Bad for Eachother: Gloria Grahame in IN A LONELY PLACE

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Gloria Grahme was born and bred in the glow from the halo of Tinseltown but she’d have to go to New York to be offered a Hollywood contract.  The stage was her first love, perhaps her abiding love, and the young Gloria Hallward parlayed a handful of appearances in Los Angeles plays (one of them a hillbilly farce costarring a young Robert Mitchum) into a shot at Broadway.  And she got there, too, albeit as an understudy to Miriam Hopkins (a replacement for Tallullah Bankhead) in Thornton Wilder’s THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH.  It was Gloria’s rough luck that Ms. Hopkins never missed a performance but there were other plays and other roles and MGM boss Louis B. Mayer saw her in one of these and offered her a seven year contract.  Although she wasn’t thrilled about the idea of giving up on live theatre, Gloria followed the money back to California.  She made her film debut as Gloria Grahame in 1944 but spent most of her time on the Metro lot posing for cheesecake photos with such pretty young hopefuls as Cyd Charisse, Linda Christian and Ava Gardner.  It was on loan-out to RKO that she made her first real dent in the immortality game, as good-time girl Violet Bick in Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946).  RKO would eventually take Gloria on full-time but not before she played a supporting role, another fallen woman, in Edward Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE (1947), for which she received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress.  Although she had played it bright and bubbly at MGM, RKO stamped Gloria Grahame as damaged goods… and by then the actress really was feeling the part. [...MORE]

The Unsung Glenn Ford

Glenn Ford, around the time he played "Pa Kent" in Superman (1978)

“I’ve never played anyone but myself on screen.”
~ Glenn Ford (1916-2006)

He never won an Academy Award, nor was he recognized by the American Film Institute with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet, in over 200 movies, the seamless, artless quality in actor Glenn Ford‘s work enabled him to fly under the radar of the ballyhoo that surrounds much of Hollywood. His very squareness illuminated something of value for audiences: the effort to survive, the desire to preserve some integrity, some shared insight into the nature of good and evil, and the things of value that we might try to pass on. Whether behind a badge, roaming on horseback, wearing a business suit, a uniform or a pair of well-worn jeans, his characters could be good and bad. He didn’t really care if he played “the villain or the hero,” the actor once pointed out. “Sometimes the villain is the most colorful. But I prefer a part where you don’t know what he is until the end.” Commentators have pointed out that much of the career of Glenn Ford was based on “niceness”, with decency and morality running consistently through his characters. I find the struggle and inability of Ford‘s characters to remain “nice” in an increasingly complex, unfair world to be one of the factors that makes him an interesting actor. His occasional slow burns on screen in roles such as The Violent Men, Trial, Ransom, The Big Heat and Human Desire, and his overwhelmed comic characters, such as the widower in The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, brought out something unexpectedly mercurial in his screen persona. You cannot always predict where he is going to go with a characterization.

When TCM trots out a plethora of Glenn Ford movies this Friday, August 7th, as part of the Summer Under the Stars celebration, I’ll probably be watching–warily. Until the last few years, you see, I didn’t think I liked Glenn Ford. But that was my mistake. Now I know better and can appreciate some of his work. Besides, I need to hang out till the ends of his movies to find out if his character was good or bad.
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Domo arigato… Mondo Roboto!

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In a delightful starburst of serendipity a few weeks ago, my Morlock brother from another mother R. Emmett Sweeney wrote about lesser-known robots of the silver screen; this is by definition serendipitous because I find myself playing robot a lot lately, with my kids.  I don’t know where Vayda and Victor picked up on the classic robot schtick – the stiff, jointless legs; arms bent at 90 degree angles; the metallic, soulless voice droning “I am a ro-bot… I am a ro-bot…” – but they’ve got it down cold.  They’re not that into science fiction, my children, and I suspect their inspiration may have come from the TV show YO GABBA GABBA, which boasts a regular automaton character named Plex and a recurring featurette titled SUPER MARTIAN ROBOT GIRL.  Truth be told, it’s really Vayda who has the robot jones.  She recently made my wife walk home from the park with her in full-on robot character; it’s not a long walk, maybe a hundred yards or so, but it sure would seem a hundred miles if you couldn’t bend your knees for the duration and instead had to waddle Tobor-style all the way.  But that’s one of the great things about having kids – time and time again, in the sheer barking lunacy of their innocence and exhausting enthusiasm, they bring back the essential stuff from your youth, passions you’ve forgotten and left behind in your mad rush to be sophisticated, up-to-date and cool.  And one of the things my brood has brought me back to late in life is a love, a deep and abiding love, of badly designed, crudely constructed and barely viable robots.  You know the kind of which I speak:  they clatter and clank, looking as if they’ve been put together from spare Edsel parts, Swanson TV dinner trays and AC conduit, as they trudge along in the service of a mad scientist or evil alien emperor.  Why, they’re nearly as old as cinema itself. [...MORE]

Sylvia Sidney: “Paid by the Tear”

Sylvia Sidney

Who is the delicate looking girl at left with the brimming eyes and the heart-shaped face, who once described show business as “the world’s roughest gamble”?  In her own way, Sylvia Sidney (1910-1999) rolled the dice against the house and managed to stay in the game for seven decades. Why don’t more people know her?

Well, they do, but contemporary viewers may be familiar with only a small portion of her graceful talent. Sylvia Sidney may be best remembered as the ancient woman who still smokes like a chimney in the afterlife, as she appeared as the brashly amusing ghoulish bureaucrat in Beetle Juice (1988) or in Mars Attacks (1996), as the Slim Whitman-loving granny who saves the world in those imaginatively surreal Tim Burton movies.  With only a few of her movies available to contemporary viewers, her finely drawn portraits of earlier decades may be increasingly unfamiliar. Perhaps a small nod her way will encourage more of us to seek out her memorable gallery of characters from long ago.

I first became aware of Sylvia Sidney as a kid when I encountered her somewhat hapless good girl moll in Mary Burns, Fugitive(1935) on one of those channels that broadcast old movies repeatedly in the ’60s and ’70s. She won my heart playing a plucky, almost fatally naïve hash slinger in a rural diner whose boyfriend (Alan Baxter) turns out to be a very bad apple. Caught up in the media frenzy over her gunsel paramour, Mary Burns soon lands in the pokey, and only becomes liberated from society’s narrow expectations and her poisonous honey when she plugs him. The movie, which is a hybrid of the “woman’s picture” and the socially aware  “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” flick, limns the downfall and rise of a person whose unexamined life is turned on its head by chance and by the coldness of the justice system. The gradual assertion of this overwhelmed young woman’s will to survive was more riveting for me because of the petite Sylvia Sidney‘s ability to convey such a highly feminine blend of fear, outrage, and her growing understanding of the thinness of civilization’s veneer.

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Escapes from the MGM Pidgeon Hole

Walter Pidgeon in his prime
Walter Pidgeon (1897-1984) seems to have been one of the studio era’s clearest eyed realists. Reflecting on his long tenure at the Tiffany of movie studios from the ’30s to the ’50s, he once described his experience as being “like a kept woman during my twenty-one years at MGM.”

Known by his co-workers for his general irreverence, naughty sense of humor, amiability on the set, and deep-rooted work ethic, he ably filled that second tier niche occupied by fellow MGM actors, Robert Montgomery and Robert Young. Like them, he appeared to be especially deft at light comedy and drama that didn’t require much heavy lifting (or thinking)—though these actors occasionally went beyond their employer’s and audience expectations in a few significant films. Walter Pidgeon was very good at supporting actresses who were bigger stars, such as Myrna Loy and Jean Harlow, though his most memorable partner was in his eight on-screen pairings with Greer Garson, which began with Blossoms in the Dust (1941) and continued through Scandal at Scourie (1953). During this partnership, Pidgeon, who many commentators today describe as “unexciting” or even “wooden”, also earned Oscar nominations for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Madame Curie (1943). While his style may have fallen out of fashion among some, I suspect that there are many film lovers who not only find him a reassuring presence in many films, but might enjoy some of his uncharacteristic work–little of which, strangely, seems to have earned him much individual recognition at the time.

Tall, dark and handsome in a relaxed, pleasantly middle-aged way, his malleability as a contract player also landed him in some fairly thankless roles at his home studio, though the completely unexpected success of a “B” movie role as gentleman detective Nick Carter, Master Detective (1939), in three films at MGM helped to make it possible for him to have an annus mirabilis beginning in 1940. [...MORE]

Looking at Boyer

In a rare meeting late in the lives of the stars of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939), (which can be seen on TCM this Thursday, March 20th at 4: 30PM ET), Irene Dunne reportedly mentioned to Boyer that she had recently seen the film once again. Unexpectedly moved after so much time since the production, Ms. Dunne was said to have commented to to her co-star, “You know, Charles, you were really good.” With what may have been one of his characteristic Gallic shrugs and a small smile, his reply was said to have been “Ah, so you finally looked at me.” Maybe it’s time we all looked a bit more carefully at him again. [...MORE]

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK – Peter Lorre

Peter LorreWhen one thinks of the great character actors from the studio system days in Hollywood, Peter Lorre is surely at the top of most people’s list, along with Sydney Greenstreet with whom he co-starred in nine features. But the studio system is also to blame for stereotyping Lorre as criminals, madmen, and various neurotics including even parodies of himself. People seem to forget he was more than just a character actor during his early years in the German cinema and his powerfully intense performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) is irrefutable proof of his brilliance as a dramatic actor. With the exception of his first two Hollywood pictures – MAD LOVE and CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (both 1935) – and the title role in the Mr. Moto series for Fox, however, Lorre was given few opportunities to play leading roles in anything except B-pictures. Some of these, of course, were memorable (THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS, 1946) but the real gem among the assembly line programmers is THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, made for Columbia Pictures in 1941. Unfortunately, it is not currently available in any format but it’s quite possible it could turn up on TCM in the future. It’s played on the network before.

 The Face Behind the Mask lobbycard

 

THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK features one of Lorre’s most moving performances and one that allows him to display a wide range of emotions within the course of a sixty-nine minute film. The movie, directed by Robert Florey, is really four stories in one; the first part is pure tragedy that depicts the arrival of an optimistic immigrant from Hungary -  Janos Szabo (Lorre) – and his subsequent near-death and disfigurement in a boarding room fire, the second section follows Janos’s rise as a criminal mastermind after being rejected by conventional society for his hideous appearance (now disguised by a mask), the third chapter is a tender love story in which Janos befriends and falls in love with a blind girl named Helen Williams (Evelyn Keyes), and the final quarter is a grim revenge drama in which Janos avenges the crimes committed against him by his former gang members.

Evelyn Keyes & Peter Lorre

 

Despite the meager budget of THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK, it is unusually striking for a B-movie, featuring superb cinematography by Franz Planer, a literate screenplay co-authored by Oscar nominated writers Allen Vincent and Paul Jarrico (soon to be blacklisted in Hollywood) which was based on the play “Interim” by Thomas Edward O’Connell, and it’s all capped by an excellent acting ensemble with standout performances by Evelyn Keyes as Helen and George E. Stone as Dinky, a skid row hustler and Janos’ one true friend who responds with compassion, not repulsion, when he first meets Janos on the waterfront as the latter prepares to kill himself. (In some ways, the Janos/Dinky relationship mirrors the one in MIDNIGHT COWBOY with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman except in this movie both characters are Ratso Rizzo). Of course Lorre is the whole movie and he will sweep you along on his emotional journey that ends in one of the most haunting and bleak sequences in any American movie of the forties – it’s a true noir ending but takes place in the glaring sunlight.

 

 

 

Peter Lorre in The Face Behind the Mask

 

For some reason Lorre didn’t hold THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK in high regard but an actor is not always the best judge of his work. There are moments in this film that look ahead to Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE and capture the same sense of human isolation, existential angst and dark poetry that lifted that film out of the horror genre and into a category of its own. The most remarkable part of Lorre’s performance is that he is even more expressive in the scenes where he is masked. In an interview at the time, Lorre stated, “I put on dead white make-up, used two strips of adhesive tape to immobilize the sides of my face, and for the rest of it I used my own facial expression to give the illusion of a mask.” Peter Lorre

 

During this month of Oscar awards anticipation, I can’t help but think about Lorre and the fact that he was never nominated for the statuette for any film. And I certainly would have preferred to see him as a Best Actor contender for THE FACE BEHIND THE MASK in 1941 instead of Cary Grant for PENNY SERENADE (sorry but he’s been much better in other films) or Robert Montgomery for HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (he’s charming and likable in it but is it a great performance?) or even Gary Cooper in SERGEANT YORK (I find it tedious to sit through now). But wouldn’t it have been fun to see Lorre running against Walter Huston in ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY and Orson Welles in CITIZEN KANE? Especially Welles, who actually channels Peter Lorre’s character from MAD LOVE in KANE’S final section where he is bald, monstrous and alone in his Xanadu.

Orson Welles's MAD LOVE homage in Citizen Kane

    

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