Thursday, November 29, 2007

New England Sleigh Ride

At the end of “White Christmas” (1954), the first few flakes of long-awaited and hoped for snow finally fall. No sooner have Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye spied the snowflakes floating down like a benediction on this Vermont soundstage, er, landscape, that a sleigh cruises by. Bing and Danny cheerily wave and shout to the driver, but neither wonders how a sleigh can move on what must have been only an eighth of an inch of snow. Yet, we hear no scraping of the metal runners on the road, no clawing of clumps of dirt in the drive. This is because it is snowing, and when it snows in New England, New Englanders ride in sleighs. Ayuh.

In “Holiday Inn” (1942), Bing’s other New England country hotel outing, Marjorie Reynolds arrives at Holiday Inn in a sleigh. This is because it is winter, and Holiday Inn is in Connecticut. This sleigh happens to be a taxi. In New England, taxis in the winter are sleighs. How do I know? The movies tell me so.

In “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), Barbara Stanwyck arrives at her fiancé’s Connecticut home by sleigh, again a taxi. Again, there is only about an eighth of an inch of snow on the ground. In a little while Dennis Morgan arrives by sleigh, and a little while after that, Sydney Greenstreet arrives, also by sleigh. Later on when Miss Stanwyck and Mr. Morgan, who have taken a liking to each other, sneak away from a party at the local town hall to be alone, they naturally go for a sleigh ride. This is New England. In winter, we ride in sleighs, got it? There is one conveniently parked by all the automobiles. They ignore the cars and steal the sleigh. They get arrested for sleigh-knapping, which is a serious offense in these parts.

Being a New Englander myself, I can vouch for the veracity of this sentimental Hollywood version of New England. If I had a nickel for every sleigh I see driving around in the winter on city streets, I’d be a millionaire. Not just city traffic, mind, but the interstate highways are veritably clogged with them. Driving those horses like gosh all hemlock, not signaling when they change lanes. Sweet Betsy from Pike, it’s maddening.

You think summertime traffic coming off Cape Cod at the end of a weekend is rough? Try coasting over the Bourne Bridge in a sleigh in the wintertime, only to find yourself behind a line of sleighs ahead of you as far as the eye can see. You think Route 1 from Connecticut to Maine is bumper to bumper in the summer? Try it in December, my friend. You’ll be huddling under your buffalo robe in your sleigh, moodily sipping from your flask and becoming more foul-mouthed by the minute as you wait in traffic. But the movies never show that ugly part, do they? No, they go for pure fantasy.

That’s all for this week. Have a nice weekend. See you Monday. I’m off to wax my runners.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Series films

TCM recently ran a slew of “Andy Hardy” films in a Thanksgiving Day marathon. What distinguishes this series of films is perhaps not the depiction of an ideal American family, but the fact that we get to see them so often, a new one almost every year. They were not exactly sequels in the sense that we have come to understand the blockbuster sequels of today, a.k.a. “Rocky 17” and “Star Wars 23”. There were just the continuing saga, and one did not have to see any of the previous films to understand the plot. Many other series films have been shown in the past month as well.

There used to be a lot of series films, some of them B-movies which were shot on slim budgets, but also feature films that carried characters, if not a storyline, onto the next film. “Mr. Moto” films, “The Falcon” and “The Saint” were typical of popular detective features of the day. “Ma and Pa Kettle” and “Mexican Spitfire” and the “Maisie” films took over comedy. “Dr. Kildare” gave us drama, and “Torchy Blaine” gave us yet another “girl reporter.”

Series films weren’t exactly serials, either, like the “Crash Corrigan” type of chapter-by-chapter short. They were full-length films which featured characters already so familiar that they did not need to be explained or established. You knew what to expect when Andy Hardy met a new popular girl at school, or Mr. Moto took on a new case.

It was a hybrid type of film that perhaps morphed into episodic television and sitcoms. Possibly the closest thing we have today to series films are the James Bond movies, which feature the same character in different adventures.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Now Playing -1944


“Together Again”, is the aptly titled film reuniting Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer together for the first time since their hit, “Love Affair” (1939). In this comedy, Dunne plays the mayor of small Vermont town and Boyer is a New York City sculptor, with Charles Coburn in a supporting role. This is a full-page magazine ad published in November, just before the film’s release in December of 1944.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Miracle on 34th Street (1947

“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) sets two interesting precedents for the American public. First, it becomes a traditional must-see film for the Christmas holiday season, something warm and fuzzy, and frequently re-made. Secondly, and more importantly, it openly and frankly acknowledges, perhaps even establishes, the phenomenon of yuletide commercialism, Black Friday binges, Cyber Mondays and Thanksgiving as a warm-up act for the big show to follow.

Maureen O’Hara is in Human Resources at New York City’s famed Macy’s Department Store, and is in charge of the Thanksgiving Parade. She hires Edmund Gwenn as a last-minute replacement for the fellow supposed to play Santa Claus, whose float brings up the rear of the parade. She has unwittingly hired the real Santa Claus to play himself, and that is where the plot takes off. John Payne is her prospective beau and Santa’s attorney, and young Natalie Wood her daughter, who does not believe in Santa.

We have a few shots of Macy’s and a couple of actors playing Mr. Macy and his rival, Mr. Gimble, but it’s not really so much about Macy’s or New York City. This could be any department store in any town. These could be your kids waiting in line in to sit in Santa’s lap, or it could be you, or your parents. We have a suggestion of the late war with the most touching scene in the movie probably where the little girl from Holland, who does not speak English, is captivated by a Santa Claus who can easily converse with her in Dutch. But most of the film is not about the past, either good old days or horrors gratefully behind us. It is not even about the present, with bustling well-dressed shoppers using cash instead of credit cards and content to wait until Christmas Eve to decorate their real trees, with dreams of their first suburban post-war homes dancing in their heads, topping their wish list.

It is about the future, a time which this film maps out even if it does not envision. It is about a time of paying with plastic, and of over-spending with plastic. It is about the economic reporters gauging, analyzing, cringing and exulting about how much money is being spent by the shopper, by the minute, in an America where two-thirds of our economy is dependent on this one short season.

It is about putting up the tree on Thanksgiving after rushing through the turkey dinner. It is about watching “Miracle on 34th Street” not because it is one of the few classic films which mentions that most American of holidays, Thanksgiving, but because leads us into Christmas, ready, set, go right after you finish your piece of pumpkin pie.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Jerky Turkey (1945)

“Jerky Turkey” tells us practically nothing about the Pilgrims or the origins of the American Thanksgiving, but it tells us a lot about 1945, the year in which this cartoon was made.

Directed by Tex Avery, we see several of Avery’s customary exaggerations and sight gags which propel the story of a hapless and somewhat dopy Pilgrim hunting a turkey that is too clever for him.

What is especially interesting are the topical references to World War II made in several of the gags, such as the “Mayflower” being a Henry Kaiser ship, complete with a World War II era cannon mounted in the rear, and being convoyed on the journey across the Atlantic by Destroyers and aircraft carriers. Finally arriving in the New World, the Pilgrims are greeted by the sign “Was this trip really necessary?” Younger viewers may not get this, or the references to long lines for cigarettes or the black market, but this makes an otherwise foolish cartoon educational. Throw in some American Indian stereotypes and you have a pretty good picture of what popular entertainment was like, and where the mindset was, in the US in 1945.

Bill Thompson, who does the voice for the Pilgrim, is well known to voice actor fans as Ranger J. Audubon Woodlore in several Disney cartoons, as the ever irritating Droopy, and a regular cast member who voice several characters in the old “Fibber McGee and Molly” radio show.

The cartoon was released in April of 1945. By Thanksgiving of that year, the war would be over, and it would be the first Thanksgiving home for many returning service personnel. Nothing like the real “first” Thanksgiving of course, though just as blessed, but then this cartoon is nothing like the real “first” Thanksgiving, either.

Watch “Jerky Turkey” here, and pass the cranberry sauce. Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"Franksgiving"

In the Thanksgiving scene in “Holiday Inn,” Bing Crosby plays a recording of himself singing “I’ve Got Plenty to Be Thankful For” while he dejectedly plays with his food, an enormous turkey and all the trimmings. Louise Beavers, who plays his cook, Mamie, sets the feast before him, and then berates him for letting Fred Astaire steal Marjorie Reynolds away.

Wondering if he is really going to eat all that food by himself, and wondering if Mamie and her tagalong children are going to get to eat any of it, is only part of the viewer’s preoccupation with this scene. The other distracting mystery is the brief black and white animation which prefaces this scene, wherein a cartoon turkey sitting on a calendar page suddenly hoists himself up and walks over to the highlighted Thursday the week before. No sooner has he settled himself down, that the box marking the fourth Thursday in November is highlighted as Thanksgiving, and he must hoist himself up again, with no small ruffling of the feathers, to waddle down to the Thursday he had previously occupied. The turkey is repeatedly teased in this manner, and so are we, until he finally shrugs denoting his confusion.

Younger viewers may think that Thanksgiving is all about the Pilgrims and all that, but modern Thanksgiving is also about commerce, in so far as it leads into the holiday shopping season. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still trying to jump start us out of the Depression, in one of his many grab you by the socks legislative moves, pushed Thanksgiving 1939 up a week, to the third Thursday of November. This was intended to extend the holiday shopping season. Most Americans followed the President’s lead, but interestingly, many New Englanders refused to follow suit and continued to celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday. They called the Thursday before “Franksgiving.” New Englanders, particularly those residing in Massachusetts, always took a rather proprietary view of Thanksgiving, and until roughly about the late 1940s it was a much bigger holiday in New England than Christmas ever was.

The dispute over which was the real Thanksgiving Day continued in 1940 and 1941, and afterward Congress capitulated to tradition and voted to return Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday of November. The reference to this in “Holiday Inn” is one of those small but interesting Zeitgeist moments to watch for in old Hollywood films.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Louise Beavers

Louise Beavers reportedly aspired to be a physician when she was a young woman, but opportunities were limited for women in the early part of the 20th century, especially if they were not well to do, and particularly if they were African-American. She trail-blazed in another way, becoming the first African-American actress to play a substantial role on film that showed a multi-dimensional character.

“Imitation of Life” (1934) was Miss Beavers’ most prominent role, sharing the spotlight and the storyline equally with star Claudette Colbert. The story of a woman whose light-skinned daughter callously rejects her mother in attempting to pass for a white woman cut to the heart of a racist Hollywood and a racist America, drawing controversy from both white and black commentators. It was also the story of a career woman, who begins as a simple cook but who becomes a famous entrepreneur and merchandiser not only of her own product but her own image. Many felt at the time that Miss Beavers was robbed when her performance was not acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination.

It was an important role in a potentially important film, but after that a string of the regular domestic servant roles became the mainstay of Louise Beavers’ career. However, she played opposite some of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, including Mae West, Jean Harlow, with whom she appeared in “Bombshell,” and Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in “Holiday Inn.”

Later, Miss Beavers broke new ground again by starring in “Beulah,” the first TV sitcom to feature an African-American. Three other actresses also took turns at that character, one of them being her good friend, Hattie McDaniel, who also knew something about the trials of reaching for success in Hollywood while dressed in a maid’s costume. These two ladies were character actresses who could have been, and should have been, stars.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)

“Hello, Frisco, Hello” (1943) makes the War go away by giving us Alice Faye and John Payne in a Technicolor Barbary Coast of yesteryear. Along with Jack Oakie and June Havoc, they make a vaudeville foursome trying to rise above the honkytonks of San Francisco’s Pacific Street. Alice is “dead gone” on John Payne, but he has his sights on Nob Hill and the carriage trade.

John Payne, the brains of the quartet, aspires to greater things, and falls for wealthy socialite played by Lynn Bari, breaking our Alice Faye’s heart. He acquires several theaters, becoming an impresario and leaving his old gang behind.

The film is notable for Miss Faye’s poignant rendition of “You’ll Never Know” which she croons onstage into a prop telephone to her long-distance lover. The song won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, and quickly became a favorite in wartime America among separated sweethearts. Her distinctive contralto singing voice, low and warm, marked her from other singing stars of her day.

“You went away, and my heart went with you,” the song goes, and it is because of the simple, yet truthful, sentimentality of the film that makes it rise above a standard plot. Alice Faye exuded a sweet vulnerability that contrasted with her earlier Depression-era films where she appeared more hard-boiled and world weary and world wise. Even her taking the hand of little Shirley Temple for a brisk, soldierly tap-dance in “Poor Little Rich Girl” (1936) does little to soften the tough as nails working girl of the Depression. It took the War, and Technicolor, perhaps, to show the softer side of an actress who still maintains a certain aloofness, and this perhaps only for self defense.

In “Hello, Frisco, Hello” she also gets to twirl a lariat while singing “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” and shoots off a couple six shooters like percussion instruments. Wisecracking Jack Oakie gets some of the best lines, like “Look at you. You look like the last half of Finnegan’s Wake” to berate June Havoc.

Sly, man-stealing Bernice Croft, played by Lynn Bari gets to fire off, “I’ll probably spend the next week snapping whalebone in my corsets trying to do the Grizzly Bear,” in a seductive sort of yesteryear pass to Mr. Payne. June Havoc refers to her as an “enamel puss society wench.”

Some trick novelty roller skating accompanies “It’s Tulip Time in Holland,” and Miss Faye charms the stereotyped Irish with “Has Anybody Here Seen Kelly?” By the time she goes her own way from Payne and the act, she becomes the toast of London with “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” What a fool Payne is for ever leaving her.

Here is Alice Faye singing “You Never Know.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Carol Burnett - Tribute to an Old Movie Buff

The recent “American Masters” documentary on PBS about Carol Burnett reminds us that among Miss Burnett’s many fine qualities is that she is the ultimate movie buff’s movie buff.

This being a blog devoted to old movies (I hesitate to use the word “classic” because not all of the films covered here are classics, just old.), the excerpts in this Burnett biography covering the film parodies on “The Carol Burnett Show” delightfully illustrate what it is about us old movie buffs that may baffle our loved ones who couldn’t care less if Frank Capra directed the movie or Douglas Shearer was the sound engineer. We love the details.

The details are what Miss Burnett and her team of writers skewered from the plots of old Hollywood films and twisted them into a distortion that was recognizable as much as it was new and creative. Like the way a caricature artist will draw a picture of you and make your nose way too big.

In her take on “One Way Passage,” she and James Coco take the parts originally played by Kay Francis and William Powell as the doomed shipboard lovers, one off to prison and the other terminally ill. Vicki Lawrence plays her doctor, “Dr. Ouspenskaya” (a nod to the formidable character actress Maria Ouspenskaya, who actually was not in the film, but it’s funny). When Carol becomes ill on ship, the doctor informs her, “You got what Bette Davis had in ‘Dark Victory’ and also Olivia de Havilland had it in one other picture. And if I’m not mistaken it was also had in one other picture by Sylvia Sidney. It’s called the Movie Disease and it’s incurable.”

Perhaps only old movie buffs would crack up at that, because to really enjoy these parodies, you had to have had some familiarity with Hollywood films of that era, and even better if you had seen the particular movie they were spoofing.

When they did a takeoff on “Random Harvest” with Carol in the Greer Garson role, Harvey Korman does a better Ronald Colman than Ronald Colman. In fact, he could give lessons to Ronald Colman on being Ronald Colman. He is also the domineering father in the Ralph Richardson role to Carol’s Olivia de Havilland role in their takeoff on “The Heiress.” Olivia de Havilland merely slouches, eyes downward, to demonstrate her shyness. Carol crawls inside the grand piano.

Sometimes just taking a piece of a film and encapsulating the feel of it, like the caricature artist making your nose too big, is enough to suggest the entire film for us, like the huge portrait of Carol with an enigmatic smirk on her face in their takeoff on “Laura.” Or, her hysterical underwater ballet in the takeoff on “Dangerous When Wet.” In the “Double Indemnity” spoof, Carol in the Barbara Stanwyck role wears an ankle bracelet that audibly clanks whenever she takes a step. Steve Lawrence, in the Fred MacMurray role, also wears an anklet.

Parody is built on exaggeration, and in this skit, instead of disposing of the body of the murdered husband by throwing it off a train, they plan to toss the body out of a blimp. We don’t need to see the blimp. Just the word sends an hysterical image to us, and when the plans are forged and Carol dramatically utters the conspiring words, “Here are the blimp tickets,” pulling them out from the bodice of her dress, we film buffs are on the floor laughing.

By the way, Vicki does an excellent take on Jean Heather as the surly stepdaughter, breaking into extremely funny tearful hysterics at the drop of a hat. Vicki Lawrence is also an over-the-top Mrs. Danvers in the Judith Anderson role in “Rebecca.”

In their take on “The Little Foxes” we see the elaborate effort put into sets and costumes which so distinguished “The Carol Burnett Show.” The doorbell plays “Camptown Races” to denote in as campy a way as possible the Southern charm and affluence of the setting. Guest star Roddy McDowall plays the unfortunate invalid in the Herbert Marshall role, and Carol is in the Bette Davis role as his scheming wife. We get the entire plot of the movie in one line when Roddy utters from his wheelchair, “Put my heart medicine without which I will surely die on that table over there.”

When Harvey blurts “Chitlins” as an expletive, it is one of those few (and treasured) times we see Carol almost break up. When Roddy collapses, Harvey re-enters with the line, “What happened? We heard all that dying music!”

Undoubtedly, the most famous of their film parodies has come to be the takeoff on “Gone With the Wind,” where Carol strides down the staircase with the curtain rod over her shoulders. To this day, I cannot watch the Vivien Leigh that scene in “Gone With the Wind” without thinking of the Burnett parody. When Miss Leigh shakes her fist at the red dawn and shouts, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” I inevitably think of Miss Burnett shouting, “I’ll never be hungry again! Not if I have to make tuna casserole!”

Again, Harvey Korman is not doing Rhett so much as he is doing Clark Gable, and this is, to use my favorite term from that era, swell. Guest star Dinah Shore is the perfect simpering Melanie role, and gets to shove Carol down the stairs in a manner Olivia de Havilland never got to do with Vivien Leigh. One of the impressive aspects about this skit is that it is broken into two parts, the first showing the interior of a grand Tara; the second part shows the mansion crumbling around them from the ravages of war.

I imagine a compilation of just the movie parodies on “The Carol Burnett Show” could take up several DVDs.

Carol Burnett’s everywoman qualities appeal to millions of fans who feel she is one of them. We old movie buffs know for a fact she is one of us.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Maria Ouspenskaya

Maria Ouspenskaya, who as an elderly woman starred in only a couple dozen Hollywood films, left her mark as one of the most distinguished and recognizable character actresses of Hollywood’s golden era.

She was born in Russia in the 1870s, studied singing in Warsaw and acting in Moscow, and became a member of the prestigious Moscow Art Theatre. There Mme. Ouspenskaya was directed by the renown Constantin Stansilavski. His system, which she would advocate in her acting schools in the US, later became “method acting.”

She came to Broadway in the 1920s and founded the School of Dramatic Art in New York. She went to Hollywood mainly to help finance her school, and quickly won nominations for Best Supporting Actress both in Dodsworth (1936), which was her first Hollywood film role, and in “Love Affair” (1939). That she is also remember for playing scornful Gypsies in a couple of Wolf Man pictures was for her a practical matter of needing money, and a delightful irony to her fans.

She was in “Love Affair” for a total of about ten minutes, and yet her appearance is indellible. Her total screen time in “Dodsworth” was even less. She was that good.

As a drama instructor, some of her famous students include John Garfield, Anne Baxter, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg. Since Miss Adler went on to teach Marlon Brando, and other students went on to teach Robert Duvall and Meryl Streep, we can see Mme. Ouspenskaya’s influence on American acting was far reaching.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Love Affair (1939)

“Love Affair” (1939) is the original version of the 1957 “An Affair to Remember” with Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant. The original features Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, and seems to have a more screwball comedy type feel to it that makes the melodrama at the end all the more poignant.

Boyer is an international playboy who has never worked a day in his life, and Irene Dunne is ostensibly a buyer on a business trip for her boss, but this is only a mask of legitimacy for a carefree socialite who accepts expensive gifts from her boss, whom she does not love. The two of them cross paths on a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, sipping pink champagne and trading smart aleck flirtation in grand salons and even grander staterooms.

We have some pretty good rear screen projection of the ocean behind them as they take numerous walks to the rail to gaze out over the sea (except for one moment when Miss Dunne makes a wide gesture with her arm and we see the shadow of her sleeve on the ocean backdrop). There’s a cute bit of banter between Dunne and little Scotty Beckett, who you will remember from “The Little Rascals” shorts. He plays a little boy performing gymnastics on the banister of a staircase on board ship, and she warns him to be careful.

“You’ll fall and hurt yourself! When I was little like you, I broke my leg.”
“How is it now?”
“It’s all right.”
“Then what are you crabbing about?”

Miss Dunne displays very good comedic timing, and her chemistry with M. Boyer is charming. A very brief, but high note of their journey comes at a port of call where they visit his stately grandmother, played by Maria Ouspenskaya. Her Shangri-La-type villa is a place of otherworldly peace and serenity. There is a small chapel on her property, and when Dunne and Boyer enter for an interesting moment of devotion.

I cannot recall another film of this period (correct me, please, if you can think of others) which illustrates Roman Catholic ritual at a time when most Americans (Catholics not being in the majority) were probably not exposed to it. Director Leo McCarey later gave us “Going My Way” with a Catholic priest as the protagonist, but there was more about the rectory than the Mass in that film. Even Spencer Tracy’s forays into film priesthood did not exhibit demonstrations of Catholic ritual. There had been films with kindly priests counseling gangsters on the way to the electric chair, but few films showing the altar and two lay people going through the act of formal devotions at kneelers.

Miss Dunne replaces the hat on her head that she had removed and carried earlier (pre-Vatican II, cover the heads, ladies). There is an icon of the Virgin Mary prominently displayed, and both Dunne and Boyer cross themselves upon rising from their prayers. It is a simple scene, but quite effective in propelling their romance. The silence and serenity of the chapel creates an intimacy wherein they both feel deeply conscious of each other’s presence, and seem more self-conscious as they leave the chapel. Up until now their flirtation had been harmless and shallow. It is their time spent at the villa, starting with the chapel scene, that their romance really begins.

Another lovely scene is when Mme. Ouspenskaya, whose frail, European dignity is contrasted with Miss Dunne’s tall, healthy, corn-fed, American vigor as they prepare tea. Mme. Ouspenskaya plays the plaintive “Plasir d’Amour” on the piano, and Dunne sings the chorus. The focus is on Boyer as much as the ladies, as we see how affected the carefree playboy is to see the two most important women in his life together and here is where he really begins to fall in love. When the distant sound of the boat horn announces they have to get back to the ship, Maria Ouspenskaya tears up with the almost childlike whimper, “I hate boat whistles.” They leave, but not before Dunne’s sensitive character comes back for a final hug and kiss, knowing that not just they, but life, is leaving this lonely old lady behind.

Back on the boat the couple are confronted with the suspicious, nosy glances of their fellow travelers eager for a bit of gossip, and we trace their voyage with a cartoon boat proceeding on a line across the map. Anytime I travel, I always look out the window for these movie indications of the conquering of distance, but it never happens. This has always been a disappointment.

Acknowledging their love, they firmly resolve to separate and make something of themselves before they can be together. Miss Dunne gets to sing a bit more, and M. Boyer becomes a famous artist, which leads to the final melodrama. When he sees his painting of her in her apartment, which his agent gave to a poor lame woman for free, he realizes she is the lounging on the couch with a blankie over her legs because she can’t walk, not because she callously jilted him by not showing up at their rendezvous point on the top of the Empire State Building a year before.

This is a bit more maudlin in the remake, and I think what makes it work here is Boyer’s wonderful expression of humility, even more than sympathy, in the presence of the self-sacrificing woman he still loves. Only moments before he is full of haughty anger and pride, and pushes her into lying about why she missed their appointment. It is a sudden shift, which has us off balance and leads to a breathtaking ending. Such sentimentality seems more out of place in 1957 with the smooth Cary Grant and the cool Deborah Kerr. Dunne and Boyer do not seem as sophisticated, the times do not seem as sophisticated, for all that pink champagne, and that makes these two oddly more believable.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Veteran's Day - Hollywood's Military Service


Back when this poster pointed at people during the early days of World War II, Uncle Sam was talking about YOU. Not the 18-year old down the street, but YOU, no matter if you were not in your late teens or twenties, no matter if you had a family and a life of your own and plans for the future. Defending the country and defeating tyranny wasn’t supposed to be somebody else’s business. It was up to YOU.

ARMY AIR CORPS
Colonel James Stewart was only one of a flock of Hollywood actors who willingly put aside lucrative careers for a chance at dying. That’s what going to war always amounts to, and the new ex-civilians of his generation did not take that opportunity for death lightly. It was a trade-off. Something for something. A better world, maybe. Colonel Stewart of the Army Air Corps (who in later years retired as Brigadier General, the highest-ranking actor in military history), was awarded, among other decorations, the Distinguished Flying Cross, twice.

Gene Autry was also in the Army Air Corps, flying C-47 cargo planes over in the China-Burma-India theater of war.

Major Clark Gable flew B-17s over Europe as a gunnery officer, also in the Army Air Corps.

NAVY
Lt. Commander Robert Montgomery was awarded, among his other decorations, a Bronze Star for his service as a PT boat commander in the Navy. He participated in the D-Day invasion.

Jason Robards, Jr. was awarded the Navy Cross, who served as a Radioman on the USS Northampton in the South Pacific.

Henry Fonda served on a Destroyer in that theater of war, and Ernest Borgnine served in the South Pacific as a Gunner’s Mate.

Eddie Albert, U.S. Navy, was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in the South Pacific.

Lt. j.g. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. of the Naval Reserve took part in the invasion of Sicily.

ARMY
Sgt. Harold Russell, U.S. Army instructor for the Parachute Corps, lost both his hands in a training accident only a couple years before we saw him in “The Best Years of Our Lives.”

Charles Durning, U.S. Army, was awarded the Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and took part in the invasion of France.

Lew Ayres, who was a Contentious Objector, volunteered for the U.S. Army Medical Corps and served as a medic and chaplain’s aide in the South Pacific under fire, earning three battle stars.

MARINES
Sgt. George C. Scott served in Europe with the Marines. Brian Keith and Lee Marvin served with the Marines in the South Pacific.

Tyrone Power was a U.S. Marine pilot in the South Pacific.

WOMEN’S AUXILLIARY SERVICES
Lt. Nancy Kulp served as a WAVE, specializing in electronics. Beatrice Arthur volunteered for the Marines.

This obviously is only a partial list. We might also remember that other actors, such as Humphrey Bogart and John Boles, served in World War I. What is especially noteworthy, however, about some of these actors during World War II is that they were already established in successful careers and some, due to age and families, were exempt from the draft or could have pulled strings to release them from any obligation to serve. Some did. These people listed above didn’t. Some suffered wounds. Happily, they all came home. But they all knew there was a chance they wouldn’t.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Nancy Drew - Detective (1938)

Bonita Granville made four Nancy Drew B-movies based on the famous character in the series of novels for girls. This first entry gives us beginning and end titles with the silhouette of Nancy drawn as a shadow in the dark, carrying a flashlight and with the wind blowing her hair, her scarf, and her skirt before her. It is a typical image found in the illustrations for the books by Carolyn Keene (actually a pseudonym for a team of writers), and is wonderfully evocative of that girls’ mystery genre.

Warner Bros. specialized in hard boiled crime films of detectives and gangsters, but there is nothing hard boiled about the Nancy Drew series, which does not even follow the novels that closely. We do have Nancy, plucky, clever teen who sticks her nose in other people’s business, but Bonita Granville plays her with more cheerfulness and humor than her literary counterpart. Carson Drew, her lawyer dad played by John Litel, an intelligent kindly authority figure and seems to defend only innocent people, and spends a lot of time warning Nancy to stay out of trouble.

Ned Nickerson becomes Ted in this series. Played by Frankie Thomas, Ted is a bit more bumbling but a lot more funny than his counterpart in the books as well. Ted’s and Nancy’s relationship is more teasing than amorous, but the chemistry between the two young actors brings a lot to the films. Nancy’s other chums, “boyish George” and “plump Bess” are nowhere to be seen. Just as well, there’d be nothing for them to do.

In this first outing, the plot is fast paced, almost as fast as Nancy’s speech. A rich elderly woman is kidnapped, and Nancy drags poor Ted along on a spree of clues, thugs, and ineffectual police represented by Captain Tweedy to save the day. Ted is useful because he can tackle people and knows a lot about carrier pigeons.

Nancy’s famous roadster (for those of you who grew up on the original stories, you will recall she never drove a car; she drove a roadster. She never wore a dress; she wore a frock), is about the size of the Queen Mary. We can tell by the rear-screen projection whizzing by us just how maniacally fast Nancy drives. Nancy leaves the comfort of her palatial suburban house with its enormous curved staircase and goofy maid Effie, to scour River Heights for clues. (Or clews, depending on which editions you read.)

There is a lot of racing about in Nancy’s roadster in this film. We have a wonderful, essentially trouble-free world of two all-American kids who change their own flat tires, fly in biplanes with helmets and goggles, shooting aerial pictures with a Brownie camera and develop their own black and white prints, send Western Union telegrams, and also distress signals through the radio. They use Ham radios and know that bluebells are also called larkspurs. They face surly gunmen and Ted, good guy that he is, even consents to dressing in disguise as a female nurse of that era to help free the old lady held hostage in a sinister rest home. Resplendent in a dress white nurse’s uniform, white stockings and cap, and cape, he looks like Cherry Ames on steroids. (Unlike Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames never got her own B-movie serial. Must not have had a good agent.)

The real nurse (played by Mae Busch, who we last saw as the battleaxe Mrs. Hardy in “Unaccustomed As We Are”) inside the spooky house is being very mean to the old lady, who has a lot of money, which is why everybody is bothering about her. Ted is a much nicer nurse. When one of the bad guys flirtatiously hits on Ted, our hero bravely pulls out his compact and begins to reapply his makeup, virtuously giving the ne’er do well the brush-off.

Add a rumble seat and a roadster with a broken starter than needs to be cranked in order for the engine to turn over, and you have one swell adventure, at least one for the time capsule.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday. Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Frankie Thomas

Though Frankie Thomas spent four films as Ted Nickerson in the Nancy Drew series from 1938 to 1939, this versatile child actor played a variety of roles in his film and stage career.

His parents both were actors, and young Mr. Thomas performed early in his career on Broadway. His role in “Wednesday’s Child” brought him to Hollywood for the film version in 1934, and he played small parts in “Boys Town” and in “The Major and the Minor.” However, after his service in World War II, Thomas was not able to turn his success as a child actor in adult roles.

His likeability in the Nancy Drew series helps to keep the character of Ted from simply being a fool to Nancy’s more clever character. Ted is actually quite indispensable, and his contributions to Nancy’s crime-solving sprees keeps her out of trouble, though he grumbles about being dragged into them.

When his mother tells the voracious Ted eating breakfast that there is no more bacon, Ted’s smart aleck response is, “What’s the matter? The recession still on?” In 1938 it was for most of the young people who were their fans, but not for Ted and Nancy Drew.

Television brought a new career to Mr. Thomas, a new flock of young fans, when he donned the uniform of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet. In later years he wrote several novels, as well as books on the game of bridge, and though he looked back with fondness on his film career, never regretted having left it behind.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Erik Rhodes

Erik Rhodes plays the impossibly funny Rudolfo Tonetti in “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), a role which he created on Broadway. Playing a number of European types in a couple dozen comedies through the 1930s, Mr. Rhodes was actually born in Oklahoma when it was still Indian Territory. Though he had real singing talent with a powerful tenor voice, he was used mainly as a comic foil even more than a specialty act. He played his strutting, hapless, beaming Tonetti completely over the top.

Unable to remember the passwords, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate,” which will allow him to hook up with the character played by Ginger Rogers, whom he has not met, the unfortunate Tonetti bungles the line in various versions and gets slapped and belted until he is rescued and pointed in the right direction. His phone call to his wife Maria is both sweet and screwball, and when he is about to be pushed aside by Fred Astaire, whom he thinks is another paid corespondent in Ginger’s divorce case, indignantly asks him, “Are you a union man?”

Mr. Rhodes did some television in the 1950s, but his film career reached it height twenty years earlier with characters like Tonetti, who were larger than life. But character actors like Billy Gilbert or Alan Reed would have played Tonetti in a different way, where Mr. Rhodes plays Tonetti with a charming, self-effacing silliness more than caricature.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Fred Astaire reprises his Broadway role in “The Gay Divorcée” (1934) as a rascally hoofer, who in this film wanders among night clubbers in Paris and London with his pal Edward Everett Horton, falls in love with an uninterested Ginger Rogers and spends most of the film trying to get her interested.

Ginger has her own predicament, stuck in a loveless marriage and turning to lawyer Horton to arrange a divorce. Mr. Horton arranges for her to be caught with a hired professional corespondent in order that her husband might be enraged into divorcing her.

Edward Everett Horton, who always seems somewhat like an upper class Gomer Pyle, has some fun scenes as a bumbling second banana, and even gets to sing and caper a bit with a young Betty Grable in the “Let’s Knock Knees” number. Alice Brady is the scatterbrained man-chasing aunt of Ginger who gets some good lines, and Erik Rhodes, who, like Fred Astaire, reprises his Broadway role as Rudolfo Tonetti, a gloriously absurd professional homewrecker and operatic tenor.

It is difficult to listen to the wonderfully precise intonations of Mr. Horton without being reminded of his narration of the “Fractured Fairy Tales” on “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”

Though some smart aleck remarks by just about everybody keep the comic ball rolling, the film is a bit slow moving, particular at the beginning, and we see right off in the “Looking for a Needle in a Haystack” number an early example of Mr. Astaire’s agility and inventiveness in dancing all over furniture. The film is a time capsule of 1934, with platinum blondes with short, bouncy curls, bathing suits with belts, pleated trousers, architecture held together with chrome and black lacquer, and enough Art Deco accoutrements to choke a horse.

They end up at a seaside resort where the meridian lines painted on the shiny floor of an outdoor courtyard/dance floor are intended to give the set some depth. Here Ginger and the pseudo-suave Tonetti are to engage in a pretend tryst. No fear for Ginger, as Tonetti proudly exclaims his motto, “Your wife is safe with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti.”

But Fred intervenes and there is a case of mistaken identity when Ginger thinks he is the hired corespondent. Ginger changes into a negligee with more doodads on it than a drum majorette’s costume, and Tonetti eventually arrives with his concertina and, all business, slips into a smoking jacket, the standard uniform of roués.

The big production number here is “The Continental,” which won the Academy Award for Best Music and Best Original Song. It is a very long staged number, where after Fred and Ginger get their turn, an army of dancers flows onto the set like locusts in an assortment of black and white evening attire. They form geometric patterns and eventually become increasingly acrobatic, like a Superbowl halftime show.

Eric Blore, in his typical oily, comic, but clever servant’s role, comes inadvertently to the rescue and Fred and Ginger leave us with another waltz over the furniture in her suite. It was their second of ten films together, and by now the pattern was as set as their remarkably precise and impeccably structured dancing.

Here is a bit of Fred and Ginger dancing “The Continental.”

Thursday, November 1, 2007

David Frye

David Frye is best remembered for his creepy Renfield in “Dracula” (1931), but was a character actor of wide range and abilities, and interests, who to his own regret became quickly typecast into small roles as maniacs in monster movies.

Mr. Frye was came to Hollywood from Broadway. His role in “Dracula” brought him the attention of the public and the studio alike, and he was quickly re-used as Fritz in “Frankenstein,” also made in 1931. It was a mold that he tried later to break, unsuccessfully, as the studio kept using him in smaller and smaller roles which usually required him to support lunatic masters.

On the side, he returned to the stage and found satisfaction in local theater. As if he wasn’t busy enough, during the war he helped the war effort by working nights, when his scheduled allowed, at Lockheed Aircraft Company as a tool designer. Tragically, Mr. Frye died of a heart attack while only in his early 40s. In later years, his depiction of the doomed Renfield made him something of a cult figure, but he was much more than that.

Here is a fine website with more detail on the career of David Frye.

That’s all for this week. See you Monday. Have a good weekend.