Midnight at the Oasis

Devil and the Deep (1932)

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This movie is a total hoot!  A hoot and a half, you might even say.  Don’t mistake me, it’s not exactly good.  In fact, it’s completely ridiculous.  But it’s also fun – nutty, only-in-Hollywood fun, with star power galore, a crazy story, and quite a bit of pre-code sexiness.

In a nutshell:  Tallulah Bankhead plays the wife of Charles Laughton, a submarine commander stationed in North Africa.  He is insanely (and I mean insanely) jealous of every man who looks at, speaks to, or breathes the same air as his wife, even though she is faithful to him.

After Laughton falsely accuses her of having an affair with one of his officers (Cary Grant), Tallulah runs off into the night, meets Gary Cooper, and has an evening of passion with him.  Of course Cooper turns out to be one of Laughton’s officers too, and all hell breaks loose when the truth comes out.

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The plot is melodramatic and improbable, but there are so many things to love about Devil and the Deep.  For instance:

* Cary Grant.  He only has a small part at the beginning of the film, but he acquits himself quite nicely and is very young and handsome.  He’s not the Cary Grant we all know and love quite yet, but it’s still a pleasure to see him — especially looking so spiffy in his uniform.

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* Charles Laughton in his first movie role.  Paramount gives him a big, over-the-top introduction in the titles, befitting the big, over-the-top actor he was.  As soon as I saw the below pop up, I figured this movie was going to be the aforementioned hoot and a half and I was not disappointed.

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Laughton chews the scenery like nobody’s business, especially in his final scene of the picture.  I don’t want to spoil things by giving it away, but it’s truly fantastic.  I laughed so hard, even though I’m sure I wasn’t supposed to.

* Tallulah Bankhead.  She’s mesmerizing to watch, with her husky voice and drawn on eyebrows, slinking around in bias-cut evening gowns that leave little to the imagination.  She even wears one of those gowns while escaping from a submarine at the bottom of the sea!  That’s glamour.  She’s also quite touching in the early scenes with Laughton – you can feel her weariness at putting up with his constant, unfounded jealousy and her helplessness to do anything about it.

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Watching her love scenes with Gary Cooper, I couldn’t help remembering that Bankhead famously said the only reason she came to Hollywood was “to f—k that divine Gary Cooper.”  Asked about her comment by a reporter years later, she simply stated “Mission accomplished.”  She was something else, that’s for sure.

* Gary Cooper, who is so drop dead gorgeous in this movie that Tallulah’s ambition, while vulgarly phrased, is quite understandable.  This is far from Cooper’s best role – in fact he is a bit wooden at times.  Still, it’s still a treat to see him in seduction mode: rescuing Tallulah from being jostled to death by a crowd of Arab men filling the streets for a festival, lingeringly checking out her clingy gown/no underwear ensemble, buying her a bottle of exotic perfume, and leading her off to a desert oasis for a magical night of passion.

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Pre-code movies are so shameless sometimes!  They fade to black, sure, but not before they make certain you know exactly what is going on.  Devil and the Deep is no exception and it’s pretty steamy.  Also interestingly pre-code is the fact that in the end Tallulah is not punished for her illicit behavior.  She’s able to take up with Cooper again once Laughton is out of the way.  Post-code she’d have had to die or lose her lover forever as punishment.

Cooper cuts a dashing figure, whether in his naval uniforms or in his civvies.  He even makes an ascot look masculine and sophisticated instead of foppish.  He filmed this movie shortly after returning from time spent with Countess Dorothy DiFrasso in Europe and Africa.  The Countess had transformed his way of dressing and carrying himself, Pygmalion-style, and it shows in the newly elegant and  easy way he wears his clothes here.  The cowboy from Montana had taken on a dapper, European style.

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* The submarine scenes.  Although the sets and effects were fairly hokey, it still freaked me out to imagine those poor souls trapped at the bottom of the sea under the command of a raving lunatic.  From the time Laughton destroys the ship in a fit of jealous rage until his final hammy moments (glug, glug), Devil and the Deep is nerve-wracking, inadvertently hysterical entertainment.

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I found the movie totally entertaining.  It’s part of the recently released Cary Grant: The Early Years collection, which is a bit misleading.  His part is very small and this is much more Gary Cooper’s movie than it is Cary Grant’s.  Of course the truth is that Charles Laughton steals the show from Gary, Tallulah and Cary.  There’s definitely nothing subtle about his performance.

Check this one out if you get a chance.  It’s kind of fabulous.

Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream

Well, the Gary Cooper Collection  is turning out to be one of the greatest DVD bargains ever! (Looks like it’s even cheaper on Amazon today than when I bought it, too.) Not only does it feature the sublimely funny Design for Living and the entertaining adventure movie that got me started on my Cooper kick months ago, Beau Geste, but it also includes a beautiful, ethereal film I saw a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to stop thinking about since – 1935’s Peter Ibbetson.

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Based on an 1891 novel by George du Maurier (Daphne’s grandfather), Peter Ibbetson tells the story of two childhood friends and next door neighbors – Peter, nicknamed Gogo, and Mary, known as Mimsy. The two argue and bicker, but they’re also deeply attached and love each other with a sweet, childish intensity.

Peter’s mother dies, and the two children are cruelly separated when Peter is taken away from his home in France to live with an uncle in London. Gogo is played by Dickie Moore and Mimsy by Virginia Weidler. Both are wonderful, natural child actors. The scene of their parting ripped my heart out! Oh, it was so sad.

Ibbetson10 I got a particular kick out of seeing Weidler, who a few years later memorably played Katharine Hepburn’s mischievous little sister, Dinah, in The Philadelphia Story. (“It was all certainly pretty rooty-tooty!”) She was very cute and very blond in Peter Ibbetson.

Peter grows up into a tall, handsome architect, played by a mustache-sporting Gary Cooper. Poor Peter is never able to forget Mary, comparing every woman he meets to his beloved friend and finding them all lacking. In his heart he believes Mary was his soulmate, and that he is destined to be without love forever because he lost her so many years ago. Little does he know that an assignment from the architecture firm he works for will bring his beloved Mimsy back into his life.

The job is to build an elaborate barn on the estate of the Duke and Duchess of Towers. It will require him living in the couple’s home for months while the work is underway. Peter and the Duchess (Ann Harding), a cool and beautiful blond, meet and instantly begin to spar over the barn’s construction. He wants to build it his way, according to his artistic vision. She has her own ideas about keeping the existing structure and simply adding to it.

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During the film’s opening scene, Gogo and Mimsy fight over some boards she wants to use to build a dollhouse and he wants to use to build a wagon. Peter and the Duchess’s bickering over the barn has an eerily similar quality, and is our first clue that they may already be more connected than they realize.

When they can’t agree about the barn’s construction, Peter prepares to leave the job. As he packs his bags and waits to depart, he decides to send the Duchess a humorous cartoon he drew, making a joke of their silly quarrel. The Duchess is so amused by the drawing, and by his nerve in sending it to her, that she decides to give him another chance.

Peter stays on for weeks and weeks. During the construction of the barn, he and the Duchess spend time together — talking, sharing meals, going over architectural plans. The Duke (John Halliday) watches all of this unfold, not saying much until one evening when the three are dining together. He then bluntly states that his wife is in love with the architect and accuses them of having an affair.

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In fact, Peter and the Duchess have never even touched, but it’s obvious that they do love each other and have formed a very deep bond. At one point earlier in the film they have the exact same dream on the same night, about a terrifying, violent thunderstorm. The next day, a storm arrives. They are fascinated and disturbed by this strange connection. The Duchess, in denial, tries to pass it off as a coincidence, but Peter believes there is more to it than that.

Confronting the Duke’s allegations, the pair deny having an affair but admit their love for each other. Peter tells of the childhood friend he lost, saying he never thought he’d be able to forget her and love someone else until he met the Duchess. As he tells his story, the puzzle pieces come together for both of them. They aren’t just Peter Ibbetson and the Duchess of Towers — they are Gogo and Mimsy, who loved each other as children and have found each other again, improbably and much too late.

Annex%20-%20Cooper,%20Gary%20(Peter%20Ibbetson)_04 Hearing this, the jealous Duke kicks Peter out of his home, insisting that he never see or talk to Mary again. Peter and Mary can’t resist seeing each other one last time, however, and when the Duke finds the lovers embracing in Mary’s room he pulls a gun on them. He is about to shoot when Peter attacks and kills him in self-defense. Peter is imprisoned for life for the Duke’s murder. Mary returns home alone, a widow seen by society as an adulteress.

In prison, which is about as terrible a bread-and-water, rat-infested place as you’d imagine a mid-19th century English prison to be, a cruel guard brutally beats Peter and breaks his back. No one expects him to live through the night. Mary comes to Peter in a dream, urging him to escape the prison walls and be with her. In the dream she tells him she will send him her ring, so he’ll know their connection is real and is happening to them both. Holding on by a thread, waiting to see if the ring will arrive, Peter lives until morning.

Sure enough Mary does bring the ring, which a guard delivers to Peter. From then on Peter and Mary meet on another, spiritual plane each night. He slips through the prison’s bars, able to walk as he is no longer able to walk in real life, meeting Mary in a beautiful dream world. They visit their childhood home, amble through idyllic landscapes together, and sometimes encounter storms and terrifying separations when their belief in the truth of their shared dream grows weak.

Annex%20-%20Cooper,%20Gary%20(Peter%20Ibbetson)_06They live like this for many years, meeting in their dreams at night and spending a lifetime together that way. Eventually their real-life selves grow old and sick. Mary dies. She comes to Peter one last time, telling him that their dream meetings must now end, but that they will be together again in the future. Hearing this and feeling reassured, Peter dies in prison. At last the two are reunited forever.

All of this sounds ridiculous and melodramatic, I imagine, but in truth it’s beautiful and shamelessly romantic. The movie’s cinematography by Charles Lang and special effects by Gordon Jennings are famous, and rightfully so given the technical limitations in 1935. There are some gorgeous scenes during the dream-life sequences, especially during the storm. Peter walking through his prison bars is beautifully done as well. The movie’s score by Ernst Toch is haunting and stayed with me for days afterward.

With Peter Ibbetson, Gary Cooper once again proved how versatile and sensitive an actor he truly was. It would’ve been easy to be overwrought and too dramatic in a role as tragic as that of Peter, but overdoing things was not part of Coop’s acting vocabulary. With his quiet manner and sad, soulful eyes, he brought Peter Ibbetson’s plight to life without resorting to histrionics.

There seem to be an endless number of stories out there about the striking subtlety of Cooper’s acting, as observed by his directors and fellow actors. Like many others, Ann Harding was initially disturbed by the fact that Cooper didn’t seem to be doing anything or giving her anything with which to connect during their scenes. Peter Ibbetson’s director, Cooper’s friend Henry Hathaway, told her not to worry about it — Cooper’s work would not be evident until she saw it onscreen. And of course what turned up on the screen was an excellent, affecting performance.

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This film was the first time I’d ever seen or really even heard of Ann Harding, but since watching and being so struck by her turn as Mary I suddenly seem to run into mentions of her everywhere! First she showed up in 1947’s It Happened on Fifth Avenue, which I’d recorded over the holidays and finally watched the other day. (It’s a very cute Christmas movie, by the way!) Then I read this great piece about her on TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog. The above anecdote about her reaction to Cooper’s acting was gleaned from that article.

Harding was evidently Paramount’s attempt to cultivate their own version of Norma Shearer, the queen of MGM dramas at the time. Although she never became as famous as Shearer, I think she was really much better, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Harding is more natural and subtle than the overdramatic Shearer. (Sorry, Norma fans! She’s just not my cup of tea.)

Peter Ibbetson is so unusual for a studio picture of that time period. It doesn’t feel like an American movie, actually, having a much more European look and tone. The dream sequences are poetic and surreal, reminding me at times of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. The feeling of romantic fantasy is similar in both films, although Beauty and the Beast is obviously much more surreal and otherworldly.

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It’s a lovely, strange, moving story. Not the most flawless movie I’ve ever seen, but one that has lingered with me afterward in a way many other films haven’t.  I think you probably have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the movie, because if you go into it with a cynical, mocking spirit it could very well seem silly. But if you give yourself over to the lush, sentimental romanticism of it, you might find yourself as taken with Peter Ibbetson as I was.

Pretty Baby (1950)

Pretty Baby stars Betsy Drake as Patsy Douglas, an ambitious girl who runs the mimeograph machine at an advertising agency.  After mornings spent trying in vain to get a seat on the subway, she passes her days cranking out copies of soap opera scripts while daydreaming of becoming a copywriter.  She also daydreams about her boss, Sam Morley (Dennis Morgan), on whom she has a crush.

When the agency loses its biggest account, Baxter’s Baby Food, Patsy takes a baby doll (nicknamed Cyrus, after  Mr. Baxter) from the disassembled display in the agency’s lobby, wraps it in a blanket, and uses it to get a seat on the subway.  Men may not give up their seats for all ladies, but they do give them up for mothers carrying babies!

One evening Patsy sits next to a grumpy old man (Edmund Gwenn), telling him that her baby is Cyrus Baxter Douglas, and that he’s named after the wonderful man who runs Baxter’s Baby Food.  Unbeknownst to her, the old man whose leg she is pulling is Mr. Cyrus Baxter himself.  Mr. Baxter is so touched that this young woman has named her baby after him that he determines to help her and her child however he can.  He gets her a promotion at work, which her bosses at the agency go along with only because they think Patsy has a relationship with Mr. Baxter that will help them win back his business.

The rest is a round of  predictably wacky misunderstandings.  All three men think Patsy is an unwed mother.  Mr. Baxter suspects one of the bosses of being the baby’s father.  Patsy has to hide the doll from Mr. Baxter every time he unexpectedly drops by, for fear of letting him know the truth of her deception.  Her bosses don’t want her to ruin their chances to win back the account, after all.  Besides, Patsy doesn’t want to hurt Baxter, whose tough shell has been cracked by his affection for Patsy and the fake baby he’s never even seen.

Meanwhile, Patsy shows no talent for copywriting (her jingles are awful), but she does inspire Mr. Morley to be true to himself creatively.  Of course he falls in love with her.

Betsy Drake is cute, Edmund Gwenn is hilarious and touching, and even Dennis Morgan, who normally doesn’t do much for me, is lots of fun.  At one point he sings “Pretty Baby” to Drake through a transom window, which is utterly goofy.  He had a lovely voice, though!

Barbara Billingsley and William Frawley have small parts in the movie, a few years before they’d become famous on TV as June Cleaver and Fred Mertz.

Pretty Baby is a completely pleasant, silly, amusing diversion — sort of Every Girl Should be Married meets Bachelor Mother.  Well, maybe Bundle of Joy more than Bachelor Mother, quality-wise.  If you’re in the mood for something heartwarming, fun, and not too much of a strain on the brain, this is it.  TCM airs it sometimes, and it’s also available from the Warner Archive.

Chemistry, the Camera and Cooper

City Streets (1931)

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In City Streets, gangster’s daughter Sylvia Sidney wants her boyfriend, easygoing shooting gallery employee Gary Cooper, to make something of himself by joining her father’s Prohibition-era beer racket.  When her father allows her to be imprisoned in connection with a murder he himself committed, Cooper is unwillingly drawn into mob life, thinking the fast money he can make will help him free her.

In the scene linked here, Cooper visits Sidney in jail, decked out in his new mobster finery.  Her time in prison has led her to see how terrible mob life is and to want no part of it.  When she realizes that her sweet, innocent boyfriend is  now a racketeer, she is horrified.  It’s such a great scene – their initial happiness at seeing each other, their straining to touch and kiss each other through the wire that separates them, and Sidney’s growing dismay at what she’s gotten him into.

Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, City Streets is surprisingly modern and technically sophisticated for such an early movie.  (It boasts the first use of a voiceover to indicate a character’s inner thoughts in any talking picture.)   The performances are really good too, especially Sylvia Sidney’s.  She transforms from a shallow girl who goes along with a criminal life because of what it can get her, to someone who sees how rotten her father’s business is and wants only to get herself and her boyfriend out of it.

Gary Cooper was so young and beautiful.  I feel shallow always going on and on about his looks, but it’s impossible not to gush.  His introduction in the movie (about 30 seconds into the below clip) will take your breath away.  The way the moment was staged was obviously meant to do just that.  There are a lot of actresses who would’ve killed for such loving treatment by the camera.  That smile!

 For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

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I had to watch For  Whom the Bell Tolls over the course of three days, because it’s just too long!  Parts of it drag, most of the political motivation of Robert Jordan and his band of Republican guerillas was drained out of Hemingway’s story, and it all goes on and on.  And on.

What makes For Whom the Bell Tolls worth watching is the romance between Gary Cooper’s Robert Jordan and Ingrid Bergman’s Maria.  Their scenes together are incredible.  The rumor is that the two of them had an affair during filming.  Bergman later said she fell in love with Cooper, but because they were married to others nothing happened.  Given both of their reputations, that seems unlikely. 

Whatever the truth is, there’s definitely a lot of heat between the two of them on screen.  The way they gaze at one another, drinking each other in like they can’t get enough, is amazing.  Frankly, Maria often seems too smitten and blissful every time she looks at Jordan, given her terrible recent history of rape and imprisonment at the hands of the Nationalists.  It’s as if Bergman’s feelings for Cooper are too overwhelming, perhaps spilling over into her acting a little more than they should have.

The movie is a bit of a mess overall, but scenes like the ones below make up for that.  Even if I never sit and watch the whole 2 hours and 45 minutes again, I can certainly see myself fast-forwarding through the battle scenes and endless talk of El Sordo’s horses to get to moments like these.  “If there’s nothing to do for you, I’ll sit by you and watch you.  And in the nights, we’ll make love.”

Swoon!

 Saratoga Trunk (1945)

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Saratoga Trunk is such a strange movie – almost like two movies stuck together.  In the first half of the film, Clio Dulaine (Ingrid Bergman), illegitimate daughter of a Creole aristocrat and a lower class French woman, returns to New Orleans bent on revenge against the aristocrat’s family for their part in destroying her mother’s life.

Clio runs into Texas gambler and con-man Clint Maroon (Cooper), and sparks fly between the two of them.  It’s sort of a Rhett/Scarlett thing, with him not being the marrying kind and her determined to avenge herself on the family that did her wrong, then marry a man much richer than Clint.

Clio is accompanied by her bossy, superstitious maid, Angelique (Flora Robson in disturbingly bad makeup meant to indicate her mixed race), and a mischievous dwarf manservant, Cupidon.  Their presence gives an especially bizarre tone to the movie.

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The second half of the film takes place when Clint and Clio make their way to Saratoga, he to exact his own revenge against the railroad magnate who ruined his father, she to beguile and marry a wealthy railroad heir.  Clint and Clio are of course madly in love with each other, even if they won’t admit it, and are at cross-purposes all the time.  They finally make their way into each other’s arms, but not before a (literal) train wreck.

It’s a big, sweeping story, though a bit disjointed.  The tone of the New Orleans half of the movie is noticeably different than the Saratoga half.  It just doesn’t quite flow.  And though it seems they were going for the sort of sparring romance Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh had in Gone With the Wind, Gary Cooper is by nature too laid back for that to really work for the Clio/Clint relationship.

Nonetheless, the chemistry he and Bergman exhibited in For Whom the Bell Tolls is still there.  This scene, in Clio’s New Orleans boudoir, is a good example.  I love the possessive way he grabs her hair and wraps it around her neck, and the way she bats his hand away with her brush.  Sexy!

The camera spends a lot of time leisurely taking in Cooper’s long-legged frame in Saratoga Trunk.  When we first see him it’s from Clio’s point of view – a slow, sensual sweep from his cowboy boots to his big white hat as he sits on the edge of a barstool and leans back against the bar.  At another point, a middle-aged busybody in Saratoga tells Clio she’s foolish not to drop her rich suitor in favor of Clint, longingly describing his broad shoulders and narrow hips.

I’ve noticed that Cooper is often ogled by the camera and lusted after by female characters in his films of the ‘30s and ‘40s, in a blatant way usually reserved for actresses.  He is almost too beautiful, but he carries it off with total nonchalance, as if he has no idea how gorgeous he is.  Or, if he does know, he doesn’t really care.  Which of course makes him that much more attractive, doesn’t it?

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Happy Birthday, Cary Grant!

I had high hopes of writing an epic Cary Grant post here today in honor of the 107th anniversary of his birth, but unfortunately life and work got in the way and I didn’t have time.  So, instead of the epic, I’ll share a personal story about how, in an unexpected turn of events, Cary’s widow read (or at least received) a letter I wrote about her husband.

My very favorite book about Cary is Evenings With Cary Grant, written by Nancy Nelson. Nelson worked with Grant on a series of lectures he gave in the ’80s called A Conversation With Cary Grant. She got to know him well, and after his death in 1986 she wrote this book, full of the stories he’d told as well as memories and anecdotes from his friends and colleagues. It’s a loving, warm, thoroughly entertaining tribute. 

The first time I read the book I was in college.  By the time I finished it, curled up in my little dorm bedroom, I was completely overwhelmed with love for this man.  I’m a big sap about him now, but it was even worse when I was only twenty! I dried my eyes, got out my Brother word processor (ha, remember those?) and penned a gushing yet completely heartfelt letter to the author – something I’d never done before.  Something about that book, and about Cary himself, was so compelling that I just had to do it.  I wrote:

Dear Ms. Nelson,

Thank you so much for your wonderful book, Evenings With Cary Grant. When I finished reading it last night tears were streaming down my cheeks. I felt as though I had made a new friend in Mr. Grant, and was sad to have lost him so soon after getting to know him.

Cary Grant has been my favorite actor for several years, at a time when all my college roommates are swooning over Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. I loved his movies and wanted to know more about him as a person. However, every other biography I glanced through at the library or bookstore seemed full of rumor, innuendo and secondhand sources. I was so excited when I came across your book! When I saw that it was mostly in Cary Grant’s own words and the words of his friends, and that it had the blessing of his wife and daughter, I bought it right away and just devoured it.

When I read a biography or memoir, I always hope to learn something about the subject’s life, as well as to be entertained. Evenings with Cary Grant was fascinating, witty, and also very moving.

What made finding your book even more special was the fact that just the night before I had been in Houston to see Gregory Peck in his version of Mr. Grant’s “Conversations.” Mr. Peck had mentioned that he got the idea from Cary Grant! It was a wonderful coincidence.

Thank you once again for your book. The publishing world needs more authors like you to write honestly and kindly about the famous and successful.

Sincerely, etc.

Pretty corny, I know! I’m almost embarrassed about that letter, but I meant every word of it then, and I still do, actually. It’s a lovely book. (I can’t say  my emotional reaction to it has changed with age, either.  I read it last year and was just as touched.)  A couple of months later I received this letter from Nancy Nelson:

Dear Ms. —:

Your letter about my Cary Grant book has put me right into a soup of emotion. First of all, it is such a joy to receive a letter so long after publication – in the beginning there was lots of mail – and, secondly, you have expressed yourself beautifully. If I had any fantasy at all about what reaction people would have to Cary and his life and the way I portrayed it, it would be yours. Exactly. A million thanks.

(By the by, I would have responded sooner but your letter just arrived this morning. Publishers are notorious for not sending author mail in any timely fashion.)

And you mention the coincidence of being in Houston. Well, so was I. Today Gregory Peck is my client, and yes he got the idea from Cary Grant, who told him how much fun it was to go out on the road to meet people. I knew Cary was talking to Greg – years ago – and I took up the mission myself. I practically got on my knees when I went to his house to interview him for my book! Well, it’s many years later – about 11 since my first contact with him via Cary – but here we are! Wasn’t Houston smashing? The audience was marvelous, and he was terrific. Of the six we’ve done, it’s my favorite. Everything worked. All the technical stuff, etc. It was a perfect show.

Thank you for all your kind words and thoughtfulness. I’ll cherish your letter. (I’ve already faxed it to Cary’s wife.)

Sincerely yours,
Nancy Nelson

What an amazing letter to receive!  I never expected to hear anything back from her, so to get something so nice, to find out that she had been at the Gregory Peck show my sister and I had been to, and to know that she sent my goofy fangirl letter to Mrs. Cary Grant?! It was a beautiful, happy day in my young life. It still makes me smile to think about it.

So there you have my personal Cary Grant connection, tenuous though it is.  I ended up seeing Gregory Peck’s show again a few years later. It too was “smashing.” Gregory Peck was a class act, a great man and a great actor.  But what I wouldn’t have given to see just one of Cary Grant’s shows. By all accounts they were truly magical.

Sadly, Evenings With Cary Grant is out of print now, but used copies can still be tracked down.  I recently found one at a very reasonable price on the Alibris site, for a friend’s Christmas gift. If you’re interested in Cary Grant, both as an actor and as a man, this is the book to get.

Delicacy is the banana peel under the feet of truth

Design for Living (1933)

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Two American expatriates in Paris, best friends Tom Chambers (Frederic March) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper), meet beautiful fellow American, Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins), on a train.  Tom is a struggling playwright.  George is a struggling painter.  Gilda is a commercial artist with wit to spare, strong opinions about life and art, and an independent streak a mile wide.

Soon both Tom and George are in love with Gilda, and Gilda is in love with both Tom and George, much to the chagrin of her boss and admirer Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton).  Tom and George secretly make love to Gilda behind each others’ backs.  When the truth about that comes out, the fun really begins.

  A thing happened to me that usually happens to men.  You see, a man can meet two, three, or even four women and fall in love with all of them, and then by a process of interesting elimination he’s able to decide which one he prefers.  But a woman must decide purely on instinct, guesswork, if she wants to be considered nice.  Oh, it’s quite all right for her to try on a hundred hats before she picks one out…

Rather than risk losing either of them and not wanting to ruin Tom and George’s long friendship by coming between them, Gilda suggests an unorthodox arrangement.  She will move into the run-down bohemian garret the boys share, providing them both with encouragement and criticism for their work.  She will be a “mother of the arts.”  There’s only one proviso – there must be no sex involved.  The three make a “gentleman’s agreement” that they will keep things platonic.

Gilda is true to her word.  She pushes George and Tom to pursue their art, at times encouraging them and at times criticizing them mercilessly.  She uses her moxy to make sure the right people know about George’s paintings and about Tom’s play, Goodnight Bassington: a comedy in about three acts with a tragic ending.  (Ha!  I wish I could see that one.)

Soon, thanks to Gilda’s help, Tom’s play is set to be produced on the London stage.  He reluctantly parts ways with Gilda and George, planning to see them in five weeks at the play’s premiere.  Being alone together proves to be too much temptation for George and Gilda, however, and the two are soon throwing over the gentleman’s agreement and moving in alone together to pursue their passion.  Tom is heartbroken when he hears the news in a letter from George and Gilda, just days before Goodnight Bassington’s premiere.

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Nearly a year later, Tom returns to Paris.  When he visits Gilda and George’s apartment, George is out of town.  There is still a lot of sexual attraction between Gilda and Tom, and they spend a passionate night together before George comes home unexpectedly early the next day.

Once again Gilda has come between the two friends, and this time she tries to spare them from the destruction of their friendship by running away to marry Max Plunkett.  Max is all business and no passion, and soon Gilda is bored out of her mind by the endless dinner parties at which she is forced to play “20 Questions” and other idiotic parlor games with Max’s advertising clients.

Luckily Tom  and George return from China, where they’ve been off licking their wounds, and rescue her.  They all decide they’ll give it another try as a threesome, moving back into their old garret apartment.  There’s just one thing – no sex.  It’ll be a gentleman’s agreement.  And so it begins again.

design for living

Though it was based on Noel Coward’s play of the same name, little of the original play remains in the movie version of Design for Living.  Just one line is the same, in fact.  Gone are the hints of homosexual attraction between Tom and George.  Also gone is Noel Coward’s particular brand of English wit.  In its place is a delightful combination of the sassy, fast-talking American style of Ben Hecht’s screenplay with director Ernst Lubitsch’s European sophistication.

The performances are all top-notch.  Frederic March and Gary Cooper are very funny, especially together.  The scene in which they drown their sorrows after Gilda ditches them both is easily one of most amusing drunk scenes I’ve seen anywhere.  The two actors have a marvelous rapport and make it easy to believe that Tom and George have been friends for many years.  March is great as the more cerebral, verbally witty of the two.  Cooper displays a gift for light comedy as the slightly less bright but more sexily “barbaric” George.

Most sparkling of all is Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda.  If it had been played differently, the character could’ve been unlikeable – a flirtatious, loose woman toying with the affections of two men.  (Three if you count Max Plunkett, though it’s hard to care too much about the feelings of a man who goes around saying things like “Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day!”)

But Hopkins makes Gilda very likeable.  You understand why Tom and George are both so taken with her.  She’s flirty and fun, but also passionate and serious when it’s called for.  She’s sexually free and not ashamed of it, but she never comes across as a floozy at all.  You can understand and empathize with Gilda’s inability to choose between these two talented, ridiculously attractive men, both of whom she genuinely loves.  She’s honest with both of them and doesn’t play games.

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Plus, Gilda is very, very funny.   Miriam Hopkins’ delivery of her lines is deliciously sharp and zingy.  She is a great physical comedienne in the role as well, throwing herself dramatically onto dusty settees, gesturing wildly with her small, expressive hands while arguing with Max.

Now listen, Plunkett, Incorporated. You go to those customers of yours and give ‘em a sales talk. Sell them anything you want, but not me. I’m fed up with underwear, cement, linoleum, I’m sick of being a trademark married to a slogan!  Don’t you tell ‘em I’ve got hiccups. Tell them I’ve got the advertising blues. The billboard collywobbles! Slogans and sales talks morning, noon, and night, and not one human sound out of you and your whole flock of Egelbauers!

(Is that Ben Hecht or is that Ben Hecht?  Love it!)

Gilda Farrell is supposed to be from Fargo, North Dakota, but Miriam Hopkins was from Georgia and hearing her deliver her feisty dialogue with the hint of a Southern accent in her voice is completely adorable throughout the film.

Sometimes pre-code movies can still surprise me with just how racy they are. Of course by the standards of our depressingly vulgar times Design for Living seems fairly tame.  But the frank sexuality of the characters, especially Gilda, with her ideas about trying on multiple “hats” before buying them, is impossible to imagine in a post-code movie.  Sometimes when watching classic films it’s easy to imagine that nobody before the 1960s knew what sex even was. Pre-code movies take those illusions away pretty quickly.

design for living

I highly, highly recommend this movie.  It’s witty, silly, quotable, scandalous, and thought-provoking when it comes to the topics of romance, art and friendship.  Most of all, it’s just plain fun.

The Gary Cooper obsession continues

Is it possible to overdose on Gary Cooper?  I’m preparing to find out this weekend.  The following things came to me in the mail today:

* Saratoga Trunk (1946), co-starring Ingrid Bergman.  This is one of the Warner Archive movies that’s been on my wish list for a while now.  I can’t wait to watch it!

saratoga trunk

* The Gary Cooper Collection, containing five movies: Design for Living, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, Peter Ibbetson, The General Died at Dawn, and Beau Geste.  Over 8 hours of Coop  at his 1930s prettiest!  It would’ve been worth the $19 for Design for Living alone.  That movie is perfection.

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* Cooper’s Women by Jane Ellen Wayne, a book I’m embarrassed to have purchased even though it was a cheap used copy.  It’s so trashy, it  really is!  I knew as soon as I read this review and excerpt by Sheila O’Malley that I would have to track it down, however.  Cooper’s Women is a gossipy accounting of his many love affairs, written in a way that at times has an almost fanfiction-y vibe.  Oh, I’m so ashamed!  Honestly though, it’s hard not to have at least a little bit of prurient interest in Cooper, given his insanely good looks and his legendary status with the ladies.  Let’s just say that acting wasn’t the only thing at which he excelled.

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* Gary Cooper Off Camera: A Daughter Remembers by Maria Cooper Janis, with an introduction by Tom Hanks.  This is a touching, lovingly written tribute to Cooper by  his daughter, full of beautiful photos.  Reading this sweet book will, I hope, make me feel less guilty about reading Cooper’s Women.  Heh.

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So far this is one of my favorite pictures from the book – Gary Cooper crossing a stream in Sun Valley while on a hunting trip with Ernest Hemingway, 1941.

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What a great photograph by Robert Capa.  Cooper displays such an attractive blend of masculinity and  gracefulness.  There are many hunters in my part of the country, but I’ve never seen any of them looking one iota as dapper and well dressed when heading out to shoot and fish, that’s for sure!

Yeah, I’m pretty smitten.  Brace yourself for more crazy Coop chat – I’m sure it’s coming.