Saturday, September 26, 2015

holliday with lemmon

Judy & Jack, together (too infrequently)
During his five-decade film career, Jack Lemmon pretty much varied his co-stars, particularly his leading ladies.  But he managed to appear with Kim Novak in three titles ("Phffft!," "Bell, Book and Candle" and "The Notorious Landlady") and he made two movies each with Shirley MacLaine ("The Apartment" and "Irma La Douce"), Lee Remick ("Days of Wine and Roses" and "Tribute"), Dorothy Provine ("Good Neighbor Sam" and "The Great Race"), Sally Kellerman ("The April Fools" and "That's Life") and best of all - drum roll, please! - the inimitable, the one-and-only Judy Holliday.

Judy and Jack made two films - George Cukor's "It Should Happen to You" and Mark Robson's "Phffft!" - that were released back-to-back in 1954, although they weren't made consecutively (more about that later). And they almost made a third (and more about that later, too).  Jack often remarked that he felt blessed that, for his film debut in "It Should Happen to You," he was paired with Judy Holliday who, during the 1950s, was the darling of Columbia Pictures, where Lemmon was a new contract player.

Surprisingly, Holliday, who died of breast cancer way too young (age 44) in 1965, had substantial roles in only eight major films (with bits in four others).  Her movie career is bookended by two Metro titles - George Cukor's "Adam's Rib" (1949) and Vincente Minnelli's film musical, "Bells Are Ringing" (1960), an adaptation of her Comden-Green Broadway hit.

In-between, she appeared in six titles at Columbia, beginning with her Oscar-winning "Born Yesterday," also directed by Cukor and also an adaptation of one of her stage successes. The other titles were two more by Cukor, "The Marrying Kind" (1952) and "It Should Happen to You," "Phffft!" and two made with Richard Quine, "The Solid Gold Cadillac" and "Full of Life" (both released in 1956), after which Holliday left Columbia to return to Broadway for a run in the aforementioned "Bells Are Ringing."

All of Holliday's Columbia titles were filmed in black-&-white (with the exception of the final scene in "The Solid Gold Cadillac," a novelty showing the title car in glimmering gold). "Bells" was her only full color movie.

OK, I have to stop here and ask Sony Home Entertainment:  Where the heck is a boxed DVD set of Judy's six Columbia titles?  It's long overdue.
That said, back to the topic... "It Should Happen to You," based on an original screenplay written by Garson Kanin (under the working title, "A Name for Herself"), is a rather prescient - and very witty - tale of a New York model and wannabe celebrity named Gladys Glover (Holliday) who hatches a clever scheme to make a name for herself by renting a huge Columbus Circle billboard and having her name emblazoned across it:

Gladys Glover.  

Gladys Glover. That's all. Just her name. But it's enough to prompt curiosity and a buzz around Manhattan. Who - or what - is Gladys Glover?
 "It's Glover! Not a C, like you got it - G, like you haven't got it!" -Judy Holliday as the incorrigible Gladys

Gladys' eccentricity isn't enough to initially deter the ardor of a struggling documentary filmmaker, Pete Sheppard (Lemmon), who shrewdly finds a way to move into the apartment building where Gladys lives.  As her signs around New York multiply, Gladys' modeling career is kicked into high gear.  But she becomes a joke - the symbol of nothing, a dubious distinction that she seems to relish.

She's living a fraudulent life.  And Pete simply can't compete with - or stomach - her growing obsession with empty fame. It's become disruptive.

This makes for a cautionary tale but one that, thanks to Holiday's flawless timing and inimitable line readings, is hands-down hilarious.

As for Lemmon, he makes an auspicious, pleasing screen debut and, for once, the display ads introducing him as "a guy you're gonna like" are spot-on accurate.

The next film that Lemmon filmed was H.C. Potter's "Three for the Show," one of those irresistible piffles about someone who ends up, inadvertently, with two spouses. Officially, Potter's film is a remake of Wesley Ruggles' 1940 film with Jean Arthur, "Too Many Husbands." Betty Grable has the Arthur role here, with Jack and Gower Champion as her husbands.

You've also seen this before, of course,  in Garson Kanin's 1940 "My Favorite Wife" (with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and Michael Gordon's 1965 remake, "Move Over, Darling" (with Doris Day and Jame Garner).

The release of "Three for the Show" was held up and delayed until 1955 while Columbia dealt with the Catholic Church's Legion of Decency, which slapped the film with its notorious "Condemned" rating because, according to the Legion, it encouraged adultery.  Consequently, Lemmon's third film, "Phffft!," was released as his second - this one a comedy about divorce.

But it had no censorship problems.

Robson's "Phffft!" is a marital comedy written by playwright George Axelrod that has remained impressively contemporary for more than 50 years now.  This terrific film has always existed, inexplicably so, in the shadow of "It Should Happen to You!" Actually, maybe it's not all that inexplicable, given that Cukor's name always went further in movie-critics circles and among buffs than Robson's ever did.

Nevertheless, both films have one thing in common - uncommonly smart, alert scripts written by people who honed their skills on the stage. Axelrod - the author of the scripts for "The Seven Year Itch," "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "The Manchurian Candidate" and the director of "Lord Love a Duck" - came up with sharp, ageless observations as he investigates the disintegration of the marriage of Nina and Robert Tracy (played by Holliday and Lemmon) and the way it inevitably rebounds.

"Phffft!" could be called post-trendy.

Axelrod's dialogue is a particular treat. That invaluable character actor,
Jack Carson, plays Charlie Anderson, Lemmon's best friend - a confirmed bachelor who forever hands out both bad and interesting dating advice. His lecture on the allure of facial hair provides an excellent case in point:

Charlie (to Robert): "Grow a moustache. A moustache is very important, It's all part of the famous Charlie Anderson Theory on the Efficacy of Face Hair in Dealing with the Opposite Sex. Sure. Always remember this, Bobby -- dames become unpredictable when faced with a moustache -- it both arouses and angers them -- Being as it is a symbol of masculinity, they feel drawn toward it."

At this point, the camera shifts to Lemmon's reaction and the remainder of Carson's pontification as scripted by Axelrod is deleted from the release print: "And at the same time, because of envy, they feel impelled to cause its removal. All men should raise moustaches from time to time."
Then there's the very funny dance sequence. Both the Lemmon and Holliday characters take dance lessons (independent of each other) at an Arthur Murray's, only to unexpectedly end up together in the next scene on the dance floor of a nightclub, doing a wickedly hilarous mambo (choreographed by an uncredited Jack Cole, who also designed the dances for "Three for the Show") - a movie moment every bit as memorable, and as witty, as anything in a Billy Wilder film.

By the way, Axelrod's full, original title for the film was "Phffft: Chronicle of a Happy Divorce."
The movie that Lemmon and Holliday almost made was Richard Quine's "My Sister Eileen" (1955), a wonderful film musical, thanks largely to a pleasing Jule Styne-Leo Robin score, early Bob Fosse choreography (before it became terminally mannered) and a smashing lead performance by Betty Garrett as Ruth Sherwood, her only real lead role in a film.
Garrett had inherited the role of Ruth when Holliday had to back out at the last minute. Janet Leigh is charming as her sister Eileen (and also dances well with Fosse) and Jack, in a largely supporting role, has fun with his giddily salacious number (pictured below), "Bigger Than Both of Us."

Director Quine started out as an actor and appeared in 25 titles, including Rosalind Russell's original "My Sister Eileen" film (1942), in which he played soda jerk Frank Lippincott, the young man nursing a crush on Janet Blair's Eileen. Thirteen years later, he would direct this film, with the role of Lippincott going to Fosse (billed here as Robert Fosse, incidentally). One can only imagine what Holliday would have been like in the role of Ruth, but frankly, I can't imagine "My Sister Eileen" without Betty Garrett. She's the film's heart, first-rate, plus her chemistry with Lemmon is grown-up, smart and sublime.
Notes in Passing: Lemmon made a fourth film with Kim Novak - George Sidney's "Pepe" of 1960 - but they never appeared together on screen.  Each had their own brief vignette with star Cantinflas. Also Garson Kanin's script for "It Should Happen to You" (with "A Name for Herself" on the cover page) is available for review at Lincoln Center's library in New York.

Monday, September 14, 2015

cinema obscura: Sidney Lumet's "A View from the Bridge" (1962)

As I've suggest in several essays here, the movie year 1962 was a great one, arguably the best - better than 1939 - with dozens of notable filmmakers working with a liberating freedom. One of them was Sidney Lumet, who devoted himself to adaptations of two legendary plays.

Most film aficionados admire the fidelity of Lumet's film of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Days Journey into Night," but few are even aware of his now largely forgotten version of Arthur Miller's hothouse drama, "A View from the Bridge," also from '62.

Frankly, it also slipped my mind until I read of England's recent Young Vic production, with Mark Strong in his Olivier Award-winning delineation of the conflicted Italian longshoreman Eddie Carbone. (Strong, left, is known largely as one of Great Britain's premiere character actors but he is actually Italian himself, born Marco Giuseppe Salussolia.)

But back to Lumet's film version, which starred Italian actor Raf Vallone (below) as Eddie and co-starred Carol Lawrence and Maureen Stapleton. Very much an international affair, Lumet's "A View from the Bridge," which cleaves closely to Miller's play, was a French-Italian co-production made in two versions - one spoken in English, the other a French-language version.

Eddie Carbone lives in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, unhappily married to Stapleton's Beatrice. Eddie is really in love with Catherine, the 18-year-old niece whom he and Beatrice have raised since childhood, but he is too artless to be fully aware of either his deeply suppressed feelings for Catherine or his casual rejection of Beatrice.

And there might be something else going with Eddie.

Carol Lawrence, fresh from the stage production of "West Side Story," made her film debut under Lumet's direction and, to the best of my knowledge, Catherine remains her only big-screen role. She tested for the film of WSS but, of course, that role went to Natalie Wood.

She's a lovely presence here and Michel Kelber's stark black-&-white cinematography seems to love her pale, soft skin and regal cheekbones.

Is rough-hewn Vallone in love with niece Lawrence or her boyfriend Sorel in "A View from the Bridge"?
Eddie faces a crisis when he agrees to help two of Beatrice's cousins enter the country illegally, particularly when Catherine is attracted one of them, the handsome Rodolpho (played by the French actor Jean Sorel).

He interferes not only by reporting Rodolpho and his brother Marco (Raymond Pellegrin, very good) to the immigration department, but by also accusing Rodolpho of being a homosexual. The film's big scene - a cause célèbre at the time - has a desperate Eddie planting a big, wet kiss on Rodolpho to prove his point about the young man's sexuality. By this point, "A View from the Bridge" has gone haywire. I mean, is Eddie still lusting for Catherine or is he now really interesed in Rodolpho?

On stage, "A View from the Bridge" was not a popular success. The original one-act version, directed by Martin Ritt and starring Van Heflin and Eileen Heckart, ran for only 148 performances in 1955.  A year later, a revised, two-act version premiered in England.

Despite its short run, theater critics liked it. But movie critics were decidely more divided in 1962, with Dwight MacDonald praising it and Pauline Kael accusing it of being a lame, would-be Greek tragedy.

Distributed in America by Continental Releasing, Sidney Lumet's "A View from the Bridge" is now virtually impossible to see.

A truly lost film.

Note in Passing: Wikipedia provides a fascinating glimpse into the work's bumpy history.  Incidentally, the last New York revival of the play was in 2010, with Gregory Mosher directing Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Hecht, respectively as Eddie, Catherine ans Beatrice. Here is Ben Brantley's New York Times review of that production.

In the meantime, the Young Vic production is coming to Broadway this fall, beginning previews on October 21st and opening November 12th at the Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, New York, NY 10036.
Sorel's tentative relationship with Lawrence incites a repressed, jealous and ultimately explosive Vallone.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

cinema obscura: George Seaton's "Little Boy Lost" (1953)

George Seaton's hugely affecting "Little Boy Lost," one of the most impressive and personal films in star Bing Crosby's screen career, remains lost.  It is one of several black-&-white Paramount titles from the 1950s that have remained neglected on some shelf at the studio.

Shot on location in Paris in 1953 with a gritty feel for the place, Seaton's film - based on a novel of the same title by Marghanita Laski - is a wartime drama of dislocation, loss and regret, all of which are summed up in Crosby's poignant performance as Bill Wainwright, a star journalist - a major American correspondent (think Edward R. Murrow) stationed in Paris during World War II.

While there, he meets a singer Lisa Garret, played by Nicole Maurey, and they marry and have a son, named Jean.

Bill's work takes him to Dunkirk for a long stretch and, when he returns to Paris, neither his wife nor his little boy (Christian Fourcade) is there. Lisa has been murdered by the Nazis and Jean is homeless, stranded somewhere. Perhaps in an orphanage. After a stressful seach, that's exactly where Bill finds Jean but too much time has gone by.  He's uncertain if this Jean is his son or another sad little lost boy.

This remains a question that haunts Bill, one exacerbated by his grief over the loss of his wife. The boy needs a family.  Bill needs a son.  Does it matter that this little boy may not be his?  Writer-director Seaton is sensitive to this idea and his movie's resolution of it is entirely satisfying without ever pandering or being contrived.

 "Little Lost Boy" earns its tears.

And it certainly helps that the film feels more like a European production than a shiny big-studio effort - a quality that Seaton, as writer-director, brought to another compelling WW 2 film from Parmount, 1962's "The Counterfeit Traitor," starring William Holden and Lili Palmer.

Notes in Passing: "Little Boy Lost" was predated five years earlier by Fred Zinnemann's vaguely similar "The Search," in which a mother and son stage separate searches throughout post-war Berlin after they are torn apart by the Holocust. Jarmila Novotna and especially the gifted young Ivan Jandl provide a most poignant duet, even though they share no scenes together. Montgomery Clift, who made his film debut here for Zinnemann, turns in an unusually relaxed, companionable performance as an empathetic soldier with plans to adopt the boy, whom he names Jim, and bring him home to America. The "americanization" of Jim, to borrow from the title of another war-torn film, is achieved with remarkable ease and credibility by Zinnemann and Jandk's response to his direction.

Finally, it should noted that Crosby and Maury would be teamed again seven years later, this time in a lighter, more romantic vein, in Blake Edwards' campus lark, "High Time" of 1960, co-starring Fabien and Tuesday Weld, no less. Crosby plays a middle-aged man who elects to return to college - sure-fire if not exactly novel material: Rodney Dangerfield tried the stunt some 30-plus years ago in "Back to School" and, more recently, by Melissa McCarthy (added January 20, 2020).

Monday, September 07, 2015

character counts: martin milner

Maharis, Milner, the Corvette: Iconic

Martin Milner, who died yesterday (Sept. 6th) at age 83, was forever young and forever a character actor, never quite a leading man.

Milner seemed ageless throughout his long and diverse career, during which he played variations on the same basic character - the rock-solid, dependable best friend. Despite that, he was difficult to pinpoint.  With his blond, all-American good looks (replete with freckles), he could pass alternately for a laid-back, California surfer or a young Republican. 

Take your pick.

His acting career started in 1947 with a debut role in Michael Curtiz's "Life with Father" and ended 50 years later in 1997 with a guest role on the Dick Van Dyke series, "Diagnosis Murder."  In-between, he moved easily, back and forth, from movies to TV, from TV to movies, playing a lot of uncredited roles -  Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" and John  Ford's "The Long Gray Line," among them - during his first ten years in movies. 

Milner was singled out in Variety's May 10th, 1955 review of Ford's "Mister Roberts," signed Brog.: "Ward Bond, as the CPO, is another who stands out in the fine cast, among whom are Phil Carey, Nick Adams, Ken Curtis, particularly good as Dolan; Harry Carey Jr., Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, as Insigna; Pat Wayne, and Martin Milner, the latter excellent as the mushmouthed shore patrol officer who confines the sailors to ship after an especially riotous liberty."

Good roles in good films followed - Jack Webb's "Pete Kelly's Blues," Alexander Macenrick's "Sweet Smell of Success," Irving Rapper's "Marjorie Morningstar," Richard Fleischer's "Compulsion," William Castle's "13 Ghosts" and the role of Adam in the Mickey Rooney-Albert Zugsmith curiosity/collaboration, "The Private Lives of Adam and Eve" - a few of his jaw-dropping 112 credits.

But, inarguably, Milner was best served on two TV series about male bonding - the cop procedural "Adam-12," opposite Kent McCord (who became Milner's BFF in real life), which ran on NBC from 1968 to 1975, and especially - most especially - the seminal "Route 66," opposite George Maharis (and, later, Glenn Corbett), on CBS from 1960 to '64. 

The on-going tale of two guys, a sharp Corvette and a seemingly endless road across America, "Route 66" was a relative of sorts to Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and like that literary sensation, it had an irresistible beat. It was special. And there really hasn't been anything like it on TV since.

If the prolific Martin Milner did nothing else, he would be celebrated for his moody performance as the wealthy, restless Tod of this iconic series.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

façade: dean jones

Dean Jones, who died yesterday (Sept. 1st) at age 84, was one of those reliable actors routinely taken for granted and terribly underrated.

He is perhaps best known for his work at Disney where he made 10 family-friendly films with such eccentric, animal-oriented titles as "That Darn Cat!," "The Million Dollar Duck," "The Ugly Dachshund" and "Monkeys, Go Home!"  Perhaps it's because so few people in the industry gave Jones or his Disney films much credit that it's rarely noted that those 10 little movies have a total reported gross in excess of $960 million.

Takes that, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and Robert Downey, Jr! 

A resourceful publicist would have touted Jones as "a one-man franchise."

But there was more to Jones than just his stint as Disney's idea of Jimmy Stewart Lite - tall, slender, affable and handsome in a non-threatening way.  For one thing, he was a trained singer and started his career as a vocalist, although he was never given the opportunity to sing in films.

And he started his career while he was still in high school in Decatur, Alabama, where he was born on January 25th, 1931.  While attending Riverside High School in Decatur, Jones hosted his own radio show, "Dean Jones Sings," and also produced local stage productions. 

He studied music at Kentucky's Ashbury University and after being discharged from the Navy, Jones got a job at the Bird Cage Theater, a part of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Ca. where he was discovered by MGM head Dore Schary, who cast Jones in first screen role - an uncredited bit in Paul Newman's "Somebody Up There Likes Me" in 1956. 

Jones made his official screen debut the same year in the James Cagney film, "Those Wilder Years," followed by smallish parts in a couple Glenn Ford films, "Imitation General" and "Torpedo Run," "Never So Few," "Until They Sail," "Tea and Sympathy," the Elvis Presley vehicle, "Jailhouse Rock," and another Newman film, "The Rack."
Jones' film career was pretty much stillborn, with MGM opting to cast him in guest spots on its TV shows, when he decided to take a risk: He and Jane Fonda made their Broadway debuts together in Joshua Logan's 1960 production "There Was a Little Girl," in which Fonda played a rape victim.

The cast also included Joey Heatherton and Gary Lockwood (as one of the rapists). "There Was a Little Girl," an adaptation of  the Christopher Davis novel, wasn't a success, but Jones stayed in New York for the remainder of 1960 to star with Gig Young and Sandra Church in Lawrence Roman's comedy, "Under the Yum-Yum Tree," which was very much a hit - enough of a success, in fact, for NBC and Hy Averback to cast him in the title role of their sitcom, "Ensign O'Toole." Jones was "discovered" a second time.

He recreated his "Yum-Yum" role in the 1963 film version opposite Jack Lemmon and Carol Lynley and reunited with Fonda in the 1966 movie version of the stage comedy, "Any Wednesday," co-starring Jason Robards. And there were also good roles in "The New Interns" and (one of my guilty pleasures) "Two on a Guillotine," with Connie Stevens.

And then came the Disney films. But...

...then, somehow, Jones managed to disengage himself from the ducks, cats and Disney Dachshunds to return to Broadway memorably but briefly in 1970 for the Harold Prince-Stephen Sondheim-George Furth cult musical, "Company," as a replacement for Anthony Perkins. The documentarian D.A. Pennebaker filmed the recording of the show's songs in "Original Cast Album: Company," and while much is made of Elaine Stritch's grueling, repeated efforts to recreate her showstopper, "The Ladies Who Lunch," the single most powerful moment in Pennebaker's film, hands-down, is Jones' searing, passionate rendition of "Being Alive." That single scene in Pennebaker's film is Dean Jones' greatest moment.

Speaking of Perkins, that's who Jones oddly resembles in one of his last major roles, "Beethoven" - yes, "Beethoven," yet another animal-oriented family feature.  In a deliciously evil touch that adds a nifty curlicue to his career, Jones plays the film's Norman Bates-like villain, a nasty veterinarian named Dr. Varnick, out to harm the title St. Bernard.