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:


Here we see the dialogue in quotation marks:


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


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


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



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?


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.


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.


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?


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:


Then in the 1970s he looked like this:

Screen shot 2015-02-21 at 10.47.44 PM

He underwent a major change in the 1980s:

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And now he looks like this:


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


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Shakespeare by Laurence Olivier


AS YOU LIKE IT (1936)…This was Olivier’s first on-screen appearance in a Shakespearean work. Few of the Bard’s plays had been adapted to sound film at this point. Playing opposite Elisabeth Bergner, Olivier is cast as the love-struck Orlando in this comedy which has plenty of mix-ups before the obligatory happy ending.


HENRY V (1944)…It would be eight years before Olivier would appear in another Shakespearean-based movie. This time he directs and stars in an adaptation of the playwright’s history play that chronicles the exploits of a young King Henry V. Robert Newton costars as Pistol, and Leslie Banks is on hand as the chorus.


HAMLET (1948)…Olivier gives a standout performance as the melancholy prince who struggles over whether or not he should kill his uncle, whom he suspects of having murdered his father. Again, Olivier pulls double duty as star and director. Shakespeare’s tale of tragedy in the court of medieval Denmark is bolstered by Eileen Herlie’s performance as the queen mother, and a young Jean Simmons who plays Ophelia.


RICHARD III (1955)…Seven years later, Olivier appears on screen as Shakespeare’s wicked deformed King Richard. The story details Richard’s conquests on the battlefield, which are occasionally interrupted by various romantic interludes. This time Olivier’s leading lady is played by Claire Bloom, who would work with him again in CLASH OF THE TITANS.


OTHELLO (1965)…A decade later, we have Olivier as the title character in Shakespeare’s tragedy about a general who comes to believe his new wife has been cheating on him. As the drama unfolds, his marriage and his grip on sanity are both thoroughly destroyed. Maggie Smith plays Desdemona, the supposedly unfaithful bride.


KING LEAR (1983)…Olivier was 75 when he appeared in a television movie about the aging king who hands his throne over to two corrupt daughters (one of them played by Diana Rigg). This was the actor’s last on-screen appearance in a Shakespearean-based work. Playing Lear was one of Olivier’s last great performances, and it should not be missed.