“I don’t make scenes, Mrs. Page.”
When actress Ann Harding speaks that line with a refined serenity in the 1933 drama “Double Harness,” it is as a wife coming to terms with losing her husband to another woman. But that line also sums up what makes Harding special as an actress – she didn’t make scenes on film either.
There was no flailing about, no screaming or histrionics. She created all emotions – happiness, sadness, love, longing, heartbreak – with grace and elegance using a subtle quivering or deepening of her voice; a gentle touch of her delicate hands to her face; a soulful gaze that hypnotized the viewer.
Harding made 40 films – more than half in the 1930s alone. On Aug. 21, Turner Classic Movies is showing 15 Harding films in celebration of the actress during the network’s Summer Under the Stars programming. Her films aren’t often shown so it’s a great chance to become familiar with Harding and fall under her spell. Here’s how that happened to me.
My introduction to Harding was the 1931 film “Devotion” in which she disguises herself as an older governess to get close to the man she loves. It was silly and contrived and the acting – as to be expected in this early film based on a play and starring actors from the theater – was stagey. It didn’t help that the male lead and object of her affection was the bland (sorry) Leslie Howard.
I considered turning the movie off, but I didn’t. I couldn’t.
From that first film I was – and continue to be – mesmerized by Harding. I remember how elegant she was and how she at first seemed so delicate, but was decidedly strong. And that white hair – I couldn’t help staring at how it was precisely swept back into intricate buns at the nape of her neck. (The look is a trademark of how she wore her waist-length hair on film.)
After “Devotion” I was curious and watched the few Harding films shown on TCM, discovering the Ann Harding effect. Yes she was lovely and talented like so many other actresses. But she had qualities even the greatest actresses of her generation lacked because you have to be born with them: she was otherworldly, ethereal and poetic. When she was on the screen, you were drawn to her even when she was standing alongside co-stars like William Powell or Robert Montgomery. The great Ronald Colman – equal in elegance – was the best match for Harding in the 1929 romance “Condemned.”
Harding was a trained theater actress who made her Broadway debut at age 19. Her first film was at age 27 in 1929 with Fredric March in “Paris Bound.” She was soon nominated for an Oscar for the 1930 film “Holiday” (remade in ’38 by George Cukor).
She was brought in as the “answer” to Norma Shearer – I don’t know what the question could have been but you can clearly see why Harding was chosen for that role. Both actresses were regal, elegant and had marvelous speaking voices. Shearer, I would argue even though I’m a huge fan, lacked that something special Harding had that transcended the screen. Harding had a way of looking off into the distance – toward the man she loved, toward a different life – and we were lost with her.
You can see these qualities in all of her films. Here are five I would recommend from those TCM is showing for “Summer Under the Stars.”
“Her Private Affair” (1929), airing at 6 a.m. EST Aug. 21. This is Harding’s second movie. Harding plays the wife of a judge who falls in with a gigolo and is mixed up in blackmail and murder. The first images in the film are of Harding and they are breathtaking. As she puts on her rings the camera pans up to show her lovely reflection in a mirror. But her wistful, almost sad gaze helps us understand she’s not happy and sets up her emotions.
“Condemned” (1929), airing at 7:30 a.m. EST Aug. 21. My favorite. I have a powerful attachment to this film that I think is linked to the quiet desperation of Harding’s performance and Colman’s charisma. As the wife of a cruel prison warden, she fights inner turmoil when she falls for a convicted thief (Ronald Colman) on Devil’s Island. As Colman helps her realize they are both prisoners, the changes in her character are palpable. The scene where she admits her love for Colman to her husband is unexpectedly raw and powerful.
“The Animal Kingdom” (1932) airing at 9:30 p.m. Aug. 21. This isn’t a strong film, but it’s a wonderful example of the Harding effect. The film is talky and dull until it is energized by Harding who plays the former love of Leslie Howard, a man who can’t decide between her and his new wife, Myrna Loy. I can literally feel the film breathe when Harding is on screen. And there is a moment that again exemplifies how Harding “doesn’t make a scene.” Howard is telling Harding, his long-time love, that he’s going to marry a woman he has only known for a month. You can see her heart breaking in her face, yet she keeps her composure, standing tall and proud and never cowering or begging.
“When Ladies Meet” (1933), airing at 11:15 p.m. EST Aug. 21. Most classic movie fans are familiar with the 1941 remake of this film that starred the fantastic cast of Joan Crawford, Greer Garson, Robert Taylor and Herbert Marshall. This original film has just as great of a cast with Harding playing the wife of a philandering publisher (Frank Morgan) whose latest conquest is a young author (Myrna Loy). The man who loves her (Robert Montgomery) plots a meeting of the two women who come to a deeper understanding of each other.
“Double Harness” (1933), airing at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 22. You have to see this – if only because no one could watch this movie for decades. It was one of seven movies kept out of distribution for more than 50 years after a legal battle between producer Merian C. Cooper and RKO. The films were shown once on TV in the late 1950s and then restored by TCM for showings in 2007. Harding plays a woman who believes in marriage only as a business arrangement. With her father in financial trouble and her sister unable to stop spending, she desperately stages a scene with the wealthy playboy she unexpectedly loves (William Powell). She knows it will force him to propose, but is unprepared for the disastrous results. One of her best performances and best films.