Wednesday, May 27, 2015

indélébile moments: "chantons sous la pluie"


Tuesday, May 26, 2015


"The Japs don't understand the love we have for our women. They don't even have a word for it in their language." 

The dialogue is from Delmer Daves' "Destination Tokyo."  And the actor reciting it is Cary Grant, of all people.  Grant was never the most macho of actors.  In fact, he seemed to purposely work against machismo in his films.  But in this piece of 1943 World War II propaganda, he made like John Wayne. As the captain of a U.S. submarine attempting to infiltrate Tokyo Bay, Grant spends most of the film pontificating negatively about Japan, not just as an unworthy enemy, but also as an awful culture.

The film itself demonstrates America's misguided sense of superiority at its worst and it was part of one of Turner Classic Movies' recurring events - its annual Memorial Day Weekend film marathon, during which one war movie after another is relentlessly screened. Usually, I pass. Not interested.

But, this year, I took notice - which wasn't difficult, given that Turner is always beaming somewhere in our house. What I saw - or, rather, heard - was jaw-dropping and disturbing but, in all honesty, not entirely surprising.

Most of the titles screened, like "Destination Tokyo," were filmed and released during the WWII years, and it seems that every time I walked past our television, some supporting actor was salivating about killing "Japs." Of course, it was a different culture decades ago, but still: Really?

While I'm a self-confessed bleeding-heart liberal who would never condone book burning, I also can't understand why blatantly racist films are routinely screened or why even Memorial Day needs to be "celebrated" with a film festival.  Yes, I was offended.  Just as I am offended by Mickey Rooney's notorious Oriental schtick in Blake Edwards' irrationally overrated "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) or by the shameful and demoralizing "blackface" production numbers that mar both MGM's "Babes in Arms" (1939) and Warner Bros.' "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947).

Turner Classic Movies unreels movies breathlessly, 24/7.  It's like a repertory house, only it never closes and it's more convenient, operating non-stop out of our living rooms - or family rooms or bedrooms or dens.

Its programing is rather free-form and appealingly unpredictable.  But, several times a year, it interrupts its flow with one of its recurring "events," such as the Memorial Day weekend marathon.

Then, there's "31 Days of Oscars," which hauls out the usual, ubiquitous suspects ("Lawrence of Arabia" and "West Side Story," chief among them), and also its Easter Sunday line-up, which offers several titles that make it possible to watch Christ being crucified six or seven times in a row.


Note in Passing:  I could do without the annual Oscar marathon, not only because it rather shamelessly panders to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but also because it eschews the usual monthly birthday tributes. Full disclosure: Jack Lemmon, my favorite actor, was born Feb. 8 but, because of "31 Days of Oscar," his birth has never been celebrated. So, both the Oscars and celebrity birthdays can't be be accommodated?


Monday, May 18, 2015

façade: elizabeth hartman

Frail and incredibly touching, Elizabeth Hartman was arguably the most promising film actress of the mid-1960s, appearing in four diverse films in the space of three years, and then she disappeared, popping up in movies and on TV only occasionally until, sadly, she went away completely.

Time moves on and we tend to forget elusive people like Elizabeth Hartman. My thoughts returned to her when I read of the May 13th death of screen writer Gill Dennis, who was married to her from 1968 to 1984.  She was a footnote in his obiturary.  At the time of his death, Dennis was married to Kristen Peckinpah, a daughter of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.

Hartman made her film debut in Guy Green's ”A Patch of Blue,” an unusually depressing film about a young blind woman (Hartman) who has an almost accidental relationship with a man (Sidney Poitier) who, unknown to her, is black.  Shelley Winters as her cruel mother, Wallace Ford as her cruel grandfather and Elisabeth Fraser as her mother's cruel friend make the film almost unwatchable.  But the role brought Hartman an Oscar nomination as best actress.  At age 22 (and at that time), she was the youngest person in that category to be nominated for an Oscar.


A year later, Hartman was part of Sidney Lumet's impressive ensemble in his film version of Mary McCarthy's ”The Group,”  playing the key role of Priss. At this early point in her film career, Hartman could do anything she desired.  Hollywood wanted her.  But she responded instead to a young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola who needed a "name" for his New Wave comedy, "You're a Big Boy Now."  The role was Barbara Darling, a go-go dance, a vamp and a sadist.  And Elizabeth Hartman, to her credit, signed on.  It was the only time that Elizabeth Hartman looked glamorous in a film.

And, reportedly, Coppola was forever grateful.

Hartman then went on to do John Frankenheimer's ”The Fixer” in 1968 as part of a British ensemble that included star Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Ian Holm, Hugh Griffith and Georgia Brown. Around this time, Coppola was preparing "The Rain People" and wanted Hartman for the role of Natalie Revenna, a fed-up housewife who runs away from her marriage.  But Hartman, always insecure, wasn't emotionally ready for the role and Coppola had to opt for one of Hartman's co-stars from "The Group," Shirley Knight, who rewarded her director with a brilliant performance.

After taking off for a few years, Hartman returned to the screen for Don Siegel in his Clint Eastwood-Geraldine Page psychological Western, "The Beguiled" in 1971.  It would be her last role in an important film.

Her next film, had she made it, would have been even more important - and perhaps crucial to her career and her health.  She was Coppola's first choice for the role of Kay in his 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."  But, again, life got in the way; Hartman remained insecure and emotionally fraught.  (The director was reportedly so grateful for her participation in "You're a Big Boy Now" that he wanted to reward her with a showcase female role in a big, largely all-male film.) The part of Kay eventually went to Diane Keaton who is the one weak link in "The Godfather," although in Keaton's defense, it's a poorly written role.

Frankly, I'm not sure that even an actress of Hartman's talent could have made it memorable.

The latter part of Hartman's career included only two film roles - in the original "Walking Tall" (1973), a red-neck drama starring Joe Don Baker, and, a decade later, as a voice in the animated "The Secret of NIMH" (1982), made by MGM - the studio that produced "A Patch of Blue."

Hartman went full circle, ending up where she had begun.

Before her death in 1987, she worked in a museum in Pittsburgh.  Elizabeth Hartman died on June 10th of that year, a victim of suicide.  She jumped to her death from a fifth story window.  She was 44.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

the brothers bridges

In one of her many reviews, Pauline Kael once wondered exactly what Lloyd Bridges fed his two sons, Beau and Jeff.  I guess she speculated because they both seemed so hearty as young men and so natural as young actors. You could never catch either of them "acting."

Not even for a second.

I like both, although my alligance has always been with Beau who seems a tad less ambitous and more freewheeling than Jeff who has accumulated a trio of Oscar nominations (plus one win) throughout his career.

The boys acted together only once - in Steve Kloves' "The Fabulous Baker Boys" in 1989 - but their careers crossed paths many years before that.  Both of them played essentially the same role earlier in their careers - the struggling, wannabe writer - in two striking, underrated period films.

In Norman Jewison's ”Gaily, Gaily” (1969), based on the book by Ben Hecht, Beau played Hecht's alter ego, Ben Harvey, a farm boy who hightails it to bustling Chicago, lands a job on one of the city's dailies and falls in a disreputable lot (Brian Keith and Melina Mercouri, both memorable, among them) who take the cub reporter under wing.

Meanwhile, in Howard Zeiff’s "Hearts of the West" of 1975, Jeff plays the author of dime novels about the Old West who finds himself among movie people who actually make films about the Old West, working with an impatient director (Alan Arkin) and a jaded older actor (Andy Griffin).
Note in Passing: Jeff's leading lady in "Hearts of the West" is Blythe Danner who, coincidentally, had acted opposite Beau a year earlier in Sidney Lumet's (also underrated) "Lovin' Molly" (1974), which contains Danner's most luminous screen performance to date, hands-down.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015


Grace and Cary, between shots, tweeting

Monday, May 04, 2015

life imitating art

Inconceivable as it is to the logical mind, but back in 1986 when he directed his first and only film, the brilliant new-style musical, "True Stories," David Byrne somehow anticipated the fashion trends of 2015.

In a wildly memorable sequence, Byrne staged a wacky fashion show at a shopping mall in Allen, Texas wherein each outfit became weirder and more deranged - but not that different from what major celebrities wore to this year's Met Gala (that would be New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for all you yokels out there), as overseen by the ubiquitous Anna Wintour.

Above, that's SJP (that would be Sarah Jessica Parker for all you yokels out there), wearing a compelling design by Philip Treacy at the Gala.

And, below, are the runway models in Byrne's witty film.

I knew that Byrne is something of a Renaissance man, but I never realized to exactly what extent.

Note in Passing: In all fairness, the attendees at the Met Gala were advised to wear costumes to the event, and not the usual couturier garb.  And for the record, the fashion show in "True Stories" was the brainchild of Byrne's scenarists, playwright Beth Henley and actor Stephen Toboloswsky (Henley's then-boyfriend), and it's staged while one of the film's game stars, Annie McEnroe, sings Byrne's lilting "Dream Operator."

Friday, May 01, 2015

façade: zeme north

The legend goes that Jack Warner was so impressed by the reception to Metro's 1960 spring-break frolic, "Where the Boys Are," that he decided to duplicate it, moving the action from the East Coast to the West - from Ft. Lauderdale to Palm Springs. He would populate his version with Warner house players whom he had kept imprisoned largely on television.

Hence, "Palm Springs Weekend" of 1963.

Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue, Robert Conrad and Ty Hardin were appealing contract players to whom Warner infrequently tossed a feature-film crumb.  Much like the cast of "Where the Boys Are," they were way too old to play college-age students, but at least their film was a genuine frolic.  Unlike "Boys," there was no disconcerting gang rape at its center. These "kids" merely partied in bikinis and Speedos (a time when men didn't wear Bermuda shorts for swimming), swigging a lot of beer.

"Palm Springs Weekend" is a lot more fun than "Where the Boys Are," a more companionable throwaway movie, and as a bonus, it had a neat cameo appearance by show-biz columnist Shirley Eder - as herself, of course. (That's Shirley, who would become a colleague and a good friend, on the right.)

Warner, meanwhile, complimented his players with a few outsiders - Stefanie Powers (on loan from Columbia), Jerry Van Dyke, child star Billy Mumy and, as the adults, Andrew Duggan, Carole Cook and the always invaluable Jack Weston, he of the inimitable lisp.

Plus one more - an adorable newcomer named Zeme North who handily walks away with the film as its so-called wallflower.  For all intents and purposes, North is the real star of "Palm Springs Weekend."  (Sorry, Connie and Stefanie.)  Warner and his director, Norman Taurog ("Room for One More"), showcased North here (even though she had co-star billing), teaming her not just with Van Dyke, but with Mumy as well.  I've no idea who came up with the idea but both Zeme North and Billy Mumy have the same hair color and haircut in "Palm Springs Weekend."

Kindred spirits, see.

For reasons that remain bizarrely evasive, "Palm Springs Weekend" was Zeme North's second and final film.

I'd like to think that she left the biz voluntarily - that perhaps she went home to Corpus Christi, Texas and opened an acting school for kids.  Based on her chemistry with Mumy, she was great with kids.

Full disclosure:  I first encountered North when I was a kid myself and she came to Philadelphia in the tryout engagements of two big Broadway musicals.  In "Take Me Along," Bob Merrill's 1959 musical version of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," North played the daughter of Walter Pidgeon and Una Merkel, the younger sister of Robert Morse and ...

The niece of Jackie Gleason.  What a cast.

A year later, she came back to Philadelphia (and to the same theater, the Shubert) as Anthony Perkins' leading lady in Frank Loesser's eagerly anticipated "Greenwillow."   It was 1960 and Perkins had just finished shooting Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."  He had not yet become an icon.

The show's director was George Roy Hill and its choreographer was the great Joe Layton. North came to it rather late in the game, having replaced the original female lead, Ellen McGowen, during the Boston tryout.  From what I've read, Hill, Layton and Loesser all liked McGowen but thought she might be the wrong age for the part.  North, who reportedly auditioned with 100 other actresses, was 10 years younger and got the role, a plum one.  But during the Philly tryout, where the reviews were less than enthusiastic, North herself was replaced.

By McGowen.

Two actresses demoralized by the process.  No one said show business was easy. Or kind.  However much this was a setback, North moved on to another musical, "Fiorello!," by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, during its Broadway run (the show was a personal triumph for its star, Tom Bosley) and, a year later, made her first movie - William Castle's 1962 comedy with Tom Poston, "Zotz!"  And then came "Palm Springs Weekend."

Too bad that Jack Warner, a smart cookie, didn't snap her up and nurture her.  I would have loved to have seen her progress on screen. Zeme North had the potential to be a terrific screwball comedienne and movie musical star. But by this time, the studio system was dying and promising talent was no longer being personally groomed for stardom by moguls.

Note in Passing: I hasten to note that "Greenwillow," a hugely underrated show and now a cult musical, featured one of Frank Loesser's grandest scores, including the huanting "Never Will I Marry" which, of course, was subsequently recorded by Barbra Streisand.