Thursday, April 29, 2010

Your First Movie?

Do you remember the first movie you saw unaccompanied by grownups?

Last week in our post on The Grand Theater of Indian Orchard, Massachusetts, commenter Tony recalled it was the theater where he saw his first film without grownups at the tender age of around 9 years old. The film was “Saturday Night Fever.”

Let us know if you can remember the first film you saw without an adult, what age you were, and where you saw it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pride of the Yankees (1942)

We have a triple-play of baseball-related themes on my blogs this week, from amateur play in the 18th and 19th centuries on my New England Travels blog, to one of theatre’s biggest baseball fans, Ethel Barrymore, on Tragedy and Comedy in New England. Today, we begin with the king of baseball movies.

“Pride of the Yankees” (1942) is lauded for its inspiring tone about one of baseball’s greatest legends, Lou Gehrig. Ironically, there is actually very little baseball action in the movie; most of it is comprised of vignettes aimed at illustrating the self-effacing personality of the quiet man.

Since humility, according to this film, was as great a virtue as his athleticism, one wonders if that seemed as difficult a thing to capture to the makers of this movie as it would be today. Today it might be even more difficult, as quite often when a reporter interviews an athlete right after the event, the first words out of the athlete’s mouth are usually something like, “Well, I’m really proud of myself.”

This was especially apparent, to a nauseating degree, during the last Olympic Winter Games, when I lost count over how many athletes were proud of themselves. To be sure, competition is as much mental as it is physical, and modern athletes are trained to be goal-oriented and focused on objectives. Still, if expressions of humility do not make a better athlete, they do make a better human being. Perhaps we have taught the importance of self esteem sometimes at the risk of encouraging overbearing conceit.

But, here we have a movie whose sole purpose is to laud humility and to show it as a courageous act.

By now, probably most people who’ve ever read anything about “Pride of the Yankees” know that its star, Gary Cooper, was not an athlete and knew very little about baseball. Moreover, he was not able to even fake batting left-handed to imitate Lou Gehrig. A distinction can be made between what is sometimes pointed out as the phoniness of old movies, and what is movie technical trickery. The former we may roll our eyes at; the latter earns our admiration.

Movie trickery in this instance is how they managed to get Gary Cooper to bat like Gehrig. They sewed the number 4, Gehrig’s Yankee’s number, backwards on the back of Cooper’s baseball uniform. When he swung right-handed and “hit” the ball, Cooper ran down the third base line, rather than the first base line. Then the mad geniuses in the production department just reversed the image for the final print of the film so it looks like he’s batting left and running down to first base.

The phoniness comes in the typical movie bio vignettes, including events which did not happen, and ignoring some stuff that did. We start with the pushcarts and ice wagons that take us back to Gehrig’s turn-of-the-century childhood in the poor New York neighborhood. He plays sandlot ball and breaks a window. His parents are hard-working immigrants. Papa, a mild man who assiduously avoids irritating his strong-willed wife, is played by Ludwig Stössel, who we saw in “Casablanca” (in this previous blog post) as the émigré who asked his wife “What watch?”

Mama, loving but bossy, is played by Elsa Janssen. Lou will adopt his father’s gentle demeanor and spend a lot of the time placating Mama. We see Lou in the old neighborhood as a boy, we see him off to college working as a waiter in the college cafeteria where Mama is a cook. We see him want to play baseball more than anything else. Mostly, we see what a humble man he is, even though he stands head and shoulders above any other of his fast-talking pals like a Greek god in his looks, his demeanor, and his athletic abilities.

Walter Brennan plays a sports writer who discovers Gehrig and becomes his one-man publicity team, a man so impressed that he predicts great things for Gehrig. As time passes, Brennan becomes deeply devoted to Gehrig because of his integrity and his humility, even more than his athletic skill. The character Brennan plays is fictional, but could stand as a composite for many whose lives crossed Gehrig’s and felt the same protective devotion of a parent, a sibling, a fan and hero-worshipper all rolled into one.

It must have been difficult to cobble together a script about Gehrig’s life since he was simply a quiet man who played baseball well and never missed a game. Samuel Goldwyn, producer of the film, was reportedly not interested in doing a baseball movie because there seemed nothing exciting about it.

What sold Goldwyn was newsreel footage of the famous “luckiest man” speech Gehrig made at the end of his life when the New York Yankees paid a public tribute to him at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939, when everyone knew that he was dying.

The speech moved Goldwyn, and was enough for him to give the green light to a movie featuring two of Goldwyn’s brightest stars about a man who did nothing more than do his job well and was humble about it.

Teresa Wright, who plays his wife, was probably the best match for Gary Cooper in this film, as her own open-hearted warmth and natural quality to her acting complimented Cooper’s understated style perfectly. They were both able to convey great sensitivity with their faces and movements, and Cooper perhaps saw this himself enough to request her specifically to team up with him later in “Casanova Brown” (see prior post on that movie here).

We see a courtship interrupted by montages of baseball games accompanied by many refrains of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, and a lot of team hijinks on trains. There is an interlude at a nightclub where we get a performance by Veloz and Yolanda, a novelty dance team who are really very good and fascinatingly acrobatic, but otherwise have nothing to do with the plot, with Ray Noble and His Orchestra in the background

Brennan touts Cooper’s virtues against his rival in the press box played by habitual movie wise guy, Dan Duryea, who backs Babe Ruth.

There is the scene, much parodied in the decades since, about “Billy” in the hospital to whom Ruth promises a homer in the World Series Game that afternoon. When the crowd of reporters leaves, Gehrig hangs around and exchanges a few words with Billy that are more heartfelt and less bombastic, and promises him two homers if he will try to walk again. Ruth seems compared unfavorably to Gehrig in this film as someone less sincere and more full of himself, and one wonders if that was okay with the Babe, who plays himself in this film. He’s not portrayed as a villain, just not as nice. The two had a rift and did not speak for some years, which is not brought up in this film.

Bill Dickey, Mark Koenig, and Bob Meusel, other teammates, also play themselves, as does radio sportscaster Bill Stern.

Trophies accumulate, and Teresa Wright pastes a few more clippings in the scrapbook to show the passing parade of years. We see the first sign of Gehrig’s mysterious illness when they playfully wrestle on the floor, and he has muscle pain. Soon it is harder for him to grip things as he loses strength in his hands. The doctor holds up x-rays and intimates to Gary Cooper that it’s the end of the road for him, but we never hear a diagnosis or an explanation of the disease. This is probably only partly due to that vague manner that old movies addressed illnesses, and mainly because the disease was as mysterious to the medical profession as the public.

The disease, we know now, was Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which affects nerve cells in the brain and in the spinal cord that control the muscles. The nerve cells, or motor neurons, die, and the victim loses the ability to control muscle movement. The disease is progressively degenerative, and is fatal.

At some point after his death, the disease came to be commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

There are momentary scenes that speak volumes of the equal anxiety and fear of both Teresa Wright and Gary Cooper, but the illness is not played for melodrama or even addressed much in this film. It is simply what brings closure to the film even as it brings Gehrig’s life to a close.

The final sequence showing the tribute at Yankee Stadium in 1939 builds the emotion to a climax, yet is handled in sensitive and imaginative ways, when I suppose it could have been merely exploitive. First, upon entering the ballpark, Miss Wright and Mr. Cooper run into young David Holt, who plays the now 17-year-old “Billy”, who took Gehrig’s two-homer promise to get well, and did. He says hello briefly and explains who he is, and we see tears glistening in his eyes because his gratitude and hero worship for this man are tempered by anguish that his hero is dying.

Nobody says he is dying, we just all know it. The teammates know it, and tactfully turn their heads when he stumbles. Nobody offers him help, partly so as not to embarrass him by noticing his failing body, but also as a signal to us to show that a man is really on his own when he is dying. Despite whatever comfort is extended to any of us in our last days, we are made alone by the uniqueness of our pending experience.

When Gehrig cannot physically play his last game, he takes himself out, and we see him exchange a brief moment with the rookie who will be taking his place. The announcer lets us know that a change is being made in the lineup, and Gehrig will not play in the game for the first time in 14 years. Even wise guy Dan Duryea feels the weight of the moment.

When Teresa Wright cannot cry or express her anguish to Cooper because she does not want to let him know she knows he’s dying, she falls apart on Walter Brennan’s shoulder. That wonderful character actor tears at our hearts with his blank frightened stare and his very inability to say anything of comfort to her.

When Cooper steps out for the ceremony on the infield, the historic newsreel moment is re-created here. Cooper delivers the most famous speech in sports (changed a bit for poetic license), and then walks off the field, down into the darkened tunnel. That’s the last we see of him; the tunnel is metaphoric.

Possibly the only more stunning speech ever made was by the announcer of the last game Gehrig ever played in May 1939: "Ladies and gentlemen, Lou Gehrig's consecutive streak of 2,130 games played has ended."

His record was not broken until 1995.

Lou Gehrig died in June 1941, about a year and a half before this movie was released, about two years after he was diagnosed. For more on Lou Gehrig’s life and career, have a look at this website.

There have been great strides made in the treatment of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but there is still no cure. About half of its victims will live less than three years. For more on Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS, have a look at this website.

Teresa Wright, who, like Gary Cooper was not much of a baseball fan at the time of the film, later became a devoted Yankees when she was 79 years old. On July 4, 1998, to commemorate the 59th anniversary of Yankee Stadium’s Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day and the “Luckiest Man” speech, Miss Wright was invited to throw out the first pitch. She watched the game, and the Yankees gave her a dozen roses and a World Series jacket. She followed baseball avidly after that.

Below, we have Gary Cooper delivering the “Luckiest Man” speech from “Pride of the Yankees.” (Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of the page and mute the music.)

Here is actual footage of the event as shown in the Ken Burns baseball documentary:

And here is a recitation of the “Luckiest Man” speech in its entirety.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are You Popular? - 1947

I think we’re all due for a refresher course from those good folks at Coronet classroom instructional films:
“Are You Popular?” (1947).

Monday, April 19, 2010

Frumpy Grace Wins an Oscar

Grace’s ‘sensible’ shoes were so sensible that the only other persons I had ever seen wearing them were old maids who taught compulsory Latin in eastern prep schools…I had noticed the serene and elegant Grace who became awkward as a newborn colt when laughter overtook her. Now I could see, too, a Grace who was lusciously provocative on one night and decidedly frumpy on the next.
(From “The Bridesmaids” by Judith Balaban Quine, 1989, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, NY)

This past Saturday, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum opened a new exhibit on Grace Kelly’s style and elegance as manifested by a display of her gowns and costumes. As we note from the passage above, according to observations of more than one person who knew her well, Grace Kelly did not always appear as a fashion plate. She could be downright frumpy, sometimes. Today, we have a look at her Oscar-winning frumpy role in “The Country Girl” (1954).

There is a famous quote attributed to Judy Garland, with or without expletives, to the effect that Miss Garland lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly that year because Grace took off her makeup for her role in “The Country Girl”. That is obviously an oversimplification, albeit a funny one, of the rationale that beautiful women get good notices when they take on roles which do not showcase their beauty.

Whether or not that’s true, there is much to admire in Miss Kelly’s performance in this film that has more to do with the grit in her soul than the ratty sweater or the thick glasses.

“The Country Girl”, directed and screenplay by George Seaton, is based on the stage play by Clifford Odets, and though some shifting in characters and scenes occurs, and though we get a bit of the streets of New York and Boston backstage at the theater, the film hovers pretty closely to stage-like drama of long scenes in confined places. There is great conflict between the three main characters, so much that we are not distracted by the many minor characters in this film, most we probably barely notice. I can’t think of too many films where that happens.

One of the more noticeable supporting actors, Anthony Ross plays the irascible producer Mr. Cook with very real and understandable irritation, and adds effectively to the tension. He’s not a typical cigar-chomping cartoon of a producer, but a money man with lots of worries.
Bing Crosby plays Grace Kelly’s alcoholic actor husband, who has very little work and almost no self respect. This was his greatest role, and it is interesting that in the off stage scenes he appears truly desperate and wretched, but in the scenes where he is supposed to be on stage, he comes off rather like the bland façade of his usual movie nice guy roles. It is as if he is parodying himself in a cruel Bizarro-world skit. It really was a magnificent performance from this man who otherwise seldom seemed to take chances in his movie career.

William Holden is the director who casts Crosby in his new musical play called “The Land Around Us”, which is a kind of parody itself of “Oklahoma!”, and it is very fitting this movie was filmed in black and white, because color might obliterate the real dismal feeling of this rather unremarkable-looking play with the loser Crosby in the lead. We are given the feeling we’re watching a train wreck about to happen. Color would impose a kind of make-believe to the on-stage scenes of this movie, and it’s better that the entire film be steeped in the reality of this man’s existence.

My only complaint on Mr. Crosby’s performance actually is that the tired, scared actor who broods in the wings does not seem to magically change into more than just the bland charming fellow he plays when on stage. He does not seem to have that burst of adrenalin that other performers are said to have, the aforementioned Judy Garland, for example, who were sometimes described as being reborn, who really came alive on stage during a performance no matter how physically terrible they felt just before they went on. Crosby looks miserable the whole time, and we may wonder how the poor man really can perform without a drink beforehand. A shot of courage, so called, has been a great crutch for many actors with stage fright.

Elaine Stritch, in her one-woman show told the story about a fellow actor’s response when she told him she gave up drinking before each show.

"You mean you're going out there alone?!" he replied.

The opposite of Bing Crosby’s utter wreck of a human being is William Holden’s decisive, self-confident, and somewhat arrogant director. But, Holden is not without his faults, or his endearing qualities, either. For the latter, we see him smiling fondly as he watches Crosby’s audition, like the admiring hatcheck boy he used to be when watching the big stars at the Shubert Theater. He may be a big shot director now, but deep inside he is still a star struck kid.

His faults lay mainly with his rudeness towards Grace Kelly, whom he mistakenly believes is a manipulative shrew, a millstone around Crosby’s neck. It’s Crosby that gives him that idea, and it doesn’t take much to convince Holden, because he had once been married to just such a woman, and his bitter experience has left him a bit of a misogynist.

Grace Kelly is the country girl of this piece, a woman intelligent, reserved, self-sufficient and, as we begin to see, almost heroically self-sacrificing. But she is no bravely cheerful Pollyanna. She is stoic, gut-wrenchingly pragmatic, and carries, like Holden, her own brand of bitterness and regret.

Grace Kelly’s dowdiness is often remarked upon in this role, to the point almost to neglect mentioning her actual performance, which was very good. But, as we note from the quote leading this essay, Miss Kelly could be dowdy in real life, and those glasses she wears in this film, I believe, were her own. She was quite nearsighted, but rarely wore her specs in public. This was probably the first time many of the general public saw her with her glasses on, and it was probably the first time she acted in a scene where she could see her costars clearly.

It should be noted that nearsighted people are almost always glamorous and elegant. This is the real secret to Grace Kelly’s beauty. (I have to stop here a minute and wipe my glasses. There. Okay, back to work.)

Though this film was one of the first, though certainly not the very first, to realistically portray the tragedy of alcoholism (and certainly not the only film that year, as the annoyed Miss Garland could attest), it is really more about the ones who have to cope with the alcoholics than it is about the disease. Grace Kelly in this role illustrates most eloquently the burden of always being someone’s keeper, most especially painful if that person is someone you love.

There is a toughness to her coupled with a vulnerability that is not fragile, but reveals deep reserves of emotion. Even Miss Kelly’s usual meticulously intoned speech is muted here. The lilt and precise diction of her other movie roles had been drilled into her at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts to diminish what was criticized by her teachers as a high, nasal-sounding Philadelphia twang. It left her with a sometimes artificial-sounding, but unmistakably unique speech that became her trademark.

(What comes to mind is the Kathleen Freeman role as the voice coach in “Singin’ in the Rain” who implored Jean Hagen, “Round tones, round tones!”)

Here she tones it down, speaking in a lower voice, almost guttural at times, and with a slight raspy sound to it, the way someone might sound with a dry throat who had been talking a lot. It is natural and layered with feeling.

There is an intense dynamic between the triangle of Crosby, Kelly, and Holden. Crosby evokes our pity, and also at the same time, our contempt for being so manipulative of his caretaker wife, of being such a colossal liar, and for betraying her time and again.

Holden is consistently standoffish and occasionally rude to Kelly, until he learns the truth about her relationship with Mr. Crosby, and turns his passionate hatred to passionate desire.

A flashback scene shows us Crosby’s real charm in former days and Kelly’s adoring warmth for him before the tragedy that ruined their lives, and turned him to drinking. Among the fine and delicate scenes is the one at the end of this flashback, when Grace enters their dingy apartment to find that a song on the radio has dropped on Crosby like a bomb and sent him to revisit old ghosts. We see on her face her horror, and her compassion as she rushes to snap off the radio.

Later there is a fight between them, and when she finds he is hiding beer bottles, the weariness enters her voice, “Where did you get these, Frank?” as one might talk pleadingly to a child who just cannot seem to help being naughty.

Crosby’s ultimate cruelty to her is that by using his guilt over the death of their son, by basking in it, he has reduced himself to an emotional invalid, which has taken away his wife’s right to grieve. We see she has been grieving over the wreck her husband has become, but we are left in doubt as to whether she was ever allowed to grieve for her son, or if she had to hide her grief to protect her husband.

During the play rehearsals, she stands backstage in his dressing room, helping him change, flustered, making mistakes. The competent caretaker is a fish out of water in this world. We see another side of her complicated husband when he rushes in to change his costume, complain and display his brittle ego and his pettiness. She is his whipping boy and his gofer.

After a terrific bender, Crosby is confronted by Holden, and the truth comes out, and their triangle dynamic shifts as the world spins on its axis. Holden comes to the sickening realization of his own mistake in judgment, which means even more to this egotistical man than his meanness to Miss Kelly or the shock that Crosby is no longer the hero from his boyhood.

Another couple of good scenes here I like is when Grace bails Bing out of jail after his night on the town, and we see in the foreground a very old, pitiful woman, counting out what is probably her food money to bail out her disreputable old husband, who stands in a stupor, uncaring. We get the feeling she has done this many times before, and it is like a foreshadowing of what will happen to Grace and Bing if things don’t change.

Another good scene is when Grace explodes at Holden after he realizes that Mr. Crosby is a huge problem on his hands and wants her help. The dialogue here is great, and gives us more explanation and more background than any flashbacks could. Grace shouts at him,

“Can you stand him up on his feet? Because that’s where all my prayers have gone to see that one holy hour when he can stand on his own feet again. I might forgive even you, Mr. Dodd, if you can keep him up long enough for me to get out from under! All I want is my own name, and a modest job to buy sugar for my coffee! You can’t believe that, can you? You can’t believe that a woman is crazy out of her mind to live alone, in one room, by herself!”

One complaint I have about the film is the, at times, rather distracting score. It makes heavy use of the DRAMATIC CHORD OF MUSIC TO TELL YOU THIS IS A REALLY DRAMATIC THING HAPPENING NOW. Too much. A lighter touch would have been better.

Also the typical of the day grab-the-woman forced kiss of Holden to Kelly is as overblown as the music and could have been tackled I think in a less melodramatic fashion.

In the end, redemption is at hand and choices have to be made, and Grace Kelly is still the focal point. She shows the many subtle facets of this woman, and through her, the many different sides of these two men.

Perhaps this country girl is not so self-sacrificing as she is simply a knowledgeable survivor. Maybe that’s what Grace Kelly had in common with her character that made her understand this role so well. Sometimes survival takes the form of surfing the moods of others, accommodating their needs, and denying you have needs of your own.

But, despite this excellent performance in her frumpy clothes, Grace Kelly will always be remembered for the elegance and style captured in her other films, and in the many exquisite photographs taken over the years by photographer Howell Conant.

The display at the Victoria and Albert Museum will present over 50 of Grace Kelly's outfits, including dresses from her films such as “High Society” (1956), as well as the gown she wore to accept her Oscar for “The Country Girl”. On display as well will be film clips and posters, photographs and her Oscar.

For more on the exhibit, which runs through September, have a look at this website.The latest issue of Vanity Fair has an article on this exhibit, have a look here. Here is a companion piece of photos.

This exhibit was also mentioned last week in our friend Laura’s blog, “Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings” with these Vanity Fair links provided by Moira Finnie of “Skeins of Thought” and TCM’s “Movie Morelocks” site.

Drop by my “Tragedy and Comedy in New England” site on Wednesday, when we’ll have a look at Grace Kelly’s Boston stage debut.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Grand Theater - Indian Orchard, Massachusetts

Here is the former Grand Theater of Indian Orchard, Massachusetts. Indian Orchard is a neighborhood in Springfield, and this movie theater has stood here on Main Street since the days of vaudeville. Closed in the early 1990s, it is now used as a church.

The Grand Theater has special significance for another building across the street, Henry’s Jewelers, where the Titanic Historical Society resides and a very interesting museum on the disaster. Museum curator, Edward Kamuda, whose family once owned the Grand Theater, saw “Titanic” (1953) as a boy here, and his fascination with the historical event lasted a lifetime. For more on the Titanic Museum he created, have a look at Tuesday’s “New England Travels” blog.

Monday, April 12, 2010

"Prince of Players" 1955

In one way or another, my three blogs this week, “New England Travels,” “Tragedy and Comedy in New England” and this one, all intertwine with connecting stories about two historical events which occurred on April 14th. One is the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and the other, the Titanic hits an iceberg and sinks in the wee hours of the 15th. Today we begin, surprise, surprise, with a movie.

“Prince of Players” (1955) tells the story of Edwin Booth, possibly the most famous and accomplished actor of the 19th century. Noted especially for his Shakespearian repertoire, Edwin Booth played the tragedian with such depth onstage perhaps because he knew so much tragedy in his personal life, which seemed stage-blocked in life, and certainly in this movie, between two colossal bookends: his alcoholic and mentally ill father, the great actor Junius Brutus Booth; and his brother, actor John Wilkes Booth, who murdered President Abraham Lincoln.

Richard Burton plays Edwin Booth, and though his obvious command of both Shakespeare and the camera make Mr. Burton a pleasure to watch in this film, his portrayal of Booth was perhaps not exactly on the mark from an historical perspective. Edwin Booth did not follow in his famous father’s footsteps so much as he stumbled in them for many years before coming into his own as a great actor. Burton is polished from the start. Ironically, Booth’s own fame grew from what was seen as a more natural and heartfelt performance in his roles, rather than the very bombastic and artificial style of acting of the generation before him, which included his father, to some extent, his brother John Wilkes Booth.

And Edwin Booth did not speak with a Welsh accent. Despite the majesty of Shakespeare’s plays and the beauty of a talented thespian like Burton speaking them at full throttle, it would have been more historically accurate, and perhaps even more poignant, to demonstrate that these Booth sons were natives of an agrarian America, who plied their trade as actors in mining camps and saloons. They were from Maryland. They may not have sounded quite like Richard Burton.

It is also interesting that this film harkens back to a less sophisticated era when, conversely, even the most humble common dirt-poor worker was familiar with the works of William Shakespeare. Education was much harder to obtain then, but seemingly much more prized. Even a little was something to be savored.

Another acting brother, Junius, Jr. was omitted from the script, but though the film skips through different pivotal events in Edwin’s Booth life, it does a pretty fair job of illustrating the era. Raymond Massey plays the impossibly great, impossibly doomed patriarch, Junius Brutus Booth, with the kind of utter majesty Junius Booth himself must have demonstrated.

John Derek is the flamboyant, troubled John Wilkes Booth, competitive with his brother Edwin’s fame, firey and tempermental, lazy and charming, whose depraved act of murder deprived this country of one of its finest presidents. Derek demonstrates John Wilkes Booth’s impatience and hostility, his eagerness for the limelight at any cost, but since we don’t really see too much of his character, it is forced at us in a kind of simplistic cartoon image. Perhaps after a century and a half of legend, it’s hard to paint John Wilkes Booth any other way.

Maggie McNamara, fresh off her breakout role in “Three Coins in a Fountain” the year before, plays Edwin’s wife. It’s a 180-degree turn from the shallow prince-chasing girl of that film to the more nuanced 19th century young woman and actress she plays in “Prince of Players”. Reliable Charles Bickford plays Edwin’s manager. He is one of the few Hollywood actors who really looked comfortable in 19th century roles. Something so stately about his appearance and his speech that added to his believability.

The real joy for many viewers of this film is likely the very long, leisurely scenes from different plays by Shakespeare that get a nice showcase. “Richard III” in a mining camp out west, a snippet from “Romeo and Juliet” in the courtyard of a New Orleans bordello, and “Hamlet” of course, Edwin Booth’s signature role, on opulent stages lit by gas or candle footlights.

Early in the film, a drunken Raymond Massey applies his makeup in his dressing room singing Festes’ song “Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain” from “Twelfth Night”, and it is later reprised by a drunken Richard Burton bellowing out the same song in his magnificent Welsh choral voice.

Edwin’s source of genius, and his source of pain, is from his father, whom while a boy he attends on cross country tours like a page assisting a knight, until his dissipated father, from whom he has learned Shakespearean passages by rote, can no longer go on. Edwin must carry on the name, which in real life he did somewhat reluctantly, insecure about his own talent.

A rivalry develops between the brothers when John Wilkes Booth, with more dash and bravado than technical skill, tries to wrest the actor’s crown away from Edwin. But, he’s unable to do that, and with his increasing obsession over the South’s fortunes during the end of the Civil War, attempts to secure his fame in a different manner.

We get a re-creation of the night at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., where President and Mrs. Lincoln went to see the comedy “Our American Cousin”. John Derek makes his way into the box, plays out the theatrical scene of assassination, hollers his infamous line, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!” which is the quote most often attributed to Booth. Derek looks like John Wilkes Booth, but this famous awful moment comes off as a tableau. Perhaps that is inevitable.

The end of the film shows a morose Edwin Booth, weighed down by the death of his young wife, and by his brother’s evil deed bringing shame on the family name. Actually, Edwin’s life was in danger for a time by angry mobs wherever he went, more than just the tomato throwing in this film.

If you’re interested in reading more on how Edwin heard the news of the assassination and what happened to him in those days, hop over to my “Tragedy and Comedy in New England” blog this Wednesday when we discuss the anniversary of that horrific moment when Edwin got snagged and helplessly entangled in his brother’s infamy.

“Prince of Players” is worth seeing for the eloquence of the Shakespearean scenes and for the history the film represents, but like most biopics of the day, is very simplistic in its telling and almost as notable for what it left out as what it left in. These are people and events worth another look, and one wonders why modern filmmakers have neglected this American tragedy and its compelling players.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Answers to the motorists quiz.

Some very good guesses as to the identifies of these motorists and movies.   Here they are:

1. Clifton Webb and Dorothy McGuire in “Three Coins in a Fountain.”

2. Joseph Cotten in “Walk Softly, Stranger” (1950).

3. Rosalind Russell and Arthur Connell in “Picnic” (1955).

4. Maggie McNamara and Louis Jourdan, “Three Coins in a Fountain”.

5. Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame “In a Lonely Place”. This one might have been a bit more difficult because we can't see their faces.

6. William Holden, Cliff Robertson in “Picnic” (1955).

7. Dorothy McGuire, Van Johnson in “Invitation” (1951).

Monday, April 5, 2010

Going for a drive

Now that the weather’s turning more mild and the sun hangs a bit higher in the sky every day, let’s go for drive. See if you can name these folks and their movies.








Thursday, April 1, 2010

Easter Sunday 1958 and Live TV

A rainy Easter afternoon, 1958, and live TV from New York City on the Dumont network. This is in several parts, so if you get hooked on this tidbit, and part 3 below that, you’ll have no trouble being led down the bunny trail to the others.

I’m not sure what’s funnier, a rain-canceled Easter parade that wasn’t, a nervous host’s struggling to fill LIVE air time, or a snippy Hildegarde consenting to be interviewed in her Easter ensemble.

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