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Monday, January 6, 2014

Fashion in film: The Graduate

As of the moment, I've been going through a major Anne Bancroft obsession (expect a long winded post on this soon). So, I downloaded The Graduate (1967), which has been a favorite of mine for a couple of years, for a rewatching. I thought I would write a little blog on something that stuck out to me this time I watched: the fashion.

Mike Nichols put effort into nearly every meticulous detail of The Graduate (1967), from his innovative editing (who can forget the incredible cut of Dustin Hoffman jumping onto his raft and landing, instead, on a naked Anne Bancroft) to the sympathetic Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack ("hello darkness, my old friend.") Just as much effort is put into the selection of wardrobe in The Graduate. Anne Bancroft and Katharine Ross don't just wear pretty clothes - their clothes are a reflection of their sentiments.

Consistently throughout the movie, Mrs. Robinson wears some kind of an animal print. Nowadays, the media refers to women who date men their junior as "cougars", and Mrs. Robinson is perhaps the genesis of this woman: she was one before the term was coined. Mrs. Robinson was outfitted in animal print to create the effect of a carnivorous animal seeking to pounce on her prey (Benjamin). In fact, the first shot of Mrs. Robinson is in the Braddocks' crowded living room. As scores of party guests clamor around Benjamin - to the point of his obvious discomfort - and congratulate him on his recent graduation from college, Mrs. Robinson remains lounging in a chair. Smoking her cigarette, she eyes Benjamin from a distance but does not yet approach him.

In this opening scene, Mrs. Robinson wears a shift style cocktail dress covered in black lace. The lace is reminiscent of lingerie and underneath is a zebra print. This outfit, the first she wears in the whole film, really tells us a lot about Mrs. Robinson that we will learn later: her predatory nature and her sensuality. 

After Ben decides to take her up on her offer ("I am sexually available to you, Benjamin"), Mrs. Robinson shows up at the infamous Taft Hotel in a large cheetah print coat. And both times we see Mrs. Robinson in her slip, it is once again an animal print. When Ben comes to the house to pick up Elaine for their date, Mrs. Robinson sits by the bar, angry, smoking, covered in an animal print blanket. Even at Elaine's wedding, she sports a suit trimmed with her signature print and a matching hat.

Anne Bancroft is brilliant as Mrs. Robinson because of her multidimensional portrayal: Anne plays her not as a tawdry seductress but rather, beneath her cool veneer, we find a very tragic middle aged housewife who after becoming pregnant in college was denied the opportunity to follow her dreams. (In an interview she gave in 2000, Anne said that she imagined that Mrs. Robinson had perhaps been a great artist.) The animal print, like a coat of armor, is a physical representation of her cunning exterior. Only when she is stripped of it, we are exposed to the vulnerability she hides inside. This is depicted beautifully by Anne in the scene where Dustin Hoffman attempts to make pillow talk - they are in bed and so she is naked. "What was your major subject in college?" he asks her. "Art," she says with sad eyes, expressing more there than most actors can in a whole monologue.

Elaine Robinson's wardrobe is far more conservative than her mother's. While Mrs. Robinson opts for clothes that are sexy or show off her legs, we often see college coed Elaine in turtlenecks, sweaters, and jackets. The pastel pink dress that Elaine wears on her first date with Ben gives way to her virginal, demure personality. The contrast between the two wardrobes is a tangible tribute to the clash between mother and daughter.

The distinctive wardrobe elements of The Graduate are yet another detail that adds to this film being the masterpiece that it is. While many movies have beautiful wardrobes, few films use clothes to their advantage as well as The Graduate does.

(PS: Follow me on twitter and you get a cookie.)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014 & twitter

New Year's Resolution? I'm going to try - real hard - to get back to blogging this year. It's not that I've lost any love for old Hollywood (in fact, I'd like to think that more so in the last year I ventured out of my comfort zone in terms of films), it really is my lack of time. My log is filled with drafts and drafts and drafts; uncompleted thoughts, posts I really wanted to finish, but I am going to take this start of 2014 as an opportunity to get back on the blogging train. And, I'd like to thank you loyal followers (all 131 of you!) for sticking around this blog even though I've very nearly abandoned it. My posting became sparse in the fall of 2012, but in 2013 I gained about thirty followers even though I wrote only five measly blogs - I really, really appreciate all your follows. I also want to say that even though I was terribly lazy about commenting last year, I take a quick glance at my blogger dashboard every day to read the fantastic things that you all are writing.

I'm going to get my Films of 2014 page started up soon - here's what I watched last year. Unfortunately, I didn't get to update come November and December and when I decided to, finally, I didn't want to attempt the mental struggle of remembering all that I had watched. I figured it was close enough to the New Year, anyway. And, because I want to keep in touch with the classic film blogosphere even when I can't be around to post, I've created a twitter for this blog: @greergarsons. I really want to get into the classic film blogging community on twitter, so give me a follow if you can! :)

I'll see you all again soon - I mean it - with an actual post. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Happy birthday to the Lucy I love

The sun never sets on Lucille Ball. All over this worried world tonight, nations of untold million are watching reruns they also watched the first time around. Joy requires no translation. God wanted the world to laugh, and he invented you. Many are called, but you were chosen. All of the funny hats, the baggy pants, the mustaches and the wigs, and the pratfalls and the blacked out teeth - they didn't fool us one minute. We saw through all the disguises, and what we found inside is more than we deserve. - Sammy Davis, Jr

Though I have been doing a less than decent job of it lately, I have, actually, been keeping this blog for two full years now. And in this time we've spent together, I think I've made it clear on numerous occasions just how much I love Lucille Ball. Hell, I even wrote a letter to her last fall. She's not just my favorite actress, she's my favorite person and one of my biggest inspirations.

So, on the occasion of her one hundred and second birthday, I don't really know what I could tell you about her that I haven't already said. Or how I could thank her in some new, special way for all she's given me - laughter and otherwise. Thus, this isn't going to be some incredibly long or wonderful post that I'm particularly proud of. But I hope it gets the message across.

People fall in love with Lucy Ricardo. Lucille Ball wasn't much like Lucy Ricardo at all, and this comes as a disappointment to some. I love Lucy Ricardo as much as the next person, but it's Lucille Ball I'm enamored with. I hear a lot about the tragic lives of the Marilyn Monroes, their sometimes eccentric behavior excused by the ordeals inflicted upon them. Lucille Ball suffered, in many ways, just as much and was never given that pass or exemption for her emotions. Perhaps it was because Lucy had a persistence in her to not fall into patches of vulnerability. And following her divorce from Desi, she built a shield of armor around herself.

I've said this before, but I'll say it again: the piece of film that I feel displays the true, human Lucy is not I Love Lucy or any of the television shows that followed it; it's not any of her movie work. It's her home movies. Though she loved her fans and gave them more due respect than, perhaps, almost any other star (except maybe Joan Crawford), stardom always seemed to make her a bit uncomfortable. Robert Osborne became friends with her in the 1960s and once shared an anecdote that I feel is very telling. Around the time of her divorce from Desi, she was an emotional wreck, and needed to get away from their home and the memories that haunted her there. So she would come to Osborne's house and lie on his couch for hours and sob. From his apartment, you could see the lights of Los Angeles twinkling below, and Osborne made a comment to her that he hoped would raise her spirits. "It's a wonderful feeling to know that every one of those lights out there, you just have to say the word 'Lucy' - you don't even have to say the last name, and they know it's you," he told her. But this frightened her. She said in response, "Oh God, don't say something like that! That's terrifying."

In the home movies, she is in her element. Most of them were shot by Desi, to whom she revealed herself to more than anyone else. Lucie Arnaz said in later years: "He knew her in a way that I don't think anyone else ever could." And that's apparent in the clips. Though she herself has attested to being happiest when she was working, the home movies show a side to her that even her best work (aka I Love Lucy) couldn't reveal. Her playfulness, her cuddling with her dogs and her cats, her quietness, her fears, naked and on display. She was an incredibly complex woman. But perhaps more than anything, the home movies shows all these facets in a raw light.

And that's the Lucy I love, the Lucy I look to each day for inspiration.

I'm not really sure what else to say. She means so very much to me, and I don't think, at this point, even words could express that. I'm not being sappy. It's the truth. I love you, Lucy. What's one hundred and two years? She's timeless.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Funny Lady | The Evolution of Lucy Ricardo

The very lovely Movies, Silently blog is holding a Funny Lady Blogathon - how awesome of an idea is that? - and I of course signed up to write about my favorite lady of them all, Lucille Ball.

Okay, but what can I really tell you about Lucy and her comic genius that hasn't already been said countless times before? She is considered, more often than not, to truly be the funniest woman in the history of the entertainment business. And I'm sure few would dispute her position as being the First Lady of Comedy, opening the doors for nearly all the comediennes who followed in the path she blazed: Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, Carol Burnett, Tina Fey, Kristen Whig, Mindy Kaling - just to name a few. Just about everyone has seen the clip of her drunkly pimping Vitameatavegamin or the one of her furiously stuffing chocolates down her blouse, in her hat, and into her mouth at the candy factory.

For this post, I felt as if writing about I Love Lucy would be pointless, because I wouldn't be able to provide any new or groundbreaking information. I couldn't write something about her performance on the show that would be news to anybody. Instead, I thought I would write about how her talent as a comedienne grew over time - from the conviction in a little girl from upstate New York to make people laugh to October 15th, 1951, when I Love Lucy debuted on air. You could call it the evolution of Lucy Ricardo.

It's fairly well known that Lucille Ball was quite different than Lucy Ricardo. Lucy's real life humor was like that of, as her daughter Lucie once described it, "the fast talking broad of the 30s." In fact, real life Lucy was far more serious and adult than the childlike illusion she portrayed in Lucy Ricardo and extended to all of her long running television characters - Lucy Carmichael (The Lucy Show) and Lucy Carter (Here's Lucy).

But, despite this, Lucy always had an interest in comedy - long before television existed. As a young girl, her grandpa would take her brother and her to vaudeville shows, and Lucy was intrigued with the way the clowns could make the audience laugh. This sparked in her her first desire to act out, recalling later, "All I knew is that I wanted to make people laugh - I certainly didn't want to make them cry." She went out to Hollywood in 1933 as one of Samuel Goldwyn's Girls. When lined up for inspection by Eddie Cantor, Lucy applied little pieces of red felt to her face, so it would look as if she had chicken pox. Cantor laughed and enjoyed her little prank. She increasingly became known as the only girl willing to sacrifice glamour to take a pie in the face or preform any other physical pratfall to get a laugh. She christened herself and friend Eve Arden as "the drop gag girls." Pandro Berman told studio executives that she was "a really funny kid, great at parties" - but never thought that this talent would amount to anything. In a 1940 letter to then boyfriend Desi Arnaz, she wrote of a guest part on a radio show she was going to do because it seemed like "a funny role." Even in the home movies of she and Desi from the forties, she can be seen clowning for the camera and blacking out her teeth for costume parties.

Many of Lucy's earliest leading film roles - in the late thirties - are comedic, though studios widened her range in the forties and she appeared in comedies, dramas, musicals, even a Western. Her earliest significant role would probably be in Stage Door (1937); Gregory La Cava's highly acclaimed blockbuster about a handful of young girls trying to make in the business. The ensemble cast, headlined by Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn, is easily impressive, also containing supporting roles filled by Ann Miller, Eve Arden, Gail Patrick, and Andrea Leads. Lucy doesn't preform any physical comedy in Stage Door but manages to hold her own, rolling her eyes melodramatically and delivering wisecracks with nonchalance. In one scene, Lucy is asked, "If it's not food, it's men. Can't you talking about anything else?" To which she replies, "What else is there?"

Stage Door boosted her career, giving way to supporting roles in A pictures for stars like Ginger Rogers (Having Wonderful Time, '38, in which one can also spot a young Henry Fonda) and Irene Dunne (Joy of Living). It also bolstered her to the role of a leading lady in B films, fastening her as a fixture in comedies with low budget actors like Joe Penner and Jack Oakie. One comedy from this era in her career is Go Chase Yourself (1938); like I Love Lucy in reverse, Lucy plays a irritated wife having to clean up the messes her scatterbrained husband, Penner, is always getting into. The film is a madcap screwball comedy lacking the necessary charm, and Lucy is, as usual, confined to quips and sarcasm, but she makes the most of it.

Whereas she played a housewife in the latter film, she was elevated to a more glamorous role in her next movie, The Affairs of Annabel (1938), in which she plays a movie star, Annabel Allison, a victim of the harebrained schemes contrived by her publicity agent, Oakie, to advance her career. Once more, the screwball is not her but the male character, however, Annabel did fairly well at the box office, and even spurned a sequel, Annabel Takes a Tour, in the same year. It gave Lucy a bigger helping of physical comedy than her prior films, and was likely the largest role she had to date. The New York Post commented, "The gal should go places."

Her next movie was Room Service (1938), with the Marx Brothers. In later years, many would draw correlations between the antics of Lucy Ricardo and the wild comedic group of the thirties, but at the time, Lucy's experiences with them were nowhere near life changing. The farce failed at the box office and was distinctively less pleasant and more sober than their earlier box office hits. As expected, each schtcik was handed off to the brothers, giving Lucy and co-star and friend Ann Miller not much more to do than run in and out of scenes, looking beautiful but frazzled. Lucy didn't particularly like any of the Marx brothers other than Harpo, who treated her the best of all, and was later given a guest starring spot on I Love Lucy (the famous and brilliant pantomime routine in the Hollywood episodes). Whereas she might have, still, been appreciative of their comedic talent, Groucho Marx didn't think much of hers: "Lucille Ball," he said, "Is not funny without a script."

In Next Time I Marry (1938), she played one of the famous ditzy heiresses of the thirties. It paired her with James Ellison for the first of two times, and had some decently funny moments, but over all was a mediocre comedy. Reviewers, however, took notice of her, calling her a "lanky and glass eyed comedienne" (The New York Times) and "as screwy and spoiled as any of Hollywood's poor little rich gals" (The New York Post) in the role.

What was particular about her next film was that it was a comedy-drama; Beauty for the Asking (1939) has several moments that gave way to her capability as a dramatic actress, which audiences had not really seen yet. New York Daily News wrote, "Miss Ball rises high enough above her material" - which she would continue to do so over the next decade of less than quality scripts -"to remind us that she is the stuff that stars are made of."

In You Can't Fool Your Wife (1940), Lucy was given a dual role as a housewife and as a Spanish seductress. She fakes an accent and dons dark hair, which is especially ironic when it would be later that year in which she met and married Desi Arnaz. She tackled the roles with ease and though the film is not particularly spectacular, it allowed for a slight expansion of her range. Critics continually praised her and sought a future for her that apparently, her RKO bosses did not see; at the time, even Orson Welles was interested in casting her as the lead in one of his projects that never came to be.

The rest of her run at RKO, resulted in her being cast in an array of different roles, from burlesque queen to ingenue to heroine of the western front. None particularly showcased her ability as a comedienne, and, in fact, her best performance at RKO was likely her turn as the paralyzed, unforgivably bitchy but beautiful Gloria Lyons in The Big Street (1942). Interestingly, this dramatic role was the one she was most proud of over the years, and critics were enthralled as well, writing that RKO should've wrangled her an Oscar nomination for the role - which never, of course, materialized.

RKO couldn't make a star, but maybe MGM could - that was, in fact, her hope when she arrived at the studio in 1943. (Lucy wouldn't return to RKO until 1957, when she and Desi bought it). She was now thirty-two, and she had been in Hollywood for ten years, and though she had made her fair share of B pictures, she hadn't yet achieved star status. If anyone was going to do it, it was MGM, who had the biggest corral of actors or as they put it, "more stars than the heavens." Her debut role was DuBarry Was a Lady (1943), a musical in which she worked alongside friends Gene Kelly and Red Skelton, but it only notable for her change to her famous red hair. It gave her little chance for comedy, but did offer her an opportunity to show off her new tresses - she looks breathtakingly beautiful in the closeups of her leaned up against the piano while Gene Kelly professes his love to her in song.

Her next, most pronounced comedic role came three years later with Easy to Wed, MGM's remake of the popular Libeled Lady. She was given the Jean Harlow role, and it was easily her best chance to shine as a comedienne to date. Esther Williams took Myrna Loy's character, and Van Johnson William Powell's. Though the film falls completely flat next to the stunning original, Lucy stole every scene, doing justice to the character (one that had switched from a bottle blonde to a hennaed redhead) that the late Harlow had made so famous. She is given the opportunity to play totally drunk, a foreshadowing of Lucy Ricardo getting smashed on Vitameatavegamin, the bit easily the most entertaining and vivid in the whole film. She looked the part of the beautiful clown, her red hair and blue eyes making her a knockout in the Technicolor print. "Miss Ball all proves herself a superb farceuse. She snaps her lines over the heads of other characters and in pantomime manages to be as scatterbrained and indignant as a wet hen," wrote The New York Herald-Tribune. "Very special honors go to Lucille Ball for her topnotch comedy scenes which highlight the film," said Film Daily, and The Los Angeles Times agreed, citing her comedy as "the most compensating feature of this production - she is her super best."

But Louis B. Mayer's philosophy was that "funny women don't sell tickets, beautiful women do." She made one more picture for MGM, a film noir, before being released from her contract. Certain that her career was over, she soldiered on, free lancing for a period with the help of her agent Kurt Frings. She did a series of dramas and her next light fare was not until Her Husband's Affairs (1947). Reminiscent of Go Chase Yourself from nearly a decade earlier, as well as a backwards version of I Love Lucy, Lucy plays a wife constantly saving her husband, Franchot Tone,  from his own self in this less than perfect film . "Lucille Ball, an able an comedienne," said The New York Times of her performance.

In the years just before I Love Lucy's 1951 debut, she would play a mixture of roles, but some stand out as being as close to Lucy Ricardo as she would ever come pre-Lucy. Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949) is a prime example. She plays an empty headed secretary hired by William Holden (six years before the infamous pie in the face) who unknowingly becomes a prop to front for Holden's "business"; he is in actuality is a bookie. Her absentmindedness sets off a string of calamities. The movie gave Lucy the liberty to do a great deal of physical comedy. Early on in the film, she struggles with her typewriter ribbon to a comedic hilt, nearly destroying the machine, wasting practically a stack of paper, and covering herself in ink. Like Lucy Ricardo, her character, Ellen is lovable - Holden can't help but fall for her - and has good intentions, but is naturally inclined to cause trouble wherever she goes.

In 1950, she made Fancy Pants alongside her best pal, Bob Hope, a movie that reached all heights of absurdity and prompted Cue to call her, "one of the finest comediennes in Hollywood." That same year, in a true precursor to the physical comedy she would execute on I Love Lucy, she made The Fuller Brush Girl. Her character plays a door to door saleswoman (think Avon Girl), and much like Lucy Ricardo unwittingly attracts trouble when she witnesses a murder. The results are disastrous, and she and her husband end up in a string of ruses to avoid being blamed for a crime they did not commit, including hanging precariously from a clothing line, a slapstick striptease number she is forced to preform and a wild goose chase on a ship. Lucy proved that she was fearless when it came to physical comedy, preforming all of her stunts with wild abandon, as she would do on her television shows for years to come. The repercussions were harmful. She reflected, "I sprained both wrists and displaced six vertebrae, then irritated my sciatic nerve...I also suffered a two day paralysis of the eyeball when talcum power was accidentally blown into my eye by a wind machine. A three day dunking in a wine vat gave me a severe cold, and I was also bruised by several tons of coffee beans." But the reviews for her comedy, written by critics who unknowingly were watching Lucy Ricardo form before their eyes, were excellent. "Miss Ball carries the ball for comedy touchdown," wrote The Los Angeles Times. "Lucille Ball, with her wide eyed beauty and buoyant charm, puts over her comedy with perfect timing, and just the right amount of pathos and bewilderment to arouse the film goer's sympathy while she keeps them laughing," praised The Hollywood Reporter, a description equally fit for Lucy Ricardo.

Lucy made one more movie, a strange Arabian nights sort of farce for Columbia, before going on air in October 1951 in I Love Lucy. Needless to say, the show took off like gangbusters and Lucille Ball, who had struggled in B roles and mediocre films for nearly the past twenty years in Hollywood, her comedic talent ignored by studio moguls but noted by reviewers - shot to stardom.

Starting in 1948, Lucy had been molding Lucy Ricardo on radio as well. She was the star of My Favorite Husband, a program about Mr. and Mrs. Cooper and all the jams Mrs. Cooper got Mr. Cooper into - if that sounds familiar, it's because the show became the basis for I Love Lucy. Originally, the Coopers were the Cugats and Liz Cugat was more of a socialite than a middle class housewife. But that was before Jess Oppenheimer, a veteran of Fanny Brice's program, was brought to work on the show - he and writers Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis worked to make the character of Liz Cooper more wacky and screwball, much like the character Baby Snooks. All three went on to make I Love Lucy the success it was.

Her work on My Favorite Husband widened her comedic range more than any of her prior film roles - and this is clearly evident in the three comedies she made during the run of the program, discussed above. Not only was she funny with just her voice, but she learned how to play to the live audience the program was recorded in front of - it also gave birth to her famous "spider face." Lucy learned to love the audience, and they in return adored her. Over the years, this bond only grew stronger, intensely symbolic of America's affection for her, a relationship that lasted on her sound stages for three decades. By the point of Here's Lucy, Lucy got rousing applause from the audience only for walking onto the set - their laughter for even the most neutral of lines, one observer later noted, was their way of telling her, "We love you."

Though Lucille Ball was not much like Lucy Ricardo, a part of the famous character was being conceived in her from the very start - in the little girl who just wanted to make people laugh. In her screwball film roles of the late thirties and the forties, one can see as her ability as a comedienne grows, the progression of Lucy Ricardo seems to lie under the surface, climaxing in the late forties thanks to funnier film roles and her radio show, and finally resulting in what we all know as I Love Lucy.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

What Katharine Hepburn taught me

"If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun."

The first Old Hollywood star that I actually adored was Katharine Hepburn. When she appeared on the screen in Holiday (1938), I thought she was absolutely gorgeous. That was really my initial impression of her. And it's ironic, because Katharine Hepburn has never been considered the conventional beauty, but that was my first thought. I was nine years old, and to me she was perfect looking: the high cheekbones, red hair, and the slim waist. 

But I think the moment where I really fell in love with her was in Bringing up Baby (1938). It's the scene where she sits at the bar, wearing a gown made entirely of satin and a ridiculous veiled headpiece over her face. As innocent and naive as a child, she watches intently as the bartender teaches her a trick to be played with olives - to throw one in the air and catch it on the top of your hand. When she gives it a try for herself, the olive lands on the floor and who but Cary Grant would being rushing by, only to slip on it. There's something so endearing about this scene - I can't really explain it, but it made me love her.

Whether you love her or hate her, I don't think you can really deny that Kate was her own person. This is the quality I admire about her the most, the I don't give a damn what anyone else thinks air about her. She was never afraid to be herself, and she never apologized for being herself. (Remember when Barbara Walters asked her if she owned a skirt? "I have one. I'll wear it to your funeral.") She was so comfortable in her own skin. This is not denying that there was an innate sensitivity within her, which I feel we saw every time she talked about Spence, looked at Spence... but on the outside was this confidence that I only wish I could have. 

I think that's why her confidence is my favorite quality of hers is it because it's something that I myself lack a lot of the time. My whole life I've been shy and because of it, I've always had trouble making friends or fitting into a group of people, and have been even the slightest bit socially anxious from time to time. I feel like that has all stemmed from my caring too much about what other people think. I've always tried to blend in. I know this sounds like a total cliche, but in the way that Kate lived her life, I've learned that that approach to life is a wayward one. Kate's courage and her confidence are contagious; they inspire you, infect you, and you can't help but want to be the same. So, in this way especially, Kate is a role model to me. To a somewhat insecure teenager, she has taught me a lot about life simply by the way she lived hers. "Life is to be lived," she said, and you cannot truly live if you are constantly afraid of what others may think of you. That fear is irrational, and I'm gradually beginning to accept that. Each step of the way, Kate has been - and will continue to be -  a guiding hand. 

So, happy birthday, Kate. And thank you for being you.