Maytime (1937): The Magic of The Musical with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy

by Paul Batters

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The beauty of classic film is the incredible depth, diversity and range of story and genre. With the arrival of sound in the late 1920s, Hollywood not only seized the opportunity to expand the canvas but also began to develop the musical. Before long, an incredible range of stories via the musical began to be told, using the camera in new ways but also utilising different musical forms, particularly jazz and opera. I must readily admit that I cannot claim to be a huge fan of the Hollywood musical and therefore certainly not an authority on the subject. Yet it is important and even crucial to gain an appreciation of the way Hollywood interacted with its’ audiences and how it gauged what audiences wanted. As a student of classic film, the “Singing Sweethearts’ Blogathon for 2018 offered a chance for me to expand my horizons and learn more about two of the biggest stars of the 1930s, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, by reviewing what is considered as one of their biggest hits, Maytime (1937). It was their third film together, and by many accounts is perhaps the best of the eight they made together between 1935 and 1942.

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, a solid director, Maytime is ultimately a love story, revealing the pain of lost opportunity, the obstacles of love yet is also a celebration that true love cannot be contained, even by death. It is May Day 1906 and the story is told in retrospect, as an elderly woman, Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) tells the story of her life to a young singer, Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver), who wants a career but finds that this dream is at odds with her fiancé Kip Stuart (Tom Brown). In an attempt to show that she understands, Miss Morrison reveals that she was actually a famous opera singer herself named Marcia Morney.

In her own desire to become successful in the world of opera in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, Marcia is trained by the famous and talented though Svengali-like Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore). Out of a sense of gratitude for his guidance and leading her into a world of success, Marcia accepts Nazaroff’s marriage proposal. Despite both knowing that love is not part of the acceptance, Nazaroff hopes that love will eventuate yet his domineering personality sees Marcia more as a possession, which he can shape to his will.

It is at this point that love finds Marcia despite her not seeking it. Late into the night, Marcia finds herself edgy and restless and escapes into the Paris nightlife, finding herself stranded in the Latin Quarter after a mishap with her driver. Whist there she meets Paul (Nelson Eddy), a fellow American and also a singer. However, he is poor and struggling yet the two are attracted and despite her promise to Nazaroff, Marcia and Paul meet again for lunch. Marcia knows they cannot be, despite Paul not wanting to lose her, and she says yet again that they cannot see each other.

Paul, however, has other ideas and goes to the opera to see Marcia perform and later meets her in the dressing room. Paul secures her promise to meet him for the May Day celebrations in the country and she accepts.

What follows is a wonderful day and Marcia declares she has ‘never been so happy’. This beautifully filmed sequence is made all the more special, as Paul declares he will sing a song for her so that she will always remember the special day that they have shared. The song of course is the theme song ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ and the moment becomes painful and bittersweet. Unable to hold back their feelings, Marcia and Paul declare their love for each other and Paul’s declaration that they met ‘too late’ certainly lifts the song to a greater level. They will part but the day that they have shared and the beautiful song that they share, becomes a testimony to true and unending love, which they will always hold in their hearts. It acts as a poignant and bittersweet marker for the two lovers who only have that song to signify their love.

As the years pass, Marcia’s career reaches new heights. At this stage in the story, Marcia has been married to Nazaroff for seven years but finds her life as empty as her marriage. But fate will play its’ hand. Paul has also become successful and dramatic irony will find Nazaroff arranging Marcia and Paul to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. They pretend not to know each other but the audience can see their incredulity at being re-united. Their performance of La Tzarine is a public triumph but it also becomes symbolic as a triumph of their reuniting. Their love reborn, Marcia begs Paul to never leave her again and Paul declares to Marcia ‘You’re not going back to him. I’m taking you away tonight’.

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But it will not be so easy. Nazaroff sees what is going on and despite promising to let Marcia go, after her revelation that she loves Paul, his jealousy and possessive nature will rear its’ ugly head.

To give justice to this review, it would remiss of me not to give away the ending – so fair warning as we step into the territory of spoilers!

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Nazaroff intends to do far worse than Marcia imagines and she follows him to Paul’s apartment, to witness the husband she does not love shoot and kill the man that she is in love with. As he lays dying in Marcia’s arms, Paul tells her not to weep and that he will always be with her. Their song will forever hold them together.

Love unfulfilled is perhaps one of life’s greatest cruelties and after having made the mistake of parting once through honour and obligation, Marcia and Paul have their love stolen from them through the finality of murder. It is almost too much to fathom before we are brought into the present. It appears that Marcia and Paul’s tragedy, however, will serve some purpose as the story moves into the present with Barbara choosing Kip over a career.

The final scene could easily be dismissed as sentimental and saccharine but it feels more like a triumph over tragedy. As Marcia sits in the garden, she is told her tea is getting cold and responds ‘I’ll only be a moment or two’. Left alone, our hearts break imagining what she is thinking and there are no words for such a poignant moment as she breathes her last and quietly slips away. But her spirit arises, as Paul greets her. They are both young and beautiful, and they sing ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ – the song that had always rung out the love that they shared and now share again. The spirits of Marcia and Paul look on as Barbara and Kip finally embrace. It is the ultimate victory for love – for the young lovers and the now eternal couple, brought together in death. As the camera pulls back, the audience cannot help but shed a tear as the mis en scene beautifully frames the couple in the garden, amongst the blossoms falling upon them.

Today, these two singing sweethearts are not as well remembered as other stars from the classic era. The operetta has gone largely out of favour and fashion, and with respect to both stars, they were competent yet not highly talented actors. Indeed, the focus of their films was their vocal abilities more than their interpretation of roles and ability to shape character development. Yet in fairness, this meant that the vehicles designed for MacDonald and Eddy were often limited, resulting in less opportunity to develop or show range of ability. One of the advantages of Maytime is that it does allow both actors, particularly MacDonald, to exhibit a greater range of ability. As Marcia, she delivers a performance that extends beyond the superficial, from being young and vivacious to an aged woman in her twilight years. Maytime has been often listed as the best work Eddy and MacDonald ever did together and by all accounts MacDonald lists the film as her favourite (perhaps because she was given the chance to show greater acting ability than other projects).

There is also an incredible range of musical performances, which are beautifully filmed and work perfectly in terms of story development. Both Eddy and MacDonald have numerous moments to display their talents but these are not gratuitous and indeed assist in establishing character and driving the story forward. One of the true highlights of Maytime is the duet during La Tzarine heightened by the passion Paul and Marcia feel for each other. When they embrace during the performance, the audience knows that the two cannot ignore or deny their love any longer. It will lead to tragedy but their love for each needs to be realised, whatever the cost. However, for me the true musical highlight is ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ The first time it is sung, our hearts break and at the climax, when we hear it again, our hearts are put back together again.

It would be one of the biggest hits for MGM in 1937 and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Music. The production values are classic MGM with special attention to MacDonald’s elaborate costumes and despite there being some mawkish moments, it is hard to dismiss the pathos that Eddy and MacDonald bring to the story. Leonard as director ties the key elements of the story with good pacing and by MacDonald’s own account appreciated his direction and the freedom he allowed the cast. For my money, MacDonald is particularly strong in her role and of course the great John Barrymore is outstanding as the jealous and domineering Nazaroff. Both spellbinding and repellent, Barrymore certainly intensifies the sense of dread in the audience and the tragedy that will undoubtedly follow the revelation of Paul and Marcia’s love. Barrymore’s performance becomes symbolic of the obstacles that stand in the way of love. Furthermore, Barrymore allows for MacDonald’s performance to reach greater depths, more than evident in Marcia’s revelation to Nazaroff that she loves Paul. Perhaps this also explains why she rated Maytime as her favourite film.

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Maytime was certainly a pleasant surprise for someone who has generally steered away from musicals. Yes I found Maytime to be a little ‘schmaltzy’ at times and MacDonald’s finding ways to stare at Eddy as he sings to her to be a little off-putting. But the strengths far outweigh the few trivial issues that the film has. Overall, it’s a story that works, perhaps because it was lifted from Noel Coward’s ‘Bittersweet’ (and interestingly reflects a common theme that Coward would also examine in David Lean’s Brief Encounter). And as any good film will do, it will find its’ place in the hearts of its’ audience. In this case, Maytime achieves this by reaching that most universal of all emotions – love.

A very special thank you must be extended from me to Rebekah and Tiffany Brannan for their encouragement in writing for the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon and opening my classic film experience up to new possibilities in the form of the musical.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

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The Definitive Performances Of Glenn Ford

by Paul Batters

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It really doesn’t matter whether it’s the villain or the hero. Sometimes the villain is the most colorful. But I prefer a part where you don’t know what he is until the end – Glenn Ford

When I first saw the announcement of the ‘O Canada’ Blogathon, I found myself drawn to it – particularly in light of having visited the wonderful city of Montreal on two memorable occasions. Canada holds a special place in my heart and despite being a very long flight from Australia, there lies within the hope that I will visit there again. There is an incredible amount of talent that hails from Canada, many of which are claimed by their neighbour to the south, who have made a huge impact on classic film. One such talent comes in the form of legendary actor Glenn Ford.

Hailing from Sainte-Christine-d’Auvergne, Quebec, Ford’s family would leave their homeland to start a new life in California, U.S. Obviously, the move would prove fortuitous, with the young Ford attending Santa Monica High School and finding his way into theatre. A film career that began in the 1940s, Ford gave the screen great versatility, making his mark in film noir, comedy, Westerns and war dramas. My aim here is to look at the five performances which I feel are standouts in Ford’s long career. Whilst not expecting a consensus, the hope is that readers are inspired to watch the films listed here.

Gilda (1946) – Johnny Farrell

I imagine there are no surprises here. Gilda ranks high in the pantheon of classic film noir and features Rita Hayworth in her most iconic role as the quintessential femme fatale. But Ford is outstanding as Johnny Farrell, the gambler who despite loyalty to his boss, becomes deeply intertwined with his boss’s wife, Gilda. The powerful love-hate relationship between Farrell and Gilda burns with an intensity and a fury that still steams off the big screen. Ford emotes with a power that matches Hayworth’s smouldering sexuality, and betrays a man who has been burnt and burnt bad.

Trevor Johnston in ‘Time Out’ (2011) points out that Ford gives a performance highlighted by a ‘fight not to let bitterness get the better of decency’. It’s that tension that stretches to almost breaking point, leaving the audience constantly on edge as to what the protagonist will do. Christopher Machell in ‘Cinevue’ (2016) correctly states that ‘Gilda remains a brilliantly dark exploration of the consequences of love soured into loathing’. It achieves this superbly, not only due to the brilliant performance of Rita Hayworth and the layers she brings to the role but also thanks to Ford’s interpretation within the restrictions of the Code, giving a tour de force and an equally memorable turn as Johnny Farrell.

The Big Heat (1953) –  Det. Sgt. Dave Bannion

Directed by the legendary Fritz Lang, The Big Heat is on my list of top film noirs, not least because of Ford’s determined cop and the captivating Gloria Grahame. Unlike his on-screen romance with Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Ford doesn’t engage with the sultry Gloria Grahame. But the moments shared by the two are still powerful and engaging, particularly in the exciting finale.

Ford plays the straight, honest cop, who while investigating the death of a fellow cop, finds himself sliding into a deeper and darker world, as he battles criminals and corruption to seek the truth. There are victims along the way and his family will also be in the firing line. Ford shows a man so obsessed with his own objectives that his actions hurt those around him. The ‘heat’ he generates ironically hurts those he aims to protect. As Roger Ebert points out, The Big Heat ‘as deceptive and two-faced as anything Lang ever made, with its sunny domestic tranquility precariously separated from a world of violence’. To borrow Ebert’s phrasing, Ford is outstanding at playing ‘the perfectly acceptable honest cop’…appearing as ‘quiet and contained and implacable’ yet ‘capable of sudden violence’. Variety stated that Ford’s performance ‘is honest and packs much wallop’. Absolutely.

Not only is The Big Heat a must-see film noir classic, it’s also an opportunity to see Glenn Ford at his hard-boiled best.

Blackboard Jungle (1955) – Richard Dadier

As a teacher, The Blackboard Jungle touches a raw nerve for me. Such a dark, cynical film depicting school students – and it’s the mid 1950s. Not only do we see belligerent and disrespectful students refusing the benefits of education but burnt-out and contemptuous teachers, violence between students and against teachers and the attempted rape of a teacher by a student, with a shocking and violent result. Into this mix, comes Richard Dadier (Glenn Ford) a new teacher at an inner-city Trades School. He combats the students, the teachers and the system in his attempt to educate his students.

Dadier’s desperation to reach his student is brilliantly portrayed by Ford, who exudes the desperation and controlled fear that a new teacher will feel coupled with a passion and controlled frustration that is also felt and shown through raw emotion. Dadier calls himself a ‘bumbler’ and the honesty and accuracy as he finds his way to reach his students feels real, as exemplified by Variety’s review, unlike the usual clichéd ‘teacher/saviour’ film.

Blackboard Jungle had an incredible impact during its’ time and still holds its’ audiences attention, as we engage with Dadier and the building tension and battle of wills, reaching its’ powerful climax.

The Fastest Gun Alive (1956) – George Temple

 Ford’s versatility saw him star in some fine Westerns and for my money, his performance, as ex-gunfighter George Temple is one of his best. The son of a famous quick-draw sheriff, George and his wife Dora (Jeanne Crain) start a new life with new names in a small town, living an unassuming life though with little respect or consideration from the townspeople. However, that situation is going to change, more a result of Temple’s doing than outside forces. Ford walks a psychological tightrope between the desire for a peaceful, mediocre and quiet life and the truth behind who he is.

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Again, Ford brings an incredible sensitivity to the role of Temple, and the inner turmoil as his past taunts his yearning for peace is brilliantly played out as the story plays out. Ford also offers us an examination of human frailty, as he succumbs to ego and fatigue of being seen as a nobody, and finds himself doubly frustrated at doing so. Director Russell Rouse drives the story beyond the standard Western with a deeper psychological examination of the gunfighter but also a powerful aspect of the human condition – escaping past sins and seeking a new start. Ford is superb in this examination and the ending is as action-packed with drama and gunplay as any Western made. What truly makes Ford’s performance all the more powerful is his ability to draw the audience into the story through deeper understanding of our own humanity rather than the classic, though clichéd, concept of wanting the good guy to win.

3:10 to Yuma (1957) – Ben Wade

 Set in the Arizona Territory during the 1880s, Ford plays Ben Wade, the leader of a gang of robbers who hold up a stagecoach, witnessed by rancher Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his sons. Eventually Wade is captured but the gang escapes and the town fears the retribution, which will follow. The decision is made to get Wade out of town and Dan steps forward to do so. What follows is a tense ride into a violent and surprising ending, which sets the film aside as a classic western.

Ford brings depth and paradox to the role of Ben Wade, again displaying sensitivity to the role, which is initially unsympathetic. From the opening where we see a ruthless and violent man, it is hard for the audience to find any humanity in Wade. Yet his attempt to impress barmaid Emmy (Felecia Farr) reveals a gentleness and kindness that doesn’t equate with the violent man the audience sees earlier on. Again, Ford weaves the complexity of his character with balance and purpose, ably supported by a strong cast and well-written story. Critics praised Ford also recognized the importance of a role in what it had to offer, even if the part itself may appear unsympathetic or even villainous. This belief is more than evident in his forceful portrayal of Ben Wade.

 Glenn Ford was not a matinee idol and came up through a time when realism and more complex characters became de rigueur. A deeper and more psychological approach to understanding human action and emotion allowed for greater expansion in story which more than matched the technological demands for wider screens. Ford was an actor who used time effectively to draw his characters out, allow audiences to absorb his reaction and believe in the story. He famously said:

‘If they try to rush me, I always say, I’ve only got one other speed and it’s slower’.

It certainly illustrates the talent of the consummate actor – making the difficult appear simple by claiming it’s actually simple. Glenn Ford is certainly a Hollywood icon, whose Canadian heritage should list him as a worthy candidate in the ‘O Canada’ Blogathon. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

The Inspirational Hero: Frank Capra’s ‘Meet John Doe’ (1941)

by Paul Batters

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‘Why, your types as old as history! If you cant lay your dirty fingers on a decent idea and twist it and squeeze it and stuff it into your own pocket, you slap it down! Like dogs, if you cant eat something – you bury it!’ John Doe (Gary Cooper)

Cinema has provided heroes and heroines since its’ inception. If recent films are anything to go by (quality and depth notwithstanding), the audience interest in heroes has certainly not waned. Humans need heroes – they fill a deep need for inspiration, hope and the often a powerful desire for heroic qualities to be found within ourselves. That unfulfilled self-identification is transferred onto the screen, where we imagine ourselves to always have the right words, the right reaction and certainly the uncanny ability to successfully deal with a sworn enemy.

But the traditional journey of the hero is almost always a difficult one; a trope that can be traced all the way back to tales of Greek mythology. One of the most potent aspects of the hero’s make-up in literature and film is that of the reluctant hero. Cinema is rich with this particular figure, where the hero is plagued with nagging self-doubt and initially may hold no heroic qualities that we can easily identify. Yet what makes such a hero so compelling is that they are made from the same clay we are all made from – they are just like us and yet rise above their supposed station to make changes, save the day and stand up for what is right.

Frank Capra has made some of Hollywood’s greatest and most memorable films, focusing at times on such heroes and drawing on the literary and cinematic figure of ‘the everyman’. Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) are perhaps two of Capra’s most celebrated films, whose central character is the ‘everyman’ hero with Jimmy Stewart starring in both films. Stewart’s performance in both films has long resonated with audiences for obvious reasons and though they are different characters with vastly different storylines, Stewart personifies Capra’s everyman in both of these classic films.

However, another Capra film, which perhaps does not receive the accolades that the aforementioned films do, was his first with Warner Bros. after leaving Columbia. 1941’s Meet John Doe starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck is also a story of the ‘everyman’ and more to the point, the reluctant hero. Whilst not as explicit in its’ celebration of individualism as It’s A Wonderful Life, with greater focus on community, Meet John Doe nevertheless hails the role of the everyman hero and the impact that the individual can have in his or her world.

Capra was a complex individual and whilst not a focus of this article, it is important to note that Capra was a Republican despite his progressive outlook and the heroes of his films would obviously reflect his worldview. Those he collaborated with, particularly Robert Riskin, who co-wrote many of Capra’s best-known films, often swayed him towards realism, liberal ideas and progressive politics. Conservative right-wing writer Myles Connolly, who would contribute to the script of Meet John Doe, would steer Capra towards rediscovering his Catholicism, as well as feed Capra’s dislike of President Roosevelt. The Christ-like figure holding high value tenets of humility, innocence and sacrifice is at the core of Capra’s heroes and was certainly influenced by Connolly’s 1928 book Mr Blue – a book greatly admired by Capra.

Meet John Doe is the story of ex-baseball drifter ‘Long’ John Willoughby (Gary Cooper) who becomes part of a publicity stunt for a newspaper. Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) is a tough, sassy reporter just fired by Henry Connell (James Gleason), the new managing editor for the newspaper just purchased by publisher D.B Norton (Edward Arnold). Her last article for the paper features a ‘letter from a John Doe’ who threatens to jump from City Hall on Christmas Eve at midnight, to protest civilization ‘going to pot’ and the ‘slimy politics’ present in the current world. The letter stirs up a hornet’s nest and Ann (eventually supported by Connell) sees the opportunity to save her job and save her own career by exploiting the situation. John is hired to claim her wrote the letter and will become the face of a ‘I Protest’ column for the newspaper, ghost-written by Ann. However, John’s companion and anti-society conscience ‘The Colonel’ (Walter Brennan) continuously speaks out against the whole situation, acting as a brake on John’s journey, which John often ignores.

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Stylistically, Meet John Doe initially displays all the hallmarks of the screwball comedy and this appears to be the template, which Capra works with. However, the turning point of the film arrives with Norton meeting with Ann and Connell. Norton has greater designs other than being a media baron and Capra lays the foundations for his key theme – the dangers of fascism and dictatorship. John is to make a radio speech (written by Ann, who draws inspiration from her late father) and at first he is nervous, unsure and even considering taking a payment not to make the speech by a rival newspaper. At first John’s concerns are selfish, especially when it is made clear to him that his plan to use the money to fix his arm will be thwarted by the truth getting out. But when he starts delivering the speech, encouraged by Ann’s idealism, he starts to become animated and his delivery arouses the audience. Norton realises something is happening, as does Connell, whose bitter cynicism from years in the newspaper game, has hardened him. Ann is moved to tears by the end of the speech but John feels like a cheat and runs off with his friend and fellow hobo ‘The Colonel’.

Here, we see the essence of the reluctant hero. Yes, he is a fake at first but he is deeply conflicted by his fakery whilst delivering what is ostensibly truth and hope in the message. John runs not because he doesn’t want to be found out to be a paid player in a publicity stunt but because he feels that he is cheating the people listening and committing a desecration of the message he is giving them. Yes he later laments his decision, telling The Colonel ‘I had the money in my hand’ but it is not delivered with real conviction and it appears that his motivation is the inspiration from Ann. On a side note, despite Ann’s telling Norton that what she wants is money, her emotional response when John finishes his speech, reveals she too believes in the message, seeing her father’s words alive in John.

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Meanwhile, a grassroots movement starts, inspired by John’s speech, and John Doe clubs begin to spring up. Ann, along with Norton track John down and they convince John to come back and help build the movement. Finally convinced, the movement begins to spread ‘like a prairie fire’ with Capra using an effective montage to show its’ growth and the energy John brings to his role.

Yet John will discover how naïve he has been and a showdown with Norton reveals his motivation – to use the John Doe Movement as a political tool for his own device to become President. Norton’s mask drops and the fascist overtones are final revealed – contempt for the masses as a ‘rabble’ and the need to rule the nation ‘with an iron hand’. At a large conference where John is supposed to endorse Norton for President, he instead states that he will reveal Norton’s scheme. John’s impassioned rebuttal fully illustrates John’s deepest feelings and his belief in the movement. But Norton makes the point that he is the ‘fake’ and that he and his retinue of industrialists and power brokers ‘believe in what we’re doing’.

But John has transcended this and goes to the conference, only to be undone by Norton being prepared and the revelation that John was and always had been a paid actor in a publicity stunt. The Christ-like element in Capra’s hero comes to the fore, with the crowd that primarily ‘worshipped’ him now turning on him and calling for his head. Begging to the crowd to ‘stick to your clubs’ and that ‘the idea is still good’ proves futile. Police get John out but his reputation is destroyed. A tearful Ann, who has lost John’s trust, despite a love growing between them, tearfully mourns how events have unfolded. Connell cynically offers a brilliant epitaph – ‘chalk another one up to the Pontius Pilates’. His comment more than cements the Christ-like persona of Capra’s hero – a (not so) innocent victim crucified by evil men for political purposes.

The following montage shows a dejected figure in John Doe, all washed up and mocked by the public, finally heading towards the City Hall to redeem not so much himself but the John Doe movement and the message that he had given for so long. As tempting as it is to discuss the ending at length, I will refrain from spoilers but needless to say John Doe’s reluctance as hero has been left far behind and the power of ‘the people’ is a strong statement against the dangers of fascism and that ultimately the ‘John Does’ of the world will overcome the dictators of the world – quite a statement in 1941 with the world (and soon the U.S) in the throes of World War Two.

Capra and Riskin wrote the script and obviously drew on the formula previously used to shape their hero. John Willoughby is laconic, naïve though not stupid and a man of ‘the people’ (and a baseball player no less). But there was a problem with Capra’s hero – John Willoughby is initially a ‘fake’ and ‘imposter’. Yet whilst some critics (even Capra himself who flip-flopped on the issue) have seen this as a major flaw in the film, it actually offers a powerful dimension to the concept of the hero, and the ebb and flow of the hero’s journey becomes evident from the moment John takes on the persona of ‘John Doe’ till the climax of the film.

There are contradictions in Capra’s hero and a number of critics have made some fair comments. Critic Andrew Sarris charged that in some ways John Doe is himself a demagogue with fascist overtones yet is speaking out against fascism and demagoguery, and embracing a populist approach to galvanising people into the John Doe movement. There is constant tension between the best and worst of individualism, and the reality of political corruption. Yet what makes Meet John Doe work and thus Gary Cooper’s portrayal an inspirational one is illustrated by Jeffrey Anderson’s review in Combustible Celluloid where he states that the film is not condescending or angry, nor does it seek reward or the audience’s affirmation that John is a hero but offers hope as its’ message. By extension, Sean Axmaker in Parallax View makes an astute point:

‘Capra’s idea of a populist movement is not political anger but social connection, transcending politics with neighborly concern and patriotic benevolence, and he makes a point of stating that these common folk are outside of politics, but nonetheless it is hard not to make a connection. It’s still salt of the earth citizens trying to make their voices heard…’

Certainly a different approach to movements today and their appropriation by others!

John’s inspiration and authenticity is measured by his growth as a hero and acceptance of his responsibility in the role. In the end, John rejects those close to him because he can only carry out the solution he feels is necessary alone. As an audience, it is impossible not to be touched by John Doe and the hero that emerges from his earlier reluctance and even later inner conflict. It is this factor that makes John Doe even more authentic and real for all of us, as we too find ourselves struggling with the obstacles of life that seem insurmountable and too crippling to deal with. Meet John Doe has its’ flaws but to focus on them is to miss the beauty of Capra’s hero and thus the inspiration of the most simple rule – ‘love thy neighbour’.

For a viewing of the film, please click on the link below:

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history

Donald Crisp: One Of Hollywood’s Great Character Actors

by Paul Batters

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Cinema is an art form, which, unlike most other art forms, is a team effort. The need for a range of skills and talents does contradict, with the upmost of respect, the belief of the great Frank Capra that a film should be the vision of one man – the director. The work behind and around the camera is tantamount to the success of the performances before it. The magic that we see on the screen is amplified by the work of others.

Audiences tend to focus on the performances of the stars in major roles, which is understandable. However, the purpose of this article is to look at the character actor – the actor or actress who allows for and creates the space for a major star to extend their performance. At times, their work is that good that it goes un-noticed or it can even steal a scene. For all the brilliance of Bogart in Casablanca (1942), it was certainly assisted by the likes of Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt and Sidney Greenstreet. As fantastic as Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray are in Double Indemnity (1944), Edward G Robinson arguably steals the show when he is on the screen.

For my money, perhaps one of Hollywood’s most prolific and important supporting actors was the magnificent Donald Crisp.

The purpose of this article is not to provide a biography but offer a reflection on one of classic Hollywood’s most familiar faces.

British-born Donald Crisp’s career spanned an incredible 55 years, with an amazing array of roles on the screen and an equally amazing involvement and perhaps more important role behind the scenes (not only for his time as a director of approximately 25 films). His first role was in a short called The French Maid (1908) during the earliest years of the American film industry, with his final screen appearance in Spencer’s Mountain (1963) as Grandpa Zebulon Spencer. (The film incidentally would later be developed into the 1970s family drama The Waltons).

Let’s look at some of his important, ground-breaking roles.

The Birth Of A Nation (1915) – Ulysses S Grant

Crisp cut his teeth on an array of roles in silent shorts, including the ground-breaking gangster film The Musketeers Of Pig Alley (1912) but it was his fortuitous meeting with D.W Griffith that saw his career in film expand. He worked with Griffith in a number of productions with perhaps his first most notable role as General Ulysses S Grant. Whilst not a major role, Crisp was portraying a significant historical figure and even the publicity shot reveals a great actor’s calibre to stand in the role. Indeed, Melvyn Stokes points out in his book D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of ‘The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time’ (2007) that Crisp as Grant seems to step out of the pages of history.

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Broken Blossoms (1919) – ‘Battling’ Burrows

Another D.W Griffith classic, Broken Blossoms is a love story between Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess) and Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) whose father is a brutal prizefighter. Set in London’s’ Limehouse district, the story of interracial love was certainly highly controversial for its’ day. Crisp brings a cruelty and sadism to the role, taking pleasure in beating his daughter. His identity and sense of self is limited to the physicality of his fists but there is more to Crisp’s portrayal than a one-dimensional character. As Ed Gonzalez illustrates in his 2003 review in Slant Magazine, ‘Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp) is a monster, but Griffith understands the man’s frustrated desire to lash out against something (here, his own daughter) in the face of economic and masculine defeat’. Needless to say, Crisp channels this interpretation quite well and elicits from the audience incredible depths of shock and horror at depths of viciousness of his character.

The Black Pirate (1926) – MacTavish

Perhaps one of Fairbanks’ greatest films, it was also one of the best produced and an early two-tone Technicolor classic which featured all the hallmarks of the swashbuckler adventure. As the one armed pirate, Crisp also brings some humor, again a staple element of the swashbuckler classic seen in countless such films to follow. The film holds up well and arguably far better than many of Fairbank’s other films, ably assisted by Donald Crisp as the pirate with a heart of gold. Watch the ending to see MacTavish’s response to the happy ending. Interestingly there is some dispute over Crisp’s apparent removal as director of The Black Pirate.

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) – Burkitt

A powerful historical drama with outstanding performances from Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian. Its’ historical accuracy does and should come under heavy scrutiny but never should the work of the supporting cast. Donald Crisp plays Burkitt, a tough English sailor who develops a burning hatred for Bligh and is tempted to mutiny along with a handful of fellow mistreated comrades. The turning point for Christian’s final push into mutiny comes with his witnessing of Burkitt beaten and in shackles. Gable’s inability to maintain composure is made even more believable when coupled with Crisp’s channeling of the dehumanized sailor. As usual, Crisp gives everything to the small but important role in the development of the story.

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How Green Was My Valley (1941) – Gwilym Morgan

Undoubtedly his most famous role and the one that most associate with Donald Crisp, Ford’s classic is a masterpiece and a superb example of storytelling on film. Crisp as the Morgan family patriarch is one that moves the heart and stirs the spirit. His performance of a stern yet kind and loving father is impossible to ignore and it would win for Crisp the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. To quote Peter J Patrick from Cinema Sight in 2016, ‘Long established as one of the screen’s most reliable character actors, his performance here transcends them all. The voiceover relating to his character can also be applied to the actor and his long held position as one of Hollywood’s greatest: “Men like my father cannot die. They are with me still, real in memory as they were in flesh, loving and beloved forever. How green was my valley then.” Thanks to the magic of the movies, it’s evergreen’.

For a more detailed thematic review of How Green Was My Valley (1941), go to: https://silverscreenclassicsblog.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/john-fords-how-green-was-my-valley-a-thematic-review/ 

Lassie Come Home (1943) – Sam Carraclough

MGM capitalized on Crisp’s Oscar winning father role for their Technicolor hit starring Roddy McDowell, as well as reuniting the two again in the father/son relationship. Crisp’s performance, as the father dealing with difficult times, was called ‘four-square’ by New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. Lassie Comes Home could be easy given over to a saccharine overdose, if not for the fabulous cast and directorial efforts of Fred Wilcox. However, Crisp is not one to recycle former work but builds on familiar tropes with a seasoned turn as the father trying to raise his family out of poverty. He would play the role again in two sequels.

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The Valley Of Decision (1945) – William Scott Snr

Crisp would again play the father role but one of a very different nature to what he had played in How Green Was My Valley, Lassie Come Home and National Velvet. As the steel baron whose powerful hold on his family becomes challenged, Crisp gave a commanding performance as the father who opposes the relationship between his son Paul (Gregory Peck) and the Irish house maid Mary Rafferty (Greer Garson), whose father had been crippled in the Scott mill. The complexities and social issues that arise concerning families, class and relationships, as well as the plight of workers in the 19th century. As Cliff Aliperti’s 2011 review for Immortal Ephemera points out, Crisp’s gift to the film comes with the ‘tender moment with Garson after discovering just how she feels about his son, and immediately thereafter, the uncomfortable moment where Duryea convinces him that they need to call upon the strikebreakers’. It is often those moments by a character actor that offer depth to the layers of a powerful film.

The Man From Laramie (1955) – Alec Waggoman

For a short period of time, Crisp retired from films but returned in 1954’s Prince Valiant. Thankfully he did so for his turn as the formidable and cunning landowner in opposition to Will Lockhart (Jimmy Stewart) is a winner. The Shakespearean overtures (think King Lear) become obvious but are well crafted into a classic Western. Crisp is hard-nosed as the cattle baron, who has survived and thrived because he has been ruthless with those who have crossed him. The film exhibits Crisp’s versatility, as well as the character’s ability to shape his way through the film around the work of his fellow cast-mates, while assisting them in shaping their roles for the screen.

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Looking at only a handful of roles does not do justice to honor the incredible body of work in which Donald Crisp was engaged. Crisp proved the go-to actor for some of Hollywood’s A-films for the major studios, working with many legendary actors and actresses. Admittedly, and unbeknownst to many at the time, he was a Hollywood power broker who through his membership of the Bank Of America arranged financing for many films, including those he worked in. However, the focus here is not his financial pull but the work he gifted the films he appeared in.

If there are doubts regarding his genuine talent, attributing his appearances to his financing abilities, one only need see Crisp on the screen. His clear and expressive voice combined with a versatile physicality makes for a potent character actor. Crisp used his voice superbly, evoking a range of emotion and reaching audiences with a familiarity borne of experience and understanding. Crisp’s work is incredibly far-reaching and chances are audiences have seen him in many of their favourite films. Yes, there is truth in his being typecast – father roles abounded after How Green Was My Valley,  right up to one of his final films for Disney’s Pollyanna (1960). His silent film days saw him play tough guys and villains and finally judges, police officers, doctors, sea captains, ministers, clergymen and military men, through the 1930s and early 1940s. 

And therein lies the talent of Donald Crisp – his adaptability, his transformation into character and understanding of his own dimensions as an actor.

From the subtleties of small but important parts to key supporting roles, Donald Crisp is one of Hollywood’s memorable faces, who was both a pioneer and a long serving performer.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

Casablanca: 75 Years Old And Still Going Strong – Flaws And All

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by Paul Batters

Annina: Oh, monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, but she did a bad thing to make certain of it, could you forgive her?
Rick: Nobody ever loved me that much.

One of the most enduring films in the Hollywood pantheon of classic films turns 75 this year on November 26th. It is usually on most people’s list of favourite classic films, not least of all because of one Humphrey Bogart and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman star in it. Not to mention a wonderful supporting cast (Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Conrad Veidt, Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson) and a delightful soundtrack (who doesn’t swoon a little at ‘As Time Goes By’).

It also endures because it’s a love story – one that does not have a fairy tale ending but speaks of the torture and pain of love far more than if it did. Bogie is all style but emanates even greater substance. It is impossible not to look at Bergman’s face and become lost in her gaze. Set during World War Two, the love story is intertwined with political intrigue, Nazis, ‘causes’ and desperate people during desperate times.

Obviously I’m talking the irrepressible Warner Bros. classic, Casablanca.

Initially released on Nov 26th, 1942 at the Hollywood Theatre, Casablanca proved a massive hit, making Bogart a bona fide star after years of secondary roles. It was the middle Of World War Two and the background to the film would have been very familiar to audiences. War was tearing the world apart with no clear end in sight. If the famous “Le Marseillaise” scene still puts a lump in your throat, can you imagine its’ impact back then? And the chemistry between Bogart and Bergman stands tall above the countless on-screen couples who have declared love for each other.

Yet it has also been called the ‘best worst film ever made’. Pauline Kael called it ‘schlocky’ and Umberto Eco called it ‘mediocre’ by cinematic standards. Vincent Sherman stated the story ‘was crap but what a great piece of crap!’.

And if you really look at Casablanca carefully – you will discover a few strange mistakes and holes in the plot. We’re going to look at some of those things that you may or may not have noticed before. Hopefully, it won’t change your love affair with one of Hollywood’s most enduring films!

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  1. The ‘Letters Of Transit’

The letters of transit seem to be what everybody is after in the film. People want them to get out of Casablanca (the town, not the film) and people want them to stop people getting out of Casablanca. It is the plot device that drives the story forward and is indeed one of the most ludicrous devices every employed – and here’s why.

At that particular point in history, Morocco was indirectly under Nazi control, via the proxy of Vichy France (the turncoat puppet government in the south of France). How would any letters signed by De Gaulle hold any weight? De Gaulle was a Free French leader in exile in London. Anything signed by De Gaulle wouldn’t be worth a free trip!

It’s one of the most ridiculous McGuffins ever used in film. And yet somehow they got away with it. And poor old Ugarte (Peter Lorre) pays a heck of price for them.

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  1. Victor Laszlo

The believed dead and now returned husband of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) is a leader of the Resistance. Not only that, Victor Laszlo (Paul Henried) has escaped from a concentration camp. And of all places to go, he goes to Casablanca – where there are Nazis! They let him walk around, while impeccably dressed, and he even frequents Rick’s Café. Yes they are hoping to catch Laszlo in the act of getting the letters of transit and thus have grounds to arrest him. But what other grounds do these Nazis need? He’s an ‘enemy of the Third Reich’, a leader of the Resistance AND an escapee from the custody of the Gestapo. Grounds for his arrest? As if they need them!

Laszlo’s very open presence is enough of an act of open defiance towards the Nazis. Yet he taunts them openly as well! He openly admits to Colonel Strasser that he knows who the Resistance leaders are across German-occupied territory. And who can forget the famous scene where he encourages the band in Rick’s Café to play “La Marseillaise” over German officers as they sing. Laszlo certainly takes his chances to enrage the Nazis.

It’s also absurd that the Nazis are reluctant to arrest Laszlo to maintain appearances. What appearances? The world is in the thick of the war and the Nazis are not holding back from doing some pretty despicable things. As critic Roger Ebert pointed out, Laszlo would have been arrested on sight.

  1. The Airport

Have a good look at the airport scene. Go on – take a good look.

Did you notice the following?

It’s very foggy, with a rain-slicked tarmac and Bogart is wearing a heavy trench coat and hat. In Morocco? Even in winter it’s pretty warm in North Africa.

  1. Rick’s Café Americain

Rick’s Café is one of the swankiest places, resplendent with lovely décor and quite the casino. And the place is packed! With Rick reaching Morocco a short while after being abandoned by Ilsa in Paris (when the Germans arrive en force), how has he managed to acquire enough capital to set up such a place in such a short time?

  1. Refugees

Casablanca appears packed with a vast array of European refugees – all dressed to the nines, despite losing everything in their home countries and more than happy to drink and gamble at Rick’s, as well as being stereotyped to the hilt. True – many are gambling to make enough money to escape and the sense of desperation is evoked in groups of refugees staring hopefully into the skies as the plane they need to be on leaves. Yet there is still an absurdity to that notion. However, whilst Morocco was a stop over for refugees escaping from Europe, by the time period of the film (December 1941), this was not the case and there were far better methods of getting out of Europe. In fact, by the time depicted in the film, there were very few refugees left in Morocco. Still, it is easy to feel for the young Bulgarian couple which Captain Renault aims to capitalise on and whom Rick ultimately saves.

  1. Nazis – in Casablanca?

Another inaccuracy – though a minor one. There were no uniformed German troops stationed in Morocco during World War Two. But then Casablanca has a good share of historical inaccuracies; Captain Renault (Claude Rains) talks of the Americans ‘blundering into Berlin in 1918’ but of course that never happened.

  1. The Script

If at times the players on screen look confused and bemused, it’s because they were. The original script was changed, re-edited and re-written daily for a variety of reasons – partly to please the Breen Office and even the decision on who would get the girl was made late in the piece.

The Epstein brothers, legendary for their nonchalance, wisecracks and irreverence, incredibly even towards their boss Jack Warner, would make some wonderful additions to the script, peppering it with their famous wit. But many writers worked on the film, usually writing material only needed for that day or the next, which was very typical in the industry. In A.M Sperber and Eric Lax’s Bogart, the story is recounted just how the Epsteins worked:

‘They said “we need another scene” and we sat down and wrote it. And we’d take the pages to the set ourselves.

They were asked ‘You mean you brought it, said “Here” and went back to your office?’

Epstein shrugged: ‘It worked”.

He also added that they got no help from anyone and did all their own work.

Despite the confusion, Bogart made the touches that remain immortal, especially the two famous lines, which he improvised from the original:

 

But all the additions and ad-libs ‘trickled in’ as Sperber and Lax point out, during the weeks of re-writes and constantly changing dialogue. There was an almost daily routine of learning new dialogue and discarding old, leaving tempers tested and often inflamed. Bergman recalled on a number of occasions seeing Bogart and Wallis returning from lunch arguing and Bogart and Curtiz also clashed.

It was also Bogart who won two major points against the director, Michael Curtiz (a feat in itself!) – one, that Rick would not kiss Ilsa one last time before they part and two, that Rick would not shoot Strasser in the back. Such instances certainly helped to make Casablanca a better film than it would have been otherwise.

There are quite a few near-clichés in terms of character and theme as well. The script doesn’t truly allow for character complexity or depth of development. Indeed, the script is filled with characters with familiar tropes– the drunken hero, the enigmatic woman, the loyal friend, the bad guy who comes good in the end and a variety of stereotyped European characteristics. This is true for themes as well – the love triangle, sacrifice, the impact of war and the plight of the desperate.

  1. A Few Other Minor Issues

There are quite a few problems with continuity. See if you can keep track of the times Bogart’s cigarette changes length in a number of scenes. Not to mention the changes in the detail of uniforms that both Strasser and Renault are wearing. And the much-loved piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) is no piano player. Wilson was actually a drummer and whilst his voice is wonderful, his miming of playing the piano is less so.

Casablanca was not intended to be a masterpiece but was one of many films being made during the days of the studio system. It certainly was an A-film but one of many being made during the period. The fingerprints of some of Warner Bros. best can be found to have touched this film with their indelible mark – the production values of Hal Wallis, music of Max Steiner, the aforementioned gems in the script by the Epstein Brothers, Curtiz’s direction and the nice little touches of humour. I always chuckle when Captain Renault closes Rick’s Cafe because he is shocked to find gambling going on, only to be given his own winnings a second later. And of course it was an attempt at Hollywood escapism during the war with a film set during the war.

For all their expertise and experience, none of them could possibly have guessed that their collaborative effort would result in one of cinema’s most loved films. Yet from all reports, the Warner Bros. creative team knew they ‘had something’ and upon its’ release the film went beyond all initial expectations, breaking gross-taking records and capturing the imagination of audiences – particularly in the face of World War Two.

Both Casablanca’s initial and enduring success is also testimony to the film making process, and that even if a formula is in place, the elements and compounds added to the formula is what counts. The initial roles were never designed specifically for Bogart and Bergman, the now timeless song ‘As Time Goes By’ was going to be edited out and decisions regarding who would sing it was also never assured. As we have seen, despite the countless edits and changes, the magic that makes the movies conjured up a true classic.

What has made it endure is the magic between Bogart and Bergman on screen, the beautiful musical score (with one of cinema’s most famous and heart-reaching songs), the touches (small and large) that added that something special that defines classic film, some fantastic dialogue which gave us some of cinema’s greatest lines, the brilliant and illustrious supporting cast and the very essence of the story that everyone can associate with; the tragedy of love unfounded. Is there anyone that does not hold in his or her heart a tale of having it broken? Or had to let go off a true love? And of course, it is a tale of ultimate love, where sacrifice is made out of true love for someone. Whatever flaws exist in Casablanca, there is something more going on that forever holds us to it.

Like a diamond far overcoming any flaws it may have, perhaps one of cinema’s finest scenes (below) pulls all the magic together. Dooley Wilson’s singing pulls at our heart strings as Bergman’s face conveys all the haunting pain of past love, followed by their seeing each other again. How can one not weep while watching Casablanca?

After 75 years since it first opened, Casablanca has never let go of its’ audience. 

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history

Hollywood And It’s Long History Of Sexual Abuse

by Paul Batters

‘The ladder of success in Hollywood is usually a press agent, actor, director, producer, leading man; and you are a star if you sleep with each of them in that order. Crude, but true’. Hedy Lamarr

The young actress was only 22 years old, naïve to the world of Hollywood and still a virgin when she first arrived in Tinsel town. Her mother ambitious to a fault dragged her talented daughter to the West Coast to turn her into a success. From the moment she was born, the mother-daughter relationship would always be a difficult one. But being a dutiful daughter, as well as being ambitious, she complied.

The young actress, despite her naivety, had already discovered something terribly unsettling – that the expectation of young actresses was to ‘put out’. 

Not long after her arrival, she was asked to come along for an undefined screen test, with no specific role nor any brief to what the scene was about.  Nevertheless, she complied and turned up for the screen test. Stepping onto the set, all that was present was a chaise lounge.

 The young actress was told to recline on the couch and follow instructions. As she lay there, prone on the ‘casting couch’, a line of actors lay on top of her and went through a scene as the producer and crew looked on. One by one they played out a love scene, passionately kissing her, as she lay there.

One of the actors said to her ‘ Don’t worry, we’ve all had to do it’. By the time the test scene was over, 15 men had lay down on top of her and played out the scene. She remembered feeling ‘less like a woman and more like a mattress’.

The year – 1931.

 The actress?

Bette Davis.

The story has been told many a time and Davis herself often retold the story, sometimes trying to take the sting out of it with some self-effacing humour. Speaking of the actor who told her not to worry, Latin lover Gilbert Roland, Davis claimed that whilst being kissed by him she thought ‘actually this isn’t so bad’.

Bette Davis’ awful experience speaks volumes about the objectification of women in the world of Hollywood. It also outlines the sad reality that the treatment of women in such a way had existed since the earliest days of the film industry. Bette Davis, despite being a little naïve discovered fairly quickly what the expectations were. In fact, only a couple of months before her arrival in Hollywood, she found such expectations were also prevalent in the theatre. In Ed Sikov’s biography of Davis ‘Dark Victory’, he recounts the story when famed director George Cukor would dismiss her from Yellow, the stage production she was working in, because as fellow actor Louis Calhern said ‘she wouldn’t put out’. Not because Cukor, who was gay, wanted her out but because his producer, George Kondoff did. Davis would not give in to his sexual demands.

So how did Bette Davis get past this? She certainly had a will of iron and her battles with Jack Warner are legendary and well documented. She also faced down her humiliations. Not long after the aforementioned ‘screen test’, Davis took part in another Universal screen test for William Wyler’s ‘A House Divided’. Stepping onto the scene, with a low-cut dress, Wyler called out loudly: “What do you think of these dames who show their tits and think they can get jobs?” (Wyler would work with Davis in a few short years time and also engage in a passionate and torrid affair with her). 

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Davis would also hear terrible comments from Carl Laemmle Jnr (whose father ran Universal Studios) about her lack of sex appeal and if not for her determination, her iron will, and support from those who saw her talent, her career may never have been founded or would have remained stuck in forgettable pictures. Initially, she struggled with her self-confidence and sense of worth, which wasn’t helped by comments from Laemmles Snr and Jnr, Wyler and many others. James Spada in his biography of Davis ‘More Than A Woman’, tells an interesting story. Prior to the infamous aforementioned screen test, Davis would be confused and disappointed by her first screen test with Universal where they wanted to focus on her ‘gams’. The cinematographer had to explain that ‘gams’ meant her legs. Davis asked what her legs had to do with acting. The response?

“You don’t know much about Hollywood, do you?”

Again, Davis would be mortified as they kept asking her to pull up her skirt to reveal more flesh before the cinematographer saw she was upset and ceased asking her.

But she would not only face such terrible treatment from directors, producers and studio heads but also from fellow actors and actresses, some of which were major stars. Again Spada shares a story that sums up the treatment of women in Hollywood. Some time after she had made a few films, Davis believed she needed to start acting like a film star and was sent by the studio to her first Hollywood soiree. She arrived in a ‘slinky, sophisticated, low-cut evening dress gown that would show these movie people just how sexy Bette Davis could be’.

At the party, Davis would recount her attempts to act and sound like a movie star by smoking and swearing. However, she was pretty much ignored and eventually ended up as a wallflower, wondering what to do. At that point, the dashing and handsome Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, the recently estranged husband of her future greatest rival, Joan Crawford, approached her. They chatted amiably for a while but before she realized it, Fairbanks slipped his hand inside her dress and fondled one of her breasts, telling her ‘you should use ice on your nipples the way Joan Crawford does’. Mortified, Davis pulled herself away and fled the scene.

Bette Davis would say in later years that to survive Hollywood, you had to be ‘more than a woman’ (hence the title for Spada’s book). A number of actresses have gone on record that Bette Davis was one of the few actresses that didn’t have sex with men (or women) in the industry in order to make it to the top. Indeed, she fought the system for better roles and scripts, and would become one of the greatest actresses of her era.

Yet her story is still very reflective of what went on in the early 1930s, as well as long before and long afterwards.

In the light of actresses and some actors stepping forward today after the terrible revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein and others, the deep, ingrained culture of the abuse and objectification of women has become the centre of discussion. It seems to be the horrifically monotonous and repetitive story, that powerful men – directors, producers, agents and fellow actors – use their power to sexually harass and abuse women, as well as some men. These men are not anomalies but the norm and the system in place protects them, placates them and even rewards them. And they have existed in Hollywood since the first cameras were set up and a director called ‘roll ‘em’.

More and more revelations emerge as time passes, regarding the classic Hollywood. Whilst some may pass as reflective of values and attitudes of the time, such as William Wyler’s comments about Bette Davis, they still announce the ugly and toxic masculinity that has always been present and in some cases the treatment of women as objects has been far worse than a comment.  

Only recently, an old newspaper article surfaced from 1945, featuring Maureen O’Hara, who starred in some of Hollywood’s greatest films including How Green Was My Valley, The Black Swan, Miracle On 34th Street and The Quiet Man. Her comments, made when she was 25, show that the culture of harassment and abuse is nothing new. 

How many others felt this way but said nothing? How many others suffered endless abuse and harassment and remained silent, for all the reasons that actresses today are mentioning as their own reasons for previously staying quiet?  As Maureen O’Hara points out, the reputation she soon received was one of being a ‘cold potato’ and having a puritanical outlook on sex, shaped primarily by her Catholic faith. O’Hara did claim that she did not want to shock her family back in Ireland by dressing provocatively and didn’t ‘look like Lana Turner in a bathing suit’. But again, her responses reflect that her own womanhood came under attack when it did not meet the demands of men in power in Hollywood.

But this culture of male dominance was not restricted to men behind the camera, in the editing booths or behind the desks in studio offices. Some of Hollywood’s most famous actors from the classic Hollywood era are just as complicit, not only from their exploiting of starlets but outright sexual harassment, sexual abuse and even rape. As difficult as it is to accept, some of our favourite stars have been implicated and their long-standing status as legends comes into question.

A perfect example of such complicity is Errol Flynn. Errol Flynn’s reputation as a ‘hell-raiser’ is certainly not a new one nor one that surprises anyone. Engaging in heavy use of alcohol and drugs, Flynn was well renowned for his ‘womanising’ and sexual exploits. I bring attention to the terms ‘hell-raiser’ and ‘womanising’ because they also reveal the culture of male entitlement and power in popular culture. There was, and in many cases still is, a hero worship of such behavior – it’s what ‘men do’, ‘conquering’ women and of course the term ‘womanising’ is suggestive of male prowess and an admirable quality. Errol Flynn’s well-publicised and infamous 1942 arrest for statutory rape of two underage girls saw him acquitted and whilst his career did suffer slightly, his contract with Warner Bros. was not terminated. Indeed, his screen persona was capitalized on by his lawyer and a host of supporters and helped his acquittal.

But was is most telling about Flynn’s reputation and behavior is the long standing euphemism for male sexual success – ‘in like Flynn’. Whatever the origins of the term, it is clear what is being inferred and Errol Flynn loved the term so much, he was going to title his autobiography ‘In Like Me’. Some have suggested that it was the self-effacing, loveable rogue that made the suggestion. Perhaps. However, the term is suggestive of male power and entitlement and becomes a victory call for ‘bedding women’. That’s all well and good – if the sexual objectification of women is a norm for you.  

Another example of this long-standing abuse of power, showing Weinstein and other recently outed abusers are merely part of a long chain going back decades, is that of the former head of Columbia, Harry Cohn. Cohn was the head of Columbia from 1919 till his death in 1958. Cohn was the clichéd studio head – a nasty bully who treated people abysmally. Actresses signed to Columbia were expected to have sex with Cohn when he demanded it and even stars like Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak were not spared his harassment. Seth Abramovitch in an article on Cohn in ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ stated that ‘starlets in the mogul’s orbit were viewed as sexual commodities’.

Tony Curtis told a story in his autobiography regarding Cohn which also illustrates the power that the man had. Once when Curtis was meeting with Cohn, a young starlet entered the office, wanting to speak with Cohn. Curtis got up to leave but Cohn insisted the young lady speak openly. Nervously, she prodded Cohn for commitment to his promises or she would call his wife. Cohn without a blink of an eye, picked up the phone and said “Call her”. The starlet, confused and totally disarmed after playing her ace, left the office upset and defeated.

Famed head of 20th Century Fox, Daryl Zanuck, also took advantage of his power and was unavailable each day between 4.00pm and 4.30pm, as he was ‘in conference’.  The powerful MGM head Louis B Mayer controlled the lives of contracted stars by destroying or encouraging marriages and even forcing abortions. Actresses such as Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Judy Garland allegedly were forced to have abortions for the sake of their careers. One of Judy Garland’s biographers, Gerald Clarke, has alleged that the MGM mogul also sexually abused Garland during meetings with her. Thelma Adams in Variety points out that Mayer would threaten to destroy careers and hurt their families as well, if women did not comply. 

Both Cohn and Zanuck are often cited as the ‘creators’ of the ‘casting couch’. But the truth is the practice had always been around.

Actors, too, have been perpetrators of sexual assault and harassment. Fredric March had a horrendous reputation for groping actresses on the set and although some such as Sylvia Sydney waved aside his commenting about her breasts and body as ‘playful banter’, others such as Claudette Colbert complained about his groping and warned fellow actresses about his overt advances. Charlie Chaplin had a penchant for very young actresses and starlets, disturbingly stepping into the realm of under age relationships. Bob Hope was notorious for using his power to manipulate young starlets and actresses into sex.

One of the most disturbing stories emerged in 2015, regarding the ‘love child’ that Loretta Young had with the King Of Hollywood, Clark Gable. For years the story was one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets. However, in 2015, the story emerged that Gable had raped Young in 1935, with Young finally revealing her story before she died to her son Chris and his wife.

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Anne Helen Petersen in her 2015 article in Buzzfeed raises an important point: Young, like so many from her generation, conceived of her role in “the game of sexes” as “the guy tries to get what he wants; the woman’s job is to fight him off.” The inability to fend off Gable’s advances constituted a failure on her part — not Gable’s. She spent the rest of her life trying to compensate for that failure, believing that the guilt was hers and hers alone.

I would add to this, that the feelings of failure and shame amongst victims are just as prevalent today.

Perhaps one of the most famed stars that endured the casting couch was Marilyn Monroe, admitting that she slept with producers to get ahead in the business. Although she dismissed doing so as ‘no big deal’, Monroe would exclaim after signing a huge contract in 1955 “I’ll never have to suck another **** again’.

It certainly echoes Hedy Lamarr’s earlier quote.

The terrible sadness is that the names in these stories could be interchanged with names in entertainment today.  More stories will emerge which will disgust us and the names that come with those stories will shock us. For decades, men especially have been protected in Hollywood not only through their own personal wealth, power and entitlement but because toxic masculinity and misogyny permeates through society.

We are living in an age where an American Presidential candidate, who openly displays misogynistic views and even admits sexual abuse, still gets elected – and continues with that misogyny and language of hate against women. It’s a sad indictment of where we are at in the 21st century and it remains to be seen if the Hollywood swamp of abuse will finally be drained. However, by seeing how far the problem goes back, it may mean that there is real change for the future. It means that it needs to be confronted today.

So when a 22 year-old woman with great talent arrives in Hollywood, she will only need to focus on the quality of her work.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history

Food Means Murder: Symbolism Of Food in ‘The Godfather’ (1972)

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by Paul Batters

“Thank you for the dinner and a very pleasant evening. If your car could take me to the airport. Mr. Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately”. Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) 

Food plays a central role in societies and cultures across the world. It has powerful, symbolic meaning, as well as being a necessity of life. Whatever meaning food has will be shaped by the significance we attach to it. The gathering of people to share in a feast or a meal has been engaged in since time immemorial, often acting as ritual for a vast array of reasons from religious to celebratory to turning points in one’s life. The central ritual in many celebrations will be the sitting down to eat a prepared meal. It becomes intimate, accepting and enhances the connection between friendship and family.

How many wonderful moments have there been in film, where food has played this role – be it families gathering for Christmas lunch or Thanksgiving dinner, feasts in banquet halls or a romantic dinner. As an audience, these moments evoke vivid memories, which find themselves deeply imbedded in the experience of sharing food, from everyday moments to special events. But food in film can symbolise darker elements as well.

And the symbolism of food in Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather, certainly boasts that achievement. As Vasna Jagarnath states in the Nov 23, 2013 edition of ‘The Con’, ‘food is used to comfort a friend, to welcome a child, to evoke memories and announce death’.

The significance of food in The Godfather is often overlooked and understated. David Sutton and Peter Wogan in Hollywood Blockbusters (2009) make the point that in The Godfather, food symbolises identity, honour, family and accomplishment. For the Corleone family, these are important values that shape who they are and thus need to be adhered to. But as we will see, food in The Godfather also signifies dark omens and even death.

The film opens with the wedding of the daughter of Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando); a celebration held with all the Sicilian traditions, which means good food, music and shared joy. As Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) points out to his wife, no Sicilian can refuse a request on his daughter’s wedding day. As a result, Nazorine the baker asks the Don for help, marking an exchange that defines their relationship, with the baker providing a towering wedding cake for the couple gratis. When singer and godson to Don Vito, Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) seeks help, Don Vito uncharacteristically gets angry and yells at him to ‘act like a man’, later adding when his anger subsides that only a ‘family man’ can call himself a ‘real man’. After all, a family man provides and puts food on the table. He then embraces him stating ‘I want you to eat’, indicating that home-cooked food will ease his troubles – the food symbolising love and closeness of family. Other references to food speak volumes. Michael (Al Pacino) asks his girlfriend Kay (Diane Keaton) if she likes her lasagne, indicating that true enjoyment of the wedding is focused on how good the food is. Tessio (Abe Vigoda), one of the Don’s top men, juggles an orange whilst sitting at his table – an ominous sign of what is to come for him.

We also see the act of sitting down to eat as a time when business is done. When Tom Hagen goes to see studio head Jack Woltz (John Marley) to discuss Johnny Fontane’s career, he is invited to Woltz’s home, where they sit at a large table set for a sumptuous meal. Sitting at opposite ends of the table, also symbolises the deep divide between the worlds of these two men. Woltz loses his temper, telling Hagen to ‘get the hell out of there’ showing little of the supposed intelligence and control that a powerful man in business is supposed to possess. Maintaining his composure, Tom Hagen thanks Woltz for the nice dinner and leaves, without making any threats. The intimacy of sitting together to eat and the trust in sharing food as a sign of friendship becomes severely broken. Jack Woltz will later discover the extent of the Corleone family’s power in one of the most infamous scenes in cinema history.

As Sutton and Wogan point out, the way business is done in the world of La Cosa Nostra and indeed in the wider world is one of a ‘gift economy’. Whether its’ a deal over union control, a contract in the world of entertainment or a corporate meeting, there is an exchange which means goodwill, trust, agreement and decision-making. The raising of glasses and sharing of drinks is also symbolic of this exchange.

Food as a marker or announcement of death is prevalent in the film. The presence of oranges as harbingers specifically has been oft spoken about; despite the film’s production designer Dean Tavoularis stating that there is no symbolic meaning to the presence of oranges. Tavoularis is on record as saying that in a film with darker tones and sombre sets, oranges provided a nice contrast in colour and work well against the lighting. But you can judge for yourself. During the Woltz – Hagen meeting, there are oranges on the table close to Woltz. When Don Vito is shot at the start of the film, he is purchasing oranges on the street, which will then spill out across the road as he stumbles towards his car, whilst catching bullets from the hitmen. During the big meeting with the Five Bosses, oranges are carefully placed near the two Dons, Tattaglia and Barzini, who have plotted against the Corleone Family and will face a violent ending. And as already mentioned Tessio, the trusted caporegime, is seen during the wedding scene, sitting at a table picking an orange from a bowl.

Later in the film, the death of Don Vito, while not violent will see him with an orange. Now retired and growing tomatoes in his garden, he plays with his grandson, and starts cutting an orange. Using the rind, he places it in his mouth and starts making faces, which for a moment scares his grandson. Not long after, as the two play, chasing each other amongst the tomato plants, Don Vito suffers a massive heart attack and dies. It is a poignant and powerfully symbolic scene – the tomatoes representing both richness and the old country, with a powerful man leaving behind his previous life and returning to his peasant roots. Yet as Jagarnath also suggests, the old Don growing tomatoes is symbolic of his preparing for the future, assuring his family will have plenty for the future after he has gone. The presence of his grandson also is indicative of those future generations which he is caring for, further exemplified by their playing amongst the tomato plants. Incidentally, Marlon Brando improvised the whole scene. The trick with the orange was one he had used with his own children and he also encouraged the boy playing his grandson to run through the tomato plants. To Coppola’s credit, he let Brando do his thing and captured a wonderful moment on film.

Additionally, the method by which the Corleone Family receives the news that their greatest weapon, Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana) has been murdered also provided the film with one of popular culture’s greatest lines. A package arrives with Luca’s body armour and inside some fresh fish. The ‘Sicilian message’ is clear as well as chilling and haunting that ‘Luca Brasi sleeps with the fishes’.

One of the most celebrated scenes in the film involves the hit on turncoat soldier Paulie Gatto. It is a scene which perfectly depicts the typical Mob hit, at least in terms of attitude. Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano) arranges the hit, with Rocco Lampone pulling the trigger and ‘making his bones’. The lead up shows the usual approach – lulling the victim into a sense of assurance, acting casual and then finally committing the act. Paulie’s bloodied face stares lifeless as it lays on the steering wheel and Clemenza utters perhaps the second most famous line in the film; ‘Leave the gun, take the cannoli’. The classic Sicilian sweet holds more importance than a man’s life but more importantly it becomes a device to show the cold, business-like approach that Mafia takes when dealing with problems. It is a chilling and memorable scene.

The reporting of Paulie’s demise occurs during a moment when the jovial Clemenza teases Michael Corleone about a phone-call from Kay. It is then that he invites Michael to the stove to show him how to cook spaghetti sauce. It’s a warm and close moment, as a group of men sit behind Clemenza in the kitchen eating. Yet a moment later, Sonny (James Caan) the acting boss walks in and asks Clemenza about Paulie, to which Clemenza nonchalantly replies ‘Oh Paulie, we won’t see him no more”. Despite being murderers and dangerous men, the scene also shows Clemenza, and by extension Don Vito, as being nurturers and providers, looking after their families and those who are close to them. They do so through the traditional food which they provide; prepared with care and love, and coming from old recipes from their homeland. In Harlan Lebo’s outstanding book ‘The Godfather Legacy’ (2005), Coppola has stated that he added the scene to give everyone a ‘great tomato sauce’. It is one of those touches the great directors added, to give the film greater authenticity and cultural identity. Similar touches can be found elsewhere in the film. During a meeting between Don Vito, his eldest boy Sonny (James Caan) and Tom Hagen, a bottle of home made anisette, made by Coppola himself from his father’s recipe, sits on a table near Don Vito. Whilst the Corleone men sit around planning murder, they sit around eating Chinese food – evoking a personal memory for Coppola because his ‘father liked Chinese food’. It may not connect for the audience as authentic, but the fact that it does for the director does make the scene authentic to his sensibilities and his shaping of the film’s ‘bigger picture’.

Perhaps the most important scene in the movie is the killing of Virgil Sollozzo (Al Letierri) and Sgt. McClusky (Sterling Hayden) by Michael Corleone. The symbolism of food and dining in this scene is layered with complexities. Earlier during the planning, Sonny announces that the meeting place is Louie’s Restaurant, The Bronx. Immediately, Tessio approves the choice for its’ good food and the implication that Michael will meet with Sollozzo and McClusky is that they will eat together as they speak. Again, the sharing of food also implies trust but in this case it will mark death. In the restaurant, Sollozzo echoes Tessio’s earlier approval telling McClusky to ‘try the veal, it’s the best in the city’. As Sollozzo and Michael speak, his mind turns over what is to come. When the moment arrives, despite all the audience’s prior knowledge, we are shocked at the suddenness and the intimate explicitness of that moment. There is an almost comic moment where McClusky, fork filled with veal mid-air, cops a bullet in the throat and then the head, before pitching forward and upsetting the table. The significance of this moment cannot be understated – Michael had declared throughout his life that he never wanted any part of his father’s business. His committing murder is a betrayal of himself. Regardless of what has unfolded, Michael is now forever set on a path he can never turn around, no matter what he tries. The upturned table represents the life of Michael Corleone and the family also upturned, with further problems to come.

Upturned tables also feature in the sad marriage of Connie (Talia Shire) to Carlo Rizzi (Gianni Russo). Beating her regularly and treating her terribly, Connie tries to be the dutiful wife. As a ‘good wife’ in the Sicilian tradition, she cooks in the same way her mother does, setting the table and telling her ingrate husband that dinner is on the table. For Connie, the set table with cooked dinner represents her understanding of a home and stability, fulfilling her duties as a wife. Carlo’s indifference as he gets ready to go out and meet his mistress, will then follow into one of the film’s most disturbing and ugliest scenes, as Connie loses her composure and begins to ruin the set table. The domesticity of the home breaks into unfettered violence, as Carlo begins to beat his pregnant wife. The normal promise of food on the table symbolising a loving home has been broken for Connie and adds further tragedy to the story of the Corleone Family.

The Godfather was never a ‘gangster film’ nor is it a crime drama. Its’ endurance is that it is a film about a family who happen to be in the Mafia. Brando also believed that the film was the representation of the American Dream and capitalism at its’ very core. The Corleone Family may be gangsters but they are still a family shaped by Sicilian traditions in place for generations. Food is a key tradition because it brings family together and becomes the link between those generations.  Coppola would use food extensively in the next two films to convey the same values, traditions and messages. (If you don’t believe me, take a good look!) That other great TV drama about a family in the Mafia, The Sopranos, certainly sees the values embedded in food. And we as the audience cannot help but see it, too, if we look hard enough. 

This article was featured in the ‘Food In Film’ Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings https://silverscreenings.org/2017/11/06/foodinfilm-blogathon-aperitif/ and Speakeasy https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2017/09/19/announcing-the-food-in-film-blogathon/

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history