Mary Astor

What’s on TCM: March 2014

Mary Astor Humprhey Bogart Maltese FalconHappy March!  31 Days of Oscar may be coming to an end, but there are still plenty of other great things to look forward to in the upcoming month.  What I’m most excited to see returning to TCM is Carson on TCM!  You may remember that back in July 2013, TCM aired a number of classic Johnny Carson Tonight Show interviews with stars such as Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, George Burns, and Bette Davis.  This time around, we have interviews with Gene Kelly, Lauren Bacall, Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, and Gregory Peck (just to name a few) to look forward to.  I absolutely loved watching the interviews back in July, so I’m very excited to see more.

After taking a break last month for 31 Days of Oscar, Friday Night Spotlight returns with a series about Food in the Movies selected by Anthony Bourdain.

March’s Star of the Month will be the one and only Mary Astor.  A 24 hour marathon of her films will start very Wednesday night this month and continue into the following Thursday

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Listen, Darling (1938)

After the death of her husband, Dottie Wingate (Mary Astor) is unable to support her children, Pinkie (Judy Garland) and Billie (Scotty Beckett), and is on the verge of marrying banker Arthur Drubbs (Gene Lockhart).  She doesn’t love him and Pinkie and Billie don’t like him at all, but she needs the financial security.  Desperate to stop her mother from making such a big mistake, Pinkie and her boyfriend Buzz (Freddie Bartholomew) come up with a plan to “kidnap” Dottie and Billie in the family camper and take her for a little vacation, hoping the vacation will help her forget about Arthur.

Naturally, Dottie is surprised by this plan, but after a little while, she relaxes and begins to enjoy herself.  However, she still plans to marry Arthur when they get back home.  Buzz and Pinkie want to prove to Dottie that she can do better so they set out to find a more suitable match for her.  As luck would have it, they end up camping near Richard Thurlow (Walter Pidgeon), who just happens to have a lot in common with Dottie’s late husband.  Buzz thinks he’d be perfect for Dottie, and when Richard suddenly leaves the campground, he gets everyone together to follow him.

They manage to find Richard again, but Richard is very annoyed by the kids when Billie gets Richard’s camera (and himself) sprayed by a skunk.  Despite that incident, Richard and Dottie start to fall in love with each other.  The kids don’t know that, though, and think Richard hates them so they keep looking for another man.  They end up meeting J.J. Slattery (Alan Hale), who adores the kids and could very easily support them and Dottie.  But as much as Dottie likes Richard, she can’t share Richard’s love for living on the road because she needs to be settled in one place for the children.  Pinkie overhears her saying this and asks Slattery to adopt her and Billie so Dottie won’t be tied down and can be with Richard.  Of course, Slattery knows he can’t take Dottie’s children, but he sees to it that Dottie and Richard get back together.

Listen, Darling is a nice bit of fluffy entertainment, but nothing great.  By far, the most memorable thing about it is Judy Garland singing “Zing! Went the Strings of my Heart.”  Despite the first-rate cast, the movie is cute at best.  Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew, Mary Astor, and Walter Pidgeon have all starred in far more memorable movies.  But it is a pretty good example of the wholesome, family friendly movies that Louis B. Mayer was famous for making.

Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980)

If you have an interest in silent film, Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s thirteen-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film is essential viewing.  This series truly is a treat for silent film fans.  It’s very insightful, has a great narration by James Mason, and is chock full of interviews with actors and actresses, directors, producers, writers, cameramen, stuntmen, and journalists who were all part of the film industry during that era.

Quite a few big names were still alive at the time and were able to be interviewed for this documentary including Gloria Swanson, Janet Gaynor, Anita Loos, King Vidor, Hal Roach, Bessie Love, Mary Astor, Lillian Gish, Jackie Coogan, Colleen Moore, Louise Brooks, Frank Capra, and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, just to name a few.  Interviews with some of these people were quite rare, which makes this documentary an extremely important resource for anyone wanting to learn more about the silent film era.

Although the series was released on VHS and Laserdisc, due to copyright issues, it has yet to make its way to DVD.  Copies of the complete series on VHS are for sale on Amazon, but the asking prices are pretty ridiculous ($989 for a set?  Get out of here.)  I really hope the copyright issues can be worked out someday and it can be released on DVD, because it absolutely deserves to be seen.  In the meantime, the whole series is currently up on YouTube.  Each episode is just under an hour long, so it will take you a while to make your way through the series, but the time investment is absolutely worth it.   I’ve included a link to each episode along with my episode summaries.

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Book Vs. Movie: The Maltese Falcon

When you have more than one screen adaptation of a novel, usually one is more faithful to the novel than the other.  However, in the case of The Maltese Falcon, it has two pretty accurate adaptations.  The first version, released in 1931 and stars Ricardo Cortez, Thelma Todd, and Bebe Daniels, does a pretty good job of sticking to the source material.  However, the 1941 Humphrey Bogart version is an even more accurate representation of the book.  It doesn’t stick to the novel exactly, but most of the dialogue is taken verbatim and the key story elements are kept in tact.

Most of the differences are pretty subtle and probably were changed for the sake of pacing.  For example, in the movie Sam finds out about La Paloma after he wakes up in Gutman’s hotel room and starts looking around the room.  It’s a much more drawn out process in the book.  In the book, Sam finds out Miss O’Shaugnessy didn’t go to Effie’s apartment like she was supposed to.  Instead, she had the cab stop to get a newspaper, then she asked to be brought to the ferry building.  So Sam gets a copy of the paper in question to look for clues, but doesn’t figure it out until he starts snooping around Cairo’s room and notices that the newspaper section with ship arrivals was of particular interest to him.  Although there’s nothing wrong with the way that part plays out in the book, if it were filmed that way, it would have slowed the movie down.  Another difference is that the character of Gutman’s daughter is completely absent from the Bogart movie (as well as from the Ricardo Cortez version, for that matter), but she wasn’t exactly a vital character in the book.

A lot of the other changes were definitely made because of the production codes.  What’s interesting about that content is that neither the 1931 or the 1941 version gets it exactly right.  The 1931 version tends to be a bit more scandalous than the book was, but it does include things that were in the book that couldn’t be included in the 1941 version.  There’s no way the 1941 version could have gotten away with the scene where Spade strip searches O’Shaugnessy after noticing that $1,000 of the $10,000 Gutman promised him was missing, but it was in the 1931 version.  The 1941 version also really had to downplay the fact that Cairo and Wilmer were both supposed to be gay, the 1931 version made that much clearer.  In the book, when O’Shaugnessy finds out that Sam has been talking to Cairo and that he’s prepared to offer more money than she can, she offers to sleep with him and proceeds to spend the night at Sam’s apartment.  When it comes to that part in the 1941 version, O’Shaugessy can’t offer herself to Spade or spend the night, so Sam just kisses her instead.  As for Spade’s affair with Iva Archer, the 1941 version actually depicts what went on more accurately than the 1931 version.  The 1931 version made that affair more salacious than the book described.  First of all, the book made Iva Archer out to be a little past her prime, which Thelma Todd most certainly was not.  There also weren’t any scenes involving Iva showing up at Sam’s apartment and finding O’Shaugnessy wearing her kimono nor were there any of Miles listening on the extension while Sam and Iva set up a tryst.

I really enjoyed reading The Maltese Falcon and I think anyone who likes either movie version would, too.  Like I said, what you see in either movie version is pretty much what you get in the book.  And since it’s not a terribly long book, either, I definitely recommend reading it.  As for which movie version I prefer, I think it goes without saying that the Humphrey Bogart version wins hands down.  The Ricardo Cortez version is good, but it doesn’t have the flawless cast and direction that the Humphrey Bogart version did.  I always loved the cast of the Bogart version, but while I was reading the book and got to read exactly how each character was described, I feel like that version had some of the most perfect casting of all time.  Nobody will ever make a better Sam Spade than Humphrey Bogart.

For more Bogie, be sure to visit Forever Classics for more Humphrey Bogart Blogathon contributions.

Other Men’s Women (1931)

Bill White (Grant Withers) is the irresponsible kind of guy that women are usually warned to stay away from.  He may have a job as a train engineer, but he’s a womanizer who drinks too much.  He does have a girlfriend named Marie (Joan Blondell), but she’s eager to get married and he isn’t.  Bill’s longtime friend Jack (Regis Toomey) is a bit more stable and has been married to Lily (Mary Astor) for two years.  On the night of their second anniversary, Jack invites Bill to join him and Lily for dinner.  But when Bill gets thrown out of his boarding house because of his irresponsible behavior, he’s invited to stay with them.

Living with Jack and Lily seems to have a good effect on Bill.  He straightens up his act a bit and is able to help out around the house a lot.  Everybody seems to be benefiting from this arrangement.  That is until one day when Bill realizes there is a woman he’d be willing to settle down for after all– Lily.  Lily has also fallen in love with Bill, but Bill cares too much about Jack to carry on with Lily behind his back and leaves with no explanation.  Jack knows that something happened between Bill and Lily and confronts him about it while they’re at work on a train.  They get into a huge fight that leaves Jack blind.

Bill feels terribly guilty after the accident and starts hitting the bottle again.  He goes back to Marie and in a drunken stupor, the both of them nearly get married.  But he backs out at the last minute and goes to see Jack instead.  Jack has no desire to hear from his former friend and when he finds out Bill had come over, he sends Lily away for a few weeks. Bill falls into a very deep depression and when their town is hit by some heavy rainfall that causes the river to overflow and flood the town, Bill decides to drive a train engine off a bridge as a way to dam up the river.  Jack has also fallen into a severe depression and when he finds out about Bill’s idea, decides to beat him to the punch.  Bill tries to stop him but Jack knocks him unconscious, throws him off the train, and carries on with the plan.  Some months later, Lily comes back to town and she and Bill run into each other.  Lily is still open to a relationship with Bill, which makes him happier than he has ever been.

I really enjoyed this movie.  Good story with good acting and good direction by William Wellman.  I loved Grant Withers as Bill and James Cagney and Joan Blondell are standouts in their minor roles.  Cagney played Jack and Bill’s friend Eddie Bailey, and even though he doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, you can definitely see that he was a real up and comer.  The interesting thing about Other Men’s Women is that it can just as easily appeal to someone interested in the love triangle aspect of the story as it can to someone in the mood for something more gritty.  When this movie is gritty, it’s pretty darn gritty.  The fight scenes are very well done and it was interesting to see how it dealt with Jack’s blindness, especially just before he got on the train to drive it off the bridge.

A Kiss Before Dying (1956)

Bud Corliss (Robert Wagner) has got a bright future and a lot of big plans for his life.  However, he’s decided that the easiest way to make it big is to date Dorothy Kingship (Joanne Woodward), whose father owns some major copper mines.  But when he finds out Dorothy is pregnant, he’s horrified when she suggests getting married because he knows her father would never approve and any chance of getting a part of those copper mines would go out the window.  Dorothy insists on getting married and Bud eventually reluctantly agrees.  But then Bud hatches a murder scheme!  Only Bud is kind of an idiot and doesn’t think his cunning plan all the way through first.  He reads up on poisons, steals some poisons from the school’s chemistry lab, and makes them into capsules.  Then he tricks Dorothy into writing a translation of something that could read like a suicide note.  So he gives Dorothy the pills he made, telling her they were vitamins.  Only he doesn’t actually watch her take them and he sends the suicide note to her sister Ellen before he knows for sure whether or not Dorothy is dead.  So imagine his surprise when he shows up for class and sees Dorothy!  He tries to stop the post office from sending his letter, but has no luck.

Now Bud’s got to kill Dorothy and fast.  When Bud and Dorothy meet up to get their marriage license, Bud picks a time when the office will be closed for lunch.  When Dorothy gets there and sees the office is closed, he suggests they go up to the roof to wait.  When they get up to the roof, Dorothy admits to not taking the pills and Bud takes the opportunity to shove her off the roof.  The police are confident it’s suicide and Dorothy’s family wants to avoid scandal so they don’t push for a bigger investigation.

But Bud is still determined to get his hand on the Kingship copper mines so he starts dating Dorothy’s sister Ellen (Virginia Leith).  Dorothy’s family didn’t really know she was seeing Bud, she only wrote a few vague details about him and mentioned a nickname he had for her in letters to Ellen, so Ellen doesn’t know who he is.  A few months after Dorothy’s death, one of Dorothy’s sorority sisters sends Ellen one of Dorothy’s belts.  Ellen then realizes that Dorothy was wearing something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue when she died.  She begins to suspect that Dorothy had been planning to get married and it wasn’t suicide, so she contacts Gordon Grant (Jeffrey Hunter) to tell him her suspicions.

Gordon and Ellen start investigating on their own and manage to track down Dwight Powell, who Dorothy had briefly dated.  When Ellen meets Dwight, she’s ready to confront him, but realizes he’s innocent when he doesn’t recognize the nickname that Dorothy had mentioned.  But he does think he has the address to the guy she dated after him.  They head back to his dorm to get it, but Bud follows them.  When Dwight gets to his room, Bud shoots him and makes it look like he killed himself out of guilt for killing Dorothy.  Ellen believes it at first, but then Gordon discovers that Dwight couldn’t possibly have killed Dorothy, he was in Mexico for a tennis tournament when she died.  So if he didn’t kill Dorothy, there would be no reason for him to kill himself.  Gordon was an assistant professor where Bud and Dorothy had gone to school and remembers seeing them together, so he starts investigating Bud further.  But as far as Ellen knows, Bud’s never been to college, let alone known her sister.  Ellen initially dismisses any idea of Bud having known her, but when she gets Bud alone during a trip to the copper mines, he slips and calls Dorothy the nickname she had mentioned in her letters.  When she realizes the truth, Bud tries to throw Ellen off a cliff, but Bud is the one who ends up dead.

For the most part, A Kiss Before Dying was pretty good.  The beginning is slightly on the campy side.  Bud is such an incredibly bumbling murderer and when Dorothy and Bud are on the roof together, I couldn’t help but laugh at how Dorothy totally misses the sinister tone in Bud’s voice and proceeds to make a point of leaning way over the ledge.  But once we get past Dorothy’s obliviousness, the movie starts turning into a pretty decent thriller.  It’s just too bad that Joanne Woodward and Mary Astor, who had a small part as Bud’s mother, didn’t get more screen time.  Joanne did very well with the time she did get, I think she gave a better performance in her small part than Virginia Leith did in her bigger role.  And Robert Wagner definitely nailed being cold, calculating, and sinister.  Overall, it’s an enjoyable movie.  Just don’t be put off by the slightly campy first part.

Red Dust (1932)

Dennis Carson (Clark Gable) is a rubber plantation owner in Indochina and quite content with his life the way it is.  He’s not too thrilled when he comes home one night to find Vantine (Jean Harl0w), a wise-cracking prostitute on the lam from Saigon, staying at his plantation house.  Dennis is willing to tolerate her presence, but eventually she’s able to win him over.

Dennis has fun with Vantine, but is glad to see her leave just in time for his new surveyor and his wife, Gary and Barbara Willis (Gene Raymond and Mary Astor), to arrive.  Unfortunately, Gary has arrived with a case of malaria and needs to rest before he can start working.  Barbara isn’t too keen on Dennis, but once she sees how he takes care of her husband, she’s pretty won over.  Dennis is also quite interested in Mrs. Willis.  But then, Vantine makes a surprise return to the plantation after her boat got damaged on the trip.  Dennis does everything he can to keep Barbara and Vantine separated.  After all, he wouldn’t want Barbara to get the wrong idea.  When Gary is well enough to work again, Dennis sends him down river to do some surveying work, leaving Barbara alone at the plantation.  Dennis takes this opportunity to get to know Barbara a little better and the two of them start an affair.  Eventually, Dennis and Barbara decide they want to get married, so Dennis heads out to join Gary on his job to tell him.  But when he gets to talking with Gary, he realizes just how much Gary loves Barbara and he doesn’t have the heart to break up their marriage.  He’s also come to realize that neither Barbara or Dennis would really be happy living on the plantation.  Dennis heads back to the plantation to console himself with booze and Vantine.  When Barbara comes in to see what’s going on, he makes a big act out of declaring that he never really loved her anyway.  Furious, she shoots him.  Meanwhile, Gary has decided to return to the plantation house after catching wind of their affair and walks in just after Dennis is shot.  Dennis says she shot him after he made a pass at her and Vantine backs his story up.  Barbara and Gary leave the plantation and Vantine nurses Dennis back to health.

Jean Harlow really was one of the pre-code queens.  One of the documentaries on the pre-code era, I forget if it was Complicated Women or Thou Shalt Not, described her as a “happy pagan”  and I can’t think of a better way to describe her in Red Dust.  She was a prostitute, but she was full of snappy lines and always seemed to be having a great time, nothing to indicate that she’s really a bad person.  Even though she made some really great movies during the production code era, her whole image and persona were just made for pre-codes.  The famous rain barrel bathing scene is definitely one of the greatest scenes of her career.  Just watch how she revels in being provocative and shocking:

I also really love Harlow’s chemistry with Clark Gable.  They are one of my favorite on-screen pairs because between Gable’s attitude and Harlow’s sassiness, what could go wrong?  MGM originally wanted Greta Garbo to play Jean Harlow’s role and I am so glad they decided to change their minds.  As much as I adore Garbo, she would have been completely wrong for Red Dust.  First of all, Garbo and Gable weren’t particularly fond of each other so they wouldn’t have had that great chemistry that Harlow had with him.  Secondly, it’s hard to imagine Garbo playing that rain barrel scene with such zeal.

Aside from some rather cringe-inducing portrayals of Asians, Red Dust was a pretty darn engaging movie.  Great writing, great acting, and very pre-code.  Lots of fun!