Monday, August 30, 2010

Quote of the Day: Van Johnson

"[MGM] was one big happy family and a little kingdom. Everything was provided for us, from singing lessons to barbells. All we had to do was inhale, exhale and be charming. I used to dread leaving the studio to go out into the real world, because to me the studio was the real world." -- Van Johnson, actor

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rosiland Russell leaves havoc in her wake/ Link

Read Jacqueline Lynch's detailed account (complete with newsreel screen shots) of Rosiland Russell's last visit to her prophetically named hometown, Waterbury, Connecticut just before it was deluged by swollen tributaries.


“Nineteen fifty-five was my year for attracting natural disasters,” quips Ms. Russell in her autobiography Life Is A Banquet.

It's one of those strange posts that I didn't know I wanted to read until after I had read it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Little Foxes (1941)

It’s the turn of the 20th century and the wealthy Hubbard-Giddens family wants to add more to their coffers through perverse means, in The Little Foxes (1941), a Lillian Hellman play-to-film adaptation. Regina Giddens (Bette Davis), the queen bee, needs her ailing husband’s money to invest in a cotton mill with her brothers. Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), who has made his wealth as a banker, wants no part of their “filthy tricks to make a dime” off the backs of  slave wage workers. But Regina usually gets exactly what she wants.
Powerful and elegant Regina Giddens

Although Bette Davis onscreen and Tallulah Bankhead onstage each famously chewed up the scenery with a strong performance, Hellman wrote a letter to Davis stating  “I never meant Regina to be a violent woman or a fiery woman….”

According to the Elizabeth Taylor Archives, the playwright enjoyed Ms. Taylor’s more vulnerable performance of Regina in 1981. “I like [Elizabeth Taylor’s] approach. Regina has frequently been played too much as a villainess.”

Director William Wyler wanted Ms. Davis to “exorcize Bankhead‘s ghost from her performance,” and manipulate with warmth and charm. One imagines, then, that it was more than Regina’s brother Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) who said  it is “unwise for a good looking woman to frown. How many times have I told you? Softness and a smile do more to the hearts of men.” However, Ms. Davis, as does her character, has her own way, for the most part.

Witnessing the mayhem in the family are the younger generation -  the unscrupulous Leo Hubbard (Dan Duryea) and his cousin,  the innocent “ray of hope,” Alexandra Giddens (Teresa Wright), who is controlled by her mother.

Regina manages everyone, and by the end, says author Peter McNally, the matriarch “is left with her material possessions only -- a life that will most likely lead to psychosis, similar but different from her sister-in-law Birdie.”
Birdie pours a drink and is dominant in the frame, but Addie is at the apex of the triangle, suggesting her importance in the group.

According to Elizabeth at Reel Classics, Birdie (Patricia Collinge) is  “the most sympathetic character in the film” because she is “married for her cotton land and … has been abused by [her husband] and his family ever since.”  She is certainly the most prominent abused character; the audience is privy to her back-story and to her life of interminable  physical and emotional pain. However, when Birdie is dismissive of housekeeper, Addie (Jessica Grayson) on several occasions, one is made aware of how much the servant has suffered at the hands of this abused woman. Unlike Birdie, however, she has done so in silence.

At an impromptu tea party that Addie throws for the “good” people in the family while the malevolent ones are away, Birdie dominates the frame and the conversation, similar to Regina’s actions in an earlier dinner scene.  The servant sits in much the same position as Birdie does when Regina is in the room - in the shadows,  not fully part of the group.  We are not given any information about Addie’s past, we are only allowed to see her as one who embraces the thankless task of salving the emotional wounds of the Hubbard-Giddens family despite her own subjugation. 

Bringing youthful romance and “a few much-needed moments of levity in the film,” is David Hewitt (Richard Carlson), town reporter and friend to Alexandra. The two young friends are adorable, and an hilarious scene unfolds when he escorts Zan to the train without trousers.

David is not a character in the play, which, frankly, is a good thing. His  conversations with the impressionable Alexandra about greed in her family have a faint manipulative quality. The young lady is introduced to the idea of flaws in her relatives before the she has had a chance to notice them on her own. There’s a huge risk that by the end of the film Zan simply moves from one Svengali- her domineering mother - to another-  the doctrinaire David. In the play,  Alexandra’s own critical thinking is a catalyst to fight evil, which suggests a  much more mature, discerning character then her onscreen counterpart.
Battling for Alexandra

Hellman, who also penned the screenplay, Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland seamlessly open up the stage bound plot and add visual depth to the underpinnings of the one-set play.

The author praised the finished product, saying  "most of The Little Foxes, a good fifty percent, is done better in the picture than it ever was in the play.”

Indeed, two of my favorite visual treats would not have been performed onstage. When David, our moral conscience, the Jiminy Cricket of the film, notices the Hubbard men on their way to work, he mocks them from inside his house. The film helps David belittle them by placing him in the foreground and the crooks almost Lilliputian in the background, framed by a window. It‘s as though they are little puppets on a stage, David‘s own personal entertainment.

Another visual delight occurs when Leo steals from Horace’s bank. We see only a few seconds of the nervous young man’s reflection by gaslight as he walks past the brass plaque bearing his uncle’s name on the side of the building. An efficient piece of visual storytelling.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, Little Foxes holds up well, and will continue to be a subject of discussion for theatergoers and cinemaphiles for some time.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hit The Deck (1955)

Hit The Deck is a fluffy MGM musical which is preceded by the 1930 RKO film of the same name, which is based on the 1927 Broadway musical, which is an adaptation of the Hubert Osboure dramatic play Shore Leave.

The 1955 version is a reunion of the Pontipee family from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Russ Tamblyn and Jane Powell), an excuse to watch Ann Miller execute her superb tap dancing skills, a delight to see perky little Debbie Reynolds flirt with Tamblyn, while Tony Martin and Vic Damone belt out their love songs accompanied by an invisible, omnipresent orchestra. You know, fun stuff.

Its difficult to find anything about the plot of the original musical. If the 1948 radio adaptation is any indication, the plot of the original is about a seaman named Bill Smith who falls for café owner Loo-Loo, who pines for him while he’s away.

MGM abandons the melodramatic plot and creates a light comedy partly about people who are involved with putting on a production of Hit The Deck. This alteration allows the film to keep many of the original tunes in the show while tossing the context. The spunky new musical even changes lyrics.
Russ Tamblyn and Debbie Reynolds ham it up. They are so adorable.

For instance, in the song “Loo-Loo,” the darker tone of the lyrics from the play were changed to something more cheerful.




This

It will even warm you quicker
Than a double shot of liquor
When you’ve been on deck
And skies are cold and grey


becomes this

To delight you coffee drinkers
We have sugar-coated sinkers
And if you guys want to dunk ‘em
Dunk away


There’s much more jolly imagery in the updated version of the song.

The other part of the plot involves the widowed Admiral Smith (Walter Pidgeon) whose efficiency on the job leads to neglecting his two young adult offspring. Daughter Susan (Powell) wears a red dress with a neckline cut to there and sneaks out with the producer of the stage show, who is a married man. Her brother Daniel (Tamblyn) is on shore leave and starts a row with the civilian with the help of his fellow seamen, Bill (Martin) and Rico (Damone). This makes Naval authorities very unhappy and the three guys spend the rest of the film in hiding as Daniel tries to keep his father out of the problem.
Susan: You can take me to the opening of a new show. And I'm sure Dad will approve since it's very, very naval.     Danny: So's your dress.

Everything works out in the end, of course: parent and children begin to understand each other, Susan finds a non-married guy to date - Rico, Daniel falls for a young lady in the play (Reynolds) and Bill finally marries his showbiz fiancée of 7 years (Miller).

My favorite number in the film is Ann Miller’s show-stopping portion of the finale. The seamen on deck prepare for the “admiral’s” inspection, which is Miller wordlessly tapping out orders to the men with her feet. They respond by syncing their march to complement her taps. It’s an arresting last few minutes which leaves the film on an upbeat note.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Summer Childhood Movie Memories Blog-a-thon

Kate from Silents and Talkies, along with the Large Movie Blog Association is having a blog-a-thon about your summer childhood movie memories.

I don’t recall watching movies at all during my childhood summers. We kids were too busy with summer camps, swim camp, hiking, family reunions and other things that we wouldn‘t get to do after the weather turned icy cold.

There might have been one film that we watched one summer, but it could easily have been early autumn.

It was a Saturday, mom was working (always) and dad was keeping the kids at home. I loved it when he kept us without mom, sometimes, because he would usually give us more “naughty” foods than mom would allow.

This time he gave us chicken salad sandwiches, which, to this mostly vegetarian kid, was exotic. I was about 6 years of age.

We had a film on loan from the local library to watch as we ate our food. The movie was Hello Dolly! (1969), starring Barbra Streisand as “a Brooklynese Mae West gone wrong,” according to Forbidden Broadway. But that parody song was years away from being written.

I didn't know then that Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey - each with her own style of acting- had smashed it out of the park onstage. I didn't know then that Elizabeth Taylor's singing pipes had cost her the film role. I didn’t know then that there was a big to-do about Streisand's inappropriate age.I didn't know then that Walter Matthau had told his leading lady that she “had no more talent than a butterfly’s fart.”

I just thought Streisand was beautiful.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bodybuilders and the Movies: A Rambling Post

It's probably common knowledge to James Bond fans that Sean Connery entered and lost the Mr. Universe contest in 1953. I discovered the fact while reading this interview featuring Bill Pearl, the winner of the bodybuilding contest that year.

From IFBB Professional League
















The author of the article wistfully remembers the famous Charles Atlas muscleman ads (like a bobbysoxer swooning over the latest Sinatra ballad) and laments the decline of bodybuilders as icons, stating that they are now considered "preening misfits." 

Trade the word "bodybuilders" for "actors" and you can hear the same lament from any classic movie blog out there (including this one).

What am I saying here? I don't exactly know.

Sean Connery and Arnold Schwarzenegger  are perhaps the most famous bodybuilders-turned-actors. [Enlighten me. Are there any more?] But there seems to be another one who went on to sword and sandal epics: Steve Reeves (not related to the other superman, George Reeves).

Dick Dubois, Reynolds and Reeves
Reeves appears in the first non-epic film featuring a bodybuilder that I recall watching - Athena (1954). It's an MGM musical featuring some of  the studio's hottest young stars of the time - Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Vic Damone and Edmund Purdom.  It was a flop.

The film follows a family of physical culture fans who loosen up two uptight guys (Purdom and Damone). I think it also involves the family being evicted from their home or something. (It's been a while since I've watched it.) Anyway, the family's stable of fit guys includes actual Mr. Universe contestants.

There's even a physique competition with (Gasp! Shock! Horror!) half naked men, which made it past the censors. If the film had been made a year or so earlier, perhaps this would have been Connery's first movie.

You can watch the trailer here.

Monday, August 09, 2010

An Orson Welles press release for Citizen Kane

WellesNet recounts an Orson Welles press release for Citizen Kane from January 1941. Kane examines the private life of a public figure and his simultaneous quests for power and a return to the simplicity of childhood.

ORSON WELLES:  I wished to make a motion picture which was not a narrative of action so much as an examination of character. For this, I desired a man of many sides and many aspects....


I wished him to be an American, since I wished to make him an American president. Deciding against this, I could find no other position in public life beside that of a newspaper publisher in which a man of enormous wealth exercises what might be called real power in a democracy. It is possible to show how a powerful industrialist is potent in certain phases of government. It is possible to show how he can be good and bad according to the viewpoint of whoever is discussing him, but no industrialist can ever achieve in a democratic government the kind of general and catholic power with which I wished to invest my particular character. The only solution seemed to place my man in charge of some important channel of communication—radio or newspaper. It was essential for the plot of the story that my character (Kane) live to a great age, but be dead at the commencement of the narrative. This immediately precluded radio. There was no other solution except to make Kane a newspaper publisher—the owner of a great chain of newspapers.




Sunday, August 08, 2010

Quote of the Day: Gregory Peck

"They say the bad guys are more interesting to play, but there is more to it than that - playing the good guys is more challenging because it's harder to make them interesting." -- Gregory Peck, actor

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Donald O'Connor's Showboat

Through a series of web searches I stumbled upon this brief review  of a Donald O'Connor performance from July 1975 . O'Connor, star of Singin' In The Rain(1952), had taken a gig as a headliner on a showboat in the Midwest as part of a Bicentennial show.


Says editor Noreen Murphy,
“Donald O’ Connor, of course, was the star of the show. And after, what he admitted was 50 years of performing, it was there, the old show business magic."
Ms. Murphy makes him sound like a ratty old sweater being resurrected from the basement.

"[The magic] flashed through in his smile as he tapped, sang, quipped, graciously handled a heckler who practically made it on stage before the police started to remove him (“Oh, he‘s just trying to have a little fun like the rest of us,”)....”

Sounds like a horrible night.

O‘Connor answered questions and danced
“in between such songs as ‘Walking My Baby Back Home’ ‘Make Someone Happy’  and ‘Singing [sic] in the Rain,’ to mention but a few, while batting away at the moths.”
Batting away at the moths. The irony. So sad, really.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Van Johnson's "Overnight" Fame

The path to stardom for Hollywood dreamboat Van Johnson gets a nice once-over at Greenbriar in the blog post "An Overnight Star is Manufactured."  

The author spends most of his time discussing Between Two Women(1945), which seems to have been the launching pad for Johnson's "instant" popularity.

                 
He's not a doctor but he plays one in the movies.
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