A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Sin of Madelon Claudet (Edgar Selwyn, 1931)

Lewis Stone and Helen Hayes in The Sin of Madelon Claudet
If it weren't for her work in movies and on TV, Helen Hayes would probably be consigned to that limbo where celebrated stage actresses of the past like Sarah Siddons or Ellen Terry or Minnie Maddern Fiske reside. But Hayes won two Oscars -- one for this film and the other, 38 years later, for Airport (George Seaton, 1970) -- and is one of only four actresses who have won the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards in competitive categories -- the distinction known by the acronym EGOT.* The thing is, anyone who knows Hayes's work only from movies and TV may wonder why she is so famous. Neither The Sin of Madelon Claudet nor Airport (in which she plays a cute little old stowaway on a plane) nor her work on such TV series as The Snoop Sisters provides much of a clue as to why she was known as "The First Lady of the American Theater" and has a Broadway playhouse named after her. She spent the peak years of her career, from 1935 to 1956, primarily on stage, with only occasional films and TV appearances during that period. It was probably a wise move: She was already 30 when she followed her husband, Charles MacArthur, to Hollywood and made this film, her first talkie. (She had appeared in only a couple of silent films.) And while it won her the Oscar, and she followed it with a few more significant films, particularly Arrowsmith (John Ford, 1931) and A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932), it soon became clear to her that she was not cut out for film stardom. She was only five feet tall and although pleasant-looking, she was not especially pretty, and in a Hollywood that was looking for the next Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich, she was no glamour girl. She would have found herself competing with younger actresses like Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck for the plum dramatic parts. So it was back to Broadway and success. Even so, she made her reputation in old-fashioned plays that don't get revived much anymore, like Lawrence Housman's Victoria Regina, Anita Loos's Happy Birthday, and Jean Anouilh's Time Remembered. Although she did play Amanda in a revival of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie, the revolution in theater that Williams helped bring about took place after she had gone into semi-retirement. As for Madelon Claudet, it's a creaky vehicle at best, based on a play by Edward Knoblock that MacArthur and an uncredited Ben Hecht helped whip into shape after it had been filmed under the title The Lullaby and previewed to a disastrous reception. Hayes had already gone on to work on Arrowsmith, and shooting the new material had to wait until she was through with that film. Even so, Hayes is not particularly convincing as a French farm girl who is left pregnant by a caddish American (Neil Hamilton) and becomes the mistress of a jewel thief posing as an Italian count (Lewis Stone). It's only later, when she goes to jail for ten years as the thief's accomplice, then turns to prostitution to earn the money to put her son (Robert Young), who thinks she's dead, through medical school, that Hayes demonstrates her skill at suffering and pathos.

*The others are Rita Moreno, Audrey Hepburn, and Whoopi Goldberg. Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli are sometimes included in the list, but Streisand's Tony and Minnelli's Grammy were honorary, not competitive, awards.

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