Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Fabulous Forties: Paulette Goddard

In the opening credits of The Women (1939), the stars of the all-female cast are introduced with various members of the animal kingdom representing their respective characters. As the sly golddigger, Miriam Aarons, Paulette Goddard is symbolized by a fox. It couldn't have been a more apropos parallel, both for the character and the actress.

Paulette Goddard was smart, sexy, clever, crafty -- and foxy. She was also a major contract star at Paramount for nearly all of the 1940's, although even at the height of her movie fame, Goddard was perhaps better known (as she is now) for her off-screen exploits, romances and scandals. When, more than 40 years after her greatest stardom, Paulette Goddard left a multi-million dollar estate, including priceless art, fabulous jewels and magnificent properties, it was the culmination of years of not only hard work, but also canny opportunism and a healthy dose of feminine wiles.

Born Marion Pauline Levy on June 10, 1910, the future Paulette Goddard was extraordinarily beautiful from the start, working as a child model, and becoming a Ziegfeld Girl at the tender age of 13. By 16, she had married a wealthy New York businessman, shedding him a few years later for a substantial cash settlement, which Goddard used to subsidize her move to Hollywood with her mother.

Paulette Goddard in the Ziegfeld Follies production of Rio Rita (1927)

Along with other future luminaries Lucille Ball, Betty Grable and Ann Sothern, the newly minted starlet became a "Goldwyn Girl," appearing in such Sam Goldwyn productions as Roman Scandals (1933) and Kid Millions (1934). It was during this period that Goddard met Charlie Chaplin, and the two began a romance which would both help and hinder Goddard's ambitions for stardom.

Paulette Goddard as a Goldwyn Girl, circa 1933

Claiming to have been married in China, Chaplin and Goddard brazenly lived together in his Beverly Hills mansion, shocking the public and raising the eyebrows of even decadent Hollywoodites. By refusing to comment on the matter publicly, the couple stoked the fires of speculation -- all good for publicity and name value, in Goddard's case, but not beneficial for her reputation in the long run.

Husband and wife? Paulette Goddard and Charlie Chaplin, 1938

After her acclaimed appearance in Chaplin's Modern Times (1936), Goddard's career stalled -- Chaplin planned future projects for his was-she-or-wasn't-she-wife, but these never came to fruition. Frustrated, Goddard signed a contract with producer David O. Selznick, appearing first in The Young in Heart (1938), third-billed above the title with Janet Gaynor and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Paulette Goddard in The Young in Heart (1938, United Artists)

Selznick then loaned Goddard out to MGM for their all-star production of Clare Boothe Luce's cat-fest, The Women (1939). In her flashy role as a street-smart showgirl who marries into high society, Goddard was in her element, and more than held her own against the likes of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell, having a memorable on-screen brawl with the latter.

Louis B. Mayer, Paulette Goddard and George Cukor at the premiere of The Women (1939, MGM)

It was a reunion of sorts for Goddard and director George Cukor; she had been David O. Selznick's front-runner choice for the hotly coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in his production of Gone with the Wind. Cukor was the initial director on the project, and it was he who guided Goddard through her series of screen tests, including the only Technicolor screen test given to any of the multitude of potential Scarletts; many considered her a shoe-in. What may have ultimately cost Goddard the part, however, was the stigma of scandal which still clung to her unorthodox relationship with Chaplin; Selznick, in spite of his friendship with the couple, delayed in officially offering Goddard the role of Scarlett because of his concerns about the public's response to her private life. In the interim, the relatively unknown British actress Vivien Leigh arrived in Hollywood, determined to throw her hat into the ring. The die was cast. Selznick had found his perfect Scarlett, and it wasn't Paulette Goddard.

However, all of the publicity surrounding Gone with the Wind, combined with her strong showing in The Women, did result in a surge of interest in Goddard's career. She signed directly with Paramount, and was teamed with comedian Bob Hope in the hit comic thriller, The Cat and the Canary (1939). It signaled the beginning of major stardom for both players, and they were paired in two further films, The Ghost Breakers (1940) and Nothing But the Truth (1941).

Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in The Cat and the Canary (1939, Paramount)

1940 was truly a banner year for Goddard, as she appeared with Chaplin once again in The Great Dictator, acquitted herself respectably alongside Fred Astaire in Second Chorus, and appeared in the first of three epic films she would make for Cecil B. DeMille, North West Mounted Police. But as her popularity and profile soared, Goddard continued to court scandal. Even as questions still lingered about her "marriage," she carried on torrid romances with the likes of composer George Gershwin, writer H.G. Wells and director Anatole Litvak. The latter was dining with Goddard at Ciro's in Hollywood when her diamond shoulder strap fell off and under the table. Litvak went down to retrieve it, and by the next morning, tongues were wagging across town that Litvak had been performing oral sex on Goddard at Ciro's. The story was repeated so often, embellished each time, that it would dog Goddard for the rest of her life, and derailed Litvak's career for several years.

There were whispers of Goddard's dalliances with women, as well. She reportedly had an affiar with the Mexican painter, Frida Kahlo ("If only one of them had been blonde," mused Salvador Dali, "they'd have made a perfectly beautiful couple!"); and in the late 1940's, Goddard's close friendship with actress Evelyn Keyes (who, ironically, had played Scarlett O'Hara's sister Suellen in Gone with the Wind) gave gossip-mongers something to talk about, especially when Goddard briefly moved into the home Keyes was sharing with then-boyfriend Peter Lawford, prompting rumors of a ménage à trois. As David Selznick's chief of publicity, Russell Birdwell, had warned years earlier, when considering Goddard for Gone with the Wind: "I have never known a woman, intent on a career dependent upon her popularity with the masses, to hold and live such an insane and absurd attitude towards the press and her fellow man as does Paulette Goddard."

A way with the ladies: Paulette Goddard as a cross-dressing caballero in Pot o' Gold (1941, United Artists)

Living well is the best revenge, though, and if some quarters clucked in disapproval, Goddard probably just laughed and eyed the growing collection of jewelry lavished upon her by smitten admirers; one of her most infamous pieces was a dazzling diamond necklace comprised of 570 stones, made possible, she said, by keeping all of her engagement rings. And, for a while, Goddard's star continued to rise. She obtained a Mexican divorce from Chaplin in 1942, the same year that she starred in her second DeMille epic, Reap the Wild Wind, in which she portrayed a very Scarlett O'Hara-esque Southern belle. Continuing her hot streak, Goddard was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in So Proudly We Hail (1943), and two years later, had her career peak with the lavish star vehicle, Kitty (1945).

Paulette Goddard and Ray Milland in Kitty (1945, Paramount)

It was the beginning of the end, however. Her next film, Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), was an expensive failure largely viewed as a vanity project, filmed under the newly-formed production company Goddard had launched with her third husband, actor Burgess Meredith. Goddard's capricious nature and temperamental behavior, though, were what finally spelled the end to her movie stardom: co-workers and directors certainly didn't hold her in affectionate regard (even the famously diplomatic Edith Head recalled Goddard as one of only a handful of actresses she disliked), and when her career fortunes began to slide, not many were willing to step in to help.

Diary of a Chambermaid (1946, United Artists)

For instance, Goddard clashed badly with Cecil B. DeMille during the filming of their third picture together, Unconquered (1947), walking off the set and requiring the use of her stand-in for certain scenes. She never worked with the legendary director again, and when DeMille was casting The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), at a time when Goddard was desperately in need of a hit, she begged for the role ultimately played by Gloria Grahame. He refused.

Unconquered (1947, Paramount)

Two more disastrous vanity projects finished off Goddard's career as a major star. In Bride of Vengeance (1949), she played a heavily fictionalized Lucretia Borgia while decked out in some strange makeup and hairstyle choices; her longtime cosmetician tried to dissuade her, which only resulted in their dismissal. The film was crucified by the critics, with many commenting unfavorably about Goddard's appearance. Its follow up, Anna Lucasta (1949), cast Goddard as a wanton floozy surrounded by even more sordid characters; the general consensus was that the germ of a good idea was lost amid heavy-handed direction and overheated acting.

The infamous makeup job on the set of Bride of Vengeance (1949, Paramount)

Practically overnight, Goddard slipped from studio contract star to making cheapies like the infamous Babes from Bagdad (1952) and Sins of Jezebel (1953), the titles of which pretty much say it all. She turned to summer stock and television, and was reputedly down to her jewels and a few hundred dollars in cash when she married husband number four, author Erich Maria Remarque, in 1958. Goddard was now able to indulge fully in the life of a wealthy socialite, amassing a remarkable collection of art with her husband as they divided their time between Europe and New York.

Paulette Goddard, circa 1954

During her final marriage, Goddard only made one minor film; after Remarque's death in 1970, she made one last television appearance on an episode of The Snoop Sisters (1972), a 90 minute mystery-comedy series starring Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick. She continued to make the rounds of New York society, still svelte, beautiful and bejeweled, often in the unlikely company of Andy Warhol. But age and illness were taking their toll, and Goddard, who had always been known for her prickly personality, was beginning to exhibit bizarre, sometimes outlandishly cruel behavior.

Richard Avedon photo used for Blackglama's What Becomes a Legend Most? campaign, 1971

In 1975, amid great secrecy, Goddard had a radical mastectomy; for a woman who had spent nearly her entire life parlaying her good looks into material wealth, the after effects were devastating: physical deterioration, depression and a series of suicide attempts. Goddard retreated to her lakeside Swiss villa, where she finally died of heart failure in 1990.

Had she played by the rules, Paulette Goddard may have become a more enduring name in Hollywood, with a career that could have lasted far beyond the 10 year span of her greatest success. Certainly, she had the sparkle, talent and looks to become a superstar. But instead of international headlines and grief-stricken fans, upon her death the only mourners at her sparsely-attended funeral were her immediate household staff. In the end, the spirited, defiant, unapologetic Goddard probably wouldn't have cared. As her longtime housekeeper later reflected, “She always told me that she had three husbands and several fiances waiting for her in heaven.”

* For more on Paulette Goddard's later years, please visit our friend Brooks Peters at An Open Book

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Fabulous Forties

The ideal American beauty, circa 1941

The great screen beauties of the 1940's are a peculiar bunch: for the most part, their stardom (which, in some cases, was extraordinary) failed to outlast the decade. The wartime sirens didn't become warhorse troupers, unlike those whose fame came to the fore in the 1930's, chief among them, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, and Olivia de Havilland -- all of whom continued their careers with their stardom undimmed well into the future decades. And even the newer stars that followed in the 1950's, as television encroached and the studio system crumbled, seemed to have greater staying power: witness the longevity of Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day, Sophia Loren.

Timeless faces, top to bottom: Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn

The number one box office attraction of the 1940's, Betty Grable, despite remaining a beloved star and icon of her time, was washed up in pictures by 1953. The decade's reigning musical star, Judy Garland, became an even greater legend by the 1950's and 1960's, but largely on the basis of her concert performances and personal triumphs and tragedies -- Garland only acted in four more films after 1950. Only Lana Turner emerged from the 1940's with her movie stardom intact -- and even that was badly waning throughout the entire 1950's, until a potentially damning scandal gave the former Sweater Girl such notoriety that her box office appeal suddenly went into a third act revival.

Lana Turner, a legend in three acts: superstar (1947), on the skids (1950), resurrection (1959)

Most of the celluloid goddesses of the 1940's are frozen in amber, forever shrouded in the shadows of film noir, or enshrined in the nobility of wartime pluck and determination. Unlike their supercharged 1930's predecessors, their glamour wasn't a fantastical illusion, but somehow more realistic -- while still more remote, moody and less approachable than those who inherited the mantle in the 1950's. Over the next few weeks, we shall showcase some of our favorites from the fabulous, fleeting, Forties. Most made films before and after, but the basis of their stardom is contained in that one unique decade. We inaugurate this series with the Most Beautiful Girl in the World...

The Fabulous Forties: Hedy Lamarr

The most beautiful girl in the world

Hedy Lamarr: movie star, glamour queen, patented inventor. That the outrageously beauteous Lamarr should add that last, unexpected laurel to her wreath shouldn't come as a shock, as from the beginning, she was far from the average movie actress. Unlike many of her celluloid sisters at MGM, she came neither from grinding poverty, nor with a determined stage mother in the wings: instead, the well-bred and highly intelligent Lamarr came from a wealthy Austrian family. She began her theatrical career in Europe, first appearing on stage, and then, cataclysmically, in the Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy (1933), which featured the young beauty simulating (or was she?) orgasm and appearing in full frontal nude scenes.

Lobby card for the 1940 American release of Ecstasy

Lamarr then married her first husband, an Austrian arms manufacturer with Nazi ties. To escape, Lamarr reportedly disguised herself as one of her maids, and fled her husband's castle to Paris, where she obtained a divorce. Her next stop was London, where a chance meeting with Louis B. Mayer led to a contract with MGM in Hollywood. Mayer made it his personal mission to turn Lamarr into the star of stars; ironically, her first American film, Algiers (1938), was made on loan-out to United Artists, and its fame (based chiefly on co-star Charles Boyer's seductive suggestion to "Come away with me to the casbah") ultimately overshadowed nearly anything MGM featured Lamarr in. Indeed, her first two MGM pictures -- Lady of the Tropics (1939) and I Take This Woman (1940) -- were bombs, despite the huge Lamarr publicity build up, and the star wattage of co-stars Robert Taylor and Spencer Tracy, respectively.

Being made up for I Take This Woman (1940, MGM) -- snickeringly referred to as I Retake This Woman, so tedious and convoluted was its filming

Lamarr's most successful films were the ensemble dramas Boom Town (1940) with Tracy, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, and Ziegfeld Girl (1941) with James Stewart, Judy Garland and Lana Turner; but her own starring vehicles were ultimately disappointing, with the exception of White Cargo (1942), in which the elegant "ice queen" played deliciously against type as the hot-blooded native girl, Tondelayo.

White Cargo (1942, MGM)

It was Tondelayo too late, though; the writing was on the wall for Lamarr at MGM, as Mayer grew increasingly frustrated with both his own attempts at molding her into a superstar, and Lamarr's refusal to bow to his every whim. Mayer was accustomed to screaming, crying and cajoling what he wanted out of his vulnerable stable of female stars, many of whom came from unfortunate childhoods and looked to him as a father figure. He was thoroughly unprepared to deal with the demands and caprices of an independent, well-educated European lady of pedigreed background. To be fair, Lamarr's stubborn and mercurial nature often worked against her. For instance, she refused the plum role that Ingrid Bergman would eventually win an Oscar for in Gaslight (1944), objecting to taking second billing to Charles Boyer -- her argument being that he, not she, was the loaned-out star this time.

Hedy Lamarr at her most glamorous, 1944

Lamarr's MGM contract was cancelled in 1945 (by "mutual agreement," as they euphemistically said in those days), and she immediately formed her own production company, which resulted in two interesting noir-ish dramas, The Strange Woman (1946) and Dishonored Lady (1947). Not bad films by any stretch, they also weren't earth-shattering; and, moreover, an exhausted Lamarr realized how much work went into being a self-contained artist without the benefit of a major studio for support.

Wearied by her experience with self-production, Lamarr signed a short-term contract with Paramount, and was cast as one of the titular characters in Cecil B. DeMille's gloriously vulgar epic, Samson and Delilah (1949). The film was a smash hit, and briefly restored Lamarr to renewed stardom; but the excitement was short-lived. MGM requested her services for A Lady Without a Passport (1950), but the film was such a dog, Lamarr should have refused. Paramount did her no favors by tossing her into a dreary Western, Copper Canyon (1950), then had her playing second fiddle in a minor Bob Hope comedy, My Favorite Spy (1951). In barely a year, Lamarr's comeback was already over.

Samson and Delilah (1949, Paramount)

The ad copy and costumes for A Lady Without a Passport (1950, MGM) shamelessly cashed in on Hedy's success in Samson and Delilah

Lamarr made one last attempt at reclaiming her movie stardom with the campy B melodrama The Female Animal (1957), in which she portrayed a fading screen queen, competing with daughter Jane Powell for the studly charms of George Nader. From there it was on to sporadic, sometimes bizarre TV appearances; botched plastic surgery which altered her exquisite looks; an embarrassing arrest for shoplifting which made worldwide headlines; a lurid "tell all" autobiography (ghost-) written for the money; and finally, quiet obscurity in Florida, far removed from her former fame.

With George Nader in The Female Animal (1957, Universal)

Guest hosting Shindig! with Jimmy O'Neill, 1965

At a press conference following her arrest for shoplifting, 1966

It's not to belittle Hedy Lamarr's abilities when we propose that she was the ultimate case of style winning out over substance. She was a tremendous star during the 1940's, whose very name was a byword for otherworldly glamour and beauty -- yet she never carried a classic film on her own, never was considered big box office. But even in her worst films, Lamarr's face was so compelling, audiences simply couldn't keep their eyes off of her. Unlike some starlets who had the looks but no talent and, worse, no charisma, Hedy Lamarr was a star who had the looks and charisma, and more talent than she was given credit for.

As for that invention? With George Antheil, Lamarr co-invented a technique for spread spectrum communications and frequency hopping, initially intended for wartime use to make radio-guided torpedoes difficult for enemies to detect or jam -- and the basis for the technology used for such modern day essentials as Wi-Fi and wireless telephones. As we noted before: not your average movie star.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Hurricane Irene

Granny says there's a storm a-brewin'! Stay safe, darlings!

Dueling Irenes

Wiglet-to-wiglet combat.

Good Advice

Tyrone Power and Myrna Loy in The Rains Came (1939, 20th Century Fox)

In the event of a torrential downpour, head for higher ground, maintain calm, and always use water-proof tropical makeup.

Bare Necessities

Dorothy Lamour in The Hurricane (1937, Paramount)

Bottled water, batteries, non-perishable food, and the most important of all... a sarong.