Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins: Rival Authors in Old Acquaintance (’43)

By: Megan McGurk

Sexual competition in Old Acquaintance (1943) distracts from the main event. Our primary order of concern regards the Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins feud over book sales. John Loder seems like the type who asks for his slippers rather than whisper any racy propositions into the back of your neck. He’s too slow and measured; too reticent and mannered to arouse a lady’s blood. Stage the conflict around their ranking on the bestseller list, instead of who gets to change his pillowcases stained with black hair dye. Old Acquaintance rates at the top of the woman’s picture canon because of its plot about rival authors. No one gives a fig about who wins John Loder.

At the wrap party, Bette Davis presented director Vincent Sherman with a token gift to remember the production: a blown-up photograph of the director between his leading ladies set inside a boxing ring. As Sherman recalled in his memoir Studio Affairs, his position as director often reduced to referee, in keeping each woman in a separate corner. Long before Davis’ icy relationship with Joan Crawford snowballed into Hollywood legend, her grudge match with Miriam Hopkins traced back to a stock theatre company under George Cukor in 1928. Bette resented Miriam’s shameless promiscuity and felt Cukor encouraged it; moreover, she balked at the way he seemed to favour the southern belle. Later, Miriam didn’t like it when Bette had an affair with her husband (Anatole Litvak) during All This and Heaven, Too (1940). On set of Old Acquaintance, as Bette recounts in her memoir The Lonely Life, Miriam used little tricks to throw her co-star off or steal the camera, from leaning out of a shot to fidgeting and finding little bits of business to distract Bette. Maybe Miriam settled into an irascible mood because of her limited role as a petulant brat. Look for Miriam in the promotional posters–you’ll have trouble finding her. Jack Warner, studio head and executive producer, probably frog marched Miriam to play the heavy in a Bette Davis vehicle.

Anyone would rebel against a part limited to childish greed, and crappy bestsellers. Why should a woman who writes spicy bodice-rippers that sell like hotcakes fold into tawdry stereotypes, even in 1943? Miriam’s character somehow achieves success without any real depth or struggle. She just breezily pens huge volumes on a whim to compete with the high-brow novels that Bette’s character writes, but that no one reads or recommends. The high versus low cultural divide seems misplaced in a woman’s picture when the audience consumes both historical romance and serious literature. It’s a curious strategy to frame so much disdain for what your audience loves. What’s next, a treatise against hats?

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A Letter to Addie Ross: Take Three Husbands, Please

By: Megan McGurk

Let me begin by saying that I adore Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949), even more so than his follow up All About Eve (1950). He has a knack for shining a searchlight on the way tiny details infiltrate a woman’s life to the point of absurd distraction. Nuance and small shades of meaning gain momentous importance that require surgical-grade analysis. Everything means something more, a casual remark bears the hallmark of doom if not properly deciphered. Eve Harrington was an amateur next to Addie Ross’ game playing repertoire. Eve only wants a stage career; Addie wants every man in town at her feet. Addie, who sends the three wives a letter saying she ran off with one of their husbands, may stand as one of film’s most notorious frenemies, but the husbands in this picture represent some of the most vile men in cinema, so much so that every time I watch it, I hope each husband has hightailed it out of town with the man-eater and done the wives a solid. Three wives endure hearing their husbands united in unqualified praise of Addie Ross, how she’s always the ideal woman:

That’s Addie for you. Always the right thing at the right time.

What Addie has is taste.

Addie has class.

Like a queen oughta look.

Mankiewicz’s film asks us to consider several questions (other than who ran off with Addie), including: what should you do with rude dinner guests who stay too long, spoil the courses by moving the meal from the dining table to trays in the living room, trade conversation for their choice of radio programme for entertainment, and break your husband’s favourite record? Well, if you value the work they provide, you keep your mouth shut, let them have their way, while you maintain a grin-fecker amiable countenance. The hostess, Ann Sothern’s Rita, writes five scripts a week for the radio advertising executives coming to dinner. If we apply the screenwriting rule that one page fills one minute of screen time, she’s writing 150 pages a week if they’re 30 minute programmes, or 300 pages if they run to an hour. Girlfriend juggles a busy schedule, and on top of that she knows she must stay up after the dinner guests leave to make the revisions they demand.

Among bad company, a wife depends on her husband to smooth things over, to help ease the strain of an evening. Unfortunately, Kirk Douglas, in the role of George, displays behaviour far worse than the dinner guests, Mrs and Mr Manleigh (played by Florence Bates and Hobart Cavanaugh). Rita supports the household with income from radio plays that her husband misses no opportunity to disparage. As the breadwinner, she absorbs withering comments about her creative efforts in an industry George likens to the decline of civilisation, a social problem on par with juvenile delinquency. Even though his wife pays the bills, George can’t be bothered to pick up scotch on the way home like Rita asked, because he thinks it’s too expensive. He debates the logic of filling candy dishes and cigarette boxes on the grounds of pretence, that the gesture supposes that they don’t eat or smoke when guests aren’t there, which makes absolutely no sense. Filling the dishes extends a touch of generosity, so guests have what they might need or want in abundance.  More likely, George’s objection to Rita’s efforts to impress the Manleighs stems from a tiresome belief that women shouldn’t be ambitious about a career.

Women have had plenty of practice in the supportive role. They remember to pick up the scotch, fill the candy dish, create a delicious menu among many other items on a long checklist when it comes to hosting a dinner party. As Mankiewicz’s film reminds us, husbands often rankle in the backseat role. Waste three hours of his time with dullards and it’s a capital offence, one that culminates in a scathing rebuke for guests at the front door. Wives, on the other hand, host so many boring dinners for their husband’s career that catalogued, they would fill the pages of a tedious book bound for the remainders table.

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Charles Boyer, Eyes Wide Open in Love Affair (1939)

By:Megan McGurk

Irene Dunne’s gift in a dramatic scene often pronounces itself in an utter disavowal of self-pity. Whether she was bereft with loneliness in Back Street (1932), blind in Magnificent Obsession (1935), saying a final farewell to the man she loved in When Tomorrow Comes (1939), or raising a baby alone in Unfinished Business (1941), she never succumbed to a woe-is-me wallow. She was too concerned with empathy for another player or how to best carry on. She has a line that drops from the remake, which makes the final scene more devastating. When Charles Boyer figures out what happened on the day she failed to meet him and starts toward to bedroom to find the painting and wheelchair, Dunne leans forward and asks him what time his boat sails in a light voice, as one last attempt to spare him the truth and allow him to leave her dreary apartment none the wiser. She’s not so preoccupied with her own situation that she loses sight of what the truth will do to the man she loves. For some reason, Deborah Kerr omits this bit of business in the remake and remains placid on the sofa, waiting for Cary Grant to discover the tell-tale sign of her tragic accident.

In an interview with James Bawden in 1974, Dunne recalled watching the film in a retrospective, and that afterward she rang Boyer to tell him how much she had enjoyed his performance. He replied so you finally saw me! He spent much of his career supporting women onscreen. Dunne shared a memory of how Boyer used to joke that it was time to get a haircut when he was in a picture co-starring with a lead actress. He said that the camera always lingered on the back of his head during a clinch, so he had to make sure it was tidy. Boyer’s masterclass underplay may have been easy to miss for a co-star, but no one in the audience could miss his deeply affecting performance of a man who had loved and lost.

The script for the final scene of Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939) remains almost identical in the director’s remake, An Affair to Remember (1957), but the scenes vary dramatically in each leading man’s delivery. As Nicky Ferrante, Cary Grant plays the scene in an altogether different emotional pitch from Charles Boyer’s Michel Marnet. Close up, there’s little to recommend Grant’s vanity-riddled performance over the rich emotional panoply Boyer gifts to viewers. Grant renders elevator music from Boyer’s grand symphony.

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Lana Turner in A Life of Her Own (’50): ‘There are rats like you everywhere’

By: Megan McGurk

George Cukor’s A Life of Her Own (1950) wastes no time reminding viewers how tough women have it. For instance, we can’t just walk into a room and sit down. Creepy Tom Ewell (sorry, but I run to the shower to apply salt scrub whenever I recall his oily, horn-dog play for Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch) lectures a wannabe model in his office about a woman’s appearance in any room as something that requires effort, which she must practice every minute she can (when she’s alone in her apartment, in her bedroom, on the street, or in the bathroom). Women should never ‘make up’, and should instead ‘make down’. We should walk on the balls of our feet like wild cats, rather than our heels, like bears. Two imaginary rails should corral each hip to modulate a smooth gait. We should sit in a graceful ‘S’ position which cranks our spine into a chiropractor’s nightmare because the silhouette pleases the eye:

Most women drop into a chair like a bag of meal and haul themselves out of it like a bag of coal.

We should stretch ourselves so that our neck pulls out from shoulders, shoulders out of the waist and the waist out of the hip. Lana Turner sits in a chair trying to commit his mixed metaphor tips to memory. Cats, bears, meal, coal, rails, got it? Meanwhile he would resemble a domino tile if not for the expanse of his well-fed middle. Ewell’s character Tom Caraway sports bad posture, a double chin, traits he excoriates in the job hopeful woman, not to mention his grease pocked complexion and sloppy demeanour. Somehow men who enjoy prosperous careers as curators of beautiful women always fall short of the aesthetic standards they demand of women. Femininity, by contrast to anything lacklustre machismo, rates a full-time occupation. Lana performs his inane specifications to the desired effect and lands a job.

Caraway assesses Lana Turner’s tallboy drum majorette inspired hat and smart waistcoat and quips that she doesn’t look like she’s from Kansas. Lana’s character Lily James responds with a steady understatement which points out that they have magazines and movies in Kansas. She adds, for his education we don’t all wear sun bonnets. Unlike many other films that paint small-town women as awkward fashion hayseeds (like Susan Hayward in My Foolish Heart), screenwriter Isobel Lennart (whose credits include Anchors Aweigh; East Side, West Side; Love Me or Leave Me and Funny Girl) realises that ambitious women in rural outposts practice for the thrill of Gotham with enough heated dedication to fry an egg. And director George Cukor knew that women have studied glossy mags and films stars for style tips since his 1932 masterpiece What Price Hollywood? Lily James didn’t work her tail off waiting tables and sweeping up hair in a salon to be turned away at the door for looking corn pone. She’s carefully dressed in a stylish ensemble, as evidence of the old dictum to dress for the job you want. She had plenty of time to do her homework while she worked a variety of jobs for six months to save the train fare.

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Rosalind Russell’s Power Move in the Dressing Room for Take a Letter, Darling (’42)

By: Megan McGurk

A fitting room seems an unlikely backdrop to stage a display of female power, except the one in Take a Letter, Darling (1942) will blow your socks off.  Rosalind Russell looks as powerful half-dressed as Louis B. Mayer was in a suit seated at his gigantic white desk at MGM. Since a changing room represents gender-divided space as much as the powder room, it serves as the perfect setting to rattle Fred MacMurray, whose character works in a subordinate position as Rosalind Russell’s secretary. Society dictates that men are not allowed, unless they wear a measuring tape around their neck and pin cushion on their arm. Perhaps the director, Mitchell Leisen, recognised the dramatic potential fitting rooms held after years of experience in fashion design. He created gowns for Gloria Swanson, Natacha Rambova and Mary Pickford to wear onscreen. He continued to design (often uncredited) throughout his tenure as director, making clothes for Marlene Dietrich in The Lady Is Willing (1942), Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark (1944), Paulette Goddard in Bride of Vengeance (1949) as well as Rosalind Russell for Take a Letter, Darling. Leisen’s proximity to women in fitting rooms behind the scenes informed his perspective behind the camera, which helped cultivate a sensitivity for what it was like for women who tried to get ahead in a man’s world. Leisen knew how women reveal themselves during intimate moments between costume changes. He also understood that an imperious woman maintains her aura, even when starkers in front of a mirror.

If men in charge repair to the steam room, golf course, or club to mix business, a lady boss unwinds as she chooses frocks to entertain clients. Rosalind Russell’s A.M. MacGregor runs a crack advertising firm while her partner (Robert Benchley) fritters away his time on novelty office games created for the man who has everything (golf putting, puzzles, ring toss, you name it). MacGregor’s concession to comfort in a hard nose pursuit of revenue falls to a pair of feathered slippers she wears around the office. When she learns of a shot at landing an account with a tobacco company giant, she rushes to Francesca’s on Fifth Avenue to equip herself with just the right sartorial lure for the CEO, a notorious woman hater.

When MacMurray enters the boutique, he initially compares with other men waiting for women to emerge from private dressing rooms in the back. Other men object when they hear MacMurray’s Tom Verney receive permission to enter number three. After all, if they’ve seen their wives change a million times, why should they be barred entry? In a whisper, the shop owner explains that he’s a secretary, which mollifies seated husbands, but Verney blanches and replies vehemently:

That’s a dirty lie!

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