The Week I Lived Like A Man

This past week I threw caution to the wind and lived like a man.

What do I mean?

Let’s back up a minute.

I’m tired of winter.  We’re all tired of winter, I know.  But I’m especially tired of pulling on boots, a big puffy coat, and gloves every time I leave the house.  And with the big, puffy coat, slinging your purse over your arm is that much more difficult.

I had a big day out covid-style, which meant Target and Giant Eagle.  Every time I reached for something, my purse fell off my arm.  Over time I’ve crammed more and more things into it, so it’s grown heavy and unwieldy.

It was time to clean out my purse.

My wallet was the problem—a huge beast of a thing that holds all my change, credit cards, cash, and receipts, but is so large that it takes up ninety percent of any normal-sized purse.  With some trepidation, I decided to downsize my wallet.

A few days later a new one arrived from Amazon, and fully loaded it was small enough to fit in my pocket. 

The next time I had to leave the house, I had a crazy idea.  Could I do it? 

No, yes, no, yes.

Reader, I went for it.

I left the house without my purse.

With my wallet in one pocket and my phone in the other, I traveled through the world like a man.

It was glorious.  I had both my hands free all the time.  I strutted through the store like a pop star in a music video, hands free without a care in the world.  No Chapstick, no notebook, no pen, no headphones, no extra phone charger, no umbrella, no….

You get the idea.

Confession time—I didn’t pull the rip cord fully the first time out.  I packed everything I normally keep in my purse into a backpack that stayed in the car.  If I panicked, I could always run back to the mothership.

But the truth is, I didn’t need that backpack at all.

There are a few downsides, the primary one being that after a lifetime of carrying a purse, I am occasionally hit by a lightning bolt of panic thinking I’d lost it.  I have to pat myself down, verifying I have my wallet, phone, and keys.

And also, I have a habit of running into stores without my coat, even in the coldest weather.  (This was partially because of the purse, but old habits die hard.)  People keep asking me where things are stocked.  Apparently a pursless and coatless woman can only be an employee.

Can I keep this up when life goes back to normal and I can’t wear jeans with nice big pockets all the time?

Only time will tell.

My Favorite Wife: The Charm of Cary and Irene

When the world shut down last March, I decided to spend the extra time on my hands watching and writing about classic American films.  I added this weekly Wednesday morning post and dubbed it the “Golden Age of Hollywood blog.”

And many of you took the journey with me.  In Part I, we explored the legend of Garbo and the thrill of the early talkies.  In Part II, we learned about the early and mostly unsuccessful efforts to clear the movies of violence and sex.  When the censors finally had their way, the sex and violence was hidden beneath hilarious layers of innuendo and physical comedy in the screwballs of Part III.

I made my case for the greatest actress to never win an Oscar (Barbara Stanwyck, Part IV), and the greatest year in movies (1939, Part V).  We rounded out the year with a romp through the fabulous forties (Part VI) and paid tribute to Bette Davis (Part VII), the brightest, brashest star that ever burned in Hollywood.

I never thought the pandemic—or this blog—would last so long.  I figured we’d be back to normal by June and I’d be lucky to get to fifty films.

Instead I’ve watched ninety-five films and written about sixty-two of them.

And aside from not having time to watch Bridgerton or Outlander Season 5, I have no regrets.

Though not as quickly as we’d like, the pandemic is winding down.

Not so for the Golden Age of Hollywood blog.  I’m having way too much fun.

As the blog enters its second year, we’re going to try something a bit different.  I’m doing away with the strict Parts of the blog.  We’re going to cover things a little more loosey goosey.  We’ll still dip into some themes now and then, but we’ll jump back and forth between the great stars, directors, and genres.

This will allow me to both keep the blog fresh, cover great films that don’t fit into a neat category, and revisit categories where I’ve made new discoveries.

Don’t worry—there will still be a mix of movie reviews and Hollywood history.  And most of all, this blog remains a celebration of the stars and the time.  Always honest, but focusing on what’s right with these films, not what’s wrong.

And now, let’s get to one of the films that inspired this new approach.

Can you believe I covered screwball comedies and didn’t include a Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film?

That’s an omission screaming to be addressed.

And thus I’ve scooped My Favorite Wife off the cutting room floor, a place it never belonged.

Whether or not you’re a film buff, everybody knows Cary Grant.  Charming, confident, and elegant onscreen, even when falling over and bumbling around in a comedy.

He made wonderful screwballs with Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers, and Marilyn Monroe, but for my money, his best onscreen partner was Irene Dunne.

This was the second of three films they made together, and followed their smash hit screwball The Awful Truth (1937).

The plot is simple, if silly—Ellen Arden (Dunne) is lost in a shipwreck and presumed dead.  After being missing for seven years, her husband Nick (Grant) has her declared legally dead and marries another woman.  On the first day of his honeymoon with his new bride, Ellen turns up very much alive after spending the time on a deserted island with a very attractive man.

Grant and Dunne have a lovely chemistry.  Dunne is pure charm as Ellen, who ricochets between amusement and annoyance as Nick tries to figure out how to extricate himself from his current predicament.  He doesn’t want to do wrong by his new bride, but his heart is so clearly with Ellen from the moment he realizes she’s alive.

A series of complicated hijinks ensue, but true love wins in the end.

The film has the best ending of any screwball I’ve seen—Ellen and Nick are spending the night in a cabin together.  Nick wants to sleep with Ellen, but she wants to wait for his annulment to come through (and torture him a bit more, if she’s being honest.)

When he asks when they can be together, she tells him Christmas, which is months away.  Nick leaves her alone in her bed.  Soon, there is clanging and banging coming from the attic as Nick rummages around.

Moments later he emerges into her room dressed as Santa Claus.

The film ends on her laughter as Santa climbs into bed with his first—and favorite—wife.

Trailblazer

My maternal grandmother was born the year when Black Friday didn’t mean getting up early for half off sweaters and televisions.  In a time when family was paramount, she was raised by a feisty single mother. 

They didn’t have it easy.  My grandmother didn’t spend her childhood playing video games.  She carried coal up dozens of steep steps into their South Hills home.

But it wasn’t all bad—she was pretty, and made time to go dancing.  She loved to dance.

By 1963, she was married to my grandfather and a full-time working mother with four children.  No staying at home to raise the kids like a quintessential fifties housewife.  She didn’t have podcasts or magazines or stacks of parenting books to teach her how to balance motherhood and self-care, and I don’t think she agonized all that much about how the kids would turn out.  She got on with the business of life and work and did it all in nylons and heels. 

When I was a kid, she tried hypnosis to stop smoking.  We thought she was nuts—nobody did anything like that—but she hasn’t smoked in decades.

When they retired, my grandfather had this crazy idea to sell the house and travel the country in an R.V.  This was before the internet, which made it exponentially harder.  There weren’t a million blogs about how to live in a Tiny House or travel the world.  There was no on-line banking, no e-mail, no GPS, no cell phones.

And yet they made it work with paper maps, post cards, and a sense of adventure.  It was more my grandfather’s thing than hers, but he wouldn’t have done it if she hadn’t gotten on board.

She’s ninety-two now, and the most computer savvy nonagenarian you’re likely to meet.  She checks e-mail on her desktop computer, reads novels on her iPad. 

When most people were wondering why anyone would possibly need a dial-up modem and this thing called “AOL,” she met an Australian woman in a chat room.  Over the years they became e-mail pen pals and such good friends that the Australian woman and her husband flew to America and spent a week at my grandparent’s house. 

This was way before people were meeting on Match.com and Tinder.

That was the one and only time they met in person, and yet they’ve maintained their weekly e-mail friendship for twenty-five years now.

I know most of these stories.  But I didn’t know about the coal carrying and the dancing.

She told me about it on Friday, the first time I had seen her in a year.  We were taking an unintentional trip down memory lane as we drove through the South Hills, passing a house like the one she grew up in (and carried coal in), one she actually lived in for a time with my grandfather, and the hall where she used to dance in high school.

The trip ended at the Castle Shannon Fire Department, where my grandmother received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

While getting an appointment was nearly impossible (I had to give grandma an assist with the computer work here), once we had it the process couldn’t have gone smoother.  The folks at the Castle Shannon Fire Department were prepared, organized, and treated us with care and respect.  From door to door, the process took twenty minutes, and that included fifteen minutes of mandatory waiting after the vaccine.

On the drive home, I pulled up the New York Times vaccine statistics on my phone. 

“Grandma,” I told her.  “You’re one of only fifteen percent of people in the country who’ve received the first dose.  You’re a trailblazer.”

She was grateful for the vaccine, but mostly matter-of-fact about the whole thing.  It was my mom and I caught up the history of the moment.

But my grandma has lived through a lot of history, and being one of the first is nothing new.

She might not have a Facebook account, but my grandma is a trailblazer in every way.

All About Eve: “A Bumpy Night”

“To those of you who do not read, attend the theater, listen to unsponsored radio programs, or know anything of the world in which you live, it is perhaps necessary to introduce the film All About Eve”

Don’t worry—I haven’t turned into a film snob on you, I’m just having a little fun.  The above is a slight variation on the film’s opening narrated by Addison DeWitt, the acerbic theater critic who knows where all the bodies are buried.

All About Eve is one of our most celebrated and treasured films.  The American Film Institute lists it as the sixteenth greatest American film ever made.  It was the first film to garner 14 Oscar nominations, and remains one of only three films to do so.  

The film is stacked with high caliber talent from the top of its head to the tip of its toes.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz had just come off winning two Oscars in 1949 for Best Director and Best Screenplay for A Letter to Three Wives.  He would repeat that feat with All About Eve, again taking home trophies for directing and screenwriting.

(If you’re wondering, the new film Mank is about Joseph’s brother Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane.)

Our Mank adapted Mary Orr’s short story, “The Wisdom of Eve,” into a delicious tale about a group of theater people who are taken in by the outwardly naive but inwardly cunning Eve Harrington.

Mank stocked his story with top-tier acting talent.  Ann Baxter plays Eve, the ambitious social climber.  Claudette Colbert was slated to play the aging diva Margo Channing, but Colbert injured her back before shooting began and Bette Davis fell into the role of her career.

It remains the only film to receive four female acting Oscar nominations— Best Actress for Bette Davis and Ann Baxter, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm and the wonderfully gruff Thelma Ritter.

Even an up-and-coming Marilyn Monroe makes a brief appearance.

And yet it was supporting actor George Sanders who won the film’s only acting award for his pitch perfect Addison DeWitt.

To top it off, the legendary Edith Head dressed them all.  She won her third of an eventual eight Oscars for costume design.  There’s not a great actress from that era that Head didn’t dress, and she owns more Oscars than any other woman.

The result is a film that nails show business—the egos of the stars who have made it, the desperation of those who haven’t, and the obsessive preoccupation with a woman’s—but not a man’s—age.  

It’s as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.

A few years ago, I had the chance to watch All About Eve on the big screen.  My local cineplex was doing a retrospective on classic films, and I got to see Bette Davis on the big screen.  It was a night I won’t soon forget.

All About Eve is the story of Margo Channing, an egotistical theater star.  She takes an interest in Eve Harrington, whom she (and everyone else) believes to be a naive (and a bit pathetic) fan.  Soon Eve is insinuating herself into Margo’s life Single White Female style, attempting to take over Margo’s friends, her boyfriend Bill, and her career.

Davis is divine as Margo, a woman distressed about her recent fortieth birthday.  She’s still playing twenty-something roles, but she’s no fool.  She sees Eve Harrington and every other upstart nipping at her heels.

Though the American Film Institute named Margo’s quote, “Fasten your seatbelts.  It’s going to be a bumpy night,” as the ninth best movie quote of all time, I’m partial to her drunken rant about ageless men.

“Bill’s thirty-two.  He looks thirty-two.  He looked it five years ago, he’ll look it twenty years from now.  I hate men.”

It took guts for Davis to play an actress who knew she was washing up.  Davis herself was forty-two at the time, and in playing Margo Channing, she was facing her biggest fear—the death of her career.  And it is undoubtedly true that despite her success in the film, good roles were few and far between for Davis after Eve.

She had her own upstarts to deal with.

But just like Margo Channing, Bette Davis wasn’t done yet.

Things I’ve Learned from Novels

People used to think reading novels was a waste of time.  Many people still think that, but today video games and smartphones are the poster children for how to waste your time and rot your brain.

When people say they learn a lot from books, they’re usually talking about nonfiction.  These are often serious books with a capital “S.”  Thick biographies of dead presidents or the raft of time management, diet, and self-help books out there.

I’ve got nothing against these books.  I’ve read plenty of them myself.

But I’m talking about what you learn from novels.  And I don’t mean vague, high school English class stuff like empathy, critical thinking, and language. 

Let’s get practical here.

I’ve learned from novels that any good homicide detective or private investigator drinks their coffee black.  It’s a matter of toughness.  In fact, if you ever need to hire a PI to track down your cheating spouse, run the other way if they are soft enough to add cream or sugar to their coffee.

I starting rowing because of Tess Monaghan, the report-turned-private investigator in Laura Lippman’s long-running series.  In the first novel, Tess gets up early every morning and rows alone down the Patapsco river.  While good rowing is a beautiful sight, Tess described herself as moving up the river like a sprawled out beetle.

I didn’t think I could row with grace and efficiency.  But I figured I could row like a beetle.

It goes without saying that Tess Monaghan drinks her coffee black.

Speaking of coffee, the main character in Marisa de los Santos’ novel The Precious One drinks her coffee in the shower.

Have you ever heard of such a thing?

I don’t know anyone who does this in real life but I decided to try it.  I set my coffee on the top of the toilet tank just outside the shower.  After I’d shampooed my hair, I reached out from the behind the shower curtain, brought the mug in and took a sip.

Trust me, there is nothing more luxurious than drinking hot coffee with hot water running down your back.  Kings and queens and movie stars and even Beyonce never had it as good as I do every morning drinking coffee in the shower.

Reader, try it tomorrow. Actually, try it now.  I’ll wait.

I learned about the epic British victory at Dunkirk not from a textbook, but in Suzanne’s Brockmann’s deliciously sexy romantic suspense novels featuring Navy seals.

This is the opposite of homework.

So put down the latest diet book and pick up a novel.  You might learn something as wonderful as drinking coffee in the shower.

Even if, like me, you still can’t bear to drink it black.

The Great Lie: Bette Cedes the Spotlight

Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is torn between two very different women:  home and hearth Maggie Patterson and temperamental pianist Sandra Kovak.

Maggie (Bette Davis) is devoted to Peter but refuses to marry him until he stops drinking and gets a job.

Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) likes him just as he is, a wasteful layabout.  Her career comes first, and she’s content to play packed halls and party all night with no thought of children or marriage.

The film opens with Peter waking up with a hangover and discovering he and Sandra ended last night’s particularly raucous party by marrying.

The marriage is a flash of clarity for Peter and the audience—he isn’t torn between two women, he never was.  His heart has always been with Maggie, and without a word to his new wife, he runs to her.  

They both believed they’d marry when he finally grew up.  Maggie waited; he didn’t.

She’s devastated, of course, and Peter’s presence the day after his marriage confuses and hurts her.

Yet in a twist of movie-land fate, Peter discovers he is not technically married to Sandra, as she got the dates mixed up on her divorce and was still married to her first husband during her drunken nuptials with Peter.

To his credit, Peter offers to marry Sandra again when they are both sober and single.  Yet on the day she is a free woman, Sandra travels to Philadelphia to perform, signalling that her career will always come first.

Peter takes this opening and marries Maggie instead, finally becoming the family man she always wanted.

Peter and Maggie live in marital bliss while Sandra stews over losing her man.  It’s not Peter she wants so much as to win the head-to-head competition with Maggie.

Then Peter dies in a plane crash and Sandra turns up pregnant.  (It is now clear why the convoluted marriage-not-marriage plot was necessary.  The hero of our tale is permitted a drunken consummated fake marriage in 1941, but not a drunken one-night stand.)

Here’s where things get interesting—Maggie wants a piece of Peter with her forever.  Sandra wants a career as a concert pianist unencumbered by a child.  So The Great Lie is conceived—Maggie will raise Sandra’s child as her own.  Maggie pays Sandra the bulk of her inheritance from Peter for the privilege of raising Sandra’s son.

The film shines in the scenes between the women.  In the best segment, Maggie and Sandra escape to a private cabin in the woods where Sandra can have the baby in complete privacy and thus pass it off as Maggie’s.  Patient Maggie placates Sandra, who is going mad from the pregnancy and confinement.

I’ve written a lot in this blog about Bette Davis’ skirmishes with other actresses, and her need to hold the spotlight.  It’s all true—she owned it during her lifetime and she would own it now if she were here.  But The Great Lie is the rare Davis film made great by her understated performance.  She is the patient and calm woman any man would want to marry.  

Mary Astor’s Sandra is petulant, fiery, and gets all the best lines.

“I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf – I’m a musician, I’m an artist! I have zest and appetite – and I like food!”

The film is a contrast of the two women, and Davis allows Mary Astor to shine in their scenes together.  Watching it I realized that I had never seen any actor—man or woman—steal scenes from Bette Davis the way Mary Astor does in this film.  

People have said that I stole the picture from Bette Davis,” Astor said.  “But that is sheer nonsense.  She handed it to me on a silver platter.”

Mary Astor knew as well as anyone that no one could steal a scene from Bette Davis unless she allowed it.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I like Bette best when she’s bad—but watching her homespun Maggie play off Astor’s stone cold bitch is a true delight.

Mary Astor won a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra, and she thanked Bette Davis in her acceptance speech.

The title of the film telegraphs its big twist, and anyone who grew up watching soap operas knows Peter—who was presumed dead without a body—will show up alive before it’s all said and done.  The great lie will be exposed.  But knowing what’s coming doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of this film, a lovely product of the studio system that doesn’t transcend into legendary status but is a pleasant way to pass a cold winter night.

From, Your Valentine

The origins of Valentine’s Day are murky.  Best I can gather, it began in ancient Rome (as so many things do) as a fertility festival honoring Romulus and Remus, the raised-by-wolves founders of Rome.

Then Christianity came along and hijacked the festival (as it so often does) into the early version of the rose industry’s favorite holiday.

So who was Saint Valentine?  Again, it’s murky.  There are about a dozen recognized Catholic Saint Valentines.  The most popular is probably St. Valentine of Terni, who was beheaded for secretly marrying young Christian couples in defiance of Emperor Claudius II.  Old Claudius thought that young single men made more dedicated soldiers, and didn’t want those pesky wives interfering with his plan for world domination.

But my favorite story is that of Valentine, an imprisoned man who fell in love with his jailer’s daughter.  (On second thought, this might be the plot of a romance novel I read in the early nineties, but either way, let’s continue.)  So the doomed man wrote one final letter to his love and signed it, “From, your Valentine.”

Are you swooning?

Men have been trying to live up to Valentine’s romantically tragic gesture ever since.

Why February?

Well, in addition to the Christians merging the celebration of St. Valentine with the pagan fertility festival, mid-February is the beginning of the mating season for birds, at least according to Geoffrey Chaucer (he of Canterbury Tales fame) who wrote about fowls choosing their mates in February.

And somehow, we got from beheaded priests, doomed lovers, and lusty birds to one of the world’s most reviled holidays.

Couples hate it because it is an opportunity for dramatically different expectations.  One party wants to basically forget the whole thing, the other wants wine, roses, and dinner in a packed Italian restaurant.

And it’s even worse for the uncoupled.  It’s one of the most well-tread movie tropes—the lonely single girl drowning her sorrows in red wine and systematically destroying a box of chocolate and a pint of ice cream in pajamas and fuzzy slippers.  Or maniacally celebrating Galentiene’s Day, a Valentine’s Day alternative where women celebrate their female friendships.  Galentine’s Day has its heart in the right place but just comes across as trying too hard.

So if you want to hate on Valentine’s Day, a Hallmark holiday if there ever was one, I won’t try to talk to you out of it.

But if you strip away the cliched roses, cards, and chocolates, there really is something quite lovely about a day dedicated to romantic love.

So this Valentine’s Day, boot Hallmark out of your holiday.  If, like Chaucer’s birds, you’ve chosen your mate, let them know you love them, no fancy cards, chocolates, or roses required.

And if you’re ever on the way to the gallows, don’t forget to send them one final Valentine.

Mr. Skeffington: Ugly Bette

Mr. Skeffington is a first class melodrama with the fingerprints of the 1940’s all over it.

Bette Davis plays Fanny Trellis, a woman as beautiful on the outside as she is ugly on the inside.  She strings along her many admirers, amusing herself with the way they fall all over themselves competing for her attention.  She dangles the prospect of marriage like bait on a hook, but cares nothing for any of them.

She cares for nothing but herself, her beauty, and her brother.

Her brother, George “Trippy” Trellis is as worthless as she is, and since the death of their parents has squandered the family fortune.

While they put on a brave face for their friends and society, the Trellis siblings are dead broke.

Like it or not, Fanny will have to choose one of her admirers and graduate from a debutante to a wife.

To the surprise and disapproval of everyone, she choses Job Skeffington, a self-made Jewish man high up the ladder in a brokerage firm and Trippy’s boss.  The choice serves two purposes—Skeffington is the richest of her suitors, and their marriage will prevent Skeffington from prosecuting Trippy for embezzlement.

For Fanny, love never enters the equation.

Job Skeffington is a better man than Fanny deserves.  Patient, kind, and reliable, he knows Fanny does not yet love him but believes he can earn her affection over time.

He’s wrong.

When Trippy is killed in World War I, Fanny is inconsolable as his death has made her “sacrifice” in marrying Job pointless.  She torments Job, refusing to act as a proper wife or mother to their daughter.

Fanny maintains her looks as she ages, and still enjoys the attention of all her old (now married) suitors, as well as the affection of younger men.  She basks in the adoration, all the while ignoring the true love of the husband and daughter she leaves at home.

Over a decade into his loveless marriage, Job finally has enough and finds comfort in another woman.  When Fanny finds out she divorces him, relieved to be rid of him and her daughter.

But fate plays a cruel trick on Fanny.  She contracts diphtheria and though she recovers, the illness robs her of her most prized possession—her beauty.  She ages well beyond her time and loses her hair.  Her outside appearance finally matches her cruel and careless heart.

Davis sunk her teeth into the role.  At thirty-six, she made herself over into a fifty-year-old scarred former beauty.  She was always willing to do anything for a role, and even pushed the makeup artist to make her appearance even more devastating.  When the director protested that she looked too hideous, she waved him off.

“My audience likes to see me do this sort of thing,” she told him.

Fanny is humbled by the loss of her looks.  All the male attention disappears overnight, and she cannot bear the shocked looks when people see her new appearance.  She becomes a recluse, and having pushed Job and her daughter away, there is no one left to care.

Meanwhile, Job has been in his own hell.  Living in Europe after the divorce, he is rounded up by the Nazis and spends time in a concentration camp.

At the end of the film, he returns to Fanny, blind and broken.  

Fanny is finally able to appreciate what a fine man she had in Job.  And her vanity is still in place—his blindness is a boon to her, as he will always remember her as beautiful, and will literally never see what she has become.

The film ends with their heartfelt reconciliation and the promise that they will finally have a two-way marriage filled with love and mutual respect. 

Offscreen, things didn’t end so peacefully.  Davis was grieving the death of her second husband, who had collapsed in the street and died without warning.  She lashed out and fought constantly with the directors, the screenwriters, and the producers.  

She also had an affair with the director.

Director Vincent Sherman could not reign Davis in, and she meddled in everything—the script, the directing, the lighting.  Her constant interference had the film dragging on months behind schedule.  

Jack Warner cornered writers (and brothers) Julius and Philip Epstein and demanded to know why the film was so far behind schedule.

“Because Bette Davis is a slow director,” they told him.

Production manager Frank Mattison’s daily notes from the filming are more dramatic than half the shows on television:

“We are in somewhat of a dilemma concerning the matter of our producers refusing to have anything to do with the picture.  Miss Davis is not only the director, but she is now the producer also.” 

Poor Vincent Sherman had directed Davis in two consecutive years— first in her epic catfight with Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance and now in Skeffington.  Davis had been beaten him down into submission.

“The only way I could finish the picture was by having an affair with her,” he said.  

Sherman ended both their professional and personal relationship when the film wrapped.

The result was another Oscar nomination, Bette Davis’ seventh.

And another bridge burned.

First into the Tank

I have so much television to catch up on. 

People keep giving me wonderful recommendations.  My friend Susan has been telling me for years to watch Vikings and Game of Thrones.  Nina, who never watches anything (and thus her recommendations carry triple weight) swears by Virgin River.  There’s The Crown, Emily In Paris, and Jack Ryan.

I’m obsessed with Outlander and haven’t yet made time for Season Five.

I know I would love most or all of these shows.  But lately, every time I’m not watching a movie I find myself turning to a little old Friday night network show I have always loved.

Move over Bridgerton, I’m watching Shark Tank.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the premise is simple.  Fledgling entrepreneurs pitch their products to a panel of investors (the most famous is Mark Cuban) and if interested, the investors will make them an offer and (ideally) fight one another for a deal.

Even if you don’t watch the show, you’ve heard of at least a few of the products.  There’s the Scrub Daddy, the tough kitchen sponge you’ve probably got on your sink.  There’s the Squatty Potty, Bombas Socks, and Cousins Main Lobster Food Trucks.

In a time of exceptional cynicism, Shark Tank is a breath of optimistic air.

The show celebrates hustle, ingenuity, and hard work.  The contestants are full of—what’s the word for it?

I know:  Moxie.

It’s the best rendering of the American Dream—the version we haven’t heard much about lately on the evening news.  It reminds us that in America, with a little of that moxie, you can build a better mousetrap in your basement and change your life.

And maybe make someone’s else life—and the world—a little better.

Already this season I watched a teenage boy and his dad pitch a plastic cup that holds leftover paint.  They built the prototype in their basement and already have it on the shelves in some stores.  The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants designed a cap that allows parents to easily apply diaper cream to their babies.  The woman—whose native language is not English—read a book on how to apply for a patent for her invention.  A man pitched meatless jerky made from mushrooms that I would never have tried if not for the enthusiastic reaction of the sharks.

I went to buy some on Amazon—sold out.

The products are fun, but the real charm of the show is the interaction of the sharks (the investors) with the contestants and one another.

The sharks are brutally honest—it is their own money they’re putting on the line when they invest—but never mean-spirited. 

When someone comes in asking for half-a-million bucks for two percent of their company that’s barely sold a thing, head shark Kevin O’Leary (a.k.a. Mr. Wonderful) brings them right back down to earth.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and QVC Queen Lori Greiner have an almost sibling rivalry.  Cuban rarely loses a deal when he really wants the product, and exasperates Lori when she can’t lure a contestant away from his fame with a better deal.  Yet they often go in on deals together and poke fun at one another.

All the sharks rib and joke, but get down to business when there’s a potential moneymaker on the carpet.

The motto of the sharks—and the show—could be:   Work Hard, Play Hard, and Good Things Will Happen.

Words we all can live by.

So Virgin River and Game of Thrones are just going to have to wait.  Right now I’ve got to find out if this guy with a huge mustache is going to get a deal for his eco-friendly ski wax….

The First Divine Feud: Bette and Miriam

Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance

Though her feud with Joan Crawford gets all the press today, Bette Davis’ earliest and perhaps most intense rivalry was with actress Miriam Hopkins.

Their mutual loathing began back east, where they met doing summer stock theater.  Legend is that they were oil and water from the first, competitive women in a competitive field destined to clash wills.

In the theater world, Hopkins was a bigger star than Davis, and she made it to Hollywood first.  In fact, Jezebel started out life as a doomed play with Miriam Hopkins playing the leading role.  It closed to poor reviews after only thirty-two performances, a flop by any measure.

Hopkins jointly owned the play’s rights and sold it to Warner Brothers under the belief (which WB’s Walter McEwen strongly implied or outright lied) that she would reprise her role.  But the role, as we know, went to Bette Davis.

Davis winning an Oscar for her role was salt in Miriam’s wound.  She was reportedly inconsolable and wracked with jealousy.

So the stage was set for a clash of the titans when Davis and Hopkins were cast opposite one another in The Old Maid, an excellent melodrama that is often overlooked because it was made in the same year as Davis’ Dark Victory.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Hopkins and Davis play cousins in love with the same man.  When Delia (Hopkins) jilts him for a wealthier man, Charlotte (Davis) comforts him with a night of passion that lands her unmarried and pregnant.  Worse, he goes and get himself killed in the Civil War before he can make an honest woman of her.  Charlotte opens an orphanage and hides her daughter Tina in plain sight among the war orphans. 

Only Delia knows the truth, and eventually adopts Tina and raises her as her own child.  Forced to pose as aunt to her only child, the sacrifice turns Charlotte old and bitter and strains her relationship with Delia.  On the eve of Tina’s marriage, Charlotte plans to tell her daughter the truth, but refrains in a moment of maternal self-sacrifice, knowing it will shatter Tina’s happiness.

The antics onset leaked into the newspapers.  On the first day of filming, Hopkins reportedly showed up wearing a replica of one of Davis’ Jezebel costumes, apparently to make Davis “blow her stack.” 

Each was constantly trying to upstage the other, running to director Edmund Goulding with suggestions and complaints.  Hopkins would hold her cigarette at an angle to purposely block Davis’ face from the camera, or refuse to engage when Davis was speaking her lines and the camera was off her.

In her memoir The Lonely Life, Davis insists she kept her temper despite Hopkins’ deliberate attempts to provoke it.  On-set, at least.  Bette admits that she, “…went home every night and screamed at everybody.”

Some of Hopkins’ provocation was justified.  She was jealous of Davis’ success, but she also knew Davis was having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak.

As producer Hal B. Wallis said in an interview years after the filming, “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic.  They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”

In fact, Warner Brothers did capitalize on the publicity of the feud, even going so far as to have Hopkins and Davis pose squaring off with boxing gloves, with poor director Edmund Goulding stuck in the middle as referee.

It wasn’t far from the truth. 

“Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”

But the tension between them works onscreen.

It worked so well, in fact, that Warner Brothers paired them again in 1943 in Old Acquaintance, another film that told the story of a long and complicated relationship between two women.  This time Hopkins and Davis play lifelong friends and writers Millie Drake and Kit Marlowe. 

Their real-life tension is again a boon for the film, as Millie and Kit alternately love and loathe one another over their lifelong relationship.  Millie is by turns selfish, jealous, and desperately needy.  In some ways, the audience wonders why kind and clever Kit puts up with her.

In a moment of honesty, Millie’s husband asks Kit just that.  Kit, to her credit, doesn’t try to paper over Millie’s faults. 

Kit (Davis): Millie remembers the same things I do, that’s important. For instance, she’s the only person I know, who still remembers when I used to be called Chunky.

Preston Drake (Millie’s husband): I’d think you wouldn’t want to remember that.

Kit: But one does. Funny, one does.

The film is an exploration of the ability of a woman to juggle motherhood, career, and love.  Old Acquaintance firmly establishes the belief that a woman cannot have it all.  Kit is a literary darling, beloved but broke.  Millie’s books are bestsellers that have made her rich but the critics dismiss her work as trash.

In one of my favorite scenes, literary critic Belle Carter asks Kit how her new book is coming along.

Kit (Davis): Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.

Belle Carter: But, at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…

Belle Carter: [looks over shoulder and realizes she has offended Millie] I suppose I could cut my throat.

Millie (Hopkins): There’s a knife on the table!

So one cannot have both critical and commercial success.  Millie and Kit are also both unlucky in love, unable to balance both a career and love.

In the film’s most famous scene, Kit calmly walks over to Mille, grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her before deadpanning, “Sorry.”

Word of the scene got around the studio, and legend tells that half of Warner Brothers showed up to watch the filming.  A reporter from Life magazine even tried to get into the studio to cover the event.

Hopkins must’ve worried that Davis would let her have it.

As Humphrey Bogart said of Davis’ on-screen slaps, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”

Hopkins made sure Davis didn’t knock her down, and probably just to spite Davis, relaxed so completely during the shaking that she just bobbed around “like a doll with a broken neck,” as director Vincent Sherman put it.

Davis stormed out, and was eventually persuaded to return for a second take.  Still Hopkins didn’t do what Sherman wanted, but knowing the stubbornness of both actresses, he cut his losses and moved on.

In the finished film, it’s an unintentionally campy moment in an otherwise serious and melodramatic film.

The film has a surprisingly touching ending—both have just suffered heartbreak from men, lashed out at one another for a lifetime of petty jealousies, and yet they spend New Year’s Eve together toasting one another and their long friendship.

And after the director called cut, they went their separate ways and never worked together again.