Monday, April 30, 2007

"Singing" and "Sunset", Two Parodies of Silent Film

The film industry of the 1920s was parodied twice in the early 1950s with intelligence, wit, and great success. Each film, however, showed a different side to the irresistible mayhem of when sound came to screen. One, as shown in “Singing in the Rain” (1952) was frothy, silly and fun, and the other, “Sunset Blvd.” (1950) was biting, cynical, and tragic. They are both masterfully told stories, and they are both true.

In “Singing in the Rain” we have a scene which tells all the difficulties of the new sound technology when poor Jean Hagen is wired with a microphone in her costume bodice, which picks up her heartbeat. Her inability to remember to speak directly into the mic later has hysterical consequences for the movie she and Gene Kelly are desperately trying shoot. Conversely, in “Sunset Blvd.”, Gloria Swanson sits for a moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s director’s chair, waiting to speak with him, and a mic on a boom trails lightly over her head as she visits his busy movie set. She looks up at it, first with wary curiosity, like a woman trying to avoid a large bee at a picnic, then her eyes focus in on the vile reminder of the death knell of her silent screen career. She looks at it with revulsion, and lightly pushes it away.

“Singing in the Rain”, called by many the best musical ever made, picks up on the camp of a campy era and splashes us not only with the rain falling on Gene Kelly’s dance number, but a collage of 1920s era styles in clothing, slang, and movie business. The dance numbers are colorful and poke gentle fun at the speech coaches, the stunts, a montage of flappers, college boys, gossip columnists, and Hollywood parties. In one such party, a movie screen in the living room of a film mogul shows the astounded partygoers a demonstration of sound recorded on film. In “Sunset Blvd.”, Gloria Swanson’s own ornate, decaying Hollywood mansion also has a movie screen in her living room where she views only her own silent pictures.

“Sunset Blvd.” is creepy where “Singing in the Rain” is cute, and this is due is great part to Swanson’s riveting performance (receiving an Academy Award nomination), and mainly because it was herself she was boldly mocking. It gives us a feeling of discomfort that she is not merely parodying a long-ago era as Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds are doing, poking fun at experiences lived by other people. Swanson shows us her own youth, her own career down the tubes, the dark side of the bubbly era, and the fallout after the destruction. What is remarkable, too, is that 1950, when the film was made, was only 20 years after the end of the silent film era. Barely time for one new generation to take the reins in the entertainment industry and change it, only to look back with disdain and condenscension on what came before. William Holden tells her it is no shame to be 50, unless she pretends to be 25. That is not quite true. As we see through repeated remarks of underlings at the studio, she is regarded as a dinosaur. Her crime really is just being 50 in an industry which will always prefer youth.

“Singing in the Rain” is as giddy as a senior class play, and “Sunset Blvd.” is an obituary. Both these films are useful in examining the post-1920s view of the silent film era

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Random Harvest (1942)

Two of the most compelling aspects of “Random Harvest” (1942) are the total absence of proof of identity leading to a new life, and the possibility that a person could fall in love with someone who he forgot he had already fallen in love with previously.

There is a third element which makes the plot twist intriguing, and that is the selfless and honorable attitude which the characters played by Greer Garson and Ronald Colman undertake out of their respect for each other. It is the improbability of such a film being made today that makes the movie irresistible to its fans.

In the world we live in today where we are drowning in documentation of our existence, and where thieves make a living trying to steal or exploit that documentation, it is hard to imagine a time when all Ronald Colman had to do was show up as a patient with amnesia for nobody to be able to determine who he really is. He is called John Smith for the sake of convenience by the asylum staff, where he is taken to recover from his horrific experiences as an officer in World War I. Greer Garson, playing against type for once as an earthy music hall performer, takes the confused, escaping Colman under her wing and they begin a life together, which ends abruptly when being knocked down by a taxi is all it takes for Mr. Colman to remember he is Charles Rainer, a wealthy aristocrat.

The plot takes a fascinating turn when Charles Rainer returns to his ancestral home and an executive office at the family firm. Years have passed, when he asks his secretary to step into his office. We are amazed to see it is Greer Garson who walks in with her dictation pad. She is transformed, no longer the earthy, cheeky music hall lass, but sober, mature and as elegant as…well, as Greer Garson. Colman, too, whose crisp, mannerly speech had been much parodied and mimicked back in the day, seems more at home in his guise as lord of the manor than the boyish and utterly lost John Smith.

Garson does not tell Colman that they were married and once had a child, hoping he will remember on his own. Colman eventually proposes a marriage of convenience for his political career, which she accepts. That neither attempts to seduce the other for fear of taking advantage of a valued friendship is perhaps the most improbable feature of this movie, and one that makes it’s being remade today likely impossible. The current film industry would regard such a situation as naïve and not to be believed by present day audiences. Ironically, however, it is this aspect which most furthers the action and sexual tension of “Random Harvest.” Their keeping each other at arms length, venturing only a chaste kiss on the cheek, is enough to keep the viewer wondering how the story will end. That Colman does remember his love for her in the end seems almost anti-climactic and could have been drawn out at least a few moments more before the end credits. The buildup to that moment has been magnificent. Throughout the film their characters are faced with choices, and it is the interesting choices they make that move the plot along, not the overused “hand of fate” idea which has left him without a past and her without a future.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

John Qualen - Character Actor

John Qualen’s portrayal of Muley Graves is one of the iconic features in “The Grapes of Wrath” (1940). He had the ability to play types and folksy caricatures without making them seem caricatures. He aimed at the soul of the character, and that shot through the comedic Scandinavian accent bit parts and the grime and utter hopelessness of Muley Graves.

Qualen played Berger in “Casablanca” (1943), the fellow who introduces himself to Paul Henried while pretending to sell him a ring. He is one of the many European refugees in the Rick’s Café Americain, and a member of the underground resistance.

He also played Axel Swanson in “The Long Voyage Home” (1941), and though he distinguished himself as a prolific character actor with various roles in a career of well over 100 movies, most were like his walk-on as the subway night watchman in “The Mad Miss Manton” (1938). He appears from nowhere, leaves an impression, and moves on, presumably to the next movie.

Qualen was brought to Hollywood in “Street Scene” (1931), taken from the Broadway cast to reprise his role as the Swedish janitor.

Most of his films did not afford him much screen time, but he is recognizable and memorable. John Ford used him repeatedly in his stable of actors, and it is in Ford’s “The Grapes of Wrath” where Qualen gets to dig a little deeper and touch us with something so simple as crouching to the wind-whipped soil of a repossessed farm, grasp the dry dirt in his fist and let it slip through his fingers as he fights tears, telling us, “That’s what makes in ourn, being born on it, and working on it, and dying…dying on it. And not no piece of paper with writing on it …” as he breaks down. In his own way, he is as important as Tom Joad in telling us, in his desperate, somewhat crazed mood of a man on the very edge of losing his mind just as he has lost everything else, the plight of the Okies and the horrors of rural America during the Great Depression. Tom is an observer, but Muley has lived it. Muley’s voice is authentic, and John Qualen makes it so.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Phantom's Changing Face

Lon Chaney’s Phantom in the original 1925 & 1929 re-release of “The Phantom of the Opera” displays one of the most frightening screen images ever created. His makeup was devised by himself, but it evoked quite closely the character imagined by author Gaston Leroux in his serialized novel, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra (1910). That story describes the Phantom as a character whose soul as well as his actual body are riddled with decay. You can almost smell him.

Subsequent versions of “The Phantom of the Opera” have taken slightly different turns, each exploring the possible not-so-evil-as-misunderstood personality of the Phantom, culminating of course with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s impressive musical “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004) based on his still running (two decades and counting) Broadway musical. By now, the Phantom is not as evil as he is petulant, and though his possessive love of Christine is still creepy, there is now an allure, a sensuality to the character and to his seduction of Christine that did not exist in the original silent version, and certainly not in the book.

The sweeping obsessive romance played out by Gerard Butler, Emmy Rossum, and Patrick Wilson is a bit different than Lon Chaney’s scaring the socks off us, where we truly hope the dashing Norman Kerry with his magnificent boyish grin and handsome looks will get Christine the heck out of that dungeon before the movie ends. In the 2004 musical, we are not so sure we want Patrick Wilson to rescue Emmy Rossum. When she leaves the Phantom’s lair, we are sorry for him and wonder what will become of him. Not so with Lon Chaney, who fascinated us, and repulsed us, but our sorrow for his plight and our empathy is held in check by the fact that he’s one seriously creepy fellow.

Perhaps a good deal of this transformation of the Phantom in our popular culture has simply to do with ugliness. Gerard Butler’s Phantom is a man with what looks like a few old burn scars on part of one side of his face. Nothing we can’t live with, even though he vainly keeps it covered. Lon Chaney’s face is a rotting, putrid skull. It gives us nightmares. The original book was written in the days when ugly was synonymous with evil, at least as far as storytelling was concerned. Chaney’s film was made, similarly, when the representation of evil was done mainly through an image of ugliness. We still have film monsters who are ugly to be sure, but they are evil and ugly, not evil because they are ugly. There was not a whole lot of sensitivity towards people with mental or physical handicaps in those days, when desperate parents were still leaving deformed children with carnivals. There wouldn’t be any empathy left over either for folks who were less than beautiful. In the code of old Hollywood, the heroes and heroines were beautiful, and the sidekicks and villains were not.

Today we have a bit different take on evil, on beauty, and on empathizing with those who appear different, and that perhaps is one of the reasons why the Phantom has changed. He needs to be repackaged in order to be sold. It would be difficult to film the same 1925 story and present it to a 21st century audience, with the same simplistic judgments. The Phantom’s evil as represented today is more psychological, and more a problem of society because he has been treated so shamefully. Instead of nightmares, he gives us second thoughts.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Bogart's Cement Shoes



Humphrey Bogart spent the day at the Columbia Pictures lot shooting “Dead Reckoning,” co-starring Lizabeth Scott, and then went to get his hands dirty. The date was August 21, 1946, when Bogart joined the pantheon of footprints and handprints in front of Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theater. According to “Bogart” by A.M. Sperber and Eric Lax (William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1997), he left the lot in the late afternoon, put on “what he called his lucky shoes, the oxfords he wore in ‘Casablanca’ and ‘The Big Sleep’….” These shoes were to make a big impression.

In the photo of the event, his wife Lauren Bacall kneels beside him before the slab of wet cement. Her hand is placed atop his as he presses his hand into it. Along with his signature, Bogart scratched out a warm, personal message to Sid Grauman, “Sid, may you never die ‘till I kill you.”

Just another day out of the office for Sam Spade.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Since You Went Away (1944)

What if Bill was not killed? What if Anne had started work at the war plant at the beginning of the film and not the end? What if her harmless, funny flirtation with Tony led to a serious threat to her marriage? What if Tim died, or had never been found? “Since You Went Away” (1944) is a much-loved film that does not answer these questions. It does not even dare ask them.

David O. Selznick’s classic American home front film is lovingly detailed in the mementos preserved by wife and mother Anne, played by Claudette Colbert. We see a year in the life of the wife and daughters left behind by Tim, a forty-something professional we never see except through snapshots, and come to know only through the devotion of his family. Joseph Cotten plays the family friend Tony, whose unrelenting boyish flirtation with Colbert is either returned or squashed by her sassy and sensible replies. A nice touch to the film is the way the seasons are used to move the story and reflect the mood. It rains when Colbert returns, empty and depressed, from bringing her husband to the railroad station when he reports for Army duty. The gentle spring is a cruelly poignant backdrop to the news they receive of Tim’s being missing in action. A bright summer sky and a sudden thunderstorm are the backdrop of the first flush of romance between the elder daughter Jane, played by Jennifer Jones, and visiting soldier Bill, played by Robert Walker. A gray autumn day brings news of his death in battle. A gentle Christmas snow brings the good news of the missing Tim’s being found safe.

The story flows along in a natural progression of small moments, with the only fireworks being displayed by irascible boarder Colonel Smollett, Bill’s estranged grandfather, played by Monty Woolley. Shirley Temple is warm and natural as the younger daughter. Hattie McDaniel is their caring, and reliably funny maid, and Agnes Moorehead gets a nice role as a snippy and selfish friend. Lionel Barrymore has a cameo as the minister who delivers a sermon, not unlike Henry Wilcoxon in “Mrs. Miniver.” Where Wilcoxon’s speech was a wholly original definition of “the people’s war,” Barrymore staidly quotes from “The Star Spangled Banner.”

This is Selznick’s earnest attempt at conjuring an American “Mrs. Miniver,” but the problem is that though these are all likeable actors playing likeable roles, the angst for the American home front was the waiting. Unlike the civilian populations of Europe and Asia, most of the American home front experience on the mainland (beyond a few isolated attacks) consisted of the anxiety of waiting.

Not to downplay that anxiety, for surely Americans at home suffered a dreadful period during the war, but waiting for someone to return does not always make for dynamic cinema.

Back to the questions mentioned above. If Bill had not died in action, would his romance with daughter Jane pass beyond the puppy love stage? Her train-chase (“I love you Bill! I love you, Darling!”) was parodied in “Airplane” (1980). Walker’s sweet and sad character represents a lot of young boys, green and inexperienced, who did not come back. But because Jane is young, we expect she will get over it, and because we expect that, the impact is not as great as if her father Tim had died. Tim’s death would have brought war home for this family far more than ration points and V-mail. Or, if Anne had started her job at the war plant at the beginning of the film, rather than at the end as she finally finds a place for herself in the war effort, the war would have been brought home to them sooner.

One of the most poignant, devastating, and true scenes of the film is when Anne and her daughters watch a newsreel in a darkened movie theater. Their neighbor and grocer, Mr. Mahoney, passes them up the aisle, wearing a black armband for his flyer son who was just killed. We see the newsreel’s cheerleading message of victory behind his shoulder as he trudges, heartbroken and his future destroyed, towards the camera.

Most of the war is experienced by the secondary characters in this film, for Anne and her daughters are in the safe cocoon the absent Tim has put them in. Even though the film isn’t half over, we already know Tim is coming back, because bad things happen to other people, not to nice people like Anne and her girls.

That's it for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Clarence Brown - From Cars to Film

Clarence Brown became a Hollywood director in the days when being a Hollywood director had nothing to do with film school. An extraordinary industry in its early days; if a man purchased a camera he could be a director.

Born in 1890, with the turn of the Twentieth Century fast approaching, he came along in a period when a menagerie of new innovations in science and art burst forth in such a stream of applied imagination that many inventions, and many qualities of life in the next century would find their prelude in this decade. Both autos and motion pictures had their impetus in this frenetic period. Both would change the country and the world, and both were very important to Clarence Brown.

Brown grew up in Massachusetts and Tennessee, and his first profession was automobile manufacturing. He studied engineering at the University of Tennessee while only 15 years old. He graduated in 1910 with two degrees, and headed for western Massachusetts where the Stevens-Duryea company was building its own line of cars. After a couple of years with them, he left for Birmingham, Alabama to establish his own car plant, called the Brown Motor Company.

Only a few years later, he saw a movie being filmed in New Jersey, where a new interest, and a new career was born. He wrote, produced, acted in minor roles in a few early films, edited, and by the 1920s, began a long career as a film director.

Brown directed Greta Garbo in “Anna Christie,” “Anna Karenina” and other films. She reportedly called him her favorite director. His film “A Free Soul” made a star of Clark Gable, and his “National Velvet” introduced Elizabeth Taylor.

Brown gave us “The Yearling,” “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and “Plymouth Adventure” before retiring in 1953. He had been nominated for the Best Director Academy Award five times. The film industry seemed to be an arena of self-made men, and women, who remade themselves in one way or another, from their appearances, their names, their goals, and their destinies. Clarence Brown, whose intelligence and ambition could have marked him for success in manufacturing or any field, chose film. It’s quite a leap from manufacturing to the artistry of film, but perhaps there was something more than fascination with a new toy that drew Brown. Certainly the early days of film were equally entrepreneurial as artistic, and more than one businessman was lured by the prospect of getting in on something completely new. In his case, it was life changing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A Bit More on The Music Box Steps


A bit more on “The Music Box Steps” (see March 6, 2007).

The gag of lugging heavy stuff up terrace stairs which defy LA’s sometimes surprising terrain had been used before Laurel and Hardy took a crack at it in “The Music Box.” The same steps were used in “Ice Cold Cocos” (1926) directed by Del Lord, who also directed “The Music Box,” and in “Isn’t Life Terrible” (1925) with Fay Wray and Charley Chase. Lord also directed the Stooges’ “An Ache in Every Stake,” clearly never tiring of the stairs gag. Perhaps those earlier films led to using the gag over and over again, but I wonder which came first for Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges on their own imposing set of stairs: the idea that there were some long steep steps in town that would make a great gag, or the idea that they were to lift something heavy up a set of stairs, and where could they find such stairs to use? The chicken or the egg? There is an excellent discussion of this in an article “The Music Box” by Richard W. Bann posted on the Laurel and Hardy website: www.Laurel-and-Hardy.com.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lafe McKee

Lafe McKee has the astonishing accomplishment of having appeared in 329 movies. He debuted as a film actor in 1912 with “All on Account of Checkers” and remained a working actor until 1948 when he appeared as an uncredited extra in “Belle Starr’s Daughter.”

As the title of his final film indicates, Mr. McKee’s career was spent for the most part in B-westerns. He played sheriffs and ministers, and various townspeople, including unnamed stagecoach passengers. In “The Lone Ranger” (1938), he was murdered.

Only rarely using his real name of Lafayette McKee, in the films he was called Pop or Dad, Colonel, Doc, Skipper, Reverend, or Prisoner Shot in Back. He was a working actor, not a star, and few stars had his endurance.

Mr. McKee was born in 1872, long before movies were even imagined, let alone made, which would have made him around 40 at his film debut. In 1934 he made “West of the Divide” with John Wayne, and in just that single year of 1934 appeared in 29 separate films. He was evidently as interchangeable on different sets as flats.

Most of us may remember McKee not for his western films or even his longevity, but for three films made by Frank Capra in which McKee had brief cameo parts. In “Meet John Doe” (1941) he is Mr. Delaney, the man who sells his furniture piece by piece to get through the Depression, whose wife kisses Gary Cooper’s hand in appreciation for giving them hope. McKee has no lines; he merely clings to his wife and smiles, nodding graciously to Cooper. He is a tall, thin man with white hair, merry eyes, and a full white mustache. His appearance is iconic, from another era, a 19th century rail splitter in a battle to keep his dignity in the cold and heartless 20th Century. This is why Capra used him, and used him again.

In “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” director Capra places McKee in another cameo moment as the Civil War Veteran who stands with his grandson at the Lincoln Memorial, while James Stewart, inspired by him as much as by Lincoln’s words etched in stone, looks on.

He is one of the disenfranchised farmers in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” and while I’m not really sure about this, but I think McKee also has an uncredited part as an extra in Capra’s “Miracle Woman” (1931) sitting in the front row of the revival meeting congregation. There is a gentleman who looks like him, but I could be wrong. It was the kind of setting where he would be used, a decent American in a desperate situation.

His appearance was an American Everyman, from the generation before the Gary Cooper and James Stewart type of Everyman. Unlike them, he was not given snappy lines, or the girl. At that stage of his life, his courtly appearance substituted for dialogue. He is a symbol a bygone, simpler age.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Forbidden (1932)

The three leads, the snappy dialogue by Jo Swerling, and impeccable direction by Frank Capra make “Forbidden” (1932) one of the most interesting films of the pre-Code era. Daring for the time, it is melodramatic without being simpering. The story of a woman who has a decades-long affair with a married man, bears his child and eventually gives their daughter to him and his wife to raise could be a soppy moralistic mess, but Barbara Stanwyck, Aldophe Menjou, and Ralph Bellamy make their characters believable, equally decent and imperfect.

Stanwyck is introduced to us as an “old maid,” the victim of condescending town gossip. She blows up, declaring she would like to “set fire to the whole town and play a ukulele while it burns.” She has no real big dreams, only wants life on her own terms.

Menjou plays her married lover. Their scenes are delightfully playful, and Stanwyck forms that intense bond with her principle partner that she seems to do in many of her films. Even though she will later marry Bellamy’s character, there is a thin psychological barrier she creates between them, never letting us forget who it is she really loves.

Bellamy is the newspaper reporter who hounds Menjou throughout his political career. Sometimes labeled as a portrayer of somewhat boring character roles, this role really shows his range. He is charming, pushy, intelligent, a little bit obnoxious, and fascinating to watch for the danger he unknowingly represents to Stanwyck.

Stanwyck’s fallen woman is multi-dimensional, and her ability to play a scene on so many emotional levels is especially evident in this film. The look on her stunned face as the society ladies and Menjou’s wife fuss over the child she has given up, shows she is only just realizing the mistake she has made.

Years later, when Menjou, sickened by living a lie, wants to confess their relationship to his wife and to the public, Stanwyck heads him off by breaking up and marrying Bellamy. In an electrifying scene over a cozy dinner table, Bellamy puts before her the documented proof he has of her affair with Menjou. He is calculating, but he is not just a newshound out to ruin a politician. Angry and hurt, he has become a jealous husband. A few moments later, after he pushes her away and bloodies her face, she shoots him, and continues to fire into his already dead body, and burns the documents. Capra has constructed a masterful scene. Stanwyck, still holding the gun, stands trembling in shock, her expressionless eyes riveted to the fire, as we hear Menjou making his acceptance speech on the radio for the governor’s race, and the police pounding at the door.

Even her last sacrifice in the film, when she destroys the dying Menjou’s written confession and naming her as a beneficiary in his will, we see Stanwyck not really as a noble, selfless woman, but as a person who aches to control her own life. She is the same willful woman who stomped out of her library job years before. When the camera pulls back, we see her walk the city streets and we lose her in the crowd. In fact, we may not even know her any better than we did at the beginning of the film. The movie comes to its conclusion, yet you still find yourself wondering what could happen next.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Lux Radio Theatre

The Lux Radio Theatre featured film stars from every studio. In radio play scripts adapted from popular films, these actors had an opportunity to publicize current or future projects, keep their names before the public, and stretch different muscles in the very different realm of acting on radio, before a studio audience.

These shows were produced and hosted by famed director Cecil B. DeMille. In 1940, William Powell and Myrna Loy recreated their roles in “Manhattan Melodrama” with Don Ameche in the Clark Gable role. In 1944, Teresa Wright recreated her role in “Shadow of a Doubt,” with William Powell in the Joseph Cotten role. Greer Garson and Ronald Colman had a chance to recreate their roles in “Random Harvest,” and Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and C. Aubrey Smith recreated their roles in “The Prisoner of Zenda.”

Lux wasn’t the only game in town, however. “The Screen Director’s Playhouse,” “Academy Award Theatre,” and “Screen Guild Players” were others which used the same formula of adapting film scripts to radio, in most cases trying to use the original stars. Some programs were more successful than others. One wonders about the logic of the “Screen Guild Players” attempt to adapt “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a very long movie, into a half-hour radio script. At least “Lux” shows were an hour.

Though original players Frederic March, Myrna Loy, and Teresa Wright were in the radio version, most of the other characters and scenes had to be cut out to fit the story in a half-hour format. It was less an adaptation of “Best Years” than the Cliff Notes. One rather comic aspect is that in the film, March, just home from the service, nervously offers his wife, played by Myrna Loy, a cigarette. She responds, “Have you forgotten, Al? I don’t smoke.” This illustrates their long absence from each other.

However, the “Screen Guild Players” version was sponsored by Camel Cigarettes, so refusing a cigarette was out. Instead, he offers her coffee and she says, “Don’t you remember, Al? I don’t drink coffee.” You can imagine the actors’ and the audience’ eyes rolling over that one.

Most of the radio scripts were fairly faithful, and the shows a lot of fun to hear. Today the Lux Radio Playhouse on Vine Street where the Lux shows were produced is now the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre. Like all theaters, it must be filled with an interesting collage of theater ghosts. Standing before microphones, perhaps, dropping each page of dialogue on the floor.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Gower Gulch

Gower Gulch was the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. Hollywood attracted many newcomers in the 1930s hoping for a career in film, and a lot of them came here. It was also called Poverty Row, illustrating that dreams of success would remain only dreams for most of them.

As early as before the First World War, there was a film studio here, and later on in the Depression the nearby studios of Paramount, Columbia, Republic and RKO made the spot the focus of real cowboys trying for parts in B-westerns, with would-be actors coming right off the ranch.

Gower Gulch has been parodied in a few films, and has a special tribute in the 1951 Warner Brothers cartoon “Drip-Along Daffy” where Daffy Duck plays a “western-type hero” whose noble white horse has an exaggerated mane, and Porky Pig plays his “comedy relief” sidekick looking less heroic on a tiny burro. As they ride along what appears to be a cartoon version of Monument Valley, Porky strums a guitar and sings a cowboy song about Minerva, the “Flower of Gower Gulch,” who is a cowpuncher’s sweetheart true even though “her looks don’t amount to much, ‘cause one of her eyes is blue/She’s got skin just like prairie dog leather. She cooks nothin’ but chuck wagon stew….”

You probably know the rest.

There is a shopping plaza in Gower Gulch now, with a western town façade, but if you want to see traces of what was, mosey on up to the Autry Museum of the American West up in Griffith Park. A terrific exhibit of Southwest history is on display, and in a corner of the impressive reality of the West, there is a small tribute to the movie cowboy and the poignant legacy of imagination and heart, and even parody, he has left to us.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Hollywood Sign



A recent fire in the Griffith Park area of Los Angeles, dramatically close to the Hollywood Sign, brings to mind what an odd history the Sign has in the land of make believe.

Originally constructed as HOLLYWOODLAND, the sign was built in 1923 to advertise a real estate development in the hills above LA. Though it was intended to be temporary, by the Great Depression the Sign was still there and had morphed into a kind of Los Angeles marquee for the glitzy company town. It came to represent dreams, not as illusion but as a road to success. For some, it came to represent the despair of failure when dreams die, especially perhaps for the poor soul who committed suicide in 1932 by leaping off the “H.”

The sign stood neglected for many years and by World War II had gotten pretty vandalized, yet there was something there in the promise of the Sign tantalizing enough for the Chamber of Commerce to repair it and take it over.

By 1973 it had reached landmark status even as most of the Hollywood movie studios were leaving town.

It remains today in a revitalized Hollywood, and if fire may occasionally threaten it, the Sign, like the dreams of success that built it and sustained it through many difficult decades, seems to endure pretty well. It has become one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Easter Parade

“Easter Parade” (1948) set in 1911-1912, showcases Irving Berlin’s Tin Pan Alley hits, and one hit of the Great Depression, which was the song “Easter Parade.” The film opens on the day before Easter, and just as Fred Astaire’s spending spree to buy flowers, a hat, and a stuffed bunny for Ann Miller indicate, it once was really the busiest shopping day of the year.

When Ann dumps Fred for bigger things (just as the aforementioned lout Lee Bowman in “My Dream is Yours”) Fred snatches Judy Garland from the gutter pretty much as Jack Carson snatches Doris Day in “My Dream is Yours,” and pushes her to become his new singing and dancing partner.

They rehearse for the first time on Easter Sunday, and she gets a glimpse of the Easter Parade and the beautiful people strolling home from church to see and be seen.

Judy Garland is clearly Fred Astaire’s equal in dancing, and she makes one of his most delightful partners. Their “A Couple of Swells” routine is now classic. Two people in shabby clothes and blacked out teeth never looked so good. The rolling backdrop behind them as they sing “we’ll walk up the avenue” reprises the Easter Parade theme of strolling along with the swells.

Another fun number is “Girl On A Magazine Cover,” which displays elegant fashions and a riot of colors. It’s interesting to note how many of these old-time magazines (Redbook, Harper’s, etc.) are still being published.

Judy, his protégé, makes good and their act is a success. That they fall in love is of course inevitable, and she reverses the roles at the end of the film on the following Easter Sunday by presenting Fred with a top hat “bonnet”, flowers, candy, and a live rabbit, singing to him the song “Easter Parade.” The final shot is Judy and Fred strolling down Fifth Avenue with the wealthy fashion setters, in nice clothes and no blacked-out teeth.

Irving Berlin, responsible for this and all the songs in the film, emigrated to the US from Russia with his family in 1893. Jerome Kern, asked of his opinion of Berlin’s place in American music famously replied, “Irving Berlin IS American music.” Berlin was one of our most prolific, and most patriotic, songwriters. That he celebrated secular aspects of Christmas and Easter so successfully may be due to his realization that compromise, rather than exclusion, is the true American trait. Or, it may due to his being a Jewish man who was happily married to a Roman Catholic woman, which upset both their families, and he learned firsthand the benefits of compromise that sometimes leads to the development of a new, shared heritage. The American secular holiday created just such a new, shared heritage, including an Easter with flowers, fashions, candy, and songs, and movies which celebrated them.

That’s it for this week. See you next week, and Happy Easter.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

My Dream Is Yours (1949)

In “My Dream is Yours” (1949), we have a film which spoofs radio advertising, the music business, agents, and really has no Easter message at all, except for the small Easter celebration toward the end of the film when single mom Doris Day’s uncle is seen dying colored Easter eggs for her son Freddie, and Freddie gets stuffed bunnies from all the grownups.

Doris Day and Jack Carson sing a musical number with Bugs Bunny in an animated sequence, which is Freddie’s dream. Day and Carson are dressed as Easter bunnies. Even Tweety, who must have had a good agent, has a cameo.

Even beyond the animated sequence, the film is awash in color, in the pastel gowns in the all-female orchestra on S. Z. Sakall’s radio program. Eve Arden, whose sassy sense and smart mouth foreshadow her success on radio with “Our Miss Brooks” is vivid with her red hair and yellow jacket. In another scene she wears green slacks, the color jumps off the screen. Among the ladies there are green hats, blue dresses, pink blouses. The message may not be fashion, but it certainly is color. The drab war years are over.

The plot is typically simple. Arrogant radio singer Lee Bowman dumps agent Jack Carson to go on to bigger things. Carson replaces him with nobody Doris Day and spends much of the film trying to arrange her first big break. Doris falls for the lout Bowman, but in the last moments realizes good guy Jack Carson, who adores her son, is the one to be with.

A fun aspect to this film are the many shots of post-war Los Angeles, some location shooting, and some rear-screen projection, of street scenes and landmarks including the Brown Derby and the Copacabana.

Another point to remember in these post-war Easters is that gas rationing of the war years was over. Sugar rationing is over. Clothing rationing is over. The urge to celebrate, not just victory, but the return to a normal life is what makes a huge difference in how the celebration of secular Easter has come down to us.

During the war, we had a brief glimpse of Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds singing “Easter Parade” as they left a small country church in “Holiday Inn” (1942). They are dressed simply and modestly for church, but there is no opulence. When Fred Astaire greets them on the porch of the inn, he is not wearing a top hat or carrying an Easter lily. It is a sweet, but not a splashy segment.

By 1949, Easter, like the eggs in the color bath, got a bit splashy.

Tomorrow we finish up with “Easter Parade.”

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Easter In Hollywood - 1949

Easter in the old movies comes to us in fashion, flowers, and songs. The two films, “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours” give us plenty of these, along with colors of the rainbow like so much Easter egg dye.

Though Cecil B. DeMille may have tackled both the story of Christ and the story of Moses, a holiday like Easter was usually presented its most secular clothing. But, Hollywood did not create this new Easter, it merely exploited it.

As far back as the mid-1900s, Easter began a new secular role when New York City’s Fifth Avenue became the site of the so-called “Easter Parade,” when the wealthy classes strolled home from church in the latest European fashions, watched with fascination by the working class people who hovered on the edges of society. This is the world Judy Garland gets a glimpse of as a young, awkward hoofer in “Easter Parade.”

As the 20th Century dawned, other cities picked up this craze, and after World War I, when the boom of the 1920s put more money in the working man’s pockets, the idea of springtime fashions became possible for everyone. Amid the frenzied commercial cult of the 1920s, new clothes were requisite for the entire family. Milliners were as important to life then as the milkman. One didn’t leave home without a hat, and if a holiday required new clothes, then it also required new hats. The Easter bonnet was born.

The holiday spending spread to candy, flowers, and small toys in the shape of rabbits and chicks. In some cities, the biggest shopping day of the year, right through the Depression, was not the day after Thanksgiving as it is now, but Holy Saturday.

By 1948-49, which gave us “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours” there were more families, more kiddies, and more money. Freddie, the little boy of single mom Doris Day in “My Dream is Yours” gets showered with presents of toy rabbits by all the adults.

The song Fred Astaire sings while chapeau shopping in “Easter Parade” is called “Happy Easter,” and on his radio show on April 17, 1949, Easter Sunday, Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone sing this song while they take their listeners on an imaginary Easter parade up Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, touting the movie. One of the passers by they “meet,” incidentally, is played by Sheldon Leonard, who has a minor role in “My Dream is Yours,” and also a character played by Mel Blanc, who does the voice of Bugs Bunny in the animated sequence in “My Dream is Yours.” Before we get into playing Six Degrees of Sheldon Leonard, let’s note that by the following year, 1950, Gene Autry released his hit, “Here Comes Peter Cottontail,” and the American suburban Easter was firmly in place, planted by Hollywood. The “bunny trail” was the back yard.

The whole family may not get new Easter clothes anymore, but the candy makers still do a brisk business, and these two movies remain to tell us a lot about how things used to be.

More tomorrow on “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours.”

Monday, April 2, 2007

Easter Films - Sacred vs Silly

With Easter approaching and this week, Holy Week, the most important in the Christian calendar, it’s interesting to take a look at Americans’ ability to walk that line between the sacred and the silly. Obviously jelly beans and chocolate bunnies have nothing to do with liturgy, yet they are now part and parcel of Easter.

Movies have not grasped the holiday and wrung it to bits the way they’ve commandeered Christmas, but two Easter films we’ll be dealing with this week are stamped with that genuine American attitude of compromise. The Passion of Christ cannot, for most of us, be reduced to a lighthearted musical review of songs and dances. But, the secular aspects of any religious holiday are more comfortably shared, celebrated, and kidded. Thus the sacred and the silly are separated, but not necessarily opposing.

By the way, we’re talking “old” movies (see Intro in archives), so “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” despite their merits as musicals, are not the issue here. Nor will either help us to understand that American invention of the secular persona for a sacred holiday.

The two films are “Easter Parade” and “My Dream is Yours,” from 1948 and 1949. These postwar years play a big a part in the character of these films. The post-war years had a strange duality to them. On the one hand, the GI Bill of Rights provided the resources for a generation of young men to pursue education, business, and a suburban tract home. On the other hand, despite this drive to a seek out a wonderful future, there was a kind of fatigue after the horrors of war and a yearning to turn back the mind, if not the clock, to a happier time and place. That’s generally called nostalgia, and it’s usually mostly made up.

There was the bewildered realization that after victory in the war and especially with the invention of the atom bomb, America was now the most powerful nation on earth, an aspect of our lives with which Americans still struggle. Yet, there was a naiveté about our power and our bomb, that led Doris Day, in “My Dream Is Yours” to sing a novelty tune called “The Geiger Counter Song” with a “tick-tick-tick” syncopation to “give me a radioactive kick.”

“Easter Parade” eschewed the modern times and sent us back to 1911-1912, where modernity was represented in large plumed hats and ragtime, a more comfortable spot for us to be, evidently. The film was intended to be a showcase for a variety of Tin Pan Alley Irving Berlin tunes. Ironically, the song “Easter Parade” was not from this era, but was written by Berlin for the musical review “As Thousands Cheer” in 1932. It’s always been hard to film a movie about the past and not get slapped in the head by unruly anachronisms. That is because we want the past to be what we want it to be, and not what it was.

More tomorrow on these Easter films.