Friday, September 12, 2014

Jeanne Eagels in The Letter (1929)



“Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theater as a Trappist monk lives in his faith. I have no other world; no other life — and once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one, Jeanne Eagels another. Paula Wessely, Hayes…”
— George Sanders as Addison De Witt in All About Eve (screenplay by Joseph Mankiewicz)

Addison’s uncharacteristically dating himself a bit there. Jeanne Eagels made her Broadway mark in 1922 with Rain, and if he was old enough to be a critic in the 1920s, he’s got a lot more mileage on him than Margo. But Margo misses her chance to acidly inquire if the De Witt nanny took little Addison to a matinee. And the Siren will speculate no further, because she comes in praise of Jeanne Eagels in the 1929 version of Somerset Maugham's The Letter.

As Leslie Crosbie in William Wyler’s 1940 remake, Bette Davis gave one of her greatest performances. Her predecessor was also great, but had a very different interpretation of the part. Jeanne Eagels, fated to die in a matter of months after filming wrapped, was working at a level of reckless abandon that remains rare to this day. It’s like watching a live broadcast of someone’s nervous breakdown. There seems to be some dispute over the proximate cause of Eagels’ death, after years of drinking, drugs and grueling tours, at the age of 39. It's hard not to wonder how Eagels survived as long as she did, if she gave performances at this pitch night after night.

Eagels’ contemporaries regarded her with awe. She performed in the stage version of The Letter for almost two years, and before that in another high-strung Maugham role, of Sadie Thompson in Rain. Davis worshipped Eagels, and if her Leslie is nothing like her idol’s, that’s because Davis had already based Mildred in Of Human Bondage on what she remembered. Barbara Stanwyck, then a chorus girl counting every penny, went to see Eagels four times.

In the short story that became The Letter, Somerset Maugham describes Leslie Crosbie, the disaffected plantation housewife who shoots her lover, like this:

She was in the early 30s, a fragile creature, neither short nor tall, and graceful rather than pretty. Her wrists and ankles were very delicate, but she was extremely thin and you could see the bones of her hands through the white skin, and the veins were large and blue. Her face was colourless, slightly sallow, and her lips were pale. You did not notice the colour of her eyes. She had a great deal of light brown hair and it had a slight natural wave; it was the sort of hair that with a little touching-up would have been very pretty, but you could not imagine that Mrs. Crosbie would think of resorting to any such device. She was a quiet, pleasant, unassuming woman.

That’s Davis in Wyler’s film, all right. It is not Jeanne Eagels. Eagels is the Siren’s favorite type of screen beauty, ravishing in some moods, near-homely in others. She had wide-set eyes, a cleft chin, and luminous pale skin. (“Lovely skin,” Diana Vreeland said of Edie Sedgwick, “but then I’ve never seen anyone on drugs that didn’t have wonderful skin.”) At her home, Eagels is costumed in blowsy dresses that emphasize a sloppy, braless decolletage; you are always aware of her breathing. Her unruly bob is also one of the few times in any era that Hollywood shows a real approximation of what humidity does to overprocessed hair.

Eagels, as recorded for the ages by director Jean de Limur, shows a Leslie who is rapidly coming unglued from plantation life. In her first scene, Leslie’s impossibly boring husband Robert (Reginald Owen) is announcing a trip. She tries to keep an expression of feigned interest but her mouth twitches from the effort not to yell at him to shut up. Davis plies her lacework with icy serenity; Eagels stabs at hers in a way that by rights should terrify her husband, if he weren’t such a complacent lummox.

One delightful aspect of the earlier film: Herbert Marshall, playing Geoffrey Hammond, the lover who winds up dead. Hammond dies without a line of dialogue in the story, the play, and the 1940 movie; and in the Wyler movie, of course, Marshall plays husband Robert as an unusually sympathetic cuckold. In 1929 Marshall was 39, but he looks 10 years younger, he’s preeningly handsome, and his Geoff Hammond is a perfect exhibit of upper-class narcissism. He’s involved with a Malaysian woman played with great sincerity by Lady Tsen Mei. She’s shown spoiling him in a doting, almost maternal way that Leslie could no more manage than she could crochet a telegraph machine.

Hammond turns out to be as dopey in his way as Crosbie. “The common sense thing is to say, we’ve had a jolly good time, but all good things must come to an end,” he tells Leslie, a line that the Siren finds paralyzingly funny. There’s Eagels, stalking around the room like a panther whose zookeeper forgot to serve breakfast, and instead of making sure all sharp objects are put away safely, here’s Marshall telling her right-ho, chin up old girl. With his ex-lover shrieking for a real answer, he comes out with “I’m fed up, sick of the sight of you,” lines Marshall delivers in the manner of someone being firm with a door-to-door salesman.

Naturally, Eagels shoots him, with a movement that involves her entire arm from the shoulder down, jabbing with each pull of the trigger like the bullets require brute muscle power to hit the target. Davis fires with precise aim and an impassive face. The difference between these two women is the difference between a guillotine and an axe-murderer.

And when it’s over, and Herbert Marshall is most sincerely dead on her drawing-room carpet, Eagels’ expression, my god! She just shot the man she was begging to stay with her not two minutes before, and there’s not a trace of horror, much less remorse. It’s the face of a woman who just had incredible sex with a man she dislikes, but he’s still in her bed: “What the hell do I do now?”

Cover up the crime, of course. Soon we’re in court, and there’s a marvelous look up at Leslie’s face and wedding-ringed hand on a Bible, as she prepares to lie her little cloche hat off. She testifies about Hammond had burst out with “I say, you’re beautiful.” He progressed to kissing her, she says, pausing to let the attorney Joyce (O.P. Heggie) draw forth the sordid details of how Hammond pursued her until she stumbled and then carried her helpless form to the bedroom. Eagels plays this beautifully, as the purest kind of barking-mad self-delusion. Leslie’s expression keeps slipping into an erotic reverie about an Elinor Glynn scene that we know never happened — and then, with difficulty, she pulls herself back to the courtroom.

De Limur and the other players seem to have seen the main job as just letting Eagels fly.* But there is other good stuff in this movie, all the same. The camera slinks into the multiracial nightspot where Leslie is going to fetch The Letter, in a way that echoes how the English matron is trying to remain unnoticed. Lady Tsen Mei gets some malicious dialogue with Leslie, and shows clear logic, unlike Gale Sondergaard a decade later. And at the opening of de Limur’s film, the camera glides from a shot of a sign, through the jungle to the Crosbie plantation and up the porch stairs in a way that surely made William Wyler sit up and say, “Hey, I can work with that.”


The 1940 film reaches heights that the 1929 version does not; the Siren admires Wyler’s camera, Tony Gaudio’s cinematography, Davis’ tightly controlled murderess, James Stephenson in an expanded and very touching take on the conflicted lawyer Joyce. The later film also has sharper, more subtle insights about the casual racism of the English, and how the Malaysians really feel about them. But some distinguished folks prefer de Limur, including Dave Kehr, who feels that the Code-mandated ending marred the later version. He hailed the release of this film on Warner Archive; as always at Kehr’s place, the comments thread was a lulu, with marvelous lines like “I hope I’m not guilty of otherizing the non-idiots” and Dave remarking, about whether or not Jeanne Eagels was nominated for this performance, “one must always be pedantic about the Oscars.” Dan Callahan popped in to mention that biographer David Stenn is working on a book about Eagels, which is excellent news. Dan also questioned whether what we have left of the 1929 film is a work print, and the possible solution to that is fascinating. (It was made at Paramount’s Astoria Studios, our old friend Mordaunt Hall noted some sound weirdnesses in his review, and Kehr hypothesizes that it was supposed to be sent back to the West Coast for sound mixing and was thrown into theaters instead.)

But the 1929 version is excellent and intensely rewarding, nothing like the stereotype of a dull, stagey early talkie. And it goes out on a high note, with the famous confrontation scene between Leslie and her husband. It’s marred only by Owen’s acting, which is very low-wattage compared with Eagels. (Imagine Basil Rathbone or John Barrymore in that part; you’d have heard the cell door clanging on every line as he tells Leslie she’s going to stay right here.)

“Don’t forget this. You brought me out to this filthy place, this godforsaken place, and you kept me here...your whole life was just wrapped up in rubber!” The way Eagels spits out that word, “rubber,” gives the Siren a thrill every time. The whole scene comes closer to Maugham than anything else in the film: “At last she stopped, panting. Her face was no longer human, it was distorted with cruelty, and rage and pain. You would never have thought that this quiet, refined woman was capable of such a fiendish passion…”




*Sincere apologies. Like the burning ardor of Herbert Marshall, that one was impossible to resist. You don’t know how hard it was to keep from titling this post “Where Eagels Dare.”

Update: The Siren has learned that Tara Hanks and Eric Woodard are also working on a biography, called Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In Memoriam: Ruby Dee, 1922-2014



She signed on even though she would not have the ingenue role of Walter Lee's sister that she desired; Diana Sands got the part, while Claudia McNeil portrayed his mother. Instead, Ms. Dee would play his wife, Ruth: "Another one of those put-upon wives. And they always seemed to be named Ruth!'' But, she added: ''I dusted off my disappointment. This was very important. It was going to be a Broadway show.''
— Michael Anderson talks to Ruby Dee about the original 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, New York Times, March 7, 1999


Dee made her film debut with [Ossie] Davis in No Way Out in 1950 and the same year played baseball player Jackie Robinson’s wife in The Jackie Robinson Story. She was the good, uncomplaining wife to Sidney Poitier again in Edge of the City and to Nat King Cole as W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958). She was cast in this kind of role so often that she was dubbed the “Negro June Allyson,” after a contemporary white film star who played similar “good girl” parts.
African Americans in the Performing Arts, by Steve Otfinoski. Above, Dee with Nat King Cole.



"Freedom isn't a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should have been born with."
— Ruby Dee in The Tall Target (1951)




"I usually played good-girl wives and mothers. And truthfully those good-girl roles were stretches."
— Ruby Dee in Backstage, March 9, 2001, explaining why she liked her roles in The Balcony and as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night



"The thing that fascinated me about her and her work was that in the really dramatic moments, it was as if her body had difficulty containing the emotions. That's the best compliment I could pay anybody who worked at this craft. We all hit a point in life at which we are unable to hide what we feel: Those emotions have either gotten away or are about to get away. Well, with her, she had control, but it was as if the control existed at the very edge of chaos. That's Ruby Dee."
— Sidney Poitier, who directed Dee in Buck and the Preacher; quoted in the Hollywood Reporter in 2001. Above, Dee with John Cassavetes and Kathleen Maguire in Edge of the City (1957), in which she played opposite Poitier.




"Dear Ossie, When I think of you, let there be silence and no writing at all. Ruby."
— Inscription on a photo she gave him during their courtship; they married in 1948




“In doing it our way, we didn’t have to sell more of ourselves than we could get back before the sun went down.”
— Ossie Davis on a lifetime’s shared career with Ruby Dee. Above, Martin Luther King Jr. visits the set of the stage production of Purlie Victorious, 1961.


“We've got to trust it and go wherever it takes us. Especially women. We women have a great function to perform. The world needs us. Feminine sensibilities are not being acknowledged, and we've allowed the anti-people to steal the children and are tolerating far too much: the assault on ourselves, the families of the world, permitting war and rape. More women are becoming enraged about these things and I think we're on the verge of doing something about them... We have to bring forward the graces in life and make them real. We have to institute democracy, which is still mostly an aspiration, and universal love, which is still unrealized. I dream of getting prisons off the stock exchange. It is a dastardly crime and an insult to the word democracy to make a commodity of jailing people.”
— Interview with Essence magazine in 2005, shortly after Davis’ death. Above, a protest over the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, 1999; Dee is in the lower right-hand corner. She and Davis were arrested that day.



"Cremation after a public ceremony, and then into an urn. A special urn, large enough and comfortable enough to hold both our ashes. Whoever goes first will wait for the other. When we are united at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold — but not too modest either — we want the following inscription: 'Ruby and Ossie — In This Thing Together.'"
— from In This Life Together, by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee



“We keep going upward. But the ascent is jagged. Up a little, then back, then up some more. But, all in all, upward. We're going to come into our glory as a species. When someone challenges my optimism, I remember a line from Lorraine Hansberry, I think it's from her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. It goes, 'Why do you despairing ones think that only you know the truth?' ”
— from a 1996 interview with Joe Adcock in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Some Memories of Maurice Sendak


(When Maurice Sendak died, I wrote this small essay, and then I held it back. It's been two years now, and today would have been his 86th birthday. Somehow, it felt like it's time now. Happy birthday, Mr. Sendak.)

Maurice Sendak, the great illustrator and author, was represented by a literary agent I worked for years ago. The agency placed a large value on politeness in dealing with publishers and authors, and its top client's influence had something to do with that. Sendak had a tart wit and a low tolerance for foolishness, but when it came to the people who were working for him, he never had a diva-ish moment. He was, to use a sarcastic phrase in a sincere way, good to the little people. And people just don't come much littler than a young woman calling you to ask if a school may do a staged reading of Where the Wild Things Are.

That, of course, was me. I was not used to substantive conversations with legends. The first time I called him, I was so intimidated that not only did my voice shake, but my hand holding the phone shook too, and when I cradled the receiver to my ear I discovered my chin had a slight tremor as well. I introduced myself and rattled off whatever the permission request was — I do believe it actually was a staged reading, come to think of it — and he sighed and said something like "Oh, all right. It's a school."

That was it. I put down the phone and reflected that the mighty Maurice Sendak was, in fact, one of the least scary people I had ever dealt with in publishing.

Over time I came to enjoy my calls to him. Schools, libraries and the like seldom got a bad reaction from Sendak, although he did have an intense and understandable dislike of people re-drawing his illustrations. People wanting to use his books free of charge for a profit-based motive usually got a different reaction. This was, in a phrase I adopted and use constantly: "Tell them to fuck off. [pause] But — say it nicely."

I do remember that one time when I called and read him a letter from a school or library that described the Wild Things as "horrifying," he sounded a bit indignant, almost hurt. When I got off the phone, a coworker laughed and said, "No wonder. They're based on his relatives."

The one in our office who came to have a real friendship with Sendak was Beth, now better known as the author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. She would call and her laughter would vibrate all over the office, and then she'd recap the conversation for the rest of us. The topics could range from Schubert and Keats, for whom they both had a deep love, to politics, to showbiz gossip. She went to Europe and brought back a death mask of Keats as a gift for him; she told me that later Sendak amused himself by hiding it under the bedcovers of a startled houseguest.

One day Beth called to tell Maurice that a symphony orchestra wanted to do a children's program that set Wild Things to classical music, an idea that would ordinarily appeal enormously to him. My desk was behind Beth's, and I listened in as she read off the pieces to be used. I don't remember the first two, but when she got to the arrival on the island, she said, "Thus Spake Zarathustra, Richard Strauss" — and I noticed that she had pulled the phone back slightly from her ear, as she listened to Sendak's opinion of Richard Strauss. I believe she said he began with "That NAZI!! You tell them..." and from there the phrasing became, shall we say, quite hostile. The symphony did stage the reading in the end, as I recall, but most emphatically not with Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Another time, a Certain Newspaper had decided to do a Style Piece focused on Mornings With Famous People, and Beth had to call and ask what Maurice woke up to in the morning. "A bursting bladder," he replied, thought for a moment, and added, "And a drooling dog. I don't think I want either of those things publicized. Tell them..." And she did, and she said it nicely.

He treasured his status as a curmudgeon, that's for sure. Beth one time was burbling to him about how much she loved Christmas, and his response was, "Of course you do. It's you Gentiles who make it such a chore for the rest of us." But his tone was always funny, never cruel or snappish. When Beth published her first book, he sent her a drawing of a pig in a tutu, with the inscription, "Mazel tov!"

One of Sendak's best friends was James Marshall, the gifted creator of the immortal George and Martha, who entertain my own children to this day. Marshall was also represented by the agency, and when he died, we went to the memorial service. Sendak got up to speak, and began to tell an anecdote about a friend he and Marshall both knew. He reached a part saying, "...how we are comforted," and stopped. Overcome with grief, he left the podium.

I will always treasure my glimpses of Maurice Sendak, a genius, a curmudgeon, and a deeply kind man.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Miss Wright Regrets She's Unable to Pose Today


Above, Teresa Wright bestows the look of love on Dana Andrews at the end of The Best Years of Our Lives. They showed it again last night on TCM, for Memorial Day, causing some to point out that the holiday is about remembering the dead, not honoring the living veterans. In the way of most pedantry, this is technically correct, and tiresomely literal. Wyler's film needs no grave scenes; it is death-haunted throughout. Fredric March, Harold Russell and Dana Andrews carry the dead with them, and they always will.

It falls to the women to help bring them back to life, and Wright was the perfect foil for the traumatized Dana Andrews. Throughout her career she played normal, and showed that a good girl has as many angles as a bad, if you approach her with sincerity and don't condescend. What makes her Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt so marvelous, and somewhat unusual in Hitchcock's filmography, is that the girl's essential decency is, for once, made more intriguing and less predictable than the serial killer she's up against.

Wright was eager to play this role for Wyler, says Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg, because Peggy Stephenson is a homewrecker, albeit one with the purest of motives. Wright was getting a little tired of being what Wyler called "the best cryer in the business." Then again, this smart and dedicated actress also knew exactly what she did and did not want from the business. The Siren here gives you a key clause from the contract Miss Teresa Wright signed with Samuel Goldwyn Productions at the outset of her career:

Miss Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: in shorts; playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at the turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf.

Perhaps the second sentence of that clause was what Sam Goldwyn had in mind when he allegedly tried to get Wright to loosen up a bit during filming of The Little Foxes by calling to her from behind the camera, "Teresa, let your breasts flow in the breeze!"


You won't find much in the way of Teresa Wright cheesecake, but this shot is readily available on the Internet. The Siren includes it to demonstrate that had she chosen to do so, Miss Wright could have looked insinuating any old time she wanted.







Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Missing Reels: The Siren's Novel



Voilà, one reason the Siren has been MIA for long stretches this year: Missing Reels, her first novel, will be published by the Overlook Press this November. It is available for pre-order at Amazon.com and BN.com.

For those of you who may be attending: On May 29, from about 11:30 am to 12:30 pm, in her everyday guise as plain old Farran Smith Nehme, the Siren will be at BookExpo America at the Javits Center in Manhattan, signing copies of the galleys at the Overlook Press booth.

Here’s part of the jacket copy as it stands now:

New York in the late 1980s. Ceinwen Reilly has just moved from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and she’s never going back, minimum wage job (vintage store salesgirl) and shabby apartment (Avenue C walkup) be damned. Who cares about earthly matters when Ceinwen can spend her days and her nights at fading movie houses—and most of the time that’s left trying to look like Jean Harlow?

One day, Ceinwen discovers that her downstairs neighbor may have—just possibly—starred in a forgotten silent film that hasn’t been seen for ages. So naturally, it’s time for a quest. She will track down the missing reels, she will impress her neighbor, and she will become a part of movie history: the archivist as ingénue.

As she embarks on her grand mission, Ceinwen meets a somewhat bumbling, very charming, 100 percent English math professor named Matthew, who is as rational as she is dreamy. Together, they will or will not discover the reels, will or will not fall in love, and will or will not encounter the obsessives that make up the New York silent film nut underworld.

The Siren started work on Missing Reels about three years ago, when friend Tom Shone (a novelist in his own right, and In the Rooms is wonderful) cheerfully suggested she write a novel. She decided that the revival-house scene in New York in the late 1980s (in its death throes, though most of us were in denial about that at the time) would be a good setting for a romantic comedy.

Naturally, Missing Reels also reflects the Siren’s obsessions which, as you know, are obsessive indeed.

So for fun, and to get back into the swing of things, the Siren figured she’d go through Missing Reels, and catalogue the film references. And from time to time, she’ll put up other posts with other photographs representing the vast and eclectic group of films and film folk that are mentioned — however briefly or obliquely — in her novel.

If nothing else, it will be decorative.

And afterward, the Siren has three half-finished posts awaiting her ministrations. She is eager to get back to her regularly irregular blogging schedule. She misses you guys, a lot.

So, the epigraph:

The Crowd, 1928 (screenplay by King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver)

And the first chapter.

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow's double Mary Dees hides behind binoculars in Saratoga, completed in 1937 after Harlow died, age 26.

Red Dust, 1932

The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943 (roped in at left: Anthony Quinn and Dana Andrews)

Bette Davis (with Marlene Burnett) in The Old Maid, 1939
Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, 1932



Monday, April 07, 2014

In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney, 1920-2014



Roll out the red carpet, folks, and stand by. That boy is here again, the Pied Piper of the box office, the eighth or ninth wonder of the world, the kid himself — in short, Mickey Rooney.
— The New York Times reviews Strike Up the Band (1940)

Few terms are crueler than has-been. A has-been is Norma Desmond rattling around an empty mansion. Avoiding strong light like a vampire, bitterly dishing old enemies to skeptical interviewers. So focused on looking back that you never move forward.

Mickey Rooney was never a true has-been in his life, not with 90 years of work. Shorts and features, A pictures and B pictures, star turns and character parts. Social dramas, musicals, an impressive run of noirs, comedies, Emmy awards, sitcoms, a hit Broadway show. The Siren spotted him in The Muppets in 2011 and heard a college-age woman whisper to her companion, “Mickey Rooney.” If that’s has-been-dom, sign up the Siren.

Good script or bad, Rooney simply did not know how to approach his work any way other than full-out. You can find him in roles that sank into self-parody, things he probably took because he needed the money (let’s hope that’s how he wound up narrating Hollywood Blue). But phoning it in? Never happened.

Yes, Mickey Rooney was known for reminding people that he was once the biggest star in the world. That’s because he was once the biggest star in the world. It’s not like he spent decades dining out on how he scored the winning touchdown for Dead Skunk State College. That's why Dana Carvey’s exasperated tale of working with Rooney winds up adorable. Rooney was at once easy fodder for a dead-on impression, and inimitable.


He was one of the last remaining stars who started in silent movies; the Siren admits to being too depressed to look up who’s left. Rooney made his first indelible mark as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both on stage and on screen. In the movie he was about 15 years old, and so good as to be almost freakish. This is not a normal kid. That laugh is positively sinister. It originates somewhere under the loincloth, rolls up past the collarbone and sprays out like a firehose. It’s not his eyes that sparkle, it’s those teeth. Any minute you feel this Puck may attach himself to someone’s ankle, terrier-style. Rooney is all the amoral mischief of childhood rolled up into one half-naked package.
"Don't let the little guy fool you. He knows every trick in the book."
— First wife Ava Gardner
You can see the prototype of a certain Rooney character in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where he plays the young Clark Gable (!!), caught up in the 1904 tragedy of the General Slocum. It’s all there: the swagger, the loyalty, the tough cookie determined not to crumble, though he’s just a kid. Once the template was struck, Rooney could ring any number of changes on it, such as in Boys Town, where he’s an obnoxious delinquent, and a sobbing mixed-up kid, and stitches it together with moments of real heart.



“You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re a symbol! Behave yourself!”
— Billy Wilder, working at MGM on the script for Ninotchka, hears a commotion, rolls down his office window and spies Louis B. Mayer having a little man-to-man chat with his biggest star. Said chat, according to Wilder, involved Mayer seizing Rooney by the shoulders and shouting in his face.

There’s a TCM interview clip with the late Ann Rutherford where she discusses the Andy Hardy movies. There were 16 total, and Rutherford made 12 of those as Polly Benedict, the wholesome girlfriend Andy was supposed to make up with by the last reel, even if Lana Turner had been the alternative. Rutherford says the movies hold up pretty well, save the dread moment when Rooney would turn to Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy and say “Pop, can I talk to you, man-to-man?” The Andy Hardy films have a sweetness and funniness to them that still plays. But even at the time, they were like newsreels shot live on the scene of America’s fantasy life. Rooney's last Hardy movie was a 1958 revival that flopped; now, TV was in charge of idealizing the American home.

Rooney made some excellent movies during his years at the top of MGM. One of the best, The Human Comedy, had Rooney tender and gentle in his wartime role as a boy who delivers the last thing any soldier’s mother wants: telegrams.



Another movie from when Mickey Rooney was the biggest star in the world is Babes in Arms, from 1939. Anyone who’s seen Babes in Arms knows that in the annals of barking-mad Hollywood musicals, it’s way up there. Rooney is the son of vaudeville troupers. His parents can’t accept that the old circuit is gone for good, and when they decide to stage a comeback, the authorities threaten to send Mickey and costar Judy Garland to a work farm. In the title song — the first big musical number — Busby Berkeley’s camera tracks all the kids as they march through the town and sing. Except these cuties are waving crates and the occasional bit of furniture, and they’re carrying torches to build a bonfire. Douglas MacPhail sings to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” while torches wave in the foreground. The kids play on the swingset and the seesaw while the other kids are putting the torch to the bonfire. And Douglas and Mickey and Judy climb a playground slide for the finale, while everybody plays ring-around-the-campfire. It’s a vaudeville Walpurgisnacht.

So when you decide to joke with your pals, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” just remember that Mickey and Judy did that and then they staged a near-riot. This movie is many things. Wholesome isn’t necessarily one of them.

Check out this scene of Mickey and Judy auditioning for a big producer. There’s the way Rooney puts over a big number, and then there’s the way he’s doing “Good Morning” here. A little too bright, overcompensating, to cover up the nerves; it’s the way a newcomer would audition.

Then (sigh) there’s a blackface number, which is grisly, although at least it’s broken up by a thunderstorm. The final number, “God’s Country,” is a sort of MGM Manifesto: “We’ve got no Duce / We’ve got no Fuhrer / But we’ve got Gable / And Norma Shearer.”

The Siren doesn’t know that Rooney ever bothered to analyze exactly what the hell this movie was supposed to be saying, any more than he ever understood why everybody kept bugging him about Mr. Yunioshi. But it’s some kind of crackpot genius, all right, and here’s the thing about Rooney. In the midst of a vaudeville version of May ‘68, and (god help us) a minstrel show, and a closing number about God’s Country, “where every man / is his own dictator,” (what?) five-foot-two-or-three-inch Rooney is seizing that screen every single minute. If that seems no big deal, ponder Ruby Keeler for a minute or two. Nor is Rooney upstaging Garland. They worked together, not in opposition. They were still doing it in Words and Music nine years later.


“Mickey Rooney can act the legs off a centipede.”
— The Sunday Times of London, from a 1939 review of Babes in Arms

Some of Rooney’s best classic-era performances came after World War II, when hard living had given him a face even Mayer couldn’t sell as boyish anymore: Noir Comes to Andy Hardy. There’s Quicksand, with its uncomfortable echoes of Rooney’s real-life character. He’s an auto mechanic, but he’s also a skirt-chaser, and his pursuit of a pretty cashier leads him to one dumb decision after another. (He produced the film with Peter Lorre; they play well together.) Drive a Crooked Road finds Rooney a mechanic again, only this time he’s shy around the ladies and picked on by his coworkers. His yearning for a girlfriend gets him mixed up with a bad dame; those who think of Mickey as a flashy ham will be surprised at how naturally he plays shy and lonely. He’s a convincing psychopath in Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson — though, as James MacEachern pointed out earlier this year in a lovely tribute at Bright Lights Film Journal, at the time the movie did badly and Rooney’s reviews were poor. As the loyal pal of Anthony Quinn in the extremely depressing Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rooney was more touching than the ostensible lead. And the Siren adores The Strip, in which Rooney plays a musician sucked into a world of graft by a corrupt bookie. Here’s part of why: Rooney playing drums with Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines. He’s in character, but Rooney’s projecting a character who knows he’s jamming with the best.



Dear Mr. Mayer:
We have read the “God’s Country” Finale (pages 1 through 4) dated July 3, 1939, for your proposed production titled Babes in Arms, and are happy to report that this material comes under the requirements of the Production Code.

However, on Page 3, Mickey used the word “shag.” This should be changed since in England and the British colonies this word has a very objectionable sexual meaning which would cause its deletion by numerous political censor boards. 
You understand, of course, that our final judgment will be based upon the finished picture.
Cordially yours,
Joseph I. Breen
— quoted in The World of Entertainment! by Hugh Fordin

“He was the same off-screen as on, which meant that he made enemies,” wrote David Shipman. Some of them were undoubtedly exes. Rooney was a ravenous womanizer. Envy percolates through the writings of many male film critics when they get to the part where Rooney married 19-year-old Ava Gardner. There was also Norma Shearer, 18 years his senior and the affair that allegedly prompted Mayer’s outburst; lovely Martha Vickers, whom Rooney married; and six other wives and Lana Turner and...the Siren is getting tired, let’s just say it’s a cast list longer than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. At least the last marriage, to Jan Chamberlin, stuck. He had nine children (eight survive him). By 1962, when he would up in bankruptcy court for the first time (he’d be back), he’d earned $12 million over the course of his career. That’s about $93 million today.

Rooney, a compulsive gambler, always had big plans. Shipman notes, “When MGM were in difficulty in 1970, according to Variety, he offered to take over the reins, promising to make 20 films for $20 million. The offer was refused.” Kirk Kerkorian had already bought a big stake, attached the MGM name to a casino operation, and the Culver City assets were about to be sold off piece by piece. Rooney was no businessman, he approached things like a movie —an entertaining one, where auctioning everything down to Judy's ruby slippers was no way to end. How much better if in the last reel, the old studio says, “OK Mickey, you crazy kid. Let’s put on a show...”



(Review quotes from David Shipman's The Great Movie Stars; Billy Wilder story from Gavin Lambert's Norma Shearer biography; Ava Gardner quote from Lee Server's bio.)

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Herrmann/Sondheim



GROSS: Now, you've also mentioned that there was a Bernard Herrmann influence.

SONDHEIM: Yeah, that's it. You know, when you talked about Milton Babbitt's influence, much less Milton Babbitt's influence than Bernard Herrmann. When I was 15 years old, I saw a movie called Hangover Square, which featured a piano concerto that Bernard Herrmann had written, and it's a melodrama about a serial killer who writes this piano concerto. And it particularly impressed me. But all of Bernard Herrmann's music impressed me. And so actually the score of Sweeney Todd is an homage to him.



It's - I remember I played the score for the actor Tony Perkins, who knows movie scores the way I know movie scores or knew movie scores the way I did, and I was, I wasn't 24 bars into the opening number, when he said, oh, Bernard Herrmann. So it was very clear that what I was doing was channeling Herrmann.

And for the listeners who don't know, Bernard Herrmann did a great many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, including, of course, Psycho.




— Stephen Sondheim talks to Terry Gross, in a 2010 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.