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!
Busting Myths About Buster: A Talk with the Author of the Definitive Keaton Bio We’ve All Been Waiting For
I’ve been in love with Buster Keaton since the third grade and feel like I’ve been waiting just about that long for a definitive bio to come out—and I’m guessing lots of other Buster lovers share that frustration. The three so far have all had their merits: Tom Dardis’s The Man Who Wouldn’t Lie Down had great research; Marion Meade’s Cut to the Chase had some interesting insights, and of course Rudi Blesh’s Keaton had the benefit of input from Buster himself.
But all of them felt massively incomplete in some way. Enter James Curtis—a Buster fan since childhood and author of terrific biographies of Spencer Tracy, W.C. Fields, William Cameron Menzies and Preston Sturges—to finally give Buster the biography he deserves. No surprise that the legendary Kevin Brownlow—whose brilliant three-part documentary A Hard Act to Follow helped stoke more interest in Buster—called Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life “brilliant! I was totally absorbed, couldn’t stop reading it, and I was sorry when it ended.” So was I.
Reading this beautiful book, you feel like you’re going along on Buster’s journey, from the rough and tumble vaudeville years to his early interest in film, his stardom, his lost years, and his rediscovery. Curtis also recounts, with clear-eyed compassion, Buster’s struggles with alcoholism and depression, and well as his troubled relationships before meeting Eleanor. And he never gets in the way of his subject: I don’t really need anyone to tell me why I love Buster Keaton, or to give me dime-store sociology lessons on his place in the societal and cultural pantheon.
Where other authors might fill in factual gaps by inserting their own opinions, Curtis does the real work. His research is nothing short of awe-inspiring: In addition to deeply mining every available source out there, he also tracked down all the research Dardis had gathered from MGM, which is no longer available to archivists, while Brownlow gave him access to all the unedited interviews from his documentary series.
The result is as complete a portrait of Buster’s life, as an artist as a man, as we will ever see. Finally.
I recently sat down with Curtis—or rather we sat down 3,000 miles apart for an audio call—to talk about Buster and the book. At some point soon I hope to have a podcast—because honestly I don’t feel like elevendy zillion podcasts are quite enough—but in the meantime, click below for a listen. (The first minute or so consists hubs and me setting up the audio—which may explain why I haven’t figured out podcasting yet—but then the actual conversation with Curtis is terrific, and offers a lot of new info for Buster fans!)
Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed a free, fabulous movie for you to watch right here!
I’ve been on something of a Linda Darnell binge lately, prepping for my first-ever podcast appearance with the lovely Grace Collins of True Stories of Tinseltown, who got in touch after reading my story on Linda’s short, unhappy life.
This week, we bring you John Brahm’s Hangover Square, based (a bit too loosely based for the author’s taste) on a 1941 novel by Patrick Hamilton.
Hoping to capitalize on the success of The Lodger, released the previous year, Fox reteamed Laird Cregar and George Sanders with Brahm for another bit of Victorian horror, this time about a brilliant composer who suffers from unfortunate blackouts during which he embarks on murderous rampages. (Every genius has his quirks, after all.) Livening things up considerably is the addition of Linda Darnell, who had just begun to shed her ingenue image by tackling bad-girl roles. (None of them fared very well, though; by the tender age of 23, she’d been killed onscreen six times.)
Cregar, who aspired to be a leading man, initially rejected the role of the mad composer, but relented after Fox put him on suspension. However, in an attempt to land more romantic roles, he persisted in what would prove to be a disastrous, drug-fueled effort to lose weight.
Clashes on the unhappy set were loud and frequent; Sanders loathed the script and actually punched producer Robert Bassler in the face in a tussle over the film’s final line. (George was right, and the line was changed. To say more about it would amount to a spoiler, but I’ve explained in Comments.)
Brahm, meanwhile, was frustrated that the film had to be shot entirely in sequence as Cregar grew thinner over the course of the shoot, and the normally genial actor’s reliance on amphetamines shredded his fragile nerves. Finally, in an act of supreme cruelty, Brahm strongarmed the cast and crew into signing a document saying they sided with him. When the movie wrapped, he told the distraught Cregar, “Well, I think we’ve worked together long enough to know we never want to work together again.”
Tragically, that would not be an issue: his heart weakened by the strain of drugs and crash-dieting (and no small amount of emotional distress), Cregar succumbed to cardiac arrest in December 1944, at the age of 31.
To some extent, though, Cregar’s wish was realized; in the film’s musical sequences, he is lushly romantic, thanks in part to the gorgeous Bernard Herrmann score—which so impressed a teenage Stephen Sondheim that it later inspired much of his music for Sweeney Todd.
Now dim the lights and settle in for Hangover Square!
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. 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?
Welcome to another edition of Streaming Saturdays, where we embed a free, fun movie for you to watch right here!
This week, Gloria Swanson in the groundbreaking role that netted her an Oscar nod! I’m talking of course, about The Trespasser.
Originally released as a silent, the film was such a smash that writer-director Edmund Goulding reshot it in sound, marking the first time moviegoers would hear Gloria’s lovely, lilting voice.
When we first meet Marion Donnell (Swanson), she’s flitting around the office, scampering in and out of her boss’s suite with her steno pad. Sure, she likes the old boy well enough, but he wants all these niggling little revisions! (As she loiters behind him impatiently, she mimics him with the kind of pantomime she used lavishly in silents and impishly revived in Sunset Boulevard). And she’s eager to leave for the day—in fact for good—to elope with her fiance, Jack Merrick (Robert Ames), scion of the town’s wealthiest tycoon (William Holden—no, not that one—who, you guessed it, is going to be big trouble for poor Marion).
When I say the plot thickens, I mean we’re talking quicksand here. Accusing Marion of fortune-hunting, Jack’s father tries to get the marriage annulled, and honestly Jack is a bit of a simp about the whole thing. A fed-up Marion finally storms out—later giving birth to their son, whom she provides for in decidedly pre-Code fashion. But wait—there’s more! A lot more! But half the fun is in finding out, so I’ll leave things there.
If the plot of The Trespasser sounds familiar to you, it could be because Goulding went on to remake (and sanitize) the film as That Certain Woman, pairing Bette Davis and Henry Fonda a year before their equally fraught romance in Jezebel. (It could also be because in the long history of film, pretty much every plucky working girl who marries a rich boy is set upon by one or both of his beastly parents.)
Goulding would go on to direct a slew of classics, including Dark Victory, The Old Maid, The Great Lie, The Constant Nymph, The Razor’s Edge, and Nightmare Alley.
But after an astonishing career in silents, Swanson would make just one more hit film, in 1950, with a director who’d been spellbound by her as a young writer at Paramount and never forgot her.
Now, let’s sit back and see why Billy Wilder fell so hard.
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. 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?
Sometimes I feel like your crazy Aunt Janet with the stories, like oh my God here she goes with another one. But yes, here I go.
Today’s is about Don Ameche—elegant, sexy, with that deep, resonant voice can feel right down to the tips of your pumps, and a wonderful sense of the just plain goofy. There was nothing, from the wayward husband in Heaven Can Wait to the lovestruck cab driver in Midnight, that he couldn’t do. (And if you’re looking for a good sleeper film, check out So Goes My Love, in which he drives the genteel Myrna Loy cheerfully insane.)
I was extraordinarily lucky to meet him when I was working for a nonprofit PR firm right out of college and he came to New York to work on behalf of the Diabetes Association. Our company had to set up a meeting with him concerning his appearance at a fundraising dinner, and I volunteered to be the one to go. (Okay fine I bound and gagged all my colleagues in the coat closet and bolted the door. Let’s not nitpick.)
He showed up at the hotel restaurant in a gorgeous, perfectly rumpled white linen suit, setting off his gently tanned face, which highlighted his beautiful, still mischievous eyes. He was absolutely swoon-inducing, in his 80s. When he asked if I had any questions, I almost blurted out, “Yes. WILL YOU MARRY ME?!? REALLY, WE CAN MAKE THIS WORK!!”
First we talked about his movies, because really, he wasn’t getting away without doing that. After we went over the classic ones, and his Oscar for a brilliant turn in Cocoon, I mentioned that I always found Lillian Russell unintentionally hilarious, since his character, a frail composer, is suffering from a weak heart and Alice Faye is constantly plying him with buttermilk. We learn he’s finally succumbed to dairy overload when we hear him plunk his head on the piano keys offscreen. At the memory of this, he let loose that wonderful, rolling laugh and had that twinkle in his eyes, and I felt that “whoosh” you feel when a rollercoaster takes a sharp, heady plunge. I could feel my heart go baBUMP, baBUMP, and then flutterflutter.
But at some point, alas, I vaguely remembered that this was the boring old 1990s, not the 1940s, and I had an actual job to do, so we talked about the fundraiser for a while. I dragged out the meeting as long as humanly possible (“What color do you think the tablecloths should be? How about the napkins? Where do you stand on centerpieces?”), but eventually his assistant cast a rheumy eye over me and said they had to go. As he was leaving, I said, “Thank you so much, Mr. Ameche! I think I have everything I need.” And he turned and said, incredibly elegantly, “You certainly do.” Oh my God. I staggered back to the office dreaming I was Alice Faye. But without the lethal buttermilk.
Sometime in the spring of 1991, I was on a date I should never have been on. I’d just gone through a nightmarishly long, drawn-out breakup with the man who’d been the love of my life. (We had decided to try to help each other through it and please for the love of God don’t ever, ever do that.) My mother, who was not big on looking back or long goodbyes, thought two or three weeks was enough mourning for two or three years, so she set me up with a lawyer she knew. A zoning lawyer. He spent the evening regaling me with tales of his victories over exactly the kind of people I would have been out on the sidewalk picketing with.
At dinner, he wolfed down shrimp after shrimp as he bragged with his mouth full, sending bits of fishy pulp flying across the table. Then he stuffed the last dinner roll in his overcoat pocket, which was hanging over the back of the chair; he’d confided he didn’t want to tip the coat check guy because that whole thing is a just a big moneymaking racket. (I’m sure we all remember that runaway best seller, Checking Coats: Your Ticket to Easy Street!) After the meal, he snapped his fingers repeatedly to summon our waiter, insisting he fill his coffee cup over and over again. They’d already taken away the dinner knives, so I was left to wonder how much damage I could do to my carotid artery with the sharp edge of a spoon.
We wound up being the last people in the restaurant, as pretty much the entire wait staff began circling us like we were wounded antelope. Finally the manager tapped my date’s shoulder—hard, much to my delight—and said “Bud, we’re closing.”
When I got home, I began to cry. Is this what it’s like out there? Had I forgotten how horrible it was? Should I call my ex-boyfriend and say maybe we should try again, or at least drag out our breakup a little longer? But having spent most of the previous few weeks sobbing, I cried myself out pretty quickly. Then I grabbed the remote and searched for something funny, landing on HBO’s One Night Stand.
That was the first time I ever saw Norm Macdonald. And I’ve been seeking him out ever since.
And yes, this is officially the one zillionth article about how wonderful Norm Macdonald was. But I’ve put in lots of links and pictures, so there’s that.
“You know how many comics out there don’t give a fuck but they still kinda do, you kinda have to still do?” comedian Jay Mohr once said. “That guy Norm, he doesn’t.”
After the HBO special, I’d scour the TV Guide (no really) for his other appearances on comedy specials and talk shows. And then in 1993, he landed on Saturday Night Live. While much of the recent talk has been about his brilliance on Weekend Update, he was also fabulous in sketches—which he often said he sucked at—like the West Side Story parody and his takeoff on Andy Rooney, where he perfectly captured his faux-folksiness and rambling self-indulgence. (Pretending to be Andy going through his mail, Norm cheekily ran through pretty much every state in the fecking union as the audience murmured restlessly, seemingly ready to storm the stage if he didn’t stop soon. But one guy, bless him, could be heard laughing his ass off.)
But as 1998 dawned, the axe fell in notorious fashion, reportedly because NBC chief Don Ohlmeyer was, for some reason, best friends with a double murderer Norm had gleefully skewered for years. (The oafish executive had even thrown a party for the jurors who set the killer free.) Eventually, Norm came to believe there was more to it than that, though his theory doesn’t make ol’ Don sound like any less of a boob. “We were doing experimental stuff, non sequiturs,” he told The New York Times in 2018. “Ohlmeyer would watch Leno kill every night for 15 minutes. Every joke, huge laughs, and then I’d do 10 minutes a week and sometimes not get laughs.” (Years later, Norm’s SNL writing partner, Jim Downey, also revealed that the producers told Norm he could stay if he’d cut Downey loose and tone down his act but he refused.)
In an astonishing show of grace and good humor, Norm talked about his firing on the Letterman show right after it happened.
Luckily, his first starring role in a feature film lay just ahead. Bob Saget’s hilarious Dirty Work, which Norm co-wrote, should have given him the breakout success he deserved, and the movie’s central theme, revenge, seemed almost too perfect. But while it has since gained cult status, it fizzled from screens pretty quickly. (Norm once said that cult followings are great if you’re an actual cult leader, but if you’re a comedian “it just means that a lot of people hate you.”)
One of the huge frustrations about Norm’s career was the sporadic-ness of it. To paraphrase Dorothy in the land of Oz, “Things come and go so quickly here!” His first sitcom The Norm Show, which he co-wrote, got off to great start, with two highly rated seasons before ABC doomed it to Friday night oblivion in the third. Fox’s underloved A Minute with Stan Hooper (which Norm had originally written for Jason Bateman, who decamped for Arrested Development) was never given a chance to find its audience, and was pulled after just a few episodes (depriving us of both Norm and Fred Willard), while Comedy Central’s fabulous Sports Show with Norm Macdonald, which was kind of like hanging out with Norm in a bar, was yanked in a matter of months.
“It’s very hard for me to do roles in sitcoms and movies because I’m not a great actor, so if the material isn’t good I’m in torment while I do it,” Norm told The New York Times in 2010. “I like to do talk show appearances where I get to just be myself, and I do stand-up where I can completely be myself. That’s what I’ve always loved the most, of anything.”
Years later, on his Netflix series, he said, “Actors look on me the way vampires look on Count Chocula.”
These words are like a knife in the heart to those of us who loved his acting, and wish he could’ve seen himself as we did.
I remember watching The Norm Show and thinking a film career as a comedic leading man was sure to follow. Take a look at this episode, for instance—where he crashes the wedding of the woman he loves—and tell me I’m wrong.
Since it seems every truly original talent has to be compared to someone we’re already comfortable with—no matter how inadequate the comparison—couldn’t he have been promoted as Tom Hanks with an edge? But maybe folks only like their Tom Hankses without edges, like the little crustless sandwiches Norm once joked were the only thing he liked about parties. Still, when you see these huge stars—some of whom were former colleagues—without a molecule of his talent (or looks, if you want to get shallow), it makes you crazy.
Maybe he really did just prefer to do stand-up, which, as recently as 2017, he was doing for more than 40 weeks a year. But I have to think there must have been at least some disappointment at seeing so many hacks with bigger, more varied careers.
Still, what he did do was cherce.
His anti-roast of Bob Saget is one of the most viewed and talked about comedy bits of all time. Apparently the producer of the show had told Norm to “really go for it”—to just be as brutal and filthy as possible. Which seems to have triggered two impulses: nobody tells Norm how to do his set, and no way was Norm going to be cruel to a dear friend.
Here he is just before he begins. Look at that face. That’s the confidence of a gunslinger. A gunslinger with a 1942 joke book.
And not only does he tell the incredibly corny jokes, he explains them. Some in the audience seem confused or even embarrassed, but the comedians on the dais are in tears. It’s easy to forget, too, that he ends by sincerely telling Bob how much he loves him.
Looking back on the roast, Norm revealed that his father had given him the old joke book, which he’d had for years, when Norm told him he wanted to be a comedian: “It was really very touching.”
Then there are the talk show stints, and you could easily spend days on YouTube going down that rabbit hole. At several points in my life I have, and believe me there are far worse ways to spend your time than just drowning in Norm for days on end.
Two nights with Conan O’Brien, one of Norm’s best foils, slipped quickly into legend. One was his teasing Courtney Thorne-Smith about her upcoming movie with Carrot Top. (“It’s like Nine and a Half Weeks, but Carrot Top.” “Is it called Nine and a Half Seconds?”) Early on in the segment, Conan tells him, “You’re the biggest ass I know, and I love you for it.”
“That was one of my favorite moments of my life,” Thorne-Smith recently told Vanity Fair. “Teased by Norm Macdonald? Are you kidding?
“I’ve always been a fan of Norm Macdonald, which made it extra super thrilling. Yeah, I loved his take on things,” she went on. “When you’re a fan of a comedian and they make fun of you, is there anything better? You know those great nights you go out with your friends and you start laughing and you can’t stop, and you have that satiated feeling? That’s how I felt. I didn’t expect to have an amazing time, and I had an amazing time. That’s what I walked away with; just giddy with how much fun it was. I had a ball.”
The other mythical moment was, of course, the Moth Joke, which starts out as an angst-ridden Russian novel (the kind Norm devoured in real life) and winds up somewhere deep in the Borscht Belt.
That bit almost never happened, though. Norm wasn’t orginally scheduled to come back after the break, but, as Conan recalled, “I always wanted more Norm,” so the producer asked him to stick around for another segment. Norm remembered a quick, corny joke Colin Quinn had told him, and turned it into an epic.
I also love this appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, which I paused at points just to capture Norm’s fleeting expressions, as I sometimes do when I watch his clips. (You might have noticed there are quite a few screencaps in here.)
Norm appeared most often with his hero, David Letterman, and was hand-picked by Dave to do the final stand-up on his farewell show. And he absolutely killed. “Mr. Letterman is not for the mawkish, and he has no truck for the sentimental,” he said after his set, steadying himself as his voice began to break and tears welled. “If something is true, it is not sentimental. And I say in truth, I love you.”
“If we could have, we would have had Norm on every damn week,” Dave told The Washington Post in 2016. “He is funny in a way that some people inhale and exhale. With others, you can tell the comedy, the humor is considered. With Norm, he exudes it. It’s sort of a furnace in him because he’s so effortless. The combination of the delivery and his appearance and his intelligence. There may be people as funny as Norm, but I don’t know anybody who is funnier.”
Other memorable appearances included the time Jay Leno tried to teach him to drive (which Norm was always reluctant to do) and his half-million-dollar victory on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire on behalf of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children, where his dumb-guy persona fell away by necessity. (And by the way he knew the answer to the million-dollar question too, but Regis made him second-guess himself, and afterward, Norm kind of looked like he wanted to strangle him. Newman later invited Norm to his home in Connecticut, but he was too nervous to go.)
Some of Norm’s best interviews took place during his book tour for Based on a True Story: A Memoir, published in 2016. None provide any clues about how much of the book is actually true (he wanted it categorized as Fiction), though “The Final Chapter” feels very real. (But the title is fake. Two more chapters follow.) And we’ll always be left to wonder about the bone-chilling conclusion of Chapter Four, but to love Norm was to take him on his own terms, and he said as much as he wanted to say.
While Larry King has been roundly mocked as facile (including by Norm), their interview covered a lot of serious ground, touching on the origins of the book as well as faith, mortality, and assisted suicide. (As they went to commercial after the first segment, Norm said, “This has been hysterical so far…”) At the end of the show, he seized on a viewer’s question to clarify a common misconception about his politics: “I have opinions that don’t fit into either party, and sometimes they call you conservative because they like to say things like that. But I am not conservative.”
Norm’s Facebook chat was a bit lighter, as he sipped on a giant frappucino while sending up the whole format—dramatically repeating each question before answering it—pausing occasionally to point out what a huge waste of time Facebook is.
And he did a terrific book reading and Q&A in D.C. with Washington Post reporter Geoff Edgers, who also gave us this “A Day in the Life of Norm Macdonald” video (though come on, a day? It was five minutes)—with Norm’s wonderful Mom, Ferne, doling out tomato sandwiches on rye and, in the tradition of all great Moms, rarely sitting down.
In his Conan appearance, he alluded to “juicy bits” that weren’t in the book—and somehow seamelessly topped off a series of 1930s-style “take my wife” jokes with one about oral sex in a hospital room.
“Norm invented this amazing thing… it’s kind of like he split the atom, it’s that revolutionary,” said Conan, who honored Norm in his podcast last month. “Instead of telling a real story about something that happened in your life, Norm tells old jokes as if they happened to him… and I mean really old jokes, from like the 1920s… I’m laughing that he has the balls to do this. I’m laughing at the audacity. I mean ‘I don’t even care if this joke lands or not’. He doesn’t care in a way that is exhilarating and scary at the same time.”
One of the clips I’ve viewed most often over the years has nothing to do with comedy: it’s Norm in his living room, reading “How Bateese Came Home”—a 28-stanza poem by William Henry Drummond—in flawless Quebecois, with an occasional growling nod to Chevalier. The only thing that matches his brilliant performance, as he shifts nimbly back and forth between the two friends in the poem, is the pure, undiluted joy on his face and in his voice. I’ve often watched it just before going to sleep, as a kind of bedtime story.
Norm also left us with countless hours of radio, since, like Conan, the hosts always “wanted more Norm.” Dennis Miller could never get enough of him; one of my favorite spots was Norm calling in to talk about his newfound love of ventriloquism—or puppets, as Dennis insisted on calling them. “They’re not puppets, they’re ventriloquist dummies, and even that is a little epithetic,” says Norm, wounded. “I call them my friends. My friends in the bag.” During the call, Dennis is often just gasping for air and making little squeaky sounds. “Norm is so funny and so smart I can’t even predict he’ll ever assume his rightful position at the top of the medal stand,” he once mused all too accurately. “It’s sort of like Galileo or something of comedy, he’s not for his times in a real way.”
Howard Stern, of course, also loved him. “Many times when I’m feeling down I go on YouTube and I watch you,” he told Norm during a guest spot. “You are the man, you are my comedy choice, whenever I’m looking for something on YouTube or wherever it is, you’re my first comedy choice.” I love this clip where he hilariously laces into a Rolling Stone reporter who ambushed his friend Artie Lange; Norm came by his skepticism of the media the hard way, and years later it would once again prove to be well founded.
I also loved Norm’s appearance on The Best of Our Knowledge radio show, where they talked about menefreghismo, which is more or less the art of not giving a rat’s ass, using Dean Martin, one of Norm’s heroes, as an example. And Norm got to interview another of his idols, Robert Duvall, in a fabulous half-hour conversation. (More than once, Norm had cajoled a radio host into riffing on one of his favorite movie scenes, the one in The Godfather where a dryly menacing Tom Hagen is asking producer Jack Woltz to give Johnny Fontaine a plum part in his new film. Norm always took the Duvall role.)
As a guest, one of his best interviews was on Marc Maron’s podcast in 2011, where he touched on a huge range of topics, including his own mortality and his quest to strengthen his faith: “That’s what I’m trying to get to is God… I read lots of literature, Tolstoy, Faulkner, and faith keeps coming up… why are all these guys, it all comes down to faith, you know? It seems like every great fuckin’ novel I read, it seems like faith is the only salvation…”
Norm was always a seeker. He didn’t settle on some comfortable bit of dogma and say, “Okay I’m done.” So when he continued to talk about issues like faith and mortality in recent years, it seemed a natural extension of his soul searching rather than cause for alarm. If he had made his illness public, it would have colored everything he said and did; instead of really hearing him, a lot of people would’ve just nodded and said, “Well of course he’s talking about that now”. And it would have killed his unique style of take-no-prisoners comedy.
In fact he was appalled by celebrities discussing their illnesses—or even, in some cases, making it the cornerstone of their acts: “It’s almost, like, the height of narcissism when you think you’re going to be so brave as to talk about it in person when all you’re doing is garnering sympathy for yourself,” he told Chris Hardwick on the Nerdist podcast. “I mean, how is that brave? It seems cowardly.”
Given how fearlessly he tackled every topic, podcasting seemed a natural progression, and in March 2013 he launched Norm Macdonald Live, with guests including David Letterman, Bill Hader, Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey. A steady dose of Norm, for thirteen episodes! It was like heaven. He even threw himself hilariously into the ads for his sponsors, saying with a straight face how he couldn’t wait to get home and listen to, say, Wynonna Judd’s new book on audible.com. The only one he couldn’t deadpan his way through was the ad for the Mangrate, a big ol’ manly set of cast iron grilling grates, which Norm and his guests ridiculed mercilessly until, as Norm recalled, he and the company parted ways “without amicability.”
Norm was a great host, because he devoured everything he could find out about his guests beforehand and then really listened to them as they told their stories, so it was more of a conversation than an interview. There was no formulaic road map, so he always took you somewhere interesting. Sometimes, as with Carl Reiner, the talk turned to old movies, which Norm loved and which make up about ninety percent of my bloodstream. When he recognized a photo of June Allyson in Reiner’s book, I felt my heart quicken. It didn’t surprise me when he talked about people like Buster Keaton or Robert Ryan but Jesus Christ, he even knows June fecking Allyson!
Norm’s friends often fretted over their host. Super Dave Osborne kicked the series off with a rant: “I love you. A man as brilliant as you is doing a podcast for 18 people. And Kim Kardashian’s mother has a talk show.” Kevin Nealon asked what he was doing with himself, and if he had a publicist. And Bob Saget said over and over again how good it was to see him.
But after 26 episodes across two years, his podcast was offline for all of 2015 and most of 2016, before one last season appeared that fall. Then he was gone again.
In 2018, Norm was set to resume his podcasting career, this time on the mega-platform of Netflix, when an interview with The Hollywood Reporter went off the rails. Norm mentioned that he had put two dear friends, Roseanne and Louis CK, in touch with each other after both had been cancelled into oblivion for their wretched behavior; he felt they were each in a unique position to understand what the other was going through. His comments were taken to mean that he thought their ordeal was worse than that of victims—something he never said or even implied. In fact his actions were prompted, in part, by concern that Roseanne—a loyal friend who had given him his first big writing job in Hollywood—sounded so distraught he feared she might harm herself.
The Twitterverse, which feeds on outrage the way vampire bats feed on blood, went wild. Trump hair-tousler Jimmy Fallon even cancelled Norm’s Tonight Show appearance because some of his staffers “were crying” over it.
Wow, drama queen much? If you come that unglued because of a misinterpreted comment from a complete stranger, what would you do if something genuinely horrible happened to you in real life? Would you have to go straight into a care home? Meanwhile, of course, Norm was coping with something truly catastrophic, and doing so with incredible grace. You can only imagine what was going through his mind having to deal with this petty, narcissistic crap.
This would sort of be a non-celebrity version of what happened to Norm:
You: “I’m going to the hospital to visit my best friend. He was stupidly speeding and hit another car.”
Everyone on Twitter: “But what about the people in the other car?!? Do you not care about them at all?!? I am literally shaking right now.”
In response to the drummed-up outrage, Norm tweeted, “Roseanne and Louis have both been very good friends of mine for many years. They both made terrible mistakes and I would never defend their actions. If my words sound like I was minimizing the pain their victims feel to this day, I am deeply sorry.”
“Your heart can break for more than one person at the same time, you know, and a person can do a bad thing and you feel sorry for that person, while feeling worse for the person who had the bad thing done to them,” he told Ron Bennington on the Unmasked podcast, wrapping it up as only he could: “This is all so self-evident it’s hard for me to unpack but I wanted to use the word unpack…”
Norm went on The View to further clarify what he meant in the THR interview: “I said that not many of us have gone through this and so you should talk to each other because you’ve… you’ve… and then the guy said well what about the victims and I said well the victims haven’t gone through this. I was talking about this particular event. Of course the victims have gone through worse than that, but I’m gonna get a victim to phone Roseanne?”
The idea of being lumped in with predators clearly horrified this genuinely decent man. But while he never minimized the victims’ pain, he somehow managed to make light of his own: “I don’t want to be tossed in with people who did… not crimes but sins… I barely have consensual sex, let alone…”
Watching him go through all this, I swung back and forth between welling up with tears and vibrating with rage. And then at the end, one of the hosts said something like, “So are you going to watch everything you say from now on?” And he smiled politely, but sort of crinkled his eyes like, “Wow, really?” And I thought Thank God!
The only thing stronger than Norm’s reputation for brilliance was his rep among his friends as a truly good person. And that spilled out publicly too. I remember hearing a radio interview where a woman from Hawaii called in to say she saw him at the airport and wanted to talk to him but he was rude. (Norm took his extended family to Hawaii every Thanksgiving.) And he seemed surprised and distressed: “Did you come up and say hello?” It turned out she hadn’t, but was discouraged when they “made eye contact” and he didn’t seem happy. Which is shocking, cause, you know, most of us skip giddily through airports, especially when we’re shlepping our entire family in tow. He apologized profusely (for having done nothing wrong) and said when people do come up to him, he usually talks to them “endlessly.”
Then there’s this amazing clip. How many heckling exchanges begin like this?
Heckler: “Hey you’re not very funny!”
Comedian: “Pardon me?”
At any rate, once the internet jackals had their bellies full—or grew bored and moved on to fresh prey—the Netflix series Norm Macdonald Has a Show hit the air, with guests including David Letterman, Michael Keaton, Jane Fonda, Jerry Seinfeld and one of Norm’s musical heroes, outlaw-country singer Billy Joe Shaver (the original “Old Chunk of Coal”). “I’ve watched it and I’ve talked to other people who find it compelling… you can’t take your eyes off,” said Dave. And it’s true. It wasn’t a talk show you had on in the background while were you doing other things. You wanted to sit down and watch it. They were great conversations because he was great company.
It should’ve been renewed for another season, but it wasn’t; apparently there weren’t a sufficient number of clicks for the suits in the suites. But Jesus, at a zillion-dollar behemoth like Netflix, does everything have to do blockbuster numbers? Whatever happened to quality niche programming?
Watch the 10 episodes before they’re pulled down; some of the content on there has the shelf life of buttermilk in a shorted-out fridge. (Though perversely, now that Norm is gone, the clicks are probably up exponentially.)
When Covid-19 took hold in the spring of last year, Norm hosted a few brief, fabulous shows from his sofa, Quarantined with Norm Macdonald, with guests including Bob Saget and Roseanne. Norm first met Bob when he saw him at a comedy club in Ottawa as a teenager.
“You made fun of me and I had weird hair and you said, uh, take the ribbon from your hair and you kept coming back to me,” Norm recalled. “And then I afterwards like an idiot went up to you at the bar, like people do, like as if they’re part of the act and I was like, hey should we talk? And you were just trying to get ladies, you know…”
“Well I think it’s the way you said shall we talk. It was almost like saying get in the car…”
The videos lasted just a few episodes, and not a lot was heard from Norm for a while. Still, that was pretty much true of the whole country, the whole world even. But this summer, when he went silent on social media, it got scary.
When David Letterman guested on Norm’s podcast, he told him, “We always worry a little about you because we regard you as the top of the heap, the best of the best, the funniest of the funny, the guy who has it in every fiber of his being, not conjured, the real thing.”
A lot of us who never knew him worried about him too. He seemed like he was carrying a lot around inside him. Was he depressed? Was he taking care of himself? Was he okay?
I feel like Norm should have had so much more, you know? Mostly a lot more years. But more everything. And damn whatever forces held him back. But I’m so grateful he pushed through, especially these past nine years, and gave us everything he did.
Six years into the illness that would claim his life, Norm posted this:
At times, the joy that life attacks me with is unbearable and leads to gasping hysterical laughter. I find myself completely out of control and wonder how could life could surprise me again and again and again, so completely. How could a man be a cynic? It is a sin.
I could go on and on (you may have already suspected that), but I’ll close with a couple of things. First, a compilation from a while ago, of fellow comedians talking about how incredible he is. Thank you for loving him and for letting him know you did.
And finally, Bob Saget’s beautiful tribute to the friend he held so dear.
Love and safe journeys, Norm. I hope all the answers you searched for, and everything you yearned for, were waiting for you on the other side.
Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed a free, fabulous film for you to watch right here!
It would, of course, be sheer madness for a woman to take Love from a Stranger. But what if that stranger was Basil Rathbone?
And what if her alternative was pretty much the Mayor of Drippyville?
That’s the choice facing Ann Harding in this 1937 thriller, scripted by Frances Marion from a short story by Agatha Christie.
Struggling working girl Carol Howard (Harding) wins the lottery—woohoo!—which for some reason is the worst possible news to her dreary fiancé, Ronald (Bruce Seton). Why? For pretty much the same reason that Darren Stevens in Bewitched would rather work for awful old Mr. Tate than let Samantha use her magic powers to make their life fabulous. Stubborn male pride. (Okay, not really sure why I went off on that TV tangent, but it’s always bugged me.)
Bruce and Carol’s engagement buckles under the hideous strain of her good fortune. But she’s not alone for long: Soon a tall, dark, mysterious stranger enters her life. (This is Christie country, remember, where things like that happen.) She quickly falls for and weds him—and in this case, it’s “Marry in haste, repent in terror.”
Love from a Stranger was deftly directed by Rowland Lee, who always brought an air of atmospheric brooding to whatever genre he worked in, be it horror (Tower of London and Son of Frankenstein), period drama (The Count of Monte Cristo and The Bridge of San Luis Rey) or swashbucklers (Captain Kidd and The Three Musketeers). He also had his own 214-acre movie ranch, which served as the setting for the farmhouses in Friendly Persuasion and Night of the Hunter and the amusement park in Strangers on a Train, among others.
This is the best print I could find, and it’s bit crackly, though that seems to suit the mood. I hope it doesn’t interfere with your enjoyment of this nifty little movie.
And while you’re watching, keep an eye out for Joan Hickson in a small role as Emmy the maid. Almost half a century later, she played Christie’s Miss Marple to perfection in the PBS Mystery! series.
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?
Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we embed a free, fun movie for you to watch right here! This week: Green for Danger, a British thriller set in a wartime hospital.
During World War II, lots of filmmakers turned their lenses toward the battlefield, churning out glorious tales of valor and heroism. But two Brits chose instead to mine the greatest hopes, the deepest dreads and the biggest sacrifices of those who remained behind.
The writer/director team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, who produced films under the banner of Individual Pictures, were sort of a workingman’s Powell and Pressburger. Time and again, in more than 40 movies across four decades, they cannily captured the current mood of their country—always with wit and brains to spare, but never quite the same way twice. “Versatility was always our curse,” Gilliat once mused, reflecting on why they never fell into fashion with the film-school set.
By 1940, the pair had already written the screenplays for two classic thrillers: Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich. But as the war closed in, their work hewed much closer to home—anticipating the rise of what’s condescendingly called kitchen-sink realism—with films such as Millions Like Us, set in an aircraft factory, and Waterloo Road, a gritty portrait of the homefront in south London.
But it was one of their post-war films, Green for Danger, that most vividly crystallized their country’s wartime anxieties, thanks to an insightful script, the moody camerawork of Wilkie Cooper, and a cast and crew still deeply unsettled by the events of the preceding years. Trevor Howard had been honorably discharged from the British Army in 1943, due to unspecified emotional issues. Sally Gray was working on only her second film after a five-year hiatus following a breakdown. And Leo Genn, a Cambridge-educated barrister before he became an actor, had fought valiantly with the Royal Artillery, earning the French Croix de Guerre. He then helped investigate and prosecute Nazi war criminals—which required him to visit the recently liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.
Shot mostly at Pinewood Studios in 1946, Green for Danger—adapted from a novel by Christianna Brand, whose husband was a military medic—was the first commercial film made there after the war. But it’s set in August 1944, when “Doodlebugs” or buzz-bombs were still falling all over southeast England.
Early in the film, the local postman is strafed by an air attack and brought to the hospital with seemingly treatable injuries—but dies mysteriously on the operating table. The ensuing investigation targets the anesthesiologist, Barney Barnes (Howard), who’d earlier lost a patient under similar circumstances.
But then things get even more complicated: At a local dance attended by hospital staff, a nurse sprints up to the balcony, tears a record off the turntable, and calls out to the crowd that the postman’s death was no accident—and that she knows who killed him. Then she bolts off into the windy night to retrieve the evidence. In a genuinely harrowing scene worthy of Val Lewton, she frantically slips in and out the shadows until finally, one overtakes her.
Now, with at least one confirmed murder on its hands, Scotland Yard sends Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim) out to investigate. In stark relief to the deepening anxiety all around him, this is a man who coolly lives in his head, believing it’s the smartest place on earth. Wry and sardonic, he takes guiltless glee in his unnerving effect on the doctors and nurses. “My presence lay over the hospital like a pall,” he confides to the viewer. “I found it all tremendously enjoyable.” And just like that, we find ourselves falling for a character whose smugness would be off-putting in the hands of almost anyone else. We even feel for him when, while up in bed reading a murder mystery, he breaks into a self-satisfied grin at guessing the killer—only to peek at the last page and discover he’s wrong.
Time and again, Cockrill’s droll irreverence cuts through the mounting tension, as bombs fall outside, suspicion grows claustrophobically thick within the walls of the hospital, and the two lead physicians, Dr. Barnes and Dr. Eden (Genn), spar over the affections of nurse Freddi (Gray). When they finally wind up brawling on the floor, the good inspector pulls up a chair and lays odds.
The undercurrent of loathing between the two men runs through the entire film, pitting the blue-collar Dr. Barnes against the former Harley Street surgeon at every turn. (But then it wouldn’t be a British film without class issues bobbing up somewhere…) And the smoothly predatory Dr. Eden has no scruples about taking advantage of the growing unease to press his advantage. In fact, his honest compassion toward an emotionally fragile nurse whose mother was killed in a bomb attack is pretty much the only thing that rescues him from total heel-dom.
But somehow, with his soothing bedside-manner baritone, Genn makes even smarm seem elegant. And his skirmishes with the rougher-edged Howard, whether the two are on their feet or on the floor, make us want to pull up chairs ourselves.
Of course, amidst all this romantic intrigue, there’s still a murderer at large, against an irresistible backdrop: What should be the safest place in the world has become the most dangerous. “What appealed to me was… the rhythmic ritual, from wheeling the patient out to putting him out and keeping him out (in this case, permanently), with all those crosscutting opportunities offered by flowmeters, hissing gas, cylinders, palpitating rubber bags, and all the other trappings, in the middle of the Blitz, too!” Gilliat told Geoff Brown in his book Launder and Gilliat.
This potential for mayhem was precisely what terrified the British censors: They sent a letter to the producers advising against making the film, worried that wounded soldiers would avoid military hospitals out of fear that killers were running loose among the staff. Through the grace of the movie gods, that letter was never received (or perhaps it somehow… disappeared). The censors then banned the completed film on the same grounds. But in both cases, their qualms were rooted in Brand’s original novel, which is set in an army hospital, whereas the film moved the action to civilian turf. That seemed to calm the guardians of the gates, and the movie was released with only minor cuts. What’s left is 85 minutes of near perfection. Enjoy!
STREAMING SATURDAYS is a semi-regular feature on Sister Celluloid. 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?
Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we bring you free, fabulous 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.
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.”
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.
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 too 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 link to the film, on archive.org: https://archive.org/details/tah4457844.
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?
Welcome to another edition of STREAMING SATURDAYS, where we bring you free, fabulous films to watch right here!
This week it’s Lured, a nifty 1947 potboiler starring Lucille Ball and George Sanders. (Who apparently had a fling during filming. And if they hadn’t, I’d have absolutely no respect for either one of them.) Rounding out the cast are Sir Cedric Hardwicke; Charles Coburn, who manages to seem English without, thank God, ever attempting an accent; the ever-dastardly Joseph Calleia; Boris Karloff, gleefully sending up his horror image; George Zucco, in a witty turn as, of all things, a policeman; and Alan Mowbray, who makes me giddy every time I see him. (Sometimes I actually let out a little yelp when he suddenly appears.)
One of Douglas Sirk’s earlier American films, all his hallmarks are lavishly displayed: gorgeous style, subversive wit, and a super-strong female lead. The gaspingly gorgeous Ball plays a London taxi dancer who goes undercover for Scotland Yard after her best friend is murdered by a Jack the Ripper-like serial killer.
Hoping to lure the madman into pursuing her, she encounters a veritable parade of creeps. She also runs into Sanders, a local nightclub owner who’s such a cad (surprise!) that he flirts with one woman on the phone while holding another in his arms. (And gets away with it. Because… George Sanders.)
Okay, that’s all I’m gonna tell you, kids! But if you crave more George Sanders after this, and who wouldn’t, check out his full-length album of romantic songs here!
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind.
I’ve never been great at heeding that advice from Wordsworth, and for classic film lovers, it gets harder every year. What remain behind, of course, are the movies that sustain us. But there was a glorious time when so many stars were still here, long after their film careers had waned. There they were—on talk shows, and TV dramas, and sometimes, on Broadway.
Years ago, I saw Aren’t We All? with my Mom, and remember every second about that night. I wore a simple bright yellow sheath with French-cap sleeves, and shoes so fabulous (who knew they made torture devices in size 8?) that I had to take a taxi to the theatre, which was only, like, four blocks from my school. And I pulled the tickets from my envelope-clutch purse, in ivory with a pale yellow button where it closed over.
About a half-hour before the show, what appeared to be an ordinary checkered cab pulled up. But out stepped Claudette Colbert, in a white and peach houndstooth suit, probably Chanel—and ivory pumps almost exactly like mine! Suddenly my cramped and tortured toes found a reason to soldier on! But even in her heels, she was so tiny. Then with a smile and a wave, like Cleopatra channeling Moses, she parted the sea of admirers and swept into the theatre.
During the play, a somewhat creaky drawing-room farce by Frederick Lonsdale, I just sat there and stared at Jeremy Brett and Claudette thinking ohmygodohmygodohmygod. I’ve always worshipped Claudette, and I had a huge crush on Jeremy, which, knowing my crazy love for Colin Clive and Leslie Howard, led my mother to muse, “Oh, hon, you definitely have a type!” (And it turns out Howard played the Brett role in the original 1932 production.)
And rounding out the amazing cast were Rex Harrison, Lynn Redgrave and George Rose! Heaven can not only wait, it can stay on hold indefinitely.
After the show, my mother reminded me we had three dogs to get home to, so I dared not linger too long by the stage door. But I stalled for just a couple of minutes, pretending to fumble for subway tokens in my purse, which, like all my bags, was big enough that you could actually picture things getting lost in there, perhaps forever. (Years later I gave it to charity and imagine the new owner was like, “Oh, look! A comb and a compact!”)
And then—yes, yes!! Jeremy Brett glided out of the theater, in a white summer suit and azure shirt open at the collar. And he saw me, pretty much with “I love you” written all over me. He raised his eyebrows, waved, and nodded a little “hello.” He smiled at me so warmly my knees buckled, which is a dangerous thing in three-inch heels. Then he sidled into a taxi as if it were a waiting chariot.
I remember, when we lost Lynn Redgrave, reminiscing with my Mom about that magical night, and how Lynn was the last of that luminous cast. And then last year, I lost my Mom.
And the memories—what remain behind—are where we’re left to find strength. But oh, for the days when we had so much more than that…