Happy 112th Birthday, Mikio Naruse!

Director and screenwriter Mikio Naruse was born 112 years today in Tokyo, Japan. Naruse isn’t as well-known as some other directors of classic Japanese cinema, such as Yazujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, and Kenji Mizoguchi, but we are great admirers of his quiet, well-crafted family dramas and the compelling women who are so often at the center of them (not to mention the remarkable actresses who played them). 誕生日おめでとう、成瀬巳喜男、どこにおしています… (Happy birthday, Mikio Naruse, wherever you may be…)

Here are 10 things you should know about Mikio Naruse…

Happy 118th Birthday, Preston Sturges!

The great Preston Sturges was born Edmund Preston Biden 118 years ago today in Chicago, Illinois. We consider him one of the true giants of American comedy filmmaking. Among the pictures he wrote or directed are The Good Fairy, Easy Living, Remember the Night, The Great McGinty, Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, Hail the Conquering Hero, Sullivan’s Travels, The Lady Eve, and The Palm Beach Story—classics, every last one of them. Here are 10 PS Did-You-Knows:

  • His mother, Mary Estelle Dempsey (though she would be known by many names), an eccentric character worthy of inclusion in one of Sturges’ films, was close friends with dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan; in fact, it was a scarf Dempsey gave to Duncan that led to the dancer’s infamous death.
  • Sturges’ mother was married several times, but it was her third husband, a wealthy Chicago stockbroker named Solomon Sturges, who was a true father to Preston. He adopted him when Sturges was 4 years old and provided guidance and support to him throughout his life.
  • Prior to launching his writing career, Sturges was employed as a runner on Wall Street and worked for his mother’s cosmetics company, even inventing a kiss-proof lipstick.
  • In 1917, Sturges enlisted in the Army Air Service, serving at Camp Dick in Texas without ever seeing action. Three Hundred Words of Humor, a humorous essay he wrote for the camp newspaper, was his first published work.
  • Sturges claimed to have introduced the club sandwich to Germany.
  • His first success came on Broadway with a play he wrote called Strictly Dishonorable. He wrote the play in just six days, it ran for 16 months (a very lengthy run in 1929), and he was working for Paramount Pictures soon thereafter.
  • He worked for a decade as a studio screenwriter, and though he wrote some terrific movies during that time, he was often frustated by the final product.
  • So eager was Sturges to direct his own scripts that he sold the rights to The Great McGinty to Paramount for just one dollar (some reports say the fee was $10), with the stipulation that he would be allowed to direct it. He would go on to win the very first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for that script.
  • Sturges amassed a troupe of actors that he used repeatedly in his films, and when the studio objected, fearing the actors’ faces would become too familiar to the audience, Sturges responded, “These little players who had contributed so much to my first hits had a moral right to work in my subsequent pictures.”
  • In the 1940s and ’50s, he owned and operated a nightclub called The Players on the Sunset Strip.

Happy birthday, Preston Sturges, wherever you may be, and thanks for the laughs!

Preston Sturges

Happy 123rd Birthday, Mae West!

Actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian and sex symbol Mae West was born Mary Jane West 123 years ago today in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Here are 10 MW Did-You-Knows:

  • West was delivered in her family’s home by her midwife aunt. Her father was a prize fighter and, later, a private investigator.
  • Her first public performance is said to occurred at the age of five, when, ironically enough, she entertained at a church social at a still-extant Queens establishment called Neir’s Social Hall (now Neir’s Tavern). After that, she performed in local talent shows.
  • West’s first Broadway appearance came in a 1911 revue called A La Broadway, which was mounted by her former dancing teacher and long-time impresario of juvenile theatrical acts, Ned Wayburn. The revue folded after just eight performances.
  • Her first review in The New York Times, when she was 18 years old, stated, “A girl named Mae West, hitherto unknown, pleased by her grotesquerie and snappy way of singing and dancing.”
  • West began writing risqué plays under the name Jane Mast, and her first starring role on Broadway came in a 1926 play she wrote called Sex. Conservative critics and church groups objected to the play, but the production was a hit. Eventually, the pressure put on by the groups led to West being arrested and placed in jail at Jefferson Market Courthouse (it’s now a public library).
  • West could have paid a fine and remained free, but she opted for a sentence of ten days in jail, figuring it would be good publicity (it was).
  • Of the twelve pictures West appeared in, she wrote or co-wrote nine of them.
  • From the 1920s forward, West was an outspoken supporter of gay rights.
  • West’s 1928 play, Diamond Lil, earned her a ticket to Hollywood (the play was eventually adapted for the screen as She Done Him Wrong and costarred Cary Grant). She was nearly 40 when she signed her first movie contract.
  • After strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934, putting a damper on her popularity (a toned-down Mae West wasn’t as appealing to the public), West performed in nightclubs, mounted a Las Vegas revue, made records (something she’d been doing since the 1930s) and wrote books. Her final film, Sextette (1978), closed out a career that had spanned more than seventy years.
  • Happy birthday, Mae West, wherever you may be!

    Mae West

    Happy 117th Birthday, Alfred Hitchcock!

    Master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock was born 117 years ago today in Leytonstone, East London. Few directors in the history of cinema have carved out so distinctive a niche as did Hitch. Here are 10 AH Did-You-Knows:

    • Hitchcock’s parents were both of half-Irish and half-English ancestry. His father was a greengrocer.
    • Hitchcock was the youngest of three children, born seven years after his sister, Eileen.
    • Hitchcock always wore a suit and tie while directing his pictures.
    • He found eggs revolting and claimed never to have eaten one.
    • When he was a child, his father asked the local constabulary to lock up young Alfred, telling him, “This is what happens to people who do bad things.” Though his stint in jail lasted just ten minutes, Hitchcock had an aversion to the police for the rest of his life and used the phobia to explain why he never learned to drive (no driving, no dealing with traffic cops).
    • Though he was nominated five times, Hitchcock never won the Best Director Oscar. He was, however, presented with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1967 Academy Awards ceremony.
    • The speech he gave in accepting the award was the shortest in Academy Award history: “Thank you.”
    • In 1980, Hitchock was named an Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (honorary because he had become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1956).
    • His favorite among his pictures was Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
    • Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, was one day younger than he was (a belated happy birthday to you, Alma).

    Happy birthday, Alfred Hitchcock, wherever you may be!

    Alfred Hitchcock

    Una Merkel—Picture Saver

    This interview with Una Merkel originally appeared in the May 1935 edition of Movie Classic magazine.

    Talent, combined with a marvelous
    disposition, keeps this charming
    young player the busiest actress
    in Hollywood

    By ROBERT FENDER

    Una MerkelTHERE’S a girl in Hollywood known to directors and writers as “the pulmotor girl.” Does that mean anything to you? It didn’t to me, either, until I started thinking of those things used by firemen, lifeguards and physicians known as pulmotors. They’re the emergency machines employed to bring nearly dead people back to life.

    Just so, when writers have a nearly dead story on their hands, they write in a part for this girl. And when directors see their pictures expiring dead away, they broadcast a frantic call for this very same girl. She’ll save it if it can be saved, they cry. Get her. And get her right now!

    The “her” in this case, as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, is a charming little person with blonde ringlets in her hair, a twinkle in her eyes and a great heart tucked away inside her. Her name is Una Merkel. And she’s perhaps the most universally loved girl in town. Certainly she’s the busiest.

    If you saw Una in a Hollywood crowd (say at a preview), you couldn’t pick her out if your life depended upon it. But ten to one she would be the young lady on your left who, on very tip-toe was jockeying for a better position to see the movie stars pass by. For Una is the most confirmed and ardent movie fan in town. She is, to my knowledge, the only one who saves all the programs of all the shows she attends—yes, and makes tiny penciled notes on the margins about players she likes best and why.

    Una is so necessary to directors and ailing pictures, I suppose, because she is the only one of her kind in town. She is no more “movie actress” than you. Her unaffected laugh, tinkly and delightful to hear, differs from the average star’s studied “abandon” as a child’s laughter differs from the wearied old man’s croak. She is youth itself, mighty good for the soul, and she’ll continue to be young no matter how many years pile up on her.

    “There’s so much,” she told me in her tiny feminine dressing room at M-G-M, “to be happy for. There’s so much to laugh about. Do you see that big building next door? Well, next week I’m going to have a grand big new dressing room.”

    “Moving you over there, Una?”

    Una laughed. “Oh, Heavens no,” she cried. “That’s going to be for the big stars. But they’ll leave their dressing rooms here and they’re going to give me a bigger one in this building. And they’re going to let me furnish it. Just as I like!” she finished, evidently carried away in high glee.

    “Don’t you want to be a big star, Una?”

    Una burst out laughing. “Me a star? Do you know any more funny ones?” Then she wrinkled her cute little brow and indulged in some thinking. “But,” she began, “but—even if I could, I don’t think I would. The other night I was trying to think what I’d rather be than myself and I couldn’t think of anything. Not,” she hurried, “that I think I’m pretty good but simply that I’m—I’m so darned happy!

    “I love my husband, Ronnie Burla, and he loves me. I get more pleasure out of my work than anyone in Hollywood. There’s just one thing that worries me and that is that there are so many people who don’t share my good luck. I feel so sorry for people who don’t seem to have anything. I wish there was some better way of distributing money and happiness.

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