Wednesday, December 20, 2017

unlikely duo: Edmund Goulding's "Mardi Gras" & Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water"

Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water," arguably the most impressive film of 2017, is a willfully defiant hybrid - an adult genre movie and one with an R rating, no less - that secured the support of a major Hollywood indie, Fox Searchlight Pictures, and seemingly without much compromise.

This hugely creative reboot of Jack Arnold's "Creature from the Black Lagoon" (1954), replete with a creature almost identical to the one designed for Arnold by Milicent Patrick (*), could have easily been aimed at the family crowd, given its holiday release.

But del Toro's vision is singular and not at all derivative. It is driven by a grown-up love story involving an odd woman without voice, affectingly played by Sally Hawkins, who works at a research facility in 1962 Baltimore, and the strange aquatic creature from the Amazon (Doug Jones), equally silent, who is being held captive there, the subject of a government experiment.

This amphibian-humanoid is referred to as The Asset by the vicious men who want to cut him apart and study him for the advancement of space travel. He is a Cold War victim, tangled in America's rivalry with Russia. 

del Toro keeps his fable dark and fearlessly introduces sex to the mix.

His decisions as a filmmaker are never less than fascinating, particularly his filmic references and use of movie clips (all from Twentieth Century-Fox features, of course). For purely personal reasons, I was struck by the double-bill that del Toro selected for The Orpheum, the movie house beneath the apartments were Hawkins and neighbor Richard Jenkins live.

The Orpheum's brightly-lighted marquee rather breathlessly announces:

"The Triumphant Return of 'The Story of Ruth' and 'Mardi Gras.'"

Henry Koster's "The Story of Ruth" is a Biblical epic starring Elana Eden in the title role that Fox released in the summer of 1960. I allegedly saw it about a dozen times that summer but actually saw the film only once.

Instead, I was going to repeat showings of Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," decidedly not a film for children. I lied to my parents and let them think that I was seeing "The Story of Ruth" over and over again. My parents weren't particularly religious but I knew that they'd be a problem if they knew that I was obsessed with an adult film filled with bad role models.

Edmund Goulding's terrific "Mardi Gras" from 1958 is something else - a clean-cut Pat Boone vehicle that remains one of my all-time favorite movie musicals. Back in the day, it played in syndication on television regularly but disappeared when local TV stations stopped airing movies altogether.

The old Fox Movie Channel aired it several times in 2009 and, about a  year later, Fox released the film on DVD, its first-time ever on home entertainment, along with other titles from the 1950s and '60s. Most were awful pan-and-scan versions, including "Mardi Gras," versions made to accommodate the old box TV sets.

Fox took the lazy way out with these transfers, ignoring the films' CinemaScope legacy - odd, given that the widescreen process was a Fox trademark. At the time, Dave Kehr addressed Fox's antiquated (and embarrassing) pan-and-scan DVDs in his invaluable column for The New York Times and on his site, "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia."

del Toro uses two or three clips from "The Story of Ruth" in his film but only one brief bit from "Mardi Gras." But it's in CinemaScope. Which gives me hope that a widescreen DVD may be in the offing. (A guy can dream.)

"Mardi Gras" is Boone's third film but it is less a Pat Boone movie than an ensemble musical - and a full-fledged movie musical at that, with a varied Sammy Fair-Paul Francis Webster song score performed by the entire cast (not just Boone) and some terrific choreography by Bill Foster.

The plot is about four Virginia Military Institute cadets - played by Boone, Dick Sargent, Tommy Sands and Gary Crosby - who aim to attract a French movie starlet (Christine Carère, a delightful, if sadly fleeting, screen presence at the time) to their end-of-the-year ball. Everyone converges in New Orleans, where the movie queen is promoting her latest movie and where the VMI cadets are participating in the Mardi Gras festivities.

Lionel Newman (brother of legendary composer-scorer Alfred Newman and uncle of composers Randy, David and Thomas Newman) orchestrated the nimble score, which includes the title song, "I'll Remember Tonight," "Bourbon Street Blues," "That Man," "What Stonewall Jackson Said," "Just Like The Pioneers," "Bigger Than All Of Texas" and "Loyalty," a showstopper sung by the four cadets and cleverly staged in a locker-room shower. The traditional "Shenandoah," sung by Sands, is also utilized.

Rounding out the cast are the wonderful Sheree North, Barrie Chase (Fred Astaire's TV dancing partner who does a comic striptease), Jennifer West and ace character actors Fred Clark and Geraldine Wall. Jeffrey Hunter and Robert Wagner, who were making "In Love and War" with North at the time (also on the Fox lot) put in cameo appearances.
Carère made her American film debut in Jean Negulesco's "That Certain Smile" (1958) and would appear in one more American film - Raoul Walsh's "A Private's Affair" (1959), also with Gary Crosby - before heading back to France. All three were Fox films. 

Christine Carère died in 2008, age 78.

"Mardi Gras" is one of several Boone films that Fox never bothered to release on home entertainment in any form. So where's the gratitude?

An early contract player at the studio, Boone was a major cash cow for Fox during the 1950s. What's odd is that all of the films of Elvis Presley, Boone's polar-opposite counterpart, have long been available on home entertainment and have been shown endlessly on Turner Classics.

And let's face it, most of Elvis' titles, with the exception of two or three, are fairly bad. As a performer, I always preferred Elvis but Boone actually made better movies - and his first three titles for Fox are more than deserving of a boxed set. Those three would be "Bernadine" and "April Love," both directed by Henry Levin and released in '57, and 'Mardi Gras."

Boone made a credible film debut in "Bernadine," based on the Mary Chase play and augmented by some popular songs (the title tune and "Love Letters in the Sand," among them) that became breakout hits at the time. It's about a group of high-school guys who invent a fictitious girl named Bernadine - the "perfect girl" - and then try to prove that she really does exist. Such veteran film actors as Janet Gaynor, Dean Jagger and Walter Abel are on hand to fortify the inexperienced Boone, and the younger cast includes Terry Moore, James Drury, Dick Sargent (billed as Richard) and Ronnie Burns (son of George Burns and Gracie Allen).

The affable "April Love" is a remake of Henry Hathaway's 1944 film, "Home in Indiana" (based on the novel by George Agnew Chamberlain and utilizing the same screenplay by Winston Miller), about a delinquent city boy forced to do time with relatives in a rural area, stirring things up. (Actually, Herbert Ross's "Footloose" of 1984 could have easily come from the same source.) 

Boone plays the bad boy and he's effectively teamed opposite Shirley Jones. Again, there's an ace supporting cast here - Jeanette Nolan, Arthur O'Connell, Matt Crowley (not to be confused with playwright Mart Crowley) and the sublime, criminally neglected Dolores Michaels.

Both "Bernadine" and "April Love" are modest, diverting entertainments, as is Norman Taurog's "All Hands on Deck" which Boone made with Barbara Eden and Buddy Hackett in 1961. But "Mardi Gras" remains his best.

And, for me, it's a childhood favorite whose status in my mind has never budged. And I'd like to think that Guillermo del Toro appreciates it, too.

(*) Notes in Passing: No, I didn't misspell Milicent Patrick's name. There's only one L in Milicent. Needless to say, a large team worked on the creature for "The Shape of Water," although Antonio Loza is credited with the "creature prosthetics."  

And my favorite Presley films? Easy.There are three: Philip Dunn's "Wild in the Country" (1961), with three terrific leading ladies (Tuesday Weld, Hope Lange and Millie Perkins); Phil Karlson's "Kid Galahad" (1962), with Gig Young and Lola Albright, and Gordon Douglas' delightful "Follow That Dream" (also '62), with Arthur O'Connell, Anne Helm and Joanna Moore. 

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* * * * *
(from top)

~The poster art for "Mardi Gras"

~Ben Chapman as The Gill Man in "Creature from the Black Lagoon"
 (Chapman played the character on land; Ricou Browning in water)
 ~photography: Universal-International 1954©

~Doug Jones as The Asset (aka, The Amphibian Man) in "The Shape of Water"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century Fox 2017©

~Christine Carère and Pat Boone on the set of "Mardi Gras"
~Geraldine Wall, Fred Clark and Carère in a scene from "Mardi Gras"
~Carère and Sheree North in a scene from the film 
 ~photography: Twentieth Century Fox 1958©

~Shirley Jones and Boone in a scene from "April Love"
 ~photography: Twentieth Century Fox 1957©


Andrew said...

Equally frustrating about "Mardi Gras" is the fact that, although it had a great score, there was NEVER a soundtrack album. Pat Boone made studio recordings of six of the songs but without the original cast or original orchestrations ("I'll Remember Tonight" wasn't anything like in the film). It almost seems as though Fox is trying to hide this film. "The Best Things In Life Are Free" is another one that is kept under cover.

joe baltake said...


I'm heartened to know that there are people out there who know of "Mardi Gras" and appreciate it. It's a truly wonderful movie musical. I also was disappointed that no soundtrack was issued. As yo can see from my post, I'm familiar with the Pat Boone 45ep album that you mention. I still have it!

I also like "The Best Things In Life Are Free," another with Sheree North

Janice said...

"Mardi Gras" is a wonderful film, I can't believe it had never been committed to video. Yes, it's a real musical, not just another Pat Boone movie, as you say. I can't wait to see it again. Thanks for the nice tribute to it.

Bennett said...

I was stationed in England at RAF Chicksands when "Bernadine" hit the cinemas. I went right out and bought an Austin Healey 100/6 like Pat had in the movie: "It's a little bit like a rocket propelled machine." Of course, I named the car Bernadine. Would love to have a DVD. Do have the 45 of "Bernadine"

jim said...

Great little site. Love all the dialogue about Pat Boone. Everyone's wish for availability of his films doesn't seem to matter at all to whatever unaware person decides these things at Fox. If they had any good sense at all they would release all of the Pat Boone Fox movies in one or more sets. Let's hope. It's just the right thing to do.

Brian Lucas said...

Matt Crowley is damn good in his 1951 debut film, Robert Parrish's THE MOB, a fine crime drama with Broderick Crawford and Richard Kiley that TCM dusted off a few years ago. He was already middle-aged, and his career seems short-lived. Don't know what his story is, but he's impressively subtle in THE MOB, in kind of a tricky role.

Haven't seen the Pat Boone stuff. Maybe I'll catch MARDI GRAS one day, but pan-and-scan weakens my motivation.

Glenn Erickson said...

Wasn't there some mystery about what happened to Elana Eden? It was interesting seeing her big close-up in SHAPE OF WATER -- I recognized it before the marquee identified it.

Milicent Patrick is not the sole designer of the Gill Man, not by a long shot. According to Tom Weaver, that idea got around because of a publicity campaign showing her drawing designs in the Universal makeup department.

joe baltake said...

Glenn- Mystery is the right word. Elana Eden received a big build-up by Fox when she did "The Story of Ruth" and critics were enthusiastic about her performance - and then, nothing. She appeared as a guest in a couple TV episodes and made only one other film - an Israeli-West German co-production. But that's it. To the best of my knowledge, her disappearance - or possible fall from grace - has never been investigated, examined or answered. Strange. She's still alive and perhaps one day will talk about the aftermath of "Ruth."

Thanks also for the heads-up, re Milicent Patrick's contribution to "Creature from the Black Lagoon." IMDb, hardly a reliable source, only lists her in reference to The Gill Man. And, unfortunately, it's the only accessible source for info on the film.


R. Killingsworth said...

"Bernadine" and Pat Boone served as a role model for my formidable teen years. I was 13 when it came to the movies,and as a young boy, I and all my buddies wanted to be like "Those Guys". They were clean, decent, sharply dressed and knew how to interact with cars, each other, and girls. I'm 72 now and still appreciate the life lessons presented in this movie.

R. Killingsworth

mike schlesinger said...

A few years ago I was at a film festival for a program honoring Shirley Jones, and they ran APRIL LOVE. "Agony" is too kind a word for a movie whose concept of a "rebellious teenager" is Pat Boone showing up at a barbecue in a coat and tie. I hear they're still trying to get the stench out of the drapes.

joe baltake said...

Ouch, Mike! Good one. Yes, the casting is ridiculous.