Monday 8 December 2014

Name that Star (because I can't)

I was going through a couple of Photoplay Magazines and came across this picture. Perhaps I am overthinking things but is this really a picture of Una Merkel? It does say it’s her in the blurb but the image has no resemblance to the actress I know and love in several classic Precode films. I have added a few more Merkely pictures after. What does everyone else think?

The Questionable Merkel Portrait:

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Norma Shearer and Manic Pixie Dream Boys

Who’s that girl? It’s not Jess, it’s not even Norma, it’s the men Miss Shearer seemed to gather around her in almost every film role. In her Pre-code performances Shearer is not relegated to a supportive role nor is she doomed to a one-dimensional outlook or perpetually unalterable journey. In most cases she is in a constant struggle between a life of sexual and emotional liberation and an existence of a conventional wife and mother. Some might say in even a ‘soulful’ or ‘brooding’ manner. Her adventures through films from 1929 to 1934 are constantly peppered by the standard array of male leads. Unlike the screen heroes of the 1940’s and 50’s, these male counterparts display flowery, emotional qualities and seem to pander only to the wants of Shearer’s more domineering persona. They appear to mirror the characteristics of the typical subordinate, quirky female roles of the 21st Century, recently more controversially coined ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girls’ (MPDG).

Sunday 5 October 2014

Free Pre-code Screenings

Running from 26 September – 2 November 2014, the Forbidden Hollywood: The Wild Days of Pre-Code Cinema festival is a celebration of the best films of the era. Making use of a rare selection of prints from museums and collections all over the world, it is not to be missed. Unfortunately, the collection is only screening at Brisbane at Australian Cinémathèque, Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). The films will be screening during the months of October and November and best of all its free! All the film information and timings are below:

Wednesday 13 August 2014

The New Dietrich: Sari Maritza and Lauren Bacall Tribute

Touted by Paramount Pictures in 1932 at the “New Dietrich”, Sari Maritza was as beautiful, exotic and captivating as her acting counterpart but without the dedication and longevity. Maritza was a Paramount acquisition groomed and educated like no other with the company’s executives waiting months before committing her to a picture. However, this highly anticipated and talented actress only appeared in pictures for four years, retiring to engross herself in her many and sadly short-lived marriages. Like so many Hollywood hopefuls, despite talent, good-looks and the backing of a large production company, Maritza’s acting abilities were never fully realized.
 Born Dora Patricia Detering-Nathan, on March 17, 1910 in Tientsin, China, Maritza’s early life – according to early media reports – was something out of a fairytale. The daughter of a mining company owner and British Army Major, Walter Nathan, and an Austrian noblewoman, she reportedly lived in a medieval castle surrounded a moat. Similar to most wealthy foreign girls born in China, Maritza was educated at a number of elite boarding schools in England, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This upbringing gave her brains as well as deportment with the actress reportedly able to speak at least four languages. After graduating, newspapers commented, “she suddenly decided after loafing at European spas for several years at the expense of her wealthy parents, that she’d like to go onto the stage.” While in England, Maritza caught the attention of theatrical manager, Vivyan Gaye, who stated, “here was a gal with a future.”
Accordingly, Maritza and Gaye decided to change her name to suit her exotic, European appearance. The pair resolved on Sari Maritza (pronounced SHA-ree MAR-ee-tsa) a combination of two popular Viennese musical comedies Sari and Countess Maritza. However instead of beginning on the stage as Gaye instructed, Maritza chose to utilize her almost perfect English diction on the new medium of talking pictures. Her first screen credits were unexceptional playing secondary roles in three low budget British films, Bed and Breakfast (1930), Greek Street (1930) and No Lady (1931) with Lupino Lane.
Chaplin with Maritza (far right) and Vivyan Gaye (second from left)
Her breakout into the American popular conscious occurred the same year while filming UK/ Germany film Monte Carlo Madness (1932) in Berlin. Maritza met legendary actor and filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin, during his world tour promoting the film City Lights (1931). He apparently became infatuated with the actress and appeared at a number of prominent society events and parities together. The couple made headlines at the opening of the film at the London premiere when Chaplin walked in with Maritza on his arm and famously danced the tango during the night. The media went wild assuming she would become his leading lady in his next two pictures. Although, this never occurred the publicity spring-boarded Maritza into the eyes of Hollywood studio bosses and later that year signed a contract with Paramount studios.
Paramount spent months perfecting Maritza’s acting style and publicity machine before starring her in her first picture. The company originally planned for their star to appear in The Girl in the Headlines, which was to be directed by George Cukor but never eventuated. Her first film for Paramount became the Forgotten Commandments (1932) a sort of accompanying piece to Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The Ten Commandments (1923). The final cut even included mostly recycled or left-over footage from DeMille’s film. The movie had mixed reviews; however, Maritza was received well with The New York Times reviewer stating she did a “competent performance.”

Maritza completed only six more films before her early retirement. Most were second rate properties that Paramount’s more popular star, Marlene Dietrich, turned down. Although she had a short career, Maritza worked with several first-rate and legendary actors. She appeared opposite W.C. Fields in wacky, slapstick comedy International House (1932), Eric von Strohiem in World War I drama Crimson Romance (1934) and The Right to Romance alongside Ann Harding and Nils Aster. The low budget Crimson Romance would prove the last on screen role for Maritza who believed that she couldn’t act and was sick of the façade producers made her enact.
In 1934, she shocked Hollywood by eloping Phoenix, Arizona with MGM producer, Sam Katz. They divorced ten years later with Maritza claiming Katz called her “stupid” and “left her alone while he took evenings out.” Sometime later she remarried, George Clother, an economics student in Washington DC. Maritza stayed mostly out of the public eye until her death in July, 1987. During the resurrection of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the prevalence of film historians and preservers, rumours appeared claiming Maritza and, her friend and long term roommate, were secret lesbians. This was probably due to the friendship Maritza shared with actors Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, also thought to be in a homosexual relationship. The rumours claim the foursome would act as beards for each other at public events. Newspaper reports from 1934 – before Maritza’s retirement – even assert Maritza and Scott had a secret engagement and marriage when they were seen holidaying alone together. These reports are most likely false as Gaye was married to director, Ernest Lubitsch, from 1935 to 1944 as well as Maritza’s two known marriages.  
Maritza was never featured in newspapers nor appeared at Hollywood functions again. She died in July 1987 aged 77 at her home in the US Virgin Islands. She was another example in a long line of Hollywood starlets that never reached their screen or stardom potential. Although Maritza believed she had no acting talent, like many other actors of the studio era it was probably the pressure to live a glorified and false existence that ruined her chances at a long term career. Her beauty was otherworldly and voice, crisp and elegant; however, because of her relatively small body of work she will not be remembered today.          
Lauren Bacall Tribute
Before I finish for the day I have to acknowledge the recent death of actress, legend and overall great lady, Lauren Bacall. On film and in life she was a gem and someone I will always look up to as the pinnacle of charm, grace and talent. Every interview I have seen of her, she is engaging, funny and revealing. She will be sadly missed and I encourage everyone to check out her autobiography By Myself, which I found a wonderful read both for film lovers and novices and will always be close by me wherever I go. R.I.P Betty/ Lauren.  

Thursday 31 July 2014

The Gentleman Gangster: Stone Wallace on George Raft – Part 2

This is part two of an interview I completed with George Raft biographer, Stone Wallace. For part one, click here. For everyone else, enjoy:

Emma: How did Raft get into film acting? Did he have any training before beginning acting or was he simply a natural performer?     
Stone: George was friendly with Texas Guinan, a famous cabaret hostess of the time and partner with mobster Larry Fay in the El Fey Club.  (The pair were later immortalized, if somewhat fictionally, as Eddie Bartlett and Panama Smith in The Roaring Twenties, played respectively by James Cagney and Gladys George). George often danced at the club and when Texas was asked to go to Hollywood to appear in the movie Queen of the Night Clubs, George accompanied her - either as merely a companion or maybe her bodyguard. George appeared briefly in the movie. He initially was filmed doing a whirlwind dance number but the scene was cut for some reason and instead George can quickly be seen enthusiastically waving a baton while conducting a night club orchestra. George appeared in a few other minor film roles, such as Goldie and Side Street and eventually decided to try and make acting his career. The clubs in New York where George had earlier enjoyed success were rapidly closing down due to the Depression and George was anxious to try another line of work - one preferably related to show business. It took him a while and apparently he endured some rough times trying to establish himself, but he got his first break when director Rowland Brown ran into Raft at a prize fight and remembered George from his impressive dancing in vaudeville and cast him as Spencer Tracy's second-in-command in the gangster drama Quick Millions. From there, George was off and running. His next "big" break came when Howard Hawks cast him as Paul Muni's henchman in Scarface.  His success in that film led to his being placed under contract to Paramount.
Interesting about Scarface. Jack LaRue told me that it was he who was originally cast in the Guino Rinaldo role but that after just a few days' filming director Hawks felt that LaRue possessed too much authority to be believable as Muni's henchman. LaRue accepted the dismissal gracefully and even (supposedly) suggested his pal George Raft for the role. I tend not to believe this account. LaRue was just beginning his own career in movies and it seems unlikely an actor hungry for his own success would introduce his own competition. In any event, if true, Raft reciprocated the favour when he turned down The Story of Temple Drake and LaRue was given the role. Unfortunately, the results for Jack LaRue were much less favourable for his future career.

Emma: Would you say the Paramount years were the most successful for George Raft?
Stone: I'm really not a huge fan of most of Raft's Paramount output. I think George fared much better at Warners and it's interesting to speculate how his career would have progressed had he signed with Warners after the success of Scarface rather than going to Paramount. Paramount had a more European style whereas Warners of course was urban and gritty. But I will say that well into his Paramount contract George scored big with three features: The Glass Key, Souls at Sea and Spawn of the North (probably my second favourite Raft film). What is interesting is that Raft's last film for the studio, The Lady's from Kentucky, was relegated to the second feature on the double bill. Doesn't really say much for George's future with Paramount.

Raft and Robinson
Emma: On a personal note, Raft had a short lived relationship with his only wife, Grayce Mulrooney, although they never legally separated. How did the pair meet and why did you think they never divorced?
Stone: Grayce Mulrooney had been one of George's early ballroom partners, later to leave show business to work as a social worker, and while George dated many girls, Grayce held a particular attraction to George. While he wasn't exactly keen on the idea of getting married and settling down given that he was focusing on advancing his career, he eventually gave in to her (persistent) demands that they marry and they wed in 1923 when George embarked on a four-month tour with on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit. The union was rocky right from the start and as far as Raft was concerned, his marriage to Grayce pretty much ended shortly after their honeymoon. Ironically, legally, because a divorce was never obtained, George Raft had one of Hollywood's most lasting marriages: from 1923 until Grayce Mulrooney's death in 1970. Forty-seven years. Incidentally, there's a rumour that George actually had been married once before and that he had a son from that union. To my knowledge, it was something that - if true - George never discussed.
The reason Grayce gave for never divorcing George was because of her devout Catholicism. Raft believed her reasons were more selfish, that she felt it would be worth more financially to stay married to him than to merely accept a cut-and-dried divorce settlement. After all, she was receiving a hefty ten percent of his earnings and at his height George was averaging more than five grand a week.

Emma: Raft notoriously had several extra-marital affairs; including apparently with famous actresses, such as, Norma Shearer, Betty Grable and Marlene Dietrich. Were any of these relationships serious? Was he seriously considering marrying any of them?
Stone: Another rumour was that George might not have really wanted a divorce from Grayce. Staying legally wed provided a convenient way for him ever to have to tie himself down in a relationship; allowed him to maintain his freedom. Raft always denied such was his intention. He said that he desperately wanted to marry socialite Virginia Pine and, later, Betty Grable, and had literally pleaded with Grayce on more than one occasion to divorce him. But she stubbornly refused. After his romance with Grable dissolved, Raft never allowed himself to get involved in a serious relationship and he dated primarily starlets (such as Barbara Payton) and hookers. It's interesting to contemplate how Raft's life would have fared had he ever been allowed the experience of marital life. If George sincerely did want to marry either Virginia Pine or Betty Grable, I think it's sad that he was denied this happiness because of what I view as a greedy and maybe vindictive wife.
Raft's relationship with Norma Shearer was another matter. Their coupling was frowned upon by MGM head Louis B. Mayer, who said: "A nice Jewish girl like Norma should not be going around with a roughneck like that." Meaning Raft, of course. It is doubtful that their relationship ever would have led to marriage, however. They were merely steady dating companions; after all Norma hadn't been widowed that long from Irving Thalberg, whom she deeply loved - as did L.B.
 Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard were two gals Raft admits he was crazy about. While George and Carole occasionally dated, there could be no future for a lasting relationship with the shadow of Grayce Mulrooney always looming overhead. Carole also once made the comment that no girl could stand up to George Raft's sexual needs. He had quite a reputation in that area, which I will tactfully refrain from elaborating on. Raft also apparently had a fling with Dietrich but a long term romantic relationship never developed between the two, though each deeply admired the other, personally and professionally. With all the turmoil that went on between Raft and Edward G. Robinson during the filming of Manpower, Dietrich wrote in her autobiography that she retained only the warmest memories of George Raft as her co-star in the movie.

Raft and Betty Grable
Emma: Your book’s title clearly shows the connection between Raft’s and Humphrey Bogart’s careers. Raft is notorious for turning down the starring roles in what would become famous Bogart pictures, such as, High Sierra and Maltese Falcon. Do you think Raft could have executed these roles as well as Bogart? Also, do you see other similarities between the men, such as, acting styles?

Stone: I think Raft would have done very well as urban gangster and former street kid "Baby Face" Martin in Dead End. After all, that was Raft's milieu, unlike Bogie who was born into privilege (if not a particularly happy home life). I'm not as sure about High Sierra. Bogart had already played a grassroots bandit in The Petrified Forest, whereas, again, Raft was more closely associated with the suave, well-dressed "night club"-type of racketeer. It's kind of like trying to picture George Raft as a cowboy, which I don't think ever would have come off. As for The Maltese Falcon, the picture certainly would have been different with Raft essaying the role of Sam Spade . . . but arguably it could have worked because of John Huston's expert direction. If Raft behaved himself on the set I think Huston could have coaxed an effective performance out of him. Would it have been as good a film as the version we now have? Probably not. The movie has a terrific ensemble cast and the players work in a near-perfect synchronicity, like the finest tuned clockwork. I feel that Raft might have somehow upset that balance. I do know that Huston adamantly did not want to work with Raft, whom he did not particularly care for as an actor or as a person, once referring to him as a "definite Mafia type." Huston expected there to be trouble on the set based on Raft's reputation - and besides he had Bogart in mind for the part all along.

Of course the story about Raft turning down Casablanca is false, even though in later years Raft himself perpetuated the story (like Bela Lugosi later claiming it was he who persuaded Universal to cast Boris Karloff as the monster in Frankenstein). The truth is that Raft actually campaigned for the role of Rick, and Jack Warner was okay to cast him, but Hal Wallis and Michael Curtiz wanted Bogart. Wallis, in particular, had grown dissatisfied with how George thought he could dictate solely what was right or wrong for him when it came to projects. Had Raft taken on The Maltese Falcon, then it is possible he might have been awarded Casablanca, but thanks to George's career blunders at the studio, Bogart had risen rapidly through the ranks and was no longer regarded as "George Raft's brother-in-law."

Emma: What do you feel was George's main strength as an actor?
Stone: I've always said that George Raft performed at his best when paired with a strong (usually male) co-star. The proof is in the pudding: Consider Quick Millions (Spencer Tracy), Scarface (Paul Muni), The Bowery (Wallace Beery), Souls at Sea (Gary Cooper), Spawn of the North  (Henry Fonda), Each Dawn I Die (Cagney), Invisible Stripes and They Drive By Night (Bogart), Manpower (Edward G. Robinson) - up until Rogue Cop (Robert Taylor). And of course talented directors like Howard Hawks, Henry Hathaway, Lloyd Bacon,  Raoul Walsh, Billy Wilder. Since I know you are an admirer of Bolero,  I will also concede having a co-star like Carole Lombard definitely didn't hurt. But if you look at when Raft's career began to fade, you'll notice the (lack of) calibre of his co-star and directors not particular of the highest talent.

Emma: Raft probably does not have the legend status nor the enduring appeal today of Bogart. However, the stereotype of the film ‘gangster’ was created by him along with a handful of others. Why do you think Raft is not remembered today in a similar way to Bogart or Cagney?
Stone: Simply, bad career choices. A determined stubbornness not to be typecast as a gangster or hoodlum and, to a lesser extent, his desire not to die on-camera. It is obvious that Raft took his decision over accepting film roles seriously. He once said he wanted the public to like him (which I feel demonstrates his innate insecurity) and that was why he turned down the gangster roles in The Story of Temple Drake and Dead End. He found the role of "Trigger" in the former repulsive and sincerely worried that if he took on the part audiences would think he, George Raft, was like the character and that his future as an actor would be finished. Jack LaRue took on the role and it's true that his career never really took off afterward. So George's argument actually might have been valid. He rejected Dead End because he did not want the character of "Baby Face" Martin to encourage the kids in the film to partake of a life of crime, and of course that would have negated the whole point of the story. Later, of course, came the famous Warner Brothers rejections. What's really ironic and makes one question George Raft's thinking is why he would turn down the part of sympathetic gangster Roy Earle in High Sierra, a big-budget movie based on a bestselling novel by a recognized writer, and virtually beg to go on loan-out to United Artists to appear as a gangster (who dies at the end) in a much lesser - and silly - production: The House Across the Bay? A box of cigars to anyone who can figure out the reasoning behind that decision. I think what also really hurt George's career was his insistence after leaving the gates of Warner Brothers to play mainly good guys. The roles, in smaller budget movies at lesser studios, very soon became monotonous for audiences. In fact, when Billy Wilder approached Raft about playing the opportunistic insurance agent Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, Raft insisted on knowing when Neff was going to flash open his badge to reveal to Barbara Stanwyck that he was really an undercover cop. So much for George Raft in the part. In the 50s George Raft's "star" shone twice more - though briefly. And both times it was with him playing a gangster: Rogue Cop and Some Like it Hot. On the set of the latter Raft was quoted as saying: "Typecasting again. But what can you do about it? I just never seemed to get the breaks that Bogart and Cagney did."
The truth is, Raft was afforded virtually all of the breaks. He just never took advantage of them. John Huston said of Raft during the time George was under contract at Warners: "Everything at the studio was intended for George Raft." From The Sea Wolf to The Maltese Falcon, these were good parts that George missed out on. His beneficiaries in these roles became legends while Raft in the years to come became a nearly forgotten name.
Here's an enlightening story: A friend of mine appeared as an extra in the movie What Price Glory? and one day overheard James Cagney speaking with his co-star Dan Dailey. Cagney was saying that George Raft could have been one of the biggest stars in Hollywood if he'd only used better judgment. Raft would in later years place much of the blame on bad advice given him by his agent. But I don't quite buy it. Raft was a fiercely independent personality and was perfectly capable of making his own choices. Just too bad that many of them were bad.

Emma: Out of all the Hollywood figures in Hollywood, why did you choose Raft to be the focus of your biography?
Stone: Because I think George Raft is one of the most fascinating show business personalities, yet, career missteps aside, he has never really received his due. Today he's nowhere near as known as many of his movie contemporaries. He may not have been a great actor, but as I said before, he had a tremendous presence that even the most jaded critic would have to say was hard to turn attention away from. The guy was watchable. It is interesting how the program Biography did stories on Bogie, Cagney, Eddie Robinson and even John Garfield, yet Raft, who led the most colourful life of all, was never featured, and I even wrote to A&E to request they do a program on Raft. I mean from his days as a tough kid surviving Hell's Kitchen, his lifelong association with the underworld, top Hollywood stardom, then his career nosedive due to his turning down roles in films that became enduring Hollywood classics. His experience in Cuba during the Castro Revolution and his later expulsion from England. And of course his Don Juan reputation with famous and beautiful women of the day - and that is an article in itself.
To quote Bogie as Sam Spade in the famous role that George Raft turned down: "The stuff dreams are made of."

I don’t think I can end this article better than that other than to say a big thankyou to Stone Wallace for answering my questions. Also for anyone interesting in the career and personal life of George Raft, check out Stone’s book: George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart.  

Thursday 24 July 2014

The Gentleman Gangster: Stone Wallace on George Raft – Part 1

In 1999 when the AFI released their 100 years…100 stars list of the top 50 greatest screen legends, most mainstream leading ladies and men were accounted for. They included Bogart – the dramatic actor, Cagney – the gangster, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly – the musical stars, Charlies Chaplin, Buster Keaton and The Marx Brothers – the comedians and Kirk Douglas, Marlon Brando and Sydney Poitier – the new age. But I think every avid classic film fan has at least one or two objections to the list. For me I like to imagine George Raft has place 51. He was as accomplished an actor as Robinson or Bogart. He could dance as well as Astaire and Kelly and he was more alluringly handsome than James Dean, Gary Cooper and William Holden combined. However, due to a few career blunders and bad advice, Raft doesn’t have the enduring appeal that his talent and charm should have demanded. Another person who shares my view is Stone Wallace, film historian and author of George Raft: The Man Who Would be Bogart. He graciously gave me an interview on everything George Raft – his films, career and all the juicy facts about his much publicized personal life. Because there is so much information I decided to break the interview into two parts. Below is part 1, enjoy:  

Emma: My all-time favourite film of Raft’s is Bolero as I think it shows his dramatic acting talents as well as dancing abilities. Do you have a favourite film of Rafts? Do you prefer him in a tough-guy gangster role or as a dancer?

Stone: I confess that I prefer George as a tough guy, and he excelled in such roles, especially visually. It was said that Raft patterned many of his on-camera hoodlums on gangsters he had known during his early New York days. But it's also true that some real-life gangsters modelled themselves on George Raft. "Bugsy" Siegel tried to emulate Raft's style of dress. "Crazy Joe" Gallo used to stand on the street corner flipping coins and talking out the side of his mouth.  Despite his talents as an actor, George Raft had influence.
Lombard and Raft in Bolero (1934)
I first discovered George Raft watching him play against Cagney in Each Dawn I Die during a summer spent in Chicago where I whetted my appetite for all things vintage underworld, which since early boyhood has always been my passion. Raft's "Hood" Stacey was an unforgettable screen character and I was immediately impressed by how Raft played (or effectively underplayed) the role and how much presence he had. He created the classic screen gangster: tough but ultimately courageous. Cagney himself admitted that Raft stole the picture from him. High praise indeed!
As for a favourite film: I enjoy all of his Warner Brothers output but I would have to give the nod to Invisible Stripes. Another great role for George: a sympathetic criminal. But the film also boasts a terrific supporting cast: Bogie, a young William Holden, and three favourite screen tough guys: Marc Lawrence, Paul Kelly and Joe Downing.

Emma: I read that Raft’s early life was spent with a number of ‘shady characters’ including some who would become key figures in the New York gangster underworld. What features of his upbringing do you think prevented him from entering a life of crime? Was it character or luck?
Stone: Raft said that the only two ways for a kid to survive Hell's Kitchen was to become a criminal or succeed at sports. And in George's case that pretty much held true since he never received much schooling.  I don't think he even finished grammar school. George, of course, was never truly a criminal. I'd say he remained on the outer fringes of the underworld. He did try sports: boxing and baseball, but was not very successful at either. Where he made his mark, of course, was as a dancer. And a dancer during those days in New York generally played at clubs that were associated with the underworld and so George rubbed shoulders with everyone from "Mad Dog" Coll to Dutch Schultz. His closest pal in the rackets, though, was a man whom George had basically grown up with who became one of New York's top mobsters: Owney Madden. George willingly did "chores" for Madden because of their close friendship - primarily helping to run booze during those years of Prohibition. And later it was Madden who suggested that George should try his luck in the movies. Even bankrolling Raft until George got his "break" in pictures.
George did once say that he did hold youthful ambitions to become a big shot in the underworld but that he really didn't have what it took and, more importantly, he didn't want to disappoint his mother, whom he adored. In fact, she once caught George with a gun on his person and asked him not to come around the apartment again. This hurt George so much that he really tried to distance himself from participation in the rackets and put more effort into a career as a dancer - a vocation his mother heartily approved of.
Raft with Siegel

Emma: Even after he became a Hollywood star, Raft was dogged by claims that he was involved in organised crime. He definitely seemed to have enduring friendships with several crime figures, do you think any of the suspicions were true?
Stone: It's a gray area when it comes to his participating in any underworld activities after he became a movie star. Again, there have been rumours and Frances Dee, his co-star in Souls at Sea, once said: "Everyone knew that he (Raft) was a gangster," though she never amplified her comment. But as for his friendship with crime figures: Certainly. Especially  his open and publicized friendship with "Bugsy" Siegel. But in fairness, many other stars became friendly with Siegel, who apparently could be as charming as they come and a fine and generous companion. Heck, Jean Harlow was godmother to Siegel's daughter Millicent. And a film figure as respected as Pat O'Brien could be found playing handball with Siegel. Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper - even studio head Jack L. Warner were seen in Siegel's company. Unfortunately, because George did have a past association with the underworld and also because of his screen reputation, his association with Siegel hurt him more than it did other Hollywood celebrities. I think audiences of the day wanted to believe George Raft really was a gangster and palling around with a known mobster like The Bug solidified that reputation. What really sealed the deal, in my opinion, was when Raft, against orders from studio executives, went to bat for Siegel during the latter's bookmaking trial. He testified on Siegel's behalf and at one point risked a contempt of court charge because he became so vehement in his defense of Siegel that he completely disregarded court protocol. And there's that famous photo of George and Siegel grinning at each other like Cheshire cats outside the courtroom that made front page headlines. What's unfortunate is that Raft did not need negative publicity at this point in his career. He was starting the downward spiral in '47.

Emma: Because of his background an underworld associations, did George Raft embrace or resent being cast as a movie tough guy?
Stone: I don't think he objected to being a tough guy, provided his characters were on the side of good, such as in They Drive by Night and Manpower, where he played "men of the people." Also later in his career where he played a succession of detectives and such. But I do feel that the gangster image might have hit a little too close to home. However, it did serve him well early in his career and certainly did make George Raft into a star. But once he reached that level of stardom where he could choose his roles (even at the risk of studio suspension - and by the way Raft holds the record at Paramount for the most time an actor was placed on suspension - 22 times in 7 years!) he clearly wanted to distance himself from playing hoods and racketeers, which is unfortunate because those decisions cost him roles in gems like Dead End and High Sierra.

Emma: He seemed to have a colourful young adulthood having stints as a dancer, chorus boy and an actor in vaudeville. How did Raft become interested in dancing? Is it true that he worked on some occasions with Rudolph Valentino?
Stone: Actually, Raft began his dancing career simply by hanging out at dance studios around New York. He possessed a natural ability and - like Cagney - had a knack for picking up dance routines quickly. He studied the moves of dancers of the day, perfected them to his own unique style, and was soon off and running. His mother was one of his earliest dance partners and they used to enter dance competitions together. George's specialty was always the Charleston and whenever he performed that number it never failed to bring down the house. Unlike Cagney, whose dance moves were stiff and somewhat eccentric (and I don't mean that in a bad way), George's dancing was fluid and sinuous, almost snake-like. But both men tremendously admired each other's dancing (and it should be noted that Fred Astaire  was also a huge fan of Raft's fancy footwork) and it was Cagney who personally recommended George for his dance contest rival in Taxi!
Yes, George and Valentino did work in New York tea rooms before Rudy made it big in the movies. Women (usually lonely, unattractive or elderly) would sip on cups of tea and study and then choose their dance companion - paying for the privilege, of course - and maybe even entice them into an after-hours rendezvous. Unfortunately, it was likely this experience that later was to tag George as a gigolo, a condemnation which he abhorred and vehemently denied. After Valentino died (and George remembered visiting with him shortly before his death and saw a very unhappy man), Raft was approached by theatrical producers to go on tour with some of Valentino's former dancing partners - including an act with one of Valentino's wives, Jean Acker, but Raft, to his credit, rejected all of these "ghoulish" propositions. Besides, he wanted to "make it" on his own merits, not capitalize off the fame of a deceased friend. But there was some logic in these offers as Raft possessed a striking resemblance to Rudy.
Cagney and Raft
 Get ready for part two including insight in Raft’s personal relationships and legacy!!!

Friday 11 July 2014

Even in Precode - Nobody’s Perfect

Hollywood, since the 1920’s, has been jokingly known as the community of fakers, liars and ‘Yes-man’. However once in a while a character stands out and breaks the mould as well as few a egos.

Gloria Swanson by Stanlaws
Penrhyn Stanlaws was a portrait painting genius in the early 20th Century and, like rival Charles Dana Gibson, even had his own set of ‘Stanlaws Girls’. Born in Dundee, Scotland in 1877, his artworks graced the covers of countless popular magazines from Collier’s, Life, Saturday Evening Post, The American Magazine and Heart’s International. He became a faviourite of many of the silent Hollywood stars including Anna Q. Nilsson and Olive Thomas, who was the subject of Stanlaws’ famous nude portrait “Between Poses’. In 1920, Stanlaws moved from New York to Hollywood and used his artistic eye to direct films. He is credited as directing seven features including four Betty Compson pictures - At the End of the World (1921), The Little Minister (1921), The Law and the Woman (1922) and Over the Border (1922) - and two Bebe Daniels films - Singed Wings (1922) and Pink Gods (1922).

A year later and, strangely, around the same time Stanlaws first criticized the appearance of some of films most popular beauties, he retired from directing to live in an artist’s community in Woodstock. He returned to California two decades later but never again resumed his career in the film industry. He died in sad circumstances on May 20, 1957 from a fire that engulfed his Los Angeles home. Investigators reported found the fire had started from a cigarette that Stanlaws was smoking before absentmindedly falling asleep. However, Stanlaws legend encompasses more than his successes as an artist or director. During his short time in Hollywood, Stanlaws, famously spoke out twice about the real state of popular film star’s beauty. In 1923 and 1933, he made scandalous claims about the physical imperfections of many leading ladies. I highlight the word ladies as Stanlaws did not feel the need to comment on the appearance of the male stars. The Montreal Gazette called him a “bold” and a “brave” man for publicising his views.
Olive Thomas by Stanlaws
Read his controversial comments from 1923, published in the Syracuse Herald, January 7, 1923:
·         “Betty Blythe is muscle bound in her hips. She has horse nostrils. Betty Compson’s hips are too prominent and are muscle-bound.” 
·         “Viola Dana has a big nose that is heavy at the end; jawbones are too wide and chin too prominent.
·         “Bebe Daniels figure is good, but she keeps her mouth open too much. Pauline Fredrick’s eyelids are too heavy.”
·         “Dorothy Gish sisters have imperfect noses, Lips too large, also. Lillian Gish as imperfect as Dorothy.”
·         “Phyllis Haver has a face like a diamond with too many facets.  It is over-modeled.
·         “Lila Lee’s figure is stocky and face is too flat. Shirley Mason’s faults are deep-set eyes and horse nostrils.
·         “Mary Miles Minter is too matronly because she carries herself stiffly. Nazimova’s eyes are too large for her face and her head is too big.
·         “Pola Negri – her face is too square. Mary Pickford shares the common blemish of too large a head.
·         “Marie Prevost’s neck is too short. Ruth Roland has a moon face and her lips are too large.”
·         “Gloria Swanson’s head is too heavy for her body.  Her nose is retrousse.
·         “Constance Talmadge has an inadequate mouth and chin, Norma Talmadge has a bulbous nose.”
·         “Clair Windsor’s eyes are set too high in her head.

And 1933, published in the Montreal Gazette, November 17 1933:
·         Mae West – “Her head, eyes and mouth were constructed for a simple nose, but nature presented her with a complicated one – interestingly modelled, but bringing the eyes too close together.”
Magazine cover by Stanlaws
·         Katherine Hepburn – “Her chin and the lower part of her face project too far. Anthropologists have a name for such a facial type; they call it prognathism. Artists call it ‘horsey’”.
·         Constance Bennett – “A real symphony in jazz – her nose too small for her face.”
·         Greta Garbo – “She has a sleepy, sophisticated look, attained by deep eye sockets and a peculiar slant of the upper lip. These are not aids to beauty, but schoolgirls find the effect more alluring than beauty.”
·         Jean Harlow – “She has a graceful and expressive figure – between that of the ‘90s and the boyish form. Her face is the same type as Katherine Hepburn’s, but more so, caused by her nose projecting at too sharp an angle.”
·         Lupe Velez – her, “figure is the ‘true maidenly’ one, he said, and her face is mobile so she ‘can look sophisticated or innocent at will.’”
·         Ann Harding – “Fine symmetrical features – but so nearly approaching the classic type that repose of is essential to beauty.”
·         Kay Francis - “Nicely-balanced features – head in fine proportion to body – oversized triceps of the arms.”
·         Marlene Dietrich – “Take Mary Pickford’s head, replace it with one slightly out of drawing, give her heavy eyelids and sunken eyes and you have Dietrich – a sophisticated Mary.”
·         Joan Crawford and Joan Blondell – “have Mae West’s unusually prominent features, but their ‘skull construction isn’t large enough to carry them.”
His comments are obviously judgemental, negative, sometimes unclear and just plain rude. He was evidently searching for a kind of superficial perfection that wasn’t possible. I initially also found the comments slightly bigoted and outrageous as he focused only on belittling the appearance of the female actors not their male counterparts. However, now I believe his opinion to be useful for film fans both now and then as he was highlighting (perhaps not in the best possible way) the inherent imperfection of human beings whether they be actors or accountants. Although, I prefer the words of Hollywood photographer, Clarence Sinclair Bull, who said, “really pretty faces don’t seem to last [in the movie mecca]…It’s the interesting faces that folks remember.”

Sunday 29 June 2014

The Tyrannical Wallace Beery: Gloria Swanson – Part 2

For all those new to the odd and perhaps scandalous relationship between Wallace Beery and Gloria Swanson, check out part 1. If not let’s catch up with the story: 

As I said before, despite the age difference, Hollywood, family and arguments, Swanson and Beery were finally marriage. It was on the couple’s wedding night that the marriage (according to Swanson) turned violent.  Swanson claims during their first night together and with her mother in an adjoining room, Beery raped her. Beery had apparently spent a couple hours drinking at a local bar and was drunk when he went up to bed that night. This is a segment of Swanson’s account of the night:     

 I was brushing my hair when he came into the room. He gave me a look that made me turn away, but he didn’t say anything. Then he turned out the light and in the darkness pulled me to him. I gave a coquettish little command to stop that I thought would make him laugh. Still he said nothing. He turned me and pushed me backward until I fell on the bed. He fell beside me, and there was nothing romantic about the way he began to repeat that I was driving him crazy.
He was raking his hands over me and pulling at my nightie until I heard it rip. I pleaded with him to stop, to wait, to turn on the light. His beard was scraping my skin and his breath smelled. He kept repeating obscene things and making advances with his hand and tongue while he turned his body this way and that and awkwardly undid his buttons and squirmed out of his clothes.
Then he forced my body into position and began hurting me, hurting me terribly. I couldn’t stand it. I begged him to stop, to listen to me, and finally when I couldn’t stand it any longer, I screamed. He told me to be quiet, not to wake the whole hotel, and he said it in a voice of quiet, filthy conspiracy. The pain became so great that I thought I must be dying. I couldn’t move for the pain. When he finally rolled away, I could feel blood everywhere.
The shocking events of that night made Swanson immediately regret her hastily marriage but could not foreseeably get out of it. After the honeymoon the Berry’s moved into Beery’s parent’s house. They were apparently “icy and distant” and Swanson after only a fortnight after the wedding was seriously contemplating divorce. But nothing seemed to improve for the newlyweds, with Beery’s infidelities, drinking, debts and uncertain acting career compounding to make Swanson’s life unbearable. A month later Swanson found she was pregnant. Beery, still wanting to keep the marriage together for the sake of his career, told his wife everything would get better and appeared overjoyed at her news. A couple days later after suffering stomach pain, Beery gave Swanson a handful of tablets he claimed to have gotten from a pharmacy. The caused Swanson to be rushed to hospital and, near death and in excruciating pain, she was told she had lost her baby. When she recovered, she later found the pills were a method to induce a miscarriage and that Beery had knowingly aborted her child. 
A scene from Teddy at the Throttle (1917)
After this incident the pair separated. Swanson, trying to ignore her failed marriage through herself into film work appearing in several more Sennett shorts before signing with Paramount in 1919. She and Beery only appeared in one more film together Teddy at the Throttle (1917). The movie sadly seem to imitate life as Beery, in his typical villain role, had to tie Swanson up and place her on train tracks. According to Swanson, Beery deliberately used excessive force when making those scenes and even left deep marks on her arms.  The pair eventually divorced in 1919 to allow Swanson to marry her next husband, Herbert K. Somborn.

Most sources for the marriage between Swanson and Beery, have admittedly been either unreliable or probably biased. Swanson’s autobiography Swanson on Swanson plays a large part in constructing the past events. This information could be prejudiced but I can’t believe Swanson would fabricate rape and a forced abortion. Likewise, Parson’s account of their early relationship is also problematic. She was known to have special relationships, deals and partialities towards or against certain personalities and, in addition, the article was written over fifteen years after the events occurred. Perhaps – like most publicity driven tales in Hollywood – when attempting to understand the events one has to accept the fact of weighing up biased evidence against biased evidence.  As both Swanson and Beery have passed away nothing more can be known except the small bits of history, articles and an autobiography they left behind.   
Beery also from Teddy at the Throttle (1917)