Young Man With a Horn (1950):  Bacall Searches for the Spotlight

Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950)

By 1950, Jack Warner was no longer the undisputed king of the Warner Brother’s lot.  In the 1930’s and early 40’s, actors and actresses did as they were told.  Jack discovered them, signed them to long term contracts, and made them stars.

And how did they repay his generosity?

By fighting him every step of the way. 

James Cagney fought for more money and shorter contracts in the 1930s.  Bette Davis raged at Jack and took him to court in the mid-1930s for allegedly damaging her career with subpar roles (she lost).  Barbara Stanwyck refused to sign long term contracts to retain her ability to negotiate salary and choose her own roles.  Olivia de Havilland cut his knees out from under him when her 1944 court case against Warner’s resulted in the De Havilland Decision, which invalidated the studio practice of tacking suspensions onto the end of an actor’s contract.

Jack Warner had taken and thrown his fair share of punches in the name of business.

But Lauren Bacall proved a particularly thorny problem.

She refused to play parts that she felt weren’t any good and would damage her career. 

After their initial six years, Olivia de Havilland had made 23 films, Cagney 26, and Bette Davis a staggering 35, many of them bad roles Warner forced them to play.

In the same time period, Bacall had made only eight films.

Buying her contract from Howard Hawks had been expensive, and Jack wasn’t getting his money’s worth.  Warner thought Bacall was an ingrate, unwilling to pay her dues as her predecessors had done.

She wasn’t an ingrate—the studio system was crumbling, and Bacall took advantage of the walls her predecessors had knocked down.  She wouldn’t take bad roles—she’d wait out Jack Warner if she had to.

Jack had to proceed with caution, for Warner Brothers needed its top star Humphrey Bogart more than he needed them.  Bogart had not forgotten all the years Jack had strong-armed him into roles he didn’t want, played hardball over money, or generally disrespected Bogart (as he did all his actors.)

“Thank god I had Bogie,” Bacall wrote in her autobiography of the husband who had her back every step of the way.

She hadn’t made a hit movie without Bogart by her side onscreen.  No one was sure she could.

Young Man with a Horn does nothing to answer the question. 

Though Bacall got second billing, the film belongs to Kirk Douglas and Doris Day.  Douglas plays Rick Martin, an orphaned boy who finds salvation playing the trumpet.  Rick has trouble keeping friends, and often gets fired from his jobs for playing jazz instead of sticking to the big band script.

Douglas, Day

Playing jazz is the single animating force of his life.  Doris Day plays Jo Jordan, a singer who meets and cares for Rick.  Though there’s no doubt she loves him, Jo knows that Rick is married to no one but his trumpet.  The film utilizes Day’s talent and allows her to showcase her voice on several extended numbers.

We’re well into the film before Bacall’s character Amy arrives on the scene, an eccentric woman whose beauty and direct manner captivate Rick.  Amy is a compulsive dilettante, constantly looking for something that can capture her attention for more than a few months. 

Douglas, Bacall

They quickly realize their impulsive marriage was a mistake.  Her fascination for his love of the trumpet sours to jealousy when she cannot find her own creative outlet.  Rick neglects his friends and jazz playing for Amy and eventually resents her for it.

Rick has to hit rock bottom as a person before he finds his way to the top as a famous jazz musician. 

Today, the film is probably of most interest to Douglas or jazz aficionados.  Bacall is serviceable in the role but quite frankly, not given enough to do.

Not long after, Bogie and Bacall decided that, come hell or high water, she’d get out from under Jack Warner’s thumb. 

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.
  • Bacall, Lauren.  By Myself.  1978.

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

Casablanca (1942):  “No one ever loved me that much.”

Casablanca made Bogart; Bogart made Casablanca.”

Bogart, A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax

December, 1941.  Casablanca, Morocco. 

It’s a night like any other at Rick’s Café Américain.  Every table is filled with broke couples, wealthy couples, bank managers, pickpockets, pastry chefs, and thieves. 

As World War II rages on in Europe, those who can make their way to Vichy French-controlled Casablanca, where they hope to obtain passage to Lisbon and then America.

Some will wait for days, some will wait for years.

Some will die in Casablanca.

Rick Blaine, (Humphrey Bogart) the café’s mysterious American exile owner, provides liquor and gambling and music while they wait.

Nobody’s happy, but at least they’re having a good time.

Rick keeps everyone at arm’s length, a cynic who treats his employees and customers decently, doesn’t kowtow to anyone, and “sticks his neck out for nobody.” 

Until Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks in and asks Sam to play, “As Time Goes By.”

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

She’s the woman who broke Rick’s heart, the lover who left him waiting at a train station the day the Germans marched into Paris.  The Germans wore gray.

Ilsa wore blue.

She’s on the arm of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), the tireless leader of the underground resistance who inspired the world when he escaped from a concentration camp and will continue his work despite great personal danger.

And thus the stage is set for the greatest love triangle in Hollywood history—Ilsa Lund, torn between a sinner and a saint.

Paul Henreid, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart

A cruel twist of fate forced Isla from Rick in Paris—she learned her husband, the great Victor Laszlo, was alive, not killed in a concentration camp as she’d believed.  It’s an ever crueler twist that brings them back together—Rick possess the only two letters of transit in Casablanca, papers that would give the Laszlos passage to Lisbon, ensuring their safety and the continuance of Victor’s work.

There’s a less famous moment in the film that I love, a gesture so small you’ll miss it if you blink.  Victor tells Ilsa that Rick would not give him the letters of transit, not for the cause, and not for any price.

“Did he give you any reason?” Ilsa asks him.

“He suggested I ask you.”

“Ask me?”

“Yes, he said ask your wife.  I don’t know why he said that.”

Ilsa knows why.  She turns away from Victor, puts her hand on her neck, runs it through her hair, and smiles.  It’s not even a full smile, just a flicker of one that reveals her first subconscious thought.

Victor could die or be recaptured by the Germans without those letters.  The tide of the war could change with them.  While she will eventually rage at Rick to give her the letters, threaten to shoot him over them, her first instinct was to smile.

Because Rick is so jealous that he is willing to let the world burn out of spite.

What woman wouldn’t want to be wanted that much?

She admires and respects Victor.  But with Rick it is passion and desire.

We’ll never truly know who Ilsa would’ve chosen if she’d been free of the war, free of her prior commitment to Victor.  For Rick, it’s enough to know that Ilsa hadn’t made a chump of him when she left him at the railroad station. 

He might not have her now, but they’ll always have Paris.

Here’s looking at you, kid.

Casablanca exceeded everyone’s expectations, delighting wartime audiences, and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, along with acting nominations for Bogart and Claude Rains.  It put Ingrid Bergman on the map.  It is number 2 on the American Film Institute’s List of 100 Greatest American Films, and its lines dominate the AFI’s List of 100 Greatest Quotes.

Humphrey Bogart was finally a romantic leading man.

Though his professional life was at its peak, things were falling apart at home.  His relationship with wife Mayo, while always volatile, had become dangerous and began interfering with his work.

“They were poison to one another,” actress Jane Bryan said.

A failed actress, Mayo was jealous of Bogart’s career.  She believed he was having an affair with Ingrid Bergman during Casablanca (he wasn’t) and began showing up on the set, “always looking like the wrath of God,” assistant director Lee Katz said.  “In fact, looking like somebody you wish would never darken your life.”

Things were so violent at home that Bogart had to learn his lines on the set.  One night he came home to find Mayo lying in wait, and she stabbed him in the back with a butcher knife.  During another incident, she set the house on fire and nearly burned it to the ground.

She was a woman with demons, haunted by alcohol and thwarted ambitions, a full-blown alcoholic on her way to killing herself with booze.

Still, Bogart soldiered on with the marriage.

In the first half of Casablanca, a young girl, Annina, asks Rick for advice. 

“M’sieur, you are a man.  If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing in the world that she wanted and she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?”

“No one ever loved me that much,” Rick replies gruffly.

Rick was wrong, but it was true that no one had loved Bogart that much in 1942.

That was all about to change.

Next week, Bogart finally meets Bacall.

Anybody got a match?

Sources

  • Sperber, A.M. and Eric Lax.  Bogart.  1997.

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

Captain Blood (1935): Olivia Meets Errol

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)
Captain Blood (1935)

Jack Warner was a gambler.  You have to be to get into the movie business.  He was once nearly killed in a car accident after winning $4,000 playing baccarat.

But he’d never taken as big a risk as casting two unknowns in his 1935 adventure blockbuster Captain Blood.

The result was worth far more than a good night at the baccarat table:  an Academy Award nomination for best picture, the top grossing Warner Brother’s film of that year, and the launch of one of Hollywood’s great onscreen couples.

Before Bogart and Bacall, before Hepburn and Tracy, there was Olivia and Errol.

Warner gave the role of the gallant doctor-turned-slave-turned pirate to Errol Flynn, an unproven but handsome actor from Tasmania.

And fresh off her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but still unknown to those outside Hollywood, de Havilland snagged the prime role of Arabella Bishop, Blood’s love interest.

A more lighthearted adventure than MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty, released the same year (and the ultimate Best Picture winner) Captain Blood is a tale of romance and adventure painted on a huge canvas.

Throw in some steamy sex scenes and you’d have the film equivalent of the bodice ripper romance novels published in the 1980s that I gobbled up as a teenager.

I’m here for it.

Peter Blood is a peaceful doctor who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for providing medical attention to a rebel fighting against James II in seventeenth century England.  Reprieved of death when the King decides to sell the prisoners for slaves instead and pocket the proceeds, Peter Blood is shipped off to Jamaica. 

On the auction block, the plantation owners examine the men like cattle, pulling back their lips to inspect their teeth and testing their muscles.  Watching the proceedings is Arabella Bishop, the beautiful young niece of Colonel Bishop, an influential plantation owner.  Seeing that Peter Blood is no lowlife, she buys him to protect him from the excesses of the cruel plantation owner known for working his slaves to death.

Olivia de Havilland in Captain Blood (1935)

Blood shows defiance instead of gratitude, refusing to relent even when Arabella arranges for him to act as the personal physician to the governor, giving him an elevated status over the other slaves.

Yet for all his wounded pride, Blood is grateful for Arabella’s interference and very much aware of her beauty.

A born leader, the other slaves soon look to Peter Blood as their leader, and he is increasingly radicalized against King James II and the island’s governor as he witnesses the inhumane treatment and conditions of the slaves. 

Soon, Peter Blood and his band of rebels are planning their escape.

When Spanish pirates invade the village, Blood and the other slaves escape Jamaica by stealing their ship.

Like the mutineers on Mutiny on the Bounty, Peter and his followers have committed treason and can never go home again.

And thus, Captain Blood, the fiercest pirate to sail the seven seas, is born.

Yet our Captain is a gallant and fair pirate—the spoils are shared, women are not to be imprisoned or raped, and men who lose an arm or leg are compensated.  He leads the fights and takes the first blow.  He’s a swashbuckling hero for those opposed to King James II.

Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)

And like all stubborn, gallant heroes, his Achille’s heel is the woman he can’t forget, Arabella Bishop.

When they meet again three years later, she is no less beautiful but in the clutches of the second most successful (and far less scrupulous) pirate, Levasseur (Basil Rathbone.)  Captain Blood now purchases her as his slave, and duels Levasseur to the death to prevent her from falling into his lecherous clutches.

She is as outwardly outraged (and inwardly thrilled) by his purchase as he once was of hers.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)

Captain Blood, who has kept his crew alive by his wits, puts himself and his entire crew in danger when he insists on escorting Arabella safely to Jamaica himself, sailing right to the governor who has obsessively pursued Blood all these years.

But in a twist of fate, Captain Blood learns that William III has taken over the British throne and has not only revoked Blood’s status as a traitor but given him a commission in the Royal Navy.

Thus Captain Blood returns a hero and becomes the governor of Jamaica to boot.

And he gets the girl.

But I didn’t have to tell you that.

Captain Blood launched both Flynn and de Havilland into major stardom.  It was the first of the eight movies they would make together between 1935 and 1941.  The most well remembered is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which de Havilland played Maid Marian to Flynn’s Robin.

Sparks flew between de Havilland and Flynn onset and though he often played pranks on her in the manner of a love-struck schoolboy, de Havilland spoke warmly of him and even once said he was one of the loves of her life.

But whatever they may have wanted, Flynn was married and de Havilland was not the kind of woman to have an affair.  Later, when he was free, he once proposed marriage, but though charmed, de Havilland wore no rose-colored glasses when looking at Flynn.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn on the set of Captain Blood (1935)
Errol and Olivia on the set of Captain Blood

At ninety-two (long after Flynn’s death), she reflected, “The relationship was not consummated.  It was just as well that I said no [to marriage.]  He would have ruined my life.”1

She’s likely right, as Flynn was content to booze and womanize, and later devolved into an empty shell of a man who self-destructed on drugs, alcohol, and lust.

On the set of Captain Blood, Flynn told de Havilland that he wanted approval and money, which he counted as success.

Even then, with only two films under her belt, de Havilland had higher ambitions.

“I want respect,” she told Flynn.  “By that I meant serious work well done.”2

She would fight long and hard to earn it in Jack Warner’s kingdom.

Captain Blood (1935) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

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

2 Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

Ultimate Movie Rankings Website

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Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in Captain Blood (1935)

Mildred Pierce (1945): Crawford at a Crossroads

Joan Crawford in fur coat as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce (1945) Opening Banner

The career of every actress—then and now—approaches a hairpin turn at around age forty.  It begins with the slap in the face the first time a star loses a coveted role to a younger woman.  The box office draw slips and no longer justifies the huge salary earned from your prior successes, leading to the potentially fatal “box office poison” designation.

The actress cannot continue doing what had previously brought her monumental success—if she tries too hard for too long, she will drive her career off a cliff.  But if she finds a way to survive this icy, harrowing turn, forty becomes the end only of her first act.  

And presents the chance to become a legend.

In 1945, Joan Crawford was going over the cliff and everybody knew it.

After eighteen years as MGM’s glamour girl, she asked to be let out of her contract because she wasn’t getting any good parts.  If it was a bluff, Louis B. Mayer called it.  He was happy to have her bloated salary and fading looks off MGM’s books.  

It looked like she’d landed on her feet when she signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers—she was still Joan Crawford, after all—that included control over the roles she played.

This control was nearly her undoing.

Despite the new contract, she didn’t work for two years.  Warners sent her scripts, but she kept turning them down.  It was true that many of the parts weren’t very good, but what rankled was that they were age-appropriate. 

She could not—would not—accept that she was no longer an ingenue.  

The flow of scripts slowed to a drizzle and eventually dried up.  She was gaining the reputation of being difficult to work with.  She was no longer worth the trouble.

No one was waiting for Joan Crawford’s comeback.

The realization that she may never work again ignited her fighting spirit.

She would not go gently into that good night like Garbo or Norma Shearer.

She needed a part—a good part, certainly, but she had to get off the sidelines.  She had to convince the world—and perhaps herself—that she had worth as an actress beyond youth and beauty.

She set her sights on Mildred Pierce.  Producer Jerry Wald and director Michael Curtiz were adapting James M. Cain’s novel about a woman whose tireless and unselfish efforts to provide for her daughter ultimately turn that daughter into a treacherous monster.

The producer and director had Barbara Stanwyck in mind for the title role, and it’s easy to see why.  Stanwyck—famously less vain than other stars of her caliber—had relatively little trouble adapting herself to more mature roles.  

Many times when I hear that someone else was slated to play an ultimately iconic role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  But I can see Stanwyck as Mildred Pierce—she would’ve brought her natural style, and highlighted Mildred’s tough exterior that coated a core of vulnerability.  

But although I’d like to see the alternative universe version, I think Joan Crawford was still the right choice.  The plot of Mildred Pierce rhymes with that of Stella Dallas, and while it would’ve been interesting to watch Stanwyck play another self-sacrificing mother, Crawford had never played anyone like Mildred and thus brought a freshness to the role.

The wardrobe for a Stanwyck Mildred Pierce would likely have been entirely different—more housewife and waitress, less successful restaurateur and fading glamour girl trying to hold a younger man.

And I am just not willing to sign up for a world in which we are denied the sight of Joan Crawford as Mildred rocking those mountain high shoulder pads.

Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)
Nobody, but nobody rocks shoulder pads like Joan Crawford

In any case, Crawford had set her sights on Mildred Pierce as her comeback vehicle and wasn’t going to let anyone—not the director’s dislike, the producer’s wavering, or her friend Stanwyck’s desire to play the part—stop her.

She fought for the part, insisting she understood Mildred better than anyone.  She even did a screen test—a humiliating comedown for an actress of her statue—to convince the skeptical director that she could bring the required gravitas to the part.

She got the role.

Mildred Pierce is a first class melodrama.  When she divorces her husband, Mildred—who had seemingly never worked outside the home before—humbles herself (much as Crawford did to get the role) by taking a job as a waitress and baking pies.  Mildred finds she has a head for business and eventually buys the restaurant.  She has more success, turning her single restaurant into a chain.  

Like Crawford, she is less successful in her personal life.  Her practical business sense does not carry over into the men she picks for romance.

The fuel that drives Mildred’s ambition is providing for her daughters, especially Veda, who has expensive taste and social climbing ambitions.  In indulging her, Mildred creates an ungrateful beast who brings them all down.

Mildred Pierce was the triumph Crawford needed.

She received the first Academy Award nomination in her long career.  Much has been made of the fact that she did not attend the Oscars due to illness.

Uncharitable readings are that she faked the illness for attention.

A more sympathetic interpretation—and the one I choose to believe—is that Joan feigned illness because she was too afraid to lose that Oscar in public.  Her career was riding on the success of Mildred Pierce and her career was her life.  Losing the Oscar didn’t mean her career was over—the movie was a success—but winning the Oscar would cement her comeback.

She won.

There is a dramatic photograph of her receiving the Oscar in bed in her hotel room, the most glamorous sick woman you ever saw.

Joan Crawford holding her Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945) in her hotel bed

She was still Joan Crawford, after all.

She’d made the hairpin turn.

And the second—and in some ways more successful—half of her career began.

Mildred Pierce (1945) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

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Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce (1945)