Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Screwball Constance: Topper and Merrily We Live

"I'll plug anything into the DVR that has Constance in the cast," said Karen last week, and the Siren agrees with her. So far, there hasn't been a single movie where Constance wasn't worthwhile, although at least one movie, Sin Takes a Holiday, was a definite chore. The Siren has now seen six Constance Bennett movies in the past two months and feels ready to offer some thoughts on her abilities. We'll start with the two Hal Roach comedies she did, Topper and Merrily We Live.

Overall, Constance's technique seems to fall somewhere in the middle of the early-30s crowd, not so natural and unforced as Ruth Chatterton, Dorothy Mackaill or Barbara Stanwyck, but not nearly as mannered as Norma Shearer, Jeanette Macdonald or Helen Hayes. Every once in a while, in a scene that requires Big Emoting, Constance will suddenly come out with a totally presentational gesture, such as raising her fists up to cheekbone level when her house is surrounded by the ravening press toward the end of What Price Hollywood?. And you wince a bit, because up to then everything had been so organic. But such moments are few.

Constance has some things in common with Kay Francis--a knack for comedy, a slightly opaque quality in big emotional scenes. But Francis always seemed vulnerable, even yearning, and Bennett always has some control, even when life gives her the back of its hand. Constance moves beautifully--she had long, graceful limbs and just watching her sink into a chair is a little bit of pleasure. Occasionally she relies on movement too much, darting and gesticulating more than she should in Merrily We Live, for example. But mostly she glides around with supreme elegance, and the Siren loves to watch how the dresses she wears sweep along one tiny beat behind her.

Like most people, the Siren first saw Constance in Topper, the movie which remains her most popular. It's a bit startling to see her billed above Cary Grant, despite Constance's having accepted a pay cut to play Marion Kerby, dropping her price to $40,000. (Grant got $50,000.) In the early 1930s Constance would have accepted a pay cut right around the same time she hopped a freight train with Woody Guthrie, but her days at the summit were already past and she knew she needed a good script. Her performance is wonderful, fluid and easy, complementing Grant in a very Nick-and-Nora sort of way. In fact, Topper shows at least as much Thin Man influence as screwball, with the Kerbys as the coolest couple in town, making marriage look fun.

The movie is so utterly of its time and place, and yet so complete a denial of what was going on, as you watch Marion and George drinking and dancing and lingerie-shopping all over the edge of the 1937 volcano. That must surely add to the affection people still have for Topper, which is often way out of proportion to its merits as a film. There you are at the local movie palace, it's still the Depression, and on the newsreel, the Japanese just started a full-scale invasion of China--and here are the Kerbys explaining to Roland Young that his real problem is all those inhibitions.

And hell, as she was watching it last week and half-following the economic news, the Siren still found Topper a lovely escape. The slapstick later on is fun, and Constance even makes you believe she would flirt with Roland Young. Not because Cary isn't divine, of course, but because it's a chance of pace, you see. It is no mean feat to portray a woman who is that capricious, and yet keep her appealing. But, for the Siren, it's Topper's early scenes before the car crash that have the real glow. Now that's escapism as it used to be, and never will be again--Constance letting her beaded gown trail on a bar's wooden floor, as she leans against Cary Grant and croons along with Hoagy Carmichael while the sun comes up in Manhattan.

She followed up Topper with Merrily We Live, a My Man Godfrey rip-off that even duplicates the shower love-scene, climactic line and all, just substituting a wishing well that happens to be lying around the mansion grounds. There's plenty of good old-movie stuff, including fabulous cars and dressing for dinner, plus X. Trapnel will be delighted with the cast walking arm-in-arm toward the camera during the credits, with the studio chorus singing in the background. It's winsome and diverting, there are some very funny moments, but unfortunately, Merrily We Live often reminds you of what was so great about the Gregory La Cava original.

The family members in My Man Godfrey have roles that they play in relation to one another, there are feuds and backstories that you learn about for each person in the household, from the dizzy matriarch and her monkey-imitating gigolo down to the maid in the kitchen mooning over Godfrey. The Kilbournes of Merrily We Live are cute, but they are just a collection of eccentricities. No one has a real character. They're all supposed to be funny from the get-go and that is motivation numero uno throughout. Constance's character, Geraldine, is the sensible one, viewing the antics with insouciant detachment, but that's it--you don't have a real conflict between her and anyone else, and so your stake in the outcome of her romance with phony-chaffeur Brian Aherne is low.

And, as the Siren mentioned before, some of Constance's movements are a bit more exaggerated than necessary, starting with the first scene when Geraldine flies down the stairs of the family mansion, carrying a lit cigarette. This bit astonished the Siren, who had always heard that a lady never walks so much as a step with a lit cigarette, but perhaps this is supposed to demonstrate a certain bohemian quality for Geraldine. Plus she is in a hurry to see whether the last chaffeur really did make off with the silver service. He did, and Constance demonstrates her facility for physical humor when she manages to be both funny and graceful in eating a canteloupe slice with a kitchen ladle.

She also manages to give some heat to scenes with Brian Aherne, the handsome but not exactly sultry Brit playing the William Powell role. Constance has great eye contact with men onscreen--nothing so obvious as lowered lids or fluttered lashes, just a sudden intensity to the focus, a certain firming of the features. It's a challenging sort of look, as if to say are you up to this? (Perhaps that searching gaze owed something to the Bennett eyesight, or lack thereof. All of them had bad eyes. Richard occasionally mistook Louise Brooks for Joan, and Joan in particular could barely see one foot in front of her without glasses.)

Ann Dvorak shows up in a very small supporting role, and if you love Ann this movie will depress you. Not only is her part, a lovestruck Senator's daughter, ridiculously unworthy of her, but she also has to wear what the Siren swears is the single ugliest evening dress ever to show up in a 1930s film. (Check it out. The Siren would not lie to you.) Billie Burke earns most of the praise for Merrily We Live, and indeed she is very funny, but the Siren still preferred Constance. She's the only family member who doesn't have to tote a bunch of funny business around, and so she can be a real woman, or at least the movie's only hint of one.

Merrily We Live was a critical and commercial success, but as Brian Kellow points out, neither that movie nor even Topper could rejuvenate Constance's career. They were, in the end, just stays of execution for her waning stardom. Her high-hat reputation was by now firmly established in Hollywood, and the fashion for screwball had just about run its course.

David Shipman called Topper and Merrily We Live "the two films for which she is best remembered," but the Siren isn't sure that is true for the second film. What Price Hollywood? has a definite cult, and would probably find even greater fame if somebody would only release it. Next, the Siren veers back to that movie, and the two others Constance made with Cukor, to see if other parts of her filmography should get more attention.

Correction to earlier post: A nice reader, who didn't want to embarrass the Siren, dropped her an email reminder that Philip Plant was not Constance's first husband. Her first marriage, at age 16, was to a pre-law student named Chester Hirst Moorehead. Her mother found out and took Constance home before the honeymoon could even start, and the marriage was later annulled. Perhaps the Siren forgot about poor Chester because Constance did, too--despite the press's romantic fascination with her teenage elopement, she never did speak much about him.

Note: This week's banner shows Richard visiting the set of Constance's first big hit, Sally, Irene and Mary. The Siren likes this picture for Constance's expression, which seems to be saying, "Um, help?" Also for the way it shows how much she looked like her father. To the right is director Edmund Goulding.


Peter Nellhaus said...

and just when you thought it was safe to step back into the water, I tagged you.

I've enjoyed the "Constance Comments".

X. Trapnel said...

The Siren raises an interesting point about the blithe insouciance of thirties comedy in the shadow of the volcano. These films are as apolitical as can be and yet they are essentially democratic in their high antic spirits, their enthusiastic determination to entertain. I sense that at the time there was an unspoken understanding in the audience that the doings of rich folk on the screen were not really aristocratic. Drawing room comedy is the genre of the rich and screwball is its antithesis. It breaks the self-contained magic circle of upper class behavior. To borrow a trope from David Thompson, Hitler should have seen these films and known that all was lost.

My current fantasy for the 4 principles walking in arm in arm toward the camera are The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ivan the Terrible, Part 1.

The Siren said...

Eeek! All right Peter, I deserve it. Will break from Bennettiana to do so, very soon.

X. Trapnel, I am laughing so hard at your two choices. My picks: either Contempt or Au Hasard, Balthasar.

Exiled in NJ said...

And when they did delve into politics, it was always the Russians [Ninotchka, or Tovarich] and never Herr Hitler [except for Chaplin].

DavidEhrenstein said...

What Price Hollywood? is indeed wonderful. It's the first version of A Star is Born -- the difference from the others being that she has no romatic relationship with her discoverer -- a very nice alcoholic played by Lowell Sherman. The other Cukor with Constance to catch is Our Betters.

But yes, Topper is indeed quite special, and may always remain so.

Karen said...

I'll second David's recommendation of Our Betters, which lives permanently on my DVR until the day the Powers That Be have the good sense to release it on DVD. Bennett's transformation from dewy bride to cynical society operator is completely believable and both heartbreaking and droll. She manages to strike sparks with every man, woman, and child she has a scene with. Plus, as I believe I've mentioned before, those Hattie Carnegie gowns! Yikes! That's the one aspect of the Kay/Constance alignment you left out, Siren; those ladies could wear a gown like nobody's business.

I remember seeing Merrily We Live and being appalled at how...broadly it was all played. Billie Burke is like Billie Burke on meth. Everone is trying SO HARD. It's painful. It does have one rather priceless exchange, though: when Constance's mother (Burke) remarks to her daughter (Bonita Granville) that "My mother always told me that children should be seen and not heard," Granville replies, "Yes, but your mother was smarter than my mother."


I first saw Topper so long ago that Constance Bennett probably didn't even register on me. I definitely need to revisit it. The sequels take a great deal of the bloom off the rose, but I'm betting a re-introduction will make it smell as sweet as once it did...

The Siren said...

David, What Price Hollywood? coming right up, and also Our Betters courtesy of the wonderful Dan Callahan, who lent me his VHS.

Exiled, you're right, after the Code came in, overt politics became a rare quality in American film right up to the eve of the war, and that of course was no coincidence.

Karen, I do agree with you about Merrily We Live -- they are all working SO HARD and it shows in every scene, although certain things did totally crack me up, such as the butler with the booby-trapped chimes. Bonita Granville was so not funny, however, which pained me as I am a Bonita fan from way back. She wasn't as completely not funny as Virginia Weidler in Philadelphia Story, but she was close.

Topper can be seen easily on any number of public-domain sites and it still charms. The first sequel was all right but the one with Joan Blondell was pretty dire.

X. Trapnel said...

Tovarich steers pretty clear of politics (as though the Revolution was a polite disagreement between charming aristocrats and gentlemanly Bolsheviks), but Ninotchka takes some startling and deadly accurate shots at Soviet tyranny ("Fewer but better Russians") and although it was made in 1942, let's not forget (ever) To Be or Not To Be.

mndean said...

I think one film in the Bennett canon that really isn't very good is After Office Hours, a 1935 MGM comedy with Clark Gable. It's supposed to be a screwball newspaper comedy, but it's one of the films that made me think that Bennett wasn't so wonderful. She seems off and somewhat dull. In fact, almost everything in the movie seems off somehow. As a team, Gable and Bennett really weren't suited.

Topper and even the lesser Topper Takes A Trip really should have helped her career more than they did, and I can't say why they didn't, because although I have Merrily We Live, I wasn't as bowled over by her in it as you. I liked her to a point, but seeing Ann Dvorak wasted didn't endear me to the film (it's happened before, in Love Is A Racket), and Billie Burke didn't have to be so damn Billie Burke-ish (cf. The Young In Heart) It was okay, but as you said, it made me miss whatever La Cava put into My Man Godfrey. It was too antic for me. Following a hit with something similar usually is a solid box office proposition, but if I have to see another version of Godfrey, I prefer Fifth Avenue Girl.

That's why I sort of tagged her as a code casualty - she faded from significance after the instigation of that nonsense (and it went much harder on actresses).

mndean said...

It amazes me how few anti-Nazi movies were made in the '30s. My New Yorkers from '33 were already making acerbic remarks on Hitler's tyranny, and got more pointed from then on. Perhaps Germany was too big a foreign market for the studios to upset by targeting them (I'll bet foreign markets were a big issue when deciding on which scripts to shoot and in changing ones that might upset the powers that be in those foreign market countries). I remember seeing Charlie Chan at the Olympics and how only at one tiny point (when Theresa Harris is rooting for Jesse Owens) did they stick the shiv in Hitler. The rest of the film might have been made in some cartoon Weimar.

As for WWII films, it seemed the Pacific theater was used more for making propaganda points, which were often racist. Toward the Germans they pulled their punches, making them seem cold and ruthless, but good soldiers. It was only late in the war and after that Nazi insanity came to be approached more realistically. Treats like To Be Or Not To Be were rare, and Lubitsch had to be the one to do it, after what Nazi Germany had done to him.

Gloria said...

"Perhaps Germany was too big a foreign market for the studios to upset by targeting them "
Indeed, Hollywood studios in general, before Pearl harbour, were, in general, too shy to criticise nazi germany.

I could give a few examples
- Contemporary movies about the Spanish Civil War defending the cause of the democratic republic of Spain had many censorship troubles.

- And so did, Idiot's delight, whose original story was considerably tamed so fascists wouldn't get offended.

- James Whales' attempt to adapt Erich Matia Remarque's "The Road back was butchered, again, not to offend post-1933 Germany.

Vanwall said...

I think I remember the dogs, "Get off the Rug" and "You Too", more than anything else about "Merrily We Live", altho Constance gave 'em a good run for the money. "Topper" is the real Constance performance among these two, and possibly the apogee of her career as far as most viewers will ever remember.

As I mentioned before, the Constance on-screen was all there was of her with any humanity, AFAIC, so I revel in those small victories over the real Constance. Gotta find some way to appreciate it as art, or it might become monstrous.

Karen said...

By the way, because I am churlish and ungrateful, I neglected to mention that seeing a quote from me lead off this post left me all red-faced and floaty...

Karen said...

I also forgot to mention that my mother has incredibly fond memories of Merrily We Live, which she--then 12 years old--would have seen when it came out. When I was telling her about the "your mother was smarter than mine" line, she exclaimed, "Oh, I loved that movie!"

Which is to say either that 12-year-olds have different criteria for success in the movies they watch, or that I got my own film-appreciation skills from my father's side of the family.

The Siren said...

Re: foreign affairs in Hollywood films--Gloria is right, the studios did pull their punches largely for fear of alienating the European market--except Warner Brothers, which had a special reason in that that their Berlin rep, whom I believe was Jewish, was beaten to death by Nazi thugs. Mayer, though -- your jaw drops reading about him. As late as 1941 when Wyler was making Mrs Miniver, Mayer tried to tone down the episode with the downed German flyer because we weren't at war with Germany and, he reminded the director, they still had a couple of theaters in Berlin. After Pearl Harbor he called in Wyler and told him he could film the flyer sequence as he wanted.

But I digress, back to Constance. Mndean, ironically you're being a bit generous to Constance in thinking of her as a code casualty. Kellow makes it pretty clear she was her own worst enemy. I don't recall examples of bad on-set behavior but many of her costars later admitted to disliking her (although Cukor spoke warmly of her to the day he died). That, combined with her salary and billing demands and the decline in popularity of her particular style of woman's picture all did their damage. By the time Topper came along there were too many people in Hollywood who had written her off as too big a headache.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I agree, Merrily doesn't give her nearly as much of a chance to shine. I wouldn't say I was bowled over, just that she was the least tiring of the cast. And as always she wore some great gowns.

MNDean, I was ready to kill whoever put Ann Dvorak in that dress. Did you click on the link? Those sleeves!! that neckline! It had a BUSTLE for god's sakes. I wonder if Constance had anything to do with it? :D

Karen, Merrily We Live is EXACTLY the sort of film I would choose to watch with my own mother. She loves bright, witty comedies and if they have a big silly streak so much the better. She loves things like Fifth Avenue Girl (that is indeed a fun movie, I've always liked it) and Twentieth Century. So I think that is part of why my own tastes are a mix--Dad was a John Ford person, she was more of a Hawks-comedy kind of person. Last time she visited we sat on the couch and watched "Five Fingers." Anyway I don't think loving Merrily We Live marks your mom's taste. Wasn't I saying just that, that in 1937 and 1938 these movies must have been delicious?

mndean said...

That's because you read about 'em, and I don't! Remember, I knew not a whit about Constance until your first post. So I took it for granted that the most common cause for an actress having a career fade starting around 1935 was the usual one. I don't really condone my ignorance of them as people, but it does leave my mind clear of prejudice as I watch their performances. I don't think it could infect my view of their acting, except subconsciously. As far as studio heads, I took it for granted they were all bastards (in their own peculiar ways - chiselers, sexual creeps, etc.
), and that issue was resolved.

The Siren said...

M., I have always wanted to know more about them, for good or ill. One of the first stars who ever prompted me to check a bio out of the library was Greta Garbo, after I saw Queen Christina. I don't know how old I was -- 10? but I was hooked. Now I want to know all about all of 'em. And not all of them let me down. Our dear Myrna Loy was quite, quite fabulous off-screen as well.

X. Trapnel said...

Another film that should be remembered is the excellent Confessions of a Nazi Spy, made in--note well--1939. Accusations of special pleading for the Jews undoubtedly played a part in Hollywood's silence. Jules Dassin's Nazi Agent (1942) makes a discreet and rare allusion to Nazi anti-Semitism: Conrad Veidt (allowed for once to play the anti-Nazi he was in real life) and his girlfriend tune into the Mendelssohn violin concerto on the radio and she mumurs "Forbidden..."

I, too, choose to remain ignorant of the real life of actors, but I would love to read a biography of Conrad Veidt who was said to have been the best-liked man in Hollywood (though one wonders how much competition there could have been).

Yojimboen said...

If I may beg the indulgence of the group for a tiny semi-digression:

After having rewritten What Price Hollywood as A Star Is Born, Dorothy Parker was asked by the L.A. Times how she felt about working in Hollywood.

Her response: “It’s all right. You make a little money and get caught up on your debts. We’re up to 1912 now.”

Greg said...

I have Topper and Topper Returns on a double DVD and in Topper Returns my youngest loves the seal bit with Eddie "Rochester" Anderson as well as anytime Billie Burke opens her mouth and all the stuff with the cake in the kitchen. Man, that just cracks her up. So she wouldn't understand why it isn't as good as the original.

Fortunately she's only seven and doesn't read blogs or she'd have some strong but very simple vocabulary words to exchange with you. In her defense, she does love the first one more, mainly because she loves Cary Grant so much. He really appeals to children, in case anyone was wondering. In The Awful Truth my little one just rolls on the floor with laughter.

Tonio Kruger said...

Well as bad as I felt for Eddie Anderson watching that seal bit in Topper Returns, I must admit that I didn't feel half as awkward watching Anderson in that movie as I did watching any of the black characters in The Ghost Breakers. (On the plus side, Paulette Goddard did look dressed in black in the latter movie. Too bad that was the only bit in that movie I found to be all that memorable.)

As for Topper, well, in all fairness, we are talking about the 1937 adaptation of a novel that was published in 1926. So it could be argued that the movie was just a reflection of the era in which the original novel had been set.

And was Tovarish all that kind to the Russians? I haven't seen that film since I was a teenager in the 1970's but I don't exactly remember Colbert and Boyer's character being exactly happy to have to wait on the commissar who was their former adversary. Indeed, I remember being moved by how much they dreaded that encounter. Though I must admit that I found the twist in which they end up signing over something to said adversary lest it otherwise get sold to the British who "never give up anything" to be a tad ironic--even back in the '70s. If only the screenwriters knew what would happen to the British Empire just a decade or two later...

And wouldn't the cultural conservatives on, say, Dirty Harry's Place, be quick to kvetch about how kind American movies have traditionally been to the Soviet Union compared to the way they've depicted the Nazis? One can't help comparing the punches pulled in, say, Dr. Zhivago to the rather harsher way the Nazis have been depicted in almost any American film since Pearl Harbor.

mndean said...

I shouldn't say I never read any lives of film personalities, because I've read a number of them on directors. On actors, well, here's the thing. I go to the Barnes and Noble and I see a book on Katherine Hepburn (yeah, another one). I open it to a random early page and the first thing I read is that she had an affair with Ann Harding. My reaction was, "What the hell do I care who she did? Some big deal, that."). In a business like that, most people are going to go through a lot of short-term romances that go nowhere, and I really don't care because I stopped keeping score on anything when I quit Little League. I put the book down, and so I go on to something more amusing, a book on Capone (if ever there was a man who was a walking ad for abortion, it was dear old Alphonse). Other celebrity books are really bad (Marion Meade's hatchet job on Buster Keaton was a classic example, and her book on Dorothy Parker more sympathetic but not that much better), or remembrances that misremember. There are a lot of biographers, just not a lot of good ones AFAICT, just from reading the ones about directors I've been through.

Tonio Kruger said...

Please excuse me. I meant, of course, Tovarich.

The Siren said...

Yojimboen: "There are millions to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." --Herman Mankiwiecz


Jonathan, I loved things like Topper when I was small as well. And the showgirls in Busby Berkeley movies. I wanted to grow up, marcel my hair and snap "Go soak your head" at anyone who was irritating me. And Cary Grant's appeal translates to every age group it seems. I recall my daughter brightening when Bringing Up Baby was on and demanding, "WHO is THAT?"

Tonio, it's been a while since I have seen Tovarich but my recollection dovetails more with X. Trapnel. There's nothing in Tovarich like the line in Ninotchka: "There are going to be fewer, but better Russians." There are a number of post-war anti-Communist movies but in the 1930s, not much. There just wasn't much political content at all. As for Doctor Zhivago, I agree with you that it is notably soft on the revolutionaries and, as Pauline Kael memorably complained, puts a rainbow over the future of the Soviet Union. But when I brought this up on one of my occasional parachute-drops into the comments I was soundly denounced for not getting what was clearly, CLEARLY mind you, a rousing anti-Communist movie. It's listed as such in DH's "Conservative DVD Library." So evidently I do not know Commie-coddling when I see it. And neither did Kael.

X. Trapnel said...

Actually, in Russian it is pronounced tovarish. The note of Soviet/aristocrat accord (and let's recall that the original play was written by a Frenchman, not a Russian) at the end of the film is an absurd oversimplification as though the October revolution was mainly between the aristocracy and the Bolsheviks rather than a betrayal of the liberal, democratic February revolution. Doctor Zhivago, a 100% travesty of Pasternak's great novel, is no more sophisticated about history. I don't think in this case, though, that left wing sentiment occassioned the distortions so much as a British assumption that Russians are basically sentimental, irrational wogs. Western films have pretty much stayed away from the subject of the Gulag; an exception is East-West, a pretty good French-Russian co-production from about 10 years ago.

mndean said...

In Topper Returns, Del Ruth does those two gags with Eddie so many times (falling through the trapdoor into the water, and the seal pushing him back in), it's like watching a milking contest. I still like the movie mostly because of Roland Young and Joan Blondell. Eddie is funny, but he gets the worst of it through the movie. I always considered Joan one of the casualties of the code (and her first two husbands). She came off too "street" to be a good screwball comedienne (they were either dizzy heiresses or naive working girls). The way she deadpans the phrase "pink and panting" when she gets a call from her casual gun-toting boyfriend in Havana Widows makes me laugh every time. The code killed that type of woman but good.

Beveridge D. Spenser said...

Another digression - I love Topper (including the Leo G. Carroll TV series) and ran into the novels of Thorne Smith it was taken from. I've read about a dozen of his stories, and they all work the same: Some magical macguffin (statues come to life, clothes disappear, men and women exchange genders, become invisible, turn into animals...) immerses people in exasperating whimsy. Loose romance and heavy drinking are also involved.

They are very funny (in my opinion), but where do they come from? What genre do they represent? How were they perceived? High-brow, low-brow? Witty or trashy? Sat. Eve. Post or the pulps?

And are there any more at home like them?

The Siren said...

"I don't think in this case, though, that left wing sentiment occassioned the distortions so much as a British assumption that Russians are basically sentimental, irrational wogs."

I want to respond to this but I am laughing too hard. Painfully true.

All that said I do have an enormous soft spot for the movie, which works nicely as a love story, just not as any kind of Pasternak or history.

Where was I? oh right, TOPPER. M., I really hated Topper Returns, Joan or no Joan, though I agree with you that she was a pip.

Beveridge, a while back I did a post on Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and remarked on the vogue for afterlife stories in the 1940s, but I wonder if we couldn't trace it all back to Topper. And talk about maguffins -- what's all this business in the first Topper about "conserving ectoplasm"? it's just weird.

mndean said...

Well, you can add Blithe Spirit to the ectoplasmic list.

Yojimboen said...

Madame Sirène – Ah, yes, the famous cable to Ben Hecht to entice him out here to LaLa land, where he wrote and/or doctored… let’s face it, pretty much everything.
All praise to Herman M.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, your disarming defense of Doctor Zhivago now occasions an agonizing, nyet, excruciating confession from an unapologetic musical highbrow and charter member of the Pasternak Anti-Defamation League...I like... I really, really like (choke) LARA'S THEME

I feel better now...

X. Trapnel said...

the pinnacle of my ectoplasm list is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the most beautiful (and adult) fantasy film ever.
And Bernard Herrmann's sublime score drives Lara's Theme out of my head for years at a time.

hamletta said...

She wasn't as completely not funny as Virginia Weidler in Philadelphia Story....

Wha? I think Weidler is hilarious in Philadelpha Story. She's such a brat.

As to movie star biographies, I highly recommend George Sanders's Memoirs Of a Professional Cad. That man could write.

My favorite part is his transcription of his fight with a Spanish photographer at Tyrone Powers's funeral is hilarious. He translates everything word-by-word, including the insults, which come out like, "Go back to the whore mother of which you were born!"

mndean said...

I don't know that Topper was the archetype of the later afterlife stories as much as a freak that hit at the right time. The later films may have had more to do with all the war and death the country saw during WWII. They did tend more toward the sentimental than Topper and its progeny.

I guess the Dr. Zhivago/Tovarich/Ninotchka conversation is sort of not an issue with me as my mother lived in Eastern Europe until she was 25 (she lived under Nazi occupation as a child), and her country did have a Communist regime after the war, (and she didn't hate it), she didn't think much of Soviet Russia or Russians, either. Her father dealt with Russians all the time (he was in import/export), but he was a man who didn't really have many prejudices (although Germans and their helpers in her country weren't exactly thought highly of after the war, and that included her family's religion's priests, who happily snitched to the Nazis when they got a piece of information for a parishioner. Many of those priests escaped the country and came to America). So Western views of Russians really meant nothing to me except to see how their prejudices were put on the screen. I was so damn European in manner that I got a lot of grief in elementary school - from everyone, even the administration. Movies were one way I learned to be more tolerably American.

mndean said...

I have a confession to make to the Siren. When Siren mentioned Weidler in a thread the other day, I said, "You mean that cute kid from The Philadelphia Story?", knowing full well what Siren thought of that performance. I have to have my little bit of fun. I did something similar the other day too, but I was being too clever and it didn't register at all. Or it did and nobody cared.

The Siren said...

M., I DID notice but I didn't want to start anything as Constance had already irked you enough at that point. I didn't realize I was being baited although I probably deserve it, since I had made a point of taunting Karen with Charles Coburn last month.

Sorry Hamletta, Weidler absolutely gives me eczema, although she is tolerable in All This, and Heaven Too if I dial the volume down a bit. I find her unbearably phoney, every expression and gesture telegraphed as though from across a very large ocean.

Sanders' autobiography, which I read in high school, has a large cult following--James Wolcott wrote a while back that his wife had given him a copy as a present. Sanders is a huge favorite of mine and was the first actor I ever wrote about on this site, if memory serves. I have been wanting my own copy but they start at about $75 apiece on sites like alibris. Why somebody doesn't reissue this book is a mystery. I am sure it would be at LEAST as worthwhile as La Palin's $7million memoirs.

mndean said...

It wasn't baiting as much as benign trolling - sometimes even when I'm writing about something with a bit too much passion, I will throw something in incongruously that's a bit off, like I know I'm taking it too far and it's sort of a signal that I'm still there and sane - I think I just didn't set it off enough to make it a wink (I didn't want to be too obvious). I may dislike Constance as a person (now), but I don't avoid her movies.

The other benign troll had to do with who was born on the same day as Constance (allowe mentioned having the same birthday), and I mentioned who was in mine - which was that very day! Of course, by the time I wrote it, you East coasters were already into the next day, which is why I think nobody noticed. That, or nobody cared. Sometimes one can be too cute.

The Siren said...

OMG as the kids say, it was your actual birthday? and I missed it? I am so sorry, HAPPY BIRTHDAY! I check and see that I would have had to deduce from the people listed, which makes me feel a bit better, but I still wish I had known. The 2-year-old is having a Bad Sleep Week, which means so is the rest of the household, which in turn means subtle won't work well with the Siren at the moment. Hitting her over the head with a rubber chicken, that'll work.

mndean said...

Thanks very much! I wasn't fishing for a happy birthday (I am very uncomfortable with celebrations or praise, no matter what the reason).

Karen said...

the pinnacle of my ectoplasm list is The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the most beautiful (and adult) fantasy film ever.
And Bernard Herrmann's sublime score drives Lara's Theme out of my head for years at a time.

Oh, my lord in heaven, do I agree with X. Trapnel here! That movie is beyond sublime (and please: George Sanders and Rex Harrison in the same film? An embarrassment of riches!). There's nothing I don't love about it, but the wordless scene scored perfectly by Herrmann in which the passage of time is shown by the surf beating on the wooden plank carved by Anna Muir is so heartbreaking I can't not sob through it.

Truly, no other ghost film even comes close.

X. Trapnel said...


Thanks for seconding me on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. One of the many things I love about this site is the affirmation in these dire cinematic times that (to cite a very odd film) We Are Not Alone.

George Sanders forever!

Tonio Kruger said...

George Sanders? Nay, Rex Harrison. (And this from someone who normally doesn't like Rex Harrison.) ;-)

And let's not forget Gene Tierney's character Lucia--er, Lucy. (You can probably guess how recently I've seen that movie.)

As for Dr. Zhivago, well, there's a reason Campaspe's site is on my blogroll and Dirty Harry's Place is not...

And yes, Topper is way better than Topper Returns. I confess to having a weakness for Joan Blondell too but she tends to come off far better in the early Busby Berkeley films. Except for Dames...

And I suppose Virginia Weidler in Philadelphia Story can be considered unfunny but I still love her rendition of "Lydia the Tatooed Lady." I guess it says something about how young I was when I first saw that movie that for a long time the only thing I could remember about that flick was that song. Oh, and the bit with the golf clubs. But mostly the song.

Michael D. Walker said...

Glad to find this fun and engaging conversation about Constance Bennett, Topper and after life films.

I think an additional reason for TOPPER not helping Bennett's career more is because a: Roland Young's performance garnered an Oscar nomination (he was remarkable with his physical antics) and b: it was the film that catapulted Cary Grant into stardom.

When you add those items along with the award winning special effects work, it's not hard to see Bennett's performance getting lost in the mix.

As for TOPPER and it's influence on the genre, the book was written in 1926 and as near as I can tell, broke the mold for American literature as regards ghosts & the after life being amusing. There are British writers who preceeded Thorne Smith in this regard (research F. Antsey) but they don't appear to have gained a wide audience in the States.

One last note: If one reads TOPPER the novel, it's not hard to see where Dashiell Hammett got the idea for THE THIN MAN. George & Marion Kerby are essentially Nick & Nora Charles sans the mystery setting. And we do know Hammett read Thorne Smith's work as he wrote a blistering review of Smith's lone mystery novel DID SHE FALL a mere two years before THE THIN MAN.

Some food for thought...



Michael D. Walker
Thorne Smith Biographer

The Siren said...

Mr. Walker, thanks so much for dropping by. Also for the very polite, and fascinating, implication that I have it precisely backwards--Topper influenced the Thin Man, not the other way around!

Tonio, X. and Karen -- Oh my yes, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, gorgeous. And Sanders. Over Christmas I may re-write and re-run my original piece on him.

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