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Monday, April 08, 2024

Stills That Speak #4


STS: John Barrymore as Richard, Sister Ethel, Handsy Gable, plus Bogie and Flynn

JOHN BARRYMORE DOING SHAKESPEARE --- The Show of Shows hindsights as woofing dog among studio revues, lice upon 1929 schedules, but wanted by a public curious to hear and not just see stars. Barrymore among these was known for declamation of Bard words (re stage triumph as Hamlet), so who was more an object of aural yearning? He parts a curtain in formal attire to announce recital as Richard III that we’ll experience just like it was Broadway and we paid four dollars and up for a seat. This was heady prospect, as it conferred bragging rights for all bearing witness to Barrymore with his voice. He was great before as romantic lead for Warners, but those were silent, and here was art as opposed to artifice of before. Jack in his intro makes prospect of sound ... sound fun, quipping about Richard killing on a scale like “Al Caponie,” name mispronounced by JB to humor effect. The slot goes seven minutes, enough of Shakespeare for most palates, a rendition of Richard fit snugly on vaudeville terms. In fact, WB could have released the Barrymore segment as one of their “Vitaphone Varieties,” one-reel an ideal host to Shakespeare’s great enactor. Jack gives it the whole hog ---- not sure how his Richard would play to modern standards, but for JB of former Jekyll-Hyde and future Svengali, it does nicely. Barrymore never had it so good as in 1929. He was happy-married to Dolores Costello, made buckets of money off Warners and independent vehicles for United Artists, plus there was a mansion lately secured which was but few mile drive from WB stages where he for most part toiled. If but Jack could tame substance demons, but his oyster was one from which he spat out all of pearls. As for Show of Show’s forecast of more “serious” performing by Barrymore, there was a Hamlet screen-test to come, not for WB, but in color, a surviving glimpse to what might have been (but who, or how many, would have paid ways in to watch it?). What we’d get of Barrymore doing Shakespeare was recordings, radio, parts in and of movies (1936 Romeo and Juliet support, deeper in decline but still effective). His Show of Shows segment is on You Tube.

ETHEL GOT OLD BUT ONLY ON SCREENS --- I always figured Ethel Barrymore for crone support in things like The Spiral Staircase, Portrait of Jennie, and Deadline USA, but wow, look at her in youth. They say she was a stage world’s most stunning, and a best of actresses in the bargain, that last in evidence of work for movies, Ethel getting gravy both stage and screen offered via perform through apex eras of both. She even did vaudeville after anoint as First Lady of legit, but being pragmatic and liking money, she took a playlet on the road and got richer in variety than she or anyone could hope for staying with prestige work. There are plenty anecdotes of Ethel being plain-folks and appreciative of what made a good dog act, never too stuck up to be her vaude self midst down market artists higher up in mass estimation than Broadway dwellers could ever hope to be. Ethel wrote a book, she pretty much had to for everyone expecting it … in fact, there were several tomes, her nothing if not beloved for wise old women she’d essay for films. Watch Ethel with Bogey/Bogie in Deadline USA and see how he defers in long dialogue they share. Surely the by-comparison neophyte thrilled to having dialogue (lots) with what must have been an acting idol from his youth. Audiences unto the fifties (Deadline USA was 1952) could appreciate old-timer encores where it was plain here was their twilight and they'd not sustain much longer. Not only great personages from vanished stage, but also faces weathered but still recognizable from dawn of movies, like a Francis X. Bushman peeping from behind near-extra ranks. So the public had a short memory? Not where those they loved most mattered still, Ethel Barrymore as good an instance of this as any.

MIND THOSE HANDS, GABLE --- I read where the King got $300K for doing Band of Angels. Talk about toil for strictly cash. He flew east for locations, but most of 125 minutes stank of sound stages. Band of Angels is bad and good after spectacular fashion, mostly bad. It was figured to evoke Gone With the Wind, and so was Raintree County of soon arrival, but Gable as former slave trader and rake of the seas was even more distant memory than Rhett Butler’s for blockade runner days. I chased Band of Angels along syndicated route just to watch, more hear, Gable speeches that run on, but what verve he gives them. Would have been great to see him head-to-head with Tracy for Inherit the Wind and let Fredric March stay home. The movie would certainly have been less a slam dunk given that casting, as we’d maybe root as much if not more for CG to score for God and make Wind less a stacked deck (imagine those Boom Town buddies together again). Gable was fine at sustained speaking, Command Decision proof to that. He liked Angels' Yvonne DeCarlo for her salty language and dirty jokes. If any film must be a “Guilty Pleasure,” let it be this. Seen the trailer for Band of Angels? The King and Yvonne being directed by Raoul Walsh take a break when Gable “notices” us looking in. He narrates from there and three minutes’ delight ensues, Band of Angels labelled “daringly unusual, boldly presented, its passions primitive,” so say Gable. Remember, this is 1958, when movies had presumably got beyond melodramas of oldest school. Not Band of Angels! There’s even Ray Teal as a mustache-twirling flesh auctioneer, and that’s before Gable enters the show. Aspects of the story are numbingly foolish, Band of Angels based on a best-seller by Robert Penn Warren, who surely did not vet treatment Warners gave it. There’d be profit from $3.9 million in worldwide rentals, not a lot, but as much perhaps as Band of Angels deserved. The still splayed here has CG bear paws mighty close to where they never went in MGM days, but this being 1958 and dawn upon Code undermine, such publicity might come as no surprise.

HITTING IT OFF FOR REAL OR JUST PRETEND? --- This is the only image I have seen of Humphrey Bogart and Errol Flynn together offscreen. Costumes indicate Passage to Marseille meets Uncertain Glory. The two seem affable. We’re told that Bogart and Flynn did not socialize. What could they have had in common, apart from both working at Warner Bros.? Common ground for WB oarsmen would be shared grouse toward management. Bogart probably knew that Flynn was at this point earning more. HB was lately off Casablanca, which scored hugely and won “Best Picture” besides. Flynn meanwhile was happy to be free of legal shackles, a possible active sentence no longer looming. His acquittal was handicap to heroic image burnished since stardom conferred by Captain Blood, but 1944 saw changed attitudes re rectitude players were expected to maintain, Errol’s misconduct a plus for many who felt that with a war on, we'd choose get-it-done if flawed role models more than boyish scouts preferred before. The trial in fact was a spike for Flynn’s career, just as Casablanca and then Bacall would be for Bogart. You could say both men sat here at a summit. They sure look mutually pleased with selves. Errol if he notices has maybe one puff left on the fag he’s holding. Otherwise a burnt fingertip beckons. I’m always surprised when Bogie isn’t holding a cigarette. He didn’t put them down even when posing for stills and publicity (smokes part of his persona after all). Chances are there's a cig in HB's right hand we don’t see. Did either actor consider quitting, even for a moment? Too few counseled that in the forties, but habit users aged quicker than ones without the habit. Look at poor Bette Davis. Best takeaway here is Bogart and Flynn seeming to enjoy one another’s company, and to me it looks genuine, or maybe they were better actors than even us dedicated fans realize.


Blogger Tom said...

Regarding the Bogart-Flynn pix, photos of these two actors together are pretty rare, as you pointed out, John. But a google search will show the two together in several pix promoting Dodge City (even though Bogie wasn't in that picture), as well as, apparently, a 1940 picture of the two of them standing before a happy birthday cake (with Kay Francis between them, I think).

I've seen this photo of yours before and, based upon their appearances, your Passage to Marseilles-Uncertain Glory time frame guess looks spot on to me (both films were simultaneously in production August to October of '43).

What would they have been smiling about in this pix you posted? Anecdotes about their boats perhaps or possibly a mutually enjoyed joke at Jack Warner's expense? Flynn, as you said, was still doing well just after his trial at this time, while Bogie's career was definitely on the rise and would soon eclipse that of Errol's.

There would be a big Hollywood turnout for Bogart's funeral a little more than 13 years later. A puffy faced Flynn can be seen in attendance there. Far fewer would show up at Errol's sendoff two and a half years later.

11:00 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Really enjoyed the Barrymore portion. The Richard III segment is a highlight for me in TSOS, which is the rare all-star revue I've actually enjoyed more than once. HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 is a hard slog for me. Gus Edwards is the best part of that show, IMHO (Jack Benny being a close second - he's great, and he's not even doing "Jack Benny" yet!) Even Stan and Ollie can't save it.

Regarding Ethel, I always find her worth watching, with that wonderful deliberate line delivery, so distinctive. I wish I could remember who said it, so I can give him credit, but one writer said, after watching her, how did Helen Hayes ever become First Lady of the American Stage?

6:32 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Milton Berle's autobiography mentions a run-in he had with Ethel Barrymore during her vaudeville tour. As MC, he said, "I'm proud to present Miss Ethel Barrymore." Afterwards, she sternly reminded him that it was the producer, not him, presenting her. As I recall, they got along fine for the rest of the engagement.

As for "Band of Angels", a lot of people confused it with "Gone with the Wind" during its many TV airings in the early '60s.

2:10 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer supplies further info re John Barrymore's film career:

The best show in “The Show of Shows” was John Barrymore’s, not only for his Shakespearean turn but for his introduction of it. The Warner Brothers were canny in allowing him to appear as himself, debonair and devastatingly handsome in a well-cut suit, given how grotesque his Richard would be. And the wit he displayed was sharp and mordant:

“The soliloquy that you’re about to hear is from the first part of ‘Henry VI, ‘ when Richard III was Duke of Gloucester and before he became king. In it, he not only discloses his own piquant psychology but also infers that he never will be King unless he destroys his elder relations, one by one. Although it is not clearly indicated in this particular soliloquy whether he does or not, permit me to assure you that he eliminates them all, with the graceful impartiality of Al Capone.”

I imagine Barrymore found it amusing that an Italianate pronunciation of “Capone” would rhyme with “impartiality,” or that Richard's villainy would find a counterpart in modern gangsterism.

The sequence he introduces presents a bravura performance by a great actor at the height of his powers. His words drip with the viciousness of his character, by turns sardonic and cruel, and he dares and takes chances in his performance. So, in the banal setting of a rather dreary advertisement of things to come from the Warner Brothers studio, here is one moment of magnificence.

This is the one record of Barrymore as a Shakespearean actor that captures the quality of the performances he must have brought to the stage in “Richard III” and “Hamlet.” But he was 47 years old at the time, already four years removed from the conclusion of his triumphant London production of "Hamlet." The lithe, athletic figure that allowed him to create the illusion of youthful princeliness was itself an illusion that could be preserved only for a little while longer. Overwork, drink, divorce, and disappointment would exact their toll. This moment would pass too quickly.

Unfortunately, the little time he had left in which he could recreate his stage successes was occupied by a contract with the studio that would require him to appear in five talkies during the next two and a half years, only one of which, “Svengali,” would approach any degree of excellence. His agent had approached Jack Warner with the possibility of filming “Hamlet,” but under a different contractual arrangement that would provide him with additional compensation. This was understandable. It was his success on Broadway and in London playing the melancholy Dane that had won him the soubriquet, “the World’s Greatest Living Actor,” which Warner Brothers was exploiting in their star vehicles with him. If the studio was to have the play itself, however, then it should pay a little more.

2:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer on John Barrymore (Part Two):

This proved to be a sticking point, however—that and the uncertainty of whether the film a play by Shakespeare could find an audience large enough to justify it. The negotiations dragged on until the parties let them fade away. This is not to say that “Hamlet” was forgotten. There would be plans, off and on for years, to play the part at the Hollywood Bowl—one of the proposals had Helen Chandler as Ophelia--and announcements in the autumn of 1933 that he was considering an appearance as Hamlet the following summer opposite Lillian Gish’s Ophelia. None came to pass.

There would also be a screen test for a film of “Hamlet,” to be produced by Pioneer Pictures in the new three-strip Technicolor process and underwritten by multimillionaire John Hay Whitney. Filmed on December 11, 1933, it featured abridged versions of the scenes of Hamlet’s first encounter with the Ghost and seeing Claudius at prayer. As noted by John M. Morrison in “John Barrymore, Shakespearean Actor”:

“The result, viewed today, is impressive. Barrymore’s readings are powerful and subtle, and his voice retains a crip, youthful timbre. When seen in long and medium shots he is strikingly effective; only in closeup are his 51 years apparent.”

“Only in closeup.” It is a particularly damning appraisal, given that the closeup is the epitome of the film art. For that and the financial riskiness of the project, it was eventually shelved. The following year, there would be another contract for another film version of “Hamlet,” this time for Alexander Korda. But Barrymore was in no better physical shape and worse, he had begun to suffer memory lapses. When he found that he could remember the soliloquies but not the Ghost scene, he wrote to his manager. “It looks like ‘Hamlet’ is out.”

I’ve seen the “Hamlet” screen test, or at least what has been made available of it, in a poor bootleg copy that does not even suggest what the original must have looked like. The voice is still the voice of Barrymore, and had it poured forth from the stage and over the lime lights, the audience hearing it would have been transported into Shakespeare’s tragedy of a man whose virtues were bereft by circumstances all but insurmountable. The images are faded, however, almost as ghost-like as that of the dead prince’s father, and with them is the realization, in their record of time's ravages, of what could not be, even for the best of intentions.

Such is our loss.

2:39 PM  

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