Posted on 29 Comments

Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur “Stoop” to Conquer in THE MORE THE MERRIER

In Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges made a convincing case that comedy is often the best balm for tragedy. But for his friend and colleague George Stevens, the horrors of World War II left him with little capacity for comedy when he returned home from the front lines.

From 1943 to 1946, Stevens covered the war in Europe for the Army Signal Corps—and insisted on shooting the worst of it himself rather than delegating the more gruesome or dangerous jobs to the men in his unit. He captured the only Allied color footage of D-Day, and also filmed the liberation of Paris, the Elbe River meeting of U.S. and Soviet forces, and the nightmarish conditions at the Duben and Dachau concentration camps, which served as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. The Library of Congress deemed his work “an essential visual record” of the war.

Because he was fundamentally changed by the horrors he’d borne witness to, there’s a bright line between Stevens’ pre-war films and those he made when he came home, which were more somber and in some cases deeply personal. But his last comedy—and the last film he made before joining the Army—is one of the best anyone ever made: The More the Merrier.

Actually, the movie feels a little like Sturges, as he and Stevens shared a deep affection for the absurd, including characters who could spout total nonsense with absolute conviction, eventually wearing down all comers with their righteous refusal to cave in to anything as mundane as reality. 

In this case, the prime suspect is Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn), a retired millionaire who comes to the capitol to advise the government on the housing shortage—and immediately becomes its next victim. His hotel has no record of his reservation, so he takes to the streets in search of that rarest of all species, a Room for Rent.

After bluffing (okay, lying) his way past all the other hopefuls, Dingle presents himself to the highly resistant, somewhat starchy Constance Milligan (Jean Arthur) as the perfect tenant to share her flat. And the battle is on, though the winner is clear from the outset:

Connie: I’ve made up my mind to rent to nobody but a woman.
Dingle: So, let me ask you something. Would I ever want to wear your stockings?
Connie: No…
Dingle: Well, all right. Would I ever want to borrow your girdle, or your red and yellow dancing slippers?
Connie: Of course not!
Dingle: Well, any woman, no matter who, would insist upon borrowing that dress you got on right now. You know why? Because it’s so pretty.
Connie [softening]: I made it myself.
Dingle: And how would you like it if she spilled a cocktail all over it—at a party you couldn’t go with her to because she borrowed it to go to it—in?
Connie [totally caught up in the story now]: She might have something that I could wear…
Dingle: Not her.
Connie: Why not?
Dingle: Because she’s so dumpy-looking. Never has anything clean. That’s why she’s always borrowing your dresses.
Connie:  How do I know you’d be any better?
Dingle [whirling around and proudly patting his belly]: Well, look at me. I’m neat, like a pin. Ah, let me stay.
Connie [not yet realizing she’s completely defeated]: Well, look, I…
Dingle: I tell you what. We’ll try it out for a week. End of the week comes, if you’re not happy, we’ll flip a coin to see who moves out.

Almost immediately after she consents—on a trial basis, mind you—Dingle leases out half his room to Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), a foreign-service officer headed overseas—and headed to the altar with Connie, if Dingle has anything to say about it. Never mind that they haven’t even met yet. Or that Connie is engaged to an uber-respectable bureaucrat, Charles J. Pendergast (poor Richard Gaines, who, up against  McCrea, seems not only overmatched but like a totally different species).

Get any two fans of this film together and they’ll launch into a scene-by-scene lovefest: the part where Connie explains her insanely regimented morning routine and Dingle asks, “Do we do all this railroad time or Eastern war time?” The break-neck breakfast scene, where his enormous pants get sling-shot out the window by their suspenders. The part where Connie and Joe are frantically racing to escape before her fiancé calls—only to be held hostage by the whiny teen who lives downstairs, whom you want to strangle. The scene where Connie and Joe, in separate rooms, are rhumba-ing in perfect rhythm to What Is This Thing Called Love, before Connie even knows he’s moved in. (I’ve lived in apartments most of my life and have stumbled across lots of surprises. None of them was Joel McCrea shimmying in a bathrobe just down the hall.)

And then there’s one of the sweetest, sexiest, funniest love scenes ever—ranking right up there with the telephone scene in It’s A Wonderful Life for spectacularly failed attempts to thwart the inevitable:

The Stoop Scene.

Joe walks Connie home, and they park on the front steps before heading inside. Almost the second they sit down, his intentions are clear, as he gently nuzzles her neck, her bare shoulder, the top of her lacy sleeve… but Connie somehow manages to prattle on frantically about the sober Mr. Pendergast, stamp collecting, and the joys of budgeting as Joe keeps his mind fixed firmly on the mission at hand (or hands).

“Take my engagement ring,” Connie blurts. “Don’t you think it’s nice—not gaudy, I mean?”

“You bet,” Joe murmurs, seizing the chance to caress and kiss her sensibly clad fingers.

And long after any mortal woman would have surrendered, she stumbles onward: “You know, with those older men like Mr. Pendergast…  a girl gets to appreciate their more mature…” <Joe goes in for a full-on kiss> “…viewpoint.”

And that’s when she finally just gives up, grabs his face and kisses him back. But then, reaching back for that one last pesky shred of common sense, she pulls away. “I’d better go,” she says unconvincingly, as her knees buckle beneath her.

Oh my God. This is one of the most sizzling scenes ever filmed, and almost all of it happens above the collarbone.

Aside from being just plain fabulous, the stoop scene, as well as earlier ones of her sunning on a rooftop and dancing around the living room in a midriff top, show what a criminally underappreciated hottie Arthur was. In fact, before this film, she was feeling overlooked in general—turning down sub-par scripts at a rate that made Columbia boss Harry Cohn even crankier than he already was.

So she and her husband, producer Frank Ross, hired their friend Garson Kanin to whip up a vehicle for her. And Two’s a Crowd, co-written with Robert Russell and Ross, eventually morphed into The More the Merrier.

Stevens loved the script and, as usual, reveled in the chance to ruffle the suits in the Breen Office—skittering along the edges of Production Code propriety. The stoop scene, where you really should light a cigarette afterward, is Exhibit A. In another head-swimmingly tender scene, Joe and Connie, side by side in separate bedrooms, finally confess their love for each other—but somehow the wall between seems a bit, well, blurry. Meanwhile Dingle’s favorite word is “damn” (gasp!), but always in the context of quoting Admiral Farragut’s oath about torpedoes.

One of the Breen Office’s oddest demands was that bachelors McCrea and Coburn never be seen using the bathroom together. (No really.) Stevens found this homophobia so hilarious that during the nightclub scene, he made a point of putting several female couples on the dancefloor, which allowed him to poke fun at the wartime shortage of eligible males—another running theme in the film—and tweak the censors at the same time. (The band is also all-girl.)

As you might expect, this was a very merry film set, even though, astonishingly, McCrea felt miscast at first, telling anyone within earshot that Cary Grant could’ve carried it off better. (Ironically, poor Cary got saddled with the Dingle role in the highly missable remake, Walk Don’t Run.) He’d just belted it out of the park in two of the best screwballs ever —Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels and The Palm Beach Story—but still didn’t feel comfortable in this trip to the plate.

Which is pretty much what made him perfect. Because the last person you want in a screwball comedy is someone who wants to make a screwball comedy. In his work with Sturges, McCrea was the relatively sane, benevolent linchpin for all the screwy goings-on around him, much as he is in The More the Merrier. And with a little help from a sensitive director and a generous leading lady, McCrea quickly loosened up and settled in on the set. To no one’s surprise but his own, he was perfect again.

Stevens, who called Arthur “one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen,” had just seen her with Coburn in The Devil and Miss Jones—where she played the dreamer and he was the starchy one with all the answers. That they could flip roles so completely and still crackle with the same quirky chemistry is testament to what a great “screen couple” they were.

Arthur, Stevens, the screenwriters and the producers all snagged Oscar nods for The More The Merrier—but McCrea, who went his entire career without so much as a nomination, was overlooked as usual. Coburn went home with the Supporting Actor trophy, back in the days when the Academy occasionally  rewarded comedy. This was one of several films, including Together Again and Heaven Can Wait, where he impishly played the busybody who helps clueless couples get out of their own way, which became something of a mini-specialty for him.

On the opposite coast, the New York Film Critics tapped Stevens as Best Director. Truer words, never spoken. Though his reasons were unassailable, I wish he’d never made a last comedy. But if he had to say goodbye, there could not have been a higher note to go out on than this brilliant, lovely, loopy, tender film.

sis-themorethemerrier-21

 

Posted on 1 Comment

TINTYPE TUESDAY: Peeking Behind the Scenes on THE LADY EVE!

theladyeve-candid-6

When’s the last time you had this much fun at work?

But then who has a boss like Preston Sturges?

The set of The Lady Eve “was so ebullient that instead of going to their trailers between setups, the players relaxed in canvas chairs with their sparkling director, listening to his fascinating stories or going over their lines with him,” wrote Axel Madsen in his biography of Barbara Stanwyck. “To get into mood for Barbara’s bedroom scene, Sturges wore a bathrobe.” The actress gleefully compared the set to a carnival.

theladyeve-candid-5 theladyeve-candid-8

And the director was the head barker, with a wardrobe to match. Sturges favored brightly colored berets, felt caps with feathers sprouting from them, top hats, silk and cashmere scarves, and sports coats so loud they looked as if they’d been stolen off the winner of the sixth race at Santa Anita. They not only suited his personality, but, he claimed, they helped crew members spot him amid the throngs of technicians, actors and members of the public meandering around the set. The public, you say? Yup. To keep things light and unpredictable, Sturges openly encouraged visitors to his sets, from friends, colleagues and press reps to whoever happened to be wandering down Melrose Avenue that day.

theladyeve-candid-7 theladyeve-candid-9

The Lady Eve marked the second time Sturges teamed with Stanwyck. He’d written the screenplay for the criminally underrated Remember the Night hoping that Paramount would be able to borrow Carole Lombard, and was at first disappointed when he had to “settle” for Stanwyck. Until he saw her work and realized her tempo and his dialogue went together like a felt hat and a feather. During one of their long, lively conversations, Stanwyck complained to the director that no one wrote comedies for her, and he promised to put that right. Soon after, he penned the screenplay for The Lady Eve while in Reno, awaiting his third divorce.

“He kept his word, and how!” recalled Stanwyck years later. “By that time I wasn’t under contract, and he had to borrow me. I figured that would kill it. But somehow The Lady Eve all came together.”

The film also marked the start of Stanwyck’s long and happy relationship with Edith Head. While other designers with less talent and imagination saw her long waist as a figure flaw, Head accentuated it with wide waistbands that tapered in the back, giving way to sumptuous skirts that draped elegantly over fabulous legs. Thrilled with the designs, the ever-loyal Stany found a way to show her gratitude. “Edith always covered her mouth when she laughed and I didn’t know why,” the actress remembered. “Finally she showed me her teeth and I understood. They were awful—not diseased, but some were missing and she felt self-conscious. She told me she had been to dentists and they said nothing could be done. I informed her that my dentist could fix anything—he’d fixed my smile!” And he went on to fix Edith’s.

theladyeve-candid-1 theladyeve-candid-4

As usual, Sturges had to battle his bosses for just about every scene he wrote. In this case, producer (later director) Albert Lewin blustered that “the first two-thirds of the script, in spite of the high quality of your jokes, will require an almost one hundred percent rewrite.” He especially objected to the entire snake subplot and the physical comedy that sprang from it.

“I happen to love pratfalls, but as almost everything I like, other people dislike, and vice versa,” Sturges recalled in his memoir. “My dearest friends and severest critics constantly urged me to cut the pratfalls from five down to three. There are certain things that will convulse the audience, when it has been softened up by what has occurred previously, that seem very unfunny in cold print. Directing and acting have a lot to do with it too. I had my fingers crossed when Henry Fonda went over the sofa. I held my left ear when he tore down the curtains, and I held everything when the roast beef hit him.”

theladyeve-candid-2

Sturges had borrowed Fonda from Fox—which Stanwyck later called a “piece of intriguing casting. Hank had been Zanuck’s Abraham Lincoln in so many things, whether his name was Tom Joad or Jesse James. How did Sturges know he was a sensational light comedian?”

“Henry Fonda was delicious to work with,” she once said. “We made three films together, and I was sorry when each one was over. I wish we had done more movies together. I loved Hank.”

And at a tribute to Stanwyck, Fonda returned the feeling, even using the same luscious adjective: “Everyone who is close to me knows I’ve been in love with Barbara Stanwyck since I met her. She’s a delicious woman. We’ve never had an affair. She’s never encouraged me, but dammit my wife will verify it, my daughters and son will confirm it, and now you can testify to the truth.”

TINTYPE TUESDAY is a new feature on Sister Celluloid, featuring fabulous classic movie pix (and often a bit of backstory!) every week, to help you make it to Hump Day! Why not bookmark the page, here, to make sure you never miss a week?

And please check out our other new feature, STREAMING SATURDAYS, which brings you a free, fun classic film every weekend! You can bookmark that, and watch movies you may have missed, here!

Posted on 19 Comments

Linda Darnell: “A Sweeter Girl Never Lived”

“At thirty-two, I can see tell-tale marks in the mirror, but the ravages of time no longer terrify me. I am told that when surface beauty is gone, the real woman emerges.” —Linda Darnell

She never lived long enough for her beauty to fade. But a real woman—and a real actress—did emerge, and deserve to be remembered.

darnell6

Linda Darnell had a stage mother straight out of Gypsy. A monstrous woman who dominated her fearful family, Mama Pearl first pushed her daughter onto the pageant and modeling circuit when she was just 11, fudging her age by two or three years. And of course she sent the shy girl to drama and diction classes. “She didn’t stand out particularly, except that she was so sweet and considerate,” recalled one teacher. “But her mother was right behind her everywhere she went.” In 1937, at a local Dallas pageant, Darnell was discovered by a 20th Century Fox scout and sent straight to California—only to be shipped back home when the studio discovered she was 14.

Undaunted, Pearl then entered Linda in RKO’s “Gateway to Hollywood” contest, which dangled a short-term contract as first prize. She used Linda’s victory as leverage with Fox, which signed the girl as soon as she was free from her brief RKO stint. Now a whopping 15 years old, Darnell once again headed for Hollywood, with her pet rooster under one arm and her mother tightly grasping the other—never letting go until she was banned from the studio lot several years later.

darnell3

“Mother really shoved me along, spotting me in one contest after another,” Darnell later recalled. “I had no great talent, and I didn’t want to be a movie star particularly. But Mother had always wanted it for herself, and I guess she attained it through me.”

In less than a year, Darnell snagged her first starring role, in 1939’s Day-Time Wife. “Despite her apparent youth, [Darnell] turns in an outstanding performance when playing with popular players,” cooed one reviewer. No less an authority than Life magazine, sounding creepily eugenic, dubbed her “the most physically perfect girl in Hollywood.”

darnell-power-daytimewife-1 darnell-power-daytimewife

Utterly un-self-conscious and natural, the 16-year-old held her own with old pros like Tyrone Power and Warren William before she would have been old enough to date them. And when she occasionally froze up, Power deliberately blew his lines to take the pressure off her. Their easy, playful chemistry was so strong that they were quickly cast in three more films: Brigham Young, the most expensive movie Fox had ever made; the box office sensation The Mark of Zorro; and Blood and Sand, which a confident Darryl Zanuck premiered uncut, without previews, at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1941. Years later, the hard-bitten Henry Hathaway, who directed Darnell in Brigham Young, recalled wistfully, “A sweeter girl never lived.”

Offscreen, her life was running less smoothly. Perhaps seeking a stronger father figure than the one she’d grown up with (a mild-mannered postal worker steamrolled by Pearl), the 19-year-old eloped with Peverell Marley, a cameraman 23 years her senior, much to the horror of her friends. Marley drank heavily and after a while, his impressionable bride—needing a release from the pressures of the studio and her increasingly unhinged mother—picked up the habit, which would eventually prove disastrous. The couple adopted a baby, Lola, whom Darnell doted on; pictures of her with her daughter provide the only glimpse of real happiness she seems to have ever known.

darnell darnell-lola

The married Zanuck, who had pursued the actress without success, was furious about her elopement and quickly turned his attentions to other proteges. And just months after Pearl Harbor, her favorite co-star, Power, joined the Marines. With her career suddenly adrift, Darnell threw herself into the war effort, selling bonds, working for the Red Cross, and taking frequent shifts at the Hollywood Canteen. She also studied to become a nurse’s aide, and with her best friend, Ann Miller, ran a daycare center for women working at the war plants.

darnell-hollywood canteen darnell-entertainingthetroops

In 1944, Look magazine, on the hunt for popular wartime pin-ups, named Darnell one of the “Four Most Beautiful Women in Hollywood,” along with Ingrid Bergman, Hedy Lamarr and Gene Tierney. Quick to capitalize on the publicity, Fox loaned her out at a premium to Douglas Sirk for Summer Storm. “For eighteen months I did nothing in pictures—I pleaded for something to do, but nothing happened,” she told a reporter. “The character in the Chekov film is a wild sort of she-devil, which any actress would go miles to play. She’s devil mostly—at times angelic—and perfectly fascinating to interpret. I’m counting on my Russian girl to give me a new start.” Ah, yes, a new start. At 21.

darnell1

Darnell followed up with another bad-girl role in Fallen Angel for Otto Preminger, whom she found “terrifying.” But her fabulous reviews in the noir classic must have soothed her nerves, and she seemed to have found her stride again. A year later, she won the coveted lead in Forever Amber, based on Kathleen Winsor’s wildly popular bodice-ripper. “My first seven years in Hollywood were a series of discouraging struggles for me,” she recalled at a press conference for the film. “For a while it looked as though the ‘Darnell versus Hollywood’ tussle was going to find Darnell coming out second best. The next seven years aren’t going to be the same.”

For the most part, they were much worse.

On Forever Amber, Darnell was again paired with the tyrannical Preminger. She had dieted strenuously for the corset-heavy costume drama, and twice collapsed on the set from hunger as well as nervous exhaustion. And for all the misery she endured, the film fell short of its massive hype: while audiences cheered, the critics mostly yawned, and the film didn’t give Darnell the boost, either in confidence or in clout, that she’d hoped for.

darnell-wilde-foreveramber

Meanwhile, her marriage to Marley, never all that sturdy to start with, was unraveling; in 1948, they separated for the first time. Alone, afraid and drinking more heavily, Darnell drifted into an affair with the married writer/director Joseph Mankiewicz—her first, his fifteenth or so.

During one of the lowest points in her life, Darnell made two of her finest films.

In Unfaithfully Yours, produced, written and directed by Preston Sturges, she’s the wife of an egocentric orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) who concocts an elaborate revenge fantasy when he suspects she’s cheating on him. She’s so gasp-inducingly gorgeous, you’re almost distracted from how fabulously funny she is—a Sturges heroine who throws away her lines with the ease of a Colbert or a Stanwyck.

Ironically, given Darnell’s situation with Mankiewicz, the movie’s release was delayed after actress Carole Landis took her own life when Harrison, then married to Lilli Palmer, ended their affair. When the film finally did open, audiences and critics rejected its dark, offbeat humor, though it’s since been embraced as Sturges’s last great film.

darnell-harrison-unfaithfullyyours-1 darnell-harrison-unfaithfullyyours

In 1949’s A Letter to Three Wives, written and directed by Mankiewicz, Darnell earned the best reviews of her life. As Lora Mae Finney, a social-climbing beauty who’s literally from the wrong side of the tracks—the whole house shakes whenever a train roars by—she’s hard-edged, touching and hilarious. She gets some of the best lines in a flawless script, and casually belts every one of them into the stands.

Determined to marry Porter Hollingsway (Paul Douglas), who owns the department store where she and half the town work, Lora Mae wangles a late-night meeting to discuss a promotion, though both she and Porter know it’s a prelude to something more. As she sweeps into the kitchen before the date, her mother’s friend Sadie (Thelma Ritter), who deems her dress much too simple, asks, “Doncha think you should wear something with beads?” And Lora Mae replies matter-of-factly, “Ma, what I got don’t need beads.” She’s not vain, just realistic—but she thinks she’s savvier than she is. She plans to snag Porter by playing the naif, but soon discovers just how out far of her depth, and genuinely innocent, she really is.

That Darnell wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for her performance was criminal; they should have just dispensed with the ceremony and mailed the thing to her house.

darnell-douglas-alettertothreewives darnell-douglas-alettertothreewives-1

Off the set, Darnell’s life was growing more desperate. In January 1949, she sued former business manager Cy Tanner for fraud, claiming he’d stolen thousands of dollars from her over the years; he eventually went to prison but never repaid a dime. The following year, Marley essentially extorted $125,000—just about all the money his wife had—in return for a quiet divorce with no mention of Mankiewicz. Having broken her own code of honor to steer clear of married men, she had paid dearly for loving and protecting a man who had given her little in return.

Still only 27, Darnell had seen too much and been used too often—and, astonishingly, was already on the downside of both her career and her life. “I’d crammed thirty years into ten,” she recalled ruefully. “I missed out on my girlhood, the fun, little things that now seem important.”

darnell8

For his part, Mankiewicz never publicly acknowledged their affair; in his memoirs, he  referred to Darnell only as “a lovely girl with very terrifying personal problems.” (Which were something of a specialty of his: among his previous paramours was a deeply troubled 20-year-old Judy Garland.)

Her last memorable film, in 1950, was Mankiewicz’s No Way Out, with Richard Widmark as a vicious, racist criminal and Sidney Poitier as the doctor who must tend to him. Always her own harshest critic, she called the groundbreaking social drama “the only good picture I ever made.”

darnell-widmark-nowayout darnell-widmark-poitier-nowayout-1

As the studio system began to collapse, so did Darnell’s film career; Fox dropped her contract in 1952. She freelanced for a while, with little success. “I thought in a little while I’d get offers from other studios, but not many came along,” she said, more out of confusion than bitterness. “The only thing I knew how to do was be a movie star. No one expects to last forever in this business. You know that sooner or later the studio’s going to let you go. But who wants to be retired at twenty-nine?”

So she turned to television and then the stage, where, to the surprise of skeptics, she thrived in plays as farflung as The Children’s HourCritic’s Choice and A Roomful of Roses. In 1956, she took on the daunting role of the compassionate teacher in a Miami production of Robert Anderson’s controversial Tea and Sympathy, opposite a 20-year-old Burt Reynolds. “I’m scared stiff [about the play],” she confided to local reporters. “But this marvelous, magic world of live theater is one of the high spots of my life.” The Miami Herald called it a “sensitive, absorbing presentation” in which “Miss Darnell gives the role a new dimension.”

darnell10

While TV and theater parts paid the basic bills, she was still forced to give up the last remnant of her film success: in 1962, her modest Hollywood house was foreclosed upon. But even in her darkest days, she was so kind and thoughtful that she went through all the rooms before she left, taping the correct keys to each door, to make things easier on the new owner. (Her reward? The man who bought the house parked in the driveway, blocking the shaken actress’s exit, while shrieking, “I want to meet Linda Darnell!”)

Throughout her last years, Darnell continued to work sporadically. In the spring of 1965, while preparing for a play near Chicago, she stayed at the home of her friend and former secretary, Jeanne Curtis, one of many former Fox staffers who still adored her. Late one night, she turned on the television only to find her 17-year-old self staring back at her in Star Dust, her second big film.

Not long after drifting off to sleep, she was jolted awake by the smell of smoke and the sounds of panic: the house was on fire. While Curtis, her husband and her daughter leapt to safety from a second-floor window, Darnell, too terrified to jump, tried to escape through a downstairs door. But a neighbor had run over and smashed a back window with a shovel, and the inrushing air fed the fire and spread the flames throughout the first floor. Darnell, who had a lifelong fear of fire, was found crouched behind the sofa, burned over almost 90 percent of her body.

She died  at the hospital two days later, regaining consciousness only once, briefly, when Lola arrived at her bedside. She was 41 years old. Contrary to persistent rumors, she had not fallen asleep while smoking, nor had she been drinking. She had nothing to do with starting the awful blaze that claimed her life.

In her last interview, just a few weeks before she was killed, Darnell reflected on her chaotic, disappointing career and her efforts to give Lola the kind of home and security she never had. “Life has been rough on me,” she confided. “I hope it doesn’t end in tragedy.”

darnell-lola-2 darnell-lola-1