Sunday 20 January 2013

Precode Fashion Fix: Metallics

With economic depression raging through America, Precode films seemed to compensate by draping the goddesses of the screen in glittering gold, silver and bronze:

Lillian Roth and Frances Dee - The Shimmering Mermaids

Glittering Chorus Girls:

Chorus Girls in 'Murder at the Vanties' (1934)
Adrienne Dore
Goldwyn Girls in 'Roman Scandals' (1933)
Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell in 'Gold-diggers of 1933' (1933)
Mary Lou Dix
The Golden Stars of Hollywood:
Loretta Young
Katharine Hepburn in 'Christopher Strong' (1933)

Joan Crawford in 'Dancing Lady' (1933)

Greta Garbo
Clara Bow in 'Hoop-La' (1932)
And the Queen of all the glittering metallics:
Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra (1934)


Sunday 13 January 2013

Forgotten Precode Dames 1# Winnie Lightner

Haven’t heard of this Precode actress, singer and comedienne? Neither had I since a few weeks ago when I tumbled upon this controversial movie poster for ‘Gold Dust Gertie’. 

It was probably Winnie Lightner’s vaudeville style of performance, unusual looks and slightly older age that prevented her career from flourishing well into the Precode era but she should still be considered a great talent and a recommendation for any Precode musical fan.  
Winnie Lightner publicity shot, 1931
Winnie Lightner was born Winifred Reeves on September 17, 1899 in Greenport, New York. She was yet another performer born in the magic year of 1899 similar to other great actors, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire, James Cagney and Gloria Swanson. Winnie began her career in vaudeville by joining her sister’s show in 1915 and became a big success overtaking her sister and the rest of their family. As her popularity grew she was offered parts in Broadway plays and revues between 1920 and 1928. These include the 20’s staples ‘George White’s Scandals’ (1922, 1923 and 1924), ‘Gay Paree’ (1925 and 1926) and ‘Harry Delmar’s Revels’ (1928). It was through this she earned her nickname ‘Song a Minute Girl’.

Like many performers of the day, Winnie in 1928 moved into films and Vitaphone shorts.  She made a splash in several that featured such musical numbers as, ‘We Love It’, ‘God Help a Sailor on a Night Like This’ and ‘That Brand New Model of Mine’. It was through these clips that Winnie became one of the first performers to be censored solely for her music and not for her dancing or appearance. The censorship battle heated up in Pennsylvania where the censorship board refused to release the shorts because of the content of the songs. Warner Brothers retaliated by requesting the board judge the films only on the visual elements but they ultimately refused.  Below is one of Winnie’s late musical revues, ‘Singing in the Bathtub’ from (1929).
The controversy over censorship only hastened Winnie’s entry into the larger and more widespread medium of feature length films. In 1929 she was offered a role in the now lost musical ‘Gold Diggers of Broadway’ which made her a massive icon and star. Warner’s was quick to snap up this rising talent who, although she was not young now aged 30, had obvious screen presence and innate comedic ability and signed her to a more permanent contract.  Her next film was a grand Technicolour display called ‘Hold Everything’ (1930) which continued the successful from her other film. Next was a small dramatic role in the mediocre film ‘She Couldn’t Say No’ (1930) followed by another Technicolour movie ‘The Life of the Party’ (1930) which saw the return of the wise-cracking and jovial Lightner.  

Her next three films ‘Sit Tight’ (1931), ‘Gold Dust Gertie’ (1931) and ‘Manhattan Parade’ (1932) were all to continue Winnie’s success in the musical genre but, while shooting these films, audiences began becoming bored with lavish musical movies and most of the song and dance numbers were cut from the films. With no musical roles forthcoming and still under contract, Warner Brothers decided to put Winnie in supporting roles in a number of second-rate dramas and comedies. These included two Loretta Young vehicles, ‘Play-Girl’ (1932) and ‘She Had to Say Yes’ (1933) and another film ‘Side Show’ (1931). Winnie was miserable in these roles and chose to leave Warner Brothers to become a freelance artist. She made two more films before her retirement, mainly playing small supporting roles, including MGM movie ‘Dancing Lady’ (1933) starring Joan Crawford and ‘I’ll Fix it’ (1934) for Columbia starring Jack Holt.   

After her retirement she used her spare time to focus on her personal life. In 1929 Winnie had met notable Precode director Roy Del Ruth (famous for ‘Blond Crazy’ (1931), ‘Taxi! (1932) and ‘Employee’s Entrance (1933)) during the making of his film ‘Gold Diggers of Broadway’ (1929). After her film career ended, Winnie married Del Ruth in 1934 and had a child, now successful cinematographer, Thomas Del Ruth in May 1942. Although Winnie reportedly had loved performing after her last picture she never returned to the entertainment industry or met many people from the film-making business. Her marriage to Del Ruth continued until his death in 1961 and Winnie died 10 years later on March 5, 1971 from a heart attack.     

Monday 7 January 2013

Life, Movies and that Blacklist: An Interview with Karen Morley

As a sort of continuation from the video I posted a few days ago featuring an interview with Anita Page, I thought I would share an amazing article I found including an interview with controversial Precode actress Karen Morley. She was born Mildred Linton on December 12, 1909 in Ottumwa, Iowa and began her film career as a stand-in for Greta Garbo but soon moved into small walk-in roles and bit parts. Her most famous parts include playing a gangsters girl in ‘Scarface’ (1932), as Sonia alongside the Barrymore brothers in ‘Arsene Lupin’ (1932) and as Charlotte Lucas in an early film adaption of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (1940). However, her life took a wrong turn in 1947 when she was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and refused to answer questions about her involvement with the Communist Party.  Her career never recovered and she continued her interest in politics – even unsuccessfully running for Lieutenant Governor of New York in 1954 – until her death in 2003.

Below is an article by Michael Sragow written from an interview he had with Morley in 1999 to promote the upcoming screening of one of her films ‘Gabriel Over the White House’ (1933). The article was published April 21, 1999 and can be found here   
Karen Morley: Still Sexy After All These Blacklisted Years
LOS ANGELES -- There's an irony at the centre of The Unvanquished, the festival series "that honours filmmakers who have faced repression and censorship." The blacklisted honourees have been sharp, humorous individuals -- though at the time of their persecution they were pictured as dour zealots and ideologues. Last year's honouree, John Berry, zipped through an entire Borscht Belt routine before breaking matzo with me in a New York hotel room. This year, Karen Morley, who played a stunning moll named Poppy in Howard Hawks' Scarface back in 1932, suggested we talk at "a fun place to eat" when I picked her up at her North Hollywood home. Wearing a plastic fruit-and-vegetable bag instead of a rain hat to protect herself from a torrential downpour, she guided me ever closer to Burbank, reassuring me that I was "doing fine," then asking whether I "saw him yet."
The "him" turned out to be the trademark figure of Bob's Big Boy. Once inside, Morley ordered her favourite plate: deep-fried French toast and a thick ham steak.
Even when she's wearing makeshift rainwear or chowing down on unpretentious grub, there is something regal about Morley in her 90s -- a firm yet playful politesse. (She lists her age as 90; others say 93.) Apparently, she never lost her mastery of the flirtatious brand of mime that makes her a knock-out even in messed-up movies like Gabriel Over the White House (1933). She fended off a potential coffee spill tidal wave from the next booth with a raised-palm, raised-eyebrow combination that acted on the waitress like an SOS. She punctuated her replies to questions with gestures and expressions that either expanded her answers or made a whole line of inquiry seem flabby and unnecessary. There's nothing fake or sentimental about her -- whether talking about Old Hollywood or the Old Left, she has the welcome bluntness of a grande dame who no longer has to give a damn.
In an invaluable collection of interviews called Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (edited by Pat McGilligan and Paul Buhle, and recently reprinted in paperback), Morley's questioners position her as a conscious fighter against anti-female, anti-proletarian stereotypes from her earliest days in Hollywood. But in our talk she emphasized instinct, emotion, and the honest job of movie acting. She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa -- "it means rippling water," she notes with amusement -- and came to Hollywood at age 14 because she was tubercular and needed its hot, dry, pre-smog climate. She was always a regular moviegoer, though not if the theatre manager warned her parents that a movie depicted a child, woman, or animal being abused.
Morley spent a year at UCLA until the family financing ran out, then worked in a department store ("but there didn't seem to be much future in that") and acted in workshop productions at the Pasadena Playhouse before making the rounds of Hollywood casting offices. She was at MGM one day when Hedda Hopper was asked to read lines with a young leading man named Kent Montgomery. Hopper said she was too old, but Morley volunteered -- "I would have tested the furniture if they'd asked me" -- and impressed the director, Clarence Brown, who put her into her first picture (Inspiration, in 1931). She became a contract player at Metro. Though she turned down roles she thought degrading, like that of a landowner's daughter who horsewhips peons then gets horsewhipped herself in Villa Rides, she says, "I mostly did what they gave me. I was glad to have the work."
Metro loaned her out to Howard Hawks for Scarface. Morley had her pick of the female leads: the blonde vamp Poppy or Scarface's brunette sister Cesca, for whom the gangster has an incestuous yen. Cesca was the juicier role, and she would have worn "the prettiest wig, full of black curls, and beige," but Morley chose to do Poppy. She says this was "probably the nicest thing I did in my life, since Ann Dvorak, a darling girl, would never have gotten the other part. She was all wrong for it. Playing the sister made a star of her." Scarface, Morley says, was "the most fun I had making a picture. Everybody was in awe of Paul Muni, he was so great. I was just barely of age, and that set was an exciting place to be. It was all men, and there I was prancing around in gowns that barely got past the censors."
Karen in 'Scareface' (1932)
Like the other directors she toiled for in the '30s, Hawks didn't confer with the actors. It was Morley who created her character's wary sensuality, put-down humour, and ambiguous emotions -- which are apparent even in the oft-reprinted shot of Poppy in the Paradise nightclub (a production still snapped on the set but not duplicated in the movie). Morley respected directors like Hawks for getting what they wanted without dithering with the ensemble, and Scarface is one of the few films she made that she says she'd like to see again. Her favourite line was someone else's: It belonged to Scarface's bodyguard, who tells his boss, after they take in a "serious" play, "I like a show with jokes."
So does Morley, in the proper place -- which was not Gabriel Over the White House. "It's about a crooked president who gets knocked in the head and becomes a liberal," she says; "It's so, so silly." Actually, the president doesn't become a liberal; he becomes a dictator. But as the president's secretary, Morley acted eye to eye with Walter Huston, who was "fantastic ... he didn't seem to be doing anything, until you saw him on the screen.
In her own terse way, Morley debunks the myths surrounding Hollywood communism. Some writers have suggested that Morley's appearances in King Vidor's salute to communal farming, Our Daily Bread (1934), and Michael Curtiz's muddled expose of labour conflict in coal towns, Black Fury (1935), proved her commitment to socially conscious roles. But Morley says simply that she was asked to do them.
Filmmaker/film historian Andrew Bergman has called Black Fury "one of the real frauds of the '30s," and Morley thinks her best scene was cut out of the movie -- a tawdry-poignant set piece of her as an 18-year-old girl trying to practice the tango in her kitchen according to a printed diagram while her siblings yowl and her mother attempts to do household chores. Studio heads made sure that makers of "A" features with social themes couldn't put across the squalor or the crazy-making closeness of real working-class life. And, as Morley notes, the few directors who had the power to do so were often "con-serv-atives, like John Ford and King Vidor. Ford made some of the most progressive pictures. I did Our Daily Bread for King and that made me popular in the Soviet Union; King was amused by that."
Morley portrays herself as a small-town girl who awoke to the wider world through personal, not intellectual, experience. For example, she was raised amid garden-variety antisemitism -- a mistrust of Jews as the Other. (She humorously screws up her face to express midwestern disapproval of "people who aren't like us," whether it's Jews or the Balinese girl she portrayed at the Pasadena Playhouse.) Yet her first husband, a solid Hollywood director named Charles Vidor, was a Hungarian Jewish emigrant.
She disdains political euphemisms: "I was a 'dirty Red,' redder than the rose" she snorts, as if answering a dare. "I was what you'd call a 'pillow Red' -- I became a Communist because I fell in love with a man who was a Red and entered the Army to take care of the Fascists, and I knew it would please him if I became one. There was very little that was political about it." The man was actor Lloyd Gough; he died in 1984. Morley says that it was in the "progressive B pictures" her husband made that raw, muckraking content entered Hollywood movies: "If these B-picture guys said 'Let's make a movie about crooked doctors,' a studio boss like Harry Cohn wouldn't care as long as they delivered it on time."
Karen during the  mid-1940's
While Gough was in the Army and stationed in North Carolina, Morley became involved in organizing tobacco workers. After the war, she brought her experience and energy to the union movement in Hollywood. "The Actors Guild had been held to a 10-year no-strike agreement, and when that 10 were up, the progressives in the Screen Actors Guild made all these forward-looking proposals, most of them written on my dining-room table. I was blacklisted because of this activity, so I'm not a typical anything. From that time on, I always had the studios on my neck."
After dodging HUAC subpoenas in the small town of La Quinta (outside Palm Springs), she moved to New York, where Gough found work in the theatre. But Morley was still too prominent a target to get a part on stage or screen. She never acted after 1951, when she appeared in a film she has no fondness for: Joseph Losey's turgid remake of Fritz Lang's M. ("There's no comparison," says Morley; "the first one was a pip.") She did run for lieutenant governor of New York in 1954, on the American Labor Party ticket, but says, "I don't like giving speeches -- I enjoy sitting on my rump. What happened was that someone put the arm on me. I liked getting the mail; I was 'Hon.' on everything for a few weeks. And I spoke out on women's rights, like equal pay for equal work. We haven't got around to that yet."
When it comes to Elia Kazan, she says, "I know he's old -- he's my age. But I don't think it's my place to forgive him. He was awful, and he is awful. If he wants to apologize to the people he ruined, that's up to him, and I would be delighted to hear it. If they forgive him, I'll forgive him -- but not until."
Karen in 2003 before her death during an interview with TCM

Thursday 3 January 2013

Precode Cutie Remembers: Anita Page Interview - 1996

Below is a little gem I found on YouTube while searching for information on the early Precode musicals. It is part 1 of a 9 part interview with Precode and silent actress, singer and dancer Anita Page. In it she details how she started her career, the transition from silents to talkies and the highs and lows of working for the studio that claimed to ‘have more stars than there are in heaven’ MGM. She also discusses many of the popular actors and figures of that time including Joan Crawford, Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, her ‘dear friend’ Marion Davies and her lover William Randolph Hearst, Ramon Navarro (who proposed to Anita during her short career) and many others.     

The footage, unlike many interviews available online, is uncut and very raw with the interviewers questions being audible as well as showing the problems 86-year-old Anita had remembering facts and staying focused. Anita appears to be such a lovely, carefree lady who – although she apparently lived a modest life after movies – still kept the glitz and the glamour of the industry that made her famous.  
I hope you all enjoy it!!