Woman of the Year

Woman of the Year, 1942, MGM Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Fay Bainter. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 114 minutes.

An incomparable combination of cast, director and screenwriters created a timeless film about a powerful woman with a notable lack of expertise in love. The story is compelling, honest and funny, and it’s impossible to ignore the real-life burgeoning romance between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, who met on the set of this movie. (That love affair continued until his death in 1967).

Hepburn plays Tess Harding, a highly accomplished international affairs reporter, fluent in multiple languages, with a high society background. Enter Sam Craig, a well-respected sportswriter with a more middle-class background, not completely out of her league but a bit foreign to it.

The two work for the same big-name newspaper at a time when newspapers reigned as the source of information, and find themselves thrown together both by chance and by choice. Love seemingly has overcome that which might divide them. Tess takes on the challenge of learning baseball, oblivious about how out-of-place she is at the game. Sam valiantly works the room at a cocktail party for international dignitaries, or tries to, until language barriers bring his efforts to a halt.

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Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn

The future looks bright for this sharp couple, with perhaps some comical transition to wedded bliss in store.

Not so fast. This is a fun and funny movie, but the humor is woven into Tess & Sam’s struggle with their differences. Ultimately, their marriage is tested to a possible point of no return. With a finely written script and keenly portrayed characters, how that struggle unfolds is what makes this such a rich and rewarding film.

The ending falls a little flat, although the message is good, and a bit of background on the making of the film tells us why. The original ending didn’t play well when tested with audiences, so against their wishes, the stars and screenwriters Ring Laudner Jr. & Michael Kanin pulled together something new. Despite the messy changes, Laudner & Kanin won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Fortunately, they were able to keep the final key message intact. It’s a message as true today as it was then, and one that women faced with combining career and marriage will appreciate. Hopefully, their men will as well.

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Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

This movie has honesty, intelligence, complexity, humor and of course, genuine chemistry between Tracy and Hepburn (the latter was nominated for an Academy Award). Fay Bainter, as Hepburn’s equally liberal and driven aunt, is appealing in her vulnerable and straightforward nature.

This is a classic story for women who want to “have it all” — because it tells us you can’t, but at the same time, you can.

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Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce, 1945, Warner Bros. Starring Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth. Directed by Michael Curtiz. B&W, 111 minutes.

A sharp psychological drama that has had feminists debating the nature of its leading lady’s motivations and decisions from the day it was released, Mildred Pierce is as provocative a a mother/daughter tale as you’ll discover on film.

Set in sunny southern California, yet somehow dark in atmosphere and telling, this is the narrative of a woman who will sacrifice anything for her ever-ungrateful daughter. Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford) married young and has two girls, and as she explains it, this is the only life she knows. However, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) is out of work and apparently has an interest in another woman. After a particularly nasty fight one evening, he packs his bags and walks out, leaving Mildred alone to pay the bills.

Beyond the usual costs of keeping a home, Mildred has big dreams for her children that come with a price. She’s hired an expensive voice coach for her older daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), and her younger girl, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) is enrolled in dance classes. What’s more, nothing will truly please self-absorbed Veda, yet Mildred is determined to give her everything she wants.

Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth
Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth

She turns to her friend Wally Fay (Jack Carson) for help with her dream of opening a restaurant. Wally finds a property owned by Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott) and arranges a deal with him that allows Mildred to open her new — and highly successful — place at a cost she can afford. Beragon, for his part, has fallen for Mildred.

What follows is a complex tale of confused relationships, a family’s sorrows and a woman’s choices in the face of losing odds in all she treasures.

Director Michael Curtiz had reluctantly agreed to Crawford’s unusual offer to do a screen test for the part after learning Barbara Stanwyck and several other actresses he sought wouldn’t be available. Despite his hesitation, that screen test quickly convinced him Crawford was the right choice, but tension remained between the two throughout production. Producer Jerry Wald often stepped in to mediate.

Not everyone had complaints about working with Crawford. Ann Blyth later recalled her as “the kindest, most helpful human being I’ve ever worked with. We remained friends for many years after the film. I never knew that other Joan Crawford that people wrote about.”

Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott
Ann Blyth, Zachary Scott

Crawford, whose career had been in a slump prior to this film, won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for Mildred Pierce. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (twice, for Eve Arden and Ann Blyth) Best Writing, Screenplay, and Best Cinematography, Black & White. (The Oscar for Best Picture that year went to The Lost Weekend, starring Ray Milland.)

After seeing the film, James M. Cain, author of the novel Mildred Pierce on which the film was based, sent Joan Crawford a signed first edition of his original book. The inscription read: “To Joan Crawford, who brought Mildred Pierce to life just as I had always hoped she would be, and who has my lifelong gratitude.”

Mildred’s role as wife and mother has long been debated by feminists, and analyzing it in that way, particularly in context of the times, is beyond the scope of this review.  Interpreting motives in fictional characters is a difficult thing to do when singular actions in film may take place simply to move a story forward. However, as a well-played, complex character from that era, it doesn’t get much better than Mildred Pierce.


His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday, 1940, Columbia Pictures. Starring Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 92 minutes.

This classic comedy reigns with its sharp banter, sophisticated stars and satirical plot.

Ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), returns to the newsroom to inform her ex-husband — and fellow newsman — Walter Burns (Cary Grant) she’s quitting and getting married again, this time to safe, secure insurance agent Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).

It’s not long before we see mild-mannered Bruce is all wrong for the fiery Hildy, and the witty and sly repartee between Walter & Hildy makes you wonder what tore them apart.

Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday
Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell

The why’s and wherefore’s of Hildy’s decision to leave Walter and her choice of Bruce are quickly revealed, but it’s no surprise when the impending execution of a possibly innocent man overtakes her reporter’s instincts. She puts the wedding on hold while pursuing the story, and all the while Walter is working on winning her back with some less-than-honorable methods.

Those not familiar with Grant’s comedic skills may be surprised at his adeptness with the art. His timing, subtlety — and lack of it when necessary — made him one of the great romantic comedy actors of his day. Yes, he’s suave and handsome, but that’s only part of his charm.

Russell is his match in every way, and the two definitely have chemistry. As Hildy, wrapped in the quick pace of both the conversation and the plot, she gives a fine portrayal of a woman in a man’s world, long before that became much of a reality.

Rosalind Russell
Rosalind Russell

Poor Ralph Bellamy. His performance as the milquetoast and enamored fiancé is perfect, but as such, Grant and Russell outshine him.

The mockery of the world of news reporting and the hijinks that surround a dramatic case are, we trust, exaggerated. The remaining cast, keeping up with its stars but never overpowering a scene, support the satirical spirit of the story. It is, however, the interaction between Grant & Russell that make up the best parts of the movie.

This is a great rainy Saturday afternoon film, but don’t wait for a downpour to watch it.

Dinner at Eight

Dinner at Eight, 1933, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring  John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Billie Burke. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 113 minutes.

This pre-code dramedy of a group set to gather together for a dinner honoring a socially elite couple has little to do with that actual event, rather, it’s a story of eight diverse people coming to grips with life-altering events.

There are affairs and sly business dealings, marriages beginning and others staggering to stay together, the naivety & idealism of youth set in contrast to the solid, secure reality of years. All in all, there are characters we all know in our own lives, or want to know, or can imagine all too well.

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Marie Dressler, Lionel Barrymore

Flighty Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) has plans for a dinner party, while unbeknownst to her, husband Oliver Jordan (Lionel Barrymore) is suffering both from ill health and the imminent downfall of the lucrative family business.

Much to Oliver’s delight, however, his old friend Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), an aging and once beautiful actress whom he loved in his younger years, is in town to visit. He soon learns she’s there in part to sell off her share of stock in his company, a move that could be the final nail in the coffin of the business.

Meanwhile, the Jordan’s daughter Paula (Madge Evans), although engaged to society catch Ernest DeGraff (Phillip Holmes), is in love, or believes herself to be, with Larry Renault (John Barrymore), a fading movie star with a drinking and ego problem, who doesn’t share Paula’s feelings.

Madge Evans, John Barrymore Dinner at Eight
Madge Evans, John Barrymore

The man instrumental in the likely undoing of Oliver’s company is Dan Packard (Wallace Beery), although Oliver is unaware of his role. Dan has an antagonistic relationship with his beautiful young wife, Kitty (Jean Harlow), who, for her part, is having an affair with her doctor, Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe). Dr. Talbot, it turns out, is also treating Oliver.

This story plays out with some of the finest actors & actresses of its time in a film considered one of the best of the 1930s. Although it wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards, many of the cast & crew were past or future Oscar winners, including Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery and director George Cukor.

Dressler was one of MGM’s most popular actresses at the time, yet playing a sophisticated, fading beauty was entirely unlike her typical brassy role, so her sparkling performance was (and remains) a delightful surprise. In many ways, she stole the spotlight from “blonde bombshell” Jean Harlow.

Jean Harlow Diiner at Eight
Jean Harlow

For her part, Harlow rose to the occasion, proving her comedic and acting skills and creating a role that was a turning point for her, leading to other parts in major films of the decade. Look for her dress in the dinner scenes; that beautiful gown by Adrian became known as the “Jean Harlow dress.”

John Barrymore, much like his character, was once a great star, now battling alcoholism and fading glory. Interestingly, Barrymore had no problem playing up the similarities, in fact, he encouraged it, adding details from his own life to the script.

As a pre-code film, this movie is laden with sexual innuendo and a near-profanity or two. The story is biting and heartbreaking, funny and wise, and well worth the watch.

 


All About Eve

All About Eve, 1950, 20th Century Fox, Starring Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Thelma Ritter. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. B&W, 138 minutes.

Margo Channing (Bette Davis) is a brilliant, yet aging, Broadway diva who finds lost puppy Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), an ardent fan and aspiring actress, on the doorstep of her theater.

Actually, it’s Margo’s close friend Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) who finds Eve huddling outside the backstage door, and at Karen’s gentle urging, Margo takes Eve under her wing. Margo’s loyal and acerbic maid Birdie (Thelma Ritter) is the only one with doubts about the young woman, and the balance of deference as a servant and dedication as a friend keeps her quiet — but she manages to let her feelings slip at opportune times.

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Anne Baxter, Thelma Ritter, Bette Davis

Margo’s ever-patient boyfriend Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) is directing the play she’s currently starring in, which was written by Karen’s husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe). Lloyd is one of the finest playwrights of his time, and he’s writing a new play specifically for Margo, as he’s done several times before.

Gradually Eve begins to clearly show her true intentions. She’s very good at carrying out ambitious plans intended to defeat others, and doesn’t have a second thought for who’s left behind. But these are well-matched players, and the consequences aren’t always as anticipated.

Woven into all of this is sly, sophisticated and at times unscrupulous theater critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders). He has an almost omniscient presence, is unpleasantly necessary to the theater scene and therefore reluctantly respected, or at least tolerated, by the seasoned players. He plays his cards well. Very well.

All About Eve party scene
Gregory Ratoff, Anne Baxter, Gary Merrill, Celeste Holm, George Sanders, Marilyn Monroe

This film was nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won 6, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor for George Sanders.  Bette Davis and Anne Baxter were both nominated for Best Actress, and it was a split among voters that’s believed to have cost Davis the award for what most consider her greatest role. (Despite the film’s title, it’s hard to justify Baxter’s role as a “lead actress” part.)

All four women (Davis, Baxter, Holms and Ritter) were nominated for Academy Awards, and this remains the only film in Oscar history to have four female acting nominations.

Davis was a last-minute choice as Margo, and several script changes were made to accent her more caustic style. Still, the Margo she played had a vulnerable side as a woman who struggled to give up her role as the premier — yet no longer young — star on Broadway. She was being forced to step down and let another woman for whom she had little or no respect take the stage, literally, and perhaps outshine her. The future frightened her.

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Bette Davis, Gary Merrill, Anne Baxter, George Sanders

Davis was a master at balancing the abrasive with the unguarded parts of her character, and you never lose sympathy for Margo, as infuriating as she might be. Moreover, there was never any doubt Margo truly was a star, and always would be, regardless of the roles she might play. Bette Davis created a captivating performance of a memorable character.

George Sanders gave a potentially off-putting character an element of charm and appeal that while underhanded, is also a wee bit sexy. Sanders’ performance is rich in both expression and words, as he worked both elements with a rare expertise.

In addition to all the award-worthy work of this film’s stars and co-stars, look for Marilyn Monroe’s notable performance in one of her first major motion picture appearances.

Gary Merrill, Bette Davis All About Eve
Gary Merrill, Bette Davis

There are some surprisingly old-school thoughts coming from feminist Margo at times regarding a woman’s role and marriage, but overall, the character remains consistent through her evolution and growth. Her parting words to Eve following the awards ceremony assure us Margo will never change. In real life, Bette Davis was well ahead of her time in women’s rights, and that quality rings most true in her performance.

The movie drags a bit in the end, in part because Davis isn’t in much of it. Still, some of the most satisfying parts of the plot are also found there.

Rated #28 in AFI’s 2007 list of the Top 100 Best Movies all Time, this is a must-watch film for classic movie fans — and all true movie fans.

Swing Time

Swing Time, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures, Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore. Music by Jerome Kern &  Dorothy Fields. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 102 minutes.

Quite possibly the best musical from the Depression era, including all other Astaire/Rogers films, is Swing Time. The plot is fun, engaging, and not particularly complex, but the best storytelling happens through the moves of this incomparable pair.

“Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is set to marry his long-time sweetheart, but numerous delays postpone the wedding, and the father-of-the-bride insists he earn $25,000 to prove his character.

Through one mishap after another, Lucky and his friend Pop end up in New York and on the bad side of Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor. To gain her friendship, Lucky takes a lesson from her, and the fun — and magnificent dancing — begins.

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Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Fred Astaire’s notorious perfectionism in creating & refining each dance number and tireless work with famed choreographer Hermes Pan paid off. Three numbers in particular stand out; the first, “Pick Yourself Up,” is fun and exuberant, showcasing Ginger Rogers in top form. The second, “Waltz in Swing Time,” considered by many to be their finest dance together, is romantic and complex, with a slightly more subdued spirit than seen in “Pick Yourself Up.”

Yet it’s the final number in this film, “Never Gonna Dance,” that is likely the most evocative and beautiful Astaire/Rogers performance from any film. This poignant dance took place on an incredible Art Deco set and was shot almost completely in one long take (there’s one cutaway in the end), using one camera. When you watch it, you’ll understand why it took 47 attempts to achieve the final perfect result.

Ginger Rogers is often quoted as saying she did everything Fred Astaire did, “only backwards, and in high heels.” Almost true. She didn’t dance backwards too often, but she did wear high heels in virtually every number, and managing those dresses while dancing was a feat in & of itself.

The deceptive simplicity of the dress in “Never Gonna Dance” is amazing as well. A close look shows how complex the design is, fitted through the waist and flared out below the hips, all done with pleats.

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers The Way You Look Tonight
Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

You may recognize the Academy Award-winning song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” which went on to become Fred Astaire’s most popular recording and has been recorded by countless others since.

Years later in her autobiography Ginger Rogers would say “though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time.”  This depression-era film provided a much-needed escape for its audiences when it was released, and still offers that break from reality today.   If you watch only one Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, choose this one.

 

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, 1946, Paramount Pictures. Starring Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas (film debut), Lizabeth Scott. Directed by Lewis Milestone. B&W, 116 minutes.

Three childhood friends are linked forever by the truth behind a crime committed by one of them in their youth. Or so two of them believe — and set out to destroy the third before he reveals what they know but can’t say. Only it’s unclear what that third person believes about the crime, or if he even knows one was committed.

Of course, this is film noir, so enter the femme fatale, who becomes a pawn in their plans of betrayal.

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Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas

Van Heflin stars as the affable yet street savvy Sam Masterson, who, purely by chance, finds himself in the town he grew up in with his car in need of repair.

Unaware of the trap he’s about to walk into, he looks up his childhood friends, Walter and Martha O’Neil (Kirk Douglas, Barbara Stanwyck). Along the way he meets the alluring and vulnerable Toni Maracheck (Lizabeth Scott), who has a few secrets of her own.

Heflin is as appealing as any movie star of that era in this film, and brings an effortless, timeless quality to his performance.

Kirk Douglas made his film debut co-starring in this high-profile 1946 movie. His performance as the beaten-down, alcoholic district attorney foretells his quick rise to stardom. Placing a newcomer opposite an established star like Barbara Stanwyck was a bold move, but it paid off.

Stanwyck’s chilling portrayal of a ruthless, guilt-ridden women driven to push her husband to political success shows the depth and versatility of her talent as she reveals all sides of her character with equal skill and believability.

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Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott

True to film noir, it is melodramatic in parts. Overall, it rings true in its characters, their motivation and behavior. I found the start of the film to be a bit slow, but stick with it for essential information. The rest is compelling and suspenseful, with a dramatic finish that wraps up the story in a manner consistent with the plot as a whole.