Movie stars often look bigger than life, but like the rest of us, each day they wake up with the challenge to manage their career and survive the competitive rigors of our economy. Recent movies at the three Detroit Movie Palaces showed significant career moves by some very famous stars of the screen.
The three films—Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Great Dictator, and The Cameraman—were all big hits, but they all shifted the public image of the leading actors and actresses away from the screen personas that made them most famous. They also gave lessons in the importance of controlling your career both on and off the screen.
As I watched Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? at the Redford Theatre on March 11, 2011, I wondered what the audiences of late 1962 thought about the sloppy, deteriorated appearance of Bette Davis and the helpless, immobile character played by Joan Crawford. Where was the sleek, confident Bette and the controlled, glamorous Joan of the 1930s and 1940s?
The shock of seeing such powerful actresses in such demeaning, humble roles added to the power of this scary, unsettling movie. Old images of the actresses that were used in the movie added to impact of their new looks. The movie included another older actress, the lesser known Anna Lee, whose calm, friendly, well-groomed appearance helped emphasize the decline of Davis and Crawford.
The Redford showing of Baby Jane came almost 50 years after the initial release. Its somber, crisp, widescreen black-and-white images were similar to those of another prominent 1962 movie shown earlier this year at the Redford – To Kill a Mockingbird. You got the feeling that filmmakers of that time were exploring the deep emotional possibilities of black-and-white photography one last time before commercial pressures would force them to switch over to color.
When The Great Dictator came out in 1940, audiences were faced with two new sides of Charlie Chaplin’s acting abilities. There was less reliance on the tramp image that he had been cultivating for more than 20 years. And the world would now hear his voice for the first time. When I watched The Great Dictator on March 14, 2011 at the Michigan Theater, I particularly enjoyed the clever, coy one-liners that he used in both comic and serious situations. Later I realized that this was a new part of his acting arsenal that he had to develop to go with the visual parts of his skills that many moviegoers knew and loved.
The Great Dictator is part of a Monday night series of Chaplin films that the Michigan is showing through April. The series launched on February 7 with the 1925 movie The Gold Rush, which was originally a silent film. The Michigan showed a 1942 re-issue of The Gold Rush which used many sound effects and a voice-over narrative by Chaplin. It wouldn’t surprise me if Chaplin had wanted to do this for years, but knew it wouldn’t work until he appeared in a speaking role in another movie.
Buster at M-G-M
Buster Keaton’s first movie for M-G-M, The Cameraman (1928), did not shake up the public’s perception of him as much as the other two movies did with Davis, Crawford, and Chaplin, but it was the start of a new phase of his off-camera career that would eventually end the great run of silent comedies that he gave to the filmgoing public in the 1920s.
Before the Detroit Film Theatre’s showing of The Cameraman on March 19, 2011, DFT founder Elliot Wilhelm introduced the movie with the significant point that filmmakers like Keaton were independent filmmakers just like the independent directors of today. For Keaton, that ended when he moved to M-G-M in 1928 and gave up his own production company.
The Saturday afternoon crowd at the DFT, which included many children, tremendously enjoyed The Cameraman, and many smiles decorated the faces of the audience as it filed out into the sunlit beauty of an early spring weekend. I had a lot of fun too, but I couldn’t help but see a softening of the edges of Keaton’s battle against the forces of the universe, and at times he seemed to be swallowed up in the formidable sets and crowd scenes that were at the disposal of powerful M-G-M at that time.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.