In Their Words: William Wellman

Director William Wellman was a leap year baby, born on February 29, 1896. “Wild Bill” enjoyed a long and prolific career, directing such classics as Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), the original A Star Is Born (1937) and The Ox-Bow Incident (1942), among many others.

One of our personal hard and fast rules goes as follows: If it’s a pre-code picture and it’s directed by William Wellman, watch it. It’s an approach that every movie buff could benefit from.

Happy 97th Birthday, Setsuko Hara!

We have in the past acknowledged our affinity for classic Japanese cinema, and as with Hollywood’s Golden Age, we certainly have our favorite actors from Japanese pictures of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. One of those was actress Setsuko Hara, who was born 97 years ago today.

We were frequently moved and inspired by her work (and we’ll admit to having a movie-star crush on her, too).

Hara worked in pictures for nearly 30 years, appearing in 101 films, but even so, her career somehow feels as if it was brief, for, like Greta Garbo before her, Hara made a stir by retiring at a young age (42) and retreating to an exceedingly private life in Kamakura, a seacoast town 30 miles southwest of Tokyo.

Setsuko Hara worked with some of the most acclaimed directors in Japanese cinema, including Akira Kurosawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, Mikio Naruse, and the director with whom she was most closely associated, Yasujirō Ozu. Hara and Ozu made six pictures together.

Born Aida Masae in 1920 in Yokohama, Hara made her motion picture debut at the tender age of 15. Two years later, she appeared in Atarashiki Tsuchi (The New Earth), a German-Japanese co-production, in the role that would rocket her to stardom, a young wife who follows her husband to Manchuria and eventually tries (but fails) to kill herself in a volcano. Much of Hara’s early work finds her portraying similar tragic roles.

After World War II, though, Setsuko Hara began to widen her range, sometimes playing modern, “new” Japanese women. These roles tended to be mixed in, though, with more those of traditional, typical Japanese women, as she played daughters, wives and mothers.

Hara, who never married, was called “The Eternal Virgin” by fans in Japan, and much like Garbo, she’s an icon of a classic era in Japanese cinema. But after her retirement, she refused all interview and photograph requests and declined when offered (as she no doubt frequently was) opportunities to resume her career. When she said goodbye, she meant it.

Upon retiring in 1963, Hara stated that she’d never really enjoyed acting, that she’d only done it to provide financial security to her large family, but some have also speculated that she was romantically involved with Ozu, who died shortly before she quit the movies, or even that she was losing her eyesight.

Novelist Shūsaku Endō once wrote of Hara’s work: “We would sigh or let out a great breath from the depths of our hearts, for what we felt was precisely this: Can it be possible that there is such a woman in this world?”

お誕生日おめでとう、ハラ節子。
(Happy birthday, Hara Setsuko, wherever you may be.)

Setsuko Hara

This post appeared in slightly different form on 11/25/2015.

Happy 109th Birthday, James Stewart!

The great James Stewart was born 109 years ago today in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He remains one of the most popular actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age (and a favorite here at Cladrite Radio). Here are ten JS Did-You-Knows:

  • James Stewart was the first prominent actor to enlist in the military during World War II. He joined the Army eight months before Pearl Harbor and served overseas for 21 months, where, as a pilot with the 445th Bomb Group, 703rd squadron, he flew 20 combat missions and rose to the rank of colonel.
  • Stewart held the highest active military rank of any actor in history. After World War II, he continued serving in the U.S. Air Force Reserve, ultimately attaining the rank of brigadier general.
  • James Stewart attended Princeton University, where he graduated in 1932 with a degree in architecture.
  • Stewart was a member of Princeton’s Triangle Club, a musical-comedy theater group. A 1931 recording exists of Stewart performing the song Day After Day with the Princeton Triangle Club Dance Orchestra (regular listeners to Cladrite Radio have heard this recording).
  • Stewart played the accordion and hoped to do demonstrate his facility with the instrument in the 1957 picture Night Passage, but his playing was dubbed by a professional musician.
  • James Stewart wore the same hat in all of his westerns.
  • Stewart was very conservative, politically, supporting such presidential candidates as Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
  • James Stewart was originally in line to play Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest, but because Vertigo had not done well at the box office, director Alfred Hitchcock went with Cary Grant instead.
  • Stewart was a bachelor until age 41, but his marriage to former model Gloria Hatrick McLean was a happy one.
  • James Stewart’s Best Actor Oscar statuette (The Philadelphia Story, 1940) was on display in the window of his father’s hardware store for 25 years.
  • The word “Philadelphia” on that statuette was misspelled.

Happy birthday, Mr. Stewart, wherever you may be.

James Stewart

This story was first published in slightly different form in 2016.

Happy 112th Birthday, Henry Fonda!

Henry Fonda was born Henry Jaynes Fonda 112 years ago today in Grand Island, Nebraska. Here are 10 HF Did-You-Knows:

  • Fonda and James Stewart were roommates early in their careers, first in New York and later in Hollywood, and were both known as ladies’ men. Their political views were diametrically opposed—Fonda was liberal, Stewart conservative—and after a argument over Hollywood blacklisting threatened to end their friendship in 1947, the pair agreed never to discuss politics again.
  • As a young man in Omaha, Henry Fonda studied acting with Marlon Brando‘s mother, Dorothy.
  • Fonda’s first wife was actress Margaret Sullavan; the two separated after just two months of marriage.
  • Henry Fonda’s Dutch ancestors settled the still-extant town of Fonda, New York, in the early 1600s. Fonda also had English, Scottish, and Norwegian ancestry. The town of Fonda is situated 44 miles northwest of Albany, N.Y. and 54 miles southeast of Utica, N.Y.
  • Among Fonda’s hobbies were bee-keeping and building model airplanes.
  • Henry Fonda enlisted in the Navy in World War II, saying, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” He was a recipient of the Bronze Star, the fourth highest award for bravery or meritorious service in conflict with the enemy.
  • Fonda holds the record for the longest gap between acting Oscar nominations: His first nomination was for The Grapes of Wrath in 1940, his second for On Golden Pond in 1981.
  • Though his movie career last more than 50 years, Henry Fonda continued to work in the theatre from time to time, as long as his health allowed it. From his debut on the Great White Way in 1929 to his final stage appearance in 1978, Fonda appeared in 16 Broadway productions.
  • Fonda was offered the role of George in the original Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His agent turned it down without consulting him, and Fonda was furious.
  • Fonda won one Best Actor Academy Award (he was nominated another time), a BAFTA Award, a Golden Globe, a Grammy and one Tony award. He also won honorary lifetime achievement awards from the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Tonys and the American Film Institute.

Happy birthday, Mr. Fonda, wherever you may be!

Henry Fonda

This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in May 2016.

Happy 129th Birthday, Irving Berlin!

The immortal Irving Berlin was born Israel Isidor Baline in Tolochin, Russian Empire, 129 years ago today. The great Jerome Kern once said of Berlin, “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music,” and we couldn’t agree more. Perhaps no songwriter’s works are heard more often on Cladrite Radio. Here are 10 IB Did-You-Knows:

  • Berlin’s father, Moses, a cantor in a synagogue, moved his family to New York City when Irving was five to escape anti-Jewish pogroms. Berlin said his only memory of Russia was lying on a blanket by the road as a young child and watching the family home burn to the ground.
  • Moses, unable to find work as a cantor, worked instead in a kosher meat market near the family’s home on the Lower East Side and gave Hebrew lessons on the side. He died when Berlin was just 13. Irving began working as a newsboy at age eight, hawking The New York Evening Journal, and his mother, Lena, worked as a midwife.
  • While selling papers on the Bowery, Berlin was exposed to the popular music of the day pouring out of the neighborhood’s saloons and restaurants. He began to sing some of those songs as he sold papers, and picked up some spare change from appreciative customers in return.
  • At 14, feeling he wasn’t contributing enough to the family’s welfare, he moved out, spending his nights in a series of lodging houses along and near the Bowery. He at first made his living stopping in saloons and singing songs for tips, but before long, he took a job singing at Tony Pastor’s Music Hall in Union Square and at 18, he got a job as a singing waiter at the Pelham Cafe in Chinatown. All the while, he was teaching himself to play piano during his off-hours.
  • Berlin’s first hit, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, created a ragtime craze that reached even his native Russia.
  • It’s estimated that Berlin, one of the few songwriters of his era who composed both lyrics and melody, wrote as many as 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. His songs received seven “Best Original Song” Academy Award nominations, with White Christmas, written for the 1942 picture Holiday Inn, earning Berlin an Oscar.
  • Berlin was not a fan of Elvis Presley‘s recording of White Christmas, going so far as to send a letter to the nation’s top radio stations, requesting that they not play it over the air.
  • All Berlin’s songs were written solely on the black keys of the piano, which is the key of F Sharp. His specially constructed piano had pedals that changed the key for Berlin.
  • Berlin’s hit song Easter Parade was a reworking of one of his earlier songs, Smile and Show Your Dimple.
  • Despite his association with the holiday, Christmas was a bittersweet day for Berlin, whose infant son, Irving Berlin, Jr., died on Christmas 1928 of typhoid fever.

Happy birthday, Irving Berlin, wherever you may be!

Irving Berlin