“This Happy Feeling” (1958) is a slight comedy, but viewed from a certain perspective, reflects a watershed in the careers of some its cast. The most curious aspect of a screen actor’s career must be that weird immortality granted by one’s image preserved on film. As much a curse as it is a blessing: most actors have a film or two they’d like to forget. Would they look back in hindsight upon this pleasant, though weak film with a sense of wonderment about what happened next in their careers and their lives?
The answer to Monday’s picture trivia about the trio taking the stage bow are: Troy Donahue, Curt Jürgens, and Alexis Smith. This curtain call happens at the end of the movie.
The movie may be slight, but this post is still going to be long. You should have left in the first paragraph. Now it would be just too socially awkward to leave.
Mr. Jürgens has given up the stage for a quieter life breeding horses on his Connecticut farm, much to the consternation of Alexis Smith and agent Hayden Rorke. Rorke began his film career, as more than a few men of his generation did, as an extra in “This Is the Army” -- have a look at this previous post. You may remember him as the Colonel in “I Dream of Jeannie” on TV in the late 1960s.
Rorke and Miss Smith try to entice Jürgens with new play in which he will portray Troy Donahue’s father. Talk about salt on a wound.
Debbie Reynolds is the star of the movie. Even so, and even with the company of Troy Donahue and a very handsome (and very natural actor) John Saxon, the generation gap of this movie is told mainly through the viewpoint of Curt Jürgens, which is unexpected, considering this is a Debbie Reynolds vehicle. He is at times curmudgeonly, at times displays a more virile screen image than the younger men. He has some very intelligent lines to say about the matter of aging.
I think CinemaScope was more wide perspective than we needed for a movie that takes place mostly in bedrooms.
Women in Men’s Jammies).
Okay. Enough stalling. Here’s the plot. (“Now with 10% more spoilers!”)
It is pouring rain, and when Saxon suggests she get out of her wet clothes, she goes berserk, jumps out of the car, runs around screaming, falls in a brook, and ends up a couple doors down at Curt Jürgens’ place.
“You are staining my beautiful carpet as no dog would dare to stain it!” He also suggests she get out of her wet clothes, and she goes berserk some more. Eventually, she is calmed by brandy, and spends the night in his guest room.
He invites her to become his secretary and live here at his horse farm. Her living at the farm is the talk of the neighborhood. We are told. We never actually see scenes of malicious gossip, so it doesn’t really have as much punch as it should. Debbie Reynolds begins the movie in such a shrill, overly dramatic way that she seems only annoying and we lose sympathy for her. She has to fight to get it back, but since the generation gap story is told from Jürgens’ viewpoint, he really becomes more sympathetic than she.
He decides to return to the theatre and play Troy Donahue’s father. That he leaves Debbie Reynolds to John Saxon and goes back to the worldly Alexis Smith is probably the best thing about this movie. So many films of the late 1950s give us the rather icky scenario of aging Hollywood actors paired with ingénues, and it seems for a while it’s going to happen again here. A pleasant surprise.
A few good scenes:
He complains, “The theatre has changed…This is the age of dirty T-shirts and motorcycle jackets. It’s a whole new breed of cat. An entirely new set of requirements. If you don’t know Method or the intricacies of a new role, psycho-schizoid personality, and how to mumble, slouch, and pick your nose, you haven’t got a chance.”
(I’ve long wanted to do a post on actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age working in 1960s films, but I’m still gathering suspects. Maybe later on this year.)
As they await their curtain call, Alexis Smith invites Jürgens to a private “bacchanalia” at her apartment after the show. He accepts with a pat to her bum just as the curtain opens. Then they become different people, both more humble and more superior, taking their bows with all the dignity due to an actor on stage. Even Estelle Winwood instantly assumes that pretend dignity when taking a bow -- caught onstage trying to retrieve her wandering gull.
Now to the real-life generation gap, though perhaps not a gap as much as a series of cracks that eventually swallows careers. Unless one can leap over them.
American Film Institute website, this movie was shot from September to November 1957, released in June 1958. Debbie Reynolds was pregnant during the filming, her son born February 1958. One may assume it was a good time for her, a new baby, a flourishing film career, her song “Tammy” from the film of the year before, “Tammy and the Bachelor” soared up the charts as the number one hit.
By the end of 1958, however, she and her husband, Eddie Fisher would separate. They divorced the next year over his affair with Elizabeth Taylor, all conducted in a most painfully public manner.
She had played ingénues for years. Twenty-five at the time of this movie, she was probably too old to continue convincing us of her innocence. In the movie, she coyly asks Jürgens to guess her age. He needles her by suggesting she is 30, or 32.
“It’s a lie!” she bristles. Kiss of death, to be sure.
"Seems odd to note that Debbie Reynolds in 'This Happy Feeling" will be supported by such veteran actresses as Mary Astor, Alexis Smith and Estelle Winwood..." wrote columnist Danton Walker just before the film's release (Reading Eagle April 11, 1958).
Alexis Smith, some 11 years her senior, but still only 36 during “This Happy Feeling”, is plunged prematurely into that awkward abyss between starring roles and character roles. However, as was typical with Miss Smith, she outshines the lead, and makes her handful of minutes in this movie count. When Debbie Reynolds becomes smitten with Curt, Alexis assumes the jealous other woman part, but her jealously is tinged with bemusement. Her sexuality is adult, and classy. She is more playful than competitive, and always far more riveting.
“I built a fire and I’m sort of glowing,” a purr wrapped around a giggle, lying on throw pillows strewn before the fireplace. She’s a volcano in color-coordinated chiffon neck scarves. Ice princess? I should say not.
Another funny Smith scene, for its unexpectedness, takes place at an equestrian competition. (How Reynolds could fail to notice dashing John Saxon in those riding clothes is beyond me. A fine broth of a boy.) Debbie sees Alexis standing among the audience, and politely nods to her.
see this previous post.
Though Curt Jürgens owns this film, we might say it did more for the career of another gentleman not even in the movie. This is Craig Stevens, the husband of Alexis Smith. He visited her on set, and met director Blake Edwards. When Edwards cast his hit TV show that debuted in 1958, “Peter Gunn”, he offered Mr. Stevens the lead role as the suave private eye. It lifted Stevens’ B-movie career out of the doldrums.
Debbie Reynolds made only one film in the 1970s, as the voice of Charlotte in the animated feature “Charlotte’s Web” (1973). However, like Alexis, she also had some good luck with Broadway. The fading 25-year old ingénue and the fading 36-year-old actress in her prime of 1957 would come to have more in common professionally than either realized at the time. So it is -- with either carefully, or clumsily-woven acting careers -- it doesn’t matter. The clock ticks on.
Miss Astor was busier these days writing. In 1959, she published her autobiography, “My Story”, which frankly discussed her tumultuous private life, though not a lot about her career. She made that one telling, now famous, observation:
Along with her autobiography, she penned several novels. In 1971, the year Alexis Smith conquered Broadway in the musical, “Follies”, Mary Astor published her second volume of memoirs, "A Life On Film".
Who's Mary Astor? She more than answered the question.
In that same year, she went to the Motion Picture & Television Country House, a retirement home for members of the film and television industry. She was 65 years old, frail from a heart condition. She spent the rest of her life there.
Estelle Winwood, who played oddballs more often than not, broke the mold in real life, too. After a stage career on London’s West End, she began in films in her 50s, and was 74 years old at the time of this movie. She was still making movies in the 1970s. She died in 1984 at 101 years old.
It’s good to have an anomaly from time to time. It keeps the usual familiar statistics about loss of appeal, loss of prestige, loss of health, loss of earning power as we age at arms’ length. Where they belong.