Sunday, October 27, 2013

Broadway Flops on Film

Very few plays make it onto film these days, and even fewer stage musicals.

But there was a time when the studios depended seriously on Broadway as a source for its prestige productions. (There's been a curious flipflop in the past two decades with the B movie - action films and action comedies - now being given the lavish adornments once reserved for message/Oscar films exclusively.) Hollywood had such an unquenchable need to film plays that even stage productions that were flops and folded quickly (but were not necessarily bad) quickly became movies.

To name a few...

"Little Murders"

Written by the popular acerbic cartoonist Jules Feiffer, the very dark "Little Murders" opened at the Booth Theater on April 18th, 1967, playing a total of seven performances. The play starred singer Barbara Cook (in a decidedly non-singing role) and Elliott Gould, just before he hit Hollywood with William Friedkin's "The Night They Raided Minsky's" and Paul Mazursky's "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice."

Feiffer comically chronicled what happens when a gung-ho all-American girl brings an inarguably unAmerican guy (a self-described "apathist" who photographs dog excrement for a living) home to meet her family - an oblivious mother, a father embarrassed by his name (it's Carroll) and a brother who wants to be a woman, played by Ruth White, John Randolph and David Steinberg, respectively. Exacerbating the tension are such modern travials as power outages, a garbage strike and serial murders.

Heyward Hale Broun, Phil Leeds and Dick Schaal rounded out the cast, under the direction of George Sherman.

A subsequent 1969 staging at the Circle in the Square also starred Gould and Steinberg, along with Linda Lavin, Vincent Gardenia and Donald Sutherland in the role of a hippie cleric.

Gould, of course, recreated his role for the 1971 film, which was gamely directed by Alan Arkin who also assumed the role of the quickly uncoiling detective investigating the murders. The wonderful Marcia Rodd (and exactly what happened to her?) is a standout in the Cook role of Patsy; Elizabeth Wilson and an encoring Gardenia play her parents and Jon Korkes her brother, and Sutherland was back on board as the minister.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle"/"Last of the Mobile Hotshots"

Tennessee Williams' "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" had a tryout at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and opened March 27th, 1968 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with a cast consisting of Estelle Parsons, Harry Gaurdino and Brian Bedford, under the direction of José Quintero.

OK, here goes: Williams' play is about Lot (Bedford), a tubercular, impotent transvestite who has taken a wife named Myrtle (Parsons) who, in turn, is a prostitute and former showgirl, the sole survivor of the Five Memphis Hot Shots. Myrtle lives to nurse Lot back to health but Lot cares only about stealing the family property from his multiracial half-brother, Chicken (Guardino).

Naturally, Chicken is attracted to Myrtle.

"The Seven Descents of Myrtle" closed after 29 performances.

Sidney Lumet directed the 1970 film version, which was retitled "Last of the Mobile Hotshots" and was one of the few prestige films of that era to be rated X by the MPAA. Lynn Redgrave starred as Myrtle, James Coburn as Lot (renamed Jeb actually for the film), and Robert Hooks as Chicken.

The film was made in New Orleans and St. Francisville, Louisiana, but forget the scenery. All that counted here was the idea of James Coburn playing a transvestite.

"A Loss of Roses"/"The Stripper"

William Inge's "A Loss of Roses," which opened December 7th, 1959, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater and closed after 25 performances, remains Warren Beatty's only Broadway appearance. His co-stars were dancer Carol Haney (in a decidedly undancing performance), Betty Field, Robert Webber, James O'Rear, Margaret Braidwood and Michael J. Pollard who, of course, would appear with Beatty in Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde."

Daniel Mann directed.

Its plot revolves around Lila (Haney), a sensitive, aging showgirl for a series of shows staged by a Madame Olga. When her boyfriend, Rick (Beatty), steals the show's boxoffice receipts, Lila is fired and opts to change her life. But then Rick returns.
For the 1963 film, directed by Franklin J. Schafner, Joanne Woodward and Richard Beymer play Lila and Rick, with Webber and Pollard recreating their stage roles. The rest of the cast includes Claire Trevor, Carol Lynley, Louis Nye and ... Gypsy Rose Lee as Madam Olga.
"Silent Night, Lonely Night"
The estimable Robert Anderson (who penned "Tea and Sympathy" and "I Never Sang for My Father") wrote this lovely play about two lonely people - played by Henry Fonda and Barbara Bel Geddes - who have a chance meeting as a cozy New England inn during the Christmas holiday.

Each one is there for personal, troubling reasons.

The play, directed by Peter Glenville and co-starring Lois Nettleton, Bill Berger, Peter De Vise and Eda Hainemann, opened at the Morosco Theater on December 28th, 1959 and was snapped up immediately by Universal which then let the project linger for ten years.

The film version of "Silent Night, Lonely Night," directed by Daniel Petrie, was not made for theaters, but for TV. Nevertheless, it's an excellent movie, intimate and involving. Lloyd Bridges (outstanding) and Shirley Jones (an Emmy nominee) took over the Fonda-Bel Geddes roles, Carrie Snodgress played the Nettleton part and Lynn Carlin and Cloris Leachman showed up in roles created for the film by adapter John Vlahos, who wisely retained most of Anderson's script. Its dialogue is nearly verbetim.
"My Sweet Charlie"

David Westheimer's play "My Sweet Charlie" - a study in race relations - opened in tryout at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia on November 8th, 1966 before moving to New York's Longacre Theater onn December 6th, 1966, where it closed after 31 performances.

The actor Howard Da Silva ("They Live By Night," "The Great Gatsby," "The Blue Dahlia," "The Lost Weekend" and "1776" among many other films) directed a cast that included Louis Gossett, Jr. in the title role, Bonnie Bedelia, John Randolph and Sarah Cunningham.

Gossett's Charlie Roberts is a black New York lawyer accused - falsely - of murder in a small Texas town. He finds a vacant house where he hides out and this is where he meets Marlene (Bedelia), an artless, uneducated young woman who has been shunned by her father for being pregnant.

They become allies and unlikely friends.

The 1971 TV film version, also produced by Universal, was adapted by the then-hot team of William Link and Richard Levinson and directed by the great Lamont Johnson on location in Port Bolivar, Texas.

"My Sweet Charlie" was hugely popular as a film, thanks in large part to the affecting lead performances of Al Freeman, Jr. and Patty Duke. Ford Rainey took over the Randolph role.

(Artwork: Flyer art for the off-Broadway production of "Little Murders" and Marcia Rodd and Elliott Gould in the film version; Playbill for "The Seven Descents of Myrtle" and the poster for its movie version, "Last of the Mobile Hotshots"; Playbill for "A Loss of Roses" and the poster art for its film version, retitled "The Stripper"; Playbill for "Silent Night, Lonely Night" and the dustjacket for the VHS of the movie version, and the flyer for the Philadelphia tryout of "My Sweet Charlie" and the dustjacket for the video of the film)

Monday, October 21, 2013

directing versus filmmaking

On paper,  the proposed remake of “Carrie” is nothing short of fabulous, what with Kimberly Pierce as director, Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, as her well-cast stars, and writer Lawrence D. Cohen recruited to update the lean script that he wrote for the Brian DePalma original in 1976.

But, in execution, the completed film is something else, and part of me would like to point to Marvel Comics wunderking Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa, brought in as co-scenarist and to seemingly mess up Cohen's model script, specifically the ending. Seemingly (I hasten to stress). 

Whatever the reason, a mess it is.

While DePalma’s “Carrie” is unusually painterly for a horror film, Pierce’s is blunt and, frankly, crass, qualities in full view in the film’s gross and gratuitous opening sequence – in which Margaret White (Moore) is a frantic, demented bystander to the blood-spurting birth of her own daughter, Carrie.  While Piper Laurie was almost ethereal as the religious-nut mother in the first film, poor Moore is presented as a perspiring, smelly hag. As for the gifted Moretz, she does little else here than walk around with her shoulders squeezed up to her ears.

It’s a hunched performance in more ways than one. Sissy Spacek, twice Moretz's age when she starred in the original, somehow seems years younger - a permamently, fascinatingly stunted child, if you will.

Pierce, whose first two films (1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and 2008’s “Stop-Loss”) I admire, may be a case of someone who was prematurely lauded by the critics.  Aside from being hardly prolific, she seems to lack a feel for the camera’s eye.  Pierce inarguably knows a solid story when she sees one and she’s a good director of actors, but she simply isn’t a filmmaker. And that’s what sets her apart from Brian DePalma who is.

And it’s what makes her film so wildly different from – and inferior to – the original.  The new “Carrie” underlines Kimberly Pierce’s few strengths as a director, as well as her major weaknesses as a filmmaker.   

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

cinema obscura: Charles Walters' "Ask Any Girl" (1959)

Michael Gordon's "Pillow Talk," released by Universal in October of 1959, is largely regarded as something of a first - "the fluff sex comedy," a modern subgenre of the time-tested battle-of-the-sexes romps. It was a huge hit, both a turning point in Doris Day's career and an on-going source of references for subsequent comedies trying to be just like it.

But predating it by a few months was Charles Walter's "Ask Any Girl," a working-girl lark released by Metro in May of that year. Shirley MacLaine, in a role that Day would patent, plays a career woman and romantic naif caught between two men - her bosses who also happen to be brothers. She's interested in nabbing dashing Gig Young, see, and leans on his older brother, stuffy David Niven, for pointers and guidance, not realizing that he's really the guy for her and that, in fact, he's interested.

On the sidelines is Rod Taylor, delightfully on the prowl.

"Ask Any Girl," a bit of wispy fun with a distant relationship to "Pygmalion," doesn't have the legendary reputation of "Pillow Talk." It virtually has no reputation at all and, for the most part, is almost impossible to see. But it's worth searching out, if only for the ace supporting cast - Elisabeth Fraser, Dodie Heath (fresh off "The Diary of Anne Frank"), Jim Backus, Claire Kelly, and the inimitable Carman Phillips.

There are a couple interesting connections here: MacLaine previously appeared with Niven in Michael Anderson's "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956) and with Phillips in Vincente Minnelli's "...Some Came Running" (1958). Niven would play opposite Day a year later in Walters' "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (1960), and Young, of course, was something of a Day staple, appearing with her in Gordon Douglas' "Young at Heart" (1954), George Seaton's "Teacher's Pet" and Gene Kelly's "Tunnel of Love" (both 1958) and Delbert Mann's "That Touch of Mink" (1962).

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

indelible moment: Wilder's "The Apartment"

 "I don't want people to think I'm an entertainer..."

From under the desk, C.C.("Bud") Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has produced a hatbox, and out of the hatbox a black bowler, which he now puts on his head.

Bud: It's what they call the junior executive model. What do you think?

Fran (Shirley MacLaine), the elevator operator on whom Bud has a crush, looks at him blankly, absorbed in her own thoughts. 

Bud (continuing): Guess I made a boo-boo, huh?

Fran (paying attention again): No - I like it.

Bud: Really? You mean you wouldn't be ashamed to be seen with somebody in a hat like this?

Fran: Of course not.

Bud: Maybe if I wore it a little more to the side - (adjusting the hat) is that better?

Fran: Much better.

Bud:  You don't think it's tilted a little too much.

Fran takes her compact out of her uniform pocket, opens it, hands it to Bud.

Fran: Here.

Bud (examining himself in the mirror): After all, this is a conservative firm - I don't want people to think I'm an entertainer...

His voice trails off. There is something familiar about the cracked mirror of the compact -- and the fleur-de-lis pattern on the case confirms his suspicion. Fran notices the peculiar expression on his face.

Fran: What is it?

Bud (with difficulty): The mirror - it's ... broken.

Fran: I know. I like it this way - makes me look the way I feel.
"(it) makes me look the way I feel"