Blondie of the Follies

Dullsville

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

Blondie of the Follies (1932)

It is possible I have never seen a movie with more ups and downs in story quality than Blondie of the Follies. At the movie’s opening, it becomes immediately clear that the directorial quality of the flick is on the low side and our characters are hard to immediately relate to.

Blondie (Marion Davies) and Lottie (Billie Dove) live in the same low-rent, uptown Manhattan apartment building and are friends, sort of. Lottie is about to leave with some hot shot men and introduces Blondie, who immediately insults one and storms off. Minutes later the two girls are in an all-out brawl. When Lottie informs her “friend” that she is getting a job in a burlesque joint in midtown, Blondie begs her to stay in touch.

Months later Lottie –now going by the false name Lurlene– is playing the sophisticated socialite, enjoying a swell apartment paid for by a millionaire sweetheart. She is appearing in the follies and opts to deliver a gift to her family on Mother’s Day. While there, Lottie and Blondie reunite in a positive way and the latter joins her friend in an immediate visit of her fancy digs. There she meets the millionaire: Larry Belmont, played by veteran rich cad Robert Montgomery. Larry is immediately interested in the blonde and despite Lottie’s desires to send her home, he insists on taking Blondie to the follies show that night.

Taking Blondie backstage during the show, Larry also secures a job for the girl. Next they drop in at a neighboring speakeasy where Blondie has her first experience with liquor. She is deposited by the millionaire on her parent’s doorstep some time after dawn, much to her ill father’s (James Gleason) chagrin. Blondie immediately flees back to Lottie’s apartment –despite the growing tension/rivalry between them– to pursue her new career.

When Lottie informs the girl, however, that she is in love with Larry, Blondie agrees to back off. She instead goes along with an older, oil tycoon, who establishes a posh residence for the girl. Larry, meanwhile, is stuck on Blondie and breaks it off with Lottie. Months later, Blondie orchestrates a reunion between the former lovers in the hopes of reuniting them. It is then Larry hints he has only fallen for one girl, and it wasn’t Lottie. Blondie refuses to see Larry, and the dames continue their extravagant lives in and out of the follies.

When Larry prepares to leave for France, he insists on seeing Blondie before his departure. Lottie catches word of this and tries to flirt her way into a boat ticket of her own. Seeing Blondie with the man, however, sends Lottie into a rage thinking her friend has not kept her word about staying away from the gent. The fight plays out on stage when Blondie goes flying into the orchestra pit, breaking her leg.

Now ready to head home and forget the glamorous life, Blondie bids adieu to Lottie, Larry and others at a party. Her leg is disfigured from the break and she is now fit to be no man’s wife, she thinks. Days later, Larry turns up at the low-income flat with a slew of doctors who insist they can rebreak and properly mend the leg. Only now does Blondie concede to marry her millionaire.

The first portion of Blondie of the Follies, during which our two frienemies, to coin a term, have multiple ups and downs and Blondie gets her job, is lousy. Montgomery stands out as the worst ass of his career roles as it becomes apparent he knows all of the girls in the follies and cares for none of them. Only around the time he breaks up with Lottie does Larry become something more genuine to the audience. From here he even goes through periods of endearing romance that make the picture feel like it is on track for a great romantic ending. The writers let us down, however, with Blondie’s pathetic about-face on her anti-Larry stance. She never particularly convinces us she pines for the man, and her reason for agreeing to the union –that the man will fix her bum leg and make her marriage-worthy– is regrettable.

The one thing that does not vary throughout the movie is the acting quality. Montgomery makes no false move, and Davies is as fun and humorous as ever. Dove plays a marvelous snobby bitch and is purely contemptible in nearly every moment of the film, even when she is repeating, “I like you Blondie; I always have.” The relationship between the girls is obnoxious. We feel Lottie never truly likes Blondie, yet the other is constantly moving between love and hate and assuming the same of her pal. Whereas Lottie never has Blondie’s best interest at heart, the latter does mostly maintain her promises to Lottie.

I might have given Blondie of the Follies a better grade if not for that disappointing ending. There is nothing more irritating than a romantic movie that falters at the end of the emotional crescendo. The couple does not even kiss to seal the deal.

Grand Hotel

Gasser

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel has the distinction of being the only movie to win the Best Picture Oscar and be nominated for nothing else. The fact that it drew no acting nominations is notable given the star-studded cast, but it is true that none of the actors really stands out. Perhaps they were all too evenly matched.

Grand Hotel endeavors to be a story about the comings and goings in a high-end Berlin hotel, but it belies its own motto –“Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”– in the events depicted for us. We are first introduced to the handful of characters the story follows via a series of edits between their respective phone calls in the hotel lobby. We learn Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) has only a few weeks to live and is blowing his life savings enjoying them in an expensive hotel. The Baron (John Barrymore) telephones an accomplice explaining a need for more funds and referencing a theft he intends to commit. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is working to close a merger that will be lucrative for him by relies on his company’s partnership with a French firm. And famed Russian dancer Grusinskaya’s maid telephones to say the ballerina is ill.

The hotel acts as a catalyst to allow the overlapping of these various lives, who infinitely influence one another but then part as they do the hotel. Also entering into the scene is Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a stenographer sent for by Preysing. Before he is ready for her to begin working on the merger documents, however, Flemm waits in the hall where she is approached by the Baron with amorous intent. They agree to meet the following evening for dinner and dancing. The Baron has previously met Kringelein and decided him a fine chap, creating a fast friendship. Kringelein approaches the couple in the hall and makes friends of Flemm as well. Also caught by Flemm’s looks is Preysing, once he’s ready for her to begin work.

Before the Baron can meet up with Flemm for a romantic evening, however, he will enter the room of dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) to abscond with her pearls. He sneaks in through a balcony window –two rooms down from his– but finds himself trapped when the depressed ballerina abruptly returns. In the dark room he sees her contemplating suicide and opts to intervene. In the ensuing hours, the two fall in love.

Flemm has by this time fallen in love with the Baron and finds herself disappointed in his new mood. Grusinskaya is leaving for Italy in a day and in order to accompany her, he must come up with money for train fare, a subject making him rather depressed. Flemm occupies herself in looking after the ailing Kringelein and in resisting the advances of Preysing. This businessman happens to own the factory in which Kringelein once worked and proves himself a royal ass by mistreating him in the hotel. Flemm will nevertheless consider leaving town on the arm of Preysing, but ultimately walks out the doors of the Grand Hotel with another man.

Grand Hotel, which was based on a play, is a great film from a technical standpoint as well as the somewhat esoteric relevance of its story. To the average viewer, the movie comes off as rather boring with seemingly no moral or sense of satisfaction at the close. But the point of the plot is about the random meeting of people and the indelible effect they have on one another. Flemm enters the hotel a stenographer and leaves as a mistress of sorts. Grusinskaya enters horribly depressed with her career faltering and leaves on cloud nine after a fantastic performence the night before. Preysing enters on the verge of a profitable deal and leaves in worse than ruin. Only Kringelein enters and exits with equal levels of joy; although, he departs with more money and company than he arrived. If there is any moral center to the story, it is Kringelein.

As I mentioned, the acting is fine, but you could have guessed that by the cast. This is often thought of as a great Garbo movie, but she does not appear in at least half of the action. Her line “I want to be alone” is well remembered, but not particularly meaningful. Garbo was a big star at this point, but audiences were taking a liking to Crawford by this time as well. The two never appear on screen together and had little to do with each other on set especially since Garbo’s scenes were shot on a separate soundstage closed to visitors. Director Edmund Goulding once described the movie as two stories, both centered around women in crisis –Garbo’s depressed dancer and Crawford’s stenographer trying to scrape her way to a better life– with the Baron to connect the plots. I’m not sure I see the movie in that way because I do not view Flemm as a woman in crisis but as a distinctly different type of person bouncing among our main characters.

  • Grand Hotel is set for 9:45 p.m. ET Feb. 15 on TCM.

That Certain Woman

Gasser

That Certain Woman (1937)

     That Certain Woman is anything but a standard romance story or even a typical romance that must fight against scandal. Unfortunately, the sheer complexity of this Bette Davis-Henry Fonda story really drags the movie down as it becomes increasingly heavy with plot elements and its lack of realistic motives.

     Davis as Mary Donnell, formerly Mrs. Al Haines, gangster, has turner her life around since her husband’s death and works as a secretary to a big shot lawyer with whom she is considerably simpatico. Fonda is Jack Merrick who has been seeing Mary for three years and has just returned from Europe desperate to marry, displaying a supreme passion for the woman. Mary requires Jack to swear off his wealthy father’s support and get a job if she is to agree to the union. Mary’s boss, Lloyd Rogers (Ian Hunter), also a friend of Jack’s, insists on their immediate marriage –Jack’s father be damned– even sharing Mary’s sordid past with her hubby-to-be.

     On the wedding night, however, Jack’s father, played by Donald Crisp, hunts the couple down and expresses outrage that his son has allowed this low-down woman to ensnare him. Seeing that Merrick Sr. is putting up a better fight than her spouse, Mary leaves the hotel and returns to her old flat she shares with roommate Amy (Mary Phillips) and waits for her beau to show up. A year and nine months later, Mary and her son Jackie are still waiting when the mother learns Jack has married another woman in France. Almost immediately thereafter Mary, while at work, discovers that couple is hospitalized after an automobile accident. Lloyd sends his secretary away to rest and deal with the grief and the next we see her it is three years later and she is living in a lavish flat funded by her boss.

     By this point Mary is warming up to Lloyd’s now obvious feelings for her, but she knows he will never fill the void reserved for Jack. When a very ill Lloyd wanders to her apartment and ultimately dies on her sofa, the newspapers are all over the story of a mobster’s wife and her love nest. Reporters also question and imply that Lloyd is the father of young Jackie. Jack now reappears in Mary’s life and is curious about the boy, taking longer than expected to realize it is his son. Jack’s wife was paralyzed in the car accident and is wheelchair-bound, but learning of the son, he is determined to leave her and return to his true love. SPOILER That wife even comes to see Mary and beg she take her husband away for the boy’s sake, but hearing how much this woman loves her husband, Mary refuses. Even worse, she ultimately sends Jackie away to live with that couple just before taking off for Europe. Years later, in Monte Carlo, she learns Jack’s wife has died and he is now on the hunt for her, happy ending for all. END SPOILER

     That Certain Woman contains so much back and forth in Mary’s relationships that it is hard for one to decide what he wants for the woman. From the start, Lloyd seemed like a wonderful suitor for the gal, despite his unhappy marriage. Although eventually the man gets to the point where he has told his wife he wants a divorce and plans to take Mary for himself, Mary refuses to do that to his spouse. She is constantly caught in a position of “the other woman” and despite a cushy lifestyle is never able to establish herself legitimately in the eyes of the press or public. Lloyd may have been funding that home and all in it, but it does not appear Mary was actually conducting an affair with him. By the time we get our happy ending, she has gotten such a run around from Jack that it seems like her baggage is sure to weigh down her life no matter with whom she ends up. Nevermind that despite fighting to keep her son at one point she willingly gives him up, which seems utterly unrealistic.

     The never-ending saga of Mary and Jack’s romance could be doable as stories such as “Wuthering Heights” and “Pride and Prejudice” have proven, but for some reason Lloyd was too appealing and the bond between our protagonists too weak. That is not to say, however, that the acting was not superb. Fonda was really more believable at first as being the one wildly in love, but Davis brings up the rear with her proving of that same fact.

     Fonda is the youngest I have ever seen him in That Certain Woman. His dark hair frames a perfectly youthful face but his performance belies his relative newness to the big screen. He made this flick during his third year in Hollywood; although, he made at least three films during each of those first years, so he already had more than half a dozen under his belt. He was well matched against the excessively talented Davis –who made this her 33rd film– and they made a nice couple on screen.

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Old Maid

Gasser

The Old Maid (1939)

     1939 was a major year for films and not a bad one for Bette Davis either. She might not have landed the much coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, also to be released that year, but she was busy with two other projects. Dark Victory would stand up as one of the greatest roles of her career –an Oscar-nominated one– but Davis would also go head to head with Miriam Hopkins –off screen that is– for The Old Maid.
 
     Hopkins’ Delia is preparing to wed Jim (James Stephenson) right at the start of the Civil War, but her ex-fiance Clem (George Brent) shows up and is horribly heartbroken by the goings on. Thankfully Davis’ Charlotte, as the cousin, eases his pain and sends him away to die in the war. Now stuck with an illegitimate child, Charlotte starts a home for war orphans, her daughter Tina hid among them. Delia invites the two to live in her mansion and raises Tina as her child while the girl refers to her actual mother as Aunt Charlotte. Fifteen years later, Tina is ready to marry a man of stature, so Delia officially adopts her to give the girl a proper background, which causes turmoil with Charlotte who must decide whether to reveal the truth of the girl’s origins.
 
     I do not know a whole lot about Hopkins, but I can see how she might have been a pill off-screen. Davis, as we know, was far worse. She could make enemies of the best people. Davis was once quoted as saying:
“Miriam is a perfectly charming woman socially. Working with her is another story. On the first day of shooting, for instance, she arrived on the set wearing a complete replica of one of my Jezebel costumes. It was obvious she wanted me to blow my stack at this.”
Davis said she ignored the incidence but that the mounting tricks of her costar took their toll and she would explode when returning home at night. Davis also said Hopkins liked to interrupt any time the star had a difficult speech, once requiring Davis to make 20 takes of one scene. During one day of shooting, Davis fainted and was sent home where she remained for the following two days, at which point Hopkins decided she was also sick and headed home. The two would be reteamed in Old Acquaintance when they would play competing writers.
 
     At one point there was also some trouble relating to Hopkins’ makeup that got Director Edmund Goulding involved. Goulding had noticed the star was coming onto the set appearing younger each day. Executive Producer Hal Wallis ordered the makeup man to stick to the makeup design originally approved. Davis’ makeup, on the other hand, managed to age her character convincingly and with little effort. The older Charlotte simply lacks eye makeup and lipstick and was given an ashen powder as foundation. The awful hairdo completes the effect. Bette’s figure, however, remained youthful in the form-fitting costumes masterfully designed by Orry-Kelly.
 
     Performance-wise Davis wins the battle. Hopkins brings plenty of energy to her roles, but I think she over does them a bit and fails to give the natural performances Davis did in all her work, which makes one think she must be just like her characters off-screen, no matter how diverse her repertoire. Like Dark Victory, The Old Maid also features Brent, and he also disappoints here with his empty, unexpressive eyes. The annoyance is not for long, however, as the part is fleeting. The film itself certainly does not stand well against Dark Victory as it is a bit melodramatic at times in its story. Davis, however, never gave a bad performance, so there is no real threat of disappointment with The Old Maid.
 
Please check out the other participating posts for the Classic Movie Blog Association-sponsored blogathon surrounding the movies of 1939.
  • The Old Maid is set for 8 p.m. Aug. 3 on TCM.

Source: Dark Victory: The Life of Bette Davis by Ed Sikov; Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine; TCM.com

Dark Victory

Ring a Ding Ding

Dark Victory (1939)

     Bette Davis played a wide variety of parts, but I typically think of her in strong, sometimes ruthless, often bitchy roles. Dark Victory, however, puts Davis in a very sympathetic persona. I think this movie is generally listed among Davis’ best work. It ranks among her many Oscar nominations that failed to come to fruition and on the whole received a Best Picture nod. It was 1939, however, the magnificent year that featured Gone With the Wind; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Love Affair; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ninotchka.

 

      Nevertheless, Davis gives a grand performance as the young woman afflicted by a brain tumor. The film commences with Davis as Judy Traherne, a Long Island socialite, who essentially crashes her horse through a fence when the jump before her is blurred by double vision. Her headaches and dizzy spells lead her family doctor to drag her to brain surgeon Frederick Steele, played by George Brent. The man is attempting to leave town for Vermont within the hour when Judy arrives, but burns on her fingers and tests on the nerves of her hands convince the doctor to stay in town. He eventually informs the woman she has a brain tumor, so he operates. The mass is malignant and is sure to recur, so although Judy will seem fine, she has a mere 10 months to live. Her vision will fade just hours before her death but no other symptoms will present themselves.

     Although Frederick reveals this news to Judy’s best friend/secretary Ann, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, the two agree not to tell Judy. By now, however, the dying woman is in love with her surgeon who seems to return the affection. They plan to move to Vermont, but on the day of the move Judy stumbles upon her case file, which is littered with doctor opinions declaring her case as “Prognosis: Negative”. Her anger leads her to drop Frederick, be angry with Ann and live her life in the most reckless manner possible, such as by getting boozed up before a horse jumping competition. She eventually resigns herself to her fate and decides not to finish her life so recklessly. She agrees to marry Frederick and they move to Vermont.

     Judy is meant to be 23 years old, and although Davis is fairly young (31), I do not think she ever really looked that age. Her clothes and manner are too sophisticated, however, her behavior bears fruit in that regard. At the outset of the film, Davis is so energetic –fast talking and moving– like a child. When conversing with Brent during their first scene together, Davis conveys the character’s agitation with this quick pace and by squeezing and twisting her hands in her lap. Later, Judy becomes thoroughly matured by the horrid destiny that awaits her. In Vermont, she behaves as a conservative, loving wife. She is much calmer and graceful.

     The final sequence when Judy’s vision fails and she prepares for the end is really a gut-wrenching experience. I think the reason Dark Victory grabs so many people is because of the utter bravery with which Judy takes on her end. Just thinking of those scenes now have me a bit choked up. She sends her husband away unaware of what’s happening because she wants him to be proud that she faced death on her own. She gives final hugs to her dogs and tells the housekeeper she does not want to be disturbed before laying in bed. Davis also does a great blind-woman performance. Although Judy is really good at hiding her malady from her husband (she moves from his dresser to suitcase repeatedly, packing clothes for him), Davis consistently has the blank, slightly downward stare typically associated with blind performances. That cannot be an easy task: portraying blindness while pretending to see.

     Brent, on the other hand, slightly disappoints in his performance. He seems to convey no emotions ever in the picture, which makes it difficult to surmise whether Frederick actually loves Judy or is just trying to make her happy before she dies. I have not paid much attention to Brent in the movies of his I have seen, but I feel like this might be a common complaint. He is quite handsome and can be romantic, but his performances otherwise do not thrill me. Davis and Brent started an affair during Dark Victory that allegedly lasted several years until, when asked by a reporter to name the most glamorous women in Hollywood, he provided a list absent his lover.

     I should mention that Humphrey Bogart also appears in Dark Victory as the horse trainer that cares for Judy’s favorite race horse. He affects a slightly Irish accent in what seems like a rather small role for the actor who had already appeared in 28 films. Ronald Reagan also participates as a perpetually drunk party friend. On a side note, I opted to use the Italian poster above for this post because it was pretty cool looking and I could not find an English-language one that was not a recent design. Besides, Italian movie posters are always cooler than the American counterpart.

Source: Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine

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