Thursday, March 21, 2013

The French Line - 1954

The French Line (1954) pairs Jane Russell and Gilbert Roland on a transatlantic voyage.  He’s a playboy Frenchman, she’s a wealthy Texan incognito trying to find somebody who’ll love her for herself and not her money.

There were other, more tawdry taglines to this Howard Hughes-produced film, originally shown in theaters in 3-D to more fully capture Jane’s most publicized attributes.  To her credit, her likeably good-old-gal charm rises above the costumes and dance routines designed to keep her bra size the main focus.

I had been meaning to cover this one sometime or other, but was spurred to move it up in the queue from the recent mention in the excellent TCM interview of Kim Novak, noting that this was her film debut.  She’s a chorus girl, and if you blink, you miss her.  She's on the left in this shot.

Other bit roles by actors who never quite reached Miss Novak’s fame include Charles Smith, who shows up as a reporter.  We’ve met him before in Dive Bomber here, and The Shop Around the Corner here.  

Kasey Rogers, who you’ll remember best as Louise Tate on TV’s Bewitched shows up as Jane Russell’s newly-married pal, whose marital bliss leaves Jane envious. 

Our old pal Arthur Hunnicutt, who we saw here at a prospector galoot in Split Second, shows up as an oil wildcatting galoot, and Jane’s guardian.  He’s a loveable old cuss, but a bit too loud.  HE SHOUTS EVERY LINE.

Craig Stevens has a minor role as Jane’s swell guy fiancé who breaks off the wedding because he’s too intimated by her money.  A pal reminds Jane, “You’ve been a corporation since you were three.”

This is Jane’s tale of woe.  Men are either attracted by her money, or overwhelmed by it.

Miss Russell sheds her Texas blue jeans and boots, and heads to New York to meet her buddy, fashion designer Mary McCarty, and heads with her to Paris.  McCarty’s on business to take her new line to a fashion show, and Jane pretends to be one of her models.

It’s a pleasure to see Mary McCarty in a comic relief role.  She pulls out a bottle of booze from her desk drawer and offers it to Jane, “Tea, darling?”  She’s probably more well known to theatre buffs, including a featured role in Follies in 1971, and a Tony nomination for Anna Christie in 1977.

Bess Flowers plays one of the sales ladies in her shop.  Go Bess!

The film is famous for getting into trouble with the Breen Office and with the Catholic National Legion of Decency.  It’s been cut and censored here and there, and the version you might see on TCM is considered the edited version.  One uncensored excerpt of Jane’s “Lookin’ forTrouble” number is here on YouTube.

The songs are mostly cute.  Jane bebops in a duet with her maid, Theresa Harris, with several peek-a-boo moments as she’s bathing.  Unfortunately, there’s no duet with Gilbert Roland, and there should be.

He’s my favorite part of the movie.  We’d noted his virile charm here in We Were Strangers.  Mr. Roland’s charming manner and smooth, rich baritone are really quite beautiful in “Wait Till You See Paris”, which he croons to Jane on shipboard—one of those movie moonlit nights, with couples gazing at the water over the ship’s rail.

“With a Kiss” is a kick-your-heels-up number he performs in a hotel room full of female fans, but my favorite is “Comment Allez Vous,” which is a sweet, waltz-time melody he croons with lullaby softness to a couple of kids fighting over a toy music box.  It’s really a lovely song, and he could have used it just as capably to seduce Jane as to quiet a couple of noisy kids.

The ship they’re sailing on is the Liberté, (French Line, of course), which had a busy year in 1954, as I think that was the same ship Audrey Hepburn took to France in Sabrina, which we covered here.

As long as we’re on the subject of Audrey Hepburn, their trip to Paris to attend a fashion show reminds one of Miss Hepburn’s voyage to Paris for the same purpose in Funny Face (1957). 
Also, there’s a shot in The French Line at the fashion show where a couple of guys toss rolls of fabric right at the camera, just like Kay Thompson did so famously in Funny Face.  I think Kay did it better.  She had a good arm, and lots of pizzazz.

There’s a subplot involving mistaken identities, and a bit where Mr. Roland attempts to cure Jane’s “mal de mer” with a mixture of stout and champagne, which he says will also cure asthma and chicken pox.

A frothy film, that could have been better with closer attention to the romance between the easy-going playboy and the reluctant heiress, but still worth it if only to swoon over Gilbert Roland.

A photo of a sticker I noticed once on an old suitcase....


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Willie the Kid - 1952

“Willie the Kid” (1952) is a masterpiece, and one of my favorite cartoons.  It’s a kind of brilliant animated haiku, a snapshot of childhood and suburbia and the 1950s, so well-caught in the UPA studio style of limited animation.

It tells the story of some little kids who playact a typical Western scenario they might have seen on any number of B-movie or TV oaters.  The wonderful thing is that this Western story is superimposed on a suburban neighborhood.  We meet Willie, the cowboy hero, as he sits down to breakfast.  His father reads the newspaper, his mother nags his father to cut the lawn, and the neighbor boy Roger stops by.  I love how the mother knows it’s Roger before she opens the door.  Roger must come over every day at this time. 

When Willie and Roger leave the house to play outside, outside become the wild West.  Dogs are their horses.  Roger becomes the affable but less intelligent sidekick.

We have our villain, and we have our ingénue who must be saved from him, but Lillybelle has more moxie than a lot of B-move gals.  She insists on continuing her murdered father’s stagecoach line (a child’s toy wagon pulled by a dog), shouting with gusto, “Someday my stage line will be looked upon as an important contribution to the West!”

Later when the villain accosts her, she beats him repeatedly with her parasol, theatrically wailing, “Oh, if I were only a man!” 

The houses and backyard fences morph into rocks and buttes, but occasionally, reality breaks in on even the most intense imagination, and we see Willie’s dad talking over the fence with a neighbor.  In a minute, Dad becomes a cactus when the kids’ power of concentration returns.

At one point, Willie is having trouble reading the map to the bad guys’ secret hiding place, and he hollers for Mama, who pokes her head out of the side of the canyon.  It’s really the kitchen window.

The kids and the grownups tolerate each other, but their worlds rarely collide.  For the most part they ignore each other, and I wonder if that, in 1952, isn’t the most prescient observation on the future relationship between the Baby Boomers and their folks in a couple of decades to come.

The voices are done by Marvin Miller, Marian Richman, and Martha Wentworth, all old hands at radio and B-movies.  Robert Cannon directed.  One of the animators was Bill Melendez, who later went on to a successful partnership with Snoopy.

“Willie the Kid” can be seen in “The Jolly FrolicsCollection” on DVD here from TCM.  This is a fabulous collection of cartoons from the intelligent, stylistic and very arty UPA studio.  Mister Magoo, you may recall, came out of this studio, and so did Gerald McBoing Boing, who I love so much because he breaks my heart.  The original Madeline cartoon is also part of the collection.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Film Stars on Stage - La Jolla Playhouse

I love the names across the top of this typical summer stock playbill.  We old movie buffs will recognize the names of Dorothy McGuire, Jane Wyatt, Mel Ferrer, Mildred Natwick—but here we find them in a different setting.  Not the end credits of a film, but each of them “above the title,” as it were, on a small-town summer stock program.  Appearing not in a film noir or “weeper,” but the English classic, “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde.  The play is produced in the town’s high school auditorium, a couple of hours south of Los Angeles.  Time: 1949.   See here for production photos.

The La Jolla Playhouse was founded by Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and Mel Ferrer as an outlet to their passion for the stage, and their regret at being so imprisoned by film studio contracts that they were not allowed to perform on Broadway between films.

Starting a theatre company is always chancy, walking a financial tightrope and needing to find community support and audience as much as backers with money.  It was not always easy for the La Jolla Playhouse, founded in 1947.  The three producers juggled things for some years, aided by Miss McGuire’s husband, John Swope (whose own interest in theatre harkened back to the days of the University Players where he was pals with Henry Fonda and James Stewart—see this previous post on my blog Tragedy and Comedy in New England.)

The group disbanded in 1964, but was revived in 1983, and continues to produce quality theatre, with some famous names appearing at its new playhouse.  Have a look here for what’s doing at the La Jolla Playhouse these days.

The lure of the stage is very strong for serious actors who are passionate about the workshop atmosphere, about improving their skills, and the thrill of the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience that isn’t found in the controlled environment of film.  It was for Gregory Peck, who worked on the planning for this theatre company while he was shooting “Gentlemen’s Agreement” (1947).

Author Gary Fishgall in Gregory Peck-A Biography (NY:Scribner, 2002) pp. 125-126, notes that the cast rehearsed a play for a week, it ran for a week opening on Tuesday and closing on Sunday.  There were additional matinees on Wednesday and Saturday.  Sets were “struck” on Monday and the new set moved into the high school auditorium.  On Monday evening, the actors got their first dress rehearsal on stage for the opening the next night.  It was that hectic.  Since they were only being paid $55 per week plus hotel accommodation and two meals a day, as noted in Gregory Peck-A Charmed Life by Lynn Haney (NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003,  p. 157), we can only assume it was a very rewarding experience for these film actors who were normally paid thousands and thousands of dollars per year.

The La Jolla Playhouse put on 10 shows each summer.  The first one was “Night Must Fall” with Dame May Whitty, who re-created her film role.  (See this previous post on the movie.)  She had played the same role on the London stage and on Broadway.  Apparently this high school auditorium gig wasn’t too beneath her.  That’s an actress.

Others who performed with this fledging group, escaping their film shackles if only for a week, include Eve Arden, Una O’Connor, Robert Walker, Patricia Neal, Vincent Price, Joan Bennett, Charlton Heston, Laraine Day, Joseph Cotten, Jennifer Jones (the group also received considerable financial support from David O. Selznick).  Leon Ames trod the boards of La Jolla High School, June Lockhart, Wendell Corey, Craig Stevens, Teresa Wright, Raymond Massey, Mary Wickes, Marsha Hunt, Beulah Bondi, Pat O’Brien, Richard Egan, Fay Wray, Groucho Marx,  Allen Jenkins, David Niven, Jan Sterling, Olivia de Havilland, Kent Smith, and of course, the three founders: Mel Ferrer, Gregory Peck, and Dorothy McGuire.  There are lots more, and you can read the casts and productions here at the La Jolla Playhouse production history page.
According to the Mel Ferrer website, which also has some interesting facts and photos on the La Jolla Playhouse, co-starring for “The Voice of the Turtle” was a New York stage actress named Vivian Vance.  In the audience that evening was lady named Lucille Ball (stars not only appeared on stage at La Jolla, they made a grand audience as well), and she was so impressed with Miss Vance’s work, she invited her to become her sidekick on a new TV show she was about to produce with her husband, Desi Arnaz.  The show was “I Love Lucy,” and Ethel Mertz was born.

The neat thing about these old theatre programs is the actor bios.  Ellen Corby notes she spent 12 years in Hollywood as a script girl before making her first film.  Teresa Wright notes she got her first big break on Broadway as Dorothy McGuire’s understudy in “Our Town.”  La Jolla produced the show with Ann Blyth, Millard Mitchell and Beulah Bondi.

The bios frequently discuss the actor’s stage history first; later on at the end of the paragraph they’ll note, ah, yes, they made some films as well.  As if the latter was only to pass the time between stage engagements.

Stage work allowed them to stretch different acting muscles.  It allowed them to play against type: film heroes got to be stage villains, and minor film character actors got to be stars. 
Look on this playbill.  Florence Bates, perennial movie busybody, is right up at the top, a star in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”  Her cast bio in the program relates her interesting journey as the first female lawyer in the state of Texas, to antique shop owner, to investor in Mexican oil wells, to helping her husband run a bakery.  (More on Florence Bates in this previous post.) On a whim once, when she was already well on in life, she auditioned for a part at the famed Pasadena Playhouse (where so many young film stars were discovered), and got the part, though she had no experience.  Alfred Hitchcock discovered her shortly thereafter, and by time of this appearance on stage in La Jolla in 1950 she had appeared in some 60 films. 

But she wanted to be on stage again.  The communal experience shared by actors and technical staff and audience is unique to the theatre because it is live and simultaneous, and in the moment.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone, if forever remembered.
Even by someone stumbling across 60-year-old playbills from a small-town summer stock theater—who can only imagine.
As of a couple days ago, Another Old Movie Blog has reached its 6th anniversary.  Thank you all for the pleasure of your company.

Coming up: I'll be speaking at the Westfield Athenaeum, Westfield, Massachusetts on Tuesday, March 12th in celebration of Women's History Month. I'll be drawing from essays in my recently published States of Mind: New England. This, and some of my novels, will be available for sale at this event.


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