This post is for the Ninth Annual Buster Keaton blogathon hosted by Silentology. Check out her blog for more Buster goodness.
Kathryn McGuire does not get as much appreciation as Buster Keaton’s other leading ladies. Sybil Seeley had the warmest chemistry with Buster. Marion Mack was hilariously ditzy. Sally O’Neil was cute and sweet. Dorothy Sebastian was prickly, Marceline Day was more like a Harold Lloyd heroine, and Marion Byron was the epitome of the 1920s flapper.
I always think of McGuire as unsmiling and subdued, even a bit wary. And yet, she shared strong chemistry with Keaton, almost coming off as a female variation on his “stoneface.” She was also one of his most active leading ladies, often more of a comic partner than a passive love interest.
But I get ahead of myself. Who exactly was Kathryn McGuire?
McGuire was born on December 6, 1903 in Peoria, Illinois. Her family moved to Hollywood when she was in her mid-teens. From a young age, McGuire’s great passion was dance. Trained under Ernest Belcher, she attributed her dancer’s background to her sense of discipline and would continue to practice dance during her movie career.
This talent got her noticed by no less than filmmaker Thomas Ince at an exhibition in Pasadena. He offered her a dancing part in an upcoming Dorothy Dalton feature. This opportunity led to solo dances in other films, and then a period of extra and supporting work at Mack Sennett’s studio. Her most famous work from this period is The Shriek of Araby, a spoof of The Sheik in which McGuire got to play Diana to Ben Turpin’s cross-eyed Ahmed.
For a while, McGuire was considered a superstar hopeful, listed among the original WAMPAS Baby Stars winners in 1922, along with future silent film luminaries Colleen Moore, Patsy Ruth Miller, Mary Philbin, and Bessie Love. McGuire’s career would not reach the dizzying heights of some of her fellow “baby stars,” though she did have a respectable run, working opposite a variety of major Hollywood players like Tom Mix, Priscilla Dean, Lupino Lane, Charley Bowers— and of course, Buster Keaton.
McGuire’s path crossed with Keaton’s purely by chance. Teenaged Marion Harlan was Keaton’s original leading lady in Sherlock Jr. but she had to withdraw due to an illness. McGuire took over the part and so ensured her own screen immortality by appearing in one of the finest comedies ever made.
Sherlock Jr. is an inventive and affectionate kidding of “movie magic.” It contains two stories, a frame narrative and a surrealistic movie-within-a-movie. Keaton’s character (the Boy) is a movie projectionist who dreams of becoming a world-class detective and winning the love of a character only called the Girl (McGuire). He vies for her love with an oily rival (Ward Crane) who tries to get him out of the way by framing him for theft. An attempt to foil his rival ends in failure, forcing the boy to retreat to the movie theater where he falls asleep, and dreams himself and his real life social circle into the mystery movie on the screen.
The frame story might seem disposable at first, but it’s there that Keaton makes his most pointed satire about movie fan culture. Sherlock Jr. is about how people not only project themselves into the movies, but also a subtle commentary on how audiences try embodying certain movie ideals in their own lives. The Boy wants to be a badass detective (no doubt for 1924 audiences, this would have evoked John Barrymore in the 1922 Sherlock Holmes) and his ladykilling rival is called the Sheik, after the character played by Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 film of the same name. The Girl models herself after Mary Pickford, wearing her long hair in curls and dressing girlishly.
The funny thing is that these characters are more complicated than the movie types they try to emulate. The Boy is a lousy detective, the Sheik is a thieving git, and the Girl turns out to be the real hero of the story. You see, the Boy gives up on clearing his name after briefly “shadowing” the Sheik. The Girl does not. She goes out and investigates the case of the stolen watch, quickly learning that the Sheik was the real criminal the whole time. This turn of events pulls double-duty: plot-wise, it allows us to enjoy the fantasy of the film-within-the-film, but thematically, it shows that real life does not play by the rules of “reel life,” especially when you consider that the Girl’s silver screen counterpart is a passive damsel-in-distress. Real life women aren’t like “reel life women.”
McGuire’s onscreen presence emphasizes the Girl’s practicality. She has a no-nonsense air, even as she allows the Boy to awkwardly court her. However, there is a passionate warmth beneath the placid surface which comes to the fore when the impatient Girl grabs the Boy’s hand, sending a jolt through the both of them. This also illustrates something else I love about McGuire—she’s allowed to be the butt of a joke. She’s no imperious mistress to be yearned after—she feels down-to-earth. These qualities would happily carry over to McGuire’s next collaboration with Keaton.
McGuire’s role in The Navigator is not as thematically profound, but she is no less active a character. The set-up is simple: Keaton and McGuire are wealthy heirs who end up adrift on a ship together. No crew, no direction– and neither character has any clue how to handle it, considering they’ve never had to lift a finger to help themselves in their entire lives.
The Navigator presents Keaton and McGuire as comic partners from the very start. Both are subject to the film’s ribbing of the spoiled rich, and both subsequently develop into more resourceful (if still bumbling) figures as they embark on their unexpected cruise from hell. McGuire’s usual reserved nature and physical grace are arguably even better suited to her stiff upper lip rich girl character. Like Keaton, she could appear as a plain middle-class girl or as one of “nature’s aristocrats,” as critic Imogen Smith once put it.
Her character is also pretty shrewd. My favorite moment is when Buster rescues her from the ocean and despite the fact that she’s perfectly conscious, she pretends to faint so he’ll have to carry her up onto the ship.
Following her final film with Keaton, McGuire’s career continued without much fanfare. Her career lingered a little into the dawn of the talkie era: she made The Long, Long Trail with Hoot Gibson in his sound debut and The Lost Zeppelin, an adventure flick featuring Conway Tearle, Virginia Valli, and Ricardo Cortez. After 1930, McGuire’s movie career fizzled out. In 1936, she and her husband welcomed the birth of their only child, a daughter.
However, this was not the end of McGuire’s acting career. After her husband passed away in 1955, she briefly resumed her old job, this time turning to television. Her final role was on a 1959 episode of Dragnet. She lived another fifteen years before passing away from cancer at age 74.
Were it not for Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, McGuire would no doubt be a footnote in early Hollywood history. You might say even with those two credits, she already is. And yet, her presence in those films is distinctive as is the variation on the typical comic love interest she played.
Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis
Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy by Imogen Sara Smith
Carson McCullers’ 1940 novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an astonishing piece of fiction. Set in a small southern town, the book follows several characters who feel misunderstood for one reason or another, all of them drawn to a deaf-mute engraver named John Singer. Cleancut and unassuming, Singer is staying in town to be near a hospitalized, mentally challenged friend to whom he acts as a caretaker. He becomes much beloved by his new associates: every character comes to him with needs of their own and a desire to be finally “heard” with real sympathy. Unfortunately, all of these friendships are one-way, with everyone projecting an ideal onto Singer and never reaching out to see if he needs someone to listen to his troubles for once. This lack of reciprocity leads to a harrowing conclusion.
It’s a loaded book, dealing with small town suffocation, gender nonconformity, racism, sexual awakening, family drama, existential questions about finding meaning and companionship– and yet, the atmosphere is not always so heavy. There’s a lot of humor in the story and the characters all have their odd quirks, making them feel more vivid and alive. McCullers was damn near Shakespearean in her ability to juggle so many tones.
It’s no shock that Hollywood didn’t touch this novel until the 1960s, when permissiveness onscreen and an increased willingness to deal with social issues made such an adaptation possible. Taking their cameras to Alabama, Warner Bros. got a wonderful cast together: Alan Arkin as Singer, Sondra Locke as tomboyish teenager Mick, Percy Rodrigues as the embittered Dr. Copeland, Cicely Tyson as Copeland’s estranged daughter Portia, and Stacy Keach as Jake. Veteran cinematographer James Wong Howe would shoot the film, giving it a hazy, nostalgic look evoking humid southern summers.
I wasn’t always a fan of this movie. Even with its being shot in a more permissive time, the film scrubs out Singer’s implied homosexuality and the nastier bits of political satire are excised completely. The bizarre, tender world of the book was now filtered through Hollywood mush, or so I thought. A later rewatch allowed me to make peace with the film and appreciate it as its own entity. Even with the edges sanded off, the movie version keeps intact the desperate, aching soul of McCuller’s novel. When we think of movies dealing with loneliness, harsher works like Taxi Driver tend to come to mind, but Heart is more poignant. It’s gentle with its characters despite their moments of selfishness and lashing out, and that gentleness prompts the viewer to be similarly compassionate in their own life. God knows, we all need it.
I mainly selected this movie to commemorate Alan Arkin’s upcoming 89th birthday, which will be at the end of the month. This film was made two years after his big screen triumph in The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming and it’s easily his most heartwrenching, even as he opts out of simple histrionics. And that’s what I’ve always liked about Arkin as an actor– he never goes for the obvious in playing his characters. It would have been easy to make Singer an object of pity and for the performance to devolve into cheap Oscarbait; however, Arkin adds a level of calculation to Singer that becomes more apparent on subsequent viewings. In a later interview, Arkin pointed out that Singer only befriends people he can manipulate, not to be cruel but to ward off any chance of his becoming vulnerable with another person and to keep himself in total control of every situation. He permits the other characters to fashion him in their own desired image and thus keep them at arms’ length. Ironically, this self-distancing makes Singer more vulnerable– and more human.
This was originally meant to be a simple reaction to my first viewing of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles— recently voted the greatest movie of all time by Sight and Sound‘s latest poll. Instead this piece became a meditation on the folly of taking GOAT lists seriously. At all. Ever.
And no, not for the reason you might imagine I’m saying that. Because I actually liked Jeanne Dielman quite a bit.
If you’re unaware of the film, here are the basics. Jeanne Dielman was directed by 25-year-old Chantal Ackerman and released in 1975, making a splash in film festival circles. It’s pure minimalism, focusing on three days in the life of the titular character. Jeanne is a middle-aged widow with a teenage son. Her life is quiet, mostly consisting of housework and cooking– oh, she also has a side hustle sexually servicing older men during the afternoon. All of this is precisely timed, with Jeanne managing her daily existence down to the second.
Ackerman goes out of her way to present all of this with a purposefully distanced view. Eschewing close-ups or overly manipulative angles, Jeanne’s routine is shot from Ozu-style angles, giving the movie a sense of unpolished realism and also allowing Jeanne her space, as Ackerman once put it. Much of the runtime is made up of long takes of Jeanne peeling potatoes, tidying up rooms, or waiting for an elevator. In interviews, Ackerman states that she wanted to focus on domestic work that people rarely value offscreen or on, the opposite approach to the Hitchcock maxim that drama is “life with the boring parts cut out.” Jeanne Dielman is life with the “boring” parts intact and this is intrinsic to the film itself. In film, we are often given epic treatments of great battles, disasters, historical events, and crime. Ackerman made such an intimate epic about an ordinary housewife living a subdued life, throwing light on the work we so often overlook or don’t see as worth much.
If you are not in the right headspace, this can be tedious… however, knowing this going in, I found myself drawn into the movie’s world. There’s something hypnotic, even soothing about Jeanne’s clockwork routine in the first third of the film, something impressive about the grace and efficiency with which she goes about her day. I was surprised by how engaging it all was.
Of course, this film still needs conflict and that creeps in on Day 2, when Jeanne gets thrown off her groove. It is implied that her client brought her to orgasm, and it’s clear from Jeanne’s self-possession and what little we hear about her married life that she has never experienced sex as anything but a pleasureless chore. The sensation is so unexpected that Jeanne over-boils her potatoes and starts missing steps in her routine. This gets worse and worse, leading up to the film’s startling conclusion.
So yeah, definitely not your traditional crowd-pleaser. Outside of arthouse circles, Jeanne Dielman is virtually unknown… that is, until 2022 when Sight and Sound featured it as their new “greatest movie of all time,” displacing former champions Vertigo and Citizen Kane.
And oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth. The entire list was accused of being overly political in general and Jeanne Dielman seemed to be the epitome of everything many criticized about the poll results. It’s considered a key feminist film. The content is inaccessible to anyone save for arthouse snobs, unlike Citizen Kane and Vertigo which can at least be watched by casual filmgoers. Those who complained about the list were accused of being reactionaries and those who applauded the list were accused of being ideologues.
To be honest, I’ve never understood people who get mad at “best of” lists or award shows. Every list is subjective, so I’ve always viewed them as suggested viewing rather than enshrined canon that cannot be questioned. If I dislike anything on such a list, I just shrug and go about my day, because who cares? These films are not going to magically make hordes of casual filmgoers dive into old movies and arthouse films anyway. They solely exist so cinephiles can fight each other to the death on social media. I’ve never seen them do much otherwise. People even complained when Vertigo got the top spot in 2012, so yeah, this is more of the same to me.
Jeanne Dielman didn’t even pique my interest until Lea Stans of Silentology wrote her reaction to it. Intrigued by her nuanced take, I got a copy through my library. Bracing myself to be at best interested in the techniques alone, I was surprised by how riveting the film is.
No, it’s not a new favorite. It’s not going to be something I obsessively rewatch, though I certainly would like to rewatch it someday. But I found the movie fascinating—honestly, more fascinating than even its champions make it out to be.
Scroll through the positive Letterboxd reviews and you’ll be told this is a movie about an unhappy homemaker forced into a life of domestic drudgery by the patriarchy, but it’s not really. For one thing, Jeanne seems to find solace in her routine. She moves through that cramped apartment with confidence and ease, and she performs her duties with graceful dexterity.
If anything, Jeanne’s desire for total control over herself is what undoes her, not anything the male characters do. This quality makes her an efficient homemaker, but it also makes her emotionally closed off to everyone around her. A fellow housewife she babysits for can only get clipped comments from Jeanne when they chat at the door. Jeanne’s sister lives in Canada and the two sporadically exchange letters. Even her relationship with her son is awkward. Jeanne attempts dinner conversation over banal subjects, while her son attempts to discuss his anxieties about sex and marriage with his unreceptive, dismissive mother. From what we learn of Jeanne’s relationship with her late husband, it seems to have been as loveless as her encounters with her clients. Jeanne makes it plain she only wanted a child and “a life of my own” from her marriage. One has to wonder if keeping people at arms’ length while also performing all kinds of services for them is meant to keep Jeanne fully in control of her little universe.
For me, Jeanne’s quest for total self-possession is what makes the story interesting and even universal in its own odd way. We all have our own coping mechanisms or routines that give us an illusion of domination over our lives—maybe we’re not as dedicated as Jeanne or as extreme in our reactions when thrown off, but the point still stands. The horrible thing is that Jeanne’s ritualized routines that give her comfort and perhaps even a concrete sense of purpose only serve to keep her emotionally and psychologically cut off from others, which brings up a whole flurry of questions about the ending. Is Jeanne free? Has she ruined her life? And just how literal or metaphorical is her final, desperate action?
If I have any complaints about the film, it’s that the prostitution angle feels a little contrived, existing solely to make commentary on how divorced Jeanne is from her own body and perhaps the mother-whore dichotomy as well. I never got the sense that the Dielmans were impoverished in any way or that this was a desperate last resort for money. And as Stans observes in her review, “The mystery to me, admittedly, is why she would work as a prostitute when she could hardly expect every client to act according to a scrupulous routine. She seems more cut out to work as a clerk or accountant or something along those lines.” Even Ackerman admitted the sex work angle was more of a metaphor than anything, but if I were to disregard movies for contrivances that work to make a point, I’d have to dismiss a lot of movies I love, including Sight and Sound’s previous GOAT pick, Vertigo (what is the complicated murder plot in that movie but a contrivance so Hitchcock can explore what he’s really interested in—fantasy projection, erotic obsession, and control?).
Of course, not everyone will get the same things out of this movie that I do or even think it’s good—as it should be, that’s how art works. However, the level of outrage I see aimed at the movie because of the Sight and Sound ranking annoys me, because I feel some people are going into the movie wanting to hate it due to their disillusionment with why it might have been picked.
Take the video below, which is a standard negative review of the film in the light of the 2022 poll:
What struck me most is how personally the reviewer seems to have taken the film’s placement on the list. That bias becomes plain with this line:
“If film is a mirror, this is one that shows critics to themselves in the most flattering light. It shows anyone looking to have a good time at the movies the door. Or for many, the inside of their eyelids.”
He accuses the movie of being an empty bore that people project onto—basically, because JeanneDielman doesn’t put any obvious interpretation up front, the reviewer scoffs that any viewer with an “active” mind can impose their own and he accuses critics of being particularly creative about the film’s merits despite its sparseness in plot, even as he tries to backtrack and say great films need not be accessible. Apparently, any positive feelings about the film could only come from “theory and politics” and not looking at Jeanne Dielman as a work of art.
As someone who liked the film as a film, and who even aborted a career in academia because of boredom with dry theory (not to mention the drudgery of grading papers– I’d rather watch Jeanne clean her bathroom for hours than grade papers again), that is news to me.
Look, I get not liking the film or thinking it’s pretentious or thinking the payoff wasn’t worth the three hour investment, but some people act as though Ackerman killed their mother and that anyone who likes the film is an accomplice. Their reactions come off as not so much wrestling with a film that did not work for them, but wanting to get back at those mean critics for overlooking X film or Z filmmaker because they wanted to be “political” or “different” in voting for Jeanne Dielman. That’s not fair to the film and it’s a waste of energy for the viewer.
I also found the reviewer’s point about the film as a “Rosarch test” particularly interesting. Putting aside that I disagree that there is nothing in the film for any viewer to work with in forming an interpretation, I have to ask does every great film have to make its point obvious? Some films are straightforward in their messages, while others invite the viewer to come to their own conclusions. That’s how people have gotten so much mileage out of discussing 2001: A Space Odyssey for over fifty years. (Funny, that’s another film I’ve seen accused of being an “emperor’s new clothes” deal for pretentious critics only.)
Despite what some people think, we do, to a certain extent, project ourselves onto the movies we watch. We bring our own experiences, tastes, and expectations to each movie we see, whether you’re watching the latest blockbuster or a Bergman film. That’s just reality. That’s how two people can watch the same film and come out with wildly different reactions. Is Bergman’s Winter Light about the death of faith or its fragile resurrection in a post-atomic age? Your religious convictions or lack thereof could very well influence how you read that movie. Is the ending of City Lights tragic or happy? Is it sentimental tosh or a tender exploration of the power of love? That depends how cynical you are.
Here, let me use an example more personal to me. Take Stanley Donen’s beloved cult romcom Two for the Road. I have seen the film twice and disliked it both times. I think the characters are vapid whiners and find their relationship toxic. The unconventional editing and Audrey Hepburn’s ability to make some of the ugliest 60s fashions look chic are all that impress me about it. However, one of my closest friends adores Two for the Road. She’s moved by the film’s depiction of the ups and downs of marriage, and views the characters as endearingly flawed rather than insufferable.
We both saw the same film, but came out with wildly different interpretations of the material. Why? Could it be due to our different life experiences? Perhaps. I am under 30 and unmarried; she’s been married for four decades. We are each responding differently because we’re different people. Now, I’m not saying I’d suddenly like the film if I was married, but experience does play a role in my reaction.
Taste does too, and that seems to be the heart of whether or not you’ll like Jeanne Dielman. For some, Jeanne Dielman’s experimental qualities are what make it great. They find it a liberating film unburdened by the usual formulaic demands of narrative storytelling, showing a fuller picture of what a movie can be by allowing us to fully inhabit and engage with this woman’s life in all its unglamorous splendor. But for others, the experimental nature is a knock against any claim to greatness because it is inaccessible to most people and relentless in its insistence on boring the audience with the mundane.
In the comments section for Lea Stans’ review of the film, John Bengston made a comment that has stayed with me:
“I may lack the insight and intelligence to appreciate the subtle nuances of “slow cinema,” but it troubles me when “genius” has to be diagrammed and explained, when the genius in so many other movies is staggeringly self-evident.”
I understand the sentiment. The Wizard of Oz is a great film with many layers and ways to read it, but it is also a film that can be enjoyed by casual filmgoers and movie buffs alike. The same could be said of Citizen Kane—a film buff will get why it’s highly regarded and be able to glean deeper themes from it, but a casual viewer can appreciate the story on its own terms and come away satisfied. Jeanne Dielman—well, one of these things is not like the other. But once again, I implore you, does every Great Film need to be great for the same reason? Genius does not always look the same. It can be unapparent at first, or it can be “staggeringly self-evident.” And as for me, I like myself a good, challenging film.
Ultimately, why freak out over a list when there is no ranking that will please everyone anyway? Some films will move you and others will not. Some films not considered great might touch you deeply, while canonized classics and celebrated filmmakers might strike you as overrated. That’s the nature of the game.
And that’s the way we should view these lists– they’re a game, nothing serious at all. They’re fun to make and fun to discuss (when people don’t get butthurt anyway). The films not included on the list will not spontaneously disappear from existence. The films you think shouldn’t be there are not going to gobble up Lawrence of Arabia or The Grand Illusion. It’s just a dumb list, like any list I could post on this blog.
I can hear the cries already: “But what about young cinephiles of the future who use these lists to get suggestions?! This list is going to make them miss X film because now it’s banished from the list!”
Is it? Do people actually work like that when they get into film?
When I was a budding movie geek in 2009, it’s true that I used the AFI lists to get recommendations, but my taste has since wandered to a lot of films that were never included on any iteration of that list. In fact, I became so preoccupied in my own research and viewings that I never even finished watching all the films ranked there, but I am grateful that the list offered me films I had never heard of before, both ones I loved and ones I did not. There are films on those lists like Ben-Hur, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest I find incredibly overrated, but you don’t see me freaking out about their inclusion. I watched them, thought about them, disagreed with the list, and then moved on with my life. In the case of Jeanne Dielman, the new list and the controversy around it turned me onto a film I might not have selected on my own, and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. That is literally the best thing any of these goofy lists can do.
You see, cinephilia is a journey and because the world of movies is so large and everyone has their own unique tastes and interests, not everyone’s journey is the same. A list can be a good starting guide, but inevitably, they will introduce you to filmmakers and genres you click with and then you’ll continue your own independent exploration, combing through TCM listings, streaming services, and your local library for titles that stand out to you.
A list like any put out by AFI or Sight and Sound should not be seen as dogma, even if they were to present themselves as such. The contents of any list tell you more about the people compiling them and voting in them than they do about anything else, so just keep that in mind anytime you read one. It’s nothing serious– and at least unlike the Oscars, you won’t be subjected to cringey jokes from celebrities, so there’s that.
In the 1920s, Murray was Hollywood royalty. She’d clawed her way out of a lonely, poverty-stricken childhood to become a Ziegfield star in 1908, then got lured to Hollywood in the mid-1910s. Reluctant to leave New York for California, success on the screen convinced her that the movies were a viable career path,though she always saw herself as a dancer at heart.
By the Jazz Age, Murray was among the chief goddesses of the Hollywood pantheon. While Mary Pickford was all plucky girlish innocence and Norma Talmadge embodied noble suffering, Murray was glamorous and a touch risque, unafraid to appear in skimpy dancer’s attire or sultry evening wear. She gained a great swathe of fans, though the critics were less impressed. Her acting was often derided as too histrionic and even now, Murray tends to inspire love-her-or-hate-her reactions. She’s either a lively presence unafraid to go bold or the hammy originator of “duck face,” as Fritzi Kramer once put it.
This love-or-hate quality also extended to Murray’s offscreen life. She could be kind and nurturing, as she was with Lorretta Young during the future star’s childhood, or with Rudolph Valentino, who she befriended when he was still a young dancer trying to eke out a living. She could also be temperamental. Depending on who was talking, she was either a tyrant on set who bullied everyone that questioned her or a hard worker willing to fight for what she believed was best for her films. Murray would have certainly seen it the latter way, such as when she and director Erich von Stroheim feuded on the set of her most famous film, The Merry Widow.
Married four times, she made her last match with David Mdivani, a Georgian “prince” (in reality, he was closer to a count). She coveted a royal title. He salivated over her fortune. As you might guess, this marriage ended very badly, with Murray being bled of her wealth and emotionally abused by a controlling husband. She also suffered through a nasty custody battle over her estranged son Koran, ultimately losing.
Murray’s fall from grace was concurrent with her miserable marriage. Broke, in debt, blacklisted following a nasty row with Louis B. Mayer, and struggling to make a name for herself in talkies, Murray never regained her former popularity. From the 1930s on, she lived in poverty, making do with stage appearances and charity from others, until she passed away in 1965, months short of her 80th birthday.
Murray’s later life often gets a lot of sensationalistic attention. She still thought of herself as the greatest star of all and was always unwilling to face up to her age. When a passerby recognized her at lunch in the early 1960s, he eagerly explained that he’d been a loyal fan of hers for “fifty years.” Enraged, Murray snapped that she hadn’t been a star that long!
This willingness to, as Blance Dubois once said, to “tell what ought to be truth” was a quintessential Murray feature from her youth. Murray disliked dealing with unpleasantness and so adopted a sunny perspective, having faith that things would always work out. Sometimes, this gave her an energetic optimism that allowed her to plow through hard times. Other times, it made her unable to face reality, whether that be in her hasty marriages or the constant pushing forward of her birth date.
Obviously, Murray’s creative relationship with truth makes her a difficult subject for biography, so that makes Michael G. Ankerich’s excellent account of her life all the greater an achievement. Ankerich must also be commended for his compassion for the woman. It would be easy to sour on Murray’s self-absorption, vindictiveness, and delusions of grandeur, but Ankerich is pretty patient with her and never lets the reader forget Murray had a better side, namely, her willingness to work hard and give the audience their money’s worth.
By the time I finished the book, I came away with a greater appreciation for Mae Murray, funny enough. Before, I conceded that her screen persona wasn’t to my taste and that offscreen, she was basically just Sunset Blvd’s Norma Desmond sans wealth and an ultra-loyal butler. Ankerich’s biography humanized her for me and that’s among the best things any biography can do.
Putting aside her unfortunate label of “tragic sex icon,” Marilyn Monroe tends to be most associated with comedies: How to Marry a Millionaire, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and of course the sublime Some Like It Hot. However, we should not forget Monroe’s excursions into noir: The Asphalt Jungle, Niagara, and today’s subject, Don’t Bother to Knock.
Essentially a one-room thriller, Don’t Bother to Knock is a bit of a noir outlier: unlike in the more famous Niagara, Monroe isn’t playing a femme fatale, and the story doesn’t involve what we would normally associate with noir (detectives, criminals, hard-nosed dames, suckers with bad luck, fatalism, etc.). But it must be remembered that noir is a very flexible genre/movement/whatever-you-define-it. It’s more about atmosphere and sensibility than tropes, and when you take that into account, Don’t Bother to Knock is noir to the core, suffused with that moody, uneasy postwar anxiety that characterizes all classic noir from Double Indemnity to Touch of Evil.
Technically, Monroe is not the film’s protagonist. That would be Richard Widmark’s Jed Towers, a pilot whose hotel lounge singer girlfriend (Anne Bancroft in her movie debut) dumps him for being too hard-hearted. Nursing his bruised ego in one of the hotel’s rooms, Jed spies a beautiful woman in a window opposite his. This is Monroe’s character, Nell Forbes, a fragile young woman babysitting a wealthy guest’s child. Jed calls up the room and Nell agrees to have him over, but what Jed thinks will be a casual tryst becomes something more awful when it becomes clear that Nell is a disturbed woman. Convinced Jed is her dead fiance (who also happened to be a pilot), she endeavors to keep him close and to harm anyone who dares get in their way– including the little girl in her charge.
From that synopsis, you might expect Nell to be little more than your garden variety psycho, but the film is far more compassionate than that. We get bits and pieces of Nell’s sad backstory, and it’s clear that she isn’t a monster to be slain but a lost soul crying out for help. Monroe must be commended for not going over the top with either the character’s menace or pathos. Widmark also gets a meaty role, going from a cynical hardass to a more understanding human being.
The film moves briskly, squeezing all the suspense possible from the situation and the single location. Don’t Bother to Knock might not be as iconic as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Seven-Year Itch, but it might just feature Monroe’s best performance. It’s certainly a rebuff to any proposal that she was only a pretty face.
A note: I normally try to keep this column spoiler-free, but this piece ended up becoming more of a meditation on The Red Shoes‘ themes than an introduction to the film. Hence, there will be mild spoilers and you’ll probably only get anything out of this if you’ve seen the film. So if you haven’t, go watch it! It’s a true masterpiece.
My brain always classifies Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes as a fantasy film, even though it isn’t one. Not technically—still, this is a movie that can only be described as enchanted. Magic creeps in at the edges, both in the iconic Red Shoes ballet sequence and in the film’s sumptuous Technicolor.
The story is deceptively simple when examined on paper. Ballerina Victoria “Vicky” Page is torn between her career and her personal life, each side represented by the austere impresario Boris Lermontov and Vicky’s musician lover Julian Craster. These are the bare bones of rote melodrama and yet no one could ever accuse this romantic fever dream of a movie of being standard. What elevates it?
I’d say it’s the film’s sophisticated understanding of the symbiotic bond between art and life. Vicky’s ultimatum is wrongheaded because for her, art and life nourish one another. The central ballet sequence is so stunning and surreal because it shows how Vicky’s inner world melds with her dancing. The desires and torment of the girl in the story mirror Vicky’s own fierce ambitions and budding love for Julian.
Lermontov views this romance with disdain. For him it is as unthinkable as a nun falling in love. Lermontov’s philosophy is that artists should “ignore” human nature and dedicate themselves solely to their chosen vocation. When Vicky breaks down, he urges her to ignore her broken heart because “life is so unimportant.” Long before Lermontov’s demands become too taxing, the audience is subtly shown the fruits of his philosophy in the montage showcasing Vicky’s rise to the top of her profession. The camerawork lacks the dazzle and interiority of the Red Shoes ballet earlier. As critic Ian Christie points out in the Criterion commentary track, Vicky becomes “just another prima ballerina” under Lermontov’s strict tutelage—the result of art divorced from life. She is technically brilliant and popular, but the ecstasy she showed earlier is missing.
Julian is Lermontov’s inverse. Fueled by petty rage against Lermontov as the result of a spat between the two of them, he demands Vicky leave the company with him, despite her conviction that Lermontov represents the absolute best in dance. Her own ambitions have to be curbed to validate Julian’s ego. Her dreams become secondary to keeping their marriage intact. The scenes of her wandering their home at night, forlornly gazing upon her unused ballet shoes reminds one of those folk tales about swan maidens with clipped wings.
(I admit that if I have one issue with The Red Shoes, it’s that Julian comes off as a whiny brat unworthy of any sacrifice. Plus, Lermontov is played by the charismatic Anton Walbrook, who just walks away with every scene in which he appears.)
The last few paragraphs make the movie sound dour, which is not at all the case. Much of the first half focuses on Lermontov organizing his ragtag band of dancers, musicians, and artists to bring the titular ballet to life. I love the detail in these scenes. They focus on the hard work that goes into art—the discipline, the long hours, the dueling egos, the anxiety that you’re all making crap and not the masterpiece you envisioned. If you’ve ever worked in dance or theater in any capacity, all of this will be familiar.
With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder that The Red Shoes tends to be so beloved by creative people. Lord knows, it’s inspired scores of viewers to pursue dance. Few other films are so fully a celebration of the power of art.
2022 was a productive year for me. I developed new skills and delved into cinematic movements I’m not too familiar with (specifically, the British New Wave—expect content on that in the upcoming year). If I thought last year’s best posts represented my finest work to date on this blog, then 2022’s best topped even those! So here are the three posts I feel represent that higher standard.
Obviously, this audio commentary for Wait Until Dark is the project I’m proudest of this year because it took me the farthest out of my comfort zone. I’m confident expressing ideas with the keyboard, but not with my voice. To be honest, you can tell I’m a little nervous at points in the recording, but overall, I’m satisfied with it. I was able to delve into the film’s production history and why it remains such an exemplar thriller even after half a century, and I had a great time doing it. Here’s hoping for further venturing into uncharted territory in the future!
Coming in second is my analysis of the Broadway Ballet from Singin’ in the Rain. I’ve loved this sequence since I first saw the film—it’s extravagant and colorful, cinema in the purest sense, yet it often garners criticism as an indulgent incarnation of Gene Kelly’s ego. I argued the ballet has more to do with the film’s story than is generally thought.
And then the bronze medal goes to this post about the evolving relationship between Star Wars and The Searchers. This piece didn’t get much attention, but I’m proud of it regardless. I’ve always found Lucas’ six films fascinating, warts and all. I also think the way the saga is influenced by John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece is often under-examined. People assume the references are all visual quotations only, but as I argue, there’s more of a conversation going on between Ethan Edwards and Anakin Skywalker—and George Lucas and John Ford—than is generally believed.
Rankin-Bass, a name as associated with Christmas as Santa Claus or Ebeneezer Scrooge. Though their output included theatrical feature films, adaptations of Tolkien, and TV specials commemorating holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving, and St. Patrick’s Day, no one can deny it’s their Christmas specials that have made their fame, even thirty-plus years after Rankin-Bass went defunct.
Like the Disney animated films or the Looney Tunes before them, the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials hold nostalgic value for several generations. My mother has warm memories of watching them with her sisters every Christmas back in the 1970s, and the specials were still playing regularly on cable when I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s.
I’m not always wooed by nostalgia. There are several Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon cartoons I obsessed over as a kid that I can barely stand to watch now. Some of the anime I loved as an “edgy” teen makes me cringe as an adult. But the Rankin-Bass specials mostly hold up for me. They’re endearingly innocent, especially compared to most family fare in the years since, lacking that post-Shrek irony or that annoying tendency to have characters loudly comment on tropes just so the obnoxious Cinema Sins channel won’t barrage them with dings. These films also tap into the more spiritual core of Christmas, and I don’t mean that quite in a strict religious sense (though some of the films certainly do not shy away from Christian references, even the ones not set in biblical times). They promote values like generosity, forgiveness, and goodwill in a very heart-on-the-sleeve way.
As a kid, I never thought of these films as “old,” but now it’s hard to miss they were made in the 60s and 70s, particularly from the music alone. The most Woodstock of them all has to be 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, which presents a young Santa Claus as a long-haired rebel toymaker bringing joy to children trapped in a colorless, authoritarian village. It gets even weirder when Jessica (the future Mrs. Claus) lets her hair down hippie-style and sings a love ballad while dancing alongside psychedelic imagery. It’s weird to think so much of the 60s counterculture trickled down into children’s fare at the time—especially that little detail about the Clauses marrying without the benefit of clergy since “no town would take them.”
The so-called “dated” elements and the rough animation didn’t matter when I was a kid because the story captivated me. I loved the presentation of Santa as an outlaw raised by forest-dwelling elves and the fun explanations for different elements of the Santa mythos (the reindeer fly because of “magic deer corn” provided by a gigantic wizard Santa befriends in the woods). Also, “Put One Foot in Front of the Other” is a damn great song. Playing it is a surefire way to make me smile, even now.
But for all their whimsy, these films have their dark moments too. In fact, some are quite brutal! Aaron, the eponymous protagonist of The Little Drummer Boy, becomes possessed with Anakin Skywalker levels of rage towards humanity after his parents get murdered by bandits. Jack Frost doesn’t get the girl in his special and has to return to lonely immortality by the end. And who could forget the endless trauma-parade that is the plot of Nestor the Long-Eared Donkey, a movie that scarred one of my aunts so badly that she refuses to watch it as an adult?
And yet these films are ultimately optimistic in tone. Wrapped presents in a Rankin-Bass special aren’t simply a commercialistic obligation of the season, but heartfelt tokens of generosity. Characters are vulnerable, often outsiders shoved to the margins for a variety of reasons (having a red nose, being an orphan, being a hippie toymaker, being a sentient snowman, etc.), making their willingness to be kind despite the cruel vicissitudes of life touching. Modern culture often calls good characters “boring,” but I say hell no! A character who chooses love and courage in the face of indifference and hostility is anything but boring.
The Grinches among us might deem the Rankin-Bass philosophy about the power of simple goodness “naïve” or schmaltzy—my God, let’s hope not. It’s easy to be cynical about the world, to be resentful, to despair. At the end of Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, we get a montage of such Scrooges, complaining about the seeming incongruence of Christmas cheer “when there’s so much unhappiness in the world.”
That’s why I believe the best Christmas tales have a restorative energy. For those who celebrate it, Christmas is the culmination of the year, a time to reflect on the past and a time to think about the days ahead, to wonder if we’ve been making the most of our lives or simply squandering our time. This is why A Christmas Carol remains a perennial favorite, as is It’s a Wonderful Life.
The Rankin-Bass specials hold a similar power for me. No, they aren’t all masterpieces. Some have poorly structured plots or sudden story developments to rush the action along. Cricket on the Hearth is… a film (allegedly). However, they retain their charm. It’s not quite Christmas without watching two or three of them.
My mother once went through my home media collection and told me I didn’t have enough comedies in there. It is true that I tend to prefer horror, psychological thrillers, satire, Shakespearean tragedy, dystopian sci-fi, and noir to, well, fluffier fare, but my taste isn’t completely devoid of whimsy. If I was, then I’d hardly be recommending Christmas in Connecticut, pure concentrated Yuletide cheer in cinematic form.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Elizabeth, a magazine writer whose readership thinks she’s tending to a baby and cows on a Connecticut farm, whipping up delicious homecooked meals and searching for the perfect rocking chair. In reality, she lives in a messy NYC apartment, spends her salary on mink coats, and probably couldn’t whip up a bowl of instant potatoes, let alone roasted duck. However, her publisher has no idea that Elizabeth isn’t who she claims to be and to boost sales, insists Elizabeth have war hero Jefferson Jones over for Christmas. Rushing to get a husband (a long-time admirer will have to do), a farm (luckily the long-time admirer has one), a baby (borrowed from a local woman while she’s off at work), and someone who can cook (Elizabeth’s chef pal “Uncle” Felix), Elizabeth also finds herself falling for the handsome Jefferson… too bad he thinks she’s a married woman!
The whole story is essentially a farce, not to be taken too seriously whatsoever. What always sticks out to me most is how borderline naughty the romance between Elizabeth and Jefferson is. For 90% of the runtime, he assumes she’s a married woman, and he reacts to her open flirting with a mixture of shock and titillation. Stanwyck and co-star Dennis Morgan have a great deal of chemistry, making their scenes a delight, and they get wonderful support from Sydney Greenstreet as Elizabeth’s publisher and SZ Sakall as Uncle Felix (his constant use of the term “honky-donky” always cracks me up).
So yeah—I’m not all gloom and doom! I can recommend Christmas films other than the moody Alastair Sims’ Scrooge or nihilistic noir like Blast of Silence!
Blogging around Thanksgiving can be tough. Unlike Halloween or Christmas, there really aren’t that many Thanksgiving movies, certainly none considered seasonal classics like the Universal horror lineup or It’s A Wonderful Life. However, there are plenty of movies I’m thankful for: movies that introduced me to a beloved artist, movies that remind me of a family member or friends, movies that I associate with a fond memory.
So I decided to highlight one such movie today: William Wyler’s 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Why am I so thankful for this movie? Because it led me to what is now my favorite novel of all time, though not in the way you might expect… especially since I technically read Wuthering Heights before seeing the movie.
My introduction to Emily Bronte’s 1848 gothic masterpiece was typical of most readers: it was assigned reading during my senior year of high school. Now, today I am a great lover of what we call “classic lit.” Back then though? I hated pretty much everything for assigned reading in school, save for Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe. Having to read what I considered depressing, confusing stuff during my three months off didn’t make me relish the likes of The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, or Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights especially drove me mad as it is a demanding work for an adult, let alone for a teenager.
Set in 18th century England, the story centers on Heathcliff, an orphan foundling adopted into the Earnshaw family, who belong to the landed gentry. When his doting adopted father takes ill and dies, Heathcliff is left at the mercy of the Earnshaw heir Hindley, who forces him to the level of a servant. Heathcliff’s lone solace is his relationship with his adopted sister Catherine, a fellow free spirit who enjoys mischief and long hours on the nearby moors. Hindley’s attempts to keep the friends apart only serve to strengthen their kinship– that is, until Catherine catches the eye of handsome Edgar Linton, the heir of the nearby Thrushcross Grange. As much as she loves Heathcliff, Catherine is seduced by Edgar’s fine breeding and wealth, and opts to marry him so she can be the finest lady in the county and then use her newfound influence to take Heathcliff out of her brother’s power. Feeling betrayed by his one friend and unaware of her hope to rescue him from servitude, Heathcliff runs away, much to Catherine’s horror.
A few years pass before Heathcliff returns, now the owner of a decent fortune. Overjoyed, Catherine longs to resume their friendship, but Edgar isn’t fond of Heathcliff and Heathcliff has a mind to have his revenge on everyone that wronged him. And his vengeance is so great that it threatens to consume not just Catherine, Edgar, and Hindley, but also the next generation and even Heathcliff himself.
Covering roughly three decades, the book is not written in a conventional way: there is a framing story set in 1800, but much of the novel is presented in flashback, told by the former Earnshaw servant Nelly Dean, who, by the way, is not always the most unbiased narrator. Characters often have similar names (Edgar and Catherine’s daughter is named Catherine; Heathcliff’s son by Isabella Linton is named Linton Heathcliff; Hindley has a son named Hareton), a device meant to emphasize a sense of cyclical repetition but one that only served to send me to Sparknotes constantly just to keep track of who was who.
And then there are the characters, who are almost uniformly unlikable. The books and movies I enjoyed featured main characters who were sympathetic and easy to root for, so I didn’t know what to make of Wuthering Heights, where victimized characters often become vicious victimizers and the central pair of lovers engage in obsessive, cruel behavior. Heathcliff is a particularly monstrous sort, treating others with sadistic relish once he comes into power and doesn’t have to take anyone’s crap anymore. Bronte initially makes it seem as though Heathcliff will be a diamond in the rough who can be transformed through love– and then she pulls the rug out under the reader, with his undying love for Catherine being the thing that only just barely makes Heathcliff seem vulnerable and human at all.
Honestly, I was too young to properly appreciate the uncompromising nature of the story or the psychological complexity of the cast. That, and I just wanted to spend hours on my PS2 and nowhere near some old book I’d have to write a report on before August. When I was done with the novel, I shoved the paperback in a drawer and never thought I’d ever touch it again.
Wuthering Heights entered my life again about a year later. Throughout senior year, I was in the early phase of my film geekdom and my way of sampling a variety of genres and eras was to go through the American Film Institute’s many curated lists. You know– the Top 100 American films, Top 100 Thrills, etc. Included on the Top 100 Passions list (a compilation of the best romantic American films) was William Wyler’s 1939 version of Wuthering Heights.
I don’t remember what my response was to seeing this title on the list. Probably an eyeroll. But I dutifully watched it… and wouldn’t you know, I was crying at the end and haunted by the film for weeks after seeing it. I literally stayed up all night thinking about it once. When that happened, I knew I had to reread the book.
And what do you know? I loved it and stayed up all night thinking of Bronte’s characters once again. I haven’t stopped thinking of them ever since.
Twelve years on and I still love Wyler’s Wuthering Heights. It’s a golden example of the exquisitely mounted melodramas the big Hollywood studios put out during the 1930s and 1940s. The black-and-white visuals perfectly evoke that desired gothic, haunted atmosphere in which ghosts chill the air and even the strongest love possesses undercurrents of yearning and pain. Director William Wyler creates a sharp contrast between the exteriors and interiors, mirroring the way Catherine is torn between her desire for the moors (where she and Heathcliff can be free of the class distinctions that keep them apart) and the seductive comforts of high society. But of course, the heart of the production is the chemistry between Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon– passionate, obsessive, and borderline sadomasochistic in their onscreen interactions. Both actors do well bringing these charismatic but infuriating people to life. That they have any chemistry at all is impressive, given that the two performers were reportedly at each other’s throats on set.
I know as a fan of the novel I’m supposed to hate this movie. As an adaptation, Wyler’s movie is hardly faithful to Bronte’s original. The setting was changed arbitrarily to the 1840s rather than the late 18th century purely on the whim of the producer Sam Goldwyn. The screenwriters toned down the nastiness of the characters. The entire second half of the book was cut from the script, thwarting the book’s focus on how abuse can beget more abuse and how the second generation of characters decide they will not repeat their parents’ mistakes.
Without the second half, it is true that the story loses much of the source material’s uniqueness and power, becoming a far simpler romantic drama about the unfairness of the British class system. If I have one big complaint about the film today, it’s that the ending seems so abrupt without the later stages of Heathcliff’s revenge. However, that might only seem so problematic to me because I am now thoroughly familiar with the novel. Back then, I was satisfied with the ending and other viewers might argue this ending works well in the context of the movie. Indeed, on its own merits, the film remains a beautifully mounted gothic drama, among the best of its era. I always enjoy seeing it– I prefer to think of it as a study in Wuthering Heights, much as Olivier saw his 1948 Hamlet film as “a study in Hamlet” due to its truncated nature.
Today, I am a certified Wuthering Heights junkie. I’ve read the novel over ten times and own several editions of the book. I’ve seen most of the film and TV adaptations. I’ve even watched the enjoyably cheesy 1996 Cliff Richard musical.
But all of that love only blossomed because the Wyler film inspired me to give the book another chance. For that, I will be forever grateful.