Actresses and their techniques

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JULIE HARRIS  looked at all the elements, then boiled it down to see what would work and what wouldn’t work. Even when she had a role that was ‘off,’ she brought a greater truth to the situation. She put her unique stamp on roles, regardless of the genre. She never served the plot. She used the plot to gain insights about character and make us relate to her and what her character was going through. I can never tell if Julie Harris brought something from her own life into the roles she played, or if Julie Harris took something from each role and applied it to her own real life.

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JEAN ARTHUR had to be the sweetest movie star of all time. Painfully shy in real life, and someone who didn’t like to look at herself in the mirror, Jean radiated a fragile warmth on screen. She also had a knack for picking good material, good directors and good costars. She made more classic films than most.

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JEAN HARLOW took a monologue and turned it into a long run-on sentence. Then she delivered it in one breath. She would pivot, look at her costar and get ready for the next rapid-fire delivery. At the same time, she used her mind to absorb the plight of the character and exaggerate it for comic effect. She must’ve had attention deficit disorder, way before it was ever diagnosed in people.

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MARION DAVIES was unrivaled in terms of concentration. She lived inside the world of each of her characters. A lot of actors break ‘the fourth wall.’ They do it consciously when they look at the director (because they think the camera is not on them); or unconsciously, because they are aware of the mechanics of storytelling, and are not fully experiencing the story from the character’s point of view. But with Marion, there was a total suspension of outside reality, in an effort to concentrate on make-believe and turn it into something real.

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HELEN HAYES did scorching pre-code roles early in her screen career. Later she graduated to neurotic women in social message dramas. Then in the last phase of her career, she played warm character parts. It doesn’t matter what stage of Helen Hayes’ career you look at, because she was consistently good through the years. She used the hysterics of the plot to convey a real, subtle moment of understanding for the character. She would bring it up full-throttle, then she slowly lowered the boom.

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LUISE RAINER brought multiple realities to the screen. She liked to combine the ideas of past writers and directors and superimpose it on to her current performance. She was very deliberate in this process, and earned two Oscars for her efforts. In an episode of The Love Boat where she plays a woman and her doppelgänger, you can see how she creates a distinct philosophy for each of her characters.


Recommended westerns part 2

More can’t-miss classics:

LAST TRAIN FROM GUN HILL (1959). The lead actors (Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn) both costarred in LUST FOR LIFE, a completely different type of film. John Sturges’ direction is solid; there are good supporting turns from Carolyn Jones and Earl Holliman; and Hal Wallis’ top-notch production values make it a pleasure to watch.


THE LONG RIDERS (1980). It was a labor of love for director Walter Hill.  The Keach brothers (Stacy & James) play the James brothers (Frank & Jesse). They’re joined by other acting bros– the Quaids (Randy & Dennis) as Clell & Ed Miller; the Carradines (David, Keith & Robert) as Cole, Jim & Bob Younger; and the Guests (Christopher & Nicholas) as Charley & Robert Ford. Yes, nepotism is alive and well in Hollywood, but sometimes it leads to more authentic performances.

PASSAGE WEST (1951). I love the interplay between John Payne and Dennis O’Keefe– it works so well. The script is properly structured– each act takes us to a new level of development with the characters on their journey. It’s episodic, almost like three short films connected to make one very interesting longer picture.

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THE SHOOTIST (1976). I’ve corresponded a few times with the son of Glendon Swarthout who wrote the original story. As I read the novelette, I could see what the filmmakers had done to make it more cinematic but I think they left some of the best parts out. Everyone talks about it being Duke’s last picture so the focus is on him. But when I read the story I realized how Lauren Bacall made her character stronger on screen than she was on the printed page. Bacall deserves a lot more praise for her work in this picture.

3:10 TO YUMA (1957). The remake is a lot more violent and not necessarily better. It’s a character-driven piece about two very different men on the same journey because of necessity. I admire Van Heflin’s performance. He takes what would ordinarily be a dull good-guy character and turns him into a fascinating and powerfully complex individual. His subtle work overtakes the scene-stealing bad guy (Glenn Ford).

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TRACK OF THE CAT (1954). John Wayne’s company produced it, but Robert Mitchum stars. It seems unusually stage bound, but when you have people like Beulah Bondi and Teresa Wright in supporting roles, you don’t notice how confined the action might be. And even if you do, I think it helps convey how claustrophobic life is in their remote environment. The symbolism of the cat and the bleakness of the story have to be appreciated.

WELCOME TO HARD TIMES (1967). It was intended as a TV movie which seems hard to believe because of the excessive gore, especially for television of the 1960s. Aldo Ray is over the top as a menacing brute; and Henry Fonda goes to the other extreme as a sweet-natured hero. But the ideas in the screenplay make us think about the meaning of a sometimes meaningless existence out in the middle of nowhere.

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WYOMING (1947). Another great Republic western. Bill Elliott plays a rancher who brings a European wife (Vera Ralston) and her grandmother (Madame Ouspenskaya) to the American west. The quieter domestic moments are balanced by strong outdoor action sequences. It’s a delicate yet rugged western. The black-and-white cinematography is outstanding.

YELLOW SKY (1948). A Fox western that pairs Gregory Peck with Anne Baxter. It’s sort of the opposite of THE GUNFIGHTER. This time we have an outlaw who reforms and is saved by love. It has a feel-good ending, and who doesn’t want to feel good.

Recommended westerns part 1

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BRIMSTONE (1949). Excellent cinematography, everything shimmers. Walter Brennan plays a vicious patriarch, continuing where he left off in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE. It uses all the basic genre conventions but does so with gusto. Brennan’s biographer told me the actor enjoyed making this one, and you can tell.

DALLAS (1950). I re-watched this one a few months ago and found the whimsical aspects of the story quite charming. Probably Gary Cooper’s best western at Warners. Ruth Roman never looked lovelier, and the story moves along without any dull stretches.

ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953). It was a big hit for MGM. There’s something about the pairing of Eleanor Parker and William Holden that works. John Forsythe is also quite good and doesn’t get enough credit for the films he made. The use of Ansco color and on location filming puts it over.

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FLAMING FEATHER (1952). A modest Paramount programmer that benefits from Sterling Hayden’s sterling performance as the hero and Victor Jory’s clever villain. Almost all of it was shot outdoors and in actual buildings, not sound stages. The climactic sequence at the end is exciting and well-choreographed.

THE GUNFIGHTER (1950). One of the best black-and-white westerns from Fox. Gregory Peck called it his favorite. You know his character is doomed from the start but it’s how he can’t escape his fate and must go out with dignity that makes it so remarkable.

GUNSIGHT RIDGE (1957). Sometimes I’m in the mood for a slower, character-driven western. This one qualifies. Joel McCrea is an excessively bland lawman but it provides a good contrast to Mark Stevens who plays a killer with soft, artistic “tendencies.”

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JOHNNY GUITAR (1955). Nicholas Ray’s cult western is in a category by itself. Leading lady Joan Crawford is a force of nature, and you don’t want to mess with her. Imposing characters, towering sets and Trucolor photography in the hands of a master, carried forward by the main diva and a competent group of Republic stock players.

THE LAST COMMAND (1955). John Wayne was the intended star but a dispute with Republic boss Herbert Yates saw the actor leave the studio and make his own version of THE ALAMO five years later. Wayne’s production tries to be grand but it’s small potatoes compared to this one. The story is told concisely with allusions to things more epic beyond the scope of what we see. It also benefits from a remarkable use of Trucolor and the casting of strong actors in supporting roles– Richard Carlson; Ernest Borgnine; Arthur Hunnicutt; and Ben Cooper.

Coming up: some more recommended westerns…

Essential: FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981)

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It had been two years since MOONRAKER, and this time the producers decided to bring 007 back down to earth. Aside from an opening sequence that is unrelated to the rest of the movie, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY is very logically plotted and provides consistent thrills.

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What works so well in this installment is the stupendous stunt work. Sometimes it’s like the rest of the material takes a backseat. I’d compare it to going to a circus where you just sit back and let the flying trapeze artists take over and wow you with their own brand of magic or razzmatazz. After some fancy helicopter flying in the pre-opening credit sequence, there is an amazing ski chase that has to be seen to be believed; as well as great underwater stunts that occur later in the picture. Plus there’s a heart-pounding finale where Bond and his friends climb a steep mountain, and one character falls off the side of it.

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When we’re not watching the stunts, our eyes are focused on the acting. The Bond girl is Carole Bouquet– she’s playing the daughter of a murdered tycoon who wants to avenge her father’s death. Meanwhile the story’s main villain comes in the form of Julian Glover. Glover’s character is presented as an ally in the early part of the story but gradually his true colors are revealed. In addition to these two we have Topol in a role about as far removed from Tevye as you can possibly imagine– he’s a pistachio munching businessman with a penchant for adventure who assists Bond and the girl on various capers.

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There is quite a bit of cheeky humor this time around. Moore is given lines that mock his opponents and says things to the opposite sex that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Of course, this occurs in all the Bond films. But I think because this is the fifth one he’s done, Moore is a lot more sardonic at this point, and he’s having fun with the situations and the dialogue.

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Finally I should mention a scene where Bond has to be more ruthless than usual. In fact Moore tried to have this part of the script changed, then realized it worked for the character. It’s where he’s chased some nefarious dude to the edge of a cliff and as the man’s car teeters over the side and he begs for mercy, Bond just sort of reaches out with his foot and kicks him down into the abyss. Some people get kicked to the curb and some get kicked a little further.

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FOR YOUR EYES ONLY is directed by John Glen and can be streamed on Dailymotion.

Adeline De Walt Reynolds

Some screen performers are more unique than others. Adeline De Walt Reynolds is one such example. She was born in 1862 and lived until one month before her 99th birthday. Her first screen role occurred when she was 79– it was in MGM’s comedy COME LIVE WITH ME where she played James Stewart’s grandmother.

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Adeline was no stranger to show biz. Her husband had been a vaudeville juggler, but when he died in 1905, Adeline suddenly found herself raising four children with no money. Then a year later the big San Francisco earthquake struck. Somehow she had a survivor’s instinct and the family made it through difficult times.

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After her children had been raised, Adeline relocated to the Los Angeles area. She decided to get a college degree; so in 1926, when she was 64, she became one of the most mature freshmen ever to enter the University of California. She graduated at the age of 70, earning a B.A. degree. Several years later she began her acting career in Hollywood.

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In addition to the James Stewart movie, she also had a memorable role in GOING MY WAY. In the film she played Barry Fitzgerald’s elderly mother. She also appeared as Madame Zimba in SON OF DRACULA. Other hit films included STARS IN MY CROWN, where she was cast as Granny Gailbraith; KIM in which she was seen as an old maharanee; and she even worked with Tyrone Power in PONY SOLDIER. She portrayed an elderly native woman that time around.

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In the 1950s she had many small roles on classic television series. She turned up in episodes of Have Gun Will Travel and Peter Gunn. Amazingly she kept working until her 98th year, and her last credit was in a 1960 episode of Playhouse 90. She had a late start as an actress yet managed to accomplish so much. Interesting to think a gal born during the Civil War who had been through everything, could leave her mark in movies and television.

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Coming up in April

Adeline De Walt Reynolds…the face is familiar even if the name may not be.

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Recommended westerns…a two-part column.

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Actresses and their techniques…what makes some of the ladies on screen so special?

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Made in the 70s and set in the 30s…one era seemed focused on another.

Film star quotables…who said what.


Join me in April!

Essential: MOONRAKER (1979)

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Roger Moore is back as the world’s number one spy. Only this time Bond becomes more like an astronaut. In order to capitalize on the late 70s science fiction craze, producers have decided to get a bit futuristic with the character. He is now battling an adversary named Drax– an evil industrialist determined to control the space age for personal gain. Drax is portrayed by French actor Michael Lonsdale. And trust me, he’s not someone you want to mess with before he has his first cup of coffee in the morning.

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Meanwhile, our lovely Bond girl is Holly Goodhead played by Lois Chiles. It is quickly established that Holly is an American CIA agent, posing as an astronaut. Like Bond she’s been sent to infiltrate Drax’s organization. Together they will thwart his plans to destroy the earth’s population and start over with a new super race. Of course, Holly falls in love with Bond and the relationship develops into one that is out of this world in more ways than one.

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The first half of the film seems fairly routine as these plots go. Bond is seen globe trotting, dealing with various people working for Drax. One of them is Jaws, a henchman who appeared in the previous 007 picture. Jaws is now less sinister and used for comic relief. There is a spectacular scene atop a hanging cable car in Rio, where Jaws wants to harm Bond. He tries to sever the cable by chewing his way through it. He probably had a bit of indigestion afterward. (The thick cable was actually soft licorice that actor Richard Kiel was able to enjoy on camera.)

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After the Rio sequence, Bond and Holly make their way up the Amazon jungle to Drax’s South American headquarters. This is where the story heads into sci-fi territory. Bond and Holly arrive just as Drax is launching rockets into outer space, taking with him the “perfect” human specimens he has chosen to start his new race. In a way it’s funny to see Roger Moore and Lois Chiles try to blend in with the other actors, who are much younger and different in appearance.

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It’s even funnier watching Jaws and his girlfriend Dolly try to blend in. They’re a true cinematic match if ever there was one. Of course Jaws with his deformities and Dolly with her unique height make them less than ideal for Drax’s experiment. But hey, they’re not going anywhere, and neither is Bond, until Drax gets what he deserves.

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MOONRAKER is directed by Lewis Gilbert and can be streamed on Dailymotion.