Sunday, May 29, 2011

Another Forgotten Actress - Ann Harding

Ann Harding 1901-1981

Take a close look at that face.  Within those eyes, there is an intelligence and a warmth that comes across on screen with such grace and wholeheartedness that I could not stop watching her.  I had barely heard of Ann Harding, again my mom mentioned her in passing over the years of our talking about movies, but I had never seen her films.  Therefore, I was very pleased to learn that my class last Thursday was going to be devoted to her and her acting career.  My professor is in love with 30's actresses but he especially loves ones like Ann Harding, who seem so real and glowing on screen.  The film we watched was "The Animal Kingdom" directed by Edward H. Griffith and also starring Leslie Howard and Myrna Loy (in the marvelous role of a temptress and villain which I had never seen her do before.)  This film was based upon the play of the same name written by Philip Barry, who also co-wrote the screenplay.  Ann Harding plays Daisy, a woman who has a relationship with the wealthy Tom (Leslie Howard) for a number of years but is reluctant to marry.  Tom meets Cecelia (Myrna Loy) who uses all of her guile and sex appeal to win him and he agrees to marry her, breaking Daisy's heart.  The film centers around Tom's slow realization of Cecelia's true character, or lack of, and that his heart and soul truly reside with Daisy.  Ann Harding gives Daisy such an earthy and again, intelligent, feel that how could anyone not love her and want her in their life.  She exudes a calm beautiful nature that was probably not far from her true personality.  Watching her on screen I fell into her eyes and hung on her every word.  She had this beautiful deep voice that was soothing and magical.  We also saw a clip from a film called "When Ladies Meet" from 1933 that also showed this quality.  Again, Ann is playing opposite Myrna Loy as the woman wronged.  Ann and Myrna are discussing infidelity and as the conversation progresses, Ann slowly realizes that Myrna is having an affair with her husband.  Ann uses no gimmicks or mannerisms to show her emotions, it is purely in her face and especially in her eyes.  Many of her films were banned after the Code hit Hollywood because of their frank view of relationships but luckily for us they are available now.  I highly recommend both of these films and Ann Harding.  The Pre-Code films of women like Ann Harding are so real and allowed them to play roles with such life and depth, I am always surprised at their honesty.  

Friday, May 27, 2011

An Original - Katharine Hepburn

If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.
Katharine Hepburn 1907-2003

Katharine Hepburn has never been one of my favorite actresses but I have always admired her spirit.  She was truly an original and in some ways, ahead of her time.  Her manner of dress and outspoken personality on screen made her someone to look up to and in some ways, fear.  For me, she was far better later in her life in such roles as Eleanor of Aquitaine in "A Lion in Winter" and as Christina Drayton in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"  However, in my class last week we were shown the 1937 film "Stage Door," which was one of her earlier films.  It also starred Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Jack Carson.  It is the story of a boarding house for aspiring young actresses in New York and has some of the craziest dialogue (especially between Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball.)  The story is a simple one about actresses trying to make it on Broadway and Katharine Hepburn joins the house as a wealthy socialite who is irritating and brutally honest thus not making many friends.  She receives a role on Broadway that was coveted by one of the quieter girls in the house with dire consequences.  This is not a great film but it is a very good film that shows her style and appeal.  She delivers her lines with a quickness that bites but when the unthinkable happens to one of her fellow actresses, she shows us a soft, kind heart and a loyalty to her friends that surprises everyone.  I have a feeling that the real Katharine Hepburn was probably very much like this character - strong, outspoken, original, warm, kind and loyal - someone you would want to know and have in your life.  

Other films to watch to know the young Katharine better:

"Morning Glory"
"Bill of Divorcement"
"Alice Adams"
"A Woman Rebels"

For the older Katharine, do not miss:

"The African Queen"
"Lion in Winter"
"On Golden Pond"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

"The Conspirator"

"The Conspirator" starring Robin Wright ("The Princess Bride" "Forrest Gump" "White Oleander"), James McAvoy ("The Last King of Scotland" "Atonement"), Tom Wilkinson (who seems to be in everything!) and directed by the iconic Robert Redford, is a good solid film that could have been great.  "The Conspirator" tells the story of Mary Surratt, a boardinghouse owner who was tried and convicted as a co-conspirator in the assassination plot to kill President Abraham Lincoln, Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward.  She became the first woman to be executed in the United States.  She was hung on July 7, 1865.  Robin Wright is excellent as Mary Surratt.  She plays the role with such subtlety and intensity that you feel her anguish and confusion as a visceral kind of pain.  Robin Wright has always been a tremendously talented actress who has not been given starring roles and I hope that this turn as Mary Surratt wakes up Hollywood to her true talent.  James McAvoy is also very good as the young lawyer, Frederick Aiken, who is called upon to defend Mary despite his belief that she is guilty.  As the trial unfolds, Frederick discovers that there is another conspiracy at work and that is to convict and execute Mary Surratt in place of her son, the real co-conspirator, who has disappeared. Frederick becomes personally involved and does his very best to provide a defense for Mary but he soon realizes that he is fighting a corrupt prosecutor (played by the great character actor, Danny Huston) and a government that is looking to bring a swift end to the tragedy of Abraham Lincoln's death.  Robert Redford shows us what life may have looked like in 1865 by shooting scenes in semi-darkness and through filtered lenses to make the atmosphere look dusty and sepia-toned.  The costumes of the day are very well done and overall, the film seems a true representation of its time period.  However, there is something missing.  I am not sure if it is just too cold of a film, or if it is that the actors do not quite gel together, but I came out of the theatre slightly disappointed.  I also have not thought about the film much since I saw it Mother's Day weekend and that is always a true test for me.  If a film does not stay with me and cause me to think about it, then for me it missed the mark on an emotional level, whether those emotions are happiness, sadness, hilarity, joy or fright.  I do recommend it, though, as a glimpse into an event in our history that has been swept aside.  It's not a pretty representation of our government at work but it is a true story that should be told.  

Monday, May 9, 2011

Ingrid Bergman

"I can do everything with ease on the stage, whereas in real life I feel too big and clumsy. 
So I didn't choose acting. It chose me." 
Ingrid Bergman  1915-1982

Who would have thought that someone as beautiful and talented as Ingrid Bergman would feel like that? It does my heart good to know that even those who seem to have everything and who are adored by so many still feel as we in the audience so often feel.  To me, Ingrid Bergman was one of the most easily accessible actresses of her time.  Her beauty had an attainable quality to it, unlike other actresses from the 40's such as Lana Turner, Vivien Leigh or Ava Gardner.  She looked like she could live next door and be a dear friend.  She was born in Sweden, both of her parents died early in her life and she made her first film in 1935.  Her second film, "Intermezzo" filmed in Sweden, caught the attention of David O. Selnick.  He immediately signed her to a contract in Hollywood, remade "Intermezzo" and she was a sensation.  Ingrid went on to become one of the most intelligent, sought-after and award-winning actresses ever.  

The film we watched in class, the 1941 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" also starring Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner and Donald Crisp, while not one of her most famous roles as my professor likes to show us films we probably have not seen before, it is an excellent example of just how extraordinary she was.  Spencer Tracy is wonderful in the lead role(s), of course, but Ingrid Bergman takes the role of Ivy Peterson (the barmaid who Mr. Hyde imprisons) and makes her unforgettable.  When the film was being shot, the gossip in Hollywood was that Lana Turner would play the part of Ivy Peterson and Ingrid would play Dr. Jekyll's very kind and simple girlfriend, Beatrix Emery, as that part seemed to suit her based upon her past roles.  However, Ingrid insisted that she play Ivy and, boy, did she.  Her scenes with Mr. Hyde in the apartment where he imprisons her are works of art and there is not a minute during those scenes that you take your eyes off of her.  The depth of her anguish and pain are apparent on her face and you can hear it in her voice.  Her friends come by to help but her terror that Mr. Hyde will find her no matter where she goes is heartbreaking.  She goes to see Dr. Jekyll to ask for help and she shows him the welts on her back that Mr. Hyde has inflicted.  She breaks down and weeps with a passion that seems so real.  Dr. Jekyll sees what he as Mr. Hyde has done to this poor girl so he promises he will never let Mr. Hyde near her again.  She believes him and goes home to celebrate, but her celebration is cut short by a knock at the door that turns out to be Mr. Hyde.  He confronts her, they quarrel and she slowly realizes that he is going to kill her.  Her dear sweet face shows such fear and utter helplessness that I was brought to tears.  Mr. Hyde attacks, slowly strangles her and she disappears out of the camera's view, leaving you devastated.  The rest of the film seemed colorless and flat after Ingrid's demise.  She lit up the screen and drew you a picture of a young woman caught in something she could never understand.  Ingrid Bergman gave her heart and soul to her roles but also brought a tenderness that other actresses could not.  She was a true film actress who took each role further than anyone thought possible and breathed life into them.  She was truly one of a kind.  

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hedy Lamarr

Any girl can look glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.
Hedy Lamarr

When I was a kid I spent many Saturday afternoons watching movies on television.  One of the movies that I saw numerous times and seemed to be on about once a month was "Samson and Delilah" starring Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature.  So I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Hedy Lamarr was on the list as the subject of my class last night.  I knew nothing about Hedy Lamarr herself but had spent so many afternoons as a young teenager watching her that I felt as if I did know her.  Well, I was completely wrong.  While I had always had the impression that she was a "B" actress, she was actually quite a wonderful actress who was stifled by the filmmakers of the post-code era.  Hedy Lamarr was born in 1913 in Austria and made several films in the early 30's in Europe that brought her to the attention of Hollywood.  She came to Hollywood in 1938, starred in the film "Algiers" with Charles Boyer and her career was started.  She was truly one of the most beautiful women to ever be in films (imagine Vivien Leigh and Elizabeth Taylor rolled into one) which over-shadowed her acting.  She was cast as the silent but gorgeous costar throughout the 40's, which is probably what prompted her to say the line that I quoted above.  Yet, as she aged, staying just as beautiful, she found her footing as a dramatic actress in such films as "Samson and Delilah" "White Cargo" and "Lady Without a Passport." However, the film that we saw in it's entirety last night was her first film from 1933 called "Ecstasy."  It was made by a Czechoslovakian filmmaker and was one of the most daring films of its time.  Even by modern standards, it is still quite daring.  Hedy plays a very young woman who marries an older man who turns out to be cold, probably OCD and unable to consummate the marriage.  She longs for the sexual fulfillment that marriage should bring so she leaves him.  She meets a much younger man while out swimming (naked, of course) and what follows is something I never thought I'd see in a film from the 1930's.  It is the first ever filmed sequence of intercourse.  It is all done with shadows and filmed through gauze, but the film maker's focus on Hedy's face throughout the scene tells the whole story.  It is actually quite beautiful.  The film itself is quite strange as there is very little dialogue and there is a very long and odd scene at the end of men working in the fields, but there are many references to sexual longing throughout the film using flowers, horses, bees and the waving wheat in the fields.  Hedy's portrayal of this young woman is almost breathtaking.  With the lack of dialogue, she is left with only her face as a way to convey her struggles or her happiness.  She divorces the older man, has a rendezvous with the younger man, the older man finds them and commits suicide in the room upstairs.  Hedy and her young man have planned to leave town by train the next day but Hedy cannot go through with it.  Her guilt over the older man's suicide is something she cannot forget.  As they are waiting for the train, her young man falls asleep, she gathers her things together, kisses him one last time and gets on the train going the opposite way.  I was very moved by her performance, especially from someone so young (she was only 19.)  In "Ecstasy" she was neither made up or made to wear glamorous clothes.  She was merely a young woman.  I could see the woman Hedy would become later in her career in that lovely teenage face.  
I am glad to know the real Hedy Lamarr. 


Claudette Colbert

"It matters more what's in a woman's face than what's on it." 
Claudette Colbert  

Now here is a woman of distinction.  Claudette Colbert was beautiful, funny and an extremely talented actress who everyone remembers for "It Happened One Night" with Clark Gable.  The film won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1934 and garnered the Best Actress award for Claudette.  This is a wonderful screwball comedy,  however, her true genius can only be fully recognized by viewing her other films.  She was brilliant at comedy but the film we watched, "Torch Singer" from 1933, (again a pre-code film) shows her depth as a dramatic actress.  The story is a scandalous one of unwed motherhood wherein Claudette plays a woman who has a child outside of marriage, tries her hardest to support the child but fails.  She is forced to give the child up for adoption and ends up supporting herself the only way she knows how - as a torch singer.  Her career blossoms so she seeks out the child but cannot find her.  Eventually the father of her child reappears, finds the child and everyone is reunited.  The range of emotions that cross Claudette's face as she faces motherhood and finds that she loves her child more than she could have ever imagined and will do anything to ensure that her child has everything, even if that means giving her up, are heartbreaking.  She has an earthy and an almost every day type of woman look to her that, I feel, makes her easy to identify with.  What I truly love about these pre-code films is that the emphasis is almost always on the woman and the actress who plays her.  The actresses of this time period were not only talented and beautiful but they had the ability to really dig deep and show true emotions in their films because they were allowed to.  

We also viewed clips from "Cleopatra" "Four Frightened People" "The Palm Beach Story" and "The Smiling Lieutenant."  "Cleopatra" was another pre-code film that featured a lovely bath scene that showed a nearly naked Claudette.  Her career spanned seven decades and she is one of the few pre-code actresses who survived the Code (probably due to her earthiness and her dramatic abilities.)  She also worked on stage and in many television productions.  Claudette Colbert will always be remembered for "It Happened One Night" but, for me, I will always remember her as a classic actress who could do everything.  She made me laugh, made me cry and made me really feel something.