Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #2

Bette Davis was an original. She was passionate about her work, and she fought hard for what she believed in, from the kind of material she received to how she should play the role.

But the results are on the screen. And no female ruled Hollywood the way Davis did from the late 1930s through the mid-1940s. It's an unprecedented run, with hardly a missed step along the way. Even if her popularity began to wane in the late 1940s, when her contract with Warner Brothers ended, Davis bounced back in 1950 with "All About Eve."

Davis was a contract player during the 1930s at Warner Brothers and wanted better material. She was the rare actress willing to look dowdy and play ugly characters, and her breakthrough came with "Of Human Bondage" in 1934. Still, Warners continued to throw middling fare at her, even after she won an Oscar in 1935. In response, she walked out on her contract for an extended vacation to Europe. Warners sued her for breach of contract and won, but she ultimately triumphed, as Warners finally began giving her better material.

Starting with "Jezebel" in 1938, she went on a tear, making two or three movies a year through the early 1940s, earning Oscar nods in 1938, 1939, 1940, 1941, 1942 and 1944.

She started off the decade with a bang -- literally -- as Leslie in "The Letter," one of my favorite guilty pleasures. In the opening moments, a gunshot rings out, followed by more, as Davis is pumping an unknown man full of lead. The rest of the film centers on the trial, and the story Leslie tells at the beginning may not be completely truthful. It's amazing the line Davis walks in this movie between likable, unlikable, reserved, protective. It's terrific stuff, and it's the type of movie that's a trademark of Davis during this time period.

Also in 1940 came "All This, and Heaven Too," an enjoyable period piece in which she plays a governess who falls in love with the father of the children in her care, while his unbalanced wife slowly becomes unglued by the affair. Top-notch acting lifts this one a few levels.

The next year saw her in one of my favorite Davis roles, as Regina Giddens in "The Little Foxes." I covered this film when writing about Teresa Wright (above center, with Herbert Marshall and Davis). It's a controlled performance, with Davis conniving yet not thoroughly nasty until later in the story, again walking a fine line and doing so perfectly. She was really too young for the part, although she's convincing nonetheless. My favorite scene is when husband Marshall suffers a heart attack, and she doesn't move a muscle to help him. Yet the expression in her eyes changes just enough -- and it's not much -- to convey what she's thinking. Not many actors or actresses could pull that one off.

The same year saw a much more sympathetic role, as Maggie in "The Great Lie." She marries George Brent after his annulment to Mary Astor, who discovers she's pregnant. When he dies, the two women do battle. Again, it's melodrama, but the acting is super (Astor won an Oscar for this). Davis has the rare chance to show off some comedic skills in "The Bride Came C.O.D." also in 1941, opposite James Cagney.

Davis had another three films in release in 1942: "In This Our Life," which I have not seen; "The Man Who Came to Dinner," in which she's fine as part of a large cast; and "Now, Voyager," one of her best-loved films.

Davis plays spinster Charlotte Vale, a shy, homely woman who rarely ventures out of the house or out from her mother's shadow. Doctor Claude Rains helps her emerge from her shell, and after a makeover worthy of a TLC program, she embarks on a trip and meets married Paul Henreid (above). With classic scenes (he lights two cigarettes, one for her and one for him) and a famous closing line, "Now, Voyager" would be laughable if it weren't for Davis, memorable as both the cringing shell of a woman and the newly made over one who vows not to make the same mistakes of her mother or to deny herself happiness. This is great stuff.

The next year brought "Watch on the Rhine," adapted from Lillian Hellman's play about a family on the run from Nazis. Davis is fine as wife of Paul Lukas, who won an Oscar for this role. In "Old Acquaintance," Davis is pitted against Miriam Hopkins in an enjoyable melodrama about two rivals, both personal and professional.

In 1944, she had just one film in release -- imagine saying that about other actresses! But it was "Mr. Skeffington," with yet another fine Davis performance in this soaper that spans decades, as she marries Claude Rains for convenience, discovering her true love for him years later.

In 1945, she is again excellent in "The Corn Is Green" as schoolteacher Lily Moffet who tutors a young man to a scholarship.

"Deception," released in 1946, doesn't get the attention it deserves, about a romantic triangle amid music and drama. But by this point her career was winding down. "June Bride" in 1948 is enjoyable, but she no longer had the box office clout she wielded earlier in the decade.

Still, when you look at all of the films listed -- the consistency of material and performance is mind-boggling. And it's difficult to see one of these films and not watch her every second she's on screen. She commands each scene, combining talent with charisma that's lacking in today's starlets. Davis was an original, and thank goodness we have these great films to enjoy.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #3

I'm not sure when I fell in love with Teresa Wright. All I know is that I've been entranced by this fresh-faced beauty for as long as I can remember.

The phrase "girl next door" gets thrown about sometimes too much, but it applies to Wright. Bright, friendly and lovely, she shied away from the glamour of Hollywood to concentrate on her work. Her co-stars and directors would praise her professionalism, and it's too bad that her body of work isn't more extensive.

Still, she appeared in a number of fine classics during the 1940s, several of them particular favorites of mine. Plus, she remains the only actor or actress to receive Oscar nominations for her first three film roles.

She was on Broadway when Sam Goldwyn saw her. He signed her to a long-term contract and her first film was "The Little Foxes." And what a film. She played Alexandra Giddens, daughter of Regina (Bette Davis), in this tale of family and greed. Directed by William Wyler, the film gives Wright a chance to combine sweetness with intelligence and a fighting spirit, qualities she would bring to most if not all of her films. Wright, making her film debut, also held her own with Bette Davis, which is saying a lot. Davis, Wright and Patricia Collinge, who was also making her film debut, all received Oscar nods for their strong work.

In 1942, Wright hit a home run in two films. First off, she played Eleanor Gehrig opposite Gary Cooper in the excellent "The Pride of the Yankees," the biography of baseball player Lou Gehrig. Again, Wright seems unfazed by the talent surrounding her, playing the loving wife with sincerity and warmth. Then she played Carol Beldon in "Mrs. Miniver," MGM's monster hit of that year. Wright is fine as the woman who wins Vin Miniver's heart.

Wright became the second performer to earn Oscar nods in both lead and supporting categories in the same year, and she won the supporting Oscar for "Mrs. Miniver."

So, if you're keeping count, she's made three films, all superb. Then came my favorite role of hers, as Charlie Newton in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt." The theme is straightforward -- what happens when an element of evil is introduced into the typical American small town family.

Hitchcock uses Wright's girl-next-door appeal to full advantage, and she's up to the challenge, as Charlie begins to suspect that her Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten, above) is not the loving family member he pretends to be. Wright beautifully plays young Charlie's progression from happy-yet-bored small-town woman to a realization that life is not always fair and that families can hold dark secrets, some of which can tear them apart. It's brilliant work. Perhaps the Academy felt she had been honored enough at this point, and she was overlooked for what should have been a well-deserved Oscar nod.

Although I have not seen her 1944 release "Casanova Brown" (it's on my Tivo wish list), she then played Peggy Stephenson in one of my all-time favorite films, "The Best Years of Our Lives."

In this 1946 film, she is elated that her father has returned from World War II but soon finds herself in love with another returning soldier (Dana Andrews, above), who happens to be married. This plotline also deals with Andrews' quickie marriage before shipping out and his nightmares of the war, which Peggy learns to accept. Although her role may not be as well-rounded as some of the other characters, she is a welcome presence, and her screen persona quickly gains the audience's sympathies. Her final scenes with Andrews are lovely.

Unfortunately, the quality of her films never sustained itself. The enjoyable weepie "Enchantment" in 1948 certainly benefits from her appearance, but she became less enchanted with Hollywood. Film work was interspersed with quality stage and TV appearances, as well as taking care of her family, and she didn't mind this at all.

Still, she remains a true 1940s legend, making the most of a handful of films and casting a spell on audiences that has lasted well beyond this era. She certainly did so on me, and I'm thankful for that.

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #4

As Greta Garbo's career came to an end in the early 1940s, a new Swedish actress began making her mark on Hollywood.

Ingrid Bergman was a radiant, commanding screen presence. She was a dramatic actress of great depth who also had the most infectious smile. She quickly became a popular star, and her string of hits during the 1940s contains one classic after another.

Coming off the successful American remake of 1939's "Intermezzo," her first film in Hollywood, Bergman didn't take long to begin appearing in strong fare opposite top stars. For example, 1941's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" with Spencer Tracy showcases both actors' skills, with Bergman as Ivy Peterson, the barmaid whom Mr. Hyde desires and keeps locked away.

From there, Bergman only got better. Her next film was "Casablanca." Claude Rains' Captain Renault pays Bergman's Ilsa Lund a huge compliment about being the most beautiful woman in Casablanca. It is an understatement, yet Bergman is the perfect match for Humphrey Bogart's Rick (below). It takes a special woman to send him into a tailspin and get to him in a way that no one else can.

I don't need to go into the background of this production or its plot. What I will say is that Bergman is faultless as Ilsa.

Next up was "For Whom the Bell Tolls" opposite Gary Cooper in this strong adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's book. She plays Maria, a peasant fighting with the rebels during the Spanish Civil War. Her love scenes opposite Cooper are magnificent, and this role earned Bergman the first of three successive Oscar nominations.

It was clear this actress deserved great roles, and for several years she could do no wrong. MGM's glossy "Gaslight" in 1944 allowed Bergman to play Paula, a woman slowly going mad. There are times when I wish this film had more intensity and grit to match Bergman's performance; for once, the MGM lushness worked against the story. Co-starring with Charles Boyer and Joseph Cotten, Bergman's work is still top-notch and won her an Oscar.

If this wasn't enough to solidify her reputation, Bergman was paired with Bing Crosby in 1945's "The Bells of St. Mary's," the immensely popular sequel to "Going My Way" and one of the decade's biggest moneymakers. Even if the film is a lesser carbon copy of the original, it's still enjoyable, with Bergman just glowing as Sister Mary Benedict. Bergman's dramatic moments toward the end are riveting, and it nearly won her a second consecutive Oscar.

The same year brought "Spellbound," her first film for director Alfred Hitchcock. He would guide Bergman to an even better performance in 1946's "Notorious" opposite Cary Grant (below). She plays Alicia Huberman, a woman hired by the government to spy on her father's Nazi friends in South America. The film includes a steamy encounter between the two stars that was especially crafted by Hitchcock to get around the censors. He had Grant and Bergman intersperse dialogue between their kisses to produce a scene that's remains one of the most fully-clothed yet erotic scenes from this time period.

So think about it: In six years, she worked with Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Bing Crosby, Gregory Peck and Cary Grant. Not many actresses can claim this distinction on their resumes.

In 1948, Bergman earned another Oscar nod for playing the title role in "Joan of Arc," not as popular as some of her early triumphs. But the next year she brought on the venom of both the government and religious groups. Studio publicity had painted Bergman as a wholesome, devoted wife and mother off screen. However, when she left her husband in 1949 for Italian director Roberto Rossellini, Bergman was cast out of Hollywood for this immoral scandal. She would make a triumphant return in the mid-1950s, but the affair broke the fairy-tale run of her 1940s work.

Thankfully, it's this work that remains as a testament to Bergman, a woman of great talent and beauty.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #5

At the beginning of the decade, Judy Garland was a teenager just coming into her own. By the end of the decade, she was on the brink of being fired by MGM. In between, audiences watched her grow up on film, listened to that amazingly distinctive voice and took her into their hearts.

Garland is one of the most endearing icons of the golden age of Hollywood. While her off-screen life has been chronicled in depth -- the pills that helped her sleep, perform and suppress her appetite; the multiple marriages; the erratic behavior -- it's her on-screen persona that I want to celebrate here, because her film work during the 1940s is much stronger than people may realize.

Coming off her personal triumph in "The Wizard of Oz," released in 1939, Garland was ready for bigger and better things, and you would think MGM would capitalize on it. However, the studio seemed to play it safe with her in 1940 and 1941, continuing to pair Garland with pal Mickey Rooney in the Andy Hardy series ("Andy Hardy Meets Debutante," "Life Begins for Andy Hardy") and the Busby Berkeley-directed musicals featuring Rooney and Garland ("Strike Up the Band," "Babes on Broadway"). There's nothing wrong with these films, and she's winning in them. But it also feels like a step backward after "Oz."

She starred in "Little Nellie Kelly" and the glittery "Ziegfeld Girl," and is perhaps the best part of both films. MGM clearly saw her value, but perhaps not as a leading lady at first.

But it slowly started to come together for Garland. "For Me and My Gal" (1942) paired her with Gene Kelly in his film debut about a vaudeville pair trying to play the big time. While the plot creaks, the stars shine, and their recording of the title song was a huge top-three national hit. In 1943, "Presenting Lily Mars" is an enjoyable if not classic musical that allowed Garland to shine as a woman trying to get to the Broadway stage. "Girl Crazy" paired her one last time with Rooney in a delightful film with great Gershwin music like "I Got Rhythm."

These were four busy years, but Garland desperately wanted to get away from that teenage image in "Crazy" and find better material.

Finally, in 1944, she earned a role in a top-notch MGM production, playing Esther Smith in "Meet Me in St. Louis." This colorful bon-bon of a movie allows Garland to shine in this episodic tale of a family in turn-of-the-century St. Louis. She sings not one, not two but three songs that became classics for her -- "The Boy Next Door" (above), "The Trolley Song" and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The film was sumptuously directed by Vincente Minnelli, and the two would marry in 1946.

Minnelli would helm her next film as well, the underrated but lovely wartime romance "The Clock." This was a rare non-musical role for Garland during the 1940s (perhaps the only non-musical role?), as she plays a New York City woman wooed by country boy Robert Walker, who is in NYC for two days before being shipped overseas during WWII. The movie captured the need to connect during this time period and how people in love worried that they may never see their spouses again. Walker and Garland make an appealing pair, and this film delights in simple pleasures, such as the duo helping to deliver milk one evening. The film's a charmer, as is Garland.

The next year brought more music. "The Harvey Girls" is lightweight yet enjoyable, as Garland is one of many waitresses brought west to work in Fred Harvey's restaurants along the railway. The film's most memorable scene is Garland leading the cast in a giant production number of the Oscar-winning song "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

"The Pirate" (1948) paired Garland with Kelly again, while the terrific "Easter Parade" co-starred Garland and Fred Astaire, who was a replacement for Kelly. The duo enjoyed working together so much that MGM was developing "The Barkleys of Broadway" for them, until Garland dropped out and was replaced by Ginger Rogers.

Despite her erratic behavior, Garland had one more winner at the end of the decade, 1949's "In the Good Old Summertime," a musical based upon the film "The Shop Around the Corner" about two pen pals who work in the same store without realizing who the other is. This film grows on me with each viewing, as Garland looks lovely once again in color and sings such songs as "I Don't Care" (above).

I know this summary rushes through her films from this era, but several things are clear. She worked steadily throughout the decade, and MGM -- the studio for musicals during this time -- had the good sense to put her in as many as possible. She employed the musical skills that she had honed since her toddler years to entertain millions. And, as demonstrated in "The Clock," she didn't need to sing at all to be winning on screen.

Frankly, she was winning on screen most of the time during the 1940s. And despite the turmoil in her personal life, Garland assembled a body of work during this decade that is hard to resist.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #6

By the end of the 1940s, Olivia de Havilland was arguably the best dramatic actress working in Hollywood.

And that distinction didn't come easily, as perhaps one of her great accomplishments of the decade came off screen through a landmark court decision in which she sued her studio, Warner Brothers. This led to some bravura performances -- but more on that later.

In 1940, de Havilland was fresh from the achievement of playing Melanie in "Gone With the Wind," which was rewarded with an Oscar nomination. Showing a dramatic range that had been absent up to that time, de Havilland was ready for meatier roles.

But those parts were slow to come. Having been signed by Warner Brothers in 1935, the studio had used her mainly as a love interest, with some of her biggest successes coming opposite Errol Flynn ("Captain Blood," "Charge of the Light Brigade," "Adventures of Robin Hood"). Despite her success upon being loaned out to David Selznick for "Wind," de Havilland became increasingly frustrated with the roles she was landing at Warner Brothers.

In 1941, she would co-star with Flynn for the final time in "They Died With Their Boots On." That same year, she earned strong notices in "Hold Back the Dawn," co-written by Billy Wilder (the year before directing his first film, "The Major and the Minor" with Ginger Rogers) and Charles Brackett. In this movie, de Havilland plays a spinster traveling south of the border who ends up being romanced by Charles Boyer, who wants to get into America and realizes his best bet to do so is to marry one. This above-average soaper features fine work all around, with de Havilland getting that chance to display her ever-maturing talents. Another Oscar nod came her way for this film (and she was competing against little sister Joan Fontaine, who won that year for "Suspicion," which continued a rift between the two that would intensify as the decade continued).

'The Male Animal" in 1942 lets de Havilland have some fun, playing opposite Henry Fonda as a college professor's wife who reunites with old flame Jack Carson. It's a good role for her, although de Havilland really wanted the meaty dramatic roles.

Despite another success in "Princess O'Rourke" in 1943, a film de Havilland didn't want to make, she wanted stronger material. When her seven-year contract came to an end, she discovered Warners had added time onto it due to a six-month suspension during which she was fighting for better parts. The addition wasn't uncommon back then, and stars felt they could do nothing about it.

But de Havilland decided she would and sued Warners. For nearly three years, de Havilland was kept off screen during the court battle. The trouble was worth it: She ended up winning a landmark decision in which studios were no longer allowed to enter into such practices. A term contract ended at the end of the specified period of length. This also led to more people pursuing contracts in other ways, such as signing deals for a specified numbers of films rather than a length of time.

In 1946, de Havilland had several films in release, including "Devotion," a film she made at Warner Brothers that was held back from release during the lawsuit. Better are "The Dark Mirror," a dated but still likable drama in which she superbly plays twins -- one good, one evil -- caught up in a murder investigation, and "To Each His Own," a well-made melodrama in which she plays a woman who gives up illegitimate baby and becomes his beloved aunt instead. I'm sure the Oscar she received for this role was a combination of her fine talent and Hollywood welcoming her back to the screen (and perhaps congratulating her on the lawsuit).

What followed next are two knock-out performances: "The Snake Pit" and "The Heiress."

"The Snake Pit" is based upon Mary Jane Ward's book of the same name, in which she discusses her own stays in psychiatric hospitals. It caused a sensation upon its release in 1946. In the film version, de Havilland (right) plays Virginia Stuart Cunningham, a woman who can't remember how she got to a state asylum. Some may find the treatment dated, but I've seen it twice in the last several years and find it a powerful indictment of some psychiatric practices and that de Havilland's performance is as impressive today as when the film was released in 1948. She reportedly lost weight for the performance to make herself look more drawn, and her meticulous research into institutions, which she visited before shooting began, results in a harrowing portrait.

Then came "The Heiress," perhaps her greatest triumph. I've already written about this amazing film, and you can read about it here. She plays Catherine Sloper (below, with Montgomery Clift), whose father keeps an eye out for her. He admits she is shy and plain yet wants her to have a full life. Still, he is suspicious of any suitor who may be after her only for her future inheritance.
Although director William Wyler wanted de Havilland to be even more plain, which she resisted, the performance is otherwise rich, particularly when Catherine is torn between the man courting her (Clift) and her father, and cynicism begins seeping into her demeanor as she struggles to determine the right path to follow.

If you read my previous blog posting, you'll see I love this film and the performances in it. For de Havilland, it caps a tumultuous decade that saw her develop into one of the decade's finest dramatic actresses. It's unfortunate her post-1940s work never lived up to "The Snake Pit" or "The Heiress." Still, her talent and beauty are something to treasure during this decade, and I strongly urge people who have not seen these films to do so immediately and discover how terrific de Havilland is.

Editor's note: I had planned to be further along with my countdown at this point, but a family emergency kept me from writing this week (despite the date at the top, which is when I started this entry, I didn't post it until Dec. 26). However, beginning Dec. 26, I will post daily through the end of the year and conclude on Dec. 31. So stay tuned!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #7

Yes, I do recognize the existence of another Hepburn.

And yes, I do think Katharine Hepburn is great. I will admit that her output during the 1940s is weaker than the 1930s or 1950s, yet even a lesser decade for Hepburn would be strong for anyone else.

These were MGM years, and it all started with the triumphant "The Philadelphia Story," a movie I love not just for the story but also for what it represented in terms of Hepburn's career.

Once her box office power dwindled during the 1930s, labeled "Box Office Poison" by the Independent Theater Owners of America, she bought out her contract at RKO rather than star in B movies. Hepburn returned to her home on the East Coast and considered her Hollywood career finished.

Friend and playwright Philip Barry called Hepburn with a few ideas about a new play, one involving the second marriage of a Philadelphia socialite and what might happen if her first husband turns up at the wedding. Intrigued, Hepburn asked Barry to see more. What blossomed was "The Philadelphia Story." Before it opened on Broadway, Hepburn's friend and sometime lover Howard Hughes convinced her to buy the film rights, knowing that if the play was a hit, she'd be in the driver's seat in terms of a silver screen comeback. The plan worked: The play was a hit, and Hollywood came courting.

She held out for the best studio in town -- MGM -- and she got it when Louis B. Mayer finally made an offer. She could choose her leading men, one of whom was Spencer Tracy, and actor she admired but had never met. Unfortunately, he was not available, so she called on good friend Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart to co-star (along with John Howard, below), and another good friend, George Cukor, to direct.

The result was golden and was a triumphant return to Hollywood for Hepburn. Plus, the story redefined her image. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a woman who is knocked off her pedestal for being icy and unattainable and rebuilt in a more accessible way. That pretty much is what Hepburn needed, an actress who people thought was too refined and strong, perhaps even snooty. With "The Philadelphia Story," audiences welcomed her back with open arms.

It would be two years before she returned to the screen, and this time she got what she originally wanted for "The Philadelphia Story" -- Spencer Tracy. The movie was "Woman of the Year," and besides being a great film, it was the first of nine films these two made as well as becoming an off-screen couple for 25 years. You can feel the chemistry in their first meeting onscreen, when sports columnist Sam Craig confronts international affairs columnist Tess Harding. You know he's expecting someone harder, perhaps older, but the woman he meets is smart, feisty -- and alluring.

Throughout the movie these two form a partnership that would work onscreen for years. And if "The Philadelphia Story" remade Hepburn as an accessible goddess, this film knocks her off the pedestal completely. The ending may seem a tad sexist by today's standards. But Tess is simply trying to show Sam that she can be change. At that time, there were fewer options for women, so her choice of a role to settle into was dictated by what society expected back then. Today, the role would be different, but the meaning the same. Regardless, by the end, the two were in love, and so were audiences.

Hepburn and Tracy would make six of their nine movies together during the 1940s (more on that in a minute). Even without Tracy, Hepburn kept busy for the rest of the decade with an odd mixture of movies. There are no failures, with some simply admirable tries -- think of "Dragon Seed," in which Hepburn plays a Chinese peasant, but not as convincingly as Luise Rainer did in "The Good Earth" in 1937. Still, the MGM production values and supporting cast are good, and Hepburn at least doesn't embarrass herself. She's fine in the melodramatic "Undercurrent" with Robert Taylor, directed by Vincente Minnelli. Although not a great film, it's still interesting fare.

Her union with Tracy produced strong results. "Without Love," another Philip Barry play, shows its age with the war-themed plot, although she scores as a woman who enters into a loveless marriage that allows Tracy to share her house and continue his war work amid the housing shortage in WWII Washington D.C. "Sea of Grass" and "Song of Love" are interesting if not great films.

But "State of the Union" from director Frank Capra has aged well and is often overlooked. Tracy plays a political candidate who hits the campaign trail with estranged wife Hepburn to create the illusion they have a happy marriage. The film is a bit overlong, but Hepburn shines as she grapples with conflicting emotions for a man she once loved and tries to decide whether her love can save him. Think of one of the themes in the current TV series "The Good Wife," and you've got a film that's ahead of its time.

Even better is the sublime "Adam's Rib." Release in 1949, Hepburn and Tracy (above) play lawyers who end up on opposite ends of the same case, setting off a war of the sexes. They battle, flirt, bicker -- and it's the audience that benefits.

What I love about their pairing is that each star is allowed to shine. This is not a case where one carries the other, or that either one would be lost going it alone onscreen. Both are stars individually and together, able to share the spotlight without conceding it.

As for Hepburn, these pairings allowed her to survive a time period when other actresses saw their stars fade. Finishing her second decade on film, she was stronger than ever and ready to tackle some of her finest roles during the 1950s.

But it's still a great decade for the great Kate. A complete original, one of the overall all-time best, she'll always be a favorite of mine.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #8

Rosalind Russell was one of those actresses who could hang out with the guys without threatening women or losing her femininity.

Perhaps that's just my perception, but I always felt Russell to be fully aware of who she was and what she could do without losing any ground with either sexes. She could be a razor-sharp comedienne or a sterling dramatic actress. Her versatility was admirable, both in film and on stage. Beyond the '40s she even ventured into musicals.

And this brings up an interesting point: Russell is one of the actresses on this list who gave fine performances over multiple decades. Still, while her work in the 1940s varied from routine to brilliant, and her output not as stellar as some others I've already mentioned, she is sheer perfection in several key films, and three of these performances are just so good that they are worth recognizing.

Let's start with one of her all-time best: "His Girl Friday." The 1940 release was a remake of "The Front Page," a gritty comedy about newspapermen hot on the trail of a story about a suspected killer, his impending execution and a last-minute plea to the governor. For the remake, the two male newspapermen were turned into a male and female -- Cary Grant and Russell (below), formerly married yet still bickering. Russell is about to quit her career altogether and remarry, but Grant refuses to let her go quietly.

This movie is one of the all-time comedy classics, with dialogue delivered at a tornado's pace. As much as I like Grant in this film, it's Russell who shines. The idea of changing her role from a male to female could have come off like a cheap gimmick. Instead, the right actress was found for the part -- someone who could be tough, hold her own against her male reporter competitors while showing enough allure to captivate both Grant and Ralph Bellamy, her mouse-ish fiance. She even manages to outrun her fellow journalists -- in heels and a skirt, no less -- to get the scoop on a story!

This is a woman who seemingly understood men better than men -- and could communicate with them better than most women. Yet the romance is there, too. Grant and Russell make a fine pair, each one capable of keeping up with the other. I can't say enough good things about this film or Russell in it.

The second film I want to address is "My Sister Eileen," released in 1942. This film was hard to find, and I thought perhaps it was lost. Finally, I saw it for the first time two years ago when it had its initial airing on Turner Classic Movies. And thank goodness it's not lost! Russell is a delight as Ruth Sherwood, who accompanies vivacious sister Eileen from Ohio to New York, where both can work on their careers -- Ruth as a writer, Eileen as a stage actress. They end up renting a basement apartment in Greenwich Village, in which they have to deal with the odd neighbors, noisy construction on the subway, and an array of other problems.

Russell makes comedy look easy at this point, as the men flock to Eileen but treat Ruth like yesterday's bread. If it weren't for an ending featuring a sight gag that is highly ridiculous, this film would be a great one. Still, Russell buzzes through this movie with an energy and lightness that earned her an Oscar nomination -- her first (why she wasn't up for "His Girl Friday," I don't know).

Her role was so memorable in "My Sister Eileen" that the piece was turned into a Broadway musical in the early 1950s. The producers wanted Russell, who explained she wasn't a great singer. So they had the songs tailored to her voice. She starred in the musical, it was a big hit and she won a Tony Award!

The third film I want to mention is "Sister Kenny." Released in 1946, this above-average biography starred Russell as real-life Sister Elizabeth Kenny (right), an Australian nurse who fought for better treatment of polio patients, despite ridicule from the medical establishment regarding her methods. She ends up traveling the world and establishing a number of clinics, constantly fighting on behalf of her patients and seeking better cures. Russell receives fine support from Alexander Knox and Dean Jagger, but it's her movie, and she demonstrates that a wisecracking comedienne can sink her teeth into a dramatic role, and she's terrific -- earning another Oscar nomination.

Russell played strong women, even if they did fall on their faces every once in a while. But in these three roles, despite her strength, she didn't talk down to people or come across as unkind. She could hold her own and earn the respect of others. She wasn't a glamorous beauty but looked stylish and well-put together, and her sometimes-oversized personality was perfectly suited for the big screen.

I need to see more of her films during this period. I have yet to watch "Mourning Becomes Electra," for which she received a third Oscar nod. I have read that this three-hour film put some audience members to sleep upon its release as an "important" film, and contemporary reviews make the movie sound like a good attempt but not always successful. Someone recently recommended "The Velvet Touch" to me, so I'll have to check it out.

These three roles alone make Russell, or "Roz," as she is often called, a standout of the decade, and while she made many more films during this time period, these are enough to earn my respect and adoration.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #9

It's amazing the number of great films from the 1940s that featured Gene Tierney.

This exquisite beauty worked with directors Ernst Lubitsch and Otto Preminger, appeared in comedies, dramas and romances, and created at least one iconic role during this decade. Even if she wasn't one of the era's best actresses, movies benefited from her appearance in them.

I find it amusing that she was considered an exotic beauty and cast as such in some films -- think of her as the island beauty in "Son of Fury" with Tyrone Power -- when she was born in Brooklyn! But it's clear she had talent beyond those cheekbones and entrancing eyes, a lovely shade of blue-green when seen in her color films.

It was the great producer Darryl F. Zanuck who saw her on Broadway in "The Male Animal" and signed her to a contract at 20th Century Fox in 1940, where she began appearing in films immediately and began her rise as a dependable leading lady. In 1943, Lubitsch used her to good advantage in "Heaven Can Wait," as philanderer Don Ameche's loving wife. This witty film is a joy to watch, and the stars are heavenly together.

But it's her performance in 1944's "Laura," Preminger's legendary murder mystery, that catapulted her fame. Playing the murdered title character, Tierney creates her character through flashbacks, one who needs to be both breathtakingly alluring and intelligent to attract both adoration and jealousy. She's a working woman who may not have the best taste in men but can stand on her own in all other ways.

With a superb cast including Dana Andrews and Vincent Price (above), and featuring one of the most popular music scores of the decade, "Laura" may be Tierney's best-loved movie and performance.

In 1945, donning a blond wig, she co-stars as an Italian in the war drama "A Bell for Adano." Based upon John Hersey's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the story surrounds American soldiers occupying an Italian village and helping the villagers return to a normal routine. Even better is her performance in "Leave Her to Heaven," released later that year. Tierney plays the nasty Ellen, whose unbalanced emotional state turns murderous. This slick melodrama is lushly photographed in color, with Tierney displaying a nasty streak that's about as powerful as her gorgeous appearance. Her performance earned Tierney her only Oscar nomination.

Her winning streak continued in 1946 as she was prominently featured in the large cast for "The Razor's Edge," again opposite Power.

But in 1947 came one of my favorite films of hers and one of my favorite all-time romances -- "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz with a gorgeous music score by Bernard Herrmann, "Ghost" is a period piece with the widowed Tierney moving with her young daughter to a seaside cottage once owned by the now-deceased sea captain Daniel Gregg, played by Rex Harrison (left), who begins appearing to her. The unlikely romance that follows is beautifully presented. This ageless film keeps getting better, and Tierney is as lovely as ever.

Her popularity waned by the 1950s, and her sometimes fragile mental state resulted in emotional breakdowns. During the 1940s, she was married to designer Oleg Cassini, and her first child was born with special needs after she contracted German measles during the pregnancy. As the story goes, years later she met a woman who confessed to having the measles but leaving her quarantined ward in the hospital to meet Tierney at either the Hollywood Canteen or something similar. This later meeting devastated Tierney.

But gossip aside, Tierney's beauty and talent graced many fine films during the 1940s, and she will always remain a favorite of mine.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #10

She was the first lady of MGM. Discovered on the London stage, Irish-born Greer Garson was signed by Louis B. Mayer, and her arrival on movie screens was as impeccably timed as her subsequent career during the war years.

Her very first film, "Goodbye Mr. Chips" released in 1939, landed her an Oscar nomination. She then was nominated in five consecutive years from 1941 to 1945, when she filled the void at MGM left by the declining popularity and retirements of Norma Shearer and Greta Garbo in the early 1940s.

Often her characters had a nobility to them which typecast her, yet audiences loved this moral fortitude on screen. Had she made little more beyond "Mrs. Miniver," the role that will forever define her career, she would continue to be well-loved.

But let's start with a film that people sometimes forget about, the 1940 version of "Pride and Prejudice." Garson plays Elizabeth Bennet opposite Laurence Olivier's Mr. Darcy (at left). Some may think her to be a bit too mature (she was all of 31 when the film was released), and it has the usual MGM gloss. But these are minor points when compared to the enjoyment derived from the film.

In 1941 came "Blossoms in the Dust," a film in which she played real-life Edna Gladney, a Texas woman who fought to give orphaned and illegitimate children a home and remove the stigma from their situations. The film's nobility is almost stifling, but Garson boosts the story with her fighting spirit. The film is also notable as Garson's first on-screen pairing with Walter Pidgeon, who played Sam Gladney, Edna's husband. The chemistry between Garson and Pidgeon worked so well that they would be co-stars in a total of eight films.

For Garson, 1942 was a banner year. First came what should be a piece of hokum, "Random Harvest," in which she plays a music hall girl who falls for amnesiac World War I vet Ronald Coleman, only to lose him when he remembers who he is and forgets who she is. Sounds crazy, but this romance works, thanks to the terrific pairing of stars and some genuinely touching moments. Once you see it, you realize why audiences cried at the end.

Garson's other film from 1942 is "Mrs. Miniver," with Pidgeon playing her husband. Few films can rival the popularity of "Mrs. Miniver" during the WWII era, and this look at the English homefront (at least Hollywood's version of it) under fire by the Germans helped rally Americans behind the war effort and support the English. The film itself is episodic, showing the life of the Minivers before the war and after it through a series of stories -- the flower show, the romance of their son, the impending war, the secret mission. Pidgeon may be playing the head of the household, but it's Garson who continually holds the family and the community of friends together.

In one of the film's most amazing scenes, Garson and Pidgeon retreat with their children to their bomb shelter (above), trying to maintain an air of normalcy -- until the bombs start to fall. Even today this scene is frightening, with director William Wyler contrasting the serenity against the horrors of the war, using the sound of the bombs and the fear in these brave people's eyes to unnerve the audience.

Garson is Mrs. Miniver and vice versa, and the film was immensely popular. She won an Oscar, as did the film, and audiences will forever remember her for it. It has become urban legend that her Oscar acceptance speech lasted 40 minutes. In the excellent book "Inside Oscar," the authors more accurately pinpoint the speech at around six minutes, coming at the end of the ceremony (yes, there were some years when best picture was not the last Oscar awarded during the evening) at nearly midnight. Six minutes can seem like 40 to people who want to go home.

Anyway, her double success in 1942 thrust her onto the list of top box office stars, and she continued to turn out hits, some of them unlikely -- for example, "Madame Curie," again opposite Pidgeon, released in 1943. You may not think the discovery of radium would make for exciting onscreen fare, but this capable biopic benefits from the star power, with Garson again lending an air of nobility to the proceedings -- and earning another Oscar nod for her work.

Successive nominations came in 1944 for "Mrs. Parkington," a sweeping saga told in flashbacks about Pidgeon (again) marrying Western woman Garson and moving her to New York and high society, where things don't always go well, and in 1945 for "The Valley of Decision," opposite Gregory Peck.

For some reason, her popularity faded after the end of World War II. It didn't help that she married Richard Ney, the actor who played her son (yes, you read that correctly) in "Mrs. Miniver" (it didn't last). Her filmwork dropped off sharply during the 1950s, and sometimes I wish her career had a bit more variety to it.

Nonetheless, she is memorable in so many of her films, and several of them classics of their era. This true leading lady is one to remember.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #11

Here is perhaps the least known actress on my list and arguably the most underrated.

But Jennifer Jones was popular with both fans and critics during the 1940s. If you can get past a few weak films, her body of work during this decade is surprisingly strong.

Perhaps my fondness for the actress began when I saw photos of my mother as a teenager who grew up during the 1940s, in which she bore a resemblance to the actress. When I asked my mom about this, she admitted that one of her favored uncles always made that connection. After this, I began seeking out more of Jones' films and came to appreciate her appeal.

It ws during the early years of the decade that the former Phyllis Isley came to the attention of famed producer David Selznick, who took a liking to this model and B-movie actress then married to actor Robert Walker. Changing her name to Jennifer Jones, Selznick carefully groomed her and prepared her to be a leading lady.

When 20th Century Fox was casting for its religious biopic "The Song of Bernadette," Jones auditioned for the role and was reportedly the only actress who convincingly looked a piece of wood and registered the wonder and awe of seeing the Virgin Mary. That film, which was Fox's prestige release in 1943, made Jones an instant star. Her lovely performance (at right) earned the newcomer an Oscar as best actress. People sometimes overlook this solid religious drama and the difficulty that Jennifer faced in playing this part. It cannot be easy to create a simple, believing young woman without veering toward the sugar-coated. The central plot point, in which people take sides as to whether Bernadette is telling the truth about her visions, hinges on the audience's own judgment of Bernadette. This all depends solely on Jones' performance; she cannot make a false move or let the audience see the actress behind the character. It's delicate work, and it's beautiful to watch.

She quickly followed this with popular roles in "Since You Went Away," the Selznick-produced WWII homefront drama (and a favorite of mine); "Love Letters," a somewhat ridiculous amnesia/love story/murder mystery; and "Duel in the Sun," nicknamed by critics and fans as "Lust in the Dust," in which Jones plays against type as a sexy half-breed. All three of these roles earned her Oscar nominations.

But it's three other 1940s films that often get overlooked but allowed her to shine. She plays the title character in Ernst Lubitsch's "Cluny Brown," a delightful tale in which Jones goes to live with her uncle in the English countryside, taking care of the house. While there she meets two men, including charming refugee Charles Boyer. Fans of Lubitsch shouldn't overlook this gem or Jones in it.

Even better is Vincente Minnelli's "Madame Bovary," in which Jones plays the title character in this terrific adaptation of Flaubert's novel. With able support from James Mason, Van Heflin and Louis Jordan, Jones more than carries her own.

Best of all is the overlooked "Portrait of Jennie" (above), her otherworldly romance co-starring Joseph Cotten (who also appeared with her in "Love Letters" and "Since You Went Away"). This unusual film has Cotten playing a struggling artist who finds inspiration in a mysterious young woman named Jennie. Jones positively glows in this film, and she has a wonderful rapport with Cotten.

Jones was hardly your typical star, never the sexy or glamorous one. There were better actresses during this time, but what I like about Jones is her instant connection with an audience and a loveliness that shines on film.

By the end of the 1940s, she was married to Selznick, and they stayed together until his death in the 1960s. She snagged one more Oscar nomination for the popular "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing" in 1955, and she desperately wanted to play the role of Aurora Greenway in "Terms of Endearment," which went to Shirley MacLaine.

Jennifer Jones is still with us, at 90 years of age, although I don't know how she is doing. I hope she would be flattered to know she still has fans who remember her, because she should not be overlooked as one of the most appealing actresses of the 1940s.

Additional note, Dec. 17, 2009: I found out that Jennifer Jones died today at age 90. I'm very sad to see her go ... there are so few stars from that era left. I'm really glad that I included her on this list, as I hope others who are unfamiliar with her work will discover how terrific she was.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Favorite '40s Actresses: #12

It was the beginning of a new decade and a new chapter in the career of Ginger Rogers.

During the 1930s, she was part of the greatest dance team in history. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were household names as they danced into the hearts of moviegoers nine times during that decade, with the last, the underrated "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," released in 1939. By this time, Astaire and Rogers were ready to strike out on their own.

And 1940 was a banner year for Ginger, and she would continue to be a popular and versatile actress during this decade. I always liked her, and she lands at #12 and leads off my 12 Favorite Actresses of the 1940s countdown this December.

By the time 1940 came around, Ginger was ready for her own career. Just a few years earlier, during a much-needed, 18-month break from the rigors of these films, both set out to make their own films. Fred made "A Damsel in Distress," which I recently blogged about, and Ginger made three -- "Vivacious Lady," "Stage Door" and "Having a Wonderful Time." This was her chance to prove herself, which she did nicely.

In 1940, she had three films in release -- "Primrose Path," "Lucky Partners" and "Kitty Foyle." The latter she nearly passed up due to her heavy work schedule from the previous years. But thankfully it did, because it became a hit and earned her stellar notices. With Katharine Hepburn now at MGM, Rogers became RKO's top leading lady.

"Kitty Foyle" is a guilty pleasure, a "women's picture" that gives Ginger a chance to show off her dramatic abilities as her character looks back on her life and the dilemma of choosing between two men. She's also a headstrong working gal in an era when women would be entering the workforce in droves after the start of WWII. It's her film and she shows confidence and strength in her portrayal. For her efforts, she was a surprising yet popular Best Actress Oscar winner.

But Rogers seemed most comfortable with comedy. "Tom, Dick and Harry" (1941) and "The Major and the Minor" (1942) are pure fun.

"The Major and the Minor" is a particular favorite of mine. Well-known as Billy Wilder's first film as a director, which Paramount Pictures was sure would fail, it instead was a hit. This daffy film showcases Ginger (above) at her best. She's stuck in New York and decides to travel back home -- only to discover she barely has enough train fare to travel as a child. So she pretends to be a 12-year-old who is befriended by Ray Milland. He works at a military school for boys, and when a storm washes out the rail line, she is taken to that school -- still acting 12 -- where every boy wants to meet her! Ginger must convince as both girl and woman, all while exhibiting impeccable comic timing. It's a wonderful performance in a terrific film.

That same year saw the release of a little-seen film called "Roxie Hart." Recognize the name? That's the main character in the musical "Chicago," but this non-musical comedy shows Rogers delightfully playing a clueless Roxie put on trial for murder.

As the war came to a close, Ginger's career began to cool. While the tearjerker "I'll Be Seeing You" (1944) lays it on a bit too thick, it was another movie to display her dramatic skills. She worked steadily throughout the decade and, in 1949, came the long-awaited reunion with Fred Astaire in "The Barkleys of Broadway." Although meant for Fred and Judy Garland, Judy dropped out and Ginger was brought in as a replacement. The story mirrors Fred and Ginger's own history: he wants to continue dancing, she wants to be a fine actress. This 10th and final pairing isn't as good as their 1930s output, but Fred and Ginger make it worth watching anyway.

While other women who are not on my list may be better actresses, there's something about Ginger that makes her so likable. I've always been fond of her, from her dancing days to her heyday during the early 1940s, and when I think of this pre-war and early-war era in terms of film, I always think of her immense appeal. And that's why she's on my list.