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

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.

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.

Hitch and Grace Act III: To Catch a Thief (1955): A Romp Through the Riviera

Cary Grant starred four times with Katharine Hepburn, including heavyweight classics The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby.  He made three absolutely delightful films with Irene Dunne (recognized classic The Awful Truth, its unofficial sequel My Favorite Wife, and the underappreciated and surprisingly tender Penny Serenade.)  He also made three each with Deborah Kerr and Myrna Loy, two each with Sophia Loren and Jean Arthur.  

Let’s not forget Charade with Audrey Hepburn.

He absolutely adored Ingrid Bergman (Notorious, Indiscreet.)

But you’ve been listening, so I don’t have to tell you who he repeatedly named as his favorite leading lady.

Grace Patricia Kelly, of course.

They made only To Catch a Thief together, but remained lifelong friends, so much so that when Grant died (four years after Kelly), he willed some items to Kelly’s daughter Princess Caroline.

Having found his muse, Hitch wanted to begin filming on Thief immediately after Rear Window, but Kelly wanted to do The Country Girl and she had MGM contractual obligations to fulfill.  

All in all, Kelly released five films in 1954 and was named actress of the year by the New York Film Critics Circle.

Everyone wanted to see what she’d do next.

She decided to team up once again with Hitch.

To Catch a Thief is sometimes called Hitch-lite, as it involves jewel theft instead of murder and avoids exploring the mud on the bottom of the rock of human nature as his best films do.  Instead, the audience watches Grant and Kelly romp through the French Riviera in gorgeous clothes, charming one another and everyone else as they search for a jewel thief whose crimes involve stealing only from those who can afford to lose.

It’s a good film, but it isn’t the best work done by Hitch, Kelly, or Grant.  Hitch leans on one double entendre after another for humor, Kelly serves mostly as a fashion model, and Grant—well, he looks old as he is fifty romancing (or more accurately being romanced by) the twenty-five year old Kelly’s character.

It is, however, perhaps Edith Head’s finest hour.

Head was the legendary costume designer, winner of eight Academy Awards (and thirty-five nominations) for Best Costume Design.  To Catch a Thief was among her nominations, and All About Eve and Roman Holiday among her wins.

And truly, the outfits are what one remembers from To Catch a Thief.  Sure, there’s a cat burglar on the loose, but the real suspense is waiting to see what Kelly will be wearing in the next scene.  She plays a rich socialite, so Head could run wild with the glamour.  

In her biography, Edith Head’s Hollywood, the woman who had dressed all of Hollywood’s royalty said that Grace Kelly was her favorite actress.  Head had dressed her in Rear Window and The Country Girl in addition to Thief.

Grace Kelly and Edith Head

“We don’t have that many great women stars anymore,” Head writes.  “But in the 1950s Grace was tops.  She was an ex-model and she knew how to wear clothes.”

Nor did Head neglect Grant, who wears a memorable striped sweater with loafers in addition to a tuxedo and an all black cat burglar suit.

Grant stars as John Robie, a reformed jewel thief who sets out to catch a copycat burglar before the police throw him back in prison.  In anticipating the true thief’s next mark, he cozies up to Jessie Stevens, a rich woman who drapes herself in expensive jewels, and her daughter Frances, played by Kelly.

Frances is immediately onto Robie (she is suspicious when he lavishes all his attention on her mother and virtually ignores her) but she initially believes he intends to rob them.  Seeing it as an adventure, she initially is excited by the prospect.  Eventually convinced of his innocence, she and her mother help him set a trap to catch the real thief.

To Catch a Thief has its charms and is worth watching, especially for fans of Hitch, Kelly, or Grant.  Sometimes you want to sit in the dark, forget your problems, and watch the beautiful people romp around a gorgeous location and fall in love.

To Catch a Thief scratches this itch quite nicely.

Neither Hitch nor Grace knew at the time this would be their last film together.  Certainly, if she had not retired at 26 to marry the Prince of Monaco, she and Hitch would’ve made Vertigo together and probably more.  (Perhaps even The Birds, but that would’ve been an entirely different film with Kelly in the lead.)

Hitchcock never got over Kelly leaving Hollywood, and he was always trying to entice her to come back and make another picture with him.

What would Hitch and Grace Act IV have looked like?

We’ll always wonder.

Sources:

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

Hitch and Grace Act II: Rear Window (1954): The Apex

You may say Psycho or Vertigo.

But for me, Rear Window is Hitchcock’s magnum opus.

Made on the heels of Dial M For Murder, it is the second of the three films Hitchock made with Grace Kelly.  (If he’d had his way, he would’ve kept making films with Kelly until he died or ran out of ideas, but a Prince from Monaco was a plot twist even the Master of Suspense couldn’t see coming.)

James Stewart stars as L.B. Jefferies (Jeff), a daredevil photographer who’s been holed up in his sweltering New York apartment with his leg in a cast for the past seven weeks.  His street smart nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and sophisticated girlfriend “reading from top to bottom” Lisa Carol Fremont (Kelly) check in on him daily, but his real company are the neighbors he spies upon.

Like a man hooked on the cliff hangers of a soap opera, Jeff has become engrossed in the private lives of his neighbors.

As Jeff’s friend Lieutenant Doyle says, “People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”

There’s Miss Torso, the ballerina who uses her constant parade of suitors to mark time until her true love returns.  Miss Lonelyhearts, who wears her heart on her sleeve as she enacts a romantic dinner every night with the dream man who lives only in her imagination.  And the newlyweds, whose ardor for the bedroom keeps the shades perpetually drawn.  (“No comment,” Jeff smirks when Lisa asks him what’s going on behind the shades.)  There’s the songwriter who bangs out compositions to pay the rent, and the couple who sleep on the fire escape to survive New York’s stifling summer heat.

But of primary importance is Thorwald, the traveling salesman who grows increasingly frustrated by his invalid wife’s incessant nagging.

As always, Hitch uses the camera rather than excessive dialogue to tell us what we need to know.  A nightgown spills out of Lisa’s purse when she wants to spend the night.  Jeff wedges a back scratcher into his cast to find relief from a sweaty itch.  Thorwald going in and out in the middle of the night, carrying knives and ropes and saws just before his wife disappears.

Jeff is convinced Thorwald killed his wife, and though Lisa initially thinks he’s just cooped up and imagining things, she eventually comes around to his way of thinking.

Interlaced with this tale of murder is the frustrated love story of Jeff and Lisa.  Jeff resists commitment because they come from two different worlds.  He’s an adventurous photographer who goes to dangerous lengths to get the perfect shot, living out of one suitcase in sometimes squalid conditions.  Lisa is the perfect New York socialite.  Her adventures end at finding the perfect restaurant and staying on top of fashion.

Lisa is dressed for Park Avenue in a different, perfect dress in every scene.

Jeff doesn’t think she has what it takes to be his wife.

It is her role as Lisa that I think most clearly etches Grace Kelly’s image into our memories.  Her Lisa is dressed to the nines, and she radiates class.  Even when she’s scandalously telling Jeff that she’s going to spend the night, she comes across as every inch the lady.  

Just like Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart named Grace Kelly as his favorite leading lady.

After the success of Dial M For Murder, Grace Kelly had her choice of working with director Elia Kazan in On the Waterfront (1954) or Hitchock’s Rear Window.

Though she wanted to stay in New York (where Waterfront would be filmed), she stuck with Hollywood and Hitch.  Newcomer Eva Marie Saint took on the role of Brando’s girlfriend and won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her efforts.  (Though Kelly herself would win the Best Actress Oscar that same year for her work in The Country Girl, made just after Rear Window.)

It’s hard to second guess her decision.

But enough about James and Grace.

Let’s get back to Jeff and Lisa.

Inquisitive photojournalist Jeff wants nothing more than to poke around in Thorwald’s apartment, yet his cast precludes any sleuthing.  Enter Lisa, who becomes Jeff’s legs in her bid to prove both that Thorwald is guilty of murdering his wife and she, Lisa, is enough of a daredevil to keep up with Jeff.

Things go wrong, of course, and Jeff can do nothing but watch as Thorwald returns early to menace Lisa in his apartment.  Things go from bad to worse when Thorwald discovers the immobile Jeff watching him.

Rear Window is an onion, revealing its layers upon repeated viewings.  It’s a murder mystery, of course.  But it’s the love story of Lisa and Jeff.  It’s also a deeper story, about the intense fascination of watching others when they believe they’re unobserved.  That’s the whole magic of movies, right?  As the audience, we get to be voyeurs of the most joyful and most heartbreaking moments of the fictional characters we come to love and hate.  And the final layer of the onion is that the film is about directing itself— Jeff directs Lisa, just as Hitch directs his actors.  They play out the stories he dreams up for them.

In the references section of this blog, I list five films that everyone should watch:  we’ve covered The Philadelphia Story, The Lady Eve, All ABout Eve, and now, Rear Window.

Even if you don’t think you like classic films, I cannot recommend Rear Window enough.

Sources

  • Spoto, Donald.  Spellbound by Beauty:  Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies.
  • Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart, A Biography.
  • 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.

Hitch and Grace In Three Acts: Dial M For Murder (1954): Hitch Finds His Muse

Much ink has been spilled over Alfred Hitchcock’s complicated relationships with his leading ladies.  But it’s a topic of endless fascination, so let’s spill a little more, shall we?

There is speculation about the exact nature of the sex in Hitch’s long marriage to his wife Alma, but we can only say with certainty that theirs was not a passionate love.  Hitch was a lonely man, isolated by his intense desire for requited love and his inability to find someone to provide it.  (It’s doubtful he could have accepted it if anyone had ever offered it; alas, it seems no one ever did.)  

He loved Ingrid Bergman first, and through deft skill and an uncommon tenderness, she managed to reject his amorous overtures and shaped his schoolboy crush into a lifelong friendship.  In the case of Tippi Hedren, he developed a dangerous obsession that crossed a red line and marred his legacy.

Sandwiched between Ingrid and Tippi was Grace Kelly, the cool blonde that allowed Hitchcock to mold her into his image of the perfect woman.

Twenty-four year old Grace Kelly had made only three films when fifty-four year old Hitchcock saw her in Mogambo, John Ford’s film set in Africa that featured a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Kelly.  She hadn’t yet made much of an impression on audiences or critics (though after she caught Hitch’s eye she was a surprise nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Mogambo), but Hitch was convinced she could be the star he’d been searching for ever since Ingrid Bergman left him in 1949 to make films in Italy with Roberto Rossellini.

Hitch felt Grace Kelly had a mix of elegance and sexuality that he could exploit with his camera.  While Marilyn Monroe embodied the blonde bombshell who put her sexuality right out there for anyone to see, Hitch called Grace Kelly a “snow-covered volcano,” a woman who kept such tight reign on herself that men went mad imagining what was beneath the white gloves, prim hats, and perfect dresses.

Hitch nurtured this image of Kelly through the three films they made together.  Though she occupied a singular place in his heart, there were never any romantic interludes between them.  Hitch satisfied his desires by taking extreme interest in the clothing she wore in his films, dressing her like a doll, and being infinitely patient with her on set, which was not his usual way with his actors.

After seeing her in Mogamo, he convinced MGM to loan her to Warner Brothers to star in his picture Dial M For Murder, based on the stage play of the same name.

The plot for the film starts off rather simply and then becomes increasingly complicated in the second half.  Grace Kelly plays Margo Wendice, a woman having an affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Unbeknownst to her, her husband Tony (Ray Milland) has discovered the affair.  Worried that she will leave him (and take the money that he lives the high life on), Tony blackmails an old schoolmate to murder her.

I first saw this film nearly twenty years ago in college, and I remembered nearly every moment of the grisly attempted murder scence, still shocking despite the lack of gory effects that would be employed today.  The rest of the film I had utterly forgotten.

After watching it again, I am convinced that in twenty more years I will still remember the attempted murder scene, while having again forgotten the rest.

Swann (the killer) has entered the apartment while Margo (Kelly) is sleeping in her bedroom.  He hides behind the thick curtains just behind the desk.  When the telephone rings (her husband calling to lure his wife to her death), Margo staggers into the room half asleep in nothing but her nightgown.  As her husband listens on the other end of the line, Swann wraps a scarf around Margo’s neck and attempts to strangle her.

But Margo (who is often quite passive in the rest of the film) puts up unexpected resistance and fights Swann.  In the struggle, Swann throws her over the desk and bends over her as she moans and he pulls the scarf tighter.

The scene is quite clearly choreographed to mimic a rape, and we see shots of Kelly’s bare legs as she struggles.

In a moment of inspiration, Margo reaches behind her head, remembering the scissors from her mending basket she’d left on the desk.  She finds them and plunges them into the killer’s back.  He falls, taking her with him as the scarf is still wrapped around her neck, and as he hits the floor the scissor blades imbed themselves fatally into his back.

I challenge you to watch the scene without flinching.

After realizing she has killed her attacker, the gasping Margo staggers onto the back patio, drawing in large breaths of air and pulling the scarf from her neck.

The scene took over a week to shoot, and years later Grace Kelly spoke of the difficulties and awkwardness of doing take after take that left her exhausted and bruised at the end of each day.  But she wanted to please Hitchcock (and that desire alone pleased him immensely) and eventually the scene was shot to Hitchock’s satisfaction.

Watching the film today, it is noticeable how Kelly reaches behind her head for the scissors.  She lets her hand flail around for a long time, which strikes a bit of a wrong note as she should be rummaging on the surface of the desk for the scissors.  Before she takes the killing blow, she holds the scissors up for a moment so the audience can get a good look at them.

But Hitch, of course, had his reasons.  Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, a new special effect the movie industry was testing out to compete with television.  To audiences in 3-D glasses, it would appear that Kelly was reaching out of the screen to them, and that the deadly scissors were inches from their face.

Hitch hated the idea of 3-D, which he correctly predicted would be a short-lived gimmick, but Warner Brothers insisted he use the technology.  The 3-D cameras were large, slowed down filming, and prevented Hitch from doing certain shots.

In fact, the release of Dial M for Murder was delayed for nearly a year until the run of the play completed, and by the time audiences saw it the 3-D craze had already passed.  Most people saw it the way we do today, in two dimensions.

After the attempted murder, the film gets a little bogged down in plot.  Since his wife has survived, the husband shifts his plan to convincing the police that she deliberately killed the man because he was blackmailing her over her affair.  It nearly works, until her lover and a clever detective save her from death row with sleuthing that would make Sherlock Holmes—and Columbo—proud.

For Hitch, who was never all that interested in the storyline of Dial M and who hated the 3-D filming process, the main joy of the film was working with Kelly.  Throughout the process he had his mind on his next film, one that would rightly be regarded as a masterpiece by film scholars and audiences alike.

It was the story of the ultimate voyeur who has a beautiful woman do his bidding.

It was the story of movie making itself, spiced up with murder.

Kelly would star in it, of course, no matter what he had to do to once again pry her away from MGM.

Now all he needed was the right leading man.

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

Leave Her to Heaven (1945): Tainted Love and Daddy Issues

“What’s wrong with Ellen?” her husband Dick, perhaps with a little buyer’s remorse, asks his mother-in-law.

“There’s nothing wrong with Ellen.  It’s just that she loves too much.”

Too much indeed.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Let’s rewind an hour or so, to the start of Leave Her to Heaven, when the opening scene’s picturesque technicolor setting on a lake is juxtaposed with Alfred Newman’s ominous opening score.

Something very bad has happened to Dick Harland.

The film then takes us to the first meeting between Dick Harland and Ellen Berent.  On a train to New Mexico, Dick finds himself staring at the beautiful woman sitting across from him and reading his new book.

When she notices, she stares right back.  The intensity and length of the stare is uncomfortable to both Dick and the audience.  Eventually, she breaks the stare and transforms into a charming and attractive woman, explaining that she was staring because Dick looks so much like her father.

It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is off with this woman.

By coincidence they are vacationing together in the same home, and he discovers that she is with her mother and adopted sister Ruth to spread her father’s ashes.

The warning signs continue flashing—it’s clear Ellen was unnaturally attached to her father.  She alone spreads the ashes with a possessiveness that should make Dick’s blood run cold.  Ruth mentions that her their mother adopted her because she was so lonely, despite having a husband and daugher.  Ellen stays out all night in the desert after spreading her father’s ashes and her family is unconcerned.  Her presence stifles the air in the room.

And she has her sights set on Dick.

If only he’d taken a second look at Ruth, who is not quite as pretty as Ellen but clearly the better choice.

But he doesn’t look, and he’s married to Ellen before he knows what hit him.

Though outwardly happy, Ellen has a sinister aura we can’t quite put our finger on.  She comes on strong, then backs away.  Though she grew up wealthy, she insists they hire no cook or maid because she wants to be the only one to take care of her new husband.

In another woman, it might be romantic.  With Ellen, it feels like a gathering storm.

She’s not calculating in the traditional sense.  Not at first, anyway. She hasn’t married him for his money (she clearly has more), doesn’t want him to commit a murder for her, or rob a bank, or any of the other dirty deeds that femme fatales of the 1940s lure their patsies into doing.

She isn’t a street-wise, cold-hearted dame.

She’s insane.  Truly, madly, deeply insane.

Why did she marry Dick?

Because he looked like her father.

Why doesn’t she want anyone else around?

Because she wants Dick all to herself.

Whoever said jealousy was a green-eyed monster had obviously met Ellen Berent Harland.

She’s jealous of Dick’s friends, of his work, and most of all, of his sweet-natured, disabled younger brother Danny.

In the film’s signature scene, Ellen is out in a boat on a lake following Danny while he swims.  He’s overtaken by a cramp and Ellen realizes this is her opportunity to eliminate her main rival for Dick’s affection.  Donned in a fabulous white coat, dark sunglasses, and blood-red lipstick (the impact maximized by glorious technicolor), Ellen calmly watches Danny drown, not moving an inch when he cries out again and again for her help.

Eat your heart out, Phyllis Dietrichson.

Gene Tierney sinks her teeth into the role, infusing Ellen with a malevolence that grows ever more malignant.  Murdering Danny unleashes a reign of terror that destroys her marriage, her sister Ruth, husband Dick, and ultimately, herself.

Her revenge against her husband for an imagined affair with her sister is pure madness.

And genius.

Tierney was often underrated as an actress as critics focused on her beauty, but she gave a performance worthy of an Academy Award in Leave Her to Heaven, and indeed, she was nominated.  But it was a year of stiff competition and she ultimately lost to Joan Crawford for Mildred Pierce, an Academy decision I endorse.

Leave Her to Heaven is not the best movie I’ve ever seen, nor is it one of my personal favorites.  There is no doubt, however, that as Robert Osborne said while introducing it on Turner Classic Movies, it is, “One of those movies that, once seen, is almost impossible to forget.”

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

Remake Rumble: Waterloo Bridge (1931) vs Waterloo Bridge (1940)

In the Remake Rumble, I’ll throw one (or more) versions of the same film into the ring and let them fight it out.  I’ll discuss the good and the bad, and end with the ultimate judgement of the best version.  Judgements can be appealed through well-reasoned arguments in the comments section.


In this inaugural edition of the Remake Rumble, Mae Clark and Vivian Leigh spar for the best portrayal of the doomed dancer-turned-prostitute Myra in their respective adaptations of Robert Sherwood’s World War I play Waterloo Bridge.

I first watched the original 1931 version nearly a year ago when I was writing about the pre-code films.  At the time, the story interested me, but I had my hands full writing about the deliciously remorseless up-to-no-good dames in Baby Face (1933) and Red-Headed Woman (1932).

But over the past eleven months, Waterloo Bridge stayed with me.  It’s the kind of movie Universal (and Warner Brothers) liked to make in the dawning days of sound—cheaply made films about the dregs of society who view the world with a jaundiced eye but somehow manage to hang onto their dignity in an indifferent world.

Such a person is Myra, the American chorus dancer in London who falls on hard times and resorts to prostitution to keep a little food on the table and a little gas in the lamps of her dirty flat.  Her quick fall from grace is symbolized when an admirer who sees her dancing in the chorus sends her a fresh, white mink that is the envy of the other dancers.  Only moments later, we flash forward to her fall from grace—the mink, now tattered and seedy, is her uniform when she walks the streets.

During an air raid on Waterloo Bridge (where Myra is trolling for a client), she meets Roy Cronin, an American soldier on leave.  In her flat after the raid, she and Roy share a loaf of bread.  Roy takes in the squalor of her flat and offers to help her by paying her rent.  He does not realize Myra’s profession despite all the obvious signs.  He’s earnest and naive, and his charity insults Myra.

She throws him out, then invites him back.  Like many soldiers of the time, Roy fears his life may be short and wants to live while he can.  For a man like Roy, that doesn’t mean a romp with a cheap London whore.  He wants to save Myra from her bad luck.

He wants to marry her the next day, before his leave is over and he has to head back to the front.

Much of the rest of the film is Roy’s almost pathetic insistence that Myra marry him.

Roy comes from a wealthy family.  He can take care of her financially, she can live with his family while he is at war.  Myra’s friend Kitty gleefully points out that if he dies in the war, she will receive his pension.

And she genuinely cares for Roy.

It’s her way out.

And yet Myra refuses.

Again and again she refuses, quite violently.  

I will admit, I didn’t quite understand why the first time I watched the film.  It struck me that she hated him, that she wanted him to leave her alone.  But this time, it sunk in.

It’s not pride:  Myra despises herself.  

If a good man like Roy married a soiled woman, it would humiliate him and his family.  Even if he can’t see it, Myra can.

I also think—though it’s not directly spelled out in the film—that Myra can see that in the long run, they would never work.  He would grow to hate her.

She’s a fallen woman, lower than dirt.  But to trap Roy into a marriage?

That’s a line of self-respect she cannot cross.  And she cannot bear to tell him the truth about her, to lose the love she sees in his eyes.

If he was a mark, she would take him for all she could.

She can’t marry him because she loves him.

And turning down her own happiness, her own salvation, is a kind of torture.

Marrying Roy is the ultimate poisoned apple, and Myra, already fallen, refuses to take the bite.

The last twenty minutes of the film is brisk and searing.

Roy has taken Myra to visit his family, and to press his marriage suit.  Roy’s mother is kind to Myra, but makes it clear that she does not approve of the marriage.  In the middle of the night, Myra goes to see his mother and admits to her what she cannot admit to Roy:  she is a prostitute.

The mother is kind but in full agreement that Myra must leave immediately.  

Before she goes, she tells his mother, not in defiance, but as a way of making his mother bear witness to her sacrifice, “I could marry him, if I wanted to.”

“I know, my dear.”

“I just wanted you to know that.”

“Yes, I know , Myra.  You see I happen to know you’re rather a fine girl.”

“Fine?  I’m not.”

Roy tracks her down one last time, and having promised both herself and his mother to push him away, she tells him she hates him, that she is laughing at him.  At this, she throws her head back, anchors her joined hands on her forehead, and lets out a maniacal laugh.

The first time I watched, I thought it was a bit ridiculous, overacting on Clark’s part.  But I see it differently now—as a primal scream of agony, a plea to god to quit tempting her.

She ultimately agrees to marry Roy before she sends him back to war—a promise I don’t believe she ever intended to keep.

But we will never know, as Myra is killed in an air raid on Waterloo Bridge, a crowd surrounding her unseen body and the mink sprawled across the ground.

A scant nine years later, MGM remade the film with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor, perhaps the hottest stars in Hollywood in 1940.

Though key aspects of the story remain the same, MGM and the strictly enforced production code wash away much of the grime of Myra’s tale.  

Universal and Warner Brothers were the studios that made cheap films showcasing society’s underbelly, but MGM was filled with big budgets, glamour, and fairy tales.

Waterloo Bridge (1940) spends nearly three-quarters of the film laying the groundwork to make sure Myra doesn’t lose our sympathy when she descends into prostitution. 

Vivien Leigh’s Myra is a ballerina, not a chorus girl.  She meets and falls in love with Robert Taylor’s significantly more dashing and charismatic Roy Cronin.  

Taylor’s Cronin takes her out to a romantic dinner, where the orchestra plays with candles burning.  They dance to Auld Lang Syne, and as each section of the orchestra drops out, they extinguish their candles until Taylor and Leigh are waltzing in the dark.

It’s an enchanting scene, establishing the love between them in a way the original film never does.  The two have a chemistry that Clark and Douglass simply lack.

Taylor’s Cronin comes across as romantic and in charge.  His marriage proposal is one from a man who knows what he wants and is confident he will get it, where the original Cronin often comes across as desperate.

Because the MGM version insists that Taylor and Leigh fell in love before her fall into prostitution, the plot then has several contrivances as to why they cannot marry before he must go back to the front—first, the reverend tells him there can be no marriages after 3 pm, and then the next day Taylor is called unexpectedly—and immediately—back to the front before the wedding.

Thus, when Taylor’s Cronin is killed in the war, there’s no pension for poor Myra, who was fired from her job as a ballerina for missing a performance to be with Cronin.

The film documents Myra’s descent—she and roommate Kitty grow hungry, then Myra grows sick when she learns of Cronin’s death.  Unbeknownst to Myra, Kitty begins hitting the streets.  

When she learns the truth, Myra is aghast:

Myra:  “You did it for me.”

Kitty:  “No, I didn’t.  I’d have done it anyhow.  No jobs.  No boys who want to marry you.  Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last.”

Myra:  “Kitty, you did it for me to buy me food and medicine.  I’d sooner have died.”

Kitty:  “No, no you wouldn’t.  You think you would, but you wouldn’t.  I thought of that…but I wasn’t brave enough.  I wanted to go on living.  Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you.  We’re young and it’s good to live.  Even the life I’m leading, though, God knows it–I’ve heard them call it the easiest way.  I wonder who ever thought up that little phrase.  I know one thing–it couldn’t have been a woman.  I suppose you think…I’m dirt.”

And Kitty is right, at first.  Myra does turn to prostitution.  

Until Cronin shows up alive, after a year in a German prison camp.

And thus Leigh’s Myra is finally at the predicament that Clark’s Myra faced almost immediately—should she marry a man knowing what she is?

Like Clark, Leigh tells Roy’s mother the truth.  This mother is more shocked than the original mother and wants to take the night to think things over.

Leigh cuts right to the heart of things when she says, “I could make you understand.  But it wouldn’t help me.”

And in the end, she too dies on Waterloo Bridge, but this time she isn’t a casualty of fate.  She could pursue a life of prostitution when she thought Roy was dead, but now that he’s alive she can’t live with or without him.

She steps deliberately in front of a convoy of Red Cross trucks and lets them run her down.  Instead of the mink, we see her good luck charm on the street beyond the crowd surrounding her unseen body.

So which version wins the rumble?

In many ways, these two films can be seen as a study in pre and post code film, similar to Red Dust (1932) and Mogambo (1953).  

The 1940 version seems like it should be the better film.  It has bigger stars with better chemistry.  Leigh’s greatest accomplishment is that while this film was made only a year after Gone With the Wind, she doesn’t once make you think of Scarlett O’Hara in her portrayal of Myra, a feat I would’ve believed impossible.

There’s no doubt it’s the better romance.

And yet….

Waterloo Bridge is a gritty story, and the 1931 version allows more of the grime to show.  You can practically feel how dirty Myra’s flat is, how desperate and low class she is as she strikes matches across the wall to light her cigarette and pinches money from Roy to run the gas lamps for a few more minutes.

She’s a desperate, cynical girl.  She’s a prostitute through and through, and her selfless moment with Roy is her salvation.

In the 1940 version, Vivien Leigh’s Myra is never allowed to become a prostitute, not in her bones.  She’s a woman who works as a prostitute, but the script keeps reminding us that she’s “not really” this woman.  They’re so worried about keeping the censors off the case and the audience’s sympathy with Myra that the plot is filled with contrivances.  Her suicide at the end is as much about herself as it is her love for Roy.

Through no fault of Leigh, her Myra is just not allowed to be as interesting as Mae Clark’s version.

In the 1940 version, we never see Leigh engaging in acts of prostitution.  In her first time, we see only the back of her head, and hear the man’s voice without seeing him at all.  

In the freewheeling 1931 version, when a john asks Clark’s Myra what she’s doing, she gets right to business and says, “Oh, just looking for a good time and wondering where the rent’s coming from.”

You could never get away with a line like that in 1940.

The 1931 story is briskly paced, jaded, and rough around the edges.

Just like the heroine of its story.

And so to my surprise, and perhaps yours, I am awarding the 1931 Waterloo Bridge the victor over its better remembered (and more beloved) 1940 remake.

Also, Robert Taylor broke Barbara Stawnyck’s heart when he cheated on her with a younger woman and is thus dead to me.

Not that I would let a thing like that cloud my judgement.

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

Brief Programming Note

Just a brief note that Wednesday’s Golden Age of Hollywood blog will be delayed until Thursday. I’m working on something a bit different, and I’ll do my best to make it worth the wait.

Next week we’ll be back on schedule.

Happy watching…