Cimarron (1931):  Taming No-Man’s Land

Irene Dunne as Sabra Cravat and Richard Dix as Yancey Cravat walking down the street of Osage.  Sabra carries an umbrella.  Yancey's hit has a bullet hole.
Cimarron (1931) opening title card

Edna Ferber decided to write about Oklahoma after her friend (and editor of the Kansas-based Emporia Gazette) William Allen White regaled her with tales of the 1889 land rush and its rocky road to statehood. 

“I knew literally nothing of Oklahoma until that evening,” Ferber writes in her first memoir, A Peculiar Treasure.  “It was a state in the Union.  That was all.”

After years of research and writing, she produced a novel she called Cimarron, named after the no-man’s strip of land fought over by white settlers and Cherokee that became the Oklahoma panhandle.  Cimarron was the best-selling book of 1930, one of the top grossing films of 1931, and the Academy Award winner for Outstanding Production (now Best Picture) in 1932.

Edna Ferber created blockbusters before the word existed.

Edna Ferber quote on the film Cimarron:  "Cimarron was made into a superb motion picture, the finest motion picture that has ever been made of any book of mine."

Richard Dix stars as Yancey Cravat, an adventurous young man bored with his life running a newspaper in Wichita, Kansas.  He convinces his wife Sabra (Irene Dunne, in her first of an eventual five Academy Award nominations for Best Actress) to head out to the uncivilized wilds of the Cimarron Territory to gain excitement and a free piece of land.

Things do not go as well for Yancey and Sabra as they do for Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman at the end of 1992’s Far and Away, another film that depicts the Oklahoma land rush.  Unlike Cruise, Yancey comes away with nothing after a prostitute outsmarts him and stakes her claim on the land Yancey wanted.

Undeterred, Yancey opens a newspaper in Osage, a rough western town that rose up overnight to accommodate the influx of white settlers looking for land in the unconquered west.

Oklahoma land rush as depicted in the film Cimarron
Oklahoma land rush, as depicted in Cimarron (1931)

Filthy, violent, and overrun with criminals, prostitutes, and gambling halls, Osage is no place for a lady, much less Yancey and Sabra’s young son.  Yet Sabra finds enough grit in her soul to toughen up and adjust to life in a town where men are regularly gunned down in the street.

Four years later, Yancey tries again in the 1893 rush for land in the Cherokee strip.  He leaves Sabra and their now two children temporarily behind.  Once he secures a bit of land, he’ll come back for them.

Sabra doesn’t see him again for five years, and when she does he’s still landless.

Wanderlust kept him away. 

He leaves again, and this time Sabra doesn’t see him for decades.

Abandoned Sabra doesn’t return to Wichita.  She takes over the newspaper, raises her children in a wild land, and watches as Oklahoma grows from a savage wilderness to a state in 1907.  She eventually becomes the young state’s first female congresswoman.

Through it all, she remains loyal to Yancey, never taking his name off the newspaper’s masthead, and never speaking a word against him.  She loves him through it all, and the film ends with her holding him as he dies after not seeing him for decades.

“All the critics and the hundreds of thousands of readers took Cimarron as a colorful romantic Western American novel,” Ferber wrote.  In both the book and film, Sabra was seen as the ideal wife, Penelope waiting for her Odysseus to return.

Yet this was not Ferber’s intended message.

Cimarron had been written with a hard and ruthless purpose,” she admits.  “It was, and is, a malevolent picture of what is known as American womanhood and American sentimentality.  It contains paragraphs and even chapters of satire and, I am afraid, bitterness….Perhaps it will be read and understood in another day, not my day.”

Though she’s not around to witness it, those of us still watching and reading the story of Cimarron can see clearly what Ferber was trying to say.  The American woman of 2022 would not leave her husband’s name at the top of a newspaper she’d been running for decades.  The American woman of 2022 would not admire another woman for doing so.

Ferber was a feminist, a word I don’t think she used to describe herself, and Cimarron is one of the starkest examples of one of the major themes of her work—that the American woman is stronger than the American man.

Ferber women are forever picking up the pieces of the weaker, unfocused, and dull men in their lives.

Sabra’s only fault in the film is that she detests the Native Americans of Osage.  She considers them no better than filthy savages, and forbids her children to play with them.  Yancey is the one advocating for their rights in his newspaper, when he’s around to run it.

But in a storyline Ferber would repeat years later in Giant, Sabra is forced to confront her racism when her son marries a Native American girl.  Like Bick Benedict in the diner, Sabra shows she has grown past her narrow views when she praises her Native American daughter-in-law at a public ceremony.

Yet like Dinner at Eight, this film is bit too old for the modern viewer.  It’s impressive for a film made in 1931, when directors were still figuring out how to make talkies.  For film buffs, it’s worth taking a look just to watch the scene of the land rush, and get a glimpse of a very young Irene Dunne in only her second role.  She’s miles away from the confident, wily woman who verbally two-stepped with Cary Grant, but the raw talent is on display.

There’s a 1960 remake with Glenn Ford, but your best bet is to skip both film versions and instead find a copy of Ferber’s novel, pour a whiskey, settle into your favorite easy chair and enjoy a good yarn of the wild west.

Sources/Notes

  • All direct quotes from Edna Ferber’s memoir A Peculiar Treasure, 1939.
  • Ferber notes that Cimarron is her favorite film, but this was written in 1939, before she wrote Giant, another adaptation of her work that she greatly enjoyed.

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

Giant (1956):  Edna Ferber Takes on Texas

James Dean as Jett Rink sitting in a car during the movie Giant (1956).
James Dean in Giant (1956)
Opening banner for Giant (1956.)

Edna Ferber didn’t want to write about Texas.  She’d written eleven novels, several of them requiring prodigious research, so she knew the work it would take to get Texas right.  After an initial trip to Houston, she declared it a man’s job, not one for a Jewish woman who’d grown up in the Midwest, lived in New York, and vacationed in Europe.

But Texas wouldn’t let her go, and nearly a dozen years after the initial idea, Ferber wrestled her story onto the page in the form of Giant, an epic saga of the Benedict family over generations.

It was one of the top ten best-selling novels of 1952.

Quote from A Kind of Magic by Edna Ferber about not wanting to write about Texas.

Director George Stevens approached Ferber about making a film adaptation.  He needed a lot of money up front to make the film, so he convinced Ferber to forgo a flat fee and instead cut her in on a share of film’s profits. 

Stevens also saved money by using lesser known actors in the lead roles, knowing that Texas would be the star.

Those lesser-known stars?

Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.

Giants indeed.

Giant (1956), a film about Texas, opens in Maryland.  Jordan “Bick” Benedict (Hudson) has come to Maryland only to buy a horse, but returns to his Texas ranch with both the horse and a wife.

The storytelling starts zoomed in on Bick and Leslie (Taylor), then slowly zooms out over the next three-plus hours, getting wider and wider.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor on horseback while filming Giant (1956)
Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor

We start with the newlyweds—who only knew one another two days before their wedding—locking heads early and often as Leslie (Taylor), a daughter of Maryland, tries to adjust to Texas life in the 1920s.

A stranger in a strange land, Leslie must find her place on Reata, a hard-working ranch owned by Bick but run—for all intents and purposes—by his sister, Luz, who doesn’t take kindly to Bick bringing home a wife.

But when Luz dies tragically, the story zooms out a level.  Luz leaves a piece of land to Jett Rink (Dean), a white trash ranch hand who is in love—or at least lust—with Leslie.  Mainly for spite, Jett refuses to sell the land back to Bick.

Jett is a drunk and a rebel, and accuses the Benedicts of stealing their land from the Mexicans and Latin Americans who lived on it first.  Leslie, for her part, is always encouraging Bick to treat the poor Mexicans living in poverty around the ranch better. 

It takes decades for Bick to come around to Leslie’s point of view.

When Jett strikes oil on his piece of land, the story widens further to depict the nouveau riche of the Texas oil families of the day.  Bick initially resists having his property drilled for oil, but eventually succumbs and the Benedicts find wealth beyond their imagination.

In the final act the film zooms out one last time and becomes about the passing of one generation to another.  Bick has spent his life working his ranch, as both his father and grandfather did, only to find that his grown children have no interest in running the property.

Bick feels a failure, but to Leslie he has finally become the man she wanted him to be when he stands up for a Mexican-American family in a diner.

Giant—the novel and the film—were ahead of their time, and the film is almost startling in its relevancy to contemporary themes, with its focus on gender, race, and class relations.

It was well worth watching in 1956, and well worth watching today.

The film struck oil at the 1957 Academy Awards with nine nominations.  Both Hudson and Dean were nominated for Best Actor, and Mercedes McCambridge for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Bick’s sister.  George Stevens won for Best Director.

Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict
Mercedes McCambridge as Luz Benedict

But in many ways the film’s success was overshadowed by the specter of James Dean, who died immediately after the film’s completion and never knew of its success or his nomination.

My readers need no introduction to the legend of James Dean, a legend built on a rebel temperament, car racing, and an early death, and not entirely supported by his work in the three films he completed before his death.

Edna Ferber spent time on the set of Giant.  She’d met Dean and was won over by his charm while not blind to his faults.  In her memoir A Kind of Magic, she writes that he was, “Impish, compelling, magnetic; utterly winning one moment, obnoxious the next.  Definitely gifted.  Frequently maddening.”

Edna Ferber twirling a rope while James Dean and the cast of Giant watch
Edna Ferber with James Dean on the set of Giant

She was appalled by his car racing, and noted that his Warner Brothers contract included a clause that he could not own or race a car until the filming was completed on Giant.  On the day the filming ended, he bought the Porsche he would die in.  He was still set to return to Giant to do voice over dubbing for the famous scene in which a drunken Jett Rink gives a speech to an empty ball room.

Once she’d returned home, Edna Ferber wrote James Dean a letter thanking him for sending her an autographed photo of himself dressed as Jett Rink.

She wrote, “…when it [the photo] arrived I was interested to notice for the first time how much your profile resembles that of John Barrymore.  You’re too young ever to have seen him, I suppose.  It really is startlingly similar.  But then, your automobile racing will probably soon take care of that.”

We’ll never know if James Dean agreed with Ferber’s assessment that he looked like John Barrymore.

He was dead before the letter arrived, killed in an accident while driving his Porsche 90 miles an hour on the way to an auto race.

Giant (1956) Verdict - Timeless - Watch It Tonight

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Kind of Magic.  1963
  • Goldsmith Gilbert, Julie.  Ferber:  A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle, 1978.

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

Dinner at Eight (1933):  Focus on Ferber

Though she’s not as well remembered today, Edna Ferber was a literary giant of the early and mid-twentieth century on par with contemporaries Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner.

Seven of her novels were among the top ten best sellers in the year of their publication, and two topped the list, both feats that neither Hemingway, Fitzgerald, nor Faulkner accomplished.

She was primarily a playwright and novelist, her works encompassing the trials and tribulations of the American people, whom she knew and loved.  Her well-researched works covered a wide range of American life, from the struggle of Oklahoma statehood, to life on the Mississippi, the machismo of early twentieth century Texas, and the actors on the New York stage scratching out a living.

Edna Ferber

Her commercial and critical success ensured that Hollywood would come calling, and when it did she took the money and ran, having little to do with the making of most of her films.

So though you may not know the name Edna Ferber, you undoubtedly know the films based on her work.  Over the next eight weeks, we’ll cover the onscreen adaptations of this forgotten chronicler of the American experience.

Let’s start with Dinner at Eight (1933.) 

Ferber collaborated on nearly all her plays with fellow Algonquin Round Table member George Kaufman, and Ferber had long had the idea to write a comedy of manners with interlocking stories surrounding a group of couples set to attend a dinner party.  The play was a success, and it was adapted for the screen the next year.

Dinner at Eight was producer David O. Selznick’s first film with MGM after his successful stint at RKO.  Selznick wanted to prove his worth to father-in-law and boss Louis B. Mayer, and compete with golden boy MGM producer Irving Thalberg.  So he brought director George Cukor over from RKO, and they set about casting the successful play for the screen.

The similarities to Grand Hotel were known from the start—Ferber and Kaufman knew before writing the play that it would be compared to William A. Drake’s play, also made into an MGM film with an all-star ensemble cast, though Ferber insisted that she’d had the initial idea years before Grand Hotel was produced, but had to talk Kaufmann into doing it.

Both Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight have large star-filled casts with a history of stage acting.  Both have multiple storylines that intersect in funny, tragic, and surprising ways.  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Wallace Beery star in both films.

Dinner at Eight begins simply enough—Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke, years before her unforgettable turn as Glinda the Good Witch) wants to throw a dinner party for her wealthy friends and acquaintances.  But there’s secrets among the group—affairs, looming financial disasters, and an impending suicide.  The film starts with the invitations, divulges the secrets, and gathers the group together at the Jordan’s home before ending just as the group goes into the dinner room for the titular dinner.

It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel.  There’s lots and lots of talking, and not quite enough action, even for a film made in 1933.  I gave the film two shots—viewing it several weeks apart, and I must admit that I fell asleep both times in the middle.

The film comes alive only when Jean Harlow arrives, and she doesn’t get nearly enough screen time.  She plays Kitty Packard, the low class wife of Dan Packard.  Millicent was forced to invite the Packards as her husband wants Dan to invest in his failing family business.

Jean Harlow, Dinner at Eight

Kitty flounces around in her dressing gown, literally eating bon bons and having an affair with her doctor while her husband works to build his business empire.  She’s thrilled to attend the party, and arrives in an inappropriately tight dress.  She’s crass, laughs too loud, and doesn’t know how to hide her low-class breeding.

It’s a character Harlow perfected—the low class floozy—and the whole film wakes up when she slinks onto the screen.

Dinner at Eight has a distinguished pedigree—an all-star cast, great director, a producer who would go on to write his name in the Hollywood history books, and yet this film doesn’t have much to offer the modern audience outside of a view of Harlow, a star gone too soon when she died suddenly of kidney failure at twenty-six just four years after Dinner was filmed.

I tip my cap to all involved, but Dinner at Eight had it’s day, but it’s day is done.

Sources

  • Ferber, Edna.  A Peculiar Treasure.  1939.

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

Remake Rumble:  Sabrina (1954) vs Sabrina (1995)

Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford

After last week’s post, reader rdfranciswriter commented:

So let’s do one last Remake Rumble for 2021, shall we?

The story of Sabrina Fairchild and the brothers who courted her originally flowed from the pen of playwright Samuel A. Taylor as Sabrina Fair:  A Woman of the World that opened on Broadway in 1953 starring Margaret Sullavan (last seen in this series in The Shop Around the Corner) and Joseph Cotton (last seen here as Joan Fontaine’s lover in September Affair.) 

The next year Billy Wilder set to write, produce, and direct a film version of the play and assembled a powerhouse cast—Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden.  The foursome would end their careers with 32 Oscar nominations and 9 wins among them, with each of the leads having a Best Acting Oscar on their shelf.

Sabrina tells the story of Sabrina Fairchild (Hepburn), a gawky chauffeur’s daughter who lives on the estate of the wealthy Larrabee family.  She has forever had a schoolgirl crush on David Larrabee (Holden), the much older playboy who flits from woman to woman and barely knows Sabrina is alive.

But when she returns after two years in France all grown up, hair cut short and dressed like, well, Audrey Hepburn, David is instantly infatuated with her, not immediately realizing she’s a girl he’s known all his life.  His fiancé forgotten, he invites Sabrina to one of the Larrabee parties and suddenly she’s Cinderella at the ball, on the inside instead of watching the festivities from her perch in a tree.

Audrey Hepburn, William Holden

But this will not do.

David’s mother is dismayed at the idea of him parading a servant’s daughter in front of their high-class friends, but his older brother Linus (Bogart) is against the relationship for an entirely different reason.  Linus is the one who does all the work in the family, running their massive empire, practically living in his office.  He’s arranged David’s upcoming marriage to Elizabeth Tyson like an ancient king, a bargaining chip to foster a merger between her family’s company and his own.

Hollywood Royalty: Bogart, Hepburn, Holden

Knowing David’s short attention span (and not suspecting Sabrina’s lifelong devotion to him), Linus sets on wooing Sabrina away from David and then tricking her into sailing back to Paris, believing that he will meet her on the boat.

But ruthless Linus is soon under Sabrina’s spell, and she begins to wonder if she’s loved the wrong brother all these years….

Sydney Pollack’s 1995 remake keeps the spirit of the original in-tact and makes some minor improvements.  Sabrina (this time played by Julia Ormond) spends her time working for Vogue magazine, and this explains her fashion transformation better than the original, where she studies at a cooking school.

There is also a more pronounced physical change in Sabrina and it’s much more believable that David wouldn’t recognize her.

Greg Kinnear, Julia Ormond, Harrison Ford

He also somewhat shrinks the age difference between his leads—Harrison Ford is twenty-three years older than Ormond, and looks younger than his years.  Bogart was thirty years older than Hepburn, and looked even older, as his health had begun to suffer (he would be dead within three years of Sabrina’s release.)

The Larrabee corporation is updated to buying and selling networks and televisions, cutting edge technology for the 1990’s.

And Linus buys Sabrina a plane ticket to Paris rather than a cabin on an ocean liner.

Ford, Ormond

But the broad strokes remain.  We still get to see David the playboy in action, a lovesick girl grow into a sophisticated woman, and Linus’ gradual realization that there’s more to life than the next big deal.  We also get to see David punch out his brother when he realizes just what Linus has been up to, and also see David finally grow up and do what’s best for his family’s company—and his brother.

As to the verdict?

Come on.  This is the Golden Age of Hollywood blog.  If I picked a 1995 remake over a film tailor-made for legend of legends Audrey Hepburn, with three Oscar winners in the lead roles and a multi-winner in the director’s chair, I’d lose my license to write here.

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

Remake Rumble:  Father of the Bride (1950) vs Father of the Bride (1991)

When it comes to Father of the Bride, only the names have changed.

In the original, Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett play Stanley and Ellie Banks, proud parents of Elizabeth Taylor’s about-to-be married Kay Banks.

In the 1991 remake, Steve Martin and Diane Keaton revive the parents as George and Nina Banks, and Kimberly Williams-not-yet-Paisley-at-the-time takes on the role of young and blushing bride Annie.

Other than that, only the addition of color separates the films.

Both open on patriarch Banks, disheveled and collapsed in his easy chair, just after the last guest has left his daughter’s wedding reception.  Papa Banks removes his shoe and rubs his aching foot as he regales the horrific tale of his daughter’s wedding.

Papa Banks has one daughter—a daddy’s girl through and through—and the news of her engagement (to a boy who isn’t worthy of her, naturally) sends him reeling. 

Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy, Steve Martin, Kimberly Williams-Paisley

As Papa Banks narrates the events to the audience, he makes a loveable fool of himself throughout the rest of the film.  While his wife and the fiancé’s parents are unequivocally thrilled, Papa Banks howls that his daughter is too young to get married, and dismisses his wife’s reminder that she was the same age when she married him.

Having financial responsibility for the wedding, he demands cuts to the guest list, and blows a gasket at the price of the wedding cake.

Both feature scenes of the father of the bride trying to squeeze his now middle-aged body into a tuxedo that was the peak of fashion—twenty years ago.

And in both scenes, the daughter overacts to a silly fight with her fiancé and threatens to call off the wedding—for about five minutes, until the equally distraught fiancé arrives to apologize.  (In the original the fight is about his desire to go fishing on their honeymoon; in the remake it’s because he buys her a blender as a wedding gift.)

Papa Banks covers his terror of losing his daughter by grousing over the extravagance and cost of every detail, but ultimately bends to his wife and daughter’s wishes down to the last canapé.

And just like any film with a gooey center, he realizes in the end that (just like his wife assured him) it was all worth it, and that, “a son is a son ‘til he finds a wife, but a daughter is a daughter all her life.”

Two young brides…Elizabeth Taylor and Kimberly Williams-Paisley

Father of the Bride is a perennial favorite because even though he is an exaggerated figure, everyone knows a Stanley (or George) Banks.  A loveable curmudgeon who can’t quite grasp that the pigtailed daughter he once bounced on his knee is now a woman.  One who can’t accept that he will no longer be the man in his daughter’s life.  (Driven home in both films in a scene where the daughter dismisses her father’s advice that she wear a coat, then immediately acquiesces when her fiancé suggests the same.)

I prefer the original 1950 version, because I’m partial to old films, Spencer Tracy is more believable as a grumpy old dad, and the newer version veers unnecessarily into the absurd at points (as when Steve Martin falls into his future in-laws swimming pool, or spends the night in jail after causing a scene in a supermarket.)  Also, the over-the-top wedding planner played by Martin Sheen is similarly absurd and hasn’t aged well.

But these are nitpicks.  When it comes to the best version of Father of the Bride, the choice is truly yours.

Father with his own bride…Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Steve Martin, Diane Keaton

It’s a story so universal and so beloved that it will likely be remade (virtually unchanged) for every generation to enjoy.  As of this writing, there are talks of a remake in development starring Andy Garcia in the title role.  Time will tell if this particular project makes it to the screen, but there’s no doubt that as long as there are daughters getting married, we will see Father of the Bride again.

I look forward to the next incarnation.

To see my thoughts on the original sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951), head on over to read my guest post this week at B&S About Movies.

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

Remake Rumble:  The Shop Around the Corner (1940) vs. You’ve Got Mail (1998)

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.


Looking for more films to stoke that Christmas spirit? Check out these reviews from the archives:


For this week’s remake rumble, we begin in 1940 with The Shop Around the Corner, the Ernst Lubitsch directed romantic comedy starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak, a manager and sales clerk at Matuschek and Company in Budapest. 

There’s no love lost between the two—Klara dismisses Alfred as a bowlegged dolt; he resents the way she wormed her way into a job on false pretenses. 

Alfred answers an advertisement in a newspaper to correspond with an unknown woman about literature and the arts.  By mutual agreement, they eschew the mundane in their letters, forgoing the humdrum details of occupation and hobbies to discuss Tolstoy and Shakespeare.  Alfred is the best version of himself in his letters—articulate, empathetic, and kind.  His pen pal is the same, and soon he is besotted by a woman he’s never met.

Eventually the two decide to meet, and even if you haven’t seen the film (or You’ve Got Mail), I don’t have to tell you who he finds when he arrives at the restaurant:  Klara Novak, the shopgirl he detests.

The film takes an interesting direction after his discovery—Alfred doesn’t reveal himself to Klara, and she is devastated at being stood up by the man she loves.  Yet because Alfred knows that Klara is the one writing the letters he so treasures, he sees her in a new light.  As he softens towards her, she sees a new side of him. 

Soon, Klara finds herself torn between real-life Alfred and the mystery man of her letters, not realizing they are one in the same.  When Alfred finally confesses, it is a wonderful relief to Klara, and we fade out on the lovers embracing on the floor of the shop in the quiet after the Christmas Eve rush.

The message is clear—the love of your life might be standing next to you in an elevator.  He or she might be annoying you half to death.

Such lovely ideals are the scaffolding on which all romantic comedies are built.

James Stewart is at home as Alfred, playing one of the polite nice guy roles that propelled his fifty year career.  We never doubt the sincerity of Alfred’s growing affection for Klara.  He’s not concealing the truth as a joke at her expense, but trying to work out a way to win her love in the world off the page.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who had a deft touch with comedies, including Ninotchka (Garbo’s first comedy), To Be or Not to Be (Carole Lombardi’s final film), and Heaven Can Wait, The Shop Around the Corner should be on everyone’s holiday wish list.

In 1998, Nora Ephron remade The Shop Around the Corner as You’ve Got Mail, now a classic romantic comedy in its own right.  Budapest is swapped out for New York, and Alfred and Klara are replaced by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), rival booksellers.

Kathleen Kelly owns the local children’s bookstore The Shop Around the Corner (the name a nod to the original) opened by her deceased mother.  Joe Fox owns the massive chain Fox Books that threatens to put Kathleen out of business.

Instead of exchanging letters in a post office box, Kathleen and Joe meet in an internet chat room and correspond via e-mail.

You’ve Got Mail feels more dated than The Shop Around the Corner—perhaps because the way we interact online has changed so dramatically in the past two decades.  In a world where everyone has a dating site headshot and pictures of their last vacation online, the idea that two people could exchange anonymous emails and not realize they know one another IRL is unfathomable in a way that old time letter writing is not.

Ephron remained surprisingly faithful to The Shop Around the Corner.  Just as in the original, when Joe realizes that his pen pal is also his professional nemesis, he stands her up and tries to figure out a way to bridge the real-life divide between them.

So how to choose a winner between these set-at-Christmas-but-not-quite-Christmas-movie romantic comedy juggernauts?  Let’s break it down:

Lead Actor – I’m not the first to point out that Tom Hanks is the modern-day James Stewart, but it bears repeating.  They both bring a tenderness to the male lead and show his evolving change of heart.  Winner:  TIE.

Lead Actress – With no disrespect to Margaret Sullavan, there is no more charming person than Meg Ryan in the nineties.  WinnerYou’ve Got Mail

Director—When it comes to the romantic comedy, Nora Ephron stands alone.  WinnerYou’ve Got Mail

EndingYou’ve Got Mail wraps things up too quickly—it’s not quite believable that Kathleen would be unequivocally thrilled that the man she’s in love with destroyed her mother’s business.  WinnerThe Shop Around the Corner.

Since the breakdown is too close to call, I’m going with my gut.  Ephron’s classic does a better job of hammering home the point that we have a face that we show to the world, and a face that we wear when we’ve opened our heart.  While a comedy, You’ve Got Mail has some deeply emotional moments—as when Kathleen, who longs for a cutting comeback in conversation, finally comes up with one and feels guilty when she genuinely wounds Joe.  Or after the last day at her shop when she tells Joe (via email, not realizing it’s him) that closing the shop for good felt like her mother dying all over again. 

There’s a nice push and pull between holding onto the good of the past and embracing the new that shines through in You’ve Got Mail, and that raises it above its outdated technology.

You’ve Got Mail emerges the winner in this week’s rumble, but do yourself a favor this holiday season and make it a double feature with the timeless The Shop Around the Corner.

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

My Cousin Rachel (1952):  Third Oscar Be Damned!

Olivia de Havilland’s biographers are unanimous in their verdict that after her Oscar-winning turn in The Heiress (1949), Olivia de Havilland made the inexplicable error of turning down the role of Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).

Ellis Amburn dedicates an entire chapter in his biography questioning her Streetcar decision, noting:

“[Hedda] Hopper asked her [de Havilland] to explain why she refused to play…the best role of the century in the best play of the century.”1

But to say turning down Streetcar was a mistake is to completely miss the point.

For A Streetcar Named Desire was to be made at Warner Brothers.

Warner Brothers—still run by Jack Warner, who had bedeviled her since she was nineteen years old, forcing her to beg his wife for the opportunity to play in Gone with the Wind, then punishing her post-Wind by trying to work her to death.  Warner, who had hired lawyers to attack her as a spoiled actress during her lawsuit.  Warner, who had done everything in his power to permanently blackball her from Hollywood.

Though she was too classy to come right out and say it, hell would freeze over before Olivia de Havilland worked for Jack Warner again, third Oscar be damned.2

“I thought Vivien [Leigh] absolutely marvelous in the part,” she told biographer Victoria Amador in 2012.  “I have never regretted that I did not play Blanche.”3

I take her at her word.

So instead of taking the “part of the century” she made the gothic mystery My Cousin Rachel (1952.)

It’s 1838, and twenty-four year old Philip Ashley (Richard Burton in his first Hollywood film) is mourning the death of his cousin Ambrose, the man who raised him after his parents died when he was only a few months old.

Two years before his death, Ambrose left his home with Philip on the Cornish coast of England to seek better weather for his health.  While away, Ambrose marries Rachel, a woman Philip has never met.  Shortly before his death, Ambrose sent Philip a nearly incoherent letter that makes damning accusations against Rachel.  Though most of Philip’s confidantes believe the letter’s contents are the delusions of a man going mad, Philip wants revenge for Rachel’s part in his cherished cousin’s death.

He’s thrown for a loop when Rachel (de Havilland) arrives much younger—though ten years his senior—and far more beautiful than he expected.  His passion turns to lust and then a violent need to possess her.

The film is a game of cat and mouse—is Rachel guilty or not?  She certainly capitalizes on Philip’s desire for her, but is she a desperate woman with nowhere to go or a murderess looking for her next victim?

And Philip certainly gives Rachel reason to fear him.

The film is told from Philip’s point of view, and as he is forever tormented by the question of Rachel’s guilt or innocence, so are we.

It’s a good but not great psychological thriller that will have you wondering about Rachel’s motivations long after you’ve finished it.  (And don’t go looking for answers in the 2017 Rachel Weisz-Sam Claflin remake—you won’t find them there, either.)

And here, dear reader, is where we will pull the curtain on the story of the De Havilland sisters. 

Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine continued to work in film throughout the fifties and sixties, before turning mostly to television.  Both were still appearing onscreen in the 1980s.

Joan Fontaine is a legend of old Hollywood, the only actor in a Hitchcock film to win a best acting Oscar, and gave the world the forever gift of her perfect portrayal of the second Mrs. DeWinter in Rebecca (1940).

Olivia De Havilland leaves behind her legacy of Melanie Wilkes, two Oscars for Best Actress, and the DeHavilland Decision, a law still cited today.  Jared Leto’s rock band used the law in 2009 to gain more money for their music, and Leto met De Havilland in 2010 to thank her for her courageous fight against the studios.

And as for the their lifelong feud?

They stopped speaking to one another for good in 1975 after their mother’s death.

In happier times: Mother Lilian, Joan Fontaine, Olivia de Havilland

But there’s one final plot twist.

In 2017, the FX series Feud told the story of the feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis.  In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Olivia de Havilland calls Joan Fontaine a “bitch.”

De Havilland so strongly objected to word “bitch” being used about her sister that at the age of 101 she sued the creators of the show, but this time she lost her legal fight.

The line between love and hate is never thinner than between sisters who don’t get along.

Notes

  1. Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  2. Olivia de Havilland did not return to the Warner Brothers studio for 35 years. In 1975 she starred in The Swarm, after Jack Warner had retired.
  3. Amador, Victoria. Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant.

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

Born to Be Bad (1950):  Love of the Grift

Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott

By nearly every account—most especially her own—Joan Fontaine offscreen was miles apart from the naïve and adoring women she often played onscreen. 

Biographer Charles Higham (admittedly not the most reliable biographer, but that’s a story for another day) found her, “relaxed, super sophisticated, brittle, unromantic, and pagan,” as well as, “flippant, cool, tough, and somewhat offhand.”1

During the filming of Born to Be Bad, she was in the midst of her second divorce, the most acrimonious of her eventual four.  Though she was ultimately dismissive of all four of her husbands, William Dozier was the one who bit back the most in public.

“Joan would be smiling and charming and then there would be a barb,” Dozier said. “Finally, she lost one friend after another.  She’s the kind of woman who inevitably ends up alone.”2

As if proving his point, nearly twenty years later Fontaine would give the following quote to the London Daily Express while still married to Alfred Wright, eventual ex-husband number four:

“Obviously a wife has to do a lot of pretending to be successful; to make a difficult, selfish husband of hers feel that he is the greatest man alive even when she knows damn well that he isn’t.”3

Perhaps that’s why she was attracted to the role of Christabel Caine in Born to Be Bad, a woman who pretends to be innocent and sweet to lure unsuspecting men into her web of deception and discards them once they’ve served their purpose.

Zachary Scott, Fontaine

Christabel Caine arrives in San Francisco to attend business school and take over for her uncle’s secretary Donna (Joan Leslie), who is about to marry.  (Remember, reader—this is 1950.  There’s no need for a plot device to explain why Donna couldn’t possibly continue working after becoming the wife of a wealthy man.)

Donna is efficient, good-natured, and in love with fiancé Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott), who has come by his wealth through family money but is down-to-earth and kind.  She agrees to host Christabel while the final wedding preparations are made.

Christabel’s uncle has described her as a young woman looking for honest work and a place in the world after spending months taking care of an elderly aunt.

Her uncle is the first—but not the last—man she’s snowed.

Christabel has an entirely different agenda—she means to replace Donna as the rich wife of Curtis Carey, not as her uncle’s secretary.

The film—and the audience—delights in Christabel’s ruthless machinations as she expertly plants the seeds that will lead to mistrust and the ultimate destruction of Donna and Carey’s relationship.

There’s a slight fly in the ointment—while Christabel’s plan is unfolding, she falls in love with Curtis’ friend Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan).  She tries to have it both ways, luring Curtis into marriage while having an ongoing affair with Nick.

And ends up losing them both in the end.

Robert Ryan, Fontaine

But even then, it’s clear that Christabel’s true love is the grift itself, and we are left with no doubt that in losing a husband and gaining a fortune, the now rich divorcée has gotten exactly what she wanted.  And lover Nick, for whom she had genuine affection?

Well, every war has collateral damage. 

Born to Be Bad is entertaining, and has the advantage of being made in 1950, when the production code was breaking down and allowed Christabel’s moral crimes to go unpunished.  In fact, the film ends with a satisfying wink to the audience, letting us know that Christabel will have no trouble finding her next mark.

We’re only sorry that we won’t be able to watch her put the poor sap through the ringer.

Notes

  1. Higham, Charles.  Sisters:  The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

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From This Day Forward (1946):  Off the Cutting Room Floor

We really don’t have time for this.

We’re on a tight schedule—I’ve got to wind down the careers of Joan and Olivia so we can say goodbye to the Dueling de Havillands in mid-December.  Then we’ve got some Christmas and New Year’s films to round out the year before kicking off 2022 with a brand new series.

I don’t have time to circle back to From This Day Forward (1946), one of the least-known films from Fontaine’s young blushing bride period.  It wasn’t nominated for any awards, and director John Berry’s name is mostly unknown today (his American career was put on hold for a decade when he was caught up in the communist blacklist of the 1950s.)

Fontaine herself gives it a mere two sentences in her autobiography. There’s not a single mention of it in any of my film history books—and believe me, I checked.

From This Day Forward left no lasting mark on the film world.

Like any good film writer, I tossed it on the cutting room floor and moved on to September Affair (1950).

And yet I just can’t leave it there.

I guess it left a mark on me.

So to hell with the schedule—let’s scoop it off the cutting room floor and take a closer look.

From This Day Forward tells the story of Susan (Fontaine) and Bill Cummings (Mark Stevens), a young married couple rebuilding their lives after his return from World War II.

Bill is scared—there are lots of men looking for work, and he’s worried there won’t be enough to go around.  Bill isn’t looking for a fulfilling career or a dream job—he wants to put food on the table for his wife, and have enough left over to start a family.

He knows the strain of going without work—he was out of a job during the Depression, and though Susan’s work in a bookstore kept them afloat, he doesn’t want to go back there. 

As he fills out forms and waits in the employment office, the film flashes back through the first years of his marriage to Susan.

The plot is simple enough—Bill and Susan marry, and spend a brief period of bliss together before Bill loses his job in the Depression.  Money gets tighter and tighter, and just as desperation creeps in, he gets called up to fight in World War II. 

A boy and a girl in love—fighting the odds, sticking together for better or worse, building a bridge out of poverty brick by brick through determination, loyalty, and steadfastness.

This one’s for the romantics among us.

The film is almost like paging through a scrapbook of Bill and Susan’s lives, and is elevated by small details and scenes that give it a touching sweetness—as when Susan grabs Bill’s hand as she runs up the stairs to introduce him to her sister before they are married. 

Sometimes the film goes too far, as when Bill loses his job and his nephew offers to bring him a bone from the local butcher so that Susan can make broth and they won’t starve.  The scene comes across as a bit over the top in its attempt to manipulate the audience’s emotions.

But there are two scenes that I just love, and that Fontaine and Stevens play perfectly.

The first is the day after their marriage—they can’t afford a honeymoon, so it’s back to work for both of them.  At the end of the day, they race home to one another, embracing and laughing as if they hadn’t seen each other in years.

It struck so real and true to the heady early days of newlyweds.

And later, on the morning when Bill is set to leave for the army, they oversleep and wake up in a panic.  Bill races around shaving while Susan tries to make him a quick breakfast, but she breaks the eggs and forgets to heat the coffee.

It’s an almost comic scene, until Susan wraps her arms around Bill and says, “Darling, what am I going to do without you?”

After he leaves, Susan wanders around the apartment for a moment and then the clock rings.  Suddenly, she rushes to the window, throwing it open, uncaring of the rain that pours on her head.

Bill is too far down the street to hear, but she yells after him anyway, tears and rain streaming down her face.

“Bill.  Come back, Bill!  Listen, you gotta come back!  Don’t you remember?  We set the clock ahead last night on purpose.  We set the clock ahead.  We’ve got 15 minutes more, Bill.”

A moment that would melt a heart of stone. 

Though Fontaine plays a young bride in love with her man through thick and thin, the role of Susan Cummings was a departure from seemingly similar characters in Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre.  Susan is not afraid of Bill, subservient to him, or an innocent pupil learning from an older, more experienced man.

They have a marriage of equals, one entered with eyes wide open.

On the day he proposed, Bill talked about how nothing was certain, that he couldn’t guarantee Susan’s happiness, but that she would make a beautiful bride.  Susan counters that all brides are beautiful because they are young and innocent and life hasn’t kicked them around yet.  No one knew the future.

“What are we waiting for?” she finally asks.

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes, Bill.”

“So am I,” he says with a grin.

Life is full of ups and downs.

The worst marriages only make it harder.

But the best cut the pain, the loving and the knowing that you will have someone to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do you part.

As of the time of this writing, From This Day Forward is available on You Tube.  If you give it a chance, drop me a line and let me know if this forgotten film got under your skin the way it got under mine.

Hallmark has nothing on these two kids.

Notes

Time stamps from the YouTube video for clips mentioned:

  • Susan holds Bill’s hand to introduce him to her sister 8:59
  • Reuniting after their first married day 26:30
  • Bill oversleeps on his way to the army 1 hr 23 minutes

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

September Affair (1950):  The Perils of an Endless Vacation

And just what was little sister Joan Fontaine doing all this time?

Like every other actress in the late forties save Ingrid Bergman, she was falling behind Olivia de Havilland in the prestige department.

Though Joan had jumped ahead early—first to the Oscar, making prestige films at a leisurely pace under her contract with David O. Selznick while her sister toiled in the Warner Brothers salt mines, there was no doubt that by 1950 Olivia had opened up an insurmountable lead in their lifelong competition for the best film career.

Not that Joan was about to give up the fight.

Though she would receive no more Oscar nominations after 1943, Fontaine still had plenty of entertaining movies left to make.

In 1950, at age thirty-three, Fontaine shed the girlish persona that made her so successful in films like Rebecca, The Constant Nymph, and Letter From an Unknown Woman to play a mature woman in September Affair with Joseph Cotten.

The setup is simple—Manina Stuart (Fontaine) and David Lawrence (Cotten) meet when their plane to the United States has to make an unscheduled stop in Naples due to a mechanical issue.  Manina is an up and coming concert pianist who’d spent time in Italy practicing with her mentor for a concert that will make or break her career.  David is married with a grown son, a workaholic engineer reluctantly returning to his wife and company despite longing to leave it all behind.

Though strangers, they spend a lovely and magical afternoon in Naples, culminating in a romantic lunch in Capri, complete with wine and Walter Huston singing “September Song” on the victrola.  It’s a gauzy day, one out of time, the kind you can only have in a place you’ve never been and will never return to with a person you’ll only know in that moment.

Except the moment is extended when Manina and David return to find they’ve missed their plane.  Rather than immediately charter another one, they decide to spend a few days together before returning to their regularly scheduled lives.

The chemistry is palpable, and they teeter on the brink of an affair without quite going over, as Manina does not want to sleep with another woman’s husband, no matter the state of the marriage in question.

Fate intervenes and offers them a chance to start over when the plane they were supposed to be on crashes and they are presumed dead.

Realizing that each has soothed the other’s loneliness, they decide to give up their lives and stay dead to the world.  They start a life that seems like paradise—David is able to free up some of his money and they buy a beautiful Italian villa way outside of town.  They hire a maid and cook who doesn’t speak English, and they have nothing to do but enjoy Italy—the food, the sun, and each other.

Endless vacation.  Who wouldn’t dream of it?

And yet as real as the affection is between them, the outside world beckons.

Manina practices endlessly for a concert she swears will never perform.

David meets some local men and begins to draw up plans on how to redesign the water system so that the poor are better served.

And always, always David’s wife looms between them, haunting them as if she were the one pretending to be a ghost.

Can David truly be happy while letting his wife and son believe he is dead?

Can Manina?

I won’t spoil the ending, as the film is available (for now at least) on You Tube and is really a lovely story.  (It’s worth watching alone for a glimpse of the very young Jessica Tandy as David’s wife.)

But it is no spoiler to say that every vacation—no matter how lovely—must come to an end.

September Affair was one of the first American films shot in Italy after World War II, and was made in Naples, Milan, Capri, and Venice.  It is the first film Fontaine appeared in with short hair, and it gives Manina an air of sophistication that lends credence to the role.

Fontaine—who did not shy away from disparaging the films, co-stars, or directors she did not like in her autobiography—wrote fondly of September Affair, “Shooting the film was pleasant.  [Director] Dieterle and Cotten were civilized and amiable.  Hal Wallis was a producer of charm and concern.”

September Affair marked an important and critical turning point in Fontaine’s career, as she proved she could play a mature woman, and not just breathless girls who were mostly different takes on her character in Rebecca.

Little sister was turning out to have more than one note.

Sources

  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.

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

September Affair (1950) Directed by William Dieterle Shown from left: Joseph Cotten, Joan Fontaine