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Forbidden Hollywood Collection - Volumes One & Two


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I purchased the Criterion Collection's 2011 release of Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933) w/ Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Mirian Hopkins:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_for_Living_(film)

Paramount released Design for Living at the very end of 1933. With the possible exception of Baby Face (also 1933), no film did as much as Design for Living did to bring on full enforcement of the Code in 1934. And no wonder! The central conceit of the movie -- that Hopkins cannot choose between March and Cooper and therefore resolves to live in a menage a trois with them -- must have pushed public opinion of that time to its absolute limit. One can only wonder what censors of the time made of the very frank discussions of sex which occur in the movie!

March and Cooper are dynamite together as the best friends who find themselves in love with the same woman. They are like a proto-Bing Crosby/Bob Hope comedy team. It's a pity the two didn't make more films together.

Hopkins is the central pivot on which the movie turns and she gives a fine performance as the vacillating Gilda. I do find her accent off-putting, though. She hailed from Savannah but had the phony-baloney "refined" accent that so plagued early talkies. Why did so many female stars employ it when male stars like March and Cooper used regular American accents?

The Criterion Collection print transfer is outstanding.

Recommended.

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I must respectfully disagree on some things - when I saw this years ago I thought Lubitsch's timing was off and the picture proceeded rather clunkily, for him. I knew the Coward play well and was surprised at how much of his dialogue was discarded - Ben Hecht rewrote quite drastically. Given that the principals were March, Cooper, and Hopkins instead of Lunt, Coward, and Fontanne, this is understandable, but again weird if you're familiar with the play.

I remember Hopkins as very appealing and the accent didn't bother me (and stars hailing from the South tended to drop their regional accents at this period). I was not crazy about Cooper or March in this.

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Rewatched The Divorcee this weekend. I found myself really paying attention to the clothes and the Art Deco set design of Norma Shearer's apartment. The clothes, in particular, caught my interest. It had only been 16 years since the start of World War I. But given how women dressed then and how Shearer dressed in this 1930 movie, it may as well have been 160 years,

Oh, and I love how Shearer's character has a full-time maid for her tiny NY apartment!

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I just love Norma in her naughty-modern-woman-of-the-world phase and she looks fabulous in those bias-cut frocks. She was never anything like a real actor but she was definitely a real star.

Did you ever get around to checking out the 1931 Waterloo Bridge?

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She was never anything like a real actor but she was definitely a real star

The two commentators on the commentary track are generally quite positive about Shearer but even they admit that her performances tended to be a collection of calculated effects rather than seamless performances. But you know what? I don't care! There's a scene late in the movie where Shearer is filmed on location on the deck of a ship. She is lit so beautifully and the camera loves her so much that I just can't care that much about the acting deficiencies. Like you wrote, she was a true star!

The more I watch The Divorcee, the more impressed I get with Robert Montgomery and Florence Eldridge in supporting roles. Montgomery, in particular, is so effortless.

Did you ever get around to checking out the 1931 Waterloo Bridge?

Not yet. I tend to get obsessed with particular performers rather than specific movies.

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I saw it originally because It had Bette Davis in a small role, when she was still very much the ingenue. I think the '31 Bridge is one of the most interesting examples of pre-Code license. It's frank, but not salacious, like Baby Face, for example. (Interestingly, although it was a pre-Code flick, the heroine's ghastly end is distinctly post-Code in tone.)

Offhand I can't remember seeing a bad performance from Montgomery. He was a really gifted light comedian, but the competition at MGM was intense in that category in the 1930s. You should check out the Private Lives he did with Shearer if you haven't already. Eldridge could get a little hammy, like her husband Fredric March, but probably her best work never made it to the screen. It's too bad that March and she didn't get to recreate their stage roles as James and Mary Tyrone in the film version of Long Day's Journey Into Night. Not that Ralph Richardson and Katharine Hepburn are anything to sneeze at, but reportedly March and Eldridge were awesome - and perfectly cast in those roles, unlike Richardson and Hepburn.

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but the competition at MGM was intense in that category in the 1930s.

MGM, as it got going in the second half of the 1920s and really got going in the 1930s, was a very competitive place for everyone. Irene Mayer Selznick, the very perceptive daughter of Louis B. Mayer and first wife of David O. Selznick, had this to say about the subject (in the context of the Joan Crawford-Norma Shearer rivalry):

"She [Joan Crawford] blamed her overwhelming sense of rivalry on the preferred position Norma Shearer came to hold as Irving's wife, ignoring the fact that Norma didn't always get the roles she wanted. She also overlooked the fact that Norma had been with the company since early Mission Road and had traveled a long way. The truth was that, as the ever-growing group of MGM actresses reached stardom, each found the competition intense [my emphasis]. Every one of them had come up through the ranks except Garbo; she began as a star."

You can see the competitiveness in the way both Crawford and Shearer worked very, very hard after the introduction of sound movies on the MGM lot to update their images for this new medium (and new decade.) Garbo kind of sailed above the storm with her brand of anti-stardom stardom.

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Yeah, as you probably know, Shearer had to pose for some sexy shots by George Hurrell to get cast in The Divorcee, her Academy Award role, because her loving hubby didn't think she was hot enough for the role and initially refused to cast her. She was also away from the screen for prolonged periods because of pregnancies and Thalberg's ill health.

On the other hand, MGM spent a lot of dough on Romeo and Juliet because Norma hankered to play it, and there is no question that Thalberg was tending carefully to his wife's career. She made some bad decisions after he died. And by the middle of the decade Shearer's vehicles were getting the Garbo treatment - usually one or at most two pictures a year, presented as Events.

Most notable perhaps is the dominance of three giant female stars on one lot. There was Gable representing the menfolk, and then Garbo, Shearer, and Crawford (not necessarily in that order, I hasten to add, lest I offend any Hollywood shades). The competition was intense, but there was room for all of them, and they had clout.

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The Shearer/Hurrell story is one of my favorite stories from Old Hollywood because what ended up being a pivotal moment in Shearer's career hinged on several chance events:

  • If Ramon Novarro hadn't been worried about his MGM sound debut in 1929 (with Devil-May-Care), he wouldn't have started planning a career in light opera as a fallback.
  • If Novarro hadn't started planning a musical career as a backup, he wouldn't have needed high quality photos to promote it that didn't come from MGM.
  • If Novarro hadn't needed images of himself from outside MGM, his friend Poncho Barnes might not have recommended him to a struggling young photographer named George Hurrell.
  • If Hurrell hadn't taken such extraordinary images of Novarro at their first sitting, Novarro wouldn't have had a portfolio of photos to show to his good friend Norma Shearer on the MGM lot.
  • If Shearer hadn't seen the Novarro photos, would she have even known who Hurrell was, let alone booked a sitting with him in the hope of convincing her husband, Irving Thalberg, that she had the sex appeal to play the lead in The Divorcee?
  • If the Shearer hadn't convinced Thalberg to give her the part of Jerri, would her career have had the rocket power it did, at least through the first half of the 1930s?

The odd person out, of course, was Joan Crawford, who had been rumored to be in contention for the lead in The Divorcee. This more than anything else (in my opinion, anyway) fueled the sense of grievance Crawford harbored against Shearer for the remainder of the 30s (or at least until Thalberg died.) The irony of it all is that the only person who did more sittings with Hurrell during his career than Norma Shearer . . . was Joan Crawford. And Hurrell did as much as anybody to establish the Crawford persona via the extraordinary images they produced together.

and then Garbo, Shearer, and Crawford (not necessarily in that order, I hasten to add, lest I offend any Hollywood shades.) The competition was intense, but there was room for all of them, and they had clout.

Ahem. The APPROPRIATE order is Crawford, Garbo, and Shearer!!!!! wink1.gif

You are right that there was room for them all. There was no reason for Crawford to develop such resentment toward Shearer because they were never cast in similar types of roles. Shearer moved from girl-next-door roles in the silents to "liberated women" roles in her Pre-Code movies to literary/historical parts in the latter half of the 30s. Crawford went from playing flappers in the silents to shop-girls-on-the-rise in the 30s to parts in the 40s that presaged her great Middle Period at Warners.

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Nice picture. Shearer looks good. 

Shearer was one of TCM's featured stars this month. Miss Crawford is not, although they did just show one of my favorite Crawford performances, Flaemmchen in "Grand Hotel," flirting with John Barrymore and fending off Wallace Beery.

 

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Norma Shearer's A Free Soul premiered 90 years ago on this day. Shearer was Oscar nominated for Best Actress but lost to fellow M-G-M contract star Marie Dressler for Min and Bill.

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Almost a century. Wow.

A Free Soul was Clark Gable's breakout picture, although intended as a vehicle for Shearer. As discussed earlier in the thread, Gable is supposed to be a villain, but Depression economics and the sexual mores of the time made his gangster character unexpectedly sympathetic to audiences, and it's the most interesting aspect of the picture to modern eyes, apart from Shearer's slinky evening frocks. (And I love the way she undresses Gable with her eyes.)

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Posted (edited)
On 6/24/2021 at 1:10 PM, dirac said:

A Free Soul was Clark Gable's breakout picture, although intended as a vehicle for Shearer. As discussed earlier in the thread, Gable is supposed to be a villain, but Depression economics and the sexual mores of the time made his gangster character unexpectedly sympathetic to audiences, and it's the most interesting aspect of the picture to modern eyes, apart from Shearer's slinky evening frocks. (And I love the way she undresses Gable with her eyes.)

1931 was a big year for Gable. In addition to A Free Soul, he also appeared with Joan Crawford in Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners and Possessed - all of which were big, big hits for Metro. He also appeared in Night Nurse (w/ Barbara Stanwyck) and Susan Lenox (w/ Greta Garbo).

I always think of 1931 as representing a big change in the type of leading men Metro employed. The ascendance of Gable dealt the final blow to the waning popularity of the formerly big silent/early talkie stars John Gilbert, William Haines and Ramon Novarro. They would all leave in succession: Haines in 1932, Gilbert in 1933 and Novarro in 1934. (I realize there were other factors in play, particularly in regard to Haines.)

Interestingly, the Big Three female stars of the 1920s -- Crawford, Garbo and Shearer -- all carried on for quite a bit longer at the studio. Garbo was done in 1941 (although technically under contract until 1943), Shearer left in 1942 and Crawford was forced out in 1943. Respectively, their tenures were 16 years (Garbo), 18 years (Shearer) and 18 years (Crawford).  (Shearer's tenure was actually longer if you give her credit for being under contract to Louis B. Mayer's Metro Productions prior to its becoming part of the cobbled together Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924.)

Edited by miliosr
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Interestingly, the Big Three female stars of the 1920s -- Crawford, Garbo and Shearer -- all carried on for quite a bit longer at the studio. Garbo was done in 1941 (although technically under contract until 1943), Shearer left in 1942 and Crawford was forced out in 1943. Respectively, their tenures were 16 years (Garbo), 18 years (Shearer) and 18 years (Crawford).  (Shearer's tenure was actually longer if you give her credit for being under contract to Louis B. Mayer's Metro Productions prior to its becoming part of the cobbled together Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924.)

They were all approaching, or past, the female star's danger age of 35 (depending on whether you believe Crawford about her birthdate).  With Garbo, like Haines, there were other factors - specifically, the war cut off the European market that made her expensive vehicles financially viable, and her departure was meant to be temporary. Shearer turned down Mrs. Miniver, which might have been a game changer for her, because she did not want to play a mother -- once you got cast as desexualized Mom, it was very hard to get out of such parts. 

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I always think of 1931 as representing a big change in the type of leading men Metro employed.

True. Spencer Tracy, another example of this new type of male star, joined the studio a few years later. The movies were changing with the Depression - fewer of the Ruritanian romances you often saw Gilbert and Novarro in, for example. 

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15 hours ago, dirac said:

They were all approaching, or past, the female star's danger age of 35 (depending on whether you believe Crawford about her birthdate).  With Garbo, like Haines, there were other factors - specifically, the war cut off the European market that made her expensive vehicles financially viable, and her departure was meant to be temporary. Shearer turned down Mrs. Miniver, which might have been a game changer for her, because she did not want to play a mother -- once you got cast as desexualized Mom, it was very hard to get out of such parts.

Specific circumstances aside (the War in Garbo's case and Irving Thalberg's death in Shearer's), I think Garbo and Shearer intuited -- correctly -- that life as a glamorous Metro star would only get harder with each passing year. To sustain the illusion of eternal youth, they would have to rise earlier and earlier in the morning to get to the studio and spend ever increasing time in the makeup chair. This is the exact thing Grace Kelly told Gore Vidal in 1956 when he asked her why she was giving up being a queen of the Metro lot to become a princess of an obscure Mediterranean city-state. She replied that, at age 26, she could still get to the studio at a reasonable hour and not have to spend an eternity in the makeup chair. But Kelly saw the older female stars every morning and knew they had already been there for a considerable amount of time before she got to the studio. (Whatever the movie Mommie Dearest may or may not be, the opening with Joan Crawford getting up at 4:00AM in the morning to get to the studio for hair, makeup and wardrobe is brutally accurate.)

 

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I don’t think Shearer was ready to quit just yet. Her last two pictures did not do well and they were her own bad choices (as she said in response to rumors that Mayer sabotaged her, “on those last two, nobody but me was trying to do me in” – from memory). She might well have retired by 1945 but I doubt she wanted to go out on that note.  Garbo was always a little phobic and the longer she was away the harder it became to come back, and as time passed she was indeed worried about how she would look. As we now know from the tests that have surfaced from the movie of La Duchesse de Langeais that never happened, she had nothing to fret about.

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(Whatever the movie Mommie Dearest may or may not be, the opening with Joan Crawford getting up at 4:00AM in the morning to get to the studio for hair, makeup and wardrobe is brutally accurate.)

That was a fine sequence and it did feel true to life.

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And I would think that doing makeup for black and white movies would be fairly straight forward compared to preparing for Technicolor – for the high heat, high intensity lighting that three-strip photography required.

But also the subject matter of the 1940s was shifting towards shadowy film noir, the small studios perhaps leading the large ones on this. Val Lewton (at RKO) and Fritz Lang, Welles with "Citizen Kane" and "Magnicent Ambersons," the films of Max Ophuls. All requiring a different kind of actress/actor, smaller scaled, slightly flawed, with some sort of worrisome past. MGM fell in with "Laura" and Crawford with the upscale film noir "Mildred Pierce," directed by Michael Curtiz. Even Lubitsch's tone shifts with "To Be or Not to Be." (Interesting as I put this down is how much of Hollywood has a European basis – on one hand John Ford, Howard Hawks, Ben Hecht, Preston Sturges but on the other von Sternberg, Billy Wilder, etc.)

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Good points. It's certainly true that black-and-white was more forgiving than Technicolor. And MGM tended to be a bit heavy with the makeup for its female actors. When Ava Gardner went over to Universal for "The Killers" - a noir, as it happens - and appeared in her customary makeup, Robert Siodmak told her to take it all off.

(Which is not to question miliosr's Grace Kelly story via Vidal.)

I don't remember MGM as being big on film noir generally although it did produce some - "Laura" was a Fox picture if I remember correctly. The major MGM noir that I can think of offhand would be "The Asphalt Jungle."

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7 hours ago, dirac said:

I don’t think Shearer was ready to quit just yet. Her last two pictures did not do well and they were her own bad choices (as she said in response to rumors that Mayer sabotaged her, “on those last two, nobody but me was trying to do me in” – from memory). She might well have retired by 1945 but I doubt she wanted to go out on that note.

I agree with you that Shearer would have wanted to go out on a better note than Her Cardboard Lover. But she was savvy about life on the Metro lot and she knew it was her time. Thalberg had been dead for 6 years and her days as 'The First Lady of the M-G-M Lot' had already ended. Her contract with the studio was up in 1942 and she would have known that the only way Mayer would have kept her was as a character actress. For someone like Shearer, who had been an above-the-title star since the 1920s, death itself would have been preferable to playing mother or even grandmother parts. Shearer was set for life financially and, at 40, probably didn't want to drag herself out of bed any more to get to the studio at a ridiculously early hour. So, she left on her terms rather than having the studio impose terms on her.

4 hours ago, dirac said:

I don't remember MGM as being big on film noir generally although it did produce some.

They weren't because Mayer hated it. The Postman Always Rings Twice was a big critical and commercial success for the studio and featured what was perhaps Lana Turner's greatest performance. But it went against everything Mayer held dear in the 1940s -- star-spangled "support the troops" musicals, Esther Williams 'aquacals', the Andy Hardy series, Ann Sothern's Maisie series . . . 

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I don’t think we’re disagreeing, exactly. But I think it was “her time” mainly because of bad decisions, not because she didn’t feel like getting up a bit earlier. (Shearer’s beauty and physical fitness regimen wasn’t quite as intense as Crawford’s, but she put a lot of work into it.)I agree she would not have wanted to carry on in supporting parts and she certainly didn't have to worry about money.

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Whatever Shearer's exact reasons may have been at the time, I have the sense she was a believer in the maxim that, "You want to leave things just a little before they leave you."

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On 6/28/2021 at 12:37 PM, dirac said:

Good points. It's certainly true that black-and-white was more forgiving than Technicolor. And MGM tended to be a bit heavy with the makeup for its female actors. When Ava Gardner went over to Universal for "The Killers" - a noir, as it happens - and appeared in her customary makeup, Robert Siodmak told her to take it all off.

I just watched Ava Gardner, Robert Taylor and Charles Laughton in The Bribe (1949) on TCM, and I noticed that she seemed to be getting away with very little makeup, which I liked.

On 6/28/2021 at 5:31 PM, miliosr said:

They weren't because Mayer hated it. The Postman Always Rings Twice was a big critical and commercial success for the studio and featured what was perhaps Lana Turner's greatest performance. But it went against everything Mayer held dear in the 1940s -- star-spangled "support the troops" musicals, Esther Williams 'aquacals', the Andy Hardy series, Ann Sothern's Maisie series . . . 

I'm trying to envision holding Andy Hardy near and dear to my heart, but it's just not working.

Edited by pherank
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