Today, I am excited to be participating in the Five Stars Blogathon which is being hosted by Classic FIlm TV Cafe.
Anyone who has been following my posts will know that I absolutely love movies. This being the case, asking me to pick five, and only five favorite stars was an almost impossible task! I mean really, it would be like asking me to choose my favorite book (another impossible task) or my favorite breath for that matter. But for the sake of following the rules, I have managed to narrow it down to the requested five. Just don’t get the idea that I don’t have other favorite film stars. And since this blogathon is in honor of National Classic Movie Day, I am sharing my favorite classic film stars.
Any one who knows me knows of my love for Cary Grant. His film Bringing Up Baby was my first introduction to him, to classic film and to screwball comedy, all of which remain favorites to this day. Cary Grant was a versatile actor who was equally at home in both comedies and dramas. His characters tended not to take themselves or life too seriously and yet also retained a darker edge about them which was highlighted more in his dramatic roles. And while I enjoy his later dramatic films, my preference will always be for his pre-war comedies. Who else could pull of playing men of sophistication and privilege who were able to laugh and make fun at their own expense? Not only was I ruined for mortal men by his onscreen style, humor and well-cut suits, but after reading numerous books about Cary Grant I also have great admiration for the man himself. He is a man who despite being raised in a working class home and lacking in formal education, through determination, persistence and self-education created a persona who is still known the world over for his class and artistry. It takes incredible discipline to re-create one’s self and that is just what he did, doing it so entirely that he didn’t just create a character, but actually became one who is still famous and respected today not only as a film icon, but also a fashion icon and respected man of business despite being long gone. For further details on Cary Grant and my regard for him, read my introduction to Cary Grant.
Hepburn was the other half of my introduction to classic film when I first saw Bringing Up Baby. And despite the fact that she doesn’t fit the mold of women I usually enjoy seeing on film and which were usually featured in classic films, it is precisely for that reason that she is my favorite actress. Like Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn was equally skilled in both comedic and dramatic roles including historical films, which Grant unfortunately never conquered. The women she played were generally of strong character and refused to be pigeon holed, an attribute that Hepburn also exhibited in real life. Although she appeared in some real stinker films which didn’t suit her, once she finally took full control of her career she had few misses. She could break your heart as she did in Alice Adams, The Rainmaker and Summertime, leave you trembling in shock and awe like she did in The Lion in Winter, or make you fall in love with her belief in her own worth as she does in Christopher Strong, Little Women, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib. She was a woman ahead of her time and it is for this reason that many of her films do not appear dated and still have something to say to modern audiences. Thankfully, this acting pioneer is well-regarded for her contributions to the art of film.
One of the reasons I am a fan of Clark Gable is that he generally plays lovable rogues, which is one of my favorite type of characters in any story. He started out in films playing villains, but his onscreen charisma soon led him into better parts. But he never really loses some of the villain attributes, often playing he-men with an edge of danger attached who are eventually tamed by the women they love. Who else but Gable could get away with onscreen physical violence and threats against women and have female viewers still panting after him like he’s a hero? He just had that certain spark, that allowed his characters to get away with despicable behavior while also making him desirable to women and men alike, if for different reasons. Of course, the fact that his characters are redeemed by the love of a good woman helps, or perhaps it’s the fact that though they fall in love, they are often bewildered by how they come to become domesticated. Of course, even when he plays very masculine men, there is also something of the little boy about him, tender and eager for approval. And even though his personal life isn’t exactly something to emulate, by most accounts he was very down to earth and modest of his great success. All this combines to explain why he was voted King of Hollywood and remained so until his death.
I can’t remember my first exposure to a Norma Shearer film. But somehow she remained memorable enough for me to seek out her other films. Although her career suffered at the end thanks to the enforcement of the moral Hays Code and the death of her husband and champion of her career, Shearer’s films made a tremendous impact and left quite a legacy. It is her pre-Code films which I fell in love with, watching her play women who pushed the boundaries and enjoyed it. Women who thought themselves equal to men and went out to prove it, while still dressing in sexy, slinky dresses and tempting the so-called stronger sex with her tinkling laugh. She forged a path not only for women onscreen but those who watched by playing roles which demanded women be respected, listened to and even feared for their strength, intellect and femininity. I thought I could not appreciate Shearer any more than I did, but then I started watching her earlier roles in silent films. I was mesmerized by her acting abilities which required a different set of skills than she used in her talking pictures. In any film or any role she is astounding. And even more astounding is her grit and determination to become an actress after multiple rejections and criticisms of her lazy eye and body shape. This is a woman who even challenged her husband, second in command at MGM, for a role she believed she could play. And she proved herself right while proving everyone else wrong. Despite the decades which have passed, she is still proving herself right and challenging the mistaken notions some have about classic film being outdated and boring.
My love for William Powell just kind of crept up on me. Even after reading and hearing numerous recommendations for his most famous film The Thin Man, I had no desire to see it, partly because the leading man didn’t seem appealing. Finally, I gave it a chance because of my interest in Myrna Loy. And it was so much fun. But still, an appreciation for Powell alluded me. I gained more exposure through his other film pairings with Loy and I think it must have been Manhattan Melodrama (featuring another favorite actor, Clark Gable) which sealed the deal for me. Thus began a quest to watch as many of Powell’s films as I could. Although I have yet to see any of his silent films in which he generally plays villains, I have seen the majority of his talking films and have never been disappointed. In some ways, he plays characters similar to Cary Grant, those of sophistication and humor. Yet there is a subtle difference which I just can’t put my finger on. He is suave and charming and his ability to deliver a quip has few equals. He often comes across mischievous and yet still trustworthy. I always know what I’m getting when I watch one of his films and they are always a pleasure to view.
Okay, I know I said I would follow the rules and stick to five, but I can’t talk about Norma Shearer without also mentioning my awe for her husband. So I guess, you will have to forgive me for not only breaking the rule of five, but breaking the rule of choosing film stars.
As I stated, how can I mention Shearer without also talking about her husband Irving Thalberg? Though he was not a film star onscreen, it can be argued that he was a star of film off screen. Along with Louis B Mayer, Thalberg was an instrumental and guiding force in creating MGM, the studio known as “having the most stars under Heaven” and also being the most powerful and influential of classic film studios. Thalberg was second in command as head of production answerable only to studio head Mayer. It was he who discovered and championed many of classic film’s beloved stars, including Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Lionel Barrymore and future wife Norma Shearer, among others. He oversaw over four hundred films in his tenure and was a visionary and risk taker whose ideas and accomplishments are too numerable to name here. The reason I admire him so much is that he did all of this in a little over fifteen years, starting at the young age of twenty and knowing that he would die young thanks to a weak heart. How many men of such a young age would be capable enough to basically run, manage and grow a business of such size and also do it well enough to gain the respect of not only his peers and competitors, but the world at large. And to do so while battling ill health is an even greater accomplishment. Few people are able to leave behind such a legacy even when living their lives to the fullness of old age. His commitment, determination and work-ethic are to be admired as is his character, strength and presence which allowed him to stand his ground with resolve in a business inhabited by strong personalities with strong opinions. And that is why I break the rules to share my favorite off-screen film star.
Who are some of your favorite film stars?