Sunday, November 17, 2019

Joyce Compton, What a Character!

This is my entry for the fabulous What a Character! blogathon hosted annually by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula's Cinema Club...check these blogs for links to entries from all participating blogs.


In perhaps her best remembered scene in a classic film, Leo McCarey's screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937), Joyce Compton delivered a most memorable performance as a dizzy nightclub singer with an equally dizzy act:

She would be typecast in this sort of role for much of her career, but there's more to Joyce Compton's story than her turns as scatterbrained, Southern-fried blondes.

Olivia Joyce Compton was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1907, the only child of Henry and Golden Compton. Following her father's many schemes and dreams for quick success here, there and everywhere around the U.S. and Canada, the family would move constantly. In 1925 the Comptons came to Los Angeles and soon enough Joyce would enter and win the first round of a beauty contest for young movie hopefuls. Extra work kept her busy until she was signed by First National at $100/week (just under $1,500 in 2019 dollars). Her first role under contract was a small one in What Fools Men (1925) starring Lewis Stone. She next appeared in supporting roles in Broadway Lady (1925) with Evelyn Brent and then Syncopating Sue (1926) starring Corinne Griffith.

Joyce's career got a big boost in 1926 when she was chosen as one of the year's WAMPAS Baby Stars. WAMPAS stood for Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (of the United States). Each year from 1922 and 1934 (except for 1930 and 1933) the group (usually) chose thirteen young actresses as promising newcomers and introduced them at a party known as the "WAMPAS frolic." 1926 would bring one of the most successful crops of WAMPAS babies ever, a group that, along with Joyce, included Mary Astor, Dolores Costello, Joan Crawford, Dolores Del Rio, Janet Gaynor and Fay Wray.

Though she would eventually be dropped by First National, Joyce made an auspicious debut in "talkies" with two Paramount films starring Clara Bow, The Wild Party and Dangerous Curves, both in 1929. The studio was pleased enough with her performances that she was asked to sign a contract, but she turned it down because Fox had offered her a good role in John Ford's Salute (1930).

Clara Bow and Joyce Compton in Dangerous Curves (1929)

Soon after, Joyce was signed by Fox. Feeling flush, she would splurge on furs and a grand piano and would rent a house in Benedict Canyon just below what had been Rudolph Valentino's home and around the corner from Jean Harlow's.

It was on her fifth Fox film of 1930, Lightnin', starring Will Rogers, that she met Joel McCrea. The film was shot on location in Lake Tahoe and the pair was involved in a romance that lasted the length of the shoot. Their careers took them in different directions afterward and they would go their separate ways, but she would always remember him fondly as a man of integrity and honesty...who wanted to own a ranch.

Fox's new look for Joyce Compton
The direction Joyce Compton's career was about to take was sideways and down. Six months after she lost everything she'd saved when the Bank of Hollywood collapsed in December 1930, Fox decided not to renew its option on her contract. Joyce would later put the blame on the studio's attempt at making over her look and type, commenting on a Hollywood studio tendency to "sign you for what you have to offer, mess around and ruin it all, then give up and toss you out."

Joyce would next make her way to New York in search of work on stage or film but ended up returning to Hollywood three months later having had no luck in the Big Apple. It was around this time that she would begin to build her reputation as a comedienne of the Southern-accented dumb blonde variety.

Looking over Joyce Compton's filmography of nearly 160 credited and uncredited roles, it becomes apparent that during the busiest years of her film career, the '30s and '40s, her credited roles were mostly in programmers and B-movies. Her appearances in better films, juicy as her performances might be, were often uncredited bit roles, for example Magnificent Obsession (1935), The Toast of New York (1937), They Drive by Night (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Mildred Pierce (1945), Night and Day (1946) The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Watching Mildred Pierce recently, I paid special attention to Joyce's turn as a waitress accused of stealing tips as Mildred, not yet a waitress herself, sits in the restaurant watching the fracas. In the few moments allotted her, Joyce added maximum spice and spunk to the scene. She was a real pro.

Joyce fared better in the film she made just prior to Mildred Pierce. Christmas in Connecticut (1945) gave her an opportunity to shine in a nice little supporting role as a nurse engaged to Dennis Morgan before he meets Barbara Stanwyck. This time the part was more than a bit and in a popular hit with stellar co-stars (along with Stanwyck and Morgan, Sydney Greenstreet, Reginald Gardiner, S.Z. Sakall and Una O'Connor).  Of course her character, Mary Lee, is a ditzy blonde from the South, Joyce's specialty by then.

Joyce Compton and Dennis Morgan in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Joyce's acting career tapered off dramatically in the 1950s when she made few films and only sporadic guest shots on TV series like The Life of Riley and 77 Sunset Strip. Her final appearance came on the series Pete and Gladys in 1961.

Though she never made it "big" in Hollywood, Joyce Compton worked in movies steadily for nearly 25 years. She married once, briefly, and dated many men, some well known (William Wyler, Howard Hughes, etc., and...Cary Grant had a crush on her) and some unknown. She had many friends and many interests - including painting, sketching, and designing her own clothing. She did well enough and was smart enough to build a home of her own, and she supported her parents, who lived with her.

The house that Joyce built

Joyce Compton seems to have been something of an outlier in Hollywood. She was self-reliant and strong-minded and she didn't "play the game." The game she didn't play, essentially, was the casting couch game and its many variations. She developed a method - one designed to be soft on powerful male egos - of evading the advances of studio heads, producers, directors, actors, agents, playboys and other men of clout. She was deservedly proud of her independence and her reputation, but I can't help but wonder if her refusal to fall in line was one reason her career didn't quite fulfill it's early promise. 

At the end of her life, she didn't seem to have regrets. Looking back over her nearly 90 years, she would say that her parents and the home she built were what was most important to her. She credited her mother with having the "idea and vision" behind her choosing a movie career and credited both her parents for their encouragement and support during her career. And she would recall a recent conversation with an old friend who told her she loved her because she was "so unique." Joyce's wry reply was, "I'm so unique, I'm practically a peculiarity." What a character, indeed...

Saturday, November 9, 2019


Parlez vous French noir? 

Three years ago I discovered French film noir thanks to Don Malcolm and his annual "The French Had a Name for It" film festival in San Francisco. Don heads MidCentury Productions and since 2014 MCP has presented yearly - and, lately, more frequent - noir screenings at the city's Roxie Theater. This month brings "French 6," the last in MCP's series of French noir fests 'til further notice.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Bridging Old Hollywood and New: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

This post is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall 2019 Blogathon. This year we're honoring the CMBA's 10th anniversary with "The Anniversary Blogathon" and participating member bloggers are celebrating all manner of classic film and classic film-related anniversaries. Click here for links to other member posts.

In this piece I take a circuitous look back at Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "the Citizen Kane of buddy films," on its 50th anniversary


William Goldman
It was during the 1950s that William Goldman, then a young novelist, first got interested in "the Butch Cassidy story." He was so fascinated with Cassidy, ringleader of a late 19th century band of outlaws, and one of his gang members known as the Sundance Kid, that he would research them off and on for another eight years.

It was also in the 1950s that young "method" actor Paul Newman left the Broadway stage and made his way onto Hollywood's sound stages. Once there, he would steadily be cast in leading roles in films like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), for which he received his first Oscar nomination, The Young Philadelphians (1959), and From the Terrace (1960).

Monday, August 26, 2019

Hitchcockian: François Truffaut 's The Soft Skin (1964)

 ...For the Vive la France Blogathon...

35 years after his death in 1984, François Truffaut is best known today as the most successful of the youthful filmmakers to emerge from the nouvelle vague (New Wave) movement that swept French cinema in the late 1950s. But before he would write and direct his first full-length feature in 1959, Truffaut would make his name as an enfant terrible critic at the influential post-war film journal Cahiers du cinema (Notebooks on Cinema). It was Truffaut who authored a famous/infamous January 1954 article, an impassioned and polemic piece, that advanced the “auteur theory.”  This theory maintains that auteur films reflect the filmmaker’s personal/artistic vision and possess an identifiable style along with recurring themes and motifs. Alfred Hitchcock, a director revered by Cahiers’ young critics, personified the auteur concept and Truffaut was one especially smitten with his work. He would author 27 articles on Hitchcock over the course of the 1950s.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

"Vive la France!" - the Blogathon

Welcome to the Vive la France! blogathon. My co-host, Christian Esquevin of Silver Screen Modes, and I have been thrilled that so many joined in with us to celebrate the films of France along with non-French films set in France. Our participating bloggers have chosen an exciting range of subjects - covering nine decades - we know you will enjoy.

Blog post titles in bold contain links to each piece - click-and-read on!

A very big thank you to all the wonderful bloggers who took part in our blogathon. Who knows, maybe we'll do it again next year - on Bastille Day...

The members of the Classic Movie Blog Association have honored the Vive la France! blogathon with the 2019 CMBA Award for Best Classic Film Blog Event.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The French Roots of Noir: Two Films by Marcel Carné with Jean Gabin

...For the Vive la France Blogathon...

In 1946 four relatively recent American films inspired Italian-born French film critic Nino Frank to pen an article for the August 1946 issue of the newly launched film periodical L'Écran français. Titled “A New Kind of Police Drama: the Criminal Adventure,” the article pointed out that these films - The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Laura and Murder, My Sweet - seemed more concerned with psychological motivations and undercurrents than crime solving. In his piece, Frank would use the term film noir and from then on be given credit for coining the expression.

The research of film studies professor Charles O’Brien, among others, many years later would reveal that the term film noir had been in use in France since the late 1930s in reviews and articles written about a new trend in French films.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Coming August 25 & 26: The Vive la France! Blogathon

On July 14, France's Bastille Day, the Vive la France! blogathon was officially announced. Hosted by this blog and Silver Screen Modes, the event was originally set for one day, Sunday, August 25. We are excited to announce that we've had to add a day, Monday, August 26, in order to accommodate all the bloggers who are participating.  Our subject is broad and includes just about "everything" France/French-related. For example, French films, movies set in France, etc. etc. There are so many possibilities. See Silver Screen Modes' announcement post for more background on French cinema.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

5 Favorite Films of the '50s for Classic Movie Day

The Final Five

Who among committed classic film bloggers could possibly resist the chance to join a blogathon honoring National Classic Movie Day? I couldn’t, but this year’s blog-fest posed a tough challenge.

The Classic Film and TV Café aka/Rick, its founder, is once more hosting a National Classic Movie Day Blogathon. This year participants were challenged to choose and elaborate on their five favorite films of the ‘50s. Only five. From the ‘50s. Impossible. I made the effort and eventually whittled my list down to 10 or so films, but other titles continued to pop into my head, so I decided to go at it from another angle.

What I’ve done is take a look at the films of two popular stars, two filmmakers and a studio that were all at their peak during the decade and then selected one favorite from each out of their 1950s filmographies. Here goes… 

Friday, May 3, 2019

For Those Who Think Noir: Where to get your film noir fix this Spring

Sketch for Mildred Pierce (1945) by Warner Bros. Art Director Anton Grot

Don Malcolm, long-time festival programmer of film noir from every corner of the globe, is of the strong opinion that "any time of year is a good time for noir." I agree. And so, though it is sunshiny and balmy where I live, with blossoms blooming everywhere, I have scoured the Internet and my email inbox to see what's to be found lurking in the dim-lit dark alley of film noir this Spring.

Monday, April 8, 2019





Audrey Hepburn. One of the most beloved stars in the history of Hollywood. An Oscar winner at age 25, she took the Best Actress award with her first starring role, as a runaway princess in Roman Holiday (1953). She would be nominated in the same category four times more and be honored, in 1993, with the Academy's Jean Hersholt humanitarian award. She was and is, 26 years after her death, a revered international style icon. And she has long been admired around the globe for her philanthropic work on behalf of the children of the world; in 1988 she embarked on her first mission for UNICEF, to Ethiopia, and in 1989 she was named a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

Friday, March 22, 2019



On a Wednesday afternoon at the end of February, I slogged through the rain, my car moving at a crawl across a bridge mired in traffic, to the east side of the San Francisco Bay. Into wild and woolly Berkeley, California, I drove. Berkeley, that university town known far and wide for its political uprisings, fine school and lingering spirit of the late 1960s. But my visit on that rainy day had nothing to do with politics or school, though it did have something to do with a bygone era. I was on my way to see a movie, a very special screening at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive of one of Hollywood’s great classics, a quintessential romp of a romantic comedy released at the tail-end of the Pre-Code era, It Happened One Night (1934).

Friday, February 15, 2019

Movie Music, the Communicating Link

Bernard Herrmann, likely the most celebrated of classic era film composers today, who wrote the scores  for Citizen Kane, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and Taxi Driver among countless others, once said of the function of the film score:

Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock
“I feel that music on the screen can seek out and intensify the inner thoughts of the characters. It can invest a scene with terror, grandeur, gaiety, or misery. It can propel narrative swiftly forward or slow it down. It often lifts mere dialogue into the realm of poetry.”

This is surely true of Herrmann’s own remarkable work for Welles, Hitchcock, Scorsese and others, as it is of the contributions of Max Steiner to films like Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Letter and Now, Voyager and David Raksin’s work on such films as Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful. Herrmann’s contention has been borne out over the decades through scores by the likes of Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa and the all of Hollywood’s “big five” Golden Age composers. Beginning with Jaws and Star Wars, the prodigious work of John Williams continues to prove Herrmann’s point as do the scores of modern era film composers such as Alexandre Desplat for The Grand Budapest Hotel.