Destinées Imagined: Film Stills and Storylines

The most recent additions to my collection of movie memorabilia – and of images featuring the likeness of stage and screen actress Claudette Colbert (1903 – 1996) in particular – are stills for the 1954 motion picture Destinées.  The French-language film, released in Britain as Love, Soldiers and Women and in the United States as Daughters of Destiny, is one of the few works in the Colbert canon that I have not yet seen.  Rather than relying entirely on plot synopses provided by Colbert biographers William K. Everson, Lawrence Quirk, and Bernard F. Dick, I am imaging and imagining the film’s story, or, rather, the story told in one of the three vignettes that constitute Destinées.

Even before I determined on an order for the five film stills, what came across is that this is a story about absent men and relationships between the women they left behind.  From the image I chose to begin my stills-inspired version of the story, I can tell that Destinées is as much about the future as it is about the past: fate, fatality and a fatalism to be challenged.  The number of aligned grave markers, impersonal yet collectively inspiring awe, distinguish this site as a war memorial.  This woman might be a war widow.

What stands out in the field of Christian crosses is the prominently positioned star of David behind her, suggesting a memorial to those who were killed during the Second World War.  Either the narrative of this mid-1950s film is set in the recent past or Colbert’s character, for whatever reason, is only belatedly coming to terms with her loss.  She may have come to bury the past, or else to uncover it.  

Yet this is not the story of her loss and of her past only.  The flowers on the ground are not placed there by her hand, at least not at that moment.  They are dry and withered.  Someone else may have been at the site before her – someone else may be mourning the loss she is experiencing.

A sense of probing into a dark past is communicated by the still of Colbert holding a lamp.  Light of day makes way for dead of night, the open field for the enclosed space.  The rough and worn interior contrasts with the sophistication of the woman’s clothing but corresponds with her careworn expression.  The scratches on the wall suggest that smooth surfaces are being challenged: anger and despair are on display in this place.

The image that continues my version of the story is of Colbert and the boy.  In a dark and seemingly cheerless place, she comes face to face with innocence.  Colbert’s character seems to be reaching for the child’s hand; but they are not touching.  Her hands are encased in gloves.

The boy staring at her is clutching a toy.  At first I thought it was she who placed it in his hand; but the apparently hand-crafted object – a cheerful fantasy figure, not a mass-produced toy soldier – is too singular to suggest that she has bought it for him.  More likely, she has just learned of the child’s existence.

The image I chose to come next in this sequence is of Colbert sitting on the bed opposite a woman (played by Eleonora Rossi Drago) who is younger and plainly dressed.  What they have in common is grief, as their facial expressions and postures tell me.  Are they grieving for the same person? Are they sitting on a bed that was once shared by a man whom they both loved? This might be the site where the child was conceived.  These women are joined in yet separated by more than grief. 

The image to complete my story suggests reconciliation.  The two women are breaking bread, and the lamp on the table is the same light that, in the other image, communicated a desire for clarity that is now being achieved.  Colbert’s character remains reserved, even skeptical.  The clenched hand, with its wedding band on display, suggests her clinging to the claim of legitimacy, even though that legal right seems to provide no comfort besides financial security.

But the woman sitting next to her is so lacking in guile that she might ultimately convince her unannounced visitor that theirs is not a destiny of contest but a bond of love: the war that has separated one woman from her husband has created another love that, in turn, begot what used to be called a love child.

Close to the battlefield, a life was created, while far from the war zone – in the cosmopolitan setting of a remote metropolis, New York rather than Paris, suggested by the affluence, and the affront, even, of Colbert’s designer clothing – a woman being left by a husband-turned-soldier could only see loss.

Initially, my story unfolded somewhat differently.  I had Colbert’s character confront the lover of her husband first, then learn about the child and change her attitude as a result.  Then I noticed the gloves, which have not yet come off when Colbert’s character meets the boy that might be her dead husband’s son; and, looking again at that other image, I noticed the rough, barn-like setting of their encounter, which more closely corresponds with the scratched wall and the lamp shedding light on the issue of a heretofore hidden love.

However inconsequential Destinées might have been, in terms of box office or impact on Colbert’s waning career in film, these images are remarkable in their ability to make readable what matters about this common story – a story told without Sirkian melodrama but with the neorealism of post-Second World War European filmmaking.  

French-born Colbert who, years earlier on US radio, had proudly and publicly exclaimed “I Am an American,” may have embraced this assignment as an opportunity to return to her roots.  Instead, cast as a visitor in Destinées, she was obliged to rehearse her estrangement and uneasy reintroduction.  France and cinema were moving on, away from the Hollywood paradigm of It Happened One Night; this is not the ersatz old world of Colbert’s I Met Him in Paris or Midnight.  And yet, the destiny that the new Europe was forging in the 1950s remained inextricably intertwined with the United States.  As the dresses of the two women make plain on one side and up-to-date on the other, there were destined to be clashes in style as well as in substance.

[Since posting this entry, I came across a download of Destinées on YouTube.]

‘Mystique’ Isn’t the Word for It: The Cool Warmth of Claudette Colbert

‘In the Hollywood of the thirties and forties, dominated by elegance, glamour production expertise and lush escapism,’ the film historian William K. Everson wrote in the 1970s, ‘Claudette Colbert was one its most representative stars.  Despite her natural skills and theatrical background, she – or the images that came to be Claudette Colbert – was essentially a Hollywood product.’

The reference to her ‘theatrical background’ aside, this could be said about any number of Hollywood stars – male of female – of the studio era.  Colbert, who was born on this day, 13 September, in 1903, was a particular ‘product’ of an industry committed to generating lucrative multiples by manufacturing the one-of-a-kind: the unique personality that filled screens and auditoria of movie theaters around the world. So what, if anything, distinguishes Colbert from her peers?

Everson goes on to describe Colbert as ‘sleek, svelte, sophisticated and chic […].  But she was also warm, vivacious and possessed of both charm and a sense of humor – qualities that can’t be mass produced, no matter how complicated the machinery.’

Publicity still, Private Worlds (1935)

To a Colbert enthusiast such as myself, this certainly rings true – and the attributes ‘warm’ and ‘vivacious’ are especially felicitous when applied to descriptions of the energy with which Colbert invests her roles – a kind of cocktail party gaiety that, whatever the state or root cause of intoxication, is rarely brash and, however much of an effort it may be, as written into a script or demanded by a director, is so transparently genuine and uncontrived that it makes me feel I am in the presence of the very life of the party, and of belonging, even if Claudette’s character just crashed one, as in Midnight.

The other night, I watched Sleep, My Love, a melodrama in which laughs are in short supply, and what struck me as most distinctly Colbert about an otherwise generic thriller of the Gaslight school was seeing her tormented character on a night out with an admirer, getting soused at a wedding, while her husband is plotting to drive her out of her mind by adulterating her cocoa. This woman will lose her man before she loses her marbles.

What Everson refers to as the ‘Colbert Mystique’ is really no ‘mystique’ at all.  The quality Colbert brought to the screen was approachability, a glamour that wasn’t a glare.  She is neither aloof nor in your face while out of reach in her improbable but never impossible elegance.  That approachability did not quite amount to vulnerability, however, as most of her performances – certainly most of her best, excepting Three Came Home – are subdued rather than raw.  When asked to lose her cool, to get what used to be called hysterical, as in her none too Secret Fury in the film of that title, she seems to be filling in for another actress; she is simply not Claudette. For the most part, though, when Colbert lets her hair down on the screen, or had reason to tear it out, her bangs require only minor adjustments to be put back in place – and Hollywood dictated that it, and the woman donning the do, had to be back there in that designated up-to-Production Code place before long.

Sure, there might be a wisp of straw in her hair, but we don’t get access to the hayloft where, her laugh suggests, it happened all right; and we are certainly not encouraged to feel entitled to an entire sheaf of evidence.  Growing up gay – and knowing I was gay when I was very young without knowing how to let it be known – I found Colbert’s subtlety more relatable than the sass of dames, the fire of Jezebels, or the lure of sirens whose appeal brought on awkwardness and shame rather than arousal in me.  This woman would not crack like Susan Hayward, snap like Bette Davis or claw for it like Crawford.  She would end up all right, and often owing to her strength, wit and endurance.  Granted, having Hattie McDaniel at hand to massage your tired feet doesn’t hurt.  But, hired help or none, Colbert’s heroines keep their cool while exuding a warmth that no flamethrower can supply.

There really isn’t any ‘mystique’ there; glamour, yes, and power, but no mystery.  Even in matters of sex, as I found most comforting watching Colbert while coming of age in the era of AIDS, Colbert suggests that there need be no mystery at all.  When Colbert insists that ‘sex has everything to do with it’ – as one of her characters does in The Palm Beach Story, she doesn’t coo it like West or croon it like Dietrich – she says it flat out, with a conviction born of experience.  She’s been there, done that, but she keeps the t-shirt neatly folded in a drawer reserved for her lingerie, which she teaches Miriam Hopkins to ‘jazz up’ in The Smiling Lieutenant.

To this day, I collect Claudette Colbert memorabilia, which I display online.  The latest addition to my collection is the above publicity still for Private Worlds (1935), for which Colbert received an Academy Award nomination.  This is not the portrait of a fallen woman.  We know Colbert’s character will get up, straighten her hair and return to work – as long, that is, as Hollywood permits her to have a career, as a ‘lady doctor,’ no less. Yes, that woman on the floor is a psychiatrist.

Colbert’s own private world was just that: private.  Back then, fellow stars could rely on the studio to provide them with a ‘private’ world to parade in public and a cover story to hide behind.  Today’s celebrities, unlike the stars of that bygone system, enjoy no such protection; nor, for the most part, do they seem to seek it.  We have surrendered our privacy, and having done so doesn’t make us feel more real to each other, much less to ourselves, more liberated or more loved.  The illusion Colbert pulls off on the screen is that we, or some of us, might have once had what I now sense lost: a kind of cool warmth that gets us through while drawing others toward us.

“Mike”; for the Love of It

“What is there to say about what one loves except: I love it, and to keep on saying it?” Roland Barthes famously remarked. Sometimes, getting to the stage of saying even that much requires quite a bit of effort; and sometimes you don’t get to say it at all. Love may be where you find it, but it may also be the very act of discovery. The objective rather than the object. The pursuit whose outcome is uncertain. Methodical, systematic, diligent. Sure, research, if it is to bear fruit, should be all that. And yet, it is also a labor of love. It can be ill timed and unappreciated. If nothing comes of it, you might call it unrequited. It may be all-consuming, impolitic and quixotic. Still, it’s a quest. It’s passion, for the love of Mike!

“Mike” has been given me a tough time. It all began as a wildly improbable romance acted out by my favorite leading lady. It was nearly a decade ago, in the late spring of 2001, that I first encountered the name. “Mike” is a reference in the opening credits of the film Torch Singer, a 1933 melodrama starring Claudette Colbert. Having long been an admirer of Ms. Colbert—who, incidentally made her screen debut in the 1927 comedy For the Love of Mike, a silent film now lost—I was anxious to catch up with another one of her lesser-known efforts when it was screened at New York City’s Film Forum, an art house cinema I love for its retrospectives of classic—and not quite so classic—Hollywood fare.

Until its release on DVD in 2009, Alexander Hall’s Torch Singer was pretty much a forgotten film, one of those fascinatingly irregular products of the Pre-Code era, films that strike us, in the Code-mindedness with which we are conditioned to approach old movies, as being about as incongruous, discomfiting and politically incorrect as a blackface routine at a Nelson Mandela tribute or a pecan pie eating contest at a Weight Watchers meeting. Many of these talkies, shot between 1929 and 1934, survive only in heavily censored copies, at times re-cut and refitted with what we now understand to be traditional Hollywood endings.

Torch Singer, which tells the Depression era story of a fallen woman who takes over a children’s program and, through it, reestablishes contact with the illegitimate daughter she could not support without falling, has, apart from its scandalous subject matter, such an irresistible radio angle that I was anxious to discuss it in Etherized Victorians, the dissertation on American radio drama I was then in the process of researching.

Intent on presenting radio drama as a literary rather than historical or pop-cultural subject, I was particularly interested in published scripts, articles by noted writers with a past in broadcasting, and fictions documenting the central role the “Enormous Radio” played in American culture during the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. I thought about dedicating a chapter of my study to stories in which studios serve as settings, microphones feature as characters, and broadcasts are integral to the plot.

Torch Singer is just such a story—and, as the opening credits told me, one with a past in print. Written by Lenore Coffee and Lynn Starling, the screenplay is based on the story “Mike” by Grace Perkins; but that was all I had to go on when I began my search. No publisher, no date, no clues at all about the print source in which “Mike” first came before the public.

Little could be gleaned from Perkins’s New York Times obituary—somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of the death of Enrico Caruso’s wife Dorothy—other than that she died not long after assisting Madame Chiang Kai-shek in writing The Sure Victory (1955); that she had married Fulton Oursler, senior editor of Reader’s Digest and author of the radio serial The Greatest Story Ever Told; and that she had penned a number of novels published serially in popular magazines of the 1930s. That sure complicated matters as I went on to turn the yellowed pages of many once popular journals of the period in hopes of coming across the elusive “Mike.”

Finally, years after my degree was in the bag—and what a deep receptacle that turned out to be—I found “Mike” between the pages of the 20 May 1933 issue of Liberty; or the better half of “Mike,” at least, as this is a serialized narrative. Never mind; I am not that interested anyway in the story’s other Mike, the man who deserted our heroine and with whom she is reunited in the end. At last, I got my hands on this “Revealing Story of a Radio Star’s Romance,” the story of the “notorious Mimi Benton,” a hard-drinking mantrap who’d likely “end up in the gutter,” but went on the air instead—and “right into your homes! Yes, sir, and talked to your children time and time again!”

“Mike,” like Torch Singer, is a fiction that speaks to Depression-weary Americans who, dependent on handouts, bereft of status and influence, came to realize—and romanticize—what else they lost in the Roaring Twenties when the wireless, initially a means of point-to-point communication, became a medium that, as I put it in my dissertation,

not merely controlled but prevented discourse. Instead of interacting with one another, Depression-era Americans were just sitting around in the parlor, John Dos Passos observed, “listening drowsily to disconnected voices, stale scraps of last year’s jazz, unfinished litanies advertising unnamed products that dribble senselessly from the radio,” only to become receptive to President Roosevelt’s deceptively communal “youandme” from the fireside.

Rather than “listening drowsily,” disenfranchised Mimi Benton, anathema to corporate sponsors, reclaims the medium by claiming the microphone for her own quest and, with it, seizes the opportunity to restore an intimate bond that society forced her to sever. These days, Mimi Benton would probably start a campaign on Facebook or blog her heart out—unless she chose to lose herself in virtual realities or clutch a Tamagotchi, giving up a quest in which the medium can only be a means, not an end.

Related writings
“Radio at the Movies: Torch Singer (1933)”
“Radio at the Movies: Manslaughter (1922)”

“Anyone we know?”: An Absentminded Review of The Royal Family

What a tramp my mind has turned into lately. I would like to think that I still got one of my own, to have and to hold on to, for richer or poorer, and all that; but every now and again, and rather too frequently at that, the willful one takes off without the slightest concern for my state of it. It used to be that I could gather my thoughts like keepsakes to store a mind with; these days, I wonder just who’s minding the store. And just when I feel that I’ve lost it completely, there it comes ambling in, disheveled, unruly, and well out of its designated head. With a little luck, the suitcase of mementoes with which it absconded turns up again, similarly disorganized, rarely complete if at times strangely augmented. Perhaps, minds resent being crossed once too often. That has crossed mine, to be sure.

Anyway, where was I going with this? Ah, yes. Straight back to New York City. The Biltmore Theatre. Make that the Samuel J. Friedman, as it is now called. Built in 1925 and steeped in comedy theater tradition, the former Biltmore is just the venue for the current revival of The Royal Family, of which production, scheduled to open 8 October 2009, I had the good fortune to catch the second preview a few weeks ago. Classic crowd-pleasers like Poppa (1929), Brother Rat (1936-38), My Sister Eileen (1940-42), and the long-running Barefoot in the Park (1963-67) were staged here, where Mae West caused a sensation in October 1928 with Pleasure Man, a play they let go on for all of two performances.

While Ethel Barrymore might have wished a similarly compact run for The Royal Family, the play amused rather than scandalized theatergoers who appreciated it as a wildly flamboyant yet precisely cut gem of wit set firmly in a mount of genuine sentiment—which is just what you’d expect from a collaboration of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. Histrionics, theatrical disguises, a bit of swashbuckling—this screwball of a jewel still generates plenty of sparks, even if the preview I attended needed a little polish to show it off it to its full advantage.

Informed that her son may have killed a man, the matriarch of the family inquires: “Anyone we know?” Among the somebodies we know to have slain them with lines like these in the past are Broadway and Hollywood royals like Otto Kruger, Ruth Hussey, Eva Le Gallienne, Fredric March, Rosemary Harris, and . . . Rosemary Harris. As is entirely in keeping with the play’s premise—three generations of a theatrical family congregating and emoting under one roof—Ms. Harris is now playing the mother of the character she portrayed back in 1975. Regrettably, unlike Estelle Winwood in the cleverly truncated Theatre Guild on the Air production broadcast on 16 December 1945, Ms. Harris as Fanny Cavendish was not quite eccentric or electric enough, although she certainly possesses the curtains-foreshadowing vulnerability her character refuses to acknowledge.

Decidedly more energetic and Barrymore or less ideally cast were the other members of the present production, which includes Jan Maxwell as Julie, Reg Rogers as Tony, Tony Roberts as Oscar, John Glover as Herbert Dean and Saturday Night Live alumna Ana Gasteyer as Kitty. Whenever the pace slackened and the madcap was beginning to resemble a nightcap or some such old hat, I could generally rely on Ms. Gasteyer’s gestures and facial expressions to keep me amused.

There was a moment, though, when my attention span was being put to the test—and promptly failed. I looked at the fresh though not especially fascinating face of Kelli Barrett (as Gwen) and found myself transported to the 1920s, those early days of the Biltmore. I started to think of or hope for a youthful, vivacious Claudette Colbert performing on Broadway at that time, a few years before she left the stage to pursue a career in motion pictures. Why, I wondered, was my mind walking off with her?

Well, eventually it all came home to me—my mind sauntering back in with a duffle bag of stuff I didn’t remember possessing—when I perused the playbill to learn about the history of the Biltmore. Colbert, I learned, had performed on that very stage back in 1927, the year in which The Royal Family was written, enjoying her first major success in The Barker. Decades later, she returned there for The Kingfishers (1978) and A Talent for Murder (1981). So, there was something of a presence of Ms. Colbert on that stage, even though she never played young Gwen.

Today, researching a little to justify what still seemed like a mere digression in a half-hearted review of the play, I discovered (consulting the index of Bernard F. Dick’s recent biography of Colbert) that the actress did get hold of a minor branch of the Royal Family tree when she seized the opportunity to portray Gwen’s mother in a 1954 television adaptation of the play. That version, the opener for CBS’s The Best of Broadway series, was broadcast live on 16 September—which happens to be the day I stepped inside the Biltmore to catch up with The Royal Family.

Perhaps it is just as well that I give in and let my mind go blithely astray. For all the exasperation of momentary lapses, of missed punch lines, plot lines or points my thoughts are beside of, the returns are welcome and oddly reassuring. Besides, the old tramp wouldn’t have it any other way . . .

Radio at the Movies: Torch Singer (1933)

“Yoo-hoo, is anybody?” I guess that, from time to time, many of us amateur journalists feel compelled to ask the question so catchily phrased by the matriarch of the Goldbergs. At least Molly Goldberg could hope for a response from her friend and neighbor Mrs. Bloom, to whom her shouts into the dumb waiter shaft were directed. To Mrs. Goldberg, “anybody” was a certain someone. Many who approached the World Wide Web as their means of telecommuning have given up on waiting for a reply to their “Yoo-hoos,” or, instead, have taken the resounding silence for an answer equivalent to “nope.”

According to a 2008 survey conducted by Technorati (which, earlier this month, was referred to in a New York Times article on the blogging phenomenon), 95 percent of all online journals have been essentially abandoned. Tens of millions who saw blogging as an opportunity to cast their thoughts broadly and make their voices heard by the multitudes decided that, once this vast crowd of followers did not, well, immaterialize, their words were wasted on the one or another for whose arrival they would not be dumb enough to wait and to whose apparently exclusive tastes they would not lower themselves to cater.

Like broadcasting before it, the blogosphere lures those creative spirits who might otherwise be dispirited nobodies with that one-in-a-million chance at fame while its ability to connect us to the one-in-a-million willing to connect with us frequently goes unappreciated. As public performers, we won’t settle for “anybody”—but we seem more inclined to aim at the elusive everyone than the dependable someone. One of the most intriguing motion pictures to address our narrow-mindedness about broadcasting is the Depression-era melodrama Torch Singer (1933), one of those startlingly unconventional, non-classic Hollywood pictures referred to as Pre-Code.

Torch Singer stars Claudette Colbert as an unwed mother (that is Pre-Code for you) who, failing to find employment, is forced to give up her infant daughter. After that intimate bond is severed, the motherless child of a childless mother avenges herself on an impersonal, dehumanizing society by tantalizing those who made her suffer, selling the mere appeal of sex to the highest bidder. “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love,” she warbles, achieving neither. Her body having been robbed of its fruit and the warmth of nestling, she turns her voice into a commodity, first by making a(nother) name for herself a nightclub singer, then by accepting the offer to become a disembodied siren on the radio.

When a newly hired storyteller for a children’s program is struck dumb with mike fright, the reckless Torch Singer takes over as the fictitious “Aunt Jenny,” comforter by proxy, singing lullabies so far removed from any cradle that they are devoid of sincerity, all the while tickled by her own moxie as she promotes the sponsor’s kiddie beverage, long drink in hand.

This perversion of motherhood comes to an end when she realizes that it is possible to subvert the medium instead and seize the microphone to reach the child she gave up for adoption. Rather than performing for everyone and no one, she now sings directly to her daughter, devising a contest that would compel radio listening kids to call in and claim their birthday surprises, thereby revealing their identity to her. Once taken into her own hands, the very medium that seemed to have promised nothing but the belated fame for which she never cared becomes the means through which she can reestablish the intimacy she long believed to be past recapturing.

Its melodramatic shortcomings notwithstanding, Torch Singer serves as a compelling reminder that the media, as extensions or offshoots of telecommunication, have not lost—and should never be divested of—their potential to establish point-to-point connections far more meaningful than the often disappointing stabs at mass exposure in which we are apt to lose sight of one another.

Related writings
“Between You, Molly and Me: Should We Settle for Squirrels?”
“Wireless Women, Clueless Men (Part Five): Gertrude Berg, Everybody’s Mama”

“Here is your forfeit”: It’s Hopkins’s Night As Colbert Goes Private

“Our guest stars might well have been tailored for the celebrated parts of Peter and Ellie,” host Orson Welles remarked as he raised the curtain on the Campbell Playhouse production of “It Happened One Night,” heard on this day, 28 January, in 1940. Quite a bold bit of barking, that. After all, the pants once worn by bare-chested Clark Gable were handed down to William Powell, who was debonair rather than brawny. “Mr. William Powell surely needs no alteration at all,” Welles insisted, even though the material required considerable trimming. Meanwhile, the part of Ellie, the “spoiled and spirited heiress” whom Peter cuts down to size until he suits her, was inherited by Miriam Hopkins. It had “certainly never been more faultlessly imagined than tonight,” Welles declared. Indeed, as I was reminded by Andre Soares’s interview with biographer Allan Ellenberger on Alternative Film Guide, Hopkins numbered among the leading ladies who had turned down the role and, no doubt, came to regret it, given the critical and commercial success of It Happened, which earned Claudette Colbert an Academy Award.

Now, Welles was prone to hyperboles; but, in light of Colbert’s memorable performance, his claim that the part had “never been more faultlessly imagined”—in a radio adaptation, no less—sounds rather spurious. As it turns out, raspy-voiced Hopkins (whom last I saw in a BFI screening of Becky Sharp) does not give the spirited performance one might expect from the seasoned comedienne. Her timing is off, her emoting out of character, all of which conspires, along with the imposed acceleration of the script, to render disingenuous what is meant to be her character’s transformation from brat to bride; and while Powell, a few fluffed lines notwithstanding, does quite well as the cocky Peter Grant (it was “Warne” when those pants were worn by Gable), the only “spirited” performance is delivered by Bernard Herrmann, the composer of the lively score.

In short, there is little to justify Welles’s introductory boast. Was the Wunderkind getting back at Colbert for standing him up two months earlier, when Madeleine Carroll filled her place in “The Garden of Allah”? What’s more, Colbert appeared to have passed on the chance to reprise her Oscar-winning role for Campbell Playhouse, something she had previously done, opposite Gable in one of his rare radio engagements, for a Lux Radio Theater reworking of the old “Night Bus” story.

That same night, 28 January 1940, Colbert was heard instead on a Screen Guild broadcast in a production of “Private Worlds,” in a role for which she had received her second Academy Award nomination. During the curtain call, Colbert was obliged to “pay a forfeit” after incorrectly replying “The Jazz Singer” to the question “What was the first full-length all-talking picture to come out of Hollywood?” For this, she was ordered to recite a tongue twister; but it wasn’t much of a forfeit, compared to the sense of loss both Colbert and Hopkins must have felt whenever they misjudged the business by rejecting important roles or by risking their careers making questionable choices.

In The Smiling Lieutenant, the two had played rivals who ended their fight over the same man by comparing the state of their undies; now, Hopkins seemed to be rummaging in Colbert’s drawers for the parts she could have had but was not likely to be offered again. Well, however you want to spin it, radio sure was the place for makeshift redressing, for castoffs and knock-offs, for quick alterations and hasty refittings. It catered to the desire of actors and audiences alike to rewrite or at any rate tweak Hollywood history. Go ahead, try it on for size.

Not Every Tome, Dick, and Harry; or, How to Approach Claudette Colbert

It had been two decades since last a biographer was given the chance to shed light on the life of a woman whose name was written in the bright lights of Broadway and whose radiant presence lit up the silver screen. Considering that the radiant one is my favorite actress, I was eager to clap eyes on Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty (University Press of Mississippi, 2008), a promisingly scholarly tome by Bernard F. Dick. Not that the title inspires clapping, Byronic, bastardized, and bromidic that it is. It sure gave me the first clue, though: whatever it was that Colbert walked in—beauty, grace, wit—was being thoroughly trampled in a clumsy and inept performance that brings out the lambastard in me.

As I advised students attending my seminar in Effective Academic Writing yesterday, a gaffe can be so distracting as to drown out an argument in guffaws and undermine a reader’s trust in a professional writer. Dick’s editors left us with ample occasions to titter and groan. I put down the book often enough just to get some fresh air; but I had not gotten past page two when I was confronted with “the Prince of Whales.” That’s a fine kettle of mammals, I thought.

Not that the royalty thus referred to has anything to do with Colbert; Edward VII, along with Oscar Wilde and Theodore Roosevelt, is merely listed as one of the admirers of Lily Langtry after whom Colbert may have been named. Cumbersomely piled up, trivia like this slows the plodding, meandering account of how She Walked down to a crawl. However thorough a detective, Dick is unable to fashion the evidence he compiled into any cohesive—let alone compelling—narrative. Instead, he rehearses the biographer’s role of examining data:

Without school records, it is impossible to verify whether Claudette was still at Washington Irving in February 1919 [ . . .]. Although she told Rex Reed that she appeared in Grammar in December 1918, she could have graduated at the end of the fall term, in January 1919. Initially, Washington Irving, which opened its doors in February 1913, did not observe the traditional September-June school year. Then, too, there was the matter of Claudette’s missing at least four months of school, and possibly more, in 1916, which would also have affected her graduation date.

The “matter” in question was an accident that very nearly crippled his subject. It is commendable that Dick resists being melodramatic; but his idea of bringing an event like Colbert’s immigration to life for us is to check the records revealing that, “for the end of November, the temperature was a comfortable 45 degrees.” It is difficult to warm to such storytelling.

Fortunate for those who have not burned the book to beat the chill, She Walked gathers momentum once Colbert makes the move from stage to screen. Having watched virtually all of her films, Dick can fill in many of the blanks people are likely to draw when they try to remember any of the films in which Colbert starred before or after It Happened One Night. Most of these movies are not classics; and Dick does not pretend that they are. He nonetheless succeeds in offering a thorough overview of a career that might have been brighter had Colbert not been such a shrewd businesswoman. One of the highest paid actresses, she generally chose projects based on their financial worth to her rather than on their artistic value to us.

Demonstrating that her film career declined in the late 1940s, Dick is faced with an anticlimax that cannot be countered by references to stage performances to which we no longer have access. So, he holds back with the gossip some might have expected from him: was Colbert a lesbian or what? Once again, her biographer lays out the facts with admirable restraint. There is no evidence, besides her childless marriages, the fact that she did not so much as share a house with her first husband, that she had female live-in companions, and that she enjoyed being around gay people. No evidence, in short.

Dick confuses our desire to speculate about an artist’s gender orientation with untoward curiosity. Does it matter whether Colbert (whom Dick refers to as Claudette throughout, while according last names to her male co-stars) ever derived sexual pleasure from the company of another woman? Are those who, like me, are not born heterosexuals, inappropriately trying to appropriate another luminary by pushing her into the dark corner of our longings?

I have often wondered just what attracts me to Colbert, to whose Academy Award-winning performance I was introduced by my grandmother. Even as the pre-adolescent I was then, I sensed that I was gay. It would take nearly two decades more to make me feel cheerful about it. During that time, I rejected most of the gay icons to come out of Hollywood. In the dignified, understated performances of Claudette Colbert I seemed to detect something understood. Her sexuality was not threatening to a boy troubled by the realization that he could not get aroused at the sight of feminine beauty. To me, Colbert was a woman who charmed when others seemed to chide.

When I speculate about Colbert’s intimate life, I do so not with the intention of outing her, but in the hope of learning something about myself. She Walked is designed to put such speculations to rest. Yet no matter how many facts we can gather about others, even those close to us, we never stop wondering about them and our love for them. Once we have people all figured out, they tend to be more dead to us than alive. Such is the effect of setting a queer record straight.

Writing a speech about Colbert in college, I concentrated on her career, of which my fellow students knew little and for which they could not have cared less. That I mentioned the mystique in which her sexuality was shrouded did not seem to have bothered either Colbert or her secretary/companion much. Weeks after sending the only copy of my speech to Colbert’s home in Barbados, I received the autographed image shown here. While I would have liked to engage in conjecture, it was mainly to come out to my own audience, an autobiographical act I ultimately rejected as self-indulgent. A biographer’s predilections and prejudices must not get in the way of the project.

This, I felt, was precisely what kept She Walked from taking flight. Never mind the fanciful title with which Dick tries to evoke the romance he never found or instilled in his subject. Approaching biography with the mind of a bureaucrat, the scholar falls short of meeting the creative challenge at which he balked in duty.

As a failed opportunity to revive interest in someone who, to my great relief, is alive and well in films like the aforementioned Midnight and The Palm Beach Story, She Walked may well put an end to future studies. Yet even if an open-minded publisher can prevent this from being the last word on Colbert, Dick’s eulogy stands out as an act of unpardonable bumbling. Just how graceless a performance it is can be demonstrated by these two consecutive paragraphs, which I have mercifully abridged:

The end came on 30 July. Claudette, barely breathing, said, “I want to go home,” pointing upwards. O’Hagan stayed with her until the end [. . .]

Claudette was fortunate to have a friend in Helen O’Hagan, a celebrity in her own right. Widely known as the voice of Saks, she numbered the leading designers among her circle. In 2000, she hosted a retirement party for Bill Blass at the Waldorf, where she presented a slide show of his career, followed by a luncheon consisting of his favorite foods: meat loaf and oat meal cookies.

Not even if such culinary treats had been served at Colbert’s wake do I want to hear about them, especially not in the wake of the deathbed scene. If “The end came on 20 July” brought a tear to my eye, “oat meal cookies” made me choke—an unpleasant sensation that even the imminent conclusion of book could not alleviate. “A film actor’s life is a palimpsest,” Dick remarks in his Preface; She Walked in Beauty qualifies as an effacement I would like to see overwritten.

Does Every Cinderella Project Have Its Midnight?

Well (I am saying “well” once more, for old times’ sake), broadcastellan is entering its fourth year today. It all began on 20 May 2005, when I decided to keep an online journal devoted to old times, good or bad, to the culture that, however popular, is no longer mainstreamed, but, as I explained it in my opening post, marginalized or forgotten. Looking at broadastellan through the lens of the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine,” you will notice a few changes; but, overall, things are just as they were when I set out. Except that I am much more at ease and far less concerned about my online persona, its definition and reception, more fully aware of my status and the consequences of casting myself in the role of marginalien as I have come to accept and embrace it. No, it wasn’t this way right from the start.

Having earned my doctorate and relocated from New York City to Wales, I felt the want of continuity. I was reluctant to immerse myself in Welsh culture, let alone its language, for fear of not being able to recognize myself as the cosmopolitan I had impersonate with some success for most of my adult life. The dissertation was placed on the shelf; and my career alongside it. Still, I was not done with American popular culture as I had rediscovered it during years of research.

Not having been able to ride my hobbyhorse all the way to the bank, I thought I’d start parading it here on this busy commons. I sure wasn’t ready to put it out to pasture and wash my hands of it with the soap derived from its carcass. Initially, I might have been confused about the purpose of such a vanity production. I wanted this mare to be petted, even though I was prepared to take it out for others to deride. Nowadays, I am mainly writing for myself, for the kick I get out of being kicked by it into the thicket of research and the paths of (re)discovery.

Whenever I see a show, watch a movie, read a book, or listen to a radio program, broadcastellan encourages me to make it relevant to myself, to investigate and connect—and on the double at that. Right now, I have eight books before me, all designed to warrant my title. After all, it was the aforementioned Eve Peabody who declared that “[E]very Cinderella has her midnight.”

Eve Peabody, the self-proclaimed American blues singer who arrives penniless in Paris, posing as a Hungarian baroness, no less. I’ve always related to this Cinderella’s identity crisis—and admired the sheer ingenuity with which she made it all happen all over again. In the words of Ed Sikov, she proves “tremendously elastic,” a quality that prompted New York Times DVD reviewer Dave Kerr to remark on the “unpleasant degree” to which writer Billy Wilder was obsessed “with the theme of prostitution.”

“I thought that Eve Peabody was a very interesting character,” director Mitchell Leisen remarked. “You see, there’s a bit of good and a little bit of bad in all of us.” Yes, Leisen’s Midnight, like all proper Cinderella tales, has an edge; and, at last, it is being brought into digitally sharp focus. Earlier this month, the screwball comedy Elizabeth Kendall referred to as the “ultimate girl-on-her-own fairy tale” was released on DVD, perhaps in anticipation of the by me dreaded remake starring one Reese Witherspoon.

Since Britain has not caught up with this gem, it shall be one of my first purchases next week when I shall once again (and probably again and again) take the train down to J&R Music World. What with our UK DVD/VCR recorder refusing to accept my US tapes, I have long waited for this moment to catch up with what Ted Sennett has called “one of the best and brightest romantic comedies of the [1930s].” Of course, there’s always the radio.

On this day, 20 May, in 1940, stars Claudette Colbert (pictured above, in an autographed magazine cover from my collection) and Don Ameche reprised their roles in this Lux Radio Theater adaptation (>which you may enjoy by tuning in the Old Time Radio Network). Perhaps, though, the wireless is not the proper medium in which to appreciate a Leisen picture, distinguished as his work is for what James Harvey calls “that look of discriminating opulence.”

Still, you get to hear some of the best lines in romantic comedy, albeit soften at times to appease the censors. For instance, when confronted with a cabbie eager to take her for a ride, even though she confessed to having nothing but a centime with a hole in it to her name, she offers to pay him for driving her around town while she goes hunting for a job. “What kind of work do you want?” he inquires. “Well, look,” Eve replies, “at this time of night and in these clothes I’m not looking for needlework.”

Like Eve, I have gone round in circles (apart from the proverbial block). The ride may not amount to much to many, but this is not why I keep on mounting this hobbyhorse of mine. It is the sheer pleasure of taking my mind for a spin. And, to answer my own question, there is still time for a few jaunts. After all, it is not quite midnight . . .

Ham and Accents

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. The Lady Astor Screen Guild Players have a surprise for you tonight.” Such a promise may well have sounded hollow to many of those tuning in to the Guild program broadcast on this day, 27 March, back in 1944. That it was grandiloquently voiced by the avuncular-verging-on-the-oleaginous Truman Bradley, whom American radio listeners knew as a voice of commerce, hardly imbued such a potential ruse with sincerity. And yet, the program is indeed a surprise, and a welcome one at that. The broadcast is a rarity in scripted radio comedy: one of those occasions when ham is not only sliced generously but consumed with gusto. Granted, I may be somewhat of a hypergelast, the kind of fellow Victorian poet-novelist George Meredith denounced as a fool who laughs excessively. Still, believe me when I say in a voice that has nothing to advertise but its own taste, poor or otherwise: this is one is a riot.

Affable character actor Jean Hersholt, then President of the Motion Picture Relief Fund and star of his own sentimental radio series (Doctor Christian), takes over from the announcer to introduce the players for the evening. You can buy a line from a man like Hersholt. His is a thick, honest-to-goodness accent that sounds trustworthy compared to whatever slips from the trained tongues of promotion. Tonight, he tells us, “we have Barbara Stanwyck, Basil Rathbone, and director Michael Curtiz, three of filmdom’s outstanding personalities who will offer. . . .” At this moment, Hersholt is cut short by the one who generally occupies that spot, the man entrusted with the dearly paid-for delivery of cheap assurances.

“Uh, just a minute, Jean,” Bradley interjects, “I thought that Jack Benny was supposed to be one of the guests here tonight.” This exchange sets up the slight comedy known as “Ham for Sale,” a fine vehicle for Jack Benny, the master of comic deflation, the jokester known for his largely unfulfilled aspirations as a thespian and classical musician.

According to Hersholt, Benny got “a little temperamental”; so he will not be heard on the program. Hersholt’s recollections give way to a dramatized account of Benny’s response to the proposed broadcast. “I haven’t got anything against you, Jack. But you’re a comedian; and, frankly, I don’t think you have enough dramatic ability to play the lead opposite Miss Stanwyck.” Upon which the slighted comedian sets out to win the part.

The hilarity generated by “Ham for Sale” is not so much scripted than delivered. Greatly responsible for the kicks you’ll get out of this broadcast is the highly regarded, Oscar-winning director of Casablanca, whose Hungarian accent is so pronounced and to radio listeners’ surprising, that it causes Benny to ad-lib and Stanwyck to scream with utterly infectious laughter. According to Herbert Spencer’s “The Physiology of Laughter” (1860), mankind (or, homo ridens) response in this way when expectations are suddenly disappointed and an excess of energy in our nervous system is discharged in the muscular reflex of laughing. It seems that, as an actress, Stanwyck expected Curtiz to have a great, controlling presence; instead, while to some extent in on it all, he became the hapless brunt of Benny’s jokes: “Between Hersholt and you, I don’t understand anything.” Perhaps, it is the kind of “sudden glory” Thomas Hobbes denounced as a “sign of pusillanimity.” But it sure feels good to salt this “Ham” with your own tears.

It wasn’t exactly a fresh cut. The sketch had already been presented once before (on 20 October 1940), with Benny trying the patience of Edward Arnold, Ernst Lubitsch, and Claudette Colbert. Yet Colbert appeared to have been too controlled an actress to let anything interfere with her live performance that evening; nor did Lubitsch’s accent trigger as many not altogether intentional laughs as that of his fellow director. It is Stanwyck’s reaction to Curtiz’s line readings (just hear him exclaim “stop interrupting”) and Benny’s extemporising to the occasion that makes “Ham for Sale” such an irreverent piece of Schadenfreude. Relentless and immoderate, laughter here is a response to the “mechanical” (in Bergson’s sense), to the orderly and overly rehearsed—the minutely timed, predictable fare that so frequently went for on-air refreshment.

Night Bus; or, What Nearly Didn’t Happen

”Go where the hell ever you want. But get that word ‘bus’ outta the title. It’s poison.” That is what Harry Cohn told Frank Capra when the director declared that his next picture would be Night Bus, the comedy we now know as It Happened One Night. I have to agree with Mr. Cohn as to the toxicity of said vocable. After my recent trip to Budapest, “bus” has become a four-letter word in my lexicon, spelling b-u-s-t. The night bus that was supposed to transport us from Wales to England never even turned up. There we stood, in the wind and the rain, wondering how on earth we would get to Luton (about four and a half hours eastward) to catch the early morning flight to the Hungarian capital.

There were about fifty of us, waiting not only for the chartered vehicle but also anticipating the violent storm that was to batter the coastline and move, along with us, to the continent. It was well past 11 PM when we somehow—and, quite miraculously, given our remote location—managed to hire an alternative coach. Little did we know that, when we finally got underway around 0:30 AM, that that heaven-sent conveyance would end up sputtering along at 10 mph—on the highway, no less—and give up the ghost in its machine halfway through the journey. We missed our flight and spent five hours at a truck stop making twelfth-hour arrangements to get all of us to Budapest. Amazingly, we did secure another flight from another airport, to which the bus, now repaired, transported us. We arrived at our destination some ten hours behind schedule—too late to enjoy the boat trip on the Danube planned for the afternoon. Our hotel, we discovered, was a converted psychiatric hospital; the folks in charge of making the building fit for its new purpose needn’t have gone through what didn’t look to have been all that much trouble. I, for one, was ready to be institutionalized.

Riding a bus—or missing and waiting for same—is about as enchanting as the prospect of digging a plastic fork into a fast food dinner. Hollywood caught on quick, romancing the railroad instead. As I took time to explore in an undergraduate essay “Ladies in Loco-motion: The Train Motif in the Romantic Comedies of Claudette Colbert” (previously mentioned here), that romance commenced as early as 1895—merely a quarter of a century after the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in America—when the Lumière Brothers, showing their “Arrival of a Train at Ciotat Station” at the first public movie theater in Paris, discovered that the tracks and the camera were indeed made for each other. Sure, some spectators left screaming—but most came back for more.

In 1903, motion picture pioneer Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery revolutionized American film, since it led to the discovery that, as Ian Hamilton put it, “movies were not just ‘motion photographs’: they could indeed tell stories, defy the unities, move compellingly from A to B.” Bound and gagged beauties left to expire on the tracks, inexorable engines speedily approaching, and courageous heroes dashing to the rescue are quintessential images and sequences of both silent-screen melodrama and comedy.

As moviemaking and film narrative became more sophisticated, the plot-propelling and symbolic potentialities of the Iron Horse—from the far-off soundings of its prophetic whistle to close-ups of its powerful wheels—were explored and exploited in virtually every emerging genre, in mystery (Strangers on a Train) and musical (The Harvey Girls), in film noir (Double Indemnity) and war actioner (The Train), in Western (Union Pacific) and weeper (Brief Encounter).

To Hollywood’s romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s, train rides, from the daily commute on the el to adventurous journeys on the Twentieth Century, proved vital as well, with trains and stations serving as unstable, mobile communities or pervious social settings in which relationships are as readily forged as foreshortened, as easily enhanced as escaped. At once liberating and restricting in their scheduled, track-shackled predictability, distinctly modern, pragmatic and everyday, yet steeped in pre-automotive nostalgia, episodes in transit seem ideally suited to a comic rendering of the primal and perpetual boy-meets-girl plot, in which the lovers’ temporary separation, emotionally as well as physically, is an essential device. Consequently, Hollywood’s romantic comedy and its wilder, wackier subgenre, the Hays Office dodging screwball, make ample use of departures, arrivals, and escapades en route.

For all its influence on screwball, It Happened One Night did little to get the bus rolling again; perhaps, the crammed coach began to smell too much of a New Deal gone sour. Bus travel wasn’t so much democratic as socialist, the freedom of the road curtailed by the invisible tracks that are the prescribed route. On the train, at least, the classes could be compartmentalized, and there was ample room for glamour as well as hobo nonconformity. According to Emanuel Levy’s And the Winner Is . . ., even the success story of Capra’s Night Bus concludes with a real-life train incident. Claudette Colbert, not having expected to pick up a trophy for her role as Ellie Andrews,

was boarding the Santa Fe train to New York when she was announced winner. The Santa Fe officials held up the train and she was taken by taxi to the ceremonies at the Biltmore Hotel. “I’m happy enough to cry,” she said, ‘but I can’t take the time to do so. A taxi is waiting outside with the engine running.”

The bus driver did not wait for Miss Andrews. And he drove his vehicle into a muddy ditch, too. Is it any wonder the runaway heiress was such an expert hitchhiker? Buses! Imagine the joys of our shaky return trip, during which the coach’s anti-roll bar fell off and dragged noisily on the road like so many cans proclaiming “Just Married.” Hardly a marriage of convenience, it certainly was no romance . . .