Diary of a Lost Girl

Diary of a Lost Girl, the second of Georg Wilhelm Pabst's productive collaborations with Louise Brooks, is a potent and gorgeously stylized depiction of an innocent young woman's destruction at the hands of the not-so-innocent. Brooks plays Thymian, a beautiful and sheltered pharmacist's daughter whose dawning realization about the cruel ways of the world coincides with the loss of the security of her family. The opening of the film enacts a lurid symbolic struggle between innocence and sin, naïveté and knowledge. Brooks' Thymian, dressed all in white on the occasion of her confirmation, her eyes wide beneath the iconic ridge of her dark bangs, looks around her with a complete lack of guile, sweetly accepting presents from family and friends, glowing with courtesy and grace.

She seems entirely unaware of all the sexually charged glances being exchanged all around her: the exaggerated leer of her father's assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp) who all but licks his lips and bulges his eyes like a cartoon wolf when he looks at her; her father's (Josef Rovensky) sexual liaisons with one maid after another; her aunt's (Vera Pawlowa) grim knowledge of these constant affairs; the knowing glances and raised eyebrows of the party guests when they see the new maid Meta (Franziska Kinz), who brazenly stares at her employer with an invitingly wicked smile that openly suggests that the cycle is going to start again. Everyone but Thymian seems to know exactly what's going on, but she is blissfully unaware of the sexual drama surrounding her.

In her pure white confirmation dress, a band of flowers wrapped around her head, she's a vision of innocence so pure and unstained that the mere realization that sin and sexual predation exist in her household produces a fainting spell, confining her to bed as though she's taken ill. She sees the corpse of her beloved maid — who'd committed suicide after being abandoned by Thymian's father — then runs up the stairs in a daze, sees her father with his arm already around the new maid, both of them staring at the camera in a frozen pose, a sly smile on the face of the new maid in contrast to the serene blankness of the dead girl downstairs, and in one fluid motion Thymian swoons to the floor, overcome by the taint of impurity infiltrating her home.

This is only the beginning of Thymian's suffering, as Meinert takes advantage of her vulnerability and rapes her. Pabst freezes the frame at the moment when the creepy druggist lowers Thymian's limp form into bed, and then immediately cuts to a baby carriage being taken out of Thymian's room, months later, carrying the fruit of that forceful union. Thymian's family casts her out, and she's sent to a reformatory, which she soon escapes with her friend Erika (Edith Meinhard), only to fall into a life of prostitution. The man she believes is going to save her, the disgraced and disinherited Count Osdorff (André Roanne), is actually a lazy and pathetic outcast who settles easily into a life of comfort at the brothel with Thymian and Erika. Pabst, though, doesn't portray the brothel as an entirely unpleasant life; the girls have fun and like each other, and Thymian certainly seems happier and better off there than she was under the care of the strict Christian moralists at the reformatory.

The reformatory is run by a stern mistress (Valeska Gert) whose usually stony face betrays an expression of ecstatic joy when whipping the girls through a frenzied gymnastics routine, and a bald-headed, looming movie monster giant (Andrews Engelmann) who first pops comically into the frame by standing up in front of a sign listing the many things that are "verboten" in this dismal place. This cartoonish giant delights in punishing the girls, grabbing them with a clawed hand at the scruff of their neck as though picking up a disobedient puppy, and his leering sadism is both creepy and hysterical — particularly when he runs a confiscated tube of lipstick across his own mouth, grinning impishly, then uses it to write a reminder to punish the girl he'd taken it from, a note signed with a heart to indicate his sadistic love of punishment.

Lesbian eroticism is another obvious subtext here, especially in the reformatory, where most of the girls have clipped, close-cropped boyish haircuts, and Erika introduces herself to Thymian by surreptitiously touching the new girl's leg with her foot and winking at her, echoing Meinert's leering winks. At bedtime, as Pabst pans down the line of girls getting ready for bed, two girls sit in the same bunk, giggling, and fall back into bed together. The scene where the matron tries to seize Thymian's diary is also loaded with suggestive intimacy, with the stern woman grabbing at Erika's bare legs, looking up at the two girls sitting in the top bunk, grasping at them with clawed hands. Later, when Thymian visits Erika at the brothel where she's staying, Pabst emphasizes the brothel's madame putting an intimate hand on the bare back of one of her girls — the gesture is repeated when the madame pushes Thymian together with a male client to dance — and then has Erika kneel before Thymian, taking off her shoes and undressing her, unbuttoning her demure reformatory blouse with its high collar to expose a V of flesh at her neck.

The film is steeped in this kind of sexual suggestiveness. Thymian's downfall has everything to do with sex and money, and sex and money come to be linked in very intimate ways for her. After her first night at the brothel, after she's spent the night with a man — swooning in his arms so that her limp form very much recalls her unconsciousness during Meinert's exploitation of her — the madame hands her an envelope of cash and makes it clear that it's from the man. Only then does the very naïve Thymian realize what's happened, and she recoils from the cash, which Pabst nevertheless emphasizes in a closeup. Much later, when her father dies and she receives an inheritance from Meinert for buying out the pharmacy, the camera glances from the pile of cash to Meinert's smug, cartoonishly grinning face, making it seem as though this too is a transaction, a belated payment for that long ago night when he'd taken her to bed.

It's not all grim tragedy here, though, and there's some limited comedy relief along the way. Among the humorous scenes is a very strange sequence where a goofy guy with a billy-goat beard (a possible anti-Semitic caricature) comes to see Thymian for "dance lessons," and she leads him in a bizarre calisthenic workout inspired by her reformatory exercise drills, while holding a drum protectively/suggestively over her crotch and beating it with a mallet in the way the reformatory mistress had done. The sexual symbolism is especially naked here, but those undercurrents are everywhere in this film.

The plot unravels a bit towards the end with a predictable tonal shift towards an optimistic, redemptive conclusion, seemingly foisted upon Pabst by censors eager to end on a positive note after all this barely coded sex. Even here, though, Pabst's emotional poetry shines through. The film is never less than beautiful, its style fluid and expressionist while also remaining grounded in social realism. And Brooks is just magnificent, with a beautiful and vibrant face that was perfectly suited to the silent cinema. When she smiles, the screen glows, and when she's suffering her eyes seem to contain unimaginable depths of feeling, often assisted by Pabst's very sympathetic photography of her, as in the stunning shot where she stares out a rain-streaked window, the raindrops on the glass standing in for her tears.

Posted in Cinema

Magnificent Obsession

Douglas Sirk was a master of the lurid Hollywood melodrama, transcending often outrageous and contrived material with the sheer force of the emotion and the visual rigor that he invested in these stories. In films like All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind, Sirk found profundity and great beauty in what would have been trash in the hands of others. In Magnificent Obsession, a forerunner to the Jane Wyman/Rock Hudson pairing of All That Heaven Allows, not even Sirk can truly transcend what must be one of the worst plots and the worst screenplays in Hollywood history, a ridiculous pile-up of contrivances and silly plot twists in the service of a saccharine Christian-themed drama. It's a clunky and deeply strange film, and its absurd narrative prevents it from ever really being great, though Sirk's mise en scène and keen eye for painting in Technicolor elevate it at least to the level of a campy, emotionally intense tearjerker.

The story concerns the redemption of the callow playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson), who gets a wake-up call when his boating accident indirectly causes the death of a prominent, well-loved local doctor because an important piece of medical equipment was being used to treat Bob when the doctor had a heart attack. Bob falls in love with the doctor's widow Helen (Jane Wyman), but his clumsy attempts to pursue her — using a bastardized version of the philosophy of Christian charity practiced by her husband, and taught to Bob by the husband's friend Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger) — only results in further tragedy, when an accident leaves Helen blind. It's soapy in the extreme, particularly when Bob dedicates his life to medicine, becoming a doctor and using his wealth and his knowledge in an attempt to cure Helen's blindness even as he courts the blind woman (who apparently doesn't recognize his voice) under the laughable assumed name of Robby Robinson. Once one starts trying to pick apart the plot, it's difficult to stop, so it's best to just let it be, to try to overlook the unending cavalcade of absurdities and foolishness and sudden emotional reversals, to focus instead on the undeniably rapturous power of Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty's images, which are as always some of the finest examples of Technicolor extravagance.

Sirk makes this insane plot come alive with the sensuous power of his images. Resonating with the theme of literal and metaphorical blindness, Sirk continually bathes the characters in alternating blocks of light and shadow, draping the film in darkness. Walking across a room, they step into the light for a moment and are then swallowed up again in darkness, the shadows falling across faces and erasing features into black silhouettes in the night. For all his obvious love of bright, pastel colors, Sirk seems equally at home in inky blackness, stretching shadows across the frame so that the characters are perpetually shuttling back and forth between seeing and unseeing, between flashes of light and dark pools in which nothing can be seen. When Helen visits Switzerland for a barrage of tests with some famed eye surgeons, her face is totally profiled in shadow until the doctor pans a small light across her face, highlighting each of her eyes in turn, creating a tiny circle of light, a pinprick reflected in her shining eye.

This approach reaches its apex with the scene where Bob takes Helen out for a romantic evening. The whole sequence is draped in these kinds of shadows, simultaneously creating a sumptuously romantic mood and suggesting a visual analogue for Helen's blindness, the darkness all around them shading their faces, hiding them from one another. As they dance together, they twirl and their faces are alternately shaded and lit up, passing in and out of the shadows with each turn. Sirk's aesthetic has a meticulousness that works against the raw, oversized emotions of his material. At one point, Helen, blind, picks her way across a darkened room, carefully feeling for obstacles and making her way slowly through the shadow-strewn room, until she comes to a balcony where her extended hand knocks a potted plant off the ledge. The camera follows the plant's fall down to the street below, where it shatters with a loud crack, triggering Helen's breakdown at precisely that instant, as though a starter's pistol had been fired.

In another scene, when Bob is about to perform the climactic surgery that will inevitably restore Helen's sight and redeem him from his careless and wasteful past, he hesitates until he looks up to the viewing gallery, where he sees Randolph, this film's kindly incarnation of God, looking down on them with a benevolent smile, the operating table and the doctors around it reflected in the glass around Randolph. He then steps away, satisfied that Bob will perform this task, and Sirk holds the shot of the now-empty viewing gallery, the operating room still reflected in it, visually communicating that God has done his work of inspiration, and the rest of the task must be left to the hands of man.

The film is rich in this kind of loaded visual symbolism. Sirk often transcends the frankly stupid plot with the sheer emotional power of his images, which crackle with vitality and feeling even when the twists and turns of the script barely make a bit of sense. But, even though Sirk often worked with such lousy material, and routinely transformed it into masterpieces, here, for whatever reason, he can't quite perform that miracle. The result is a film that's as visually beautiful as one would expect, and often seething with raw and over-the-top emotion, but never comes together on the multiple levels that characterize Sirk's best work.

Posted in Cinema

Under Capricorn

Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn is one of the director's more divisive films, but it certainly doesn't deserve its unflattering reputation. This lavish period melodrama, set in 1800s Australia, might be deliberately paced, but it's as emotionally, psychologically and formally complex as any of the director's best work. The core of the film is a twisted three-way relationship that develops between the wealthy ex-convict Sam (Joseph Cotten), his disturbed, alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman), and Charles (Michael Wilding), who had known Hattie as a boy in Ireland and claims to Sam that he can awaken Hattie from her self-destructive, near-insane mental state. Indeed, the charming Charles is able to shake Hattie out of her stasis and mental collapse, but he also preys on her, seducing her away from her husband even as he cures her. Sam watches this situation unfold, glowering and brooding, under the watchful eye of his maid Milly (Margaret Leighton), who obviously desires Sam and resents his wife. There's a dark history here that slowly, patiently unfurls, but the emphasis throughout is not really on narrative, past or present, but on the churning, potent emotions of the protagonists and the engulfing visual style that Hitchcock springs like a trap around the characters.

Hitchcock made this film immediately after the long-take formal experiment of Rope, and he applies a similar aesthetic here, albeit not quite as rigorously. This was Hitchcock's only collaboration with Powell/Pressburger cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose sumptuous use of color and glossy, unreal aesthetic is a perfect complement to Hitchcock, and especially to the particular qualities of this lush period drama. Using the unbroken take style of Rope, Hitchcock and Cardiff hold shots for minutes at a time, the camera unmoored, drifting around the rooms of Sam's palatial home, its gentle movements subtly but definitively defining the relationships between the characters. Who's in the frame and who's not means everything in this film, particularly in terms of the central love triangle, as Charles' friendship with and seduction of Hattie increasingly pushes her own husband out of the picture, shunting him off to the side.

In the first scene where Charles and Hattie meet, she wanders, drunk and dazed, into one of her husband's dinner parties and sits down at the head of the table. Charles holds her chair for her and then sits next to her, leaving his own spot at the table. Once Charles sits down by Hattie's side, it's as though there's no longer anyone else at the table; Hitchcock maintains a two-shot of them as she reminiscences about the past, occasionally glancing across the table, presumably at her unseen husband, but Hitchcock doesn't cut away, doesn't show the reaction of the others to this immediate intimacy, doesn't show anyone else or have anyone else even talk again until Hattie stands up and the camera tracks to follow her, past the others at the table, as Charles walks her to the staircase leading back to her room.

Later, when Hattie dictates a letter to Charles' sister, Hitchcock again keeps the camera on the two of them, Sam forgotten outside the frame, until the camera begins tracking away from Charles and Hattie, past her husband's now abandoned place setting, through the empty room, finally finding Sam, walking away, his back to the camera, in the hallway, as the image fades to black. It's as though, when Charles and Hattie are together, everything else fades away, forgotten, the triangle becoming a two-shot, the room emptying off-camera. Hitchcock and Cardiff have a way of shooting the scenes between Hattie and Charles so that even if someone's standing right next to them, it feels like they're all alone.

In a subsequent scene, Milly, who'd been fired, returns while Charles and Hattie go out to the ball together, again leaving Sam behind. Hitchcock holds a very long and mostly static take as the maid chatters away, delivering her passive-aggressive patter about Hattie, her voice full of gossipy insinuation. The frame slowly constricts and expands as Sam wanders in and out of view, sometimes glowering in the background, sometimes strolling towards the camera, his face dark. All the while, Milly's barely disguised bile dominates the soundtrack, and she remains the visual center of the shot, but it's Sam's darkening expression and stalking walk that actually serve as the scene's viscerally felt focus even when he's peripheral or outside the frame altogether. Only at the very end of the scene, the end of the shot, does Sam finally step forward into the foreground of the frame, and Milly's voice fades away, his anger finally blotting out her words.

There's another fantastic long take when Hattie tells the story of her past with Sam. The camera maintains a medium distance as she paces around the room, and the camera glides with her, often with Charles' head in the foreground of the frame, placing the spectator in his position as he listens to her. She often resists facing him, though, showing the camera her profile more than her full face, which makes the sudden closeup, when she confesses to shooting her brother, all the more startling: the camera suddenly floats upwards and presses in at precisely the moment when she steps forward and leans into the shot, nearly facing the camera for her confessional moment. It's especially striking because immediately afterward she returns to avoiding this direct, forward-facing manner, turning her profile to the camera or turning away altogether, looking up, down, anywhere but straight-on.

This patient, elegant style pays off especially well in the final act, when all the long-bubbling resentments and conflicted emotions come to the surface in an eerie, dreamlike climax. Hattie, returning to her drunken hysteria after a series of dramatic twists and turns, sinks back into her isolation, terrified of the horrifying things she imagines seeing around her room. As Sam tucks Hattie in and comforts her, there's a long, rumbling roll of thunder that sounds like a blown-out speaker, and it continues to roar throughout the nightmarish scenes in which Hattie discovers a ghoulish shrunken head in her bed and collapses, with Hitchcock suggesting the passage of time afterwards with a gorgeous image of a rain-streaked window superimposed over the unconscious woman's face. This whole sequence is haunting and gorgeous, with every detail heightened: the single beaded tear glistening on Hattie's cheek, the tracking shot along the rough terrain of the pillowcase and bedsheets, the continued rolling of the thunder, the sinister tinkling of Milly's keys as she creeps around the room, the light glinting off the poisoned glass that's so resonant of other sinister drinks in Hitchcock's oeuvre.

It's a dream, a nightmare, and the subsequent scenes in which the plot begins reversing gears to move inexorably towards a happy resolution have the feeling of waking up from a dream, finally shaking off the narcotized slumber that afflicted these characters and kept them trapped in a recurring cycle of self-destruction and recrimination. Under Capricorn is a stylish and beautiful movie, its aesthetic seductive and hypnotic, with a psychological complexity that makes it enthralling throughout.

Posted in Cinema

Answers, Updates, and Famous Photos…

A bit of this and that today:

First, a big huzzah and best wishes to all our fellow film bloggers enjoying the festivities at the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival in Hollywood, which begins today and runs through Sunday.  I really enjoy reading their posts and updates on the fun, and their coverage only gets better each year.


Now, the answers to last week’s Leggy Ladies on Ladders photos:
A is Cyd Charisse.  Though it’s a candid sort of backstage shot, the film she was doing in this costume is Meet Me in Las Vegas, which we discussed previously here.
B is Paul Newman and…Alexis Smith.  This is from The Young Philadelphians, which we briefly mentioned in this previous post on Alexis.
C is Zachary Scott entering the room to find…Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce, which we discussed here. And here.


I have a book signing coming up this Saturday, the 28th of March at the Indian Orchard branch of the Springfield City Library, 44 Oak Street, Indian Orchard (Springfield), Massachusetts, from noon to 2:00 p.m.  I’ll have a variety of my books available for purchase, both non-fiction and novels, and if you have time to stop by, I’d love to chat with you.


And now, a word about my soon-to-be-published book on the career of Ann Blyth.  June 18th is less than three months away, and will be here before we know it.  I’m working like mad on it, and I hope you’ll approve of the final product.

Part of the challenge of finding photographs for the book is investigating the copyright or ownership of the images.  It can be a daunting task, but also a pleasure when one discovers really fine photos by a master photographer.  In this case, I’m speaking of two greats: Florence Vandamm and Eileen Darby.  They were giants in the field of theatre photography, and Ann Blyth was photographed by both when she appeared in Watch on the Rhine as a young girl.

Florence Vandamm was a pioneer in this field, and from 1925 to about 1950, she was the foremost photographer capturing the greats of the Broadway stage.  The Vandamm Studio specialized in very glamorous portraits of the Broadway stars, images not too dissimilar from what the Hollywood studios would adopt for their style of light-sculpted, touched-up and stunning glamour photos in the 1940s.

Eileen Darby came a long a little later, beginning her career as a theatre photographer in 1940, Vandamm’s chief competitor and ultimate heir to this highly specialized field; however, Darby’s work had a different style.  She would most often perch herself in the front row seats and shoot with low light the dramatic action on stage, catching stars in the moment of their greatest work.

Ann Blyth, just by the serendipitous circumstances of being cast in Watch on the Rhine, was photographed by both these greats for that play, and I am so pleased and privileged to be including photos from both these famous photographers in my book.  I admire their work tremendously.

Today, the Vandamm body of work is the property of the Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.  Because my budget was limited, I could only purchase the rights for one Vandamm photo.  Though I was tempted to go with the images that grouped Ann with Paul Lukas, who played her father, and other actors in the play, I ultimately chose, instead, a portrait of her.  The group photos were excellent, but I had seen them, or photos like them in other books and magazines.  The reasons I chose the portrait are twofold:

First, it is such a sweet expression that seems to show this young girl on the verge of leaving her “play-acting” years and becoming a serious actress – half school photo and half actor’s professional headshot.

Second, because something in that portrait kept calling to me, and finally I realized what it was.  I think I might have been the first person in seventy years to look upon that sweet face outside of the archives, and if I didn’t publish it, I might be the last.  So, since those other photos were more easily available to the public in other books, I took this rarely (or never) seen photo for mine.

The Eileen Darby photo of Ann in Watch on the Rhine is one of her “action shots” that shows Ann on stage with Lucille Watson, who played the family matriarch; George Coulouris, the villain of the piece; and Peter Fernandez, who played one of Ann’s brothers.  This particular photo had also found its way into the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts collection, but for rights to publish I had to turn to the Eileen Darby Estate, which is currently managed by her grandchildren.  I am very grateful to Mr. Alex Teslik for allowing me to publish that photo.

There will be quite a number of other photos in the book, and other photographers or publishers to whom I needed to apply for permission, but I wanted to tell the story of these two particular photographers because of the important place they have in the history of American theatre.

Last year, a retrospective of Vandamm's work was held at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts called: Pioneering Poet of Light: Photographer Florence Vandamm & the Vandamm Studio, which you can read about here and see some of her stunning work.

Eileen Darby's life and work has been presented in the excellent book, Stars on Stage- Eileen Darby & Broadway's Golden Age by Mary C. Henderson.

See you next Thursday for a little Easter noir.  You can probably guess the movie.

Posted in Old Movie Blog

Leggy Ladies on ladders…

My wife and I go back two decades for our love of “Remember the Night” and its heartwarming story...
P.S. As I type these words I am reminded of the inscription my wife had engraved inside the wedding ring I now wear… “Remember The Night.”

On Another Part of the Forest:

Jim Lane said...

Beautiful piece, Jacqueline, about yet another movie from the Unjustly Forgotten file. I agree a video release is decades overdue, (What is wrong with Universal Home Video? You'd think the only movies they ever made were monsters and Abbott & Costello. And don't even get me started on the pre-'48 Paramounts they're sitting on.) I count myself lucky to have scored a decent 16mm print on eBay some years back; otherwise it would have been a good 40 years since I saw it.

On The World in His Arms:

Blake Lucas said...

I happened upon this piece and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading it. Really a great appreciation of a wonderful movie. Raoul Walsh is one of my favorite directors and this is the first of his movies I ever remember seeing--it was on the big screen back in 1952 so I guess that dates me but a movie like this was ideal for my age, both for the adventure and romance.

On Judgment at Nuremberg:

ralphm1999 said...

I guess I'm going to be busy reading all your blogs that touch on events I'm familiar with.

Judgement At Nuremberg caught my attention as I had the privilege of working in it for some 60 days. But more so as the German WWII history always recall my own trials during the war.

I suppose we filmed this around 1959-1960 which is not that long after the ending of the war. Reconstruction in Europe was far from accomplished. For the audience in 1961 this history was still a part of everyone's life.

I was overwhelmed sitting in that set and listening to the greatest actors of that generation orate day after day... an endless live theater.

A great blog.


On History is Made at Night:

vienna said... Jacqueline, I've adored this film for many years and have thought of reviewing it. But your post is SO good, I know I could never do it the same justice. I love it because of Jean Arthur who made only a very few dramas. I always wanted her to do more serious roles in addition to her comedies. She really can break your heart. I'm not a Boyer fan but he is good. Colin Clive does a great job.. He is so odious and obsessed, even when Irene makes her feelings extremely clear. You describe everything so well and remind me I need to watch it again. Surely we will get a DVD release soon. I love your phrase - thank heavens for headlines!
January 18, 2014

On the Stars at the La Jolla Playhouse:

Ed Long said...I was doing a search on Google looking for Robin Corey whose father was Wendell Corey. She and I were in an acting class in the summer of 1960 at La Jolla Playhouse. At that time, the Playhouse was on Nautilus. Robert Mulligan was the director as I recall. Wendell was appearing in a play that summer at the Playhouse. He was also in the audience when our theatre troupe put on a performance for our friends and family at the end of the summer training.December 11, 2013

On I'll Never Forget You & Berkeley Square:

Ginevra Di Verduno said...Maybe I'm biased, being a convinced Leslie Howard's fan, but "Berkeley Square" is still one of my favorite films, and any comparison is just impossible. Though Leslie Howard wasn't the first Peter Standish (the play had already been produced in London, in 1926), this role was undoubtedly one of his most celebrated creations. His production of 1929 was an immense success. The film version, of course, cannot reproduce the magical atmosphere surrounding his stage presence, which entranced audience and critics. "Berkeley Square" is a classic "filmed play" of the early Thirties; it's quite static, its photography is unimaginative. But Leslie Howard's skill and charm still shine in splendor. October 31, 2013

Posted in Old Movie Blog

Paddy O’Day – 1935

Paddy O’Day (1935) is about an illegal immigrant we don’t have the heart to send back. 

Maybe it’s because she sings and has a puppy.  Maybe because mainstream America was a generation or two closer to the immigrant experience, where Ellis Island represented both the dreams, and the deepest fears of the immigrant, and so our understanding and compassion was deeper.  We remembered, or our momma and papa remembered, that hope rode one shoulder, a sense of doom the other.  We may muse with chagrin  and raised eyebrows that such a lighthearted and fanciful movie flies in the face of one of the most contentious political issues of current times.

Jane, a little Irish girl who is slated to be sent back to Ireland, gives us only a few moments of the doom of being sent back; she quickly takes matters into her own hands by sneaking into the U.S. illegally by hiding in a milk can. 

Hiding in things to enter illegally has been done many times since, rarely so successfully, and often tragically.

Once having arrived, she is hidden by new friends, who are complicit in the crime.  That’s been done, too.  Who’s talking about the Mexican border?  I’m talking about all the illegal Irish in Boston right now (something like 10,000 of them).

Yeah.  Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Jane Withers was a multi-talented youngster, who was nine years old when this movie was made, and already a veteran of a dozen films.  We may most recall her as the brat tormenting Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934), but she had no less an important career over at 20th Century Fox as another feisty Depression kid.  There was not as much of a fairy tale element to Jane’s movies in comparison to Shirley’s films, and though her fame generated its own line of merchandising, as did Shirley’s, Jane never reached quite the heights of stardom that the moppet with the golden curls did.

Shirley’s talent was prodigious, and she was a hard act to follow.  But Jane Withers, I believe, was even more talented.  She had a better singing voice, was just as fine a dancer, could mimic and do accents where Shirley did not, but most especially, despite bursts of mugging, had a larger acting range and a quality of being “in the moment.” 

Shirley, possibly from her early training barely out of diapers was taught to react and respond much in the same way one might train a dog, and had an acting style as she grew older that was somewhat mechanical.  Perhaps because Shirley was so adorable and lauded to be a “natural” that no drama classes, or experience performing either on radio or stage was thought necessary to train her out of the habits she acquired as a child.  All she knew was the technical style of acting before the camera.  Shirley left acting to raise her family, and had a successful career in diplomatic service, perhaps partly because when she was too old to pretend she was the little orphan girl, her work became too studied and stiff.  It didn’t look like her heart was in it.

Jane Withers was nothing but heart.

We meet the little Irish lass, Paddy O’Day in steerage on a ship to the U.S.  She sings “With a Twinkle in Your Eye,” complete with accent and with reprises, you’ll be singing it before the movie’s over.  The wretched refuse of many teeming shores are dressed in native costume and singing native songs, among them Rita Cansino, who plays a Russian girl traveling with her mother and father, of course called Momushka and Popushka.  We see from the beginning this is more parody than anything.

Rita performs a spirited Russian dance.  She would make a handful more movies in the next couple years before she became Rita Hayworth.  The red hair and sex symbol came later under Columbia.  She and her parents, Momushka and Popushka take little Paddy under their wing, for the Irish girl is traveling alone.  Her mother, working as a servant in a wealthy household on Long Island, will meet her at Ellis Island.

For those of us who have family members who came through Ellis Island, the place is hallowed.  It’s fun to see it depicted, though as such, a scene on a movie soundstage, it's a little surreal if your grandma came through there terrified.

Tragically, little Jane’s mother is not there to meet her, because she has recently died, and with no one to claim her, Jane will be sent back to the old country.  

But she escapes the watchful eye of the immigration officer, played by Francis Ford, and we have a few neat shots of the real Ellis Island, and of the 3rd Avenue El and the Empire State Building rising behind it, looking to the little girl like science fiction monsters.

Through the improbable actions of an unknowing police officer who puts her in the car of a total stranger (such scenes these days make us squirm), Paddy arrives at her mother’s workplace—not knowing she has died.  Jane Darwell, kindly cook of the house, gets the dirty job to break the bad news.  She and the other servants convince the dour butler, Russell Simpson, to let the girl stay until they can figure out what to do.

A pair of fussy old ladies lives in this mansion, with their studious, mild-mannered and somewhat vague nephew, played by Pinky Tomlin.  Tomlin had appeared in a few minor films, but his main gig was as a bandleader and composer.  He’s the chap who came up with “The Object of My Affection.”  (Raise your hand if the first thing you think of is Alfalfa on the Our Gang comedies.”)

Here, Tomlin, a likeable fellow, strums a guitar and sings another of his original tunes, “Changing My Ambitions,” a very pleasant song he croons to Rita because he is falling in love with her.  

Rita and her family, now including a boisterous uncle who runs a café in New York, played with aplomb by George Givot, have discovered the mansion where Jane is in hiding and want to help keep her in the country.  It is agreed she will stay with her Russian pals and work at Uncle’s café as a performer. 

George Givot, a bullying impresario, mangles English with delightfully silly malapropos, but somebody has to speak with a Russian accent because even little Jane’s Russian accent is better than Rita’s.  However, Rita can dance, and that is her act in the club.  Jane, dressed up like a little Russian doll with painted cheeks sings, “I Like a Balalaika.”

Trouble is not over yet, though, because the aunties have discovered Jane and want to send her back to Ireland.  They, and the immigration officer Francis Ford are hot on the trail, but Pinky Tomlin and Rita decide to marry and adopt Jane, which will keep her here for good.  A WASP dad, a Russian immigrant mom, and loudmouth Uncle George.  What little Irish lass could ask for anything more?

Jane doesn’t become assimilated in America in the little more than an hour it takes to watch this movie, but she does what all immigrants did when they first arrived, and still do—try to put down roots in a strange new world, more magical, more wonderful, and more terrifying than Alice’s trip through the looking glass.

Jane Withers has a good rapport with all her adult cast mates in this movie, but she forged a special bond of friendship with the shy young woman who would come to be known as Rita Hayworth.  Rita, 16 years old, was nervous on the set, more terrified than the immigrant she was playing. Jane, nine years old, but already a veteran and the star of the movie, felt protective of her.  Before the cameras rolled, Jane held Rita’s hand and said a prayer to comfort her. 

Decades later, in 1987, when Rita Hayworth died, Jane was asked to deliver the eulogy at her funeral.  She repeated on that occasion the prayer she said while holding Rita’s hand on the set of Paddy O’Day:

“Lord, this is Rita and she’s afraid… Please be with her because she’s special.”

Jane Withers is pretty special too.

This post is part of the Luck of the Irish Blog O’Thon sponsored by the Metzinger Sisters at Silver Scenes.  Please go have a look at the other great entries.

And Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Posted in Old Movie Blog