Monday, February 27, 2012

Classic Films and the American Conscience

This is to announce the publication of Classic Films and the American Conscience, which is a collection of essays from this blog.  

They are not all verbatim from the posts you read on this blog; some are tidied up a bit, sporting a brand-new hair ribbon, but all are pulled from the past five years of blogging here.

Next Monday, March 5th, marks the fifth anniversary of Another Old Movie Blog.  I am that much older, not much wiser, but I've enjoyed every moment and most especially your comments over the years.  I've made some friends through this blog, and for that I'm truly grateful.

Classic Films and the American Conscience is currently up for sale exclusively at (for at least the time being) as an ebook.   However, as much as I appreciate the dimes and nickels tossed my way, if you are interested in purchasing this book I would suggest you wait until next week when it goes FREE for four days - from Monday, March 5th through Thursday, March 8th.  If you don't have a Kindle, you can download Amazon's free PC for Kindle and read it on your computer.

The four-day free offering is my fifth anniversary present to you.   I'm sorry, there won't be any cake. 

I'll be talking more about the book this Thursday, and certainly next week, so you'll have your full of it soon enough.  Don't worry, though, I'll get back to regular business on Monday, March 12th. 

That week I hope to get around to some real meat-and-potatoes blogging with "The Trial" (1955) with Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire, and "Storm Center" (1956) with Bette Davis and Brian Keith.

What better way to cap a celebration than with trials, book burnings, Communists, and a spinster librarian?  I always say.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cowboy Canteen - 1944

“Cowboy Canteen” (1944) is Columbia’s answer to the Warner’s Bros. wartime all-star revues “Hollywood Canteen” and “Stage Door Canteen”. We can have a look at the latter two at another time, as “Cowboy Canteen” really doesn’t compare much.

It’s a short, fun look at cowboy swing in an era when it was just beginning to take off in popular music, but the plot of this movie is paper thin. Charles Starrett, who played in about a zillion B-movies, mostly Westerns, and mostly as guys named “Steve”, is the boss of a ranch. However, he and his sidekick played by Guinn “Big Boy” Williams are off to give Hitler what-for, so they need people to step in and run the ranch for them while they’re in the Army.

A troupe of entertainers takes up the job, including Jane Frazee, Max Terhune as the ventriloquist of the bunch, and Vera Vague (in real life, Barbara Jo Allen), the stock man-chasing comedienne. Look for Dub Taylor as “Cannonball”, a comedy relief character he also played in a zillion B-movies.

Starrett and “Big Boy” are assigned by the C.O. to organize a camp show, so there we are. One funny bit, so brief you miss it if you blink, is when Vera, struggling with her purse and a heavy suitcase, hands a big galoot her luggage. He grabs her purse instead, tucking it under his arm and walking away.

What makes this B-movie fun are a few of the featured acts, including the great Tex Ritter, he of the mournful ballads of A-Westerns, like “High Noon” (1951) and “Trooper Hook” (1957), reviewed here.

The Mills Brothers make an appearance, but they seem a little too polished and classy for this crowd, with “Up a Lazy River” and “Paper Doll”, which were huge hits for them.

I really get a kick out of Roy Acuff, “The King of Country Music”, performing “Wait for the Light to Shine” and “Night Train to Memphis”. The Smoky Mountain Boys and Girls accompany him. Their sound is special, completely genuine, raw and spirited music, free of any Hollywood gloss. Their rollicking hillbilly hymn is a joyous reminder that war or no war, people were still having fun somewhere.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Abraham Lincoln - 1930

“Abraham Lincoln” (1930) plays out like fragmented memory, in this case the collective memory of a nation’s lore -- but with the unmistakable imprint of its director, D.W. Griffith. As is the case with most movies dealing with history, this film tells us as much or more about the era in which it was filmed rather than the era it depicts.

We celebrate Presidents Day with a look at a figure so wrapped up in folklore that his true nature, thoughts, accomplishments and legacy have been so long diminished in the bright glare of his legend. President Abraham Lincoln, and D. W. Griffith, both.

The movie is rich in folklore and is, like all of Mr. Griffith’s films, a huge project made even bigger by his reverence for the subject. In this case, his reverence is magnanimous considering his own father was a colonel in the Confederate army and Mr. Griffith grew up in an atmosphere of reverence for the Lost Cause. His family heritage and his Southern heritage influences his most famous, or infamous, film, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915). Perhaps his film covering the life of Lincoln is an attempt to balance the scales in his tarnished reputation where racial stereotypes and promotion of the then Southern viewpoint are concerned. “Abraham Lincoln” certainly carries an impressive pedigree unique for films of that era -- first, the subject matter; second, the great director who influenced a generation of filmmakers and established the artistry of the flickers; and third, the writer of the screenplay.

This is Stephen Vincent Benet, the poet who only the year before, in 1929, won the Pulitzer Prize for his epic poem “John Brown’s Body”. Mr. Griffith was careful to add literary legitimacy to the movie, which was to be his first sound film.

Most interesting about “Abraham Lincoln” is not its subject matter or artistic cache, but that it is filmed like a silent movie. In view of this, it’s even more ironic that, due to scenes or sound tracks being missing, in the new restoration of this film, the opening scene has no sound. The restoration team added subtitles to give us the dialogue. There are a couple of other scenes in the movie where this also occurs. Therefore, when the film starts, we are on familiar ground with D.W. Griffith, settling into his usual brand of storytelling. When the restored sound finally begins some minutes into the film, it comes almost as a jolt.

As much of a jolt as the sound era was to prove to Mr. Griffith’s artistic sensibilities and his career.

Griffith added sound to his film, but seemed to do little else to adapt to the new era in filmmaking. His scenes are sketched out as historical vignettes, almost tableau at times. His actors, not allowing for the intimacy that sound movies would create between the actors and the audience, are still mouthing starch-stiff platitudes and over-emoting, at times veering into the old pantomime style. Griffith apparently did not discourage them from this because he knew no other way.

Walter Huston plays Abraham Lincoln, and for most part does quite well. He is a strong actor, looks like Lincoln, and is particularly impressive in showing how Lincoln ages through the years, in appearance and manner. At first we see him a robust frontier youth, “wrassling” in a tavern and courting Ann Rutledge (where his lip makeup could be toned down a little. Too much silent movie image here. Heck, too much Pola Negri here.), and through the years, his grief and his burdens age him prematurely. As, unfortunately, they do most Presidents.

Una Merkel has her first major role in films as Ann Rutledge. We’re used to seeing her as the wisecracking sidekick of the Great Depression, so this is an interesting turn for her in her brief scenes as Lincoln’s first love. Her death scene is melodramatic, but again, that is D. W. Griffith’s sensibilities at work here.  For more on Una Merkel's hometown tribute, have a look at this previous post.

Kay Hammond is good as Mary Todd, and Ian Keith plays a very over-the-top John Wilkes Booth, but anytime we see him on film he is over-the-top. He is always the frustrated actor-as-assassin.  Have a look here for John Derek as Booth in this previous post on "The Prince of Players".

Lincoln has his archetype, too. He is Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator, the rail-splitter, the frontier lawyer who entertains his audience and exacerbates his opponents with homespun witticisms. Griffith makes a valiant attempt to cover pretty much all of his life, which may have been too much to bite off. We see that Mr. Griffith, typical of his generation and of that era, is of the school that history is the product of great men. His Lincoln is the old-time schoolroom copybook saint. Lincoln was not seen this way even in 1865 at the time of his murder. By 1909 we had a penny stamped with his likeness and grand temple of a monument, the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1922, only eight years before this movie was made.

These days we are more apt to pay less attention to great men of history in favor of the average fellow, who may not have made history but certainly got in the way. Perhaps this makes us uneasy these days producing films about historic figures, to the point where so-called revisionist history endeavors to bury old folklore. Neither method of biography is perfect, but the pendulum swings back and forth in fashion, as it will.

D.W. Griffith was meticulous in his settings, his reenactment of the assassination in Ford’s Theater, just as he did with “The Birth of a Nation”, is as realistic as we know the event to be. This being a sound film, we also get to hear the lines from the play “Our American Cousin” that Lincoln was watching from his box. Remarkably, it lends an eeriness to the scene, another layer to the tragedy to come that could not be portrayed in a silent film.

This is not to say that all his historical facts in this movie are always right on the button; they’re not. They’re not too hard to pick out, either, so I won’t bother.

Although, I must say, the actors look the part. One of my favorite things about watching historical films is to see if the actors look like the real-life people they are portraying. This film does that pretty well, from General Ulysses S. Grant, to General Winfield Scott. General Robert E. Lee is close enough. I was surprised at Booth’s fellow conspirators -- one actor looks very much like George Atzerodt.

As regards Mr. Griffith’s expunging his reputation for using racial stereotypes, his success here is a mixed bag. The opening scenes, those silent ones mentioned earlier, take place on a slave ship where we see the misery of the slaves in chains below decks. They appear to be played by African-Americans in a realistic setting with a sympathetic message.

However, much later on in the film there is a scene where a group of white Southerners, John Wilkes Booth among them, gather to express their shock over John Brown’s capture of the Harper’s Ferry arsenal and his intended revolt. A single black man among them affirms that he wants no part of John Brown’s raid, and says he threw away the gun he was given. He is a “good” black. He is also a white man wearing blackface makeup.

Mr. Griffith was evidently not able to take one step forward without taking two steps back.

But, Abraham Lincoln fares well in his hands. He is given his due as a great man of history, and at his passing, the movie ends with a chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and then a very moving, if artificial-looking, camera pan across the woodland childhood home, the log cabin model, and then to another set designer’s model of the Lincoln Memorial. These are the bookends to his life, the log cabin and the classical shrine.

D. W. Griffith made only one more movie after this, a financial flop, and then he retired from filmmaking still only in his mid-fifties. Hollywood had finished with him. One can see why the great stories of ages past appealed to Mr. Griffith. They brought comfort to him, and do to many for whom the present is an even greater struggle.

What made Abraham Lincoln one of our greatest Presidents, I think, was his present-mindedness. He did not lean too heavily on the past as a crutch. Nor did he fear the future, except perhaps for the famous premonitions of his own tragic end.

“Abraham Lincoln” is now in the public domain. You can see the movie here in its entirety on YouTube.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sing and Like It - 1934

Sing and Like It (1934) is one of the best examples of parody in an era probably remembered more for melodrama, serious social commentary, gangster flicks, and the beginning of the Production Code. A few Busby Berkeley chorus numbers may have turned our heads with either suggestiveness or silliness, but most movies of the day were products of an industry that took itself pretty seriously. In Sing and Like It, we see a movie of unexpected sophistication in the way it gently mocks the movies’ most treasured lead characters.

The wonderful ZaSu Pitts heads the cast of players all who parody some type or other.  Directed by William A. Seiter, the movie blends a gangster theme with the world of theater, tackled with tongue-in-cheek silliness. It is not the kind of very demonstrative humor that tries too hard to be funny, not screwball or slapstick (although there are some elements of this as well). It’s wry rather than witty, personified in the way ZaSu Pitts plays her role, Annie Snodgrass, a bank teller who, after work is the leading lady of the Union Bank Little Theater Players.

She of the Olive Oyl demeanor takes herself utterly seriously. She casts her large eyes to the heavens, wrings her fluttery hands, and declares her passion for the art of acting.

“No woman that has known the triumph that I knew when I played Lady Windermere’s Fan in the Fall River High School Senior Play can ever get theatre out of her blood.”

First of all, what a choice for a high school play.

ZaSu is self-absorbed in a way that is more serene than obnoxious. No one can puncture her dream world or rattle her self confidence. She is sweet, and pathetic, blissfully unaware of how untalented she is, and we love her for it, perhaps even envying her peace of mind.

John Qualen, that terrific character actor we once discussed here, plays her shy, but devoted fiancé. He wants to take her away from the sordidness of life as an actress in the Union Bank Little Theater Players (I love that name). He plans a quiet life growing tomatoes.

But, she must see her dream through, first. She gets help from an unlikely source.

Nat Pendleton plays a mobster, who is about to rob the said Union Bank with his gang, which includes the cigar-chomping sarcastic Ned Sparks. Sparks also serves as Pendleton’s interpreter when the less than eloquent mob boss needs an explanation. “He says ‘Nerts!’”

Just as they are about to blow the vault in the bank, they hear rehearsal going on, and ZaSu singing her song about mother love. She gives it her all in that anemic manner (and sings the song several times in the movie, so you’ll have it down pat by the end).

Pendleton listens, and tears form in his eyes and roll down his mobster cheeks. Da song is jus’ be-oo-ti-ful.

He decides the world must hear this voice and this song. He threatens theatrical producer Edward Everett Horton to put ZaSu in the lead of his newest production. Or else.

Mr. Horton is not his usual squirming, befuddled and helpless creature here. He’s fed up, angry, and barks at people. He is used to being in control. A theatrical producer with numerous photos of stars on his office wall, but a photo of himself on his desk.

Meanwhile, Pendleton’s moll, played by Pert Kelton, also has designs on the stage, but he refuses to allow her a career. He places ZaSu in her care, and the jealous Miss Kelton would like to scratch her eyes out for getting the opportunity she wants.

If you’ve only seen an older Pert Kelton in The Music Man (1962) as the Widow Paroo, tossing around her lusty Irish accent while little lisping Ronny Howard spits at her, you may find her sexy, other-side-of-the-tracks routine here as quite a shock. And funny as heck.

She tosses verbal hand grenades to ZaSu, but is ineffectual against the protective wall of ZaSu’s own marvelous stupidity. ZaSu imagines that Pert is jealous of her beauty and talent, fearful of having the gangster boyfriend lured away. ZaSu is a parody of the worldly actress.

“If I were an ordinary woman, I wouldn’t come between you, but I am an actress and I must…I’ll try not to lead him so far away that he cannot find his way home. Try not to hate me too much.”

Pert sees the only way to communicate with ZaSu is to join her in her fantasyland. She delivers the capitulation ZaSu expects in a flat voice and a kind of sarcasm ZaSu will never understand, “You’re a voluptuous siren and an artist, but deep underneath somewhere, I know there’s a good woman. Yes, Annie, I understand.”

This movie must have been such fun to do. There are a lot of very wry, funny lines, a little racy here and there, and bits of business, that it takes at least a couple of viewings to catch it all.

Pert Kelton gets herself appointed ZaSu’s understudy, and of course tries to do her in, finally resulting to kidnapping. John Qualen is a faithful, stubborn swain, and Pendleton has a heart underneath the gun in his inside coat pocket.

To ensure his leading lady is a success (in a play that has been rewritten by one of his goons who thinks he’s funny), Pendleton has his boys threaten the town’s leading theatre critic with a gun during the performance, making him laugh in all the right places.

Except for ZaSu’s mother song, which leaves the gangster sobbing once again.

When the performance is over and ZaSu is the toast of the town, she feels obligated to the gangster, and as perfunctorily as if she were paying a bill announces to the mobster, “Come take me, I am yours.”

He is shocked in a rather Puritan, un-gangster-like way. “I ain’t that kind of heel. What I done was for art!”

Some cute bits include Pendleton’s complaining of Pert Kelton always chewing gum and leaving her old gum stuck all over the place. Once she kisses him and he is startled to find her gum transferred to his mouth. At the end of the film when he makes up with her (after a couple of un-PC but very funny black eyes he has given her), he takes out a stick of gum, breaks it in half for them to share. He pops hers into her mouth.

They’re all having fun with “types,” teasing the way the movie industry usually presented these types. Good parody always has a ring of truth to it.

It is purely a matter of coincidence, I’m sure, that Miss Pitts’ character’s home town of Fall River (Massachusetts), established its own little theater two years after this movie was made, in 1936. The Little Theater of Fall River is still going strong, even without the help of ZaSu’s warbling of “Your Mother”.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Romance at the Drugstore

In a nod to Valentine's Day tomorrow, we pay tribute to that most romantic location...the drugstore.

Oh, my, how we've seen time and again that first flush of passion amid the nostrums and patent medicine, and comic books, and tuna melt sandwiches at the lunch counter. 

Only recently we were witness to the lusty scene of forbidden love over the costmetics counter in Richard Basehart's drugstore in "Tension" (1949).  Here, in that sexy white coat, he woos Cyd Charisse with acne cream.  Or something.

Dana Andrews, again in that sexy white coat, which is bona fide chick magnet, seduces Teresa Wright in the drugstore with perfume in "The Best Years of our Lives" (1946).

Even the very young are not immune to the romance of the drugstore.  Puberty strikes young George Bailey and young Mary Hatch pretty hard in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

She whispers into his deaf ear as he prepares a sundae for her, "I"ll love you 'til the day I die."  Garbo never uttered more sultry words.

The drugstore is a place not only for romance, but for romantic rivalries.  No nightclub was ever so rife with players in the game of love.

Makes you want to slip out for some Vick's Vap-O-Rub or disposable razors, doesn't it?   Better doll up a little.  You never know what chance meeting may occur in the prostetics aisle to change your life.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

This Happy Feeling - 1958

“This Happy Feeling” (1958) is a slight comedy, but viewed from a certain perspective, reflects a watershed in the careers of some its cast. The most curious aspect of a screen actor’s career must be that weird immortality granted by one’s image preserved on film. As much a curse as it is a blessing: most actors have a film or two they’d like to forget. Would they look back in hindsight upon this pleasant, though weak film with a sense of wonderment about what happened next in their careers and their lives?

The answer to Monday’s picture trivia about the trio taking the stage bow are: Troy Donahue, Curt Jürgens, and Alexis Smith. This curtain call happens at the end of the movie.

The movie may be slight, but this post is still going to be long. You should have left in the first paragraph. Now it would be just too socially awkward to leave.

Curt Jürgens and Alexis Smith are veterans of the New York stage, and casual lovers. We begin with Mr. Jürgens meeting Miss Smith for lunch at a fashionable New York City restaurant, where he spies young Mr. Donahue, an up and coming actor, mobbed by fans. This sets up the simple message of the film: a generation gap. The old usurped by the young, both professionally in the theatre at this time, and personally.

Mr. Jürgens has given up the stage for a quieter life breeding horses on his Connecticut farm, much to the consternation of Alexis Smith and agent Hayden Rorke. Rorke began his film career, as more than a few men of his generation did, as an extra in “This Is the Army” -- have a look at this previous post. You may remember him as the Colonel in “I Dream of Jeannie” on TV in the late 1960s.

Rorke and Miss Smith try to entice Jürgens with new play in which he will portray Troy Donahue’s father. Talk about salt on a wound.

Rorke and Smith down their cocktails anxiously when Jürgens asks about his part in the play.

Debbie Reynolds is the star of the movie. Even so, and even with the company of Troy Donahue and a very handsome (and very natural actor) John Saxon, the generation gap of this movie is told mainly through the viewpoint of Curt Jürgens, which is unexpected, considering this is a Debbie Reynolds vehicle. He is at times curmudgeonly, at times displays a more virile screen image than the younger men. He has some very intelligent lines to say about the matter of aging.

I also find the presence of Alexis Smith, and Mary Astor as John Saxon’s mother, punctuates the generation gap message in this movie in ways that went far beyond the script, and I think, the intention of the director. The four principal ladies of “This Happy Feeling” tell a lot about Hollywood and the aging process. More about that later.

The director, and writer of the screenplay, is Blake Edwards, long before his fame from the series of “Pink Panther” movies. He’s given us a script (based on a stage play) that has many good lines, but some conflict happens off screen, which only weakens the story, and there are many moments where dramatic intensity builds only to fizzle out. They refer to the playwright by name, but we never meet her. There are also a lot of one-sided phone conversations, which can be a problem. The movie was shot in CinemaScope. Some nice angles, but also some sloppy shots with actors obstructed by table lamps.  Few closeups, which is maddening.  Closeups didn't always look good in CinemaScope. 

In this shot, you see Alexis Smith and Mary Astor seated at a café table outdoors, and the center of our attention is the pole between them holding up the umbrella. A composition problem not entirely due to pan and scan -- though the print I’ve seen, and these screen caps, are from a “pan and scan”, and that really does account for some of the awkward images, obviously not the director’s or cinematographer’s fault. I’d like to see what it looks like reissued in letterbox. Don’t know if that will ever happen. I don’t think it’s on DVD.

I think CinemaScope was more wide perspective than we needed for a movie that takes place mostly in bedrooms.

Speaking of bedrooms, this movie seems like one big pajama party. Curt in his jammies.

Debbie in Curt’s jammies (see our post here on Women in Men’s Jammies).

John Saxon talking on the phone in his own jammies.

Debbie in her own jammies, later on a nightgown.

Okay. Enough stalling. Here’s the plot. (“Now with 10% more spoilers!”)

Debbie, a receptionist for a dentist, is taken to a house party by her boss, played by Joe Flynn. (Like Hayden Rorke noted above, a 1960s TV military man -- you probably best remember him as Captain Binghamton on “McHale’s Navy”.) He’s had too much to drink and starts to paw her in the library. This is one of those movie sets where a living room looks as large as a museum gallery.

John Saxon, a strapping lad, is also a guest at this party. He lives down the street. He comes to Debbie’s rescue when she asks him to drive her to the train station so she can go back home to Brooklyn.

I like how he refers to the train not as “the train”, but as “The Hartford, New Haven and New York”. Grand old railroad. You see the logo on the side of the passenger car in another scene when Curt Jürgens takes her to the train. This part, at least, must have been filmed in Connecticut.

It is pouring rain, and when Saxon suggests she get out of her wet clothes, she goes berserk, jumps out of the car, runs around screaming, falls in a brook, and ends up a couple doors down at Curt Jürgens’ place.

“You are staining my beautiful carpet as no dog would dare to stain it!” He also suggests she get out of her wet clothes, and she goes berserk some more. Eventually, she is calmed by brandy, and spends the night in his guest room.

He invites her to become his secretary and live here at his horse farm. Her living at the farm is the talk of the neighborhood. We are told. We never actually see scenes of malicious gossip, so it doesn’t really have as much punch as it should. Debbie Reynolds begins the movie in such a shrill, overly dramatic way that she seems only annoying and we lose sympathy for her. She has to fight to get it back, but since the generation gap story is told from Jürgens’ viewpoint, he really becomes more sympathetic than she.

Jürgens and Saxon, who are neighbors, have a nice father-son relationship that becomes adversarial when they both pursue Miss Reynolds.

Continually hammered at both as an actor and as a man about his age, he begins to consider the idea of the pretty, young Miss Reynolds as a romantic partner. She has a crush on him, so it wouldn’t take much to woo her. However, at the 11th hour, Curt decides that the whole thing is inappropriate, and he discourages her from any romantic notions with a cute scene wherein he recites lines from a play he has done. She has no idea that his “goodbye” is a well-rehearsed performance.

So pleased with his success, after he leaves her he takes a ceremonious actor’s bow, and seems to hear applause in his imagination. We want to pat him on the back, too.

He decides to return to the theatre and play Troy Donahue’s father. That he leaves Debbie Reynolds to John Saxon and goes back to the worldly Alexis Smith is probably the best thing about this movie. So many films of the late 1950s give us the rather icky scenario of aging Hollywood actors paired with ingénues, and it seems for a while it’s going to happen again here. A pleasant surprise.

A few good scenes:

When Curt Jürgens dismisses the new generation Method actors, he spits invective, “I just don’t dig it.”

He complains, “The theatre has changed…This is the age of dirty T-shirts and motorcycle jackets. It’s a whole new breed of cat. An entirely new set of requirements. If you don’t know Method or the intricacies of a new role, psycho-schizoid personality, and how to mumble, slouch, and pick your nose, you haven’t got a chance.”

(I’ve long wanted to do a post on actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age working in 1960s films, but I’m still gathering suspects. Maybe later on this year.)

Estelle Winwood plays Mr. Jürgens’ housekeeper, who wanders around slightly intoxicated, cigarette dangling from her mouth. A seagull, which she has mistakenly shot, follows her around with slavish devotion. He frequently eavesdrops on the conversations of the other actors.

Lots of pretty stuff to look at. Cocktail parties with squared-off handkerchiefs in the breast pocket. Smoking jackets, and breakfast on the terrace. A black tie country club dance. (Where one of those Connecticut clubwomen who talks between clenched teeth in that supposedly upper crust manner compliments Jürgens’ rhumba as “wicked”. Good Massachusetts girl than I am, I must correct this line. It should be “wicked good”.)

A running gag on Jürgens throwing out his back. Miss Winwood vigorously employs some torturous chiropractic maneuvers to cure him (while he is in his jammies), which leads to a reference to the Mau Mau Rebellion going on in Kenya at that time. I was pleased, as I always am, to find a topical reference in the movie -- but I was disappointed they did not cut to a shot of the Mau Mau rebels talking on telephones, wearing Curt Jürgens’ pajamas. Felt like I was led down the garden path on that one.

Jürgens’ home, even though placed in Connecticut does not, for once, look like a Hollywood version of a cutesy “colonial farmhouse.” There are some equestrian trophies around the place, but it’s mostly modern furnishings and architecture.  It looks like a 1960s TV sitcom home.  I love his great, big, burgundy convertible. Anybody know what model car this is? John Saxon calls it a “$10,000 buggy.”

A good shot is when Alexis Smith opens the door to leave Jürgens’ house, and the seagull pops in. I wonder how many times this had to be done in order for her to say her line “On a day like this, why aren’t you at the beach?” while he waddles around her and hits his mark directly in the foreground. Good timing. Pros, both of them.

As they await their curtain call, Alexis Smith invites Jürgens to a private “bacchanalia” at her apartment after the show. He accepts with a pat to her bum just as the curtain opens. Then they become different people, both more humble and more superior, taking their bows with all the dignity due to an actor on stage.  Even Estelle Winwood instantly assumes that pretend dignity when taking a bow -- caught onstage trying to retrieve her wandering gull.

Now to the real-life generation gap, though perhaps not a gap as much as a series of cracks that eventually swallows careers. Unless one can leap over them.

According to the American Film Institute website, this movie was shot from September to November 1957, released in June 1958. Debbie Reynolds was pregnant during the filming, her son born February 1958. One may assume it was a good time for her, a new baby, a flourishing film career, her song “Tammy” from the film of the year before, “Tammy and the Bachelor” soared up the charts as the number one hit.

By the end of 1958, however, she and her husband, Eddie Fisher would separate. They divorced the next year over his affair with Elizabeth Taylor, all conducted in a most painfully public manner.

She had played ingénues for years. Twenty-five at the time of this movie, she was probably too old to continue convincing us of her innocence. In the movie, she coyly asks Jürgens to guess her age. He needles her by suggesting she is 30, or 32.

“It’s a lie!” she bristles. Kiss of death, to be sure.

"Seems odd to note that Debbie Reynolds in 'This Happy Feeling" will be supported by such veteran actresses as Mary Astor, Alexis Smith and Estelle Winwood..." wrote columnist Danton Walker just before the film's release (Reading Eagle April 11, 1958).

Alexis Smith, some 11 years her senior, but still only 36 during “This Happy Feeling”, is plunged prematurely into that awkward abyss between starring roles and character roles. However, as was typical with Miss Smith, she outshines the lead, and makes her handful of minutes in this movie count. When Debbie Reynolds becomes smitten with Curt, Alexis assumes the jealous other woman part, but her jealously is tinged with bemusement. Her sexuality is adult, and classy. She is more playful than competitive, and always far more riveting.

She has a brief scene on the phone, talking to Jürgens (not the Mau Mau rebels, dang). She tries to entice him to come to her apartment.

“I built a fire and I’m sort of glowing,” a purr wrapped around a giggle, lying on throw pillows strewn before the fireplace. She’s a volcano in color-coordinated chiffon neck scarves. Ice princess? I should say not.

Another scene where she meets Debbie for the first time: Debbie, in Jürgens’ pajamas (of course), is greeted archly, with suspicion by Alexis, seated on the couch. When the interaction between them becomes more prickly, Alexis stands, unfolding herself to her full height, towering over the petite Miss Reynolds.

It’s a comical image, (I wonder if more funny than the director intended?) but though Debbie looks her usual adorable self in oversized pajamas, striving for dignity among these sarcastic theatre types, she really loses out in the contest. Alexis, just by standing up, looks superior, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Positioned between Jürgens and Smith, Debbie Reynolds seems like a little girl, their daughter, and represents more a problem child than a romantic rival.

Another funny Smith scene, for its unexpectedness, takes place at an equestrian competition. (How Reynolds could fail to notice dashing John Saxon in those riding clothes is beyond me. A fine broth of a boy.) Debbie sees Alexis standing among the audience, and politely nods to her.

The camera cuts to Alexis sticking her tongue out at Debbie. So much for classy, but it’s a hoot.

Alexis’ next turn at bat on screen would be an even smaller role in “The Young Philadelphians” the following year. She would not return to the movies until the 1970s, after a stint on Broadway made her a star again. Wait for it….see this previous post.

Though Curt Jürgens owns this film, we might say it did more for the career of another gentleman not even in the movie. This is Craig Stevens, the husband of Alexis Smith. He visited her on set, and met director Blake Edwards. When Edwards cast his hit TV show that debuted in 1958, “Peter Gunn”, he offered Mr. Stevens the lead role as the suave private eye. It lifted Stevens’ B-movie career out of the doldrums.

Troy Donahue, the heartthrob in this movie, has no lines. He’s just an ornament to represent the New Actor. His career was definitely on the ascendant; his day would come. Soon.

Debbie Reynolds made only one film in the 1970s, as the voice of Charlotte in the animated feature “Charlotte’s Web” (1973). However, like Alexis, she also had some good luck with Broadway. The fading 25-year old ingénue and the fading 36-year-old actress in her prime of 1957 would come to have more in common professionally than either realized at the time. So it is -- with either carefully, or clumsily-woven acting careers -- it doesn’t matter. The clock ticks on.

Mary Astor, who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1941, is the most poignant example of the generation gap played out by the ladies of “This Happy Feeling.” She was 51 when this movie was filmed, but seems like a dowager in her brief scenes. In her day, she had played both ingénue and sexy mature other woman; now looking older than her years, heavier, and somewhat lost among the smart alecks around her. Estelle Winwood, her senior by 23 years, creates a bigger bang.

Miss Astor was busier these days writing. In 1959, she published her autobiography, “My Story”, which frankly discussed her tumultuous private life, though not a lot about her career. She made that one telling, now famous, observation:

“There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who's Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor Type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who's Mary Astor?”

Along with her autobiography, she penned several novels. In 1971, the year Alexis Smith conquered Broadway in the musical, “Follies”, Mary Astor published her second volume of memoirs, "A Life On Film". 

Who's Mary Astor?  She more than answered the question.

In that same year, she went to the Motion Picture & Television Country House, a retirement home for members of the film and television industry. She was 65 years old, frail from a heart condition. She spent the rest of her life there.

Estelle Winwood, who played oddballs more often than not, broke the mold in real life, too. After a stage career on London’s West End, she began in films in her 50s, and was 74 years old at the time of this movie. She was still making movies in the 1970s. She died in 1984 at 101 years old.

It’s good to have an anomaly from time to time. It keeps the usual familiar statistics about loss of appeal, loss of prestige, loss of health, loss of earning power as we age at arms’ length. Where they belong.

Then again, as someone who spent “This Happy Feeling” being trailed by a seagull, Miss Winwood, like a lot of screen actors, may have felt that immortality was for the birds.

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