The Beauty of Your Youth: Clara Bow Receives a Kindness.

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Clara Bow

Hello, You Must be Going! Coop’s in the Armoire, and Gilbert’s at the door!

A while back I wrote of one tragic sex zombie, and referred to Clara Bow
as having written the script of that now all-too-familiar scenario:  Girl from unsettled family with ambitious/crazy mother and absent/worse father ends up in Hollywood and ignites the screen.  She becomes the hot ticket in town, going through the A-list men like tissues but somehow never finding affection– while her insecurities and anger slowly sabotage her career, ravage her beauty, and finally subsume her life force. Continue reading

A Star is Born Part II: Backstory (& Foreshadowing)

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sib poster

Well, it’s been months, darling. Time when contemplation of the past kicks in. . .when you wonder, have I got bitter, have the stars have lost their glitter?  We’ve had a storm here in New York and I’m cozying inside in a half-melancholic February nostalgia.

I’m as pure as the driven slush, Tallulah Bankhead once said, and having watched the original Selznick-produced A Star is Born (1937), one gets the feeling that it was only family money that allowed her such honesty–rare in a business built on selling dreams.  Selznick’s A Star is Born is all about Hollywood and about the syruped poison of success.  Continue reading

A Star is Born, Again and Again

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ScreenHunter_02 Feb. 10 18.13

Oh, autumn. I could howl from dread of winter’s approach. Evenings pull in as summer’s romantic dreams fade to sepia, then fall like brittle lace down to earth. Here in Manhattan it’s the season of tourists and torch songs, of ties worn but loosened in the lingering heat of the subway. Of stilettoed boots beating ambitious drumbeats against the pavement. Or it was before the wolf of COVID began to prowl the earth.

In this season of twilight the heart hungers for solace–and, brother, doesn’t Hollywood know it! Autumn’s the time for prestige pix, familiar weepies, and the gentling distance of nostalgia. If we’ve been very very lucky–and this year we are–we get a hum-fucking-dinger of a remake.

A Star is Born, 2018. 

That trailer went down like a swift shot of bourbon after dinner with the ex: you knew you wanted it, you just didn’t know how much. Reviews varied between delirious and effusive. Gaga’s the real deal (Screams rang through the air as Madonna twerks and weeps. . .) and Bradley Cooper pulled off a directorial debut that turns fox-eyed boys into legends.

I first saw the original version of A Star is Born when I was 20, visiting a boyfriend in Boston for Valentine’s weekend.  He had to work, so I slouched around his apartment and rustled my hangover up a meal before flicking on the tube. Rinky-dink music came through, then suddenly I was awash with the soft pastels of early technicolor and — with wonderful lack of fanfare — the 1937 version of A Star is Born began. (It’s marvelous, the abruptness with which 30s movies often begin and end: no goddamn esoteric images or bloated scrolls of laudatory credits. They just bloody well get on with it.)

Anyway, I settled down, plate of eggs and b. firmly on my lap, and for the next 90 minutes rinsed my psyche in those fairytale pastels, transmuting hangover into tears via the enviably simplicity, the inevitable cruelty, of this old, old story.

If you’re one of the twelve people on the planet who haven’t seen A Star is Born in one iteration or the other — there are two previous remakes*; the 1954 one into which Judy Garland sank her genius and her self-pity, and the 1976 crap-fest where Kris Kristofferson fell beneath the death-grip of  Streisand’s acrylics — start with the 1937 version. It’s grounded by the genius of Frederic March, a scabrous script by Dorothy Parker, and real insider events from the Hollywood of the time. This is early Selznick, when he was still capable of irony, before dexedrine and pomposity straitjacketed his abilities. In 1937 he was also still sumptuously married to Hollywood royalty Irene Mayer and Gone with the Wind was firmly in his future. (It would both deify and destroy him.)

You will find many who adore the ’54 Garland version of A Star is Born. Me, I find it almost agonizing to watch, due to Warner’s brutal cuts and Garland’s choice to play Blodgett as the most self-pitying codependent in cinematic history. At times this movie flickers into vivid life, however, the aching brilliance of what-might-have-been. And it does miraculously contain Garland’s and the American film musical’s greatest five minutes of song. This simply-staged number is sui generis and, like Garland herself, made of finer metal than Oscar’s gimcrack gleam any day.

Soon I’ll lay down a few little riffs on how A Star is Born came to be such a deliciously poisoned box of Hollywood bon-bons. But right now, darlings, it’s time for a few beauty treatments.

Janet Gaynor gettin' prettified.

*NOTE: There’s also a warm-up to the ASIB movie, 1932’s What Price Hollywood?–also Selznick produced, and well worth a gander.

The Life of a Sex Zombie

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Veronica Lake

Veronica Lake was in my living room yesterday morning, poised and bored, with the lissome form of a young dancer and the dead eyes of.  . .well, the eyes of someone who’s seen Veronica Lake’s future.

Which wouldn’t be a cheery vision.

In the watchful coolness of this siren’s gaze, you’d be right to sense that although so gleamingly young, this was somebody who’d already encountered choppy waters. After a troubled childhood, Veronica Lake–nee Constance Ockelman–had lost her father to an industrial explosion, and later was kicked out of a Catholic Girl’s School for rebellious behavior (which seems to me indicative both of intelligence and possession of a spine). Lake was moved down south, where she was simultaneously lauded as the most beautiful girl in Miami High and diagnosed with mental illness.  Continue reading

Judy Garland: The Blue Bird Has Flown

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Judy Garland Tribute

As a kid I watched her early movies—the cheesy faux-America Andy Hardy ones—on an old TV I stole from the attic. I had a special routine for watching Judy Garland (June 10, 1922-June 22, 1969): lying on my bed, propped up on my elbows and peeling a McIntosh apple with the rusted bean peeler from our kitchen. It was obvious that the pale, big-eyed girl was someone you like—compelling and astonishingly natural. No question that Andy Hardy’s other girls—Lana Turner and Esther Williams and the rest—were the sort that come and go, the ones a smart girl waits out. As Judy once said about Lana (in real life, after Lana married one of Judy’s crushes), “It’s like talking to a beautiful lamp.”

The non-Garland parts of the movies were unbearably cutesy. I’d wait for her while trying to peel my apple in one long string: If the McIntosh was too young, the tough red skin would break; if too old, it would crumble. In the final reel, Judy always got Mickey. Because if you had Judy Garland in your movie, you’d be an idiot not to have her voice be the last thing the audience hears. When the pale girl opened her mouth to sing, all that lace-curtained, smotheringly smug MGM crap fell by the wayside. It was an instrument for the ages—an infinitely flexible and sweet, sad soul massage.

And though Garland was tough, in the end she both broke and crumbled. Rotted a bit, too (self-pity marred her performances, from A Star is Born on). That astonishing core of talent saved her and damned her again and again. She went from being run out of small towns with her shamed father to joining the greatest studio in Hollywood, from skipping out on hotel bills to performing Carnegie Hall’s most legendary show ever. In her final weeks, she married a man no one much liked in a wedding no one showed up to (her daughter Liza promised, “I’ll go the next one, Mama”). Continue reading

Twentieth Century Tweets, Part II: Writers, Politicians, and the Telegram

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Hunchback 1939 PosterA quick one today, as is suitable for the subject (content follows form as casting follows couch), though nothing as quick as ol Victor Hugo could apparently be, when paying per word.  . . but more on that later.

Politics make strange bedfellows, we always hear, and of course writers are strange just on their own.  The former set loves to stand in the center of a room making bold pronouncements while having nothing to say, while the other group tends to creep around the fringes, offended that no one notices their astute (muttered) asides.

Politicos retire and make millions drawling reductive tales into microphones, while authors are lucky if they grab sufficient shekels to support their bar tab. Bar tabs that are created by the author having to review books like, say, Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, knowing that out in the world people are doing more pleasant things.  Things like having hornets inserted in their nostrils, or bathing in raw sewage while Newt Gingrich leeringly massages their scalp.

“More sage oil, please!”

Continue reading

Monroe: Some Kind of Mirror

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Marilyn MonroeIn just over a decade, she worked with the greatest directors in Golden Age Hollywood: Huston, Wilder, Cukor, and Hawks. Moviegoers paid $200,000,000 to watch her project her trademark combination of atomic-age sexuality and childlike, vulnerable astuteness. She was born into an orphan’s chaos and lived the shadowy Los Angelean life of a Raymond Chandler character—losing her soul in a struggle for acceptance, and then her life trying to re-find it.

I did what they said and all it got me was a lot of abuse. Everyone’s just laughing at me. I hate it. Big breasts, big ass, big deal. ~MM

It took me a while to like her at all. It was clear, early on, that she wasn’t for or about me. She was about Men and playing the game by their rules, contorting herself into their ideal, sublimating her rage into their ultimate frustration. The inimitable Billy Wilder might be the director most connected to the celluloid Monroe image, having directed her in The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot. Of working with Monroe he said, “I have discussed this with my doctor and my psychiatrist and they tell me I’m too old and too rich to go through this again.” Continue reading

Twentieth Century Tweets: The Hollywood Telegram, Part I

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You wouldn’t think, at first glance, that Albert Brooks and Cary Grant were soul mates.  Cary Grant was the epitome of urbanity and screwball aplomb, and has been stated by no less than David Thomson to be the best film actor of the 20th Century.  Brooks is a poodle-haired multi-talent with the demeanor of an anxious suburbanite and the eyebrows of an off-duty drag queen.  He’s not really in my time-period of expertise, but a legendarry tweet of his was mentioned recently,  and got me thinking about Twentieth Century tweets:  Telegrams.  And made me realize that both Grant and Brooks are masters at epigrammatic blasts of comic retort.

In case you haven’t heard, Brooks once tweeted a response to the lack of a 2012 Oscar nomination for his celebrated performance in Drive, referencing the most mocked acceptance speech in the Academy’s history. Brooks tweeted, “You don’t like me.  You really don’t like me.”    Continue reading

The Great and Powerful Roz

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Hey, Brother–Can You tell ’em I’m no Lady?

Just now, while flicking Jungle Red fingernails through the spammed questions I receive for this blog, I noticed the sort of query I usually relish (since it would lead us straight to Kenneth Anger territory– I am worryingly familiar with that dirty turf).   The question was: “Could you tell me more about classic Hollywood’s grubby underbelly?” 

Why yes, friend, I could.  I absolutely could be a tour guide though Hollywood Babylon, leading you by your soft hand as we stroll by the “Hollywood” sign, where Peg Entwhistle jumped from the “H” to her death in 1932.  Then we’d wander near the house David Niven and Errol Flynn shared, which some wag* nicknamed “Cirrhosis by-the Sea.”  I could talk about Harlow’s Hubby’s death dildo and Jeff Chandler’s yen to wear polka-dot dresses.  Or about how Bogart used to hide under tables while his wife Mayo got into bar fights.  I could talk about all kinds of salacious useless crap, and quite often do.

But, dear reader, not today.  Today my nails are sharp but my spirit is yielding. Today I choose not to focus on the weary negativities of life, the injustices, imbalances, and the thrush-inducing mornings-after the night before.  So I won’t do a tour of syphilitic Hollywood, and not only because that’d be one lo-ong essay to write of a lovely October day.

Today I want to talk about lighter and rarer things than a rollicking dose of the clap.  Instead I want to discuss a truly great comic performance:  A great Female comic performance that is more balls-to-the wall than any other piece of acting in that annus mirabilis of 1939, and which should’ve put all that sexist nonsense about “Are Women Funny” to rest before WWII.  As if Mabel Normand herself didn’t do it decades before. . . Continue reading

To Hell with God Damned “L’Amour” (A Letter from Noel Coward)

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By 1956, Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich had been friends for over two decades. One day, Coward received a letter from his old pal in which she lay out her broken heart and told a tale of humiliation. What should she do? How could she go on?

Immediately, the playwright sat down to write an answer. And it’s one for the ages. . .

But first, a little back-story:

Marlene Dietrich, the energetic, ageless iron butterfly of Hollywood + international cafe society, was dealing with something unprecedented: unrequited love. At the tail end of a five-year secret affair with the King of Siam, aka Yul Brynner (then the toast of Broadway in The King and I), she discovered herself behaving as her own conquests always had: waiting for phone calls; sending yearning glances across crowded rooms; receiving airy, dismissive promises of future assignations. Grateful for a drunken visit or a cinq-a-sept pounding before the King cleaned his sceptre and took it back to wifey.

Dietrich had never had to yearn. Yearning was for the ugly and the mortal. All she’d ever had to do was reach out a manicured hand and possess.

But Brynner was different. He proclaimed love, then left with a shrug. He promised forever but couldn’t even give flowers. How could this be? And why didn’t she stop it? Dietrich found herself so humiliatingly obsessed that she repeatedly followed Yul to Hollywood, then back to NYC. She kept herself to her best behavior, merely pausing for refreshing essentials like a brief ongoing affair with Sinatra. And Kirk Douglas. And Harold Arlen, Erich Remarque and Edward R. Murrow.

Lovely and attentive as these men were, Dietrich’s diaries during these years mention only one name with yearning, with passion–even desperation. Yul. 

Continue reading