Capital punishment on screen

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In 1958 Susan Hayward appeared as convicted murderess Barbara Graham in the sensational biopic I WANT TO LIVE! directed by Robert Wise. The performance earned Hayward the Oscar for best actress, and it spawned other films about women on death row. Some of the later films were made-up hokum, though Wise’s story which aims to tell the truth and advocate the idea that capital punishment should be abolished in America, probably contains its share of fictional elements, too.

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It was just two years later when Terry Moore decided to make her own picture in a similar vein. She’d not only star in, but produce, a low-budget entry called WHY MUST I DIE?, which would be director Roy Del Ruth’s final assignment. Moore recruited friend Debra Paget to costar in the saga that seemed like a cross between cheap soap opera and exploitation drama. It was to be released by American International Pictures.

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In Moore’s version, there is no ambiguity about her character’s innocence. We see how she has been framed by Paget who committed the offense warranting a death sentence. Somehow Paget has gone undetected by police, and Moore is arrested, tried and convicted. As she sits in the slammer and awaits her execution, WHY MUST I DIE? borrows key scenes from I WANT TO DIE!

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There are the obligatory scenes with the doomed woman slowly resigning herself to her fate. The scenes where she receives counsel from clergy. And of course the scenes where she is led off to the gas chamber. But because she is innocent, and the film seeks to give viewers a happy ending, Paget’s bad girl decides to confess, just as Moore is being strapped into the chair. It becomes a matter of whether the innocent but tawdry woman’s life will be spared.

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The titles of these films are interesting. Obviously, we are not going to get I WANT TO DIE! or WHY MUST I LIVE?, unless she was suicidal and her death sentence was actually a death wish. That might have made a less predictable story.

Movie stars in wheelchairs

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In the above photo, Lionel Barrymore takes a walk with his wife Irene. During the 1920s he was cast in leading roles on stage and in the movies, plus he occasionally had jobs as a director.

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By the 1940s, he would be playing character parts like Dr. Gillespie at MGM. Usually in hospital scenes, a character in a wheelchair is the patient. But not here. Barrymore was wheelchair bound in real life, and it was smartly written into the roles he played.

It is ironic that in the publicity shot from DR. GILLESPIE’S NEW ASSISTANT, we find Barrymore rehearsing lines with starlet Susan Peters. The young actress would be involved in a tragic shooting incident a few years later and would become crippled for the rest of her life.

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In Columbia’s THE SIGN OF THE RAM, Susan Peters gives a brave performance as a scheming woman restricted to a wheelchair. Her real-life paralysis made her performance more relevant for audiences. And while she did not make any more movies, she continued to work on radio.

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Another starlet cut down in her prime was Lucille Ball’s cousin Suzann Ball. She was married to fellow Universal contract player Richard Long. While I could not find a picture of her in a wheelchair, she does use crutches in this photo. She had been diagnosed with bone cancer and in an attempt to save her life, her right leg was amputated.

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Suzann Ball made one last film, a western called CRAZY HORSE with Victor Mature, where her disability was cleverly concealed from audiences. She was filmed mostly with close-ups or medium shots from the waist up. Otherwise she was filmed sitting down on a rock, or in long shots where she was riding horse (presumably from the side featuring her good leg, if not with a stunt double).

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The last example is Elizabeth Taylor. Obviously, Liz was not cut down in her prime. But the young Liz from her contract days at MGM are quite different from her last days, where she arrived at premieres or medical appointments with someone wheeling her through the front door.

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The setting is Carvel

After the film version of Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! was a sleeper hit for the studio, MGM decided to adapt another stage comedy using most of the same cast. The cast included Lionel Barrymore, Spring Byington and a young Mickey Rooney. The next hit for them was A FAMILY AFFAIR, the first of sixteen Hardy family pictures. Barrymore and Byington were replaced in the second installment, but Rooney would continue as the teenaged son Andy, which would become one of his most well-known roles.

The play that served as the basis for the first Hardy picture was called Skidding, written by Aurania Rouverol. It had been produced on Broadway in the late 1920s, where it ran for 472 performances. The setting of the play was ‘a certain town in Idaho.’ However, the MGM films do not mention Idaho at all, with the setting more general, as Carvel, U.S.A.

There is no real Carvel, U.S.A. There is an uninhabited place called Carvel Rock, located in the Virgin Islands. And there is also a hamlet in Alberta, Canada known as Carvel which has a general store and a population of 19.

But Carvel, real or not, does exist not only in the universe of Andy Hardy movies, but in other motion pictures made by MGM.

It exists in the 1936 romantic comedy SMALL TOWN GIRL starring Janet Gaynor and Robert Taylor. Gaynor plays the title character who hails from a rural community. When she impulsively runs off to the big city with Taylor, they reach a point in the road where there is a sign that says Carvel is located in one direction. It is not clear if Carvel was the town they just drove away from, where Gaynor’s family still lives. MGM remade the story in 1953 with a different cast, and in the remake, there is no reference to Carvel.

MGM also produced the 1949 social drama INTRUDER IN THE DUST based on William Faulkner’s best selling book. Faulkner’s simmering tale of racial prejudice was set in his hometown of Oxford, Mississippi where exteriors for the film were shot. However, during one scene where Claude Jarman’s character is sitting in his bedroom, there is a pennant on the wall above his bed that says ‘Carvel’ on it. So are we to assume that he attended Carvel High School like Andy Hardy did? Or should we guess the set dresser used an old prop from the MGM storage area and just tacked it on the wall, even though harmonious Carvel, U.S.A. is not the same as racially divisive Oxford, Mississippi? Maybe it was an inside joke.

Appreciating Alexis Smith

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Alexis Smith was originally from Penicton, British Columbia. In the 1940s, she would become a well-known Hollywood movie star. Her career in films, television and stage continued until her death in 1993.

1. STEEL AGAINST THE SKY (1941)..Alexis Smith’s first leading role occurred in a B-film at Warner Brothers.  She had spent the previous year in bit parts.  Her costar Craig Stevens would become her husband.  They were married for almost 50 years.

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2. THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT (1945)…A farce with Jack Benny that did not do well at the box office but has since become a cult favorite.

3. CONFLICT (1945)…The first of two with Humphrey Bogart. She plays the sister of his wife (Rose Hobart), and Bogart’s character becomes so smitten with her he takes steps to end his marriage. And we’re not talking divorce. She would appear with Bogart again in THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS, which has a similar plot.

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4. SAN ANTONIO (1945)…Her third on-screen collaboration with Errol Flynn. The picture, filmed in glorious Technicolor, would be her first western. She and Flynn made one more film– another western, MONTANA, a few years later.

5. NIGHT AND DAY (1946)…Her next film in Technicolor was a musical biopic about the life of Cole Porter. She was cast with Cary Grant and Monty Woolley, who played himself.

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6. ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY (1949)..Her first loan out. MGM borrowed her from home studio Warner Brothers for a drama about a gambling house owner (Clark Gable) who is estranged from his wife (Smith). The splendid supporting cast features Mary Astor, Frank Morgan, Wendell Corey, Audrey Totter and Barry Sullivan.

7. CAVE OF OUTLAWS (1951)..By this point, she had left Warners and signed a multi-picture deal at Universal. Universal liked putting her in Technicolor westerns and this is one of them. Leading man is Macdonald Carey.

8. SPLIT SECOND (1953)..She was now freelancing at RKO when this assignment came along. Dick Powell served as the director, and Stephen McNally was the leading man. She had previously worked with McNally at Universal.

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9. THE SLEEPING TIGER (1954)..She would make this film noir in England with director Joseph Losey. It is considered by many to be her best role. She plays the wife of a therapist (Alexander Knox) who falls in love with her husband’s dangerous patient (Dirk Bogarde).

10. CASEY’S SHADOW (1978)..She had been absent from feature films for some time, when she experienced a career resurgence in the 1970s. She costars with Walter Matthau, in a story about a racehorse. Released by Columbia.

Dialogue in silent movies

Dialogue in silent movies was pantomimed with hand gestures and body language. Sometimes it was mouthed by characters, and audiences may or may not have been able to read the actors’ lips. And more often than not, it was conveyed with intertitles.

The intertitles would temporarily interrupt the action, and they were written in the movie-goers’ native language. I often wonder how much time audiences were required to read, as opposed to see the story play out visually. Perhaps it makes early cinema a bit more literate than modern filmmaking. Perhaps not.

Some intertitles spell out obvious action:

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Here we see the dialogue in quotation marks:

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Some use stylistic fonts, like this one from the 1920 version of THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI:

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This text, from THE BIRTH OF A NATION, seems like something a narrator would speak in a sound film:

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Intertitles are not exclusive to films, however, The television sitcom Frasier often used them, in the form of humorous puns:

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When roles do not improve after receiving an Oscar

Perhaps there actually is an Oscar curse. After all, if someone is awarded one of the greatest honors in cinema, but fails to find decent work afterward, doesn’t it seem strange?

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Specifically, I am thinking of Jane Darwell. Miss Darwell was never an A-list headliner, but she moved effortlessly between studio programmers (films turned out economically to give exhibitors new product) and more prestigious projects where she played keys supporting roles. She dominates the first half hour of 20th Century Fox’s JESSE JAMES, as the doomed mother of sons forced into life on the run as outlaws. Then, a year later, the studio cast her in John Ford’s marvelous adaptation of John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

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In fact, her Ma Joad in the screen version of Steinbeck’s timeless story earned Darwell the Oscar for best supporting actress. And one would think she would be given much stronger parts after this. But it is not the case at all. She soon turns up as a housekeeper for Roddy McDowall in Fox’s ON THE SUNNY SIDE. Plus there’s a thankless part on loan to Warners as Grandma Allen in the forgettable comedy THIEVES FALL OUT.

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In fact, when you watch her in something like THIEVES FALL OUT, where you see just how badly her talent is wasted, it begs the question– why does such a great performer, recognized across the motion picture industry as being one of the top actresses, get stuck with such dreadful material? Is this someone’s idea of a joke, did she get punished by the studio for something, or was it all about keeping her busy and making money?

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Jane Darwell was not the first, nor was she the last, Oscar recipient to be handed poor scripts. A few years earlier, Luise Rainer earned back-to-back Oscars for best actress, and her career quickly took a nosedive (for a variety of reasons). More recently, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Cher who was singled out for her stupendous work in Norman Jewison’s MOONSTRUCK, was hard-pressed to find good movie roles. She certainly did not have a career like Meryl Streep, but I suppose there is some consolation that she could fall back on her music.

I’ve been mentioning actresses in this column, but the curse (if we want to call it that) applies to actors, and to directors as well. What does it really mean? Does it suggest that some performers were given Oscars but did not deserve them? Does it mean they experienced temporary high points? Does it say that for circumstances beyond their control, their talent was compromised and audiences were cheated from seeing other quality work these people should have been given the chance to do?

Oscar night 2015

The Academy Awards are being presented tonight, and I have been invited to a party hosted by Oscar. The envelope just says Oscar on it. At first, I thought the invitation might be from Oscar Mayer, but it’s not. And I knew it couldn’t possibly be from Oscar the grouch. Turns out it’s a different Oscar– my good friend Oscar Madison.

The only problem is that it’s been a year since I’ve last seen Oscar. And he’s changed. In fact, he’s changed quite a lot over the years.

In the late 1960s he looked like this:

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Then in the 1970s he looked like this:

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He underwent a major change in the 1980s:

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And now he looks like this:

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Well, I better get ready for the party. I have a new tux, and I am going to splash on some Oscar de la Renta cologne. My date for the evening is someone I’m crazy about– Neil Patrick Harris. He reminds me of another friend I have named Felix, who doesn’t look anything at all like this guy:

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Don’t mess with Ann Sheridan

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When Howard Hughes took over RKO, there were mass firings. The new boss was unhappy with key personnel that had made deals he did not approve of…one of the greatest casualties was producer Dore Schary who had many successes at RKO, suddenly jumping ship to MGM. But the shake-ups were not only at the top.

Hughes was not enamored with some of the starlets on contract and sought to rid himself of them. For example, he wasn’t particularly fond of Barbara Bel Geddes, who had recently triumphed under Schary’s guidance with the nostalgic favorite I REMEMBER MAMA. The new movie mogul quickly loaned her out with Robert Ryan to MGM for its Max Ophuls-directed noir CAUGHT (which ironically featured a main character modeled on Hughes himself).

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But Bel Geddes wasn’t the only actress Hughes had taken a disliking to when he took charge. His other castoff was proven A-list star Ann Sheridan, who had just finished a long association at Warners and was now freelancing. Her agent negotiated a plum deal for her to star in her next picture at RKO. This deal was likely brokered by Schary, just as Hughes was assuming control.

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Sheridan had many perks in her new RKO deal. She was to get paid $150,000 for a romantic drama called MY FORBIDDEN PAST, plus 10% of the profits. She also had approval over casting, the script, and other important items like who would direct. Robert Young, who was under contract with RKO at this time, was originally chosen as her costar but he was forced to drop out. Sheridan gave Hughes a list of five acceptable male costars. One of the five was Robert Mitchum, who did take the male lead.

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But Hughes had something else in mind. Not only would he replace Young with Mitchum, he would replace Sheridan with Ava Gardner. He felt that Sheridan was not sexy enough and convinced MGM to lend Gardner to him for the picture.

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As a result of the switch, Sheridan was now suddenly out at RKO. Except, unlike Bel Geddes, she had a much more ironclad contract. She and her agent waited until MY FORBIDDEN PAST had completed principle photography with Gardner, then they sued Hughes and the studio for breach of contract at $300,000, which was double the original amount.

Meanwhile, Sheridan starred at Fox in the hit comedy I WAS A MALE WAR BRIDE with Cary Grant. She followed it up with a sharp satire called STELLA, then went to Universal for a film with director Douglas Sirk. So her movie career was not harmed by feuding with Hughes.

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Hughes and his high-powered attorneys fought Sheridan, but they did not succeed. The actress prevailed and was paid for not appearing in MY FORBIDDEN PAST (the Ava Gardner picture lost money at the box office so there was no percentage of the profits to award Sheridan). Then, for the other $150,000 sum, RKO was ordered to put Sheridan in a new picture. So two years later she finally did go to work at the studio in an action adventure called APPOINTMENT IN HONDURAS with Glenn Ford and Zachary Scott.

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Classic films have a reason for existing

Often, I will watch a film and ask: what was the studio thinking or trying to accomplish here? Was it strictly financial the reason Film X was made, to fulfill a contract or to bring home a paycheck? Or was it artistic or politically motivated to make the film, even if the results came up short?

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The late film critic Roger Ebert once said that if a film does not have a solid reason for existing, then it probably should not have been made.

A lot of people feel some remakes should not be made. Would a new version of GONE WITH THE WIND or CITIZEN KANE have a reason for existing? Perhaps someone could justify re-filming those stories in order to take advantage of the latest technologies. But I can think of plenty of films, remakes and non-remakes alike, that do not seem to use the technologies available to them in any real significant or meaningful way.

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I would like to recommend two films I feel have a great reason for existing. The first one is THE MORTAL STORM, which was produced by MGM in 1940, before the U.S. became officially involved in World War II. I don’t want to give away the plot, but the storyline about the Nazis’ rise to power is starkly honest and striking to watch.

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The other film worth recommending is CROSSFIRE, what I consider to be the best studio era classic. The film’s anti-Semitic tale is not preachy, but instead uses action (and violence) to underscore what happens when ignorance and hate crime begins to ruin an established American institution like the military.

Mrs. Thalberg’s latest picture

Norma Shearer was a twenty year-old hopeful when she did a small part in a film called THE STEALERS. It may have gone unnoticed by film historians if not for the fact that Norma’s presence on screen did not go unnoticed by the man who would become her boss and eventual husband, producer Irving Thalberg.

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Thalberg was only a year older than Norma, and he was dating one of the Laemmle daughters. But that didn’t matter. Because by the time he and Louis Mayer formed The Mayer Company, which soon evolved into MGM in 1924, Norma would be the producer’s first choice to sign to a five-year contract at $115 per week.

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Immediately Norma worked with the studio’s most important directors and male stars, including Lon Chaney and Ramon Novarro. And soon, she had made a series of hit films at the fledgling studio under Thalberg’s guidance.

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By the time they were wed in 1927, there had been four screen collaborations with Thalberg. Norma moved with ease from her ingenue phase into strong heroine roles. And as the 1930s began, Norma effortlessly transitioned from silent films to sound films. She had really hit her stride in stories as an amoral sophisticate. One of these pre-code productions, THE DIVORCEE, earned her the Oscar as best actress.

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With her husband’s continued support, Norma kept making films that resonated with audiences. At MGM she came to symbolize class, playing ultrachic characters many female viewers sought to emulate. In the mid-30s, after the production code was implemented, her roles were more virtuous. She began to portray long-suffering women in stories like THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET; ROMEO AND JULIET; and MARIE ANTOINETTE, all of which earned her Oscar nominations for best actress.

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She would make a picture every year or two, balancing her job as an actress with her responsibilities as the wife of the studio’s wunderkind producer. Also, she was busy raising two children. Some called her Queen of the MGM lot, not Garbo. Projects chosen for her by Thalberg were among MGM’s most prestigious and expensive undertakings of the decade.

But in 1937, just as MARIE ANTOINETTE was to be filmed, Thalberg died of pneumonia. Norma remained under contract with her late husband’s studio and starred in six more MGM movies, until she retired from the cinema in 1942. Undoubtedly, during her reign she had become the first lady of the screen (at least at Metro). Since her early days as Irving Thalberg’s discovery in the mid-1920s, she had appeared in 40 MGM motion pictures. Most of them were personally supervised by Thalberg, and the ones made after his death were perhaps still guided by his spirit. Mrs. Thalberg’s latest picture would bear his meticulous attention to detail, as well as his supreme attention to his wife, in every single way.

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