Saturday, December 31, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Month of VERTIGO: the Bloggers...

Arriving with 2012 will be this blog’s first major event, A Month of VERTIGO. The month will feature 10 11 bloggers and one ‘vlogger' reflecting on facets of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958).

Unpopular with critics and audiences when it was released, Vertigo has endured. Today it is generally considered the great auteur's masterpiece of masterpieces and is one of the most highly regarded films in movie history. Vertigo is an ambitious work of grand scale and reputation - a staggering review subject for the lone blogger. And so, we eleven twelve have joined together to contemplate this masterwork from many angles.

Here's what to expect at The Lady Eve's Reel Life during January 2012:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Blog Full of Gifts From Me to You...

The Lady Eve offers a blogful of holiday cheer this year. Here's what's under the tree...

~ Two Icons Singing: Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sing "White Christmas" on a December 1957 TV special...

~ A Festive Romp From the 1970s: Kenneth More and Albert Finney sing "I Like Life" in the 1970 film Scrooge...

~ From Disney's Fantasia (1940): "The Nutcracker Suite"...

~ Judy, Judy, Judy...No holiday would be complete without hearing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" at least once. Here's Judy singing to her children, Lorna and Joey, in 1963 on the 'Christmas Show' for her CBS TV program...

~ A Holiday Movie: The Mitchell Leisen directed, Preston Sturges penned, yuletide classic Remember the Night (1940), starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck - all one hour and 33 minutes of it...

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful...which means it's a perfect time to snuggle down into a favorite chair, remote in hand, and decide: DVR or DVD?

With Christmas just a week away I've picked a few long-time holiday favorites to watch along with one or two that have come into my life more recently...

Monday, December 12, 2011

...More About "A Month of VERTIGO"

Not long ago I sat down with the 1956 British translation of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac's D'Entre Les Morts (1954). The book is now published under the title Vertigo (it was originally called 'The Living and the Dead') owing to the legend that is the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film based on Boileau/Narcejac's novel. When I finished reading, I wanted to blog about Vertigo and decided to try to do it "with a little help from my friends." One of these friends (Brandon Goco) even created a 'teaser' for what turned into the project we're calling A Month of VERTIGO:

A Month of VERTIGO will begin January 1 and run through the month (and into early February) - with ten bloggers (including me) and one 'vlogger' (video blogger) contemplating Vertigo from a variety of perspectives. More details will appear soon about Reel Life's first major blog event.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Shop Around the Corner (1940): A Lubitsch Christmas

It is only occasionally that a film ages with extraordinary grace. One such film, Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 classic, The Shop Around the Corner, has mellowed as elegantly as a rare and prized bottle of Hungarian Tokaji Aszú...
Balta Street, Budapest
Lubitsch, acclaimed for sophisticated films with a light-as-air "touch," was at an artistic peak in 1940. He took special care with The Shop Around the Corner, one of his favorites among his own films. Of it he would write, “Never did I make a picture in which the atmosphere and the characters were truer…” And this atmosphere is unmistakable. With the first strains of “Ochi Tchornya” heard over Leo the Lion’s roar, the first glimpse of a dreamlike setting near Budapest’s historic Andrassy Street and through an assortment of unique and quirky characters, the spirit of old Europe comes alive on screen. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

THESE AMAZING SHADOWS: The Film Preservation Act and the National Film Registry

Independent Lens, the Emmy-winning PBS series, airs Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s These Amazing Shadows, a one-hour documentary, on Thursday, December 29, at 10:00pm (check local listings).

These Amazing Shadows is an often kaleidoscopic swirl of film clips iconic and obscure, from Casablanca, Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz to 2001, The Godfather and E.T., plus culturally noteworthy home movies, the odd sound film demo and theater intermission bumper. The documentary also outlines the background of the Film Preservation Act and the creation of the National Film Registry.

The Night of the Hunter
When Ted Turner purchased MGM in 1986 for $1.6 billion he sold off parts of his acquisition, but kept the film and TV libraries, which included those of MGM/UA, RKO and Warner Bros. With the hope of expanding the appeal of classic black and white films on his ‘SuperStation’ WTBS and elsewhere, Turner devised a plan to “colorize” them. In September 1986, Turner Broadcasting System released a list of 100 films set for “colorizing” – the list included Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past and other legends of black and white American cinema. Turner’s decision met with loud opposition from Hollywood filmmakers. The Director’s Guild was outspoken and an indignant Billy Wilder snarled: “Those fools! Do they really think that colorization will make The Informer any better? Or Citizen Kane or Casablanca? Or do they hope to palm off some of the old stinkers by dipping them in 31 flavors? Is there no end to their greed?”

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Coming Soon to REEL LIFE...

Some Came Running

A sampling of a few posts and one event (my first!) on the near horizon for The Lady Eve's Reel Life:

The Families of Vincent Minnelli
A look at some of the director's most memorable family-themed films, including Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Father of the Bride (1950), Some Came Running (1958) and Home From the Hill (1960). Plus a look at the award-winning artist's own life.

These Amazing Shadows
Late in December the PBS series "Independent Lens" will spotlight  "culturally, historically... aesthetically significant" American films included in the National Film Registry with the one-hour documentary, These Amazing Shadows. The registry's beginnings with National Film Preservation Act of 1988 is also covered. I'll be previewing the documentary ahead of its air date.

The Shop Around the Corner
Just in time for the holidays...a reflection on Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 classic. The director's own favorite among his films, it is set at Christmastime in Budapest, features a sparkling ensemble cast led by James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan and Frank Morgan...and 'tis perfection.

A Month of Vertigo
A great group of guest contributors - and me - will blog on myriad facets of Alfred Hitchcock's masterwork. I'm hoping A Month of Vertigo makes for a very interesting beginning to 2012...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Family Thanksgivings: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

I'm looking forward to spending some time with one of my favorite families this Thanksgiving weekend, Hannah and Her Sisters (as well as her other relatives and friends).

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Chill in the Air - Part II

For a few years now, Turner Classic Movies has traditionally aired The Uninvited (1944) during Halloween season. A gothic mystery/romance with a lighter heart than Rebecca (1940), The Uninvited is another of my cold night favorites.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Chill in the Air - Part I

Halloween has come and gone, a time change looms (“fall back”) and winter is just around the corner. Early twilight and cool evenings are here and it seems to me that when the weather starts getting nippy and night falls early, nothing satisfies like a crackling fire, something either steaming or iced to drink and a well-chosen book or movie to settle into. What I'm reading and watching as autumn deepens this year are books and the films that were made of them.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Haunting Melody of The Uninvited (1944)

The Uninvited, from Paramount Pictures in 1944, is an elegantly spooky Rebecca-esque romance with more than one haunting quality. Yes, Windward House, the sea cliff-situated home central to the story, is haunted by a malevolent woman’s ghost, but the film’s music is equally haunting (though not at all spooky).

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Thank You

Bette Davis, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex  (1939)

When I received an email from Rick Armstrong the other day telling me that I'd been awarded the Classic Movie Blog Association's 2011  "Best Review/Drama" CiMBA for my post on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, I was thrilled - and also surprised. The post had originally been my entry in CMBA's "Movies of 1939 Blogathon" last spring and I'd always thought of it as something of an outlier, being about a film that isn't generally counted among the truly great films of that much-vaunted movie year.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

To Be or Not to Be - Carole Lombard's final film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch

'The Lubitsch Touch' has been dissected and analyzed for decades. Billy Wilder, who had been protégé to director Ernst Lubitsch early on, put it succinctly: "The Lubitsch Touch is a light touch. But there are serious overtones in Lubitsch. He understood life..."

Monday, October 3, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon: Wandering Down Memory Lane

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the premiere of The Dick Van Dyke Show and this post is my contribution to the tribute blogathon hosted by Thrilling Days of Yesteryear. Click here for more on participating blogs...

Friday, September 30, 2011

Nuanced Terror: Jack Clayton's The Innocents

Light and shadow flicker across the screen. Sobs are heard as a pair of praying hands, clasping and unclasping, appear. The sobbing continues.

A woman’s suffering face appears above the tortured hands. Birds twitter…her distraught voice whispers…

All I want to do is save the children not destroy them. More than anything I love children. More than anything they need affection, love, someone who will belong to them and to whom they will belong.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Book to Movie: In a Lonely Place

A few weeks ago I took another look at Nicholas Ray’s noir classic In a Lonely Place (1950). As I watched, it began to rankle that the central character, Dix Steele (Humphrey Bogart), a Hollywood screenwriter with an explosive temper, is consistently praised as a great guy by most who know him. Even the ex-girlfriend whose nose he once broke is still a friend (she never pressed charges), and it's well known that he's had scrapes with the law more than once for his loutish dust-ups. His friends remain steadfast even after he is named prime suspect in the killing of a young hat-check girl who was last seen with him. Dix's harsh treatment of his new girlfriend, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), is mostly excused because, as a murder suspect, he's under great stress. For example, there's the night...

Lovejoy, Donnell, Bogart, Grahame - this party is about to break up...
Steele becomes pointlessly enraged with Laurel at a cookout and gets behind the wheel of his car, taking her on a hair-raising ride. His recklessness causes an accident and when the other driver confronts him, Dix’s temper blows and he begins viciously beating the man. Even after Laurel intercedes (saving the other man’s life?), Dix seems to feel justified in his violent attack because the other driver called him names.

Dix refers to his own “artistic” temperament and, according to one supporting character, “…he’s a writer, people like that have a right to be temperamental.” A long-time associate comments, “…he has a right to explode sometimes, it’s as much a part of him as his eyes…” His former Army buddy (Frank Lovejoy) observes, “he’s an exciting guy” with “a superior mind.”  This is a man who challenges a stranger to a fist fight within the first five minutes of the film and punches out another man minutes later.

Because I had questions about this point, which seemed incongruous, I became curious about the changes that might've occurred as the story made its way from page to screen and decided to read the novel on which In a Lonely Place was based.

I was in for a few surprises.

In a Lonely Place was first published in 1947, penned by prominent mystery/crime writer Dorothy B. Hughes. It was her eleventh novel and two of her previous books had already been made into films – The Fallen Sparrow and Ride the Pink Horse. Interestingly, the author’s first published work was a book of poetry. She was also a literary critic.

While many of the book's elements were retained, both  its plot and themes are significantly different from the film.

The book:

Dix Steele, not long back from WWII, is staying in Los Angeles in the swank but borrowed garden court apartment of an old Princeton pal. He contacts war buddy Brub Nicolai of the locally prominent Nicolai family, now married and a detective with the LAPD. Both men had dropped out of elite colleges to enlist in the war and flew together in Europe where they became close friends.

Dix has no profession, he’s been drifting since the war, but says he’s writing a mystery novel. He originally devised this story so the very wealthy uncle who raised him would subsidize him for a year or so while he wrote. Dix, unlike his uncle, has no interest in hard work but developed a taste for the good life at Princeton and as a high-living ace flyer during the war.

Brub, along with most of the LAPD, is focused on a sensational case involving the rape/strangulations of young women in West L.A. Brub is afraid for his own lovely blonde wife, Sylvia; the couple lives in Santa Monica near the beach.

Dix, who is handsome, charming and polished, is attractive to women and knows it. When he catches sight of one of his garden court neighbors, a knockout named Laurel Gray, he is smitten and pursues her on the spot. Young but savvy Laurel is a fledgling actress just out of a miserable marriage to a wealthy man. She and Dix soon become involved.

Grahame (the ex-Mrs. Ray), Bogart and Ray on the set
The movie:

Dix Steele, a screenwriter who “hasn’t had a hit in ten years,” is known for his intransigence about the writing assignments he will accept - as well as his violent temper. He comes under police scrutiny when a young hat-check girl is murdered after a visit to his apartment. Dix’s old Army buddy, strictly middle-class Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), an LAPD detective, takes Dix in to the station for questioning the morning after the girl’s murder.

Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), Dix’s new neighbor, steps in as a witness on his behalf, but Dix remains the #1 suspect. Eventually, Laurel and Dix become romantically involved. In the meantime, Dix’s peculiar behavior one evening at the Nicolai home disturbs Brub’s wife Sylvia (Jeff Donnell). Brub scoffs.

Dix has other friends, all Hollywood types, who attest that he’s a stand-up guy despite his volatile temper. Dix explodes several times in the course of the film and even those close to him (Brub, Sylvia, Laurel) become suspicious of his connection to the murder.  But Dix is innocent; the slain young woman’s boyfriend eventually confesses.

The novel takes a less circuitous route in identifying the murderer, in this case a serial killer:

Written as a third person narrative, the book presents the story entirely from the viewpoint of Dix Steele. And from its early pages there is no doubt that Dix is a killer. By the end of the book it develops that he has not only raped and strangled women in Los Angeles but also on the East Coast and in Europe...and that he has also killed a wealthy college pal and appropriated his home, his belongings and his charge accounts.

These facts emerge slowly as the story unfolds and Dix, a stealthy character (though not nearly as clever as he thinks) but lacking an overtly nasty temperament, does not become a suspect until toward the end of the book. It is Brub’s wife, Sylvia, quiet and observant, who notices that something is awry in the man. Later, Laurel, who becomes aware of Dix’s inconsistencies and mood swings, comes to believe that Dix is the killer and confides her suspicions to Brub and Sylvia. Dix finally begins to unravel, certain from one moment to the next that either the police are closing in on him or that he’s outsmarted everyone again.

As with the movie, the book does not depict murder, though Dix’s stalking of his victims is detailed. In a Lonely Place is an extremely well-written and well-plotted page-turner. Hughes’ description of Dix through his internal dialogue is credible and absorbing. The writer provides no explanation for Dix’s deeper motives though, through his agitated thoughts, it comes out that he profoundly resented being raised by a wealthy but stingy uncle who insisted his nephew adopt his own intense work ethic. We know from his behavior that Dix has no desire to work but has a sense of entitlement. We discover that at Princeton Dix attached himself as a toady to a rich crowd so that he could pass as one of them. From Dix’s reactions to certain intrusive sounds it seems that though he enjoyed the excitement of flying in combat, something of the experience rattled him.  And finally, it develops that he continues to be a fixated on “Brucie,” the woman he loved during the war.

It’s fair to say that the story of a rapist/murderer told from the killer's point of view might not have appealed to filmmakers (not to mention censors) in 1950. And, though he was not an actor afraid of playing flawed characters, it’s doubtful Bogart, whose own company produced, was inclined to portray a serial killer/rapist at age 51. So it's understandable that changes were made. But what of Dix’s onscreen character? Though he does offer jaded charm and dry wit, he is just barely sympathetic. Perhaps emphasis on the devotion of his friends was meant to cue the required amount of audience acceptance. And perhaps the mores of mid-century America allowed the brutish acts of a man otherwise labeled "good" to be tolerated.

I was born when she kissed me, I died when she left me...
By the last act of Nick Ray’s film Laurel has become convinced of Dix’s guilt and is terrified of him. As the murder investigation wears on Dix has grown more unpredictable and paranoid; when he discovers that Laurel has plans to slip away, he snaps. He very nearly does kill her - she is virtually saved by the bell, a ringing telephone that brings news of Dix's exoneration. The relationship has, of course, just been demolished. It's worth noting that Laurel's lament that had the call come a day earlier it would've "meant the world" to the two of them implies that their romance would've survived had Dix kept his abusive antics just short of attempted murder...

The back story on In a Lonely Place is that the film was originally going to end with Dix actually murdering Laurel in that scene. However, Ray, who was involved with the script (along with Andrew Solt), wasn't satisfied and made the change.

Today Nicholas Ray's rendering of In a Lonely Place, noteworthy among many things for its intimations on Hollywood during the blacklist era, is a standard of early '50s noir. Gloria Grahame's dazzling turn as Laurel Gray stands as one of her finest performances. And, early in the 21st century, writer Dorothy B. Hughes gained renewed interest with the reissue of some of her best work. She is now compared to the great icons of mystery/crime fiction and one contemporary writer of the genre has proclaimed that Hughes "puts Chandler to shame."

Dorothy B. Hughes

Monday, September 19, 2011

Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon: "No down payment is the secret of prosperity..."

It’s Los Angeles in the 1950s and the GI Bill-fueled migration from city to suburb is in high gear. An opening shot of a vast (but shockingly empty) freeway system sets the scene. A gorgeous young couple in a late-model Chrysler cruises out of town. They smile as they pass billboard after billboard trumpeting newly minted middle-class subdivisions: Fairview Ranchos, Enchanted Homes, Dutch Haven, Park Village Estates and, finally, Sunrise Hills (“a better place for better living”). They exit to the hills.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

One Year Ago Today...

The Lady Eve's Reel Life is one year old today...and no one is more surprised by this anniversary than the lady herself. When I nervously posted my first piece on TCM's Classic Film Union blog pages about 2-1/2 years ago I didn't imagine I'd soon be contributing to a collaborative blog (The Classic Film & TV Cafe) and would, not too much later, begin a blog of my own. I never would have believed that along the way I'd get to know and interview two amazing women, one a former child actress who'd been featured in a Hitchcock classic, and the other the daughter of an iconic star of the silent era. As fulfilling as all of this has been, equally rewarding is getting to know the many classic film fans and bloggers I've met in the past few years. I received a lot of help from these new friends as I set off on my blogging adventures and want to particularly thank Rick Armstrong, who couldn't be more supportive, helpful - and patient!

At first I thought I might celebrate here by sharing links to some of my early TCM and Cafe blogs, but reconsidered. I'd rather nod in the direction of the film that inspired my online moniker, the scintillating work of brilliant and meteoric writer/director Preston Sturges -The Lady Eve (1941)...

Thanks to all who visit Reel Life, with deepest gratitude to my loyal followers!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Take 2: Irene Mayer Selznick, a Life in Three Acts

Classic Film Boy and The Lady Eve Discuss the Fascinating Irene Mayer Selznick

Welcome to Take 2, a conversation about Irene Mayer Selznick, the daughter of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer and first wife of famed producer David O. Selznick. Both Classic Film Boy (CFB) and I (TLE) recently read A Private View, Mayer Selznick’s 1983 autobiography.We were impressed by the story of this strong woman who grew up and lived in Hollywood during its golden age and went on to become an esteemed Broadway producer in her own right. CFB invited me to discuss her life with him and, over the past month or so, we did:

Monday, August 29, 2011

Starry, Starry Night(s)


Since 2003, August on Turner Classic Movies has meant a 31 day parade of stars, each day filled with the films of a different one, each honored for 24-hours of what is known and celebrated as "Summer Under the Stars."

This year, many received a day of their own for the first time. I was  surprised to discover that Charles Laughton, Montgomery Clift and Ronald Colman hadn't been featured before. I wasn't at all surprised, but was infinitely thrilled to find that Jean Gabin, icon of the French cinema, was to be honored for the first time.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Father and Mother Were Movie Stars: Leatrice Gilbert Fountain Remembers

Just over a year ago, as Turner Classic Movies prepared to honor silent screen legend John Gilbert with a day of his own for the first time during “Summer under the Stars” 2010, I interviewed Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, daughter of the actor and his second wife, silent screen star Leatrice Joy. Leatrice Fountain and I had become acquainted several months earlier and it seemed a perfect idea to publish a discussion of her father’s career on the same day TCM fêted him.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


It began long ago, the succession of beautiful blonde actresses who combined feminine refinement and sex appeal in a way that director Alfred Hitchcock could not resist depicting onscreen many times. Over the course of his career, Hitchcock honed this character type to a fine point and his final blonde stars were scrupulously stylized to evoke a very specific image.

Some of the most memorable:

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Norman Rockwell with a Twist in Hitchcock's America: Shadow of a Doubt Rockwell
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) was Alfred Hitchcock’s fifth American film and the first in which he believed he'd truly depicted America. His “first draft” attempt at this had been Saboteur (1942), but Hitchcock hadn’t gotten the cast he wanted, he felt the script was weak and that he’d been rushed into the project.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I Love Lucy...A Few Reasons Why

Lucille Ball by Richard Amsel

This is my entry in the "Loving Lucy Blogathon" hosted by True Classics...for more, click here.

One reason I love Lucy is that my mom always reminded me very much of her. Both were smart, attractive and there was more than occasionally something they kept from 'the man of the house' (how I remember the phrase, "don't tell your father"). Mom was talented, ambitious, determined and funny, like Lucy. There were times, in certain situations, that she would imitate Lucy's famous "Ewwww!" take. But mom was what was then called a "housewife," a homemaker extraordinaire and PTA queen - Lucy was the greatest comedienne television has yet known.

As has often been noted, Lucille Ball was in Hollywood for years before she broke out on TV. She'd been tagged "Queen of B-Movies," which is something, but clearly not enough for an actress who'd shared the screen with the likes of Tracy and Hepburn, Astaire and Rogers, The Marx Bros., Bob Hope and Henry Fonda. Her popular radio series, "My Favorite Husband" (CBS, 1948 - 1951) was the stepping stone that led to Lucy's television super-stardom on "I Love Lucy," which debuted on CBS TV in October 1951.

I've always been especially fond of the Lucy episodes from seasons 4 and 5, beginning in February 1955, when the Ricardos and Mertzes traveled to Hollywood. These shows included cameos by various stars (including John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Van Johnson and Harpo Marx) and industry legends (Hedda Hopper, Dore Schary) along with the usual Lucy hi-jinks. But I think some of my affection for these shows is also tied to the fact that Lucy and her gang had come to Southern California, my own home ground.

I don't know how many times I've seen this Lucy sketch with William Holden (Season 4, Episode 17, "L.A., at Last," first aired February 7, 1955), but it still makes me laugh out loud. It's my favorite Lucy routine of them all and one of her two or three very best. The lunacy begins when Bill Holden, whom Lucy has already accosted and made a scene over at the Brown Derby restaurant, arrives at the Ricardo's hotel room with Ricky. Lucy improvises...

Not long ago I watched the amusing Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949), in which Lucy and Holden co-starred. He hadn't yet collaborated with Billy Wilder, a teaming that would launch the actor's great film stardom, and Lucy was still a year or two from her move to TV.  I have to think that the two must've relished working together in this 1955 sitcom classic, two former B-stars now both firmly ensconced on the A List, and having a great time of it.

Click here for another of my favorite Lucy skits.

Turner Classic Movies Schedule of Lucille Ball Films, August 6, 2011
6:00 am Eastern/3:00 Pacific, Du Barry Was a Lady (1943)
8:00 am Eastern/5:00 Pacific, Panama Lady (1939)
9:30 am Eastern/6:30 Pacific, Without Love (1945)
11:30 am Eastern/8:30 Pacific, Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949)
1:00 pm Eastern/10:00 am Pacific, The Fuller Brush Girl (1950)
2:30 pm Eastern/11:30 am Pacific, The Long, Long Trailer (1954)
4:30 pm Eastern/1:30 Pacific, Best Foot Forward (1943)
6:15 pm Eastern/3:15 Pacific, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
8:00 pm Eastern/5:00 Pacific, Stage Door (1937)
9:45 pm Eastern/6:45 Pacific, The Big Street (1942)
11:30 pm Eastern/8:30 Pacific, Easy to Wed (1946)
1:30 am Eastern/10:30 pm Pacific, Lured (1947)
3:15 am Eastern/12:15 Pacific,The Affairs of Annabel (1938)
4:30 am Eastern/1:30 Pacific, Annabel Takes a Tour (1938)

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

...aka/'Ann Newton' of "Shadow of a Doubt"

Shadow of a Doubt, Wallace Ford, Edna May Wonacott, Macdonald Carey
Early in 2010 I was doing research for a post on Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and in the process came upon an interesting piece by one of TCM's MovieMorlock bloggers, Medusa. Entitled "My Favorite Book Worm or: Where in the World is Edna May Wonacott?", it focused on the child actress who portrayed Ann Newton in Shadow of a Doubt. I was inspired to locate and contact Edna (now Edna Green) and asked her if she'd like to be interviewed. She agreed, and our conversation evolved into a blog post that first appeared at The Classic Film & TV Cafe on her 78th birthday in February 2010, was later published as a Sunday feature in The Yuma Sun and, later still, as an article in Films of the Golden Age. Here is a slightly revised version:

Edna May was nine years old and living with her family in Santa Rosa, California, when she caught the eye of director Alfred Hitchcock while he was in town preparing to make Shadow of a Doubt (1943). The director cast her in the role of Ann Newton, younger sister of the protagonist, Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) and niece of the villain, Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). Edna May made quite a splash in the part and appeared in small roles in other films over the next few years.

That Alfred Hitchcock happened upon Edna May and cast her in Shadow of a Doubt is a minor legend, but an imprecise one. In some versions of the story, Joseph Cotten was with the director when they met. Edna clearly recalls the circumstances of that fortuitous day when she and two cousins were on their way home from a shopping excursion:

"I was discovered in Santa Rosa, standing on a street corner waiting for a bus. Alfred Hitchcock and producer Jack Skirball were standing at the same corner looking over the town."

Hitchcock (right) in Santa Rosa, near the spot where he met Edna
That particular corner bus stop, in front of a Karl's shoe store, had a view of several prominent downtown locations including the courthouse, a circular green and the bank. Hitchcock and Skirball were looking and talking and jotting down notes on a clipboard. Edna May watched them and was curious. She edged away from her cousins to be closer to Hitchcock and Skirball so she could find out what was going on. The two men noticed her observing them and began to look her over.

"My older cousin made me move away from them and next to her, and the two men kept looking at me and finally walked over to us and introduced themselves and said they were making a movie in town and wanted to know if I wanted to be in it." They asked for her address and said they would be out to talk to her parents that afternoon.

Edna May ran all the way home to tell her mother that she was going to be in a movie. Her mother, well aware of her daughter's vivid imagination, thought she'd made it up until the cousins arrived and confirmed her story.

Edna's first scene as Ann Newton
The next day Edna May and her mother were on the night train to Los Angeles where the young girl would make her screen test. The following morning they taxied from the Glendale depot to Universal Studios, where they were met at the gate and escorted to the audition. Edna May was given a script for the phone scene, the first appearance of Ann Newton in Shadow of a Doubt. Hitchcock directed her, basically instructing her on the reactions and expressions he was after. Edna May wasn't nervous, she just followed Hitchcock's direction and aced the screen test. She said she didn't have to be coaxed into taking the part, adding: "What nine year old wouldn't want to be in a movie?"

The story goes - and it's true - that Edna May had no experience as a performer up to that point, not even in school plays or church pageants, "I hadn't had any acting experience and no interest in ever doing such a thing..."

Abbott & Costello
While at Universal, Edna May and her mother ate in the commissary and were entranced as they watched actors and actresses in costume eating lunch. Edna remembers meeting Abbott and Costello, Deanna Durbin and Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame that day. In fact, she and her mother were offered an all-expenses-paid weekend in Hollywood, including a chauffeur-driven car to take them anywhere they'd like to go. Edna May wanted more than anything to visit the Disney studios, but her mother, unsettled at being away from home and on her own for the first time, didn't want to stay - and they were on the train headed back to Santa Rosa that night. 

Though she was a novice, Edna May didn't receive any special training for her performance. She gives credit to the director: "I had no coaching for the part and just took direction from Alfred Hitchcock." She worked well with him and had no trouble understanding what he wanted from her. She felt it was the same for the other actors in the cast (Joseph Cotten, Teresa Wright, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge, Hume Cronyn, Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford). She recalls Hitchcock as a very quiet man who kept to himself much of the time (she often saw him reading comic books on the set).

Ann Newton was a unique character, a confident, self-possessed little girl who loved books and didn't hesitate to speak up. She was an observant child, the only family member who took a dubious view of Uncle Charlie early on. I wondered if Edna May had been like Ann Newton as a child. In some ways, she doesn't think so ("I didn't like reading and would rather be outside riding my bike or playing."). On the other hand, she noted that she was "a very confident kid and never doubted I could do anything I wanted to do." And she was observant; it was her curiosity about Hitchcock and Skirball on that street corner that set her Hollywood adventure in motion.

Ann Newton is not impressed
Edna remembers filming Shadow of a Doubt fondly: "The cast and crew were like a happy family. No one was treated any differently than anyone else. I had no favorites on the set other than the fact that I was madly in love with Joseph Cotten and melted every time he talked to me. Everybody knew this and I got kidded a lot!" Her crush on the charismatic Mr. Cotten didn't get in the way of her performance, though. Hitchcock's instructions to Edna May regarding her scenes with Cotten were: "It doesn't matter how nice he is to you, always be suspicious of him and question why he's doing what he's doing." Ann's skepticism of him is reflected the moment Uncle Charlie hands her an ill-chosen teddy bear gift and Edna May screws up her face and gives him a withering sidelong glance.

Shadow of a Doubt's exterior scenes were shot on location in Santa Rosa, which was unusual for the time. The interiors were shot at the studio on a soundstage. When the time came to travel to Hollywood again, Edna May's mother and brother accompanied her. Her dad, who was a Santa Rosa grocer, stayed home and minded the store. It was her brother who helped her memorize her lines.

Edna's classmate, Sabu, 'the elephant boy'
Filming on Shadow of a Doubt began in August 1942 and took three months to complete. While in Hollywood during the school year, Edna May was tutored on the set on the days that she worked. On off-days, she attended classes at the studio's schoolhouse. She particularly remembers one fellow student, Sabu, who captivated the class with stories about the elephants of India. His stories gave Edna May the impression that in India elephants were as common as dogs in the U.S., and treated in much the same way.

Edna May became close to Pat Hitchcock, the director's daughter, and the two often played gin rummy on the set. Both girls had crushes on Joseph Cotten, and when he gave Edna May an autographed picture inscribed "with love," Edna remembers that Pat was a little disconcerted because Cotten hadn't signed his picture to her with the same sentiment.

Joseph Cotten
The Hitchcocks frequently took Edna May to Hollywood's famous Brown Derby restaurant with them, and she spent many weekends as Pat's guest at the Hitchcock home. On most days, their meals would be ordered from the kitchen and sent up to Pat's room via a "dumb-waiter" built into the wall. One day, though, Pat told her there would be a formal dinner that evening and to "wear something nice." Edna May was flustered, not being familiar with the forks, spoons, knives, dishes and glasses used at proper dinners. She hoped to sit next to Pat and follow her lead. But Pat told her they'd be sitting across the table from each other and, when it came to the silverware, "just start from the outside and work your way in." It turned out that the evening's guests were Joseph Cotten, his wife and step-daughter - and Edna was seated next to him. She remembers being so smitten that she was trembling. And she'll never forget that he talked with her all through dinner.

Like so many kids of that era, Edna May had an autograph book. When it was Alfred Hitchcock's turn to sign, he did it as one might expect - with a twist. He signed the last page in the book and with his left hand (he was right-handed): "By hook or by crook, I'll be the last one to sign in this book."

At the end of the shoot, there was a goodbye party in San Francisco. Edna May received many gifts that she still cherishes, including an inscribed bracelet from Teresa Wright, a scarf with a "pigtail" motif from Joseph Cotten and a golden bow from Hitchcock inscribed "to Ann Newton from Alfred Hitchcock." Edna recalls that Hitchcock never called her anything but Ann throughout the making of Shadow of a Doubt.

Edna May Wonacott, child actress
Edna May, of course, was a local celebrity in Santa Rosa (then with a population of 19,000). "There was a lot of publicity and women would come into dad's store and want to touch the father of a movie star! I have lots of scrapbooks of the publicity and had quite a write-up in Life magazine and was in movie magazines. Little girls with pigtails and glasses suddenly started showing up on the street corners in town."

When Shadow of a Doubt was released it premiered in Santa Rosa and Pat Hitchcock came up from Hollywood and attended with Edna May. There was quite a hubbub in town over the film and its release signaled a war bond drive, with Edna May kicking it off at the courthouse in Santa Rosa. She also took a trip to sell war bonds in Salinas when the movie opened there.

When she signed a five-year contract with producer Jack Skirball, Edna May and her parents moved to Glendale following the release of Shadow of a Doubt. Her older brother, then in college, stayed in Santa Rosa and ran the family store until he went into the military and served during World War II.

Her first assignment for Skirball was to be It's in the Bag with Fred Allen, and Edna May was to have equal billing. But Allen balked at this and refused to work with her. Ultimately, her contract was broken, but when the film was eventually made without her, Edna May was paid in full.

The Bells of St. Mary's, Ingrid Bergman, center, and Edna, right
At this point, she signed with an agent who handled child actors exclusively. Edna May won small roles in several more films, and she has warm memories of working on Leo McCarey's The Bells of Saint Mary's (1945), a film nominated for eight Oscars and winner of one. She played Delphine, a girl about to graduate from St. Mary's, the one who smacks a baseball through a window in Mr. Bogardus's (Henry Travers) new building. Edna recalls that, like Shadow of a Doubt, the atmosphere on the set was "just like family." Ingrid Bergman was "a real sweetheart who said hello to everyone from the janitor on up when she came on the set." Edna also remembers that a member of the crew would play a little tune on an ocarina whenever Miss Bergman arrived. She adds, "We had a lot of fun with Bing Crosby - since there was a schoolyard set, he was always playing basketball with the kids."

Edna continued playing bit parts for the next few years but left acting at the beginning of the 1950s. Though her movie career is now long ago, she remembers those days with pleasure, "I have nothing but good memories of working in Hollywood. It was a different era than it is now and, being as young as I was, I didn't feel like an actress...I was just a kid who did what she was told to do."

Along with her memories, Edna has a treasure-trove of Shadow of a Doubt memorabilia. From her scrapbooks, copies of Life magazine and the prized goodbye gifts, to her original script with its cover signed by Hitchcock and the entire cast.

Edna mused that some friends of hers recently watched Shadow of a Doubt after she told them she was in it. They were quick to tell her: "You are just exactly like you were in that movie." And I'll admit that at times during our conversation I could hear a little bit of Ann Newton as I spoke with Edna Green.

Edna on the set of Under Western Skies (1945) with one of her co-stars, a young mountain lion

Click here for MedusaMorlock's post about Edna; click here for an update on Edna's life a year after our first interview, click here to view publicity photos from Edna's personal collection. Click here to watch a 2012 TV interview with Edna (courtesy of KPIX TV, San Francisco).