Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Welcome, Classic Film Lovers!

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!

The Un-Chilly Elegance of Frieda Inescort

“I’m so aristocratic on stage it’s a wonder I don’t come out blue when I take a bath.”

Probably best known as the hopelessly haughty Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice—who seemed to smell cabbage whenever Elizabeth Bennet stepped into the room—Frieda Inescort took a wry view of her typecasting. But there was so much more to her than that.

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Born with the new century in 1901, Frieda was the daughter of John “Jock” Wrightman and Elaine Inescourt, an Edinburgh journalist and actress who met when he reviewed her performance in a play. Favorably, I assume, as Elaine seemed to be a bit of a galloping narcissist: After her husband divorced her on the grounds of abandonment and adultery, she basically carted Frieda off to convent schools for most of her childhood while she pursued her social life and career—the latter, at least, to limited avail. (Later on, her deep resentment of her daughter’s success left the two permanently estranged.)

With sporadic schooling but possessed of a bearing beyond her years, Frieda was barely out of her teens when she sailed to the States as the personal secretary of Lord Waldorf Astor and his American wife, Nancy. When they headed back home, their adventurous charge stayed on in New York to seek out a stage career, working at the British consulate by day. She made her Broadway debut at just 21, opposite Leslie Howard in A.A. Milne’s comedy The Truth About Blayds. There, she was spotted by Philip Barry, who cast her as the lead in his new play, You and I.

Frieda worked steadily through the 1920s, with key roles in Noel Coward’s Hay Fever and Alfred Wing Pinero’s Trelawney of the Wells, and as the headstrong Mary Howard in When Ladies Meet (later played by Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford onscreen). She also shone as Eliza Doolittle in the Theater Guild’s national tour of Pygmalion. But knowing how fragile a stage career could be, she usually kept a day job—and while working at the publishing house of George Putnam (who later married Amelia Earhart), she met her husband, Ben Ray Redman, who soon became the literary critic for the New York Herald Tribune.

She had always resisted the lure of the screen, turning down roles in silents and early talkies. But when Redman was offered a consulting job with Universal Studios, the couple went West. Picking up her stage career in Hollywood, she was quickly singled out and signed by a scout for the Goldwyn Company, and in 1935 made her film debut as Fredric March’s sympathetic secretary in The Dark Angel.

Her natural warmth, set off by her wide eyes, patrician profile, and soothing, melodic voice, should have made her a natural for leading roles. But at 34 (!), she was deemed too old, and quickly settled into secondary parts. Sometimes she supported stars, as in Mary of Scotland, but more often she lost out to romantic rivals, as in Another Dawn, Give Me Your Heart, Beauty for the AskingYou’ll Never Get Rich, and most famously, Pride and Prejudice, where the temperature dropped 30 degrees every time the icy Miss Bingley appeared onscreen.

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But every now and then, we got a tantalizing glimpse of what Frieda’s career as a leading lady might have looked like. In Archie Mayo’s Call It a Day—where she’s sixth-billed but clearly the heart of the film—she even gets to cut loose in a comedy, as the befuddled calm at the center of a spring storm that drives her whole family a bit mad. And watching her try to politely fend off Roland Young, as a thoroughly confused but violently smitten suitor, is pure joy.

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Early on in the film, they do their best to dowdy her up a bit—at 36, she’s supposed to have been married 22 years, with a grown daughter (21-year-old Olivia de Havilland)—but she’s still pretty breathtaking, especially in the last scene, when Orry-Kelly really comes through for her. She should have had bushels of roles, and scenes, like this.

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Even in as broad a film as Call It a Day, Frieda never acted “out loud,” instinctively knowing when to underplay. Utterly natural, she never gave a “look at me” performance, which, I suspect, is one reason she didn’t get the bigger roles she deserved. (That, and of course the fact that, by her mid-thirties, much-older studio bosses had deemed her one step short of decrepitude.)

Her other, rare leading roles were mostly in B-films such as Convicted Woman, Shadow on the Stairs, and Portia on Trial,  where she stars as a feminist attorney defending a woman who shot her lover—kind of a precursor to Amanda in Adam’s Rib, but with roughly twice the vitriol. (Sample: “You seem to be a frustrated, mentally snarled woman!”—and that’s from the guy who loves her.)

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Higher-profile films usually found her back in supporting roles. In The Letter, she was Bette Davis’s elegant rock, quick with a cocktail and a silk-clad shoulder. (And like Bette—who needed no double as she furiously crocheted her way through a murder trial—Frieda was one of Hollywood’s inveterate knitters, sending lovely, intricately crafted gifts to friends and colleagues.)

In the mid-1940s, when good movie roles grew inexplicably scarcer, Frieda returned to Broadway for The Soldier’s Wife, The Mermaids Singing and a hit revival of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. After touring with the Shaw play, she returned to Hollywood, often focusing on the fledgling medium of television, including a recurring role on Meet Corliss Archer and a guest turn on Perry Mason. Her last major movie role was as Ann Vickers, Elizabeth Taylor’s increasingly alarmed mother, in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun.

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In 1960, while filming a small role in her last movie, The Crowded Sky, Frieda began struggling with her balance and muscle control. Soon after, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and within a year she was walking with the aid of a cane. The following August, her husband of 35 years, overwhelmed by career and financial woes, called her into the bedroom and calmly informed her he’d just swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. He succumbed to an overdose before help could arrive.

The shock and stress of his suicide accelerated the pace of Frieda’s disease, and by the mid-1960s, she was confined to a wheelchair. Determined not to feel helpless, she threw herself into raising funds for local MS organizations. Deeming no task too humble, she’d often join other volunteers collecting donations in malls and outside supermarkets. When her condition worsened and she could no longer live on her own, Frieda reluctantly surrendered her independence and moved to the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills. She died in February 1976, at 74.

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This article is included in the “What a Character!” blogathon. To read the rest of the entries, just click here!  

 

TINTYPE TUESDAY: Behind the Scenes of MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET!

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

Does the current crop of Christmas movies make you yearn to go back to 1947?  I mean even more than you normally do?  Then let’s journey together back to that magical time…

…when the lovely Maureen O’Hara was ready to pretty much punch someone in the face. She’d just flown home to Ireland after back-to-back shoots on The Homestretch and Sinbad the Sailor, and was all set to curl up with a cuppa and relax for a spell. So just imagine her excitement when she was suddenly summoned off the sofa and clear across the ocean to New York to star in a little confection called Miracle on 34th Street.

Luckily for 20th Century Fox, she fell in love with the script the instant she read it.

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Which is more than you can say for Darryl F. Zanuck, who didn’t want to make the “corny” film at all. Director George Seaton, who’d thrown his heart into the project, fought back hard—finally wangling a paltry $630,000 budget out of the cynical studio boss in exchange for a promise to direct The Shocking Miss Pilgrim, which Zanuck was willing to pour five times as much money into. (And which we all gather ’round the TV to watch every year! Oh wait…)

For O’Hara, a divorced working mother herself, the part of Doris Walker was an especially good fit, and also a chance to cast her glow on the kind of role rarely seen in films of the 1940s. (The powerful Legion of Decency found the portrayal of divorcées on screen to be “morally objectionable.”)

Once the perfect leading lady was on board, the search for Santa was on. The first choice was Cecil Kellaway, who turned down the part but suggested his cousin, Edmund Gwenn. “I’ve never seen an actor more naturally suited for a role,” O’Hara later recalled.

So much so that until she saw him in street clothes at the wrap party, Natalie Wood—who said she’d been “on the cusp of not believing in Santa Claus”—thought her beloved co-star was the real thing. And this was no sheltered, impressionable child: known as “One Take Natalie” for her photographic memory, Wood was whip-smart and had what Seaton called “an instinctive sense of timing and emotion.” And if she felt Gwenn was Santa Claus, who are we to argue?

Unbeknownst to the thousands of spectators lining the streets of New York, Gwenn was also Santa Claus at the 1946 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, even greeting the crowd from the store’s marquee. To make sure he got ample footage, Seaton set up 14 cameras all along the route. “It was a mad scramble to get all the shots we needed because we only got to do each scene once,” recalled O’Hara. “The parade couldn’t stop because we needed a second take!”

In fact, in an era when soundstages ruled the day, almost the entire film was shot on location—during a winter so bitterly cold that the chill sometimes froze the cameras.”One scene was shot in Port Washington, New York, where a woman let us warm up in her house,” O’Hara later laughed. “The crew put the cameras in front of her living room fireplace to thaw out… finally the cameras defrosted and we were able to finish the scene. Her generosity was one of the miracles in Miracle on 34th Street!”

The closeknit cast also helped to warm things up. “John Payne was a wonderful person to work with,” O’Hara remembered. “And he became one of my dearest friends.”

O’Hara was especially close to her screen daughter: “I played ‘Mom’ to more than forty children during my movie career. But Natalie always held a special place in my heart. She called me ‘Mama Maureen.'”

The scenes in Macy’s were shot after hours, which thrilled the adventurous eight-year-old: “Natalie loved to work at night because she got to say up late. With all the shoppers gone, we walked through the store and examined all the toys and girls’ dresses and shoes,” said O’Hara. “It was a special time for us.”

“Mama Maureen” was also kinder and more lenient than Wood’s own notorious stage mother: “I brought a bag of chocolates for Edmund every day. We hid the candy from Natalie because her mother didn’t want her to have any.

“One day, Edmund got some chocolate all over his white beard, and Natalie spotted it immediately. We let her sneak some, but we made sure her mother never caught us.”

Wood found a special way to thank her movie mother for her much-needed warmth. “At least once a week, she gave me a little ceramic figurine she’d made,” O’Hara remembered. “I took them all down to my home in the Virgin Islands but when Hurricane Hugo hit, they were all literally blown away. I couldn’t find a single one.”

When the movie wrapped, the cast and director were pretty confident audiences would love seeing the film as much as they loved making it. But Zanuck remained unconvinced—and in another stroke of genius, decided to release the film in June, when, he argued, movie attendance was higher. This left the studio scrambling to promote a Christmas film without ever calling it a Christmas film. Which brings us to this head-smackingly odd trailer:

In it, the studio boss, who’s something of an imbecile (did Zanuck see this?), bellows, “What do you make a trailer for? To give the public an idea of what kind of picture to expect!” Then—Irony Alert!—they completely sidestep the fact that this is a Christmas movie. The boss wanders out onto the lot, buttonholing passing stars like Rex Harrison and Anne Baxter for their opinions of the film. They all love it, for wildly different reasons (Peggy Ann Garner calls it groovy!) but no one dares utter the “C” word.

Joining the long list of films that succeeded in spite of studio bosses rather than because of them, Miracle on 34th Street ultimately found its (sandal-clad) audience, recouping its skimpy budget several times over. And along with The Bishop’s Wife, it was one of two Christmas films vying for Best Picture at the 1948 Academy Awards ceremony. Both lost to Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Gwenn fared better, taking home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor against a brutal field. Literally. Two of his rivals—Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death and Robert Ryan in Crossfire—played noir characters legendary for their viciousness. So the next time you see Tommy Udo push Mrs. Rizzo down that flight of stairs, just remember that ultimately, he was beaten by Santa Claus.

As you can hear in the clip below, the applause that greets his name—or as presenter Baxter would call it a few years later, “waves of love coming over the footlights”—make it clear who the winner will be. “Whew! Now I know there’s a Santa Claus,” Gwenn tells his adoring colleagues. “He’s an elusive little fellow… he turns up in all sorts of places under all sorts of names and disguises. The first time I met him, he told me his name was George Seaton…” And later, his voice breaking, “Thank you, all of you, for making the evening of my life such a happy one.”

And finally, here a few bits of Miracle on 34th Street trivia to toss around the Christmas table:

  • Remember when Kris Kringle is taking his sanity test, and to show off his memory, he proudly proclaims that the Vice President under John Quincy Adams was Daniel D. Tomkins? Um, no, he served under James Monroe. Adams’ veep was John Calhoun, whose picture is too scary to put in a Christmas story. (Google him. Yikes.) So the next time you watch the movie with friends, be sure to smugly point out this mistake! (And never be invited back!)
  • Macy’s Christmas window displays were made by Steiff, famous for their stuffed bears and other toys. After the movie wrapped, the store sold them to FAO Schwarz, which later sold them, improbably, to the Marshall & Ilsley Bank in Milwaukee, where they’re showcased every year in the main lobby.
  • Gene Lockhart, who plays the judge, was also Bob Cratchit in the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. And Percy Helton, who played the drunken Santa Claus, also popped up as the train conductor in White Christmas. Oh and speaking of making a bit too merry, here’s a Gimbel’s ad from the year Miracle on 34th Street came out:

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  • The movie also gave us the gift that keeps on giving: the film debut of Thelma Ritter, who went on to win six Oscar nods while never moving out of Queens. And typically, she’s the one who sets the whole Christmas détente between Macy’s and Gimbels in motion.
  • Ever wonder what Kris Kringle and the little Dutch refugee who sits on his knee are talking about? Here’s the translation:

Kris Kringle: I’m happy you came!
Little Girl: Ooh, you are Sinterklaas!
Kris Kringle: Well yes, of course!
Little Girl: I knew it! I knew you would understand me!
Kris Kringle: Of course! Tell me what you would like to get from Sinterklaas.
Little Girl: I don’t want anything… I already have everything… I just want to stay with this lovely lady.
Kris Kringle: Do you want to sing something for me?
Little Girl (singing): Saint Nicholas, little rascal,
Put something in my little shoe!
Put something in my little boot!
Thank you, little Saint Nicholas!
Saint Nicholas little rascal,
Put something in my little shoe!
Put something in my little boot!
Thank you, little Saint Nicholas!

  • The house Natalie Wood bolts into at the end of the movie still stands, at 24 Derby Road in Port Washington. It looks almost exactly the same today, but for the addition of a window that changed the roofline.

It seems only fitting to give the final word to Maureen: “I’m so proud to have been part of Miracle on 34th Street.” And we’re so grateful you were. We still miss you, dear lady. And we’ll never forget what you told us:

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TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click hereand why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss a week?

STREAMING SATURDAY! Spring Fever Hits Hard in Archie Mayo’s CALL IT A DAY

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free films for you to watch right here!

“The first spring day is in the Devil’s pay.”

So the Hilton family is about to discover in Archie Mayo’s Call It a Day. The temptingly warm rays have loosened their coats, their collars, and their inhibitions—along with everybody else’s.

Catherine Hilton (Olivia de Havilland) is swooning over a caddish artist twice her age, sister Ann (Bonita Granville) is mooning over Rosetti, and brother Martin (Peter Willes) longs to hijack the family car and make a dash for the continent.

And their parents are no less wobbly: Roger (Ian Hunter), usually a sane, sturdy accountant, is half-heartedly fending off advances from a film actress who’s sought him out to untangle her taxes, and Dorothy (Frieda Inescort), the absolute brick of this brood, is caught up in a case of mistaken identity with the world’s most ardent suitor (Roland Young; more on him here).

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And just as spring turns the family’s lives upside down, the movie kicks the legs out from under some tedious typecasting. In film after film, the doughily hot Ian Hunter loses the girl to someone not nearly as worthy (including George Brent, for God’s sake). Here, he not only starts out with the girl, but finds another in mad pursuit.

And Frieda Inescort was often relegated to chilly supporting roles, perhaps most famously as Carolyn Bingley in Pride and Prejudice, where she treated Elizabeth Bennet like a vaguely foul odor that had wafted in with the dustman. But here, she gets to break out into screwball comedy and mix it up romantically with not one but two men, while tenderly carrying her family and the whole film on her elegant shoulders. And on top of all that, perennial brat Bonita Granville gets to show off her dreamier side.

Dorothy’s romantic mix-up is set in motion as she’s out at the market, dutifully shopping for radishes—when she’s bumbled into by Frank Haines (Young), who’s immediately smitten. Frank’s sister (Alice Brady), who’s also a friend of Dorothy’s, has set him up with a local spinster, and when Dorothy meets Frank later that day, he’s thrilled—thinking she’s his intended. Even when he learns she’s happily married, he’s undeterred:

Frank: Does he beat you?
Dorothy: What?!
Frank: Does he beat you?
Dorothy: Who, Roger? Good heavens, no!
Frank: Oh, but he must! It’s only fair! You’re desperate and unhappy and I’ve come to your rescue. That’s the way it’s got to be.

He then suggests she ditch the kids and run away with him.

Dorothy: What? Give up my children?
Frank: You’ve had them long enough, haven’t you? Well, divide them up then!
Dorothy: I couldn’t do that. There are three of them. It wouldn’t come out even.

And on it goes…

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For me, Call It a Day falls into the same bucket as another 1937 comedy we’ve featured here, Stand In: criminally underseen and deserving of a lot more love. To watch the whole film, just click here!

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? 

STREAMING SATURDAYS: Celebrating the Armistice Day Centennial with the Anti-War Classic JOURNEY’S END

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free films for you to watch right here!

In honor of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day—which marked the close of was to be The War to End All Wars—we bring you Journey’s End. The most powerful war movie I’ve ever seen, it’s also the least bloody—maybe because the writer and director barely escaped the battlefield themselves.

After penning a few drawing-room dramas during the 1920s, playwright R.C. Sherriff decided it was finally time to face down his memories of The Great War. He’d just about made it home in one piece after being wounded on the Western Front, and was awarded the Military Cross—but the images that kept percolating in his mind were of other things entirely. The everyday struggles. Long stretches of boredom edged with constant, simmering fear. Foul smells, lousy food, muddy trenches and wet feet. Damp, cramped dugouts. And friends. Always friends. The ones who listened, who understood, who never judged, who kept you from falling apart.

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Sherriff poured all this and more into his play Journey’s End.

And he found the perfect director in James Whale. A former set designer with a great eye for mood and detail, Whale had something even more important going for him: He understood exactly what Sherriff  was talking about. Whale had also fought on the Western Front, and had been captured and held prisoner for almost a year and a half.

But while Sherriff and Whale were ready to revist their war years with this powerful story, producers backed away in droves. “Every management in London had turned the play down,” Sherriff recalled later. “They said people didn’t want war plays. They asked, how can I put on a play with no leading lady?” (No Leading Lady later became the title of his autobiography.)

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In desperation, the playwright sent a copy of Journey’s End to George Bernard Shaw, asking for his endorsement. Shaw called the play “a useful corrective to the romantic concept of war” and said that as “a ‘slice of life’—horribly abnormal life—it should be produced by all means.” Soon after, in late 1928, Sherriff secured a small London theatre for a showcase, with 21-year-old Laurence Olivier in the lead role of Captain Denis Stanhope. But by the time the play moved up to the West End the following year, Olivier was committed elsewhere.

Sherriff had noticed a young actor named Colin Clive in a variety of smaller stage roles which, in his hands, didn’t seem small at all. He thought Clive had exactly the kind of edgy, brittle intensity needed to capture Stanhope in all his anguish. He was right.

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Journey’s End proved to be such a hit that in less than a year, Hollywood came calling for the film rights. Whale signed with Universal to direct the project, but the studio already had its own stable of stars and wasn’t much interested in Clive, despite his stellar stage notices. And Clive, for his part, was more than happy to stay on the London stage. But after a bit of wrangling, the determined director finally sold each side to the other, and Clive sailed for the States.

In his autobiography, Flashback, producer George Pearson recalls that Clive arrived in New York on Thanksgiving Day 1929—and had just 25 minutes to get from the dock to the train station to catch the Twentieth Century Limited to Los Angeles. He then picks up the story in Hollywood: “Colin’s entry on that set, as Stanhope, seemed, in some miraculous way, to turn make-believe into sudden stark reality. Even the stagehands stopped to look: captured, curious, puzzled.”

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Journey’s End takes place almost entirely in a dugout in St, Quentin, France in March 1918, on the eve of what threatens to be an especially bloody battle. The war may be just months from ending, but the fighting is no less ferocious.

Sherriff often said he never set out to make an anti-war story. But he couldn’t have made a more powerful one if he’d tried. Thanks also to Whale’s sensitive, intimate direction, you feel as if you’re walled in with these men and their fears, their memories, their hopes, and their confusion and anger about why they’re in this hellhole in the first place. You flinch every time you hear a shell explode outside, as the sudden shock punctuates the joking, the drinking, the sharing of stories and photographs, the routines that keep them sane.

You worry yourself sick about the people you meet here: young 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (David Manners), eager to make good and too new to it all, at least at first, to fully grasp the horror of what he’s been plunged into. Lieutenant Osborne (Ian McLaren), the father figure of this ill-starred family, whom everyone calls Uncle, the man you’d want by your side in a foxhole and even more so if you were forced to climb out of it. And of course Captain Stanhope, breaking under the strain and misery of battle, turning more and more to drink to get him through days that had stretched into years. Deeply ashamed, he’s terrified his men will see his fear—and how he uses liquor to dull the edges of it—and turn away from him in disgust.

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How easy it would be to overplay the role of the tortured captain, to milk every ounce of pathos out of it. But Colin Clive is completely natural. There’s nothing “actor-y” about him. He is Stanhope. Everything that’s noble and flawed and terrified and brave about the man is completely laid bare, without technique or artifice. He’s so open, so real, that you feel like you’re intruding on his private misery. Like you’re peering at him through a keyhole or a cracked-open door.

In one scene, when he crumples to the floor in grief, I was actually scared he’d hurt himself. Because it was a real fall. He doesn’t fling himself down dramatically; he collapses under the weight of his pain. And he sobs the way real people do, not the way movie people do.

Later on, when Raleigh is carried in, grievously wounded, he tenderly cradles his head as he eases him onto a cot. As Raleigh turns toward him, desperate for some sign of hope or encouragement, Stanhope’s face softens from dread to reassurance. Soon after, it floods with anguish and sheer disgust at the sickening waste of it all. As the film closes, he climbs the steps of the dugout to face his worst fear, and the fragile, makeshift hut—now under mortar fire—collapses behind him.

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When shooting wrapped on Journey’s End shortly after Christmas 1929, Clive sailed home to England to resume his stage career, little realizing he’d soon be called back to take on the part he’s most famous for: the title role in Whale’s Frankenstein.

Though they share a star and a director, the two films could not be further apart. In fact, there’s a scene in Journey’s End that’s almost the mirror opposite of the famous soliloquy in Frankenstein, when Henry asks, “Have you never wanted to look beyond the clouds and the stars, or to know what causes the trees to bud, or what changes the darkness into light…”

Stanhope is talking to Osborne about how imagination can be a curse, and how he envies the lack of it in the camp’s cook, Mason: “I suppose if Mason were to look up at that sky at night, he’d just see the stars. He wouldn’t see the space beyond the stars that makes you sick and giddy and want to cling on to something…”

Clive beautifully captures a dreamer’s hope in one scene, and a soldier’s terror in the other. He made only 18 films, but that slender volume of work was enough to prove he could do just about anything.

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As for Whale and Sherriff, they’d team up twice more—for One More River (also with Clive, as a villainous husband) and for the ill-fated film version of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel The Road Back, which Universal cravenly cut to ribbons to appease the Nazi regime, thereby retaining access to the German film market (that whole sordid story is here).

But Journey’s End remains their deeply personal masterpiece.

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? 

And for more on the life and work of the undersung James Whale, turn to James Curtis’s terrific biography, James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters.

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Leslie Howard and Humphrey Bogart Lighten Up in STAND IN

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free, fun films for you to watch right here!

This week: from 1937, Tay Garnett’s Stand In, starring Leslie Howard, Joan Blondell and Humphrey Bogart.

Just a year earlier, Bogart and Howard had squared off in the Arizona desert, as the vicious outlaw and doomed drifter in the film version of Robert Sherwood’s The Petrified Forest. Though both originated their roles on Broadway, only Howard was sought after for the screen, as Warner Bros. had its pick of high-profile tough guys for the plum role of Duke Mantee. Furious, Howard issued an ultimatum via telegram to Jack Warner: “Insist Bogart play Mantee. No Bogart, no deal.” Bogart remained forever grateful to him for giving him his big break, and years later, he named his daughter in memory of him.

Stand In gave the two stars a chance to lighten up considerably—in a stiletto-sharp farce that skewers the queasy relationship between the dream factories out West and the money men back East. During the Great Depression, Wall Street had pounced on a number of cash-strapped studios, eager to scoop up their assets for a song. In our film, accountant Atterbury Dodd (Howard) heads to Hollywood to seize the reins of his bank’s newest property, the foundering Colossal Pictures.

But the owlish Dodd’s biggest asset turns out to be Lester Plum (Blondell), a former child star working as a stand-in for Colossal’s fading diva, Thelma Cheri (Marla Shelton). Lester’s studio smarts land her a job as his secretary—and she quickly falls for her hapless boss.

Meanwhile, in a scheme to drive the studio to bankruptcy and help another mogul pick up the pieces, an eccentric director (Alan Mowbray) is conspiring with a predatory press agent (Jack Carson) to run up the costs on Cheri’s latest lurid blockbuster, Sex and Satan, which is being produced by one of the few sane people on the lot (Bogart, accompanied everywhere by his little black Scottie—who’s never explained, which would have ruined it).

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Out of breath yet? We’re just getting started. And Garnett—who got his start with Hal Roach and Mack Sennett—never slows up for a second.

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This is a true screwball sleeper that deserves more attention and leaves me wishing Howard and Bogart had teamed up more often—or at least that each had been given more than just an occasional shot at comedy. Enjoy!

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?  

STREAMING SATURDAYS! James Mason Makes an Adorable Screen Debut in LATE EXTRA

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free, fun films for you to watch right here!

This week we bring you a gaspingly young James Mason in his very first film: a fast-paced British murder mystery from 1935, Albert Parker’s Late Extra.

After several seasons under Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic, Mason almost made his film debut the previous year, as Rodrigo in The Private Life of Don Juan—but Alexander Korda sacked him three days into filming. “They had decided that I was miscast,” Mason mused in his memoir, Before I Forget. “I recognized in this case ‘miscast’ was a euphemism for ‘lousy.'”

And at first, his turn in Late Extra threatened to be just as awkward: “As a beginner in this class of work, I was inclined, when making an exit, just to drop out of the side of the frame as if tugged. Al drew attention to the fact that when a person leaves a room he invariably looks where he is going. So on such occasion he would drive this lesson home by repeating, like a military command, ‘Look… Turn… Go!'”

Mason plays Jim Martin, a cub reporter for the London Gazette, who’s assigned to what looks like a routine stolen-car case—but which quickly escalates to bank robbery and murder. Meanwhile his girlfriend, columnist Janet Graham (Virginia Cherrill, best known as the blind flower seller in City Lights), is eager to break out of the paper’s pink ghetto of gossip and girl talk—and jumps into the case on her own.

Mixing it up from the sidelines is the colorful MacPherson, played by Alastair Sim with hair. This was the 30-year-old’s first year in film, following his tenure as an elocution teacher at Edinburgh University. But casting the King’s English aside, he really lets his burr fly hereand it’s glorious. (Also keep an eye out for Michael Wilding, barely out of his teens, as a telephone operator.)

Late Extra was a “quota quickie”—a low-budget film churned out fast to satisfy the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927, which required British movie houses to show a certain percentage of domestically produced films, with largely British casts. Though sometimes dismissed as trivial, many featured variety, music hall or other popular entertainment that otherwise would never have been captured on film, while others gave young theatre actors like Mason their first crack at the movies. And that alone would be enough to earn them a special place in my heart.

This is not as good a print as I usually post, but it’s the best I could find. And I think it’s worth giving a go anyway! I hope you enjoy it.

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? 

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Fairy Tales Can Come True for THE YOUNG IN HEART

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free, fun films for you to watch right here!

These days, the last thing you might want to see on your screen is another family of grifters.  But fear not: these folks are smart, funny, charming and have nothing to do with Russia. And deep down—okay way deep down—they’re decent.

We first meet the Carletons in Monte Carlo (“Coney Island with a monocle”), where son Richard (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) is trying to snooker a dumpy American heiress, pulling snippets of classic poetry out of his pocket and passing it off as his own. His sister George-Anne (Janet Gaynor) is throwing over her beloved Duncan (Richard Carlson), an adorable Scotsman, after learning—by way of a comically modest engagement ring—that he’s broke. Their father “Sahib” (Roland Young, one of my movie husbands) is fleecing a few suckers at cards. And in the midst of all this, Marmy (Billie Burke at her Billie Burke-est) is bragging about her brood (“‘Sahib’ is Indian for genteel!”).

But alas, before long, they’re literally run out of town on a rail. After one of their scams blows up, a local gendarme presses train tickets into their greasy palms and tells them not to darken his sunny shores again.

Convinced she’s not as shallow as she seems, the persistent Duncan high-tails it onto the train after George-Anne, and as she pulls away from him, she literally falls into the car of Miss Fortune, a lonely—and wealthy—old woman (Minnie Dupree, who’s kind of an elderly Marian Marsh). Even before she can catch her breath, she’s spinning a sob story. When Miss Fortune says she seems troubled, she sputters, “Yes, it’s my mother… she needs to have an operation…”

Later that night, when the train derails, Richard and George-Anne pull Miss Fortune from the wreckage, saving her life—and giving us a glimpse of who they really are. Richard tenderly rests the old woman on a soft patch of grass, and George-Anne swaddles her in her last luxe possession, her fur coat. Grateful and eager for company, she invites the family to share her mansion. They leap at the chance—but George-Anne reminds them that simply lolling around the fabulous old house would give the game away: “All we have to do is keep being what she thinks we are: decent, honest, sober and hard-working.” Yikes.

Richard and Sahib reluctantly trundle out in search of jobs—only to discover they enjoy them. Richard falls in love with his boss (Paulette Goddard) at an engineering firm, and Sahib finally puts his charm to semi-honest use selling the futuristic Flying Wombat, “the car that thinks for you.” Meanwhile, all of them have fallen in love with Miss Fortune. And none of them could be more ashamed of their newfound morality.

That’s all I’ll tell you, except to add that this was Carlson’s first credited role and Gaynor’s last before retiring at the height of her fame (she returned just once, decades later, for Bernadine).

The film also looks and sounds gorgeous, earning Franz Waxman his first Oscar nods, for Scoring and Original Score (which were separate categories back then), and cinematographer Leon Shamroy one of his 18 nominations (tying him with Charles Lane for the record in that category). The legendary William Cameron Menzies, fresh off a little number called Gone with the Wind, was the production designer.

Oh, and the Flying Wombat, which cost $24,000 to build, was played by the stunning 1938 Phantom Corsair, a six-passenger coupe designed by Rust Heinz of ketchup-family fame. He planned to put it into limited production priced at roughly $12,000, but was killed in a road accident in July 1939, and no one followed through on his dream.

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?

Remembering Buster Keaton, with Love and Gratitude

Sharing again in honor of Buster’s birthday…thank you, Buster, for just about saving my life.

Sister Celluloid

Squonk. Squonk. Squonk. The walk to school from my house was five blocks long, and my crepe-soled shoes squeaked more slowly with each passing street. Squonk. Squonk. Stop. Squonk. Stop again. Root around in my bookbag. Maybe I forgot something. Maybe I should go home.

When I was in the third grade, I developed a duodenal ulcer. Not a typical ailment for an 8-year-old, but then my home life wasn’t typical. And all the fear and misery literally ate away at me.

I would miss days, sometimes weeks of school at a time, from sheer pain or from being queasy and dizzy and off-balance, the side effects of my big orange pills. Returning to the classroom, I was always terrified of not being able to catch up, of being made fun of and even left back. I’d slink into my seat, unbundle my pencils and books, and rifle through my reader to find the…

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: Hollywood Knits!

Not long ago, while nursing an ankle I managed to break in three places during one fall down the stairs, I took up knitting. This was my first effort:

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“Oh, my,” you may be thinking. “What a lovely… um, collar… thing?”

It was supposed to be a scarf. I still don’t know how it got that way. I only know that once it started wrapping itself around my thigh, I thought it wise to stop before it either cut off the circulation or had to buy me dinner. (Happy ending, though! In a rare non-judgmental moment, the cat decided he loved it.)

If only one of Hollywood’s classic stars had been there to rescue me. Because those babes knitted like fiends.

Joan Crawford was so adept she could wield her knitting needles as weapons. As George Cukor was shooting Norma Shearer’s close-ups for the dramatic dressing-room scene in The Women, Crawford was running lines with her off-camera. And clacking away on an enormous afghan throw. When Shearer asked the director to “kindly tell Miss Crawford her knitting needles are distracting,” he asked her to cut it out and apologizebut she only half-complied. Setting aside her mountains of yarn, she quipped, “I’ll send her a telegram.”

But usually it was nerves that got her needles going. In 1949, a reporter for Motion Picture magazine noted that, during his visit to her home, Crawford “knitted furiously and distractedly”: “Because she was knitting, her left foot did not jiggle—an old nervous reflex—a carry-over from the shyness with strangers she has never quite overcome. Later, when she stopped her work, it would. Her hands, also subject to small nervous mannerisms, she controls by three simple expedients: the knitting, folding them under her arms, or sitting on them.”

“I took my knitting along to the set so I could keep my hands busy,” Crawford once recalled, “because I was so nervous.”  She said while filming What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with Bette Davis, she “knitted a scarf that stretched clear to Malibu.”

Though if knitting relaxed her, it was sometimes hard to tell.

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Bette was no slouch with a needle either.

Sometimes one knitting Bette wasn’t enough: Here she is with Audrey Scott, her double on Now, Voyager.

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Davis even got to show off her needle skills in that film, as well as others like The Letter and Phone Call from a Stranger.

She and other actresses also knitted up a storm for the troops during World War II, as Mary Pickford had during the Great War.

Ingrid Bergman was another star who carried her knitting basket everywhere from her earliest days in Hollywood—and didn’t stop for primping.

Here she is using Hitchcock as a human yarn rack…

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…and calmly purling away while working on her last film with husband Roberto Rosselliniin the midst of their divorce.

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Meanwhile, from the looks of that yarn bowl, Greer Garson enjoyed knitting two-bedroom apartments.

Those pesky costumes didn’t slow these ladies down…

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…nor did nosy leading men.

Some co-stars clacked away together between takes…

…or took a few tips from the pros.

Judy was in a class of her own, though, knitting while performing.

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Here’s to all the Hollywood ladies who wove fabulous yarns off the screen as well as on!

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TINTYPE TUESDAY is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, with fabulous classic movie pix (and often a bit of backstory!) to help you make it to Hump Day! For previous editions, just click here—and why not bookmark the page, to make sure you never miss one?

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Film Noir Meets the French Revolution in THE BLACK BOOK

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free, fun movies for you to watch right here!

“We’ll always have Paris.”

In this case, the Paris of powdered wigs and guillotines. The Black Book (also called Reign of Terror) may be the only film noir set during the French Revolution—and if that sounds odd, it’s no more peculiar than the film’s origins.

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“In 1949, [they] had just made Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman, which was not very successful,” explained co-star Norman Lloyd (then a mere slip of a boy at 100) when he introduced the film at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival. “But the lavish sets for the picture remained. [They] kept staring at those expensive sets, grumbling, and proposed to art director William Cameron Menzies that they make use of them.

“[It was essentially] ‘Here is all this pricey wood and canvas—let’s make some money on it! Let’s find a script!’ So this may have been the first set-driven movie,” Lloyd laughed. “So if any of you have ideas about crashing into motion pictures, build a good set! And if they ask me my inspiration working on the film, I’d say, ‘They used the most beautiful wood I’ve ever seen!

“But we [also] had Menzies, a spectacular cinematographer in John Alton, and Anthony Mann directing,”he added, “so we were good.”

Alton’s stark interplay of shadow and light and canted camera angles would easily suit the dark, rain-slicked streets of 1940s Los Angeles, but somehow work just as well in 18th-century France, where the villainous Robespierre (Richard Basehart) seeks to retrieve his “black book,” a long list of political enemies he hopes to send to the chopping block. Enter Charles D’Aubigny (Robert Cummings), a French spy who, with the help of his former lover Madelon (Arlene Dahl in lusty-wench-wear), goes undercover to seize the book and bring the bloody reign of terror to an end.

Alton, Menzies (who also co-produced) and Mann are pretty much a Murderer’s Row of moodiness, and their gifts are on full display here.

“They didn’t have all the money in the world that Metro had for sets and so on,” Dahl told author James Curtis in his superb book, William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come. “But they had Menzies, who could take two walls and make it look like a great ballroom by hanging a chandelier just right, and John by getting the camera angle just right, they could make twelve people look like millions of people. And also because of the design of the sets, they could make it look lavish because of the camera angles and the way the set had been designed. I mean, it really looked like a much bigger picture than it was.”

Add to that Mann’s legendary visual sense, and you have a nifty little film worth watching.

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you free, fabulous films and a bit of backstory besides! You can catch up on movies you may have missed by clicking here! And why not bookmark that page to make sure you never miss another?

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