The Dueling de Havillands: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) vs. Suspicion (1941)

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the 1942 Academy Awards…before the winner was announced…

The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends:  Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).

And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)

Both had been nominated previously and their losses could easily be categorized as upsets—Olivia in 1939 for supporting actress in Gone With the Wind, and Joan in 1940 for best actress in Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees.  Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point.  De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.

If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.

Fontaine was the darkest of horses.

In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico.  Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza.  Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.

Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory.  A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning.  He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.

The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him.  George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.

It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.

And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film.  Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.  Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.

Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been. 

The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child.  But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime.  After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.

Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.

Too bad it never made it into the final film.

There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain.  Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer.  Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.

Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess.  We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister.  He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance. 

She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance.  When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it.  When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff.  In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.

Grant and Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)

This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her. 

Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public.  At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.

Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night.  Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.

Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:

“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition].  I really think it happened when I was born.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.

After all, where would Serena be without Venus?

Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
  • Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
  • Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Sunrise(1927): Hollywood Rowboat Murders Go Way Back

“Tell me a story.”

It’s a phrase we learn as kids, and one that some of us never outgrow.

When great friend of the blog Eddie Harrison (journalist and writer of the excellent film-authority.com) mentioned the old silent film Sunrise (1927) as one to check out to see how to do a rowboat murder scene, I figured I’d maybe get around to watching it one day and just fast-forward to the rowboat scene.

I certainly wasn’t planning to blog about it.

For what kind of story could a film with no dialogue tell that would matter in 2021?

Serendipity intervened when I found a copy of Sunrise (Blu-ray, no less) at the library when I was scooping up a batch of classic films.

We’ve already discussed Gene Tierney’s glorious villain who cruelly allows her husband’s disabled brother to drown in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Montgomery Clift’s inability to follow through with his plan to drown his pregnant girlfriend in A Place in the Sun (1951).

How would the attempted rowboat murder in Sunrise hold up against its successors?

Quite well, indeed.

The film stars George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor (who would go on to star in the first of four versions of A Star is Born, in the role most recently played by Lady Gaga) as a husband and wife living in the German countryside.  She is content with her husband, farm, and young child, but the husband is bored by his mundane life and plagued by money troubles.  His head is turned by Margaret Livingston as a woman from the city who tempts him.

When the film begins, the man (the characters are given no names beyond The Man, The Wife, and The Woman from the City) has already begun a guilty affair with the woman from the city.  No words are needed to describe what kind of woman she is—the nylons, high heels, and smoking tell us all we need to know.  She is visually contrasted by the wife, in long braids and a homespun dress that is good for farm work but far from sexy.

The woman from the city wants the man to drown his wife so they can run away to the city together.  At first, he violently objects, but the idea takes root.  Soon he is rowing his wife out for what she believes will be a fun day in the city.  He stands up, moves across the boat, but in the end changes his mind.  The damage is already done, however, as the wife clearly saw his intentions in his eyes and runs away from him the moment the boat hits land.

He follows her, and after an extended period of shock and apology, the wife begins to warm to him.  As improbable as it seems, they spend the day in the city rediscovering their love.  He gets a haircut and a shave, they have their photograph taken, they dance and he tries to win her a prize at a carnival.  There are moments of regret and remorse, moments of tenderness, moments of lighthearted laughter.

It shouldn’t be romantic—he tried to kill her that morning, after all.

It shouldn’t keep my interest—a silent film made ninety-four years ago, before the first talkie.

And yet it is, and it does.

There’s a scene I particularly love when the couple just happens by a wedding in progress and slips inside the church.  The man watches intently as the couple recites their vows.  In one of the film’s few title cards, the minister instructs the groom to “keep and protect [his bride] from all harm.”

The man, knowing he has made that same vow to his own wife and broken it in spectacular fashion, buries his unworthy face in his forgiving wife’s lap and breaks down in sobs.

No words necessary.

My growing film book library…

It was only after watching that I ran to my books and learned that Sunrise was one of the last silent films, and one of the first films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects.  That it was directed by F.W. Murnau, lured to American by William Fox because he wanted an esteemed German director to make an expressionist film for an American audience.  That it won Best Unique and Artistic Picture at the very first Academy Awards ceremony.  (The only film to ever win this distinction, as the category was eliminated after the first year.)  That Janet Gaynor won the first ever Best Actress Academy Award for her work in 1927. (In the early Academy Awards, actors were awarded for their entire body of work in a year.)  That it was praised for groundbreaking cinematography, and is at number 82 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Films.

But impressive as they are, none of those accolades would’ve meant anything to me if Sunrise hadn’t told me a story where I had to know the ending.

It’s unlikely I’ll make a habit of watching silent films, and it’s unlikely that I’ll recommend this film to anyone who isn’t the deepest of film buffs.

But I wasn’t bored.  It told a story that felt both universal and fresh.

Never once did I consider turning it off before the end.

That’s more than I can say for a lot of movies made today.

Sunrise reminds us that storytellers will always find a way to tell stories.  Take away the sound, and they’ll tell a story through expressions.  Take away the camera, and they’ll tell a story with words on paper.  Take away the paper and they’ll recite long poems from memory like Homer and the ancient Greeks.

“Tell me a story.”

It doesn’t matter how.

The complete film is available to watch for free on YouTube here.

Sources

  • Thomson, David. The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

A Place in the Sun (1951): Method Acting Arrives

Author’s First Note:  I’ve added a tab to the top of the site called “Golden Age of Hollywood”  Here you can find the full list of past posts, listed by category and alphabetical order.  You can also find suggested reading and source material if you want to learn more.

Author’s Second Note:  The plot of A Place in the Sun takes a surprising turn about halfway through the film.  Spoilers abound in today’s discussion.  I highly recommend watching it before reading today’s blog.


By the dawn of the nineteen-fifties, Hollywood had twenty years of talkies under its belt.  The studio system of the previous two decades had produced many of our most beloved American films.

But things were changing—the advent of television and the post World War II retreat to the suburbs bumped the role of the movie theater from the center of American entertainment.  Actors, directors, and writers had broken free of the restrictive studio system and had ever increasing freedom in the films they participated in.  Hollywood films were becoming less assembly line products of the main studios and more individual collaborative projects.

And while all those stars who had built Hollywood—Garbo, Bogart, Gable, Crawford, and Davis—still managed to make some good films, there was no denying they were on the other side of the mountain of their careers.

It never stops surprising us that even stars can’t escape time.

Audiences wanted something new, and the fifties gave way to a new crop of fresh faces and a more realistic, less glamourous acting style that was brought to popularity in 1951 with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.  Called method acting, it was developed by Lee Strasberg at his Actor’s Studio in New York City, and was eventually practiced by Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert DeNiro.

In A Place in the Sun, Clift plays George Eastman, a poor relation who gets a low-level job in his distant uncle’s factory.  He works hard and begins dating Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a salt-of-the-earth fellow factory worker. 

Soon Alice is in love with George and dreaming of a future.  George, however, is slowing moving up in the Eastman company and social circles.  He catches the eye of socialite Angela Vickers, played by nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor who looks and sounds so young you’ll hardly recognize her.  George and Angela fall hopelessly and foolishly in love, as reckless as Romeo and Juliet. 

George begins to see a glittering future before him—marriage to Angela, social acceptance, and wealth.

But there’s a massive fly in his ointment—Alice is pregnant and wants to marry.  Shelley Winters received a well-earned Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (and might have won but for running into the buzzsaw that was Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.)  Alice is clearly worth more than the whole lot of the Eastmans—she’s poor but would be the kind of wife that would stand by George through thick and thin. 

If George refuses to marry—and she can sense his wavering—she’ll lose her job and her little apartment.  A visit to a doctor who humiliates her (while George hides in the car) and refuses to give her an abortion gives her a glimpse into her future as a unmarried, penniless outcast.

Perhaps counter to the filmmaker’s intentions, Alice’s desperation to marry touched me deeper than any other emotion in the film.

With the promise of marriage, George takes Alice on a pre-honeymoon of sorts and rows her out onto an isolated lake with the intention of drowning her.  When the time comes, he is horrified by the reality of murder and abandons his plan.  But Alice falls accidentally into the water and ends up drowning after all.

We don’t see onscreen how hard George tries to save her, but we don’t doubt for a second he would’ve tried harder if it had been Angela going under.

Figuring he ought not let Alice’s death spoil his plans to wed Angela, George follows through with his original cover up plan.

The last third of the film depicts his murder trial, in which the defense admits he planned to murder Alice, but that the ultimate drowning was an accident.

The jury—and George himself—must deliberate on whether or not he tried hard enough to save Alice, or if he “committed murder in his heart.”

Rarely have I loathed a character as much as I did George Eastman.  He is moody and overly sensitive, full of long silences and self-pity.  He doesn’t have the guts to be a full out cad or villain—he wants what he wants without having to pay the price for it. 

He threw away a good woman like Alice for beauty and riches that would fade with time.

But don’t mistake loathing for Eastman for loathing of the film.  It’s compelling and the question of his guilt or innocence is visceral rather than logical.

Montgomery Clift garnered his second of three Best Actor Academy Award nominations (running into his own buzzsaw in the form of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

Leave Her to Heaven

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Tierney’s Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven, gleefully watching her disabled brother-in-law drown as she rowed a boat wearing sunglasses, a white coat, and gorgeous red lipstick.

There was a villain you could love.

The contrast between her and George Eastman’s frantic aborting of his own plan is a perfect showcase of the transition from the stylized, glamorous Hollywood of yore to the realism prized by the method actors.

My takeaway?  I’m not getting in a rowboat with either one of them.

Sources

  • Schatz, Thomas.  The Genius of the System:  Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

A Sequel of Sorts: Hush …Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

When Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and gave Joan Crawford no credit for the success of the picture, their feud went into overdrive. 

You can find any number of YouTube interviews of a late-in-life Bette Davis bitterly decrying that Crawford actively campaigned against her winning the Oscar, even though a Davis win would’ve led to financial gain for both.  If Davis had won, she would’ve been the first male or female to win three best acting awards, a title she wanted desperately and never got over not achieving.

To rub salt in Davis’ wound, Crawford accepted the Oscar onstage on behalf of the absent winner, Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker) and couldn’t keep the smug grin off her face.

Joan Crawford accepts the Best Actress Oscar for Anne Bancroft, 1963

So when director Robert Aldrich brought the two divas together again for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the stage was set for an epic clash.  Though they played entirely different characters, it was clear Aldrich was trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with his Southern gothic horror story of one cousin abusing the other.

On paper, it made sense.  Bette Davis would star as Charlotte Hollis, a haggard and possibly insane spinster who decades ago chopped off her married lover’s head with a meat cleaver when he broke off their relationship.  Davis relished the role, once again making herself as ugly as possible, and cackling and carrying on throughout the film as only she can.

Joan began filming as Miriam Deering, Charlotte’s once poor cousin who has made good and returns as a sleek and sophisticated career woman to persuade Charlotte that she must move out of her childhood home as the county is tearing it down to make room for a new bridge and roadway.

(For months after I first saw this film, no one could come into my front yard without my yelling “get off my property” in my best Bette Davis impersonation.)

Alas, a Joan and Bette redux was not to be.  After Davis harassed her, stole scenes, and just generally did everything she could to make Crawford’s life on set hell, Crawford began missing work and eventually ended up in the hospital.

Was she truly ill or did she fake it to get out of her commitment?

Only Joan Crawford knows for sure.

Diva Joan Crawford could only take so much.

With much of the filming already complete and rapidly going over budget, Aldrich was desperate for a replacement.  Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Barbara Stanwyck had no interest.

Vivien Leigh rejected the role saying, “I can just about stand to look at Joan Crawford at six in the morning on a southern plantation, but I couldn’t possibly look at Bette Davis.”

In the end, Aldrich persuaded Olivia de Havilland to take over for Crawford.

Crawford, who was technically fired, shaded de Havilland from her hospital room saying, “I’m glad for Olivia—she needed the part.”

De Havilland was one of the few women Davis got along with onscreen and off, due almost completely to de Havilland’s admiration of Davis’ work and patience onset.  She was perhaps even better than Crawford, as her reputation as sweet and guileless Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind only made the film all the more satisfying when Miriam turns out to be the evil cousin, and Davis’ outrageous but ultimately harmless Charlotte is redeemed.

Just before she Bewitched the world as Samantha’s mother Endora, Agnes Moorhead did an Oscar-nominated turn in the film as Velma, Charlotte’s crusty housekeeper who is onto Miriam from the jump.  Some of the best scenes in the film involve Velma glaring at Miriam and sarcastically imitating her highfalutin ways.

Agnes Moorehead and Bette Davis

Though entertaining in an outlandish, macabre sort of way, Sweet Charlotte is not as good a film as Baby Jane.  The plot is a little nuttier, Davis’ portrayal of a woman going crazy is even more over the top, and the gore, while tame by today’s standards, was eye-raising in 1964.

The twist at the end of Baby Jane—that Blanche (Crawford) was driving the car the night she was paralyzed, not a drunken Jane (Davis), as Jane always believed, leads to Jane asking, “You mean all this time we could’ve been friends?” and gives the film an unexpected poignancy.  With a different twist of fate, could Crawford and Davis have been friends, just like Blanche and Jane?

There’s no similar flourish at the end of Sweet Charlotte.  Miriam’s motives are simple greed, and she deliberately sets out to make Charlotte believe she is going insane.  Charlotte realizes the truth, kills Miriam and makes peace with moving out of the house.

Baby Jane and Charlotte spawned an entire raft of knock-offs, including Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), Whatever Happened, to Aunt Alice? (1969), Dear Dead Delilah (1972), and Die! Die! My Darling (1965), campy films that Barbara Stanwyck dismissed as “about grandmothers who eat their children.”

You can have yourself a grand old time watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

But as Hollywood almost never remembers, sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re ahead.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Considine, Shaun.  Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud
  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck
  • Sikov, Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Second Divine Feud: Bette and Joan

Back in February, I wrote about the lifelong feud between Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins, immortalized onscreen in The Old Maid (1939) and Old Acquaintance (1943).  This was a bitter and deep feud, but far less legendary than the well known animosity between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Like many Hollywood feuds, it’s difficult to determine how much was fact and how much was manufactured by the press to sell magazines.  By the 1950s, television was eating up an increasing share of the advertising pie, and the fan magazines crawled into the gutter to sell more copies.

As Shaun Considine writes in Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud:

“The private lives of stars, no matter how sacred, were no longer considered off-limits to interviewers and reporters, and Crawford, “Saint Joan of the Fan Mags” was one of the first to be burned at the tabloid stake.”

Crawford was crucified as phony, a poor actress who’d gotten by on looks that had gone to seed.  And Bette Davis?  Well, everyone knew she had talent but was plain crazy, a wrecking ball that destroyed anything and anyone that got in her way.

In one of Hollywood’s most inspired bits of casting, director Robert Aldrich had them face off in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the story of a formerly beloved actress (Crawford) who’s now in a wheelchair and held prisoner by her sadistic sister (Davis).

The stories of the antics on the set of Jane are too good to fact check—that Davis installed a Coke vending machine (Crawford was married to the CEO of Pepsi), that Crawford filled her pockets with rocks when Davis had to drag her across the floor in a scene, that Davis intentionally kicked Crawford in the head during a scene where her character does the same.

It’s so juicy that in 2017 FX produced an eight episode miniseries about their feud and the making of Jane, starring Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford.

Baby Jane Hudson (Davis) is obsessed with her childhood, in which she traveled the country singing, gaining attention, and lording her status over her sister Blanche (Crawford).  Soon the tables turn, as Davis grows up and into obscurity and Blanche becomes a bonafide movie star.

By the time we meet the sisters, Baby Jane has once again gained the upper hand.  Blanche is permanently wheelchair-bound after an accident in which Baby Jane was driving.  Jane “cares” for her invalid sister, but the two have become recluses and Jane begins an escalating campaign of torture against Blanche.

It’s a horror film, but the acting is so intentionally over-the-top it’s more funny than scary.  

At least it’s always been funny to me.  

I first found Baby Jane as a kid, and I couldn’t get enough of it.  When Baby Jane cackles after she serves her sister a rat for lunch, it’s a terrible moment, but it’s also an uncomfortably funny one.

Bette Davis looks truly grotesque in the film, wearing thick white pancake makeup she made herself, and smeared on red lips.  Her character runs around in pigtails and dresses like a doll, in spite of the fact that Davis was in her mid-fifties when she played the part.

Today, the film is cited as perhaps the first true example of hagsploitation, or films where older women are made as ugly as possible and run around scaring everyone and generally wreaking havoc.

Previously called witches.

There’s nothing new under the sun, folks.

I have two competing thoughts about Jane—first, the film was not the apex of Bette Davis’ or Joan Crawford’s career and shouldn’t be treated as such.  If Jane is the only film you’ve seen starring these two women, please let it lead you to Mildred Pierce, Jezebel, A Woman’s Face, or Now, Voyager.

Second, don’t dismiss it as pure hagsploitation.  It’s a fun film to watch, and I love that Crawford and Davis refused to be pushed off the stage into bit parts or retirement.

If the choice was to play hags above the title or the wise woman in the background, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford chose the hag every single time.

And damn if I don’t love them for it.

Sources

  • Spoto, Donald.  Possessed:  The Life of Joan Crawford
  • Sikov, Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis
  • Considine, Shaun.  Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings

Dinner Time

Every day at noon it begins.

I’m in my office (still working from home), minding my own business when I feel a scratch on my leg. 

Blinker is ready for dinner.

Yes, you heard me right, dinner.

Back in the before times, when I went into the office every day, I fed my cat Blinker twice a day—once in the morning before work, and once when I got home around 5:30 pm.

There is nothing in the world Blinker likes more than breakfast and dinner.

When I began working from home, she began demanding her dinner earlier and earlier.  I started feeding her at 5:15, then 5:00.  What harm could there be?

Do you ever get the feeling you’re being watched?

At noon (a mere six hours after breakfast) she begins with the scratch.  Then she’s up on my desk, walking on my keyboard.  She pushes my mouse off the desk.  Pencils and my phone hit the floor, along with my notebook. 

She chews on the pull string of my desk lamp.  She sits on my hands while I try to type.

If I’m on a work conference call, she begins meowing.  If it’s a particularly important call, she meows at the top of her lungs until my coworkers ask what the heck is going on.  How she can determine the importance with deadly accuracy is beyond me.

If I’ve successfully ignored all this, she takes it to the next level by trying to crawl on my back while I’m sitting in a chair.  While she sometimes does this for fun, in pursuit of dinner she will make sure to dig her claws in.

And finally, there’s the nuclear option:  she sits in front of the computer alternating between staring at me and putting her butt in my face.

Using these techniques, she has successfully made her dinner earlier by fifteen minute increments until I now find myself feeding her at 2:00 pm.

I refuse to go any earlier and we’ve been at a stalemate for the last nine months.

At some point I’ll be going back to the office, and I’ve been trying to slowly push back her dinner time, but it isn’t easy.

Today I made it to 2:02 pm, two full hours after she began her antics.

It’s going to be a long summer.

A Lost Lady (1934): This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

As any reader knows, a poor film adaptation of your favorite novel can break your heart.

It’s even worse for authors:  Jodi Picoult has disowned the 2012 adaptation of My Sister’s Keeper, and will likely never sell the film rights to another one of her bestselling novels.  P.L. Travers hated Mary Poppins and Bret Easton Ellis disliked American Psycho.  Even Stephen King, who’s had dozens of successful adaptations, hasn’t been shy about his distaste for the 1980 film The Shining

For these authors, and most who dislike film adaptations, the criticism boils down to this:  it might be an okay movie, but it’s not the story I wrote.

Even this critique, it turns out, is as old as Hollywood itself.

As any kid who read My Ántonia in high school English class knows, Willa Cather was a Pulitzer Prize winning author and one of the best chroniclers of the pioneer days in the American West.  In this and her other pioneer novels, she expertly showed the bravery, hardship, and grit that was required to set out to make your fortune in an uncivilized land.  

There’s no doubt that Cather’s pioneer trilogy of O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Ántonia could be made into lush, wonderful films that could bring in a boatload of Oscars and devotion from fans.

But we’ll never see any of them on screens big or small, all because of an all-but-forgotten film starring Barbara Stanwyck in 1934.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather wrote A Lost Lady in 1923, a short but moving novel set in the late nineteenth century about the death of the early pioneers and the pioneer way of life.  Marian Forrester is the beautiful and much younger wife of Captain Daniel Forrester, a railroad man.  They spend part of the year in their home in Sweet Water, a western stop on the transcontinental railroad.  

In the novel, we see Marian only through the eyes of others, primarily Niel Herbert, a boy who grows into a young man.  He idolizes Marian as the ideal woman and wife.  She is beautiful, and a legendary hostess known from Sweet Water to California.  She always knows the right word to say, the right drink to pour, the right dances.  But there is a lurking cynicism that only shows in flashes.  Marian Forrester is a lovely woman with an unknowable heart that makes her all the more appealing.  She is loyal to her husband but terribly lonely on the prairie.  Neil is dismayed when he discovers that she is having an affair with a man passing through town.

The Captain and his friends are the last of a dying breed, the honest pioneers who put honor ahead of business.  When the market crashes, the Captain goes against his lawyer’s advice and spends most of his fortune to ensure his employees get their full savings from a failed bank.  The gesture is admirable, but when the Captain dies, Marian is left with nothing and quickly falls from grace.

The Captain is dead.  The pioneer spirit is dead, giving way to a colder, more capitalistic world.

But Marian Forrester refuses to die.

Neil, a young man by this time, is disillusioned by watching Marian struggle, consorting by necessity with unsavory characters whom he feels are beneath her.  He wants her to remain the pure, perfect wife, and expresses his resentment in the novel’s most famous lines:

“It was what he held most against Mrs. Forrester; that she was not willing to immolate herself, like the widow of all these great men, and die with the pioneer period to which she belonged; that she preferred life on any terms.”

So what did Hollywood do when it got its hands on this complicated story about the death of the pioneer days, the mystery of another’s marriage, and the subtle coming of age story of an idealistic young man?

Flattened it like a pancake, and left its heart on the cutting room floor.

It isn’t a terrible film.  It just isn’t the story Cather wrote.

In Hollywood’s version, Stanwyck plays Marian Forrester, and while she is excellent in this film, she is slightly miscast for Cather’s version of Marian.  Stanwyck herself, and Hollywood’s Marian, is too honest and direct.

Cather’s Marian is a bundle of contradictions, a woman who charmed and drew in all the men around her without ever revealing her essential self—a woman like our aforementioned Grace Kelly would’ve been perfect for this role, but for that fact that she was five years old and playing with dolls in Philadelphia when the film was made.

As in the novel, Marian marries Captain Forrester out of gratitude and affection.  He rescues her after a great heartbreak (when her fiance is shot by his mistresses’ husband) and a great injury (a fall that breaks her leg).  

In the film, Marian has lost the will to live, but Captain Forrester believes he can love her back to life.  He is thrilled to show off his new wife to his friends, and untroubled by his loveless (and apparently sexless) marriage.  

They promise an unflinching honesty, which becomes a problem when Forrester leaves town on a business trip and Marian finds her long-dormant libido awakened when handsome cad Frank Ellinger comes to town.

Marian tells the Captain about the affair, and he sets about stoically letting her go, even though he is now as heartbroken as she at the beginning of the film.  His stress causes a heart attack, and his near death makes Marian realize she loves him after all.  She breaks it off with Ellinger, and nurses the Captain back to love and faith, as he once did for her.

The film ends with them both equally in love for the first time in their marriage, and the promise of a happy, fulfilling, and true marriage.

Happily married to the Wizard of Oz

There is no mention of the American West.  No reversal of fortune.  Niel is Marian’s age and falls in love with her but agrees to a platonic friendship out of respect for the Captain (and because she does not reciprocate his feelings.)  When he discovers her affair with Ellinger, he is not so much disillusioned as wondering why it can’t be him.  

At one point, he says to her, “you think I’m judging you, but I’m not,” when of course, the entire novel is his ever-changing judgement of her.

A well-acted, serviceable movie, kept alive today by Stanwyck’s reputation.

But is it any wonder that Cather absolutely despised the film fashioned from a few bits of her novel?

She hated it so much, in fact, that she had her will stipulate that her novels and stories could never be made into films or plays, even after her death.

So no actress or director will ever get another crack at Marian Forrester and A Lost Lady, which seems a shame.  Some have written that the novel is unfilmable, but I disagree.  Sure, with a poor director, it could become one of those films where strong emotions are conveyed with excessively long close-ups, but in the right hands, someone could do justice to Cather’s masterpiece.  

Any actress would love to sink her teeth into the role of Marian Forrester.

But we will never see it, nor will we see My Ántonia, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or any of Cather’s other works.

Cather said that she never wanted to be associated with words in a script she hadn’t written, and accurately accused Hollywood of mutilating her great work.

But in her version of A Lost Lady, Niel judges Marian harshly for letting go of the old pioneer ways and engaging in a sort of crass commercialism in order to survive.  Cather does not seem to approve of Niel’s judgement, and in fact the novel ends when he has aged and reconsidered Marian with the wisdom time brings.  His bitterness has drained away and he can understand her point of view, and even hope that she is happy with her second husband, who pulled her out of poverty and draped her in furs.

Cather lived to be seventy-four and died in 1947, seemingly without ever reconsidering her harsh critique of the crassness of Hollywood.

That’s her right, of course.  And her stories live on in the pages of her novels, for subsequent generations to discover.

But I can’t help but mourn the Cather films that will never be made, imperfect and crass though they may have been.

Sources

  • Cather, Willa.  A Lost Lady.
  • Smith, Ella.  Starring Miss Barbara Stanwyck.
  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Buying Next Weekend

My plans of spending the long Memorial Day weekend visiting Harper’s Ferry were scrapped by a forecast promising three straight days of rain.

Not exactly hiking weather.

So with help from my Dad, we moved to plan B, which was to tackle the most imposing item on my 2021 to do list:  replacing the floors in my kitchen, bathroom, and entryway.

Three days, three floors.  If HGTV could do it, so could we.

It was slow and exacting work, but over the next three days we laid down all three floors without once uttering the do-it-yourselfer’s ultimate curse word:

“Oops.”

The new flooring looked great.

But you know I wouldn’t be writing about this project if things had gone without a single hitch.

This isn’t that kind of blog.

Our nemesis?

The bathroom toilet.

It came off easy enough.  But getting it back on?

Whole ‘nother story.

If you’ve never installed a toilet, there are two bolts on the floor that stick up in the air.  You put down a wax ring, and then place the toilet on top of the wax ring, making sure the bolts go through the holes on each side of the toilet.

Simple, right?

Yes, but it requires maddening precision.  You can’t get it close and then readjust, because the wax seal that prevents leaking will be broken.

Anticipating this, we bought three wax seals. 

We had a lethal combination of weaknesses.  I could lift the toilet, but I wasn’t strong enough to hold it while my Dad searched for the bolt, which he had trouble seeing.  This was due partially to the fact that his eyes aren’t as young as they used to be, and the toilet is stuck back in a corner where it’s hard to get good light in.

I’d strain to hold the toilet while he searched, until I either dropped it or we put it down in the wrong position.

After ruining two wax seals, we stopped to rest and strategize.

We decided to lighten the load by taking the toilet apart.  Unbeknownst to me, a toilet comes in two pieces—the bowl and the tank.  If we could remove the tank it would hopefully lighten the load enough for me and make it easier for my Dad to see the bolts.

One look and we realized this was hopeless—the bolts were rusted out and there was no way we’d ever get that toilet back together without it leaking.

We were stuck.

Until I said, “Why don’t we just buy a new toilet?”

“A new toilet?”

“A new one will be in two pieces.”

And just like that we were off to Lowe’s for the second time that day.  Halfway there, we reconsidered.

“Is this crazy?” my Dad asked.  “To buy a brand-new toilet?”

I stopped to think it over.

“We’re not buying a toilet,” I finally said.  “We’re buying next weekend.  Because if we keep on this way, this project will drag on beyond today.”

We were deep into the third day of the job.  We were satisfied with our work thus far but exhausted and ready to be finished.  I was willing to pay the price of a new toilet to be able to spend my next weekend doing something fun instead of finishing up this project.

We nodded to one another and kept on driving.

“What kind of toilet are you looking for?” the Lowe’s employee asked, getting ready to show us high efficiency, luxury, or budget options.

“The lightest one you have,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

We went down the aisles, not even looking at the floor models, but instead turning the boxes around to find the weights.  We found the lightest toilet they had and loaded it up.

Back at home, I dug some paint out of the garage and painted the tops of the bolts yellow for extra visibility.  We lifted the bowl of the new toilet and got that baby on in one try.

We bolted on the tank, hooked it up, and flushed it a dozen times without a single leak and smiled.

Next weekend was safe.

Next weekend, of course, is now this weekend, the nicest one we’ve had all year.

I spent it rowing, having coffee with friends, then dinner with other friends.  I plan to spend today lounging around with a good book or maybe I’ll hit up the Pittsburgh Arts Fest.

This weekend was worth the price.

And I even got a new toilet out of the deal.

A Hitchless Coda: High Society(1956): The Tail of a Shooting Star

Though she didn’t know it at the time, after To Catch a Thief, Grace Kelly would make only two additional films before an abrupt and permanent retirement.

The first was The Swan, in which Kelly plays a princess marrying a prince.  While visiting Cannes for their famed filmed festival, Paris-Match magazine arranged a meeting between Grace Kelly and Rainier III, Prince of Monaco.  The meeting lasted thirty minutes and was heavily photographed.  The magazine ran an article about how the actress playing a princess met a real prince.

And that was that.

Each wrote the other a customary formal thank you note.  Then another letter followed, and another.  Soon enough, Kelly and the Prince were revealing more and more of themselves in these letters.

These two lonely people, both longing for a love match, marriage, and children, found solace in these communications.

Two private people who were embarrassed by the attention their jobs garnered unintentionally found a way to get to know one another away from the prying eyes of the press.

When Rainier visited the United States, the press correctly sniffed out that he was going to propose, but no one could figure out who he intended to marry.

How could they?  Though they kept laser focused on both, Kelly and Rainier had had no real life contact outside that brief publicity stunt.

They fell in love through their letters.

Rainier III and Kelly

By the time she began filming on High Society, Grace Kelly was engaged and on the cusp of becoming the Princess of Monaco.

High Society is a remake of the 1940 classic The Philadelphia Story, directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, who won his only Oscar in the film.  Playwright Philip Barry wrote the play and the part of Tracy Lord specifically for Hepburn, who played it to great acclaim on Broadway and used its success to vault herself triumphantly back into Hollywood after being unceremoniously dubbed box office poison.

To jazz it up a little, and perhaps to justify a remake, MGM made High Society a musical.  Kelly took up the part of Tracy Lord, and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra brought the singing chops for Tracy’s two suitors.

Both versions tell the story of Tracy Lord (Hepurn/Kelly), a haughty rich socialite who demands perfection of herself and everyone else.  She harshly judges her philandering father and her ex-husband, CK Dexter Haven (Grant/Crosby).  The story opens on the eve of her wedding to a self-made bore, and the private Tracy is forced to allow two reporters to cover her wedding in exchange for suppressing a compromising article about her father’s affair with a ballet dancer.  She gets drunk and goes for a midnight swim with the reporter (Stewart/Sinatra) before realizing it’s Dex she loves after all.

Many reviewers now and at the time complain that Kelly is miscast, but I disagree, at least to a point.  No one but Hepburn will ever be exactly right for the part of Tracy Lord, who is essentially her alter ego.

With that stipulation, Kelly is as good a substitute as will likely ever be found.  The character of Tracy Lord is seen as a goddess, a remote marble statue of perfection.  The men (except for Dex, which makes him perfect for her) revere her as a thing of beauty they wish to place on a pedestal.

“I don’t want to be worshipped,” Tracy says in both versions, “I want to be loved.”

This persona applies perhaps even more to Kelly than it did to Hepburn.  Like Hepburn, Kelly was raised on the east coast, and had a sense of the proper way to do things.  Each pushed back fiercely against the studio heads to protect their career from bad parts.

Both had more respect for the theater than for Hollywood.

Both had immense power derived from the unusual fact that they didn’t need to be movie stars.

Both had an untouchable quality.

But of course, Hepburn’s image was one of a modern woman.  She was an eccentric who did as she pleased, wearing pants and living, as she said, “like a man.”

She elaborates:

“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.”

This is not Grace Kelly, who broke several engagements because her family did not approve of the man in question.  Kelly was a style icon, and would not have been caught dead sprawled out or sitting crossed-legged as Hepburn often did.

Howard Hawks, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn on the set of Bringing Up Baby

But I’ve just unintentionally illustrated the core problem with High Society.  I’ve spent more time talking about Katherine Hepburn than I have about Kelly.  

Try as I might, I cannot watch High Society without constantly comparing it to The Philadelphia Story and finding it wanting.  Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, though wonderful crooners, just don’t hold a candle to Cary Grant and James Stewart in the acting department, and are much more miscast in their roles than Grace Kelly.  It’s impossible to imagine either one being in this film if it wasn’t a musical.

It’s a film difficult to judge on its own merit.

It would be like remaking Gone With the Wind, or The Godfather and not talking about Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, or Marlon Brando.

The film is a fun enough romp, and essential viewing for Grace Kelly fans.  The MGM musicals of the 1950s are pleasant and fun, and it is no hardship to watch this film.  Watching Louis Armstrong and his jazz band alone is worth the price of admission, as is seeing Grace Kelly’s real-life engagement ring from Prince Rainier, which she wears in the film.

If it sounds like I’m damning this film with faint praise, with some regret I suppose I am.

Grace Kelly did not believe that High Society would be her final film.  

She came close to returning a few times—most notably for Hitchock’s Marnie, but she ultimately dropped out.  A film was made starring Nicole Kidman that presented this drop out as one fueled by political intrigue and suggested that Kelly lived miserably in a gilded cage.

According to biographer Donald Spoto, the truth was much less dramatic.  Kelly became pregnant shortly before she dropped out, but eventually miscarried the baby.  

The truth was that although she missed acting, Kelly never returned to Hollywood because she didn’t want to.  She put her children, her husband, and her people above her own desires to act again.  Hollywood would’ve welcomed her with open arms at any time and Rainier would’ve agreed for the right film under the right conditions.

As she herself said:

“I never really liked Hollywood.  Oh, I liked some of the people I worked with and some friends I made there, and I was thankful for the chance to do some good work.  But I found it unreal—unreal and full of men and women whose lives were confused and full of pain.  To outsiders, it looked like a glamorous life, but it really was not.”

In many ways, Grace Kelly’s body of work doesn’t merit the reverence and memory of her.  After all, she made only 11 films over a period of five years before retiring at twenty-six.  Compare this to even Jean Harlow, who died at the same age after making double the number of films.

However, few actors have ever done more with only 11 chances.  Kelly worked with the greatest male leads—Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Stewart, Cary Grant, William Holden, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra.  She was directed by no less than John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock.  She was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Mogambo and won Best Actress for The Country Girl.

She played in a western, a war film, a musical, a costume drama, and a thriller.

She had the guts to play an iconic role originated by Katharine Hepburn.

Few are more efficient.  Elon Musk isn’t that productive.

She lives on in our minds as the cool Hitchcock blonde, the princess, the fashion icon.

Kelly was a shooting star – burning bright but going out quickly.  

There’s not a longing for the films she didn’t make, the way there is with Carole Lombard, or Jean Harlow.  Perhaps that’s because death cut their careers short, or perhaps it’s because Grace gave us all she had to give and moved on.

Hollywood:  Grace came.  She saw.  She conquered.

Sources:

  • Spoto, Donald. High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.