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Strangers: The Story of a Mother and Daughter (1979)

I’ve seen a vast number of Bette Davis films during the studio era, during the height of her stardom, from the early 1930s to the 1950s, but I haven’t seen many of her later films, though she worked her whole life. However, after reading about a TV movie called Strangers: A Story of a Mother and Daughter, in which she co-stars with Gena Rowlands, I couldn’t resist. I’m a sucker for stories about mothers and daughters anyway, but the cast made it irresistible.

The film was made for TV in 1979 and proved to be everything I was expecting. It’s the story of Abigail Mason (Gena Rowlands), who returns from Boston to live with her mother, Lucy (Davis), in a small New England fishing town. Abigail hasn’t seen her mother in over twenty years and is at first not even sure her mother will let her in the door. Lucy doesn’t say a word, only glares at her and continues doing her puzzle, while Abigail talks nervously. One can feel the tension in the room.

The story follows the two of them as they argue, accuse, talk, unbend, do puzzles, plant tomatoes and come to understand each other for the first time in their whole lives. Lucy, in particular, works on her puzzle a lot, though she isn’t very good at it. Her daughter, however, has a knack for doing puzzles. She has a knack for life, or perhaps a determination to persevere in life in general and gets her mother to do all sorts of things she hadn’t done in a long time: go out among her neighbors, eat out in a restaurant, buy a new dress. She even gets her mother to help her repair the toilet and fix a lamp.

Abigail brings a can-do attitude into Lucy’s life and even opens the blinds, exposes the dust, and then dusts. Ultimately, watching the two of them accomplish ordinary things together and grow closer and open up in the process is lovely. It’s not a film about dramatic events – the dramatic events were mostly in the past. As Lucy says, she thought she was destined to live and die alone, until her daughter came home to keep her company. Except there is something that Abigail has not told her mother.

Both performances are lovely as they play off each other. Bette Davis is her usual fierce self, but you can see the vulnerability beneath, the disappointments of her life, and her proud refusal to express her feelings. She’s a recluse at the beginning of the film, chasing away the neighborhood kids who like to ring her doorbell, when her daughter arrives and Gena Rowlands is equally excellent, fully up to starring opposite Bette Davis. Vulnerable in her own way, it manifests itself in frustration with her mother, eagerness to help, even a determination to help and not be bothered by anything her mother says or does, and a propensity to talk so that there won’t be too much awkward silence.

It’s really a bittersweet movie, as they discuss Lucy’s husband, Abigail’s father, and their conflict and misunderstandings. Bette Davis’ character literally unbuttons in the film. When we first meet her, she buttons every button on her shirt. By the middle of the film, the top button is undone, making even her casual appearance look less severe and, well….less buttoned-up.

(Spoilers) It turns out that the reason Abigail has returned home to live with her mother is because she is dying of cancer and wants to be with her mother, the only one she has left in her life, but she doesn’t tell her mother right away. Lucy has already nursed her husband during his illness and death, and she is angry and shocked when she learns that Abigail is dying, too, at first accusing Abigail of using her again, saying “How dare you come back and make me care.” Bette Davis makes her anger scalding, but also manages to convey that her anger is because of how much she does care.

“I am not going to go through that again,” Lucy tells a doctor, when he tells her that she is going to have to bring a hospital bed into the house and prepare. It reminded me of when I lost a family member to cancer, having had a hospital bed in the house and spent time nursing that family member; it seemed all the more poignant. The first time you nurse someone, you don’t really know what’s in store. How much worse when you know what is going to happen? When it is your own daughter, your last relative, who you’ve just found again?

The film doesn’t show Abigail’s death, but leaves the viewer with the renewed relationship between mother and daughter and how Abigail has found peace, but also brought her mother back to life again, so to speak. Very bittersweet, but with an emphasis on relationship rather than loss or death.

The film can be found on youtube, but the quality is admittedly poor. However, I have not found another place to view the film. It is worth viewing, however, for the excellent performances of Bette Davis and Gena Rowland.

This post was written as part of “The Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. I made a mistake, however, and mistook the day the blogathon ended, so I am regrettably getting my post out a day late, but thanks so much to Crystal for her acceptance! Visit Crystal’s site for more posts celebrating Bette Davis and her films.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in Movies

 

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The Lord of the Rings, If Warner Bros Made It in the 1930s-40s

So, I’ve always liked to kick around the idea of what a Lord of the Rings would have looked like if a studio like Warner Bros. had dedicated all their resources (and perhaps resources of other studios) to making a version during the height of the studio era, discounting the fact that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy was not published until the 1950s. Admittedly, I have not solved all considerations. How would they have portrayed orcs? What about Gollum? And the hobbits? The technology was not there, but it is still fun to speculate.

I have also still not solved all casting conundrums and would like to invite other opinions! Since studio productions of the 1930s and ’40s were always the product of multiple voices and opinions, it seems appropriate.

But rather than present a comprehensive rubric, I would like to offer thoughts for consideration. Actors, composer, make-up artist, production code considerations.

Cast

I don’t think there is any doubt that Warner Bros. would have cast their leading male star as Aragorn: Errol Flynn.


When I taught a class to high school students on the early history of American cinema, I was told that Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood looked like Link. I always thought of Link as an elf, so perhaps Errol Flynn would have made a better Legolas, who is far merrier in the book than he is in the movies, but there is no way Warner Bros. would have given him anything less than the all-important role of the king.

I’m also inclined to think that any studio era production of LOTR would, like the Peter Jackson films, have given Arwen a bigger role. With that in mind, it seems fitting that Arwen should be played by none other than Olivia de Havilland, who would have been an excellent elf.

For Gandalf, I’m partial to the casting of Claude Rains. He’s brilliant in almost anything, but as Gandalf,  he would have brought a wry wit and wisdom – and a lovely voice – that would have been ideal, especially since Gandalf has to carry the heavy lifting of cinematic plot exposition.

Alan Hale might possibly have been cast as Gimli, though the Gimli of the book is far more dignified than in the movies. Though I’m also tickled by the idea of casting Edward G. Robinson, as well. And Patric Knowles for Legolas, perhaps?

Boris Karloff as the Witch King, hands down. And for the important role of Eowyn, quite possibly Bette Davis. I could see her riding her horse, taking on Boris Karloff and raging against being trapped in a cage. And falling in love with Errol Flynn.

How about Sir Cedric Hardwicke for Saruman? And Vincent Price needs to be in the film somehow. Maybe as Wormtongue? John Garfield was a star and would need a role, but I’m a bit stumped on that one. Any thoughts? Also, if James Cagney can appear in a Shakespeare play as Bottom, then surely he could appear in LOTR as somebody…even a hobbit! Okay, so maybe not.

Lionel Atwill should also undoubtedly have a role…perhaps as Elrond. We need a Galadriel, too. Hmm…

Basil Rathbone likewise deserves a role, possibly even a heroic role. Like Boromir or Eomer, though I’m leaning towards Boromir. It strikes me, though, that he could have played the stern Strider who morphs into a king, but it’s doubtful he would have been given the part.

Score

Max Steiner was Warner Bros. most prolific composer of the era and scored over 300 film scores, which boggles the mind. He scored King KongGone With the Wind, CasablancaThe Treasure of the Sierra MadreThe Big Sleep, and The Searchers. He clearly had the epic score down pat.

Costuming and Makeup

In all probability, Warner Bros. would need the experience of Universal Studio’s Jack Pierce, who designed the make-up for Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster and Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man. This reminds me that Lon Chaney Jr. should surely have a role in the film, as well. Maybe he could play an orc leader or Uruk-hai? Or Gollum. He actually might be the best bet for Gollum and would certainly bring pathos to the role. Though Bela Lugosi could handle Gollum, as well.

Studio era Hollywood didn’t have a track record with fantasy, so it’s possible that a Lord of the Rings would look more like a medieval horror movie. And actually, we can learn a lot about how a studio era LOTR might have been handled by examining Universal Studios films. The make-up in The Wolf Man was designed not too look realistic. There was concern that it would be too frightening, which means that in all probability the makeup for the orcs would have been muted.

The costumes (or at least the gowns) could be designed by Vera West, who specialized in costuming for Universal’s horror movies: The Bride of FrankensteinThe Wolf Man, various Mummy movies, Dracula. But Walter Plunkett also designed a lot of period garb, most notably for Gone With the Wind, but also The Hunchback of Notre DameThe Three Musketeers, and Singin in the Rain. Perhaps they could design together.

I suspect that for the monsters – like the Balrog – Warner Bros, would also have need the assistance of stop motion animator Willis O’Brien, of King Kong fame.

Direction

Probably Michael Curtiz. He established his bone fides for epics and large crowds with the 1928 silent/talkie hybrid Noah’s Ark. He also directed many of Errol Flynn’s best films, including The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Motion Picture Production Code

On the whole, I think there is not much in LOTR that the Breen Office would have objected to, except excessive violence and gruesomeness. The gruesomeness in particular would have been in relation to the orcs and Uruk-hai. This means the battle scenes, along with the makeup, would have been far less intense, less bloody, more on the line of the battle at the end of The Adventures of Robin Hood. With Universal Horror monsters as the villains.

An adventure/horror film! Which means the movie might end up more lighthearted, more in the spirit of The Hobbit. Though it might depend on whether they took horror or adventure as their model.

What do you think?

This has been my contribution to “the Great Breening Blogathon,” hosted by Pure Entertainment Preservation Society. For more posts on this topic, be sure to check out their site, here.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2017 in Movies

 

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Kid Galahad (1937) – Bette Davis Blogathon

It is fun to watch Bette Davis’ early films…before her role in Jezebel. There is something special about the way she pops off the screen, in a way she does not in later films (though she always dominates the screen). I noted in last year’s post for “The Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, that she was “like a dynamo or a ball of fire, bursting across the screen.” The sheer amount of energy and charisma is mesmerizing, even in films unworthy of her talents.

But Kid Galahad, directed by the ever versatile and able Michael Curtiz, is not unworthy of her talents, though she does not get top billing (that honor goes to Edward G. Robinson). It’s a boxing drama. Nick Donati (Edward G. Robinson) is a blowhard boxing promoter looking for a man to make champion, who can defeat the champion promoted by gangster Turkey Morgan (Humphrey Bogart). He finds his potential champion in Ward Guisenberry (Wayne Morris), who becomes known as Kid Galahad because of his simple, gentlemanly and slightly naive ways. Bette Davis plays Donati’s girlfriend, Louise “Fluff” Phillips, who falls for Ward. Ward, however, likes Donati’s sister, Marie (Jane Bryan), who Donati has tried to shelter from the tough racket of the fight game.

The film contains crime and boxing, gambling and gangsters, murder, romantic triangles, and nightclubs. The boxing sequences are also quite well done and exciting on their own and in the context of the plot. It has that 1930s Warner Bro. crime drama feel that is always entertaining. As is the cast.

Edward G. Robinson is another dynamic actor who made his career as a leading man by sheer power and skill rather than his looks (Bette Davis did not like kissing him and called him “liver lips”). He’s one of those actors I would watch in virtually anything and he brings vulnerability to his role as a promoter with a quick temper and willingness to skirt the law. And the same with Humphrey Bogart, who plays quite the dour killer. In fact, he’s so convincingly dour as a killer that if all I saw was this film, I would never have guessed that he could play a romantic leading man.

Bette Davis and Edward G. Robinson

Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart actually appeared in five movies together, always ending with one or the other killing each other….or sometimes both at the same time. In fact, many actors in Kid Galahad appeared in many different roles with each other throughout their careers at Warner Bros. Bette Davis appeared in at least four movies with Jane Bryan, once as her mother (The Old Maid), twice as her sister (Marked WomanThe Sisters), and once as romantic rival (in Kid Galahad). Jane Bryan also once played Edward G. Robinson’s daughter, as well as his sister. Not to mention the four movies Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart appeared in (though never after Humphrey Bogart hit the big time). The studios could be very flexible about these things.

Kid Galahad feels like an ensemble film rather than a showcase for any particular actor. However, Bette Davis does use the opportunity to make an impression. As Donati’s knowing girlfriend, who is grateful for his kindness towards her and keeps him out of trouble, she gets to play a person who definitely has an air of experience, but is still young and fresh enough not to feel jaded. Though her large and expressive eyes belie the happiness she professes to feel at the beginning of the story.

She is touched when Ward quite un-selfconsciously refers to her as a “lady.” He’s the first one to treat her that way and calls her Louise rather than her nickname, Fluff. But she still seems fresh enough for one to believe that Ward would see her as a lady. She is often the smartest one in the film, an invaluable partner to Nick and keeps him grounded.

Bette Davis, Jane Bryan, Edward G. Robinson

(plot spoiler) The end of the film involves a shootout and Bette Davis gets the last scene, as she sadly walks away down the street…on to better things, one presumes, like an Academy Award for Jezebel the following year. It would take a few more years for Humphrey Bogart to move on to better things. But Kid Galahad makes a nice send-off for Bette Davis. You just know you will be seeing her again.

This post was written as part of the “Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Click here for more posts covering Bette Davis’ vast career!

 

 
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Posted by on March 25, 2017 in Movies

 

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