Monday, August 31, 2009

Labor Day "Picnic" at "Peyton Place"

For the next two posts, we’re going to tackle two films with a few elements in common, but how much of this is due to coincidence and how much due to the prevailing social winds of the late 1950s, I leave you to decide.

That they both include pivotal, and very entertaining scenes at community Labor Day picnics is certainly a coincidence (which both showcase dueling barbershop quartets), but there’s a lot more going on than picnics, and the community at large is an ever-present, one might suggest omnipresent, force in the stories of these two films.

We’re marking Labor Day and small-town life through the films “Peyton Place” (1957), and “Picnic” (1955).

Both are set in small towns. Both involve a soap-opera style telling, tiered interwoven stories of different generations of characters. Sexual awakenings. Middle-aged yearnings. Small-town prejudices and stifling judgment. A fear of scandal. Even labor versus management issues. The rich town scions, and the people struggling from the houses by the railroad tracks. For some characters, a need to fit in to the small town life, a desire to remain sheltered by it. For others, a need to escape to a broader, more diverse, more challenging world.

One represents a New England mill town, and the other an agriculturally-based town in the Midwest. They are like fraternal twins. Both films are heavy on location shooting and give us a great sense of place. We know where we are. We see the outside, the tangible very well, the solid pictures of American Main Street and back yards. These films try to give us a picture of their inner turmoil as well, but that is intangible and tricky to photograph.

And both films, coincidentally, feature Betty Field as the careworn mother of troubled teenaged daughters. She is the Midwestern abandoned wife and mother seeking upward mobility for her daughter through marriage. She is New England drudge, the wife of the town drunk, who suffers agonies over his brutality, and even more over the horror of what people will think. In both movies, she is the victim both of her husband and her own apathy. In both movies, living by the railroad tracks signifies her place in her rigid society.

Was there really such universality in America in the 1950s, such homogenous experiences? Or did we unwittingly create that all-purpose template just to tell the story, which has now become textbook 1950s Americana?

Both films originated from dynamic non-film worlds, “Picnic” from the Broadway stage, and “Peyton Place” from a blockbuster novel. Film changed them, because film uses its own language and puts its own spin on stories. Film also has, or did have at one time, a sometimes unspoken, and sometimes shouted out loud, requirement to not offend the public.

I don’t believe either of these films could be made today, not simply because each in its own way is somewhat dated, but mainly because of what offended the public then and what does not offend it now. The power that lies in these two films is the way they consciously reflected their era, and also held a questioning mirror up to it. They flirted somewhat coyly with questioning what was accepted as appropriate.

We commonly hear the term “PC” today and sometimes bristle that the constraints of being “politically correct” are hypocritical and oppressive. However, back in the supposed comfortable world of 1950s America, when men were men, women were women, homosexuals were whispered about, and racial minorities were mostly invisible (being invisible perhaps a knee-jerk remedy to offset the outright stereotyping in films of previous decades), there was a far greater and insidious tippy-toeing effort not to challenge the mores of society that makes any effort at being “PC” today pale in comparison.

Defying this conformity carried heavier punishment, and its governance occasionally bordered on persecution. Not rocking the boat socially or politically, or by prevailing standards, morally, was the oppressive guiding rule, the obsessive-compulsive guideline of screenwriters, directors, producers, distributors, theater managers, and the public they provided entertainment to, from the Congressmen down to the paperboy. Any toe over the line could ruin the actor’s career, get the director fired, the ad campaign pulled, the threat of legal action for the studio, or even jail for the screenwriter.

Perhaps that’s why these two films were so entertaining, and enlightening for their day, and why they remain entertaining if only for their nostalgic value. They were films about small towns and regular folks that visually showed what was pretty and idyllic, and through the script showed what was repressive and ugly.

They may not seem terribly daring today, but they were filmed when it was okay to be a little seamy in movies about gangsters and criminals. But not about Main Street. As cleaned up as these films are not to offend too much, they still dared to suggest not everybody was happy.

One of the dangers the characters face in both films is public scandal, what the neighbors will think. Today, conversely, we may not even know our neighbors very well, let alone care what they think.

At least when it comes to social propriety. One may still feel the brunt of the neighbors’ ostracism, vandalism, or even physical threat if one disagrees with the neighbors’ politics. Social bullying, such as see with “town hall” thugs carrying weapons which they imagine give credence to their opinions, has gone far beyond whispering about the neighbor girl and what she does in the woods with the neighbor boy.

These two films, in some ways much more than even some of the classic films of the 1930s, are very topical for their era. For all their supposed universality in depicting small-town America, they really are locked in that time, like souvenirs in a scrapbook.

They are also, to some extent, fabrications.

They had meaning and influence on the society they reflected at the time, but we might wonder, did these towns, this America, ever really exist?

With Labor Day just around the corner, celebrate with “Peyton Place” and “Picnic” this Thursday and next Monday.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Now Playing - Once Upon a Time - 1944

This ad for “Once Upon a Time” (1944) urges us to see it, using words like “wonderful”, “whimsical”, the questionably grammatical “chucklesome”, and “Santa Claus.”

Talking heads of Cary Grant and Janet Blair in argumentative pose don’t help much to convey what the movie is about and exactly why we should see it. We probably can’t blame the studio publicity department, though, as the plot for this “whimsical” and “chucklesome” film has to do with Grant playing a huckster who tries to make a starring attraction from a small boy’s pet caterpillar, who dances to “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby.”

Standby character actors James Gleason and William Demarest report duty. The boy is Ted Donaldson, whom you may remember as Peggy Ann Garner’s brother in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945). This was Ted’s first film. If you’ve seen it, let us know what you think.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Life Begins for Andy Hardy - 1941

“Life Begins for Andy Hardy” (1941) brings Andy into The Real World and closes the door, or attempts to close the door, on his childhood. “Today I am a man!” he yells from his massive convertible roadster as he pulls away from home and loved ones to seek his fortune in New York, but he’s still that bouncy teenager with no more notion of what it is to be an adult than he did when the series started.

Mickey Rooney, prodigiously talented but typecast by this time, had played the character of Andy Hardy in something like 17 or 18 movies and short subjects, so he had Andy down cold. Andy could demonstrate winning charm, hearty all-American boy determination, or comically sad remorse, but he never really developed as a character. He was no Harry Potter.

Judy Garland plays his pal “Betsy Booth” in this one, and demonstrates her spectacular comedic timing and way with a line, particularly as the overly dramatic teenaged girl, “I’m simply curdled with remorse,” or boasting “My mother just bought me an evening gown with no visible means of support!” or “I drove around that revolting block 51 times and my feet are killing me!”

Andy’s ma and pa, played by the ever reliable Fay Holden and Lewis Stone nervously allow their boy to take off for the summer after high school graduation to try his luck getting a job in New York. Lewis Stone, whose wry humor and subtle facial expressions alone make him one of the most endearing screen fathers, wants Andy to settle down and go to college in the fall. Ann Rutherford has only a brief appearance in her regular role as Polly Benedict in the series. It’s mostly Andy in the big city, with occasional popping in and out by Judy Garland, whom Andy never seems to fall for, but treats as a bothersome child.

I suppose we could wince at Andy’s being a member of the graduating class of 1941, knowing that in six months the nation would be at war and Andy’s future, like the future of most of his generation, was going to be in serious jeopardy. But this is the back lot, a spanking clean small town, a tidy and village-like New York City, and a convertible so clean and shiny you could apply your makeup in its reflection. There’s no foreboding because never going to be anything really wrong.

If this were a Harold Lloyd outing, we would suffer over the risks Harold was taking by traveling to the big city, taking a room in a small residential hotel, messing up at his office boy’s job. Harold would be beaten up by a romantic rival, stuffed down a dumbwaiter and probably run over by a streetcar six or seven times. That’s why we loved him. There’s just something about a guy who gets run over six or seven times but keeps bouncing back. But Andy is so self assured, and his tie is so perfect, we never really have to worry about him. He doesn’t need us. He’s got mom and pop, Auntie, and Judy looking after him. When Andy does mess up at work, his boss forgives him and gives him free tickets to a dinner dance. What a swell guy.

However, this film is a bit of a departure from others in the series in that Andy deals with the sudden death of a new friend, and very nearly being seduced by a big city vamp. But he is neither led astray nor discouraged for very long. Even though he learns what it means to go hungry, we know, and he knows, that he can always go home to that middle class home where his mother makes his favorite breakfast and helps him put his pants on, where his spinster aunt will slip him money, and where his dad will send him to college.

Mickey Rooney, as always, makes it work by appearing so genuinely likeable, even when Andy is at his most self-involved.

Fun signs-of-the-times to watch for is that his rent is $5 a week, and when he finally gets his office boy job (which is very cushy and gives him very little to do), he is paid $10 a week. Not bad. When he and Jimmy, his new pal whom Andy gives a helping hand, are low on funds, they can at least be glad that the 25 cents they have between them will feed them for three days. They are being only a little sarcastic.

Patricia Dane is the streetwise and sassy as the big city vamp, who at first dismisses Andy, then helpfully gets him a job, then tries to seduce him. After leaving her with propriety at her apartment door all movie long, he finally gets into her apartment at the end of the film. Luckily for Andy’s poor mother, the vamp’s ex-husband barges in and destroys the mood.

When the expensive fur she wears turns out not to be the gift from one of her conquests, but instead is a gift to herself she charged to her ex-husband, it feels a little like a copout, as if they are trying to make her character shifty but not necessarily promiscuous. As it is, the Catholic Legion of Decency came down on this film (On an Andy Hardy film? No!) because of the very idea of Andy being almost seduced and his father having a man-to-man talk with him in the most vague and couched language about staying away from big city vamps.

Some of the film does sound like one of those educational “Don’t Let This Happen to You” one-reelers of days gone by, but Mickey Rooney and staff, likeable as they are all are, make Andy’s summertime New York adventure one swell experience. He needs to kick back and relax; high school was tough, and Pearl Harbor is only six months away.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

At the Beach

As summer dwindles, let us go to the beach. We had discussed some beach scenes in this post from 2007, and some readers responded with favorite beach scenes. I hope you can come up with some more. Above we have Dorothy McGuire and Guy Madison in “Till the End of Time” (1946), a movie which deserves its own discussion some time or other, but for now, the beach scene will be enough. I think it rivals the famous Deborah Kerr-Burt Lancaster “From Here to Eternity” (1953) scene both in terms passion and pushing the censors’ buttons.

Now, here is a look at some fully-clothed, family style fun in “The Crowd” (1928) with Eleanor Boardman. Few people actually enter the water in this interesting beach scene; it’s really more like a town picnic with an ocean as a backdrop.

Back to McGuire and Madison. One of the things I love about this scene is the continuous movement. They are constantly rolling over each other, touching, and managing a continuous stream of dialogue as they change position in a natural-looking exploration of each other. Perhaps because the dialogue never stops and they never linger in one grasp for long is the only reason I can think of the censors allowed some of this.

Ah, humanity in all its half-dressed glory. Here is a crowd shot (had to have been a real crowd on a real beach), in “The Devil and Miss Jones” (1941), one of many films to be shot with New York’s Coney Island as a setting.

O-kay, we seem to be intruding now. Let’s just walk away quietly and try not to kick any sand. We’ll come back in a minute, and when we do, we’ll clear our throats very loudly so they’ll know we’re here.

Back to “The Devil and Miss Jones” and the sand-covered beach blanket of Spring Byington, Charles Coburn, Jean Arthur, and Bob Cummings. And more extras than you can shake a stick at. One of my favorite beach scenes for its claustrophobic camaraderie.

Jeez-Louise, they’re still at it. AHEM! AHEM! Hello! H-e-l-l-O-O-O-O! Forget it. Let’s go back to Coney Island.

Ah, so telling a gesture, Charles Coburn sifting sand through his fingers, like the sands of time quickly leaving his grasp as he ponders his own lonely life against the passionate young love of Miss Arthur and Mr. Cummings. And he looks great in his saggy woolen rented bathing suit. By the way, have a look here at a fun post on women’s beach fashions over at Allure.

Oh, now see, this is nice. She’s brushing her lips on his arm. Very nice. Am I staring? I’m sorry. Anyone want anything from the snack bar? Some fried clams, maybe? Lobster roll?

Bogie at the beach, with Gloria Grahame in “In a Lonely Place” (1950). More moonlit beach snuggling, but something’s going to set him off any minute in a rage. No baggy rented suit, no snorkel. No boogie board. Or Bogie board. Bogart doesn’t seem to be much fun at the beach. He doesn't even take his clothes off.

Oh, she’s finally stopping to play a record. Aren’t wind-up Victrola’s wonderful? You can take them anywhere, and with a little cranking, you can listen to “Yes, We Have No Bananas” all day long.

Right, now we’re down to the pillow talk pose. Won’t last long, though, this beach encounter, like Bogie’s, ends with an argument, too. Nothing lasts for ever, not snuggling on the beach, not the song on your 78rpm record, and not summer. The older you get, the shorter summer gets.

Make the most of the rest of your summer. In the meantime, have a look here at the beach scene in “From Here to Eternity.”

Monday, August 17, 2009

More Sexy Typists

Because there is nothing more sexy than a typewriter, and nothing more exciting than watching someone type, here we have a sequel to our post last November on “A Guy, A Girl, and a Typewriter”, but this time focusing in on the gentlemen.

Above we have Troy Donahue (“if Troy Donahue can learn to type, then I can learn to type…” I believe was how the lyric in “A Chorus Line” went) as the handsome young writer/stablehand in “Susan Slade” (1961). As we can see by the movies, typing is clearly an expression of virility.

Here we have David Niven and Doris Day in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1960), while the suave and dashing Niven pauses in his typing, allowing Miss Day to openly adore him for a moment or two before he goes back to work.

William Holden in “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (1955). Was there ever a more virile typist? I think not.

Even the normally aloof tough guy Humphrey Bogart, seen here in “A Lonely Place” (1950), evolves into a raging sex symbol just by taping out a few lines and slapping the carriage return, as he has slapped the mugs of so many gangsters.

Harold Lloyd, whose hapless bespectacled everyman might not be considered the most macho fellow around, but put him behind a typewriter, and he’s as sexy as William Holden. No, really. Love this old typewriter in “Girl Shy” (1924).

And just because we’ve noted before that Barbara Stanwyck is the silver screen’s most prolific typist, here she captivates Warren William in “The Secret Bride” (1934), proving once again that she can hold her own with the boys.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Roy's Boots, Trigger's Horseshoes

Having mentioned Grauman’s Chinese Theater last week, perhaps it be-hooves us to note one of its many famous cement autographs, Roy Rogers and Trigger. Not only do we get Roy’s boot prints, but Trigger’s horseshoe prints, and the imprint of Roy’s six-shooter. Also, most other signers in cement at this auspicious sidewalk autograph book have not been so fastidious as to leave us the actual date. The King of the Cowboys was one thorough hombre.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bette Davis, Dick Cavett, and Character Actors

During her appearance on the “Dick Cavett Show” November 18, 1971, Bette Davis reflected on the great loss to the world of theatre and film with the death only the previous evening of Gladys Cooper. The remarkable Gladys Cooper had played Davis’ mother in “Now, Voyager” (1944).

Perhaps some of you saw the rerun of this, one of Cavett’s iconic interviews, over the weekend on TCM. Miss Davis also mourned as a great loss to films Walter Huston, who had died some twenty years previously. She made the observation, as so many of old movie buffs have since, that the character actors were a mainstay of the industry, and that with their loss films would never be the same. She got that right.

It’s interesting that she made this remark nearly 40 years ago, when the studio system was still a fresh memory if no longer an influence in the 1970s film industry, and when the greats of the golden age were retiring, grasping at TV show guest spots and regional dinner theatre, or dying in stages. These days film blogs note with alarming frequency the deaths of celebrities of decades past, but when Bette Davis perched herself on the set of Dick Cavett’s talk show with her cigarettes, the era between then and now was only just being delineated. Most of them weren’t dead yet, but they sure weren’t fighting off film offers. Yet in the 1930s and 1940s, elderly actors were seen in many films. They were character actors. They had spent a lifetime moving from the role of Juliet to the role of Juliet’s nurse, and the earned every penny and end credit, if the accolades were few.

Miss Davis also made the intriguing remark that Huston’s death was a big loss in part because filmmakers would no longer create parts for someone like Huston because Huston was gone. There would be no more (paraphrasing here) “write me a Walter Huston type, or get me a Walter Huston type”, because future generations who have no idea who Walter Huston was, or what his type was supposed to be, or why it might be a great addition to a film.

Is the dearth of character parts and favorite character actors in this movie era of blockbuster stardom, where the only character parts seem to be voiceover roles in animated features, a reflection of the death of Walter Huston, and Reginald Gardiner, and Mary Wickes (who acted right up until the end of her life, bless her and bless the people who hired her)?

Which came first, the character actor, or the character actor roles? Which died first? What are your thoughts?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Grauman's Chinese Theater

One of the most iconic movie theaters in the United States, let alone Los Angeles, is Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, later Mann’s, on Hollywood Boulevard, which opened in the 1927. Though evocative of Asian motifs, it’s exotic architecture perhaps demonstrates even more about an ebullient, if not zany, 1927 USA than it does China.

It is equally known for the garden of footprints (and handprints, and hoof prints) in cement that form one of the most popular tourist attractions for visitors to Hollywood, as well as the many studio film premieres held here.

For more on the Chinese Theatre and description of its opulent d├ęcor, have a look here.

ANNOUNCEMENT: I’d like to open up these occasional posts on individual theaters to everyone who’d like to submit a photo and their own memories and/or research on a particular theater. I’ve realized that there’s a whole lot of movie houses out there in the heartland that you can cover better than I can. The movie theater need not be in business today, and photos are not absolutely necessary, but if you happen to be driving along and some Art Deco marquee catches your eye, grab your camera. Send your info to: Thanks.

I SHOULD ALSO NOTE: The photos must be yours, or in the public domain, with the understanding that any photo or email communication you send may be published on this blog.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Polio as a Subject for the Movies

Above is some March of Dimes newsreel footage about the treatment of polio. In the early 1950s, the “fight” for a way to prevent polio became a “race” as the panic over yearly summertime polio epidemics grew more widespread and more fierce. In 1955, the vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk became available to the public, and thousands upon thousands of people brought their children to be vaccinated. That this was a new and largely untried serum, the public’s leap of faith had to be enormous. Perhaps the only thing greater than their faith was their fear of this horrific illness.

Knowing all that, it seems strange that there were not more movies with polio patients or polio treatment as a subject. When one considers other dreaded elements of the stressful post-war life that became fodder for many films, elements such as the fear of nuclear warfare, the fear of communism, the lurid explorations of crime, mental illness, and flying saucers, why was there not more examination in the movies of the greatest medical story of the day? A story that was so inherently dramatic?

Perhaps because polio was even scarier to most people than nuclear war, foreign enemies, bad guys, or aliens from another planet. Some of those films were fantasies or at least dealt with threats to modern society that were not as plausible or as fearsome as going to a public pool one day, developing a fever that night, and ending up in an iron lung in a matter of days.

There was “Sister Kenny” (1944) with Rosalind Russell which touched upon polio through the biography of the Australian nurse who developed her own methods of therapy for polio victims. We’ve also noted in the recently covered “Roughly Speaking” (1945), also with Rosalind Russell, that one of the children in the film had been a polio victim, and wore leg braces as a child, improving to using a cane as an adult. But she was only one member of a large family, and her story was not the central one.

Perhaps the most striking drama I can recall involving polio as a plot element, was an episode in the old “Loretta Young Show” on television, called “Earthquake”, originally aired in October of 1953. In this episode, Loretta plays the wife of a man who must stay in an iron lung at home because his polio has left him unable to breathe on his own. Set in a southern California town, when an earthquake occurs in the middle of the night and the electricity goes off, Loretta must manipulate the hand crank on the iron lung to keep the bellows working, to keep her husband breathing. When the crank breaks, she opens the machine, and manually pumps and massages her paralyzed husband’s chest for hours until help arrives. It is a grim story, and the triumphant message at the conclusion relates to their love for each other, and their perseverance in never giving up until he may someday recover.

Many people did recover from polio to varying degrees, but many did not. Though polio has been eradicated in most countries today, thanks to Dr. Salk and to Dr. Albert Sabine, there is still no cure. Here is a link to a news story from 2008 about a woman in an iron lung who, like the character in the melodramatic “Loretta Young Show”, faced calamity when her home lost power. She died. Her polio left her unable to live outside the iron lung. She had been living in an iron lung for 50 years, since childhood.

Possibly the most famous polio victim was of course President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at various times tried to hide his physical limitations, leading to a bit of controversy when his memorial statue in Washington, D.C. did not openly depict him in his wheelchair. Elements in the design were later changed to suggest his wheelchair beneath his cloak.

Actress Helen Hayes lost her 19-year-old daughter, Mary, to polio, and thereafter dedicated herself to the cause. Here is a link to an article, and a 1951 audio piece of Miss Hayes speaking on the Mary MacArthur Respirator Unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where she calls polio “that most frightening of diseases that strike children.”

The public, obviously, was very aware of the urgency to fight polio, but was there still some controversial element of showing polio victims for there to be so few feature films? Or was the illness, and its treatment, perceived by the public as too ghastly to be the subject of a movie drama, far more scary than the worse movie monster imaginable?

PBS showed an excellent documentary a few months ago on the “race” to develop the polio vaccine. A striking indirect message is that younger generations are likely ignorant of the magnitude of the fear of polio in society. That is both a good thing and a bad thing. Their ignorance of polio demonstrates they do not have to fear it. But if they want to know about this awful aspect of life in the early 1950s (and previously), they won’t learn much from the movies.

Do you recall any other movies that mentioned or in some way dealt with the subject of polio? Do you remember getting the shot, or the oral vaccine? Do you remember being afraid?

Below, Ella Fitzgerald delivers a public service announcement, as many stars did, for the March of Dimes in 1958.

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