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Posts Tagged ‘Gary Cooper’

COWBOYS IN HOLLYWOOD

In film, history on February 2, 2015 at 7:42 am
"Bronco Billy" Anderson sheet music (1914)

“Bronco Billy” Anderson sheet music (1914)

It was 1903, a time when Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid were still raiding from Devil’s Hole and Los Angeles itself not much more than a hole in the wall, that the one-reel western drama The Great Train Robbery scored a huge hit with audiences stirred by a life and time rapidly passing by. This was four years before a viable movie industry began in the United States, and a stage thespian and featured player from the short film, G. M. Anderson, formed the Essanay motion picture production company in Chicago and began his career as a cowboy on screen, namely “Bronco Billy”.

Buffalo Bill & Sitting Bull, taken 1895, the year of the first commercial film showing.

Buffalo Bill & Sitting Bull, taken 1895, the year of the first commercial film showing.

For a while, travelling “wild west” shows starring William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Sitting Bull and others outdrew western movies for paying audiences. Wyatt Earp (still spry until 1929) volunteered himself as a historical-technical consultant to filmmakers, and the real west imposed itself on screen art too by incorporating real cowboys and Indians as stuntmen doubling as actors, some of whom became proto-stars. Enterprising small outfits, ever more mobile like American and Bison, set up filming units in the wilds of California before there was a Hollywood and used the raw resources at hand (including lead actor Francis Ford, brother of future director John Ford), making probably the most authentic westerns ever. Apaches grew more popular in France, then the centre of filmmaking, than they had ever been to Americans, white or red, and Star Film of Paris set up shop in Flagstaff, Arizona. Producer-director Gaston Melies, partner and brother of Georges Melies, one of the founding fathers of narrative film, was the local honcho, later joined in North America by leading continental European companies such as Pathe-Freres, Gaumont, Nordisk and independent Solax. The wilds of Fort Lee, New Jersey, close to the big film companies in New York, remained the mecca of western filmmaking until World War I.

It wasn’t until 1915 or so that the long, lean dramatic figure of the classic cowboy eclipsed the popularity of squat, energetic Bronco Billy with his pat heroics. While the stark, dressed-all-in-black William S. Hart was the new sensation in character-driven dramas promoted in the films from Paramount, the biggest studio and film distributor in the suddenly burgeoning Hollywood, at nearby Universal City rode dour Harry Carey directed by John Ford as saddle bum “Cheyenne Harry”, and Tom Mix, with experience as a wrangler and deputy sheriff, was making steady progress at Fox, perversely portraying a cowboy with spangles and shiny spurs and riding Tony the “wonder horse”.

Tom Mix in 1925: The Jazz Age's idea of a cowboy

Tom Mix in 1925: The Jazz Age’s idea of a cowboy

Hart had earned massive fees of $150,000 and $200,000 per movie in a time of virtually no income tax; and gained such high prestige he was invited by Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks to be a founding partner in United Artists (1919) before being substituted by D. W. Griffiths. Through the 1920s, though, Tom Mix set the tone by appearing in six to eight B-movies a year, said to earn $17,000 per week while filming, averaging out to a steady $7,500 a week through the years. Hoot Gibson came to emulate him at Universal, ousting the realism of the Ford-Carey films; as Fred Thomson did at FBO — Film Booking Offices, whose major shareholder was a certain Joseph P. Kennedy, lover of Gloria Swanson, before it morphed into the famous RKO studio at the beginning of talkies. These two also approached Mix’s commercial appeal, reportedly rewarded with during-filming weekly pay of $14,500 (Gibson) and $15,000 (Thomson). A last gasp try at A-movie status for westerns was pushed by MGM late in the decade through hero Tim McCoy appearing in a select few relative blockbusters with good co-stars and supporting casts.

Tom Mix retired from the screen, temporarily as it turned out, in 1930 when he was still riding high at 10th place in Quigley’s annual box-office survey, albeit through bulk product in release. Tiring of proving his credentials live in “wild west” travelling shows, he returned two years later, by which time Buck Jones and Jack Holt in B’s were the only cowboys showing up in the annual top 25 stars list. Buck continued scoring on his own up to 1935, multitudes of strictly B “stars” like Ken & Kermit Maynard, Charles Starret, Tom Tyler, Smith Ballew and Bob Steele lining up at tiny “Poverty Row” studios like Monogram, Grand National, Chesterfield and Tiffany; and aspiring Columbia and Universal. In 1930 the athleticism of Johnny Mack Brown had made a good impression in a big, realistic production of Billy the Kid at MGM, while John Wayne in his first major lead role was doomed by the failure of Fox blockbuster The Big Trail to a decade as a B-cowboy and the best part of another as a mediocre star before taken fully in hand by ace western directors John Ford and Howard Hawks.

The founding of Republic studio in 1935 would lead to singing cowboys Gene Autry and then Roy Rogers climbing to top 10 star status through appeal to undiscerning audiences unconcerned with authenticity with, again, bulk output. This trail was followed too by William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy and led to the overwhelming popularity of kids’ cowboys on tv from 1949 through the early 1950s: The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Kit Carson, et al. It was a species John Wayne, best known on screen as gunslinger “Singing Sandy” in the mid Thirties, had only torturously escaped, handed a plum role in Stagecoach (1939) by Ford.

Henry Fonda broke through to major stardom — that top 25 published each year by the Motion Picture Herald — in 1939 and 1940 courtesy of western roles in Jesse James, Drums Along the Mohawk and The Return of Frank James, a status he couldn’t sustain in ensuing sophisticated comedies and then forestalled by war service that put him behind the eight ball. To cement his comeback he wisely chose Ford classics My Darling Clementine (1946) and Fort Apache (1948).

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), showing solidarity

Gary Cooper in High Noon (1952), showing solidarity

In the meantime, Gary Cooper, who’d made his name at the first death of westerns as talkies came in as laconic hero The Virginian and The Man From Wyoming, had made tentative steps to return as The Plainsman (1937) as Wild Bill Hickok and The Westerner (1940) under top directors Cecil B. DeMille and William Wyler. It was obvious the A-western was here to stay when odd-man-out Errol Flynn at Warner Bros, the studio of urban modernism, was, Tasmanian accent intact, diverted once a year from his pirate swashbucklers to depict the classic heroic westerner in an expensive and highly popular series from 1939: Dodge City, Virginia City, Santa Fe Trail, They Died With Their Boots On, San Antonio

By the end of World War II the main feature western at the Saturday matinee was such a staple that established routine stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea restricted themselves to the genre for the rest of their careers. McCrea made it among the runners at 23rd in 1950, while Scott (best directed by Budd Boetticher) was a fixture in the list from 1948 to 1956, top 10 the middle four years. By this time not only Gary Cooper was a regular in westerns, but James Stewart more popular than ever, re-entering the upper echelon after ten years, moreover joining his friend Coop in the top 10 for the first time (1951). While Stewart, mostly directed by Anthony Mann for Universal, got wealthy on percentage-participation deals, other Universal contractees on salary grew into big stars in westerns: Audie Murphy, Jeff Chandler, Rock Hudson.

Through the Sixties and into the Seventies, while John Wayne ruled tall in the saddle, other established stars extended their careers and broadened their appeal by going western: Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Charlton Heston, Richard Widmark; and veteran supporting actors Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef morphed into bona fide stars. B-westerns were long gone from the big screen to tv series, developing Steve McQueen (Wanted: Dead or Alive), James Garner (Maverick) and Eastwood himself (Rawhide) into superstars.

Cowboys and American Indians have fared poorly on screen over the past forty years in the era of wookies and hobbits and other differently-normal humanoids. In 1965, after a decade when classic western tales ruled television, just as two admirably realistic series in Wagon Train and Rawhide folded after ‘long’ six-to-seven-years runs, new trends began innovating on the small screen: The Wild Wild West, The Big Valley, followed by Cimarron Strip, Lancer and The Outcasts. These, providing bright spots with their own flavor, were all gone by 1969 while the more traditional Bonanza and High Chaparral limped along for another couple or three seasons, and Gunsmoke out-gunned all the odds and broke the all-time record for a 20-year run into 1975.

That year saw Posse, produced by and starring Kirk Douglas, with a quirky anti-establishment take on western politics, but was isolated and muted in its impact amid ongoing efforts by John Wayne to mythologize “The West” while failing to match his Oscar-winning True Grit (1969). The jokey, indulgent taint purveyed into a staple of the big screen through the mid Sixties had descended by then to MacKenna’s Gold, Paint Your Wagon and Support Your Local Sheriff/Gunfighter. The feel-good, romantic thrust of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid the same year as these last two and Wayne’s landmark performance was more in the blockbuster tradition of Hollywood than the western one. It was in stark contrast to Sergio Leone’s contemporaneous Once Upon a Time in the West. Burt Lancaster through the early Seventies made a number of thoughtful contributions in Lawman, Ulzana’s Raid and Valdez is Coming, exploring the underbelly of history, along with Chato’s Land (Charles Bronson) — a worthwhile echo of Paul Newman’s Hombre the decade before. These, influenced to varying degrees by the “Spaghetti westerns” of director Sergio Leone (not forgetting the atmospheric music of Ennio Morricone), failed to ignite a new tradition for long in the States, aside from Eastwood’s ongoing thematic and stylistic tributes to his Italian mentor.

Mel Brooks’Blazing Saddles ripped the shit out of every cliche contained in what, up to then, had been thought ‘classic’ westerns. And two years later even stalwart Clint seemed to take the coming of Spielberg, Lucas and their acolytes to heart and The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) was the last in his series of gritty oaters, reviving his ruthless man-with-no-name character only for isolated triumphs Pale Rider and Unforgiven over the following decade or two. That year too marked what should have been a classic on-screen meeting between Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks, but wasn’t. Odd landmarks like Heaven’s Gate and Silverado came and went without threatening Clint’s monopoly. Only Tombstone (Kurt Russell – Val Kilmer), which put Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp in the shade, and Costner’s Dances With Wolves and Open Range made much of an impact afterwards. Cowboys met New Age, maybe sealing the lid on the genre’s coffin, in Brokeback Mountain.

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Movie Star Popularity: measuring it

In celebrity, film, history on January 31, 2015 at 7:23 am

When movie stars were new as a phenomenon a hundred years or so ago, chosen by floods of movie patrons going specially to see them, fan magazines that had just started up as a way of telling romantic stories (true or false) about the public’s favorite “players” on film began trying to assess their relative popularity. Most favored across Europe were generally versatile character actors like

Asta Nielsen

Asta Nielsen

Asta Nielsen and Valdemar Psilander, both at the Nordisk studio of Denmark, ditto Ivan Mozhukhin (Mosjoukine) of Russia; and comedians Andre Deed and Max Linder of France.
Max Linder

Max Linder

Hence, art cinema. In America, stars were generally those who played similar characters every time so that winningly sweet Mabel Normand in Keystone comedies was tops, and girl-with-the-curls Mary Pickford would soon become “America’s Sweetheart” championing her country’s entry into World War I. Heroic figure Francis X. Bushman was an early male megastar, joined by bouncy man-about-town Douglas Fairbanks.

By 1913-14 Motion Picture magazine had instituted a poll of its readers, hundreds of thousands of whom replied over a period of many months to the question: “Who is your favorite motion picture star?” These early annual polls were probably the most legitimate ever measurement of actual personal popularity of a star during a particular year. But in the late 1920s and 1930s bids for a more comprehensive polling method were made by a number of movie trade publications, most prominently Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald and its closest rival, Box Office magazine, held by some commentators to be more authoritative. (I will refer to the annual MPH poll here, since its box-office surveys were underway by 1930, the first full year of talkies, so fully covering the classic period I am most interested in. The Quigley company continued its poll in some form well into the 1990s. Its successor, the Fame poll, has recently featured a supposed top 10 box-office draws of whom four I have not heard and another three or four I wouldn’t recognise in the street.) These entailed asking twelve to fifteen thousand of the twenty thousand exhibitors in the USA: “Who were the ten stars that drew most people into your theatre(s)?”

The assessed year was from 1st September through to 31st August and a star who had three to five releases in that time (say singing cowboy Gene Autry or child star Shirley Temple) had a much better chance of rating high in this supposedly “scientific” survey than a Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich or Mae West rationed to one project a year. At a time when movies were made much more often as a “vehicle” around the star’s talents, with singers and dancers prominent, this was probably still a much better indication of personal popularity than today, when special effects, art work, theme, stunt technicians and pyrotechnics are much more likely to be the real attraction for an audience than the nominal star (such special performers as Meryl Streep and Daniel Day Lewis and few others aside). Stars then were held to be largely responsible for the success or otherwise of a movie release and a Johnny Depp and any number of others who today can have four or five flops in a row to their name with few or no repercussions to their career would no longer be stars — long out of a contract at a big studio and on the skids from smaller to smaller production outfits.

The MPH through its Almanac each year published a numbered order of stars down to twenty-five (usually edited fast to a top ten by newspapers) and then unnumbered layers of stars and featured players down in the hundreds who might only attract fans in a certain part of the country or for a particular fetish — but got a vote from someone. It is hard to believe such cultivated tastes as withered upper-crust English gentleman George Arliss, specialising in biopics of Disraeli, Rothschild, Voltaire and the Duke of Wellington would enjoy a broad leverage with audiences today. Yet, he was a fixture in Hollywood for over twenty years, listed in that top 25 until 1934. Similarly, rural-style comics Will Rogers, Joe E. Brown and Bob Burns who rated even higher through the mid thirties. It must be noted that the box-office champion team of butt-ugly and aged Marie Dressler & Wallace Beery (later echoed by Marjorie Main & Percy Kilbride) lifted more hearts through the Great Depression than there have been faces lifted in the whole history of moviedom. This is a moral impossibility today, the age of deliberately superficial, skin-deep “beauty”.

The public has long lived with these skewed assessments of popularity. Deanna Durbin, Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas, who all starred as the central figures of some of the biggest box-office successes of the classic era, never climbed as high as the top 10 for any year. This, while other performers who seemed like no more than part of the ensemble cast (even part of the furniture in comparison), scored effortlessly. And in contrast to the phenomenal exceptions of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe who were able to repeatedly (but not over-frequently) penetrate the top 10 stars list while averaging just one movie a year through their heyday decades, a quick tally of some names of all-time megastars who not once made even the top 25 is impressive: Ronald Colman, Charles Laughton, Charles Boyer, Carole Lombard, David Niven, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Richard Widmark, Judy Holliday, Anthony Quinn.

Gene Kelly: not as dainty but more versatile than Fred Astaire.

Gene Kelly: not as dainty but more versatile than Fred Astaire.

And this in the face of some unlikely “stars” who did: the gurgling Dionne Quintuplets, Dane Clark, Barry Fitzgerald, Larry Parks, Francis the Talking Mule, Ernest Borgnine, Sandy Dennis. And more all-time performers — all major stars for a quarter century or more — struggled to make the lower rungs of said twenty-five a select few times: Edward G. Robinson (two), Barbara Stanwyck (three), Loretta Young (two), Jean Arthur (one), Katharine Hepburn (four), Olivia De Havilland (two), Henry Fonda (three), Joseph Cotten (one), Lana Turner (three), Rita Hayworth (five), Danny Kaye (one), Ava Gardner (three), Robert Mitchum (three), Audrey Hepburn (four).

In defining a star’s career, his “popularity” can be spun to suit the writer’s intention. Commentators have forever called Gary Cooper an “instant star” at age 24 when he appeared in The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), which actually starred Ronald Colman, Cooper some way down the cast. His position was said to have been bolstered the following year in the William Wellman blockbuster Wings, placing him at a creditable 17th top male in the Quigley box-office survey; further when it was released with sound effects another two years on; still, he was third male “lead” in this aviation saga. By the time of the prestigious A Farewell to Arms (1932) from Hemingway, directed by style master Frank Borzage, Cooper was nominally top banana on screen, admittedly opposite the Oscar-winning performance of Helen Hayes and with stalwart Adolphe Menjou lending panache in strong support. Through this era Cooper’s career was boosted by voluminous press publicity detailing his affairs with a string of glamorous women from spitfire actress Lupe Velez to the Countess Di Frasso. He was enthroned by Paramount in the choice roles of the day, as an adventurer opposite Marlene Dietrich, hottest female in Hollywood (Morocco); City Streets directed by ace Rouben Mamoulian and surrounded by Sylvia Sidney and Paul Lukas; The Devil and the Deep, Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, Tallulah Bankhead; If I Had a Million, Laughton, W. C. Fields, directed by Lubitsch; and super-sophisticated Today We Live from Faulkner, surrounding Joan Crawford rivalled by Robert Young and Franchot Tone, under Howard Hawks, and Design for Living from Noel Coward via Ben Hecht, under Lubitsch again. And again Cooper was one of no less than three stars. He made no progress in his power to draw customers to theatres as reported by pollsters until 1935-36 when cast as the all-American good guy with impeccable morals and manners in The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and Mr Deeds Goes to Town. He bobbled between 9th and 11th place (including both sexes) for three years before resting for two years near the bottom of top 20. Cooper was 40 before he started his residency near the very top of polls (1941), though never overtaking Clark Gable until the latter went off to war (1943). Through the war years he was not bothered either by competition from Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda or James Stewart, all off doing service; and was still shaded in polls by Bing Crosby and Abbott & Costello, and then by Van Johnson, Ingrid Bergman and Betty Grable as a new generation ushered in. For several years in the late forties he lay 4th in overall popularity behind a combination of those stars mentioned. Then in 1949 he was overtaken by John Wayne, only for Cooper to bounce back as runner-up in 1952 and box-office champ the next year for his one and only time as el supremo. From there he dropped a couple of spots each year and made his last appearance in the top 20 in 1959, within two years of his death (of cancer). It was the era of almost interchangeable western roles between Wayne, Cooper, James Stewart and the returned Clark Gable, and even so limited a screen presence as Randolph Scott, emulating Cooper, was able to overtake his model template in Quigley’s list of the top 10 stars for the first two years of the 1950s.

In contrast to Cooper, both John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart have been used as prime examples of those actors said to have suffered long, torturous routes to superstardom. Yet, at age 41 and 42 respectively they were undoubted superstars in the public estimation backed up by box-office receipts. And it was a status gained without the preceding 15 years of ballyhooed build-up that Cooper received. Wayne had made quite an impressive showing as sole star in The Big Trail (1930) at age 22, but which unaccountably turned out a flop. He was instantly dropped by Fox, and was 31 before given another real chance at the big time. He was a success in Stagecoach (1939) but United Artists (unlike Cooper’s Paramount) had not the resources to make a star, and Wayne again was forced a step back under the shared aegis of Republic and RKO. Though funded sufficiently to star occasionally with good leading ladies like Marlene Dietrich (at her nadir), Claire Trevor and Martha Scott, it was one-off loanouts to Cecil B. DeMille for Reap the Wild Wind (1942) and to MGM for John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945) that got him seriously noticed — and he garnered a mention at 24th (16th top male) in Quigley’s uppercrust of stars. Though this was not quite the status Cooper had reached at age 37 it was way over the odds considering the lack of external resources lent to Wayne’s career.

Like Cooper, Wayne had stayed at home for the war, making hay while a flotilla of Hollywood stars risked everything to safeguard the future of the world. Bogart, little more than a year older than Cooper and Clark Gable, was technically overage like them but might have forced his way into war service as Gable had. (Maybe not incidentally, Gable was the only one of these superstars instantly recognised by the public as such, so striking a presence on screen he featured near the top of popularity polls within a year of first appearing.) Bogart was the only one of these not to be considered for leading roles from the outset. Any number of factors might have entered this collective decision, not least his renowned uncooperativeness with bosses from the Warner brothers down, though not the obvious ones that might first come to mind: Bogart being six to eight inches shorter than Cooper and Wayne, the even more severely vertically challenged and/or pug-ugly Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and George Raft hadn’t found this a bar to lead roles and almost instant screen stardom as similar gangster/hard-boiled characters. First on screen at 30, first noticed at 36 for his menacing Duke Mantee on stage and screen in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart was restricted to supporting roles in A’s or lead roles in B’s until the new year of 1941 on release of High Sierra. Nominally second billed to long-established and luscious Ida Lupino, this Raoul Walsh classic written by John Huston rode on his shoulders alone, and it was a matter of months before his similarly dominating performance in The Maltese Falcon under Huston confirmed his superstardom, cemented by Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) the next year. All in the opportunity — those turned down by Raft.

MOVIE LEGENDS — THE THREE GREAT BITCHES (of the screen): Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis

In celebrity, film on November 4, 2012 at 11:55 pm

Joan_Crawford_in_Rain_4Yes, they were complete, consummate actresses and had other strings to their bows, well able in the same scene, even the same line, to switch to sympathetic — though, significantly, none of the three could play out-and-out comedy convincingly. But these three icons of the big screen through the Thirties, Forties, Fifties and into the Sixties will always be remembered for their “strong women” roles and as bitches par excellence. All had eyes that could kill with a glance, their mouths set perpetually (and looking sexiest) between a sneer and a snarl, and the square-shouldered, intimidating bearing that might make large men wither and admit defeat. Their star careers were long — very, very long for those days when a woman both talented and glamorous might not last more than five years or so at peak popularity: Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Barbara LaMarr, Dolores Del Rio, Fay Wray, Constance Bennett, Ann Harding, Ruth Chatterton, Sylvia Sidney, Jean Harlow, Kay Francis, Elissa Landi, Mae West, Jeanette MacDonald, Alice Faye, Veronica Lake, Linda Darnell. Each of the three went on in lead roles for 40 years or more before stepping down to semi-retirement. And their ever-presence on the screen belittled the moderate impact of all the politically correct, thoroughly civilised posing of “emancipated women” Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell, who in comparison looked like tame graduates from an assertiveness course and might feel faint, definitely repulsed, at the mention or even thought of visceral emotions and impetuous behavior.

Of course the epithet “bitch” was assumed by many to translate to offscreen character too. Bette, demanding quality from all around her, ruffled more than a few tradesmen’s feathers on Hollywood film sets. But she would hardly have lasted her 17 years at the Warner studio (and been forgiven so many times by the Warner brothers) had she been the tyro many claimed. Many friends and coworkers balance out the claims Joan’s adopted daughter made about her tyrannical nature in Mommie Dearest. She was certainly professional and exacting, but most demanding of herself and the most devoted to her fans, answering all her mail personally or putting that touch to replies from secretaries she hired when the going got heavy — thousands of letters a month. But she was not openly rebellious, accepting the fact that though she might be at times the most popular female star in America, at her home studio for more than 15 years, MGM, she sat third in favoritism with no powerful exec to champion her interests. There were enough good roles to go around. Of the three jungle fighters, Barbara was the only one with the guts to freelance outside the shelter of a big home studio where work and good publicity were guaranteed. So she was actually absolutely unique in Hollywood — with not a single peer — among top or even medium stars, men and women, who all chose safety. Showing an uncanny confidence and business sense of her own commercial worth, she started in lead roles at Columbia at 21 (in 1929), and soon shared herself with Warners fifty-fifty. By the end of the Thirties she had worked at RKO, Fox, Paramount, MGM and United Artists too: all five major studios in the movie business and the two almost-majors. (Universal, the only other Hollywood production company occasionally aspiring to bigger things, was then almost of no account. Stanwyck dipped her toe in the water there in 1943 for a half-hour episode of Flesh and Fantasy, for which Universal stretched itself, the probable attraction being similarly imported leading man Charles Boyer.) She was equalled only by swearing-like-a-trooper Carole Lombard by coworkers in her down-to-earth reputation as a “regular guy”: uncoincidentally, another major star who got there by solid professionalism, consistent high craftsmanship and well-applied talent, not box-office hots.

Joan Crawford was the first to arrive, a leggy brunette — the tallest of the three at 5ft-3 and a half (sic) — by 1928, three years into her contract at MGM, a superstar at 24. In some of the last silent blockbuster spectacles she played an uncontrollable “flapper”, “jazz baby” and perpetual-motion dancer. When Joan was named the no.1 US box-office star of 1930, male or female — but on a factory treadmill and bringing in just $1,000 a week at the same studio that was paying Greta Garbo $250,000 per movie per year — blonde Barbara was starting in mature leading roles. Stanwyck worked hard freelancing — four starring roles a year at $50,000 a pop. This was a top fee for the day — the same that Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert earned for all-time Oscar-hauler It Happened One Night (1934), and double what Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland would each get for the marathon Gone With the Wind (1939) production. Only Garbo and Dietrich negotiated much more than this per film in the early Thirties, on special deals to keep them in Hollywood and away from Europe where they were supremely popular (and Mae West, also rationed to one movie a year). Stanwyck fast earned a reputation with respectful film crews for cussing with the best on set, and as an actress in early talkies Barbara was rated among the top five women in Hollywood — “never brilliant and never lousy”, and never coming to rate in overwhelming box-office drawing power with Joan and Bette. At 29, as Stella Dallas, 1937, she would play a frumpy mother with a marriageable daughter — a gutsy move for the image-conscious Hollywood of the day. Bette showed up from Broadway, arriving with her mother on the train (a four-day transcontinental journey), Xmas 1930, and at first contracted to Universal was soon an impressive lead. BetteDavis1932In a year, requested by veteran English star George Arliss as his leading lady at Warners, Bette’s name was made. But she still had a long row to hoe to get her home studio to give her the roles worthy of her immense talent — called the greatest ever actress in any medium by so many of her peers.

From there, in Quigley’s 1931 roundup of box-office attractions in the US, in a top 10 dominated by seven women Joan came behind only sweet-girl-next-door Janet Gaynor, and ahead of Norma Shearer, Marie Dressler, Clara Bow, Colleen Moore and Greta Garbo. The next year Dressler moved up and Joan was still third overall. Subsequently, she was sixth of the women in 1933; then regained third spot behind Gaynor and blowzy sexpot Mae West; and finally for the next two years was top woman (disregarding poppet Shirley temple unbeatable at no.1 overall). Though Joan played the prostitute central character in Somerset Maugham’s Rain (1932) — see first photo at top left — tempting too-upright man of the cloth Walter Huston, and Barbara had occupied the skins of many questionable types too, maybe fiery redhead Bette was first to play the out-and-out vixen type with a vengeance in Cabin in the Cotton and the following year on loan to RKO, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1934), as an ultimately conniving guttersnipe tormenting nice, desperate Leslie Howard, an over-accommodating artist made insecure by his club foot and settling as her human doormat. That was her Oscar role but she won it instead for Dangerous the year after as consolation: an alcoholic actress making amends to Franchot Tone. A good production of The Petrified Forest starting 1936, again with Leslie Howard facing Bogie this time, was an isolated event in a series of nothing roles as in Parachute Jumper, a distasteful memory she took to the grave with her 50 years later. She refused assignment after crummy assignment, eventually passed on to the Joan Blondells, Glenda Farrells or Lane sisters who usually made something attractive out of these lower-budget projects. Jack Warner put her on suspension without pay and she escaped to England. There, studio boss Jack Warner defeated her in court and restarted her $650-a-week wage — hardly more than 14-year-old Bonita Granville, the studio’s girl detective in the Nancy Drew series; about one sixth of what less-accomplished Loretta Young was getting at Fox. Marked Woman released in spring 1937, playing a razor-slashed prostitute testifying against her kid sister’s gangster murderer, set her roles on an upward climb. Still, she was lucky to survive in the business climate of Warners during the Depression, production budgets being so constricted that the same kind of glossy sophistication attained by MGM, Paramount, even RKO (and both the last two studios had been forced into receivership for a time), wasn’t possible and prestigious stars whose forte was high class settings were let go in accordance with the policy of financial boss Harry Warner in New York: first Constance Bennett (paid an eye-watering $30,000 a week by Warners for two films early in the decade), then Ruth Chatterton (the “Queen of the Warner Bros lot” when Bette first arrived in 1931), then classy soap queen Kay Francis, still retaining impressive top 40 popularity unlike the first two, in 1937.

Joan Crawford is unique in moviedom — a one-off — at the forefront in pictures through three contrasting periods of history. In the Twenties she appealed as the party girl in carefree times; in the Thirties she defied the Great Depression and women fans loved to see her suffering in mink and pretended that she was, after all, one of us; and through and post-war she was the independent woman more than pulling her weight in factory jobs and wiping that lock of hair off her face to look pretty enough for her man. But in the meantime Joan was missing out on plum roles too, with Norma Shearer, the late boss’s wife, ahead of her in the pecking order at MGM, then Garbo. She got some good roles opposite (and had a fling with) Clark Gable, and married lower-case star Franchot Tone, who after a few years got sick of being referred to after the main event — as Mr Joan Crawford. She slipped out of the coveted box-office top 10, and quickly settled into the bottom half of the top 50 — not as far as her competitors Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn had dropped (both of whom, to their credit, would also revive to reinvent themselves by changing studio). The pressure was on Joan to deliver on a salary of $400,000 p.a. in 1937, one of the highest in Hollywood and now for just two movies a year. It was only in the early Forties when both Shearer and Garbo retired and the roles didn’t get any better — supplanted as she was now by Greer Garson, Hedy Lamarr and Lana Turner — that she elected to leave for Columbia to reestablish herself on a fraction of her previous fee. Then in 1944, turning 40, Joan Crawford was snapped up by Warners, amazingly back in the majors at an age when prettier and arguably more talented actresses were out the back door. Bette Davis was queen here at “the studio of working stiffs” where talent and not looks was king, and had long since overtaken Joan through a long series of classic roles 1938-44: Jezebel and Dark Victory to Queen Elizabeth I, at 30 ingeniously playing Old Queen Bess — see photo;Bette_Davis_in_The_Private_Lives_of_Elizabeth_and_Essex_trailer_cropped The Letter, as a prize bitch who murders her lover at the cost of another indulgent husband, Herbert Marshall; The Great Lie, a brilliant collaboration with Mary Astor; The Little Foxes, one of several women’s masterpieces — Herbert was her victim again — under director William Wyler (with whom she had more than a fling); then Now Voyager as an uggo-turned-swan still finding her wings, romanced by Paul Henreid; Watch on the Rhine surrounded by Nazi fifth columnists in wartime USA, with Paul Lukas as the European Resistance organiser (that Henreid was in Casablanca) and villainous George Coulouris; Old Acquaintance, with old, detested acquaintance Miriam Hopkins — Bette said she was the “most thoroughgoing bitch” offscreen since sweet Nancy Carroll; and taking Mr Skeffington (Claude Rains) for granted in favor of shinier wooers. She had just turned 36 and had done it all. There was no one to match her versatility, influence on acting style and sheer domination of the screen until Brando in the Fifties. Never absolute tops at the box-office as Joan Crawford had been a decade earlier, Bette was nonetheless top woman in a male-dominated top 10 from 1939 to 1941 inclusive. In 1942, the USA’s first year in the war, she was overtaken as a movie screen attraction by GI pin-up material Betty Grable and Dorothy Lamour; Ann Sheridan hard on her heels, with Rita Hayworth and Lana Turner making their plays too. Alice Faye was making a comeback, and voluptuous blonde Betty Hutton just emerging. There was only English rose Greer Garson anywhere near even aspiring to her league in the serious acting stakes, and vastly to her credit against the odds Bette hung on until finally dropping out of the box-office top 15 (counting men and women) — fourth among women — two years after the war ended.

Through the latter Forties, “Crawford vs Davis” was embedded in popular culture as the rivalry of two great tragediennes, not least by Warner Bros’ own caricatures of them going head to head in Looneytunes animated shorts that also popularized the images of their top urban tough guys, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and Bogie. A director who knew both women well on and off screen contrasted them accurately while linking them at the same time, characterizing Crawford as down-to-earth offscreen and taking on the diva as an acting persona, conscious of her looks and flattering camera angles, and Davis as the starrish diva offscreen and sacrificing all glamor for the realistic portrayal onscreen.

Some of Barbara’s best-regarded movies came in a rush, high comedy, three of them in 1941 alone: The Lady Eve with Henry Fonda under mercurial writer-director Preston Sturges at Paramount; Meet John Doe, one of Frank Capra’s one-man-and-his-girl-against-the-world efforts (Warners); and Ball of Fire, again with Gary Cooper, this time at Goldwyn studios. In these sophisticated comedies Stanwyck did pretty well but tended to look like a fill-in for someone who wasn’t available, Jean Arthur or Carole Lombard being the ideal; Rosalind Russell or Myrna Loy in a pinch. No way could Barbara approach the touching performances of highly sensitive Jean Arthur, ministering and nursemaiding to Cooper/James Stewart as her deflated idealist boyfriend at the mercy of big politics in films of the capraesque style already perfected by the director at Columbia through the latter 1930s. Lady of Burlesque (1943), now at United Artists directed by William Wellman, was a fast-paced backstage murder mystery with strong comedy relief in which Barbara, like Joan, got to show off her dancer’s legs. In writer-director Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), helped by Raymond Chandler in crafting this into the pinnacle of film noir, she played a bitch who gets hers in the end from boyfriend Fred MacMurray, both trying to fool insurance investigator Edward G Robinson. BarbaraStanwycks1940sIt was made for Paramount and she had been playing the studios at their own pick-and-mix game for years, parlaying her spitfire on-screen presence and reliability into a prime position with producers though her box-office was just sound even in her best years, rarely the sole centre of attention in a blockbuster as Joan and Bette were. Her compensation: She was the highest paid woman in America that year, just ahead of Bette. Now in the latter Forties all three would be predominantly at the superior talent factory that was Warners, suddenly overloaded with bitches. In 1945 they gave Joan her favorite role of all, Mildred Pierce, and it was said to be outdrawing Bette’s current project as a teacher in the Welsh valleys (The Corn is Green) at theatres on the all-important Eastern Seaboard three to one. In 1947, just as Bette dropped out of Quigley’s Motion Picture Herald‘s “official” top 25 stars list, Joan and Barbara made their comebacks to the list, their first appearances since the mid 1930s: both ranking in the top half dozen female stars most seen on screen. Other drama queens at the studio hardly got a look in: Olivia de Havilland, finally breaking through to the fringe of top 20 (fifth among women stars) to join her Warners sisters, left for lack of roles after taking many studio-enforced suspensions as Bette had the previous decade; Lauren Bacall, missing the polls entirely, took a much leaner schedule to bear kids and look after husband Bogie; Jane Wyman switched from comedy to drama at other studios, to rank high in the mid Fifties; and Ida Lupino finally quit in favor of directing.

Warners tried Joan out at the rate of $167,000 for just one film a year to test the water — and the water was fine. From 1946 came boffo box-office in Humoresque, as an alcoholic who walks into the ocean when neglected by concert violinist John Garfield — a famous concert artist stuffing his hand up a false sleeve did the fingering on the frets; then Possessed, murdering Van Heflin when he doesn’t requite her lust; on loan to Fox under Otto Preminger, as Daisy Kenyon, fashion designer fought over by Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews; in 1949 back at Warners, sympathetic for Flamingo Road under Michael Curtiz as a down-and-out carnival dancer but getting Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet and David Brian to dance to her tune. She was 45 and the legs and the rest were holding up fine. In 1950 she freelanced at Columbia as Harriet Craig, one of her defining bitches, castrating husband Wendell Corey; then five years later as the Queen Bee, and Barry Sullivan was the gelding doing servitude.

Towards the end of the Forties, when resident tall, slimline beauty Alexis Smith was tiring and sultry wise-cracking brunette Janis Paige was found to be not what the public wanted in airhead musicals, Warners started to invest in gay perky young blonde things hardly showing a brain in their heads, June Haver — borrowed from Fox for two films — and Doris Day, quickly proving a long-term winner. Bette had taken till 1941 to climb to a respectable star wage ($252,333 that year) and elevated herself to a massive $365,000 a year by 1948 — the huge majority of it going in tax in the era of post-war austerity — just as her popularity was dipping at Warners through lack of good vehicles again. That year was Barbara’s fourth Oscar nomination, for Sorry Wrong Number at Paramount: a demanding invalid wife and younger husband Burt Lancaster trying to bump her off; but her next really good one, between her enthusiastic Commie-hunting projects off screen, was Fritz Lang masterpiece Clash By Night (RKO, 1952) and a great ensemble performance again cheating on hubby, this time painfully unaware working man Paul Douglas, with virile desperado Robert Ryan. (It had Marilyn Monroe’s best early role too, a demanding one.) That year Barbara and her husband, her previous leading man when visiting MGM, Robert Taylor, called it quits, she having been the senior partner four years older and admittedly the less pretty one. A positive quality was her sympathy for younger performers — Marilyn Monroe calling her the only one of older generation actresses who supported her. Yet in contradictory mode she could be the hardest-nosed of the three, estranging herself from her adopted son, 19. At the same time she joined the virulently “anti-communist” faction in Hollywood for “the preservation of American ideals”. Ruby Stevens of Brooklyn had dragged herself up by her bootstraps, as she saw it, to be Barbara Stanwyck — so even in youth had opposed Roosevelt’s New Deal, somehow as the myth goes believing that all other poor people could follow in her footsteps.

Bette quit Warners to be in a good drama — over at Fox, All About Eve. She was 42 and showing every well-earned wrinkle. She was too insecure to back herself, taking flat fees ($130,000 for that one) and ending up with a fraction of what other stars got for participation deals out of profits. At the same time her old rival Katharine Hepburn, for African Queen, was taking $130,000 plus 10%; Bogart close to a million eventually for his part; and elsewhere, Cary Grant and John Wayne on half a million, James Stewart in rugged westerns on $600,000, even young Jane Russell on $400,000 with not much more than two assets to show off on screen.

JoanCrawford-colour1950Joan at 50 and Barbara nearing the mark still had the stuff to be glamorous-kinky, usually going after younger men, and both took to rather stylized, erotic westerns in the mid 1950s: Joan just once, maybe impressed by Marlene Dietrich’s outing in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, set in glorious technicolor at age 51. (Note this was at a time in Hollywood when the number of glamor girls aged over 35 and still on screen could be counted on one hand without a thumb.) She starred for auteur Nicholas Ray in Johnny Guitar (1954), romancing all 6ft-5 of Sterling Hayden, made well by tiny cheapskate studio Republic. The technicolor did well for Joan too, not much for vindictive villainess Mercedes McCambridge in a scenery-chewing triumph (later using her gruff voice as the demon’s in The Exorcist, 1973). Barbara starred in a whole slew of westerns through mid decade: Blowing Wild, doing the dirty on Gary Cooper with Anthony Quinn; Cattle Queen of Montana, bossing “Little Ronnie” Reagan (actually his nickname at Warners, said Bette); The Violent Men, a rare good one double-crossing Edward G Robinson for Glenn Ford and Brian Keith (and dismissing young and beautiful Dianne Foster with one imperious sweep of her hand); The Maverick Queen, a cheapie at Republic, this time tricked by Pinkerton detective Barry Sullivan, envied by heavy Scott Brady (this time the beauteous ingenue was Mary Murphy from Brando’s The Wild One); Trooper Hook, a thoughtful subject as a mother and prisoner of Native Americans, rescued by Joel McCrea; and Forty Guns, as a ranchowner again, protecting outlaw brother Barry Sullivan, fairly good under writer-director Sam Fuller. She was 50 and quit films. She took someone’s bad advice and died her hair grey hoping to pass as platinum blonde — it didn’t, and aged her overnight.

Bette came from the starchy New England thespian tradition and didn’t fancy long months in desert locations though she committed herself to guest spots on two of the very best westerns on weekly tv, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke, and her remaining good roles were as old hags, to say it frankly: The Virgin Queen as Elizabeth I again but made in England (1955), this time losing Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd) to Joan Collins, having 16 years earlier done in the Earl of Essex (Errol Flynn) over Olivia de Havilland; underestimated kitchen-sink drama The Catered Affair (1956) from the play by Paddy Chayevsky, adapted by Gore Vidal and directed by Richard Brooks, Bette as the frumpy working-class mother of the bride and co-starring Ernest Borgnine as her henpecked New York cab-driver husband and great support from Debbie Reynolds, Barry Fitzgerald and Rod Taylor; and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 when she met up with Joan for the first and last time. Warners got its money’s worth when audiences had trouble till the end figuring out who was the biggest bitch up on screen killing off everyone and everything including a pet parrot, broiled. They were still legends but hardly irresistible draws to theatres anymore and going into the project skeptical Bette took $60,000 up front plus 5% of profits to come, if any; Joan took a risk on a $30,000 fee followed by a big 15% of surprise earnings — ending up almost as rich as Liz Taylor was to be soon with $1 million from her two years’ work as Cleopatra.

They were supposed to meet up again in something similar, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1965) but Joan begged off ill at the last moment and Bette got her old Warners protegee Olivia de Havilland to step in. Joan had had her fill of horror by now, apparently caught hacking people’s heads off in low-budget Straight Jacket and romancing jailbate newcomer Lee Majors at the same time. Barbara, always a good mate of Joan off screen (both had been raised dirt poor, one in Hell’s Kitchen, the other in San Antonio), was a tv western star in The Big Valley, which ran from 1965 to ’68, Barbara_Stanwyck_Victoria_Barkley_Big_Valley_1968and got her frustrations out dressed in black leather and wielding a riding crop at offspring Lee Majors (Was he recommended specially by Joan?) and Linda Evans of future Dynasty fame. Preparing for the role, appearing late ’64, Barbara got her kicks on the big screen molesting Elvis in Roustabout, and reportedly in the dressing room on that gig, veteran costumier Edith Head.

Oh ho-hum, just another day in Hollywoodland.

ONCE A STAR, ALWAYS A STAR?

In celebrity, film on August 15, 2011 at 9:47 am

This is a new phenomenon — I mean new in showbiz terms, measured against the full 100 years movie stars and mass produced/distributed music have existed. It has only developed in music since the introduction of extremely narrow, dumbed-down sounds in music in 1974 — Europap ruled by Abba, Disco under the Bee Gees, Punk and Reggae — and on screen since the false dawn of Spielberg-Lucas three years later. Among stars, the Stallone-Travolta-Gibson-Schwarzenegger-Madonna era got underway in steps from 1976 to 1984, and has never stopped. Apart from various one-offs like Jessica Lange, Leonardo Di Caprio, Johnny Depp, Ellen Barkin, Sean Penn, Robin Williams, most new stars since have been spin-offs of them.

Who could ever have guessed, or wished, that the three bodybuilders Stallone, Arnie and Madonna would go on decade after decade at the top of the tree in sound bites and column-inches of coverage? — which, let’s face it, defines superstardom these days. Today’s vacuous mentality only requires these celebrities to exist to be celebrated, regardless of what they produce. The same of sell-out compromised ‘artists’ Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, who continue as celebrities while people as musically committed and talented as, say The Doors, The Byrds, Steve Marriott, rose and collapsed as stars in three years? Well over ninety percent of stars of the Twentieth Century were under-appreciated or had their careers curtailed

In the Golden Age of Hollywood only a handful of (invariably male) actors sustained superstar status for anything approaching thirty years: Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Cagney, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, James Stewart. In casting a film, no producer or director ever mistook a Gable movie for a Cooper movie, or vice versa. All of them brought highly individual characteristics to a role, and were often able to raise ordinary scripts to something watchable. Today’s stars are all interchangeable, except when a film calls for a particular physique, then it can be faked anyway with computer graphics. But for a few, they tend to sink or float with the material, i.e. How many pyrotechnic effects can the budget afford to divert attention from them?

Actors who ooze a mind-numbing sameness of one-dimensional acting in role after role just go on and on: Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Samuel L Jackson, Angelina Jolie, Jack Black… In previous times actors had to capture the public’s imagination in their first two or three films or they were OUT — and without aid of special effects and other eye-catching gimmicks.

Rap music is another phenomenon that has carried on for more than a quarter century seemingly without changing, improving, developing into something that requires talent. It’s the ideal do-it-yourself ‘music’ for anyone who can fake a Bronx accent — and I’m speaking from New Zealand, where a Bronx accent comes about as naturally as did a Liverpool accent in the Beatle era.

After numerous box-office failures, repeatedly rumored to face forced retirement, Arnie, Stallone, Eddie Murphy, John Travolta have been given chance after chance to reestablish themselves until something clicks and they’re foisted back on us. The only movie stars I can think of that have fallen from the top echelon (outside of death or retirement) in the past 30 years are Burt Reynolds and Kevin Costner. The occasional tv star like Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, Shelley Long and that red-headed guy in CSI-Miami fails to make it in movies, but not very often. Generally, the rule is whoever is hyped by the promoters makes it.

Older female stars, as much as they gripe about the lack of roles for them, are much better off than their sisters of yesteryear. The Bette Davises and Joan Crawfords were automatically on the downhill past 40, no matter how good they were. Now 55, even 60, need not be a barrier. They might not be able to command $200 million budgets like wookies and hobbits can, but what producer with $30 million on his hands for an important subject would pass up Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Emma Thompson, Cher, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, Ellen Barkin, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, Maggie Smith or Queen Liz in the lead?

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