Plot Twist: Ruta Lee Remembers Making Witness for the Prosecution

Imagine this: You’re 22. You’ve just been signed to act alongside heavyweight stars Tyrone Power, Marlene Dietrich, and Charles Laughton. Your character barely speaks a word until a surprise final scene, and the entire film hinges on that twist. You have to be joyful, alluring, vicious, then hysterical, all in an unfamiliar accent. And all in the space of 2 minutes.

Tough gig, huh?

That was the challenge facing Ruta Lee in 1957 as she grappled with a pivotal role in Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution. Breezy and glittering on the stage of the Egyptian Theater at TCMFF, Lee shared memories of making the classic twisty thriller, an experience that sounds almost as tense as the film itself.

The story of Lee’s involvement with Witness for the Prosecution has a fairy tale quality. Destiny conspired to put our heroine in the right place at the right time. During the mid-1950s, Frank Sinatra vowed to help out the owners of the Mocambo, a once-swinging nightclub threatened by the gravitational pull of evening television. Invited by her gracious host in Hollywood, Ruta Lee was there on Sinatra’s opening night at the Mocambo.

As Lee recalls, “I was privileged to sit right under where Frank Sinatra was singing. The entire stage was filled with orchestra and Frank was working on a tiny little dais in front of it. People were sitting around behind him on both sides. I was right there in front looking up at this glorious man, and nobody else in this world is or will be as mesmerizing as Frank Sinatra. So I sat there with my mouth hanging open. At the end of the show a note came to our host and said, ‘Would you mind bringing Miss Lee to my table? I’d like to meet her.’

“So my host took me back around behind where Frank Sinatra was singing, and the man said, ‘Hello, my name is Arthur Hornblow, Jr. I’m a producing a film called Witness for the Prosecution. And I have just given you the most unique screen test. I have watched you watch Frank Sinatra, because I couldn’t see Frank Sinatra, and I think you would make a very good love interest for Tyrone Power in Witness for the Prosecution. Would you come in and meet Billy Wilder.’”

Lee’s voice drops an octave or two at the mention of Billy Wilder, conjuring the butterflies-in-your-stomach excitement that this offer must’ve brought to any young actress.

She pounced on the opportunity. “I said, ‘Is tomorrow too soon?’”

Lee went in for her screen test, but ran into an unexpected obstacle: “Marlene Dietrich took one look at those shots and said, ‘Nicht. Nein. Forget it. She’s a blonde.’ I immediately became a brunette. And that’s how I got Witness for the Prosecution.”

Since Lee’s character doesn’t appear until halfway into the film, she arrived on set later than the principal stars. “I came into the picture about 4 weeks after it had started shooting.” The young newcomer had to hold her own among an intimidating line-up of actors: “I was dealing with theatrical and motion picture royalty, any way you look at this.”

To make matters worse, Lee’s colleagues in the makeup department warned her that Charles Laughton was a “nasty” man who loathed young girls. “You just do what you have to do and everything will be fine,” they assured her.

All these pressures culminated in a nerve-wracking and unexpectedly uproarious first day on the set: “So I walk onto the stage in my darling little tight dress and high heels and a perky hat that Grady Hunt had designed for me. And nobody says, ‘hello,’ ‘get lost,’ ‘who are you?’ I’m sort of thinking for the first time in my life that I wish the floor would open up and swallow me. They’re sitting around over there, Marlene and Charles and everybody in a little tea circle,” Lee says.

“And I frankly didn’t know what to do, so I was looking around, and suddenly someone walked up behind me, smacked me on the rear end, I went flying across the stage, I looked back… and it’s Charles Laughton! And he says, ‘That’s the best damned ass I’ve seen in a long time.’ That’s how he became one of my dear friends.”

After that unconventional introduction, the star settled into a less mischievous mode. “He taught me to play Perquackey and all sorts of wonderful games. He literally would pout if I didn’t come in first to him on the set and say hello,” Lee remembers. “Isn’t that sweet?”

Laughton and Elsa Lanchester both went out of their way to make Lee feel at home: “They used to invite me to lunch, which they cooked in their apartment on the set.”

More importantly, the famous husband-wife team coached Lee on a key part of her performance. “They helped me with that middle British accent. You can do a Limey easily or very, very grand,”—and here Lee gave us some fine snippets of Cockney and Public School accents—“but that middle English is something else. And they both helped me with that.”

By contrast, Dietrich never warmed up to Lee, blonde or brunette.

Asked about the rumors that Dietrich carried a torch for Tyrone Power, Lee replied, “She may have had a crush on Tyrone. She sure didn’t have a crush on me! I mean, I don’t blame her, you know. She just really had nothing to do with me. She was very cool, very distant.”

Despite Dietrich’s icy reserve, Lee valued the chance to watch the legendary screen goddess at work. “I really respected her knowledge of how she would appear on the screen. She was the kind of lady that would say to the cinematographer, ‘I vould like a little tiny gobo* here and maybe vun there to catch the light here and the light here.’ And he would say, ‘Gosh, Marlene, we don’t have those.’ And she said, ‘Don’t vorry, dahling. I do.’ She literally carried a trunk with all the foam lining, with all kinds of lighting instruments. Now that’s knowing your craft.” The Egyptian Theater audience agreed with a thunderous round of applause to celebrate Dietrich the cinematography expert.

Lee remembers shooting Witness for the Prosecution on a colossal set almost as impressive as the cast. “The set of Old Bailey was built exactly to three-quarter scale of the real Old Bailey in London. So that’s amazing. They had to tear apart a wall and build on 2 soundstages.”

Though her role was a small one, Witness for the Prosecution gave Lee one of her most memorable turns on film. “And it’s due to Frank Sinatra, right?”

Before too long, Ol’ Blue Eyes would again intervene to shape Lee’s destiny. “Fade out, fade in, it’s like a year or two later. We all know that Frank Sinatra likes nothing better than to have people up to the house, a big Italian dinner, and watch a new movie. What’s the movie they’re screening that night? Witness for the Prosecution.

“And he says to Howard Koch, for whom I worked many times at Warner Brothers and he was a partner of Frank’s, ‘How about we put this Ruta Lee chick—I’ve been watching her on television—into one of our movies?’ That’s how I became the leading lady to Frank Sinatra in Sergeants 3. He never knew that he was responsible for both jobs!”

*According to We Make the Movies (1937), a gobo is a “black adjustable screen used to keep the rays of light from the camera.”

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At 100, Marsha Hunt Still Has Plenty of Surprises Up Her Impeccably Stylish Sleeve

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, actress and activist Marsha Hunt gave us the scoop of the century, a secret that’s waited since 1944 to come to light.

Nowadays we’re inundated with breaking news, exhausted by ubiquitous celebrities, and desensitized by the barrage of alerts that light up our phones.

But how about romantic Hollywood gossip that surfaces after more than 70 years?

There’s something almost enchanted about a revelation like that, paradoxically old and new, something that gains power through years of secrecy. Particularly when the news comes straight from the person who lived it.

In conversation with the Czar of Noir Eddie Muller, Hunt recalled the making of None Shall Escape, an ambitious B film that anticipated the post-war trials of Nazi war criminals. Towards the end of the interview, Muller asked about the film’s colorful, underrated director André De Toth. And, boy, did he get more than he bargained for.

“Bundy—as we called him, that was the nickname he chose—Bundy De Toth was irresistible… I tried and I couldn’t.” She finished the thought with a smile verging on naughtiness.

The crowd, as they say, went wild. You could feel it crackle through the air, that buzz of hundreds of people thinking, “Did she just say what I think she said?”

Even Eddie Muller, who has stared down the barrel of Ann Savage’s gun and dodged a punch or two from Lawrence Tierney, was left temporarily speechless. 100 years on planet earth have only intensified Hunt’s flair for a well-timed coup-de-théâtre.

Praising De Toth as “a damn good director,” she elaborated on his charms: “He was also more personable, more entrancing, more irresistible than almost anybody I had met up to that point.”

With the audience in the palm of her hand, Hunt wryly left the rest to our imaginations, “You take it from there…” Make no mistake: this wasn’t a slip of the tongue or an unguarded moment. Hunt clearly enjoyed tantalizing her adoring crowd with this deliberate news drop.

Indeed, Hunt is exquisitely in control, shining with the poise and wisdom she’s earned over the course of a long, well-spent life. She tends to speak about the past carefully, deliberately, as though weighing each reminiscence against an iron-clad personal standard of truth.

For example, Muller asked about Columbia’s notoriously vulgar mogul Harry Cohn, who greenlit None Shall Escape. Rather than yield to hearsay, Hunt gave a clear-eyed appraisal of the studio head’s vision: “I never met him. So far as I know, he was gentleness itself. Because I never saw him or heard to the contrary. Harry Cohn, whatever his social manners might have been, knew good films and he had a lot of courage, I think, about the films he chose to make, for which he deserves great credit. A Harry Cohn film, very often as not, stood for something, and not just a film. So here’s to Harry Cohn.”

Hunt is proud of her involvement in such a prophetic and historically significant film as None Shall Escape. “It was a great privilege that I felt so lucky to be given,” she says.

She remembers the surreal experience of making a movie about wartorn Poland… on studio sets out in Burbank: “It was on the way to the airport, and the cars whizzed by. And we were creating another day, another atmosphere, another continent, another everything. It was fascinating be in such a contrast all at once.”

Hunt spoke fondly of co-star Alexander Knox, who garnered an Oscar nomination for Wilson the same year he chillingly portrayed a Nazi officer in None Shall Escape. ”How’s that for broad talent? He was a lovely man. We became lifetime friends. When my husband and I went to England they took beautiful care of us, and we had a lovely reunion over there.”

After its world premiere restoration at TCMFF, hopefully None Shall Escape will find a larger audience. Its astute psychological inquiry into the origins of evil remains frighteningly, enduringly relevant. As Muller pointed out, “It was very common for American movies during the war to make jingoistic propaganda pictures to boost our morale and convince us we were going to win. This movie does something very different. It looks at this from the enemy’s side and it talks about… how you make a fascist. Here’s how you create a Nazi.” Hunt added, “Think how important those formulae are. How to make a villain… We need to pay very great attention to those how-tos.”

Hunt’s first-hand experience opposing fascism—the home-grown, all-American kind—got her blacklisted during the McCarthyite frenzy. As HUAC threatened Hollywood in 1947, Hunt and a group of other prominent industry figures, the Committee for the First Amendment, traveled to Washington D.C. to protest. Unfortunately, their brave efforts failed to stop the momentum of rabid red-baiters in Congress.

The Committee for the First Amendment in Washington. Marsha Hunt is on the left edge of the frame wearing that super-cool double-breasted ensemble.

In a longer conversation at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop during the TCMFF weekend, Hunt candidly spoke about the Red Scare in Hollywood. “It was a very ugly, ugly time,” she said, shaking her head at the damage done to so many lives, including her close friend Adrian Scott.

“I didn’t know or understand communism or care anything about it, except that I gathered that a lot of people who had joined that party were idealists, and that couldn’t be so bad,” Hunt explained. “So I didn’t make any so-called communists my enemies. And that probably won me some enemies.”

Marsha doing her part for WWII morale, just a few years before she’d be blacklisted for leftist connections.

During the 1940s, Hunt’s home was a gathering place for the likes of Leonard Bernstein and other renowned artists of the day. Even in that haven of creatives, political tensions bubbled up to the surface. Hunt recalled how some guests would storm out of the house rather than share the room with somebody on the opposite side of the political spectrum.

This behavior puzzles Hunt, who believes in frank exchanges of ideas. “I think it’s rather lovely for people who disagree to have some chats and conversations,” she says. “Once we’ve taken our own side and are pretty sure of it, then go with it and enjoy the journey.”

An independent thinker, Hunt fiercely objected to the idea that someone could be persecuted on the basis of their politics. “I was lumped with the far left because I spoke freely about whatever I cared about. And those were dangerous days.”

Refusing to name names or disavow her beliefs, Hunt was blacklisted at the peak of her career. The integrity that made her a target then makes her a hero today.

In style as well as politics, Hunt has a boldly independent streak. According to Eddie Muller, right before their TCMFF interview, “The make-up woman went to do her lipstick, and Marsha just took it from her and did it herself.”

As Hunt casually explains, “I haven’t been made up within memory. I’ve always done my own make-up.”

Hunt earned her expertise in cosmetics during the rigorous apprenticeship that she set out for herself in hopes of a film career. When Hunt was growing up in the 1920s and early 1930s, “There was no training for movies. You learned how to make movies then by making movies, but you could train for the theaters.”

“I always, my whole life, meant to be an actress. Oddly enough I was never stagestruck. It had to be movies. And I knew that was going to take some managing. But, in the meantime, I thought, ‘Well, what can I do to help prepare for that? Let’s see… I ought to learn to dress, and make up, and be groomed.’ All of the visuals.”

After graduating high school, Hunt attended dramatic school and found work with the elite Powers Modeling Agency. “I’m long waisted, and it’s a small waist, and I guess that qualifies me as a model.”

That preparation enabled Hunt to take an active role in shaping what she wore on and off the screen. “I loved to design,” she told us. When asked to talk about style, however, Hunt peered into the audience of TCMFF-ers, many decked to the nines in vintage glad rags, and modestly exclaimed, “They can tell me!”

Though schooled in glamour, Hunt knew that she craved something more from film acting. She sought out challenging character parts and often played women considerably older than she was, as in None Shall Escape.

“I wanted to be a different kind of actress,” Hunt recalls. “I wanted to play people who had nothing to do me, with my look, with my age—particularly age—or type, or any of that. I wanted a total disguise in every role. There are actresses and actors who love to play themselves. Well, God bless them! I thought it was fun to pretend. So that’s what I went after.”

Unbroken by one of the darkest chapters in 20th century American history, Hunt is a courageous and compassionate survivor.

Despite the stolen years of the blacklist, her body of work on film is a gallery of diverse, memorable, utterly credible characterizations. She has created an equally impressive legacy of humanitarianism, using her fame, financial resources, and industry connections to advocate for refugees, establish homeless shelters, and fight world hunger.

So… what is her secret? How did she forge such a meaningful century from adversity?

Hunt mainly credits her parents and upbringing. She believes that her sunny outlook also has something to do with it: “I’m a born optimist. I guess the bright side always appealed to me to look at rather than the dark. I’ve been blessed. I never figured out why. But I sure have and I want the fates to know, I’m grateful!”

You can see that “bright side” in her impish sense of humor. As Eddie Muller and Alan Rode passed a microphone back and forth, she quipped, “Who’s on first?” And, when Muller proudly mentioned that he directed Hunt’s last film, The Grand Inquisitor (2008), she joked, “And she never worked again!” After the crew at Larry Edmunds sang “Happy Birthday” (an honorary birthday, since every day over 100 deserves celebration), she cooed, “I could marry all of you!”

I had the honor of briefly meeting Marsha, and it will rank among the great thrills of my life. You feel infinitely humbled to be in the presence of someone who has done so much good for so long. As I stammeringly told her that I admired her performances in 2 movies I love, Kid Glove Killer and Raw Deal, she smiled and thanked me.

I also asked her about one of my favorite behind-the-scenes photos. Was she really a knitter? Or was it staged? (Look, it might seem like a silly question, but you have to admit it was original.)

Hunt looked at the picture and, with that sharp, deliberate memory of hers, she confirmed that she was indeed an on-the-set knitter. “It helped me keep busy during the long camera set-ups.” And, what’s more, she remembers that she knit argyle socks! Imagine keeping track of those patterns amidst all the distractions of a movie set.

As a knitter myself, I choose to believe that needlework is the secret ingredient to Marsha’s longevity. Because it’s far easier to practice than optimism (though she has inspired me to work harder at that).

Eddie Muller describes Hunt as “the most exemplary human being I have ever met in my life.” After spending just a short amount of time basking in her radiant cheer and kindness, I’m inclined to agree. Long may she grace this world with her presence.

The Plot Thickens: Angela Allen Remembers Beat the Devil (1953) at TCMFF

Once upon a time in Ravello, Italy, half a world away from Hollywood and tight studio control, John Huston arrived to shoot a thriller with a cast to die for. But Huston had a problem.

He didn’t like the script.

Fortunately, he had Truman Capote to write a new one, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley to embellish it, and script supervisor Angela Allen to keep track of it all.

“We had to shoot in order, because we didn’t know where the story was going!” Allen recalled with a laugh at the TCM Classic Film Festival. In conversation with film historian Cari Beauchamp, Allen discussed Beat the Devil, just one film in a career that included The Third Man, The African Queen, and The Dirty Dozen.

When I spoke briefly to Allen on the red carpet, I felt the humbling intensity of her laser-precise gaze, a real-life superpower sharpened by over 50 years of seizing on the smallest errors. She carries herself with a combination of affability and no-nonsense authority. You might assume that she was a career diplomat or businesswoman. And you wouldn’t be far off the mark. If she told you to do something, you’d better do it. (Even Katharine Hepburn found that out.)

During Hollywood’s Golden Age, women filled the role of script supervisor so predominantly that the terms “script girl” and “continuity girl” were the norm. Female professionals like Allen were vital guardians of continuity, the self-effacing, shot-to-shot illusion of a seamless cinematic universe. The stakes were high. A top-notch script supervisor helped create a film that audiences would accept as reality—and a bad one could torpedo that reality and sink the movie.

Before computers and instant photos, script girls documented each take and relied on their detailed notes, stopwatches, eyes, and memories to detect discrepancies. Was that cigarette lit before? Did he say a different word last time? Is there less food on the plate now? A script supervisor has to attend to a million details, editing the film in her mind and anticipating what will and won’t match up. From the sewers of Vienna to the waves of the Mediterranean to the jungles of Africa, Angela Allen did exactly that.

In addition to the pressure of overseeing continuity, Allen faced a problem that’s still far too common in the film industry: predatory men in power. Producer Sam Spiegel was a memorable example. “I was introduced to him by Guy Hamilton, who was an assistant director, then directed Bond films. And he was my protector at the interview, because Sam was quite a lecherous gentleman and I was very young and innocent. Sam said, ‘Take your coat off.’ And Guy said, ‘Don’t take your coat off!’ One said, ‘Sit.’ One said, ‘Stand.’” Allen chuckled at the memory, but I suspect that it would have been no laughing matter if Hamilton hadn’t been there at the time!

Her working relationship with John Huston, on the other hand, was built on respect and trust. “He never met me before I was sent to Africa on The African Queen,” she recalled. “He met me in the jungle. So it was a fait accompli as far as that job is concerned, but we obviously got on and he asked me on all the others.” Huston and Allen would work together on 14 films in total, many of them unpredictable location shoots and jewels of classic cinema.

Which brings us back to Italy and a caper film in search of a story. Through a production nearly as wild and zigzagging as its plot, Beat the Devil posed additional challenges for Allen.

Before shooting could start, Huston needed a script. He took advice from a big shot who happened to be around: David O. Selznick, accompanying Jennifer Jones on location. As Allen remembers, “Although he was not our producer in any shape or form, he recommended Truman Capote who had just written Stazione Termini [alternate title: Indiscretion of an American Wife] for him. So young Truman Capote arrived in Ravello, not knowing what he was going to enter into either.”

However, the film’s mixture of hardboiled dialogue and daffy comedy emerged not from Capote alone, but rather from what one might call a team effort. “He and John discussed something… [Capote] used to write the scenes,” Allen said, “then he’d give them to me in the morning. I’d take them onto the set, we’d change them all because Robert Morley and others were very good ad-libbers, and John would say, ‘Do what you want.’”

Morley and Lorre applied their theater backgrounds to amp up the film’s satirical comedy, resulting in an uproarious shoot. “We all used to laugh so much,” Allen recalled. “There’s a scene where they’re sitting and packing in the room with a suitcase. I must say, there was about 2 hours or more of rehearsal and it was so funny that everybody was on the ground afterward. They’d dream up something every minute. And eventually we sort of refined it to shoot it.”

Now, let’s pause and consider the difficulties of supervising a script that’s mutating before your very eyes. In addition to recording continuity minutia, Allen had to document unpredictable changes in a script with no definite conclusion. All while Lorre and Morley improvised line after side-splitting line. As Cari Beauchamp quipped, “This job brings a whole new definition to continuity, doesn’t it?”

After each day of shooting, Allen closed the loop between screenwriter and cast: “I’d take [Capote] back all the dialogue in the evening and say, ‘You’d better read what we’ve done today for whatever you’ve written for tomorrow, because, you know, it might not match up to what we’ve actually shot.’”

In other words, Allen went above and beyond the already demanding duties of a script supervisor. “Because I was on the set, and there were no computers in those days, I had my steady little portable typewriter—I think it was an Olympia—and I’d be battering out the lines for them once we’d sort of settled on what they were going to say and then they wanted to revise them,” Allen explained. “I’d be typing them out, which really wasn’t my job, but I did. And this was the way we used to go. If we didn’t, what were we going to do?”

One time, life imitated art a little too closely—and Allen stepped in when the cast and crew were quite literally getting lost at sea. “We did have a funny story one day when were were out at sea shooting. The cameraman was Ossie Morris…. We’d turned the boat around and around for the sun. But when we’d finished shooting he’d forgotten to tell the assistant to tell the captain. So we’re sailing and sailing.

“We’d sailed out of Sorrento. And my Italian was a bit better than some of the crew’s so I went and said, ‘How long before we get back to Sorrento?’ And the captain said, ‘Sorrento? We’re sailing to Morocco.’ And so we had to turn round and they’d put the search thing out for this boat, thinking we’d got lost at sea.”

Unsurprisingly, the movie took its good time to wrap up. “I think we were there probably 10 or 12 weeks,” Allen says. “In those days films took longer to shoot. They weren’t so fast. People like the director had a dinner date, so you normally finished by six or seven.”

The cast of characters careened through the production with plenty of funny business that no doubt contributed to the film’s askew humor. Gina Lollobrigida (who discussed Beat the Devil at last year’s TCMFF) had memorized an audition monologue in English. Huston hired her—not realizing that she hardly spoke the language.

La Lollo’s steep learning curve led to some moments of hilarity on the set, Allen remembers: “The English crew used to have rhyming slang in those days. And she had a line ‘tea and crumpets,’ but she didn’t know that crumpets had a double meaning. And everyone was falling about with laughter because she had no idea what they were laughing at. But also, you know, it wasn’t easy for her because she didn’t speak good English. She was learning.”

Lollobrigida claims that Selznick baulked at the prospect of a voluptuous Italian ingenue sharing the screen with Jennifer Jones. Angela Allen didn’t deny it, but said that she didn’t witness any hostilities between the film’s leading ladies. “Everybody got on with each other. There were no rows or anything else. Jennifer was a very nice person to everybody, actually.” That said, Jones seemed much “more relaxed” when Selznick wasn’t around, Allen reports.

And how did the unflappable Bogart, both acting and producing, put up with this screwball shooting experience? “Well, he was a bit, I think, irritated at times. But he was a great friend of John’s and they got on and he could always talk him ‘round. So Bogie was there as the actor, so he didn’t interfere in the production although it was his money that was helping us make the film.”

Finally, Allen told us about an unexpected guest on that cosmopolitan set: “Not only did I meet Truman Capote on that film, but a young man who came down with a friend of his whose father was a friend of Huston’s…. He didn’t always want to come out. He liked to tinkle away on the out-of-tune piano in the hotel. I said, ‘I think that young man is going to go a long way.’ And everyone told me how stupid I was.”

His name was Stephen Sondheim. Didn’t I tell you that Allen has superpowers?

So, the next time you watch a John Huston film, check the credits for the name Angela Allen. Every now and then, pry yourself away from the sweeping location scenery, the wry dialogue, and the absorbing performances. Take a moment to imagine an Englishwoman with a stopwatch, a marked-up script, and eyes that don’t miss a trick, standing calmly behind the camera. If you find it difficult to tear yourself away from the illusion, that’s a testament to Allen’s painstaking work. Cinema is an art of coordination and logistics, and she is a master.

 

Glamour and Grit: Gina Lollobrigida Reflects on Fame, Art, and Hard Work at TCMFF

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Turner.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Turner.

Gina Lollobrigida is serious about being taken seriously. She refuses to downplay her accomplishments as an actress (in 3 languages), a photojournalist, and a sculptor.

In a world that continues to underrate and undervalue the creativity of women, a world that respects a woman’s competence more if she renounces her femininity, Lollobrigida’s unapologetic self-worth shines.

On the red carpet at the TCM Classic Film Festival, I got to ask many special guests about their most moving experiences in the industry. I heard stories about tearjerking melodramas, poignant comedies, and controversial dramas.

But Lollobrigida gave me the most inspiring reply of the evening.

Resplendent in a gold-trimmed hot pink gown, she leaned in to share an emotional memory—not a sad story, but a personal triumph. Cast in the fin-de-siècle farce Hotel Paradiso (1966), Lollobrigida worried about measuring up to her prestigious costar.

“I was afraid, because Alec Guinness was a great actor,” she recalled. “So I was very much prepared—and when we had a reading just before the shooting, everybody had a script. I knew it by heart! Alec Guinness and the director couldn’t believe it.”

She grinned, glowing with the pride of a true pro. “I impressed them!”

hotel_paradiso_gina_lollobrigida_alec_guinness

I’ve been turning that story over and over again in my mind. Terrified of being underestimated, Lollobrigida outpaced her colleagues. It’s a story of insecurity used as rocket fuel, a story of exceeded expectations. A story that I think most women on Planet Earth can relate to.

Classical cinema invites us to contemplate (and consume) movie stars, especially actresses, as fully-formed demigods, removed from the tribulations of mere mortals. Even “candid” shots churned out by the studio publicity departments reinforce impossible ideals of natural elegance, poise, and domesticity. Hollywood’s magic largely depended on the erasure of real blood, sweat, and tears. You have to train yourself to appreciate the ambition and craft that stars brought to their careers and performances, the effort required to appear effortless.

The TCM Classic Film Festival gives living legends a chance to take their bows as resilient human beings who sustained all those glorious illusions. Lollobrigida, more than any other old Hollywood icon I’ve seen in person, made me aware of the sheer hard work involved in movie acting and star maintenance. At 87, she is both a survivor and a siren. She deserves recognition not only for her glamour, but also for her grit.

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner).

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner.

At Club TCM, Lollobrigida sat down for an hour-long conversation with Leonard Maltin and expressed some gutsy feminist beliefs. La Lollo explained that a woman must work doubly hard to earn respect and make progress: “You know, the steps for a woman to go ahead, it’s so difficult. As if a man has two brains and us one brain. I mean, it’s ridiculous. We are equal!”

She had to fight the idea that beauty and talent are somehow mutually exclusive. “I started as a beautiful woman and then suddenly I was a photographer. It was so difficult [for others in the industry] to say, ‘She’s not bad, you know?’ The third time, the third success, sculpture, that was too much.”

From childhood Lollobrigida showed artistic promise. And that’s why she didn’t consider a career in movies until much later. When approached to be an extra in a film, she initially rejected the offer: “I thought that cinema was not art at all, so I said, ‘I’m not interested.’” However, when she learned that the job paid 1,000 lire a day, she couldn’t refuse the chance to support her family in post-WWII Italy.

On the set, Lollobrigida attracted attention—too much, in fact. “When I started as an extra, it was not easy because then I made a double for the star,” she said, “but under the lights I looked even better than the star. So she fired me!”

A kind makeup man gave her the chance to work as an assistant to the studio hairdresser. After taking third place in the 1947 Miss Italy pageant, Lollobrigida won leading roles. And in 1950 Hollywood came knocking, in the form of Howard Hughes.

His designs on her quickly became clear. “He made me come to Los Angeles. First there were two tickets—for me, for my husband—then one ticket. He changed his mind,” Lollobrigida wryly notes. “But my husband said to me, ‘Don’t worry, I trust you. Go ahead, because I don’t want you to be telling me tomorrow that I’ve forbidden you from being a star in the movies.’”

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner.

Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Turner.

Lollobrigida recalled Hughes’s famous eccentricity. He wore mostly crude work clothes despite his fabulous wealth. His language wasn’t exactly refined either. “My English was not so good, so he helped me, especially with the bad words,” Lollobrigida said.

“I had to prepare myself to make an acting test, but I never did it because he wanted me… anyhow.” She stayed in Hollywood for 2 months before deciding to leave Hughes and return to Italy. What happened exactly? For now, Lollobrigida prefers to keep that a mystery. “He had a good time with me. The rest I will tell you later… in my bio,” she confided. (And, in the unlikely event that you’re reading this, Gina, please do write your memoirs!)

Back in Europe, Lollobrigida scored her first success in a French film, the comic swashbuckler Fan-Fan la Tulipe (1952). Although she always expected that she’d have to adopt a screen name, Fan-Fan made Lollobrigida famous under her birth name.

“When we were doing it, I didn’t have a name as an actress, and Gina Lollobrigida, my God, it’s very complicated,” she laughed. “So I said, ‘Put anything you want.’ But then it was too late, they’d already made the titles with Gina Lollobrigida.”

A catchy nickname cut out a few syllables for actress’s colleagues (and the press): “They called me, to make it quicker, Lollo. So even now when I answer on the phone, instead of saying, ‘Gina’ or ‘Gina Lollobrigida,’ I say ‘Lollo.’”

Her big break in English came in 1953 with the caper parody Beat the Devil, directed by John Huston and written by Truman Capote. But producer David O. Selznick had reservations about Lollobrigida at the last minute.

As she tells it, “I was very excited. The first day he was in Italy the producer called me and said, ‘Oh, Miss Lollobrigida, we don’t really need you. You can have all the money and not do the movie.’ I said, ‘I don’t care, Mr. Selznick. I will do the movie because I have a contract.’ So I stayed.”

Why did Selznick attempt to cut out a rising star? “He was afraid that I was too beautiful near Jennifer Jones.”

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Lollobrigida studied for months to act in her third language. “I called the University of London and said I’d like a teacher for my English, especially the accent, so I had more than I needed answer, they wanted to all come to my home and have a good time,” she chuckled. “So I chose a young girl, and she stayed with me for almost a year. When she went away, she could speak Italian perfectly.”

Though Lollobrigida didn’t feel entirely comfortable with her English dialogue, her sultry, exotic delivery set just the right note for her character—and prompted some sage advice from her costar. “Bogart said to me, ‘Don’t study English any more. If you lose this beautiful accent, it would be a pity.’”

Lollobrigida fondly remembered Bogart and their humorous onset rapport. “He was very friendly, but sometimes he was talking to me like that [loudly, moving her arms], and I thought he was angry. I didn’t understand that it was a joke. So, finally when I understood that it was a joke, I did the same joke to him in Italian.”

(And here the Club TCM audience burst into raucous laughter imagining Lollobrigida scaring the bejeezus out of Bogie with torrents of aggressive Italian.)

The Bogie that Lollobrigida knew, a man very much in love and accompanied by Lauren Bacall, contrasted with his brooding onscreen persona. “He was completely different from the character that you see in the movies. In all of the films he was very serious, very tough. But you could see him in the morning coming down the steps singing happily.”

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The young actress relished John Huston’s laid-back direction. “He respected the actors and he had a system to leave the actors to do and say even something that wasn’t in the script. He wanted the actors to feel free.”

She also sparked a friendship with Truman Capote which would last until his death. “We were very close. When he came to Italy, I thought that he looked like a young boy. And when I saw him just before he died he looked like an old man.”

In the mid-1950s, Lollobrigida proved her fearlessness as a performer in two surprising ways: by singing opera and flying on a trapeze!

Starring in Beautiful But Dangerous (1955), a biopic of opera star Lina Cavalieri, Lollobrigida panicked when the producer suggested that she sing in the film.

Though she had a trained voice, the actress didn’t know if she could do justice to Cavalieri’s legend. The producer encouraged Lollobrigida to try… and assembled a 50-piece orchestra for the occasion. Trembling, she sang “Vissi d’arte” from Tosca, accompanied by the skeptical group of musicians. “I did the first take and was very good. The orchestra started to applaud. So it was a miracle.”

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To Lollobrigida’s dismay, American reviewers assumed that she’d been dubbed. “The film came to New York. Bosley Crowther said, ‘What a beautiful voice. It’s a pity it’s not her.’ That was my voice!” She exclaimed. Even those close to La Lollo could hardly believe it. “My friend Maria Callas said, ‘It’s you?’”

So, let’s set the record straight, once and for all. Lollo does her own signing. Watch and be wowed.

Hollywood beckoned, but the ghost of mansplainers past rose to sabotage Lollobrigida. “I couldn’t come because, with that contract with Howard Hughes, he was making war against me. He was saying to all of the studios that they couldn’t use me, because I was property of him, like an object.” The subtle bitterness of her words betrayed how frustrating it must have been for Lollobrigida. That memory, the indignity of being Hughes’s virtual possession, still stings, 60 years later.

Undaunted, La Lollo bided her time and gained momentum on the Continent, in spite of Hughes. “He was not strong in Europe as he was in the United States.”

Lollobrigida signed up for Trapeze (1956) because, “they offered me so much money I had to say yes!” She would more than earn her keep over weeks of extensive training and a challenging shoot.

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“They sent to me a trapeze, to my villa in Rome, and for 6 months I rehearsed. I realized that, my God, if you try to fly, you must have muscles! I mean, it’s dangerous even to fall on the net,” she recalled with a shudder. “If you fall straight, you can break your ankle.”

The actress jumped into the daredevil demands of her role from her first day on the set. “They were trying the triple summersault, so the trapeze wasn’t at the same level as everyday, but higher! So they said, “Come up!” I went up. The professional people, they go up 15 days before they fly…. But the second day, I lost my voice. I couldn’t talk anymore. But I did it!”

Lollobrigida gladly took risks over the course of the production: “I wanted to do everything!” But sometimes it wasn’t a matter of choice. “I had two doubles, but the one that looked like me broke her nose. So I had to be the double for the double of me! And I was glad.”

She praised Trapeze’s director Carol Reed, particularly his flair for widescreen composition. “The Cinemascope was new at the time, to have the screen very, very long. He was telling one story on one side and another story on the other side.”

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Burt Lancaster, the film’s major star, was also the producer, which led to some behind-the-scenes tensions. “He started to direct the actors. I was nervous because I respected Carol Reed as a director. It was not fair to replace Carol Reed. So I was waiting my turn for him to direct me, but I stopped him. I said, ‘Mr. Lancaster, I came here to be directed by Carol Reed.’ He was embarrassed, but then he realized that he was wrong. And so we became friends again.”

The actress’s feistiness and her lack of tolerance for other stars’ entitlement flared up again when she worked with Sinatra on Never So Few (1959). From the first, his stipulations slowed down the shooting schedule.

“He wanted to be free in the evening, probably to have a good time. And he wanted to start at twelve o’clock. I said, ‘I can start at nine o’clock so we can save some money.’ And they said, ‘No. Miss Lollobrigida, you are already a star and you will be treated like a star.’”

She grudgingly accepted the star treatment à la Sinatra. “But one time he was one or two hours late. So I made a joke to him, but he didn’t understand. I said, ‘Next time that you want to come late, call me at six o’clock in the morning, so I can go to sleep again.’” The crack hit home a little too hard for Sinatra, who acted wounded for days.

solomon_and_shebaIn the late 1950s, Lollobrigida had to cope with more emotionally-draining experiences than the occasional sulky costar, however. When Leonard Maltin asked about Solomon and Sheba (1959), Lollobrigida recounted the ordeal of shooting the ill-starred Biblical epic.

She enjoyed a close friendship with Tyrone Power, who may have sensed the end was near for him. “I remember one night, it was two o’clock, he called me, and I said, ‘My God, what’s happening?’ He said, ‘I can’t sleep. I must tell you what a pleasure it is to work with you.’”

On the fatal day, Power had some philosophical words for her. “He had to do a duel with George Sanders. He probably had a heart attack, and he stopped.” The actor came and sat in the trailer with Lollobrigida who was nervously studying her lines. “I was afraid that something would go wrong. And he said, ‘Don’t worry. Life goes on anyhow.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t feel really very well.’”

After almost an hour of boisterous storytelling, Lollobrigida’s voice grew quiet as she relived that horrible day on location.

“I did not know what to do, so I gave him my shawl, so he would be warm. And the car was not there. So I said, ‘Take my car. Go to the hospital.’ And they take him to the car, and he died there.

“The poor makeup man had to take his paint off, and he was young. He died and suddenly he looked much younger.”

Shocked by Power’s death and exhausted by months of filming on location, Vidor had to reshoot most of the film, his last feature. According to Lollobrigida, Vidor was a shadow of his former self. “At any age you can be old. He was, my God, a fantastic director. But by that movie he was dead already.”

So the leading actors stepped in to finish the big-budget movie: “We directed the film. Me if I was alone, me and Yul Brynner if we were together. I mean, these are things that you don’t say, but that’s what happened.”

Perhaps you’re noticing a pattern here? No trapeze is too high, no male ego too big, no obstacle too great, no tragedy too heartbreaking to stop Gina Lollobrigida.

Though the censors tried.

The moralizing blue-pencil brigade of Production Code-era Hollywood took issue with La Lollo’s curvaceous figure. Looking back, the actress can hardly believe the tame material that censors scissored. “The films that I made were very noble,” she insists. “You could see them in church! But the censor was ridiculous.”

gina_lollobrigida_myphoto2Lollobrigida’s décolletage raised such objections that her family tried to intervene. “Even my mother said, ‘Gina, please, be careful! Not so low.’ Now they’re naked on the street!”

Censor meddling clearly made Lollobrigida’s blood boil, no doubt because she took great pains to preserve the integrity of her performances. Lollobrigida did all her own foreign-language dubbing, a fairly rare accomplishment at the time. “If I was doing it in Italian, I dubbed it in French and English. If I was doing it in English, I dubbed in French and Italian,” she says. “I wanted to protect what I did.”

She applied herself to foreign-language dialogue until it became second nature. As she explained, “you have to know the words like, ‘Ave Maria, piena di grazia…’” In other words, like a prayer.

Lollobrigida acknowledged the screenwriters who gave her a hand in shaping her characters’ dialogue. “They tried to use my suggestions even if I had to change something for the character. I didn’t want more words or less words. I wanted the character to be right. Because instead of acting, I was being as close as possible to the character I was playing. That’s why I was lucky to have all important women characters—all different.”

Indeed, from the doomed queen of an ancient empire to a canny single mother and entrepreneur, Lollobrigida’s roles run the gamut from grim to hilarious. “It’s easier to do drama than comedy,” she confessed. Which makes her breezy comedic timing in films like Hotel Paradiso and Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell all the more impressive.

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By the late 1960s, Lollobrigida decided to move on to the next phase of her career: photography. “When there was not so many scripts as good as before, I thought, ‘It’s better that I do photography or sculpture,’ which was my real love. And I thought that by going away and doing something different I wouldn’t be in the eyes of the public any more, but I was surprised, because anytime I was in public, the actress was in front all of the time.”

Lollobrigida wished that she had taken up professional photography sooner and captured portraits of her contemporaries, especially Marilyn Monroe. “We were very friendly when I was living in Los Angeles…. She deserved the success she had. It’s a pity that she became so famous after.”

After touring her beloved home country in disguise, Lollobrigida released her first book of images, Italia Mia, and won the Nadar International Prize. Traveling to Cuba, Lollobrigida secured an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro. In India, she forged a friendship with Indira Gandhi and photographed her. She shot portraits of Salvador Dali, Paul Newman, and Audrey Hepburn, among others. “I really grew up with photography,” she remembers, “going all over the world with my camera.”

gina_lollobrigida_myphotoShe also proudly pointed out that she had anticipated Photoshop and digital image enhancement by manually adding color to her photographs.

Nevertheless, Lollobrigida admits that she doesn’t care much for modern art or movies.

“In the cinema technically, it’s unbelievable the progress that they’ve made. But I prefer that the story is the important thing,” she explains. “I want to be moved. If there is no emotion, it’s not art for me.”

Once the thunderous applause from the Club TCM audience settled down, Leonard Maltin cheerfully told the star that she was preaching to a choir of diehard classics fans.

She smiled. “So I didn’t say something new, but I have the guts to say it.”

But does the multitalented Lollobrigida regret all her hard work in the realm of cinema—something that she didn’t even consider a proper art form back in 1946? It would seem not.

“I gave the best years of my life to the movies,” she remarked, unprompted, in the middle of the interview, “and I met incredible, talented people, so I’m glad.”

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Queen of Hearts (and Diamonds): Angela Lansbury Remembers The Manchurian Candidate at the TCM Classic Film Festival

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Equal parts awe and comfort. That’s how I’d describe the feeling of being in Dame Angela Lansbury’s magical presence.

Think Sarah Bernhardt plus the scent of freshly baked cookies. Or a Fairy Godmother who can, at will, turn herself into the Wicked Witch of the West—and back—for your amusement.

With 6 Golden Globes, 5 Tony Awards, and an honorary Oscar to her credit, 90-year-old Lansbury says she doesn’t ever plan on retiring. She’s living proof that you don’t have to act like a badass to be one.

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, Alec Baldwin interviewed Lansbury before a screening of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) at the TCL Chinese Theater. The queue for the event snaked all around the movie palace and down Hollywood Boulevard. I got number 520 in line and count myself lucky to have made it in—because it was an event I’ll never forget.

The stage and screen star made her entrance blowing kisses in response to a rapturous standing ovation from a packed house. As the applause settled down, one fan called from the audience, “We love you, Angela!”

“I love you too!” Lansbury replied. Watching her exude warmth and gratitude towards her fans, I found it all the more impressive that she had transformed herself into the chilling Mrs. Iselin.

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Baldwin began by questioning Lansbury about Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate, published in 1959.

“The book was presented to me by the director, John Frankenheimer, on the last day of the shoot of a movie we were making called All Fall Down,” Lansbury recalled. “He slammed the book down and said, ‘There’s your next movie.’”

She remembered being “blown away” as she read. “It was wonderfully well-constructed and so original, so extraordinary, and the character that I assumed he wanted me to play was like nothing else I had ever read for myself as an actress.”

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“They didn’t put everything in the movie that’s in the book?” Baldwin asked. “Well, they couldn’t, quite frankly,” Lansbury said, referring to the more explicitly Oedipal mother-son relationship in the novel.

Although Lansbury was Frankenheimer’s first choice for Mrs. Iselin, Frank Sinatra initially had other ideas. “He wanted Lucille Ball,” Lansbury recalled. “I mean, that could’ve been fascinating. You wouldn’t have believed that she could be this devil incarnate.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Fortunately, Frankenheimer prevailed, and Lansbury savored the chance to deliver such a marvelously wicked performance. “It’s a lot of fun to play a villain, a well-written villain, you know, not just a villain-villain, but a brilliant, interesting one, a villain of parts, you might say. So you weren’t quite sure about her.”

Lansbury clearly relished the moment when Mrs. Iselin’s mask drops as she invites her son to “pass the time by playing a little solitaire.” It was a joy to hear her repeat this line, in her naturally friendly tone of voice, and appreciate by contrast just how much creepiness she’d infused into those words for the film. “Only in that moment do you realize that she’s in charge,” she noted.

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Lansbury was only 36 when she made The Manchurian Candidate, just 3 years older than Laurence Harvey who played her son! Yet she projects the matronly authority of a senator’s wife—and the commanding fierceness of a high-level communist agent—with frightening conviction.

Baldwin wondered how Lansbury managed to carry herself like a woman in her forties or fifties. Did she observe and mimic the movements of women much older than herself—like Julie Andrews studied the way men move to play in Victor Victoria?

Lansbury explained that she took a text-centered approach to creating Mrs. Iselin. “I’ve never really described how I arrived at the character. I don’t do the kind of spadework that you just described. I sort of take on attitudes that are, in this instance, the absolute antithesis of the woman that I am. Because, as far as I’m concerned, what the writer has for me to say is immediately a clue for me, the actress, as to how my attitudes, or my looks, or everything else that’s packed into this character that will emerge.”

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Unlike Method actors, Lansbury said that her craft doesn’t involve mining her own memories and feelings: “I always say, ‘Leave yourself at home. Don’t bring yourself. Be that woman. And, you know, get on with it.’ And that seems to work.”

Frankenheimer gave his actors the chance to build their characters and add nuance to their interactions. As Lansbury reported, “We rehearsed a lot. They don’t take the time or the money to rehearse these days, but in those days certainly John demanded that we did. So we went into scenes really knowing them backwards.”

The demands of the film’s top-billed star also motivated the extensive rehearsals. “Frank Sinatra wouldn’t do two takes. He just refused. So if you didn’t get it the first time you were out of luck. And luckily he gave one of the best performances he’d ever given in The Manchurian Candidate.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

The Manchurian Candidate conveys an ambiance of oppressive paranoia, and it sounds like the shoot was no place for levity. “I can honestly say that John maintained a mood on that set that was all business and had everything to do with the story and the scenes I had. He was a very serious director in his own way. And he really got terribly excited with the drama that was in the scene and we were dragged into that. And we went along with it. We were very sincere in that we wanted to make a great movie. And it really turned out to be.”

Laurence Harvey broke up the gravity with his humorous, laid-back disposition. “He was tremendous fun. He took it like a joke. Typical English actor.” And here Lansbury did a quick impression of her co-star, leaning as far back as she could in her chair then looking up distractedly. “Oh, ready for me yet?”

Lansbury didn’t get the chance to work with Sinatra much. “I was only in one scene with Frank. We were in the cloakroom picking up our coats,” she said. “And that’s the only time we were ever on the set together.”

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Prompted by Baldwin, Lansbury also discussed her early career at MGM. Her versatility made it difficult for the studio to reduce her to a type and find strong vehicles for her: “I always felt challenged because the kind of odd thing was that directors, producers, they all saw me in a different way. One producer would see me as a kind of song and dance girl, the next one would see me as a mother or as a rather boring kind of nurse in some movie with Walter Pidgeon.”

She expressed her fondness for Gaslight and especially for her part as Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray: “I loved that sweet, vulnerable girl. To get to play that was a miracle.” However, she ultimately felt that Hollywood’s Golden Age afforded her few golden opportunities. “I gave them the impression that I could change myself, because I did. I had to. And it bored me to death to play some of those movies, I can tell you that.”

Exasperated with Hollywood, she returned to the theater. “I said, ‘Enough already,’ and I shuffled off to Broadway.” As for the dream factory studios where she worked, “I didn’t miss a darn thing, to be truthful.”

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Lansbury waxed poetic over the live theater experience. “I simply love the feeling that you the audience are there, and we’re together in this. And this onstage is something that absolutely propels me forward and gives me the excitement and impetus to go out there and give my absolute best. The curtain goes up, you’re mine, and I’m yours.”

After relatively few feature film roles in the 1950s, Lansbury did some of her best film work in the early 1960s.

“The last great movie that I got to be in was The Manchurian Candidate.” While she said she wouldn’t consider it her greatest film, “It’s certainly the most outstanding and astonishing film I was ever connected with. From an audience standpoint, I think it’s a unique piece of work on the part of everybody who was in it. And John’s conception of it, his work with Axelrod on the script, the minutia that he took the time to do, it paid off so amazingly.”

When she saw the film screened, she found it thrilling. “I had no idea how it would all be cut together. We really don’t because we do little bits and pieces, you know how it is…. I had no idea that it would land with the impact that it did.”

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As for recent accomplishments, in 2014 Lansbury received an Honorary Academy Award, presented by none other than Robert Osborne.

“I requested that he should be the person to give it to me, because he always stood by me,” Lansbury said, echoing her audience’s love for the Turner Classic Movies host. “I said, ‘Look, he’s the only man who knows all the movies that I made in that period.’ And, of course, he’s TCM. There was no question in my mind that he was the right person and I’m so glad he did it.”

Alec Baldwin concluded the conversation with a fitting tribute to Dame Angela’s dazzling range: “One thing that is always so thrilling and so powerful is to witness someone whose soul can range from one end to the other. I’ve worked with just a few who can do anything…. They can play the darkest forces in the world and they can play the most beautiful spirits in the world. There aren’t many of them.”

And Angela Lansbury is surely one. She’s not only the queen of her fans’ hearts, but also the Queen of Diamonds.

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Photo by Stephanie Keenan/Getty Images for Turner.

Sinners and a Saint: My Moving (and Grooving) TCMFF Schedule Picks

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My cat Godfrey (named for a certain William Powell character) assists me in planning out my festival schedule.

“My hope is that we’ll be playing a lot of movies that will lead to people crying.” So said Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming, about the upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival in a recent interview.

Judging by the TCMFF schedule, I think Tabesh wants to make us cry before we even get there. The conflicting choices have made me tear my hair in anguish.

A nice kind of anguish, though.

Speaking of things that hurt so good, this year’s festival focuses on “moving pictures,” films that trigger powerful emotional reactions.

So, join me as I wring my hands over the options and work out a tentative schedule, won’t you?

Note: My schedule is subject to change depending on whimsy, hunger, eyeliner mishaps, peer pressure, physical exhaustion, bad luck, and the fact that there’s a fabulous tea house temptingly close to the Chinese Multiplex.

Thursday, April 28

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6:30 p.m. – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

For this first slot, I’m leaning towards 2 classics that—I blush to admit it—I haven’t yet seen: Dark Victory (1939) and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1941). Before you make me turn in my cinephile card, let me reframe my oversight as an opportunity: what better way to discover an acclaimed classic than on the big screen? Apparently my negligence in the weepie department has richly paid off.

I’m going with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, since former child actor Ted Donaldson will be there to introduce it.

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9:30 p.m. – Los Tallos Amergos (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I adore Brief Encounter. To give you an idea of just how much I adore it, whenever I get a mote of dust in my eye, I exclaim, “Where’s Trevor Howard?” But when David Lean’s tearjerking paean to buttoned-up English passion occupies the same slot as Los Tallos Amergos, a recently-restored, little-known noir gem from Argentina, I yield to the dark desire to explore uncharted territory.

Friday, April 29

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9:30 a.m. – Never Fear (1949) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

I wake up to a tough choice: should I go with feel-good #TCMParty favorite The More the Merrier (1943) at the Egyptian Theater (and on 35mm to boot!) OR celebrate the controversial brilliance of Ida Lupino with Never Fear, her first credited film as a director?

Never Fear wins the spot, since I relish the chance to feel the full impact of Lupino’s uncompromising vision on a big screen. That said, I might cave for a cute screwball comedy if I need respite from the festival’s intense program of heartbreakers. Don’t judge me. It’s a long haul!

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12:00 p.m. – Double Harness (1933) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

No contest on the next pick. Rare pre-Codes are my jam. Oh, Double Harness, you had me at Ann Harding… and then you go and throw in William Powell and a long-lost premarital sex scene? I’d better pack me some smelling salts.

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2:00 p.m. – Tea and Sympathy (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Here we arrive at the most difficult slot in the festival. I’m torn between not 2, not 3, but 5 glorious offerings that pique my interests:

  • The Conversation (1974) introduced by Francis Ford Coppola – DCP
  • Trapeze (1956) introduced by Gina Lollobrigida – 35mm
  • Amazing Film Discoveries, a presentation by Serge Bromberg – DCP
  • Tea and Sympathy (1956), followed by a discussion with former child actor Darryl Hickman – 35mm
  • When You’re in Love (1937), a rarely-screened Cary Grant film introduced by the star’s daughter, Jennifer Grant – DCP

Well, I believe in supporting movies condemned by the Legion of Decency, so I’ll probably head to Tea and Sympathy. I’m also curious to hear Darryl Hickman talk about the making of this controversial melodrama. But I’m still waffling. The good news is, no matter what I pick, it’s bound to be memorable!

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5:15 and 7:17 p.m. – Pleasure Cruise (1933) and 6 Hours to Live (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both on 35mm

Why sit through a single poignant movie when you can watch 2 bizarro gems from the heady days of Hays? I’m veering away from the well-promoted favorites in this slot, because—surprise, surprise—I can’t resist the gravitational pull of Chinese Multiplex #4.

I’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life on 35mm at a 1920s movie palace. At Christmas. Twice. So I’m afraid the chance to see Capra’s masterpiece at the TCL Chinese Theater doesn’t excite me.

While The Passion of Joan of Arc with a live choir score will undoubtedly give its audience chills, I don’t think I can bear to be bummed out, no matter how sublimely, on a Friday night in Hollywood. Besides, religious films, one of the festival’s themes this year, don’t exactly light my pyre—er, fire. And if you think I’m going to hell, I can live with that, provided I get there by partying with the bad boys and girls of the pre-1934 studio era.

I might even get an extra kick out of watching the pre-Codes knowing that I chose sinners over a saint!

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9:30 p.m. – The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

Why, TCM, why did you program one of my favorite films noirs, Repeat Performance (1947), against my must-see, do-or-die interview of the festival? WHY? [Shakes fist at the heavens as the camera rises in an epic crane shot.]

The Manchurian Candidate wins my heart, because I’ve worshipped Angela Lansbury ever since 12-year-old me saw my first episode of Murder, She Wrote on VHS. I will not miss the chance to hear this living legend/diva/queen/beautiful human being talk about her deliciously wicked turn as the World’s Worst Mother.

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12:00 p.m. – Roar (1981) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

The midnight screening of Boom at last year’s TCMFF was a major highlight for me, so I’ll fortify myself with caffeine to stay awake for this notoriously dangerous thrill ride featuring dozens of real wild animals. CGI is for wimps!

Does Roar sound ill-advised? Hell yeah. Entertaining? I’m betting away 2 hours of sleep that it will be. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Saturday, April 30

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9:00 a.m. – 90th Anniversary of Vitaphone – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

I love the smell of experimental talkies in the morning! Seriously, how often do you get to wake up and immerse yourself in short films from the dawn of sound—shown on film at such an epic venue?

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11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. – A House Divided (1931) and Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1934) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – both 35mm

Oh, boy. It’s the devil on my shoulder again. That lingerie-wearing, chain-smoking grayscale gun moll who calls the shots for me. And she tells me that I cannot sacrifice 2 movies from the early 1930s for a post-studio-era parody.

Even if that means passing up an opportunity to hear the riotous Carl Reiner discuss his noir homage Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1981). Or listen to Nancy Olsen recount her early days in Hollywood.

Yeah, this one stings.

But, hey, William Wyler’s second talkie? Oh, I am very there for that. And Ronald Colman’s moustache holds a deep claim on my loyalty.

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3:45 p.m. – The Yearling (1946) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Another tricky slot. How do you expect me to choose between Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (introduced by Gina Lollobrigida), The Big Sleep, and The Yearling (followed by a discussion with child actor Claude Jarman Jr.)?

For the moment, The Yearling takes priority. But The Big Sleep—also on 35mm!—might woo me away. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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6:30 p.m. – The King and I (1956) – TCL Chinese Theater – DCP

I really need to see Rita Moreno talk about The King and I, because that movie traumatized me as a kid and I’m hoping that I can work through some of those issues. Nice cheery musical about imperialist white savior complexes and male entitlement and sex slavery and child mortality, Rogers and Hammerstein. At least there’s some pretty Cinemascope eye candy and 3 magnificent central performances.

Even though The King and I is not a favorite of mine, as you can probably tell, I look forward to hearing Moreno’s memories of making it.

I will, however, be crying inside that I’m missing the elegant Technicolor palettes of Borzage’s I’ve Always Loved You (1946), which is screening simultaneously on 35mm. Hm. I might drift on this one…

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9:15 p.m. – Band of Outsiders (1956) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This next slot is non-negotiable. Anna Karina is a goddess. I welcome the opportunity to bask in her presence.

Funnily enough, the only Godard films I’d happily volunteer to watch again are those starring Karina. Yes, I went there. Come at me, New Wave bros. Side note: If I ever meet JLG in person, I’m demanding an apology for Weekend and the migraine it gave me.

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12:00 a.m. – Gog (1954) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

Sci-fi is more important than sleep, especially when we’re talking a sci-fi mystery unseen in its original 3D since 1954!

Sunday, May 1

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9:30 – The Fallen Idol (1948) – Chinese Multiplex House #6 – DCP

If you’d asked me about my must-see picks before TCM dropped its schedule, I would’ve mentioned Scent of Mystery, screened at the Cinerama Dome in—get this—Smell-O-Vision!

And then a little boy threw a wrench in the works.

Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol is one of those masterpieces that somehow doesn’t get the attention it deserves. In this tense noir, the spoiled but lonely son of a diplomat sees more than he should and becomes embroiled in an adult world of lies and guilty secrets. Making his screen debut, Bobby Henrey delivered a miraculous child performance—exasperating, melancholy, silly, sweet, clever, and hopelessly out of his depth.

So I did a double take when I saw that Henrey would be at TCMFF to talk about this astonishing film. Unmissable. Sorry, Smell-O-Vision. Smell ya later. Or not.

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12:15 p.m. – Law and Order (1932) – Chinese Multiplex House #4 – 35mm

Bagging out on Scent of Mystery offers a bonus: I’ll have time to catch another rarely-screened movie in my favorite venue. Gritty pre-Code proto-noir Western written by John Huston and starring Walter Huston? Uh, yes, please!

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2:30 p.m. – A Conversation with Gina Lollobrigida – Club TCM

Last year’s Club TCM interview with Shirley MacLaine left me flabbergasted by the amount of sassy revelations the star offered up. I’ve got my fingers crossed that Ms. Lollobrigida will prove as feisty and open to questions!

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4:15 p.m. – The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966) – Egyptian Theater – 35mm

Once upon a time I was reading my friends’ coverage of TCMFF and turning all unsightly shades of green over how they’d seen Eva Marie Saint in person. Now it’s my turn (serpentine waiting lines permitting)!

Eva Marie is the only Saint I want to see at the festival this year (sorry, Joan of Arc).

1953: Fred Astaire (1899 - 1987) and Cyd Charisse perform a dance number in 'Band Wagon', directed by Vincente Minnelli for MGM.

7:45 p.m. – The Band Wagon (1953) – Chinese Multiplex House #1 – DCP

This choice might well change, depending on the titles announced for the TBD slots. Still, The Band Wagon never fails to amaze me, so it’s not like I’d be “settling” for it. Cyd Charisse in that sizzling red dress and her slinky moves might just be the perfect finale to a show of moving pictures.

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Reel Romance: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2015

portraitofjennieMaybe I did too much living in 2015, because I sure didn’t do much writing!

I attended 5 film festivals, got quoted in the L.A. Times as a “classic film blogger,” watched over 200 new-to-me movies, and marked my 25th birthday with an epic weekend of 5 horror films on the big screen. And I got to meet my hero Kevin Brownlow. I think I might need to make a new “life goals” list now.

Before I can let go of that glorious year, I need to process some of the film discoveries that delighted and haunted me most. If you’ve never seen them, I hope they’ll delight you for the first time in 2016.

A theme that connects most (though not all) of these movies is unlikely or unexpected romance. In Second Floor Mystery, two strangers flirt through coded messages and elaborate fictions, modeled on potboiler clichés. In Heaven Can Wait, a playboy reflects on the value of lifelong commitment. In Portrait of Jennie, a ghost finds the soulmate she never knew while alive. Even a few canonical characters surprisingly gave in to the lovefest. Sherlock Holmes renounced his bachelorhood, and Doctor Van Helsing showed some more-than-professional interest in the lady he’s trying to save!

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“I just watched Portrait of Jennie. Please give me a few moments to collect myself.”

Another “theme” was me weeping uncontrollably, whether sobbing my eyeliner off in the presence of 500 other cinephiles or sniffling in my pajamas while streaming something on my laptop. I was unprepared for the catharsis. So, fair warning to you, dear reader: some of these films may mess with you mercilessly, causing trauma, vulnerability, revaluation of your life’s purpose, and the inability to get them out of your head.

Since some people have been asking, I’ve noted which films are currently available on DVD or Blu-Ray (in the United States) with asterisks. As for the ones that aren’t marked… well, let’s just say that you can find many of them around this cavernous thing called the Internet.

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Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Berthelet, 1916)*

Since the news broke in 2014 that the Cinémathèque française had found a print of the presumed-lost Sherlock, I’d desperately wanted to see it on the big screen. That chance finally came in September when New York’s Film Forum screened the mystery thriller with live accompaniment. It did not disappoint.

William Gillette’s formidable, archly romantic portrayal of the great detective won my heart. From the luxurious dressing gown to the intense, Zen-like focus, many of the mannerisms and traits established by Gillette as Holmes have influenced (whether directly or indirectly) every actor who essayed the role after him. I also did a longer write-up on Sherlock Holmes and how it portrays the sleuth as a romantic hero.

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A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926)

Words are feeble to describe the heart-wrenching impact of this Japanese silent. A grief-stricken man works as a janitor at a mental asylum in order to stay close to his disturbed wife… and, he hopes, to set her free. The protagonist’s anguish and alienation anchor the film as his obsession verges dangerously on the madness of the inmates.

A Page of Madness is a lyrical and terrifying invitation to empathize with extreme states of mind. Blurring dreams, reality, and hallucinations, it encourages us to see the inmates not merely as unfortunates to be pitied but also as awe-inspiring (and sometimes frightening) volcanos of emotion and creativity.

Rather than beginning with an outsider’s gaze, director Teinosuke Kinugasa immediately pulls us into the interior universe of a patient. The film opens with a bizarre, opulent dance: a woman draped in a glittering white costume moves slowly in front of a giant spinning ball. As the camera tracks backwards, we see the cell bars that confine her physical space, but fail to confine her vast imaginings.

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Lonesome (Pál Féjös, 1928)*

An average boy and an average girl fall in love over the course of one chaotic day at Coney Island. Within the framework of this breezy, you’ve-heard-it-a-thousand-times rom-com plot, Pál Féjös delivers both a documentary about the mating rituals of the Jazz Age working classes and a paean to the rush of young love. Out of a horde of merrymakers, a jostling crowd of tired, lonely people looking for stimulation, two people find each other. After some initial bluffing, they agree to be honest about themselves and their feelings. It’s a tiny, everyday miracle, but a miracle nonetheless.

The cheap thrills of the amusement park—confetti, hot dogs, ice cream, sand between our hero’s toes, rollercoaster rides—mingle with numinous devotion. Lonesome offers up one of the most beautiful, almost divine images of romance in cinema: a couple dancing against a periwinkle sky besides a golden castle and a flickering crescent moon. The couple are really twirling in shabby beachfront dancehall, but their giddy affection elevates this ordinary moment to the stuff of fairy tales.

Even the few stilted dialogue scenes (a novelty thrown into an otherwise silent film) exude an awkward likeability. As the hero and heroine sheepishly open up to each other the film medium finds its voice.

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Why Be Good? (William A. Seiter, 1929)*

Colleen Moore was one smart flapper, onscreen and off. In real life she banked a fortune and grew it. And in this movie she showed her legions of fans that there’s nothing more fashionable than a woman who stands up for her rights. Indeed, Why Be Good? quickly reveals itself as a sequined feminist manifesto.

Pert Kelly, all-American girl, department store worker, and dance champion, doesn’t hesitate to run her own life and crush double standards under her bejewelled pointy-toed shoes. For instance, when her traditional Irish papa starts to dictate her curfew, she reminds him that her salary is a hefty part of his household income.

Better yet, she gives her entitled beau an earful when he assumes that any stylish, fun-loving girl is sexual fair game. Moore defends a woman’s right to control her body and boldly defines her clothing choices as a means of playful self-expression—not a way of separating “good” girls from “bad.”

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Our Blushing Brides (Harry Beaumont, 1930)*

Come for the pre-Code lingerie, stay for the emasculating comebacks tossed off by Joan Crawford (often while wearing pre-Code lingerie). I watched this movie twice in a row when I discovered it last January. Both times I could be heard to exclaim variations of, “You tell him, girl!” at the screen.

Crawford plays a department store model who fends off the advances of skeevy rich guys. Her blistering retorts and gritty sense of self-worth—along with zingers written by Bess Meredyth, one of classic Hollywood’s greatest lady screenwriters—make this shopworn shopgirl drama shine.

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The Border Legion (Otto Brower and Edwin H. Knopf, 1930)

Festivals of rare films are inevitably bittersweet, since there’s always at least one film that makes me want to storm the projection booth and abscond with the reels (preferably fleeing on a white horse, discharging two six-shooters into the sky). The Border Legion, screened at Capitolfest, provoked such an impulse in me.

This Western from Paramount moves along at a hell-for-leather pace. A young man wrongly accused of murder (Richard Arlen) joins a band of outlaws governed by an enigmatic former cavalryman (Jack Holt). But a beautiful hostage (Fay Wray) ignites tensions that lure the gang to its doom. The plot culminates in a catastrophic raid on a frontier village. An uneasy stillness bursts into deafening explosions, showcasing the dramatic, shattering power of sound for the directors and crews who knew how to use it in the early talkie days.

Jack Holt gives his rendition of “the good bad man” as a paradoxical combination of rugged and immaculate. He embodies a drive to conquer and command so fierce that it marks him for death like a bullseye on his back. Holt’s ability to project an archetype and a nuanced human being simultaneously in The Border Legion puts him up in the Western pantheon with Hart, Wayne, and Scott.

I really wish you could all see this film. Maybe you will someday if Universal ever releases its hundreds of neglected pre-Code Paramount classics… Or, you know, I could saddle up, put a bandana over my face, and “liberate” the vault. Just a thought.

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Follow Thru (Lloyd Corrigan and Laurence Schwab, 1930)

I can’t describe two-color Technicolor without resorting to dessert metaphors: peppermint candy, peach and mint sherbet. It looks yummy, as though your eye could taste it. This silly Paramount musical, shot entirely in the two-color process, circulates in terrible prints online, but I had the good fortune to see a UCLA restoration on 35mm at Capitolfest. (I also did a write-up on the experience.)

As fluffy and entertaining of a musical as you could wish for, Follow Thru uses early Technicolor to invigorating effect. Oh, and did I mention the musical number where chorus girls dressed as lipstick-red devils hoof it to the tune of “I Want to Be Bad”—amidst actual rising flames? Talk about a dance inferno…

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Second Floor Mystery (Roy Del Ruth, 1931)

This delirious parody of crime capers and pulp writing—all wrapped up in an appealing love story—is so meta it could’ve been made yesterday. (Only then it wouldn’t look so sleek and it would’ve been, like, 2 hours longer.)

Geoffrey, a young man of means (Grant Withers), woos American tourist Marion (Loretta Young) from afar through “the agony column,” the cryptic newspaper personal section. As the lovers exchange messages, what begins as an idle flirtation unfolds into an exotic tale of murder, espionage, and secret societies … or does it? Once Geoffrey admits that he’s been fabricating his intrigues to impress Marion, another conspiracy arises!

I adore movies that mess with my head, and The Second Floor Mystery doesn’t hesitate to send its viewers right down the rabbit hole. Just when you think the story couldn’t get crazier, couldn’t ascend to further heights of hyperbole, it does.

One wild fabrication is debunked and set aside… only to make way for another. This castle of cards comes fluttering to earth at the end when Marion reveals that she set up a plot within a plot for Geoffrey, “to give you a few of the thrills you gave me.” Is this love as a metaphor for pulp fiction? Or is pulp fiction as a metaphor for love?

The Second Floor Mystery shows, as The Thin Man did 3 years later, that romance and spine-tingling excitement reinforce each other—especially when abetted by harmless fibs and ruses. Courtship, the process representing yourself to the object of your affections, often echoes the Byzantine twists of detective novels.

I’d absolutely love to see this currently unavailable Warner Brothers film (which I saw in already-digitized form at Cinefest) get the Warner Archive treatment. Powers that be, please make this happen!

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Don’t Bet on Women (William K. Howard, 1931)

I caught this zippy pre-Code Fox romp at the TCM Classic Film Festival and, boy, was it ever a treat. A stuffy husband (Roland Young) makes a bet on his wife’s ability to resist the charms of a cheerful playboy (Edmund Lowe). Unfortunately for hubby, his wife (a cheeky, non-singing Jeannette MacDonald) discovers the wager and decides to make her husband sweat it out. Una Merkel steals virtually every scene as Jeannette’s flirtatious cousin who dispenses all manner of risqué advice in a Southern twang.

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Painted Woman (John G. Blystone, 1932)

Imagine Safe in Hell (1931) with a happy ending—and an utterly ridiculous sequence of a giant octopus attack—and you’ve got the essence of this Fox potboiler. One sultry night in Singapore, a singer and prostitute known only as Kiddo (Peggy Shannon) bashes in some creep’s skull and goes on the lam with her abusive ship captain boyfriend. When Kiddo’s main squeeze parks her in a remote South Sea island, she fends off the local sleazeballs, but falls hard for an affable ex-Marine (Spencer Tracy). Alas, the nasty boyfriend rolls back into town, threatening to crush Kiddo’s future.

As Kiddo, Peggy Shannon looks out at the world from bedroom eyes set in an incongruously childlike face. She exists in a state of jagged bemusement, halfway between weariness and wariness, as if asking life, “What next, pal? Where ya landing the next punch?” Painted Woman sometimes borders on dumb and sometimes crosses right over, but Shannon holds it together with bruised dignity. Even skinny dipping in a lagoon, she can hurl tough-dame one-liners with a bite that made me think of Stanwyck… crossed with Harlow… with a pinch of Bow. I’d never heard of Shannon before Cinefest, but I couldn’t help thinking: Here’s an actress ripe for a rediscovery.

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Goodbye Again (Michael Curtiz, 1933)

This bawdy Warner Brothers comedy confection gave pre-Code bad boy Warren William the chance to show a more relaxed and hilarious side of his lascivious screen persona. A writer of risqué novels, William rekindles his romance with a now-married former sweetheart—much to the chagrin of his long-suffering secretary Joan Blondell.

With a marvelous supporting cast (Genevieve Tobin! Helen Chandler! Wallace Ford!), Goodbye Again has a wacky soundstage party ambiance. And who doesn’t love endless meta-cracks at the expense of prudery and censorship?

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Quatorze Juillet (René Clair, 1933)*

When a movie audience leaves the theater literally dancing to the exit music, you know you’ve witnessed something special. I saw René Clair’s Quatorze Juillet (14th of July, France’s Fête nationale) on the 14th of July. In Paris. However, I suspect that any day would feel like a holiday watching this triumph of creative storytelling.

Quatorze Juillet dwells in a silvery, stylized cosmos of exquisite coincidences and contrivances. Visual matches and quirky motifs catch the rhythms of city life. Gently-arcing high-angle shots look benevolently down on the destinies of outwardly ordinary people. A sweet flower girl falls in love with a gallant cab driver on the night before the 14th of July… then loses him to his old girlfriend. Misfortunes and mistakes tear them apart, but will fate bring them back together? The answer is predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the journey.

Tempting though it is to label this a “feel-good movie,” Quatorze Juillet elegantly drifts through so many emotional tones. Wistful. Joyful. Silly. Tragic. Serendipitous. All of it clad in the stardust of Paris.

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Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)*

To quote one of my favorite film professors, “Relationships are hard.” He was quite correct, as usual. Relationships are hard to make a go of in real life and hard to make convincing and fresh on the screen. Heaven Can Wait, airy and buoyant as a waltz, understands the difficulty of relationships better than many hand-wringing, tear-stained dramas. I can’t conceive of a more tender valentine to marriage and its sublime challenge to human nature.

Frivolous playboy Henry Van Cleave (Don Ameche) wins and weds the woman of his dreams (Gene Tierney). That’s where most movies would stop, but Ernst Lubitsch probes the triumphs and frustrations of “happily ever after.” As Henry errs from his pledge to monogamy, his wife wonders whether the price of loving him might be too high, after all.

Shot in velvety, sensual Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait reminds us that lifelong commitment is the most quixotic of promises. Every gentle chuckle, every vibrant shade of purple (and there are many), every quarrel, and every kiss in the Van Cleaves’ marriage lead us to the conclusion that regrets, flaws, and death all make life worth living—and love worth loving.

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La Main du Diable (Maurice Tourneur, 1943)

As France was making a series of devil’s bargains with the Nazis, Maurice Tourneur directed this Faustian horror drama under the occupation. Morbidly comical and criss-crossed with foreboding shadows, La Main du Diable evokes the very modern risk of losing one’s soul.

Longing to be a great painter, bohemian loser Roland (Pierre Fresnay) exchanges his soul for artistic talent by way of a cursed hand passed down through a line of doomed men. When Roland regrets his decision, the devil arrives—in the person of a venal, bald-pated bureaucrat—and offers our hero the chance to buy back his soul… with interest, bien sûr. But can Roland afford it?

La Main du Diable made me wonder where the hell it had been all my life. Fresnay’s performance—one part bad boy, one part lost puppy—invested me deeply in Roland’s sad fate as he shambles into the devil’s path. And the film’s visual highlight, a fabulous carnival sequence, resurrects the former owners of the hand (and conjures visions of their misspent lives) by resurrecting the aesthetics of silent cinema.

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The Exile (Max Ophüls, 1947)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. paid conscious tribute to his charismatic swashbuckler father in this beguiling film—while displaying a streak of heroism and derring-do that was uniquely his. Returning to filmland after his service in WWII, the star produced and helped to write this elegant historical adventure about Charles II’s exile in Holland.

Charles’s wily grace and adaptability, honed through years of wandering, make him the only opponent who can defeat the sinister Roundheads, spookily reminiscent of the Third Reich. Max Ophüls’s traveling camera elevates fight scenes to ideological dance-offs: the sluggard brutality of totalitarianism versus the flexibility of constitutional monarchy.

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Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (Norman Foster, 1948)

From the lurid, Mickey Spillane-ish title, you’d never guess that Kiss the Blood Off My Hands offers up one of the most sensitively-rendered relationships in the noir canon.

Bill Saunders, a traumatized American WWII vet in London (Burt Lancaster), accidentally kills a man in a barroom brawl. Running from the law, he hides out in the apartment of a kind but outspoken young hospital worker, Jane Wharton (Joan Fontaine). Jane helps Bill to rebuild his life and, bonded by vulnerability and loneliness, they fall in love. But can Bill control his rage? And will a greedy racketeer pull him away from his fragile chance at happiness?

Watch this movie for the chemistry between Lancaster and Fontaine. Watch it for the subtle commentary on a world struggling to heal itself after a devastating conflict. Watch it for the intoxicating cinematography by Russell Metty. Really. Do. Watch it.

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Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)*

Only two things can conquer death: art and love. As Portrait of Jennie suggests, perhaps those things can’t be separated from each other—or from death. This supernatural romance dares to dance with the great mysteries of life. Some critics have mistaken the film’s sincerity for sentimentality. Well, that’s their loss. One wonders, do they also snigger at sonnets and mock arias?

When an uninspired artist falls in love with a phantom, the movie lends us his eyes, slowly opening to the glories of his beloved, of winter in New York City, of the roiling sea, of the world in all of its palpitating aliveness. Only the ecstasy of loving and the agony of loss—for to love is to lose, since we are not built to withstand the forever we crave—can draw back the veil that hides the wonders all around us.

In the mystical contrasts of Jennie’s cinematography, you can feel the yearnings of the great poets to bridge the divide between the darkness and light of human existence. The delicate, petal-soft lace of Jennie’s dress showcases the onyx cameo profile of her face in shadow. The blinding white glare of the sun and the ice in Central Park illuminate Jennie’s silhouette as she glides towards the camera. Jennie comes running out of the mist to meet her mortal lover, and again she glows like a black angel of eternity. (I also saw this on nitrate at the Nitrate Picture Show, which really made the film’s ethereal imagery sing.)

With its garden of marvels blooming out of the ordinary, Portrait of Jennie reminds me of another film that I consider truly enchanted: The Blue Bird (1918). Like the ghostly Jennie, the cinematographer of The Blue Bird, John van den Broek, drowned without realizing his radiant potential. Yet, he lives on. He speaks to me through the supernal beauty that his lense captured. Art, like love, is a legacy, a gift that awakens others. I think about The Blue Bird and Jennie often, and I am deeply grateful for the paradise-colored lens that those films hold before my eyes.

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Alias Nick Beal (John Farrow, 1949)

This allegorical noir transforms foggy, abstracted city sets on the Paramount backlot into a battleground for the forces of good and evil. Honest lawyer Joseph Foster (Grant Mitchell) struggles to convict a big-time gangster, until a tenebrous stranger Nick Beal (Ray Milland) shows up with the solution. Soon Foster succumbs to the insidious temptation of idealism, as Beal promises him the chance to clean up corruption—while corrupting Foster’s own soul.

His eyes glittering with the malice that Hitchcock would use so well in Dial M for Murder, Ray Milland oozes wicked suavity as Lucifer in a slick suit. His oily charm lulls us into almost trusting him and amplifies the shock of his occasional lapses into brutality. This prince of darkness is no gentleman. Audrey Totter captures the fear and pathos of her role as the devil’s unwilling accomplice: a wharf hooker given a satanic make-over by Beal and deployed to compromise Foster.

Rather than downplay the supernatural eeriness of the scenario, director John Farrow channels full-on cosmic dread. In this transplanted Medieval morality play of creeping camera movements, Satan himself literally dictates the dialogue at times. And a cigarette case, a bottle of rum, a pile of ashes all become signs not of mere mundane evil, but of Evil-with-a-capital-E.

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Beyond the Forest (King Vidor, 1949)

Bette Davis’s last contract film for Warner Brothers, a steamy, rural, noirish melodrama, is pretty darn difficult to get a hold of. That unavailability has sadly contributed to the film’s reputation as a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest. I braced myself for the worst—and found a passionate lamentation on the sorrows of being an ambitious, trapped woman. Director King Vidor endows the backwoods setting with an operatic grandeur suited to its heroine’s fiery longing and spectacular downfall. Think Hardy’s Return of the Native with an injection of Virginia Woolf. Plus a Maria Montez wig.

Though Bette Davis loathed the movie, she gives faded small-town temptress Rosa all her fury and cunning. She potently incarnates the feelings that good little post-war wives were supposed to sweep under the rug: boredom with domestic life, disgusted rejection of motherhood, grasping pursuit of money, and a desire for younger, exciting men. Even the oft-parodied “What a dump!” line expresses Rosa’s frustration with her petty existence.

Much of film noir is about thwarted women who turn to crime because they lack a socially-sanctioned way of getting what they want. Beyond the Forest refuses to sugar-coat that pill. Its prickly protagonist doesn’t soften her aspirations or pander to male fantasy with the silken, nubile glamor of the archetypal femme fatale. Her excess is intentional, in-your-face defiance. A refusal of all things passive, demure, acquiesced to silence. If that’s camp, please, spare me your earnestness.

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Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960)*

Scary movies got me interested in film to begin with. Horror remains my favorite genre. So, when I tell you that Brides of Dracula has won a place in my top 10 favorite horror movies, that means a great deal to me.

This Gothic cautionary tale unfolds against a lush palette of Technicolor purples, reds, and golds and possesses a refinement matched by no other Hammer horror flick. The well-bred seductiveness of Brides mirrors the dandyish aura of its vampire: sorry, no, not Christopher Lee, but can I interest you in the subversively alluring David Peel?

To counter this bloodthirsty aesthete, Peter Cushing gives a dashing portrayal of Doctor Van Helsing—whose unspoken but palpable romantic rapport with the movie’s heroine subtly raises the stakes (pun intended). I wrote a nice long post about the wicked brilliance of this film. You know, if you’re into gratuitous Baudelaire quotes and gorgeous screenshots.

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Boom (Joseph Losey, 1968)

The TCM Classic Film Festival screened an eye-popping 35mm print of this notorious flop at the midnight hour. I laughed so hard I was genuinely afraid that I might cease breathing. (Proposed epitaph in the event that this does happen someday: Here lies one Nitrate Diva,/ She succumbed to movie fever.)

Starring a tipsy, resplendent Liz Taylor and a roaring, pretentious Richard Burton, Boom satisfies the gawking paparazzo lurking within each of us. Heiress Sissy Goforth rules her private Mediterranean island with a tyrant’s hand. When a poet with a reputation for visiting dying dowagers washes up on her shore, they engage in a tumultuous battle of wills and passions.

Despite, or perhaps because of, my initial paroxysms of hilarity, I’ve come to appreciate the genius of Joseph Losey’s “failed art film,” to quote John Waters, who loves it even more than I do. Boom’s ostentatious incoherence calls to mind the authorial self-indulgence of many a successful art film. It forces its viewers to question their definitions of good and bad as applied to such an amorphous segment of cinema.

Boom examines what happens when celebrity self-absorption crashes into the grim inevitability of death. We get sunsets that look positively radioactive, cerulean waves, Beardsley-esque black and white costumes, all stirring and oddly pitiable in their magnificence. Tragedy seasoned with trashiness: consider it the love child of Jackie Collins and Euripides.