Wednesday, December 04, 2019

m. m. m.

Having interviewed an incredible number of film personalities during my years as a movie critic, I am inevitably asked who were the nicest.

Easy. Jack Lemmon comes to mind immediately, of course. After that, I surprise even myself because two encounters of which I have particularly fond memories involved John Wayne and David Niven, especially Niven.

But more about David Niven later, in another essay. Today, I'll share my John Wayne reminiscence, a situation that was unexpected and wholly memorable. It was July 1976 and Wayne was visiting Philadelphia to promote what would be his final film, Don Siegel's "The Shootist."

Paramount welcomed Wayne, celebrating his arrival by staging the event in the massive John Wanamaker department store, specifically with a luncheon in the store's glittery eighth-floor Grand Crystal Tea Room.

The place was packed, overwhelmingly so. (For a time, the Grand Crystal Tea Room was the largest dining venue in Philadelphia, accommodating sit-down receptions of up to 1,000 people.) The late Linda Goldenberg, who was the Paramount rep in Philly at the time, was in charge of seating and sat me next to Wayne, whom I had interviewed a bit earlier in a more subdued location in the store, Wanamaker's Board Room.

Hold on. Lunch with John Wayne. (Which turned out to nothing like my unfortunate encounter with Shirley MacLaine which was covered here a few essays ago.) Lunch with a mythical screen presence, a situation which made it difficult for the person sitting opposite him to be professional and controlled.

It is here that he became Marion Mitchell Morrison (his real name).

For a while, it was just the two of us sitting at the table, making largely small talk. Wayne was soft-spoken, relaxed and courtly. Uncommonly modest and deferential. An actor and man whom critic Richard Schickel once astutely described as "the unacclaimed hero." The Quiet Man.

It wasn't long before we were approached by a Wanamaker executive who I recognized as Benjamin H. Doroff, the store's Executive Vice President, who asked me to move to another chair or table so that he could sit with Wayne. Doroff was a nice man but he was getting adament. Would there be a scene? To quash that possibility, I simply referred him to the table's place cards. "Perhaps you want to check this out with Linda," I said. This is when Wayne intervened. "She's over there," he said, pointing at Linda.

After Doroff left, John Wayne patted me on my hand and said "Well done."

Other people were now sitting at our table. One woman showed up with the July issue of Cosmopolitan to have Wayne autograph one of its stories - a piece titled "Wayne, Westerns and Women" by the feminist film critic Molly Haskell.

Wayne was surprised that the piece was positive. "She likes me?," he asked of Haskell.

Before we got around to lunch, there was another autograph request - of a terrific (and, again, unexpected) 1979 Phil Stern shot of Wayne vacationing in Acalpulco, providing a side of the actor removed from The Duke and closer to Marion Mitchell Morrison. Softer.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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 ~John Wayne between interview sessions in 1976
 ~photography: Clayton Davis/Getty images1976©

 ~One of the logos for The Grand Crystal Tea Room
~poster art: Wanamaker 1976©

~A different John Wayne
~photography: Phil Stern 1959©

Monday, November 25, 2019

everybody has one

Bosley Crowther covered film for The New York Times for a whopping 27 years. My one encounter with him was in 1967, the year he retired. I was in college, reviewing for the campus newspaper, and had been invited by Paramount to a New York critics' screening of "Barefoot in the Park."

Encounter is a misleading word. We never actually met and my only recollection of the legendary critic was that he sat in the aisle in front of me, to my right, and that he could be heard ... snoring. Disillusioning.

Flashforward to 2019 and I'm watching Phil Karlson's "Kansas City Confidential," an installment of Turner Classic Movies' "Noir Alley," hosted by the utterly thorough Eddie Muller. Without missing a beat, Muller invokes the name Bosley Crowther during his post-screening discussion, referencing the critic's near-irrational pan of an otherwise solid film.

After quoting a lengthy portion of Crowther's scathing attack on Karlson and his star John Payne in particular -  with the venomous quote also superimposed as an on-screen caption (Chyron) - Muller digs into his bag of words and accurately designates Crowther a "gasbag."

At long last.

Like a certain body part, everybody has one, as the old saying goes (cleaned up here). An opinion, that is. But there are educated opinions, the kind smoothly espoused by Muller - and the kind that seem to evade most professional, working critics, represented by critics like Crowther. 

Finally, the impressively knowledegable Muller, who is nothing less than sophsticated, erudite and astute in his taste and brings panache and snap to his presentations, then flings himself into a long overdue critique of Bosley Crowther, equally scathing. Well done. There's a reason why Muller self-describes as "wordslinger, impresario and noirchaelogist."

Muller is an esoteric wordsmith, refreshingly idiosyncratic at times.

As for Crowther, in many other quarters, he was dismissed as "unnecessarily mean" and was particularly questioned about the cluelessness of his take on Arthur Penn's ”Bonnie and Clyde”and his refusal, unlike other reviewers, to re-evaluate it following the controversy of his attack. Instead, he doubled down and retired not long after that.

Yes, Eddie Muller nailed Bosley Crowther with "gasbag."

Note in Passing: Furthermore, any noir whose cast includes Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand in supporting character roles, as "Kansas City Confidential" demonstrates,  has at least three elements worth recommending. Crowther also ignored the film's contribution of leading lady Coleen Grey. Nothing on Preston Foster either. Unprofessional. 

FYI:  The 2019 Noir City 71 / 2020 Noir City Program kicks off Sunday, January 25 with screenings of Richard Fleischer's "Trapped" (1949) and Robert Siodmak's "The File on Thelma Jordan" (1950) at the Castro Theater and concludes on February 3, 2020 with Samuel Fuller's "Underworld, U.S.A." (1961) and Allen Baron's "Blast of Silence" (1961) 

The September 3rd, 1967 New York Times page containing Bosley Crowther's review of "Bonnie and Clyde"
~click on image to enlarge~

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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 ~Eddie Muller, TCM's host of "Noir Alley"
 ~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2018© 

 ~Poster art for Phil Karlson's "Kansas City Confidential"
~photography: United Artists 1952©

~N.Y. Times tear sheet containing Bosley Crowther's review of "Bonnie and Clyde"
~news page: New York Times 1967©

Thursday, November 21, 2019

the hissy fit

Those who read this site with any regularity are aware that Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 adaptation of "Gypsy" is my all-time favorite movie musical - and a favorite film in general - with much space devoted to finer points.

Case in point: A 60-plus-year hissy fit ensued when the play's star, Ethel Merman, was passed over in favor of movie icon Rosalind Russell.

This casting was - and remains - one of the more contentious aspects of the movie, haunting it ever since and prompting columnist Dorothy Kilgallen to put "Gypsy" under a microscope during its production with regular criticisms. Kilgallen even questioned the inspired decision to bring in Jack Benny for a cameo as a vaudeville comic. "Jack Benny has been hired for a role in the film of 'Gypsy,'" Kilgallen wrote. "Must be in trouble."
A year later, Merman got a consolation prize (so to speak) - and the last word - when she was hired by Stanley Kramer to play the harridan, Mrs. Marcus - mother of Dorothy Provine and Dick Shawn and mother-in-law of Milton Berle - in Kramer's 1963 "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Anyway, Jack Benny, perhaps not coincidentally, popped up for another cameo scene - which leads to a very inside joke.

Merman and company are stranded, their car having broken down, when Benny happens to drive by and asks if they're having trouble.

"NO!" screams Merman as only she could, adding ... "And we don't need any help from you!"

The scene isn't the least bit funny and seems pointless - until you think about Benny's "unclean" participation in Merman's beloved "Gypsy."

I don't know but that throwaway line, "And we don't need any help from you!," always takes on a deeper meaning for me.

Finally, it can be safely presumed, I think, that Jack Warner wasn't stupid: Like everyone else, he had seen the Merman movies, "Call Me Madam" and "There's No Business Like Show Business," and knew that she was no screen personality. Instead, he went for a world-class actress who would bring psychological depth to the character. Rosalind Russell. Terrific.

But, nevertheless, he managed to acknowledge Merman in his film of "Gypsy." It's a small tribute and it occurs in the scene in which Natalie Wood is preparing to perform as Gypsy Rose Lee for the very first time. She's backstage, in her dressing room, and thinks aloud, "I'm a pretty girl, Momma." If you pivot towards Natalie's right shoulder and look closely, you'll see a framed caricature on the wall - a caricature of ...  Could it be?

Ethel Merman!

  Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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~Jack Benny in a scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" 
~photography: United Artists 1963©

 ~Dorothy Provine and Ethel Merman in a scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
 ~photography: United Artists 1963© 

 ~Benny with Mervyn LeRoy on the set of "Gypsy"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Natalie Wood in a scene from "Gypsy"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Benny performing in "Gypsy"
~Film clip: Warner Bros. 1962©

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

cinema obscura: two robert preston gems

Following his incredible success on Broadway in "The Music Man," Robert Preston went on to give his defining performance in the 1962 film version of Meredith Willson's fabulous musical - a performance which should have earned him at the very least a shot at an Oscar nomination but didn't.

Gregory Peck won the Oscar that year for Robert Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Preston's is the better performance of the two, but really, where does one begin to compare? However, with the Willson musical, director Morton DaCosta provided Preston with an awesome second act.

Preston went on to do the incredible work in a dazzling array of films - Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play," Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough," Gene Saks' "Mame," Nick Castle's "The Last Starfighter" (his final film) and, of course, two with Blake Edwards, "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B." Then there are two titles that bookend his performance in the movie version of "The Music Man' - the film versions of two other stage productions, both films apparently now lost.

They would be "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," based on the William Inge play and shot immediately prior to "The Music Man" (and for the same studio, Warner Bros.), and Tad Mosel's "All the Way Home," adapted from James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Death in the Family."
There are those who thought that William Inge would enjoy the household-name status of Tennessee Williams, given that in the 1950s, he wrote such plays as "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and, in 1957, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," all of which were adapted into films. His 1959 play, "A Loss of Roses," became the 1963 film,”The Stripper” and he also wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), in which Inge also plays the small on-screen role of a minister who counsels Natalie Wood.

Kazan also directed the Broadway version of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," which opend at the Music Box Theatre on December 5, 1957, with a cast including of Pat Hingle (in the role that Preston would play on film), Teresa Wright and  Eileen Heckart. Once again, we have another dysfunctional family drama about a man who, in middle age and out of work, tries to compensate for a lack of self esteem by cheating on his wife with another woman in another town.

The 1960 movie version, directed by Delbert Mann from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, cast Dorothy McGuire in the part created on stage by Wright, and replaced Heckart with Eve Arden. Angela Lansbury has a supporting role in the film, and a young Shirley Knight was an Oscar nominee for her debut performance.

Preston, meanwhile, walks the tricky, balance-testing demands of a man teetering between our sympathy and disregard. He's likable but do we like him? (One could stretch this part, seeing it as a somewhat lighter variation on "The Music Man.") It's a testament to Preston's talent that he pulls it off.

"All the Way Home," meanwhile, has something of a legendary history. Based on Agee's Pulitzer Prize book, it was first adapted by Tad Mosel for the stage in 1960. It opened at the Belasco Theater on November 30th of that year, with a cast headed by Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurt and - now get this - Lillian Gish and Aline MacMahon. Actors' heaven. Arthur Penn directed.

Set in Tennessee in the early 1900's, "All the Way Home" revolves around a man's sudden, accidental death and the ramifications that it has on his family, especially his young son.

The 1963 Paramount film version, directed by Alex Segal from a Philip H. Reisman Jr. adaptation, starred Preston as the father and Jean Simmons as his wife; Pat Hingle (again) as his brother and, recreating her Broadway role, the great MacMahon as Aunt Hannah. Michael Kearney played the boy, a role performed on Broadway by John Megna, a New York child actor best known for his role on film as Dill in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Due to its narrative arc, Preston has a smaller role here, but even when he is not on screen, his presence is always felt, a crucial quality for a play/film that examines the process of mourning and the heartache that makes it almost impossible to heal. Another piece of lost filmmaking art, and yet another performance by Robert Preston, that begs to be seen.

Note in Passing: Re my earlier reference to the history of "All the Way Home," the material was filmed twice more, both times for televison - first in 1971, with Fred Coe directing Richard Kiley, Joanne Woodward and (again) Hingle from a teleplay by Mosel. The second TV version, shot in 1981 by Delbert Mann (again), stars William Hurt, Sally Field, Ned Beatty and Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah. Between Mann and Hingle, there are a lot of cross-connections shared by these two plays and films.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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~Preston with his wife Catherine Craig backstage at the Majestic Theatre where "The Music Man" had opened in 1957 
~photography: Friedman-Ables 1957© 

 ~Preston with Dorothy Maguire in a scene from Delbert Mann's film of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1960©

~Playbill from the stage version of the William Inge play, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"

~Preston with Jean Simmons and Michael Kearney in Alex Segal's "All the Way Home"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1963©

~Poster art for "All the Way Home"
~Paramount Pictures1963©

~Preston and Simmons in a scene from"All the Way Home"
~photography: Paramount Pictures1963©

Sunday, November 17, 2019

shirley maclaine, heartbreaker

I suppose that the "movie-star crush" is something of the distant past, a phenomenon of the 1950s and '60s experienced by some little boys (and a few girls) who were fated to become movie nerds in their adult lives.

Marilyn Monroe comes immediately to mind as the most popular object of affection among children back then, even if they had no appreciation of exactly why. My theory is that Marilyn came with an innate child-like quality that made her seem like a peer, despite her physically adult, womanly attributes. She was an innocent. She had no plots or designs.

A child.

But my personal crush was Shirley MacLaine. I was so enamored of her that, when I was about 11 or 12, I devoted my budding artistic skills to a little pencil caricature (see above) that, I thought, captured her appeal.

Fast forward several decades and I am a working movie critic. I spent 35 years reviewing and, occasionally, interviewing film people. Hundreds. But, somehow, never Shirley MacLaine. Never. But I finally met her in 1991 when Jack Lemmon was honored by the Hollywood Foreign Press with the Cecil B. DeMille Life Achievement Award at the Golden Globes that year. Jack and I were friends and I was invited to join in the celebration.

Connie McCauley, who served as Jack's career-long secretary and assistant and was vice president of his Jalem Productions, arranged the seating at Jack's table. Jack was with his wife Felicia Farr and, among the other guests, were Walter Matthau and his wife Carol Matthau (aka, Carol Grace and Carol Marcus and who had just written the fabulous autobiography, "Among the Porcupines"), their son Charlie Matthau and his wife Ashley and ...  Shirley MacLaine! Whom Connie sat next to me.

She appeared to be attending with either her agent or manager.

Shirley smiled and said hello - and then studied me with a steely gaze. A pause. "Didn't we work together on "Madame Sousatzka"? In retrospect, I probably should have said yes and engage her in a one-sided conversation about the 1988 John Schlesinger film. She would do all the talking and reminiscing. Opting for honesty, I said no. "I'm a friend of Jack's."
I turned to my wife Susan, who was sitting on the other side of me, planning to introduce them. When I turned back, almost a split second later, Shirley was gone. Her agent/manager was now in her seat and he sheepishly explained that Shirley needed private time to prepare her notes for the presentation. And Shirley? She was now sitting with Carol Matthau.

Oh, well. What can I say? Needless to say, it was a disappointment. Huge. Perhaps she thought that we'd have nothing to say to each other, And she probably would have been correct. Or - dare I admit it? - I simply wasn't important enough for her company. Either way, it seemed like bad form.

When Susan and I got home that night, I immediately logged on to "Madame Sousatzka" on IMDb to see what part I could have played. Had I been better versed on the film, I could have said yes to Shirley - that we did work on a couple scenes in the movie. I just needed a name. "I could have played 'Ronnie Blum'," I thought, oblivious to the fact that my decades-old crush, decidedly one-sided, was over. Goodbye, Shirley.

 Regarding Commensts: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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~Caricature of Shirley MacLaine
 ~Art work: Joe Baltake 1958©

   ~Poster art for "Madame Sousatzka"
~photography: Universal Pictures 1988©