Movie stars in the 1930s and early 1940s had a place in the American consciousness that has never been equaled since. So that even a photograph of Myrna Loy, for example, could evoke much of the wit and romance of 1930s comedy; just as later on Betty Grable, the most popular woman star of the 1940s, seemed to incarnate all that decade’s banality. Now Myrna Loy tells us, in her autobiography, how the two of them actually met—early in the war, when Loy’s popularity was somewhat waning (she had temporarily retired from the screen to do war work) and Grable’s was at its height. Loy had prevailed on Grable—whom she found she liked (“a game gal, direct and unaffected”)—to do an impromptu show for the wounded at a Staten Island military hospital. But when she came to pick her up the next morning, Grable was complaining of a hangover: “Harry James and I were out on the town last night.” Loy told their driver to stop at “a little road-house” where she made Grable “take some beer to appease the gremlins,” and they went on. It’s almost like a scene from one of her movies with Jean Harlow—Libeled Lady, for example—with Loy dealing generously and warmly with this other, very different sort of woman. They arrived at the hospital, and Grable, Loy tells us, was “a sensation”:
Can you imagine? This was the pinup girl of the Navy, the Army, and the Marine Corps. They were so thrilled, so excited—some of them shy, some of them forward—and she was absolutely terrific, which wasn’t easy in her condition, particularly since she hadn’t been prepared for all that horror. Overcome at one point in the burn ward she sat down on the edge of an empty bed, looking up at me like a little girl ashamed of being naughty. “That’s all right,” I said. “You can sit and rest.” …So she stayed quite a while…giving kisses and autographs, putting her lip-prints on plaster casts as the men moved joyfully around her, some on crutches, some legless in wheelchairs.
Grable was a distraction from “all that horror”: you see her turning away from it in Frank Powolny’s famous pinup photo—who needs it anyway?—smiling back at us over a provocatively upraised shoulder, with her high heels and her upswept hairdo, showing us her trim little backside in a gleaming white bathing suit (in fact, her biographer tells us, she was turning away because she was pregnant). This inelegant image, as different from almost any of Myrna Loy’s as could be imagined, was the most widely circulated pinup in history (five million copies distributed free to American servicemen during the war), and had a force that went far beyond its obvious erotic message. It was an image of American tackiness: consoling, sustaining, inescapable—about to take over the world, in fact. Sexy, of course, but evoking not so much the beach or the bedroom as the candy counter in the lobby.
On the screen, Grable was cheery without being cheerful—like the carhop or the waitress she reminded you of. She sang and danced jauntily, she had great legs, an infectious energy, and small watchful eyes. Her mechanical doll quality was in fact part of her appeal: whatever her problems, she never burdened the rest of us with them, and we knew she never would (unlike her successor at the same studio, Marilyn Monroe, who always seemed too strange and too needy to fit even the parts that were tailored to her). Betty Grable was so spectacularly self-armored that it gave her a kind of charm—even at times, though rarely, and mostly when she sang, a kind of poignancy.
She was the tough-girl type—but in the 1940s she wasn’t allowed to be that, the way leading women in the 1930s had been, from Jean Harlow to Ginger Rogers. So that she gave the impression in her movies of aspiring to vulgarity without quite achieving it. The plots told a different story. If she started out seeming common and low-class (in Coney Island, 1943, the hero has to handcuff her to the scenery to keep her from butt-twitching her way through a love song), she was claimed for gentility well before the end—though so discreetly and with so little apparent effect on her looks or manner that we hardly notice it’s been done. Her movies were nervous about this issue of respectability. Because finally we were asked to believe that she was just like the girl next door—and not just the one in Hollywood or Vegas. But then, as often happens, the girl next door, wherever she was, was getting to look more and more like her. Grable’s obvious vulgarity—which might have linked her to the best and strongest traditions of Hollywood comedy—became instead a touchy matter, a potential embarrassment. Her toughness on the screen (in uniform studio products such as Moon Over Miami, 1942, and Pin-Up Girl, 1944), instead of giving her comic life, became a constraint—suggesting less freedom and boldness than complacency and thickness. Where Jean Harlow had been interesting and enlivening, Grable was merely lively.
The growing genteel-ism, as James Agee called it, of 1940s movies affected Myrna Loy too. Like all the great romantic heroines of screwball comedy—Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur—she depended on a certain brashness in the fantasy world she inhabited, a kind of challenging vulgarity. These heroines were not only equal to the raffishness, they were in touch with it too—a point that’s made memorably explicit when Irene Dunne imitates a stripper in The Awful Truth (1937), or when “Nora Charles” (Loy) entertains her husband’s “friends,” all the mugs and crooks from his days as a private eye. We were always interested in how the elegant Loy would react to tough guy Gable or tough girl Harlow—and heartened somehow when she made it clear that the gap between them was less important than the shared vitality, or the shared joke. Even her remarkable beauty was just one of those qualities she had (her humor and her adventurousness among the others) that saved her from refinement.
Of the four Hollywood books under review, Katharine Hepburn’s The Making of the African Queen is the least typical. Not only because it’s unmistakably written by the star herself without the benefit of ghost or collaborator, but also because it’s so narrowly conceived. Few other stars would attempt to tell us so much about the experience of a single movie and so little about everything else. The other books are all full-length biographies, and such books by now seem to have developed their own laws. They usually begin at one of the star’s final public appearances (the Loy book begins at the 1985 Carnegie Hall gala honoring her career, the one about Grable at the 1972 Academy Awards)—an occasion which is offered as either triumphant (Loy) or dismaying (Grable), depending on the star’s condition and the author’s bias—before starting their chronological march through the life and the films. As for the films themselves, the stars rarely remember them—and their biographers aren’t much interested in them; they seldom even give the impression of having seen a lot of them, at least not recently.
Otherwise the difference between these books is enormous. Myrna Loy: Being and Becoming is lively and engaging throughout. It is part autobiography, written in the first person, and whatever the contribution of her “co-author,” James Kotsilibas-Davis, Loy herself really does seem to be present in it, with her wryness and reticences and sudden outbursts of feeling (“Imagine calling Errol Flynn a Nazi spy. My God! He was never sober long enough”). And just as she is likable, so is her book.
Pin-Up: The Tragedy of Betty Grable is hardly a book, and it is certainly not likable. Grable is not, on the surface at least, a promising subject. Her talent (as she herself was always ready to point out) was modest, her movies were mostly third-rate, and her life (the dissolute husbands Jackie Coogan and Harry James, the racetracks and the drinking, the early retirement to Vegas) seems mostly depressing. But she was so much at the heart of American life of her time that her limitations become—like Scarlett O’Hara’s—something to ponder. Her extraordinarily successful career reminds you of Brecht’s vision of the houses in Los Angeles:
…built for happy people, therefore standing empty
Even when lived in….
There is some kind of book in that career, I should think—but maybe not a biography. And certainly not Pin-Up, which is in the National Enquirer vein, both gushing and scabrous at once, with careful attention to the details of such matters as Grable’s terminal cancer, and written with the cooperation, it seems, of at least one of her unhappy children. It’s meant to be generous and affectionate (the author is clearly a fan), but of course it doesn’t turn out that way.
At that it is a better book, it seems to me, than Cary Grant: A Touch of Elegance. That subtitle warns you what to expect: a work so inert and poorly written that in the end its author seems interested neither in Grant nor in his movies. There really hasn’t been much written about the man whom David Thomson calls “the best and most important actor in the history of cinema,” but this book adds little new information to the much better written biography by British journalist Geoffrey Wansell*—beyond an account of Grant’s death in 1986, and a more open speculation (in view of that death) about his sex life (those years he roomed with Randolph Scott).
What is most interesting about Grant is his relation to his screen persona. Temperamentally he seems to have transformed himself when he acted—to have turned a sort of sullen self-absorption in his offscreen life into the witty edginess, the large and exhilarating anger that we feel in his best performances. After all, what did his “interesting life” off the screen really amount to, he once asked rhetorically in an interview: nothing but “stomach disturbances” and “self-concern.” And his awareness of the irony seems to have made it worse. No wonder he is so imposing on the screen—the most powerful (and menacing) “light comedian” of them all. It wasn’t his “elegance” that got our attention but his ability to make us uneasy, with his energy, his grin and his gaze, his unsettling shrewdness and ambiguous high spirits. It was an extraordinary achievement, but he himself seems to have felt at a greater distance from his screen persona even than stars of the time—the studio era—generally did.
“Everyone wants to be Cary Grant,” he said in his most famous quoted remark, “even I want to be Cary Grant.” In his Hollywood life he seems to have been more like Ralph Bellamy, “the Other Man” that the heroine doesn’t marry: cautious, unadventurous, self-preserving to a fault. And those qualities began more and more to surface in public in the latter part of his career—which was dedicated to keeping “Cary Grant” intact through movie after movie, preserving just those qualities (the old smoothie suavity) that were least challenging and interesting, taking such “risks” as going unshaven in one film or not getting the girl in another (his last). He quit at age sixty-two, long before audiences could say he should have, and was soon promoting a line of men’s cosmetics. “It isn’t too different from films,” he said (sounding like Bellamy talking about insurance in His Girl Friday). “We both make a product, can it and distribute it. My corporate duties will be to call attention to the products and tour the world on a good-will basis.” He had become a spokesman and “creative consultant” for Fabergé, a position he seemed to regard as dignified.
That’s not the sort of thing you could imagine Myrna Loy doing. Her idea of dignity was a long way from being a corporate salesman—or even finally from making movies. It was more like being Eleanor Roosevelt, her great friend. Loy left the studio to work for the Red Cross during the war; she had a job at the UN in years after. “I’ve spent most of my life opposing war,” she remarks in passing—not a boast in this case, but a statement about where the energies of a life ought to go. She never notices, of course, that she rarely opposed the wars that her heroes (Truman, Stevenson, et al.) commended, but she wasn’t alone in that respect. Where she was nearly alone, among major stars, was in her passion for liberal politics, and in her bravery during the bad days of the 1950s, when she refused to renounce her views or friends.
Her book gives you the feeling that she’d almost rather be talking about those things—or about civil rights, Vietnam, the detested Reagans and their “smug elitism”—and she does, of course, talk about them. But she knows that’s not what we’re paying for. And, in fact, her narrative has some new stories about the old Hollywood—about being snubbed by Garbo, and listening to Gable read Shakespeare’s sonnets, and so on—as well as giving a vivid sense of what studio life was like, with its discipline and control and attention to every detail in the making (and maintaining) of a star. The studio was both parent and school: she and Gable went there “like a couple of kids,” she and Harlow shared mischievous schoolgirl jokes—but it was a remote school, cut off from the world. “We couldn’t help becoming legends,” remarks Loy, reflecting on the awesome engines of publicity that were set in motion on behalf of her career.
It’s nearly always a surprise to survivors of old Hollywood that people now think so highly of the work they did. They are pleased, of course, but to have other people interpreting, even appropriating your past can be disturbing. Especially when it has become a past, and a place, you hardly recognize. It’s easier for the stars. They are used to being “appropriated”—by the camera, by the studio, by the public—to having meanings conferred on them from the outside. But for the more actively “creative” types, the directors and screenwriters, the admiration can be threatening—as if it were depriving them of their pasts, even of their achievements. There is almost always some element in appreciative accounts of their work that strikes them as deeply wrong. They never meant all that, they say—and shouldn’t they know what they are talking about? Our appreciation seems to give an intention to their work that is not there for them, at any rate.
That’s the point: the unconsciousness of classical Hollywood was one of the conditions of its best work. I doubt that a great movie comedy like Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), for example, or Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve (1941) could have had the brilliance and depth it has if it had aimed at such achievements. It is this refusal of importance and ambition that characterized the Hollywood studio movie, both the best and the worst of them. When they were magical or inspired, they were also casual, offhand, coming out of the commonest reality and transfiguring it. They may have been fantasies but they were about our everyday life—precisely because they seemed continuous with it. They testified to its possibilities, even at their most fantastic. An Astaire-Rogers number didn’t deny reality, it only heightened it (just as a Betty Grable number could debase it). That was what made “the movies” so special, their achievement so heartening.
But the star of a movie in those days was probably at a greater distance from its effects than most of its other principal contributors. That distance was almost in the nature of stardom, as nearly all these biographies testify. We expect them—being about stars—to tell us stories of ambition and “drive.” And usually they do. Often the “drive” belongs to someone else—a mother, for example (both Loy and Grable had overwhelming ones), or a husband. And even when it doesn’t (as with Grant, for example), it seems to culminate for the star in a kind of passivity, in both public and private life.
That turns out to be appropriate. Stars of that time were as much objects of contemplation as they were subjects of ambition. And when, with the collapse of the studio system in the 1950s, they began to take greater charge of their own destinies—and to contemplate themselves, as it were—something in the nature of stardom itself began to change. It may account for why stars of that bygone time seem so special still. “We were actors,” Loy says. At least she was. (Her performance in The Rains Came, 1939, is a miracle of actor’s intelligence, making clichés seem new and moving. Darryl Zanuck objected to the rushes: he wanted her to be closer to a “vamp.”) But she was more than that too. “I swear,” John Huston writes in his autobiography, “the camera has a way of looking into a person and seeing things that the naked eye doesn’t register”—talking about the difference between Bogart offscreen (“not particularly impressive”) and on. Loy, like Bogart and Grant, dominates the camera (we want to know what they are thinking and feeling, and it is usually interesting) in a way that goes beyond a gifted actor’s skills, even beyond her own intentions and efforts. “Films can be made,” says Robert Bresson, “only by bypassing the will of those who perform in them, using not what they do, but what they are.” He was talking, of course, about a very different sort of film—his own, mostly. But unlikely as it might at first seem, the Bressonian nonactor has a kind of precursor in the great Hollywood stars: in both of them, and essential to both, is something unwilled.
All this makes the biographer’s task even more difficult and even the best of the movie star books tend to diminish the careers they’re about. If the biographer doesn’t do it, the stars do it themselves. And the more likable the star is, the more likely he is to condescend in some way to what looks to us like his best work. Just as Myrna Loy finally does. The sort of seriousness that saves her life from empty celebrity also leads her to describe as her finest film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—so apparently we are to think of her career culminating in the role of the “quintessential postwar wife,” as it was called, a kind of suburban American Mrs. Miniver, embodying all the secular pieties and liberal self-congratulation that that embarrassing movie commended to us. (An example: when a man in a drugstore, a sinister right-wing type, announces that the men who fought in World War II were suckers, he is beaten up by the hero, Dana Andrews, and his amputee friend, Harold Russell. “Four hundred of my shipmates went down…. Were those guys suckers?” cries Russell before swinging into action.)
The Best Years of Our Lives was a runaway success, of course—a bigger hit than The Thin Man, or any of the great screwball comedies. The movies were “growing up,” Loy reminds us: “The noble, self-sacrificing Minivers and Curies supplanted the flippant, sophisticated Charleses. The whole world’s sense of values had changed, and I wanted to go along with it.” Her beef with the studio was that they were giving the virtuous parts to Greer Garson.
But then almost everyone who had been involved in Hollywood’s greatest days felt in some way superior to them in the end. One way the superiority got expressed—in the late Forties and Fifties—was by the new trend in “adult” moviemaking, in films like The Best Years of Our Lives, which dealt with “real” and “sensitive” issues. The kind of film where movie audiences learned that they were supposed to marry Teresa Wright and not Virginia Mayo (or Betty Grable): the war was over. Another way it got expressed was in movies like The African Queen (1952)—which repeated the old formulas but with a new slant. John Huston had brought the archness and even some of the coziness of the British Ealing comedy (then in its heyday) to big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, and turned his two veteran superstars, Bogart and Hepburn, into character actors, crotchety but lovable. One of those movies where every scene seems to have inverted commas around it: Rosie pouring out Charlie’s gin, or Charlie imitating a baboon to make her laugh, or Rosie after shooting the rapids in their boat, announcing she “never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating.”
The coziness comes from the condescension, which is relentless. Charlie and Rosie may finally awaken through their love to the wonder of life itself (another scene with quote marks), but they’re not allowed, either in writing or performance (Bogart is fitful, Hepburn is mannered), to achieve even a minimum sort of reality. “Oh Charlie,” says Rosie, “we’re having our first quarrel.” Preston Sturges might get away with a line like this (and does, triumphantly, in The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek), but John Huston and James Agee, the screenwriter, never.
The condescension was mistaken for affection and warmth—as it usually is in such movies—and the film was an enormous hit. And now of course it’s become a certified “classic.” But “warmth” was something Huston was notably deficient in. Though he could, as he knew, work up an amusing facsimile of it (that was part of his charm)—even invite us to be amused along with him (if we’re knowing enough). So that though we may be touched, in a light way, by the scenes of sentiment in this movie, we are finally invited to feel as easily superior to it all as Huston himself managed to be.
To Huston’s credit he never as the years went by got notably “warmer,” he was never taken in by his own games. The sort of coldness that makes The African Queen seem finally so smug transforms itself into something quite wonderful in the work of his late years—into the sardonic poise of Fat City (1972), into the impersonal poignancy of Wise Blood (1979), into the savage comic irony of Prizzi’s Honor (1985).
Huston was an extraordinary and gifted filmmaker. But as he tells us in his autobiography, An Open Book (1980), that wasn’t the only thing he did or cared about. Not even necessarily the main thing. He was impressively “cultivated,” the sort of person who has “read everything,” Hepburn tells us, “and remembers most of it.” He was one of those filmmakers who—unlike Sturges or Welles, say—didn’t really understand the special fun of movies, at least not after The Maltese Falcon (1941). After that, when he made genre films—movies out of other movies, that is—they weren’t the kind you could exactly enjoy: his version of an underworld thriller, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), for example, is almost creepily lifeless. It wasn’t movies he cared about but books. The main impetus to his moviemaking, right to the end, from The Maltese Falcon to The Dead (1987), seems to have come from the books he admired.
What’s remarkable is how impersonal, how unegotistic that admiration seemed: he wasn’t finding things that he could make his own (“acquiring properties”), so much as he was remaking and paying homage to them as a passionate reader and appreciator. His best movies—from Hammett to Kipling (The Man Who Would Be King, 1975)—seem to have sprung from just such appreciation. He depended on it even when it led him astray—as in near misses like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) and The Dead, in botches like The Red Badge of Courage (1951), or lunacies like Moby Dick (1956) and The Bible (1966).
But then he made The Bible, it seems, as much for the animals as for anything else. Animals were among his life’s passions (all except parrots, he tells us, whom he believed to be malevolent). And they reciprocated, it seemed—at least when he wasn’t shooting them (hunting was another of his passions). He played Noah in his own film—finally because they couldn’t find anyone else that the hippo and the raven and the elephant et al. so much liked to play their scenes with. In any case, he often had an ulterior reason for the movie he was making: it was one of the ways that he made the system, and its money men, like Sam Spiegel and Ray Stark, work for him. The African Queen, as Hepburn’s book confirms, was as much about getting to Africa to shoot elephants as it was about Charlie and Rosie.
Hepburn’s book is entertaining because she is a fluent writer (how many movie stars could you say that about), and she has a talent for dialogue, especially when she is re-creating her initial encounters with Huston and the ways he had of making her feel like a fool. Huston is at the center of the stage throughout. She announces that she’s going to tell us about Bogie, but she doesn’t—beyond a few pious passages. Then back to “John.” She seems to have been infatuated with him, as Pauline Kael has pointed out. Who can blame her? More than just a Hollywood “monster,” Huston had real intelligence and taste—and he had too, in spite of the outrages he was sometimes drawn to in his behavior, a stubborn core of decency, that became more decisive, it seems, as he grew older.
Hepburn’s portrait of Huston is shrewd without being penetrating. She tells about going off with him into the jungle, infected by his madness and his love of danger, to kill an elephant—an act that Huston himself, in his autobiography, would later disown, using such words as “crime” and “sin” (the same words, by the way, that Peter Viertel applied to the same event years before, in White Hunter, Black Heart, his roman à clef about Huston and the film). He never finds the elephant. Hepburn never invites us to wonder how she would have reacted if he had: she goes along, and the whole thing becomes one of her breathless and funny stories. But it’s more than that too—as she surely knows. Her book hardly hints at what’s most disturbing about this complex man, his fake and sinister sides—the man with a talent for inventive and hilarious cruelties who appears in Peter Viertel’s novel, or the middlebrow director trapped in his own impostures who is described by New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross in Picture. It was characteristic of Huston that he professed to approve and enjoy both of these books. He was a remarkable man, just as much as he meant to be—finally condescending even to himself.
June 30, 1988