Ronald Colman

January 31, 2009

Ronald Colman…. Where to begin?

Ronald Colman ties right now with Charles Boyer as my favorite actor. It is tough to put into words how great I think he was. Do you think Cary Grant was suave and debonair? He had nothing on Ronald Colman. Do you think Laurence Olivier was the best actor of the 20th century? Nope…. Colman. He had all of the great characteristics of the outstanding actors of the 30’s and 40’s all rolled into one. And boy did he make good films.

Gosh, I don’t even know which one is my favorite. I mean, he made really good movies. Random Harvest, A Tale of Two Cities, Talk of the Town, Lost Horizon… I could go on and on. I think for this particular post I will just focus on Random Harvest, one of the best love stories that has ever been made… ever.

The movie starts by introducing Ronald Colman, playing a World War I shell shocked soldier who can’t remember who he is, or where he is from and has particular difficulty with speech. When he accidently roams off of the hospital grounds he finds himself caught up in the WWI victory celebrations taking place all over this tiny little village. Enter Greer Garson, who takes him under her wing and nurses him back to health—he still has no memory of his previous life, but he is no longer damaged from the war. The story takes an awful, unexpected turn and it is the rest of the movie that is so captivating and romantic. I seriously do not think that any actor, ever, could play this role with the same emotion and fragility that Ronald Colman did. You can see the lost memory etched on his face, and when he has trouble speaking early in the film, his speech pattern is exquisitely voiced.

Perhaps Ronald Colman felt close to this role because he was in fact a shell-shocked soldier in World War I. His rehabilitation included acting, which led to his future career. In this role, perhaps he saw himself years earlier and through that was able to convey a real sense of mental anxiety and emptiness.

He had a voice made for radio and a face made for movies. If you’ve seen his movies or heard his radio shows you know why I am gushing so terribly much—if you haven’t seen his movies or heard his radio shows you will know why I am gushing so terribly much as soon as you see for yourself!

Greta Garbo

Greta Garbo in a scene from Ninotchka. Yes, I drew this one because I am on an outrageous hat kick. (But also because Ninotchka is a superb movie)

Ernst Lubitsch was the director of Ninotchka, and I think that one of his trademarks was turning a very dark, somber subject into light fare comedy, and actually succeeding at it. Case in point: To Be or Not To Be. How light and funny is it? It stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. How dark is the subject? Nazis invading Poland. Seriously. And it works. Ninotchka is an adventure in the same form- Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas (increasingly becoming one of my favorite male actors, but I will save that for another post) star in a farcical comedy about communist Russia.

The movie starts out by introducing us to three Bolsheviks, two of which are among my favorite character actors: Felix Bressart and Sig Rumann. They have arrived in Paris to collect the jewels of a Russian countess and bring them back to Russia. When the Bolsheviks find capitalism is a heck of a lot more fun than communism, and neglect to bring back the jewels, Greta Garbo—Ninotchka—is sent in to collect the jewels and the wayward Bolsheviks. The first symbol of capitalism that Garbo sees in Paris is an outrageous hat in a store window. She utters, “how can such a civilization survive which permits women to put things like that on their heads?” I guess you can surmise what happens in the film considering that my drawing depicts her wearing said hat.

PS. My other favorite Garbo film is Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, which isn’t actually on DVD. If you ever see it in your tv listings, make sure you watch it! It’s a great movie with Clark Gable that you don’t want to miss.

Prismacolor marker on white sketch paper

Joan Crawford

January 30, 2009

Unless you are a huge old movie fan, you probably know Joan Crawford as "Mommie Dearest" a wire-hanger wielding monster of a mother with giant shoulderpads. Well, for a few minutes, try to erase that image from your mind entirely because I'd like you to meet somebody.

This is Lucielle LeSueur. In the 1920's when Lucielle went to Hollywood, MGM studios held a nationwide contest to find a new name for their new star. The name "Joan Crawford" was chosen. (she always thought it sounded like "crawfish") The name Joan Crawford seems to fit that image we are familiar with today- it imbues control freak and rigidity. But from the moment she was rechristened until the early 1940's, Joan Crawford was really Lucielle LeSueur. She was softer, beautiful and feminine. In her movies, she conveys the quinetessential flapper/working girl, often getting the short end of the stick and working her way to happiness. She was energetic, and believable as a spunky human being.

Most of the available DVDs starring Joan Crawford represent her "tough broad" films like Mildred Pierce or her later horror movies like Strait Jacket. But two of her really, really good old movies are on DVD- Rain and Sadie McKee. Rain is the story of a prostitute who is taunted by a religious zealot who wants to save her, and Sadie McKee is one of the working-girl makes good stories (the song "All I do is dream of you" is repeated numerous times in this film, and I guarantee you'll be humming it in your head for weeks... and that's a good thing!) I highly recommend renting both of these films. But before you put them in the DVD player, try to clear your mind of the iconic Crawford and open your heart to Lucille LeSueur. I'm sure you'll be impressed by her talent and beauty--- and you will probably agree with me-- that whoever told Joan Crawford "You'd look absolutely divine if you just wore football player shoulder pads, drew in huge dark eyebrows and made your lips look like a rectangle!" should have been fired on the spot.

The Elegant Kay Francis in a Most Extraordinary Hat

January 29, 2009

Before I started my sketch, I looked online to see which Kay Francis movies were available on DVD, that way I could choose one to write about when I posted the sketch, and stew over what I'd write whilst sketching. Well, to my utter horror, there are only about five Kay Francis movies on DVD and none of them are her best. In two of the five I could find she isn't even the only female lead. TCM honored Kay Francis last year with a "Star of the Month" salute in which they played about 50 of her films. I thought, "gee whiz, how ever will I narrow this down to recommend one or two?! Which films will I write about when she was in so many great ones?" and then - boom! - not even five percent of those movies are on DVD.

None of the movies available showcase Kay Francis at her best, which was in soapy melodramas with gigantic wardrobes and lots of tears. However, there is one movie on DVD in which she co-stars (but actually plays second fiddle to Miriam Hopkins) - Trouble in Paradise. A feisty little pre-code movie that has the signature Lubitsch touch, Trouble in Paradise co-stars Herbert Marshall as a suave, debonair jewel thief who woos the very wealthy Kay Francis. It's a cinematic treasure, and worth seeing-- if only because it might be your only chance to see Kay Francis until someone finally releases all of her starring vehicles on DVD.

Time really hasn't been good to Kay Francis. In the 1930's she was actually one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. In fact, her salary was so large that her studio began thinking of ways to get her to cancel her contract just so that they wouldn't have to pay her anymore. They began casting her in bit parts, or poorly written b-pictures. They loaded her scripts with words that started with "r" because they knew she had trouble pronouncing it. But Kay didn't give in-- she took the bad parts, annunciated her r's and finished her contract. Unfortunately, as Robert Osborne explained in TCM's Now Playing Kay Francis issue, this is probably why we don't remember her as well today. In standing up for her right fulfill the contract, she actually let herself slowly fade away..

Katharine Hepburn

January 28, 2009

My favorite Katherine Hepburn movie is Alice Adams, a melodrama from 1935 that really tugs at the heart strings. (Yay! It's on DVD so you can rent it if you haven't seen it yet!) Katherine Hepburn plays a young schoolgirl from a poor family, awkward but eager to fit in. I won't give away the story, but it is so incredibly touching and heartbreaking.

It's almost 7AM as I'm writing this, so I am incredibly tired-- my wit went to sleep about five hours ago... so to sum up how great Katharine Hepburn's performance is in this absolutely wonderful little movie, I will leave it to a pro. From the review of Alice Adams, words I wish I had thought of myself that perfectly express what I wanted to say: "Hepburn's performance, whether Alice is chattering pretentiously or briefly lowering her guard and revealing her loneliness, is simply incandescent."

Black prismacolor marker on white sketch paper, mounted on black cardstock.

Jean Arthur

January 27, 2009

Jean Arthur really should be ranked with the top actresses ever. Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jean Arthur. She was that good. She was an insanely good actress. I think she was at her best in comedies like You Can't Take it With You or The Talk of the Town, but she was equally adept at playing dramatic roles like in The Plainsman and Only Angels Have Wings.

Strangely, she had major attacks of stage fright and occasionally had to be coaxed out of her dressing room before a scene. But watching her on screen you would never know it. She has so much energy, sass and pizazz you'd think that she lived to be on camera.

Please, please, I beg of you: rent The More the Merrier or Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Then join my crusade to make Jean Arthur famous again.

Pencil Sketch.

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich was one of the lucky ones who has gone on be a legend. Most people are familiar with her even if they haven't seen her movies. But in that respect, people are missing out. Her movies are SO worth seeing.

Lots and lots of her movies are available on DVD, of which I highly recommend Morocco, A Foreign Affair and Blue Angel, all of which have stellar Dietrich performances.

But actually my all-time favorite Marlene Dietrich movie I would love just as much if she weren't in it at all. The Hitchcock movie Stage Fright (the genius of which nobody seems to appreciate but me) is absolutely marvelous. The main reason is Alastair Sim. I won't go into a huge gushing session over Sim in my post that is supposed to be about Marlene Dietrich, but suffice it to say that his performance in this film is brilliant (as is every performance he ever did) and this movie IS on DVD so I highly recommend it. Hitchcock wasn't too fond of this one and as such I think it's generally been kicked around and underrated. But any movie that pairs Marlene Dietrich, Alastair Sim, Jane Wyman, Michael Wilding and Hitchcock is a movie worth seeing! Especially with Alastair Sim..... did I mention he's brilliant? Brilliant!

About the drawing: I have to admit: I photoshopped this a little. Originally I drew it in black and grey marker, but after I scanned it I realized that the grey made her look weird so I made it just black and white. Otherwise, this is prismacolor marker on white sketch paper mounted on black cardstock.

Jean Harlow

January 26, 2009

Much like Marilyn Monroe, the most famous blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow had an amazing acting ability and perfect comic timing. (Off subject, but I recently watched All About Eve and realized that one of the best acting performances in the movie was actually given by Marilyn Monroe!) Also like Marilyn, Jean wasn't usually recognized for her talent because most people were only looking at the surface. And unfortunately, she also met a very untimely death. She passed away when she was only 26 years old.

Luckily, Jean Harlow's star was shining bright at a time when the Hollywood studios churned out movies like a Ford Assembly Line-- in her short span on screen, she made 25 films! She could play sappy or slapstick; hard boiled or sweet. She was a pro at comedy, and it's a shame that she died just as screwball comedies were beginning to flourish- seeing examples of how great she would have been in these kooky comedies in Libeled Lady and Personal Property, it only makes you wish even more that she had lived to make more films.

A few of her films are on DVD, and I highly recommend seeing every one of them, in particular: Red Headed Woman, Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady and The Public Enemy.

(Prismacolor marker on white sketch paper, mounted on black cardstock)

Louise Brooks

January 25, 2009

Louise Brooks was the star of the highly acclaimed Pandora's Box. She was famous on screen for her "black helmet" haircut, and behind the scenes for her intellect. But perhaps her greatest contribution to the art of film would be her efforts in film history and preservation, including her book "Lulu Goes to Hollywood."

Pandora's Box is available on DVD.

(Prismacolor marker on white sketch paper, mounted on black cardstock.)

Young Bette Davis

This is a young Bette Davis from "The Rich Are Always With Us" which was actually a vehicle for stars George Brent and Ruth Chatterton (who were married at the time but that's another story for another day...)

Personally I think Bette Davis was in her element playing in huge sweeping romantic movies like Dark Victory, Now Voyager and Mr. Skeffington. But I also ADORE her early pre-code movies. Peroxide blonde with beestung lips, it is amazing to see what Bette looked like when she was being groomed for stardom as a platinum blonde it girl. She wasn't the diva of All About Eve, the horror queen of Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte, nor was she the legend that we all know and love today. She was just a young girl hoping to become a great actress in Hollywood.

If you're interested in seeing more of young Bette Davis, these movies are available on DVD: The Petrified Forest (my favorite!), Three on a Match, Marked Woman, Of Human Bondage & Hell's House

Jane Darwell

January 23, 2009

Jane Darwell is most remembered for two roles, both of which are actually my favorites, too: Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath and the woman feeding the birds in Mary Poppins.

This particular sketch represents Darwell in The Grapes of Wrath in one of the most poignant scenes in any movie, ever. Leaving the family farm, she says goodbye to the one real valuable thing she's ever owned: her earrings- this is a picture of her reflection in the mirror as she holds them up to her ears.

The sadness in her eyes just makes your heart ache. Even as she plays the steady, levelheaded matriarch of the family, this moment alone in the dark with her earrings shows that even a tough woman like Ma Joad can be burdened by sadness, regret and hopelessness.

In accordance with the rest of the movie, Darwell is a representation of the desperation and perseverance that personified the era of the Great Depression.

Joan Blondell

January 22, 2009

Joan Blondell, in case you don't know, was one of the best wise-cracking dames of the early 30's, one of the funniest second-banana leading ladies of the 40's and a staple on television until the late 70's.

Many people today don't remember Joan Blondell, but believe me, she's worth remembering. In movies like Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Union Depot and Gold Diggers of 1933, Joan was perfectly cast as a street smart, wide-eyed, sassy gal.

If you are interested in behind-the-scenes Joan Blondell, you can read her thinly-veiled autobiography "Center Door Fancy," one of my favorite movie-star bios.

Thanks to TCM, you can see her movies almost every month or you can see quite a few of them on DVD.

Tallulah Bankhead, Dah-lings

This sketch is from a movie still that Tallulah did for her 1932 film Faithless, one of my favorite pre-code depression movies. It's actually one of the only movies about the depression that came out of MGM- the glamor headquarters of the world. Some film historians complain that it's one of the least accurate representations of the depression, but I think it's a great movie anyway. Tallulah didn't make too many movies so that makes the few she did do all the more precious.

She had a raspy, almost husky sort of upper crust British voice (even though she was from the South!) and despite the fact that she hated her singing, and didn't do it often, I think the few recordings that exist of her singing are actually among my favorite songs! You can download most of them on itunes. My favorite is "Don't Tell Him What Happened to Me"-- a steal at 99 cents!

By the way, the image that I use for Silents and Talkies is Robert Montgomery and Tallulah Bankhead in a still from Faithless!

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

January 21, 2009

Have you heard of "Capra corn"? Director Frank Capra made a string of movies in the 1930's and 1940's that some at the time considered "corny" because of their idealism, optimism and aw-shucks, gee golly approach to the American dream. But as someone who believes in an aw-shucks, gee golly American dream, I find these movies anything but corny.

You may have seen "It's a Wonderful Life," perhaps the most popular and most viewed of the Capra movies, but "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" is probably his best. Frank Capra himself acknowledged that it was his favorite of his movies. In fact, when addressing the fact that the movie only won one Oscar, he said "Don't make the best picture you ever made in the year that someone else makes Gone with the Wind."

Mr. Smith is the story of a young Boy Scout leader, Jefferson Smith, who teaches his scouts about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and all of the wondrous promise that America offers. It is the story of a man who refuses to be disillusioned about the government despite the corruption that he finds in Washington.

Frank Capra teamed with writer Robert Riskin for almost all of his films, and the teaming was dynamite. Together they made some of the most heartwarming, endearing American films. Capra/Riskin films were often about helping out the other guy, reaching out to your neighbor, having faith in the government (but being vigilant), and being all around swell citizens.

Capra movies have probably shaped my own understanding of America and the American dream more than anything or anyone else. Even my admiration and support of President Barack Obama stems from my admiration of the idealistic characters in Frank Capra films--- characters like Jefferson Smith, a character who embodied courage, idealism, citizenship, and hope... and was everything but corny.

Charles Boyer

January 20, 2009

Charles Boyer is my all-time favorite actor. He was so skilled in the art of acting, so able to camouflage into different roles that it is hard to think of anyone else capable of performing even half as good as Charles Boyer did. You of course know the movie "An Affair to Remember?" Charles Boyer originated Cary Grant's role in an earlier version of the film, and actually outshines Cary Grant--- Cary Grant!!

When Charles Boyer was a young man in France, he was devoted to the theater. He left his home in a small French town to move to Paris, where he eventually succeeded on the French stage and in French pictures before making the move to Hollywood. His romantic appearance and deep lyrical accent made him perfectly suited as a leading man, although he always thought of himself as a character actor. Playing opposite such larger-than-life women as Bette Davis, Hedy Lamarr and Ingrid Bergman, it was always Charles Boyer who stole the scene. I personally think it is his "character actor" approach to typical leading man-roles that made him so outstanding, so unlike the rest of the leading men of this era.

Charles Boyer was often cast as a romantic Frenchman, and in this case it was true to real life. Boyer met his wife Pat Paterson at a party in Hollywood, they married very soon after, and were devoted to each other for the rest of their lives. When Paterson became ill in the 1970's, Boyer concealed the severity of the illness from her, instead opting to make the remainder of her life as beautiful and joyful as he could. Charles Boyer took his own life just two days after his wife died, unable to live without her.

I am so glad, as everyone should be, that Charles Boyer made the switch from theater to film. Through his movies, we have an eternal reminder of how great his acting ability was, how beautiful he could read his lines, and how truly remarkable a man he was.

For more information on Charles Boyer, I highly recommend the biography by Larry Swindell.

Additionally, Charles Boyer recorded a musical album in the 1960's that is absolutely wonderful- entitled Where Does Love Go?

And by the way, if your only knowledge of Charles Boyer is the infamous line "Come with me to the Casbah" you'll be surprised to learn that he never spoke the line! It was supposedly from the film "Algiers" but if you watch it closely, you'll see that no such line ever enters the dialogue!

Kate's suggestions: All This and Heaven Too, History is Made at Night, Algiers, Gaslight, Love Affair