Friday, April 21, 2017

Bette Davis: Double Bad in 'The Letter' and 'The Little Foxes'

“Nobody’s as Good as Bette When She’s Bad!”
“Nobody’s as Good as Bette When She’s Bad!”
***Spoiler alerts ahead***
That Warner Bros. advertising slogan for Bette Davis took on an extra meaning when she became older, crankier, and campier. I hadn’t watched The Letter and The Little Foxes, two from her heyday in ‘40 and ’41, since my teens. Re-watching recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see Bette’s tendency to overact kept in check by her favorite director, William Wyler.

Bette's bad medicine in 'The Little Foxes.'
Davis overplayed hot-headed, hard-hearted dynamic divas, like In This Our Life, Mr. Skeffington, and Beyond the Forest. Perhaps Davis downplayed the pyrotechnics in The Letter and The Little Foxes because Bette’s a cool customer as both “bitch” characters.

Leslie Crosbie in Letter and Regina Giddens in Foxes are two of her greatest roles. And both of Bette’s characters take extreme actions to control of their destiny in a man’s world: murder.
In The Letter, Bette takes on another M. Somerset Maugham anti-heroine, after her breakthrough in 1934’s Of Human Bondage. Leslie Crosbie runs hot and cold as the ex-pat plantation wife who plugs a man full of lead while leaving her house—not exactly the perfect hostess.

The setting is a Singapore rubber plantation. Leslie’s husband Robert blindly adores her and they are popular in their upper-middle class set. She claims self-defense, saying the man, a family friend, “tried to make love to me.”
Yes, but didn’t Leslie pump a full round of bullets into his carcass as he staggered off her front porch?
Howard, their family friend—and lawyer—agrees to take the case. Soon enough, an ambitious young Asian lawyer sidles up to Stephenson’s character and tells him there’s a letter—and since that’s the title of the movie, it must be pretty juicy!

Gale Sondergaard & Bette Davis have a memorable confrontation in 'The Letter.'
Leslie and the gentleman caller were lovers. The letter by Leslie wasn’t a casual invite, but a summons. The holder of the incriminating note is the playboy’s Asian wife. The letter comes with steep postage: $10,000. Behind the husband’s back, Howard the lawyer and Leslie the adulteress use the family savings to buy the note back. This easily paves the way for the “proper” British wife’s acquittal. Today, Leslie Crosby would be considered the perfect example of white privilege.

Wanting a fresh start elsewhere, Robert is devastated to learn just why he is financially wiped out. Leslie comes clean, but to a painful degree. After her painful confession, Leslie soon pays for her sins. Leslie Crosbie may have been acquitted, but she’s not off the hook.

Bette played it director William Wyler's way, but she wasn't happy about it!
Davis and Wyler, who had a volatile professional and personal relationship, fought over Leslie’s telling her husband that she still loved the man she killed. Wyler wanted Bette say it to movie spouse Marshall’s face; Davis felt the wife could never look him in the face and say such a thing. When they came to an impasse, Bette walked off the set. This was a preview for coming attractions on The Little Foxes set.

What prevents The Letter status as a true classic is the censorship-mandated, tacked on ending where Leslie is killed by the vengeful wife. Otherwise, William Wyler weaves this tale of murder, passion, sexual frustration, class, and white privilege with skillful ease. Tony Gaudio’s photography is truly stunning, especially during the film’s opening and closing night scenes. Gaudio actually makes the moon a mesmerizing character. Max Steiner, composer for many Davis dramas, offers a haunting and romantic score.

Bette with Keye Luke and James Stephenson, going to retrieve 'The Letter.'
Herbert Marshall goes his first round with Davis as Bette’s put upon husband, Robert. Marshall is empathetic as he goes from sure to sorrowful, regarding his marriage. James Stephenson as Howard made his film debut and won a best supporting nomination, to boot. Stephenson plays the lawyer’s ethical entanglement well. The supporting standout is Gale Sondergaard, genuinely chilling as Mrs. Hammond, the widow of wife’s lover. When she forces Leslie to meet her in person to retrieve the letter, the tension is incredible, with barely a word or gesture wasted by either actress. It’s all in the eyes. Despite the forced ending, their final, fatal meeting is still eerie.

Bette giving the moon a baleful look, which haunts her through 'The Letter.'
As for Bette, she’s subtly brilliant. Maugham’s Leslie Crosbie is a tricky role: She’s both sympathetic and a bitch; she’s passionate and stone-cold. It amazes me that Davis could play this type of role in the ‘30s and ‘40s and still win audiences over. An old female friend of mine, Alice, a moviegoer from that era, once commented that there were three actresses that men couldn’t stand: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn. I’ll amend that to straight men! All were strong-willed, smart, not conventionally beautiful, and the first two often played roles that bedeviled the male characters. Davis, as the cool English “lady” with fire underneath, required a finesse which Bette employs to terrific effect.

Bette as Regina in 'The Little Foxes,' photo by George Hurrell.
Davis and Wyler re-teamed for the last time with Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. (Their first was Bette’s second Oscar winner Jezebel.) This time, their collaboration was so combative that they never worked together again, though they remained friends. Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Regina Giddens on Broadway. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn bought the property for William Wyler to direct. Wyler requested Davis for Regina, who just turned 33, to play the 40-something mother of a 17-year-old girl.

The Little Foxes was Lillian Hellman’s indictment on American greed and capitalism, which ironically became a huge commercial success. Regina Giddens relies on her invalid husband Horace for finances to remain comfortable; Regina’s crooked brothers, Oscar and Benjamin Hubbard, have already amassed fortunes. Still, they all want more. A visiting investor offers to make them partners in a cotton mill. The brothers have their share and count on Regina to get her estranged husband to put up the third share. The mill, which promises to exploit the locals, gets a prompt no from her noble husband. Once again, he is played by long-suffering—literally, this time—Herbert Marshall. The brothers put up Oscar’s dimwit son to steal the funds from Horace’s bank deposit box. When Mr. Giddens finds out, he refuses to press charges, to thwart the deal. Naturally, Mrs. Giddens is livid.

Oh, did I mention Horace Giddens has a serious heart condition?

Bette as Regina, watching her husband crawl in the background, dying.
And Regina is serious as a heart attack that she will hold the cards in this deal. Regina and Horace have a showdown. She whips him for foiling her attempt at good fortune, and for good measure, tells Horace that their entire marriage a failure and she never loved him. Well, that has him reaching for the heart medicine, which he promptly knocks over. Whoopsy! Regina gets up to help, then hesitates. Opportunity knocks for the opportunistic southern belle. This famous onstage scene was made even more legendary on film by Citizen Kane’s cinematographer Gregg Toland’s renowned deep-focus photography. In the background, Herbert Marshall, acting out the throes of a heart attack, crawls across the room and up the staircase for help; in the foreground, Bette bolted to her chair, her wide eyes their widest, as she waits for the perfect moment to strike. The scene is still a showstopper: kudos to Wyler, Toland, Marshall, and Davis. Also, when I think of that grueling scene, I recall that poor Herbert Marshall wore a wooden leg, due to a war injury.

Patricia Collinge is great as poor Aunt Birdie, trampled by her greedy family.
Most of the Broadway cast was brought in to recreate their roles. They are all terrific, especially Patricia Collinge, as tragic Aunt Birdie. Miserably married to Regina’s brother, Oscar, Birdie gradually became an alcoholic. Birdie’s scene of recalling her life’s journey—belle of the ball, bartered bride, and finally, the bottle—is a stunning piece of acting by Collinge.

Bette’s performance was controversial. There’s a confusing history of quotes as to whether William Wyler wanted Bette to play Regina like Bankhead or that he thought Davis’ own interpretation was too unlikeable. Whatever the case, Wyler hated Davis’ portrayal. And Bette despised his direction of her. Tensions peaked where Bette walked off the set and production was shut down for several weeks. This is one of the key points in Bette Davis’s career when the “difficult” label was applied. Who was right and who was wrong?

A rare shot of Bette as Regina in color. Davis was made to look older in B&W.
It’s hard to say, since Davis and Wyler were equally hard-headed. For me, what matters in the end is what’s up onscreen. Bette powdered her skin, thinned her lips, and narrowed her eye makeup to look pinched, weary, and older. Which Wyler also hated. Only 33, Davis plays a scene where Regina dolls up for her husband’s return home, to butter him up. Regina catches an unexpected glimpse of herself in the mirror, at an unforgiving angle. The belle gets a reminder that she’s no longer the sweet young thing, but bitter and hard. Imagine another actress of that era willing to submit to such a harsh close-up. As with Leslie in The Letter, Bette’s Regina is bad, with no excuses as to how she got that way. Bette’s Regina is restrained, for such a show-stopping role; Davis is also a team player, this isn’t just a vehicle for her.

Bette with two directors: Frank Capra & William Wyler on 'The Letter' set.
The Letter and The Little Foxes are films that dealt with tough topics in an adult way, but still entertained. That’s why they still hold up today. Finally, despite their combustible chemistry, Bette Davis gives two of her best performances, playing bad to the bone, under the tough, strong direction of William Wyler.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Latter-Day Doris Day Fan 'Fesses Up

Doris Day was the All-American girl for 20 years.
I confess. As a ‘70s teen, I thought Doris Day was a dork.
To me, Doris Day was like Debbie Reynolds, a middle-aged star who acted like a perky ingénue. I was allergic to their mugging in movies and cutesy charms on talk shows. As time went by, I learned more about their lives and careers. I came to appreciate both mid-century movie girls next door, but I’m writing here to sing the praises of Doris Day.

There are still big parts of Doris Day’s career that I can’t stomach. Doris Day and sweet go together like apple pie and ice cream, dished up by Hollywood. For me, watching Doris Day in her first musicals or later TV show is like taking a big swig of fresh orange juice—right after brushing my teeth!

Doris gets the Warner Bros. makeover in 1948's  'Romance on the High Seas.'
The string of Warner Bros. musicals that started Doris’ career are pure saccharine. Doris is the 30-ish tomboy/ingénue, slathered in pancake makeup to hide the most famous freckles since Joan Crawford’s. Depending on the movie’s era, Doris sported frilly or silly costumes, wigs or her trademark DA ‘do. Watching these flicks, Doris Day reminds me of a singing and dancing kewpie doll. That’s just my personal taste. Day is at the peak of her youth, energy, and bell-like voice—the Warner/Day musicals are still fan favorites.

The Doris Day Show ran from 1968-73, her graceful segue from film. Many golden era big names had a hard time finding suitable film vehicles in New Hollywood. So stars like Doris, Debbie, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and others headlined series built around them. Most of them failed—except Doris.

A perpetually sunny Day!
Cast members, locales, and plotlines changed each season, but Doris Day was always the same. Day was TV’s favorite career girl, after Marlo Thomas’ That Girl but before The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Day was 15 years older than either of THOSE career “girls.” But there was Doris, pushing 50, in false eyelashes and falls, high fashion and soft focus, working hard and fighting off the fellas! Me and my sister would roll our eyes and laugh at the sappiness—and we were in grade school. My mother always had a low tolerance for Day, calling her “Dodo.” Just hearing Day trill “Que Sera, Sera” over the opening credits was a siren song that sent my Mom out of the room or into a book. Watching clips online today, the show is even more absurd. Yet, I gotta say—Doris looks great! Plus, the show was hit, a testimony to Day’s devoted fan base.

Doris Day was a success as a movie and TV star.
In Doris’ fine memoir, co-written with A.E. Hotchner, Day was direct about those repetitious early roles and the studio’s cookie cutter house style. Later, Day found herself tied to a husband, instead of a studio head. Thanks to her producer hubby, Doris not only lost her money, but was committed for the schlocky TV series, which she found out about after his sudden death. My opinion of Doris Day the person changed after I read her straightforward book.

Doris was a top film star for 20 years, with no long climb to the top, no slow downward slide. She was a popular big band singer for a decade when Warner Bros. biggest director, Michael Curtiz, deemed Day the ideal “all-American girl.” Curtiz starred her in his next movie, 1948’s Romance on the High Seas. Day won audiences’ hearts from the start.

Doris as a '50s movie and musical fave!
The singer-actress’ music career continued to soar. A Billboard poll of the country’s top DJs voted Doris Day the top female singer 9 years out of 10 during the 1950s. During her WB years, while her movie musicals were popular, but not yet blockbusters, their soundtracks were big sellers, a double dip of Doris Day bucks for Jack Warner’s studio.

Doris left WB in1954, making the smart move to freelance. From there, she stretched her range with Love Me or Leave Me in ’55 and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much in ’56. At the end of the fifties, Doris Day struck superstar status with Pillow Talk. From there, Day did a string of sex comedies, mixed with the occasional musical. Despite the swiftly changing ‘60s, fans flocked to Doris Day movies through much of the decade.

Doris Day’s career had several phases—musical starlet, leading lady, comedic superstar—with fan favorites from each. Here are six of my favorite Doris Day films:
Frank and Doris with Ethel Barrymore on the set.
Young at Heart. This1954 musical drama is Day’s last movie on her WB contract. What lifts this soap opera with songs is her pairing with Frank Sinatra, hot off his From Here to Eternity comeback. Is this a great film? No. It is highly entertaining, however. A great supporting cast is led by Ethel Barrymore. The story is a remake of the WB classic Four Daughters, with Frank’s bad boy singer/songwriter bonding with Day’s musical family. Doris and Frank are at their musical best. Sinatra’s spice is a savory mix with Day’s sweetness, which also blended well with Debbie Reynolds the next year, in The Tender Trap.

Doris Day displays her tough side in this '55 musical drama.
Love Me or Leave Me. Musical film bios were all the rage in the ‘50s and this is one of the best. It seems amazing that Doris Day didn’t get an Oscar nod for her applauded performance as ‘30s singer Ruth Etting, controlled by a crazy mobster, played by James Cagney. But MGM put all their musical marbles with Susan Hayward for I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Plus, Eleanor Parker also scored an Oscar nom in Interrupted Melody that year. Still, it may be the only movie Day played where her edge shows. Doris sings all the old songs in a sassy, stylized style and acts up a helluva storm against one of WB’s greatest gangstas.

A happy family in a Hitchcock movie? Think again!
The Man Who Knew Too Much. This ’56 Alfred Hitchcock picture is epic entertainment; Doris gets another classic leading man, Jimmy Stewart.  They play a vacationing couple in Morocco, where doc Jimmy hears a murdered man’s last words. When their son is kidnapped to ensure Stewart’s silence, it becomes torture for the film’s couple and taut suspense for audiences. Doris Day makes a fine Hitchcock blonde, with that all-American sex appeal Hitch loved. Day initially found his lack of direction toward her work puzzling. Hitchcock’s response was he didn’t need to, because she was doing fine!

Doris Day filled movie seats and sold soundtracks in her heyday.
The Pajama Game. Thanks to smart direction by Stanley Donen, snappy choreography by Bob Fosse, this 1957 musical is still as fresh and fun as ever. Based on the Broadway hit, it teams Doris with the original cast. Rare for a musical, there’s actually a story, too. Day is in fine form here, as the Union leader determined to get her co-workers their raise. There’s a ton of fun tunes, but Day’s rendition of “Hey, There” is right up there with her other signature songs.

America's Sweetheart & The King.
Teacher’s Pet. This ’58 comedy teamed Day with The King, Clark Gable. Doris and Clark have a nifty rapport as a journalism teacher tangling with an old school reporter, who thinks teaching news is a bunch of hooey. A great cast and smart dialogue make this smooth fun.

Pillow Talk. The 1959 classic re-wrote the playbook for romantic comedies. Pillow Talk was considered risqué in its time, with its plot of party line hang-ups and hook-ups. Doris is the career woman and Rock is the randy wolf. Backed by a great cast, racy dialogue, plus stylish clothes, sets, and photography, Pillow Talk made Doris Day a bonafide superstar. This is Day’s biggest-grossing movie ever, and it gave Doris her only Oscar nomination.

Doris with Rock on the set of 'Pillow Talk,' their game-changing comedy.
After Pillow Talk, Day reteamed with Rock twice more, and starred in fluffy comedies opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest male stars: Cary Grant, David Niven, Rex Harrison, Rod Taylor, and James Garner. Doris played well with all of them. Day’s box office ride cruised on autopilot until 1967. This was a defining year in ‘60s cinema, after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Bonnie and Clyde broke the censorship mold. Day’s last couple films were disappointments, when she just stopped, after nearly 40 movies, in 1968. Out of those movies, only a handful lost money—an incredible achievement.

It’s a shame that somebody couldn’t convince Doris to take up the offer of Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate.  To me, it would have been the next logical step after Pillow Talk. Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Anne Bancroft playing the rich bitch housewife. Nothing against Annie! However, Day would not have been improbable. In the novel version of The Graduate, the characters are all yuppie, smiling California blondes. I think that if Doris had shed or spun her image, under Mike Nichols’ direction, Mrs. Robinson could have done for Doris Day what Virginia Woolf did for Elizabeth Taylor.

Doris Day, are you trying to seduce us?
Hear me out. Doris Day is by all accounts a nice woman, but you don’t survive as a band singer on the road for a decade, in Hollywood for two decades, and on television another decade, without having a tough side. And letting that side show comically could have opened a whole new career for Doris Day.

Whatever the reasons, Doris chose not to play Mrs. Robinson. And when you look back on her vast work and cultural impact, Day didn’t have to. Doris Day left Hollywood on a high note and has lived a peaceful life with her many dogs in Carmel, CA. She turned 95 on April 2, 2017 and I hope Doris makes it to 100 like Kirk and Olivia.

So, here’s to you, Doris Day. Some fans love you more than they ever knew.
Doris Day at age 54 on Johnny Carson's show in 1976. Doris had better bod than most of Hollywood's sex symbols!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Gangsta Gal Joan Crawford is 'Damned' and 'Dangerous'

Warner Bros. workin' that Crawford formula: The age-old question for movie fans of the '40s and '50s!

Joan Crawford shot to stardom as the symbol of flaming youth in 1928’s Our Dancing Daughters. MGM set the standard for many Crawford movies by mixing her own hard luck story into the scripts: the working girl of humble origins that pulls herself up by the bootstraps, overcoming social and sexual bias, to get everything she wants.

When Joan re-booted her career at Warner Brothers, her first starring flick, Mildred Pierce, re-set the boilerplate: Crawford was now the mature working woman from humble origins, ultimately successful, but sidetracked by weak or double-crossing men.

Shady lady Crawford, a crook with a heart!
Near the end of her WB run, Crawford played the shady lady version of the working woman, still pulling herself up by the ankle strap shoes—but by any means necessary.

This brings us to The Damned Don’t Cry! and This Woman is Dangerous, released in 1950 and ’52, respectively. Compared to 1945’s Mildred Pierce, the Crawford formula demonstrated the Hollywood law of diminishing returns. Mildred was Joan’s mid-career triumph, her Oscar winner and biggest money-maker. Five years later, Damned grossed a third of Mildred’s box-office. Just two years later, This Woman is Dangerous made half of what The Damned Don’t Cry! did.

Damned and Dangerous offers about the same quotient of entertainment value compared to Mildred. Are they great films? No. Are they great fun? Yes and no. The Damned Don’t Cry! is a stylish though ridiculous noir. This Woman is Dangerous is strictly for Crawford fans.

A surprisingly de-glammed Joan, a working-class mom in 'The Damned Don't Cry!'
In both melodramas, Joan plays a gangsta gal. In The Damned Don’t Cry!, 40-something Joan is Ethel Whitehead, a housewife of an oil rig worker and mother of a small boy. Already dissatisfied with her lot in life—that name alone!—Ethel makes a quick exit after the boy is run over by a truck. Only in old movies does the star go from housewife to “model” to gangster girlfriend in ten minutes. And what would a latter day Joan Crawford vehicle be without men fussing and fighting over her? After leaving suspiciously younger oil rigger Richard Egan, Ethel enters into a convenient romance with wimpy accountant, WB dull boy Kent Smith. But just one round with a tough gangster, played as usual by David Brian, and Ethel is crazy about the kingpin. Joan is transformed from blah Ethel Whitehead to la-de-da Lorna Hansen Forbes. Brian then gets the bright idea to have Joan’s irresistible “lady” to romance a fellow gangster, WB stud Steven Cochran, to get the goods on him. Guess what? They hit it off! Pretty soon, Brian wants them both bumped off.

Joan & her less than stellar leading men. I chose this photo, because it's a rare shot
of onscreen sourpuss David Brian  (far right) smiling!
The downside for a dynamic movie diva like Joan Crawford is that you often must carry the movie yourself. At MGM, Joan starred opposite all of Metro’s leading men. But once Crawford hit middle age, her leading men were a mixed bag. At WB, Joan started off with John Garfield, Henry Fonda, and Dana Andrews. Then it was down the Hollywood food chain for co-starring actors. Were her pairings with thuggish Richard Egan, Steven Cochran, Jack Palance, and Jeff Chandler intended to soften her? And what about sourpusses like Van Heflin, Wendell Corey, John Ireland, and especially, David Brian? Brian starred in 1949’s Beyond the Forest, as Bette Davis’ allegedly he-man boyfriend. He took up film acting at Joan’s suggestion—I assume she vouched for Brian to Jack Warner. Brian starred opposite Joan three times: Flamingo Road, The Damned Don’t Cry!, and This Woman is Dangerous. With his beady eyes, weak chin, and mouth in a permanent sneer, David Brian was one of the least appealing men to ever grace the silver screen. Perhaps he had hidden talents, as my Dad used to say!

WB stud Steven Cochran, who performed better off-screen!
In Damned, Brian gets replaced in Joan’s affections by greasy Steven Cochran, who looks like a cross between truck driver-era Elvis and a young Jay Leno. Joan’s mid-life leading men were certainly a far cry from Gable, Cooper, and Robert Taylor.

In This Woman is Dangerous, Joan is Elizabeth Austin, a “society woman.” To her fellow gangsters, she’s just plain Beth! Once again, David Brian plays her hot-headed gangsta guy and Joan, his moll. Beth is loyal to the big lug because he was there for her when she got outta the pen. This time around, Joan is going blind and needs an operation. The doctor, played by crooner-turned-comatose Dennis Morgan, is so skilled that he not only restores her vision, but also Joan’s faith in love. The rest of the film is Joan romancing on the down low, while crazy criminal Brian is on the lam. The film’s climax is a shoot out in the hospital’s surgery room—I’m not kidding.

'Damned' Joan as a clothing sellers' 'model' who's a hit with the buyers!
Of the two melodramas, The Damned Don’t Cry! gives Joan a greater character arc. As the poor wife, Joan is even more deglamorized than the opening scenes of Mildred Pierce. Aside from the magnificent sight of seeing the mature Joan Crawford’s great face without all the war paint, her Ethel is genuinely played. As the tough cookie on the way up, Joan’s snappy patter is entertaining and believable. I always thought Joan was more fun on-screen when she played working class women. Once she is “groomed” to be a “lady,” Lorna Hanson Forbes feels like Joan Crawford, the leading lady. Still, it’s fun watching Joan swan around Palm Springs, fending off men and fighting back tears.

Joan with Kent Smith, about to have a showdown with tough guy David Brian.
The Damned Don’t Cry! feels like a mash-up of every WB Joan Crawford movie, whereas This Woman is Dangerous just feels like a mish-mash. Damned has more verve, zingier dialogue, and snappier locations. In Dangerous, many scenes take place in a hospital, hotel room, mobile home, or the doctor’s dull home. Crawford is surprisingly subdued as ‘Beth,’ whether recovering from surgery or trying to talk down her crazy boyfriend. There’s definitely a “B” movie feel to This Woman is Dangerous. Two decades later, Crawford called this the worst film she ever appeared in. I’ve got just one word in response: Trog!  I’ll amend Crawford’s quote: this is the worst movie Joan appeared in under her Warner Brothers contract.

Rumor has it Jack Warner offered 'This Woman is Dangerous'
to veterans Crawford & Dennis Morgan, hoping they'd turn it down.
By the time Jack Warner offered Joan Crawford This Woman is Dangerous, he probably hoped she’d turn it down and go off salary, and Joan realized it was time to roll the career dice again. Crawford’s comeback as an independent wasn’t as memorable as Mildred, but 1953’s Sudden Fear was a modest commercial success from which Joan benefited greatly—and got a third Oscar nomination to boot. From here, Joan played the hot mama romancing surly looking, younger leading men. Crawford then morphed into the tough, middle-aged career woman.

After that, Joan Crawford made one last comeback, when she was the catalyst for 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The surprise suspense hit and follow-up roles, along with performing publicity duties for Pepsi Cola, kept Joan in the public eye for another decade. By the mid-70s, Crawford withdrew from public view, after 50 years of stardom.

'Dangerous' Joan recovers from eye surgery & reading the script!
The Damned Don’t Cry! and This Woman is Dangerous are perfect examples of movie vehicles driven by great stars. And Joan Crawford always drove hers like a champ.
Joan on the set of 'This Woman is Dangerous':
"How do I get outta this picture!"

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Sweet Dreams, Aunt Janet


Aunt Janet grew up in Manistique. As an adult, she lived in Wisconsin and Lower MI, but chose to end her days back here. 
When my Aunt Janet was a teenager, she dreamed of becoming a country singer. This was in the late 1950s, when country music, along with rock-n-roll, was skyrocketing. Teens daydreamed of being a singer or in a band the way previous generations fantasized about becoming movie stars. The Gould family was from Upper Michigan, which was as remote as the rural southern areas where up-and-coming country chanteuses like Loretta and Tammy came from, so this most likely fed my Aunt Janet's vivid imagination.

Patsy Cline was Aunt Janet's idol and perhaps role model!
My aunt's idol was Patsy Cline. She'd sing along with Patsy on the radio, which was her only chance to listen to the honky-tonk star. The family, with 13 children, one modest paycheck, and no indoor plumbing, certainly didn't have money for luxuries like phonographs and record albums. Lucky for Janet, Patsy was the number #1 female country singer at the time, so my aunt could hear her trademark bluesy twang on the radio all the time.

Aunt Janet whooping it up when she was around 40.
Patsy Cline won Janet's heart because she wholeheartedly empathized with the star's hard luck life story, gutsy determination and brassy charisma. Patsy wasn't like the other girl singers, all batting eyes and singing sweetly. Cline was a woman who swaggered and emoted as much as Elvis. Patsy Cline lived like a star should, dramatically and richly. Janet would read all the fan magazines about the stars, regarding it all as not just fact, but as a blueprint to fame and fortune. But Patsy was the one who touched Janet most, a feeling of kindred spirits.

The old Manistique High School.
My aunt filled her days by apathetically attending school and enthusiastically fighting off boys. Janet was petite but with a volatile figure and feline green eyes with flecks of yellow. She practically vibrated with restless energy that was not fulfilled by wrangling her younger siblings. Secretly, Janet felt there was a greater destiny for her and that she was just biding her time.

Janet's father, Bud, when he was not working at the railroad all the live long day, was often drinking at the bars all the live long night. On weekends, there would be live music at some of the road houses. Occasionally, if someone was decent enough, the band would graciously accompany the amateur through a song or two.

Grandma Alvera & Grandpa Bud posing against the snow banks!
Once Janet got wind of that, she daydreamed about singing with the band day and night. When that fantasy was not enough to satisfy her ego, Janet then determined to make it a reality. She knew all of Patsy's songs practically by heart, had a good voice, personality, and looks to boot. First, she tried to cajole, and when that did not work, cried to my Grandma Alvera for a new dress to wear. My Grandma was a softie underneath, but with a hard-working, hard-drinking railroad man for a husband, plus the surplus kids and shortage of indoor amenities, Alvera's hard, practical exterior prevailed. "Aw, quit your pissing and moaning!" was Grandma Alvera's pet putdown to all whiners.

Undeterred, Janet decided to just make do with her best school dress, but took particular care setting her dark blonde hair in curls, and trying to sneak a little mascara and lipstick past Grandma. She chose three of her favorite Patsy Cline songs to memorize: "Walking after Midnight," "Sweet Dreams," and of course, "Crazy." Which my Aunt Janet kind of was, but that's also why I loved her so much. After all, who else, amidst all that family chaos and squalor, decided that they just had to be a country singing superstar? One often reads of dire beginnings driving certain individuals to great heights, despite the odds. Janet had great energy, but did she have talent?

Manistique bars like the Jack Pine Lodge back in the day.
Janet had much better luck with Grandpa Bud, since she was one his favorites, probably because she was just as high-spirited—and hard-headed—as he was. He not only agreed to take her to the road house, but chatted up the band leader in advance, with his praise of her becoming more effusive with each beer.

When the big night arrived, Grandpa Bud brought home a corsage to make up for the lack of a new dress. Grandma Alvera just harrumphed, since he never brought her flowers. They headed off to town at dusk, with a festive feeling in the fall air that Friday night. Once there, Bud took her around, introducing her to his fellow bar cronies and the bartender, who all agreed she was a pretty little thing. Janet imagined that this must be what it was like to be a star, like Patsy, or even a movie star, like Marilyn or Liz at a premiere. While waiting for the band to show, Bud began drinking his beers, while Janet sipped her cherry Coke and quietly went over her songs.

Manistique had a few fancy bars. too!
Finally, the band arrived and methodically began setting up. When the moment presented itself, Bud took Janet over. The bandleader, a tough old bird, took one look at Janet and could see the mix of fear and excitement in her eyes. He immediately softened and told her she could sing one song, and if she did alright, could do a second. Fair enough, he asked? She was thrilled and nodded her agreement.

So, how did she do? Depends on which family member you ask. The Gould clan can be blunt, and at times rough. While family foibles and failures can get kicked around like a football, this musical chapter in the family history seldom receives an encore.

But Janet indeed went on that night. At the end of the first set, the bandleader introduced the home girl to the locals, and they gave her a downhome boozy welcome. Janet chose "Walking after Midnight" because she figured if she got scared she could get by with sassy bravura that was the song's trademark. Janet climbed up on stage out from the dim, smoky clutter of tables and into the spotlight on stage. Looking out, the crowd seemed shadowy and distant, despite their raucous encouragement. The smoky haze created a curtain that put Janet a bit more at ease and she launched into her song. What the crowd saw was a wide-eyed girl in a modest school dress trying to appear confident and win them over. Her curls and makeup made her appear even more girlish, like a kewpie doll rather than a sultry singer. Janet gathered steam, like the little train that could, skirt swaying to the chorus and snapping her fingers to the beat. She must have done well enough, because at the end of the second set, Janet was called back upstage to sing one more tune. She sang "Crazy," her all-time favorite Patsy song. Her simple, sweet rendition won over the crowd of working class men, some out with their wives, and they responded back encouragingly as if she was their own daughter.

I'm sure this news saddened my Aunt Janet.
And Janet did go back onstage a few more times, to sing at a few more roadhouses. When the burning desire to become a singer was snuffed out, or by whom, is unclear. One sister pointed out that there was family chatter about the propriety of a father taking his teenage daughter around to get up and sing at taverns and roadhouses. Perhaps Grandpa Bud tired of having a daughter in tow, cramping his carousing style. Maybe Grandma felt like Cinderella to her own daughter, left behind and getting no help around the house. Janet’s dream probably came to a point where she had to take it to the next level, or walk away. Elvis, who also sang in school shows and honkytonks, went to Sun Records to record a song as a gift to his mother and the rest, as they say, is history. Janet never made that next step. She had energy, but did she have the drive and discipline, often cited as the mark of a true star? It seems not. Perhaps my aunt reached a point where she realized it was just a daydream and that she was lucky to have lived it out as long as she did. Whatever the circumstances, a star was not born. I wondered how Aunt Janet felt when Patsy Cline's own blazing star was extinguished in a plane crash just a few short years later.  

The show was over, but the desire for attention never stopped. I wondered if Janet's subsequent life as an adult seemed like a letdown in comparison to the dreams of her teen years. Her lifestyle was certainly easier. When Janet married Uncle Bob, she went from being dirt poor to a financially comfortable housewife. She loved spending money, showing off one of her prized possessions, a Thunderbird with bucket seats. She raised three children, instead of 13, like her mother. But emotionally, Janet seemed to have gotten short-changed in life. She refused certain family members’ suggestions to put her first-born, a severely retarded daughter, into a group home. Aunt Janet was always the hot-headed but ultimately likeable drama queen of the family. There always seemed to be fights, feuds, and flying four-letter words. Yet, there was often fun to be had and Janet was usually a straight shooter—even if she sometimes aimed low! But as time went on, it seemed like Janet had to endure more bad times than getting to enjoy life's rewards.

In the early years, Janet got through life's ups and downs by singing along to the jukebox at her favorite watering holes. Her middle years were stuck at her kitchen table, with a Miller's High Life and a menthol cigarette at the ready. Later, Janet’s great energy was made cartoonish by Parkinson's disease, all frenzied, uncontrolled movements. Her handicapped daughter’s death was a big blow, though she far exceeded her predicted life expectancy. Uncle Bob passed away in 2016, after a long sentence of early dementia, a quiet shadow of his former self.

Aunt Janet's home in its heyday.
Janet's illness made her haggard and thin, adding insult to injury of the normal course of aging. But the prettiest girl in her class gave up the ghost of vanity years ago. The dark blonde hair became snow white, her carefully penciled eyebrows a memory. For awhile, her feline eyes were still vivid, sometimes defiant in the face of following doctors or nurses’ orders… eventually, they just looked weary. By the time Janet entered her first nursing home, she could barely hold her head up; her final destination was home in Manistique. Occasionally, there were moments of her old spark, when Janet saw a relative’s grandchild or heard a funny family story. But by last Christmas, Janet’s spirits couldn’t be lifted anymore. Difficulty swallowing, much less smiling or talking, eventually took its toll. The long, tough path of Parkinson’s finally came to an end March 20, at age 72. I got to see her that night, one more time. All that was left to my aunt was a shell, but I was grateful she was comfortable. When my mother got the call later that Janet had passed, I was relieved that her suffering was over at last.

My Aunt Janet lived with Parkinson’s for over 20 years, but the quality of her life lessened at an alarming rate. My sweet dream for Aunt Janet is that she’s singing along with Patsy Cline now. I hope Janet is with family, laughing and carrying on, slapping her hands on the table in time to the music. No pissing and moaning. No more tears. No more pain, ever again.
Sweet Dreams, Aunt Janet!