The Birth of an Actress: Marilyn Monroe in Don’t Bother to Knock

Theatrical Poster, 1952

This post is in conjunction with Sittin’ On A Backyard Fence’sSummer Under the Stars Blogathon”—a month-long celebration of the film icons being spotlighted each day, all day, on Turner Classic Movies. Today, the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the tragic passing of Marilyn Monroe, I am dedicating this post to the Blogathon and, more importantly, to Monroe. A tormented woman of strength and talent that, five decades on, still shines… and inspires.

Perhaps one of the many reasons I have such a deep admiration and respect for Marilyn is due to the fact that the first film I saw of hers, or rather, the first film I remember watching start to finish ( Marilyn’s films are so rooted in our cultural subconscious that someone can feel as though they’ve seen her films even if they haven’t) was not her  fluffy, fun, frivolous light comedies that immortalized her. The white pleated blowing skirt in The Seven Year Itch and the pink-gowned diamond-digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (In which, of course, she is dynamite.) Rather, it was a strange little noir called Don’t Bother to Knock. And it was scarcely a typical first encounter. It was in fact atypical. Don’t Bother to Knock is a curious, offbeat noir. The fact it originally was slated to be helmed by noir master Jules Dassin shows how seriously 20th Century Fox was taking the film: Zanuck granted a modest budget, assigned talented scribe Daniel Taradash to the script (soon to adapt From Here to Eternity) and wanted high production value… perhaps because he was still not sold on Marilyn’s (as-of-yet) unproven ability to take on a dramatic role. Fox assigned studio director Roy Ward Baker and his direction lacks the stylized tension that so permeates the noir film in general (take for example Marilyn’s previous film, Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, or her next film, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara), but it in spite of the static direction, the film possesses an undeniable electric  current  with Marilyn as its conductor. In Don’t Bother to Knock, Marilyn was no “dumb blonde”. She was an actress.   A damn good one. Her performance as Nell Forbes managed to both scare the shit out of me, and leave me in tears.  It is a heartbreaking, soul-bearing performance that was the first truly great dramatic performance of her career.

Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark

And, in typical Hollywood fashion, her bottom-line money-mongering studio zookeepers would not allow it again. Monroe would have to take her career into her own hands, forming her own production company 4 years later with Bus Stop (my personal favorite of her films), before she would again have the chance to prove herself a serious talent to be reckoned with.

The premise of Don’t Bother to Knock is simple. A family hires a babysitter to look after their young daughter for the evening while they attend a dinner party. They are staying in a hotel, and the porter (Elisha Cook Jr.) recommends his niece Nell (Monroe) to babysit the kid. The problem is that Monroe is suicidal. She has only recently been released from a mental institution having gone off the deep end when her fiancé was killed in a plane crash during the war. With the Jones’ downstairs at the party, Monroe tucks the little girl, “Bunny”,  into bed and her intensely lonely, quiet life becomes painfully apparent to the viewer as she tries on the fine jewelry and expensive negligee of her well-to-do employers. Her appliqué of lip rouge reveals two scars on her wrists.  In a quietly moving scene, Monroe looks at her face in the vanity mirror, admiring the fine diamond earrings, and as she does a plane is heard to pass over the hotel. She crosses to the window and peeks out between the blinds, up into that black sky—the same black sky that had taken away her fiancé. She closes her eyes and the camera, only faintly, registers that she is crying. It’s the moment that I sat straight up in my seat, suddenly glued to this unexpectedly haunted, emotionally naked performance on the screen.  I must have been about 15. And I was riveted.

An airline pilot (Richard Widmark) occupying a room across the courtyard from Monroe has checked in to win back his girlfriend, a singer in the hotel lounge who has given him his walking papers (Anne Bancroft in her screen debut). When he sees Monroe’s bombshell figure in the room across the way, he rings the room and invites himself over.

What he thinks is going to be a casual night of hanky panky out to be anything but. Monroe slowly unravels during the course of the evening as he is the first man she’s been alone with since her fiance’s death and she begins to believe that he is her fiancé. Things take a fork knife turn when little Bunny blows Monroe’s cover, crying for her to ‘take off her Mommy’s things’ and Widmark understands that Monroe has been feeding him a line about her being a woman of the world. She’s nothing more than the babysitter, new to New York and lonely.

Against his better judgment, Widmark stays for a bit, visibly moved at Monroe’s confession , but all the while desperate to leave the crazy situation he’s got himself into and get downstairs to see  Bancroft again to try one last time to win her back. Monroe begins to believe that her uncle, who keeps trying to check in on her during the night, and the little girl, who is understandably concerned at finding a strange man in the hotel room, are intruders trying to keep her away from her fiancé . And when Monroe sits next to Bunny on the windowpane, looking out at their neighbors’ windows, there is a terrifying moment when it seems as though Monroe actually will push the girl to her death. Widmark steps in and, when his eyes meet Monroe’s, he is suddenly aware that, perhaps, he got more than he bargained for. Behind Widmark’s back, Monroe threatens Bunny into keeping her trap shut and going to bed… or else. And the psychotic glint in Monroe’s eyes leaves no doubt whatsoever that she is perfectly capable of carrying out her threat.

The night quickly caves in on itself when Monroe’s Uncle shows up again, unexpectedly, to check up on her.  Monroe shoves Widmark into the bathroom to hide, and takes some very tough love from her Uncle who, upon wiping off the lipstick off Monroe’s face, sends her into a fit and she strikes her Uncle on the back of his head, rendering him unconscious on the bathroom floor.  Widmark now knows that this girl is more than just trouble, she is very possibly dangerous, and he flees the scene to meet up with Bancroft downstairs before he loses her forever.

Widmark spills his guts to her about Monroe and the little girl, and Bancroft is hit by his uncharacteristically sincere interest in the situation. Widmark, however, is suddenly overcome with the realization that Monroe might actually do serious harm to the little girl. His intuition has served him well, as Monroe has locked her unconscious uncle in the broom cupboard and has bound and gagged little Bunny whom she blames for the night’s disastrous turn of events. The parents, sick with worry over their phone calls not having got through, show up just in time. Widmark is not far behind, as is the House Detective.

Monroe comes unglued on Elisha Cook Jr.

Monroe is a shattered, broken mess, crouching in the corner of the hotel room. A fragile shell of a woman that might, at any moment, be carried away with the wind, like dust, never to be seen again. And, as far as she is aware, her disappearance would matter just as much as dust particles in the wind. And so she sneaks away, unnoticed by Widmark, her uncle and the detective.

Her walk down the corridor is a death march. She leans against the wall for support. Her beautiful eyes wide and full of numbed confusion. Her perfect face cracked with the deep stain of lost, desperate tears. This is not Nell Forbes. This is not Marilyn Monroe. This is Norma Jeane Mortenson. For the final 10 minutes of the film, she is exposed: for all her cosmetic perfection, she is raw and imperfect, alone and afraid, desperate to feel the warmth of love and kindness and respect but all-too aware that she never will. What was Marilyn thinking and feeling during that long, languorous dolly shot? Was she thinking of her own childhood with a mother gone mad? Was she painfully aware of how much she actually had in common with the emotionally spent state of Nell? Whatever the case, there is an infinite depth in those glazed wide eyes, and to a modern audience it is acutely obvious that this emotion is coming from some place very, very deep within.

And when Widmark finds her, in a daze, with a razor in hand, Bancroft is at Widmark’s side. She is moved by his deep concern. It is the only asexual relationship Monroe will ever have onscreen. She is a child in a woman’s body that Widmark wants to protect.

It would be the story of Monroe’s life.

Monroe and Nell as they become one person on screen. It’s hard to watch when you know what painful emotions lay behind Monroe’s beautiful facade.

The film was released in 1952 while Marilyn was under contract with Fox, just prior to her watershed success in Henry Hathaway’s sexy, Technicolor noir Niagara which would catapult her into super-stardom.   Don’t Bother To Knock was far from sexy. It was not the sort of film, perhaps, audiences wanted to see this white-hot new screen personality in and the film flopped both financially and critically. (Daily Variety, however, was a fan and applauded her performance as “excellent”, and LIFE Magazine keyed in most astutely by calling Monroe’s  performance “the genuine article.” ) It’s a shame this particular role is so seldom discussed. A very real 180 from the soon-to-be sex kitten that Fox would brand her as, Monroe is a revelation here.  Untrained in dramatics, Monroe’s acting coach, Natascha Lyness, confessed “I have to say that I didn’t think she was ready to take on a role of that magnitude. I underestimated her talent… or at the very least, her resolve. The time we spent on the script—two days, no sleep—was very dramatic and passionate and filled with angst, like Marilyn herself. In the end, she did such a great job that Zanuck saw fit to writer her a note to congratulate her, which surprised thrilled her to no end. She was so insecure and unsure of her ability that any validation at all was considered high praise.” Zanuck may have flattered Monroe, but he had no intention of making a habit of such unglamorous, dramatic parts. “She’s a dumb tomato and half-crazy to boot,” he is reported to have said about Monroe in the film. “In each picture she’ll earn her keep, but no more dramatic roles.” Monroe would stretch her range in Niagara as an emotionally manipulative femme fatale but the role capitalized completely on Monroe’s sex appeal. It was branded as sex. And that’s all anyone saw: explosive, on-your-knees-slave sex. A presence so overpowering, that no one could (or wanted to) see the actress, so strongly competent right in front of them.

As Rose in Niagara.

As Cherie in Bus Stop.

As Joslyn in her final film, The Misfits

Marilyn’s close friend Montgomery Clift, himself an outspoken foe of the Hollywood studio system, later made this comment on Marilyn’s stunted growth as an actress following Don’t Bother to Knock: “Fox wanted to keep a tight grip and drain her dry. Marilyn had a right to make the choice not to demean herself. But the boss wouldn’t let her. They didn’t want an actress. That’s what they’d agreed upon. They sat at their round table and decide that Marilyn wasn’t capable of making a relevant decision.”

Clift would work with Marilyn 8 years later on her final film (and his third to final), John Huston’s The Misfits. Brilliant but doomed like Marilyn, a friend noted “Monty and Marilyn were psychic twins. They were on the same wavelength. They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.” Clift, considered to be one of the most gifted actors of his generation, would call Marilyn the finest actress he ever worked with.

The Misfits, to many, is Marilyn’s finest strongest performance. Written for her by then-husband Arthur Miller, the role could probably be played by any actress… but none as broken and Marilyn’s. Her Method training had allowed her to transcend written lines and bare herself completely. It is a testament to the fragile-yet-formidable talent first unveiled in Don’t Bother to Knock, made undeniable in Bus Stop, and forever cemented in The Misfits.

Of her relationship with her Method acting coach, the legendary Paula Strasberg, Monroe said simply “Whatever road leads to growth, you take.” And if Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop, and The Misfits prove anything, it’s that Marilyn took those risks and traveled those roads that no one believed she should, or could, travel.  Thankfully, even though we lost her so many decades ago, these rarely appreciated artistic triumphs live,  forever, on film. Who knows. Maybe one day we’ll finally recognize her as the deeply human actress she truly was. Instead of the icon Hollywood created.

The Birth of an Actress: Marilyn Monroe in Don't Bother to Knock

Theatrical Poster, 1952

This post is in conjunction with Sittin’ On A Backyard Fence’sSummer Under the Stars Blogathon”—a month-long celebration of the film icons being spotlighted each day, all day, on Turner Classic Movies. Today, the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the tragic passing of Marilyn Monroe, I am dedicating this post to the Blogathon and, more importantly, to Monroe. A tormented woman of strength and talent that, five decades on, still shines… and inspires.

Perhaps one of the many reasons I have such a deep admiration and respect for Marilyn is due to the fact that the first film I saw of hers, or rather, the first film I remember watching start to finish ( Marilyn’s films are so rooted in our cultural subconscious that someone can feel as though they’ve seen her films even if they haven’t) was not her  fluffy, fun, frivolous light comedies that immortalized her. The white pleated blowing skirt in The Seven Year Itch and the pink-gowned diamond-digger in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (In which, of course, she is dynamite.) Rather, it was a strange little noir called Don’t Bother to Knock. And it was scarcely a typical first encounter. It was in fact atypical. Don’t Bother to Knock is a curious, offbeat noir. The fact it originally was slated to be helmed by noir master Jules Dassin shows how seriously 20th Century Fox was taking the film: Zanuck granted a modest budget, assigned talented scribe Daniel Taradash to the script (soon to adapt From Here to Eternity) and wanted high production value… perhaps because he was still not sold on Marilyn’s (as-of-yet) unproven ability to take on a dramatic role. Fox assigned studio director Roy Ward Baker and his direction lacks the stylized tension that so permeates the noir film in general (take for example Marilyn’s previous film, Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, or her next film, Henry Hathaway’s Niagara), but it in spite of the static direction, the film possesses an undeniable electric  current  with Marilyn as its conductor. In Don’t Bother to Knock, Marilyn was no “dumb blonde”. She was an actress.   A damn good one. Her performance as Nell Forbes managed to both scare the shit out of me, and leave me in tears.  It is a heartbreaking, soul-bearing performance that was the first truly great dramatic performance of her career.

Marilyn Monroe and Richard Widmark

And, in typical Hollywood fashion, her bottom-line money-mongering studio zookeepers would not allow it again. Monroe would have to take her career into her own hands, forming her own production company 4 years later with Bus Stop (my personal favorite of her films), before she would again have the chance to prove herself a serious talent to be reckoned with.

The premise of Don’t Bother to Knock is simple. A family hires a babysitter to look after their young daughter for the evening while they attend a dinner party. They are staying in a hotel, and the porter (Elisha Cook Jr.) recommends his niece Nell (Monroe) to babysit the kid. The problem is that Monroe is suicidal. She has only recently been released from a mental institution having gone off the deep end when her fiancé was killed in a plane crash during the war. With the Jones’ downstairs at the party, Monroe tucks the little girl, “Bunny”,  into bed and her intensely lonely, quiet life becomes painfully apparent to the viewer as she tries on the fine jewelry and expensive negligee of her well-to-do employers. Her appliqué of lip rouge reveals two scars on her wrists.  In a quietly moving scene, Monroe looks at her face in the vanity mirror, admiring the fine diamond earrings, and as she does a plane is heard to pass over the hotel. She crosses to the window and peeks out between the blinds, up into that black sky—the same black sky that had taken away her fiancé. She closes her eyes and the camera, only faintly, registers that she is crying. It’s the moment that I sat straight up in my seat, suddenly glued to this unexpectedly haunted, emotionally naked performance on the screen.  I must have been about 15. And I was riveted.

An airline pilot (Richard Widmark) occupying a room across the courtyard from Monroe has checked in to win back his girlfriend, a singer in the hotel lounge who has given him his walking papers (Anne Bancroft in her screen debut). When he sees Monroe’s bombshell figure in the room across the way, he rings the room and invites himself over.

What he thinks is going to be a casual night of hanky panky out to be anything but. Monroe slowly unravels during the course of the evening as he is the first man she’s been alone with since her fiance’s death and she begins to believe that he is her fiancé. Things take a fork knife turn when little Bunny blows Monroe’s cover, crying for her to ‘take off her Mommy’s things’ and Widmark understands that Monroe has been feeding him a line about her being a woman of the world. She’s nothing more than the babysitter, new to New York and lonely.

Against his better judgment, Widmark stays for a bit, visibly moved at Monroe’s confession , but all the while desperate to leave the crazy situation he’s got himself into and get downstairs to see  Bancroft again to try one last time to win her back. Monroe begins to believe that her uncle, who keeps trying to check in on her during the night, and the little girl, who is understandably concerned at finding a strange man in the hotel room, are intruders trying to keep her away from her fiancé . And when Monroe sits next to Bunny on the windowpane, looking out at their neighbors’ windows, there is a terrifying moment when it seems as though Monroe actually will push the girl to her death. Widmark steps in and, when his eyes meet Monroe’s, he is suddenly aware that, perhaps, he got more than he bargained for. Behind Widmark’s back, Monroe threatens Bunny into keeping her trap shut and going to bed… or else. And the psychotic glint in Monroe’s eyes leaves no doubt whatsoever that she is perfectly capable of carrying out her threat.

The night quickly caves in on itself when Monroe’s Uncle shows up again, unexpectedly, to check up on her.  Monroe shoves Widmark into the bathroom to hide, and takes some very tough love from her Uncle who, upon wiping off the lipstick off Monroe’s face, sends her into a fit and she strikes her Uncle on the back of his head, rendering him unconscious on the bathroom floor.  Widmark now knows that this girl is more than just trouble, she is very possibly dangerous, and he flees the scene to meet up with Bancroft downstairs before he loses her forever.

Widmark spills his guts to her about Monroe and the little girl, and Bancroft is hit by his uncharacteristically sincere interest in the situation. Widmark, however, is suddenly overcome with the realization that Monroe might actually do serious harm to the little girl. His intuition has served him well, as Monroe has locked her unconscious uncle in the broom cupboard and has bound and gagged little Bunny whom she blames for the night’s disastrous turn of events. The parents, sick with worry over their phone calls not having got through, show up just in time. Widmark is not far behind, as is the House Detective.

Monroe comes unglued on Elisha Cook Jr.

Monroe is a shattered, broken mess, crouching in the corner of the hotel room. A fragile shell of a woman that might, at any moment, be carried away with the wind, like dust, never to be seen again. And, as far as she is aware, her disappearance would matter just as much as dust particles in the wind. And so she sneaks away, unnoticed by Widmark, her uncle and the detective.

Her walk down the corridor is a death march. She leans against the wall for support. Her beautiful eyes wide and full of numbed confusion. Her perfect face cracked with the deep stain of lost, desperate tears. This is not Nell Forbes. This is not Marilyn Monroe. This is Norma Jeane Mortenson. For the final 10 minutes of the film, she is exposed: for all her cosmetic perfection, she is raw and imperfect, alone and afraid, desperate to feel the warmth of love and kindness and respect but all-too aware that she never will. What was Marilyn thinking and feeling during that long, languorous dolly shot? Was she thinking of her own childhood with a mother gone mad? Was she painfully aware of how much she actually had in common with the emotionally spent state of Nell? Whatever the case, there is an infinite depth in those glazed wide eyes, and to a modern audience it is acutely obvious that this emotion is coming from some place very, very deep within.

And when Widmark finds her, in a daze, with a razor in hand, Bancroft is at Widmark’s side. She is moved by his deep concern. It is the only asexual relationship Monroe will ever have onscreen. She is a child in a woman’s body that Widmark wants to protect.

It would be the story of Monroe’s life.

Monroe and Nell as they become one person on screen. It’s hard to watch when you know what painful emotions lay behind Monroe’s beautiful facade.

The film was released in 1952 while Marilyn was under contract with Fox, just prior to her watershed success in Henry Hathaway’s sexy, Technicolor noir Niagara which would catapult her into super-stardom.   Don’t Bother To Knock was far from sexy. It was not the sort of film, perhaps, audiences wanted to see this white-hot new screen personality in and the film flopped both financially and critically. (Daily Variety, however, was a fan and applauded her performance as “excellent”, and LIFE Magazine keyed in most astutely by calling Monroe’s  performance “the genuine article.” ) It’s a shame this particular role is so seldom discussed. A very real 180 from the soon-to-be sex kitten that Fox would brand her as, Monroe is a revelation here.  Untrained in dramatics, Monroe’s acting coach, Natascha Lyness, confessed “I have to say that I didn’t think she was ready to take on a role of that magnitude. I underestimated her talent… or at the very least, her resolve. The time we spent on the script—two days, no sleep—was very dramatic and passionate and filled with angst, like Marilyn herself. In the end, she did such a great job that Zanuck saw fit to writer her a note to congratulate her, which surprised thrilled her to no end. She was so insecure and unsure of her ability that any validation at all was considered high praise.” Zanuck may have flattered Monroe, but he had no intention of making a habit of such unglamorous, dramatic parts. “She’s a dumb tomato and half-crazy to boot,” he is reported to have said about Monroe in the film. “In each picture she’ll earn her keep, but no more dramatic roles.” Monroe would stretch her range in Niagara as an emotionally manipulative femme fatale but the role capitalized completely on Monroe’s sex appeal. It was branded as sex. And that’s all anyone saw: explosive, on-your-knees-slave sex. A presence so overpowering, that no one could (or wanted to) see the actress, so strongly competent right in front of them.

As Rose in Niagara.

As Cherie in Bus Stop.

As Joslyn in her final film, The Misfits

Marilyn’s close friend Montgomery Clift, himself an outspoken foe of the Hollywood studio system, later made this comment on Marilyn’s stunted growth as an actress following Don’t Bother to Knock: “Fox wanted to keep a tight grip and drain her dry. Marilyn had a right to make the choice not to demean herself. But the boss wouldn’t let her. They didn’t want an actress. That’s what they’d agreed upon. They sat at their round table and decide that Marilyn wasn’t capable of making a relevant decision.”

Clift would work with Marilyn 8 years later on her final film (and his third to final), John Huston’s The Misfits. Brilliant but doomed like Marilyn, a friend noted “Monty and Marilyn were psychic twins. They were on the same wavelength. They recognized disaster in each other’s faces and giggled about it.” Clift, considered to be one of the most gifted actors of his generation, would call Marilyn the finest actress he ever worked with.

The Misfits, to many, is Marilyn’s finest strongest performance. Written for her by then-husband Arthur Miller, the role could probably be played by any actress… but none as broken and Marilyn’s. Her Method training had allowed her to transcend written lines and bare herself completely. It is a testament to the fragile-yet-formidable talent first unveiled in Don’t Bother to Knock, made undeniable in Bus Stop, and forever cemented in The Misfits.

Of her relationship with her Method acting coach, the legendary Paula Strasberg, Monroe said simply “Whatever road leads to growth, you take.” And if Don’t Bother to Knock, Bus Stop, and The Misfits prove anything, it’s that Marilyn took those risks and traveled those roads that no one believed she should, or could, travel.  Thankfully, even though we lost her so many decades ago, these rarely appreciated artistic triumphs live,  forever, on film. Who knows. Maybe one day we’ll finally recognize her as the deeply human actress she truly was. Instead of the icon Hollywood created.

The Summer Under the Stars Blogathon!

As MGM used to say, “More stars than there are in the heavens.”

Movie Stars, as we’ve come to know them, no longer exist. They simply no longer exist. Oh sure, movie stars are still alive, from Debbie Reynolds to Robert Redford to Brad Pitt, but they are the last of an entire civilization that has since gone with the wind. 15-minute celebrity culture has gouged this once untouchable kingdom of smoke-and-mirror majesty and has left it hemorrhaging. The younger generation now define “celebrity” not with exclusion, but inclusion. Warhol was right. Anyone can be a celebrity. Nothing is truly unattainable. YouTube vids, internet memes, blogs, twitter profiles– we live in a world where any average Joe or Jane on the street has the potential of becoming the next “big thing”, literally overnight. And, more often than not, the spotlight fades just as suddenly as it shone. (Antoine Dodson, anyone?) This fact has completely relegated the role of the “movie star” in our society to the annals of history. Audiences no longer flock to the movie theaters on Friday nights to see their favorite star on the big screen. They flock to see their favorite franchises, absolutely, and the stars of those films might have cult followers and make regular appearances at the grocery check-out newsstands… but “star power” no longer fuels the box office. (Twi-Hards might argue this, but let’s be honest: ANY attractive young actor could have been placed in those lead roles and the money would have rolled in. As much as you may love your little Robert Pattinson, you’re buying the ticket because of the franchise.)

So in this rapidly changing 21st Century of ours, why is it important to even care about “movie stars” if the society that created them is crumbling?

Because movie stars are so deeply a part of 20th century culture it would be as unthinkable not to refeclt on their cultural significance as it would be not to recognize the importance of, say, the Elizabethans in the history of Western literature. This is not hyperbole. This is a sociological fact. (How can one possible imagine the 20th century without the fantasy of the movie star, anymore than one can imagine literature with out that singular creative revolution of the 16th century?) When art form transcends its boundaries to become part of the fabric of our very being, then it is worth recognizing, exploring and appreciating.

Such is absolutely the case with the 20th century movie star. The further away we get from that ne’er to be repeated time in human history, the more we can, objectively, realize how special this phenomena of “movie stardom” really was. The movie star manifested everything we wanted: the beauty, the wit, the humor, the adventure, and the romance of life that the everyday working stiff could rarely enjoy. And the good ones– the really good ones– accomplished the unthinkable: They made us believe.

For the entire month of August, just as it has every summer for the past 10 years, Turner Classic Movies will salute a movie star with a marathon of their work– all day everyday.– with “Summer Under the Stars“. This very special month of programming has become a highly popular tradition that catapults movie fans over the rainbow and straight into a celluloid Oz. (And is one of the core reasons movie fans have rallied around the venerable cable network with unprecedented loyalty and passion: they network “gets” its audience and knows exactly how to deliver the goods.) In honor of the occasion, the beloved blog Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence, is hosting the much-anticipated Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. The Fence’s owner, razor-sharp movie maven Jill Blake (on Twitter @biscuitkittens), has partnered up with another ace film blogger, Michael Nazarewycz (on Twitter @scribehard), and they are inviting movie-loving bloggers from all over the world to band together and share their personal reflections about the stars in this year’s TCM Summer Under the Stars lineup. This is going to be a top hat-tipping celebration of all things celluloid, bringing in the best writers on the blogosphere, and I hope you’ll all take some time out to enjoy! (If you’re not already participating yourselves!)

Happy Days Are Here Again!

happy days are here again!

It’s been quiet around here. Dead quiet. The past few months, I gotta confess to you guys, have been eventful, in ways both good and … not so good. But like a bridge over troubled waters, there have been two constants nursing me through it all. (Aside from some very lovely single malt scotches and, of course, The Beatles.) Those constants are: classic films, and you marvelously loyal Pictorial readers who have been terribly gracious in putting up with my shutting up these past few months. I just have to tell you how deeply lucky I really am to have met such wonderful, like-minded people from all over the world. I love you guys so, so much!

OK. Enough of the mushy stuff. Let’s get back to having fun, shall we? ;-)

Much love,

The Kitty Packard Pictorial

Gone Too Soon: Robert Walker

This post is in conjuction with the Gone Too Soon Blogathon, hosted by the marvelous Comet Over Hollyood blog.

At the moment of this writing, Robert Walker lies dead in a candlelit room of a funeral parlor just a few miles from where I sit. Dressed in a blue suit, a white shirt and a simple dark tie, he lies silently dead in his thirty-third year. Those who have seen him say he looks at peace, and maybe he is.” – The Tragedy of Robert Walker by Jim Henaghan, Redbook Magazine, November 1951

On an unseasonably chilly, rainy evening, smack in the middle of a Los Angeles summer, Robert Walker died in his Brentwood home at the age of 32. His best friend Jim Henaghan, a Hollywood columnist, was at his side along with two doctors who had been called in earlier that evening to help calm the nerves of an emotionally unstable Walker. They had administered a routine sedative, one which Walker had received on several occasions, only this time the actor, who had been teasingly joking with his Henaghan mere moments before, stopped breathing.

MGM production chief Dory Schare, who had invested much effort over the past few months in rehabilitating Walker both professionally and emotionally, was called by an inconsolable Henaghan whom he found upon arrival, rocking in a chair, sobbing and shaken. Henaghan had often been the do-as-I-say paternal figure in their friendship and this night, when the doctors had advised it necessary, had forced his friend to take the injection by literally holding him down on the bed.

“I held him down,” said the guilt stricken Henaghan. “I felt like a murderer.”

3,000 miles away, Jennifer Jones was prepping for a trip to the Venice International Film Festival with her husband, when the wire came in that her ex-husband, and the father of her two children, was dead. Mrs. and Mrs. David O. Selznick immediately returned to the coast.

The Variety obit read: “Walker, who was climbing back to top attention in a renewed screen career, had complete work Saturday on his last film, “My Son John,” atParamount. Producer-director Leo McCarey said last night that the film was “Walker’s greatest work.” Son of aUtaheditor, Walker won two scholarships to Pasadena Playhouse while still in highschool. Later he studied at theAmericanAcademyof Dramatic arts inNew Yorkwhere he met Jennifer Jones who became his first wife. They worked together at theCherry Lanetheatre in Greenwich Village and later on aTulsaradio station.Walkermade his screen bow in “Bataan” later appearing in “See Here Private Hargrove” and “Since You Went Away” the latter with Miss Jones who at that time was still his wife. They were divorced in 1945 and she married David O. Selznick in 1949.”

Although separated by a divorce of six years and a string of highly disasterous relationships, flirtations and flings (including a brief but violent affair with Ava Gardner during the filming of One Touch of Venus) the truth was that Walker had never got over losing Jennifer to Selznick. They were practically children when they met, not more than 20 each, and fell in love while attending the same dramatic school in New York. One year after meeting they were married, deeply in love and deeply ambitious to make it big on Broadway. What came for Walker was success in radio. What came for Phyllis was motherhood. What came for both of them, eventually, was a chance at Hollywood. It proved to be the beginning and the end. The beginning of two sparkling screen careers– Phyllis born again as Jennifer Jones and netting an Academy Award for her screen debut, and Walker making a mark as the ultimate boy-next-door.

Phyllis.

Effects of the divorce.

And while Walker was a genuinely kind-hearted fellow, and although he possessed a face rounded in youthful innocence, Walker’s aww-gee-fellas demeanor on screen belied the rebel beneath. It took the unexpected atom bomb of a divorce to bring those dark, haunting ghosts, with him since his ne’er do well days as a military cadet, to visceral fruition.

Much in the same way that the soon-to-be-famous method actors Brando, Clift and Dean would outwardly buck the system, Walker was in every way a Hollywood rebel. He never wanted to be a “movie star”, and when he became the victim of a systematic plot by an obsessed David O. Selznick to possess Jennifer Jones at any cost, his indifference toward Hollywood became acerbic.

Selznick produced the poignant wartime melodrama Since You Went Away during the traumatic climax of their divorce, of which he had been the careful orchestrator, and refused to recast Walker. Selznick not only insisted on Walker playing Jones’ ill-fated love interest, but personally oversaw some of the most gutwrenching dialogue between the two lovers.

Walker and Jones in Since You Went Away.

Walker on the single scene.

Not long after, Modern Screen magazine ran the story “The Mystery of Bob Walker”:

“Consider the mystery of Robert Walker, one of the strangest men in 
Hollywood. He’s a guy with a million romances, but they say he’s 
still in love with his ex-wife. He’s a man who wants to act, but 
he’s turned down parts any other actor would have hocked his soul 
for. (A lead in ‘State of the Union’, for instance.)”

“He’s disappeared for long stretches at a time, and neither family, 
friends nor studio could track him down, or lure him back.”

“He’s behaved at all times the way he’s felt like behaving; he’s 
never conformed, he’s never tried to.”

“He went straight to the top, stayed there a while, and then very 
calmly walked out. Nobody in Hollywood understood Walker but that 
wasn’t strange, because Walker didn’t understand himself.”

“A few months ago, he went to the head men at Metro-Goldwyn-
Mayer. “Take me off the payroll,” he said. “I’m through with movies 
for good.”

“Listen, Bob,” one of them said, “take some time and think it over. 
Go to New York, do a play — but quit talking nonsense. Hollywood is 
where you belong.”

“Walker shook his head stubbornly. “Take me off the payroll. I’m 
not working, and I’m not going to work.”

“You can’t work for any other outfit,” he was warned. “Your contract 
belongs to Metro.”

“I understand that. I’m not asking you to tear up my contract. I 
just want it clearly understood that as far as pictures are concerned 
I’m all washed up. Through.”

He wasn’t, of course.

And although a propensity for drink did not in any way help his emotional state, MGM still held on to him as a worthwhile property. The new MGM production chief Dore Schary took a particular interest in Walker, dedicating much time and effort in rehabilitating Walker personally as wall as professionally. As Walker’s spells of melancholia and emotional outbursts were becoming more frequent, they were also becoming decidedly more violent: random vocal tirades (According to Henaghan they would be having a normal conversation when suddenly Walker would fist his hands and cry out “DAVID O. SELZNICK!”) and unexpected fits of rage that resulted in him smashing his fists through walls or windows. (After interpreting a casual flirtation by Ava Gardner into something more, he struck her across the face during a heated argument. They finished filming without a word to the other.) Increasingly emotionally fragile, it was following Walker’s being booked for drunk and disorderly conduct (which resulted in an embarrassing photo that would be seen ‘round the world) it was Schary who forced him to seek psychiatric help at Meninger’s Clinic.

“I thought of a mental institution like an insane asylum,” Walker said in 1949. “Fear hit me. I thought that someday soon I was going to end up dead.”

It is impossible to be sure, but perhaps it was this well-publicized sojourn at Meninger’s  that led to Alfred Hitchcock casting Walker completely against type in the psychological thriller Stranger’s On a Train. Whatever Hitchcock’s reason, it is well documented fact that Walker was his ONLY choice from the very beginning to play the charming sociopath Bruno Anthony. The result was a chilling, disturbing, and altogether perfect performance by a deeply nuanced Walker who not only carried the film but walked away with the film completely.

As Bruno Anthony

Director Leo McCarey’s deafeningly Anti-Communist soapbox of a film My Son John followed and, althought Walker was highly dissatisfied with the way the shoot was going, his career looked to be on the mend nonetheless. Being a father, always the most important career of his life, had become especially so and Walker would race home after a day’s filming on John to have as much quality time with his two sons as possible. And although dealt a blow by the final decree of Irene Selznick’s divorce resulting in a swift wedding between Selznick and Jones, Meninger’s had indeed done Walker good. He’d entered a new phase of his life, not as a mere studio “property,” but an actor in his own right.

The facts of which made the miscarriage that rainy night all the more tragic.

“Bob’s death was such a waste,” Schary commented. “He was a talented actor and a man who simply switched onto a siding and ran into a dead end.”

Henaghan penned an in-memoriam of his dear friend just days after his death– a self-admitted catharsis– nursing his wounds with prose. Walker was a man understood by few to none in person, which compelled Jim Henaghan, the only other person on the planet to understand him as well as Jennifer, to pen his 1951 Redbook eulogy:

I poured myself a drink and went into Bob’s bedroom. They had covered him with a blanket. I uncovered his face, straightened his head, closed his eyes, and smoothed his hair, for he was a vain man and I knew he would have wanted to look as good as possible when they came for him.

I sat alone with him for half an hour and spoke to him as though he could hear me. I wanted desperately to call him buddy just once more and to have a last laugh with him. Then I remembered and outrageous running joke we had shared for many years.

It was our private joke. He would see me with a new pair of cuff links, and he would cry, “Those are mine! You stole them from me!”

I would look through his record collection, and I would scream that the records were mine and that he was gradually looting me of all my possessions. I remembered that one night, when he had stayed at my house, he had said:

“If I were to die in this house tonight, the first thing you would do is steal my money.” And he sat on the stairs and laughed for ten minutes at the thought.

I got up from my chair and picked his trousers. He had no money in the pockets. So I stole his watch.

I covered his face again, but I am sure I could hear him yelling at the top of his lungs, “You——–! I told you! I knew you’d do it!”

With the sound ringing in my ears, I left my friend’s body and his house and I’ll never go back.”

What Makes A Classic Film Classic…?

What makes a classic really "classic"?

That was the question once asked by writer Ted Elrick, his answer coming in the form  the essay Classic is in the Eye—and Mind—of the Beholder (as published in DGA News Magazine, Feb. 1992). Elrick gave the daunting task of defining that elusive quality which differentiates a good movie from a classic film to over 100 people working in the entertainment industry. Many of them were veterans of the classic silver screen themselves– still with us when the story went to print back in 1992.

Below are a few of the highlights from this most insightful piece, written at the height of the industry’s first major rally in Washington on the issue of film preservation, and I hope it provides much food for thought…and discussion.

Gene Kelly

A classic film must stand the test of time, have universality of appeal, and be a reflection of the society at the time it was made, but must not seem dated.

Charles Champlain

An impossible question. A  classic film is one that was not quite like those that went before and was not quite like those that followed.

Katharine Hepburn

Something that lasts. If they really last I would say they fit the description of a classic. … Universal truth and something that appeals to everyone. The reason of life.

Robert Wise

The elements that go into making a film a classic are a timeless story and a script that have a meaningful subtext, outstanding direction that enhances the script, great ensemble acting by the cast and exceptional cinematic treatment in every department.

Edward James Olmos

A classic film takes us into an experience and grounds us into something eternal.

Arthur Hiller

A classic film is one that leaves me intellectually stunned and so emotionally drained that I can’t get up from my seat. It accepts and incorporates the established conventions of art of filmmaking and takes it to the highest levels or artistic superiority that it stands the test of time.

Jack Lemmon

A classic film is not necessarily of a time. Whatever its theme was, whatever its point of view was, it was not only pertinent then, it’s pertinent now. (his example: Citizen Kane)

David Lynch

When a film creates a world and characters that you are compelled to visit again and again, it is a classic. (His examples: Sunset Blvd, Rear Window, Lolita, 8 ½)

James Stewart

That’s a very tough question when you come right down to it. More than ever, it’s survivability.

Milos Forman

Any film you can watch after 20 years without embarrassment has a chance to become a classic.

Rod Steiger

If a picture’s not credible, then it can’t be memorable. [It must] touch upon great truth.

John Levin (agent)

A classic film is one that continues to amuse, move or frighten years of moviegoers with the appreciation and passion deepening with each new generation. (His example: The Wizard of Oz)

Diane Cairns (ICM agent)

A film that captures a past generation’s heart, challenges a present generation’s mind, and nourishes a future generation’s soul.

Stanley Donen

A film is a classic because it is unique in conception and execution and it exposes human weaknesses and strengths with a cinematic eloquence and beauty which enlightens, astonishes and entertains. (His examples: Welles, Kurosawa, Chaplin)

2011 Best of the Blogathons RoundUp

There were many things about 2011 I’d rather forget, and am quite eager to sweep under the rug and write off as a (semi) total loss.

It was, however, a fantastic year for bloggers. And especially so for the classic film community– a niche that hitherto has been of a largely insular nature, existing on the fringes of filmdom, never quite enjoying a resounding presence in its own right. An eclectic makeup of film theorists, essayists, historians, fanboys and fangirls, visual artists, poets, and everything in between, classic film enthusiasts the enjoyed a real renaissance in 2011 and can confidently start the new year with a newly defined sense of community. (And if that’s overstating things, it is only because I believe we have every reason to start the new year with a newly defined sense of community!)

The exponential growth of social media has made it possible to nurture a culture of mutual respect and graciousness within the blogging community, resulting in work that is enlightening, enlivening and always entertaining.

Perhaps nowhere is this better illustrated than in the “blogathons” that permeate the blogosphere. Sponsored by either an independent site, or a conglomerate (like CMBA), blogathons rally writers together by challenging them to dig deep into their resources and contribute a piece on a specific topic. Typically lasting anywhere from a day to a week, not only do blogathons result in a hearty cornucopia of material, they are an invaluable tool for writers to connect with fellow colleagues on an international scale.

The Pictorial signs off for 2011 with a review of some of our favorite blogathons of the year. If you missed any of these, I can’t think of a better way to spend some of the idle holiday hours than by giving them a good long read.

Grand work, everyone! Every last one of you is, without doubt, an:

Film Noir Blogathon
Hosted by Self Styled Siren

The Nicholas Ray Blogathon
Hosted by cinemaviewfinder

Margaret Lockwood Blogathon
Hosted by Shroud of Thoughts

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon
Hosted by Thrilling Days of Yesteryear

The CMBA Guilty Pleasures Blogathon:
Hosted by CMBA (Classic Movie Blog Association)

The Films of 1939 Blogathon
Hosted by CMBA

The Late Films Blogathon
Hosted by Shadowplay

The Charlie Chaplin Blogathon
Hosted by Park Circus Films

Carole-tennial(+3)
Hosted by Carole & Co.

For The Boys Blogathon
Hosted by The Scarlett Olive

Fashion in Film Blogathon
Hosted by The Hollywood Revue

Dueling Divas Blogathon
Hosted by Backlots

The Loving Lucy Blogathon
Hosted by True Classics

The Queer Film Blogathon
Hosted by Garbo Laughs

The Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Appreciation Blogathon
Hosted by Viv And Larry

Blog it for Baby: The Jean Harlow Blogathon
Hosted by… Us ;)