Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Sexual Innuendo In Ernst Lubitsch's Lady Windemere's Fan (1925)

This post is part of the 2nd Annual SEX! (Now That I Have Your Attention) Blogathon, hosted by Steve over at MovieMovieBlogBlog (wado/thanks for hosting!).  For other really good reads, please click here.  Wado/thank you for reading!
Spoilers ahead!

The sexual innuendos in this silent treatment of an Oscar Wilde comedic play are thick and over-laided, especially in the first two acts. Directing such a wordy writer as Oscar Wilde during the silent era posed specific challenges that often didn't pan out well in the finished product.  In many feature length films, the witty repartee and playful sexual dialog of Wilde was dealt with many, many inter-title cards, often lacking in any kind of corresponding imagery in the part of film that actually showed actors "acting."  This often made for clumsy films that taxed viewer's eyesight and just plain bored people.  In fact, an earlier film version of the play had been made in 1916 and so heavy with title cards that it was panned by the big critics of the time--and was a complete flop.  German director Lubitsch (who had come to Hollywood in 1922 at the bidding of Mary Pickford); knew of this and was determined to approach the play in film form in whole new way.  The question then became how to get across in active imagery, what actors of the stage would actually say, without the use of an intrusive number of dialogue cards.  Lubitsch masters this well!  He employed whole host of not so subtle devices, along with actual acting--he directed the actors to actually say their lines, while interacting with the stage props (many of which were written into the play's direction in the first place).  This resulted in a light-hearted melodrama, filled with fun "winks winks/nudge nudges."  It is so free of dialogue cards that the viewer almost forgets they are needed to advance the plot.  

Wilde's play is a kind of "comedy of remarriage" in the same ilk as films such as His Girl Friday and The Awful Truth, which rely on frame stories to set up perimeters in which the action can play out.  In this case, it's with a long lost mother "returning" to her native London, after reading that her daughter has married one Lord Windemere in a newspaper abroad.  Mrs. Erlynne as she is known (played deliciously by the very talented Irene Rich) is obviously a woman with a shady past; and she wastes no time summoning Lord Windemere to her lavish rooms that she's let in London, with the purpose of blackmailing him.  She's determined that her past, in this case, will no longer plague her--she sees the perfect opportunity to capitalize on it.  Almost immediately the sexual jesters start.  The first thing that Mrs. Erlynne does when she sees her son-in-law Lord Windemere (Bert Lytell), is motion him over to a sort of settee, placed under a window in her sitting room; in point of fact it looks more like what we would call a "day-bed" these days.  Windemere is incensed and insulted; he knows nothing of this woman and is recently married.  Mrs. Erlynne, on the other hand, looks as though she a cat that just swallowed the proverbial canary, but laughs it off.  She then proceeds to tell him who she really is.  Again, he is outraged--demands proof--which she provides; he then looks confused and a bit afraid.  It is at this time that we find out that he is familiar with his wife's background, including that she is obviously the product of some sort extra-marital affair.  He reminds her that her daughter had been raised to believe that her birth mother is dead.  Mrs. Erlynne demands to be let back into her daughter's life; the Lord then falls quickly into her trap.  He soon cottons on to what she is really after--his cheque book.  He sits down at her writing desk and begins to write out a check, that starts with £5....Mrs. Erlynne gets a look of slightly evil ecstasy on her face, as if she believes he is about to hand her £5000.  This look is not subtle at all, it clearly sexual excitement over successful blackmail and love of ill-gotten gains.  Clearly, she is not new to this game.  When the cheque comes out £500 instead, she gives him a look of forlorn regret; it's pure artifice, of course.  He is quickly persuaded to add a 1 in front of the 5.  Now, keep in mind that this is not a one time payment--it's a monthly "arrangement." (This comes to around £17,500 per month in today's money!)  It does not take long about for the gossip to begin!  And so the stage is set.

Fast forward several months to a horse-racing track.  The Windemere's are there with a complete party of on-lookers.  Enter Mrs. Erlynne.  It takes little time for practically the entire park to notice that she is there.  Surely she has some rich man in her bed?!  But who?  None of this is actually placed on a title card, Lubitsch needs only to have ladies hissing into each other's ears, talking behind fans and handkerchiefs, and wincing when they train their eyes on her. Caught in the middle of this soup of gossip and assumption is Lady Windemere (May McCoy), who is the only person in high-society London to have not heard the rumors.  This does not last long. The whispers get louder behind her and finally someone says something directly to her about this woman with a mysterious income.  All of this is all conveyed with actual acting, which give a depth to the resentment on the part of those engaged in gossip; gives the pangs of pain on the part of Lady Windemere's face a great deal of honesty.

Seated right behind Lady Windemere, next to her husband, is one Lord Augustus Lorton (Edward Martindale).  One of the scarce title cards announces that he is the most eligible bachelor in town.  On the other side of Lord Darlington sits another member of the gentry, Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman).  It is clear that he has some sort of design on Lady Windemere; he stares intensely at her, especially after the gossip stings her ears, to see how she is reacting.  There is not one doubt that his gazes are penetrating; and the he has some plan forming in his mind when it comes to this young married, and upstanding, woman.  Again Lubitsch manages to get great performances from his actors, and their performances relay all the feelings, be they:  hurt, embarrassed, stung, exposed, designing, completely.

Darlington, clearly not happy with the married couple in mid-kiss!

What happens next is surprising, only because the viewer doesn't see it coming.  Amongst the antics of the gossips and harpies, we barely notice Lord Lorton admiring the visage that is Mrs. Erlynne.  When she leaves the track early, out of embarrassment, he follows her.  This is the part of the film where Lubitsch employs his most clever special effects to be seriously suggestive.  We see Lord Lorton following her, catching up to her a little more with each step; and then screen begins to blacken out from right to left--at first just a little, then more and finally complete fade to black.  The viewer is left to think "okay, what are those two about to get up to??"

As it turns out, he is only attempting to discover her place of residence.  He reaches her door and hesitates, we have a witty title card, throwing in some actual Wilde on the nature of gentlemen ringing a lady's doorbell; and finally, his stiff extended fore-finger (another suggestive) and the pushing of the bell.  He gains admittance and is shown into the same sitting room as Lord Windemere had reluctantly became the victim of blackmail.  Again Mrs. Erlynne waves toward the window settee--this time Lord Lorton accepts quickly; well for it's day, that would have been shocking to audiences.  What happens next, would have only intensified that shock.  When sitting down, Lord Lorton offers her a cigarette (though Lubitsch updates the timeline of the story to the 1920's, it was still frowned upon for women to smoke, especially in mixed company), she accepts and begins to tease the end of the cigarette with mouth, all the while staring at the Lord sitting next to her.  After this, we get one of those rare title cards, that reads "But when the relation becomes more friendly___"--clearly we are meant to speculate on what exactly is meant by "friendly"--and what is with that dash??

Lord Augustus Lorton
The next live action that we see is Lord Lorton frantically ringing Mrs. Erlynne's bell with impatience; walking in quickly and hanging his hat, cane, and over coat inside her residence with extreme familiarity.  Upon his easy entrance (almost as if he were in his own residence) to her sitting room, we see her puffing away on a cigarette in a very "un-ladylike" manner.  He takes the cigarette from her and puts it out in her ash tray; there he sees a barely smoked cigar and gives her a surprised and disappointed look.  Now the cigar becomes immediately suggestive because it hasn't be cut for smoking (what some cigar smokers call "circumcising" of the role).  As Lorton gets more and more jealous and, she becomes desperate to stem his anger and stave off his leaving her, she retrieves a band from his own brand of cigar and gently slips it over the cigar--another strikingly suggestive visual moment.  She then saunters over to him, to take a cigar from his own pocket holder-again this is done easy and suggestive familiarity.  He becomes convinced and accepts her explanation. From here the film shifts gears significantly. It follows from the fast paced "swinging" woman about town, to the arena domesticity in the Windemere household.

Suddenly, it is the morning of Lady Windemere's birthday, the first of her married life.  Her husband escorts her to a room full of gifts, which included all manner of expensive gifts of jewelry; but the gift that he saves for last is a fancy, but still simple, fan.  She is delighted with it.  Lord Darlington then arrives; not fearing anything, her husband then leaves his wife alone with his old friend.  The playful sexual props may have disappeared, but the domestic drama that takes over is no less thin on sexual matters. We now have a marriage at stake, and this finally puts a mother's instincts into play for the first time since a now grown and wedded child was born.  

Lord Darlington and Lady Windemere
The title of the film would lead one to think that the fan would be a major sexual innuendo of the story, but it shows up past the half way point in the film.  It's not that the film leaves off being interesting after the fast and furious sexual suggestions in props earlier on; quite the contrary, it then moves on from an arena playfulness, into one of real peril for the heroine of the film. Lord Darlington sees Lady Windemere's birthday as the pivotal moment to make his move.  It becomes obvious that he has been slinking around; spying on Lord Windemere.  Having been left alone with her in her own sitting room filled with morning light and gleaming with presents, talk turns to a party being thrown for her that night.  Darlington, sitting with her, gives her the same look that we saw at the racetrack.  We know something coming.  He pounces on this chance and asks to show her something outside and guides her the window.  Outside we see Lord Windemere dismiss his own car, cross the street and get in a cab, which soon pulls away.  There, he's done it--he asks her what kind of man dismisses his own car?!  He then "sets the hook" by suggesting that she check her husband's writing desk, which is suspiciously locked.  Having gotten the drawer open, it contains many cashed cheques made out to Lady Erlynne.  She is devastated.

A declaration of love

A finally it comes, his out and out declaration of love.  What he means by "love" is still unclear however.  What is clear, is that Lady Windemere is put in a really delicate situation and, he pesters her further over why she would want to stay with a cheating husband.  With her birthday party looming, she is left to wonder how she will go forward in life.  Meanwhile, the scene suddenly shifts back to Mrs. Erlynne's sitting room.  Lord Windemere is there handing off the monthly money; she ambushes him with a request, really more of a demand, to attend her daughter's party.  He at first resists, but soon gives in.  He returns home, unbeknownst to him, to a very upset wife.  He tells her that he's invited Mrs. Erlynne to her party, insisting that she is indeed of woman of quality.  There is no way that he can know that this is the LAST thing he should be saying, or indeed, doing.  Understandably his mortified wife explodes and demands that the invitation never be sent.

Cut to the party.  Lady Windemere seems to have calmed down and is enjoying her evening with friends and family.  Meanwhile Mrs. Erlynne is growing inpatient at her residence waiting for an invitation that will never come.  Fed up, she decides to crash her daughter's party, sure that some mistake kept the invitation from arriving.  However, upon her entry to the Windemere house, she is told she is not on the invitation list.  She is at first mortified and then sad.  At this point, who should enter, but Lord Lorton, who is late for the party  He is brimming with joviality and is genuinely happy to see her there.  He then, on the quality of his name, secures her entry to the party.  

When she is announced, Lady Windemere is shocked.  May McAvoy who plays the Lady, does a good job of pulling off a look as if she had actually been hit with a real electric shock.  Lord Windemere seeing and hearing a hush spread across the room, springs to action and begins to introduce Mrs. Erlynne around the room.  Before long she is introduced even to gossip harpies, who, one by one, sit down with a chat with her; they each find her to be perfectly pleasant.  Things seems to calm.  Lady Windemere, however, decides she needs some air and steals out into the garden.  While there Lord Darlington ambushes her and repeats his declarations of love and adoration to her. The suggestive moment here comes when he takes her fan in one hand, while touching her hand with his other, while pleading his love for her.

She rebuffs him and moves out into the garden itself.  Darlington shrinks away.  Mrs. Erlynne, now being this close to her child, cannot help but step out to admire her from afar as she paces around in he garden.  Lord Lorton cannot help but follow her out there to woo her actually for a marriage proposal.  Unfortunately, he does this from behind a large bush; so when Lady Windemere looks up, she sees to her shock Mrs. Erlynne staring at her, with the arm outstretched to an unseen admirer, the Lady assumes that the man behind the bush is, in fact, her husband.  She's had enough.  She makes for Lord Darlington house, with the intent to stay the night with him.  She soon gains admittance.  Unknown to her, Mrs. Erlynne has discovered the note she has left for her husband informing him that she is leaving him for Darlington.  She then confiscates the note and plays up a sham that Lady Windemere is not feeling well and has gone to bed.  She then makes for Darlington's house and soon let in.  At this point one does have to wonder what sort gentlemen Lord Darlington really is; if women can be so easily admitted to his house while he is away, what must say something about his prior behaviors and activities....

When the young lady sees the woman she has no idea is her mother in Lord Darlington's house she is at first insensed and dismissive.  The viewer expects Mrs. Erlynne to blurt out who she is; and she does struggle to keep the words from passing her lips.  Biting her lip, she thinks the better of it and falls to entreating the young lady to flee and return home to her husband.  It is at this point that she does blurt out that she had done the very same thing and that it ruined her life.  So, now we know the whole story of the conception of Lady Windemere and why she was brought to believe her mother was dead.  Of course, the young lady has no idea that this is what she is being told, only the viewer is in the know.  But, the story does impact her and she allows Mrs. Erlynne to assist her out of the situation.  Before they can make good their escape, however, the men from the party have decided to have an after-party at Darlington's house, with Lord Lorton amongst them.  They flood his sitting room, leaving the two women trapped in the back of the house.  

Seeing the men arriviving for after-party

The only problem with fleeing out the back....Lady Windemere has accidentally left her fan on Lord Darlington's couch!  What to do now?  Mrs. Erlynne tells her daughter that she will take the blame; she knows her reputation precedes her--though she now has everything to lose--having been proposed to earlier in the evening.  She sends the young woman out and steels herself to confront the men.  Meanwhile, the fan has been discovered.

Facing the men

Mrs. Erlynne then confronts the men and claims that she took Lady Windemere's fan by mistake.  Lord Lorton stares at her, confounded and wounded.  Everyone else, including, and especially, Darlington looks confused and embarrassed. She is crest-fallen as she glances at Lorton and then leaves.  The young Lady Windemere has been saved; still believing that her mother is dead, but in debt to the woman she believed had been carrying on an affair with her husband.  She never discovers the real reason her husband was paying Mrs. Erlynne.  For her part, the very next day, Mrs. Erlynne has decided that she should continue her "adventures" and is packed up and planning to leave the city.  On her way out, she encounters Lord Lorton, who is on his way to her place of residence.  Being the woman wit and character that she truly is, she informs him that "no I don't think I will marry you!"  She then gets in her packed car, but Lorton follows, gets in with her, and they drive off together.  The implication is that they will indeed be getting hitched, but that is mearly an assumption.

The unresolved issues within the story is pure Wilde.  Ever the social satarist, he was never going to let the English gentry off with a straight forward happy ending, with all the parts reconciled, and all the secrets discovered and explained.  To convey the complicated nature of this through the lens of proper and improper sex, Lubitsch needed a clear vision as to how to approach the visual effects to have them forward the narrative. Because, again this is silent cinema.  This led to a masterful handling with a number of sexual props.  Even the sets themselves seem to convey this; they a comically over-sized.  Of course, there are practical reasons for the sets to be so over-large, from the point of shooting the film entirely (mostly) on a sound stage.  Still one cannot watch the film without having a sense that the especially large doors are meant to be constantly suggestive.  What I have come to love about this film, is it's play on the suggestive; the creative way in which Lubitsch approached it's production.  It has been said that he is the real star of the film, since none of the players were particularly famous.  His direction of the actors is impeccable, during an era when directors approached the job more with fussing over dialogue cards, rather than on directing the actual people in their film.  I feel I don't need the closure of all being known.  We see that one marriage was saved, and another, possibly, is produced.  The comedic and melodramatic sexual misunderstandings provide for a kind of re-marriage at the end.  That is enough for me.  Nice neat bows on packages not needed!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Dark Obsession With Cesare (Reel Infatuations Blogathon)


The character of Cesare (Conrad Veidt) , the somnambulist in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (known better here in the U.S. of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) might seem like a strange character that a crush like obsession might develop on the part of any cinephile.  But I simply can't seem to help myself.  He is the hapless the victim of the insane hypnotist Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).  His character is meant to represent the equally hapless soldier of war, conditioned to kill, by the insanity of government hell bent on waging war.  The film's conception as an allegory came from two German pacifists during the first world war, Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer--who wrote the film.  Though the allegory can quickly get lost in the pure strangeness of the sets (designed by Herman Warm), and the odd manner of the way the characters move around in them.  It was Cesare's movement that first caught my attention as a child.  Over time, this grew into a pathos that lead to a crush in my teens.  Over the years, that obsession only deepened every time a viewed the film.  He is presented as utterly pathetic; a side-show freak that is the embodiment of the helpless human automaton, doing the bidding of a man that displays demonic motivations.  That's when the pathos started.

Cesare Awakes!

In his side show at the local fair, the "good" Dr. presents Cesare in a coffin like box, propped up on stage. He informs his audience that he is the only person who can rouse Cesare, and that when he does this, Cesare answers questions about the future with truthful predictions.  Cesare, he tells them, has been asleep for 23 years.  The rousing process is frightening, only because Cesare does in no way looks as though he faking a thing.  At Caligari's commandment, Cesare twitches, his mouth opens slightly and finally his eyes open.  After this his hands come up (think Frankenstein's monster) and he is commanded to walk out of his "cabinet."  He is now able to speak.  Amongst the audience are two young men, best friends, both of them sweet on the same young woman .  One of them, against the advice of the other, asks Cesare how long he will live; in an unflinching, but still slightly pathetic expression, he answers "until dawn."  The audience reacts with complete fear and revulsion--the young men flee.  The film presents Cesare as an almost supernatural slave--a man caught not just in nightmare state, unable to wake on his own, and equally unable to stop the predictions that come as answers--only to be returned to his zombie like existence and sealed up in his "pine box."  It's a powerful image that can easily turn into allure on the part of the viewer.  It's the classic, "I need to save him."

Later, during the dead of night, shown in deepest hues of blue, we see the shadow of a figure wielding a knife, who then kills the young man whose death was predicted by Cesare.  The shadow appears to resemble Cesare, but this certainly cannot be the case, as Dr. Caligari has put his hapless somnambulist back in his "cabinet."  Eventually, another member of the village is detained by police for the murder; though it is clear his visage bears no resemblance to the shadow seen murdering the young man.  The viewer then begins to think, "is the evil Dr. using Cesare as murder weapon against Cesare's will?"  If so, what sort of hell must Cesare live in for the brief periods that Caligari allows him consciousness??  The police wonder this as well and have questions.  Again, with me, that only increased my sense of slightly erotic sympathies toward Cesare.  How did this hapless soul come to be in such a state?

Cesare being examined by the police.

When next we see Cesare, Dr. Caligari opens up the casket like cabinet, sits the unconscious Cesare up, and feeds him.  He then lays him back down and closes him back up.  If there were any doubts about the true state that Cesare is in, any suspicions that he is in on any sort of trick or fraud, this scene puts them all to bed, so to speak.  Just after this, the police show up and demand that they be allowed to examine the somnambulist.  Caligari is at first uncooperative, but eventually allows them to into his caravan.  The Dr. opens the cabinet again and the police sit Cesare up; they then proceed to poke and prod him in a very unprofessional manner--demanding that Caligari wake him up--which he successfully refuses to do.  Again, the sympathy for Cesare, the helpless automaton, trapped in what must surely be a nightmare world, from which he cannot wake, wells up.  How much is he aware of his surroundings when in this state?

Throughout various points in the film, scenes depicting the young woman--that object of affection of the two young men--one of them now dead, are woven into the story.  Her domestic life, her learning of the death of the young man and that he died by murder, and finally a her frantic search for her missing father.  This draws her ever closer to the Dr.  She shows up at Caligari's fair tent inquiring if he's seen her father.  Caligari has other plans.... He has Cesare set up for yet another show, he then opens the cabinet to reveal the sleeping man to young Jane.  She looks confused, then scared.  He commands Cesare to wake, which he does.  Cesare takes long and genuinely chilling stare at her, culminating in a face to face stare.  She becomes so livid with fear that she runs.  What Caligari thinks he's up to here, is unclear; but Cesare seems to have shown his first act of thinking for himself.  He notices her on his own terms, not Caligari's.  This further complicates the state that Cesare "lives" in.  Clearly he is a kind of zombie, but not one that couldn't be rescued.  He shows some of his own personality, if even for a fleeting second.

What happens next makes it crystal clear that Caligari is using Cesare as a murder weapon--though what the Doctor's motives are never come to light.  He wakes Cesare and sends him off to murder Jane, just as he obviously had with her young suitor.  Cesare sneaks into her bedroom, knife in hand, having been instructed to kill her.  He raises the knife, but then stops, suddenly having another moment of a kind of lucidity.  He sees that this is the same person that he had come face to face with earlier in the day.  He is clearly struck by her, perhaps even attracted to her.  What he does next looks truly horrifying to the viewer, but it is the first time that poor Cesare acts on his own motivation.  He violently grabs her, waking her in a state of terror, and drags her from her house, through the maze of blue streets, into the dark woods.  It looks every bit the horror film that it is, yet Cesare seems to only be motivated to save her.  In the process, the burden of her weight gets the better of him and he collapses, allowing the young woman to escape back into the safety of the village, to villagers that are searching for her.  Seeing his game is up, Dr. Caligari flees, but not before being chased by the surviving young suitor.

Later films like Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands, draw some direct inspiration from Cesare's behavior; though, of course, Edward is not bidded to murder anyone and is obviously mostly a re-working of Frankenstein.  Still it's hard not to have a similar progression with Edward, starting with the pathos, and eventually ending in falling for him.  Dr. Caligari, though, unlike "The Inventor" (Vincent Price) in Edward Scissorhands, presents Cesare as a constantly sleeping individual, completely under his power. Only Carligari (who is a repulsive as Cesare is alluring, despite the deep markings around his eyes) claims the ultimate power to wake him and command him to speak.  Still the comparison in look, progression of helplessness and ultimate tragedy the similarlities between Cesare and Edward are stark.

The film takes a turn for the truly bizarre at this point.  We, the viewer, are left not knowing what has become of poor Cesare.  The young man chasing Caligari follows him to what turns out be an insane asylum.  He inquires within if they have a patient named Caligari, never asking about Cesare.  The staff look confused and say "no." He is then told that he should consult the director of the asylum.  On entering the director's office he sees that director and "Dr. Caligari" are the same person.  He flees.  He manages to convince the authorities that they should check the director of the asylum while searching for Caligari.  Sneaking into the director's office at night while he sleeps, they pour over his books, eventually finding an old Italian tome entitled "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" about a hypnotist and his somnambulist in a box.  Suspecting that the Cesare from the book was the invention of the director and the Cesare that they saw in his cabinet, might be an inmate of the asylum, they search the woods. At this point in the film my sense of affection for "Cesare," as we must now put his name in quotation marks--since his actual name is unknown--only increases.  What has become of this poor, exploited individual??  The next morning, they confront the director with the lifeless body of "Cesare" and he goes completely mad, screaming that his own personal obsession is now gone.  It turns out I am not alone in my obsession with Cesare.  But now, this poor soul is lost--there will be now saving him; and empathy and allure turn to grief.  

But how can this be?  How is a director of a prominent insane asylum so stricken the mental illness himself?  Is it all in his imagination?  He he driven himself mad with obsession to plumb the dark depths of an ancient form of hypnotism?  Or is something else going on all together?  The answer is, unfortunately, the later.  The film suddenly, very abruptly (!), changes--we see everyone that was in the village are actually inmates of the asylum, even Jane.  That the story teller, the young man that chased Caligari to the institution, is in fact the one that is deeply delusional.  The director, having realized that the young man has taken him for the mythical Italian Dr. Caligari, has just provided him with a means to treat the delusional man; to release from his nightmare world peopled with friends that are not friend, women who don't actually love him, and zombies that predict the future.  As to "Cesare," as the viewer follows the movement of the babbling young man amongst his fellow inmates, there is the poor tortured soul, standing picking flowers against a wall.  He is clearly deeply ill and possibly mute.  We never learn his name, we never know his malady, we only see that he is harmless and helpless.  It's enough to bring a viewer who cares to tears.

All the credit here goes to Conrad Veidt, who plays Cesare/Unnamed Mental Patient.  He hits every facial feature needed to heightened both horror and helplessness, sometimes at the same time.  It is a far cry from The Joker character that he would inhabit some eight years later in Paul Leni's The Man Who Laughed!  Veidt was an actor with considerable talent and range; the sort of thespian who could just fall into character and one has trouble seeing that it the same person from role to role.  In this case, his portrayal, even in a silent film, of a character(s) that basically has no lines is masterful.  Enough to cause viewers to become lovingly obsessed.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Born Today June 10 (Not So Silent Edition): Judy Garland


Frances Ethel Gumm, was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, the youngest child of a vaudevillian family.  She was named for both of her parents, who simply called her "baby." Her father owned a movie theater, in which she and her siblings would perform under the name of "The Gumm Sisters."  In 1926 the family moved to Lancaster, CA, where yet another movie house was purchased by her father.  A short time later, her mother started to manage her daughters singing act and was actively trying to get them into films.  In 1928, the sisters were enrolled in dance school and in 1929 they made their film debut in The Big Revue as the Gumm Sisters.  They then were signed to appear in a number of shorts for the Vitaphone company, billed as "The Vitaphone Kiddies."  Their last film appearance together came in 1935. The group also toured extensively on the vaudeville circuit during this time, and this is when the subject of their last name first came up.  No one seems to know where the last name "Garland" came from, as several stories give different versions, but by 1934, the sisters were then billed as "The Garland Sisters."  The origin of "Judy" is known to have come from a Hoaggy Carmichael song.  In 1935, with her sisterly act now defunct, Frances Gumm, now going by the name of Judy Garland, was signed to a contract with MGM.  Almost immediately she began to have one unhappy experience after another.  A "girl next door" character was forced on her from the studio head himself:  Louis B. Mayer.  Later in life she revealed that she and other young stars at the studio were given uppers to keep the pace of the studio schedule and downers to sleep at night.  This is was, according to her, the start of her lifelong drug problems.  For most of the world, Garland is synonymous with one role only--that of Dorothy in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.  When the film debuted she was just 17 years of age.  After the wild success of the film, she became of of MGM's most valuable assets.  By 1940, at only 18, she had already begun her adult career in film and performance.  The rest as they say is history and links for further reading are provided below.  On the 22nd of June 1969, Garland was found dead in the bathroom of a rented house in London, England.  The coroners inquest ruled that she had died of an accidental overdose of barbiturates.  She was just 47 years of age. After release from the morgue in London, her body was embalmed and shipped back to New York, where more than 20.000 people lined up to pay their respects.  She was interred at the public mausoleum in the Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York--a town about 25 miles north of New York City.   Garland is also famous for being the mother of Liza Minnelli.  Update:  Garland's resting place was moved in early 2017 from New York to California by her children. She was re-interred in her own pavilion at the expanded mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever cemetery.

Mausoleum in Ferncliff (so was in good company there).

New resting place in her own pavilion at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery

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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Born Today June 9 Leslie Banks


Leslie James Banks was born in West Derby, located in Lancashire UK (very near Liverpool).  He later attended college in Scotland, and went on to study at Keble College, Oxford; with a mind to become a parson.  Instead, he joined an acting company owned by Frank Benson and made his stage debut in 1911 in a production of Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice.  In 1912 through 1913 he toured the United States with Eva Moore and Henry V. Esmond, returning to his native England to finally debut in London's West Side in 1914.  During World War I, he served with the Essex Regiment. He was gravely injured during the war, which left him with half his face scared and half his body partially paralyzed.  Returning to his acting career after recuperation, he would use the un-scarred part of his face to play up comedy or romance, and the scarred portion of his face to emphasize tragedy or drama.  Before long he was working both in London and New York with great success in dramas.  It was around this time that he got a part in an experimental allegorical film in New York called Experience (1921), co-produced by Paramount and the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation.  He would not appear in film again until he was persuaded to make the move to Hollywood in 1932 for stage work.  He is most well known for his role in the first film production by Alfred Hitchcock of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).  Second only to this in terms of his most well known film roles, came two years earlier as the infamous Russian hunter of human prey in The Most Dangerous Game. He would go on to work with both Laurence Olivier and David Lean; in addition to other appearances in Hitchcock films.  From the early 1930's and all through the 1940's, he had steady and wide ranging film work.  His last appearance came in 1950, in Lean's Madeleine.  He passed away two years later on 21 April.  While out walking, he suffered a massive stroke; he was 61 years of age. He was cremated and his ashes were buried in the St. Nicholas Church Cemetery in Dorset, England. 

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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Born Today June 5: William Boyd


William Lawrence Boyd was born in Hendrysburg, Ohio, the son of a day laborer and his wife.  The family quickly relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Boyd would grow up.  When he was quite a young man, he father passed away and he made the move to California and found work as an orange picker.  He would go on to be a tool dresser, surveyor and an auto salesman.  He also found extra work in bit uncredited parts in films; with his first appearance coming in Cecil B. DeMille's Old Wives For New (1918).  At first he seems to have regarded this film work as just another odd job, but when he enlisted in the Army to fight in World War I, he was rejected on grounds of having a week heart, he returned to Hollywood.  Soon more prominent film roles began roll in for him. His first actual credited role seems to have come in 1920 with "carpenter" in The City Of Masks .  In 1923, he was given a small but named/credited role in DeMille's silent version of Adam's Rib; things then started to pick up for him.  By the mid 1920's he was solidly known as a leading man in Hollywood, with a yearly salary to match ($100,000, that is around 1.3 million dollars).  In 1926, he was given the lead role in yet another DeMille film:  The Volga Boatman.  For a time he was DeMille's go to guy.  In 1929 he landed a role as a "Count" in his first sound film, a very early talkie by famed/infamous silent movie directorial pioneer D. W. Griffith, in The Lady Of Pavements.  The last film that he made in the 1920's was the all talking His First Command.  Around this time, another actor with the name William "Stage" Boyd was arrested on charges of gambling and alcohol charges.  The studio that this William Boyd worked for assumed that the news paper article was about him and fired him.  Having squandered his money, he was brought up short and left destitute.  He kicked around Hollywood taking any parts he could land, asking for credit under the name Bill or Billy Boyd to avoid people getting him further mixed up with the other Boyd.  This all changed in 1935, when he was offered a supporting role in the up coming production of Hop-Along Cassidy; he had other ideas.  He asked to be considered for the title role, worked for it and won it.  From then on, he was known to the world as Hop-Along Cassidy.  He would not play any other character for the rest of his acting career.  Eventually the character was given his own television program, which ran from 1952 thru to 1954.  Upon the show's cancellation, Boyd retired from acting.  He then got involved in real estate investing and moved to Palm Desert.  He eventually moved to Laguna Beach, where is died on 12 September in 1972 from heart failure as a severe complication of Parkinson's Disease.  He is interred in a vault at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, along with his widow.  

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Saturday, June 4, 2016

Born Today June 4: Clara Blandick


Clara Blanchard Dickey was born to a ship's captain and his wife on board the ship that he captained docked in Hong Kong, Victoria Harbor; the Willard Mudgett.  She was delivered by another ship's captain that was anchored nearby; one Cp. William C. Blanchard, with his wife Clara in attendance.  The Dickey's wanting to thank the couple for their assistance, named their new born daughter after them.  When she got into acting she would take the first parts of her middle and last name to create her stage name.  Her parents settled in Quincy, Mass when Clara was two or three years of age; and she grew up there.  Quincy's close proximity to Boston meant that frequent excursions could easily be made there.  Later she would move there, where she made the acquaintance of Shakespearean actor E. H. Sothern.  She would later appear in a stage production of Richard Lovelace with him there.  After this, she made the move to New York, where she made her first professional stage appearance there in 1901, in a production If I Were King, which had a nice run at the Garden Theater (and early incarnation of Madison Square Garden).  From this point forward, she regularly achieved praise for her stage performances, and in 1906 she was hired by the Kalem Company--a New York based film studio.  She probably made appearances in bit parts before 1911, but it is that year when her first confirmed film appearance came in the comedy short The Maid's Double.  She went on to make several film appearances in the 1910's, but quit in 1917; though she did continue stage acting.  She wouldn't make another film again, until 1929.  During World War I, she volunteered overseas for the American Expeditionary Forces.  During the 1920's, many of her stage performances in New York won critical praise; she was met with rave reviews especially for her supporting role in Hell-Bent Fer Heaven, which won a Pulitzer.  She moved to Hollywood in 1929, and got a role in an early talkie Wise Girls (1929).  After this, her film career took off, with her becoming the go-to girl for supporting roles.  She is by far and away most famous for her role as Auntie Em in the 1939 film production of The Wizard Of Oz.  In 1949 and 1951 she made a couple of appearances in early television shows, but retired from acting altogether after her appearance on The Bigelow Theater, as she had already started to experience health troubles. She, however, continued to live in Los Angeles.  Her health troubles only got worse throughout the 1950's.  By 1964, in her 80's, she faced blindness and had been in excruciating pain for more than a decade from the advancement of a severe arthritic condition; she had had enough.  On the 15th of April, after attending Palm Sunday service at her church, she rearranged her home to surround herself with fond memories of her life.  She then dressed in a blue dress gown, and took an overdose of sleeping pills.  To make sure she didn't wake up in a hospital, if someone were to find her before death, she lie down on her couch and covered herself with a gold blanket; she then placed a plastic bag over her head.  Her body was found a little later on by her landlady.  She was 85 years of age.  She left behind a note that simply read "I am now about to make the great adventure.  I cannot endure this agonizing pain any longer.  It's all over my body.  Neither can I face the impending blindness.  I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen."  Her remains were cremated and interred in Niche 17230 in the mausoleum of one of the great cemeteries to the stars, Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Ca, along with her sister and brother-in-law's ashes.  

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Friday, June 3, 2016

The Twice Lost and Found King: Richard III (1912)

The 1912 silent feature length* rendition of Richard III, based on the famous Shakespeare play, was once a lost film; so famously lost that one cannot read a book on early film predating its rediscovery without reading lament after lament of it's "permanently lost" status.  What was more famously lost?  The body of the actual man himself.  Finding a copy of a feature length nitrate (see film base) dating from 1912 was considered impossible; the most anyone could hope for were extra nitrate prints that could be spliced onto surviving ones to produce some motion from the film.  Finding the body of the actual man King Richard III was considered an even more remote possibility; something along the lines of finding evidence of a historical Camelot.  Since 1996 both have found.  

Original title card for the 1912 film

The car park in Leicester under which the actual remains of Richard III were found (Leicester Mercury)

The story of the rediscovery of the film is a bit ironic, since a full copy of the film emerged not all that far away from the modern movie mecca of the world, Hollywood CA; the film was just north in Portland, OR. all along.  A complete and well preserved copy was simply handed over to the American Film Institute in 1996.  It had been stored in the basement of a retired film projectionist for more than 30 years.  Only one feature length film was produced earlier in the U.S.--Oliver Twist--and it only survives in partial form.  Richard III was produced as a vehicle for well known Shakespearean actor Frederick Warde, whose presence as an actor in plain-clothes frames the film.  At a time when live stage plays of Shakespeare tended to be not so true to the source material; had been "Victorianized" (to use a royal description); this film does just the opposite.  It shows Shakespeare's Richard III, the last king in the Plantagenet line, unflinchingly.  He is, in the capable hands of Warde, both charming and utterly evil.  One point of interest, is that there is no playing up of the hunchback look of Richard, which actually, as it turns out, pretty much is what was discovered in the body of the king himself, of what he actually looked like in life.  The film does not use any Shakespearean dialog; rather the film follows the action within the plays acts faithfully.  Being literal to the source directions, meant that the film came out in a very stripped down fashion, despite it's lavish production features.  It presents the story starkly and with no concern about offending "delicacies" of the time.  

Warde as Richard in Richard III  (1912)
Historical portrait of the actual Richard III

While the film was rediscovered in 1996, one full year after Sir Ian McKellan's film version of the play hit the theaters; it would be a further 16 years before the body of the actual man himself would be discovered.  This came in 2012, in the city of Leicester, where he was found buried beneath a car park (parking lot). By 2014, DNA proved that the skeletal remains of the man with a curved spine and fatal battle injuries, were in fact, those of the last monarch in English history to die on the battle field. Richard did suffer from scoliosis, a form of curved spine, and he had a pretty severe case of it.  But, this DOES NOT produce a "hunchback" look in people who have it.  As it turns out, this is the only direction from the actual Shakespeare play that the film does not take up.  The rest of the 55 minute film, is completely and unapologetically faithful to the play.  It shows the murders of royal family members front and center--there is no off camera inference of murder or covering the violence with a curtain, which was the norm o of the day.  In fact, the film actually shows murder for murder's sake, even of the two young princes, completely.  The later, taking place in the infamous Tower of London, is shown in blue tints to emphasize it's extreme violence. For a brief second, the shear evil of the acts makes one forget that this is indeed a silent film dating from over 100 years ago.  

Associated Press photo of Richard III's remains before being removed from his original grave.

Another still of Warde as Richard III from the film.

Of course, history is written by the victors, and Shakespeare was the patron of the House of Tudor, so his "historical" plays had to reflect that newly founded royal house is every positive light and with a history that gave legitimacy to it's very existence.  However, a few facts about Richard III can not be denied, and it goes to what Shakespeare is likely to have gotten right.  At least three things found in the play, and shown so starkly in this film, have solid basis in history. One is that Richard did actively seek out the throne for himself after the death of his older brother King Edward IV. He had actually been placed in the official royal role of "Lord Protector of the Realm," since Edward's heir Edward V was only 12 years of age upon succeeding his father to the throne.  Many of the moves that he is known to have made after Edward the Fourth's death do point to extreme plotting,  and even complaisance in deaths.  However what we know of the hard  facts, they do not match the plotted death's from the play--and hence the film-- save possibly the last two. In light of how Henry VII came to the throne in the wake of the demise of the Houses of Lancaster and York, it is easy to see how Shakespeare would twist the facts to make Richard III appear to be a truly illegitimate ruler and monster to boot.  In fact, many of his actions, were monstrous, but not against his brothers.  

Warde as Richard III wooing Anne in the film

Actual bust of the historical Richard III based on a reconstruction of his recovered skull

A second fact that Shakespeare got right, was the disappearance of the two young princes at the Tower of London.  This was a fact that was too glaring and horrible to embellish on.  In the 1912 version of the film, the prince's are shown being strangled to death after their nightly prayers on Richard's direct orders.  If this 104 year old scene is shocking today; one can only imagine how it was received by audiences in 1912!  In reality, all that anyone knows is that the two princes were kept in the Tower of London awaiting the official coronation of 12 year old Edward V, and that they simply disappeared.  What is certain: there were persistent rumors of the location of their burial, suggesting that someone knew something solid about the deaths not being down to natural causes; and that allegations and fears of murder spread like wildfire after the disappearances.  Spreading even to France, who also had a very young king at the time.  That being said, not all sources cited Richard as being directly, or even indirectly, involved.  There were rumors that the murders occurred independent of Richard, by a person who wished to see him on throne.  What is known, is that two small skeletons were uncovered in 1674 in the area that they had long been rumored to have been buried all along by a stonemason remodeling the Tower at the time.  King Charles II had them placed in Westminster Abbey four years later, assuming they were the bodies of Edward and his younger brother who was also named Richard.  The bones were disinterred in 1933, examined and measured, then reburied.  No further disturbance has been made since, so, of course, no DNA samples have been obtained.  The problem with these types of "historical facts" verses the "propaganda facts" put out during the early years of Tudor rule, is that they look good on the surface, but blur easily upon further scrutiny.  These two bodies were not the first children's skeletons discovered in the Tower.  Another set of skeletons had been uncovered earlier in a walled up chamber.  To make matters worse, a couple of unaccounted for coffins were found in the burial chamber of Edward IV and his Queen in St George's Cathedral.  At first it was thought that the caskets, though unnamed, were for two of their children who had died in childhood before the demise of Edward and historically accounted for:  George 1st Duke of Bedford--died aged 2, and Mary of York--died aged 14.  But a later excavation in the early 19th century to provide room for the house of King George III turned up two additional (and traditional) lead lined coffins marked with the names of George and Mary; leaving a huge mystery as to who the children were in the coffins originally thought to be these two children.  Given the tomb was for Edward and his wife Elizabeth, speculation sparked that the two princes had been disinterred from the tower and properly laid to rest with their parents.  But who would do this??  Richard III???  What is known, is that these coffins do not match any burial records for children of the royal couple that died within their lifetimes, and again, the caskets bear no names.  This leaves a huge mystery that would require a royal decree from Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II to investigate, which has not been granted; but then again, no formal request has been made.

Warde as Richard III utilizing a fully working set in Richard III (1912)

Richard III body reconstructed in lab, showing spine curvature. Photo: BBC

The third thing that is absolutely undisputed as a fact in Richard III's life that Shakespeare gets right, is actually the manner of his death.  Richard III the 1912 film was very sophisticated in it's use of outdoor filming, complete with actual processions, boats and even battle scenes--staged fully with actual horses.  In the film, we see Richard's death at Bosworth, in full riotous gear.  Henry Tudor AKA the Earl of Richmond in the film is his killer; Richmond, who looks more the grinning villain than Richard III does, has an expression as if he just got away with one big crime from which he knows he will benefit. The role is played by the person most directly responsible for the film's existence, writer/director James Keane.  He is the one who adapted the play to the script, and he was the shadow director.  It is unclear what he means to convey by having the future King Henry VII appear in the film with such vicious features and wild over-acting.  At first, the viewer is tempted to just assume he's simply bad at acting; but upon repeat viewings I do not believe this to be the case.  I do think that he is deliberately leaving wiggle room for a lurking menace below the surface of the grandfather of Elizabeth I.  This having been said, the real death of King Richard III at Henry Tudor's "hand" at Bosworth turned out to be right on par with what is in the play, and hence the film, save that Henry probably didn't strike any of the blows that lead to the king's death.  When found, the body bore more than a dozen life-threatening wounds.  A clear and very large laceration is visible in his left temporal lobe, this wound alone could have sent him to his grave.  Additionally, he had a large hole in the back of his skull, clearly a wound by some type of mace.  It was a fact:  Richard III was the last English king to die in battle; he was killed on 22 August 1485, he was 32 years of age.  He was buried in the floors of the little church that served the small community near by.  Over time the location of the original church was lost, and it was assumed by most to be lost for all time.  After research revealed that history had gotten the location of the actual battle wrong, a small group of dedicated individuals from several walks of life, gathered themselves in effort to uncover the proper locations of the other historical buildings and landmarks from the 15th century.  This quest, of course, paid off beyond most people's expectations.

Active battle scene from the film

The reburial of the actual body of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral

Finding a complete copy of a nearly hour long film on nitrate in good condition 84 years after it's release is close to unheard of, as nitrate has many ways of deteriorating.  Finding the body of a king that had almost passed into myth 527 years after his death and hasty burial, is a near miracle. The film was restored and given a full premiere cycle in both New York and Los Angeles.  Later, the completely restored print was released on DVD by Kino, with a new score by famed movie composer Ennio Morricone. The king was sealed into the traditional lead lined casket and reburied in Leicester Cathedral after a 3 days of allowing the public to pay their respects.  He was given a full reburial ceremony, with at least one member of the current royal family in attendance--Sophie the Countess of Wessex.  His casket was borne by a guard of honour drawn from successor Army regiments that fought at Bosworth (both sides).  Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of of the king, read a poem written for the occasion by the current British poet Laureate.  His tomb was then sealed and revealed to the public the following day.

*feature length is usually described in terms of time length and being longer than 40 minutes

Leicester Cathedral re-burial market, noting the location of Richard III's original grave.

Frederick Warde, in plain clothes, taking a bow at the end of the film.
For More See:

Wikipedia  page for Richard III

Wikipedia page for the Princes in the Tower

Wikipedia page of Henry VI

Wikipedia  for the film

University of Leicester Full interactive history of discovery of the king's grave.

BBC Article detailing the reburial of the king

1996 New York Times Article on the discovery of the film.

Viewing:  the PBS episode "Resurrecting Richard" for the series Secrets Of The Dead.