Of Flappers, Hoppers, and Shifters

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Tonight on TCM, bubbly Colleen Moore stars as flapper Pert Kelly in Why Be Good?, a 1929 romantic melodrama that turned out to be the last gasp of the flapper archetype. When the stock market crashed eight months later, the mood of the nation changed, and the high-spirited frivolity of the flapper no longer seemed appropriate.

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May 2, 2015
David Kalat
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The Back of Joan Crawford’s Head

Up above, that’s a picture of the back of Joan Crawford’s head.

You might be wondering why I think that’s worth looking at, or how I expect to squeeze 1500 words out of it. I happen to think this is a potent and symbolic moment in the history of American screen comedy.

Longtime readers are used to my familiar soapbox rantings by now—I’ve spent most of my time here at TCM’s Movie Morlocks spinning my argument that the transition from silent slapstick to talkie screwball is *not* about the advent of sound. Most historians, if asked to demonstrate why screen comedy changed so radically in the 1930s, would point to a blackface Al Jolson singing his heart out and say, “here, lookit.” Not me. I’m going to point to the back of Joan Crawford’s head. “Here, lookit.

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KEYWORDS: Frank Capra, Harry Langdon, Joan Crawford, Screwball Comedy, Slapstick, Tramp Tramp Tramp
COMMENTS: 12
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Searching for Old Hollywood–Postcards of Movie Star Homes

DSC03642In my imagination, I can see the Hollywood of long ago when film industry insiders referred to their mansion-lined streets as the Colony. I see glamorous movie stars dancing at the Cocoanut Grove, old-school studio execs drinking cocktails in the Hollywood Roosevelt’s Tropicana Bar, and hungry starlets sharing bungalow apartments in Spanish-style, u-shaped buildings. Whenever I visit Hollywood during the TCM Classic Film Festival, I search in vain for any remnants of this fleeting bygone era.

My attachment to Old Hollywood is behind my new passion for postcards of movie star homes. I stumbled across my first cards in an antique shop in southern Ohio, and I have been hooked ever since. Produced in series, these colorful linen postcards picturing the stars and their homes were issued from the 1930s through the 1950s. Many series were issued by the Western Publishing and Novelty Co., whose premier design included a portrait of the star in the corner of the card. One series produced cards slightly smaller than typical postcard size probably because they were sold in packets. The M. Kashower Co. was one of the older companies that produced postcards, many during the 1920s. If you find cards from Kashower, they are likely older and worth more. Other companies included the Tichnor Art Co., the Reed Robinson Co., and the Longshaw Card Co., which also used the star portrait design. Longshaw also produced postcards of the movie studios. Just like the stars of the Golden Age were larger than life, so their homes are rich in lore and legend.

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The Better Half

The Apartment airs today on TCM and in it are two of the great stars of the silver screen, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.  Like any great stars, they have two careers comprised of a first half and a second half.  A few years back, Movie Morlock Jeff Stafford covered similar ground with stars he liked better older than younger, a corollary to this post but not quite the same thing.   I’d like to make the case here that stars have a more successful half and a less successful half and that half depends entirely on the star and what works for them.   It comes down to what kind of roles suit the actor better and for those whose early roles suit their talent better, their later career can be a mess.  For those who grow into something more than their early work allowed, their later career flourishes.  For me, Lemmon went one way and MacLaine went the other and both ways were written into their movie star DNA from the start.

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Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!

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Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)

Last night FX premiered the new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The award-winning horror anthology’s latest incarnation is called FREAK SHOW and it’s set in Florida during the 1950s at a circus sideshow where strange goings-on take place in and outside of the Big Top. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, have admitted in recent interviews that they found inspiration for the new season in two classic horror films, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) but circuses and carnivals have long been a staple of horror cinema and director Tod Browning used the sideshow as a setting for numerous uncanny films before he made FREAKS. With Shocktober upon us it seems as good a time as any to showcase some of my favorite horrific or just plain odd and unusual films with scary clowns and sideshow performers that paved the way for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. So step right up ladies and gents! Tickets are free for today’s main attraction! Thrills, chills and rare delights await all who dare to enter!

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Caught on Film: Hollywood Romances That Ignited On Set

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Tomorrow is February 14th, otherwise known as Valentine’s Day. I thought I’d celebrate the occasion by taking a look at some sizzling screen romances that ignited while the cameras were rolling. Anyone who knows a thing or two about Hollywood history knows that it’s not uncommon for actors to fall head over heels for their costars. And who can blame them? When two attractive actors are asked to feign love while kissing and cuddling for our amusement I suspect that the lines between fantasy and reality can easily become blurred. These on set affairs seldom last but they can wreck marriages and leave a trail of broken hearts in their wake. But the heart wants what it wants and on some occasions these romantic rendezvous develop into long lasting loving relationships. And best of all? They often leave us with some passion filled films that make for great viewing on Valentine’s Day!

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At Home with Joan Crawford

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The Morlocks’ week long tribute to Joan Crawford might be over but I’ve still got her on my mind thanks to an interior design book I purchased last month that features Crawford’s last apartment. The book is called Celebrity Homes and was originally published in 1977 by Architectural Digest. Besides giving readers a peek into Crawford’s home, the book also features the lush abodes of many other actors, directors and costume designers including Mary Pickford, Merle Oberon, Dolores Del Rio, Cecil Beaton, Woody Allen and Robert Redford. Crawford’s (somewhat) modest $500,000 five room apartment in Manhattan was one of my favorite homes in the book because the interior design is particularly modern and bright. The book captures a colorful side of the Hollywood legend that’s often forgotten and her intimate friendships with her interior designers are fascinating footnotes in Crawford’s life and career.

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January 12, 2014
David Kalat
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Joan Crawford goes Berserk!

Hi everybody—Pablo Kjolseth is off at Sundance doing Sundancey things, so I’m filling in for him today to help round off our week-long tribute to Joan Crawford.  Yesterday I posted about one of Joan’s earliest starring vehicles, by way of talking about how masterfully she managed and controlled her career—and how that calculation tended to subtly influence the roles she played.  We saw that paradigm at work at the start of her career yesterday—today we’re going to watch the same dynamic at work towards the end of that career.

But here’s the thing—we’ve skipped forward 38 years, from 1929’s Our Modern Maidens all the way to 1967’s Berserk!  (From her second major starring role, to her second-to-last appearance—how’s that for symmetry?)  Joan Crawford was a glamor queen, the sexy young star of a film made at the dawn of the talkie era.  And glamor queens are supposed to have a short shelf life.  One day they’re the toast of Hollywood, and then they get replaced by the next model.  By the usual rules of Hollywood, Crawford had no business starring in a movie 38 years later—certainly not to be doing so still as a sex object.  But as we noted, Crawford didn’t play by Hollywood rules—she kept her career going by sheer force of will.  And that in turn would be reflected in her characters…

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KEYWORDS: Berserk!, Herman Cohen, Joan Crawford, Joan Crawford blogathon
COMMENTS: 9
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January 11, 2014
David Kalat
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Our Modern Joan Crawford

Jack Conway’s 1929 romance Our Modern Maidens climaxes with a wedding.  Of course it does—it’s a romance, isn’t it?  But there’s something decidedly off about this wedding—indeed the entire film seems to strike a strange note.  It could be argued that the film’s fundamental weirdness is a consequence of its star, Joan Crawford.

In connection with TCM’s tribute to the films of Joan Crawford, this transitional late-period silent romantic comedy was screened already.  Normally I try to write about movies before they air, but I had Arbuckle on the brain last weekend.  Now, by “transitional” I mean it was a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack consisting of music and sound effects but not voices.  But it’s also transitional in the sense that it is probably best understood as a “Pre-Code” film, for its sexual content—but we’ll get there.

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KEYWORDS: Joan Crawford, Joan Crawford blogathon, Our Modern Maidens, Romantic Comedy
COMMENTS: 6
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Never show fear: Joan Crawford in TROG

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Even if there were a place left in this world where it might still be possible for Joan Crawford to get a fair trial post-MOMMIE DEAREST (1981), there exists no such venue in which to defend her for TROG (1970).  [...MORE]

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