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There Must Have Been Magic in 1899

Movies: Hitchcock, Astaire, Bogart, Cagney, Cukor and Coward: Film giants of this century, all were born that year.

May 14, 1999|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some of the greatest legends of 20th century cinema were born at the very end of the last century, which means that 1999 turns out to be a big year for centennial celebrations.

Among those born in 1899 who changed the course of movie history are Alfred Hitchcock, whose birthday was recently recalled in a Los Angeles film retrospective; Fred Astaire, whose birthday is being celebrated today at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Humphrey Bogart; James Cagney; George Cukor; and Noel Coward. In other words, in terms of movies, 1899 was a very good year.

It had to be more than genes or something in the water. Surely these remarkable talents were shaped by the dramatic and traumatic forces that catapulted the first few decades of this century. Wars, depressions and societal and technological revolutions have a way of doing that.

Astaire, whose 100th birthday was Monday, has the spotlight this week. Turner Classic Movies fittingly commemorated his centenary with a 12-film salute, and the academy honors him tonight with a reception and a selection of some of his best musical film clips. Actor and friend John Forsythe will serve as host, with actress Cyd Charisse ("The Band Wagon") among the attendees.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, meanwhile, pays tribute to the underrated Cukor with a six-week 30-film retrospective beginning July 15; it honors versatile Coward over three weekends beginning Sept. 17 (running concurrently with a program at the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills).

As for Bogart and Cagney, they will be feted later in the year. Warner Bros. plans to highlight them in a proposed festival of classics intended to revitalize its vast library in multiplexes and retro houses across the country. (Hitchcock will also be a part of the Warners series, with a separate reissue of "North by Northwest" scheduled for fall in major markets.)

Astaire was the most glamorous and graceful dancer ever to grace the silver screen. Although he wasn't particularly handsome, he more than made up for it with continental flair and giddy confidence. Astaire gave us a choreography of love as beautiful, elegant and hypnotic as anything in film, defying physical reality with his flights of fancy and stopping time with his rhapsodic interludes.

No wonder women swooned and fantasized about dancing with him. He wore his heart on his feet. Even men could imagine themselves dancing in his place, since he made it seem so effortless (Graham Greene compared his elasticity to Mickey Mouse's).

In Ginger Rogers, Astaire found not only his best dance partner but his on-screen soul mate--they were best able to express themselves only through song and dance in the Art Deco world of the RKO musicals they made together in the 1930s. Essentially from "The Gay Divorcee" through "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," they enacted rituals of courtship, celebration, separation and reconciliation to those miraculous melodies of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.

Cagney Really Knew How to Make an Exit

Cagney had his own kinetic energy, of course, with his Lower East Side strut (to go along with his staccato speech). Just making an entrance was a theatrical experience for him. But it didn't compare with dying. Nobody died better than Cagney in the movies, whether it was the redemptive execution in "Angels With Dirty Faces," the balletic march in "The Roaring Twenties" or the fiery finale in "White Heat."

Yet despite being one of Warners' toughest gangsters, Cagney played a decent guy in many of his films. Just look at the way he looks after Pat O'Brien, Ann Sheridan and the Dead End Kids in "Angels With Dirty Faces" or the way he lovingly cares for Doris Day in "Love Me or Leave Me," despite his tyrannical possessiveness.

Bogart was something else again, the embodiment of ironic wit and existential angst. That is why he became such a huge star in the '40s and a cult hero in the '60s. Bogart was the first modern anti-hero to bridge the generations with just the right combination of rebelliousness and righteousness. He may have worn his world-weary cynicism on his face, but beneath that tough exterior lay a gentle and gallant soul, which made him all the more endearing and enduring

Coward and Cukor are fascinating for their dualities as well. Coward--who followed in the great acerbic tradition of Britain's Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw--was preoccupied with social class, while Cukor, who was covertly gay, focused on personal identity. But then Coward had the luxury as an actor of inventing a glamorous persona to conceal his own personal identity.

Romanticizing England's Grandeur

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