Dedicated to the Study and Appreciation
of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Friday, March 25, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

It seems wrong not to say something about
the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, but what is
there that hasn't already been said? There
are only a handful of performers who
managed to move from childhood stardom
to adult careers and make it stick -- Dean
Stockwell, Mickey Rooney, Jackie Cooper,
Roddy McDowall (there are also Jodie
Foster and Kurt Russell, but they were
only child actors, not stars). Even in
that small company, Taylor may be
unique: she rose to the top as a kid
and stayed there to the very end;
in fact, in a way, she even redefined
what "the top" actually was.

She didn't make much of an impression
in her first picture, There's One Born 
Every Minute. But then, neither did
the picture itself, a piddling little Hugh
Herbert programmer for Universal
that not even Variety, who covered
just about everything, bothered to
review. Elizabeth (she hated being
called Liz, so I won't) was no more
than ten, and vying for attention with
Hugh Herbert in three roles (the
mind boggles!). Who know, maybe
she was hoping no one would notice
her. In later life, she always had a
pretty sensitive b.s.-meter; and it
might well have been on line even
as early as that.

In any case, her second picture was another
kettle of fish -- or rather, another bowl of kibble:
Lassie Come Home. I wasn't there at the time,
but I have it on good authority that people
came out of theaters asking two questions:
Wasn't that dog amazing? and Who on earth
is that little girl? ("A pretty moppet," beamed
Variety.) By that time (LCH was released in
 December '43) Elizabeth was going on
twelve. So what was different?
Was it puberty?

I think it was Technicolor. Taylor's creamy
complexion, raven hair and (most particularly)
violet eyes came across in color as they couldn't
in black and white. Uncredited (and unnoticed)
bits in Jane Eyre and The White Cliffs of Dover
only go to reinforce the point. Then it was back
to Technicolor for...

...National Velvet. Pauline Kael once said that this was "the high point in Elizabeth Taylor's acting career," and I think she's right. At any rate, beginning with this movie, Elizabeth would never go unnoticed again.

She grew up fast at MGM, and it wasn't long before her beauty stood out even in black and white. She's 16 in the Clarence Sinclair Bull portrait that leads off this post...

...15 here, touching up a water color (or pretending to)
in the Hollywood Hills. By 1949, at the ripe old age
of 17, she was playing the wife of 38-year-old
Robert Taylor in Conspirator.

None of these, of course, are what most people
think of when they hear Elizabeth Taylor's name.

This is more like it, right? Suddenly, Last Summer may not be the hot seller on Amazon or in Netflix queues that it was in 1959 theaters, but this was one of the iconic movie images of the 1950s, right up there with Carroll Baker sucking her thumb in Baby Doll, or Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr on the beach in From Here to Eternity. (The fact that Catherine Holly, Taylor's character, told psychiatrist Montgomery Clift that the bathing suit made her look "almost nude" when it got wet no doubt stoked the fantasies of millions of red-blooded American men. Did any of them see the movie over and over, hoping that this time she would really go into the water?) Elizabeth is 27 here, on the way to the third of her five Oscar nominations (she won twice), and she's been officially grown up since she and Clift (and director George Stevens's camera) were more intimately involved in A Place in the Sun in 1951.

For most people who remember those days, Elizabeth Taylor's life and career tend to boil down to (1) everything before Cleopatra and (2) everything after. It's impossible for people today, jaded by a nonstop parade of showbiz media circuses -- from Madonna to Britney to Lindsay to Charlie -- even to imagine what a riveting can't-look-away spectacle that trainwreck of a production was. You just had to be there -- and by "there" I mean anywhere on planet Earth from 1959 to 1963. You couldn't get away from it. Elizabeth's brush with death-by-pneumonia in a London hospital was only the beginning, shutting down production until the English weather, never exactly balmy, turned so crummy that everybody had to start all over from day (and dollar) one in Rome. It wasn't hype or hysteria: Elizabeth nearly checked out then and there; her tracheotomy scar is clearly visible in this picture of her in costume and makeup, looking weary and numb waiting for director Joe Mankiewicz to call action.

"Everything before and after Cleopatra" really means everything before and after Richard Burton, and I'll bet that's how Taylor tended to think of it herself. Burton accounted for two of her eight marriages (and she for two of his five), ten years the first time and ten months the second. If Burton had lived past 1984, they might have had a third go-round (ten weeks?), and a fourth (ten days?); they were clearly the loves of each other's lives, even if they couldn't hold it together and often seemed to bring out the worst in each other. To people in the 1960s it looked like the love affair of the century. To me it still does, and I don't think I'm alone.

Here's another iconic picture, this one from real life, though it could almost be a scene from their movie The V.I.P.s. Judging from the faces and clothes, that year (1963) is probably about right, give or take a couple. They seem to be trying to inch their way toward some anonymous airport VIP lounge, jostled by a combination of entourage and paparazzi, a breed of "journalist" that their affair and marriage virtually (albeit unwillingly) created. She looks resigned, he looks harried. (And who's that guy in the center background, and why is he the only one smiling?)

With all Taylor's heartaches, sorrows and physical ailments (the latter beginning with a fall from a horse during National Velvet), it's remarkable in a way that she made it to 79. Marilyn Monroe couldn't do it, or Judy Garland. Elizabeth Taylor outlived them, and nearly all her leading men, from Roddy McDowall and Robert Taylor through Montgomery Clift and Van Johnson to Marlon Brando and Richard Burton. Did she thrive? I don't know. But she survived, and prevailed.

I love this photo by Otto Dyar, and I want to close with it. It's from the set of National Velvet, obviously. Elizabeth's blissful love of horses permeates the picture, blesses and ennobles and exalts it. I believe that this 12-year-old child-woman looks more genuinely and serenely happy here than in any other picture I've ever seen of her, at any age. This is how I want to remember her.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Silents in Kansas 2011, Part 2

Since the Kansas Silent Film Festival 
in Topeka coincided with Academy 
Award weekend this year, the theme 
of the festival was the first year of the 
Oscars (1927-28, the only year that 
silent pictures dominated the awards), 
and the three-day program was 
peppered with winners and 
nominees.  In fact, Oscar
himself put in an 
appearance... the form of Benjamin Glazer's
award for the screen adaptation
of 7th Heaven, which was proudly
displayed in the lobby of the White
Concert Hall on the Washburn 
University campus. If you've ever
wondered what an 81-year-old 
Academy Award looks like -- and
they don't come any older -- here 
he is, ensconced in his glass case
like Snow White (only standing up).
You can click on the picture and 
"+" him up to see that, classic
though he may be, he does
carry his share of age marks.
(By the way, do I need to specify 
that the Academy Award statuette
and the nickname "Oscar" are 
registered trademarks of the 
Academy of Motion Picture 
Arts and Sciences? 
Let's not forget that!)

Speaking of 7th Heaven, I have to say Saturday night's screening of this touching romance between a boastful Paris sewer worker (Charles Farrell) and a mistreated street waif (Janet Gaynor) was the highlight of the weekend for me. I'd seen it before, but this time was something above and beyond: the festival screened the personal print of film preservationist David Shepard (a special guest at the event, he also delivered a lecture to accompany screened samples from his new DVD collection Chaplin at Keystone). Shepard's print, in turn, was carefully and lovingly copied from Janet Gaynor's own personal print, and the exquisite tinting of the film was a revelation. 

Just so we're clear, I don't mean to suggest that the picture was tinted like this hand-colored lobby card. I mean stock-tinting, coloring the film stock a shade to match the mood of a scene -- blue for nighttime, amber for candlelight, etc. Tinting was virtually universal in the silent era, and it's the one facet of silent movies that now seems all but lost beyond recall. Modern digital tinting on video releases isn't always pleasing to the eye -- and in any case, so few tinted prints have survived that we can't always know how authentic such efforts are. Gaynor's print presumably dates from 1927, so here was an opportunity to see the real McCoy. I don't know how many in the audience appreciated the rarity of what they were seeing, but they certainly appreciated the picture itself; when Gaynor's timid little Diane finally turned on her physically abusive sister, the auditorium echoed with applause and cheers. (I guess film tinting is one of those lost arts, like hand-tinted photos in the manner of the lobby card here. But there must have been aesthetic rules and guidelines, and artisans who specialized in the process and were admired accordingly, just like editors and cinematographers. Has there ever been a full-length history of the art of tinting? There's certainly a book in it. There's a chapter on tinting in Kevin Brownlow's The Parade's Gone By that's as excellent as the rest of the book, but other than that I don't know.)

One more note about the title of 7th Heaven: I've always seen it referred to (and referred to it myself) as Seventh Heaven. But "7th" is what appears onscreen, so properly speaking, that should be the title.

Another special guest was Annette D'Agostino
Lloyd, who discovered the comedies of Harold
Lloyd when she was a teenager and has
grown up to write a number of books
on his work, as well as hosting
Hello, Harold Lloyd, her own Web site
devoted to him. (And by the way, she's
no relation to the great comedian;
her married surname is just one
of those amazing karmic

Ms. Lloyd addressed the audience Friday night to introduce Speedy (1928), Harold Lloyd's last silent comedy and one of his most stylish, with Harold at his ingenious and sympathetic best. She warned us that the climax of the picture, with our hero driving a horse-drawn streetcar at a mad gallop through the streets of New York in a desperate race against time, was one of the greatest chase scenes of the silent era. And she was right. The sequence is nothing less than astonishing -- it rivals the chariot race from either version of Ben-Hur, and it absolutely puts The French Connection to shame (43 years before the fact). And it's funny to boot.

And one little detail that's too
much fun not to share. Annette
Lloyd was also the after-dinner
speaker at the festival banquet
Saturday night, speaking (naturally)
on her favorite comedian. In keeping
with the subject of her talk, the 
KSFF chose an appropriate
design for the evening's

The festival culminated on Sunday afternoon with Wings, director William A. Wellman's tribute to the airborne fighters of World War I (and the picture that put him on the map). To see Wings on the big screen is to understand at last why it won the Oscar for best picture; that's one thing it has in common with both Lawrence of Arabia and Oliver! Clara Bow loves Charles "Buddy" Rogers, who loves Jobyna Ralston, who loves Richard Arlen -- all while the Great War rages and Rogers and Arlen take to the sky in thrilling combat. The aerial action remains riveting, with no process photography and very little miniature work, and the action on the ground is handled well enough that you don't grow impatient for the dogfights to resume. (There is, however, a basic flaw in the movie's portrayal of Rogers's character: any man who would pass up Clara Bow for that namby-pamby, two-timing Jobyna Ralston is obviously unfit for military service.)

Kudos all around for the class act that is the KSFF -- to festival president Bill Shaffer, vice president Denise Morrison (who also provides chatty, informative intros to all of the screenings), and the festival's board of directors. And a special nod to the festival's musicians, keeping alive another not-quite-lost art: Marvin Faulwell (organ), Greg Foreman and Jeff Rapsis (piano), Bob Keckeisen (percussion), and special guests The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra of Boulder, CO. Like Cinevent in Columbus, OH, the Kansas Silent Film Festival now has a permanent place on my calendar. I'm already looking forward to next year.

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