Movie’s on mute

Sometimes we reach for the remote to turn up the volume, so we don’t miss what’s being said on screen. But there are other times, when no matter how much we turn up the sound, it’s not going to help. Because what we really need to do is pay closer attention, especially if one of the main characters is communicating to us in a way that does not use words or conventional language. Perhaps the most famous example is Jane Wyman’s characterization in JOHNNY BELINDA. (Slight spoilers ahead.)

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Wyman plays a deaf-mute woman named Belinda who lives along the eastern coast of Canada. A tragic turn of events makes her the victim of a rape, which results in a pregnancy. Just as troubling is the amount of rumor and lies that spread as a result of her ordeal. Wyman earned the Oscar for best actress in 1948 for her remarkable performance.

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Two years earlier Dorothy McGuire, who specialized in portrayals of fragile young women, played a mute in RKO’s THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE. In the story, McGuire is a companion to a wealthy elderly woman (Ethel Barrymore), who finds her life imperiled by the presence of a serial killer that preys on disabled women. A tremendous deal of suspense occurs as both vulnerable women must thwart the madman’s plans to harm them.

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Of course there are other characters in classic films that do not speak. Some of them are minor characters, but no less important to the story’s action. In OUT OF THE PAST, Dick Moore plays a pivotal part as a mute employed by Robert Mitchum. And in MOONRISE, it’s Harry Morgan’s chance to shine as a man with limited speech who meets up with Rex Ingram and Dane Clark.

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Recommended films vol. 5

1cheyenneTHE LADY FROM CHEYENNE (1941)

Why you should see it: Loretta Young gives one of her most charming performances as a pioneer lady suffragist, and the results are most amusing.  Robert Preston has been tapped to play her leading man in this Universal offering and together, they radiate a considerable amount of chemistry.  Though one does wonder what Clark Gable might have done with this role, as the man who brings a meek schoolmarm (Young) out of her shell– too much, then must tame her!

More reasons: Edward Arnold lends fine support as a corrupt businessman, and then there’s Gladys George in a scene-stealing assignment as a madam in charge of a boisterous group of girls.  Don’t miss this film.

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BLITHE SPIRIT (1945)

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Why you should watch it: This spirited story ranks as one of Noel Coward’s funniest.  The performances in this film adaptation of the hit stage play are nearly unmatchable.  Of note is Margaret Rutherford, who steals scenes left and right as a highly eccentric psychic.

More reasons: David Lean’s direction is flawless and the film is done in such beautiful, breath-taking Technicolor that it is truly a joy to watch.

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1gjGALLANT JOURNEY (1946)

Why you should see it: This nice biopic from Columbia stars Glenn Ford as John Montgomery, whose ideas about gliders lead to the creation of the first airplane.  Janet Blair costars as Ford’s love interest, and Selena Royle plays his mother.  There are some excellent aviation scenes with a great deal of suspense, that show both the heartbreak and the triumphs involved in an invention of this kind.

More reasons: Ford  gives a soaring performance, in a role that seems to draw on his sensitivities as an actor and his feelings about portraying the man as honestly as possible.

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1starsTHE STARS ARE SINGING (1953)

Why you should see it: Although the plot is a bit contrived, and let’s face it—what musical comedy plot is not contrived—Rosemary Clooney is in splendid form in her first role at Paramount.  Interestingly, her costar in this venture is Anna Maria Alberghetti, and while the two ladies have very different singing styles, their professionalism is top-notch, and they work together nicely.

More reasons: Lauritz Melchoir, in his final film, is an added bonus.

Some of MGM’s highest paid

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Are you ready for this? Studio boss Louis B. Mayer made $1.1 million in 1937 (the Great Depression was still going on, folks). At the time, he was the highest paid person in the United States.

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Robert Taylor & Barbara Stanwyck were married in 1939. Two years later Stanwyck was earning $190,000 as a freelancer, while Taylor brought home $197,000 under contract to MGM.

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The year Clark Gable made GONE WITH THE WIND he was paid $289,000 smackers.

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William Powell was handsomely paid by MGM in 1940 to the tune of $267,000. He had considered retiring early after the death of his girlfriend Jean Harlow in 1937. I am sure his agent was glad he kept working.

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Meanwhile, Busby Berkeley had been hired by MGM to work with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney at a substantial salary. In 1941, the famed choreographer/director earned $101,000 for his efforts.

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MGMs resident art designer Cedric Gibbons made $91,000 in 1941.

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The studio’s beloved character actor Frank Morgan was making $99,000 a year by 1941. He made this amount for several years, and it seems to have been his standard salary.

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W.S. Van Dyke was one of the highest paid directors. In 1941, he banked $201,000. This was probably because he was the fastest director on the lot at MGM and Mayer gave him bonuses for getting features finished ahead of schedule.

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Norma Shearer seems to have been underpaid, compared to other stars. She was only making about $80,000 per year at MGM in the mid-30s. But after her husband producer Irving Thalberg died, MGM gave her $150,000 a year until 1942. They still had to settle the matter of Thalberg’s stock in the company which Norma now controlled, and that came to around $5 million. So in the end she was the richest actress who ever worked at MGM. It pays to marry one of the bosses.

MGM Superstars

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ROBERT TAYLOR

Taylor was MGM’s golden boy during the golden age of Hollywood. He was under contract from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s. In the 1960s, he would return to the studio for one more feature and a TV movie. Altogether, he made 57 features for the lion, 58 if you count the TV movie. His first appearance in an MGM studio film was in late 1934, twelfth-billed in A WICKED WOMAN. But he quickly moved up—in his second film, released a month later, he was second-billed after Chester Morris. And two months after that, he had his first starring role.

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LEWIS STONE

Lewis Stone is remembered as Andy Hardy’s father, Judge Hardy, in MGM’s long-running Hardy family series. But he made many films at the studio. In fact, he had started with the company in 1922 when it was still Metro Pictures (it would not become MGM until 1925). Stone appeared in many silent films throughout the twenties, and in the thirties, he easily transitioned to talkies. When he died in 1953, he was still under contract at MGM–his last film was released two months after his death. From 1922 to 1953, Stone made 97 films for Metro.

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WALTER PIDGEON

Walter Pidgeon had already been making films in Hollywood for over a decade when he signed with MGM in 1937. His first film at the studio was Jean Harlow’s last, SARATOGA, which almost wasn’t completed due to her untimely death in the middle of production. From 1937 to 1956, Pidgeon would make 58 films at MGM as well as others on loan out to various studios during this time. He is most remembered for his frequent collaborations with Greer Garson in the 1940s and 1950s. Six years after his contract ended, he briefly returned to his old stomping grounds to do a guest-starring role on Rawhide, a popular western series MGM produced.

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LANA TURNER

Lana Tuner had small parts in the late 1930s at Warner Brothers when she was still a teen. But she was not really getting anywhere, until she was signed by MGM in 1938 and cast in LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY. From 1938 to 1956, she would be one of the studio’s top female stars and appear in 33 MGM features. She was never loaned out to other studios during this time.

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MICKEY ROONEY

Mickey started making films in 1927, and in 1933, he appeared in his first MGM motion picture. For the next year, he was still making films at most of the major studios. But by 1934, he had settled in at the lion, and a long profitable run began. During the next fourteen years, he appeared in 48 motion pictures for the studio, plus a loan out to Fox. Two of those years were interrupted by military service. Around 1948, Rooney was dropped by the studio but he occasionally came back—once in 1951 for THE STRIP, then again in 1958 for the last Andy Hardy movie. He continued to remain active for decades, and in 1969 he had a supporting role in MGM’s THE EXTRAORDINARY SEAMAN.

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WALLACE BEERY

Rooney’s occasional costar Wallace Beery appeared in movies for over 35 years, going back to the silent era. He was MGM’s highest paid contractee in 1932, meaning he earned more than stars like Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. His first MGM film was the critically lauded THE BIG HOUSE. He then had several runaway hits with Marie Dressler and in 1931 he earned a Best Actor Oscar. There were occasional loanouts to Fox, but usually the popular actor stayed put at the lion. From 1930 until his death in 1949, Beery appeared in 42 features films for MGM, and few of them, if any, ever tanked at the box office.