Read Fontaine's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, and what you get comes close to something said by her sister, who said "Joan is very bright and sharp and can be cutting." The woman who published the book in 1978 seems witty, confident, possessed of a wide range of interests and, perhaps, not nearly as fascinated by her Hollywood past or even by acting as she once was. It must be admitted that this isn't the best star memoir the Siren has read, nor is it even one of the best. There is something rather perfunctory about it, a sense of oh-gosh-I-guess-they-want-to-hear-about-this-now. Social life is covered in more detail than most of the movies, although this may have little to do with Fontaine. Like most star memoirs it was ghost-written and it's axiomatic in the publishing industry that people want gossip from Hollywood books, not moviemaking analysis. The Siren has to believe that Fontaine would have preferred to write more about Letter from an Unknown Woman (which gets one--one!--brief graph) and less about her ghastly stepfather and his pawings or about her celebrated feud with her sister.
About that feud--the Siren wrote once before about the difficulty of peering into family matters, and she reiterates that here. The Siren, who has enormous admiration for Olivia de Havilland as well as her sister, does not presume to understand what seems to be quite genuine bad blood between the two. One explanation Joan offers in her book is strikingly simple, however. They got along badly because they were raised to do so. The Siren spends a good part of her day trying to patch up sibling rivalry; Joan and Olivia's mother, a frustrated actress herself, spent her days fanning it. She raised the two in perpetual competition with one another, and the habit stuck. No matter what is behind the rift, it's a shame to think that these two women, with so few people alive who remember the years and the people they do, are still cool toward one another. The Siren has this bright little fantasy that they actually call each other regularly and keep the "feud" alive in the press for the sake of appearances--it's part of their legend, after all, darlings.
Anway, the book has plenty of examples of Joan's lively sense of humor. One instance got her in considerable hot water avec Olivia, when a reporter called to ask Joan's opinion of Olivia's new husband Marcus Goodrich. Joan replied, "All I know about him is that he has had four wives and has written one book. Too bad it isn't the other way around." The Siren found this quite funny. Olivia, predictably, did not. Here's Joan's summary of filming A Damsel in Distress: "I tripped over fences and stepping stones to the tune of 'Things Are Looking Up.' George and Ira Gershwin also wrote the haunting 'Foggy Day in London Town' for our film. I also fell on my face."
She fell in love with George Stevens during the filming of Gunga Din, but nothing came of it, nor did she learn much about acting from him. Speaking of multiple-take directors--Fontaine says Stevens' basic direction was "I don't know what's wrong. Let's shoot it again." Stevens would sometimes halt filming cold to go off and pace or stare into the middle distance. Joan reports that "it was Carole Lombard who solved the mystery of George's brown studies. 'You know what that s.o.b. is thinking about when he's in one of his trances? NOT A FUCKING THING.'"
Reportedly Joan's first husband, Brian Aherne, quipped that the book should have been called "No Shred of Truth." But the ex-husbands and lovers don't come off all that horribly, though none of them emerge with much credit either. Take Conrad Nagel, for example. Surely no man wants to think that when he is dead and buried, a woman whom he deflowered will contribute to keeping his memory alive by saying the whole thing reminded her "of when I had to stand up in class as a child and be vaccinated."
Aherne, for his part, went off to knock back a few with director Jean Negulesco the night before he was to marry Joan, then had Jean call for him to say he was too afraid to go through with the marriage. Joan told Jean that she'd be at the church the next day and wasn't about to call off anything, no matter what Brian did subsequently. Brian showed the next day, they got married and apparently this didn't come up later on in their marriage. The Siren isn't sure whether it's this part of the book that upset Aherne, or the part where he spent much of their wedding night dancing around their hotel room in his dressing gown. The Siren suspects most men outside of a professional corps de ballet do not want the word "pirouetting" to show up anywhere near a description of them, not to mention the word "tassels."
Irrelevant though this next bit is, Siren can't abandon this phase of Joan's life without a favorite anecdote, told by Joan and quoted in Boze Hadleigh's Hollywood and Whine:
[During] a trip under the aegis of a British War Relief campaign [in World War II] we were at the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City. It happened to be the anniversary of a college sorority and all the girls celebrated by coming to meet the handsome actor. Microphones were thrust in front of us. Brian [Aherne] was to deliver a message to the RAF pilots who would be listening to a shortwave rebroadcast. Did have to anything in particular to say to these brave airmen?
Brian said yes indeed, he did. 'Chaps, keep your peckers up!' Silence...the girls fled in embarrassment. The president minister blanched. Only when I got my English husband back to our hotel did I inform him that in America 'pecker' did not mean 'chin.'
Yesterday on the TCM Birthday tribute the Siren caught one early Joan movie, Blond Cheat. In her autobiography Joan showed her opinion of this one pretty clearly by failing to mention its existence. The Siren can't say she disagrees. Joan is exquisitely pretty in the movie--more slender than other stars of the day, perfect bone structure, skin so dewy it seems to come with its own inner key light. Unfortunately this is part of the problem. One characteristic of an inexperienced but beautiful actress is that she will often play to her loveliness. By that, the Siren means that every move will show the young lady is excruciatingly conscious of how she looks. (Amy Irving was frequently guilty of this early in her career, and Scarlett Johansson still is.) You can see that she feels the lipstick on her lips, the mascara on the lashes. She knows how beautiful she is, but she doesn't own that beauty yet. She is trying it on in front of the camera--pirouetting, if you will. Every aspect of the character becomes subordinate to this physical effect. On top of this, Joan is saddled with one of those lead-balloon imitation screwball scripts--where the leading man declares "whatever it is, I'm not going to fall for it," and then falls on his face.
The most fascinating part of this movie was the date on it--1938. One year removed from respectable performances in Gunga Din and The Women, and just two years from Rebecca, one of the best performances Joan ever gave. Olivia was right, Joan was bright and sharp indeed.
Postscript: Do check out this birthday post for Joan at JJ's place, As Little as Possible. It includes a fab clip of Joan, wearing Pucci or something close, and stumping the panel on What's My Line.