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...a sweatshop of moxie

Monday, September 19, 2005

Faces

(Welcome Ann Althouse readers! And belatedly, but still warmly, The Thin Man Returns readers!)

"We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." -- Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.


Fifty-five years after Gloria Swanson melodramatically proclaimed this line in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, it remains a truism today.

Actors and actresses had mesmirising faces in the Golden Age of Film, but their appeal cannot be reduced to a mere quadrangulation of features.

No.

It had to do with a style, an essence, perhaps even an attitude which doesn't lend itself to modernity: to be a screen goddess, you had to leave a part of your self-consciousness behind, and yet, turn it outwards to your audience, trusting them to receive it in its proper spirit.

It is not beauty or elegance which made these women below film goddesses. In fact, a few even had unconventionally irregular features.

But that's exactly the point.

That is how you could project yourself unto the screen, secure in the knowledge that a whole infrastruture was behind you, allowing you to imagine you are greater than the sum of your physical parts.

It's precisely this cinematographic seduction which we are missing today -- a dance between the presenter and the viewer which exists only in the mind, and yet comes alive on the darkened screen.

Each of these actors below represents a part of this unspoken covenant.

This pact is not entirely lost, yet cynicism has made too many inroads of doubt in our minds for it to find uncritical ground today.

Perhaps, who knows, it will make a Desmondesque comeback soon.



GRETA GARBO

It was Ann Althouse who brought the point home to me, that 18 September marked Greta Garbo's centenary.

How extraordinary.

A face which disappeared from the world's radar in 1941 would just be 100 today.

Thousands, perhaps millions of words have been written about the sphinx-like star born in Sweden, in a working-class suburb of Stockholm.

How her retiring nature had to do with deep shame of her grade-school, barely literate education, the precise reason which Joe DiMaggio enveloped himself with an aura of mystery too.

(When you feel so inadequate, you tend to develop high standards about yourself in public; but it's monumentally taxing to keep them up, so you withdraw from life)

How her luminous beauty inspired awe, and yet slight disgust, dividing men and women neatly the down the middle.

She was one of those rare females who turned men off, and turned women on, and each was not quite sure why.

I know why.

In fact, we all do -- she was translucent, and vulnerable, and strong, and cold. She played a game that men didn't understand, but that women still do today.

She wanted something, in her case solitude, and for once, people indulged her, rather than forced her to do as they willed and expected.

That is every woman's secret desire in life.

To have what they want, to have it all, by achieving it, as by being given it. And she did.

Films of Note: Ninotchka, Gösta Berlings saga, Love.



AUDREY HEPBURN

Pixie. Elfin. Gamine.

These are all words which are often used to describe the particular, hauntingly sad beauty of Audrey Hepburn, the Belgian-born Dutchwoman of Anglo-Irish extraction.

I suppose it has to do with her odd, lemon-shaped face.

That face looks like that of a child, parts innocent, parts sorceress. Something which is difficult to pin down, and frankly, few people want to, the better to keep alive its otherworldly magic.

I don't think there has ever been such a debut for any actress, as Audrey Hepburn had in Roman Holiday.

For a world starved of sophistication and glamour, after the austerity of wartime, she was foreign, yet somehow knowable, unlike Garbo, and not, poor dear, as clownish as Carmen Miranda.

Her attraction, in fact, lay with her unsensual sensuality, the opposite of Grace Kelly. This was no iceberg who one felt smoldered deep within.

She was the woman all women wanted to act like, to be confused for, and all men wanted to possess, if only once.

And even then, it was a passing fancy, lest her enchantment evaporate and they be left with reality.

They needn't have worried. In Audrey Hepburn's case, dreams were no match for reality.

Films of Note: Roman Holiday, The Nun's Story, Breakfast at Tiffany's.



CAROLE LOMBARD

Most people, if they remember Carole Lombard at all, simply remember that she was the woman who died tragically before her time in an airplane crash, leaving Clark Gable an inconsolable widower.

What few people know is that this earthy goddess from the careening plains of Fort Wayne, Indiana, had over 100 films under her belt, before she made one talkie.

She was the consummate taskmistress on set, it was said, who knew everyone's lines, could drink the grips under the table, could swear at the director with a mouth many truckers would blanch at, and looked like a Hellenic statue whether in jeans or Adrian ballgown.

Lombard was the ultimate American woman: brassy, bold, and yet surprisingly feminine in the most unexpected of moments.

A goddess tempered by the prairies.

Films of Note: Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, To Be or Not to Be.



MYRNA LOY, ASTA, WILLIAM POWELL

Tell me. Where have Americans like these gone to? Because they once existed, you can believe it.

Not all their compatriots conform to the unsophisticated, uncomplicated lark-abouts which infect popular perceptions of them to this day.

The elegance, the wit, and savoir faire of Myrna Loy, with those Asiatic features, and her eternal co-star, William Powell, make the 1930's appear like an endless cocktail party instead of a world of Hoovervilles, of bread lines, of the sparing of dimes.

But they were emblematic too of what Americans once aspired to be: fun-loving, but not rowdy. Gracious but not stuck-up. Endlessly unsober, but never sots.

It was a world where a martini was your birthright, crime was family fare, and even your beloved pooch dripped with charm.

If you can find these Americans today, drop me a line. I'd very much like to buy them a drink.

FILMS OF NOTE: Manhattan Melodrama, The Thin Man, Double Wedding.



ZARAH LEANDER

What? You say you've never heard of Zarah Leander? Pshaw!

No, she wasn't a minor Hollywood starlet. She wasn't an MGM import castoff, who got the slim pickings which Eleanor Powell or Ginger Rogers didn't want.

In fact, in her time, in her corner of the world, she was a HUGE star.

Everyone sang her songs.

All women mimicked her smokey, deep-throated voice.

And this time, this lady was covetted by most men, all too eager to possess those deep brown eyes which kept them company in the trenches.

But she wasn't American. She was Swedish, in fact. And she wasn't in Hollywood. She was the darling of Nazi Era Film.

No, that wasn't a typo, you read a-right.

Zarah Leander was a star in German film during the Third Reich, the special preserve of Dr. Josef Goebbels, who monitored UFA studios as Minister of Propaganda.

Since, of course, Hollywood represented the hated Jewish establishment, the mischlinge quality of America, Adolf Hitler censored and controlled films coming from the United States (all the while, enjoying them privately himself. It Happened One Night was his special favourite, and he ordered Goebbels to reproduce it, in the uneven screwball copy, Glückskinder), so he had to produce other stars, homegrown or specially imported from vettedly Aryan countries.

It's also quite startling, most people remark, that a Swedish woman with brunette colouring should be the centrepiece of Nazi Film. Perhaps after the boring blondeness of other actresses, she was a healthy enough anecdote.

Because she never had much to do with the Nazis, and because it's hard to chuck out your first love, or the woman whose lips you modeled yours after, her memory lives on in Germany, largely unsullied.

The woman she was supposed to take over from when she exiled herself, Marlene Dietrich, in contrast is hated in Germany.

It's complicated...but I suppose even when you served a monster, if you gave solace to millions during hopeless times, they will remember you with affection...

...including, Pope Benedict XVI, who mentioned her in his memoirs.

Films of Note: Heimat, Es war eine rauschende Ballnacht, Die Große Liebe.



CLAUDIA CARDINALE

Ahh, Claudia Cardinale. Even the name trills on your tongue with lightness.

I have heard it say that Claudia Cardinale was the Italian Brigitte Bardot -- even down to the slight facial resemblence. Perhaps it's the pouting lips.

But no. Cardinale is no mere sex kitten. She's more in line with Sophia Loren in being a WOMAN. All woman, from the moment you lay eyes on her.

In the spaghetti westerns she brought to life, Claudia Cardinale was like a particularly ferocious handmaiden, dragged from one man to another, but knowingly so, not as a doormat of desire.

If there is one woman of the last 40 years which can lay claim to being a screen goddess, it's not Romy Schneider, who deteriorated physically beyond recognition.

It's not Catherine Deneuve, who is one of the few pre-1970's actresses whose beauty actually looks better in colour, than black-and-white.

It's Claudia Cardinale. The Tunisian with the lion's mane and heart.

Films of Note: C'era una volta il West, , Rocco e i suoi fratelli.



RUDOLPH VALENTINO

You're looking at the man who started Hollywood on a path to glamourise their stars.

Before him, male leads were awkward cowpokes in ill-fitting suits. Female leads were wispy like Lilian Gish, or Mary Pickford, and no more mysterious than a bucket of spit.

After him, actors had to weave a spell of enchantment in audiences. Or else.

I chose this photo because it shows the three things he made de rigueur to have if you were a man alive in the 1920's: a cigarette, a wrist-watch, and slicked-back Brilliantine hair.

And by the way, men hated him, whilst women flocked to him because I suppose, he too wanted to have it all -- and failed.

Films of Note: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, The Eagle.



CLAUDETTE COLBERT

It is often said there are no more screen goddesses because black-and-white cinematography lends itself to dream-making, and we live in a colourised world.

And though there is a certain truth to that, I think it's a vastly overstated reason.

Here's living proof:

Claudette Colbert in glorious colour, wearing her Cleopatra togs. After all, a screen goddess is made, not born, and her pedestal need not be monochromatic either.

Or how do you explain the heart-stopping impact of a Vivien Leigh, as Scarlett O'Hara?

Films of Note: It Happened One Night, Cleopatra, Tovarich.


ANGELINA JOLIE

Ann asked in her blogpost who her readers thought came closest to a screen goddess, of the latest crop of actresses.

You're looking at my nomination.

If you paid attention closely to my examples above, you'll know why.

Just let's say, like Garbo, she takes herself seriously enough to be a screen goddess, with her self-possession, her wide-open glamour, and yet she holds something back, which we have to go searching for to find.

Films of Note?

I liked her in Hackers and that modern screwball action comedy, Mr. & Mrs. Smith. And goodness knows, she was the only salvageable thing about Alexander, Russian-Romanian gypsy whore accent and all.

At least, she had a Face.

15 Comments:

  • Your posts are so educational because they cover such a great variety of topics! Reading today's I remembered having a crush on Claudia Cardinale when I was a little boy!

    By Blogger Jose Aguirre, at Mon Sep 19, 04:52:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I think Bogart was supposed to be in Roman Holiday but backed out for some reason. As much as I like Mr. Peck, I feel Bogart would have been even better.

    And I also agree quite strongly with you about Carole Lombard. There's even a good early color film with her, Nothing Sacred that is quite funny. My one-off copy has a color home movie reel of her and Gable duck hunting...

    By Blogger Ron, at Mon Sep 19, 05:28:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Reading today's I remembered having a crush on Claudia Cardinale when I was a little boy!

    That's funny, Jose, because an ex-boyfriend of mine (Cubano-Americano) said the same thing!

    It seems El Barb*do likes her, and allowed Romy Schneider films, and Rita Pavone songs to survive the Revolucion in Cuba.

    That has to be the reason why so many Cubans mention Cardinale, Schneider, and Pavone like a trilogy of foreign treats. ;)

    Cuidado con Rita, Jose! Suerte a ti y a tu familia.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon Sep 19, 06:46:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I think Bogart was supposed to be in Roman Holiday but backed out for some reason. As much as I like Mr. Peck, I feel Bogart would have been even better.

    Because of pure acting ability, I would totally agree.

    But Ron, without Roman Holiday, Mr. Peck would be known almost entirely for his wooden delivery and ossified acting style!

    Can you tell I'm not a big fan? ;)

    And I also agree quite strongly with you about Carole Lombard. There's even a good early color film with her, Nothing Sacred that is quite funny.

    An excellent reference, and quite true.

    BTW, her co-star, Frederic March, is one of my favourite actors of all time, largely because (like Paul Muni), I cherish character actors over leading actors.

    My one-off copy has a color home movie reel of her and Gable duck hunting...

    Hey! I've seen that I think. She was wearing riding britches, with that blonde hair of hers falling in a cascade over her shoulders.

    If it's not that specific home movie, certainly I've seen one of them together either hunting or fishing.

    It really spoke to her backwoodsiness which such a he-man as Gable must've died to have by his side.

    Unfortunately, I'm not that type of woman. I like Luxury too much. ;)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Mon Sep 19, 06:54:00 pm GMT-4  

  • My trio was Cardinale, Raquel Welch y Sofia Loren!!!!

    Rita will hopefully not do much harm here in Miami, but quien sabe, Katrina surprised us!

    By Blogger Jose Aguirre, at Mon Sep 19, 07:07:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Yes, I love Frederic March also! Paul Muni! Richard Widmark!

    That Sidney Greenstreet started his acting career at 62 gives hope to us 'late bloomers.'

    In the Criterion edition of 'My Man Godfrey' there's a nice outtake reel of Lombard blowing takes and swearing up a storm...it's hilarious!

    Doesn't Lombard seem 'modern?' That is, quite freewheeling but yet pretty committed to her work...not the 'posed' type that we see too much of in that period.

    Gable took her death quite hard...

    Do you like Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird?

    By Blogger Ron, at Mon Sep 19, 11:59:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Doesn't Lombard seem 'modern?' That is, quite freewheeling but yet pretty committed to her work...not the 'posed' type that we see too much of in that period.

    Very much so! Much more than, say the actress the poster named Anna mentioned in Ann Althouse's blog -- Katharine Hepburn.

    To me, she wasn't a phony, but Carole Lombard was just much more natural, and genuine.

    The difference from Main Line to Prairie, I guess.

    Gable took her death quite hard...

    I think he just coasted the rest of his life, TBH. He even volunteered for impossibly difficult flying missions during WWII, which frankly smelt of suicide missions.

    They don't make actors (or ballplayers like Ted Williams) like that anymore...

    Do you like Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird?

    Blech! ...does that answer your question? ;)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Tue Sep 20, 12:37:00 am GMT-4  

  • That's the first time I've ever heard someone admit to not liking something related to To Kill A Mockingbird.

    By Blogger lindsey, at Tue Sep 20, 03:02:00 am GMT-4  

  • I agree with you strongly about Ms. Hepburn; I knew Mr. Bogart was a great actor because the Bogart of Maltese Falcon or Key Largo would have thrown the Hepburn of African Queen right straight out of the boat! To not do so shows more self control than one person should be allowed to have.

    My Hepburn exception is Bringing Up Baby, not Philadelphia Story.

    I do disagree about Jolie however; I find her more caricature than goddess and those lips! Ugh! Double Ugh! Her smile reminds me more of Nicholson's Joker than anything else, which is not an image
    I want a goddess to have! Do goddess marry a Billy Bob and have a Velcro Sex Wall? Not that a bit of kink is bad per se, but it takes a bit of sheen off the image, no?

    Is there a goddess today? hmmm...no, but I think that Julianne Moore is closer than Jolie.

    Ted Williams' Zen Philosophy as expressed in his autobiography:
    "You pick your nose, you scratch your ass, and the world goes by."

    Is there someone you would consider a great beauty but not a goddess? Past or present, your call.

    By Blogger Ron, at Tue Sep 20, 04:30:00 am GMT-4  

  • Sorry, guys -- I've been away with Rita concerns. Didn't even check around Blogosphere today.

    I agree with you strongly about Ms. Hepburn; I knew Mr. Bogart was a great actor because the Bogart of Maltese Falcon or Key Largo would have thrown the Hepburn of African Queen right straight out of the boat!

    Ain't that the truth! A very good commentary, Ron.

    It's a shame, largely because less specialised audiences who may not care for the Film Classics, shying away because they are in "black and white", may never see his earlier films, and just watch African Queen when it comes 'round AMC, or a local channel, etc.

    To not do so shows more self control than one person should be allowed to have.

    The funny part is that Katharine Hepburn didn't have to reach back to find that characterisation of a frustrated, evangelical spinster-lady.

    Except for the overtly religious part, it's precisely the type of woman she knew all too well -- from her own background, and of course, in many ways herself.

    My Hepburn exception is Bringing Up Baby, not Philadelphia Story.

    I will reply to this in Ann's blog, where that blogger Anna said the same thing. :)

    I do disagree about Jolie however; I find her more caricature than goddess and those lips! Ugh! Double Ugh! Her smile reminds me more of Nicholson's Joker than anything else, which is not an image
    I want a goddess to have!


    I concede that my mother would agree with you.

    She likes Nichole Kidman because she feels her face and glamour harken back to more stereotypically luscious-featured Hollywood times.

    But I just think Jolie "gets it", despite being a modern incarnation of a screen goddess -- with all that ridiculous baggage, like the lips, the tats, etc.

    Do goddess marry a Billy Bob and have a Velcro Sex Wall? Not that a bit of kink is bad per se, but it takes a bit of sheen off the image, no?

    *LOL* I never heard about this Velcro Sex Wall!

    What are you, glued to E! all day? ;)

    To answer your question, meh, I don't care.

    It's one of the oldest truisms that you should never meet your heroes in real life, because you find out that the magic is gone.

    But these people, of course, aren't my heroes. They're just men and women who capture a moment, and an attitude I liked.

    So I suppose for me, Ron, I don't much care what foibles they have, since I'm not looking for pristiness anyway. :)

    Is there a goddess today? hmmm...no, but I think that Julianne Moore is closer than Jolie.

    Interesting!

    Ted Williams' Zen Philosophy as expressed in his autobiography:
    "You pick your nose, you scratch your ass, and the world goes by."


    Good ole Ted. I fancy I wouldn't have liked him that much, not because he wasn't a good man (he was to a fault, generous to those in trouble, and unracist unlike many of those Red Soxers of the time).

    But you know, I like people around me to be a certain way -- and that way doesn't include any extraneous bodily noises. ;)

    Is there someone you would consider a great beauty but not a goddess? Past or present, your call.

    Oh sure.

    Off the top of my head, Hedy Lamarr, Alice Faye, Fay Wray, Virginia Mayo, Olivia De Havilland, Lillian Harvey, Jennifer Jones, etc. etc.

    Not Veronica Lake though. How that woman could make a career out of a haircut and one good film, is beyond me.

    Of today, there are so many really.

    Here's one gal that I think is very homely, with her smooshed up features, but I rather like her bearing (just short of a screen goddess): Reese Witherspoon.

    The topic is endlessly fascinating, though. :)

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Wed Sep 21, 12:53:00 am GMT-4  

  • That's the first time I've ever heard someone admit to not liking something related to To Kill A Mockingbird.

    I'm frustating that way, Lindsey.

    BTW, though my opinion of Judy Garland has done a 180° u-turn since I was a child, when I LOATHED her (now I can truly appreciate her wonderous talent), I still cannot stand:

    The Wizard of Oz

    Ugh, creepy.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Wed Sep 21, 12:57:00 am GMT-4  

  • All very interesting! I'm starting a lunchtime silent movie club at my daughter's highschool, so after reading about Garbo, I think I'll try to find one of her silent films to introduce. I'd stack Ivan Mosjoukine against Valentino anyday, though; it's a pity his films aren't commercially available, or restored as beautifully as Fritz Lang's have been. But we'll be starting off with Lang's 'Spies', and then 'Nosferatu' or 'Phantom of the Opera' for Halloween, and then probably Mosjoukine's 'Casanova'. Funny that the French *started* the movement to restore silent movies, with 'Napoleon' back in the 80s, then the Germans took over and now are really the best in the world.

    By Anonymous Wanda, at Wed Sep 21, 02:27:00 pm GMT-4  

  • First, let me thank you for both an interesting initial post, and a nice posting thread discussion! Civil, knowledable, AND fun! L'incroyable!

    Yes, the Velcro Sex Wall...the faux ripping and tearing, the whole half Kama Sutra, half Fred-Astaire-leaping -around-the-room-in-Royal-Wedding vibe, the blood vials...we need a word for a Negative Erection, which is what such imagery produces...


    What are you, glued to E! all day? ;)


    No, but the most degenerate trust fund baby I knew said that his ideal life would be to lie around, snort coke, and watch E! all day! I have taken this Platonism by way of Bogata to heart and have steeled myself from it!

    Brooke Burke, however, = ~(Negative Erection), I confess.

    (I just mistyped "confess" as "confuss," which could be a new word to represent a fastidious apologizing!)

    Do write on, love, do!

    By Blogger Ron, at Sat Sep 24, 01:44:00 am GMT-4  

  • Argh, I'm so sorry guys, I didn't realise, due to the Hurricane no doubt, that there were followup post-replies to this thread.

    All very interesting! I'm starting a lunchtime silent movie club at my daughter's highschool, so after reading about Garbo, I think I'll try to find one of her silent films to introduce.

    How intriguing!

    May I suggest The Joyless Street by Murnau, which they might enjoy for the slightly kinky subtext to the story.

    Certainly another one is the original Anna Karenina (silent), Love, which I listed.

    But we'll be starting off with Lang's 'Spies'

    WOW! If you can get a copy, excellent choice.

    Realise that it was written by Thea von Harbou, Fritz' wife, who sadly became a Nazi later on in life.

    You can see it has a very definite anti-Semitic tone to the Spies, with their web of international domination and intrigue.

    Very sad -- but an interesting film nonetheless.

    , and then 'Nosferatu' or 'Phantom of the Opera' for Halloween, and then probably Mosjoukine's 'Casanova'.

    Fantastic all.

    May I suggest instead of Nosferatu, the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari?

    It stands the test of time a little more, IMHO.

    Funny that the French *started* the movement to restore silent movies, with 'Napoleon' back in the 80s, then the Germans took over and now are really the best in the world.

    Well, I do believe the Americans also have had a tremendous hand in these film restorations, this despite the fact that Mr. Turner wanted to inflict a colourised Casablanca on us...

    Great post, Wanda!

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Sep 29, 01:41:00 am GMT-4  

  • First, let me thank you for both an interesting initial post, and a nice posting thread discussion! Civil, knowledable, AND fun! L'incroyable!

    Thank you, Ron. You're so sweet. :)

    Yes, the Velcro Sex Wall...the faux ripping and tearing, the whole half Kama Sutra, half Fred-Astaire-leaping -around-the-room-in-Royal-Wedding vibe, the blood vials...we need a word for a Negative Erection, which is what such imagery produces...

    Oh dear, a negative erection sounds positively ingrown. ;)

    But thanks for the, erm, visual!

    You're welcome to suggest topics about films any time, seeing as how you share my love of it.

    Cheers,
    Victoria

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Sep 29, 01:43:00 am GMT-4  

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