Wednesday, March 20, 2013

My Grandmother and Marjorie Main

In order to explain my deep and abiding affection for character actress Marjorie Main, I have to begin with my grandmother. Her name was Maudie Mae, and she was a big-boned country woman, born and raised in rural Alabama in the early part of the 20th century. She had a 7th grade education and an old-time preacher for a husband, and she was the youngest of 18 children of another preacher, a stony-faced man who held two Bibles when his photograph was taken.

Mamaw (in the hat) with her sisters at a family reunion.
Maudie, whom we called "Mamaw," loved loud outfits, musk perfume, and people of all kinds. She smelled like biscuits, which she turned out by the thousands in all the kitchens she called home. She erupted in a great whoop whenever she was surprised, and I'm pretty sure she told her entire life story to every K-Mart cashier and grocery clerk she ever met. She had a funny tendency toward malapropism and always referred to cheese as "cheeses." She wrapped up leftover rolls in restaurants and carried them home in her purse. She was rough around the edges and garrulous and fussy, and I loved her very much.

Watching Marjorie Main reminds me of Maudie Mae, sometimes so forcefully that I find myself in tears, even though my grandmother died more than 20 years ago. Main excelled at playing the kind of character my grandmother was in real life, and the actress does it so well that she always makes us love her for all her faults and hard edges. Like Maudie, Main was a preacher's daughter. Both would die of cancer, although Main had the longer life of the two. There are differences, of course. Main was well educated and never had any children, even though she played so many motherly types on film.

Ma Kettle is the role that came to define Main's career; she played the character in ten movies, from The Egg and I (1947) to The Kettles on Old MacDonald's Farm (1957). It's that Ma Kettle image that most strongly resembles my grandmother, always in turmoil but truly big-hearted, holding the family together with grits, glue, and gumption. Main inhabits similar types in many of her other films; she's a rough maternal force that we can't help but love, even if her antics sometimes embarrass her offspring. You'll find her playing the same type in Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

If you want to appreciate Marjorie Main, here are 10 films in which she appears. Whether you've had a Mamaw in your life or not, Main is one of those actresses you'll be glad to see again and again, and she turns up in some very interesting places.

1) Stella Dallas (1937) - Main plays the mother of Barbara Stanwyck's working-class heroine in this film destined to wring tears from every tender-hearted viewer who has ever wept at Dumbo.

2) The Women (1939) - In this all-female drama, Main appears as the proprietor of a divorce ranch in Reno, making her the mother hen to a coterie of unhappy heroines, including Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, and Rosalind Russell.

3) A Woman's Face (1941) - Main is almost unrecognizable as the white-haired, sour-faced housekeeper in this Joan Crawford melodrama. If you want to see a different side of the actress, this is the movie to watch.

4) Heaven Can Wait (1943) - Who would believe Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main as the parents of a heroine as lovely as Gene Tierney? The two revel in a comic goldmine during their scenes, especially during a heated argument over the possession of the funny papers.

5) Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) - Even though she's technically the family's maid, Main still exudes crusty maternal devotion to the Smith clan, watching over Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, and the rest of the household.

6) The Harvey Girls (1946) - Once again appearing with Judy Garland, Main provides maternal guidance for a group of young ladies hired to tend a Harvey House, including Garland, Cyd Charisse, and Virginia O'Brien.

7) The Egg and I (1947) - In her first appearance as Ma Kettle, Main steals the picture from Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, with some help from Percy Kilbride as the shiftless Pa.

8) Ma and Pa Kettle (1949) - Main and Kilbride begin their series of stand-alone Kettle films with this picture, in which Pa wins the grand prize for inventing a new tobacco slogan. Their 15 children make sure that the chaos never lets up. I'm pretty sure that my grandmother would have found this movie hilarious, and it's certainly a favorite with my father, her youngest son.

9) Summer Stock (1950) - Here's a third pairing of Main with Garland, this time with Main as the housekeeper to Garland's beleaguered heroine. Gene Kelly also stars.

10) The Long, Long Trailer (1953) - Main has a brief but memorable role in this comedy with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

This post is dedicated to the memory of my grandmother, Maudie Garlen, who was born in 1912 and died, too soon, in 1992. She was a great character, a good woman, and a glorious cook. The secrets of her butter roll have never been unraveled, and her chocolate pie has yet no equal. I will miss her for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Classic Movies Without Cable

I love Turner Classic Movies. I really do. In addition to showing classic films on television, they also produce great DVD collections, books, and other products that I love to buy. It might be a shocking confession, then, to admit that I don't actually have TCM at home. In fact, I don't have cable television of any kind, and our attic antenna only picks up about 5 channels with any real consistency. I'm not sure because I only watch any of those channels during 1) the Oscars, 2) the Olympics, and 3) a local tornado warning.

In 16 years of marriage, my husband and I have never paid for cable. Before that I spent one year living without a television at all (and that was in 1994, before the internet became a big deal). We cut the cable cord a long time before it was considered hip, and we have never really missed it. Sure, there are a few channels I would enjoy: Turner Classic Movies chief among them, and BBC America, too. However, that's two channels out of however many hundred you get with cable, and they don't let you pay only for the ones you want to watch. My television would be flooded with the drivel of reality TV, shopping channels, sports casts, and every other species of the bread and circus fare that American viewers consume. Honestly, I just don't want that stuff in my house.

How, then, does a classic movie fan like myself keep up a fairly robust viewing schedule? It's really not that difficult these days, considering the increasing number of streaming services and other sources for a wide assortment of films. Here are my top sources for classic movies, with some thoughts about cost, value, and other considerations you might take into account it you are also thinking of leaving cable behind.

1) Own it - The old school way to see a movie is to buy it and add it to your personal library of films. DVD and even Blu-ray editions can be had for very little money if you shop wisely. I love 4 movie collections when they cost about $10, and I regularly hunt Costco and Amazon for good deals. Because I write about movies, teach film classes, and give lectures about film, I like having physical copies of movies on hand. Sometimes, a DVD is the only way to see a more obscure film; I find the prices at Warner Archive a little high in general, but when they run a good sale I invest in the movies I can't watch any other way.

2) Rent it - I still have a one-disc subscription to Netflix, and I rent movies that aren't available on streaming anywhere but also aren't necessarily ones I need to own. That includes a lot of action pictures from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as recent releases and classics that might be too expensive to buy on DVD. Netflix has actively dissuaded customers from renting physical discs with pricing changes and other methods, but if you want real control over what you watch it is still worth the extra charge. If you only want to rent classic movies, you might also try a rental service like Classicflix, which specializes in older films.

3) Stream it - Netflix is currently the dominant streaming service, and it has its appeal, even though classics are not its primary offering. There are often some very good older movies available on Netflix Instant, but be prepared to wade through a lot of public domain filler, as well. Amazon Instant offers many of the same titles and some unique ones; it's worth the Prime membership if you shop the site much at all, and it also allows viewers to rent streaming films for $2-$5 each, which is nice when you need to watch a particular movie right away.

Hulu excels at offering Criterion Collection titles, but other than that it seems more useful for TV series, and if I were to drop one of the 3 services it would be Hulu because I rarely find myself in the mood for a three hour subtitled tragedy at 10 PM on a weeknight. If and when Warner Archive gets its own instant service running, I might well drop Hulu in favor of it. The Warner service should go live sometime this spring, after a promising beta run in February.

You can also watch classic movies on your computer at sites like the Internet Archive, but my computer chair is not that comfortable, so I use PC streaming mainly for shorts.

4) See it somewhere else - Even in a boring, non-movie town like mine, the library shows free classic movies, and sometimes theaters also run them, although the handover of our local Rave to Carmike ended a lovely weekly program of classics for $3 (including drink and popcorn!). Lucky people in New York, LA, Chicago, and other major cities can see lots of classic films on the big screen, and we won't even talk about those fortunate souls who live near the Alamo Drafthouse. This option is not as useful for me because I live two hours from the nearest revival/art house theater, but you can see a lot of movies this way if you live in the right places. You have to put up with other people, but you can see the film the way it was meant to be shown, and there's something to be said for a communal experience when the right community is in the seats.

Overall, I have access to more movies than I can watch, and I enjoy a lot of control over what I see and when, which I appreciate. As streaming movies become even more popular and more people choose to give up cable, it's important to think about which options are going to give you the entertainment you want, whether that be classic movies or *shudder* Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

What are your go-to methods for feeding your classic movie habit? Let me know in the comments section below!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951)

The Maltese Falcon (1941) made San Francisco a true noir town, defined by shadows and fog, and many subsequent films have returned to the city by the bay to take advantage of its seductive yet deadly atmosphere, including, of course, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). Compared with such iconic works, director Robert Wise's The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) is by no means the best or most famous San Francisco noir, but it does make very good use of its title setting. It also features a particularly intriguing plot in which the heroine of the story, like Kim Novak in Vertigo, has some extremely complicated identity issues, but, unlike Novak's dual personalities, Valentina Cortese's protagonist possesses the strength and raw determination of a true survivor.

Cortese plays Victoria Kowelska, who endures years of hardship in Poland during World War II and struggles to survive in a Nazi concentration camp. When her friend, Karin, succumbs to illness and starvation, Victoria assumes Karin's identity in order to gain passage to America, where Karin's aunt and son live. By the time Victoria reaches the United States, the aunt is dead, and little Christopher is being raised by Alan Spender (Richard Basehart), a distant relative who seems to enjoy the wealth and privilege of the aunt's home on Telegraph Hill. Victoria marries Alan for practical reasons, but soon she begins to suspect that Alan's own motives are not very ethical, either, especially since he has an unusually intense relationship with Margaret (Fay Baker), Christopher's governess. Victoria's situation is further complicated by her own burgeoning feelings for Marc (William Lundigan), an acquaintance of Alan's whom Victoria knows from the end of her time in Poland.

The heroine's duplicitous game makes her unusual because she is both sympathetic and self-serving, not a true femme fatale but not an innocent, either. Victoria justifies her actions by reasoning that they cannot hurt her dead friend, and she tries to make up for her deception with her lavish maternal devotion to Karin's child. Still, there's a sense of karmic retribution when Victoria gets caught up in the web of lies enveloping Telegraph Hill. She even acknowledges that her predicament is earned in some measure by her own choices. Another difference stems from Victoria's identity as a survivor in the truest sense of the word. We first see her, dirty and gaunt, fighting other women for food in the concentration camp; unlike the real Karin, Victoria is tough, and thus we have faith in her resilience, even when Alan's sinister intentions become shockingly clear. The climactic scene provides a reversal of the famous milk glass sequence in Suspicion (1941) and offers a particularly compelling look at the qualities that set Victoria apart from other noir heroines.

While Cortese is excellent as the leading lady, the rest of the cast vary in the quality of their performances. Richard Basehart plays his slippery part well, and Fay Baker captures the conflicted aspects of the governess with skill, especially near the picture's end. William Lundigan is rather flat as Victoria's straight arrow love interest, but that might be more the fault of the role than the actor. At any rate, he's not particularly memorable here. Gordon Gebert is a little too placidly all-American as Karin's son, Christopher, and one gets the feeling that this movie doesn't really know how to treat him as a character rather than a mere plot device. The use of San Francisco, on the other hand, is consistently good, especially when Victoria tries to steer an out-of-control car down one of the city's famously inclined streets. Wise, who spent his early career under the tutelage of Val Lewton, handles atmosphere beautifully, and the San Francisco setting gives him of plenty of material to develop.

You can see more of Robert Wise's handiwork in The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and The Haunting (1963), although he's best remembered today for musicals like West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). Catch Richard Basehart in Tension (1949) and La Strada (1954) for a sense of his range as an actor. Italian actress Valentina Cortese earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress in Day for Night (1973), but you'll also find her in Thieves' Highway (1949) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Finally, you might recognize Gordon Gebert for his other childhood roles in Holiday Affair (1949) and The Flame and the Arrow (1950). He also plays young Audie Murphy in the 1955 biopic, To Hell and Back.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: SAN FRANCISCO (1936)

San Francisco has always been a cinematic town, with its storied history, its crooked, crazy streets, and its scenic bay views. The most famous San Francisco cinema tour is provided in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), of course, but the 1936 romantic drama, San Francisco, pens a different kind of love letter to the fabled city. Set in the months leading up to the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, San Francisco takes a 30th anniversary view of the disaster and brings some A-list talent along for the trip, including Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Jeanette MacDonald. The result is a memorable tale of troubled love among the boozy haunts of the Barbary Coast, with a harrowing recreation of the earthquake as the picture's main event.

Gable leads the cast as Blackie Norton, a self-made night club proprietor with an eye for a pretty girl and an oddly generous nature. Despite his unethical lifestyle, Blackie's better urges have maintained his friendship with Father Mullin (Spencer Tracy), a childhood pal who grew up to be a Catholic priest. Their amiable differences of opinion are strained by the arrival of lovely singer Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald), whom Blackie sees as just another available love interest, even though Father Mullin argues that she's too good for the life Blackie has in mind. Mary feels torn between her feelings for Blackie, her yearning for respectability, and her chance at becoming an opera star with the help of a wealthy rival suitor. The earthquake, however, shakes up more than city when it forces each of the characters to rise to the occasion and admit what's really important in their lives.

The Blackie Norton character is a typical Gable role, full of swagger and fits of noble action that complicate our perception of him as an opportunistic rogue. Blackie runs illegal operations just like every other dance hall owner on the Coast, but his concern for the locals drives him to work for improved fire laws despite some heavy opposition. Spencer Tracy makes a perfect good angel to keep Blackie in check, especially since the job requires a commanding physical presence and even an occasional punch. Tracy actually earned his first Best Actor nomination for this performance, although he lost to Paul Muni for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936). The setting and story give Jeanette MacDonald an excellent opportunity to show off her diverse vocal talent with dance hall tunes, opera numbers, and even religious songs. Good performances in the supporting cast come from Jack Holt as Blackie's rival, Jack Burley, Ted Healy as Mat, and Margaret Irving as Della Bailey, although Jessie Ralph is particularly adorable as Jack's Irish mother, Maisie.

In both the early fire and the later earthquake scenes, some of the special effects in San Francisco do show their age, particularly those shots in which people appear superimposed against miniature backgrounds and other artificial staging. Still, the depiction of the earthquake itself is remarkable, with sets collapsing everywhere and the ground opening up beneath terrified victims' feet. The scope of the disaster is admirably conveyed, as is the resilience and tenacity of the survivors. Jeanette MacDonald's repeated performance of the song, "San Francisco," provides the picture with its great theme, that the city, for all its flaws, is a beloved home to its citizens, and it will prevail in the end. I suspect that San Franciscans of 1936, many of whom had lived through the earthquake, got positively tearful at the movie's finale, and perhaps some modern admirers of the city will also find a little mist in their eyes.

San Francisco was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, although he remained uncredited for his work on the film. Oddly enough, that didn't stop him from being nominated for Best Director, and the picture earned six nominations in all, winning only for Best Sound. For more of Van Dyke's work, see Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and The Thin Man (1934). Van Dyke also directed Jeanette MacDonald in Rose-Marie (1936) and I Married an Angel (1942); see more of her in Naughty Marietta (1935) and The Girl of the Golden West (1938). Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy also star together in Test Pilot (1938) and Boom Town (1940). Each had his own legendary career, but catch some of Gable's films with Jean Harlow, like Red Dust (1932) and China Seas (1935), for more of his pre- Rhett Butler roles, and see Spence in Fury (1936) and Libeled Lady (1936) for more of his work from the same year.

If you like reading about classic movies, you might also enjoy my book, Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching, currently available for just $4.99 on Kindle. Paperback editions are also available on Amazon and Barnes &

Monday, March 11, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1952)

Although women's melodrama and film noir might seem like incompatible genres, there are a few notable occasions when they come together in a single film, and director Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952) shows just how beautifully the two genres can be merged. Surprisingly short at only 82 minutes, On Dangerous Ground combines noir and melodrama with a two-part story; its first act unfolds in the dirty streets of the crime-ridden city, while the second half takes place against a landscape blanketed by clean, deep snow. The changing locations indicate the changing tones of the story, making On Dangerous Ground a sophisticated narrative and one of the few noir films to hold out real hope for its protagonist's redemption.

Robert Ryan stars as Jim Wilson, a tough cop who is on the verge of coming apart at the seams after too many years on the job. Jaded and angry, Wilson has devolved into a sadist who takes his frustrations out on the criminals he catches, which makes him a liability for the department. As a result, his chief jumps at the chance to get Wilson out of town when a rural community upstate needs help with a murder case. Wilson joins forces with the murdered girl's vengeful father (Ward Bond) to track down the killer, but his hardened heart experiences unexpected softening when he meets the suspect's blind sister, Mary (Ida Lupino).

Ryan certainly has the right look for a man on edge; his hard features and dark eyes give Jim Wilson a frightening intensity, especially in the early scenes. Ward Bond delivers a somewhat muted but solid performance as Walter Brent, with his best moment coming near the very end of the picture. When he takes Danny Malden (Sumner Williams) in his arms, we are reminded that this story must have begun with him cradling his own child in much the same way, and the scope of their tragedy becomes clear. Ida Lupino, however, dominates the film with her luminous, moving performance as Mary, a woman so generous and strong that Ryan's cop can't help but respond to her appeal. The dialogue suggests, but does not dwell upon, the extent of her self-sacrifice to protect her brother, but the thoughtful viewer will understand the true nature of her character from those few, meaningful hints.

Music from Bernard Hermann and cinematography from George E. Diskant strengthen the narrative's appeal. Lupino actually directed some scenes when Ray became ill during the shoot, and she enjoyed a successful directing career of her own with films like The Trouble with Angels (1966). Along with the major performers, you'll find Ed Begley, Sr., as the police captain and Western matriarch Olive Carey as the mother of the dead girl.

If you enjoy On Dangerous Ground, try other melodramatic women's noir like Laura (1944) and Mildred Pierce (1945). Look for more of Ida Lupino in High Sierra (1941), The Man I Love (1947), and Road House (1948). Robert Ryan also stars in The Set-Up (1949), Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), and The Wild Bunch (1969). You can find character actor Ward Bond almost everywhere, especially in Westerns from John Ford; he's particularly good in Fort Apache (1948). Director Nicholas Ray also helmed the excellent Humphrey Bogart noir, In a Lonely Place (1950), as well as Johnny Guitar (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Classic Films in Focus: VERTIGO (1958)

Alfred Hitchcock's films have been the gateway drugs for many a classic movie addict, and of all of his best-known thrillers, Vertigo (1958) is certainly the trippiest, a mind-blowing overdose of deception, desire, and betrayal. Set against the gorgeously atmospheric background of San Francisco, the film twists and turns as much as the city's famed Lombard Street, and the real scope of its perversity may require multiple viewings to appreciate fully. As black-hearted as the grittiest film noir, Vertigo is all the more sinister for its civil, romantic disguise; it unfolds slowly at first, seducing the viewer with its promises of redemption, but the finale reveals its true nature with one vicious, shattering blow.

Jimmy Stewart stars as John "Scottie" Ferguson, a former police detective whose fear of heights has resulted in the death of a fellow officer and Scottie's own resignation from the force. An old college friend named Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) turns up and asks Scottie to tail his wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), who has been drifting around town like a sleepwalker and doesn't seem to know what she does or where she goes. Gavin thinks she might be possessed by the spirit of a suicidal ancestor, and Scottie soon uncovers clues that suggest that a supernatural influence might be at work. He also falls in love with Madeleine, much to the dismay of his pining sometime girlfriend, Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes). Unfortunately for Scottie, the truth about Madeleine Elster turns out to be far more complicated than a mere ghost story.

Stewart gives a great performance as the damaged protagonist, and his nice guy persona makes an excellent disguise for the twisted heart that lies within Scottie Ferguson. His own perversion is merely hinted at in the early scenes with Midge, where he lounges about her apartment utterly oblivious to her misery and love. When he eventually meets up with Madeleine's double, Judy Barton (also played by Kim Novak), the real ugliness of his nature comes out. He twists and shapes her to suit his obsessive desire, ignoring her pain and her pathetic attempts to make him love her as herself. Kim Novak is actually more interesting as the brassy Judy than as the strangely wooden Madeleine, but Scottie's inability to appreciate that is just one of his many failings. Barbara Bel Geddes is absolutely heartbreaking as Midge, the only really likable character in the whole story and of course the one woman who can't get Scottie's attention for a minute. Her disappearance from the film before the final act signals the death of any hope that this story can end well; she walks out down a darkened hallway with terrible resignation, leaving Scottie to his ghosts, his madness, and his doom.

Aside from the wild camera work that dramatizes Scottie's vertigo and his moments of guilt-induced psychosis, we get stunning images of the city of San Francisco, sunnier and seemingly warmer than it is in real life but filled with angles and dips designed to make the most of Scottie's fear of heights. In many ways the city functions as another character in the film, one with its own secrets and desires. San Francisco has always been a cinematic town, but Vertigo capitalizes on its full potential as a setting for both romance and danger. All the best landmarks get their moments onscreen, and viewers might well lose their hearts to the fabled City by the Bay before the end credits roll.

Hitchcock also made Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) with Stewart. In the same year that they appeared in Vertigo, Stewart and Novak made Bell, Book, and Candle, a romantic comedy in which Novak's character really does turn out to have supernatural charms. For more Stewart hysteria, you might also try The Naked Spur (1953), a very Hitchcockian Western from director Anthony Mann. Vertigo was nominated for two Oscars in 1959 but was considered a failure at the time of its release. Luckily, time has proven a better judge of the picture's merits. In 2012, voters in the Sight & Sound poll actually selected Vertigo as the greatest film of all time, dethroning the long-standing champion, Citizen Kane (1941).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on The author retains all rights to this content.