Cary as Chaplin: 31 Days of Cary Grant, Day 31

And so my series comes to a close with this hilarious portrait of Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin for LIFE magazine. I adore this image because, silly as it is, it hints at the way Grant assimilated many of the best traits of the silent comedians… and combined them with the wit and suaveness of talking comedy. He was a treasure and always will be.

Cary Grant as Charlie Chaplin for LIFE magazine

Image scanned from LIFE Goes to the Movies (Time-Life Books, 1975).

10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Bob Hope

coverDescribing Bob Hope as “underrated” may sound strange. After all, he remains one of the most recognizable people of the 20th century. However, a new comprehensive biography suggests that few of us fully appreciate Ol’ Ski Nose and his significance in American culture.

Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it was. The book matter-of-factly addresses the star’s less lovable side, including his womanizing, his stifling conceitedness, and his heavy reliance on sycophantic employees.

Despite the sometimes uncomfortable honesty, Hope proves an ultimately inspiring read, largely due to the clear-sighted appraisal of its subject’s vast legacy. Not too long ago, Christopher Hitchens crankily asserted that Hope wasn’t funny. I guess that’s a matter of opinion (Not in my house, but I’m trying to be diplomatic…). What Hope certainly was, though, was influential.

In his prime, Hope made it cool to crack wise about current events. Never content with the constraints of a medium, he broke fourth walls, stressed the connection between comedy and reality, and developed a cozy, familiar bond with audiences. Hope also set a precedent for today’s stars by wading into the arena of public causes. He demonstrated the power of celebrity to improve lives and stir a nation.

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As Zoglin points out, Hope not only developed a fast-paced, wry style and character unique to him: “brash, sophisticated, modern.” He also adapted it to an astonishing range of media and venues—from vaudeville to radio to film to television. Following Hope’s story really takes the reader through a dizzying century in the history of mass entertainment.

While reading Hope, I learned a lot about the comedian and discovered facets of his life and career that I’d never known about before. Here are a few of those.

 1. John D. Rockerfeller gave Hope his first important piece of career advice.

To supplement his struggling family’s income, 12-year-old Leslie or ‘Les’ Hope (his real name) sold newspapers on the street in Cleveland. One night, a limousine stopped and a well-heeled older gentleman tried to buy a penny paper with a dime. Lacking the change, Leslie asked if he could run to a store to get some.

The gentleman waited and gave the young Les a tip of the intangible variety: “If you want to be a success in business, trust nobody. Never give credit and always keep change on hand. That way you won’t miss any customers while you’re going for it.” The customer drove away, as a bystander informed Les that he’d been talking to the founder of Standard Oil.

bobhopeportraitThis tale—a favorite anecdote of Hope’s—might sound apocryphal, but Zoglin makes a strong case for its plausibility. Old man Rockerfeller did indeed make the rounds of Cleveland and enjoy chatting and dispensing wisdom to the mere morals he encountered on his drives.

2. He spent time in a reform school—a fact he covered up for the rest of his life.

You’d think that Hope would’ve exploited his time in juvie as comedy material. However, he never publicly mentioned the experience, which hints at how traumatic the stint in reform school must have been for him.

According to surviving records, 15-year-old Hope committed an unknown offense (probably shopliftng) for which he was “adjudged a delinquent” and sent to the Boys Industrial School in Lancaster, Ohio. Although he was released after a few months, young Hope violated his parole terms and was readmitted for at least another full year.

3. One of his earliest successful show business gigs involved dancing with the famous conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton.

daisyandviolethiltonIf you’ve ever seen Tod Browning’s famous horror melodrama Freaks (1932), you’ll remember the fresh-faced, cheerful Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins. Years before making that famous movie appearance, the duo proved a major attraction while in the vaudeville circuits, with spectators lining up literally around the block to see them.

The talented sisters wowed audiences by playing a saxophone duet and then performing a tight dance number with two partners. For a long stretch, Hope was one of the partners.

As he remembered, “At first it was a funny sensation to dance with a Siamese twin. They danced back to back to back, but they were wonderful girls and it got to be very enjoyable—in an unusual sort of way.”

4. His first crack at a Hollywood career was a total disaster.

Touring on the prestigious Keith-Orpheum vaudeville circuit in 1930, Hope visited Pathé in Culver City for a screen test and performed his act for the cameras. Heartened by the chuckles of the crew, he braced himself for stardom. However, when agent Bill Perlberg screened the test for Hope, the up-and-comer just about died: “I’d never seen 1938anything so awful. I looked like a cross between a mongoose and a turtle. I couldn’t wait to get out.” It would take almost a decade before Hope could rustle up the nerve to take another try at the movies.

5. His famous “Thanks for the Memory” number in The Big Broadcast of 1938 was recorded live on the set.

Departing from the typical pre-recording of musical numbers, Mitchell Leisen, who directed Hope’s film debut, wanted to capture the song’s wistful intimacy by recording on the soundstage. Hope and Shirley Ross sang the unforgettable tune—which would become Hope’s theme song—for the cameras, accompanied by an off-screen orchestra. Reportedly, there wasn’t a dry eye on the soundstage.

6. Hope’s racy language and quips got him bleeped on radio. 

Hey, foul-mouthed rappers and raunchy comedians everywhere, guess what? Bob Hope was getting bleeped before you were even born. Admittedly, those were the days when censors practically had a nervous breakdown over the prospect of Clark Gable saying “damn.”

bobhoperadioStill, Hope’s willingness to be controversial showed he had guts. In his heyday, the brash comedian was a far cry from the bland, innocuous old timer of his later television specials. By defying the censors with risqué jokes, Hope also became a target for Catholic reformers. When that happens, you know you’re onto something good.

7. His joke rhythm and timing impressed even his idol Charlie Chaplin.

As a boy, Hope entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and took either first or second place (depends who you talk to). In 1939, when working on The Cat and the Canary, Hope got to meet his childhood idol, married to the film’s star Paulette Goddard. Chaplin saw a few takes of the movie and complimented Hope on his delivery: “I want you to know that you are one of the best timers of comedy I’ve ever seen.” High praise indeed!

8. He really did risk his life to entertain the troops during World War II.

We’ve all seen the images of a slightly disheveled Bob Hope standing at a microphone in Hope_WWII_44front of a sea of men in uniform. But do we realize exactly how tough it was to get him there?

Flying to a performance in Alaska at night, his small plane barely made a landing after the pilots instructed Hope and his troupe to say their prayers. Driving through North Africa, Hope and singer Frances Langford cowered in a ditch and narrowly escaped burning debris from crashing German bomber planes. In Algiers, despite General Eisenhower’s assurances of safety, Hope and Langford spent over an hour huddling in a wine cellar while enemy aircraft bombarded their hotel.

Perhaps riskiest of all, in Palermo a middle-of-the-night air raid caught Hope by surprise in his vulnerable hotel room. Unable to make it to a bomb shelter, he watched helplessly as tracer bullets and flak narrowly missed his window. For Hope, it was “the most frightening experience of my life.”

9. He came up with Tony Bennett’s stage name and gave the singer his first big break.

In 1950, Hope embarked on a vaudeville-style tour and brought along a rising Italian-American crooner known as Joe Barry as one of his troupe. Barry’s singing at Pearl Bailey’s nightclub in Greenwich had impressed Hope, but the comedian felt that the phony stage name was holding the young man back.

jokesHope thought that Barry ought to change it to something more similar to his birth name (Anthony Benedetto) and pitched “Tony Bennett.” When Hope took the newly-rechristened performer to L.A., Bennett recalled, “It was the first time I ever sang in front of a huge crowd.”

10. By the end of his career, there were over a million gags in his comedy vault.

One of the first comedians to openly acknowledge his debt to good writers, Hope kept a meticulous collection of his jokes, gags, and wisecracks, indexed by subject, in a fireproof vault in his home. You could count the jokes, but can anyone comprehend the impact of the joker? Speaking for myself, I’m still chuckling.

Thank you to Dana Trocker of Simon and Schuster for making advance copies of Hope available and to Noralil Ryan Fores of TCM for offering me one!

The Cameraman (1928): Roll With It

postHe had never seen her before, but he knew on sight that she was something mysterious, unattainable, and lovely.

He longed to understand her and couldn’t help edging a little closer.

And so Buster’s onscreen love affair with the movie camera begins—almost identically to his mega-crush on Sally, who happens to work at the M-G-M Newsreel Office. Upon “meeting” both Sally and a newsreel camera, he proceeds the same way, with boyish simplicity and joy in discovery, snuggling up to of them without a thought for what others might perceive as weirdness. Just as Buster can’t resist plunging his face into Sally’s hair and inhaling deeply, he sticks his head right inside the chamber of the first professional newsreel camera he gets the chance to examine.

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Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.22.54 AMHe nuzzles the woman and the camera in much the same way, knowing instinctively that the mechanical device which so many of us see as cold and exacting is, in fact, a fascinating creature with as many secrets as a beautiful woman. Admittedly, the camera Buster explores in the newsreel office is a different from the one that becomes his loyal companion, a mangy early Pathé camera that needs to be hand cranked. Nevertheless, his childlike affection for the device in general is telling and utterly charming.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 7.27.05 PMThe film originally ended with Buster abandoning the camera in a Chinatown scrape. He previewed the sequence and it “died the death of a dog. It dawned on us what that was. I deserted that camera. So I had to go back and remake that—even with the trouble of trying to get away… I still kept my camera. Then it was all right.”  Throughout the perilous Chinatown tussle, Buster gallantly totes his battered camera around as he usually carries damsels in distress, hugging her to his body when the bad guys corner them. The romantic bond between Buster and his camera must never be undermined, otherwise the whole film would come crashing down.

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Buster’s onscreen love of the camera as a being, an almost personified toy that brings him closer to his dream girl, reflects his real-life appreciation of this mystical doohickey. No sooner did Buster start his film career than he borrowed a camera, took it apart, and put it back together again: “One of the first things I did was tear a motion picture camera practically to pieces and found out [about] the lenses and the splicing of film and how to run it on the projector.” The potential of the device immediately struck him; he grasped the boundless scale of what a camera could put before viewers, compared to the cramped artifice of a stage.

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And because Buster, real and fictionalized, loves his camera, the camera loves him, takes pity on him, and comes forth to bear witness to his courage when he needs it most.

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As a movie about movies—or, to be precise, about the video journalism of newsreels—The Cameraman blissfully shatters all of our notions about the boundaries between fact and fiction. Really, it’s a movie that messes with your head in the best possible sense. I mean, by the end, we’re watching people watching Buster Keaton in a movie… within a Buster Keaton movie. Thanks to its dizzying mise-en-abyme conclusion, much of The Cameraman’s most enduring humor and pathos resides in its ability to hint at what it means to film something, to preserve reality and then to play it back.

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For instance, during the climactic Tong War in Chinatown, Buster’s antics reveal the extent to which “documentary” footage often benefits from a little creative staging. Buster, caught in the thick of it, seizes on the opportunity to embellish what’s happening all around him. Watching two men wrestling on the ground, trying to reach a knife, Buster drops them the knife and then cranks away, recording the now slightly more dramatic fight.

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Once holed up in a dry goods store, he positions his camera in the window and chucks a few light bulbs down on the squabbling gangsters below to stir the fight up a bit more, all in the sake of a better shot. We recognize that the newsreel cameraman is never a passive entity, a dumb witness to events. Merely by choosing what to record and how to record it, what to show and what exclude, he discerns value and importance out of a world of noise. And, as Buster shows, these early video journalists didn’t baulk at stooping to a little directing, as well.

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I’ll bet audiences left The Cameraman feeling a bit more wary of newsreel truth, seeing how those daring young men with their filming machines sometimes enhanced the action. Rearranging or even totally restaging historical events wasn’t unheard of for news coverage… and it still isn’t! Here I’m reminded of the famous Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady, so celebrated for their rawness and authenticity… when, in fact, his assistants arranged the corpses for better compositions. Does that make the photographs less truthful? Perhaps. But nobody cares about the truth if it’s not interesting.

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The screening of the Chinatown footage vindicates Buster’s deft management of the situation. Every thrilling shot explodes with danger and conflict. The chief of the M-G-M Newsreel Office even exclaims, “That’s the best camera work I’ve seen in years!” As we watch the footage, we chuckle, however, because we recognize Buster’s handiwork. We see the situation twice—first as a movie, with Buster present as the protagonist, and secondly as a newsreel, with Buster’s presence and influence subtly permeating each frame.

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The humor that arises from this doubling of perspective impresses me with its complexity. The Cameraman abounds with delicious pratfalls, gags, and physical comedy, including the famous get-a-load-of-Buster’s-abs dressing room sequence followed by the nude swimming pool scene.

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In My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Buster remembered that the film received one of its biggest laughs during the scene where the wet-behind-the-ears cameraman watches his film being previewed for the newsreel crew. The trial goes hopelessly badly, because the reel of film that the newbie took consists of a series of hilarious double exposures and trick shots. Battleships float through New York, stunt divers flip backwards out of the water, and city streets jumble together in an impossible collage of mayhem.

Screen Shot 2013-09-21 at 11.55.11 AMOf course, what cracks me up about this scene is that his footage looks scarily like the montage documentary opus Man with a Movie Camera, which features a plethora of impressive yet playful superimpositions. See? Buster’s not incompetent! He’s a prodigy. He’s a natural Dziga Vertov, for crying out loud! Amusingly, what doesn’t cut it for the newsreels actually makes for splendid art—and for a hearty laugh.

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Although the film was mostly made at a studio, it does include some genuine newsreel footage, like the shot of Charles Lindberg that punctuates its conclusion. The archive shot serves a clear narrative purpose, explaining the reason for the parade Buster gets caught up in, which he thinks is in his honor—and also adds a strong emotional reaction to the scene.

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No American in 1928 could’ve looked at that shot and not been filled with pride and joy. This documentary image, plucked from the Hearst files, serves an expressive purpose in the context of a fictional narrative. Lindberg’s real-life triumph—and he was Superman in the 1920s—echoes Buster’s smaller victory, and the inclusion of reality bolsters the fiction.

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Plus, Buster’s confusion, mistakenly believing that the swelling ticker-tape parade is celebrating him, parallels the mix-up created by seeing newsreel footage of Lucky Lindy embedded in a fictional storyline. We get a whole bundle of conflicting things to laugh about. Buster thinks he’s the protagonist in the newsreel reality of the diegesis, but he’s not. However, in the reality of The Cameraman, he is, of course, the protagonist.

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The fact that a movie about newsreels returns to actual newsreel footage at the end makes us feel that the whole film has coiled up on itself. Buster never quite lets us free of this movie, trapping us in a Möbius strip of irony to the end. Was this a fiction with a detour through newsreels… or a newsreel with an extended detour through fiction?

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Buster’s adventures cross over so serendipitously with actual historical events—even if the documentary footage component makes up only a few feet of film among thousands of studio-shot illusion. His journey, especially the wish fulfillment conclusion, recalls the way we bump into our favorite films and half imagine ourselves to be the protagonists.

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What is and is not recorded on camera also interjects some of the saddest moments of The Cameraman—and some of the saddest moments of any comedy I’ve seen! When Buster returns from his death-defying mission to Chinatown only to discover that he forgot to put film in the camera, the emptiness of the reel makes our hearts sink. Not only has he utterly failed as the newsreel journalist he longs to be, but he literally lost the thing that he tried so hard to protect. The fruit of his labor, the thing that he valued above his own safety, suddenly dematerialized. Such is the nature of film.

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When Buster rescues the girl and goes to get something to revive her, he returns to find her walking away with another man. As our hero sinks to his knees, the camera slowly slides away from him… showing his own camera a few yards away, still being cranked by Josephine the monkey.

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It’s hard to put into words what that devastating tracking shot conveys. As Buster watches, the young lovers walk away, and his heart breaks, like an intruder in somebody else’s movie, a conventional romantic comedy. I suppose that seeing the camera jerks us out of the film world and forces us to take a moment of silent reverence for the suffering that Buster undergoes for the sake of our belly laughs. The sudden appearance of that implacable camera shocks us and strips away the escapism of comedy.

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However, on a deeper level, the absurdity of a camera capturing the depths of his despair, of memorializing a moment he’ll always remember with a tiny throb of anguish, drives home the loneliness of the experience. I mean, what if someone videotaped the worst moment of your life? Pretty harsh. His only companion (besides the monkey) is that helpless three-legged beast, the camera. And she can’t understand what he’s going through… or can she? Perhaps she can make his isolation shine. After all, that sublime tracking shot sure does. That complex shot is every bit the equivalent of the ending shot of Chaplin’s City Lights, in my humble opinion—that one shot that tells you everything you need to know about the wistfulness at the heart of this little man we find so funny.

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Fortunately, the camera that can be cruel is also kind, because the miraculously rediscovered footage comes to testify in Buster’s behalf. The camera sees his melancholy beauty just as it sees the news, when it’s fed the right subject, recontextualizing life and making it amazing again. A deus ex machina, a benevolent god from the machine, film itself—or rather the film within the film—furnishes the happy ending we all crave.

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This post is part of the Journalism in Classic Film Blogathon, hosted by Comet Over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings. Please check out the other fabulous entries!

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Oh, and you didn’t think I’d end the post without this, did you? One of these men is Buster Keaton. Guess which.

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Free Friday Film: Nothing Sacred (1937)

posterFredric March was a ladies’ man. Really.

We’re not talking a fellow with a dalliance here and there—we’re talking a full-time, notorious skirt-chaser of Don Draper magnitude. And March, whose shapely thighs seemed to make a supporting appearance in every esteemed period drama of the early 1930s, encountered a fair amount of success in his extracurricular adventures.

However, when he put the moves on co-star Carole Lombard during the filming of Nothing Sacred, she was anything but amused. Deeply in love with Clark Gable, our Carole wanted to send the message to Freddie: go prowl somewhere else.

And, being the master prankster of Hollywood, she dreamed up a wonderfully gross way to tell him to scram.

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Feigning a sudden amorous interest in her co-star, she invited him to come up and see her sometime. In her dressing room. Wink, wink. He didn’t have to be told twice. Boy, was he in for a surprise!

According to Warren G. Harris in Gable and Lombard, “as March’s hand started up under Lombard’s dress, he suddenly let out an astonished oath. He had grabbed a rubber dildo, which Lombard had strapped on herself before his arrival. The shock was too much for March. He never bothered Lombard again.” (83)

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Notice the expression of general unease on ol’ Freddie’s face…

I hope you realize that I’m sharing that delightfully obscene anecdote at the peril of getting some very questionable search term hits on this blog. Yet, I went ahead and included it anyway to illustrate the fact that the sorrows—and embarrassments—of life are the joys of art. Because the real-life hostile energy between March and Lombard translates into a match made in screwball heaven onscreen.

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In this blithely offensive Ben Hecht concoction, directed by William Wellman, a disgraced New York star reporter, Wally, longs to win his way back into the spotlight. He intends to do exactly that by creating a media circus around Hazel Flagg, a young woman who’s dying of radium poisoning. The only problem is, her hick doctor made a mistake. She’s not really dying… but she can’t pass up the chance to escape her little Podunk town in Vermont.

So, as New York City pours out its sappy, self-congratulatory love for the beautiful doomed girl, she’s drinking in the attention—and looking for a way out. Meanwhile, Wally, the fast-talking, hard-boiled reporter, has fallen hard for the girl he thinks has a few weeks to live.

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On a stylistic level, I love William Wellman’s flamboyant habit of obstructing what we most want to see with weird, incongruous objects. A big vase of funereal flowers makes a conversation impossible. A scary old woman’s whimple-like mourning hat blocks out most of Lombard’s lovely face. The most romantic kiss in Nothing Sacred takes place out of our sight, hidden behind a bunch of crates on the New York docks! This off-kilter visual sense imbues the film with a wacky, cartoonish quality that perfectly suits the plot contrivances and broadly comic premise.

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Nothing Sacred gives us a world of awkward silliness, a world so jam-packed with obstacles and ill-conceived objects that it would be sad if it weren’t so ridiculous. Even New York strikes us as a somewhat gaudy intrusion, with its jutting skyscrapers and its huge girders that serve as perches for burly workers eating their lunches.

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I’ve already mentioned that this movie is less than politically correct, but if it’s offensive, it’s offensive to almost everyone, as the title implies. No character escapes a good skewering by Ben Hecht. The prudish, monosyllabic denizens of the town of Warsaw, Vermont (very much like where I grew up) seem just as ludicrous as the hypocritical sinners in New York City.

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Carole Lombard absolutely glows in Technicolor—and I could start weeping when I think that fate never allowed her to make another feature in color. Her sweetly conniving small-town girl wins our hearts from the moment she shambles glumly across the screen, thinking she has weeks to live. Even more amusing, when she finds out she’s not going to die, she breaks into tears. As she sniffles, “It’s kind of startling to be brought to life twice—and each time in Warsaw!”

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We adore Hazel Flagg because, in spite of her charade, she’s actually the most honest person in the film—or perhaps the least dishonest. The people heaping goopy, sugary outpourings of pity on Hazel don’t really give a damn about her. She merely serves as a stimulus that enables them to feel like better human beings. They imagine that they’re moved by her misfortune, so they can all think, “Gee, I’m a real swell person, because of my empathy for that gorgeous dying girl.” At least Hazel never lies to herself, unlike her many phony admirers.

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As Ben Hecht explained in his autobiography, he had a real beef with what he saw as the public’s need to live their lives through others, instead of seizing on any kind of private, first-hand pleasure. With this in mind, Nothing Sacred still levels a relevant criticism at today’s society—it’s easy to get so involved in hyper-publicized feuds, drippy human interest stories, and celebrity trivia that I forget who I am and what I believe as an individual.

The desire to be distracted by someone else’s problems and the craving for undeserved fame feed on each other, fueled by mercenary media moguls. Sound familiar? Nowadays, you can find a zillion neo-Hazel Flaggs—people trying to get famous for their plights and sob stories—with a Google search. And that’s why Nothing Sacred remains fresh and droll more than 75 years after it was made.

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But, back to the story and our squabbling stars. In spite of the fact that Freddie and Carole disliked each other, many of their scenes together exude a charming tenderness. We watch this cynical journalist melt in the presence of the outwardly naïve girl whom he brought to New York, basically as a freak show. I adore a little scene where he takes her away from the ugly publicity, on a sailboat up the Hudson.

Even better, we get to savor Wally’s mixture of outrage and relief when he finds out that she’s not dying—and has been fooling him all along. Love, in my mind at least, is an unmasking. It’s when you discover the worst about a person and realize that it’s all the same things you feel guilty about yourself. In this case, Wally discovers Hazel as a brilliant, brazen, sensational faker. Just like him.

The most famous scene in the movie, the “boxing match” between Lombard and March always cracked me up—and does so even more now that I recognize that it seethes with genuine antipathy.

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Leave it to Ben Hecht to depict the battle between the sexes literally—a fistfight that proves the congruence of love and hate. Does it hurt to watch a woman getting socked in the jaw by a man? Um, yes. But it is completely worth it to watch Wally getting knocked out cold by Hazel.

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Oddly enough, only when Hazel and Wally have knocked each other out (at different times) do they run to the other’s side with a remorseful kiss. In other words, love implies an oscillation between snuggliness and rage, with very little middle ground.

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“God, how I love you when you’re totally unconscious!”

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If this film has one fault, it’s that Carole Lombard doesn’t get enough to do. In the role of an invalid, she lacks the opportunity to rip into her usual slapstick antics until the very end of the film, but she compensates with some of the most splendid facial expressions in cinema history. My personal favorite is the grimace she makes when she receives the key to New York, has no place to put it, stuffs it down her shirt—and gets caught in the glare of a cameraman’s flashbulb. Priceless.

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 More great facial expressions, brought to you by the inimitable Carole…

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I also chuckle to myself watching her rubber face react to all the goofy ways New York chose to “honor” her: forcing her to play muse to a brooding poet, treating her to ten seconds of mopey silence at a boxing match, and, most egregiously, calling her up on a stage of showgirls to complete a flashy line-up of famous historical women.

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Nothing Sacred also features Walter Connolly chewing scenes as an apoplectic newspaper owner, prone to making threats like, “I am sitting here, Mr.Cook, toying with the idea of cutting out your heart, and stuffing it, like an olive!”

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Tough-guy Maxie Rosenbloom also makes a memorable appearance and adds his dummy charisma to the mix. If you dig burlesque, stay tuned for a nightclub show featuring half-naked “Heroines of History” from Lady Godiva to Hazel Flagg—hosted by the spectacularly unfunny Frank Fay, Barbara Stanwyck’s ex.

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Best of all, I encourage you to bask in Ben Hecht’s and William Wellman’s iconoclastic disdain for everything usually considered comic taboo: schoolchildren, kindness, charity, romantic love, and death. Indeed, absolutely nothing is safe and nothing is sacred.

So, check this one out. If you haven’t totally sold your soul to the doctrine of political correctness and good taste (whatever that is), you will laugh. And if you don’t, this is my response to you:

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Walt Disney Company, Hollywood’s Pacific Title & Art Studio, and the restoration laboratory Cinetech of Valencia restored Nothing Sacred so that it looks absolutely beautiful, compared to the blotchy DVD copy I first watched. You can read about the restoration by clicking here. It’s one of the earliest feature films made in three-strip Technicolor which offered a much broader range than two-strip. In this movie, the hues add to the comedic impact of scenes with their startling, exaggerated intensity.

You can watch this YouTube version (also below) in 720p HD, which I definitely recommend.

Since the film has fallen into the Public Domain, you can also download it at the Internet Archive, although the quality is inferior to that of the version embedded here.

When you’re done, please leave a comment and tell me what you think of the movie! 

The Adventuress (1946): Irish I Were a Spy

posterI think being a woman is like being Irish. Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the same.

—Iris Murdoch  

Today, I’d like to share one the most pleasurable movies I’ve ever encountered.

There’s honestly not a day in my life when I couldn’t watch The Adventuress (alternate title: I See a Dark Stranger), a masterfully scripted concoction of comedy, suspense, and romance, all permeated with the whimsy and mulishness of the Irish spirit.

The movie was a hit in its day—both in the UK and in the US—and it’s still a hit with me.

As small-town lass Bridie Quilty, Deborah Kerr barrels through this delightful spy thriller in a flurry of high-tempered outbursts, unleashing a torrent of illogical pronouncements. Growing up listening to her father’s theatrical tales of the quelled 1916 Irish Rebellion, Bridie only wants one thing in life: to get revenge on the British by joining the IRA.

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Bridie Quilty: portrait of a would-be revolutionary

She confesses her grand nationalistic ambition to a disillusioned IRA rebel-turned-gallery curator in a scene that never fails to make me chuckle at its understated humor. Looking like a schoolgirl who wandered away from her museum tour, she demurely announces, “I’d like to join the IRA. Please.” You can tell it’s something she’s fantasized about so frequently that all the risks and ramifications of the wild decision have melted away until it’s as commonplace a remark as, “Please pass the milk.”

Bridie’s single-mindedness reflects an inculcated hatred so intense it could be mistaken for a kind of mechanical vacantness—if it weren’t for the warmth glowing through her wide, offended eyes.

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If this sounds like the condescending stereotype of an Irish woman you’d expect from 1940s British film, it’s certainly not. I’ll address that in a bit.

In the meantime, since I’m doing my best to pick away at some queasy points of nationalism and centuries of troubles, perhaps this is a good juncture to issue a disclaimer. Here goes, my loves, my doves, my darlings!

Believe me, whatever I write in this blog post is imbued with fondness and admiration for the Irish, for the sacred soil of Eire, for the fierce blood of my Gaelic chieftain ancestors, and for John Ford’s sainted eye-patch.

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I’m half Irish. But that’s a kind of a problem for me. Because, ever since I, at 6 years old, first started mimicking a generic BBC accent, I’ve always identified most with—gasp—the British! That may sound inconsequential, but my late grandfather ran guns to the IRA in the heady days of Bobby Sands. My mother occasionally gets misty about the trees that she claims were stolen from the Irish by their beastly (apparently furniture-loving) oppressors. My family is (supposedly) remotely descended from the first king of Ireland.

Nobody in my clan has EVER worn Reebok sneakers—because of the British flag emblazoned on them.

So, as a Kipling-quoting, Royal-watching, keeping-calm-and-carrying-on British sympathizer, I’m a real black sheep in the family. I guess I just like to be on the winning side and, as Iris Murdoch observed in the quote above, being Irish often translates into a life of lamentation and underlying resentment of “tak[ing] second place all the same.”

I’m very culturally conflicted—cue the violins, please… I mean, the harp. See? Conflicted!

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Which brings me back to The Adventuress and why I love it so much. This movie works a small miracle: it’s both veddy English and sublimely Irish.

That famous British cynicism echoes through every line of dialogue spoken by those laconic limeys in the cast. For instance:

Miller (dying): There’s a bullet inside me.

Bridie: How d’you know?

Miller: Because it didn’t come out.

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Or…

Bridie (denouncing Oliver Cromwell, scourge of Ireland): My grandfather’s great-great-grandfather knew him well!

Major David Bain: That’s getting a bit remote, isn’t?

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Long before Monty Python lampooned Britishness, the crack screenwriting team of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder lovingly parodied their own culture with wacky comedies and mordant, taut thrillers. You might recognize their askew humor from The Lady Vanishes and The Night Train to Munich.

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The pair formed a production company and collaborated on the writing and directing of over 40 films; Launder directed this one. In The Adventuress, as in many other Gilliat and Launder films, the quirkiness of ordinary English life—manifested by quaint train cars, dusty book shops, little old ladies, pettifogging military types, bland gentlemen in sedate suits—takes on a topsy-turvy danger.

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As for the Irish elements of the script, well, Bridie Quilty is the main attraction. Her misplaced determination, her incisive way with words, and her quicksilver changes in judgment all typify traits that I recognize as key characteristics of Irishness.

In terms of representation, her Irishness is compounded with her femininity to produce an obstinate creature all the more funny because she takes herself deadly serious. At once mercurial and immovable, she is always right. Always. Even when she’s wrong. As she insists, “It’s no use telling me. I’ve made up me mind and all the powers on earth won’t change it.”

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And that obstinacy is amusing, for sure, but Kerr also hints at the ironic sadness of it. Something about having to accept the reality of “second place,” as Iris Murdoch put it, triggers the unshakeable belief that you must indeed be the cheated winner.

Although it might be tempting to condemn Bridie as a caricature, Gilliat and Launder endow her with a depth of personality that makes her much more than a stereotype. The audience comes to care about her—not in spite of her headstrong quest for vengeance and her irrationality, but because of those attributes. Her Irishness comes across as both beguiling and threatening.

We see often see the world as Bridie sees it. He subconscious even materializes for the audience during a creepy, expressionistic dream sequence. After dumping the dead body of one of her spy confederates, she spends the rainy night listening to the creaking sign of the inn where she’s staying—a sound that turns into the merciless rhythm of a metronome as she’s forced to play scales at a piano… and dump the body again and again in her mind.

The viewer shares Bridie’s anxiety and sympathizes with this nice girl who’s gotten in way over her head. Attracted by freedom and adventure, she chose to become a spy—only to find herself weighed down by a corpse and at the mercy of mysterious orders.

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We also gain privileged access to Bridie’s thoughts through lots of intimate voice-overs. Consider, for instance, this long passage of narration wherein she forms her opinion of the man seated in the same train compartment with her:

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“His hair is going grey, but it looks very nice the way he has it brushed. He’s a faraway look in his eyes… a poet maybe. No, he’s much too clean. And he puts his trousers under the mattress like Terence Delaney. Hasn’t he lovely nails? He’s a gentleman, I think. I don’t like being alone with a strange man at this time of night. He doesn’t look that sort of man, of course, but how can you tell? Mr. McGee didn’t look that sort of man, and Mr. Clogherty… was a terrible shock to me. Hmm, he’s a traveller from abroad. Miller, Miller, that can’t be an Irish name… he’s English! Of all of the compartments of this train, I have to get into one with an Englishman. Why, I might have known it! Will you look at him, will you look at the cruel set of his jaw! You could mistake him for Cromwell!”

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Accompanied by the many shadings of facial expressions that Deborah Kerr lends to the part, this internal monologue charms us into loving Bridie. That affection for the protagonist may not come as a surprise now that Ireland and England are  on the best terms they’ve ever been, but in 1946, she would’ve been much more alarming to British audiences.

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“He’s English!”

Throughout the first half of the film, we recognize the realness and dangerousness of Bridie’s anger. She hates England to the point of becoming a spy for Germany during World War II. As an avenging angel for Eire, she sets the stakes of her fury quite high.

Yet Gilliat and Launder allude to some damn good reasons why Bridie might want to become the avenger of her culture. Visiting Ireland’s National Gallery, she exchanges glances with a portrait of Sir Roger Casement, an Irishman knighted by the British for his fight against brutal Belgian imperialism in the Congo (think Heart of Darkness)… then executed by the British because he supported the 1916 Irish uprising.

Bridie’s righteous, understated rage fills the air as she stands before the painting, her shadow connecting her to Casement, as the score strikes a mournful note. The moment seems like as a subtle mea culpa for British Imperialism—in a British film by British screenwriters.

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Despite the introspective tone of the scene, however, it doesn’t reduce the perils of Bridie’s vengeful anger—it intensifies them by strengthening her convictions. A few strains of the Irish folk song “Kelly the Boy from Killane” break into the musical score, as though jolting Bridie out of a reverie and reminding her of her dark purpose. She wants to take down the British Empire if she can, for her father, for Casement, for her whole persecuted race. This is no hyperbole. It’s Bride’s reality.

That’s a pretty terrifying thought—or would’ve been to British viewers, I’ll wager. Technically, Bridie is a traitor to the realm. Think about it: a beautiful Irish agent working for the Axis could easily make for a memorable femme fatale villain, not a heroine.

After all, Bridie teams up with Mr. Miller who (despite his resemblance to Cromwell) handles surveillance and sabotage missions for Nazi Germany on British soil. Once Miller gets shot during a risky job, he sends Bridie to retrieve a black book containing vital information about the D-Day landing so she can hand it over to the Axis.

Along her journey, she’s trailed by a dogged, cocky British major (a young, swoon-worthy Trevor Howard) who’s fallen for Bridie and wants to help her out.

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By making Bridie a romantic partner and an ultimately ineffectual spy, Gilliat and Launder defuse her rage with adorableness. I don’t use that word idly; there’s something slightly diminishing in all cuteness.

One who notices cuteness tends to be looking down from above. Cuteness is a “second place” prize, to take up Iris Murdoch’s insight once again. We often call things cute to approve of them condescendingly.

I’d argue that we project cuteness onto things to make them less scary. Certain personalities brand themselves as cute to attract a wider audience that might otherwise be intimidated by their talents, abilities, and passions. Bridie’s Irishness appeals to us because we learn that, in spite of her professed desire to destroy England, underneath it all, her gestures of rebellion are cute and symbolic.

The movie starts with just such a symbolic gesture. In a dinky Irish pub, Bridie’s father musters up battalions of alliterations and metaphors to tell a persuasive yarn about fighting off thousands of Englishmen sent to quell the 1916 rebellion. As Danny Quilty holds his audience rapt, the camera slides in through a window and peers around the room like an uninvited observer (an eavesdropping English spectator, perhaps?).

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Meanwhile, Bridie sits aside, a young girl absorbing what she hears like a sponge, although she knows the words of her father’s speech so well that she mouths them along with him.

One cannot deny the power of this scene, of Danny Quilty’s words as a collective memory that binds together a whole band of men, of the communal singing of “Kelly the Boy from Killane.” This group therapy session channels the Irish passion for their land and their mourning for their lack of control over their own turf. And we watch this surge of manly grief being passed on to a young girl.

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Only afterwards do we, the viewers, realize that most of these fine sons of Eire have never spilt a drop of blood for their motherland. They come to the pub to listen to Danny as a way of vicariously experiencing the doomed struggle for Home Rule—and even Danny probably never participated in the revolt.

His cleverly conjured memories consist mostly of blarney. He set out on his bike for Dublin to join the fight, but, as one doubtful old woman remarks, “there are a lot of pubs between here and Dublin.”

We Irish possess an almost hypnotic eloquence (“we” in general, not me so much) sustained by a gift for harmless hyperbole. Our bark is worse that our bite, you might say.

In much the same way, Bridie gets herself embroiled in international espionage, but baulks at any misdeed greater than vandalism. I mean, sure, she’ll throw paint on a village statue of Cromwell, but, when push comes to shove, she’s not all that into self-sacrifice, and she nearly has a conniption when Mr. Miller tells her to pull a Mata Hari and seduce someone.

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Another mythical facet of the Irishness has set its mark on Bridie: she’s a chosen daughter of fate. This assertion sounds strange, I know, but fate smiles on the Irish in strange ways: denied autonomy in their own land, the Irish turn into adventurers, sages, seers, the darlings of fickle fortune, for a moment at least. Swift, Yeats, Wilde, Joyce!

Bridie might not be on a par with those star-chosen sons of Eire, but through a series of crazy adventures, she ends up with the key to the whole world’s crazy adventure—the black book of information that could sink the Allied attack at Normandy.

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Through her bumbling she obtains it, through her courage she destroys it, and through her sheer stubbornness she faces down the consequences. She’s no longer taking “second place.”

In the end, her destiny deviates from what she wanted—but it still means that Bridie the Adorable, Bridie the Comical Irish Slip of a Thing, holds thousands of lives and the power to make history, in her hands for a short while.

And she hates it.

Perhaps second place isn’t so bad after all, we understand.

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Bridie’s eyes widen as the consequences of her actions dawn on her. “What desperate thing are you about, girl?” She asks herself in voice-over. “You’re holdin’ the Book of Fate in yer hands!”

The Adventuress concludes its whirling dance between condescension, sympathy, and, yes, admiration with regards to Bridie by marrying England and Ireland, two polarized cultures. Because—no surprises here—the fetching lass of the Emerald Isles gets hitched to the brave English officer.

And not just any English officer: Trevor Bloody Howard, a man as white as the Cliffs of Dover with a jaw like the Stone of Scone.

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This marriage of opposites transforms a battle between fierce political foes into a screwball courtship. Thus, The Adventuress turns a very serious matter into a rom-com, which takes some serious guts and storytelling sleight of hand.

Perhaps that boldness explains why I adore this film. It lets me embrace both my genuine Irishness and my wannabe Englishness while rejoicing in the nuptials of Bridie and the most British man on the planet. The message of reconciliation strikes us as silly, wistful, improbable, and irresistible—in other words, so very Irish.

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Anyway, whether you’re Irish or not, please dig up The Adventuress. I guarantee that you’ll enjoy it. You’ll enjoy Deborah Kerr matter-of-factly telling Howard, “I’m a retired spy.” You’ll enjoy a knockabout brawl in a bathtub. You’ll enjoy the shadowy lighting, the trench coats, the sinister agents and the winking send-up of spy thrillers.

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And if you don’t, may the only weepers at your funeral be the onion-pullers—an old Irish curse.

The Laughing Academy: It Happened One Night (1934)

It Happened One Night

“If the movies are an art, I kinda think it’ll leak out somehow without bein’ told; and if they’re a science—then it’s a miracle.”

—Will Rogers at the Academy Awards banquet, 1934

“Let’s get this over with.”

—Clark Gable, arriving on the set for the first day of shooting on It Happened One Night

“I just finished making the worst picture I’ve ever made.”

—Claudette Colbert, on finishing It Happened One Night

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The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is not exactly known for rewarding a good laugh.

We all know that if you want one of their little gold men on your bedside table, your safest bet lies in unearthing the most degrading, unglamorous, tragic script you can find and wringing it for all its worth. Which is a shame, really, because many of the best movies ever made are comedies and I would argue that it’s much harder to make a good funny picture—one that really makes your sides hurt and a twinkle reappear in in your eye—than a good depressing one.

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Don’t get me wrong—many fine comedies have gotten Oscar nods, and several have attracted one or two of the big awards, but that’s comparatively rare. Perhaps the idea of serious drama adds an air of respectability and legitimacy to movies, and that’s why rather dire, pompous, or grandiose movies tend to hold the Academy trump cards.

Except for once.

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In 1934, a low-budget comedy won every major award. Best Actor. Best Actress. Best Director. Best Screenplay. And, of course, Best Picture. It was the first movie ever to sweep the big awards like that. However, it starred two loaned-out actors who didn’t want anything to do with it. It was made at a fledgling studio in the midst of a town dominated by reigning giants. It bridged the wide gap between an era of Pre-Code naughtiness and a new period of constraints and stringent censorship. It forged a new subgenre: the screwball comedy, which embedded cheeky adventures into a more cautious, traditional courtship framework. It’s a miraculous movie.

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Although it was initially entitled Night Bus, the movie bore a stunningly romantic, already nostalgic name: It Happened One Night.

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But let’s get one thing clear: I don’t by a long shot consider it the greatest comedy ever made. I’d nominate Trouble in Paradise, Some Like It Hot, or The Lady Eve for that honor. Nor is it the best movie Capra ever made. Nor is it even the funniest movie ever made.

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Yet, in it’s own strange way, It Happened One Night stands out as perhaps the most likable film ever made—even more so than Casablanca, with its occasionally mawkish bouts of patriotism (although I do love Casablanca). Capra’s little laugh-fest fills me with cozy joy, as if it were tapioca pudding in movie-form. And, in 1934, the heart of the Depression, apparently even the Academy appreciated some filmic comfort food.

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Claudette Colbert: existentialist.

The film glows with the impression of genuineness, of spontaneity. Notice I say “impression” because anyone who’s ever held a camera can tell you that spontaneity requires some of the greatest illusory juju that any cinema shaman can summon up. We talk a lot about Capra the humanist and Capra the idealist—but I want to praise Capra the magician, who can pull realism out of staged simplicity, who can turn two freakishly charismatic people into ordinary individuals who need baths and get hungry, who can even use snappy dialogue and character involvement to make us forget that we’re looking at a rear-projected shot.

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This contrived tale of a runaway heiress and an out-of-work reporter racing to get her back to her fiancée—and inevitably falling in love in spite of their antagonism—succeeds. And how!

By what strange alchemy does this movie turn to gold? I give a lot of credit to what I’d call orchestrated amateurism—endearingly crude cuts and awkward moments added in to what would otherwise be a flat, dull, artificial enterprise. Capra can do flawless and sophisticated. He did it, in my book, the year before with The Bitter Tea of General Yen—a lush, expressionistic story of a doomed romance, every shot of which is fit for framing and hanging on a gallery wall. It Happened One Night, however, is brilliantly flawed and splendidly arranged to seem like everyday life, to seem like it’s just happening as it goes along.

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For instance, there’s a moment that’s always distracted me. Ellie Andrews, the pampered runaway, has to spend a night in the same autopark room with Pete Warne, a canny, independent newspaper man. Although they didn’t exactly go to sleep on good terms, they wake up on a better foot and sit down to breakfast together. Claudette Colbert exudes a natural shimmering warmth in any role, so as she tells Pete about how her filthy rich life wasn’t so great after all, her speech strikes me as cute—but that’s not what I’m watching.

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Ellie’s eating as she talks. Not “movie eating,” picking at food, pretending to eat. Really eating. Shoveling eggs in and chewing them up. And at one point, a little shred of egg white gets caught on her lip and she flips it back into her mouth. It’s a split-second motion, not in the least played up for comic effect, but that’s all it takes to turn a staged scene into something that feels much more real. Capra was the master of the reifying detail, the one thing that turns a scene from a clunker to a charmer.

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Capra cultivates this not-quite-put-together ambiance, this intentional sloppiness in the famous scene the night before, when Pete undresses in front of the camera. Ellie stands there all the while, bluffing, trying to insist that she’s not afraid of Pete’s rough virility. Meanwhile, taunting her in this game of erotic chicken (oh, God, I hope that “erotic chicken” doesn’t show up on my search terms list), Gable does what we must recognize as one of classic cinema’s few male stripteases. Yes, take THAT, male gaze-obsessed film theorists!

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All digressions aside, make no mistake: this is a constructed scene, as snappy and precise as a Busby Berkeley tap routine. In fact, the reason why Gable takes off his shirt to reveal no undershirt (and thereby bankrupted many an undergarment company) isn’t a question of style but of timing: with the undershirt, the spiel and the routine took too long.

However, the editing makes the scene seem a lot more amateurish than it is. When Gable prepares to unbutton his pants, and every female viewer leaned forward a little, we see Colbert, leaning against the door, rush forward—Heaven forbid she see a naked man! Then we get a quick cut to a longer shot, and she’s back where she was, leaning against the door! Almost immediately, she jerks forward again and scampers to the other side of the Walls of Jericho, the blanket that separates the unwilling roommates. In case I’m not being clear, we see the same action, Colbert starting to run away, twice, if only for a second. I wish I could capture it via screenshot, but it’s too fast—I happens right after this…

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Call the referee! A continuity rule has been violated!

Seriously, though, that messy cut consecrates the scene with a paradoxical sense of documentary authenticity. Obviously, anything that’s been edited has been contrived. However, a jumpy cut encourages us as viewers to see this film as somewhat haphazardly thrown together. It’s natural, uncomplicated, unvarnished, practically a home movie, we’re meant to believe. Our good will towards this quaint, patched-up picture from a minor studio swells into fondness. I’d also point out that the doubled action adds an almost Eisensteinian surge of energy to the moment—a jolt to conclude one striptease and usher in another, as Colbert strips to her slip on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

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Seriously, though, if you’re watching It Happened One Night for the umpteenth time, keep an eye out for how many weird cuts rip through this masterpiece of calculated nonchalance. Perhaps the most effective and, I would argue, self-conscious of these jumpy cuts arrives at the moment when Pete and Ellie come nose-to-nose for the first time—the first time that they’re not screaming at each other, that is.

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As Ellie reclines in a hay bail, Pete folds his trench coat over her. They come face to face. We expect a kiss. Instead, we get a jump cut closer.

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I love how that gratuitous little inch forward allows us to experience the intimacy of that instant. There’s no kiss. There’s no sex. And yet something changed there and we all perceived it. Then Pete gets up and makes up his bed of straw. There are so many hackneyed ways to insist on attractive tension—360-degree camera spirals, zooms, fetishistically long close-ups. But Capra, not exactly known for avoiding sentimentality, saves us from all that saccharine sweetness with a dose of jagged cutting that brings us back to reality… or the illusion of reality.

I suppose that my point, if I must indeed have a point, consists in showing that It Happened One Night deserves every single one of its awards for seeming so effortless, buoyant, and, yes, even a little shoddy.

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As for our Best Actor, I’ll admit it: I usually don’t love Clark Gable—he doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. However, in this movie, I can’t resist his disobligingly teasing swagger. He could have collected an Oscar just  for how he mockingly sings, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” to sheltered maiden Ellie on the other side of the Walls of Jericho.

Whether gnawing on carrots or tossing his best set of pajamas at Ellie, he amplifies the Average American Man, or what we’d like to think he is: basically decent, crammed with his own cockeyed wisdom, foolish, savvy, glib, cynical, sentimental, sincere, and strong—all in one. These qualities shine beautifully through in Gable, the kind of guy who would and did give his Oscar to a little kid who remarked on it in the street.

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Colbert earned her Oscar by refusing to tone down her part. No mistake—Ellie can be an atrocious brat. In the first five minutes of the movie, she pitches a tray of fresh food on the floor with such single-minded, adolescent fury that I imagine a whole audience of undernourished Americans wanted to slap her, just as Walter Connolly does. She’s the kind of childish gal who returns the stuck-out tongue of a girl half her age!

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Her comedic timing generates laughs, but never hits you as forced or mannered. For instance, in the hitchhiking scene, Gable gets most of the antics, demonstrating the several methods of hitchhiking—all she does in response is go, “That’s amazing.” But, man, the dry, falsely-impressed timbre of her voice is funnier that all the custard pies in the world.

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She was convinced that she’d never win the Oscar and was on her way out of town when she heard the news and was summoned to attend the Academy Awards Banquet. She later recalled: “I was surprised when I got the prize. I really had no idea I would get it. In fact, I was ready to leave for New York the night they called to tell me about it. Dressed in a mousy brown suit, I was escorted into the banquet hall full of diamonds and tail coats. It was especially embarrassing because I imagined they thought I was putting on an act, making an entrance.” Rather appropriate, considering the runway heiress she played in the movie, n’est-ce pas?

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The winning script, by frequent Capra collaborator Frank Riskin, based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams, not only packs in lots of witty diatribes, but an extraordinary amount of hilarious situations. To list only a few, who could forget Colbert pretending to be a plumber’s daughter and screeching like a fishwife when private detectives come looking for her? Or Gable throwing her over his shoulder and toting her across a stream? Or the infamous hitchhiking thigh-flash? Or the definitive runaway bride wedding?

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She’s at the ten, the twenty—no one can catch her!

I also admire how Riskin uses lots of stock characters and tropes of the day, but bends them to the will of the public. Our schadenfreude gets a healthy workout as bad things recurrently happen to bad people—and everyone gets their just desserts. The infamous playboy King Wesley gets ditched at the altar and the self-indulgent, self-important Daddy Andrews freaks out because his daughter finally took a stand against him.

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Between love and madness there lies It Happened One Night

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Even the lead romance works only because there’s an element of playful humbling involved on both sides. If we believe that Ellie and Pete are meant for each other, it’s on the level of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth—their love is founded on romantic one-upmanship, the cancelling out of their proud natures. He shows her up by revealing that there’s more to life than money and she shows him up by knowing things that women just naturally know—that is, how to control men!

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The script cleverly calls for the main characters to slip in and out of several identities. For instance, take Pete’s terrifying imitation of a gangster, scaring the living daylights out of the blackmailing womanizer Shapeley (a very irritating Roscoe Karns) who threatens to reveal Ellie’s identity. In the years previous to this, Gable had played a lot of tough customers (he’s absolutely chilling as a would-be child-murderer in Night Nurse), so he slides easily into the persona of a cold-blooded killer.  Yet, in this case, instead of feeling like we should boo him, because he’s a gangster, we enjoy watching the fierce pre-code villainous Gable put the fear of God into a sniveling creep.

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In the same manner, we can relish Colbert’s impersonations of loose women because we’ve been let in on the secret that Ellie’s never even been alone with a man before she spends the night in the same cabin with Pete. Riskin cunningly takes morally upright people (by the Code’s standard) but leads them through cheeky transformations—dictated by necessity. He deserves a prize for Best Circumscription of Regulations.

And Best Director Capra reinvents realism on two levels. First, his attention to the idiosyncrasies of how people really live comes across as nothing short of staggering.

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A hobo on top of a train waves to an ecstatic Pete—just another “realistic” touch that adds to the movie’s charms.

Second, Capra blows me away with his understanding of a viewer’s desire to believe that a movie is close to reality. We want to think that the circumstances it portrays are true. He knew well enough not to conceal his stars’ cranky attitudes and the less-than-ideal production circumstances. Instead, he emphasizes them in all their unvarnished, slapdash glory. Oftentimes we don’t want our movies to be all wrapped up and consumable. We want them ragged and lovable. He understood this, which is why he really was one of America’s Best Directors, despite what Orson Welles’ called his Saturday Evening Post sensibilities.

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And I think that we must view It Happened One Night as one of Capra’ best films because his mildly preachy American Dream stuff stays under the rug here. Instead of trying to reassure us that God is good and nice guys don’t finish last, he kindly serves us a funny, serendipitous love story. In the end, that’s all I want to see.

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The big messages, the politics, the values of an era tend to fade away, don’t they? Funny, however, usually stays funny. It takes guts and foresight to reward comedy and I wish more comedies had won Academy Awards. But I’m certainly glad this one harvested a whole crop. It does me good to know that, from time to time, even the Academy can laugh.

Or at least appreciate Claudette Colbert’s gams.

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(One last fact: Claudette Colbert initially refused to bare her legs for the hitchhiking—she thought it was cheap and stupid. So Capra got a leg double. And no sooner did Colbert see those replacement legs than she changed her mind and insisted that Capra use her own inimitably lovely pins, the ones you see above.)

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled. Visit their blogs and learn more about this wonderful blog event! Find the blogathon on Twitter by searching the #31Days hashtag.

She Calls the Shots: Blondie Johnson (1933)

“I know all the answers and I know what it’s all about. I found out that the only thing worthwhile is dough—and I’m gonna get it, see?”

—Blondie Johnson

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Dames hardly ever call the shots in gangster films. Sure, they wield sexual power over their mobster boyfriends or husbands and occasionally get to plug some poor dumb sap, but they’re rarely in charge as the legitimate boss of a racket. And, unfortunately, when they are giving orders, the situation usually gets played for kink or camp. Noir offered plenty of domineering roles for nasty women running the show, although usually from behind the scenes, but classical gangster pictures, especially the first talkie cycle of the 1930s, remain mostly an old boys’ club.

Blondie Johnson, however, is a whole different animal. In this 1933 crime film (impossible to find until Warner Archive released it), a woman does take the reigns of an operation. She does so not because she’s hot to trot—she keeps men at an arm’s length—but because she’s got brains, guts, and commands loyalty from men and women alike. If this flawed film fails to live up to what I want it to be, it still makes for an intriguing 67 minutes of viewing if, like me, you love gangster films or pre-Codies.

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We all know and love Joan Blondell as Miss pre-Code Cheekiness, a sassy, curvaceous babe out to get what she can and have a little fun in the bargain. So, in a way, Blondie Johnson, a small-time chiseler turned racketeer queen, might not seem to tug too hard at the underpinnings of her star image. She really just takes her tough, but voluptuous chick routine and teases it out to an extreme. This female kingpin (queenpin?) comes across not as a campy bitch goddess, but rather as the logical extension of every pre-Code working girl. She rolls with the big boys, gets them out of jams, and, before you know it, she makes a few decisive moves and ends up on top of the world.

The movie opens in a very un-gangster-like manner with Blondie waiting for unemployment aid. Glamorous, twinkly eyed Blondell hardly looks like herself, as though a pall had been cast over her usually winsome face.

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Her mother is sick, dying, and she needs the money desperately. We all feel like we’ve been punched in the stomach when she gets turned down since she quit her previous job as a laundress—because the boss couldn’t keep his hands off her.

Well, if that’s not a bad enough day, Blondie comes home to find the doctor waiting with bad news. Her mother’s dead. She howls in desolation and crumples by the body.

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In the next scene, a priest and a city magistrate are essentially trying to explain to her why she should accept the hard knocks that life deals her—including getting evicted, losing her mom, and dealing with predatory employers. There are two ways to make money, the priest tells her. “Yeah, I know.” She sneers, rejecting his irrelevant invocation of right and wrong. “The hard way and the easy way.” We understand that the opening trauma steeled this average girl into something determined and dangerous. Just as Baby Face quotes Nietszche,  ol’ Friedrich’s “will to power” carries on in Blondie, too. We discern it in the feverish glow in her eyes.

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Interestingly, whereas movies like Little Caesar, The Public Enemy, and Scarface never set out to explain why their protagonists become gangsters, apart from the obvious greed and ambition, Blondie Johnson introduces its heroine as a wronged woman. Director Ray Enright and writer Earl Balwin take pains to establish Blondie as a poor girl who really did try to live honestly in a society that makes a dignified existence impossible for down-on-their-luck women, especially.

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“Well, the social services network let me down. I think I’ll turn to a life of crime.”

When a woman turns to crime, the producers no doubt assumed, we need to give her a reason, otherwise she’s a gutter snipe. Society does owe Blondie. She didn’t set out on the path to crime because of a desire for swag or authority: she did it because the sheer indifference of the world taught her that, if nobody will take care of you, you have to take care of yourself. I find that rationale a little sexist—a woman might aspire to be a Napoleon of crime for reasons other than economic necessity. But, hey, if it’s what they needed back in 1933 to get Joan Blondell to play a peroxide gangster, so be it.

Cut to Blondie shortly after her ordeal. She’s a totally different woman.

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Tricked out in a stylish velvet dress and a sporty cap, she obviously chiseled some money out of someone… although it’s left to our imagination just how she did. In 1933, Photoplay magazine even went so far as to run promotions for Blondie Johnson based on the fashionable outfits worn by its eponymous girl gangster.

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But the clothes don’t make the gal—the attitude does. From the slinky, yet proud posture of this dame as she calls for a cab with a come hither nod, we recognize how the abandonment of a little thing called morals has liberated her.

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Enlisting the help of a dorky, squeaky-voiced cab driver (Sterling Holloway, who else?), Blondie pulls a small-time sympathy swindle. Waiting outside speakeasies, she cries and pretends to be a little lady deserted by her boyfriend because she wouldn’t sleep with him, now stranded and in need of taxi fare to get back to her job before she gets fired. Ironically, the woman who was wronged in real life ends up making money off of suckers by playing the victim, by staging and feigning a woman’s plight.

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“Oh, sob, sob! I seem to find myself in distress!”

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“I hate to see a dame in distress. Especially with pins like those.”

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Problem is, the first mug she fools happens to be notorious gangster Danny Jones, played by an affably smug Chester Morris and his knife-blade profile.

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Danny bumps into her later that night at a posh hotel where she’s dining on the money she collected from a gallery of suckers and, realizing he’s been taken in, he steps on her foot and prepares to repossess her winnings.

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Using her quick wit and a few well-placed self-defense moves, Blondie manages to defuse his temper and convince him that she’s a “smart dame” who could prove a valuable asset.

So, he takes her to a hotel room for a drink. And here’s where the movie gets really interesting—we all prepare for the old pre-Code fade-out as Danny and Blondie become lovers. But no!

Blondie holds true to the code of the Corleone family: “It’s not personal. It’s business.” She carefully excludes the possibility of any fringe benefits to her and Danny’s mutual interests. Chester Morris and Blondell have a great chemistry together in this scene of back-and-forth attempts to soften the other up: she wants work in his syndicate and he wants, well, what men usually want in a hotel room after a couple of drinks.

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Their snappy negotiations present a sort of gangster version of the famous pickpocketing scene between Marshall and Hopkins in Trouble in Paradise. He pays her for a job—corrupting a jury to swing a member of the gang out of prison—but asks for some sugar in return. She throws the money in his face and storms out.

He calls her back and she tells the story of her life, including the doleful tale of a sister who died from an illicit abortion. Always the optimist, Blondie ends her speech with a vow to get even with life: “This city’s gonna pay me a living!”

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Just when we think things are getting grim, Danny agrees to let Blondie have a proper chance on equal terms, but then counts his money. Even in her fit of high temper, Blondie pocketed some of the money she seemed to refuse. Stunned by her brazenness and slight of hand, Danny stares, as Blondie coyly raises a glass to their platonic partnership.

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As usual, there’s some division in the gang. Danny wants to bail his friend Louis out of jail while the big boss isn’t keen on the idea, since he doesn’t want Danny (really a lieutenant gangster) to make a play for power. That’s where Blondie comes in as a peroxide Lady Macbeth, lending Danny some of her own brass cajones to move ahead with a cunning courtroom drama.

In perhaps the best scene in the film, Blondie saves this big-time gangster Louis from a sure conviction by pretending to be his demure, pregnant fiancée—leaping up from the defendant bench to embrace him!

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She wins sympathy by delivering a bravura performance, smacking of screwball comedy as much as gangster humor. Collapsing in Louis’ lap and heaving sobs of crocodile tears, she looks up at him surreptitiously and grunts, “Kiss me, you mug!” He does. And wins an acquittal.

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After that, Blondie has won a place as part of the gang—but an uncomfortable one. She defies categorization. She’s not a moll, since she didn’t sleep with anyone to get there, nor can she ever fully be one of the boys.

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In fact, no sooner does she attend the inevitable gangland banquet to celebrate Louis’ release (and lets Danny take all the credit) than the big boss gives the word that he doesn’t want Blondie around. Blondie doesn’t take to that news too well.

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She pushes Danny to take over the operation. He almost gets killed for trying, but a few of his men, under Blondie’s direction, get rid of the big boss. And Danny’s suddenly in charge. He has a swanky deco office, a chorus girl as his playmate, and is getting fitted for new suits in the office. (Apparently having two egregious “nance” tailors fuss over you, the same ones from The Public Enemy, was the quintessential sign that you had arrived in the 1930s.)

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But this is just the beginning of Blondie’s problems. You see, as much as Blondie likes and even comes to love Danny and abets his rise to power, Danny doesn’t appreciate the fact the he owes it all to a woman who really does all the driving.  So he decides to ship her off to another racket. Now, the script doesn’t delve into what his plan actually was, but I think we’re to infer that he either tried to have her killed or at the very least sold to another racket, perhaps as a prostitute. Blondie pushed him away a little too much, so he double-crossed her.

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Don’t ever mix business and horizontal kissing.

Still the wronged woman, in spite of all her leadership, Blondie doesn’t like that. Nor does the crack team of molls and mugs. They  recognize that it’s her brains and nerve that made their insurance racket what it is. For instance, in one particularly amusing interlude, Blondie works with two other molls to impersonate a rich heiress and intimidate a bunch of cash out of a bogus personal injury case.

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So, instead of cutting Blondie out, the gang backs her up and give Danny—who’s worn them out with his poor judgement, extravagance, and arrogance—the kiss-off. Now, Blondie’s at the top. Perched amidst modernistic, urban finery, she orchestrates her shady protection/insurance mob with competence and aplomb, appearing more as a sophisticated businesswoman than a scion of gangland.

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But Danny still rankles like a thorn in her side. He knows too much and could sink the whole organization. When one of Blondie’s confederates reports that a disgruntled Danny is going to spill all to the cops, she reluctantly orders his execution and two henchmen go off to dispatch the death sentence.

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Brrring! Brrring! Phone call for Blondie Johnson! It turns out Danny didn’t divulge any information to the police. Remorse sets in. Holding a picture of Danny (yeah, I tend to keep around large, framed portraits of guys who screwed me over, too), Blondie decides that she can’t just kill him off like that.

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At the last moment, she caves in to her humanity and goes rushing to save the man she loves.

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She arrives too late. Bang. Bang. We hear the off-screen shots and think the deed’s been done.

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Danny’s on the floor, still alive, but full of her henchman’s lead. Sirens sound.  Blondie could get away, and Danny urges her to save herself, but she stays, cradling the man who did her wrong. They confess their love as the police draw near.

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Defeated by love and nabbed by the cops, Blondie stands trial and gets six years hard labor. (Yes, it’s lame. I didn’t write it. If I had, Blondie would’ve joined forces with Stanwyck and Teresa Harris from Baby Face and—what the Hell—King Kong. Together they would’ve ruled the world. Anyone wanna greenlight that?)

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As Blondie gets hauled out of court, she passes Danny, also about to be tried and taken to jail, meets her and they share a tender moment, promising to wait for each other.

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The final shot of Blondie Johnson, this uncertain, wistful medium close-up reminds me of a lot of unresolved, ambiguous final shots like this from 1930s movies (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang comes to mind) that hint at the unresolved fates of people we’ve come to care about deeply.

’Twas beauty killed the beast, but in this case,’twas a beast (Chester Morris) that brought Blondie down. As much as that bothers me, the true emotional sacrifices of running a racket that we witness in Blondie Johnson definitely foreshadow the many heart-wrenching betrayals of The Godfather: Part II. Ruthlessness exacts a price on the one who’s ruthless, too.

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In his brief analysis of this film, Thomas Doherty claims that, because she’s a woman, Blondie gets a chance at rehabilitation and a little bit of hope, whereas a male gangster would’ve been shot down and finished with. I concede the point, but disagree with the interpretation. I think that the punishment dished out to Blondie is a lot worse. Better to go down in a machine-gun burst of brilliance than have to live through a long prison sentence which, frankly, might kill her anyway. There’s no romance to this conclusion. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a tear in Blondell’s big pop eyes.

Blondie is a fascinating film for its attempt to reformat the template of the gangster picture with the added sexual stakes of a woman trying to climb the gang ladder.

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The occupational hazards of working in a male-dominated industry.

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The film starts to hints at the female hierarchy behind the mob though the political dynamics between the gun molls that we see: Claire Dodd as Gladys, the priority blonde mistress, passed from one gang head to another, Mae Butsch as Mae, the matronly has-been moll who acts as a front from time to time, and Japanese-American Toshia Mori as Lulu, another beautiful lady coasting through the racket, mostly in a servile role, perhaps due to her ethnicity.

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It’s subtle but the women get more of a voice under Blondie and her supporters go with her to the top—as suggested by this skyscraper low angle. Molls of the world, unite!

The film criminally underuses these women, but they do come across as more real than the silken ladies of many a 1930s gangster flick in that they’re not in the racket for thrills or luxury, but for survival. It’s a kind of job in a time when jobs weren’t forthcoming. It’s also interesting to watch Lulu and Mae grow into slightly more important, commanding babes in Blondie’s company, as though her strength set an example for them.

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I wonder if real ’30s working girls felt the same about this unconventional female role model. Even if she ends up in the hoosegow, I hope that Blondell’s effulgent badassery inspired more than a few chicks to go a little Blondie on an unfair world.

Nevertheless, I wish that Blondie Johnson had ascended to a higher plane of cinema instead of remaining a somewhat formulaic jumble of missed opportunities. It’s a film that generates a lot of regret for me. I wish it had been less of a plodding women’s picture and more of gangster flick—or even an revolutionary women’s picture. Like Baby Face with guns. I wish that it had a more lucid script, a few more gunshots, and someone like William Wellman or Howard Hawks at the helm. With its good cast and such an innovative concept, in better hands, it could have smashed into our consciousness as a founding gangster film, like Little Caesar or Scarface. And set a precedent for gangster movies that let a dame run the show.

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She’s the show. He just watches and learns.

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As is, Blondie Johnson is well worth watching just to savor how Blondell, a wisecracking sidekick no more, rises from nothing to hold supreme control over the situation. In 1933, Motion Picture magazine was prompted to ask if Blondell was being groomed as a kind of female Cagney. She exudes a warmer version of his alpha male magnetism and moxie. Alas, she doesn’t call the shots for long, but it’s damn fun while it lasts.

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