Monday, September 08, 2008

Anita Page, 1910-2008


Hollywood history records a lot of ways women have dealt with possessing world-class looks. There are those who find it a cross from the beginning, test people constantly to make sure it isn't affecting every interaction, and wilt when they find it usually is. Others profess great disregard for their beauty but use the hell out of it all the same. Then there are the women who never bother to conceal how much they love being stunning, and flaunt it like a gambler's winnings. So firmly did the ravishing Anita Page belong to that last group that even after time had done its damage, she scarcely seemed to notice, retaining the ways and prerogatives of a beauty even as she approached the century mark.

She would receive guests and tell them about, for example, Mussolini's attempted wooing with an air that suggested her heyday was last week, not more than 70 years ago. And why not? All stars are accompanied by their celluloid ghosts. As a reporter sat with latter-day Anita he sat also with her companion, the face on film that led Clark Gable to say that when he met Grace Kelly in the 1950s, he immediately thought of Anita Page. She died Saturday in her sleep, age 98, and like Amy-Jeanne the Siren feels cheated, having always assumed the unsinkable Anita would make 100 with time to spare.



Her career began with bit roles in silents and lasted until 1936. After that came marriages, a role in 1963 and a handful of horror roles in the last decade. The Siren has seen only two movies that starred Anita, The Broadway Melody and Our Dancing Daughters. In neither did she leave an impression of shimmering talent. But like Ava Gardner, another woman who savored her beauty to the dregs, just to look at Anita gives so much pleasure you feel churlish mentioning something like technique. Which is not to say Anita was bad; she wasn't. But the contrast provided by Joan Crawford, her ambition burning through every frame of Our Dancing Daughters, gives a more plausible explanation of Page's relatively short time at the peak than any stories about Irving Thalberg as an unlikely Casting Couch Creep.

In later years Anita was known for surrounding herself with adoring gay men, which in the Siren's eyes just shows fundamental common sense. As life winds down, who among us wouldn't be content with friendship, laughter and daily affirmations of fabulousness? Aside from food, shelter and family, there isn't much else the Siren sees herself wanting if she makes it past 90.

Mr. C likes to tell people about an interview he saw with France's oldest living woman, then well north of 100. She had buried something like four of her doctors and at least one man who had foolishly taken a type of viatical settlement on her when she was a spring chicken of 80. Asked about the downside to such advanced age, the Frenchwoman said wistfully that it got a bit lonely, outliving everyone. As we lose the last threads that connect us to the old days of greatness, the Siren feels more and more lonely herself.

***


The Siren was delighted and honored to be included in a critical symposium for Cineaste magazine, "Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet." The whole megillah is now online, so do take a look. There's quite a range of opinions expressed.

Also, David Cairns is giving away DVD copies of a film by Julien Duvivier, La Fin du Jour. The Siren shares his high regard for Duvivier and hopes many people take him up on this generous offer, designed to spread the word about the work of this great French director.

26 comments:

Vanwall said...

I heard it was Mayer that propositioned her. ?? She used to live out near here, San Diego, and she wasn't as approachable then - she was a Navy Officer's wife, and I guess she was playing that role to the hilt. I liked her a lot in her pictures, and she deserved better, but we all know what H'wood does to obstreperous chillens. Perhaps Crawford was less ...trouble.

Campaspe said...

She might have gotten the two mixed up. My eyebrows went up when I read the Thalberg claim and near as I can tell it came from Anita herself, quite late in life, something the Telegraph should have mentioned. I had always read that Thalberg, with his heart condition, was nowhere near the kind of hound most other producers were in that era. Thalberg's great love is always said to have been Constance Talmadge, but rather than pestering her for sexual favors he seems to have behaved like a schoolboy. Let's just say I think Anita's memory may have played some tricks on her from time to time, as some of those links also suggest.

Crawford absolutely knew how to play the game. Any star with a long career had to. It's likely that Anita did in fact overplay her hand, walking out for whatever reason only to find that the studio had bolted the door behind her.

Jonathan Lapper said...

There's still Luise Rainer. And Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine. I'm still waiting to see when one of them goes if the other will attend the funeral.

Campaspe said...

Yep, and there are others from a slightly later crop, too. And fabulous Barbara Kent still plugs along, though sadly she refuses all interviews as does Deanna Durbin. Still, it's a sad exercise as you mentally cross the names off, one by one.

Vanwall said...

Regarding the Cineaste article, well done, and dare I say it, "Colossal! ;-)

They mispelled Campaspe on the header, tho - just how informed are they? - anyone familiar with Godward's painting would never fail that spelling test.

Gareth said...

My grand-aunt turned 100 recently and one of the speeches included an anecdote about another centenarian, happier than that of the French woman you mention. When this particular old lady was asked what she felt the best part of turning 100 might be, she replied "No peer pressure."

Vanwall said...

My grandmother passed away at 98 a few years ago, and she was serene, happy and quite lucid for years up right up to the end - there was no one she knew from her childhood left alive, and very few from the next generation either, so she reminisced a lot to us young 'uns. She would pop up with tidbits about her youth every so often that would amaze me: she watched Buffalo Bill Cody's funeral pass by her family farm in Colorado, on the way to Lookout Mountain - she thought it was all part of the circus.

Another time, she told us how a very pretty lady who was staying nearby for the country air would come and buy fresh eggs from my grandma's chickens every morning, and when Gran's dog had puppies, the lady fell in love with one in particular and bought it on the spot. Mary Pickford, who was indeed the pretty lady, became my gramma's favorite movie star right then and there.

At dinner once at my Dad's, I fetched her in my car, and when I opened her door, she had to take a moment to get her cane, (a fairly recent need, which she hated), get set and when I held her hand to help her out, I could tell she was a litle annoyed at her own frailty. She looks up and tells me, "You know, Rob, when you get to be 96, you slow down a little."

Campaspe said...

Aw, I am happy to hear of cheerful centenarians. The Guardian link indicates that Page was at her most lucid when discussing her film days.

DavidEhrenstein said...

And there's still Glora Stuart who turned 98 in July and is absolutely splendid health.

Gerard Jones said...

There are a lot of those stories attributing studio politics to executives demanding that actresses sleep with them. Obviously there was some truth to them, but I think a couple of other factors come in: One, gossips love those stories. And two, I think some actresses used them to explain their changing fortunes and make themselves sound noble. I have no reason to believe that Anita herself did that. But it does sound more glamorous to say that a studio crushed your career because you wouldn't sleep with the boss, rather than that, say, they weren't sure you were going to be all that big a money-maker in talkies and then you overplayed your hand in a studio political battle.

The biggest thing that makes me doubt that either Thalberg or Mayer would destroy Page over sex is just the fact that these guys were businessmen and executives before all else. They were HIRED executives too, they didn't own the company, so they had to show profits to their bosses in New York. Every story about them shows that, when push came to shove, running an efficient and profitable company trumped all other concerns; and that gaining power in relation to the other came in second place. With an endless supply of pretty actresses available, many of whom surely did make themselves sexually available to the bosses, I can't see either of those guys risking a capital investment and possible embarrassment before the Loews board over sex.

Frankly, I just don't think they were that...romantic.

One thing that's really clear from stories about Uncle Irv and Uncle Lou, though, is that they both put a huge value on loyalty. Jack Gilbert, Billy Haines, et al. I think for them that was part of showing the bosses they were running a tight ship. So I can certainly see either of them deciding to punish and dispose of Anita if they felt she was causing trouble--not on the couch, but in matters of business and publicity.

Anyway, thank you for the lovely tribute to her, Campaspe!

Campaspe said...

David, Gloria had better make it well past 100!

Gareth, very astute about the casting couch. I have read about Mayer making advances to young actresses but he doesn't seem to have been like Zanuck or Cohn, both of whom were apparently nothing short of predatory. If there were some who wanted to say they lost their careers protecting their honor, I am sure there were others who had no intention of admitting they slept with an executive to get ahead. On the other hand I had never before encountered a Thalberg story and with his bad ticker...well, I already explained.

Gerard Jones said...

David Thomson, in his book on Selznick, makes a pretty good argument that L.B. never was a womanizer, was actually quite sincere about his "good husband and father" role, until sometime in the late '40s (I think it was), when his daughters were grown up and married and business started to go bad and he finally fell for some young thing.

In any case, he and Thalberg sound very different from Zanuck, Cohn, and other predators...and even those clowns never damaged a marketable actress's value for their personal feelings, as far as I know.

Campaspe said...

Gerard, what I have read was that his wife had a hysterectomy in the early 1930s and it seems to have plunged her into a depression, and afterward Mayer lost interest in sleeping with her. In any event what had been a pretty good marriage went to blazes and they did divorce eventually. So I think his womanizing began earlier than the 1940s. But he saw himself as a fatherly type, different altogether in technique from Zanuck telling telling Joan Collins she needed a real man like him! I do recall reading that Mayer wanted to marry Jean Howard but she of course didn't reciprocate.

Gerard Jones said...

Yes, I think I must be a decade off in my memory of what Thomson wrote about Mayer. Because the girls would have been out of the nest by the early '30s too. But even after the marriage fell apart I get the impression he was mainly interested in a new wife, not a lunch-hour diversion.

Vanwall said...

After a couple of particular tours on separate juries, I no longer give the benefit of doubt to most of the executives rumored to be predatory - or abusive. And that was just the cases themselves; in seating the jury, it came out that most of women in the jury pools had been abused either physically or sexually in their lifetimes, a sad commentary, and I have no doubt it was just as bad or worse back then, in the culture that buried all sins in pursuit of a buck.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lovely tribute. And how interesting that we seem to mourn this creative period of filmmaking, an era already gone for so long, with the passing of each actor who was part of it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Thomson's full of shit about L.B. Mayer. There was a documentary made a few years back about a starlet being raped at party Mayer threw for exhibitors. Not only was th rape cpovered up, the girl was destroyed by Mayer

DavidEhrenstein said...

here's the film I was talking about. If you want to know about REAL Louis Mayer (and much else about the "golden age") see it.

Karen said...

Oh, what a great tribute, and thanks for the link to the Alternate Film Guide page.

If you've never had a chance to see The Easiest Way, keep a TCM weather eye out for it. I think I've seen it twice--once on Constance Bennett day, once on Robert Montgomery day--and I enjoyed it immensely. Gable lights up the screen (you just knew he was going to be a massive star; he was pure electricity even in those small early roles), and Page really is lovely and sweet.

I neither know nor care what the truth of Page's career trajectory was; I'm happy just to watch the movies....

Campaspe said...

thanks very much Jacqueline!

David, I didn't see the doc but I read the long article in Vanity Fair, and it was horribly sad. Mayer was ruthless and not an admirable man on a personal level, at least not to me. Of course one of the reasons Patricia Douglas was treated so badly was that she was a nobody in the strict hierarchy of Hollywood, and therefore disposable.

Anyone who wants to read the VF article can do so here.

Campaspe said...

Karen, I have to say I do care about things like why a career ends, just as part of my voracious interest in Hollywood history (and mythology). But of course an interesting personal story won't make a dull movie more fun. I knew you would have seen an Anita Page that I have not! ever caught the ones she did with Keaton? I am curious about those.

Gerard Jones said...

I don't doubt for a second that Mayer would cover up a rape and ruin the victim to protect his company and his more bankable actors. I'm not defending his character--these guys could be utterly amoral. I'm just saying that I don't see Mayer ruining one of his most valuable stars because she refused his sexual advances. I don't think sex would ever trump money in his mind. Silencing that poor young woman who was raped would make sense to Mayer at a business level. Destroying Anita Page doesn't, unless he saw her as a business liability.

Campaspe said...

Thanks, Gerard, that was what I wanted to say and made a slight feint ... but even going back to glance at that poor Douglas woman's story had rendered me less than articulate. Jesus what a tragedy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ann Miller (bless her toe-tapping soul) claimed Mayer made a very definite pass at her too -- which she turned down flat. But Ann was too big a star by then for him to risk destroying her out of spite.

Campaspe said...

I totally believe that, actually. Ann was smokin' hot and yet the kind of wholesome that Mayer adored.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Smokin' Hot!