IMPEACH TRUMP.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Sally and Saint Anne - 1952


Sally and Saint Anne (1952) is a sweet and silly souvenir of a time when movies unabashedly basked in a warm glow of nostalgia even if the story was intended to be current and modern.  We have the strange feeling watching this that the filmmakers knew they were preserving an era, and we, the audience in the future, are the proverbial fly on the wall.  As such, we may enjoy it more than the original audience did. 
Though you could call this a family movie, in a time when most films were suitable for the whole family this quiet little gem is unfettered by the dubious yoke of being wholesome.  It is wholesome, too, but it is also a sly parody of doctrine, dogma, and a boldly tongue-in-cheek look at the peculiarities of the highly ritualistic Catholic faith (getting away with it probably because Irish Catholics love to make fun of themselves).  As such, it is as courageously unselfconscious about what it is as is the main character—a teenage girl pursuing an unselfconscious friendship with a saint to whom she prays, and her family of screwballs unselfconsciously pursuing their own happiness.
Ann Blyth appeared in three films released in 1952, all very different and all, unsurprisingly, showing her versatility.  The World in His Arms with Gregory Peck, which we’ll get to in a few weeks, is a glorious swashbuckling historical romance where she plays a Russian countess.  The day after she finished filming, she was whisked to location shooting in Colorado to begin One Minute to Zero with Robert Mitchum, a tense Korean War drama in which she played a United Nations worker in the war zone.  
Sally and Saint Anne, which couldn’t have been more different, was the last film she made for Universal-International.  She gets top billing here.  Her contract ended in December 1952.  Columnist Louella Parsons noted: “She started there when she was fourteen, and everyone from William Goetz (studio head) to the gateman has wonderful things to say about her.” 
She would sign with her new studio, MGM, which brought a new twist to her film career—and a long-desired ambition—to sing in several big-budget musicals.  We’ll cover those this summer.
In the meantime, she ran out the clock on her U-I contract with several more radio appearances, publicity chores (including a personal appearance tour of several military bases in Alaska), and the peak of her popularity surely typified by the book of paper dolls published by Merrill Publishing.  According to American Paper Doll from article by David Wolfe, it was “…one of the most beautiful paper doll books ever produced by Merrill Publishing.”  See this previous post for a look at her paper doll likenesses.
Ann’s character in Sally and Saint Anne may have played with paper dolls herself at the beginning of the movie.  She ages from about twelve years old to eighteen in this film, with remarkable authenticity.  It helps that, Ann being small to begin with, several of her friends are taller, but Ann also moves with the gangly awkwardness of a pre-teen, bounces with happiness, droops with disappointment, and her young face registers a parade of unharnessed and unfiltered thoughts and emotions.  Most especially that voice, which we’ve noted as malleable in several films, here changes instantly like flicking a light switch when she grows up—yet her performance is without gimmick and completely natural.  We can hardly believe she was twenty-three years old at the time.
We see she roller skates quite well (she doesn’t do any tap dancing on skates like Gene Kelly, but it’s still pretty good), and when an errant football goes astray on the playground, she catches it in the old breadbasket, while continuing a conversation with her friends, and fires it back like Joe Namath.

If you catch a glint of shine on Ann’s teeth, it’s the braces.  It had to have been somebody's idea of a gag to put faux braces on the most perfect set of natural teeth in Hollywood.
As the film opens, we see by the graphic on a passing newspaper delivery truck that we are in a small town called Middleton, and so we know from the beginning this is an ordinary place of no great consequence.  Despite Saint Anne getting billing in the title, this is no religious epic; it’s more like a buddy picture.  There aren’t really any miracles in the movie, either, except the very real miracle how a girl blossoms into a young lady.
Ann is tearing through her parochial school looking for her missing lunchbox.  Another girl, busily eating her own lunch, shrugs her shoulders and laconically tells her to pray to St. Anthony, “Findings things is his racket,” and “He’ll do anything for a few Hail Marys.”
Recess will be over soon, and she’s wasted enough time, so Ann heads next door to the church, and in a businesslike manner, yanks the chapel veil out of her school uniform pocket and plunks it on her head as she genuflects upon entering, and heads up the long aisle to plea bargain with the statue of St. Anthony.  But the bell rings and she can’t make it, and she gets overrun by other girls rushing back to class, so Ann glances up at the closest statue to her, Saint Anne, and says, “Will you help me find my lunchbox, please?”  
It’s not a very flowery prayer, but as reverent as you can get because she really believes she’s asking for the aid of somebody who really can help.  As she heads back to class, one of the nuns tells her she’s wanted in the office of the Mother Superior.  Probably because Herman Shumlin and Lillian Hellman are waiting there wanting her to read for a part in Watch in the Rhine.
(BAW-ha-ha-ha-ha.  I just crack myself up sometimes.  See our intro post to this series here if you want to know what I’m talking about.


There, on Mother Superior’s desk she sees her lunchbox, and she’s thrilled the prayer worked so quickly.  However, it was actually returned by John McIntire, who plays a Snidely Whiplash sort of comic villain in this role that he really sinks his teeth into, especially his garish, gold snaggle-tooth, which is why he is called Goldtooth McCarthy.  He found the lunchbox on the back of his ice truck, where Ann had stolen a ride.  He is an oily, conniving fellow, recently become a ward alderman and he has a longstanding feud with Ann’s family. 
For her punishment, Ann has to write “I must not steal rides on motor vehicles” on the blackboards that line all four sides of her classroom.  Reminds one of Bart Simpson.  I pity the poor set dresser that had to really write all that.
After school, madder than a wet hen and spitting nails, Ann stomps back to church, smacks the chapel veil on her head, and has it out with Saint Anne like a very angry customer at a complaint department.  She calls Saint Anne a “snitcher” (which cracked me up because it was one of my father’s favorite silly insults) and with tears of frustration in her voice, she gives one last parting shot, “And another thing, instead of making trouble for kids, you’d do better to give that McCarthy a black eye!”
I love the next scene when it is Sunday, and Ann is late for church.  Her father, mother, and three older brothers are already in the pew, the Mass is half over, and Ann tries to sneak into a packed, quiet church in very squeaky shoes, like she’s walking a tightrope.  Anyone who’s ever had to do this knows her agony.  The priest is trying to read announcements and Ann’s monstrous squeaks tearing through his speech and echoing through the church is hysterical.  Finally she gets close to where her family is sitting, and her mother grabs her roughly and yanks her into the pew.
I like that the priest, played by George Mathews, is a curmudgeon, not one of the typical movie jovial or saintly fellows, no Bing Crosby, Spencer Tracy, or Pat O’Brien.  He’s a just guy trying to get his job done, squeaky shoes or no, and she’s stealing his thunder.  He tells us it is the first Sunday after Easter, and one of the quiet joys of this movie is that it takes place in spring.  There is a gentle restfulness, the delightful sunshine and the anticipation of the warmer weather to come.  That wonderful end-of-the-school-year feeling we had as kids.
Collecting herself after her public embarrassment, Ann glances up at the statue of Saint Anne, and repeats her insult, “Snitcher!” and turning, being shushed by her mother, looks across the church and sees John McIntire sitting in his own pew—with a black eye.
The explosive smile of awestruck happiness on her face is wonderful, and she snuggles down in her pew, stealing delighted glances at Saint Anne.  She is not amazed at an apparent miracle—hardly; she has been spoon-fed on tales of miracles and the lives of the saints since she made her First Communion—she’s just tickled to pieces that she got to go to the head of line for favors for once in her life.  This is a girl who’s always late, always losing things, always in trouble at school.  Suddenly, a big-time saint answers her prayer—she thinks—and it’s like not having to wait in the long line at an exclusive nightclub because the star has come out onto the sidewalk and walked arm-in-arm with you inside and escorted you to the best table in the house.  You are Somebody.
She solidifies her new relationship with her now amiga saint by buying a smaller, but still hefty, statue of Saint Anne for her bedroom and creates a little shrine on a small table with a votive candle.  Saint Anne becomes her roomie, the friend who came for a sleepover and stayed.
More miracles happen.  Not big miracles, maybe not miracles at all, but to a twelve-year old, getting all her work done on time and not being kept after school could seem pretty miraculous.  The other girls at school have problems, too, and they ask Ann to put in a good for word for them.  Her reputation is growing around town.  But she’s no Bernadette of Lourdes (besides, Jennifer Jones already got that job.  See our past post on The Song of Bernadette); she freely admits of her prayers, “It don’t always work.”  

But we have the feeling she just likes an excuse to chat with her patron.  She writes requests in a pocket notebook, and brings the matters up with Saint Anne.  Her moments of prayer are really more like gossipy conversations with a girlfriend (“I had such a good day today, Saint Anne!”), and it’s poignant and funny that she can so freely unburden herself to the image of a saint, as naturally as if she were talking to a favorite aunt.
Then the transformation comes from girl to young woman.  One moment she wonders when she will be allowed to get her braces off, because then she will be a woman, she thinks, and the camera pans down to her notebook beside the statue.  Then, as if continuing her prayer, her voice deepens, resonates with not just emotional, but actually vocal maturity, her diction is ladylike, and the single notebook has become a stack of them, as the camera pans up on a now taller (she’s looking Saint Anne in the eye) young woman, a high school senior, with the loveliness and poise we could not have imagined when she was a kid wishing black eyes on people. 
She talks to Saint Anne about a new problem now.  Goldtooth McIntire, still an alderman, has increased his political power and his wealth, and he backed a city plan to construct a new highway through town—right where their house is.  Their house will be torn down.
Though this problem will hang over their heads until the end of the movie, this is still a story made up of a string of small everyday moments.  A glamorous new friend from Boston comes into her life, played with snobbish sophistication by Kathleen Hughes, who, as soon as they get past the gates of school at the end of the day, wantonly puts her hair up and applies makeup.  Ann curiously, and bit enviously, watches her friend’s expertise with lipstick.
The trip to the drugstore soda fountain, and the wonderfully dorky sodajerk played by Robert Nichols who works the counter like a Las Vegas showman.  (We've discussed romance at the drugstore here in this previous post.)
The handsome guy back from college, played by Palmer Lee (also known as Gregg Palmer) on whom Ann has a crush, but he goes for the high-tone friend, leaving Ann out in the cold.
The daily troubles of Ann’s family of misfits: her father, played by Otto Hulett, a blustering working man who fantasizes about choking John McIntire.
Her mother, played by Frances (Andy Griffith’s Aunt Bee) Bavier, is funny, sweetly vague and a bit dotty, but Mama rules the roost, constantly peeling apples or potatoes.  “You were the only one born in the hospital, Sally.  Maybe that’s what makes you so different from the boys.”
Her three brothers, an unsuccessful musician and composer, played by Lamont Johnson; an unsuccessful magician, who can’t even do a decent card trick, played by Jack Kelly; and an unsuccessful boxer, played by a punch-drunk Hugh O’Brian, training there in the living room by perpetual family guest Hymie, played by King Donovan.


Most especially, there is grandpa, played by Edmund Gwenn.  He took to his bed twenty years ago, but he’s not sick.  He’s just contemplative and sees no reason to get up.  The priest comes to pay a sick call, trying to get him to make his peace with the Lord, and they always end of fighting, because Grandpa loves to egg him on with irrelevant philosophical arguments.
The priest is grouchily dubious about Ann’s taking petitions for prayer, but asks her to request a new church roof, all the same.  “I can put you down for a week from Tuesday, Father.  If anyone drops out, I’ll push it up.
Grandpa solves the problem of them losing their home.  He owns an empty lot across town, and decides they will move their beloved house to that lot. 
The menagerie is a bit like the Sycamore family of You Can’t Take it With You, and soon they will have one more hanger-on: the local heartthrob Palmer Lee, home from college.
I especially like the exchange between Ann and Mr. Shapiro, the local grocer, played by Joe Mell.  His wife’s expecting, and he desperately wants a boy this time because he’s already got three daughters.  Ann writes down his wish in her notebook.  “One boy.  Mr. Shapiro.”
He’s a jovial guy who shakes his head at her innocence.  “Why would an Irish saint go out of her way for a guy like me?”
“Mr. Shapiro, Saint Anne was the grandmother of Jesus.”
He shrugs, “So?”
“So she isn’t Irish at all.  She’s Jewish.”
Mr. Shapiro gives her fond grins and free pickles.  But Saint Anne takes a back seat for a while as Ann tackles her current woe of lovesickness on her own, and undergoes another transformation.  Jealous of her Boston snob ex-friend, who is latching onto the college boy on whom Ann has a crush, she listens to Grandpa’s advice and gussies up for the country club dance.  The sodajerk is taking her. 
Pop tells her and her date that she must be home by 11:30, because the house movers are coming tonight—it being easier to move a house, apparently, when there is less traffic.
An older woman friend, very chic (who recently got engaged because Ann filed the request on her behalf with Saint Anne), makes Ann over into a Vogue fashion plate.  We know Ann is now considered sexy because the minute she steps out the door, you can hear the sultry moaning of a saxophone.  Dang, that never happens to me.  I think we’ve discussed this before.  A saxophone always indicates the presence of a femme fatale in classic films.  Very handy, in case we’ve missed the point.
She wows them at the country club.  A couple of quite funny scenes: first, Ann’s dorky date, who is apparently a hepcat, manhandles her into a frenetic dance, which after a few stunned and clumsy moments, she actually follows him pretty well.  They are the center of attention.  She artfully attempts to maintain her pretended sophistication while involved in the silliest of ballroom calisthenics.  College Boy is bowled over at her sexiness, and departs with her to the bar, where she orders a martini because she sees the word printed on a cocktail napkin.


Fortunately, the bartender, new on the job, is a friend of her brother’s.  He looks after her, and puts plain water in her martini glass.  When she realizes this, after an anxious sip, she smiles with relief and catches his wink.  She boldly toasts the young man she is trying to impress, “Down the hatch!” and bolts the water like a sailor.  Then she orders a double.
When Ann introduces the bartender to her date, and beams, “He got the job!” we might assume that his getting the job was another successful prayer to Saint Anne.  By the way, Bess Flowers shows up at the country club dance.  Like you didn't know she would.
Cinderella Ann and College Boy ditch their dates, not a nice thing to do, and end up in his convertible under the moonlight.  She nervously braces herself for her first kiss, and gives him a shove when he gets too passionate.  She runs off, arrives home, long after midnight.  Unlike the real Cinderella, Ann never loses a shoe, nor does her dress turn to rags—but instead the house has disappeared.  Cinderella never had a problem like that.  It doesn’t take her long to catch up; the house is inching along through town at a snail’s pace.
In the wackiest part of the movie, the family is still in the house while the movers are dragging them to another part of town, but the house is their safe haven from a baffling world in which none of them fit in.
The conflict is ratcheted up a notch when we see that Grandpa’s vacant lot is actually situated between two brick apartment buildings that Goldtooth owns.  As the house slides into its new cozy niche, Goldtooth, who had no idea this was happening, and who has been wanting that empty lot for years, throws a fit.  The feud heats up and several tit-for-tat events occur.  Look for Dabbs Greer as his harried lawyer.
College Boy, who, like Hymie the fight trainer, and Saint Anne, becomes part of the family because he won’t leave.  He tries to wear Ann down, because she won’t have anything to do with him since the night of the convertible when he got too passionate and embarrassed her.  The family accepts him, Mama shows him Ann’s naked baby pictures, which infuriates her more, but in the end, College Boy and Grandpa team up to solve the family’s problems with Goldtooth once and for all.  It’s not really a miracle; it’s more due to math and detective work.  But then, as we like to believe, (even if it’s not really in the Bible) the Lord helps those who help themselves.
We never do find out if Mr. Shapiro’s wife had a boy or girl.  It feels like the movie pulled a punch there.
Speaking of punches, the only time we are given clear indication of a miracle being performed is during Ann’s boxer brother’s fight, when he is gamely trying to win money the family owes to Goldtooth.  He is, as usual, losing badly.  Ann prays in her seat, and we hear a light heavenly tone, quite different than the stomach-churning ring bell, and we see her poor punch-drunk brother suddenly float along in a stupor of footwork that looks like a cross between a ballet by Charlie Chaplin and Monty Python’s Minister of Silly Walks.  He swings wildly and sucker punches his opponent, who drops like a sack of wet cement.  Her brother passes out, too, but since he hit the canvas second, he’s declared the winner.  KO by Saint Anne: The Patron Saint of Black Eyes.
Another, perhaps more everyday miracle, is when Goldtooth and the family bury the hatchet, and Grandpa, who has given up his “sickbed” decrees that the family, Hymie, College Boy, and Goldtooth will all go to church together.  Grandpa hasn’t been in church in twenty years.  Ann, delighted, bounces upstairs to get his hat and coat, and hers, perhaps the only one in the house to sense a miracle has occurred.  One has to be in tune with miracles to recognize them. 
As she leaves her room, in a very nicely framed shot, we see this lovely young woman blow not one, but two affectionate kisses to Saint Anne.  It may not be the proper behavior of obeisance to a saint, but her love and gratitude demonstrates her confidence that Saint Anne has her back. That’s a very special kind of reverence.
Sally and Saint Anne seems to be another one of those Ann Blyth movies in DVD limbo (Doah!  No doctrinal pun intended.  Oh, okay.  Mea culpa.), but I think you can still see it up at YouTube here for the time being.
Come back next Thursday when we travel to post-war Washington, D.C. in the 1949 comedy Free for All where Bob Cummings discovers how to make cars run on water instead of gasoline, and Ann goes along for the ride.

******************************
American Paper Doll from article by David Wolfe, 2013, #55
Ellensburg Daily Record, November 4, 1952, p. 6.
Milwaukee Sentinel, November 14, 1951, article by Louella Parsons, p. 8; December 3, 1952, article by Louella Parsons, p. 8

St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press, December 15, 1951, article by Louella Parsons, p. 4D.

****************************
THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

***************************
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
*********************
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.


 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood





Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.


The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. 

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ann Blyth - Profession of Faith


On February 20, 1955, Ann Blyth was given the Star of David Award at a charity ball in Los Angeles for her work in support of the Jewish Home for the Aged.  This was only one occasion of many when she had been noted for the charitable work she'd been involved in since she came to Hollywood, including both religious and civic organizations.  On another occasion, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from St. Joseph’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, for her years of participation in these activities. 
Charity and civic work played a large part of her private life, but since this series is focused on her career, we’ll cover in this post those professional gigs that combined her acting career with her personal commitment to her faith.
She found herself part of a small colony of Roman Catholic actors in Hollywood, some of whom belonged to the Catholic Actors Guild, founded 1914.  Its first president was Jerry Cohan, George M.’s father.  Other members included Claudette Colbert, Pat O’Brien, Irene Dunne, Wallace Ford, Rosalind Russell, Ruth Hussey, Raymond Massey, Helen Hayes, and Jane Wyatt.
From time to time, some of these folks, Ann especially, appeared in a long-running radio program called Family Theater, which presented literary classics like A Tale of Two Cities, mixed with family dramas and gentle comedy.  The host, usually a guest actor, would remind the audience that praying together as a family would help lead to world peace.  Founded by Fr. Patrick Peyton, who established the Holy Cross Family Ministries, the program featured such other Hollywood luminaries as James Stewart, Bob Hope, and Barbara Stanwyck.  Fr. Peyton, you might recall, coined the phrase: "The family that prays together, stays together."
Ann’s first appearance on the show was in August 1947, and she appeared several times in the show’s run, which ended in 1957.  The Triumphant Hour was a kind of kin to this show, and she appeared on this radio program, and The Joyful Hour in December 1949, playing Mary to MacDonald Carey’s Joseph in The Nativity.  Bing Crosby and Dennis Day were part of a large cast.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, television broadcast The Christophers, where Ann appeared as a guest in a kind of talk show or panel discussion on such topics as: “Gear Yourself to a Fast Changing World” (1963), “Careers That Count” (1958), “You Can Change the World” (1951), “Give Children Good Reading Habits” (1960), and “Teen Agers: Today and Tomorrow” (1965).  “You Can Change the World” is no longer up at YouTube, but it featured a large cast including Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, Ann Blyth, Jack Benny, all in discussion with Fr. James Keller.  Though Jack Benny was along for comedy relief, it was William Holden’s concerned face being among the earnestly staged discussion that just sort of made me smile.
Here is a clip from a Family Theater short in celebration of Easter, with Ann Blyth singing “Come Holy Ghost.”  The clip demonstrates her rich, surprisingly powerful soprano voice, and I particularly like how relaxed she appears while singing, the leisurely pace of the song and her vocal technique itself creating drama.  It's a fine display of both her artistry, and her contentment in singing and in her faith.
A Happy Easter to those who celebrate it.


For those of you in the mood for a little Easter OTR (Old Time Radio), have a listen to Ann in "The Arbutus Bonnet," a dramatic episode of Hallmark Playhouse, hosted by author James Hilton, in a script adapted by Jean Holloway (one of my favorite radio and TV writers).  It was broadcast April 6, 1950.  Scroll down to "50-04-06" and download or listen.
Come back next Thursday when we discuss the delightful comedy Sally and Saint Anne, a coming-of-age story where small-town girl Ann Blyth suffers vast growing pains amid a daffy family in a circus of a home.  She has the help of her best buddy, Saint Anne.

*************************

Pittsburgh Press, May 8, 1964; also article by Carl Apone, July 28, 1968, p. 13.

*************************

THANK YOU....to the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

**************************
UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -
*********************
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on Audible.com, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.


 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood





Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.


The eBook and paperback are available from Amazon and CreateSpace, which is the printer.  You can also order it from my Etsy shop. 

If you wish a signed copy, then email me at JacquelineTLynch@gmail.com and I'll get back to you with the details.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Majority of One - 1961


 
A Majority of One (1961), directed by Mervyn LeRoy is a luminous tribute to the “better angels of our nature,” to the belief that peace on earth begins with an old-fashioned concept called the brotherhood of man, and to the talent of two aging stars who only got better with time.  They are Rosalind Russell, and Sir Alec Guinness.
This is our contribution to the Diamonds and Gold blogathon saluting the actors and actresses in their “over 50” years, hosted by Caftan Woman, who covers the actresses, and Rich at Wide Screen World, who showcases the actors.  Please have a look at these two blogs for a list of great bloggers participating in this event.
 
Rosalind Russell plays an elderly Brooklynite, a widow who lives alone in an apartment cozy with tsotchkes and heavy with the past in the form of family portraits and symbols of her Jewish faith.  In a place of honor on the sideboard is the photo of her late husband, and her son, who was killed in World War II.  Though she is a strong, sensible, and funny woman who dispenses home comforts from an enormous handbag and home philosophy from a giving heart (“You want dietonic, drink water.”), she is still grieving, and chained to what she has lost.

 
Her daughter, played by Madelyn Rhue, is married to a young man in the diplomatic service, played by Ray Danton.  They come for a visit and to break the news that he is being transferred to Japan.  They want to take her with them, but know that convincing her will be difficult, because she is old and set in her ways, because all she knows is Brooklyn, and because of a still not healed resentment against the Japanese, for her son was killed in the Pacific Theater. 
The war was over only just 15 years when this story takes place, and it reflects sentiments common at the time, and also reflects that remarkable change that occurred both in a Japan struggling to throw off years of shame of defeat and poverty to embrace a modern world—modern democracy, modern capitalism—and in America's relationship with its former enemy.  It was still a long time before Japan became an economic powerhouse, but the seeds were being sown, while America changed in its role as victor, to partner, and it left many World War II generation Americans reeling.  Does moving forward disgrace the past?  Is moving forward the only way to really honor the sacrifices made?


Large issues are reduced to small examples of fear and mistrust when Rosalind Russell meets her first Japanese man – and we are set up for open discussion of prejudice by her neighbor, comically played by Mae Questel, who wants to move out of Brooklyn because blacks and Puerto Ricans are moving in.  (If she sounds like—and sings like—Betty Boop, it’s because she is Betty Boop.)
The Japanese gentleman she meets on the ship going over to Japan will figure prominently in their lives.  He is the Japanese delegate to the economic summit that her son-in-law is attending on behalf of the American side.  He is played by Alec Guinness.


There is much humor (including a really charming scene where Russell and Guinness crack each other up and laugh themselves silly), and drama of the gentle, but most honest kind.  Most interesting, what begins as an East-meets-West story quickly becomes a tale of aging, and ageism.  Guinness, a widower whose son was also killed in the war, and whose daughter, too, while serving as a nurse in Hiroshima when it was obliterated, has learned to move on and face the future with dogged determination.  We sense that it is not until he has met Rosalind Russell, that he sees any beauty in life again.  They discuss their lives, their families, their faiths with open curiosity.  They share things about themselves their children do not know. 
When he asks to court her, she is reticent for her children’s sake, and Guinness gives us what should be the motto of the Diamonds and Gold blogathon:

“It is not the children who should instruct the parents, but the parents who should instruct the children.”
“Not in America,” she jokes.

He adds, “You are wise and venerable, and only the venerable have the experience and maturity to understand matters of personal relationships.”
When her daughter and son-in-law object, he calmly tells them, “We have the maturity to weigh such matters, you do not.”

One rarely hears huzzahs for maturity these days, when what is shallow, ignorant, and tasteless is "awesome."


Indeed, one of the chief wonders and pleasures of this gentle movie is that the two aging stars are the stars, not the supporting players, and that the story revolves entirely around them.  Though they have some comic moments, they are not buffoons, and it is never their age that is a butt of jokes.  Miss Russell even gets a few moments of physical comedy, when she thrusts her long legs under the low Japanese table at Guinness’ home, and is helped to walk, a little tipsy from too much sake.  She sways a bit and uses her body almost as she were about to break into the Conga number from Wonderful Town.
When her son-in-law makes a social gaffe at the economic meetings and unknowingly insults his Japanese hosts, she tells him what he did wrong in bowing too low, that it looked like he was making fun of the Japanese.  “It’s very important how you talk to foreigners about the little things.  I know.  I was a foreigner for a long time.  Foreigners are very sensitive people.”  We learn of her trip in steerage from Russia when she was a little girl, and a life lived in a new country where it took a very long time to be accepted.


Rosalind Russell is a quiet miracle in this role, a departure from her larger-than-life Hildy Johnson or Auntie Mame, and yet still holding court center-stage as few others can.  Her affectionate touching her daughter when she arrives, running her hands along her daughter’s shoulders, face, and hands, always clutching her.  Her deft witticisms and tragic pain that plays out as mere flickers on her lovely, gracefully aging face.
 
Her rigid anger as she recounts on her first meeting with Guinness the circumstances of her son’s wartime death and her burning resentment against the Japanese.  Her flustered moments, her grieving moments, her moments of incandescent wonder.  Most especially, her transformation into a Jewish woman.
This for many might be seen as poor casting, unrealistic in the face of her being a longtime star well known for being cast as what she was – Yankee types (or English types).  That she was in real life an Irish Catholic is too much perhaps for some people to accept her in this role.  I feel she is perfect in the role for two reasons:  First, her dialect imitating a Jewish woman from Brooklyn is perfect.  She nails it.  Her soft inflections, her mannerisms, there is nothing to indicate in her performance that she is not this character.  The only reason she would not be accepted in the role is the fact that everyone knows she is not an elderly Jewish woman from Brooklyn.


And this, second, is why she brings to the role something Gertrude Berg, who played the part on Broadway, could never do.  Miss Russell creates transcendence in the role, the kind of transcendence that is the message of the story, as Guinness’ character puts it, to cross a bridge and achieve “the enlightened spirit,” and passing that enlightenment to her audience.  She is our our stand-in and proxy. 

Gertrude Berg, whom most remember for her The Goldbergs radio and TV show, a pioneer writer and actress, played Jewish.  It was her character, to the point of becoming parody.  She could play Mrs. Jacoby in her sleep, but her familiarity with the role—and more importantly, the audience’s familiarity with her—would not allow for that marvelous transcendence that Rosalind Russell creates.  There is a scene at the end of the movie where Alec Guinness visits her back in her Brooklyn apartment.  She has prepared Sabbath dinner for him, and she lights the Shabbat candles.  She drapes a white lacy scarf over her head, and encircles the flames of the two candles with her hands, then places her hands over her eyes and quietly whispers a prayer.  The action is delicate and womanly.
 
I find this terribly moving especially knowing that she was a devout Roman Catholic, that in these pre-Vatican II days she wore a mantilla to Mass, probably very similar to what she wears on her head in this scene, and that when she says “Amen,” so does the Buddhist character played by Alec Guinness.  It is a moment of reverence, and nobility, when we really think the brotherhood of man is possible.  Gertrude Berg would be playing herself.  Rosalind Russell morphs into a symbol.

 
At this point, one must obviously note the casting of a white Englishman to play the Japanese character.  Here, ironically, we don’t have as much as stretch from the stage version—we may smile that Sir Cedric Hardwicke played the Japanese gentleman on stage.
 
It is perhaps more egregious to some for a non-Japanese to play this role.  However, here, too, I would suggest it is not inappropriate.  He is not making a caricature of the role, in the same horrible way that Mickey Rooney did with the Japanese character he played in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, released the same year of 1961.  The real problem with Mr. Rooney’s embarrassing mugging portrayal in that movie is because he made the character’s being Japanese a joke, instead of making the character’s personality, his actions, and foibles the joke.  If the role had been played by a Japanese man still making the joke his being Japanese with all the stereotyped exaggerations, it would have the same embarrassing effect.

Sir Alec Guinness plays his role with subtle grace, an economy of movement, and if you do not believe he is really Japanese, that is not the point.  He is, like Rosalind Russell, a symbol, an allegory like the tale he tells of the ancient emperor and his commoner bride.
 
 
This is a movie that speaks to the heart and must be embraced the same way, as symbolic and allegorical.  The real brotherhood of man takes place when we walk in each other’s shoes.  Should Chinese native Ang Lee have not been allowed to direct that quintessential English tale, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) because it was not his culture and heritage?  Should Kazuo Ishiguro not have been allowed to write that English novel of a stately home and an enigmatic butler, The Remains of the Day?

Here is a clip from a Japanese production of the stage musical Fiddler on the Roof.   A Japanese actor playing Tevye sings "If I Were a Rich Man" in Japanese. 



Brotherhood of man, folks.  Just go with it.


Rosalind Russell is a triumph in this role, but her acting career was growing short largely because of an event that occurred around the time just before this film was made.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy.  She did not make this public at the time, as it would have probably ended her career right there.  The early 1960s was truly a different world, where celebrities did not share this kind of news.  She was in her early fifties when she starred in A Majority of One.  In a remarkable feat of body and soul, she continued to perform sporadically through the 1960s, albeit with discomfort, and she was given another 15 years of life before the cancer returned, metastasized, and killed her. 
We eventually lose our most sparkling diamonds, but they cast a light that lives forever.

A blessed Palm Sunday, Easter, and Passover to those who keep these traditions.  Kanpai! (As Sir Alec and Rosalind say when they toast each other in Japanese.)

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Come back this coming Thursday when our Year of Ann Blyth resumes with a special post for Easter.

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In response to the number of kind people who've requested print copies of my eBook Classic Films and the American Conscience, which is a collection of essays from this blog -- I still can't print that book because you wouldn't be able to lift it, and I couldn't afford to print it.  BUT, I'm putting out a new, smaller, collection of essays, some old, some new, from this blog titled Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mimics and Mirrors the 20th Century.   It will be issued in eBook as well as print, and I'll let you know more about it down the road.  I hope to have it published sometime in May.

 

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