Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Connie Stevens' "Saving Grace B. Jones"

Connie Stevens, one of the more pleasing starlets of the 1950s, steps away from her pervasive image and steps behind the camera for a companionable, old-fashioned drama about a small-town Missouri family and the prodigal daughter who comes home
Helping out on the selection committee of The 18th Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest 09, and writing program notes, I've been in the comfortable position to discover a few gems that, hopefully, will see the light of day beyond the usual dead-end film-festival circuit.

Over the next few weeks, I'll share some of my discoveries with you. First up: Connie Stevens' "Saving Grace B. Jones." Yes, that Connie Stevens.

OK, full disclosure. I’m crazy for Connie Stevens. Her performance in Delmer Daves’ "Susan Slade" (1961) is an unheralded triumph, and her Cricket Blake on the TV series Hawaiian Eye is downright iconic.

A seriously underrated performer, Stevens has experimented with directing – first with "A Healing," a 1997 documentary about nurses who served in Vietnam, and now with her first narrative, the Missouri-set "Saving Grace B. Jones," an old-fashioned ‘50s melodrama, in which Tatum O’Neal (below with child actor Evie Thompson) delivers an affecting comeback performance as Grace, a troubled woman reconnecting with her family following years of institutionalization.

Reminiscent of the work of William Inge, Stevens’ movie is handsomely filmed and boasts a cast that includes Piper Laurie, Penelope Ann Miller, Michael Biehn, Scott Wilson and Joel Gretsch as a guy who was once married to Grace for one day. The film contains several talented child actors, mostly girls, and Stevens does something risky and experimental by encouraging them to give animated performances. Their work, much of the earlier part of the film for that matter, comes with the ebulience that always marked Stevens' own work as a performer.

Stevens was a Warners TV actress ("77 Sunset Strip"/"Hawaiian Eye") who had a co-starring role in "Parrish" and the lead title role in the aforementioned "Susan Slade," in which she's excellent as an unwed mother forced to live a double life when her mother (Dorothy Maguire), in an effort to protect Susan, opts to pose as the mother of the child.

There is something so internal and timorous about Stevens' handling of the role that one could well imagine her as a Hitchcock blonde. (There are shades of "Marnie" here.) Stevens had fun in the comic William Conrad thriller, "Two on a Guillotine" (1965) and in Bud Yorkin's "Never Too Late" (also '65), from the Broadway comedy, and she appeared in Robert Aldrich's "The Grissom Gang" (1971), in which she shared the screen with Kim Darby - the ex-wife of Stevens' ex-husband, James Stacy. Got that?

But her film-acting career never really took off. There were reports that the role that Stevens really wanted was Eliza Doolittle in Warners' film of "My Fair Lady," but Jack Warner refused to entertain the thought.

Too bad. I've a hunch that she could have pulled it off.

Anyway, Stevens, seemingly the eternal starlet, is now 70 and with "Saving Grace B. Jones" perhaps her career will be rediscovered/redefined, affording her the credit she so richly deserves.

The 18th Philadelphia Film Festival and Cinefest 09 will run from March 26th until April 7th, 2009.

9 comments:

Moviezzz said...

I agree about SUSAN SLADE. I had never seen the film until the recent DVD release. I thought it was one of the strongest films in the set.

joe baltake said...

I remember "Susan Slade" vaguely from when I was growing up, but caught up with it recently on Turner and was pretty much blown away by Stevens in it. Warnes blew it. She had so much potential. TV was a poor use of her talent.

Daryl Chin said...

It wasn't just Connie Stevens, but Warners signed up a lot of people in the late 1950s-early 1960s and dumped them on TV, and that finished off their careers. (Or they dumped them in bad movies, and that finished off their careers.) In many cases, it was obvious what they were doing: they signed Suzanne Pleshette (petite, perky brunette, who had understudied Anne Bancroft and then went on to finish the run of THE MIRACLE WORKER; at that time, Pleshette was 21) to stave off any "threat" to their own Natalie Wood. On loan-out, Pleshette added unexpected depth to THE BIRDS, and (finally) she had a chance to show her stuff on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, where her wit and razorsharp timing added immeasurably to that classic sitcom.

But Connie Stevens was cursed by the Warners casting mentality: once they'd done with you on television, they didn't have much else. (Another casualty: Dorothy Provine. One consolation: for Stevens on HAWAIIAN EYE and Provine on THE ROARING TWENTIES, they often got to sing, which they both did quite well. But the classic wasted blonde of Hollywood was Lola Albright, and in her case, TV's PETER GUNN was her salvation, and, again, she got to sing in most of the episodes, which she did to devastating effect.)

Though the story of MY FAIR LADY has made the rounds (Stevens tried desperately to audition, but Jack Warners refused to consider it; all he kept doing was up the offer to Audrey Hepburn until it reached 1.25 million, at that time the highest price ever paid for one movie, beating Liz Taylor's CLEOPATRA fee and matching Marlon Brando's fee for MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY; the only investment that turned out to be worth it, in terms of the eventual box office, was Hepburn's), it's obvious that Stevens should have been tried on some of the comedies that Warners made in that period, such as MARY MARY or ANY WEDNESDAY (Jane Fonda really tried too hard; she seemed to mistake desperation for sexiness).

The problem is also that the stigma of TV was very strong in the late 1950s-early 1960s, and Connie Stevens was pretty much "used up" by her TV exposure. But it's always nice to know that some people haven't given up, and have found a way to channel their talents. (Stevens did try a sitcom with George Burns mid-1960s, i remember seeing it for a few episodes, but it was cancelled quickly; i know she was one of the first celebrities to market products on QVC, evidently she did quite well.)

Re: MARY MARY, i know that you wrote about it, and no disrespect to Debbie Reynolds, but it was just to say that Warners wanted a "star" for the movie, and they didn't trust any of their contract players. You find that a lot with Warners in that period. And so opportunities for Stevens or Provine (or Grant Williams, for that matter; after a period at Universal, where he starred in THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, he wound up at Warners, where he was put into HAWAIIAN EYE during the end of its run, and that was that, yet people i know who studied at the Actors Studio during the late 50s tell me that Williams was one of Lee Strasberg's star pupils in that period) were lost.

joe baltake said...

Daryl--

This is truly invaluable stuff. There's a story here - about contract players and how they are used and misused - that would make a great book or, at very least, a magazine piece.

Anonymous said...

I live in Boonville, MO, the town where Saving Grace B. Jones was filmed. Do you know what the plans are for releasing the movie beyond the Philadelphia film festival? Thanks.

joe baltake said...

Anonymous--

No word yet on the release of "Saving Grac B. Jones." In a situation like this, it depends on the reception it receives at film festivals, although I'm sure it will eventually pop up on DVD. I, for one, think it deserves a theatrical release.

annie said...

Connies Stevens is one of the most underrated performers to ever grace the stage, screen recording studio or television screen.

Her combination of beauty, acting ability, voice, innocence, caring & just being an all around nice person is surpassed by no one.

I agree about Susan Slade. It was an outstanding performance & I truly think she would have been wonderful in "My Fair Lady."

There are few people as multi talented as this lovely lady & it is about time people realized that.

I look forward to seeing "Saving Grace." I hope it is given a chance at the theatres. Seems like only the flavors of the week are afforded true opportunities, even if they pale in comparison to Miss Stevens talents.

Miss Stevens, I hope you know that there are people out here who know what a fantastic actress, singer, performer you are. I have numerous movies of yours on tape, as well as a few records (they're hard to find, everyone wants them). I also have several episodes of Starting From Scratch which I also feel was a highly overlooked, splendid, family comedy. It deserved far more than one season as it was a hilarious show.

Good Luck with your new career. NO matter what you've done, you've always been a success...just look at how your daughters turned out...perhaps your greatest successes!! I need say no more!

Teressa said...

I am also a perpetual CS fan. I am saddened that SGBJ won't see a theater release until Jan 2011, if then. Looks like a wonderful film that deserves a wide release. Moreover, I find it interesting that Connie witnessed a murder as a young girl in NY and was sent to live in Boonville, MO (Way to channel your talents, Connie). Yes, she was always underutilized and underrated...and, I hope she (continues) to "laugh all the way to the bank."

Nick said...

I recently saw Connie at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, where she put on a dynamite show featuring her daughter and son-in-law. Her beauty, charm, and appeal are as vital as ever. What energy! I hope "Saving Grace B. Jones" brings her to the forefront, where she belongs.