Tuesday, March 12, 2019

cinema obscura: Lamont Johnson's "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (1981)

"Scarily brilliant."

That's how Pauline Kael described Amanda Plummer in her screen debut in Lamont Johnson's wonderful "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" in 1981.

That was enough to whet the appetites of all cinéphiles - and, apparently, enough also to end Plummer's promising film career. "Scarily brilliant" is not exactly what American movie studios - or American audiences - expect or seek from film actresses. In Europe perhaps, but certinly not America.

Which may explain why Plummer's presence on screen since '81 has been sporadic and rare. Our loss, indeed. I would have gone with "sublime."

"Cattle Annie and Little Britches," an eccentric little Western, fit Plummer's odd persona like a glove. It's a true-life, saddle-soap saga about two teenagers, 19th-century variety, in thrall of outlaws and anarchy. Its source material was David Ward's 1977 novel of the same title. Ward collaborated with  David Eyre on the screenplay.

The girl's obsession with - and stalking of - the notorious Doolin-Dalton gang is vaguely reminiscent of another film about willful teenage girls in pursuit of an evasive, forbidden fantasy.

Johnson's film is essentially "The World of Henry Orient," only with horses - and with its own brand of idiocyncrasy. And it's irresistible.

Plummer plays Annie and Diane Lane is Jenny, who is dubbed "Little Britches" by Bill Doolin, himself - played by Burt Lancaster, himself.

In what is clearly a teenage girl's wet dream, sagebrush-style, Cattle Annie and Little Britches play a crucial role in helping the notorious Doolin-Dalton gang save Bill from jail time before being sent off to a reformatory themselves.

The supporting cast includes Rod Steiger, John Savage and, of course, Scott Glenn, but the real driving force here is director Lamont Johnson, who paid his dues doing TV movies (including the fine televison film version of the play, "My Sweet Charlie") before seguing into films with such titles as "The Mackenzie Break" (1970), "A Gunfight" (1971), Jeff Bridges' "The Last American Hero" (1973) and the criminally underrated Farrah Fawcett gem, "Somebody Killed Her Husband" (1978), also starring Bridges. Lamont Johnson passed on October 24, 2010 at 88.

Getting back to Plummer, the same year that Johnson's film was released, she appeared on stage in New York - to wide acclaim - as Jo, the working-class heroine of Shelagh Delaney’s play "A Taste of Honey" - a role made famous on stage by Joan Plowright and on film by Rita Tushingham. A year after the revival of "A Taste of Honey," Plummer won a Tony for her work in "Agnes of God." She is, of course, the daughter of the late Tammy Grimes (Unsinkable Molly Brown herself) and Christopher Plummer. She has her mother's voice and her father's face - a terrific combo.

There was once a planned revival of the Horton Foote play, "Tomorrow" (the basis of the Robert Duvall film), starring Plummer and Scott Wilson. It sounded most promising but it never materialized. A missed opportunity.

Now about Diane Lane, one of the little girls of the 1970s who turned in major performances (see Note below). Lane made her debut in George Roy Hill's "A Little Romance," which also owes a thing or two to "The World of Henry Orient" - which was directed by ... Hill. "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" was Lane's third film. She was 16 when she made it. (Plummer was 24.) Unlike her co-star, Lane has had an auspicious movie career, having appeared in 50+ titles. Much like Elizabeth Taylor and Natalie Wood before her, Lane made a seamless journey from child actress to adult star.

Note in Passing: The similarly uncommon - singular - Kristy McNichol was also a victim of the same period that failed to nurture Amanda Plummer. McNichol also disappeared from the screen, although perhaps for different reasons. But that's the subject of another - future - essay.

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.

(from top) 

~Diane Lane and Amanda Plummer as Little Britches and Cattle Annie
~photography: Universal Pictures 1981©

~Dustjacket for the first edition of "Cattle Annie and Little Britches"
~William Morrow & Co. 1977©

~The real Cattle Annie and Little Britches

Thursday, March 07, 2019

façade: aldo ray

The husky-voiced, thick-necked Aldo Ray, née Aldo DaRe, was one of the more atypical, fascinating leading men of the 1950s.

He had his only conventional leading-man role opposite Judy Holliday in his offical debut film, George Cukor's affecting "The Marrying Kind" (1952), in which he was introduced (oddly) as "Judy's life of love." 

Prior to Cukor's film, he acted as Aldo DeRa in two 1951 films, David Miller's "Saturday's Hero" and Mickey Rooney's "My True Story."

Although he starred in another Cukor film, 1952's "Pat and Mike," and in Alexander Hall's "Let's Do It Again" (1953), he never really caught on as a leading man or a light actor, despite his considerable talent.

Aldo Ray, who passed in 1991, was way too aggressively masculine, burly and no-nonsense - intimidating actually - for romantic comedies.

Or for romance in general.

Ray's career-defining roles were in perhaps two Raoul Walsh war epics, "Battle Cry" (1955) and "The Naked and the Dead" (1958), and in two by Anthony Mann, "Men in War" (1957) and "God's Little Acre" (1958). But, arguably, his best role was as the framed artist, set up for bank robbery and murder, in Jacques Tourneur's "Nightfall" (1956), co-starring Brian Keith and Anne Bancroft - a fine B-movie noir adapted by Stirling Silliphant from a David Goodis novel.

This limited but pleasing display of his work provides a rare opportunity to become familiar with a criminally neglected actor.

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.

(from top) 

~Aldo Ray, circa 1952
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1952©

~Poster art for "Nighfall"
 ~ Columbia Pictures 1956©

Sunday, March 03, 2019

mr. warner has no regrets

Alicia Malone, a most companionable member of the Turner Classic Movies team, recently hosted a screening of Peter H. Hunt's "1776" during TCM's "31 Days of Oscar" marathon. Turner's pre-screening lead-ins are an entertaining mix of facts, statistics, gossip and Hollywood mythology.

In the case of Hunt's 1972 film, Alicia discussed Jack Warner's "reputation" for recasting the leads of his movie versions of stage productions with more popular film stars. "But, here, he did something unexpected," she explained in her introduction. "He hired much of the Broadway cast, who were all relative unknowns, to reprise their roles for the film."

Then she added, "according to William Daniels, who plays John Adams in the film, Warner apparently had regrets over his casting decision in 'My Fair Lady' where he replaced Julie Andrews with Audrey Hepburn. So, he wasn't about to make the same mistake again." It's the last sentence that jumped out at me... He wasn't about to make the same mistake again.

I have no idea if the sentiment in that sentence is fact or if it's an opinion (either Daniels' or Alicia's) but, given that "My Fair Lady" would turn out to be the highest-grossing film made at Warner Bros. in the 1960s - as well as the highest-grossing Warner film up to that point and the highest-grossing film with Jack Warner's name on it (he personally produced it) - it's highly unlikely that the studio head/mogul would have any regrets at all or thought that he made any mistake.

And a major reason for the film's box-office success? Two words: Audrey Hepburn. It's doubtful that Hepburn's co-star, Rex Harrison, was a much of a draw. Harrison - a terrific actor who, of course, starred in the stage version of "My Fair Lady" and won a well-deserved Oscar for his amazingly soulful performance in the film - was frankly never a box-office attraction or even an A-list star. True, there was the allure of the moviegoing public getting to see one of Broadway's greatest musicals on screen, but one can safely bet the rent money that Audrey Hepburn was the main attraction.

And it's unlikely that Jack Warner had any regrets when the critical acclaim came in or when the film was nominated for twelve Academy Awards.

On the other hand, "1776" with its cast of unknowns, was only "moderately successful," as Alicia pointed out in her intro. Gosh, I wonder why.

To be fair, "1776" is an excellent film musical but it was made at a time when there was virtually no interest among either critics or moviegoers in musicals. Also, the piece really doesn't lend itself to "star casting." It's an ensemble production, with roles that call for character actors. So Warner's decision to go with the Broadway cast was a no-brainer. It made sense.

Ever underrated, "1776" received only one Oscar nomination. Harry Stradling, Jr. was nominated for Best Cinematography.

With that clarified, a few more relevant notes...

Jack L. Warner: Getting back to Warner's so-called "reputation" for recasting the leads of his movie versions of stage productions with more popular film stars, that's not entirely true. His studio produced two back-to-back musicals in the 1950s, both co-directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbott and both with casts recruited from their stage productions. But both were also anchored by one major film star - Doris Day in "The Pajama Game" (1957) and Tab Hunter in "Damn Yankees" (1958).

(click on poster to enlarge) 

It's important to note that, when it came to filming stage musicals, Jack Warner's dictum was not to tamper with the source material (the way MGM often did with its Broadway acquisitions).

In 1962, his studio released two major screen musicals. "The Music Man," with Robert Preston, the lead in the original Broadway version, and "Gypsy," for which Warner made an exception and went with stars - Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood and Karl Malden. Jack Warner may not have had any regrets about any decisions that he made but he surely regretted the negative media response to any perceived "mistakes."

The last film he personally produced for Warner Bros., before becoming an independent producer, was "Camelot" (1967), another musical with two movie stars (albeit eclectic ones) as the leads - Vanessa Redgrave and Richard Harris. This time out, Julie Andrews, again star of the stage version (opposite Richard Burton), was replaced by Redgrave.

As an independent, Warner produced only two films, both for Columbia Pictures - "Dirty Little Billy," an odd little Western starring Michael J. Pollard, and the aforementioned "1776." Warner purchased the screen rights to the musical - $1.25 million - with his own money. And although Warner went with most of the Broadway cast, during the press interviews for the film, he admitted that he had no idea who his actors were and had no interaction with them during the filming. For the record, the non-Broadway additions to the film were Blythe Danner who replaced Betty Buckley as Martha Jefferson, Donald Madden as John Dickinson and Stephen Nathan as a courier who sings the haunting "Mama Look Sharp."

"1776": Filmed as a roadshow presentation with intermission, it was edited down to 141 minutes for its release with the song, "Cool Considerate Men" excised, cut at the suggestion of Richard M. Nixon, who was a Warner friend.  In 1992, the film was restored by Joseph Caporiccio to 180 minutes for its LaserDisc release, which includes the intermission break and "Cool Considerate Men," as well as an overture, a different titles sequence and exit music. Forty minutes of other bits were reinstated. For some reason, the film's DVD version runs a shorter 166 minutes.

William Daniels: One of the busiest and most productive character actors, Daniels has had only one lead on screen - in "1776" - although he is noted for memorable supporting turns in "The Graduate," opposite Elizabeth Wilson as the parents of Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin, and "A Thousand Clowns." And, of course, there's the David Hasselhoff TV series, "Knight Rider," which employed only his voice, making use of his trademark elocution. Oh, yes, and he would appear with someone named - let's see -  Audrey Hepburn in "Two of the Road," Stanley Donen's 1967 sophisticated romance in which Daniels and Eleanor Bron play the unctuous Howard and Cathy Manchester to the hilt.

Hepburn versus Andrews: Although it hasn't been widely reported, the reason that Audrey Hepburn eventually signed on to do "My Fair Lady" is that Jack Warner wore her down with countless offers involving money, until it was difficult to refuse. Throughout the 1960s, Elizabeth Taylor was touted as Hollywood's highest-paid actress because of the $1 million she received for "Cleopatra." But that distinction actually belongs to Hepburn, who never publicized it. As early as 1956, she received $750,000 for "War and Peace," then the highest salary for any actor or actress at that time.

Hepburn had also starred in a Warner film which had been the studio's highest grossing movie of the 1950s - the 1959 release, "The Nun's Story." A serious movie about religion was an audience hit? Jack Warner surely must have figured that, if Audrey Hepburn can attract moviegoers to a film like "The Nun's Story," she can draw people to anything.

Jack Warner's final offer to Hepburn was $1.25 million, with options for profit participation if the film was a hit. It's the same deal that Marlon Brando had on "Mutiny on the Bounty." The difference: "My Fair Lady" was indeed a financial hit. "Cleopatra" and "Mutiny on the Bounty" weren't, leaving no major profits upon the films' releases. Also, unlike those two titles, the filming of "My Fair Lady" was an exercise in professionalism, made on time and on budget with no star outbursts or misbehavior.

The film rights to "My Fair Lady" were owned by CBS and controlled by its chairman, Bill Paley, who sold the rights to Warner for a then-record $5.5 million. The movie had a huge budget and was eventually made for a whopping $17 million. That's why Warner thought his film needed a star.

Julie Andrews was only 22 when she starred in the stage production of "My Fair Lady" in 1956 and was untested in terms of film. There were doubts whether she could carry a film, any film, or if she was photogenic enough. So Hepburn got the role. But even if she evaded Warner's endless courting and turned it down, it was unlikely that Julie Andrews would have been hired. Shirley Jones was reportedly on Warner's list as the next-in-line.

Sing out, Audrey! When Hepburn signed to do "My Fair Lady," it was with the clear understanding that she would do her own singing, which she previously did on screen in "Funny Face" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's." She does a killer rendition of George and Ira Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?" in "Funny Face."

The fact is, Hepburn recorded all her songs for "My Fair Lady." (I have an old audio cassette of all her tracks.) Her voice is fine but clearly not operatic. So the usual suspect, Marni Nixon, was brought in to replace Hepburn's singing voice on about 90 percent of the songs. Which brings me to my one reservation about "My Fair Lady," both the stage and screen versions.

It never made sense to me that a guttersnipe like Eliza Doolittle who speaks in a rough Cockney accent would open her mouth to sing and, suddenly, a beautiful, lilting soprano comes out of it. (I have the same problem with Bloody Mary's singing voice in the film version of "South Pacific.") I have to ask: What were Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe thinking when they sat down to write songs for the character? Shouldn't Eliza's singing voice be more aligned to her bedraggled personality - and, more to the point, to Hepburn's husky voice? Audrey Hepburn had a really distinctive speaking voice, which is what makes Nixon's trilling in the songs seem so ridiculous. Come on, these are obviously two different voices.

It's interesting that for Rex Harrison, a non-singer, the composers wrote songs that he could talk his way through, rather than sing. Just compare Harrison on the original cast album "My Fair Lady" with Harrison on the film's soundtrack album. He actually attempted to "sing" in the play. But by the time he made the film, he was talking his way through most of his songs. Warner originally wanted Cary Grant to play Henry Higgins, an apt choice in my book, given that Grant could actually sing: He started out doing musicals in regional theaters both here and in Great Britain.

Julie survives! Andrews immediately became something of a cause célèbre for Hollywood, which rallied around her after mean old Jack Warner mistreated her. In a virtual whirlwind, Walt Disney offered her "Mary Poppins," she made "The Americanization of Emily" and became an icon overnight with "The Sound of Music," all within two years. The year that "My Fair Lady" won the Oscar as Best Picture, Andrews took home the Best Actress award for "Mary Poppins." When Harrison was handed his Oscar for "My Fair Lady," he diplomatically thanked "both my fair ladies" and kissed Audrey who had presented him with his award.

Alan Jay Lerner: Unlike most of his Broadway peers (with the obvious exception being Neil Simon), Lerner enjoyed something of a privileged relationship with Hollywood. It has never been noted but, when one of his stage works was made into a film, Lerner himself adapted the material for the screen: "Brigadoon," "Paint Your Wagon," "My Fair Lady," "Camelot" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever." He also had a hand in the assorted TV adaptations of his work. In the case of "Gigi," it was the other way around: First, he wrote the screenplay for the 1958 Vincente Minnelli film and then adapted it for the stage in 1973.

More Rex! Turner Classic Movies will devote its daytime schedule on Tuesday, March 5 exclusively to Harrison (who, in his day, was nicknamed Sexy Rexy), starting at 6 a.m. (est.) with "Over the Moon" (1940), costarring Merle Oberon, followed by a 7:30 a.m. screening of Vincente Minnelli's "The Reluctant Debutante" (1958), which Harrison made with his wife (at the time), the fabulous Kay Kendall, shortly after his "My Fair Lady" run on Broadway. Also: David Lean's "Blithe Spirit" (1945), "King Richard and the Crusaders" (1954, "The Yellow Rolls-Royce" (1964) and Sir Carol Reed's excellent "Night Train to Munich (1940). The day is topped off with - what else? - "My Fair Lady" at 5 p.m. (est.).

Another Eliza: Laura Benanti is currently playing the iconic role in the new Lincoln Center revival of "My Fair Lady" and, not surprisingly, she's exceptional. While Benanti has said that she grew up listening to the original cast album and idolizing Julie Andrews, the Benanti performance that I saw owes a lot to Hepburn's interpretation, more than to Andrews'.

Or maybe I'm projecting.

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.

(from top) 

~Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn making it all legal with Jack Warner prior to the filming of "My Fair Lady"
~photography: Warner Bros.1963©

~Alicia Malone, TCM host
~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2018©

~Hepburn and Harrison between scenes on the "My Fair Lady" set
~photography: Warner Bros. 1963©

 ~Poster art for "The Pajama Game" 
~Warner Bros. 1957©

~Eleanor Bron, William Daniels and Cathy Jones in "Two for the Road" 
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1967©

~Hepburn with Julie Andrews at the 1965 Oscarcast
~photography: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 1965©

 ~Hepburn and Fred Astaire in "Funny Face"
~photography: Paramount Pictures 1957©

 ~Laura Benanti as Eliza Doolittle in the latest revival of "My Fair Lady"
~photography: Joan Marcus/Lincoln Center 2019©