Off-Topic Post: Happy 100th Birthday, Kirk Douglas!

Birthday boy Kirk Douglas

Birthday boy Kirk Douglas

Announcing the Dorothy Lamour Blogathon

I’m co-hosting this wonderful blogathon with Ruth of Silver Screenings! Let’s get the party started.

Silver Screenings

The Glamorous Dorothy Lamour. Image: detudoum96.tumblr.com The glamorous Dorothy Lamour. Image: detudoum96.tumblr.com

We are so excited to announce the Dorothy Lamour Blogathon!

Wouldn’t you agree it’s time we celebrated this talented woman? Dorothy was much more than the sarong she became famous for – she was a singer, an actor, a mother and a dynamic fundraiser of American WWII war bonds.

Our fab friend Maedez at Font and Frock and A Small Press Life suggested we toast the remarkable Dorothy Lamour, and so we shall: March 11-13, 2016.

For the blogathon, you can write on any movie or subject associated with Ms Dorothy, including her film, theatre or television appearances. Duplicate topics are A-OK.

A list of Ms Dorothy’s movies can be found HERE.

You can sign up using the form below, which was designed by our smarty-pants friend Kristina at Speakeasy.

Please help yourself one the banners below to help us promote the event.

We hope to see you in March!

Here’s the roster so far. (You…

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O Canada Blogathon: A Beginner’s Guide to Fay Wray

This is my contribution to the O Canada Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings:

The O Canada Blogathon

The O Canada Blogathon

A few things to know before we get started:

Although this post is part of the O Canada Blogathon (yay!), this is the first part of a series on Fay Wray that will continue here. Look for more entries over the coming weeks.

Yes, this is a (mostly) literary-themed blog. Fay Wray wrote an excellent autobiography, and was also a playwright. She considered writing her true calling.

As some of you may know, in the real world I also write about old movies and their stars. I’m in the process of creating a companion blog for that pursuit. When it is up, I’ll move the series over there. More on that later.

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 Fay Wray was an exceptionally gifted woman, as any in-depth viewing of her filmography will show. It is my hope that what you read here lights a spark that will start you on a journey of appreciation for (and personal interpretation of) her work.

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Except for brief mentions, this mini-essay is a King Kong free zone. The big guy gets enough press. (We’ll cover him another day, anyway.)

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A Brief Introduction: Some Random Thoughts on Fay Wray

Fay Wray was, in many ways, an ideal textbook movie star. Possessed of an unusual, immediately recognizable beauty, slim and elegant, she looked magnificent in any article of clothing. She exuded warmth, humor, and intelligence in every role. Her versatility was the kind that warmed the cockles of otherwise jaded movie executives’ hearts. As a leading lady who worked and excelled in multiple genres, she brought believability to her on-screen romances opposite a variety of actors. She was the first true scream queen, but, King Kong (1933) notwithstanding, she usually conveyed terror through her exceptionally expressive face or beautifully controlled gestures. In other words: girl could act. Oh, could she act!

Fay Wray

Fay Wray: Looking every inch the glamorous movie star.

She maintained her grounding presence even amidst the most absurd or fantastical plot twist. This ability to always seem realistically human was, perhaps, her greatest strength. Fay was not an artificially mannered actress; she did not have an arsenal, or even a pocketbook, full of rote gestures or winsome glances to which she defaulted when it was convenient. Naturalness, like comedy, takes great skill. Oh, and Fay did that well, too.

From her early days doing Hal Roach shorts in the 1920s to the strange horror films that marked much of her career in the next decade, her characters are, almost to a woman, ladies of exceptional wit, quick with a pithy lob or sly retort; funny, but never caricatures of a funny woman. Where the humor is not overt, one senses it living just below the surface. Whether imperiled in a jungle or lounging in the luxury of a drawing-room, her heroines are never humourless or dry.

Stars of the Photoplay, 1930, Fay Wray

Stars of the Photoplay, 1930: a cheery Fay Wray.

The first two decades of Fay Wray’s genre-bending career would take her down unique and eccentric professional paths that only she could navigate with such assurance and success. How? Never fear! A Beginner’s Guide to Fay Wray will attempt to answer that question.

For now, let’s recap:

Fay brought a long list of superlatives to the screen. She was smart, elegant, witty, natural, unaffected, beautiful, stylish, and versatile. She always delivered what was required, and more, to excellent effect. As a performer, she was present in the role, the scene, the fictional world. Why, then, after a relatively long and successful career, does her star not shine higher in the Classic Hollywood sky? No, the enduring cult status of King Kong is not solely to blame. Fay lacks the incessant punches-you-in-the-face singularity that most currently revered actresses from the era had, or, more aptly put, that we, as modern viewers, insist on reducing them to, however unfairly. Her serial adaptability in mostly B films resists our obsession with pigeon-holing. She is not relentlessly mysterious (Garbo), disturbingly sexual (Dietrich), bawdy (West), brassy (Harlow), or haughty (Hepburn). She is some of those things some of the time, but none of them always. Whatever type she played, she played so well that it ceased to be a type at all.

She did her job too well.

In a Beginner’s Guide to Fay Wray, we’ll discuss how her quiet, under-appreciated realism made the filmscape of the 1920s-1940s a better, slightly more magical place.

Next up: Three of Fay Wray’s most likable onscreen couplings, and the films that created them.

Canadian Pedigree: Fay Wray was born in Cardston, Alberta, Canada on 15 September 1907 to an American mother and an English father. Fay was three years old when her family packed up and moved across the border to the United States. She was always proud to have been born Canadian.

You can read, read all about it in On the Other Hand, her fabulous autobiography.

Bookish Cinema: Greed (1924)

A beautiful and provocative poster for Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 production of Greed, which was adapted from Frank Norris’ turn-of-the-century novel, McTeague:

Greed

Greed (1924)

The book was previously brought to the screen in 1916, under its original name. That version is lost. Von Stroheim’s famously beleaguered masterwork is the stuff of modern legend. His fight with MGM for control of the final product–particularly the editing–was painfully operatic. Although the film does not fully match the great auteur’s ambitious blue print, what we have been left with is brutally and strikingly epic.

Off Topic Post: Goodbye, Shirley Temple!

In all of the years that I’ve written about old movies, I’ve never done an essay about Shirley Temple…but that doesn’t mean I don’t love her. She was, and will always be, a star.

Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple in the full bloom of her stardom. She died yesterday, at 85.

[The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon] 1918: The Magic of Mabel and Mickey

When I was fifteen, I learned the truth behind Norma Desmond’s famous Sunset Boulevard assertion: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” Six decades of repetition has eroded this cutting indictment to a fragment of its original self, denuded of meaning even as it has become a pithy pop-culture sound bite that the least film savvy person can repeat with cocksure swagger. My enlightenment came in the form of a dusty, jacket free old book crammed with its fellows on a shelf at the public library. Subject: silent movie star portraiture. Impact: sudden, immense, striking. A well-established love of the arts, history, and old movies hadn’t prepared me for what I found in this neglected volume of photography. Questions rushed my senses: Who were these women and men? Why was their beauty sung not to the heavens but inarticulately whispered of in a suburban teenager’s bedroom? What happened to them? When did  mystery and imagination leave entertainment photography, resulting in the garish, empty images that had engulfed my recent 1980s childhood?

TWO OF MY EARLY FAVOURITES:

Lya De Putti

Lya De Putti, whose movie career started in 1918.

Valeska Suratt by Orval Hixon, 1916

Valeska Suratt by Orval Hixon, 1916. Her brief  bid for silent screen stardom ended in 1917.

The trajectory of my life changed the day I checked out that book. A passion for old movies expanded to include silent films. I watched as many as I could find, and read everything available on the subject in our large library system. Result: hooked, permanently. Bonus: growing up to write about what I love, including silent movie culture.

Amidst the flavors of the day and luckless publicity seekers, the stars whose fame flamed into the sky with the spark and longevity of an uncontrollable firecracker, and those with fleshy charms but little talent, there stood performers with skill, magnetism, and dedication to a craft that was being forged as the cameras rolled. Some are remembered-if only for the persistence of their images in twenty-first century advertising-but most are forgotten, their work rarely seen by the modern masses. In a world where Mary Pickford has been reduced to the curve of her curls and Lillian Gish to her shy, arcane smile, where Charlie Chaplin is nothing but the sum of the sartorial trio of hat, cane, and shoes, what chance does Mabel Normand stand to be recognized and appreciated as a first-class artist? Even her lovely face is a fading footnote. Continue reading

[The Mary Astor Blogathon] Red Dust: Who Knew That Rubber Plantations Were So, So Sexy?

This is my contribution to The Mary Astor Blogathon. Since I write about classic films in real life, I am thrilled to be able to share a review with my dear ASPL readers. Thanks to Ruth of Silver Screenings and Dorian of Tales of the Easily Distracted for creating and hosting this delightful event.

Don’t let the melodramatic plot fool you. At its heart, and despite its classification, Red Dust (1932) is a sexy, scandalous, brilliant comedy. The dialogue is superb, fast-paced, irreverent, and witty. It’s punchy, and it flows with that rat-a-tat-tat quality so indicative of 1930s American cinema and our collective national psyche as aggressive, plucky go-getters. In many ways, it is a drawing-room comedy without the drawing-room, one   transferred to an unlikely setting with its essence preserved: the comedy of manners element is very much in play as characters of different backgrounds, classes, and mores run verbal roughshod over each another. The slight plot of the film, resting comfortably on a triangle, and nicely augmented by the twin pillars of the Madonna-Whore argument and the fish-out-of-water gambit, gets the job done without going out of its way to be innovative. The real thrill is in the writing, the chemistry and playing of the cast, and the speed and leanness of the production. Nothing in the running time of 83 minutes is wasted, including your attention.

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 A rubber plantation during monsoon season is a dreadful place. When it is not raining, the red earth spreads viciously like a plague of locusts. There are beasts, tigers, quite literally outside the gates, where they roar from the shadows into the long hours of the night. Hungry eyes pierce the darkness. Watching. Socialization is limited, the work is hard, the crops are unpredictable, and women are scarce. Pleasures are few, and are taken as they come: without questions or expectations. Prayers are useless, and so is remorse. Continue reading