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Entries in Old Hollywood (116)

Wednesday
Jan272016

Judy by the Numbers: "Dear Mr. Gable"

Anne Marie is charting Judy Garland's career through musical numbers...

In 1936, 14 year old Judy was selected to perform at Clark Gable's birthday party. Gable, the biggest MGM star at that time, was to have an all out bash. For Judy's performance, Roger Edens wrote an intro lyric to an old MGM property, "You Made Me Love You," which directed the 1917 song specifically at Gable. At the party, Judy jumped out of a cake and sang the star his song, charming not only the birthday boy, but also his boss, Louis B. Mayer.

The Movie: Broadway Melody of 1938 (MGM, 1937)
The Songwriter: James V. Monaco (music), Joseph McCarthy (lyrics), Roger Edens (new title & intro)
The Players: Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, Judy Garland, Clark Gable's photo, directed by Roy del Ruth

 

The Story: The result of her hit at the birthday party was that Judy Garland was cast singing her new song in  Broadway Melody of 1938. The Broadway Melody series was designed for MGM to try out up-and-coming talent; Buddy Ebsen made his debut there, and it helped make Eleanor Powell a star. Judy was no exception. All of the reviews raved about her: NYT called out her "amazing precocity" while The Hollywood Reporter asked why she'd been kept under wraps so long. "Dear Mr. Gable" would become her first single, too. Judy Garland was an overnight hit, but it would take her 2 more years and 5 more movies to become a star.

Wednesday
Jan132016

Judy by the Numbers: "The Texas Tornado"

Anne Marie back with the next installment in our new Judy Garland series. Before she was a legend, Frances Gumm was a contract player. This meant that MGM could loan her out to other studios. It was common practice for both large stars and minor players. But what makes you Frances unique is how rare it was for her. Today's musical marks the only time MGM loaned out Judy Garland; the rest of her contract with the studio would be spent snugly - if not comfortably - within the white walls of Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Judy's next short would kick off the Garland legend, and jumpstart the young teen's career.
 
The Movie: Pigskin Parade (20th Century Fox, 1936)
The Songwriters: Lew Pollack (Music), Sidney D. Mitchell (Lyrics)
The Players: Stuart Erwin, Patsy Kelly, Betty Grable, Jack Haley, Judy Garland, directed by David Butler
The Story: Already under contract to MGM at the age of 14, the newly renamed Judy Garland's first feature film was a loan out to 20th Century Fox. Pigskin Parade was a low-budget musical - Fox's favorite kind - that cashed in on the early 30's fad for college crooners. Judy plays the hick sister of a barefoot football prodigy (Stuart Erwin) who's invited by accident to play for Yale. Judy gets a handful of numbers, all shot and sounding more or less exactly like this one: she stands, feet planted, and belts pep songs in medium closeup. Young Judy hasn't quite mastered lip synching yet, but already one of her defining features shines: she looks like she's having a hell of a lot of fun performing.
Wednesday
Jan062016

Judy by the Numbers: "The Land of Let's Pretend"

Judy at 8. In just ten years time she'll have a mini "Juvenile" Oscar!Editor's Note: With Anne-Marie in grad school we're taking it easier on her for 2016. After her invaluable deep dives into Katharine Hepburn with "A Year With Kate" and female directors in "Women's Pictures" something much shorter but reliably tuneful for you each Wednesday morning in '16: Judy Garland numbers! 

Anne Marie returning to you. Welcome to a new series exploring Judy Garland through the music she made famous and the songs that made her a star. Before she was Judy Garland, Frances "Baby" Gumm was the youngest of a three sister Vaudeville act. The child of Vaudeville performers, a family story states that she made her stage debut at 30 months singing "Jingle Bells." She was so entranced by the footlights that her father had to remove her after she sang the song - 7 times.

The Movie: "Bubbles" (Vitaphone Short, 1929 or 1930)
The Songwriters: Harry Akst (Music) and Grant Clark (Lyrics)
The Players: The Gumm Sisters, directed by Roy Mack

The Story: "Bubbles" is close to Frances Gumm's film debut; she and her sisters made a series of Vitaphone shorts for Warner Brothers. Though she's just 8 years old, it's already clear that there's something about young Frances - the short one on the right who mugs to a spot right of camera during her brief closeup. At the moment, that "something" is a big smile and an equally big (if tinny) voice. But such small stuff is what stars are moulded from.

Friday
Oct092015

Beauty Break: It's World Egg Day !

Today is World Egg Day. For real. The Film Experience's official preference order:

  • Burnt alien eggs prepared by Lt. Ellen Ripley
  • Baby Munchkin birthing eggs in the merry old land of Oz
  • Jurassic Park eggs when Laura Dern stares at them

Nathaniel's official preference order: Scrambled, poached, over easy, fried, boiled but whichever way you prepare them, they're wholly delicious. To celebrate this important occassion, here are some movie star photos...

Click to read more ...

Friday
Aug282015

Broken Lance's "Half Breed"

Robert Wagner keeps invading our Smackdown celebrations. In our 1952 revisit he appeared briefly as a shell shocked soldier for Susan Hayward to comfort with her crooning in With a Song in My Heart. He was almost impossible to look at from the pretty. And here he is again, distracting another Smackdown with his smolder in the western Broken Lance.

Perhaps we'd better go inside."

[Translation]: Jean Peters, you're about to tear your clothes off under the moonlight and devour me but I will chivalrously save your reputation... now that I've already won you with my lips. 

The rising 24 year-old actor was rumored to be carrying on behind the scenes with the then 47 year-old Barbara Stanwyck (who happens to co-star in Executive Suite, another of this month's Smackdown movies) but his most enduring romance was yet to begin. How many times do you think a then 16 year-old Natalie Wood, just one year away from her key transition film from child star to teen icon (Rebel Without a Cause) demanded to watch Broken Lance? Do you think her friends & handlers were all "enough with the Broken Lance, Nat!" According to Natalie herself, by 1954 her love would have already been six years strong though the actors had yet to meet.

"I was 10 and he was 18 when I first saw him walking down a hall at 20th Century Fox," she recalls. "I turned to my mother and said, 'I'm going to marry him.' "

She did.

Natalie married RJ (for the first time) in December 1957. She was just 19.

In Broken Lance, the then 24 year old actor (of German and Norwegian descent) plays our protagonist, the "half breed" son of Native American princess "Señora Devereaux" (played by Mexican actress Katy Jurado) and an Irish cattle rancher (played by Spencer Tracy of Irish descent) who is at odds with his half-brothers. R.J. is heavily bronzed for the role. For all the typical Old Hollywood clumsiness with racial identity and casting -- something that hasn't changed much in the subsequent 61 years (note: Rooney Mara as "Tiger Lily" in the forthcoming Pan) --  Broken Lance actually really sells the racial identity angst with something like humane progressive verve. Jean Peters, playing RJ's love interest Barbara, jokes that her man is more upset about being half Irish than half Indian in a clumsy date scene which results in both of them doing those cheery Old Holllywood fake chuckles as we dissolve out. Elsewhere, though, there's rich drama. Tracy's three sons from an earlier marriage, who serve as the plot's antagonists aren't always comfortable with their bi-racial home but neither are they painted as explicitly racist. Their "evil," if you will, arrives from a more complex mix of agendas and grudges against their father and you can see that the eldest actually respects his stepmom and youngest brother, even as he speaks out against them. In the films most sympathetically acted moment of strife, Tracy squares off with the Governor (E.G. Marshall), over their children's unexpected romance (pictured up top). The governor's discomfort with his daughter falling for his closest friend's bi-racial son-- a young man he otherwise likes quite a lot and has seen grow up, mind you -- clearly scars both men, tearing their decades long friendship apart. Prejudices hurt everyone, not just the target of the prejudice.

All in all Broken Lance is an engaging western with more ambitions than gunfights for a change of pace. And this is why we should always love the Oscars, people. Let others reflexively gripe about it and miss out. Awards history directs us to movies we might otherwise never see from before our time. And Oscar history, for all its imperfections and blindspots, can illuminate pop culture throughlines, introduce you to rich now underappreciated talents, and provide wonderful anecdotal bits and bobs from mainstream history, cinematic and otherwise.

I love doing the Smackdowns and I hope you do, too. If you wanted to vote on this round, I need your votes by this evening at the absolute latest. The 1954 Supporting Actress Smackdown arrives Sunday morning at 10:00 AM.

Wednesday
Aug192015

Lukewarm Off Presses: James Dean, Christopher Guest, Bryan Cranston

Three stories we're late mentioning but so what? Always eager to hear your thoughts...

Trumbo
Still no trailer but there's now a poster for Trumbo, the Hollywood blacklist drama starring Bryan Cranston and Helen Mirren (as gossip icon Hedda Hopper). Cranston could be looking at the Triple Crown if he's Best Actor nominated since he already has the Tony and the Emmy. Will Oscar go wild for this? A word of caution for those predicting at home: People were going on and on about how much Hollywood loves movies about itself when Birdman won the Oscar last season but it's not entirely true. They sometimes nominate movies about movies but they don't tend to be the big winners. And Hollywood blacklist dramas are an infrequent subcategory unto themselves: Career (1959) won a few tech nominations but nothing in the top categories;  The Way We Were (1973) only won for music and didn't even make the Best Picture lineup which it absolutely deserved to be in; Guilty by Suspicion (1991) with Robert De Niro and The Bening and The Majestic (2001) starring Jim Carrey were both entirely ignored;  Good Night and Good Luck (2005) was popular with voters for nominations but lost each of its categories. 

Mascots
It's been nine freaking years since Christopher Guest's last mockumentary For Your Consideration (2006) which was, unfortunately his weakest comedy. But he's finally making something new! The movie will be for Netflix and it's about what it sounds like it's about. No cast announced yet but I think we can safely guess at least a handful of players. I NEED to see Parker Posey and Catherine O'Hara in big furry costumes, okay? I need it like I need oxygen. 

<-- The "Life" of James Dean
Bring Your Own "Yes No Maybe So" in the comments. James Dean has had biopics before but this one comes from Anton Corbijn who I think we should allow made a very fine music biopic on Ian Curtis of Joy Division called Control (2007). This ground, however, is amply covered previously -- except for its macro focus on a photoshoot the moment before Dean was famous. The film, which looks depressingly actress free from the trailer, stars Robert Pattinson, Ben Kingsley, the ubiquitous Joel Edgerton and Dane DeHaan as James Dean.

Ready? Go...