Monday, June 21, 2010

Dreamboat - 1952

This week we have a couple of movies that illustrate that cusp of the television era, just before the so-called Golden Age of TV, when the new medium was searching for fodder to fill up the airways. Old movies filled the gap and made life easier for the network programmers. They were cheap, plentiful, and most had not been seen for a generation.

Today, we have “Dreamboat” (1952), in which Clifton Webb’s former past as a silent screen heartthrob comes back to haunt him. On Thursday, we’ll have a look at the “Hopalong Cassidy” phenomenon (through a generic replica, of course, copyrights being what they are), with “Callaway Went Thataway” (1951).

That these two films came one after the other, and dealing with the same subject matter, is some indication of the enormous impact TV was beginning to have, and how dependent it still was upon old movies to fill up hours of programming. Movies and TV have always been co-dependent. Most of us who are classic film buffs were introduced to these films on television, long before DVDs and video. We would not be film buffs without television. Evidently in the early 1950s, though Hollywood might have panicked about being challenged by television, there was still some sense of humor about their relationship with the new gadget.

“Dreamboat” is a romp, as outrageous a vehicle for Clifton Webb and Ginger Rogers as the campy silent film clips we see of them together in the typical 1920s scenarios: a Zorro-like hero, a World War I ace, a Valentino-like hero, all shown on commercial television, commercials being the operative word. Ginger, now a Hollywood has-been, has a new job hosting these old silent movies and pushing the product, which in this case is perfume.

Clifton Webb is a college professor, intelligent, severe, whose extreme dignity makes him the butt of the campus jokesters. Mr. Webb’s dignity was a tool he used, or was made use of by others, in just about any film he was in. It made him alternately pathetic, heroic, sinister, or just plain foolish. It’s amazing how much mileage he got in his career with a withering glance and a sarcastic reply.

His daughter, played by Anne Francis, who we last saw as a teenager in the last few minutes of “Portrait of Jennie” (1948), is, in attitude, nearly a carbon copy of dad, except there is an added bit of shrewish impatience which threatens to stamp out any likeability in her. But this only helps to set up her eventual conversion.

Both father and daughter set out on a quest, for vindication, and though they don’t yet know it, for conversion to adapting to the big wide world they both disdain. That world, in part, is represented by television, which Miss Francis calls the “idiot’s delight.” She is reluctantly brought to a college party where the gang gathers to watch that program hosted by Ginger Rogers showing those old movies of hers with her former co-star, Clifton Webb. And push perfume during the commercials. One of the perfumes is called “My Five Sins.”

“Five?” Clifton Webb later asks, astonished.

The gang knows this simpering, overacting, sword carrying hero with the overdose of Brilliantine on his hair is their hated college professor, and they throw this revelation in young Miss Francis’ astonished face.

Pop, who tried to hide his former career, is equally abashed, and decides to go to New York where the TV program is produced to demand they take it off the air. Not only his dignity, but his job is on the line. The board is uneasy with an English professor with this kind of unsavory background, which seems to make a mockery of their prestige. Only the college president, played by the wonderful Elsa Lanchester, is willing to give Clifton Webb a break. She is a fan, and makes several awkward and athletic attempts to seduce him.

She asks the age-old question, asked so often in melodramas, “Has it ever occurred to you I’m also a woman?”

Off father and daughter go to New York, where he meets up again with his old co-star, the now much older Ginger Rogers. Miss Rogers sinks her teeth into what must have been a fun role as an over-the-top, manipulative, self-involved, has-been, who clings ferociously to any thread of her former career as a matinee idol.

While Rogers and Webb tangle with network executives, lawyers, and their own uncomfortable partnership, which we are made to understand was never as romantic as it appeared on screen, Webb’s daughter is shown around town, and his apartment, by a network underling, a very handsome and affable Jeffrey Hunter. She begins to experience life outside of museums and lecture halls, and likes it. We know she has become a woman of the world when she takes off her glasses.

Clifton Webb has a fun scene where he gets into a bar fight. Helpless to defend himself, he sees one of his old movies on the TV above the bar which shows him vigorously fighting off a gang of ruffians. So, he watches himself, gets a few pointers, and once again, beats the bad guys. Unfortunately for him, Elsa Lanchester pursues him to New York and he has a tougher time shaking her.

The dramatic climax takes place in court, with our old friend Ray Collins as the attorney defending the TV network in its right to show these old movies. Clifton Webb dismisses his own theatric attorney with my favorite line, “You overdid it. I’m not an unwed mother lost in a snowstorm.”

A TV set is put on the stand so that Mr. Webb may demonstrate to the court that TV is not, as Ray Collins would have us believe, an instrument of education, but rather a haven of idiocy. A couple of commercials are shown, typical of the day, that parody both the disingenuous message of commercials (something which has not changed through the decades), but also frank stupidity of the audience which the makers of these commercial must assume. The hair tonic with “Penetroleum” with ingredients like “cosmotron” may get us to laugh, but compare this with the more subtly sinister commercials in “A Face In the Crowd” (1957). That is a more cynical film, but this one, for all its silliness, is hardly na├»ve. We may get the feeling we are sliding inexorably toward “A Face in the Crowd”.

Mr. Webb wins his case, proving that the films have been altered to make him look foolish, but loses his college professor job when he spurns the scorned Miss Lanchester. She fires him in retaliation. This was the day when sexual harassment was an accepted mode of employee relations and job security.

Left without a career, Webb is not too downhearted, for as he gloats to the now also out of work Ginger Rogers, that Hollywood has come calling back for him. We see him finally in a clip of a new movie, where his dignity is abused for laughs, and three small children throw food at him. It’s a living.

Come back Thursday for another look at the movies-cum-TV era with “Callaway Went Thataway,” with Dorothy McGuire, Fred MacMurray, and Howard Keel.


Unknown said...

Ah yes, when the glasses come off, watch out! This sounds like a fun romp--& it has Lt Tragg.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

For some of us, when the glasses come off, we just walk into walls. (Heaves a wistful sigh.)

Caftan Woman said...

It's been years since "Dreamboat" aired locally. Where once, as you point out, the boob tube was the fertile garden for classic movie buffs, it is now filled 24/7 with infomercials. And, by golly, if I don't find myself often genuinely considering buying something!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Yes, we've been flooded with infomercials. Miracle products and in-your-face enthusiasm for them. Those companies must do well. There's no shortage of infomercials.

panavia999 said...

Now the prim and proper girl takes off her glasses AND buys thong undies. I love the silent movie bits which always ended up with Clifton Webb kissing Ginger Rogers exactly the same signature way. Elsa Lanchester was a hoot in this film.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, panavia. They look like they're having a lot of fun, really going over the top with it.

panavia999 said...

It's also fun to see Clifton Webb being physical. Before his film career he was a musical star on Broadway for decades. Movies did not often require him to dance, but he was excellent.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I agree, it's fun to see him being physical, his presence on film was usually so intellectual. I don't think I've seen him dance.

panavia999 said...

Webb didn't want to be featured dancing in movies because he considered himself retired from his dancing career. But he dances with with Jean Crain in Cheaper by the Dozen, rumbas with Maureen O'hara in Sitting Pretty, and with Joan Blondell in For Heaven's Sake. In For heaven's Sake, he is a curmudgeonly (of course!) angel who takes human form in order to help an unborn child who has been waiting for years to be born to Joan Bennett. He decides to become human and work personally with the parents to be. The little girl suggests he present himself as a cowboy type and takes him to see a Gary Cooper movie for inspiration. Thereafter, Webb wears "dress up" western garb, combs his like Gary Cooper and does a sort of fuddy duddy imitation of Cooper. He also gets greedy for the human life and behaves badly, going to night clubs, smoking, drinking, reading unsuitable things like Flaubert and "gentlemens" magazines. He even plays the blues on his harp. It's very silly and very cute.
Check this:
Tony Curtis said Webb once asked him to dance at a party, but he declined.

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