Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy


The Siren has nothing but work today, but fret not. Robert Avrech has an excellent post up at Big Hollywood about Mae Clarke, the female half of a breakfast gone very, very wrong.

The Siren's admiration for William Wellman's movies just keeps growing, and so some time back she saw the William Wellman episode from The Men Who Made the Movies. And of course the director discussed Public Enemy's most famous scene. (You can read an interview with Scott Eyman that touches on the same thing here.) Wellman wryly noted that he was embarking on a third marriage, the woman was giving him grief, and the director said he would have loved to cut her off in mid-sentence the same way. But, he added, there was no need, once it was on film. (Wellman also claimed the moment was in the script as Cagney throwing the grapefruit.) Almost eighty years after the picture was made, that grapefruit half smashing into Mae Clarke's face still makes most of us wince.

It was a bitter sort of screen immortality for the talented but star-crossed Clarke, who was wonderful in the original Front Page and Waterloo Bridge, and showed she could have done much more opposite Cagney when she gave a warm, charming performance in his low-budget Great Guy vehicle five years later. Clarke had just divorced Fanny Brice's brother when Public Enemy came out and in his memoirs, Cagney talked about how Monte Brice would go into showing after showing, wait for the grapefruit, "gloat," then leave. Cagney also claimed that the bit of business derived from a gangster in Chicago who shoved an omelette in the face of his girlfriend when her breakfast chitchat began to weary him. The eggs, Cagney says, "would have been a shade too messy," so grapefruit it was.

Clarke's story of the scene is even more disquieting than that of Cagney or Wellman, so do go, read, even if Big Hollywood ordinarily isn't, um, your thing. Robert goes deep into Clarke's truncated career and unhappy life, and it's a splendid tribute to her.

The Siren wonders if Clarke got some small measure of vengeful satisfaction in knowing that for the rest of his life, Cagney seldom went into a restaurant without some joker sending him a plate of grapefruit.

100 comments:

X. Trapnel said...

So little imagination, those restaurant jokers. It would have been funnier if all of the patrons transmitted the "Ma's dead" message till it reached Cagney.

kazu said...

I always thought the grapefruit thing was a bit much, though I admit I laughed. I coincidentally also linked to a picture of the famous scene in my post about Nick Ray's BIGGER THAN LIFE. One never knows what to expect at a dinner table.

Gareth said...

I've heard some of the varying stories on that scene before, and it always struck me that the famous still looked as though it derived from a different take, or as though it was staged entirely separately. The filmed version seems so brutal and sudden, whereas the still seems carefully constructed, with Clarke's arms thrown back in a way I can't quite tie to the film. Of course, that's not to say that a bit-part player might not have agreed to a photo version, too, but that would make her seem like less of a startled ingénue. All that speculation notwithstanding, the article and your post are lovely tributes to Clarke.

Greg said...

You know what I love about Public Enemy, among so many other things of course: The fact that they shot the opening 'characters as kids' scene before the switching parts was done by Wellman and then didn't bother to re-shoot it even though clearly the smaller kid is supposed to be Cagney and the bigger kid is supposed to be Woods. I wonder what people thought seeing the movie for the first time who didn't know about the switch. I know the first time I saw it as a kid decades ago I thought that very thing. I thought, why in the hell did they cast the child actors as the exact opposite physical types of their characters as adults?

jesús cortés said...

Siren, I love Wellman´s "Heroes for sale", "My man and I", "Lafayette Escadrille", "The happy years", "Small town girl" and of course "Goodbye my lady" that deserves a monument. I mean ¡none of these films are named by anybody!

Operator_99 said...

The grapefruit scene is sure famous and too bad Mae didn't even get a credit, but the ending...chilling. I need to give Mae some space at my place.

Robert said...

Siren:

Thanks for the link. Just want to note that Fanny Brice was hugely supportive of Mae during her difficult days. Even after divorcing Fanny's brother, Fanny was there for Mae, financially and emotionally. Fanny Brice, in Mae's memoirs, comes across as a fine and generous Jewish mother.

Gareth:

In the book Mae talks about posing for a still of the grapefruit after the scene was shot. It was just part of the job for players. Still is.

Gareth said...

Robert, I guess that sort of confirms what I thought; if she posed for a still as well as the scene it does to undermine her presentation of things as simply a "gag."

Robert said...

Gareth:

Mae's behavior certainly could be seen as proving that the whole thing was not a gag, and she probably knew it.

And yet, we often take stills on location of set-ups that will not appear in the finished film.

My gut feeling is that Mae, for the sake of her self-respect, convinced herself that the grapefruit was a gag.

There is a saying in the Talmud that goes something like this: We never know what's truly in a man's heart and so we can only look at behavior.I keep this in mind when probing Hollywood lives.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Mae Clarke was also excellent in James Whale's version of Waterloo Bridge (infinitely more interesting than the better-known MGM remake.) As for Mae Clarke her last years were spent at the Motion Picture Home, where she was legendarily unpopular. Back in the 80's I used to visit to see my friend Fayard Nicholas and others. One time some one said "Mae Clarke is complaining about the soup again" to which another resident responded with "THEY SHOULD DROWN HER IN IT!!!"

Quite a tough room.

But they were all enchantyed one afternoon when Little Richard dropped by to sing and play. No back-up band with him. Just Little Ricard rockin' out at the piano. Too wonderful for words.

Campaspe said...

David, no wonder you appreciated La Fin du Jour; you had experienced it. Poor Mae, reading Avrech's piece you figure crotchety was all she COULD turn out to be.

Gareth and Robert, I looked at that still as I was posting it and thought it wasn't "live" from the set, it had to be posed. Which does rather undermine Clarke's story, to my mind, but I also completely buy Robert's hypothesis, having seen many quite ordinary people come up with tweaked versions of reality that make for more palatable memories.

Greg, you're right and it is funny as all hell. The other actor (whose name I can't remember and don't feel like looking up at the mo) had a bitter road to hoe after Public Enemy as well. Maybe in his mind, it was all studio machinations, like Vera Zorina talking about For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Jesus, Heroes for Sale is out on DVD right now in the Pre-Code Wellman collection and it is all kinds of swell. I want to see a few others you name but I second your regard for Goodbye My Lady, which he always expressed great affection for.

Operator, I agree, famous as the grapefruit scene is, it's the ending that really makes the blood run cold. And it's still got the ability to shock.

XT, you're right, that's about 20 times funnier but it would take a lot more nerve. I mean, Cagney had a reputation as a good guy but after seeing White Heat I think most people wouldn't want to risk the smallest chance that *any* of it was even a small, buried part of his actual personality.

Campaspe said...

Kazu, welcome. That would be an interesting post--lousy Hollywood dinners. The White Heat scene XT mentions would also take pride of place.

mndean said...

Mae is another actor I was aware ended up in a mental institution, and from what I've read of the others, I doubt it did much good and more likely did harm. Most actors I can think of who landed in institutions didn't live to a ripe age. Maybe what explains the crotchetiness was no family who'd take care of her and being in a home. I've seen it happen to parents of friends who were bitter over it and took it out on anyone around them.

I think Mae's cordial relationship with Cagney is summed up by how often they worked together. I remember the first time I watched Great Guy, I was thrown by the subject matter: The Bureau of what and what? I thought it couldn't possibly be a good movie, but it was. It had some hallmarks of Poverty Row, but I liked it better than some of the vehicles he got at Warner that I saw years later. I especially liked Mae and Cagney, they came off as a couple in the film.

The famous scene in The Public Enemy does more to show what a vicious bastard Cagney's character is (he was looking to get rid of her anyway) and he throws Mae over for Jean Harlow, who was the worst thing in the film - Wellman really did her no favors.

I never understood why Woods would have been cast over Cagney to begin with. Cagney did well in a similar role in Sinner's Holiday a year before, so whose bright idea was it to cast Cagney as just a sidekick? They tried that on him in The Doorway to Hell and he still had more charisma than Lew Ayres. At least Wellman spotted how bad the idea was and remedied that.

Campaspe said...

M., that's another reason why Clarke's story of being duped into the grapefruit scene doesn't ring that true. They have real chemistry in Great Guy and I think Cagney was mostly quite well-liked on set. Surely a really lousy trick would have been one that she held against him. As Robert says, it's the actions that tell.

I agree that the scene in Public Enemy is supposed to demonstrate Cagney's just-about-total worthlessness. By that time you've seen his violence and his amorality but that scene takes it up another step. But in the public imagination certain moments take on a life of their own. I think Wellman nails the appeal of the grapefruit scene when he says he imagined it being the woman who was giving him hell at the time. It's a moment of raw hostility that a lot of us feel toward someone who has gone from being an object of desire to being a pain in the ass. It's inexcusable, and yet there is one long-gone ex of mine...well, if it had been his handsome face getting a grapefruit, okay maybe I wouldn't be buying repeat tickets but I'd probably own the DVD.

As for mental institutions, that's a post all its own. In the movies they run the gamut from Bedlam and The Snake Pit to the healing white-walled mansions in Spellbound and Now, Voyager. When you read about the actuality I agree, it's hard to believe anybody emerged sane even if they went in that way. And Mae, far from having people to care for, was supporting her family. She isn't the only actor I have read about who had a large collection of dependents and sponging relatives and that never does them much good, either.

Campaspe said...

"far from having people to care for HER." Oops.

Vanwall said...

I always heard Wellman was more than bit of an SOB, from the first stories I read about him, and especially a low-key sadism directed at actresses in his film seemed to be a pattern. The Boys Club of The Skies always has been almost comically macho, but it veers into a sort of prosthetic device territory sometimes - kinda like the bigger the lift-kit on the big SUV, the smaller the....well, you know. Wellman especially seemed to use his wartime service as calling card, and wasn't averse to letting others inflate the details.

This translated well to the Boys Club of Hollywood, and Wellman and the pals would've been happy to shove a grapefruit into a gal's face at least once every film, I have no doubt. Out of all the stories about Clarke's facial, they all seemed bent around the post too many times to tie up neatly - it smacks of a gag thought up by the guys to emphasize just the fact that could do it, scripted or not, and make Mae Clarke sit still for it.

Wally Beery warned Louise Brooks not to let Wellman talk her into anything dangerous on the set of "Beggars of Life", but Wellman was very, very good at some kind of cozenage that worked - she jumped for that train handrail while in motion and took the fall - Beery was afraid she'd fall under the wheels. Wellman paid her off in a curious way, by letting her be dropped off of a cart without warning - his sign that maybe he liked her, I think.

Mae Clarke deserved better, all around, but she knew the job was dangerous when she took it.

X. Trapnel said...

From what I've read of Wellman, the passion for flying was authentic and the wartime record sufficiently impressive without embellishment. He may simply have been an ornery fellow rather than a Freudian case in compensation (though I do agree with Vanwall about male SUV drivers, what are female SUVists up to?). In view of all this it's worth noting that Wellman made The Ox-Bow Incident out of deep conviction, a film that does a complete moral reversal of the men at work formula.

Raoul Walsh, my favorite of all the tough-guy directors, is said to have been gentlemanly with actresses.

Vanwall said...

Sometimes I think those distaff SUV-ers are riding around in a big strap-on.

Wellman had the chops to back up his record, I've no doubt, but the orneriness was self-made, of that I have no doubt either. He didn't seem to like actors in general, M or F, and even tho he elicited some wonderful performances, as I mentioned before, Wellman seemed to be able to turn on, and mostly off, some kind of snake-oil salesmanship - maybe that was the secret of his success.

mndean said...

Vanwall,
It's not the bigger the lift kit anymore, it's the bigger the Truck Nutz. I swear the first time I saw that appendage on a lifted truck, I laughed at the driver. I hoped it was a joke, I feared it wasn't.

Vanwall said...

mdean - Yeah, I seen those - some of 'em need cojones transplants as well, I guess. Must've been on the way to Rite-Aid to pick up their Viagra prescription.

mndean said...

Siren,
It's true that most of us really want to do it to someone, but we don't. Cagney did in the film, and that kinda made me think there wasn't a line he wouldn't cross with anyone, anywhere. As for Wellman, I'm trying to think of any early film he made with a strong female part. I just can't, not even Frisco Jenny, which is like Madame X's bastard cousin and which I don't like half as much as Lilly Turner.

D Cairns said...

Mae Clark gets to be really fun and an equal partner, almost, in Lady Killer, although that's the one where Cagney drags her around by the hair and boots her up the arse -- maybe they were trying to top Public Enemy.

Cagney threatens Horst Buccholtz, I think it is, with a grapefruit in One Two Three, but the best in-joke is in Hard to Handle, where he's mixed up in a scam involving worthless grapefruit plantations. He pleads innocence to the DA: "I don't know anything about grapefruit. I never even SAW a grapefruit."

"Lock him up and show him a grapefruit."

Karen said...

As our hostess and the regulars know, I do love me some Jimmy Cagney. His is one of only two Hollywood autobiographies I've ever read, and I have read a fair bit about him, either. But nothing I've read leads me to believe he'd pull a crappy stunt like that on the new girl. He was a consummate professional, and always proud of the stage training that allowed him to come up with little bits of business that would enhance a scene, even when he was just part of the background.

But everyone tells themselves the story that they need to hear, and maybe Clarke needed this to be hers. I agree that the still--which is most certainly not taken from the scene--renders her version less credible. But maybe she needed to believe this.

Incidentally, I will enthusiastically second Mndean on the use of Harlow in The Public Enemy. I've never enjoyed Harlow's performances as "socialites;" she had an odd...accent? Habit of enunciation? Style of intonation?...that became even more exaggerated when she was trying to do High Society. It sounded much better when she was playing working class. I understand she came from a fairly high-society family in Kansas City, which has always made what I see as her failure to be a convincing society lady rather ironic. But then Bogart was a prep-school boy who sounded pretty working class, as well.

mndean said...

Can you imagine Bogart yelling, "Anyone for tennis?" with a sweater tied around his neck in tennis whites? A more ludicrous image is hard to imagine.

X. Trapnel said...

Yes Harlow is bizarre indeed in Public Enemy. I recently purchased Platinum Blonde, not for her other (were there more?) turn as a society lady, but 1. a promised stunning shot of Loretta Young's bare back and 2. curiosity about the short-lived Robert Williams.

Campaspe said...

My best guess: they did the grapefruit stunt at the end of shooting the scene, like she said, they did try it first without that business, Cagney did use some persuasion at some point, and over the long years of being known for this one rather degrading scene Clarke managed to glue all of that together into an "I was deceived" perception. Like Karen I don't really believe Cagney would have used a cheap lie on another performer.

But we are neglecting the best part of Mae's talk, the one where she discusses the interior life for her character. Not only is it perfect, everything she says is up on screen in that 41 seconds too. That, I submit to you, is acting.

Gareth said...

Yes, I agree that we're neglecting the best bit of Mae's account - I plead guilty - and indeed what is for me the strongest, most wrenching part of the scene itself. That is, not the moment grapefruit hits face, but Mae head in hands afterwards, having suffered the ultimate indignity.

Campaspe said...

XT, I just caught up with Platinum Blonde again and indeed Loretta is a dream of beauty in it, although no match for Harlow in terms of sheer screen presence. Harlow is still a bit tentative--I agree with Karen that high society wasn't Harlow's forte, for whatever reason--but it is hard to see why she was still so mocked by critics at that point. I do see it in Public Enemy, though, where Harlow really doesn't seem to know what to do in front of the camera. The difference between those films and, say, Red-Headed Woman is startling. It shows that Harlow was really learning, film to film.

Vanwall, Wellman is a hoot in interviews but yeah, he didn't much care for actors, and actresses seemed to have had it even worse from him. I think his tough-guy aura was quite authentic but it didn't extend all the way into chivalry. I've also read about Beggars of Life and considering what Beery is said to have been like in real life (read Swanson on Swanson and you will see what I mean) it says a lot that HE was the one trying to look out for Brooks.

M., I have a "strong early Wellman female role" for you though: Safe in Hell, a marvelous vehicle for Dorothy Mackaill. She was awesome in it, so good I cannot understand why she didn't become major.

Exiled in NJ said...

In her account of the scene, Mae Clarke only succumbed to that tendency to paint her past days as sunny. It is how I view my history; I can recall perhaps two rainy days in my life.

We were watching Hound of the Baskervilles this past weekend when wife spouts, "That's Tommy Power's mother" and sure enough it was Beryl Mercer as the doctor's wife.

How economically they could tell stories then! Today, the interval between Tommy in the gutter, Tommy in the hospital and his return home would be dragged out [check out the glacial pacing of the climax and sequel of The Assassination of Jesse James for a great example]. In 1930 we go from visiting the sick to the almost bathetic music that plays as Mrs. Powers makes his bed, to the ring of the doorbell without time to hit the bathroom!

Woods begins the film as a co-star and ends as a cipher. Hawks had no streetcar driving brother to give contrast to Tony Camonte, an even more frightening character to me than Powers. I always felt you could at least have a beer with Tommy, though he might splash it in your face, or grab your lapels and shake you, but drinking with Tony, while Guino flipped a coin nearby, would be unnerving.

Sometimes I wonder if Patricia Highsmith didn't put a bit of Tommy Powers into her Ripley.

mndean said...

Safe in Hell, I should have remembered that. A female character so strong she's...masculine. I don't mean that in the mannish-lesbian stereotype sense, but in the tough-guy, drink the boys under the table sense. Mackaill I think maybe was too tough, in films she comes across a bit like Wynne Gibson. Tough women weren't accepted as well then, they had to have some "femininity" or at least be funny (which could explain why Joan Blondell made it). You'd think that Mackaill could have been quite something, she certainly had the looks, but even though she was a veteran of silents, she never had much of a career in sound. While there was an appetite for tough blondes then, I guess they could go too far for the public.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Yes Cagney does threaten Horst with a grapefruit in One Two Three. It was a joke Wilder couldn't resist cracking and Cagney was only to happy to play.

As a matter of fact for all his obvious great performances in films whose titles we all know if anyone asked me for a film that demonstrated why Cagney is a God it would be One Two Three. A monster hit in 1961 it's been forgotten today -- largely because so has the "Cold War." But in it Cagney gives the most incredibly powerful comedy performance of all time -- rattling off the dialogue at a rate that leaves one breathless just thinking about it -- and doing all manner of physical business at the same time.

It also features one of my favorite dishy-hilarious starlets Pamela Tiffen -- the Toby Wing of the 60's. She married well, and got out while the going was good. No one today would know what to do with a girl like her -- gorgeous, dizzy, smart and hysterically funny, all at the same time.

Campaspe said...

David, I love Pamela Tiffin in One Two Three, and she was pretty goshdarned fun in Harper, too. I don't think the film is forgotten, though, compared to other old movies--many people love it. I saw it at the Film Forum a few years ago and it had them rolling in the aisles. I do remember reading that Cagney found it difficult to get some of the really rapid-fire sequences down (in particular that amazing scene where he is ordering clothes for Horst's makeover, which took 52 takes). The difficulties he experienced contributed in part to his decision to retire. Cagney couldn't stand Wilder OR Buchholz although characteristically he kept it to himself until after filming ended. Still, Wilder's appreciation for Cagney is apparent; the cuckoo clock plays "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Exiled, I think Camonte is a more wholly frightening character, too. And you are so right about the economy of storytelling in these old movies--Curtiz was a master of it too. One big complaint I have with many modern popcorn epics is that you get an incredible amount of backstory and exposition, then action action action, and yet I never seem to feel that I know any of these guys like I know Tommy Powers.

M., I think you're on to something. It probably isn't coincidental that one of the best female characters in early Wellman is also a man's woman. Mackaill was probably doomed by the end of the pre-code era too; she would have been too vivid for a "girl" part in an adventure story, too tough for a women's picture and too real for a screwball comedy.

Exiled in NJ said...

I love how Cagney changes the expression on his face just after Mae gives off "gee I wish." A light comes into his eyes, and to me it looks like the frustration with her is gone and that he's made up his mind to break it off. It's that cock-eyed optimism we see in so many later films.

The sad thought is that without that scene, Mae Clarke would have been Dorothy Mackaill, who I had to look up on IMDB. With the scene, she becomes the Ralph Branca of movies [I just dated myself]

Campaspe said...

I had to look up Branca, I admit it, but now I remember it oh so well. I have met Joshua Prager, who wrote the brilliant WSJ story that confirmed the Giants had stolen the pitching signs. A nicer guy than Prager you will not encounter in journalism or many other professions, and I can well see a player finally opening up to him after all those years.

You're right about the gleam in Cagney's eye, I noticed it too. Cagney had that quality of transparent thought on film that all great screen actors possess.

Robert said...

David:

You are quite right, Mae was not a beloved figure when in the Motion Picture home.

But before Mae was the collective punching bag, there was Mary Astor.

Astor always ate alone at her table and sort of lorded it over everyone. She was despised by many, but especially by Mae.

After Astor passed away Mae inherited her choice room.

James Curtis provides a fine introduction to his invaluable book in which he labels Mae, uh, "mercurial," and gently hints at all the drama in the home.

Campaspe said...

Robert, nooo! not my Mary Astor!

... okay, actually I can kind of see it. Her regard for Hollywood was not high, and having someone like that around all the time probably was a drag.

The Motion Picture Home is sounding more and more like a movie, except Duvivier already made it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Nver heard any stories about Astor at the home. Back then when I was visiting she was there, but stayed in her room. I gathered it had to do with her failing health.

But a non-feisty Mary Astor is just unthinkable. The others probably couldn't keep up with her snark.

She and Bette Davis weren't best pasl for nothing.

Campaspe said...

"But a non-feisty Mary Astor is just unthinkable. The others probably couldn't keep up with her snark.

She and Bette Davis weren't best pasl for nothing."

I couldn't agree more. In fact I have always figured that Olivia de Havilland's cool, gracious loveliness masked a steel spine, just based on her friendship with Davis (and that lawsuit of course.)

Karen said...

X.Trapnel, what did you think of Robert Williams in Platinum Blonde? I remember having my mind blown the first time I saw it--that was a star-making performance, and I was heartbroken to learn of his subsequent and all-too-early death.

According to the documentary Complicated Women, MscKaill, as the Siren suggests, was done in by the Code. There just wasn't a place for her in the new order--especially not with her past. It's interesting that an actress like Norma Shearer, who was in the middle of the Code enforcement firestorm due to films like The Divorcee, managed to come through the transition unscathed. But she never seemed entirely touched by the actions of The Divorcee--to me (admittedly no fan of Norma) she plays her usual arch self, which is what survived post-'34. But MacKaill just wasn't that kind of broad.

A shame that more MacKaill's not available, because she was a PIP. I've seen Safe in Hell, Picture Brides, Kept Husbands, and No Man of Her Own, but that's just the tip of the iceberg--she made over 60 films.

On a different note, I have to comment enviously on David E's beautifully casual mention of his friendship with the great, great Fayard Nicholas. My 11-year-old musical-theatre geek nephew, who is currently taking tap, had an Aunt Karen sleepover last Friday, and we spent some time on YouTube so that I could play ever Nicholas Brothers clip I could find. He was suitably enthralled.

Campaspe said...

Karen, re: Shearer's survival, to quote Joan Crawford, "Whaddya expect? She sleeps with the boss." I agree, she had that arch persona, but she also had Thalberg to give her the choicest and most appropriate roles. That kind of treatment could help anybody survive. Although, to be fair to Norma, it wasn't a guarantee (see Anna Sten).

Karen said...

Well, yes. There's also the Thalberg Factor, no doubt. I was trying to look at it objectively--but you're right; what's the point?

X. Trapnel said...

Karen, I haven't seen Platinum Blonde yet (maybe I'll have a look tonight), but your reaction fits with the consensus I've gathered regarding Williams.

My favorite moment of Cagney and wordless expression. Roaring Twenties toward the end; he's sitting in a dive bar; Gladys George tells him that Priscilla Lane just isn't worth it. Cagney's expression says "I know, I know, but I can't help it; please don't rub it in."

Campaspe said...

"I was trying to look at it objectively--but you're right; what's the point?"

This made me LOL.

X. Trapnel said...

Re Norma Shearer: A friend recently showed me what may well be the worst single scene in the history of American film: last shot of The Women; Norma S. mounting the stairs, palms outstretched to receive the stigmata from Mr. Stephen Haines.

Trapnel's First Law of Cinema: Never end a film with a closeup of someone's beaming face (cf. Noel Coward in The Scoundrel; that creepy kid in We Are Not Alone).

Karen said...

Heh. I saw Riptide this past week, for the first time, and commented to a dear friend that it had a tremendously entertaining opening scence (for those scoring at home: Herbert Marshall and Shearer negotiating their insect costumes). I said it might well be the only time I've seen Shearer succeed at being intentionally funny. My friend (a fellow anti-fan) asked, "Has Shearer ever been funny, even unintentionally?"

I replied that that closing scene of The Women never fails to make me snort with laughter.

It's a dreadful ending to an otherwise almost perfect film.

mndean said...

As soon as Norma tries to act noble or high-class, I hit the fast-forward for my own good. She is pretty good as a woman of loose morals, but if I had to watch her repent or play someone like Elizabeth Barrett Browning, I'd end up like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, strapped to a chair, my eyes clipped open, getting more and more nauseous. We talked about Claudette Colbert having a bit of archness - she's got nothing on Norma.

The best thing about The Barretts of Wimpole Street is the story behind the casting rather than the film itself.

X. Trapnel said...

Claudette C. was at least pretty and generally a good actress. NS is just a vague blur whose hair is always doing something non-Euclidean or ungrammatical.

Karen said...

Oh my lord, that dreadful hair!!

X. Trapnel said...

It always makes me think of the crest (i.e., floating part, not the streamers) of a Portugese man o' war or of an octopus fleeing danger.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Fayard.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Gavin Lambert wrote a very good bio of Norma. As you might imagine her life was ather interesting. She was a big star and not only knew all the power players -- she was married to the most legendary of them all.

Actually I'm rather fond of the silly ending of The Womn. It's an impossible role as everybody gets laugh lines but her. She has to be "noble." But she does get to flash her nails and cry out "JUNGLE RED!!!!" thus endearing her to gay men everywhere.

Goose said...

Not much love for NS here. I have tried to uphold the positives of Claudette Colbert and Jennifer Jones, but cannot even try with Norma Shearer.

Besides The Women, she was arch and over-emphatic in A Free Soul, The Divorcee, and Strange Interlude. I did like her at the end of Marie Antoinette, though that may be because I was grateful it was the end.

For slightly cross-eyed leading ladies, I much prefer Virginia Mayo.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Don't forget Kay Francis!

DavidEhrenstein said...

OMG! Sombody thinks Robert Pattinson is the new George Sanders!

Yojimboen said...

Dear me, you take a day off and everybody's jumping on poor Norma. I kind of like the closing shot of The Women, it's acting!And her hair?
Looks fine to me here.

Karen said...

Thank you for the photos of Fayard, David. A magical, magical talent.

And it's true that the "Jungle Red!!" line is possibly Norma's best delivery ever.

What I hate about the ending of The Women is not that Mary reunites with Stephen--I'm fine with that--it's that "Oh, Steven! STEVEN!!" with the voice breaking and the Bernini's-Ecstasy-of-Teresa-d'Avila expression. It's an irredeemably sappy note to finish such a hard-edged film on.

mndean said...

Speaking of Mackaill (so we can get the hell away from Norma), doesn't she wear about the filmiest negligee in No Man of Her Own? I swore it was nearly transparent.

mndean said...

Yojimboen,
There are certain kinds of acting which I don't have much respect for, like the "I wanna get an Oscar, so gimme a cripple to play" (offensive language intentional) type of acting. So too I don't respect the "I wanna be bad so I can wear a halo at the end" acting school Norma was somewhat infamous for. Sometimes actors can pull off these roles, but mostly they're just a waste of my time.

Kevin Deany said...

Trapnel: I got a big chuckle out of your First Law of Cinema - never end a film with a close up of someone's beaming face - and I agree, but as with everything in life, there are exceptions.

I submit the final shot of "First Love" from 1939, which ends with a beaming Kathleen Howard (of all people) ecstatic that Deanna Durbin took her advice to grasp for love, and not shut herself away, as the Howard character did so many years ago. A wonderful ending to what is arguably Durbin's best film.

D Cairns said...

More grapefruit --

I always understood the grapefruit was in the novel, although it wasn't a grapefruit. I forget what it was. And it was in the script. At various times, Zanuck, Cagney, the screenwriter and Wellman are supposed to have claimed credit for it.

But the story I recall Wellman recounting, although I don't recall where, is that Mae had a cold and, consequently, a tender nose on the day of filming. Taking Cagney aside, she asked him to be gentle. Wellman then told Cagney that the scene would be no good if he soft-pedaled it, and Cagney relented. Wellman even says he told Cagney the scene could make him a star if he did it right, which is probably exaggeration in hindsight. When they did the take, Mae was expecting a mild version of the grapefruit shove, but it got it hard in the kisser.

Although this is quite different from Mae's account, it does connect with it: she has a private confab with Cagney in both versions. So Wellman's account strikes me as reasonably plausible.

X. Trapnel said...

I'm with mnd on this type of acting (a variant is the faded, flowered house dress performance with Southern accent and no make up). And just bad for me are the You Gotta Love Me! performers (A. Jolson, J. Garland, R. Williams) who give me hives (I don't gotta do nuthin).

Kevin, another ezample (if memory serves) is the closing shot of Random Harvest with the sun-faced Greer Garson glowing/gloating over the symbolically decapitated Ronald Colman (why can't this guy keep his head on? It would be a far, far better thing he'd do to lite out for the territory with Susan Peters).

Campaspe said...

Okay, I'm a bit lost here so I'll just go through what jumps out at me.

Norma generally gives me a great big pain but I think she is pretty good in The Women, though there is really no defending that last shot. For me it isn't her face, it's her hands--up they go, then they reach out gracefully, and it isn't the least bit organic, it's Great Lady Drama that undermines nearly all her performances, save most of The Women, Idiot's Delight, some of Romeo and Juliet and most of Marie Antoinette.

Kay Francis was NOT cross-eyed. Norma was, but she had a dramatically beautiful profile, as Yojimboen's link shows. I can never be too hard on her because of the Lambert bio, which has one of the most harrowing portrayals of a star's final years that I have ever read, and I've read a lot. I came away with a lot of affection for Shearer and I highly recommend the book.

David E., I haven't seen Twilight so I hesitate to dismiss the Bel-Ami project out of hand. But looking at his rather insipid stills it's tempting. Despite his wondrous looks I suspect he will be too callow to be so much as a patch on Sanders' sock garters, but I will happily eat those words if he proves me wrong. And re: Fayard--oh, you snuck Gregory Hines in there. GOD I loved Gregory Hines. He was the reason to watch Waiting to Exhale--that, and Angela Bassett walking away from that flaming car.

David C., that's an interesting addition to the Grapefruit Mythology and it is pretty plausible.

XT, I love Random Harvest but I confess I am having trouble conjuring the last shot in my memory. I think Greer Garson is quite fine in that movie but some of her later performances did make me think of Bonita Hulme's remark that she always seemed to be opening a bazaar somewhere.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not being a 12 year-old girl I simply don't "get" Pattison. He's suitably pale and wan for palying a "nice" vampire, but in trying to expand his range by taking on a young Salvador Dali (in an ill-concieved mess entitled Little Ashes) he fails spectacularly.

Give me Joseph Gordon-Levitt any day!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Voila!

Yojimboen said...

Re movies ending in C.U., nothing comes remotely close to the Champion of Champions: Streisand’s A Star is Born.

Babs sings the closing song – about five minutes of uninterrupted close-up - then it freezes on her face and they run the tail credits over her punim for a total of (if memory serves) at least eight minutes.
There are no words.

Yojimboen said...

Sorry, forgot the link.

"Mrs Norman Maine" my ass!

Campaspe said...

The credits don't look that long in the clip but presumably the Youtuber got bored and cut 'em off after a minute--looks that way. "Musical concepts by Barbra Streisand"? I am a fan of Babs, esp. early Babs, but yeah, that's something else. And she never could boogie convincingly.

mndean said...

Trapnel,
Oh, no. You had to bring up Robin "Hug Me!" Williams. He's one actor that I wished stayed on the coke for his own good (well, not his, ours). It was the only time he was amusing. After he straightened out, he turned into a bathetic no-neck tub of mush. Even when I saw him on some sort of nature documentary, he was like some idiot conked on the head with an energy crystal which left him babbling like a new-age guru. I would have been embarrassed for the guy, except I refuse to be embarrassed for someone who could buy and sell me.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Syberberg's six-hour-long Die Nacht consists entirely of Edith Clever in close-up.

Exiled in NJ said...

It's hard to imagine how else Random Harvest could have ended; the churl in me had her inside the cottage asking 'Smitty, did you get the job?' That would be a variant of the old joke, 'where's the bread.' At least they didn't dissolve to the sky.

LeRoy was working with a James Hilton novel. The man was the Nicholas Sparks of his day, dishing out sugar to make the medicine go down. I have this memory from youth of the books in our breakfront desk. My mother was the reader. She had several Hilton's, and an Olive Higgins Prouty, though the latter could be wishful thinking on my part.

I associate Prouty with Casey Robinson and was surprised that Robinson had not written Harvest. There should be a special place in heaven reserved for him for adapting so many women pictures to film.

X. Trapnel said...

I'm not complaining about the ending of Random Harvest; it was thematically apt (per ardua ad astra); a conventional screen kiss would have been wrong. The topic of what constitutes a "woman's picture" is fraught (I would certainly exclude Letter From an Unknown Woman), but I think of Random Harvest as the purest distillation of the genre.

mndean said...

Question: Are there times that Robert Montgomery irritates you with being insufferably smug or irritatingly self-righteous on screen? I was struck by it today watching a couple of his films.

X. Trapnel said...

Robert Montgomery offensive? I don't know, but I have a friend who insists (rather heatedly) that he's simply unnecessary, that he contributes nothing beyond what Fredric March, Cary Grant, and William Powell do better in gentleman-about-town comedy roles.

mndean said...

I do think he's unnecessary, but honestly, as I watched him in The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, I wanted to punch that cat-who-swallowed-the-canary smugness he had. That film must win the booby prize for giving William Powell the familiar role (for him) of the roguish thief and then making him utterly weak and dull. Warner (believe it or not) did better by the roguish crook role for Powell than MGM. Hell, Paramount did better as well.

The next movie was no better - in The Next Thousand Years, he is damned upset that wife Virginia Bruce makes a hell of a lot more money than him and he can't live out his little boy fantasies out in the sticks. Of course, being MGM, the sexism is about as thick as custard, and Montgomery gets his wish by knocking up his wife. The problem is that he looked so damned comfortable in both roles.

mndean said...

One last thing on that second movie - Montgomery's assholism made me wish that Warren William would just up and steal Virginia Bruce away for himself. He was so obviously a better marriage partner for her that if it wasn't for it being an MGM code movie, I might have felt cheated at the ending.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Montgomery is beyond brilliant in Night Must Fall and The Earl of Chicago -- not to mention Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

You can also put me in the Lady in the Lake fan club.

X. Trapnel said...

I wonder if Montgomery was not closer to the mainstream stage acting of the 1930s than his better remembered colleagues. a number of his films of that decade sound as if they had their origins on Broadway.

Karen said...

I adore Robert Montgomery, myself. Especially in his early films. He always looked like he was having such a capital good time.

I think my favorite performance of his, though, may be in the little-known The Man in Possession, which is as tasty a little pre-Code as you might want to see. His co-star was the likewise little-known but simply sparkling Irene Purcell.

If you ever see it come up in the TCM rotation again (about once a year, so far), it's worth watching.

Karen said...

I would add that he played cads and neer-do-wells with some frequency, in his early years, so it's not always him who's unpleasant, but his character. And he can also be a little on the arch side.

But I do love him to death.

X. Trapnel said...

We're all agreed on the problem of "archness," but again I believe this has its origins in stage acting, specifically the need to project an emotion, attitude, or gesture to the back of the theater. A lot of early thirties acting looks artificial and mannered now.

mndean said...

I really have no major problem with Montgomery in precodes, although they tend to be fairly featherweight roles. He really comes across as the prep-school monied type that we were making sport of Bogart being IRL but not in film. I did like him in Night Must Fall and Live, Love, and Learn. It's just apart from those two that I start having problems finding much I like post-code. If there was some danger, some suavity, some humor, something that could make me think better of him. I just don't see it in most of his other films. If you didn't see the films I saw today, I guess you wouldn't get it. He was sort of a "meh" when his name turned up in a post-code film, but these two really bring something ugly out of his characters. The smugness I'd seen before, but usually he'd get knocked down a peg which would even things up. The petulant self-righteousness was really awful, although the "Get back in the kitchen, the Depression's over" tone of The Next Hundred Years was more in line with my low expectations (when you see a woman as the dominant breadwinner in a film like that, you can be assured it won't stay that way - God and Louis B. Mayer just wouldn't stand for it). Grant (appalling though it might have been) might have made that part work by making a fool of himself charmingly, but that's way outside Montgomery's range. He has no capacity to mock himself in any of the films I've seen.

Goose said...

Robert Montgomery in my view did rise to the occasion in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, where he made a fool of himself pretty much throughout, especially the epic ballroom scene where he pretends to be talking to a woman better looking than his date, in order to impress Carole Lombard. Of course, Hitchcock was very good at humiliation.

His lummox gumshoe in Ride the Pink Horse, his asshole producer in The Saxon Charm, and his heroic PT boat commander in They Were Expendable also present his talents favorably. I thought there was integrity in each of them, not to mention Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

The archness came most in his 1930's period, often paired with Norma Shearer or Rosalind Russell, both queens of arch, at MGM, where the mannered style was preferred. In The Next Hundred Years, which started off well, God was not needed to make the wife lose her career, but old LB Mayer was enough. (It was not as bad as Woman of the Year in that regard.)

X. Trapnel said...

Woman of the Year has (rightly) received its lumps over the years for the breakfast-making scene (and should also for the boffo finale punch-out of the presumably gay secretary), but Tracy urge Hepburn to be herself or words to that effect. Still, while it's a depressing maudlin film it's less pernicious than The Philadelphia Story.

Campaspe said...

I'm with Karen, David and Goose -- Montgomery was occasionally tiresome but only when the movie was, too. In good stuff he rose the occasion and in really good stuff he shone. He's brilliant in Night Must Fall (best thing in the movie, by far) and also in They Were Expendable. I also love him in Here Comes Mr. Jordan. I just watched him again in When Ladies Meet and he was quite charming. I have a number of his lesser-known movies on my "should see" list.

By the way, my blogroll includes a very good fan blog devoted to him, Classic Montgomery. It's part of her whole site and she is very good about keeping it up. Lots of pictures you won't find elsewhere.

mndean said...

I agree he was very likable in When Ladies Meet, he had an easy charm with Ann Harding (not that I care much for the film in toto), but it's precode and I did mention Night Must Fall. But for me the problem is that he can't yank a bad movie up to be tolerable, and he is irritating to me often enough to notice. Now since most of what I've seen him in was MGM fare, it's possible he got lazy since the parts were often interchangeable. Why I like him in Live, Love, and Learn is entirely due to him having someone as formidable as Roz to spar with and Benchley is there to steal some scenes. I'm not so convinced by Mr. and Mrs. North since Hitch took shots at Lombard as well, in fact the first scene I remember in the film is how Carole's skirt splits at the seam, but it was overall an okay film, but I didn't think of it as a stellar outing for either of them, just fair. As far as war movies, I don't watch many from the WWII era since I find that too much overt racism in a film (nearly always towards the Japanese, imagine that) makes me very cranky and I'm apt to throw things at the screen in disgust.

mndean said...

Yikes, did I say Mr. and Mrs. North? Brain fart I guess, I even have it in my movie database under that name.

Robert said...

Robert Montgomery was John Ford's go-to guy on They Were Expendable. Ford got sick and was unable to continue directing. He asked Montgomery to step in. The actor did a fine job. Montgomery's work fits seamlessly into the whole.

And now a few words of kindness for Norma Shearer.

I don't believe any Hollywood star has fallen into disfavor so quickly. Shearer may have slept with the boss, but she clawed her way into the acting profession after D.W. Griffith dismissed her as too ugly.

Shearer prepared for her roles with obsessive attention to detail and nuance. She inhabited her characters with Method-like dedication. In addition, she worked hard, knowing all the time that vicious creatures like Joan Crawford were forever sniping behind her back, tearing her down, and looking to displace her as queen of the MGM lot.

Some may not admire her screen personae—humorless, too noble, a weepy WASP kvetch—but I hope that those who love movies will, at least, recognize the splendid professional dedication, the worlds of talent and drive that is the sum of Norma Shearer's considerable work.

X. Trapnel said...

Justice for Norma Shearer requires the obvious admission that she made very few good films, mostly creaky MGM prestige pictures (I remain forever baffled by the reputation of boy genius Irving Thalberg who seems a stodgy Selznick, without the latter's barmy romanticism). Although the link Yojimboen thoughtfully provided did indeed show some unexpected and fascinating sides of Shearer's talent, none of that alas, ever made it to the screen. Perhaps Lubitsch could have brought her to life; Trouble in Paradise made me change my mind about Kay Francis.

The hair remains awful.

Campaspe said...

Robert, that is very well put concerning Norma's appeal, and exactly what one gets from Lambert's bio. I ordered that one at way too much money second-hand and it was worth every penny.

XT, that would have been an interesting actress/director pairing wouldn't it? Although it might have been as bitter an experience as Rosita was for Mary Pickford. I read Sunshine and Shadow in my teens and just took her word for Rosita being "the worst picture, bar none, that I ever made" but I have since read several critics who say Mary's barmy and the film is great. She hated making it so much she always put it down, though.

Campaspe said...

Oh and re: Thalberg -- I have to say I find any resume that includes pictures ranging from The Crowd to A Night at the Opera pretty impressive. If you look at the filmography it is far less stuffed with the stuffy than you might think. And most of the pictures that creak for us these days are, alas, Norma vehicles. But come on, is his reputation really so puzzling? Yeah, he ruined Greed, but there's also
most of Vidor's best silents--and great reputations have been built on far less than that--as well as several of Garbo and Harlow's best pictures, not to mention Mutiny on the Bounty and A Day at the Races. I don't find him overrated at all, although he might have tipped more into dullsville had he lived.

X. Trapnel said...

Oops, and then some. I didn't scroll down far enough on his IMDB credit list to see that he produced The Crowd. But staid respectability was creeping in as the next decade rolled on.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Greed was the Heaven's Gate of its day.

There, I said it and I'm glad.

X. Trapnel said...

It may be my general aversion toward the MGM product (preferring earlier Marx Bros., and Flynn to Mutiny on the Bounty) but there is something interesting about Nice Jewish Boy Thalberg's association with Harlow.

Campaspe said...

David, do you share my general opinion that Heaven's Gate was hard done by? or are you dissing Greed?

XT, I will grant you that for years it was taken for granted that MGM got Thalberg's golden years, but now I think most people (like me for one) would point to his work with Vidor as being the stuff for the ages. Although I have expressed admiration for The Good Earth here before, and I meant it.

Also, on principle I do not pick and choose amongst Marx Brothers movies. I want them all. Yes, even Room Service.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, I have never seen The Good Earth but it's been pummled so hard for "Orientalism" that I grow fond of it. It was also the occasion for a real-life Covarrubias Impossible Conversation. Thalberg had heard Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht and had been so taken with it that he contacted Difficult Arnold (then living precariously across the street from Shirley Temple) to write the score for The Good Earth.
"I was so moved by your beautiful music," said I.T. "I don't write beautiful music," snapped A.S. Thalberg went on to describe various storms, floods, plagues, swarms of bees and locusts: "What an opportunity for music!" he exulted. A.S.:"With all that going on what do you need music for?" Finally, Schoenberg demanded $50,000, assurance that not one note of his music be changed and that the actors deliver their dialogue in pitched speech (sprechstimme) according to his directions. He returned home in triumph, waiting for Thalberg's call, which never came, and spent the rest of his Hollywood years trying to finish Moses und Aron and puzzling over why the tour bus guides always pointed out Shirley Temple's home but not his.

mndean said...

Thalberg was a great producer, but he did produce of lot of dreary Shearer films. As far as Greed, well, it was his fault but I can't think of an exhibitor that would have stood for releasing it at its original length. I mean, even he had bosses to answer to. Not even today would a movie chain want something that long. We got used to longer films as time wore on, but even a two-hour picture was considered pretty long in the late silent era. Ben-Hur (the longest Hollywood silent I can remember watching) was what, about 2:20? How hacked-up was Gance's Napoleon when it got here? So what was he going to do with Greed, a seven hour film? Make it a three-parter or a serial? I can just see it, "What're you doin' today, Hank?" "Think I'm gonna spend the afternoon watching that Greed picture." "When'll you be home?" "Oh, it starts at 3, so I should be home by midnight, or 1 if I get some dinner". I'm pretty sure Thalberg's first thought with respect to the film was to make something releasable and he was hardly considering posterity, but trying to make some money out of it. It's not that I don't blame him, but I don't see how he could do much else without endangering his own position.

mndean said...

Oh, one last thing. I had to wait for an appointment this afternoon, so I cued up Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I still don't have a lot of love for it. Hitchcock's forte was not screwball comedy. The movie wasn't all that long, but it sure felt it, due to too much repetition of bits of business. Lombard had essayed this sort of intelligent, quirky woman better before. Montgomery wasn't offensive or even bad, but he was still a little boy in a man's suit (we're supposed to find his initial "admission" cute? Any man who'd tell the wife he loves that he wouldn't marry them again is a moron, full stop.) Hitchcock doesn't help by providing a less stellar cast surrounding the couple than I'm used to seeing in a screwball. I can't say I was rooting for Gene Raymond, but he had an unplayable part (he wanted her, but also wanted her to go back to her husband? Talk about ridiculous), and I felt sorry for him. Sorry for Gene Raymond! Some of Montgomery's bits of business were excellent (trying to give himself a bloody nose in the restaurant was one), so I don't dislike him here. Just don't like the movie that much.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I was dissing "Greed."

Kathy said...

Robert,
I found another age discrepancy for early actresses. Mae Clarke was born in 1905 and not 1910 according to the 1910 and 1920 Censuses under her real name Violet Klotz:


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1910 United States Federal Census
about Violet Klotz
Name: Violet Klotz
Age in 1910: 5
Estimated Birth Year: abt 1905
Birthplace: Pennsylvania
Relation to Head of House: Stepdaughter
Father's Birth Place: Pennsylvania
Mother's Name: Minnie E
Mother's Birth Place: Pennsylvania
Home in 1910: Philadelphia Ward 24, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Marital Status: Single
Race: White
Gender: Female
Neighbors: View others on page
Household Members:
Name Age
Harvey E Auge 31
Minnie E Auge 24
Violet Klotz 5
Ruth Klotz 3
Irene Klotz 2

Gary said...

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I think it's is good to know about some other cultures, like those which are used to use Cheap Viagra in order to solve some other kind of issue.
anyway, Have a nice day!