Princess O’Rourke (1943):  Escaping the Gilded Cage

Princess O’Rourke isn’t a terrible film.

It’s a popcorn film, one which goes down pleasant enough but doesn’t leave any lasting impression.

Olivia de Havilland plays Maria, a bored princess who longs for freedom from the strictures of royal life.  Her uncle wants her to settle down, marry, and get on with the business of producing the next heir, but Maria is looking for a little excitement in her life and a man who will stir her heart.

She flies to California under an assumed name and takes too many sleeping pills to calm her nerves.  When the flight is called off due to bad weather, pilot Eddie O’Rourke (Robert Cummings) cannot wake her.  An amusing series of scenes follow in which poor Eddie tries to wake a drugged Maria.  De Havilland rolls around limp and disoriented, playing out a gag that sister Joan Fontaine would repeat five years later in You Gotta Stay Happy (1948), when her character also takes too many sleeping pills and poor Jimmy Stewart has to deal with her.

As she’s using an assumed name with no contact information, Eddie can’t locate anyone to pick Maria up and ends up taking her back to his apartment.  Realizing she has a chance to experience life as a normal person, the princess pretends to be a poor maid and spends a few days with Eddie.

She never planned on falling in love with him. 

The storyline is well-covered ground, and would be perfected in 1953’s Roman Holiday.

It’s not a terrible film.

But it’s exactly the kind of role Olivia de Havilland was desperate to escape.

In May 1943, just after the filming of Princess O’Rourke, de Havilland’s contract with Warner Brothers was up.  However, Warner Brothers added up the time of her many suspensions and declared she owed them six more months of work.  This was standard industry practice at the time—when an actor refused a role, they would be put on suspension for the length of the filming.  A seven-year contract meant seven years of work, and time on suspension didn’t count.    

Actors resented the clause, as they nearly always went on suspension to avoid roles that would damage their career.  Bette Davis lost a suit in 1937 to void her contract, and while James Cagney had used frequent walk-outs to renegotiate his contract on more favorable terms, no one had successfully overturned the rule around suspension time.

Jack Warner figured no one ever would.  He’d ruin anyone who dared to try.

De Havilland consulted with lawyer Martin Gang, who felt that they could win by citing a little-known California law that prevents an employer from enforcing a contract that lasted longer than seven years.  (An old law once written to protect slaves and indentured servants.)

She didn’t take Gang’s word for it.  She studied the law herself, again and again.

“Everyone in Hollywood knew that I would lose but I knew that I would win,” she said years later.  “I had read the law.”

Losing the case would likely destroy her career.  Even a win was no guarantee that another studio would be willing to work with such a troublemaker.

She got the same advice again and again—bite the bullet, do any movie Warners wanted her to do, and in twenty-five weeks she’d have her freedom. Forget about some crazy lawsuit.

Instead, on August 23, 1943, Olivia de Havilland (who had clocked in at five-foot-three and all of 100 pounds during the filming of 1939’s Dodge City) sued Warner Brothers and took on the whole studio system.

She had no illusions about the hornet’s nest she’d kicked, so she’d been squirreling money away.  “Let’s go ahead with it,” she’d told Gang.  “And we’re not going to get discouraged along the way.  We will go to the Supreme Court.”

Jack Warner and his lawyers tried, unsuccessfully, to make her out to be a spoiled, rich actress in court.  Lawyers hammered her, but she stayed cool under pressure while giving her testimony.

She won in Superior Court, and though Warner Brothers appealed again and again, in December 1944 she won in Appellate Court and Warner Brothers was out of options.

From now on, no studio could impose a contract longer than seven calendar years on an actor, regardless of the number or duration of suspensions.

She’d won.

Retaliation was swift and severe.

Jack Warner personally reached out to nearly eight studios, big and small, asking them to blacklist de Havilland.

She had her freedom, but no studio would hire her.  She couldn’t even do most radio shows.  And still she bided her time, entertaining the troops overseas, visiting military hospitals, reading, waiting.

In the end, those twenty-five weeks cost her three years off the screen and $13,000 (over $200,000 in today’s dollars) of her own money.  The de Havilland Decision, as it came to be known, cracked open the studio system, and benefitted her successors more than it ever did de Havilland herself.

But she’d made her point.

“She licked me,” Jack Warner admitted in his biography.

And in 1946, Paramount Pictures came calling, the first studio willing to defy the blacklist Jack Warner hoped would last forever, and offered de Havilland a two picture deal.

She’d earned the right to call her own shots.

But the public was fickle, and she’d been out of their sight for three years, an eternity in Hollywood. She was thirty, a precarious age for an actress known primarily as a glamour girl. If her career sputtered out now, Jack Warner would have the last laugh.

Everything was riding on her next role.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  • Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:  An Autobiography
  • Current Day Inflation # for $13,000: https://www.officialdata.org/us/inflation/1800?amount=1

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

The Affairs of Susan (1945): Split Personalities

While John Huston and Errol Flynn were throwing punches over her sister, Joan Fontaine was making a mostly forgotten but clever comedy called The Affairs of Susan.  Richard Aiken (Walter Abel) impulsively proposes to Susan Darell (Fontaine), a woman he barely knows.  Though she has told him little about herself, he believes she is the woman he has been searching for, a “perfect lady” and “born aristocrat.”

After she accepts his proposal, Richard discovers photographs of three men in her apartment—an ex-husband, an ex-fiancé, and one to whom Susan answers “I was and I wasn’t” when Richard asks if she was married to him.

Alarmed, Richard belatedly decides to vet the woman he’s set to marry the next day.  He meets each of her previous suitors and hears the story of how they met and fell in love with Susan.  But their wildly conflicting stories only leave him more confused.

Roger Berton (George Brent) describes Susan as a young woman who is honest to a fault.  Berton, a play producer, convinced the young Susan to leave her rural home in Rhode Island, marry him and become a reluctant actress.

But Mike Ward describes falling head over heels in love with a cosmopolitan party girl, frivolous, happy, always dancing and always extravagantly dressed (by legendary costume designer Edith Head, no less).  Despite his fervent wish to marry her, Susan’s constant lying broke them up.

And finally, writer Bill Anthony insists Susan is a progressive intellectual, and an unconventional revolutionary.

Richard is baffled—is he marrying a naïve country girl, a lying socialite, or a communist?

Just who is Susan Darell?

We could ask the same question of the film’s leading lady, for there are few actresses with a wider gulf between their onscreen and offscreen personalities than Joan Fontaine.

Up until 1945, Fontaine nearly always played roles where she was, as Maxim de Winter called her character in Rebecca, a “little fool.”  In Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre, she essentially played the same character—a young, insecure woman trapped in a big house and wringing her hands while wondering if the man she loves is going to kill her.  She played a silly girl who doesn’t want to divorce her husband in The Women, a fifteen-year-old girl in The Constant Nymph, and a literal Damsel in Distress

Sweet.  Naïve.  Innocent.

Words often used to describe her characters, but never to describe Joan Fontaine.

By all accounts, she was haughty, sophisticated, and cynical. 

Queen of the cutting remark, she would’ve been a master on Twitter, shelling out pithy barbs and endlessly needling her sister in public 280 characters at a time.

It’s well documented that she was disliked on the set of Rebecca, and that the gallant Cary Grant who had warm relations with nearly all his leading ladies called her a bitch.1

She left four husbands in her wake, casting them off like last year’s sweaters.  At her death in 2013, she was not on speaking terms with either of her daughters.

And then, of course, was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.

In digging through every scrap I could find about the sisters and the origins of their feud, it’s clear that despite being a couple of actresses, there was no cinematic inciting event to their rivalry.  No one slept with the other’s husband or stole a coveted role through underhanded means.

There was no dramatic betrayal.

What is extraordinary about their rivalry is just how ordinary it was.

They fought and reconciled throughout their lives, and only had an irrevocable break after their mother’s death.

The stars are just like you and me after all.

The press knew of the intensity of their feud, and yet had little concrete to print.  This is why they made mountains out of their head-to-head Oscar competition in 1941, and later when Olivia turned away from Joan’s congratulations when she finally won her own Oscar (more on that later.)  Both women convincingly denied that these two incidents fanned the flames, and when asked about their feud nearly always gave examples from their childhood.

As Olivia told Hedda Hopper, “Our house in Saratoga…was homey and cozy but quite small.  So that we had to share the same room whether we liked it or not.  And we didn’t like it at all.”2

Olivia went on to say that Joan was a sickly child, and that Olivia resented the pampering that Joan received, and Joan envied Olivia for being well.  “And so, you see the seeds which were to develop…were already planted and growing.”3

No one from the outside can truly portion out the blame for their constant quarrelling.  Olivia no doubt had her faults and provoked Joan.  But in public, Olivia adhered much more to the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” on the subject.

And if you want a lesson in the wisdom of this advice, look no further than Joan’s 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses, a masterclass in how to unintentionally make yourself into the villain when you believe you are the hero.  This nasty tome is full of hubris, blame shifting, grievances, and untruths so obvious you barely need to fact check them.

Reader, it’s a delicious document and I praise Joan for leaving it to us in all its petty glory.

I present to you a few excerpts that cannot be left on the cutting room floor:

On learning to cook as children:  “Olivia was smarter.  She just wouldn’t learn.”

“Brown-eyed, olive-skinned Olivia, Mother told me, never toddled near the crib of her tow-haired, hazel-eyed baby sister.  Her horoscope suggests that Olivia would have fared better as an only child.”

Again, on Olivia:  “I regret that I remember not one ounce of kindness from her all through my childhood.”

On Olivia’s first husband, author Marcus Goodrich:  “All I know about him, is that he has had four wives and written one book.  Too bad it’s not the other way around.”  This remark, also made to the press at the time of Olivia’s wedding, was the catalyst for one of their longer estrangements.

On winning the Oscar over Olivia:  “Actually, Olivia took the situation very graciously.  I am sure it was not a pleasant moment for her, as she’d lost the previous year for Melanie in Gone With the Wind.”  (See what I mean?  Not nearly as big a deal to the Sisters de Havilland as having to share a crib.)

If I had three wishes from a genie, I would use one to wish into existence an Audible recording of Bed of Roses narrated by Joan herself, reading out all those zingers in her haughty, patrician voice. (Her “real” voice in interviews was much different than the breathless rambling she often used onscreen.)

And yet.

Despite how much I love the dueling de Havillands, below is my favorite picture of them.  For all their spitting and fighting, when Olivia had appendicitis while on the road promoting her film Santa Fe Trial and had to be flown back to Los Angeles for emergency surgery, Joan was waiting to meet her at the airport.4

And in 1974, when Joan had a nervous breakdown after a bad breakup, Olivia was at her side, and Joan writes in Roses that, “Olivia undressed me, put me to bed, held me in her arms as she sang a Japanese lullaby from our childhood.”

It seems that no matter how much you may hate your sister, it doesn’t mean you don’t love her.

So what really was the relationship between the sisters?

Like a marriage, only the two of them can know for sure.

Older, but perhaps no wiser, at least when it came to their feud

And who was the real Joan Fontaine?

A difficult woman, no doubt.  Vastly more complicated than most of the characters she played on screen.

And to get back to our main point, who, dear reader, was the real Susan in The Affairs of Susan?

You’ll have to find that one out for yourself.  And as this film is available for free on You Tube and is a delightful watch, you have absolutely no reason not to.

Notes

  1. Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  2. Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  • Fontaine, Joan.  Bed of Roses.
  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine
  • Matzen, Robert. Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood

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

In This Our Life (1942):  Olivia, Bette Davis, and John Huston

In 1942, Bette Davis was well into her reign as Queen of the Warner Brother’s lot.  Olivia de Havilland respected Davis as the best actress this side of Greta Garbo.  They’d worked together twice before—on It’s Love I’m After (1937) and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939).  In both those films, de Havilland had minor roles where she was just another ingenue and no threat to Bette Davis.

So they got along just fine.

That all changed in 1942, when director John Huston cast them as sisters in In This Our Life, an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Ellen Glasgow.  At that time, he had only one film under his belt—The Maltese Falcon, a surprise success.

Davis was the star, but even as a green director he could see that Olivia de Havilland had untapped potential.  He started cutting Davis out of scenes and giving more attention to de Havilland.

He also fell head over heels in love.

Huston and de Havilland

Though de Havilland had refused to consummate her relationship with Errol Flynn because he was married, when she met the married John Huston she set such scruples aside.  The two began a hot and heavy affair that was the talk of Hollywood.  By the end of filming, they were openly living together.

When Jack Warner saw the early film footage he said to himself, “Oh-oh, Bette has the lines, but Livvy is getting the best camera shots.”1

Warner warned Huston, “Bette Davis gets top billing in this picture, but you’re writing her out of the big scenes and giving them to De Havilland.  Let’s get back on the track.”2

When Davis realized what was going on, Warner writes, “She came close to tearing out every seat in Projection Room No. 5, and she would have given everyone a punch in the nose if I hadn’t interfered.  The next day Huston reshot many scenes he had taken from Bette Davis, and it turned into quite an important film.”3

It is certainly an entertaining one.

Bette Davis plays Stanley Timberlake, a spoiled Southern woman who jilts her fiancé on the eve of their wedding by running off with her sister Roy’s (de Havilland) husband. 

On learning what Stanley has done, their father tells Roy, “Stanley’s weak but you’re strong.  Now the weak always have the strong to protect them.  But the strong must protect themselves or they’ll go under.”

Roy refuses to go under.  She throws herself into her work and eventually falls in love with Craig, Stanley’s jilted fiancé. 

Stanley can find no true happiness with Peter, who feels such guilt over deserting his devoted wife that he ultimately commits suicide.  Out of duty and decency, Roy comforts her distraught sister and brings her home.

Stanley is rotten and spoiled.  Her uncle—who swindled their father out of his fortune—bails Stanley out of every jam.  She never has to pay for what she’s done—not for stealing her sister’s husband, or spending every last dime of his money, not for speeding in the car her uncle gave her, or for driving Peter to suicide.

And so when Stanley hits and kills a young girl with her car, she runs from the scene and blames the accident on Parry Clay, the black son of their housekeeper.  Parry has worked for the family for years and is studying to become a lawyer.  Parry does odd jobs for the Timberlakes, including washing Stanley’s car.

Happy to let an innocent man take the fall…

At first Roy (who suspects—correctly—that Stanley is once again trying to steal her man) supports Stanley and vouches for her to the police.  But after talking with Parry’s mother, she is convinced of his innocence.

Despite all her protestations, Stanley will finally have to pay for something she has done.

Davis gets to play one of her most vile villains, a woman who steals her sister’s husband, blames her hit and run on a young black man, and has no sympathy when the uncle who has always bailed her out of jams tells her he’s dying.

“All right, so you’re going to die!” she shouts when he refuses to help her with the hit and run.  “But you’re an old man!  You’ve lived your life.  You don’t care what happens to me any more than the others!  You’d let me go to prison!  All you’re thinking about is your own miserable life!  Well you can die for all I care!  Die!”

As Davis’ biographer Ed Sikov writes, “Scenes like this make life worth living.”4

Charles Coburn and Davis

De Havilland plays Roy in quiet contrast to Davis’ over-the-top Stanley.  It was certainly de Havilland’s best work since Gone with the Wind.  Though Stanley is the one who seemingly goes after what she wants, her life is a roller coaster of unhappiness, careening from one disaster to the next.  Roy has been sobered by losing her husband, but she internalizes the hurt and uses it to become stronger and wiser, if more reserved.

She is the one who will thrive.

But she is no doormat, and when Stanley crosses the line of trying to send an innocent man to prison, Roy intervenes and throws her sister to the wolves.

Not for revenge, but justice.

For the rest of her life, Bette Davis called In This Our Life, “one of the worst films made in the history of the world.”5  This was primarily because people accused her of overacting to overcompensate for Huston favoring de Havilland.  But Davis put the blame squarely on Huston, and she and de Havilland ultimately became friends—though their friendship likely survived solely because they made no more films together until de Havilland stepped in for Joan Crawford in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, over twenty years later.

John Huston would go onto to a legendary career, receiving fifteen Oscar nominations for writing and directing, and winning Best Director and Best Screenplay for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).  He directed such classics as The African Queen (1951), Moulin Rogue (1953), and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1958).  He directed his father Walter to an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and his daughter Angelica to Best Supporting Actress in Prizzi’s Honor (1985).

He would gather five wives and divorce them all, though to her great disappointment, Olivia de Havilland was not one of them.

They carried their affair on and off for years, and de Havilland desperately wanted to marry him.  But his drinking and womanizing—as well as his existing wife—eroded their relationship to dust.

By all accounts, John Huston—not Errol Flynn—was the one that got away.

“I must say I felt hatred for John for a long time,” she later recalled.  “Maybe he was the great love of my life.  Yes, he probably was.”6

Though it wasn’t meant to be, Huston also carried a torch for de Havilland for many years.  In 1945, David O.  Selznick threw a party at his home.  When Errol Flynn met John Huston there, he made a crude remark about Olivia de Havilland that neither man (to his credit) would ever repeat.  But the comment so infuriated Huston that soon he and Flynn—both experienced boxers—were throwing punches.  It erupted into a full-on brawl that lasted over an hour and left both men hospitalized—Flynn for two broken ribs and Huston for a broken nose, shattered elbow, and a concussion.7

Oliva de Havilland wasn’t at the party. 

By 1945, she was done with Errol Flynn, done with Warner Brothers and (mostly) done with John Huston.

Sources

  1. Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:  An Autobiography
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Sikov Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  7. Ibid.

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

Jane Eyre (1944):  A Failed Rebecca Redux

Nobody broods like a Brontë.

In Edward Rochester, Charlotte Brontë created one of literature’s surliest heroes.

And a heroine strong enough to go toe-to-toe with him.

Jane Eyre is a nineteenth century classic that pits a brooding hero against an uncommonly feisty woman in a struggle for true love.  The novel is an undisputed gothic masterpiece, adapted again and again for the screen, most recently in 2011 with Mia Wasikowska in the titular role.

Every generation gets its own Jane and Rochester.

The 1944 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine was Hollywood’s second crack at a talking adaptation, after at least five silent versions.

I haven’t read the novel in decades, so I can’t pinpoint where the film deviates from the book, but the broad strokes are as I remember.

Jane Eyre is a poor orphan, mistreated first by her rich but uncaring aunt, then by the teachers in an unforgiving boarding school.  She has a stubborn and defiant streak the reader admires but that all her guardians try to metaphorically and literally beat out of her.  When she comes of age, she goes to Thornfield Hall, a large and isolated home, to become a governess.  There she meets Edward Rochester, the mysterious owner of the house.  He is ugly, ill-tempered, and haunted by demons, but Jane softens him up with her honesty and courage.

They fall in love, and all is well until the reason for his secret misery is revealed, threatening their happiness and safety.

The problem with Jane Eyre isn’t adherence to the source material.

It’s that they tore out its soul.

In the filmmaker’s defense, the relationship between Jane Eyre and Rochester is doubtless one of the trickiest to capture on celluloid.

I would argue that Eyre is a more difficult adaptation than its often-filmed cousins, Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice.  In Heights, Cathy is no damsel, but nearly as cruel and greedy as Heathcliff.  And Pride and Prejudice is an entirely different animal, an early battle-of-the-sexes story, a gentle satire of the upper class rather than a moody, gothic novel.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester has all the power—he is wealthy, Jane’s employer, and more experienced in the ways of the world.

Jane has no family, no home, no one who has ever really loved her.  She risks starvation if Rochester throws her out.

How can love truly grow with such an imbalance of power?

And yet in the novel, Jane is Rochester’s intellectual equal.  He loves her for her strength, her lack of artifice, and the (correct) belief that she would stand by him through all manner of troubles, unlike the vain and wealthy Blanche Ingram, whom everyone assumes Rochester will marry.

This film, alas, does not capture Jane’s strength.

Orson Welles captures the brutish and cold side of Rochester, but can’t seem to give him any shades of tenderness.  He bullies Jane, seeming to pull her close and push her away at whim and for his amusement.

When their wedding is disrupted, he offers her no explanation or apology, and comes off cold as ice to his bewildered bride.

Joan Fontaine is little better as Jane.  She is demure, mousy, and completely overtaken by Welles in every scene.

I’m not sure this is entirely her fault as an actress.  This film feels very much as if it is more interested in recapturing the magic of Fontaine’s portrayal of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca than making Jane Eyre.  From the outside, the two characters are similar—both orphans, both submissive women living in big dark castles with brooding men who harbor dark secrets.

But here’s the thing—Jane Eyre is nothing like the second Mrs. de Winter.  Jane has suffered more, and her suffering has given her a shell that protects her without destroying her humanity. 

She does not worship Rochester, as the second Mrs. de Winter worships Maxim.  She doesn’t feel like she has won the lottery when he asks her to marry him.  Jane and Rochester fall in love first, then marry.

With Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter, it’s the other way around.

I’ve read both novels, and never linked them together in my mind.  But the ghost of Rebecca haunts this film as much as Rebecca herself haunted Maxim and his new bride.

Welles and Fontaine have zero chemistry, and the child actresses portraying a young Jane shows more defiance than Fontaine is ever allowed to.

Other adaptations are better, specifically the one from 2011, but none that I have seen truly capture the essence of Brontë’s heroine. 

I’ve decided not to spoil the ending, for though most will know it, if you don’t, I encourage you to skip all the adaptations and spend a rainy weekend with Brontë’s novel.

And if you do decide, against my better judgement, to watch the film—make sure to take note of Helen, the young girl Jane befriends at her school.  The role is uncredited, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew the face.

Young Jane with her friend Helen, a very familiar face….

Eventually I realized I was watching Elizabeth Taylor, in just her third onscreen appearance.

The fact that this was the most memorable moment tells you everything you need to know about this disappointing film.

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

The Male Animal (1942):  Brains vs. Brawn

At first glance, The Male Animal (1942) seems like little more than an amusing brains versus brawn comedy, but the film’s rah-rah jokes about football, alpha men, and high-minded professors are wrapped around a surprisingly contemporary debate around free speech.

Just a year out from playing a similarly absent-minded professor in The Lady Eve (1941), Henry Fonda plays Tommy Turner, an intellectual English teacher at Midwestern University, where football reigns supreme.

Tommy is uninterested in football, preferring to spend his time reading and lecturing on great literature.  He believes he is about to receive a promotion to full professorship when a student publishes an editorial stating that Tommy intends to read a letter by convicted anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his class.1

The university’s conservative brass don’t give a fig about great writing, and they don’t need one of their professors accused of being a communist on homecoming weekend! 

Tommy receives an ultimatum instead of a promotion—nix the letter or lose his job.

Tommy’s first instinct is to shy away from the fight—he isn’t advocating Vanzetti’s politics.  He sees the letter as a piece of literature only, and he has a lot to lose.  His wife Ellen (Olivia de Havilland) agrees he should forget the letter and is much more interested in the homecoming game than Tommy’s inner turmoil over the letter.

So far, so serious.

The humor is injected into the film via the arrival of Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), Midwestern’s former football star and an old flame of Ellen’s.

Jack Carson is one of those great underappreciated character actors whom you recognize in film after film but can’t remember their name.  Carson played minor roles to perfection across four decades in films including Bringing Up Baby (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), A Star is Born (1954), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) before moving into television in the 1960s.

He’s a scene stealer, a great supporting actor, and integral to the success of many films.

Not every name can be above the title.

Carson is perfect in Animal as Joe, the embodiment of the All-American jock, heavy on the charm and testosterone, light on the brains.  He laps up the adoration of the town, receiving a hero’s welcome for his battles won on the gridiron.  He’s loud and sometimes obnoxious, sucking up all the air in the room as he talks a million miles a minute and recreates football plays with pieces from the Turner’s dinner service set.

Tommy feels emasculated by Joe’s alpha male status, and wonders if perhaps Ellen wouldn’t be better off with Joe.

And thus, the screwball portion of the film begins—Tommy rejects Ellen, thinking that he will free her to be with Jack.  Ellen—who is still very much in love with her husband—lets her wounded pride lead the way by insisting she does want to be with Jack.

And Jack—well, he’s just gotten rid of wife number one.  Flirting and dancing with an old flame is one thing, but he’s not in the market for wife number two.

In the film’s best scene, a drunken Tommy opines to his protégé Michael about the difference between civilized men and animals.  Tommy decides that men are animals after all and he vows to fight Jack for his Ellen, the same as a sea lion would fight for his mate. 

His efforts are in vain, of course, and his drunken punches don’t land.  But Ellen’s love for him is rekindled by the effort.

In the end, Tommy realizes he can never prove his manhood with athletic feats or beating up other men. 

But he can stand up for what he believes in.

And so he insists on reading the Vanzetti letter his class (that has swelled to a full auditorium of people waiting to see if he will go through with it) and let the chips fall where they may.

Just before reading the letter, Tommy’s boss defends him to Ed Keller, the head trustee, in a conversation I can easily imagine playing out in one of today’s big state universities:

Dean Frederick Damon:  “These men [Tommy and his supporters] are not malcontents.  Some of them are distinguished scholars who’ve made this university what it is.”

Ed Keller (Trustee):  “They made it what it is?  What about me?  Who’s getting this new stadium paid for?  Who brought Coach Bob here from Southern Methodist?”

Tommy:  “He means this thing is bigger than stadiums and coaches, Mr. Keller.”

Ed Keller:  “Nothing’s bigger than the new stadium!  Why, that’s idiotic!”

After an impassioned opening for free speech, Tommy reads the letter to a packed house. 

Joe doesn’t get it, and after the reading asks, “Is that all?  Well, that isn’t such a bad letter.”

But Ellen does get it.  Through tears, she realizes it isn’t about the specific contents of the letter, but about how her husband stood up for himself, how he refused to run away in the face of overwhelming adversity.  She has a new appreciation for him now as a husband and a man.

The final moments are surely out of any teacher’s fantasy, as the students carry Tommy off in a parade, celebrating him like a football hero for his feat of intellectual honesty.

Is The Male Animal a great work of cinema?

No, let’s not go that far.

But it walks the ever-difficult tightrope of being a genuine comedy with real laughs while at the same time having a sharp point of view, and that’s more than you can say for many of the films made in the 1940’s…or today.

Endnotes

1 – The backstory of why the Vanzetti letter is controversial is not covered in the film and is not necessary to understanding the plot.  But a brief discussion here:  Vanzetti and fellow Italian immigrant Nicola Sacco were convicted on first-degree murder based on very shaky evidence and were executed via electric chair in 1927 despite many public appeals for their innocence, including by Felix Frankfurter, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice.  The continued investigation into their executions lasted into the 1940s and audiences of The Male Animal would likely have understood the reference.  In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation the Vanzetti and Sacco had been wrongly convicted.

Sources

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

The Strawberry Blonde (1941): Olivia On Ice

Olivia de Havilland thought Gone with the Wind (1939) would change things.

After the success of Captain Blood (1935), Jack Warner paired Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland again and again.  The films made money hand over fist and catapulted Flynn and de Havilland to stardom, but they weren’t considered important or prestigious by the Hollywood establishment.

De Havilland’s roles in these films weren’t fleshed out, three dimensional characters.  Flynn’s characters were the focus and he had triple the screen time.

Flynn’s films made more money when paired with Olivia de Havilland than any other starlet on the Warner’s lot.

But Olivia de Havilland was still just the girl, passively waiting to be loved or rescued.

De Havilland was bored and regretted the standard seven-year contract she’d signed with Warners so that she could play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).  She began to lament all she was missing to play these vapid heroines—a chance at complex roles, going back to the theater.

That languishing scholarship to Mills College where she could’ve used her brain.

She couldn’t convince the brass—especially Jack Warner—that she was more than just the latest pretty face, to be used and discarded when the first line showed on her face.

She got her chance when David O. Selznick wanted her to play Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in his upcoming epic Gone with the Wind

But Jack Warner wouldn’t loan her out to Selznick.  He thought Gone With the Wind was going to be the most expensive flop of all time (he wasn’t alone), and felt Olivia de Havilland would become even more difficult after working with Selznick on his big, important film.

Of all the early studios, Warner Brothers was the least concerned with prestige and awards.  Jack Warner cared about making money and cranked out one film after another as cheaply as possible.

Olivia de Havilland had already surprised him by bringing in an agent to renegotiate her contract for more money after just her third film.  She’d figured out how underpaid she was and demanded more.

Warner gave it to her because he needed her in the Flynn films.

De Havilland did a secret screen test with Selznick and original Gone with the Wind director George Cukor.  If Jack Warner had found out about it, he could’ve sued both Selznick International Pictures and de Havilland for breach of contract.

Desperate now, de Havilland went to Jack Warner’s wife—a move that decades later de Havilland admitted was highly improper—and asked Ann Warner to intercede on her behalf.

As Warner writes in his autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:

“Olivia, who had a brain like a computer concealed behind those fawnlike brown eyes…simply went to my wife, Ann, and they joined forces in a plot to change my mind.” 

“’I hear that Selznick wants Livvie in Gone with the Wind,’ Ann said.  ‘Can you possibly imagine anyone else in that role?  And think of the prestige for Warners.  After all, you discovered her, and made her into a star.’” 

De Havilland got the role, of course, and an Academy Award nomination.  She was following the path of Bette Davis, who also fought with Jack Warner over roles and didn’t get recognition as a great actress until she strong-armed him into letting her make Of Human Bondage with RKO in 1934.

De Havilland had proved herself and thought she would continue following in Davis’ footsteps with first-rate roles at Warner Brothers.

She thought Gone with the Wind would change things.

It didn’t.

Because Jack Warner—who was a first-rate bastard in a town full of them—held a grudge.  He didn’t like that de Havilland had negotiated for that raise so young, or complained about the quality of his studio’s pictures, or did an end run around him with his wife to get her role in Wind

He made her, he could unmake her.

She had five years left on her contract, and Jack Warner vowed to make them hell.

So after the heaven that was playing Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind, Olivia de Havilland returned to Warner Brothers and grinded out one film after another.  With and without Flynn, but she was always just the girl.

Even if Warner Brothers didn’t appreciate her, her work in Wind attracted the attention of other studios, who requested her services as a loan out.  She made 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn for Paramount.

Again, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work outside Warners, this time Best Actress, which she of course lost to sister Joan Fontaine.

And it was back to the Warner Brothers grind.

It didn’t help that her sister—her younger sister—had already made it to the altar with Brian Aherne, an actor and one of de Havilland’s former boyfriends.  Or that Fontaine had won the Oscar over her, and was now working for Selznick at the leisurely pace of roughly a film a year while de Havilland ground out three pictures a year and had been working non-stop since 1935.

De Havilland was exhausted and frustrated.  She began throwing tantrums on the set, fighting with Flynn, and refusing roles she felt were beneath her.

She had several of what were then called nervous breakdowns, but what would today be called burnout.

But she had five more years, so she looked for good scripts at home.  She found the script for The Strawberry Blonde in head of makeup department’s Perc Westmore’s office.  She liked the part of Amy, James Cagney’s wife, and fought for it despite producers initially thinking she wasn’t right for the role.

The film was based on 1933’s broadway play One Sunday Afternoon, and a remake of the original film starring Gary Cooper.  It would be remade again in 1948, also titled One Sunday Afternoon.

Warner Brothers retitled it The Strawberry Blonde, which refers not to the part played by de Havilland, but by newcomer Rita Hayworth, on loan from Columbia.

James Cagney stars as Biff Grimes, a dentist struggling to make ends meet.  He spends a Sunday afternoon reminiscing about how he met his wife, Amy (de Havilland) eight years prior.

Biff and his friend Hugo Barnstead (a delightfully oily Jack Carson) and every other man in town have a crush on Virginia Brush, the beautiful young woman they call the Strawberry Blonde.  Shallow Virginia loves the attention and makes sure to walk past the barbershop to soak up the cat calls.

Hugo arranges a double date with Biff, Virginia, and Virginia’s friend Amy, and promises that Biff can “have Virginia.”  When they arrive, Hugo double-crosses Biff and runs off with Virginia, leaving him with Amy.

Amy isn’t like anyone Biff has ever met—she’s beautiful, but she works as a nurse and has modern ideas.  It’s the 1890s, and she shocks him by insinuating that she doesn’t believe in marriage and that her mother wore “bloomers.”

But Biff soon finds out that most of this is a tough outer shell, and he falls in love with and marries Amy.  Hugo marries Virginia, though the union is an unhappy one, beset by their mutual selfishness, greed, and ambitions.

Virginia stands by Biff through thick and thin, and though Biff once pined for Virginia, by the end of the film he knows he got the better end of the deal by a mile.

The Strawberry Blonde is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  Cagney mugs around as Biff, and the film is full of laughs and classic songs such as, “The Band Played On,” and “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie.”

De Havilland was mostly happy during the film, as she enjoyed working with Cagney and director Raoul Walsh.  It was a pleasant experience, and her role had more meat on the bone than those she played with Flynn.

But only a bit more meat.  This is Cagney’s film, and beneath de Havilland’s talents.  (Her role is played by Frances Fuller in the 1933 version, and Dorothy Malone in the 1948 version.  Never heard of them?  As Amy often quips in the film, “Exactly.”)

She was young, beautiful, rich, and independent.  But as she told Errol Flynn on the set of Captain Blood, she wanted respect.

And that was something she would never get from Jack Warner.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Matzen, Robert. Errrol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  • Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

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

This Above All (1942): Forties on Forties

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

For a certain kind of movie buff, there is nothing more romantic and glamourous than what I like to call a “Forties on Forties” film.  These are films made in the 1940’s and set in the 1940’s.  The men dressed in suits and jackets they don’t take off even at the dinner table.  Women wore dresses, gloves, coats, and pearls.  Men and women both wore gorgeous hats they take off and put on a dozen times.

Breakfast served on trays with dozens of plates.  Coffee poured for every meal from a big silver pot into delicate cups.

Train travel in private compartments.  Smoking everywhere, with men lighting cigarettes already in their woman’s mouth.

Films about adults with adult problems.  Love, lust, life, death.

And always, whether in the foreground or background, looms World War II.  (Even in Mildred Pierce, a film that seemingly avoids the war completely, Monte appreciates Mildred’s bare legs by saying he is “happy nylons are out for the duration,” a reference to nylon rationing.)

Films made during the war, when the outcome was uncertain, and after the war, with the thrill of victory temporarily papering over the deep cynicism that would eventually seep onto the screen as film noir.

I am that kind of movie buff, and This Above All is that kind of film.

Joan Fontaine immediately followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion by starring in this surprisingly tender war romance with Tyrone Power in which she plays a woman who falls in love with a British deserter. (Power would make only two more films after This Above All before interrupting his career by enlisting to himself fight in the very war portrayed in the film.)

There was a multi-studio bidding war for the rights to the bestselling novel of the same name by Eric Knight, and eventually Darryl Zanuck secured the highly anticipated film for Twentieth Century Fox.

British aristocrat Prudence Cathaway (Fontaine) announces to her shocked family that she has joined the Women’s Auxiliary Force, and as a private instead of an officer.  During a blackout, she meets Clive Briggs (Power), and they have an instant connection despite not being able to see one another in the dark. 

When they meet up the next day, their attraction grows despite their differences.  Prue is old money, patriotic, and friendly.  Clive is from the lower classes, brooding, and seemingly not telling Prue something.  She does not question him as much as she perhaps should about why he is not wearing a uniform.

Despite barely knowing one another, sparks fly and Prue agrees to accompany him on a holiday during her upcoming leave instead of visiting her family as planned. 

Zanuck had bitter fights with the production code office over the film’s original script.  He’d preemptively removed the novel’s illegitimate pregnancy in a bid for approval, but the code office howled over Prue “going away for a week, for immoral purposes.”  Zanuck and director Anatole Litvak were forced to insert scenes that clearly showed Prue and Clive sleeping in separate bedrooms, and Prue several times mentioning that while what they were doing was innocent, to an outsider it could be misconstrued.

Critics and audiences were disappointed by the watered-down romance, but Zanuck and Litvak’s hands were tied.

Clive is a haunted man.  Prue hears him screaming in his sleep (initially from the other room, of course) and he eventually breaks down and admits that he has overstayed his leave and will soon be classified as a deserter.  He despairs of his country; he does not want to fight to save a British class system that has oppressed him and kept families like Prue’s living off their generational wealth and the backs of the working class.  Already in love, Prue greets his tortured confession with tenderness instead of scorn. 

In fact, everyone in the film is sympathetic to Clive’s plight.  His friend and fellow soldier Monty insists that Clive return and not ruin his life.  His commanding officer gives him a second chance when he finally returns.

There are no recriminations, no judgements, no scorn of Clive as a weakling or a coward.  This was more surprising than any illicit affair could have been.

Patriotic Prue stands by him, and although Clive returns to his station, he does not have a dramatic change of heart.  He loves Prue and marries her, and he will help win this war so that he can eventually fight for the things he truly believes in.

“This above all,” Prue reads to him from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the final scene, where he’s been wounded and his survival is uncertain, “to thine own self be true.”

An adult problem with an adult ending.

And a hidden gem from the “Forties on Forties.”

Sources

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

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

The Dueling de Havillands: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) vs. Suspicion (1941)

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the 1942 Academy Awards…before the winner was announced…

The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends:  Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).

And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)

Both had been nominated previously and their losses could easily be categorized as upsets—Olivia in 1939 for supporting actress in Gone With the Wind, and Joan in 1940 for best actress in Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees.  Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point.  De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.

If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.

Fontaine was the darkest of horses.

In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico.  Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza.  Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.

Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory.  A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning.  He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.

The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him.  George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.

It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.

And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film.  Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.  Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.

Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been. 

The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child.  But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime.  After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.

Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.

Too bad it never made it into the final film.

There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain.  Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer.  Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.

Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess.  We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister.  He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance. 

She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance.  When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it.  When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff.  In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.

Grant and Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)

This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her. 

Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public.  At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.

Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night.  Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.

Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:

“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition].  I really think it happened when I was born.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.

After all, where would Serena be without Venus?

Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
  • Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
  • Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.

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

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

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

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

Too much indeed.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

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

Something very bad has happened to Dick Harland.

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

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

It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation.

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

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

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

And she has her sights set on Dick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did she marry Dick?

Because he looked like her father.

Why doesn’t she want anyone else around?

Because she wants Dick all to herself.

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

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

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

Eat your heart out, Phyllis Dietrichson.

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

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

And genius.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she genuinely cares for Roy.

It’s her way out.

And yet Myra refuses.

Again and again she refuses, quite violently.  

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

It’s not pride:  Myra despises herself.  

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

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

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

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

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

She can’t marry him because she loves him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know, my dear.”

“I just wanted you to know that.”

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

“Fine?  I’m not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When she learns the truth, Myra is aghast:

Myra:  “You did it for me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So which version wins the rumble?

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

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

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

And yet….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like the heroine of its story.

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

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

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

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