The Good Life

#20 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Director Frank Capra on the set of You Can’t Take It With You

Frank Capra was on a roll.  Starting in 1934 with It Happened One Night, he won the Best Director Oscar in three out of the next five years.  In 1938, he won his third and final Oscar with the ensemble comedy You Can’t Take It With You.  He also began to cement his legacy as a director who perfected a tone in his films that celebrated the best parts of the American dream and gave audiences wholesome and upbeat films to take their minds off their Depression troubles.

Capra was still working under Harry Cohn at Columbia, turning out critical and commercial successes without the benefit of the huge budgets and roster of stars his competition enjoyed over at Paramount and MGM.  In You Can’t Take It With You, Capra managed this by pulling sparkling performances by both young and up-and-coming actors and old favorites.

You Can’t Take It With You started out as a 1936 play by George Kaufmann and Moss Hart.  Capra and writer Robert Riskin expanded the play for the screen.

The film’s initial setup is simple enough—ruthless, greedy banker Anthony Kirby is planning to buy up all the real estate around a competitor’s factory to prevent expansion and put his competition out of business.  It’s an underhanded plan, but it is spoiled by the one eccentric old man who refuses to sell his family home.

Lionel Barrymore plays Grandpa Vanderhof, the lone holdout and benevolent patriarch of the eccentric Vanderhof family, a group of misfits that eschew convention in favor of spending their days—and thus their lives—doing exactly as they choose.  This includes daughter Penny Sycamore writing bad plays all day just because someone once left a typewriter at their house, her husband setting off fireworks in the basement, and granddaughter Essie dancing ballet in the living room, despite her teacher’s continued assertions that, “Confidentially, she stinks!”

Kirby’s dilemma is simple, and unsolvable:  He is a man who throws money at every problem, and the Vanderhofs can’t be bought.

Grandpa Vanderhof refuses to sell for the simple reason that he doesn’t want to leave the home filled with happy memories, and his refusal to sell protects the rest of the neighborhood from being evicted from their homes.

This clash of ideas about what makes a good life—Kirby has more money than he could ever spend but lacks fulfilling relationships with his wife and son, and treats his employees like dirt, while Grandpa Vanderhof lacks wealth and status but has the love and respect of family and friends—is the heart of the film.

Lionel Barrymore as patriarch Grandpa Vanderhof

Capra thickens the plot, of course.  The life philosophies of two old men might be interesting, but a Hollywood film needs youth, beauty, and romance.

In his first starring role James Stewart plays Anthony’s son Tony, the reluctant vice president and heir apparent in his father’s company.  Jean Arthur, also in an early starring role, plays Grandpa Vanderhof’s loving and slightly less crazy granddaughter Alice, who is a stenographer at the Kirby’s bank.

Unbeknownst to both old men, Tony and Alice are in love. 

And we’re off.

There is an inevitable clash of cultures when the Kirbys and Vanderhofs meet, a plot twist where Grandpa Vanderhof nearly loses the house but is saved by the senior Kirby’s dawning realization that Grandpa Vanderhof is the richer man, surrounded by people who love and respect him.  And of course, Tony temporarily loses Alice.

Don’t worry, he gets her back again.

It’s amazing to me that this film was nominated for seven Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Director.  Not because I think it’s undeserving—it certainly is (and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Barrymore wouldn’t have been out of line)—but a picture like this wouldn’t even have been considered for a nomination today.  It’s a comedy with a message so pure and positive it borders on corny.

Its complete lack of cynicism would invalidate its legitimacy in the minds of today’s Oscar voters.  As a critique, it says more about the trend of the Oscars than it does about Capra’s film.

You Can’t Take It With You also serves as a changing of the guard in terms of Hollywood’s leading men.  Though he would act for fifteen more years, at sixty Lionel Barrymore’s best years and films are behind him.  He’s on crutches throughout the film, and this is explained by an accident, but the truth is in real life he was plagued by painful arthritis that would increasingly trouble him the rest of his life.

Barrymore is the heart of the film, and he gets all the best lines.  Yet he’s clearly passing the torch—however reluctantly—to James Stewart.  

Only three years into his nearly sixty year career, James Stewart is already oozing charisma and speaking in his inimitable stutter-step accent.  His wide-eyed Tony is head over heels in love with Alice and her crazy family.  Alice knows it is a bad idea to fall in love with someone whose family will never accept her, but really, what woman could resist Jimmy Stewart when he turns up the charm?

You Can’t Take It With You isn’t a perfect film.  It’s a little too long, and sometimes the antics of the Vanderhof family become irritating.

But honestly, let’s not quibble.  This is a movie made to distract you from your troubles.  You munch on popcorn while watching young people fall in love and old people coming around to the idea that love triumphs over money, and that the American Dream is alive and well.

What could be better than that?

If It Doesn’t Fit…

#10 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

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

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel Premiere

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

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

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

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

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

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

Garbo As Garbo

#3 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

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

For love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we’ll never stop wondering.