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The Star

The Star (1952)

Ring a Ding Ding

     It is no Sunset Blvd., but Bette Davis did a fine job playing an actress gone “box office poison” who desperately seeks another part. The Star was released two years after the powerful William HoldenGloria Swanson flick and treads along the same lines but holds its own if one’s not drawing comparisons.

     Davis is Margaret Elliot, the aging actress who upon the picture’s opening wanders buy an auction of her belongings. She is broke, a fact comically exacerbated by a sister and brother-in-law who come by the woman’s apartment demanding their usual check. Margaret has a daughter who at present lives with her ex-husband and his family. This Gretchen, played by a young Natalie Wood, adores her mother but must face the constant torment of her peers who say Margaret Elliot is no longer a star.

     Margaret tries to save face for her daughter’s sake but leaves her ex-husband’s mansion in tears. She ends up driving through the neighborhoods of the rich and famous in Hollywood while downing a bottle of liquor. She is chased by a cop before crashing her car and spending the night in jail. The next thing Margaret knows she’s been bailed out by ex-actor Jim Johannson (Sterling Hayden), who had worked with the woman on a movie before giving up his career to join the Navy and later bought a shipping yard.

     Jim tries to be the voice of wisdom and persuade Margaret that possibilities for life and career exist outside a soundstage. He convinces the woman to take a job as a department store clerk outside of town –acting her way through the interview– but she soon quits the position when two snooty shoppers recognize her.

     Margaret, with the help of her agent Harry Stone (Warner Anderson) goes to a studio head to ask for a part in a film she has been eyeballing for years. The producer Joe Morrison (Minor Watson) offers the actress the part of an older character as the lead is going to Margaret’s young rival. The old pro botches the screen test, however, by trying to make the part younger and flirtier. The star later speaks to a young writer about a part she would be perfect for, hearing the plot laid out like so much of her life, but she walks out to pursue the alternative lifestyle that had been before her all along.

      The Star might lack the murder, stalking, and insanity offered by Sunset Blvd. but it is far from lacking in the drama department. Davis does a fantastic job of expressing the range of emotions to which her character is subjected. Whether she is furious at her in-laws for asking for money, remorseful over the lies she has told her daughter about her stardom, depressed about her financial situation, or resigned to the steady decline of her lifestyle, Davis offers all with gusto. She has a few vibrant rageful rants, but none go over the top as might be easy to do. She earned an Oscar nomination for her effort.

     A variety of movies —A Star is Born being another great one– address the subject of declining fame. Actors often found their standard parts going to a younger generation and many struggled to reinvent themselves, or to convince the studios to allow them to do so. Ironically, Bette Davis is one star whose career never faltered as her character’s did in The Star. Davis’ odd beauty was already on it’s way out by the time this film was released in 1952 but she had so thoroughly defined herself as more than a pretty face that her sometimes frighteningly old facade (see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) did not prevent her from finding work. She also maintained her career well despite acting as a free agent after a 1949 voluntary release from her Warner Bros. contract.

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

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Johnny Guitar

Gasser

Johnny Guitar (1954)

     I have been relishing the opportunity to watch Johnny Guitar because I have been convinced it would be horrendous. You might then understand my utter amazement at how good the movie is. Outside of Joan Crawford who is the only downfall of the flick –and a big one at that– Johnny Guitar is a great story that takes an untraditional approach to the western genre.

     Westerns generally depict the feuds between men, but Johnny Guitar‘s main focus is on two fighting women. Crawford is saloon owner Vienna who has become generally associated with the gang of the Dancin’ Kid. Mercedes McCambridge as Emma, on the other hand, aligns herself with a rival posse of ranch hands that includes the sheriff and a U.S. Marshall. At the opening, Emma’s brother is killed in a stagecoach robbery and that group of ranchers blame the Dancin’ Kid’s quartet. They go to Vienna’s saloon to search them out but do not find the supposed culprits there, at least not at first. When the Dancin’ Kid (Scott Brady) does show up, he denies involvement with the robbery and shooting. Emma has a particular hatred for this man, but Vienna maintains it is because she wants him but in a star-crossed lover sort of way cannot have him. The Kid, might want Emma as well, but he’s also pushing to get in Vienna’s bed. In light of the feud and shooting, the sheriff declares a law that would prevent Vienna from offering booze or gambling at her establishment and calls for the Kid’s gang to get out of town –all within 24 hours.

     Throughout this, a new man in town, Johnny Guitar (Sterling Hayden) has arrived at Vienna’s request for a job playing music at the saloon. He gets on the bad side of the Dancin’ Kid gang and beats up Bart, played by Ernest Borgnine, and shoots a gun out of young Turkey’s hand (Ben Cooper). We eventually learn that this Johnny Guitar –or Johnny Logan– was Vienna’s past love, but the woman’s seedy bedroom forays in the past five years stand in the way of a reunion.

     Because the Kid’s gang is being run out of town, the group decides to actually commit a crime on its way out. Just as Vienna is withdrawing her money from the bank now owned by Emma, the men barge in and rob it of all its gold. The authorities naturally associate Vienna with the crime and Emma is out for blood. Before Vienna and Johnny can skip town, however, they are faced with a wounded Turkey, whom they must hide in the saloon as Emma and the ranchers barge in. All is well until Turkey’s hiding place is discovered and the law and Emma force him to say Vienna helped in the robbery or else be hanged. He does so but the posse now rushes off to hang them both. A chase and shootout compose the remainder of the plot.

     McCambridge was truly stunning in her brutal portrayal of a frontier woman with masculine strengths. Often the camera takes a close-up on her homely face as she seethes with rage in either yelling at or campaigning against her nemesis in Vienna. McCambridge and Crawford hated each other off screen making their onscreen feud all the stronger, but Crawford’s approach is more cool and aloof and does not stack up against her rival. Besides having left her beauty behind her by this point in her career, Crawford is absolutely out of place in a western. Her clothing, face and hair are absolutely spotless throughout the movie as though the woman never ventures outside into the dirty, dry world of the western U.S. The gun belt she wears looks more like a fashion accessory than a weapon holster, and she holds a gun more like Mildred Pierce than a gunslinger. For one portion of the flick, Vienna dons a purely white dress that somehow never dirties despite being hauled on a horse to her hanging, hiding against the earth and strolling through a mine. Even after getting wet while wading through a river and passing through a waterfall, moments later she is dry, her hair pristine and the man’s clothes she’s borrowed perfectly clean and well-fitting. It takes no stretch of the imagination that Crawford likely required these perfections for her role. She certainly required all close ups be filmed in a studio rather than on location so that the lighting could be controlled to her advantage.

     Besides Crawford sorely standing out as the wrong person for the role, I greatly enjoyed the story of Johnny Guitar even if it has less to do with the titular character than the women who consume the story. It is a great twist on the classic western and draws many great performances.

Source: TCM.com

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