Monday, November 05, 2018

the turner validation

I have this little list.

Have you ever found yourself talking about an old film and wondering, "Gee, why doesn't Turner ever air it?" I have. And often. Especially when the movie in question fits The Turner Brand. Yes, The Turner Brand.

But more about that a bit later.

I've always thought of Turner Classic Movies as a fascinating hybrid - a cross between watching a film alone (on DVD or Blu-ray) and watching it with an audience (in a theater). There is something vaguely different about viewing, say, Hitchcock's "Vertigo," on DVD and watching a TCM screening of it. The former feels solitary, while the latter comes with a certain communal quality. You sense that you are watching it with other people, even though you may be at home alone. Consequently, I never play my "Vertigo" DVD but always stop whatever I'm doing to catch it on Turner.

It makes me feel like I'm part of an audience, see?

Also, while a title may be readily available on home entertainment, there's an unspoken validation when it's screened by Turner.  It's an acknowledgement that it exists and that it is worthwhile. TCM has a vast, sprawling library of films - huge - but not so large that it includes absolutely everything ever committed to celluloid. So many films, so little (programming) time. Which brings us back to The Turner Brand, an expression invoked during a conversation that I had a few years ago with a TCM rep who provided me with a crash course in movie programming.

The Turner Brand is best represented by staples that are screened regularly ("Lawrence of Arabia." "West Side Story," "Pillow Talk," "North by Northwest," alright anything with Doris Day or Cary Grant), as well as certain titles that play on a more recurring basis ("Flower Drum Song," "Boys' Night Out" and "The Children's Hour" come to mind). And there are those films that one senses will be booked for a one-time-only showing ("The Tiger Makes Out" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), good movies that receive a token showing but don't exactly fit the brand, per se.

Thinking about The Turner Brand, I've been pressed to wonder why certain titles that clearly meet the requirements haven't been aired by TCM, either not for a long time or never. Case in point: Turner's Saturday, August 4th installment of "Summer Under the Stars" was devoted to Clint Eastwood but missing was his impressive directorial debut "Play 'Misty' for Me" (1971). And there was a tribute to the late Tab Hunter on July 20th but where was "Damn Yankees" (1958), arguably his most emblematic film and definitely a Turner Brand?

And there are several others - obvious titles that, for one reason or another, are missing in action. While the intricacies of movie programming - and what film packages are/aren't made available - are still foreign to me, I've come up with ten or so perennially missing movies that certainly seem "Turner-made," in a manner of speaking. True, some may have screened at one time during TCM's lengthy history but certainly not within the past decade or so.

All are out there on home entertainment, but each deserves the Turner validation. If there are titles that you'd like to see showcased by TCM, by all means, share. In the meantime, here's that little list as promised...

"The Pajama Game" (1957 - This Doris Day film, one of her very best, was filmed by Warner Bros. back-to-back with the aforementioned "Damn Yankees" and with the same collaborative team - co-directors George Abbott and Stanley Donen, choreographer Bob Fosse and composers Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. Both films are tight, solid movie musicals which surround a Hollywood star with several of the cast members from the respective stage versions of the material. Day, who is a perfect fit as the head of the grievance committee of the union representing the workers at a pajama factory, sings all of her songs live. Why this particular movie is never aired by Turner is something of a cinematic conundrum. Another Day title (once a TCM staple) is George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet" (1958), a terrific Hepburn-Tracy style "battle-of-the-sexes" comedy with Day as a strictly-by-the-books professor of journalism pitted against Clark Gable's looser, old-school (and very grumpy) newsman.

"The Unforgiven" (1960) - Something rare for Turner - an elusive Audrey Hepburn title. She plays the daughter of a proud frontier family. She is also the family's secret. It's exposed that she is actually a Native American who was rescued as an infant and taken in by her adoptive family. This revelation places her family at a dangerous disadvantage between their racist neighbors and the Kiowa tribe that wants her back in the fold. Directed by John Huston and co-starring Burt Lancaster as Hepburn's "brother" and Lillian Gish as the matriarch of the family, "The Unforgiven" is a powerful, conflicted study of racial intolerance reminiscent of John Ford's 'The Searchers."

"The Grass Is Greener" (1960) - A British romp, starring a Turner Brand cast. Directed by Stanley Donen from a play by Hugh and Margaret Williams, it's all about a tony British couple played by Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr - he's an Earl and she's a Lady - who are so down on their luck, financially, that they've reluctantly agreed to host guided tours of their castle. Robert Mitchum shows up an American oil tycoon ( a "rich millionaire," as Jack Lemmon puts it in "Some Like It Hot") who is impressed not just with the castle but with Kerr. Mixing things up is Jean Simmons who plays a madcap socialite aptly named Hattie. Having not seen this film literally in decades, I can't remember if it is any good at this point in time but, frankly with this cast, who really cares? A bit of trivia: The cast here has a lot of connections. Grant and Kerr previously appeared together in "Dream Wife" and "An Affair to Remember"; Kerr and Mitchum teamed in "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" and "The Sundowners" (released the same year as "The Grass Is Greener"); Mitchum and Simmons had some nasty fun in "Angel Face" and innocent fun in "She Couldn't Say No," and Simmons and Kerr co-starred in "Black Narcissus."

"The Electric Horseman" (1979) - The third of four films that teamed Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, this one is the most easy-going and charming. Their chemistry is magical and that's all that this vehicle, seemingly a mere slip of a film, needs to be sustained for two hours. But the charm here has been shrewdly spiked with more than a little social conscience. Redford plays a former, washed-up rodeo star named Sonny Steele who has been teamed with Rising Star, a horse also once a big rodeo attraction, for a series of TV commercials for Ranch Breakfast cereal and insulting Las Vegas appearances (all glitz - hence the moniker, The Electric Horseman). Rising Star has been kept drugged by corporate sleazes and, to protect the horse, Sonny decides to break loose, taking Rising Star and releasing him back to nature. They're followed by Fonda's reporter who becomes complicit in Sonny's contract-breaking escapade. It's all rather old-fashioned, like a role-reversed update of "It Happened One Night." Sydney Pollack directed from a sweet-natured script credited to Robert Garland (on which Alvin Sargent and a few others reportedly also worked) - and Willie Nelson co-stars.

"The April Fools" (1969) This is one of my favorite Jack Lemmon films. He plays another one of his vaguely dissatisfied businessmen who, on the eve of a big promotion, attends a lavish cocktail party at his boss' swank penthouse apartment where he meets the boss' wildly attractive (and also dissatisfied) trophy wife - played by no less than Catherine Deneuve - and decides to run off with her to Paris. Both are unhappily married to steamrolling acquisitive types. The film's cast, directed by Stuart Rosenberg, is terrific and, with Charles Boyer and Myrna Loy on hand, a definite Turner Brand. Sally Kellerman and Peter Lawford play the awful respective spouses of Lemmon and Deneuve; Kenneth Mars and Melinda Dillon are the new-age couple who live in the same building as Deneuve and Lawford; Boyer and Loy pop up (delightfully) at a disco as an elegant elderly couple who spend their days in bed and their nights on the town (and who tutor Lemmon and Deneuve on the benefits of being night owls), and finally the singular Jack Weston is an invaluable scene-stealer as Lemmon's friend and attorney who teams up with a hilariously game Harvey Korman for an extended drunk sequence.
Another Lemmon film that would fit The Turner Brand is Donald Wrye's American version of John Osborne's "The Entertainer" (1975) in which Lemmon takes on the role made famous by Laurence Olivier in the original British film - the seedy vaudevillian Archie Rice. True, the film was made for television but Turner has set precedents by airing Dustin Hoffman's TV version of "Death of a Salesman," along with Shirley Booth's "The Glass Menagerie" and Terry Hughes' filmed-on-stage version "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Lemmon's co-stars in Wrye's film are Sada Thompson as his wife, Ray Bolger as his father and Tyne Daly and Michael Cristofer as his children. Annette O'Toole plays a young showgirl.

"The Happiest Millionaire" (1967) - There has been a recurring feature on Turner called "Treasures from the Disney Vault," devoted to titles from The Mouse Factory from the 1950s, '60s and '70s, the quality of which is, not surprisingly, hit-or-miss. Not too many animations, mostly live-action comedies and Disney's nature features. One title that's been overlooked so far and deserves showcasing is the last film that Walt Disney personally shepherded to the screen, the first-rate Sherman Bros. musical, "The Happiest Millionaire." Based on the Broadway stage comedy that opened at the Lyceum Theater on  November 20th, 1956 and starred Walter Pidgeon as the eccentric Philadelphia millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, the film musical version was Disney's follow-up to his hugely successful "Mary Poppins." However, unlike the Julie Andrews film, "The Happiest Millionaire" was conceived less as family-friendly fare than as a show with the contours of "My Fair Lady." It was released as a roadshow attraction, replete with intermission break, in all the major cities, except for New York (where it played in a truncated version due to Radio City Music Hall's strict running-time dictum). Fred MacMurray took over for Pidgeon and director Norman Tokar cast him opposite Pidgeon's many-time leading lady, Greer Garson. The cast also includes Geraldine Page (in her singing debut), Gladys Cooper and Hermoine Baddeley, and in their film debuts, Lesley-Ann Warren and John Davidson. Tommy Steele, who made his American movie debut here, would follow this performance with roles in two other roadshow musicals from the same era - "Half a Sixpence," based on his Broadway hit (see below), and "Finian's Rainbow." BTW, one of Pidgeon's co-stars in "The Happiest Millionaire" was George Grizzard, who would appear with the Pidgeon in Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent" (1962), six years later.

"Wild in the Country" (1961) / "Mardi Gras" (1958) - The top singing stars of the 1950s and '60s - and polar opposites of each other - were Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. And both became movie stars and box-office sensations. However, while Turner has aired Presley titles (mostly his awful output for MGM) ad infinitum, it has generally ignored Boone, whose films were arguably better. Presley's best movie has not been aired by Turner to the best of my knowledge. That would be Philip Dunne's "Wild in the Country," made for Twentieth Century-Fox. Written by the playwright Clifford Odets (no less), the film casts Elvis as a troubled guy who finds release and therapy in writing and it surrounds him with three first-rate leading ladies - Hope Lange, Tuesday Weld and Millie Perkins.
Boone, meanwhile,  signed early on with Fox and debuted with two pleasing 1957 films directed by Henry Levin - "Bernadine" (based on a popular play) and "April Love." His third - and arguably best - is Edmund Goulding's ensemble musical, "Mardi Gras." Turner has aired both "Bernadine" and "April Love" recently, as well as  Daniel Petrie's "The Main Attraction," written by John Patrick ("Some Came Running...," "High Society"), but not the Goulding film. "Mardi Gras" works as a terrific, full-fledged movie musical with a varied song score by Lionel Newman and fine choreography by Bill Foster. It's about four military cadets (Boone, Dick Sargent, Tommy Sands and Gary Crosby) who attend the New Orleans event in hope of convincing a French movie star (Christine Carère), doing publicity there, to attend their graduation ball. Rounding out the cast are the invaluable Sheree North, Barrie Chase (who does a comic striptease), Jennifer West and ace character actors Fred Clark and Geraldine Wall.

As for Presley's non-MGM titles, he had an impressive output, starting with his debut movie, Robert D. Webb's "Love Me Tender" (Fox) and including Norman Taurog's "Blue Hawaii (Paramount) in which Angela Lansbury plays his mother; Don Seigel's "Flaming Star" (Fox again); Michael Curtiz's "King Creole" (another from Paramount), adapted by Michael V. Gazzo from Harold Robbins' "A Stone for Danny Fisher" and co-starring Walter Matthau, and two United Artists releases that Turner has aired often - Gordon Douglas' "Follow That Dream" and Phil Karlson's "Kid Galahad."

"Hatari" (1962) - Howard Hawks' epic action comedy, starring an extremely companionable John Wayne and moved along playfully by a Henry Mancini score, is a film that was once in Turner's library but hasn't been in sight for years. It deserves to pop us as regularly as the aforementioned  "North by Northwest" and "Lawrence of Arabia." Say no more, except that Hawks' diverse cast is a hoot - Red Buttons, Hardy Kruger, Elsa Martinelli and, of course, that adorable baby elephant.

"Half a Sixpence" (1967) - Scenarist Dorothy Kingsley, who collaborated with director George Sidney on the films of "Kiss Me, Kate" and "Pal Joey," teamed again with him here and did something very shrewd and, for me, rewarding, In adapting the Beverley Cross London/Broadway musical hit, she took elements from both versions of the show, as well as bits from the show's source, H.G. Wells' "Kipps." The version of "Half a Sixpence" that opened on Broadway in 1965 was musically different from the original 1963 London production. Although both versions shared most of David Heneker's terrific score, there were songs in the London version that weren't performed in New York, and vice versa. Sidney's film manages to incorporate almost all of the songs from both versions and the two or three that didn't make it were replaced with new songs. The result is the definitive version of "Half a Sixpence" (although the show still continues to be a work-in-progress with every British revival). It's an utterly disarming take on the class differences and the wildly changing financial status of its little hero, Arthur Kipps - played on stage in London and New York and here by the indefatigable Tommy Steele. The film's extraordinary choreography is by Gillian Lynne and the stand-out in the cast (which includes Cyril Richard, Julia Foster, Penelope Horner, Pamela Brown and James Villers) is Grover Dale whose supple, athletic dance moves are absolutely jaw-dropping. This was George Sidney's final film.

"Rosie!" (1967) - This isn't a very good film but there are reasons that Turner should air it - (1) it has a fascinating pedigree, (2) it was one of Rosalind Russell's last films and (3) it definitely fits The Turner Brand. A little validation may save it from utter obscurity. Produced by Ross Hunter and directed by David Lowell Rich, the film is a naked attempt to revive Russell's Auntie Mame persona. But she had aged and slowed down and the old pizzazz simply isn't there. Playwright Samuel Taylor ("Sabrina Fair" and its film version "Sabrina") adapted the 1965 Ruth Gordon play, "A Very Rich Woman" for the occasion. (Gordon had also starred in the work on Broadway and her husband, Garson Kanin, directed.) Russell's Rosie Lord is a fabulously Boston socialite who spends her fortune extravagantly and indulges in eccentric behavior - which delights her granddaughter (played by Sandra Dee). The film grows dark as Rosie's children plot to have her declared legally insane and committed, in order to gain control of her wealth. Russell has one particularly wrenching hospital sequence - a monologue - in which she desperately tries to convince herself that she's most assuredly stable, with her mind intact. A rare memorable moment by a screen icon in a mediocre movie.

Again, feel free to single out your choices

Note in Passing: Now about that conversation with my TCM contact.  Back in 2013, we had an email conversation prompted by a December 11th essay titled "unworthy," in which I questioned why Paul Walker, who had passed on November 30th of that year, was excluded from TCM's annually anticipated In Memoriam feature. A glaring omission, I thought.

And exactly why was someone named Diane Clare included? Diane Who?

The Turner rep explained that In Memoriam is created with "an eye towards picking personalities whose film work resonates strongly with the TCM community" and Paul Walker wasn't one of those personalities. As for the obscure Clare, she made the list because she had been "best known for appearing in Hammer horror films which make sense with our brand."

Diane Clare, a name that still means absolutely nothing to me, fit The Turner Brand, although I've a hunch the real reason was simply because she had a fan at Turner. Having worked on newspapers for longer than I care to remember, I am keenly aware that such lists are strictly arbitrary.

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(from top) 

 ~Walt Disney surrounded by his "Happiest Milliionaire" cast -
(from left) Gladys Cooper, Lesley-Ann Warren, Greer Garson, Fred MacMurray, Geraldine Page, John Davidson and Tommy Steele
~photography: Buena Vista/Walt Disney Pictures 1967© 

~Poster Art for Warner Bros.' "Damn Yankees"

~Doris Day and John Raitt in "The Pajama Game"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1957©

~Burt Lancaster and Audrey Hepburn in "The Unforgiven"
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant in "The Grass Is Greener"
~photography: Universal-International 1960©

~Robert Redford, Jane Fonda and Rising Star in "The Electric Horseman" 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1979©

~Myrna Loy and Jack Lemmon on the set of "The April Fools"
~Lemmon and Catherine Deneuve in a scene from the film
~photography: Cinema Center Films 1969©
~Lemmon and Sada Thompson in "The Entertainer"
~photography: NBC/Persky-Bright Productions/Robert Stigwood Organization 1975© 

 ~Poster art for Disney's "The Happiest Millionaire"

~Ad for the tryout run of the Broadway version of "The Happiest Millioinaire"

~Poster art for Twentieth Century-Fox's "Mardi Gras"

~Elsa Martinelli and the baby elephant (who walks in time to Mancini's music) in "Hatari"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures. 1962© 

~Grover Dale (front and center) dancing in "Half a Sixpence"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures. 1967© 

~Poster art for Universal's "Rosie!"