Friday, April 21, 2017

what ever/whatever

As Ryan Murphy's "Feud," arguably the quintessential Guilty Pleasure, winds down, there are questions and concerns that have yet to be broached anywhere - neither by the series itself (which, sadly, celebrates its finale on Sunday) or by anyone in the entertainment media covering it.

So here goes...

First, there's a concern with the way director Robert Aldrich is being portrayed. In my initial essay on "Feud," titled when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, I questioned the veracity of the series, wondering exactly how well researched it is versus how much of it is facile speculation.  A good deal of the time, it plays like juicy gossip.

Which is what makes it such a hoot and so entertaining.

But until this show, Aldrich had a place in movie history as a solid craftsman, an effective storyteller and a nurturing director of actors.  Three of his earliest films were "Vera Cruz" (1954) and the two noirs, "The Big Knife" and "Kiss Me Deadly" (both from 1955).  All terrific films.  Before filming "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," he helmed the very good Kirk Douglas-Rock Hudson Western, "The Last Sunset" (1961).

Aldrich was no hack, as "Feud" consistently implies. True, immediately prior to "Jane," he had a elephantine flop, "Sodom and Gomorrah" (1962), but he was far from washed-up. His befuddled desperation, as played by Alfred Molina, seems a tad exaggerated. And more than a little insulting.

"Autumn Leaves" - Aldrich's first collaboration with his "Baby Jane" star, Joan Crawford, and a really fascinating dual-character study - won him the best director award at the 1956 Berlin Film Festival. Later in his career, Aldrich directed "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965), "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), "The Killing of Sister George" (1968),  "Too Late the Hero" (1970), "The Grissom Gang" (1971), "Ulzana's Raid" (1972), "Emperor of the North" (1973), two with Burt Reynolds, "The Longest Yard" (1974) and "Hustle" (1975) and my favorite Aldrich - the camp classic, "The Legend of Lylah Clare" (1968).  And, of course, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), his sturdy "Baby Jane" encore.

Secondly, the Jack Warner character (a horrible monster as delineated by Stanley Tucci) and others continually refer to "Jane" as a B-movie, even after it's completed and on the screen - where it looks like anything but a B-movie. What it looks like is an artful psychodrama, enhanced by witty (and wicked) comic touches. The final image of Bette Davis doing her little Baby Jane dance on a beach is powerfully evocative.  A B-movie?  Right.

Number Three. Aldrich and Warner aren't the only characters being bashed and debased here. Frankly, no one in "Feud" comes off looking good.  Not one character is redeeming, although Jessica Lange's Joan Crawford is borderline sympathetic.  But this negativity may have more to do with the show's makers than with the people that "Feud" depicts.

Nombre Quatre. The past episode of "Feud," devoted to the early filming of "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte,"depicts several scenes shot by Crawford, reunited with Davis, before bailing from the film.  And here I always believed that Crawford dropped out of "Charlotte" without filming anything, before she was replaced by Olivia DeHavilland. That said, where is her footage and why hasn't it materialized as an extra on any "Charlotte" disc?

Just asking.

Then there's the bit of trivia that I brought up in the essay bette & joan & anne & faye, namely that Crawford's connection to Anne Bancroft extended beyond the 1963 Oscarcast, where Joan accepted Anne's Oscar for "The Miracle Worker." Two decades later, Bancroft would be Paramount's first choice to play Crawford in its tell-all biopic, "Mommie Dearest" (1981). Faye Dunaway, of course, got the role and ran with it.

Finally, there's the 1991 TV remake of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," directed by David Greene ("The People Next Door" and "Godspell") and starring no less than the Redgrave sisters as the Hudson sisters - Vanessa as Blanche and Lynn as Jane. Does anyone else remember it?  Seems not.  The film has seemingly disappeared but not before its title was shortened (for some inexplicable reason) to "What Ever Happened to...?" for its home-entertainment release.

It originally aired on ABC on February 17th, 1991.

Note in Passing:  But wait! You can view the 1991 remake, courtesy of You Tube, here.

*  *  *  *  *
~top: Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave in the ABC 1991 television remake of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
* * * * *
~middle: publicity shot of  Robert Aldrich; a shot of the director on location for "Autumn Leaves" with Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson, and companion shots from "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," comparing Crawford with Olivia De Havilland (in a scene with Agnes Moorehead).
* * * * *
~bottom: Aldrich directing Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

horton's affection for life's unremarkable people

Arguably, Horton Foote (1916-2009) was America's premiere regional playwright, a poet who appreciated the underdog and the forgotten, small men and women with limited vocabularies and even fewer hopes.

He wrote innumerable heart-breaking plays, often in cycles, but is perhaps best known by the moviegoing masses for his faithful adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" for director Robert Mulligan in 1962.

His other film scripts include Arthur Penn's "The Chase" (1966) and Otto Preminger's "Hurry Sundown" (1967), both all-star affairs, and many of his plays have been filmed, usually with Foote himself attached as scenarist.

Two of these films are based on lesser-known Foote plays - "The Traveling Lady," written for the stage, and "Tomorrow," written for television.  These are works which share a gnawing sense of desolation felt by characters who have been overlooked, written off and often condescended to - and they also shared the same leading lady, the singular Kim Stanley (right), who may or may not have been Foote's muse for a while. Stanley herself was seen far too infrequently on screen but was showcased brilliantly in two of her films, John Cromwell's "The Goddess" (1958), based on a Paddy Chayefsky script (with Stanley's character reputedly modeled on Marilyn Monroe), and Bryan Forbes' intellectual creep show, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964).

If "The Traveling Lady" is unfamiliar, it's because it was retitled "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" when Mulligan filmed Foote's play for Coumbia Pictures in 1965. For the record, the stage production opened on October 27th, 1954 at New York's Playhouse Theatre and closed after only 30 performances. Stanley played the show's delicate, yet tough-willed heroine, Georgette Thomas, and Jack Lord ("Hawaii Five-0") co-starred as her incorrigible convict husband, Henry. Vincent J. Donohue ("The Sound of Music" on stage and "Sunrise at Campobello" on stage and film) directed.

"Baby, the Rain Must Fall" fits rather snugly into the satisfying output of Mulligan and his partner, produce Alan J. Pakula.  It was the fourth of seven titles made by the prolific team, who collaborated on films for about 10 years. Some of their other titles include the aforementioned "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Love with The Proper Stranger" (1963), "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) and "Up the Down Staircase" (1976). How their output has managed to evade a major retrospective is beyond me.

Lee Remick more than meets the daunting challenge of standing in for Stanley on screen as Foote's traveling lady, a young transient mother who seeks out a new life in Harrison, Texas, which is close to where her husband Henry is imprisoned. Steve McQueen, in one of his smaller, straight-acting roles, is perfect as the rough-edged, troubled Henry.

McQueen's singular (albeit, not single) contribution to the screen was that he brought his Method Acting background to the action genre, as evidenced by his moody yet muscular work in "The Great Escape" (1963), "Bullitt" (1968), "Le Mans" (1971) and particularly Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway" (1972). But he also lent his estimable talents to more intimate, lesser-known efforts - "Junior Bonner" (another '72 film with Peckinpah), "The Reivers" (1969), "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), "The Cincinatti Kid" (1965) and ... the Mulligan-Pakula "Love With the Proper Stranger."

As the film begins, Henry is already out of the penitentiary on parole and and performing in a local saloon with a band. Trying to escape from the disapproving grip of Miss Kate, the indomitable woman who raised him, and also avoid the demands of Georgette and their young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), he drinks too much and self-destructs a little more.

The acting here is of first order, dominated by Remick who really has the lead role, and by McQueen who slips into the role of Henry as if it might have been written for him specifically. Remick is especially wonderful in her scenes with the charming Block (a plainspoken, unprecocious child actress) as they make tentative plans to settle in Harrison and talk of planting a Chinaberry tree in the front yard of their future dream house.

There is nothing wrong with "Baby, The Rain Must Fall," which was casually dismissed by both its studio and critics in its day - nothing except its title.

The film was rather hastily released in January of 1965, with most of advertising hinged to a song that was written for it. Somewhere along the way, Columbia Pictures had become disenchanted with the title, "The Traveling Lady," and went with the song title. It's a good song but it had a double-edged affect:  It brought the film a modest amount of popularity but it also seriously marred it. And as a title, it flatly misrepresents the movie and even undermines the moody opening credits (designed by Vance Jonson) superimposed over a long, extended shot of a highway speeding by, accompanied by some vintage Elmer Bernstein music. These titles were clearly designed when it was called "The Traveling Lady."

There were also two television productions of "The Traveling Lady," both starring Kim Stanley that aired a year apart in the 1950s. A "Studio One" version of the play, directed by Mulligan, aired on April 22nd, 1957, and a version for something called "Armchair Theater," directed by Dennis Vance, aired August 3rd,  1958. I've no idea if a kinescope still exists of the "Armchair Theater" telecast, but the "Studio One" version has been preserved and is available (in five parts) on You Tube.

And a bit of trivia: Pakula was married to Hope Lange and hired his wife's first husband, Don Murray, for a supporting role in "Baby, The Rain Must Fall."  Lange and Murray met while filming Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop" in 1956 and were married for six years.

The film "Tomorrow" had a fascinating journey to the screen.  Foote adapted it, originally for television, from a William Faulkner short story that first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on November 23rd, 1940 and is included in Faulkner's anthology of stories, "Knight's Gambit."

The TV production aired on Playhouse 90 on March 7th, 1960, with Stanley and Richard Boone performing the lead roles, under the direction of, yes, Robert Mulligan (again). "Tomorrow" remained dormant for about a decade before Foote adapted it for a curious stage production, performed in a New York church in 1970 with Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin starring for Joseph Anthony, an underrated, now-forgotten stage and film director ("The Rainmaker," "Mary, Mary," "The Best Man" and "Under the Yum Yum Tree" on stage; "The Rainmaker," "The Matchmaker," "All in a Night's Work" and "Career" on film).

Duvall plays the monosyllabic dirt farmer Jackson Fentry,  illiterate and remote, who befriends Bellin's pregnant and homeless Sarah Eubanks and ends up raising her son after she dies. (I've never read the Faulkner story but, on the page, Sarah apparently was a black woman.)

In the work's most piercing scene, Sarah's brutish kin come to claim the child, almost literally swooping down and scooping him up, returning Jackson to his sadly solitary life. The twist in this story is truly original, heart-breaking and cathartic.

The aforementioned TV production of "Tomorrow," starring Kim Stanley and Richard Boone, has also been preserved and is also available (in seven parts) on You Tube.

If you ever wondered where Billy Bob Thornton got his idea for his Karl Childers character in "Sling Blade" (1996), look no further. He was obviously inspired by Fentry. And, curiously, Duvall did a cameo in "Sling Blade" for Thornton as Childer's father.

There are other Duvall/"Tomorrow" connections.  Duvall's role in Aaron Schneider's "Get Low" (2009) owes a great deal to Jackson Fentry as well. (And guess what. Lucas Black from "Sling Blade" is in it.)

And you could also say that Foote himself appropriated a good portion of "Tomorrow" for his original screenplay for Bruce Beresford's "Tender Mercies" (1983), which, of course, starred Duvall and won him the Oscar that he rightly deserved for "Tomorrow."  This is Duvall's best film performance ever, period.  But, surprisingly, even some of his most ardent fans are unfamiliar with this singular film and his work in it.

The supporting cast includes the invaluable character actress Sudie Bond ("Cold Turkey," "They Might Be Giants," "Silkwood" and "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean") and, as a lawyer, the actor-director Peter Masterson, father of Mary Stuart Masterson and Foote's cousin. As an actor, Masterson starred as Katherine Ross's husband in Bryan Forbes' "The Stepford Wives" and, as a director, he helmed Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful" on screen (the 1985 version which won Geraldine Page an Oscar) and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" on stage.

And then there's the haunting Bellin, who matches Duvall every step of the way in Anthony's sad, heart-breaking love story. (Bellin's husband, producer Paul Roebling, originally presented the play on stage and, with Gilbert Perlman, produced the film version.) The actress, who could have been a silent-movie heroine, made no other films. Bellin passed in 1987.

Note in Passing: This is a revised compilation of two previous essays.

*  *  *  *  *
~top: Horton Foote at New York's Booth Theater
~photography: Carolyn Cole / The Los Angeles Times 2008 ©
* * * * *
~middle: publicity shot of the fabulous Kim Stanley; still shot of  Steve McQueen and Lee Remick in "Baby, the Rain Must Fall"; Playbill for "The Traveling Lady," and McQueen and Kimberly Block on the set of "Baby, The Rain Must Fall"
* * * * *
~bottom: title card for "Tomorrow"; Robert Duvall in an ad for the film, and Olga Bellin in a scene from the film

Sunday, April 09, 2017

bette & joan & anne & faye

Ryan Murphy's FX extravaganza, "Feud: Bette and Joan," has managed to top itself week after week. Compulsively watchable, the series is a party that shouldn't end and it will be a sad day when it does screech to a halt.

The show outdid itself on April 2nd with an episode titled "And the Winner Is... (The Oscars of 1963)," directed by Murphy himself who reaches something of a woozy high with his jaw-dropping vision of the backstage activities/antics of the '63 Oscarcast, a recreation that required what looks like thousands of dress extras in the auditorium and behind-the-scenes.

Bette Davis (absolutely nailed by Susan Sarandon) was nominated for her performance in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," while her co-star, Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange, who turns grande-dame seething into an art), was snubbed. But there were four other Best Actress nominees...

Crawford, ever resourceful and crafty (read: street smart), made arrangements to accept the award if one of two other nominees should win - Anne Bancroft and Geraldine Page, both New York actresses, who were ensconced in Manhattan and had not planned to attend the awards.

Joan also made herself available as a presenter and the episode's standout moment comes just after she presents David Lean with the Oscar for Best Director for "Lawrence of Arabia." Lean offers a terse "thank you" and walks off the stage with Crawford, asking her where he should go.

"Follow me," Joan says. Follow, indeed.

What comes next is a lengthy and expansive tracking shot that is reminiscent of - and tops - a famous similar shot by Michael Ballhaus in Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" (1990). Winding through the innards of the backstage area where there are people and more people in every room, nook and cranny, Murphy's cinematographer Nelson Cragg brilliantly captures the organized chaos of an event that is ostensibly well-organized.

In an earlier essay devoted to "Feud," I expressed some concern about how much of the show is fact versus how much of it is speculation, also questioning how well-researched it is. I'm sure Murphy and company had to fill in holes and imagine a lot, but the huge amount of research that went into the show is terribly impressive and is all there on screen.

There are tiny bits of information and trivia that only an obsessive buff would know - such as Davis' appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" to promote "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" and to sing the hilarious rock-&-roll title song written by Frank DeVol, with lyrics by Bobby Helfer.

Speaking of trivia, it will be interesting to see if Murphy can figure in another bit of information, even though it is not relevant to the period being covered in his series.

As the show details, Crawford went backstage of the Martin Beck Theater in early 1963 when Bancroft was performing in Jerome Robbins' production of Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" (with Gene Wilder, Zorha Lampert and Barbara Harris). Crawford's goal was to finesse Bancroft into letting her accept the award if Bancroft should win for "The Miracle Worker." But that wasn't the end of their relationship. About 20 years later, when Paramount was planning its film version of Christina Crawford's book about her mother, "Mommie Dearest," the studio's original choice to play Joan was - ta-da! ...

Anne Bancroft.

At the time, playwright James Kirkwood ("A Chorus Line") was enlisted to do the adaptation and Franco Zefferelli was to direct. After all this was announced, Bancroft backed out and the project fell through and was reconceived with Faye Dunaway as Crawford and Frank Perry directing.

It remains Dunaway's best screen performance, hands-down, but one that, for some bizarre careerist reason, she no longer includes among her credits. The film no longer exists, see? And neither does her performance in it. Ryan Murphy could have a field day with this. More strange Hollywood stuff.

Bancroft, of course, won her Oscar for "The Miracle Worker" and after she accepted for Bancroft, Crawford posed for pictures with the evening's three other winners - Gregory Peck, Patty Duke and Ed Begley.

By hook or crook, Crawford got to hold the Best Actress Oscar that night.

Brilliant, Joan, absolutely brilliant.

Note in Passing: And by all means, check out John Greco's precise deconstruction of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" on his terrific site, Twenty Four Frames, as he strips away its layers in his astute analysis.

Monday, April 03, 2017

what a great day!

•*¨*•♫♪ ░H░A░P░P░Y░ (¯''•.¸*♥♥♥* ¸.•''¯) ░B░I░R░T░H░D░A░Y░
♪♫•*¨*•.¸¸♥ ¸¸.•*¨*¸.•*¨`*
And to...
  • Beverly ("I'm a pig!") Boyer / "The Thrill of It All"
  • Cathy Timberlake / "That Touch of Mink"
  • Margaret Garrison / "Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?"
  • Kit Preston / "Midnight Lace"
  • Georgia Garrett / "Romance on the High Seas"
  • Kitty Wonder / "Billy Rose's Jumbo"
  • Josie Minik / "The Ballad of Josie"
  • Erica Stone / "Teacher's Pet"
  • "Dynamite" Jackson / "April in Paris" 
  • Martha Gibson / "My Dream Is Yours"
  • Isolde Poole / "The Tunnel of Love" 
  • Carol Templeton / "Lover Come Back" 
  • Jane Osgood / "It Happened to Jane"
  • Nanette Carter / "Tea for Two"
  • Judy Kimball / "Send Me No Flowers" 
  • Laurie Tuttle / "Young at Heart" 
  • Melinda Howard / "Lullaby of Broadway"
  • Josephine Conway McKenna / "The Man Who Knew Too Much"
  • Jo Jordan / "Young Man with a Horn"
  • Judy Adams / "It's a Great Feeling"
  • Abby McClure / "With Six,You Get Eggroll" 
  • Jennifer Nelson / "The Glass-Bottom Boat"
  • Janet Harper / "Do Not Disturb"
  • Ellen Wagstaff Arden / "Move Over, Darling" 
  • Patricia Foster / "Caprice"
  • "Babe" Williams / "The Pajama Game"
  • Julie Benton / "Julie"
  • Marjorie Winfield / "On Moonlight Bay" & "By the Light of the Silvery Moon"
  • Lucy Rice  / "Storm Warning"
  • Calamity Jane / "Calamity Jane" 
  • Jan Wilson / "The West Point Story"
  • Grace LeBoy Kahn / "I'll See You in My Dreams"
  • Kate Robinson McKay / "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" 
  • Aimee Alexander / "The Winning Team"
  • Ruth Etting / "Love Me or Leave Me" 
  • Jan Morrow / "Pillow Talk"
  • Doris Day / "Starlift"
  • and (drum roll please!) Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, an amazing 95 today!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

when the legend becomes fact, print the legend

The veracity of "Feud: Bette and Joan," the first installment of a planned anthology by Ryan Murphy based on famous rivalries, is frankly unknown.  But exactly how well researched it is or how much of it is facile speculation is really beside the point when a show is this deliriously entertaining.

This episode is based on the long-standing mutual dislike that Joan Crawford and Bette Davis shared throughout their lengthy careers that culminated when both agreed to play opposite each other in Robert Aldrich's great "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" in 1962. The alleged feud always struck me as one-sided, with Davis more guilty of hostility than Crawford.  Davis seemed forever on the offensive (apparently resentful that Crawford, to her a lesser actress, had become a huge star), while Crawford was on the defensive, forced to protect and prove herself.

No one in Murphy's version comes off looking good - and that also includes Aldrich, Jack Warner, Hedda Hopper and a seemingly catty Joan Blondell.

The driving force behind the series and the feud itself is the sexist opinion that Davis and Crawford were desperate - and, by extension, angry - because of their ages. But watching Susan Sarandon (incredible) and Jessica Lange (nuanced as always) in those respective roles snapped me out of the fantasy haze that Murphy handily creates and back into reality.

Why?  Well, Davis was only 54 when she made "Jane," while Sarandon who plays her will be 71 in October.  Crawford, meanwhile, was 56 when she filmed her role; her portrayer, Lange, is currently 66.  Both women work regularly these days, no questions asked, and Meryl Streep, who is also 66, may be the most productive actress currently working in film.

To lend another perspective to this, Jennifer Aniston is 48, a few years younger than Davis and Crawford were when they made "Jane" - and she is far from "over the hill."  On the contrary, if anything, she's going strong and, to Hollywood's (bottom-line) advantage, more appealing than ever.

Times change.  For the better.

One other observation:  After "Jane," both Davis and Crawford worked almost exclusively in what many people have dismissed as horror films.  True, Crawford made some cringe-worthy movies during that period ("Strait-Jacket," "Berserk," "Trog"), but Davis's efforts were all fairly good ("Dead Ringers," "The Nanny," Aldrich's "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte").

One could reason that, curiously, Lange's career has taken a somewhat similiar path, given her recent frame-breaking collaborations with Murphy.

But, again, no one seems to care.

In its own bizarre, unexpected way, "Feud" is a sign of progress.

* * * * *
~image: Work Wanted ad placed by Bette Davis in the
September 24th, 1962 issue of Variety, one month prior to the October-November openings of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Thursday, March 23, 2017

indelible moment: "North by Northwest"

Hitchcock's compulsively watchable masterpiece, "North by Northwest" (1959), contains any number of memorable moments.  Hell, the entire film is a memorable moment. But one scene, in particular, stands out for me.

It occurs rather early in the film when Cary Grant returns to the Plaza Hotel - accompanied by the fabulous Jessie Royce Landis, playing his glib, eye-rolling mother - to search the room of one George Kaplan, for whom Cary's Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive, has been mistaken.

Snooping around in the suite's bathroom, Cary examins a hairbrush.

Walking back into the bedroom, he announces to mother (in a deadpan manner patented by Grant), "Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Grant's body language, telegraphing disgust with the idea of dandruff, perfectly complements his line reading.  He hunches his shoulders and slightly flails his arms, making spindly movements with his fingers:

"Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Brilliant, just brilliant.

* * * * *
~image: still shot of Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis in "North by Northwest" / MGM 1959 ©

Monday, March 20, 2017

sinatra's big, beautiful mess

Why was "I Love Paris" deleted from Twentieth Century-Fox's 1960 embarrassment, namely its film version of Cole Porter's "Can-Can"?

"Why?!," I ask, with some annoyance.

It's a question of little importance, given the lousy movie involved, but it has bugged me nevertheless for far too long, actually for a few decades.

True, Hollywood has a history/reputation for deleting popular/familiar songs from its film versions of Broadway musicals. "Another Opening, Another Show" is missing from George Sidney's 1953 movie of "Kiss Me, Kate" (another Porter musical). "Together, Wherever We Go" was cut from Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version of "Gypsy." And Glenn Erickson has written astutely on his invaluable DVD Savant site about the witty "Coffee Break" number being deleted from David Swift's 1967 take on "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." All terrific musical moments.

But "I Love Paris" is really a different case. The song is a classic, the pick of Porter's score. In a way, it's sacred. Or should be.  Even in Hollywood.

Then there's the movie itself. No one would ever mistake Fox's loopy, misguided version of Porter's show for a good movie. It is not totally without its charms (most notably, Porter's score, or what's left with it) - or without a certain morbid curiosity. But how did it end up so glaringly bad?

That's the first of several questions which have made this film unintentionally fascinating for five decades now. Of course, I've already asked the most pressing questions connected with the film, namely (1) why was "I Love Paris" scuttled at seemingly the 11th hour, and (2) who exactly made this dubious decision? For years (no, make that decades), there was no response because, frankly, no one noticed or cared to ask.

And at a mere two hours and 11 minutes, did the film really require an intermission? But I digress. Back to "I Love Paris"...

It's a major Cole Porter song, the signature song from the show that contained it, and yet it never occurred to any entertainment journalist or critic to ask why it's missing from the film version of Porter's stage production, either at the time of the film's release or thereafter.  There have been innumerable books about its star Frank Sinatra but apparently, none of the authors thought to ask either. But the foolish excision of "I Love Paris" - and the apparent disappearance of the footage - pretty much underlines the sad, wavering road that "Can-Can" took to the screen.

The play opened in 1953 with Lilo in the lead as La Môme Pistache. Fox's Darryl Zanuck purchased the film rights in August of 1954, with the intention of making it with French star Jeanmarie and Gwen Verdon (who appeared as Claudine in the Broadway production). Zanuck hired Nunnally Johnson to adapt Abe Burrows' wonderful stage book and also to direct.

Johnson's script, dated August 27, 1955 and available from Script City, is highly faithful to the Broadway production, retaining all of Porter's score.

When Johnson dropped out, the film languished at Fox, with both Claude Binyon and Henry Ephron taking turns dickering with the script, and with Dick Powell and Vincente Minnelli, among others, as potential directors who came and went. Then on April 22, 1958, Fox issued a press release, announcing that "Can-Can" was being put into production as a vehicle for Marilyn Monroe (her first film for the studio since 1956's "Bus Stop"), with Maurice Chevalier as one of her co-stars. Cary Grant was also mentioned.

But this incarnation of "Can-Can" got only that far - as a press release sent to entertainment editors. That version, of course, was never filmed.

Enter Frank Sinatra, who would act in the film under a contractual obligation required by 20th Century Fox after he walked off the set of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" in 1954.

Sinatra was initially hesitant about doing the film, not being exactly a good fit for the property, but Fox prevailed and lured him into the picture by having Charles Lederer (who nimbly adapted "The Front Page" into "His Girl Friday" for Howard Hawks) create a new character for Frank to play - a lawyer/scamp named François Durnais - and by paying him $200,000, along with a percentage of the film's profits and making him a partner on the production, a partnership that would have an impact on the film.

Sinatra's Suffolk Productions would oversee the film in tandem with Jack Cummings Productions. Sinatra took the hands-on approach, bringing in Dorothy Kingsley, who had tailored "Pal Joey" for him, to completely revamp the stage script. Kingsley not only cut most of Porter's songs but also altered who would sing them. Songs that were sung by females on stage, were given to male characters in the film, and vice versa.

I should stop here and confess that, for me, Sinatra always exhibited exquisite good taste, particularly musically. I'm a fan. But in the case of "Can-Can," both his decisions and motivation were fuzzy at best.

Among his dubious decision was to bring his house orchestrator Nelson Riddle on board to arrange the musical numbers; Somehow, Sinatra and Riddle managed to insert the anachronistic "ring-a-ding-ding" into the lyric of Porter's "C'est Magnifique." Then there's Shirley MacLaine, Frank's co-star in Minnelli's "Some Came Running," recruited as the female lead - renamed Simone Pistache for the film - and seriously miscast in the role.

So far, so ... bad.

Shirley is a trained dancer but is not exactly - how shall I put this? - light on her feet. Reviewing the film, New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther, who genuinely disliked her in the film, diplomatically called her shrill performance "undignified" and remarked about her being "heavy-footed, groping and galluping" throughout the film's gaudy centerpiece - the "Garden of Eden" ballet, performed as part of something called the Four Arts Ball, staged in the film's notorious cabaret, the Bal De Paradis.

Anyway, MacLaine's addition to the production inspired the departure of the second female lead, Barrie Chase, who was hired to play Claudine.

Chase, who also had a bit in Sinatra's "Pal Joey" (she was one of two ballerinas who helped undress Kim Novak during her strip routine), was a protégé of Hermès Pan, the legendary choreographer enlisted to stage the dances for "Can-Can." She, of course, was also Fred Astaire's dancing partner on his wonderful '50s TV specials which Pan choreographed.

Barrie Chase untimately bolted the production when Sinatra handed most of her dance numbers over to MacLaine (La Môme/Simone was not a dancing role on stage), a detail confirmed both in the film's DVD liner notes and by Shirley MacLaine herself in a piece carrying her byline in Newsweek's special Sinatra Memorial tribute issue (28 May, 1998).

Speaking directly to Sinatra in the piece, she wrote: "You strong-armed Twentieth Century-Fox to make 'Can-Can' because you thought I should do a musical. And you had them combine the two female leads into a single character so people could see more of what I could do."

Me, me, me.

Most of this statement is untrue: Sinatra didn't strong-arm Fox; it was the other way around. Also, the character of Claudine was watered-down but not eliminated.  The role, still very much in the film, was recast. Juliet Prowse replaced Chase who, in retrospect, made a very wise decision.

Pan's dances are the film's most invaulable feature, hands-down. This was an especially productive time for Pan. In the space of about 15 years, in addition to the aforementioned "Pal Joey" and "Kiss Me, Kate," he also choreographed "Silk Stockings," "Porgy and Bess," "Flower Drum Song," "My Fair Lady," "Finian's Rainbow," "Lost Horizon," "Darling Lili" and, uncredited, the "Midas Touch" number from Minnelli's "Bells Are Ringing."

Now about "I Love Paris"...

Reviewed prior to its release by Variety on Friday, 1 January, 1960, "Can-Can" ran 134 minutes - a scant running time for a roadshow musical, not including either the film's Overture or its Entr'acte - but it did include the song, "I Love Paris," as a duet featuring the iconic pairing Sinatra and Chevalier (a holdover, remember, from an earlier concept of the film).

Alright, let me see if I get this... Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier on screen together singing "I Love Paris" -  and someone at Fox makes the decision to delete it?  Who? And why? Am I repeating myself here?

By the time the film opened in New York on 9 March, 1960, its running time was reduced to 131 minutes, suddenly three minutes shorter.

Those missing three minutes were the "I Love Paris" number.

Greg M. Pasqua writes on "It was sung in the club just before the engagement party scene on the boat in Act Two. It was sung as a performed song with Sinatra singing from the stage. Fox determined it slowed the film down, so they cut it before the film was released. You can spot the change in continuity where the song would have occurred."

In the release version of the film, the song is heard only fleetingly over the opening credits. So let's see: The sequence in which it was performed by Sinatra and Chevalier "slowed the film down"? And by eliminating three minutes, the film took on a quicker pace?  Three minutes. Really?

Prior to the film's New York opening that week, the magazine section of The New York Times published a photo spread on "Can-Can" in its Sunday, 21 February, 1960 edition, which included this still of Sinatra and Chevalier singing (excuse its fuzziness), the only shot of the number I've ever seen:
The duet, of course, can be heard on the Capitol soundtrack album - it's beautifully haunting - and there's a slightly longer track of it on the "Frank Sinatra in Hollywood" CD.  Ah, yes, that wacky soundtrack album...

For some bizarre reason, the songs are not listed in chronological order on the soundtrack but, for lack of a better expression, are scrambled, with the film's Entr'acte listed as the first track on side one.  Again, huh?

Back on, Mark Andrew Lawrence took the trouble to put the songs in their proper order so that, as Lawrence puts it, "the program flows beautifully from one track to the next." Below is his rearrangement to parallel the order in which each song is performed in the film. The parenthetical numbers indicate their actual order on the Capitol LP.

1. Main Title/"I Love Paris"/"Montmart" (#7 on the album)
2. "Maidens Typical of France" (#9)
3. "C'est Magnifique" (#8)
4. "Live and Let Live" (#4)
5. "You Do Something to Me" (#5)
6. "Let's Do It" (#6)
7. "It's All Right with Me" (#2)
8. Entr'acte (#1)
9. "I Love Paris" (#11)
10. "Come Along with Me" (#3)
11. "Just One of Those Things" (#10)
12. "Can-Can" (#12)

I took the liberty of adjusting Lawrence's listing of songs because it has Sinatra's "It's All Right with Me" coming after the Entr'acte, when in actuality, it leads directly into the intermission. The missing "I Love Paris" opened the second act. Incidentally, the film's Overture, the music for both an "Apache" dance and the "Garden of Eden" ballet, the fade-out "I Love Paris" choral and the exit music were never included on the soundtrack.

Speaking of Porter's songs, the makers of the movie version seriously tampered with his "Can-Can" score, adding "Let's Do It," "Just One of Those Things" and "You Do Something to Me," from other Cole Porter shows, while eliminating seven of the original songs from the stage show - "Never Give Anything Away," "I Am in Love," "If You Loved Me Truly," "Never, Never Be an Artist," the lyric to "Can-Can" and, most missed, "Allez-Vous-En," although its melody is used for the "Apache" dance.

Oh, yes, did I remember to mention that "I Love Paris" was deleted?

Given the importance of that song to the Porter show and the importance of Sinatra himself to the movie, is it unfair to conclude that Frank may have possibly had something to do with the song's deletion?

I mean, his initial reluctance to be in the film in the first place, coupled with the questionable decisions in terms of its script, scoring and casting, not to mention the screwy soundtrack album, makes one wonder if he could have been toying with Fox. We'll never know.  Frustrating.

And exacerbating matters is that the footage of "I Love Paris," missing since 1960, apparently no longer exists. Which is especially curious.

Why?  Because Sinatra was famous for saving everything.

Notes in Passing: First, at the outset here, I mentioned that the film is not without its charms, chief of which is the obvious fun that Sinatra and MacLaine are having. If only their fun was contagious. But more to the point, there's Tom Keogh's superb titles design - one of the movie's most laudable features. Done in dazzling primary colors and with a deep bow to Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lutrec, Keogh's titles promise a great film that never really follows.

Which only makes one wish that "Can-Can" was a better movie, one actually worthy of the attention Fox lavished on it.

Secondly, Twentieth Century-Fox was so high on the film that it made a deal with a Westwood (CA) theater to play it exclusively for two years. But that was before the reviews came in. It played only a few months.

Still, "Can-Can" was a big moneymaker in its day. Huge. No surprise.

And finally, Howard Thompson, noted for his memorable (and witty) New York Times capsules of movies for their TV airing, aptly commented that "Can-Can" seems "more like Hoboken than Paris." Say no more.

~top: Frank Sinatra between scenes on the "Can-Can" soundstage, reading the script
~photography: Bob Willoughby / Twentieth Century-Fox 1959 ©
* * * * *
~middle: still shot of  Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier performing "I Love Paris" / Twentieth Century-Fox 1959 ©
* * * * *
~bottom: an example of Tom Keogh's artwork for the film

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Please release me, let me go: Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson's "Song of the South" (1946)

A few weeks ago, in anticipation of Disney's half-live action, half-animation redo of its 1991 animated musical, "Beauty and the Beast," Entertainment Weekly, in its usual penchant for overkill, published an extensive spread on all the great/memorable/iconic songs to come from Disney films.

Conspicuously missing was "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from "Song of the South" (1946), a film that has become something of a problem for Disney for racial reasons (whether true or not) and that subsequently is now a lost movie.  I understand Disney's stance but really can't rationalize why Entertainment Weekly would ostracize the song from its coverage.

Movies are demonized for the most facile reasons and "Song of the South," directed by Harve Foster and Wilfred Jackson, has been treated as the studio's bastard child far too long. It deserves studio reappraisal by now, given that the complaints about it date way back to the 1970s.

There's nothing wrong with it.

No, at least not in terms of sociology and race. Nevertheless, it remains perhaps the only Disney title that has never been hyped to death as a DVD "Disney treasure" ensconced within the legendary "Disney vault."

To say that it's been ostracized or suppressed or that it has become Disney's pariah is putting it mildly.

What's weird is that Busby Berkeley's genuinely offensive "Babes on Broadway" (1942), replete with Mickey and Judy in blackface for their jaw-dropping "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" finale, is an MGM favorite and a Turner Classics staple, screened (way too often as far as I'm concerned) with nary a complaint - as are David Butler's "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947) and James Whales' original "Show Boat" (1936), with Irene Dunne (of all people) in blackface.

For the record, "Song of the South" - the original half-live action, half-animation attempt - is about how Uncle Remus (played by James Baskett) uses his tales of Brer Rabbit to help a little boy (Bobby Driscoll) handle his parents' separation and his new life on a plantation. Remus' tales include "The Briar Patch," "The Tar Baby" and "Brer Rabbit's Laughing Place," which come alive in sparkling, charming animation - and a great deal of wit.

Back in 2007, critic Sam Adams pointed out in Philadelphia's City Paper, that "rumors circulated in 1996 and again last year that the movie might finally be committed to disc, but after publicly hemming and hawing over a period of months, Disney announced there were no plans to release 'Song of the South' in any form." There's only one word for such behavior:


Release it already, preferably with someone credible, say Whoopi Goldberg, asking (as she did for Warners' racially-based cartoons) - exactly what all the fuss is about? Or maybe Oprah might want to sign in on this.  Or Tyler Perry or Lee Daniels or Spike Lee.  Someone with credentials would have to endorse it if its reputation proves to be unfounded.  But first Disney would have to screen it for these people.

Really, the punishment has to end already.

Friday, March 10, 2017

white, or lacking in color

At long last. It may have taken 50 years but someone finally has taken the race-relations premise of "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and turned that unsatisfying vanilla film inside-out, finding equal parts of humor and horror in the notion of a privileged white girl bringing her black boyfriend home to meet to her progressive (read: liberal) parents on their sprawling estate.

That someone is Jordan Peele, the talented comedian best known for his companionable partnership with Keegan-Michael Key.  "Get Out" is Peele's directorial debut, an astonishing one - something of a major achievement for a first feature. It is at once a tense thriller, a subversive comedy and a bracing social commentary, a combination which is easy to recommend (and with some enthusiasm) but, frankly, rather tricky to review.

Carefully constructed, intelligent and thought-provoking, "Get Out" is one of the most original films in ages. I love the idea of a movie about the very real danger that white people pose to blacks, particularly given that whites have feared and conveniently demonized blacks (and often without good reason) for decades, a bigotry that's become more transparent, palpable and apparently acceptable during the past eight years.

An early scene depicts a moment that is now naggingly familiar to us all - a white cop approaching a car containing a black man.  But Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a photographer from New York, isn't the driver of the car.  He's its passenger.  The car was being driven by his white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) who had an accident when a deer darted across a back road. Doesn't matter however. The cop wants to see Chris' identification.

"That's bullshit!," Rose snaps. The cop backs off and drives away. But, given disturbing news stories from the past few years, one can only imagine what would have happened if it was Chris who challenged the cop.

It's an unsettling start, to say the very least, and it's exacerbated in an unthinkable way when Rose and Chris arrive at her parents' palatial manse in an unnamed suburb that reeks of exclusivity and restriction.

You half expect to encounter a welcome sign that reads "Whites Only" - except for the domestic help, of course. Dean and Missy (yes, that's what she calls herself), Rose's parents, have two curiously subdued blacks on staff, a grounds keeper named Walter (Marcus Henderson) and a maid named Georgina (Betty Gabriel, excellent), brought on to care to Dean's ailing father and mother and who stayed after the two elders passed.

"I couldn't let them go," Dean explains to Chris, a line that takes on deeper meaning as the film progresses. He later comments something about how much he enjoys experiencing "another person's culture."

I should mention at this juncture that Dean (Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon and Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychotherapist - two occupations that drive the film into increasingly uncomfortable places - and then I should say no more. A continuing synopsis would be a huge spoiler.

However, I will add that Peele stages a bravura sequence involving Dean and Missy's annual outdoor party and the creepy white people who attend every year, all of whom have pretensions and awkwardly patronize Chris.

It's a moment that handily defines the film's title.

Much of the film's humor comes from a character named Rod (Lil Rel Howery, in a scene-stealling performance), Chris's best friend back in New York who works conveniently as a T.S.A. officer and was concerned about Chris heading out into the unknown with Rose. Meanwhile, the film's tension escalates with the arrival of her brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones), a medical student who is also something of a loose cannon.

As for the social commentary of "Get Out," one doesn't expect a trip to the suburbs and a lawn party to morph into an urgent message on the on-going shameful and unconscionable exploitation of black people (will it ever stop?), with sly references to slavery added. But something is amiss.

How and what Peele accomplishes in his film will not be revealed here.

No, it's something that can be experienced only first-hand. And should be.

Note in Passing: Mention should be made of the first-rate work of cinematographer Toby Oliver, editor Gregory Plotkin and particularly composer Michael Abels who wrote the kind of background/mood score that can be appreciated and enjoyed apart from the film itself.

* * * * *
~image: Alison Williams and Daniel Kaluuya 
 ~photography: Justin Lubin / Universal Pictures 2016 ©

Sunday, March 05, 2017

hollywood's problem child

He is a child of privilege, born and raised with a sense of entitlement.

He is Hollywood’s Golden Child.  Literally. 

He is Oscar.

There are other, lesser awards that aspire to be like him and that covet his immense celebrity, but they don’t share his elevated station in life.

And like many pampered, overindulged children, Oscar has been something of a disappointment.  Awards in his name have been given more often to the wrong films and people than to the right ones.   

And the annual black-tie party that celebrates his greatness, the Oscarcast, has been at once gauche, boring and embarrassing.

Oscar is like the popular kid in high school who fails to live up to his potential and is often overshadowed by wannabes and competitors.

The turnout for his party this year, for example, was the lowest in nine years.  Each year, as ratings drop a little more, he seems to become less relevant. Meanwhile, his helicopter parent – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences  – continues to manipulate factors that would make its precious Oscar appear more important. Yes, manipulate.

Somehow, that strikes me as something particularly dubious.  Case in point: In 2009, after the franchise film “The Dark Knight” failed to get an expected Best Picture nomination, the Academy - a stage mother to end all stage mothers - stepped in to correct such slights in the future and to quell anticipated complaints from any other pesky malcontents. 

Heaven knows, for years, the five Best Picture slots had generally been monopolized by arty indie fare.  So the category was opened up to include as many as ten – ten! – nominees.  That way, action and comic-book movies had a chance to be included and honored.  You know, art.

But guess what: It didn’t work. Since that expansion, even more fringe titles have been nominated for Best Picture. Usually eight or nine. (For some reason, there have yet to be ten nominated films. I’ve no idea what the official cut-off point is.) Mainstream titles remain a distinct minority.

There was more tampering with the potential results this year.

When too few films and people of color were represented in the competition for the past two awards seasons, the Academy went into its Rolodex to get weed out those voters (read: old and white) holding back the hands of time.  The conceit worked. There was certainly more diversity among this year's nominees. But none of this impressed moviegoers.

What the Academy fails to acknowledge that there is a definite correlation between what films are nominated and how many viewers tune in to the Oscarcast.  It’s become apparent that the average moviegoer has written off the Oscarcast because he/she simply doesn’t care about any of the films involved.  There may be interest in "Moonlight," this year's Best Picture winner, among movie critics, festival groupies and film-industry people, but not among people who go to movies as a pastime.

The ratings were down this year because, frankly, among the nine titles being honored were the aforementioned “Moonlight” and “La La Land” (a musical, for heaven’s sake!) and “Fences” and “Lion”  and “Manchester by the Sea” and “Hell or High Water” and other movies that did not include a single tormented Superhero from the Marvel or DC Comics archives. 

The last Oscarcast whose ratings soared was in 1998 – the year of “Titanic,” a film that people other than movie critics, festival geeks and industry people adored. It was big and popular and glamorous.

The little-known (and -seen) "Moonlight" is the polar opposite, an edgy downer about race and sexuality.  It's not the kind of film that one dreams of building an Oscar party around.  Its unexpected victory has been attributed to the changes in voting, but it actually benefited from a carefully-orchestrated, shrewdly-timed 11th hour backlash on the internet against "La La Land," which had been the front-runner all season.

In a matter of a few weeks, its fate changed. 

"Moonlight's" win made no sense until one became aware of the willfully ignorant charges made against "La La Land" on the web. Yes, unbelievably, the musical lost its Best Picture Oscar because that category was ostensibly seized and appropriated by resourceful internet writers.

As for this year’s "party," the Oscarcast itself, it was especially pathetic, what with tiny bags of candy being parachuted into the theater at intervals and “tourists” being bussed in to partake in all the forced fun and to hobnob with the rich and famous.  And the extensive padding included one particularly gratuitous bit that had current stars (like Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen) mooning over vets (Shirley MacLaine and Michael J. Fox).

It was also a show whose over-the-top political correctness even seeped into commercials that pontificated on behalf of empathy and compassion to the point that it became cringe-worthy – and I say that as a card-carrying liberal who routinely votes on behalf of empathy and compassion.  As I watched all this, I remarked to my wife that right-wing pundits would have a field day with this show, which played like a bad caricature of liberalism.

It was difficult to take and I tuned out early on when Viola Davis won her award.  OK, full disclosure: I was crazy about Viola Davis before she became a household name.  As a working critic, I took note of her early film performances in “Out of Sight,” “Antoine Fisher,” “Far from Heaven” and “Solaris.”  Her win for “Fences” was no surprise.  And it was evident that she expected it, too, because her acceptance speech was less of a speech than a monologue, a carefully prepared one-woman play, during which Davis gave a performance that rivaled her work in “Fences.”

I managed to snap back into consciousness for the controversial note on which the show ended - the wrong film being announced for the top prize.

Americans like to find blame somewhere, anywhere, and everyone in the media and on-line was quick to target poor Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway for simply reading the information that was given to them. 

Beatty was clearly confused when he opened the envelope and I believe that he handed it to Dunaway to show her that a mistake had been made.  And she assumed that he was leaving it up to her to announce the winner. 

In an earlier lifetime, I interviewed Beatty and found him to be a calm, methodical, savvy, intelligent man.  So I was surprised that he didn’t stop the show, look into the camera and tell the audience that a mistake had been made – that he and Dunaway had been given the wrong envelope – and then simply wait things out until the powers corrected the error. 

The Academy still would have had a wildly dramatic finale but it would have been a good deal less embarrassing, particularly for the team that made “La La Land” - the film that deserved to be named Best Picture.

Notes in Passing: There were two moments during the Oscarcast that left me jaw-dropped (aside from the Best Picture win).  One was when host Jimmy Kimmel referred to Trump tweeting during his "5 a.m. bowel movement."  A low point in bad taste.  The second was when presenter Vince Vaughn described Kimmel as "an unshave Sal Mineo."  Huh?  Made no sense.  If my memory serves me correctly, Kimmel had a beard growth on his face (and hardly resembles Mineo). Embarrassing.