Archive for April 5, 2017

On Another Famous Davis: Jack, of “Our Gang”

Posted in Child Stars, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Jack Davis (1914-1992) has a birthday of April 5. Not to be confused with another famous Jack Davis, the Mad Magazine illustrator, whom we’ll undoubtedly get around to celebrating at some point. This Jack Davis is related to another well-known Davis, but (amusingly) NOT Bette Davis, who also has an April 5th birthday and whom we just done writing about. This Jack Davis was the kid brother of Mildred Davis, Harold Lloyd’s leading lady for several years prior to becoming his wife.

Mildred’s career had begun in 1916. Her boss Hal Roach was just launching Our Gang in 1922 when 8 year old Jack was thrown into the mix, usually playing tough bully characters. He was featured in some 19 comedies (with some of the footage recycled in some later shorts). Lloyd married Mildred in 1923. and packed the poor kid off to military school, thus ending the careers of two members of the Davis family at the same time. I hope they were grateful! (Actually, Jack, now known as John, probably was — he ended up being a prominent doctor). Davis also somehow found time to play bit parts in films and on tv from the early 1940s through the mid 1980s.

Davis’s  daughter Cindy married Robert Mitchum’s son Christopher, also an actor. Their children and and grandchildren carry on the family business.

For more on the history of film comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.

On Bette Davis: Because I Just Did Joan

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Women with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Bette Davis (1908-1989) was born on April 5. Having just given a good deal of attention to her rival Joan Crawford (an antagonist beyond the grave thanks to Feud: Bette and Joan) I herewith give equal time to Davis.

As we intimated in our earlier post, my connection to Davis has historically been stronger than any I ever felt for Crawford. For one, Davis never stopped being a movie star. She remained in the public eye until she died in 1989, when I was 25 years old. Her last film Wicked Stepmother was released the year of her death, and she was always on television talk shows and so forth. I’d seen many of her films (both classics and contemporary ones) when still a young person. By contrast, Crawford retired when I was five years old.

She looks like Lillian Gish here, yeah?

And then there is the fact that Davis was such the quintessential New Englander. She was from Massachusetts, and always had that accent. So many actors had to learn to speak “Mid-Atlantic” during the classic studio era; I imagine the studios never bothered doing that with Davis. Her accent was already appropriate for stage and screen. She reminded me of the older women in my mother’s family. Davis attended boarding school at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, which is quite close to my mother’s hometown. Like my grandmother and aunt, her actual first name is “Ruth”; my sister and niece also have that as their middle name. I feel a close regional and cultural connection. I’ve recently learned I’m distantly related to her; she is quite literally “my people”

Feud gives a false impression about the length of Davis’s career by having Crawford mutter something to the effect of “She’s always been there, dogging my every step”. It’s plausible and even probable that Crawford felt that way, but doing so would be a convenient and vain way of rewriting history. Crawford was slightly older, and first achieved fame and stardom in the silent era. She began making films in 1925, six years before Davis. Davis, on the other hand, was a stage actress, and entirely a creature of talkies. She fell in love with the stage in high school, and had auditioned to be part of Eva LaGallienne’s company, which reveals early ambitions to be a serious artist, an ambition she never lost. Rejected by La Gallienne, she studied at a dramatic school run by John Murray Anderson — a much more show bizzy kind of preparation. But her very screen name reveals something that set her apart not only from Crawford but from most of the other actors in the film colony. She used the French spelling of Bette from Balzac’s Cousin Bette — a demonstration that she not only read books, but read Balzac.  Her (real or imagined) superiority is baked right into how everyone is forced to spell her.

Nowadays, both Davis and Crawford are most often regarded in terms of their mature work, for their years as “psycho-biddies”, feuding and otherwise. My Crawford piece worked backwards, building up to the revelation that she had originally been a major sex symbol; it’s what underlay her image until the end. With Davis, we’ll go forward chronologically and lead with the fact that she, too, was tried as a sex symbol, though that period was relatively brief, and was shed for good and all, even widely forgotten, once she began winning accolades for playing unglamorous roles in the late ’30s.

Fresh as a daisy in one of her first films, the original “Waterloo Bridge” (1931) — and for once she’s not the hooker!

But in recent years, just as with Crawford, thanks largely to TCM, I have discovered that there actually had been a sexy Bette Davis, though the period was much briefer, and plenty of people always denied she could ever be beautiful or sexy, including, significantly, herself. When she originally came to Hollywood (she later said), “I was the most Yankee-est, most modest virgin who ever walked the earth.”  But in the Pre-Code years they tried to tart her up a bit. They made her a platinum blonde, like Jean Harlow or Carole Lombard. And, to my eyes, she pulled it off. Of the many Bette Davis mannerisms one of the most prominent is a coquettish way she had of darting those enormous eyes all over the place: charming, scheming, flashing. It is a quality that suits a young girl best, and works for her as an asset when she is closest to girlishness in the early ’30s (when she was in her early ’20s). When she got older, it became another sort of asset. It was disturbing. But when she was quite young, it could be fetching, even seductive.

What she rarely seemed to me, however, is vulnerable. Something about her seems hard, manipulative, and calculating, even from the beginning. I’ve often wondered if she wasn’t on the Asperger’s or sociopath scale — she seems dry-eyed for an actress. She’s got that cold stare, with those enormous eyes — reminds me a lot of the (much later) actor David Hemmings. They look like they’re sizing you up to see where they can cut off the best slice. In her early years, Davis was often cast as prostitutes, rich party girls and the like. But in the Pre-Code era that had special appeal. I particularly like her in The Cabin in the Cotton (1932), where she plays the daughter of a wealthy planter who persistently tries to entice a young tenant farmer (Richard Barthelmess) away from his noble goals of raising himself up by his own exertions. This is the one in which she speaks the immortal line, “I’d like to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair.” Somehow the content of the film makes the otherwise innocent phrase “Cabin in the Cotton” sound as dirty as “Roll in the Hay” or “Snake in the Grass”. I think this may be the sexiest role I’ve seen her in, although it may not be as well known as Three on a Match (1932), Of Human Bondage (1934), Petrified Forest (1936) or her Oscar winning turn in Dangerous (1935).

“In This Our Life” — the scene where she won’t stop dancing and blasting the radio her husband couldn’t afford but she bought anyway, because no one’s gonna stop HER from havin’ a good time!

She is still occasionally playing the Siren as late as In This Our Life (1942), one of my FAVORITES, a camp-fest in which she plays the unbelievably wicked sister of angelic Olivia De Havilland — steals her fiance, ruins him financially until he kills himself, runs over somebody in her car, and then blames it on the family’s saintly and promising young black chauffeur.

While she is occasionally able to muster glamour in later roles it seems to take a lot of effort. Though her first large move towards deglamorization is The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), it seems as though the worm has already turned by Jezebel (1938) — ironic, given that the character is a Southern belle and a strumpet (though who could compete with the impression made by Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind the following year?) Private Lives is surprisingly early foreshadowing for her later psychobiddy persona. With Crawford, we don’t get anything similar until perhaps Possessed (1947), in which she plays a mental patient, and 80% of the role consists of flashbacks to when her character was still desirable and vivacious. Davis realized early on that her continued success rested on her ability to win respect for herself as an actor, as opposed to an object of desire. And after all, an actor is what she initially set out to be. Davis had three Broadway roles under her belt before she went to Hollywood; by contrast Crawford had been a chorus girl. Crawford was about her body. She may have been idiosyncratic in how she applied her make-up in later years, but she never precisely “lost her looks”, and in fact was showing off her legs to good advantage as late as Berserk (1967). Crawford had also worked hard to gain respect as an actor, but she didn’t have to work nearly as hard as Davis did to remain viable.

That said, though Davis has this widespread and well-deserved reputation as an actress, two Oscars, an ocean of accolades, I can’t say she has ever properly moved me, which is normally considered a principal part of any actor’s job. She has amused me, scared me, impressed me, even wowed me, but she has never moved me to tears or too much worried me. She is theatrical, she is a star, but she is never really vulnerable, as, say, Katharine Hepburn is vulnerable in Alice Adams (my favorite Hepburn performance). She achieves her effects by showy, sneaky subterfuges for the most part — you know you are supposed to feel sympathy for her because she has made herself ugly for the character. That is a kind of risk and a kind of bravery and a kind of nakedness, but it’s still not emotional.

Anyway, I’ve scarcely scratched the surface of the gigantic topic of Bette Davis’s career. The focus of this post was meant to call attention to her appeal in her earliest years, as I did with Crawford. For more on her late horror pictures go here. I’m sure there’ll be more than one additional post on this worthy subject.



Spencer Tracy: Working Backwards from “Mad”

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History) with tags , , , , , , , on April 5, 2017 by travsd

Just a few words on Spencer Tracy (1900-1967) since I just saw him the other night for maybe the two dozenth time in the first film I ever saw him in (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), and because I’ve already written about most of the other principals!

One can be forgiven for wondering what the hell Spencer Tracy’s doing in a movie with all those comedians. But there are real reasons and rationalizations; it isn’t just random.

First and foremost, he starred in nearly ALL of Stanley Kramer’s pictures during this stretch of both their careers: Inherit the Wind (1960); Judgment at Nuremburg (1961); It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). He’s normally the voice of reason or an authority figure or the audience’s eyes in these movies, even if he does succumb at the end of Mad World and become one of the crazies. So there’s that.

And then there’s the fact that Tracy HAD done comedies, among the many genres (nearly all of them) he partook in. It occurred to me this go-’round, for example, that Mad World channels the Father of the Bride comedies (which I don’t happen to like) with all that crap with his wife and his daughter nagging him over the telephone. Then there are all those tedious, dated battle-of-the-sexes comedies with Katharine Hepburn. Don’t care for those either. But it’s not as though he’s never been associated with comedy.

And lastly, there is a strong evocation of Tracy’s early Pre-Code pictures at Fox. He was usually a crook as opposed to a cop (much like Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson) in these pictures (Quick Millions, Up the River, 20 Thousand Years in Sing-Sing) but talk of “Smiler Grogan” and the “Tuna Factory Robbery” (and the fact that Grogan is played by Jimmy Durante, whose first movie was 1930’s Roadhouse Nights, a very similar kind of film) are reminiscent of the first phase of Tracy’s film career.

And anyway, the cop is the straight man. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World seems balanced with him in the role. With an out-and-out comedian in the part it might not have. On the other hand, the tradition of comedians playing cops goes all the way back to Mack Sennett — it might have been a valid approach.

As with Joan Crawford, whom we wrote about a few days ago, I knew Tracy almost entirely from his late work first. In addition to the Kramer films, there was his solo turn in The Old Man and the Sea (1958), which we watched in school, and the thrilling The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961) — I have always been a sucker for disaster films. But I did see some movies with the young Tracy as a kid, now I think of it. Boom Town (1940) was probably the first one and certainly Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). I remember seeing these on television. And I watched Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936) as a young adult.

In more recent years, Tracy movies I’ve discovered and enjoyed have included the incredible The Power and the Glory (1933, Preston Sturges’ first screenplay), the bizarre horror fantasy Dante’s Inferno (1935), the early disaster movie San Francisco (1936), the western Northwest Passage (1940), Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948), the dreary but now obligatory Plymouth Adventure (1952), the Shakespearean western drama Broken Lance (1954) and my favorite Tracy performance of all time: Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). Then there are his films that are so famous that I feel like I’ve seen them, though I’m not sure I have, such as Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938).

Not surprisingly, given his way with a speech, Tracy was originally a man of the stage. He had done a half dozen Broadway plays before coming to Hollywood, including three with George M. Cohan, who famously told him “Tracy, you’re the best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!” That has always stuck with me, for it seems to be me a key of appreciation of what both artists were all about: simplicity and honesty and bravery without nonsense. Today’s his birthday, a worthwhile time to celebrate those virtues of Spencer Tracy.

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