Thursday, February 15, 2018

Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929)

In Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929),  Joan Crawford epitomizes the daring flapper, living only for the moment, the eternal symbol (one of many glitzy symbols) of the 1920s. We continue today with part 3 of our series on the 1920s – Then and Now.

Novelist-turned-Hollywood-writer F. Scott Fitzgerald saw in Joan Crawford the essence of the flapper, as he is noted to have remarked:

Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.

He might have been describing her in these two movies.  Our Dancing Daughters stars Joan as a high-octane flapper or “modern,” her name for the first time above the title.  This movie and Our Modern Maidens are "modern" morality plays of sorts – Joan Crawford is not so much a scandalous woman but a survivor on her own terms in a fast-paced world. There is something brave and admirable about her, despite the implied warning about a life of burning the candle at both ends.

We open on Joan Crawford during a frenetic shimmy as she changes into a party frock for an evening out. Her well-to-do parents, played by Dorothy Cumming and Huntley Gordon, give her free reign, and she adores them. They have a great relationship.

This is immediately contrasted with the less well-off family of a conniving mother and daughter played by Kathlyn Williams and Anita Page. Her mother wants Anita to marry rich and passes on the age-old advice that men want wives who are virtuous – but to get them one must be only virtuous-appearing and yet not so virtuous that one fails to entrap a male and drag him to the altar. This will happen to our hero Johnny Mack Brown, the millionaire’s son.

Life is a whirlwind of parties for Joan and her “crowd.” Dorothy Sebastian plays Beatrice, a friend with a “past” which she loathes to confess to her intended, played by Nils Asther. She eventually does confess, he forgives her, they are happily married, but reminders of her past are thrown in her path every moment, straining her marriage. It is not smooth sailing for those who are not virtuous to begin with, even if their friends and their families give them pass.

I’d have to say my favorite character is played by Edward J. Nugent, who also appears in Our Modern Maidens as a slick-haired callow youth with a smart line, a boyish worthlessness, and a tennis sweater.  He has enormous personality and plays to the camera very well.  I get a kick out of him.

When we first meet Joan getting dressed to go to her party, she goes downstairs – every private home and every public ballroom is dripping with Art Deco ornamentation – she has a companionable drink with her father, and is toasted by three young men all standing at attention in their tuxedos. Each offers her a sip from his glass, and she obliges because she is Diana the famed huntress – not of men, but of life and good times.

When she meets Johnny Mack Brown, she does not immediately throw herself at him but she flirts with him and they develop feelings for each other. Anita Page, however, openly throws herself at him in pseudo-virtuous manner – always insinuating herself in between Joan and Johnny.

Johnny is clearly smitten with Joan, but he is wary about her goodtime girl reputation, and he feels he must uphold the family honor by considering the matter very carefully. In the meantime, on an outing with the fake good girl Anita Page, she traps him, with the help of her conniving mother, into not so much proposing to her as refusing to embarrass her in public by saying, “Hold the phone, I never asked you to marry me.”  He is too much of a gentleman for that.

Joan, of course, is crushed. And she is angry, because she feels that even though she has led life in the fast lane, she has never lied about herself or attempted to trick anybody into marrying her.

She lashes out at Anita Page and her "nasty little mind.” She is disappointed in Johnny Mack Brown but she doesn’t blame him. She understands that one must play by the rules or at least accept the consequences for not doing so. Anita marries Johnny, but they are miserable. She never loved him, she just loves his money and she has grown bored stiff being the wife of the millionaire’s son. She runs around on him.

In a climactic scene at a party, she catches Johnny Mack Brown and Joan having a quiet conversation and accuses them of infidelity.  She has had a little too much to drink. 

At the bottom of a very long staircase are three scrubwomen, and she mocks them in a way that will engender our pity for her. She asks them why they are working, and thinking of her own self-interested mother, “Don’t you have pretty daughters?” She knows she has been prostituted by her mother for a cushy life. Here we see what will be a theme in later decades for movies: The younger generation blaming the elder.

While quite drunk, Anita will fall down the very long set of stairs, landing at the feet of three scrub women in a terribly sad end to her life.

We cut to two years later when Joan returns from Europe and she will marry Johnny Mack Brown. Moral of the story? To thine own self be true. And suffer the consequences.

Our Modern Maidens is not the sequel we might expect, at least not in terms of having the same characters, but there is the continued theme of what’s a flapper to do to find true love?

Here, Joan Crawford is called Billie, and an interesting point of trivia is that she went by the nickname of Billie as a kid, and this is what her first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., called her. This movie capitalizes on their real-life romance by putting young Doug in the role of her boyfriend.

The movie starts on the night of the prom where Joan is a senior at an exclusive girls' school – again she is the rich, spoiled flapper with the zest for living. Two jalopies careen down the road at night nearly causing a traffic accident, and they pull up and have an impromptu prom on the side of the road, dancing to the music on the car radio. This is a generation besotted with technology, radio and cars in a way that baffled their elders. Our friend Edward J. Nugent is along for the ride in this movie as well, only here he plays Reg. Playing fellows named Freddie or Reg pretty much indicates this is going to be a guy with a hip flask in the pocket of his white flannel tennis pants.

Anita Page is back along for the ride, only this time she’s not the rival nasty girl, she’s Joan’s good friend named Kentucky. She is sweet, innocent, naïve, and as loyal as a hound dog. She also has an unspoken crush on Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and her infatuation with him is rather heartbreaking.

Just as the title suggests, these young women are “modern." These are modern maidens who crash life like they are crashing a party. On the train, Joan meets Rod La Rocque, who is a wealthy man well connected in government. It seems that upon graduation from college Douglas Fairbanks Jr. wants to pursue a career in the diplomatic corps. They believe that Rod La Rocque can open doors for them and get him a post in Paris – Paris in the 1920s—this is about the only flirtation we get with the famed expatriates of the decade.

Joan Crawford flirts shamelessly with Rod La Rocque in order to wheedle a position out of him for Doug, and Doug, though he has misgivings, goes along with it.

Anita Page is also seen in many scenes strumming a ukulele. So far we are meeting our quota of 1920s images.

At a party, again in the giant Art Deco ballroom, Joan is the center of attention, dancing herself silly, playing drums, in a whirlwind of jazz. Douglas get the spotlight, too, doing impressions—silent impressions – of John Barrymore and Jack Gilbert and Robin Hood, perhaps a take on his father? Joan disappears for a moment and then returns in a scanty outfit with a wild pattern and performs not just for the crowd but specifically for Rod La Rocque in a dramatic scene.

Douglas knows she’s going over the top for his sake and he feels uncomfortable with it, but assuages his discomfort by having a brief fling with Kentucky, who has such a crush on him. He feels like a cad. “I was cad!” The title card tells us.

Meanwhile, Joan gets herself invited to Rod’s hunting lodge, a rustic venue with knives, guns and whips on the walls, guy stuff. Whips? He is in love with her and he agrees to help Doug get a position in Paris because she affirms that Doug is only a friend of hers. However, after the appointment to Paris, Rod La Rocque reads in the newspaper that Doug and Joan are going to be married. Well now, isn’t this awkward.

She tries to apologize for shamelessly using him and leading him on, but he, hurt and angry, sets her up at his hunting lodge for a fate worse than death, and when she shrinks from him, he goads her, “What’s the matter? I thought you were a 'modern'!” Wearing nothing but his bathrobe (clothes got all wet in the rain), she submits to him because she feels she owes him, but he pulls back and she admiringly says, “I knew you were too decent.”

He throws it back in her face. “It’s not decency. I just don’t want you.” It is a great line and she is as shattered as she is relieved, because she is ashamed.

Doug and Joan have an opulent wedding but Kentucky is clearly upset and not just because she is losing Doug. Finally, Joan gets the truth out of her when Joan discovers a doctor’s appointment card for “Mrs.” Kentucky. This is movie code for Kentucky has gone to a GYN and she is pregnant.

“I didn’t want you to know, Billie!” Kentucky apparently wants to spare both her friends and when Doug enters to collect his bride and go on the honeymoon, he is flummoxed because he didn’t know Kentucky was pregnant after their one fling either. “You poor, brave little kid!” Doug says.  Nobody seems to realize how humiliating this sounds, even in a silent movie. 

Unlike Our Dancing Daughters, where Joan paid the price of losing a lover but then eventually gets him back through the convenient death of the third person in the triangle, this movie takes an interesting turn. Joan simply gives Doug to Kentucky. We’re never told if Doug, who is truly fond of Kentucky, really wants to spend the rest of his life married to her.  Nevertheless, this is what Joan does because she loves both of them, and she skips out and pretends to be a true modern, an uncaring, selfish woman with loose morals and no feelings, parading this persona for the sake of the reporters, of her friends, and her father, who washes his hands of her.

“What you think of a girl going on a honeymoon alone. Modern, isn’t it?” For a moment, our Edward J. Nugent steps out of his callow youth role and attempts to stand up to the crowd with her to give her support, but she kindly and sweetly says she is going alone. She will take no one along the path to perdition with her.

She goes off to Paris, but she is eventually joined by Rod, still reading about her in newspapers.  He still loves her, and she will go back with him to his cottage in the Argentine. 

It doesn’t seem like the “modern” thing to do, but perhaps the 1920s flappers were having second thoughts about the whole flapper thing.  Society might have gotten a little tired of the wild party, too.  A huge hangover was coming at the end of 1929.

The decade was notable for being perhaps the first wave of a future norm where the youth of the country seemed to run the show. Their tastes and their interests were catered to, and created, American pop culture.

Both Joan Crawford and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. are quite good in this movie, both attractive and able to woo the camera with a glance or a clinch, or, as in Joan’s case, a spirited Charleston, and we can see why Joan Crawford became a star in this role of the flapper. She gets to show a lot of different emotions like selfishness, regret, loyalty, love, shame. She laughs, she cries, she dances.

It’s a silent movie but there are sounds added to the track in which we hear the buzz of a crowd, a radio announcement. There is no dialogue except for what we see on the title cards, but there is incidental background noise, a way to ease us into sound pictures. Our Dancing Daughters made her a star. It has been reported that she climbed out of the lesser roles in Hollywood by making the producers notice her when she moonlighted in dance contests.  She “rocked” the Charleston, and the Black Bottom.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Joan were married just before the movie was released and they were married for four years. But unlike the characters of the “moderns” she played, she was not welcome by Doug’s father, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., and stepmother, Mary Pickford, and she felt out of place in their world. Her background was really more like the shop girls that she would portray in the 1930s, beginning with her next film released in 1930, which was considered the third in the trilogy of films, called Our Blushing Brides. That one is a sound film and we see that Joan makes the transition to sound recording very well. She does not play the same character, of course; she plays a department store clerk and her love interest is Robert Montgomery.  When glancing at this trilogy of films, we can see where Joan’s career and film persona was headed, and where the country was going, too.  The flashy “moderns” she played in Our Dancing Daughters and in Our Modern Maidens were left behind in the 1920s.  When the party ended, the flapper had either left the room, or was passed out on the floor.  

In Our Blushing Brides she’s the working girl, who might be Cinderella, or maybe just another dame down on her luck.

Women revolutionized the decade as much as they scandalized it.  Fashions, mores, work force, and the economy rode the waves of women's empowerment.  This was gently satirized in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), as we mentioned in the intro, but our now somewhat condescending view of that era and its women belies the fact that they set the stage for much of the twentieth century.

Come back next Thursday the 22nd when we discuss the last film in our 1920s series, a Marx Brothers romp, The Cocoanuts from 1929.  It reflects not only the zaniness of the 1920s, and of the Marx Brothers brand in particular, but also hints at our near future as it makes fun of the Florida land boom that went bust in the middle 1920s, a forerunner to the terrific stock market crash just a few months after the movie was released.

The first two posts in this series are the intro here, and The Racket (1928).

Thursday, February 8, 2018

The Racket (1928)

The Racket (1928) is surprisingly cynical, even while still coyly presenting what we recognize as frothy 1920s images – including speakeasies, callow youth, and an almost manic desire to rebel. Even those inclined to think that silent movies, by virtue of their being silent, are a bit of a joke will still see much in this movie that is starkly modern and which speaks to us today.

Producer Howard Hughes was only twenty-three years old when he took this on for one of his very first projects in the film industry. It is a story of Chicago gangsters and the honest cop who tries to bring them down. The honest cop, played by Thomas Meighan, one of the most popular leading men of his day, is not so incorruptible that he doesn’t resort to beating up suspects to get the truth. This is, after all, Chicago, and it is, after all, the 1920s. The film makes no explanation and certainly no apology for his beating up suspects in custody, rather it paints him as a savvy hero of the dirty streets he patrols. With the musical score that is now part of the restored film, we see a bit of cheerleading on the side for Meighan with a dash of “The Minstrel Boy” and other Irish tunes when he appears on screen. The gangster, played by Louis Wolheim, says he is, “just a dumb harp.” More on that later.

Louis Wolheim plays Nick Scarsi, a gang leader whose only trouble is women, whom he does not trust, and his younger brother, whom he cannot control. Wolheim commands every scene he’s in, not only because of his imposing size and that craggy boxer’s nose in the middle of his scowling face, but because he was one of the early silent screen actors who somehow figured out that he didn’t need to over emote or to pantomime to excess his feelings to overcome the lack of sound. All he had to do was stand still and raise an eyebrow and all attention was on him. We last saw him here in another great role in Danger Lights (1930) with Jean Arthur.

His kid brother is played by George E. Stone, a typical 1920s youth chaffing at being sent to college and takes every opportunity to rebel against it. His Brilliantine hair, his pencil thin mustache, and his hip flask tell us he is the cat’s pajamas, but he wants nothing more than to ditch college and hang out with his big brother Louis – and the women in the corrupt wards his brother controls who flock to powerful men. Younger brother George E. Stone is not particularly interested in being a gangster; he just likes the idea of sitting around in a nightclub while chorus girls fawn over him because of his brother.

One such is Marie Provost, who plays a chorus girl with the incongruously famous name Helen Hayes. Considering Miss Hayes was well known on Broadway at that time, one wonders why they didn’t bother to change the name, but it brings a chuckle every time I see it on the title card.

Marie Provost is no fool, however, and she’s no shrinking violet. When Wolheim brings his gang and his brother to a private party at a speakeasy, they are in evening dress, the prohibited liquor flowing, and the girls are free and easy. When Miss Provost is rebuffed by Louis Wolheim, who regards all women as poison, she immediately attaches herself to his younger brother. She does it not simply because she knows the younger brother is an easier mark, which he is, but she does it purposely to needle Wolheim. Considering he’s the kingpin of the neighborhood, it’s quite a daring act.

A rival gang arrives and Wolheim is always looking for a showdown but Thomas Meighan and his men quickly take control, though the rival gang leader has been killed. Wolheim and his men are taken into custody over the killing, but they are soon released because Wolheim has a connection with “the old man,” who is a corrupt judge. He arranges for Meighan to be sent to a suburban precinct where the cop will no longer be in his hair. It is a moment of disgrace for Meighan.

Wolheim’s younger brother is cutting capers behind his back and drives around in a jalopy with Marie Provost. He gets a little rough with Marie and she tells him off. He gets in a hit-and-run accident and the pedestrian he hits will later die. Both he and Marie are brought into the nearby police station for questioning. It is Meighan’s new precinct. At first, Meighan is unaware he has his enemy’s younger brother in the lockup.

Three reporters hanging around looking for a story now inject a little levity in the proceedings. Two are hard-boiled veterans, and one is a cub reporter just out of college. He is handsome young John Darrow, and we know he is new at this game because he is very polite, a little nervous, wears his press pass very prominently tucked into his hat band – about the size of a billboard – and instead of a trench coat he wears his college boy slicker with doodles drawn on the back of it in indelible ink. This was one of the great fads of the 1920s, writing doodles and “witty” sayings on raincoats and on jalopies. Darrow made a number of films in the 1920s through the middle part of the 1930s, and then later became a talent agent.

The veteran newshounds tease him a little, but Marie Provost gently vamps the innocent young man to the point where he is so charmed, that when she is locked up in the cell with streetwalkers, he brings her a care package – toiletries and a virginal nightgown. She smirks demurely and this hard gal must have a heart of gold because she does not tease him mercilessly. At the end of the movie, for his own good, she will send him on his way.

The movie is filled with very witty lines, macabre humor and brutal enough to be unflattering enough to all concerned – the police, despite our heroic Meighan; the corrupt district attorney; and the judges – to have this film banned for a time in Chicago, which apparently was not fond of being depicted as a den of political corruption. (The infamous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre would occur only three months after this movie was released.)

Louis Wolheim shoots a police sergeant in his attempt to escape from the station house where he has gone to free his younger brother. The innocent cub reporter helps identify him, solve the crime, and justice prevails. Thomas Meighan, who knows when to kick out the reporters and knows when to use them for publicity, sends them off to write up a story that will put fear in the hearts of other gangs. At the end of the film, he announces he is tired and would like to go to bed but he has to finish the report and mop up this incident. When he’s finished, by morning, he expects it will be time to go to Mass. He smiles, with a glint in his eye, and we are given in this character another stereotyped personification of the Irish cop – quick with his fists but charming as all get-out.

This last scene was, for its day, more daring than it looks.

In an era when immigrants were not as welcome as they had been around the turn-of-the-century – legislation in the 1920s pushed by the Republican-controlled Congress sought to limit immigration severely – the Irish had been in this country long enough to have gained a foothold and climbed in society to positions beyond the police station house, and newer waves of immigration from other countries took the brunt of prejudice.  However, there was still a strong anti-Catholic bias in the country, which with a shift towards conservatism in the 1920s, would defeat Al Smith, the Governor of New York, in his run for the presidency in 1928. Historian William Leuchtenburg in his The Perils of Prosperity 1914-32, quotes the “liberal” Protestant publication Christian Century which remarked regarding Al Smith’s run for presidency that Protestants could not “look with unconcern upon the seating of a representative of an alien culture, of a medieval Latin mentality, of an undemocratic hierarchy and of a foreign potentate in the great office of the president of the United States.”

Mr. Leuchtenburg notes, “Smith was seen as the spokesman for the foreigner, a man, if elected, would flood the nation with a new type of European immigrants...” George Ford Milton, editor and historian from Tennessee, wrote that Smith’s appeal was “to the aliens, who feel that the older America, the America of the Anglo-Saxon stock, is a hateful thing which must be overturned and humiliated; to the northern negroes, who lust for social equality and racial dominance; to the Catholics who would been made to believe that they are entitled to the White House, and to the Jews who likewise are to be instilled with the feeling that this is the time for God’s chosen people to chastise America yesteryear.”

In 1924, four years before this film was released, the Ku Klux Klan had reached the height of its popularity because it was “anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-Negro, and antiforeigner.” In Birmingham, Alabama, “a Klansman murdered a Catholic priest and was acquitted;” in Illinois “two hours after a monster Klan ceremony a Roman Catholic Church was burned.” This from a chapter the author titles “Political Fundamentalism.” We see its mutations today. When the Klan lost its power, it was largely due to sexual and bribery scandals among its leadership that were unpalatable to Middle America at the time. Murder, brutality, and oppression as expressions of bigotry were apparently okay.

The Racket is fast-paced and frank; it carries very few gimmicks, and the writing is top-notch. It is daring, and was nominated for one of the very first Academy Awards. It began the gangster genre of motion pictures, and for many years was thought to have been lost. It was released in November 1928. The Era of Wonderful Nonsense had one more year to go.

Come back next Thursday, February 15th when we will discuss two more films from the tail end of the decade: Our Dancing Daughters (1928) and Our Modern Maidens (1929). Both films star Joan Crawford, whom novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald labeled the quintessential flapper. Women had won the right to vote at the beginning of the decade (and it was recorded that many were overwhelmingly supportive of Democrat Al Smith for president); by the end of the decade, so these two movies will have you believe, they were running the show.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The 1920s - Then and Now - Intro

The 1920s were silent – but only as far as the movies. It was actually a loud and raucous decade, but one that, despite our image of quaint innocence, was actually strangely close to our own era socially, politically, and as regards the economy. The movies captured some of that, either intentionally or incidentally. But not all of it.

Over the next three posts were going to discuss a few films from the 1920s, including The Racket (1928), The Cocoanuts (1929), Our Dancing Daughters (1928), and Our Modern Maidens (1929). The latter two movies, both starring Joan Crawford, leave us with the impression of the decade being dominated by flappers. Perhaps the most well-known chronicler of that era, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of Joan:

Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs, gowned to the apex of sophistication, toying iced glasses with a remote, faintly bitter expression, dancing deliciously, laughing a great deal, with wide, hurt eyes. Young things with a talent for living.

The hedonistic young woman of the 1920s with the rouged knees may have shocked her parents, but she has come down to us as a more or less comic cliché. She was called a “modern.” She has been interpreted, and innocuously, many decades later, in the film Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and The Boy Friend (1971).

Both movies are musicals, and interestingly, while The Boy Friend had its origins as a Broadway hit starring Julie Andrews in 1954, Thoroughly Modern Millie, which starred Julie Andrews, ended up being a Broadway hit in 2002, taking the opposite direction. The movie The Boy Friend starred Twiggy, whose pencil-thin figure and wide eyes epitomized the flapper. Glenda Jackson plays an uncredited role as the stage star who breaks her foot, for whom Twiggy must go on as an understudy. That movie is a rather heavy-handed spoof of early Hollywood films, overladen with Busby Berkeley fantasy sequences.  Some dialogue, such as when Twiggy is admonished that she must go out a youngster and come back a star, are taken pretty much verbatim from 42nd Street (1933).
The movie lacks the subtler, silly charm that Thoroughly Modern Millie had which, along with Miss Andrews starred James Fox, Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Channing, and John Gavin – who I really think was the funniest of the bunch just by being straight-faced through it all. The wonderful Beatrice Lillie appeared here in her last film. Being spoofs, they are more interested in exaggeration, as is the nature of parody, and though they are fun to watch, they are about is genuine a view of the 1920s as mock apple pie is to real apple pie. Perhaps, though, they were the vanguard of the 1970s nostalgia craze.

The 1920s is remembered for being The Era of Wonderful Nonsense, The Jazz Age.  Often films made much later that are set in that decade, such as The Helen Morgan Story (1957), which we discussed here, are jammed with slangy dialogue and visual triggers like hip flasks as a shortcut to jog something in our collective memory about the decade.

One of the few movies made after the dust of that decade had settled that actually remembered the era not with nostalgia but with chagrin and something like regret was The Roaring Twenties (1939), which we discussed here.  The movies actually made in the 1920s, however, especially the freewheeling chaos of Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton films, seem to celebrate the technology that shaped the era – the phones, the cars, the flickers. The antics may be as remote to our present day as a black-and-white silent Felix the Cat cartoon to a modern-day CGI animated feature, but this fascination with technology and consumer products should key us into a mindset that was closer to our own than we realize.  It wasn't the only similarity to our era.

Though we recall 1920 as the year women won the right to vote – and all the bold flappers were called “moderns,” the decade was not really as progressive as it may seem. A generation of expatriates, writers, artists, musicians, composers, were living out their dreams overseas because of what they regarded as stifling and overbearing conservatism at home, including its most virulent and perhaps, to them, objectionable edict: Prohibition.

It was the era of the Palmer raids, the red scare and the wholesale roundup and deportation of immigrant aliens.  The National Origins Act restricted immigration. Sacco and Vanzetti were put to death in the electric chair after a trial that left much room for doubt about their actual guilt, but the climate of the red scare and sudden animosity toward the foreign-born usurped any interest in finding out the truth.  As poet Edna St. Vincent Millay noted:

[The] men were castaways upon our shore, and we, an ignorant savage tribe, have put them to death because their speech and their manners were different from our own, and because to the untutored mind that which is strange is in its infancy ludicrous, but in its prime evil, dangerous, and to be done away with.

It was the era of the Scopes trial when a high school biology teacher was tried in court for teaching anything but creationism.

It saw the rise of the Ku Klux Klan to its most powerful point, most especially in Indiana, with resultant beatings, lynchings, and shootings. Benito Mussolini founded a fascist regime in Italy, and Hitler began his fascist crusade, but we flirted with it, too, long before we met up with those devils in another generation.

The 1920s saw the rise of religious fundamentalism joined with materialism.  President Harding spoke of returning to “normalcy” after World War I and yearned for an orderly, Calvinistic world that never existed. The word “normalcy” never existed before that, either; it was made up for the occasion.

Under a trio of Republican presidents there were restrictive tariffs, scandal most notably in the Harding administration, and a stock market run ruthlessly like a Ponzi scheme. The shareholders’ titanic profits took precedence over the workers’ meager share (though wages did increase during the 1920s, unlike our own era), and an expansion of credit and few restrictions led to a booming economy and a dizzying stock market bubble in the year 1928.  Republicans controlled the Congress and the presidency through the decade that began with a depression and ended with one. 

It was an era of pop heroes, perhaps the most famous of which was Charles A. Lindbergh, who flew the first solo trans-Atlantic flight.  In another decade, he became involved in the America First committee and was a Nazi sympathizer.  If we think of the 1920s only in terms of “Oh, you kid,” and “23-skidoo,” it may be that the silent movies, though only a fraction of which that were made have survived, have bequeathed to us the image of an “Era of Wonderful Nonsense.”  There was a lot more going on off the set, and some of it quite serious.  Movies had been around since the turn of the twentieth century, but the 1920s was the turning point that made film a huge part of our national psyche, yet the flickers didn’t catch everything that was going on.

One could say that our era is more like the 1920s than it is of any other decade in the past century.  One film that resonates this is The Crowd (1928), which we discussed here in this previous post. This unflinching examination of a fellow whose failure to cope is summed up in one of its title cards, “We do not know how big the crowd is, and what opposition it is…until we get out of step with it.”

The excellent narrative history The Perils of Prosperity by historian William E. Leuchtenburg gives us many points on which to make the comparisons between that world and ours.  Perhaps another reason why we are left mainly with lightweight images of flappers, speakeasies, and bathtub gin is that the door slammed shut very quickly on the Jazz Age in October 1929 when the stock market crashed and the Great Depression began.  As Mr. Leuchtenburg remarks in a sympathetic if ominous epilogue: “Never was a decade snuffed out so quickly as the 1920s.”

Come back next Thursday, February 8th, when we’ll discuss The Racket (1928) about mobsters and political corruption—the first film to be produced by a young Howard Hughes.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Post (2017), All the President's Men (1976), and All the King's Men (1949)

One cannot watch the movie The Post (2017), out in theaters now, without immediately recalling All the President’s Men (1976), at least for those of us of a certain age for whom the Watergate scandal carved out a huge chunk of our formative years. Making comparisons is inevitable not only between the two movies of the two overlapping scandals of the Nixon years—the publishing of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate—but obviously between the Nixon administration and the current scandals in the Trump White House. Film, either consciously or unconsciously, reflects who we are as a society. But there is one great difference in our present day experience with the Trump White House from the Nixon White House:  We are no longer able to be shocked, and we are much more willing to accept scandal as a normal fact of life. Nixon’s offenses and even crimes were far less than Trump’s.  Nixon, for all his odious activities, never committed treason.  For many people, the outrage is gone, and that may mean we have been worn down, dumbed down, or been duped by the cynicism which a former generation considered a badge of honor, eschewing formerly held idealism as a weakness.

That is not to say there are not outraged people today or idealistic people. We have only to point to the hundreds of thousands of marchers in the past year, most notably of this past weekend, which by many accounts broke records of the greatest display of public protest in the history of this country. But our cynicism, which I think we once thought of as being realistic, mature, smart and savvy, maybe even cool, has weakened us. The tough outlook turned out to be a Trojan horse. The enemies of democracy—fascists and demagogues—got past the gate.

Today we will have a look at The Post, and All the President’s Men, as well as the classic film, All the King’s Men (1949).  When All the King’s Men was produced in an era that left us, not unlike the Vietnam era, cynical in the backwash of a long and terrible war, it was a different examination of political corruption that has more to do with our current environment than the early 1970s does.  There was great courage in examining the messianic character who is corrupted by his political office and leads his state towards fascism. World War II just being over, we knew very well the evils of fascism and the ultimate slavery, death and destruction that fascism brings, so it was a little like preaching to the choir, but there was still a courageous aspect to making this movie, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Robert Penn Warren because we were in the first flush of the communist witch hunts. Any pushback on a far right candidate suggesting that fascism represented corruption, could bring an instant accusation of being a communist.

We haven’t come very far.  Any protest or comment against the current administration is likely to bring, from many quarters both official and civilian, taunts, intimidation, and even death threats. We may deride the obvious stupidity of the person issuing a death threat for calling Trump an evil piece of garbage, but we must still take it seriously because stupidity is dangerous. In our Goebbels-like era where any charge against the current administration is called “fake news” with blathering idiocy, we must always be on guard for the freedom and autonomy of the Fourth Estate.  Recently a nineteen-year-old jerk threatened to carry out a mass shooting in the offices of CNN.  Presumably, he felt he was gaining celebrity in a heroic act for the sake of his Fuhrer.

The Post, much more than those other two movies, actually is idealistic in its portrayal of journalism as the watchdog of our freedom, and that was a delight and a surprise to me perhaps because of the admittedly nostalgic view we receive of the early 1970s through director Steven Spielberg’s viewfinder. Though the story of how The Washington Post brought out the scandalous Pentagon Papers, which laid out a roadmap for the corruption in the operation of the Vietnam War (the New York Times actually published the Pentagon Papers first) is certainly intrigue enough, the director clearly understood that nostalgia was going to be part of this story for a modern-day audience. It could not help but be so. When we see the fashions, and the hairstyles, the cavernous newsroom of The Washington Post with no computers (for anyone who ever aspired to a journalistic career, the sight of a newsroom is one of the most exciting things in the world, I kid you not) the cars, the phones, any number of items that jump out at us from the background that the art director has put on the set – this is obviously going to suck us in to the time and the mood of the era.  Rather than push them at us with a teasing parody or coyness, the director seems to frankly acknowledge we are going to be interested in the nostalgic aspect of the look of the film and he invites us to look. Some of us were undoubtedly misty-eyed just seeing a mockup of a newspaper scratched over with blue pencil. Yes, there was a time when paste-up and layout actually physically meant paste-up and layout.

I can’t say that Tom Hanks reminded me very much of Ben Bradlee either in voice or demeanor, but he and Meryl Streep worked very well together. It is a film worth seeing not only because of their performances but because of the message of the movie (including a strong streak of women’s empowerment) and because it reflects the scandal of that former era that still resonates to our own.

For all that, it does not have the shock value that All the President’s Men has – still has. They are bridged, of course, by the incident of the Watergate scandal. At the very end of The Post we see a young security guard walking through a darkened building which we come to understand is the Watergate hotel. He stumbles upon a burglary in progress and he calls for the police. At the showing I attended, the theater was full of Baby Boomers, which was, in one way comfortable because everyone got the same jokes and at the very end of the movie everyone chuckled knowingly at the young security guard because we knew what was going to happen next. At the end of the film, as the credits rolled, everyone applauded. I don’t know if this movie is attracting any younger generations, but I hope so.

All the President’s Men begins at the point that The Post ends: when the young security guard discovers the break-in in progress. The genius of All the President’s Men is that it does not make any political judgment, and interestingly, no background story on the private lives of the reporters—it is a lean and muscular story only about their work and the mystery they have uncovered. Because it is a movie from the era about which it was made, there is no sense of nostalgia. There is no smiling at the lack of computers or the dial telephones; the director shows us current events. We are not looking to see if they got it right, because obviously, they did.

The movie is filmed like a spy novel or a detective story. The reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, had no idea what a hornets’ nest they’ve stumbled onto. The story comes together in bits and pieces, clues and interviews. One of the delights of the movie is seeing a roster of actors who we’ve come to know very well, including Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John McMartin, Ned Beatty, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Allyn Ann McLerie, and others. Hal Holbrook plays the mole nicknamed “Deep Throat,” and Jason Robards plays Ben Bradlee in this version, and won Best Supporting Actor. His Ben Bradlee is more sneering, gruff and barking. Tom Hanks’ Bradlee has more of a twinkle in his eye. It was only in 2005 that the general public finally became made aware that Deep Throat was actually Deputy Director of the FBI W. Mark Felt.

The reporters go deeper and deeper and they are told by Hal Holbrook that in order to uncover the corruption they are going to have to “follow the money.” That saying was coined and made famous by this film.  We have heard it in many investigations since.

The film covers only the first seven months of the investigation by the reporters into the Watergate scandal; it does not cover everything in the book by Bernstein and Woodward, on which the movie is based. Despite the creepy realization that the reporters have uncovered something truly sinister, it is the final moments of the film that pack the most punch—because of the idealistic image that pounds home the message.  At the very end, we see the newsroom and a television on which is broadcasting Richard Nixon’s second inauguration ceremony. We see the reporters in the background typing on their manual typewriters. It is a remarkable image, and a proud one for anyone interested in journalism – indeed, the book of the movie spawned a new generation of journalists which brought, despite the scandal that inspired it, a new wave of political idealism, that what one said and what one wrote and what one believed mattered and would change the world.

The shock comes when the very last shot that shows us the staccato tapping of the unrelenting Teletype. It stamps out pounding letters (the pounding echoes the cannon salutes to the President during the ceremony on TV) in a string of simple declarative sentences listing what happened to the men involved in the Watergate scandal, bulletins of the indictments. The very last line typed out by the ferocious Teletype tells us that Richard Nixon has resigned and that Gerald R. Ford will be assuming the presidency at noon. The Teletype abruptly stops, freezing a moment in time. We look at the typed page and the sudden silence is deafening, and we are in awe that two reporters typing on manual typewriters could have brought down an administration with something so strong – and so vulnerable – as the truth. You can watch that scene here on YouTube.

All the King’s Men is actually even more stark and cynical than those two modern movies. It begins with the character Willie Stark as a small town self-taught lawyer who runs for office with honorable intentions, and by the time he reaches the governor’s mansion, he has become corrupt, bullying, his administration held up by patronage, bribes, and lies. He is a kind of self-styled messianic figure who leads his base of “hicks.” It is said that he is based on real-life 1930s Louisiana governor Huey Long (though author Mr. Warren denies this).

Broderick Crawford won the Best Actor award for his role as Willie Stark. Best Supporting Actress that year went to Mercedes McCambridge, who plays his political aide and one of his mistresses. She is riveting the moment she appears on screen, a forceful, bitter, snide, and shrewd woman who, like most of his aides and Crawford himself, seems to have no moral objective. The only goal is to win. John Ireland plays the young reporter who follows Stark and presents the story to us through his view.  Ireland is corrupted, too, when he joins the staff. His fiancée becomes Broderick Crawford’s next mistress. We might think that at some point, even though their eyes are open to what a monster Crawford is, including his longsuffering wife and adopted son, played by John Derek, they continue to allow themselves to coast in the trail of this mouthy, forceful man’s blind ambition.  He is so oily, he even subverts an impeachment investigation against him.

The state in the movie is unnamed, but it could be any state. It does not take much for certain personalities to become tyrants. But their power always comes from below, their loyal base that slavishly allows the demagogue to rule with an iron hand. Eventually, of course, all fascist regimes fail due to their own suicidal compulsion and paranoia to punish and control, especially their own supporters, to divide and subvert. We saw this in a string of movies in our series on American fascism last summer which began here with The Mortal Storm (1940).

There are certain lines in this compelling movie that echo the political environment today.  One of them, when John Ireland’s mentor, a judge, who is the uncle of his fiancée, berates him for his joining Broderick Crawford’s staff and supporting his corrupt administration despite knowing Crawford is evil.  The judge, played by Raymond Greenleaf accuses Ireland, and Crawford’s base: “You’re afraid to admit you made a mistake.”

Broderick Crawford has assembled his own private security squad.  He has taken over newspapers and radio stations.  He cannot stand criticism.  His quest for power is vindictive and full of conceit.  Interesting how this 1949 old movie parable can have such relevance today, perhaps even more than All the President’s Men or The Post. We note that in this movie, the journalist is complicit.

It is always tempting to look back on a former era and draw parallels. But obviously, no one era is an exact template for another. If we are to adopt the adage that if we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it, we must also acknowledge that we can’t recreate the mood of the original era that keeps repeating. The cynicism in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam was preceded by a truly idealistic era in the early 1960s, and that idealism lingered and helped strengthen the marchers, the reporters, the investigators, all those who stood to bring down corruption. As such, though we may compare the Trump scandals and what will eventually be the inevitable downfall of his presidency to Nixon’s, society as a whole has more in common not with the early 1970s, but not even with the late 1940s which gave us All the King’s Men. I’d like to suggest that we really have more in common socially, politically, economically, even technologically, with the decade of the 1920s.

We’ll talk about that, and the movies that illustrate this, in the coming weeks.

Have a look at trailers for The Post and for All the King’s Men here on YouTube.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Extras - A Life in the Background

Extras line up for a job in Meet John Doe (1941)

Spotting familiar “extras” is fascinating to classic film buffs, and is something we can’t help doing even while enjoying the screen time of our favorite stars.  They may have a minute or two on camera, a single line or none at all, but they contribute immeasurably to the look and tone of a movie.

Last week we discussed Beverly Washburn’s accepting work as a television extra as an older adult despite her early career of starring and supporting roles on film and TV in the 1950s.  Once in a great while, an unknown extra became a star—John Wayne was perhaps the most famous former-extra.  Sometimes they became stand-ins and then graduated to starring roles:  Joel McCrea was a stand-in for Valentino and for Wallace Reid in the 1920s.  Gilbert Roland once served as a stand-in for Ramon Novarro, and Ann Dvorak for Joan Crawford.

The plight of most extras, though, was far from hopeful and could be heartbreaking.  Gone Hollywood, an interesting book of classic film trivia by Christopher Finch and Linda Rosenkrantz notes that Central Casting, an employment registry for studio extras, came about in the 1920s as a response to the hordes of young people heading for Hollywood in search of fame and fortune.  There were more hopefuls than there were jobs, and the lucky ones sometimes snagged a role through nefarious means, including bribes and sexual favors.  Will Hayes, of Production Code fame, set up Central Casting to circumvent feared scandal when it appeared that a fair number of prospective starlets were actually prostituting themselves for work.

Central Casting established a pool of extras and a more appropriate and professional way for them to acquire work from the studios.  Hundreds were assigned jobs on films every day, but with as many as 15,000 on the rolls, there still weren’t enough roles.  It was also a factor of their employment that they supply their own costumes—street clothes, sport clothes or evening dress for scenes that required them.  The authors of Gone Hollywood reference a 1934 Photoplay magazine article about extras pooling their meager resources and living five and six to a room to share costumes and expenses, and that others were living in Hoovervilles around Los Angeles

They would usually earn an average of $5 per day and overtime, if called for.  The authors report that in 1936, only 58 out of 5,500 men and only 20 out of 6,500 women averaged three or more days of work per week.  One could earn a little more if they were willing to take roles which required them to get wet or fall off a horse.  Certain physical impairments might also be on demand for a particular film, and often there was a demand for extras based on ethnicity or race. 

It is harrowing to recall that, according to the authors, the average yearly income for an extra in the mid 1930s was only $131.36.  Think of this the next crowd scene you see.  Their plight, especially for older extras, was sometimes met with sympathy by some directors and producers, who would throw work their way whenever possible.  MGM casting director Billy Grady organized the Casting Directors Ball to raise money for extras who were ill or in need.

Perhaps the most famous of these not famous actors was Bess Flowers, who we’ve mentioned on this blog from time to time, known as The Queen of the Hollywood Extras. She worked in the background from the early 1920s through the early 1960s, in more than 350 films, as well as television.  She was one of the founders of the Screen Extras Guild.

 Gone Hollywood.  Finch, Christopher and Linda Rosenkrantz (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.) 1979.

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