Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Photo Finish

I'm debuting a new, recurring feature, folks. Hope you like it.



Hollywood, 1953


I was originally going to label this photograph "The Golden Age of Hollywood", but that would have been a bit misleading, for in 1953, that Golden Age was threatened with imminent extinction. Five years earlier, the Supreme Court had ruled the major studios to be in violation of federal antitrust laws, and they were soon forced to sell their theater chains, thus depriving them of a reliable source of income. Trustbusting is usually a good thing, and probably would have been all right in this instance, except that it came at the worst possible time for the studios. The advent of television meant that a moving image was no longer something you had to pay to see in a theater, but one that could now be viewed scot free in the comfort of your own home. People increasingly did, depriving the studios of further income.

Despite all this turmoil, the man in the center of the photo, Humphrey Bogart, was doing all right. Still a major star, he had recently finished work on The Caine Mutiny , where he played the ball-busting, and ball-twiddling, Captain Queeg. His last great iconic performance, he would soon be nominated for an Oscar, though he would lose to the man who, a few years earlier, had lost to him, Marlon Brando. Could Bogart have stayed a major star all the way into the 1960s? We'll never know. See that cigarette in his hand? Kind of fits his tough guy image, huh? In three years he'd be dead of throat cancer.

Let's move on to Bogart's missus, the woman on the left, Lauren Bacall. Now nearing 90, she's often seen as one of the last living links to that Golden Age. After a strong start, however, her movie career basically sputtered. The strong start being the two movies she made with her future husband, To Have or Have Not and The Big Sleep. Though the inexperienced young thespian was more posing than acting in these films (she had started out as a model, after all) the camera nevertheless loved her, and she became a huge star before she really had a chance to hone her craft. A little later she also appeared with Bogie in Key Largo, another big hit. Then the sputtering began. She reportedly began turning down scripts she found of little interest, and the studios then started losing interest in her. Oh, there were a few critically acclaimed films like Young Man With a Horn, and she was on the verge of another big hit, How to Marry a Millionaire, when this photo was taken, at that movie's very premiere, in fact. However, the devil was in the credits. Though she arguably played the main character, she was billed third behind the other two stars, the first billed of whom is to the right of Bogart. Now, none of this is a reflection on Bacall's acting, which greatly improved as her film career declined, and would improve further still when, a few years after her husband's death, she moved back to New York and became a mainstay of the Broadway stage.

Finally, we come to the woman on the right, Marilyn Monroe. Of the three pictured, the 1950s belonged mostly to her. Like Bacall, she had been a model. But whereas Bacall had appeared on the cover of Vogue, Monroe's modeling had been limited to the kinds of pictures you might find posted in an army barracks. Turns out this was just what the movies needed. The studios battled the onslaught of television in many ways--Technicolor, CinemaScope, 3D--before finally settling on sex. True, they couldn't show all that much more than on TV, as the onerous production code was still in effect. Nevertheless, you sure the hell weren't going to see Lucy Ricardo standing over a subway grate while a passing train blows up her skirt. I happen to think Monroe was much more than her considerable sex appeal, but the Hollywood brass didn't necessarily feel that way. Fortunately, she did. Once she was a big enough star, bigger than Bacall had been, she began feeling her oats and started demanding more challenging roles. And got them, for with the rise of the talent agency, the iron-clad studio contract had quickly become a thing of the past.

And so, though this photo at first glance may be evocative of a more romantic, more glamorous era, what you're actually looking at is a Hollywood in transition. Not that transition is unique to Hollywood. Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Age, most places in most times have been in some state of transition or other. Arguably, a lot of great things have come out of that Industrial Age. The electric light. The telephone. The automobile. The personal computer. Near the top of the list I would put the development of photography. It allows us to occasionally take a break from transition and marvel at what has transpired.

18 comments:

  1. I'm looking forward to your comments on Hollywood of 1953. I'm a fan of movies from 1946-1960 or thereabouts, as I can see a change in direction for the Hollywood establishment, acting styles, and also the industry trying to figure out how to get people away from their televisions.

    I love Brando and I love Bogart.

    I read once that Brando's style exasperated many actors like Olivier. On the other hand, Karl Malden said of Brando in "On The Waterfront," that he could do five different readings of a scene in rehearsal, and every one of them would be right.

    I also read that Jack Warner loved tough short guys like Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. They were like Warner himself.

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  2. this sparks so many thoughts. bogart, did he bust the balls he was twiddling with? whose balls were they, anyway? bacall, damn, she was just starting to bloom, she needed more time.
    the ebb and flow of everything, careers, art forms, expansion, contraction. ok, i just came from a yoga class, and i'm a tad distracted. i'm not sure anything gives us a break from transition, because it's always happening, whether we want it to or not.
    did this make any sense at all?
    ok, didn't think so.

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  3. Because I wanted this post to be photo-centric, I originally had all the above information in one long paragraph. However, I was told by an aquaintence that it was a little difficult to read, so I decided to break it up. The content remains the same.

    @Postino--Artistically, I would say the 1950s is very much a part of what's referred to as the "The Golden Age of Hollywood" despite the loss of revenue and the subsequent panic in the executive suites. After all, it was the decade that saw the emergence of Brando, Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Audrey Hepburn, James Dean, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Leslie Caron, Richard Widmark, Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, Eva Marie Saint, and Frank Sinatra (OK, Sinatra was pretty well known throughout the 1940s, but as a singer, not an actor.) Plus, Hitchcock, Ford, Kazan, and Wilder directed some of their best movies in that decade. It was also the Second Coming of the Monster Movie. A lot of crap emerged from that, I'll admit, but at its best, there's nothing like watching a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion behemoth gobble up a major metropolitan center for lunch.

    When Brando died, Larry King did a special show on it. Karl Malden called in and compared his frequent co-star's death to 9/11. Eva Marie Saint, who was a guest that night, exclaimed, "Oh, Karl, that was beautiful!" I'll say this about those old movie stars, they didn't lack in passion!

    I also read that another reason that Warner's specialized in tough-guy movies was that their chain of theaters were in working-class neighborhoods, whereas MGM's were in the more tony sections of town (that said, MGM's biggest star, Clark Gable, first achieved fame playing a gangster in that studio's A FREE SOUL)

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    1. I'm an acquaintance? :) J

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    2. @J--I wasn't sure how much attention you'd want focused on you.

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  4. @rraine--Your comment makes perfect sense, except for one leeeetle thing. You wrote: "bogart did he bust the balls he was twiddling with? whose balls were they, anyway?" If that's meant as a joke, I hereby apologize for not recognizing it as such. If it is an actual question, then allow me to explain. "Busting balls" refers to the fact that Bogart played a tyrannical sea captain in THE CAINE MUTINY. His character was also very neurotic, and when he was stressed or excited, would pull a couple of steel balls out of his pocket and start twiddling with them, apparantly in an effort to calm down.

    From interviews I've read or seen with Lauren Bacall (the only one in the photo still alive), I get the impression she didn't care about stardom all that much, which is probably why she let it slip away so easily. All in all, she may have had the widest acting range of the three stars in that photo. She just didn't have as many memorable films as Bogart or Monroe.

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  5. That is one fascinating photo. I'm making up a lot of stories for the positioning and poses of the players here.

    Your commentary is fascinating. Looking forward to more posts like this one.

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  6. Thank you, Kass. I'd like to hear some of those stories.

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  8. @Postino--Some names from the 1950s I forgot (and shame on me for doing so): Sidney Poitier, Thelma Ritter, Kirk Douglas, Patricia Neal, Sal Mineo, Julie Harris

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    1. As for directors who did some of their best work in the 1950s, I left out John Huston. Shame on me again.

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  9. Directors Otto Preminger and Vincente Minnelli also did some of their best work in the '50s.

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  10. Bogart: "Really, Marilyn?!..you might be selling the public on this character you've created, but I'm not buying it...and what's with taking my arm while my wife is on the other one?"

    Bacall: "I'm not worried about a thing. I'm tall and elegant and have a sexy voice. Go ahead and drool all over my husband, I'll outlive you, but I'm sure you'll outhusband me."

    Norma Rae: "Oh, look at me be Marilyn."

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  11. @Kass--That's pretty good. Bogart's kind of looking at Marilyn like she's nuts, isn't he?

    Of actors that emerged in the 1950s, I forgot to mention the great Eli Wallach. And although Vincent Price had been in movies since the late 1930s, he emerged as a horror film icon only in the '50s

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  12. I still see "How To Marry A Millionaire" once or twice a week. It's too bad Betty Grable is missing from that photo. Though it was Schatze's (Bacall) on again off again relationship with Tom Brookman (Cameron Mitchell) that was the center of the film it was the personality of Loco (Grable) and Pola (Monroe) that moved the film along and makes it fun to watch. Thanks Kirk!

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  13. You watch HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE once or twice a week? Wow! You must really like it. Been a long time since I watched it, but I remember Lauren Bacall seeming older than the other two. She doesn't look older, just acts it. I just now looked up their ages and see that Bacall was in fact 8 years younger than Betty Grable and only two years older than Marilyn Monroe. Maybe it's because Grable and Monroe had such girly-girl personalities--on screen, anyway--that they seem so much younger. Bacall leaves William Powell--an actor I very much enjoy watching--at the alter for Cameron Mitchell. Oh, well, maybe he was consoled by Mryna Loy (Thin Man series.)

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  14. sorry for this extremely delayed response - i think i'm developmentally delayed. yes, that comment was a joke. i've seen "the caine mutiny" multiple times, and loved bogart every time.

    there are so many references in the comments, i could be here all night. suffice it to say, i'm old, and have seen most, if not all, of the movies mentioned, usually more than once. or twice. or thrice.

    kirk, i just love your blog.

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