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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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Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies: Nuttier Than a Screwball Comedy!

Katharine Hepburn. Even when she insulted you, something good came out of it.

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Back in the 1970s, Kate befriended a young Manhattan neighbor at the urgent request of her father. It seems the girl was threatening to drop out of Bryn Mawr, Kate’s alma mater, and her frantic dad wrote to Kate—whom he’d seen but never met—to talk some good old New England sense into the child. (Needless to say, she did, over tea.) The four-time Oscar winner and the family soon became friendly, and years later, when Kate was injured in a car accident, the father dropped by with a batch of home-made brownies.

Miss Hepburn was not amused.

Oh, sure, she was grateful for the gesture, but she balked at the brownies: “Too much flour! And don’t overbake them! They should be moist, not cakey.”  Then she rattled off her own recipe by heart, while her chastened guest took notes.

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Here are Kate’s brownies, which, as you might expect, are pretty much perfect. They’re loaded with nuts, and the liquid-to-flour ratio gives them an extremely high Gooey Factor, which all good brownies should have. (Whenever I see a recipe with the line, “for cakier brownies…” I don’t even finish the sentence. If you want cakey, bake a freaking cake.)

KATHARINE HEPBURN’S BROWNIES

1 stick butter

1/2 cup cocoa

2 eggs

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup flour

1 cup walnuts or pecans, broken into pieces

1 teaspoon vanilla

A pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Melt the butter in a saucepan with the cocoa and stir until smooth, being careful not to overcook. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes. Gently fold in the eggs, one at a time. Stir in the sugar, flour, nuts, vanilla and salt. Pour into a greased 8×8 pan. Bake 35-40 minutes; check with a toothpick after 35. They should still be gooey when they’re done. Let cool (a must!) before slicing.

Enjoy! And don’t look now but you’ve got a little chocolate on your chin…

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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 Un-Chilly Elegance of Frieda Inescort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Reel Infatuation: Rod Taylor in SUNDAY IN NEW YORK

Ladies! Traveling around New York, you’re likely to run into all kinds of guys. Take, for instance, the manspreader: Not even Dame Helen Mirren was safe from him. And The Nicest Man in America™ actually was him.

Then there’s Oscar Shapeley, who’s certain your emphatic rejections are just a playful way of heightening the romantic tension before your unconditional surrender.  (I was recently stuck next to this guy on a trip to Rochester. As he was finally getting off the train in Rome, NY, he leaned in and grinned, “Would you like me to take you to Rome?!?” And then he laughed so hard a bit of gack flew out of his mouth. Because it was literally the funniest thing anyone has ever said.)

There’s also the out-and-out perv, who makes you long for the subtle, sophisticated stylings of Mr. Shapeley. And the guy who seems to have last enjoyed the thrill of bathing sometime during the Carter administration. And the one who’s wolfed down so much garlic he’s travel-banned in Transylvania.

But sadly—tragically, even—you know who you’re never gonna run into?

This guy.

Remember when you’d sit around with your friends, imagining the perfect guy? Kind and decent, but not dull. Strong, but not overbearing. Smart, but not show-offy. Funny, but not a loudmouth. Protective, but not condescending. Exciting, but not dangerous. Gorgeous, but not vain. Is that so much to ask?!?

Not for Rod Taylor it isn’t.

In Sunday in New York, he slips easily into the role of Mike Mitchell, a music writer on a day trip to the city. Who hooks up, literally, with Eileen Tyler (Jane Fonda) on a crosstown bus, when her boutonniere gets snagged on his jacket. She should have that thing bronzed.

After an awkward parting and a fateful reunion—there’s that bus again!—they’re caught in a downpour and run for shelter.

Eileen is in town visiting her big brother Adam (Cliff Robertson), seeking sanctuary after her frustrated fiancé (Robert Culp) cools on her for not sleeping with him. Adam dutifully encourages her to remain chaste—and swears on his “sacred honor” he’s doing the same. But when she discovers a black negligee hanging in his closet, all bets, sacred or otherwise, are off.

And there sits this man. Good God. Could anyone blame her for deciding it’s time to jump in? Still, she’s a bit clumsy and naive, and Mike soon realizes she’s doing what she thinks she should be doing, not what she is comfortable doing—or has ever done before.

All her quirks and fears and vulnerabilities are flung out there like that ratty blue robe she pretends is her mother’s, to ward off predatory males. But he doesn’t pounce on them, or mock them. He loves them. He loves her. He honors her. And protects her, even from himself.

And when they argue over shifting sexual morés, he clearly relishes batting it back and forth with her. Yes—gasp—he even loves her mind!

Mike Mitchell is pretty much the perfect man: strong, smart, funny, gorgeous and insanely honorable. For me, the movie’s only false note was that he had a sometime girlfriend back in Philly who would let him stray beyond a three-foot radius.

I had been hounding TCM to show Sunday in New York since they started their festival. So when they finally did, in 2014, I was there before the doors opened, like the people who camp out overnight for the latest iPhone except this was for something important.

My friends Kay and Kathy arrived soon after—and the daylight pajama party was on! We’d just spent three days staring at screens, scarfing down all manner of sugary sin, and sleeping only at the odd moment there wasn’t a movie playing somewhere. As we waited for the house lights to dim, we gave in to our giddiness—hugging, swaying, and belting out the film’s signature tunes: “New York on Sundaaaay… big city takin’ a nap… Hellooo… what sweet magic brought you my wayyy…” Somewhere back east, Peter Nero’s ears were ringing. Or bleeding.

The woman sitting behind me huffed so hard she blew my hair off my neck: “I hope you’re not going to be doing that during the movie!” This to someone who’d rather streak through Holy Communion than talk in a darkened theater. But in the last scene, when Rod is gazing up at Jane, hugging the world’s luckiest pillow, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I sighed. Out loud. And yup, she shushed me, complete with spittle.

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Later that spring, Kay and I had Sunday brunch at the restaurant where Eileen and Mike go to haggle over the cost of mending his jacket. Now the Rock Center Café, it looks much as it did more than a half-century ago. “Oh my God, this is the door where they went in!” I sputtered as I wobbled up the steps.

From everything I’ve seen and read of him, I’ve always had the feeling that playing the perfect man was not much of a stretch for Rod Taylor. There’s a reason he could do it without a molecule of effort.

In 1963, when Sunday in New York was made, Fonda was still finding her way out from under her father’s shadow, deeply insecure, and battling bulimia. She has said that working with Taylor was the first time she enjoyed making a movie or dared to believe she could really act.

“Jane and I got on so beautifully, and we never stopped laughing, on screen, off screen, just laughing all the time,” Taylor also recalled. “And shooting in New York… that was fantastic, cops stopping traffic, and everybody going ‘Ooh, ahh!’ when I kissed Jane… just a wonderful experience!”

He even managed to make Tippi Hedren’s nightmarish stint on The Birds bearable. “Rod was a great pal to me and a real strength. We were very, very good friends,” she said. ‘He was one of the most fun people I have ever met, thoughtful and classy. There was everything good in that man.”

Here’s a more modest take, from the man himself: “Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter were very pretty fellows, and that was the trend. I was one of the first of the uglies to get lucky… I wasn’t good-looking enough to really pull off some of the roles that I was put into!”

Rod Taylor died just a few months after the Sunday in New York screening at TCM, and I haven’t been able to watch it since. You know that wonderful feeling of seeing someone you love on the screen and knowing they’re still out there somewhere? And then suddenly they’re gone, and that feeling is even more horrible than the other feeling was good? With Rod Taylor, I’m still working through that.

But ladies, if you haven’t seen this movie, you must. And guys, watch it and make mental notes—kind of the way I do when I see Edith Cortwright in Dodsworth. Because that’s the thing about old movies: They give us something to shoot for.

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This article is included in the Reel Infatuation blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Font and Frock. For more, click here!

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BRIEF ENCOUNTER: The Rain, the Sane, And Mainly Lots of Pain

When I was invited to join the “April Showers” celebration of rainy movie scenes, the first one that came to mind wasn’t something like this…

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or this…

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or this.

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You see, I’m Irish. So of course I thought of this doomed, guilt-ridden duo.

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The scene in Brief Encounter where Laura (Celia Johnson) tears through the wet streets after getting caught with Alec (Trevor Howard) is the flip side of every rain-drenched romantic scene ever filmed. Because this isn’t romance—it’s love. Sacred, fierce and terrifying, an untold blessing and an unholy mess.

“I’m an ordinary woman,” Laura says early on. “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.”

And yet here she is, fleeing a stranger’s flat, where she’d gone to meet a man who was a stranger only weeks before.

After bolting from the safety of her homeward-bound train at the last second, Laura rushes to meet Alec at his friend Stephen’s apartment, where he stays every Thursday while working at the hospital. But when they hear Stephen’s key in the latch—he’s home early, with a nasty cold—Laura hurries out the back way, down the tradesman’s staircase.

Stephen (Valentine Dyall) hears the scuffling—and, smugly sizing up the scene, picks up the scarf Laura left behind, letting it dangle from his fingers. “This is a service flat… it caters to all tastes,” he smirks, all but oozing a trail of slime across the carpet. “You know Alec, you have hidden depths I hadn’t suspected…”

Laura, meanwhile, is flying through the strange streets in the middle of a downpour, heading anywhere at all as long as it’s away. (“I felt humiliated and defeated and so dreadfully ashamed…”)

Finally,  too tired to keep running but in no shape to go home, she huddles into a callbox at a tobacco shop and concocts a story for her husband, with a quick-witted nimbleness that appalls her. (“It’s awfully easy to lie when you know that you’re trusted implicitly. So very easy, and so very degrading.”)

Wandering back out into the night, she takes refuge on a park bench, where she lights a post-non-coital cigarette and—thinking of her husband—feels ashamed even for doing that. (“There was nobody about… I know how you disapprove of women smoking in the street… I do too really but I wanted to calm my nerves, and I thought it might help.”)

But her guilt is just getting started: “I sat there for ages, I don’t know how long. Then I noticed a policeman walking up and down a little way off. He was looking at me rather suspiciously…”

When he approaches, it’s clear he’s just concerned: “Feeling all right, Miss? Waiting for someone? Don’t go and catch cold now… it’s a damp night for sitting about on seats!”

She assures him she’s fine, and was just about to get up to catch a train.

“I walked away, trying to look casual, knowing that he was watching me.”

“I felt like a criminal.”

And in this grim, rainy scene, Robert Krasker shot her like one. The cinematographer (who also teamed with David Lean on Odd Man Out and won an Oscar for The Third Man) shadows Laura up and down the dark streets like her own accusing heart. And in the callbox, as she lies to her trusting husband, she’s set in stark, near-black relief against the bright lights of the cheery shop on the other side of the glass. Any shlub with a camera could conjure noir out of guiltless sex, but only a genius could find it in sexless guilt.

(P.S.: If you crave a bit of Noel Coward where the illicit lovers really let their id flags fly, get hold of The Astonished Heart, also starring Celia Johnson, but this time as the betrayed wife. It’s enough to convince you that, however frustrated they might have ended up, Laura and Alec got it right.)

This article was written for the April Showers blogathon, hosted by the fabulous Steve at Movie Movie Blog Blog. For more, click here

 

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Remembering Billy Chapin, Who Saw Us Through THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER

More than half a century after shielding his little sister through the most monstrous night of their lives, John Harper left the world on her birthday.

Billy Chapin—who, as John, all but carried The Night of the Hunter on his slight shoulders—died on December 2, the day Sally Jane Bruce, who played Pearl, turned 68.

nightofthehunter-59From the moment we meet him, it’s clear John Harper is an old soul, something his father Ben—a robber with a bullet in his shoulder and the law fast on his heels—is counting on. He stuffs $10,000 in stolen cash into Pearl’s doll and entrusts both the girl and the money to her brother:

Ben: Listen to me, son, you gotta swear. Swear means promise. First, swear you’ll take care of little Pearl, guard her with your life, boy. Then swear you won’t never tell where the money’s hid, not even your Mom.
John: Yes Dad.
Ben: Do you understand?
John: Not even her?
Ben: You got common sense. She ain’t. When you grow up, that money’ll belong to you. Now stand up straight, look me in the eye. Raise your right hand. Now swear, “I’ll guard Pearl with my life.”
John: I will guard Pearl with my life.
Ben: And I won’t never tell about the money.
John: And I won’t never tell about the money.

Seconds after he gravely recites his vow, John is suddenly a child again for one brief, awful moment—almost doubling over in agony.as his father is knocked to the ground and dragged away in handcuffs.

But then he sets out to keep his promise, against what turn out to be nightmarish odds.

After Ben is hanged, his former cellmate—a self-styled preacher named Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum)—follows the missing money straight to John’s front door, quickly courting and winning his gullible mother, Willa (Shelley Winters) and his trusting sister—but never John, who realizes he must now try to protect not only Pearl but Willa as well.

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nightofthehunter-51Normally you wouldn’t give much for the chances of an 11-year-old boy against a six-foot-one psychopath—or for the chances of a child actor against the outsize Mitchum, in his best (and favorite) role. But even as Mitchum looms over him, swallowing him in his shadow, Chapin holds his own, and the screen. He conveys the deep seriousness of a child forced to grow up, or at least try to, in a matter of minutes, but he’s still so vulnerable it hurts. He pulls you so hard into his terrifying world that even if you’ve seen the film before, you’re knotted up in fear every time you watch it.

At first, Powell tries to cajole the children into confiding in him about the hidden money. He’s so unnervingly persistent that even John—who’s developed more cunning than any child should have to—blurts out more than he ought:

John: You ain’t my Dad! You’ll never be my Dad!
Powell: When we get back, we’re all going to be friends and share our fortunes together, John.
John: (screaming) You think you can make me tell, but I won’t, I won’t, I won’t!

Horrified by the lapse in his defenses, he slaps his hand over his mouth to keep from revealing anything more. But it’s already too late: Powell now knows the money is somewhere in the house—and John knows where it is.

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At this point, the hapless Willa is dispensible to her husband. After she disappears under the water, her throat slit wide and her blonde hair swaying like sea grass, John and Pearl are at the preacher’s mercy. And he hasn’t any.

Powell convinces the neighbors that Willa ran off with another man, but John knows better. And when the preacher hauls them to the table for another grilling about the money, John, his jaw set firm, all but wills Pearl to keep her mouth shut. But when she’s badgered to the point of tears, he can’t bear it. Playing for time, he says the money is buried under a stone in the fruit cellar. Powell grabs a candle and marches them downstairs ahead of him—only to discover the floor is solid concrete. Enraged, he throws John across a barrel and holds a switchblade to his throat: “The liar is an abomination before thine eyes!”

Terrified for her brother, Pearl screams, “It’s in my doll, it’s in my doll!” The preacher rears back and laughs, “The doll—why sure, the last place anyone would think to look!” Seizing on the brief distraction, John snuffs out the candle and knocks a shelf of preserves onto Powell’s head. Then he grabs Pearl, who’s clutching her doll, and pulls her up the stairs and out into the night.

In one of the most terrifying odysseys ever set to film, they run for the river, where John hopes to get help from his friend Birdie, who doesn’t trust Powell either. But after stumbling across Willa’s body while fishing, he’s drunk himself into oblivion in the barge house. (Moral of the movie so far: grown-ups are either useless or lethal.) With the preacher in pursuit, John drags out his father’s old skiff, shoves it off the shore and sets out with Pearl for… anywhere, as long as it puts distance between them and their homicidal hunter. And just as he pushes off, Powell plunges into the river, knife raised, letting go an ungodly shriek as his prey flee to the safety of the open water.

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The river is their sanctuary, and for a few days they follow the currents, ever farther from what was once home, foraging or begging for food by the water’s edge and sleeping wherever they can, surrounded by nature both ominous and soothing. Some creatures are as vulnerable as they are, others are plotting a kill.

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Finally, exhausted and hoping to find a soft place for the restless Pearl to lay her head, John steers the boat to shore, toward an old barn with an open hayloft. But just as he’s about to set his bone-weary body down, he hears the preacher hymn-singin’ in the distance, as the horse he stole lopes lazily along; he can take his time, he’ll catch up with them eventually. And with a mix of horror and heartsick resignation, John half-whispers:

“Don’t he never sleep?”

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He quickly wakes his sister, bundles her back into the boat, and they return to the river. As the sun rises, their skiff drifts ashore, its young-but-old oarsman barely conscious and his sister fast asleep. They wake to see a wiry old woman hovering over them. “You two youngsters get up here to me this minute! Get on up to my house! Mind me now, I’ll get my switch!” Miss Cooper (Lillian Gish) barks. She’s already got a house full of cast-off children, and now “two more mouths to feed.”

Pearl takes to her immediately, but the battleworn John is still wary, and who can blame him? Still, she’ll turn out to be his savior—no man is a match for a Gish with a gun—and when she dispatches the preacher—who comes to claim “his children”—to the state troopers, John can almost believe he’s home at last. At Christmas, with no money or gift to give, he wraps an apple in a lace doily and shyly hands it to Miss Cooper. “That’s the richest gift a body could have,” she tells him, and he beams back at her. Now John is not only safe, but knows he’s safe. At last he, and we, can breathe.

About 10 or so years ago, UCLA devoted a special evening to The Night of the Hunter, including a panel hosted by Preston Neal Jones, author of Heaven & Hell to Play With, an oral history of the film. During the Q&A that followed, an audience member asked if anyone knew where the extraordinary Billy Chapin had disappeared to. Turns out he was in the audience. When Jones pointed him out, he stood briefly, acknowledged the waves of applause, and quickly slid back into his seat while everyone else was still standing, eager to escape the gaze of the crowd, however much affection it held for him.

You can only wonder how Chapin felt that night, seeing the boy up there on the screen, brutally robbed of his youth and almost his life. Like John Harper, his childhood was short-circuited, though in somewhat less monstrous fashion. He’d been acting almost since the day he was born—that’s him as the baby girl in Casanova Brown—but made just one more film after The Night of the Hunter, then did some television and fled the business at 15. Scant information is available after that, other than hints at a “troubled”life. He never talked publicly about his work, and in the acknowledgements for his book, Jones said Chapin “gave the project his blessing, although for personal reasons he was unable to participate.”

I hope when he returned home from UCLA that night, in the stillness of his solitude, he was able to realize how much he meant to people. And I wish, like John Harper, he could have found safe harbor. We all need a Miss Cooper. I wish, somewhere in this cold world, Billy Chapin had found his.

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Billy’s real-life little sister, former child actress Lauren Chapin, has started a Go Fund Me campaign with the modest goal of $2,000, to pay for his memorial. If his performance in The Night of the Hunter is seared on your heart as well, or his splendid work in other films has moved you, now is your chance to give something back to him. Please consider donating if you have the means; to learn more, please click here for details.

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TINTYPE TUESDAY: The Ever-Elegant Boris Karloff—And His Secret Ingredient for Guacamole

Welcome to another edition of TINTYPE TUESDAY!

Regular readers may recall just how very un-monstrous Boris Karloff was offscreen, visiting children’s hospitals to play Santa Claus and read bedtime stories—and even charming the little girl who played Maria in Frankenstein while bolted into full makeup. But can we talk for a minute about how insanely elegant he was?

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He was the kind of guy who’d put sherry in his guacamole.

No really. I have proof.

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Notice the cayenne is optional. The sherry isn’t.

And while most of us have to shlep to the grocer’s to make “avocado sauce”—and props to the reporter for describing guacamole as if it were an alien life form—Boris only had to head out to the backyard. He’d transformed his Beverly Hills estate into an earthly paradise—a sprawling, formal lawn ringed by lush flower beds and orchards dripping with oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, plums, peaches and yes, avocados. The only thing missing from his Eden were the apples and the snakes. And he tended his garden lovingly, every day, no matter what else he had going on.

“I’ll never forget, before we worked together in The Mask of Fu Manchu, during the summer we had a terrible drought,” co-star Charles Starrett once recalled. “Boris was making Frankenstein, and I lived above him in Coldwater Canyon. One evening, I was driving home when I suddenly nearly drove my car into a ditch—there in the beautiful garden was The Monster himself, tenderly watering the roses. Boris was such a dedicated gardener, he was afraid he’d lose the roses to the heat, so he rushed home without taking off his makeup to catch them at sundown, the best time for watering. It was quite a sight…”

His garden was such a heaven on earth that some of his friends longed to spend eternity there. “They loved to wander through the garden with Boris while he worked on it—they’d talk about their old times in the theatre,” remembered Karloff’s fourth wife, Dorothy. “They were very dependent on him when they were alive, and they loved the garden. That’s the way they wanted it—to be in a place they loved and to be near him… he felt it was his responsibility to do as they wished.”

Thus it came to be that the cremated remains of several of Boris’s oldest friends were buried among the roses behind his farmhouse. But Los Angeles real estate being what it is, a later owner subdivided the sacred space. Grieved Dorothy, “Pity they had to build all those ugly houses on top of them.”

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

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Auntie Joan (Crawford) Explains It All for You!

Don’t say nothin’ bad about my Joanie.

Not long ago, in need of a tonic on a stifling summer day, I reread the closest thing we have to her autobiography, the wildly entertaining Joan Crawford: My Way of Life. On the cover, firmly gripping her pair of poodles, she looks like a terrified hostage trying to blink out a message to the cops. But the book itself is much more chipper, opening in her East Side penthouse:

“My home and my office are combined on a high floor of a Manhattan apartment house that has a cheerful California feeling about it, even in the winter. I get the first rays of the morning sun rising over the East River and, smog permitting, the last lovely colors of the sunset somewhere behind the Hudson. There are two small terraces where I try to keep some shrubbery going, and which my toy poodles adore, and I keep the rooms filled with plants and flowers. Even my dresses swarm with flowers. I have a bird’s eye view of the world here, and a bird’s sense of freedom. I have the same sense of excitement about the next adventure that I had when I was sixteen. And I’m sure I’ll never lose it.”

“All my nostalgia is for tomorrow—not for any yesterdays,” she tells us—and maybe she protests a little too much. But she’s trying, dammit—and Joan is all about the striving: “With a little organization, a woman can excel as a wife, a homemaker, mother, career woman and gracious hostess, be lovely to look at and be with—and still have time left over to be a good friend to a lot of people!”

For the love of God, ladies, don’t try this at home. Joan was pretty much the most organized woman on the face of the earth—a deeply unsettling childhood can send you hurtling in that direction—and even she bombed at some of these things.

Joan herself once admitted the book was a bit much. “I’m a God-damned image, not a person, and the poor girl who worked on it had to write about the image,” she confessed. “It must have been terrible for her. She would have been better off with Lassie.” (Am I the only one who just pictured Joan rescuing little Timmy from a well? And she would have done it in pearls and pumps, I tell ya!)

But not everything in the book is over the top, and, like your doting, slightly dotty aunt from Scarsdale who gives you aspic forks as a wedding gift, Joan always means well. Here’s a sampling of her advice: the good, the bad, and the—let’s face it—just plain odd.

The Good:

“I’ve persuaded myself that I hate things that are bad for me—fattening foods, late nights and loud, aggressive people head the list.” This is kinda genius. I’m off to shoot daggers at the brownies in the kitchen. (Though I bought them at a church bake sale, so I may have to go to confession later.)

“I never got over the idea that being on time was important.” Oh yeah, baby! “I am always on the set early,” she says. “When they ask me why I say, ‘I’m afraid you’ll start without me! Or replace me!'” She’s quick to say she’s joking, but I’ll bet she never entirely got over that feeling.

“Conquering fears, whatever they may be, opens life up.” Joan, for instance, was terrified of public speaking, flying, and horses, but made peace with them by learning more about them and facing down her anxieties. Granted, not all of us could vanquish our fear of horses by buying a fleet of polo ponies, but you get the idea.

“Before I go to bed at night, I make a little schedule for the next day.” She says her secretaries had to keep retyping her three-month calendar as she packed more and more into it. (Remember “retyping”?) Her New York assistant, Betty Barker, joined her staff in 1938, after working for Howard Hughes, and had plenty of options if she wanted to bolt. So much for Joan being impossible to work with.

“In marriage, be a giver, not a taker.” Some may scoff at taking marriage advice from someone who made four trips down the aisle. But they’re just the people you should listen to: “People talk about what they want out of marriage. They should think about what you have to put into it. It’s worth every bit of love and protection and unselfishness you can muster up. And believe me, you can muster up much more than you thought you could before you were married.”

“No experience has ever made me bitter—or ever will.” That’s a bit hard to believe—she’s Joan Crawford, not Joan of Arc—but I think she means she didn’t stay bitter. After all, she kept up lifelong friendships with two of her ex-husbands, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Franchot Tone, even caring for Tone in her own home during the last months of his life. “When one lives with bitterness, it shows in the face, and it’s pathetic,” she says. “The softness goes out of the eyes. The body is stooped. Bitterness and self-pity are deadly poisons that can’t be hidden. They seem to exude from the pores.”

I think we can all relate to this, though perhaps on a humbler scale than La Crawford. In my case, there’s a clique of movie bloggers I call The Mean Girls (though one’s a guy) who are downright nasty to me; sadly, a few live nearby and I run into them once in a while. They’re all very chatty face to face, but what they say behind my back could curdle your custard. (Does that stuff ever not get back to people?) But since starting this site, I’ve met, in person and online, so many kindred spirits, they offset the mean ones a hundredfold. I’ll give Joan the last word: “You can’t be a giver if you’re bitter.”

Even in her infamous feud with Bette Davis, it always felt like most of the real rancor was coming from the other side of the fence. Joan seemed like the underdog, outgunned by Bette’s acid-laced attacks, which must have brought back horrid memories of childhood bullies:

“I worked my way through two private schools washing dishes, cooking for the entire establishment, making beds, waiting on tables—and trying to get some studying done in between. In the second school I was the only helper in a fourteen-room house accommodating thirty students and, in true Dickensian fashion, I was thrown down the stairs and beaten with a broom handle… that school didn’t teach me much out of books, but it certainly taught me to be self-sufficient, and I’ve never regretted it.” How many of us could glean a positive life lesson—or even pretend to—from being beaten and thrown down stairs? (And yes, those nightmarish years fueled an obsession with cleanliness and order, but that’s been dissected to bits all over the place.)

“I abhor dropper-inners.” Yes. Do not be one of these creatures! (Though nowadays it’s rare enough to get a real phone call, let alone a visitor.) Poor Joan recounts the time when not one but three dropper-inners descended on her New York flat, when she was wearing just “a simple cotton shift and very little makeup.” But our girl sprung into action: “I had to abandon everything, quickly run into my dressing room, get into a lovely dress I had bought in Canada, put on lipstick and tidy my hair.” (I know just how she feels: a while back, I was reading in bed in a teeshirt and skivvies when suddenly—horrors!—there was a knock at the door. I had to put on pants. I still shudder at the memory.)

Always pack in daylight. “In artificial light when I’m in a hurry it’s too easy to grab the wrong accessories and find myself in Kansas City or San Juan with a hot pink dress and a shocking pink hat—and that’s a catastrophe. Catastrophe. Oh my God.

For Joan, though, just getting her headgear out the door sounded like a job for the Navy SEALs: “My hats are stuffed with tissue, encased in plastic bags, and packed into large black drums that hold perhaps a dozen—drums about three feet high and almost too wide to get through the door of my apartment or into a car. But we always manage. And there is just no other way to transport lovely hats.” She once traveled to London with 37 suitcases. To film Trog.

And here’s a tip from Sister Celluloid: it’s also best to put on your makeup in natural light. In our house and maybe yours, there’s lots of “soft” lighting, which can make you look a helluva lot better than you really do—leading to something of a shock when you’re out from under its glow. (“But damn, I looked so good in the bathroom!”)

Joan’s five rules of thumb for choosing clothes. 1) Find your own style and have the courage to stick to it. 2) Choose your clothes for your way of life. 3) Make your wardrobe as versatile as an actress. It should be able to play many roles. 4) Find your happiest colors—the ones that make you feel good. 5) Care for your clothes like the good friends they are.

“A dress of the wrong shade will bring out sallowness, highlight blemishes, and add years to a woman’s face. It will make her look hard.” Preach it, Aunt Joan! I once fell in love with a gorgeous dress in a kind of mustardy yellow, and wore it to lunch with a friend—who said, before I even sat down, “Are you okay? You look ill.” And he kept at it all through the meal. (“Really? You’re sure you’re fine?”) When I got home, I took a better look in the mirror than I had before I left the house. It was the dress. I’m pale as milk—so much so that the muddy yellow in the dress reflected on my face. I looked like I’d been on a bender since 1962. Luckily, an olive-toned friend looked great in it.

The Bad:

“Once girls get themselves married, they forget romance—and that’s when the flirting should really begin. If you want to keep your husband, that is. A lot of other women are flirting with him and flattering him—you can depend on that.” Okay whoa. This reminds me of that noxious little ditty from the ’60s, Wives and Lovers. When Jack Jones starts crooning, “Hey, little girl, comb your hair, fix your makeup…” I want to scream, “Hey, little man, feck off!”

Of course everyone should keep kindling the romantic fires and making that extra effort after marriage. But Joan’s advice is a bit one-sided…  and the idea that the minute you let your lipstick fade, your husband is going to hop into bed with some cutie from the office is downright creepy. And it’s disappointingly dated, coming from a woman who always seemed so far ahead of the curve.

“Don’t buy a dress until you can afford all the right accessories and have a hat made to match.”  Okay so most of us will go around wearing barrels for the rest of our lives.

“Pants are probably here to stay. But they shouldn’t stay long on anyone but the most lithe and slim-hipped.” The next sound you’d hear would be most of my clothes hitting the charity bins.

“A busy woman can’t spend whole days in front of mirrors, but she ought to have them all over the house (which improves the décor too) and make a point of glancing at herself every time she passes one.” Oh dear God no. Including to the décor part. It would be like living in a giant ladies’ room.

The Odd:        

Her “dangerous” foods. “Here are a few items no dieter should ever have in the house: peas, lima beans, avocados, olives, dried beans, corn, butter, most cheese, fatty meats, sugar, chocolate, potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, and creamed soups. The list could go on for another page or two, but any intelligent woman knows the dangerous foods.”

Butter, cheese, meats, sugar—check. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone demonize the sainted avocado. And peas, beans and olives? What did they ever do to hurt anyone?

Meanwhile, her chapter on entertaining contains enough bacon, meatballs, fried chicken, sausage, salami, steak, butter and mayo to choke a horse. I guess the best way to stay slim is to fob off all that stuff on your unsuspecting guests.

“Bedrooms should be very feminine.” Joan says “men feel much more masculine walking from a brown or green dressing room into a lovely feminine bedroom.” I polled my husband and a few male friends on this one. The consensus? Five said no, with any number of ribald expletives thrown in for good measure, and one spewed coffee out of his nose. And none could recall having a dressing room—brown, green or otherwise.

“A turquoise necklace with amethyst earrings is a crime.” Not a fashion misstep, mind you. A crime. I love this woman. (And let me confess that I have a necklace with both amethyst and turquoise stones in it. But please don’t turn me in—my dear old Ma depends on me!)

“Sit on hard chairs—soft ones spread the hips.” I’m pretty sure this is an old wives’ tale. Old wives who were really cranky and crying out for cushions.

Use every free second to exercise. Joan was always in wicked-good shape, so it’s hard to quibble with her on this one. But she goes on for pages and pages about working exercise into pretty much every minute of your life. Clench your buttocks in the grocery line! Firm your calves while you brush your teeth! Do odd, scary facial exercises that creep out your taxi driver! If your muscles are relaxed for a single second, you’re living your life all wrong.

I mean, please. Not all of us can slink into leotards at lunchtime and work out with our poodles, as she did during the stinker Torch Song.

But then, not all of us can be Joan Crawford. Rereading this somewhat frantic book, I can’t say I’d want to be. But I’d love to have been her friend—and I’ll bet she’d have been a damn good one back.

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