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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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Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon Has Arrived!

Happy Birthday, Audrey Hepburn!

This extraordinary woman was born 90 years ago today, and to celebrate, we’re launching Audrey at 90: The Salute to Audrey Hepburn Blogathon! A heartfelt thank-you to all the writers helping us explore so many aspects of her amazing life.

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hepburn-1And we’re so honored to welcome a very special guest —Audrey’s son, Luca Dotti, author of the New York Times bestsellers Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother’s Kitchen and Audrey in Rome. “I’m touched and delighted that so many writers are celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday,” he told us. “I look forward to reading the variety of topics on her films and her life which are covered here.” Luca also wrote the moving and insightful foreword to Robert Matzen’s brand-new book, Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in World War II, an incredible story beautifully told—which will leave you even more in awe of Audrey.

Three lucky participants will win a copy! On May 8, we’ll draw the names and notify the winners.

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I’ll be writing about this fascinating book, and the author will be sharing his thoughts on what it was like to spend so much time “with” Audrey, compared with his other stellar subjects, including James Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn and Carole Lombard.

So without further ado, let’s get this party started! 

The event runs from May 4 to May 7, so be sure to check back often for the latest entries as we add live links. And if you’re participating, just grab one of the banners at the bottom and link back to the blogathon in your article.

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Here’s the list of topics:

Sister Celluloid: Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn in WWII
Robert Matzen: Spending time “with” Audrey as a subject, compared with other stars
Moon in Gemini: The Nun’s Story
Poppity Talks Classic Film: The Unforgiven
Diary of a Movie Maniac: Bloodline and Love Among Thieves
The Story Enthusiast: Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn by Donald Spoto
Caftan Woman: Charade
Realweegiemidget Reviews: Robin and Marian
Three Enchanting Ladies: Funny Face
The Stop Button: Secret People
Love Letters to Old Hollywood: Love in the Afternoon
The Midnite Drive-In: The Children’s Hour
MovieMovieBlogBlog: My Fair Lady
Popcorn and Flickers: How Audrey Met Givenchy
Stars and Letters: Cher’s Letter to Audrey
Maddy Loves Her Classic Films: A Salute to Audrey
Thoughts All Sorts: Roman Holiday
The Pale Writer: Audrey’s early career and How to Steal a Million
Champagne for Lunch: The Nun’s Story and Robin and Marian
Critica Retro: Paris When It Sizzles
Cinematic Scribblings: Two for the Road

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In THE MIRACLE WOMAN, All Eyes Are on Stanwyck—Especially Capra’s

There’s a certain luminous quality that shines through when a director is in love with his leading lady. In Frank Capra’s The Miracle  Woman, starring Barbara Stanwyck, it’s all over the screen.

This was the second film for these kindred spirits—whose relationship got off to such a rocky start, the real miracle is that they ended up working together at all.

In 1930, as Capra prepared to shoot Ladies of Leisure, he got an urgent call from Columbia boss Harry Cohn.

“He asked me to talk to an ex-chorus girl who made a hit in a stage play called Burlesque,” Capra recalled in his memoir, The Name Above the Title. “He had a hunch about her. I was annoyed. I had a girl already set.

“She came into my office sullen, plainly dressed, no makeup,” he went on. “Obviously hating the whole idea of the interview, she sat on the edge of her chair and answered in curt monosyllables. I didn’t want her before she came in, and what I saw of this drip made me sure of it. After about thirty seconds of the usual inane questions… she jumped to her feet and and snapped, ‘Oh, hell, you don’t want any part of me,’ and she ran out. I phoned Cohn. ‘Harry, forget Stanwyck. She’s not an actress. She’s a porcupine.'”

When Stanwyck came home in tears, her husband, comedian Frank Fay, called Capra in a rage. According to the director, it went something like this:

“Look, fella, what the hell did you do to my wife?”

Do to her? I couldn’t even talk to her!”

“Well she came home crying and upset. No one can do that to my wife!”

“Listen, funny man, I don’t want any part of your wife, or of you. She came in here with a chip on her shoulder, and she went out with an axe on it.”

Fay chalked Stanwyck’s defensiveness up to nerves and urged Capra to view a brief screen test she’d made for The Noose, for Alexander Korda over at Warner Bros. The director reluctantly agreed to spare the three minutes.

“The test flashed on the screen. Nothing in the world was going to make me like it,” Capra recalled. “After only thirty seconds I got a lump in my throat as big as an egg… never had I heard or seen such emotional sincerity. When it was over, I had tears in my eyes. I was stunned.”

Capra bolted from the screening room to call Cohn:

“Harry! Harry! We’ve got to sign Stanwyck for the part…”

“What’re you, nuts? A half-hour ago you told me she was a kook!”

“Yeah, yeah but I just saw a test of her—she’ll be terrific… don’t let her get away.”

Within the hour, Stanwyck was signed for Ladies of Leisure. But it was her next project with  Capra, The Miracle Woman, that’s probably the biggest sleeper of his long and legendary career.

Based on the play Bless You, Sister by Robert Riskin (early in what would be a brilliant career) and John Meehan—with generous dollops of inspiration from the notorious evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson—The Miracle Woman centers on Florence Fallon (Stanwyck), whose father, a preacher, has been shunted aside by his congregation for a younger man. 

On the morning he’s to deliver his final sermon, Florence takes to the pulpit to announce he’s just died in her arms—and delivers a blistering diatribe of her own: “You killed him! For thirty years, he tried to touch your stony hearts with the mercies of God—and failed. Why? Because you don’t want God!” As she starts to single out the churchgoers for their sins and hypocrisies—drinking, carousing, the usual stuff—they scurry from their pews toward the exits.

It’s the kind of scene that usually caps off a movie rather than opening one—but Stanwyck is just getting started. And so is Florence: one of the few people who doesn’t flee the church is Bob Hornsby (Sam Hardy), a local huckster who tells her how she can “get famous, get rich, and get even.”

“Religion is like anything else,” he purrs, sidling in closer. “It’s great if you can sell it, no good if you give it away.” The two team up for a traveling tent show called the Temple of Happiness, complete with fire, brimstone and “miracles”—designed to bring desperate people closer to God and further away from their money.

One day, as Florence  promotes the show on a local radio station, she actually saves someone. John Carson (David Manners), a flier who was blinded in the Great War, has just had the latest in a long line of rejections from music publishers sending back his songs. He’s mailed them off to every company in the phone book, from A to Z. “Where do you go after Z?” he despairs. His answer: to the window. But just before he’s set to jump, he hears Florence’s voice from an apartment across the courtyard: “What did God give man the backbone for? To stand up on his own two feet! Beethoven wrote his greatest symphonies after he went deaf… God can forgive a sinner, but not a quitter!”

John backs away from the ledge as if struck in the face, and shows up at the tent show that night—even taking to the stage to help Florence re-enact the parable of Daniel in the lion’s den. (With real lions. In these days before process screen photography, the only thing separating the actors from the animals was a thin piece of netting. “I could smell their breath,” recalled Manners, but I’m guessing the poor lions were even more miserable than he was.)

John is thrilled when Florence follows up their first meeting with several visits to his dingy little flat—but he’s nervous and awkward, falling back on sleight-of-hand card tricks to entertain her. To express his growing affection, he even hides behind his wooden dummy, who confides, “He keeps me locked up until he gets in a jam and then he hauls me out.”

(Yes, he does card tricks and a ventriloquist act. Somebody shoot me. But in the hands of David Manners, it’s touching and charming.)

Florence is falling hard too, and the more time she spends with John, the dirtier she feels onstage as a “miracle woman.” His tenderness and trust wear down her bitterness until she can no longer tolerate the fraud she’s neck-deep in—but she can’t seem to pull herself out either. “I don’t know how to play on the level any more,” she confesses to John. “And God wouldn’t believe me under oath.”

Determined to restore Florence’s faith in herself, John pulls some gallant fakery of his own—and even though she sees through it, she’s inspired enough to give up the grift, whatever the consequences. Much as she leapt to the pulpit of her father’s church, she takes to the stage and tells the gathered faithful a few truths they don’t want to hear. The results are shattering.

Capra said The Miracle Woman failed to follow his intended vision of “one woman’s life in three acts: disillusion, venality, conversion.” Credit Stanwyck with that “failure”: nothing is ever that cut-and-dried with her. Even at her most “venal,” a conscience is beating beneath—and when she regains her faith, it’s with a wariness that never completely melts away.

As Capra quickly discovered, much of Stanwyck’s power came from throwing everything she had into her first take—whether the cameras were rolling or not. “All subsequent repetitions, in rehearsals or retakes, were pale copies of her original performance,” he recalled. To harness that raw emotion rather than squander it on prep work, “I had to rehearse the rest of the cast without her, work out the physical movements without her.

“And the crews had problems,” Capra explained. “I had to take the ‘heart’ of the scene—the vital close-ups of Barbara—first, and with multiple cameras so she would only have to do it once.” He would go over the scene in the dressing room with his star, working through the emotions while never allowing her to act anything out. Then, as she stepped onto the soundstage, he’d gently remind her: “No matter what the other actors do, whether they stop or blow their lines—you continue your scene right to the end.” He marveled that “she remembered every word I said—and she never blew a line.”

Capra and Stanwyck would go on to make three more films together: the melodrama Forbidden, the wildly underrated The Bitter Tea of General Yen, and the classic Meet John Doe.

“Underneath her sullen shyness smoldered the emotional fires of a young Duse, or a Bernhardt,” Capra recalled in his memoir, still thunderstruck decades later. “Naive, unsophisticated, caring nothing about makeup, clothes or hairdos, the chorus girl could grab your heart and tear it to pieces. She knew nothing about camera tricks, how to ‘cheat’ her looks so her face could be seen, how to restrict her body movements in close shots. She just turned it on—and everything else on stage stopped.

“It’s true that directors often fall in love with their leading ladies—at least while making a film together,” he admitted. “I fell in love with Stanwyck, and had I not been more in love with Lucille Reyburn I would have asked Barbara to marry me after she called it quits with Frank Fay.”

When she accepted her Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1987, a radiant Stanwyck said the time she spent with Capra was the key to everything that came after. “Frank Capra… taught me what film was all about and what film could do for me and what I could do for film… each day was a learning process and it was wonderful… that’s why I’m here tonight—Mr. Frank Capra.”

A typically modest assessment of her own power onscreen, which a gifted director felt instantly, honored reverently, and harnessed brilliantly.

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This article is part of the Fay Wray and Robert Riskin Blogathon, honoring the work of two brilliant artists and celebrating the publication of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir, by Victoria Riskin. For the rest of the entries, please click here!

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The Ever-Infuriating Oscar Memorial Reel: Who Got Snubbed In 2019?

I used to slog through the bloated Oscar show every year just to see the honorary awards for Lifetime Achievement, which were grudgingly doled out to classic stars and directors the Academy had criminally ignored throughout their careers. But then a few years ago, they banished them to a smaller event that’s not even televised. (“You’re being honored for decades of brilliant work? Hey, we’ll be sure to post a link on YouTube!”) Then this year, they planned to squeeze the Cinematography, Editing, Live-Action Shorts and Makeup/Hairstyling awards into commercial breaks. (They claimed they were “forced to,” but somehow when folks like Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron blasted them for it, they backed down. So “forced to” was really more like “try to get away with.”)

If they shaft living Academy members this shamelessly, God help those who are gone. Which brings us to our annual list of snubs from the Oscar memorial reel.

As usual, they somehow found time to get several publicists in there, and who among us doesn’t count their press releases among our favorite film moments. But they left out Stanley Donen. I actually had to rewind the whole thing to make sure that was true. How long would it have taken to make a last-minute addition for a Lifetime Achievement Oscar winner?!?

Just as a palate cleanser, to get that awful taste out of your mouth, here he is accepting his award in 1998, and throwing in a little soft shoe:

Also snubbed were actors Verne Troyer, Ricky Jay, R. Lee Ermey, David Ogden Stiers, Charlotte Rae, Hugh Dane, Scott Wilson, Dick Miller, Jo Andres, Anthony Vajna, Eunice Gayson, Philip Bosco, Michele Carey, Peter Donat, Douglas Rain, Louise Latham, Dolores Taylor, Sondra Locke, Bob Einstein, Pamela Gidley, Harry Anderson, Liliane Montevecchi, Vanessa Marquez, Ken Berry, Bibi Ferreira, Carmen Argenziano, Joe Sirola, Nita Bieber, Kristoff St. John, Clive Swift, Louisa Moritz, Kevin Barnett, Verna Bloom, Robert Mandan and Louis Zorich; writers Harlan Ellison and Christopher Knopf; producers Arnold Kopelson, Meg Randall, Alan Johnson, Gary Kurtz and Philip D’Antoni (who produced Bullitt and won an Oscar for The French Connection); directors Stan Dragoti, Michael Anderson, Vijaya Bapineedu, Larry Brand and Lewis Gilbert; composer Arthur B. Rubinstein; stuntman Jimmy Nickerson; and designer Hubert de Givenchy.

Classic film always seems to get slammed especially hard in the memorial reel, which gets more painful as there are ever-fewer artists left to honor. Left out along with Donen were Donald Moffat, Allyn Ann McLerie, Mary Carlisle (still an active supporter of classic film when she was over 100), Connie Sawyer (whose career spanned ten decades), William Phipps, Tom Reese, Dewey Martin, Jean Porter, Liz Fraser, Jerry Maren, Carol Channing, Kaye Ballard, Chuck McCann, Julie Adams, Joseph Campanella, Patricia Morison, Clint Walker, Rose Marie, and Charles Aznavour. And Gloria Jean and Susan Miller, who, 77 years after co-starring in W.C. Fields’ Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, died five days apart.

Whenever they’re called out on their slights (even overlooking Oscar winners), the Academy’s stock responses are: the show is so very short on time (while still managing to fit in lame bits, canned banter, and endless commercials), and there’s a longer list on the website. But all that does is set up a creepy A-list/B-list for dead people. (Does this never end in Hollywood?) It’s gotten to the point where pre-show lobbying campaigns have become a sad annual ritual.

I don’t know what the answer is. But as long as they keep dissing people, we’ll keep trying to honor them here. And the ones we miss, please point out in comments so we can add them (the timeframe is from last year’s March 4 telecast to tonight’s show).

Godspeed and heartfelt thanks to all of them—from the little people out here in the dark…

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The Theater’s Alive with THE SOUND OF MUSIC! TCM Brings It Back This Month

If The Sound of Music is one of your favorite things, you’re in luck: On September 9 and 12, TCM and Fathom Events return the gloriously restored musical to the big screen.

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Back in March 2015, when the new print kicked off the TCM Classic Film Festival, Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer—who still clearly adore each other—gave us a glimpse of their Music memories during a pre-screening interview with Sid Ganis, first vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Ganis kicked things off by asking who in the audience had never seen the film—and the first hand to shoot up was Plummer’s. Turns out that during the film’s New York premiere,”all the males went to a bar,” Plummer laughed. “We’d kind of seen it, you know? So we spent most of the night in the bar. I can’t do that any more like I used to, damn it.”

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The actor had derided the film in the past, even jokingly referring to it as The Sound of Mucus—and at one point, didn’t think much of film work, period. He and Andrews touched on that, and more, during their conversation:

CP: Funnily enough, I was asked to do The Sound of Music on Broadway…  Mary Martin took a shine to me but her husband said, ‘Mary, he’s 29 years old, darling…” And of course Theodore Bikel did it beautifully.

In those days I thought the stage was it. You think the theatre is so intellectual but then you think, ‘What am I doing?!? They pay so well in the movies!’ But early in my movie career, you’ll see me walking around not really knowing where to go.

Working with Julie, though… I sort of fell in love with her when I was sitting up in the theatre balcony watching her as Eliza Doolittle. She’s wonderful… an old-fashioned saint… you’d follow her into battle the way you would Joan of Arc.

JA: <laughs> You called me a saint? How dare you, sir! Ruining my reputation! We’ve always been great chums though.

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CP: And for all I’ve said about the film, I think this is the primal family movie of all time… it’s a fairy story brought to life—the last bastion of peace and innocence in a terrible time.

JA: Richard Rodgers’ daughter Mary said it was the one show that translated better to the screen from the stage—of all those walloping hits! And everyone making the film was at the peak of their talents. And the quality of the music is phenomenal.

CP: The arrangements were extraordinary—just magical!

JA: And a huge orchestra!

CP: Well, yes, as someone who was trying to sing above them…

JA: And the beautiful Alps and the children and the nuns…

CP: …could have been really mawkish!

JA: You made it less saccharine—you made it have an astringency because of the way you played the captain. And without that, we would have been sunk, my love. I really mean that. You and [director] Robert Wise made sure of that. With his innate good taste, he saw the problem, that it could go that way.

He was a gentleman and a gentle man. And of course was one of the editors on Citizen Kane. He had a great sense of economy of emotion. He taught me something—he said, ‘Julie, look in one place only, don’t look left-right-left-right, keep still.’ What a gift that was! That huge close-up—be still! I guess we were rattling back and forth in some of the early dailies that he saw.

And the wonderful choreographers went ahead to the locations and took measurements of how many steps for each number, etc. so when we got there it was all laid out for us!

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CP: We filmed backwards, first in Austria and then back to California. And you were always carting oxen up a hill or something…

JA: I was on top of the carts, going up the hill with the cameras! Often in the mud! Austria has Europe’s seventh-highest annual rainfall… but the rain made so many beautiful, glorious puffy cumulus clouds in the background. When you see the movie, notice the strength of the background, because it made a difference. Robert Wise said that gave a texture to it. It makes a difference… it wasn’t just a picture postcard.

CP: And the cameramen didn’t try to soften Austria. They almost shot it as a documentary.

JA: Not all of the locals liked us, though. We had the speakers set up outdoors, and one  farmer came out with a pitchfork and screamed, “You’re ruining the milk from my cows!” Did you have any problems with things like that?

CP: I went straight to the bar.

And on that happy note—much like the one it began on—the Q&A closed, and the curtain rose…

It rises again this weekend. Click here to be transported…

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The Oscar In Memoriam Reel: Who Got Snubbed This Year?

Another year, another botched attempt by the Academy to honor its own.

For a lot of movie lovers—classic-film fans especially—Oscar’s memorial-reel slights have become a cringe-inducing annual tradition. I don’t know if Bette Davis really did name the statuette Oscar because his backside resembled her husband’s. But when it comes to honoring those who’ve given so much to the movies, Oscar certainly makes an ass of itself.

The usual excuse for the snubs is that it’s a time issue: they simply can’t fit everyone we lost in the past year into a brief little montage. But here’s the thing: They’re the ones who decide to set aside so little time to honor people who’ve devoted their whole lives to their craft.

The producers could easily have cut out a production number (another lame bit where “real people” mingle with actors?), shorten the canned banter at the podium, or even—dare I say it?—eliminate a few commercials (“Walmart-inspired” movies? Really?). But they chose not to. So please, this year, spare us the “if only we had the time” lamentations, which are about as genuine as Eve Harrington’s humble acceptance speech at the Sarah Siddons Awards.

Still, somehow, no matter how pressed for time they are, they always manage to squeeze in a few agents or publicists. Cuz that’s what we tune in for, right? (“Honey, I’d be happy to get up and make you a drink, but I think they’re gonna show that guy from Rogers & Cowan!”)

The Academy has a much longer memorial slide show on its website, which includes all those who didn’t make the cut for the broadcast. But when the Hollywood A list/B list crap carries over to dead people, it’s frankly kinda creepy.

That said, here’s the list of oversights I noticed, including some glaring ones from classic film. Not all of these folks were primarily in film, but they all made a mark there. And even excluding the part-timers, the list of omissions is long:

Oscar winner Dorothy Malone, Dina Merrill, Bradford Dillman, Connie Sawyer (who had pretty much the longest career in film history), Nanette Fabray, John Gavin, Michèle Morgan, Heather Menzies-Urich, Stephen Furst, Juanita Quigley, Ty Hardin, Suzanna Leigh, Della Reese, Robert Guillaume, Jay Thomas, Glen Campbell, Michael Nyqvist, Adam West, Powers Boothe, Darlene Cates, Lola Albright, Jim Nabors, Leonard Landy, Anne Wiazemsky, Gastone Moschin, Elena Verdugo, Roy Dotrice, Michael Parks, Wendell Burton, Curt Lowens, Lorna Gray, Frank Vincent, Aleksey Batalov, Louis Zorich, Jean Rochefort, Daliah Lavi, Richard Anderson, Don Gordon, Anne Jeffreys, Robert Hardy, Clifton James, Federico Luppi, John Hillerman, Mireille Darc, Red West, Ann Wedgworth, Elsa Martinelli, Peter Sallis, David Ogden Stiers, Emma Chambers, John Mahoney, Reg Cathey, Jerry Van Dyke, Jean Porter, Marty Allen, Lassie Lou Ahern, Donnelly Rhodes, Rose Marie, directors Bruce Brown and Tobe Hooper, composer Dominic Frontiere, and choreographer Danny Daniels.

One bright spot: Eddie Vedder did a beautiful job with Room at the Top, fittingly a song by Tom Petty, who also deserved a place in the memorial reel. He wrote the soundtrack to She’s the One (featuring the much-covered Walls), and his music set the mood for so many films, including Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire and Silence of the Lambs. (Jonathan Demme had sweet, unsuspecting Brooke Smith bop along in the car to American Girl as a kind of emotional shortcut; he wanted the audience to instantly like her.)

Please add in Comments anyone else who was overlooked (and remember, in this case, the “year” runs between the last Oscar broadcast on February 26, 2017 and today); let’s make sure they’re all honored somewhere, even if just in our little film family.

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FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN! The Cast and Creator Open Up at a Sneak Preview of the Finale

While we were falling in love with Jessica Lange, she was falling in love with Joan Crawford.

“She was such a treasure,” said Lange at a Q&A hosted by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, following a sneak preview of the Feud: Bette and Joan finale. “She was never given the credit she was due. And when I went back and watched her films, she was a lovely actress, very subtle… obviously she had a style, that MGM style, but underneath it all, she was very real.

“People think of the glamour and the Hurrell photographs”, she added, “but there was so much more to her than that and it was thrilling to discover.”

Lange said she felt pressure to do right by Joan, who has been camped up and torn down for decades now. “I don’t think she got a fair shake from her daughter or from the film that was made,” she said, not daring to utter the name of the movie or the daughter, lest Faye or Cristina spring full-blown from the floorboards. “I do think she was maligned and she never got an opportunity to defend herself, of course. We dealt very fairly with Joan and created a character with all her strengths, vulnerabilities, peevishness, humanness. I hope in some way that brings another dimension to the way she’s seen. I hope we created a different idea about this woman, who was quite extraordinary.”

feud-62Focused mainly on the filming of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,  the miniseries captures an especially unhappy, even desperate, time in the careers of Joan, Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon, who skipped the Q&A), and director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina). As far as the studios were concerned, Aldrich’s sin was that his films, though often critically praised, were commercial flops. Joan and Bette’s sin was that they continued to breathe past 40.

“I’m 52 and I feel like I’m just getting started, but for Bette and Joan, they were done,” said Feud creator Ryan Murphy, who also directed and co-wrote a few episodes. “And I just think about how unfair that is. I think the saddest thing in life is lost potential.”

“They all came together at a time of great need, trying to resuscitate their careers, keep themselves relevant and valid,” said Molina.

Lange agreed: “I think that’s typical of especially what happens to a women’s career at that point. You’re still in there scrapping and fighting and thinking, ‘This next role is going to bring it all back. This next role is going to make a difference.’ You think it’s out there but it isn’t, and yet you address the situation as if you still have some kind of control. This thing of struggling to resurrect something that is long gone is where the real human sadness of it exists, the poignancy… there’s still that thing of trying to hold on.”

The early days on the Baby Jane set held the promise that its long-feuding stars might forge a truce, or even—dare we dream?—some sort of brittle friendship, based on, if nothing else, the acres of common ground they shared: four marriages, difficult daughters, and decades of grappling with shortsighted, abusive studio bosses who built fortunes on their talents, wrung every ounce of work out of them, and threw them away like squeezed lemons at the first signs of age.  (When Baby Jane was first pitched to him, Jack Warner—who had 15 years on Bette and 12 on Joan—sneered, “No one will pay to see those two old broads act.”)

But circumstances conspired against them—in the form of powerful gossip mavens like Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) and even their own director, who feared a Bette-Joan alliance could blunt his power on the set. A feud, on the other hand, could spark their performances and generate buzz for a film he had little confidence in.

feud-54“Aldrich was definitely complicit, but he was also a victim of forces as well,” said Molina. “He was reluctantly drawn into stoking the fires of that feud.  He was morally a complex man, I think that’s a polite way to put it… but he was also an unloved child in Hollywood. That scene where he asks Jack Warner, ‘Do you think I’m capable of being great?’ and he’s told, very blandly, ‘No’… it’s the question we all want to ask and we all fear the answer. So he was a victim but he was also complicit.”

“They were all pawns in one big confusing rat race,” added Catherine Zeta Jones (Olivia de Havilland). “You have all that fragility put onto the set, like a whole bunch of thoroughbreds, and Jack Warner is the jockey deciding which one to favor.”

Happily, the Feud set was much less fraught than Baby Jane‘s. “The atmosphere was the antithesis of what the story was about,” Molina laughed. “It was very relaxed. There’s an old saying among athletes—I’m not saying I’m an athlete in any way, but I’ve heard them say it!—that you get better when you work with the best, with people who have something to teach you. When we first started, I was petrified—with me it always starts out 50 percent excitement and 50 percent dread—but there was an effortlessness about this.” 

Murphy credits much of the happy set to the fact that half the directors and many of the writers and other offscreen talent were women—a much higher quotient than the usual (criminally small) ratio. “Much less ego and drama!” he laughed.

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“When I did The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, the woman who was supposed to direct the Marcia Clark episode got sick, and I stepped in for her,” he recalled. “And I wasn’t really happy with the results. And I thought, ‘Why didn’t I have nineteen women in my Rolodex I could have called to direct that?’ Now I make a point of hiring as many women as possible.”

When work on Feud began, the long slog of election season was nearing an end—and so, many hoped, was the daily bruising of one sleazy Trump outrage after the next. “It looked like Hillary was going to be our next President, and then about halfway through filming, we got what we got,” Murphy said. “And it was such a wake-up call for me. At first, this series felt a little bit like a time capsule to me… like, aren’t we past all this now—the misogyny, the sexism? And then it was like, no, it’s not over. And I could feel the women on the set getting madder and madder at the outcome and at what was already unfolding.”

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But if Murphy and company couldn’t give the country a happy ending, they could give Bette and Joan one—sort of. (Warning: The next paragraph is a mild spoiler.)

In the finale, a gravely ill Joan dreams she hears laughter in the living room. She gets out of bed and moves slowly, warily toward the source… and sees Warner and Hopper knocking back a few at the card table. Soon Bette arrives, and after a little while, it’s just the two of them. And they say what we’ve always wanted them to say. That they wish they’d been kinder. Less self-protective. They wish they’d gotten it right. “But, it’s not too late!” Joan says, reaching across the table. “We can start now!” And Bette, a bit startled, smiles and nods. With that, Mamacita (yes, she’s back!) gently wakes her frail charge, wraps her arms around her and shepherds her back to bed.

“I felt like I wanted to give them, and the fans, that closure,” said Murphy. “That photograph, when they started filming Baby Jane, where they’re sitting and chatting—what if it had stayed like that?”

“When I first came out to Hollywood, I interviewed Bette and she told me, off the record, how she really regretted that she and Joan didn’t somehow work things out,” he added. “People conspired against their becoming friends, and there were also romantic entanglements and rivalries…

“All of the older actors I’ve interviewed, at the end, they were all talking about that kind of regret,” he said. “If you love someone, tell them. If you’ve hurt someone, make it up to them. People you love, people you’ve fought with, if only you could sit with them and say I’m sorry, I screwed up… okay now I’m getting choked up.”

Even more so when he revealed he dedicated this series to his grandmother. “She raised me, and she reminded me so much of Bette Davis, and I would watch her movies and feel her around me,” he remembered. “So in a way I’m reconnecting with her. That’s why I put that line in the last episode, when Pauline is talking about how older people become forgotten, and she tells the young guy who’s interviewing her, ‘Call your grandmother.'”

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You do the same, if you’re lucky enough to have one. Or call someone you’ve fallen out with, and make it right. Bette and Joan would be proud of you.

Can’t get enough of Bette and Joan? Read about why they should have been friends (written years before Feud!). And about Bette’s other feud—with dogs; her fabulous fundraiser for homeless pets, which drew half of Hollywood; and her surprisingly honest pitch for war bonds! And read about how Joan stepped in for her fallen friend, Carole Lombardher hilarious turn in Torch Song; and the advice she doles out lavishly in her booksome of which is oddly practical, and some of which is just odd…

Photo credit for shots from the stage: Alejandro Kiesel.

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MoMA Presents “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” Covering the Undersung Director from the Silents Onward

“I only know I like my characters to walk in clouds, I like a little bit of the fairy tale. As long as I’m there behind the camera lens, I’ll let somebody else photograph the ugliness of the world.”
—Leo McCarey

If you’re anywhere near New York this month, prepare to walk in the clouds. On July 15, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) launches “Leo McCarey: Seriously Funny,” a retrospective that runs from his roots at Hal Roach Studios to near the end of his storied career.

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“My entry drug to movies was Laurel and Hardy, so I always responded to McCarey’s work,” said MoMA assistant curator Dave Kehr, who pulled the series together with film historian Steve Massa. “His heart, the wonderful slowness of gag development, and the sense of what a complete worldview the man had—starting out with a couple, then widening to community, then country, then world, then God.”

The son of a fight promoter, McCarey took a few turns in the ring himself before settling down to study the law. But after making it all the way through USC law school, he came to his senses. Unable to resist the call of the industry bubbling up all around him in Los Angeles, he signed on as Tod Browning’s assistant in 1919, and joined Roach as a gagman a few years later—after keeping him in stitches during an early-morning game of handball.

McCarey eventually rose to head of production, promoting a distinctly humanist, story-driven style of comedy. Even his most outrageous movies have a certain logic to them—it’s like a game of Mouse Trap, where the boot innocently tips the ball… setting everything else into crazy motion. McCarey’s vision meshed nicely with actors like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—whom he paired for the first time—as well as then-cameraman George Stevens, who fought so hard against mindless slapstick that Roach eventually fired him.

“I have a theory—the ineluctability of incidents,” McCarey once explained. “If something happens, some other thing inevitably flows from it. Like night and day follow each other, events are linked together, and I always develop my story in this way, in a series of incidents, of events which succeed each other and provoke each other. I never really have intrigue.”

With the dawn of sound, McCarey moved into features, turning out classics like Duck Soup and Ruggles of Red Gap. But true to his roots in the silents—where scenes were mostly roughed out and then filled in on the fly—his films retained a certain seat-of-the-pants quality. If his characters often seem to be making things up as they go along, perhaps it’s because the director—who often doubled as the writer—did just that.

“I think probably seventy-five per cent of each day’s shooting was made up on the set by Leo,” Bing Crosby recalled of Going My Way.  A sometime songwriter, McCarey would dream up scenes and bits of business as he noodled away on the piano. While it occasionally drove the crew crazy, it gave his films a lively spontaneity often missing from more formulaic fare.

“There was a lot of improvisation, and trust, between McCarey and his actors,” said Kehr. Even studio executives took his freewheeling style on faith, as seen in this extraordinary inter-office memo from RKO’s Milton Howe in 1948. It’s hard to imagine a studio giving a director this kind of leeway today:

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In 1937, McCarey’s string of hits was broken in dramatic fashion with what is now considered one of his finest films,  Make Way For Tomorrow, the story of an elderly couple (Beulah Bondi and Victor Moore) who lose their home during the Great Depression.

And here’s a spoiler alert/public service: the relentlessly depressing film ends with none of the five no-good-bastard children rescuing their parents—forcing them to spend their final years apart. It’s a great film, but best viewed with a fistful of Zoloft. (TCM once aired it on Christmas Eve. No really. “Gee, Dad, thanks for the tie! And hey, Aunt Sue, that was some great pumpkin pie! Now let’s all hang ourselves!”)

Make Way for Tomorrow got him fired from Paramount,” noted Kehr. “He went long, and the marketing department had no idea how to sell this incredibly sad movie.

“Every great artist has that moment where they have to contemplate, ‘What if everything I believe is wrong?” he added. “For McCarey it was, ‘What if there is no protection in family and community, and what if God isn’t there?'”

After his ouster, McCarey bounced back with a vengeance, winning an Oscar for his first outing with Columbia, the screwball classic The Awful Truth. But when he accepted the award, he still had Make Way for Tomorrow on his mind—saying he’d won for the wrong movie.

“He pretty much invented the situation comedy with The Awful Truth,” said Kehr. And he semi-invented Cary Grant—who fine-tuned the comic persona that would serve him for the rest of his career by mimicking some of the director’s expressions and even his speech patterns.

And despite his deep Catholic faith, McCarey never shied away from good old-fashioned lust. “Attraction is the initial driver and then it deepens from there, but sex is still always important,” noted Kehr. Take the final scene of The Awful Truth: sure, after talking things over, Jerry (Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne) could get a good night’s sleep and rekindle their romance at a later date, when all the legal issues have resolved themselves—but why not fling open that stubborn door, banish the pesky cat and do it right now?

McCarey followed up with another of the most grown-up romances ever set to film: the pitch-perfect Love Affair, which both Dunne and Charles Boyer called the highlight of their Hollywood careers.

During the 1940s, McCarey’s two best films brought his faith front and center. In Going My Way, the charismatic young Father O’Malley (Crosby) Toora-Loora-Looras his way into the good graces of the older, more traditional Father Fitzgibbon (Barry Fitzgerald) and into the hearts of pretty much everyone: 1944’s highest-grossing film snagged seven Oscars, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture—and McCarey’s share of the profits gave him the highest reported income in the country that year. Crosby reprised his role for The Bells of St. Mary’s, where he matched wills with the gentle, luminous Ingrid Bergman as Sister Mary Benedict. (And if you don’t cry at the end, please don’t even speak to me.)

The MoMA series kicks off with a bang—or maybe a smoosh: an evening of silents accompanied by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Topping the bill is Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century—once thought to be lost but for a few fragments, but discovered last year almost in its entirety and lovingly restored by Serge Bromberg. Directed by Clyde Bruckman and supervised by McCarey—with Stevens behind the camera—the two-reeler features the mother of all pie fights, with more than 3,000 creamy confections flung before the soggy credits roll.

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Pie fights had already become a slapstick cliché—Buster Keaton forbade them in his films—but The Battle of the Century was something epic. This was pie nihilism. (Pie-hilism?) And typical of Laurel and Hardy, as well as McCarey and Stevens, it was somehow rooted in realism.

“It wasn’t just that we threw hundreds of pies,” Laurel once recalled. “That wouldn’t have been very funny… We went at it, strange as it may sound, psychologically. We made every one of the pies count. A well-dressed man strolling casually down the avenue, struck squarely in the face by a large pastry, would not proceed at once to gnash his teeth, wave his arms in the air and leap up and down. His first reaction… would be of numb disbelief, then embarrassment and a quick survey of the damage done to his person. Then indignation and a desire for revenge would possess him. If he saw another pie at hand, still unspoiled, he would grab it up and let it fly.”

Before disappearing for decades, the film became a favorite of John Ford, Harold Lloyd and James Agee. Even Henry Miller was moved to marvel, “There was nothing but pie throwing in it, nothing but pies, thousands and thousands of pies and everybody throwing them right and left.”  Rounding out the opening-night bill are the silent shorts Mighty Like a Moose starring Charley Chase, Should Men Walk Home? with Mabel Normand, and Putting Pants on Philip, which marked Laurel and Hardy’s first official pairing. (That one and The Battle of the Century also feature a baby-faced Eugene Pallette, before sound films let his frog flag fly.) The next day, film composer and historian Ben Model steps in to do the musical honors for the same program.
The series also includes a second program of Laurel and Hardy; another featuring McCarey’s last four films at Roach; and two bills showcasing the comedies of Max Davidson and Chase, who was a mentor to the director.

 

Feature films include favorites such as Duck Soup, Ruggles of Red Gap and The Awful TruthThe Bells of St. Mary’s, Going My Way, Love Affair and that rarest of all birds, its successful remake, An Affair to Remember. But MoMA also tosses in a few off-speed pitches, such as Let’s Go Native, with fashion designer Jeanette MacDonald and cab driver Jack Oakie stranded on a tropical isle with the entire cast of a Broadway musical (oh, that old chestnut), and Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys, McCarey’s penultimate film, where Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward find their quiet suburban lives upended by the arrival of an army missile base. And in a gorgeous restoration from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the director returns to his boxing roots and teams with fellow Roach graduate Lloyd for The Milky Way.

Also airing is the Library of Congress’s new scan of the rarely seen 130-minute cut of Good Sam, which differs quite a bit from the 112-minute version in wider circulation. But Gary Cooper’s saintliness and wife Ann Sheridan’s exasperation are still pushed to their limits as every freeloader in town takes advantage of his kindness and generosity—giving the film a bit of a subversive “no good deed unpunished” edge.

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Good Sam is another great portrait of marriage,” said Kehr. “With the brother and the kids and the house falling apart, they’re trying to get one night together. The unmistakable desire they have for each other, it’s not very 1948.”

But it’s very McCarey. Other directors may serve up more self-important film school fodder, but his unpretentious, deeply personal movies are the ones you live with. Is there anyone who’s seen The Awful Truth or The Bells of St. Mary’s just once?

“He had an amazing ability to communicate emotion, which is what other artists like Renoir admired about him,” Kehr said. “But it seems as if everything he represents has vanished from contemporary film.” For 17 glorious days this month, MoMA’s bringing it all back.

“I love when people laugh, I love when they cry, I like a story to say something, and I hope the audience feels happier leaving the theatre than when it came in,”McCarey once said. “It’s larceny to remind people of how lousy things are and call it entertainment.”

(For the complete series schedule click here.)

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THE NITRATE PICTURE SHOW: When the Screen Glistened with Real Silver

There’s a reason they call it the Silver Screen.

In the early days, reels of nitrate film contained actual silver. Most of these precious spools were melted down by studios for their metal content or neglected until they turned to dust, liquefied or burned in warehouse fires.

But not all are lost—and earlier this month, the passionate film-preservation team at the George Eastman Museum painstakingly culled prints from archives around the world for the second Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester, New York.

Sneaking away for a brief weekend, I rode past the sprawling old mansions on East Avenue, slid into my seat at the Dryden Theater, and slipped into silvery heaven. Suddenly I was no longer covering classic movies—I was actually back there, when they were new.

And gorgeous.

This year’s offerings included Otto Preminger’s Laura, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, John Boulting’s Brighton Rock, George Sidney’s Annie Get Your Gun, the Library of Congress’s print of Powell-Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann, Martin Scorsese’s personal copy of David Lean’s Blithe Spirit

…and Jean Negulesco’s noir classic, Road House. Because waking up to Richard Widmark at 10:00 on Sunday morning is my idea of church. Even if he is vaguely homicidal. In this typically stunning nitrate print, when he was lurking in the background as Ida Lupino purred her smoky vocals, he actually was in the background, so multi-layered and deep were the images.

The final film of the weekend—the Blind Date with Nitrate, not revealed until it appeared onscreen—was Edwin Carewe’s 1928 version of Ramona , starring Dolores del Rio as the put-upon heroine and Warner Baxter as the head of a Native American sheep shearing team. (I kept waiting for him to say, “You’re going to go out there a lowly sheep shearer, but you’ve got to come back a star!”) Del Rio was at her most luminous, and the print reflected the kind of yeoman’s effort the Eastman staff puts into tracking down films: it was a German copy of an American movie unearthed from a Russian archive, where it had resided since Soviet film scholar Georgii Avenarius brought it home as a “trophy” after World War II.

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Before I headed home, projectionist Ben Tucker gave me a tour of the booth, which is clearly his second home. The closed-head projectors—which keep the film safely tucked inside—were installed when the theatre opened in 1951; valves and shutters protect the highly flammable nitrate reels from the hot beams of light that could ignite them if they stop rolling for even a second. “If the film so much as slows down, I have to flip a dowel to cut off the heat source,” Tucker said, shuddering at the prospect.

That love of film and the deep desire to protect it ran through the whole weekend like a gentle but constantly humming current. This may be the most civilized film festival I’ve ever attended—but not in a raised-pinky sort of way. There was no pushing, no shoving, no “look at me” types, no rushing around. It was like wandering into a big old house on a hill after a long journey, and discovering hundreds of people from all over the world who are of like mind and heart. You may never have been here before, but you’re home.

And no one is trying to sell you anything—though the museum does have a gift shop full of film fare at much-too-tempting prices. (When I teased her about the store being dangerous, the checkout woman said, “I know! I think the only reason they keep me on staff is because I buy so much!”)

The one troubling aspect of the whole festival? There’s no “Annual” in its name. It’s like falling in love on a first date and then agonizing over whether he’s going to call you again.

But mercifully, they’ve already announced that the third Nitrate Picture Show will be held next year on May 5th through 7th.

See you there.

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When Richard Widmark Hugs You, You Stay Hugged

Back in the spring of 2001, the Walter Reade Theatre had a retrospective of Richard Widmark films, with a special—to put it mildly—appearance by the man himself, who was then 86.

I had loved Richard Widmark since I was a kid, when I saw him in Don’t Bother to Knock. He seemed like a bit of a heel at first, but there was something about him—something that told me a very fragile, deeply disturbed Marilyn Monroe would be safe with him. (She was—on and off the screen.) I hadn’t yet seen him push Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs in her wheelchair—which, he once recalled, was the first scene he ever shot on film after making the move from Broadway to Hollywood. (“I said to Henry Hathaway, ‘You want me to do what?'”) But by then I already adored him. (Poor Tommy Udo, I thought—so misunderstood!)

So off I went to the theatre, clutching my then-fiancé (now long-suffering husband) Tim with one hand and my fan letter with the other. It went on for about four pages but mostly said “I LOVE YOUUUUUUUUUUU!” (It was all very sophisticated, I tells ya.)

We got there nice and early and sat right on the aisle; I figured when he passed by on his way to the stage, I could give the letter to him or whoever was with him. In my excitement, it took a while for it to dawn on me that—duh—there’s an aisle on either side of the theatre, and he could just as easily go up the other one.

So I scrambled to the lobby to give the letter to somebody, anybody. But then—wham bang sigh faint—there he was. Fans were sort of swarming him. One galoot ran up, stood next to him, handed his friend a camera for a picture, and then scampered away, without saying a word. Like he was posing next to Stonehenge instead of an actual human being. Others were kind of chewing his ear off and monopolizing him, but he was very gracious about it, nodding, smiling, not getting a word in, not seeming to mind. He was clearly used to it, God help him. Most of them looked kind of like this (and yes, some actual berets were present):

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One especially gaseous fan (I’m sure he’d prefer cinephile) asked a question that seemed designed to cram everything he knew about film into one five-minute ramble, which boiled down to, “Why didn’t you ever direct?” After seeming a little startled that the guy had actually stopped talking, Widmark smiled, trained his clear-eyed gaze on him, and answered in eight words: “I didn’t want to get up that early.”

Sensing he was just about ready to bolt, I started to panic. My usual instinct in these situations is to flee, ceding the floor to the pushy, squeaky wheels. But not this time. I had to give him that letter. So I sort of wriggled into the crowd, and suddenly there he was, right in front of me, beaming a lovely smile, his blue-gray eyes sparkling. I handed him the letter and said something like, “Mr. Widmark, I knew you’d be very busy with everyone wanting to see you, so I just wrote a few things down, to say how much you mean to me.” Only I think it sounded more like, “Aaaaauuuughoooouuuhhaaaaahuuuuuhooooh.”

And he stepped forward out of the horde and hugged me hard and said, “That’s wonderful!” A warm wave of current swept through me, short-circuiting my limbs and making me so wobbly I was sort of weaving. Hoping I could make a semi-graceful exit that wouldn’t leave me in a heap on the sticky lobby floor, I said thank you or I love you or something and staggered back to my seat, cursing my knees for lack of support.

Tim took one look at me and said dryly, “I guess you found him.”

About a week later, I opened my mailbox to find a lovely cream-colored letter, in gorgeous, exuberant handwriting, postmarked Roxbury, Connecticut, where I knew he lived. I leaned against the wall in the lobby, held my breath, and opened it. It was from him. I slid down the wall and sat on the floor, and my neighbors, coming home from work, were like, “Uh, are you okay? Should we call someone?” I was fine. Beyond fine. In the letter, he thanked me for my very kind (underlined) words. And I thought, no, not kind. Just true. And not nearly enough words to describe how wonderful he was.

While writing this tonight, I looked up the dates for that film festival; the night we saw Richard Widmark was the first Saturday of the series. It was May 19. Exactly 15 years ago today.

It seems this man will never stop giving me chills.

P.S.: I have stayed hugged.sis-rw-18

This article is part of the Classic Movie Ice Cream Social, hosted by the fabulous Fritzi at Movies Silently, where we were asked to share happy movie memories! For the rest of the articles, just click here

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