CMBA Forgotten Stars Blogathon: Pure Soul

AH3

Ann Harding kills me. No, not literally, of course. That’s just my slangy way of noting her effect. I’m left breathless when I watch her. I feel as if she’s reached deep into me, stirred up my heart and lungs, pulled up my guts, and discombobulated my brain. But the effect is more than physical. She twists my very soul, she leaves me weak and shaking, even in tears. That is literal. I might liken it to what people feel after a deep spiritual encounter. As if I’ve died and been reborn to the world, and now see everything anew.

I could try to break down and analyze how and why Harding moves me. She’s a mix of opposites: her voice, deep and controlled, yet throbbing with feeling; her cool demeanor that yet burns. In her looks, she’s old-fashioned: long, thick, white-blonde hair (supposedly never cut) worn in a simple twist; pale skin contrasted with dark eyes. It’s the face that of a pre-Raphaelite Madonna—a visage touched with grace, gazing through a darkened glass. But on film she projected a clear, focused passion. Harding never dodges or feints in her expression. She’s never kittenish or cute; and she never withholds or hesitates. She pierces right to the heart of a scene, a feeling, a character; and she invests everything she’s got. She’s more than a performer; she embodies a soul, a great, pure, transparent soul onscreen. Like Lillian Gish, she belies her fragile looks; she’s the most emotionally direct, passionate, truthful actress I’ve seen.

AH5

Born in 1902 and first starring on Broadway, Harding came to movies at the beginning of the sound era. Her most productive period, when she made her most noteworthy films, was the early 1930s, during what we now call pre-Code. That pure face and shining hair—how could that, in the heyday of the shingle and the bob, be pre-Code? Pre-Code actresses are hard, fast dames like Barbara Stanwyck; or sexual sophisticates like Norma Shearer; or clothes horses like Kay Francis; or seen-it-all wiseacres like Ginger Rogers; and if they’re blonde, they’re Jean Harlow or Mae West, and I needn’t elaborate on that. They’re not saints.

But Harding belongs in pre-Code. She didn’t play saints, but she did play characters who knew sin but not shame. Her women were fierce, gutsy, and sexually honest. Look at this scene in 1933’s Double Harness. Harding’s character is a sophisticated yet chaste woman, out to snag rake William Powell. She takes what she thinks is a hard, practical approach, but the situation gets out of hand. When Powell kisses her, she experiences, maybe for the first time, sexual desire. Turning away, her face, her eyes, bleed emotion; she’s overwhelmed by what she’s feeling. Harding doesn’t play oppositional conventions; it’s not Ah Sweet Mystery of Life versus A Thousand Times No. She’s clearly experiencing fear, the kind when your stomach seems to drop and leaves a gap in your body. She’s about to surrender her virginity to this man (to whom she’s not married), and she’s no idea what to do, how to react. It’s a moment within herself, her decision to make (Powell, ever the gentleman, waits), and Harding shows it full-frontal, as it were, no holding back. She doesn’t play it for the smirk but goes right to the heart, toward that difficult edge before choosing the irreversible step, and she makes it simple, true, and poignant.

AH DH

Why isn’t Ann Harding better known? Her acting, inner-focused and lacking artifice, is praised for its modern feel. David Shipman notes that Harding “[i]n as series of heavy-breathing melodramas…played without histrionics, too soon taken for granted.” Her biographer, Scott O’Brien, speaks of her “unusual depth as an actress”; Mick LaSalle said of her technique that there’s “[n]o stylization, no attitude, no posing. In fact, little about her technique could date her as a thirties actress.” Moira Finnie calls her acting “surprisingly modern” and says she is a “transitional figure” in film. And Harding, although theater-trained, seems made for the close-up. She sustains its prolonged scrutiny, she conveys, so beautifully and simply, the moment-by-moment inner life. In the 1930 version of Holiday, Harding’s Linda confronts her father about the stultifying conventions of her home and he’s angered by that. “Why don’t you go away,” he barks. Watch Harding’s face as she reacts: She recoils, her gaze breaks, her eyes almost dissolve in pain—then she recovers and stares back. It takes about about two seconds of screen time, but Shipman’s dead right. No histrionics here, no trembling lips, flashing eyes, or glycerine tears. You understand not only Linda’s feelings but her character in a capsule: she’s a rebel but also an aristocrat. Hysteria would not become her.

AH Holdbl

Maybe it’s Harding’s restraint that keeps audiences from going mad over her. She rarely plays to the top balcony. I take nothing away from great stars like Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, or Bette Davis in noting that they weren’t afraid to smash through subtlety and give it to us Big. Harding didn’t go that route. She’s low-key, reserved, a bit formal. And she’s earnest in a way that can make her seem affected. In watching a film like Philip Barry’s The Animal Kingdom (1932), 21st-century audiences would probably prefer Harding’s co-star, Myrna Loy. And it’s really Loy’s film. She has the best role, and she’s terrific as a conniving seductress with a sense of humor. Loy does it in layers, the louche lady impersonating a nice girl, and she’s light and funny, twinkling with mischief and tossing her lines like a gossamer veil over a slim shoulder. Harding is the actual good girl (Barry tends to divide his characters that way) whose rigorous set of values makes me relieved whenever Loy appears. I can’t blame Harding for the play’s schematic view of human behavior, but I suspect Loy’s deliciously bad character comes across as more attractive today. But Harding as an actress doesn’t weasel out of the play’s schema; she’s so heartfelt in her line readings that she seems self-purged of its dross.

Gravity was part of Harding’s style. She’s measured and serious, and yet otherworldly in the way that extremely serious people can be. In the 1935 version of Enchanted April, she’s so ethereal she’s seems not to touch the ground. Her performance might not be to everyone’s taste, but I adore it. Her voice and body vibrate like a plucked harp string, as if she’s breathed in pure oxygen and has gone high on it. If Harding’s acting is modern, it’s modern in the Romantic sense. It relies on pure, profound, intuitive feeling. She’s modern in the way that a classically trained dancer like Anna Pavlova is modern: the technique serves the emotion; it’s not there to impress the viewer but to free the instrument, to bring out the essence. If the result might be off-putting, it’s because there’s no compromise behind the intent. It’s always sincere, always pure. And if I frequently use the word “pure” to describe Harding, it’s because that’s how powerful her effect is on me. She goes right to my core.

AN enchapr 3

I would guess another reason Harding is not well known is that many of her films are not available. They’re not shown in revival and only a few are on home video; several that are (The Animal Kingdom, Eyes in the Night), are public domain, in poor prints on YouTube or bargain-bin DVDs. Has TCM presented an Ann Harding Star-of-the-Month series or an Ann Harding Day during Summer under the Stars? Or even an Ann Harding Birthday morning? If not, is it too much to ask for? And with the renewed interest in the pre-Code era, why not a dedicated best-of-Ann DVD set of her significant films like The Life of Vergie Winters or When Ladies Meet (1933), which don’t seem available for love or money?

The latter half of Harding’s career is more generously represented on DVD, films such as Mission to Moscow, The Magnificent Yankee, Two Weeks with Love, and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. By the late 1930s Harding was, per Shipman, “dead” in Hollywood; those trite, synthetic melodramas, against whose plush sets her face gleamed like a pale, ardent flame, poisoned her at the box office. She (re)married and briefly retired; on returning to films in the 1940s-50s, she played matrons and mothers. (When I mentioned Ann Harding’s name to my mother, she thought I was talking about two actresses.) I can understand why female stars resist onscreen maturity. Middle-aged maternity gives you little to do. You’re either a saint or a harpy, trying to find variations on the formula (not something that gets you remembered). But Harding has some good later stuff. She can play comedy, smartly and sharply, as in It Happened on Fifth Avenue. (Her rueful expression, listening to Victor Moore unknowingly criticize her extravagance, is a gem.) Watching her as a society wife in The Unknown Man, you can see, even in this minor crime drama, why Harding seems so refreshing and, yes, modern: she’s clean, unfussy, natural, a contrast to co-star Walter Pidgeon’s stodgy dithering. I’ve seen Pidgeon’s performance a hundred times; but Harding’s is brand new.

At least my own two favorite performances, 1937’s Love from a Stranger and 1935’s Peter Ibbetson, are available. Love from a Stranger, unfortunately, is in that public domain fog, its wretched, blurry prints apparently having been soaked in water. I know it’s expensive, but can’t a restoration be done? The film has marvelous performances from both Harding and Basil Rathbone (it’s also got a score by Benjamin Britten, for pete’s sake; surely that’s reason enough?). The story’s about a not-so-young woman (Harding) who wins a stupendous amount of money on a lottery ticket; along comes a spider in the form of a charming psychopath (Rathbone) out for her millions. The woman ditches her stuffy fiancé and marries the bounder, only to realize he’s planning to murder her. Yes, the plot creaks, but Harding and Rathbone go at it like a power play on a see-saw, battling for the upper hand. The kicker is the final scene, a dinner from hell in which Harding must outwit Rathbone, who’s locked all the doors and has scheduled the killing for 9’o’clock. While Rathbone hams it up, bulging his eyes and vocal chords, Harding underplays, lowering her voice to a soft, furry timbre, as if a wool blanket were endowed with speech.

AH stran7

By temperament, Harding wasn’t a bravura performer in the Bette Davis mode. You don’t wait for her to hit the high notes. It’s more like listening to a great lieder singer, one sensitive to the flowing nuance of words and rhythm. In Love from a Stranger, her face when she learns she has the winning ticket moves and quickens in tiny calibrations—her mouth slackens, bit by bit, before she snaps it shut as if on a fishhook, as the enormity of her fortune sinks in. In the dinner scene she conveys her terror in hills and valleys: her eyes and mouth stretch to their limits, and then collapse, go dull, as if the nerves were cut. But then she does pull out a bravura bit: she leaps at Rathbone like a flying fist and snarls that she’s poisoned him. It’s a wow. No matter how many times I’ve seen it, I still get a jolt when I watch. It’s like being suddenly clawed by a cat; you never quite get used to it.

AH rom

Yet if I had to choose one film to convert movie-goers into Ann Harding fanatics, that would be Peter Ibbetson. Harding doesn’t appear until a good half hour into the plot, but she’s indelible; it’s her film. Based on a George du Maurier novel, the movie concerns two lovers who can meet each other only in their dreams. The story is odd, mystical stuff, which could easily descend into sentimentality or camp. What makes it work are Henry Hathaway’s direction and the acting of its leads (plus a lovely score credited to Ernst Toch). Hathaway’s staging—using barriers to strand characters on either side the frame, or placing actors on different planes to separate them in a shot—evokes a deep, ingrained loneliness. The title character, beautifully played by Gary Cooper, was sent as a boy to live with distant relatives, losing contact with his childhood friend Mary, the one love of his life. Ever since he’s lived in emotional solitude, trapped in his remembrance of her. Cooper’s eyes have a strained, sick longing in them, as if, by staring hard enough, he can look past the mundane world and recreate Mary’s image in the flesh.

AH pi1

AH pi10

As good as Cooper is, it’s Harding’s performance that makes the film. For me, it’s her greatest, the one that captures most perfectly her transparency, her fluidity, like water, to evoke swift, delicate shifts of feeling. As the adult Mary, Harding brings out a pure, febrile intensity; so attuned is she to her character, she seem to have slipped into her skin. “You must believe,” Mary tells Peter, urging him to have faith in the power of their dreaming, and Harding’s voice throbs with such passion, it seems to burn through the screen, right through that flat barrier dividing her shadow from our substance. The actress’s strength of belief transports this will o’ the wisp tale into something indescribably moving, as if, through the concentration of feeling, she can reach a deeper reality. I can never watch her in this film without tears. Even the recollection of her performance summons them to my eyes.

AH pi6

If I haven’t persuaded you to run out immediately and see as much of Ann Harding as possible, well, I blame myself. Ann Harding should be experienced, not read about; my poor prose can’t conjure her spell as much as she, on screen, etched in faint silver traces, can. I can’t think of another actress like her. Maybe Celia Johnson, in the way she evokes emotion, as if it courses through her blood, as if her very bones, skin, even hair, breathe it. Yet there’s no one who quite matches Ann’s delicacy, the sense that she comes from a vanished world of feeling—albeit embodied, by her, in modern form. In a way, that’s literal. Harding was a product of a cinematic era that wasn’t ashamed to let its audiences weep. That’s gone and won’t return. But in watching Ann, in her evanescent, soulful beauty, I feel that something of that time does live again.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Forgotten Stars Blogathon, Oct.27-31, 2014. Please click here to read other great posts on Hollywood stars who deserve to be remembered.

BONUS CLIP: A too-brief clip from Peter Ibbetson, in which Mary (Ann Harding) tries to persuade Peter (Gary Cooper) to believe in the reality of their dreams. Just listen to Harding’s voice:

 

Advertisements
Leave a comment

34 Comments

  1. what a great post about an actress who deserves to be remembered. I’ve seen several of her films and what always struck me was how utterly unique and unlike anyone else she was. She was like a diamond in a box of glass. Thank you for participating with this great choice in the blogathon.

    Reply
    • You’re right, Ann Harding does stand out from her peers, she had an unusual, sincere, passionate quality that no one else from her era quite approximates. She could probably be in films today, she’s so timeless. Thanks so much!

      Reply
  2. Your poor prose? This is smashing. I could quote this entire blog, or just this segment: “Harding never dodges or feints in her expression. She’s never kittenish or cute; and she never withholds or hesitates. She pierces right to the heart of a scene, a feeling, a character; and she invests everything she’s got. She’s more than a performer; she embodies a soul, a great, pure, transparent soul onscreen. Like Lillian Gish, she belies her fragile looks; she’s the most emotionally direct, passionate, truthful actress I’ve seen.”

    I feel like printing this post and taping it to my refrigerator. Just lovely. I know very little of Harding’s work, but I’ll fix that as soon as I can. Thanks for a fantastic essay on this actress deserving more notice.

    Reply
    • Thank you SO much for your lovely comment and kind words, I’m flabbergasted! I don’t know if you’d like my post on your fridge, but you should definitely check out Harding’s work. Some of her films are available from WB Archives (Gallant Lady, Double Harness), and there are some public domain ones on YouTube (The Animal Kingdom, Eyes in the Night, Love from a Stranger), although unfortunately the prints aren’t good. I’ve also seen Double Harness, Enchanted April, The Unknown Man (1951), and Holiday (1930) on YouTube, though how long they’ll remain there is anyone’s guess. There is still so much material to be mined from Hollywood’s early talkie era, so I try to grab it whenever it is, when I can. Thanks so much again for visiting and commenting!

      Reply
  3. If your enthusiasm doesn’t convert the masses to a Harding cult then the world has lost its soul. I was particularly struck by your comparison of Ann’s art to that of a lieder singer. And this line alone: “the technique serves the emotion; it’s not there to impress the viewer but to free the instrument…” should be emblazoned over the entrance to acting schools.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your comment, I’m really hoping more viewers will watch Ann Harding! Her acting technique should, as you note, be studied by students, it’s so committed to the character she’s playing and not to herself. I really hope more of her films soon become available.

      Reply
  4. Vienna

     /  October 31, 2014

    Wonderful assessment of Ann Harding whom I scarcely know, but I dd see her in The Animal Kingdom and was very impressed. More than any other stars, she seems to have been rushed into mother roles far too soon.
    Thank you for reminding us how good she really was.

    Reply
    • I agree with your point, of Ann Harding being rushed into mother roles too soon (the same happened to Mary Astor, who also deserved more). Ann seemed to make a mini-specialty with Philip Barry’s work; along with Animal Kingdom, she acted in Holiday in 1930 (the same play that was remade later in the better-known 1938 version with Katharine Hepburn), and received her only Oscar nomination for it (she also deserved a nomination for Peter Ibbetson, though by that time her star was declining). Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!

      Reply
  5. Susan Reynolds

     /  October 31, 2014

    What a fantastic tribute to Ann Harding! I became aware of Harding through my interest in Mary Astor, yet another exquisite yet underappreciated actress. Both women were so good at being still, yet suggesting such a depth of thought and feeling…..and their voices! Here’s hoping that someone at TCM reads your article and schedules a treasure trove of Harding films.

    Reply
    • What a great comparison to Mary Astor, who, like Ann, was a subtle, intuitive actress, but who doesn’t seem to have gotten her due either. They both starred together in the 1930 version of Holiday, and they make a wonderful contrast. I do hope more of Harding’s films get exposure on TCM – thanks so much!

      Reply
  6. Great choice for Forgotten Stars, an actress I’ve often looked at, but must confess have overlooked. Two of my favorites you mentioned are “Double Harness” and “Peter Ibbetson.” Enough of her movies seem available, you’ve sold me on a TCM Summer Under the Stars day (SOTM seems to be shooting a bit high). Loved the post, as always!

    Reply
    • Yes, I agree, Ann Harding should have a SUTS Day; there’s so much of her work out there not widely seen. Peter Ibbetson is my favorite of her performances, but I also loved her in the 1935 version of Enchanted April, which seems a forgotten film. Thanks so much for reading and liking the post!

      Reply
  7. I agree with Susan Reynolds – here’s hoping TCM will make Ann Harding a Star of the Month.

    This is a wonderful tribute to someone who should not at all be a “forgotten star”.

    Reply
  8. I think I’ve only seen her in a bit part sometime, but this lovely tribute makes me look forward to so much more. I think it’s true that sincerity is undervalued in actresses still. Leah

    Reply
    • Ann Harding is definitely someone worth looking into. Not much of her work is available, but a few of her films are on Youtube, and Scott O’Brien published a biography on her in 2008. I agree, her sincere quality might not be too fashionable today, but it’s something to be valued. Thanks so much!

      Reply
  9. I’m a fan and, probably after reading about her in the LaSalle book, tried to see as many of her movies as possible, have the O’Brien bio too, great book. So I loved this post since I share your high opinion of her, well done and you’ve done a great job describing her, and I’m sure introducing her to new people–as you say she has so many great performances to discover.

    Reply
    • I think that as more classic-movie fans discover Ann Harding, the more her reputation will grow, it’s a matter of bringing out more of her films. Her being written about by such noted critics as LaSalle and O’Brien highlights, for me, just what a significant actress she is. Thanks so much for commenting and enjoying my post!

      Reply
  10. Love this enthusiastic, passionate post! I can’t wait to watch some more Ann Harding. I know her best through her later work, but Ihope to see some earlier films thanks to your smashing review!

    Reply
    • I hope you do get a chance to check out Ann Harding’s earlier work (and I hope more of it becomes available!). She does have a number of excellent films in her later career; she’s so funny in It Happened on 5th Avenue, which is becoming a Christmas classic. Thanks so much!

      Reply
  11. Brian

     /  November 5, 2014

    The portrait that you chose to lead off the post really captures the essence of this actress you so artfully describe– her eyes particularly are so expressive! If I may be so bold, Ann may have been too ethereal for her own good. It seems to me that the most popular actors and actresses have an earthiness that better connects them to audiences– certainly Crawford and Davis were glamorous, but there’s also the undercurrent of, “but for a certain amount of luck, they could have been one of us, or we could have been one of them…” Ann, on the other hand, looks like she just came from another planet (a very, very nice planet to be sure!)

    I was thinking about where I’d seen Ann before when I read your description of Love From a Stranger. Being a big Basil Rathbone fan, some time ago I got the Alpha Video disc and watched it. Fascinating stuff, but you’re right, the print is poor.

    Reply
    • Hi Brian, and thanks for visiting and commenting! I understand what you mean about Ann Harding’s ethereal quality and how she looks so different from other pre-Code actresses, though I don’t think that was always true, She was known for her comedy roles in pre-Code films such as “When Ladies Meet,” and what makes her performance in “Peter Ibbetson” so extraordinary is how grounded and real she is; she anchors the fantasy in true feeling. I think there’s not much of her work available, so most viewers can’t get a rounded picture of her.

      Alpha Video does put out a lot of more obscure movie product, but unfortunately the company does seem to use any prints that are available, no matter how bad. I hope that “Love From a Stranger” can be restored someday – it’s an unusual film role for Rathbone, in that he gets to play a romantic character (even if he’s a murderous one!). The film was remade 10 years later with the same title, and starring Sylvia Sidney and John Hodiak. It follows the same story (only sets it in the early 20th century), and is unfortunately also only available in poor prints.

      Reply
  12. cesquevin

     /  November 5, 2014

    Loved your post! In fact I was going to do one on Ann Harding myself until I saw that you had picked her already. I’m glad I didn’t, because you’ve said it all here.

    Reply
  13. This was a marvelous post, GOM — just when I thought I couldn’t love Ann Harding more, here you come with your superb writing and make me want to abandon my evening’s plans and snuggle up with East Lynne or Holiday — anything Ann! And this was my favorite line, although it wasn’t about Harding: “…tossing her lines like a gossamer veil over a slim shoulder.” Two snaps up! Also — I now want to rewatch Double Harness for the scene you described when Powell kisses Harding. I can’t wait! Great stuff, this.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment! I also recommend (highly) Peter Ibbetson for your Ann Harding viewing; I think it’s her loveliest performance. Double Harness is also worth rewatching – there’s the bonus of William Powell!

      Reply
  14. Your post is a wonderful love letter to the actress and her performances! I’ve seen her in Double Harness and was impressed by her in that film. I do need to see more of her work. Based on your recommendations, I’ll watch Peter Ibbetson next.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much! I definitely recommend watching Ann Harding in Peter Ibbetson (it’s on DVD, part of a Gary Cooper DVD collection). I’m hoping that more of her work will come out on DVD someday; there’s much left to discover.

      Reply
  15. I loved reading this post – a wonderful and heartfelt tribute and reminds me why I love classic film. Harding had such a unique look, a light ethereality that I don’t really associate with any other actresses of that era. I must admit though, that I’ve only observed the surface beauty, I’ve seen very few of her films.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your comment! Ann Harding did look different from other pre-Code actresses (critics liked that she didn’t wear much make-up). She also has a different quality onscreen, sincere, focused, and passionate. Not too many of her films are available, but she’s definitely worth tracking down.

      Reply
  16. every post is a wonderful… i like it so much

    Reply
  17. GOM – I must say your post on Ann Harding literally made me swoon. Truly, I was breathless as I read every word and your description of Ms. Harding’s essence. As I saw you were about to talk of “Peter Ibbetson” I had to stop reading, scour through all my DVD collection to find my copy of “…Ibbetson” and watch it right then and there. THAT’s another story. I just wanted to say how much I loved reading your article. I don’t know why Norma Shearer comes to mind as a darker version of Harding. They’re nothing alike really; just contemporaries. Ann Harding is amazing…and so natural. Hell, anything I write would pale in comparison to your blog post, so I’ll just suffice it to say I…love…what…you…wrote. Now, maybe I’m already pre-disposed to loving Harding, but your post could do the trick to any unsuspecting person. Your writing is exquisitely vivid.

    Let me give my street creds: I’ve seen “Animal Kingdom” “Prestige” “The Fountain” “Double Harness” “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” “Ladies Who Meet.” Need to see “Holiday.” Need to see anything she’s in. Now…a movie considered a “B” film is raised to new heights by the grace, beauty and gravitas of Ms. Harding would be “I’ve Lived Before.” You’ll see her briefly at the end of this clip. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38QfBs8A33I )

    Thanxx again…I enjoyed the read.

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment and also for including the video clip. I know the feeling of Ann Harding fans, of grabbing at anything available of her to see, since not much of her work is out on home video or shown on TV. Interesting to compare her to Norma Shearer; both are noted pre-Code actresses who explore the realm of female feeling in their roles (and pre-Code was an era noted for strong women’s roles in film). Thanks again for visiting and for enjoying the post!

      Reply
  1. HIS GIRL FRIDAY ( 1940 ) | CineMaven's: ESSAYS from the COUCH

Got a comment? Let us know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: