26 February 2009

Ein Volk, Ein Reich...

Ein(e) Shearer.

25 February 2009

A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born is a rather poignant "behind-the-scenes" look at the film industry as it stood in 1937, Produced by David O. Selznick at his eponymous studio and released via United Artists. Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, a young lady from the middle of nowhere in North Dakota who aspires to be a movie star. Esther's Grandmother (May Robinson) agrees to pay Esther's way to Hollywood, but warns her that chasing her dreams could very well cost her more dearly than she imagines. Once in Hollywood, Esther struggles to find work on the screen, being just another nameless girl amid a sea of aspiring extras. Esther finally lands a job as a waitress at a party, thanks to her friendship with assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine). It is at said party that Esther meets Norman Maine (played by Fredric March), a major film star (and a major alcoholic). Quite taken with Esther, Norman pulls a few strings and arranges a screen test for her. The test goes swimmingly, and Esther is rechristened Vicki Lester and put under contract to the studio. Norman arranges for Vicki to appear opposite him in his next picture, and she is a smashing success. Vicki becomes a major star, and is soon married to Norman. All is not well, however, for as Vicki climbs the ranks of fame and stardom Norman's career takes a nosedive, causing him to hit the bottle harder than ever. Tragedy, sadly, ensues.

Janet Gaynor turns in a great performance as Esther, including one scene wherein she imitates Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn and Mae West in an attempt to get the studio big-shots to notice her at the party. She plays the role of the starry-eyed ingenue perfectly, which makes her all the more pathetic when she has to confront the true nature of the beast called Hollywood. One cannot help but feel for her when her rabid fans hound her for autographs, utterly indifferent to her suffering.

It's Fredric March, however, who ultimately steals the film--his depiction of Norman Maine is truly wonderful. Norman Maine is a character with whom I truly identify--a man who was once on top of the world, but finds solace only in drink now that that same world has left him behind. I can't help but think that I'll wind up like him one day. Having already seen him in Susan and God (1940), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), I have to say that Fredric March is easily one of my favorite actors (it's worth noting that he won oscars for the latter two pictures).

A Star is Born is also interesting because it gives a fairly accurate portrayal of the star-making process. Molding Esther Blodgett into Vicki Lester involves inventing a new life story for her (courtesy of the loathsome publicity agent Matt Libby, played by Lionel Stander, one of the better character actors of the day). It also means creating a whole new look for her, and Vicki is placed in the care of two make up artists who try to devise the perfect look for her ("Does she have to look surprised all the time?").

The story of A Star is Born is one that was told before--the 1932 film What Price Hollywood? is remarkably similar--and would be told again--in a 1954 remake--but the 1937 iteration is perhaps the best of the lot. It's definitely worth watching.

23 February 2009

Pskov, 1581

The Russians of Pskov withstand a siege by the Polish army.

21 February 2009

Great Ladykillers of Yesteryear: William Haines

Charles William Haines was one of MGM's most important leading men in the 1920s. Haines typically played the role of the impudent smart ass, a trait which invariably landed his characters in hot water. Will was frequently cast alongside many of MGM's biggest names, including Lon Chaney in Tell it to the Marines, Marion Davies in Show People and Lionel Barrymore in Alias Jimmy Valentine (which was also MGM's first all-talking picture). He also appeared in a number of films with Joan Crawford, of whom he was a close personal friend.

Yet despite being one of MGM's most likable players, Will's film career was quite suddenly cut short in 1933, when he was arrested during a tryst with another young man at the local YMCA. Although Haines was openly gay (and had been living with his lover for some time), MGM had kept the matter under the radar. In the wake of the incident, Louis B. Mayer insisted that Haines enter into a lavender marriage if he wished to keep his film career going. Being a man of principle, Haines refused and went on to live a long and happy life with Jimmy Shields. After leaving the motion picture business, Haines took up interior decorating with Shields. Many of Will's old friends from Hollywood were among their clients.

One more thing about Will Haines: the motherfucker had some good taste. If you don't believe me, have a look at some of his interior design work at William Haines Designs.

16 February 2009

Heroes and Such

Although it will no doubt cause a great deal of bewilderment among my peers, I'll say this anyway: I have only ever seen one James Bond film and I really have no desire to see any of the others. The problem is that James Bond (along with the dozens of other characters of the same ilk) is essentially a wish-fulfillment figure for the garden variety heterosexual male: he drives absurdly nice cars, employs a limitless arsenal of weapons and gadgets, is surrounded by an endless parade of beautiful women and is almost never defeated. The same can be said, by and large, of most other action heroes.

Such superhuman wish-fulfillment figures are rampant in the media. The past several years have seen one overblown superhero movie after the next, and Heroes is among the most popular shows on television. This is partly, I suspect, because comic book nerds are now adults to whom products can be more effectively (and therefore more profitably) marketed, but that still leaves unanswered the question as to why hero characters are so popular to begin with. As I understand it, hero characters are popular because they often represent ethical or moral convictions that are held by most people and can overcome whatever obstacles they might face--even death, in some cases, is a temporary setback.

Yet the insurmountability of the hero that makes me so averse to them. In other words, the problem is that he is simply too perfect. James Bond and his sort are not characters with whom I can sympathize or empathize in any meaningful way--I cannot identify with the action hero, largely because the action hero is neither the kind of person that I am, that I aspire to be nor that I realistically can aspire to be. More profoundly, my inability to relate to the human society of which I am inextricably a member naturally begets an inability to relate to the icons of that society.

14 February 2009

Relevant to my Interests, Ep. 15

Ruth Etting got her start in the Ziegfeld Follies (Like many great talents from back in the day), and later appeared in several short films between 1929 and 1936, and only three full-length pictures--most notably Roman Scandals with Eddie Cantor and Hips, Hips, Hooray! with Wheeler and Woolsey. Ruth Etting was one of the most popular singers of the 1930s, and with good reason--she had an absolutely wonderful singing voice (here's some proof, if you don't believe me). In fact, I like her for her vocal talents even more so than for her looks (which weren't too bad, either, by the way). I'm not completely shallow, you may be surprised to find.

07 February 2009

An Aside

My birthday is on Monday. In the unlikely event that anyone out there in TV Land should be wondering what to get me, please allow me to make a suggestion.

01 February 2009

Musical Interlude: Song of the Volga Boatmen

I've had this song stuck in my head the past few days (I had a lot of things stuck in my head the past few days, actually; this just happens to be among the least depressing of them). Here's the A. V. Alexandrov Russian Army Twice Red-bannered Academic Song and Dance Ensemble (more comfortably known as the Alexandrov Ensemble or the Red Army Choir) performing an excellent rendition of a classic Russian folk song. Be sure to watch it high quality for maximum effect.