Archive for April, 2014

Madness in the Moonlight: Rediscovering 1934’s Black Moon by matthew c . hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 17, 2014 by mchoffman

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Transcript from our screening on 4/17/14:

I used to collect dozens of rare movies on VHS. These were often bootlegged copies recorded off some “Channel Z” station. One of the tapes I had which I never had a chance to watch was Black Moon (1934). I’m glad I never viewed that video copy because several years ago I had the chance to see it screened on film at the Bank of America Cinema, which had been the LaSalle Bank Theatre when I operated it. What you will see tonight won’t have the texture or richness of the images I saw because projected film looks differently, and I believe movies shot on film should be shown on film if possible. But you’ll get a close approximation of that experience. What I remember most about seeing tonight’s film for the first time is the cinematography by Joseph August and the brooding atmosphere that pervades the film from the very first scene to its bizarre climax.

Black Moon is the sort of pulp fiction one might’ve seen illustrated on the cover of an issue of Weird Tales. Based on a short story by Clements Ripley, it tells the story of a woman haunted by the shadows of her past. Dorothy Burgess plays Juanita, a wife and mother who is called back to the island of San Christopher in the West Indies. At an early age she had been exposed to the rituals of voodoo, and though she was able to escape the island, she was never able to escape its hold on her. The only way she can overcome those dark forces is to return to their source. However, in the eyes of the natives, she is welcomed as a returning priestess—a jungle goddess of sorts. Jack Holt plays her businessman husband, Stephen Lane, who wonders why she’s disappearing into the jungle at night, and Fay Wray is his secretary, Gail, who accompanies Juanita on the trip (even though she’s secretly in love with Lane). Gail sounds the alarm almost immediately upon arriving. She sends a message for Lane to join them on the island.

Black Moon feels a little like a B movie, but its production values are much higher than the typical programmer. Joseph August was one of the most accomplished cinematographers in Hollywood. He would shoot such films as The Informer, Gunga Din, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Devil and Daniel Webster. The compositions and lighting reflect a level of detail and care you wouldn’t find in most low-budget films. One instance in particular is the scene in which the natives try to smoke out the heroes who have taken refuge in a tower on the plantation. The smoke gradually seeps in under the locked door until the characters are suffocating in a beautifully lit scene.

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Jack Holt, who plays our rather husky hero, is only adequate here. His best moments are his scenes with Cora Sue Collins as the little daughter; you get a sense of genuine concern for her. Holt was a square-jawed, two-fisted hero of mostly westerns. His most successful period as a star came in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Three Jack Holt films worth rediscovering are Submarine (1928), Flight (1929), and Dirigible (1931), but that’s only because they were all directed by Frank Capra. Holt is the father of Tim Holt, who starred in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Jack Holt was also the physical inspiration for Chester Gould’s comic book character Dick Tracy.

Dorothy Burgess plays Juanita, the Creole-speaking wife who essentially turns her back on the civilized world to join the natives. For its time, the concept of a white woman becoming part of black culture must’ve shocked the sensibilities of viewers. Though her situation is certainly removed from our reality—I doubt many of you have ties to jungle sorcery– Burgess conveys the inner turmoil of her character as forcefully as someone today who might be struggling with bi-polar illness or depression. Her battle is with a psychological monster. She’s split between her civilized self and the world of her people on the island. Her duality even pulls her away from her own family, and that is the most tragic aspect of the film. She confronts these beckoning demons head-on, but it all goes wrong in a hurry and she succumbs to their power. Though we should be sympathetic towards her given her earlier experiences as a child, the movie instead makes Juanita the villain.

Dorothy Burgess had been a Broadway actress and acting ran in the family. Her aunt was the famous stage actress Fay Bainter. Burgess later starred in several films in Hollywood following her big break in 1928’s In Old Arizona, in which she played the Spanish love interest for Warner Baxter’s Cisco Kid. Some of her 1930s credits include Hold Your Man, Taxi!, and Ladies They Talk About with Barbara Stanwyck. Her own life was haunted by personal tragedy. In 1932 Burgess was charged with manslaughter when her car piled into another vehicle, killing a 17 year old girl. When her film career came to an end in the mid-1940s Burgess turned to writing. In 1944 she published a novel called Say Uncle, which deals with vampires. She was only 54 when she died in 1961.

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Fay Wray, the great scream queen of 1930s horror, stars as Gail. She’s the secretary who becomes a mother substitute after Juanita falls under the jungle spell. Though Fay has little to do in the film, her presence in it nonetheless is one of the highlights. Fay had been acting since the silent era when she appeared in films like The Wedding March. Throughout the early 1930s she played the heroine in many chillers including The Most Dangerous Game, The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Dr. X. She starred opposite Jack Holt in several films including Dirigible. Though she’s a brunette here, Fay Wray is best remembered as a blonde in her most famous film, 1933’s King Kong.

Clarence Muse, who plays the character Lunch in this film, was a multi-talented black actor who also wrote and composed music. Horror fans will remember him as the coach driver in another voodoo film, White Zombie. For a Hollywood film, Black Moon is distinct because Muse is not playing a racial stereotype in the manner of his contemporaries like Willie Best, for example. He provides some comedy relief, but it’s not nearly as offensive or demeaning as it could’ve been. His character brings a degree of balance to a racially-charged film. The story’s background is a social powder keg ready to explode. Juanita’s uncle, who comes from a long line of white oppressors, lives on a plantation that is periodically besieged by the black residents—the “monkey chasers,” as Lunch calls them.

Roy William Neill directed Black Moon. The following year he made The Black Room with Boris Karloff in a dual role, and his last credit was the film noir The Black Angel in 1946. Besides movies with “Black” in the title, Neill is best known for the several Sherlock Holmes films he made in the 1940s with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. He also directed Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, which is the best of the Frankenstein sequels after Son of Frankenstein. In Black Moon, Neill establishes an almost claustrophobic jungle environment where the menace is always closing in– not unlike 1933’s The Island of Lost Souls. Sets such as the plantation house are not secure enough to keep this dread presence out.

Note the shadow of the hanging man in the background!
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For people expecting zombies and the walking dead, that’s not what this one is about. However, there’s no question Black Moon’s oppressive mood was an influence on Val Lewton’s later film, I Walked With a Zombie. The rhythmic beat of drums is heard periodically on the soundtrack, adding a sense of foreboding. There are some genuinely disturbing moments in the film, perhaps none more so than the climax involving a voodoo sacrifice and the choice the hero must make. It’s the kind of ending that will leave you speechless.

The Rediscovered was initially going to be a series all about strange adventures in exotic lands, but as the series evolved into something broader, only two films from that early concept stayed: West of Zanzibar and tonight’s film. They are also the two shortest films in the program. Black Moon is only 68 minutes, but its storytelling is very economical. It’s an overlooked film from the 1930s with horror overtones. The story might not appeal to everyone, but pay more attention to the film’s visual imagery and its atmosphere. There you will discover the power and magic of Black Moon. I hope you as viewers will fall under its hypnotic spell.

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Night Flight (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2014 by mchoffman

“What’s it all for? Just so somebody in Paris can get a postcard on Tuesday instead of Thursday?” ~ a pilot’s wife (Myrna Loy) in Night Flight

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Transcript from our screening on 4/10/14:

The Rediscovered is a film program about rediscovering lesser-known films and stars, but tonight’s cast needs no introduction. If I were to read you bios on everyone who is in this movie we’ll be here till tomorrow, so I will bypass that and cut to the chase. Not a lot of people have seen this one, and I’m sure those who skipped tonight’s film have no idea who’s in it. How can you pass up a movie with Myrna Loy?

Night Flight tells the story of the Trans-Andean Airmail pilots of South America. The film covers a period of 24 hours in their lives. These were the early days of night flying when pilots had to contend with fog, air currents, and mountains—and they didn’t have instrument flying. John Barrymore is Riviere, the managing director of the service. He’s a strict disciplinarian who has no room for sentiment. His pilots include Robert Montgomery as Pellerin, who quietly reflects upon a recent near-death experience, and Fabian played by Clark Gable, who is already in the air as the film begins.

The story is framed by a hospital’s need to get a polio serum to a sick child. Since the hospital is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the serum is in Santiago, Chile, a sense of urgency is immediately established. The film balances the danger of night flight with the human drama on the ground. Helen Hayes as Madam Fabian waits to hear news about Clark Gable, who is behind schedule, and Myrna Loy plays a young wife who wants to keep her pilot-husband (played by William Gargan) earthbound and close to her.

Those familiar with the studio system will recognize Night Flight as an MGM product. Since they were the studio that supplied us with more stars than there are in Heaven, you get John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, and Myrna Loy among others. It’s an all-star, ensemble cast along the lines of Grand Hotel and the more recent Dinner at Eight. But comparing it to those earlier films is misleading because the actors in Night Flight are relegated to essentially bit roles. Unlike its predecessors, characters here rarely interact with the other stars of the film. In fact, the radio operator, played by Frank Conroy, probably has as much importance as some of the stars, which makes it feel like a level playing field in terms of performance. In many ways, this was a very odd film for MGM.

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If there’s one actor who holds it all together, it’s former film idol John Barrymore. His character’s life is dominated by the oversized map of South America with all its lights showing the flight routes. He’s determined to keep the flights on time and to preserve the company’s safety record as though he himself were operating as a mechanism of absolute certainty. He demands the impossible and expects to get it. He chain-smokes his way through the long hours, dealing with the pilots, the French board of directors, and the wife of a lost pilot, Madam Fabian.

Lionel Barrymore plays the middleman inspector who is always scratching himself. This would be his last film with his brother John. In The Motion Picture Guide, authors Jay Robert Nash, Stanley Ralph Ross, and Robert Connelly recount a story from on the set where the director, Clarence Brown, bet John Barrymore ten dollars that his brother Lionel would not be able to upstage him in the scene where Riviere criticizes the unfortunate Robineau. “When the scene was shot, Lionel stood mute, his face twitching, his eyes rolling, but the script had silenced even his notorious whine. He turned to go, but when he reached the door… he reached his hand behind him and scratched his bottom. Beamed John to Brown: ‘Now there, sir, is a brother to be proud of. Pay me the ten dollars!’”

Robert Montgomery has a very good scene in which he conveys what it feels like to be alive after coming so close to death in the mountains. It’s a rather mystical moment that captures some of the essence of the book the film is based on. Meanwhile, Helen Hayes looks out to the moon, an image that seems to unite all the characters in one way or another. Her thoughts are on her long overdue husband. Helen Hayes may have been the First Lady of the Stage, but in this film she unintentionally conveys emotional instability– talking to a husband who isn’t there at the dinner table and flying off into hysterics with Riviere.

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In her autobiography, My Life in Three Acts, there is a great story Helen Hayes tells of working with Barrymore. This was at a time in Barrymore’s career when he relied more and more on cue cards in order to remember his lines. Apparently they were ready if he needed them, but the take went perfectly. Hayes writes of their scene together,

“John had a tempestuous personality and a well-deserved reputation for throwing people off, for unnerving even the most experienced actors… Determined to give him no cause to blow up at me if I could help it, I memorized my lines until I could say them in my sleep…. Our director, Clarence Brown, was astonished. ‘I can’t believe it, John,’ he said. ‘You didn’t need the idiot cards. What happened?’ ‘I was working with a real actress,’ said John. ‘I didn’t want to make a goddamn fool of myself.’ That, coming from John Barrymore, America’s great actor, remains my favorite notice.”

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Myrna Loy and William Gargan come across much better, each giving an understated performance which seems more natural. Loy is especially poignant when she tells her husband she will never be able to share in that experience he has in the air. As for Clark Gable, he does more writing than speaking while flying over the South American pampas, but the film’s most dramatic moments in the air are with him.

Some supporting actors I’d like to point out are Leslie Fenton, who plays Gable’s co-pilot. He was Ann Dvorak’s husband, and you’ll see him in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain for those who can make the April 23rd show at the Patio Theatre. Robert Montgomery’s girlfriend at the beginning of the film is Dorothy Burgess, who you’ll see next week in Black Moon. At one point Burgess was engaged to the film’s director.

Night Flight was helmed by Clarence Brown, a director of exceptional skill. He made several important pictures for MGM including Anna Karenina, which was one of the seven films he made with Greta Garbo. With this film, Brown fashioned a tense drama using a minimalist approach. Ironically, the film was originally previewed at two hours. This version is 84 minutes, so you wonder what they took out. Night Flight feels different than their other big budget films. It just has an atmosphere that doesn’t feel so studio-bound. Close-ups are effective when needed, and the action always seems intimate. The scenes in the line offices really stand out, depicting the men and machines that are always in motion.

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Night Flight has a strong sense of imagery. There’s a very dramatic shot in the movie where Gable’s Fabian, who is way off course, sends down a flare, and it’s frightening what that light reveals below. Throughout the film, we also see from above the lives of the locals as the planes fly over. These are done through interesting transitions– optical wipes that move across the screen to reveal the next scene. Adding to the film’s visual power is the musical score by house composer Herbert Stothart which is particularly dramatic during the flying sequences.

Night Flight was based on a novel by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. His book won the 1931 Prix Femina award in 1931, which may have attracted the attention of David O. Selznick, who produced the film. Saint-Exupery was a former airmail pilot himself who became an author. He wrote about his experiences in the Argentinean commercial air service, and the characters in the film are based on people he had known. Saint-Exupery led a fascinating life which was cut short during World War II when his plane was shot down by the Germans. His best-known literary work is The Little Prince, which was published posthumously.

Night Flight had been long out of circulation since 1942 due to a legal issue involving the estate of Saint-Exupery. In the years since TCM premiered it in 2011, it’s received mixed reviews. Some critics feel it’s far from the lost masterpiece they were expecting, citing the lack of characterization– that there’s no one to care about. For instance, we don’t know anything about Clark Gable since he spends the whole film in the cockpit. Perhaps this is why the studio used the sick child we see in the beginning as a plot device to get audiences involved. This aspect was not in the original novel. Other viewers, such as myself, have a far different opinion of the film and its place in the aviation genre.

Some of the best films dealing with the dangers of early aviation came out in the 1930s. I’m reminded of another movie that hit theatres the previous year in 1932–John Ford’s Airmail starring Ralph Bellamy– a film I had played at the LaSalle Bank revival house in Chicago. A superior take on this type of material is Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings. Night Flight is not in the category of the latter. It is, however, the one film in this series which might fly in under your radar of expectations. I think it will surprise some—not just because of the cast– but because it’s an exceptional drama about the spirit of aviation. The aerial photography is stunning, but it’s a film that is more than that. It shows the dangers, but Night Flight also hints at the lyrical quality of flying itself. It’s an elusive experience which Saint-Exupery captured in written words, and which here is translated in visual terms through the power of the motion picture medium.

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Gallant Lady (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 4, 2014 by mchoffman

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Transcript from our screening on 4/3/14:

Gallant Lady was the last film to be added to our spring lineup; I didn’t want to do this series without Ann Harding. I may not have picked her best film, but it’s something most of us haven’t seen, and I’m sure for some, this will be your first experience with her. The title of tonight’s film well describes Ann Harding herself. In many of her films, she played characters who embodied class and sophistication. Harding became associated with the noble heroines she played onscreen. She was the gallant lady of Hollywood, so it’s fitting that the only biography written about her would be called Cinema’s Gallant Lady.

The other day I was paging through a book called 501 Movie Stars: A Comprehensive Guide to the Greatest Screen Actors. But apparently, it’s not all that comprehensive since Ann Harding is nowhere to be found under the letter “H.” They did list Goldie Hawn and Salma Hayek. It’s an understatement to say that Harding is underappreciated today, but in her day, she was known for her ethereal beauty and her long blonde hair, her deep voice and precise diction, and for the stage-trained abilities that separated her from other stars who might’ve gotten by on looks and charm.

Hers was a modern style of acting that seems as fresh today as it was back then. She came across as natural without any affectation. There was a honesty in her characterizations. Onscreen, she could convey the impression that she was truly listening to another actor and not just waiting for her cues. She could project thought without words and without any over-the-top histrionics. Her ability to understand a character through that person’s perspective made Ann Harding an exceptional talent we could sympathize with.

In his introduction to Scott O’Brien’s essential Ann Harding: Cinema’s Gallant Lady, film critic and author Mick LaSalle writes, “The loss of Ann Harding to history is not something akin to the relative obscurity of, say, Madge Evans, a completely charming actress of the same era. In terms of talent, this is more as if Bette Davis were somehow to be forgotten. Harding’s body of work was small. Her luck in terms of studios was nonexistent, and the coming of the Production Code eliminated the sex drama, the genre in which she thrived. For these reasons, most people have never seen an Ann Harding movie. But the talent was enormous—and apparent to anyone within 10 minutes of watching her on screen.”

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Ann Harding entered this world as Dorothy Walton Gatley in 1902. She was born on an Army base in San Antonio, Texas. Her father was a career officer who later served in World War I. Dorothy grew up living a military life and following its protocol, but she was a strong-willed girl who wanted to rebel and lead her own life. Her family travelled a lot and she never had permanent roots until much later when she settled in Hollywood. Dorothy grew up in New Jersey, and after she finished school she found work as a freelance script reader in Long Island for the Famous Players-Lasky studio. This was hardly fulfilling work, but one day she found her adventure. She answered an ad calling for an inexperienced actress to perform in a play staged by the Provincetown Players, a repertory company. This led to a long association with the theatre world which would culminate with a highly-respected but physically grueling career on Broadway. Her father never approved of her decision to be an actress. For many years she was estranged from General Gatley, who felt she had taken the “straight and inevitable road to Hell.” Ann’s stage career eventually took its toll on her and she left for the West Coast. There, she found new opportunities in the motion picture medium.

Of the many actresses who migrated to Hollywood from Broadway, Ann Harding was perhaps the finest of them all. She made her film debut in 1929’s Paris Bound with Fredric March. That same year she appeared opposite Ronald Colman in Condemned. But the role that really made her a star came in the 1930 version of Philip Barry’s play, Holiday, later remade eight years later with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Ann would receive her only nomination for Best Actress for her performance in this early talkie. Some of her best work followed in the wake of this success, including 1931’s Devotion and 1932’s Animal Kingdom—both with Leslie Howard– When Ladies Meet, and Double Harness with William Powell. Ann Harding was RKO’s leading actress, but Katharine Hepburn was waiting in the wings.

Though tonight’s film features a fine performance by Harding, it also reflects the kind of typecasting that would limit the range of her work. Gallant Lady depicts Ann as the sort of self-sacrificing woman she would play in several tearjerkers including her very next film, The Life of Vergie Winters (1934). But regardless of the soap drama aspects, Ann always elevated the material. She virtually defined the “woman’s picture” of the 1930s. Gallant Lady is a “weepie” about mother love geared towards the female audience. It has Ann playing Sally, a young, unwed mother who gives up her baby for adoption. She tries to put her child out of her mind and go on with her new life as an interior decorator. However, after a chance encounter with her son in Europe, she resolves to be a mother to him again.

With Clive Brook
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The film has some rather contrived plot elements. It takes a serious stretch of the imagination to believe she would cross paths with her son again, and I’m not sure what purpose Tullio Carminati’s Italian count serves in this film other than to sing a couple songs and hit home the unrequited love theme. But I don’t want to fixate on the story because this is not a story rooted in reality. Certainly by today’s standards the plot is incredible, but we have to remember that 80 years ago women were not as liberated as they are today. An unwed mother had limited options. In Gallant Lady, Ann Harding is forced to use deception as one of those options. But even if the story is ambiguous in what it wants to say, it features some well-drawn characterizations that hold the viewer’s interest.

Author Scott O’Brien writes, “Gallant Lady is a compelling drama, and certainly worthy of the talents that brought it to the screen. Gilbert Emery, who had rescued Ann’s Broadway career by getting her to play in Tarnish, wrote Gallant Lady specifically for her. He stated that he wished to showcase a talent he had observed and worked with. (Darryl) Zanuck had offered Ann the invitation to choose her own story, and she felt Emery’s Gallant Lady had potential. ‘I still have the audacity to think I can spot a good picture story,’ Ann declared at the time.”

With any other actress, Clive Brook might’ve stolen the show as Sally’s admirer, Dan. He plays a disgraced doctor and social outcast who wanders in and out of the film– drinking, smoking, and providing our heroine with much-needed advice. It’s a wonderfully understated performance, and his presence as Sally’s emotional anchor is one of the highlights. Brook was a distinguished British film star who became a popular leading man in Hollywood beginning in the late 1920s. Some of you probably remember Brook opposite Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, but he was also known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in three films.

With Otto Kruger
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Otto Kruger plays Phillip Lawrence, the adoptive father. Kruger is known for his roles in films like Son of Dracula and Murder, My Sweet. Longtime Broadway actress Janet Beecher, who made her film debut in 1933, portrays Maria Sherwood, and Dickie Moore is Deedy Lawrence. Moore, of course, is fondly remembered for the series of “Our Gang” shorts he appeared in as well as numerous classic films throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He had a role in what is widely considered to be Ann Harding’s best film, Peter Ibbetson, playing Gary Cooper’s character as a boy. Moore is the only star from this film still with us– now 88 years old.

The film was directed by Gregory La Cava. He originally worked for William Randolph Hearst as a producer of early animated cartoons, but he eventually became a director of live-action silent movies. He is best known for the films he did in the 1930s, most notably My Man Godfrey with Carole Lombard and William Powell. This landmark screwball comedy would reward La Cava with an Oscar nomination for Best Director. He showed that he could handle comedy as well as heavy drama.

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Though it was a box office hit, the popularity of women’s films like Gallant Lady would eventually fall out of fashion. Though Harding was greatly associated with these types of pictures, there were other factors involved in the decline of her career. Harding was a naturally reserved actress who didn’t go out of her way to talk to the press. She once said, “Whatever charm and dignity an actor may possess are ruined if delved into too deeply.” As a result, she didn’t endear herself to the critics. Some of whom unfairly attacked her films simply because they didn’t like her. By 1937 she had had enough of Hollywood, yet she would return in the 1940s in supporting roles in films like Mission to Moscow with Walter Huston. She would never again be the star she had been in the early 1930s, but Ann Harding never craved publicity or sought stardom. For her, acting was a craft. She thought only in terms of the ensemble—not the needs of an individual star.

It’s a shame Ann Harding was wasted with too few opportunities to display the kind of talent she had exhibited on Broadway and in her early film roles. She was pigeonholed into a certain type of screen persona when she was in fact far more diversified than that. Leslie Howard had specifically requested her for 1934’s Of Human Bondage, but she turned that role down and it eventually went to Bette Davis. Ann did wish to make a film version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises— a property she had acquired the rights to at one point. Certainly, portraying Lady Brett Ashley would’ve been a fabulous departure for her, but sadly, Hollywood’s Production Code enforcers closed down on any studio’s attempt to translate this novel to the screen. It was another in a series of lost opportunities for Ann Harding.

She will never be remembered the way we remember a Barbara Stanwyck or a Bette Davis. These were actresses whose careers spanned decades. Harding’s career as a leading lady was cut too short for that kind of immortality, but we can certainly rescue her from total obscurity. We can keep her memory alive by screening her films for new audiences. Younger generations who have only been weaned on today’s celebrity culture can begin to understand and appreciate the depth of a 1930s actress like Ann Harding– both as an artist and as a person. Her films contain a humanity that mainstream Hollywood has long since forgotten.

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