Friday 29 July 2016

Jeanette MacDonald: MGM Love Triangle - Part 3 (final)

Finally (as in three years late!) here is the final installment of my trilogy on the tragic love story between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy and the lengths MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer went to cover up the adulterous affair. I know, I know, this is massively late but better late than never, hopefully. Okay, to catch up read Part 1 then Part 2.
Now, Part 3:
The passing from the 1930's into the 1940's brought even more heartbreak for the on-again/ off-again couple of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Following the success of their first Technicolor film Sweethearts (1938), the pair took a break from their film pairings and both moved on to appear in separate vehicles.
Nelson Eddy feeds Jeanette MacDonald her birthday cake, June (1938). 
While they were apart and MacDonald was recuperating from a miscarriage, Eddy, did something that would ruin their relationship for several years - he married! According to MacEddy.com, Nelson's wedding to Ann Franklin was undertaken under a haze of drunkenness and blackmail. Apparently, following a night binging with then friend Franklin, Eddy awoke naked and hungover. Despite having no recollection of the night's events, Franklin claimed Eddy had made violent love to her. Confused and wanting to make amends to the distraught Franklin, Eddy married her in January 1939.
Eddy and Ann Franklin
As you can imagine, this came as a massive shock to the weakened MacDonald who was simultaneously plotting a way to divorce her husband, Gene Raymond. Depressed, she swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills only to be saved by director, Woody Van Dyke. The press reported a "severe cold' was the cause of MacDonald's illness.
MacDonald following her 'illness'
It would be the close friendship between MacDonald and Van Dyke that coerced the actress into her next film with Eddy. New Moon (released mid-1940) brought the pair together after almost a year apart. Although filming began tense and cold, the couple rekindled their love towards the end of the shoot. Despite once again becoming a 'couple' of sorts, they knew there was no chance they could marry. The trio completed the successful MacDonald/ Eddy/ Van Dyke combination shortly after with
I Married an Angel (July 1942). To the public it was another MacDonald/ Eddy musical, but the film signaled the end of Eddy's contract with MGM. Having had enough of Louis B. Mayer's control, Eddy bought out his contract and moved to Universal. MacDonald completed one more film with the company and swiftly followed Eddy to Universal. Sadly, the move did nothing to resurrect their popular on-screen pairing with the duo not completing another film together.
Publicity still from I Married an Angel
As the decades rolled on, Eddy and MacDonald performed in the odd radio show together. Despite their continuous bad health, the pair worked steadily; MacDonald in opera, television and live performances and Eddy with films, television and a nightclub act. The pair continued being 'together' but at the same time married to different people. There was talk of each divorcing their respective spouses and marrying at some point in the late '40s but neither Eddy nor MacDonald could organise deals with their partners without major financial loss.
Rehearsing together in 1959
Only one event would permanently separate the couple - the death of Jeanette MacDonald. She passed away aged only 61 on January 14, 1965. MacDonald had been suffering heart problems for decades (including at least two heart attacks in the 1940s) which were being managed until she required an arterial transplant in 1963. After hearing news of her surgery, Eddy left his nightclub commitments in Australia and flew to be at her bedside. She was hospitalised for two months following the surgery. In late 1964 she back ill again and was rushed to hospital with abdominal adhesions. Strangely it was Eddy and not Raymond who was with her. She passed away a little over two months later.

It was Eddy not Raymond who required the most consolation at McDonald's funeral. He was the last to leave. A radio interview from Eddy done shortly after her death just broke my heart.

Eddy survived McDonald by only two years. Not happy years, they were filled with too much drinking and too much work. He died of a stroke on March 5, 1967 aged just 65.

Something interesting for McDonald/ Eddy lovers is a video of a 'This is Your Life' episode dedicated to the career of Jeanette McDonald. Her moments with Eddy are simply precious.

And as always check out maceddy.com for all the information on the off-screen and on-screen couple. 

Friday 22 July 2016

When Harlow was just an extra

It's hard to imagine that an actress with such obvious radiance and allure as Jean Harlow, had to battle it out with thousands of other starlets and chorus girls for extra and bit roles. It seems her star quality was not as clear to film moguls of the late 1920s as it is to contemporary viewers. 
Surprisingly, Harlow had an interesting and varied time before her appearance as the sultry Helen in Hells Angels (1930) and even up until the beginning of her MGM years in 1932. Whether it was studio indecision or Harlow's colourful personal life, her career didn't really get on track until Red Dust (1932). Her films roles before 1932 consisted of a strange array of vamps, gangster’s molls and blonde bimbos. Most Harlow-lovers will know of her early performances in The Secret Six (1931), Iron Man (1931) and Public Enemy (1931), but several of her more fleeting film appearances are not so well-known. Below are my top 5:

5) Why Be Good? (1929)
A great example of a Jazz era flapper film, Why Be Good? (1929) was not only a triumph for silent star Colleen Moore but a chance for film audiences to have a 'blink-and-you'll-miss-it' glimpse at a young Jean Harlow. Aged 18 and already with her signature platinum blonde hair, Harlow, was an obvious chose as an extra in the popular film. Harlow plays the dubious role of 'Blonde on Rooftop Bench at Junior's Second Party' and can barely be seen at the top right of this scene:

4) City Lights (1931)
Despite her breakthrough role in Hells Angels (1930), Harlow still appeared as an extra in subsequent films. One included in a nightclub scene in Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931). 
She is barely visible but seemed to make an impression on the maverick director according to a piece from a 1933 Liberty magazine found on the Discovering Chaplin website:  
"While City Lights was in the making, Charlie became interested in a young woman, an extra. The peculiar colour of her hair attracted him. She was provocatively alluring. 
"At the same table at which this extra girl was seated was an older woman. I learned they were mother and daughter. He instructed me to have the older woman promoted! She should play the bit of the indignant matron who sits upon the burning cigar in that sequence. It was only when he discovered that the woman her hair cut in a boyish bob that he changed his mind. 
"At the time I made a note that the name of the mother and daughter was Pope--a Mrs. Pope and Jean Pope. Later I discovered that the girl had blossomed forth--in Hell's Angels - as Jean Harlow! The mother was now Mrs. Marino Bello."
("The Private Life Of Charlie Chaplin" by Carlyle Robinson, Liberty, 1933)

3) Scarface (1932)
During her years playing mainly 'gold diggers' or 'gangster molls', Harlow made a surprise cameo appearance in iconic gangster film, Scarface (1932). Playing 'Blonde at Paradise Club', she appears more like the Harlow that would later become a box office favourite in Bombshell (1933) and Red Dust (1932). I should say there is still uncertainty whether or not it is in fact Harlow or a Harlow-look-a-like. Biographer David Stenn claims it is her while Mark Vieira said she was out of Hollywood at the time of the shoot. Take a look:

Saturday 9 July 2016

A to Z of Precode Gays & Lesbians

Despite any inference or inclusion of LGBT people or 'sex perversion' - as it was called - being a fundamental no-no in the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code, Precode films are full of references to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual people both to increase dramatic tension and for comedic effect. Whether as a 'sissy' or the stereotypical 'butch woman', several actors made a living out of playing these roles. Below is my A to Z of the best and worst of Precode LGBT:

A - Arthur, Johnny

A pretty and over-the-top actor, Johnny Arthur, took a break from his long term stage career to feature in films. With the coming of sound, Arthur was developed into a supportive, comedic relief character playing mostly overt homosexuals, 'pansies' or ultra-posh salesmen. He appeared in 26 Precode era films including the infamous lost movie, Convention City (1933). His best Precode appearances include in The Desert Song (1929), She Couldn't Say No (1930) and Penrod and Sam (1931). Arthur's quality and quantity or films decreased at the beginning of the war and never fully recovered. His 'pansy' typecast also technically became banned post-1934 but Arthur succeeded into more 'wimpy', 'weak' characters. He passed away, aged 68 on December 31, 1958. Despite acting in film for almost 30-years, there was no money in Arthur's estate for a proper burial and he grave was left unmarked until November 2012. 

B - Boys will be boys

Wonder Bar (1934) is filled with bags of controversy. Between the black-face musical scenes, adultery, innuendo and countless double entendres, murder without getting caught and even the main character seeming cajoling a man to commit suicide so he could dump a dead body in his car, it is pretty shocking. Therefore, it is not surprising, the film caught the eye of production code administrators. Despite these elements, the film is mostly talked about today because of its illusion to homosexuals (a banned subject at the time) through an interesting dance scene. A handsome man asks a dancing couple if he could cut in. The female partner, expecting his attention, agrees, only to see him dance with her male partner. The main character, played by Al Jolson, then flaps his wrist and says, "Boys will be boys! Woo!"

C - Call her Savage

Clara Bow's 1932 film Call Her Savage is one of those shocking Precode movies which even modern audiences might find cringe worthy. Featuring countless 'forbidden' topics including rape, mixed race relationships, swearing, alcoholism, prostitution, adultery and not to mention the tragic death of a new born baby living in poverty, this film has everything. Slotted in between scenes of craziness is one including two clearly gay waiters dressed as French maids dancing and singing in what appears to be a gay bar. The two men appear to be having a great time singing about the pleasures of sailors in pajamas and so is the audience.

D - Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich's performance as Amy Jolly in Morocco (1930) proved that the fierce, blonde diva could get away with pretty much anything in the eyes of Precode audiences. I am referring to the scene where Dietrich performs "Quand l'amour Meurt" or "When Love Dies" at a nightclub. Dressed in a top hat and tails (see Vests, pants and ties below), she proceeds to sing the song before taking a flower from the hair of a woman in the audience then playfully kissing her on the mouth. No one appears to question her actions and she is even applauded. This scene is the only hint at Dietrich's bisexually in the film with the plot essentially a love story between Dietrich and Gary Cooper.

E - Effeminate

Effeminate is just one term used to describe the not-spoken-but-obvious homosexual character. Other terms included - pansy, sissy, fairy, nannie, fruit, queer and queen. They were clearly portrayed with everything from their costume to manner to the actors that played them pointing to their homosexuality. Richard Barrios book 'Screened Out' described the stereotype as:
"The fedora hat, the gestures that alternatively swept and minced, the little mustachio, the flower in the lapel - the pansy was as immediately recognisable on screen as he was in the urban sidestreets."

F - Frederici, Blanche

At age 42, Blanche Frederici, was older than most actresses who appeared on film for the first time. Frederici was known for playing mostly stern, masculine and uptight women in her Precode era films. She was often typecast as an older governess, nurse or unhappy wife. Frederici is mostly known for her role of a housekeeper in Night Nurse (1931), a chaperone in Flying Down to Rio (1933) and as a motel' owner's wife in her last film, It Happened One Night (1934). She died suddenly and unexpectedly, aged just 55, of a heart attack on December 23, 1933.

G - Girl Crazy (1932) ect.

I am using the letter 'G' to refer to the crazy collection of Precode Wheeler and Woosley films. You can't refer to just one when talking about references to the LGBT community because all of their films seem to question the true on-screen sexuality of the pair whilst intermingling them with a seemingly endless supply of barely clothed (sometimes actually naked) women. The duo made 21 pictures together with Peach O'Reno (1931), Diplomaniacs (1934), and Hips Hips Hooray (1934) and Girl Crazy (1932) their best films. Unfortunately I don't have enough room to mention all the suspect scenes in W & W's films, but believe me they included everything from the 'sissy' roles to sleeping in the same bed (Diplomaniacs) to double entendres and male to female cross-dressing (Peach-O-Reno). W & W were a strange combination, sometimes appearing as the homosexual for laughs but always getting a girl before the closing credits. Still, despite the happy 'straight' ending the pair never parted company to start separate lives. W & W also can't seem to go through a film without kissing each other. For example in Hip Hips Hooray the duo have a smooch with Wheeler commenting that Woolsey taste like "“lavender and old lace!". But don't take my word for it, some of W & W films are unbelievable, check them out.