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Bessie Love and other pleasant surprises


I ONLY met Bessie Love earlier this year, and ain't she the cute thing. Perky, talented, 20ish.

Later I wondered what had become of her. It was with sadness that I learned she died in 1986, at the age of 87. The last time I saw her she sure didn't look it, and when I see her again I know she still won't.

Bessie Love is one of the pleasant surprises of watching old movies on TV, especially the Turner Classic Movie channel. And by "old," I mean old, dating back to the 1920s.

Some of these movies I had heard about but never seen. Most I had never heard of, which is not surprising since I never considered myself a movie buff. But watching them and listening to overworked host Robert Osborne's occasional commentaries is like taking a course in film history and getting a first-hand peak at an earlier America.

It is fascinating to watch what people were watching when movies first turned to sound. Bessie Love starred in and almost won an Academy Award for the first all-sound musical, 1929's "Broadway Melody." Though she had a voice as charming as her presence, and she successfully made the transition from silents, her career seemed to die in the early 1930s. Maybe somebody back then knew why, but I don't. I just feel the loss.

Bessie also was in the 1929 version of "Good News," one of the films I didn't know existed. I liked it better than the 1940s version, which has the same plot but with different angles and different songs.

Sometimes TCM plays various remakes of the same movie. For example, there are three versions of "Show Boat." They include a silent version. A silent musical? Indeed. One of the finds of the second version, from 1936, was Charles Winninger, a wonderful character actor who played Captain Andy, as he had in the original Broadway production, but not in the original movie.

Sometimes it seems as if no movie from the 1930s was made without either Frank McHugh or Allen Jenkins playing the not-so-bright-but-oh-so-lovable sidekick. Why? Who knows. One tires quickly of their characters. One movie, "Happiness Ahead," managed to survive both of them.

It also included a fine (i.e., cute and talented) actress named Josephine Hutchinson, whom I don't remember running across before. I will have to check her out.

Some of the old movies are shockers. Can you imagine "Moby Dick" as a love story? It was, in a 1930 version, which included a minor character that looked like a whale.

Some movies are revealing for the conditions and social values they take for granted. People in a 1940s film drove to a typical small town near New York and the town's main streets were not paved. No one even noticed. Blacks rightly objected to being called "boy" in those times, but middle- and upper-class characters called some adult white men by that name, too. A dottering old messenger comes to mind.

In many of the movies, the male hero is a real heel, although no one seems to realize it. In others, it is evident that feminism did not spring up from thin air in recent years.

Dialogue is worth noting, too. Some of it is wonderful, building up to the screwball comedies of the late 1930s.

Some movies make you appreciate directors, especially when you see how an actor, or ensemble of actors, suddenly are much better than you ever have seen them before. Add good dialogue and a good story and you come up with such gems as "The Last Flight," from 1931, directed by William Dieterle.

That included Richard Barthelmess, who made a career of looking, alternately, troubled or determined. Sometimes he added his slightly different oh-I-get-it-now look.

Finding "new" actors is always enjoyable, and it helps in selecting additional movies to watch. Ricardo Cortez was one actor who elevated a movie. Warren William was another.

Both, incidentally, played early versions of Perry Mason, and played him much differently from the Perry Mason we know from television. In one, William's Mason was dead drunk in the opening scene. In another, he actually married Della Street.

The early Robert Montgomery was a pleasure, and William Powell was good with or without Myrna Loy, and he was with her a lot more than just in the "Thin Man" pictures. (Incidentally, the Thin Man wasn't the detective in the first picture but just one of the other characters.)

Some actors and actresses are memorable for their mediocrity; it leaves you wondering how they became stars and stuck around for so long. With some, you have trouble figuring out their personas. The young Pat O'Brien usually acted as if he were the greatest guy on Earth, although the reason for this was totally unclear.

Others are so good you wonder why they have disappeared from the common memory. Take Ann Harding, who showed up around 1930 and made some wonderful pictures, adding a dimension no other actress seemed to have.

Constance Bennett flashed on the scene. The early Joan Blondell, before she put on weight, was uniformly good. Knowing a movie had Madge Evans is reason enough to watch it.

Hedy Lamar was in a class by herself. She didn't have to act. She just had to show her face to make a movie worthwhile.

I also watch some movies from the early 1940s, in which I discovered Joan Leslie. They didn't come any cuter, and she could act, too. She, rather than Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth, is whom I would have been fighting World War II for.

She was so sweet and wholesome-looking, but her career seems to have disappeared after a few brief years, making her last film when she was all of 21. What a waste.

Joan Leslie, where are you?

When he isn't watching old movies, Myron Beckenstein works on the foreign desk of The Sun.

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