Riviera Style: To Catch a Thief

Kimberly at the wonderful GlamAmor blog has published a fantastic post and accompanying video on the Edith Head designed resort wardrobe featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.  If you love Grace Kelly’s cool, understated elegance in that film as much as I do, you’ll definitely want to check it out.

Wardrobe contributed so much to Hitchcock’s films and as Kimberly points out so well, Edith Head was integral in creating what we now think of as Hitchcock Style. Imagine Vertigo without Kim Novak’s severely chic gray suit, or Rear Window without Grace Kelly’s magnificent entrance in that black and white dress with the full tulle and chiffon skirt.  It can’t be done!  The best costume designers, like Mad Men’s brilliant Janie Bryant and of course Edith Head, are just as much storytellers as any writer or director.

If you want to learn more about Edith Head, I highly recommend checking out Edith Head: The Fifty Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer by Jay Jorgensen.  It’s full of stunning illustrations and photos of Head’s most memorable work, including that she did with Alfred Hitchcock.

Fifteen Movie Questions Meme

So much for me posting up a storm here in May!  I can’t believe tomorrow is June 1st.  It’s been a busy couple of months and I’ve hardly watched any movies at all.  Here’s hoping the summer provides me with some quieter moments, so I’ll have more time for watching and writing.  My backlog of unwatched films recorded off TCM is getting ridiculous!

Anyway, several people, including Clara at Via Margutta 51, have done the 15 Movie Questions meme recently, and it looked like fun.  If you’d like to do it yourself, consider yourself tagged.

1.  Movie you love with a passion.

There are a lot of these!  Maybe An Affair to Remember.  I’ve seen it so many times and still think it’s the most romantic movie ever.

Affair to Remember

2.  Movie you vow to never watch.

Never is a very long time, so who knows?  There was a time when I hated Westerns, after all, but now there are quite a few I love.  But I’m definitely averse to horror movies, especially modern day gory ones, so probably those.

3.  Movie that literally left you speechless.

Leave Her to Heaven – the rowboat scene.  (Starts at about 2:20 below.)  I was so stunned and horrified the first time I saw it, and it still leaves me speechless every time.

4.  Movie you always recommend.

The More the Merrier.  To me it’s a perfect romantic comedy, and yet a lot of people outside of the classic movie fandom have never heard of it – or of Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn.

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5.  Actor/actress you always watch, no matter how crappy the movie.

Cary Grant.  I’ll watch anything he’s in at least once!  Obviously I’m not the only one who feels this way, given the recent releases of many of his early ‘30s movies on DVD.

6.  Actor/actress you don’t get the appeal for.

John Wayne.

7.  Actor/actress, living or dead, you’d love to meet.

Cary Grant.  I’m reading his daughter’s book now (review to come!), and it’s made me adore him even more than I already did.  I’d love to have known him.  I’d also love to have met Audrey Hepburn, the sweetest lady ever, and Montgomery Clift, because he was so sad and I think he could’ve used a hug.  (And some anti-depressants, bless him.)

8.  Sexiest actor/actress you’ve seen. (Picture required!)

Gary Cooper, no question.  In his prime he was absolutely the sexiest, most beautiful man ever in the movies.  Tall and lanky, with masculine strength and that sweet, shy demeanor, he could wear bespoke European suits or rugged American cowboy gear with equal elegance.  That pretty face and those bedroom eyes, swoon!

He was basically catnip for women, both on and off screen, and continues to be dreamy even to girls born many years after died.  I think I’d better add him to question #7, above!  I’d love to have met Coop, that’s for sure.  Preferably alone on a deserted tropical island.

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9.  Dream cast.

Cary Grant and Barbara Stanwyck in a romantic comedy.  Why did that never happen?

10.  Favorite actor pairing.

Rock Hudson and Doris Day.  They were so much fun together.

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11.  Favorite movie setting.  

Paris.  So many of my favorite movies take place there:  An American in Paris, Gigi, Sabrina, Funny Face, Charade.  Heck, pretty much every Audrey Hepburn movie is set in Paris!

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12.  Favorite decade for movies.

Probably the ‘30s.

9th May 1934: Myrna Loy (1905 - 1993) and William Powell (1892 - 1984) play sleuthing couple Nick and Nora Charles in 'The Thin Man', directed by W S Van Dyke.

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Mr Deeds Goes to Town

Swing Time

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13.  Chick flick or action movie?

Chick flick.

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14. Hero, villain or anti-hero?

Hero.

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15.  Black and white or color?

Black and white, I suppose, although I wouldn’t want to live without all my beautiful Technicolor movies.

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.

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.

Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Amelia Earhart, 1934

This is so cool!  No doubt it’s a publicity photo for the Grant/Loy aviation drama Wings in the Dark, which I watched recently and talk about here.

I don’t know why, but this picture blows my mind a little.  Amelia Earhart, my girlhood idol, with Cary Grant, my idol of all time.  I get really geekily excited when I come across things like this.  No wonder Myrna Loy was so believable playing a daring aviatrix in Wings in the Dark – she’d met the real thing!

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Husbands and Wives

For some reason the movies I watched this weekend all had a marital theme.  It wasn’t a conscious decision, I just grabbed DVDs that looked like fun, but maybe  on some level I was preparing myself for another season of watching Don and Betty Draper’s early ‘60s battle of the sexes. 

Too Many Husbands (1940)

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Too Many Husbands came out the same year as another, more popular “extra spouse” movie, My Favorite Wife, and to be honest it’s not as funny or memorable as the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne film.  The three leads, Jean Arthur, Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray, are all good though, and the movie has its humorous moments.

One thing that sets Too Many Husbands apart from My Favorite Wife is its more risqué premise. Jean Arthur’s character, Vicky Lowndes, isn’t a newlywed “kissless” bride, as Cary Grant’s new wife is. Her first husband Bill Cardew (MacMurray) has been “dead” (like Dunne’s character in My Favorite Wife he was lost at sea and presumed drowned) for a year.  Vicky has been married to husband number two, Henry (Douglas), Bill’s best friend and business partner, for six months.

Once Bill returns Vicky can’t decide which man she loves more and which one she wants to stay married to. She seems quite excited by the prospect of bigamy, in fact, if only because she enjoys having two men paying attention to her and vying for her affections. She gets a wicked gleam in her eyes the night of Bill’s return, contemplating the fact that two attractive men are downstairs fighting over who has the right to join her in bed.

Her two husbands argue and tussle and show off for her. (One of the funniest parts of the movie is seeing these two grown men running around the living room like fools, hurdling armchairs to prove their manly prowess.) She spends time with each of them alone, in an attempt to make her decision, and ends up more confused.

Eventually the law has to step in and make the choice for her, but in spite of her winding up married to only one of the men, it’s clear from the movie’s ending, with Vicky dancing with both at the same time, each clinging to one of her arms, that things aren’t really settled at all.  The whole movie has a slightly perverse vibe, like maybe Vicky would be just as happy with a threesome situation, which was an interesting take for 1940, that’s for sure.

All in all a funny little screwball comedy, though not one of the greats. For me it suffers in comparison to My Favorite Wife, both in terms of humor and heart, but it’s still worth checking out for the wonderful Jean Arthur. Also for the sight of Fred MacMurray in his first scene, bearded and as wild looking as Tom Hanks in Cast Away, but considerably more happy-go-lucky about the whole desert island rescue scenario.

Dream Wife (1953)

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 I’ve watched An Affair to Remember over and over recently,which inspired me watch the other Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr collaborations, inferior though they both are to Leo McCarey’s 1957 gem. (It may be sentimental and imperfect, but for me An Affair to Remember is the movie equivalent of comfort food. Not necessarily as nutritious as some other meals, but good for the soul nonetheless.)

Grant and Kerr first starred together in 1953’s Dream Wife, a movie I should probably hate, but don’t. For one thing it’s really not that good, objectively speaking. Sidney Sheldon wrote and directed it, and at times it feels like an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, only without the supernatural angle. It gets very slapstick silly at times.

For another, it’s so sexist.  Grant plays Clemson Reade, an American businessman engaged to a State Department employee, Priscilla “Effie” Effington (Kerr). She’s a workaholic and doesn’t spend enough time with him, so Clem gets fed up, breaks the engagement, and proposes to an Arab princess whose father is involved in a business deal with him. The princess has been raised to cater to her husband’s every whim and live only to make her man happy, something that appeals greatly to Clem after being repeatedly brushed aside by Effie.

Check out this conversation Clem has with some fellas at the office.  It’s awful!  It’s like a scene out of Mad Men!  And yet it makes me laugh anyway, because Cary Grant’s delivery is so good.  He can turn almost anything into comedy gold.

 

Ex-fiancee Effie has to be involved in Clem’s wedding preparations by virtue of her job at the State Department (there’s an impending oil crisis involving the princess’s country), and she throws a wrench in the engagement by teaching the princess all about Amelia Bloomer and Susan B. Anthony, helping her break free of all that subservient female stuff.

Dream Wife is a bit of a guilty pleasure for me, I guess.  I enjoy it in spite of its flaws.  Cary Grant plays his trademark crankiness to the hilt, and if his character is unpleasant at times, he at least makes it funny to watch. Deborah Kerr is lovely and beautifully dressed, and if her character really is focused on work to the neglect of her fiancé, she at least makes it funny to watch.

Dumb but cute is probably the best way to describe this movie. If it had starred anyone other than Grant and Kerr I probably wouldn’t have liked it much, but their charisma and chemistry go a long way.

In this movie, at least. Not so much in their final collaboration.

The Grass is Greener (1960)

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 Every few years I pop this movie in the DVD player, hoping that this will be the time I really like it, but every time I’m disappointed. You would think that with Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Jean Simmons and Robert Mitchum starring and Stanley Donen directing it would be fantastic, but it’s not.

Grant is an English aristocrat, Victor, Earl of Rhyall, who has opened up his stately home to tourists in order to pay for its upkeep. Kerr is his wife, Hilary, who keeps busy with their two children, gardening, and growing and selling mushrooms in the village. They’re a comfortable, loving couple, and in their first scenes together they’re quite adorable to watch.

Then Robert Mitchum’s Charles Delacro, an American tourist and (of course) oil tycoon appears, brazenly pushing his way into the family’s private quarters and making a play for Hilary. She falls for him almost immediately, and after just half an hour spent together is in love and ready to sneak off to London for a tryst with him.

Which she does, even though Victor knows what’s going on, and she knows Victor knows what’s going on. Jean Simmons is Hilary’s kooky friend Hattie, who has a designs on Victor and gets mixed up in the situation, too.  It all winds up in a silly duel between Victor and Charles and a lot of yakking about the meaning of marriage, fidelity, and love between Victor and Hilary.

It’s all supposed to be very sophisticated, but it just icks me out. There are ways to handle adultery intelligently and entertainingly in a movie, whether as a comedy (The Awful Truth) or a drama (Brief Encounter), but The Grass is Greener isn’t good at doing it either way. It’s unbelievable to me that anyone involved could’ve dealt with the situation in such a cool, collected manner as the characters in this movie. 

More shallowly, what I really find implausible about the movie is the notion that anyone would risk losing Cary Grant’s sweet if stodgy Victor because of an infatuation with Robert Mitchum’s not too attractive and dull as toast Charles.  I know that’s my biased inner fangirl talking,  but honestly.  It’s Cary Grant!  Even at age 56, wearing comfy cardigans and thick black-framed glasses, he’s more charming and attractive than anyone has ever been.  I mean, would you throw over a husband who looked at you like this while you were in the bath?  For Robert Mitchum?

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No, I didn’t think so.