My Man Van

Van the man Heflin (1910 – 1971)

It’s day 6 of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence, a month-long celebration of Turner Classic Movies’ much-loved Summer Under the Stars festival. Each day, the network is featuring a movie star with a marathon of their films, and each day Sittin on a Backyard Fence is playing host to a roster of bloggers who are sharing their thoughts on it. Today the spotlight is on Van Heflin, one of my all time favorites. This post was originally published two years ago, but it felt right to dust it off in honor of my man Van.

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So the other night I’m halfway through my second glass of Shiraz and I’m hit with a sudden craving. You know what I mean … that inexplicable, sudden, maddening craving that is generally fulfilled by processed sugars . Or complex carbohydrates. Or MGM musicals. Or all three, really, who am I kidding? MGM musicals, after all, have much in common with my empty-calorie companions: there is little, if any, nutritional value but boy-oh-boy if they don’t make you feel good! So last night I satisfy the itch by tearing through my DVD library looking for something to hit the spot … hidden in the back is ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, from 1946.

TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (1946) – screen caps pulled from LikeTelevision

Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson, Angie Lansbury and Van Johnson in an MGM technicolor extravaganza? That tingly sensation took hold. This was gonna be a great night.

Problem was, I purchased the DVD from a grocery store checkout line and the quality of the video transfer was shameful, and especially disappointing because I really wanted the bright, popping, obnoxiously potent pigments of the original print. (Kinda like getting animal crackers when what you really want is a big fat oreo.)

It’s not like I was expecting Ghandi, OK? And Hollywood biopics of the 40s and 50s are particularly notorious for flouting fact in favor of fiction so I was ready to take the plot of ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, the supposed story of the life of Jerome Kern, with a grain of salt. All I wanted was musical delirium and was quite prepared to fast-forward through the gosh-oh-gee-ain’t-life-swell scenes to get my fix.

But the fast-forward button was foiled by one Van Heflin.

Dammit.

Now I was going to have to pay attention. I’m sure all of us have certain favorites who more or less dictate whether or not we’re going to give a movie a shot. Van Heflin is absolutely one of mine. Even if my finger is about to switch the off button, if Heflin walks into the frame I have no choice but to watch. He simply leaves me no choice in the matter.

Original 1946 movie poster for TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. If you’ll notice, Heflin’s cartoon looks suspiciously similar to Beethoven. (What a role THAT would have been!)

To some, Van Heflin may look like a “squat-faced kumquat” (<– © my Mother) but, I beg to differ. Maybe I’m just a sucker for squat-faced kumquats, but Heflin possesses a  just-the-right-side-of-danger bad-boy edge that never fails to make my toes curl. The bobby-soxers may have swooned for Van Johnson when he makes his toe-tapping cameo in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, but this gal’s swooning heart belongs to the other Van.

One never quite knows what to expect when Heflin steps into a picture. Is he going to melt my heart or murder my grandmother? Heflin toes the line between kindness and cruelty, danger and delight, with ease and dexterity … for it is perfectly clear that he is entirely capable of both. Suffice to say, Heflin is not a granny killer in ‘Till the Clouds Roll By (nor is he in any of his films, so I don’t know why I’m so gung-ho on the analogy) but Heflin’s very likeable role as Kern’s mentor and friend is still shadowed with his unique brand of roguish charm. Was this effect augmented by the fact that in Till the Clouds Roll By Heflin is surrounded by 1-dimensional, superficial character cut-outs? (Even darling Robert Walker is a bit of a yawn.) Well … perhaps. But I wager it’s due to the fact that Heflin is an absolute powerhouse of an actor, a total scene-stealer, and more often than not simply ends up walking away with any picture he’s in.

Once upon a time, Louis B. Mayer took one look at Heflin and told him flat-out, “You’ll never get the girl at the end [of the movie].” Heflin said, “I just didn’t have the looks and if I didn’t do a good acting job I looked terrible.”

Well, Mr. Mayer? Taking inventory of Heflin’s show-stopping performances in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Johnny Eager, Possessed, The Prowler, Black Widow, Shane and 3:10 to Yuma, I think what you’ll find staring you back in the face is a prominently raised middle finger.

The object of Joan Crawford’s crazed affection in Posessed. (My favorite Heflin film.)

His best roles are the 40s noirs that demanded a new breed of leading man. John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart weren’t matinee idols, but they smoldered on screen and Heflin was perfect for the postwar realism that American audiences, sobered by War, demanded. The Robert Taylors of the world found themselves having to toughen up their image while guys like Hef were ahead of the curve. There is a confidence, even swagger, to Hef’s complete command of himself on screen, giving full credit to the credence that confidence is sexy. Not only do we believe that Joan Crawford is dangerously obsessed with him in Possessed… we totally get it.

Whatever Heflin may have lacked in conventional good looks mattered nothing. His undeniable appeal was rooted deep within and his performances, when viewed today, are still fresh and exciting. Overlooked today as, sadly, his work tends to be, Heflin was without doubt one of the finest actors to first emerge on the scene of postwar American cinema… and one hell of a cool cat.

With Barbara Stanwyck in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

 

Pre-Code Gams and Dams(els).

Marlene Dietrich... they're alllll Dietrich.

Legs.

Gams.

A whole lotta tomato.

Pick your hyperbole, the fact is that 1930s cinema were full of that most suggestive of appendages in a way never quite paralleled since.

Sure, they’re still everywhere because they’re still sexy. They’ve always been sexy– ever since skirts first hiked heavenward in the late 20s straight through to today. But never quite this sexy. Perhaps for the fact that the definition of “sexy” is dependent upon the word “suggestive.” Today, sex on film is hardly suggestive. It is blatant, forthright, overpowering, and leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination.

These shots? They leave everything to the imagination.

Wherein the real power lies…

This post is not meant to spark any sort of debate on feminism v. femininity v. sexism … although I’m always game for it.

And since the fundamental core of feminism is the freedom of female CHOICE, I choose to see the following images, not as sexual exploitation, but rather as strong, working women, embracing their newly won sexuality.

And, largely unknown to them, so deeply changing the game in the process.

Chorus girl gams in 42nd STREET

Thelma Todd

Clara Bow, cinema's original IT girl, in 1927.

Joan Blondell

Carole Lombard

Our Dancing Daughters-- Joan Crawford and Anita Page

Eleanor Powell, 1935

Ruby Keeler

Ginger sur la plage.

Joan- Oh Joan - Blondell

Sexy Harlow

Anita Page... in charge, no holds bars.

Myrna Loy

Barbara Stanwyck in LADIES THEY TALK ABOUT, 1933

Toby Wing

Bette Davis, Santa Monica CA

Busby Berkeley's DAMES

Favorite Website of the Week: William Haines Designs

"I would rather have taste than love or money." - William Haines

"I would rather have taste than love or money." - William Haines

William Haines is perhaps best known today as being the first openly gay actor in Hollywood, and his refusal to deny or hide his relationship with his lover, Jimmy Shields, killed a soaring film career in its tracks. The handsome, witty Haines was a silent film superstar, and one of MGM’s biggest attractions and a consistent top box-office draw into the early 30s. But Louis B Mayer released Haines from his contract when he refused to end his relationship with Shields. However, Hollywood’s loss was, well, Hollywood’s gain, because the indomitable Haines (who was already buddy-buddy with the likes of Orry-Kelly) became its resident designer du choix. And while his work as an actor (particularly the comic roles as in Vidor’s Show People) is enjoyable, it is his memorable career as an interior designer that made him legendary.

The immaculate taste and style of the fearless William Haines is alive and well and flourishing in the 21st century thanks to William Haines Designs. Based out of West Hollywood, with showrooms on the east coast, the company faithfully reproduces original Haines designs and celebrates his famously glammed-up interiors (now coined as “Hollywood Regency”) with inspired décor that would do Haines proud. Kelly Wearstler and Jonathan Adler are just a few of the modern designers whose distinct sense of heightened glamour is more than just slightly influenced by Haines’ work.

But there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing, and the beautiful William Haines Designs website not only displays Haines’ classic interiors, pays homage to the man with a lovely pictorial biography.
It’s little wonder than such fashionistas as Carole Lombard and Joan Crawford (his best friend whom he lovingly nicknamed “Cranberry”) regularly employed Haines’ hand: his look positively screams Grand Hotel.

By the way, Haines and Shields remained together for fifty years until Haines died in 1973. As George Cukor put it, ‘they were the happiest married couple in Hollywood.’

Below are a few examples of Haines’ Hollywood glam interiors, both original and inspired-by.
(all images copyright William Haines Designs)

interior 1

interior 2

interior 3

interior 4

billy

the_studio

1939