The Silver Screen in Black & White

I spent most of my free time over the holidays catching up on my Criterion Collection watch list. I guess it was to combat my brain turning to mush from too many Hallmark holiday movies? I’ve always loved older movies, so it was a no-brainer for me to subscribe to the Criterion Collection earlier this year. They have quite a few of the older movies that I prefer to watch that wouldn’t be on Netflix or Amazon.

On the day before New Year’s Eve, I watched The Women (1939), an ensemble cast film directed by George Cukor. I had seen this movie when I was a teenager or in college, but it was refreshing to see it again through the eyes of an adult. Originally a stage play writtdn by Clare Booth Luce, the film features an all-star cast, and no men are seen on screen, not even as extras or in props. Even the animals used in the film were female! I loved the title sequence, when the actresses’ names were introduced with the character name, and the animal that represented them. “Cat fight” would be appropriate for several scenes in the movie!

Even though the film was released in 1939, it takes a very frank and modern angle on divorce, infidelity and the inevitable gossip that come with those subjects. Norma Shearer plays the lead, Mary Haines, and her friends are played by Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard and Mary Boland. Joan Crawford plays the mistress, and just as with most of her characters, you want to hate her right away. You even get a glimpse of Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy in Gone With The Wind.

While the movie is over 80 years old, some of the themes, crumbling marriages, the snarkiness of women, and how quickly women’s friendships can turn when romance is involved, could be set in a movie today. Perhaps that’s why it has been remade as The Opposite Sex (1956 musical), The Women (2008), and an almost remake with an all-male cast, The Gentleman’s Club (1960s). Watching the movie did lead me down a rabbit hole of “How Reno became the Divorce Capital of The World” early in the 20th century. The other part of the movie I enjoyed was the Technicolor fashion show (dresses by fashion designer Adrian); similar to The Wizard of Oz which was released the same year, the movie begins and ends in black and white, and has a color sequence in the middle. The color scene in The Women lasts for 6 minutes, while the majority of The Wizard of Oz was in color.

The other aspect that The Women touches on is the life of high society, and the role of women in this time period. One of the characters is independently wealthy, and is at odds with her husband because he feels inferior for spending “her” money, and that he can’t support her like her friends have been by their husbands. The women spend their days lunching or going to the spa for treatments or exercise. Nights are spent at the theater or out dancing or drinking. While middle and lower class were getting divorces as well during this time, they couldn’t exactly set off for Reno to love for six weeks to get a no-fault divorce, as the women in the movie do. With a backdrop of elegeant Manhattan apartments and a few scenes set in the wild west of Reno, a script full of witty banter among the women, and just enough slapstick to make you giggle, this is one can’t miss movie!

On New Year’s Eve, I made it a double feature and watched The Awful Truth (1937) with Cart Grant and Irene Dunne, and His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. You know I love Cary Grant, but I may just love Mr. Smith, the dog played by Skppy/Asta in The Awful Truth, more. Skippy (also credited as Asta in some films) also starred in The Thin Man, so he may look familiar to classic film aficionados. Mr. Smith does adorable tricks, like playing hide and go seek with his mistress, and having to choose between his master and mistress in divorce court. Yes, another divorce movie, and no, it was just a coincidence.

Also like The Women, The Awful Truth was also originally a stage play, written by Arthur Richman. As the director, Leo McCarey encouraged improvisation with the dialogue and comedy. The Awful Truth is often credited as Grant’s breakout role, and there’s no doubt why, from being the romantic lead to his witty banter with Dunne and his other co-stars, and then the slapstick comedy, of course.

The basic premise of the movie is the couple, Grant and Dunne, are getting a divorce, and start seeing other people during the separation, but they keep trying to derail the other’s relationship. I’ll let you figure out why! Like The Women, The Awful Truth inspired a remake, the 1953 musical “Let’s Do It Again”.

I’ve probably seen His Girl Friday 10 or 15 times, but I still laugh out loud at the antics that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell get into as divorced co-workers. Like the other movies I’ve mentioned, His Girl Friday was originally a stage play, The Front Page, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and had already been made into a film, also called The Front Page. The 1940 version directed by Howard Hawks though, was special enough to make AFI’s list of Funniest Movies in 2000.

Grant plays an editor of a newspaper, Walter Burns, and Russell plays a newswriter, Hildy Johnson, who is planning to retire to marry the new love of her life, Bruce Baldwin, played by Ralph Bellamy. Walter isn’t ready to let go of his star reporter though, especially when there is an execution set to take place the same day Hildy shows up at the newspaper. The antics ensue as Walter gets Hildy to cover the execution appeal and to keep Hildy from leaving town with her fiancee, who is always two steps behind. Maybe it’s the banter between Walter and Hildy, or the fast-paced life of investigative journalism, or just the old-fashioned romance of a divorced couple getting a second chance, but I could watch this movie again next week!

The Cary Grant love-fest continued New Years Day with The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Katherine Hepburn stars in both as well. Directed by George Cukor, The Philadelphia Story features Katherine Hepburn as Tracy Lord, a socialite set to marry George, just as her ex-husband, Dexter, played by Cary Grant, shows up. Add in Jimmy Stewart playing Mike, a journalist covering the high society wedding, and the next two hours of your life are just a barrel of laughs. The theme of divorce, second marriages, and rekindled romances among divorced couples seems to be a theme that was common in the 1930s and 1940s, and I’m not surprised that Hollywood and Broadway pursued the themes so frequently. Divorce was not uncommon, but the 1950s nuclear family concept seems to override the history of divorce in America in our minds. It could also be explained by Hollywood bypassing the Production Code, which would frown upon extramarital affairs, but would let divorced couples flirt with others to make their ex-spouses jealous.

The Philadelphia Story, like quite a few movies of this era, was based on a stage play, ran for 417 shows, and Hepburn also played the role of Tracy. It went on a nationwide tour after it closed in New York. The playwright, Phillip Barry, wrote the script specifically for Hepburn, and rumor is, he based the play and Tracy’s character on a friend’s wife, Philadelphia socialite Helen Hope Montgomery Scott. After the play closed, Hepburn bought the rights to make it into a movie, and with the help of Howard Hughes, got MGM to agree to make it. The Philadelphia Story was also remade into a musical, High Society (1956) with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. One fun note – Dinah, Tracy’s younger sister in the movie, was played by Virginia Weidler, who also played the Haines daughter in The Women.

Bringing Up Baby features Katherine Hepburn playing another socialite, and in another movie written just for her. Production was over-budget and delayed so often because Hepburn and Grant couldn’t stop laughing during takes. It’s obvious watching the movie that it was a fun to make! The plot involves a level-headed paleontologist (Grant), a flighty heiress (Hepburn) who are in a three-ring circus of misunderstandings and disasters involving a dinosaur bone, a dog and a tame leopard named Baby.

Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Well, you get the idea, right? This has the makings for a rolling on the floor type comedy, and you’re just reading the plot! Coincidentally, the dog stole some scenes again, and no surprise, as it was played by Skippy/Asta, the same dog from The Awful Truth and The Thin Man.

I ended New Years Day with a double feature of Joan Crawford with Possessed (1931) and Queen Bee (1955) – two very different Joan Crawfords, I may add! In the first, Joan Crawford plays Marian, a small town ambitious girl who escapes to New York City to find a life of luxury. The problem is, the only way she can do that is by finding a rich man. As she says to Mark Whitney, Clark Gable’s character when she meets him, “Are you rich? Because if you’re not, I can’t talk to you”. But she is stuck between a rock and a hard place, because Marian is not married to Mark, and everyone that matters knows that she is just his mistress. Mark is a rich and powerful man of course, so how will his romantic life affect his future? Will true love play out, or is Marian just in it for the furs, diamonds and fine dining? Unlike the other movies I’ve mentioned, Possessed is very dark and serious, with no witty banter or slapstick physical comedy.

Clark Gable & Joan Crawford in Possessed (1931)

The oddest thing about this movie is seeing Clark Gable without his signature mustache. Joan Crawford’s wardrobe is enviable (designs by Adrian, same designer from The Women), as are their sumptuous New York City apartments. Also, I recognized a familiar face: Marian’s mom is played by Clara Blandick, who plays Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz (1939). As for the plot of the movie, you want to feel proud of Marian for getting out of the small town she was so eager to escape, but you wonder about the morality of how she is living her life. I did admire how up front she was about everything she wanted, and Mark even says that’s what he liked about her. Apparently, the British censors agreed with the morals of the original plot (even though Hollywood ok’d it), and they demanded a revised plot. But the electricity between Crawford and Gable is undeniable in this movie, as they carried on a love affair over several decades until his death in 1960, and this was their third of eight movies together.

My second Joan Crawford movie of the day, Queen Bee, was the other spectrum of her career, where she plays a self-centered, narcissistic, conniving woman, Eva, married into a Southern family. Her cousin Jennifer comes to visit from up north and walks into a family drama. It took me a couple of scenes to figure out who all of the players were in the plot, and how each one was related to one another, but suffice it to say, that each one is connected to the other in more ways than one! Eva walks into a room and sucks the life out of it, while Jennifer and Carol (Eva’s sister-in-law) light up the room. It takes you awhile to figure out which side Avery (Eva’s husband) and Jud (Carol’s fiance) are on, but their true characters emerge as the movie progresses. As with Possessed, Queen Bee has much darker tones than the other movies mentioned here, with lots of foreboding music, no funny quips in the script, and a film noir feel throughout.

If you get a chance to check out any of these movies, they are well worth your time! You may even get sucked into the rabbit hole I did, because one Cary Grant movie is never enough, and I found a true love for Joan Crawford movies, though I much rather prefer her younger characters to the later more evil versions.

Do you have a favorite classic black and white film?

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