I Dare Say – Never-to-be-forgotten exits and entrances (7-25-43)

The Pittsburgh Press (July 25, 1943)


Never-to-be-forgotten exits and entrances

By Florence Fisher Parry

Lately in the motion pictures that I have seen, particularly those which deal with the war, I have found myself annoyed over the long-draw-out death sequences. There always seems to be a buddy dying. Am I alone in feeling that this inevitable sequence in all our war films is being unduly featured? One more Thomas Mitchell death and I, for one, am done for. Why motion picture directors invariably indulge this passion for long-drawn-out deaths, I am at a loss to understand, unless it springs from their own exaggerated memories of deaths that they, themselves, have seen enacted, in the past, upon the stage and screen and which they feel impelled to excel in their own direction.

Yes, this must be the reason. Looking back upon my own memories of the movies and theater, I find that remembered death scenes loom large. No wonder, then, they provide a field day to playwrights and directors and actors, all of whom seem drawn to death as to a magnet. Looking back upon the great performances in the theater and indeed upon the screen, I find that the most profound impressions I have treasured have been derived from some remembered death scene.

The earliest memory I have of the theater is of attending a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and seeing little Eva literally borne aloft from her little cot by two determined angels. And close upon the heels of that profound memory is that of the death of the first Hamlet I ever saw – Creston Clarke in the old Walnut St. Theater in Philadelphia.

And still another, the hazy but haunting memory of Sarah Bernhardt, as the frail L’Algion, expiring dramatically, her wooden led extended grotesquely at a painful angle.

But of all the deaths that I have ever seen in theater or movie, the death of Greta Garbo as Camille affected me most profoundly. I must count it the most inspired piece of acting I can recall ever having seen. Usually, I have no patience with the kind of acting that must be “lived” in order to take shape, but this must stand as the one exception. I have never considered Greta Garbo an actress, but she has the strange power of evoking a mood which, if captured by the camera, stands as a true record of inspiration.

Others recalled

I remember, too, the remarkable death scene in A Farewell to Arms which Helen Hayes enacted. And the death of Victor Varconi in a silent picture years ago called The Divine Lady in which he enacted Lord Nelson. The death scene was profoundly effective, I remember.

The best deaths that are recorded on the screen are the quick, brutal deaths which so often occur in gangster pictures. But for the most part, screen deaths are phony, corny, and an affront to our natural reticences.

My mind crowds with remembered exits and entrances, and my memories travel like a shuttle-board, back and forth through the years from my childhood to the present time, as actors and actresses make their memorable entrances and exits upon the stage.

Magnificent exits

Shall I ever forget the magnificent exit of Tallulah Bankhead in The Little Foxes when at the head of the stairs, she gathers herself together before entering the bedroom that holds her murdered husband?

Shall I ever forget the magnificent entrance of Ina Claire in the picture version of The Royal Family, one of the most queenly entrances I have ever seen?

Shall I ever forget the dancing, wraith-like figure of Maude Adams as she came forth from the forest near Thrums, singing, in The Little Minister?

Shall I ever forget the death in that exquisite play Behold the Bridegroom, with Judith Anderson translucent and otherworld? Shall I ever forget the entrance of Marie Dressler in the old waterfront saloon in Anna Christie? Shall I ever forget the final exit of Ethel Barrymore in The Second Mrs. Tanqueray? Or of her brother, John, as he appeared, a young god from hell, against the backdrop in The Jest?

Shall I ever forget the entrance of Frank Keenan in The Girl of the Golden West standing there under the loft where the body of Blanche Bates’ lover lay leaking blood upon the sheriff’s white linen handkerchief? Shall I ever forget the entrance of Katharine Hepburn, frail and haunted, after her husband is drowned in The Lake? Shall I ever forget the exit of Charlie Chaplin as he walked out to meet the horizon in his last good picture, Modern Times?

Entrances, too

Then there was Frank Morgan’s gorgeous entrance as the King in The Firebrand. There was Jeanne Eagels’ entrance in the last act of Rain and the blare of the phonograph inside her room. There was Eva le Gallienne in The Swan.

Do you remember Alla Nazimova’s last exit in Hedda Gabler? There was Geraldine Farrar’s entrance in Madame Butterfly and her death in La Tosca. There was, long ago, that extraordinary entrance of Frank Craven in a play called Bought and Paid For. He walks into a strange room and he breaks a costly vase, and he offers to pay for it. I can search the annals of the theater and find no more perfect scene.

Do you remember the death of John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight? Do you remember the entrance of Lorette Taylor in Peg O’ My Heart? Of Philip Merivale in Death Takes a Holiday? Do you remember the exit of Katharine Cornell in Saint John or the entrance of Lynn Fontanne in Elizabeth, the Queen?

But I could go on and on. Oh, the procession, the indelible procession of entrances and exits that moves across the curtain of one’s memory.

Entrances and exits – exits and death. No tapestry is embroidered as richly as that upon which the actors and actresses wove their immortal names, in death scenes and entrances touched with enchantment.