A November Wrap-Up

So November was a bit of a crazy month!  The holidays definitely cut down on my movie watching but I still managed to see a few films and take part in some excellent blogathons!

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Blogathons: I took part in three blogathons this month which were The Swashathon, The What A Character! Blogathon, and The Criterion Blogathon!  These were all such great events from some fabulous people and I really enjoyed getting to see some new films and talk about them with other fans!  Also, in case you missed it I am helping Cinema Dilettante host her very first blogathon!  Come January we are celebrating the lovely Loretta Young so if you are of the notion please join us!

Thelma Todd: My big discovery this month came thanks to a book called THE ICE CREAM BLONDE.  I had never heard of the life of Thelma Todd and was only minimally acquainted with her work.  Thanks to the excellent biography by Michelle Morgan, I came away with a much greater appreciation for this sadly forgotten actress.  THE ICE CREAM BLONDE piqued my interest and is in my top three biographies of the year!  Highly recommended!

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Other Items of Interest: I did manage to add to my classic film library thanks to another library book sale!  I had to put the Gloria Swanson autobiography on hold but hopefully I will get back to it soon!

Classic Film Blogger Shout-Out: I am going to try to make this a monthly thing and give at least one fellow film blogger a shout-out just because I think they are awesome!  This month I am going to recommend that you check out Kristina of Speakeasy because she is one of the bloggers that inspired me to start my own site!  She is truly one of the nicest, most knowledgeable, and all round best people on the blogging scene today, and I am truly in awe of her prolific postings!

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Favorite Film Discovery of the Month: RIDE THE PINK HORSE.  This one hands down was the best thing I saw all month.  Thanks to the Criterion Blogathon I finally got an excuse to watch and write about this terrific, if slightly odd, film noir from Robert Montgomery.  Just a great film that has stuck with me all November long.

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Book Review: THE ICE CREAM BLONDE – THE WHIRLWIND LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF SCREWBALL COMEDIENNE THELMA TODD

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Thelma Todd was a name that I had heard in passing but not one that I was terribly familiar with.  The actress appeared in 120 movies between 1926-1935 and is probably best remembered for her roles in The Marx Brother’s MONKEY BUSINESS and HORSE FEATHERS.  She also appeared alongside Laurel and Hardy in several films, as well as in a series of Hal Roach comedies with ZaSu Pitts and later, Patsy Kelly.

While Thelma Todd had a fairly prolific film career she is mainly remembered for her sudden and mysterious death.  On December 16, 1935 she was found dead in her car by her maid.  The car was parked in the garage owned by Jewel Carmen, the wife of Thelma Todd’s ex/possibly current lover and current business partner Roland West.  Todd and West both owned a cafe in the Pacific Palisades called Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe.  Todd was last seen leaving a party at the Trocadero and her driver recounted dropping her off outside of her apartments.  Todd insisted that her driver not walk her inside and the shadowy image of her back retreating was the last sight anyone had of her alive.  The cause of death with determined to by carbon monoxide poisoning.  After and inquest the cause of death was listed as “accidental with possible suicide tendencies”. However in the years since many people, friends, family, fans, and even the police who investigated the crime have voiced their own doubts about the accuracy of this conclusion.

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THE ICE CREAM BLONDE by Michelle Morgan is the newest biography which attempts to not only shed light on a mostly forgotten actress but also to decipher the theories surrounding her mysterious death.  The first section of the book focuses on Todd’s beginnings and her film career.  While this portion is well done it does seem to move quickly through her films and credits.  With 120 films to her name I understand that not every movie can be talked about in great detail but I would have liked to have had some more detailed information about some of them.  I would have been interested to hear about the filming process and Thelma Todd’s experiences on the set of her films, rather than simply focusing on audience and critical reaction.

The second section of the books deals with Thelma Todd’s death and the subsequent investigation.  Michelle Morgan does a very good job detailing the events leading up to Todd’s death and the investigation that followed. One chapter also deals with the three possible theories of how Todd died.  She also gives very compelling evidence for one theory that seems to be the most logical series of events.  As the Thelma Todd mystery will likely never be officially re-opened or examined, especially as the main players in the story are now dead, Michelle Morgan cannot declare one theory correct over the others and I appreciate that she does not try to push her theory forward as the true version of events.  She presents the evidence and allows readers to come to their own conclusions.

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THE ICE CREAM BLONDE is a very well written and readable biography.  I found that it stuck with me, even after I had put it down, and I often couldn’t wait to go back and read more.  With stars whose lives or deaths have overshadowed their talents and film credits it is hard to find biographies that take a more scholarly stance when examining their lives. Happily, Michelle Morgan takes a very intelligent and knowledgable stance when talking about her subject and one gets the sense that she has a respect and affection for Thelma Todd.  Her biography is timely as well as needed, as Thelma Todd’s cafe was under threat of being torn down but current owners are planning to bring the building back to its former glory. More than anything though I would hope that THE ICE CREAM BLONDE would do for other classic film fans what it has done for me, which is to introduce me to a talented comedic actress who has gone too long without the recognition she deserves.  I came away from this book wanting to know more about Thelma Todd which I believe was Michelle Morgan’s intention.


Thank you to Chicago Review Press for providing me with a copy of THE ICE CREAM BLONDE in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Watching With Warner: NO TIME FOR COMEDY (1940)

Rosalind Russell and James Stewart might not be the first names that come to mind when you think couple in romantic comedy, but surprisingly in NO TIME FOR COMEDY from Warner Archive, they create a dynamic couple with wit and earnest emotion.

In the great theater scene of New York City a new playwright is creating quite a stir.  Hailing from Redfield, Minnesota (which boasts a population of 786, including the livestock), Gaylord Easterbrook (James Stewart) has written a new play full of high society comedy.  Unfortunately for him no one believes that he is the man who came up with drawing room escapades about chocolate mousse, especially since he has never been to New York City before.  His play is being staged but there are issues and re-writes are needed which brings Gaylord to the bright lights of the New York City theater section by way of the Grand Canyon.  Once there he makes the acquaintance of the leading lady in the play, Linda Paige (Rosalind Russell).  Initially mistaking him for an usher, Linda soon takes pity on the less than street savvy Esterbrook and shows him around the city.

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Later that evening Linda, Esterbrook, director Morgan Carrel (Allyn Joslyn), and producer Richard Benson gather for dinner at Benson’s apartment.  While the group eats and discusses the play, Benson’s butler is spending his time reading the script in the kitchen.  Carrel is in a sour mood and takes this opportunity to make fun of Esterbrook, his upbringing, and his play.  Esterbrook doesn’t take this lying down and once Carrel apologizes, sort of, he heads out to the terrace to get some air. Linda follows him as the butler enters the room.  While Linda and Esterbrook are getting to know each other, Benson’s butler gives his boss the sad news that he just doesn’t think that the play will be a hit.  With this new information, Benson decides to stop producing the play all together.  Linda is shocked at this turn of events and devises a way to keep the play going, despite the lack of pay and a producer, and give Esterbrook the opening he has worked so hard for.

The play is a great success and Linda and Esterbrook stay up all night in Central Park waiting for the morning papers.  The reviews are glowing and soon Linda and Esterbrook are sharing some loving words themselves.  Four years pass and Linda and Esterbrook are married.  Esterbrook has written four hit plays in the past four years, each one starring Linda.  Things seem to be going well for the couple until the evening after the opening of his most recent play.  At a party celebrating his latest success, Esterbrook meets Mr. Philo Swift (Charles Ruggles), a successful financier, and his wife Amanda (Genevieve Tobin).  Esterbrook is not in the best of moods, being smack in the middle of a case of writer’s block, and is initially uninterested in the Swifts but Amanda doesn’t take that lying down.

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Amanda is a bit of a pill it seems, something her husband is all too aware of.  Her favorite hobby is creating geniuses and she has decided that Esterbrook is the one most deserving of her time and attention.  While Linda remains loyal and loving towards her husband, Amanda is more fawning when it comes to her attentions.  She tells Esterbrook that he has been wasting his time when it comes to comedy and that he is destined to make his mark in drama.  This is welcome news as the playwright has been feeling a desire to make an impact on the theater going public.  He begins spending more and more time with his muse, and less and less time with the actual Mrs. Esterbrook.  Weeks go by and cracks begin to appear in their relationship.

NO TIME FOR COMEDY began life in 1939 as a play written by S.N. Behrman.  Starring Lawrence Olivier as Gaylord Esterbrook and Katharine Cornell as Linda Paige, the play ran for 179 performances during which time Lawrence Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, was filming GONE WITH THE WIND.  While this film is mainly a romantic comedy, I did enjoy the final message of needing to support the people out there who have the courage, and sometimes stupidity, to stick their necks out and put it all out there.  To get behind the people who risk their hearts and emotions all in the name of an idea is a positive message that isn’t often mentioned in films, let alone romantic comedies from the 1940s.

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This film was full of pleasant surprises for me.  The supporting cast is terrific.  For a start, Charles Ruggles.  I mean.  Seriously.  Also, the character of Clementine played by Louise Beavers is an interesting dichotomy.  The character starts life as an actress in the first play before taking a job as the Esterbrook’s housekeeper/maid.  And while her dialogue does have a few of the stereotypical racial accents that are an unfortunate by-product of older films there are also plenty of intelligent, witty, and non-stereotyped lines of dialogue that she delivers.  She also has a delightful way of never taking Esterbrook, his moods, or his comments seriously at all.  It is an interesting thing to see because the character of Clementine is employed as a housekeeper but is not treated as subservient.

I really enjoyed the character of Morgan Carrell and some of the best lines were his.  In fact this was another pleasant surprise of NO TIME FOR COMEDY.  It is really funny and quite witty!  For example;

“Philo Swift: ‘Gaylord Esterbrook’… seems to me I’ve heard or read that name someplace. What do you do?
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: I write plays.
Philo Swift: Er, yes, I have a hobby, too. What I meant was, what do you do for a living?
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Write plays. Anything wrong?
Philo Swift: No, no; nothing, nothing. You’ll pardon me, but it does seem a little trivial for a grown man.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Well, perhaps I’ll grow out of it. What do *you* do?
Philo Swift: I’m on Wall Street.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Where’s that?
Philo Swift: I don’t know, but my chauffeur finds it every morning.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: After you get there, what do you do?
Philo Swift: Buy and sell stocks and bonds.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Surely not for a living?
Philo Swift: And not a bad one. When stocks go up, I make a little money. When they go down, I make even more.
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: That all you do?
Philo Swift: Well, yes!
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Well, who knows; maybe you’ll grow out of it, too.
[raises glass]
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Here’s hoping!”

“Clementine, Actress in Show: I saw your last picture, Mr. Carrell.
Morgan Carrell, the Director: Yes?
Clementine, Actress in Show: Oh, yeah.
Morgan Carrell, the Director: What’d ya think?
Clementine, Actress in Show: [sighs] yeah.”

“Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: [after spending the night after the play on a park bench] Hey, you don’t look bad for a girl who’s just getting up in the morning!
Linda Paige Esterbrook: For a man who’s been up all night you look great!
Gaylord ‘Gay’ Esterbrook: Don’t get the idea that I’m an authority on girls getting up in the morning.
Linda Paige Esterbrook: Well, I’m not the last word on men staying up all night either.”

This was a film that not only entertained me from beginning to end, but also gave me quite a few laugh out loud moments.

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Man, I love Rosalind Russell.  I first saw her in THE TROUBLE WITH ANGLES and ever since then I have just thought she is terrific.  As I have said before, she has a quality of being up for anything that seems authentic to her which she imbues into her characters.  It is a quality that is unique to her and something that makes her so terrific to watch.  While I agree that she and Jimmy Stewart don’t have the sizzling chemistry of Bogie and Bacall or Powell and Loy, they do have qualities that make them likable and charming.  Russell plays the part of Linda Paige with self assured calm and wit.  She loves her husband but never has a moment where she feels the need to yell or scream at him even when she knows he is spending too much time with another woman.  Rather she maintains an air of love and support, hoping that her continued presence will bring him back.  She is smart and independent without going into headstrong territory.  It is the internal spark that is Rosalind Russell that gives Linda Paige that certain special something that it just a little unique and different than most other romantic comedy actresses.  For his part, Jimmy Stewart seems to be doing Mr. Smith (from MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON) with shades of Mike Connor (from THE PHILADELPHIA STORY).  This is not to say that he is not good in this film however.  He brings his small town charm to the opening scenes as Esterbrook adjusts to big city life.  In the later parts of the film he has the indignation of the everyman intellectual railing against the plight of the world.

NO TIME FOR COMEDY was a pleasant surprise for me.  This was a film I went into blind, having no expectations, and found myself spending a very enjoyable ninety minutes with Rosalind Russell and James Stewart, thanks to the Warner Archive.  If you want to see a romantic comedy with something a little different then you might just want to give this one a watch.

 

Another Library Sale Book Haul!

Today I went to one of my local libraries for a book sale and managed to pick up some more classic film books!

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Here is what I got!

Garbo; Her Story by Antoni Gronowicz

Pappy; The Life of John Ford by Dan Ford

Valentino by Irving Shulman

Shelley by Shelley Winters

Home; A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews

Round Up the Usual Suspects; The Making of Casablanca – Bogart, Bergman and World War II

The Paramount Pretties by James Robert Parish

Vivien Leigh; A Biography by Anne Edwards

Lawrence Olivier;  A Biography by Donald Spoto

Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister Lana Wood

The Movie Book: The 1940s by Ann Lloyd

Susan Hayward; Portrait of a Survivor by Beverly Linet

Samuel Goldwyn Presents by Alvin H. Marill

Have you read any of these?  Let me know in the comments!

Announcing The Loretta Young Birthday Blogathon!

Cinema Dilettante

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Get those typing fingers ready, kids, because the Loretta Young Birthday Blogathon is right around the corner! Can you believe how close 2016 is?!

The Specifics:

I’d thought of myself as a great big motion picture star from the time I was six. –Loretta Young

 From her screen debut at age four, to her last starring role, on TV, at age 76, Loretta Young carved her place in screen history as one of our brightest and most gifted movie stars. In honor of her 103rd birthday, let’s get inspired by her films and television show to pay tribute to the beauty of Miss Loretta!

What the what is this?

A blogathon consists of a collection of vastly talented writers, each contributing their own piece to the final product. Each participant’s blog will be linked from this page, and from the marvelous Now Voyaging blog. All I need from you…

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The Criterion Blogathon: RIDE THE PINK HORSE (1947)

This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Silver Screenings.  Be sure to check out all the awesome posts here!

Spoiler Warning!  Before we go any further let me say that we will be having a somewhat detailed discussion of this film.  While I will not be revealing the ending, several plot points will be mentioned so if you don’t want to know stop reading now.

A bus pulls into a small Mexican town.  Passengers disembark and locals hawk their wares.  Among the tourists is a man who stands apart.  He walks with purpose into the bus station, under the sign that reads “WELCOME TO SAN PABLO”, and heads toward the back benches.  Sitting down, he opens his suitcase and pulls out a gun which he slips into his jacket.  Next he pulls out a slip of paper which he glances at before shutting the suitcase.  Walking to the wall of lockers, he choses one and places the paper inside.  Buying a stick of gum, he chews it and uses the softened gum to hold the key to the back of the large picture on the bus station wall.  This task completed he goes outside and asks the first local he sees where he can find a certain hotel.

Various locals give him varying directions until he finds a group of young girls.  The youngest girl offers to take him to the hotel, which she does, and before parting she gives him a local idol to protect him.  The man, Lucky Gagin (Robert Montgomery), scoffs at this but pockets the doll anyway.  Gagin enters the hotel in search of a man named Frank Hugo (Fred Clark) and when he receives no help from the front desk, he makes his own way upstairs to Hugo’s room and acquaints himself with Hugo’s man Jonathan.  Gavin settles in to wait for Hugo to return when the door opens and a woman enters.  This time it is Marjorie Lundeen (Andrea King), Hugo’s main squeeze and she seems less concerned about Jonathan and more concerned about who Gagin is.  As she tries to work her charms on Gagin the phone rings and Hugo comes over the other end to say the he won’t be back until the next day.  Gagin takes his leave and tells Marjorie to just tell Hugo that “Shorty’s pal” was here.

In the hotel lobby a little old man approaches Gagin and invites him to lunch.  He has all the information on Gagin, including his name, bus number, and why he is so interested in Frank Hugo.  The man is Bill Retz (Art Smith) and he works for the FBI.  Retz is trying to arrest Hugo for the federal government but he needs more evidence, evidence which he believes Gagin has.  Gagin refuses to help, sighting his experiences in the service during World War II as reason enough to doubt that the government would ever do anything decent.  Retz leaves with one parting piece of advice for Gagin, don’t try to avenge his friend Shorty by killing Hugo.

Gagin goes in search of a hotel room for the night but finds that all rooms are booked thanks to the upcoming fiesta.  The bellboy at one of the hotels advises him to seek out a local tavern which he does.  However the tavern seems to be strictly for locals and they don’t offer a very friendly welcome…at first.  Luckily a man named Pancho (Thomas Gomez), the local carousel operator, who teaches Gagin that the way to the local’s hearts is through tequila.  Several drinks later Pancho and Gagin make their way back to Pancho’s carousel.  Along the way they run into the girl who took Gagin to the hotel.  The girl, Pila (Wendy Hendrix), continues to follow the two men until they both lay down to rest.  Something catches her eye and she hurries over to Gagin, alerting him that someone is coming.  It’s Retz and he has a warning for Gagin.  Hugo got his message and knows who “Shorty’s pal” is.  He has sent some of his men out looking for Gagin, hoping to kill him.

Gagin spends the night at Pancho’s carousel and in the morning heads back to the hotel for his meeting with Hugo.  Hugo, who is deaf, is unfazed by Gagin’s arrival and is even hospitable.  After some small talk things get down to brass tacks.  Hugo knows why Gagin is there.  It seems that Gagin’s friend Shorty used to work for Hugo and during his time there got the idea that he could be a crook too and decided to blackmail Hugo.  This was a bad idea and it ended up getting Shorty killed.  At this point Gagin reveals that he still has the cancelled check Shorty stole, the check that proves that Hugo bribed a government official, the check that he is willing to now sell back to Hugo for $30,000.  Hugo agrees to Gagin’s demands and the two men plan to bring their respective pieces of the deal to the Tip Top Cafe that night.

I have a theory about film noir.  I think that a lot of it comes from World War II.  The disillusionment felt by the returning servicemen and their families, the adjustments that needed to be made by the men who had fought on the battlefields and the women who had served on the homefront, the displacement felt by an entire population who now found the world completely altered lead to the creation of the film noir.  It wasn’t popular, correct, or acceptable to give voice to the feelings of pain, frustration, and alienation.  Men were supposed to come home and get on with their lives, women were supposed to give up their newly discovered independence and go back to their former roles, families and communities were supposed to just carry on as if nothing had changed when of course everything had.  The male stars returning to Hollywood were changed, the directors who had filmed the battles and troops were changed, the writers, producers, and directors who had sought refuge from their homes in Europe were changed.  They all needed an outlet for the anger, the sadness, the disillusionment, and the pain they felt and they found it in making films that seethed with an undercurrent of darkness.  Lucky Gagin’s entire journey in this film is propelled by his disillusionment with the country and the government after the war.  He is disgusted by the common acts of cowardice and corruption he witnessed in the service, the selfish behavior seemingly promoted among the population, the love of the dollar at any cost with no care for your fellow man attitude that seems to be prevalent among the very people he saw so many men die defending.  If they don’t have to care then why should he?  If they didn’t have to be decent why does he?

I have read some reviews which mention Robert Montgomery as being something of a weak link when it comes to the acting in this film.  More to the point, the feeling is that he falls short of bringing Lucky Gagin to full effect as a gangster especially as compared to Fred Clark’s portrayal of Frank Hugo.  I have to say that I disagree with this evaluation.  First of all, let me say that I think that Robert Montgomery is a wholly underrated actor.  Most people think of him in terms of the urbane comedies of the 1930s, especially those he did alongside Norma Shearer.  But I remember watching Robert Montgomery in NIGHT MUST FALL.  In it he plays a psychologically damaged man who kills old women and keeps their heads in a hatbox.  Starring alongside Rosalind Russell, Robert Montgomery gives an amazing performance of a man who is not purely evil but rather one who is disturbed and charming all at once.  The film was a critical but not a financial success, a symptom most likely of audience’s unwillingness to see Robert Montgomery as anything other than the wise cracking friend who usually doesn’t get the girl.  Perhaps it was thanks to this pigeon-holing that caused Robert Montgomery to direct and star in RIDE THE PINK HORSE.  If he didn’t direct the film it would never get made and if he didn’t direct it he would never get to star in it.

To me, Robert Montgomery’s seemingly less than adept performance as a gangster is less a lack of skill and more an artistic choice.  Lucky Gagin in the film is presented as a man who used to be a petty criminal before the war.  He entered the service, perhaps hoping for a better life or a nobler cause, and after the war was so discouraged that he returned to his former life of small time crime.  Shorty got him a job working alongside him and that was how he got involved with Hugo.  Shorty was killed and Gagin decides to avenge his friend by making Hugo pay by hitting him where it hurts, his wallet.  He isn’t going for a big score and he isn’t trying to make a fortune, pretty much everyone points out to him that he isn’t asking for very much money, rather he is trying to make a point.  Make a point to Hugo, to Shorty, and to himself that the world is corrupt and easily bought and the only thing worth anything is money.  Lucky Gagin isn’t a big time gangster and he isn’t a criminal mastermind.  He is small time crook who is good in a fight.  He isn’t too bright but he knows how the world works.  He used to think that the government was worth fighting for but now he isn’t so sure.  When up against Frank Hugo in a scene, Lucky Gagin feels like a blunt instrument which is what he was. And that is exactly how Robert Montgomery plays him.

RIDE THE PINK HORSE is a film noir that deserves a wider audience which will hopefully happen thanks to The Criterion Collection.  This unusual noir is exceptionally well done and gives an indication of what a fantastic director Robert Montgomery could have been given the opportunity, as well as what a fine actor he was in drama as well as comedy.  The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, setting up the entire character of Lucky Gagin without ever saying a word.  Robert Montgomery is much more than the light farce he spent much of his career making, hopefully this film will help to show that.

What A Character! Blogathon: ROBERT BARRAT

This post is part of the What A Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club.  Make sure to find all the other entries here!

The name Robert Barrat might not be one that you recognize at first.  But perhaps you recognize his face…

 

For a man with over 160 credits to his name, appearing both in films and television between 1915 and 1964, precious little information is available about Robert Barrat’s life.

Robert Harriot Barrat was born on July 10, 1889 in New York City.  He started his career in show business with a theatrical stock company in Springfield, Massachusetts.  He did some work in silent films in 1915, but after just three films he returned to the theater and eventually made it to Broadway.  When he eventually returned to Hollywood, his distinctive face and powerful physique lead to a career as a character actor beginning in the 1930s.  His friend James Cagney said that Barrat had “a solid forearm the size of the average man’s thigh.”

Barrat used his physicality and his vocal ability to play a variety of characters including business owners, various officials, sailors, lawyers, detectives, as well as some less than savory fellows.  He appeared as Chingachgoook in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, Lord Morton in MARY OF SCOTLAND, Wolverstone in CAPTAIN BLOOD, and Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy in THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA…among many, many, MANY others.  Prior to 1936, Robert Barrat was appearing in approximately twenty films a year.  He slowed down after 1940 and only made about ten films a year.  By the 1950s he was working television playhouses off and on until his death.

Robert Barrat died on January 7, 1970 at the age of eighty years old from heart disease.  He was buried in Green Hill Cemetery in Martinsburg, West Virginia.  Robert Barrat was survived by his second wife, Mary Dean, whom he had married in 1966.  His first wife, Ethel M. Mueller, had died the year before.

And that’s it.  For a man who appeared in 150 films, seven of which were with James Cagney, that is all the information that is readily available.  So, if you will permit me, I’ll share my story of how I came to know Robert Barrat’s work.

It started with a film called HEROES FOR SALE.  In it Barrat plays Max, a communist inventor living in a boarding house alongside Loretta Young and Richard Barthlemess.  From the first scene, Robert Barrat is electric.  With his quick speech and tsking tongue, the character of Max immediately became one of my favorites.  The character could have been so simple and one-dimensional, a radical “red” scientist spouting the ideals of communism, but in Barrat’s hands he became charming and intriguing.  Max becomes one of the more relatable characters in the film, speaking the words that many of the audience members suffering through the depression most likely thought but could not voice aloud.  From this moment on, I went on the lookout for Robert Barrat.

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I found him next in the pre-code FROM HEADQUARTERS.  This time he plays a man with a dark side as sharp as a knife’s edge.  A well made procedural, FROM HEADQUARTERS details the solving of a murder even as Robert Barrat’s character attempts to tie up all the lose ends.  There was such a cold menace to Barrat in this film that you know, absolutely KNOW, that he will kill whoever he needs to in order to accomplish his task.  While some of the other characters in the film feel a bit forced, George Brent’s main squeeze is a bit one-dimensional, Robert Barrat feels authentic and all the more dangerous for it.

He even shows up in WHILE THE PATIENT SLEPT, which is a terrific and fun murder mystery from Warner Archive.  I can’t tell you too much about his role without giving away the plot but suffice to say, he gives another completely different performance.  That is the wonderful thing about Robert Barrat.  Once you are looking for him, you will find him everywhere doing just about everything.  As with any great character actor, Robert Barrat has a great range and is able to portray everything from bumbling old men to cold-blooded murders.  Take a look at his filmography…I’m sure you will be able to find at least one film that you have seen which he has worked on.

In a way I’m sad that there is such limited information out there about Robert Barrat.  Sad that this man, who had such an impact on films as a character actor, is almost forgotten today and I am ill-equipped to give him the tribute he deserves.  But I am glad that I have this chance through this blogathon to share what little information I can find with other classic film lovers who will now be able to discover this fabulous actor.

The Swashathon: THE PRISONER OF ZENDA (1937)

This post is part of The Swashathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently.  Buckle your swashes and check out all the other posts here!

I love a good swashbuckler.  When I want to sit back, pop some popcorn, and have a darn good time, no Marvel blow-em-up for me thanks I will take Errol Flynn and his acts of daring do.  Now having said that, the name Ronald Colman does not immediately strike one as being a natural leading man in a swashbuckler.  But in 1937 with THE PRISONER OF ZENDA he became just that.

In some picturesque country far off in the Balkans, Rudolf Rassendyll (Ronald Colman) is having a very strange time with the locals.  The British tourist is finding that wherever he goes people keep giving him odd looks and are unable to form words correctly.  He goes off to enjoy his fishing trip leaving the local inhabitants behind.  While relaxing by a stream he runs into two well-dressed men.  Colonel Zapt (C. Aubrey Smith) and Captain Fritz von Tarlenheim (David Niven) are on a hunting trip with the almost king, Rudolf V (Ronald Colman).  Zapt and von Tarlenheim are slightly startled by Rassendyll’s appearance but they are more amused than anything.  It soon becomes clear why when Rudolph V shows up.  He and Rassendyll look identical, most likely thanks to a dalliance between two distant relatives.  Rassendyl and Rudolph take a liking to each other and the group goes off to a nearby hunting lodge for some dinner and drinks.

The party lasts late into the night.  Rudolph proceeds to drink everyone else under the table.  When Zapt suggests that he might want to slow things down, especially since he has his own coronation to attend in the morning, Rudolph responds by slapping him in the face.  Clearly Rudolph is a great guy.  Zapt excuses himself and Rudolph is left alone.  A servant enters with a bottle of wine that has been sent by his half brother “Black Michael,” Duke of Streslau and Lord of Zenda Castle (Raymond Massey) which Rudolph partakes from.  The next morning Rassendyl awakes to a bucket of cold water in his face from Zapt.  Annoyed at first, Rassendyl is startled to find that Rudolph has been drugged by Michael.  If Rudolph is not in attendance at his coronation this afternoon not only will he not become king, but Michael will use this as an excuse to seize the throne for himself.  There is only one thing to do…Rassendyl must impersonate Rudolph and take his place in the coronation.

Meanwhile, Michael is already drawing up the needed paperwork to have Rudolph removed from power.  While this might seem a tad bit premature to some, to Michael this is simply prudent planning.  Everyone is quite cheerful at the prospect of their evil plan succeeding except for Michael’s French mistress Antoinette de Mauban (Mary Astor).  Antoinette wants Michael to be happy of course but really she is hoping that Michael will give up the throne and settle down with her (yeah, I don’t think it is going to happen either).  She is making her case for this bright future when Rupert of Hentzau (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) enters the room.  He has some delightfully off hand remarks for Michael, who quickly takes his leave of his favorite henchmen, and some scathingly risqué ones for Antoinette.

Back onboard the royal train, Rassendyl is practicing his speech for the coronation.  He must make sure to get everything exactly right or the jig will be up, as they say.  The ceremony goes off without a hitch, though not without a few tense moments, and Rassendyl gets to meet Rudolph’s cousin and fiancee, Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll).  Flavia never liked Rudolph because, let’s face it, he was always sort of a jerk.  But now she finds him much changed and all for the better.  The two begin spending time together and love begins to blossom.  But alas things must be cut short as Rassendyl has done his job, and with the coronation a success he travels back to the hunting lodge with Zapt to retrieve the true king.  Upon arriving however they find the lights off and the servant left to guard the king, murdered.  And Rudolph?  He has been kidnapped by Rupert and been stolen away into the night.

There is no film quite like this version of THE PRISONER OF ZENDA.  It is a perfect alignment of the stars (literally and figuratively) allowing for true movie magic to occur.  Just take a gander at these names…Ronald Colman, Madeline Carroll, David Niven, Raymond Massey, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Astor, and David O. Selznick.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

The story of The Prisoner of Zenda had been around for many years before this film was made.  Of note, when the play based on the 1894 book by Anthony Hope was first put on in 1896, C. Aubrey Smith played the dual lead roles.  The play had been a great success for many years and while several film versions were made this is considered to be the definitive one.  The shoot was not an easy one for director John Cromwell.  He had trouble with everything from David Niven and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s late nights on the town, Ronald Colman’s lack of knowledge when it came to his own lines, and Colman and Madeline Carroll’s insistence of being only shot from their “good sides”…which were both the same.  George Cukor actually stepped in to shoot some scenes when Cromwell became too frustrated.  In spite of any issues during filming, THE PRISONER OF ZENDA is one of the best romantic swashbucklers around.

If I’m honest I think that the thing that makes THE PRISONER OF ZENDA so special is Ronald Colman.  For a start there is his voice, which I would quite happy listen to for hours.  He could say anything and it would sound fabulous.  Luckily for all of us he also happens to be reciting some intelligent and witty dialogue.  Ronald Colman brings a quality to Rudolph/Rassendyl that is equal parts nobility and amusement.  As Rassendyl he seems to be having the time of his life pretending to be king while at the same time, gravely aware of the importance of what he is doing.  When he must devise a plan to save the true king, Rassendyl swings into action with the cunning and strategic mind of a general without a moment’s hesitation.  In Rudolph, Colman finds not only the tempestuous man-child who has never been told no but also the humble contrition of a man shown the error of his ways.  Only Ronald Colman could create two men of such dignity and honor with such different moral centers while still making them likable people.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. initially wanted to play the lead role but when he received the role of Rupert instead, he was told by his father that “not only is The Prisoner of Zenda one of the best romances written in a hundred years and always a success, but Rupert of Hentzau is probably one of the best villains ever written”  Douglas Fairbanks Sr. helped his son when it came to billing and costume, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. took his father’s advice.  His portrayal of Rupert is one of the best parts of the movie.  Rupert is a man who is only in it for himself.  He switches loyalty quickly and often, throws witty quips and punches, and has absolutely no problem flirting with his boss’s girlfriend.  Where Raymond Massey’s “Black Michael” is a villain in the most traditional sense, Rupert is a man of few scruples and even fewer alliances.  He is his own man and it is beyond delightful to watch him duck and weave his way through the story.

THE PRISONER OF ZENDA has been called a “splendid schoolboy adventure story”.  This is a perfect description of not only this movie but also any great swashbuckler.  Swashbucklers are not subtle or full of nuance, they are bold, brash, and exciting.  Swashbucklers speak to a part of us that still wants to go out in the backyard and climb trees with sticks/swords in hand.  That part of us that is still twelve years old and seeing the world through wide and curious eyes, the part of us that still believes that we can be heroes and heroines and go on grand adventures.

Thoughts On My Month of Silents and Other Things; An October Wrap-Up

The month of October has come to an end and with it so has my month-long viewing of silent movies. Overall, I have to say that I was surprised just how much I enjoyed this month. As I said, going in I had a very limited experience with silent films. My main exposure had come from Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.  I had never seen silent dramas or even other comedies.  I knew the names of people like Lillian Gish and Louise Brooks but I had never seen them on film.  And I have to admit that I probably was suffering under the delusion of several common myths about silent films.  Well, this month changed all that for me.  Here is some of what I learned.

Frame Rate and Silent Films – Going in I had no idea that many silent films were shown at incorrect, or sound film, frame rates.  This means that the reason people in silent films used to look jumpy and twitchy was because the film was being played at too high a rate of speed.  It would be like watching a movie on fast forward the whole time.

Women in Silent Films – Women were kind of awesome during the time of silent films.  Not only were they directors, writers, and editors, they were also actors playing roles that allowed them to be smart, strong, and funny.  Of course you still can find examples of the weepy damsel in distress but I was pleasantly surprised just how many of these films allowed women to be just as tough as the men.

Colleen Moore and Lon Chaney – No this is not Hollywood’s newest power couple.  This was my first time seeing either of these actors in any film and I was hooked!  Colleen Moore is a fabulous comedienne and from the brief bit that I have read, a smart and capable lady in her own life.  When people think of dark haired silent film actresses with a bob most will think of Louise Brooks but I will think of Colleen Moore and her dance in ELLA CINDERS.  As for Lon Chaney…man oh, man.  I am STILL not recovered from watching THE PENALTY.  That man is amazing.

Silent Films and Your Brain – This is something that I realized over the course of the month and I feel like it is important.  Silent films require your brain.  They require your attention.  We’ve all done it, started watching a movie on TCM or on a DVD and then done something else.  We’ve checked our phones, our email, our Facebook or Twitter.  We’ve gone into the kitchen to get a snack or check on dinner.  All the while we are keeping half an ear out for the dialogue of the film we are “watching” in order to keep tabs on what is going on.  But with silent films you can’t do that, if you aren’t paying attention you miss dialogue and plot.  You miss the film.  And it was an adjustment at first, the urge to check stuff is hard to resist, but after a time I found that not only was I able to pay attention without wandering off but it was also nice to do so.  These days we are given so many options for input that we often split our attention twenty times or more without realizing it, and often to our deficit.  Watching silent films was a respite from that and it felt nice to finally block everything else out and just watch the movie.  It is a habit that I am going to strive to carry over into my daily life.

Sherlock Holmes and TwitterFlicker Alley recently organized a live tweet during the TCM premiere of the 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette.  Not only was the film enjoyable but the experience of watching a newly discovered silent film with a community of classic film lovers was even better.  I hope that Flicker Alley and TCM collaborate again in the future!

My month of silent films was really enjoyable and I can say that I think I have become a silent film junkie.  I’m almost sad to leave the world of strictly silents.  But never fear!  I will now be making a point to watch more silent films, along with my talkies, so you will see more posts on the blog for sure!

Other Things of Interest – I have just started reading Swanson on Swanson written by (you guessed it) Gloria Swanson.  I am only about a chapter and a half in but really enjoying it so far.  I am looking forward to learning more about Gloria Swanson as when I think of her now my first thought is SUNSET BOULEVARD.  My Dad sent me this article from the Wall Street Journal about why we keep physical copies of media in the age of the cloud.  This was an interesting read to me as I am the sort of person who will read an article online or watch a movie on my iPad, but still prefer print books and DVDs (and Blu Rays).  Also, if you are looking for an introduction to silent films, Fritzi of Movies Silently is running a series of articles providing just that.

Favorite Film Discovery of the Month – This was tough but I would have to say THE PENALTY with Lon Chaney.  While I saw a lot of great films this month this is the one that has stuck with me the longest.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when the film started but by the time my husband came and found me at the halfway point I was totally hooked.  I think my exact words to him were, “This film is CRAZY!  You have to see it!”.


That was my month of October!  How was yours?  Any new discoveries?