Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Most of the nearby rivers have reached their post Irene peaks and are subsiding. We're still boiling water before using it, or using bottled water, but all in all things are returning to close to "normal" so I thought I'd change the subject.

Before Irene hit, and during it, while my youngest was still in Florida with his mom, I spent a few nights at home alone watching Turner Classic Movies. All this month, August, they'd been doing special programming of one star's movies for each twenty-four hours.

I hadn't caught many of them at all, but it just happened that these three nights I was free and tired and needed a sweet classic Hollywood escape, the stars they were doing were Joan Blondell, Linda Darnell, and Carole Lombard.

Lombard was already a favorite and always had been. But as always I learned some new things from this latest TCM programming. For some reason I hadn't realized she'd been a regular in silent films long before her "talkie" days. I knew the classics she'd excelled in like MY MAN GODFREY and ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY (or whatever that exact title is). Knew them well from having seen (and dug) them many times.

But the night I watched some of her flicks, including both of them, they also had a very early pre-code "talkie" I'd never seen before with a very young Pat O'Brien (and Ward Bond) called VIRTUE. When I mentioned this flick afterwards to a younger friend and said how it was before "the code" they didn't know what I was talking about. I had to explain that it wasn't until around 1934 that the movies began to have censors who enforced a"code" that restricted what could be portrayed on film and how, e.g. all crime must pay, etc.

One of the things "the code" enforced was that the word prostitute could never be used or portrayed. Which made VIRTUE all the more interesting, because Lombard plays a hooker in it who is given the alternative, by a judge, to either do jail time or leave town with a ticket back home, which in this case was Danbury, Connecticut! But Lombard's character gets off the train before it leaves the city for the northern suburbs and meets Pat O'Brien's character, who thinks he's a "wise guy" and knows all about "dames" but is completely taken in by her and marries her before he finds out what her previous profession had been.

It's a terrific, if obvious, love story, and Lombard is wonderful in it. O'Brien is good enough, though I can see why he never really had much of a run as a leading man. It made me think of what an immortal classic this flick would have been if say Cagney had that role. As it turned out, Cagney was in most of the films of Joan Blondell's on the night they featured her films.

Blondell was always a favorite comic actress of mine, but I knew her mostly from later roles and never thought of her as that physically appealing, at least not to me, except in a comic way. But the early films they showed of hers the night I watched included three with Cagney I'd never seen before, including pre-code ones and the first movie he was in—I always thought that was PUBLIC ENEMY but it turns out it wasn't, it was SINNERS' HOLIDAY, in which he plays a smalltime crook but a mostly weak and unheroic one.

There's a few of his classic gestures and expressions and stylistic flourishes, but they're inconsistent and don't always seem to fit the story arc or character. Though they're still more realistic than a lot of the other acting, except for Blondell who is a revelation as a tough survivor. In HE WAS HER MAN Cagney plays another smalltime crook, but this time the heroic, in fact self-sacrificing kind he does so often later (ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES anyone?).

But again Blondell is a revelation. I totally fell for her character in this one (is that another vestige of the brain operation that changed my taste in movie leading ladies?). It's a really well done classic Hollywood tearjerker, what would have been considered in some ways a "women's movie" if it weren't for Cagney and the mobster subplot.

The other Blondell flick was totally "a women's movie" but not at all what that label usually meant back when. THREE ON A MATCH has a Hollywood plot that traces the lives of three very different females who even as children were marked by their class backgrounds (something early Hollywood handled much more honestly and frontally than our own times, sadly). It's a great story and Blondell is terrific as the lowest class tough one who even does some time but comes through as the heroine in many ways, naturally (a very young Bette Davis plays one of the three women and is so overshadowed by Blondell it was predicted Davis wouldn't last in films!).

But Linda Darnell was the real discovery for my heart and mind. I knew her from movies like TWO FLAGS WEST, which they ran, where she played the exotic beauty. But I'd never seen FALLEN ANGEL before, a film noir with Dana Andrews, where Darnell steals the picture from both Andrews and Alice Faye (in fact as the host explained, when the studio heads saw the "dailies" the bigger Darnell's part became and the smaller Faye's, who got top billing but ended up with fewer scenes and basically quit Hollywood as a result!).

Darnell is so devilishly "bad" in FALLEN ANGEL I can't recommend it enough. It's a new benchmark for me, just below the greatest movie "bad girl" role on my top list, Jane Greer in OUT OF THE PAST.

Anyway a long post for several long diversions from the night(s) before and during Irene I was lucky enough to have because my power never went off as it did pretty much all around me.


Phoebe said...

Hey Michael,
I got your hellos from Harry and here I am. We just retired from teaching and so now I sit in my little studio room behind our house thinking about poetry. I just listened to a video on Silliman's blog of John Weiners reading 8 days before his death - amazing. Also sad - he is reading without teeth and so close to the end.
I love to read your blog. Updates: my cousin in Waterbury VT said the whole downtown was flooded, but all in my family are fine. One niece in Branford CT still has no power.My son has a house in Montauk and I think things are OK there. My sister on Nantucket says all OK.
xo Phoebe

Lally said...

Phoebe, great to hear from you and congratulations on the great job you and your collaborators are doing with Cahuenga Press. And happy to hear your farflung family survived Irene okay.
When my daughter lost everything in one of those Southern California fires (Malibu, I think it was '94) I was amazed afterwards to see one house entirely burned to the ground with washing machines and cars just pools of melted metal, and one next door completely untouched.
Seemed similar in Irene's case. Some houses around me have no power still, or a house that got crushed by a falling tree and one next door where the tree missed it by less than an inch!
All the more reason to be grateful I think. Mostly for just still being live.

-K- said...

It's only been over for two days but I already miss TCM's Summer Under the Stars. Its such a great way to see movies, always intelligently presented.

However, I have never understood the appeal of "Twentieth Century". It may be one of the first screwball comedies ever made but the humor just seems too broad and everyone too hammy. And of course John Barrymore is at the top of that particular list.

Joan Blondell has always been very high on my list of sexy women of the Thirties. Other women from that era don't seem nearly as modern as she does.

Lally said...

K, Twentieth Century is a mystery to me. I've seen it many times and also saw two different Broadway versions of it—the first time was the first time I ever saw Kevin Kline, before he'd made a movie, who knocked me out in it, and the last was with Alec Baldwin, who had me laughing so hard I cried, so obviously it worked. And yet every time I see it I have almost no memory of the story other than a broad outline. It seems to be all about the performances, which are meant to be comic, farcical even, Barrymore's included, who, for my taste, always seemed to be aware of his histrionics being intentionally over the top, as opposed to say Laurence Oilivier, whose hamminess I never got, and he didn't seem to either.