Human Frailty

I had an epiphany this morning as I grumpily drove to work: My biggest problem in life is that I’m an optimist.

Wait, WHAT???

Anyone who knows me knows that I am anything but Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows! Not that I behave like an incorrigible pessimist – I try to be positive, but I’m not the “peppy” type. Simply put, I have high standards for myself and I hold others to the same standards. I give my best and I expect others to do the same. In this sense, I am an optimist. But this is a sure track to rampant disappointment.

Like Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story,” I have little or no regard for human frailty. This is not to say that I am incapable of feeling empathy or understanding another’s viewpoint or position; often, I simply argue that if I must follow a certain rule or standard, there’s no reason why someone else shouldn’t. Perhaps it’s a case of the Golden Rule gone wrong. You know: “All things, therefore, that ​you want men to do to ​you, ​you also must likewise do to them.” (Matthew 7:12) I do my part and naively expect the same treatment in return.

Time to wake up to the cold, hard facts. While there may be some people out there who appreciate my efforts to treat them as I would like to be treated, the majority do not really care. I continue to hold myself to higher standards and at best am disappointed – at worst, crushed – by the failure of others to reciprocate. So what should I do?? Stoop to the level of those who hurt me, or take the high road – that is, hold myself to higher standards while accepting the fact that many people I encounter will not hold to those standards?? It would appear that the high road, while more difficult initially, will be easier on my peace of mind in the long run. And maybe, just maybe, it will eventually make me a better person.

“You’ll never be a first class human being or a first class woman until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty.” – C. K. Dexter Haven, The Philadelphia Story

Cinematic Therapy

“Mister Gower, you don’t know what you’re doing. You put something wrong in those capsules. I know you’re unhappy. You got that telegram and you’re upset. You put something bad in those capsules. I know you’re unhappy. It wasn’t your fault, Mister Gower…”

Each time I watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” I begin to cry at this scene. It provides an early glimpse at the truly good heart of George Bailey: as a boy, he offers compassion to his employer who is mistreating him at the moment. I’m getting choked up as I type this, just thinking about it.

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This film, released in 1946, nearly forty years before I was born, has made a major impact on my life. Not only is it the first “old” movie I recall watching as a young child, but it also ignited my love affair with classic films. It has also been a source of comfort at times when, like grown-up George Bailey, my problems seemed insurmountable and I thought perhaps it would be better if I’d never been born.

Filled with wholesome themes typical of a Frank Capra film – particularly that of the triumph of the common man over the corrupt leader, it is one of the original “feel good” movies. “It’s a Wonderful Life” also made me fall in love with James Stewart. He was such a nice guy. As a child, I began asking my father, the resident movie buff, for “more Jimmy Stewart.” My father came back with 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” (another Capra/Stewart collaboration) and 1958’s “Vertigo.”

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“Vertigo” opened up a new world to me – the world of Alfred Hitchcock. With a clever story, Hitchcock’s directing, and Bernard Herrmann’s haunting music, it captivated me. James Stewart turned my ideal “good guy” on his ear, presenting the image of a man flawed, obsessed, haunted by his past and trying to take control. The music in the film has stayed with me through the decades, down to last November when I first watched “The Artist,” and recognized the Scene d’Amour, used in the most climactic part of the film. That cemented my love for “The Artist,” as you can see in one of my earlier posts, A Lost Art.

Seeing my enthusiasm for “Vertigo,” my father showed me 1954’s “Rear Window,” and 1963’s “The Birds.” I continued to be fascinated by Hitchcock’s style, a feeling that is reflected in my personal DVD library, which includes over 10 films directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Then there was “The Ten Commandments.” A lavish Biblical epic directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the 1956 film starred Charlton Heston and provided my sister and I with countless hours of entertainment.

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We watched it over and over until our parents were sick and tired of hearing dialogue from the film, which we still have memorized, all these years later.

There was one film I heartily resisted my father’s opinion on: “Citizen Kane.” Despite my father’s reassurances that I was missing out on “the best movie ever made,” and his efforts to engage my interest by walking around mumbling, “Rosebud, rosebud,” I refused to watch it. “It’s the most boring movie ever made,” I’d reply. Eventually, however, my curiosity won out over my stubbornness and I watched it. It was interesting but perhaps a bit over my head at the time. After watching it again as an adult, however, I can see why the American Film Institute ranks the 1941 film at number one on its 100 Years… 100 Movies list.

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My father also showed us “Casablanca,” which was ranked at number two on the AFI’s 100 Movies list. The 1942 film is, in my opinion, the perfect film. It offers everything necessary to make a film not only great, but enjoyable. I never tire of watching it; each viewing provides details and nuances I may have missed before.

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Not wanting to be outdone by my father, my mother decided to show us some classics as well. This is how I had my first encounter with Audrey Hepburn.

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“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was another pivotal movie in my love affair with classic film. The 1961 film acquainted me with a style icon and a genteel lady – Audrey Hepburn. As I went through my teen years, I did not appreciate classic films as much as I did before or after that period in my life. But as my teenaged “wisdom” ran out, my love for classic film rekindled. And “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was the spark that did it. After watching the film again at age 19, I was enthralled by Audrey. I wanted more. I wanted to talk like her, dress like her. So I began watching as many of her films as I could. Some were serious films like “The Nun’s Story,” some madcap comedies like “Paris When it Sizzles.” But by far my favorite was 1953’s “Roman Holiday,” which has permanent residence in my DVD changer, for cinematic therapy on those days when I feel overwhelmed.

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When I watched “Charade” for the first time, I fell in love with Cary Grant. Released in 1963, this comedy/suspense film is often dubbed “the best Hitchcock film that Hitchcock never made.” In actuality, it was directed by Stanley Donen.

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But let’s get back to Cary Grant. He was suave, handsome, charming. When “Charade” was released, he was 59 years old, playing a romantic lead opposite a 34 year old Audrey Hepburn. But the 25 year age gap meant nothing to me. I loved the chemistry between them. I started looking for more Cary Grant. And I found him. I think I can honestly say there isn’t a film I didn’t like him in. Whether it was the Oscar-worthy (nomination, but not a win) heartstring tugging of 1941’s “Penny Serenade,” or the daffy comedic antics of 1944’s “Arsenic and Old Lace,” I loved every minute he was onscreen. Nominated twice, he never won an Oscar except for an honorary award in 1970. Nevertheless, Cary Grant is my favorite actor of all time.

Then I discovered Gene Kelly. A phenomenal dancer, he could also sing, act, and later direct. I enjoyed his films in a different way from other films – I usually had a big silly grin on my face throughout the film. Something about Gene Kelly just makes my heart swell with joy. Perhaps it’s his exuberance in each dance sequence. Perhaps it’s that smile of his. Whatever it is, his singing and dancing in “Singin’ in the Rain” can make me smile despite my foulest mood.

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The 1952 film is ranked as the number one musical on the AFI’s list of great musicals. It is extremely enjoyable and provides many laughs with clever dialogue and the memorable “Make ’em Laugh” number by Donald O’Connor. I never tire of this movie.

There are so many more great films that I love and haven’t even touched on – “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Some Like it Hot,” and many more. I regularly discover classic films I previously wasn’t aware of, and fall in love all over again. My television is tuned to Turner Classic Movies almost permanently. Classic films like those I’ve mentioned here define popular culture. Without them, the advancements in filmmaking we see today would not be possible. These films have enriched and become a major part of my life. It is my belief that everyone could enjoy and appreciate them, if only they would open their minds and hearts to give these great films a chance.

A Lost Art

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By now, most Americans have at least heard of the spectacular 2011 film, “The Artist.” After the film earned five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, even some of the skeptics have gone to the theater to “see what all the fuss is about.”

For those lovers of classic cinema and Hollywood’s Golden Age – like myself – watching “The Artist” for the first time was a highly anticipated event. Having seen the theatrical trailer before the film’s premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, I was impatient for the opportunity to see the film in it’s entirety. Once I discovered the US release date, I marked my calendar, set a reminder in my phone, and regularly checked the Internet for updates. When the longed-for date arrived, I promptly checked for showtimes in my area. Nothing. I checked the following week. Nothing. The closest theater showing it was in the city. I’m not much of a city person and even if I was willing to brave that environment, the cost to get to the city and back was rather prohibitive. I was beyond disappointed. But I was determined to find a way to see this film.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to formulate a plot of any kind. I had been driving my friends and family to distraction with my constant chatter about “The Artist.” A good friend remembered my babbling and emailed me when she discovered that the film was showing at a local art theater. I was there at the first possible opportunity that week. Sitting in the nearly empty theater alone in my own row of seats, my heart fluttered with anticipation.

The lights dimmed and the movie began. Filmed in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as were the original silent films in their heyday, “The Artist” maintained an authentic “Old Hollywood” feel throughout the entire film. I laughed, I cried, I gasped, I held my breath in suspense, and mostly just grinned like an idiot for most of the film. A moving, exuberant story, conveyed through superb acting and directing, along with a magnificent score, made the lack of audible dialogue go unnoticed.

Classic movies just “get” me, and this one, I knew, was an instant classic. Having a nostalgic affinity for black and white films in general, this one “got” me more so than usual. The similarities in the storyline to 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” a reference to 1941’s “Citizen Kane,” the use of Bernard Herrmann’s Scene d’Amour from the “Vertigo” soundtrack for the most emotional and climactic sequence of the film – these and other elements enriched the film as a whole and made it a truly gratifying experience for a classic movie fan.

The two leads in the film, both French actors, share excellent screen chemistry. Jean Dujardin gives a brilliant performance, especially considering the fact that he could not use the spoken word, with it’s subtleties of tone and inflection. His heartfelt and authentic George Valentin is never over-acted or gaudy, and Dujardin’s natural resemblance to Gene Kelly added to the beautifully nostalgic feel of his character. Dujardin definitely earned his Academy Award for Best Actor. A few faces easily recognized in this country, including John Goodman and James Cromwell, rounded out a phenomenal cast.

Lovely sets and authentic locations, historically accurate and visually pleasing costume design (which earned the film an Academy Award in that category), a lovely score with just the right amounts of borrowed pieces to provide the proper nostalgia (another Academy Award), all contributed to a film that could without a doubt be considered a true work of art.

I left the theater that day on a cinematic high I’ve never before experienced. I gushed to friends and family about how exquisitely wonderful I found “The Artist” to be. I went to see it again the following week. And again.

Beware to anyone who asked, “Have you seen that ‘Artist’ movie? What’s it about? Is it really silent?” My exuberant response usually brought about an awkward silence. No one I know personally is as passionate about classic films and their history as I am – definitely not enough to appreciate “The Artist” as deeply as I do.

I celebrated inwardly – and had plenty to say to anyone who asked about it – when “The Artist” won Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Best Actor – Musical or Comedy, and Best Musical Score at the Golden Globes. I waited on pins and needles to hear of the Academy Award nominations.

On the big night, I planned to stay awake until the very end of the Academy Award ceremony. This was a big deal – anyone who knows me well knows I’m in bed and not to be disturbed by 10pm. I couldn’t remember when the Oscars had ever been such an important event for me. I was emotionally invested. As the big moments drew closer, I watched with bated breath. Best Costume Design! Best Original Score! Best Actor! Best Director! Then the really big moment. I was practically quivering with anticipation. “Come on, Tom Cruise, just say it!!”

“… ‘The Artist.'”

I’m bouncing up and down on the couch, inwardly squealing like a 15 year old girl, trying to keep my celebratory outburst as silent as the film that has just won Best Picture!!! My poor hubby is trying to sleep in the other room. I turn off the television as Billy Crystal says goodnight, and go to bed with a big silly grin on my face. But as late as it is, I can’t sleep. I post my joy on Facebook. Only one of my friends is interested, but that’s enough for me.

Now I eagerly anticipate the release of “The Artist” on DVD and Blu-ray so that I can watch it again. And again. And again…

Obsessed? Maybe a little. Passionate is what I’d call it. Passionate about the lost art of filmmaking. Watch a film like “Casablanca” and then watch a recent release. Very few movies nowadays can be called art. Don’t get me wrong, even I enjoy a modern movie now and then, but they simply don’t leave me satisfied, with the exception, perhaps, of BBC productions. But that’s a story for another post.

“The Artist” is a work of art. The lost art of filmmaking resurrected for 100 glorious minutes of viewing pleasure. As director Michel Hazanavicius puts it, “‘The Artist’ was made as a love letter to cinema.” What a love letter! It is poetry for the senses, evocative of a Golden Age.

I know there are many who disagree. They are the same people who do not appreciate the films of the past, not realizing how many pop culture references were born in those films, blindly refusing to acknowledge that without those masterpieces of filmmaking, the films we see today would not be possible. I am so glad that a modern director chose to make this incredible film, black and white, silent, and in my eyes, quite possibly the best film yet made.

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Third Class Citizen

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As I sat knitting and listening to Glenn Miller, I mentioned how I felt that I should’ve been born in the 1920’s or before. I love the period in history from the Victorian era through the 1950’s.

“But you know, you would have been a third class citizen back then.”

This comment comes from someone whom I’ve always considered to be a kind, fair, democratic sort of person. I’m not just shocked by this remark, it hurts. Literally. I feel like I was punched in the stomach. I don’t hold it against her; I know her well enough to understand that she meant it simply as a factual observation, not as an insult. Nevertheless, the remark stays with me.

Being of Hispanic and Italian descent, I have a definitely “ethnic” appearance. My hair is a dark mahogany color, deep brown with natural dark auburn hues throughout. My eyes are the color of a Hershey’s bar, rimmed with jet-black lashes and framed by carefully tweezed, black brows. My skin is light, with olive undertones. My face is oval shaped with defined cheekbones, a straight nose, lips of medium fullness, a small chin and angled jawline. I am petite. I have been asked if I am Spanish, Italian, Indian, Persian, Lebanese and so on. I could pass for any of these. By still others I have been told that they thought I was “just a regular white person.” Interesting.

In this part of the United States, in the Twenty-First century, it doesn’t much matter what ethnicity I could pass for. In the area where I reside, there are whites, blacks, Hispanics, Middle-easterners, Asians – the proverbial melting-pot of races and ethnicities. I was born in this country and so was my mother. My grandparents speak Spanish. I do not. I have never watched Spanish television, nor do I listen to Spanish music. I do not identify myself with any particular race. I am an American, which means I could be of almost any and every ethnic background. But my racially ambiguous appearance makes me wonder, would I really be a third class citizen if I lived in, say, the 1930’s or 40’s in this country?

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Take a look at Dolores del Rìo. Born in Mexico in 1904, Dolores became a successful Hollywood star during the silent era and on into the talkies. The above photo is from the 1933 film “Flying Down to Rio,” which also starred film giants Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Dolores actually received top billing for this film.

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Granted, most of Dolores’ roles in Hollywood were those of the exotic, provocative siren. While her racially ambiguous appearance, with light skin and dark hair, may have limited her roles, she nevertheless made an impact in Hollywood and was esteemed as one of the most beautiful stars in the world at the time. She actually became the prototype for the appearance of the classic woman of the 1930’s – graceful, elegant, and with exquisite bone structure. Her look influenced Joan Crawford, who went on to become not only a stellar actress, but also a beauty icon.

Dolores also became a trailblazer for future Latina actresses. Jennifer Lopez (of Puerto Rican descent), Eva Mendes (of Cuban descent), Eva Longoria (of Mexican descent), Salma Hayek (Mexican born), and other Latina actresses can thank Dolores, the first Latina movie star with international appeal, for her impact on the potential of their careers.

• • • • •

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Now take a look at the lovely Rita Hayworth. Forever immortalized as the sultry red-headed femme fatale Gilda, in the 1946 film of the same name, Rita eventually became known as “The Love Goddess.” Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1918 to dancers Eduardo Cansino from Spain and Volga Hayworth, an American of Irish and English descent, Margarita Carmen Cansino was destined to become a star. Her father was a renowned Spanish dancer, her mother a former showgirl in Ziegfeld’s Follies.

Margarita began learning to dance at 3 years of age. By age 6, she was performing publicly. Her family relocated to Hollywood in 1927 and by 1934, she had a bit part in a Hollywood film. Soon she had a long-term contract with Columbia Pictures.

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This is what Rita Cansino looked like when she signed with Columbia Pictures. Very lovely, in an exotic way. And those were the roles she was cast in – exotic, but small roles. So to open up her career possibilities, Rita began a transformation. Undergoing electrolysis to lift her hairline and gradually lightening her naturally black hair to an auburn shade, she went from Spanish señorita to all-American. Using her mother’s maiden name, Hayworth, sealed the deal. In the color photo collage below, you can see the stages of her hair color transformation.

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The short blonde coiffure did not last long, and was only worn during production of second husband Orson Welles’ 1947 film, “The Lady From Shanghai.” Fans accustomed to the longer, wavy red hair that had made Rita famous were outraged at Welles for changing her look. After the film was finished, the studio demanded that she grow out her hair again and return to the signature red color of “Gilda” fame.

The image of femme fatale that Rita created with her role as the title character in “Gilda” followed her even into her personal life for many years. She was quoted as saying, “Men fall in love with Gilda and wake up with me.” Ironically, in the iconic “striptease” scene, where she sings and dances seductively in a nightclub, the only item of clothing she removes is a single long glove.

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Rita’s film career spanned decades, and she starred in over 60 films. She danced onscreen with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. She is listed as #19 on the American Film Institute’s list of 50 Greatest American Screen Legends. Needless to say, Rita Hayworth is still vividly remembered as a beautiful American actress, talented dancer, and sex symbol.

What fascinates me about Rita is that she was a woman of Hispanic descent who was easily assimilated into mainstream American culture and actually became an icon of American culture. Her natural appearance was very ethnic, and no doubt had she refused to change that, her film career would have remained limited to small, “ethnic” roles. But with some changes to her name and hair, she was suddenly acceptable as “just a regular white person.” Except that with her talents and her appearance, she was anything but ordinary. Hence her impressive career and status as an icon.

• • • • •

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Meet Katy Jurado. Born in Mexico in 1924, Katy was perhaps the most ethnic-looking of the actresses I’m here discussing. Katy already had an established film career in her native Mexico when she came to Hollywood in the 1950’s.

Katy starred in many Hollywood westerns and is probably best remembered for her role in the 1952 film, “High Noon,” where she plays a former love interest of Gary Cooper’s character, and in the 1954 film, “Broken Lance.” She won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “High Noon,” and earned a nomination for an Academy Award for her role in “Broken Lance,” making her the first Latina actress to be nominated by the Academy. Like Dolores del Rìo, Katy Jurado blazed a trail for the Latina actresses that followed.

Katy brought a different dynamic to the table, though, proving with her distinctively Mexican appearance that Hispanic women could have a serious film career in Hollywood and also proving that Latina actresses could offer more than just a sensual and seductive screen presence.

I think I can safely state that these three talented, dynamic women were anything but “third class citizens” in an era when the homogenous, blonde girl-next-door image was most highly prized. Despite their unique and exotic appearance, they were recognized for their talents. Even if, as Rita Hayworth did, they had to make some changes to their appearance to attract a wider range of roles, that did not change the facts of their ancestry.

So, would I, a person born in America, speaking English as her first and only language, be a “third class citizen” if I lived in that era? Without talents in acting, with my natural appearance, and in certain parts of the country, perhaps. But by simply changing the color of my hair, I likely would have been accepted and homogenized along with the rest of the “regular white people.” Could it really be that simple? For myself in particular, yes.

The sad fact remains that some humans will continue to treat one group of people or another as third class citizens. Even in this day and age. Despite having more information and education available than ever before, we still can’t seem to grasp that true beauty is found in a place beyond exterior appearance, ethnic background, or social status, and is something we cannot see with the eyes but must feel with the heart.