Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hitchcock’s 'Marnie': Misunderstood Masterpiece or Fascinating Failure?

Is 'Marnie' ...a sex story? ...a mystery? ...a detective story? ...a romance? Don't know about that last one, Hitch!
The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie has become as much a part of the 1964 movie’s legacy as the film itself. I will review Marnie here; I’ll post soon about the accounts of its controversial creation. It’s key to keep the two separate, though the troubled production certainly informs the film. Revisionists have muddied the waters in elevating Marnie’s status by denigrating Hitchcock’s personal reputation, and not by judging the picture’s artistic merits.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery looking terrif as Marnie and Mark!
Marnie is fascinating to watch—I’ve seen it about a half dozen times in my life—where beautiful moments mix with absurd ones. Viewing Marnie as a story feels cold, and is probably why it underperformed at the box-office. Yet, it’s always intriguing to watch Hitchcock, even at his most uneven. The “What if?” scenarios in my mind bump up against “What the hell?” moments when I see Marnie. What Hitchcock excels at still works beautifully. What doesn’t is Hitchcock’s clinging to conventions that were dated even in ‘64. At Marnie’s worst moments, I feel as if I am watching Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody, High Anxiety.

Tippi Hedren as 'Marnie,' a frigid thief who meets her match...
The tale of a frigid thief on the fly is dark and more than a bit dicey. This subversive type of material always turned Hitchcock on. Yet, Marnie is dressed up with a lushly romantic score, gorgeous photography, and lavish Edith Head clothes and elaborate Alexandre of Paris hairstyles for Tippi Hedren. Even Sean Connery is high style in his suits, toupee, and waxed eyebrows! But the story and the presentation feel at odds with each other—and not in way worthy of the Master of Suspense. Is Hitchcock trying to dish this up as traditional romantic suspense movie? Or is the seamy story his way of pumping new blood into a genre he helped create decades ago?

Hitchcock seems to have had a love-hate attitude toward actors. He was self-conscious around beautiful actresses and actors. Yet, he was highly aware that he needed them to ensure his films’ financial backing and box-office success. Later, with the erosion of the studio system, Hitch became frustrated with actors who now had the audacity to make financial and family demands, or worse, have artistic ideas of their own.

Grace Kelly, circa early '60s, when 'Marnie' was filmed.
Grace Kelly and Cary Grant were two of Hitchcock’s favorite actors. By the time Marnie came up, Hitch had been deeply disappointed by actors a in the last seven years or so. Hitch’s first protégé, Vera Miles, kept getting pregnant. Audrey Hepburn, poised to be the first ideal Hitchcock brunette, dropped out of a proposed film because of script issues and then, pregnancy. Then there was Grace Kelly, now Her Serene Highness of Monaco. Grace was eager to return to the screen. Several things prevented Princess Grace’s comeback: Marnie’s script was considered distasteful; Prince Rainier had big policy problems in tiny Monaco; and Grace had retired from MGM—if she returned, she would have to honor her old contract. So, she re-retired.

Tippi Hedren, toiling away on The Birds, was chosen as Marnie. Cary Grant was now too old to play Marnie’s husband, Mark. But in choosing young Sean Connery, then known for two James Bond films, Hitch was obviously trying to recreate his most famous Hitchcock blonde and brunette in Hedren and Connery.

Tippi Hedren as compulsive thief Marnie...and about as warm as that safe!
The stars are the first big problem with Marnie. Though they each have their moments, Hedren and Connery are flat through most of this film. The recent revisionism of Marnie claims that Tippi was unfairly compared to past leading ladies of Hitch. My thought is: What Hitchcock blonde hasn’t been compared to previous ones? Another revisionist rationalization is that Hedren’s inexperience actually works for Marnie, which I agree with—to a point. It’s also been said that Tippi and Sean only seem wooden because they were judged by the over-emoting styles in vogue back then. Well, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant weren’t known for over-acting, but they did have charisma, charm, and confidence in front of a movie camera.  I would not describe Tippi and Sean with any of those terms in this film. Their acting is like bad acting from the golden era: they are stiff and artificial movie mannequins. Watching it twice recently, I’d say that Connery is worse than Tippi, partly because his character is downright inexplicable.

Scottish Sean Connery as an Philadelphia old-money millionaire, with an eye on Marnie. And we got our eyes on him!
Tippi Hedren certainly looked like the epitome of a Hitchcock blonde, but she lacked the softer, perfect looks of Grace Kelly, and had little underlying warmth. Hedren is adequate in the early scenes, with Marnie pretending to be a secretary or a happy wife. Tippi’s detached air works—but I don’t think it was intentional—it was likely the best Hitch could get from Hedren.

Tippi Hedren as Marnie, trying very hard to remember what happened suddenly last...oh, wait, that's another movie!
The scenes where Tippi is supposed to crack and emote are cause for eye rolling. Hedren’s voice, when pushed, sounds nasal and metallic, and her line readings limp. The climactic scene, where Tippi recalls her haunted past, is reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s in Suddenly, Last Summer. Taylor, not a well-reviewed actress in her time, and often criticized for her voice, yet she gives Tennessee Williams’ tongue-tying monologue emotional depth and variety. The difference is Taylor started acting at age 10, whereas Hedren had zero acting experience when she started just two years prior at 32. Typically, Hollywood gave promising actresses the build up when they were in their late teens or early 20s. By the time they were Tippi Hedren’s age, actresses like Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, or Marilyn Monroe, were at the height of their careers—not just starting out.

There was a cool new blonde in town that made Hedren look even colder-Deneuve!
The other big problem when Marnie was released was this: the Hitchcock blonde, along with many other Hitchcock conventions, had quickly become passé. The only star at this point with a cool, classic blonde image was French actress Catherine Deneuve, who once said she’d liked to have played Marnie. Instead, she went ahead of the curve with Hitchcock’s heir apparent, in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and Luis Bunuel’s Belle du Jour—which ironically have themes Hitch admired.

Two years later, this was what a sexy suspense film looked like!
 Vanessa Redgrave was the cool new reddish-blonde mystery woman in Blow-Up, two years after Marnie. Instead of dated “daring” dialogue and two perfect Hollywood specimens posturing, Blow-Up offered audiences two androgynous actors who matter-of-factly undress and copulate in exchange for incriminating information. A far cry from Marnie or To Catch a Thief, but surprisingly, Hitchcock screened Blow-Up and loved it!

Hey Hedren, Crawford called and wants her wig back for 'Strait-Jacket 2!'
With Marnie, Hitchcock wants to shock and awe with the tawdry story of a frigid klepto who perversely turns on a rich guy, who wants to possess her—but then presents it in the most obvious, old-fashioned way. This also happened to director Billy Wilder and his sexy comedies. Wilder often took risqué material like The Seven Year Itch or The Apartment and put it over with edgy but tempered by an appealing, charismatic cast. Wilder also hit a wall in 1964, with Kiss Me, Stupid, which has a tasteless plot, smutty dialogue, and sitcom star Ray Walston feebly filling in for Jack Lemmon and catatonic Kim Novak playing a role meant for Marilyn Monroe. Of course, some film fans now say Kiss Me, Stupid is a misunderstood masterpiece. If enough time goes by, Showgirls will be considered a masterwork.

Since his huge American hit Rebecca in 1940, Hitch refined his skills, gathered a great technical team, and was considered an iconic filmmaker by the end of the 1950s. To audiences, Hitchcock started off well enough at the dawn of the ‘60s. Psycho and The Birds were huge hits with Hitch’s fans, if not all critics. Then came Marnie, Hitchcock’s lowest-grossing movie since its thematic bookend, 1958’s Vertigo. And the reviews were as cold as Marnie.

"Is Hitch ever going to let us out of this mock car and rear projection hell?"
Despite Hitchcock’s crew gently urging him to jettison geriatric conventions like phony painted backdrops and over-reliance on rear projection. Watching this movie twice in a row, I realized how much time Hedren and Connery spend in a car—at one point, they stop at a Howard Johnson’s—to break up the monotony or expository dialogue? I half expected them to run into Mad Men’s Don Draper!

Is Tippi Hedren seeing red over the script of 'Marnie?'
Hitchcock apparently couldn’t be dissuaded from using heavy-handed effects in which to hit audiences over the head—like the red light special filter whenever Marnie literally sees red! Or the zoom lens, in and out, whenever Marnie is under great stress. What’s it all about, Alfie? We get it, we get it—it’s SIGNIFICANT!

Marnie, the master of disguise, sports wigs and/or dye jobs, the worst of which is a jet-black number perhaps borrowed from Diane Baker’s Strait Jacket co-star, Joan Crawford.
There’s a scene with prim secretary Hedren working overtime, taking dictation from dashing boss Sean, when a storm comes out of nowhere. Marnie’s freaking out, and it all climaxes with a tree crashing through the office window, and ends with a romantic kiss in extreme close-up—one of the creepiest love scenes I’ve ever seen.
This is a rape scene in 1964.

This is the reaction to a rape in 1964.

The later rape scene comes out of nowhere and makes no sense at all, but Hitchcock wanted the voyeuristic value, and later fired screenwriter Evan Hunter, when he objected. Finally, the climactic scene between Marnie and her mother is painstakingly shot, but is undercut by Hedren’s amateurish acting. Morally, this is one of those movies that has one foot stuck in the ‘50s and the other in the ‘60s, and suffers accordingly. If Marnie had been filmed in 1966 or later, after the end of Hollywood’s censorship code, it would have been a whole different story.

Yet, there’s much that works wonderfully. The Bernard Herrmann score, which Universal and Hitchcock criticized, gives Marnie much-needed warmth. His score is one of the best things about Marnie. The movie’s shots are incredibly detailed and imaginatively staged. The cinematography by Robert Burks is stunning—even that strange office kiss is technically a wow.

Diane Baker as Lil, in one of those wonderfully framed Hitchcock shots.
Strong supporting casts are often the saving grace of bad movies. In Marnie, Diane Baker is tartly appealing as the jealous young sister in law. Louise Latham, slathered in old age makeup, but only eight years older than Hedren, is cast as Marnie’s mother. Though they live in Baltimore, Hedren’s cultured diction slips to a southern dialect when stressed, and Latham sounds like Carol Burnett in her TV show’s “Mama & Eunice” skits. Still, Latham gives the uptight, religious Berniece empathy, especially as she reveals long-held secrets about herself and Marnie.

The ridiculously phony backdrops of 'Marnie' did not help stave off rumors that Hitchcock was past his prime.
Director Douglas Sirk added subversive and stylish elements to the studio soaps he made at Universal in the 1950s. As a view, you respond to that undercurrent of emotion, while suspending disbelief that what you’re watching is artificial and from another era. In the cutthroat ‘60s, this isn’t what Universal or Hitchcock was aiming for. That’s why the “pure cinema” or “expressionistic” rationale that Hitchcock historian Robin Wood pompously cites doesn’t wash. Hitchcock deliberately made Psycho four years earlier to prove he could do a down and dirty modern thriller, after being criticized for his elaborate, expensive suspense films.

Louise Latham as Marnie's cold mother; she was only 8 years older than Hedren.
Frankly, even his masterwork Vertigo has similar elements of questionable taste, but it is helped enormously by Stewart’s stellar performance and Novak, who is perfectly cast as the insecure object of obsession. But Hitchcock attempts to revisit similar material six years later and the ‘60s were a changin’. Hitch’s brand of sex and suspense, performed in Marnie like an upscale Ross Hunter movie, looked very dated—and still does.

The Hitchcock style still could be successful, like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in 1963’s Charade—seeing these stars cast elsewhere must have made Hitch’s blood boil! Or Gregory Peck and Diane Baker in ‘65’s Mirage or Peck and Sophia Loren in Arabesque in ’66. These faux-Hitchcock films succeeded where his started to fail because they were escapist films, without Hitch’s heavy-handed psychology and perverse plot points.

One of those crazy zoom shots in 'Marnie' that is fraught with meaning!
Hitchcock historians did some heavy lifting in trying to justify the dated and artificial aspects of Marnie after its release. But now, certain writers and film buffs have concocted the theory that when Tippi Hedren rejected Alfred Hitchcock, he just gave up on Marnie. It makes a great Hollywood story, especially to hang an essay or a book deal on. I think there’s a much simpler reason: Hitch was set in his ways, at a time when movie-making was swiftly changing, and he fell behind the times. This happened with nearly all of the directors of his generation: Billy Wilder, John Ford, George Stevens, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, to name but an illustrious few.

To me, there is much to enjoy in Marnie, but the film is no Hitchcock masterpiece. Yet, sometimes, flawed films say much more about their creators or an era than a classic.
Enjoy the awesome and absurd mashup that make 1964's Alfred Hitchcock camp classic 'Marnie' so much fun.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bette Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s 1962 Memoirs Revisited

A Portrait of Joan by Michael Vollbracht
Bette Davis with  caricature of Margo Channing: 'All About Eve.'
Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “No actresses on earth are as different as we are, all the way down the line.”

Davis offered many variations of that quote after starring—and sparring—with Crawford. Yet the similarities in the lives and careers of Bette and Joan were greater than either cared to admit. Director Vincent Sherman, who worked with both legends, said they were “sisters under the skin.” Still, the divas had a few key differences that made their legendary feud inevitable.
A key comparison of the two film icons was provided in early 1962—just before their legendary teaming in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—when both Bette and Joan’s memoirs were published.

Even the titles speak to their self-image: Davis dubbed hers The Lonely Life and Crawford’s selectively framed as A Portrait of Joan. Bette gives a bazillion reasons why her life and career was such an ongoing battle. But Bette Davis freely owns up to All about Eve director Joseph Mankiewicz’ epitaph of her: She Did It The Hard Way. By contrast, A Portrait of Joan paints a pastel of Crawford’s life and career. Joan’s tome is a very entertaining read, especially between the lines, but Bette’s book is a more realistic look at life as an actress and woman during Hollywood’s golden era.

Crawford camera-ready, signing copies of "A Portrait of Joan."
Both divas had daddy issues. Bette’s father Harlow Davis, distant even when with his family, abruptly left. Joan adored her “Daddy Cassin,” who disappeared after a business scandal. Crawford found out as a child that her real father was Thomas LeSueur, but they never had a strong connection. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both had love/hate relationships with the men in their personal and professional lives. They tended to spar with alpha males and mop up the floor with yes-men. However, both stars were sentimental about the men who made them widows. Bette was just 35 when second husband Arthur Farnsworth collapsed on the street. Joan’s last husband, Alfred Steele, died during the night of a heart attack, marring the happy ending Crawford was always seeking.

Filled with drive and need, both stars were the breadwinners for their families, though Davis seems to have done so less grudgingly. Still, Bette joked that when she played Santa Claus in a school play, “I had no idea that I would play him all my life!”
"Why, I think I'll call my memoirs 'A Portrait of Joan!'
"What?! I can paint a portrait, too! A lonely one!"

Joan’s story of working her way up through school, out of poverty, and on to stardom was part of her legend. I was surprised to read that Bette had to do much the same, waiting tables in exchange for tuition. However, Bette had a close relationship with her family. Davis doted on mother Ruthie and credited her success to her unwavering support and belief, a luxury Joan never had. Bette called Ruthie, her sister Bobby, and herself “The Three Musketeers.” However, Davis is candid throughout about the mixed feelings toward her self-indulgent mother and emotionally fragile sister—and the weight of their expectations on her. When Davis arrived, a great actress, Mama Ruthie played the diva. Davis wrote, “That I took it seems incredible now.”

Joan’s journey to stardom was solo and when her mother Anna and deadbeat brother Hal join her in California later, Crawford admits she found it stressful. Some Crawford critics thought Joan didn’t want reminders of her hard luck past, but she recalls, “After Daddy Cassin left, Mother, Hal, and I were never able to communicate.”

The Lonely Life of Bette rails throughout about tough Hollywood moguls and weak-willed leading men, on and off the set. As for her reputation, Davis is most definite—even defiant: “I do not regret one professional enemy that I have made.”

Joan’s remembrances go to great pains to create uplift, expressing gratitude and platitudes. If you play the drinking game, knocking back your flask of vodka every time Crawford refers to someone as “dear” or “darling,” you’ll be blotto by page 50!

A portrait of Bette Davis as  beautiful Fanny in 1943's 'Mr. Skeffington.'
Still, fans of the two legends will see their essence in these memoirs, though both are penned by ghost-writers. You sense the fine hand of both stars in the telling of their respective tales. In Joan’s case, it’s the steel beneath the velvet glove of her self Portrait. Davis might as well be wearing boxing gloves in her memoir, though she’s presenting an idealized version of her scrappy Yankee self—much like Kate Hepburn’s “casually” created persona.

 Later books and interviews offered more candid looks at stars like Davis and Crawford. Most golden era stars didn’t take creating the perfect image to the extreme of Joan Crawford. Yet, nearly all saw the long-term benefit of burnishing “legendary” aspects of their personas: “passionate” Liz Taylor; “unsinkable” Debbie Reynolds; and “no-nonsense” Kate Hepburn—to label just a few. These were famed facets of their personalities, but not the whole person. In regard to “blunt” Bette Davis and “disciplined” Joan Crawford, even 1962 readers weren’t naïve enough to think they were getting the deep dish in The Lonely Life or A Portrait of Joan.

A portrait of Joan painted especially for one of her last
acting gigs: the 1969 'Night Gallery' pilot, directed
by newcomer Steven Spielberg.
Crawford’s memoir may read like a Disney version of Hollywood stardom, but Davis, despite her fabled directness, was also known to tell tall tales. In The Lonely Life, she claims to have been Oscar-nominated for her breakthrough film, Of Human Bondage. Not true. While there was a write-in campaign regarding the oversight, Bette didn’t get an actual Oscar nom. Bette writes that Jack Warner optioned Gone with the Wind, as perfect for her. Not believing him, she turned him down flat—there’s no record of Warner doing this. Later, she states that she was perfect for Scarlett O’Hara, but now Jack Warner would only loan her out if MGM also took fellow WB star Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler. Davis balked at the notion, and lost the role of a lifetime. Great story, except not true. Warner may have floated the idea, but MGM’s Clark Gable was producer David Selznick’s #1 star choice from the start. Selznick played the publicity game, stoking interest by invoking the top leading ladies of the day. In reality, he was looking for a fresh-faced beauty as Scarlett—not Crawford, Davis, or Hepburn, etc. Yet, Davis kept dishing these tales practically ‘til the day she died!

Bette, with a portrait of herself, in  '64's 'Where Love Has Gone.'
Like a movie opening scene, both books recall Joan and Bette’s respective arrivals in Hollywood by train. Both sat waiting a very long time upon arrival—neither looked like the typical actress. Joan was picked up by MGM rep at long last, but Bette was on her own. Davis recalled, “They should have known I was an actress—I had a dog with me!”

Joan—prettier, sexier, and more vivacious than Bette—climbed the showbiz ladder quickly.  Aside from dancing as a chorus “pony,” Joan had no particular talent, and knew it. Always the workhorse, Joan was game to do anything MGM asked of her. Crawford haunted the various departments, looking for ways to create an image. Joan’s focus is fascinating to read, straight from the star. In 1925, Joan started as Norma Shearer’s double; by 1928, Crawford cemented her stature with Our Dancing Daughters. At times, Joan Crawford’s years at Metro reads like Dorothy in Oz, all wide-eyed wonder. But Crawford’s attention to movie detail gives you an inside view into what makes a great star.

A portrait of Joan for 1937's 'The Last of Mrs. Cheney."
As for her equally storied personal life, Crawford’s romances and marriages are filled with music, books, romantic getaways, long walks on the beach, and sharing star-crossed dreams. Rich boy Michael Cudahy and first husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. each played Prince Charming to Joan’s Hollywood Cinderella. Despite balancing beaus, dancing up a storm in speakeasies and nightclubs, Crawford’s tale is rated G for gooey. Crawford writes at length about herself, as all the rage in Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties, but deflects the wild rumors: “Maybe I did play harder than anyone else—I worked harder, too!”

No mention is made of later husbands or lovers boozing and brawling with her; no mention is made of Hollywood lawyer Greg Bautzer, with whom Joan had a long-term on-again, off-again romance. One eyebrow-raising tidbit is when Joan recalls second husband Franchot Tone counseling her, on her easily hurt feelings and nagging insecurity that she had about her friendships. Joan wrote, “Franchot was as knowledgeable as any psychiatrist and I’m sure the reason I never needed one was because of him.”

In The Lonely Life, Bette surprises the reader by admitting that her four husbands hit her, and feeling ashamed for being afraid—a taboo not talked in her era. Bette the breadwinner wrote: “But they all settled, my husbands, and enjoyed the fruit while they tried to cut down the tree.”

A quote from 'The Lonely Life.'
Bette, the young East Coast stage actress didn’t bloom right away in Hollywood. Davis got off to a false start at Universal—then a B movie studio. Dubbed “the little brown wren,” nobody saw Davis’ talent because they couldn’t get past her unglamorous façade. Six months later, Warner Brothers picked up Bette’s contract and thus began her long term association with them. Ironically, Bette toiled 18 years at WB, about the same time that Joan worked at MGM.

Though Davis was all about the work, she admits to jealousy over the star treatment Crawford got at Metro, while Bette had to constantly duke it out with Jack Warner over roles, salary, and promotions. While the grass was certainly greener at MGM, Joan still had to wrangle with “Papa” L.B. Mayer over similar issues.

Despite starring in mostly movie hits during her decade of stardom at Metro, Crawford somehow ended up on the infamous list of stars dubbed “box office poison.” Joan quotes a line that Clark Gable tells her in Dancing Lady: “Okay, you’re in the top spot, where you’ve got twice as far to fall.”

From the late 1930s on, Joan had to battle for good roles.
Crawford recalled, “By 1938, that’s where I was for real.” With The Ice Follies of 1939 waiting in the wings!

As a Warner’s starlet, Bette Davis made 8 movies in one year! Davis writes of trying to cope with a demanding mother and over-sensitive husband on the home front. Just about the time Bette broke through as a star, she became pregnant. Davis was shocked when both her husband and mother insisted on an abortion, for her “career’s sake.” And their meal ticket, as Bette writes at length about juggling roles as an actress, breadwinner, wife, and daughter. I was surprised that Davis put this taboo topic in her 1962 memoir. Later in life, she admitted to two more. Joan’s world is filled with lovely but ill-fated romances and miscarriages, though a recent Vanity Fair article cites that her pregnancy while making Rain didn’t end in a miscarriage, but an abortion.

Joan's colorful 'Portrait of Joan,' signed copy.
Joan, tired of fighting for better roles during the last five years of her MGM tenure, asked for her contractual release in 1943. Crawford claims L.B. Mayer didn’t want her to go, and blames the studio execs. Still, the timing seems uncanny, since Metro let two of Joan’s greatest contemporaries “retire,” Greta Garbo in ’41 and Norma Shearer in ‘42. Crawford recalled what ex-star and best pal Billy Haines once told her: “When you start to slide in this business, it’s like walking on nothing, the career of no return.”

Though the studio suits may have thought so, Crawford wasn’t done yet. Joan signed with Warner Brothers for less money and sat off-screen for two years—unheard of at the time—until Joan won the role of Mildred Pierce in 1945—and an Oscar for her career-defining performance.

Once back on top, Joan was grander than ever. Crawford writes: “It has been said that onscreen, I have personified the American woman. This is probably because from the time of Mildred Pierce I was cast, in picture after picture, as all varieties of her…” My favorite from her list is “the woman tremulously mature…”—I’ll let Joan fans decide which roles those were!

Bette claimed this ad, run in  Sept. '62, was a pointed joke. Some thought otherwise!
 However, Davis' memoir was out and she had just wrapped 'Baby Jane.'
Leaving WB after 18 years, Bette is forced to make a comeback herself. Luckily, 1950’s All about Eve was her next movie. Unluckily, the critical and commercial smash did nothing for Davis’ career. My opinion is that Bette’s bold decision to actually look her age, along with her reputation as a royal pain to work with, weakened her entry into the ‘50s as a freelance actress.

Like Joan, Bette was no stranger to grand self-assessments, but this one is apt: “I suppose I’m larger than life. That’s my problem, created in a fury, I’m at home in a tempest.” And aging, tempestuous Bette was less than appealing to modern-era Hollywood, especially when actresses of all ages became increasingly obsolete.

This later memoir settled a few scores! The photo was
taken by actor James Woods, a big Davis admirer.
Davis gets off some zingers about the Hollywood mentality, which still rings true. Bette vents about Hollywood producers and directors who dismissed her confidence and ambitions—George Cukor, John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, Michael Curtiz, most prominently—because they were used to “empty, passive slates they could scribble on.”

Bette’s take is on target regarding “mature” male stars, with “children as mates and co-stars!” Or the evolution of youth culture, Davis sarcastically notes, “All the pulling and taping and scrapping has produced some incredible results.” Then Davis tells about the first time she got her face “taped.” Bette ran home to show the results to husband Gary Merrill, whose response was, “What in hell happened to you?” Both burst into laughter, as Davis’ tapes pop.

Surprisingly, both Bette and Joan’s memoirs focus on their early years, are light on the glory years, and have quick, life-changing finales. Bette’s ending is bittersweet, her All about Eve comeback and marriage to co-star Gary Merrill at that point a dim memory. Davis admits that she ran a house like a drill sergeant. For once, a husband scolded Davis for NOT playing the star, when Merrill referenced a Crawford role: “You’re not Mrs. Craig, you’re Bette Davis!”

Bette, middle-aged here—with men a memory, the kids in school, and her beloved mother Ruthie recently deceased—carries on. Davis believed that work was the one constant in life, a mindset she shared with Crawford. Some passages will still make fans misty-eyed, after all these years—such as when Davis fights back tears when son Michael says he doesn’t like that she’ll be alone once he and sister B.D. are off to boarding school.

A Keane portrait of Joan Crawford from the late 1950s.
Joan, long a single mother, then a freelance star after leaving WB, proves to be a brave new world for her, too. Then she meets Alfred Steele, promotional genius of Pepsi Cola. Yet, their fabled union was swift, lasting only four years before Joan found him collapsed by his bed.  Though a number of quotes here feel like fan magazine fodder, especially near his demise, but you feel Joan’s admiration for the man leap off the pages.

This looks like Joan’s last shot at romance, too, and the memoir ends with Joan carrying on her duties as spokesperson for Pepsi Cola. Joan’s final closeup shows her raring to conquer new horizons, whereas Davis finds herself back onstage in Rochester, where she started, but without Ruthie in the front row.

Both Davis and Crawford have become synonymous with the word “feud.” Well, even back in ’62, Davis was not shy about voicing her displeasure with certain tough directors, vain leading men, and scene-stealing actresses. Looking back at Bette’s entire life, Davis never ceased fire when it came to fights and feuds.

With the notable exception of MGM queen bee Norma Shearer, young Joan Crawford didn’t indulge in feuds. But when Joan was facing the ‘50s without a studio contract or husband, her insecurities intensified, along with her drinking. Chapter 9 of Portrait deals with Crawford’s adopted children. Even during this era, Joan feels compelled to fend off criticism that she is too strict. And though Joan tries to put a happy ending over her “disappointments” with Christopher and Christina—they are barely mentioned once she meets Al Steele.

Chapter 10 covers her middle years in Hollywood and it is fascinating, again—by what is said and what’s obviously omitted. Joan goes into laborious detail to show you how hard she’s working to maintain her star status in Sudden Fear, Torch Song, Johnny Guitar, and the rest of her vanity ‘50s vehicles. But it’s mashed up with Joan’s dignified “explanations” over her on-set clashes with Janice Rule, Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, etc. The oddest of all is when Crawford offers her side of losing long-time writer friend Katherine Albert. Despite her friend’s disapproval, Crawford hosts Albert’s 18-year-old daughter Joan Evans’ wedding in her home behind her back—calling a judge to do the honors and then the press afterward. Albert and her husband never spoke to Joan again, yet Crawford refers to her as a “dear friend” through the entire book!

When The Lonely Life and A Portrait of Joan were published, both actresses were working, but both Bette and Joan had to scratch as hard for roles as they did when starting out in Hollywood. Baby Jane was just around the corner, which led to another round of roles for both stars, though mostly in horror movies.

The difference in these two memoirs is precisely the same as in the two women. Bette’s book is an unsentimental look at Davis’ Hollywood career; Joan’s look back is a rose-colored view of Crawford’s Cinderella story. As actresses, Davis was put off by Joan’s pretentious persona, with Joan being equally repelled by Bette’s irascible manner and superior attitude. The Lonely Life and A Portrait of Joan—while neither is definitive of these divas’ stories—offer a primer of two extremely charismatic and complicated women.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Did Joan and Bette's Feud Start with 'Rain' Versus 'Of Human Bondage?'

Joan Crawford makes it 'Rain' as sexy Sadie!
Bette Davis as monstrous Mildred in 'Of Human Bondage.'

The feud between film icons Joan Crawford and Bette Davis has fascinated movie fans forever. The rivalry was a slow burn that ignited when they squared off for 1962’s Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
Many assumed their rift began when Joan joined Warner Brothers in 1943, where Bette was queen bee. Joan idled for two years, and then won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce, as Davis’ star was peaking. More recent tales put the feud earlier, when Joan met future husband Franchot Tone, Bette’s co-star in 1935’s Dangerous. Davis admitted long ago that she had a mad crush on him, but some gossips say that Tone crushed back.

I think the life-long Crawford-Davis rivalry actually started in 1934. That’s when Bette rose to fame in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, a year and a half after Joan stumbled critically and commercially in Maugham’s Rain.

Both Maugham heroines were shady ladies on the skids, and juicy roles. Joan and Bette had begged their studio bosses for loan out to outside studios to play their respective roles. At the time, Crawford was much criticized for her portrayal, whereas Davis made her breakthrough. I think this is the first time that the two ambitious stars became mutually aware of one another.

1932's 'Rain,' which starred Gloria Swanson in a silent movie just 4 years prior.
Rain was a short story turned stage play, legendary for Jeanne Eagels’ performance as prostitute Sadie Thompson. The tale had already been a hit 1928 silent film, Sadie Thompson, starring Oscar-nominated Gloria Swanson. In 1932, Joan Crawford requested a loan out from home studio MGM to United Artists to film a sound version, to prove that she was a serious actress—not just a glamour girl.

Leslie Howard, top-billed in 'Bondage.'

Of Human Bondage was filmed in 1934, after Bette Davis pestered studio boss Jack Warner to lend her to RKO Studios to play shrewish waitress-turned-hooker Mildred Rogers, to prove that she could be a serious actress—and a star!

Rain squared off good-hearted hooker Sadie Thompson against hard-hearted “reformer” Alfred Davidson. While trying to save Sadie’s soul, Davidson realizes he lusts for her, and rapes Thompson—and then kills himself. In Bondage, medical student Philip Carey falls hard for trampy waitress Mildred, who alternately toys with and torments him. Despite no hint from Mildred to become a repeat customer, Philip keeps coming back for abuse, hoping that she will see the light. As the masochistic story continues, Mildred goes from waitress to whore.

In regard to the two stories’ characters, gender sympathy is swapped: Rain’s salt-of-the-earth Sadie is more honest than the holier-than-thou reformer Davidson; Bondage’s Philip’s wide-eyed innocent is beaten down by Bette’s wide-eyed witch, Mildred.

The customer is always right is not on Mildred's menu in 'Of Human Bondage!'
Their studio heads let the actresses go to other, smaller studios to play the sordid characters. There’s no word on what MGM’s L.B. Mayer told Joan. My guess is that Mayer, who thought great films equaled glamorous stars suffering nobly, let Crawford have her head, in order to fall on her face, and thus learn her lesson. But no-nonsense Jack Warner got so sick of Bette’s haranguing to play Mildred that he finally relented, telling her, “Go ahead and hang yourself!”

Both stars encountered unexpected hostility on the set. In Crawford’s case, Rain was filled with a cast of seasoned stage actors, who revered Eagels’ stage triumph, one telling Joan, “…when Jeanne died, Rain died with her!” This must have jolted Joan, who was used to being treated like royalty back at MGM. And Davis, a New Englander, was surrounded by stellar British actors in Bondage, who patronized her as a pretender.

Crawford took the trash talk on the 'Rain' set to heart & hid in her dressing room.
The turmoil had different outcomes. Joan retreated to her dressing room between takes, loudly playing popular music—just like Sadie does in the film! Of Human Bondage’s director, John Cromwell, warned star Leslie Howard and the rest of the British cast that while they were looking down at Davis, she was walking off with the film.

The movie divas were driven in delivering their performances. Crawford observed prostitutes in San Diego for their behavior and style of dress. Joan wanted to leave behind the glamour girl image she personified, wearing only two outfits: an off-the-rack dress and a black robe. Davis insisted on realism in clothes and makeup. For the waitress scenes, Bette wore little makeup and dressed modestly.

By the book: The stars check out 'Of Human Bondage.'
Both films were released before the new Hollywood Production Code was strictly enforced. Lead by Joseph Breen, starting in July, 1934, the severe Production Code reigned for the next 30 odd years. The Code would never have let hooker Sadie Thompson walk off into the sunset at the end of Rain, with a dead man of God on the beach. Nor would it have let Bondage’s Mildred be depicted matter-of-factly as an unwed mother turned hooker.

The Maugham stories lucked out with their “Pre-Code” film adaptations, which followed the author’s original intent fairly close. But how are the ‘30s versions of Rain and Of Human Bondage remembered? Both movies fell into public domain in 1960 and ’62, respectively. Even in the age of restoration, nobody has bothered, surprising since both films are significant in the careers of two Hollywood greats. Both Crawford and Davis give larger-than-life portrayals in Rain and Of Human Bondage. The difference between the two is Bette’s performance is grounded in characterization and Joan’s bolstered by charisma.

Joan Crawford: A movie magazine favorite!
Though Joan Crawford won some strong roles as she progressed up the MGM leading lady ladder, she was more famous for film fashion. Coveting Sadie Thompson, played by silent superstar Gloria Swanson, one wonders if Crawford was emulating the career that she craved. Sadie is certainly the kind of lady that Joan could relate to: a woman from the school of hard knocks, with scorn heaped upon her by so-called “superiors.” Billie Cassin, before she became Joan Crawford, went from a laundry girl to chorus girl to starlet to top star, and not without some battle scars along the way. Rain should have made her a serious dramatic actress of the first rank. Instead, Rain became Joan’s first flop. For Joan, driven to ALWAYS succeed, this must have been devastating.

Joan isn’t awful as Sadie Thompson, but she gives an extremely uneven performance. Whether Crawford chose to ignore Lewis Milestone’s direction, or vice versa—Crawford claimed both at various times—what was a challenging role became a caricature. Joan’s dramatic entrance in Rain is as campy as her introduction in the battleaxe-thriller Strait Jacket over 30 years later. First, we see a bangle-laden arm clamp one side of the ship’s cabin doorway, then the other. Then a high-heeled foot poses on one side of the doorway, then the other foot at the opposite side—complete with fishnet stockings and an anklet. We get the slow close-up, Joan as Sadie, with a ciggie hanging out of her mouth. Crawford’s makeup as the tarty party girl is so over-the-top, that it looks like an inspiration for Bette’s Baby Jane Hudson.

Crawford, tarted up and then some as Sadie Thompson!
Once you get used to the black-rimmed eyes, super-arched brows, and lipstick that reminded me of “wax lip” candy from when I was a kid, Joan’s early scenes benefit from her electric vitality and earthiness. Some scenes are undercut by Joan’s body language—her acting out Sadie’s coarse manner is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Yet, Crawford’s performing is always committed, and easily commands attention from her stagy supporting cast.

Joan’s fearlessness in going toe-to-toe with worthy co-stars comes in handy, since the fire-and-brimstone Mr. Davidson is played by the great Walter Huston. As the characters come closer to their showdown, this is where Crawford falters as Sadie, and it’s not entirely fair to blame her. Milestone moves the action and makes beautiful use of the location shooting, but once the story gets going, all the characters speechify. Rain is based on a Broadway play, and early talkies worshiped the theatre. So when Sadie and Davidson have their big scene, with the preacher determined to “save” Sadie’s soul, Huston seriously serves the ham. Crawford, who must convey a climatic change of acceptance, widens those enormous eyes, and stares her head off. Their pivotal moment is totally unconvincing.

Joan as "saved" Sadie Thompson, looking like an MGM star!
After the breakthrough, Sadie’s change to “a shining daughter of God” is conveyed by her drastically toned down appearance. Thompson’s gaudy get-up is replaced by a black robe. Sadie’s tacky curls are gone, with Joan’s hair combed straight back. The cartoon makeup is now replaced by the stylized MGM makeup Joan Crawford wore in her ‘30s movies. Joan is back-lit beautifully, glowing like an angel. Crawford’s face, especially in profile, is a tribute to bone construction. And did the woman know how to take a close-up! 

And that’s exactly the problem with Rain’s last reels. Crawford is supposed to be a down-and-out hooker on a sweltering island, just put through the emotional ringer—not posing as if for MGM still photographer George Hurrell. Sadie voices her fears about staying reformed, and Joan’s grand lady manner creeps into her performance. This all feels like a letdown. Sadie’s subsequent rape by Davidson takes place off-camera, typical of the era. When he is found tangled in fishing nets the next morning, a suicide, everyone looks to Sadie for her reaction. Sadie is once more blasting hot jazz from her room, and makes her entrance the same ridiculous way she did at Rain’s beginning. Sadie is all tarted up again, but crumbles when she finds out about Davidson’s demise. Yet, there’s a happy ending for Sadie that wouldn’t have flown past the censors less than two years later.

Joan Crawford hadn't gotten her black belt in acting yet!
Any Crawford fan knows Joan never walked through a role. Joan definitely was an actress who responded well to strong direction. Like most actors, left to their own devices, In Rain, Crawford overcompensated in the obvious aspects of the role, while ultimately clinging to her image.

It’s been said that Bette as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage is over-the-top by today’s acting standards. That can be said of all film acting from Hollywood’s golden area. Yes, the famous scenes of Bette Davis flaying into Leslie Howard’s Philip with vindictive glee are both demonic and deliciously hammy. But those are only two scenes. The first is the famous tirade when Philip turns down Mildred’s advances: “Me?! I disgust you?!...” The other is when she maliciously trashes Philip’s apartment—even burning his money!—before leaving him.

Otherwise, Davis is toned down in both look and demeanor, a sour personality who only comes to life when someone promises to take her out of a dull existence. John Cromwell was a strong actor’s director and he keeps Bette from going over the edge, no mean feat!

Bette Davis as Mildred at the bitter end 'Of Human Bondage.' Audiences were shocked to see an actress depicted this way.
As Mildred goes down the path to hell, her hooker makeup is more scary than sexy, by Davis’ design. In the last scenes, Mildred is dying of consumption, and Davis insisted on looking ravaged—all unheard of in 1934 Hollywood. Also, Davis demanded on no bed scenes in full makeup and perfect hair and no improbably beautiful outfits for waitress Mildred. Davis plays Mildred like the “plain brown wren” she was once described as by a studio exec. Here, Davis’ Mildred is a pecking bird who longs to be a swan. Bette Davis didn’t care if audiences liked her as long as they could empathize with her. It is still a brave portrayal, during an era when glamour, charm, and likeability were all. Life magazine called Davis’ performance the greatest ever recorded on the screen by an actress. An overstatement now, of course—but it shows how daring Davis’ approach was in her performing and appearance onscreen at the time.

Bette as Mildred, ripping her man to shreds--and the scenery!
Davis’ Mildred is echoed in some of her later portrayals. Of Human Bondage made her a star in ’34 and by 1949, Davis’ last film on her Warner’s contract was Beyond the Forest. Interesting that Bette had to fight Warner to make Bondage but fought him—and lost—against playing Rosa Moline in Forest. Bette’s Rosa is another frustrated female who makes the man in her life (a doctor as well) miserable. There’s an identical scene where Rosa runs off to her lover, only to be rejected, and comes crawling back to the mild-mannered man she despises. Both suffer feverishly and fatally for their sins:  Mildred, sweaty and depleted with consumption; Rosa, sweltering from peritonitis, the after effects of a self-induced miscarriage. Hollywood’s wages of sin hadn’t changed much in those 15 years!

WB's "little brown wren," as Bette was dubbed, is very peckish toward her man.
Both films are surprisingly short—Rain runs just over 90 minutes and Of Human Bondage a mere 82 minutes. Rain got mostly poor reviews though it wasn’t the total financial flop that legend has it. Actually, Rain and Of Human Bondage made about the same at the box-office, but Bondage was much more modestly budgeted. Plus, Rain’s expectations were much higher: Swanson’s Sadie Thompson was a smash (it grossed twice as much as Rain) and Crawford was certainly positioning herself to take the mantle of Swanson as the next glamour AND dramatic star. Later, Joan herself bad-mouthed the movie, writing in her memoir, “Oh, who am I kidding? I just gave a lousy performance.”

'Rain' now enjoys revisionist praise in some quarters as an underrated film.
Joan freely acknowledged that the failure of Rain and Today We Live—where she plays a Brit!—made her wake up and find a moneymaker of a movie, ASAP. Luckily, 1933’s Dancing Lady restored Joan’s box-office luster. Yet the disappointment of Rain didn’t stop Joan from fighting for better roles, like The Women and A Woman’s Face at MGM, or Mildred Pierce and Possessed at Warner Brothers.

As for Davis, the little brown wren finally got to soar—though it was a bumpy flight. Amazingly, there was no Oscar nomination for Bette in Of Human Bondage. Warner, with no best actress nominated for any of his films, didn’t bother to sway WB voters to support their star on loan-out. A write-in campaign ensued, but Claudette Colbert won for It Happened One Night. Still, Jack Warner ordered a vehicle whipped up to cash in on Bette’s raves in Bondage. The result was Dangerous, for which she won her first Oscar, which even Bette said was a consolation prize. But for every good role, like The Petrified Forest and Bordertown, Bette had to endure three or four dogs like Satan Met a Lady. Davis created another first by suing Warner Brothers in 1936 to get out of her contract. Bette lost, but WB started giving her good films at last, in a gallery of movie roles for which Bette Davis is best remembered.

She's got Bette Davis eyes: 'Of Human Bondage' confirmed her stardom.
 Though Bette scoffed at Crawford playing working class girls in Adrian-designed outfits, Davis admitted in her memoirs that she envied the care Crawford’s career received at MGM. While Crawford likely didn’t take notice of the WB starlet cranking out low-budget flicks, I bet that Joan’s competitive radar pinged when that East Coast upstart triumphed where she failed.
And a life-long competition between two larger-than-life film stars was born.