If It Doesn’t Fit…

#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Norma Shearer followed up her Oscar winning performance in The Divorcée with A Free Soul, the story of Jan Ashe, a woman who is caught between three men—her straightlaced, respectable fiance (Leslie Howard), a charming and exciting gangster (Clark Gable), and the true love of her life, her father (Lionel Barrymore.)

Her father, Stephen Ashe, is a brilliant lawyer, yet his uppercrust family have shunned him due to his alcoholism and tendency toward representing criminals and lowlifes.  Loyal Jan stands with him against his family and tries to moderate his alcohol intake with little success.  Stephen loves his daughter and her doting, but because of his preoccupation with the bottle and the courtroom, he lets her run wild, the “free soul” of the title.

Early in the film, Stepen defends gangster Ace Wilfong of a murder charge.  The main piece of evidence condemning Ace is the hat found at the scene of the crime, along with witness testimony stating a hatless Ace left the scene shorty after the murder.

In a scene that made me wonder if Johnnie Cochran has seen the film, Stephen instructs Ace to stand and put on the hat, which turns out to be comically small for Ace’s head.

I could practically hear him say, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Life imitates art, indeed.  For the benefit of our readers under thirty-five, I’m referring to the moment in the O.J. Simpson murder trial when O.J. put on the bloody gloves found at the scene, and held his hands up to show the jury that the gloves were too small.  Not as small as Ace’s hat, but both cases were won in that performative moment, regardless of the rest of the evidence.

Ace is handsome, charming, and trouble, so of course Jan immediately falls in love with him and breaks off her engagement with the loving and stable Dwight.  Jan and Ace embark on a whirlwind romance, complete with clandestine overnight visits.

Jan thinks the affair is great fun, but things turn serious when Ace tells her father he wants to marry her.  Stephen is outraged at the idea—he has no problem drinking Ace’s bootleg booze and getting him off for murder, but has no intention of letting his daughter marry a lowlife gangster.

Angry and insulted, Ace returns to his apartment to find Jan waiting for him.  When he proposes to her (without telling her of his encounter with her father), she too brushes off the idea of marriage, albeit with more tact.  Ace realizes Jan sees him as nothing more than her dirty little secret and has no intention of taking their relationship public.

He is angry, but when Jan lays back on the divan, arms outstretched and says, “C’mon.  Put ‘em around me,” he obliges.

When Stephen finds them together, he drags Jan away and she is stunned at his anger and the depths of his disappointment.  They realize they are both out of control—Stephen’s drinking has escalated, and Jan is entangled with the wrong sort of man.  They make a bargain:  Jan will never see Ace again if Stephen quits drinking.

This movie calls to mind Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, another story of a daughter who idolizes her alcoholic father.  As with A Free Soul, the daughter runs wild and the most poignant scene involves young Jeannette asking her father to give up drinking.  In Jeannett’s case, she has asked him to stop drinking as her tenth birthday present.

In both stories, the fathers make the promise to stop drinking, knowing they cannot keep it.

In Jan’s case, she returns to Ace when her father starts drinking again.  But Ace’s wounded pride has made him both violent and possessive, and when Jan again refuses to marry him, he promises to expose to the world that they have slept together, marking her as a ruined woman no decent man would want.

Except good old Dwight still wants her.  Though meant to be heroic, Dwight comes off as a bit of a patsy when he takes it upon himself to shoot Ace dead to protect Jan’s nonexistent virtue.

This sets up a dramatic final courtroom scene, where an off-the-rails Stephen pulls himself together enough to defend Dwight.  He puts Jan on the stand and she confesses all.  She is distraught and ashamed of her behavior, and Stephen takes the blame, saying that she had no choice but to grow up wild with a drunkard who associated with criminals as a father.

It’s a rousing speech, one that won Lionel Barrymore his only Oscar.

The film also garnered Shearer’s third of an eventual five nominations for Best Actress.  

It was also one of the films that catapulted Clark Gable into leading man status.

Overall, it’s a very good film that holds up over time.  Shearer is delightfully charming, and Gable is Gable in all his glory.

It was, of course, hugely controversial at the time.  In particular, the scene where Jan holds out her arms to Ace was nearly universally cut by the regional censors.

Though the censor board was mostly ignored in the pre-code era, after the Warner Brothers films and A Free Soul, the board insisted the studios not make anymore gangster films.

It’s funny that A Free Soul is the straw that broke the camel’s back.  It’s much less violent than Little Caesar or Public Enemy, but it committed two sins that those films, for all their transgressions, did not.

First, Little Caesar and Tom Powers pay for their crimes with their lives.  And while Jan is humiliated in open court, she ultimately gets a happy ending when Dwight is acquitted and they go off to New York to start a new life together.  

Second, and most damningly, A Free Soul glorifies a woman having sex outside of marriage.  More shockingly, she refuses when Ace proposes.  

The studios, fearing government-mandated censorship, complied with the edict and put the gangster films on ice.

But as we’ll see next week, there was a way to make movies outside the studio system.  If you had enough money and enough moxie, you could make whatever picture you wanted.

Twenty-six year old business magnate Howard Hughes had plenty of both.

Beer and Blood and Grapefruit

#9 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

To study old American movies is to study American history, which makes you realize what a winding road we’ve taken from landing the Mayflower to Zooming our way through the 2020 pandemic.

From my modern viewpoint where congress could not agree on the fact that the sky is blue, I find it impossible that two-thirds of congress and the states once agreed to outlaw the sale, manufacture, and importation of alcohol.  

Welcome to Prohibition.

For thirteen years, from 1920-1933, the country was dry.

Dry on paper, that is.

For on the one hand, the temperance movement was celebrating the elimination of alcohol and all its evil effects, poverty and disease chief among them.

On the other hand, it was the Roaring Twenties, one of the most romanticized periods of American history, where the rich drank champagne while wearing flapper dresses and tuxedos, while the lower class packed into speakeasies for a taste of bathtub gin.

The twenties were a complete contradiction.  That sounds more like the America I know.

Prohibition created a huge vacuum in the supply of alcohol, but the demand remained.  Someone willing to break the law to fulfill that demand stood to make a killing.

Enter the bootlegger.

Al Capone

As Al Capone, the first and most famous bootlegging gangster said, “I give the public what the public wants.”

Hollywood did the same.

Because gangsters were another American contradiction.  At once envied and feared, valorized for their ostentatious wealth and rebellion against an unpopular law and vilified for fighting like animals over territory and leaving the city streets soaked in blood.

Producer Jack Warner was interested in making films about the gritty life of those on the bottom rungs of society’s ladder.

MGM had their stars, Universal had their monsters, and Warner Brothers had gangsters.

Little Caesar was the first full talking gangster film, the story of the rise and fall of two friends, Rico Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) and Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.)  

Rico and Joe move to Chicago, where Rico ruthlessly works his way to the top of a gang of organized crime.  As he ascends from enforcing thug to top dog, Rico buys expensive suits, expensive cars, expensive guns.

Little Caesar…Robinson even looks like Capone

Joe loses his taste for the violence and falls in love.  He wants to make an honest living as a dancer, but learns quickly how difficult it is to quit the mob.

Rico is addicted to money, power, and the thrill of danger.  It gets lonely at the top, and despite the women, money, and booze, Rico grows paranoid and angry.  He must always look over his shoulder and stay one step ahead of the cops and his enemies.

Rico has a moment of redemption when he finds he cannot kill Joe, despite the fact that Joe’s girlfriend intends to spill the mob’s secrets to the police.  

But as the film takes pains to show—mainly to get it past the regional censors—a life of crime doesn’t pay and Rico’s descent is swift and complete.  The cops dismantle his organization, and he ends up living in a homeless shelter, all his fancy clothes and women gone.

Rico dies in the gutter he was once so proud to have crawled out of.

To the dismay of those who wanted cleaner pictures, Little Caesar was a box office hit.

Despite the ending, the film promoted a romanticized view of organized crime.  Children idolized Rico and his fancy lifestyle but quickly forgot the moralizing title cards.

While the censors wrung their hands, Jack Warner ordered up another picture just like it.

The Public Enemy is even better.

The film opens with the protagonist Tom Powers as a young boy.  We see that while he has a decent mother and father, Tom is a bad seed with a predilection for stealing and cruelty.

He purposely trips a girl who’s roller skating and his father takes a strap to him that is obviously well worn from prior whippings.

James Cagney plays the adult Tom Powers as he works his way up the ranks of an organized crime gang that sells bootleg beer.  For the first time in his life, Tom has power and money.

His upgraded suits, fancy cars, and false charm are just a veneer over the surface of his thin skin.  Violent and insecure, he can’t let even the smallest slights go unavenged.

Tom tries to give a wad of cash to his mother (who is only too happy to believe his lies about where it comes from), but his brother Michael rejects it and accuses Tom of hiding behind a gun.  Insulted, Tom tears the money to pieces and throws it in Michael’s face.

Later, Tom proudly brings a keg of his bootlegged beer to a family dinner.  Michael throws the keg across the room, shouting that Tom is a murderer and the keg is full of “beer and blood.”

With a chilling grin of cruelty, Tom tells his war hero brother, “Your hands ain’t so clean.  You kill and like it.  You didn’t get them medals for holding hands with them Germans.”

He shoots Putty Nose in the back years after Putty Nose left him behind to be caught by the cops on his first job.

And most famously, when his girlfriend gets on his nerves, he smashes a grapefruit in her face.  The look he gives her before he walks away is one of pure contempt.

(Poor Mae Clark—after a forty year career that spanned into the 1960s and featured dozens of leading roles in the pictures, and even a stint on General Hospital, she will forever be remembered as the girl who took a grapefruit to the face)

More even than the public enemy, Tom is his own worst enemy.

He has partners not friends, sex not love, greed not mercy, pride not duty.

Tom couldn’t change even if he wanted to, and comes to a bad end when his enemies leave his disfigured body on his mother’s doorstep.

There is a through line that runs from these early Warner Brothers films to Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), right up to Martin Scorsese’s 2019 Oscar nominated film The Irishman.

As time passes the films get bloodier, alcohol shifts to cocaine, and the f-word litters every page of the script, but at their core, these films are about broken men who find power only in the way of the gun.

Down Hollywood’s Primrose Path

#8 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part II: A Toothless Code

We’ve been having fun, haven’t we?  In the first part of this blog, we’ve watched Garbo at her best—seducing unwitting men to their doom in Mata Hari, overcoming her fallen woman past in Anna Christie, and succumbing to a romantic death of doom in Camille.  We’ve watched a young swashbuckling Clark Gable sail the high seas in Mutiny on the Bounty, and delighted in Joan Crawford and John Barrymore’s double entendres in Grand HotelDracula and Frankenstein scared us out of our wits, and King Kong had us reaching for the popcorn.

Audiences in the 1930s were having fun too.  Lots of fun.  Hollywood had made the successful transition from silent pictures to talkies, and audiences were addicted to the movies.

But not everyone was having fun.  Some people didn’t like these movies.  

Who couldn’t like these movies?

Martin Quigley, for one.

Quigley published the Exhibitor’s Herald, a movie industry trade paper.  He was a Catholic, and he was concerned about the sex and violence portrayed on the silver screen.

But let’s back up a moment.  We’ll get back to old Quigley and the Catholic crusade against Hollywood in a minute.

The story of movie censorship is a long and winding road.

If you believe movie censorship was a mistake, Mutual Film vs. Ohio was the original sin.  In this 1915 case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that films were merchandise and not art, and thus were not protected under the free speech amendment.

This paved the way for state and local censorship boards.  Eight states had censorship boards:  Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetes, New York, Ohio, Virginia, and (I’m sorry to say) Pennsylvania.  There were dozens of local boards.

A state employee watched movies all day (what a job!), searching for objectionable content.  The Supreme Court’s ruling gave these boards complete authority to cut scenes from films at will, without any approval from filmmakers. 

And cut they did.  Their decisions were capricious and inconsistent.  Kansas, a dry state, cut out any scenes of drinking.  Ohio cut anything that could have a negative impact on young minds.  Maryland was particularly touchy about disrespect of the law.

They mercilessly cut key scenes necessary to basic plotlines.  They could—and often did—butcher a film to the point where it did not make sense to its audience.  

It wasn’t ideal, but Hollywood could deal with regional censorship boards.  

The threat of federal government censorship, however, was terrifying.

Because the racier the film, the better it did at the box office.

Federal censorship was a threat to the bottom line.

Re-enter Martin Quigley.  Quigley believed that the state censorship boards were not enough, that there needed to be a uniform code of conduct from the studios.  It wasn’t enough just to cut out the worst bits—care should be taken to make decent, clean films that would portray good morals.

And all films should be suitable for children.

Quigley wasn’t alone—increasingly loud complaints and boycotting threats came from the Boy Scouts, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae.  

Something had to be done.

So when Quigley came to William Hays, director of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association, with a draft of rules he’d written to govern the production of movies, Hays was all ears.

Hays convened a committee of studio executives, including Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM.  Thalberg worked with Hays’ staff and Quigley’s allies to further revise the code of conduct.

Details were hammered out, concessions were made, and on March 31, 1930 Hollywood announced The Production Code.

The code prohibited (among other things), profanity, nudity, excessive violence, illegal drugs, white slavery, interracial relationships, and lustful kissing.  

Martin Quigley, movie killjoy

All the ingredients of a great movie.

The studio heads announced their intentions to the press, patted themselves on the back, and went back to Hollywood and kept right on making the same “filthy” films.

Because although the Hays Office had good intentions, they didn’t have ultimate authority over films, and by then the studios were in a war to recover the rapidly declining ticket sales as the Great Depression settled across the country.

Pollyannaish stories of morality were not going to get desperate people back into theater seats.

Audiences wanted sin.

Hollywood was going to give it to them, code or no code.

Thus began a four year battle between the studios and the reformers, a battle that the reformers would ultimately win in 1934, when Hollywood began strictly enforcing the code that would strangle filmmakers for the next thirty-four years.

During the next series of posts, we’ll explore that battle and the best of the pre-code films.  These are films made from 1930-1934, those four deliciously sinful years between the development and strict enforcement of the code.  

Irving Thalberg—who had helped write the code—went back to MGM and made The Divorcée, starring his delightful wife, Norma Shearer.

The Divorcée was decidedly not the type of film Quigley had in mind for enriching young minds.

Jerry (Shearer) and Ted (Chester Morris) are the perfect modern couple.  They’re desperately in love, drink and dance with their circle of glamourous friends, and Ted is supportive of Jerry’s demanding career.

Then Ted has a one-night stand.  He insists it was meaningless (all evidence confirms this) and implores Jerry not to wreck their perfect life over it.  He leaves for a business trip, confident he has smoothed things over with his wife.

But when Ted returns to find that Jerry has, as she says, “balanced their accounts” by having her own meaningless fling, things go sideways.

In the best scene of the film, the couple has a knock-down-drag-out fight where Jerry skewers Ted’s hypocrisy.  

“Loose women are great, but not in the home, eh Ted?” she thunders.

Finally, she delivers her killer exit line:

“So look for me in the future where the primroses grow and pack your man’s pride with the rest. From now on, you’re the only man in the world that my door is closed to.”

(I like to imagine old Martin Quigley with his head in his hands over that one.)

Ted can’t forgive her affair, and Jerry can’t forgive his double-standard, and to the surprise of all their friends, this golden couple ends up in divorce court.

Jerry spends her days as the life of the party as Ted sinks deeper into drinking and depression.  Inwardly Jerry is as bad off as Ted, and their shared misery telegraphs the deep love they still share.

Will they be able to forgive and find their way back to one another?

This is a fantastic film, made ninety years ago and yet the story of a progressive couple that cannot live up to their own ideals is as relevant as ever.

The film was nominated for Best Picture, and Norma Shearer won a well deserved Best Actress Oscar.

Watch it tonight.  Have your morals corrupted.  You won’t regret it.

There’s nothing Martin Quigley can do to stop you.

*Source: Sin In Soft Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, Mark Vieira

The Eighth Wonder of the World

#7 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Though they are tame to the modern eye, both Dracula and Frankenstein terrified audiences in their heyday.

The same cannot be said for King Kong.

Though classified as a horror film, King Kong did not terrify its 1933 audience.

It awed them.

King Kong was the first popcorn movie—an expensive, ridiculous, over-the-top tall tale of pure, mindless entertainment.

This isn’t just me talking from atop my 2020 high horse.  The TIME Magazine 1933 review notes:

“It might seem that any creature answering the description of Kong would be despicable and terrifying.  Such is not the case. Kong is an exaggeration ad absurdum, too vast to be plausible. This makes his actions wholly enjoyable.”

But movies are often at their best when they are mindless spectacles.  There are few pleasures as good as sitting in the cool dark of an air conditioned movie theater, eating popcorn while man battles the beasts of a filmmaker’s imagination.

It’s actually rather amazing that King Kong was even made in 1933.

Director Merian C. Cooper had long had an idea for a film about a fifty foot ape that ravages New York, but studios were wary of the expense, especially when all but MGM were just trying to survive the Great Depression.

Cooper had eventually given up and left the movie business altogether to work at Pan American Airlines, and was with the company when it launched the first regular transatlantic flight service.

At the time, David O. Selznick (a giant in movie making history…much, much more on him later) had just taken over as Head of Production at RKO Studios.  He was looking for ways to turn the company’s finances around in the midst of the Great Depression, and find a way to compete with MGM.

Like Universal, RKO had to compete without any top stars.

Unlike Universal, Selznick decided to go big.  

(Selznick, as we will learn, always went big.)

He lured Cooper back into the film business with the promise that he could finally make his ape picture with minimal studio interference.

In one way, it paid off—King Kong was the highest grossing film of 1933.  But the high cost of the film meant it didn’t make enough money to keep RKO out of receivership.  

King Kong is the story of Carl Denham, an adventurous filmmaker (much like Cooper himself) who sails to an exotic location to find—and film—the mythical beast Kong.  Along for the ride are John Driscoll, a member of the ship’s crew, and Ann Darrow, the unknown young woman Denham has plucked from skid row to star in his film.

Carl, John, and Ann arrive at Skull Island to discover Kong, a fifty-foot ape who is infatuated with Ann—oh hell, I’m just going to call her Fay Wray, that’s how everyone thinks of her—and kidnaps her.

The second act of the film is Kong carrying Fay Wray through the jungle and protecting her by fighting off various monsters, including a gigantic snake and a surprisingly carnivorous brontosaurus.

Carl has a touch of P.T. Barnum in him, and once Fay Wray is rescued he decides to kidnap the beast and take him back to New York to exhibit as a sort of circus freak.

How, exactly, they transport this fifty-foot ape from an island too remote to be on the map all the way to New York City is a plot point that is (probably for the best) unexplained.

Once in New York, Carl sells tickets to see Kong, the “eighth wonder of the world.”

At his first exhibition, Kong breaks free and terrorizes New York in search of Fay, whom he finds and again kidnaps.  Fay Wray’s primary role in the film is to scream and cover her eyes with her forearm.

Kong ultimately goes down in a blaze of glory, gunned down from the top of the Empire State Building by a dozen airplanes, but not before carefully depositing his lady love safely on the ledge of the building.  

Like Frankenstein’s monster, Kong elicits our sympathy despite his reign of destruction as he is at heart nothing more than a stranger in a strange land looking for love.

I like big blockbuster movies as much as anyone, but movies based on special effects almost by definition don’t age well.

King Kong is often listed as one of the greatest movies of all time, and based on the reaction of the audience that first saw it in 1933, perhaps it is. It was the talk of the town and set attendance records in its first week, selling out every showing.

I guess you had to be there.

Cheap Thrills

#6 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In the 1930’s the Great Depression ransacked the country and the movie industry.

Of all the studios, only MGM continued turning a profit, as when Depression-era audiences were able to scrape together enough money to go to the pictures, they wanted to see the stars.

The remaining studios were on the brink of disaster.  How were they to compete with MGM?  They had no Gable, no Garbo, no cash in the bank.

Carl Laemmle Junior, the studio head at Universal, had an idea.

If he couldn’t dazzle audiences with lavish production and stars, he’d settle for scaring them half to death.

And thus Universal’s dominance in the low-budget horror film genre began.

Laemmle bought the rights to two classic horror novels and got to work.

Let’s start with Dracula, a film based on Bram Stoker’s novel that started the vampire myth way back in 1897.

There’s no getting around it—despite his immortality, Dracula has aged poorly.  Many parts of the movie are just plain silly to the modern eye—for example, when Dracula’s bat form hovers outside his victim’s open windows, the bat looks like it’s made of rubber and someone is pulling fishing line to flap the wings.

For a villian with such violent and intimate killings, the movie cuts away right at the moment when Dracula is about to sink his teeth into his pretty victim’s necks.

And yet, it is still a thrill to watch Bela Lugosi in the role he was born to play, hissing at mirrors and proclaiming, “I am Dracula!” in the Hungarian accent we will forever associate with the Count from Transylvania.

Like vampires themselves, stories of vampires are immortal shapeshifters.  We can’t get enough of them.  It doesn’t matter if the vampires are evil beasts to be hunted down and killed (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) or tortured souls who try to resist human blood (Edward Cullen, Twilight).  They can feel modern (Bill in True Blood), old world (Louis in Interview With the Vampire), or even melodramatic (Barnabas in Dark Shadows.)

These versions are not as far from Lugosi’s Count as they first appear.

As different as they are, all vampire stories are about temptation and desire.  The vampire’s desire for human blood—and sometimes the human’s desire to be bitten.  There’s the temptation of immortality, despite the price of becoming an animal who must kill to endure.

And vampire stories are always about sex.  The vampire and his victim are always dancing on a knife’s edge between sex and death.

Lugosi’s Count Dracula has all the seeds that would grow into the tangled vines of vampire myths.  Lucy is attracted to his accent, his dark foreign looks, and his mystery.  He bites both Lucy and Mina in their bedrooms, where they are spread out sleeping with exposed necks.  And once he has bitten Mina, he gains a hypnotic power over her even without turning her immortal.

Love makes you crazy.  Lust crazier still.  Vampire blood drives you completely insane.

While Frankenstein has not inspired nearly as many contemporary retellings, it’s a much better film.  Boris Karloff plays Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster with a humanity that makes him a figure of both terror and pity.

Dr. Frankenstein, a mad scientist, quite literally plays god when he brings to life a creature he has cobbled together with parts from dead bodies he’s robbed from graves.

Overcome with the implications of what he has done, he abandons the monster.  The unnamed monster does not start out evil.  He learns cruelty and violence from the people he meets who treat him with nothing but fear or scorn.  He quickly learns to kill first and ask questions later.

The Monster meets a young girl, the first human to treat him with kindness.  In a horrifying scene, the Monster unknowingly murders the girl when he throws her into a river, believing she will float like the daisy petals all around.

In the end, all the Monster really wants is someone who will love him.

Enter the fabulous sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, in which the Monster persuades Dr. Frankenstein to make him a mate.

Yet in the darkly funny twist ending, even the Monster’s handmade wife cannot stand the sight of him.

Watching these films today, it is hard to imagine the terror they wrought on the audiences of the 1930s.  In early screenings of Frankenstein, audiences were so distraught they walked out of the theater.

But when they kept coming back in because they had to know how the story ended, Carl Laemmle Junior knew he had a hit on his hands.  

Some wondered if these films were taking things a bit too far.  While making money in the short term, would such spectacles of gruesome horror turn people off movies and cost the entire industry money in the long term?

Long term, these shoestring budget films became franchises that spawned enough sequels to keep Universal afloat in the darkest days of the Depression.

Longer term, these Universal versions of Dracula and Frankenstein are embedded so deeply into our culture that people who have never seen the films recognize Bela Lugosi’s Count with his cape and widow’s peak, and Boris Karloff’s Monster with his staggering gait and bolts in his neck.

Every Halloween, thousands dress in costumes that owe their origins to these films.  They are a testament to the power of a good story, and a reminder that money doesn’t have to stand in the way of great art.

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.

But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?

The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.

MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel.  They started with the grandest sets ever constructed.  The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase.  The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.

Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.

John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.

After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.  

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”

And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.

Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.

Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying.  He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.

Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.

If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers.  The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors.  Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.  

Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.

By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel Premiere

Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater.  While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.

The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book.  Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

It worked.  Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner.  Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations.  Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.

Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project.  It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.

But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.

The King of Hollywood

#4 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

If you were a baseball player in the 1930’s, you wanted to play for the New York Yankees.  And if you were an actor or an actress, you wanted to work for MGM.

Both the Yankees and MGM had all the money, all the power, and most importantly, all the stars.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was the first to perfect what is now called the star system.  

In this system, the studios identified young actors and actresses with potential and signed them to long term contracts in which the studios had near total control of their career.  

MGM was looking for more than talent, more than beauty.  They were looking for blank canvases on which they could paint, raw clay that they could mold.

They wanted to make stars.

The studio managed their parts and their personal lives.  Actresses were required to always appear in public smartly dressed and in full makeup—no tabloid photographs in yoga pants with a Big Gulp.  Affairs and assorted bad behavior were covered up. Fake dates were set up to encourage the press to speculate on potential pairings.

Twitter would’ve been strictly off-limits.

Think Taylor Swift and her carefully cultivated reinventions—from curly-haired teenager singing her diary, to constantly jilted lover (did she really date all those boys?), to squad goals feminist pushing back against The Man.

Each MGM star had a designated persona—Garbo the ice queen, Jean Harlow the blonde sexpot, Jimmy Stewart the everyman.

And then you had Clark Gable.  Dubbed The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable was the finest leading man to ever grace the silver screen.  By the end of his life, he’d made more than sixty movies over nearly forty years. And if that wasn’t enough, he put his career on hold to serve in the Air Force during World War II and fly active combat missions.  Hollywood would never be the same without him.  

He was debonair, with a rakish grin and a glint in his eyes.  He oozed sex, charm, and charisma.  

All of which were on full display in the 1935 Best Picture Academy Award winner Mutiny On The Bounty.  And I couldn’t help but also notice the devilishly handsome lock of hair that is always perfectly out of place.

Another fascinating true story, Mutiny is a tale of adventure as the British Navy starts a two-year voyage to the West Indies on the HMS Bounty under the leadership of William Bligh, a brilliant but cruel captain.

Gable plays Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, who enforces Bligh’s strict discipline on the sailors with compassion and good humor.

The crew, several of whom have been unwillingly pressed into service via a British Law that allows the captain to effectively kidnap British subjects and force them into the Navy, are filled with unease when Captain Bligh orders the flogging of a sailor, and insists the punishment continue even after the soldier is dead.

Captain Bligh imposes increasingly severe punishments for minor rule infractions, and the crew—Christian included—are relieved when they drop anchor in Tahiti and are granted furloughs.

After a taste of freedom, the men chafe even more beneath Captain Bligh’s thumb.

The movie’s tension increases with each unjustified punishment.  The Captain has men flogged, he orders them on dangerous unnecessary tasks, he cuts their water rations to prioritize the precious plants he is hauling as cargo.

We know the men will turn on Captain Bligh—the mutiny is in the title of the film.  The question is which straw will break Christian’s back—for the men will not mutiny without his leadership.  

When Christian finds one of Bligh’s men kicking the starved and shackled prisoners for asking for water, he’s had enough.  

In a tear of rage, he changes the fate of every man on the ship when he raises his fist in the air and bellows, “Bligh, you’ve given your last command on this ship! We’ll be men again if we hang for it!”  

And make no mistake, they will hang for it.

A British Navy Captain must be obeyed, regardless of his cruelty.

But only if he lives to tell the tale.

Christian casts Bligh and a handful of his supporters adrift on a small boat with barely enough water to survive.  It’s tantamount to murder as they are 3,500 miles from any port.

But they can never go home, and Christian knows that if Captain Bligh finds a way to survive, he and the other mutineers will indeed hang, “from the highest yardarm in the British Fleet.”

In the third and most thrilling act of the film, Bligh fights to survive so that he may one day have his vengeance, as Christian and the mutineers look for a place where Bligh and the British Navy can never find them.

If you want to find out if the King of Hollywood can outrun one of the most persistent and ruthless villains in film history, you’ll have to watch this 1935 Best Picture winner and find out for yourself.

Garbo As Garbo

#3 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

For Greta Garbo, Anna Christie was only the beginning.  She followed it up with a string of talking hits, and became the most powerful movie star in the world.  Her success at the box office gave her unprecedented power over her contract, her roles, and her co-stars.

It wasn’t just her movies that fascinated her public—it was Garbo herself.

Dubbed the “Swedish Sphinx” by the media, Garbo shunned publicity.  More than shunned—she had absolutely no desire to interact with fans or the press.  She didn’t answer fan mail, rarely gave interviews, and never attended an Oscars event.  It wasn’t just fans—Garbo didn’t really like people. She didn’t attend parties, didn’t socialize with Hollywood regulars, and kept to herself on set.

While there are some current stars who shy away from the spotlight, there is really no modern equivalent to Garbo’s reclusiveness.

And as is the way of the world, her want of privacy made her the most elusive and desirable woman in the world.

While her solitary nature was undoubtedly sincere, the studio heads soon realized that playing hard to get was always a winning strategy for attention when you’re young and beautiful.  Thus, they leaned in and cast her in movie after movie where she played a version of her public persona.

In the three films I watched this week, she plays a series of beautiful, unknowable Ice Queens whose hearts are finally melted by the love of a good man.

Let’s start with Mata Hari, where Garbo plays the real-life World War I exotic dancer and spy who is ultimately executed by a French firing squad.  We are introduced to Mata Hari as she is dancing seductively on the stage for a group of soldiers.  While watching, I couldn’t help but think how this same scene has echoed throughout movie history. A powerful woman using her sexuality to seduce and destroy men.  Most recently, we see a version of this scene in Hustlers, when Jennifer Lopez’s character is introduced doing an extremely athletic strip tease.  (Even if you didn’t see the film, you got a taste of it during this year’s Superbowl Halftime Show.  Huge sporting events…remember those?)

The more things change….
…the more they stay the same.

Garbo as Mata Hari uses and discards men, until she falls in love with a soldier whose purity cuts through her cynicism and pierces her heart.  

But as Mata Hari’s boss reminds her, “A spy in love is a tool that has outlived its usefulness.”

Mata Hari’s love for her soldier ultimately has disastrous consequences for them both.

In Queen Christina, Garbo plays another historical figure:  Queen Christina of Sweden, who took the throne at the age of six and ruled during a long war.

Though Camille is often considered her best performance, Queen Christina was my favorite of the Garbo films.  It is the sad tale of a woman who has more interest in literature, art, and sculpture than war.  Queen Christina longs to escape her endless duties and impulsively dresses as a boy and takes off for a few days.

She meets a man, Antonino, who first believes her to be a man.  He soon discovers she is a woman and they share a passionate night together.  He is a Spanish Ambassador, and does not know he has spent the night with the Queen he is on a diplomatic mission to meet.

In one of my favorite old movie scenes, after they spend the night together, Queen Christina knows (as he does not) that they can never be together.  She walks around the room, longingly touching the desk and the walls. She lays on the bed and puts her head on the pillow. Then she gets up, studies the painting on the wall and finally presses her face into the bed post.

“What are you doing?” Antonio asks, amused.

“I have been memorizing this room,” she says.  “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”

After she returns to her palace and Antonio learns of her true identity, they cannot deny their love.  But as Queen, Christina is not free to follow her heart. Her people desire her to marry her cousin Charles, a war hero, and to continue fighting for the glory of Sweden.

But Christina is tired of war and duty.  She longs for peace and love.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

In a scene that truly shocked me, instead of doing her duty, Christina abdicates her throne and dramatically places her crown on Charles’ head, giving up her kingdom for Antonio.

For love.

And if that doesn’t melt your heart, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this series.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is nothing if not melodramatic.

Finally, I watched Camille, Garbo’s last great film.  Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, a woman who hides her frail health, poverty, and desire for love as she charms and laughs her way through society on the arms of rich men.

(Old movies can be tricky for modern audiences.  We’re used to having everything spelled out for us, and they’re often quite subtle.  I was about three quarters of the way through the movie before I understood Marguerite was a courtesan—a prostitute with wealthy clients—and not just a woman who had pulled herself up by her bootstraps.)

Armand Duval sees through Marguerite’s masks and the two fall deeply in love.  But the circumstances of her position in society make it impossible for his family to accept her, and she sacrifices her love for him at great personal cost.

All three of these movies end in the tragic death of one of the leads.  So while each Ice Queen is melted by love, she never gets her happy ending.

Greta Garbo’s heart never melted—she never married, never had children, and lived most of her life alone.  She had a romance with her Queen Christina co-star John Gilbert but refused his marriage proposal. 

Garbo retired abruptly in 1941.  She was only thirty-five, and had made twenty-eight successful films.  She spent the rest of her life—nearly fifty more years—without any occupation.  She disguised herself and took long walks in New York City, and spoke in letters discovered after her death of long periods of melancholy.

But she remains an object of public fascination, nearly eighty years after her last film.  Like James Dean, we’re left to mourn all the films she never made. Though unlike Dean it was not death but her own reticence that cut her career painfully short.

It is unclear if she got her happy ending—she did often say she wanted to be alone, so perhaps she did.

But we’ll never stop wondering.

February 21, 1930: Garbo Talks!

#2 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

1930: Crowds outside the Capitol Theatre in New York for the premiere of ‘Anna Christie’, Swedish born American actress Greta Garbo’s first talking picture. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Part I: Birth of the Talkies

Today’s movie stars are overexposed.  We see what they ate for breakfast on Instagram, glossy photographs of their multimillion dollar homes in magazines, watch them dance with Ellen and sing in the car with James Corden.  And they talk, and talk, and talk–on talk shows, on social media videos, on Saturday Night Live.  And if you missed them talking the first time, you can always catch clips of it the next day on You Tube.

Close your eyes and imagine it’s 1930.  Greta Garbo is the most recognized actress in America, star of eleven successful films for MGM Studios.

Yet audiences have never heard her speak.

As silent films gave way to early talkies, the new technology made casualties of some of the best actors and actresses of the day.  They faded into obscurity almost overnight, because they could not remember their lines, or they were uncomfortable with the new style of acting, or had accents inscrutable to the American ear.

Greta Garbo’s silent films had printed money hand over fist for MGM, and the studio hesitated to ruin her on-screen mystique by exposing audiences to her Swedish accent.  They didn’t want to lose their cash machine.  They hemmed and hawed, and Garbo made more silent films.

But talkies were here to stay.

So on February 21, 1930, America went to the movies to hear Garbo talk in Anna Christie.

The movie opens on a drunken old Swedish sailor who’s received a letter from the twenty-year old daughter he hasn’t seen in fifteen years.  Believing the sea was no place to raise a girl, he brought her to America and left her with relatives on a Minnesota farm.

A few minutes later, Garbo enters the film.  It’s immediately clear she hasn’t had the wholesome upbringing her father imagined.  Her clothes are shabby and a bit risqué, and she knows her way around a dive bar.

This is not the girl next door.

The director made the audience wait sixteen agonizing minutes before giving them what they came for–Garbo looks at the bar tender and utters the first timeless line in film history:

“Giv me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”

The accent and the husky delivery only added to her mystery and sent audiences wild.

It would take more than talking pictures to fell Greta Garbo.  

The MGM studio heads must’ve sighed with relief before laughing with delight.  Anna Christie was the top grossing film of 1930.  Despite their worries, a talking Garbo put more money in their pockets than a silent one.

Anna Christie is a faithful adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 play of the same name.  Anna reconnects with her father and falls in love with a sailor.

When Matt proposes marriage, Anna is forced to admit to him and her father that she was raped by a cousin on the farm and has spent the last two years as a prostitute, shattering their vision of her as an innocent even as she finds redemption in the sea and their love.

Anna Christie is really a filmed play.  The shots are long, and the actors don’t move around much, partially because the primitive sound recording equipment picked up background rustling.

The themes of Anna Christie are relevant to modern times–how men often abuse women then blame them for a lack of purity.  It’s enjoyable to watch Garbo transition from cynical prostitute to redeemed woman.  Yet beneath that cool exterior she harbors a simmering rage that occasionally boils over. The movie shines brightest in the third act when Anna lets that rage loose, throwing her past in the faces of the two men who’ve put her on a pedestal, and then breaking apart as she hopes against all experience that they will forgive her past transgressions.

The movie is best enjoyed as a historical artifact, a memory of a time when movies rested squarely on the star’s shoulders, and one woman delivered when the whole world was listening as well as watching.

The Golden Age of Hollywood Project: The Beginning and The End

#1 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

I’ve always wanted to write a series about the Golden Age of Hollywood.  With the conclusion of my Ultimate Playlist and a worldwide pandemic keeping us all at home, it’s now or never.

In addition to my Sunday morning musings, I’m going to add a Wednesday morning post about classic movies.

Each week I’ll watch a classic film (or a few on a theme) and report my thoughts and observations on the movie as both a historical object and a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed by modern audiences.  I’ll talk about the significance of the film, gossip about the actors and actresses, and sprinkle in some movie history along the way.  

The widest definition of the Golden Age of Hollywood encompasses the first movies through 1960.  This was the most prolific period of movie-making in history, filled with technical achievements and unencumbered by competition from television.  This is where Hollywood’s greatest stars were made–Garbo, Gable, Davis, Bogart, Hepburns Katharine and Audrey, Stewart, Crawford, Olivier, and Leigh.  It was also a time of censorship, cut-throat studios with nearly unlimited power, and the ever-present perils of fame for those who shone brightest on the silver screen.

The first thing we need to decide is where, exactly, should our journey through movie history begin?We could start at the absolute beginning, back in 1888 with the Roundhay Garden Scene.  The 2.11 second film is believed to be the oldest surviving film shot with a single camera.

Perhaps we should fast-forward to 1905, when the first Nickelodeon opened on–get this–Smithfield Street in good old Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  It was a storefront theater with ninety-six seats and charged a nickel for shows that included live vaudeville acts and short films.  As nickelodeons spread across the country, people could view films on large screens rather than previously as peep shows.

Smithfield Street, Pittsburgh, PA – 1905

Or perhaps we should start in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin, bumbling across a silent screen as The Tramp.

Or in the 1920s, when the movie-making industry had consolidated to Hollywood, where the light was always good and rain rarely interrupted the production schedule.

What about 1929, when the newly established Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences handed out its first awards?

I’m teasing you, reader.  The truth is, I know exactly where we’re going to start.

And end.

For me, the Golden Age of Hollywood began on February 21, 1930, and ended on November 16, 1960.

What happened on those dates?

You’ll find out what happened in 1930 next week when The Golden Age of Hollywood blog series officially kicks off.

As for November 16, 1960, you’ll have to hang with me until the end.