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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only Joan Crawford knows for sure.

Diva Joan Crawford could only take so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agnes Moorehead and Bette Davis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

The Second Divine Feud: Bette and Joan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least it’s always been funny to me.  

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

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

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

Previously called witches.

There’s nothing new under the sun, folks.

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

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

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

And damn if I don’t love them for it.

Sources

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

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

Dinner Time

Every day at noon it begins.

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

Blinker is ready for dinner.

Yes, you heard me right, dinner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s going to be a long summer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Willa Cather

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

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

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

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

But Marian Forrester refuses to die.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happily married to the Wizard of Oz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Buying Next Weekend

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

Not exactly hiking weather.

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

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

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

“Oops.”

The new flooring looked great.

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

This isn’t that kind of blog.

Our nemesis?

The bathroom toilet.

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

Whole ‘nother story.

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

Simple, right?

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

Anticipating this, we bought three wax seals. 

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

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

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

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

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

We were stuck.

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

“A new toilet?”

“A new one will be in two pieces.”

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

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

I stopped to think it over.

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

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

We nodded to one another and kept on driving.

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

“The lightest one you have,” I said.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.”

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

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

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

Next weekend was safe.

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

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

This weekend was worth the price.

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

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

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

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

And that was that.

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

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

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

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

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

They fell in love through their letters.

Rainier III and Kelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both had more respect for the theater than for Hollywood.

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

Both had an untouchable quality.

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

She elaborates:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As she herself said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hollywood:  Grace came.  She saw.  She conquered.

Sources:

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

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

How Will We Know It’s Over?

This time a year ago, we’d all settled into the reality of the pandemic.  We were way past the optimism of “two weeks to stop the spread” and knew we were in for the long haul. 

At that time, nearly every conversation I had eventually wound around to the question of, “When do you think this will end?”

I’ll admit, I had a vision (half-baked as it was) of a glorious day of celebration.  A ceremonial moment when we would all simultaneously rip off our masks and dance in the streets.

I wanted catharsis.  Closure.

Without fully realizing it, I had a moment in my mind like the one pictured in the famous Life magazine photograph V-J Day in Time Square, where a United States soldier, fresh home from victory in World War II, kisses a nurse during a parade.

The war was over.  The boys were home.  America was victorious.

But with the coronavirus, we were asking the wrong question.  It isn’t, “when will this end?”

It’s, “How will we know when it’s over?”

In a way, it was over when an effective vaccine was developed.  But in the day to day, that changed nothing.  There was no collective moment of relief.  Was this over when I got my vaccine?

Even the vaccine was not a moment of reckoning.  One shot or two, there is still a protracted waiting period.  No bell of celebration dings when you hit the two-week mark of freedom.

Was it over the first time I walked into a store without a mask on?

Of course it’s not over.  But how will we know when it is?

Will it be over when everyone is vaccinated, which is never going to happen?  Is it over when the vaccine is available for kids?  Is it over when I go back to the office, or when everyone goes back to the office?

Spoiler alert:  there are people never going back to the office, either because they lost their jobs or they can work from home forever.

Is it over when kids go back to school full time?  Or when Taylor Swift goes back on tour?

There will never be a parade.  There will never be a moment

We will never get to celebrate the end together and then move on with our lives.

It was naïve of me to think we’d get a moment to collectively celebrate the end of coronavirus together like we did the end of World War II.

But hold on a minute.

Am I naïve to think there was such a moment for World War II?

The moment that soldier kissed that nurse was not the end of World War II.  Of course it wasn’t.  And if it was, it certainly wasn’t celebrated by the whole world in the same moment.  Only the people around saw it.  The rest of the world didn’t see it until a week later when Life magazine published it.  Certainly, the publication of a photograph didn’t end the war.

In fact, though Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, the day this photograph was taken, World War II didn’t formally end for another two weeks, on September 2, 1945.

When did World War II end?

If you were living in the hell of Auschwitz, it ended on January 27, 1945 when the Soviets liberated the camp.

The war ended for Hitler on April 30, 1945 when he committed suicide rather than face the world and pay for his crimes against humanity.

It ended for the western alliance on May 8, 1945, VE Day, when Germany surrendered.

Oh, but wait, it didn’t end for Russia until two days later when the Germans surrendered to them.

But the war wasn’t over when Germany surrendered.  The United States would still go on to drop not one, but two atomic bombs on Japan.

Surely the war ended the moment that second bomb hit Nagasaki.

But I imagine if your son (or daughter) was in Japan or Europe, the war didn’t end for you until he was home again, parade or no parade.

And if he didn’t come home, the war ended for his mother the day she found out he’d been killed, whether that was the first or last day of combat.

The country celebrated, as well it should, but it didn’t snap back to its pre-war position.  People had changed, the country had changed.  And recovery didn’t happen overnight.  While most of the formal rationing programs ended, many goods were still difficult to find in the aftermath of the war.  Sugar was rationed until 1947, a full two years after the war ended.

But all these rough edges are smoothed out by the passage of time, until we’re left with the idea that there was a terrible war, the men went to fight and the women went to work, and then it was over, and there was a parade, and a soldier kissed a girl and everyone moved on.  And for awhile women pretended they wanted to be perfect 50’s housewives when what they really wanted was to go back to work.

When will the coronavirus end?  When you get the vaccine.  When you go back to the office.  When you go to your first party, see the first person you haven’t in a long time, get back on an airplane.

For some it ended when they lost a loved one—or perhaps for them it never ends.

The coronavirus will be smoothed out too in the pages of history.  People who didn’t live through it will just say, oh yes, there was a virus, people couldn’t go anywhere, and then there was a vaccine and everything went back to normal.  And for a while we all pretended….

Well, that part of the story hasn’t been written yet.

When will we know that?  How will we know?

I know what I’ve learned from the coronavirus.

The difference between reading about history and living it.

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

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

Let’s not forget Charade with Audrey Hepburn.

He absolutely adored Ingrid Bergman (Notorious, Indiscreet.)

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

Grace Patricia Kelly, of course.

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

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

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

Everyone wanted to see what she’d do next.

She decided to team up once again with Hitch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Kelly and Edith Head

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

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

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

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

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

To Catch a Thief scratches this itch quite nicely.

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

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

What would Hitch and Grace Act IV have looked like?

We’ll always wonder.

Sources:

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

You may say Psycho or Vertigo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to second guess her decision.

But enough about James and Grace.

Let’s get back to Jeff and Lisa.

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

  • Spoto, Donald.  Spellbound by Beauty:  Alfred Hitchcock and his Leading Ladies.
  • Eliot, Marc.  Jimmy Stewart, A Biography.
  • Spoto, Donald.  High Society:  The Life of Grace Kelly.

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