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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Take Away Applause, and What Did They Have?


Why Act If You Never Hear Them Clap?

Note I Don't Need to ID Rock and Yvonne, But The Lunts? That's Something Else 
What more dispiriting than to perform, and receive nothing from those who see you do it? Stage players shunned movies for this reason, plus scores more. “I did it for the money” was said more times by imported-from-stage actors than “They went thataway” by screen cowboys. Some never got over shame of appearing before cameras, pool and mansion poor swaps for artistic integrity. Katharine Cornell refused to star in films, so we barely know her. Same for the Lunts, who co-starred once for The Guardsman, then retreated. I’ve read arguments from many a memoir: No one to play to, save techs on set, and they seldom noticed, plus shooting broke into bits and seldom done in proper sequence. You’d perform a climactic scene in the morning and the opener after lunch. There was no such thing as sustained performing in movies. Those who began and continued careers on screens were better served. A Rock Hudson or Yvonne DeCarlo were not off-put being filmed, because it was all they knew, or wanted to know. Actors from the stage underestimated film-incubated talent at their peril. Deferred gratification from an invisible audience was reality understood by all those cinema-wise. For many, however, no gratification came at all, because here’s the thing … movie stars could not sit among us and enjoy our reactions to their projected image. How could they, when the very celebrity they sought barred them from experiencing their art with the viewers it was made for?


Conrad Nagel Being a Commodity, with Garbo in The Mysterious Lady


Lots did not care. Paul Muni refused to watch himself, shunned rushes, then premieres. Conrad Nagel for a late-in-life interview made his point clear, and spoke undoubtedly for others: “ … I never took much pleasure in seeing myself on screen. It was just a business. That thing up on the screen was just the commodity I sold. It was a product, nothing personal.” Nagel was a realist, more so than most I suspect, and for that reason perhaps had a longer career to show for his utter detachment. Colleagues, ones to whom approbation meant something, felt its loss keenly and did fret constant over a public they seldom saw, or did so in constricted circumstance. Those stars who entertained service personnel during wartime were stunned by emotional response they evoked. The love was out there, had been all along. They just had not been exposed to it, let alone understood extent of it. Celebrity life would not allow drop-ins to a Bijou in Oshkosh to see how folks liked your newest. Try that short of wearing a false beard or hump back and you’d be mobbed (possible exceptions: Chaplin or Groucho minus mustaches, Lon Chaney as Face #1001, his own). So much of nurturing warmth a country-wide fan base had to give was thus missed, so how could any star realize how popular he/she was?




Tumble-upon truth of your standing came by sheer chance, if at all. Judy Garland was let go by MGM and sorting out prospects in New York when she noticed Summer Stock playing at the 5,230 seat Capital Theatre. Blending into balcony seating, Judy saw the show along with plain folk and basked in their happy reaction, them not knowing she sat nearby. This was an experience apart from studio-rigged premieres where peers and press huzzahed whatever the effort, or lack of it. Garland saw honest response that day from a paying public, privileged access few stars would experience. Spotted coming down stairs, Garland got recognition's surge, only this was spontaneous, a joyous surprise for Judy and a crowd expecting least of all things to see her exiting the Capital alongside them. I wonder if she had ever had an experience quite like this, or would again (Garland differed from most, thanks to live performing and adulation that dependably came of that).




There was an interview with Peter Bogdanovich on TCM where he talked about going to see What’s Up Doc? several times while it played at Radio City Music Hall in 1972, a full house in each instance. Being merely the director, no one knew him, so he got the high, but not the hangover, a treat Barbra Streisand or Ryan O’Neal could not have shared with him. How fair was that? Everyone, it seems, wants celebrity, certainly most players do, most urgently, but look what they give up. It’s like an old fable of the man who wanted wealth, gets it, but finds the price to be … no one to enjoy it with. I toted my boy’s way to the Liberty in late 1967 for Wait Until Dark, wherein blind Audrey Hepburn was beset by thuggery. A shock shot near the end had a baddie suddenly lunging out of pitch black after we thought he was dead, grabbing Audrey by the ankle to screech-raise all us watching, a moment we’d take home and to friends who must see Wait Until Dark. I wondered at the time if Audrey Hepburn dropped in at theatres to gauge reaction to that third act blast. Now I realize: She did not … she could not. So movie stars decried a loss of privacy? Well, they got bushels of it, just for being kept out of the very places that would have rewarded their effort loudest.

10 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

George Raft told Johnny Carson on the TONIGHT SHOW that he never saw himself on the screen.

10:00 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Then you had comics who'd honed their timing before live houses and studio audiences. Some were so seasoned they could maintain their comedic timing before a movie camera, but all ultimately had to trust directors and editors. The ones that endured never forgot (or belatedly learned) how to work a live audience, soldiering on with stage tours and television variety shows when movie careers cooled.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

John, you make a good point about movie stars seldom getting audience feedback. Our old friend Gloria Jean enjoyed a good run on the screen, but she seldom saw her pictures in theaters. She fondly recalled dropping into a neighborhood house to see how her 1948 Columbia musical I SURRENDER DEAR came out. The crowd cheered and applauded, and Gloria "was delightfully surprised. I thought, 'Is this that good?'" On her way out, she introduced herself to the theater manager, who congratulated her: "Boy, do they love you."

4:09 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Speaking of Lunt and Fontanne, as one rarely has occasion to do, I recommend taking the tour of their summer home, Ten Chimneys, in the tiny Wisconsin town of Genesee Depot (a half hour or so outside Milwaukee. It must be close to the best surviving example of how theater folk got away in the months too hot for theater, with a cozy house stylishly decorated by artistic friends (the bedrooms all being off a central landing was said to facilitate late night bed-exchanging), a second cottage where plays were workshopped and visiting dramatists isolated to focus on writing, the remains of a pool, and so on. It seems idyllic, and really brings to life an era when, like for the Ambersons, there was time for sleigh rides and balls, assemblies and cotillions.

4:18 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

There's a terrific conversation, singly and together, with Lunt and Fontanne in "Actors Talk About Acting," one of the best interview anthologies I've come across. Lunt had been in vaudeville, enjoyed reminiscing about it, seemed to have a refreshing, innate modesty. I passed along some of his memories of once working with Lillie Langtry in Greenbriar's column about "The Westerner" on 5/29/19.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I read somewhere that Richard Burton never watched his own movies. The one time he had done so, he had walked out after the first glimpse he had of himself on screen - the reason he gave for doing so was that on film he appeared to his own eyes to be the spitting image of his own father - but he hated and detested his father with a passion for the abuse he had endured from him while younger.
Richard Burton simply couldn't stand to be reminded of his hated father in any way, and so he never watched his own performances on film due to the similarity of his physical appearance on film to his abusive father. Or so he claimed.

8:29 AM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

The shot of What's Up Doc? reminded me of one of my happiest movie memories.

What's Up Doc? was the first movie I went to alone, without adult supervision. (I was 10.) The audience was howling! And so was I … my first brush with the power of movie comedy.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Bob Clampett said he took a print of his latest cartoon to several theaters. He then sat at the front of the theater watching the audience watch his film. He learned the each theater and each audience reacted differently. I observed this myself first hand when I played one film 7 nights a week for several months. Each night's audience reacted differently but consistently. Monday night's crowd always reacted the same way each week. Ditto Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday & Sunday. I asked people who worked in live theater if they had observed the same pattern. They had.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Reg: That audience reaction you noticed is spooky.

12:55 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Conrad Nagel also said that he oncemonce 31 movies over a 24 month period. He and his wife wanted to go to the movies one evening but discovered he was playing in every theater. They wound up going home.

1:01 PM  

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