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

Joan Fontaine, Joan Leslie, Zachary Scott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zachary Scott, Fontaine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And ends up losing them both in the end.

Robert Ryan, Fontaine

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

Well, every war has collateral damage. 

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

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

Notes

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

Full Sources

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

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

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

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

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

Not that Joan was about to give up the fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless vacation.  Who wouldn’t dream of it?

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

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

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

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

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

Can Manina?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.

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

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

A Place in the Sun (1951): Method Acting Arrives

Author’s First Note:  I’ve added a tab to the top of the site called “Golden Age of Hollywood”  Here you can find the full list of past posts, listed by category and alphabetical order.  You can also find suggested reading and source material if you want to learn more.

Author’s Second Note:  The plot of A Place in the Sun takes a surprising turn about halfway through the film.  Spoilers abound in today’s discussion.  I highly recommend watching it before reading today’s blog.


By the dawn of the nineteen-fifties, Hollywood had twenty years of talkies under its belt.  The studio system of the previous two decades had produced many of our most beloved American films.

But things were changing—the advent of television and the post World War II retreat to the suburbs bumped the role of the movie theater from the center of American entertainment.  Actors, directors, and writers had broken free of the restrictive studio system and had ever increasing freedom in the films they participated in.  Hollywood films were becoming less assembly line products of the main studios and more individual collaborative projects.

And while all those stars who had built Hollywood—Garbo, Bogart, Gable, Crawford, and Davis—still managed to make some good films, there was no denying they were on the other side of the mountain of their careers.

It never stops surprising us that even stars can’t escape time.

Audiences wanted something new, and the fifties gave way to a new crop of fresh faces and a more realistic, less glamourous acting style that was brought to popularity in 1951 with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.  Called method acting, it was developed by Lee Strasberg at his Actor’s Studio in New York City, and was eventually practiced by Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert DeNiro.

In A Place in the Sun, Clift plays George Eastman, a poor relation who gets a low-level job in his distant uncle’s factory.  He works hard and begins dating Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a salt-of-the-earth fellow factory worker. 

Soon Alice is in love with George and dreaming of a future.  George, however, is slowing moving up in the Eastman company and social circles.  He catches the eye of socialite Angela Vickers, played by nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor who looks and sounds so young you’ll hardly recognize her.  George and Angela fall hopelessly and foolishly in love, as reckless as Romeo and Juliet. 

George begins to see a glittering future before him—marriage to Angela, social acceptance, and wealth.

But there’s a massive fly in his ointment—Alice is pregnant and wants to marry.  Shelley Winters received a well-earned Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (and might have won but for running into the buzzsaw that was Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.)  Alice is clearly worth more than the whole lot of the Eastmans—she’s poor but would be the kind of wife that would stand by George through thick and thin. 

If George refuses to marry—and she can sense his wavering—she’ll lose her job and her little apartment.  A visit to a doctor who humiliates her (while George hides in the car) and refuses to give her an abortion gives her a glimpse into her future as a unmarried, penniless outcast.

Perhaps counter to the filmmaker’s intentions, Alice’s desperation to marry touched me deeper than any other emotion in the film.

With the promise of marriage, George takes Alice on a pre-honeymoon of sorts and rows her out onto an isolated lake with the intention of drowning her.  When the time comes, he is horrified by the reality of murder and abandons his plan.  But Alice falls accidentally into the water and ends up drowning after all.

We don’t see onscreen how hard George tries to save her, but we don’t doubt for a second he would’ve tried harder if it had been Angela going under.

Figuring he ought not let Alice’s death spoil his plans to wed Angela, George follows through with his original cover up plan.

The last third of the film depicts his murder trial, in which the defense admits he planned to murder Alice, but that the ultimate drowning was an accident.

The jury—and George himself—must deliberate on whether or not he tried hard enough to save Alice, or if he “committed murder in his heart.”

Rarely have I loathed a character as much as I did George Eastman.  He is moody and overly sensitive, full of long silences and self-pity.  He doesn’t have the guts to be a full out cad or villain—he wants what he wants without having to pay the price for it. 

He threw away a good woman like Alice for beauty and riches that would fade with time.

But don’t mistake loathing for Eastman for loathing of the film.  It’s compelling and the question of his guilt or innocence is visceral rather than logical.

Montgomery Clift garnered his second of three Best Actor Academy Award nominations (running into his own buzzsaw in the form of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

Leave Her to Heaven

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Tierney’s Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven, gleefully watching her disabled brother-in-law drown as she rowed a boat wearing sunglasses, a white coat, and gorgeous red lipstick.

There was a villain you could love.

The contrast between her and George Eastman’s frantic aborting of his own plan is a perfect showcase of the transition from the stylized, glamorous Hollywood of yore to the realism prized by the method actors.

My takeaway?  I’m not getting in a rowboat with either one of them.

Sources

  • Schatz, Thomas.  The Genius of the System:  Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.

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

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.

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:

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

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.

Hitch and Grace In Three Acts: Dial M For Murder (1954): Hitch Finds His Muse

Much ink has been spilled over Alfred Hitchcock’s complicated relationships with his leading ladies.  But it’s a topic of endless fascination, so let’s spill a little more, shall we?

There is speculation about the exact nature of the sex in Hitch’s long marriage to his wife Alma, but we can only say with certainty that theirs was not a passionate love.  Hitch was a lonely man, isolated by his intense desire for requited love and his inability to find someone to provide it.  (It’s doubtful he could have accepted it if anyone had ever offered it; alas, it seems no one ever did.)  

He loved Ingrid Bergman first, and through deft skill and an uncommon tenderness, she managed to reject his amorous overtures and shaped his schoolboy crush into a lifelong friendship.  In the case of Tippi Hedren, he developed a dangerous obsession that crossed a red line and marred his legacy.

Sandwiched between Ingrid and Tippi was Grace Kelly, the cool blonde that allowed Hitchcock to mold her into his image of the perfect woman.

Twenty-four year old Grace Kelly had made only three films when fifty-four year old Hitchcock saw her in Mogambo, John Ford’s film set in Africa that featured a love triangle between Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Kelly.  She hadn’t yet made much of an impression on audiences or critics (though after she caught Hitch’s eye she was a surprise nominee for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work in Mogambo), but Hitch was convinced she could be the star he’d been searching for ever since Ingrid Bergman left him in 1949 to make films in Italy with Roberto Rossellini.

Hitch felt Grace Kelly had a mix of elegance and sexuality that he could exploit with his camera.  While Marilyn Monroe embodied the blonde bombshell who put her sexuality right out there for anyone to see, Hitch called Grace Kelly a “snow-covered volcano,” a woman who kept such tight reign on herself that men went mad imagining what was beneath the white gloves, prim hats, and perfect dresses.

Hitch nurtured this image of Kelly through the three films they made together.  Though she occupied a singular place in his heart, there were never any romantic interludes between them.  Hitch satisfied his desires by taking extreme interest in the clothing she wore in his films, dressing her like a doll, and being infinitely patient with her on set, which was not his usual way with his actors.

After seeing her in Mogamo, he convinced MGM to loan her to Warner Brothers to star in his picture Dial M For Murder, based on the stage play of the same name.

The plot for the film starts off rather simply and then becomes increasingly complicated in the second half.  Grace Kelly plays Margo Wendice, a woman having an affair with American writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings).  Unbeknownst to her, her husband Tony (Ray Milland) has discovered the affair.  Worried that she will leave him (and take the money that he lives the high life on), Tony blackmails an old schoolmate to murder her.

I first saw this film nearly twenty years ago in college, and I remembered nearly every moment of the grisly attempted murder scence, still shocking despite the lack of gory effects that would be employed today.  The rest of the film I had utterly forgotten.

After watching it again, I am convinced that in twenty more years I will still remember the attempted murder scene, while having again forgotten the rest.

Swann (the killer) has entered the apartment while Margo (Kelly) is sleeping in her bedroom.  He hides behind the thick curtains just behind the desk.  When the telephone rings (her husband calling to lure his wife to her death), Margo staggers into the room half asleep in nothing but her nightgown.  As her husband listens on the other end of the line, Swann wraps a scarf around Margo’s neck and attempts to strangle her.

But Margo (who is often quite passive in the rest of the film) puts up unexpected resistance and fights Swann.  In the struggle, Swann throws her over the desk and bends over her as she moans and he pulls the scarf tighter.

The scene is quite clearly choreographed to mimic a rape, and we see shots of Kelly’s bare legs as she struggles.

In a moment of inspiration, Margo reaches behind her head, remembering the scissors from her mending basket she’d left on the desk.  She finds them and plunges them into the killer’s back.  He falls, taking her with him as the scarf is still wrapped around her neck, and as he hits the floor the scissor blades imbed themselves fatally into his back.

I challenge you to watch the scene without flinching.

After realizing she has killed her attacker, the gasping Margo staggers onto the back patio, drawing in large breaths of air and pulling the scarf from her neck.

The scene took over a week to shoot, and years later Grace Kelly spoke of the difficulties and awkwardness of doing take after take that left her exhausted and bruised at the end of each day.  But she wanted to please Hitchcock (and that desire alone pleased him immensely) and eventually the scene was shot to Hitchock’s satisfaction.

Watching the film today, it is noticeable how Kelly reaches behind her head for the scissors.  She lets her hand flail around for a long time, which strikes a bit of a wrong note as she should be rummaging on the surface of the desk for the scissors.  Before she takes the killing blow, she holds the scissors up for a moment so the audience can get a good look at them.

But Hitch, of course, had his reasons.  Dial M for Murder was shot in 3-D, a new special effect the movie industry was testing out to compete with television.  To audiences in 3-D glasses, it would appear that Kelly was reaching out of the screen to them, and that the deadly scissors were inches from their face.

Hitch hated the idea of 3-D, which he correctly predicted would be a short-lived gimmick, but Warner Brothers insisted he use the technology.  The 3-D cameras were large, slowed down filming, and prevented Hitch from doing certain shots.

In fact, the release of Dial M for Murder was delayed for nearly a year until the run of the play completed, and by the time audiences saw it the 3-D craze had already passed.  Most people saw it the way we do today, in two dimensions.

After the attempted murder, the film gets a little bogged down in plot.  Since his wife has survived, the husband shifts his plan to convincing the police that she deliberately killed the man because he was blackmailing her over her affair.  It nearly works, until her lover and a clever detective save her from death row with sleuthing that would make Sherlock Holmes—and Columbo—proud.

For Hitch, who was never all that interested in the storyline of Dial M and who hated the 3-D filming process, the main joy of the film was working with Kelly.  Throughout the process he had his mind on his next film, one that would rightly be regarded as a masterpiece by film scholars and audiences alike.

It was the story of the ultimate voyeur who has a beautiful woman do his bidding.

It was the story of movie making itself, spiced up with murder.

Kelly would star in it, of course, no matter what he had to do to once again pry her away from MGM.

Now all he needed was the right leading man.

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Indiscreet (1958): Ingrid’s Triumphant Return

Despite delighting audiences with her work in such classics as Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941), Casablaca (1942), For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), Gaslight (1944), and Notorious (1946), Ingrid Bergman was banished from Hollywood when her extramarital affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini became public.  

Because of the pure and innocent characters she played onscreen, the public felt betrayed.  Becoming pregnant with Rossellini’s child added fuel to the fire.  In a fit of manufactured hysteria that would be right at home in today’s political climate, democratic Senator Edwin C. Johnson denounced her on the senate floor as “a powerful influence for evil”, and that she had “perpetrated an assault upon the institution of marriage.”

“People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint,” Bergman said later.  “I’m not.  I’m just a woman, another human being.”*

She ran off to Italy and spent the next seven years making Italian films in between marrying and divorcing Rossellini.  (And having three children with him, including actress Isabella Rossellini.)

In 1956, she filmed Anastasia in Europe for Twentieth Century Fox to test the waters.  Her Academy Award win for the film paved the way for her return to Hollywood.

Though Anastaisa revived her career, it was her next film, Indiscreet, that endeared her once again to American audiences.

Off-screen friends Bergman and Grant

She paired up for the second and final time with her Notorious co-star and good friend, Cary Grant.

Notorious is the better film, of course, but it has more tools in its arsenal—an inherently tense premise, life and death stakes, and the master of suspense in Alfred Hitchock behind the camera.  

Indiscreet, by contrast, lives or dies solely on the chemistry of Bergman and Grant.  Not their individual talents, which are unquestioned, but how much the audience believes they are besotted with one another.

The film more than lives.  It thrives.

The premise of this romantic comedy is simple—Bergman plays Anna Kalman, an actress in her early forties (as Bergman herself was) who has given up on love meets Cary Grant’s diplomat Philip Adams and finds the man she has been missing.

Philip is handsome, considerate, and fun.  The rub?

He’s married, of course, and he can’t divorce his wife.

He tells Anna this right off the top, and so she goes into their relationship with her eyes wide open.

When a romantic comedy falls flat, it’s nearly always because the filmmaker is in such a hurry to get to the relationship’s roadblock that he neglects to show us what the two leads see in one another and why their relationship is worth saving in the face of that inevitable roadblock.

Indiscreet doesn’t make that mistake.  It strolls along at a pleasant pace, letting us see how and why Anna and Philip fall in love.  There is a cozy conversation at a restaurant table that goes on so long they miss the ballet.  There are late night conversations, and a great split screen showing them saying goodnight over the telephone in their respective beds.  Eventually, we see her cooking breakfast for him, the first nod that their relationship has reached sleepover status.

We know why Anna loves Philip—he’s charming, discrete, considerate, and so obviously her perfect match.  We know why Philip loves Anna—she’s beautiful, beloved by her fans, confident but not clingy, and has a great sense of humor.  She takes what Philip can offer but doesn’t ask for more.

When Philip is ordered to New York for five months for his work with the United Nations but Anna must stay in London to star in a play, she shows the first signs of strain.  In a heartbreaking scene, Anna beseeches Philip to leave his wife and marry her.  She apologizes, but it’s too late—she’s shown Philip that no matter how perfect their relationship seems, it is humiliating to be a mistress and not a wife.

And now, finally, when we’re fully invested and having a ball watching Cary and Ingrid flirt and play, the bomb is dropped.

On-screen magic

Philip isn’t—and never has been—married.  It’s a lie he tells his prospective lovers because he believes he’s not the marrying kind and doesn’t want to give them false hope.

The reveal of this fact to Anna—by her sister, and not Philip himself—has her shouting, “How dare he make love to me and not be married!”

The film’s comedy comes in the second half, when Anna pretends not to know of Philip’s deception and plans his comeuppance.  Watching Anna secretly seethe behind Philip’s back at a party while he dances and drinks and generally has a grand old time is the highlight of the film.

Her plan goes badly, of course—she convinces him she’s been seeing another man just as he decides he’s the marrying kind after all—but it all turns out right in the end.

It’s the type of romantic comedy that Hollywood has given up on—it doesn’t have two leads who are constantly bickering until the final reel, doesn’t substitute sex for romance, and doesn’t have to cut down a strong woman by making her a klutz. 

It’s a love story of two mature adults—Ingrid with the first hint of lines on her face, Cary with silver in his hair—but youth doesn’t hold a candle to the charm these legends exude with every breath.

And even at forty-three and fifty-seven, Ingrid and Cary look damn good in technicolor.

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

*Quote from Notorious:  The Life of Ingrid Bergman, by Donald Spoto

All About Eve (1950): “A Bumpy Night”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She had her own upstarts to deal with.

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

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

Before & After

#17 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

In 1932, Clark Gable, still in his pre-mustache days, made a great pre-code picture with Jean Harlow called Red Dust.  Gable plays Dennis, the owner of a rubber plantation in Indochina.  He lives a physically demanding life devoid of creature comforts.

His world is upended when he goes from having no female company to two very different women vying for his affection.  First, Jean Harlow’s Vantine shows up unannounced.  She’s a bawdy and fun loving prostitute running from trouble, and at first Dennis can’t take his eyes off her.

But when surveyor Gary Willis shows up, Dennis’ head is turned by Gary’s sophisticated wife, Barbara.  

It’s obvious to the audience and to everyone on the plantation except Barbara and Dennis that they are all wrong for one another.  Barbara could never survive in such rugged conditions, and Dennis is not about to shine himself up.

Vantine knows she and Dennis are made for each other, two feral animals in the middle of the jungle, but she’s content to wait for Dennis to come around.  She’s amused by his attempts to make himself suitable for Barbara, whom Vantine calls “The Duchess.”  Unlike Barbara, Vantine doesn’t take life—or herself—too seriously.  And she lives to annoy Dennis.

Harlow is known for her sex appeal, the original blond bombshell.  But what we forget is just how funny she was.  She’s a wonderful comedienne with great timing, which she puts to great use in the film.

Gable is deliciously young and handsome.  He’s always sweaty with two day’s stubble, and I don’t blame Barbara or Vantine for going after him.

Harlow and Gable spark off each other, and it makes it impossible to believe that Dennis will end up with Barbara.  Their chemistry burns up every scene.

But it is Harlow’s Vantine who gets all the best lines.

Twenty-one years later, well after the enforcement of the production code and Gable’s mustache years, MGM remade Red Dust.  They moved the setting to Africa and retitled it Mogambo.  Instead of a rubber plantation, the main character traps African animals to sell to zoos and circuses.  The prostitute is replaced by a showgirl.  The husband and wife that show up are there to make a gorilla documentary instead of a survey.  Otherwise, the plot is remarkably similar.

The Red Dust role played by twenty-one year old Harlow was replaced in Mogambo with thirty-one year old Ava Gardner.  The twenty-six year old Mary Astor role was played by twenty-four year old Grace Kelly.

And the role previously played by thirty-one year old Clark Gable?  

Now played by fifty-two year old Clark Gable.

Ah, Hollywood.

(In truth, Harlow was dead by 1953, but let’s not pretend her status as a corpse had any bearing on the decision to cast a younger actress in the role.  And let’s not forget that Mary Astor was certainly still acting at the time.)

For me, Mogambo was not a great film, certainly not as good as Red Dust.

Ava Gardner’s Honey Bear just doesn’t sparkle like Harlow’s Vantine.  Part of it is the rules of the production code, of course.  In a pre-code world, Vantine is allowed to swagger about as an unrepentant floozy.  The audience is allowed to sympathize with her despite her lack of concern about her checkered present.

Compare Harlow’s entrance as Vantine with Gardner as Honey Bear:

Honey Bear is not as refined as Grace Kelly’s Mrs. Nordley, but it’s not obvious that she’s so much farther down on the social circle that Vic is justified in ordering her not to speak to Mrs. Nordley.  He just comes across as a jerk.

Honey Bear’s past is also whitewashed.  She was once in love with a man who was killed in the war, you see, and so she’s taken a bit of a wrong turn because her heart was shattered.

She’s also terribly jealous and miserable over Vic’s infatuation with Mrs. Nordley.  There is none of Vantine’s amused teasing.  Honey Bear is furious at being unceremoniously thrown over for another woman.

Clark before the mustache and production code with Harlow…..and after with Gardner.

And I hate to say it, but Clark Gable is too old.  He’s twice as old as Grace Kelly and looks even older.  To watch the King of Hollywood lusting after Grace Kelly is just a bit pathetic, and that’s not what the film was going for. (I’ll say nothing of their real life on-set affair.)  And his chemistry with Gardner is non-existent.

Grace Kelly, Clark Gable

Red Dust zips along, but Mogamo drags.  And thanks to the production code, though twenty-years older, Red Dust is actually a much racier and sexier film.

The critics disagree with me, as critics often do.  Gardner was nominated for an Oscar for Lead Actress, and Kelly for Supporting Actress.  Back in 1932, Harlow and Astor weren’t nominated for a thing.  Red Dust did a decent box office, but Mogambo was a smash.

Don’t listen to the critics or the audiences.  Listen to me—next time you’ve got a hankering for Clark Gable in the jungle, skip him with Gardner in the technicolor Mogambo and settle in to watch him with Harlow in black and white.

You won’t be sorry.

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