Pimpernel Smith (1941)

Generally overlooked and underrated is this amusing, exciting and lightly propagandistic 1941 British film released in the U.S. in February, 1942, two months after Pearl Harbor. Scarlet Pimpernel, The (1934) A modern rendering of the old chestnut The Scarlett Pimpernel, the 1934 film version of which also starred Leslie Howard, this iteration features the actor as archaeologist Dr. Horatio Smith, surreptitiously spiriting from the Continent those considered undesirable by the Nazi regime.  Smith confounds Gestapo chief Van Graun (Francis Sullivan, a sort of British Sydney Greenstreet) at every turn, cheerfully baiting him on the subject of Aryan superiority and trying to convince him that Shakespeare was really the Earl of Oxford, “a very bright Elizabethan light, but this book will tell you he was a good deal more than that.”  Plus, “Perhaps you’d care to read about the Earl of Oxford.”  And, “The Earl of Oxford wrote that, you know.”  (Critics of those propounding this view generally say that no major actor ever supported it, neglecting to mention that Howard—and Chaplin, Orson Welles, Derek Jacobi and Academy Award-winning Mark Rylance—was a proponent.)  At the end of the film, withdrawing into the fog at the railway station, Smith’s words to Von Graun are oddly prescient:  “Don’t worry, I shall be back.  We shall all be back.”

PimpernelSmith1941PosterThe film helped inspire Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg to begin rescuing Hungarian Jews.

Howard lost his life in 1943 when a plane carrying him and others from Portugal to England was shot down by German fighters.  According to David Shipman in The Great Movie Stars:  The Golden Years (1975), no British citizen was mourned as much as Howard.

By Kim

That Sort of Monster: Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

[SPOILER ALERT!  Some major plot elements are included in this analysis.]

“Yes, she was that sort of monster.  A woman who sought to possess everything she loved.  Who loved only for what it could bring her.  Whose love estranged her own father and mother.  Whose love pressed her father until he couldn’t call his soul his own.  Who by her own confession to me killed my brother, killed her own unborn child.  And who is now reaching out from the grave to destroy her own innocent sister.  Yes, she was that sort of monster.”

Cornel Wilde to Vincent Price

To someleave her to heaven, Leave Her to Heaven is a “ladies picture,” to others a bona fide film noir.  Certainly it has a definitive femme fatale in Tierney’s Ellen Berent, who demands unadulterated love from whoever she loves, and that’s a small pool:  her father and Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde), who bears a mild resemblance to her late dad.  We can only guess at the exact cause of her father’s death.  Heart attack?  Stroke?  Suicide?

The film opens outside Taos, New Mexico, where with her mother Mrs. Berent (Mary Philips) and adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain) looking on, Ellen gallops around the crest of a mesa, letting her father’s ashes spill onto the ground before stopping her majestic palomino and leaning forward in silent grief.  Also observing from a distance is Richard.  A popular author, he is curious about the unfortunate death in the family that occasioned this ritual.  After a brief courtship, he and Ellen marry and visit Richard’s young brother in Warm Springs, Georgia.  Danny (Darryl Hickman) is making heroic attempts to walk.  Moving on to the lakeside Back of the Moon, an isolated Maine lodge, Richard continues his writing when not interrupted by Ellen, who begins to show signs of obsession.  She even suspects that her sister Ruth is vying for Richard’s affection.  Nor is Danny immune from her misguided suspicions.  In her world, no one is allowed to usurp her position as Richard’s perfect wife.  Eventually Ruth reveals how imperfect Ellen is:

“I don’t envy you, Ellen.  All my life I’ve tried to love you, done everything to please you.  Always have.  Mother, father and now Richard, and what have you done?  With your love you wrecked mother’s life.  With your love you pressed father to death.  With your love you’ve made a shadow of Richard.  No, Ellen, I don’t envy you.  I’m sorry for you.  You’re the most pitiful creature I’ve ever known.”

In addition to leave her to heaven 2Alfred Newman’s theme and score and the Technicolor cinematography (unusual for a noir but not unheard of), there are striking scenes beyond the early ritual on the mesa, in particular the finale:  Richard canoes to Back of the Moon.  Spying him paddling across the lake, Ruth rushes to the dock.  In a long shot that has the look of a painting, we observe his arrival and her anticipatory stance.  A closer shot shows her still planted to the spot, hands at her side, while he slowly exits the canoe.  Pause, then embrace.  It’s the “genius of the system,” i.e., the art of the classical Hollywood system before it bowed to changing times and supposedly more realistic filmmaking.

Note:  the razor's edgeGene Tierney was 20th Century-Fox’s leading lady in one of the studio’s top grossing films of 1944, Laura.  She was leading lady in the two top-grossing 20th Century-Fox films of 1945 and 1946:  Leave Her to Heaven and The Razor’s Edge.  In 1947 she got star billing over Rex Harrison in another of Fox’s successful films, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.  Although ranked a unique beauty and like many others possessed of a fine resume, Tierney is still neglected when it comes to the pantheon of great stars.  Wrote James Robert Parish in The Fox Girls (1971), “As a promising Broadway actress, Gene Tierney was wooed to Hollywood in 1940.  At Twentieth Century-Fox, she soon emerged as a carefully groomed screen figure, with aristocratic features.  Yet no matter what type of role she attempted, her good breeding and icy hauteur shone through.  As a consequence, she became typed as a one-dimensional chic stock figure.  She was at her best essaying highly emotional, impersonal characters.”

By Kim

The League of Alternate Superstars: Joseph Cotten

Although he’s not well remembered by most people, especially those under, say, 50, citizen kaneJoseph Cotten, 1905-1994) had a superior number of classic movies to his credit.  A member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater ensemble, Cotten joined Welles on the director’s Citizen Kane (1941) and immediately afterward starred in the wunderkind’s star-crossed The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  With Welles uncredited, Cotten starred with him in Journey Into Fear (1942, U.K., 1943 U.S.)

That was quite an initiation for a novice film actor but the quality work continued throughout the ensuing decade.  (It is hardly ever noted that even the biggest stars, the legends, rarely appear in excellent and successful movies for more than a decade.  In this sense, David Shipman downplayed Cotten’s career in The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years.)

Next up for Cotten was Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the murder mystery that turned the star’s charming demeanor upside down.   As Teresa Wright’s Uncle Charlie, he ingratiated himself with his niece’s family, but she soon realized there was something terribly dark about him.

gaslightIn Gaslight (1944) Cotten was part of a triumvirate of topnotch stars that included Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.  That same year Cotten returned to form, playing a naval lieutenant on leave who provides Claudette Colbert and her children (Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple) a shoulder to cry on in Since You Went Away.

Cotten would see much more of Academy Award-winner Jones, who became a lifelong friend.  First up was Love Letters (1945), followed by the western epic Duel in the Sun (1946), and in 1948 they co-starred in the romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie (1948).  For that he received the Best Actor International Award at the Venice Film Festival.  (Cotten had co-starred with another Academy Award winner in 1947’s The Farmer’s Daughter:  Loretta Young.)

third manThe end of the decade reteamed Cotten and Orson Welles in the classic The Third Man (1949).   Everything revolved around Cotten despite Welles playing the title character.

Like Richard Widmark in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), in 1953 Cotten may have been cast to help 20th Century Fox’s rising star Marilyn Monroe improve her acting.  The film was Niagara, a big success.

As the fifties progressed, Cotten, like so many others, found himself on TV and increasingly in character parts.  Nevertheless, on occasion he found some leading movie roles.  Based on Jules Verne’s novel, From the Earth to the Moon (1958) saw him as the leader of the expedition.

During this time Cotten continued doing radio programs.  In fact, he’d begun on radio in the 30s.  His voice was perfect for that medium as it would be when he narrated the 22 episodes of the 1963 TV documentary, Hollywood and the Stars.

lady frankensteinFollowing Vincent Price and Ray Milland into the horror genre, he battled Price’s maniac in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and that same year played Baron Frankenstein in the low budget but curiously compelling Italian horror movie Lady Frankenstein.  Then came another Italian horror film, Baron Blood, in which he menaced Elke Sommer.

About his life and career Cotten had no regrets.  He married actress Patricia Medina and closed his autobiography with, “I continue to love my wife passionately, spiritually, and completely.  That she calmly and unregretfully closed the door on a thriving and glamorous movie career to be at my side, tells of her love for me.  We are ordinary, extraordinarily lucky people.  For that, all I can say is ‘Amen’.”

By Kim


Cotten, Joseph.  Vanity Will Get You Somewhere.  1987.

Shipman, David.  The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years.  1972.

Robert Mitchum: The Best Year of His Cinematic Life

After The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Robert Mitchum, that most laid-back of movie stars (Baby, I Don’t Care is the title of Lee Server’s terrific biography) and soon the exemplar of “cool,” began coming into his own.  The stars aligned in 1947 and Mitchum had the best year of his film career.  Coincidentally, Pursued, Crossfire and Out of the Past were true representatives of film noir or featured noir elements.      pursued

With a limited release in March (general release in September) Pursued has been called Hollywood’s first “adult” or “psychological western.”  Traumatized as a child when from hiding he witnessed his father gunned down, Jeb Rand (Mitchum) grows to manhood in the home of Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), who has secrets she will not reveal despite Jeb’s frequent requests and nightmares.  Eventually, Jeb, the last surviving member of the Rand family, learns that he has a nemesis determined to see him in the ground.

Film aficionados know Crossfire as “the movie of the 3 Roberts”:  Young, Mitchum and Ryan.  This Edward Dmytryk-directed item was released in August.  Mitchum was a war veteran assisting Robert Young’s detective solve the case of a murdered Jewish-American.  Anti-Semitism was at the film’s core and it beat the similarly-themed (without the murder) Gentleman’s Agreement to theater screens.  Despite a Best Picture Academy Award nomination for Crossfire, Gentleman’s Agreement won the statuette. out of the past

Out of the Past (December) is now considered one of the half dozen greatest examples of film noir. Trying to forget his sketchy past, Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) runs a filling station in the boondocks.  Whit (Kirk Douglas), a former confederate, hires him to find his missing paramour Kathy (Jane Greer), and against his better judgment Jeff agrees to undertake the search.  Kathy was once his girl.  He knows this might go south and he’s right.  Kathy is one of noir’s seminal femme fatales.

For much of his career Mitchum was vastly underrated, but he would have key films in his future, including Angel Face (1953), The Night of the Hunter (1955), and Cape Fear (1962).  The National Board of Review awarded him its best actor award for his two 1960 films, Home from the Hill and The Sundowners.  Nevertheless, for packing a lot into one year, 1947 was the best year of Robert Mitchum’s cinematic life.


Server, Lee.  Robert Mitchum:  “Baby, I Don’t Care.”  2001.

Marill, Alvin H.  Robert Mitchum on the Screen.  1978.

By Kim

Ingrid Bergman: A Decade of Suffering

We expected Bette Davis and Joan Crawford characters to have a hard, sometimes dismal time.  But Ingrid Bergman?  Proclaimed the next Garbo—and for once the hype was merited—Bergman made her Hollywood debut in 1939’s Intermezzo.  Against her better judgment, her character Anita Hoffman breaks up—temporarily—the family of violinist Holger Brandt (Leslie Howard) and must handle that guilt.  This was but the first of the 14 Hollywood films she starred in between 1939 to 1949 in which Bergman’s character suffered mightily.  This might give her the odd distinction of enduring more grief on screen than any other star.

In Rage in Heaven (1941), Bergman’s Stella marries suave, handsome Phillip Monrell (Robert Montgomery) although she has feelings for Ward Andrews (George Sanders).  Recognizing their attraction, Phillip plans a diabolical revenge.  Adam Had Four Sons (1941) features Bergman as governess Emilie, who must survive a vicious, defaming attack by the new wife (Susan Hayward) of Adam’s (Warner Baxter) son David (Johnny Downs).  Following Fredric March’s 1932 Academy Award-winning spin as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Spencer Tracy took his turn in 1941.  As Dr. Jekyll, he romances Lana Turner, as the demonic Mr. Hyde he degrades and eventually strangles the trollop Ivy (Bergman).

We come to one of Bergman’s signature roles:  Ilsa in Casablanca (1942).  Caught between past love Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and her freedom-fighter husband Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid), she reluctantly agrees with Rick’s “We’ll always have Paris” before flying off with Victor.  Her Maria in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) made headlines, shocking the easily disturbed when she shares a sleeping bag with Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper).  Their love does not survive this episode in the Spanish Civil War as Jordan sacrifices himself at a bridge, urging Maria to “Stand up.  Now, stand up!  There’s no goodbye, Maria, because we’re not apart….  No, don’t turn around.  Go now.  Be strong.  Take care of our life.”  Next up was Gaslight (1944), for which Bergman won her first Best Actress Academy Award.  Is her new husband (Charles Boyer) trying to drive her mad?  In Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) she’s a psychoanalyst trying desperately to decipher Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) while a co-worker will prove the real menace.  Saratoga Trunk (1945) features perhaps the least suffering as Bergman’s half-Creole seeks revenge against a society that spurned her mother.  As Sister Mary Benedict, Bergman contracts tuberculosis in 1945’s The Bells of St. Mary’s.  In her second Hitchcock film, Notorious (1946), she marries Nazi sympathizer Sebastian (Claude Rains) to get the goods on him for U.S. agent Devlin (Cary Grant).  Of course, as Joan of Arc (1948) she experiences perhaps the ultimate in physical torment.  Arch of Triumph (1948) took place as war loomed in Europe and reteamed Bergman with Charles Boyer, but this time she, not he, is her worst enemy and must be prevented from taking her own life.  In Under Capricorn (1949), her last Hollywood film for seven years, Bergman is part of a love triangle and debilitated by the housekeeper (Margaret Leighton) via booze and sedatives.

Real life suffering ensued when Bergman left Hollywood and her husband for Italian director Roberto Rossellini.  For the nascent so-called moral majority, it was a betrayal of their admiration and made Bergman an outcast.  In his biography of the star, Donald Spoto quoted Colorado Senator Edwin C. Johnson who in 1950 claimed Bergman was “a free-love cultist [and] apostle of degradation.”  She didn’t recover her American stature until Anastasia (1956).  Forgiven, she won her 2nd Academy Award.  In a small sense this could be construed as payback for her professional and personal miseries.


By Kim

Note:  Insight into Bergman’s oeuvre was inspired by Nancy Holston’s observation that Bergman never looked like she was having a good time.


Quirk, Lawrence J.  The Films of Ingrid Bergman.  Citadel Press, 1970.

Spoto, Donald.  Notorious:  The Life of Ingrid Bergman.  HarperCollins, 1997.

The League of Alternate Superstars: Glenn Ford

It is a shame that Glenn Ford (1916-2006), contemporary of many Hollywood luminaries including his chum William Holden, did not receive the credit he deserved for a long and distinguished film and TV career.  Perhaps the most egregious omission is that Citadel Press never published The Films of Glenn Ford.

In The Great Movie Stars:  The International Years, David Shipman wrote of Ford, “It is always a pleasure to renew acquaintance with him, especially in comedy, where his relaxed and impish performances as a bumbling ordinary guy have been much underrated.  In drama he remains the Little Man, often victimized and battling grimly against the forces of fate.”

Gwyllyn Samuel Newton Ford was born on May 1, 1916 in Quebec City.  In 1922 the family relocated to Los Angeles.  Gwyllyn, now Glenn, made his first feature film in 1937, Night in Manhattan.  In 1939, the same year as Holden gained fame in Golden Boy, Ford was 4th billed in Heaven with a Barbed Wire Fence but was in fact the key player.  His breakout role was as a young German caught up in the Nazi net cast over Jews and others the Fascist regimes considered undesirables in So Ends Our Night (1941), a major film starring Fredric March and Margaret Sullavan.  The same year he co-starred with Holden in the quality western, Texas.   Eventually the Holden character goes bad.  (Almost a decade later they reversed roles for The Man from Colorado, with Ford as a psychopathic colonel become federal judge after the Civil War.)

Like Holden, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable and various other Hollywood leading men, Ford joined the service during World War II.  He enlisted in the Marines.

The war over, Ford returned to the Columbia Pictures fold and had his big breakout role as Johnny Farrell opposite siren Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946).  Now considered a staple of film noir, it would not be Ford’s last venture into that arena.  Although hardly anyone realizes it today, Ford and Hayworth were a legitimate movie team, co-starring in three other films:  The Loves of Carmen (1948), Affair in Trinidad (1952), and The Money Trap (1966).  Unfortunately, these films were primarily memorable for the casts, not the plots.

Ford became a major western hero, and sometimes, like James Stewart, a tortured one.  The same year as The Man from Colorado (1948), Ford starred in Lust for Gold, a tale of the search for the Lost Dutchman mine.  The ending featured a spectacular earthquake.  In Western Films:  A Complete Guide, author Brian Garfield suggested that as the amoral German immigrant, Ford gave the best performance of his career.  (Note that the same year The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had a similar plot and theme:  greed.).  Ford’s son wrote that co-star Ida Lupino ranked his father and Richard Widmark as her favorite leading men.

Five quality westerns followed:  The Violent Men (1955) opposite Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson, Jubal (1956) opposite Felicia Farr and Valerie French and the amazing male duo of Ernest Borgnine and Rod Steiger with Charles Bronson in support.  An acknowledged classic was next:  3:10 to Yuma.  Ford played ingratiating but dangerous outlaw Ben Wade, captured and assigned to Dan Evans (Van Heflin), a rancher hired to put him on the train over the dangerous obstacle of Wade’s scurvy gang.  Wade comes to respect Evans and actually helps him survive.  There were two westerns in 1958.  Cowboy was rather epic in scope, with a hard edge befitting this tale based on fact.  The dude played by Jack Lemmon joined Ford’s no-nonsense rancher on his cattle drive and became a man.  The Sheepman was not so hard-edged, with Ford battling with the cattlemen (naturally) and sparring with spunky Shirley MacLaine in this, her fifth film.  A sixth western intended as a large-scale remake of the epic 1931 Best Picture Academy Award winner, 1960’s Cimarron was a major disappointment, as would the 1962 remake of 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Ford’s first noir classic had been Gilda, and Ford had another significant—and vastly more violent entry in that realm in 1953.  Directed by Fritz Lang, The Big Heat joined the pantheon of most famous noirs.  After his family is attacked, Detective Dan Bannion (Ford) goes all out for revenge on Mike Lagana’s crime syndicate and its prime hitman (Lee Marvin).  It would not be much of a stretch to label Experiment in Terror (1962) a noir.  Ross Martin’s psychopath terrorized sisters played by Lee Remick and Stefanie Powers. Ford’s detective is out to nab the miscreant, and symbolic of changing times, in one scene Ford stands alone among a gaggle of female mannequins.  His attire may be symbolic:  still in fedora, which by decade’s end will disappear from the noggins of both policemen and hoods, but his trenchcoat has no belt.

Contemporary issues were also in Ford’s repertoire.  The most famous and significant film in this bailiwick was Blackboard Jungle (1955), whose theme “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets became the anthem for rock ‘n roll.  Ford played teacher Richard Dadier (or “daddio” to the punks) at an inner city school packed with society’s newly christened “juvenile delinquents”, including Vic Morrow.  The film was controversial on several accounts, not least in casting Sidney Poitier in a prime role as one of the students.

After Blackboard Jungle Ford began a spate of military movies in that almost forgotten comedy subgenre:  the “service comedy”:  The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956), Don’t Go Near the Water (1957) Imitation General (1958), and Cry for Happy (1961). As Shipman indicated, he was also adept at light contemporary comedies (The Gazebo, 1960; Love is a Ball, 1963) and comedy-dramas (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, 1963; Dear Heart, 1964).

It may be that Ford’s on-screen persona was so soothing and made things seem so effortless that he was not a perennial Academy Award-nominee.  He did, however, receive nominations and win awards presented by other organizations, including the Golden Globe for Best Actor-Comedy or Musical (Pocketful of Miracles, 1961), the Golden Apple Award for Most Cooperative Actor (1948 and 1957), the Golden Boot Award (1987), the Laurel Award for Top Male Comedy Performance (Don’t Go Near the Water, 1957), and the Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1987 San Sebastien International Film Festival.  He received his Hollywood Walk of Fame Star in 1960.

By Kim



Ford, Peter.  Glenn Ford:  A Life.  Madison, WI:  University of Wisconsin Press, 2011.

Garfield, Brian.  Western Films:  A Complete Guide.  Rawson Associates, 1982.

Shipman, David.  The Great Stars:  The International Years.  London:  Angus & Robertson, 1972.

The Myth of MGM

The answer:  Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, James  Cagney, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler,  Edward G.  Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Muni, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Boris Karloff, Paulette Goddard, Ronald Colman, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Jean Arthur, Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, Joan Fontaine, Glenn Ford, William Holden, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Gene Tierney, Jeanne Crain, Abbott & Costello, Dana Andrews, Alice Faye, Tyrone Power, Susan Hayward, Betty Grable, Richard Widmark, Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, John Wayne, Jennifer Jones, Fredric March, Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Cary Grant.

The question:  what Hollywood luminaries did not regularly work for or have a contract with MGM during Hollywood’s Golden Age of the 1930s and 1940s?


The answer:   Frankenstein,citizen kane 2 Dracula, King Kong, The Public Enemy, Little Caesar, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, You Can’t Take It with You, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gilda, Wuthering Heights, It’s a Wonderful Life, Gunga Din, The Letter, Kings Row, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Beau Geste, Sergeant York, Swing Time, Top Hat, 42nd Street, Trouble in Paradise, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, The More the Merrier, The Pride of the Yankees, The Best Years of Our Lives, Laura, Lost Horizon, How Green Was My Valley, Stagecoach, Duel in the Sun, Mildred Pierce, Sullivan’s Travels, The Story of G.I. Joe, The Lady Eve, White Heat, The Maltese Falcon, The Grapes of Wrath, Twelve O’Clock High, The Big Sleep, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Killers, Out of the Past, All the King’s Men, Red River, All Quiet on the Western Front, Casablanca, Dark Victory, Notorious, The Heiress, Sands of Iwo Jima, Shanghai Express, and Now, Voyager.

The question:  What classic movies were not made by MGM?


Common wisdom mandates Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the greatest of all film studios during Hollywood’s heyday.  MGM did have a gigantic backlot and a sterling talent pool of performers and behind-the-scenes personnel.  However, as actress Marsha Hunt told Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention attendees in 2010, her home studio Paramount was looked upon as just as prestigious during that era.  Recall that director Cecil B. DeMille directed his splashy spectacles for Paramount.  Alfred Hitchcock worked for Selznick International, Paramount and Universal. Quiet Man Director John Ford won three Best Director Academy Awards during the golden age, none for MGM.  They Were Expendable was his only MGM feature in that era and his 4th Oscar came for 1952’s The Quiet Man from Republic Pictures.

A cursory examination of films from the 1930s and 1940s reveals that the “Big Five” (aka “The Majors”) studios (MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros., RKO, 20th Century-Fox) were equals in terms of classics and quality of product.  Even the “Little Three” majors (Columbia, Universal, United Artists) had their superstars and exceptional movies.  In short, when identifying classic films MGM’s do not exceed those from other major studios.

One can make a case that this was due to the premature death (age 37)

Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer

Irving Thalberg and Norma Shearer

in 1936 from pneumonia of producer Irving Thalberg.  Married to Norma “The First Lady of the Screen”  Shearer (one of MGM’s biggest stars), he was the guiding hand behind  Anna Christie, Freaks, The Champ, Tarzan the Ape Man, Grand Hotel, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Good Earth, and many others.  After Thalberg’s demise, the studio reins fell to Louis B. Mayer.  More’s the pity.  Mayer’s modus operandi was to ensure that every movie was suitable for every citizen.  You can therefore guess that the Mickey Rooney Andy Hardy series came from MGM.  In short, the movies that pushed the envelope and have left a more lasting impression in specific genres and subgenres were not made and released by MGM.  In film noir, The Postman Always Rings Twice was practically the only important noir film from that studio.  Noir received its fullest expression at RKO, Fox and Columbia.  Screwball comedy was also not MGM’s forte.  It reached its pinnacle at RKO and Paramount.  Gritty crime films from The Public Enemy (1931) to White Heat (1949) were a staple at Warner Bros.  At Fox, studio head Darryl Zanuck championed “social consciousness” in such films as The Grapes of Wrath, Pinky, and Gentleman’s Agreement.  Universal was the kingdom of horror, Disney of animation.

To conclude, as far as the movies themselves, one should take with a grain of salt the often made contention that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was the greatest studio of Hollywood’s Golden Age.  “The Majors” were equals in that respect.

By Kim

Star Billing: Decoding the Posters

It would be fascinating to attend negotiations that lead to billing order in a movie when the stars are of equal or almost equal stature.  It is not entirely necessary to be a fly on the wall.  There are clues in the poster art as well as in the trajectory of careers.  Being an Academy Award winner was sometimes a plus but did not always guarantee top billing.

The Self-Effacing

William Holden

            It is said that William Holden thought he was something of a fraud, a guy who lucked into movies.  Yet he won an Academy Award for 1953’s Stalag 17 and his resume is strong.  His billing history is intriguing.  A contemporary of Glenn Ford, Holden and Ford switched sabrinabilling priority in their two westerns.  In 1941’s Texas it was Holden, Claire Trevor, and Ford.  In 1948’s The Man from Colorado Ford took first spot on the poster.

It’s a tad surprising that after his 1953 Oscar he did not get billed over Grace Kelly in The Country Girl, which opened in L.A. and New York in December, 1954 but went into general release in May, 1955 after Kelly won a Best Actress Academy Award.  Bing Crosby got top billing because he had an Oscar for Going My Way (1944) and because he was, well, the legendary Bing Crosby.

In 1954 Holden again took third billing in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina behind Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, two other Academy Award winners.

Move forward to 1964’s Paris When It Sizzles, a middling comedy.  Holden reteams with Hepburn but he gets left-hand billing over Audrey.  Their careers at this point were quite similar:  some hits, some misses.  Could this billing reversal have stemmed from The Bridge on the River Kwai, the multi-Academy Award-winning 1957 film for which Holden took a percentage and made a fortune?

Robert Mitchum

The award for self-effacement must go Heaven Knowsto Robert Mitchum, whose motto is generally considered, “Baby, I don’t care.”  He took third billing behind Loretta Young and William Holden in the frontier drama, Rachel and the Stranger (1948).  In the fifties and sixties Mitchum found working with Deborah Kerr a delight and was happy to give her billing over himself in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, The Sundowners and The Grass is Greener.

Sidney Poitier

Critical opinion has it that either Steve McQueen or Lee Marvin were most representative of the sixties, but Sidney Poitier must be accorded accolades for a decade bedford incidentof many important and entertaining films in various genres.  Poitier won a Best Actor Academy Award for 1963’s Lilies of the Field yet this did not translate into billing above Richard Widmark in 1964’s Viking saga, The Long Ships.  Nor did he jump over Widmark in 1965’s The Bedford Incident.  This is a special relationship, however.  When Poitier came to Hollywood from the Bahamas for No Way Out (1950) he was welcomed into Widmark’s home.  It is perhaps indicative of James Garner’s standing in the mid-sixties that he got star billing over Poitier in Duel at Diablo (1966).


Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas

Burt Lancaster and Kirk gunfight at the ok corral 2Douglas made 7 films together, starting with 1957’s Gunfight at the OK Corral.  Lancaster was always first billed, even in Seven Days in May (1964) in which Douglas had the key role of the colonel who realizes that Lancaster’s general is going to implement a coup and must put the kibosh on it.

Clawing to the Summit

Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen had a small part as a delinquent in 1956’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, which starred Paul Newman as boxer Rockytowering inferno Graziano.  Newman never looked back on his leading man career while McQueen served an apprenticeship on TV’s Wanted:  Dead or Alive and in small roles in such films as Never So Few.  He starred in The Blob, but who knew what that would become?  In 1960’s The Magnificent Seven he tried to upstage Yul Brynner by constantly fiddling with his hat.  The breakthrough was 1963’s The Great Escape.  It must have seemed that he’d always follow Newman.

The annual Quigley Poll of boxoffice popularity tracks the McQueen/Newman career arc:  1967 (McQueen #10, Newman #3), 1968 (McQueen #7, Newman #2), 1969 (McQueen #3, Newman #1), 1970 (McQueen #3, Newman #1), 1971 (McQueen #4, Newman #3), 1972 (McQueen #8, Newman #7), 1973 (McQueen #3, Newman #7), 1974 (McQueen #5, Newman #3), 1975 (McQueen #9, Newman #5).

Redemption of a sort occurred with 1974’s The Towering Inferno.  McQueen had the left-hand slot, with Newman to his right—but a smidgen higher, followed by William Holden and Faye Dunaway.


Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance

Jeff Chandler was a lieutenant in World War II who helped wrest back control of the Aleutian Islands from the Japanese.  After the war he found himself crooning and playing leading men for Universal.  Unfortunately, Chandler died after a botched back operation in 1962. Notable for this analysis is that he played the noble Roman Flavius in The Sign of the Pagan (1954).  His nemesis was Attila, who was portrayed by Jack Palance, another war vet.  In 1958 they again shared time in Ten Seconds to Hell, a saga of two former German soldiers now defusing unexploded bombs.  Chandler was top billed in each of these films.

Jack Palance and Lee Marvin

Lee Marvin was another World War II vet who caught the acting bug.  Ahead of him at mid-century was Palance, the first to achieve postwar film success in such movies as Panic in the Streets (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), and The Big Knife (1955).attack

In 1956’s Attack, Palance is Lieutenant Costa, at odds with the cowardly Captain (Eddie Albert) while Marvin is a Colonel intent on achieving political success when the conflict is over.  Forward to 1970’s Monte Walsh.  Screen time and billing has been reversed.  Marvin is Walsh, Palance his sometimes partner.  Marvin had won an Academy Award for 1965’s Cat Ballou and had ascended into the firmament and made excellent films for a time:  The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, and Point Blank.  Poor choices thereafter tarnished his status.  Palance outlived him and won a Supporting Actor Academy Award for his crusty cowpoke in City Slickers (1991).  Both Marvin and Palance had “the look.”  They were not your typical tall, dark and handsome Hollywood heart throbs but they had gravitas.  (There’s an article to be written on the myth of the TD&H guys.  More often than not our legends of classic Hollywood were not of that ilk.  Think Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, Muni, Tracy.)

Lee Marvin and Paul Newman

Pocket Money (1972) was a plot-thin but major movie Marvin did with another star:  Paul Newman.  Who got top billing?  Marvin had an Oscar but Newman had nominations and had been a leading man almost from day one.  The poster features Newman’s name on the left, Marvin’s slightly raised on the right.

Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson

Both Bronson and Marvin had dirty dozen posterappeared in uncredited small roles in the Gary Cooper service comedy You’re in the Navy Now (1951), and throughout the 1950s both built impressive character actor resumes, often as gunslingers and gangsters.  In 1967 both appeared in the massive hit, The Dirty Dozen.  Marvin was riding high on his Academy Award for 1965’s Cat Ballou and led the crew.

By 1981’s Death Hunt the Marvin-Bronson ranking was reversed.  Bronson had developed an international following and made it big in the States with Death Wish (1974).

Marvin’s career, on the other hand, had tailed off through a myriad of poor choices.  In the Death Hunt poster Bronson gets the left-hand spot but Marvin is a smidgen higher on the right.

Actors vs. Actresses

When it came to men and women, more often than not it was the actor who got top billing.  Opposite send me no flowersinstances include Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and The Sundowners

Audrey Hepburn got star billing over Fred Astaire in 1957’s Funny Face.  The reasons are probably her Oscar and Astaire’s self-effacement as well as his being perhaps considered on a downward trajectory.

It is curious that Doris Day did not get star billing over Rock Hudson in 1964’s Send Me No Flowers.  Their prior two films together were Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961).  For reference see the Quigley Poll:  1959 (Hudson #1, Day #4), 1960 (Day #1, Hudson #2), 1961 (Hudson #2, Day #3), 1962 (Day #1, Hudson #2), 1963 (Day #1, Hudson #3), 1964 (Day #1, Hudson #3), 1965 (Day #3)


What happened when two actresses of equal magnitude got together?  Take those grand dames of Hollywood, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.The Hours  Who would have thought back in the thirties and forties that these future Academy Award winners would deign to confront each other on screen.  After all, who would be top ranked on the poster?  But the pairing came to pass with the 1962 shocker, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Perhaps it was Davis’ two Oscars to Crawford’s one that gave Davis the preferred left-hand spot.

It’s a no-brainer that Meryl Streep would have star-billing in The Hours (2002).  She had a Supporting Actress Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and a Best Actress Oscar for Sophie’s Choice (1982).  Julianne Moore placed second on the poster with Nicole Kidman third.  Note, however, that Moore is between and behind the other two. (Kidman would win Best Actress for the film.)

All Star Casts

An all-star cast film, especially a prestigious one like 1962’s The Longest Day in which most What a Way to Goeveryone had equal time, called for alphabetization.

What a Way to Go!  (1964) is an interesting study.  Bespeaking Shirley MacLaine’s status, she got to lord it over six leading men.  Most astonishing, perhaps, is that Robert Mitchum had first billing among the men.  (Remember, he never cared.)  Those men were Paul Newman, Dean Martin, Gene Kelly, Bob Cummings, and Dick Van Dyke.

The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964).  One of the ads featured a double column, those performers on the left being Ingrid Bergman, Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau.  On the right were Rex Harrison, George C. Scott and Omar Sharif.  “And Shirley MacLaine” was centered below.  In another poster with portraits of the cast MacLaine gets top left.

Casino Royale (1967).  (“CASINO ROYALE Is Too Much…For One James Bond!”)  The order:  Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, David Niven, Woody Allen, Joanna Pettet, Orson Welles, Daliah Lavi, Deborah Kerr, William Holden, Charles Boyer, Jean-Paul Belmondo, George Raft, John Huston, Terence Cooper, Barbara Bouchet.  The first five had the most to do.  Some, like Holden, were seemingly there on a lark.  (The film was a satire on spy films but in retrospect shows us something about the sixties.)

One of the more intriguing all-star movie posters is Steel Magnolia (1989).  It features the six female leads standing, in this order:  Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Daryl Hannah, and Dolly Parton.  But as far as their names go, Sally Field is first, followed by Parton, MacLaine, Hannah, Dukakis, Roberts.  The story does revolve around Field and Roberts, the latter just starting on her big screen, leading lady career.

An Exception

A more recent curiosity as far as billing isHeat concerned is 1995’s HEAT, the epic crime film from director Michael Mann.  Although they’d been in The Godfather, Part II, this was the first time Al Pacino and Robert De Niro faced each other on screen.  Pacino got left-hand poster billing despite De Niro having won a Supporting Oscar for The Godfather, Part II (1974) and a Best Actor Academy Award for Raging Bull (1980). Pacino’s Best Actor Oscar hadn’t come until 1992’s Scent of a Woman.  Nomination-wise, their resume was quite similar.


One can make many connLast Vegasections and draw plenty of conclusions about star billing based on movie posters and/or some knowledge of the stars’ careers.  For fun, guess what determined billing order for such movies as Ocean’s 11, The Departed, and Last Vegas.  Why was James Stewart’s name above John Wayne’s in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance poster (1962)?  Why was John Wayne’s name ahead of Henry Fonda in 1948’s Fort Apache?  Why was Richard Widmark’s name ahead of Fonda in 1959’s Warlock?  Why was Dustin Hoffman’s name above and as large as the title of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)?

By Kim

The League of Alternate Superstars: Jeanne Crain

Jeanne Crain (1925 – 2003), was not, as so many biographies andStarfair1945 obituaries report, Miss Long Beach of 1941 and a Miss America finalist or runner-up. The Miss Long Beach Pageant was not instituted until 1950. Jeanne was actually crowned Miss Pan-Pacific in Los Angeles’ Pan-Pacific Auditorium in 1941. (That was an all-purpose venue for speeches and shows.) One assumes 20th Century-Fox’s PR department and/or studio head Darryl Zanuck spun the facts. Did “Miss Long Beach” sound better that “Miss Pan-Pacific.” To further complicate matters, Jeanne is said to have been Miss Camera Girl for 1941.

In any event, Jeanne Crain had the looks and appeal to obtain a Fox contract. She had a few film roles for the studio before her official introduction in 1944’s Home in Indiana. In that homespun saga of a troubled youth (Lon McCallister), Jeanne played tomboy Char who along with the sulkies gave McCallister a purpose in life and served as a role model (“People being sorry just makes other people mad,” offered Char).

In 1945 Crain was again living the idealized, cornfed, Middle-American life in the musical State Fair opposite Dana Andrews, with whom she would pair in three more movies. That same year she was third-billed in the film version of Ben Ames Williams’ popular novel, Leave Her to Heaven. Once denigrated as too melodramatic, with Gene Tierney portraying the sociopathically jealous Ellen Berent Harland, it has in recent times become admired as film noir—and a majestically color one at that. Playing Tierney’s sister, Jeanne’s character was driven to distraction.

If Crain had a signature role it came in 1946. As Margie she once more tackled the trials and tribulations of a young woman coming of age. In this one she kept losing her bloomers and—unthinkable now—fell in love with and married her teacher. The famous September 30, 1946 cover of Life featured Jeanne in her Margie bathtub, playing with huge bubbles created via helium forced upward from the drain into water supplemented with soap and glycerine.

Apartment for Peggy (1948)apartment for peggy was more than met the eye. Nancy Spellman wrote, “While the film contains many comic aspects, especially the at-times extremely funny performance of Jeanne Crain, the treatment of these issues is both serious and intelligent.” Those issues included the generation gap, a younger generation’s optimism, materialism, and problems faced by women, often caught in tedious jobs while the husbands took advantage of the GI Bill to, as Spellman noted, “attend classes with attractive and better-educated coeds.” The mournful landlord played by Edmund Gwenn, your favorite Kris Kringle from the previous year’s Miracle on 34th Street, provided the apartment. His pessimism about the human race’s prospects became infectious until Crain berated Holden: “Oh no! You too! That’s what half the people around here are saying: The world’s gonna die, nobody’s got a chance, it’s no use living, might as well commit suicide!”

Next up was a plum dramatic role:pinky the African-American passing for white in Pinky (1949). Crain received her only Academy Award nomination for this Elia Kazan movie that was typical of 20th Century Fox and its production chief Darryl F. Zanuck penchant for tackling significant social issues.

Zanuck must have been pulling his hair out when his very popular star began having babies, which would total seven during the next decade. Obviously this cost Crain some roles, apparently the leads that went to Jennifer Jones in Carrie, Deborah Kerr in Quo Vadis and Jean Simmons in The Robe. Presumably Jeanne would have been on loan-out from Fox for the first two, a Paramount and MGM production, respectively.

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) included Jeanne, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern. One of them had a husband (Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn) who ran off with a mutual friend. The film won Joseph L. Mankiewicz Academy Awards for writing and direction, a feat he’d duplicate the following year with All About Eve, which featured Anne Baxter as the title character. Jeanne had been up for that role.

Cheaper by the Dozencheaper by the dozen (1950) featured Jeanne as the eldest of the Gilbreth children, their father (Clifton Webb) the noted efficiency expert. Getting billing over Myrna Loy, Crain also narrated. Without Webb, the sequel Belles on Their Toes was merely average.

People Will Talk (1951) is one of the more obscure Cary Grant films despite its quality and the director, once again Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Grant was a mysterious professor and gynecologist who befriended a student (Jeanne) about to become an unwed mother. Like Pinky, it was ahead of its time.

If there was any downside to some of Crain’s later films at Fox and when she became “independent,” it was her leading men. Some, like Scott Brady, her co-star in 1951’s The Model and the Marriage Broker, who was once labeled the next John Wayne, were expected to become major stars. That didn’t happen. Ditto with George Nader, Jeanne’s co-star in The Second Greatest Sex.

O. Henry’s Full House (1952)O Henry's Full House was a compendium of selected O. Henry short stories. The last and best was “The Gift of the Magi,” with Jeanne as the wife who sold her glorious hair to buy a watch fob for her husband (Farley Granger). The husband, in the meantime, sold his watch for combs for his wife.

Times were changing and Hollywood, having experienced a mini-golden age after the war, was now in a state of tumoil. Accused of price fixing and “block booking” (theater owners took one studio film but had to take specified others whether they wanted them or not), under the Supreme Court’s 1948 “Paramount Decree” the studios began to lose their monopolies. Add to that the inroads of TV and severely curtailed theatrical attendance by a population with more entertainment options. Scrambling to stay afloat, studios started dropping stars and their star contracts. It was a far cry from the recent “golden age” when studios locked up stars for years. Perhaps Olivia de Havilland’s win in 1945 started this ball rolling. Others had tried but De Havilland won when the California State Supreme Court ruled that she did not have to work an extra 24 weeks for Warner Bros. The 24 weeks were those she had been suspended for when she refused film assignments.

Like Richard Widmark, also at Fox, Jeanne was anxious to spread her wings and go independent. That became a double-edged sword for many stars. No longer under the aegis of a particular studio, they were required to handle a plethora of new activities: selecting scripts, publicity, dealing with distributors, negotiating foreign film contracts.

Gentlemen Marry Brunettes (1955) was the sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. Fox had released Blondes but this was released by United Artists. Again, neither Jeanne nor Jane Russell had top-of-the-line male co-stars. Scott Brady was back and Alan Young essayed the milquetoast. It did give Jeanne a chance to look great in sequins and dance. She had matured from girl-next-door to sexy—and voluptuous—temptress.

One of the better Jeanne vehicles after she left Fox was Man Without a Star (1955). Hearkening back to Margie but this time in a western setting, Jeanne had another significant bathtub scene (once a Hollywood staple if not a cliché). She was a tough customer this time, running a ranch somewhat unethically and causing foreman Kirk Douglas to turn on her. It was the farmers vs. cattlemen scenario.

Jeanne signed on for some foreign films: Nefertiti, Queen of the Nile (1961) and Invasion 1700, aka Daggers of Blood (1962). Back in the States, she guested on TV series and made some less than earthshaking films. One wonders how much influence her long-time husband had on script selection. Did he, like Susan Hayward’s second husband, direct her toward vehicles that were bound to detract from her luster?

All in all, Jeanne Crain had a sterling resume that would have been even better if the classical Hollywood studio system hadn’t decayed. She had a decade of excellent roles and films. Most generally acknowledged superstars don’t exceed that.

By Kim

Finler, Joel. The Hollywood Story. New York: Crown, 1988.

Long Beach Public Library email. February 28, 2014.

Parish, James Robert. The Fox Girls. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1971.

Spellman, Nancy. “On Video: Apartment for Peggy.” Film Ex (Winter 1992): 6-7.