Saturday, November 24, 2012

doppelgängers/ Ben's erratum

"Sing Out, Louise, sing out!"
Once again, the astute programmers for Turner Classic Movies offered up back-to-back screenings of Walter Lang's delirious and deliriously campy "There's No Business Like Show Business" (1954) and Mervyn LeRoy's bravura filmization of "Gypsy" (1962). This clever double-bill aired today beginning at 3:15 p.m. (est) and was also showcased in tandem on Turner last January 25th (oddly, also starting at 3:15 that day).

Ethel Merman is the obvious connection here, given that she heads the ensemble of the Lang film and was in the original 1959 stage production of "Gypsy." Even more obvious are the thematic similarities that the two productions share. Merman plays a vaudeville-era stage mother in both (as well as a performer herself in "Show Business") and even though "Gypsy" came from a distinctly different source, namely Gypsy Rose Lee's autobiography, you have to think that its makers got some inspiration and ideas - and perhaps even the decision to write "Gypsy" with Merman in mind - from "There's No Business Like Show Business."

If Turner elects to pair them up again (and there's no reason to think it won't), by all means, tune in and compare and contrast.

BTW, in his post-screening discussion of "Gypsy" today, the very affable Ben Mankeiwicz, reading from a script, passed on some dated misinformation, stating that Merman's chances of recreating her stage role in "Gypsy" were shattered when producer Frederick Brisson, husband of Rosalind Russell, bought the film rights to the musical and took the project to Warner Bros. with the stipulation that Russell star in the role Merman originated - Madam Rose. (The character, incidentally, is never referred to as Mama Rose in either the stage show or film, as most people assume.)

Not true.

Brisson and Russell were actually negotiating with Harper Books for the rights to the Gypsy Rose Lee autobiography with the idea of producing a straight dramatic version of the material, a plan that was misinterpreted - perhaps intentionally - in the gossip columns at the time. It was erroneously reported that Brisson and Russell were planning to film the musical "Gypsy" and drop all the songs, making both the star and her husband persona non grata among rancorous theater types. It was Jack Warner himself who personally optioned the film rights to "Gypsy." He also purchased "The Music Man" at the same time. In fact, the Warner Bros. studio issued a single press release announcing its plans to film both musicals. with a target release for each of them in 1962.

Brisson, in the end, was never able to option the Gypsy Rose Lee book because its rights were irrevocably tied up in the musical stage production.

Knowing Russell's interest in the material and having had a good working relationship with her on Morton DaCosta's "Auntie Mame" (1958) and LeRoy's "A Majority of One" (1961), it was only natural that Warner would offer the role of Madam Rose to Russell. Judy Garland vied for the role but only with her daughter Liza Minnelli attached to play Gypsy, and Doris Day, once a Warner contract player, reportedly was also interested, but Russell was Warner's one and only choice. (For better or worse, Merman herself was never considered because she had been absent from the screen too long and consequently had little-to-no box-office appeal.)

Now, the stage play that Brisson did option for Russell was Peter Shaffer's "Five Finger Exercise," released in 1962 (the same year as "Gypsy") and on which he has producer credit. (He has no credit on "Gypsy.")

As noted, the nasty fiction that Russell was angling to buy "Gypsy" and drop the songs hurt her in the theater community, and exacerbating this was the perception that she also "stole" prime stage roles from their originators - Gertrude Berg ("A Majority of One"), Jessica Tandy ("Five Finger Exercise") and , of course, Merman ("Gypsy").

And, unbelievably, the grudge persists 50 years later. Still, Russell's definitive take on Madame Rose - the patrician airs she brings to the role - dominates the film of "Gypsy." Her line-readings are impeccable, and her timing, particularly her comic timing, is peerless. A world-class actress.

All the other Roses pale in comparison.

Note in Passing: Another project about Gypsy Rose Lee was also once in the works. It was announced a few years ago - by HBO, I believe - that there would be a film of Erik Lee Preminger's book about his mother, "Gypsy & Me: At Home and on the Road with Gypsy Rose Lee" (1984), with Sigourney Weaver as Gypsy.

The film never materialized. As of yet.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

rude thoughts on metro's unfortunate film of meredith willson's "the unsinkable molly brown"

Turner Classics’ airing of Charles Walters' inferior film of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964) tonight @ 8 (est) provides me with the opportunity to do a little airing myself. This will be one of those hugely indulgent chain-of-thought posts.

Please bear with me. Here goes:

1. The MGM Myth. For what seems like at least a century, MGM promoted itself as the premiere source for movie musicals. If you were able to get through any of the “That’s Entertainment” movies, you probably absorbed a lot of misinformation – such claims as (a) Metro created the movie musical, (b) Metro created Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (no, it was RKO) and (c) Metro created Bing Crosby (no, it was Paramount). MGM did, however, create Esther Williams and it overhyped Judy Garland and Gene Kelly to the detriment of such overlooked but formidable talents as Howard Keel, Jane Powell and Marge and Gower Champion.

That’s my opinion, take it or leave it. While MGM may have been a force in designing original movie musicals, it was deadly when it came to Broadway adapations, with the possible exception of George Sidney's film of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate." But that was clearly an exception. Simply look how the studio reduced the scores of both “On the Town” and “Bells Are Ringing” (with the latter succeeding, in spite of MGM, only because of Vincente Minnelli’s shrewd handling of the truncated material handed to him) or what it did to … “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”

2. Meredith Willson. Poor Willson. After having been spoiled by the fidelity that director Morton DaCosta brought to the Warner Bros. film version of Willson’s "The Music Man"  (1962), he must have suffered culture shock at what MGM did to “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” (Of course, DaCosta, an underrated filmmaker, also directed the stage version of “The Music Man.”) It should be noted at this point that Warners was the polar opposite of Metro when it came to filming stage musicals.

Jack Warner’s dictum was, HANDS OFF, as evidence by the faithful Warner films of "The Music Man” and also “The Pajama Game,” “Damn Yankees,” “Gypsy,” “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot” and “Finian’s Rainbow.” "The Music Man" in theory is the definitive MGM musical, but I doubt if Willson's tricky score would have appealed to the Metro suits. And only the gods of movies could imagine what Metro would have done with something like “Gypsy.” I can guarantee you that “Rose’s Turn” would have been the first number to go.

MGM hacked away at Willson’s score for “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” with its usual know-it-all superiority - and pretty much edited Willson out of the equation. Exactly 12 – count ‘em – 12 songs were cut from Willson’s score for the film, including the crucial “My Brass Bed,” “Beautiful People of Denver,” “Bon Jour,” “If I Knew,” the emblematic “Keep-a-Hoppin’” and “Chick-a-Pen,” which refers to the hero’s pet name for the show’s heroine.

You have to wonder why the studio even vied for the film rights to the show in the first place. It should be noted that “Beautiful People of Denver,” along with “Dolce Far Niente,” show up on the “Molly Brown” soundtrack as instrumentals.

By comparison, Warners retained just about the entire score of “The Music Man,” billing it as Meredith Willson's "The Music Man," while MGM's "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" was "a Lawrence Weingarten Production." For "The Music Man," Warners replaced only one song with a new one – and at Willson’s request. With so many songs cut from "Molly Brown," it is no surprise that Helen Deutsch’s scenario for the film is a watered-down version of what Richard Morris wrote for the stage.

3. The casting. The stage version of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” was a personal triumph for a new off-beat Canadian actress named Tammy Grimes who, of course, was too idiosyncratic for an MGM musical. On the other hand, the play’s leading man, Harve Presnell, could have come from the same bolt of cloth as Howard Keel. If “Molly Brown” existed in the ‘50s, Keel would have played the male lead. In 1964, Presnell recreated his stage role. (For some bizarre reason, during the stage run, Presnell did not appear in the matinee performances; his role was played at those times by James Hurst.)

With Grimes out of the picture, Debbie Reynolds, an MGM vet, was the obvious choice to play Molly. But neither the studio nor the director Charles Walters (a former choreographer who also directed “Lili” and ”Good News” for Metro) wanted her. Both campaigned for the then-hot Shirley MacLaine, a lesser musical performer than Reynolds. It should be noted here that Walters directed both Reynolds and MacLaine previously – Reynolds in “The Tender Trap” and MacLaine in “Ask Any Girl” and “Two Loves,” all three MGM movies.

Frankly, both women could have played the role well but, frankly, the character of Molly had Debbie Reynolds written all over her.  The casting was obvious.  Natural.  Organic.

Reynolds, reportedly, offered to do the film for nothing. That may be old Hollywood lore but I’d like to believe it. She won the part and deserved it. Working hard and putting her heart into it, Reynolds was Oscar-nominated. The role is said to be her personal favorite and it ought to be: She’s the best thing about “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” If only the film itself were up to her level.

And if only its makers - and MGM - only appreciated her more.  The opening titles and display ads read: "The Unsinkable Movie Brown" ... "Starring Debbie Reynolds."  They should have read: "Debbie Reynolds is The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

4. Peter Gennaro. Other than Presnell, this popular TV choreographer was the only other holdover from the stage show and the movie arguably comes alive only when his dances are on screen.

Jerome Robbins and Bob Fosse? Gennaro was every bit as good as those two legends.

5. The New Songs. While 12 of the stage songs were cut for the film, two were added. One, “Colorado, My Home,” a terrific song, was originally in the show but cut during the tryout because of the inability to produce the echo effect that the song required (although, inexplicably, strains of it remain in its overture). The necessary echos were no problem for the studio technicians. The other new song is the showstopping “He’s My Friend,” in which Reynolds does some hell-raising, ligament-straining dancing with Gus Trikonis (Goldie Hawn’s first husband and one of the Sharks in the film “West Side Story”) and the inexpendable Grover Dale. Gennaro outdoes himself here and, again, I’d put this production number up against anything created by Robbins or Fosse.

6. Grover Dale. OK, aficionados talk about Kelly, Astaire, Fosse and, you know, the usual suspects, but for me, the greatest dancer on film was Grover Dale. Unfortunately, he came along too late – at the end of the studio system. He made his movie debut here as one of Reynolds’ brothers,  which I guess was officially the last MGM musical. (I’m not counting the studio’s pick-up of Ken Russell’s “The Boy Friend" in 1971.) Had he come along a decade or two earlier, Dale would have been in MGM’s stable and groomed for movie-musical stardom. Still, in only a handful of films, he made an incredible impression – “Molly Brown,” George Sidney’s “Half a Sixpence” (recreating a role he played on stage), Jacques Demy’s “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort”/”The Young Girls of Rochefort” and Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” (in which he played Lee Grant’s boogaloo dance instructor).

On stage, Dale also appeared in “West Side Story” (as a Jet), Frank Loesser's cult favorite, “Greenwillow” (with his close friend Anthony Perkins) and Noel Coward’s “Sail Away” with Elaine Stritch. He has frequently choreographed shows on stage and was the uncredited choreographer on the film “The Way We Were. Dale was married to actress Anita Morris for 21 years - until her death in 1994. They had a son in 1978, James Badge Dale, who is now an actor.

7. Debbie. Finally, coming full circle and getting back to the indefatiguable Reynolds, I'd like to put in a word for her many lost movies. Among those missing from home entertainment formats are these made within a five-year period in the early 1960s: Frank Tashlin's "Say One for Me" (1959), George Marshall's "The Gazebo" (1959), Robert Mulligan's "The Rat Race" (1960), George Seaton's "The Pleasure of His Company" (1961), Vincent Sherman’s “The Second Time Around” (1961), Gower Champion's "My Six Loves" (1963) and Vincente Minnelli's "Goodbye, Charlie" (1964). At least, "The Rat Race" shows up on Turner Classics on occasion, and "The Gazebo," in fact, had a brief life (a very brief life) on VHS about a decade ago. Mervyn LeRoy’s difficult-to-see "Mary, Mary" (1963), also on Turner often these days, recently (and belatedly) surfaced on DVD, as did two other Marshall titles, "It Started with a Kiss" and "The Mating Game" (both 1959). Yes, Debbie made three - count 'em - three films for Marshall in '59, two co-starring Glenn Ford.

If I were carrying a sign now, it would read, FREE DEBBIE REYNOLDS!

(Artwork: Morrow's artwork for the stage version of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown"; composer Meredith Willson; the inimtiable Tammy Grimes, the original Molly Brown; Grimes performing the "Belly Uo to the Bar, Boys" number on stage; a pre-release ad for the film version; the ageless Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell in the film; Grover Dale on a 1960 cover of "Dance Magazine," and Debbie as Molly) 

Friday, November 09, 2012

sleek, slithery, sensual

“Skyfall,” Sam Mendes’ revisionist/retro take on the unsinkable James Bond franchise, brings both intellectual weight and visual elegance to the spy-thriller genre. The movie is as gorgeous as it is exciting, seemingly bathed by cinematographer Roger Deakins in the color of the soft blue bottle of Sapphire Gin that’s crucial to Bond’s Martini.

If Hitchcock had ever ventured into 007 territory, this is the film he would have made. “Skyfall” is sleek, slithery, sensual.

It is also one powerfully solid movie.

If you’ve had your fill of independent, foreign-language, festival-circuit movies – what I call watercress films – you might need a big, juicy steak. Mendes and company have come up with the filmic equivalent of just that – a movie that in its bravura, near-orgasmic opening chase sequence lets us know that this is a Big Hollywood Movie, albeit one with prestigious British credentials. Here, we have Bond careening over rooftops in Turkey on a motorcycle and wrestling with one of the film’s resident villains atop a speeding train, a highwire stunt that plays like a choreographed sex act (what with the train speeding through one tunnel after another).

Daniel Craig has become the series’ invaluable star, somehow fitting his bruiser boxer’s mug and physique into the refinement of tailored suits and tuxedos. As a screen icon, he is both battered and beautiful, bringing an apt personal fury to the role. And he is ably abetted by Javier Bradem, witty and totally game as a rogue agent, and particularly Judi Dench who in this film shrewdly uses her curious combination of warmth and froideur to play M as both a bad mother and a most unexpected Bond girl.

All of this combines to make “Skyfall” the most pleasurable film of the year – a compulsively watchable movie-movie. A hearty steak indeed. Read this and other "Skyfall" reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.Com

"Skyfall" photos by Francois Duhamel/Columbia Pictures

"And we'll have a real good time, yes sir!..."

For anyone who has had a serious crush on Natalie Wood – and who hasn’t? – the indefatigable Marc Huestis has fashioned a pleasing mini-retrospective of her work, starting tonight and playing through Sunday at San Francisco’s invaluable Castro Theater.
The Program
 Friday, 9 November:
Double Feature-
Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955) @ 2:30 & 7 p.m. / Sydney Pollack’s “This Property Is Condemned” (1966) @ 4:45 & 9:15 p.m.

 Saturday, 10 November:
Matinee Double Feature-
The 50th Anniversary Screening of Mervyn LeRoy’s "Gypsy" (1962) (click here), hosted by Matthew Martin as Mama Rose, @ noon / Robert Mulligan’s “Love With a Proper Stranger” (1963) @ 3 p.m.

Evening Gala-
Centerpiece Screening of Elia Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) @ 9 p.m., with pre-screening event hosted by Lana Wood @ 7 p.m.

 Sunday, 11 November:
Matinee Feature-
A Sing-Along Screening of Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s “West Side Story” (1961) @ 2 p.m.

Evening Double Feature-
Paul Mazursky’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” (1969) @ 7 p.m. / Robert Mulligan’s “Inside Daisy Clover” (1965) @ 9:05 p.m.

To this otherwise perfect mix of titles from Natalie's filmography, I would have added only George Seaton's "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947) and Irving Rapper's "Marjorie Morningstar." (1958). (1962)

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

election day!

"I'm a Democrat from New England. I have no prejudices."
-Jack Lemmon to Kim Novak in Richard Quine's "The Notorious Landlady."
(The dialogue is credited to Blake Edwards and Larry Gelbart.)