Monday, September 8, 2008

The Last Page?


Sometimes it is only when somebody dies that you realise they were still alive.

A while back I wrote that the death of Fay Wray ended a chapter of Hollywood history: the last really important star to have worked in Hollywood's golden age after apprenticing in silents had gone.
Now it seems that the lovely Anita Page had been with us the whole time - until now.

She was 98, and had been in movies since 1925; her big break had come in Our Dancing Daughters (1928) with Joan Crawford.
The film inspired the later Our Modern Maidens and Our Blushing Brides, all with Crawford and Page in the same basic milieu but not, interestingly, the same actual roles. The story goes that the two loathed each other (Page accused Crawford of attempting to physically assault her) but you'd never know it from their onscreen rapport.
The three films, made respectively just before, during and just after the Crash, span the full tumultuous period from the dying heights of Jazz Age frivolity to Depression-era austerity; the characters journeying with them from flappers to grafters, party girls to shop girls. This makes the films incredibly valuable social documents as well as magnetic entertainment. (I say a few more words of commendation on the subject of Our Blushing Brides here.)
The obituaries reveal a sharp wit, a strong sense of self-worth and a talent for making trouble. She attributed the success of The Broadway Melody (1929) largely to herself ("I took MGM into the sound era and made them a huge buck"), lived for a time at Hearst's San Simeon castle, was courted by Mussolini with love letters and flowers and, she claimed, had her MGM contract terminated because she refused to sleep with Irving Thalberg.
She had been an asset to MGM, and a lively presence on the lot: Gable was besotted by her ("when I worked with Grace Kelly and looked into her eyes I remembered Anita Page"), Harlow was a close pal. The loss of her contract took the wind out of her sails: she retired, aged 23, in 1933, and made only two more appearances (in 1936 and 1963) before her splendidly trashy comeback in 1996, appearing in Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood (2000), The Crawling Brain (2002) and the forthcoming Frankenstein Rising (2008).
The latter sounds incredibly interesting: as well as Page (as Elizabeth Frankenstein), the cast boasts Margaret O'Brien (former MGM child star, from Jane Eyre, Meet Me in St Louis and Little Women) as her daughter, and Jerry Maren (Hollywood midget-of-all-trades, the villainous, cigar-smoking Professor in the Marx Brothers' At the Circus, the gremlin voiced by Mel Blanc in Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore and, inevitably, a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz).

Simply looking at a list of her films reminds you why old movies are so great. Such variety and surprise. She's in While The City Sleeps (1928) with Lon Chaney and the great Mae Busch, as Miss Gopher City in Buster Keaton's first talkie Free and Easy (1930), and the lead in a fine pre-Code oddity, Jungle Bride (1933). Just the titles of these films are enough to make you ache to see them. For instance, she's the straight female lead in a film called Reducing (1931, easily the greatest year for movies, '39 notwithstanding), which turns out to be an MGM slapstick comedy set in a Turkish bath, with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran. (Girls are always asking each other if they are 'reducing' in pre-Code movies; it was the preferred term for what we now call dieting.) The film is described by Variety as "rough and tumble hoke comedy addressed to the banana peel sense of humour". Yes please!
God damn the priorities of modern culture!
Here in our midst the whole time had been a real Norma Desmond - a walking store of Hollywood golden age lore and anecdote, someone who was actually there. According to the Times obitutary:

She would get up at noon, was dressed by one of her assistants in remodelled gowns from the 1920s, and would then spend the day watching her old films and talking about the way it used to be.

Why are there not dozens upon dozens of hours of film of her doing precisely that? Why wasn't she on tv every single night? These are the days of reality television. Wouldn't a day eavesdropping on Anita have proved more valuable than documenting the every waking moment of an Australian hasbeen pop singer and a divvy model with a fixed expression of bemused surprise and enormous fake breasts who have somehow managed to never do or say anything interesting ever? History will judge us harshly for this monumental error of judgement and taste. Oh, to have spent an evening with her!

The big question is: how many more are still out there? The newspapers have explicitly called her the last of the silent stars, so I assume we can trust them. (We can on everything else, after all.) But how many stars of the thirties are still around, not being interviewed, not being filmed, not being cherished? I don't know - but I will endeavour to find out. I cannot, alas, go jetting around interviewing them myself - THOUGH IF SOMEBODY WANTS TO FUND ME I CERTAINLY WILL (matthewconiam@aol.com) - but I can at least celebrate them, draw attention to them, and draw attention to the precious wasted resource they represent. So in future I will be scouring the records and profiling all the living stars of the thirties I come across, whenever I come across them.
But it's too late for Anita.