Drawing from the biographies of some of Hollywood’s most glamorous women of the screen, author Caroline Young has done a fascinating thing: she has woven a history of cinematic Rome at its pinnacle, infusing it with a heavy dose of sultry Mediterranean sun-drenched days and nights steeped in wine, torrid passions, and an ever-present paparazzi.
Following the end of World War II, a new lust for life rose from horror and deprivation, sparking a refreshing cinematic renaissance, centered in Rome. The stars and their entanglements were larger than life and so were the movies. Roman Holiday: The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome, beautifully depicts this era, covering the fifties, sixties and into the early seventies, as the glamour aged into a seedy bohemian spirit.
The fledgling Roman cinema, centered upon Cinecitta, began by tentatively exploring the sense of desperation that typified the war years. As recovery took hold this shifted to a technicolor joyousness, celebrating the resilience of the human spirit in its many cinematic forms but never leaving behind an inherent romanticism that captured the imagination of a weary world. Indeed, this seemed to be the balm for its soul, providing not only film treasures but rich soil for fans never-ending taste for the salacious. Actors, famous and infamous, were fiercely pursued by photographers, the latter typified by their aggressive tactics. Dubbed paparazzi, these snapshot artists, hungry from years of hardship, were an unrelenting presence as they sought their share of the money that flowed so freely from Hollywood profits prohibited from traveling overseas. If the money couldn’t come to America, then its stars and their entourages would go to Rome.
The spirit of these heady times is captured in some of the most memorable films of the era: Quo Vadis,Three Coins in the Fountain, The Barefoot Contessa, La Dolce Vita, Cleopatra, and of course Roman Holiday, from which this book takes its title. Arranged in a loosely chronological fashion, each chapter focuses on a particular leading lady (with Richard Burton being the sole exception), sometimes returning as each actor’s story resumes several years later. For those who have previously perused the biographies of Audrey, Ava, Elizabeth, Ingrid and more, some of this may be a review but the clever way that Young weaves together ambiance, friends and lovers, and film-making history makes this a fun and snappy read.
There are times when it all seems to come together: the zeitgeist, the talent and the easy money. Roman Holiday captures it all with detailed descriptions of the places, streets, restaurants and movie sets. If you’ve ever wished that you were there, amidst a steamy Roman adventure when the city was known as “Hollywood on the Tiber”, you’ll find the next best thing in Young’s juicy, richly interwoven accounts of the private and professional affairs of some of Hollywood and Europe’s most luminous stars.
Thank you to Trafalgar Square Publishing, the author and NetGalley for providing me with an eReader copy of this book. Roman Holiday: The Secret Life of Hollywood in Rome by Caroline Young (The History Press 2018) is available in Hardcover and eBook from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or your favorite bookseller.
That Marilyn Moroe was a dazzling presence, that she achieved legendary status is without question. That she is a feminist icon however is a question that has rarely been pursued. The reasons for this are debatable but author Michelle Morgan has undertaken this very issue in THE GIRL: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist.
Credit must be given for a valiant attempt. Certainly there are indicators of an independent, indomitable spirit. During the period in question, generally the summer of 1954 to the summer of 1956, although Morgan makes forays into years both preceding and following, Monroe loosens the grip of her studio contract, starts her own production company and immerses herself in the influential Actors Studio. She makes herself a bit of a New Yorker, eschews the role of ’50’s housewife by divorcing Joe DiMaggio and develops friendships and acquaintances among the artistic and literary, ultimately marrying playwright Arthur Miller. But sadly, as is the case when delving into Monroe’s life, her emotional instability, at times debilitating insecurity and wavering identity are unavoidable aspects of the actor. Morgan tries to shift focus to her accomplishments, intellectual pursuits and artistic interests, those she impressed and those who attempted to unsuccessfully oppress, even providing expository cultural context, yet the book suffers by the nature of its subject. Monroe’s life rarely followed a straight line and as she winds along her path of halting self-discovery, frustratingly unfocused during the few years she was free (and alive!) to truly pursue her luminous talent, the book follows in a similar meandering fashion. The actor, so innately gifted, does as much to hurt as help her career during this two year period; the book ultimately culminates in the filming of The Misfits and the end of her crumbling marriage to Miller. Yet Morgan has provided exhaustive detail for this brief two year period leaving this mini-biography well-positioned to be fascinating to fans of Monroe.
Due to the focus upon Monroe as potential feminist icon and smart and savvy professional, short shrift is naturally given to rich back stories, particularly on set, that are familiar to many fans of this most charismatic of stars. In that way too the book frustrates as it struggles to makes its points. Along the way we do learn of the many ways in which Monroe attempted to advance herself, culturally and artistically, yet at the end of it all, I was only wishing she’d left us with more movies and a little bit more of her time.
Warmly recommended for die-hard Marilyn Monroe fans.
Thank you to Running Press for providing me with an Advance Reader copy of this book. THE GIRL: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist by Michelle Morgan (Running Press 2018) will be available for purchase May 8th in Hardcover, eBook and Audio CD from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble or your favorite bookseller. It is currently available for pre-order.
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were the darlings of Hollywood when the US entered WWII as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. Lombard, being patriotic and decisive, determined that she and Clark should involve themselves in the war effort. While her famous husband served as president of the Hollywood Victory Committee, Lombard was engaged to sell bonds in the heartland. On January 12, 1942, she set off for her home state of Indiana and as a true star and rousing presence, she sold two million dollars worth of bonds. Flush with success and anxious to get home to her handsome, and frequently roving husband, she deviated from plan and instead of taking the train insisted upon flying despite the misgivings of traveling companions, mother Elizabeth Peters, and MGM press agent Otto Winkler, a personal friend of Gable’s who had been assigned to accompany her. The fierce persistence and determination that had built her career and led to marriage to two of Hollywood’s most eligible and bankable leading men, ultimately contributed to her death when the plane crashed into the side of Mt. Potosi following take-off in Las Vegas on the last leg of their trip home. The crash led to national headlines and a dangerous search for survivors, then bodies. The story of this tragedy, the events leading up to it and its horrific aftermath are related in Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.
Author Robert Matzen is an engaging writer and Fireball has an interesting structure. Two threads alternate chapters until they merge midway creating one story that brings significant players to a set point in time, that of the crash itself. Changing tone as it moves between the Hollywood hills and the sturdy landscape of pilots, military servicemen, airline personnel, and the everyday folks with whom they intersect, these two worlds each have their own voice. This latter thread, grounded in All-American wholesomeness, is by far the strongest of the two in this examination of the crash that took the life of not only Lombard but the other twenty-one people aboard the plane.
Matzen brings experience as a Hollywood historian and author, NASA communications specialist, and documentary filmmaker to this effort; he is uniquely qualified for such an enterprise. The book starts strong as he relates his account of scaling the mountain and viewing the scattered remnants of the crash that still remain on Mt. Potosi. He accessed TWA’s confidential files, examined the results of two federal investigations and conducted numerous interviews with those personally connected to these ill-fated passengers. His own prior knowledge lends authenticity to aspects of this story, particularly those involving the flight, aeronautics, and the relevant history of air travel.
When residing in the Hollywood realm, Matzen indulges in a bit of salaciousness with these swiftly moving chapters taking on a tabloid tone. At times dated and sexist language is used to presumably set the story within its era. This is unfortunate as it is unnecessary. The story of Gable and Lombard, her career and their love affair is dynamic and arresting in and of itself; her dramatic sudden death makes it even more so. There’s also some critical inferences around Hollywood stars. It is intimidated that Lombard’s first husband William Powell’s self-absorption and emotional withdrawal blinded him to fiancé Jean Harlow’s sinking physical health. Similarly, it is related that Gable and Lombard resented having to attend the subsequent funeral for MGM’s platinum-coifed ‘baby’, as Harlow was then known, being forced to attend by studio brass. These types of characterizations may not play well with many fans of the silver screen’s most beloved stars.
One gets the sense too that Matzen doesn’t care much for Gable. He refers to him repeatedly as the king, as Clark Gable was once named the King of Hollywood in coast-to-coast polling, a moniker that almost seems to take on a mocking tone as the actor goes through the most challenging and heartrending period of his life. The assessment that he is a self-absorbed narcissist, “doing a lot of taking and little giving”, much like Powell, doesn’t seem to fit with other accounts but certainly a star of that magnitude might have that aspect to his character. However, it is seems strikingly odd to drive that point home in a chronicle of his greatest heartbreak. Given that Lombard was at the height of her success, having found her comedic timing and a marriage to MGM’s top draw, the nation mourned her loss for its own sake but also for Gable’s; many of his contemporaries have related that he was never the same after the tragedy. He lost a woman he appreciated infinitely after her death, as is human nature, and the nation lost not only a glamorous comedienne but a potential bond-raising powerhouse for the war effort and a patriotic American. Her death was tragic in many respects and underscored the losses already occurring in families across an anxious country.
Fireball consists of much that was already known but succeeds in weaving it into a compelling story. People on the ground and in the air, those who lost their lives and those who remained behind are each in turn spotlighted. There’s a richness to this approach. As readers we are taken back to January 1942, a place, a time, a tragedy. But there is also a drawback and it is significant: the author has created a novelization of actual events. While many details, exhaustively researched, are absolutely fact or surely true, other aspects are a bit speculative. Missing information is filled in to facilitate narrative flow. Thoughts of those who die in the crash are shared, despite the fact that they never had an opportunity to relate these inner musings. Gable’s own private thoughts are revealed, personal recollections only he could have known. As such it is clear there is some speculation involved, informed and educated surely, but nevertheless speculation. This aspect at times made me cautious and as the book progressed I read with an increasingly skeptical eye. While it is clear that the author has done extensive admirable research, I was uncomfortable with his putting thoughts into the minds of actual people; this is not a historical novel yet frequently reads like one. While much of this revealing of inner life and shared moments comes from interviews that were published at the time, it remains difficult to know what is based on research as opposed to what might be based upon “extensive study of the subject”, as the author characterizes his approach to Gable. Personally, I would’ve preferred an entirely fact-based accounting.
Initially there is some suggestion that this in-depth examination will reveal the true cause for the crash; this is not the case. However this does not detract from the book as the analysis that examines multiple potential causes is extensive; there were many and as is frequently true, sometimes it’s a congruence of unfortunate circumstances and events that contribute to tragedy.
Despite these misgivings, I found Fireball a compelling read, yet was relieved when I finished this one. Those relatively new to the story of Gable and Lombard will find a mini-bio of Carole and a very in-depth look at the crash and its surrounding events. While I knew a fair amount going in, there was still enough to keep my interest, mostly surrounding the other passengers, personnel and the aftermath at the scene. Much of that was riveting (at times grisly – be forewarned), and worthwhile. The book certainly highlights the loss to the screen, her loved ones and the country that occurred with the death of Carole Lombard, the first Hollywood casualty of WWII.
Note: This review is for the Expanded 2017 Edition, published by Goodknight Books
This post is the sixth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past. For more book reviews by fellow bloggers, please check with her throughout the summer!! I’ve really enjoyed participating and am definitely convinced that these book reviews can be a lot of fun. Here’s to cool Autumn nights curled up with a good book 🙂
Rose Joan Blondell learned many things growing up as a child of vaudeville. She learned to make friends easily, to fit in, and to adapt to ever changing surroundings and circumstances. She learned how to tend to a crew, learn her lines and enhance the performances of others. She learned to smile on cue and to place the act before everything else. Most importantly she learned discipline, hard work and perseverance. The one thing she wasn’t taught was how to value herself, her gifts, and her own feelings. And that is a lesson lost that cost her much personal happiness.
Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes gives us a chronological accounting of the actor’s life. Beautifully researched, it benefits tremendously from the full cooperation of her surviving relatives, including her children. It was her son who suggested that such a book be considered. He approached author Matthew Kennedy as the two were working on another project. It is a gift that he did so.
With James Cagney in Blonde Crazy
Blondell and Ann Dvorak in Three on a Match
with fied Barbara Stanwyck in Night Nurse
Remember My Forgotten Man
As expected the most compelling section is the first third when Blondell is working frantically and furiously at Warner Brothers. Her swift climb towards being an invaluable player in the studio’s talented stable make for heady reading. She arrives in Hollywood almost simultaneously with the advent of talking pictures with a young Jimmy Cagney, both fresh off a Broadway play that lands on the screen with the racy title of Sinner’s Holiday. While compelling in their debuts, Cagney’s magnetism is undeniable. The studio recognizes their hot property for what he is and quickly places him in starring vehicles with compensation to match. Cagney achieves this with some savvy and negotiation. Blondell’s compensation doesn’t achieve his, nor is she given those starring roles; her negotiation skill and representation is weaker and she is frequently used to bolster others’ work or enliven sagging pictures. Nevertheless, her presence in tight, rapid-fire pre-Code films is almost unmatched. It is only those women that truly reached the upper tier, such as Barbara Stanwyck, a friend of Blondell’s, that have greater presence. Some of the most memorable films of the era such as Night Nurse, Three on a Match, Blonde Crazy and the Busby Berkley musicals Dames and Gold Diggers of 1933 would be unrecognizable without Blondell’s presence. The latter’s finale number, Remember My Forgotten Man, with Blondell as its centerpiece, is arguably the most significant musical sequence of the Great Depression. The actress herself was taken aback by the critical and public response to its social significance. She was working so fast its impact had eluded her.
In a life filled with contradictions, Blondell frequently referred to herself as a workhorse, many times denigrating her own accomplishments while struggling for the recognition and roles she rightfully deserved. Toddling onto the stage at fourteen months, she entered vaudeville as a regular in her parent’s act at the age of three. The Blondell’s travelled the globe, rarely stopping to establish roots, a pattern Blondell found difficult to break. She longed for a house and home yet this was sometimes as elusive as the roles she sought. When Blondell found personal stability, she used this security to bolster her career, seeking and taking risks that then undermined her domestic happiness. This strategy of zig-zagging from coast to coast, seeking substantial roles, was ill-tolerated by the men in her life who married a people-pleasing petite blonde and somehow ended up with a real woman with needs. Husbands George Barnes, Dick Powell and Mike Todd ranged from distant and controlling to financially irresponsible and emotionally and physically abusive. Blondell only achieved marital bliss intermittently and fleetingly. Professional success similarly had its rich yet transient moments. Her finances followed her marriages and her performances, rising and falling with their shifting fates.
Blondell was nominated for an Academy Award for The Blue Veil, however one of her most memorable performances of her post-Warner years was that of Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan’s adaptation of the best-selling novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It was her favorite role. Yet some of her best moments were left on the cutting room floor due to their adult nature and the restrictions of the Production Code, an editorial necessity she found upsetting. If she is remembered by some as the matronly former star who cameos in Grease it may be because she is only one of a handful of women whose career lasted her entire adult life; she worked almost continually. And while she tended to scoff and discount her own artistic needs, her drive to pursue roles appears to have been motivated by more than money. Blondell trusted her talents to provide for her but ached for more; she craved fulfillment on a personal and professional level. She ultimately gave up dating but continued to work, even while seriously ill, until the age of 73, when she succumbed to leukemia.
This well-researched biography covers all phases of this actor’s busy and tumultuous life, almost so much so that the larger arcs are elusive. Her marriage to Dick Powell lasts eight years but the ups and downs and moves are so frequent, and the intermingling of professional and personal so complex, that the longevity is almost lost. This is the most significant intimate relationship in Blondell’s life. Powell is the father of her two children, with her eldest being adopted by him in the early happy years. Yet this aspect of the book is a minor quibble and perhaps unavoidable given its sweep. It is enriched by numerous interviews, archival research, family memories and haunting recollections.
Blondell’s story spans much of the twentieth century and carries within it the tremendously complex changes occurring in the entertainment industry. Blondell adapts and sashays these changes with skill and sacrifice, working in not only vaudeville and movies, but theater, radio, summer stock and television. Consequently, she is sometimes missing from home for months at a time yet is a devoted mother; many times her children travel with her. More often, her struggles and heartaches, both professional and personal, are due to male attitudes than her own choices; as a woman I ached for her. When she died I cried. Through it all she retained the generosity of spirit that made her an audience favorite.
I knew Joan Blondell was something special when I was a small child. Sitting on the floor staring up at the television screen, watching Here Come the Brides, I took notice when she was introduced in the opening credits with her own solo title card, “and Joan Blondell as Lottie”. She was charming and warm, still beautiful but comfortingly maternal. She was the proverbial heart of gold in that series but she was more. She radiated something unmistakable, the charisma of a movie star, a Hollywood survivor. When Blondell appeared, she owned the screen. I tuned in week after week not just for teen heartthrob Bobby Sherman but for her. Her warmth was something I sorely needed in my life and I adored her for it. Imbued with the same spirit, this rendering of Blondell’s life is highly recommended.
This post is the fifth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past. For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!!
“Sophia Loren, aside from being extremely beautiful physically, is one of the most exciting, witty women on this planet.”
Tippi Hendren, costar in A Countess from Hong Kong
Sophia Loren did two notorious things in her life. The first was to have a romance with Cary Grant, one that elicited a proposal of marriage. She declined, leaving him in despair. The second scandal is more significant. Loren carried on a long-time affair with married producer Carlo Ponti, one that led to an eventual marriage with admirable longevity but was nonetheless quite shocking in its time. Loren met Ponti when she was only fourteen years old. He was twenty-two years her senior. Initially he provided her with professional advice and friendship but it didn’t take long for their relationship to blossom into romance. Divorce was not yet legal in Italy and Rome was having none of their liaison. Hollywood provided a welcome refuge and Mexico a ‘legal’ means of marrying,yet one that branded Ponti a bigamist in his home country. The couple opted to become French citizens, with the Italian producer finally obtaining an elusive divorce, allowing for their longed-for marriage. The addition of children, and later grandchildren, only made it that much sweeter.
Loren and Marcello Mastroianni in Marriage Italian Style (1964)
Loren and Gregory Peck in Arabesque (1966)
Loren and Grant in The Pride and the Passion (1957)
If Loren had any further dalliances with her co-stars, a stunning array of men that included Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, William Holden, Peter Sellers and Richard Burton, among others, she hasn’t breathed a word of it. However such speculation seems doubtful. Her lifelong love affair with Ponti appears to be one of several constants in her life, the others being her creativity, her love of family, and the simple joi de vivre of being Sophia Loren.
Man of La Mancha (1972)
The Key (1958)
Sophia Loren: Movie Star Italian Style by Cindy De La Hoz conveys this joy for living nicely. A photographic journey through the actor’s life and movies, it stuns with literally hundreds of gorgeous photos, the majority in the glorious technicolor of many of her films. A breezy biography fills in the specifics of Loren’s life beginning with childhood struggles of living in war-torn Italy and continuing to the present day. Almost two-thirds of this coffee table worthy book consists of a synopsis of each of her films, providing the Loren aficionado with a comprehensive compendium of her work. This is especially helpful as many of her films, even those that have been translated from the original Italian, remain in limited distribution. Her most familiar Hollywood successes are highlighted too including Houseboat, It Happened in Naples, Arabesque and The Millionairess.
Yet Loren differs from many of her Hollywood peers due to her significant contribution to Italian cinema. For her portrayal of a mother trapped in WWII Italy in a gritty, heartbreaking turn in Two Women (1960), she became the first actor to win an Oscar for a foreign language performance. She has won five special Golden Globes, mostly for World Film Favorite. Her partnership with fellow countryman Marcello Mastroianni was the kind of rare collaboration that is seen only with the likes of Tracy and Hepburn, Powell and Loy, and Allen and Keaton. The duo made an impressive seventeen movies together, working with Italian luminaries such as director Vittorio de Sica and producer Ponti, lifting Italian filmmaking to new heights of popularity and artistry. She is considered Italy’s most celebrated female actor of all time.
Truly an international movie star, Loren is known for her staggering beauty, yet she has an acting legacy that spans over six decades. That this is not widely known in not the fault of the star but rather the overwhelming seductiveness of her presentation and the breadth of her film catalogue, one that crosses continents. Loren is an iconic sex symbol, an actor whose curvaceous presence signifies sexual nuance and allure the moment she enters a scene. Her statuesque beauty perfectly fit her debut era, one marked by swing dresses that celebrated the female form. Just as America was tiring of the blonde bombshell, along came Loren, with an exotic mystique enhanced by big brown almond eyes and voluptuous lips and hips.
If there is one quibble with the book it is that it ends too soon. Loren is described as possessing incredible warmth, vitality and an enduring presence that is rare among female performers who too often are not permitted to age gracefully or choose to bow out of their own accord. One hungers for more of Sophia the woman, the survivor. What is clear is that her apparent pragmatism, emotional stability and business acumen are additional assets that have contributed to her longevity and her mystique.
Loren remains riveting when attending red carpet events. She has shown a remarkable ability to retain her beauty and to age with stunning grace. The many quotes from Sophia regarding her life philosophies, experiences in filmmaker and from those who have worked with her are a treat in this new work. The book ends with a final quote from Loren speaking to a belief that has served her well:
“There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source, you will truly have defeated age.”
She may yet gift us with future endeavors springing from her own overflowing creative spirit.
De La Hoz’s new pictorial biography is a glorious introduction for newcomers to Loren’s life and career that should also prove satisfying to devoted fans due to its respectful treatment and multitude of photographs. It is a worthy addition to the field and to any film lover’s collection. I am quite pleased to add it to mine.
Thank you to Running Press/Turner Classic Movies for providing me with an advance review copy of this lovely book. It is available for Pre-Order through Amazon,Barnes and Noble,Shop TCM or your favorite bookseller. This book will be available on September 26, 2017 in Hardcover or E-Book.
This post is the fourth in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past. For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!!
A Universal Pictures Production ~ Director: James Whale, Screenplay by: William Anthony McGuire, based on a story by Ladislas Fodor, Art Director: Charles D. Hall, Costume Designer: Sadly, uncredited
A kiss is just a kiss. Or is it?
“How did it begin?”
“With a kiss.”
“It always does. But what kind of a kiss?”
“A kiss before the mirror”
James Whale’s smart suspense drama The Kiss Before the Mirror plays with the idea of passion as a sinister force leading to infidelity, insanity, and murder. It initially attempts to mark a distinction between a murder justified by rage and betrayal, and one committed through planning and premeditation. In the end it concludes there really is no difference. Even crimes of passion have their small moments of irrational premeditation.
An idyllic scene of a beautiful woman in a garden opens the film. She is meeting her lover, an attractive man who appears smitten, devoted. The air is sweet with promise as they exchange words in anticipation of their time together. She is seen through the glass disrobing, but the tone changes. In the dusky twilight, her husband has followed her through the trees and flowers. He approaches the veiled entryway, hesitates and then shoots her repeatedly through the shattering panes.
The murderer’s lawyer is a close friend and is prepared to defend him. He is puzzled by this horrific crime. He hears the man’s confession and returns home. Troubled, he reclines in his wife’s boudoir. She pulls a sheer curtain and then sits to do her face. The attorney struggles to comprehend his friend’s actions, relaying the initial circumstances to his wife. As he raises his finger the camera follows in a sweeping shot, circling the intimate space, and stopping where his wife sits facing the mirror at her dressing table. The audience is enveloped in his perspective, sees his wife as he sees her, feels his hurt as she angrily chastises him for kissing her before the mirror. He is re-imagining the killer’s confession. Suddenly he views her dressing and departure with new eyes; she is preparing for a liaison. Following her he finds his fears are confirmed. She has taken a lover. Humiliated, he contemplates clearing his friend as a means of preemptively establishing his own defense, and considers his own crime of passion.
The Kiss Before the Mirror is an early stylish Noir filled with shadows in lamplight, dark insinuations and a tragic aura. Yet it also has a bit of pre-Code playfulness and dark humor. The dialogue is clever and displays the love for a verbal quip that characterizes many early talking films. The dual nature of passion is a theme repeatedly touched upon; that which creates love can also destroy those who fall victim to its false perceptions.
The lawyer, Paul, played elegantly by Frank Morgan, is confidently seeking a meeting with his distraught and confessing client Walter, a somewhat overwrought Paul Lukas. He passes by a barred jail cell and exchanges words with another prisoner, Bill:
“You’ll be out of here soon.”
” I have been out. I broke out. Killed the wife and her boyfriend. Now I’m in for good.”
“That’s too bad.”
” Too bad nothin’. I’m happy. Wondering where that woman was all the time used to drive me crazy.”
“Well you know where she is now.”
“I know where I hope she is.”
Women tend to get a bit of a rough treatment here. Their vanity it seems makes them prone to seduction and an excess of time in front of mirrors. And there are plenty of those here too. Characters speak to one another while reflected, their images seeming to mock as they betray and tease one another. The defendant’s wife’s mirror is adorned with a gilded cupid. Another cupid sits haughtily upon a mantle. Women it seems are too often guided by Cupid’s whims.
Yet there is a strong female in the bunch too. Paul has an office manager Hilda, depicted as cynically pragmatic but also ambiguously sexual by a smart Jean Dixon. She seems to float above the proceedings, amused and yet solemn too. She introduces herself to the prosecutor as a newcomer to Paul’s team:
“This is my first case.”
“Are you interested in it?”
“A woman has been killed. That interests me quite a bit.”
Paul interjects, smiling, “for some strange reason, women don’t like being killed.”
A puzzled Paul walks with her after they leave the public prosecutor’s office.
“I can’t understand it. He adored his wife.”
“He proved that by killing her.”
Later, Paul’s wife, Maria, is inquisitive about her choices:
“You’re a funny creature. What are you, a lawyer or a new kind of woman?”
“By day I’m a lawyer. By night well…you might be surprised.”
“Why don’t you get married?”
“Well, being single has its points – at least no one will ever murder me.”
Marriage is portrayed as a risky game with the potential for deceit and a deadly outcome for infidelity. The line between love and hate can be a thin one indeed.
The screenplay’s dry gallows humor is reminiscent of Hitchcock; it finds charm in the even the deadliest of proceedings and marriage a fertile playground for exploring the dark side of wedded bliss.
Paul’s young, beautiful wife is played by Nancy Carroll, a sensuous Kewpie doll enjoying a double life. She admires and loves her husband but she loves to play too. There’s a phone that’s always ringing, suspicious outings, an air of guilt and deception. It is only when she begins to suspect that her husband is wise to her that she tries, unsuccessfully, to ditch her lover. Later when Paul begins to reject her and refuses her kiss she suspects he may find a way to not only leave her but mimic his friend in murder. She drapes herself in fox-tails as they proceed to leave their home for the trial and notes the strain the case is causing him.
“Oh promise me when all of this is over you’ll go away on a vacation.”
“Go away…? That’s not a bad idea. Will you come with me?”
“It’ll be best if I stay here.”
“And will you remain true and in love?” he asks, epectantly.
“Yes,” she smiles sweetly.
She is almost believable. Perhaps she is being sincere in her own way, with what really matters. But then the phone rings. Again. And Paul knows the truth. Just before he leaves he pockets a gun. Paul’s feelings of pain and rage spill over in a courtroom scene. His client’s defense: momentary insanity induced by jealousy. An acquittal for Walter would mean an acquittal for himself.
The film has a weary wizened character, Schultz, an additional assistant to Paul. An aging alcoholic, he occasionally spouts wisdom disguised as nonsense. His presence speaks to Paul’s big heart as he’s hired the has-been attorney despite his downward slide. He delivers a telling line: Is there or is there not, freedom of the will? Disturbingly, the jury has its own ideas, our attorney thankfully another. Ultimately, he chooses to shatter his illusions and the looking glass, kissing before a broken mirror.
Whale makes the most of his Viennese setting, gorgeous art deco sets, and prison dungeons borrowed from his earlier Frankenstein. He is assisted by cinematographer Karl Freund who plays with dark and light, mirrors and reflections, shattered glass and perspectives. Morgan is quite good in the lead, intelligent and thoughtful, thoroughly convincing as an accomplished lawyer, anguished by the actions of his younger wife. Nancy Carroll is a treat, tempering her flirtatiousness with warmth and dimension, and Jean Dixon even more so as the subversively tailored associate. Gloria Stuart is showcased in the ethereal early scene in the garden, a specialty of Whale’s, and her lover is nicely played by a young and handsome Walter Pidgeon.
Recommended for Whale, the sophistication and you know, murder.
This post is a part of the ‘Till Death Us Do Part: To Love, Honor…and Murder blogathon hosted by the lovely Theresa Brown over at CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch. For more please click the image below:
Notes and Extras
Kiss started out as a play by Ladislas Fodor, a Hungarian playwright, was translated and then developed into a screenplay. So it’s tough to blame Whale for its rather tough stance on women and marriage as a source of all things heartbreaking and deceitful. Or assign credit for its clever conversation.
Perhaps the witty dialogue shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fodor was the author of the story that later became a pre-Code favorite of mine, Jewel Robbery. He continued to write professionally until his death in the seventies, primarily for movies and later television, much of the time in Germany. After a promising start he mostly ends up in Bad B Movie-land.
This film was one of numerous collaborations between producer Carl Laemmle Jr. and director James Whale, the most famous being their classic Universal horror films of the thirties. Laemmle the younger was a busy man in 1933, producing twenty-three films including another favorite of mine, the pre-Code courtroom drama Counsellor-at-Law. Farran Smith Nehme has a beautiful piece on the producer, The High Times and Hard Fall of Carl Laemmle Jr. at filmcomment.com which provides a taut overview of his brief career. It seems he was involved in another favorite gem, My Man Godfrey, before he was tossed aside at the tender age of twenty-eight.
The sometimes fickle Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times, liked this one too, calling it “an intelligently conceived story”. As he relates, “a very impressive sequence is that in which [Paul] delivers his summing up speech in the defense” of Walter. Kiss definitely falls into the categories of not just Noir, pre-Code and psychological thriller but also solidly within the genre of the courtroom dramas that were so popular at the time. Hall refers to Frank Morgan’s performance as a bit histrionic but in my mind it suits the theatricality of the premise and art direction.
Speaking of art, this film has some fantastic posters. Here’s my favorite:
Danny Reid at Pre-Code.com shares another cool poster as well as his thoughts about the movie, which he liked, in his review. It includes this succinct observation:
Human relationships are more complicated than simple revenge can properly encapsulate, and the film’s ending, where Paul and Maria forgive each other for their baser desires, is remarkably heartfelt.The movie is more interested in finding the underpinnings of these characters and seeing how far the coarseness in their souls will take them rather than arguing simple gender politics.
I love it when I get to see Morgan display his dramatic range in these early talking movies. Unfortunately, at least in my book, we don’t get to see it much following his career-defining Wizard in what else, The Wizard of Oz. He’s on my short list of men displaying charm and yes, intelligence in the early thirties. And I can never get enough of that.
Morgan and Nancy Carroll play cute together in this one. I found Carroll quite enchanting. Reportedly receiving more fan mail than any other star of the early thirties, her career was nevertheless limited. Paramount released this charming actor from her contract by the middle of the decade, apparently tiring of issues with feisty non-compliance. Too bad.
Oh – Be sure to take note of the glittering beauty of Gloria Stuart in the opening sequence. She retained those lustrous eyes for 1997’s Best Picture winner Titanic. For her portrayal of the aging Rose, she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the oldest actor ever to receive a nomination. The film won an incredible eleven Academy Awards and brought Stuart’s light and luminosity once again into cinematic imaginations. Stuart died in 2010 at the amazing age of one hundred.
One more slightly eerie note stands as a testament to the detail shown in the making of this film. When Morgan emerges into the bright sunlight following his conversation with the prosecutor, music plays faintly in the background, echoing from the city streets. The melody is that of a Viennese and German folk song whose tune was later taken up in later nineteenth century America as ‘Did You Ever See a Lassie’. These lyrics nicely echo the male dilemmas in this film:
Did you ever see a lassie,
A lassie, a lassie?
Did you ever see a lassie,
Go this way and that?
Go this way and that way,
Go this way and that way.
Did you ever see a lassie,
Go this way and that?
Imagine it sung in chilling children’s voices and you’ll get the full effect. Sleep tight and watch out for the shattering glass. X
In retrospect Ava Gardner can be a mysterious and contradictory figure, awash in allure and breathtaking beauty. Considered to be one of the world’s most stunning women, she was contracted to a studio that seemed to be at a loss with how to manage her; she did some of her best work on loan or independently. She had a stated desire for domesticity, children and marriage but her most significant decisions expressed an overwhelming hunger for experience and adventure. Despite insecurity regarding her own talent, she boldly entered varying shooting locations with unfamiliar faces, unknown actors and half-written scripts, doing so with courage and aplomb, only losing outward signs of professionalism as her private life unraveled and the hurts exacted a toll. Too often she bolstered her confidence with liberal amounts of alcohol, resulting in distilled bravado. Not surprisingly she did her best work with sympathetic supportive directors who could tap into her raw sensuality and vulnerability while respecting her fearless beauty and artistic integrity.
Functioning as both coffee table book and detailed biography, Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies knowingly embraces these contradictions and chooses to move along at a fast, luxurious clip. The pace matches the mercurial, hectic and audacious life of one of the last of Hollywood’s true movie stars, a magnetic screen presence as earthy as the North Carolina soil from which she came. Eminently readable and meticulously researched, the book includes a multitude of photographs, behind the scene candid shots, movie stills and promotional images, beautifully interspersed to illustrate pivotal points in this actor’s life. Yet these are still secondary to the text, which treats its subject to a respectful yet honest look at her life and career. As such it lends itself to being a gorgeous reference book, not only a picturesque gallery for each of her films but a source for understanding the heartaches and frustrations that Gardner faced in filming, in loving, and in living.
Gardner’s adventurous spirit and joie de vivre was apparent from her first trips to New York, heady experiences for a young woman from a simple background. As a child, her enthusiastic embrace of life expressed itself as a tomboy’s love for fun and simple pranks. Ava’s early years of poverty and frequent moves, grounded in her love for her father and the devotion of her mother, are given sufficient exploration here, laying the foundation for an understanding of the unchanging aspects of her inherent nature; Her values are clear at the outset. Yet Gardner’s beauty was not easily ignored and despite her naivete, a life-changing photo shoot while visiting her sister in the big city ultimately led to a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Later Gardner’s passion for new experiences transported her to homes, location shoots and lovers in Hollywood, Madrid, Rome, Mexico and London. Her restlessness led to both good and bad choices, world-wide fame and crushing heartbreak. Gardner was a woman ahead of her time, independent in spirit and frequently in conflict with her studio and her inner desire for respect as an actor, despite her many protestations that she was merely seeking the lucrative pay. In the mid-fifties, following filming that repeatedly took her to Spain, Gardner finally settled there, leaving America for good. As such she developed the lifestyle of many ex-pats of the era, a decision that suited the filming schedules and on location shoots that became arguably de rigueur as the major studios struggled to face the challenges of television. Through it all she wrestled with her own fears that audiences and those in the industry would discover she was merely ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Animal’ as she was so famously labelled, a moniker now glaringly dated in its sexism.
One wonders if Gardner might have had different inclinations regarding her talent if her romantic life had transpired differently. Gardner’s husbands pursued her unrelentingly. Her three marriages were combustible; her third to Frank Sinatra was a union marred by immeasurable passion and unending conflict. Yet the first two were traumatic as well and potentially emotionally damaging. First husband Mickey Rooney, the perpetual boy in a man’s body, was unprepared for marriage to a beautiful naïve daughter of the south. Indeed, once the MGM marvel bedded his virginal bride, leading to a sexual awakening for Gardner, he had difficulty fulfilling the role of devoted husband, remaining a gregarious, roaming Lothario. Second husband Artie Shaw inflicted a different kind of wound. Determined to act as Professor Higgins to Gardner’s Eliza, he was mercilessly critical of her lack of intellectualism and cultural sophistication. In a period reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s own attempts to overcome feelings of inadequacy stemming from a simple background, Gardner worked to keep up with him. She met his unrelenting criticism and demands by taking classes, reading literature, pursuing her interests in jazz and classical music. But as she did so he grew bored and the marriage folded. Her deep disappointment at the failure of these two marriages left her vulnerable and open to a third with a volatile, charismatic Frank Sinatra. A fiercely determined talent and temperamental womanizer, Sinatra met his match in Gardner, a woman possessed of the same impetuosity and high spirits. He was so enamored of the raven-haired green-eyed rising star that he left his wife of twelve years. Yet such was the warmth of Gardner that his famous offspring remember her fondly as a natural beauty, glamorous even without make-up, accepting of their presence, both fascinating and giving.
Sinatra and Gardner’s affair was a public relations nightmare that instigated a barrage of criticism. Gossip columnists and film fans perceived the actress as a home wrecker and the crooner as a fallen Catholic. Both careers suffered temporary blows. Following a tempestuous marriage, the two eventually settled on a lifelong simmering friendship once the flames cooled, with Gardner wistfully reminiscing on what might have been with the second sight of maturity. Sinatra carried his own contradictions; he became a steady rescuer for her on numerous occasions as their lives progressed.
The dynamics of these relationships and others are well-elucidated by authors Kendra Bean and Anthony Uzarowski, who provide specifics without indulging in salaciousness. Personal details of Gardner’s private life are neatly juxtaposed with accounts of her experiences in making movies, each grounded in chronological time and place. While some of her films may have at times lacked substance or even popular appeal, in others her smoldering persona captured the sensual yearnings of audiences. From her breakout role in The Killers to Mogambo, Bhowani Junction and On The Beach, Gardner was unrelentingly riveting.
In hindsight John Huston’s rendering of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana stands as perhaps her greatest film; it was her last significant screen role. As the wise, weary Maxine Faulk she ultimately reaches the epitome of her talent, delving within for a rich, worldly vulnerability that in many ways echoes the woman she had become. If Gardner was ever to have been awarded an Academy Award it would’ve been for Iguana yet that recognition was never bestowed. The authors pay loving attention to this significant film, rightfully and rewardingly so.
As with any actor she passed on some good roles and was overlooked for others. Yet she worked with many of the most significant directors and writers of her time, establishing enduring relationships along the way. Her warm friendships with John Huston, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and many other significant figures are a remarkable testament to the fascination this woman held for those who appreciated her unique brand of Southern charm and sensuality. The lifelong presence of other friends, such as Grace Kelly and Gregory Peck speaks to her generosity of spirit. Film fans familiar with these larger than life personalities of the twentieth century will find exploration of these relationships a satisfying aspect of this biography. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, beautifully presented in a format sure to resonate with fans of classic film. As such it is a treatment that Ava Gardner ultimately and finally richly deserves.
Many thanks to Running Press for providing this lovely book for this review. It is appreciated. Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies is available through Amazon and other booksellers.
This post is the second in the 2017 Summer Reading Challenge hosted by Raquel Stecher of Out of the Past. For more book reviews please check her blog throughout the summer!
A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production ~ Director: Harry Beaumont and Robert Z. Leonard, Based on a play by Rachel Crothers, Screenplay by John Meehan and Leon Gordon, Art Director: Cedric Gibbons, Costume Designer: Adrian
What a clever movie this is, made by a clever group of people. By emphasizing tasteful costumes, set designs and repartee, it comfortably explores the sometimes tawdry complications between the sexes without the slightest hint of vulgarity or tacky dis-ease. It is a fine example of the sometimes sophisticated adult nature of early 1930’s film.
When Ladies Meet offers some witty dialogue to elucidate the relations between men and women and marriage. Disguised initially as light banter the script soon reveals itself to be a crackling social commentary on sex outside of marriage particularly that within the confines of infidelity which turns out to be just as constricting for the women involved as marriage itself. Careful viewing reveals a multitude of sexy double entendres.
Robert Montgomery and Myrna Loy~When Ladies Meet, personal collection
Robert Montgomery plays journalist and man about town Jimmy, smitten with author Mary, portrayed with determined naiveté by Myrna Loy. Mary’s heart is committed to her editor, Rogers, a measured and middle-agedly handsome Frank Morgan, working against type as an intelligent yet shallow married man who enjoys variety in his relations with women. He is married to Clare, depicted by a solid, yet poignant Ann Harding, a bright, pragmatic and supportive spouse who has tolerated his affairs thus far. His dalliances are long-lasting but short-term and if that seems a contradiction it is; Morgan’s Rogers is a man whose true character is hidden from the women with whom he nurtures bonds, playing upon their loyalty and love to keep his own world an interesting one. The inherent selfishness in his maneuvers only becomes clear once the extent of his deception and truth about his intentions is laid bare. Jimmy has his number all along.
Jimmy is an interesting one too. It is a testament to Montgomery’s appeal that he is able to say lines like the following and still retain the audience’s sympathy:
Mary: You don’t know anything about women.
Jimmy: Oh yes I do. All kinds, good and bad, straight and loose. Some of the loose are the best; they’re honest anyway. A woman pretends to be decent and isn’t, she’s just a so and so. When she’s good she’s good, when she’s bad she’s bad and that’s all there is to it.
Mary: Oh that’s just Victorian bunk. You’re even out of touch with your own sex Jimmy.
Jimmy: Would you do what that girl in your book does?
Mary: A book’s a book.
Jimmy: A man wants a decent woman to stay decent. And if she doesn’t he bawls her out for doing the one thing that he’d always told her was the greatest thing a woman can do: giving him all for love. Your girl ever did what she’d wanted to do the guy’d get so sick of her in about a year he’d poke her in the nose. Gosh, I’ve persuaded so many women and hated ‘em afterwards.
Montgomery delivers these last lines with a bit of skillful staging. Loy has her back to him as she deftly arranges a vase of flowers, precluding her from having to react, and sparring us the reaction shots that would overemphasize statements that are slipped in casually yet pointedly. We are left then with our own reactions and glimpse into this man’s double standards, as he proceeds with what seems at times to be a monologue. These sentiments were not unusual but what was unusual was that they were generally left unspoken. This scene begins stripping away the romanticism of this tale before it has even begun. But this exchange also underscores the motivation for him to essentially rescue Mary from a compromising affair with Rogers. It’s not just that he’s in love with her. It’s that he perceives her as one of the decent ones and despite her resolute devotion to Rogers he is determined to keep her on the good side of morality. Montgomery’s playfulness thinly veils the worldly cynicism of a man who has ‘lived,’ (hence the journalist occupation, which we never actually see him perform), and able to discern the motivations of another sophisticated man.
The film is based upon a stage play by Rachel Crothers who empathizes with her female characters and the situations that may develop due to their trusting natures. Crothers’ women as shown here are straightforward, forthright and unabashedly honest, even regarding matters of sexual liaisons. They expect the same from their men but don’t always get it.
The film retains some of its stage bound confines, primarily due to the heavy reliance upon dialogue. There is little if any action but much is implied. The plot moves by way of situations and arranged meetings, some by chance, some by deliberate machination. The conversation above takes place in a beautiful enclosed garden with the couple then moving to a sunny terrace. There we meet our comic relief Bridget (Alice Brady), a modern woman with a knowing way with a bon mot, a raised eyebrow and a man. She punctuates scenes with humor and adds sardonic irony in a manner that sometimes makes us wonder if she fully knows the true import of her statements. My guess would be she does. She has a companion who seems to be little more than a bedmate, Walter (“Well I’m going back to bed. Come along Walter!”), played with amused youthful ambiguity by Martin Burton, who she dominates. His presence further breaks up this film’s dramatic moments, which come fast and furious as the film progresses.
The country house where the final half of the movie takes place is beautiful, with a lovely attention to detail, and a relaxed elegance that perfectly fits its characters and cast. It is not surprising to find that Cedric Gibbons was nominated for an Oscar for Best Art Direction for When Ladies Meet, one of thirty-eight such nominations. His sumptuous set design keeps the eye busy, despite the constraints of the confined cottage, which mirrors our characters predicaments.
As expected by the title, Rogers women come together in a meeting of the minds, discussing the novel alluded to above in such a way that Clare begins to understand that the book is not entirely fictional. Harding is heroic and knowing, sometimes a bit too focused on the distant horizon with her delivery but able to quietly convey a strong woman whose world is falling apart while she does not. Loy is unabashed and perfectly natural in her part, seeming to channel her true self and her own clear-eyed Midwestern idealism. It’s always a delight to find Morgan playing the straight man. His true acting abilities shine, generally through eyes that convey resignation, irritation, detachment or a mixture of all three. He conveys a great deal in a quick glance. It is fun to see this smart group of people play off one another.
As sometimes is so, Montgomery is the smartest one in the picture. Weaving deftly between his fellow actors, his expressive face handles comedic moments with a bit of exaggerated emphasis, reminding one of a narrator in a centuries old play. Montgomery can be a bit of a scene-stealer without detracting from the film.
There’s some unpredictability in this little pre-Code number that sets it apart from many films of the Golden Age, and a fresh sensibility regarding women and the hazards of sexual freedom in a world still managed by men. It is this type of film whose loss I sometimes mourn the most with the advent of the strict enforcement of the Production Code.
Recommended, especially for lovers of language and melodrama.
Mick LaSalle has some discussion regarding this one in his outstanding book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, relishing in the movies frank and refreshing approach to marriage. LaSalle notes that the movie “remains on the side of the women – both women – while the philandering man is the villain”. This is indeed one of the delights of this film.
Movies were made very quickly in the 30’s, particularly in the early years. While saying little about the actual making of this movie, Myrna Loy notes in her fascinating autobiography Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming, that she, Montgomery and Alice Brady “became a little coterie of three, occasionally going to [Brady’s] house or having something to eat after work. That kind of easy camaraderie is rare in pictures”.
Harding and Loy had previously worked together in The Animal Kingdom, with the male lead being Leslie Howard, and Myrna again playing the other woman, yet with an entirely different outcome. Loy writes that although When Ladies Meet gave them several scenes together, Harding was a withdrawn person, a wonderful actress lacking a star temperament, a good quality in a co-worker but a very private woman.
Director Harry Beaumont directed a multitude of silent films, including the Joan Crawford break-out film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928). His first sound film The Broadway Melody (1929) won the Best Picture Oscar in 1930. There were sixteen more films, four with Joan Crawford before this one, with eleven more movies to follow. He helmed a whopping ninety-nine films during his lengthy directorial career.
Playwright Rachel Crothers was known as the leading female playwright of her time. Additional work adapted for the screen included the Norma Shearer pre-Code, Let Us Be Gay (1930), another film about a husband’s infidelity and a wife’s response. Interestingly enough, the film was first a play, later adapted by Lucille Newmark and Francis Marion, both women, infusing this successful Shearer starring vehicle with a female-centric point of view. Similarly to Crothers’ achievement in the theater, Marion would become known as the premier female screenwriter of the Golden Age of Hollywood, if not the 20th Century.
Loy and Montgomery maintained a casual life-long friendship only slightly inhibited by their later political differences. While Myrna was a politically-active liberal and friend to Eleanor Roosevelt, Montgomery switched parties sometime after the war, later becoming a great support to Eisenhower, so much so that he had his own office in the White House. He was in essence the first presidential media consultant in the new age of television, a revolutionary in his time. In their patriotism and commitment to the United States, they had very much in common. Loy described him as witty, silly and just as great fun offset as he was on screen. Loy later wrote how she wished she would’ve had more opportunities to work with him – “there were so many other things we could’ve done together”. How wonderful that would’ve been for us!
A First National Pictures Production ~ Director: Alfred E. Green, Based on a play by Joe Laurie Jr., Gene Fowler and Douglas Durkin, Screenplay by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Kenyon Nicholson and Walter DeLeon, Art Director: Jack Oakey, Costume Designer: Earl Luick
Money plays such a starring role in Union Depot that it deserves credit in the opening titles. Flowing smoothly from the first shot of the depot with a brief superimposed title sequence, the camera pans from the outside activity to the inside in a lovely long tracking shot that sweeps the vast space and then leads down to the small vignettes occurring inside. It’s a lovely panorama that pulls us into the heart of the story. Opening vignettes and glimpses into passersby and passengers tip a hand to the films knowing, cynical humor and snappy, swirling tempo.
As the story unfolds, it is discovered that Chic, the dashing Douglas Fairbank Jr. and his fellow hobo, Scrap Iron, Warner’s fixture Guy Kibbee, have just been released from a 10-day stint in jail for vagrancy. By six that evening they find themselves at the depot. Fate, making its entry, intervenes. Across Chic’s path comes first a uniform, then a fortuitous conversation with an inebriated salesman, Frank McHugh in a short but memorable bit, so comically fixated upon his WWI reminiscences that he momentarily forgets his travel bag. Chic’s good fortune continues as Fairbanks is able to miraculously and perfectly fit into McHugh’s suit (!) and clean up a bit with a shaving kit. He also handily pockets some cash he finds conveniently tucked away. Chic has an opportunity to speak up about the cash as the bag is quickly retrieved but he just laughs; his first instinct is to fill his hungry belly. His second is to find a woman.
The young and luminous Ruth, a wide-eyed curvaceous Joan Blondell, appeals to him. They make quick conversation that leads them to a private room. Ruth conveys her hesitancy. She needs the money, $64 in fact, yet his assumption she’s a prostitute is an error, although she’s too desperate to let him know. We find that out just as he does: by the tears streaming down her face as he proceeds towards fulfilling what he believes is the plan and his own desires. Abruptly he slaps her once he realizes the truth of her situation, admonishing that she might not have been so lucky and could’ve found herself alone in a room with a man that wouldn’t have stopped. Ruth is a down-on-her-luck chorine, recovering from a broken ankle and in desperate need of money to rejoin her traveling company. Not only is she in need of cash, she is also keeping ahead of the advances of a lecherous deviant who has finagled her into reading stories of an increasingly salacious nature. Her fears are well founded as he is indeed revealed to be stalking her. Chic is at first interested in the sordid tale then concerned. But first things first. She’s hungry too and devours the meal he purchases for her. He downs the liquor himself.
Chic has moments of jarring harshness, particularly in the beginning of the film. He is conniving and thieving, scrappy and tough. Sometimes rough with women he can be good to them too. He has moments of decency and those come when he backs away from the things he might’ve done, such as he does with Ruth and later the things he does do. The strength of his character slowly emerges throughout the evening, unfolding just as the story does during a single night. As he gets used to the feel of money in his pocket and knows he’s got more stashed away, fate intervening again via a violin case stuffed with counterfeit bills, he grows a bit kinder and softens about the edges. Apparently having a full belly and a woman to look upon you as her “Santey Claus”, can put a bit of confidence into a man and allow for some magnanimity.
Despite being paired with this fellow traveler, we never see a similar change in Scrap Iron. Granted he’s a soft enough character to begin with, worn by time and trouble, and never having possessed Chic’s intelligence or charm. Yet it is of note that he is never seen to dine. In fact in the opening scene with these two, Chic reaches in a pocket, likely that of the found uniform, and pops a stick of gum into his mouth, leaving Ol’ Scrap Iron just standing there, pie-eyed and drooling over a described imaginary meal. Despite having access to the found cash, his appearance never changes. He remains a man on the outside looking in. Never satiated in any way, he wanders a capricious path. Kibbee plays this character as a bit of a sad clown, pulling tricks from his bag at improbable moments.
There’s a warm and satisfying romance at the center of this tale, helmed by two warm and charming romantic leads. Fairbanks can convey more with a grin and a tip of the head than just about anyone and Blondell shows her vulnerable side, one perhaps a bit closer to her own nature than her usual smart and sassy persona.
Surrounding this depression-era trio is a familiar cast of Warner Bros.-First National players, some uncredited. Aside from the already mentioned Kibbee and McHugh, Alan Hale, Dickie Moore, David Landau, Lillian Bond and even Lucille Laverne make an appearance. The movie is based upon a never produced play itself inspired by the successful Broadway hit Grand Hotel, already in the process of being turned into the classic 1932 film. Union Depot beat it to the punch by three months. The movie shows signs of being predicated upon the same premise, with the depot substituting for the hotel and a swirling cast of characters providing ambience. But the similarities to Grand Hotel end there. This is no glossy MGM production. The heart of this movie is in the streets, with Fairbanks playing forgotten man this time out.
Chic shows a nice agility on his feet both in taking advantage of opportunity, seizing a moment and dodging one, and there’s a nice action sequence that demonstrates his actual physical agility too. Jumping and veering from trains in the night, pursuing a truly bad man and turning into not only “Santey Claus” but a hero, Fairbanks Jr. echoes his father and his own gentlemanly heroics.
Union Depot shows us that having the basics and a few luxuries can go a long way toward smoothing the rough edges and finding the diamond in the rough. The film was released overseas as Gentleman for a Day. With the cushioning comfort of a little dough, that is exactly who Chic is revealed to be. By movies end, we’ve seen him for who he truly is and so has Ruth, who tells him as much. This knowledge that each has seen the good in the other, and been made a better person for the experience, makes the ending that much more bittersweet, as money, either the pursuit of it or the lack of it, continues to define their paths in life. They share a warm kiss and embrace, exchanging the superficial kind of words that let us know they will likely never see each other again. Ruth leaves via train, Chic on foot, this time splitting a piece of gum with his road companion Scrap Iron, seemingly none the wiser, despite all that has transpired on this fateful evening.
Highly recommended, especially for lovers of the films of 1932.
Blonde Crazy with Jimmy Cagney was released in November 1931. It’s success led to this second co-starring role for Blondell, who gets second billing in the opening, just below the title. Aside from Fairbanks Jr., all other actors are credited at the end, creating a lovely immersive opening. This was Blondell’s thirteenth motion picture. By way of comparison, Fairbanks was already a veteran with this being his 42nd film!
Next up for Blondell was another Cagney picture, The Crowd Roars. Concern was that Union Depot wouldn’t be finished on time, so much so there was talk of potentially re-casting her part in the Cagney feature. But that was easily remedied: Production was just started on the next film before this one was finished, leaving Joan scurrying back and forth between films.
Joan’s reputation as one of the hardest working women in Hollywood was well-earned. In 1932 alone she appeared in nine films, with next in line being Kay Francis with eight, Una Merkel with seven and Loretta Young with six. Warner Bros.-First National Pictures knew how to work their hot properties, churning out quickly paced motion pictures in the process.
The opening night for Union Depot was a big one with all stars on deck and held at Warner’s Hollywood Theater. Blondell, not usually one for an elaborate Hollywood social scene, attended dutifully, true to her consummate professionalism.
The film was considered a personal hit for Douglas Fairbanks Jr. although New York Times reviewer Mordaunt Hall noted “it is questionable whether Mr. Fairbanks’s diction is quite suited to the lowly role. But he gives quite a satisfactory show.” Restrained and faint praise indeed. On the other hand, Variety , noting Chic brushes off some earlier, less substantial women, “for Ruth…he falls with the complete sangfroid of a sophisticated drifter”. Apparently Variety was more comfortable with the presentation of a gentleman hobo. They use some interesting language in this review overall so it’s worth checking out. I for one, love reading a good review.
Disturbingly, Ruth is pursued by a perverted deviant who is obviously stalking her with extremely ill intent, however Blondell and the actor (George Rosener) actually share no scenes together. This is perhaps a good thing. Horribly, Joan was the victim of a brutal rape before her career in entertainment began. Detailed in her biography, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy, she remained silent about it for over four decades until finally revealing it in her thinly-disguised semi-autobiographical novel, Center Door Fancy. This is one of those instances when I truly wonder how the actress felt during filming, particularly when describing her fear and desperate need to get away.
Fairbanks, along with Robert Montgomery, was one of the first men in Hollywood to enlist and serve in 1941, before the United States officially entered WWII. Truly a renaissance man he lived to the age of 90.
For a nice peek at a much younger Fairbanks, try Loose Ankles, a 1930 early talkie with Loretta Young. A slightly naughty teen-age rom-com, it features a twenty-one year old Fairbanks romancing a just barely seventeen year old Loretta Young. Both are beyond cute and adorable as they get into one silly situation after another. Incredibly he was already married to Joan Crawford at the time, having hitched his fate to hers in 1929. They untied that knot after just four years but what a four that must have been!