Thursday, July 31, 2008

Adeline De Walt Reynolds

Adeline De Walt Reynolds, who had a bit part in the previously posted “Witness to Murder” (1954), was one of those remarkable character actresses whose real lives out shown any part they happened to play.

Born in 1862 as the nation struggled through the early years of the Civil War, she lived through to just shy of her 99th birthday, in 1961, having spanned the years from Antietam being all the news to Sputnik being all the news. We may imagine that life in the late 19th century contained for her its share of adventure, but what we know about her old age in the mid-20th century is amazing.

After the loss of her husband in the 1905 San Francisco Earthquake, Mrs. Reynolds found new and unlikely professional pursuits. She began college in the 1920s and graduated in 1932 from the University of California at the age of 70. Her bio in the IMDb website informs us that she began her screen career at the age of 78.

Most of these bit parts called for her to be a grandma. We see her as such in “Since You Went Away” (1944) where she is the lady on the train, holding in her arms a sleeping Shirley Temple. She tells Claudette Colbert that her granddaughter was a nurse at Corregidor, and is now missing.

In “Going My Way” (1945) she is one of the neighbor ladies, “Mrs. Fitzgibbon,” and in “Here Comes the Groom” (1951) she is the chuckling Aunt Amy. In “Witness to Murder” she is one of the inmates of a hospital psychiatric ward, pathetically and persistently mumbling to herself, as if lost in a trance of happier days.

Her last role was on television’s “Playhouse 90” when she was about 98 years old. None of her roles were large, in depth, or required much more of her than filling out a scene. But what a kick to see her in the crowd.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Witness to Murder (1954)

“Witness to Murder” (1954) presents Barbara Stanwyck in the role of an intelligent woman no one believes.

Unlike the adventure in “Rear Window”, also made in the same year, where James Stewart slowly comes to the suspicion of a murder committed and must puzzle out the proof, “Witness to Murder” begins in all film noir garish glory, with a clap of thunder, a dark and stormy night, and the sight of a woman being strangled just as soon as we get the main titles out of the way. There is no doubt about the murder being committed or that George Sanders is the murderer. The story is about how Stanwyck cannot convince the police about what she saw.

Her role is a bit of a departure from the typical 1950s hysterical woman roles (though she does have a brief fling at raising her voice at the cops which puts her in a hospital psychiatric ward for observation). Her character is a single professional woman, an artist and interior decorator. She is sensible, intelligent, has a fetching wardrobe of flattering full skirts and tailored jackets, which like her character are not ostentatious in any way but both chic and reserved. She is a quiet person, contained, who though she dines alone at drugstore counters, seems content in her quiet life. She listens to classical music when she putters alone at home. We are told a man she loved died in the war, but she gives no indication that she is looking for a replacement.

We see her at work, comfortable at her drawing table. She has a drawing table in her apartment as well, and her expressionistic paintings hang on the wall, passionate and somewhat dark. The doctor who later interrogates her will infer that they reflect psychosis. People watching this film in 1954 must have been deterred by it from ever seeking help from either the police or from mental health professionals, so callously is she treated.

Her world turns upside down when she sees the murder. World weary Gary Merrill is the responding police lieutenant who investigates, and finding nothing, writes Miss Stanwyck off as a woman who had a bad dream. Her indignation spurs her to do a little of her own investigating, and with each new call to Merrill to report more information, she is told in pleasant, but always condescending tones that she is obsessed over nothing. He spends much of movie telling her to just take it easy.

George Sanders plays the villain with such suave and clever and contrived innocence that perhaps if we had not seen him commit the crime at the beginning of the movie, we would not believe her either. As an ingenious former Nazi who was “de-nazified in court” and emigrated to the US after the war, we might look for some explanation as to why his speech sounds more Oxford than Leipzig. Nevertheless, he is so quick and crafty baiting Miss Stanwyck, reveling that no one believes her, and paints her as a looney before the police.

It is interesting that Merrill’s character, in relating Sanders’ Nazi history to Stanwyck, does it in such a ho-hum manner. This is, I think, not a reflection on Merrill’s abilities as an actor as much as it reflects society of the early 1950s. We see this even in the brilliant “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) where the post-war years shifted from the righteous calls for revenge of the war years to the let’s just move on with our lives attitudes that let so many Nazis escape. It was impossible to punish them all, anyway. Even by 1954, the war was old news.

When Merrill bluntly comments on Stanwyck’s fiancé never making it back from his last bomber mission and she seems to slightly flinch in distress, he remarks laconically, “Sorry. I didn’t know it still hurt.” Apparently, she was supposed have gotten over that a long time ago.

When Sanders at the end of the film reveals his vitriolic, hate-filled ubermenschen philosophy in a soapbox rant, it is almost comic. How frightening his rage would have appeared in a 1940s film. Now only ten years later it seems archaic and quaint. We have a short attention span. We have left the lessons of war far behind us. Don’t believe a Nazi is dangerous because he writes books which map out evil intentions. Don’t believe a woman crying murder. Neither is plausible.

The role is a good one for Barbara Stanwyck, but it is unfortunate that more was not made of her character’s sensibilities and her artistic talents. In one scene we see her absentmindedly sketching the murder at her drawing board as if to come to terms with the horrible act. In another scene she remarks to Merrill about Sanders’ face, “The smile and the eyes don’t go together. They look at you, but they don’t see you.” It’s something an artist would notice. Instead of playing up her character’s approach to the crime as an observant artist, the script merely emphasizes that all her suspicions are based only on women’s intuition, which of course the police scoff at, and Sanders abuses.

We might expect an eventual romance between Merrill and Stanwyck, because they begin to see each other socially, but there doesn’t appear to be much chemistry between them. More than his disbelief in her accusations, which is pardonable without concrete proof, is the almost overbearing condescension of his attitude towards her emotional and mental state. Finally, this is culminated in her being sent to a psychiatric ward for observation, where the film takes a bizarre turn, suddenly becoming “Ladies They Talk About” (1933). (One of her fellow inmates, played by Adeline De Walt Reynolds, will be discussed on Thursday.)

Another odd twist is the chase scene at the end, prompted by a severe policewoman who calls for onlookers to stop Stanwyck from running away because she is insane. She knows that Stanwyck is insane because George Sanders told her so. Everybody believes George Sanders.

Miss Stanwyck attempts to escape up a construction site with Sanders hot on her heels, along with a street crowd. Eventually Merrill shows up to help lift her off a ledge. Since Stanwyck enjoyed performing her own stunts, perhaps for her this fun bit made up for the weaknesses of the story.

Very much a film of its day, it accurately sloughs off the last of the World War II sense of urgency and commitment to seek justice. It makes reference to television (and perhaps radio) when Merrill’s partner playfully hums the well-known opening notes to the “Dragnet” theme. The African-American actress Juanita Moore, who would win an Academy Award nomination for her role in “Imitation of Life” (1959), appearing here as one of the psychiatric ward patients, is referred in the credits only as “Negress.”

Sometimes it actually is better to just move on and away from such as this. But first you have to look back.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Movie Stars in Children's Books

“Ginger Rogers and the Riddle of the Scarlet Cloak” was a book for pre-teens during the 1940s, published by the Whitman Publishing Company. In an era when movie fan magazines and studio publicity men were batting around truth and lies for older kids and adult fans like a badminton game, the younger kids were fed pure pleasant fantasy to peak their interest in Hollywood stars and ensure their patronage for years to come.

Not only did Ginger Rogers have mysteries to solve, but Deanna Durbin and Ann Rutherford also had a go round at “Deanna Durbin and the Adventure of the Blue Valley,” and “Ann Rutherford and the Key to Nightmare Hall.” Clearly, you don’t need Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes when you have Deanna Durbin and Ann Rutherford on the case.

Joining the sorority of sister actresses who sleuthed when they weren’t shooting a picture, was “Jane Withers and the Hidden Room” and “Bonita Granville and the Mystery of Star Island.”

I don’t know if any young male stars were featured in any of the Whitman books, but if you know, or if you’ve read any of these potboilers, I’d like to hear from you.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Remembering Jo Stafford

Jo Stafford died last week. A pop singer, her career extended from the big band era to the beginning of the Rock n’ Roll era, which left singers like her without much publicity as the record buyers became younger. She sang publicly only rarely after the mid 1960s. Thus, most obituaries on Jo Stafford have stamped her as forgotten, or at their kindest, little remembered.

The pop culture of the 20th century, that bold and brazen time of innovations and experimentation, is slipping away from us with each icon to depart for heaven. A word, then, about Jo Stafford for the younger readers who haven’t heard the good word.

Jo Stafford was the single most versatile pop singer of her day. She had a rich mezzo-soprano voice, with an astonishing musicianship to her singing. That may have come from early operatic training, or maybe from her days of singing complicated harmonies with The Pied Pipers, or maybe from her days with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, who was considered a rigid taskmaster by some and a tyrant by others. Wherever her work ethic or her musicality came from, she possessed a spirit of song where other singers merely sang.

Yet, what she did was simply sing. Unlike other singers of her day, she did not employ gimmickry or mimicry or showmanship to “sell” a song. She just sang, with her heart, and her guts. Her style was one of shy invitation, of confessions of unbearable longing, and at the same time, a sense of comforting. Perhaps this is why she was such a favorite among servicemen during World War II and the Korean War, who affectionately dubbed her “GI Jo.” She expressed that touch of wistful need and yet carried an almost subliminal message that somehow everything would be all right. In some situations, like war I imagine, you really need to hear things like that. Listen here to “You Belong to Me."

Jo Stafford could put across a ballad like nobody else. “Early Autumn,” “Midnight Sun,” “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” and “I Didn’t Know About You,” come to mind. But she did not restrict her repertoire to merely modern ballads. Her interest in music also brought her into the realm of American folk songs, where she was among the first to record this traditional music. Listen here to her achingly lovely version of “Shenandoah.”

She could sing jazz. She could sing pop. She could sing church hymns. She could sing Broadway show tunes. She recorded them all. She had the widest repertoire of any singer of her day. She also had a wickedly silly sense of humor. Listen here to her so-called “hillbilly” version of the formerly sultry hit “Tim-Tayshun.”

When she and her husband, musician and conductor/arranger Paul Weston entertained friends at parties by pretending to be “Jonathan and Darlene Edwards,” the worst, most off-key lounge act in the history of the world, they discovered they had a brand new act. The only Grammy Award Jo Stafford ever won was for her riotously tortured performance as Darlene Edwards, butcher of songs.

Jo Stafford had a brief fling at the movies, as just about every pop culture figure did then, from sports heroes to band singers, and TCM will show “Du Barry Was a Lady” (1943) on Wednesday, which features Jo in a couple of numbers. She also did some backup singing for Alice Faye.

Here are the traditional obituaries from The Washington Post and from the Los Angeles Times. But the notion that she is forgotten or little remembered is not exactly true. A person may be ignorant of her career, especially if he has little interest in pop music of her era.

But anyone who has heard Jo Stafford could never forget her.

For more on Jo Stafford, kindly have a look at this terrific interview by Bill Reed.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dreamland Theater - Nantucket

The above photo shows the Dreamland Theater about 20 years ago. Closed for renovations this year, the project is typical of what many theater restorations face: how to upgrade and improve the facility while keeping an eye towards the tradition of its past, as well as how the community balances tradition with the needs and expectations of the future.

The building is from the 19th century, before there were movies. Obviously it already made a huge transformation unique to its earlier era. Now it must be brought forward again under guardianship of business, commerce, and art. It is unlikely to be bedizened with neon and gaudy trappings. If the gray-weathered clapboard with the white trim has not told you already, this movie theater is located on the Massachusetts island of Nantucket. Strict codes will ensure that it conforms to the Nantucket look, where the only ostentation will be found on the screen.

For more on the Dreamland Theater renovation, have a look at this article from the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

“The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” (1947) is notable for Gene Tierney’s charming performance as the spunky widow who shares a seaside cottage with her young daughter, a meek housekeeper, and a ghost.

Set in England of 100 years ago, we meet her in mourning black, which she eventually sheds when she establishes herself living independently after the death of her husband. In a time when widows with small children were taken in by relatives, this one avoids her husband’s dour family by striking it out on her own, upsetting the notions of proper female behavior held by them, the nervous real estate agent, and society of the day.

The irascible ghost of Captain Gregg tries to get her to “shove off” at first, but then the macho misogynist sea dog, played by Rex Harrison, takes a liking to the lady and allows her to remain, even dictating to her his memoirs, “Blood and Swash” so that she may sell it to a publisher for an income. It is an interesting irony that a character so boldly vocal about the faults of women, is also the one to accept her presence on an equal partnership.

They become fast companions, broken up only by the brash and flirtatious George Sanders, who helps get her foot in the door at the publishing house. Sanders is a writer of children’s books, and a painter as well who paints a saucy portrait of her in a bathing costume on the beach.

The Captain disappears, leaving her for her own good to a more practical romance with a human, but when Sanders is revealed to be already married, our spunky Mrs. Muir seems to lose some of her whimsical personality. The film shows the passing of long lonely years with only her housekeeper for company. As a child, her daughter is played engagingly by Natalie Wood, but the child grows up, and an elderly Mrs. Muir is still waited on by an even more elderly Martha. When Mrs. Muir dies in her sleep in her familiar chair, the Captain returns, and they walk out to some celestial horizon where we are meant to believe they will be together always.

What to do about a friendship with a ghost, let alone a romance with a ghost, is not an easy plot for a writer or director. How funny that we can spin endless fantasies about any manner of unlikely scenarios: time travel, aliens, monsters, etc., but a love story between a living person and the soul a person long deceased gets a bit tricky. We are stubbornly apt to try to infuse logic into the plot. This keeps us grounded to reality, but reality is just what the plot isn’t.

As well known as the movie, the television series which it inspired in the late 1960s also runs into a similar problem. The Captain and Mrs. Muir, played on TV by Edward Mulhare and Hope Lange, present a more romantic pairing, with part of the romance obviously being the longing over the fact that they cannot really be lovers. Rather than have the spirit of Mrs. Muir being united with the Captain in death, the show was simply cancelled after a couple seasons, avoiding this “resolution.” The search for a resolution when there is none is the conundrum.

The television version is also notable for the part of Martha being played by character actress Reta Shaw, who was no dishwater servant, but a more feisty housekeeper and companion to Mrs. Muir. She could make any line funny, dripping with sarcasm, and carelessly referring to the Captain in his grim portrait as “Laughing Boy.” Reta Shaw, who had performed extensively on television and the stage, made her film debut in “Picnic” (1955) which airs on TCM on Tuesday.

The Muir home interiors in the TV version are quite similar to the film’s interiors, particularly Mrs. Muir’s (and the Captain’s) bedroom, which pays homage to the film’s wonderfully evocative setting of living in isolation by the sea.

More sad than a romance that cannot be, is the part where the Captain, hoping that Mrs. Muir will marry George Sanders, magically convinces her that her relationship with the ghost of a sea captain was nothing but a dream, removing all her memory of him. Not having read the novel by R. A. Dick, I wonder if this was part of the original story, or an affectation of a studio uncomfortable with the unresolved romance with a ghost?

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Now Playing - 1944

This magazine ad for “Since You Went Away” (1944) was published in June of that year, for the film’s release in Hollywood that month, and nationwide release in July. It appears to be a fairly modest ad for all the attention producer David O. Selznick lavished on the film, the first of his many attempts to top the spectacle of “Gone With the Wind” which haunted him as much as it gratified him.

It may not have garnered the same box office or critical acclaim that “Gone With the Wind” did, but I would guess that through TV, DVD and VHS, more people have seen “Since You Went Away” and have seen it more often. It seems to have become a sentimental favorite of many in a way even the magnificent “Gone With the Wind” has not. What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 7, 2008

"Good Morning, Miss Dove" (1955)

“Good Morning, Miss Dove” (1955) gives us a sentimental view of small-town America wherein the main character is played in a most unsentimental fashion. Jennifer Jones, whose ethereal performances in her other films, comes down to earth in a firm and no nonsense manner. Quite an about-face coming after the sweeping “Love is a Many Splendored Thing” (1955). It’s an interesting study of an actress who approached her roles, even the romantic ones, like a character actress.

Inevitably, any discussion of Jennifer Jones becomes an analysis of her controversial partnership with producer, and husband, David O. Selznick. She is ever portrayed as the Galatea under his Pygmalion’s custody. Miss Jones’ reluctance to grant interviews over the years fed the mystery and perhaps abetted the controversy. However, though Mr. Selznick determined her films, her costuming, her makeup through a flurry of his famous memos, he did not create her mind or her soul. Despite his great influence on her career and personal life, she remains an actress who worked from someplace deep within, a quiet place untouched by anyone and revealed with astonishing intimacy in her film roles.

Since she is today one of the few remaining survivors of Hollywood’s studio system, one would hope that a modern re-examination of her films might release her at last from just being Selznick’s creation, and give her the credit she deserves in her own right. Too often we wait until an actor’s demise to shower his or her memory with plaudits.

As Miss Dove, Jennifer Jones, her name above the title in this Cinemascope venture, plays a small-town elementary school geography teacher. It’s a Norman Rockwell type setting, with a tidy little town, cannon on the common, portrait of President Eisenhower on the wall of her classroom. Miss Dove rules supreme, an austere, proper spinster lady in her mid-50s who, by virtue of her old-fashioned propriety, unruffled stern demeanor and expressionless face, is viewed by the townspeople as something of a joke.

As this film launches into rather syrupy sentimentality at stages, Miss Jones’ gives us a grounded performance that is both honestly touching and at moments, very funny. A good comedienne as proven by her work in the hilarious “Cluny Brown” (1946), she plays this role in the same way by playing it absolutely dead seriously. The spinster is not overdone, not played with exaggerated mannerisms or coy stereotype. If Jones is adept at playing younger than her years, as she did in many of her films, then here she is seen to be able to play older than her years with convincing realism. Her carriage, her movements are minimalist art. Even her aging makeup is done with subtlety.

Her classroom is quiet, orderly and ruled over by her with an iron disposition if not actually an iron hand. She does not need to shout. A mere look from her withers malcontents. If some restless young students regard it as a gulag, others, like young Bill from the wrong side of the tracks, regard it as a safe haven from a home of poverty and filth. There are such kids, then and now, for whom school is the best part of their lives, where they are safe. Fortunately for Miss Dove’s students, she is serious about her work. It is still a world of inkwells in the desks, an absence of metal detectors, and Miss Dove does not attempt to seduce any of her students.

But Miss Dove, despite her professionalism, did not come into teaching as a misty-eyed idealist out of Normal School. She just needed the money.

We are given a flashback to her youth, where as a fresh graduate from finishing school, Jones is seen visiting Papa at his bank. She is elegant and mannerly, but without the austere attitude of her middle-aged self. Her voice is higher and softer. Dressed in white, with flowing dark hair, she smiles and graces the small town of Liberty Hill like a princess.

This Miss Dove fades under the shadow of misfortune. Her father dies, leaving debt and scandal, having embezzled several thousand dollars from the bank he ran with his partner. Miss Dove, hoping to avoid public knowledge of the scandal, assumes her father’s debt and takes a teaching position to pay it back. She has no credentials to teach, except for a passion for geography, about which is she very well informed. She gives up a marriage proposal to a dashing young archeological student who wants to show her the world, in order that she might spend the rest of her life in her confining small town only talking about the world to her students. This is not entirely a fancy of self sacrifice; in those days many communities required their female teachers to remain single, and they forfeited their jobs if they married.

We have a trace of George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946) here, with whom she shares many traits of being denied her dream of travel by family burdens. There is even a run on the bank scene during the Depression.

Far from allowing herself to be an object of pity, Miss Dove hides her family scandal and keeps her dignity by adopting a stony reserve through which she approaches life and her relationships with others, always kept at arm’s length.

Her relationships from then on involve mostly her students. We see few other people in her life. At the beginning of the film, Miss Dove suffers a health crisis, is removed to the hospital, and the rest of the film is told through flashbacks of her relationships with them. In the flashbacks, her classroom is the same except the portrait of President Eisenhower becomes a portrait of President Roosevelt.

When stricken with pain caused by a tumor in her lower spine, her nearest rescuers are a doctor and a minister, who both happen to be former pupils. It is a source of pride and deep chagrin, and even embarrassment to Miss Dove that almost everybody she is at the mercy of from then on is a former student. Probably a lot of teachers can relate to this. I’d love to hear from some of them.

The young men make a chair of their crossed arms and carry Miss Dove to the hospital. Evidently, ambulances and gurneys are not aplenty in Liberty Hill, but it makes for a funny parade with Jennifer Jones sitting rigidly, trying to maintain relative comfort and some semblance of dignity as she is hauled through town to the hospital. She is warned by the doctor not to wobble. She replies coolly, “It is not my custom to wobble.”

Her nurse, Miss Green, is played with wonderful aplomb by Peggy Knudsen. Nurse Green is eager and cheerful, but not the sharpest blade in the drawer. She, too, is a former student, and tries valiantly to improve her vocabulary and appear genteel before Miss Dove, as if she might be graded on it. At first, her ministrations are irritating to Miss Dove, who cannot bear the indignity of being ill, let alone the intimate contact of the hospital. Nurse Green speaks in plurals, as if Miss Dove is a child, cheerfully chirping, “We’ll take off our clothes,” as she unbuttons Miss Dove’s plain dress.

Miss Dove, flushed with agitation responds, “The pronoun ‘we’ is misleading unless you propose to take off your clothes, too.”

Nurse Green archly reminds her of the rules, and Miss Dove, ever a slave to rules, glumly submits. Hoisted by her own petard.

She develops with Nurse Green, as formal as it is, perhaps the closest relationship she has had with anyone in years. They have something in common; Nurse Green has a scandal of her own. Her little daughter was born out of wedlock when she left for the bright lights of war work in Detroit. She confesses this to Miss Dove, helplessly offering, “I was in Detroit.”

Miss Dove pulls back into judgmental platitudes, “Virtue knows no frontiers.” The second thing they have in common is Bill, Nurse Green’s boyfriend, the young policeman who gallantly stops traffic for Miss Dove on her daily walks to school. Though she would never admit it, Bill is her special pride, the dirty poor kid who grew up to be Chuck Connors, and there is something terribly sweet about The Rifleman beaming with adoration at his old teacher. Officer Bill is cut from the same cloth as Miss Dove, who is something of a foster mother to him, and he rejects Nurse Green for her sin.

Though Miss Dove appears more aloof from him even than his alcoholic grandmother with whom he shares a shack, nevertheless her influence over him is nurturing for its very steadiness. When he mows her lawn, she bring him lunch on a tray, and though she cannot bring herself to touch his hair as he sits down on her porch, she tells him to drink all his milk. It’s more than his grandmother ever did. When he graduates from grammar school, Miss Dove provides his new suit. When his grandmother dies, she is the only other mourner.

Miss Dove also figures prominently in the lives of other students, such as the European refugee who is taunted by bullies for being strange, for not speaking English well, and for being Jewish. Miss Dove protects him and brings tolerance to the classroom by displaying it herself, and introduces the class to the Jewish faith and culture.

No plaster saint, she refuses the young minister’s standard prayer of confession the night before her spinal operation, which she might not survive, with her typical honesty and desire not to be a hypocrite. “I do not, in all honesty, find the burden of my sins intolerable.” She prefers they pray together silently. She keeps her own counsel.

She also pronounces before Officer Bill, that Nurse Green is an excellent nurse and quite “genteel.” Presumably lying is one of her sins, but this is for the greater good, to display tolerance for their sakes, and with the seal of approval on Nurse Green, The Rifleman is pleased to renew his affections to her.

The end of the film gives us our happy ending of course, with Miss Dove still alive and the tumor removed. But the cornball scene of the whole town outside her hospital window, including Boy Scouts, Brownies, an escaped criminal (another devoted former pupil), and her current students, is entirely compensated by her young doctor, her former student played by Robert Stack, giving a courtly bow and wishing her, “Good Morning, Miss Dove.”

The camera slides up the patient’s bed and we get the detailed, complex workings of Jennifer Jones’ emotions. Her expression seems to indicate she is stoically endeavoring to fight tears, which are self-indulgent, but she cannot help but be pleased that her life was not a waste. She has discovered devotion from a town from which she has hidden her scandal, and withheld her emotions for decades. Another kind of George Bailey ending.

Jennifer Jones owns the last shot. There is only the slightest self-satisfied smile, and then it flickers away under a gossamer moment of pure wonder. A hundred flickering thoughts shimmer in her intense expression. That isn’t something that David O. Selznick created. That’s her.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Yankee Doodle Dandy Reprise

To note Independence Day tomorrow here in the U.S., here is a repeat entry from last year on “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942), originally posted in two parts but combined as one today.

“Yankee Doodle Dandy” is fast-paced film that captures three American traits: unabashed and sentimental patriotism, a love of nostalgia, and consuming ambition. Perhaps they go hand-in-hand, but much of the nostalgia in this film is not so much about a past era of American patriotism, but rather a past era in this nation’s history of vaudeville and stock theatre.

James Cagney won his Academy Award for this film, a departure from his usual tough guys and gangsters, and is supported by Walter Huston (who received an Academy Award nomination) and Rosemary DeCamp as his parents, his real-life sister Jeanne Cagney as his sister Josie, and his real-life brother William is the film’s producer. As with most Hollywood biopics of the day, the life of song-and-dance man George M. Cohan is complimentary, avoiding controversy, and sometimes a bit light on the facts, including the omission of Cohan’s children or his first marriage, and including the fact that the medal President Franklin Delano Roosevelt presented Cohan in 1936 (not after we were involved in World War II as in the film), was a Congressional Gold Medal, not a Medal of Honor.

What is captured is a warm affection for Cohan’s place as a pioneer in American musical comedy. He did much to represent, and to appeal to, the common man in his shows, and the film is rife with fun and poignant montages of theater marquees of his plays. The hardscrabble life of the stock players in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that the theatrical Cohan family and many others endured is pictured in shots of luggage plastered with labels, gloomy boarding houses, forlorn train depots, and always another theater and another audience.

We see a lot of theater in this film. This is one of those musicals that realistically presents its musical numbers as re-creations of the Cohans’ act. Unlike other musicals of the day where people tend to burst into song for no reason and violins are heard mysteriously from heaven knows where, the songs here are performed as they would have been performed on stage for an audience. Director Michael Curtiz crams a great deal of material in this entertaining film. We see the backstages, the dressing rooms, we see the front of the house from over the shoulders of a woman, who like the woman playing Fay Templeton on stage, is dressed in the Belle Époque style. We see the footlights, and the backdrops, and if not all aspects of Cohan’s life are presented before us, surely the lure and the atmosphere of the theatre he loved are presented to us with loving detail.

Cagney’s vigorous, stiff and rather marionette-appearing style of tap dancing and his surprisingly Boston-intoned tenor show us that he was himself, like Cohan, a song and dance man in vaudeville before he ever pushed a grapefruit in anybody’s face on film. Seeing Walter Huston lead the Cohan family in their performing quartet is a joy. Cagney’s scene with Huston upon the death of George M. Cohan’s father is one of the most affecting either man ever filmed.

And then, of course, there is the compulsory flag waving. Fay Templeton, when approached by Cagney to appear in his new show, decries Cohan’s material as “loud, vulgar flag waving.” Her manager insists Cohan has captured the mood of the nation, “He’s the whole darned country squeezed into one pair of pants…George M. Cohan has invented the success story and every American loves it because it happens to be his own private dream….” These themes of ambition and pride and patriotism may well be intertwined and ingrained in us, for any immigrant’s arrival to this country is based on ambition.

It is as basic to these immigrants as an idea of “freedom,” for the freedom to be ambitious is as dearly held as the freedom of religion or speech. We are perhaps the only nation on earth which has declared in writing, in our Declaration, the right to “the pursuit of happiness,” an idea which other cultures may find hedonistic or frivolous. To be sure, we can sometimes be both. The Fay Templeton number of “So, Long Mary” in the “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway” scene is an excellent parody of small town American ambition for something bigger and better, and yet clinging to what is simple and familiar. Any song that can come up with a rhyme for “Schenectady” has my vote.

But in the “Grand Old Flag” number staged as part of Cohan’s “George Washington, Junior” musical, the film revs up to a colossal orgy of patriotic flag waving. The red, white and blue never looked so impressive in black and white. We have a chorus in Union Civil War uniforms, an appearance by the Boy Scouts, a tableau featuring Betsy Ross, the Spirit of ’76, and an African-American man singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” while slaves file past him and they pay tribute to a replica of the Lincoln Memorial. There is a poignant dignity in this last scene, without the hoopla of what came before, a helpless but earnest nod to a point on our timeline we cannot now change. It is unlike the cringe-worthy scene at the beginning of the film, when Cagney is led up the stairs at the White House by the black butler, played by Clinton Rosewood, who says he saw Cohan’s act many years ago when his then employer, President Theodore Roosevelt, or Mister Teddy as the butler calls him, gave him tickets for seats “in the gallery.”

There is perhaps at least one generation of young Americans who do not know that there was a time, particularly in certain parts of this nation, where African Americans were not allowed in theaters except in the segregated balcony seating, including when this film was made. This remark in the film may pass right by them unnoticed. More noticeable is the brief scene of the Four Cohans in blackface. It, too, is cringe-worthy and foolish, but to leave it out would be a lie. It is a realistic image of a long ago style of entertainment in American theater, which in this film is reviewed with remarkable detail.

Going back to the “Grand Old Flag” number, we are then presented with a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike leading a platoon of Spanish-American War soldiers, and a flock of workers, nurses, farmers, and an assortment of the Common Man gathering around some men about to load a cannon. If we did not figure it out before, we now know this movie is really about World War II. Released in 1942, this film gives us only a brief escape into the nostalgic past of American theater, but deftly slaps us back to consciousness. There is a war on outside the movie house, and when Walter Huston emerges in the final moments of the number dressed as Uncle Sam and Rosemary DeCamp as the Statue of Liberty, and there are more flags than we can count, we know that something more is expected of us. And it is not even the finale yet.

In the film World War I intrudes upon the life of George M. Cohan. He writes “Over There,” which became the anthem for American involvement in that war, and later in the film when he finishes telling his life story to FDR, the President gives him the medal for writing “Over There” and “A Grand Old Flag.” The faux FDR tells him “A man may give his life to his country in many different ways.” The film seems to expect the audience to give back something, too, now that we are at war, and the movie is over, and it is left to each of us to find the way to do it.

Just as important a message, and just as poignant, is when the two doctors confer outside the dying Cohan, Sr.’s room, reminiscing about the Four Cohans’ career. “I can’t help thinking a theatrical era is dying in there,” one says to the other. Their diagnosis is on the state of the theatre, and not the patient. Today there is a statue of George M. Cohan in Times Square. Mr. Cohan died five months after this film was released. He was ambitious, and he was flag waving, and he gave back something.

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