Movies stay in fashion

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We don’t usually think of Bette Davis as a fashion plate, but here she is modeling FASHIONS OF 1934 for Warner Brothers early in her career. The clothes were created and designed by the studio’s main costumer Orry-Kelly. Some critics complained the script was an excuse for a fashion show segment and a Busby Berkeley musical number that showcased elaborate duds worn by the cast. Not sure if that is something to complain about, since glamour is what makes these early pictures so much fun to watch. I am sure Depression-era audiences enjoyed the razzle-dazzle, too.

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In 1935, RKO produced the musical ROBERTA. Helen Westley plays the title character, the owner of a posh fashion house in Paris. Randolph Scott is her nephew, and Irene Dunne is the girl who catches Scott’s eye. Bernard Newman’s gowns sparkle during the glittery scenes of the movie.

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A few years later, it was producer Walter Wanger’s turn. He had wanted to make VOGUES OF 1938 sooner, but decided to wait until improvements in Technicolor would showcase his models in the most spectacular way possible. His wife, actress Joan Bennett, stars in the films and wears costumes by Irene. In addition to this, we have designer Omar Kiam providing the clothes donned by costar Helen Vinson in some of the fashion show segments.

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The vivid scenes in Wanger’s film no doubt inspired MGM to stage its own Technicolor fashion show in 1939’s THE WOMEN. George Cukor directs an exciting sequence that temporarily lifts us out of the black-and-white drama of a woman (Norma Shearer) whose marriage is threatened by a social climber (Joan Crawford). A character like the one Crawford plays may try to tear at the fabric of society, but movies like these will always be in fashion.

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There’s no business like slow business

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TCM’s Star of the Month tribute for Ann Sothern got underway last night. This morning when I woke up, I went downstairs and checked to see if my recordings had turned out okay. To my great pleasure, they had. The kind and wonderful DVR fairy left behind a slew of B films the actress made in the 1930s, featured overnight as part of the channel’s first of four evenings dedicated to Ann.

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I wanted to watch them all right away, but I had other appointments this morning. So this afternoon when I had completed various errands, I would begin to look at the films. One of my errands involved going to a local electronics store to purchase some blank DVDs so I could transfer the DVR recordings over to disc for future viewings. I popped the first disc into the machine, then I queued up the DVR and voila, THERE GOES THE GROOM started to play. I had seen this RKO screwball comedy before, and it was as enjoyable as I remembered. But another snappy RKO release of Ann’s from the same year was one I had not seen. So as soon as the first film had been successfully transferred over to disc, I began to watch SUPER-SLEUTH.

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There is nothing slow about SUPER-SLEUTH, or even about THERE GOES THE GROOM or any of the other comedies Ann Sothern made in the 1930s. They all have razor-sharp dialogue, fast-paced action scenes, and the stories wrap up in about 70 minutes or less. When I watch these quick but totally exhaustive comedies, I wonder why these kinds of pictures cannot be made today.

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Is there a reason why comedies have to be at least 90 minutes now? Or why a dramatic film cannot clock in under two hours? Do modern Hollywood filmmakers seriously believe that bigger films, or in this case longer films, automatically signify greater quality? If a story can be told economically and in a compressed timeframe, can’t it still be just as good as (or perhaps better than) something that takes its own precious time getting to the end, dragging itself out interminably?

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I think the people who made films in the mid-to-late 1930s knew what they were doing. The goal was not to bombard viewers with mind-boggling special effects (which are often not very special at all). Nor was the goal to over-elongate anything, but to simply entertain. And more importantly, these filmmakers knew how to get people in and out of the theatre in a reasonable amount of time and make sure they left with a smile.

A.b.b.r.e.v.i.a.t.e.d. titles

Some titles are instantly forgettable, but others stand out because they’re different, or a bit gimmicky. The abbreviated titles are the ones that seem to catch my attention. Half the time I don’t even know what the abbreviation refers to, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to write or pronounce.

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In 1950, Edmond O’Brien had one of his best roles in the classic film noir D.O.A. It was remade in the 1980s with Dennis Quaid. The story, about a man who has a short time to live while trying to nab his killer, is exciting to watch. The three letters in the title mean ‘Dead on Arrival.’ Rigor mortis on arrival just doesn’t have the same impact.

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In the 1960s, after all the hoopla surrounding their first film together, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton signed on to make THE V.I.P.s which included an all-star cast. You might say they were all very important persons in the world of cinema. Not sure if their group collaboration resulted in a V.I.M. (very important movie).

Robert Altman, a director I very much admire, put himself on the Hollywood map when he made the anti-war comedy-drama M*A*S*H. Don’t you love how they used asterisks. Punctuation aside, this version of Mobile Army Surgical Hospital borrowed heavily from MGM’s BATTLE CIRCUS and spawned three television series.

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Other abbreviated titles in subsequent years come to mind. In the 1980s, there was a friendly extra-terrestrial, or E.T., as he is more commonly known. In 1991, Oliver Stone gave us his ideas about JFK and all those conspiracy theories. And in 1994, Walter Matthau played Albert Einstein in I.Q. Though it may have been smarter if he had asked for a better script.

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Studio commissaries part 2

Yesterday we talked about the MGM commissary and some of the more colorful things that happened there. But every studio had its own eating place on the lot, and some of what occurred over at Paramount, Universal or Columbia was just as interesting.

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For instance, Paramount’s commissary was quite grand. The main dining room had a special 7-foot long table that belonged to director Cecil B. DeMille and his cohorts. It was placed on a platform, so DeMille and company could look down and observe the rest of the activity that was occurring as people ate. DeMille’s elevated table was called ‘The Throne.’

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At the Warners commissary, only one actor was ever allowed to dine at the same table with Jack Warner, his brothers and top executives. The man? Al Jolson.

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At Columbia, Harry Cohn had his own private dining room. He, too, invited just one actor to join him and the other studio bosses for meals. But Cary Grant declined the offer, because eating with Cohn was not usually a pleasurable experience.

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What stars often ate was just as interesting as how they were seated. For instance, Paramount star Alan Ladd loved to eat Spanish omelets. John Barrymore, who worked at several studios preferred lamb curry. And back at MGM only one person ordered steak tartare– Lon Chaney.

Studio commissaries part 1

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MGM’s commissary was considered to have the homiest food. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer had the chefs take lessons in cooking from his mother, whom he believed to be the best cook in the world. Mrs. Mayer’s most famous dish was chicken soup with matzo balls.

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One of Louis B. Mayer’s reasons for providing such a homey atmosphere at the MGM commissary was to entice workers to stay on the lot during lunch time. He was afraid that if folks went to some of the nearby bars in Culver City they would have too much to drink and not find their way back to work in the afternoon.

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Joan Crawford observed a strict diet and could not eat much of what was on the menu. Instead, she often had crackers and coffee in her dressing room. But when her family was visiting, she would take them to have meals at the commissary. They had their own special table, and Joan, who was a devout Christian Scientist, would lead them in prayer before the first morsel was tasted.

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Joan wasn’t always so serious about food, however. Once during the filming of THE WOMEN, she had a watermelon eating contest with director George Cukor and costar Norma Shearer.

Lionel Barrymore loved to eat fried eggs and bacon. He had the kitchen stock his favorite brand of bacon. He also had a special type of pickled relish flown in from the east coast. The relish that Lionel Barrymore had flown to the commissary each week was actually made with fresh garden vegetables grown on his land back in Connecticut.

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Meanwhile, the studio’s musical producer Joe Pasternak loved to order spaghetti when he came into the commissary. He would eat it with his hands, just like a kid. According to Esther Williams, whenever Pasternak ordered the dish, employees quickly hurried to the main dining room to watch how he devoured the hearty meal.

Someone else who enjoyed a hearty meal was Robert Montgomery. He was known for requesting double servings of his favorite dessert, apple pie. Lucille Ball liked desserts too, especially Jell-o. The company that made the popular gelatin, General Foods, sponsored her radio sitcom My Favorite Husband. Lucy was still eating Jell-o in the 1980s, in the later years of her life. Her favorite drink, according to Lee Tannen who wrote a book about her, was lemonade.

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When she was younger, Liz Taylor took Nibbles, her chipmunk, to the studio commissary. The pet would perch itself on her shoulder while the budding starlet sat with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

70s actresses in their 70s

Recently, I was reading comments about a movie actress on the IMDb, and there were people complaining about how the woman has let herself go physically. Someone else chimed in a few posts later and reminded others that she still looks great for a woman in her 70s.

I did a Google images search to see what she looks like today, and it caused me to look up other actresses from the same generation. It’s true they do not like like they once did, when they were motion picture ingenues and full-fledged stars in the 1970s. But who looks the same compared to forty years ago?

As far as I’m concerned, they are still five fabulous ladies:

1. JULIE CHRISTIE

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2. ALI MACGRAW

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3. MIA FARROW

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4. JANE FONDA

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5. FAYE DUNAWAY

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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.