Thursday, August 31, 2017

adventures in movie reviewing: Schatzberg's "The Seduction of Joe Tynan" (1979)

It's funny how some things stay with you. It was Thursday, August 23rd, 1979 and the call came in about three in the afternoon. I was reviewing for a Philadelphia daily and was rarely ever in the office, let alone at 3 o'clock.

I've no idea why I was there. Kismet perhaps? The call was from the projectionist at a cineplex in Marlton, New Jersey and had to do with "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," a film that I had reviewed the previous Friday.

I'm paraphrasing now but the voice on the phone said, "Joe, we have a print of 'The Seduction of Joe Tynan' that we're not supposed to have. Universal just had a replacement print delivered for the rest of the engagement. So, if you want to see this version, I suggest you get here tonight." Great. I drove there just in time for the 5 o'clock show.

The print that the theater was showing turned out to be a longer version of the film that I reviewed - a  preview print containing footage that was supposed to be excised before it reached theaters for public viewing.

"The Seduction of Joe Tynan," a political drama a la Michael Ritchie's "The Candidate" (1972), is largely a forgotten movie now and, even when it first opened, was pretty much under the radar, despite compelling credentials.

It was directed by Jerry Schatzberg, a former fashon photographer who made a huge impression with his first three films - "Puzzle of a Downfall Child," "The Panic in Needlepark" and "Scarecrow." And it was written by its title star, Alan Alda, best known as a TV actor at the time ("M*A*S*H"), who would use the opportunity to pursue a modest career directing features ("The Four Seasons," the most noteworthy, and three others).

Alda's two co-stars in the film are the irresistible Barbara Harris, who was having a brief fling with films at the time, and an intimidating newcomer named Meryl Streep, who was taking movies by storm in the late '70s.

Harris plays the devoted yet independent wife of Alda's Joe Tynan, an ickily smooth liberal Senator with Presidential ambitions, and Streep is a labor attorney with whom he starts an affair and who is also married.

Then there's Melvyn Doulgas, as an aging senator and Joe Tynan's mentor whom Tynan will invariably disappoint. Douglas played a vaguely similar role in the aforementioned "The Candidate." Anyone who saw "The Candidate" will recognize it in "The Seduction of Joe Tynan." Alan Alda demonstrates that he saw the same Robert Redford movie that we all saw.

Douglas is a vital part of the movie but, when I reviewed it on August 17th, back in 1979, his character mysteriously disappears from the narrative, a situation that was left unquestioned by movie  critics.

The mystery was solved when I saw a different version of the film - the version used for "producer's sneak" previews - for a second time a week later. Douglas disappears from the storyline because his character, distraught by the dubious actions of Tynan, commits suicide. The footage revealing this, if I recall, didn't add up to much but it definitely altered one's perception of the Tynan character who, up to that point, is all charisma and who, despite his infidelity and other shortcomings, asks us to see him as a good, sensitive man.

It's not the first or last time that a character was rehabilitated in the editing room. Ever since its release in 1984, rumors have swirled around Jonathan Demme's "Swing Shift" - that producer-star Goldie Hawn had the film re-edited to make her character less unappealing. Hawn plays a woman in the film who cheats on her seabee husband (Ed Harris) while he is off fighting World War II. Writer Nancy Dowd took her name off the film.

But back to Alan Alda and "Joe Tynan"... Two years later, I interviewed Alda over breakfast at the Bellvue-Stratford. He was doing publicity for "The Four Seasons," which he wrote and directed and also stars in.

It was an affable interview; Alda was charming and responsive. I brought up "Joe Tynan," with the intention of complementing Alda for creating a character with a negative side. But when I mentioned that I had seen an early version of the film that included the suicide, he turned pale and the smile left his face. "No one was supposed to see that," he said.

Our interview continued, although he now seemed distracted. In my head, I saw Alan Alda making a call to Universal afterwards.  Just a guess.

~images~

~Meryl Streep and Alan Alda in a scene from "The Seduction of Joe Tynan"
~Alda with Melvyn Douglas in a scene from the film 
~photography: Universal 1979©

Saturday, August 26, 2017

indelible moment: "The Notorious Landlady"

"Some Like It Hot" (1959) is probably the one comedy classic for which Jack Lemmon is best remembered. It was directed by one of his mentors, Billy Wilder, and it predictably tops every Best Comedies film list.

But Jack had another collaborator for whom he starred in comedies that were equally great (and undeservedly neglected) - Richard Quine.

Together, at their home base at Columbia, they made the superior musical "My Sister Eileen" (1955), the scrappy service farce "Operation Mad Ball" (1957), the bewitching "Bell, Book and Candle" (1958), the it-gets-better-with-age "It Happened to Jane" (1959) and especially the sophisticated "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), a playful, clever take on Hitchcock.

"The Notorious Landlady" is my preferred Lemmon movie (hands-down) and one of my favorite films in general. Its titanic supporting structure is, of course, its sceenplay - an incredibly literate affair penned by no less than Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart, by way of British nutneggy Margery Sharp, who wrote the short story (originally published in the Saturday Even Post as "The Notorious Tenant") on which the script is based.

Quine's direction here is his most assured as he blends subtle comedy, snappy repartee and Hitchcock quotes with incredible, impressive ease.

One memorable scene follows another, the highlight of which is a comic chase staged at Penzance, the location of an elderly residence whose tenants are enjoying an open-air concert atop the forbidding cliffs.

Here is Jack in a selection of shots bounding through the air in the film's climatic and wonderful chase sequence, which Quine and composer George Duning set to selections from - what else? -  "The Pirates of Penzance" and other Gilbert and Sullivan goodies. "Take me back before I miss "The Mikado!," the wheelchair-bound Estelle Winwood snaps at her nefarious caregiver, Phileppa Bevans, before Winwood is pushed down a rocky hill.  The scene makes me want to jump, tumble and fly, too. Enjoy!
The End.
  
Note in Passing: Richard Quine directed Jack Lemmon's screen test when Jack was hired by Columbia and put under contract by Harry Cohn and, along with Wilder, Quine was a Best Man at Jack's wedding to Felicia Farr in Paris in 1962, the year "The Notorious Landlady" was released. Kim Novak, Jack's co-star in "The Notorious Landlady" and Quine's muse, also attended the wedding. Wilder and Lemmon were in Paris at the time, with Shirley MacLaine, filming exteriors for "Irma La Douce" (1963).

~images~
~Jack Be Nimble - Lemmon doing his own stunt work in "The Notorious Landlady"
~photography: Columbia Pictures, 1962©

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

virtuoso

Jerry Lewis 
1926-2017

People who are blissfully uninformed like to equate film criticism with movie snobbery. But I know precious few critics who are film snobs.

Quite the contrary, most movie critics are adventurous, with a need to see and understand anything filmic. On the other hand, it's your average moviegoers who are picky about what they see and what they like:

The latest comic-book franchise? "Do you even have to ask? I'm in!" A movie musical? "Are you kidding? I'm not gay!" A serious drama? "Sounds like a downer!" A "chick flick" (awful expression)? "Give me a break!"

And even worse is Hollywood, which likes to complain about movie critics and how they are sadly "out of touch" with the modern movie audience.

Hollywood produces disposable junk ten months out of the year and then, suddenly in November, wills itself into the big-screen Masterpiece Theater, producing films made to win awards exclusively (thereby making itself look legit) and, if enough average moviegoers can be convinced to see them, make a bit of money. By the time the summer movie season rolls around, no one remembers the tiles of these films. "Moonlight," anyone?

At awards time, Hollywood becomes even more self-conscious: The popular moneymakers are ostracized and faux art is rewarded. Also forgotten are the veterans who kept the ungrateful studios afloat. Doris Day, although nominated for an Oscar one time (for "Pillow Talk") has never been given a Lifetime Achievement Award (I can hear a few uninformed moviegoers giggling as I write this) by the same Academy that found the time to honor Peter O'Toole, an example of snobbery unbridled.

And then there's Jerry Lewis, arguably film's most polarizing figure but undeniably a comic artist who mastered performance, narrative and technology unlike anyone else in movie history - an actor-filmmaker on par with Chaplin and Welles and (dare I say it?) perhaps superior to them both. Arguably.

On the downside, he also influenced a lot of inferior-to-dubious film comics who appropriated from him without fully understanding what they were appropriating. Either way, for better or worse, he was influential. I've learned the hard way not to discuss Jerry Lewis with someone who thinks he/she has exquisite good taste and that Lewis just doesn't fit in.

Again, even worse is Hollywood. No Lifetime Achievement award for Jerry Lewis in his lifetime. The best that the club could do was give him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2009 when he was 83 - not for his work as a filmmaker but for his charitable activities. "Charitable." Ironic, isn't it?

I suppose, at this point, that I should go into Lewis' life, career and amazing achievements but I'd rather point you in the direction of two friends who have done jaw-droppingly thorough jobs explaining what made Jerry Lewis great - the obits/appreciations written by Dave Kehr for The New York Times and Carrie Rickey for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Yes, two movie critics - well, make that former movie critics - and two of the best. Dave and Carrie have always been open-minded about film and bracingly unpredictable in their tastes. And there's no hint of snobbery.

I think Jerry Lewis would approve.


~images~
(from top)

~Jerry Lewis' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
on the North side of the 6800 block of Hollywood Boulevard  
~installed in 2010

~Lewis in his prime in the 1960s
~photography: Kobal/REX/Shutterstock©

~Lewis in an atypically reflective pose
~photography: John Springer Collection/Corbis via Getty Images©

Monday, August 21, 2017

fake facts

I'm a sucker for Turner Classic Movies. It's become the filmic equivalent of White Noise in our home, always on. And, sometimes, I get to sit down and watch a movie (always when Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" or Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" is aired). Its programming is beyond reproach.

What's become enervating, however, are the introductions and banter that provide misinformation. I've developed a penchant here for quibbling about them - a habit picked up, no doubt, from decades as a critic.

Too often opinions and gossip are presented as facts - and likely to be accepted as facts by the blindly loyal film buffs who make up TCM's core audience. I mean, if a filmmaker of some stature states a "fact" about a film during an on-air chat, that filmmaker surely knows what he/she is talking about, right? Well, not really. Often, it's just another opinion.

And opinions are like you-know-what: Everyone has one.

Also, an opinion posing as a fact is something easily researched - and invalidated - these days. It's foolhardy to pass one off as a fact.

The internet, you know.

The latest case in point is Saturday's segment of The Essentials, which included conversations between host Alec Baldwin and filmmaker William Friedkin prior to and following a screening of "The Manchurian Candidate."

Friedkin, of course, was one of the young filmmakers who, back in the 1970s, ushered in the New Wave in American filmmaking, along with Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian DePalma, Paul Mazursky, Bob Rafelson and Hal Ashby. Back in the day, in the space of three years, William Friedkin directed "The Night They Raided Minsky's," "The Boys in the Band" and "The French Connection." Then came "The Exorcist."

His satisfying second act has included excellent films based on two Tracy Letts' plays - "Bug" and "Killer Joe." That aside, Friedkin was on The Essentials because he is an enthusiastic fan of "The Manchurian Candidate" in general and its director, John Frankenheimer, in particular. He has referred to Frankenheimer as "my idol," as well as "the most important" and "the most innovative" filmmaker, admiring the documentary feel the director brought to his work, particularly "The Manchurian Candidate."

Friedkin's comments are documented on the "A Little Solitaire" featurette on the "Candidate" DVD, an extra produced and directed by Michael Arick and edited by Glenn Erickson, author of the invaluable DVD Savant site.

Much of what Friedkin says on "A Little Solitaire" he repeated on The Essentials. But, at one point, he went off script. This was the jaw-dropping moment when Friedkin casually debunked the fact that "The Manchurian Candidate" was taken out of circulation a few years after its 1962 debut and made unavailable for decades for either theatrical or TV screenings. Never happened, he flatly stated. And he spoke with utmost authority. 

His logic?

Well, Friedkin pointed out that all films that were two or three years old at that time routinely had limited or no showings in theaters or on TV after their first-run engagements, not just "The Manchurian Candidate."

Not really. It's true that the three major TV networks and local stations discontinued telecasting feature films during the late 1970s - although "The Manchurian Candidate" did have one screening on NBC before its suppression and before commercial TV stopped airing movies regularly.

But, by then, cable had picked up the slack, airing films 24/7.

And it's true that second-runs and return engagements in mainstream movie theaters had become a thing of the past, but the other films that Friedkin claimed were never seen again in theaters actually found a second life in rep houses and on cable and home entertainment.

John Frankenheimer, for example, made two other films in 1962 in addition to "Candidate" - "All Fall Down" and "Birdman of Alcatraz," both of which were readily available either on cable or home entertainment and, in the case of "Birdman," in art houses. But not "The Manchurian Candidate."

It was simply ... gone.

OK, now for the facts...

The history of "The Manchurian Candidate" is as twisted, twisty and fascinating as its plot, which deals with elaborate brainwashing and a planned political assassination. It was Frank Sinatra, one of the film's stars and its executive producer, who posed the idea to United Artists head Arthur Krim to film Richard Condon's book. Krim was the finance chairman of the Democratic Party in those days and the material scared him.

But a call from Sinatra's friend, John F. Kennedy, sealed the deal.

The film was made in 1961 and released in '62 - and a year later, in 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated.  And Sinatra, who owned both "The Manchurian Candidate" and "Suddenly" (a 1954 film also about a planned political assassination), reportedly became disturbed by how life had suddenly imitated art. And so, the two films disappeared. In tandem.

The film's screenwriter George Axelrod, interviewed by the Washington Post, confirmed that Sinatra felt that "having assassination pictures floating around (in this climate) seemed to be in grotesque bad taste."

The suppression of "The Manchurian Candidate" didn't come overnight but in stages. First, all 35mm theatrical prints were removed from circulation.  There would be no more showings in movie theaters. Then, the television versions, both complete and edited, were deleted from United Artists' syndication package.  The film was available for a while in 16mm for non-theatrical rental (for showings on college campuses and the such) but those prints eventually were deleted from U.A.'s programming guide.

The decades-long absence of "The Manchurian Candidate" was the result of a very methodical process, as various studio departments got the word.

Films are suppressed for any number of reasons, most usually personal, and they can be placed in limbo by either the studio that made and released them or, in rare cases, by their filmmakers/owners. Both Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, for example, owned most of their films. In the case of "The Manchurian Candidate," it was owned by Sinatra, plain and simple. And if one goes on the internet to do research - or, the old-fashioned way, to a library - one will find reports that point to Sinatra.

So, the popular explanation is that "The Manchurian Candidate" was pulled by Frank Sinatra, its executive producer, for politically correct reasons.

Sounds good. The stuff of excellent press.

But a second reason has also been advanced - that "The Manchurian Candidate" (along with other titles) disappeared because of a financial dispute involving discrepancies and disagreements about profits between the film's producers and United Artists. This is the version that John Frankenheimer himself had often corroborated in interviews.

Whatever the story, the movie was indeed unavailable for years.

It wasn't until home entertainment created a new market for films that the financial issues were finally resolved and "The Manchurian Candidate" was - ta-da! - suddenly released from limbo and free to be seen again.

But, first, a Big Comeback... Prior to its release on VHS, "The Manchurian Candidate" was screened at the 1987 New York Film Festival, with the spin being that the festival's selection committee had successfully coaxed Sinatra to comply. But it was all part of the planned re-release.

"The Manchurian Candidate" was restored for the occasion and became the hit of the festival. It eventually had a limited release in select theaters (read: art houses) in May of 1988 and was reviewed anew by critics.

The subsequent home entertainment included a seven-minute taped interview (produced by David Fein and Eytan Kella) with Frankenheimer, Axelrod and Sinatra discussing the making and controversy of "The Manchurian Candidate" - everything, but nothing about its disappearance. 

Note in Passing: During his chat with Friedkin, Baldwin elicited surprise that the screenplay for the film was penned by Axelrod, a writer who was noted for light comedies ("The Seven Year Itch," "Phffft!" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's"). No surprise, Friedkin responded, because in his view, "The Manchurian Candidate" is a satire. Huh? True, there are a few humorous moments in "The Manchurian Candidate" but these largely revolve around the broad performance of James Gregory as a buffoonish (but decidedly dangerous) Senator with serious pretensions of becoming President.

Still, calling "The Manchurian Candidate" a satire is a bit of a stretch. John Frankenheimer's film has always worked as a compelling and often harrowing experience - even more so these days when its once-outrageous premise seems downright prescient. Now, Jonathan Demme's wildly misguided 2004 remake of the material, that's a funny film.

~image~

~John Frankenheimer rehearses a scene with Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey on the set of "The Manchurian Candidate" 
~United Artists 1962 ©

Thursday, August 17, 2017

cinema obscura: Costa-Gavras' "Betrayed" (1988), unfortunately it's time has come

Given that racism and racists in this country have been emboldened in the past few days, it seems an apt time to revisit a Costa-Gavras cautionary tale of real-life horror. "Betrayed," made nearly 20 years ago, deals head-on with the white supremacist movement but at the time of its release, the neo-Nazis of the film seemed like a distant fringe group, whose activities were far, far away from your local cineplex - not so uncomfortably close.

The screenplay was written by Joe Eszterhas, who was hot at the time (the era's Aaron Sorkin), specializing in heavy-handed incendiary topics, and who perhaps was prematurely dismissed by easily annoyed movie critics.

Eszterhas, to his credit, knew how to take what might be unsettling and even perverse on paper and turn it into material for a popular movie. And he usually placed a woman - his heroine - in a situation that in earlier movies was for-men-only. (Back in the day, Eszterhas was labeled a sexist, but from the current vantage point, he really wasn't.) In this case, the game Debra Winger plays an FBI agent named Cathy who changes her name to Katie when she goes undercover to entrap a supremacist-farmer named Gary, played by an equally game, eerily effective Tom Berenger.

To accomplish this, Cathy ingratiates her with Gary with the idea of starting a faux romance. She lets him conveniently pick her up in a rural bar, gets to know his children and his mother and pretty much becomes a fixture in his life, initially much to her displeasure. Gary has a penchant for making such comments as ''We have to return America to real Americans'' (sound familiar?), while another hate-monger declares that "people should be able say what they want, regardless of how ugly it may be.''

The shrewd Eszterhas then does something jaw-dropping: He has Cathy actually fall for Gary, in spite of herself and in spite of his hateful behavior. By now, he has an emotional grip on her that she hardly expected.

Cathy is understandably conflicted, inspiring the ever-resourceful Winger to turn in another masterful performance of quiet intelligence.

At the time, I remember her (and Berenger) being better than the film itself. But with the passing of time, perhaps we've caught up, however grudgingly, with the film's relentless creepiness. Certainly, Costa-Gavras doesn't hesitate to "showcase" (for lack of a better word) the obscene viciousness of Gary and his all-white, all-male friends, his "buddies," who casually praise Nazis while reviling Jews, Blacks and homosexuals.

No, the filmmaker doesn't hedge. Back in '88, he and Eszterhas were accused of lacking subtlety, of rubbing our faces in the ugliness. Which seems pathetically naive these days. I've no idea who now owns "Betrayed," which was made by United Artists, but some resourceful art-house programmer or DVD decision-maker should do something with it.

Like right now.

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies will screen the ever prescient "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) - produced by Frank Sinatra, directed by John Frankenheimer and penned by George Axelrod - tomorrow night (Saturday, August 19th) @ 8 (est).  A must watch.

~images~

~the original poster art for "Betrayed"
~Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1988 © 

~a scene from "Betrayed"
~Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1988 © 
 

Saturday, August 12, 2017

not a major motion picture!

Once upon a time, in a place now far, far away, the major movie studios would aggressively bid for the rights to a best-selling book or a hit Broadway play, hauling out the ubiquitous and over-heated advertising slogan, "Now a major motion picture!," for the finished product.

But with the advent of CGI, the Marvel/D.C. Comics franchises and saturation booking, Hollywood no longer cares about the prestige of filming a play or book. Strike that. If it's a book pitched to Young Adult readers or a crime thriller, it's chances of becoming a movie are actually very good.

But Broadway plays and musicals are another matter. Quick!  Name the last major movie you saw that was based on a Broadway play. Time's up! I could remember only David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole," Yasmina Reza's "Carnage" (né "God of Carnage") and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," and none of these is very recent. More to the point, although all three were very good, not one was much of a success on screen.

Broadway musicals have it much worse, given that Hollywood has been willfully ignoring them for several decades now. The last great run of filmed stage musicals came between 1955 and 1965.  These were movies based on must-see shows that flourished in New York from the late 1940s through the 1950s, arguably the peak of the "musical comedy" form.

"The Pajama Game," "Carousel," "Damn Yankees," "The King and I," "Bells Are Ringing," "Oklahoma!," "Li'l Abner," "Flower Drum Song," "Pal Joey," "South Pacific," "Hit the Deck," "The Music Man," "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings," "Gypsy," "Bye Bye Birdie,""Porgy and Bess,"  "Funny Face," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," "Can-Can" and "My Fair Lady" all made it to the screen during the aforementioned ten-year span. And, of course, there were "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music." Neither one could accurately be called a "musical comedy" - both are way too serious in intent - but, in tandem with "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady," they are representative of what is inarguably the richest period for stage-to-film transferals.

At one time, the "film version" of a stage musical was a validation of the show in question, much to the chagrin of Broadway types who would invariably complain about the "bastardization" of one of their own by crass Hollywood. Now they can complain - and with good reason - about the studios' utter lack of interest. In other works, with theater people, "(You're damned it you do and you're damned if you don't."

And I'm sure exacerbating matters is the fact that certain bona fide hit musicals somehow fell through the cracks, never making it to the screen and, thereby, also inciting the Broadway community. Case in point: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, films of their musicals were all major releases but, hey, where are "Allegro," "Pipe Dream" and "Me and Juliet"?  Seems that not all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were worth filming.

During the period when "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and "Bye Bye Birdie" were all Broadway hits, there were titles that were equally successful, popular with both critics and theatergoers but that are now forgotten, largely because there was no drive to commit the to film. In recent years, there have been rumors of remakes of "Carousel" (with Hugh Jackman), "Gypsy" (with Barbra Streisand in charge), "My Fair Lady" (with an Emma Thompson rewrite) and even "Oliver!" But why rehash material that's been done, while worthy shows from the distant past continue to be ignored?

Like these:
"Take Me Along," produced in 1959 by David Merrick and directed by Peter Glenville, comes immediately to mind. A musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" (with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), it starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pigeon, Eileen Herlie, Una Merkle, Robert Morse, Zeme North, Susan Lockey and Arlene Golonka. It was a monster hit in its time, along the lines of the current Bette Midler/"Hello, Dolly!" revival.

There's something of a crazy folk legend attached to the show:  Broadway musicals were so hot in the late '50s that Gleason wanted to be in one - and he was perfectly cast here as Uncle Sid, an incorrigible charmer. But, once the show opened, Gleason got bored with it and started calling in sick. He also wanted to annoy the combative Merrick.

But Merrick didn't bite.  He didn't care because he had apparently taken out an insurance policy, so he got paid every time Gleason didn't work. This never made any sense to me - it could have been a P.R. stunt - but it was rich fodder for the gossip columns at the time (think Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell).

Once Gleason got wind of this, presto! He was back on the job with regularity.

Bob Merrill's hummable title song was extremely popular (again, much like the song "Hello, Dolly!") but the pick of the score for me is the haunting "Staying Young" and Pigeon's soulful rendition of it. This is one show should have been a movie.It's a natural.

It should be noted here that, years before, MGM filmed its own musical version of "Ah, Wilderness" - the 1948 "Summer Holiday," directed by Rouben Mamoulian and with original songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. Mickey Rooney starred in the role played in "Take Me Along" by Robert Morse, Walter Huston (in the Walter Pidgeon role) as his father and Frank Morgan as the affable drunk, Uncle Sid.

"The Most Happy Fella," a major hit in 1956, was also composer Frank Loesser's most ambitious undertaking - a three-act musical adaptation of the Sidney Howard play, "They Knew What They Wanted," about the "love affair" between a middle-aged Italian immigrant, who operates a vineyard in Napa, and a younger woman who has agreed to be his mail-order bride (even though she is eventually sexually attracted to the vineyard's young foreman).

The material is highly cinematic and screamed to be filmed.

 Loesser came up with a commanding hybrid here - a musical comedy with the contours of an opera. There are about 40 songs in the show, not including the overture, the two entre'acts and a few reprises.  It took four years for Loesser to complete.  He not only composed all the songs but he also wrote the script, a huge undertaking which involved omitting the political, labor, and religious material originally in Howard's play. Joseph Anthony directed the production, which was so intimidating that Columbia released two original cast albums of the show's score - one a three-record set that included the entire libretto and one a single recording of selected songs.


And then there's the marvelous "Fiorello," which was staged in 1959 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its authors - Jerome Weidman and George Abbot (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). It won the Pulitzer but was never filmed.  It opened the same year as "Gypsy" and was just as popular - and yet it has never been filmed. There was such excitement about this show that Capitol recorded the cast album six days after "Fiorello" opened.

And yet is was never filmed. 

Directed by Abbott (with choreography by Peter Gennaro), "Fiorello" introduced Tom Bosley as the legendary New York City major Fiorello H. LaGuardia, a reform Republican who challenged the Tammany Hall political machine.

The show was a personal hit for Bosley who quickly moved on to do films ("The World of Henry Orient," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "Divorce American Style") and, of course, television ("Happy Days").

There have been occasional revivals of "Fiorello" since its Broadway opening, most notably one for the Reprise! productions in 1999 that starred Tony Danza, which had a limited run but which Danza took to the Freud Playhouse in Los Angeles for a longer engagement.



Also, it was rumored that prior to his death in 1973, singer Bobby Darin expressed a desire to produce and star in a film version of "Fiorello," that it was a dream project for him. And he would have been great in the role.

But ... it was never filmed.

There have been other Broadway musicals that, although not filmed, came very close to being movies. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the musical of "Zorba," with the star of the original non-musical film, Anthony Quinn, that they took out one of those "production about to begin" ads in Variety. John Travolta was listed in the ad as Quinn's co-star, presumably in the role Alan Bates played on film.

The idea ended with that Variety ad.

And getting back to David Merrick, in the early 1970s, he decided to expand his horizons and produce movies.  His first was Sidney Lumet's 1972 film version of the Robert Marasco play "Child's Play" that he had produced on Broadway two years earlier.  The stars were James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges (in the roles created on stage by Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle and Ken Howard). His next planned film was of another one of his stage hits, the Burt Bacarach-Hal David musical, "Promises, Promises," with a Neil Simon script based on Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

Merrick wanted a potentially well-cast Bridges for the role played on stage by Jerry Orbach (by way of Jack Lemmon), but decided to "temporarily" place "Promises, Promises" aside for something way bigger - the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version of "The Great Gatsby."  Merrick produced two more films, both with Burt Reynolds" - "Semi-Tough" and "Rough Cut" - but never returned to "Promises, Promises" and Beau Bridges.

Another musical with a Neil Simon script, "They're Playing Our Song" (with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager), was also momentarily considered for the movies - with Gilda Radner and Bill Murray (more good casting) in the roles played by Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein.

Again, it never happened.

 

Much more compelling was Twentieth Century-Fox's plans to film Stephen Sondheim's iconic "Follies" with a dream cast - Doris Day in the role created on stage by Alexis Smith and Debbie Reynolds in the Dorothy Collins part. The idea was referenced in a gossip column - where else? - but nothing came of it.  Too good to be true. Another missed opportunity, an unfortunate one.

Finally, there's the case of "She Loves Me," another Harnick-Bock musical that opened on Broadway in 1963 as an era was coming to a close.  This irrisistible musical confection was one of many adaptations of a Hungarian play titled "Parfumerie," by Miklós László. It was predated by the films "The Shop Around the Corner" (a straight comedy by Ernst Lubitsch) and "In the Good Old Summer Time" (also a musical by Robert Z. Leonard) and succeeded by "You've Got Mail" (another straight comedy by Nora Ephron).
"She Loves Me" was directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Carol Haney and its cast was led by Barbara Cook (a few years after she played Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man") and Daniel Massey, son of Raymond and anticipated at the time as the next big thing (given his role as Noël Coward opposite  Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in "Star!").

And in support ... Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy.

Enter Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews who wanted to film "She Loves Me" in the early 1980s, after having scored a big success with "Victor/Victoria."

Andrews was perfect for the Cook role and the plan was for it to be an MGM film, which makes sense as Metro always fancied itself the movie-musical factory and that's where both "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summer Time" were made.

Again, never made.

But in 2016, the Roundabout Theater Company staged an excellent revival starring the fabulous Laura Benanti and which, according to Wikipedia, was presented via BroadwayHD live stream on June 30, 2016, marking the first time a Broadway show had ever been broadcast live. The same performance was screened in movie theaters on December 1, 2016.

Notes in Passing: Recently, there have been shows that finally made it to the screen after a long delay (and long after fans had given up hope) - "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dreamgirls," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Into the Woods" and "Les Misérables."  And there are four that became movies in a more timely manner - "Mamma Mia!," "Hairspray," "The Producers" and "Rent," although the latter two tanked on screen big time which seems odd, given that each had a huge, loyal Broadway fan base. Which didn't turn out for either one.  Go figure.

In his posted response, Kevin Deany reminded me of the stage musical version of "La Cage aux Folles," jogging my memory.  The late Allan Carr ("Grease") had wanted to film it with Jack Lemmon in the role of Albin and Frank Sinatra as Renato.  When Frank decided to stay retired from acting, Tony Curtis's name was mentioned as a possible co-star with Lemmon.

Another missed opportunity.

As for the future of stage musicals on screen, Universal already owns the rights to the popular "Wicked" and Trey Parker and Matt Stone plan to produce their own film version of their hit musical, "The Book of Mormon."

And is there any doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" will be filmed?

* * * * * 
~images / from top~ 
 
~Poster art for "Mister Roberts" and "Gypsy"

~Poster art for "Take Me Along" and Jackie Gleason in a scene from the production

~Poster art for "The Most Happy Fella" and Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan in a scene from the productiion

 ~Poster art for "Fiorello" and Tom Bosley as the title character, and Tony Danza, and Bobby Darin, both with "Fiorello" connections

 ~Beau Bridges, on the set of "The Landlord," was considered for a planned film version of "Promises, Promises"

 ~Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at a studio event in the 1950s; they were once considered for a film version of "Follies"

 ~Time magazine cover of Alexis Smith in "Follies"

 ~Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey in a scene from the original production of "She Loves Me" and the cover art for the cast album of the show

 ~Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews; they never got to film "She Loves Me"

 ~Laura Benanti in the 2016 revival of "She Loves Me"
 ~photography: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times 2016 ©

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

indelible moment: DaCosta's "Auntie Mame"

That incorrigible Liberal, Mame Dennis, trapped by arch Conservatives (and close talkers) Doris and Claude Upson who threaten to turn her beloved nephew Patrick into "an Aryan from Darien"

For my money, there are any number of memorable moments in Morton DaCosta's hugely entertaining film of his Broadway hit, "Auntie Mame."

Armed with a terrific script by Betty Comdon and Adolph Green (working from the stage original by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee) and abetted by his Broadway star, Rosalind Russell (plus the divine Coral Browne), DaCosta breezily swept his audience from one richly comic scene to another. There are umpteen of them in "Auntie Mame" and singling out one is near-impossible, but my hands-down favorite arrives late in the film when Russell's Mame Dennis pays a visit to her nephew Patrick's future in-laws, Claude and Doris Upson, at their Colonial-style manse in Mountebank (their signpost reads "Upson Downs"), described as being "right above Darien and completely exclusive and restricted."

"Exclusive to what and restricted to whom?," asks an annoyed, impatient Mame. Mame Dennis, you see, has zero tolerance of intolerance.

Claude and Doris, played to the hilt by Willard Waterman and Lee Patrick, are Conservative to the max, terribly unctuous and given to talking up close. Mame, on the other hand, is a Liberal and decidedly a provocateur.

The Upsons' flagstone patio is decorated to reflect "authentic Colonial Americana" (Doris' words), replete with assorted chachkes and a spinning wheel. (Robert Hanley and George James Hopkins collaborated on the witty set decorations for the film.) While plying Mame with "daiquiris made with honey" and canapes made of "strained tuna fish, clam juice and peanut butter" (a recipe from the Ladies Home Journal), the Upsons announce that they plan for Mame to go in with them and buy the adjoining property as a wedding gift for Patrick and their daughter, Gloria.

The phonograph in the background is playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," as Claude shakes his daiquiri mixture in time to the rhythm.

"But we have to move fast," Claude intones. "Some people are bidding on that property. The wrong kind. Fella named Epstein. A-bra-ham Epstein."

"This section is restricted only to our property line," Doris adds. "So we feel we have an obligation to make sure that - well - you know."

Exactly how Mame upends the Upsons' plans provides the film with the perfect punchline/comeuppance - and me with an indelible moment.

Made more than five decades ago, DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" remains a bracing, ever-modern cheer for the left that the right can
enjoy. 

~image~

~Lee Patrick, Rosalind Russell and Willard Waterman in a scene from "Auntie Mame"
~Warner Bros. 1958 © 

Friday, August 04, 2017

marilyn and the bullies

In my hazy dreams, I see Marilyn Monroe playing Mrs. Robinson to Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock. 
 That's if she had survived, of course.

Tomorrow - August 5th - is the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death.  She passed 55 years ago when she was 36. Fifty-five years. Unbelievable.

When I contemplate people who are no longer with us, I generally think of all the events in life that they've missed. For example, critic Pauline Kael. She died in 2001. I wonder what she'd make of the movies since then.

But in Marilyn's case, I think of what we've missed. I fantasize about all the possible roles she could have played if she survived into middle and old age - and the new breed of filmmakers with whom she might have worked. She would be 91, but a couple decades earlier, I'd like to think that such directors as Robert Altman, Bob Fosse, Mike Nichols, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen would have all wanted to work with her, even in spite of her well-publicized issues and insecurities.

Mike Nichols originally wanted a veteran movie star for the role of Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" (1967) and his first choice was Doris Day. A missed opportunity when Day turned down the role. In my dreams, I see Monroe seducing Dustin Hoffman in that film. And a year earlier, and deglamorized for the occasion, she would have made a compelling Martha in Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Other characters and movies cloud my dreams:
  • Marilyn in the Ellen Burstyn role in Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show."
  • Marilyn working with John Cassavetes on "A Woman Under the Influence."
  • Marilyn as Lady Pearl in Altman's "Nashville." 
  • Marilyn singing Sondheim in Harold Prince's "A Little Night Music." 
  • Marilyn making her foreign-film debut in François Truffaut's "The Last Metro."
  •  And, finally winding down before retirement, Marilyn in the Jessica Tandy roles in "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Fried Green Tomatoes."
  • One more: Think of her trademark whisper if Steven Spielberg used her as the voice of the title alien in "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestial." I could well imagine that. Hey, a guy can dream.
My fascination with Monroe clearly dates back to my childhood. As a kid, she was my first movie-star crush. I was not alone. I remember other kids in my neighborhood - little girls, as well as little boys - who were crazy for her. My theory is that we all sensed a kindred spirit in her.

While Monroe was viewed by adults largely as a brazen sex symbol, children responded, perhaps only subconsciously, to her undeniable child-like quality. True, she was a grown woman, hugely attractive to men, but we all sensed that, somehow, she was also one of us, another kid.

And, as her career progressed, there was something else that made her affecting. It was the irony that she remained an underdog even as her importance soared. She had become a major star but that didn't stop her studio from exploiting and bullying her. Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that groomed her for stardom, clearly underestimated Monroe. She was no longer the silly dumb blonde who Darryl F. Zanuck had signed. Frankly, she probably never was. She had opinions. And that was unacceptable.

Of all the roles that Monroe played, I've a hunch that the character closest to her own personality is Vicky Parker from Walter Lang's "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954). Vicky, whose voluptuous good looks and overall blondness camouflage her drive and ambition, has pretensions of being a major star - and nothing and nobody will stop her. She goes after what she wants and becomes a star - and she makes enemies.

There was no way that Monroe would have had the clout to move on to such films as Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop" (1956) and John Huston's "The Misfits" (1961) if she continued to "know her place."

She took a break from Fox and all the rampant bullying and went East to New York, where she fell in with ... more parasitic bullies. While they may have considered themselves less vulgar than Hollywood denizens, the New York elite who befriended Marilyn - her Actor's Studio mentor Lee Strasberg, her personal acting coach Paula Strasberg, photographer Milton Green and husband Arthur Miller - could also be called out for exploiting her (but in an altogether different way).

The bullying hasn't ceased. Even 55 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe remains the subject of adulation, as well as exploitation and criticism.

For TCM's recent screening of Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959) - the July 29th edition of The Essentials - host Alec Baldwin and his guest Tina Fey engaged in the usual Monroe negativity. A huge disappointment.

Baldwin commented (rather gratuitously) that he never found Monroe attractive. I smiled and thought to myself, "I think the feeling would be mutual, Alec." Fey was a tad more generous, I guess, when she commented that, over the years, she's "warmed up" to Monroe.

When they inevitably brought up Monroe's reputation for being disruptive and troublesome on movie sets, my jaw dropped. Really? I squirmed for Alec Baldwin, the last person who should toss a stone in that direction.

OK, full disclosure: Baldwin is a terrific, versatile actor and Fey has a brilliant mind and winning personality. I like and admire them both. But in another 55 years, as the Monroe obsession continues, they'll be footnotes.

Note in Passing: "Sleep well, sweet girl. You have left more of a legacy than most, if all you ever left was a handful of photographs of one of the loveliest women who ever walked the earth."
 -columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, August 1962. 
This group shot of young starlets new to Hollywood, taken for an issue of Life magazine, illustrates what made Monroe so special. In a picture involving seven other actress, the camera and our eyes are drawn instinctively to her.
*  *  *  *  *
~additional images~
(middle)

~Marilyn as the not-so-dumb Lorelie Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
~Twentieth Century-Fox 1953 ©

~Marilyn reading! 
~photography: Bert Stern 1954 ©

~Marilyn with co-stars Mitzi Gaynor (left) and Ethel Merman on the set of "There's No Business Like Show Business"
~Twentieth Century-Fox 1954 ©