Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It Happened One Night (1934) at Criterion

The Siren is still writing, oh yes she is. Here is an excerpt from her essay about It Happened One Night, part of the Blu-Ray package now available from the fine and fabulous folks at Criterion. You can read the Siren's essay in its entirety at their website.

It's been a particularly hard week for the world beyond the movie screen, and indeed a hard year. Frank Capra's joyous masterpiece was made at a time that was, in many respects, far harsher. Watching the film again (and again) and writing about the things that make it great was an uplifting experience. This movie has a true democratic spirit. This long weekend, you could do far worse than to watch It Happened One Night.

No matter what they watch, or whether or not they celebrate this American holiday, the Siren sends all her patient readers warm and loving Thanksgiving wishes.

Almost eighty years ago, the Academy Awards saw a clean sweep of its top five categories—screenplay, actor, actress, director, and picture—not by a grandiose epic or searing social drama but by a romantic comedy, a sparkling, gossamer thing about the love of a pampered heiress for a just-fired, often-drunk scamp of a reporter.

The film begins with the heiress already married to an obvious fortune hunter. Her father has imprisoned her on his yacht, demanding that she accept an annulment. She runs away on a Greyhound bus and finds herself mixed up with that scoop-hungry reporter. They spend one night together, then another. They fall in love. A bare plot synopsis hasn’t got much heft. And yet after all these years, It Happened One Night (1934) is almost universally acknowledged as one for the ages, its gorgeous spirit haunting all the romantic road trips, all the unlikely courtships, all the bickering, smitten couples that have come after.

It’s a movie both escapist and egalitarian. Director Frank Capra, that great American cheerleader, assures everyone that this fair country’s wide-open spaces, while not without peril, are full of fellowship and democracy. Our land can bring out the good in Ellen Andrews (Claudette Colbert), who is so spoiled that, in the first scene, she flings an entire steak dinner out a porthole. Her father (Walter Connolly) delivers a roundhouse slap, a moment that shocks them both. But for a Great Depression audience, one that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would still describe, in 1937, as “one-third . . . ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished,” wasting a lavish meal would have bordered on the criminal. Comeuppance must be on its way — and so it is, in the guise of reporter Peter Warne (Clark Gable). When Pete is introduced, he’s on the phone with the editor who canned him. As an appreciative audience gathers to listen, Pete tilts a bottle of booze down his throat and defends an unprintably bad story with “That was free verse, ya gashouse palooka.” He remains fired, of course, wasting something else that was scarce and precious in 1934: a job.


An ideal romantic comedy doesn’t ignore reality; it converses with it. The Depression may be softened by moonlight and shining eyes, but it is everywhere visible in It Happened One Night, from the woman on the bus who faints from hunger to the freight car full of hoboes who wave back at a joyous Pete as he races to propose to Ellie. One of the loveliest shots in the movie is the exquisite track that follows Ellie as she makes her way to the autocamp’s communal shower, while children chase each other and weary adults prepare to get back on the road.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Missing Reels: Publication and Schedule of Appearances

Updated, Nov. 22

It's publication day for the Siren’s novel, Missing Reels! This happy occasion was supposed to occur last week, but her book about lost movies apparently decided on the very Method promotional technique of getting a bit lost itself. Missing Reels is now found, however, and available at your local bookseller, and Amazon, or try Barnes and Noble, or direct from Overlook Press. It's also available for Kindle and Nook.

The Siren will be making some promotional appearances around New York City, and one in Washington, D.C. (other cities are possible, but not confirmed):

  • November 23rd, 2014: Museum of the Moving Image, 36-01 35th Ave. in Queens. Screening of The Awful Truth. I’ll be introducing the film and signing books in the museum store afterward.
  • December 16th, 2014: IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave., Manhattan. Screening of The Crowd. I’ll be staying to discuss it afterward.
  • January 7th, 2015: The Strand bookstore, 828 Broadway, Manhattan. I will be part of a discussion with Matt Zoller Seitz (moderator), editor of Ebert.com and author of The Wes Anderson Collection; James Wolcott, cultural critic for Vanity Fair and most recently author of Critical Mass; and Anne Helen Petersen, writer at Buzzfeed and author of Scandals of Classic Hollywood.
  • January 21st, 2015: Kramerbooks, 1517 Connecticut Ave., Washington, D.C. I’ll be reading and signing copies of the book.
  • February 24th, 2015: Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, Brookline, Mass. Reading and signing.
New: The Siren did a Q-and-A with her idol, the fabulous Molly Haskell, at Criterion. Love the title (not the Siren's!): "Downtown Screwball." Yup, that was life in the 1980s in New York, all right.

There is a substantial excerpt from the book at Rogerebert.com.

Very nice writeup for Missing Reels in the Movie News section of the TCM website.

If you want to try before you buy, there is a lengthy excerpt from the book at The Evening Class, Michael Guillen’s very fine blog.

Raquel S. of Out of the Past is a blogging stalwart and a well-known name around these parts; the Siren’s been reading Raquel's wonderful classic-film and book posts for years now. She has a lovely review of the novel up.

And the Siren’s readers well know that Glenn Kenny is a Close Personal Friend. He has a funny, thoughtful review up at Some Came Running, along with a review of another (very different) movie-themed novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes, which sounds most interesting.

The Siren discussed Missing Reels, and film preservation, at Hollywood Time Machine, the online classic-film radio show hosted by Alicia Mayer and Will McKinley. The show is available in podcast form here. Bonus: Lou Lumenick of the New York Post talks about movie history and movie rights, and the delightful Eve Golden discusses her biography of John Gilbert, which everyone should be reading.

The Siren adored Silent London's review, because it comes from a fine writer and kindred spirit, because the folks there recognize the name Mordaunt Hall, and because she did not expect to be compared to Fever Pitch.

The Siren has already gone into the writing, theme etc. of Missing Reels, so this won’t be a yammer-y post. To avoid spamming her own blog with updates, reviews, etc., the Siren is going to use this as Grand Central Station for all things Missing Reels, and update this post from time to time. (At least, until such time as she possibly gets a second website together. Which could take a while.) Also, there’s always the Siren on Twitter, @selfstyledsiren, or befriend her under her real name, Farran Smith Nehme, on Facebook. (But do drop her a line first, to let her know who you are.)

Meanwhile, now that the extensive work of launching Missing Reels has lessened, the Siren hopes to take her posting back from “where the heck have you been,” to “dependably sporadic,” as soon as possible.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Few Words About Jack Carson

(The Siren wrote this in 2011 for the now-defunct Nomad, but never published it in full. Here's the whole thing, gussied up with edits and additions.)

Gather old-movie buffs around to ask them what they miss, and one answer will be character actors. Jack Carson, who packed nearly 100 movies into a career cut short by stomach cancer at the age of 52, was one of the greatest.

Carson was born in Manitoba in 1910, but the way his nasal voice lingered over a wisecrack always suggested an urban birthplace anywhere from Brooklyn to Chicago. A beefy man who stood six-foot-two, he had the physique and carriage of a football player grown too fond of roadside meals. His face was round and almost apple-cheeked, with a mole on his right cheek and small eyes that squinted into slits whenever the world dealt him a perplexing situation. With this un-starry equipment he built an unusually varied filmography.

He often played heels, as in his first big break playing James Cagney’s nemesis in Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde. Much later on, in his most purely villainous role, Carson can be found destroying James Mason’s fragile psyche with a single vindictive bar conversation in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born. But he could play well in other keys; midway through Carson's credits are a string of light but often diverting comedies where he played Bob Hope to Dennis Morgan’s improbable Bing Crosby. And he had that ability of any good actor to show you more than what's in the script, even a brilliant script. In one of his last film roles, as Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Carson is both venal and sympathetic, a son whose greed for his father's money comes from the bitter knowledge that it's all he will ever get from an old man who doesn't love him, and never has.

In his best-known role, as Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce, Carson's a sleaze, yet weirdly lovable. He reels out of the beach house to tell the cops “There’s a stiff in there” with an expression that seems to say dead bodies are always happening to stand-up guys like him. Wally’s romantic maneuvers are like watching the Queen Mary try to parallel-park: “Not too much ice in that drink you’re about to make for me.” Mildred Pierce also gives Carson what the Siren thinks of as his career-defining line. “I like to hear you talk,” says Joan Crawford, trying to distract him so she can pin a murder on him. “So do I,” replies Carson, pleased to have found common ground. “Something about the sound of my own voice fascinates me.”

Unlike a lot of character actors, however, Carson did land the occasional secondary lead. In two such movies, both made at Warner Brothers (and available on Warner Archive), he gave great performances. Neither character is a heel.

In The Hard Way (1943), Carson plays Albert Runkel, one half of a vaudeville act with Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan, as good as he ever got). Runkel and Collins are so hopeless they give the director, Vincent Sherman, a chance to echo the Citizen Kane shot of a stagehand holding his nose. But they are good enough to turn the head of Katherine Blaine (an unusually hard-edged Joan Leslie), a poor girl in a steel-mill town whose prettiness and big-eyed fascination with the two hams causes the goodhearted, hapless Albert to fall in love and marry her. But Albert reckons without Helen (Ida Lupino, in one of her best roles), Katie’s sister, who sees him as a way station on the route to bigger and better things. Pushed by Helen, Katie becomes a star, and Albert is left behind, knowing he’ll never get his wife back and never equal her, either.

The small-time sweetheart pursuing the heroine who’s on the rise — that regular Joe who shows up backstage to moan “But what about us, baby?” — is usually one of the least tolerable aspects of any showbiz saga. Carson makes his part truly touching. It’s Albert, not the teenage Katie, who’s the real innocent.

In one musical number, “Latin from Manhattan,” Albert wears a ghastly pom-pom-bedecked sombrero and strums a guitar while Leslie vamps around a nightclub stage. He's is selling it with everything he’s got, and he’s terrible. And Carson’s face says he knows it’s no good, but that naive faith that was there from the beginning is still carrying him as he prances after his wife.

And then there’s a party scene where Albert tries to get a now-successful Katie to return to him. This time Albert is selling his love for Katie and their marriage with everything he’s got, and he knows it probably won’t work. Unlike the nightclub, the hope in his eyes gets dimmer minute by minute, until Katie tells him that if he thinks she’s leaving, he’s crazy — and you watch the hope die right out of Carson's face.

In Roughly Speaking (Michael Curtiz, 1945), Carson’s character shows up for the first time about halfway through the movie. At that point Louise (Rosalind Russell) has endured the death of her father, the births of four children, the infantile paralysis of the youngest child, years of marriage to a stuffed shirt, the stuffed shirt’s infidelity, and a divorce. Harold (Carson) meets Russell at a costume party and falls for her within two hours of meeting her — after encountering all four of her children in her kitchen. Harold is the ne’er-do-well son of a rich man, and he’s looking for a woman who will approach life with an optimistic and adventurous spirit.

And they need it, as Harold and Louise’s every attempt to make money falls flat. They open a greenhouse and inadvertently flood the market with roses. They invest in a new type of airplane just as the stock market crashes. But the point of Roughly Speaking is that compatibility of temperament matters most in a marriage. Louise’s life was steadier with the stuffed shirt, but she could never be as happy as she is with Harold.

They don’t seem as though they should have chemistry, and yet Carson and Russell do. Not the red-hot sexual variety, but that of two people who seem to adore one another’s company, no matter what.

Their fortunes reach such a low ebb that Harold takes a job as a vacuum-cleaner salesman. He comes home to practice his pitch with his wife. As he shoves his shoulders in the door, throws lint on the carpet, gets the vacuum in reverse and covers the house in blowing soot, Carson’s easy camaraderie with his wife is more appealing than many a passionate love scene.

Later, Louise discovers that Harold found door-to-door sales so soul-draining he’s taken to earning money by doing a bit of pool-sharking at the local bar. She comes in and they sit at a table, Louise almost in tears, and Harold gently tells her that he would understand if she cleared out. Carson’s face is a marvel of drily unsentimental love and self-reproach.

Even more tender is the last scene in the movie, when they are sending the two oldest sons off to war. They’re Louise’s boys, Harold is their stepfather, but they call him “Pop” and tell him how much he's meant to them. As Carson watches them go, his eyes and expression show that these are now his sons. Perhaps Harold never completely considered them so before, but he does now. The ability to pack that much meaning into one look at a train station — that’s character indeed.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Onward! The Novel, the Screening, the DVD, the Celebration of Preservation

The Siren could start by looking at the date of her last post and fluttering, “Did y’all miss me?” but that would be coy. She’s missed you.

It has been, as you may gather, an alarmingly busy time for the Siren. She’s been writing, but alas, not much for the blog. Meanwhile the world continues to scoot along, and we have some catching up to do. So here’s

Part One: The Novel

Missing Reels is still scheduled for publication on Nov. 12, which is just around the corner. You can pre-order at the bookseller of your choice, which would make the Siren very happy.

It’s at Amazon.

It’s at Barnes & Noble.

You can find a copy at your local bookstore via Indiebound.

And if you are saying, “Hm, well Siren, I like you and all, but I don’t know what this book is about. Perhaps it is Not My Sort of Thing,” then you can look at the latest review, at Publishers Weekly, where they said nice stuff.

The Screening

For the folks in the New York metro area, the Siren can reveal that she will be introducing a screening of The Awful Truth (which plays a part in the plot of Missing Reels) at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, on Sunday Nov. 23 at 2 pm. It is not on their site yet, but the Siren will link you up as soon as possible. She’ll be signing copies of Missing Reels in the museum store afterward. Come one, come all!

And OH BY THE WAY — the screening will be in 35 millimeter, as God and Eastman Kodak intended. So take note, all you “grain monks,” as a certain blogger has been known to describe those of us who love celluloid.


The British company Masters of Cinema for years has been putting out beautiful Blu-Rays and DVDs of great films, packaged with wonderful extras. The Siren has their edition of Douglas Sirk’s Tarnished Angels, to name just one that’s particularly stunning, and she recorded a podcast at Masters of Cinema Cast for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s L’Assassin Habite au 21.

For the Siren’s readers who have multi-region Blu-Ray players (and you should, even the techno-shaky Siren has one) Masters of Cinema have released The Gang’s All Here, directed by Busby Berkeley. This Technicolor movie begged for a good Blu, because it’s ravishing. Made during World War II, it is, as you probably remember, a backstage musical that depicts with unflinching zeal the brutal reality of American homefront life.

Just kidding. There’s some Army uniforms milling about, otherwise this movie is as glorious a piece of loony escapism as exists. Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic imagination runs riot. Talented, butterscotch-voiced Alice Faye was at her zenith; Carmen Miranda stops the show with “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat;” Charlotte Greenwood could still kick high enough to knock out an overhead light; Edward Everett Horton was still playing an improbably lustful stuffed-shirt. All this, plus The Disembodied Head of Eugene Pallette.

The Siren, together with Close Personal Friend Glenn Kenny and author, film historian and certified Alice Faye worshipper Ed Hulse, recorded a commentary track for this release, which has gotten some kind words. Please consider buying a copy.

The Celebration of Preservation

Because preservation is never far from our thoughts chez Siren, it’s time for some good news on that front. On Friday, the Museum of Modern Art’s 12th Annual “To Save and Project” series starts. The Siren will have more on the festival anon, but you can look at the schedule here. Highlights include a public screening of an edited version of once-lost footage from Orson Welles' Too Much Johnson, which our friends at the National Film Preservation Foundation put online in August. (It is still there, if you want to watch ahead of time, or download a copy for your personal library.) But several of the Siren’s friends have said they were holding out for projection. If you live in the New York area, here’s your chance.

But there is an even closer connection to the Sirenistas. Back when we did the first blogathon to raise money for the NFPF, the topic was all matters related to general preservation. And Comrade Lou Lumenick, chief film critic at the New York Post, wrote up To the Last Man and the "public-domain hell" in which it was languishing. At the time, Lou said: "One of the more interesting examples of these sadly orphaned films is “To The Last Man,” a 1933 Paramount production that is not only well-made with an excellent cast, but occupies an key place in the filmographies of Randolph Scott, Shirley Temple and director Henry Hathaway."

Lou's post should be read in full, because it explains a lot about public domain and how films fall through the cracks. But guess what: Sometimes people in a position to do something read about a neglected movie and decide to rescue it.

And that’s what happened: One of our kindred spirits at MOMA read Lou’s piece and became so intrigued that he tracked down and restored To the Last Man. And lo and behold, it will be screened at MOMA on Sunday Nov. 2 at 3:30 pm, and introduced by none other than Comrade Lumenick, the man who gave this movie some love. There's another screening Oct. 28 at 6:30.

The blogathon is the gift that keeps on giving.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

In Memoriam: Lauren Bacall, 1924-2014

Lauren Bacall walked into the New York Hermès outpost one day in the early 1990s to have a bag repaired. For those who care about such matters, it was a bowling-style, not a Birkin, and the Siren doesn’t know what had gone wrong with it. Perhaps a row of stitches had unraveled from the weight of Bacall’s fabulousness. A sales assistant recognized her, gulped, approached, and said, “May I assist you, ma’am?”

The response was a glare from the movies’ most celebrated green eyes and the reply, “This is Hermès. You should call me madame.”

Now the Siren knows about this encounter because it was witnessed by her then-roommate, who as the store’s manager had to send someone else over to assist Madame Bacall. He was, well, a bit irked.

But the customer was right. If anybody ever walked into Hermes and deserved to be called “madame,” it was Lauren Bacall.

Hell, the Siren might have curtsied.

Bacall had at that point come a very long way from the grass-green youngster who, in To Have and Have Not, had to keep her chin low for Howard Hawks’ camera so it wouldn’t shake in close-ups. But the raw material was always there. She was smart, she was diligent, she had a mother she adored and a steel-fiber belief in herself. It wasn't a question of acquiring traits, much less of learning to fake anything, but merely of how to reveal those qualities she already had.

Read a review of early Bacall — here, James Agee on To Have and Have Not — and it’s precisely the way anyone would have described her for the rest of her life:

She has a javelinlike vitality, a born dancer’s eloquence in movement, a fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness. With these faculties, plus a stone-crushing self-confidence and a trombone voice, she manages to get across the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long while.

The face was so dazzling, the voice so unique, that it seems to the Siren that the grace of Bacall’s movement isn’t mentioned enough. Lordy, the way she walked! Like watching mercury drops glide over the floor. There’s no sway or wiggle to it, Bacall had no need to flash her sexiness. She moved quickly, purposefully, but all of a piece, like the cat she was so often compared to. Cats’ extra vertebrae give them incredible flexibility and grace, which is why so many acting students do exercises that imitate feline movements. Or, they could just watch Bacall.

Bacall had three children — son Stephen in 1949 and daughter Leslie in 1952 with Bogart, and son Sam with Jason Robards in 1961 — and was widowed at a young age. It’s obvious that she had a demanding personal life, and a strong sense of responsibility that went beyond her career. But speaking as a cinephile, the Siren can’t deny that she feels a bit of frustration when she surveys Bacall’s filmography. Such a brilliant start, with not just To Have and Have Not, but also the other films she made with Bogart: Dark Passage, The Big Sleep (the Siren’s favorite), Key Largo (a close second). And then, long periods of inactivity, in between films where her unique qualities seldom seem to be front and center where they belong. So often, as in the battily wonderful The Cobweb, her assurance and grace are lifting up a milquetoast character. It’s a huge help to the film, but Bacall's abilities deserved more.

That’s why, although the Siren would cite Written on the Wind as Bacall’s best film of the 1950s, How to Marry a Millionaire was her best role. Bacall was one of the few pre-1960 actresses who played a model while looking like a model; Marilyn Monroe and Betty Grable look like showgirls, not mannequins.

As Schatze, Bacall is the ringleader and outwardly the most hard-bitten of this gold-digging trio. But Bacall is also the most lovable, because she plays it as a woman too smart for the room: "We better put a check on that one. Nobody's mother lives in Atlantic City on Saturday." She’s too smart for the movie, too (though the Siren loves it) but doesn’t let that show. “A character straight out of characterville,” she remarks about Cameron Mitchell, who’s plainly overmatched. Bacall in this movie reminds the Siren of something James Wolcott said about another actress: “She looks down from the heavens and thinks, I could eat you for breakfast…”

The in-joke toward the end, when Bacall is trying to convince William Powell’s aging rich man that she’s perfect for him (“Look at Roosevelt, look at Churchill, look at that old fella what's his name in The African Queen”) emphasizes that a screen presence this strong needs a worthy partner. Even my 11-year-old daughter hoped Bacall would pair off with Powell.

Take Woman’s World, made at 20th Century Fox in 1954. The Siren watched it for the first time this week. It’s the story of automobile magnate Clifton Webb, who brings three men and their wives to New York to audition for a job as his second-in-command. The film is Jean Negulesco on Cinemascope autopilot and kind of hard on the eyes. It was still early days for widescreen, and Woman’s World makes you realize that stringing Rome across the frame, as in Three Coins in the Fountain, or lining up Bacall and Grable and Monroe, is not a visual formula that should be repeated with backlot interiors and the likes of Fred MacMurray, late-career Van Heflin and Cornell Wilde.

Also, this movie suffers from a bad case of June Allyson. She was second-billed after Clifton Webb, and again and again, we return to her Kansas City homemaker, who misses her kids and doesn’t want to move to New York, and says the wrong thing every time. She’s supposed to be deliciously unfiltered, but instead most of her remarks come across as mind-bendingly rude. Allyson was driving the Siren out of her gourd until the realization hit: The little woman is undermining her husband so consistently that it has to be deliberate. It’s The Shrike! All over again!

Nevertheless, if you watch this movie, the Siren guarantees you will thank your deity of choice for Bacall. Allyson gets her head stuck in the porthole of the boss’ yacht and yells for help. Bacall, elegantly lounging above decks in a fur-trimmed suit, hears something and settles a little further into her chair. Finally, after she gets up she says to MacMurray, “I guess we better rescue Katie.” The absolute lack of enthusiasm in her voice is hilarious; she might as well have said, “I guess we better go defrost the refrigerator.”

Cool and graceful, Bacall is obviously the perfect wife, only she doesn’t want MacMurray to get the job because he’s got an ulcer and the stress may kill him. She watches Arlene Dahl, as the Texas tramp married to Van Heflin, with a lift of the eyebrow calculated to drain the dye right out of her rival’s coiffure. She takes Allyson under her wing (because...um, plot? it certainly isn’t the character’s charm). Comrade Lou Lumenick describes what happens next:

The sophisticated Bacall takes the clueless Allyson shopping for a discount gown (that she will inevitably end up spilling something on). The latter sequence takes places in a strictly functional store with sharp-elbowed customers (but without dressing rooms) that is unmistakably meant to be the legendary Loehmann’s — which Bacall, a former fashion model from the Bronx, later mentioned several times in her autobiography. I’d like to think she suggested it.

Bacall was one of the most stylish stars we’ve ever had. This, despite the fact that she was not famed as a clotheshorse. Circle back to that Hermès bag, chosen for its style, not as something that immediately proclaimed who made it and how much money was spent on it. The Siren always remembers Bacall looking beautiful, but has a hard time conjuring a specific dress. She was the epitome of the old Coco Chanel remark, that when a woman is well-dressed, you remember her, and not the clothes.

There have been a lot of tributes to Bacall; one of the Siren’s favorites is by Teo Bugbee at The Daily Beast. Though the Siren disagrees with much else he says, the single truest observation belongs to Richard Brody over at his New Yorker blog: "She was meant to play Presidents and C.E.O.s, editors-in-chief and visionary directors." Yes, just so. But Bacall, in her bestselling autobiography and in the many interviews she generously gave over the years, didn’t dwell on missed chances. Complain? Perish the thought, and anyway why should she? She accomplished so much — what’s good in that filmography is brilliant — and moved to the stage and two Tony awards when Hollywood lost its luster for her. Again, she knew what she had.

Here’s a story from Jean Negulesco’s autobiography, about an early-1950s visit to Hollywood by the Shah of Iran and Queen Soraya. The Siren so hopes it is true.

After dinner, during dance time, Bacall, watching the royal couple, whispered to Bogie, “She is so beautiful. Why don’t you get up and ask Queen Soraya to dance?”

Bogie stood up. “If I’m going to dance, I’ll ask the Shah. He’s prettier.”

Bacall, to avert an embarrassing encounter, hurried to invite the Shah herself. They danced beautifully, watched and admired. The Shah, obviously pleased and flattered, complimented his partner: “You’re a natural born dancer, Miss Bacall.”

“You bet your ass, Shah,” Bacall answered with hearty projection. Without missing a step.

One moment in Woman’s World shines bright: On the big night of the job announcement, Bacall has arrayed herself in a chiffon evening gown. The Siren isn’t crazy about the gown — it’s ruched like drapes and is a taupey beige color she particularly dislikes. But Bacall looks spectacular in this thing, and she checks her figure and face in the mirror with a smile of pure pleasure. So seldom do you get a star in the movies who’s shown openly enjoying her own beauty. Not teasing a man, not preparing for battle, just looking in the mirror and loving what she sees. So did we. Merci, Madame Bacall.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

In Memoriam: Ruby Dee, 1922-2014

She signed on even though she would not have the ingenue role of Walter Lee's sister that she desired; Diana Sands got the part, while Claudia McNeil portrayed his mother. Instead, Ms. Dee would play his wife, Ruth: "Another one of those put-upon wives. And they always seemed to be named Ruth!'' But, she added: ''I dusted off my disappointment. This was very important. It was going to be a Broadway show.''
— Michael Anderson talks to Ruby Dee about the original 1959 Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun, New York Times, March 7, 1999

Dee made her film debut with [Ossie] Davis in No Way Out in 1950 and the same year played baseball player Jackie Robinson’s wife in The Jackie Robinson Story. She was the good, uncomplaining wife to Sidney Poitier again in Edge of the City and to Nat King Cole as W.C. Handy in St. Louis Blues (1958). She was cast in this kind of role so often that she was dubbed the “Negro June Allyson,” after a contemporary white film star who played similar “good girl” parts.
African Americans in the Performing Arts, by Steve Otfinoski. Above, Dee with Nat King Cole.

"Freedom isn't a thing you should be able to give me, Miss Ginny. Freedom is something I should have been born with."
— Ruby Dee in The Tall Target (1951)

"I usually played good-girl wives and mothers. And truthfully those good-girl roles were stretches."
— Ruby Dee in Backstage, March 9, 2001, explaining why she liked her roles in The Balcony and as Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night

"The thing that fascinated me about her and her work was that in the really dramatic moments, it was as if her body had difficulty containing the emotions. That's the best compliment I could pay anybody who worked at this craft. We all hit a point in life at which we are unable to hide what we feel: Those emotions have either gotten away or are about to get away. Well, with her, she had control, but it was as if the control existed at the very edge of chaos. That's Ruby Dee."
— Sidney Poitier, who directed Dee in Buck and the Preacher; quoted in the Hollywood Reporter in 2001. Above, Dee with John Cassavetes and Kathleen Maguire in Edge of the City (1957), in which she played opposite Poitier.

"Dear Ossie, When I think of you, let there be silence and no writing at all. Ruby."
— Inscription on a photo she gave him during their courtship; they married in 1948

“In doing it our way, we didn’t have to sell more of ourselves than we could get back before the sun went down.”
— Ossie Davis on a lifetime’s shared career with Ruby Dee. Above, Martin Luther King Jr. visits the set of the stage production of Purlie Victorious, 1961.

“We've got to trust it and go wherever it takes us. Especially women. We women have a great function to perform. The world needs us. Feminine sensibilities are not being acknowledged, and we've allowed the anti-people to steal the children and are tolerating far too much: the assault on ourselves, the families of the world, permitting war and rape. More women are becoming enraged about these things and I think we're on the verge of doing something about them... We have to bring forward the graces in life and make them real. We have to institute democracy, which is still mostly an aspiration, and universal love, which is still unrealized. I dream of getting prisons off the stock exchange. It is a dastardly crime and an insult to the word democracy to make a commodity of jailing people.”
— Interview with Essence magazine in 2005, shortly after Davis’ death. Above, a protest over the shooting death of Amadou Diallo, 1999; Dee is in the lower right-hand corner. She and Davis were arrested that day.

"Cremation after a public ceremony, and then into an urn. A special urn, large enough and comfortable enough to hold both our ashes. Whoever goes first will wait for the other. When we are united at last, we want the family to say goodbye and seal the urn forever. Then on the side, in letters not too bold — but not too modest either — we want the following inscription: 'Ruby and Ossie — In This Thing Together.'"
— from In This Life Together, by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee

“We keep going upward. But the ascent is jagged. Up a little, then back, then up some more. But, all in all, upward. We're going to come into our glory as a species. When someone challenges my optimism, I remember a line from Lorraine Hansberry, I think it's from her play The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window. It goes, 'Why do you despairing ones think that only you know the truth?' ”
— from a 1996 interview with Joe Adcock in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Some Memories of Maurice Sendak

(When Maurice Sendak died, I wrote this small essay, and then I held it back. It's been two years now, and today would have been his 86th birthday. Somehow, it felt like it's time now. Happy birthday, Mr. Sendak.)

Maurice Sendak, the great illustrator and author, was represented by a literary agent I worked for years ago. The agency placed a large value on politeness in dealing with publishers and authors, and its top client's influence had something to do with that. Sendak had a tart wit and a low tolerance for foolishness, but when it came to the people who were working for him, he never had a diva-ish moment. He was, to use a sarcastic phrase in a sincere way, good to the little people. And people just don't come much littler than a young woman calling you to ask if a school may do a staged reading of Where the Wild Things Are.

That, of course, was me. I was not used to substantive conversations with legends. The first time I called him, I was so intimidated that not only did my voice shake, but my hand holding the phone shook too, and when I cradled the receiver to my ear I discovered my chin had a slight tremor as well. I introduced myself and rattled off whatever the permission request was — I do believe it actually was a staged reading, come to think of it — and he sighed and said something like "Oh, all right. It's a school."

That was it. I put down the phone and reflected that the mighty Maurice Sendak was, in fact, one of the least scary people I had ever dealt with in publishing.

Over time I came to enjoy my calls to him. Schools, libraries and the like seldom got a bad reaction from Sendak, although he did have an intense and understandable dislike of people re-drawing his illustrations. People wanting to use his books free of charge for a profit-based motive usually got a different reaction. This was, in a phrase I adopted and use constantly: "Tell them to fuck off. [pause] But — say it nicely."

I do remember that one time when I called and read him a letter from a school or library that described the Wild Things as "horrifying," he sounded a bit indignant, almost hurt. When I got off the phone, a coworker laughed and said, "No wonder. They're based on his relatives."

The one in our office who came to have a real friendship with Sendak was Beth, now better known as the author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. She would call and her laughter would vibrate all over the office, and then she'd recap the conversation for the rest of us. The topics could range from Schubert and Keats, for whom they both had a deep love, to politics, to showbiz gossip. She went to Europe and brought back a death mask of Keats as a gift for him; she told me that later Sendak amused himself by hiding it under the bedcovers of a startled houseguest.

One day Beth called to tell Maurice that a symphony orchestra wanted to do a children's program that set Wild Things to classical music, an idea that would ordinarily appeal enormously to him. My desk was behind Beth's, and I listened in as she read off the pieces to be used. I don't remember the first two, but when she got to the arrival on the island, she said, "Thus Spake Zarathustra, Richard Strauss" — and I noticed that she had pulled the phone back slightly from her ear, as she listened to Sendak's opinion of Richard Strauss. I believe she said he began with "That NAZI!! You tell them..." and from there the phrasing became, shall we say, quite hostile. The symphony did stage the reading in the end, as I recall, but most emphatically not with Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Another time, a Certain Newspaper had decided to do a Style Piece focused on Mornings With Famous People, and Beth had to call and ask what Maurice woke up to in the morning. "A bursting bladder," he replied, thought for a moment, and added, "And a drooling dog. I don't think I want either of those things publicized. Tell them..." And she did, and she said it nicely.

He treasured his status as a curmudgeon, that's for sure. Beth one time was burbling to him about how much she loved Christmas, and his response was, "Of course you do. It's you Gentiles who make it such a chore for the rest of us." But his tone was always funny, never cruel or snappish. When Beth published her first book, he sent her a drawing of a pig in a tutu, with the inscription, "Mazel tov!"

One of Sendak's best friends was James Marshall, the gifted creator of the immortal George and Martha, who entertain my own children to this day. Marshall was also represented by the agency, and when he died, we went to the memorial service. Sendak got up to speak, and began to tell an anecdote about a friend he and Marshall both knew. He reached a part saying, "...how we are comforted," and stopped. Overcome with grief, he left the podium.

I will always treasure my glimpses of Maurice Sendak, a genius, a curmudgeon, and a deeply kind man.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Miss Wright Regrets She's Unable to Pose Today

Above, Teresa Wright bestows the look of love on Dana Andrews at the end of The Best Years of Our Lives. They showed it again last night on TCM, for Memorial Day, causing some to point out that the holiday is about remembering the dead, not honoring the living veterans. In the way of most pedantry, this is technically correct, and tiresomely literal. Wyler's film needs no grave scenes; it is death-haunted throughout. Fredric March, Harold Russell and Dana Andrews carry the dead with them, and they always will.

It falls to the women to help bring them back to life, and Wright was the perfect foil for the traumatized Dana Andrews. Throughout her career she played normal, and showed that a good girl has as many angles as a bad, if you approach her with sincerity and don't condescend. What makes her Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt so marvelous, and somewhat unusual in Hitchcock's filmography, is that the girl's essential decency is, for once, made more intriguing and less predictable than the serial killer she's up against.

Wright was eager to play this role for Wyler, says Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg, because Peggy Stephenson is a homewrecker, albeit one with the purest of motives. Wright was getting a little tired of being what Wyler called "the best cryer in the business." Then again, this smart and dedicated actress also knew exactly what she did and did not want from the business. The Siren here gives you a key clause from the contract Miss Teresa Wright signed with Samuel Goldwyn Productions at the outset of her career:

Miss Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: in shorts; playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at the turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf.

Perhaps the second sentence of that clause was what Sam Goldwyn had in mind when he allegedly tried to get Wright to loosen up a bit during filming of The Little Foxes by calling to her from behind the camera, "Teresa, let your breasts flow in the breeze!"

You won't find much in the way of Teresa Wright cheesecake, but this shot is readily available on the Internet. The Siren includes it to demonstrate that had she chosen to do so, Miss Wright could have looked insinuating any old time she wanted.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Missing Reels: The Siren's Novel

Voilà, one reason the Siren has been MIA for long stretches this year: Missing Reels, her first novel, will be published by the Overlook Press this November. It is available for pre-order at Amazon.com and BN.com.

For those of you who may be attending: On May 29, from about 11:30 am to 12:30 pm, in her everyday guise as plain old Farran Smith Nehme, the Siren will be at BookExpo America at the Javits Center in Manhattan, signing copies of the galleys at the Overlook Press booth.

Here’s part of the jacket copy as it stands now:

New York in the late 1980s. Ceinwen Reilly has just moved from Yazoo City, Mississippi, and she’s never going back, minimum wage job (vintage store salesgirl) and shabby apartment (Avenue C walkup) be damned. Who cares about earthly matters when Ceinwen can spend her days and her nights at fading movie houses—and most of the time that’s left trying to look like Jean Harlow?

One day, Ceinwen discovers that her downstairs neighbor may have—just possibly—starred in a forgotten silent film that hasn’t been seen for ages. So naturally, it’s time for a quest. She will track down the missing reels, she will impress her neighbor, and she will become a part of movie history: the archivist as ingénue.

As she embarks on her grand mission, Ceinwen meets a somewhat bumbling, very charming, 100 percent English math professor named Matthew, who is as rational as she is dreamy. Together, they will or will not discover the reels, will or will not fall in love, and will or will not encounter the obsessives that make up the New York silent film nut underworld.

The Siren started work on Missing Reels about three years ago, when friend Tom Shone (a novelist in his own right, and In the Rooms is wonderful) cheerfully suggested she write a novel. She decided that the revival-house scene in New York in the late 1980s (in its death throes, though most of us were in denial about that at the time) would be a good setting for a romantic comedy.

Naturally, Missing Reels also reflects the Siren’s obsessions which, as you know, are obsessive indeed.

So for fun, and to get back into the swing of things, the Siren figured she’d go through Missing Reels, and catalogue the film references. And from time to time, she’ll put up other posts with other photographs representing the vast and eclectic group of films and film folk that are mentioned — however briefly or obliquely — in her novel.

If nothing else, it will be decorative.

And afterward, the Siren has three half-finished posts awaiting her ministrations. She is eager to get back to her regularly irregular blogging schedule. She misses you guys, a lot.

So, the epigraph:

The Crowd, 1928 (screenplay by King Vidor and John V.A. Weaver)

And the first chapter.

Jean Harlow

Jean Harlow's double Mary Dees hides behind binoculars in Saratoga, completed in 1937 after Harlow died, age 26.

Red Dust, 1932

The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943 (roped in at left: Anthony Quinn and Dana Andrews)

Bette Davis (with Marlene Burnett) in The Old Maid, 1939
Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, 1932

Monday, April 07, 2014

In Memoriam: Mickey Rooney, 1920-2014

Roll out the red carpet, folks, and stand by. That boy is here again, the Pied Piper of the box office, the eighth or ninth wonder of the world, the kid himself — in short, Mickey Rooney.
— The New York Times reviews Strike Up the Band (1940)

Few terms are crueler than has-been. A has-been is Norma Desmond rattling around an empty mansion. Avoiding strong light like a vampire, bitterly dishing old enemies to skeptical interviewers. So focused on looking back that you never move forward.

Mickey Rooney was never a true has-been in his life, not with 90 years of work. Shorts and features, A pictures and B pictures, star turns and character parts. Social dramas, musicals, an impressive run of noirs, comedies, Emmy awards, sitcoms, a hit Broadway show. The Siren spotted him in The Muppets in 2011 and heard a college-age woman whisper to her companion, “Mickey Rooney.” If that’s has-been-dom, sign up the Siren.

Good script or bad, Rooney simply did not know how to approach his work any way other than full-out. You can find him in roles that sank into self-parody, things he probably took because he needed the money (let’s hope that’s how he wound up narrating Hollywood Blue). But phoning it in? Never happened.

Yes, Mickey Rooney was known for reminding people that he was once the biggest star in the world. That’s because he was once the biggest star in the world. It’s not like he spent decades dining out on how he scored the winning touchdown for Dead Skunk State College. That's why Dana Carvey’s exasperated tale of working with Rooney winds up adorable. Rooney was at once easy fodder for a dead-on impression, and inimitable.

He was one of the last remaining stars who started in silent movies; the Siren admits to being too depressed to look up who’s left. Rooney made his first indelible mark as Puck in Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both on stage and on screen. In the movie he was about 15 years old, and so good as to be almost freakish. This is not a normal kid. That laugh is positively sinister. It originates somewhere under the loincloth, rolls up past the collarbone and sprays out like a firehose. It’s not his eyes that sparkle, it’s those teeth. Any minute you feel this Puck may attach himself to someone’s ankle, terrier-style. Rooney is all the amoral mischief of childhood rolled up into one half-naked package.
"Don't let the little guy fool you. He knows every trick in the book."
— First wife Ava Gardner
You can see the prototype of a certain Rooney character in Manhattan Melodrama (1934), where he plays the young Clark Gable (!!), caught up in the 1904 tragedy of the General Slocum. It’s all there: the swagger, the loyalty, the tough cookie determined not to crumble, though he’s just a kid. Once the template was struck, Rooney could ring any number of changes on it, such as in Boys Town, where he’s an obnoxious delinquent, and a sobbing mixed-up kid, and stitches it together with moments of real heart.

“You’re Andy Hardy! You’re the United States! You’re a symbol! Behave yourself!”
— Billy Wilder, working at MGM on the script for Ninotchka, hears a commotion, rolls down his office window and spies Louis B. Mayer having a little man-to-man chat with his biggest star. Said chat, according to Wilder, involved Mayer seizing Rooney by the shoulders and shouting in his face.

There’s a TCM interview clip with the late Ann Rutherford where she discusses the Andy Hardy movies. There were 16 total, and Rutherford made 12 of those as Polly Benedict, the wholesome girlfriend Andy was supposed to make up with by the last reel, even if Lana Turner had been the alternative. Rutherford says the movies hold up pretty well, save the dread moment when Rooney would turn to Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy and say “Pop, can I talk to you, man-to-man?” The Andy Hardy films have a sweetness and funniness to them that still plays. But even at the time, they were like newsreels shot live on the scene of America’s fantasy life. Rooney's last Hardy movie was a 1958 revival that flopped; now, TV was in charge of idealizing the American home.

Rooney made some excellent movies during his years at the top of MGM. One of the best, The Human Comedy, had Rooney tender and gentle in his wartime role as a boy who delivers the last thing any soldier’s mother wants: telegrams.

Another movie from when Mickey Rooney was the biggest star in the world is Babes in Arms, from 1939. Anyone who’s seen Babes in Arms knows that in the annals of barking-mad Hollywood musicals, it’s way up there. Rooney is the son of vaudeville troupers. His parents can’t accept that the old circuit is gone for good, and when they decide to stage a comeback, the authorities threaten to send Mickey and costar Judy Garland to a work farm. In the title song — the first big musical number — Busby Berkeley’s camera tracks all the kids as they march through the town and sing. Except these cuties are waving crates and the occasional bit of furniture, and they’re carrying torches to build a bonfire. Douglas MacPhail sings to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” while torches wave in the foreground. The kids play on the swingset and the seesaw while the other kids are putting the torch to the bonfire. And Douglas and Mickey and Judy climb a playground slide for the finale, while everybody plays ring-around-the-campfire. It’s a vaudeville Walpurgisnacht.

So when you decide to joke with your pals, “Hey kids! Let’s put on a show!” just remember that Mickey and Judy did that and then they staged a near-riot. This movie is many things. Wholesome isn’t necessarily one of them.

Check out this scene of Mickey and Judy auditioning for a big producer. There’s the way Rooney puts over a big number, and then there’s the way he’s doing “Good Morning” here. A little too bright, overcompensating, to cover up the nerves; it’s the way a newcomer would audition.

Then (sigh) there’s a blackface number, which is grisly, although at least it’s broken up by a thunderstorm. The final number, “God’s Country,” is a sort of MGM Manifesto: “We’ve got no Duce / We’ve got no Fuhrer / But we’ve got Gable / And Norma Shearer.”

The Siren doesn’t know that Rooney ever bothered to analyze exactly what the hell this movie was supposed to be saying, any more than he ever understood why everybody kept bugging him about Mr. Yunioshi. But it’s some kind of crackpot genius, all right, and here’s the thing about Rooney. In the midst of a vaudeville version of May ‘68, and (god help us) a minstrel show, and a closing number about God’s Country, “where every man / is his own dictator,” (what?) five-foot-two-or-three-inch Rooney is seizing that screen every single minute. If that seems no big deal, ponder Ruby Keeler for a minute or two. Nor is Rooney upstaging Garland. They worked together, not in opposition. They were still doing it in Words and Music nine years later.

“Mickey Rooney can act the legs off a centipede.”
— The Sunday Times of London, from a 1939 review of Babes in Arms

Some of Rooney’s best classic-era performances came after World War II, when hard living had given him a face even Mayer couldn’t sell as boyish anymore: Noir Comes to Andy Hardy. There’s Quicksand, with its uncomfortable echoes of Rooney’s real-life character. He’s an auto mechanic, but he’s also a skirt-chaser, and his pursuit of a pretty cashier leads him to one dumb decision after another. (He produced the film with Peter Lorre; they play well together.) Drive a Crooked Road finds Rooney a mechanic again, only this time he’s shy around the ladies and picked on by his coworkers. His yearning for a girlfriend gets him mixed up with a bad dame; those who think of Mickey as a flashy ham will be surprised at how naturally he plays shy and lonely. He’s a convincing psychopath in Don Siegel’s Baby Face Nelson — though, as James MacEachern pointed out earlier this year in a lovely tribute at Bright Lights Film Journal, at the time the movie did badly and Rooney’s reviews were poor. As the loyal pal of Anthony Quinn in the extremely depressing Requiem for a Heavyweight, Rooney was more touching than the ostensible lead. And the Siren adores The Strip, in which Rooney plays a musician sucked into a world of graft by a corrupt bookie. Here’s part of why: Rooney playing drums with Louis Armstrong and Earl “Fatha” Hines. He’s in character, but Rooney’s projecting a character who knows he’s jamming with the best.

Dear Mr. Mayer:
We have read the “God’s Country” Finale (pages 1 through 4) dated July 3, 1939, for your proposed production titled Babes in Arms, and are happy to report that this material comes under the requirements of the Production Code.

However, on Page 3, Mickey used the word “shag.” This should be changed since in England and the British colonies this word has a very objectionable sexual meaning which would cause its deletion by numerous political censor boards. 
You understand, of course, that our final judgment will be based upon the finished picture.
Cordially yours,
Joseph I. Breen
— quoted in The World of Entertainment! by Hugh Fordin

“He was the same off-screen as on, which meant that he made enemies,” wrote David Shipman. Some of them were undoubtedly exes. Rooney was a ravenous womanizer. Envy percolates through the writings of many male film critics when they get to the part where Rooney married 19-year-old Ava Gardner. There was also lovely Martha Vickers, whom Rooney also married; and six other wives and Lana Turner and...the Siren is getting tired, let’s just say it’s a cast list longer than It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He had nine children (eight survive him). By 1962, when he wound up in bankruptcy court for the first time (he’d be back), he’d earned $12 million over the course of his career. That’s about $93 million today. The last marriage, to Jan Chamberlin, turned out to be a chamber of horrors. He deserved a better end.

Rooney, a compulsive gambler, always had big plans. Shipman notes, “When MGM were in difficulty in 1970, according to Variety, he offered to take over the reins, promising to make 20 films for $20 million. The offer was refused.” Kirk Kerkorian had already bought a big stake, attached the MGM name to a casino operation, and the Culver City assets were about to be sold off piece by piece. Rooney was no businessman, he approached things like a movie —an entertaining one, where auctioning everything down to Judy's ruby slippers was no way to end. How much better if in the last reel, the old studio says, “OK Mickey, you crazy kid. Let’s put on a show...”

(Review quotes from David Shipman's The Great Movie Stars; Billy Wilder story from Gavin Lambert's Norma Shearer biography; Ava Gardner quote from Lee Server's bio.)
(Updated 7/13/15; according to film historian Mark Alan Vieira, the only source for Rooney's affair with Norma Shearer was Rooney himself; Vieira says it never happened. So the Siren has redacted that conquest.)
(Updated 10/21/15, to account for the information in the ghastly Hollywood Reporter story, about the abuse and financial embezzlement that Rooney suffered in his last two decades. This is the link if you can bear it.

Thursday, April 03, 2014


GROSS: Now, you've also mentioned that there was a Bernard Herrmann influence.

SONDHEIM: Yeah, that's it. You know, when you talked about Milton Babbitt's influence, much less Milton Babbitt's influence than Bernard Herrmann. When I was 15 years old, I saw a movie called Hangover Square, which featured a piano concerto that Bernard Herrmann had written, and it's a melodrama about a serial killer who writes this piano concerto. And it particularly impressed me. But all of Bernard Herrmann's music impressed me. And so actually the score of Sweeney Todd is an homage to him.

It's - I remember I played the score for the actor Tony Perkins, who knows movie scores the way I know movie scores or knew movie scores the way I did, and I was, I wasn't 24 bars into the opening number, when he said, oh, Bernard Herrmann. So it was very clear that what I was doing was channeling Herrmann.

And for the listeners who don't know, Bernard Herrmann did a great many of Alfred Hitchcock's movies, including, of course, Psycho.

— Stephen Sondheim talks to Terry Gross, in a 2010 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Good News for Silent Film Fans

Mickey Rooney is one of the last surviving silent-film actors. He turns 94 years old on Sept. 23, and he just got an early birthday present: His first starring role, Mickey’s Circus, a comedy short from 1927, has been rediscovered in Amsterdam. Our old friends at the National Film Preservation Foundation are working to repatriate that film, and many others. The Los Angeles Times has the story this morning:

Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s “Mickey’s Circus,” featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917's "Neptune's Naughty Daughter"; 1925’s “Fifty Million Years Ago,” an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, “The Last Word in Chickens,” are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam.

The Siren points out that the 1925 “animated introduction to the theory of evolution” was made the year of the Scopes Monkey Trial, no less.

Another film the NFPF is looking to bring home: 1924’s “The Reckless Age,” a full-length comedy with Reginald Denny. The Spokane Daily Chronicle promises, “This picture is just packed with it” — do tell — “auto thrills, love thrills, and real fighting thrills.” Wait, fighting thrills? With Reginald Denny, so very tweedy in Rebecca?

Well, yes. Reginald Denny used to look like this. He has his own entry at an online boxing encyclopedia, and the Siren’s eyes bugged out when she saw who he was fighting (on the vaudeville stage, admittedly) in 1922.

Also in 1922 appeared the melodrama “For the Defense,” with ZaSu Pitts, which IMDB says is based on a play by Elmer Rice (who also wrote the play Counsellor-at-Law), but otherwise had been not only gone, but forgotten. It’s part of the Amsterdam trove. In preparation, you can watch the darling Thelma Todd demonstrate the proper pronunciation of ZaSu.

When all the hard word of preservation is done, the NFPF is once again looking to stream these films on their site, where we'll all be able to see them. If you want to celebrate this happy occasion by contributing to their continuing good work, the donation link is right here.