Saturday, November 25, 2017

façade: Carl Reiner

Back on October 14th, in an essay titled small screen, big screen, I celebrated those TV personalities who moved into feature films during the 1980s, seemingly in tandem, and who turned out some pretty impressive movies - among them, Danny DeVito, Penny Marshall, her brother Garry Marshall, Rob Reiner, Leonard Nimoy and, of course, Ron Howard.

In response, Mike Schlesinger gently reminded me that I had overlooked Henry Winkler, but my defense was that while Winkler did direct two (and only two) amiable features - Billy Crystal's "The Memory of Me" and Burt Reynolds' "Cop & 1/2" - his work did not have the impact of, say, DeVito's "The War of the Roses," Penny Marshall's "Awakenings," James L. Brooks' "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News" or anything by Howard.

Mike's comment stayed with me and I thought about who else I might have forgotten. One name came to mind - Carl Reiner. True, Reiner predates his television peers by a good decade - he emerged as a film director in the 1970s - but he certainly deserved to be referenced in the piece as something as a trailblazer, one of the first to make the transition.

Reiner, who is now a spry 95, has a rich, enviable comic history in television, having worked with both Sid Ceasar and Mel Brooks. After these internships, he struck out on his own, with the invaluable help and support of producer Sheldon Leonard, and created "The Dick Van Dyke" show in 1961, the template for every sophisticated sitcom that followed. 

Not unlike several other sitcoms that became fabulous successes,"The Dick Van Dyke" show was an accident. Reiner had originally written it with idea of starring in it himself.

In a pilot film  titled "Head of the Family," produced in 1959 for CBS, he played the TV writer Rob Petrie and Barbara Britton and Sylvia Miles co-starred in the roles that would subsequently be played by Mary Tyler Moore and Rose Marie when Van Dyke, then a hit on Broadway in the 1960 stage version of "Bye Bye Birdie," came on board as the star.

Now a success on TV without being in anyone's shadow, Reiner moved into film, writing his first screenplay - the astute, acerbic jab at advertising, "The Thrill of It All" (1963), directed by Norman Jewison and starring Doris Day and James Garner (and featuring Reiner in a series of witty cameos).

The same year, his semi-autobiographical novel, "Enter Laughing," was adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein and opened at Henry Miller's Theater on March 13th, 1963 with Alan Arkin in the lead role (playing Reiner's alter ego). This leads to a string of fascinating connections (or coincidences): Reiner would work with Jewison two more times - writing the script for "The Art of Love" (1965) and then acting for Jewison in the once-popular "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" (1966). One of Reiner's co-stars in "The Russians Are Coming..." - a hilarious all-star lark barely regarded these days - was ... Alan Arkin.

A year later, Reiner made his big-screen directorial debut with the film version of "Enter Laughing" (1967), another terrific comedy that's been unaccountably forgotten, starring José Ferrer, Elaine May and Reni Santoni in the role played on stage by Arkin. (Arkin looked youthful enough on stage but couldn't pass for a twenty-something actor on screen.)

Reiner wrote his own adaptation. Of course.

In 1969, he directed Van Dyke and Michelle Lee in "The Comic" (originally titled "Billy Bright"), a tiny, charming but ultimately forgettable vaudeville-based film, but a year later, in 1970, Reiner made something of a splash with "Where's Poppa?," an envelope-pushing comedy aimed  at the counterculture "youth" audience of the time. This was not your grandma's Sid Ceasar comedy, but it is close to the films that Mel Brooks would successfully make.

The subject of "Where's Poppa?," starring Ruth Gordon and George Segal as mother and son, was momism, and it was greeted with controversy when its jaw-dropping fade-out scene was deleted at the 11th hour, following a testy New York press junket. (The sequence was subsequently restored for home entertainment.) I attended the aforementioned junket and remember Reiner announcing to the media the morning after the screening that the scene in question was determined to be "offensive."

To which a joker in the crowd shouted, "The whole film's offensive!"

By today's (lowered) standards, "Where's Poppa?" would be rated PG.

The film, which had its supporters and still has a cult following, put a damper on Reiner's movie ambitions. After that, he worked largely in TV again, although many years later, he directed the popular George Burns-John Denver film, "On God!" (1977), and  Henry Winkler's "The One and Only" (1978).

It took ten years before Reiner's film career would truly kick back into action. The movie was "The Jerk" (1979) and it was the first of a fruitful collaboration with Steve Martin. Suddenly, Carl Reiner was trendy.

Each film that Reiner made with Martin got better - "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" (1982), "The Man with Two Brains" (1983) and "All of Me" (1984).

By now, those other directors from television were active and prolific, including his son, Rob Reiner. Having led the way (and having parted from Martin), Reiner started to slow down.

He directed an esoteric little film with the British comic, Robert Lindsay, called "Bert Rigby, You're a Fool" (1989) and a promising comedy with Kirstie Alley and Bill Pullman, "Sibling Rivalry" (1990) which seems to have the fingerprints of studio tampering. Its flaws notwithstanding, I like "Sibling Rivalry," as well as the last movie that Reiner has directed to date, "That Old Feeling" (1997), a refreshingly old-fashioned comedy that pairs Bette Midler perfectly with the much-missed Dennis Farina.

As an actor, Reiner was pleasing company, a quality that came through in the handful of films that he directed. He had a good run as a filmmaker and, now that he's seemingly returned to acting (Steven Soderberph's "Ocean's Eleven" trilogy), his friendly face is a most welcomed presence.

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.
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(from top)

~Carl Reiner on the set of "The Thrill of It All" with stars Doris Day and James Garner
~photography: Universal-International 1963© 

~Publicity shot of the writer at work
~photography: CBS 1960©

~Reiner's opening credits for "Head of the Family" (precursor to "The Dick Van Dyke Show")
~photography: CBS 1959©
~Reiner in "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" 
~photography: United Artists 1966© 

~George Segal and Ruth Gordon in Reiner's "Where's Poppa?" 
~photography: United Artists 1970© 

~Reiner on the set of "The Jerk" with Steve Martin 
~photography: Universal 1979© 

~Martin and Lily Tomlin in "All of Me"
~photography: Universal 1984©  

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And a little square.

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

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

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

Note in Passing: The location shooting of "It Happened to Jane in Chester was so pleasant and memorable that co-star Casey Adams (aka, Max Showalter), 1917-2000,  purchased an 18th-century farmhouse and settled there, becoming involved in the local theater in his later years.
Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.
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~Title credit for "It Happened to Jane"

~Assorted still shots from the film's train sequence 

~Publicity shot of Ernie Kovacs as Harry Foster Malone

~14x22 window card for "It Happened to Jane"

~Cover for Marvin H. Albert novelization of the film's screenplay, then titled "That Jane from Maine" 

~14x22 window card for the film's re-release under the title "Twinkle and Shine"

~Publicity shot of Casey Adams (aka Max Showalter)

~End credit for "It Happened to Jane"

~photography: Columbia 1959©