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Scott O'Brien Q & A on Ann Harding

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feaito

Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby feaito » December 7th, 2010, 8:41 pm

Mr. O'Brien,

I feel you've made justice to both "Gallant Lady" (1934) and, especially, "The Fountain" (1934), in your book, both of which have lackluster reviews on Maltin's Classic Movies Guide and have intrigued me for years. In fact, your assessment of the latter has increased my interest in that particular movie.

I've never been let down by an Ann Harding performance -even in the weakest film of hers I've seen: "Her Private Affair" (1929). Thanks to TCM and my American & European friends I've been able to see many of her films which are not available on DVD or VHS: "Holiday" (1930) -in many aspects superior to the 1938 remake-, "Westward Passage" (1932), "Life of Vergie Winters" (1934) -Superb!-, "The Right to Romance" (1933), "Condemned" (1929) -Ann was born to co-star opposite Ronald Colman and others. Her talent also helped to raise the level of films in which she played character parts, such as in "Two Weeks with Love" (1950) and "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" (1956). "Double Harness" (1933) contains an especially gifted, sensitive, multi-layered performance by Ms. Harding and in "Love From a Stranger" (1937) -notwithstanding the horrible, sub-par PD print- she is magnificent.

Thanks to your book I've realized why Norma Shearer used that long-haired blonde wig in the 1929 version of "The Trial of Mary Dugan" (1929); she was copying Ann's image, who starred on the stage play and made it famous. Do you know if Norma copied or inspired her performance on that film after Ann's? I've read that Mr. Thalberg filmed the stage versions of "Private Lives" (Gertrude Lawrence) and "Strange Interlude" (1932) (Lynn Fontanne), among others, so that Ms. Shearer could be inspired by the performances of those leading ladies. I think that MGM would have loved to have had Ann among its most cherished stars during the late '20s and '30s, but I feel that she would have been a direct threat to Norma Shearer's -whom I also love, but who was an inferior actress than Ms. Harding- status & position at MGM. What do you think about it? They had -in general, because they were very different- similar ladylike, patrician and -at the same time- a kind of "earthy" qualities...although Miss Shearer came off as more "affected" and Ann a complete natural.

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby moira finnie » December 8th, 2010, 12:39 pm

Thanks so much for your thoughtful replies, Scott, and it has been very interesting to read the questions posted here about Ann Harding's career and life.

Btw, I saw Prestige (1932) before I ever knew about Ann Harding's personal ties to the military through her father. I was drawn into the film by the scene near the beginning of the film in which her character struggles to reconcile her sense of duty with her longing for her French officer fiance (Melvyn Douglas), who is being sent to a colony in IndoChina. Despite her disappointment with the movie, I have often wondered if she might have been drawing on her family's experiences in that role.

Could you please address how the military influenced Ann Harding's work and life?

Do you see some clear turning point(s) in Harding's attitude toward her Hollywood career?

Do you think that Harding was naive about the nature of film stardom when she committed herself to a movie contract?

Thanks again!
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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby OScott » December 8th, 2010, 1:57 pm

For intothenitrate – You bring up a good question. LaSalle mentions in the biography’s foreword, “the coming of the Production Code eliminated the sex drama, the genre in which [Ann Harding] thrived.” I’m glad you brought up LaSalle’s excellent Complicated Women (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), in which he states, “Harding gave the screen an unsentimental vision of a woman who was free, grounded and effortlessly herself.” After the Code went into effect the “free” and “grounded” women were definitely compromised by the restrictions of the PCA. The films Harding appeared in after her last PreCode release (The Life of Vergie Winters) paled in comparison, with few exceptions (i.e., The Fountain, Peter Ibbetson). As I mentioned earlier, Ann and RKO always argued over stories even before the Code. Had she taken on Leslie Howard’s request to have her play Mildred in Of Human Bondage—well, that could have turned Ann’s Hollywood career around. It certainly did wonders for Bette Davis. Another part of the problem for Ann was her lack of cooperation with the press after her divorce in 1932. Her agent, Harry Edington (who also represented Garbo) advised Ann not to offer interviews, or talk to news reporters. Edington called it “inverse publicity.” Well, it backfired on Ann. Reporters and film critics began the, as you put it, “heavy-handed, targeted scrutiny” of her work—the “noble Ann Harding” was a typical accusation.

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby OScott » December 8th, 2010, 2:01 pm

Thanks Feaito for bringing up Ann’s Academy Award nominated performance in 1930’s Holiday. While it lacked the polished-look of the remake, it held together better as an ensemble piece, which Ann thrived in due to her lengthy background in theatre. She really shines as Linda and gives a very natural, heart-warming take on the character—exactly what playwright Philip Barry had in mind. While Hepburn toned down her mannerisms for the remake—she still appears to be off her in own world, shining of course, but self-contained. Harding’s departure from her on-screen family was a momentous breakthrough, while Hepburn’s highly confident take on the role should have had her out of her father’s mansion years before.

Norma Shearer signed on for The Trial of Mary Dugan in 1928 while Ann was taking her Broadway hit out on the road. I don’t know if Shearer and Thalberg saw Ann’s performance, but before filming began, Norma was “booked” into the Los Angeles County Jail under the name of Mary Dugan. She spent several hours in jail having her fingerprints taken and visiting the women’s quarters. This all helped Norma “get into the mood” for her on-screen trial. I agree with your comparison of Shearer-Harding as far as the types of roles they excelled. Shearer was more mannered, but I always find her fascinating to watch. I especially like her strong delineation as the Countess in Escape (1940). Harding did have the three-picture deal with MGM, but none of the roles offered interested Shearer. Garbo had rejected director Goulding’s The Flame Within in which Ann gave a strong performance in spite of the perfunctory ending.

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby OScott » December 8th, 2010, 3:00 pm

Moira – you bring up an essential ingredient to understanding Ann Harding: Dorothy Gatley—who grew up as an “army brat.” It is likely that Ann signed on for Prestige because of her personal ties to the military. The scenes with her on-screen father have a bittersweet edge to them that is both touching and effecting. Ann’s father, Brigadier General George Grant Gatley, was known as a “no nonsense, hard-swearing, son-of-a-gun.” While he and Ann butted heads, she was truly a chip off the old block. Headstrong. The two didn’t speak or see each other from the time Ann went on stage (1921) until the old man was hospitalized with cancer in 1931 (at San Francisco’s Presidio Hospital). Gatley told Ann that she had taken “the inevitable road to Hell!” Father-daughter had a tearful reunion on Gatley’s deathbed. After her father’s death, Ann was often called by veterans of WWI’s “Rainbow Division” to be present at various military conventions in the Los Angeles area. She was designated as “Colonel Harding of the Rainbow.”

Ann’s statement, “I bear with something distasteful, until I can no longer endure it; on a sudden decision, I step out, cutting the association abruptly—and forever,” caused her a great deal of sorrow, especially when it came to the relationship with her mother, sister and daughter. Ann claimed to bring soldierly qualities to her work at the studio. “I regard obedience to those in command of my pictures as a matter of course,” she remarked. Personally, I think her career was filled with more “No Sirs!” than “Yes Sirs!”

Initially, Ann was attracted to the California sunshine, having a real home, and a lucrative studio contract. She discovered soon enough that her film career put “life in a goldfish bowl.” Her divorce proceedings and the on-going custody battle was devoured by the press from 1932-37. Ann absolutely hated being a celebrity. So, yes, she was naïve about what it meant to be a “movie star” when she signed on with Pathe in 1929. She left Hollywood in 1936 (I would say this was her turning point) and later stated that it would take “an earthquake” for her to take on another Hollywood film assignment. It is interesting to point out that Ann’s initial journey to England was to play Camille on screen for Trafalgar (London) with Clive Brook.

feaito

Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby feaito » December 8th, 2010, 5:38 pm

Mr. O'Brien, thanks again for your responses and comments. I've been completely pleased reading this enlightening thread.

Fernando

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby moira finnie » December 8th, 2010, 9:55 pm

Thank you for your insight into Ann's thinking at the time of Prestige.

When you were writing your biographies of Ann Harding, Virginia Bruce and Kay Francis did you find you liked these women when you had completed their life stories? Do you have to like a subject of your biographies? Did you ever get upset with them and their sometimes difficult lives and seemingly (with the 20-20 hindsight of history) poor choices? Did any one of them stand out as an individual you might enjoy knowing?

In Ann Harding's later movies and her television work in the era when that medium was live, was her approach to her work as intense as it had once been?
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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby OScott » December 9th, 2010, 12:52 am

Leave to you Moira to come up with a question that I really had to ponder. Ultimately, I feel it is my obligation when writing about an individual’s life not to exploit or judge. We are all vulnerable when it comes to the “programming” we learn as children. There is the “programming” we learn at school, at church, and from our peers. These women are human beings just like the rest of us--learning what “works” for them and what doesn’t “work.” Out of Kay, Virginia and Ann, you ask, who would I enjoy knowing? Which is another way of asking, of these three, who would allow me to be myself? Kay Francis. I say this, because my partner Joel and I were guests of Kay’s best friends, Jetti and Lou Ames. We stayed with them at their summer home on Nantucket and also visited them in Tucson on two occasions. If these two exemplify the kind of people Kay was attracted to—Kay would have been a shoo-in as a friend. Kay didn’t like talking about her career in Hollywood. I would have had to bite my tongue there. She was definitely mistreated by Warners and had every right to be bitter. Even so, she didn’t dwell on it. Her goal was to make money and become independent. I admire her self-reliance and her generous donation to The Seeing Eye. She was bright, intelligent and had a bawdy sense of humor—and she cared about her friends—who could ask for more? Kay also had great compassion. During WWII how many times did she stay with a wounded and dying serviceman at Corona Naval Hospital until he crossed over? She would calm him down, rub his hands and talk until it was all over. That’s my kind of gal.

When I talked with Karen Sharpe Kramer (director Stanley Kramer’s wife) she raved about how gracious and lovely Virginia Bruce was. Virginia was the first movie star that Karen ever met. While Virginia’s relationship with her third husband literally consumed everything she had (emotionally and financially)—it simply shows what a great romantic she was. In one of her first press interviews (1929) she confessed, “My chief purpose in life is to … fall in love. I don’t know why I want to, but I do.” It seems fated that Virginia would introduce to the world Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (Born to Dance-1936). I have a soft spot for Virginia, too.

On a personal level, Ann Harding would have proved the most challenging for me. From what happened between her and her mother, sister and her own daughter—I probably would have felt threatened to be cut off, as Ann put it, “abruptly and forever.” Yikes! Whose to say how much of her father’s influence colored her personality? What would it take to become part of her charmed circle? What would it take to mellow her out? But, in terms of her craft, her skill, knowledge and devotion to being an “actor”—Ann was exceptional—one of a kind. I think that’s why Mick LaSalle reveres her ability. She was a true “player.”

I wasn’t thrilled that Kay signed on to Monogram (considered the graveyard of studios), but I had to remember that she was a businesswoman first—she made a lot of money off this venture. I was disappointed about Virginia’s “devotion” to her last husband Ali Ipar, but at least she was honest when she stated in 1936, “Perhaps part of my tragedy will be that I do spoil men. … We women take a lot. Perhaps we like it …I think every woman is masochistic at heart.” When I talked to Ann’s “adopted” daughter I was literally raked over the coals. Our conversation went nowhere. She called me a “detective.” I have a funny feeling that Ann would have been equally as “cordial.” However, Ann’s niece, Dorothy, and grandniece, Faeylyn, have been absolutely wonderful to me. Dorothy was Ann’s namesake and she fondly recalls Ann’s laughter, sense of humor, and how “very loving” she was. Both Dorothy and Faeylyn admire and love Ann, and I do, too. We must make allowances for “genius” and not let personal attributes get in the way of obscuring the amazing legacy these talented women have left behind for generations to enjoy.

Ann kept her humility and reverence for her craft until she retired in 1965. While she did mostly supporting roles for film and TV, she brought her “brilliance and life force” (I’m quoting her niece here) to stage productions such as Miss Moffat in The Corn is Green (a personal favorite of Ann’s) and Violet Venable in Suddenly, Last Summer.

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby movieman1957 » December 9th, 2010, 3:00 pm

Thanks for being here. Your visit has been an education for me. You've been gracious and very informative.

I noticed looking through Harding's catalog of work she did a great deal of television. For her, or any film stars that go back to the precode days, how did they view TV work? I can imagine that breadth of attitudes ran from they have to eat to it being another part of their craft.
Chris

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klondike

Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby klondike » December 9th, 2010, 3:57 pm

Hey, Scott, thank you so much for dropping by this week - it's been very enlightening!
What I found myself wondering about, as I thought back to Ms. Harding's roles that I've enjoyed: would you say that her rotation back out of action/espionage films of the early 40's (Mission to Moscow, The North Star, etc.) had to do with her preferences, or the studio's casting dictates, or just an evolution in the format of propoganda dramas?
Personally, I felt some of her most snappy, memorable roles occurred in that genre - even in vehicles as quick & economical as Eyes in the Night (which almost felt like it could've been spun out into a series).

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby JackFavell » December 9th, 2010, 4:55 pm

Hi, Mr. O'Brien! It's thrilling to have you here as a guest at the Oasis, and I hope you will come back again and see us when this week is up, time permitting.

I am curious about Susan Ann Gilbert, and what happened to her. Was she still alive when you wrote your book on Virgina Bruce?

Did Virginia regret not becoming a bigger star, or did she feel the studio was against her? In other words, did she become bitter as Clive Brook advised her not to? Some of her quotes talk about the bad girls she played and how she found them almost frightening, but I have always found her to be the most exciting part of movies like The Great Ziegfeld. Did she think of any particular role with great fondness?

I also wanted to ask how interested Kay Francis was in acting, coming from a theatrical family. Was she serious about it in the same way that Ann Harding was? Did she see it as a means to an end, or did she want to become a great actress? I think she's really incredible in many movies, like Jewel Robbery, One Way Passage, Confession and I found Stella Parish, and yet, in some of her other roles, especially later, I get the feeling she just lost heart. Maybe I am reading this into her performances because I know what happened to her with the studio. Did she need a strong director? Did she have favorites?

I think Kay had a wonderful relaxed and very sexy rapport with William Powell. Do you have any comments or info about their on or off screen relationship?

I also wanted to know how Francis was able to come off as such a polished sophisticate, she always seems so educated, but the reality is that she barely was able to attend school. Did this ever bother her, or did she overcompensate for a lack of childhood education?

I hope I haven't confused you or overloaded you with too many questions! Thanks in advance for your replies. :D

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby mongoII » December 9th, 2010, 6:16 pm

Hello again, Mr. O'Brien. Thanks for your response to me regarding Kay Francis.
I've read that Ann Harding was estranged from her daughter Jane and I was wondering if they got back together before Miss Harding past in 1981? Did she remember both daughters in her will?
Also it was stated that Miss Harding had a segment in the 1951 film "It's a Big Country" and that her scenes were deleted?

Thanks again
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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby OScott » December 9th, 2010, 8:00 pm

Hello Chris, thanks for dropping in. I’m enjoying my Oasis visit and glad to know I’m providing some “new” information on these actresses. Ann Harding made approx. 44 appearances on TV from 1950-65. From some of her letters, I gather she took assignments for the money, or, as you put it, she “had to eat.” Ann didn’t care for “live” TV, and stated, “That glazed look you see in the eyes of actors on ‘live’ TV is not histrionic emotion, but inner panic.” She received rave reviews on many of her performances (ie., Matinee Theatre, The Eleventh Hour). Ann could be tough on producers. When I wrote actor Peter Mark Richmond about working with Ann, he replied, “Ann was of the old school in manner and work habits, and I respected that. She was also strong when she had to be. She didn’t like the man who was playing her husband [in Playwrights ‘56 “Center of the Maze”] and was responsible for getting him fired.” Ann had asked for George Brent as replacement, but didn’t get her wish—she finally accepted Russell Hicks. My favorite of those TV performances I was able to locate was an adaptation of Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles (retitled "Jury of Her Peers) for Alfred Hitchcock presents.

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby OScott » December 9th, 2010, 8:05 pm

For Klondike … At $4,166 per week for six weeks, Ann gladly took on the role of Marjorie Merriweather Post Davies (mother of Dina Merrill) for the propaganda piece Mission to Moscow. As the wife of Russian ambassador Davies (Walter Huston), Ann didn’t have much to do on screen, and admitted, “I say ‘How do you do?’ a great many times—I’m trying to use different inflections on it. … Mr. Huston and I don’t have much to do.” Her appearance in The North Star was really a waste of her talent. I think Ann was so disappointed after he potential MGM assignment to co-star with Spencer Tracy in The Yearling fell through, that she took whatever was offered her. Ann was all set to play the lead opposite Paul Lukas in Watch on the Rhine until Bette Davis got wind of it. That was the final blow. Ann had only one strong role after 1937—the touching and intimate The Magnificent Yankee (1950).

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Re: Welcome to Scott O'Brien, Our Guest Star for Dec. 2010

Postby OScott » December 9th, 2010, 8:14 pm

Hello Jack … Susan Ann Gilbert passed away on December 3, 2004. I began my research on Virginia Bruce shortly thereafter, however did have the cooperation of her son David. He knew nothing about the screen career of his grandmother … knew nothing about John Gilbert. These were his grandparents (!) and he was shocked and amazed by the scrapbooks and material he found after Susan’s demise.

Virginia admittedly wasn’t a fighter when it came to her career. She was scared to death of Louis B. Mayer. No wonder, after the way Mayer and Gilbert had locked horns. MGM never gave Virginia a role in which she would carry the picture. When Hedy Lamarr and Greer Garson came on board, Virginia bowed out. She preferred concentrating on her husband (director/producer J. Walter Ruben) and her daughter. Her screen roles in the 1940’s were taken on when she wanted something to do. Aside from ...Ziegfeld, I think her best work is in films like Downstairs, Kongo, Woman Against Woman, Society Lawyer … and, her temperamental actress in Born to Dance.

Ann Harding came from repertory theatre. Kay Francis admittedly went on stage due to a premonition she had while crossing the Atlantic in 1925. While her mother’s stage career went nowhere, Kay decided that the stage would give her the self-discipline she needed. Remember, she was part of the flaming youth crowd in New York City. Kay liked being a star and took her work seriously. I don’t believe Kay thought about being so much a “great” actress as she did a “good” one. “I’m not an actress,” she would say, “I’m a personality.” For Ann, theater was about transporting an audience into the lives of the characters on stage. The focus was always on the story, not on her. Kay never mentioned a favorite director, although she dropped everything, including a belated honeymoon, to work with Ernst Lubitsch in Trouble in Paradise. Her work with director John Cromwell was especially good (i.e., For the Defense, In Name Only). I think a strong director is usually an asset for any actress … how else can they grow and stretch as an artist? Have you ever witnessed the out-of-control Bette Davis in In This Our Life?

It was reported that Kay and William Powell were “seeing” each other around 1930. Kay’s diary (which is held at Wesleyan University) only mentions a few instances where the two got together for, “dinner, drinks, and long talks.” Kay had actually been having a passionate affair with actor Kenneth MacKenna since July 1929. The two married in 1931.

I find Kay Francis to be naturally intelligent, witty and self-educated. Kay was a thinker. In 1933, The New York Times listed Kay among the ten “brainiest” women of the screen. Ann Harding was also on this list, along with Miriam Hopkins, Aline MacMahon, Helen Hayes and Katharine Hepburn.

Thanks Jack ... good questions :D
Last edited by OScott on December 12th, 2010, 4:09 pm, edited 1 time in total.


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