1930s Film, Star Profiles

The Marx Brothers: A Love Story

Mrs. Rittenhouse, ever since I met you, I’ve swept you off my feet.

I feel like anyone who is a fan of the Marx Brothers remembers when they first watched their movies and have vivid memories of it. I know I do.

See, when it happened, I didn’t plan on checking out several of their Paramount films on DVD. But one day in the summer of 2011 – a few months before I would begin my senior year of high school – they somehow caught my attention and I snatched them up.

For those of you reading who may not be too familiar with the Marx Bros, their Paramount films were done at the beginning of their film careers. They began there in 1929 with the film The Cocoanuts and remained through 1933 with the release of one of their most popular comedies, Duck Soup. I watched The CocoanutsAnimal Crackers (1930), Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), and Duck Soup first. I loved every movie, but I was especially taken with Animal Crackers and The Cocoanuts.

To talk about a couple of those films…

Animal Crackers (1930) is actually my favorite Marx Brothers film. It’s not their strongest one, but it kills me. I think I love it so much because it’s just basically Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo running around a mansion (owned by a Margaret Dumont character, no less) for ninety-seven minutes, causing mayhem and throwing around sidesplitting one-liners – usually at the expense of unamused house guests.

 


The Cocoanuts (1929) is by no means a spectacular production on film – it’s clunky all over, which is understandable for an early talkie musical based on a stage play, but it’s total madcap fun and there are some hilarious one-liners tossed around. The boys are just getting going too, and it’s cool to think about how far they’d go after ’29.

I got hooked on watching these guys throughout my senior year – what a vice! It seemed like I couldn’t stop watching their movies, talking about them, or reading about them.

I read several books, including Chico Marx’s daughter’s recollections of living with her father, who really was a genius (but also a Lothario) in real life.

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To this day, Harpo’s autobiography Harpo Speaks! remains one of my favorite books. In it, he fleshes out the life he shared with his brothers, mother, father, and extended family in New York City and continued through his later years. It’s filled with humor and a lot of hear. I highly recommend it to any fan. You’ll adore the man behind the trenchcoat, top hat, and harp.

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At some point, I need to read more about Groucho.


I’ve noticed that hardcore fans tend to debate over which era was the best for the Brothers in film: the Paramount era versus the MGM era. After Duck Soup, The Brothers moved over to MGM in 1935. Their other most popular film, A Night at the Opera, was released that year. In my opinion, their Paramount films (1929 – 1933) are far superior. When they moved over to MGM, their creative rights were traded in to ensure that there was a thicker plot in each film. Basically, more love subplots. Ehhhhh. In doing this, most of their MGM films were actually much weaker than their Paramount films.

With that said, my personal favorite Marx Brothers MGM flick is actually A Day at the Races (1937). Although it’s not as solid as their earlier work, there are some great scenes and jokes in it.


I have to say that I wholeheartedly enjoy the musical number shared between Allan Jones and Maureen O’Sullivan. It’s just so optimistic and emotional all at the same time.


And there’s that incredible swing dance number performed by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, which is still a marvel to watch eighty years later.


Besides their jokes, it’s important to remember that the Marx Brothers were also incredibly talented musicians. In many of their films, they often took time out of the madcap plot lines to serenade the audience with the piano, harp, and voice.

Just watch Harpo sit down at his harp and see how he gets so into playing each piece. You can see the “real” Harpo come through every time.

Chico’s ability to “shoot” the keys when he plays the piano is fascinating to watch. Bonus points go to him for making flirtatious facial expressions while he’s playing.

Groucho often got to sing and dance and his numbers, of course, were typically over-the-top and funny as all get-out.

Zeppo was said to have actually been the funniest of the brothers. However, in the five films he appeared in, Zeppo always played the straight man. Either way, he definitely had a fine singing voice and used it several times in his movie appearances.


I want to thank Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, Margaret Dumont, Thelma Todd, and everyone else featured on and off screen in the Marx Brothers’ films. I fell in love with the Marx Brothers pretty early on in my reintroduction to the Golden Age of Hollywood and they will always hold a special place in my heart. (Would Groucho approve of such a cheesy statement? Hey, it’s true!)


What’s your favorite Marx Brothers film and/or “era”? Let me know in the comments!

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1930s Film, Star Profiles

Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937)

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Barbara Stanwyck is known for many roles: from her Pre-Code days up until her part in the popular 1960s Western television show The Big Valley, she could do it all.

There’s a role of hers which I feel is often overlooked and totally underrated: the titular character in Stella Dallas (1937).

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Stella Dallas is the story of a young lady named Stella Martin, who’s in love with a formerly wealthy factory mill owner named Stephen Dallas (John Boles). She’s of lower class status but desperately dreams of upper class living.

The film is set in post-World War I Massachusetts. Stephen is in mourning: his father has committed suicide after losing his fortune. After falling out of high society, Stephen aims to regain his fortune and then marry his fiancee. But when news comes of his fiancee marrying another man, Stephen and Stella marry.

Once they’re married, Stella quickly falls into a bad pattern. She loves to socialize and meet high society people, but she often goes overboard. Embarrassed by her behavior, Stephen pleads with Stella to return to her more humble roots and become more refined. Within the first year of their marriage, she gives birth to a daughter named Laurel. Immediately after returning from the hospital–baby in arms–Stella begs Stephen to let her go to a party. He refuses to let her go, but she argues and finally gets her way.

We see the years progress through Laurel’s growth. Once she becomes a young lady, we see actress Anne Shirley enter the picture. Shirley did a great job portraying the Dallas’ daughter. By the time she appears onscreen, we see Stella and Stephen’s marriage dissolving. Eventually the split becomes permanent. Laurel lives with her mother and visits her father on occasion. She loves both of them; however, her relationship with Stella becomes a bit strained once she begins socializing with her peers in her teenage years. She befriends kids in more refined circles and falls in love with a young man who comes from a wealthy family. Adding to the pressure, Stella’s behavior is becoming more and more vulgar, causing Laurel to push her mother into the shadows.

To put a further strain on the situation, Stephen runs into his ex-fiancee, who has a family. They quickly become reacquainted and fall in love all over again. And the story goes on, and the tears begin to fall.


Barbara Stanwyck was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar four times but she never won one in her long and successful screen career. Stella Dallas was the first role that she was nominated for an Oscar. Luise Rainer took the Oscar home that year for her role in The Good Earth (1937).

Stanwyck’s role in this film is a little reminiscent of some of her roles in the early ’30s. She was one of the queens of the Pre-Code era. Stanwyck often played nitty gritty characters in her early Hollywood days.

As shown in the clip below, Stella tries her best to raise her daughter but she doesn’t always make great decisions. Her husband disapproves of the company she keeps, seeing them as a rowdy crowd. She’s so natural in her performance:

As the movie progresses, Stella seems to get zanier by the minute. I think that’s mostly due to the fact that we – the audience – are seeing her through the eyes of a growing Laurel. Laurel is surrounded by friends from “respectable” families and feels a great deal of pressure from that. She loves her mother so much, but she decides to make some tough decisions that hurt them both.

Throughout it all, Stella actually does grow. She remains “different” in her ways, but she makes a tough realization and a noble decision by the end of the film. If you’ve seen the film, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, I highly recommend watching it to find out what I mean.

Don’t watch this scene if you don’t want the end of the film spoiled. If you do want to watch it and you’ve never seen it before, I will now allow Ms. Barbara Stanwyck to rip your heart out:

 

Fashion in Film, musicals, Star Profiles

Esther Williams: Baby, It’s Cold Outside

“I was just a swimmer who got lucky.”

Christmas is over and the new year is here. So, you know what that means: Summer is right around the corner. Well, practically. What better way to celebrate than by talking about Esther Williams?

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Esther Williams is shown in the underwater ballet scene from [Million Dollar Mermaid] in this photograph. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Okay, so it took me twenty years to watch an Esther Williams film.

It took a girl who spent many hours of her childhood watching old musicals and classic romance films that long to watch one of those movies. How? Well, I don’t know. I just never really got around to watching her movies until just after she passed away in the summer of 2013.

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Esther Williams pictured in 1945 – in her early ’20s (photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images) – courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

I remember sitting down one night right in front of the TV (I think I had actually just discovered Seven Brides for Seven Brothers that night. I watched it for the first time on an old VHS given to me. Edgy.)

“America’s Mermaid” passed away on June 6th of that year. TCM (Turner Classic Movies) was running a marathon of her swimming films as tribute to her life and legacy. I remember learning of her death on that June day. I first heard about it through social media, where I follow a lot of other film fans and often find the news first. It was shocking, but I realized that I hadn’t seen any of her films before. I knew, however, that she was a unique talent. I just didn’t know how unique.

As I began to discover her films, I learned that both of my Grandmas were really familiar with her films. I guess that’s not surprising, as she was huge in the 1940s and ’50s. My Grandma Riggs was an especially big fan of Esther’s. She’s told me about the wonderful memories she has of going to the local movie theater to watch her musicals. I hope I’m lucky enough to watch at least one Esther Williams musical on the big screen someday. I can’t imagine how vibrant they must look full-scale.

The first Esther movie I watched was Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). I watched and I was entranced by everything Esther. She was this magical, beautiful mermaid…but in human form. No fins, no tail, but a mermaid in every other possible way.

Here’s one of her musical/synchronized swimming numbers from the film – choreographed by the one and only Busby Berkeley:

 

And can we talk about her film fashion for a moment? She wore the most beautiful bathing suits in her movies and her non-bathing attire was always gorgeous, too.

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(courtesy of nytimes.com)

Although the plots in a typical Esther Williams movie are not filled with much complexity, their escapist plots -and, of course, the water ballets- are really what drew people in to to watch her. The idea of movies built around synchronized swimming may sound really cheesy to anyone not familiar with her films. But they were marvelous. MGM made each of her swimming numbers extravagant. (Side note: did MGM ever not do extravagant in the ’40s and ’50s?)

Oh, and how can I forget about the romantic plots/subplots? Esther Williams’s musicals were always filled with romance. She was often paired with dreamboats Van Johnson (check out Thrill of a Romance if you’re in the mood for a cute movie), Ricardo Montalbán (my personal pick is Neptune’s Daughter), and Howard Keel.


Esther was still active in her later years, despite suffering from a stroke in 2007. Among other achievements, a swimming pool company named itself after her, she created her own line of bathing suits (over at esther-williams.com, a number of bathing suits inspired by Esther are still being sold), and she appeared at the 1984 Olympics as a synchronized swimming commentator.

Today, many people remember her as one of the most effervescent stars of her time. The world really loved her.

 

There will never be another Esther Williams.

(courtesy of paytonangelle1.tumblr.com)

 

Pre-Code Hollywood, Star Profiles

Celebrating Ruby Keeler: “Gold Diggers of 1933” ☆

August 19, 2016: Ruby Keeler Day for TCM’S Summer Under the Stars

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(photo courtesy of doctormacro.com)

1933 was an amazing year for Hollywood…. It was an especially amazing year for a young lady named Ruby Keeler. Today, the name Ruby Keeler is a name that is nearly forgotten, save for classic film fans-particularly those who are hardcore fans of 1930s Warner Bros. musicals. Ruby found herself a film star when she appeared in not one, but three, major Hollywood musicals that year: 42nd StreetFootlight Parade, and…

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Ruby Keeler portrayed Polly Parker in Gold Diggers of 1933, which was Ruby’s second film; it was released just two months after her star-making debut in 42nd Street. Gold Diggers of 1933 was directed by Mervyn LeRoy and the musical numbers were created and directed by one of my personal favorite icons of classic film, Busby Berkeley.

Polly is the true ingenue of the film. From the get-go, we are introduced to Polly and her friends: Carol (Joan Blondell), Trixie (played hilariously by Aline MacMahon), and Fay (Ginger Rogers).

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Top to Bottom: Polly (Ruby Keeler), Carol (Joan Blondell), and Trixie (Aline MacMahon)

Carol is a torch singer, Trixie is a comedienne, and Fay is the beauty who is wicked sassy and often rivals the other girls; they bicker a lot. Polly (Ruby Keeler) finds herself falling in love with the boy next door, an aspiring songwriter and singer who often croons to her from his piano across from their window. Letting Trixie know that she’s smitten, Trixie reminds her that she’s only known Brad (Dick Powell) for two weeks, but Polly insists that two weeks is more than enough to fall in love with someone. Is this a true notion? Make the decision for yourself:

They are all showgirls on the stage, but they find themselves out of work by way of the Great Depression. After the opening number “We’re In the Money”, we see the show that they are rigorously rehearsing for is being closed. After accepting unemployment and no foreseeable future of success, the girls quickly find out from Fay that Barney Hopkins, the producer of the show they were supposed to be in, has a new show that he’s going to be producing.

Hopkins pays a visit to the girls at their apartment and brings great hope and then disappointment to them, as he announces that he has a great idea for a new show but no means of money in order to produce it. Brad suddenly jumps up and promises that he’ll supply the $15,000 to fund his play but he refuses to perform in it, which sends up a red flag for the girls and Hopkins. They believe Brad is fooling them about the $15,000, which leaves Polly especially upset. They can’t figure him out and become skeptical of his intentions.

The next day, Brad pulls through and supplies the money -in cash – much to everyone’s relief.

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(courtesy of movpins.com)

The show goes forward, but the girls are still skeptical about him. Why won’t he appear in the show when he is clearly more talented than its male lead? They put pieces together and come to the conclusion that he must be a criminal and that he is trying to keep his name and face out of the public eye. However, the truth is that Brad is the son of a millionaire. The rest of his family rejects the idea of his interest in being in the theater business, believing that it is a cheap and dishonorable profession to pursue.

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Polly (Ruby Keeler) and Trixie (Aline MacMahon) find reason to believe that Brad is a criminal in hiding.  (photo courtesy of movpins.com)

However, when the male lead hurts himself right before the curtain opens on opening night, Brad is forced to go on in his place, as he’s the only one who can perform the part. He receives notice from the public and critics and lands on the next day’s newspaper. He and Polly also enter into a romantic relationship and the rest of the girls come around to liking him.

Here are a couple of clips from Polly and Brad’s first musical number together. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the whole number, so here are two great fragments:

Enter Brad’s family: They find out what he’s up to and decide to visit him immediately in order to stop his involvement in the theater and with a “cheap chorus girl”. Brad’s brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William, always a welcome face in Pre Code films) and the family lawyer Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee, hilarious as always) make the trip to find and reform Brad.

Well, instead of finding Brad or Polly, they first come into contact with Carol (Joan Blondell) and believe that she is Polly. Trixie (Aline MacMahon) is with her and without having to say a word to each other, they both decide to play a little prank on the men who believe that “Polly” is a trampy chorus girl who can just be sent away with money. Realizing that these rich men are trying to tell off the wrong girl, they make it a game and become comedic gold diggers, seducing them in a turn of total irony.

Once Polly (Ruby Keeler) learns about the trick, she plays along and pretends to be Carol. Along the way, she proves that she is a nice and respectable girl, leading J. Lawrence Bradford to believe that his brother should instead fall in love with her. Hmm.

I leave the plot there, though. For those who may have not watched it yet (and have read up until this point), I don’t want to give it all away!

If you haven’t watched Gold Diggers of 1933, you really need to. The musical numbers are phenomenal, the story is hilarious and engaging, the cast is amazing, and our Star of the Day, Ruby Keeler, is irresistibly adorable.


Now, Ruby Keeler’s dancing style is totally her own. While many people find her to be a not-so-great dancer who looks at her feet way too much, I find her style to be quirky and fun. Sure, compared to Eleanor Powell, she wasn’t quick and as coordinated, but she was so cute. I think her clunky style is really cool. She was a buck dancer, meaning that her style was much different from the style of most dancers from the Golden Age of Hollywood. She meant to be clunky and it was more about rhythm and moving the lower part of the body.

Ruby even once said, “It’s really amazing. I couldn’t act. I had that terrible singing voice, and now I can see I wasn’t the greatest tap dancer in the world, either.” She also said, “I was all personality and no talent.” Ruby, girl, I think you had talent. You were such an important figure during those years of The Great Depression. You were a bright face in a time of total unrest.

Here’s a nice tribute that was made for Ruby using clips from several of the musicals she appeared in during the 1930s:

If you have Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and have a Twitter account, I recommend joining the #TCMParty crowd on Friday, August 19th at 6:00 PM (EST) as Gold Diggers of 1933 will be airing then. The live-tweeting is always especially fun during Pre-Code Busby Berkeley musicals. Happy watching!


This post is a part of the 2016 TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film. Click here to read the other entries for each Star of the Day.

Star Profiles

Melanie Hamilton: A True Heroine

HAPPY 100th BIRTHDAY TO OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND!

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Scarlett O’Hara, one of the finest-crafted characters in all of literature and cinema, calls Melanie Hamilton a “pale-faced, mealy-mouthed ninny”, completely jealous because Melanie marries Ashley Wilkes, the man Scarlett is crazy about. Although that phrase is hilarious, it’s crazy inaccurate. 

In the 1939 landmark film Gone With the Wind, Melanie is portrayed by Olivia de Havilland with gracious strength and sincerity. Scarlett O’Hara may have been the role of a lifetime (truly, it was) but I think olivia3.jpgthat de Havilland won herself an amazing role, as well. It’s understated. Scarlett O’Hara is usually the first character people think of when they think about Gone With the Wind. Well, that or Rhett Butler. I feel like it’s kind of a tossup. But there are so many characters in the film that are so interesting and complex and Melanie just happens to be one of them.

 

The following clip shows several other actresses who auditioned for the role of Melanie. Fun fact: Marsha Hunt, who was one of the auditioned actresses, is still alive at the age of 98. She’s in the clip starting at the 1:07 mark:

One could look at Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes and simply find a meek, saccharine, too-kind young lady who sees the world through twenty pairs of rose colored glasses. But that’s really not the way to look at her. I think you have to look below the surface to really appreciate Melanie’s strength. It’s her kindness and graciousness that make her so strong. She forgives, she’s completely accepting of people from different walks of life (Just watch the poignant scene in which she thanks Belle Watling – a prostitute and outcast – for saving Ashley’s life). Unlike many other people, Melanie treats Belle like a human being: a human being that matters; a human being that is on the same level as she is. Personally, I think it’s one of the most touching scenes in the nearly four hour film.

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Belle Watling to Melanie: “Mrs Wilkes, there ain’t never been a woman in town that’s been nice to me the way you was; I mean about the money for the hospital, you know, and I don’t forget a kindness. I got to thinkin’ about you bein’ left a widow, with a little boy – he’s a nice little boy, your boy, Mrs Wilkes. I got a boy myself…”


You see Melanie’s kindness and graciousness so well in this scene, too: the famous (or infamous?) Wilkes barbecue. Scarlett gets snarky with Melanie, as she’s just heard the rumor that Melanie and Ashley are going to be married.

The scene, like every other one in the film, is a classic one:

“Oh Scarlett, you have so much life. I’ve always admired you so. I wish I could be more like you.”

But she doesn’t take any nonsense, either. She’s not afraid to defend her life and the lives of those she’s close to if danger comes near. And she’s also not afraid to make quick judgments and trust people when trusting may seem like the bad thing to do to everyone else:

This clip is more for celebrating Olivia de Havilland’s acting and the great detail she puts into illustrating her emotions onscreen. Although Ashley is a questionable love interest, it’s a lovely moment:

Gone With the Wind remains one of the greatest and most beloved films in the history of the universe. Olivia de Havilland’s performance as Melanie Hamilton-Wilkes is one of the most tender and wholehearted that’s ever been seen on celluloid.


As a miscellaneous bonus, here’s an interview from 2006 in which Olivia talks about her initial interest in portraying Melanie in the film, meeting Errol Flynn for the first time, and how she sued Warner Brothers in the landmark case that changed everything in how film contracts worked in the studio system. Go Olivia!

Star Profiles

Tap Queen: Ann Miller

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“I have worked like a dog all my life, honey. Dancing, as Fred Astaire said, is next to ditch-digging. You sweat and you slave and the audience doesn’t think you have a brain in your head.” (photo courtesy of vintagegal.tumblr.com)

 

Ann Miller was a big star in some of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s biggest musicals. She became known for how fast she could tap dance. But before all of that, she was born into the world Johnnie Lucille Ann Collier in Texas in 1923. She was named annmilleryoungJohnnie because her father was hoping for a son; she was nicknamed ‘Annie’. After contracting rickets between the ages of three and five (various sources give different ages), Annie began taking dance lessons. Her mother believed that dancing would help her regain her strength. Boy, was she right about that.

Leaving Texas with her mother around 1932 (her father had been unfaithful to her mother), the two headed for Los Angeles. Her mother was hearing-impaired and had trouble finding work. Annie, on the other hand, had an advantage: She was not even ten years old when she began looking for – and finding – dancing gigs in nightclubs in order to support her mother and herself. She was successful in this endeavor because she looked much older than her age, something that would come back to help her in the not-too-distant future. (Annie also did a little bit of uncredited extra work in films in the mid 1930s.) At the age of thirteen, she claimed to be eighteen – and got by with it. As a young girl, she learned to tap dance so well that she became something of a child prodigy. She named dancing legend and film actress Eleanor Powell as one of her inspirations.

She soon became Ann Miller, the stage name we all know her by.

One night in 1936 or ’37, Lucille Ball and RKO Pictures talent scout Benny Rubin were in the audience of the Club Bal Tabarin in San Francisco where Ann was doing her specialty act. Ball loved her. Benny Rubin got her into RKO for a screen test and she secured her first studio contract that year at the age of fourteen. After producing a fake birth certificate to “verify” that she was eighteen (the studio demanded this in order for her to come on board at RKO as a contract player), she began her journey into stardom.

Ann’s first credited role was in the film New Faces of 1937 in which she played herself. She got a small role in the film The Life of the Party (1937). That same year, Ann secured a supporting role in a film that really resonates with me: Stage Door (1937). Directed by Gregory La Cava, Stage Door tells the story of a group of young ladies who share a living space in a boarding house and they also happen to be looking for work onstage – some successfully and some not successfully. They all fight a lot, but through the film, they learn the importance of supporting each other. In my opinion, it’s an amazing movie. To look at her, you wouldn’t believe Ann Miller was just fourteen years old in that film. It’s incredible.


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Ann in a publicity still for Stage Door (1937)

 


Here’s Ann dancing to a catchy tune in the 1938 film Tarnished Angel. She was just fifteen here. Watch her performance carefully. Look how much personality she has shining through. And just look at that talent running through her young legs.

 

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Ann and Dub Taylor for “You Can’t Take It With You” (1938) – courtesy of doctormacro.com

1938 brought more film roles for Ann, including the Marx Brothers comedy Room Service and Frank Capra’s classic romantic comedy You Can’t Take It With You – the latter being another one of my personal favorites. It’s a true inspirational classic and its theme is near and dear to my heart.

Miller stayed with RKO for a couple more years and then left in 1940. She went on to sign with Columbia Pictures in ’41. In 1946, while married to her first husband Reese Llewellyn Milner, Ann suffered a miscarriage after being thrown down the stairs by Milner during a fight. The two divorced in early 1948.

When she was still in a back brace (the fall gave her a severe back injury), Ann was picked up by MGM. She auditioned for – and got the role – of Nadine Hale in the hit 1948 musical Easter Parade which starred Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. She performed her big tap numbers – most notably “Shakin’ the Blues Away” – in the back brace. Ironically, she replaced Cyd Charisse – who was first cast in the role – after Charisse tore a ligament in her knees. Fred Astaire also replaced Gene Kelly, who was set to star as Don Hewes but he broke his ankle before filming began.

When I learned about the stuff that she went through and how she persevered through it all, I was so amazed. Look at this girl GO:

In 1949, Ann co-starred with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Vera-Ellen, Betty Garrett, and Jules Munshin in the MGM musical On the Town. This film was the first musical to shoot its musical numbers on location: In this case, New York City. In the 1950s, musical films were becoming less prevalent in Hollywood. The lavish musicals of the 1940s were becoming a thing of the past. Ann Miller was in a handful of films that decade, including the musical Hit the Deck and the 1956 remake of the 1939 classic The Women called The Opposite Sex. According to her biography on tcm.com, Ann’s favorite role at MGM was as Lois Lane/Bianca in the musical Kiss Me Kate (1953), starring Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel.

While reading up on Ann, I found some cool “fun facts” about her. One was this, from IMDb:
“At the end of her MGM contract, she flew overseas to Morocco to entertain on the Timex TV Hour for Bob Hope. She sang and danced ‘Too Darn Hot’ in 120-degree heat, entertaining 5000 soldiers.”

Ann also danced the Charleston with Ginger Rogers during a party at the Mocambo – a popular nightclub in West Hollywood that operated from the early ’40s until the late ’50s. This photo is adorable and what a party that must have been!

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Photo courtesy of vintagebreeze.tumblr.com

 

After she left MGM in the late ’50s, Ann married oil tycoon William Moss in 1958. Just after they divorced in 1961, she married her third husband Arthur Cameron and their marriage was annulled less than a year later. She never remarried after that. When film roles weren’t coming her way, Ann got her own nightclub act, acted on Broadway, and even landed a memorable spot in an early 1970s commercial for Great American soup. The commercial was styled after iconic musical director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, with an overhead shot and snazzy choreography. Keep in mind, she was about 50 years old here and she rocks just as hard here as she did in the ’40s.


Ann’s last film role was in neo-noir mystery cult classic Mulholland Drive (2001), written and directed by David Lynch (Twin PeaksBlue Velvet).  On her role, Ann once commented, “I don’t understand one damn thing about that crazy movie, but isn’t it a hoot that I’m in it!”

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Ann in “Mulholland Drive” Photo courtesy of cinexplex.com

Ann’s vivacious personality and big hair (which she fashioned in her later years) were often riffed by comedians, like Carol Burnett. The impressions and jokes, of course, were done in good taste. I know I’m not the only one who appreciates how Ann Miller seamlessly fits into the fusion of modern-day and classic pop culture, as proven by the hilarious and brilliant YouTube channel PunchyPlayers. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli also prove to be pop culture queens. This is one of my favorite videos of all time:


Ann Miller came into my life when I was little girl. For a long time, my only exposure to her was through Easter Parade (1948). I was raised on that movie. I’ve always been a Judy Garland fan. In fact, this was my only exposure to Fred Astaire until my teenage years, when I finally watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical. But Ann Miller holds her own and then some in that movie. I vaguely remember my dad telling me about Ann Miller and how she was such a fast tap dancer. “Shakin’ the Blues” away has always a treat to watch and hear.


I think Ann would’ve been so fun to chat with. She was a ball of fire and so talented. According to an article by the Hollywood Reporter, she did things like writing “Star Lady” down in the “occupation” column of her W-4 forms. And once, a friend of Ann’s was asked to look up actress Arlene Dahl’s phone number in Ann’s personal phone book. To her friend’s confusion, Dahl’s number couldn’t be found in the “D” or even “A” section; Ann had it saved under “G” for “girlfriend”.

If you want to get an even more in-depth look into the world of Ann Miller, check out any of her interviews that can be found on YouTube. Her Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne on TCM is on there, uploaded in several parts. She was so interesting and a live wire into her old age!

Okay, how could I end a piece about Ann Miller without letting her finish it up? Here she is dancing and singing in Small Town Girl (1953). The one and only Busby Berkeley choreographed this number.

 

 

 

Pre-Code Hollywood, Star Profiles

Summer Under the Stars: Mae Clarke Edition

Mae Clarke: a name seldom spoken today, save for members of a community sometimes referred to as “Old Movie Weirdos” or “Cinephiles”, etc. If you’re familiar with the Pre-Code era of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then you’re probably at least a little familiar with Miss Mae.

Mae Clarke (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
Mae Clarke, 1930s
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)

Mae Clarke was born Violet Mary Klotz in Philadelphia, PA in 1910 and grew up in Atlantic City, NJ. Her father was an organist who accompanied silent films, so Mae was brought up in a motion picture kind of environment. 1924 came around and 14 year old Mae joined a New York cabaret act called May Dawson’s Dancing Girls (which, unfortunately, I can’t find much information on). Her ‘discovery’ came about here when a producer named Earl Lindsay saw her performing in the act. Young Mae was cast in a minor role at the Strand Theatre, which was located in Times Square in NYC. Her blooming success took her on to the Strand Roof nightclub (located just above the theater), where she performed as a dancer and burlesque artist. She also performed at the Everglades Club, which earned her $40 a week (which would be roughly $540 in 2015).

Barbara Stanwyck, Ziegfeld girl, 1924. She was just 17 years old. Clarke and Stanwyck became friends around this time.
Barbara Stanwyck, Ziegfeld girl, 1924. She was just 17 years old. Clarke and Stanwyck would become friends around this time.

It was there that Mae would befriend and become roommates with an up-and-coming performer named Ruby Catherine Stevens. We know Ms. Stevens today as legendary actress Barbara Stanwyck. Mae took a big step into legitimate theatre when she landed a role in the dramatic play “The Noose” in 1926. She appeared in the show with Stanwyck and Ed Wynn (who went on to voice the Mad Hatter in the 1951 film Alice in Wonderland, among other film roles).

After acting in a stage comedy in 1927, Mae found herself Hollywood-bound. She scored a screen test with Fox in 1929 and landed her first film role in Big Time (1929). Because she wasn’t headed in the direction she wanted under Fox Films, she left the studio by 1931. It was in the Pre-Code comedy film The Front Page (1931) that she started to find her way in Tinseltown. In that movie, she portrayed a prostitute named Molly, securing Mae Clarke as a staple of Pre-Code women.

The head of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, Jr., signed her to star in an upcoming World War I drama/romance called Waterloo Bridge (1931). This is the film that I would like to zone in on a little waterloobridgescreencapbit here. In the film, Mae portrays an unemployed American chorus girl named Myra Deauville who lives in London, after her former occupation as a chorus girl brought her there. She meets a kind and innocent soldier named Roy Cronin on the titular bridge during an air raid. After Myra offers Roy a place to, er, sleep, he accepts the invitation and a friendship ensues. Although Myra originally took him upstairs to her place to sleep with him, nothing physical happens (Myra has had to resort to prostitution in order to make money, unbeknownst to Roy). Nevertheless, Roy begins to develop romantic feelings for Myra. As they begin to spend more time together, Roy begins to pursue her rather vigorously. Even though Myra likes him, she doesn’t have the heart to tell him about her current means of income. When he proposes marriage, she declines. She doesn’t feel like she’s worthy of his love. Unlike the 1940 remake, Roy actually returns to her after Myra’s landlady tells him that Myra is a streetwalker. Will the war tear them apart or will they be able to continue their love affair for years to come? I won’t tell you if either of those are the correct answer, but you can find out if you tune in to TCM on Mae Clarke’s special day. I will provide specific information at the end of this post.

waterloobridge3waterloobridge4Anyway, many of the scenes tend to teeter on the melodramatic and stilted side, but I think Mae gives a pretty good performance overall.

Clarke also landed the role of Elizabeth, the jilted bride in the classic Universal horror film Frankenstein (1931). After having some prominent and hard-edged roles in Pre-Code films, her career unfortunately began to decline in 1932. She suffered a nervous breakdown in the summer of ’32 and again in 1934, most likely from a combination of a heavy workload and marriage problems. In March of 1933, she was involved in a bad car accident and received scars on her face from it. By the time 1934 rolled around, the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code went into full force, meaning the sexy Pre-Code films of the early 1930s were going to become a thing of the past. All of a sudden, this left Clarke in a totally new and unfamiliar arena. She got work in B-pictures in the ’40s and ’50s and mostly played bit roles up through 1970. Mae was married and divorced three times. She suffered some financial hardships. In her old age, she resided at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles carrying out her hobby: painting. Mae Clarke died in 1992 at the age of 81.

Mae Clarke in
Mae Clarke in “Frankenstein” (1931)
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)

Today, those who know the name Mae Clarke will probably first think of her most famous movie moment: the scene in which she gets a grapefruit shoved in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). But Mae was more than that, even if she didn’t become as successful as she should have. Regarded as having the ability to act in a naturalistic style, she also had enough spunk and ability to carry a motion picture. Perhaps at least one person will be able to discover her by catching her marathon.

Here’s a short clip from Lady Killer (1933), one of several films she did with James Cagney:

Celebrate the life and career of Mae Clarke on Thursday, August 20th all day on Turner Classic Movies. Waterloo Bridge will air at 8:00 PM (EST).

This post is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film (journeysinclassicfilm.com).

1930s Film, Star Profiles

Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers as Anti-Damsels in “Stage Door” (1937)

The calla lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. I carried them on my wedding day and now I place them here in memory of something that has died.

Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers lead an extraordinary ensemble cast in Stage Door (1937). The film was directed by Gregory La Cava, whose most famous and beloved film is the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey, released one year before this film. Some of Hepburn’s and Rogers’ co-stars include Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Ann Miller (who, by the way, was 14 years old. To the studio, she was 18), Gail Patrick, Adolphe Menjou, and Andrea Leeds.

.A group of hopeful young ladies live in a boarding house called the Footlights Club, a boarding house which has historically housed women who are aspiring actresses. Many of the ladies who live there are struggling to find a job. From the start, we–the members of the audience–are shown a fairly realistic portrait of show business.

stagedoor
courtesy of doctormacro.com

Despite the hardships faced by these ladies, there’s a high level of energy contained within the house. Most of the time they just bicker with each other, but it’s really fun to watch. The script is so witty. And the cast is near perfection. Just to give you a glimpse, here’s the opening scene of the film:

Enter Terry Randall. Terry (Katharine Hepburn), unlike the other girls, comes from a very wealthy family. Acting is her passion. When she enters the Footlights Club, she has never even set foot on a stage. And her family is not so keen on seeing her chase this dream. So, there’s that. But Terry is a strong-willed girl and she’s determined to see what she can make of herself: she’s ready to face

Terry (Hepburn) and Jean (Rogers) face off from the beginning as new roommates. (courtesy of doctormacro.com)
Terry (Hepburn) and Jean (Rogers) face off from the beginning as new roommates.
(courtesy of doctormacro.com)

success and she’s ready to face failure. She just wants to figure it all out. She pays her rent and takes a room at the Footlights Club. And, to her luck, she’s rooming with none other than Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), the cattiest woman in the house. After exchanging a few cracks with each other, Terry settles in for the long haul.

Having watched this film for a second time, I decided that the rocky friendship of Terry and Jean merits its own little post. Each lady is an ‘anti-damsel’ in her own way. Jean may be a bit hot headed and a total smart aleck, but she’s got a heart of gold underneath all of her tough talk. Terry turns out to be the perfect roommate for Jean because she balances her out well. She’s more of the calm, logical type but she can sure hold her own.

No matter how much they may fight and squabble, they do a great job of looking after each other’s well-being. By the end of the film, both young ladies face personal successes, failures, and a boardinghouse tragedy which rocks each and every girl in the Footlights Club.

I think it’s safe to say that each and every lady of the Footlights Club is an anti-damsel. But Jean and Terry, through their rough beginnings, make the strongest transformation of all. By the end of the film, their lives are changed forever.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) airs the film every so often, so be on the lookout. If you haven’t seen this one yet, I highly recommend it.

This post is included in the Anti-Damsel Blogathon hosted by moviessilently.com. Be sure to check out the other posts included in this Blogathon.

1950s Film, musicals, Pre-Code Hollywood, Star Profiles

Dueling Divas: Kathy Seldon vs. Lina Lamont

Classic film mega-fans, casual fans, and people who don’t normally watch old films have one thing in common when it comes to Singin’ in the Rain: they’ve all probably seen this movie at least once…so this movie doesn’t require much of an introduction. But I’ll give one anyway. You know how it goes: It’s 1927 and famous silent film star Donald Lockwood (Gene Kelly) meets aspiring stage actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) when he jumps into her car after nearly being torn apart by a mob of his fans. They don’t quite hit it off; she makes fun of his profession and he thinks she’s a stuck up wannabe stage actress. But he realizes after meeting up with her again at a party that he has fallen in love with Kathy. She’s the only girl who’s not crazy about him and he responds accordingly. His frequent squeaky-voiced co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, in her Oscar-nominated role), however, is determined to prove the gossip magazines true and make Don realize that they are meant to be together. Don, of course, has other ideas:

Lina spends the entire movie acting off her jealousy of Kathy. Lina tries to use her power to get her fired from Monumental Pictures after landing some screen time. Kathy’s a sweet girl but she doesn’t once give in to Lina’s conniving ways. That’s basically the one thing Lina’s good at. Cosmo Brown sums it up best by declaring: “She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance. She’s a triple threat.”

Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont (courtesy of http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Hagen)
Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont
(courtesy of http://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Hagen)

We learn that, following the huge success of 1927’s groundbreaking film The Jazz Singer, talking films are the future of the motion picture industry. Many people in the industry are very much against this. It just can’t be done. Here’s where Lina really comes into play. Because she has such a glass-shattering voice, she can’t possibly make the switch from silents to talking pictures. Everyone except for her comes to realize this. She cannot accept the fact that she just plain sucks when it comes to talkies. In her mind, she’s still Queen Bee of Monumental Pictures and nobody will get in the way. Lina sees Kathy as a gold-digger, using Don Lockwood as a ticket to stardom.

Lina and Kathy’s feud is not your typical Hollywood production fight. There’s no real big confrontation between them, aside from one. Lina walks in on Kathy and Don sharing a kiss after Kathy finishes dubbing Lina’s lines for The Dancing Cavalier. Lina’s BFF Zelda Zanders tips her off about the sparks flying between Don and Kathy and she decides to do something about it. She yells at them and threatens them.

Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden (courtesy of highlighthollywood.com)
Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden
(courtesy of highlighthollywood.com)

What else is there to do but sabotage Kathy’s career? Nothing. Lina goes wild with envy and does everything in her power to make sure Kathy does not take credit for her dubbing in the film, with would make her a likely candidate for a string of her own films to star in. Lina goes against the studio and uses blackmail to back herself up. Of course, her plan goes awry and Lina is exposed at the end of the film for being the fraud and the spiteful woman she truly is.

This allows Kathy and Don to finally enjoy some peace and quiet. We discover at the end that Kathy will be starring opposite Don in a film called–you guessed it– Singin’ in the Rain.

Have you ever wondered what became of Lina after the end of the film? If she had a sense of humor, perhaps she could have gone on to make pictures to simply make fun of her voice, but perhaps that would be too self-depreciating– and that’s not good. Perhaps she became a model. Maybe she took up cooking. Who knows? Any way you look at it, Lina put up quite a fight, but her intentions were downright silly and ridiculous. But who knows? Maybe the talking pictures just weren’t ready for a ‘force of nature’ like Ms. Lamont.

This post is part of the Dueling Divas Blogathon, hosted by Lara over at backlots.net. Special thanks to Lara for allowing me to participate in her fourth annual “Dueling Divas” blogathon. Be sure to head over to backlots.net to see the rest of the awesome submissions.

Star Profiles

Robert Donat: Where Have I Heard That Name Before?

Handsome. English. Talented. Mysterious. Tormented?

Robert Donat for "The 39 Steps (1935)

Robert Donat was an actor best known for his starring roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (1935) and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). He won an Oscar for Best Actor for the latter film– beating out Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Laurence Olivier, and Mickey Rooney in what is considered by many to be the greatest year in film history. But just how did he get into the business and why isn’t he widely recognized today? Let’s take a look.

Donat was born in Withington, a suburb in the city of Manchester, England in 1905. As a young boy, Robert struggled with a stammer when he spoke, so he began speech lessons by the time he was eleven or twelve. The lessons obviously helped greatly: it was discovered at this time that he had a beautiful speaking voice, and he managed to drop both the stammer and his naturally thick Manchester accent. This eventually led him into stage acting, where he began to perform Shakespeare and other fine roles. His stage debut was achieved in 1921 at the age of 16; the play was Julius Caesar. By 1924, he joined Sir Frank Benson’s repertory company and later joined the Liverpool Repertory Theater. He married his first wife, Ella Annesley Voysey, in 1929 and eventually had three children together before divorcing in 1946. [Note: He later married second wife Renee Asherson and they were married from 1953-1958]

Mr. Donat was discovered in the early 1930s and he was offered a role in an American film called Smilin’ Through (1932) but he rejected the offer. That same year, he made his film debut. I’ve searched on several websites to pin down his debut film. According to IMDb’s trivia pages for That Night in London (1932) and Men of Tomorrow (1932), both films were said to be his screen debut. TCM’s website says That Night in London (1932) was his first film, so I will settle for that answer. Interestingly enough, in 1930/’31, before he began his career film, he was known as “screen test Donat” throughout the industry because of his many unsuccessful screen tests. Anyway, he became a star after appearing in his fourth film, The Private Life of Henry VIII. Donat soon went on to work on the only American film he’d be in, which was The Count of Monte Cristo (1934). Because of health problems that would plague him for a good portion of his life and a general dislike of Hollywood life, this would be his only journey to Hollywood.

Donat turned down the lead role in Captain Blood (1935)–which gave Errol Flynn his big break–and opted to star in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller The 39 Steps (1935) opposite Madeleine Carroll. This was made, of course, before Hitchcock had made his move to Hollywood. 

the39steps
Opening title card for “The 39 Steps” (1935) (courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/tom-margie)

I decided that, instead of attempting to explain the plot in a quick way in my own words, I would go to IMDb to give a brief summary: “A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and the man stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring which is trying to steal top secret information.”

Stylistically, the film has both similar and different elements in it than Hitchcock’s later films. It’s definitely recommended for fans of old fashioned black and white mysteries and thrillers. It’s clever and even a bit sexy. Watch out for the twist at the end.

Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll for "The 39 Steps" (1935)
Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in “The 39 Steps” (1935)

For brevity’s sake, I’m going to skip to 1939 to highlight Robert Donat’s performance in the classic British drama/romance film Goodbye, Mr. Chips. I was lucky enough to catch this on TCM’s movies-on-demand app “Watch TCM” last weekend. I had never seen it or the other film adaptations before. It tells the story of an elderly boarding-school teacher named Mr. Chipping (Robert Donat) who, one night, is feeling under-the-weather and falls asleep. This takes the audience into a series of dreams which are flashbacks highlighting major events in his life. We get to see the beginning of his career as a young Latin teacher in 1870, his falling in love/courtship/marriage with a spirited suffragette named Kathy Ellis (Greer Garson), personal tragedy, and trying times well into World War I, and so much more in between. It should be noted that Donat was thirty four years old during the production of this film and he managed to play a character who was shown from the age of 20 to 83. With the excellent use of makeup and acting skill, he pulled it off well.

A really important element in the film is Chipping’s relationship with Kathy. “Chips”, as Kathy affectionately calls him, is taken by her spunky nature during their first accidental meeting and falls hard for her. She falls for him, as well. The beginning of their relationship is very cute, as is the rest of it. Kathy teaches Chips the importance of being a great teacher and she tells him that he can achieve anything he puts his mind and heart into. Through this, Chips becomes a little less shy and a little more easy-going. He even starts telling jokes to his class. Tip: Consider bringing a few tissues with you before you watch this.

Robert Donat in a trailer for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" , 1939. (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Robert Donat in a trailer for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” , 1939.
(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Robert Donat in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1939) Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Robert Donat in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939)
(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Greer Garson in a trailer for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips", 1939. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Greer Garson in a trailer for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, 1939.
(courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Robert Donat was loved by audiences around the world. He was considered to be up in the ranks with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Clark Gable, and Ronald Colman. However, his unfortunate battle with chronic asthma held him back from a lot of potential work. His career only included twenty films, ranging from 1932 to 1958. It has been suggested that because of Donat’s self-esteem issues, these bouts with asthma may have been psychosomatic. Author David Shipman once said, “His tragedy was that the promise of his early years was never fulfilled and that he was haunted by agonies of doubt and disappointment”. In 1980, while being interviewed for the BBC series The British Greats, his first wife said she believed it was caused by the birth of their daughter, as he developed asthma around the time she was born. She also said he was, “full of fear” because of the success he had achieved. Others that had worked with him said that Donat sometimes acted strangely behind the scenes. Like many movie stars, he didn’t seem to live a very happy personal life–but I hope that in saying that, I’m incorrect. Perhaps he was happier than it seemed. It saddened me to find out that he died in 1958 at the age of 53. According to his page on IMDb, he died as a result of a chronic asthma attack. While working on his last film, he was in such poor health that he had to keep an oxygen tank while filming.

In an almost prophetic manner of occurrences, the last line Robert Donat ever spoke in a film was in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). His last line was: “We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell…Jen-Ai.” He passed away shortly after the production of this film.

Although he may not be well-remembered by mainstream audiences, Robert Donat will never be forgotten by those who enjoy his films. I hope people will continue to watch them in the future. I believe everyone should watch Goodbye, Mr. Chips at least once in their lifetime. No matter how many generations pass, it’s a timeless story. I must admit, I developed a pretty big crush on Mr. Donat while watching the film. I had not realized he was the same man who starred in The 39 Steps, which was the first film of his that I watched not too long ago. I went back and I could not stop searching for photos of him. That handsome face, that charming voice…I love you, Robert Donat. Rest in peace.

Note: Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939) is available to watch on the “Watch TCM” app until Jan.4

I used several sources to find information about Robert Donat’s life, which include tcm.com, imdb.com, youtube.com, theguarian.com, and wikipedia.com

Edit: According to the admins of robert-donat.com, Robert actually died of a brain tumor– not asthma, as his IMDb bio reports. Thank you for this correction!