Friday, 31 July 2015

Film Friday: "The Wild Party" (1929)

In honor of Clara Bow's 110th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the only film I've seen with her so far, which also happens to be the first sound picture she made.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Dorothy Arzner, The Wild Party (1929) revolves around Winston College, an all-female school where the students seem to be more interested in having fun and partying than studying. When the young and attractive professor James "Gil" Gilmore (Fredric March) starts teaching Anthropology there, all the girls immediately feel attracted to him, especially Stella Ames (Clara Bow), the wildest and most popular student in the school. She recognizes Gil as the man with whom she once accidentally shared a berth on a train, thereby risking her reputation, but he does give any indication that he remembers Stella.

After being thrown out of the school's traditional costume party for wearing revealing outfits, Stella and her friends go to a roadhouse, where they are soon bothered by drunk men. While all the girls are able to leave, Stella gets caught up in a bar fight and is subsquentely abducted by the men. Gil comes to her rescue and the two kiss and exchange confidences, but the next morning he acts as if nothing happened, even giving her an humiliating lecture about her lack of dedication. Hurt, Stella returns to her old lifestyle of wild parties, which includes dancing with and kissing strangers, but has a change of heart about Gil after hearing that he was shot by one of the drunks who abducted her, and when Gil returns to campus a month later, they profess their love for each other. The following day, however, Stella is expelled after taking the blame for receiving a suggestive love letter that was actually sent to her best friend, Helen Owens (Shirley O'Hara). As she prepares to leave college, she's certain that she has lost Gil's love, but is happily surprised when he follows her on the train and asks her to join him on an expedition to Malaya, where there will be no "morons," only savages. 

James "Gil" Gilmore: You haven't the slighest idea what true freedom means. Instead, you jazz around glorying in sham freedom. Life to you is just one wild party. You have no aim. All you want is cheap sensation.

By mid-1928, the success of The Jazz Singer (1927) could no longer be attributed to a passing trend or a stroke of luck. As Warner Bros. began to rake in large profits due to the popularity of their sound films, every other major studio rushed their conversion to the new technology to supply the public's sudden demand for "talkies." Paramount Pictures, the industry leader, acknowledged the craze by sending special effects engineer Roy Pomeroy, who had just won an Academy Award for his work on Wings (1927), to study sound technology with experts from Western Electric at the company's headquarters in New York. When Pomeroy returned to Hollywood, he was entrusted with the studio's first full talking picture, Interference (1928), starring William Powell and Evelyn Brent, which received mixed reviews.

After Paramount announced that their 1929 program would be entirely made of sound pictures, voice tests became mandatory for every actor on the lot, including 24-year-old Clara Bow. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Bow arrived in Hollywood in 1923 under producer B. P. Schulberg's personal contract and soon rose to become Paramount's biggest star, appearing in such hits as Mantrap (1926), It (1927) and the aforementioned Wings. Voice tests at the studio were administered at Pomeroy's office without shooting a foot of film, but Bow was given special treatment: her voice test would also be recorded by a camera, with Dorothy Arzner directing a scene from what was to be her first "talkie": The Wild Party.

Dorothy Arzner and Clara Bow on the set
Arzner's work in Hollywood started in 1919, when director William C. DeMille, brother of Cecil, got her a job as a stenographer at Famous Players-Lanksy Corporation, renamed Paramount in the late 1920s. Determined to pursue a career as a film director, Arzner quickly moved to be a script writer and then a film editor, until the studio finally allowed her the chance to direct her first picture, the successful social comedy Fashions for Women (1927), starring Esther Ralston. Shortly after, Paramount put Arzner in charge of Bow's Get Your Man (1927) and she was astounded by the actress's "innate artistry" and "infallible instincts." Although Bow was initally displeased about having a woman direct one of her pictures, she liked Arzner and the two soon became good friends.

She was just automatically a natural. A marvelous actress, full of animation and projection of her thoughts and emotions. The whole thing was emotional with Clara; she understood the emotional content of every scene. Whichever way she did it was so right, so alive. It was like a dancing flame on the screen. They all called Clara 'the "It" Girl,' the outstanding 'flaming youth.' Well, she was all that, but I think she was also the one flaming youth that thought.
(Dorothy Arzner)

Clara Bow as Stella Ames
Although Bow's filmed voice test consisted of only one brief scene, she was completely terrified. She was already self-conscious of her slight stammer and was certain that speaking in a film would result in nationwide humilliation. Adding to her worries was the fact that a few days before she was scheduled to do the test, she was given a 102-page shooting script for The Wild Party and was overwhelmed by the idea of having to memorize so many lines. While her test progressed smoothly during its shooting and recording, Bow literally screamed in anguish upon hearing her voice played back for the first time. "How can I be in pictures with a voice like that?" she cried. 

After Bow's voice test in mid-December 1928, and despite her devasted reaction to it, The Wild Party went into production on January 2, 1929, giving Bow just two weeks to prepare for the daunting task of making a sound picture. As hard as she tried, Bow could not seem to adjust to the new medium, as "talkies required a restraint she had never developed and rendered useless the abandonment she had," and she felt "constant fear" throughout The Wild Party's production. Arzner tried to help her by attaching the stationery microphone hanging above the soundstage to a fishpole, giving Bow more freedom to move instead of halting below it every time she spoke. In most cases, however, the microphone had to be hidden in a prop near a mark, such as a vase or a pillow, as her eyes would unconsciously travel upward towards the off-camera mike. "We had quite a time in the beginning," Arzner later recalled, "because to be aware of the pantomime which she was accostumed to, then have words to remember, was very difficult for her.

Fredric March and Clara Bow
Although Arzner is best known for her work with female stars, launching the career of actresses such as Sylvia Sidney in Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong (1933), she had an eye for male actors as well. For the part of Gil, Arzner cast Fredric March, in one of his first leading film roles after a successful career on the New York stage. March went on to be featured as the male lead in three more Arzner films, Sarah and Son (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931) and the above-mentioned Merrily We Go to Hell, and also appeared in a second film with Bow, Frank Tuttle's romantic comedy True to the Navy (1930).

When The Wild Party was released in April 1929, it received general mixed reviews, with much of the criticism being directed at Bow's Brooklyn accent. While one reviewer commented that her voice had "a harsh tonal quality that is not very easy on sensitive eardrums," Variety assured that she possessed "enough of a voice to insure a general belief that Clara can speak, as well as look not as well, but enough." In addition, The New York Times noted that "Miss Bow's voice is better than the narrative. It is not overmelodious in delivery, but it suits her personality," but dismissed the film as "intended for dwarfed intellects." Despite the variance in critical opinion, people flocked to the theaters to see America's most popular film star talk and The Wild Party broke house records in several big cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago. In smaller cities, however, Bow's sound debut was shown in silence, as theater owners refused to convert their facilities for what was still considered a fad.

Shirley O'Hara and Clara Bow
Talkies caused a chaotic and bewildering flux within the film industry, changing not only the way pictures were made, but also the way they were watched. Gazing at a silent screen upon which mouths moved without speaking a word, audiences began to idealize not only how stars sounded, but what they said as well. Although legend contends that Clara Bow's "thick Brooklyn accent" ruined her career, the quality of her voice was never really an issue to her, Paramount or her fans. It was the changing nature of filmmaking that destroyed Bow's career. Like many other silent stars, including Charlie Chaplin and Louise Brooks, Bow found the new medium limiting and simply did not embrace the novelty of having to memorize scripts, speak into microphones and hit chalkmarks.

I hate talkies. They're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me. And people are so quick to pounce on you if your voice isn't perfect [...] I can't buck progress, and I have to do the best I can.
(Clara Bow)

From her very first line in The Wild Party, it is evident that Clara Bow is extremely nervous and unsure of what she is doing. Her voice is shaky and you can tell that she struggled to let go of the broad pantomine she was so adept of. Fortunately, Arzner wisely adapted to her style by giving her many close-up shots of her reacting to off-camera events as if to demonstrate that she does not need dialogue to express emotion. Recalling the words of the great Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950), who needs dialogue when you have a face like Clara Bow's.

Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn (2000) | Directed by Dorothy Arzner by Judith Mayne (1994) | Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2001) | The Talkies: American Cinema's Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 by Donald Crafton (1999) | "The Real Clara Bow" by Elizabeth Goldbeck (1930)

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Happy Birthday, William Powell & Clara Bow!

 (July 29, 1892 March 5, 1984)
I don't believe there is anything more worthwhile in life than friendship. Friendship is a far better thing than love, as it is commonly accepted.

(July 29, 1905 September 17, 1965)
People used to say that I had a feeling of closeness, a great warmth of loving everybody, that they could tell me their troubles.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Quote of the Week

The only time a woman really succeeds in changing a man is when he is a baby.

(Natalie Wood)


Friday, 24 July 2015

Film Friday: "Splendor in the Grass" (1961)

To celebrate Natalie Wood's birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I'm bringing you one of my favorite films of hers, which also happens to be the first film I ever saw with her.

Original release poster by Bill Gold
Directed by Elia Kazan, Splendor in the Grass (1961) tells the story of Wilma "Deanie" Loomis (Natalie Wood) and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), two young lovers living in a small Kansas town in the late 1920s. Deanie's mother (Audrey Christie) is a domineering woman who boasts of her aversion to men and warns her daughter that nice girls do not have sexual feelings. Bud's father, Ace (Pat Hingle), an arrogant self-made millionaire, has "all his hopes pinned" on his son and tells him to forget marriage until he graduates from Yale. Unable to consummate their love, the confused and frustrated youngsters end their relationship. After Bud becomes sexually involved with Juanita Howard (Jan Norris), the most permissive girl in school, Deanie attempts suicide and is sent away for psychiatric care.

While Deanie is at the institution, Bud goes off to Yale, where he fails almost all of his courses. Sometime later, he learns that his sexually promiscous sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), was killed in  car accident and that his father committed suicide after his oil holdings were wiped out by the October 1929 stock market crash. Bud then decides to leave Yale and marries a poor Italian waitress named Angelina (Zohra Lampert), whom he met in New Haven. When Deanie is released from the sanitarium after two years and six months, "almost to the day," fellow patient Johnny Masterson (Charles Robinson) proposes to her and offers her the chance for a new life. Before she can accept, however, Deanie feels that she must see Bud once more and goes to visit him at his little farm. During their brief reunion, they realize that both must accept what life has thrown at them and although they still love each other, they can never recover that blazing love of youth which they once had.

Deanie Loomis: Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strenght in what remains behind.

In late 1957, while co-producing and directing William Inge's play The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, Elia Kazan "dropped a casual remark" that the two might someday collaborate on a film project and asked the writer if he had any good material for a screenplay. Inge, whose credits include Bus Stop (1955) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Picnic (1953), had never written a script before, but he was intrigued by the suggestion and told Kazan a true story he had heard as a boy growing up in the 1920s in the small town of Independence, Kansas about a couple of high school kids who, like himself, felt trapped by the oppressive puritanism of time and place. Enthusiastic about the idea, Kazan immediately said, "let's do it."

By early spring in 1958, Inge submitted a first draft entitled "Splendor in the Grass," the tragic story of two star-crossed lovers which he felt reflected "the pain my generation expressed in coming to maturity, and with the conflicts we fought to find our personal standards when society demanded we accept only her own." According to Kazan, what the playwright handed in to him was a "dramatic narrative with dialogue" that lacked the essentials of a proper screenplay, so the two began working closely together to cut and rearrange Inge's script, giving it "form and shape" for the cinema. After receiving approval from the Motion Picture Production Code for the basic story of Splendor in the Grass, the film officially went into pre-production later that year.

Beatty, Kazan and Wood on the set
Consciously or unconsciously, Kazan always chose to make films that expressed his own opinion in some way and dealt with personal or social issues that he was familiar with. While Splendor in the Grass was reportedly a coded version of Inge's personal experience, his own "forbidden" love for a handsome high school senior, there were certain elements of the story that resonated with Kazan's own experiences as well, notably the effects of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the power of parents, particularly fathers, "to obstruct and distort the efforts of their children to develop their own lives and identities." 

In addition, Kazan also had a personal interest and involvement in another key theme of Splendor in the Grass, that of psychiatry and psychoanalysis, which had been present in his life since 1945, when his first wife insisted that they see an analyst in hopes to restore their marriage after his affair with the model turned actress Constance Dowling. Before filming began, Kazan sent the script to a psychiatrist, seeking a deeper analysis of the characters, and also visited the prestigious Menninger Clinic, a pioneering psychiatric institution specialized in the problems of young people founded in Tepeka, Kansas in the mid-1920s. To Kazan, the fact that the first mental hospital of its kind was located in mid-Western America was "almost an acknowledge that mid-America was cracking up, that its values were not working."

Natalie Wood as Deanie Loomis
When the time came for casting Splendor in the Grass, it was Inge who suggested Natalie Wood for the role of Deanie. Wood had been one of Hollywood's most successful child stars, hitting her peak with the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947), but by the early 1960s she was having a difficult time transitioning into more adult roles. Although Kazan had been impressed by her poignant Oscar-nominated performance in Rebel Without a Cause (1955),  he was reluctant to cast an actress who had been declared "washed up" by the film industry and began considering Lee Remick and Jane Fonda for the part. When Kazan met Wood, however, he realized that she was indeed the right person to play Deanie. 

When Natalie was first suggested to me, I backed off. I didn't want a "washed-up child star." But when I saw her, I detected behind the well-mannered "young wife" front a desperate twinkle in her eyes. I knew there was an unsatisfied hunger there [...] I talked with her more quietly then and more personally. I wanted to find out what human material was there, what her inner life was [...] Then she told me she was being psychoanalyzed. That did it.
(Elia Kazan)

Audrey Christie and Natalie Wood
Splendor in the Grass was an exhilarating but wrenching experience for the 22-year-old Wood, who saw herself facing her innermost demons during the making of the film. The scene that proved most problematic for the young actress was the one where a heartbroken Deanie tries to drown herself in a lake. A few days before they shot the sequence, she told Kazan that she had "a terror of water, particularly dark water, and of being helpless in it" and wasn't sure that she could play the scene. The director then asked his assistant to get into the water with her and while that didn't entirely reassure her, she managed to do the scene. "On dry land she continued to shake with fear, then laughed histerically, with relief," Kazan later recalled. Ironically, the yacht from which Wood stepped into dark water to her premature death twenty years later was called The Splendor.

While Kazan was deciding whether to cast Jody McCrea or Troy Donahue in the role of Bud Stamper, Inge was working on a Broadway play called A Loss of Roses, starring an attractive 23-year-old actor named Warren Beatty. Although the production was a failure, Beatty received glowing reviews for his role as a young gas station attendant living in Depression-era Kansas and even received a Tony Award nomination for Best Featured Actor in a Play. Inge immediately recommended him to Kazan, convinced that he would be "just perfect" to play Bud, but the director thought Beatty was "awful raw, awful new and rather clumsy." However, Kazan saw something of Bud in Beatty and agreed to cast him in the role.

Pat Hingle and Warren Beatty
Briefly trained at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York, Beatty was a newcomer to the motion picture industry, appearing mostly in small television parts in shows like Studio One (1957) and Playhouse 90 (1959). He was ecstatic to learn that he had won the lead role in his first feature film and even more so to be working with Kazan, whom he greatly admired. Although Kazan thought Beatty was a little "snotty", he took him under his wing and was generous with his lessons, teaching the inexperienced actor "how to break down a script, how to think about acting, where to place the camera, and so on," much like he had done with James Dean during the making of East of Eden (1955). These proved to be valuable lessons for Beatty, who went on to produce and direct such successful films as the Best Picture-nominees Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Reds (1981), the latter earning him an Oscar for Best Director.

Apart from the two leads, Kazan used East Coast, Broadway actors, many of them from the famed Actors Studio, of which he was one of the founders. Pat Hingle, for example, who played Bud's overbearing father, had worked with Kazan several times before, making a cameo appearance in On the Waterfront (1954) and providing the opening narration for Wild River (1960), as well as appearing in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. The future Mrs. Elia Kazan, Barbara Loden, was also a member of the Studio and was cast as the sexually promiscuous flapper Ginny Stamper, Bud's sister, her second film role after appearing in a small part in Wild River. Loden went on to become the first woman to write, direct and star in her own feature film, Wanda (1970), which received great acclaim at the 31st Venice International Film Festival. 

Beatty and Wood in a publicity still
According to most accounts, Wood was not particularly fond of Beatty when she first met him (apparently, she thought he "didn't bathe enough"). As filming progressed, however, Kazan noticed that something changed between them and claimed that they fell in love while he "wasn't looking," even though they were involved with other people at the time (Wood was married to Robert Wagner, while Beatty was engaged to the English actress Joan Collins). Although many asserted that their relationship did not begin during the making of Splendor in the Grass, by the time the film was released Wood and Beatty had left their significant others and were living together, a romance that lasted until the mid-1960s.

Shot entirely in New York over a period of five months, principal photography on Splendor in the Grass  wrapped up in August 1960. Geoffrey Shurlock of the Production Code Administration had followed Kazan's every step throughout production and proved to be even more imposing once the film was done. Upon viewing an initial version of the picture in February 1961, Shurlock argued that it could not be approved under the Code because of its "overly vivid portrayal of sex in a number of sequences." After Jack Warner asked that the film be re-edited so as to eliminate, or at least soften, the scenes that were seen as sexually explicit, Kazan spent the following months "dubbing, cutting, recutting, scoring, fighting with Warners and fighting with the Legion of Decency," until Splendor in the Grass finally passed the censors in October 1961.

Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood
Reportedly, Warner Bros. did not have very high expectations for Splendor in the Grass, but the film opened to solid box-office results and received generally positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a frank and ferocious social drama that makes the eyes pop and the modest cheek burn [...] The production is in excellent color and is scenially superb." He especially applauded Wood and Beatty's performances, writing that "the authority and eloquence of the theme emerge in the honest, sensitive acting of Mr. Beatty and Miss Wood. The former, a surprising newcomer, shapes an amiable, decent, sturdy lad whose emotional exhaustion and defeat are the deep pathos in the film [...] And Miss Wood has a beauty and radiance that carry her through a role of violent passions and depressions with unsullied purity and strength. There is poetry in her performance, and her eyes in the final scene bespeak the moral significance and emotional fulfillment of this film."

Variety, on the other hand, was not so favorable in their assessment, writing: "Elia Kazan's production of William Inge's original screenplay covers a forbidding chunk of ground with great care, compassion and cinematic flair. Yet there is something awkward about the picture's mechanical rhythm. There are missing links and blind alleys within the story. Too much time is spent focusing on characters of minor significance." However, the reviewer did praise the entire cast, saying that both Wood and Beatty "deliver convincing, appealing performances"; Audrey Christie and Pat Hingle gave "truly exceptional, memorable portrayals" of Mrs. Loomis and Ace Stamper; and Fred Stewart was "excellent" as Mr. Loomis.

At the 34th Academy Awards ceremony held at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in April 1962, William Inge won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, while Natalie Wood received a her second nomination for Best Actress, but lost to Sophia Loren for her performance in Vittorio De Sicca's Two Women (1960). The Best Picture winner that year was Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' West Side Story (1961), which also happened to star Natalie Wood.
Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty at the Academy Awards in 1962

Splendor in the Grass was one of the very first classic films I saw (I had to see it for a class I had while studying at the University of Notthingham in 2012). Although at the time I was still generally allergic to classic films, I remember that I really enjoyed it and was mesmerized by Natalie Wood's performance. I returned to it after Gene Kelly cured me of my allergy and loved it even more. Natalie is absolutely stunning in it and even though this was Warren Beatty's film debut, he is wonderful in it as well. I love Warren Beatty. He's just so pretty to look at. I missed half the plot of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) because I was staring at him all the time. There is just something about him that grabs you from the moment you lay your eyes on him. He is sort of everything James Dean unfortunately never had the chance of being and I love that. In conclusion, Splendor in the Grass is one of those films that I recommend everyone to see. Not only is it filled with phenomenal performances, but it also explores themes, especially peer and family pressure, that are still relevant today.

Elia Kazan: A Life by Elia Kazan (1988) | Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider by Brian Neve (2009) | Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert (2004) | Star: The Life and Wild Times of Warren Beatty by Peter Biskind (2010) | Warren Beatty: A Private Man by Suzanne Finstad (2006) | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review | Variety review