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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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Olivia de Havilland in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”

Olivia

Watching the man she aims to get

Olivia de Havilland is a jealous schemer in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. She’s jealous of Queen Elizabeth and scheming for Lord Essex. Since Bette Davis plays Elizabeth and Errol Flynn plays Essex, you could see how such a thing might come about.

After appearing in Gone With the Wind, de Havilland returned to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner had the idea that her success would go to her head and promptly put her in a tiny role in a film that is a showcase for Bette Davis and Errol Flynn.

She was, needless to say, not a happy woman when she made The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. However, she bided her time and in 1944 won her lawsuit against Warner Bros. which ended the studio practice of considering the time an actor was not working as time their contract was not in effect. Previously, an actor’s contract could extend beyond the stated length of time, because they had not provided service during their off days. When she won her lawsuit, she was free from her contract with Warner Bros.

But considering that she asked for Ann Sheridan’s role in Dodge City (it was an even smaller role than this one) because she was tired of playing the heroine, perhaps she enjoyed  playing Lady Penelope Grey in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, at least a little. She loves Essex, but he belongs heart and soul to his queen. Lady Penelope is jealous of Bette Elizabeth, she is in cahoots with Essex’s enemies and she does everything she can to show up the queen as an old hag and herself as young and beautiful. Unfortunately, her machinations result in Essex losing his head, but it’s not really her fault. He was the ambition one who wanted the throne, even if he did love his queen. But Lady Penelope is still full of contrition.

She actually only has one scene with Errol Flynn. Most of her scenes are with Bette Davis. Because her role is so small, I couldn’t help wishing we could have seen more of her in coquettish and scheming mode. She is quite bold in how she takes on the queen, even singing a rather pointed song about the sad love of an older woman for a younger man (okay, so it’s probably not really her singing).

playing chess with the queen and conteplating taking the knight

playing chess with the queen and contemplating taking her knight

I’ve always thought that though Olivia de Havilland is known for playing sweet roles (think Melanie from Gone With the Wind), it was part of her persona and that there was always a savvy person with an iron will at work just underneath the persona (which isn’t to say the sweetness wasn’t genuine, either). Even when she plays airhead heiresses in films like It’s Love I’m After, I still feel like she’s far more intelligent than her actual role. The script rarely calls on her to do anything terribly drastic, but I always imagine that if the need arose, she could stab someone with a knife or double cross them without batting an eye.

I love Love Letters to Old Hollywood‘s description of Olivia de Havilland as a “swashbuckler at heart” in her role as Maid Marion. The script may not have required her to be active in the way modern heroines are, but you just know she would have had the backbone to do so if the occasion called for it.

Perhaps another description of her can be also borrowed from Helena Bonham Carter. I was once listening to her talk about how she approached the character of Elizabeth (the current Queen Elizabeth’s mother) in The King’s Speech. She said when she read the following description – that Elizabeth was a “marshmallow made by a welding machine – soft and yet hard underneath” – her approach to the character came together. That is how I see Olivia de Havilland, too. Apparently soft, but also with a spine of steel.

That’s why I believe she makes such a great Melanie. Anyone else might have been too much marshmallow, but she has enough inner strength to keep the character from dissolving into sweetness. As my grandmother pointed out to me, it was Melanie who was the glue that kept everyone together. As soon as she died, the glue was gone and everyone dispersed.

Admittedly, the role of Lady Penelope is a small one, but it does provide a fascinating peek into a different kind of role Olivia de Havilland could have pursued if she had ever wanted to. Scheming, resentful, jealous, coquettish, rebellious. It’s rather fun!

This post is part of the Olivia de Havilland Centenary Blogathon. My huge thanks to In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and  Phyllis Loves Classic Movies for hosting! For more posts celebrating Olivia de Havilland, click here.

Happy 100th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland!

olivia-2

 
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Posted by on July 2, 2016 in Movies

 

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1906 San Francisco Earthquake

800px-Post-and-Grant-Avenue.-Look110 years ago to the day, at 5:12 AM in San Francisco, there was a 7.8 earthquake. Immediately following the earthquake was a fire that burned for three days and destroyed nearly the entire city. More than two-thirds of the population were homeless, around 3,000 people are believed to have died. According to Philip L. Fradkin, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was “the closest this country has come to experiencing the widespread ravages of modern warfare.”

I actually owe the idea of this post to Movie Classics and the “Bette Davis Blogathon.” Movie Classics wrote about The Sisters, with Bette Davis, and her post inspired me to revisit the film. Near the end, Bette Davis is in San Francisco and has just been deserted by her husband, Errol Flynn. While she sits in disbelief, the camera cuts to the calendar, which reads April 18th. This was supposed to be a portend, but I honestly had no idea what the significance was…until the house fell in on Bette Davis’ head.  It was then that I realized that the 110th anniversary of the earthquake was coming up and I set out to read several books on the topic and watch a few films that feature the event.

Books – Unfortunately, I haven’t succeeded in completing either book in time for this post.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester, is a bit peripatetic. We’ve visited Iceland, various podunky little towns across America. He’s covered the founding history of California, various earthquake disasters in the 1800s, and lots and lots about plate tectonics, the Pacifc Plate, the North American Plate and the San Andreas Fault. What we haven’t covered yet is the San Francisco earthquake…and I’m 200 pages in.

Simon Winchester evidently studied to be a geologist and many of his books have a geological approach to their respective topics. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s only that I was primarily interested in the more social aspects of the 1906 disaster. His book also takes a more global approach, necessitated by the interconnected nature of plate tectonics. For him, people are relatively helpless and small in the face of the sheer size and age of the world.

1920px-San_Francisco_1906_fire_02_DA-SN-03-00958

Philip L. Fradkin takes the opposite approach in his book, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, which I have also not finished. He posits that San Francisco was ill-prepared for an earthquake and that they were largely responsible for their own destruction. The earthquake was devastating, but the firestorms that followed are what caused the kind of apocalyptic images taken a few days after. He explores the ways people react in moments of disaster.

The main problem was that firemen didn’t have enough water and resorted to dynamiting buildings. The idea was to create a wall to stop the fire, but instead it merely caused the spread of the fire. They also used the wrong kind of explosives – black powder, which is highly flammable. Basically, a lot of people with limited to no experience of explosives ran about dynamiting the city. There were so many charges going off, that many people said it sounded like a war zone.

To complete the picture of war zone devastation, the federal army was also deployed to keep order. San Franciscans thought marshal law had been declared. What had actually happened is that the Brigadier General in charge of Fort Mason simply deployed the troops when he saw the extent of the damage, though the mayor never protested. Instead, the mayor issued a warning that all looters should be shot on sight, adding to the confusion.

I believe the rest of the book is going to cover the rebuilding of San Francisco and the uneven distribution of relief.

Movies – There are five movies that I am aware of involving the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, though I am sure that there are more.

san-francisco-wreck-movie-7San Francisco (1936) is probably the most famous movie featuring the earthquake. Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a saloon keeper on the Barbary Coast who falls in love with Jeanette MacDonald’s innocent Mary Blake, an aspiring opera singer. It’s a typical, lavish MGM film that is quite entertaining and ends with a fantastic earthquake sequences that does feature the fire, the heavy dynamiting and the constant presence of the soldiers. The earthquake comes as a deus ex machina, partly as retribution for the sins of the city. Everything is wiped out so they can start afresh with repentance in their hearts.

I watched Frisco Jenny (1932) for the earthquake, but was pleasantly surprised by the story. Directed by William Wellman and starring Ruth Chatterton, the story is a kind of Madame X (though I’ve never seen any version of Madame X). Ruth Chatterton is the daughter of a saloon keeper and in love with the piano player. She’s pregnant with their child and they plan to marry, despite her father’s refusal. But after the earthquake, both her father and her lover are dead and she must fend for herself and her child.

15568After becoming a successful madam, she is forced to give up her child because of legal issues (she is accused of murder), but watches as he grows up to become an honest DA. She, on the other hand, has been running the bootlegging in the city, as well as paying off the politicians. But she’s determined to never get in the way of her son. It’s a remarkable performance by Ruth Chatterton. The plot sounds soapy, but it actually makes perfect sense, as Chatterton’s character consistently makes intelligent decisions that make sense in the context of her situation and the story is extremely affecting. The earthquake also looks pretty good, happening at the beginning rather then the end of the film.

untitledIn The Sisters (1938), the earthquake has the least importance, being more of a historical event that happens to occur during the story. The story begins in Montana, on the 1904 election night. Bette Davis, in an uncharacteristically restrained and quiet role (which I find absolutely riveting) falls in love with ne’re-do-well sportswriter Errol Flynn. She elopes with him to San Francisco, but the restraints of married life and his guilt over not being able to provide the things the husbands of her sisters do causes him to leave her, after which the earthquake strikes. But Bette Davis moves on, becomes successful in business and the film ends with a reunion in Montana during the 1908 election.

There are two other films that I’m aware of that feature the 1906 earthquake: two silent films called Old San Francisco (1927) and The Shock (1923). Old San Francisco apparently features a terrific earthquake at the end and some very scenic scenes in Chinatown, but is also virulently racist, depicting the Chinese as sneaky, devious people preying on innocent Caucasians. In this film, the earthquake comes as divine retribution to save the heroine from a fate worse than death. What I find interesting is that this film, made in 1927, should represent so accurately what was a prevailing view of many San Franciscans in 1906, who were evidently constantly trying to find a “solution” to the Chinatown problem (Chinatown was almost entirely destroyed by the earthquake and fire). The Shock features Lon Chaney and is available on youtube. 

Notable People in San Francisco in 1906

Enrico Caruso is the most famous survivor of the Earthquake. He was in San Francisco with the Metropolitan Opera Company, which was on tour. Fortunately, non of the opera company died, though they lost most of their baggage, as well as the props and scenery for many of their operas. On the day after the earthquake, Caruso apparently traded in a signed photograph of Theodore Roosevelt to get the opera company on a ferry boat to Oakland

John Barrymore was also present during the earthquake. He was 24 years old and appearing in a somewhat obscure play. All we really know is that he was at the opera to hear Caruso sing in “Carmen.” Reportedly, he coped by getting drunk in a bathtub.

Footage of San Francisco in 1906

Although historians are unsure exactly when this footage was taken, at most it was only a month before the earthquake. The camera was placed on the front of a cable car traveling down Market Street by the four Miles brothers. The streets look busier than they actually are; they had cars repeatedly drive in front of the cable car (note the car with license plate 4867 – he seems particularly to show up a lot). It’s fascinating to see what it really looked like, however: how people really dressed, how traffic flow was rather disorganized. Both Frisco Jenny and The Sisters features clips from this footage to lend authenticity to the proceedings.

This video shows footage of the same street, before and after the earthquake and fire. It’s chilling.

Visit this link for many more pictures of the disaster, which I highly recommend.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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