A Declaration of Love and Independence

Today’s the day my facebook feed gets inundated with pictures of James Cagney because, well, you know why.   And who can blame my facebook film friends for turning to Cagney as George M. Cohan as the go-to pic of the day?  He’s wonderful in the role and there’s something refreshing about a movie so brazenly and fervently flag-waving as Yankee Doodle Dandy, in part because, unlike other propaganda, it isn’t about how bad some other country is but just about how proud of his country this particular song and dance man is.   And when that song and dance man is played by Cagney, it’s all the more enjoyable.  And so on this day when we here in the states celebrate our Independence Day (cue emotional salute from over-acting bit player) allow me to wave the flag just a bit for American movies of yore.

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Joan Blondell, Other Men’s Women and the Intangibles of Stardom

Some actors have great talent but little charisma.  Charisma, that intangible quality so difficult to explain but so easy to spot, is something only the greatest performers possess and most of them, in the history of cinema, have fallen into the character actor/supporting player role.    So many of the most charismatic performers of the studio era, from Thelma Ritter to Thomas Mitchell, played backup to the star and so often it is their performances that outshine that of the star’s.   And when it happens with a newcomer, audiences and studio chiefs alike sit up and take notice.

 

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Blonde Ambition: Joan Blondell in The Crowd Roars (1932)

Joan Blondell made herself at home in the cinema. Regardless of the plot or set decoration, Blondell would adjust her sheer stockings and plop into a seat as if she was at a cuckolded boyfriend’s pad. This Warner Brothers working class goddess buckled knees with this studied insouciance,  a glamour of gum-smacking nonchalance. Our blog-a-thon has been counting down the days until the Blondell-bonanza on August 24th, her day on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Earlier this week Jeff discussed the James Cagney-Blondell pairing Blonde Crazy (1931), and today I’ll take a look at their subsequent film together, Howard Hawks’ The Crowd Roars (1932).

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Two Peas in a Pod – Blondell and Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY

Could there have been a more ideally matched couple from the Warner Bros. stock company than this pair of New York natives with their streetsmart ways and attitudes to match? It seems strange that James Cagney and Joan Blondell aren’t usually included in that rarified group of Gable & Harlow or Tracy & Hepburn or Bogart & Bacall or Loy & Powell and others but BLONDE CRAZY (1931) alone is reason enough to add this duo to the Hollywood leading couples A-list.          [...MORE]

It’s almost Ann Dvorak Day!

Christina Rice is a Los Angeles-based librarian, film historian and new mother who is currently writing a biography of Hollywood actress Ann Dvorak (1911-1979) while maintaining the website Ann Dvorak: Hollywood’s Forgotten Rebel. This busy lady was kind enough to spend a little time with me on what would have been Dvorak’s 100th birthday in anticipation of Ann Dvorak Day — Tuesday, August 9th, on Turner Classic Movies.

RHS: Can you believe it’s almost Ann Dvorak Day?

CR: Ann Dvorak Day – something I never thought would exist outside of my house!  When I was on maternity leave last August I spent a good part of the month parked on the couch watching Summer Under the Stars and thinking what a drag it was that Ann would probably never get a day. She was always great in whatever she appeared in, but her filmography as a whole isn’t – how to say this nicely – terribly significant. But thanks to the Pre-Code box sets and TCM airing her more important works, I think Ann has picked up a lot of new fans over the past few years. I mean, she’s still obscure, but, now people know her face and her acting. [...MORE]

No, No, That’s Not Your Movie, This is Your Movie!

Years ago, Hugh Hefner came across Fay Wray at a party and famously told her, “I loved your movie!”  She replied the only way she could, by asking, “Which one?”   This story has made the rounds enough times for people to think it’s apocryphal but, in fact, as told by Hefner himself in many an interview, it’s true (and is the first line of the TCM bio of her on this very site).   Most likely, Wray knew exactly which film he was talking about (King Kong, of course) but wanted to force the point home that, as a respectable Hollywood actress, she had made dozens of films (over a hundred, actually), many of them very successful.     But try as Fay may have to change the public’s perception, King Kong was her movie, forever (though I love her in Mystery of the Wax Museum and Doctor X).  I don’t know if it would’ve provided Wray with any solace whatsoever, but even the biggest names in Hollywood have always had this problem.

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Joan Blondell: “I Was the Fizz on the Soda”

In the twilight of her career, sassy, brassy Joan Blondell reflected on her star image by noting, “I was the fizz on the soda.” Considering her talent for snappy patter, her ability to get the most out of one-liners, and her full, robust figure, the description is apt. Like Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Ginger Rogers, Blondell enjoyed a long career stretching over several decades, and yet she lacks the critical and popular recognition of her peers. Perhaps this slight is the result of  playing the second female lead most often, alongside Rogers, Una Merkel, Barbara Stanwyck, or Ruby Keeler, who tended to get higher billing than she did. Only in hour-long programmers or B-films did Blondell get to play the lead. I have always enjoyed her wise-cracking characters, but it wasn’t until recently, while doing some research on Blondell, that I realized what a terrific movie star she really was.

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NIGHT TIDE and Other Films of Note in June on TCM

This month on Turner Classic Movies a number of unheralded and lesser known films that deserve some attention are being aired along with a few personal favorites that I never get tired of watching again like GIRL CRAZY (1943) starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. The date to mention though is Tuesday, June 8th, in which all of the previous evening programming – a line-up of detective movies in The Saint series – has been cancelled in order to honor the late Dennis Hopper.   [...MORE]

Caution! Career Detour Ahead!

Quick, name three of George Raft’s greatest films in which he is the top-billed star and are considered as iconic and in the same league with any top three classics by his contemporaries, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney? I realize I’ve just stumped myself because most of the Raft movies that come to mind that I like don’t feature him as the star such as Some Like It Hot (1959) and Scarface (1932). Even in such well regarded Warner Bros. crime dramas as Each Dawn I Die (1939) and They Drive By Night (1940), it’s his co-stars who outshine him – Cagney in Each Dawn I Die (it’s really HIS movie) and the Bogie-Ida Lupino combo in the latter. No, Raft seems forever overshadowed by the triple threat trio of Bogie, Robinson and Cagney and films like RACE STREET (1948) are the reason for his second place status.      [...MORE]

An evening with Don Murray… and friends

bus stop posterLast night Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater hosted a double feature of Josh Logan’s BUS STOP (1956) and Michael Anderson’s SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1959) – two classic films at a fair price ($10 for non-members) with the added value of a special appearance by Don Murray, the star of both films, who participated in a warm and informative Q&A between screenings with filmmaker Nick Redman.  The LA-born, New York-raised son of a Ziegfeld Girl and a Hollywood dance director, Murray made his Broadway debut in 1951 in Tennessee Williams’ THE ROSE TATTOO, staged by Daniel Mann.  Josh Logan had the athletic and startlingly handsome youth in mind for a role in PICNIC (which opened in 1953) but Murray had other ideas.  Declaring himself a conscientious objector during the Korean War (1950-1953), Murray channeled his military service into a stint with the Brethren Volunteer Service, a precursor of the Peace Corps.  (Murray had approached both the Quakers and the Mennonites as a volunteer and was turned down by both!)  While the role in PICNIC went to a young unknown named Paul Newman, Murray got to work in Europe, aiding war victims in Italy.  While overseas, he used his meager stipend to see American movies whenever possible – even saving up the then-princely sum of 35 cents to see Howard Hawks’ “Wonder Musical of the World” – GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953), starring rising star Marilyn Monroe.  Little did Murray know that only two years later he’d be back in Hollywood with Marilyn as his leading lady. [...MORE]

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