Tuesday, November 14, 2017

indelible moment: Quine's "It Happened to Jane"

"It Happened to Jane," released by Columbia Pictures during the summer of 1959, is Richard Quine's plucky, affectionate and unabashed tribute to the filmmaker who put Columbia on the map - Frank Capra.

In fact, the film's working title was "Old 97 Goes to Market," a play on two Capra vehicles - "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936) and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939), movies of staunch Americana that "Jane" successfully emulates.  While Capra was restricted largely to backlot filmmaking, Quine brought his story of a small-town lobster farmer and her first selectman-boyfriend into the open air of New England (Chester, Connecticut standing in for the fictional Cape Ann, Maine) and with a few vivid vérité touches.

Among the indelible moments in this charming film are an exhilarating town meeting (with all the extras played by Chester residents); the final sequence which includes a performance by the Chester Fife and Drum Corps (which was was formed in 1868 and we are still going strong), and a wildly inventive sequence in which Jane Osgood (Doris Day), feeling she needs an answer right now, climbs on the back of the engine of the locomotive Old 97 to coerce her lifelong boyfriend George Denham (Jack Lemmon) into proposing while he is hectically trying to shovel enough coal into Old 97's furnace to keep it moving.  As his Uncle Otis (Russ Brown) testily demands "More steam!," George struggles to divide his attention between the needs of both the speeding train and the impatient Jane.

Because of the din of the rushing, rumbling train, all of the dialogue is shouted and emphatic and George can't quite make out what Jane is trying to say to him. This is vérité at its most vigorous and exhilarating:

Jane: “George!  George!”
George: “What?!” 
Jane: “I think I’m getting married today!” 
George: “What?!” 
Jane: “I said I’m getting married today!”

George:  “Don’t be silly!
Jane: “I am not being silly!”
George:  “What are you talking about?!”
Uncle Otis (to George): “More stem!” 

George (trying to listen to both Uncle Otis and Jane): “What?! What?!!”
Jane: "Lawrence Clayborn Hall is waiting for me in Marshalltown and I am going to marry him!"
George:  “Just like that?!”
Jane:  “No, not  just  like that, George .  He asked me!”
Uncle Otis (to George):  “George, More steam! Steam!”  
George: “After knowing you for four days, he asked you to marry him?  I think he’s probably asked every girl he ever knew to marry him!  He’s neurotic or something.  If you remember correctly, I asked you to marry me 21 years ago!”
Jane:  “Yes, and you haven’t asked me since!”
George:  “What?!” 
Jane: “I’m a woman and I’m supposed to be married!   I’m a mother and I need a man to take care of me and my children!”
George: “You don’t have to go to Marshalltown to find one!”  

Jane: “Don’t I, George?”
George: “No!”
Jane: “Where can I find one?”
George: “You don’t have to go anywhere!  You can stay right in Cape Ann!”
Jane: “Can I, George?”
George: “You know you can!”
Jane: “Do I?” (a pause)  “Well, say it! Can’t you just say it?”
George: “Say what?!”
Jane: “Say anything!  Why can’t you be neurotic like Larry and say you’ll marry me?!”
George: “Well, you know I will!”
Jane:  “Oh, George!  You proposed!”

Uncle Otis (to George):  “More steam!”
George (murmurs to Uncle Otis): “Yeah, wait.”
Jane:George!  George!  You did!  You proposed!  George!”
George stops to climb up to where Jane is to kiss her.
Uncle Otis (to George):  “We need more coal!”
Jane (giddy with delight): “George, I love you!”
George climbs back down.
George (to Jane): “I love you!”
George (to Uncle Otis):  “What coal?”
Jane (again, giddy with delight): “George, I love you!”
George (to Jane): “I Love you!
George (to Uncle Otis):  “No coal!
Uncle Otis (quoting Teddy Roosevelt): “Bully!”
*   *   *
 A few notes on "It Happened to Jane"...
It's been rumored, falsely, that Harry Foster Malone, the monied villain played by Ernie Kovacs in “It Happened to Jane,," was modeled after Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" (1941).

It's an easy assumption to make.  While the character's middle name, Foster, was probably borrowed from Welles, the name Harry itself actually comes from ... Harry Cohn, the legendary head of Columbia Pictures, which produced and released "It Happened to Jane."

True, the name Foster seems to be a dead giveaway but it's also a distraction. While we were working on a book together, Jack Lemmon told me that Kovacs' Harry Foster Malone was based directly on Cohn, who died while Lemmon, Kovacs and Quine were making "Bell, Book and Candle" the year before. Kovacs affected Cohn's look for his wicked impersonation by donning a bald plate for the film and gaining 40 pounds.

He also appropriated Cohn's infamously foul-tempered, autocractic and abrasive personality for the role.  There's really nothing of Charles Foster Kane in Kovacs' movie-stealing performance.

Did he get the joke? No problem. Cohn, as noted, died on February 27, 1958, during the filming of "Bell, Book and Candle"; "It Happened to Jane" went into production June 2, 1958 and ended shooting July 31 of that year.

Nevertheless, the Kovacs-Welles rumor has persisted, supported surprisingly by Turner Movie Classics which is usually never less than fastidious in its research.  I watch "Jane" whenever Turner airs it - I love the film - and in the introductions to the movie by Ben Mankiewicz, the source of Kovacs' performance is invariably misidentified.
As noted earlier, "It Happened to Jane" started life as "Old 97 Goes to Market," originally positioned as another Lemmon-Quine collaboration with Jack in the role of a young widower with two children who raises lobsters for a living and has political aspirations in the small town where he lives.

I've no idea when it morphed into a Doris Day vehicle but both Quine and Lemmon were eager to work with her.

The film would go through more title changes - "Miss Casey Adams" and "As Jane Goes (As Maine Goes)"- before the studio settled on "It Happened to Jane."  No one involved in the film particularly liked that moniker but it lent itself to a terrific, catchy title song by Joe Lubin (who worked often with Doris Day) and Irvin J. Roth (aka, Adam Ross), sung by Day over the main credits.

The movie was in post-production when the studio came up with yet another title, "That Jane from Maine," and had the composers rewrite "It Happened to Jane," changing the lyric but retaining the music.  (That version of the song remained unreleased until it popped up on a Day album and subsequent CD; it can currently be heard on the CD, "Golden Girl.") But there was a problem: While "That Jane from Maine" was a better title, "It Happened to Jane" was the better song.  So back to the original.

At least,I think that's the song/title chronology.  It's madding.

In the meantime, Columbia had commissioned Marvin H. Albert to write a novelization of Norman Katkov and Max Wilk's script.  The book was printed and ready to go under the title "That Jane from Maine" - it was too late to change - while the film went into theaters as "It Happened to Jane."

There were some theaters which sold copies of the softback novelization at their concession stands, certainly confusing their patrons.

"It Happened to Jane" was a good film that came at the wrong time for everyone concerned - its two stars, the public and the critics, who hastily dismissed it.  Both Lemmon and Day were at the crossroads in their respective careers and "Jane," released in June of 1959, just didn't seem to fit in.  Lemmon had a personal triumph three months earlier in March in Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (which was actually shot after "Jane") and Day was poised to reveal a major makeover with the October release of Michael Gordon's "Pillow Talk." Both were frank, sexed-up films.

By comparison, "It Happened to Jane" seemed a tad old-fashioned.

And a little square.

"Some Like It Hot" and "Pillow Talk" brought both Lemmon and Day well-deserved Oscar nominations as best actor and best actress.  Impressed by this and in an effort to salvage "It Happened to Jane," Columbia re-released the film in 1960, shortly after the Oscarcast and before the Summer release of Lemmon's next big Oscar-bait hit, "The Apartment." And, yes, there was yet another title - and another title song (credited to "By" Dunham) - "Twinkle and Shine." But it was too late.

It would take"It Happened to Jane" several decades before it was recognized as the smart, alert farce that it is or before its undervalued maker, Richard Quine, would be appreciated as an auteur.

I may be a majority of one but it's my opinion that the train sequence showcased at the start of this essay is as good as anything that Billy Wilder gave Lemmon to do in "Some Like It Hot" or "The Apartment," or that Day got to do in "Pillow Talk" and her subsequent modern comedies.

Note in Passing: The location shooting of "It Happened to Jane in Chester was so pleasant and memorable that co-star Casey Adams (aka, Max Showalter), 1917-2000,  purchased an 18th-century farmhouse and settled there, becoming involved in the local theater in his later years.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

character counts: fred clark & larry keating

These two marvelous character actors were nothing alike but shared a common link.

First, meet Fred.

Fred Clark. He of the bald head, mustache, grumpy demeanor and penchant for childish petulance. Fred appeared in about 100 films and TV shows and is perhaps best known as the definitive conservative, Mr. Babcock, in "Auntie Mame" (1958) and Betty Grable's older "gentleman friend" in "How to Marry a Millionaire" (1954).

There were other films - "Don't Go Near the Water" (1957) with Glenn Ford, Jane Russell's "The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown" (also '57), the Pat Boone musical "Mardi Gras" (1958), the Debbie Reynolds duo, "The Mating Game" and "It Started with a Kiss" (both 1959), Jerry Lewis' "A Visit to a Small Planet (1960) and two with Judy Holliday, "The Solid Gold Cadillac" (1956) and "Bells Are Ringing" (1960), to name a few. And Fred was dependably (and delightfully) disagreeable is just about all of them. A real "character."

Then there's Larry.

Larry Keating. Balding (as opposed to bald) and also with a mustache. Impeccably groomed, urbane and erudite, Larry was every inch a gentleman. He was in two 1953 backstage musicals, "She's Back on Broadway" and "Give a Girl a Break." No surprise. Larry could have been the prototype for the wealthy, fatherly Broadway producer who believes in his new show and its big star.

You may also remember him from Fred Astaire's "Daddy Long Legs" (1955), a trio of biopics, "The Eddie Duchin Story" (1956), "The Best Things in Life Are Free" (also '56) and "The Buster Keaton Story" (1957), and "Who Was That Lady?" (1960). He could be dignified and funny - but without ever compromising that dignity.

Clark and Keating were forever linked by their participation on the "Burns and Allen" TV show in the 1950s. Both played the character of George and Gracie's next-door neighbor, Harry Morton (husband of the Bea Benaderet character, Blanche). Clark was the third actor to play the role and Keating followed him as the fourth and final Harry Morton. The cleverly-staged replacement took place between two episodes of the show's 1953 season.

Fred's Harry left the house during an episode titled "Gracie at the Department Store" and Larry's Harry came home the following week in the episode "Morton Buys Iron Deer/Gracie Thinks George Needs Glasses."

During this episode, George Burns walks on set and stops the show just before the new Harry's entrance and explains that Clark had left the show to do a Broadway play ("The Teahouse of the August Moon"). Burns then introduces Keating to Benaderet: "This is Larry Keating and he is going to be your husband now." Keating and Benaderet exchange pleasantries and then continue the scene with Harry coming back home to an angry wife.

At the end of the show, Gracie Allen says to Burns: "You know, George, I've been confused all day. There's something entirely different about Harry Morton this week. I finally figured out what it is. He never wore brown shoes before."  And George replies, "Say goodnight, Gracie."

Of course.

Clark and Keating each brought a different reading to the role of Harry Morton, both memorably so. The two actors would eventually appear together in the 1962 Kim Novak-James Garner comedy, "Boys' Night Out."

For the life of me, I don't understand why Billy Wilder didn't cast these wonderful actors as two of the executives in "The Apartment" (1960).

They would have been perfect, particularly Clark.

Larry Keating passed in 1963 at age 67, before his final film, "The Incredible Mr. Limpet" (1964),was released; Fred Clark died in 1968. He was 54 and his last film was Otto Preminger's "Skidoo," released that year.

Note in Passing: Burns' unorthodox introduction of Keating wasn't the first time he interrupted an episode. He earlier stopped the show when Clark was still in the cast. Amusingly, the actors performing in the scene stopped in mid-gesture and "froze" behind Burns for both occasions. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

double take

 ~Peter Lawford and June Allyson dancing in Charles Walters' "Good News"
  ~Location/Time: Campus of Tait College (aka, an MGM backlot) / around noon
~Choreography: Robert Alton 
~Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1947©

~Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling dancing in Damien Chazelle's "La La Land" 
~Location/Time: The Hollywood Hills / around midnight
~Choreography: Mandy Moore
~Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment 2016 ©

* * * * * * * * * *

Sunday, November 05, 2017

cinema obscura: two with june allyson

When the eternally youthful, all-American June Allyson died at age 89 on July 8, 2006, most of the coverage was devoted to her team-spirited work at MGM and the various “wife” roles that she played in a string of biopics.

Missing from the career appreciations were two atypical Allyson titles - José Ferrer's compelling "The Shrike" (1955) and Douglas Sirk's lovelorn "Interlude" (1957), both made and released by Universal-International.

The two are impossible to see (or even find) these days, although Turner Classic Movies had "Interlude" penciled in for a couple screenings in the recent past, only to subsequently substitute another title at the 11th hour.

The disappearance of “The Shrike” is particularly odd, given its lofty credentials. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 play by Joseph Kramm, the stage production won two Tony awards for José Ferrer – as "best actor in a play" and "best director of a play." On stage, Ferrer co-starred with Judith Evelyn, best known as the timid Miss Lonelyhearts, spied on by James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (1954).

However, when Ferrer decided to transfer the play to film, his first as a director and with himself again in the male lead, he did the unforeseeable and hired Allyson to play the role of a bright, seemingly caring wife (seemingly) who relentlessly pecks and pecks away at her husband – much like the bird of the title – until she has effectively reduced him to a state of utter helplessness and frightening mental instability.

Never before had Allyson's sunniness been made to seem so untrustworthy - it's toxic actually - and she responds to the challenge with a memorably unsettling (and yet subtle) performance. With this film, Ferrer explored what the critic Richard Schickel described as Allyson’s “vaunted sweetness,” as well as the perilous state of marriage when one of its partners fairly drips -  and seduces - with venom. “It was a delicious combination,” Schickel commented in his book “The Stars” (1962) – "her surface sweetness and the inner viciousness of the role.” A great performance.

James M. Cain concocted the story for Douglas Sirk's "Interlude," which was remade a decade later in 1968 under the same title by director Kevin Billington - although, for some bizzar reason, Cain goes uncredited in the Billington version. Oddly, Cain only supplied the story to Sirk. He didn't pen the screenplay. That was done by a collection of other writers.

Both films are European-based soap operas about a young, impressionable woman (Allyson in the Sirk version, Barbara Ferris in Billington's) who falls for a married orchestra conductor (Rossano Brazzi and Oskar Werner, respectively). The heroines both suffer in achingly beautiful surroundings, although neither film is exactly an emotional knockout. And the remake is as difficult to see as the original.

Allyson playing a woman who falls for a married man and pursues an affair with him could have meant career suicide in the 1950s, especially for someone who played uncomplicated, perky woman in which Allyson specialized. But her performance here is another gentle reminder that it was foolish for one  to underestimate June Allyson.

It's interesting to compare the two versions of the material. The Sirk film, of course, has those matchless Sirkian qualities that he so freely exhibited at Universal-International during this ripe, productive period, while Billington's take on it is more realistic and kept afloat largely by the mesmerizing, mournful Werner and the lovely Virginia Maskell as his wife.

 The choice of music is also interesting. The remake has a classic Georges Delerue score. Lots of harpischords here - way over the top. Frank Skinner scored Sirk's film in a more traditional, studio-approved way.

Sirk opens his film with a song by the McGuire Sisters; Billington and Delerue use the inimitable Timi Yuro for the remake's haunting title song.

You know, I'd actually like to see "Interlude" again - both versions.

And certainly "The Shrike," which is begging for a remake of its own.
* * * * *
(from top)

~Vintage June Allyson
~photography: MGM 1947©

~Poster art for "The Shrike"

~Publicity shots of June Allyson and José Ferrer in "The Shrike"
 ~photography: Universal-International 1955©

 ~Poster art for "Interlude"

~Allyson and Rossano Brazzi in "Interlude"
~photography:  Universal-International 1957© 

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

the american dream, unraveling

Nothing can undermine a good film quicker than preconceived notions or baseless expectations. And George Clooney's exceptional "Suburbicon" has been confronted by both, misunderstood by the moviegoing public (which has officially devolved into a state of permanent adolescence) and critics (who, one would think, should know better but generally don't).

I'd rather not know what might exist in the minds of the franchise-happy movie patrons who keep the Hollywood studios alive, well and obscenely profitable these days and I guess that I shouldn't expect much from contemporary critics either, but it baffles me when a film is casually dismissed simply because it's not what people expected or wanted it to be.

Prior to its release, the impression was that "Suburbicon" would be a fictionalized account, by way of the Coen Brothers, of the disappointing, shameful behavior of white people when a black family moved into Levittown, Pa. in 1957. It wasn't exactly America's greatest moment.

 The expectation was the film would actually be about a black family. But, wait! The Coens are noted for approaching their narratives circuitously and adding clever, inappropriate curlicues for entertainment value. And that's exactly the approach that Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov took and honored when they dusted off and filmed the Coens' script. It would be really rather foolhardy to expect the Coen-sourced "Suburbicon" to be a serious, cautionary tale about race relations.

The film is less about the plight of the tormented black family who moves into a blindingly white suburban community in the 1950s, than about the general awfulness of white people who have not changed since the '50s. Clooney is nothing if not brave to make a film in which, except for its little pre-teen hero, is devoid of a single Caucasian who is decent or likable.

The black family in "Suburbicon" - The Mayers - remain on the periphery throughout the film, a plot point that has outraged some critics. They are there simply to be bystanders to the shameful behavior of the white families who surround them and resent them. And especially problematic for reviewers is the fact that the film's leading white family - The Lodges - has barely noticed or is even aware that a black family has moved in.

Matt Damon plays the patriarch, Gardner Lodge, and in a more mundane, straightforward movie, Gardner would intervene on behalf of The Mayerses. But "Suburbicon" is a gleefully bent film: Gardner is too caught up in his own dubious doings to care about his new neighbors and their threatened civil rights.

In a daring style of storytelling, Clooney makes no effort to connect the two storylines, keeping The Lodges apart from the Mayers family. Only their children - Tony Espinosa as Andy Mayers and the remarkable Noah Jupe as Nicky Lodge - have any meaningful, humane contact in the film.

Clooney handily guides his film through a collection of amusing Hitchcockian twists and turns, many jaw-droppingly inappropriate and unapologetic, and locates humor (of the jet-black variety) that the politically correct might find insensitive and probably just plain gross.

Insensitive?  Gross? For me, it's simply some much-needed sarcasm.

Jupe is placed regularly in unsettling situations - very incorrect - but the young actor is almost preternaturally game in a performance that defines the fractured message of the film. Damon, always flawless, bravely abandons himself in a role and performance unlikely to win him any awards but should. And Julianne Moore is simply a hoot as twin sisters.

As far as her role(s) in the film, I'll leave it at that.

There are invaluable contributions here by cinematographer Robert Elswit, editor Stephen Mirrione, costume designer Jenny Eagan, production designer James D. Bissell, set decorator Jan Pascale and particularly Alexandre Desplat, who has composed a diverse, wall-to-wall music score that, artfully and surprisingly, never seems the least bit intrusive.

From where I sit, Paramount has had a banner year with radical cinema, as evidence by Darren Aronofsky's "mother!" and now "Suburbicon," brash films branded as "audience unfriendly" (for me, not entirely a bad thing). And, much like "mother!," Clooney's film goes through something akin to a hysterical nervous breakdown as it speeds towards its conclusion. Coming up from Paramount is Alenxander Payne's "Downsizing" (also with Damon) and, despite the cheery trailer, I'm hopeful that it also has a dark side.

And that it's similarly inappropriate (there's that word again) and sarcastic - "qualities" that we desperately need more than ever now.
* * * * *
 from top

~One of the posters for Paramount's "Suburbicon"

~ Matt Damon and Noah Jupe in a scene from the film
~ Damon having dinner after a particularly rough day
~Julianne Moore, Jape (back to camera), Damon and Jack Conley looking for "bad guys"
 ~photography: Paramount 2017©

Monday, October 30, 2017

what if?

Happy anniversary, America!

Seventy-nine years ago today - yes, 79 years - the incorrigible Orson Welles broadcast the infamous "The War of the Worlds" episode of his popular radio program, Mercury Theater on the Air. It was October 30th, 1938 and it was a Halloween episode aired by the CBS radio network.

Directed and narrated by the then-23-year-old Welles, who had yet to become Hollywood's wunderkind with "Citizen Kane" (1941), the episode, simulating an actual newscast, was an adaptation by Howard E. Koch of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel "The War of the Worlds" and it caused collective panic among the ever-fearful, ever-gullible citizens of the U.S. of A. with its sensational reportage of an attack by Martians (the original illegal aliens) who, for some bizarre reason, set their sights on a little farm in Gover's Mill, New Jersey, before hitting New York City.

Next year will be the 80th anniversary of the broadcast and I have this perverse fantasy that, between now and then, some brave, resourceful filmmaker/documentarian might pull the same kind of prank, given that Americans are more skittish than usual these days (understandable, considering how chaotic life has become). It would be a terrific, much-overdue wake-up call. And think of all the horrible current events ready-made for an irresponsible, "scare-the-bejesus-out-of-them!" broadcast.

Perhaps Errol Morris or Morgan Spurlock or Gabriela Cowperthwaite could pull it off. Or Steven Soderbergh or The Coen Brothers. Or Mr. Provocateur himself, Michael Moore. Wait! I'm not sure about Moore, now that he's been sucked into a pointless Twitter war-of-words with Trump.

It would be perfect. After all, Welles' broadcast was the original Fake News. How appropriate would it be if the viewing public (it would have to be on TV these days) was sucked into faux "breaking news" about Trump or white nationalists or out-of-control police - a story even more outrageous than the ones routinely aired by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News?

"Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes," Welles' producer John Houseman later reminisced. "During that time, men traveled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it - emotionally, if not logically." And, surprisingly, there were no real ramifications from a prank that unsettled the nation, other than Welles and company being subjected to relentless hounding by the media.

I don't recall reading anything of a serious reprimand by the government or about any charges brought against Welles and the Mercury Theater.

Of course, these days, there would be consequences, with the usual suspects - the assorted talking heads of TV - self-righteously scolding the filmmaker in question for being either "inappropriate" or "insensitive" or "irresponsible" or "politicially incorrect." Or all of the above.
Happy Halloween!

~ (from top) the scare headlines of The Boston Daily Globe, The New York Daily News and The New York Times © from October 31st, 1938