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!

STREAMING SATURDAYS! Donat and Dietrich Sizzle in KNIGHT WITHOUT ARMOUR, Plus Marlene’s Home Movies!

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

Today’s entry, Jacques Feyder’s Knight Without Armor, is part of the Robert Donat Blogathon hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. It’s a sweeping historical romance with a lot more romance than history—but not nearly as much as the leading lady would’ve liked.

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Adapted for the screen by the legendary Frances Marion from James Hilton’s 1934 novel, the film stars Robert Donat as a British journalist working undercover in the waning days of Czarist Russia, who’s tasked with escorting a princess (Marlene Dietrich) on the treacherous journey from Moscow to Petrograd so she can stand trial for crimes against the new order. But soon he’s trying to spirit his new love to safety…

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In 1937, Donat was at the height of his powers—and so stunning that Dietrich wryly joked that “the audience won’t know who to look at—him or me.” She preferred to look at him, and according to her daughter, Maria Riva, was disappointed to discover he was quite contentedly married, loving nothing more than his home and garden and waxing poetic about flowers and fertilizers. I imagine her reaction to all that talk of hollyhocks was something like this:

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But with Feyder at the helm, she needn’t have worried, even jokingly, about capturing the viewer’s gaze. Earlier, the director had wrapped his lens lovingly around Greta Garbo in her last silent movie, The Kiss, as well as her first sound film, Anna Christie, and here, Dietrich looked just as luminous. (Though making Marlene look great seems a bit like making meringue taste good.)

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To secure her services for the role of the princess, producer Alexander Korda paid Dietrich a quarter of a million dollars plus 10 percent of the gross, an especially whopping sum considering the average cost of his previous films had been around $300,000 all in. The money wasn’t an issue until Donat—already plagued by the crippling asthma that would ultimately shorten his life—was ill for long stretches, at one point causing production to be shut down for an entire month.

Korda was all set to fire him but Dietrich chivalrously fought for her knight, offering to forego her salary during any downtime. She also taught Donat a few breathing techniques that helped him get through his longer scenes. (Far from the diva she’s often portrayed as, Marlene was a total brick who risked her life to entertain the Allied troops in WWII—washing her lingerie in a helmet filled with melted snow. She was also a homebody who made a mean chocolate cake.)

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The chemistry between the co-stars absolutely crackles. And because this was a British film, unfettered by the pesky Production Code, you may need a cigarette after their scenes in the woods, including one with Dietrich curled up in Donat’s arms as he recites Browning.

“They’ll call off the search now,” he later assures her. “In a few days we can leave the forest.”

To which she purrs in soft, low tones,  “Don’t you like my forest?”

“I adore it,” he growls, followed by a long, slow kiss and a fade-out. The next morning, Dietrich is seen skinny dipping and looking quite… happy.

And on that note, here we go!

And a bonus short this week: Marlene’s 1937 home movies!! Where she’s—ahem—”accompanied by her Hollywood colleague, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.” Who was more than happy not to talk about gardening.

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid, bringing you free fun film! 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?

THE GARDEN OF ALLAH: It’s Delightful, It’s Delicious, It’s Delirious

The Garden of Allah. Oh my God this movie could not be more ridiculous. I’ve seen it four times.

The first time, I was home with the flu. And while I’m not suggesting you goose your temperature a few degrees before you watch, it couldn’t hurt. The whole thing feels like a long, languid, luscious fever-dream: Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich and Basil Rathbone at the height of their fabulousness, lovingly shot in color (in 1936!) by the brilliant Harold Rosson, who, along with W. Howard Greene, won an honorary Oscar for his work on the film—only the third ever shot in three-strip Technicolor.

Rosson used the skills and techniques he’d mastered in black and white to soften the tones of the Technicolor process, which required intense lighting that could render a palette harsh and even downright garish. The results are nothing short of hypnotic: you don’t so much watch this film as let it wash over you. It may be the only time in your life you ever cry out, “Good God, look at that beige!” 

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Rosson unspools such magic it almost distracts you from the storyline. For that, he should have gotten another award.

When we first meet Domini Enfilden (Dietrich), she’s moping around the convent she grew up in, where she’s now returned. As Sister Mary Backstory helpfully explains, Domini gave up many years of her life caring for her father and now that he’s gone, she’s alone and unhappy. Meanwhile in the background, the other nuns are chanting what sounds suspiciously like a Max Steiner  score…

“Why not leave the cities you have found so lonely, why not try something different?” suggests Mother Superior (Lucille Watson, shedding her usual battleaxe gear for a wimple). “Perhaps the desert…”

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And so off she goes.  On her lonely quest for spiritual renewal, Domini swans around North Africa, with no one but David O. Selznick’s entire wardrobe department to keep her company. There she meets Boris Androvsky (Boyer), an escaped Trappist monk—hey, there’s a phrase you don’t hear a lot!—who falls in love with her, and who can blame him: Dietrich plus Rosson equals some sort of exponential gorgeousness you can’t even quantify. I’d marry her just for that blue dress.

Meanwhile, Rathbone, who’s Italian for no apparent reason, lurks off in the corner, having little to do but spout profundities. (He had also been considered for Boyer’s role, but that would have denied us the chance to see him look insanely dashing in a keffiyeh.) “A man who refuses to acknowledge his god is unwise to set foot in the desert!” his Count Anteoni warns Boris, before skulking off.

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But do Boris and Domini listen? No, because “the desert calls and its voice is always heard.” (Apparently the only things that grow there are aphorisms.) They marry and set up housekeeping in a little tent or three, where they’re happy for a good ten minutes or so. But then they take in a band of soldiers seeking food and shelter, and, well, no good deed goes unpunished. Boris’s cover is blown when, at dinner one night, someone recognizes the special liqueur he used to make back at the monastery, which he’s now taken to whipping up around the house.

Spoiler alert (in case you didn’t see this one galloping toward you on a camel): Boris then realizes he must go back to the monastery (even though he’s happy as all get-out with Domini and was miserable as a monk). When last we gaze upon them (and thanks to Rosson, after an hour and a half, we are still gazing), Boris is heading inside as Domini wanly waves her silk hanky at him from the front gate. (And as silly as the whole business sounds, be sure to have a hanky or two handy yourself.)

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To stand in for the North African desert, director Richard Boleslawski scouted out Buttercup Valley, California and Yuma, Arizona, which were easier to reach but no less stifling. According to Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva (who makes an early cameo as a convent student), during the outdoor love scenes, the heat sometimes melted the glue on Boyer’s toupee and sent it sliding down his face, taking Marlene’s make-up with it. Eventually, before each take, the ever-practical diva would pat her co-star’s head to make sure his requisite hairpiece—which he loathed and never wore off-camera—was still fixed firmly on his head.

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Under the lens of Harold Rosson, I’ll bet even the glue would have looked gorgeous. He never won a competitive Oscar, but earned nominations for five films. Ironically, only one was in color, though that was a doozy: The Wizard of Oz. He was also tapped for Boom TownThirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Bad Seed as well as The Asphalt Jungle, where his stark and gritty tone proved pivotal to John Huston’s story, which was downbeat even by noir standards. And Oscar completely overlooked his stunning work on Singin’ in the RainGentlemen Prefer Blondes and the beautiful but deeply absurd Duel in the Sun.

So thank heavens he was recognized for his work on The Garden of Allahwhich may have spelled the end of his Oscar run, but was just the beginning of an amazing career.

This article is included in The Suave Swordsman: Basil Rathbone Blogathon, hosted by Pale Writer. To see the rest of the stories, click here!

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STREAMING SATURDAYS! Claire Trevor and Fred MacMurray Drive Each Other BORDERLINE Insane

Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed free, fun movies for you! Today’s offering is part of the 110 Years of Claire Trevor Blogathon. Daylight Saving Time may render March 8 the shortest day of the year, but it still leaves you plenty of time to raise a glass to Claire on her birthday.

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From 1950, we present William Seiter’s Borderline, starring Trevor and Fred MacMurray as an undercover cop and her criminal prey, cavorting all over Mexico and falling in love along the way. It’s kind of a romance/screwball comedy/gangster flick/road movie, with a just dash of noir. (I know—that old chestnut!)

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We open in the den of underworld kingpin Pete Ritchie (Raymond Burr, in a summer suit—who knew there was that much white linen?—and matching fedora), who’s scheming to dig his greedy mitts even deeper into the drug trade. Cut to the police, who’ve been at a loss to stop him and are desperate for a break. But they’ve got a plan: send a sexy female operative out to ensnare him.

After they bat a few names around the precinct, one cop points to Madeleine Haley (Trevor), a former OSS officer now with the LAPD.

“How about her?” he asks the captain.

“Ritchie goes for tawdry, cheap-looking dames,” the boss replies.

“Well she could pass!” he blurts enthusiastically.

So nice when your colleagues have faith in you!

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And off she goes… but no sooner does she wiggle and waggle her way into Ritchie’s good graces than she’s kidnapped by Johnny (MacMurray), a hood who’s stolen a cache of drugs for a rival gang. Believing she’s Ritchie’s moll, he strongarms her off to Mexico, where he plans to sell his stash… or does he?

It’s always fun watching MacMurray, a deeply underappreciated hottie—even when he’s saddled with the world’s ugliest tie. (As well as the widest: It’s as if some public-spirited designer felt compelled to keep all that hideous fabric from escaping to other ties.) Here, he and Trevor have a light, lovely chemistry, merrily tossing quips back and forth and thrilled to find someone who can keep the rally going. They feel like actual grown-ups: You get the feeling this isn’t the first time at the rodeo for either of them, but you’re hoping it’s the last.

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The fabulous Trevor, who grew up one neighborhood over from me in Brooklyn, should’ve gotten to do more comedy. But then she should’ve gotten to do more everything. She made only 12 films in the 1950s, working mostly in television—she was as smart, edgy and gorgeous as ever, but she made the mistake of turning 40. What was she thinking? Taking matters into her own hands, Trevor co-produced Borderline with her husband, Milton Bren, along with Seiter and MacMurray; they all deferred their salaries to make the film. A year later, the stars reteamed for a one-hour Lux Radio Theater reprise.

This little movie has been kicking around in the public domain for decades, and some prints are borderline awful. But I managed to hunt down a good one. I hope you like it!

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. You can catch up on movies you may have missed here! And why not bookmark that page to make sure you never miss another?

Oscar Snubs Again! Here’s Who Was Left Off the Memorial Reel This Year

At dinner one night years ago, a friend asked me if I’d be watching the Oscars that weekend. “She will if some old guy is getting something,” my husband replied, rolling his eyes somewhere north of the Bronx. Now, of course, they hive off my favorite part, the Lifetime Achievement awards to a smaller ceremony that’s not even televised; the statuette might as well be in the shape of the YouTube logo.

But that’s downright respectful compared to the annual middle finger known as the Oscar memorial reel.

Classic film always gets slammed especially hard—it’s not unusual for the Academy to snub actual Oscar winners (hello, Dorothy Malone!). Among the missing this year—my sixth covering this event—were Valentina Cortese, Carol Lynley, Susan Harrison, Peggy Stewart, Edith Scob, Virginia Leith, Julie Gibson, David Hedison, Robert Walker Jr., Sue Lyon, Robert Conrad, Orson Bean, Edd Byrnes, Phyllis Newman, Niall Toibin, Freddie Jones, Tadao Takashima, Richard Erdman, Allene Roberts, Dianne Foster, Fay McKenzie and Jan Merlin.

Also overlooked were Paul Koslo, Billy Drago, Jeremy Kemp, Paul Benjamin, Sid Haig, Bill Macy, Jan-Michael Vincent, Eddie Jones, Verna Bloom, Denise Nickerson, René Auberjonois, Katherine Helmond, Luke Perry, Valerie Harper, Barry Coe, Rip Taylor, Cameron Boyce, Paula Kelly, Tim Conway, Marie Laforêt, Michael J. Pollard, Susan Bernard, Tania Mallet, Nadja Regin, Joan Staley, Peggy Lipton, Ron Leibman, Georgia Engel, Caroll Spinney, Shelley Morrison, Russi Taylor, Peter Tork, Robert Axelrod, John Wesley, Arte Johnson, Max Wright, John Clarke and Chuy Bravo.

Never content to snub just one branch, they also dissed writers William Wittliff, Mardik Martin, Herman Wouk, Toni Morrison, Rocci Chatfield, Martin Charnin, Mark Medoff, Gordon Bressack, Sam Bobrick and Bernard Slade; directors Jonas Mekas, Ringo Lam, Larry Cohen, James Frawley, Dusan Makavejev and Harold Prince; composer Jerry Herman; producers Andrew Vanja, Edward Lewis, Lee Mendelson, David Weisman and Nik Powell; makeup artist Matt Rose; film executives Eric Pleskow, Gary Lemel and Nick Ludwin; editor Terry Rawlings; film historians Rudy Behlmer and Ron Hutchinson; and art director Lawrence Paull. And the fabulous Bob Dorian, host of American Movie Classics, pretty much the lone source of oxygen for old-movie fans for a full decade before TCM came on the scene (and in a typically classy move, TCM honored Dorian in its memorial reel).

And I know, there’s a longer video on the Academy website, but the whole A list/B list thing for dead people will never not be creepy. Why not devote some real time and talent to producing a lovely, inclusive tribute, the way TCM does every year? (This is the kind of thing you people do for a living, isn’t it?) And then either—gasp!—cut out a few commercials (this year they somehow had time for 69 of them running a full 40 minutes) and air it in full on the telecast, or simply post it on the website. But the hideously truncated list they slap up there during the show only infuriates everyone and disrespects those who spent their whole lives creating the kind of memories we love movies for.

Admittedly I’ve cut a wide swath here, including folks who worked less in film than in television or theater, but please comment with anyone I missed, and I’ll add them. (Keep in mind, the Oscar memorial reel doesn’t cover the calendar year; it runs from last year’s February 24 Oscar show until today.)

And if Oscar omitted someone you love, please take to Twitter to honor them, using the hashtag #MemorialSnubs.

Godspeed and oceans of gratitude to everyone we’ve lost. Especially for those of us who love classic film, this gets more heartbreaking every year.

 

STREAMING SATURDAYS! THE ASTONISHED HEART: The Flip Side of BRIEF ENCOUNTER

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

Ah, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter! An achingly realistic portrait of the repressed, thwarted love of Laura and Alec, two grown-ups too fundamentally good and decent to act on feelings that are stronger and deeper than any they’ve ever known.

Now imagine that Alec had grown sick and tired of being so damn noble and dependable and had given in to his every urge, and to hell with the consequences. That’s pretty much what happens, with dreadful results, in The Astonished Heart, the 1950 film version of Coward’s play.

Even some of the cast of David Lean’s classic show up here three years later—though this time around, Celia Johnson is the betrayed wife rather than the woman who’s tempted to stray. And Joyce Carey is the sympathetic secretary rather than the fussy matron at the railroad lunch counter.

The Astonished Heart began life as part of Coward’s Tonight at 8:30, an anthology of 10 works performed over three nights. Coward starred with Gertrude Lawrence in the original stage production in 1935, and he took over the lead in the film after Michael Redgrave bowed out.

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On the rare occasions this movie is discussed at all, the talk usually turns to how miscast Coward was—too fusty and dusty and altogether improbable as Dr. Chris Faber, a renowned, respectable psychiatrist who becomes obsessed with the wild, impetuous Leonora Vail (Margaret Leighton), an old school friend of his wife Barbara (Celia Johnson). But Coward’s discomfort, his awkwardness, is part of what makes the whole thing work for me. This is a man who has lived entirely in his head, viewing passion as a disorder to be diagnosed and cured rather than an emotion to be felt and explored. He believes that to be swept away is to be lost. And for him, it turns out, that’s true.

As you’d expect from Coward, this is also a keen study—a warning, even—of how horribly things can go wrong when two people take each other for granted and no longer see each other, or even themselves, for all they are.

Early on in the film, Leonora asks Barbara about her husband: “Tell me seriously, do you adore him?” Amused at the very thought, Barbara replies, as if correcting a schoolchild, “I love him very much.” And that’s the end of that.

Later that evening, Chris teases Barbara that she’s welcome to skip a lecture he’s giving: “I can’t be pompous and important with you watching like a sharp, critcal lynx, waiting for me to split an infinitive.” Somewhat alarmed at the portrait he’s painted, she rears back, and then confides, “Chris… you’re very important to me whether I’m there or not. I just wanted to… suddenly mention it.”

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Soon after, Barbara is called away to her mother’s, and Chris steps in as a last-minute substitute to accompany Leonora to the theatre. While they don’t strike any romantic sparks, Leighton and Coward do have an odd chemistry. You can see how this guarded, buttoned-up man would be drawn to such a free spirit, and how she would take it as a personal challenge to loosen him up and win him over. If only it had stayed so playful.

When Barbara returns several weeks later, she discovers the initials “LV” peppered throughout the good doctor’s appointment book. Chris has become deeply involved—a bit moreso than Leonora—and his wife suggests that he take his lover away on a trip to work things through. (Thus defying the more traditional approach of reaching for the nearest, heaviest frying pan, thwacking the errant husband swiftly and repeatedly over the head with it, and digging a large hole in the backyard. But perhaps I’ve said too much.)

The trip ends about as well as you’d expect it to—actually worse. This is all foretold in the opening scene, as the movie unfolds in flashback.

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The Astonished Heart was co-directed by Anthony Darnborough and Terence Fisher; the latter went on to become one of Hammer Films’ most prolific horror directors, but little of that crisp pacing is present here. It’s a bit plodding at times: First we’re here. Then we’re here. Now we’re over here. But that’s a minor flaw in the hands of the luminous, doe-eyed Johnson and the brittle, vulnerable Leighton. When they made her, the mold simply broke on its own, as it was a bit fragile to begin with.

Actually, they have the best chemistry of anyone in the film. If the whole thing had focused on these altogether fabulous women getting caught up on their schooldays, I would’ve been perfectly content. Both are in their absolute prime, and Leighton’s sly edginess plays off perfectly against Johnson’s warm open-heartedness. (The two would team again two years later as sisters in the undersung Christmas classic, The Holly and the Ivy; here’s a link to that one.)

Also featured in the cast, as Chris’s assistant, is Graham Payn, Coward’s real-life companion. How differently he might have written The Astonished Heart today.

On that sad note, here’s the whole film. (The header says “clips,” but it’s the entire movie; also you may have to scroll back to the beginning as it has a weird tendency to start in the middle):

STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-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? 

All Aboard the Trolley! TCM Is Bringing MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS Back to Theaters!

Have yourself a merry little Christmas as TCM and Fathom Events bring Meet Me in St. Louis back to the big screen on Sunday, December 8 and Wednesday, December 11 (click here for tickets)!

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And who can forget that classic scene as the snow drifts softly past the window, and Esther (Judy Garland) comforts her little sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), who’s distraught over leaving their beloved home. Remember how Esther gently croons that she better damn well enjoy this holiday, because it may be her last happy Christmas ever?

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No? Not ringing a bell? You can thank Garland and her leading man for that. Here, roughly, were Hugh Martin’s original lyrics:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
It may be your last!
Next year we may all be living in the past!

Have yourself a merry little Christmas…
Pop that champagne cork!
Next year we may all be living in New York!

No good times like the olden days, happy golden days of yore!
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us no more!

But at least we all will be together
If the Lord allows!
From now on we’ll have to muddle through somehow!
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now!

Yikes.

Garland was the first to approach Martin, suggesting that—however appropriate those lyrics may have been for the mood of the scene—only a stone-cold sadist would sing them to a sobbing child. “Judy said—and she was right of course—that they were too depressing!” recalled O’Brien at the 2014 TCM Film Festival screening of the film. “She told Hugh, ‘I would never say things like that to her when she’s already so upset!’”

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You’d think Judy—who, even at 22, knew a thing or two about packing an emotional wallop—would’ve been able to sway Martin. But he staunchly stuck to his original lyrics, leaving the two at an impasse—and the production limping along for weeks with no Christmas song. Then Tom Drake, who played Judy’s love interest, happened upon the most foolproof solution in the world: appeal to the songwriter’s ego. “You know,” he told him, “this could be an immortal Christmas song if you weren’t so stubborn…”

That did it. So now we have this:

Oh and have you heard the popular story about how they got O’Brien to cry for that scene? At the TCM Festival, she thoroughly demolished it.

“That rumor, it’s out there everywhere—that to get me to cry, my mother told me my dog was hit by a car or something like that,” O’Brien said, rolling her wide brown eyes to the rafters of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. “Well she would never do anything like that. And anyway, what she did do was much more effective.”

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It seems O’Brien and June Allyson were known around MGM as “the sob sisters,” thanks to their uncanny knack for crying on cue. But O’Brien was having such a great time making the film—and working with Garland, who took her big-sister role to heart—that in take after take, she couldn’t shed a drop. “My mother took me aside and said, ‘Now honey, don’t worry, they can just use glycerin drops if you can’t cry,” O’Brien said. “But you know, June would be able to make real tears.’ And that made me burst out crying!”

If they really wanted to see waterworks, they could have had Judy sing her the original version of the song.

And on that note, to my classic-movie family of friends,

Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Pop that champagne cork…
From a girl who spent her childhood in New York!

Tony Shalhoub Affectionately Recalls His BIG NIGHT

Seeing a pristine print of a favorite film on the big screen—and then listening to one of the stars reminisce about it afterward? Now that’s a Big Night.

bignight-37.jpgLast night, RogerEbert.com editor-at-large Matt Zoller Seitz presented the 1996 classic as part of his fabulous “Movies with MZS series” at the IFC Center in New York’s West Village. Normally after seeing this film, audience members scramble into the streets, starving and salivating, to the nearest Italian restaurant, or even a pizzeria if that’s the only thing handy. But this time, as the closing credits rolled, Tony Shalhoub and Seitz took the stage. And a great conversation made us forget how hungry we were.

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Here are some of the many highlights:

  • In the original run-throughs, with just a script at hand but no financing, Shalhoub played Pascal. But by the time they were ready to roll, they decided he and Tucci—who were good friends and close in age—should play the brothers, Primo and Secondo. Then Giancarlo Giannini was slated to play Pascal, but backed out at the last minute. (Kind of making him the real-life Louis Prima.) Far from having to settle, though, they snagged Ian Holm for the role. “I idolized him from the time I was an acting student,” Shalhoub recalled, his voice breaking up. “He was just… so great.” And now, could you picture anyone else playing Pascal?
  • How did Big Night end up with two directors, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott (who also played Bob, the cheerfully relentless car salesman)? Shalhoub explained that because Tucci is in almost every shot, he wanted a second pair of eyes, and he and Scott had known each other since high school and had a great rhythm together. What was it like with two men behind the lens? “It was great,” said Shalhoub. “I felt like I had twice the help, twice the input.”

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  • Asked if it feels different to be guided by actors as opposed to full-time directors, Shalhoub smiled and put his hands over his heart. “Oh yes. Oh yes. They know what you’re going through. You feel safe.” But, he added, they also nudge you to get out of your comfort zone, even as they protect you. Tucci and Scott also helped him work out Primo’s feelings toward Ann (Allison Janney): Did he really have a crush on her, or was he just doing what others expected of him? Turns out yeah, he was kinda crazy about her, as was Shalhoub about his co-star: “Allison, she’s so open, she has such a big heart.”

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  • Shalhoub was surprised that a couple of bits of business he added on his own were kept in by Tucci, including one where the shy Primo—who, he said, “would really rather just stay in the kitchen”—climbs into the display case while picking out flowers with Ann. “Stanley said ‘That was a little cheap!’” he laughed. “But then used it!”

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  • You know that awkward pause in the scene where Primo can’t understand why Secondo laughs when he says “It’s raining outside”? It was genuinely awkward. One of the actors—Shalhoub couldn’t recall which—went up on his line, and you can actually see the discomfort on Tucci’s face as his eyes dart from one co-star to the other. Holm finally broke the silence with “What the fuck?”

  • When it came time to master his Italian accent, Shalhoub reminded Tucci that he had a bit of a head start after playing Antonio Scarpacci on Wings for five years. “No,” Tucci drolly shot back. “Not that accent.” He ultimately had two dialogue coaches to help him nail it. Tucci, on the other hand, speaks fluent Italian. “Sometimes [when we were going back and forth] he’d start to improvise,” Shalhoub laughed. “And I’d be there like… I got nothin’.”

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  • Shalhoub also got some coaching with the cooking, working in restaurants on both coasts (and for years after, scoring scads of free meals from chefs who adored the film). Tucci, who wrote a family cookbook in 2012, already knew his way around the kitchen—as is clear in the film’s final, extraordinary scene, where the camera is a still, silent witness as Secondo, Cristiano (Marc Anthony) and Primo recover from the night before, and the brothers literally fall back on one another as the screen goes black. Because it’s all shot in one long take, the slightest misstep would have shattered everything. “I think we ended up getting it in about six takes,” said Shalhoub. “And Stanley, flipping those eggs, got it right every time.”

Oh and no mention of Big Night would be complete without talking about the timpano.

In the New York Times review of the film, the dish got its own sidebar, with Frank Bruni calling it “an impressive, delectable mountain of perfectly cooked pasta, tender meatballs, egg and salami, swathed in a rich ragu and folded all together in a lissome dough. It is an excavation to eat this, and one to be undertaken slowly, carefully, so as to catch every prism of flavor. The vivid compliments given to this in the film Big Night are unrepeatable here, but we are sure you’ll find some choice adjectives of your own.”

We’ll leave you here with the recipe, which includes links to the meatballs and sauce in Tucci’s cookbook. Hope you weren’t planning on doing anything else this holiday season. Mangia!

INGREDIENTS

FOR THE DOUGH

  • 4 cups all-purpose flour, more for dusting
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3tablespoons olive oil, more for greasing pan
  • Butter

FOR THE FILLING

  • 4 cups 1/4-inch by 1/2-inch Genoa salami pieces, cut 1/4-inch thick
  • 4 cups sharp provolone cheese chunks, about 1/4 by 1/2 inch
  • 12 hard-cooked eggs, shelled and quartered lengthwise, each quarter cut in half
  • 4 cups small meatballs
  • 7 ½ cups Tucci ragù sauce, meat removed and reserved for another use
  • 3 pounds ziti, cooked very al dente (about half the time recommended on the package) and drained
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup finely grated pecorino Romano
  • 6 large eggs, beaten

PREPARATION

  1. Prepare the dough: Place flour, eggs, salt and olive oil in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. (A large-capacity food processor may also be used.) Add 3 tablespoons water and process. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until mixture comes together and forms a ball. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead to make sure it is well mixed, about 10 minutes. Set aside to rest for 5 minutes. (The dough may be made in advance and refrigerated overnight; return to room temperature before rolling out.)
  2. Flatten dough on a lightly floured work surface. Dust top with flour and roll it out, dusting with flour and flipping the dough over from time to time, until it is about 1/16-inch thick and is the desired diameter. (To calculate the diameter for the dough round, add the diameter of the bottom of a heavy 6-quart baking pan, the diameter of the top of the pan and twice the height of the pan.) Grease the baking pan generously with butter and olive oil. Fold dough in half and then in half again, to form a triangle, and place in pan. Open dough and arrange it in the pan, gently pressing it against the bottom and the sides, draping extra dough over the sides. Set aside.
  3. Prepare the filling: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Have salami, provolone, hard-cooked eggs, meatballs and ragù sauce at room temperature. Stir 1/2 cup water into sauce to thin it. Toss pasta with olive oil and allow to cool slightly before tossing with 2 cups sauce. Distribute 4 generous cups of pasta on bottom of timpano. Top with 1 cup salami, 1 cup provolone, 3 eggs, 1 cup meatballs and 1/3 cup Romano cheese. Pour 2 cups sauce over ingredients. Repeat process to create additional layers until filling comes within 1 inch of the top of the pan, ending with 2 cups sauce. Pour beaten eggs over the filling. Fold pasta dough over filling to seal completely. Trim away and discard any double layers of dough. Make sure timpano is tightly sealed. If you notice any small openings cut a piece of trimmed dough to fit over opening. Use a small amount of water to moisten these scraps of dough to ensure that a tight seal has been made.
  4. Bake until lightly browned, about 1 hour. Cover with aluminum foil and continue baking until the timpano is cooked through and the dough is golden brown (and reaches an internal temperature of 120 degrees), about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest for 30 or more minutes to allow timpano to cool and contract before attempting to remove from pan. The baked timpano should not adhere to the pan. To test, gently shake pan to the left and then to the right. It should slightly spin in the pan. If any part is still attached, carefully detach with a knife.
  5. To remove timpano from pan, place a baking sheet or thin cutting board that covers the entire diameter on the pan on top of the timpano. Grasp the baking sheet or cutting board and the rim of the pan firmly and invert timpano. Remove pan and allow timpano to cool for 30 minutes. Using a long, sharp knife, cut a circle about 3 inches in diameter in the center of the timpano, making sure to cut all the way through to the bottom. Then slice timpano as you would a pie into individual portions, leaving the center circle as a support for the remaining pieces. The cut pieces should hold together, revealing built-up layers of great stuff.

You may assemble the timpano in the pan it will be baked in and freeze it. It will take three days to fully defrost in the refrigerator before it can be baked as directed.

The TCM Classic Cruise: All Aboard to the Fabulous Movie Past

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.

tcmclassiccruise-33Then 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…

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…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!)

tcmclassiccruise-15

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!”

tcmclassiccruise-4

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.

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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.

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“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.

tcmclassiccruise-11

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…

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…warming up only when Joel pours his heart out to Jimmy Conlin. Oh and whips his shirt off.

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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.

tcmclassiccruise-9

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.

tcmclassiccruise-32

Thank you Colin, thank you Walter and the crew, and thank you TCM, for this Sullivan girl’s lovely travels.

tcmclassiccruise-21

To My Classic Movie Family: You Are Not Alone

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.

dadSo 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.)

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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:

suicideprevention-1suicideprevention-2

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

 

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"fate keeps on happening"

"Going to the fortune teller's was just as good as going to the opera, and the cost scarcely a trifle more - ergo, I will disguise myself and go again, one of these days, when other amusements fail." - Mark Twain, Letter to Orion Clemens, February 6, 1861

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