Summer Under the Stars: Jean Arthur

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This week marks the last few days of TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars Festival. It’s been fun as always. Each week I’ve been writing about one actor featured during this year’s festival. For my last blog entry on the subject, I’d like to shine a light on an actress who has quickly become one of my favorites: Jean Arthur. Many when discussing her will surely talk about her striking looks. But Arthur isn’t just a pretty face. She has a natural screen presence and a charm that lights up the screen whether you’re seen a movie of hers for the first or tenth time.

One of my favorite of all her films is the underrated comic gem The Whole Town’s Talking. Arthur works in the same office as a clerk played by Edward G. Robinson. One day Robinson’s character is arrested because of his uncanny resemblance to a wanted gangster. The authorities let Robinson go when they learn of their mistake. But they use him to smoke out the real bad guy. The film was a rare comedy directing effort by John Ford, known mostly for westerns. Robinson got type cast after bursting onto the screen as Little Caesar, where he played a ruthless gangster. Here it’s great to see him show off his comic chops and play this shy everyman. Jean Arthur has wonderful chemistry in the film with Robinson. She’s believable as a friendly co-worker and then Robinson’s love interest. I love the sass she shows in the office too. Her comic timing is superb. The film doesn’t get a lot of love, but it’s a hidden treasure.

But most of my favorite Jean Arthur films share a common director: Frank Capra. The two collaborated on many occasions. My favorite of the bunch is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In it, Arthur plays Clarissa Saunders, the secretary of newly appointed senator Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart). Smith comes to the position after the previous Senator passes away. But the reason smith was chosen was because of his naivety about the political process. The governor of the state that he represents in the Senate thinks that by appointing someone with a lack of understanding won’t cause any trouble. Well…that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Smith is an idealist, but he also has a spine. He sets off on a mission to get a national boy’s camp. Saunders explains how the process of passing a bill works to him, and then he sees the harsh realities of the legislative process up close. Stewart and Arthur make a great team. Saunders initially dismisses him as much more than figure-head. But then she comes around and spurs him on in his quest to fight the corrupt system he works in. Arthur becomes not only a colleague but a fierce friend. While we rightly remember the famous filibuster scene with Stewart, he comes to that point by being spurred on by Arthur. Watching them onscreen together is something to behold. Another on-screen collaboration of Stewart and Arthur that I love is You Can’t Take It With You.

Another favorite Jean Arthur film is The More the Merrier. I only discovered this film recently thanks to TCM. It’s a comedy with a lot of heart. Arthur plays Connie Mulligan. Mulligan puts an ad in the paper that she’s looking for a roommate. The ad is answered by billionaire Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn). He’s just arrived in D.C. as an advisor on the housing shortage and finds his hotel suite won’t be available for a few days. Mulligan is reluctant at first, but eventually agrees to let Dingle sublet half her apartment. Hilarity ensues as they get in each other’s way. But wait…there’s more! Sargent Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), has no place to stay while he waits to be shipped overseas. Dingle sublets half of his half of the apartment to Carter. Mulligan can’t throw them out because she’s already spent the rent money. So Carter stays, and falls in love with Mulligan, despite the fact that she’s engaged. Through a misunderstanding, a nosy neighbor makes the police think Carter has been spying for the Japanese. Carter and Mulligan are both brought in for questioning, and then it’s discovered my Mulligan’s fiancée that she and Carter are living in the same apartment. The story hits the papers leading to scandal. Dingle suggests the two get married to avoid further scandal. I won’t reveal the ending, but just let me say this. Arthur and McCrea have one of the greatest screen kisses I’ve ever seen. The comic timing of Arthur, McCrea, and Coburn is spectacular. It’s one of the best screwball comedies ever made.

I could sit here all-day about Arthur’s great films. There’s Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Shane… Arthur could do both comedy and drama effortlessly. Her laugh and smile are infectious. I do a happy dance anytime I see her come onscreen in a movie. Once you experience a few of her films you’ll understand why. Jean Arthur doesn’t pop up on may lists of great actors, but if you ask me she should. Arthur is a true cinematic treasure.

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Summer Under The Stars: Boris Karloff

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All this month I’ve been highlighting actors featured during Turner Classic Movies’ Summer Under the Stars festival. This week’s pick is known mostly for one role. But, as the schedule of films for his day shows, he was far more than just the man who played Frankenstein. I’m of course talking about horror legend Boris Karloff.

Karloff defined the modern version of the movie monster in James Whale’s 1931 horror classic Frankenstein. While he had no spoken lines in the movie, Karloff told the whole story with just his body language. When the monster first comes to life in the lab, he looks scary with the bolt through the neck and all the elaborate makeup. But then he appears almost childlike when you see him reaching his hands up towards the light and also in the scene where he tries to make friends with a little girl by picking pedals off a flower and throwing them into the lake. Through Karloff’s performance we have genuine sympathy for the monster. He seems scared and confused by the world he’s been brought into. A bunch of angry villagers coming after him with pitchforks and torches sure doesn’t help. The film, and of course Mary Shelley’s novel, raise real questions about medical ethics and whether or not science should do something just because it can. Should we be playing God by re-animating dead tissue? It’s a more complicated question than it appears on the surface.

While Frankenstein is certainly a horror landmark and a great film worthy of multiple viewings, it only scratches the surface of Karloff’s talent. The same year that the film that made him a star came out, he also appeared in an underrated gem of a film called Five Star Final. Directed by the versatile Mervyn LeRoy and co-starring Edward G. Robinson, it’s one of the best exposes on tabloid journalism that’s ever been made. Karloff plays Isopod, an unscrupulous reporter working for editor Randall (Robinson). The circulation of the paper is down. Randall gets convinced by his superiors to resurrect an old love nest killing story against his better judgement. Isopod weasels his way into the lives of the people involved in the story, posing as a minster. Well, sure enough, he digs up some dirt in the process and people’s lives get dragged through the mud. Karloff really gets to show off his dramatic chops here. He is so believably sleazy in the part. But it’s fascinating watching him work his slimey charm and manipulate the people around him. And he shows he can be a great supporting player in a talented cast. It’s no small feat holding your own against someone with as strong of a screen presence as Edward G. Robinson.

Boris Karloff also appeared in a supporting part in the original Scarface, a myriad of Frankenstein sequels (including the wonderful Bride of Frankenstein), and a few films for legendary horror producer Val Lewton. One of my favorites is Isle of the Dead, where Karloff plays a Greek doctor who ends up on an island that has to be quarantine because one person on it died of the plague. It’s not a straight up medical drama. It’s a very atmospheric horror movie where black magic is involved. It wouldn’t be a horror movie without it. I also have a fondness for The Mask of Fu Manchu, where Karloff plays the title character who collects ancient relics in the hopes that he and has daughter can combine the power of the relics to enslave the world. Every great horror movie needs a great villain. And Karloff really attacks the role with maniacal glee. It’s a fun watch.

It’s hard to do justice to Boris Karloff’s career in one blog entry. The man who most kids are introduced to as the voice of the Grinch in the animated version of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! really had a range that he far too often doesn’t get credit for. Yes, he played monsters very well and he’s a horror icon in the same league with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee, but he also had dramatic chops. You get to see some of that in the aforementioned Five Star Final, the Lewton films, and a made for TV version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Boris Karloff was more than just Frankenstein.

Summer Under The Stars: Humphrey Bogart

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Everybody probably has a different answer to the question, “who’s your favorite actor of all-time?” I’m not sure who gets your vote. But for me there’s a clear answer: Humphrey Bogart. There have been many great leading men in Hollywood: Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne,James Cagney… But there’s something about Bogart that comes off the screen and stays in my heart. I know that sounds corny. But it’s hard to put into words what Bogart and his films have meant to me, especially as a lover of classic films. So it’s probably no surprise that he’s the actor I’ve chosen to write about for week three of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars festival.

The first film of Bogart’s I saw is probably the one he’s best known for: Casablanca. In his portrayal of Rick Blaine, Bogart created one of the most complex and enduring heroes in the history of cinema. When we first see him in his cafe he appears at first to be a one-note, cynical character. But gradually through the brilliant screenplay and Bogart’s natural screen presence, we learn that there’s more to Rick than meets the eye.The reason he left America and cannot return is never spelled out, but we gather through conversation that it had something to do with fighting on the side of the underdog in war. And then there’s his complicated relationship with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), who left him at the train station when they were supposed to flee from the Nazis together. But I don’t want to just give you a Casablanca plot summary. What I want to touch on here, is what a great performance Bogart gives in the film.

His evolution from a bitter, cynical bar owner who sticks his neck out for nobody to a man who sacrifices his own happiness for the greater good is nothing short of brilliant. It’s one of the best character arcs I’ve ever seen in a movie. While Casablanca is rightfully known for its iconic lines of dialogue, it’s the characters that have made it stand the test of time. At the end of the day, Rick Blaine is a hopeless romantic with a good heart. What’s not to love? Look at the way Bogart seamlessly plays Rick as cynical at the beginning by hiding his pain through sarcastic banter and drowning his sorrows in gin versus the end where a simple nod of his head telling the band to play La Marseillaise shows that he’s coming back to fight the good fight. Through body language (especially his eyes and the way he carries himself), Bogart puts on a clinic of how to give a multifaceted performance without being showy.

But Bogart did much more than give a great performance in the greatest film of all-time (at least for my money). He also gave wonderful performances in several films that fall into the film noir genre. In fact, he was the lead in what is considered widely to be the first one: The Maltese Falcon. In it, he plays Sam Spade. In that performance, Bogart gives the definitive performance of the hard-boiled detective. Spade is rough around the edges, but has a code of honor. That comes to the forefront when his detective agency partner, Miles Archer, is murdered. Like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon shows Bogart’s ability to be a leading man in a great acting ensemble. Here he gets some of the best supporting actors at Warner Brothers: Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr., Ward Bond, etc. Bogart’s portrayal of Sam Spade shows that he can be a tough guy but look cool doing it. He would go on to act in several more great noir films: Dark Passage, Key Largo, The Big Sleep, etc. Bogart is arguably the king of film noir.

But what makes Bogart stand out is that he could play hard-boiled detectives, romantic leads, and everything in between. Another example of his versatility is his performance in The African Queen. It’s hard to believe that Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn made only one film together. But the one that did was pretty great. It was great enough that Bogart finally won an Oscar. How someone of his caliber only won one is one of the great mysteries in the history of the Academy Awards. But back to The African Queen. In it, Bogart plays a riverboat captain during World War I who is persuaded by a missionary (Katherine Hepburn) to sink an enemy warship. All of this takes place against the backdrop of Africa. There’s a great contrast in the personalities of the main characters. Bogart’s character has a penchant for drinking gin and Hepburn’s character is a proper religious woman. But it’s not just a buddy movie set during war-time. The journey changes the characters and the characters in turn change each other. The polar opposites play off each other beautifully. What a treat to see two great actors at the top of their game in such an incredible movie.

I could sit here all-day and talk about the great films that Humphrey Bogart made. But that still wouldn’t do him justice. What is it that makes him the greatest? It’s hard to boil it down into a few simple sentences. But I will try. It’s his ability to shine in any role he was cast. He could play villains (High Sierra, Treasure of the Sierra Madre), romantic leads (Casablanca, To Have and Have Not), hard-boiled detectives (The Maltese Falcon,The Big Sleep), a depraved riverboat captain (The African Queen)… He had range. Bogart could tell a whole story with just the way he turned his head, flashed a smile, or gave a maniacal laugh. And his good looks don’t hurt either. The man captured my imagination in Casablanca and he’s grown on me more through the years as I’ve become familiar with more of his work. He was an essential part of me falling in love with classic films. There’s no actor who makes me happier to see on screen than Bogart. I always know watching him work at his craft will be time well-spent. We’ll always have Paris and we’ll always have the pleasure of enjoying a Bogart films as much the first time as the 100th time.

Summer Under the Stars: Hedy Lamarr

Hedy-Lamarr-classic-movies-9477803-1194-1500This week on Turner Classic Movies, their annual Summer Under the Stars festival kicked off. Each week in August I’ll be highlighting one of the stars featured this year For week two my spotlight is going to be on Hedy Lamarr. Recently she has finally gotten recognition not just for her acting skills, but her skills as an inventor. Lamarr was a woman ahead of her time.

Lamarr was a star during the golden age of MGM studios. She made her American film debut in Algiers. The success of that film, about a beautiful girl who meets a romantic jewel thief in a mysterious Casbah, paved the way for a string of successful films in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the notable ones include: Lady of the Tropics (1939), Boom Town (1940), Tortilla Flat (1942), and Samson and Delilah (1949).

Of her films, let me highlight a few favorites. Crossroads (1942) is one I’m partial to. Not only does it have an interesting story about a diplomat who is blackmailed for crimes he committed before he had amnesia. Not only does the film have the wonderful Hedy Lamarr. It features another favorite actor of mine: William Powell. It has a lot of neat plot twists and great chemistry between its stars.

Another favorite of Lamar’s films for me also co-stars William Powell. It’s called The Heavenly Body (1944). Here’s a plot synopsis to get you an idea of what to expect in this delightful comedy.

Astronomer Bill Whitley (William Powell) is so preoccupied with the new comet he’s discovered that his time at the observatory sometimes comes at the expense of his beautiful wife, Vicky (Hedy Lamarr). When the neglected spouse becomes influenced by an eccentric neighbor into believing in the power of astrology, she subscribes to a weekly horoscope from a phony seer, the appropriately named Margaret Sybill (Fay Bainter). When the beautiful Mrs. Whitley reads that a new dream man will be coming soon into her life, she assumes he’s taken the form of Lloyd Hunter (James Craig), a handsome and dashing foreign correspondent who doubles as the neighborhood air raid warden. A frantic Bill realizes that he’s going to have to keep closer track of his earthbound heavenly body if he’s going to keep the prediction from becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.–IMDB

In this film, Lamarr shows she can do comedy as well as drama. And Powell is a superb comic talent, as anyone who has seen The Thin Man movies can tell you. I could go on and on about her films. But most people know Lamarr for her looks and her films. Let’s talk about her contributions to science.

Did you know Lamarr helped develop a secret communications system during World War II? Here’s some more information courtesy of Biography.com:

In 1942, during the heyday of her career, Lamarr earned recognition in a field quite different from entertainment. She and her friend, the composer George Antheil, received a patent for an idea of a radio signaling device, or “Secret Communications System,” which was a means of changing radio frequencies to keep enemies from decoding messages. Originally designed to defeat the German Nazis, the system became an important step in the development of technology to maintain the security of both military communications and cellular phones.

Lamarr wasn’t instantly recognized for her communications invention since its wide-ranging impact wasn’t understood until decades later. However, in 1997 Lamarr and Antheil were honored with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Pioneer Award, and that same year Lamarr became the first female to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award, considered “The Oscars” of inventing.

Hedy Lamarr proved you could have beauty and brains. Without Lamarr we wouldn’t have modern WiFi. Here’s some more info:

By manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception, the invention formed an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr and Anthiel received a patent in 1941, but the enormous significance of their invention was not realized until decades later. It was first implemented on naval ships during the Cuban Missile Crisis and subsequently emerged in numerous military applications. But most importantly, the “spread spectrum” technology that Lamarr helped to invent would galvanize the digital communications boom, forming the technical backbone that makes cellular phones, fax machines and other wireless operations possible.

Who new that one of the most glamorous women in Hollywood had an intellectual side? That’s not surprising given that she had a wall full of engineering reference books in her home, as a great piece from CBS news points out. It’s great that Hedy Lamarr, like many women inventors, is finally getting the credit she deserves. And its a bonus that Turner Classic Movies is featuring her in their annual Summer Under the Stars festival.