Q & A with Matthew Kennedy on Joan Blondell & Edmund Goulding

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Q & A with Matthew Kennedy on Joan Blondell & Edmund Goulding

Post by moira finnie »

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Welcome to our May Guest Star Matthew Kennedy, the author of "Marie Dressler: A Biography" (McFarland), "Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory" (Univ. of Wisconsin Press) & "Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes" (Univ. of Mississippi Press).


We're delighted to welcome Matthew Kennedy to the Silver Screen Oasis today. To begin, your scholarly yet entertaining books have shed more light on the lives and careers of three familiar yet shadowy figures from the classic film era.

Could you please describe how you went about choosing these subjects, or did they choose you?

Where did you begin in unearthing such a wealth of little known information about each of these individuals?

Thank you for your answers and, most of all, for visiting with us this week.

Moira
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Post by CoffeeDan »

Hello, Mr. Kennedy! Thanks for chatting with us this week.

My first question is about Edmund Goulding. Back in my film school days, one of my teachers noted that in Goulding's films, the actors never entered or exited the frame unless it was "natural," like going through a door, driving off in a car, etc. He would move his camera away from or toward the principals, but kept them in the frame. Do you know how and why he adopted this particular rule of filmmaking?
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Re: Welcome, Matthew Kennedy!

Post by Matthew Kennedy »

[quote="moirafinnie"]Welcome to our May Guest Star Matthew Kennedy, the author of "Marie Dressler: A Biography" (McFarland), "Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory" (Univ. of Wisconsin Press) & "Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes" (Univ. of Mississippi Press).

Dear Moira and everyone at the Oasis,
First, thank you very much for this opportunity. Moira's introduction was very generous, and I am genuinely honored at being so graciously hosted. Following Kevin Brownlow, my friend and hero, is humbling. And I'm new to this format, so I hope you'll be patient if I get flummoxed by it or inadvertently violate protocol. (I guess two emoticons are in order - :? and :oops:.)

So here we go...

"...or did they choose you?" Good question. That was very much the case with Dressler. I simply fell in love with her - the amazing up and down career, that face, her unique place in film and theater history, her unprecedented popularity. And on top of all that, her great screen magnetism. Nobody, absolutely nobody, has come close to duplicating her.

I knew Goulding by name only when he was suggested as a subject for biography by film historian Mark Vieira. (Thanks, Mark!) Once I began researching his story, I realized that there was a lot there besides the films he made. He was frighteningly versatile, and apparently quite conflicted in his personal life.

As for Blondell, I was an admirer since Here Come the Brides, a tv show I watched religiously when I was in middle school. I met her son, Norman Powell, several years ago when I was interviewed for a documentary he produced. He casually mentioned doing a biography of his mother, and I pounced!

So Marie, Eddie, and Joan all came into my life in different ways.

Doing the research for these books is nearly as challenging as the writing. I came to realize that it must be close to detective work. And once I'm hooked, it becomes very consuming, a happy obsession. I start with obvious sources - film reviews, other people's memoirs, feature articles, and brief bio entries in reference books. Then I seek out people who worked with him/her, and hope they'll agree to an interview.

From there, the trail gets more specific. One thing leads to another as someone might say "did you know there's a special collection of Goulding materials at the AFI Library?" or "so-and-so was a good friend of Joan's, and here's her number." Sometimes it's very much needle-in-a-haystack type work, such as tracing the lives of Marie's loyal maid and butler after she died, or digging up the census records for Eddie's family in Edwardian London. When I find that material, I have to stifle letting out a squeal of delight in some quiet library!

Matthew
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Post by mongoII »

A big welcome to the SSO boards, Mr.Kennedy. It's nice having you with us.
I'm happy to say that your subjects of Marie Dressler, Edmund Goulding, and especially Joan Blondell are three of my favorite people.

Although Dressler was a hoot in "Min and Bill", "Emma", and "Dinner at Eight", was she as bubbly and humorous in real life?
Was she seriously contemplating working as a housekeeper at a Long Island estate before Frances Marion insisted MGM cast her in the "The Callahans and the Murphys".

Goulding made some of my favorite films including "Grand Hotel", "The Razor's Edge", "Nightmare Alley" with Joan Blondell of course, and "Mister 880". Can it be true that this man was never nominated for an Oscar?
Also what did Bette Davis think of him, especially since he directed her in one of her favorite films "Dark Victory"?

I can't imagine anyone not liking the lovely Joan Blondell (except perhaps June Allyson).
Did Miss Blondell have a favorie role that she played?
Is it true that she playfully called her friend Bette Davis's four ex-husbands "The Four Skins" since they were all gentiles?
How was her relationship with her daughter Ellen?

I had better stop and give someone else a chance. Thanks.

Joe
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Post by Matthew Kennedy »

Hi CoffeeDan,
I believe it was part of his principles of good filmmaking. Goulding was the unshowiest of directors. For him, everything and everyone, including the director, was in service to the actors rendering believable emotions. (That's quite a trick, considering the far-fetched plots of, for example, The Great Lie.) I believe he wanted his audiences to forget they were watching a movie, and simply dive into the world he was manufacturing. And I think his plan worked. Ever since I became aware of the rule you mention, it's ruined me for other movies, particularly pre-widescreen black and white. When an actor moves out of the camera frame, especially in the foreground, it pulls me out what's happening and into a "it's only a movie" moment. It feels artificial to me.

Also, Goulding's roots were in the theater, so he may have been trying to reproduce something like a proscenium stage experience while keeping the actors within the built environment, rather than being cut off by the camera.

Goulding may have had an unlikely kindred spirit in the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu. Of course he took this idea to extremes, keeping his actors and camera in complete repose for long periods of time, but when they entered or exited a scene, they came through a door within the camera frame. It's subtle, but the net effect is very effective. I'm an emotional wreck by the end of Tokyo Story, or Dark Victory, or The Constant Nymph.

Matthew
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Post by Matthew Kennedy »

Hi Joe,
Thanks - it's great to be here among such well-informed cineastes!

Gosh - so many questions! It doesn't seem that Marie was the funny woman off screen that she was on. Not that she didn't hold court at parties and leave guests in stitches. She did. But during her vaudeville days, she once said that the expectation of being funny off stage was an overwhelming and unwelcome burden. She told the story of housekeeping just before her great comeback, and she was known to embellish just a wee bit. :wink: Another source had her seating customers at the Ritz in New York, and living off the generosity of her rich society friends. Whatever the anecdote, it's safe to say Marie was pretty close to destitution when Frances Marion came to the rescue.

Yes, it's true, Goulding was never nominated for an Oscar. His big chance with Grand Hotel was probably botched because of a scandal at the time. The quotes from Davis about Goulding evolved from their first movie (That Certain Woman in 1937) to their last (The Great Lie in 1941). She was initially thrilled at the glamour treatment she got in That Certain Woman, and they worked together brilliantly in Dark Victory and The Old Maid. But relations frayed when he negotiated himself out of directing her and the detested Miriam Hopkins in Old Acquaintance. They maintained a begrudging respect for each other, however. Davis referred to him as a genius later in her life. But they were never chummy.

You're so right about Joan. Whatever faults people found in her, they were always followed by something like "but she was wonderful and I loved her." As far as Allyson is concerned, Joan could hit as well as she could catch.

I remember seeing "The Four Skins" joke in print somewhere (sorry I can't remember the exact source), and it was repeated to me by Joan's granddaughter, who was her assistant at the end of her life. And it was too funny to pass up, so it's in the book.

Joan's relationship with Ellen was complicated, dramatic, and deeply loving. I'd better demure a bit on that question, since it's taken up at some length in the book and I couldn't do it justice here.

As for Marie, Eddie, and Joan being among your favorites, well, all I can say is you have very good taste!

Matthew
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Post by charliechaplinfan »

Welcome to the Oasis Matthew, it's great to have you here.

I don't know very much about Marie Dressler and when I saw you had written about her I thought 'what a brilliant subject' She seems so fun and larger than life in her films.

As a massive Chaplin fan I'll start off by asking about experiences making Tillie's Punctured Romance. I've watched the film, it was very bad quality, which is a pity because it features three greats. Marie really holds her own against Chaplin. The film itself was the first feature length comedy and the exercise wasn't repeated again for a few years.

Did Marie enjoy making this film with Charlie and Mabel?

Do you think Charlie learnt anything from working with Marie at this stage in his career?

I've not read anything that Chaplin has said about this comedy and I wish someone would treat it with the respect it deserves due to its big names and give it a proper restoration.

I'd like to think too that Marie Dressler's relationship with Jean Harlow was like that in Dinner At Eight. Her line is so classic in that film.

Thanks again for joining us. :D
Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself - Charlie Chaplin
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Hi Mr. Kennedy, thank you for joining us!

Post by Shonna »

Hi Mr. Kennedy:
I LOVED your book on Marie Dressler. Could you please tell me who you would like to do future books about? Male and Female? Thank you for coming!!
Regards,
Shonna
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Post by Matthew Kennedy »

I'm fairly certain that Tillie is in the public domain, so no studio is likely to champion it for restoration. It's a real shame, because as you point out, it is an extremely important movie historically. If it's not in the Film Registry, it should be.

Marie wrote fondly of making Tillie, and she worked well with Charlie and Mabel. She encountered problems later in collecting profits from the film, but that's another story...

Did Charlie learn from Marie? Good question. Certainly she was more experienced at the time, and I find Charlie interesting to watch here for his developing skill. It feels to me like his shifty character in Tillie is making way for the tramp. And he and Marie form such a great mismatched pair.

In Chaplin's autobiography, he skims over Tillie, saying only that it was fun to work with Marie.

Harlow spoke adoringly of Marie during the making of Dinner at Eight. She was so young, but look how she holds her own against Dressler, the ultimate scene stealer!

Matthew
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Post by Matthew Kennedy »

Hi Joe,
I neglected to cover your question about Joan's favorite movies. She loved The King and the Chorus Girl (1937), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), and Lizzie (1957). There are others that turned out well for her, such as Nightmare Alley (1947) and Desk Set (1957). For some of the rest of us, we love her in just about everything. :)
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Welcome Matthew Kennedy!

Post by bettyjoan »

I can't wait to purchase your books. There are so many wonderful classic stars in that particular era that seemed to have a personal dimension surpassing the plastic actors that people our 'cinema' today.

I know that Joan Blondell was in a lot of pre-code films. Are there any in particular that you recommend as outstanding? - I also recall her playing the aunt of Eleanor Parker in a film (title?) about multiple personality. - I believe this film was actually superior to the much-toted "Three Faces of Eve", released about the same time, and Joan's performance was so naturalistic and warmly human.

Did Mr. Goulding have any comments regarding the marvelous Mary Astor?

Well golly, I'll just have to read your books. But thanks ever, for your visit.

Bettyjoan
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Post by Matthew Kennedy »

Hi Shonna,
I actually don't have anyone in mind at present for a biography, but I'm open to suggestions! I'm not a great idea person. Wish I could say I've got a storehouse of subjects to write about, but I don't. I am working on a new book, however, which is not a biography. I have to be on low volume as to the exact topic, but it's about musicals.

Matthew
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Post by Matthew Kennedy »

Hi Bettyjoan,

I'm afraid I agree with you about many of today's stars. I try not to get too curmudgeonly about it.

Oh yes, I certainly do have some pre-code Blondells to recommend! Her first starring role is in Blonde Crazy (1931) with James Cagney. The sparks really fly between the two of them. Unfortunately, it isn't yet out on DVD, but it would be a perfect entry in Turner's Forbidden Hollywood Collection. Joan is in Night Nurse and Three on a Match, both recently put out on DVD. Her roles are not large in either, but you can see her alongside Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, and the amazing Ann Dvorak. Also available are Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, two must-see musicals with just about everyone from the Warner Bros. stock company joyously participating.

Union Depot and Blondie Johnson are two strong entries, but neither are on DVD at present. They air periodically on Turner Classic Movies.

The Eleanor Parker movie you refer to is called Lizzie, from 1957. Joan is quite exceptional in that.

I don't recall that Goulding ever mentioned Astor among his favorite actresses. But what a scorching performance she gave in The Great Lie!

Matthew
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Post by mongoII »

Matthew, thanks a heap for answering ALL my questions. I appreciate it. I may also have a few more for you before you leave us.

I'm requesting your Blondell book for Father's Day.

Thanks again,

Joe
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Curmudgeonly...?

Post by bettyjoan »

Hey Matthew:

I have to suggest that "curmudgeonly" would be a GREAT topic for another book of yours! - Why not? Guys like Sidney Greenstreet, Claude Rains, ad infinitum. - And by the way, being a curmudgeon is rather an attractive quality for some of us intelligent and discerning gals.

Yeah, "Lizzie". Neat, queer kind of film. All kinds of disreputable-seeming peripheral talented actors in that one. And the lovely Eleanor Parker: skin like milkglass, Titian-haired. - And that lovely, dusky voice.

Thanks for the feedback. Looking forward to more.

Cordially yours,

bettyjoan

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