On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Robert Redford, Golden Boy

A reason it took a while for Redford to get launched in Hollywood (30 at the time of his "breakthrough") was the conventional wisdom that There Was No Such Thing as a Blond Leading Man. All the star males in Hollywood had been dark or a least brown-haired: blonds were for light comedies, friend of the hero, singing and dancing, but not going off to war leaving behind Joan Crawford.

Redford changed that, but Hollywood took some convincing.

I think he could have been a better Gatsby in a less stilted, "we are making a film of a classic" sort of production, or if he'd been cast opposite a less impossible Daisy than Mia Farrow in that awful stiff wig.

Posted on May 22, 2013 at 3:47 pm 0

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Gloria Swanson Saga, Part Two

So when Hal Prince was getting together the show that would eventually become Follies, he was working with a boxful of unrelated songs from Stephen Sondheim and a bunch of pages of dialogue of old people yelling at each other by James Goldman, and this sort of vague idea of a plot about a reunion of old showgirls where one of them stole the other's husband or something and maybe at the end somebody gets killed?

And someone said, "Yeah, Hal, but what the hell is this show about?"

So Prince pulls out the old copy of Life with the Roxy photo above and he said, "This is what it's about." Rubble in the daylight, and the tragic gallantry of glamour.

Posted on October 24, 2012 at 7:52 pm 1

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Gloria Swanson Saga, Part One

In one of his notorious memos, David O. Selznick pointed to Gloria Swanson as a (bad) example of what happens when a star gets too much power. He was warning (I think) Joan Fontaine, who was under contract to him, and was starting to demand script approval and other perks that producers don't like to give to actresses.

Swanson, Selznick pointed out, was at the top of her profession so long as she did what she did well, i.e., act and look glamorous, while leaving choice of material to the experts. Then, in the mid to late 1920s, she started essentially producing her own films, which meant she was developing her own scripts, and the choices she made were almost uniformly disastrous.

Fortunately, as we will eventually discover, Swanson had a very good head for business and so did quite well with investments as well as a later quite varied career as a performer and personality on radio, television and the stage.

Posted on October 3, 2012 at 4:08 pm 2

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Exquisite Garbo

I had an older friend (now passed away) who told me a story about a change meeting with Garbo in the mid 1970s, when she would have been about 70. He was in this small housewares shop in the east 50s and he noticed a tall woman with silvery-blond hair, a floppy hat and a very well-cut trenchcoat standing right across a counter from his. She was apparently trying to make up her mind about buying some placemats, and she raised her dark glasses to look a little more closely at the good. Instantly, he recognized her as Garbo.

He stared, naturally, and he says his heart was pounding so hard he thought he would faint. Then the woman glances up and sees him staring.

Again, he's frozen, he can't move. Garbo smiles and nods her head twice, indicating, "yes, that is who I am." Then she puts a finger to her lips, smiles once more, and walks away.

He said it was the most perfect meeting with Garbo imaginable: no conversation, but a once-in-a-lifetime chance to share a secret with the most mysterious of all actresses.

Posted on September 19, 2012 at 11:17 pm 8

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Exquisite Garbo

@City_Dater Though unfortunately, Grand Hotel also features one of Garbo's rare poor performances. She was miscast as Grusinskaya, an aging (Garbo was 27) ballerina (Garbo slouched and shuffles her feet) who is suffering from a kind of self-indulgent diva depression. And Garbo, though she was by all means a diva in the artistic sense, had no connection with diva temperament: she liked to show up on time, get the job done in a minimun number of takes, and then go home again to play tennis or maybe hang out quietly with a few friends.

What the part needed was either a real high-energy crazy diva-- a Gloria Swanson or an Alla Nazimova -- or else a really superb actress along the lines of, well, since there wasn't anyone exactly matching that description in Hollywood circa 1932, let's say Vanessa Redgrave. Garbo was neither of these types.

The thing is, Garbo couldn't act in the sense that we usually think of acting: she had not technique, and there was nothing heightened in her except her unearthly beauty and the absolute serenity of her concentration. So she generally couldn't play outside quite a narrow range, though George Cukor and a superb role brought out a lot more light and shade in her in Camille.

Grand Hotel on the other hand, is stolen by its rankest amateur and its savviest old pro, i.e., Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore.

Posted on September 19, 2012 at 11:04 pm 0

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Dorothy Dandridge vs. The World

One or two little things. I'm not sure about "the role [Lena Horne] made famous in Showboat." Horne never played Julie in Show Boat on stage. She did sing one of the character's songs, "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," in a movie called Till the Clouds Roll By which was a biography (somewhat fictionalized) of the composer Jerome Kern. She also recorded Julie's second-act song "Bill" but that scene was not included in the movie.

In fact, the 1951 Show Boat was going to star Judy Garland as Julie (the character is of mixed race, passing for white). But due to Garland's health and substance abuse problems, she was fired by MGM. The story goes that in her exit interview, she told Louis B. Mayer, "It's just as well I'm not doing Show Boat -- that's Lena Horne's part anyway."

So then Mayer calls in Ava Gardner into his office to assign her the role, and he manages to get out no more than, "We've had to fire Judy from Show Boat..." when Ava chimes in, "Oh, then obviously you'll want Lena!"

But whoever was suggesting Horne for the role of Julie, whether Horne herself or her colleagues, wasn't being realistic. The MPAA Production Code specifically forbade "miscegenation," and the plot of Show Boat requires that Julie have a romantic relationship with a white man. MGM's loophole in this rule was that even though the character of Julie is of mixed race, the actress is white, so it's not "really" miscegenation.

The other bit is the voice dubbing in Carmen Jones (and, in fact, Porgy and Bess). I wouldn't say that the choice to dub had to do with vocal quality per se but rather range. The movie uses the same keys for the music as the original Bizet opera, which would have put the pop voices of Dandridge and Belafonte way out of their comfortable range. (Dandridge's voice, BTW, was ghosted by Marilyn Horne, later to become a major opera diva, but back in 1954 a studio backup singer.)

A propos of practically nothing at all, Judy Garland's story of how she lost the Academy Award in 1954 is classic.


Posted on June 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm 1

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Marlene Dietrich, Femme Fatale

@lastgoddessblog There's a great story about A Foreign Affair. Billy Wilder wanted Dietrich to play the cafe singer who was hiding a past as Nazi collaborator, but Dietrich found the character so morally repugnant she refused even to read the script. Wilder knew that if Dietrich saw the quality of the material (it's a superb role in an excellent script) she would relent, but still she sent the script back unread.

So (according to the story) Wilder came up with a plan. He filmed tests of another actress, June Havoc, playing several of the singer's key scenes, then contacted Marlene. There was something wrong with Havoc's performance, he said, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. Would Dietrich, purely as a personal favor, take a look at the scenes and make a few suggestions?

Dietrich sat through the tests, then said that with the exception of a couple of trivial details, Havoc was fine in the part, though-- just curious-- had Wilder signed her yet? No? Well, in that case, would he mind messengering a copy of the script to Dietrich's house that afternoon?

So she read it and realized it was a great part (arguably the best-written part she ever would play) and agreed to do it, though she couldn't have been delighted to take second billing to Jean Arthur.

Her bizarre cameo in Touch of Evil is also pretty remarkable.

Posted on May 24, 2012 at 12:48 pm 2

On Possible Reasons Why There "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone"

Womankind has always dreamed of destroying the sun.

Posted on January 5, 2012 at 4:44 pm 1

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Rita Hayworth, Tragic Princess

@pterodactgirl I don't think anyone ever called Astaire cruel. He was exacting and he expected his partners to work hard to the edge of their abilities. He once said in an interview, "All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn't do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger [Rogers]. No no, Ginger never cried."

There's another quote I can't find verbatim at the moment, but it's about another actress, I think Cyd Charisse, and Astaire's compliment to her went something like, "All my partners at one point or another say 'I can't do it,' and what they really mean is 'I don't want to do it' or 'I'm tired and I want to go home' or 'I'm afraid I can't do it.' But when Cyd[?] said 'I can't do it,' she meant exactly that, it was beyond her abilities, and when she said it I just dropped that step and tried something else."

Astaire worked with a lot of actresses more than once, sometimes in circumstances where the actress was at least as big a star as he, or bigger. After he was second-billed to the not notably docile Judy Garland in Easter Parade, she agreed to be cast with him again in The Barkleys of Broadway and Royal Wedding (though she made neither film due to ill health) and there was even a projected musical version of Private Lives announced for them. If he had really been such a jerk, the more powerful Garland could have asked for him to be replaced or simply refused to work with him in the first place.

One of Astaire last onscreen partners was Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. She wasn't a dancer and you can see in the film that Astaire crafts their numbers together so she's not overburdened: the point is for her to look graceful even if the steps are elementary.

A possible source of the "asshole Astaire" myth is the strong contrast between his onscreen persona (nonchalant, never breaking a sweat) and his real personality, which was all about hard work and striving for perfection.

Posted on December 1, 2011 at 5:03 pm 2

On Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Ava Gardner, the Second-Look Girl

@sam.i.am I read an interview with Elizabeth Taylor where she was asked, "Do you consider yourself beautiful?" Liz answered, "No, I'm extremely pretty, but I'm not beautiful. Ava Gardner is beautiful."

Posted on August 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm 4