Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

Ella Raines: Phantom Leading Lady

17 Nov

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I’ve seen a lot of movies by now but I’m still young enough to have cinematic epiphanies like discovering the beautiful and enigmatic Ella Raines for the first time. This was surprising not least of which because I’m a film noir nut but that once I laid eyes on her amazing face I wondered aloud where she’d been my whole film life. The revelation came in a small, underappreciated though thoroughly engaging noir called “IMPACT” (1949).

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Ella is cast as a gorgeous garage owner in a fairly preposterous scenario involving a love triangle with a man left for dead by his conniving wife. He strays into a small town garage where Ella is doing her best to destroy an auto she is trying to fix. She needs a car mechanic and looking for love at the same time. The first time I saw her stunning face on screen I did a double take. I was discovering her in that garage right along with wronged leading man, Brian Donlevy. Only I forgot completely about his two-timing, back-stabbing, murderous wife and immediately fell head over heals for the insanely gorgeous Ella.

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Ella Raines was born in 1920 and came to Hollywood prominence fairly early in her career. She starred opposite John Wayne in “Tall In The Saddle” (1944) and hit with several other movies like “Brute Force” (1947) where she starred opposite Burt Lancaster. But her signature-noir-roles were in the curious, all-female noir “Cry Havoc” (1943) and, of course, “Phantom Lady” (1944).

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Phantom Lady had a similarly preposterous plot of a conniving woman who has sent a man to death row over a heated row with another woman who had the audacity to wear the same hat at her nightclub show. There’s a murder naturally and it is up to Ella to find out the identity of the Phantom Lady in order to exonerate  her boss – whom she has fallen head over heals for. However, the plot doesn’t matter when you have a woman this gorgeous in a noir so stylistic and well-shot that the atmospherics alone create the mood and forward momentum.

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Ella is simply, darkly gorgeous in Phantom Lady. She inhabits the shadows and imbues the cigarette smoke-filled environment with a white-hot drive to save the man she loves. She’s formidable in her gallant effort to stop a would-be femme fatale and that’s enough for this moody, brooding and over the top noir. At a tight 88 minutes of running time, Phantom Lady does what it sets out to do: introduce the world to one of the greatest beauties unleashed on the silver screen in glorious black & white.

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Ella continued to act both in film and television after her amazing start to her career. But the roles were mostly in B-movies, turkeys that no matter how she shined and was shot – were still turkeys. She even had her own television show where she starred as a registered nurse (back when that career alone could be the basis of an entire show). And like so many actresses before her – she worked well into her late 50’s and 60’s with her last screen credit in 1984 – four years before her death by throat cancer in 1988.

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Ella was a classic beauty who had brains and talent more than luck with movie roles. I’m glad that Impact was my first introduction to her because it was a good noir with an interesting role for Ella. Plus, she was an absolute knockout with her hair pulled back and engine grease on her face in tailored white coveralls. If there were only women like her in garages in small towns throughout the country today. America would be a much better, much sexier place.

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My favorite glamor shot of Ella because she’s almost smiling.

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There. She finally did it. She smiled!

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And now a bit of cheesecake for the boys…

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Before going back to smoldering sensuality.

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Deborah Kerr: Eternal Beauty

3 Sep

Deborah Kerr

Deborah Kerr was a mighty star known for her ladylike composure and beautiful, delicate features. The late 1940’s and 50’s saw her playing refined characters like Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (1947) and Princess Flavia in The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) among many others. But times were changing and Kerr, the Scottish born beauty whose mother made her lie on the floor for hours on end to make sure her back had “perfect posture” – found that her public persona was threatening to make her Hollywood career short-lived.

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Deborah knew she needed a drastic change and in 1952 it came. She went up for the role of Karen Holmes in “From Here to Eternity” (1953) the film adaptation of the famous James Jones novel depicting military life in Hawaii on the eve of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Kerr was up against Joan Crawford, who infamously demanded her own director of photography for the role. The studio balked and Kerr was given the role of an unhappily married military wife who falls for the charms of Burt Lancaster.

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Kerr said the famous beach love scene with Burt was torturous. They had to wait for the perfect wave to wash over them while they made out. Trouble was you never knew when the perfect wave was coming and they had to do the scene over and over and over again. By the end of the shoot, Kerr said she and Lancaster had sand everywhere – in their mouths and “in other places, too.” The gamble to her career worked like wildfire. The sexy new Kerr was suddenly the talk of Hollywood, opening up roles for her that she would never have gotten before.

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Of course, the two most famous roles were to come for Kerr: “The King and I” (1956) and “An Affair to Remember” (1957) with Yul Brenner and Cary Grant, respectively. Kerr was magical in both and beautiful beyond measure. She was also newly confident and reassured in her roles. The famously shy actress was nominated for six Oscars – but never won until given an honorary statuette in 1994.

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Kerr quit movies and television altogether in 1986. She said it was because she was shocked and disgusted by all the sex and violence in movies and TV. And this was 1986! The graceful and elegant Kerr had a great sense of humor and a sensuality that many of her co-stars and fans remember of her.  She once said in an interview that when she kissed Cary Grant in “An Affair to Remember” that she really was in love with him. The fact, she says, that they weren’t trying to swallow each other – didn’t make their kissing sessions any less passionate.

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I’m grateful that “From Here to Eternity” came along and the perfect time to bring Kerr out of her shell. If not, then we may never have seen a deeper, more intense and passionate side of the Scottish actress – a side that made her fans and future generations realize that you can be graceful, refined, sensual and sexy all at the same time. Kerr embodied her characters in a way that has made her a favorite even today. That kind of timeless quality is rare and Kerr will always be remembered for being as beautiful in a full-length gown dancing and singing with Yul Brenner as she was in a bikini on the beach smooching Burt Lancaster. And that, as they say, is real range.

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A rare unpublished portrait of Kerr as beautiful as any supermodel today.

Ava Gardner: I’m a Fool to Want You

8 May

Years ago I headed to the Santa Anita racetrack and found myself in a diner in Arcadia, California. Living in LA as long as I did, I never really saw that many movie stars – Matthew Modine checked out my beard one day at Farmer’s Market on Fairfax, but that’s another blog entirely. But sitting at the bar of the diner that morning was none other than Mickey Rooney. Mickey is a tiny, jovial guy and a Hollywood legend. But all I could think staring at him was, “That guy was married to one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.” Ava Gardner.

Ava was a knockout of the highest order. She was literally discovered in a store window, or a photograph of her at least, by an employee of Loews theaters who fancied himself a talent scout for his parent company – MGM. Ava was only nineteen when she screen tested for movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. He purportedly said that she couldn’t do anything, but the camera absolutely loved her. A star was born.

In my opinion, Ava’s most iconic role was her first along with Burt Lancaster’s in the 1946 thriller The Killers. She played a dangerous beauty in the black and white and what a showstopper she was. The two ascending stars were gorgeous together. Interesting how she went from loving Burt on screen to marrying Mickey off. Their marriage only lasted a year and later Mickey could never stop talking about the sex. Funny, Ava said there was nothing to talk about.

No, Ava’s true love would end up being ole’ blue eyes, The Chairman himself – Frank Sinatra. Sinatra left his wife Nancy for Ava and was crucified in the press and in Hollywood for being such a louse. But then again, he left his wife for Ava Gardner and the two would end up loving each other for the rest of their lives. And they were good for each other. Ava was especially good for Sinatra. She would use her considerable star power to get the crooner an important role in From Here To Eternity – which would earn him an Oscar. And Frank confessed later that Ava taught him how to really sing a torch song. By his own account, he wrote I’m a Fool to Want You for Ava. And what fool wouldn’t want a woman so undeniably beautiful.

Dear Ava would die of emphysema at the age of 67 after a life in front of the screen. She never one an Oscar, but her mark on film will forever be The Barefoot Contessa with Humphrey Bogart. Ava was said to love to run around in her bare feet on and off the silver screen. She was earth angel after all. And I can’t help smiling every time I see her on camera. The girl whose picture was in a store window became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The story is so improbable it’s probably true. No matter. Ava was destined for fame. One look at her and you know she’s the kind of woman who gets what she wants. And in return, we get to stare at this rare beauty decades later and wonder how Mickey Rooney – the tiny guy at the bar – got so damn lucky.