The piece de resistance

January 18, 2010

An authentic Rosalind Russell autographed photo!! AND as if that wasn't spectacular enough for a $5 flea market find, the date that she signed the photo is my birthday! (No, not 1938, I mean November 12..) How amazing is that?!?! I was practically giddy when I found this today! If we had the proper kind of staircase, this was totally a slide down the banister while screaming "yayyy!!!" at the top of your lungs moment.

Needless to say, I already made a quick trip to the craft store and Roz is now properly framed, and being displayed proudly in my bedroom.

Vintage movie star clippings

A few months ago at a flea market I found a huge vintage scrapbook with the first 20 pages or so filled with movie clippings of 1940's stars for only $5! I've been meaning to scan them for ages and finally got around to it today. There are 64 photos in all -- mostly Rosalind Russell, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor and Fred MacMurray -- but I also found other stars on the backs of some of the photos like John Mills (!!!), Irene Dunne, Sterling Hayden and Linda Darnell. I obviously couldn't post all 64 photos here on my blog, but if you're interested I have them all uploaded to my flickr account, in this set. All of them have the "all sizes" option so that you can download the large file.

There was one really special photo in this scrapbook, but it deserves a post all to itself! That will be coming up in half a minute :-D Enjoy!

Silent Faces, Secret Thoughts

by Chris Edwards
of Silent Volume

guest blogger

Emotions are rough and fluid things—sudden, sometimes extreme, universal and impermanent. While all of us express emotion when we feel it, and can occasionally fake it, too, it takes a gifted artist to observe, explore, then reproduce the full breadth of human emotion. Silent film actors, blessed with long shot-lengths and the need for pantomime, did it better than anyone. The best of them could present a symphony’s range of feelings with exquisite precision. Nevertheless, the simplest word is more precise than the most talented face.

Speech both describes and defines. And in cases where our interpretation of a character’s thoughts may be in doubt, speech often reduces our options. Rhett Butler, for example, is anything but ambiguous when he delivers his famous goodbye to Scarlett O’Hara. We get the message. Only Scarlett, with her gigantic ego, could still think he gives a damn. But is such certainty really so valuable?

While I’m not suggesting Gone With The Wind would have been better silent, I do wonder how silent actors might have tackled that final moment between two people with such a long and painful history. Silent films remind us that moments are pregnant with possibility, just as a look can have many meanings. Anything, and indeed, everything, can come to the fore.

Enough talk. Let’s look at some clips from four films, starring four icons of silent-era femininity, each of whom was an expert at telling stories with gesture alone. The emotions these women express have no clear boundary-lines—joy and sadness blur into one another and, in some cases, the character’s innermost feelings remain open to debate. There are intertitles in some of these clips, yes, but most are superfluous. The words don’t really matter. Our bond with the actors is more visceral than that.
It (1927)

My first selection is not a single scene, but a pair of clip compilations from Clara Bow’s 1927 hit, It. It is not a comedy-drama, but a light romantic comedy. All the more amazing, then, that Bow manages to express this range of intense emotion over the course of 72 minutes:

Bow builds her character out of pure charisma. Doing so allows her to hold that character together, even as she swings for the fences in one scene after the next. She is earnest, and we invest in her totally.
My Best Girl (1927)

Bow needed to be all things in It; but in My Best Girl, Mary Pickford was called upon to be all things in a single scene. Pickford plays Maggie, a department store employee who falls in love with (and is loved by) Joe Merrill, son of the store’s founder. The elder Merrill, fearing his boy has been taken in by a gold-digger, visits Maggie’s house and offers her a cheque to ‘go away.’ Joe arrives to thwart the plan, but Maggie, worried she’ll ruin him by association, now tries to reject him. (The scene begins about a minute into the first clip.)

This is an incredible dramatic juggle by Pickford, who must act the part of a non-actor trying to act bad, but secretly hoping she fails. And she’s got to be funny, too.
The Mothering Heart (1913)

Films of this age aren’t known for their deep character studies, but D.W. Griffith and Lillian Gish weren’t your average pairing. Griffith’s direction spares us all but the barest details about his heroine (we never even learn her name), leaving the dramatic work to Gish. She, in turn, revolts against The Mothering Heart’s rigid morality-play structure by causing us to question her character’s sanity. Watch the clip from 12:30:

Gish travels to this fragile woman’s every boundary-line. She folds and twists and pulls the scarf. She smiles, then frowns, laughs, then burns with rage, all in seconds. Griffith has manipulated us this way all along—compressing time by ignoring establishing scenes, making the woman’s life feel too rapid and urgent. Now, Gish herself contorts her childish character into someone suddenly and unstably adult.
The Temptress (1926)

The Temptress is typical of Greta Garbo’s smouldering silent work. Garbo’s Elena once tortured Manuel with her charms, but now she’s fallen on hard times. After years apart, he rediscovers her on the streets of Paris:

How did Elena end up like this? We don’t know. Likewise, we’re unsure what Elena is feeling now. List the emotions on Garbo’s face: shyness, shame, uncertainty, scorn, amusement, devotion... is one real and the others, simply put-ons? Is she even sane? I love the ambiguity. It pulls me in.

Perhaps this lack of clarity is part of why silent films hold such charm for me. In an era when I can control the volume, aspect ratio, contrast and soundtrack of any DVD I watch, and perhaps select alternate endings or even hear the director’s thoughts on the day of a shoot, it seems like I have total control over what I watch. But I will never, ever be sure what Greta was thinking that day in Paris. The mystery begins there.

Le Notti Bianche (1957)

January 16, 2010

Last month when I made my Top 20 Favorite Actors list, I had just seen the film 8 1/2 and Marcello Mastroianni squeaked onto my list based on his performance in that film alone. Well now I've seen another one of his films, and I think it's safe to say that his presence on my Top 20 list is pretty much guaranteed for life.

Le Notti Bianche is a gorgeous, breathtakingly beautiful film by director Luchino Visconti. I first read about the movie on Richard's blog, Riku Writes. Richard has been doing a long, in-depth series on Italian cinema, and of all his reviews I have to say this one enchanted me the most. His description of the snow-covered scenery and dimly lit Italian streets captivated me, and I added this to my Netflix queue immediately.

Le Notti Bianche is the story of a kind, shy man who tries to help a sad woman that he meets on a bridge in the middle of the night. My impression of Marcello Mastroianni up until now was that he was the essence of cool, and would portray similar characters in film. But his performance in his movie betrayed that suave exterior to show a shy, gentle man yearning for love. His character was both touching and heartbreaking.

One thing that I really love when watching movies is getting so caught up in the story that you don't even realize what's going on around you- the film is the only thing existing in your world at that moment. Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell swept me into their fantasty world from the minute they appeared onscreen. No matter that I had had a bad day, that my nose was stuffy or my cat was sitting awkwardly on my numb arm -- Maria Schell and Marcello Mastroianni were smiling and dancing on film, so I was happy too.

I highly recommend this if you haven't seen it yet -- and for a much, much better review please check out Richard's post on Riku Writes.

Petulia (1968)

January 12, 2010

Petulia is a 1968 film starring Julie Christie and George C. Scott. Julie Christie plays Petulia, a sweet neurotic newlywed looking for a fling with doctor George C. Scott.

The film is edited so that you only find out the background of each character as the movie goes on, through sporadic flashbacks that happen in the middle of other scenes. It might sound very strange, but it's really one of the most fascinating movies I've seen recently.

The story was very interesting and it was exceptionally well acted (but that's a given when Julie Christie is the star.) But to me, this was a visual experience that would have been a joy to watch even if it had no plot or dialogue at all. From automated hotels where the lights start blinking when you've reached your room (much like those little light-up discs that are handed out now at restaurants to notify you when your table is ready) to nuns riding in a sports car, to off-center shots which seem more like moving photographs than commercial film. One of my favorite shots is an overhead view of houses lined up in perfect little rows -- reminiscent of one of my favorite post-classic films, Edward Scissorhands.

The movie is exceptionally modern, with artistic fade outs that blend George C. Scott's world of medicine and anatomy with party sequences, lava lamp-like imagery and groovy lighting. (Just had to use that word once in this post...) But the film also has a tongue-in-cheek attitude towards cultural advancements, if you could call them that. At the hospital, Scott has to explain to a patient why the television in her room is actually made of cardboard, a placeholder put there in the hopes that it would entice her into renting a real one at a fee.

Now, call me superficial but one of my favorite things about Petulia was the fashion. I went a little screen-shot happy on this one, and I think I covered all of her outfits in the film. I also took some shots of the automated hotel & the neat row of houses. For the nuns in a sports car, you'll just have to see the movie yourself.

Anthony Perkins was not Norman Bates

January 09, 2010

About nine years ago I saw The Man with the Golden Arm for the very first time. I was only a year or so into being a huge movie fan, and so for almost every film I watched I was seeing the stars acting for the first time. My first encounter with Eleanor Parker was as a conniving, deceitful, whining, nagging wife to Frank Sinatra -- who was the be-all and end-all of my movie obsession at the time. Having seen none of her other performances, I immediately determined that she was a conniving, deceitful, whining, nagging person and I'd avoid all of her films from there on in.

What I failed to realize at the time (don't worry, it didn't take me nine years to discover this) was that if an actor irritates you, creeps you out or disgusts you in a movie it might just mean that they are a really good actor, perfectly playing the role in which they were cast.

The character of Zosh in The Man with the Golden Arm is supposed to be hated by the audience-- she is supposed to be low and despicable. And Eleanor Parker did a marvelous job of portraying that. But because of my sheer ignorance, I assumed that Eleanor Parker was Zosh.

Each of us probably has had this happen with one or two actors -- sometimes it's simply a subconscious association of an actor with a specific part that turns us away from their entire filmography. Sometimes we assume that an actor or actress exhibited the traits they portray in film in real life -- for instance, many people are usually shocked to find out that Boris Karloff was a real teddy bear of a man offscreen-- one of the sweetest Hollywood has ever seen -- because he was typecast as monsters onscreen.

In my experience, the one person who has become a victim to this psychology more than anyone else is Anthony Perkins. His name goes hand in hand with Psycho-- mention it and people automatically picture him wearing a grey wig and a matronly stuffed dress, or wrapped in a blanket with a fly buzzing around his head. Unfortunately, this mental roadblock prevents people from realizing what an amazing actor he was. He played Norman Bates so well that the character seemed real. But watch him in Goodbye Again, playing a totally different sort of man, and you'll see no trace of Hitchcock's villian.

Another fine example is James Mason. (Casey, Millie & Terry... pay attention!) He was awfully good at playing the creepy guy in Lolita and Georgy Girl, but he was equally adept at playing relatively normal characters in The Wicked Lady, Julius Caesar and Odd Man Out. It is because he was such a fine actor that his pedophelia in Lolita is believable. In reality, Mason was a caring, sweet man with an enormous soft spot for animals. He and his wife co-wrote a now out of print book called "The Cats in Our Lives" -- something I'm dying to own one of these days!

In the end, I think we need to realize - and remind ourselves- that the people in the movies we watch are actors. They are reading a script and performing. If their character is dastardly, or even sticky-sweet, that doesn't neccessarily mean that they were in real life. And if they play a psychopath in one film, it doesn't mean that they will in all of their others.

This doesn't mean we can't not like certain performers... I for one have at least a dozen or so least-favorites. But I've watched their films often enough to realize that it is them -- their mannerisms, their style of acting or their personality that bothers me-- not the character they were playing.

You might discover more fantastic actors and actresses out there, if you just keep in mind that Eleanor Parker was not Zosh, Boris Karloff was not Frankenstein, James Mason was not Humbert Humbert and Anthony Perkins was not Norman Bates.

Classic film caricatures

January 07, 2010

I love it when I'm trying to find a photo on google and end up stumbling upon something not even remotely related to what I was looking for, but even better! This happened to me today when I was searching for photos of Reginald Owen for an upcoming post. In the image results, I saw a small vintage caricature of Reggie that piqued my interest, even though I was only looking for photos.

Once I clicked over to the source site I discovered that someone had scanned an entire book of caricatures of classic Hollywood stars, character actors and filmmakers by Henry Major. Some of these are pure genius, so I just had to share them!! While I found every one of them to be spot-on and terrific, it was the supporting star portraits that I enjoyed the most.

Caricature artists always amaze me, because as long as you have some underlying talent you can draw somebody's face as it is... but it really takes something special to zero in on what makes a face different from other faces, amplify it and turn it into a cartoon. Despite the fact that these are simplified sketches, you can instantly recognize the faces -- maybe even moreso than if the artist had drawn them realistically!

I have a small sample of my favorites posted here, but to view the entire collection please visit The Gay Philosopher, the site dedicated to this artists' work!