Screen Snapshots

Screen Snapshots

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Ricardo Cortez - More than Just a Gigolo

And we’re back…

I’ve had to take some time out to attend to pressing personal real world stuff for the majority of this year, but luckily the mists are clearing and it’s time to get back on the horse, press play on my DVD player (and sometimes VCR) and get on with the business of watching some rather lovely classic movies. And yes, I do watch movies from a horse (doesn’t everyone?)

And after a nine month break what is the first thing on my mind? Why it’s the thing that’s on everyone’s mind come September 19th, the suave urban sophistication of Ricardo Cortez!

I’ve always had a soft spot for Ricardo Cortez (I even paid real money to get his autograph on eBay). He’s another of those comfortably dependable yet slightly unremarkable early 30s picture players that I like so much. Cortez could never quite sustain an A list career for whatever reason (and we’ll get to that) but nonetheless he was an important part of the studio repertory company of ‘name’ players who could take on a variety of featured roles. He’s seen today as predominantly a Pre Code star despite actually having a decent (and at times brilliant) career in the silent era and in B pictures in the late 30s and early 40s. In a way, the blueprint for the star he should’ve ended up as was Warren William, or maybe even Lee Tracy – urban yet urbane, romantic yet dangerous, a definite creation of the Depression . Sadly, though a capable actor Ricardo Cortex just never quite had the talent or charisma of either of those two gentlemen and ended up with a career that could be categorized as solid, yet definitely above average.

That’s not to say Cortez had nothing to offer, in fact far from it. I will admit to a fondness for underachievers, also-rans and second stringers but there is a lot more to Ricardo Cortez than just his pretty awesome stage name. Obviously, being a Latin heartthrob, Cortez was born in New York City to a Jewish family under the unassuming name Jacob Krantz. When he later arrived in Hollywood, true to form the dream makers at the studios took the handsome young man with the Austrian-Jewish background and recast him as one of the many Rudolph Valentine clones created to cash in on the popularity of ‘Latin Lover’ types. When Valentino died in 1926, Cortez was one of a number of actors put forward by the different studios as Rudy’s heir apparent, a role that he could never possibly fill, and indeed had no desire to fill. Despite becoming an established and bankable star, and occasionally showing some capable range as an actor, he wasn’t to escape the shadow of Valentino until the advent of sound.

Whereas sound posed a problem for similarly Latin tinged romantic leads like Ramon Navarro, Cortez with his confident delivery and audience friendly New York accent, combined with his slick, dark good looks could adapt to a variety of different roles in early sound features. Though it’s true that he took a while to adapt to acting in sound and often gave quite stiff or theatrical performances, he soon eased up and became a solid, capable player with a natural charm and definite screen presence. However, it’s his versatility, combined with the sheer number of classic Pre Code films that he features prominently in that marks Cortez out as an important star. His run of quality or at least memorable pictures from 1931 to 1934 is astonishing, brushing shoulders with all the great (and better remembered) stars of the era and holding his own easily whether playing hero or villain. The fact is, his track record in this regard speaks for itself - he was in demand for these sorts of roles as a dependable face that would do a solid job and lend an air or class and glamour to a production. He is possibly the biggest and best male star of the Pre Code era not to be remembered to a significant degree today. While this is probably because he never established a consistent screen persona that would have helped him to be remembered better today, he lent assured support as any number of stock roles from detective to gangster, family man to womaniser. Typically he played the ‘other man’, the dark haired Lothario who would seduce any number of Pre Code heroines away from their true loves with his charm, before (naturally) dumping them like the cold hearted cad he really was. He excelled at ruining reputations, tempting innocent women into a life of sin. In the end, his ubiquitous and commanding presence in so many melodramas of the period really means that any serious discussion of the great players of the pre code era has to include him very heavily.

He appeared multiple times with many of the great leading ladies of the era such as Kay Francis, Barbara Stanwyck, Mary Astor, Loretta Young, Irene Dunne, Bette Davis and Helen Twelvetrees to name but a few. Additionally, some of the truly great (and infamous) movies of the Pre Code era, the likes of Illicit, Ten Cents a Dance, Big Business Girl, Thirteen Women, Broadway Bad, Midnight Mary, Torch Singer, Mandalay and A Lost Lady benefited greatly from his talents. Basically if it appears on one of those ‘Forbidden Hollywood’ DVD sets then there’s a good chance Cortez is in it somewhere.

He is perhaps best known for starring as Sam Spade in the first film version of The Maltese Falcon in 1931. While it’s ultimately futile to compare his performance to Humphrey Bogart’s later iconic portrayal of the role, his version of Sam Spade has its own gritty urban charms. It’s definitely a Depression era reading of the story as opposed to the later proto-noir slickness of John Huston’s classic and because the performances are so influenced by the attitudes of their respective era, as I said it’s fairly useless to compare the two. Personally I’ve always preferred Cortez’ harder edged, animalistic approach to the character and found that Bogart plays it like, well…Humphrey Bogart. Cortez doesn’t bother giving Spade any sense of nobility, nor attach any romantic glamour to the role of gumshoe. His Sam Spade is selfish, at times cruel and realises that one does what it takes to survive in the city. At the same time though, he’s a hard living womaniser who seems to actually be more fun to be around than Bogart’s world weary, sardonic private eye. The movie proved that given a good role, Ricardo Cortez could easily carry a movie and be a fairly dynamic screen star.

When Cortez got an interesting role he could be very good, such as in Gregory La Cava’s Symphony of Six Million, playing a local community Jewish doctor who forsakes his morals to become a practitioner to the idle rich of Park Avenue. His earnest portrayal of the doctor is nicely pitched, and in a film that tries to sympathetically portray the New York Jewish community, Cortez is allowed to completely drop the Latin act in order to lend an authentically Jewish air to the movie. Cortez also appears in one of the last hurrahs of Pre Code raunch, Wonder Bar with Al Jolson and stalwart Pre Coders Kay Francis, Dolores del Rio and Dick Powell. This highly amusing (and at times staggeringly offensive) movie was one of the last straws for the censors and alongside legendary taboo busters like Convention City and So This is Africa, helped to hasten the debut of the Production Code. Cortez is on great form as a hiss-ably immoral dancer who is both a business and love rival of Jolson. He plays up to every cliché of his gigolo character yet retains a steely cold eye of disdain for those around him. He also gets to dance with and whip Dolores del Rio in a bizarre leather clad dance routine in one of the (many) censor baiting highlights of the film. Perhaps most surprising is that Cortez manages to hold his own on screen with Jolie’s extraordinary screen presence, no mean feat with the legendary spotlight stealer. It is fitting that Cortez and Kay Francis both appear in the film, as the moral climate was about to change in Hollywood and shortly after Wonder Bar these two huge stars of the Pre Code era would be struggling to find decent parts. After 1935 it was a slow slide into B pictures for Cortez, and by the end of the 40s (with a short detour as a director from 1939-40) he was virtually out of the movie business.

Off screen Cortez’ life had its share of drama primarily due to his marriage to the drug addicted silent screen actress Alma Rubens from 1926 until her death in 1931. Rubens had been a big star since 1916 and had maintained her stardom well into the 1920s only to see it slip from her grasp once in the thrall of a crippling morphine addiction. In 1926 she ‘retired’ from the screen and married Cortez, her third husband. It must have been love because Cortez at the height of his silent screen fame certainly had little to gain from marrying a star on her way down the ladder due to such a potentially ruinous scandal. The marriage didn’t end well as it seems the couple saw little of each other by the time of Rubens’ death and she had in fact filed for divorce. Though to be fair, being married to a chronic drug addict and the ensuing chaos that surrounded her final tragic years doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of fun, and by the end her behaviour had probably edged him out of her life for good.

Laughably, in a tell all memoir Rubens confessed that she was married for almost a year before finding out that Ricardo Cortez “…instead of being a gallant Spanish caballero which I believed him (to be), was the son of a kosher butcher, with a shop on First Avenue, New York City” Of course, this is an outright lie on her part, and was really just an attempt to out Cortez as a Jew and wreck his burgeoning career as a leading man in the sound era (she also goes to great lengths to deny being Jewish herself despite having a Jewish father, and to distance herself from being a ‘Jewess’ by marriage to Cortez ). Unsurprisingly, no one cared about the bigoted views of a drug addicted former star and Cortez career continued unimpeded.

The only other vaguely scandalous behaviour attributed to Cortez off screen was his apparently appalling treatment of Greta Garbo when he co-starred with her in her first American feature Torrent in 1926. By all accounts Cortez, then a very big star with a number of years on top, was rather annoyed to be saddled with the young Swede, with her atypical looks, withdrawn manner and poor grasp of English. Whether he genuinely disliked Garbo, or saw the writing on the wall and displayed uncharacteristic professional jealousy at the young upstart being given the big promotional push by the studio is unclear but he certainly seems to have behaved in a rather ungentlemanly manner towards her.

Of course, his lack of faith in Greta Garbo’s talents would prove to be a mistake but an understandable one. Life in Hollywood must have been a precarious one (and I’d imagine it still is), with a constant influx of new talent being brought in to take the top spot from any established star. And the sight of a new, inexperienced, untried young woman being given the royal treatment over a headlining star like Cortez was likely to ruffle a few feathers in the studio hierarchy. Sadly, there is the old adage to remember to be nice to people on the way up because you may need them on the way down, and well let’s just say Greta Garbo was never in a hurry to make him her leading man once she became Hollywood royalty. However, I’m inclined to forgive or at least understand Cortez’ behaviour in this instance. I mean, a lot of people didn’t think Garbo had the “it” factor, and resented the special treatment the large footed Swede received, and to be honest I still don’t get her appeal. Maybe that’s a blog for another day though…

Perhaps the best part of the Ricardo Cortez story is that he got out at the right time. All too often, the movie industry, particularly in its early years of transition (from silence to sound and then to television) was guilty of devouring its own. The machine needed blood and yesterday’s big stars and pioneers were often crushed and spat out mercilessly but an industry with a severe case of Alzheimer’s of the past. Unlike a lot of his silent and Pre Code contemporaries that moved suddenly from the penthouse to the outhouse, Ricardo Cortez knew when to leave and returned to his previous occupation before becoming an actor, as a stockbroker on Wall Street. He seems to have had a comfortable life after Hollywood and his distance from the industry enabled him to become a clear and insightful commentator on his experiences in Hollywood when interviewed in the 60s by Kevin Brownlow for his seminal silent film bible ‘The Parade’s Gone By’.

He made his last film appearance in 1958, save for one TV guest shot in 1960 and died in 1977 aged 76. He left behind him a variety of memorable performances in a career that took him from Latin lovers to Jewish doctors. He’ll always be a footnote in history for being the first cinematic Sam Spade, but in an era of immoral and immortal screen villains, no one could play the suave heel like Ricardo Cortez. He found the perfect balance of charm and disgust, of danger and tenderness, wrapped up with dark looks and darker deeds. He was good looking yet cruel, the synthesis of the end of the Jazz Age and the effects of the Depression. Yet despite being so good at being bad, Cortez could easily slip into heroic roles without losing his audience. He was never a great actor, but anyone who could be as versatile, believable and downright ubiquitous as Ricardo Cortez deserves a great deal of credit. It’s just a shame that he is largely overlooked today, and his skills practically taken for granted amongst the bigger and brighter shining stars. Luckily, he can’t have been in the movie business primarily to satisfy his own ego because when the opportunities and good parts started to become scarce, he left with his dignity and his sanity intact. He left the madness of Hollywood and got back to his old life, and became rather successful. Given the movie industry’s track record, that’s a pretty happy ending in my book.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Happy Birthday Jack Benny - 39 Again!

When it comes to February 14th each year the first thought in my head is not that of love struck acts of romance, nor is it heart shaped gifts and cards. No, due to the fact that I don’t get out nearly as much as I should, Valentine’s Day - February 14th is solely remarkable for being Jack Benny’s birthday ( and in later years specifically his 39th birthday despite being born in 1894)

To be honest this is a bit of a redundant piece though. What can be said about Jack Benny that hasn’t been said better by others already? Not much at all. Undoubtedly the greatest comedian of the golden age of radio, he created a character so perfectly drawn that he barely had to do anything to get a laugh, almost existing purely by his reactions to the jibes thrown at him by his co-stars. I watched repeats of his television show when they were occasionally shown in my youth, and although I knew who he was and how good he was, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve listened to his radio work and appreciated his genius.

I remember a few years ago raving to a friend about how much I was enjoying listening to Bob Hope’s radio shows, telling him how funny and sharply written they were. He replied that Hope’s stuff was okay, but not a patch on Jack Benny. At the time I really found it hard to believe that there could be a better radio show that Bob Hope’s but he was so right. I got hold of a collection of about 600 Jack Benny shows and over the course of about a year listened intently to the lot, spanning the years 1932 to 1956.

As much as I talk about my enthusiasm for Old Time Radio, you really haven’t heard anything if you haven’t listened to Jack Benny. He is the cornerstone of classic radio, and the glue that holds it all together. Benny always ensured that he employed the freshest writers and that the quality of his show was the best on radio and with himself as head writer, the quality shines out. What I found fascinating from my year long listening journey was hearing the Benny character slowly evolve into the character that everyone unquestionably accepted - penny pinching, mean, vain - by the time his television show started.

When he started his radio show in 1932 it was in the guise of genial master of ceremonies, telling jokes and introducing songs. However, very quickly his cast started to pick apart this façade resulting in the some of the early shows basically being a group of people in a studio arguing with Jack for half an hour with no real plot or direction. Slowly, short plots including the cast replaced the skits and parodies and after about five years on air, the show stopped being set predominantly in a studio and the home life of Jack Benny was explored, giving the show the format of a situation comedy.

Jack Benny’s real strength as a comedian was not only to hire the best writers but to surround himself with a lovable ‘gang’ of comic characters to bounce off. From wise cracking Mary Livingston (Benny’s real life wife, though this was rarely acknowledged even though everyone knew they were married), chiselling servant Eddie ’Rochester’ Anderson, drunken band leader Phil Harris, obese product shilling announcer Don Wilson, naïve man-boy singers Kenny Baker and Dennis Day and early on, fun loving western star Andy Devine; they existed to make Benny’s life  more complicated and provide him with a source of irritation and frustration at the everyday trivialities he encountered.

His incredulity and exasperation at his cohorts slowly built up the details of Benny’s character in tiny increments. For example it took over five years for the signature Benny meanness to be mentioned, and many more months before it became a regular running gag. It’s the myriad of details in his character that give him his depth as a comic, from the bad violin playing, to his supposed toupee, his perennial age of thirty nine to the legendary rivalry with Fred Allen. The result was that in many ways the later shows (although they maintained the high standard) ended up that they almost wrote themselves. The Jack Benny character could be placed into any situation with guaranteed comic results

Jack Benny’s film career was respectable but never truly captured the genius of his radio and television work. Of course, he is primarily known for his much lauded turn in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, but a few more of his film appearances are worth watching. Both The Meanest Man in the World and George Washington Slept Here are very entertaining and use a version of his established character very well. Although I haven’t watched them yet, Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (with Mitzi Green), Love Thy Neighbor (with arch nemesis Fred Allen) and Buck Benny Rides Again (with his radio gang) look in theory to be pretty good uses of his talents. However, though his films are usually fun they generally paint his character in broad brush strokes that lack the subtlety and intimacy of his appearances in other mediums.

One thing that is interesting about his radio shows is the choice of regular guest stars. From 1945 to 1951 Jack lived next door in storyline to Ronald and Bonita Colman. The running gag was that Jack continually borrowed items from the Colmans’ without returning them, which culminated in a famous storyline where Jack borrows, then loses Ronald Colman’s Oscar. The stint revealed Colman as a very adept comedian, increasingly pained each time Jack arrived at his door. Both he and Bonita are hilarious as they wearily deadpan their disgust at their horrid leeching neighbour to the point that in later shows their whole daily existence involves trying to avoid Jack. Another interesting guest was Orson Welles, who took over Jack’s hosting duties on the show for a month in 1943 while Jack was ill. The humorous end result was that Jack’s cast didn’t want him to return from his illness, but the choice of Welles was an interesting one (and one that also showed Welles' hidden talent for comedy), implying a mutual respect and friendship between the two.

While people may argue the merits (or lack thereof) of Bob Hope or Bing Crosby in private life, everyone seems to agree that Jack Benny was a kind and generous man who was universally liked and respected. His marriage to Mary Livingston wasn’t always the smoothest but it gave him enough of a stable family life to keep his career on track. In the end it doesn’t really matter what he was like in private as the Jack Benny character became so entwined with his own persona that the two were indistinguishable to the average person. And that is the genius of Jack Benny – to create a character, a radio show and a career that made his comedy look ridiculously simple and effortlessly natural. So many people have been fooled into thinking that comedy is an easy business but Benny made it look so easy because of a minute and painstaking attention to detail, absolutely perfect comic timing (probably the best ‘reaction’ timing of any comic there has ever been) and an uncanny ability to understand his character and his audience.

It took me a while but I realise now how far ahead of his contemporaries on radio Jack Benny was (the exceptions would be probably Fred Allen and Henry Morgan but their brand of comedy was so different in nature that it can’t really be compared). His comedy can be sophisticated, surreal, nuanced and ridiculous, but most of all it’s still after all these years laugh out loud funny. And what more can a comedian ask for?

I’m not quite thirty nine yet (getting there though) but I have decided that when I reach that age, and for all the years after, like Jack whenever someone asks my age I’m going to reply “Thirty Nine”. So this Valentine’s day I’m putting aside the love hearts and the roses, and raising my violin, affixing my toupee and saying “Jell-O again!”  to Jack Benny, the world’s oldest thirty nine year old.

And if we really want to get mushy for Valentine’s day, lest we forget in his will Jack Benny specified that after his death a single red rose be delivered to his wife Mary Livingstone each day for the rest of her life. And if that isn’t one of the nicest, most romantic gestures you’ve ever heard of then romance truly is dead.