Monday, April 7, 2008
If you've ever dipped your toe into the world of financial services in your career path, you've probably attended at least one or two of those corporate pep rallies dressed up as "informational seminars."
In the early sound film that TCM slipped by most of us last month, called High Pressure (1932), the irresistible William Powell, ably assisted by the puppy dog devotion of Frank McHugh, plays ringmaster to a crowd of ethnically diverse salesmen at a hilarious parody of such a gathering.
Based on a play by Aben Kandel (who would later write the novel that was the basis of 1940's City for Conquest) with the appropriate title of Hot Money, the story was credited to Joseph Jackson and S.J. Peters. Still, it is what the leading man brings to the role that initially made me take notice of this quite obscure movie.
The fairly dazzling display of charisma and ruthless pandering to the herd by a masterful, pre-Thin Man William Powell seems to indicate just how likable the glib actor would be in the sound era--even when playing what might have been a two dimensional mountebank in less skilled hands. As a matter of fact, I don't think I've ever seen a movie that features such an outpouring of Powell's very funny and occasionally scary ability to manipulate a crowd. In a farcical scene demonstrating capitalism run amok, our man Bill appeals to a small sea of humanity, inflaming their Greek, Irish, Italian and plain ol' American instincts for a fast buck. Personifying the "Dynamic Personality" that he's urging the gang of salesmen to adopt, he gives a whiz-bang inspirational talk that weaves Columbus, the Wright brothers, and the Warner brothers pioneering Vitaphone, (natch), into one breathless admonition to sell, sell sell!
Her features were always considered too large to fit the Hollywood studio mold of prettiness, yet artist Isamu Noguchi sculpted a bust of uncommon beauty of her head and the elegant Cecil Beaton thought that what some have described as "melancholy features" made a fine photographic subject.
The serene maternal warmth of her smile could shift into a dour and sometimes acerbic look but she could never, ever look dumb. When a role needed to convey a weariness of soul as well as body, along with a healthy streak of sarcasm, wise filmmakers sent for Aline MacMahon. One Hollywood casting director once placed Miss MacMahon "among the 10 smartest actresses, in a class with Miss Hepburn and Helen Hayes" in the 1930s. Maybe that sharp mind and knowing look she cultivated scared the Hollywood types off. "Brains" rarely seems to be the top criterion for casting in Hollywood in the '30s, though MacMahon certainly gave movies a good try in that decade--fortunately for us.
Sure, we all think we know Charles Boyer. If you grew up in America in the last fifty years, you might be tempted to launch into a fractured French version of "come wit me, to ze casbah" or conclude that Pepé Le Pew might be a spot-on imitation of M. Boyer, even without knowing that this misrepresentation caricatures only one half-remembered film, Algiers (1937), a movie in which he did not ask anyone to join him in ze casbah. But I think you might be shortchanging yourself. And Boyer.
In a rare meeting late in the lives of the stars of Leo McCarey's Love Affair (1939), (which can be seen on TCM this Thursday, March 20th at 4: 30PM ET), Irene Dunne reportedly mentioned to Boyer that she had recently seen the film once again. Unexpectedly moved after so much time since the production, Ms. Dunne was said to have commented to to her co-star, "You know, Charles, you were really good." With what may have been one of his characteristic Gallic shrugs and a small smile, his reply was said to have been "Ah, so you finally looked at me." Maybe it's time we all looked a bit more carefully at him again.
The penultimate John Ford feature film, Young Cassidy (1965), completed by master cinematographer and underrated journeyman director Jack Cardiff, airs this coming Monday at 6 PM ET on TCM. It is, appropriately enough, scheduled for St. Patrick's Day, March 17th. The film, which is not available on vhs or dvd, sank from sight soon after it premiered in March of 1965, but eventually became a vivid part of the annual celebration of that day, thanks in large part to the repetition of this "beautiful failure" on the Million Dollar Movie on New York channel WOR in the sixties and seventies.
These are some of the "nicer" terms that I was reminded of when my fellow blogger HighHurdler mentioned that Outward Bound (1930), the first talking picture that featured Leslie Howard, who went on to acclaim in a memorable adaptation of Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1934). In recent years, I've seen the above terms applied to one of the biggest box office names on Broadway and in the movies between the two world wars by today's observers. Sure, tastes change. Movies got grittier, notions of masculinity became coarser, and in many cases, movies became more realistic. These cultural shifts seem to have trapped the actor Leslie Howard—in celluloid, as it were, especially by those who vehemently reject the ineffectual character he played in Gone With the Wind (1939).
Nothing I write can change the impression made on millions by Ashley Wilkes, the appealing yet wistful moral weakling whose image fills the imagination of a naïve sixteen year old Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), especially after he lies just out of her reach by becoming the hubby of a sedate cousin, Melanie Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland).
What were they thinking?
On days like this, when the wind blows across from Canada and the thermometer never creeps much above 12 degrees, I look for my favorite winter hat. It's a shapeless black felt one, but cozy, durable, and it never seems to mind if I wind up stuffing it into my coat pocket. I call it my "Thelma Ritter" hat because, like the actress, (who was born and died in the month of February), it is unpretentious and always welcome, even if it will never be chic. And I'd miss it if it were gone.
Like Miss Ritter, who was nominated for a remarkable six Academy Awards® in twelve years*, that hat is familiar, yet remarkably versatile in its useful life. Despite the fact that she usually played variations of a Shakespearean "wise fool", she often played a person whose keen awareness of her place in our supposedly classless society made her secure enough in it to voice her opinions without fear.
As a matter of fact, her essential characters are often too exhausted not to be wholly honest. In one of her darkest and most poignant roles, that of the necktie street vendor in filmmaker Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street (1953), Ritter's bone tiredness took on a tragic resignation as she hung on, she hoped, just long enough to "go on making a living so I can die" and not wind up in Potter's field as she feared. The film, which cast an unrelenting, cold eye on the law, the lawless and the chill in the air caused by postwar greed as much as by fear of Communism, offered up one person the audience could feel compassion for: Thelma Ritter's character, Moe Williams.
Numerous celebrities were anxious to participate, including everyone from media bigwigs such as David Sarnoff, Leonard Goldenson, and William Paley to Lucy and Desi. Helen Hayes even impersonated Harriet Beecher Stowe and Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer lent their sophisticated presence to a very American show while J. Edgar Hoover reportedly ducked his chance for a close-up behind a table lamp.
Naturally, for a show that was such a hodge-podge, the Statue of Liberty was played by that American Everywoman, Thelma Ritter. Unfortunately, kinescopes of this strange event only exist of the last thirty minutes of the show, if at all, and we can only read about this "typecasting" of Miss Ritter. Usually looking like a cross between Mother Courage and a cafeteria lunch lady, Thelma, like the lady in the harbor, never seems to have been fully appreciated either. Sure, they awarded her six Oscar nominations in her time, but received no wins. What were they thinking?
An actress from the time she was about 8, who described herself as "an obnoxious child actress—a poor man's Cornelia Otis Skinner...", she was 45 by the time she first stepped in front of the camera in director George Seaton's Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Even that part was uncredited, though audiences noted her amusingly blunt attitude when she told off Macy's Santa (Edmund Gwenn) for making a promise to a boy of a toy that couldn't be found, (only to discover that St. Nick was sending her to Gimbel's for the desired item).
Thelma Ritter's indelibly real presence was noted by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck who soon put her under contract at Twentieth Century Fox. Thelma had been given her part in "Miracle..." largely because she'd grown up in Brooklyn with George Seaton's wife. Audiences however, knew the real thing when they saw her and her career on screen took off the following year when Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave her a plum role in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), (for which she was also uncredited).
Mankiewicz, who would repeatedly explore the theme of the effects of ambition on his characters, was blessed with Ritter's presence in allegedly subservient roles as truth-tellers disguised as maids in this picture and All About Eve(1950).
In the funniest of the segments in A Letter to Three Wives, Ritter is given lines by Mankiewicz that you instantly forget she didn't write. Playing a maid named "Sadie Dugan" in the home of the upwardly mobile couple, English teacher Kirk Douglas and radio soap opera writer Ann Sothern, she is more at home in their house than they are. Sadie has known everyone she works for since they were children.
Their airs cut no ice with her. Eyeing a maid's frilly hat that the earnest yet ambitious Sothern asked her to wear while serving dinner to their important guests, Sadie announces, "The cap's out. Makes me look like a lamb chop with pants on." Commenting on Sothern's ghastly radio show, she smiles and asks appreciatively, ""Do you know what I like about your program? Even when I'm running the vacuum, I can understand it." Best of all are the silent moments of Ritter's performance, as when she struggles laboriously with the screen separating the living room from the dining area during a dinner party. Almost overwhelmed by the unwieldy and heavy screen, it finally collapses, disrupting any pretense of polite chit chat among the guests as Sadie (Thelma Ritter) announces wanly "Soup's on."
Later in the film, in a segment when Ritter and another masterful character actress, Connie Gilchrist pause while a train goes by outside the kitchen of the shanty Irish home where they are playing cards, you are able to see, (please click here ), two old friends used to fending off reality with a lifetime of wisecracks.
In All About Eve (1950), Joseph Mankiewicz, (finally giving Ritter name recognition in the credits), fashioned her role as the ex-vaudevillian turned ladie's maid for Ritter's gift for wariness tempered by her ability to express gruff affection with a look and a few words. When, at the beginning of the film, Thelma responds to the waif-like Eve (Ann Baxter) and her tale of woe with the classic comment "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end," her employer Margo, (Bette Davis) accuses her of lacking finer feelings. Throughout the film, Birdie, like a wise-cracking sybil, drops several hints that the "kid" as Davis begins calling Eve, may not be quite what she appears to be, while the alleged sophisticates surrounding Ritter fall, one by one, at least for awhile, for Eve's stratagems. Finally catching on, Margo finally asks Thelma: "Birdie, you don't like Eve, do you? Birdie: "You looking for an answer or an argument?" Margo:"An answer." Birdie: "No." Margo:"Why not?" Birdie: "Now you want an argument." Clearly, with the exception of the venomous Addison DeWitt, (George Sanders in one of his best roles), Birdie is the only person who sees things as they are.
As Ritter's dramatic and comic qualities came to be appreciated, (and popular with the public), the actress, who had trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts , found herself in demand by several talented directors. She lent her sound instincts and flair for revealing characters beyond what was on the pages of a script to Mitchell Leisen's The Mating Season, George Cukor's The Model and the Marriage Broker, Jean Negulesco's Titanic, Hitchcock's Rear Window, old friend George Seaton's The Proud and the Profane, and Frank Capra's A Hole in the Head.
Most interestingly of all, to me, was one of her least likable roles. Ritter's portrait of the deeply loyal yet coldly disciplined mother of Robert Stroud is among her very best. She plays a seemingly ordinary woman emboldened by her single- minded drive to protect and control her son, played by Burt Lancaster, in an eloquent performance that was said to be miles away from the real, quite violent Mr. Stroud, in John Frankenheimer's Birdman of Alcatraz.
She also found energy and time to play a part that had been played earlier by Marie Dressler in the late actress' last role on screen in 1933. In a 1955 "20th Century Fox Hour" television production of Sidney Howard's play, The Late Christopher Bean Miss Ritter played a woman whose beauty had only been perceived by a drunken artist whose vision only became valuable after his artwork, in particular a portrait of Ritter's humble character became valuable to the art world. Part comedy and wry drama, a recording of this one hour program does pop up on cable occasionally and Ritter makes it memorable.
Playwright and friend Paddy Chayevsky wrote in the New York Times after Thelma Ritter's death that "...she was enormous, not the sort of epithet usually pinned on Miss Ritter, who was known particularly for the astringency of her performance. Her acting emotion had first to filter through that urban crust of hers before it exhibited itself externally. Her power as an actress was consequently one of depth. Even her sketchiest roles had this substance of human embattlement. Given a role...she revealed to her audience the tragedy of the human condition, which is the definition of great acting. She was a supreme comedian and a kind and gentle woman who was esteemed by everyone who ever worked with her."
Originally published by me at MovieMorlocks.com, Feb. 27, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)
In All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), actor Lew Ayres played Paul Bäumer, a German soldier disillusioned by the horrors of World War I (the iconic scene of his reaching for a butterfly on the battlefield remains a classic image in world cinema). The film was the first all-talking non-musical film to win the Best Picture Oscar for its producer Carl Laemmle, Jr. and an additional Academy Award for director Lewis Milestone. It also received nominations for the remarkable work by Arthur Edeson for Best Cinematography and a nomination for the adapters of Erich Maria Remarque's 1929 autobiographical novel, George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, and Del Andrews. Actor Lew Ayres, who seems to me to be by turns awkward and quietly powerful in the film, received no nomination for the movie, though the film would have a far-reaching impact on his life.
The callow Ayres was, by his own admission at that early stage of his life and career, an unlikely choice. Having starred as an infatuated boy who unwittingly unleashes Greta Garbo's banked fires in her last silent, The Kiss (1929), he was not a complete unknown. According to the actor's recollection, he was, however, flustered when he made the off-the-cuff test that won him the part of the young German soldier.
|Lew Ayres with Greta Garbo in The Kiss (1929)|
Lew Ayres had read the book months before pre-production began and dreamed of playing the part. One of those up for the part was for 20 year old Lewis Ayres. George Cukor, a New York theater pro conducting the screentests, made Ayres uncomfortable. As Lew Ayres explained, Cukor "was used to polished theater actors and I was just a nobody from nowhere. He was perfectly frank about saying I didn't have the polish. All I had was this tremendous desire and I was the type." Ill at ease, and perhaps even a bit miffed at being treated as inadequate, something earnest and true came across in the test for the young German soldier. Fortunately for the actor, the ultimate choice for the part was up to Milestone, who saw the test. Since "polish" wasn't necessarily on his list of priorities for the part, he immediately announced "I think this is our man."
He was at a crossroads in his life and his career. He'd tried his best to find work in the new fad, the Talkies, but the camera apparently disliked him. A recent screen test for RKO to play the part of Hilary Farfield in a film adaptation of Clemence Dane's A Bill of Divorcement had seemed promising. In his effort to show the extent of what he could do, Rains had pulled out all the stops for the test by performing scenes from two of his tour de force stage performances from The Man Who Reclaimed His Head and Shaw's Man of Destiny. In retrospect, Rains knew that he'd made "the worst screen test in the history of movie-making." The dramatically flamboyant part in the movie of Dane's play went to John Barrymore.
|Above: Claude Rains with Vivien Leigh in Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra" (1946).|
Few other actors could have inspired bemused sympathy for the devil as well as a chill of recognition in his character in Angel on My Shoulder (1946). In a part that could easily have slipped into melodrama, his tragic, pedantic doctor in Kings Row (1942) blended a troubling mixture of the watchfully paternal with a distinctly Old Testament sense of order, (seeing his performance in this film as a youngster gave me one of my first hints that the bland surface of life should not be taken at face value). Even his most floridly theatrical parts, such as the protean composer Hollenius in Deception(1946), his imperious David Belasco in Lady With Red Hair (1940), and his nervously snickering, slightly effeminate King John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) benefited from his ability to endear his fairly insufferable characters to an audience while seemingly relishing playing them with true gusto.
|Above: Claude Rains as the sneakily amusing and despotic King John in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)|
Delivered as a soft-spoken realization on the part of Rains' character, this speech is devastating and pitiless in opening up a vein of briefly glimpsed despair in an otherwise earthbound film. Neophyte director Vincent Sherman was understandably concerned about directing his talented cast, especially Rains. In his autobiography, Studio Affairs: My Life as a Film Director, Sherman wrote that "[i]t is one thing to be friendly with an actor you have known in the past when he was the star of the show and you were just a small-part player, but something quite different when you are suddenly put in the position of directing him. You cannot avoid becoming a little nervous and wondering how he will feel about taking direction from you. I wasn't worried about [John] Garfield...[but] I was concerned about Claude Rains, with whom I had worked years before in several plays at the Theater Guild when he was the star and I played minor roles. I needn't have worried."
During a drunk scene when Sherman was trying to get the gifted but overplaying John Garfield to go beyond his usual brash screen persona at that early phase of his career, the director "suggested that the secret of acting a good drunk was to try not to appear drunk but to reveal it only sparingly. I happened to glance at Claude, who was in the scene. He smiled and noddded to me approvingly. It was a priceless moment for me."
In several better known movies, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Notorious (1946) I will watch them long after other details of their masterfully-constructed surfaces have paled for me simply because Claude Rains is there. Watch his pained expression as he listens to the filibustering Jimmy Stewart in the hall of Congress. Every idealistic syllable the youthful Senator utters pierces his calloused conscience, reminding him of what he was and might have been. Rains really doesn't speak much in his role in the Capra film, and most of his part is expressed in his changing face, from stony to bemused to anguished as he observes the youthful senator's political education.
|Above: Claude Rains in Notorious (1946) as the tormented lover of Ingrid Bergman in a scene with Leopoldine Konstantin, who played his icy mother. |
In Notorious (1946), his Nazi sympathizer seems the most truly guileless and recognizably and tragically human of the central characters. He's riddled with flaws, too in love with his wife (Ingrid Bergman), dominated by his icy mother (Leopoldine Konstantin), cowed by his fellow conspirators, but like so many of Rains' most complex and vivid characters, painfully self-aware in a way that transcends the story.
Yet, all these and more of the achievements remained in Mr. Rains' future in 1932.
What did he have to offer films back then? Claude Rains was on the shady side of forty, short, a bit stocky, had trouble pronouncing his "r" s, (according to no less an authority than John Gielgud), came from the wrong side of London, and, was not, he knew, the "arrow collar" type favored by films. What he did have, ironically, was what movies needed then: a voice, as well as over three decades of stage experience.
|Above: Claude Rains at age 18.|
|Above: Claude Rains photographed during an Australian tour in 1912 while in character during his early career.|
|Above: Claude Rains, offstage and away from the screen, happily pursuing the simple life in a rural setting.|
What did he have to show for it all? Some clippings, a few lasting friendships, two divorces, and one more rather shaky third long distance marriage (there would be six marriages in all) to a woman who was apparently not interested in living in the colonies, much less in the "wilds" of Lambertville, New Jersey.
As unlikely as it may seem, Claude Rains, born in one of the world's largest cities and a stage actor best known in the cosmopolitan theatrical world, longed to be a farmer. Enchanted with the idea of living in the historic Delaware Valley area , Rains had sunk his nest egg into a small homestead in the region, thinking, he thought, that if things got really tough as the economy worsened, he could at least grow his own food. In a gesture that would probably have been rejected by Belasco or De Mille as too melodramatic, however, Nature stepped in with a shattering thunderstorm, and a well-placed lightning bolt incinerated the farmhouse, sending Claude's dream of living off the land up in smoke for the time being. This made the actor very much available for a call from Hollywood to appear in an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man.
Agronomy's loss was cinema's gain.
|Above: Claude Rains is "seen" stealing a scene from his earnest co-star Gloria Stuart in The Invisible Man (1933).|
Fortunately for filmgoers everywhere, Frankenstein director James Whale was working on pre-production of his next film at Universal around this same time. Somewhere, he heard, and then saw that "terrible" screen test that Claude Rains had made. He knew immediately that the actor for perfect for the role. In 1940, a modest Rains would explain said that he "spurned [Hollywood's] offers. They told me they wanted to take me away from my art, from the stage, to play in their beastly movies. I wouldn't listen; I resented the mere suggestion! Then they cable me to say how much they would pay me and you couldn't see me for dust. I had my bags packed and was in Hollywood the next morning."
The beginning of the film career had begun. That first starring role as the addled scientist in The Invisible Man blended many of the artful qualities that Claude Rains would later beguile audiences with to this day: Humor, (though wildly manic in much of this film) informs nearly every role he played, beneath the surface of his characters if not overtly expressed in a script. There's always a sense of ironic detachment, a quality which seems to separate Rains from his fellow players while also allowing his characters to maintain the upper hand, (at least until the production code rights that imbalance in most films). An underlying longing for friendship and a hope for love is also in evidence here as it is in each of his more serious roles as well as his lighter ones. It's no wonder The Invisible Man(1933) was so popular--despite the fact that we only see Rains for a moment at the end of the film. How apt that his wonderfully modulated voice should carry the story along and add so much to his character!
And fortunately for Mr. Rains, in 1935 he was comfortable enough financially to buy a 40 acre farm in Pennsylvania where he and his third wife and cherished daughter Jessica would live throughout the forties and much of the fifties. While Claude Rains raised the level of the character actor to new artistic heights on screen, he never won an Academy Award, despite nominations for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Casablanca (1944), Mr. Skeffington (1945) and Notorious (1947). I'm only surprised that he wasn't nominated more often. Perhaps his lack of long term affiliation with only one studio made it more difficult for Rains to win a deserved Oscar in an insular company town where studios then engaged in "block voting" for nominations for AMPAS.
Behlmer, Rudy, Inside Warner Brothers (1935-1951), Viking Press, 1985.
Curtis, James, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters, University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
Sherman, Vincent, Studio Affairs: My Life As a Film Director, University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
Soister, John, Joanna Wioskowki, Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference to His Work in Film, Stage, Radio, Television and Recordings, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.
Originally published by me at MovieMorlocks.com, Feb. 13, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)
"They ask me where I've been,
And what I've done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn't I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands...
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name."
Living in an era when the auteur theory is dominant among film analysts, the name of a mere screenwriter such as John Monk Saunders may not be familiar to many of the viewers who enjoyed the seldom seen Wings (1927) the other night on TCM. The directors of his stories on film, Josef von Sternberg, William Wellman, Howard Hawks, William Dieterle and Edmund Goulding, are readily acknowledged as among the best of the medium.
These skilled directors undoubtedly made the work of this screenwriter come to life on the screen in Wings (1927), The Docks of New York (1928), The Dawn Patrol (1930 & 1938), The Finger Points (1931), and The Last Flight (1931), among other films, but perhaps we could take a moment to acknowledge the writer who provided the stories for these films. He was someone who "wanted to live dangerously and die young," said actress Fay Wray regretfully about him shortly before her death. Married to screenwriter John Monk Saunders for eleven sometimes sweet but often harrowing years, she knew the high cost of living in the wake of one of the more profligate members of that "lost generation."
For those who cherish the too often obscure names of screenwriters, Saunders is forever identified with aviation on film. As the author of ten films that dealt with pilot's experiences in The Great War (WWI to you and me), Saunders might be considered an authority in that field. Yet when the Armistice came in 1918, he was stationed in Florida training others to be pilots for the first aerial war. On that November night, Saunders would later recall, he went out alone onto the airfield and wept, his head resting on the wing of his plane. His grief was due to the fact that he'd never be a part of the experience that he'd hoped to share with others as a possible air ace. He never knew warfare except second hand, unless, of course, one counts the conflict that raged inside him during his brief life.
Born in Minnesota in 1895, he was the well-born son of a prominent federal attorney who grew up in the Seattle, Washington area. Attending the University of Washington when he joined the Air Service, he earned his degree, a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and eventually found his way back to New York, where he became a reporter for the New York Tribune in the early '20s.
Above: John Monk Saunders and Fay Wray on their wedding day in 1928.
He then became an associate editor at the American Magazine, (a publication that had been formed by the iconoclastic "muckraking" journalists, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell, among others. Saunders, however, whose amorphous political views were quite right wing, emulated the literary spirit of those icons of the Lost Generation, Ernest Hemingway and fellow native Minnesotan, F. Scott Fitzgerald. While Saunders developed an ear for screen dialogue that Fitzgerald appears never to have mastered, John Monk Saunders could never claim to be as fine a craftsman of prose as either of his contemporaries, though he may have outdone both of them in his rush toward oblivion. Like Fitzgerald, Saunders was also strikingly handsome before becoming dissipated, an educated man and a gifted storyteller whose bitterness reflected the self-destructive impulses of the generation who'd come of age during the First World War.
Some observers thought he clung to his guilt because he survived the war, believing he wore his romantic cynicism as a badge of honor, feeling justified in pursuing the drinking and dissolution that cut short his life even as he wrote some still startling anti-war scripts that characterized and shaped the feeling of a disillusioned public after the war. Despite the notable self-destructive parallels between the course of each writer's life, Fitzgerald's struggle to live was marginally longer than Saunders by eight months. As described by his second wife, Fay Wray, Saunders' plunge into nihilism may have been more precipitous than even that of Fitzgerald at the height of the Jazz Age.
An early broken marriage to Avis Hughes, (a step-daughter to Rupert Hughes, a once famed prolific writer himself and Howard Hughes' uncle) was followed by a headlong pursuit of literary notoriety and the fame and money that went with it in some circles. His sale of his popular short story "A Maker of Gestures", first published in Cosmopolitan magazine to Famous Players-Lasky Pictures in the mid-twenties, introduced Saunders to the hurly-burly of Hollywood in the '20s. Saunders' second marriage to the luminous young actress, Fay Wray, who had already appeared in films directed by von Stroheim, Wellman, and De Mille long before her encounter with King Kong, may have been instrumental in the writer's ongoing success socially and professionally. Wray would find herself increasingly intimidated by her husband in private, but as a hostess and a companion, she often intervened to mollify those irked by her husband's sometimes erratic behavior.
Approaching Jesse Lasky (above) with a film proposal based on his story, John Monk Saunders explained that the color, excitement and scope aerial combat had never been adequately depicted in any medium. Realizing that neither the proscenium arch of the stage nor the words between the pages of a book could capture the wonder and terror of the experience of WWI aerial combat, Saunders believed that the movies were far more capable of capturing the scale of duels between pilots, planes and balloons being shot down in flames against the sky for audiences. After convincing Lasky that this project might be commercially viable, the writer soon left for Washington, where he met with Secretary of War Dwight Davis.
Above: William Wellman at 31 (seated on the scaffold), a veteran flyer of WWI, becomes best known as a remarkably adept director of action and dramatic films with his Oscar-winning silent film, Wings (1931).
After securing the support of the U.S. military as well as the cooperation of Will Hays, then the head of the Motion Pictures Producers Association, it took six months to prepare the script, secure the crew, (with the especially fortuitous assignment of the WWI veteran pilot and then somewhat obscure William Wellman as director), find a cast, and arrange for location shooting in San Antonio, Texas, as well as the Los Angeles area. When the film began to come together, Saunders' script became secondary to the whole, but without the imagination, knowledge, and coordination of the scenarist, Wings might never have been produced.
Above: The Cast of Wings (1927), Charles "Buddy" Rogers, Clara Bow, and Richard Arlen.
Under contract to Jesse Lasky, a producer known for treating his writers with some respect, he began an long open liaison with Lasky's wife, Bessie, becoming one of the most popular figures socially in that period in the film capital's history. Eventually J.M.S. even married a movie star in 1928 when he wed 19 year old Fay Wray, who wrote eloquently about her mercurial husband in her autobiography, On the Other Hand (St. Martin's Press, 1989). While willingly seduced by the material excesses of early Hollywood, he was clearly aware of the contradictions of life in the film colony. Awarded an Oscar for the Howard Hawks version of The Dawn Patrol for best story of 1930, he was entangled in a lawsuit at the time. He dryly noted, ''This is indeed a crazy business where I am being sued for plagiarism on one hand and given the statuette for originality on the other.''
John Monk Saunders is best remembered for his memorable films centering on aviation, riding the crest of the public fascination with flying that coincided with Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Though flying on film had been a lively addition to movies almost from the beginning in 1903, Hollywood, which loved to repeat its hits, may have narrowed the scope of Saunders' work by pigeonholing him. He had used some of his newspaper experiences as background for his underworld stories in Docks of New York (1928) and had based the story of The Finger Points (1931) on the real life tale of a corrupt reporter fatally involved with Al Capone. Saunders, was, to a degree, a prisoner of his own successful aerial stories.
Above: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Richard Barthelmess in a still from the original version of The Dawn Patrol (1930), directed by Howard Hawks. (Photograph by Bert Longworth).
The overwhelming success of director William Wellman's Wings (1927), soon led Saunders to sell other movie scripts concerned with the lives of World War One fliers, from The Legion of the Condemned (a lost film from 1928), which starred Gary Cooper, Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), the merits of which film buffs debate when comparing it to the effective remake by Edmund Goulding in 1938. Dawn Patrol may be the best developed dramatic ensemble of Saunders' films, in part, no doubt from the added touches provided by directors Hawks, Goulding and the cast, which was headed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the original and Errol Flynn (giving the role his quietly sensitive best).
The Eagle and the Hawk(1933), a highly effective tale of a self-destructive pilot, well played by a guilt-wracked Fredric March whose role in the war leads him to oblivion. March was cast opposite a very young Cary Grant and in too few scenes, Carole Lombard. This film, which was produced at Paramount, is quite difficult to find, and, as far as I know, hasn't been broadcast on television in some time.
The Last Flight (1931) (from Saunders' and Ace of Aces (1933), both of which have appeared on TCM in the last year, are among the most effective films made from Saunders' short stories. These latter two films are remarkably fresh in their examination of the aftermath of modern combat as well as their rejection of pat concepts of heroism and military glory.
The first American movie made by William Dieterle is The Last Flight (1931), a beautifully realized story that caught a mood similar to that of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. The Last Flight was based on John Monk Saunders book, Single Lady, first printed in 1931 after first appearing as a series of short stories that the author wrote for Liberty Magazine. His central female character, Nikki, was a blend of the personalities of a wealthy young expatriate he'd met in Paris and was also clearly that of Fay Wray as well. The author also included references to his own compulsive behaviors in several of the male characters, whose alcoholism, despair, and profligacy matched his own spiral toward oblivion.
Above: The alcoholic haze permeates the story of the characters in The Last Flight (1931).
When made into a film, The Last Flight (1931) starred, (left to right in photo on the right) David Manners, an affectingly vulnerable Helen Chandler, Richard Barthelmess as a pilot with permanently scarred hands burned in a plane wreck, and Johnny Mack Brown. Almost all the characters are alcoholics who cling to one another in post-war Europe, rambling from Paris to Lisbon.
They are unable to face the past or the future, though the momentary prospect of forming a love outside this group provides Barthelemess and Chandler with a few moments of peace. The restrained air of romance, the endearing sadness and eccentricity of Chandler's slightly fey character creates one of the more fully realized female characters in Saunders' career. Nikki (Helen Chandler) doesn't kiss, she says, because of a crooked tooth, and she claims that she wears red shoes because "I can walk faster in red shoes", and she is fond of turtles. A touching scene between Barthelmess and Chandler at the tomb of Heloise and Abelard and one of the better performances by David Manners as the doomed Shep underline the plight of these characters whose sole reason for living is to distract one another from thinking too long or too deeply about the sights they've seen in the war.
Ace of Aces (1933), a tougher look at the corrosive effect of war, was based on Saunders' story "The Bird of Prey". The RKO movie, directed by J. Walter Ruben was a collaborative screenplay between John Monk Saunders and H.W. Hanemann deals in starkest dramatic terms with the underlying appeal of warfare, which, once described by Freud as a lid off the unconscious, allows human beings to revel in their every dark impulse via combat. Though the film is sometimes woodenly acted (by the lovely Elizabeth Allan in particular), and seems to have been made on a relatively small budget (with some noticeably cheesy aerial combat scenes), the movie is unforgettable because of the powerful dialogue Saunders provides and, if a viewer is willing to accept the abrupt transition of Dix's character, the dramatic impact of the movie is powerful still. The story focuses on a sensitive sculptor (Richard Dix) who, as a pacifist, registers as a conscientious objector when World War One breaks out, feeling that those who join the fray are lemmings "trying to reach a goal that doesn't exist." His girlfriend (Elizabeth Allan) strongly disagrees, accusing him of being afraid and shirking his debt to mankind by refusing to fight. She goes so far as to mark his coat with yellow chalk as a sign of cowardice. There is some suggestion that her own sexual frustrations with her situation and her self-involved beau may also color her beliefs.
Richard Dix, initially wanting simply to appease her, (rather unrealistically I thought) accepts that he should go to war. Abandoning pacifism in the brutal environment of aerial combat, Dix now spreads the blood he spills on his jacket (instead of the chalk), glorying in his transformation from a sensitive, civilized man into one capable of relishing the carnage that he has caused. Returning to his girlfriend on leave, she is appalled at the change in his character, though as he bluntly explains to her in a remarkably frank (if slightly stagey exchange): Nancy (Elizabeth Allan) says "You've changed. You're so different. Is this what the war has done to you?" to which Rocky (Dix) asks "Wasn't this what you wanted?" Having learned as the war went on what the human toll was of the conflict she is appalled at the squalor and misery of death in a mechanized war.
Condescendingly, Rocky (Dix) explains that for him, in the sky, "When death comes, it comes swiftly and cleanly. Ah," he exclaims, "it's a grand war. I only hope the next one is half as good. I used to think I could take clay and mold it into the semblance of a living thing. The closer it came to being alive, the greater my glory. The power of life is more than that, Nancy. Life--life for myself as I control my plane. And then death, swift and final in the squeeze of my fingers."
Richard Dix, who may be best remembered for his Oscar nominated role as the irrepressible Yancey Cravat in 1931's Cimarron, was an actor who may be unfairly perceived as lacking the subtlety of more modern actors, (Dix's style looks more flamboyant contrasted with Fredric March and Cary Grant's relatively understated work in The Eagle and the Hawk). However, he was capable of throwing himself full throttle into a role such as this that called for a remarkably brusque transformation because of that old fashioned bravado. When he brutally reunites with his mixed signal throwing girlfriend in Paris during a leave, he practically demands her to have sex with him.
Filled with bitterness, he throws her own previously expressed belief in the need for sacrifice during wartime back in her face, arguing that "This is no time for scruples, moral scruples. Everyone must make his sacrifice now. What are you in the face of the suffering of the world? How can you refuse whatever you have to give?" The end of this film, while tentatively holding out some hope for the pair once the war is ended, frankly reeks of underlying despair. The film, which was greeted by contemporary 1930s reviewers with indifference, has a bracing nihilism underneath the sometimes fustian veneer of the production. I suspect that those reviewers might be surprised to find that the film is still engaging in the 21st century.
Above: Mr. & Mrs. John Lodge with Fay Wray and John Monk Saunders at the premiere of De Mille's The Sign of the Cross (1933).
On film, at the distance of over 75 years, John Monk Saunders mastery of his recurrent themes in this seris of films has an elegiac charm, with a sometimes refreshingly adult approach to life. If the situations that were depicted--the poignant gallantry of those who've lost faith, the bravado, and the romanticized dissipation seem familiar now, it is in part because these themes, many of which originated with Saunders, have been reworked one too many times by lesser hands.
Unfortunately, the devil-may-care qualities and pursuits of on the screen proved less charming in private as Saunders descent into oblivion began in earnest by the early thirties. There were some who believed that the writer's erratic private and public behavior had made him unofficially "blacklisted" and unemployable as he approached the age of forty.
There were reports that he was sometimes openly anti-Semitic--a more common reflex among many Americans of his station and generation, despite the professional and personal help his Jewish employers and colleagues had given him--and he is said to have voiced a hope to travel to Germany to "help Hitler" at one point. Others were appalled by the increasingly dissolute writer's behavior. One such incident occurred during a party at the home of filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch. Saunders took a poke at WWI veteran Herbert Marshall (left) while attending a cocktail party there in the mid-1930s.
Above: WWI veteran and actor Herbert Marshall (1890-1966), as he appeared around the time of his 1930s encounter with John Monk Saunders.
The fact that Saunders' reported fight was with a man who'd lost his leg in the First World War, and consequently made a poor choice for a sparring partner, made this evening rather notorious. It also didn't help that some of the details found their way into a column by Walter Winchell. While Saunders dried out from his longer benders from time to time, eventually, as the hard working Fay Wray learned to her chagrin, he could not avoid sinking further into a dependence on drugs as well as his alcoholism overwhelmed his life. Aware of his numerous affairs with other women, Wray expressed regret that she couldn't be as articulate as she supposed his other women were with her Oxford educated husband.
While Fay Wray went on to a different kind of immortality in small and large roles, (one memorable one opposite a certain King Kong comes to mind), she had a daughter Susan by John Monk Saunders at a time when their marriage was at its most precarious. A series of attempted reconciliations and separations culminated in a period when Saunders "injected [Fay Wray] with drugs while she slept, sold their house and pocketed the cash, sold their furniture to an antiques dealer and disappeared with their baby daughter. Miss Wray had made half a million dollars during the 11 years they were married. He had made half a million, too. Nothing was left."
Hospitalized again for treatment, Fay Wray sadly began divorce proceedings after an eleven year marriage in 1939. The following year he hung himself.
What was he driven by? Guilt over those he'd sent to war without experiencing it himself? The seeming ease with which he seduced women, or conquered the movies or squandered his own talents? Or simply a longing for peace. As Ms. Wray explained once, she never fully understood either, except that she always remembered the lines of Oscar Wilde that Saunders would murmur when trying to explain his moods to her: "Each man kills the thing he loves."
Eyman, Scott, The Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer, Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Lasky, Jesse Jr., Whatever Happened to Hollywood?, Funk & Wagnalls, 1975.
Suid, Lawrence H., Guts and Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film, University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Wray, Fay, On the Other Hand, St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Recommended Online Sources:
Jesse L. Lasky Official Site
Greenbriar Picture Show (Entry for May 2010)
Portions of this blog originally published by me at MovieMorlocks.com, Feb. 6, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.
Last Updated September 6, 2010.
Whenever Hollywood isn't looking at old television shows and comic books for inspiration for the next alleged blockbuster, they try to remake a good movie. Supposedly adding the latest CGI techniques to an oft-told tale may fool the kiddies in the audience, but perhaps classic film buffs might find remakes more creatively acceptable, and possibly even more entertaining, if the point of view of the story were shifted, at least slightly. The following are examples of potential remakes that might be enjoyable since the stories are told from a different character's point of view. See if you'd shell out 8 samoleans at the multiplex to see these vaguely familiar stories…with a twist and an affectionate nod to the wonderful originals.
Raising Cain: The Wally Fay Story (1945)
To the Pierce family he's the glad-handing ex-business partner of Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). To Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), he's Wally Fay (Jack Carson), budding real estate entrepreneur, restaurateur, and an overly handy though useful fellow in a pinch, especially when a fall guy is needed!.
Little does Mildred know how sensitive Wally longs for a meaningful relationship while he seeks to build a business empire. He hides his loneliness beneath a barrage of bluff banter. Feeling his isolation assuaged momentarily when he has the chance to help around Mildred's bustling restaurant, he trades witticisms with Mildred's right hand women, Lottie (Butterfly McQueen) and Ida Corwin (Eve Arden), while dropping potatoes into the sizzling friolator, but longs for something more.
While attempting, like the misunderstood, good-hearted fellow he really is, to reconcile the Pierce family, he finds a way to bring Bert, (Bruce Bennett), Mildred and their sweet daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth) back together when he introduces them to a new business contact, Monte Beregon (Zachary Scott).
After a series of romantic and business adventures with Monte, the Pierce family closes ranks and draws back together once more.
Satisfied that his work is done, Wally finds solace with a certain Mrs. Maggie Beiderhof, (Lee Patrick), whom he elopes with to Mexico after a whirlwind romance, leaving the other characters to wonder, "Who would marry Mrs. Beiderhof?!" Bert Pierce has a few suspicions but he isn't talking!
Anatomy of a Murder: The Maida Rutledge Story (1959)
Maida Rutledge, (Eve Arden), finding herself in a dead end job in a grim, upper peninsula town in Michigan, bides her time, waiting for her employer and part time small town mouthpiece, Paul Beigler (Jimmy Stewart), to wise up and marry her, or at least start paying her a regular salary. Maida , who desperately needs a new typewriter ribbon and is tired of cleaning the boss' fish in between typing briefs, tries to broach the subject of her long overdue salary one day. When Beigler (Stewart) stammers that talking about money is in very poor taste, Maida argues that anyone who keeps bringing up the subject of "panties" in a court of law has no business dictating questions of taste to another. An irritated Attorney Beigler, eager to get back to the courtroom, impulsively fires her, (only to later claim that he may have suffered from a moment of temporary insanity). Fed up, Maida says "Fired? You can't fire me until you pay me."
With that long overdue blow struck for freedom, Maida offers her services as a legal secretary to the visiting Judge Weaver (Joseph N. Welch). After playing nursemaid to Beigler and his erstwhile partner, Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell) for several years, working as a circuit judge's amaneunsis helps Maida shake the dust of that Michigan burg off her soul for the last time. The game Maida strikes out for a new adventure with the judge, though his claim that he has an "appointment with history" in Washington sounds as vague as Beigler's promises to make up her back pay. Just stay out of Hollywood, Maida. Those clowns won't fully appreciate your gifts any more than Beigler did.
The Misadventures of King John (1938):
Claude Rains stars as the brother of King Richard the Lionhearted (Ian Hunter), who is left to tend the kingdom when his bro wanders off to the Crusades. This leaves John to make busy work for the incompetent sycophants, such as the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) & Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone), who surround him at court. John also must contend with the moonstruck antics of his ward, Marian, chair the annual archery contest, enforce the existing tax code on a resistant peasant population who are getting completely out of hand, thin out the trees in Sherwood Forest, and find a way to get that pesky Robin of Locksley (Errol Flynn) to quit throwing fresh venison onto the banquet table at the next feast. And all this needs to be accomplished without signing that damnable Magna Carta!
Mother Without a Clue (1955):
Ann Doran plays Mrs. Carol Stark, the wife of milquetoast Jim Backus and the mother of James Dean, a high school student with an attitude problem. Ann must cope with her husband's pathological passivity, the constant belittling by her troublesome teenager and his endless shenanigans, what with one night bailing him out of jail for public intoxication and another waiting endlessly outside the Griffith Observatory for Jimmy and his little buddies, all the while dealing with the unfamiliar emotions evoked by a sympathetic Police Officer (Ed Platt) who doesn't understand the meaning of the word "discipline", but whose soulful expression and gentle authoritarian manner remind Ann that she is, after all, a woman, as well as a Mom.
The Crawley Caper (1940)
The quiet country life of Frank Crawley, (Reginald Denny) the estate manager of Manderlay, a crumbling mansion on the coast of Cornwall, borders on the stultifyingly peaceful since it consists largely of long walks on the beach with the dog Jaspar and with only the eccentric housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers,(Judith Anderson) for company. Occasionally accosted by crazy old salt, Ben (Leonard Carey), who rambles on about the late Mrs. Rebecca De Winter, becomes increasingly annoying as does "Danny"'s rigid attitude toward staff discipline. The petty pace of Frank's days are sometimes consumed by Danvers' constant harping on the alleged perfection of her late mistress and the unexpected visits by Rebecca's moocher cousin, Jack Favell (George Sanders), who is always trying to sell Frank a new motorcar.
Crawley becomes increasingly discontented with his role as human wallpaper, especially after his efforts to update the house's sprinkler system is met with thinly veiled condescension by his co-workers. He does the best that he can to avoid commenting on the poorly run household when Manderlay's owner, Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier, at his most peevish), returns with a young, decidedly dim wife (Joan Fontaine). The situation becomes increasingly untenable as Mrs. De Winter #2 attempts to assert some control on the chaotic household. In an effort to distract himself from the tense situation around him, Crawley begins a pen pal relationship with an American of comfortable means and an impeccable social standing, a Mrs. Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates).
He also spends more time on his long walks around the estate pursuing his model airplane hobby, designing and testing planes of increasingly sophisticated design--though he refuses to let "Danny" (Anderson) fiddle with the controls. Unfortunately, when Frank is in London assisting his boss de Winter in some legal tangle, the lock on the door to his work shop is left unlatched. A curious Mrs. Danvers (Anderson), noting that her former confidante Frank has become rather withdrawn, attempts to look for the mysterious letters that Crawley has been receiving (she would've been upset to learn that the said billets doux are kept next to his heart), and decides to poke around in his work room. Attempting to operate one of his more experimental planes off the top parapet of Manderlay, Danvers succeeds only in burning the sprawling mansion (and herself) to the ground in a spectacular blaze.
Secretly delighted with this turn of events, Frank is relieved to find himself out of job when the estate is abandoned by his master and mistress, who hightail it for the continent. Moving to America, and fleecing some seed money from the Van Hopper dowager, Frank (Denny) soon opens his own hobby shop, where he enjoys building his innovative toy planes in peace, far away from the dull concerns of Manderlay.
For those of you who are appalled at these facetious attempts to beat Hollywood to the punch in their efforts to remake every movie ever made, my humble apologies. For others, who enjoy the attempt to skew the plots of beloved films to highlight neglected characters, more episodes will come...eventually.
(Originally published by me at MovieMorlocks.com, Jan.30, 2008. Reprinted here with the kind permission of Turner Classic Movies.)