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William Wyler’s Love Letter to His Comrades in Arms: The Best Years of Our Lives

In the opening shot of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), CAPT Fred Derry walks into an airport terminal in hopes of catching a flight home to Boone City, USA. Upon reaching the clerk at the counter, Fred learns there is a several day wait for a commercial flight, even though he’s a returning war hero. A wealthy middle-aged businessman then charges up next to Fred, interrupts his conversation with the airline clerk, and confirms his seat on the next flight regardless of the extra cost. He barely acknowledges CAPT Derry, no nod or a “thank you for your service.” The air is thick with rotten apathy, and it’s this scene that signals the audience is in for a different kind of war movie. William Wyler, himself a WWII veteran, saw America’s shift in attitude immediately following the war. The wells of patriotism had been tapped dry and those keeping the fires burning on the home front were tired of making sacrifices. Once the servicemen returned home, the warm welcome was short lived. After fighting for years in the Pacific and Europe, these soldiers were expected to resume life as normal almost immediately. Definitely easier said than done. The transition back to civilian life was difficult for many of the soldiers displaced by the war, and Wiliam Wyler wanted to pay tribute to their post-war struggles.

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2012 Holiday Gift Guide

Happy Holidays from The Fence!

 

It’s never been a better time to be a classic film fan. With numerous theatre screenings across the country, the TCM Film Festival, never before released and remastered films on DVD/Blu-ray– there’s an abundance of goodies for every fan. With only two weeks until Christmas, I have put together a gift guide for the classic film fans on your list. Already done with your shopping or don’t celebrate Christmas? Then pick something out for yourself! Make sure to scroll through the entire post for some fantastic deals and enter the giveaway.

 

Books

I love reviewing books here at The Fence. It’s been a while since I’ve posted a review, but I’ve been keeping an eye on new releases. There are a few must-haves for classic film fans:

 

Harlow in Hollywood: The Blonde Bombshell in the Glamour Capitol, 1928-1937

by Darrell Rooney and Mark A. Viera
Angel City Press
MSRP $50.00

Released in March 2011, Harlow in Hollywood is quite possibly the best classic film related book in my collection. With a well-researched biography and stunning photos of Harlow all throughout her career, this is an absolute must for Jean Harlow fans. You can find my detailed review of the book here.

You can order Harlow in Hollywood directly through Angel City Press or for bit cheaper on Amazon.com

 

Silhouettes From Popular Culture
by Olly Moss
Titan Books
MSRP $16.95

Titan Books has released a collection of Olly Moss silhouettes from the hugely popular Paper Cuts exhibition. This is a fun book for not just film fans, but pop culture buffs too! Look for a review coming soon.

You can order Silhouettes From Popular Culture from Amazon.

 

Marilyn in Fashion
by Christopher Nickens and George Zeno
Running Press
MSRP $30.00

There are countless books on Marilyn Monroe. Let’s face it: most of them are complete garbage. There are gems scattered throughout the trash, and Marilyn in Fashion is one of those beautiful gems. The photos alone are worth the price, but the book is so much more. With anecdotes of Monroe’s working relationship with designers and her fashion transformation throughout her career, Marilyn in Fashion is a lovely book to add to your collection. Order on Amazon.com

 

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies
by Christel Schmidt
University Press of Kentucky
MSRP $45.00

I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about this book. I just won a copy from TCM’s monthly Book Corner giveaway. I haven’t had a chance to sit down and read it yet, but have thumbed through it a bit. It is absolutely stunning.

You can order Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies from the TCM Shop or on Amazon

 

DVD/Blu-ray

Here is a collection of some of my favorite DVD/Blu-ray releases along with some can’t miss deals:

 

Criterion Collection

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) on DVD and Blu-ray
MSRP: $49.95

 

 

 

 

 

Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947) on DVD/Blu
MSRP: $39.95

 

 

 

 

 

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) on DVD/Blu
MSRP: $39.95

 

 

 

 

 

Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) on DVD/Blu
MSRP: $39.95

 

 

 

 

* All of these Criterion titles and others are on sale at Amazon.com.

 

Kino Classics

The Ultimate Buster Keaton Collection on Blu-ray
MSRP: $299.95

 

 

 

 

 

William A. Wellman’s A Star is Born (1937) on DVD and Blu
MSRP: $29.95

 

 

 

 

 

Josef von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (1930): Remastered Standard Edition on DVD and Blu
MSRP: $29.95

 

 

 

 

 

Warner Archive

W.S. Van Dyke’s Rage in Heaven (1941)
MSRP: $19.95

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jean Harlow Collection
MSRP: $64.99

 

 

 

 

Conflict (1945)
MSRP: $26.99

 

 

 

 

 

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 4
MSRP $49.99

 

 

 

 

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 5
MSRP $49.99

 

 

 

 

 

Fox Home Entertainment

Bond 50: The Complete 22 Film Collection DVD/Blu-ray
MSRP $299.99

 

 

 

 

Princess Bride: 25th Anniversary Edition DVD/Blu-ray
MSRP: $19.99

 

 

 

 

Patton (1970) Blu-ray

MSRP: $24.99

 

 

 

 

Can’t miss bargains

The Complete Thin Man Collection
This retails for $60.00. Right now on Amazon it is only $17.99! If you don’t have this set, it’s a must!

 

 

 

 

Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection
Another great deal for Powell/Loy fans (and really, who isn’t a fan of theirs?) at only $18.49. This is a great set. My personal favorites are Manhattan Melodrama and I Love You Again.

 

 

 

 

Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection
This set includes every single film Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together. It’s under $25.00. Need I say more?

 

 

 

 

Christmas in Connecticut
One of the greatest Christmas films ever is only $4.00! You can find it at Amazon and at your local Target.

 

 

 

 

For those of you with a Costco membership, you might want to take a trip to check out their movie section. Recent finds include The Joan Crawford Collection, Warner Gangsters Collections, The Premiere Frank Capra Collection, Busby Berkeley, The Marx Bros Collection– all for under $15.00. Also in stores are numerous “Signature Collection” sets including: Bogie/Bacall, Tracy/Hepburn, James Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, and Clark Gable. Of course there are no guarantees on what is in stock, but I always find lots of goodies! I’m still kicking myself for passing on the Preston Sturges set…

 

Other classic film goodies

  • Love Charlie Chaplin? Then you definitely need to check out this lovely canvas print of The Little Tramp over at Ikea. There’s an Audrey Hepburn version, too.
  • Fans of TCM are all too familiar with Robert Osborne’s signature TCM bistro mug. I own two and drink my coffee out of them every single day. A must have!
  • If you’re a big spender, you can always go for a pass to the TCM Classic Film Festival. I can guarantee you will not be disappointed. Money well spent!

Last, but certainly not least…

  • My pal Cliff over at Immortal Ephemera has an amazing deal right now: Free shipping on all orders over $25.00 with additional discounts depending on your total. Cliff sells classic film related photos, postcards, tobacco cards, and other ephemera. Great selection and fantastic customer service.

 


It’s giveaway time!

The lovely folks over at Fox Home Entertainment are providing a copy of Patton (1970) on Blu-ray.

To enter the giveaway there are two requirements:

1) In an effort to curb spam entries, I’m requiring all entrants to subscribe to this website via email. You can do so at the very bottom of the page. Don’t worry– your email will remain private.

2) You must send an email to Contests (at) sittinonabackyardfence (dot) com. Please include “PATTON GIVEAWAY” in the subject line.

 

You have until Monday, December 17th at Midnight EST to enter. The winner will be chosen via random drawing and contacted during the day on the 18th.

This contest is only available to U.S. residents.

 

 

Full disclosure: Some of the links to Amazon are linked to this site’s affiliates page.

 

TCM Classic Film Festival: No Sleep, No Food, Good Times

Count me now on the list of jerks who’s been to the TCM Classic Film Festival. To say that my experience was incredible is a complete understatement.

I arrived in California on Wednesday evening. After a lovely, relaxing dinner with some close friends, I traveled up to Hollywood from Orange County to check into my hotel. Little did I know, that meal would be the last one for quite a while. After finally meeting some of my Twitter friends in person for the first time, I settled in for a good night’s sleep. It would be the last one of those too. I quickly learned there is no place for eating or sleeping at the festival. After all, “sleeping is giving in, no matter what the time is.”

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Fredric March and William Holden Clash in Executive Suite

By Rick29

I first saw Executive Suite in an unlikely setting: a broadcast management class at Indiana University in 1978. I don’t remember how the film pertained to the class (or if the professor just wanted to take a break from lecturing). But the film, an engrossing look at corporate politics, stuck with me over the years. I didn’t see it again until I discovered a copy at a local video store in the 1990s. This second viewing surprised me—Executive Suite was far better than I remembered.

The opening scene, shot in first-person, has business executive Avery Bullard entering a skyscraper, taking an elevator, and sending a telegram to his board of directors about a meeting at 6:00. Bullard then leaves the building, hails a taxi, and keels over dead. It’s a terrific sequence, all the more effective for its lack of music (which is replaced by bells and street sounds).

We quickly learn that the 56-year-old Bullard was president of Tredway, the nation’s third-largest furniture manufacturer, located in Millburgh, Pennsylvania. After the death of his second-in-command, Bullard delayed in naming a successor. As a result, Bullard’s untimely death places the company in the hands of five vice-presidents with equal authority. Since Wall Street viewed Tredway as a one-man company, the VPs realize the criticality of naming a replacement to Bullard over the weekend.

Loren Shaw (Fredric March), Tredway’s ambitious VP of finance, quickly starts lining up the required votes to become the company’s new president. But his “profit first” approach clashes with the philosophy of board members Fred Alderson (Walter Pidgeon) and Don Walling (William Holden). They believe that investing in research and producing quality furniture will attract loyal customers and, eventually, generate long-term company growth. Alderson and Walling launch a frantic drive to find their own candidate capable of defeating Shaw. Blackmail, illegal stock trading, and a spurned lover all come into play before the board of directors finally selects Avery Bullard’s successor.

I admit a penchant for movies set over a short period (24 hours in Executive Suite) as well as a plot that builds to a scheduled event (e.g., the assassination in Day of the Jackal). Director Robert Wise, one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors, expertly shapes Executive Suite into a “time ticking” film. As the clock counts down to the climatic vote, it’s fascinating to watch alliances shift and deals fall through.

It’s equally compelling to ponder the philosophical underpinnings of the business decisions that will shape Tredway’s future. Walling’s passion for quality over profit is convincing at first. It helps, of course, that Walling is good-looking, a family man, and plays well with others. We’re supposed to pull for him. In contrast, Shaw comes across as greedy, cunning, and unattractive (I love how March wrings his hands, as if nervous over whether his plan to come to fruition). But if one ignores the messengers, isn’t there a lot to be said for Shaw’s approach? More than one company has gone bankrupt because its business model emphasized quality for the sake of profit. In another favorite business film, Other People’s Money (1991), Danny DeVito’s character makes a persuasive case that businesses owe it to their investors to make money!

If the profit vs. quality theme creates the foundation for Executive Suite, then it’s the performers that make each of the arguments compelling. The standouts in the superstar cast are Fredric March and Paul Douglas. After two decades as a leading man, March gave some of his best performances in smaller roles in the 1950s and 1960s (e.g., Inherit the Wind and Seven Days in May). He captures the ruthlessness and the impatient frustration that makes Shaw such a vivid character. Paul Douglas is equally good in a supporting role as a confident executive who gets backed into a corner. It’s a nice change-of-pace for Douglas, who specialized in playing nice guys in comedies like The Solid Gold Cadillac and It Happens Every Spring.

Executive Suite is often compared with 1956’s Patterns, another boardroom drama that was adapted from a Rod Serling TV play. Most critics prefer Patterns, which stars Everett Sloane as the world’s worst boss. I find the two films hard to compare; they’re two very different, each a fine work in its own right. Patterns may be the more realistic of the two, but Executive Suite offers an optimistic viewpoint that works better as sheer entertainment.

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Rick29 is a film reference book author, who founded the Classic Movie Blog Association and manages the Classic Film & TV Cafe blog.

Fredric March as Mark Twain

By Cliff Aliperti, Immortal Ephemera

“Some things a man doesn’t like to tell about himself unless he gets beyond the grave as they say. But now I can tell the truth, the whole truth. Well, that is, within limits. You see truth is a very valuable thing, and I believe we should be a little economical with it.” –Fredric March as Mark Twain in The Adventures of Mark Twain (1944)

The Adventures of Mark Twain takes the story of Twain’s actual life, more or less wraps it all up into a ball and then explodes these facts across the screen so as to make them fit the movie in the most entertaining way believed possible.

It’s all there, just rearranged. Some portions are downplayed, others embellished. Some are turned into a fascinating combination of Twain fact colored by Twain’s fiction. You’ll remember just enough of it to have a decent idea about the life of Mark Twain, just don’t get any ideas about quoting it verbatim as the truth. It’s only the truth within limits. March’s Twain is winking at us before it all begins.

Despite these allowances The Adventures of Mark Twain remains far from perfect. It has plenty of highlights and lowlights. But the crowning achievement of the film is our star of March-in-March, and star of the movie, Fredric March as Mark Twain.

After Halley’s Comet inevitably zips across the sky The Adventures of Mark Twain begins with a pair of child actors in the role of young Sam Clemens in and around Hannibal, Missouri and the Mississippi River. Up first is Jackie Brown, soon followed by Dickie Jones.

Brown stars in the first gelling of fact and fiction as Twain’s youth is retold in the style of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer with Twain’s own boyhood friends recast as Tom, Huck and Jim. Up next, Dickie Jones plays adolescent Sam getting his first taste of wordplay while working at his brother Orion’s newspaper. This unhappy alliance propels Sam back to the Mississippi and an apprenticeship to a riverboat captain (Robert Barrat). After a ship hand calls out “Mark Twain–safe water!” from down below the captain explains to young Sam that “The welcomest sound in all the world to a river man is those two words. Mark Twain.”

The child actors soon give way to March himself. Student then turns teacher on board the Queen of Dixie as Sam Clemens pilots through treacherous terrain in an important but overblown scene. That’s not to say it’s not well done. Director Irving Rapper weaves in as many tense moments as possible, but with land visible on either side of the boat they just never completely grabbed me. I’m sure the shallow and ever shifting Mississippi must have been a lot more dangerous to navigate than it appeared to a landlubber like me on screen, though if that is the case than March’s Clemens basically put the safety of his passengers at stake so he could show off. I’m not really aware of how good an actual steamship pilot young Clemens was, but in The Adventures of Mark Twain there can be no doubt that he was the greatest of all-time. The way it played just rubbed me wrong.

In this first view of March as riverboat pilot Clemens the actor is shown in what Warner publicity claimed was one of fourteen (though producer Jesse Lasky said twelve) different make-up changes for him throughout The Adventures of Mark Twain. Perc Westmore’s detailed work on March slowly aged him towards an exact replica of the elder Twain whom we all picture so easily today.

Jesse Lasky told a radio interviewer that March had carefully studied a 1905 Edison film of Twain and copied everything from his walk to the way he smoked his cigar from that footage. We’ve seen enough Twain stills to know Westmore got the make-up right–Fredric March looks exactly like Mark Twain in any photo from any era I’ve ever seen–and from the brief film clips I’ve seen of the real Twain I would agree that March managed to nail the Twain manner as well. The director of the film, Irving Rapper, thought March was “magnificent” as Twain but “that his accent was a little too strong in it” (Davis 35).

“From six to six as the clock flies the daylight circuit, he [March] was not only required to look like Mark Twain but to talk and think like him,” reported the Evening Independent in an unsigned article published just prior to the 1944 release of The Adventures of Mark Twain. March spent two or three hours being made up each morning before living the role each day during twelve weeks of production in 1942. March himself appeared in 419 of 439 scenes in the movie and thus wasn’t afforded even one day off while it was being made (Rosen 157). Publicity items in the papers throughout 1943 and ’44 stressed that March had lived as the character prior to and during production. He only allowed himself to become Fredric March again each night when he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

The Adventures of Mark Twain came at a powerful and productive time in Fredric March’s career. Production on Twain began sometime after completion of March’s work in I Married a Witch, which finished in late May 1942, and just prior to the freelance actor’s return to Broadway in the very successful production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Wilder’s play opened at the Plymouth Theatre on November 18, 1942 and proceeded to run for over 350 performances on its way to winning its author the Pulitizer Prize for Drama. March had long concluded working on The Skin of Our Teeth before The Adventures of Mark Twain would see even limited release as a road show in May 1944.

While there were a few hiccups with Mark Twain’s surviving daughter, Clara, the cause for the delay in releasing The Adventures of Mark Twain was simply Warner’s desire to get out their backlog of more relevant war pictures as soon as they could. In fact, after having released up to five historical films per year from 1939-41, Warner Brothers only produced five in total between 1942-1945 and none of them were released until 1944. This includes The Adventures of Mark Twain, which was the second of those five historicals to reach the general public (Smyth).

The film itself is episodic and uneven. It’s enjoyment comes almost entirely from the talents of Fredric March in the role of Twain. For the first half of the movie Alan Hale is on board as sidekick Steve Gillis and the movie is very playful in tone. Hale disappears never to be seen again once March’s Twain meets his eventual wife, Olivia Langdon (Alexis Smith), and heads East to Elmira to begin his courtship of her. The second half of the movie concentrates upon Twain’s home life and creative activity and suffers by playing neither light nor dark enough.

It’s one thing to gloss over the tremendous pain the real Mark Twain felt in response to the deaths of beloved family members. That’s depressing territory and not at all in fitting with the upbeat mood of the first half of the movie. It’s another thing to include those painful moments but to, pardon me, whitewash them.

When their firstborn dies in the crib these Twains quickly turn the page with wife Livy inspiring her husband towards greatness. “He’ll never see the river now,” a depressed Twain laments, but Livy fixes everything by declaring, “No, Mark. Our little son will never see it. But Mark, you must save those things you loved. You must save them for whole generations of little boys. Of all ages. Forever. You mustn’t let those precious things be lost. You’re the only man who ever lived who can do it, Mark.” She continues on until Max Steiner’s Oscar nominated score begins to swell and she departs to leave Twain as he immediately begins writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

I suppose revenge comes later when Twain manages an even easier time getting over Livy’s own passing and going on to glory in Oxford recognition courtesy of C. Aubrey Smith’s brief spin as Chancellor there.

Besides being emotionally uneven the second half of The Adventures of Mark Twain suffers by trying to show too much, but not concentrating on any of these potentially interesting elements enough to really bring them to life.

One exception is Twain’s speaking at the literary tribute to John Greenleaf Whittier. March especially excels in this scene as he begins his speech with typical confidence bordering on cockiness before stepping in it by insulting literary legends Emerson, Longfellow and Holmes, each of whom is present and frowning. As the eyes of his audience narrow and drop Twain begins to grasp that he’s gone too far. His speech slows, his eyes move from his now disapproving audience to the podium before he eventually apologies and excuses himself.

Otherwise the pace in the second half suffers as director Irving Rapper does his best to make exciting what is quite honestly one of the most difficult professions to bring to life, that of writer. Twain is aged at his desk every few minutes as his completed books pile up. The potential tedium is broken by episodes showing Twain’s misfortune in investing and publishing.

First there is his fascination with a monstrous typesetting device that he believes will revolutionize publishing and then later the publication of ailing General Grant’s memoirs by Twain’s own publishing house with royalties greatly benefiting the writer and his estate. I wanted more of both of these important elements to Twain’s biography, but what was there was enjoyable while it lasted.

The final portion of The Adventures of Mark Twain sees Twain put his old friend and lecture manager, J.B. Pond (Donald Crisp), back to work. With the goal of paying back every penny he’s gone into debt Twain embarks upon his famed worldwide tour with Pond accompanying him across the globe.

I found Crisp miscast as Pond, a somewhat bumbling role whose earliest appearances had me wishing for Edward Everett Horton instead.

As Twain’s wife Livy the most effective thing Alexis Smith gets to do in The Adventures of Mark Twain is age courtesy of Perc Westmore. It’s more the fault of the part, more Twain cheerleader than wife, than Smith, whose best scenes are her earliest before the Twain baggage weighs her down.

March completely dominates the second half of the movie with key assistance from Westmore. Between them they manage to so completely bring our perceived perception of Mark Twain to life that the character stands high above most of the jumbled story.

The first half is the far greater treat thanks large in part to Sam Clemens’ friendship with Alan Hale’s Steve Gillis. Hale does what he always does which almost always works for me. West of the Mississippi the story is framed nicely by Sam and Steve’s poor prospecting experience which is eventually wrapped up perfectly when the whole town strikes it rich at a very familiar location. In between the prospecting and Clemens’ first adult editorial job comes the incident of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which is the finest moment of the movie.

The story of the jumping frog unfolds in the same manner as Sam’s youth had with Twain and his real-life contemporaries weaved into his own legendary fiction. Alan Hale might be the only grown man I’d actually believe could get so excited over the opportunity presented by a frog-jumping contest, which better explains why I always get such a kick out of him. While March’s Sam doesn’t share Steve’s excitement he’s at least a willing participant going so far as to get soaked through in a pond while hunting for a bullfrog big enough to compete with Bret Harte’s (John Carradine) acclaimed Dan’l Webster.

Former Keystone comic favorite Chester Conklin, still sporting his famed bushy mustache, presides over the contest enforcing all of the rules and regulations while Sam’s co-worker Billings (Percy Kilbride) announces the affair for the rowdy crowd of onlookers, most of whom have a wager down on the event. The frog-jumping contest is the one scene in The Adventures of Mark Twain that sees Fredric March relegated to the background and leaves all of the fun to the other actors. Most notably Carradine enjoys a brief but memorable moment on all fours calling out encouragement for Dan’l Webster with desperate cries of, “Flies, flies!”

At the conclusion of the contest Sam is back at the office writing a fictional account of it. As he finishes up and signs the piece a moment of fear grips him and he strikes a line through the name Samuel L. Clemens. He turns to Billings and asks if he could use his name. Billings says no as “I aim to do a little writing myself one of these days,” in a nod to Twain contemporary Josh Billings, nineteenth century humorist who ranked right with Twain himself at their peaks. Finally Sam harkens back to his own past and the page is signed Mark Twain.

It’s here that The Adventures of Mark Twain peaks. Unfortunately too early. The fun, mischief and creativity of the Jumping Frog scene is never approached again.

As time passes the movie relies more and more on Fredric March being an effective Twain. The Adventures of Mark Twain is dead without that. March manages to keep it alive.

I believed Fredric March as Mark Twain every step of the way, so much so that he sold me on the warped truth Warner Brothers presents to us. The Adventures of Mark Twain may not be historically accurate but what it absolutely accomplishes is capturing the spirit of Twain through the performance of Fredric March.

Sources:

  • Davis, Ronald L. Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System. University Press of Mississippi, 2005
  • “Mark Twain Role Lived by March.” The Evening Independent. 4 May 1944: 22.
  • Raevouri, Saskia, ed. Behind the Screenplay: The Adventures of Mark Twain. Square Circles Publishing, 2010.
  • Rosen, Phillip. Change Mummified. University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
  • Smyth, J.E. Reconstructing American Historical Cinema. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
  • “Stardust.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 22 Jun 1942: 8.
  • Todd, John. “Fredric March Has Made Success of Free-Lancing.” St. Petersburg Times 23 Jul 1944: 31.

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Cliff Aliperti writes about Classic Movies and Movie Stars at Immortal Ephemera, which is also home base to his vintage movie collectibles business. The Immortal Ephemera website celebrates its 10th Anniversary in 2012 while long-time collectibles dealer Aliperti has been selling online longer than that. Immortal Ephemera offers a combination of information about the collectibles themselves as well as the old time stars which they picture.

I Married a Bitch

Over the course of his rather prolific career, Fredric March racked up five Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, ultimately winning the prize twice. The majority of these nominated roles came from his work in dramas (save his first nomination for 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway). Indeed, March excels as a dramatic performer, brilliantly bringing to life such iconic characters as Dr. Henry Jekyll (and his murderous counterpart, Mr. Hyde), Jean Valjean, Norman Maine (the 1937 version of A Star is Born), hapless salesman Willy Loman, and even the personification of Death himself (1934’s Death Takes a Holiday).

Though drama may seem to have been March’s preferred milieu, he nonetheless displays an especially charming comedic touch in the relatively few comedies sprinkled throughout his filmography. In movies such as Design for Living (1933), Nothing Sacred (1937), and Bedtime Story (1941), March is an appealing contributor to the zany happenings of the plot, more than holding his own against leading ladies Miriam Hopkins, Carole Lombard, and Loretta Young.

But March may have bitten off more than he could chew (so to speak) when, in 1942, he took over for Joel McCrea as the star of the supernatural comedy I Married a Witch.

McCrea had just completed work on Sullivan’s Travels under writer/director Preston Sturges (who, incidentally, was one of the producers of Witch … at least initially). McCrea’s co-star on that film, Veronica Lake, had reportedly created problems on the set, and McCrea was not eager to work with the tempestuous and troubled starlet again. When Sturges championed Lake for the part of the titular witch, McCrea turned down the male lead, supposedly declaring, “Life’s too short for two films with Veronica Lake.” Whether March was aware of McCrea’s qualms about Lake or not, he nonetheless took on the part, and thus kicked off what was perhaps the most combative working relationship of his entire career.

In the film, March plays Wallace Wooley, whose Puritan ancestor Jonathan (also played by March) was responsible for the ritual burning of two witches, Jennifer (Lake) and her father, Daniel (Cecil Kellaway), at the stake. Jennifer curses the Wooley family, declaring that none of Jonathan’s descendants will ever find true love, and the two witches are buried beneath an oak tree, which binds their spirits. By the time 1942 rolls around, the curse has been at work for over two hundred years, and it is set to repeat itself once more with the marriage of Wallace to the unpleasant Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward). A storm destroys the oak tree in which they are imprisoned, and Jennifer and Daniel’s spirits escape, determined to wreak even more havoc on the Wooley family. Daniel creates an alluring new body for Jennifer by burning down the local hotel, and Jennifer entices Wallace into “rescuing” her from the flames, intent on seducing him and ruining the wedding and the upcoming election. But her plans go awry when she accidentally ingests a love potion intended for Wallace, and the witch finds herself hopelessly in love with the object of her loathing …

The movie offers some interesting commentary on “modern” politics, which according to this film has not changed overmuch in the past seventy years. It’s easy to see the influence of Sturges in parts of the movie—there is a satirical bite to the way Witch addresses the electorate, demonstrated most effectively in the “brainwashing” scene, in which Jennifer sends clouds of magical smoke floating throughout the state in order to impact the results of the election. It’s a sly statement on the “herd” mentality of voters, indicating how easy it can be to influence the masses (even, the film suggests, without the benefits of magic). And Wallace’s interactions with Estelle’s father, power broker J.B. Masterson (Robert Warwick), are reminiscent of McGinty’s association with The Boss in Sturges’ masterful political comedy The Great McGinty, which was released two years prior to this film.

Still, despite such darker underlying themes—themes that are, admittedly, only hinted at and never fully developed in the film—I Married a Witch is ultimately a rather light-hearted romantic romp. Shooting the movie, however, was tense from the start and far from fun for many of the players involved.

The film is based, in part, on the 1941 novel The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith (author of the Topper novels). Smith died in 1934 before finishing the book, and it was finally completed by author Norman Matson and published in 1941. Sturges agreed to produce a film version for director Rene Clair and brought in noted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo to work on the script. Trumbo and Sturges clashed, however, and Trumbo left the production. Sturges, whose vision of the film was much different from that of Clair, soon followed, and neither Trumbo nor Sturges received screen credit for their contributions (still, the latter’s presence is still very much felt, as several members of Sturges’ unofficial “stock troupe” of actors appear in the film, among them Esther Howard, Emory Parnell, and Chester Conklin).

As if these issues weren’t troublesome enough, bigger problems were in store as an overtly antagonistic relationship quickly developed between the movie’s two leads. Before filming even began, March apparently declared that his new co-star was “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability.” Upon hearing this, Lake was (understandably) infuriated, and she made it her mission to ensure that March’s work on the film would be anything but stress-free. For the scene in which Wallace rescues Jennifer from the burning hotel, Lake conspired with one of the costume designers to sew a forty-pound weight into her dress. March subsequently strained himself carrying Lake in the scene, commenting later than the barely five-foot, one-hundred-pound actress was much heavier than she looked. In another instance, Lake gleefully tried to ruin a take by pushing her foot into March’s groin repeatedly during a close-up shot of the actor; afterward, March tore into her in front of the entire crew, while Lake merely smiled complacently. His utter frustration led March to reportedly start referring to the film as I Married a Bitch when Lake wasn’t around.

Lake’s behavior on the set went beyond her belligerent relationship with March. She annoyed the cast and crew with her perpetual lateness, and her inability to perform at the same level on multiple takes made shooting a frustrating enterprise for Clair, who took to shooting the actress when she thought they were still rehearsing so as to get a “fresh” performance out of her.

In the end, one has to admire the efforts of both the filmmakers and the actors, because despite the behind-the-scenes drama, there is no hint of discord in the final product. I Married a Witch is a delightful, if somewhat slight, comedy from start to finish, and a great addition to the string of “supernatural romances” that emerged in the 1940s (I Married an Angel, The Bishop’s Wife, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir). As far as March’s career goes, it may have been an unpleasant shooting experience, but he makes for one appealingly befuddled mortal man … and so it’s somewhat fitting that Sol Saks, creator of the 1960s/70s television show Bewitched, would use I Married a Witch as inspiration for the show, making Fredric March a slightly more dignified precursor to the never-endingly befuddled Darrin Stephens.

[I Married a Witch is not available on DVD as of yet (at least in Region 1, as far as I can tell), but you can see it in its entirety (for free!) on Hulu.]

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Brandie is a freelance writer and editor from Alabama and the moderator of the film blog True Classics.

Mister Norman Maine

Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in William Wellman’s A STAR IS BORN (1937)
Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in William Wellman’s A STAR IS BORN (1937)

“A Star Is Born is a Hollywood story of, by, and for its people. It has the usual preface, attesting to the fictional quality of the characters and incidents depicted, but it is nonetheless the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that isHollywood. That, in itself, guarantees its dramatic interest, for there is no place on this twentieth-century earth more fascinating—not even that enchanting make-believe republic which James Hilton called Shangri-La.”

Thus read The New York Times April, 1937 review of William Wellman’s drama A STAR IS BORN, and Frank Nugent’s words could scarcely be more on target.

A STAR IS BORN (1937) may be 75 years old, but in many ways, it still retains a formidable place amongst the definitive “Hollywoodon Hollywood” films. From Wilder’s noirish satire SUNSET BLVD (1950) to the grim surrealism of the Cohen brothers’ BARTON FINK (1991), William Wellman’s original version of A STAR IS BORN is every bit as unflinchingly lacerating of what had already become the blackened, rotting soul of the Hollywood dream factory. Unlike Hollywooditself, this film, as with its successors, is every inch aware of what it is and more importantly, why it is.

The mere fact that the film opens, and closes, with a page from its own script is a red warning light to the viewer NOT to expect any smoke and mirror majesty here.

George Cukor directed the first incarnation of the now oft-told tale, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD (1932), had a hand in this 1937 script, and directed its Academy Award winning 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason. The latter is perhaps the best known version, and I daresay the best loved, and with good reason. (Garland’s show-stopping “The Man Who Got Away” alone is worthy of repeated viewing.)

And while I admire Cukor’s artistic flourish and am a sucker for that MGM high gloss, I much prefer the stripped down, no-nonsense, necessary roughness of Wellman’s version. Although filmed in Technicolor (one of the earliest “modern” feature dramas using the process) the subject matter is in no way manipulated to capitalize off of the new medium. The look is quiet, muted, and real (you’ll find no electric green Sherwood Forest here) and it possesses an unquestionable masculinity and straightforward direction (which made Wellman’s pre-codes such salacious fun) that make this less a Hollywood entertainment and more a human interest piece. But the ace up the sleeve, without question, is the fact that the real star of the 1937 A STAR IS BORN is, with appropriate irony, the fallen (matinee) idol Norman Maine, portrayed by a raw and intensely human Fredric March.

Cukor’s 1954 picture goes out of its way to ensure that the star is, unquestionably, in every way, Judy Garland. (As it very well ought!) It is every bit the farm-girl-made-good Esther Blodgett’s story. James Mason, compelling as the self-desctructive Norman Maine, is still overshadowed by Garland’s tour-de-force. Not to chip away at the merits of Janet Gaynor (the formidable actress who won the first ever Academy Award in 1929 for her solid performance in F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE), and Gaynor is a determined little dervish in this film about the Hollywood make-believe machine, but this is Fredric March’s picutre, hands down.

March is refreshingly real. A charming and handsome rogue, to be sure, who lights up (I daresay, electrifies) every scene he’s in, while still managing to be enough of a regular Joe to make him instantly accessible. Because in order to make this story work, he must be. We must believe every word he says, every move he makes—every laugh, every tear. It is not so much we must believe he’s any great actor—Norman Main really isn’t—but we must believe that he is flesh and blood. A Hollywood film intending to take on its own must be nothing less than honest.

Norman proposing to Esther at a boxing match.
Norman proposing to Esther at a boxing match.

After hijacking an ambulance and driving it down Wilshire Blvd in a drunken stupor (Today’s TMZ would KILL for that kind of shit), March turns up at a party, relatively sober. “I’ll be ready for the curtains when the time comes,” he tells his long-suffering producer, agent and friend. (A solid Adolphe Menjou.) “And when I do—here is my epitaph.” March hands Menjou a token reading “GOOD FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY”

Slam-dunk. In a five minute period, March has shown us that 1.) He doesn’t take himself seriously, 2.) He’s gotHollywood’s number, and 3.) He’s a devil-may-care bad ass.

Minutes later, March is escaping his shrill, shrewish girlfriend and finds a rescue in cute little Janet Gaynor, a struggling extra who is waitressing the studio party to make a buck. He’s a delicious flirt and makes an immediate conquest of Gaynor. Not only is it great fun to watch March work his playful, mischievous charm on Gaynor (he forces her off the company clock by smashing all of the dishes in the kitchen) we believe that Maine still has an element of control in his life and career. His alcoholism has not yet rendered him a total write off and it is this strong, confident sense of self that we identify with and joins us to his ensuing internal struggles.

We all know the story—even in 1937 is was Drama 101, Plot A. The besotted Norman Maine sees a star in Esther Blodgett, born again as Vicki Lester, and kick starts her acting career, the trajectory of which skyrockets to superstardom just as Maine’s own career begins to crumble.

In a key scene, the two lovers stand close to each other on a moonlit balcony at the Sunset Strip’s Café Trocadero, watching the intoxicating bright city lights blink and beckon at them from below. Hollywood belongs to Esther now. He’s losing his grip. And he knows it.

Although it is a moment of melancholy, March never plays such moments (and there are quite a few) with even a trace of self-pity. When he tells Gaynor there on that balcony “you can’t throw away a life the way I’ve thrown away mine,” he is not looking for comfort. Rather he is manning up to his mistakes. He wants no excuses made for him. He wants only to believe that loving Gaynor can atone for his wrongs.

And for a while it looks as though it might. As Norman and Esther “wa-hoo” their way through a colorful countryside honeymoon, there is a moment of foreshadowing that, let’s be honest, we’ve been expecting for quite some time.

When their camping trailer breaks down and Maine must seek local assistance, “I’m Norman Maine,” March tells a local bumpkin. “Who?” Gaynor chides him for it, and it’s all very funny. But a fleeting shadow of sincere worry flashes across Maine’s tense dark eyes.

And that darkness never quite goes away as it ushers in the film’s second act. This is, after, Hollywood. What business has happiness there?

Released from his contract not long after returning from their honeymoon,Maine finds himself a casualty of his own excesses. A high-risk liability whom the studios won’t touch. And while the grand melodrama is meant to be Gaynor’s emotional struggle to keep her marriage together (which Garland nails in Cukor’s ’54 version) it is Fredric March who dominates every frame of the second half.

Although Norman Maine’s actual battle with alcoholism is definitely more visible and much more developed psychologically in the 1954 version, Wellman’s version benefits and strains slightly from the economy of its compact runtime. We do not get to see the problem develop as profoundly as we do with Mason’s character, we are simply more or less expected to accept the fact of it.

This is another testament to March’s performance, as nothing about this admittedly oversimplified approach to a deeply complex issue feels in the least bit forced or false or rushed.

Reduced to taking press messages for his superstar wife as an unemployed househusband, branded a has-been by everyone in town, Maine’s growing internal torment is casually signaled when he tells his wife that he’s not hungry for dinner and that he’ll just go and “fix himself a drink.”

Fade in to the Academy Awards banquet where Vicki Lester, riding a high wave of popularity, wins the Oscar for Best Actress. Her acceptance speech is interrupted by the abrupt, drunken appearance of her husband who, when is attempted to be quieted by Lester, inadvertently strikes her across the face. The audience gasps. So do we. And March’s realization of what he’s done is quietly devastating.

The spiral is fast. In spite of a stint in rehab, Hollywood’s ugly two-faced nature seems hellbent on keeping Maine miserable. The seemingly reformed Maine orders a ginger ale at the Santa Anita racetrack. But after being ignored by former industry “friends” and given a callous, berating verbal beating by his former studio press agent (“fix-it” man) Libby, Maine is again humiliated in public by losing his temper and punching Libby in the face.Maine needs a drink. And from then on Maine simply doesn’t stop. How can he?

It is impossible to tear your eyes away from March and, even though the end result is as plain as the tasche on Menjou’s face, we are so deeply invested in March’s performance that those final tragic moments are, every time, gripping.

When he makes up his mind to sacrifice his life so that his wife doesn’t have to sacrifice hers, March tells his wife goodbye, I love you, by dropping a line he used on their first date. There, with a deep, dusky orange sunset glowing in their beachfront window, he asks Gaynor “mind if I take one more look?” And we crumble.

Perhaps the mere fact that, for the final 10 minutes of the film March is no longer on screen that Gaynor truly gains momentum. The disgusting display at Maine’s funeral (Gaynor’s veil being ripped off by fans has been widely attributed to an incident involving Norma Shearer at her husband Irving Thalberg’s funeral) shows how very little indeedHollywoodhas changed in these seven decades. Gaynor carries on with her career, as her husband wished and in truth, died for, and attends her first premiere postMaine’s death at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.

Upon seeing her late husbands footsteps, immortalized there in courtyard cement, she nearly collapses. But soldiers on, and when asked to say a few words to her fans listening over the radio, speaks those five, gloriously unforgettable words: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

It is one of the most famous endings in Hollywood history.

And when the camera fades, it does so, once again, to a page of its own script:

ESTHER AT MICROPHONE

ESTHER

Hello, everybody … This is Mrs. Norman Maine.

The ovation is tremendous. CAMERA MOVES TO A BIG CLOSEUP OF ESTHER. Tears are starting down her cheeks. She looks out past all this crowd, this confusion, this uproar, to some distant point of her own. The music swells up.

FADE OUT

The epilogue smacks of Shakespearean tragedy—  the screenwriter’s typewriter taking on the voice of a veritable Prince of Verona. Only this time the “tale of woe” is not of “Juliet and her Romeo,” but rather of Hollywood– that thinly veiled misanthrope.

March-in-March Free-for-All

So far March-in-March has been a wonderful success! I want to thank all of the contributors featured here on the site. We have a few more coming next week, including a post from yours truly, so stay tuned!

Those who are participating in the free-for-all event on your personal blogs today and tomorrow, please feel free to leave me a comment with a link to your post, or email me at sittinonabackyardfence (at)gmail(dot)com. I’ll get your post linked and added to the list below.

R.D. Finch from The Movie Projector on Death of a Salesman (1951)
Robby from Dear Old Hollywood- Fredric March: Attack Ads “Dirty Trick”
Ruth from Silver Screenings on Inherit the Wind (1960)
Cliff fromImmortal Ephemera on Researching The Adventures of Mark Twain 
KC from Classic Movies on Nothing Sacred (1937)
Le from Critica Retro compares March and Mason Who was the Best Norman Maine?
Rich from Wide Screen World: Fredric March on Broadway
Angela from The Hollywood Revue on Middle of the Night (1959)
Toby from Toob World on March in the Producer’s Showcase presentation of Dodsworth
Ivan from Thrilling Days of Yesteryear on So Ends Our Night (1941) and Tomorrow, the World!
Rachel from The Girl with the White Parasol on Death Takes a Holiday
R.C. from The Shades of Black and White on Death Takes a Holiday