Archive for Joan Blondell

Annie Laurie, Slight Reprise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by dcairns


One night after being wowed by WILD RIVER, we sat down to A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, Elia Kazan’s first feature. Ironically, the blue and golden light of the 1960 movie had caused me to erroneously deduce it to be photographed by Leon Shamroy, whereas ATGIB really IS shot by Shamroy, and by Kazan’s own account, the visual direction of the film is largely Shamroy’s — Kazan wasn’t technically confident at all, and so was encouraged to direct it like a play, with Shamroy figuring out how to cover it. The performances are superb, but I also wanted to compliment Kazan’s visuals, but I guess they’re Shamroy’s. (Lyle R. Wheeler’s production design is also remarkable — always a bit weird seeing huge Hollywood resources targeted at recreating poverty, and Kazan himself felt he failed to capture the real quality of slum life, which he knew well — the sets impart an epic scope which mitigates against the movie becoming depressing.)

Kazan confesses to manipulating tears from his young star, Peggy Ann Garner by discussing her father, who was in the air force, and subtly implying that he might never come back from the war. Later, when the scene required her to mourn her character’s dad, he just needed to reconnect her to that emotion, and it was unleashed. Then his producer ordered him to reshoot it because it was too raw, too mushy — filming her with her back to the camera resulted in a more discrete and affecting emotion. It’s very frequently true that the audience won’t engage with shocking displays of raw emotion — too much of the work is done for us and we can’t find space for our own reaction. I must say, my face was soaking by the end of this movie. It’s a movie with a free wash thrown in.

Kazan’s secret weapon is James Dunn as the drunken father, whose rendition of “Annie Laurie” was the only scene in the movie I knew. Kazan’s assistant Nick Ray, a lifelong alcoholic himself, spoke with immense admiration of the director’s patience in coaxing that performance out of a vulnerable man. Kazan chose Dunn because he WAS the character: once a promising star, his career had been wrecked by booze. The disappointment and sense of personal failure were written in his face. Rather cruelly, Kazan was making Dunn play himself, and making him confront his own inadequacies, but he also got from him his one really effective performance, and immortalized him.


Most people seeing this film have never seen Dunn in anything else, but because I love pre-codes I’d seen him in SAILOR’S LUCK, THE GIRL IN 419 and TAKE A CHANCE. My impression was always one of desperation, eagerness to please that shades into mania, anxiety trying to look like charm, flop sweat personified. All those qualities can now be acknowledged and used, which allows the actor’s real charm to emerge around the edges.

Also nice — Joan Blondell, of course, a pre-code performer who was always utterly relaxed and natural, Dorothy McGuire excellent in a challenging part, the underrated Lloyd Nolan… and it’s always nice when James Gleason drops the why-I-oughta schtick (which he was so good at) and plays a human being (see also NIGHT OF THE HUNTER).


“They should stop making films,” I said to Fiona afterwards, drying my soggy face. “After this, it’s all just noise.” I suppose I’ll get over that feeling — I have to, I’m making a film of my own — but when a film is this powerful, it puts a lot of stuff in the shade. Through a mix of blind ego and ignorance I’m able to make my little films and not worry about comparisons with the greats, most of the time, but once in a while I see something and think, “Well, I can’t even hope to touch that…”


Joan Blogney

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 18, 2014 by dcairns


Joan Blogney as Roseer.

Daniel Riccuito started this by hitting pause during a Warners credits sequence as the screen wiped from James Cagney to Madge Bellamy. Above, Cagney yields to Joan Blondell. I made a set of these and Daniel has posted them at The Chiseler, where you can go feast your eyes off. Here.

Young Hopeful

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 4, 2012 by dcairns

One cute thing about THE ARTIST is the bit with Berenice Bejo trying to break into pictures — we had just watched MAKE ME A STAR the night before, which deals with a similar subject and environment (a cheap production for Paramount, who could shoot most of it on their own lot). This is a version of Merton of the Movies, a George S Kaufman-Marc Connelly play filmed previously in 1924 and remade in 1947 with Red Skelton. It also shares much of its set-up with HEARTS OF THE WEST, the charming 1975 parody of 1930s filmmaking, which starred an impossibly young Jeff Bridges. And Bridges is the one actor in the lot who can make the naive doofus role appealing.

Stuart Erwin in MAKE ME A STAR takes a slightly different route from Bridges — a capable comedy relief supporting actor in Andy Devine type roles, here he’s the leading man and is going all out for pathos. This involves a peculiar, halting delivery of lines which makes Merton seem not just slow-witted but positively learning-impaired. Seeing such a defenseless character get put upon for the whole picture kind of robs it of any potential for comedy…

The early stretches, with Merton making a fool of himself around his hick hometown are painfully slow, with only the Paramount zoom lens (as used in LOVE ME TONIGHT) livening things up. “ZOOOOM!!!” we would cry, whenever it zeroed in on a salient detail. Though Merton’s correspondence course in screen acting, with its numbered photos of useful facial expressions, was a funny idea, much more could have been made of it. Instead, we got unfocused supporting performers (the script calls for several character to flip from supportive to hostile and back for no reason) and tiresome schtick.

When Merton gets to Hollywood there’s Ruth Donnelly and Joan Blondell to hold the eye, plus guest spots by the likes of Tallulah Bankhead and Gary Cooper, taking time out from DEVIL AND THE DEEP. And the pathos takes a turn into Von Trier torture-a-kitten territory which is weirdly diverting. Erwin’s delivery grows ever more faltering. Wangling his way onto the soundstage, he is promptly fired from an extra job for blowing his single line. In the most affecting — and universal — moment, he repeats the line perfectly after everyone is left, then hopelessly looks for approval from the empty sound stage.

Reluctant to leave the studio and find himself unable to get back in, Merton takes to hiding in the shadows, scraping scraps from abandoned box lunches, a studio derelict, a studio ghost. “Taking pity” on him, Blondell sells the resident Mack Sennett figure (Sam Hardy, drily amusing) on using Merton to spoof the great western star Buck Benson, whom Merton patterns himself on. “He’s like a blurred carbon copy of Buck Benson!” So the staff and players of “Loadstone” contrive a western parody with Ben Turpin, in which Merton is made more ridiculous by some technically unexplainable sound recording trick that makes his voice go falsetto while leaving everyone else unaffected. I wonder if this was based on the false rumour that Louis B Mayer sabotaged John Gilbert’s career in this fashion? At any rate, it’s a new addition to the play, which originated in silent movie days, and it doesn’t actually make anything funnier — it actually robs Erwin of the chance to be amusingly inept on his own.

Humiliated at the premier (stuffed with more Paramount guest stars: Oakie! Ruggles! Sylvia Sydney!) when he learns he’s been played for a chump, Erwin, face aflame, repairs to a coffee shop where he hears his idol complaining about being sent up. But Buck’s agent makes an impassioned and powerful speech about COMEDY and SINCERITY and THE PUBLIC’S LOVE. It’s quite a speech — even better than the one in THE ERRAND BOY.

Erwin goes to see Blondell, who’s ashamed at the trick she’s played, and the film collapses into an Event Horizon of conflicted response, as Erwin tries to explain that he’s not angry or upset, that he was in on the gag all the time, and that he knows he’s a great comedy star because he’s got LOVE and COMEDY and THE PUBLIC’S SINCERITY — it’s a garbled version of the speech in the previous scene, just like when Stan Laurel comes up with a good plan, but then can’t remember it when he comes to repeat it a second later. But the scene, ridiculous and strange, is still played for pathos, so it has a dizzying, nightmarish feeling — supplanted by the film’s only funny joke.

As Blondell takes Erwin in her arms, his head resting between what Jack Warner called “those bulbs”, he worries about the cab he has waiting outside.

“Do yuh have to pay taxicabs, just for waiting?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Oh. Well. It’s worth it.”

And he nestles back into paradise.

MAKE ME A STAR is kind of a bad film which turns out to be good almost by accident — it certainly doesn’t land on any of the accepted squares denoting quality or success, but it persistently winds up in strange, unfamiliar zones of discomfort, oddity, sadness or head-scratching peculiarity. I recommend it to the curious.