Saturday, January 04, 2014

In Memoriam: Juanita Moore, 1914-2014



The clip above is from a so-called soundie, made in 1943 to promote The Mills Brothers’ hit “Paper Doll.” The woman in the lap of the Mills Brother on the far left, best visible at about the one-minute mark, is Juanita Moore. She was 29 years old, and this was the first piece of film that ever captured her. She died Jan. 31, 2014, age 99.

With the exception of the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, Moore’s obituaries have been a bit light on biographical material, focusing on her Best Supporting Actress nomination for Douglas Sirk's 1959 Imitation of Life. It's the story of two single mothers, Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and Annie Johnson (Moore) and their daughters. Lora becomes a successful actress as her daughter Susie (Sandra Dee) becomes increasingly lonely. Annie's light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane is determined to "pass" for white; Sarah Jane is played by Susan Kohner, who is now the only one of the film’s central quartet still living. The AP, which has offended in the past, added another to the files with the words chosen to describe this women's picture, widely considered a landmark in the treatment of race on the American screen. “Weeper” — “tearjerker” — the Siren will believe that these descriptions are not evidence of condescending sexism when they are commonly applied to something like Spartacus or The Shawshank Redemption, and not until.

So with facts gleaned primarily from Sam Staggs’ Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of Imitation of Life, the Siren would like to fill you in on some of Moore’s life outside her one Oscar-nominated triumph. Anyone who reveres Moore, or this film, needs Staggs' book, which is a monument to loving, obsessive completism. It encompasses everything, from costumer Jean Louis to a detailed view of John Stahl’s 1934 version of Fannie Hurst’s novel, even an interview with the anonymous ghostwriter of Lana Turner’s autobiography. Staggs apparently knew Moore well, and she told him a lot about her background, her friends, her times.

Moore was born in Mississippi, the youngest in a family of seven girls and one boy. Her parents moved when she was a toddler to South Central Los Angeles, where they were able to make a good middle-class living from, among other things, running a laundry. At age 15 Moore came down with polio, and she said later that the doctors of the time were not much interested in treating a black girl. Her mother and sisters massaged her legs with olive oil, and she slowly recovered.

She could sing, and she could dance, and at least one teacher planted the idea that Juanita could grow into an entertainer. She attended performances by the Lafayette Players, a pioneering black theatre ensemble, thrilling to shows such as Madame X and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was foreshadowing; throughout her life, with one exception, Moore got stronger, bigger roles with African American theater groups than she ever did in Hollywood.

Moore’s parents were religious, and afraid of the lowdown influences of a life in the theater. She ditched a short stint at college and made her way to Harlem, where she wouldn’t have to worry that Mr. and Mrs. Moore were worrying. Soon Moore was in the chorus line at Small’s Paradise, a “black and tan” Harlem club, meaning that while the audience was mostly white, blacks attended and mingled freely.


Moore married dancer Ananias “Nyas” Berry of the Berry brothers, an act that was one of the few rivals to Harold and Fayard Nicholas in terms of grace and acrobatics. (Here they perform “You’ll Never Know” in Lady Be Good; here they introduce Eleanor Powell in Fascinating Rhythm; Nyas is profiled here, and his own story is quite a saga.)

Ella Fitzgerald became a friend, and Moore had run-ins with Ethel Waters. Juanita Moore was notably polite about almost anyone she ever worked with, but Waters she invariably described as “the bitch of all time” — a phrase she once used, Staggs says, in front of a preacher, who spent the rest of the evening snickering about it.

Moore danced at the Zanzibar, atop the Winter Garden on Broadway. The Berry Brothers performed at the West 48th St. location of the segregated Cotton Club. At first the owners would not let Moore sit in the audience and watch her husband dance. Eventually they consented to let her sit at a remote table, by herself. In Imitation of Life, Juanita Moore’s Annie trawls nightclubs in search of her daughter Sarah Jane. In every place, Annie is seated in Siberia, lest she contaminate the white patrons' tables. As Staggs notes, Moore needed no advice on how to play the way that felt.


As the craze for nightclub entertainment waned, Moore went back to Los Angeles and began to get parts in movies. Small parts. Maid parts. She had a relatively substantial part in Affair in Trinidad, and spoke kindly about Glenn Ford and how hard he worked to make her feel comfortable in that Rita Hayworth vehicle. Director Vincent Sherman, in his autobiography, reminisced about “Juanita Hall” — another black actress, most famous for playing Bloody Mary in South Pacific.

Moore was cast in Band of Angels as a slave owner’s mistress; while Yvonne De Carlo played a plantation owner's daughter who’s sold into slavery after his death, because her mother was a black slave. Despite Raoul Walsh at the helm it’s a tedious picture. Moore had to sashay into one scene wearing a Creole getup, and Walsh told her to whisper bawdy stories in De Carlo’s ear. The result was one moment in the film that doesn't feel strained or silly.

Meanwhile, Moore also became involved with the Ebony Showcase Theatre. It was founded by actor Nick Stewart, who took his profits from playing Lightnin’ on the Amos ‘n Andy show, and used them to build his dream of a dedicated, artistic black acting troupe. For the Ebony, Moore played Ines in Sartre’s No Exit, and other roles over the years. Later she became a founding member of the Cambridge Players.

Her marriage to Berry had ended with his death in 1951. One day Moore was crossing the street, and a bus nearly hit her. The bus driver poked his head out to yell, “You better watch your step, young lady!,” and Moore yelled back at him, “You crazy-ass bus driver, what are you trying to do, kill me?”

They were married the next year and stayed together until Charles Burris died in 2001.

Moore took a job as a waitress at a chicken restaurant to make ends meet. One of her regulars was Marlon Brando; he accompanied her to classes at the Actors Laboratory Theatre, where after an all-night shift she once fell asleep and snored so loudly than Elia Kazan yelled “What the hell is that?” Kazan already knew her, from the part she had played in 1949’s Pinky, a story where yet another white actress — Jeanne Crain — played a tragic mulatto. It was something of a motif in Juanita Moore’s career, white actresses playing mixed-race parts, and Moore making a bit role memorable, this time as a nurse.



If you want to hear Juanita Moore sing, watch the clip above, from Women’s Prison in 1955, in which she sounds wonderful while she’s down on her knees, scrubbing the prison floor.



If you want to see Juanita Moore dance, watch Frank Tashlin’s 1956 The Girl Can’t Help It, here, bookmarked just past the 53-minute mark, when she, Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield are watching Eddie Cochran on TV. Moore starts dancing, and it’s delightful, and over way too soon, because the film was about Ewell and Mansfield. Moore was playing the maid. (The adorable screen cap above is from Peter Nelhaus' post about the film, which the Tashlin-skeptical Siren admits is quite a bit better than she remembered.)

The Siren well remembers Moore’s bit in Something of Value, a 1957 film about the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya, where Moore plays a woman who’s beaten until she admits helping the rebels. She was not, on this occasion, anybody’s maid.


Moore was about 45 when Imitation of Life was released (her birth date is a bit fuzzy) and given Hollywood’s unforgiving attitude about women who dare to get older, the film was unlikely to bring her over-the-title stardom in any case. But for a white actor, a performance such as that would surely have brought steady, substantive character work. It worked that way for Thelma Ritter, 45 years old, after one scene in Miracle on 34th Street. It didn’t happen for Moore. Her movie roles after her Oscar nomination were mostly minor, although they did include what’s reportedly a good turn in The Singing Nun (the Siren has never made it through that one). In the theater, she played A Raisin in the Sun in London, and Sister Boxer in James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner on Broadway in 1965. In 1970, Moore played an Annie-esque part in the Mexican production Angelitos Negros, based on a film that may or may not have been a direct spin on the original 1934 Imitation of Life (it's complicated). She spoke the lines in Spanish as much as possible, even though she knew she'd be dubbed.

In the 1970s she made movies like Jules Dassin’s Uptight, and The Mack with Richard Pryor. Still later, a generation that had grown up with Sirk’s movie on TV cast Moore in other roles in films and on TV. She told Staggs of how, on the first day of shooting Paternity, Burt Reynolds took her around the set pointedly introducing her as “Miss Moore. Miss Juanita Moore.” In other words, this is a legend, mind your manners. Moore was deeply touched.

Black folks - like other folks who have felt ignored, underrepresented or stereotyped - have always rooted for the blacks we could find in celluloid. I remember how a showing on TV in the mid-'60s of that 1959 melodrama Imitation of Life ripped like a tornado through our emotions in Conyers, Ga. I couldn't have been older than 12. This melodrama, starring Lana Turner to some but Juanita Moore to us, was about a saintly black woman who worked herself to death for a daughter who chose to pass for white.
-E.R. Shipp, Daily News, 2002

When Richard Pryor was in the army in Germany, according to a 1999 New Yorker profile, he went to a screening of Imitation of Life, and a white soldier laughed loudly at the Annie and Sarah Jane scenes. Pryor and some other black soldiers beat him up. The incident landed Pryor in jail.

It is that kind of movie. Once seen under the right circumstances, it inspires a devotion that will brook no argument. We may disagree about certain elements, about whether the term “camp” applies to elements of the “blonde” storyline, for example. Staggs says yes; the Siren says no, and has written before about the importance of Lana Turner and Sandra Dee’s work. But no fan of this film has any reservations about Moore.


When the Siren first saw Imitation of Life, sometime in her early teens, she was swept away by the unutterable sadness of Annie Johnson, who begins as Lora Meredith’s compatriot in single motherdom, and ends as Lora’s maid. A beloved and respected maid, but a maid nonetheless. All the while Annie adores and tries to protect Sarah Jane, who yearns to escape what she sees as a prison of blackness, and is willing to deny her mother repeatedly to do it. When Sarah Jane is still a little girl played by Karin Dicker, she is caught for the first time passing for white at school. When they return to the apartment, the little girl storms off saying no one is her friend. Lora says, “Don’t worry Annie. I’m sure you’ll be able to explain things to her.” Annie responds, “I don’t know. How do you explain to your child, she was born to be hurt?”

Down the years you develop a relationship with a film you love, and so it has been with the Siren. That line of Moore’s is a killer even on first viewing. But the last time she saw the movie, the Siren was also struck by Moore’s delivery, as she stares after her daughter and seems to speak almost without thinking. There’s an undertone of resignation, a sense that Annie knows she’s telling the truth to someone who does not and can not understand what she means.


Moore’s performance has layers upon layers, right from the great opening, when Sarah Jane and Lora’s daughter Susie are playing on the beach, Lora mistakes Sarah Jane for Annie’s charge, and Annie corrects her: “Yes, ma'am. It surprises most people. Sarah Jane favors her daddy. He was practically white. He left before she was born.” Again, watch Moore’s face as she says that. Annie’s deeply religious, but in the sly light in her eyes is the idea that Sarah Jane’s father was a handsome man, that this was a torrid relationship and Annie remembers that pleasure even now that he’s left her. This is a vibrant, fully sexual woman, though we never see anyone in the picture treat her that way. The closest anyone comes is when Sandra Dee’s Susie asks Annie about “boys. What do you think about kissing, Annie?” Annie responds with “Well, there’s kissing, and there’s kissing,” and again we see the remembrance of love move across her features.

There are many instances where Sirk’s camera, and Moore’s performance, clue us in to the fact that Annie has large parts of her existence that are out of camera range, and thus well away from the white characters and us, the audience. She tries to convince Sarah Jane to go to a church social, telling her that there are plenty of nice boys there, and Sarah Jane snaps back, “Busboys, cooks, chaffeurs.” Annie's hurt tells you that her daughter is rejecting the place that her life revolves around; a black church, full of people she loves, where Annie is herself in a way that she isn’t in the Meredith house.

The final proof of that comes in Annie’s deathbed scene. A heartbroken Lora says to the woman who’s shared her life, “It never occurred to me that you had friends.” And Annie responds, without a trace of rancor, “You never asked.” In that single line reside generations of “the help” who kept their most important selves apart from their employers.

Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, and his other great movies, tell us that when people are forced, against their character and inclination, into prefab roles that society has made for them, the result is agony. Juanita Moore’s career was shaped by forces that had nothing to do with her talent. She had a personality that struck people as nothing much like Annie’s. Staggs says Moore was “a real live wire,” with flashes of anger as well as salty humor. Moore told Staggs she had based Annie on one of her sisters, a devout woman who was the embodiment of Christian goodness.


Yet Annie, despite her suffering, is not passive; warmth and kindness are active choices, all the more so when made under harsh circumstances. Juanita Moore, who left behind friends, family, and millions of admirers, had more of Annie in her than she acknowledged.

(Corrected 3/25/14 for date of death and an error regarding whether Moore had children; she did not.)

40 comments:

john_burke100 said...

Once again, Siren: thank you. This blog is a treasure.

Citizen Screen said...

Wonderful!!

Aurora

Muscato said...

A marvelous tribute that speaks volumes about the actress and about her best-known role - thank you.

As a side note, I think one could write something quite wonderful about the awfulness of Ethel Waters, the havoc she imposed around her, and yet the awe in which her contemporaries held her talent.

misospecial said...

Lovely tribute and appraisal, a proper memorial to a great actress who brought enormous depth and complexity to her most famous role. As always in these situations I mourn for the work that was never done, that we will never see... Moore as leading lady or celebrated character actor in her middle years, Fayard and Harold Nicholas starring in their own vehicles instead of relegated to numbers independent of plot that could be snipped out for Southern theaters, and on and on.

And thanks for pointing out that dismissive sexism re Imitation of Life and so many "women's pictures". Absurd to designate all movies that center on female protagonists and points of view as a genre, but even more absurd that while every other genre, even the most disreputable, has been rehabilitated the womens' picture still languishes in its own ghetto. Hopefully we can eventually rescue all those movies so that they can be taken as seriously as, well, everything else.

Peter Nellhaus said...

We agree on that scene in The Girl Can't Help it. I created a screencap with Moore dancing in front of the TV, when I wrote about the film a few years back.

Maybe Band of Angels is less tedious on the big screen, which is how I saw it at MoMA. I think most of the time was spent trying to wrap my head around the concept of Clark Gable and Sidney Poitier as father and son.

Most interesting was reading about the theater work done by Moore and her contemporaries.

The Siren said...

Misospecial, Imitation of Life gets the special dispensation from auteurists that all Sirk gets, but even so, I was surprised and appalled at the backhanded way this film was being treated in Moore's death notices, like a trashy film that had her in it and just about nothing else to recommend it. (The Daily Mail was also ghastly of course, even the LA Times wanted you to know that it was criticized at the time as a melodrama, which is only part true; male critics wrote about it like that, yes, but it was a box-office bonanza.) Everybody so eager to remind you that it's a silly melodrama; no, it's not. It's an important film that audiences react to with intense emotion. I admit to having a bee in my bonnet about this but ENOUGH.

Muscato, I read Waters' first volume of her autobiography with total fascination last year, and indeed she'd make a great post. But she comes across as such an unreliable narrator that I'd want to read Donald Bogle's bio first.

Thanks, John and Aurora!

The Siren said...

Peter, even IMAX for Band of Angels wouldn't do a thing for that script, which is hopeless. As are the racial politics, and the characters' motivations, and the casting...but even reflecting on how ridiculous it all is doesn't help. Lucien Ballard made it pretty and Moore, she helps a little. It was nice to go back to The Girl Can't Help It and look at all that rock 'n roll talent. It took a while to find the clip spot because I kept stopping to watch Little Richard or Fats Domino etc.

testingwithfire said...

Siren, thank you for this great tribute and for steering me toward "Imitation of Life" a few years back.

I'd stayed away from the film primarily because I thought it would be very painful to watch, and at times it is, but it's worth it, in large part due to Miss Moore's performance.

barrylane said...

It may be that tedious re Band of Angels is an opinion rather than anything else, and while I enjoyed it, recently Black Lucas posted on Peter Bogdanovich's blog that Band of Angels was far superior to Gone with The Wind. Now that is something I found preposterous but Blake presented his views with so much passion that they could not be refute. Too much like beating a kitten with a whip.

The Siren said...

I have a lot of respect for Blake Lucas, but I'm just not even close to auteurist enough for Band of Angels.

David said...

Beautifully done. Here's a post I wrote on the 1934 version of "Imitation of Life," although now that I read it again, it's probably more about me than the movie: http://moviedavid.blogspot.com/2013/07/imitation-of-life-and-self-fulfilling.html

Carrie Rickey said...

This is beautiful, Farran, as nuanced as Moore was as an actress. Thank you

The Siren said...

Testingwithfire, I am so happy that I persuaded you to see the film. It is truly a killer. Staggs quotes Brian Kellow (who wrote a great book about the Bennett sisters) recalling how he ran into a gay friend in his building, and the man was sobbing like his heart was broken. It was the height of the AIDS epidemic and Kellow was very fearful when he asked the man what had happened. The man burst out, "Oh Brian, I just watched Imitation of Life!"

David, that's a lovely post. Another very interesting part of Staggs' book was the long quote from Robert Osborne about how he also prefers the 1934 version. I like the Stahl very much, and I have a generally higher opinion of Stahl's overall work than Staggs. But for me it's still Sirk all the way.

Carrie, thank you; from you that means a great deal.

mas82730 said...

A magnificent post.
For me personally, 'Imitation of Life' is Mahalia Jackson singing "Trouble of the World." Wasn't it Stanley Crouch who called Jackson the greatest singer of the 20th century? I've forgotten, but then I forget so many things.
Thank you for this mother lode of biographical info on MISS Moore.
Mark

The Siren said...

Mark, I left out the funeral because 1. poor Annie isn't in that scene and 2. it wrecks me. Jackson was indeed a phenomenal singer. It's said she often got offers for pop-music contracts, and refused them all.

Aubyn Eli said...

I was hoping you'd contribute a memorial post for Moore and this surpassed all my expectations. I'm glad to hear more confirmation that Moore led an active, full, and happy life. Sometimes happiness is the best kind of defiance.

I love that your analysis of Imitation of Life deliberately sidesteps the big scenes, magnificent as they are, to zero in on the nuances Moore could bring to smaller moments.

I'm personally very fond of the scene where Annie is chatting in a comfortable, relaxed way with John Gavin's character until Lora walks in the room. Instantly, all the friendly intimacy between Gavin and Moore evaporates and he turns his attention completely to Lana Turner. And you can see the flash of something in Moore's eyes. Not strong enough to be rebellion or anger but a spark of protest. Just a hint of "I'm an attractive woman talking with an attractive man and I was enjoying myself." Stinkylulu highlights the scene in his breakdown of Moore's performance on his website here, along with a perfect screencap.

Vanwall said...

IOL is the kind of film that seems to be made of two different ones jammed together, and only one of 'em is interesting. I always wait for the rather mannered, flat, Turner/Dee/Gavin parts to pass by with only cursory interest; they seem like a shear, laid on over the much more clear and direct Moore/Kohner ongoing chase. Their polar ends that never meet until the hearse is worth a whole film in itself, without the upper crusties at all, but I can see the attraction of comparisons - though they do the intended job and end up being invidious by default. Moore and Kohner are far from the 'women's picture' aspects, an odious label all around along with its shorthand 'chick flick', and there is much more room for those two to actually advance their story line. Moore was able to wring the right things out of pretty much every role she had, no matter how fleeting, that's an accomplishment that leaves no room for phoning in the work, and ought to have been more emphasized in her memorials. Nice post.

Christy's Tales of Adventure... said...

A lovely essay about Juanita Moore! I had the pleasure of seeing her in person at the Turner Classic Film Festival in 2010 as she introduced Imitation of LIfe. Thank you!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Excellent, Siren. I met her once and she was lovely.

Those who regard Imitation of Life as " a trashy film that had her in it and just about nothing else to recommend it" are beneath contempt.

gmoke said...

Another great appreciation with a good deal of thought and research behind it.

There's quite a book to be written about black lesbians in 20th century entertainment. Ethel Waters, Moms Mabley, Alberta Hunter are only a few and the rare stories I've heard lead me to believe that there was quite a lot of drama among this cohort.

Duke Ellington says he got Mahalia Jackson to sing "Come Sunday" because he went to her house for dinner. It was one of the few "pop" tunes she ever sang. Incidentally, Studs Terkel would introduce her radio broadcasts from Chicago and he told a story of a great performance of hers that came as close as possible to making him a believer (but not quite). Here's another story about Mahalia from Studs: https://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=60200664080

yojimboen said...

I’d like to have sat in at the (1959) script meeting where over-arching studio pressure to minimize ethnicity reigned and Fannie Hurst’s original character names were summarily changed from:

Bea Chipley/Pullman to Lora Meredith; daughter Jessie to Susie;

Delilah Johnston to Annie Johnson; daughter Peola to Sarah-Jane.

Granted ‘Bea’, ‘Delilah’ and ‘Peola’ were probably too redolent of the 1910 milieu of the book’s setting, though interestingly in the 1934 version the team of writers (one of whom was Preston Sturges) kept Hurst’s original character names. They also kept the main plot, which was more or less discarded in the Sirk version.

Briefly, in the novel and the 1934 version the two mothers – black and white – are virtual co-protagonists; they become successful partners in an international chain of restaurants based on the white mother’s business acumen and, mainly, the black mother’s skill as a chef.
In the 1959 version, the white mother is central. It all hinges on her ambition as an actress. The success comes to her. Her maid stays a maid and watches from the sidelines.

Sirk’s film wasn’t a step forward from the novel or the John Stahl version. Quite the reverse.

Possibly the studio, Sirk, his writers or any combination thereof were afraid to be accused of copying the similar plot (rags-to-riches female restaurant-chain owner) of Mildred Pierce; they needn’t have been of course, the Hurst novel preceded the James M. Cain book by 8 years. (Today, Cain could chalk it up to hommage.)

For me (Sirk lover, honest; ask anybody) the filleting of the story - depriving the black mother of the weight of her special talent and what it means to the plot will always be a sad betrayal; of the character and of the intent of Hurst’s work.

The lovely irony was that Juanita Moore rose to the challenge. In a role brutally diminished - she delivered a performance that dwarfed the efforts of her fellow-players. With the possible exception of the splendid young Susan Kohner, she blew them out of the fucking park.

yojimboen said...

P.S. A lovely, loving piece, as always, chère Madame.

A charming coda: In the 1934 version, the black mother is played by Louise Beavers who, while nobody was paying attention, brought the same character ("Negro Maid saves Hapless White Family from Disaster") to Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse.

barrylane said...

Yojimboen:

Very well done. Truly enlightening. I am not a particular fan of Douglas Sirk but probably no one's fault, just the fifties. And, Lana Turner. Dull.

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, let me explain why I disagree. In the first place, the way that Annie and Lora slip into the roles that society dictates is much slower and more subtle than in the 34 version. At first, Annie is essentially selling herself as a boon, because she and her daughter are all but homeless. Making herself indispensable to Lora is a way of surviving; plus, she can sense the goodness in Lora's character. Yes, the character is self-absorbed, but Lora doesn't freak out that her daughter has been playing with a black girl; in 1959 there were a lot of women who would. And it's evident from the beginning that Lora and Susie's problems aren't a patch on Annie and Sarah Jane's. It's not just Moore and Kohner, it's reinforced by the camera, by the script, by the music cues, by the costumes.

In the 34 version, the women are very far from being partners in any true sense. It's Delilah's recipe and she gives it to Bea, even refuses a percentage. Thus when there's that big party at one point, from which Peola is excluded, Bea is celebrating with riches she had almost nothing to do with creating. It makes Delilah stupid, and Bea grasping.

There are things that are lovely about the 34 version, particularly Fredi Washington, who should have had a big career. But the fact that it sticks to the Hurst novel is a drawback in my eyes -- because I've read that book. And it's TERRIBLE. Turgid and insipid, with faux-"Negro" dialect that would have gagged Joel Chandler Harris (and some of it's in the movie.)

(Also, it seems that Sturges didn't write more than a few lines of the 34 version, although he got paid more than either Washington or Louise Beavers. And frankly, with the exception of the chain gang in Sullivan's Travels, Sturges is not exactly known for his sensitivity to black Americans.)

Staggs has a really interesting section where he discusses people who prefer the 34 version, including Osborne. And I like it, I like it very much; I also like Claudette Colbert in it. But it's not the tragedy that Sirk and Moore and Kohner made out of it.

Lemora said...

Siren, that scene where Sarah Jane tells her mother, with finality, to get out of her life and stay out, rips me to pieces every time. For me the Lana/Sandra/Gavin scenes play as standard-issue 1950's Hollywood acting, lacking nuance and depth. Susan Kohner could be beamed-in from a European film; and Juanita Moore could be a New York theatre actress, taking a break from the stage. Personally, I love the designation, "Woman's Picture." For me, it's a positive message. But, its pejorative use persists: A decade or so ago, the unjustly ignored "My Name Is Charlotte Grey" was criticized as something Joan Crawford should have done in 1943, but For-Heaven-Sakes WHY would anyone make this film now!? I made a beeline for my beloved, 3rd run, mothball-smelly cinema where I caught it before it slipped into oblivion forever. I loved it! The work of Douglas Sirk will be seen and valued as long as humanity's square pegs are routinely slammed into round holes by the hammers of the dominant culture.

The Siren said...

Adding - my beloved Yojimboen, I apologize for my over-vehemence there. Unlike Richard Pryor, I wouldn't beat anybody up over the 1959 film, but lord, it's printed on my heart.

Lemora, I also like the term "women's picture"; to me, that's an honorable designation, although it's been used dismissively even by Alfred Hitchcock. On the other hand, the term "weepie" makes me stabby because there are any number of pictures about male milieus that are highly sentimentalized, but don't get sneered at because of it.

Lemora said...

Siren, we agree about the use of "weepie." But, I long ago resigned myself to the fact that film critics do not speak to or for me. Sometimes, I just KNOW I want to see something, like "Charlotte Grey" or "The Audience." Sometimes, avoidance is a no-brainer, as in the case of movies that require Christian Bale to either gain or lose a lot of weight. And as long as the largest group of people buying tickets to movies --in the U.S., anyway-- are adolescent males, we can expect the term "Woman's Picture" to be used condescendingly and with prejudice.

yojimboen said...

Whoops, I did it again… (not for the first time) I trip over my own verbiage and splat (!) succeed in conveying the exact opposite impression I was hoping to. Quick, close your eyes. Now visualize Claudette Colbert… Got her? Notice something odd? She’s at screen-right, isn’t she? You can only visualize her in left profile, right?

She was terrific. Midnight; Palm Beach Story? Solid comedienne in those and countless others. But think how great she might have become if she hadn’t squandered 50% of her energy making sure nobody saw the right side of her face. At best you can only wind up half-liking her. Which I half-do.

John Stahl? 1943-1945: Four successive titles in 3 years: Holy Matrimony; The Eve of St. Mark; The Keys of the Kingdom; Leave Her to Heaven. Spotting a trend? At the same time his equally pious friend The Rev Leo McCarey was churning out Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's. All over America movie theaters were shutting down, being consecrated and reopening as non-denominational churches. (Well, maybe that last part isn’t completely true but you get my point…)

No, Chère Amie, I wasn’t suggesting I preferred the ’34 version – heaven forefend. My lament is about the missed opportunities of the ’59. But it’s Sirk for chrissakes! I’ll watch Douglas Sirk’s worst film over John Stahl’s best, any day of the week, and binge-watch the rest of Sirk on Sunday.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ethel Waters was a great performer on stage and screen but off of it she was a TOTAL HORROR.
Juanita Moore was one of the few with the guts to acknowledge that fact. As a friend of mine (now deceased) once noted "She was so mean she married her girlfriend's husband for spite."

Yes Ethel had a hard life. But she was a very low-rent hooker who knifed her customers when she didn't get her way. That she got a performing career was a great stroke of "luck" -- coupled with her propensity for physical violence the better to get her way. Late in life she got her greatest role, Bernice in The Member of the Wedding. She then went on to act as if she and Bernice were the same person, this inspiring my boyfriend Bill to declare "My favorite character in American fiction is Ethel Waters>"

The Siren said...

Yojimboen, ha!! I did misunderstand. But no worries either way. As they say, some of my best friends...

David, I understand exactly what you're saying about Miss Waters, but all the same, she intrigues me no end. When they say that a star could just as easily wound up in prison, I usually take that as hyperbole. But I think Waters really could have. Her background was that abusive, her anger that poisonous.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Indeed. She had a lot to rightfully complain about. But then after that there was trouble of her own devise.

That Lena Horne got through Cabin in the Sky without being knifed by Ethel is some sort of miracle.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here she is at her most agreeable (That's Pearl Bailey's brother Bill doing the tap dancing.)

The Siren said...

Oh I LOVE that song. It's my favorite in Cabin in the Sky. And when Waters sings it, she's the essence of pure, womanly joy -- like she's stored up just how she felt the night she first fell in love, and let it all out on screen.

Which (given that we both know what she was like, not least what she was like to direct) just goes to show that pictures lie like a rug. But sometimes they lie magnificently.

D Cairns said...

Fascinated to learn taht Jekyll & Hyde was one of the plays Moore enjoyed. From the Wikipedia page on Clarence Muse:
In regards to the Lafayette Theatre's staging of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Muse said the play was relevant to black actors and audiences "because, in a way, it was every black man's story. Black men too have been split creatures inhabiting one body."

The Siren said...

David, that's wonderful, and so true. Clarence Muse was a great actor; I wish Night World could come out of whatever vault it's in so everyone could appreciate his heartbreaking performance. It's a movie that paints injustice in a searing way, with no speechifying.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Lovely. So glad you wrote this.

Kevin Deany said...

I'm afraid I've never seen the Sirk, though that movie did give my dad a memorable evening at the movies. My mom and dad double dated with one of his best friends and his wife. Said friend was an ex-Marine in Korea and later a football and wrestling coach at the high school. A gruff type on the outside but a real softie on the inside, my dad remembers him visibly and audibly bawling at the funeral scene. And he didn't care if those around him knew it.

I wonder if that's one reason I've stayed away from watching, because I easily get very emotional at some movies. (I don't dare watch the Final scene of "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir" with anyone in the room.)

A wonderful tribute, Siren, and I'll rectify my viewing on the Sirk version soon.

Lemora said...

Okay, I take back what I said about Sandra Dee in "Imitation Of Life," describing her acting as a flat, 1950's Hollywood performance. I recently saw her again in this and in "A Summer Place." It was the first time I have seen her on film since learning of the true horror that was her life, including the sexual abuse she endured from step father Eugene Douvan, from age 5 to 12, ending only with his death. Knowing this about young Sandra adds an extra dimension of tragedy to her scenes with Lana Turner and Constance Ford. While I think that Lana Turner walks a tightrope between camp and credibility, Sandra Dee never does.

Kelly Zauber said...

I may not have the chance to see her works as an actress. But I'm pretty sure she had made a true mark in the movie industry.

surly hack said...

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