William Powell and Buster Keaton,
Bogie, Coop and Colin Clive!
I’ll be decked out…
Welcome to Sister Celluloid: Where Old Movies Go To Live! I’m so happy we found each other! Here, it’s all about classic films—and you! It’s a dialogue, not a monologue. Please take a look around, and jump in on every story that interests you. Stop by often, as I’ll be adding lots of great history, news, interviews, photos etc. And I’ll be running contests for fabulous prizes like vintage jewelry, great books and terrific DVDs and CDs! Please scroll through, dig in and pipe up! I’d love to hear from you!
While we were falling in love with Jessica Lange, she was falling in love with Joan Crawford.
“She was such a treasure,” said Lange at a Q&A hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, following a sneak preview of the Feud: Bette and Joan finale. “She was never given the credit she was due. And when I went back and watched her films, she was a lovely actress, very subtle… obviously she had a style, that MGM style, but underneath it all, she was very real.
“People think of the glamour and the Hurrell photographs”, she added, “but there was so much more to her than that and it was thrilling to discover.”
Lange said she felt pressure to do right by Joan, who has been camped up and torn down for decades now. “I don’t think she got a fair shake from her daughter or from the film that was made,” she said, not daring to utter the name of the movie or the daughter, lest Faye or Cristina spring full-blown from the floorboards. “I do think she was maligned and she never got an opportunity to defend herself, of course. We dealt very fairly with Joan and created a character with all her strengths, vulnerabilities, peevishness, humanness. I hope in some way that brings another dimension to the way she’s seen. I hope we created a different idea about this woman, who was quite extraordinary.”
Focused mainly on the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, the miniseries captures an especially unhappy, even desperate, time in the careers of Joan, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, who skipped the Q&A), and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). As far as the studios were concerned, Aldrich’s sin was that his films, though often critically praised, were commercial flops. Joan and Bette’s sin was that they continued to breathe past 40.
“I’m 52 and I feel like I’m just getting started, but for Bette and Joan, they were done,” said Feud creator Ryan Murphy, who also directed and co-wrote a few episodes. “And I just think about how unfair that is. I think the saddest thing in life is lost potential.”
“They all came together at a time of great need, trying to resuscitate their careers, keep themselves relevant and valid,” said Molina.
Lange agreed: “I think that’s typical of especially what happens to a women’s career at that point. You’re still in there scrapping and fighting and thinking, ‘This next role is going to bring it all back. This next role is going to make a difference.’ You think it’s out there but it isn’t, and yet you address the situation as if you still have some kind of control. This thing of struggling to resurrect something that is long gone is where the real human sadness of it exists, the poignancy… there’s still that thing of trying to hold on.”
The early days on the Baby Jane set held the promise that its long-feuding stars might forge a truce, or even—dare we dream?—some sort of brittle friendship, based on, if nothing else, the acres of common ground they shared: four marriages, difficult daughters, and decades of grappling with shortsighted, abusive studio bosses who built fortunes on their talents, wrung every ounce of work out of them, and threw them away like squeezed lemons at the first signs of age. (When Baby Jane was first pitched to him, Jack Warner—who had 15 years on Bette and 12 on Joan—sneered, “No one will pay to see those two old broads act.”)
But circumstances conspired against them—in the form of powerful gossip mavens like Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) and even their own director, who feared a Bette-Joan alliance could blunt his power on the set. A feud, on the other hand, could spark their performances and generate buzz for a film he had little confidence in.
“Aldrich was definitely complicit, but he was also a victim of forces as well,” said Molina. “He was reluctantly drawn into stoking the fires of that feud. He was morally a complex man, I think that’s a polite way to put it… but he was also an unloved child in Hollywood. That scene where he asks Jack Warner, ‘Do you think I’m capable of being great?’ and he’s told, very blandly, ‘No’… it’s the question we all want to ask and we all fear the answer. So he was a victim but he was also complicit.”
“They were all pawns in one big confusing rat race,” added Catherine Zeta Jones (Olivia de Havilland). “You have all that fragility put onto the set, like a whole bunch of thoroughbreds, and Jack Warner is the jockey deciding which one to favor.”
Happily, the Feud set was much less fraught than Baby Jane‘s. “The atmosphere was the antithesis of what the story was about,” Molina laughed. “It was very relaxed. There’s an old saying among athletes—I’m not saying I’m an athlete in any way, but I’ve heard them say it!—that you get better when you work with the best, with people who have something to teach you. When we first started, I was petrified—with me it always starts out 50 percent excitement and 50 percent dread—but there was an effortlessness about this.”
Murphy credits much of the happy set to the fact that half the directors and many of the writers and other offscreen talent were women—a much higher quotient than the usual (criminally small) ratio. “Much less ego and drama!” he laughed.
“When I did The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, the woman who was supposed to direct the Marcia Clark episode got sick, and I stepped in for her,” he recalled. “And I wasn’t really happy with the results. And I thought, ‘Why didn’t I have nineteen women in my Rolodex I could have called to direct that?’ Now I make a point of hiring as many women as possible.”
When work on Feud began, the long slog of election season was nearing an end—and so, many hoped, was the daily bruising of one sleazy Trump outrage after the next. “It looked like Hillary was going to be our next President, and then about halfway through filming, we got what we got,” Murphy said. “And it was such a wake-up call for me. At first, this series felt a little bit like a time capsule to me… like, aren’t we past all this now—the misogyny, the sexism? And then it was like, no, it’s not over. And I could feel the women on the set getting madder and madder at the outcome and at what was already unfolding.”
But if Murphy and company couldn’t give the country a happy ending, they could give Bette and Joan one—sort of. (Warning: The next paragraph is a mild spoiler.)
In the finale, a gravely ill Joan dreams she hears laughter in the living room. She gets out of bed and moves slowly, warily toward the source… and sees Warner and Hopper knocking back a few at the card table. Soon Bette arrives, and after a little while, it’s just the two of them. And they say what we’ve always wanted them to say. That they wish they’d been kinder. Less self-protective. They wish they’d gotten it right. “But, it’s not too late!” Joan says, reaching across the table. “We can start now!” And Bette, a bit startled, smiles and nods. With that, Mamacita (yes, she’s back!) gently wakes her frail charge, wraps her arms around her and shepherds her back to bed.
“I felt like I wanted to give them, and the fans, that closure,” said Murphy. “That photograph, when they started filming Baby Jane, where they’re sitting and chatting—what if it had stayed like that?”
“When I first came out to Hollywood, I interviewed Bette and she told me, off the record, how she really regretted that she and Joan didn’t somehow work things out,” he added. “People conspired against their becoming friends, and there were also romantic entanglements and rivalries…
“All of the older actors I’ve interviewed, at the end, they were all talking about that kind of regret,” he said. “If you love someone, tell them. If you’ve hurt someone, make it up to them. People you love, people you’ve fought with, if only you could sit with them and say I’m sorry, I screwed up… okay now I’m getting choked up.”
Even more so when he revealed he dedicated this series to his grandmother. “She raised me, and she reminded me so much of Bette Davis, and I would watch her movies and feel her around me,” he remembered. “So in a way I’m reconnecting with her. That’s why I put that line in the last episode, when Pauline is talking about how older people become forgotten, and she tells the young guy who’s interviewing her, ‘Call your grandmother.'”
You do the same, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Or call someone you’ve fallen out with, and make it right. Bette and Joan would be proud of you.
Can’t get enough of Bette and Joan? Read about why they should have been friends (written years before Feud!). And about Bette’s other feud—with dogs; her fabulous fundraiser for homeless pets, which drew half of Hollywood; and her surprisingly honest pitch for war bonds! And read about how Joan stepped in for her fallen friend, Carole Lombard; her hilarious turn in Torch Song; and the advice she doles out lavishly in her book, some of which is oddly practical, and some of which is just odd…
Photo credit for shots from the stage: Alejandro Kiesel.
When I was invited to join the “April Showers” celebration of rainy movie scenes, the first one that came to mind wasn’t something like this…
You see, I’m Irish. So of course I thought of this doomed, guilt-ridden duo.
The scene in Brief Encounter where Laura (Celia Johnson) tears through the wet streets after getting caught with Alec (Trevor Howard) is the flip side of every rain-drenched romantic scene ever filmed. Because this isn’t romance—it’s love. Sacred, fierce and terrifying, an untold blessing and an unholy mess.
“I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura says early on. “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”
And yet here she is, fleeing a stranger’s flat, where she’d gone to meet a man who was a stranger only weeks before.
After bolting from the safety of her homeward-bound train at the last second, Laura rushes to meet Alec at his friend Stephen’s apartment, where he stays every Thursday while working at the hospital. But when they hear Stephen’s key in the latch—he’s home early, with a nasty cold—Laura hurries out the back way, down the tradesman’s staircase.
Stephen (Valentine Dyall) hears the scuffling—and, smugly sizing up the scene, picks up the scarf Laura left behind, letting it dangle from his fingers. “This is a service flat… it caters to all tastes,” he smirks, all but oozing a trail of slime across the carpet. “You know Alec, you have hidden depths I hadn’t suspected…”
Laura, meanwhile, is flying through the strange streets in the middle of a downpour, heading anywhere at all as long as it’s away. (“I felt humiliated and defeated and so dreadfully ashamed…”)
Finally, too tired to keep running but in no shape to go home, she huddles into a callbox at a tobacco shop and concocts a story for her husband, with a quick-witted nimbleness that appalls her. (“It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading.”)
Wandering back out into the night, she takes refuge on a park bench, where she lights a post-non-coital cigarette and—thinking of her husband—feels ashamed even for doing that. (“There was nobody about… I know how you disapprove of women smoking in the street… I do too really but I wanted to calm my nerves, and I thought it might help.”)
But her guilt is just getting started: “I sat there for ages, I don’t know how long. Then I noticed a policeman walking up and down a little way off. He was looking at me rather suspiciously…”
When he approaches, it’s clear he’s just concerned: “Feeling all right, Miss? Waiting for someone? Don’t go and catch cold now… it’s a damp night for sitting about on seats!”
She assures him she’s fine, and was just about to get up to catch a train.
“I walked away, trying to look casual, knowing that he was watching me.”
“I felt like a criminal.”
And in this grim, rainy scene, Robert Krasker shot her like one. The cinematographer (who also teamed with David Lean on Odd Man Out and won an Oscar for The Third Man) shadows Laura up and down the dark streets like her own accusing heart. And in the callbox, as she lies to her trusting husband, she’s set in stark, near-black relief against the bright lights of the cheery shop on the other side of the glass. Any shlub with a camera could conjure noir out of guiltless sex, but only a genius could find it in sexless guilt.
(P.S.: If you crave a bit of Noel Coward where the illicit lovers really let their id flags fly, get hold of The Astonished Heart, also starring Celia Johnson, but this time as the betrayed wife. It’s enough to convince you that, however frustrated they might have ended up, Laura and Alec got it right.)
This article was written for the April Showers blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Steve at Movie Movie Blog Blog. For more, click here!
Kevin Brownlow called it “the most outspoken of all the vengeance films.” It’s also one of the most daring and disturbing. And now—finally—it’s available on DVD.
Irvin Willat’s 1919 masterwork, Behind the Door, has been gorgeously restored through a collaboration of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the Library of Congress, and Gosfilmofond of Russia. And Flicker Alley releases the Blu-ray disc on April 4th.
The restoration—the most complete version of the film since it was released almost a century ago—was a years-long labor of love. The print was meticulously pieced together using a copy of Willat’s original continuity script and every known film source element—including some critical action sequences tracked down from actor Hobart Bosworth’s personal collection.
Because the movie was made in the US right after World War I, you can imagine how the battle of the protagonists—patriotic American Oscar Krug (Bosworth) and monstrous beast Lieutenant Brandt of the Imperial German Army (Wallace Beery at his Wallace Beeriest)—shapes up. What you can’t imagine is the shockingly brutal turn of events that ensue when Krug’s ship is captured by the Germans and his wife (Jane Novak), who has sneaked aboard, is kidnapped and dragged onto their U-boat, leading her heartbroken husband to seek bloody revenge. If you think you’ve seen it all but you’ve never seen this film, trust me, you haven’t seen it all. (Warning: You may never be able to watch The Champ the same way again.)
Photoplay said of Behind the Door, “it took courage to make such a picture as this, for it is a ‘he-picture’—no pap for puking infants.” Though a few adults in the audience might have felt their lunch making a return appearance as well. But the film is as gorgeous as it is graphic: Willat used color tinting in unusual ways to underscore emotion and move the narrative along. And its 70 minutes seem to fly by in less time than it takes to boil an egg.
Here’s a peek at the trailer:
As part of the roll-out, you can purchase Behind the Door at $10 off the regular price. Meanwhile, the fabulous folks at Flicker Alley have teamed with some classic film websites, including ours, to give away copies of this gorgeous print, which also includes scads of bonus materials:
- The Russian version of Behind the Door: The re-edited and re-titled version of the film that was distributed in Russia, with musical accompaniment by composer Stephen Horne, who also scored the English-language version on the DVD;
- Outtakes from Behind the Door: Featuring music composed and performed by Horne;
- “Restoring Irvin Willat’s Behind the Door”: A behind-the-scenes look at the restoration;
- “Kevin Brownlow, Remembering Irvin Willat”: An in-depth interview with the legendary film historian and honorary Academy Award® winner on Willat’s career;
- Slideshow gallery of stills and promotional material from Behind the Door; and
- Souvenir Booklet: Featuring rare photographs and essays by film historian Jay Weissburg, Rob Byrne, president of the SFSFF board of directors, who did the yeoman’s work of the restoration, and Horne.
One lucky winner will receive a copy of Behind the Door on dual-format Blu-ray/DVD from Flicker Alley. The contest is open to all US and Canadian residents and ends April 12, 2017, so hurry!
When you enter the contest by clicking below, you’ll be given the option to follow Sister Celluloid on Twitter—and I do mean option. But I hope you’ll give us a follow and join more than 2,000 movie-crazy people already at the party, sharing pix, comments, links and live-tweet events.
Okay boys and girls, it’s time for our annual Sister Celluloid tradition: filling in the massive gaps in the Oscar memorial reel!
Granted, this was a horrible year. That old cliché that celebrity deaths come in threes? Yeah no. Sometimes it felt more like tens. The most common posts on social media consisted of a single word: No. As in, Not him. Not her. Not another one.
So the producers had an overwhelming job this time. But instead of acknowledging what a hideous year it was—and giving the memorial segment the time it deserved—they blew it again.
Couldn’t they have cut down on the lame-ass patter, contrived stunts or commercials to honor the long, long list of people we loved and lost? Good God, you could drive that stupid tour bus they spent 10 minutes on through the gaping holes in that “tribute.”
But hey, not to worry: the Academy assures us there’s “an extended photo gallery of filmmakers, artists and executives”on its website! Can you think of a more depressing Hollywood fate than being an also-ran in the freaking memorial reel? “Hey, Mom, I’ll bet Dad’s glad he devoted his whole life to his craft—he’s number 121 in the slideshow! Really, just keep clicking, you’ll get there!”
A friend once kidded that I only watched the Oscars “when some old guy was getting an award.” Which wasn’t true. I also watched for the old ladies. But a few years back, in a further kick in the teeth to classic film, the Academy ghettoized the Governors Awards for lifetime achievement—and doesn’t even bother to televise them. So now I watch the Oscars mostly for the memorial reel—and then clack away at my spittle-flecked laptop to honor all the fabulous people they didn’t bother to acknowledge.
You didn’t have to be from the classic era to be snubbed—but as usual, it helped. Among the missing actors were Gloria DeHaven, Alan Young, Ruth Terry, Robert Vaughn, Madeleine Lebeau, Michele Morgan, John McMartin, Gordon Kaye, Anne Jackson, Steven Hill, Brian Bedford,Tammy Grimes, Bernard Fox, Rita Gam, Richard Bradford, Joan Carroll, Billy Chapin, Dick Davalos, Patricia Barry, Marvin Kaplan, Al Molinaro, Francine York, Van Williams, Douglas Wilmer, Peter Vaughn, Fritz Weaver, Madeleine Sherwood, William Schallert, James Stacy, Doris Roberts, Alec McCowen, Burt Kwouk, Barbara Hale, Fyvush Finkel, Robert Horton, Jon Polito, Garry Shandling, Charmian Carr, Maggie Blye, Larry Drake, Miguel Ferrer, Alexis Arquette, Florence Henderson, Richard Hatch, Bill Henderson, Teresa Saldana, Kevin Meaney, Noel Neill, Jinpachi Nezu, Joseph Mascolo, Frank Pellegrini, Joe Santos, Gil Hill, Ron Glass, Jack Riley, Peter Brown, Nicole Courcel and David Huddleston.
Overlooked filmmakers included Guy Hamilton (as in “Bond. James Bond.”), Pierre Etaix, Giorgio Albertazzi, Don Ireland and Herschell Gordon Lewis.
Happy Valentine’s Day and lots of love to my classic film family of friends!
Still looking for that perfect card, or maybe you—gasp—you forgot the big day is today? Feel free to grab one of these, created just for you.
And whether you’re still searching for love or are lucky enough to have found it, I hope your day is a lovely one!!
What if 2016 wasn’t just a horrible year, but the beginning of horrible, period? 2017 is off to an awful start, with the passing of John Hurt the latest piece of unbearable news to come thudding on the doorstep.
He was so much more than just an insanely versatile actor. He gave everything he had to this world, in every way he could. Aside from his brilliant career of more than half a century, Sir John also devoted massive amounts of his time and talent to great causes, including Greenpeace, the WAVE Trauma Center for victims of violence in the north of Ireland, and Project Harar, an Ethiopian medical charity he became involved with after playing the disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man.
My own introduction to this amazing man came in Catholic school, of all places, when we got to spend one blessed afternoon watching a great movie instead of listening to Sister Mary Arthur boom at us from behind her massive desk and even bigger glasses. (Thank you, God!) The film, as you may have guessed, was A Man for All Seasons, and Hurt played the sniveling, villainous Richard Rich, who perjures himself for a cushy post, helping doom Thomas More (Paul Scofield) to the chopping block. (“Why, Richard,” More tells him. “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?”) Good Lord, he was a creepy little bastard! So why did I develop such a huge crush on him? Like I didn’t have enough Catholic guilt?
Not long after, our local PBS station showed The Naked Civil Servant, where Hurt disappeared into the role of flamboyant British writer Quentin Crisp. But there was something about those eyes… Wait. Hold it. That guy was this guy? Another head-exploding moment soon followed, when PBS aired I Claudius, with Hurt pulling out every crayon in the crazy box as Emperor Caligula (but he was so fabulous you missed him when he was murdered). So, just to recap:
And he was just getting started!!
The man who betrayed a saint and and knocked off half of Rome became the leader of the rabbits in Watership Down. A desperate heroin addict in Midnight Express. A doomed space traveler (who got “indigestion” way too early in the movie—and later parodied his role in a Spaceballs cameo) in Alien. A brilliant wastrel in Heaven’s Gate. A prisoner of his own body in The Elephant Man. The head propagandist in Nineteen Eighty Four. A dogged detective in Crime and Punishment. An obsessed writer in Love and Death on Long Island. A hero’s weather-beaten sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. (He was the only one who insisted on reading the script before signing on. No one else did “because Steven [Spielberg]—you know, ‘God’—was doing it. And I said, ‘Well, I need to have a little bit of previous knowledge even if God is doing it.'”) An ex-con struggling for a new start in Night Train to Munich. A mystic wand-maker in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. A proud, betrayed MI-5 boss in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. An Elizabethan scribe in Only Lovers Left Alive.
The only thing these characters have in common is the actor who played them all. No one but John Hurt could have. Still, I have only scratched the surface of his work. And you get the feeling he had, too.
We will never see his like again, in a million different guises, with only a singular soul in common. Godspeed, Sir John. And thank you for every crazy, beautiful thing.
My annual salute to the men we all love… Wishing a happy and peaceful holiday season to my classic film family!
Merry Christmas, my wonderful classic-movie family of friends!!
Here’s a little ditty I wrote, sung to the tune of All I Want For Christmas Is You, celebrating some of the men we all love so much! I say “some” because if I included them all, all I’d get for Christmas is carpal tunnel syndrome.
I hope you like it! Here goes:
I don’t want a lot for Christmas
There is just one thing I need—
All my favorite classic-film gents
Underneath the Christmas tree!
Silver tinsel may be lovely
Tucked among the red and green,
But it isn’t half as nice as
Presents from the silver screen!
Clark and Cary and Tyrone,
I just want you for my own!
Make my wish come true!
Baby all I want for Christmas
Is you… and you… and you…
William Powell and Buster Keaton,
View original post 277 more words
You’ve watched the films a million times, you’ve laughed, you’ve cried… wanna go behind the scenes? Let’s sneak a peek backstage at It’s a Wonderful Life and The Bishop’s Wife! Oh and need some help toweling off, Jimmy? We’re right here!
That’s not your run-of-the-mill fake movie snow Jimmy’s dabbing away during the 90-plus-degree shoot in mid-July—that’s state-of-the-art fake movie snow! Director Frank Capra, an engineer by trade, was fed up with the white-coated cornflakes that usually subbed for snowflakes, which crunched so noisily underfoot they often drowned out the dialogue, requiring hours of redubbing.
So he toiled away in the lab with RKO’s special effects man, Russell Sherman, to create a blissfully silent concoction called Phomaide, which combined the foam used in fire extinguishers with water and sugar. And then they blew some 6,000 gallons of the stuff all over the set, which was a wonder unto itself: 75 houses, stores and factories, a parkway lined with 20 full-grown live oaks, and a Main Street running three full city blocks, all sprawled across four acres. At the time, it was the largest set ever built for a movie.
The one crucial element it almost didn’t have? James Stewart—just back from the war, battling depression, grappling with uncertainty about his future, and not all that sure he was up to playing a role that hit a little too close to home. The man who talked him into it? None other than Mister Potter himself, Lionel Barrymore.
Oh and these scenes from rehearsals will give you some idea of what the temperature was really like—not only on the set but between Stewart and Donna Reed, who eventually warmed up to each other even though Jimmy was originally skeptical about Capra’s choice to play Mary Bailey. (Okay now think hard: Can you picture anyone else in that role? Granted, we have the benefit of hindsight and fifty or sixty viewings.)
A year and a half later, Cary Grant laced up a pair of ice skates for his role as the Angel in The Bishop’s Wife though a shorter, bespectacled stunt double did most of the heavy twirling. (Two of the kids from It’s a Wonderful Life also made the trip: Karolyn Grimes packed away Zuzu’s petals to play the bishop’s daughter, and Bobbie Anderson, who was young George Bailey, popped up in the snowball-fight scene.)
For a film with such a celestial story arc, it was bedeviled with complications right from the start. Grant was originally cast as the Bishop, with David Niven as the Angel and Teresa Wright in the title role. But producer Sam Goldwyn took one look at director William Seiter’s original rushes, hated what he saw, and fired him. (For his part, Seiter had earlier directed an undersung Christmas miracle called I’ll Be Seeing You; that full movie is here.)
By the time they were set to re-shoot with a new director, Henry Koster, Wright was pregnant and was replaced by Loretta Young, and Grant had prevailed upon Koster to let him swap roles with Niven and play the Angel. How could the director resist, when Grant looked like this parked behind a harp?
But preview audiences were still unhappy with the result, and Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were brought in to punch up the script. That helped win over the critics, but moviegoers mostly ignored this little Christmas gem when it finally opened. Maybe because by then, it was February.
Or maybe people were just trapped inside their houses. Here’s how New York City, for instance, looked when The Bishop’s Wife premiered there in 1948, in the midst of one of the snowiest winters on record for much of the country. No need for Phomaide here!
And on that downy-soft note… may all your Christmases be white! (Unless you don’t want them to be. Or you live in a place where that would just be, well, odd.)
More than half a century after shielding his little sister through the most monstrous night of their lives, John Harper left the world on her birthday.
Billy Chapin—who, as John, all but carried The Night of the Hunter on his slight shoulders—died on December 2, the day Sally Jane Bruce, who played Pearl, turned 68.
From the moment we meet him, it’s clear John Harper is an old soul, something his father Ben—a robber with a bullet in his shoulder and the law fast on his heels—is counting on. He stuffs $10,000 in stolen cash into Pearl’s doll and entrusts both the girl and the money to her brother:
Ben: Listen to me, son, you gotta swear. Swear means promise. First, swear you’ll take care of little Pearl, guard her with your life, boy. Then swear you won’t never tell where the money’s hid, not even your Mom.
John: Yes Dad.
Ben: Do you understand?
John: Not even her?
Ben: You got common sense. She ain’t. When you grow up, that money’ll belong to you. Now stand up straight, look me in the eye. Raise your right hand. Now swear, “I’ll guard Pearl with my life.”
John: I will guard Pearl with my life.
Ben: And I won’t never tell about the money.
John: And I won’t never tell about the money.
Seconds after he gravely recites his vow, John is suddenly a child again for one brief, awful moment—almost doubling over in agony.as his father is knocked to the ground and dragged away in handcuffs.
But then he sets out to keep his promise, against what turn out to be nightmarish odds.
After Ben is hanged, his former cellmate—a self-styled preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum)—follows the missing money straight to John’s front door, quickly courting and winning his gullible mother, Willa (Shelley Winters) and his trusting sister—but never John, who realizes he must now try to protect not only Pearl but Willa as well.
Normally you wouldn’t give much for the chances of an 11-year-old boy against a six-foot-one psychopath—or for the chances of a child actor against the outsize Mitchum, in his best (and favorite) role. But even as Mitchum looms over him, swallowing him in his shadow, Chapin holds his own, and the screen. He conveys the deep seriousness of a child forced to grow up, or at least try to, in a matter of minutes, but he’s still so vulnerable it hurts. He pulls you so hard into his terrifying world that even if you’ve seen the film before, you’re knotted up in fear every time you watch it.
At first, Powell tries to cajole the children into confiding in him about the hidden money. He’s so unnervingly persistent that even John—who’s developed more cunning than any child should have to—blurts out more than he ought:
John: You ain’t my Dad! You’ll never be my Dad!
Powell: When we get back, we’re all going to be friends and share our fortunes together, John.
John: (screaming) You think you can make me tell, but I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!
Horrified by the lapse in his defenses, he slaps his hand over his mouth to keep from revealing anything more. But it’s already too late: Powell now knows the money is somewhere in the house—and John knows where it is.
At this point, the hapless Willa is dispensible to her husband. After she disappears under the water, her throat slit wide and her blonde hair swaying like sea grass, John and Pearl are at the preacher’s mercy. And he hasn’t any.
Powell convinces the neighbors that Willa ran off with another man, but John knows better. And when the preacher hauls them to the table for another grilling about the money, John, his jaw set firm, all but wills Pearl to keep her mouth shut. But when she’s badgered to the point of tears, he can’t bear it. Playing for time, he says the money is buried under a stone in the fruit cellar. Powell grabs a candle and marches them downstairs ahead of him—only to discover the floor is solid concrete. Enraged, he throws John across a barrel and holds a switchblade to his throat: “The liar is an abomination before thine eyes!”
Terrified for her brother, Pearl screams, “It’s in my doll, it’s in my doll!” The preacher rears back and laughs, “The doll—why sure, the last place anyone would think to look!” Seizing on the brief distraction, John snuffs out the candle and knocks a shelf of preserves onto Powell’s head. Then he grabs Pearl, who’s clutching her doll, and pulls her up the stairs and out into the night.
In one of the most terrifying odysseys ever set to film, they run for the river, where John hopes to get help from his friend Birdie, who doesn’t trust Powell either. But after stumbling across Willa’s body while fishing, he’s drunk himself into oblivion in the barge house. (Moral of the movie so far: grown-ups are either useless or lethal.) With the preacher in pursuit, John drags out his father’s old skiff, shoves it off the shore and sets out with Pearl for… anywhere, as long as it puts distance between them and their homicidal hunter. And just as he pushes off, Powell plunges into the river, knife raised, letting go an ungodly shriek as his prey flee to the safety of the open water.
The river is their sanctuary, and for a few days they follow the currents, ever farther from what was once home, foraging or begging for food by the water’s edge and sleeping wherever they can, surrounded by nature both ominous and soothing. Some creatures are as vulnerable as they are, others are plotting a kill.
Finally, exhausted and hoping to find a soft place for the restless Pearl to lay her head, John steers the boat to shore, toward an old barn with an open hayloft. But just as he’s about to set his bone-weary body down, he hears the preacher hymn-singin’ in the distance, as the horse he stole lopes lazily along; he can take his time, he’ll catch up with them eventually. And with a mix of horror and heartsick resignation, John half-whispers:
“Don’t he never sleep?”
He quickly wakes his sister, bundles her back into the boat, and they return to the river. As the sun rises, their skiff drifts ashore, its young-but-old oarsman barely conscious and his sister fast asleep. They wake to see a wiry old woman hovering over them. “You two youngsters get up here to me this minute! Get on up to my house! Mind me now, I’ll get my switch!” Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) barks. She’s already got a house full of cast-off children, and now “two more mouths to feed.”
Pearl takes to her immediately, but the battleworn John is still wary, and who can blame him? Still, she’ll turn out to be his savior—no man is a match for a Gish with a gun—and when she dispatches the preacher—who comes to claim “his children”—to the state troopers, John can almost believe he’s home at last. At Christmas, with no money or gift to give, he wraps an apple in a lace doily and shyly hands it to Miss Cooper. “That’s the richest gift a body could have,” she tells him, and he beams back at her. Now John is not only safe, but knows he’s safe. At last he, and we, can breathe.
About 10 or so years ago, UCLA devoted a special evening to The Night of the Hunter, including a panel hosted by Preston Neal Jones, author of Heaven & Hell to Play With, an oral history of the film. During the Q&A that followed, an audience member asked if anyone knew where the extraordinary Billy Chapin had disappeared to. Turns out he was in the audience. When Jones pointed him out, he stood briefly, acknowledged the waves of applause, and quickly slid back into his seat while everyone else was still standing, eager to escape the gaze of the crowd, however much affection it held for him.
You can only wonder how Chapin felt that night, seeing the boy up there on the screen, brutally robbed of his youth and almost his life. Like John Harper, his childhood was short-circuited, though in somewhat less monstrous fashion. He’d been acting almost since the day he was born—that’s him as the baby girl in Casanova Brown—but made just one more film after The Night of the Hunter, then did some television and fled the business at 15. Scant information is available after that, other than hints at a “troubled”life. He never talked publicly about his work, and in the acknowledgements for his book, Jones said Chapin “gave the project his blessing, although for personal reasons he was unable to participate.”
I hope when he returned home from UCLA that night, in the stillness of his solitude, he was able to realize how much he meant to people. And I wish, like John Harper, he could have found safe harbor. We all need a Miss Cooper. I wish, somewhere in this cold world, Billy Chapin had found his.
Billy’s real-life little sister, former child actress Lauren Chapin, has started a Go Fund Me campaign with the modest goal of $2,000, to pay for his memorial. If his performance in The Night of the Hunter is seared on your heart as well, or his splendid work in other films has moved you, now is your chance to give something back to him. Please consider donating if you have the means; to learn more, please click here for details.
The twin spirals of the World Trade Center made cameos in lots of movies, but this, I think, shows them at their best, reaching for the moon along with the lovers who glide past them. The towers show up around the two minute mark and linger a little in the night sky, before disappearing into the dark.
Today, of course, is the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But it doesn’t feel like a “9/11” day in New York; it’s cloudier and cooler, and you can feel fall creeping in around the edges.
That morning in 2001, as I left for the subway, the sky was so clear and azure-blue that if you were a painter, you’d have added a cloud just to break up the palette. The sun still felt reassuringly warm and summery, and made you feel like a fool for skulking underground to grab a train. I said out loud, to no one in particular, “What a perfect day!” It would’ve been a great day to play hooky, and I’m guessing some lucky souls saved their lives by doing just that.
Thousands of others left for work that morning, kissed someone they loved goodbye or maybe forgot to, and never came home. Of many, no trace has ever been found.
I knew some of them, though none well. Until our company was acquired and some of us moved uptown, I worked as an editor in the upper floors of Two World Trade Center. Joe, the maintenance man on our floor, often fell into the spare chair in my office at four in the afternoon or so, exhausted at the end of his shift, to complain about the ass-hat analysts who acted as if he was invisible until they needed something. He also had my back in any number of funny ways, as when he poked his head in, horrified, to say, “You work on files with these guys, right? Well, one of them just took one into the bathroom!”
Joe was still working in the towers on 9/11. He made it out of the building, but was hit by falling debris in the plaza.
Lindsay Herkness III, or the far less stuffy “Dinny” to his friends, was a senior VP at Morgan Stanley. The best way I can describe him is to tell you that he’d be played by George Sanders in a movie. Witty, charming, elegant—he seemed to have stepped out of another era. When we lunched together downstairs, he seemed like an alien presence in the dreary cafeteria, like a bon vivant who stops by at Christmas to give out plum puddings and presents. We had almost nothing in common except our love of old movies and dogs—mine a terrier mix I’d rescued from the street, his a basset named Beauregard Hound. But that was more than enough for us.
After the second plane tore through the South Tower on 9/11, Dinny remained calm. Too calm, as it turned out. He remained at his desk while his colleagues were ushered to safety, saying the towers were “the strongest buildings in the world.” But no building had ever had to endure this kind of hell. While his final, optimistic act cost him his life, I think it probably also helped those around him remain steady as they escaped with their lives.
The man responsible for getting Morgan Stanley staffers to safety was Rick Rescorla, a big Welsh bear of a man who was head of security when I joined Dean Witter (later bought by Morgan Stanley). At his insistence, safety and evacuation briefings were mandatory for all new employees. After calmly reminding us of the site’s history—it had already been hit by terrorists in 1993—he walked us through everything we needed to do to stay safe if it happened again. He was such an absolute brick that you felt like nothing bad could happen to you if he were by your side. Leaving the meeting, I told him it was the first time I ever felt safer after hearing a talk about terrorism.
I never really liked working in the World Trade Center. On windy days, you could feel the building sway; it was the only place in New York where you could get motion sick at your desk. And I did feel there was sort of a bullseye on the whole place. But whenever I ran into Rick, genially patrolling the halls, I felt better.
After the North tower was struck on 9/11, Port Authority security told those in the South Tower to stay put—that they were safer at their desks than in the chaotic plaza below. But Rick knew better. He grabbed a bullhorn and walkie-talkie and began systematically evacuating the thousands of people in his charge. Hundreds were in the stairwell when the second plane smashed into their building, which thudded and shook with terrifying intensity. He boosted morale by singing fight songs from his Cornish youth, also taking time to call and calm his wife: “Stop crying. I have to get these people out safely. If something happens to me, I want you to know I’ve never been happier.”
He was last seen headed up the stairs again as the South Tower collapsed.
I met Karol Ann Keasler only once, but that was enough to remember her still. Just before 9/11, my friend Amy introduced us when we ran into her at a restaurant downtown. She’d known Amy for years, but it seemed as if we’d both known her forever. She was warm and luminous and funny, and full of plans for her wedding in Italy. She’d only just come back from there, a week early, to help run an event for her company, Keefe Bruyette & Woods.
On the morning of 9/11, after the first tower was hit, Karol was on the phone with her mother, assuring her that her building was safe and that she’d been advised to stay at her desk. Moments later, the line went silent as the second tower was struck. Karol was trapped above the flames.
There’s an old saying that in a mass tragedy, it’s not that a thousand people are killed, it’s that one person is killed a thousand times. I just wanted to share with you my memories of a few of the almost three thousand people killed 15 years ago today. Godspeed to all of them. And may none of us ever take it for granted when we and those we love make it safely home.