Thursday, July 19, 2018

Teresa Wright - the odd girl

Teresa Wright is one of 50 stars featured in the Big Star Album winter 1943 issue, a quarterly magazine from Dell Publishing Company.  It is a collection of black and white portrait photos, with blurbs or brief bios accompanying each star.

Miss Wright is 24 years old, and already packaged as "different" who "says she wants to reach folks' souls."

The editors note, "You can take for granted that she's an odd girl.  All for art.  Never touches make-up or cigarettes."

Not exactly stellar notices, but in an industry focused on superficial glamour, it demonstrated a wary if grudging respect for the young woman who, probably just as this issue hit the stands and long after this blurb was written -- had been nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in the same year, and won for the latter category for Mrs. Miniver (1942).  The editors seem to have forgotten she had also been nominated the year before for Best Supporting -- three nominations for her first three Hollywood films, a feat that has never been done by anyone else since.

Take that, Big Star Album.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

1776 - 1976 - 2026?

At the end of the school year in about 1974 or 1975, I can remember an assembly in junior high school that was meant as an end-of-the-year treat for us kids to get us out of the hot, stuffy classrooms that were not air-conditioned and move us into the gym/auditorium that was also not air-conditioned. A movie projector was wheeled in on one of those old typical public school audiovisual carts and a screen was pulled down over the stage. We were treated to a movie that day. It was 1776 (1972).

We have mentioned on this blog before the 1970s being a decade almost peculiarly devoted to nostalgia. It was the era where we saw a revival of sorts in culture and entertainment, a nod to Hollywood's heyday. Many of Hollywood's stars at that time were still with us, indeed, were still working, and were able to share with us and enjoy the images of their youth which at the time they may have thought doomed to obscurity. But thanks to television and the new videocassettes on the horizon and much memorabilia sold in the meantime, the 1970s became an era where we rediscovered the past and reveled in it. It was the era of That's Entertainment (1974), and young people such as myself were able to not only to learn about the 1920s and 30s and 40s but actually to identify with those eras even in the face of the impending disco craze.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia, JT Lynch photo.

But 1974 or 1975 was still too early for disco. What it was, however, was an interesting watershed where, bit by bit, we began to be aware that the bicentennial of our nation was close at hand. I think we warmed to it slowly but once we saw the party on the horizon we became immersed in the Bicentennial. Perhaps it was the horrific experience of all the upheaval and violence and disappointment and, indeed, revolution of the 1960s that put us in a different frame of mind where we might welcome a more noble, and perhaps scrubbed-up, past.

Suddenly there were novels written about the colonial period, and towns across the United States began to discover their own history and prepare for a historical presentation, even if the celebration was nothing more than fireworks on July 4, 1976. This is not to say that we looked backward with the effect of Disney-fying our past.  Rather, there was a lot of re-examination of many unpleasant aspects of our history, which we faced, I think, nobly, humbly, and learned a great deal from it.

Somewhere in there, a musical called 1776 embodied pretty much all of that era – the interest in nostalgia, the sincere desire to investigate our national roots good and bad, as an opportunity to revel in the joyous knowledge that our democracy was once the greatest experiment of mankind and the most successful and in many ways an uplifting boon to mankind from many nations.  It demonstrated how slim the margin was between success and failure of that experiment.

The play was first performed on Broadway in 1969, when the upheaval of the 1960s was barely out of the rearview mirror. It opened on March 16th of that year at the 46th Street Theater in New York, now called the Richard Rogers Theatre. It depicts, of course, the story of the delegates fighting over the Declaration of Independence preparatory to its writing and signing and adoption in July 1776. There are various historical inaccuracies in the show, but, of course, this is a musical; indeed, it is even a musical comedy though its more somber moments are revelatory, so it should not be looked upon as a documentary. It was never intended to be.

The movie was made in 1972 and, happily, some of the Broadway originals made it to the screen such as William Daniels as John Adams, Howard Da Silva as Benjamin Franklin, Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson, and John Callum as Edward Rutledge. In the film a very young Blythe Danner plays Martha Jefferson (the role had been originated by Betty Buckley on stage in her Broadway debut). 

As an old movie fan, I take particular delight in seeing Howard Da Silva as Franklin.  Da Silva certainly had his troubles up against the Blacklist and the worst days of the 1950s, so it is especially fun to connect the sneering gangster from The Blue Dahlia (1946) to singing as the jovial, avuncular if naughty Ben Franklin. It is also a very special delight to see Ray Middleton in the smaller role of Thomas McKean, the Scotts delegate from Delaware. We discussed his work in this post on I Dream of Jeanie (1952) where he played the minstrel showman Edwin P. Christy in his booming baritone voice.

Though I love all the sly playfulness in the script and the delightful songs, my favorite among the musical numbers are “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” sung by John Callum as he points out that the evil of slavery is not just something borne of the South but that was aided and abetted by the northern colonies who engaged in the infamous Triangle Trade. It is a very honest and majestic song, even if it is uncomfortable for many of us to hear. It is an excellent way to teach history, I think because it is simple and it is vivid and it gives one a slice, just a taste of all the complications and human emotions that went behind the history.

I'm also very fond of the song called “Cool Considerate Men” which describes the conservatives in Congress not wanting to rock the boat, indeed, many of whom did not really want independence because they were afraid they would lose everything they owned. This song, although it illustrates the beginnings of a split that existed from the very beginning in terms of North and South and propertied men and unpropertied men, the aristocrats versus the rabble—it is not really accurate to say there was a Left and Right in the United States at the time of Revolution. That came much later.

The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, JT Lynch photo.

The interesting thing about this song in the musical is that it reflects the era of the 1970s when this musical crawled out of the mosaic of our modern times and remains with us today. According to producer Jack Warner (speaking of Hollywood’s heyday, this would be one of the last films in which Warner was involved), President Richard Nixon requested to have that particular song that was in the stage play removed from the film because he thought it an insult to modern-day Conservatives. Warner, who was Nixon's pal, agreed to do it even though the director Peter Hunt, who also directed the stage play, refused. Warner took the song out in postproduction behind Hunt’s back, and he apparently also wanted to have the song cut out from the original negative of the film but the film editor saved the day and kept it safe. According to the Los Angeles Times of September 7, 2001, it was only decades later that this particular song was restored to the film.

When the Broadway musical was slated to be presented at the White House in 1970 for the pleasure of President Richard Nixon, it was likewise requested that the producers cut that song from the show.  They denied the request.

This is the power of history, the power to make it, shape it, the power to deny it and forget it. History never dies because its consequences are always with us. We may say that the left versus right fight represented in the song Cool Considerate Men was not accurate to July 1776 but it most certainly was accurate during the Bicentennial and the play was really about the Bicentennial after all, wasn't it?

And so there in the stuffy junior high auditorium we watched 1776 and our teachers explained to us who the characters were, and I can remember one teacher telling us to spot the redheaded man singing because that was Thomas Jefferson and he had red hair. Caesar Rodney’s facial skin cancer was explained to us. I can remember the clatter of the film projector. I can even remember a sense of discomfort from the teachers and a sense of wonder from the students that we were allowed to see some of the more risqué aspects of the film. To be sure what was risqué in 1975 is not anymore.

We did not need too much explanation about the Revolutionary War because, after all, we were in Massachusetts where we are spoon-fed on the Revolution, the colonial period, where fife and drum corps abound, and in those days, there was a certain smugness in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal that The Commonwealth was the only state in the union that did not vote for Nixon.  We wore T-shirts and had bumper stickers on our cars that said, “Don’t Blame Me, I’m From Massachusetts.”

Independence Hall interior, photo by JT Lynch.

We began celebrating the Bicentennial well before 1976 with many events, such as the recreation of dragging Colonel Henry Knox’s canon from Fort Ticonderoga in New York across the length of the Bay State to Bunker Hill—a miserable job in the winter back in 1775, and even in 1975 on the now-paved Route 20 (which we still call The King’s Highway as often as The Boston Post Road for some perverse reason.)

It was a good time to be young, in the warm lushness of summer when Freedom, to us, meant freedom from school.

Where has that enthusiasm for sentimental American history gone?

For that matter, where has all that old colonial furniture gone?  I don’t think you can even find it in flea markets these days, but everything was colonial reproductions. Everything was colonial. Everything had red, white and blue bunting, including a package of cupcakes.  The Bicentennial was on our money, coins and paper bills (including the short-lived new $2 bill).  It was stamped on our toys, license plates, clothing. I can remember carved eagle plaques on the wall and flags with the thirteen stars hanging from houses.

In 2026, just eight years away, we will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. We are due for another party. Our enthusiasm for the bicentennial may have been borne from the despair and disillusionment from the late 60s and the early 70s culminating with the Nixon scandal of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Vietnam, the vice president being indicted for tax fraud—you name it, there was plenty of corruption to choose from. The Bicentennial gave us a chance to reboot, although the term was not used then.

Will we get another opportunity to rejuvenate and restore ourselves, to look back and to look forward with hope at our 250th celebration? Will there be a celebration? 

Will anybody revive that colonial furniture?

I remember the Bicentennial, the celebrations, the fireworks and the feeling on July 5th as the sulfur from the fireworks still hung in the air, of a sense of needing to move on and clean up after the party and continue on our journey as a nation. Will, just as in the aftermath of Nixon, will a new celebration of our founding as a nation remove the stain, the shame, and bad taste of the Trump years?  To be sure, this nation has suffered crises in many generations, and the threat to our democracy is as serious now because democracy is really a fragile thing that depends on us. The cool considerate men (and women) in Congress are just as self-righteous and just as good as feathering their own nests now as they were in 1976 or 1776.

Eight years away. We have work to do. Pride in our country is not something we deserve as a birthright. It is something we must continually earn.

Massachusetts where John Adams had to "sit down", photo by JT Lynch.

Many decades after the Bicentennial, I went to Philadelphia to see Independence Hall, to pick out where John Adams and my Massachusetts contingent sat.  Having grown up with the musical, it was a running gag on that trip that my brother, John, and I sang under our breath, “Sit DOWN, John!”  In another nod to the Hollywood’s heyday, by which I mean the dependence on the studio setting—that movie was filmed entirely on the back lot, probably one of the last to be filmed so.  No location shooting.

One of the most stirring scenes in 1776, in the film and in the stage musical, was at the very end when they are signing the Declaration and then freeze in the positions not unlike the old John Trumbull painting of the event.  It’s a stunning effect.  The characters immediately become history.  They become the image of the ideal we hold.  We must also take our places in the image of the ideal we hold. If our citizenship requires no effort from us, has no place in our collective memory, then it will have no meaning for our children and grandchildren.  Let’s save our country from being sold out to the highest bidder—foreign or domestic.  We can start this November.  Celebrations take a lot of planning.  By 2026, we might be able to restore our democratic principles.

In eight years, we can maybe revive some colonial furniture, too.

As William Daniel sang when he portrayed John Adams, "Is anybody there?"

The blogger waits for the post rider with news from the front.  JT Lynch photo.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Ida Lupino Wants to Laugh

Ida Lupino in living color, another example of gorgeous photography from Screen Guide magazine.  This March 1943 issue also includes a brief article, see below, on Ida's desire to step back from all the heavy drama and try a little comedy -- "I Want to Laugh!"

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Lucille Ball - Color Portrait

This stunning color portrait of Lucille Ball was published in Screen Guide of February 1943. This fan magazine was a little different than others of its day: it was oversized, and its many photos and journalistic style of its articles resembled Life magazine.  

Though wartime brought printing restrictions to most periodicals in terms of use of one color or lesser quality paper, Screen Guide still managed to produced very handsome issues.  Though most photography in each issue was the standard black and white, such marvelous color photos as this were included.  The article with the photo was titled "Beauty Begins at Thirty!"  We know now that if Lucille Ball was concerned about a faltering career, she need not have worried.  TV was just down the road.  Even if it was in black and white.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Three Gleasons - James, Lucille, and Russell

James Gleason is a favorite character actor among classic film fans, and we could rattle off a giant list of movies he appeared in.  Less well known are his wife and his son, who pose with him in this trio shot from Stars of the Photoplay (1930).

Lucille Webster performed in a stock company owned by James Gleason's theatrical parents.  They were married in 1905.  His first Broadway appearance was in 1914, and after several years of acting, writing, and directing for the theatre, both husband and wife scored in the Broadway hit The Shannons of Broadway in 1927, which Gleason wrote.

His first film was in 1922.  He also wrote and directed for the movies.  He appeared in several with Lucille.  Their son Russell continued the family trade and appeared in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).

This photo was taken around that time, when he was about 22 years old, when the family had so much to look forward to and, at least for James, was on the brink of a solid and respected film career.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck fifteen years later, when Russell, who had enlisted in the Army in 1943, was awaiting deployment to Europe with his troop in New York City when he died on Christmas Day 1945, having fallen out a fourth-story hotel window.  

Mrs. Gleason, who also served as vice president of the Screen Actors Guild, served on the advisory board for the Federal Theater Project, and ran for office in local politics, died about a year and a half later in 1947.

James went on to more roles in both films and TV, and died in 1959 at the age of 76.

I think my favorite line of his is from Meet John Doe (1941): "There y'are Norton, the people.  Try and lick that!"

Thursday, April 26, 2018

TCM Classic Film Festival - Read All About It

Today begins the TCM Classic Film Festival hosted at several Hollywood venues by Turner Classic Movies.  Though I've never been to the TCMCFF, I've always enjoyed a ringside seat through the wonderful descriptions of my fellow classic film bloggers.  Their adventures and their enthusiasm are a lot of fun to follow.  If you aren't able to take in the festival, then by all means, enjoy the recap posts of the four days of old movie lovers' heaven through classic film blogs such as these:

Laura's Miscellaneous Musings

Essays from the Couch

Out of the Past

Once Upon a Screen

Outspoken and Freckled

Classic Move Hub name a few.  But for on-the-spot action, follow their trail on Twitter - #TCMFF.

Thank you to these bloggers and others who share their experiences on social media about the TCM Film Festival for those of us who don't get to go, and for sharing their love of classic films all year long.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Phone Call from a Stranger (1952)

Phone Call from a Stranger (1952) is engrossing for the work of its cast, the sensitive and shrewd viewpoint of the director, and mostly for being a fine example of what was most entertaining about classic films:  They were almost always character studies, and the characters were not so very different from us. Also, they were quite bold and courageous about playing the ball where it lies.

When a child reads Cinderella, there is no questioning the logic of how there could be such a thing as a glass slipper and that there’s only one person in the whole kingdom whom it will fit. That's just the way it is.  The child accepts those terms in order to enjoy the story.

In Phone Call from a Stranger, we are expected to accept a series of unusual or even unlikely scenarios as a matter of course. Therein do we find the magic of storytelling.

Many critics and fans alike will point to classic films as examples of entertainment that were escapist. For many films, this was true, but even in the most fantastical adventure what I find most compelling in classic films is not their escapism but their relevance.  Time and again, I find relevance more than escape.

What I also admire about the people who made classic films is that they had the guts to focus on the most mundane lives and circumstances to launch an adventure. In many respects we've gotten away from that in our modern films and television entertainment, where to be competitive in the marketplace where there is so much competition, the film's story must have some sort of special hook to it, either the characters must be unusual or their experiences must be, or they must be seen as representing a segment of society which is currently marketable.

But old movies, in an era where they churned them out by the dozens by the week, there was little self-conscious need to market the story right from the script.  That was the purview of the publicity men; directors and writers and actors could be more playful with an idea. It didn’t always necessarily need to be considered logical.

Phone Call from a Stranger is a mystery, a character study, a moralistic fable, that is also quite funny at times, and often unflinching at the foibles and inconsistencies of not only its characters but of us.  It also manages to be inspirational.

Gary Merrill stars as a lawyer who is leaving his wife because she has been unfaithful to him. Like a noir film there are flashbacks and it will take almost until the very end of the film until we understand his whole story and his motivations. At first, we only know that he is angry and resentful, that he loves his wife and two daughters, but he cannot reconcile himself to living with her anymore. He leaves his Midwest home to take a flight to California to start a new life.

The film begins as a noir, at midnight, in a rainstorm, with ominous music flooding over the title and credits.

By the way, there’s going to be enough spoilers in here to choke a horse.  You love spoilers?  Oh, that's fine, then.

He takes a cab to the airport and books his one-way flight by an assumed name so that she cannot track him down, yet he calls her from a phone booth so that she will not worry. We see from the very first moment of the film that despite his need to escape his life, which has become bitter and disappointing, he still has enough sympathy for his wife not to put her through the agony of wondering where he went. He tells her he will be in touch. The rain drips off the brim of his fedora.

He will spend the next couple of days on a long-distance journey full of layovers and delays in the company of three other passengers. They are Michael Rennie, a doctor; Keenan Wynn, a traveling salesman; and Shelley Winters, a second-rate actress. Director Jean Negulesco allows their stories to unfold in a leisurely way that is interesting and easily keeps the audience's attention with a kind of sleight-of-hand that is as effective as Hitchcock's but much more subtle. There are mysteries all around us, and sudden tragic scenes of violence, but it is the deceptively normal, innocent moments of seeming irrelevance that keep us off balance the most.

Michael Rennie, who we last saw in I'll Never Forget You (1951) here, plays a reserved, gentlemanly, and somewhat anxious man. Like Merrill, he seems to have some secret trouble.
Keenan Wynn is a joker and a constant motormouth, pulling out novelty items like clattering teeth and funny glasses and letting rip off high, maniacal laugh that echoes in the lunch room, in a waiting room, on the plane. He is a little annoying for his over-the-top extroverted character. We haven't an inkling what his story really is, not because he is more clever at hiding his emotions than the other three, but because he is less burdened by them, and that will be the most amazing thing of all.

Shelley Winters, who played goodhearted but common-as-dirt dames, is very likable as a small-time performer who wants to be a big-time actress but has failed to gain any traction in New York. She is flying home to California to rejoin her husband and his overbearing mother because she misses him and she has learned that the bright lights of Broadway are probably not going to shine on her. Rather than being despondent about that, she has decided to focus herself on her marriage, what she realizes means more to her. Because she is so gregarious, she draws out the back stories of the three men. She guesses before anyone, with common sense and razor-sharp astuteness, that Rennie is a doctor and that Keenan Wynn is a traveling salesman, and she has guessed that all the men are married. She freely discusses her own problems and we can commiserate with her about her fear of flying on her very first plane trip.

It's fun to see the trappings of the era: walking out to the plane on the tarmac; the plane, a prop job with a small cabin; the smoking and no smoking and fasten seatbelt lights going on and off in the days before jets when a transcontinental flight would actually have to make stops to refuel at certain points along the way. It is on the stops that they get to know each other.

Gary Merrill, despite his troubles at home, has the easiest manner of the bunch, is the most level-headed and patient with them. He is a lawyer.  It is his calm nature that makes Shelley Winters want to sit next to him on the plane. At one point, in their chumminess, when he puts his seat back to sleep, she does the same and jokes about their spending the night together. For those who find it difficult to sleep on planes, one has to envy them in the shot at night when most of the people on the plane are asleep even during a violent thunderstorm. When the storm forces them to land in an out of the way spot, they sing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” as the plane lurches in the descent.  (Quick, what other road movie has the characters singing “The Man on the Flying Trapeze?”   Yeah, I know you know.  It Happened One Night -1932, which we discussed here.)  In a panic, Shelley Winters clutches Merrill’s hand, and lurches forward with what looks like a stomach-churning lift of the plane.

Gary Merrill, with that craggy face had a wonderful knack for playing unassuming characters of quiet strength that were somehow heroic simply for being unassuming. During one point in the trip, the plane has come to a difficult landing and in a layover waiting for the storm to pass he and Michael Rennie discuss Rennie’s troubles. He wants Merrill's help and his professional judgment as an attorney.
Five years earlier, when at a dinner dance at a country club, Rennie had too much to drink and was called away to perform surgery on a patient. His fellow physician, played by our friend Hugh “Ward Cleaver” Beaumont went with him. In a childish bit of drunken bravado, in spite Beaumont's protests and perhaps because of them, Rennie drove very recklessly and they got into an accident. Beaumont was killed, as were two others in a car with which they collided. Rennie lied to the police, telling them Beaumont was driving, and his wife, played by Beatrice Straight, stoically and with disgust, did not contradict her husband, lying as well to protect him. Their son never knew the truth, but he did observe the break in his parents’ marriage after this incident where his father drank more and his mother seemed to shut him out. This is told in flashback scene.

Now Rennie is coming home to California to face the music and he wants Gary Merrill to go with him to the DA’s office to tell them the truth. He had already gotten away with it, but he can no longer live with his guilt and needs to regain his wife's respect. Rennie is brittle, bitter, good with the conflict.

Shelley Winters is charming in her effortless and natural friendly if outspoken dame who’s been around the block, not playing it at all like a stereotype.  There is something sweet and childlike about her.  She confesses to Merrill about her failure to hit it big in New York and her desire to go home to be with her husband.
Her biggest problem was the conflict she had with her mother-in-law, an ex-vaudevillian, played with venomous panache by Evelyn Warden, who owns a supper club in Los Angeles where her son, Shelley's husband, performs with her. Mama rules the roost, and she disliked Shelley from the beginning. But Shelley is willing to go home and even brave her mother-in-law just to be with her husband again. She’s a people person, and it’s fun to watch her figure out what makes everyone tick.  We realize, later on, that she has given Merrill a lot to think about.

Keenan Wynn seems such a shallow and trite man that we don't imagine there is anything below the surface, and others refer to him, among other things, as a jerk.  We never get a chance to get his story – the plane crashes.

It happens on the second leg of the journey, the next morning, when the day is fine and there is no hint of the noirishness of the night before. It is shocking when, in an instant, the pilots notice ice on the wings, and Shelley Winters’ body is thrown over Gary Merrill, on top of us, and the whole plane lurches, and then we see the plane flailing through the trees and upending. We see the inevitable headlines about the plane crash – most of the people on board are dead, except for three who survive.

We wonder which three of the four lived?

We’re next brought to a hotel room in Los Angeles and – Gary Merrill walks through the door.   

He has facial bruises, his arm in a sling, his torn suit a mess and we see he has just gotten out of the hospital. He dictates a telegram to his wife telling her where he's going to be staying for a few days but mentioning nothing about the plane crash. She would not have been alerted to it, because he had checked in under a phony name anyway. He could have gotten away with disappearing.

Absentmindedly, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the business cards of the two men and a piece of paper with Shelley's address info on it. The four musketeers, as they called themselves, decided that they would keep in touch.

We realize now that the other three have all been killed.

Merrill seems to be making up his mind about something, and his character suddenly takes the movie one step further, one step beyond a typical plane crash movie. What happens next isn’t about the crash, but about the families of these three characters and what happens next for them. 

Merrill does the very noble thing of contacting their loved ones, not only to bring them comfort to share with them the last moments, but to right some wrongs and to repair the damage in the lives of the deceased so that at least the living can go on.

In the case of Michael Rennie, Merrill visits his wife who laments that their teenage son has run away.  He does not know the truth about his father. Gary Merrill tracks him down, brings him home and tells the boy, played by Ted Donaldson (whom we saw here in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – 1945) the truth about his father's guilt in the accident and reminds him that an indecent man would've taken pleasure to have gotten away with something; a decent man is horrified by the guilt. He also learns that his mother has protected him. The son grows up quite a bit in those few minutes. The family is restored even though Rennie will never come home to them, and his memory will be sweeter for them. In a sense, he has come home.

Next Merrill tackles Shelley Winters’ story. He goes to the supper club where her mother-in-law is onstage, the next to the last of the big hot mamas, and a cute, if well-worn, club routine with her son, who is played by Craig Stevens. It's not a large role but Craig Stevens always acquits himself very well and it is a pleasure to see him in anything. He jokes on stage with mom and gets to sing a song, although I'm not sure that's really his voice on “Again”, though he was a singer and clearly sings the preceding “The Old Gray Mare.”

Merrill gets to see just how overbearing mom really is. She is rude, selfish and bad-mouths Shelley Winters and has tried to break up the marriage, wanting to keep sonny boy to herself. She tells her side of the story in a wholly made-up flashback that seems to parody noir movie flashbacks, but Merrill sets the path straight by throwing in a cute flashback of his own imagining where Shelley Winters has been a big hit on Broadway taking over for Mary Martin in South Pacific. It’s a clever and really funny bit where we see Shelley pantomiming the stage bits of Nellie Forbush including washing that man out of her hair, and he tells her that Shelley wanted to have her mother-in-law join the cast as Bloody Mary, had she not been killed in the plane crash. Mother-in-law, who would have killed for the part, is finally put in her place and her big mouth is finally shut once and for all. Craig Stevens is not fooled, but what is more important to him is Merrill's telling him that Shelley was coming home of her own will, not to battle him in a divorce case, but because she missed him and wanted to give up entertaining for him.

As the days progress, Merrill seems to heal a little from his injuries. He's got a new suit, he loses the sling, the Band-Aid on his head is removed to reveal a thin scar. He finally makes his way to the last stop:  Keenan Wynn's house. Now his last duty is to comfort his widow. We wonder what he will say about Keenan Wynn. He had no heart to hearts with Wynn, no one really got to know him that well; it is hard to know someone who shines such a bright light on himself, a jokester who always goes too far. At one point, Keenan Wynn had passed around a photograph he carried of his wife in a bathing suit on a beach. And everyone is surprised, partly because showing cheesecake photos of one’s wife is a rather tasteless thing to do, and partly because she is such a good-looking young woman, everyone wonders how someone so smashing could've ended up with a schmuck like Keenan Wynn?

But the mystery grows even greater when Gary Merrill goes to his widow's home and finds Bette Davis, Keenan’s widow, lying in bed, hoisting herself up with the handgrips of medical frame. She is paralyzed from the waist down. She is not the sexy young woman in the photo; that was years ago. She knits industriously and seems matter-of-fact in her discussion with Gary Merrill. She does not seem to grieve. When she acknowledges to Merrill that her husband was a loudmouth and crude and uninteresting and that people tended to avoid him, Merrill is at a loss for words. He has come to comfort this woman who seems to want no comforting.

Then she tells him her story and we fall into another flashback. She tells Merrill that very early in their marriage she became tired of him and had an affair. She ran away with another man and on a cross-country trip to Chicago, she was injured in a swimming accident and became partially paralyzed. Her lover abandoned her. In the most touching scene in the film, and ironically, one of the most shocking, we see Bette Davis lying in an iron lung and we hear the ghastly wheezing sound made by the machine that will keep her alive. Her head is completely bandaged after brain surgery. There is that the mirror positioned above the iron lung, which was common so that people who were in them could see visitors above and behind them without having to turn their heads. Over Bette's shoulder we look into her mirror and we see her and then we see the reflection of someone who visits her.  Keenan Wynn puts his face close to hers and looks at her through the mirror and smiling with a great twinkle in his eye, he says in his great booming voice, “Hello, beautiful!" It is a stunning moment of love and forgiveness and the heroism that is involved in both.

The flashback completed, Bette sits in her bed knitting and looks over at Gary Merrill with tears in her eyes and says that she never knew what love was until that moment.

I love that the director focuses not just on Bette’s delivery, which is quite moving, but on Gary Merrill watching her. There is a marvelous gleam of admiration and pride in his eyes as he watches her. We know, of course, that at that time Gary Merrill and Bette Davis were married and maybe he was just getting a kick out of watching his wife hit one out of the park, but it fits so well with his character, for a wonderful everyman sort of empathy in the admiration he feels not only for her for accepting her husband's forgiveness and for being grateful to him staying by her when she was injured, but for this great tribute to Keenan Wynn who really wasn't such a schmuck after all. Gary Merrill will learn that Wynn was the better man of all of them. It teaches Merrill something about forgiveness and about the guts it takes to do that.

She tells him of her husband, “Nothing could shake his love.  It was from him that I learned what love really was – not a frail little fancy to be smashed and broken by pride and vanity and self-pity.  That’s for children.  That’s for high school kids.”

Merrill immediately sees a parallel with his own situation and wants to go back to his wife, and we see that his experience in helping resolve the loose ends in the lives of these other people has done something far greater for himself. He is the lucky one after all, not just because he is alive, but because he will get to mend fences, theirs and his, and he will always have them as an example and a memory to walk with him.

Some might say escapist, or schmaltz, but I say relevance. It's a gutsy movie that tries to tell a story for the story’s own sake—Cinderella was the only one that the glass slipper would fit, so deal with it—and allows us and gives us permission to be entertained by something that is so simple.

An acquaintance, who knows nothing about this blog but who has discussed his love of old movies with me, loaned me the DVD of Phone Call from a Stranger because he loves this movie. He had to pass it along. That’s another thing I like about classic films; they inspire old movie lovers to do things like that. Thanks, Jean-Paul.

Somebody else passed it on, too: it's here on YouTube, at least for now.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

It Can't Happen Here - The movie that was never made.

It Can’t Happen Here is possibly the most important movie that was never made. It did have a cast: Lionel Barrymore was to be the star, playing the lead role of the crotchety small-town newspaper editor Doremus Jessup. The plot told of an America in the 1930s where democracy was eroded into fascism in the wake of a populist and powerful figure elected to the presidency.  It was a kind of alternate universe dystopian story -- of the kind we are living out today. 

The script, based on the best-selling novel by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, was by Sidney Howard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who had already adapted Lewis’ book Dodsworth for Hollywood, released in 1936. Everything pointed to a most important smash hit for Hollywood with It Can’t Happen Here, and for M-G-M, which slated the movie to begin shooting in 1936.

Others in the cast were to include Basil Rathbone, Walter Connolly, and Virginia Bruce.  J. Walter Rubin was to direct.

The sets were built. But then something curious happened. The movie was canceled in February 1936. While it is uncertain on whom to pin the fault for pulling this film out of production, according to the introduction of the 2014 edition of the novel by Michael Meyer, it seems that the Hays Office had a hand in it because they did not wish to offend foreign film distributors in Germany and Italy, or their governments. Their governments, at the time, were fascist. It Can’t Happen Here was an antifascist message of warning.

But it was not a tale of warning against Germany or Italy, or indeed, any European country. The victim and chief offender in the story was the United States of America. Hence the title It Can’t Happen Here.

But, of course, it can, it has, and it may continue to appalling degrees, with the right kind of complacence.

Some of the blame for not continuing with the film was also laid at the door of studio head Louis B. Mayer, not necessarily for wishing to avoid offending foreign governments by painting fascism as a bad thing, but for the amount of money that would be lost if those foreign markets decided to boycott the movie.

The novel continued Sinclair Lewis’ body of work of examining what he felt was the corruptive hypocrisy and choking materialism of middle-class America, in works such as Main Street, Babbitt, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. It Can’t Happen Here, however, took a sharp turn, a more imaginative and dystopic view of what was down the road, rather than what we recognized with familiar comfort as everyday life in the U.S.

The story takes place in a small town in Vermont. Doremus Jessup is the editor of the local paper, in his early 60s, married with one young son and two other grown children, and friends and colleagues and neighbors who are all affected by a strange new political upheaval in the land. The genius of the book is it portrays fascism as something that happens to a country slowly, very slowly, and with surgical precision, until the victims – its own citizens – are too helpless to do anything about it once they have recognized the crisis.

This is the template for fascism in every country. The most startling aspect of this book is that there is so much to reflect upon that is relevant today.

Doremus Jessup is acidic. He is not one to raise the call to alarm, and though we see the coming turmoil through his eyes, because, being a newspaper editor, he is observant, we see that much of the fault of not preparing for and warning people about the encroachment of fascism falls upon people like him. They are educated, but they have adopted the bemused attitude that morons may shout a little but will never carry the day, that intellectuals are protected in their own cocoons by their education, and that double-edged sword that damns us as a country – the belief that our own system of government is so perfect that it will protect us against anything, that we are so superior a people that we would never fall for a pack of lies. That the founding fathers set this nation on autopilot and that we don’t have to do anything to help steer the course.

But Doremus Jessup does observe the follies happening around him. Rather than protest, he smirks, and that is the extent of his indignation. He fluffs off much of what he sees as insignificant because the ultra-right-wing people coming into power in local, state, and national government are fools who admire bullying strongmen. Eventually, he is moved to call them out, not in angry tones, but in a merely dismissive attitude.  He scoffs, “Remember our Red Scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that the OGPU were hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won, the Pope would illegitimize their children?...Remember when the hick legislators in certain states, in obedience to William Jennings Bryan, who learned his biology from his pious old grandma, set up shop as scientific experts and made the whole world laugh itself sick by forbidding the teaching of evolution?... Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how truckloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings?... Why, wherein all history has there ever been a people so ripe for a dictatorship as ours!”

A populist figure runs for the presidency. His name is Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, and he is low on intelligence but he has a great big mouth and a certain degree of charm for those who hate progressives.

Windrip’s campaign promises include several points. One of his planks is that “all Negroes shall be prohibited from voting, holding public office, practicing law, medicine, or teaching in any class above the grade of grammar school, and they should be taxed 100 percent of all sums in excess of $10,000 per family per year... Negroes shall, by definition, be persons with at least one-sixteenth colored blood.”

Another campaign promise, “All women now employed shall, as rapidly as possible, except in such peculiarly feminine spheres of activity as nursing and beauty parlors, be assisted to return to their incomparably sacred duties as homemakers and mothers.”

We see where this is going. As fairytale fantastic as this sounds, it still echoes the idiocy and meanness of the farthest right-wing Trumpanzees of today’s political climate. They have insidiously taken their inch; they hope eventually to forcibly to take their mile.

Windrip touts himself as the hero of “forgotten men”, he glories in big rallies where he is the center of attention, and he accuses the press of lying. His fans and supporters, encouraged by his message, heap hatred upon the intellectual “elite” and they take out their hatred on blacks and on Jews.

Doremus Jessup’s family is torn, with a grown son attracted by the new fascist government and rising in its ranks, and his courageous daughter rebelling against the new order in whatever method possible with the new underground resistance.

When President Windrip is disappointed that Congress fails to pass his whacko campaign promises into law, he declares martial law and takes over sole control of the government, with the help of his colleagues in office who have been waiting for such powerful coattails to ride.  And still, there are people who think it can’t happen here.

“The most liberal for members of the Supreme Court resigned and were replaced by surprisingly unknown lawyers who called President Windrip by his first name.”

A group of right-wing vigilantes who call themselves Minute Men make up his private army and are used to put down public protests. With little hope to overcome the fascism in their government, many people attempt to escape to Canada, as does Doremus and his family, but fail. Eventually, Doremus is sent to one of the new concentration camps for resistors. The descriptions of his experiences in the camp are chilling and vivid; he is subjected to beatings and sick torture.

Across the nation, opposition groups are kidnapped and arrested, journalists foremost among them, for they are the vanguard of freedom in any republic. Doremus’ greatest sin, which he comes to acknowledge himself, is that, as a member of the free press, he did not take this threat seriously, or have the courage to speak out about it when he finally did see the trouble.

“The charity of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of big business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” he realizes. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups, who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

The media who surfed Trump’s campaign as a ratings-grabber failed their responsibility of due diligence in a time of impending crisis, which they should have foreseen and faced. 

One of the thugs who raids Doremus’ home upon his arrest finds many volumes of the works of Charles Dickens. One of the dumbbell vigilantes, looking for proof of Doremus’ lack of loyalty remarks, “That guy Dickens—didn’t he do a lot of complaining about conditions – about schools and the police and everything?” I had to smile at this; it reminded me of a comment left on my post about A Christmas Carol back in December by a reader who felt that my political views were “quite extreme” for writing about the “Dickensian” lives of the characters in A Christmas Carol, and for the IMPEACH TRUMP banner across the top of this blog that will remain as long as he remains in office. Apparently, there is, indeed, something in Dickens to rile the right and put them on the defensive.

How the characters in the novel, It Can’t Happen Here adapt to the new order, how they escape it, and how they resist, are compelling subplots to the main story, which is always in the background – that it can’t happen here. That is the greatest irony of the book, the irony on which the story is pegged. It does happen here in the story. It can happen here in real life. Even under a progressive president like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we saw concentration camps for Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.

Eventually, the dictator Windrip is a deposed by another dictator – as we’ve examined before in our series on fascism in America, fascism is always and inevitably cannibalistic. Fascists will always sell out each other.

The movie which was not made did have a second chance with the possibility of Lewis Stone playing Doremus Jessup, but M-G-M again decided not to go through with the project. It was adapted for the stage in 1937 by the Federal Theatre Project, which was part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration – a federally funded program to keep alive vital theatre in America and to employ thousands of theatre professionals.  It was disbanded in 1939 when Congress cut its funding. However, the play opened in over twenty different productions simultaneously in eighteen different cities on
October 27, 1937, and was a smash hit.

The Berkeley Repertory Theater, of Berkeley California, produced the play in a timely offering in the fall of 2016, just before the November election.

It should be produced again. It should be produced for television for a mass audience to see. It should be made into a major motion picture.  I wish we could have seen Lionel Barrymore in it.

For Hollywood, It Can’t Happen Here is unfinished business.

Related Products