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Vol. LXIV, No. 38
 
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
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DVD Review

Sisters of the Comet: Mae, Joan, Claire, Paulette, Lillian, and Sylvia

Stuart Mitchner

I think all those wonderful stars and planets that we’re trying to reach so hard, we’re going to sit all around them one day in the hereafter and those will be the different stages until we’ll reach our final place.

— Lillian Roth from a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace

From what I can tell, the major events of 1910 were the coming and going of Halley’s Comet and the passing of Mark Twain. For me personally, the big event was my father; he was born that year. For moviegoers of the 1930s and 1940s, the years when Hollywood was all powerful, actors and actresses born in 1910 were familiar figures in the vicarious reality being played out on American movie screens. The six centenary women I’m writing about turned 20 at the dawn of the Depression. Five of the six were born with these names: Violet Klotz, Marion Levy, Claire Wemlinger, Sophia Kosow, and Lillian Rutstein. Go west, young woman, said Hollywood. But if you want to make it, be ready to change your name and be willing to play some, shall we say, unseemly parts.

By 1990, when Renée Zellwegger was turning 20 and looking west, times had changed. Renée could keep her cumbersome last name and become an Oscar-winning star. In 1930, you can imagine what the Hollywood moguls would have done with an ethnic mouthful like Zellwegger.

The star who kept her birth name, by the way, was Joan Bennett (1910-1990). No surprise there: it’s a nice solid English name, right out of Jane Austen. The Bennett sisters in Pride and Prejudice have nothing on Joan, Constance, and Barbara. Their father was Richard Bennett, a respected stage actor who could afford to send Joan to a boarding school in Connecticut and a finishing school in France. It didn’t hurt that Joan’s older sister, Constance was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood by the time Joan headed west, and ended up playing Amy in Little Women. Although she was a slim blonde ingenue in the 1930s, she went on to make her name as an earthy brunette of questionable virtue, first as a Cockney “seamstress” in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt and then in still steamier roles like Lazy Legs in Lang’s Scarlet Street and the title character in the same director’s The Woman in the Window.

The Grapefruit Scene

Born in Philadelphia, Violet Klotz went to Hollywood and became Mae Clarke (1910-1992), a likeable, intelligent actress who was at her best in pictures like Lady Killer (1934), where she was a crook, and Waterloo Bridge, where she was a good girl forced into prostitution. She had a knack for playing victims. In 1931, the same year she had an unpleasant encounter with the monster created by her fiancé in James Whale’s Frankenstein, she played a small part in William Wellman’s Public Enemy. Her name doesn’t even show up in the credits. Thanks to one of those quirks of Hollywood fate, a whim, a practical joke, she found herself taking part in what might be the most storied domestic moment in film history. She and her gangster boyfriend Tommy (James Cagney in his breakthrough role) are having breakfast. He’s in striped pajamas, she’s in a rather homey dressing gown. He asks her if there’s a drink in the house, she says, like any good wife, “Not before breakfast,” a big mistake, and she’s moping, in the middle of a fretful “I wish” when Cagney breaks in to say, “I wish you were a wishing well so I could tie a bucket to ya and sink ya.” After a pause, she says, “Maybe you found someone you like better.” At that, he picks up half a grapefruit and jams it in her face. For this, Violet Klotz came west? If Cagney had simply slapped her (men slapped women a lot in those days), or turned the table upside down, the moment would be forgotten like countless more violent, more dramatic domestic interludes. The grapefruit-in-the-kisser was an inspiration out of left field, and it wasn’t in the screenplay; it was a stunt cooked up by Cagney and Clarke to shock the crew. Shocked or not, Wellman knew a good thing when he saw it and kept it in the film.

Schoolmates

Marion Levy from Long Island, and Claire Wemlinger from Brooklyn, became friends at Washington Irving High in Manhattan and both landed in Hollywood in the early 1930s as Paulette Goddard (1910-1990) and Claire Trevor (1910-2000). Both were also nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Goddard for So Proudly We Hail, Trevor for Dead End and Key Largo, for which she won an Oscar as Edward G. Robinson’s moll.

In the 1940s Trevor made enough films like Murder My Sweet, Johnny Angel, and Born to Kill to earn the title of Queen of Film Noir, but her most sympathetic performance is as Dallas, the rudely treated prostitute in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939); she’s the heart of the movie and the feeling she brings to her scenes with John Wayne clearly inspires him to make the most of what proved to be a career-changing role. Another landmark role was Paulette Goddard’s radiant gamin in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, where she holds her own with the Tramp and becomes the only mortal ever allowed to walk off into the sunset by his side. In the numerous other, relatively ordinary films she made in the 1940s, she’s charming, sexy, and always likeable, but she never found the parts or pictures that might have made her a major star.

City Girl

Another star who came in with Halley’s Comet was Bronx-born Sophia Kosow, better known as Sylvia Sidney (1910-1999). If any one actress could be called the conscience of the films of the thirties, it’s Sylvia Sidney. Generalization or no, typecasting aside (she complained of being too often cast as a victim, “Paramount paid me by the tear”), she always projects integrity and compassion, ever steadfast; it’s hard to imagine anyone else bringing as much as she did to some of the best films of the period, from Rouben Mamoulian’s City Streets and Josef von Sternberg’s American Tragedy in 1931 to Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), and in 1938, Lang’s You Only Live Once and You and Me, where she memorably takes chalk in hand to add up on a blackboard for a gang of criminals the mathematical truth that crime literally does not pay.

A Tough Life

Born Lillian Rutstein in Boston, Lillian Roth (1910-1980) may be better known than her other Halley’s Comet sisters because of the international best-seller, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, inspired by her emotional appearance on This Is Your Life, an event that drew tens of thousands of letters (the book was made into a film with Susan Hayward). Compared to the other centenary stars, Roth had no movie career to speak of, no major roles, but the few times she’s on the screen, she owns it. In Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade, I’d trade the scenes between the stars, Jeanette McDonald and Maurice Chevalier, for “Let’s Be Common,” the knock-down drag-out romp in which two servants, Lillian and the rubber-legged Lupino Lane, perform a Shakespearean burlesque of McDonald-Chevalier’s royal romance. Whether playing second fiddle to the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers, or to Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies They Talk About, this woman, who had such a tough, if triumphant, life, generates a world of happiness, spirit, and good feeling, from her big infectious smile, to all the sexy-slapstick body English she puts into her number with Lupino Lane.

Other Women

There’s no room for more than a mention of other actresses from 1910 (the two who are still with us, Luise Rainer and Gloria Stuart, were the subject of a column in the July 21 issue), among them Virginia Bruce, the former Helen Briggs (1910-1982), who had a kind of sexy, feline charm, at once sly and shy and played the title role in Jane Eyre; Jane Wyatt (1910-2006), the luminous Sondra of Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, and later television’s favorite wife and mother in Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and Spock’s human mother in Star Trek. Then there’s French import Simone Simon (1910-2005), so memorable in Val Lewton films like The Curse of the Cat People; the forever fun Patsy Kelly (1910-1981); ingenues of the 1930s like Anita Page (1910-2008), and Margaret Lindsay (1910-1981).

Men? That’s, as they say, another story. The one who deserves special mention is director and actor Eric Von Stroheim, who was born September 22, 1885. TCM is celebrating him today with showings of the fullest version available of his mutilated masterpiece, Greed (239 minutes), along with a number of other pictures he either directed or acted in.

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