Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Michael Morris - Author of Madame Valentino

Last week I learned of the untimely passing of Fr. Michael Morris, author of Madame Valentino - The Many Lives of Natacha Rambova.  His work on Rambova will stand the test of time, it is an excellent biography and a terrific piece of scholarly work. 

I had the pleasure of meeting with Fr. Morris several times, including some delightful time spent at his home, talking Valentino, Natacha, spirituality, Hollywood gossip and a million other subjects.  He was, smart, funny, a great raconteur and very generous with some of his rare photos of Natacha and Valentino that he shared with me for use in my own book, Rudolph Valentino the Silent Idol - His Life in Photographs.  I must find his recipe for the crème brulee he served at a brunch, it was wonderful. 

Michael also had a large (and impressive) collection of biblical themed movie posters.  I remember him telling me he was working on a manuscript, sadly I expect this work will be left unfinished and/or unpublished.  You can read a bit about this here

It was a pleasure trading emails with him over the years and seeing him for coffee if I was making my way across the bay.  He left us far too soon and too young.  Happily, he left us a really well written and researched book on a woman who up to that time was really an enigma.  Rest in Peace.

Fr. Michael Morris
You can read Michael's obituary from the SF Chronicle here and here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Son of the Sheik Screening at Niles Essanay Film Museum

I am pleased to announce that I have been invited to introduce the September 10, 2016 screening of The Son of the Sheik at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum.  Time is TBA as they're just putting the schedule together.  You can check for all their screenings at their website linked above.

I am excited to be invited, quite a coup!

Now, since Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum is a non-profit organization, I'm doing my small teeny bit by donating a couple of copies of my 2010 book Rudolph Valentino the Silent Idol which will be raffled off, all proceeds from raffle ticket sales to benefit the Museum.  I will recuse myself, but, I'm buying tickets, too!  I'm not sure when they will start selling raffle tickets, but, if you go make sure to ask about buying some for your chance to win!

If you've not seen the film, please do mark the date to come and see it.  The Museum has all sorts of cool silent film artifacts to be seen and you get to see the film(s) in a real Nickelodeon. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Olivia de Havilland - Beautiful and Tough as Nails!

In honor of Olivia de Havilland's 100th birthday on July 1st, I share with you the final ruling on the "de Havilland Law."   Actors today owe this great lady a debt of enormous gratitude and I hope they recognize it.  She did something even the pint-sized powerhouse Bette Davis could not do.  She won her freedom from enslavement and helped every single other actor from that day forward. 

I love her in any of her films, she has grace, beauty, charm and such talent.  In real life, she is a brilliant woman and I admire the steel rod of her spine, she fought and won.  Bon anniversaire Olivia!

De Haviland v. Warner Bros. Pictures (1944) 67 CA2d 225
[Civ. 14643 Second Dist, Div Three Dec., 8, 1944]
OLIVIA DE HAVILAND, Respondent, v. WARNER BROS. PICTURES, INC. (a Corporation), Appellant.
Gang, Kopp & Tyre for Respondent.
Freston & Files, Ralph E. Lewis and Charles A. Loring for Appellant.

Defendant has appealed from a judgment declaring at an end its contract for the services of plaintiff as a motion picture actress. The ground of the decision was that the contract had run for seven years, the maximum life allowed such contracts by former Civil Code, section 1980, now section 2855 of the Labor Code. It was executed April 14, 1936, for a term of fifty-two weeks and gave the employer the right to extend the term for any or all of six successive periods of fifty-two weeks each. These options were exercised from time to time by the employer so as to cover the entire contract period. The services commenced May 5, 1936, and, except as interrupted by certain periods of suspension, were continued to August 13, 1943. The present action was commenced August 23, 1943. The contract gave the producer, defendant, the right to suspend plaintiff for any period or periods when she should fail, refuse or neglect to perform her services to the full limit of her ability and as instructed by the producer and for any additional period or periods required to complete the portrayal of a role refused by plaintiff and assigned to another artist. Plaintiff was to receive no compensation while so suspended or thereafter until she offered to resume her work. It was provided that the producer had the right to extend the term of the contract at its option, for a time equal to the periods of suspension. There were several such suspensions after December 9, 1939, and one suspension of thirty days which plaintiff agreed to and which was occasioned by her illness. In each instance defendant exercised its right to extend the term of the agreement. The several periods of suspension totaled some twenty-five {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 229} weeks. The facts as to the suspensions are not in dispute; defendant's right to impose them is not questioned. Plaintiff's reason for refusing the several roles was that they were unsuited to her matured ability and that she could not faithfully and conscientiously portray them. Her good faith and motives are not in issue, but according to the contract the producer was the sole judge in such matters and she had to do as she was told. The sole question is whether the provisions for suspension, and for extension of the term of the agreement, were lawful and effective insofar as they purported to bind plaintiff beyond seven years from the date her services were commenced. If they were lawful, plaintiff still owes twenty-five weeks of service; otherwise the contract came to an end May 5, 1943.
As enacted in 1872, section 1980 of the Civil Code read as follows: "A contract to render personal service, other than a contract of apprenticeship, as provided in the chapter on master and servant, cannot be enforced against the employee beyond the term of two years from the commencement of service under it; but if the employee voluntarily continues his service under it beyond that time, the contract may be referred to as affording a presumptive measure of the compensation."
In 1931, section 1980 was amended to read as follows:
"A contract to render personal service, other than a contract of apprenticeship, as provided in the chapter on master and servant, and other than a contract entered into pursuant to the proviso hereinafter in this section contained cannot be enforced against the employee beyond the term of seven years from the commencement of service under it;
"Exceptional services. Provided, however, that any contract, otherwise valid, to perform or render service of a special, unique, unusual, extraordinary or intellectual character, which gives it peculiar value, the loss of which cannot be reasonably or adequately compensated in damages in an action at law, may nevertheless be enforced against the person contracting to render such service, for a term not beyond a period of seven years from the commencement of service under it.
"Presumptive measure of compensation. Notwithstanding the provisions hereinabove in this section contained, if the employee voluntarily continues his service under it beyond that time, the contract may be referred to as affording a presumptive measure of the compensation."
In 1937, the section was repealed and section 2855 of the {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 230} Labor Code was enacted, as follows: "A contract to render personal service, other than a contract of apprenticeship as provided in Chapter 4 of this division, may not be enforced against the employee beyond seven years from the commencement of service under it. Any contract, otherwise valid, to perform or render service of a special, unique, unusual, extraordinary, or intellectual character, which gives it peculiar value and the loss of which cannot be reasonably or adequately compensated in damages in an action at law, may nevertheless be enforced against the person contracting to render such service, for a term not to exceed seven years from the commencement of service under it. If the employee voluntarily continues his service under it beyond that time, the contract may be referred to as affording a presumptive measure of the compensation."
Section 2 of the Labor Code provides: "The provisions of this code in so far as they are substantially the same as existing provisions relating to the same subject matter shall be construed as restatements and continuations thereof and not as new enactments."
[1] It is clear that section 2855 of the Labor Code is a restatement and continuation of former Civil Code, section 1980, and not a new enactment.
[2] It is the contention of defendant that under section 1980, as amended in 1931, a contract for "exceptional services" could be enforced against an employee for seven years of actual service, even though the employee would thereby be required to render services over a period of more than seven calendar years. Defendant's argument, in substance, is as follows: if it had not been the intention to take contracts for exceptional services out of the seven years' limitation, there would have been no occasion for the 1931 amendment, since employers holding contracts for the exclusive services of artists (a term we use to denote all of those who contract to render "exceptional services") could enjoin the rendering of the services of their employees to others during the term of the contract (Lumley v. Gye, 2 El.&Bl. 216, 118 Eng.Rep. 749; Civ. Code, § 3423); section 1980 of the Civil Code had always made an exception of contracts of apprenticeship; the 1931 amendment, in addition to changing the term of seven years, created another exception expressed in the first paragraph by the words "other than a contract entered into pursuant to the proviso hereinafter in this section contained." {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 231} The effect of this language, it is claimed, was to take contracts for "exceptional services" out of the general limitation of seven years and to state a special rule for them as found in the proviso. Our attention is then directed to the wording of the proviso that contracts for exceptional services "may nevertheless be enforced against the person contracting to render such service for a term not beyond a period of seven years from the commencement of service under it." It is argued that the phrase "for a term not beyond a period of seven years" in the proviso, instead of the phrase "beyond the term of seven years" which was retained in the paragraph relating to contracts for services of a general nature, had a peculiar significance. The rule is cited that "when different language is used in the same connection in different parts of a statute it is presumed the legislature intended a different meaning and effect" (McCarthy v. Board of Fire Commrs. (1918), 37 Cal.App. 495 [174 P. 402]), and it is said in defendant's brief: "Under the rule above stated, such a distinctive choice of different words in two parts of the same statute must have indicated a different meaning and a different intent, and among other things, it indicates that 'term' was not used in the sense of mere lapse of time, since 'period' was also used, but referred to a 'term' established by the contract."
If we are to accept defendant's construction of the section as amended, we must add words to the phrase used in the proviso so that it would read "for a term not beyond a period of seven years of actual service from the commencement of service under it." In fact, the words "of actual service" could have been used appropriately after the word "term" and also after the words "seven years" if it had been the intention to do away with the limitation of seven calendar years from the commencement of service. It is true that the exception in the first clause of contracts for exceptional services, to which the proviso relates, suggests a possible intention to take such contracts out of the general rule, but the proviso itself is the enacting clause and the controlling one. It is the clause which determines whether the general limitation was intended to be removed as to contracts for exceptional services. Defendant's contention is that there could have been only one purpose in amending the section, namely, to allow the enforcement against employees of contracts for personal services to the extent of seven years of actual service, {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 232} regardless of the time over which such services might extend. With this we cannot agree. The difficulty with the argument, and which we think is insurmountable, is that the Legislature has not used the words "of service," and the failure to use those or equivalent words is far more significant as indicating the purpose of the enactment than the entire amendment as written. We cannot believe that the phrase "for a term not beyond a period of seven years" carries a hidden meaning. It cannot be questioned that the limitation of time to which section 1980 related from 1872 to 1931 was one to be measured in calendar years. It is conceded that contracts for general services are limited to seven calendar years. The substitution of years of service for calendar years would work a drastic change of state policy with relation to contracts for personal services. One would expect that such a revolutionary change, even as applied to a particular class of contracts, would be given expression in clear and unmistakable terms. It is difficult--in fact, too difficult--to believe that a purpose which could have been expressed so simply and clearly was intentionally buried under the camouflage of uncertainty and ambiguity. That the 1931 amendment of section 1980 was ineptly phrased may not be doubted. Confirmation of this fact is to be found in the changes of phraseology that were made when the section was carried into the Labor Code. The obvious redundancy in the phrase "for a term not beyond a period of seven years" was corrected and the innocuous phrase "other than a contract entered into pursuant to the proviso hereinafter in this section contained" was eliminated. [3] The words "cannot be enforced" in the first clause were changed to "may not be enforced." This latter change, we might say, was obviously in the interest of grammatical purity and was not intended to confer any discretionary power upon the courts in the matter of enforcing personal service contracts. The words "may not" as used are mandatory.
[4] Although as a rule legislative enactments are drawn under expert guidance and with much care, it is inevitable that ambiguity will be encountered occasionally. But the ambiguities found in the 1931 amendment amounted to no more than imperfections of phraseology and fell far short of working any change in the substantive law. The language of section 1980, Civil Code, was carefully revised in the drafting of the Labor Code section. The ambiguous language which {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 233} was suggestive of a possible meaning that contracts of artists might be enforced for seven years of actual service was eliminated. The result, we think, was to state in the Labor Code section the true meaning of amended section 1980 and to state it in more carefully chosen terms. Again the phraseology which was used clearly indicated that the limitation applied to calendar years; otherwise the phrase "term of service" or "years of service" would have been used. The later enactment, we think, may be regarded as an interpretation by the Legislature of the meaning of section 1980, that is to say, that the phrases which were eliminated from that section were merely redundant and had added nothing to its meaning.
What we have said does not fully answer the question why section 1980 was amended, if it was not to make a special rule for the enforcement of contracts of artists. Defendant's argument is that if it did not serve that purpose it served no purpose at all. The amendment would seem to have been unnecessary, for it worked no change in the substantive or procedural rights of either the employer or the employee. It is not questioned by either party that before the amendment was adopted, employers who had contracted for the exclusive services of artists could enforce their contracts for the term limited by section 1980 by means of injunction restraining the rendering of services of their employees to others. Both plaintiff and defendant cite Lumley v. Gye, supra, in support of this proposition. Prior to 1919, section 3423 of the Civil Code provided that an injunction may not be granted to prevent the breach of a contract which would not be subject to specific performance. In 1919 the section was amended so as to except contracts for exceptional services such as the one in issue, which provide a rate of compensation of not less than $6,000 per annum. [5] But even though the amendment of section 1980 did not enlarge the rights of employers to enforce such contracts other than to extend the term to seven years, the amendment was nevertheless desirable because it constituted a statement of a well established rule of equity and there is a good purpose served by the codification of established rules of law or equity. Even after the 1919 amendment of section 3423, there was in the codes no specific, affirmative statement of the right of an employer to enforce any kind of contract for personal services, by injunction or {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 234} otherwise. The amendment of section 3423 inferentially gave the employer the right to an injunction in certain cases. The amendment of 1980 stated the right in affirmative terms. It had the effect at least of corelating the two sections and removing any doubt as to what was intended by the amendment of section 3423, which, by inference only, extended the right of injunction in certain cases to the contract rights of the employers of artists. It was undoubtedly to the advantage of all those who might be affected, to have the law put in statutory form. These were sufficient reasons, and we believe the real reasons, for the amendment of section 1980.
We have not overlooked the earnest arguments of counsel as to whether a producer of motion pictures should or should not have the right to the exclusive services of an artist for a period of seven years of service. It is to be presumed that the Legislature considered such matters in legislating upon the subject, but the arguments do not aid us in determining what the code sections mean. [6] While the purpose sought to be accomplished in the enactment of a statute may be considered as an aid to interpretation, the question whether the Legislature has acted at all in a given particular must find answer in the statute itself. [7] We think the expressions of the various enactments cannot be bent to a shape that will fit defendant's argument, and that the several extensions of plaintiff's contract due to her suspensions were ineffective to bind her beyond May 5, 1943, seven years after her services commenced.
[8a] A second contention is that if defendant had not the right under the code to demand seven years of service, plaintiff has waived the right to question the validity of the extensions, which carried beyond the seven-year period. By her breaches of the contract, it is claimed, she brought into operation the provisions for extension and is now estopped to avoid them. Defendant relies upon section 3513 of the Civil Code, reading as follows: "Anyone may waive the advantage of a law intended solely for his benefit. But a law established for a public reason cannot be contravened by a private agreement." Defendant insists that the limitations of said sections 1980 and 2855 were enacted solely for the benefit of employees and not for a public reason, and may be waived. Reliance is placed upon Stone v. Bancroft (1903), 139 Cal. 78 [70 P. 1017, 72 P. 717], as a supporting authority. But the case went no further than to hold that the statute, section 1980, as it {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 235} then read, was not available to the employer as a defense to an action for salary earned after the (then) two years statutory period, for the reason that the limitation applied to actions by the employer but not to those brought against him by the employee. It was in that connection that the court held the limitation to be for the benefit of the employee only. No question of waiver or of public policy was involved or mentioned.
The fact that a law may be enacted in order to confer benefits upon an employee group, far from shutting out the public interest, may be strong evidence of it. It is safe to say that the great majority of men and women who work are engaged in rendering personal services under employment contracts. Without their labors the activities of the entire country would stagnate. Their welfare is the direct concern of every community. Seven years of time is fixed as the maximum time for which they may contract for their services without the right to change employers or occupations. Thereafter they may make a change if they deem it necessary or advisable. There are innumerable reasons why a change of employment may be to their advantage. Considerations relating to age or health, to the rearing and schooling of children, new economic conditions and social surroundings may call for a change. As one grows more experienced and skillful there should be a reasonable opportunity to move upward and to employ his abilities to the best advantage and for the highest obtainable compensation. [9] Legislation which is enacted with the object of promoting the welfare of large classes of workers whose personal services constitute their means of livelihood and which is calculated to confer direct or indirect benefits upon the people as a whole must be presumed to have been enacted for a public reason and as an expression of public policy in the field to which the legislation relates. It was said in In re Miller (1912), 162 Cal. 687, 695 [124 P. 427]: "The courts must always assume that the legislature, in enacting laws, intended to act within its lawful powers and not to violate the restrictions placed upon it by the constitution." [10] The validity of legislation infringing upon the right of contract is to be judged from its tendency to promote the welfare of the general public rather than that of a small percentage of citizens. (In re Kazas (1937), 22 Cal.App.2d 161 [70 P.2d 962].) {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 236}
[11] The power to restrict the right of private contract is one which does not exist independently of the power to legislate for the purpose of preserving the public comfort, health, safety, morals and welfare. The power to provide for the comfort, health, safety and general welfare of any or all employees is granted to the Legislature by article XX, section 17 1/2 of the state Constitution. Enactments exercising the power have been upheld in many instances. (In re Twing (1922), 188 Cal. 261 [204 P. 1082]; In re Ballestra (1916), 173 Cal. 657 [161 P. 120]; Sears v. Superior Court (1933), 133 Cal.App. 704 [24 P.2d 842]; In re Samaha (1933), 130 Cal.App. 116 [19 P.2d 839]; People v. McEntyre (1938), 32 Cal.App.2d Supp. 752 [84 P.2d 560].) In In re Oswald (1926), 76 Cal.App. 347 [244 P. 940], the court said of an act making it a misdemeanor to refuse in certain circumstances to pay wages when due (p. 351): "We are persuaded that the public has an interest in the prevention of wrongs of this character, just as much as it is interested in the prevention of some other of those wrongs against property or wrongs against persons which are commonly regarded as being properly within the scope of operation of criminal law." [12] Penal statutes, within constitutional limitations, are conclusive evidence that the prohibited acts would be against the public interest. The several statutes which were involved in the cases last cited were enacted for the benefit of employees and also to regulate the employer-employee relationship in the interest of the public at large. The code sections we are considering are no less closely identified with public interest. Under the same principles, a law of Louisiana limiting the term of personal service contracts was upheld as a proper exercise of the police power and an expression of state policy in Shaughnessy v. d'Antoni (1938), 100 F.2d 422 (C.C.A. 5th). See, also, Hill v. Missouri-Pac. Ry. Co. (1933), 8 F.Supp. 80; Page v. New Orleans Public Service, Inc. (1936), 184 La. 617 [167 So. 99]; Caldwell v. Turner (1911), 129 La. 19 [55 So. 695]. [8b] The rights of employees as now declared by section 2855 of the Labor Code fall squarely within the prohibition of section 3513 of the Civil Code, that rights created in the public interest may not be contravened by private agreement.
Finally, it may be pointed out that the construction of the code sections contended for by defendant would render the law unworkable and would lead to an absurd result. If an employee may waive the statutory right in question by his {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 237} conduct, he may waive it by agreement, but if the power to waive it exists at all, the statute accomplishes nothing. An agreement to work for more than seven years would be an effective waiver of the right to quit at the end of seven. The right given by the statute can run in favor of those only who have contracted to work for more than seven years and as these would have waived the right by contracting it away, the statute could not operate at all. It could scarcely have been the intention of the Legislature to protect employees from the consequences of their improvident contracts and still leave them free to throw away the benefits conferred upon them. The limitation of the life of personal service contracts and the employee's rights thereunder could not be waived.
[13] One of the conclusions of law was the following: "Defendant may not enforce the Contract against plaintiff and defendant should be enjoined and restrained from enforcing the Contract or attempting to enforce the Contract against plaintiff or interfering with the rendition by plaintiff of services for persons, firms or corporations other than defendant." The judgment contained an injunctive provision in the same language. Defendant challenges this provision as unsupported by the pleadings, the proof or the findings. The objection is well founded. Both plaintiff and defendant sought a declaration of their respective rights under the contract. The proof was not addressed to any other issue. Plaintiff was the only witness and her testimony and the documentary evidence that was received related only to the services she had performed and to those she had declined to perform and which led to the suspensions. The facts were not in dispute. Plaintiff offered to prove, in claiming a right to an injunction, that defendant had sent out many letters to other producers stating its position with reference to the contract and its claim that plaintiff was still in its employ. The offer was rejected and the court in so ruling stated, "I think the objection should be sustained. You see it is not an action in which Miss De Havilland is seeking relief from any threatened boycott or threatened action on the part of Warner Brothers. That is not in this case." The findings covered the essential facts as to the making of the contract, the dispute as to its meaning, and found that plaintiff did not violate the contract or default thereunder after May 5, 1943. There was no finding of facts which would justify an injunction.
[14] The last finding was: "All of the allegations of the answer of defendant inconsistent with the foregoing findings {Page 67 Cal.App.2d 238} of fact are untrue." This was no finding at all upon the facts as to the several breaches of the contract and the extensions which were alleged in the answer. [15] No point is made by defendant of the failure to find specifically upon the issues raised by the answer and no harm could have resulted from such failure in view of the stipulation made which covered all of the material facts upon which defendant relies.
There is nothing in the record that would justify a belief or even a suspicion that defendant will not respect and abide by the final declaration of the court as to the rights of the parties in the premises. [16] An injunction is not proper to restrain the commission of acts in the future unless there is good reason to believe they will be committed if there is no restraint. Where no similar acts have been committed in the past and none are threatened to be committed in the future, and where it appears reasonable to believe they will not be committed, there is no occasion for an injunction and no right to one. [17] The fact that defendant has openly insisted that plaintiff is still bound to it by contract does not justify the belief that it will do so contrary to a final decree that the contract has ended. (See Sunset Scavenger Corp. v. Oddou (1936), 11 Cal.App.2d 92 [53 P.2d 188].)
The judgment is modified by striking out all of paragraph 5 after the words, "Defendant may not enforce the contract against plaintiff," and as modified is affirmed, respondent to recover costs.
Desmond, P. J., and Wood (Parker), J., concurred.

Monday, June 6, 2016

San Francisco Silent Film Festival Recap Day 1

The highlight of the year for me is the annual visit to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  2016 was no exception, many, many highlights!

Recap Day 1, Thursday, June 2, 2016
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival started off with a bang by screening Paramount’s 1928 Beggars of Life (1928) featuring festival favorite and silent icon Louise Brooks.  The film is a cracker-jack potboiler directed by William Wellman one year after his breakthrough with the epic and massively popular Wings (1927).  The film played to a nearly sellout crowd and the musical accompaniment was handled by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.  They played the same score when they accompanied in 2007 at The Castro.  They played well, as you might expect!  The crowd responded to the music and the film, rapturously.

This film is my favorite of any of the films which starred or featured Louise Brooks.  It was the first film I ever saw, way back when The Avenue Theater on San Bruno Avenue was screening silent films every Friday/Saturday night (this dates me as a person of a certain age).  The film has lost none of its punch after all this time.  Stellar performances by Brooks, Richard Arlen (who did not get along with his leading lady, and vice versa) and Wallace Beery. 

Wellman directing Wallace Beery on location in Jacumba

Brooks is wonderful as “the girl” who murders her abuser of a father and then dons menswear (mandrag if you will) to escape with Richard Arlen for a life on the rails and other dangers.  Beery all but steals the film, as was normal for any film in which Beery is onscreen for more than 2 minutes.

Jim Tully (right) giving some advice to Richard Arlen "cooking on the road."
The film is loosely based on Jim Tully’s novel of the same name.  Loosely based because there is not much that went from novel to screen except the trains.  Brooks did not much care for the author.  See this informative page at The Louise Brooks Society.  If you are a fan of Louise and have not joined The Louise Brooks Society already, you really should. 

Beggars of Life is available on DVD at Grapevine Video, but, I would suggest you wait.  The Eastman Museum print that was screened is restored and I have a sneaking feeling the restoration might make it onto a major label DVD.

This film got the festival off to a good start.  Much more to come in Part II, come back tomorrow.

Screen capture of Arlen and Brooks in a lyrical moment

Do not miss what promise to be excellent recaps by friends and fellow bloggers, Lara over at Backlots, BethAnn at Spellbound by Movies, Lea at Silent-ology and Mary who writes over at Larry Harnisch’s The Daily Mirror.  Thomas Gladysz writes for Huffington Post and you can be sure he will have a thoughtful review up soon, too.  Some have been posting throughout the weekend of events.  How do they do it, I’m exhausted???

Saturday, May 7, 2016

I Remember Mama (1948)

1-sheet poster
RKO Studios purchased Kathryn Forbes novel Mama's Bank Account in 1943 (Forbes was raised in San Francisco and the book details the life of her grandparents).  The project sat for several years before Dewitt Bodeen  was hired to fashion a script from the novel.  Bodeen wrote two drafts of the script before he traveled to New York to see the play I Remember Mama which was penned by John Van Druten.  The play was produced by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein and ran at The Music Box Theater from October 19, 1944 to June 29, 1946 (a very respectable 713 performances).  Oscar Homolka who played Uncle Chris was the only cast member to make it to the screen adaptation.  Marlon Brando made his Broadway debut as eldest boy Nels.

Philip Dorn, Barbara Bel Geddes, Steve Brown and Irene Dunne
The film was co-produced by Harriet Parsons (daughter of famed, or infamous columnist Louella Parsons) and director George Stevens.  Greta Garbo was approached for the title role, but she declined, not surprisingly.  It was Parsons who brought Irene Dunne to the table as a possible for the role of Marta Hansen ("Mama" of the title).  Parsons sent Dunne a copy of the book, who read it and said she would accept if she could give them a list of directors for the project.  Dunne chose Stevens (with whom she'd worked before on Penny Serenade).

The film is chock full of great character actors, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the lodger Mr. Hyde, the aforementioned Oscar Homolka as Uncle Chris, Ellen Corby as Aunt Trina, Edger Bergen as Mr. Torkelson, Florence Bates as Florence Dana Moorhead and Barbara O'Neill as Jessie Brown.  

Shot partially on location in San Francisco, being a local, I have a very warm spot for this film. Stevens is one of my favorite directors and this film shows what you see so much of in his postwar work, a delicacy, a real depth, genuine heart.  The true heart of the film are Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin and Irene Dunne as Mama.  

Bodeen recorded that even with the finished script Stevens felt it was fluid and was ever changing.  Initially Jessica Tandy was cast as Aunt Trina and she did not want the part.  Stevens disagreed and tried to keep her on board.  Tandy went to producer Harriet Parsons who then convinced Stevens to let her go.  The story goes that Stevens said, the role can go to the script girl, who happened to be Ellen Corby.  This story might be disputed, Corby had plenty of extra and small bit work under her belt by this time.  Nonetheless, Corby earned an Academy Award nomination for her efforts (she lost of Claire Trevor in Key Largo).

The filming was slow and over budget, which cut into Stevens payout as producer, he seemed not to care.  He was striving for something with the film.  That said, according to studio records, once he was on location in San Francisco, the filming went smoothly and quickly.  Ads were taken out for locals to appear as extras, providing they had their own vintage wardrobe.  Apparently people had to be turned away the response was so great.  

On Liberty Street in San Francisco

For Stevens, working on the film was a way back in to Hollywood and a visitation to his childhood (he hailed from San Francisco).  The film is heavy on nostalgia.  It is a tale of immigrants making their way in the new world.  I like to think this is what my grandparents went through after they immigrated from Russia to Connecticut. 

At the heart, is Irene Dunne, her stillness is the rock to which every character clings.  She is not a plaster saint of a mother, there is a toughness underneath her character, steal rod that holds the family together.  She is the thread that holds all the pieces of the film together.  I find her utterly believable in the role.  Dunne underplays her accent and underplays, never overdoes a moment.  Unlike Loretta Young in 1947's The Farmer's Daughter, Dunne's gentle humor and real warmth shines in this film.  She earned her fifth, and final, nomination as Best Actress for this film.  She lost to Jane Wyman who won for Johnny Belinda

Dunne and Stevens on the set lining up a shot

Barbara Bel Geddes (daughter of great designer Norma Bel Geddes) was also honored with a nomination for her portrayal of Katrin.  Her freshness and youth made her utterly believable as the eldest daughter and the life lessons she learned.  For someone who was young, it's a shining performance.

Barbara Bel Geddes as Katrin

One of the more moving moments of the film are with Oscar Homolka and Tommy Ivo as young Cousin Arne.  The boy while in hospital learns to swear in Norwegian to distract from the pain of his operation.  The second is when the family goes to visit Uncle Chris as he lay dying.  Irene Dunne reads from his accounting of all his good works (of which the family did not suspect him of) paying for operations and such.  His final toast with Marta (who was his favorite niece) and his wife Jesse Brown (beautifully played by Barbara O'Neill).  Homolka plays to the gallery for much of the film, but, it works because he is the beloved and still feared Uncle for the children.  He is loud, uncouth and he does not show his love for them easily.  It's a bravura performance and must have been great on stage.  Also nominated, Homolka lost of Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Oscar Homolka
 I could go on and on about the moments and vignettes that make this film so very special.  Is it sentimental, yes.  Is it nostalgic, yes.  There is a sweetness to the film, so unlike the films coming out of Hollywood in the postwar, film noir climate.  With all of the uncertainty, unpleasantness going on at that time (and even now you could well say) this film is a joy to watch.  Films should not be torture to watch, they are entertainment.  This film is 100% engaging and entertaining.

Not everyone had the good fortune to have a Mama like Marta Hansen.  But, for Mother's Day, you can by letting yourself go and enjoy this look back in time, and the telling of a simple story with a whole lot of heart. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

On The Bedside Table - New Books

Just a quick drive by to highlight a couple of new books.  The first will be published in October, just in time to start your Xmas shopping. 

Just when you thought nothing more could have been discovered, or written, about the Marx Brothers, Robert Bader has proven the naysayers wrong with what looks to be an exhaustive and epic look at their stage career in Four of the Three Musketeers.  This is a subject that, more often than not, is touched upon or completely overlooked when talking about The Marx Brothers. 

This is a very important book to add to the canon of Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo.  With recommendations by Dick Cavett and Leonard Maltin at the publisher website, I do not need any more nudging than this to pre-order it.

From the publisher website:

Before film made them international comedy legends, the Marx Brothers developed their comic skills on stage for twenty-five years. In Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage, Robert S. Bader offers the first comprehensive history of the foursome’s hardscrabble early years honing their act in front of live audiences.

From Groucho’s debut in 1905 to their final live performances of scenes from A Night in Casablanca in 1945, the brothers’ stage career shows how their characters and routines evolved before their arrival in Hollywood. Four of the Three Musketeers draws on an unmatched array of sources, many not referenced elsewhere. Bader’s detailed portrait of the struggling young actors both brings to vivid life a typical night on the road for the Marx Brothers and also illuminates the inner workings of the vaudeville business, especially during its peak in the 1920s.

As Bader traces the origins of the characters that would later come to be beloved by filmgoers, he also skillfully scrapes away the accretion of rumors and mythology perpetuated not only by fans and writers but by the Marx Brothers themselves. Revealing, vital, and entertaining, Four of the Three Musketeers will take its place as an essential reference for this iconic American act.

Newly listed on amazon and on the publisher website is a delightful new book by author (and blogger) Jennifer Ann Redmond is Reels and Rivals: Sisters in Silent Film.  Some names Jennifer has explored in the book may be unfamiliar to you.  In their heyday, they were big stars. If you love the silent era,  if you have a sister, well, this is a must read!

From the publisher website:

Female silent film stars possessed beauty, persistence, flair, and probably a sister in the business.
You may have seen Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Constance Talmadge in Intolerance (1916), or Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919), but their sisters also starred in major motion pictures, such as Marguerite Marsh in The Master Mystery (1919), Norma Talmadge in The Battle Cry of Peace (1915), and Dorothy Gish in Orphans of the Storm (1921).
These six appeared in countless movies. Most of their films are lost, but their legends remain.     
Few knew at the time that these extraordinary women were more than just faces on a screen; they were complex and human, with sometimes strange parents, body image issues, and relationship struggles. Their mistakes and triumphs often mirrored our own, though they were miles away in Hollywood. Their stories of violent marriages, heartbreaking tragedies, drastic surgeries, and secret identities are finally revealed in a candid exposé of the truth behind the tinsel.
Sister stars in Reels and Rivals that are profiled include: Norma and Constance Talmadge; Lillian and Dorothy Gish; Edna Flugrath and sisters Shirley Mason and Viola Dana; Helene and Dolores Costello; Poly Ann and Loretta Young with sister Sally Blane; Constance and Faire Binney; Priscilla and Marjorie Bonner; Grace and Mina Cunard; Alice and Marceline Day; Marion and Madeline Fairbanks; Laura and Violet La Plante; Mae and Marguerite Marsh; Ella, Ida Mae, and Fay McKenzie; Beatriz and Vera Michelena; Mary and Florence Nash; Sally O’Neil and sister Molly O’Day; Mabel and Edith Taliaferro; Olive and Alma Tell; and famous Vaudevillians The Duncan Sisters and The Dolly Sisters.