THE GOLDEN BOYS

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As friends growing up in the Bronx in the early ‘20s, Jules Garfinkel and Clifford Odets shared a number of things in common. Both were in the process of surviving stereotypically tough Bronx childhoods, neither received much by way of a formal education, and by the time they were in their teens, both had decided they wanted to be actors. In the end, despite their wild individual successes, a single play would link them, becoming a running subtext in both their lives.

In 1931, Odets became a charter member of Harold Clurman, Lee Strasberg and Cheryl Crawford’s Group Theater, which for better or worse introduced The Method to far too many young New York actors. After appearing in a few small supporting roles in the troupe’s productions, however, it was gently suggested to Odets that he might be of more use to the troupe writing plays than actually appearing in them.

In 1934, as Odets was still struggling to get a handle on that whole “playwrighting” thing, Garfinkel, after stints with several other theater companies, joined the troupe himself. His streetwise spirit and heavy New York accent was in sharp contrast to most of the trained thespians in the group, but was exactly what they were looking for for plays that were supposed to be giving voice to the common man. The next year he accepted a major role in Odets first staged play, Waiting for Lefty, about a New York cabbie strike. The play was a hit, and overnight it transformed Odets into America’s hottest new young playwright. It also earned a lot of attention for Garfinkel, who went on to appear in Odets’ next play, Awake and Sing! The second play only increased both their reputations.

In 1937 Garfinkel (who by then was performing as Jules Garfield) was starring in a play in Los Angeles when he was contacted by Odets. Odets was working on a play written specifically for him, and it was simply a given that Garfield would play the lead. (I’ve always thought Odets liked having Garfield in his plays, not only because they were old friends, but because Garfield was one of the few actors who could actually make that self-conscious and overwrought street poetry sound almost believable.)  Well aware of Garfield’s early training as a boxer, Golden Boy concerned Joe Bonaparte, a kid from the slums who had to choose between boxing and the violin. Well, Garfield quit the play in Los Angeles and immediately flew back to New York to begin prepping for the role. But when the casting was announced, director Harold Clurman gave the role of Joe Bonaparte to Luther Adler instead, explaining Garfield, then in his mid-20s, was too young for the part. Garfield was relegated to playing another wisecracking and free-spirited cabbie. The play went on to become the most successful in Group Theater history.

Feeling a bit more than betrayed, more by Clurman than by Odets (who was pretty pissed about the snub himself), when Warner Brothers offered Garfield a two picture deal not long after that, he packed up, left the Group Theater behind, and moved to Hollywood. His first screen appearance, a small but memorable turn in Four Daughters, earned him not only an Oscar nomination but also a new and deadly seven-year contract with Warners. It also marked the moment he would become now and forever known as John Garfield.

Two years later in ‘39 when Columbia was preparing to adapt Golden Boy for the screen, Harry Cohn called Jack Warner at Odets’ urging and asked if they could borrow Garfield to play the lead. Warner refused, and this time the role of Joe Bonaparte went to William Holden.

It would be another six years, with Garfield approaching the end of his Warners contract before he and Odetts took another stab at it, in a way. Odets, who by this time was well established as a Hollywood screenwriter, co-wrote Humoresque, about a kid from the slums who becomes a famed violinist torn between his career and his love for a crazy, crazy Joan Crawford. Yeah, the script has more than a little Golden Boy lurking about at its core, and at times almost feels as if Odets is doing what he can to make amends for that earlier snub. The film even co-starred the Group Theater’s Ruth Nelson.

Humoresque was a huge hit, Garfield was riding high as the most outrageously popular movie star in the world, and now finished with Warners he was free to create his own production company, a company that would go on to make the likes of Body and Soul and Force of Evil. Odets, who’d been doing quite well for himself in Hollywood (if reluctantly, and often uncredited) left for six years after Humoresque to resume writing for the stage, returning in ‘52 for Fritz Lang’s adaptation of his play Clash by Night. Perhaps coincidentally it was with his return to Hollywood that the friendship took an unexpected turn.

At the height of the McCarthy era, Garfield, who not only campaigned hard to hire black and Latino actors and crew members, worked with a number of avowed Communist Party members, and who’s wife was a former member of the Party herself, but who had also appeared in a number of politically suspect films (We Were Strangers, Force of Evil) and had gone on the radio to rail against the witch-hunt, was not surprisingly called to testify at the HUAC hearings in 1952. Under questioning, he told the investigative panel in essence that where he grew up, you learned not to snitch. He refused to name names, refused to say anything at all about anyone else, and was summarily  blacklisted. Odets meanwhile, who had joined the Party in ‘34 but quit a few months later and subsequently disavowed communism completely, appeared before the hearings as a friendly witness. Although he’d grown up in the same neighborhood as Garfield, he apparently never learned the same lessons. To be fair, while he named names, he did not name anyone who hadn’t already been named by others, and in the end was not blacklisted. Despite the different lessons they took away from their Bronx childhoods, the divide at the HUAC hearings did not seem to have any effect on their friendship.

A few months after the hearings and unable to find movie work of any kind, Garfield finally had the chance to star as Joe Bonaparte in a new Broadway production of Golden Boy. Fifteen years after Clurman spit in his eye, he was finally old enough to play the role, and could finally put what he had always considered his greatest professional disappointment (apart from that whole “blacklist” thing, I guess) behind him. The new production—as stories like this demand—was directed by Clifford Odets.

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Two months after appearing in Golden Boy, Garfield died at the age of 39. And two days after a funeral which was the largest New York had seen since Valentino’s, the Times ran a long letter from Odets which ended, simply enough, “I will always love you.”

by Jim Knipfel

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JEANETTE MacDONALD

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In Woody Allen’s Bananas (1971), political prisoners in a Central American country are tortured by being forced to listen to the score of Naughty Marietta over and over again. “Oh please, no more!” says one such, his face a picture of torment, his teeth on edge. “I can’t stand operetta, please!” Allen is old enough to remember a time when operetta played on the radio, where he no doubt heard the star of the antic Naughty Marietta movie, Jeanette MacDonald, in full trill.

At one time, MacDonald and her baritone partner, the somnolent Nelson Eddy, made hit after hit. “Oh, I saw their pictures several times,” my grandmother would tell me. “It was Depression, and I didn’t really like the show much, but them I liked. We all went several times, my girlfriends and me. We loved that kind of music then.” Operatic stars like Grace Moore and Lily Pons headlined movie vehicles in the 1930s. Soprano singing was an accepted feature of popular music, to the delight of some and the teeth-gnashing of others. And no soprano singer was ever more popular in the movies than MacDonald.

For many years, I have nursed a mostly secret and maybe perverse liking for her music, playing her albums many times when I’m in the mood. There’s something comforting about the smallness of her voice, the sugar cookie melodies she sang, the way she shows off her high notes in her genteel fashion. Maybe it’s a way of still feeling close to my grandmother, who was a great friend to me and who died in 2004 at the age of 86. You aren’t going to find too many Jeanette MacDonald enthusiasts today, outside of an obsessive fan club that still holds meetings and which is made up of mainly older ladies whose mothers were first fans in the 1930s.

That club has had to deal with some controversies. In 1994, a MacDonald-Eddy super fan named Sharon Rich published a book called Sweethearts in which she claimed that the two of them were star-crossed lovers in real life. Another biographer, Edward Baron Turk, disputed these claims. Turk was allied with MacDonald’s husband and widower Gene Raymond, who denied much of what Rich wrote. Then again, it seems fairly certain that Raymond was gay, and his marriage to MacDonald was a publicly rocky one, so it’s difficult to know who to believe in all this. The truth probably lies, as usual, somewhere in the middle.

MacDonald had a rather thin voice that she worked on every day, relentlessly, to get it up to snuff. She often sings in a pedantic way, as if she is trying her best to be correct, and her breath control improved over the years; the top notes in her voice were never too full, but she could hold them for an impressively long time. I’m not an expert on this kind of singing, but I’ve listened to enough to be able to place MacDonald somewhere on a continuum. If the height of soprano singing is, say, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Schubert lieder (and I think it is), then MacDonald sings in a way that would make Schwarzkopf throw a fit, like she used to do when giving Renee Fleming her master classes in the 1980s. Schwarzkopf has such control that each note seems to blend, in a truly heavenly way, into every other note, so that the melody detaches and seems to float upward off the earth. MacDonald sings each and every note precisely, with no legato whatever.

In the 1940s, she branched out into opera, winning some fine reviews for singing Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust. The tough-to-please Chicago critic Claudia Cassidy, who was widely known as “Acid-y Cassidy,” had this to say about her Marguerite: “Beautifully sung with purity of line and tone, a good trill, and a Gallic inflection that understood Gounod’s phrasing…You felt if Faust must sell his soul to the devil, at least this time he got his money’s worth.” It might be that Cassidy was impressed with her stage presence, though MacDonald must have worked hard at the singing. She had a lovely long face, with all the features fetchingly big, so that she was always tilting her head back and arching her very long eyebrows up toward the heavens to show it off. In Maytime (1937), during a montage where her character becomes a famous opera star, they have her singing bits of everything from Wagner to Mozart to Norma, and the effect is absurd. MacDonald ruled over the small operetta kingdom of composers like Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml, but she often insisted on singing snatches from the whole of the grand operatic repertoire, which her fans listened to respectfully while opera queens hooted and rolled their eyes.

She worked in musicals on stage throughout the 1920s before Ernst Lubitsch decided to put her opposite Maurice Chevalier in his first talking picture, a musical at Paramount called The Love Parade (1929). They made a series of movies together in which MacDonald does most of her trilling in her underwear, to the delight of some latter-day cinephiles and no doubt Lubitsch himself. She is sexy in those movies, like Monte Carlo (1930), One Hour with You (1932) and The Merry Widow (1934), not in the way that, say, Jean Harlow is sexy in Hells Angels (1930), but in a slightly prim, girlish, “I need just a little push to abandon myself” way. As James Harvey pointed out in his book Romantic Comedy, MacDonald was always just a trifle overemphatic in her Lubitsch movies, which should include Rouben Mamoulian’s outright imitation, Love Me Tonight (1932), and this slight over-emphasis is the key to her modestly erotic, mildly alarmed style. When she sings in her early films, it is with a light touch, unconcerned as yet with being classically correct. She sounds particularly charming on a song like “Only a Rose” from The Vagabond King (1930), with its plangent melody and rich but undemanding vocal line. For a brief period, MacDonald promised sex with minimal courtship, as if she were a titled lady who has grown bored sitting in her castle all day who aches to go out and have a good time with the commoners. You might say she was doubly unlucky in her screen partners: Chevalier is as objectionable as Eddy in his diametrically opposed ew-la-la way. But maybe she was communing with the ardent Lubitsch instead.

She seems very ill-tempered with Ramon Novarro in her first film for MGM, The Cat and the Fiddle (1934), but she would never be caught out that way again. Her Post-Code transition to that studio transformed her into a far more coy performer in a series of movies opposite the nearly inanimate Eddy. The more stone-faced he was in movies like Naughty Marietta (1934), Rose-Marie (1936) and Maytime, the more arch and overly animated she became, so that if you think about that partnership for more than a moment, it begins to seem a little creepy, as if she were acting for two people and he were already dead. For at least those three movies, they had an undeniable necrophiliac sort of chemistry, and they approach their singing of “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” in Naughty Marietta with such self-seriousness that the result is sublime. As Pauline Kael remarked of that duet, “When those two profiles come together as they sing ‘Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life’ it’s beyond kitsch, it’s in a realm of its own.”

A sizable segment of the 1930s audience enjoyed dwelling in that realm of theirs, even as their vehicles got heavier and less mobile and MacDonald buried herself under bows and ruffles and excessive rouge on her cheeks. It was made clear that operetta singing in their movies was a putatively high-minded substitute for sex, taking the place of Pre-Code lovemaking just as dancing did in the Astaire/Rogers pictures and high-energy farce did in the screwball comedies. The longer they held their notes, the more wonderingly they looked at each other, so that note holding became a kind of musical sexual contest, all very wholesome and above board.

She had maybe her biggest hit with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy in San Francisco (1936), which was immortalized in Judy Garland’s concerts, much to MacDonald’s displeasure. “This lady won’t talk to me now!” Garland claimed, before going into her specially written verse before the song: “I never will forget/Jeanette MacDonald/Just to think of her/ It gives my heart a pang/I never will forget/How that brave Jeanette/Just stood their…in the ruins…and sang!” Yes, after a quite convincing re-creation of the Frisco quake of 1906, MacDonald is discovered by Gable, with barely a hair out of place, leading the dusty survivors in song.

When it comes to screen chemistry between a man and a woman, I’d say the lowest point on that scale, the absolute nadir, would be MacDonald and Jose Iturbi in a film called Three Daring Daughters (1948), only rivaled by a Blake Edwards picture called The Tamarind Seed (1974), where Omar Sharif talks to Julie Andrews about communism on a beach for two hours or so. Surely her years with Eddy had prepared MacDonald for such a vacuum, and it seemed more than fitting that she went out the following year, in The Sun Comes Up (1949), with Lassie as her leading man.

After that came much concertizing, much scolding of Raymond for his indiscreet cruising, and some pining after Eddy, if some of her fans are to be believed. (If you look at the 1953 episode of This Is Your Life devoted to MacDonald, there is definitely something odd going on between her, Raymond and Eddy). She had heart trouble, so she died rather early, in 1965. Most cinephiles prefer to remember her lingerie vocalizing in her Pre-Code films, but the real MacDonald fan welcomes the solemn camp of her Eddy series, too, and her recordings. Lots of her duets with Eddy still give off that cherishable ring of blithe absurdity, but my favorite MacDonald song is one she does alone: “Beyond the Blue Horizon” in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, which she sings to herself on a train as people working in the fields join her and wave to her. It speaks for her dedicated self-absorption, which was so ideal for Lubitsch’s style of comedy, her tiny trills drifting off sweetly into a more forgiving day.

by Dan Callahan

PAOLO UCCELLO

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TINTED WRAITH

Magic mirrors; celestial mandalas; a sinuous puppet rising like a malign concertina from a well.

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Segundo de Chomόn is such a significant player in film history that it’d be possible to fill an article with his achievements without even describing the films he made at all – special effects artist, photographer, director, he refined color cinematography, combined live action with animation, and built the first camera dolly. The hundreds of films he worked on span the full range of early cinema, from one-shot travelogues in 1903 to Abel Gance’s Napoleon in 1927, for which he devised special effects, he was in the forefront of movie magic his entire life, but the films he’s chiefly remembered for are in the Méliès vein.

This is in some ways unfortunate, since Georges Méliès’ place in cinema history is securely occupied by Geroges Méliès. There’s no getting away from the fact that the French magician preceded the Spanish technician, and that Chomόn’s films often pilfer outrageously from the master’s. But Méliès himself was a gleeful thief, seeing no reason to buy copyright in Jules Verne or H.G. Wells before adapting them, jointly, in A Trip to the Moon (1902). Chomόn eventually remade the movie, twice, as Excursion to the Moon (1908) and A Trip to Jupiter (1909), cutting out the tedious planning stages of the launch and getting straight into the fabulous theatrical effects. His astronaut, an intrepid king, reaches the heavens by rope ladder, before encountering exploding acrobats clearly much influenced by Méliès’ back-flipping Selenites. Jupiter is both god and planet, the one inhabiting and ruling the other, eventually scissoring the explorer’s rope ladder and sending him tumbling back to Terra.

Japanese acrobats performing impossible tricks in the vertical plane, like Adam West scaling a wall; a human-headed spider gurning in his web; toy soldiers waging toy wars.

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Chomόn’s creations are even lovelier than his great rivals! His production design is sturdier and more three-dimensional, but its theatrical stylisation is just as flamboyant and beautiful. Maybe he had a bigger team than Méliès, who practically worked from home, but the design sense is stronger and the tricks even more imaginative, even if his women are less sturdily built. Méliès didn’t have the patience for stop-motion, whereas Chomόn used it to bring objects to life and transform them, adding another layer of the uncanny to his miniature fantasies.

Chomόn won’t get a supporting role in a Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, as Méliès has in Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), but his movies offer another side-door into the looking-glass world of early cinema. As oneiric and alien as Méliès’ work is, Chomόn’s is even more baffling: the actors mug and telegraph for all they’re worth, anxious to convey something, but what exactly is going on often remains fantastically elusive. Distortions of scale, animation of the inanimate, every kind of grotesque transmogrification and wanton peculiarity is trundled out, color-tinted and gesticulating. In The Red Spectre (1907), a caped skeleton performs tricks with tiny people in glass jars, harking forward to the menagerie of Doctor Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1936), and in The Creation of the Serpentine (1902), even that weary staple of nineteen-noughties cinema, the serpentine dancer, is rendered surprising by being cast into a narrative in which the dance is shown being brought into being by black magic, which may well be true.

Giant eggs, butterfly women, a moon with a Salvador Dali mustache.

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George Lucas, a man whose grasp of cinematic principles is perhaps not what it might be, once referred to the history of the effects film as beginning “with the Méliès brothers.” Perhaps he’s not so wrong. As younger brother, Segundo (literally, the Second) has to try harder to make his mark, and he succeeds. He also performs a weird, contradictory service for his older brother by a different mother and father: by doing all Méliès’ tricks better than Méliès could do them, he affirms that the French magician is important not just for being first on the scene, but for being beautiful.

But Segundo de Chomόn is still more beautiful.

by David Cairns

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ENEG

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a.k.a. Gene Bilbrew

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Sweet Pea’s pocket mirror (Gelatin silver print and chromolithograph mounted on celluloid medallion), ca. 1920.