The Moon, the Stars and Bette Davis

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I always have difficulties to determine which film starring Bette Davis is my favourite one. But today, I think it’s Now, Voyager. Yeah, I might have given you another title in a past article, but you see, this is the type of choice that changes all the time for me. It doesn’t really do that for other actresses tho, just for Bette! Now, Voyager has all reasons to be a favourite. It’s that kind of movie that I like better on each viewing. Nothing from it bores me and I enjoy everything from it from the beginning until the end. I also believe it’s a moment of glory for the main actors: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Gladys Cooper, and Claude Rains.

I’m writing this article for the Third Annual Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Actually, the event was taking place from April 5 to April 7, so I’m a little late. But, hey! Better late than never!

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I, of course, take the occasion to wish, once again, a happy heavenly birthday to Mrs. Davis who was born on April 5, 1908.

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Now, Voyager was directed by Irving Rapper and released in 1942. The masterpiece received two unsurprising nominations at the Oscars: Best Actresses for Bette Davis and Best Supporting Actress for Gladys Cooper. Max Steiner won a Best Music Oscar for his beautifully composed score.

A highly acclaimed movie, Now, Voyager was the biggest box office success of Bette Davis’s career (imdb)

In this film, she plays the role of Charlotte Vale. She lives in Boston with her possessive and tyrannical mother (Gladys Cooper). Do to her mother’s abuse, she has become a very insecure woman. One day, her sister-in-law, Lisa (Ilka Vale,  and her niece June (Bonita Granville) come to visit them. They are accompanied by Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains), a psychiatrist because Lisa fears Charlotte might be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. After making acquaintance with Charlotte and came to the conclusion that she is, indeed, “a very sick woman”, the doctor decides to bring her to his sanitarium, Cascades, for a complete rest and cure. When the young woman is healed, she doesn’t feel confident enough to go home and face her mother, who was the main source of her illness. So, the doctor suggests her to go on a cruise. This is also a way for her to meet new people and gain confidence with the world surrounding her. During the trip, she meets Jeremiah “Jerry” Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henreid), a charming architect who is traveling with his friends Deb (Lee Patrick) and Frank (James Rennie) McIntyre. As they learn to know each other, they, surprise!, fell in love. Unfortunately, Jerry is already married, but Charlotte discovers from Deb that he doesn’t love his wife and that they have a daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson), who seems to be in the same situation Charlotte was a few months before.

After the dramatic goodbyes, Charlotte, a now completely transformed woman (mentally and physically) is back home in Boston. Of course, her mother doesn’t approve of her new attitude, much more confident, and her glamorous style, but Charlotte is decided not to let her walk on her feet again. She will coincidentially meet Jerry again… And, eventually, his daughter, at Cascade.

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There’s so much more to say about this film’s story, but I don’t want to reveal too much!

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The character of Charlotte Vale is one that undergoes a radical transformation and, for this, Bette Davis had to express acting versatility in a single movie and, obviously, she did it with brio. When she is the “first version” of Charlotte, the camera focuses on her hands twisting each other. We can also feel a certain incomfort in her character by the way she walks, talks and looks at the world surrounding her like a little scared animal. Then, when she is the transformed into the “cured” Charlotte, we still can feel a certain incertitude in her, but this one is well-balanced with an indiscutable elegance. And the more the story goes, the more we see Charlotte gaining confidence in herself and look like a happy person who can now take care of other like it was done for her.

1942 obviously was a very important year for Austrian-born actor Paul Henreid as he also starred in the ultimate classic that Casablanca is. In Now, Voyager, he embodies a devastating charm as well as a beautiful wisdom. And how can we forget the cigarettes trick! Lightning two cigarettes at the same time became his character’s signature. One of the things I like the most about the film is the brilliant chemistry he has on-screen with his co-actress Bette Davis. I love the scenes involving the two because it’s so believable. Nothing seems forced and the complicity between the two stars is honest. Paul Henreid who also worked as a director would direct his friend Bette Davis 22 years later in the thriller Dead Ringer (which I still have to see). I think Now, Voyager would be my favourite performance of him…as a good man! As a villain, it would be Night Train to Munich!

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And Claude Rains also was part of Casablanca‘s distribution! It’s weird but I also think Ingrid Bergman could have rocked the role of Charlotte Vale! But well, let’s not make a casting copy of Casablanca either. I have to admit, Now, Voyager is the film that really made me “notice” and love Claude Rains. First, I love the character he plays, a good and wise man with a sense of humour. And I love how natural his acting is. Of course, what made Claude Rains’s charm was his beautiful smooth British voice. According to IMDB, he initially didn’t want to play the role but I’m glad he did. I wonder who could have been as good as him in the role…

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And Gladys Cooper. The wonderful Gladys Cooper! Respect. Not towards her character, but towards her acting. She would also play the tyrannical mother in Separate Tables and, each time, she does it with so much wit and gives to her characters a fascinating cruelty.

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The supporting cast is fine as well. Honourable mention to Mary Wickes who plays nurse Dora, one of the most lively characters of the lot. I love it when she calls Mrs. Vale “Queen Elizabeth”, full of mockery!

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Now, Voyager is a film full of good life lessons. I love the way Bette Davis’s character understands the meaning of “don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you”. Instead of developing herself into a pale copy of her mother, Charlotte becomes a good person and eventually comes in help to Jerry’s daughter. There’s also a mirror effect if we compare her situation to Christina’s one. We never see Christina’s mother, but we heard about her and believe she’s not entirely fond of her daughter. Some of my favourite scenes of the film also are the ones where Charlotte and Christina go camping! That makes me think, I haven’t been in a while (camping)!

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We also have to praise the beautiful costumes designed by Orry-Kelly, especially Mrs. Davis ones. Ok, here I’m not talking about the old maid dress she’s wearing at the beginning of the film, but about her classy gowns that she wears after her journey at Cascades. These showcase her special beauty and her figure and add a lot to her impressive transformation. This moment when she arrives on the boat with her new look is just iconic for me. The hat and the veils she wears on her head doesn’t reveal her face totally. It’s just a few moments later when she takes off that we can really see it completely. I love the mystery this hat creates!

Discussing Now, Voyager truly was a stimulating activity. If you haven’t seen this film yet and are in the mood for a fascinating story, I urge you to watch it as soon as possible! Hopefully, it’s magic will have an effect on you as much as it did on me.

Many thanks to Crystal for hosting this blogathon. I’ll invite you to read the other entries here.

See you!

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Amy March: Elizabeth Taylor vs. Joan Bennett

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Yesterday, February 27, marked the birthday of two excellent classic actresses: the glamorous Elizabeth Taylor and the enigmatic Joan Bennett. But this is not the only common point these two ladies share. Indeed, they starred together in today’s birthday boy, Vincente Minnelli’s classics Father of the Bride and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend as mother and daughter. They also both played the role of Amy March in two different adaptations of Little Women: the 1933’s George Cukor one for Joan Bennett and the 1949’s Mervyn Leroy one for Elizabeth Taylor.

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My friend Crystal from In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting, for the first time, the Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon. I’ll be precisely comparing Liz and Joan’s portrayals of Amy March for the occasion. This, I believe, would be a brilliant way to celebrate both actresses. And, to tell you the truth, when I subscribed with this subject, I actually didn’t remember they were born on the same day! Well, coincidences like that are always fun.

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Little Women is an adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century literary classic of the same name. The story takes place in Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War. Dr. March is at the front while his wife and four daughters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy are staying home and live their everyday life, dealing with the difficulties brought by the war. The sister all have very different personalities, but they complete each other perfectly and share a beautiful friendship.

Amy March is the youngest sibling. She is very coquette and has a strong personality, just like her sister Jo, but in a very different way. Amy’s passion is art and she loves to draw and paint. She is the artist of the family. Amy March is always dressed pretty and has curly golden hair.

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I must admit, to me, Joan Bennett was the perfect Amy March. Her delicate figure and porcelain doll face embodied the ideal look for the role. She also gives her character the right personality, the one we should imagine while reading the books. But Liz turned out to be an agreeable surprise! I don’t think blonde hair suits her as well as it does to Joan, but that’s just a detail. Her facial features and bone structure, however, seemed right. It might seem irrelevant to judge an casting choice base on the physical appearance, but the March sisters are characters that we want to picture perfectly in our head and that sees more credible if they are faithful to Louisa May Alcott’s description.

I think both Joan and Elizabeth shows different strenghts in their interpretations of Amy March. The postitive aspect of this is that they aren’t simple pale copies of each other. Amy March is young and well-mannered. Joan Bennett emodies the youthfullness of Amy to perfection and his credibe. Elizabeth Taylor, has a way of speaking that gives Amy this almost charicatural elegance. Indeed, her voice is clear and her words are perfectly calculated.

Despite her flaws and selfishness, Amy March is able of compassion, especially in times of crisis. By watching the two films, I feel like Joan Bennett embodied this emotion in a better way than Elizabeth Taylor. Or maybe not in a better way, but in a more obvious way. But, when I think about it, this maybe isn’t really the actress fault. It’s due to the way the book adaptation was made, despite the two movies being very similar. On another side, I felt her flaws were better embodied by Elizabeth Taylor. I read the book once when I was 11 or 12. So, that was 10 years ago and I obviously don’t remember everything about it. But, on the internet, Amy March is always described as “the sister that we love to hate.” Honestly, Joan Bennett didn’t really make me feel that. I don’t hate Amy March’s Liz Taylor either, far from it, but, in connection to what we previously said, her portrayal of Amy March is maybe more accurate.

So yes, both actresses bring out different traits of Amy March’s personality.

Amy March is the sister that makes me laugh the most after Jo. In the 1933’s version, I always have to watch, at least twice, the scene where Amy and Jo practice Jo’s play. Joan Bennett makes me laugh SO MUCH in this scene. I think Liz Taylor’s Amy March finds her funny side in her mannerisms and the way she pronounces those complicated made-up words. The sight of her sleeping with a clothespin on her nose in pretty comical too! Amy March has a complex with her nose and this is obviously better illustrated by Liz’s March.

Lastly, in this scene where Amy March comes back from Europe and is now married to Laurie Laurence, both Liz and Joan gives the right elegance to their character. Indeed, in both films, we know perfectly that Amy March is now a new person and, most of all, a better one. Both actresses are at the top of their elegance!

My favourite Amy March is still Joan Bennett’s one, but both she and Liz Taylor give beautiful justice to Louisa May Alcott’s character!

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Many thanks to Crystal for hosting this blogathon!

Don’t forget to read the other entries:

The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon

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Happy heavenly birthday again Liz and Joan!

PS: If you wish to read a more complete review of 1933’s Little Women, please click here!

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Dancin’ with Busby

Something special is happening at Hometowns to Hollywood as Annette is hosting a blogathon for the very first time! The classic film enthusiast has chosen to honour the world of musicals with an event dedicated to the golden age of Hollywood choreographer Busby Berkeley. For those like me who like the musical genre, Berkeley is an essential. His choreographies had something that was proper to him and didn’t only allowed the dancers to prove their skills, but for some, became real pieces of art. The kaleidoscopic spectacle was to be his trademark and made him a real magician.

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For my participation in the Busby Berkeley Blogathon, I’ve decided to discuss my favourite musical numbers directed by him. Five films would be explored: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames and Lady Be Good. Of course, Berkeley worked on many more films, including the well-known family classic The Wizard of Oz.

42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

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42nd Street is the first film choreographed by Busby Berkeley that I saw. I was not much older than 15 or 16 years old and, to be honest, didn’t really love it. I just found it ok. Then, I watched it a second-time years later (actually, I think it was last year) and simply adored it. It’s amazing how our tastes can change. Despite not being so impressed by it on my first viewing, the final musical number always had a place among my very favourite movie scenes. I remember watching it often on YouTube and trying to learn the song by heart. But it’s only when I was in Cegep that I really heard of Busby Berkeley or, more precisely, that I learned that this musical number that I loved so much was choreographed by him. In one of my film history classes, my teacher discussed musical films and introduced the class by teaching us about backstage musicals, those films telling the story of a Broadway show. Busby Berkeley was an essential figure in backstage musicals.

But let’s now explore two musical numbers of this film in greater details:

Shuffle Off to Buffalo

Shuffle Off to Buffalo starts in a quiet way with Ruby Keeler and Clarence Nordstrom playing a newly wed couple. They are on the boat, on their way to Buffalo. The boat suddenly becomes a train and the visual effect impresses us as well as the applauding public in the movie. The other train passengers participate in the number with their chorus voices while Rudy and Clarence execute some jolly tap dancing. The melody of the voices and the rhythm of the steps are in perfect harmony for this sympathetic musical number. My favourite part of the scene really is the singing duo between Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers who don’t seem to believe much in marriage. According to them “Matrimony is baloney”!

 

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The final choreographic number starts with Ruby Keeler singing about the famous street and its people. She then proves us her potential as a good tap dancer. The camera moves and reveals us that she is in fact, dancing on the roof of a car! The car goes away with Ruby and reveals us a complex stage that has been transformed in New-York City with its cars, numerous people, scandals, and lights. We realize that, although it is supposed to happen on a stage, cinema and cameras allow a better potential for such an impressive scene. Some parts of this scene don’t contain any visible cut and make us wonder how it is possible. It really gives us the illusion that it was filmed in a gigantic studio. Dick Powell eventually introduces himself to the song while my favourite extra is mixing a drink in the background. The other dancers, dressed like Ruby arrived to close the numbers and their lively silhouettes become enlightened buildings in the New-Yorkian night. I love the singing voices at the end of this musical number!

 

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

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The first time I heard about this film was when I saw Bonnie & Clyde. Remember, there’s this scene where the two dangerous lovers and their comrade C.W. Moss go hide into a theatre after Clyde has killed a man? The movie playing precisely is Gold Diggers of 1933 and we’re at the beginning of it with its introducing number, “We’re in the Money”. At the time, I had no idea this film would eventually become a favourite.

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Ok, if I become rich one day, I want to re-enact this scene, covered with coins just like Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers). This musical scene is an interesting way to begin the movie as it makes a contrast with the real-life situation of 1933: the economic crisis. Yes, Americans were far from being “in the money” and this musical number, therefore, becomes an ideology, the expression of their desire to come out of this difficult situation. The practice is indeed abruptly interrupted by the creditors and producers of telling people to stop the show as they haven’t got enough money to finance it. There’s a lot of joy in this dance and the whole thing is embellished with big coins forming interesting fans. I once gave myself the challenge of learning this song by heart, which I succeed, except for the pig latin part!

 

Pettin’ in the Park

You like pre-code? Well, here is some pre-code for you. “Pettin’ in the Park”, even if it seems innocent at first, is one of the most daring musical numbers of Berkeley’s filmography. It starts with a naughty Dick Powell and a shy Ruby Keeler singing about “pettin in a park” and “pettin in the dark”. They are soon joined by other dancers and the stage becomes a real snowy scene with skating and amusing snowball fights. Busby Berkeley films the dancer with their false giant snowballs with his usual high angle shots which shows us kaleidoscopic forms. Then it’s Spring and the ladies and their beaux are sitting together. A little boy (played by dwarf Billy Party) sneaks into their intimacy and when the girls go hide behind a curtain to change their wet clothes, he starts to pull this curtain! ;). This is a complex scene so there’ll be much more to say. I’ll let you watch see for yourself. Unfortunately, I could only find it in three separated parts.

 

Remember My Forgotten Man

Joan Blondell is the star of this closing number. In opposition to the optimistic opening number, Forgotten Man takes us back to the reality of the economic crisis and men leaving their houses to fight for their country during the first World War. For this impressive scene, Busby Berkeley used a German Expressionist aesthetic playing with shadows and contrast. The end of the scene indeed offers us some impressive views on the silhouettes of the marching soldiers.

 

Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)

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Footlight Parade is a good movie allowing us to witness James Cagney’s talent as a dancer. However, I must admit that this film doesn’t contain most of my favourite musical numbers, but I think one is worthy of mention:

By a Waterfall

This complex choreography is a bit long but remains a great entertainment for our eyes. The particularity of “By a Waterfall” is that it was filmed on the water with graceful swimmers. No, Esther Williams didn’t do it first! Berkeley offers us a poetic vision of the aquatic life with swimmers drawing beautiful abstract patterns on the water and even a giant human waterfall!

 

Dames (Ray Enright, 1934)

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Apart from being a deliciously funny movie, Dames might contain some of my most favourite musical numbers created by Busby Berkeley. The film was first introduced to us when my Film Aesthetic  teacher showed us some clips. I was amazed by the way it was filmed and so were the other students we couldn’t help applaud at the end of them (this is not something you witness often in university classes). Of course, it immediately made me want to see the film.

I Only Have Eyes for You

Here, you’ll see plenty of Ruby Keeler. She is literally everywhere in this scene as if she was an idolized goddess. The scene contains some magical effects made on a black background and takes us from one shot to another with an incredible fluidity and ways that no one could possibly imagine.

 

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The impressive part of this scene starts with these ladies’ morning routine. They are revealed to us behind large clocks and start their day, smiling and fresh. Honestly, I never had a smile like that on my face while waking-up in the morning. Kudos to them. They then go to work and enter by the stage doors. Then starts the Berkeley touch with a pretty choreography on a white background making a contrast with their black leggings. Of course, high angles and kaleidoscopic effects aren’t missing.  The final moments are amazingly impressive and were probably the reasons why my classmates applauded after the viewing of this clip. But honestly, it’s too wonderful for words. I’ll let you watch it.

I couldn’t find the entire clip, but here is the best part anyway!

 

Lady Be Good (Norman Z. McLeod, 1941)

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Lady Be Good isn’t Berkeley’s most well-known work but it’s one that deserves to be explored. The film starring Ann Sothern, Robert Young, Eleanor Powell and Red Skelton gives a new approach to the filmography of Berkeley. Here, the musical numbers find a certain simplicity that is in opposition to the ones from the pre-code era but don’t lack dynamism. Far from it!

You’ll Never Know dance by the Berry Brother

Here, the notorious trio formed by the Berry Brothers sing a song composed by Ann Sothern’s character while executing a breathtaking choreography in their chic clothes. They aren’t only dancers, they are amazing acrobats as well! This classy musical number is the proof that Berkeley was able to show us different things than kaleidoscopic effects to take our breath away.

 

Lady Be Good dance by Eleanor Powell

If there was a queen of tap dance, Eleanor Powell maybe was the one. Anyway, we agree that she surpasses Ruby Keeler’s level. In this scene, her character “only” do a dance practice. But what a practice! Here she wears what seems to be the most comfortable pants ever and start with lively and fast steps. She simply dances like a fish swims, with incredible gracefulness. The amusing part of the scene occurs when she is joined by her dog Button who turns out to be quite an appreciated dance partner! Ellie’s smile seems to be an invitation to dance with her!

 

Fascinatin’ Rhythm

Lady Be Good‘s last musical scene is the most complex one and, somehow, takes us back to the age of Gold Diggers and 42nd Street. Just like with “Forgotten Man”, Busby Berkeley plays with the shadows, this time the ones of the band musicians and the Berry Brothers. Connie Russell starts singing the song and is soon joined by the three dancing brothers and their usual dynamism. Eleanor Powell eventually makes her entrance dancing among pianos and accompanied by a ground of gentlemen who only make her shine.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the beginning of the scene with Connie Russell singing. But you can still watch the Berry Brothers and Eleanor Powell’s dancing!

 

 

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Of course, much more of Busby Berkeley’s work deserves to be explored, but I hope this post gave you a good preview of his work and my own personal tastes!

Many thanks again to Annette for hosting this fun blogathon!

Don’t miss the other entries:

The Busby Berkeley Blogathon

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