Thursday, December 31, 2015

indelible moment: Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960)

"Ring out the old year, ring in the new. Ring-a-ding-ding"
- Fran Kubelik's sarcasm on New Year's Eve.
- From Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960), an apt quote to end 2015.

Monday, December 28, 2015

when bad things happen to good movies

© Sony Pictures
John Huston and his amazing "little girls" from "Annie" (That's title star Aileen Quinn on Huston's right and, directly next to her, is the late Amanda Peterson) The film, once unfairly reviled and discredited, is being rediscovered and reassessed

It's heartening to sense that John Huston's 1982 film version of the Broadway musical "Annie" is yet another hastily dismissed, misunderstood title that has been - at long last - "rediscovered" and appreciated for the terrific movie musical that it is.  Of course, it took more than 30 years and two inferior remakes to convince its detractors of its worthiness - a watered-down 1999 TV version and a grotesquely updated 2014 remake.

For the past three decades, people who don't "get" movie musicals - including professional critics whom one would think would know better (well, think again) -  have indulged in snarky derision and bad jokes, exhibiting their abject cluelessness.  And, for me, few things are as amusing as a dull white middle-aged male movie critic trying to be funny.

"Annie" joins a select list of movies initially written off, chief among them Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) which, in its day, was harshly reviewed, to put it mildly.  So much (again) for critics and their educated tastes.

"Annie" could certainly be included among the films recently celebrated by the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BAM) in its "Turkeys for Thanksgiving" program, among them Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra," Michael Cimino's "Heaven's Gate," Francis Ford Coppola's "One from the Heart," Robert Altman's "Popeye," Peter Bogdanovich's "At Long Last Love" and Charles Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux."  All really good films. "Folly or misunderstood masterpieces?," BAM asked in its promotion for the series.

Richard Brody, arguably the best movie critic writing today (although his official title is actually movie editor at The New Yorker), covered the BAM series on his New Yorker blog in a piece titled "These So-Called Bad Movies Prove the Urgency of Film Criticism," an essay you can read here.

But back to "Annie." It's popularity as a "family-friendly" Broadway show (when there were precious few back in those days) is a given.  Columbia Pictures sensed that it could be transferred rather seamlessly to the big screen and spent a then-record $9.5-million for the movie rights.

Producing chores were handed to Ray Stark, who had successfully overseen "Funny Girl" for Columbia years earlier, and Stark was given complete creative control to hire anyone he desired.  He could have picked among the usual suspects to direct this valuable property but he (wisely) settled on Huston, a decidedly non-musical name but a real filmmaker.

This was a shrewd trend in the late 1970s and early '80s which answered the question, "How do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, immediately declare every new movie musical 'an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster'?"

Answer: You bring in the Big Guns - Sidney Lumet to direct "The Wiz," Milos Foreman (!) to film "Hair" and Sir Richard Attenborough to take "A Chorus Line" from stage to screen.  Surely, critics would approve, right?

Wrong.  The critics nitpicked, even though both Huston and Foreman hit all the right notes, with Huston delivering a throwback. an old-fashioned movie musical, and Foreman helming the definitive version of "Hair."

In the case of Huston, it was the perfect mating of filmmaker and material.  The director seemed to relate to his tough-willed little title character and, in nine-year-old Aileen Quinn, he found an effortlessly spunky kid who could have stepped out of a '30s Warners street film.  And Quinn handily nailed the role.

Huston's other smart move was to bring in the great veteran Broadway choreographer Joe Layton to oversee all of his film's musical numbers and the then-new British choreographer Arlene Philips to stage all the dances.

Philips' exuberant, acrobatic staging of the film's "It's a Hard-Knock Life" number is a jaw-dropping knockout - hands-down. It gets better with each viewing, equalled by her breezy staging of Ann Reinking's "We Got Annie."

Which brings us to Huston's shrewd casting - Reinking, Bernadette Peters, Geoffrey Holder and Edward Hermann and Lois De Banzie (spot-on and Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt) from Broadway; Albert Finney from international cinema; Tim Curry from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," and of course, Carol Burnett from, well, every medium imaginable.

And thanks to reader Kevin Barry for the gentle reminder of the crucial role that the legendary editor Margaret Booth played in "Annie," another astute hire.  (Kevin's response is among the posted comments.)

That said, here are a few "Annie" factoids that add to the fascination of this terrific film:

Albert Finney's line-readings for Daddy Warbucks.  Stark reportedly joked that Huston himself would be the perfect Warbucks.  That gave Huston and Finney an idea: Finney appropriated Huston's vocal intonations for his performance. His line readings sound exactly like Huston speaking.

John Huston's own "cameo" in the film.  The sonorous voice of the actor on the radio soap opera who seems to be talking directly to Carol Burnett (just prior to the "Little Girls" number) is ... Huston's.

Carol Burnett's performance.  When the actress asked her director for a tip on how to perform Miss Hannigan, Huston made it simple: "Play is soused."  Burnett's performance is one long (witty) drunk scene.

Carol Burnett and Dorothy Loudon.  When Carol Burnett exited as a regular on "The Garry Moore Show" to do the 1964 Broadway musical "Fade In, Fade Out," she was replaced by Dorothy Loudon.  Loudon would go on to create the role of Miss Hannigan in "Annie" on Broadway and Burnett would replace her in the film.  A nifty, circuitous happenstance.

The casting of Rooster Hannigan: Huston had his heart set on his "almost" son-in-law Jack Nicholson for a smallish role in "Annie" - as Miss Hannigan's incorrigible brother, Rooster.  (Nicholson was romantically involved with Anjelica Huston at the time.)  That would have been a hoot.  Perfect casting.  But even though it would have been a quick shoot for Nicholson, he had a scheduling conflict and Huston moved on and subsequently nabbed Tim Curry for the role.  And Curry also proved to be a perfect Rooster Hannigan - wildly theatrical, juicily evil, in the role.

Prior to a recent TCM screening of "Annie," a Turner host erroneously reported that Nicholson was Huston's choice to play Warbucks. This misinformation (from the “Annie” page on Turner's website) could have been easily fact-checked: The Nicholson-Rooster connection was widely reported prior to production. No, Albert Finney was Huston's sole choice to play Warbucks, which seemed curious at the time (even though Finney had previously sung on-screen in 1970's "Scrooge"), but it worked. Finney is just witty enough as Warbucks and his eyes expose his affection for Annie.

And Nicholson also previously sung on screen., but his rendition of Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner's "Who Is There Among Us Who Knows?" was cut from Vincente Minnelli's 1970 film musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."  (Nicholson's song was included among other deleted movie musical numbers on an album released by Out Take Records.)

As for Huston and Finney, two years late,r they would collaborate again but on a film the polar opposite of "Annie" - "Under the Volcano," based on the Malcolm Lowry novel.

The return of two "Annie" characters from the strip:  Huston reinstated the characters of Punjab (Holder) and Asp (Roger Minami) for his film version  Neither character is in the stage musical. Which brings me to Carol Sobieski who adapted "Annie" for the screen, managing to honor not only Thomas Meehan's stage script but also the original Harold Gray cartoon strip.  Sobieski, who died in 1990 at age 51, had previously worked for Stark, writing the screenplay for the fine 1978 Walter Matthau film, "Casey's Shadow." Two of her screenplays were filmed after she died - Jon Avnet's hugely popular "Fried Green Tomatoes" (1991), based on the Fannie Flagg book, and John Cusack's "Money for Nothing" (1993).

The original "Easy Street" number: Two versions of this memorable number were filmed.  Philips originally staged it along the lines of "Who Will Buy?" from Sir Carol Reed's 1968 version of "Oliver!" (choreographed by Onna White), on an outdoor set and backup dancers (pictured directly below). But producer Stark reportedly wasn't entirely happy with the finished product and asked that the song be re-filmed - this time, in an indoor setting with a more intimate staging and with only Curry, Burnett and Peters performing (also pictured below).

I speculate the number also had to be re-recorded to accommodate the revised staging.

All of this was documented by Andrew J. Kuehn in his promotional documentary, "Lights, Camera, Annie!", which was televised by ABC and broadcast prior to the film's release. Kuehn's film is a must-see for any movie-musical aficionado who has ever fantasized about going behind-the-scenes and on set during the making of a film musical. It helps to have an appreciation of Huston's film, of course, but that's not a prerequisite.

This is fly-on-the-wall fun. Period.

There is ample footage of Huston, Layton, Stark and Phillips discussing the reinvention of the number as something smaller, with a few shots of "Easy Street" as it was originally conceived. Kuehn's work, narrated by Gene McGarr and produced by Jim Washburn, goes beyond the promotional documentary genre and sneakily slips us into meetings and on-set discussions, giving us an insider's insight into the making of a musical.

There are also on-set interviews with Finney, Burnett, Quinn, Peters, Curry, Reinking and Holder and an extended sequence devoted to the auditions for the title role among scores of little girls. The casting director got the job done expeditiously by going up and down aisles of little girls, having each one contribute to a on-going, non-stop version of "Tomorrow."

Each girl picks up where the previous girl left off.

Carol Burnett discussed the filming of the two versions of "Easy Street" when she was a guest on Alec Baldwin's ”Here’s the Thing” podcast on October 10th.

Frankly, I'd love to know why Sony Home Entertainment didn't include Kuehn's documentary or the original "Easy Street" staging on its recent reissue of the "Annie" DVD as bonus features, instead of an updated "rap" version of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" by some generic teen group - an ominous inclusion that anticipated Columbia's dubious 2014 remake.

The song score: The stage songs dropped from the movie were "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover," "N.Y.C.," "You Make Me Happy," "You Won't Be an Orphan for Long," "Why Should I Change a Thing?," "Something Was Missing" and "A New Deal for Christmas."  New songs added to the film were "We Got Annie," "Dumb Dog"/"Sandy," "Let's Go to the Movies" and "Sign."  All songs, for both the play and the film, were written by Charles Strouse (music) and Martin Charnin (lyrics). Charnin has directed seemingly umpteen stage revivals of the show.  It's his baby.

Strouse also wrote the music for "Bye Bye Birdie" (with Lee Adams doing the lyrics) and I've a hunch that all those dropped "Annie" songs brought back unpleasant memories of when the same studio, namely Columbia, filmed (and unnecessarily truncated) "Bye Bye Birdie" back in 1963.

I can't say I particularly miss the deleted stage songs, but the "We Got Annie" number is wonderful, so wonderful that I'm surprised Strouse and Charnin never incorporated into the subsequent stage revivals of "Annie."

"Live" versus Dubbing: Although most of the songs for "Annie" were pre-recorded, there are areas of the film when the performers sung "live" on set, most notably Carol Burnett's rendition of "Little Girls."  Finney sings a "live" reprise of "Maybe" and the opening portion of "Easy Street" is sung "live" by Curry, Peters and Burnett.  Huston used the show's signature song, "Tomorrow," over the opening credits (in lieu of an overture), sung by Quinn who later in the film sings it "live" (sweetly and with no musical accompaniment) to Hermann and De Banzie. When Finney, Hermann and De Banzie join her in a quick reprise, the song is lip-synced and scored.

The film's one oddity: One of the film's highlights - the "Let's Go to the Movies," shot it the magnificent Radio City Music Hall - is marred when the film stops cold to screen assorted scenes from George Cukor's "Camille" (1936) with Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor. Huh?  My assumption has always been that "Camille" was one of Ray Stark's favorite films - an assumption never confirmed.  I can't think of any other reason for its inclusion. Otherwise, it beats me.  But that one blemish aside, at least we get great shots of the Music Hall's cavernous lobby.  Gorgeous.

And there you have it...  All about "Annie."

Monday, December 14, 2015

making an age-appropriate "gypsy"

Lady Gaga should play Rose in Streisand's "Gypsy"

Arguably, few movie remakes are as good as the originals and, as a general rule, the average film buff is contemptuous of remakes.  But that hasn't stopped any self-respecting buff from indulging in fantasy casting.

Count me in.

Which brings me to "Gypsy" and Barbra Streisand's crusade to film another version, reportedly based on a new script by the estimable Richard LaGravenese ("The Fisher King," "Beloved" and "The Ref").

As regular readers of this site know by now, "Gypsy" remains my favorite musical - I saw the original production as a kid, my first stage show ever (I'm seriously dating myself here) - as well as my favorite movie musical.

Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 film version, with Rosalind Russell's definitive reading of the role of Rose Hovick, is letter-perfect, even with the few ill-advised cuts that LeRoy made following its first previews.

An unnecessary and unmemorable 1993 TV movie, directed by Emile Ardolino and starring a seemingly well-cast but surprisingly ineffectual Bette Midler, succeeded only in making the LeRoy film look even better.

Much better.

Streisand's plan is to direct the new version and play the role of Rose.

The idea of Streisand singing the "Gypsy" score is irresistible.  She would have made the perfect Rose - would have.  Streisand will be 74 in April and may well be a few years older if Universal decides to back the film.

"Gypsy" spans about 10 years, opening with Rose as the mother of two little girls who, I'm guessing, are about seven and eight.  It ends with the still-young title character becoming a phenomenon in burlesque.

Rose should be 30 at most when the show opens and about 40 when she triumphantly/pathetically sings the searingly biographical "Rose's Turn."

Forty years ago, Streisand undoubtedly would have been a revelation as Rose and apparently LaGravenese thinks she is still right for the role.

Recently, Streisand has aligned herself with Lady Gaga and expressed interest in casting her in "Gypsy."  Great, I thought.  Barbra is going to direct Gaga (né Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) as Rose.

Gaga is 29 and would be a terrific Rose, considering (1) her age, (2) her demeanor and (3) her vocal range.  But I assumed wrong.  Streisand's idea is for Gaga to play Gypsy to Streisand's Rose.

None of this is exactly new. Over the past 50-plus years, there have been only a handful of productions of "Gypsy" and, by extension, a handful of actresses playing Rose, the crown jewel of musical comedy.  But all of them have been examples of ageist casting (yes, ageist, but not in the direction you think). Why has the character of Rose traditionally been cast with an actress well into her 50s (at least)? Imagine how different - and revelatory - it could be with a younger, vibrant performer in the role.

But this has never happened.

Wait. It happened once.  No, twice. In 2004, Andrea McArdle, then 40, played Rose in The Bay Area Houston Ballet and Theatre production of "Gypsy." At 40, McArdle (who has the perfect voice for the role) was a decidedly youthful Rose. It probably also helped that McArdle invariably identified with the material, having started out as a child actress (read: "Annie"). Mary McCarty, who replaced Ethel Merman in the Broadway production in 1961, was 38 at the time. (McCarty played Mother Goose in Disney's "Babes in Toyland," which co-starred Ann Jillian as Bo Peep; Jillian would play Dainty June in the '62 film version of "Gypsy.")

And, in 1964, songstress Gisele MacKenzie played the part in Berkeley at Ben Kaplan's Meadowland Theater.  She was - ta-da! - 37.

MacKenzie is the youngest Rose Hovick to date.

The oldest Rose? That would be Leslie Uggams who was 71 when she played Rose in the 2014 production at the Connecticut Repertory Theater.  Wow!  She is followed, but not too closely by Patti Lupone who was 60 when she undertook the part in the most recent - 2008 - Broadway revival of the show. The talented Lupone was 58 when she also played the role in the 2007 Encores! production and 57 when she tackled it for the first time for the 2006 Ravinia Festival production.

Following Uggams and Lupone, age-wise, are these top-notch actresses, some miscast, some well-cast, but all a tad too old for the role, a trend that I covered in an earlier essay here:

Imelda Stauton, age 59, pictured below (2015 British revival at London's Savoy Theater; see Michael O'Sullivan's coverage here from his excellent site, Mike’s Movie Projector)

Ann Sothern, age 58 (1967 touring Music Fair production)

Ethel Merman, age 57 (original 1959 Broadway production)

Patty Duke, age 57 (2003 Spokane, Washington Civic Theatre production; Duke below with co-stars Danae M. Lowman and Reed McColm)

Bernadette Peters, age 55 (2003 Sam Mendes revival)

Rosalind Russell, age 55 (original 1962 film version)

Tovah Feldshuh, age 55 (2008 Bristol Riverside Theater production)

Linda Lavin, age 52 (succeeded Tyne Daly, below, in the 1989 revival)

Betty Buckley, age 51 (1998 Papermill Playhouse production; Debbie Gibson co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Joanne Worley, age 51 (1988 The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley; Audrey Landers co-starred as Louise/Gypsy)

Angela Lansbury, age 49 (1973 London production, followed immediately by the first Broadway revival in '74)

Bette Midler, age 48 (1993 TV-movie remake)

Vicki Lewis, age 48 (2008 California Musical Theater production)

Betty Buckley, age 45 (1992 Southern Arizona Light Opera Company production)

Tyne Daly, age 43 (1989 Broadway revival)

Betty Hutton, age 41 (1961 National Tour)

But somehow, the role has evaded such powerhouses as Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli and ...Streisand! And Stockard Channing  would have been an absolutely terrific, atypical choice for the part but a natural.

But back to "a younger, vibrant performer in the role." Well, that would be Gaga, hands-down, who could be easily aged for the later scenes. ("Youthening" someone - is that a word? - is much more difficult and rarely convincing.)  Plus - and this is probably important to Universal - Gaga would bring bodies into the local multiplexes to watch her in action.

While we're at it, let's cast the other roles, all within the right age range.  (It's called fantasy casting, see?)

Herbie:  Adam Levine (he would match up well with Gaga, his personality would fit the part and, of course, he can sing)

Louise/Gypsy: Jennifer Lawrence (she could be a-mazing.)

Tulsa: Zac Efron

Dainty June: Elle Fanning

Miss Cratchet: Allison Janney

Tessie Tura: Tina Fey

Electra: Amy Poehler

Miss Mazeppa: Amy Schumer

Baby June: Alyvia Alyn Lind

Baby Louise: Sophie Pollono

That said, wishing Barbra the best of luck with her dream project.

Below: Audrey Landers (left) and Joanne Worley (center) in The Civic Light Opera of San Gabriel Valley production

Friday, December 11, 2015

cinema obscura: Maddow/Meyers/Strick's "The Savage Eye" (1960)

A major independent film of the early 1960s, "The Savage Eye" had become something of an enigma in the past five decades, forgotten about until the UCLA Film and Television Archive inexplicably but bravely revived it in 2008, jogging my memory. A rush of stirring black-&-white images, courtesy of cinematographers Jack Couffer, Helen Levitt and Haskell Wexler, reminded me of what a vivid experience it was - and still is.

Then the film disappeared again.  Until now.  New York's Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35th Avenue, Astoria) has unearthed it for a screening on December 13th, as part of its "Lonely Places: Film Noir and the American Landscape" series.  Good news for serious film aficionados - and fans of its fabulous star, Barbara Baxley.

"The Savage Eye" is very much a celebration of  the invaluable and singular Baxley, too long a neglected actress.

The dual-level film is part narrative, part documentary.  Directed in tandem by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyeres and Joseph Strick (who also produced and edited the film), "The Savage Eye" is ostensibly about a woman named Judith McGuire, who spends the day waiting for her divorce to come through by wandering around Los Angeles.
Baxley, a popular New York stage actress when the film was made who had just appeared and, of course, she would go on to famously play Lady Pearl in Altman's "Nashville" (1975), her defining role.

The year in "The Savage Eye" is 1959. Jaded and now seeing life in a more realistic way, Judith serves as a guide through a city which, seen up close, looks dirty and disreputable - bustling yet empty. The rose-colored glasses are off.

The result is a narrative which works also - largely - as a documentary about the city and its assorted haunts, a narrative whose compelling supporting cast is a vast array of Los Angeleans, most of whom come across as emotionally and culturally impoverished. There's no sense of joy here because priorities have been skewed in favor of relentlessly shallow needs and goals.

Gary Merrill co-stars as a character called The Poet, who gives voice to the city, and Herschel Bernardi is on board, too. Leonard Rosenman wrote the score for this vivid journey through hopelessness.

For its 2008 screening of "The Savage Eye," the UCLA Film and Television Archive utilized The Billy Wilder Theater on its campus. More please.
Note in Passing:  When I originally addressed "The Savage Eye" back in 2010, I heard from a reader named Mark who wrote, "The film was restored by the Academy Film Archive. As a preservationist there, I was asked to present a program in the context of UCLA's 2008 "Out of the Past" series, and I chose to show this film (along with our preservation of Strick's short film Muscle Beach), as we were proud to have worked on it, and, indeed, it is too little known today. It was great evening, and we even had some late 1940s Muscle Beach folks in the audience, a couple of whom show up briefly in the short! UCLA does excellent preservation work and programming, but I wanted to make sure that credit was given where due in this case - at the archive, we were thrilled the Academy supported this restoration. Thanks for writing about the screening!"

Saturday, December 05, 2015

cinema obscura: Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956)

Much has been written about Frank Sinatra's decision to suppress - momentarily, at least - two of the titles in his filmography, Lewis Allen's "Suddenly" (1954) and John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), both considered too politically incendiary by the actor-singer.

But missing from the discussion is another compelling Sinatra film that went missing seemingly decades ago - Don McGuire's "Johnny Concho" (1956), a flawed but gripping character-driven Western in which Sinatra skillfully plays a cowardly punk who exploits the notorious reputation of his brother, a ruthless killer.

His Johnny, a pathetic, reprehensible figure, bullies his way through life by referencing his brother's dubious accomplishments.

Sinatra's urban profile works well to disconnect his character from the sagebrush mise-en-scène here. He's clearly out of his element, just as Johnny is alien in this landscape of rough-hewn people. Johnny is a poseur, giving a "performance" based on terror and sadism, and Sinatra nails this aspect in a portrayal impressive for its subtlety.

A definite bonus: Sinatra's leading lady here is the criminally underused Phyllis Kirk.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

my rodgers & hammerstein dilemma

I've something of a love-hate relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein - mostly love, of course. Who couldn't love their melodies?


As is true with most of R&H's shows, the glorious songs are the point, the only point. But are we really expected to forget the deadly dull stretches and arch dialogue that invariably come in between? Some people do.

Most people, unfortunately.

Composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein collaborated on one original screen musical ("State Fair"), one musical conceived directly for television ("Cinderella") and nine stage musicals, six of which have been filmed. The shows that never made it to the big screen are "Allegro," "Me and Juliet" and "Pipe Dream."

For the record, the two "State Fair" films (1945 and 1962), "Carousel" (1956), "The King and I" and "The Sound of Music" (1965) were all produced by 20th Century-Fox, while the films of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and "South Pacific" (1958) were produced independently by Rodgers and Hammerstein's own Magna Corporation - but released by Fox.

Only "Flower Drum Song" (1961) was made by another studio, Universal, and for me, it's the most durable of the Rodgers and Hammerstein films.


The fact is, as grand as they may seem on the surface, just about every one of the beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals comes with a nagging sense of déjà vu. This is something that's particularly evident on film because of the camera's relentless knack for picking up every flaw.

I call it The Rodgers & Hammerstein Formula.
"Oklahoma!" successfully introduced this formula, something that Rodgers and Hammerstein would slavishly rework and rehash for the rest of their careers together - namely, the confrontation between an innocent but headstrong young heroine (gingham-clad Laurie, in the case of "Oklahoma!") and an incorrigible sexist (cowboy Curly, in the same piece).

This basic theme would resurface between lovelorn Julie Jordan and petty criminal Billy Bigelow in "Carousel"; between hayseed Nellie Forbush and shady Emil De Becque in "South Pacific," and between the title characters in "The King and I." Even the modern, jazzy "Flower Drum Song" was affected by this by-the-numbers plotting, initially pairing sweet Mei Li with swinging Sammy Fong.

If "The King and I," based on a true story, seems slightly more progressive than the team's musicals that preceded it, it's because at least its heroine, Anna Leonowens, is drawn as a mature, intelligent woman who's as savvy as the King - and knows it. She doesn't take any guff from him; she doesn't back down. The battle of the sexes - something on which Rodgers and Hammerstein commented with some regularity - is much more evenly executed in "The King and I."

As the show was a huge family success, both on stage and film, it's little wonder that, toward the end of their united careers, when they were in desperate need of a hit, the team did something shameless:

They ripped off "The King and I."

"The Sound of Music" may be based on a true story of its own, but it is a virtual clone of "The King and I," what with its story line about a man with a lot of children and the feisty woman who invades his household as the children's teacher. Along the way, she teaches the man something, too.

The similarities are striking, right down to the heroine-sings-with-the-kids novelty numbers - "Getting To Know You" in "The King and I" and "Do-Re-Mi" in "The Sound of Music." Oddly enough, "The Sound of Music," a show not considered top-notch Rodgers and Hammerstein when it opened on Broadway, has managed to surpass its inspiration in terms of popularity. The masses just can't get enough of it.

Just as the use of children in "The King and I" revitalized Rodgers and Hammerstein's schtick, the addition of nuns and Nazis in "The Sound of Music" somehow made their formula even more irresistible to the public.

Nuns!  Nazis!  Kids!


This formula, of course, doesn't stop with their plotting or characters. If their heroes and heroines are interchange-able from show to show, so are the big dramatic numbers - the songs with a message, if you will - that are always belted across by a secondary - and older - female character.

Usually at the top of the second act.

In "Carousel," this big inspirational number is "You'll Never Walk Alone"; in "South Pacific," it's "Bali Hai"; in "The King and I," it's "Something Wonderful"; in "Flower Drum Song," it's "Love Look Away"; and in "The Sound of Music," it's "Climb E'vry Mountain." Not to diminish any of these songs - they're all genuinely beautiful, after all - but there's something gnawingly familiar in the way that they are all utilized.

Still, the assembly line quality of these songs is much less offensive than Rodgers and Hammerstein's penchant for always finding new ways to slip a wildly sexist song - one that denigrates women - into their shows.

At least, "The King and I" avoided this.

We all know about "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" in "South Pacific," but in the same show, Nellie Forbush also gets to sing about what a silly little "Cockeyed Optimist" she is. It's a shrewd conceit about Rodgers and Hammerstein shows - having women sing sexist things about themselves.

In "Flower Drum Song," for example, just about every condescending female stereotype is dragged out for Linda Low's "I Enjoy Being a Girl." In "Oklahoma!" Ado Annie sings that she's just "A Girl Who Can't Say No." During the big wedding scene in "The Sound of Music," the nun chorus does a reprise of "Maria": "How do you solve a problem like Maria?"


Why you marry her off, of course.

And don't get me started on "Sixteen Going on Seventeen."

Even worse is Julie Jordan's "What's the Use of Wondrin'?" in "Carousel," in which all you women out there are advised to put up with grief and abuse from some guy because "he's your man and you love him so."

The topper, however, came in a song that was added to the 1962 remake of "State Fair" for musical veteran Alice Faye (making a comeback) to sing to her screen daughter, Pamela Tiffin. It's called "Never Say No." 

Here's how it goes:

"Never say "no' to a man
Simply avoid saying "yes' to him
That leaves the ultimate guess to him
Darling, don't ever say 'no'!"

How's that for a musical invitation to date rape? (The makers of the constantly touring stage version of "State Fair" have wisely elected to pass on this particular song for its current incarnation. And not to denigrate Hammerstein, Rodgers wrote this one by himself after Oscar passed.)

There were never any equivalent songs for Rodgers and Hammerstein's male characters to address questionable things about themselves. Never.

With the exception of "The Sound of Music," all of Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage musicals have been filmed with some fidelity to the originals (although "Carousel" and "The King and I" both had numbers deleted after their previews). In the case of "The Sound of Music," however, scenarist Ernest Lehman revamped the material with the active cooperation of Richard Rodgers. Hammerstein was deceased by the time this 1965 Oscar-winner (!) was made.
The changes that Lehman made didn't improve "The Sound of Music"; they only Disney-fied it. While the stage play had a certain rumpled maturity about it, the movie is all sun and sugar, moving Pauline Kael to called it "The Sound of Mucous."  Christopher Plummer was also widely quoted with this quip, although lately, he's come around.  He's now a fan of the film.

For the movie, Rodgers was encouraged to drop three of the lesser known stage songs and replace them with new two ones, for which he wrote the music and lyrics - and both new songs proved to be wildly mediocre.

The cynical "There's No Way To Stop It," one of the original songs to be eliminated from the film, is excellent and "How Can Love Survive" is the one (the only) truly adult song in the original score.

And the sturdy "An Ordinary Couple" is a far, far better song than the one that replaced it, the terminally inane "Something Good." Julie Andrews has noted how she and Plummer had a difficult time with "Something Good."

"We kept getting the giggles," she's reminisced.

One can understand why, Julie. The song is ... unsingable.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

happy gratitude day!

Everyone routinely mistakes George Seaton's "Miracle on 34th St." (1947), featuring a young Natalie Wood and John Payne (above) and Edmund Gwenn (below), for a Christmas movie. 


It's actually a Thanksgiving movie.  Well, almost.

Monday, November 09, 2015

delon et schneider

Alain Delon and Romy Schneider were the "it" couple when movie stars actually gave off some heat - and when their names weren't "cleverly" spliced together by some socially stunted journalist (read: Brangelina).

The affecting Romy passed way too young in 1982 (of cardiac arrest) and Delon has outlived her by 33 years.  He was married once - to Nathalie Delon from 1964 to 1969 - but only once.  His relationship with Romy both predated his marriage and followed it.  She died; he never married again.

Alain Delon turned 80 yesterday.  Joyeux Anniversaire!

tonight at 8. center orchestra. two on the aisle.

Turner airs "the best damn musical!" this evening.  Can't wait.  It is possibly my all-time favorite film (as anyone who follows this site surely already knows).  Two items on my wish list, however. 

First, I hope that Robert (or Ben, or whoever introduces "Gypsy" tonight) doesn’t remind us for the 1,438th time that the role of Madam Rose was written for Ethel Merman.  (We know already. Besides, Roz rules.)  And, two, that the character isn't referred to - for the 1,439th time - as "Mama Rose."  She isn't called that in either the play or the film (as author Arthur Laurents kept reminding people).  She's called Rose, Madam Rose and Mama.

But never Mama Rose.  Never. That said, bring on Caroline!

Sunday, November 01, 2015

cinema obscura: Peter Ustinov's "Romanoff and Juliet" (1961)

Ignored by its distributor, Universal Pictures, for almost five dacades now, "Romanoff and Juliet" is Peter Ustinov's Cold War satire that playfully juxtaposes the familiar Shakepeare plot with the political atmosphere that was simmering in 1961. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been available on home entertainment in any form and I can't recall the last time it was televised. I'm guessing forty years at least.

I'm seriously dating myself here.

Sandra Dee and John Gavin (above), who also teamed the same year in Henry Levin's "Tammy, Tell Me True" (also for Universal), play the title characters - he being the son of the Soviet Ambassador to Concordia and she the daughter of his American counterpart. Ustinov essays the role of the leader of Concordia, virtually playing it drunk, and makes a most disarmimg cupid for Romanoff and Juliet.

Ustinov's satire compares favorably with "The Mouse That Roared," Jack Arnold's Cold War satire from the same period, but it inexplicably remains less known than Arnold's film.

The 1958 play which Ustinov wrote and on which his film was based was directed by none-other-than George S. Kaufman and included incidental music by Harold Rome ("Fanny") with lyrics written by Ustinov and ... Anthony Hopkins. Elizabeth Allen played Juliet and Edward Atienza played Romanoff. Ustinov recreated his original Broadway role for the film.

Note in Passing: Speaking of "Tammy, Tell Me True," it is available on DVD in a boxed set from MCA/Universal that includes "Tammy and the Bachelor" (1957) and "Tammy and the Doctor" (1963). I don't know about the other two "Tammys," but I'm a sucker for "Tammy, Tell Me True."

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

cinema obscura: two with don johnson

Don Johnson is one of those effortless actors who rarely, if ever, attracts praise. His softshoe performances, more often than not expended on worthless films, have battled against the distraction of his tabloid life.

His signature role remains one that he played on TV - as Detective "Sonny" Crockett on the TV series, "Miami Vice" (1984-1990) - although he was much more commanding in the Paul Newman role in the 1985 TV adaptation of "The Long Hot Summer," playing alongside Judith Ivey, Jason Robards, Cybill Shepherd and Ava Gardner.

His film career has been largely negligible.

But for one brief moment, he shined in two too-little-seen films that should have jump-started a life on the big screen.

"Sweet Hearts Dance" - a 1989 effort by writen by playwright Ernest Thompson ("On Golden Pond") and directed by Robert Greenwald (who also helmed "Xanadu" and who now makes excellent liberal-leaning political documentaries) - is a lovely, mournful little film about disillusionment, about being young but not as young as you once were and realizing that time has passed while you're still waiting.

Waiting for what?

For something, anything - for your life to get started.

That's what hits Johnson's character, Wiley Boon, and to a lesser extent his best friend, Sam (Jeff Daniels). Wiley has everything that has evaded Sam - a wife (Susan Sarandon) and kids - and Sam can't understand why Wiley is so unhappy. Sam, on the other hand, is self-aware. He knows what ails him - and Adie (Elizabeth Perkins), a new teacher in town, just might make a difference in his life. We get two duets here.

This tiny ensemble settles in nicely under Greenwald's direction, with Johnson in particular exhibiting strong innocence and innocent strength.

His is a solid performance.

In 1991, Johnson teamed with his then-wife Melanie Griffith for "Paradise," Mary Agnes Donoghue's evocative American remake of Jean-Lopu Hubert's 1987 rural French film, "Le Grand Chemin" ("The Grand Highway"). Hubert's fragile material travels well to America under Donoghue's careful, sensitive direction, which honors elements otherwise abandoned by the American film industry - namely, attention to people and the common issues and crises in their lives.

Johnson and Griffith play a childless couple whose young son died two years earlier and whose lives are disrupted, blissfully, by the arrival of a little boy (Elijah Wood), a friend's son who has come to spend the summer with them in the wetlands of South Carolina. (A very young Thora Birch, in her film debut, charms as a local kid who befriends Wood).

Johnson summons a natural honesty and candidness that provide the supporting titanic structure for Griffith's major performance - a great piece of film acting by Melanie, well worth checking out.

Much of what happens in "Paradise" is moodily emotional and internal, which may explain why the film came in under the radar when it was initially released - and why it is now, sadly, a lost movie.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

to dub or not to dub / part two

Continuing the topic addressed in the previous essay, much more troublesome - for me, at least - than singing being dubbed in musicals are those players whose entire vocal performances have been dubbed.

Case in point: The charming singer Joanie Sommers who made her inauspicious film debut in the 1961 Don Taylor film, "Everything's Ducky," starring Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett.

Taylor, the affable actor who played the groom opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Vincente Minnelli's "Father of the Bride" (1950), directed a few episodes of several TV series before making his big-screen directorial debut with "Everything's Ducky," a comedy for Columbia.

It's about two sailors (Rooney and Hackett) and a talking ... duck.

Sommers had a distinctive speaking and singing voice - soft, velvety, with a slight tomboyish pull to it. She is perhaps best-known for her hit version of the song "One Boy" from the play and film, "Bye Bye Birdie." But her voice is unrecognizable - alien - in "Everything's Ducky."

For some bizarre reason, Taylor (or someone) decided to completely re-record her dialogue using another actress's voice. They even dubbed over Sommers' giggles in the film. It's an insane conceit - akin to replacing the singular voice of, say, a Debra Winger or a Zooey Deschanel.

It was never revealed exactly who dubbed Joanie Sommers in "Everything's Ducky," although Columbia did manage to credit the actor - Walker Edmiston - who provided the voice of the duck. Go figure.

This wasn't the first time that a studio did something drastic with an actress' voice. When Ingrid Thulin's voice in Minnelli's 1962 version of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" was considered too thick and indecipherable for the average American moviegoer, Metro recruited no less than Angela Lansbury to read all her lines.

At least, Thulin was already an established actress - well, certainly in Europe. But Sommers was brand-new to acting.

And so was Jacqueline Bisset, who had one of her more memorable early screen roles in Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road" (1967) - and her husky, trained voice, also very familiar, was dubbed. Word is that Donen actually needed Bisset to reloop some of her dialogue but, as she was already off, working on another film and unavailable, another actress, also never identified, was brought in to dub her entire vocal performance.

Am I the only one who finds all this distracting and disturbing? I mean, a person's voice is a big part of a performance - nay, it's 100% of the performance. I don't know how it can be easily replaced.

Is any artistic excuse legitimate?

More troublingl is what director Hugh Hudson did to Andie MacDowell in her first screen role in his "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" (1984). He took MacDowell's charming, enticing twang and replaced it with the patrician tones of Glenn Close, his decision never explained.

It was a situation that humiliated both actresses. (I've never interviewed either MacDowell or Close but I spent most of my career dying to ask them about it.)  It's evident how MacDowell was humiliated but Close was also affected, put in a bad light.  At the time, she was brand-new to films, but successfully so:  She had received three consecutive Oscar nominations for her first films - George Roy Hill's "The World According to Garp"  (1982), Lawrence Kasdan's "The Big Chill" (1983) and Barry Levinson's "The Natural" (1984).  From that vantage point, Close was arguably the  biggest name attached to "Greystoke," but it was understood that her participation would be uncredited and, on-screen, she wasn't.

But someone attached to the production decided to leak the information to the press, possibly because Close was indeed its biggest name and perhaps also because the film had been plagued with problems.  The director reportedly changed so much of Robert Towne's script that the writer had his name removed from it; Towne is credited instead as P.H. Vazak (which, legend has it, was the name of his sheepdog.)

Anyway, Hudson's decision could have easily derailed MacDowell's acting career and ruined her reputation. But luckily, somehow, that didn't happen. She actually flourished in some very good films - among them, "sex, lies and videotape," "Groundhog Day," "Unstrung Heroes," "The Muse," "The End of Violence," "Green Card" and  "Four Weddings and a Funeral." Hudson, meanwhile, hasn't had a film in more than a decade. (He recently completed "Altamira" with Antonio Banderas and Rupert Everett.)

And get this:  Fifteen years later, in 1999, Close would do the voice work in another "Tarzan" - as the character Kala in Disney's animated "Tarzan" (encoring in the direct-to-video "Tarzan II" in 2005).

And according to Hollywood legend, James Keach dubbed the voice of then-newcomer Klinton Spilsbury in the "Legend of the Lone Ranger" movie - a move that I think may have aborted Spilsbury's career - and Lindsay Crouse came in and dubbed Lysette Anthony in "Krull."

Getting back to Sommers, she made out much better in her second film, 1964's "The Lively Set," with James Darren and Pamela Tiffin. Director Jack Arnold, always a pro, was smart enough to retain her seductive purr.