationship with Jerome Robbins at the time. He and George Chakiris talked about other people who had auditioned for the parts of Maria and Anita who almost got the parts, such as Anna Maria Alberghetti and Barbara Luna. The whole discussion made me eager to read Russ Tamblyn’s new memoir, Dancing on the Edge and George Chakiris’s book, My West Side Story: A Memoir. I asked Chakiris about his own casting in the film. 

Danny Miller: George, I think you might be one of the only people who has played both Bernardo and Riff in West Side Story. I know you were playing Riff on the stage when they first approached you about the film. Was there originally a question about which role you would have in the film?

George Chakiris: Yes, at first there was! I was doing the show in London, as you say, playing Riff. I got a letter from United Artists asking me to do a screen test for the movie. They asked me to prepare one scene as Riff and one as Bernardo so that’s exactly what I did. A few weeks went by and then one night some people from Jerry Robbins’ office came to the stage door after the show. They said Jerry liked what I had sent but wanted to test me further. So I got a week’s leave of absence from the show to fly to Los Angeles and do another test, this time specifically for Bernardo. I met director Robert Wise for the first time and I did the test with a wonderful young girl, Barbara Luna, who was a contender for the role of Anita at the time. They loved the test and I got the part! 

Next up were two newer hosts to TCM who I always enjoy, film scholar Jacqueline Stewart and the always fun Dave Karger. I told them how much I enjoyed the recent “Reframed” series on TCM which screened unedited versions of certain problematic films which were then discussed and put into context. 

Jacqueline Stewart and Dave Karger

Danny Miller: I’m wondering if “Reframed” may turn into an annual event on TCM — God knows there are many other films that would benefit from that type of treatment. 

Jacqueline Stewart: First of all, thank you for the affirmation. We knew that this is something that many people would appreciate and something that other people might not appreciate! 

Danny Miller: I saw some of that criticism and I would say that most of the people complaining about the series did not actually watch the discussions.

Jacqueline Stewart: No doubt. We were having these conversations at a time when many people were using phrases like “cancel culture.” Ugh, I hate to even repeat that term because I don’t think it characterized what we were doing at all. We were showing the films exactly as they were intended and then having dialogue about them. Our goal was to inspire more people to have meaningful conversations about these films, to talk about why they love or hate them, or why they’re ambivalent about them. And yes, we’ve been talking a lot about what the next steps in these conversations can be at TCM. Right, Dave?

Dave Karger: Yes, absolutely. I’m so glad we did that series because as our culture is changing and as the world is changing, I think TCM should change along with it. I have to admit that I was dismayed to see some of the negative reaction, even though I expected it, but it doesn’t change how I feel towards the series in general. Having said that, I think if we were to do something similar like that again, and I’ve mentioned this to the Powers That Be at TCM, I think one thing that we should consider is having a voice like Bill Maher, who clearly watches TCM and pays attention to what we’re doing and might not always agree with it. I think having someone like him join us for the series would be interesting, especially since the five of us who are hosts are fairly similar in our worldviews. I’d love to open it up to people with different points of view, whenever possible.

If we do something like that again, one topic that we didn’t really discuss very much is the age gap between a lot of the love interests in movies. We could talk about a movie like Love in the Afternoon, you know, with Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn. I don’t have a big problem with that as some people do, but I know it’s an issue that would be interesting to discuss. I’d also love to explore some films from the 1980s in “Reframed.” We focused mostly on TCM’s sweet spot of films from the 1930s to the 60s but there are a lot of films from my childhood that sit very differently with me now than they did when I was growing up. Take the John Hughes movies, for example. I loved them so much as a kid and I still do, but I feel a little bit differently about them now. 

Danny Miller: Dr. Stewart, we in the classic film community are thrilled that the Academy Museum is finally opening this fall, and we’re especially thrilled to hear about your involvement there! Do you envision collaborations between the museum and TCM? 

Jacqueline Stewart: Oh, yes, we definitely envision collaboration with TCM. We’re talking a lot about that now, there’s obviously tons of overlap and synergy there. I’m really happy that at this year’s festival we will already have a moment of connection because Alicia Malone and I are going to be introducing Lady Sings the Blues together. One of the reasons we settled on that film is because a costume that Diana Ross wears is featured in the opening exhibition at the Academy Museum. It was designed by Bob Mackie and Ray Aghayan. Bob actually found it in Paramount’s costume department and adapted it for the film. I love this costume, it’s a suit she wears when she’s having a business meeting and there’s a little bee on the pocket. You could probably find this costume in a bunch of classic Hollywood films and I love that it was reworked for Diana Ross to help bring this incredibly important artist to life. It’s not at all what you would think of when you think of a Bob Mackie costume, not extravagant in the same way that that comes to our minds, but it’s something that really shows the craft of costume design.

Danny Miller: I’ve been watching that amazing round theater that looks like the Death Star rise from the ground up on Fairfax and I can’t wait to see what kind of programming you have there. 

Jacqueline Stewart: The museum will be screening films seven days a week in that thousand-seat theater and doing all kinds of programming that is very much in the same vein as TCM—conversations with filmmakers and so on. I’m thrilled to be able to invite my fellow TCM hosts to be a part of our programming. It’s going to be a real treat. I can’t wait. 

Pola Changnon, Charlie Tabesh, and Genevieve McGillicuddy

Finally, we got a chance to chat with three TCM executives: TCM General Manager Pola Changnon, Senior Vice President of Programming Charlie Tabesh, and Festival Director Genevieve McGillicuddy. 

Danny Miller: I’ve attended every festival and sometimes I just pinch myself at the people I’ve been able to see and hear from there who are no longer with us. People like Luise Rainer, Maureen O’Hara, Tony Curtis, Debbie Reynolds, Baby Peggy, Kirk Douglas, and so many others. I wonder as we go forward and return to in-person festivals next year if your strategy for special guests will evolve and include more family members or film experts. 

Pola Chagnon: You’re right, it’s sort of the natural order of things that we’re not going to have access to some of those incredible stars over time. So we’re going to have to get creative and figure out ways to meaningfully pair people with films. And yes, sometimes it’s about family, sometimes it’s about different collaborators who worked on certain things over time with that talent. But we’re really eager to keep that chain of connection between those folks who made these movies and our audiences because we know what an impact that has. And, to your point, we all recognize how many remarkable people we’ve been fortunate enough to have at the festival who are no longer with us. In some cases, our festival event was the last big recognition and hug they got from their fans. And that feels really important to us that we were helpful in being that vehicle. But Charlie, please speak to that from a programming standpoint, too. 

Charlie Tabesh: Yeah, you said it really well, but we’ve always had that challenge. We always show pre-Codes at the festival because people love them and we love them, but, for the most part, we’re not going to find talent who were in those films. But we’re still going to find a way to play them and find people to come talk about them. That’s always going to be true, but of course, as time goes on, the talent that we can get will be different and evolving. As you said, we’ve lost so many people from the earlier classic era. We’re still going to work with the entire range of time, we’re not going to de-emphasize the older stuff, but yeah, the kinds of guests we have will change. If we can get Jeff Bridges to come with The Big Lebowski, that’ll be great, but if we want to show Baby Face, we might get a film expert to come and help give context to it or have Bruce Goldstein come and talk about pre-Code movies.  We’ll always do things like that, too! 

Genevieve McGillicuddy: Yeah, we’ll always show that range of films. What’s also important to the DNA of the festival that can only be done when we’re meeting in person are things like screening films in Cinerama, or showing nitrate films, or having silent films screened with a live orchestra. Those are cinematic experiences that you can really only capture in a theater. We’re very proud of doing those kinds of presentations and we will continue doing that in the future. 

Danny Miller: Because we all marked the wonderful Robert Osborne’s birthday this week, and I can tear up a bit just saying his name, can you talk a bit about the impact he had on you and how you view his legacy for the network going forward?

Pola Changnon: Everyone who watched the network knows what a unique person he was and his expertise was only exceeded by his generosity in sharing it. That came through in all personal interactions as well. Off camera, it was great just to sit around and chew the fat with him. He left such an impact on the team that worked with him day in and day out through production. For the network overall, everyone felt like it was the coolest uncle coming to visit when he would walk the floor and talk to people. He really cared about everyone who worked at this network. We are always having conversations about when is the right time to bring him into the conversation as far as what an audience is going to see. We certainly don’t ever want to forget him. 

What he did for us was truly foundational. Every other host on TCM is going to be measured by Robert’s bar. It’s very sad to think about him not being with us. I think the way Charlie programs Robert’s intros is really lovely and that it’s an ongoing acknowledgment of one of our founding fathers, regardless of the platform. It’s funny, I don’t know if you remember, Charlie, when we were trying to explain “streaming” to Robert and he was like, “I don’t get it. I don’t want it. I have a TV and that’s all I need!” So I think he’d be really surprised that we’re moving into this space and that he’ll be part of it. I think that’s really cool.

Charlie Tabesh: One thing I remember so clearly was that he was exactly the same in person as he was on the network — always gracious and welcoming and kind and warm. The way he made you feel so welcome when you watched TCM was how he was in person as well. He was the star when I came in and he was always so welcoming to me and made me feel really special. And, of course, he obviously knew his stuff inside and out. It wasn’t just a host up there talking, he really knew it all, and I think that became part of the TCM brand and part of the TCM personality that could only have happened with somebody like Robert there to establish it.

Genevieve McGillicuddy: It was a lot of fun planning the festival with Robert every year. He’d certainly done many appearances before and I had worked with him on some of those, but this was a different animal. It was so great to hang out with him backstage during the festival and seeing him interact with talent and then seeing what would happen on stage. And, most importantly, I think he got such a big kick out of meeting people who came to the festival from all over the country and all over the world, getting that time to talk with them and take endless pictures. I remember at the closing night at Club TCM at the very first festival in 2010. Fans were gathering around Robert and suddenly we realized that there was this enormous line of people waiting to talk to him and get a photo taken. And Robert stood there until he talked to every single person. It was just so fun to work with him on this event.

The 2021 TCM Classic Film Festival will run from May 6 to May 9, 2021, on TCM and on HBO Max.

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–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: Tom Drake

Classic Movie Travels: Tom Drake

Tom Drake Headshot
Tom Drake

While Tom Drake is arguably best remembered as the “Boy Next Door” to Judy Garland’s Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Drake also made his mark as an actor in a variety of films as well as television appearances.

Drake was born Alfred “Buddy” Sinclair Alderice on August 5, 1918, in Brooklyn, New York, to parents Alfred and Gertrude Alderice. His father worked as a wholesale merchant and the family also typically had at least one maid under their employ.

He also had a sister named Claire Kennedy. Drake completed his education at Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle, New York, and Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He developed an interest in acting and made his Broadway debut in Run Sheep Run, followed by a role in Clean Beds, billed as Alfred Alderice. Beyond the stage, he worked in British training films during the war years, taking on the stage name of Richard Alden.

Drake’s initial appearances in feature films were uncredited, beginning with an extra role in Our Town (1940). However, his big break would come in 1942 with his work in Broadway’s Janie, leading to a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he would take on the stage name Tom Drake.

Judy Garland and Tom Drake in Meet Me in St.Louis (1944)
Judy Garland and Tom Drake in Meet Me in St.Louis (1944)

While at MGM, Drake took on supporting roles in films like Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) and small roles in Marriage is a Private Affair (1944) and Mrs. Parkington (1944). His most notable role would come in the same year in Meet Me in St. Louis, as a love interest to Garland’s character.

In 1945, Drake married Isabelle Dunn. The couple would divorce one year later.

Following the success of Meet Me in St. Louis, Drake was placed in leading roles in This Man’s Navy (1944), The Green Years (1946), and Courage of Lassie (1946). In addition, he also portrayed composer Richard Rodgers in Words and Music (1948). Drake would also be loaned to Universal for I’ll Be Yours (1947) and to Fox for Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949). After the war, Drake appeared in roughly 30 films altogether.

Mickey Rooney, Tom Drake, Janet Leigh, and Betty Garrett in Words and Music (1948)
Mickey Rooney, Tom Drake, Janet Leigh, and Betty Garrett in Words and Music (1948)

In the 1950s, Drake fulfilled guest appearances on various television shows, including The Ford Theatre Hour, Lassie, Perry Mason, The Singing Nun, and many more.

 By the 1970s, his career was declining, as was his health. He found work as a used car salesman after his acting career ended. Drake passed away on August 11, 1982, from lung cancer at Torrance Memorial Hospital in Torrance, California. He was buried at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California.

Today, some locations in connection with Drake’s life remain. Initially, his family resided at 133 Elk Ave in New Rochelle, New York. This is the home today:

Tom Drake's home on 133 Elk Ave in New Rochelle, New York
Drake’s home on 133 Elk Ave in New Rochelle, New York

By 1930, Drake’s mother was widowed. The family relocated to 18 Rosehill Ave in New Rochelle. This is the home at present:

Tom Drake home 18 Rosehill Ave, New Rochelle, NY
18 Rosehill Ave, New Rochelle, NY

Drake’s alma mater of Iona Preparatory as well as Mercersburg Academy both continue to operate as educational institutions. Iona Preparatory is located at 255 Wilmot Rd. in New Rochelle.

Tom Drake Iona Preparatory, 255 Wilmot Rd., New Rochelle, NY
Iona Preparatory, 255 Wilmot Rd., New Rochelle, NY

Mercersburg Academy is located at 100 Academy Dr. in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

Tom Drake Mercersburg Academy, 100 Academy Dr., Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.
Mercersburg Academy, 100 Academy Dr., Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

According to his 1940 draft card, Drake listed a personal address as 25 Pryer Manor Rd in Larchmont, New York, though he noted that mail should be directed to his sister at 115 W 11th St. in New York. This is the Larchmont location today:

Tom Drake 25 Pryer Manor Rd., Larchmont, New York
25 Pryer Manor Rd., Larchmont, New York

Below is the 11th St. address:

Tom Drake 115 W 11th St., New York, NY
115 W 11th St., New York, NY

Drake continues to be remembered for his fine work in films, taking on musical, comedic, and dramatic roles.

–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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Cinemallennials: Shane (1953)

Cinemallennials: Shane (1953)

Cinemallennials Shane

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cinemallennials, it is a bi-weekly podcast in which I, and another millennial, watch a classic film that we’ve never seen before, and discuss its significance and relevance in today’s world.

In today’s episode, I talked with Andreas Babiolakis, creator of FilmsFatale.com, about Shane, a western that packs both heat and heart, directed by the great George Stevens, and starring Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur (in her last role on the silver screen), Van Heflin, and Brandon deWilde.

director George Stevens
Director George Stevens

Whether comedies like Swing Time and Vivacious Lady or dramas like Alice Adams and Giant, Stevens’ films were always at the forefront of filmmaking in Hollywood. From his early days as a cameraman for Laurel and Hardy shorts in the 1920s to his later directorial achievements such as A Place in the Sun, Gunga Din, The More the Merrier, The Diary of Anne Frank and The Greatest Story Ever Told, Stevens’ humanist empathy, great sense of comedic timing, fly-on-the-wall perspective, and vast scope still make an impact on filmmaking today.  

The Starretts, Shane Brandon de Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Alan Ladd
Brandon deWilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, and Alan Ladd

Shane follows the story of a mysterious wanderer named Shane (Alan Ladd) who rides into the lives of homesteaders Joe (Van Heflin), Marion (Jean Arthur), and their son Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) on the wide-ranging plains of Wyoming. Joey is immediately enamored with Shane and his ornamented gun belt, dreaming that Shane must be a great hero. Shane believes he has found his little patch of paradise until he is thrust into an ongoing war between the homesteaders and the local cattle baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), and his gang. Shane feels he must act in order to protect the Starretts – and to redeem himself from his shrouded past.

During this episode, Andreas and I will be discussing hero worship and its dangers, how our personal decisions can affect not only ourselves but also those around us, how classic films approached wealth inequality, and the film’s direct influence on the 2017 superhero drama, Logan.

Hugh Jackman Logan, Alan Ladd Shane
Hugh Jackman in Logan, and Alan Ladd in Shane

Throughout the film, Joey is enamored by Shane’s attire and weaponry. He follows Shane around as if he were a god amongst mere mortals. Joey, like many other boys, worships at the feet of the legend of gunslingers and their form of vigilante justice, not fully realizing the extent of the consequences that violence brings upon all involved. Hollywood’s golden age inspired many young boys to romanticize violence and weaponry. I, myself, was one of those boys, and have now since learned better, but Shane, subverts that message in a time when the western was still top billing. 

Alan Ladd Shane
Alan Ladd

At the conclusion of Shane, our hero makes sure to tell his acolyte the truth about who he is, what he does, and how it negatively affects both himself and those around him. “Joey, there’s no living with… with a killing. There’s no going back from one. Right or wrong it’s a brand and a brand sticks. There’s no going back.” Shane knows that Joey could potentially turn into someone like himself and wants Joey to break that violent cycle. In Alan Ladd’s performance, you feel the deep pain of the weight of his past gunslinging and how he desperately wishes he could break from who he was, and is, because of the violence he has committed. He wants Joey to know the reality and consequences of his “hero’s” actions, but Joey doesn’t understand and doesn’t want Shane to leave. All Shane can do is to remove himself from the situation and hope, just like maybe Stevens hoped with the film, that the realities of violence would be revealed to Joey (and the audience) in an impactful way.

I hope you enjoy this episode of Cinemallennials, which you can find here on apple podcasts or on spotify. Please reach out to me as I would love to hear your thoughts on Paths of Glory, especially if you’re a first-time viewer too!

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— Dave Lewis for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Dave’s CMH Cinemallennials articles here.

Dave Lewis is the producer, writer, and host of Cinemallennials, a podcast where he and another millennial watch a classic film that they haven’t seen before ranging from the early 1900s to the late 1960s and discuss its significance and relevance in our world today. Before writing for Classic Movie Hub, Dave wrote about Irish and Irish-American history, the Gaelic Athletic Association in the United States, and Irish innovators for Irish America magazine. You can find more episodes of Cinemallennials, film reviews and historical analyses, on Dave’s website dlewmoviereview.com or his YouTube channel.

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What’s Streaming in May on the CMH Channel at Best Classics Ever? Angel and the Badman, Meet John Doe and Cheating Blondes

Our May Picks on the Classic Movie Hub Channel
May Birthdays and Mysterious Mayhem!

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!

That said, here are some of our May classic movie picks available for FREE STREAMING all month long on the CMH Channel. All you need to do is click on the movie/show of your choice, then click ‘play’ — you do not have to opt for a 7-day trial.

In celebration of May Birthdays, we’re featuring western icon John Wayne (born May 26, 1907) with Angel and the Badman co-starring Gail Russell – and dance icon Fred Astaire (born May 10, 1899) with Royal Wedding opposite Jane Powell. We’re also celebrating Gary Cooper’s and Frank Capra’s birthdays (May 7, 1901, and May 18, 1897, respectively) with Meet John Doe, and director Howard Hawk’s birthday (May 30, 1896) with screwball comedy His Girl Friday starring Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell and Ralph Bellamy. We’ll also be showing Road to Bali in honor of both Bing Crosby’s and Bob Hope’s birthdays this month (May 3, 1903, and May 29, 1903). And more…

angel and the badman movie poster
From 1947, Angel and the Badman was written and directed by James Edward Grant, and starred John Wayne, Gail Russell, Harry Carey, and Bruce Cabot. It is the first film that Wayne produced as well as starred in.
his girl friday poster
Screwball comedy, His Girl Friday, from 1940, was directed by Howard Hawks, and starred Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy.
meet john doe movie poster
A classic among classics, Meet John Doe, from 1941, was directed and produced by Frank Capra, written by Robert Riskin, and starred Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. 

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We’re also celebrating Mysterious Mayhem with some mysteries and noirs.

and then there were none movie poster
And Then There Were None, from 1945, is a film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 mystery novel of the same name, directed by René Clair.
cheating blondes movie poster
Cheating Blondes, a 1933 precode mystery, was directed by Joseph Levering, and starred Thelma Todd, Ralf Harolde, and Inez Courtney.

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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

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Silents are Golden: A Closer Look – The General (1926)

Silents are Golden: A Closer Look – The General (1926)

Often called one of the finest silent films of all time – some people even consider it the finest – Buster Keaton’s masterwork The General (1926) still feels wonderfully fresh nearly 100 years later. Handsomely photographed and proudly recreating its historical time period with careful detail, it’s an impressive showcase for Keaton’s filmmaking skills – and some of his finest stunts, too.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

By the mid-1920s, most major comedians had proudly transitioned from making short comedies to features. Audience expectations for good comedies were high and they liked frameworks of dramatic stories rather than just slapstick. Keaton had already made several popular feature-length comedies including the period picture Our Hospitality (1923) and the big hit The Navigator (1924), and was keenly aware of the trends of the day.

Gagwriter Clyde Bruckman likely knew this when he brought him the Civil War memoir The Great Locomotive Chase by William Pittenger, recounting the Andrews Raid where Union soldiers stole a train and attempted to cut off the Confederates’ supply lines. Keaton was instantly fascinated by the gripping story (the original title was Daring and Suffering: a History of the Great Railway Adventure), and decided to turn it into his next comedy. At the time the old South was considered the “noble loser” (many Civil War veterans and their families were still alive as well), so he made his main character the Southern engineer who loses The General, dubbing him Johnnie Gray.

Buster Keaton The General (1926) General Locomotive
Today, the real “The General” locomotive, built in 1855 in Paterson, New Jersey, is at the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia.

Excited about recreating the Civil War period on-screen – he wanted it to look “so authentic it hurts” – Keaton hoped to film around the border between Georgia and Tennessee where much of the original train chase took place. He even wanted to use the actual The General locomotive, then being displayed at the Union Depot in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Unfortunately, the border area was too developed to pass for the rural 1860s, and the Tennessee government balked at loaning out The General. But he did find an ideal location around the sleepy town of Cottage Grove, Oregon, which was full of forested hills and plenty of train tracks. In May 1926 Keaton moved his company and 18 boxcars of costumes, filmmaking equipment, recreations of Civil War weapons, remodeled train engines, etc. to Cottage Grove, and work on his ambitious film began.

The General (1926) Buster Keaton Rail Post
“Keaton moved his company and 18 boxcars of costumes, filmmaking equipment, recreations of Civil War weapons, remodeled train engines, etc. to Cottage Grove, Oregon”

For everyone involved, it was an exciting, memorable summer – full of hard work but plenty of fun too. The citizens of Cottage Grove were ecstatic over being the “Hollywood of Oregon” and the local newspaper breathlessly covered every detail of the filming. Folks from nearby towns flocked in to watch the famous comedian at work. At the end of a day’s filming Keaton and his crew would sometimes host a dance or put on a show for the locals. He also squeezed in fishing and baseball whenever he could, even fixing up Cottage Grove’s local ballpark free of charge. The town could hardly have asked for a more agreeable crew of “movie people.”

The General (1926) Buster Keaton train stunt crowd
Scene of the crowd gathered to watch Keaton’s train stunt

To play the Civil War soldiers, Keaton recruited 500 of Oregon’s National Guardsmen, clad in period-accurate uniforms. His father, Joe Keaton, was also recruited for a small role as a Union general, and brunette Marion Mack was chosen to play his slightly bird-brained leading lady. Locals often saw Marion biking around town while not on set, and Keaton got a kick out of playing pranks on her. He concocted the scene with the water spout, for instance, without telling her that the spout was going to gush water all over her. Her surprised reaction is in the film today.

Buster Keaton and Marion Mack The General (1926)
Buster Keaton and Marion Mack

Filming wasn’t always easy, especially when the summer heat sometimes broke 100 degrees. Keaton’s stunts were frequently dangerous, especially since many involved running and climbing around on moving trains. The charming gag where Johnny sits on a train’s piston and it slowly moves him up and down could have killed him if too much steam had caused the engine to spin its wheels. During the battle scenes, two soldiers almost drowned in the rapids, and Keaton was knocked unconscious by a cannon blast. A forest fire even started at one point, allegedly by sparks from the wheels of the 1860s-styled trains, and Keaton and his crew personally helped beat back the flames with their shirts and pants.

The crown jewel of the shoot was the single most expensive stunt in silent film history, a train crashing from a dynamited bridge into a river. That July day thousands of people flocked to watch the stunt, some shuttled in by morning trains. A special trestle had been built, loaded with strategically-placed explosives. At three in the afternoon, the signal was given and six cameras cranked side-by-side as the train began crossing the trestle. When it reached the middle the dynamite went off and the train plunged smoothly into the water. The paper reported that Keaton was “as happy as a kid” over how well the stunt turned out.

The General (1926) train-on-the-bridge scene
The notorious train-on-the-bridge scene

Today, it’s often mentioned that The General was negatively reviewed, and thanks to its expensive shoot it’s considered a flop as well. There’s likely room for more research here, especially since many of the negative reviews seem to have come from the New York newspapers (or so this writer has heard), and the box office numbers cited didn’t always include foreign markets. But Buster himself said: “…It held an audience. They were interested in it – from start to finish – and there was enough laughter to satisfy.” Marion Mack would also insist, “It was the audiences that made it such a hit, the studio never realized what a gem they had on their hands until the money started rolling in.” At any rate, as far as they were concerned The General had been a success. 

Buster Keaton reading The General (1926)
Trivia: Keaton shot 200,000 feet (almost 38 miles) of film for this picture.

If it was indeed overlooked in the 1920s, The General has since stood the test of time. It’s also survived in extraordinarily beautiful condition, as clear and crisp as it was a century ago. When we take in its timeless humor and breathtaking stunts today, it’s not hard to see why Keaton once said: “I was more proud of that picture, I suppose, than any other picture I ever made, because I took an actual happening out of the Civil War, out of the history book. And I told it in detail, too.”

The General (1926) Buster Keaton
Keaton dressed as a Union General

–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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Noir Nook: Not Your Average Noir

Noir Nook: Not Your Average Noir

Ladies in Retirement (1941) Movie Poster
Ladies in Retirement (1941)

What are the characteristics of film noir?

Femme Fatales? Voiceover narration? Flashbacks? Cynical anti-hero? Deep shadows and single-source lighting? Urban setting? Unique camera angles? Hard-boiled detective?

Yes. And no.

You won’t find every one of these qualities in every film noir. And not having any or all of these qualities doesn’t mean a film isn’t noir. 

In this month’s Noir Nook, I’m taking a look at a film that doesn’t have many of these typical characteristics, but which I maintain is nonetheless indisputably noir: Ladies in Retirement, a 1941 Columbia feature starring Ida Lupino, Louis Hayward, Elsa Lanchester, and Evelyn Keyes.

What’s it about?

Lupino plays Ellen Creed, who works in the English countryside as a live-in housekeeper and companion to former actress Leonora Fiske (Isobel Elsom). Ellen also is the caretaker – from a distance – for her two sisters, who are eccentric at best, and borderline criminal at worst. When her sisters are threatened with eviction from their London lodgings because of their bad behavior, Ellen relocates them to her employer’s home, but the solution turns out to be less than ideal. And Ellen’s woes are exacerbated by the unexpected appearance of a distant relative (Hayward) who’s clearly up to no good.

Ladies in Retirement (1941) Evelyn Keyes
Evelyn Keyes

What’s not noir?

  • Far from a modern setting in a city like San Francisco, Chicago, or New York, Ladies in Retirement takes place in rural England during the Victorian era.
  • The story is presented in a straightforward fashion, with no flashbacks and no narrator.
  • There’s no detective or similar authority figure driving a criminal investigation, nor does the film contain a character who serves as an anti-hero.
Ladies in Retirement (1941) Louis Hayward and Ida Lupino
Louis Hayward & Ida Lupino

What’s noir?

  • Although her motivations leaned more toward necessity and desperation than avarice and desire, Ellen is clearly a fatal femme. Unlike many femmes of this type, she didn’t use her feminine wiles to bamboozle a hapless male; instead, she took matters into her own hands. Literally.
  • With the exception of a few scenes, the primary action in the film takes place within the confines of Mrs. Fiske’s home, where atmospheric shadows serve to underscore the film’s tension. Outside, an ever-present mist adds to the constant sensation of apprehension.
  • The cinematography deftly utilizes close-ups on the faces of the characters, particularly Ellen’s. In each instance, this device allows the viewer to experience the character’s growing anguish and dread.

What’s the bottom line?

Ladies in Retirement certainly isn’t your garden variety noir, but it contains several strong noirish elements. Most importantly, in addition to these characteristics, the film operates from the opening scene under a feeling of impending doom – the sensation that things are not going to turn out well. And that’s the unmistakable mark of film noir.

– 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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