Friday, April 22, 2011

I'm not gonna lie: George Burns was kinda hot back in the day.

Reading Gracie, George Burns's biography of/ode to his wife and comedy partner, you get the idea from him that all he had to do was stand back and adore her while she carried the whole act. As much as I love Gracie--and I do, I really, really do--I have to say that after watching some of their shorts together, Burns drastically short-changed himself. Very chivalrous of him, I guess, but unfair. There's something out there called "presence," and I must say he had it in abundance.

And, like I said, I think he was pretty hot way back when. Gruff, deep voice, snappy dresser...I dunno, he just works it for me circa late 1920s/early '30s.

Anyhow, George and Gracie remain one of my favorite screwball couples, up there alongside Nick and Nora.

Here's what might be their very first film short, a portion of their signature show on Vaudeville, Lambchops. Y'know, if you've got eight minutes and two seconds to spare:

Credit to teapotwashere

And hell, in case you have an additional 10:50 at your disposal, here's another personal favorite, The Babbling Book. Check out 3:24 in particular for what I mean about Burns's presence: even though his entrance is just the understated set-up for the punchline, he somehow owns the moment. Very suave, very cheeky.

Credit to rrgomes

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Joan Fontaine's screen test for Rebecca (1940)

Just thought I'd post this, in case other Hitchcock/Joan Fontaine aficianados hadn't seen it yet:

Credit to braniki1.

Wow. This reminds me why Fontaine's Mrs. De Winter is one of my favorite performances.

I don't claim to be as consummate a fan of hers as, say, The Self-Styled Siren. The only other performances I've seen of Fontaine's that have gotten to me like Mrs. De is her Jane Eyre and the parts of Constant Nymph where she doesn't try too hard to sound fragile and adolescent--she has an unfortunate tendency toward bleating when she's upset there. In other roles, like her Oscar winning turn as Lina in Suspicion, and when she unfortunately played opposite the crazy-beautiful late Liz in Ivanhoe, I find her "grand lady" bit comes off as bordering on bland and stuffy.

She often needs a shy, gentle character with moody depths to accurately tap her talent. For all that I wish I was Vivien Leigh and kinda sorta worship the ground her kittenish feet walked on, I was ultimately very, very unimpressed by her own screen test for Mrs. De Winter. As everyone has discussed to death, Viv would have made a spectacular Rebecca if that raven-haired babe had shown up in the movie, but someone mousy and insecure? Vivien handled the gentle and soft-spoken Myra beautifully in Waterloo Bridge, but she was still supposed to knock 'em dead with her looks and be comfortable enough in front of people to dance ballet. But shy to the point of tongue-tied? It's awkward even to contemplate.

What I love so much about Fontaine in the role is that she didn't go the hand-wringing, wide-eyed, icky-sweet route a lot of actresses might have gone. There's something so direct and realistic about her performance, that it makes you want to cringe in empathy.

To change the subject all whiplash-like, anybody know who's filling in for Maxim in the vid? That ain't Larry O's sexy tones. His sexy, sexy tones. Dang, were Fontaine and Leigh lucky dames circa 1940 (well, maybe not Fontaine so much. He was apparently a bit of a pill to her during filming, on account of wifey not making the grade).

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

All hail Lina Lamont

There's no need for me to righteously defend Lina like I did Lolita, Dora, and Vivien's Blanche. Everyone loves Singin' in the Rain's most adorable dim bulb. If someone doesn't, I have no use for the cretin.

Jean Hagen is a genius. She gave Lina such an awesome mixture of lovable, inane, vacuous vanity that she became, for me, the ultimate role model. Singin' in the Rain features a spectrum of beautiful feemayles for men to go ga-ga over and for girls to imitate. Debbie Reynolds is the wholesome girl next door with a heaping helping of innocent pluck. Rita Moreno is the parody of the Hispanic firecracker, all flashing smiles and hip-wiggling. Cyd Charisse is the emerald-clad, Louise Brooks-maned vixen, the silent flapper femme fatale.

But Lina is the best.

Hagen proved herself in this greatest of all Hollywood musicals that she was one helluva versatile lady. In the opening scenes at her movie's premiere before we hear her talk, she has to project the ethereal love-maiden on the silver screen. Afterward, of course, she's the brassy, screechy, hare-brained screwball. Yet lest we think the clown is the only true role Hagen can play, let's remind ourselves that some of the supposed dubbing that Reynold's character does for Lina's dialogue is actually Hagen's real voice. That's right: those low, dulcet, romantic tones come from Hagen's own mouth. Switching from that to Lina's high-pitched squawking is what them in the biz call a flexible talent.

Beautiful women in films are potentially intimidating to young girls, because all that glamor sometimes comes across so stiff and monotonous; even if someday we do become anywhere near that pretty, can't we at least let loose and have some fun, without fear of, I dunno, breaking our faces or something? Lina makes gorgeous funny and cartoonish. In her ostentatious period outfits, she's less Greta Garbo or Norma Shearer, and more Bugs Bunny in drag. Which absolutely is a compliment--I think if most of us gals are perfectly honest, we'd love to look like a cross-dressing Bugs. That wabbit worked it. Garth Algar spoke the truth.

Lina is really the winner in the end, for all that Singin' in the Rain's plot will have you believe differently. So what if she's publicly humiliated and loses the hand of the incredibly sexy Gene Kelly? She's still a winner because she gives us, the real audience--not that phony 1920s audience that demands authentic talent--so very, very much.

My early sense of humor was molded by her antics, such as probably driving my parents up the wall by chanting, "Cahn't! Caaaaaaayan't!" at the top of my lungs when I was a tyke. I also admire that the lady was never shy in voicing her complaints, a talent I wish I could possess without being unfairly labeled a whiner. Instead, I try (usually unsuccessfully) to merely adopt Lina's voice internally when finding myself in situations where "everybody's pickin' on me!" 

And you've gotta love that little something about her inflection when she asks dubiously, "What are you doing?" to a costumer sewing a mic into the voluminous ornament attached to her shoulder. I've aped that phrasing myself a few times when I just don't understand why the officer is gently but firmly pulling me away from feeding Nutter-Butters to that caged tiger at the zoo.

"Gee, this is dumb," is another wistful gem, perfect in almost every situation where I have to balance my bank account or figure out a tip in my head.

Lina didn't let anybody push her around, you've got to give her that. She was strong. She was a fighter. She wouldn't let no one, not even a trembly ingenue, get away with hurling whipped cream into her kisser.

So Lina Lamont: gorgeous, funny, role model, and winner. An immortal in films. All that hard work ain't been in vain fer nuttin'.