A Star is Born (1937) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30, 2017 by mchoffman

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The following is a transcript of my presentation on A Star is Born, which was screened at the Park Ridge Public Library on March 30, 2017. Despite being a rainy night, over sixty patrons attended the screening. Had we issued comment cards, Fredric March would’ve received high marks. Several in the audience– who had never seen it before– were deeply affected by the film.

A Star is Born (1937) is not a remake of What Price Hollywood? (1932), although it does share similar story elements, most notably the star who is on the rise while another is on the decline. The film is largely an original work based on an idea by director William Wellman. He had been shopping it around and finally convinced independent producer David Selznick to invest in the story. The property was originally called It Happened in Hollywood, which became the name of another film made at Columbia—one we will see next week. What emerged from this collaboration between Wellman and Selznick was one of the most famous of all movies about movies. A Star is Born is one of the great films of the 1930s with iconic images.

The most comprehensive record of this film’s production can be found in Ronald Haver’s David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, which is one of the outstanding books on film history. In it, Haver writes, “The lore of the town was rife with successes, has-beens, comebacks, ruined marriages, and tragic deaths, and after years and years of retelling and being gossiped about and clucked over, these events and people took on a kind of romantic patina, becoming the authentic legends of Hollywood, making winners out of losers and giving some of them an immortality that transcend anything they might actually have done in pictures. A Star is Born is the closest thing we have to an ideal of the movies: what they meant to the people who worked in them and to the people who went to see them. It is a particularly vigorous chunk of Hollywood lore—noble, tragic, romantic, idealistic, but with a firm sense of the rueful ironies of life as it should be lived.”

A Star is Born is the Cinderella story of a country girl, Esther Blodgett, who dreams of becoming a star in Hollywood. With some encouragement from her grandmother, she makes the trip only to discover that getting into Hollywood isn’t so easy. While working as a waitress at a dinner party, she meets the intoxicated movie star, Norman Maine. He sees potential in her and pushes the studio producer to put her under contract. A makeover and name change turns her into Vicki Lester. In time, her popularity begins to overshadow his. Throughout the story, there are many elements associated with “movies about movies.” There is the Hollywood premiere, the screen test, and the preview screening where fans first take notice of Vicki. There are no famous movie star “cameos,” as we’ve seen in the first two films in the series, but A Star is Born does make numerous references to real stars in the industry.

A Star is Born balances humor with tragedy and presents us with not only a picture of Hollywood in its glory days, but also a man’s struggle with his demons. In the case of Norman Maine, it’s his alcoholism. The subject is treated honestly and performed with conviction. The scene in which Norman Maine bursts in on his wife’s acceptance speech is probably the second most embarrassing Academy Awards moment. There’s a more recent mishap that comes to mind!

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Janet Gaynor portrayed Esther Blodgett with sweet innocence. Though she’s naïve to the ways of Hollywood, she doesn’t let her guard down and she conveys this subtly. She also has one of the most famous curtain lines in movie history. Gaynor had been a popular movie star in the silent era and in fact won the very first Academy Award for Best Actress. It was for her performances in 7th Heaven, Sunrise, and Street Angel—the only time the award had been given for three films. With the rise of more provocative stars like Mae West and Marlene Dietrich, Gaynor’s popularity began to wane in the early 1930s. Her comeback would culminate with an Oscar nomination for A Star is Born, yet two years later she would temporarily retire from acting.

Fredric March was, in my estimation, the finest actor of his generation, and that’s why we’ve played several of his films here, most recently One Foot in Heaven. He won two Academy Awards in his career but was nominated for several more including his performance as Norman Maine. There were few actors in Hollywood who could’ve conveyed what was asked of him in this film. March was particularly adept at projecting sensitivity and vulnerability. Perhaps John Barrymore could’ve taken on this character, but by 1937, the Great Profile was already the living embodiment of what is seen on the screen in A Star is Born. March could play drunk very well, but his performance runs deeper than that. On one level, the film’s tone is very light, but on another, it’s tragic as the film presents a picture of the effects of alcoholism. In fact, the scene of March in the sanitarium was inspired by a real-life incident involving John Barrymore.

Also in the cast is Adolphe Menjou as the rather paternal studio producer—a stark contrast from the comedy relief of Gregory Ratoff in What Price Hollywood? Andy Devine as Esther’s “assistant director” friend provides the comedy relief and Lionel Stander is the press agent willing to warp the truth into good copy. I was never a fan of Lionel Stander, and I always felt he didn’t get what he deserved in this film since his “Matt Libby” is such an unlikable character. It’s his exchange with Norman Maine at the Santa Anita Racetrack that eventually knocks Maine off the wagon for good. Also in the cast is May Robson who plays Esther’s grandmother in some of the film’s more sentimental moments. Robson, whose acting career spanned 58 years, is one of the many great character actors in the film. Another is Edgar Kennedy as the manager of the boardinghouse in which Esther stays.

Tonight’s film is also noteworthy because it was one of the first films shot in three-strip Technicolor. These were the early days of the process when there were only five Technicolor cameras operating in Hollywood. The color design is subdued and never gaudy, and this version you’ll see tonight has never looked better. This is the only color film that you’ll see at the Library in this series. The film also sounds great with another memorable film score by composer Max Steiner.

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A Star is Born shows the far-reaching influence of Hollywood where even in the remote farmlands of North Dakota there are country girls reading fan magazines. Esther’s trek to Hollywood is equated with the great pioneer spirit of her grandmother, who warns of the hardships to come. Ahead will be dreams and heartbreak. A Star is Born is composed of incidents that ring true because they were based on real-life stories. Esther Blodgett’s troubled marriage to Norman Maine was similar to those of Colleen Moore and Barbara Stanwyck, both of whom had married men who were spiraling out of control. But in A Star is Born, Norman Maine is never abusive and is clearly in love with Esther. As a result, audiences can sympathize with him.

As with What Price Hollywood?, tonight’s film shows that fame is a double-edged sword. In the 1932 film, there was a media circus when Mary Evans got married, and in A Star is Born, there is chaos in a similar crowd scene, which was inspired by actress Norma Shearer’s ordeal at her husband Irving Thalberg’s funeral. Throughout the film there are parallels to these true stories that give the film its authority.

At the Academy Awards, A Star is Born was nominated in seven categories including Best Picture, but it only won for William Wellman’s original story. The film would be remade in 1954 by George Cukor with Judy Garland and James Mason in the leads. Unlike Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland’s interpretation is the opposite—someone with abundant talent but little ambition. Then years later, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson rocked things up in a 1976 musical. Well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Finally, referring back to David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, Ronald Haver concludes, “In A Star is Born, Hollywood—the time, the place, and the attitude—was flawlessly presented as conceived by its audience. The picture was made near the zenith of this romantic age of filmmaking, and the way it projects the positive aspects of the town, the people that it so carefully presents and preserves, can only evoke regret for the passing of a frame of reference, of beliefs, that existed solely in and at the movies. It is the essence of the American movie industry and of David Selznick at their peak—charming, energetic, intelligent, tasteful, a little sad, and full of a sense of self.”

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One Foot in Heaven (1941) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by mchoffman

“Without waiting for an answer, he began to play ‘The Church’s one foundation Is Jesus Christ our Lord.’ He could not have chosen a more difficult tune, for it used every bell in the tower. But he played without a fault. People came to their doors up and down the street. The crowd left the veranda of the hotel a block away and stood on the sidewalk. Few of his listeners had ever before heard a chime.” ~ Hartzell Spence, One Foot in Heaven

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Transcript from 6/4/15:

I think for this final sermon of the spring I’d like to say a few words of a more personal nature in regards to tonight’s film. In One Foot in Heaven, Fredric March’s character speaks about the moral value of a movie he had just seen, and in a way, that is exactly what I’m doing tonight.

One Foot in Heaven is the film that inspired Cinema of Transcendence. I last presented it in October of 2003 at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago. It was part of my last program at the bank before I moved on from my position as programmer/projectionist. Moving on to the next challenge is certainly a theme in tonight’s film as well. In my own case, in 2003 I had finally convinced the LaSalle Bank to invest in a 35mm projector. It was what the bank series needed after many years of playing movies on Saturday nights. It was not easy building the program up, but after four years, it was time to leave and begin anew. I left the theatre with the satisfaction of knowing I was able to present some really good films to the community. One Foot in Heaven was one of the most special.

For years it was unavailable on home entertainment. Occasionally Turner Classic Movies would broadcast it, but the only copy of it you were likely to find would be a “bootleg” copy. When I decided to do a series at the Library that explored the role of faith in classic film—Cinema of Transcendence became the more loftier name for it—I knew I wanted One Foot in Heaven to be part of it. Last year I asked members of my “Fredric March Film Society” on Facebook to write Warner Archive and let them know there was a demand for it, and I personally contacted that Warner division myself. I was able to reach the head of Warner Archive. His office relayed to me some good news. They were indeed planning on releasing it once the film elements were properly restored. They believed it would be available by the spring of 2015 in time for our program. As our deadline neared, however, I had given up hope that we would get it. But in March, it was finally released and we were able to add it at the last minute. This is why it doesn’t appear in our newsletter or on our bookmarks. There was no better film to end the program with than the one that inspired it in the first place.

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Like Jacques Tourneur’s Stars in My Crown from last week, One Foot in Heaven is an episodic film about small-town America. It tells the true story of a Methodist minister named William Spence. It’s based on the best-selling book of the same name written by his son, Hartzell Spence. It’s a wonderful read and it inspired me to visit one of the parishes Spence had preached at in Dodge City, Iowa. The film is true to the spirit of the book as it details the life of a circuit preacher.

The story concerns the various problems that arise as Spence travels from one parish to another—from leaky holes in the parsonage roof to the gossiping society women who spread malicious lies. One Foot in Heaven takes an honest look at church politics and shows the hypocrisy that is as rampant today as it was back then. As Fredric March’s character says, “The real heathens are in the church.”

Throughout Cinema of Transcendence we’ve seen films that have a certain perspective in terms of religious denominations. The gangster genre with Angels with Dirty Faces had a distinctly Catholic viewpoint, whereas the quasi-Western Stars in My Crown was very much in the Protestant tradition. One Foot in Heaven examines another denomination of Protestantism. The Spence family is not like other families as so many of life’s enjoyments fall outside their Methodist Discipline, though Spence shows he is willing to listen to the younger generation. Initially motivated to point out the evils of the movie house to his son, William Spence’s trip to see a William S. Hart silent movie becomes a personal revelation as well as one of the highlights of the movie. One Foot in Heaven is composed of beautiful scenes such as this that deal honestly with the values of faith in a changing world.

And like Stars in My Crown, there is a conflict with science. Here it’s the town doctor played by Jerome Cowan who scoffs at religion during a drugstore debate. It was a major story thread through the Jacques Tourneur film, but here it is dealt with in one simple scene, although very well played.

Fredric March
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What makes the film work so well are the performances. Fredric March was, in my opinion, the most accomplished screen actor of his generation, and we’ve screened three of his films in this series alone. He conveys the convictions of a real man of God, infusing his character with humanity, humor, and a reverent strength. The beautiful prayers that he speaks in the film are some of his finest moments. Hartzell Spence, who wrote the book, said his mother wanted Fredric March for the role of her husband. March’s last emotional scene in the film– showing both his character’s commitment to his calling and his disappointment at moving on yet again–is some of his best work as an actor.

Martha Scott, who had recently starred in Our Town with William Holden—a role for which she would be nominated for an Academy Award– was cast as March’s self-sacrificing wife, Hope. She would go on to play Charlton Heston’s mother in both The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur. Originally Olivia de Havilland was slated to play this role, but Warner Bros. decided to move her to the Errol Flynn movie They Died With Their Boots On. In addition to the two leads, there is great support from some of Hollywood’s best character actors. Besides the aforementioned Jerome Cowan, there’s Laura Hope Crews and Harry Davenport—both of whom audiences might recall from Gone With the Wind. Gene Lockhart plays an outspoken member of the congregation with his own ideas of how the new church should be built. In the scene in which William Spence is laying out his plans to the building committee, there are some familiar faces that the die-hard classic film buffs will recognize, including Frank Reicher and Hobart Bosworth.

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The film was directed by Irving Rapper who had previously been a dialogue director on films for Michael Curtiz. In a TCM article, Frank Miller writes, “Rapper prodded his cast to perform simply and naturalistically, using close-ups to discourage overacting. But his position as a tyro showed when he had to shoot a big action scene involving a raging fire that was shot on location in Los Angeles. He was so intrigued by the mechanics of staging the fire and the sheer spectacle of it all that when the cameras finally rolled and flames shot to the skies, he was so enthralled he temporarily forgot to call action, despite the fact that he had rehearsed the scene effectively during numerous dry runs.” Rapper’s direction gave the film a warm and gentle tone.

Max Steiner did the wonderful film score which adds considerable depth to the film. As with Stars in Crown, One Foot in Heaven relies heavily on the musical motifs of a particular song. The Church’s One Foundation, which is sung in the final scene, was a Christian hymn written in the 1860s by Samuel John Stone, inspired by the Apostles’ Creed. As an aside, I had asked the Park Ridge Community Church to play this piece today at noon on their bells. I recall hearing this hymn played before at the church. However, the songs that you hear ringing out every day at lunchtime are played on a loop and they can’t control which song will be played on what day.

As with all the films in this program, One Foot in Heaven offers a positive image of religion. It is an uplifting film that leaves one feeling good inside—a transcendence of spirit. The film presents us with a vision of community and how faith is interwoven in it. One Foot in Heaven recreates a time that seems all the more distant, a place where old-fashioned morality and family values were the high standard. It’s a film that is honest, true, and good.

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Addendum: We had 71 in attendance on 6/4/15, making One Foot in Heaven the best-attended film of the series.

Les Miserables (1935) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by mchoffman

“It simply gives us more of the book’s core, unfurled like a banner, draped over an intelligent 108-minute screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb that seems a small miracle of concision. Hugo’s themes and gigantic clashing antagonists emerge intact, with their inner selves revealed as well as their outer. The social protest couldn’t be more explicit, especially in its outcry for ameliorating harsh penal codes. And yet, the film makes clear that there is a moral dimension to Les Miserables and moral distinctions that most adaptations miss. It gives the actors that much more to work with and the film is richer with both actors integrating them into their characters.” ~ Jay Carr, TCM article on Les Miserables (1935)

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Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel by writer W.P. Lipscomb, the 1935 version of Les Miserables is a condensed though artfully done screen adaptation. Fredric March is Jean Valjean—a man sentenced to ten years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release from prison, the now hardened convict is moved by an act of compassion from a bishop. Renewed with the spirit to give rather than take, Jean sets out to change his life. Under a new name, he becomes a businessman and eventual mayor. But through three phases of his life, there is one part of his past he can’t escape—the uncompromising law administrator, Javert, as played by Charles Laughton. “Regulations, good bad or indifferent, must be carried out to the letter.”

After the Production Code reasserted itself in 1934, Hollywood studios turned to safe material for storylines. There was nothing safer than classic literature. Fox production head Darryl Zanuck wanted to rival MGM, a studio which had great success adapting the classics with films like David Copperfield and Little Women. “When Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables,” Zanuck recalled, “he was raising a powerful cry against the inhumanities of the parole system then existing in France. Today the pendulum has swung the other way. Instead of being too drastic and oppressive, our system is said to be too lax. However, there is grave danger that the pendulum, swung by outraged public opinion, may again travel too far in the original direction.”

Les Miserables was the kind of “social-problem” film that Zanuck was accustomed to making at Warner Brothers. Despite being a historical drama from the previous century, Zanuck realized Les Miserables was a story that would resonate with the modern audience. The story had already been told several times since the earliest days of motion pictures. It had most recently been adapted for a French film directed by Raymond Bernard. This 1934 version is often cited as the most faithful, but it could afford to be with a running time of nearly five hours.

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Though the American version is forced to remove incidents and cut some characters, it is nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the novel. Those who are interested in the differences between the novel and the film can find them on Wikipedia; we’re more interested in the film’s cinematic qualities—not its literary roots. The 1935 film is a remarkable work because it has all the qualities of great cinema, chiefly, great direction, cinematography, and acting.

Les Miserables was helmed by Polish director Richard Boleslawski, who had gotten his start directing films in Europe. Later, in New York, Boleslawski taught a style of acting that became a forerunner of Method acting. Hollywood came calling and offered him a contract. It was during the 1930s when he found great success within the studio system. Boleslawski worked with some of the biggest stars of the day including John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. He also directed the last film we showed in our 2014 series, Theodora Goes Wild, with Irene Dunne. Boleslawski died at the age of 47– only two years after Les Miserables.

“A director can spend his whole life looking for the script– a story of great enough scope and purpose to spur him on to that prodigious effort which, if successful, will later be mistaken for inspiration. When the continuity of Les Miserables was placed in my hands, I knew that at last I had the script.”

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When he was given the Les Miserables assignment, Boleslawski also got Gregg Toland for a cinematographer. Toland, an Illinois native, is universally considered one of the best—if not the best—cameramen in Hollywood noted for his many innovations in depth of field. His later credits would include such films as Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane and The Long Voyage Home. Toland’s camerawork as well as the composition and lighting add a pictorial beauty that separates this version from those that followed. If you want a singing Jean Valjean, then watch the 2012 musical, but I’ll take the cinematography of Gregg Toland.

Les Miserables features many fine performances both in the lead roles as well as in the supporting ones. Fredric March gives one of his finest performances with a sincere and intensely felt portrayal of the long-suffering Valjean. March not only displays a wide range of emotions through many stages of this character’s life, but he also plays a secondary character in the film—the “old man” mistaken for Valjean.

On the TCM website, Jay Carr writes, “There was no more distinguished actor of the ‘30s and ‘40s than March. No other actor has won two Oscars… and two Tonys. His roles were often derived from literary sources or classics. He made decent and even heroic men come alive, never allowing them to perish under a pall of worthiness. Here, he’s often photographed in full or three-quarter profile. But he never just lets his leading man profile do the work. In scene after scene his eyes flash with sensitivity and sentience. He’s a man with a keen eye for injustice, and the will and means to fight it, as his life is more and more touched by the political turmoil of the times.”

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The other great performance is that of Charles Laughton as the policeman Javert. Laughton underplays the character to great effect, revealing more with his eyes than with loud bluster. He is a psychologically disturbed character, a procedural tyrant, and his interactions with Fredric March provide some of the most memorable and tense moments in the film. Laughton had starred opposite March previously in The Sign of the Cross and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Nineteen thirty-five would be a stellar year for Laughton as he would appear in two other classics: Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty.

Also in the cast is Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the bishop who practices what he teaches. His character embodies the true meaning of Christianity. March’s real-life wife, Florence Eldridge, portrays the tragic Fantine. Rochelle Hudson is the grown-up Cosette. Hudson is best known to movie buffs for this film as well as for Wild Boys of the Road. She also appeared in several films with Will Rogers in the mid-1930s. Later in her career, she played Natalie Wood’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause. Finally, there’s Frances Drake as Eponine, a character re-drawn as a secretary to Marius (John Beal). Drake is best-known for her role as Yvonne Orlac in Mad Love, also from 1935.

Fredric March and Frances Drake
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Les Miserables is one of my favorite films in the series and was one of the first to be added to the schedule. It’s a film about social injustice with themes dealing with charity and forgiveness. It reveals the challenge of keeping one’s sense of decency and doing what’s right in the face of overwhelming and enduring hardships. Given the circumstances that condemn and label Valjean, it would be easy to become bitter towards life. But Valjean rises above bitterness and finds a greater reward in the wake of his spiritual rebirth. Les Miserables reflects the purest meaning of Cinema of Transcendence by presenting the ideal model of the “love thy neighbor” tenet.

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Before 7 PM our audience saw the 1935 “Little Rascals” short Little Sinner. (This was the same short I had played when I last presented Les Miserables at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago.)

And before our presentation on Les Miserables, I played a sequence from D.W. Griffith’s The Sorrows of Satan (1926), a film not available on dvd.
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The Sign of the Cross (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by mchoffman

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” ~Revelation 2:10

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When discussed today, The Sign of the Cross (1932) is almost exclusively analyzed from the context of pre-Code cinema. It’s certainly one of the most shocking of those films made before the Production Code became enforced in 1934. Online reviewers and bloggers will either fixate on Claudette Colbert’s milk bath or the infamous “lesbian” dance or the violent arena sequence featuring everything from crocodiles to Pygmies. And of course, there’s Charles Laughton, who plays the Roman Emperor Nero as a languorous and rather fey comic figure. Even with all these flourishes, The Sign of the Cross offers something more than shock value. It emerges as a powerful film about faith.

Cecil B. DeMille’s onscreen piety was never fake. He wasn’t selling something he himself didn’t believe in. Claudette Colbert said, “He truly believed in what he was doing. When we did the scene with the Christians being eaten by the lions, he really suffered.” But how does one reconcile this with the depictions of orgies and scantily-clad women? Some commentators have misread DeMille, claiming he had a cynical embrace of religion and was more interested in depicting the sins rather than the virtues. In Empire of Dreams, however, author Scott Eyman reveals, “But a thorough examination of DeMille’s papers makes it obvious that he was sincerely, if unconventionally, religious. DeMille committed large portions of the Bible to memory, and assiduously studied primary theological texts.” Richard DeMille, Cecil’s son, said, “He strove to put God’s word on the screen and believed that God approved of his efforts. He believed that Christ had come to save sinners, and he hoped that his sins would be forgiven.”

The excesses that are remembered mostly today were understandable given the fact DeMille had a lot riding on the film. His last two films (Madam Satan, The Squaw Man) had flopped, and he found himself on shaky ground when he returned to his old studio, Paramount, to make this film. In a sense, he was starting over with a new regime and front office. DeMille partially financed The Sign of the Cross out of his own pocket. Had the film failed, he believed he would be washed up in Hollywood– another relic from the silent era like D.W. Griffith. In need of a hit, DeMille returned to the historical themes he knew best. Religious subjects had been successful for him in the silent era, and they would need to be again for his first epic of the sound era.

Elissa Landi and Fredric March in The Sign of the Cross. (From the Matthew C. Hoffman collection)
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The story is set in 64 A.D., in the days when Emperor Nero of Rome suppressed the emerging Christian faith. The film opens with the burning of Rome– a conflagration that Nero himself had started and which will be used to justify his persecution of Christians. The fire gives way to a Roman street where two Christians meet clandestinely– one of whom is an emissary of the apostle Paul. The stranger identifies himself as Titus. (In a DeMille picture, the Christians were usually stoic, wise men with beards and staffs.)

This transitional scene into the streets of Rome stands out because it conjures up what cinematographer Karl Struss called “a world remembered.” The film has a unique look that recalls the films of the silent era. “I shot the whole black-and-white picture through bright red gauze,” Struss had said. “Gauze wasn’t much used then, as it had been in the silent period.” The look of the film, as well as the compositions, make this one of DeMille’s most beautiful films to admire.

Claudette Colbert as Empress Poppaea
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Additionally, the musical score by Rudolph G. Kopp conjures up the romance of a distant time– building a strong sense of place and adding immeasurably to the mood and atmosphere of the setting. The score does not call attention to itself with blaring trumpets and such. The instruments gently play over the action of the scene like true background music. Kopp would later score DeMille’s Cleopatra (1934).

Titus and the other man, Flavius, are captured by Roman spies and become the objects of public scorn. A Christian girl, Mercia, comes to the aid of the men, but before mob action can reach a fever pitch, the Roman prefect, Marcus Superbus (Fredric March) arrives in his chariot to intercede. With an obvious admiration for Mercia, he allows the two old men to go free.

The film follows Marcus’ courting of Mercia with the planning of a secret meeting by the Christians. Wary of Marcus’ motivations and jealous of his standing with Emperor Nero, Tigellinus (wonderfully played by Ian Keith) intercedes and has the Christians massacred at the meeting place. Those who survive are sent to prison and later to the arena. Marcus takes Mercia to live with him in his home, but her heart is with those imprisoned. Marcus attempts to kill her soul and later, in desperation, to get her to recant her religion.

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Though it is Poppaea (Claudette Colbert) with the role everyone remembers, what stands out for me is the strength of the Elissa Landi character. Though less showy than Colbert’s part, Landi is the soul of the movie. One of the highlights in the film is the “Dance of the Naked Moon” performed by “the wickeest woman in all of Rome”: Ancaria (played by the exaggerated Joyzelle Joyner). Known as the “lesbian dance,” Ancaria tries to seduce Mercia with her gyrations and suggestiveness. Mercia does not break because she is inspired by the prisoners who sing outside. But this strength is perceived as coldness. Without saying a word, Mercia is able to rattle the nerves of the wanton dancer.

Likewise, it is Mercia’s strength that buoys the spirits of the oppressed. When the Christians are in the arena dungeon awaiting execution, she gives them the confidence to face death. Once isolated from them, he cry out to God is heart-breaking.

Though Charles Laughton is well-remembered for his outrageous Nero interpretation, it is Fredric March who gives the better performance. March could adapt to any film genre, be it historical or contemporary. His best scene is also the final scene in the film when he tries to save Mercia by getting her to renounce her God. The earnestness that March brought to a role was rarely matched in Hollywood.

DeMille’s depictions of Christian martydom may have been inspired by such paintings as Faithful Unto Death (1888) by Herbert Gustave Schmalz.
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The Sign of the Cross is a powerful film about keeping the faith in one’s final hours. The film is a tragedy based on historical episodes. The persecution of Christians lasted for 300 years until Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan legalized Christianity. Though the particulars may be off– i.e., the Colosseum was built under Emperor Vespasian, not Nero– DeMille was not making a documentary. He was a superb storyteller who brought the past to life in a way no other filmmaker could.

Though Christians are no longer fed to lions, they are still persecuted throughout the world, either physically (by Islamic states and other fanatics abroad) or intellectually here at home. With the rise of secularism in America, Christian belief and thought is marginalized and labelled as outmoded and out of sync with new definitions of how society should act.

The Sign of the Cross had a relevance in 1932 when it was released, as well as in 1944 when it was reissued. Today, all these years later, its themes of sacrifice and of keeping the faith still resonate.

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Since I didn’t rely on the “pre-Code” aspects to sell it, only 50 people came out last Thursday night. But this isn’t a pre-Code film series; it’s a program that explores how faith is depicted on screen. More important than attendance is how the film affects the viewer– and the emotional connection he or she has to it. That night it was rewarding to see one of our patrons, Joe Paolelli, attend because I knew he was a theology student. We both share an interest in how early Christianity developed and how it was depicted in movies like The Sign of the Cross, Quo Vadis, and others. The Christians were figures who gave their lives for a belief. DeMille brings that story to life with great feeling, especially in Titus’ scene with the boy Stephan. Here, Titus speaks of having seen Jesus. As Joe elaborated,

“It reminded me of the fact that a subset of the early martyrs actually walked and talked with Christ, and were willing to die for their belief that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” To me, that will always be the most convincing apologetic argument for Christianity. Why would an eclectic group like the Apostles be willing to die for their faith in this man, if he were anything other than who He claimed to be? I found that early scene with Titus and Stephan very moving.”

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For more about the making of The Sign of the Cross, here is a link to a terrific entry from www.brightlightsfilm.com. The blog post was adapted from a chapter on DeMille from the new release, Cecil B. DeMille: The Art of the Hollywood Epic (2014).

For a scholarly examination of Cecil B. DeMille (and a better understanding of the type of filmmaker he was– and wasn’t), I highly recommend visiting the KINEMA feature: Scripture Filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille: Biblical, Religious or Spiritual?

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March in Print

Posted in Uncategorized on December 18, 2013 by mchoffman

There are few biographies on Fredric March, which is hard to fathom considering he was the finest actor of his generation. These are the three books you will find:

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1. Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second (1996). Deborah C. Peterson’s biography is a well-written and informative account of March’s life. This was the first biography I read on the actor and it’s been one that I’ve often quoted. (It served me well as a guidebook when I visited March’s hometown.) Since many of the author’s sources were still alive while it was being researched, the book has an authenticity that later authors– forced to rely on repeated second and third-hand accounts– will not have. Out of print, but worth the search.

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2. The Films of Fredric March (1971) Lawrence J. Quirk’s visual guide to March’s career is a pretty good reference and is noteworthy as being the only one written while March was still alive. It also features a short bio at the beginning.

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3. Fredric March: A Consummate Actor (2013) by Charles Tranberg. Recommended mainly for the things not already in the Peterson book. Letters that March wrote in his youth are included. There is also an emphasis on March’s distinguished stage career which is especially interesting in the chapter detailing “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Unfortunately, this latest bio gives the impression of being hurriedly put together with aspects of March’s life superficially recorded– or not recorded at all. (There is no mention of March’s We Live Again, which he made in 1934 with Anna Sten.) There are several inaccuracies regarding film history and dozens of typos throughout the book which range from names of actors (“Ronald Coleman and Vilma Bankley,” “Victor McLauglin,” “Erich Wolfgand Korngold,”) to the names of the films themselves: The Real Glory (a Gary Cooper film) instead of March’s The Road to Glory, The Other Side of the Forest instead of Another Part of the Forest, and A Matter of Life and Death. (We’re reasonably sure the author meant An Act of Murder with this one.) Additionally, the grammatical errors are excessive. If there was a proofreader involved in its editing, they certainly have never read The Elements of Style. These are mostly technical issues. To the author’s credit, there is a respect towards the subject, which is to be admired in this age of sensationalistic biography, and he has an obvious enthusiasm, as evidenced by the occasions when he lapses into first person observations. But it is clear he is not an authority on the subject.

Though we applaud this latest effort to bring attention to a great actor, it’s time that Fredric March receive the kind of epic biography he deserves. Important actors/actresses/directors, etc. warrant in-depth biographies. Think Scott Eyman’s 600+ page Print the Legend, for instance, on John Ford, or Marshall Terrill’s Steve McQueen. We hope one day there will be much more on Fredric March… if there’s a writer out there up to that challenge.

The Buccaneer (1938) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 13, 2013 by mchoffman

Washington burning… The White House aflame… The enemy at our doorstep… and the fate of a young nation in the hands of a French smuggler with a bounty on his head.

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The Buccaneer is a change of pace from what we are used to seeing in Crossed Swords. In place of European castles and sea battles, we’re in the bayous of Louisiana. Instead of classic literature, our story comes from the pages of American history. It’s not your typical swashbuckler, but ironically, it’s the first in the series where we see that staple of so many pirate movies: walking the plank. A film that incorporates our history as well as grand spectacle should come as no surprise that it was directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille.

Though based on the life of French pirate Jean Lafitte, there is a good deal of fiction at work. DeMille wasn’t about to let history get in the way of a good story. For instance, the treaty ending the War of 1812 had already been signed by the time the Battle of New Orleans takes place in this film, but that would’ve robbed the film of its drama. We can forgive this cinematic license because DeMille exploits a fascinating time in our country’s history, and I can think of no other film with the War of 1812 as a backdrop. The Buccaneer is an entertaining adventure with a great pace that makes you forget it’s 124 minutes.

Fredric March as Jean Lafitte was never a swashbuckler like the other actors in this program, though he had appeared with sword in hand in films like The Affairs of Cellini and Anthony Adverse. I’ve never seen Fredric March give a bad performance no matter what was expected of him. Perhaps his French accent is an issue to some critics, but he makes the part more interesting with it. (In fact, March had worked with a Frenchman to perfect the accent he used.)

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For Jean Lafitte, with his curly hair and pencil-thin mustache, he brings the sort of bravado that is expected of the character. March essentially “plays pirate” with a sometimes over-the-top eagerness to become respectable, such as the scene in which he’s waving the American flag on the shore amidst the cannon fire. Respectability—motivated by a woman’s love—is the basis for his desire to help the Americans—at least, in the DeMille version of history. Cecil B. DeMille had worked with Fredric March in 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, so he knew he had cast the right actor to convey what he wanted onscreen. Years after The Buccaneer, DeMille would write, “Fredric March made a dashing and completely believable Lafitte, a man of curiously mingled ruthlessness and honor, a vagabond of the high seas who wanted desperately to be rooted somewhere.”

Fredric March made this film in-between two contemporary roles playing newspaper reporters. His previous film was the terrific screwball comedy Nothing Sacred with Carole Lombard. His next release after DeMille would be There Goes My Heart, which was a weak imitation of It Happened One Night. March alternated between contemporary and costume films and was equally adept at both. Earlier in his career when he was appearing in weak films with cardboard characterizations, there may have been more of a tendency for March to overcompensate with a more florid style. But such acting flourishes never defined his acting technique. He always gave the part what he thought it called for. If the character he was playing was larger-than-life in some way, it didn’t make March the actor a “ham.” This is a point some modern film critics miss.

Period films such as Les Miserables reveal March to be one of the finest actors of his generation. He was indeed an actor and this allowed him to disappear into his roles and try new things. Other stars of the time were personality actors, like a Gary Cooper or a Clark Gable, and they essentially played themselves in every film. Clark Gable, by the way, did play Jean Lafitte in the 1938 Lux Radio Theatre version of tonight’s film; he did not attempt a French accent. But when you think of Fredric March, you don’t think of any one role that defines his entire career. Some of us remember his Dr. Jekyll. For others, it’s his Al Stephenson in The Best Years of Our Lives. And in-between these wonderful films are so many other Oscar-worthy performances.

Lafitte’s kingdom: the men of Barataria…
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Co-starring with March is Margot Grahame, who plays the governor’s daughter. Grahame was an English actress who is probably best known for her role in John Ford’s The Informer. But she also appeared in two other swashbucklers. She was the only highlight in the 1935 version of The Three Musketeers, made at RKO, and later in her career, she appeared in 1952’s The Crimson Pirate, which starred Burt Lancaster. Though her casting is certainly a benefit, Grahame’s role as the love interest is designed strictly for the box office. This is also the case with Franciska Gaal as the Dutch maiden, Gretchen.

Gaal was a Hungarian cabaret singer that DeMille had discovered, but she didn’t last long in Hollywood. She only made a couple more movies and failed to make an impression with American audiences of the 1930s. She went home to Budapest just before the outbreak of World War II. Years later, she returned to America and appeared on Broadway in the early 1950s. There are moments in The Buccaneer when it seems as though she’s playing to the camera with her innocence and spirited manner, but she injects some cute lines into the festivities that are quite good. Maybe she pops her head up one too many times in this film, but this is more the fault of DeMille and the screenwriters than it is her performance. Where they decided to place her was the issue. She simply did not belong in many of the scenes.

She would’ve been fine simply as a background character with a few colorful scenes, but her continual presence– even as a uniformed “powder monkey” on the battlefield– creates a jarring shift in tone at dramatic moments in the film. The scene at the Victory Ball is a case in point. The moment revolves around a beautiful dress that Gretchen wears which had been worn by the dead sister of Lafitte’s fiancée. (It’s one of many items taken from the Corinthian, which had been sunk earlier in the film.) It’s a profoundly tragic moment when we realize this, but something was off here. Perhaps it was because Gretchen is using this reception to win Lafitte over; this light-hearted game of hers is contrasted sharply with the horrific reminder that she wears. Everything else in this scene, especially Margot Grahame’s reaction, works.

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I think it would’ve been more interesting seeing Lafitte’s “one hour’s head start” out of town or a similar action sequence rather than devoting so much screen time to an unnecessary Hollywood love triangle. (NOTE: After our screening on April 11, I realized I was a little off in my assessment of Franciska Gaal. Audiences enjoyed her performance in this film. It just goes to show you how seeing a film with an audience can make you reevaluate your first impressions. The full measure of a film’s impact is lost when you miss these reactions of how viewers respond.)

More impressive, however, are the many great character actors in this film such as Akim Tamiroff who provides some humor as Dominique You, a former cannoneer for Napoleon. Screenwriter Preston Sturges, who had been connected with the film early on before parting ways with DeMille, is the one who recommended casting Akim Tamiroff as Lafitte’s second-in-command.

In the part of General Andrew Jackson is Hugh Sothern, who gives one of the best performances in the movie. His first meeting with Lafitte, in which the Frenchman pulls the gun on him, is terrific. And as Jackson’s aid in the coonskin cap, DeMille casts the venerable Walter Brennan. He was one of the greatest of all character actors in Hollywood’s golden age, and he has a wonderful moment with Akim Tamiroff later at the Victory Ball. There are many other fine actors in the film, such as Ian Keith as the Louisiana senator who, in fact, was another one of those fictional embellishments that DeMille and his screenwriters devised.

“He left a corsair’s name to other times. Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes.” ~ Byron
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Anthony Quinn also appears as one of Lafitte’s men. His career at this point was just getting started. In Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second, author Deborah Peterson relates a story involving Quinn’s interaction with March. “Quinn’s was a rather small part, but during one of their dialogues together, March was supposed to turn to Quinn and give him an order. Quinn’s answer was very simple, but March responded with a strange look. As his back was to the camera, the camera did not capture this look. After the shot, March sat next to Quinn and said, ‘You know, in pictures, I seldom hear a ring of truth from my fellow actors, and that’s why I looked at you so peculiarly, because you sounded real and truthful in your answer. You’re either going to become one of the lousiest actors in the world, or one of the best.’”

There is a short swordplay sequence in the film between Lafitte and the senator which justifies the film’s inclusion in our series. But the more impressive scene visually is the sequence where the pirates are led from the swamps in preparation for their battle with the British. This episode is tinted green and it recalls the color tints one associates with the silent era. DeMille was perhaps remembering a not so distant time in his own moviemaking past. At the time of production, this was his twenty-fifth year in the business and he had already made over sixty films. Incidentally, there is one other moment that recalls the silent film tradition. The astute viewer will catch it; it involves a miniature photo. Cinematographer Victor Milner was, in fact, nominated for his beautiful photography throughout the film.

Author Deborah Peterson writes, “The Buccaneer required more than four months location work at New Iberia, Los Angeles, Catalina Island, and Baldwin Oaks. The New Orleans Cabildo, Jean Lafitte’s home, and the American first presidential home all had to be constructed at Paramount Studios, where the unit shot for an additional ninety days. Employing more than 6,000 people, DeMille revived such historical incidents as the Battle of New Orleans, and the attack on Lafitte’s pirates by the U.S. Navy. Fifty-six men worked four weeks to construct the seven acre settlement representing Barataria at White’s Landing, Catalina Island.”

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The film certainly looks good in terms of costumes and set design. Dwight Franklin co-designed the costumes in this film and we’ll see his work in the Douglas Fairbanks silent film, The Black Pirate, which will be screened at the Pickwick Theatre in a couple weeks. According to some press material, Lafitte’s home as depicted in the film was furnished with a collection of silver valued at over $250,000. DeMille and his production successfully captured the flavor of the era.

The Buccaneer is not DeMille’s greatest film nor is it March’s, but the combination of the two makes for some rousing fun in the best spirit of swashbuckling. I watched this film for the second time just the other night, and I really do look forward to seeing it again. The reason so few people have seen it is because it had been pulled from circulation in the wake of the pretentious, 1958 remake starring a wigged Yul Brynner. That film was produced by DeMille and directed by his son-in-law, Anthony Quinn. So The Buccaneer is a very rare film, having been released on dvd only last year. And like next week’s The Man in the Iron Mask, few movie buffs have seen it. So we are honored to present it here tonight.

Jean Lafitte leaves behind an “American” New Orleans…
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For more on Fredric March, visit his hometown: click here!

Merrily We Go To Hell (1932) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 16, 2010 by mchoffman


[NOTE: The following is the complete transcript for my discussion on Merrily We Go To Hell, which was shown on the night of April 15, 2010, at the Park Ridge Public Library. We had 71 people in attendance and the audience response was terrific. Thank you to all those who have been supporting our “Forbidden Cinema” pre-Code Hollywood Series.] 

Thank you for coming out on such a beautiful night. I suppose it’s fitting we are playing a movie called Merrily We Go To Hell on Tax Day.

Tonight’s film is the one that inspired me to do this series in the first place. Its title alone I wanted to see in the brochure, and it was an excuse to play another movie with Fredric March—an actor I greatly admire. There is nothing “old time” about his performance in this film. It feels real to us, even after all these years… So this is the film that triggered the pre-Code program. Stronger films were then built around it…

Merrily We Go To HellSafe in HellLaughter in HellThe Mayor of HellLaughing SinnersThe Road to RuinFree LoveThe Devil is DrivingMadam Satan… The studio PR men certainly knew how to hook a theatergoer with movie titles like that! Each one suggesting eight reels of moral anarchy.

I think you will enjoy tonight’s film. Not many people have seen it, and there’s not a lot out there written about it, but it’s films like these that give me the motivation to do programs like this. Since the majority of you in this room haven’t seen the film, I’d rather not go over any plot points in detail. Instead, I’d rather just let the story unfold for you. In short, it’s the story of a newspaperman, Jerry, who, as a rule, prefers the company of men—particularly if they’re bartenders. He is loved by a young society girl, Joan, whose father has millions. It’s important to remember that Joan is a swell girl—I mean, a really swell girl.

Besides the film’s title, which would not have passed the Production Code Administration in 1934, the film’s subject matter dealt with issues that would’ve been forbidden years later… The Production Code stressed the sanctity of marriage, and in this film, characters re-define marriage. There’s no room for the old-fashioned wife. “If being a modern husband gives you privileges, than being a modern wife gives me privileges,” Joan tells her swinging husband. The image of an open marriage was shocking for its time.


Nineteen-thirty’s The Divorcee was the first film to deal with these kinds of issues in an adult way. Norma Shearer had the star power to push the envelope and make films that were important to women. Shearer excelled in roles that defined the modern woman. Throughout the pre-Code era, there are films that address the woman’s role in society– images that would be far different than those projected post-1934.

What is fascinating is how the characters transform in this film. Joan is a sweet innocent, but by no means a doormat, as her father fears. She grows up fast then tries to re-define herself as though ‘living it up’ were a self-defense mechanism. These changes can’t conceal the sadness and suffering beneath the surface. In an irresponsible, carefree world of drinking orgies, where characters in beautifully-lit art deco settings laugh off the Depression of the real world, there will come an awakening and a sobering up…


Years before Method Acting came into vogue, there was Fredric March, an actor unique in his intensity and warmth. March plays Jerry, the alcoholic unable to take responsibility for his actions. And for the second week in a row, he’s showing up late and angering the future father-in-law at the announcement party. Merrily We Go To Hell was March’s second film after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He could portray anguished souls better than just about anyone in Hollywood as we saw in last week’s film, and he excelled at playing drunks. Think Norman Maine in A Star is Born. Here, he’s drinking through most of the movie. Keep in mind this was in the days of Prohibition when the matter was a delicate subject with local censor boards. This movie serves it to us straight up.

Born Ernest Frederick McIntyre Bickel, March was a star of stage, screen, and radio. He was considered by his peers to be the finest actor of his generation. March was an acting craftsman blessed with a wonderful speaking voice and a Barrymore-like profile. Though he was cast in many costume films in the mid to late ’30s, he was equally adept in modern roles. Whether wearing period tights or a snap-brim hat, March could turn in one great performance after another.

Besides his films, he had a distinguished theatrical career that garnered two Tonys. In 1946, he won the very first Tony award for the play “Years Ago.” That same year, he won an Oscar for his performance in The Best Years of Our Lives. March is the only actor to have won, in a single year, the highest awards of stage and screen.

For those unfamiliar with his work, I’d recommend Les Miserables, A Star is Born, One Foot In Heaven, The Best Years of Our Lives—beating out Laurence Olivier that year for the Oscar— Death of a Salesman, and John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh. His name is not as well known today because audiences at the time never associated him with an image or onscreen persona. He simply blended into every role he took on. He was an actor first and a star second.

In that documentary I played for you on the making of Grand Hotel, you saw the great movie stars of MGM’s glory years—a studio that knew how to create and build a star. Studios at that time were mainly selling personalities, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Joan Crawford may have been one of the greatest “movie stars” of all-time even if her performances were sometimes too mannered. And Greta Garbo, well, she inhabited some other plane entirely. There is no one today even remotely like a Garbo– a mystic Sphinx seemingly staring into Time. But that’s what Hollywood was all about then. Today, Hollywood doesn’t make movies, they make deals. And there are no more movie stars. Just bad haircuts in cheap suits who populate a vehicle which is nothing more than a two-hour trailer for a pop music video. But I digress… Though there were great movie stars, there were few who could be considered great actors, but March was one of them. Watch a film like A Star is Born and it’s his tragic performance as the washed-up actor that the modern viewer remembers– not the Hollywood hokiness of Janet Gaynor’s Esther Blodgett.


Merrily We Go to Hell co-stars Sylvia Sidney as Joan, who loves Jerry so much that she is always making excuses for him no matter how many times he lets her down. Her sheltered naivete is not tinged with anything other than genuine sweetness, so the hurt she suffers in the film is heartbreaking. In a recent online article on the film, writer Sarahjane Blum said of her: “My God, did they have faces. Sidney, a full figured beauty by the boyish standards popular in the jazz age, possessed a perfectly-complected, heart-shaped marvel of a face, that when innocent looked exactly like a kewpie doll, and when hardened, took on the appearance of someone who had just witnessed a drive-by shooting. She emoted every injury and cruelty with grace…” Sidney’s career in Hollywood would last into the 1990s when she was appearing in films like Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! One of her best films of the 1930s was Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once with Henry Fonda—a precursor to the film noir style. She also appeared in Fritz Lang’s Fury as well as Dead End with Humphrey Bogart. In the same year as Merrily We Go To Hell, Sidney starred in Madame Butterfly opposite an actor you’ll see tonight in a small role: Cary Grant.

Of her leading man in this film, Sidney would say,

“Fredric March had the reputation of being a ladies man. We made two pictures together, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Good Dame (1934). But he never laid a hand on me, never made a pass at me! Freddie was happily married. He’d tease me by saying, ‘Look at those boobs!’ or ‘Look at that toosh!’ But it was all in fun.”

In the role of Joan’s father is George Irving—one of those great character actors from the golden age who appeared in hundreds of movies, often playing fathers, judges, or doctors. Coincidentally, he played Norma Shearer’s father in The Divorcee. Adrianne Allen plays Jerry’s ex-flame who returns to star in his play. Around Hollywood, Allen was known as Mrs. Raymond Massey. And in the role of Jerry’s newspaper friend, Buck, vaudeville entertainer Skeets Gallagher. According to one report in Film Daily, comedian Jack Oakie was to appear in the film. It did not say in which role, but I’ll assume it would’ve been as Buck.

The story is based on a novel called I, Jerry, Take Thee, Joan, but Paramount– heading towards bankruptcy– changed the title to something a little more attention-getting for bigger box office. Perhaps the title drew some of you in tonight. At the time, The Los Angeles Times refused to print the title of the film in advertisements. It was the only paper that did so… The film was photographed by David Abel, who would later shoot the wonderful Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals at RKO in the mid-thirties.

But the most interesting name in this film’s production credits is its director, Dorothy Arzner—the only woman director working in Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system. She once said, “When I went to work in the studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.”

But not only did she survive in the boy’s club, for fifteen years she excelled in it. In 1936 she would be the first woman in the Directors Guild of America… She was born in 1897 in San Francisco. When she was young she worked as a waitress in her parents’ café in Los Angeles. She wanted to be a doctor but wound up as an ambulance driver. After the First World War she worked at a newspaper. A tour of a motion picture studio inspired her to pursue a film career behind the camera. It was the editing of a movie that fascinated her most. Her big break came when she met William DeMille, brother of Cecil B. DeMille, who put her to work as a secretary at Paramount.

At this time, women in film mostly worked as scenario writers. There were only a couple women directors in the silent era, and in time she would become the only female to become a success in sound film, and the first woman to direct a talkie. Before she got to that plateau, though, she had to work from the bottom up. She toiled as a script girl before moving on to cutting films in the editing room. One of her most famous credits is the 1922 Valentino bullfight epic, Blood and Sand, for which she received the very first screen credit ever for editing. Director James Cruze was impressed with her work, but she was determined to get behind the camera, which she did a short time later when Paramount finally offered her a job. She directed the studio’s first talkie, Manhattan Cocktail, as well as Clara Bow’s first excursion into sound in 1929, The Wild Party—a film that would also feature… Fredric March… As an aside, the “It Girl,” Clara Bow, was terrified of the microphone in her first talkie, and this was in the early days of static filmmaking when the mike was fixed in one spot—usually on a desk or hidden someplace– and the actors acted around it. To help remedy her star’s fears, the director created a mobile, overhead mike affixed to a fishing pole. Arzner is often credited with creating the first ‘boom mike’ in Hollywood. However, I’m pretty sure the first boom mike was actually created by William Wellman for the 1928 Louise Brooks’ film Beggars of Life in which the director rigged a microphone onto a broom. Either way, Dorothy Arzner demonstrated a keen understanding of film, and her filmography reflects this attention to detail.


She would direct several films with Fredric March, helping to establish him as a star. In the years ahead she would freelance and make films such as RKO’s Christopher Strong with Katherine Hepburn, Craig’s Wife with Rosalind Russell and Dance, Girl, Dance with Lucille Ball. When the Second World War came she made training films for the Women’s Army Corps. In her later years she made documentaries before finally teaching film at UCLA. One of her students was Francis Ford Coppola. She would pass away in 1979… Arzner was an open lesbian who dressed in suits and ties on the set. In later years she would be revived by feminists, but Arzner claimed to be neither a gay director or a woman director. She was simply a Hollywood director who made the women’s melodramas she was assigned by the studios.

Arzner did stamp her films with the trademark of well-defined female characterization, which brings us back to Miss Sylvia Sidney. It’s tough for the viewer to see her hurt in this film, but she really hits home the film’s theme—that loving the wrong person can cheapen you. In a very literal sense, it is Jerry’s alcohol addiction which she marries. ( Note the ‘wedding ring’ in the church scene.) But it’s a film whose themes reach across time as though Arzner is gently tapping the shoulder of the modern girl. How many contemporary marriages and relationships are destroyed because one person has that undying faith in someone who does not deserve it.

Finally, in that same online article I quoted before, writer Sarahjane Blum writes about what this film has to say: “But in this brief moment in Hollywood history, marriage was up for revision. Design For Living became one of the most clever and adult films of the pre-code age by espousing the three-person couple, but today it’s almost impossible to talk about such arrangements without moralizing. Other films championed everything from orgies to the abandonment of marriage altogether. Though Merrily We Go To Hell comes down hard against open marriage, it rejects it because even in twos, people destroy each other way too easily. In Arzner’s eyes, inventing ever more creative sexual partnerships only creates ever more novel cruelties.”