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!
After a long hiatus, the Sister Celluloid website is back on a semi-regular basis, which I hope will be even steadier soon. That includes the return of our Streaming Saturdays feature, where we embed free, fabulous films! So fasten your seatbelts, we’re starting with a doozy…
If you ever run into Alice Faye, for God’s sake don’t mention Fallen Angel. What she thought would be her big dramatic breakthrough turned into a minor breakdown—and pretty much the end of her movie career.
By the mid-1940s, Faye was one of 20th Century Fox’s most bankable leading ladies, thanks to a series of wildly popular musicals—exactly the kind of cotton-candy confection she was now hoping to escape. Lucky for her—or so she thought—Otto Preminger was starting a new film right on the heels of the legendary Laura. Faye pounced on the project, and, hoping she could step in where Gene Tierney left off, wielded her studio clout to land Dana Andrews as her co-star.
But, as it has a way of doing in the world of noir, fate stepped in. And in this case it looked a lot like Linda Darnell.
The shy 22-year-old stunner had already made 18 films, thanks in part to a brutal stage mother who all but frog-marched her onto the Fox lot when she was just 16. Eager to move beyond ingenue roles, she’d just played her first genuine bad girl in Douglas Sirk’s Summer Storm, an adaptation of Chekov’s The Shooting Party. Like Faye, Darnell leapt at the chance to work on a dark new drama.
In fact just about the only one who wasn’t excited about Fallen Angel was Preminger. Salivating over the success of Laura—and honoring the studio creed that nothing succeeds like doing the same thing over and over—Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck rushed the director into production on another moody mystery. Grudgingly, Preminger reassembled most of his Laura crew, including cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, and reported to work.
In a gritty departure from the elegantly angst-ridden detective in Laura, Andrews plays Eric Stanton, a luckless drifter who’s stranded in a backwater berg after he’s thrown off the bus to San Francisco because he can’t scrounge up the two-buck fare. In a greasy little dive called Pop’s Eats (where, in giant letters, the word BEER bedecks both sides of the front door), he runs up against the sullen, sultry Stella (Darnell), who’s long on dreams and short on plans or patience.
The two quickly fall in love, but Stella comes with a pricetag: she wants money and a home, and Eric has neither, in spades. So he takes up with a traveling con man, Professor Madley (John Carradine), and goes in search of a mark. That’s where June Mills (Faye), who’s inherited a house and a tidy fortune from her father, comes in.
Originally, the film was to focus on Eric and June, and how the love of a good woman saves him from a life of sin <sniffle>. Then Preminger got a gander at the rushes of Darnell and Andrews—and suddenly sin didn’t look like something any man in his right mind would want to be saved from. Either of the two stars alone could generate chemistry with a potted plant, and together, they made everything and everyone else disappear. Including poor Alice Faye.
By the time the director put down his scissors, many of Faye’s best scenes were on the scrap heap and the ill-fated love affair between Eric and Stella had smoldered its way to center stage.
When Faye saw a rough cut of the film, she was so angry she bolted from the screening room and drove off the lot, tossing her dressing-room key to a security guard as she flew past the gate. She returned only once, 17 years later, to play the mother in the plodding remake of State Fair. (Ironically, she’d turned down the much more glamorous role of chanteuse Emily Edwards, eventually played by Vivian Blaine, in the 1945 version, which starred—wait for it—Dana Andrews.)
Little did she know, Darnell wasn’t having much fun either; she later recalled that Preminger was “terrifying” to work with. And by the 1950s, her career was largely over as well. (Much more on her desperately sad life, and tragic death at 41, here.) But she would team once more with Andrews, in the unintentionally hilarious Zero Hour, which was the basis for Airplane!.
If The Sound of Music is one of your favorite things, you’re in luck: On September 9 and 12, TCM and Fathom Events return the gloriously restored musical to the big screen.
Back in March 2015, when the new print kicked off the TCM Classic Film Festival, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer—who still clearly adore each other—gave us a glimpse of their Music memories during a pre-screening interview with Sid Ganis, first vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Ganis kicked things off by asking who in the audience had never seen the film—and the first hand to shoot up was Plummer’s. Turns out that during the film’s New York premiere,”all the males went to a bar,” Plummer laughed. “We’d kind of seen it, you know? So we spent most of the night in the bar. I can’t do that any more like I used to, damn it.”
The actor had derided the film in the past, even jokingly referring to it as The Sound of Mucus—and at one point, didn’t think much of film work, period. He and Andrews touched on that, and more, during their conversation:
CP: Funnily enough, I was asked to do The Sound of Music on Broadway… Mary Martin took a shine to me but her husband said, ‘Mary, he’s 29 years old, darling…” And of course Theodore Bikel did it beautifully.
In those days I thought the stage was it. You think the theatre is so intellectual but then you think, ‘What am I doing?!? They pay so well in the movies!’ But early in my movie career, you’ll see me walking around not really knowing where to go.
Working with Julie, though… I sort of fell in love with her when I was sitting up in the theatre balcony watching her as Eliza Doolittle. She’s wonderful… an old-fashioned saint… you’d follow her into battle the way you would Joan of Arc.
JA: <laughs> You called me a saint? How dare you, sir! Ruining my reputation! We’ve always been great chums though.
CP: And for all I’ve said about the film, I think this is the primal family movie of all time… it’s a fairy story brought to life—the last bastion of peace and innocence in a terrible time.
JA: Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary said it was the one show that translated better to the screen from the stage—of all those walloping hits! And everyone making the film was at the peak of their talents. And the quality of the music is phenomenal.
CP: The arrangements were extraordinary—just magical!
JA: And a huge orchestra!
CP: Well, yes, as someone who was trying to sing above them…
JA: And the beautiful Alps and the children and the nuns…
CP: …could have been really mawkish!
JA: You made it less saccharine—you made it have an astringency because of the way you played the captain. And without that, we would have been sunk, my love. I really mean that. You and [director] Robert Wise made sure of that. With his innate good taste, he saw the problem, that it could go that way.
He was a gentleman and a gentle man. And of course was one of the editors on Citizen Kane. He had a great sense of economy of emotion. He taught me something—he said, ‘Julie, look in one place only, don’t look left-right-left-right, keep still.’ What a gift that was! That huge close-up—be still! I guess we were rattling back and forth in some of the early dailies that he saw.
And the wonderful choreographers went ahead to the locations and took measurements of how many steps for each number, etc. so when we got there it was all laid out for us!
CP: We filmed backwards, first in Austria and then back to California. And you were always carting oxen up a hill or something…
JA: I was on top of the carts, going up the hill with the cameras! Often in the mud! Austria has Europe’s seventh-highest annual rainfall… but the rain made so many beautiful, glorious puffy cumulus clouds in the background. When you see the movie, notice the strength of the background, because it made a difference. Robert Wise said that gave a texture to it. It makes a difference… it wasn’t just a picture postcard.
CP: And the cameramen didn’t try to soften Austria. They almost shot it as a documentary.
JA: Not all of the locals liked us, though. We had the speakers set up outdoors, and one farmer came out with a pitchfork and screamed, “You’re ruining the milk from my cows!” Did you have any problems with things like that?
CP: I went straight to the bar.
And on that happy note—much like the one it began on—the Q&A closed, and the curtain rose…
It rises again this weekend. Click here to be transported…
Looking for a sweet ending to summer? How about cooking up some caramel custard with Claudette Colbert? Unlike many “recipes of the stars” that were churned out by studio flacks, this one actually does come from Claudette. She really did whip up things like this sugar-and-fat extravaganza and still look fabulous. She was French, people!
And she looked great well into her 80s.
Back in 1985, Claudette starred on Broadway with Rex Harrison in Aren’t We All, a bonbon of a play by Frederic Lonsdale. I remember nothing of the plot but everything about the star’s arrival at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. As I stood waiting on West 47th Street, she breezed out of a taxi in a pink-and-white-checked bouclé suit, likely Chanel. Such was her power that those who had gathered instinctively parted to let her sweep by, and suddenly she was Cleopatra gliding down the Nile again. She smiled, nodded, gave a little queenly wave, and disappeared inside.
She did not look like a lady who’d spent eight decades scarfing down decadent desserts. Still, her custard sounds pretty delish. So here goes:
3 cups of half-and-half
1/2 cup of sugar
1/4 cup boiling water
3 eggs, slightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Scald the half-and-half. Melt the sugar in a cast iron frying pan and stir constantly until it’s light brown. Add the boiling water and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Now add the half-and-half. Pour the hot mixture over the eggs, fold very gently, and place in the top of a double boiler. Cook over hot (not boiling) water until the mixture coats the spoon, stirring constantly. Add the salt and vanilla. Chill and serve ice cold in small glass dishes. Maybe some nice pink depression glass!
Enjoy! And then summon the spirit of Claudette to keep those pesky pounds at bay. (I hear milk baths help.)
The glorious Ann Blyth turned 90 today, conjuring up visions of her in stunning silk, leaning over her cake without putting a hair out of place, and blowing out every candle flawlessly—that is, if my memories of her at the the 2013 TCM Film Festival provide any clue. On opening night—an especially sultry one even for Hollywood—she strolled the red carpet in a mauve shantung gown, following just behind Jane Withers, who’d mentioned in passing that it was her birthday. Watching it all from the bleachers, I led everyone in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday, which actually made her burst into tears.
Then the divine Miss Blyth stepped to the mike and said she wished it were her birthday too—hint, hint!—so of course we let loose with another verse, and she raised her hands in applause.
I had a chance to sit with her for a bit at the opening night party, and she talked mostly about Joan Crawford. I told her I was grateful she always defended her legacy, in light of the lurid tales people were spreading. And she took my hand in both of hers, looked hard into my eyes, and said, “One person.” (Run, Christina, run!) She struck me as someone who would upend mountains for you if you were her friend, but if you were her enemy, you’d best move to some remote region of South America…
I asked her if she had any favorites among her own movies, though I said that might be like picking a favorite child. She said she loved working on Mildred Pierce, and also Kismet, which was like spending time in a fantasy land. She tilted her head, her face softened, and in that moment, she looked just as she did when she was back in Baghdad with Howard Keel.
Later that weekend, she introduced the screening of Mildred Pierce at the Egyptian Theatre. Clad in coral from head to high-heeled toe, she was very impish with Robert Osborne, who clearly adored her. When he pressed her to name her favorite leading man, she turned to the audience with mock indignation, and then, with a sort of “just between us girls” look, said, “I have to pick just one? Why can’t I have them all?”
Once again she spoke lovingly of Crawford. And when asked if she was still in touch with any of the old crowd, she said she had regular girlfriend lunches with Joan Leslie. Which totally fed into my fantasy that old-movie folks basically spent their entire post-film lives hanging out at each other’s houses having barbecues and sleepovers.
Thank you, Miss Blyth, for all your wonderful work, for fiercely protecting the films and colleagues you love, and for the memories of that fabulous weekend. Wishing you a deliriously happy 90th Birthday, and many more.
Another year, another botched attempt by the Academy to honor its own.
For a lot of movie lovers—classic-film fans especially—Oscar’s memorial-reel slights have become a cringe-inducing annual tradition. I don’t know if Bette Davis really did name the statuette Oscar because his backside resembled her husband’s. But when it comes to honoring those who’ve given so much to the movies, Oscar certainly makes an ass of itself.
The usual excuse for the snubs is that it’s a time issue: they simply can’t fit everyone we lost in the past year into a brief little montage. But here’s the thing: They’re the ones who decide to set aside so little time to honor people who’ve devoted their whole lives to their craft.
The producers could easily have cut out a production number (another lame bit where “real people” mingle with actors?), shorten the canned banter at the podium, or even—dare I say it?—eliminate a few commercials (“Walmart-inspired” movies? Really?). But they chose not to. So please, this year, spare us the “if only we had the time” lamentations, which are about as genuine as Eve Harrington’s humble acceptance speech at the Sarah Siddons Awards.
Still, somehow, no matter how pressed for time they are, they always manage to squeeze in a few agents or publicists. Cuz that’s what we tune in for, right? (“Honey, I’d be happy to get up and make you a drink, but I think they’re gonna show that guy from Rogers & Cowan!”)
The Academy has a much longer memorial slide show on its website, which includes all those who didn’t make the cut for the broadcast. But when the Hollywood A list/B list crap carries over to dead people, it’s frankly kinda creepy.
That said, here’s the list of oversights I noticed, including some glaring ones from classic film. Not all of these folks were primarily in film, but they all made a mark there. And even excluding the part-timers, the list of omissions is long:
Oscar winner Dorothy Malone, Dina Merrill, Bradford Dillman, Connie Sawyer (who had pretty much the longest career in film history), Nanette Fabray, John Gavin, Michèle Morgan, Heather Menzies-Urich, Stephen Furst, Juanita Quigley, Ty Hardin, Suzanna Leigh, Della Reese, Robert Guillaume, Jay Thomas, Glen Campbell, Michael Nyqvist, Adam West, Powers Boothe, Darlene Cates, Lola Albright, Jim Nabors, Leonard Landy, Anne Wiazemsky, Gastone Moschin, Elena Verdugo, Roy Dotrice, Michael Parks, Wendell Burton, Curt Lowens, Lorna Gray, Frank Vincent, Aleksey Batalov, Louis Zorich, Jean Rochefort, Daliah Lavi, Richard Anderson, Don Gordon, Anne Jeffreys, Robert Hardy, Clifton James, Federico Luppi, John Hillerman, Mireille Darc, Red West, Ann Wedgworth, Elsa Martinelli, Peter Sallis, David Ogden Stiers, Emma Chambers, John Mahoney, Reg Cathey, Jerry Van Dyke, Jean Porter, Marty Allen, Lassie Lou Ahern, Donnelly Rhodes, Rose Marie, directors Bruce Brown and Tobe Hooper, composer Dominic Frontiere, and choreographer Danny Daniels.
One bright spot: Eddie Vedder did a beautiful job with Room at the Top, fittingly a song by Tom Petty, who also deserved a place in the memorial reel. He wrote the soundtrack to She’s the One (featuring the much-covered Walls), and his music set the mood for so many films, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire and Silence of the Lambs. (Jonathan Demme had sweet, unsuspecting Brooke Smith bop along in the car to American Girl as a kind of emotional shortcut; he wanted the audience to instantly like her.)
Please add in Comments anyone else who was overlooked (and remember, in this case, the “year” runs between the last Oscar broadcast on February 26, 2017 and today); let’s make sure they’re all honored somewhere, even if just in our little film family.
Greater love hath no husband than to tell his wife about a Murder She Wrote marathon. “It’s running all day Saturday and Sunday,” Tim tells me wearily, thereby consigning himself to another room for pretty much two solid days.
But my trip to Cabot Cove comes at a price—and I don’t just mean the alarmingly high murder rate. I mean the depressing ads.
A leathery Pat Boone warns me to be terrified of my own bathtub—clearly a hideous deathtrap beckoning me with its gleaming porcelain—which should be replaced immediately with a walk-in model. But until I can get cracking on that, I should strap on a Life Alert button, just in case I fall, alone and terrified, bleeding out from a gaping head wound. And probably regretting I didn’t snap up one of those cheap life insurance or “final expense” policies they keep badgering me about.
Honest to God, I feel like I should be writing my will during the commercial breaks.
And the ads that don’t imply I’ll be lunching with St. Peter any day now assume I’m itching to sue someone or have already weaseled a structured settlement but need more cash fast. Perhaps to call a psychic, or hook up with strangers on a cheesy dating line! I know the demographics for classic TV stations skew older (read: fear-mongering), but do they also skew creepy?
An informal poll among like-minded friends and elderly relatives—including my 88-year-old Mom, who pretty much lives with Jessica Fletcher and Jim Rockford—reveals that none of us have ever bought anything being advertised on these channels. In fact when that California Psychic ad comes on (“When Mary called, I could tell she was hurting…”), I practically fall over furniture to grab the remote. Maybe I should have one of those Life Alert buttons after all…
“Did your Dad get you a tree yet?”
“We don’t want a tree.”
“They’re a waste of money. They dry up in a week. A tree’s no fun—it stands in a corner. It doesn’t do anything.”
“Yeah but you can look at it!”
“I can look at the one at school. Or at my Uncle Will’s. Like my Dad says, ‘What do I need a tree for?'”
Thus begins Addie Mills’ yearly recitation of excuses, this time to her new friend Carla, in The House Without a Christmas Tree.
It’s 1946 in Clear River, Nebraska, where 10-year-old Addie (Lisa Lucas) lives with her grandmother (Mildred Natwick), Sarah, and her father, James (Jason Robards), an embittered widower who lost his wife just after Addie was born—and who’s shuttered himself away from any source of joy, including his daughter, ever since.
Ironically, using a guessing technique her father taught her, Addie wins her class Christmas tree, and trundles it home with a sense of dread that rarely accompanies such journeys. James orders the painful reminder of Christmases past out of the house, but Sarah, Addie’s only real source of warmth and comfort, fights in vain to let her keep it. Defeated, Addie spirits the tree out of the house in the middle of the night, leaving it on the doorstep of her lone treeless friend.
The rest of the story, you can see for yourself: the whole movie is here in eight parts, with one folding into the next.
The House Without a Christmas Tree used to be something of an annual TV tradition, but for some reason, it disappeared under the flotsam of new Christmas specials years ago. Eleanor Perry (The Swimmer, Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing) won an Emmy for her adaptation of Gail Rock’s memoir and also wrote the sequel, The Thanksgiving Treasure, which reunited the wonderful cast a year later. Lucas went on to appear in The Turning Point and An Unmarried Woman, and then did a bit of television before turning her hand to journalism; in the true spirit of dear, nerdly Addie, whose glasses comprised roughly half her body weight, her books include The Research Game in Academic Life, which explores “the implications of an increasingly competitive global system of higher education research.”
Here’s wishing you the happiest of holidays and armloads of joy in the new year. If I could, I’d send each of you Mildred Natwick. But short of that, I hope you enjoy this Christmas gift.
If you’re craving a few more helpings of Christmas, you’re just a click away from the full movies The Holly and the Ivy and I’ll Be Seeing You, as well as a Christmas tribute to the fabulous men of classic film and Bette Davis’s Christmas war bond message!
Hello, my classic movie family! I’ve spent most of the past year dealing with family and health issues and have been away. But I didn’t want to let the holidays pass without wishing you all joy and all good things. I also wanted to share this post on The Holly and the Ivy, one of my most beloved Christmas movies, which contains a link to the whole film. It can be a bit hard to track down, and I wanted to make sure you could see it!! Wishing you all the best for the holidays and the new year!
Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we bring you a free, fabulous movie to watch right here every week!
How can you help but love a Christmas movie where a brother and sister duck out on the family festivities to get roaring drunk?
They have their reasons. But then just about everyone has cause to knock back a few in The Holly and the Ivy, one of the least jolly Christmas movies ever. Which, for some of us, looks a lot like Christmas.
Adapted by Anatole de Grunwald from a play by Wynyard Browne (who wrote the screenplay for Hobson’s Choice), the 1952 film used to be a holiday staple on PBS back when they showed old British movies all the time. (I blame them for my insatiable crushes on Alistair Sim, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Robert Donat and Trevor Howard. They’re lucky I still give them money.) But it hasn’t turned up…
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Ladies! Traveling around New York, you’re likely to run into all kinds of guys. Take, for instance, the manspreader: Not even Dame Helen Mirren was safe from him. And The Nicest Man in America™ actually was him.
Then there’s Oscar Shapeley, who’s certain your emphatic rejections are just a playful way of heightening the romantic tension before your unconditional surrender. (I was recently stuck next to this guy on a trip to Rochester. As he was finally getting off the train in Rome, NY, he leaned in and grinned, “Would you like me to take you to Rome?!?” And then he laughed so hard a bit of gack flew out of his mouth. Because it was literally the funniest thing anyone has ever said.)
There’s also the out-and-out perv, who makes you long for the subtle, sophisticated stylings of Mr. Shapeley. And the guy who seems to have last enjoyed the thrill of bathing sometime during the Carter administration. And the one who’s wolfed down so much garlic he’s travel-banned in Transylvania.
But sadly—tragically, even—you know who you’re never gonna run into?
Remember when you’d sit around with your friends, imagining the perfect guy? Kind and decent, but not dull. Strong, but not overbearing. Smart, but not show-offy. Funny, but not a loudmouth. Protective, but not condescending. Exciting, but not dangerous. Gorgeous, but not vain. Is that so much to ask?!?
Not for Rod Taylor it isn’t.
In Sunday in New York, he slips easily into the role of Mike Mitchell, a music writer on a day trip to the city. Who hooks up, literally, with Eileen Tyler (Jane Fonda) on a crosstown bus, when her boutonniere gets snagged on his jacket. She should have that thing bronzed.
After an awkward parting and a fateful reunion—there’s that bus again!—they’re caught in a downpour and run for shelter.
Eileen is in town visiting her big brother Adam (Cliff Robertson), seeking sanctuary after her frustrated fiancé (Robert Culp) cools on her for not sleeping with him. Adam dutifully encourages her to remain chaste—and swears on his “sacred honor” he’s doing the same. But when she discovers a black negligee hanging in his closet, all bets, sacred or otherwise, are off.
And there sits this man. Good God. Could anyone blame her for deciding it’s time to jump in? Still, she’s a bit clumsy and naive, and Mike soon realizes she’s doing what she thinks she should be doing, not what she is comfortable doing—or has ever done before.
All her quirks and fears and vulnerabilities are flung out there like that ratty blue robe she pretends is her mother’s, to ward off predatory males. But he doesn’t pounce on them, or mock them. He loves them. He loves her. He honors her. And protects her, even from himself.
And when they argue over shifting sexual morés, he clearly relishes batting it back and forth with her. Yes—gasp—he even loves her mind!
Mike Mitchell is pretty much the perfect man: strong, smart, funny, gorgeous and insanely honorable. For me, the movie’s only false note was that he had a sometime girlfriend back in Philly who would let him stray beyond a three-foot radius.
I had been hounding TCM to show Sunday in New York since they started their festival. So when they finally did, in 2014, I was there before the doors opened, like the people who camp out overnight for the latest iPhone except this was for something important.
My friends Kay and Kathy arrived soon after—and the daylight pajama party was on! We’d just spent three days staring at screens, scarfing down all manner of sugary sin, and sleeping only at the odd moment there wasn’t a movie playing somewhere. As we waited for the house lights to dim, we gave in to our giddiness—hugging, swaying, and belting out the film’s signature tunes: “New York on Sundaaaay… big city takin’ a nap… Hellooo… what sweet magic brought you my wayyy…” Somewhere back east, Peter Nero’s ears were ringing. Or bleeding.
The woman sitting behind me huffed so hard she blew my hair off my neck: “I hope you’re not going to be doing that during the movie!” This to someone who’d rather streak through Holy Communion than talk in a darkened theater. But in the last scene, when Rod is gazing up at Jane, hugging the world’s luckiest pillow, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I sighed. Out loud. And yup, she shushed me, complete with spittle.
Later that spring, Kay and I had Sunday brunch at the restaurant where Eileen and Mike go to haggle over the cost of mending his jacket. Now the Rock Center Café, it looks much as it did more than a half-century ago. “Oh my God, this is the door where they went in!” I sputtered as I wobbled up the steps.
From everything I’ve seen and read of him, I’ve always had the feeling that playing the perfect man was not much of a stretch for Rod Taylor. There’s a reason he could do it without a molecule of effort.
In 1963, when Sunday in New York was made, Fonda was still finding her way out from under her father’s shadow, deeply insecure, and battling bulimia. She has said that working with Taylor was the first time she enjoyed making a movie or dared to believe she could really act.
“Jane and I got on so beautifully, and we never stopped laughing, on screen, off screen, just laughing all the time,” Taylor also recalled. “And shooting in New York… that was fantastic, cops stopping traffic, and everybody going ‘Ooh, ahh!’ when I kissed Jane… just a wonderful experience!”
He even managed to make Tippi Hedren’s nightmarish stint on The Birds bearable. “Rod was a great pal to me and a real strength. We were very, very good friends,” she said. ‘He was one of the most fun people I have ever met, thoughtful and classy. There was everything good in that man.”
Here’s a more modest take, from the man himself: “Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter were very pretty fellows, and that was the trend. I was one of the first of the uglies to get lucky… I wasn’t good-looking enough to really pull off some of the roles that I was put into!”
Rod Taylor died just a few months after the Sunday in New York screening at TCM, and I haven’t been able to watch it since. You know that wonderful feeling of seeing someone you love on the screen and knowing they’re still out there somewhere? And then suddenly they’re gone, and that feeling is even more horrible than the other feeling was good? With Rod Taylor, I’m still working through that.
But ladies, if you haven’t seen this movie, you must. And guys, watch it and make mental notes—kind of the way I do when I see Edith Cortwright in Dodsworth. Because that’s the thing about old movies: They give us something to shoot for.
This article is included in the Reel Infatuation blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. For more, click here!
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.