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!
A while back, my grandfather was taking my mother on a cruise, and trying to persuade me to come along. “You just sit back and rock, as the boat goes back and forth and back and forth,” he said, swaying and nodding his head from side to side. “It sounds great, Pop,” I blurted unconvincingly, “but please, you have to stop now!” I was getting seasick just watching him. I got queasy again at the Bon Voyage party.
Then there was the Jetfoil my husband Tim and I took from Bar Harbor to Nova Scotia. I was fine… until I wasn’t. At one point during a festive screening of The Little Mermaid on the upper deck, I suddenly felt… unwell. I barreled across the boat in frantic search of a bathroom, making it just in time. After watching in horror as everything I’d eaten since the fifth grade made a glorious comeback, I pulled myself together and swanned back to the land of the living, trying to seem calm and collected—maybe even elegant if I could pull it off! (Think Miss Davis in Now Voyager or Miss Dunne in Love Affair.) But as I settled into a lounge chair, channeling Mary Astor in Dodsworth, a deckhand leaned over and gently patted my hand. “We’re almost there,” he whispered reassuringly. Mortified, I asked if he’d seen me flying across the deck. “No,” he said, “but I see you now. And you’re green.”
When I got home, I told my doctor, who had armed me with industrial-strength drugs and dermal patches. “Those things work for guys in the Navy going across the North Sea!” she said, shocked at their spectacular failure. “There’s only one other thing I can prescribe: Stay off boats.” Which I did. For years.
Then came the TCM Classic Cruise. And I even stayed off that for years. But this time, I gave it a whirl. Along with the drugs and patches, I added ginger drops to my bag, a Seaband on one wrist, and an electronic thing on the other that’s supposed to interrupt the nausea signal to your brain by zapping the median nerve with a little Z-Z-Z every few seconds. I put it on the second-highest setting; any more voltage and I was pretty sure I’d electrocute myself.
Now it was time to settle in for five days of movies.
The schedule aboard the Disney Magic was slightly less hectic than the one you’ll find at the TCM Classic Film Festival, though there were still plenty of choices to make among 14 special presentations and 64 films, ranging from Eddie Muller-hosted noirs like The Asphalt Jungle, The Hitch-Hiker and Rififi, to screwballs such as The Lady Eve and It Happened One Night, to musicals like On the Town and Shall We Dance, to standards including Laura and Dodsworth. And like the Festival, there were no bad options.
Most of the documentaries and special events were found in the lounge; my favorite was “The First 25 Years of the Academy Awards,” complete with backstage tales and fabulous film clips, hosted by Randy Habercamp, managing director of Preservation and Foundation Programs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Why doesn’t every classroom have cozy tables and a bar off to the side?
The rest of the films, including those with special guests Cicely Tyson, Mitzi Gaynor and Diane Ladd, aired in one of two cavernous but comfy theatres, or on the upper deck, poolside. Where I spent much of the trip.
With, among others, Fred and Ginger…
…and my movie husband Rod Taylor. (This is the scene in Sunday in New York where, imagining that the pillow was me, I got shushed for sighing at the TCM Film Festival by a woman who clearly had no pulse. Hey, laydee, I was the one who pestered them into putting the film on the program in the first place!)
The atmosphere on the cruise was less hardcore than at a regular film festival, so there was a lot more freedom to duck in or out of theatres mid-film (which is great if you’re the one doing the ducking but not so much if you’re the one being climbed over). And up at poolside, all bets were pretty much off in terms of talking; during Topper, I had to move from a prime viewing spot when a Martha Raye sound-alike and her bevy of boisterous buddies tucked into the table directly behind me.
And once, things got a bit too casual: a woman in the deckchair next to mine whipped out a can of highly stinky aerosol spritzer and proceeded to spray her entire torso, underarms and all. When I looked up from my book, startled and half-gagging, she snapped, “It’s deodorant! Don’t you wear deodorant?” I said, um, yeah, but I don’t put it on in public. “We’re not in public!” she informed me. “We’re on a boat!”
Ah but then there was… the food. Oh my God the food. Everywhere, all the time. Buffets round the clock. Dessert stations. A pizza, burger and hot dog stand. Unlimited popcorn at screenings. And a soft-serve machine with old-fashioned cones. You know you’re on a cruise when your roommate jumps up in the middle of breakfast and says, “You want some ice cream? Cause I’m gonna go get some!”
Oh and the four-course dinners every night, with the same fabulous staff taking care of us. Our headwaiter Walter took his duties so seriously that one day when I was up at poolside—nowhere near dinnertime and six decks above the dining room—I turned to find him behind me, offering a Coke. And then a little while later appearing at my table, seemingly out of nowhere, with another one. I was almost relieved when the movie ended and I was heading out, as 12 years of Catholic school would have made me feel too guilty to be served another soda.
I had no problem eating, well, everything, since after a shaky first night, I did okay with the whole boat thing. But a touch of claustrophobia kicked in after a couple of days.
Me, calling Tim: “I’m having a great time, there’s just one thing though. Sometimes I have kind of a closed-in feeling. I can’t explain it… it’s like I’m trapped on a boat.”
Tim: “Yeah, ummm…”
Luckily we were just about pulling into Bermuda by then. I felt a twinge of guilt about swilling a mango daiquiri beachside on a random Thursday, when everyone back home was working. It lasted about as long as it took me to bite the maraschino cherry off the stem.
“Some people just stay on the boat the whole time and keep watching movies,” a veteran cruise-goer told me. Which seemed silly. Until the second day we were dockside, when I did the same thing for a slate of Halloween films. Val Lewton (Cat People), Buster Keaton (The Haunted House), Boris Karloff (The Mummy) and Lon Chaney Jr. (House of Frankenstein) were whispering my name.
As if on cue, day turned to dark and stormy night during The Haunted House, but nothing could budge me from my Buster.
And just in time for sweet dreams, House of Frankenstein—also featuring Dracula and the Wolfman—wrapped up at around midnight, when we all unbundled from our deck blankets and trundled off to bed. (Or to the bar on Deck 3.)
In fact all the late-night poolside showings were a bit nippy, which deterred… no one. Not with fleece and cocktails and hot chocolate handy. Though on the final night, when they showed Sullivan’s Travels, I had swathed myself in blankets so thoroughly I didn’t even budge for a drink…
…warming up only when Joel pours his heart out to Jimmy Conlin. Oh and whips his shirt off.
Cold as it was that night, I was reluctant to shed my blankets and head down to my warm stateroom, knowing this was the last film of the trip.
Before dawn the next morning, as we pulled into port, I strolled around the still-damp upper deck, where so many movies had gone by so quickly in the days before. Strains of Gershwin wafted through the air as I gazed out on the city I love—a little disappointed, though, to be back so soon. Almost a week had flown by in under a minute.
I popped into the coffee shop where Colin had made my coconut lattes all week. Where were they off to next, I asked? The Caribbean. And here I was heading into drizzly Manhattan. He skipped the usual Disney characters that had topped the foam in my drinks all week—which I always felt guilty about smooshing into oblivion on the first sip—and gave me a little going-away present.
Thank you Colin, thank you Walter and the crew, and thank you TCM, for this Sullivan girl’s lovely travels.
When I was 18, I tried to take my own life. I was saved when my roommate suddenly realized, about a half-hour down the 110 Freeway, that she’d forgotten her birth control, and came back to retrieve it. (And if you ever need to cite an example of the bizarre twists and turns a life can take, feel free to use me as Exhibit A.)
Two years earlier, I had lost my Dad, who was my kindred spirit, my best friend and my . protector. After he was gone, everything and everyone reminded me of him. Even the muscle memory of walking up the steps to our house was too much to bear, knowing he wouldn’t be on the other side of the door. And with a drunken, violent sister just down the hall, home became much less safe, and really no home at all, without him. After she tried to smother me in my sleep, I’d taken to pushing my dresser, which had been my grandmother’s, up against my door before I went to bed, thanking God the whole time that old furniture was so fecking heavy.
So when it came time to go to college, I went as far away as I could without leaving the mainland: from New York to Los Angeles. But I was no less lonely or miserable there, and somehow, as the fervent hope of a new start congealed to despair, things got much worse.
Despair. That’s the thing. That’s the rancid kernel at the heart of depression that blots out hope like a total eclipse, that pours its poison in your ear, telling you that things will never get better, that people will be better off without you or maybe not even miss you at all. It’s the thief in the night that you must fight to keep on the other side of the door, for what it wants to steal is your life. And it’s an imposter—but a deadly convincing one.
What does any of this have to do with classic film, you’re wondering? A close look at my Twitter timeline tells me that a lot of my old-movie friends are struggling with depression, ranging from the blues, to misery over the state of the country, to “I don’t want to be here any more.”
Those of us who love old movies tend to be a sensitive, dreamy lot, yearning for wonderful people we’ll never know. Just being immersed in a world of souls who are long gone can send an undercurrent of simmering sadness even through comedies.
I’ve probably seen The More the Merrier forty times, each time wishing I could be back there on that happy set with them, or that they could be on the sofa watching with me. And there’s something about seeing an old movie starring someone who’s still out there in the world that makes me so happy I sometimes burst into tears. I used to watch Lauren Bacall movies on TCM, wondering if she were watching too, at home in The Dakota. And during every one of my hundred or so viewings of Sunday in New York, I’d think about Rod Taylor, still working hard and being fabulous, out in California.
But then, when they go, it’s so very hard.
And when depression—over anything—deepens to despair, it’s dangerous. In It’s a Wonderful Life, James Stewart gives us some of the most visceral moments of despair ever set to film. And I think more people identify with him in those scenes than would openly acknowledge, because there’s still such a stigma, not only around mental health issues, but around not being happy all the time. (I’m pretty sure we’re also the only culture that pushes the ridiculous notion of “closure” after losing someone we love.)
So I guess my reason for writing this is to let my old-movie friends know they’re not alone. I had a whole bunch of things I was supposed to do today but I dropped them because I just felt I needed to say that. So much of social media is looking at other people’s highlight reels and feeling crappy by comparison. There is no shame in feeling depressed, or in struggling with mental health problems. Please, please, if you need help, get it. And if you see others who need help, reach out. Let’s all be one another’s Clarence the Angel until the real thing comes along.
If you need help, here are hotline numbers around the world:
Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII Reveals Entirely New Facets of Her Life, Including Her Work as a Resistance Fighter
Ah, there’s the Audrey we love—light and breezy, cycling around the set of Sabrina in capri pants and a ponytail.
But a scant eight years earlier, an Audrey we’ll grow to love even more was cycling through the darkened streets of her Nazi-occupied city, entrusted with urgent missives of the Dutch Resistance printed on sheets no bigger than paper napkins: “I stuffed them in my woolen socks in my wooden shoes, got on my bike and delivered them.”
This is the girl we meet in Robert Matzen’s extraordinary and deeply moving new book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII (GoodKnight Books, 2019), gleaned from exhaustive research that includes family diaries, Dutch archival records, Audrey’s own recollections, and interviews with villagers who knew her during the war. It also features photographs from her personal collection, published for the first time.
Audrey didn’t come by her anti-Nazi fervor naturally: both her parents were fiercely pro-fascist. Her father, Joseph Ruston, peddled Nazi propaganda so hard that he wound up on the radar of British intelligence. And her mother, the Baroness Ella Van Heemstra, penned articles praising the Führer (“Well may Adolf Hitler be proud of the rebirth of this great country and of the rejuvenation of the German spirit!”)—and treasured the moment he kissed her hand during a personal audience in Munich.
Ruston abandoned his family when Adriaanjte (“little Audrey”) was only six—opening a wound that would never fully heal. (“I think it is hard sometimes for children who are dumped,” she recalled decades later, the pain still palpable. “I don’t care who they are. It tortures a child beyond measure. They don’t know what the problem was.”) Also undone by the sudden shock, Ella shuttled her two sons off to a boarding school in The Hague and Audrey to another near Dover, England, where she found refuge in music and dance. (“I fell in love with dancing,” she said later. “There was a young dancer who would come up from London once a week and give ballet lessons. I loved it, just loved it.”)
But in 1939, as the Nazis blighted ever more of Europe, the baroness, who had moved from Belgium to the Netherlands to be closer to family, reclaimed her children to a land she thought was safe. Astonishingly, she still trusted Hitler, and believed he wouldn’t invade a country that Germany had deemed off-limits during the Great War.
Ten-year-old Audrey made it safely out of England not a moment too soon. “There were still a few Dutch planes allowed to fly,” she later recalled. “They put me on this bright orange plane. You know, orange is the national color and it flew very low. It was really one of the last planes out.”
Ella’s peculiar trust in the Führer proved short-lived, as the Nazis invaded the Netherlands the following spring. “We saw the grey uniforms of the German soldiers on foot,” Audrey would remember. “They all held machine guns and marched in looking spick and span and disciplined… then came the rumble of trucks… and the next thing we knew they had taken complete charge of the town.”
In Holland, she continued to find solace in the rigors of ballet, enrolling in a music school run by a celebrated local instructor. And she found warmth and comfort with her Uncle Otto and his wife Wilhelmina, who gave her the affection her mother brusquely withheld.
Even in the early years of the occupation, Ella remained on friendly terms with influential local Nazis, which helped her maintain a prominent—and to her, still important—role in the town’s cultural affairs. But she finally relented when the war took a monstrously personal toll.
In May 1942, Otto was one of hundreds rounded up, arrested and imprisoned for the acts of resistance across the Netherlands. Four months later, when critical a rail line was sabotaged, he was one of five hostages dragged from their beds and driven to the middle of a remote forest. There, they were forced to dig their own graves through the night, and executed by firing squad at dawn the next morning. Grief-stricken and terrified, Audrey’s family fled to Velp, where her grandfather lived.
After years of study which helped keep her sane, Audrey had become Arnhem’s most prominent young ballerina, grudgingly giving her first public performance in July 1941 for an audience of Nazi soldiers. But the heartbreak of losing her beloved uncle hardened her even further against the brutal occupiers—and soon, she would turn her talents to aiding the Resistance movement that Otto had given his life for. She started performing at secret, invitation-only fundraisers called zwarte avonden (black evenings), so named because the windows were blacked out to avoid Nazi detection. “Guards were posted outside to let us know when Germans approached,” Hepburn later recalled. “The best audiences I ever had made not a single sound at the end of my performance.”
In the summer of 1944, a family friend introduced Audrey to Dr. Hendrik Visser ’t Hooft, whose hospital was the center of the local Resistance, where doctors and staff forged identity papers and set up communications with the Allies. Audrey helped treat the wounded during the bloody, protracted Battle of Arnhem, and, because she spoke fluent English, carried messages to downed American and British fliers, telling them where they might find food and safe haven.
One English pilot who was shot down found shelter with the Hepburns, who hid him until he could make his escape. “My mother told me it was thrilling for her—it was risky, he was a stranger in uniform, a savior, and therefore a knight and hero,” her son, Luca Dotti, recalls in Dutch Girl. “Then I learned about the German law that if you were caught hiding an enemy, the whole family would be taken away.”
Partly as a form of cruel vengeance against a people who clearly despised and resisted them, the Nazis began withholding food, fuel, coal, and other vital supplies; even water was in short supply. During the “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45, thousands succumbed to intense cold and starvation, while many who survived, including Audrey, suffered extreme malnutrition. She went for days at a time without eating, and meals, when they could be cobbled together, usually consisted of a potato or a slice of bread—often made from ground tulip bulbs—and a thin broth.
Finally in April 1945, Canadian forces, bearing gifts of cigarettes and candy bars, forced the last Nazis out of Velp. And Audrey celebrated by gorging on chocolate until she was too sick to eat any more.
Dutch Girl is Matzen’s third volume covering the war years of classic Hollywood stars, following Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 and Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe. I love all three, not only for the meticulous research he devotes to them—by now he’s practically a grizzled war veteran himself—but because he pushes past the ordinary celebrity portraits to reveal aspects of their lives and characters we’d never known before.
In the case of Audrey Hepburn, this is especially welcome. It always bothers me when she’s portrayed merely as a meringue confection or style icon, when there was so much underneath, so much more going on behind her eyes. Now, thanks to Matzen’s book, we know what some of that was.
The horrors she witnessed, and those that shattered her family first-hand, would have hardened a lot people, or perhaps instilled a sense of entitlement. Audrey had literally looked pure evil in the face, and God knows she’d earned a safe, secure haven to hide away in. Instead, she reached out to a world still in pain, still battling hunger and disease, war and injustice. She could have looked away. With all her heart, she didn’t.
From almost the moment she gained a public platform, Audrey used it for good, urging the world to Look. See. Help. The phrase “worked tirelessly” is tossed around a lot, but she did—for the Red Cross and as an ambassador for UNICEF. All over the world, wherever a light needed to be shown. At fundraisers, she sometimes gave readings from the diary of Anne Frank, who was born the same year and whose family had also fled to Holland in a frantic search for safety, to find it only briefly. She knew many passages by heart.
“The war was very, very important to her,” says Dotti in Dutch Girl. “It made her who she was.” Or, just maybe, it revealed who Adriaantje was all along, from the very beginning.
Katharine Hepburn. Even when she insulted you, something good came out of it.
Back in the 1970s, Kate befriended a young Manhattan neighbor at the urgent request of her father. It seems the girl was threatening to drop out of Bryn Mawr, Kate’s alma mater, and her frantic dad wrote to Kate—whom he’d seen but never met—to talk some good old New England sense into the child. (Needless to say, she did, over tea.) The four-time Oscar winner and the family soon became friendly, and years later, when Kate was injured in a car accident, the father dropped by with a batch of home-made brownies.
Miss Hepburn was not amused.
Oh, sure, she was grateful for the gesture, but she balked at the brownies: “Too much flour! And don’t overbake them! They should be moist, not cakey.” Then she rattled off her own recipe by heart, while her chastened guest took notes.
Here are Kate’s brownies, which, as you might expect, are pretty much perfect. They’re loaded with nuts, and the liquid-to-flour ratio gives them an extremely high Gooey Factor, which all good brownies should have. (Whenever I see a recipe with the line, “for cakier brownies…” I don’t even finish the sentence. If you want cakey, bake a freaking cake.)
KATHARINE HEPBURN’S BROWNIES
1 stick butter
1/2 cup cocoa
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 cup walnuts or pecans, broken into pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla
A pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan with the cocoa and stir until smooth, being careful not to overcook. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Gently fold in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the sugar, flour, nuts, vanilla and salt. Pour into a greased 8×8 pan. Bake 35-40 minutes; check with a toothpick after 35. They should still be gooey when they’re done. Let cool (a must!) before slicing.
Enjoy! And don’t look now but you’ve got a little chocolate on your chin…
Happy Birthday, Audrey Hepburn!
This extraordinary woman was born 90 years ago today, and to celebrate, we’re launching Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon! A heartfelt thank-you to all the writers helping us explore so many aspects of her amazing life.
And we’re so honored to welcome a very special guest —Audrey’s son, Luca Dotti, author of the New York Times bestsellers Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen and Audrey in Rome. “I’m touched and delighted that so many writers are celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday,” he told us. “I look forward to reading the variety of topics on her films and her life which are covered here.” Luca also wrote the moving and insightful foreword to Robert Matzen’s brand-new book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in World War II, an incredible story beautifully told—which will leave you even more in awe of Audrey.
Three lucky participants will win a copy! On May 8, we’ll draw the names and notify the winners.
I’ll be writing about this fascinating book, and the author will be sharing his thoughts on what it was like to spend so much time “with” Audrey, compared with his other stellar subjects, including James Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn and Carole Lombard.
So without further ado, let’s get this party started!
The event runs from May 4 to May 7, so be sure to check back often for the latest entries as we add live links. And if you’re participating, just grab one of the banners at the bottom and link back to the blogathon in your article.
Here’s the list of topics:
Sister Celluloid: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII
Robert Matzen: Spending time “with” Audrey as a subject, compared with other stars
Moon in Gemini: The Nun’s Story
Poppity Talks Classic Film: The Unforgiven
Diary of a Movie Maniac: Bloodline and Love Among Thieves
The Story Enthusiast: Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto
Caftan Woman: Charade
Realweegiemidget Reviews: Robin and Marian
Three Enchanting Ladies: Funny Face
The Stop Button: Secret People
Love Letters to Old Hollywood: Love in the Afternoon
The Midnite Drive-In: The Children’s Hour
MovieMovieBlogBlog: My Fair Lady
Popcorn and Flickers: How Audrey Met Givenchy
Stars and Letters: Cher’s Letter to Audrey
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films: A Salute to Audrey
Thoughts All Sorts: Roman Holiday
The Pale Writer: Audrey’s early career and How to Steal a Million
Champagne for Lunch: The Nun’s Story and Robin and Marian
Critica Retro: Paris When It Sizzles
Cinematic Scribblings: Two for the Road
Welcome to an April-foolish Monday edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed free films for you to watch right here!
From 1969, it’s Stuart Rosenberg’s The April Fools.
We first meet Howard Brubaker (Jack Lemmon)—newly promoted to a corner office on Wall Street—as he awkwardly elbows his way through a shady parade of partygoers who look like Holly Golightly’s hangers-on eight years down the line. But then—literally across a crowded room—he spots Catherine (Catherine Deneuve), also in need of rescue, and together they flee into the warm city night.
After an awkward outing at a jungle-themed cafe and the obligatory bout of gyrating at a groovy ’60s club, they come to the aid of Grace (Myrna Loy, luscious in a sherbet-colored caftan), a grande dame in distress whose chauffeur is too sloshed to drive her home. To her castle. Where husband Charles Boyer awaits. (Wait, is this still the movie, or one of those old-Hollywood fever dreams I sometimes fall into after a couple-too-many glasses of sherry?) Grace draws Catherine into a tarot card reading as a roundabout way of advising her to hang onto Howard and give her husband the air.
Oh yes did I mention both Howard and Catherine are married to other people? But they’re fed up with their social-climbing spouses and tired of the pretext they’re forced to keep up… you get the feeling that before they met, they were too beaten down to even realize how miserable they were. After finding Catherine, Howard tells his best friend, “All my life I’ve been tense and I never knew it.” Yes. That feeling where you’d grown so used to the pain you were barely aware of it any more—until someone came along and made it go away.
Shirley MacLaine was originally set to play Catherine, but bowed out to make Sweet Charity and barnstorm for Bobby Kennedy for President. (His brother-in-law Peter Lawford stayed on in the film, as Catherine’s husband.) And as adorable as a Lemmon-MacLaine reunion might have been, Deneuve, who can express pain and weariness with the slightest shift of her brow, gets the mood just right. And her cool grace plays perfectly off her co-star’s essential Jack Lemmon-ness.
So on this April Fools Day, what do I wish most for you? That you find someone who looks at you the way Jack Lemmon looks at Catherine Deneuve. Or the way he looked at Shirley MacLaine. Or even the way he looked at Walter Matthau. Honest to God, no one has ever poured more pure, unabashed how-did-I-ever-get-so-lucky love into a single gaze.
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you free, fabulous films! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark the page to make sure you never miss another?
There’s a certain luminous quality that shines through when a director is in love with his leading lady. In Frank Capra’s The Miracle Woman, starring Barbara Stanwyck, it’s all over the screen.
This was the second film for these kindred spirits—whose relationship got off to such a rocky start, the real miracle is that they ended up working together at all.
In 1930, as Capra prepared to shoot Ladies of Leisure, he got an urgent call from Columbia boss Harry Cohn.
“He asked me to talk to an ex-chorus girl who made a hit in a stage play called Burlesque,” Capra recalled in his memoir, The Name Above the Title. “He had a hunch about her. I was annoyed. I had a girl already set.
“She came into my office sullen, plainly dressed, no makeup,” he went on. “Obviously hating the whole idea of the interview, she sat on the edge of her chair and answered in curt monosyllables. I didn’t want her before she came in, and what I saw of this drip made me sure of it. After about thirty seconds of the usual inane questions… she jumped to her feet and and snapped, ‘Oh, hell, you don’t want any part of me,’ and she ran out. I phoned Cohn. ‘Harry, forget Stanwyck. She’s not an actress. She’s a porcupine.'”
When Stanwyck came home in tears, her husband, comedian Frank Fay, called Capra in a rage. According to the director, it went something like this:
“Look, fella, what the hell did you do to my wife?”
“Do to her? I couldn’t even talk to her!”
“Well she came home crying and upset. No one can do that to my wife!”
“Listen, funny man, I don’t want any part of your wife, or of you. She came in here with a chip on her shoulder, and she went out with an axe on it.”
Fay chalked Stanwyck’s defensiveness up to nerves and urged Capra to view a brief screen test she’d made for The Noose, for Alexander Korda over at Warner Bros. The director reluctantly agreed to spare the three minutes.
“The test flashed on the screen. Nothing in the world was going to make me like it,” Capra recalled. “After only thirty seconds I got a lump in my throat as big as an egg… never had I heard or seen such emotional sincerity. When it was over, I had tears in my eyes. I was stunned.”
Capra bolted from the screening room to call Cohn:
“Harry! Harry! We’ve got to sign Stanwyck for the part…”
“What’re you, nuts? A half-hour ago you told me she was a kook!”
“Yeah, yeah but I just saw a test of her—she’ll be terrific… don’t let her get away.”
Within the hour, Stanwyck was signed for Ladies of Leisure. But it was her next project with Capra, The Miracle Woman, that’s probably the biggest sleeper of his long and legendary career.
Based on the play Bless You, Sister by Robert Riskin and John Meehan—with generous dollops of inspiration from the notorious evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson—The Miracle Woman centers on Florence Fallon (Stanwyck), whose father, a preacher, has been shunted aside by his congregation for a younger man.
On the morning he’s to deliver his final sermon, Florence takes to the pulpit to announce he’s just died in her arms—and delivers a blistering diatribe of her own: “You killed him! For thirty years, he tried to touch your stony hearts with the mercies of God—and failed. Why? Because you don’t want God!” As she starts to single out the churchgoers for their sins and hypocrisies—drinking, carousing, the usual stuff—they scurry from their pews toward the exits.
It’s the kind of scene that usually caps off a movie rather than opening one—but Stanwyck is just getting started. And so is Florence: one of the few people who doesn’t flee the church is Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy), a local huckster who tells her how she can “get famous, get rich, and get even.”
“Religion is like anything else,” he purrs, sidling in closer. “It’s great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away.” The two team up for a traveling tent show called the Temple of Happiness, complete with fire, brimstone and “miracles”—designed to bring desperate people closer to God and further away from their money.
One day, as Florence promotes the show on a local radio station, she actually saves someone. John Carson (David Manners), a flier who was blinded in the Great War, has just had the latest in a long line of rejections from music publishers sending back his songs. He’s mailed them off to every company in the phone book, from A to Z. “Where do you go after Z?” he despairs. His answer: to the window. But just before he’s set to jump, he hears Florence’s voice from an apartment across the courtyard: “What did God give man the backbone for? To stand up on his own two feet! Beethoven wrote his greatest symphonies after he went deaf… God can forgive a sinner, but not a quitter!”
John backs away from the ledge as if struck in the face, and shows up at the tent show that night—even taking to the stage to help Florence re-enact the parable of Daniel in the lion’s den. (With real lions. In these days before process screen photography, the only thing separating the actors from the animals was a thin piece of netting. “I could smell their breath,” recalled Manners, but I’m guessing the poor lions were even more miserable than he was.)
John is thrilled when Florence follows up their first meeting with several visits to his dingy little flat—but he’s nervous and awkward, falling back on sleight-of-hand card tricks to entertain her. To express his growing affection, he even hides behind his wooden dummy, who confides, “He keeps me locked up until he gets in a jam and then he hauls me out.”
(Yes, he does card tricks and a ventriloquist act. Somebody shoot me. But in the hands of David Manners, it’s touching and charming.)
Florence is falling hard too, and the more time she spends with John, the dirtier she feels onstage as a “miracle woman.” His tenderness and trust wear down her bitterness until she can no longer tolerate the fraud she’s neck-deep in—but she can’t seem to pull herself out either. “I don’t know how to play on the level any more,” she confesses to John. “And God wouldn’t believe me under oath.”
Determined to restore Florence’s faith in herself, John pulls some gallant fakery of his own—and even though she sees through it, she’s inspired enough to give up the grift, whatever the consequences. Much as she leapt to the pulpit of her father’s church, she takes to the stage and tells the gathered faithful a few truths they don’t want to hear. The results are shattering.
Capra said The Miracle Woman failed to follow his intended vision of “one woman’s life in three acts: disillusion, venality, conversion.” Credit Stanwyck with that “failure”: nothing is ever that cut-and-dried with her. Even at her most “venal,” a conscience is beating beneath—and when she regains her faith, it’s with a wariness that never completely melts away.
As Capra quickly discovered, much of Stanwyck’s power came from throwing everything she had into her first take—whether the cameras were rolling or not. “All subsequent repetitions, in rehearsals or retakes, were pale copies of her original performance,” he recalled. To harness that raw emotion rather than squander it on prep work, “I had to rehearse the rest of the cast without her, work out the physical movements without her.
“And the crews had problems,” Capra explained. “I had to take the ‘heart’ of the scene—the vital close-ups of Barbara—first, and with multiple cameras so she would only have to do it once.” He would go over the scene in the dressing room with his star, working through the emotions while never allowing her to act anything out. Then, as she stepped onto the soundstage, he’d gently remind her: “No matter what the other actors do, whether they stop or blow their lines—you continue your scene right to the end.” He marveled that “she remembered every word I said—and she never blew a line.”
Capra and Stanwyck would go on to make three more films together: the melodrama Forbidden, the wildly underrated The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and the classic Meet John Doe.
“Underneath her sullen shyness smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt,” Capra recalled in his memoir, still thunderstruck decades later. “Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about makeup, clothes or hairdos, the chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces. She knew nothing about camera tricks, how to ‘cheat’ her looks so her face could be seen, how to restrict her body movements in close shots. She just turned it on—and everything else on stage stopped.
“It’s true that directors often fall in love with their leading ladies—at least while making a film together,” he admitted. “I fell in love with Stanwyck, and had I not been more in love with Lucille Reyburn I would have asked Barbara to marry me after she called it quits with Frank Fay.”
When she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1987, a radiant Stanwyck said the time she spent with Capra was the key to everything that came after. “Frank Capra… taught me what film was all about and what film could do for me and what I could do for film… each day was a learning process and it was wonderful… that’s why I’m here tonight—Mr. Frank Capra.”
A typically modest assessment of her own power onscreen, which a gifted director felt instantly, honored reverently, and harnessed brilliantly.
I used to slog through the bloated Oscar show every year just to see the honorary awards for Lifetime Achievement, which were grudgingly doled out to classic stars and directors the Academy had criminally ignored throughout their careers. But then a few years ago, they banished them to a smaller event that’s not even televised. (“You’re being honored for decades of brilliant work? Hey, we’ll be sure to post a link on YouTube!”) Then this year, they planned to squeeze the Cinematography, Editing, Live-Action Shorts and Makeup/Hairstyling awards into commercial breaks. (They claimed they were “forced to,” but somehow when folks like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron blasted them for it, they backed down. So “forced to” was really more like “try to get away with.”)
If they shaft living Academy members this shamelessly, God help those who are gone. Which brings us to our annual list of snubs from the Oscar memorial reel.
As usual, they somehow found time to get several publicists in there, and who among us doesn’t count their press releases among our favorite film moments. But they left out Stanley Donen. I actually had to rewind the whole thing to make sure that was true. How long would it have taken to make a last-minute addition for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar winner?!?
Just as a palate cleanser, to get that awful taste out of your mouth, here he is accepting his award in 1998, and throwing in a little soft shoe:
Also snubbed were actors Verne Troyer, Ricky Jay, R. Lee Ermey, David Ogden Stiers, Charlotte Rae, Hugh Dane, Scott Wilson, Dick Miller, Jo Andres, Anthony Vajna, Eunice Gayson, Philip Bosco, Michele Carey, Peter Donat, Douglas Rain, Louise Latham, Dolores Taylor, Sondra Locke, Bob Einstein, Pamela Gidley, Harry Anderson, Liliane Montevecchi, Vanessa Marquez, Ken Berry, Bibi Ferreira, Carmen Argenziano, Joe Sirola, Nita Bieber, Kristoff St. John, Clive Swift, Louisa Moritz, Kevin Barnett, Verna Bloom, Robert Mandan and Louis Zorich; writers Harlan Ellison and Christopher Knopf; producers Arnold Kopelson, Meg Randall, Alan Johnson, Gary Kurtz and Philip D’Antoni (who produced Bullitt and won an Oscar for The French Connection); directors Stan Dragoti, Michael Anderson, Vijaya Bapineedu, Larry Brand and Lewis Gilbert; composer Arthur B. Rubinstein; stuntman Jimmy Nickerson; and designer Hubert de Givenchy.
Classic film always seems to get slammed especially hard in the memorial reel, which gets more painful as there are ever-fewer artists left to honor. Left out along with Donen were Donald Moffat, Allyn Ann McLerie, Mary Carlisle (still an active supporter of classic film when she was over 100), Connie Sawyer (whose career spanned ten decades), William Phipps, Tom Reese, Dewey Martin, Jean Porter, Liz Fraser, Jerry Maren, Carol Channing, Kaye Ballard, Chuck McCann, Julie Adams, Joseph Campanella, Patricia Morison, Clint Walker, Rose Marie, and Charles Aznavour. And Gloria Jean and Susan Miller, who, 77 years after co-starring in W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, died five days apart.
Whenever they’re called out on their slights (even overlooking Oscar winners), the Academy’s stock responses are: the show is so very short on time (while still managing to fit in lame bits, canned banter, and endless commercials), and there’s a longer list on the website. But all that does is set up a creepy A-list/B-list for dead people. (Does this never end in Hollywood?) It’s gotten to the point where pre-show lobbying campaigns have become a sad annual ritual.
I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as they keep dissing people, we’ll keep trying to honor them here. And the ones we miss, please point out in comments so we can add them (the timeframe is from last year’s March 4 telecast to tonight’s show).
Godspeed and heartfelt thanks to all of them—from the little people out here in the dark…
Happy Valentine’s Day and lots of love to my classic film family of friends!
Still looking for that perfect card, or maybe—gasp—you forgot the big day was today? Feel free to grab one of these, created just for you.
Whether you’re lucky enough to have found love or are still searching for it, I hope your day is a lovely one.
This has nothing to do with classic film, but I feel like you’re family, so I hope you’ll bear with me in remembering my sweet, beloved Linus, who we lost last week. He lived to be sixteen years and eight months old, but his life seemed to go by in the blink of an eye.
We adopted him when he was just shy of three; he had been so horribly abused that a neighbor called the woman who ran the local no-kill shelter and begged her to somehow get the people who had him—I refuse to call them his family—to surrender him. In his early days with us, his trauma surfaced in heartbreaking ways, as when my husband Tim pulled on a pair of heavy boots to go out and shovel snow—and Linus wailed and shook violently, ran to a corner, and tried to dig his way into the wall.
When we first met him at the shelter, he was clearly anxious to be let out of the kennels. Far and away the smallest dog there, he broke free of his handler, snuggled into a spot on the sofa between us, sighed, and settled in. He was home already. While we waited to sign the final adoption papers—we’d already been through an application process the FBI would gaze upon in awe—I ran through a bunch of names in my mind. “What about Linus?” I asked Tim, thinking of the Peanuts character. “He’s looks so sweet and thoughtful, like he’s got a lot on his mind.” And when we got him home, the first thing he did was burrow deep into his carrier and pull out something that had been scrunched up in the back: his blanket.
He sniffed his way around his new home, and just to make sure we knew it was his, he peed on every rug. Then he curled up on the sofa with his brand-new stuffed bear, chewed the nose off and gleefully pulled out the stuffing.
The bear would be first of a long string of victims which ran the gamut from stuffed toys to silk eye masks.
Linus 1, Mister Fluffy Bunny 0.
And oh, yes, that poor Santa hat—his revenge for the 15 seconds he had to wear this silly outfit for a Christmas card photo.
He literally loved his soccer ball to bits, and no shiny new replacement—even if it was exactly the same thing—ever made him as happy. So I’d just grab his old one, gather up the trail of stuffing strewn across the living room floor, and sew it all back together again.
Only the Grinch was spared from being torn apart, and they became such fast friends that I took to leaving him out all year.
When we first brought Linus home, we weren’t sure how long his walks should be. No one had ever bothered to take him for a real walk before—at the shelter they’d heard he’d been let out in the yard maybe once or twice a day. And being a dachshund, he took a whole bunch of steps for every one of ours. So we decided to just walk him until he got tired.
He never got tired.
After three or four miles, I’d be splayed face-down on the sofa, and he’d be like, “So, where are we goin’ now, Ma?”
Sometimes before we even got to the street, he’d meet Patty or Helen or Michelle from our apartment building, who all adored him. And oh was it mutual. He’d squeal and yip, waggle his butt, and run up and smoosh against them, just unable to contain himself. And he’d bark at their husbands.
Down the street we sometimes ran into Jeff and John, who’d swoop off their stoop the minute they saw Linus. They even bought dog biscuits to keep on hand for him. One night when we passed Jeff, we didn’t stop because he was on the phone. But he let out a whoop and waved us over. He proceeded to tell the guy on the other end Linus’s entire life story—and then ignored him completely talk to Linus, asking over and over, “Who’s a good boy?”
We’d often stop at the coffee shop on our walks, where he’d make new friends. In the summer, I’d often hear a sudden “Ooh!” only to turn and discover Linus had rubbed his cold nose against someone’s bare calf. And then there was the firefighter with arms roughly the size of Bluto’s, who cooed baby-talk to him and treated me to a cappucino because he loved him so madly.
It took my breath away how open-hearted Linus was, after all the horrors he’d been through. People hold grudges for years, sometimes forever, over the tiniest slight. But once Linus was safe and happy and loved, he was willing—happy, even—to give the whole human race a second chance. He was such an old soul, such a sweet spirit.
For all his years in our family, Linus went with us just about everywhere. He especially loved the “come-withs” at our upstate house on weekends. And because he was crazy-smart, he picked up on clues instantly. When he saw Tim make any move toward the Linus bag—the little canvas pouch with his portable water dish and snacks—he’d go crazy. He also went nuts when I took my bra out of the drawer, because it meant I was going somewhere so probably he was too. It got to the point where if we were heading out without him on the weekend, I had to sneak my bra out when he wasn’t looking.
We took him on our vacations…
…on camping trips…
…on family visits to the lake and cruises up the Hudson…
…on day hikes (where once he was super-excited to meet a countryman)…
…to every park we could find (whether he was allowed there or not)…
…to street fairs and festivals…
…and to restaurants, where, on the rare occasion we dined outside without him, we’d get grilled about it by the waiters. (“We were just out shopping and we didn’t know we’d be stopping to eat!” we’d plead, heads down, like guilty criminals.) At one place where we dined often, the manager would greet him with a full plate of bacon. One day, a woman at a nearby table complained, “You served that dog before you waited on me!” and he replied dryly, “He’s a regular.” To know Linus was to love him to the point of obliviousness to all else.
And, um, yes, he had a little portable bed, to protect him from the hard ground. (Though sometimes after we finished our meals, he’d venture off just far enough to sneak a peek at what the people at the next table were having.)
He also had a bed to cushion his naps in the backyard. Okay fine, two beds.
Mostly, though, he roughed it.
Oh and he had a bed in the car, though sometimes it was more of a pillow.
Though having fluffy beds pretty much everywhere, including three in the house, didn’t stop him from checking out other options.
Linus was so sweet and supremely silly…
Once, in a rare attempt at hunting, he somehow wound up in a stack of planters, while the chipmunk had long since scampered down the driveway.
When it was too chilly for the yard but just warm enough to get near it, he loved to watch the world from the screenporch.
Being so close to the ground, Linus was not a huge fan of the cold and wet. (When we got a couple of inches of snow, I’d croon, “It’s up to your knees out there…”) He’d take a few steps and then lift a chilly front paw as if to say, “Taxi!” And I’d pick him up and carry him out to the plowed road for a quick walk. Then he’d come in for a vigorous pat-down with his super-absorbent doggie towel, play-fight with it after he was dry and happy, and burrow under his blankets again.
Always a sun puppy, in bleakest February he’d follow the scant rays around the house. (I call this The Linus in Winter.)
On sleepy weekend mornings, Linus had a little ritual he loved. I’d give him breakfast and take him out for a walk—and then he’d all but march me back to bed. (Tim was usually still there.) He’d head toward the bedroom, stop and turn around to make sure I was following him, and harrumph at me if I wasn’t moving fast enough. Then he’d stand by the bed and wait to be lifted up, barking at me to follow him under the covers so the three of us could snuggle.
He also made a huge fuss whenever Tim came home. You’ve seen the heartwarming videos of dogs whooping and jumping and hurling themselves wildly at returning soldiers, who’ve been away for years? That was Linus when Tim came back from the deli.
He loved belly rubs…
…and deep, long snoozes, and honest to God you’d sell your soul to sleep like that for five minutes.
And if he snoozed on something I needed, I’d just wait until he woke up.
He was also great at self-snuggling, where one minute he was lying flat on his blanket and the next he was a dachshund burrito.
Linus never met a snack he didn’t like (that’s a telltale yogurt ring on his face)…
…and his devotion to whatever you had on your plate bordered on the monastic.
A couple of weeks after we brought him home, we went out to a family dinner and brought home a big, fat, juicy steak bone. When we gave it to Linus, he didn’t seem to know what to do with it at first—because apparently in his almost three years of doggie life, no one had ever given him a bone. But he quickly caught on, and wouldn’t let go. We somehow managed to pry it away from him for his nightly walk, but upon returning, he raced down the hall, frantic to reclaim his prize. After that, he got lots of bones.
When my Mom visited, she actually teased us about spoiling him. Imagine. And then there was this.
But how else would I treat my best editor? When I was stuck for a word, I could always turn to him for support. Or, more often, just chuck what I was working on and curl up with him.
He’d also sense our miseries and truly sympathize. Whenever I cried, whether from something real or even an old movie, I’d soon find him clinging close to me.
Every autumn, on the Feast of St. Francis, we took Linus to be blessed, which I think may have helped him through the health crises in his life.
In the summer of 2007, a few weeks after my company closed its doors, I was spending some time with Linus upstate. One day, rather than racing around the yard, he seemed sluggish, mostly sitting in one spot under a tree. I chalked it up to the weather, which had grown more sultry as the afternoon wore on, and thought it best to bring him inside. But when I picked him up, he howled in pain. Trying (and failing) not to panic, I softly cradled him into his bed and called the vet, but they’d already closed. So I called a cab to get to the emergency vet in the next town.
An hour passed. No cab. By now the sky was black, and it was pouring. I called again (I vaguely remember screaming). A half-hour later, the cabbie drove right past me as I stood on the screenporch frantically waving my arms. I ran outside, caught up with him and jumped right in front of the car.
By the time Linus made it to the vet, his back legs were paralyzed. He had ruptured a disc and needed emergency surgery, but whether he’d ever walk again was highly uncertain. They brought him into the back, gave him steroids, pain medication and sedatives to stabilize him overnight, and told me to get him to Cornell veterinary hospital first thing in the morning. I called Tim from the front desk, sobbing so hard he could barely understand what I was saying.
As I waited for him to drive up from the city, I sat outside crying on a bench under an awning, as the rain pounded against it. A woman who’d seen me inside came out, sat beside me, and pulled my head onto her shoulder. “He’ll be alright,” she said over and over, like a lullaby, or maybe a prayer. I’ll never forget her. (And she was right.)
During the drive up to Cornell, I sat in back with Linus. Bundled in blankets, he clung to my lap, drifting in and out of a fearful, fitful sleep, trembling the whole time. When we arrived, they whisked him into surgery within an hour, removed the ruptured disc and fused the ones on either side. They were going to keep him for another three days, but he was so scared and miserable in his cage—he hadn’t spent a night without us since we first brought him home—that they let him leave a day early, giving us strict instructions on how to get him back on his feet.
Naturally, at first, he was wobbly as a newborn foal. I’d hold him as he took a few halting steps and then lose his footing and stumble to the ground. I started to look into scooters, in case he needed one. But then suddenly, less than a week after surgery, he went from staggering to running, in a single motion. So there we were in the yard, him scampering around like he’d never left, like it was just another Tuesday, and me crying my head off. I started to call Tim, but then I put the phone down. I wanted Linus to surprise
him when he came home.
The only lingering result of his trauma was that occasionally when he sat down, he would swing one leg out to the side, like Rita Hayworth in her pinup shots.
I told Tim if anything ever happened to me, he should take me to Cornell and tell them I’m a German Shepherd.
A few years later, a routine vet visit turned up some disturbing lab results. So we went back to Cornell, where a battery of tests revealed a dangerous tumor. He needed surgery right away, and the only available slot was the day before Thanksgiving. For the second time, everything went perfectly, and in their post-op report, the clearly perceptive vets actually wrote, “Linus is a very good dog.” Tim and I had our holiday dinner at the only place we could find open, a bar in downtown Ithaca. I ordered a cocktail, only to have the waiter snap, “Today we have beer and wine and that’s it.” Yipes. But since he was stuck working, I could hardly blame him for sounding like Sheldon Leonard in It’s a Wonderful Life. (“We serve hard drinks in here for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don’t need any characters around to give the joint atmosphere!”)
And once again Linus, desperate to go home, was released early, enjoying some post-holiday deli turkey on the trip back.
But the following year, Linus was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease, which is something of a plague for dachshunds. Every story I dug up was more horrible than the one before, and the typical prognosis was two years. Linus was blessed with another four, and until he was near the end, fate was somewhat benevolent to him. But in the last few months, one by one, a series of cruel symptoms came crashing down on him. Cushing’s attacked his retinas, dementia darkened his wonderful mind, and sometimes he struggled to stand. Before, the vets always had an answer. Now they had none.
Often I’d pick him up, wrap my arms close around him, and try to will time and trauma away. Do your worst to me, I’d plead, but leave his little fourteen-pound body alone.
It’s one of the cruelest twists of nature that they get so much less time on this earth than we do. I would have happily shared my years with him if I could have.
The night before Linus died, Tim and I slept on either side of him, guardians at the gate with nothing left in our desperately depleted arsenal but how much we loved him. At first, he shared my pillow, his nose pressed against my neck. But then he shifted, resting his head on my hand and curling his body into the crook of my arm. Then he sighed and settled down, just as he did those first few moments we welcomed him into our family.
Despite his age and his illness, losing Linus was an awful, sudden shock. Losing someone you love so much always is; there’s no “preparing” for it. It’s not just a turn of phrase to say I don’t know what to do without him. I really don’t. I can’t put his beds and blankets and bowls away, but I can’t bear to look at them either. I can barely breathe.
I know he lived a long, happy life, and he was loved like crazy, and we’ll always have our memories of him. But none of that helps right now. I’ve collapsed in tears in the diner, in the supermarket, on the street, everywhere. And it’s worse at home. I wake up crying and go to sleep the same way. I miss everything about him, even the smallest things, like the sound of him lapping at his water bowl and his paws click-clacking on the floor. As little as he was, he filled the house. And he filled my heart. Losing him has thrown open the gates to a very dark place I can’t find my way out of without him.
Goodnight and sleep safe, my sweet, silly, beautiful, beloved pup. You were such an indescribable blessing, beyond any words I can find. I have no idea if there’s a God, but there better be a Heaven for you. May the angels hold you as close as we did for all those wonderful years.