Tuesday, December 31, 2019

over & out. at long last.

"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 2019.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

joe's dreaded genre

Since the passing of Robert Osborne in 2017, Turner Classic Movies has taken on a new dynamic, diversifying its features via the showcasing of its chief host - the intrepid, amiable Ben Mankiewicz, who brings brio to every new addition to TCM's line-up and achieves it with an easy-going mastery.

These days, everything seems essential on Turner, not the least of which is a new feature titled Pets on Sets, which examines the role of animals in film and how their participation is manipulated and achieved. The segment works largely because of Mankiewicz who brings it off effortlessly with a concern for the animals being exploited that seems genuine and heartfelt.

Is Ben an animal advocate? I have a hunch that he is. Me? Count me in. But my love of animals is equaled by my dislike of movies about them. I don't want to see any movie that's about a dog, cat, horse or lion. Have you noticed that movies about animals are always - always - sad and disturbing?  Awful things traditionally happen to the animal star.

Movies about animals have become my dreaded genre.
The MGM/Lassie films are the worst. "Old Yeller" is the pits. (Blasphemy, I know!) I do like Asta in the "Thin Man" series and Pyewacket in "Bell, Book and Candle," but those films really aren't about them, are they?

David Frankel's “Marley and Me” is the one rare exception - for me. And it remains a great film in general because it is about a life - in this case, the life of a dog from puppyhood to death - and also because of its complete, unapologetic empathy for the animal. All of this occurred to me belatedly after I wrote a previous essay on a potential remake of ”Born Free.”

Sorry, Elsa.

Throughout this December, Mankiewicz has been hosting Pets on Sets in tandem with Carol Tresan, who with her husband Greg, is  owner and operator of Animal Casting Atlanta, which trains animal actors. And while their Wednesday evening get togethers are dominated largely by discussions of animal performances in finished films, Ben, Carol and Greg do not hesitate to consider what it took to achieve those performances. Was it done with ease? Or - and I hate to ask - was cruelty a factor in the process?

Ben asks all the right questions. No surprise here. And Carol and Greg provide invaluable insight, as well as an inside look into the system. Neither pulls any punches. They educate us. We learn a lot about a movie subject that has never been addressed openly - or, if so, only rarely.

No, this trio does not skirt the tough questions. So, again, is cruelty indeed an occasional factor?

This subject came up back in 1995 when I interviewed the late
Pat Derby and her husband and partner Ed Stewart at their PAWS
facility (Performing Animal Welfare Society) in Galt, Ca.

Pat had worked for almost her entire adult life as an animal trainer (specializing in elephants, bears and tigers). but had a change of heart - as well as a carer change - becaming an outspoken crusader for animal rights on movie sets. Pat had a lot to say. Her story about the orangutan that worked in the 1978 Clint Eastwood film, "Every Which Way but Loose" was particularly disturbing. It precipitated her about-face enlighetnment.

A personal case in point: My wife adores George Stevens' "Giant."  Yes, it's a great movie in every way.  But for me, I can't get past the sequence in which Mercedes McCambridge abuses Elizabeth Taylor's beloved horse by driving her spurs into its sides.  It's an ugly scene and the horse is clearly in agony. But was the horse "acting"?  Later, after the horse throws McCambridge, killing her (justice served), it limps back to the ranch - shot in silhouette, against a nighttime sky. An evocative, haunting moment.

But wait!

For decades, I've wondered exactly how the filmmakers got that horse to limp on cue.  Was it "acting" or real?  It's important to remember that "Giant" was made in less enlightened times when it was routine to trip horses (often crippling or even killing them) for action scenes. My guess is that the horse being bludgeoned with spurs and later limping wasn't "acting." Making that particular moment in "Giant' even more deplorable to contemplate (let alone watch) is that, once the men in the film realize that McCambridge died after the horse threw her, they shoot the poor animal (justice not served).

Finally, I always wanted to interview Doris Day, something that evaded me during my career. One subject that I specifically wanted to address was about a film she made in 1962 - "Billy Rose's Jumbo," a musical named after its elephant star.  The animal is forced to do silly routines that are humiliating for a creature as magnificent and sentient as an elephant. What did it take? Again, was there any cruelty involved?  Doris, of course, was a vocal animal activist and this is one area of her career I would have loved to discuss with her.

That said, thanks Ben and Carol for the observation.

Note in Passing: Getting back to Frankel's "Marley & Me"... The film works beautifully as an intelligent, acute depiction of what's like to have a relationship with an animal and how the sudden absence of an animal companion can make one feel so terribly desolate because, well, the animal is always, reliably there - a point driven in the scene where stars Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson watch videos after Marley's passing.

In one of the videos, Aniston is standing at a kitchen counter talking to a friend.  She has a baby on her hip and eating food off the counter.  Marley is behind her and, almost absent-mindedly, without thinking, she gives Marley some of the food - because she just knew he would be there.

But, now, he isn't. No longer.

"Marley & Me." A truly under-appreciated film, the only "animal movie" I can tolerate.

 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. -J

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(from top)

~Ben Mankiewicz 
~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2019©
 ~Marley, as a pup in "Marley & Me"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 2008© 

~Animal trainer Carol Tresan who works in tandem with her husband and partner Greg
~photography: Animal Casting Atlanta 2019©

 ~Animal trainer Pat Derby and friend
~photography:PAWS 1995© 

~Opening title card for the film "Giant"
~photography: Warner Bros.1956©    

~Doris Day and Jimmy Durante in "Billy Rose's Jumbo"
~photography: MGM 1962©  

~Marley, as a young adult in "Marley & Me"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 2008©

Monday, December 16, 2019

you got mail

The letter, unexpected, arrived about a week after I interviewed Angela Lansbury, ostensibly about a 1973 Philadelphia event in which Lansbury was participating at The Academy of Music. Or  perhaps she was touring with Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

But it wasn't from Angela.

It was from Lucille Ball who had just started production on the 1974 film version of Jerry Herman's "Mame," which starred Lansbury on Broadway. Apparently, I referenced Lucy's name in the piece (perhaps only fleetingly), she saw it and, being a pro, wasted no time acknowledging her gratitude. It's all very fuzzy now but it must have been something positive.

~click on letter to enlarge~

I suppose the subject of "Mame" came up, with Lansbury explaining that Ball snagged the role because Warner Bros. felt the film needed not just a big star, but an icon - something that Lansbury, also a pro, took in stride.

That said, with the holidays upon us, CBS has scheduled its annual Christmas screening of "I Love Lucy" in tandem as usual with another vintage episode. This year, the double-bill includes "Paris At Last" which originally broadcast on February. 27, 1956 and involves Lucy's problems with a sidewalk artist with "original" oil paintings, the exchange rate for American dollars (and counterfeit French francs) and .. a plate of snails.

CBS will air the back-to-back episodes on Friday, December 20 at 8 est. The network reports that the main titles and end credits are seamlessly combined into one set at the beginning and end of the hour, with no interruption between the showings. (Both episodes have been colorized.)

Would it be too much of a cliché for me to confess that, yes, I too have been bamboozled and still love Lucy? 

Note in Passing: BTW, when Lucy was cast in "Mame," Rosalind Russell, the original Auntie Mame and a contemporary of Ball's, questioned her friend's age, with the implication that she could have easily reprised the role herself. Instead, Roz opined that maybe Cher would have been a more age-appropriate choice at the time. Interesting. Could have worked.

 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. -J

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(from top)

 ~Vintage Lucille Ball
 ~photography: MGM 1940©

 ~The letter (circa 1973)~

~Lucy in the outdoor café scene from the "Paris At Last" episode of "I Love Lucy"
~photography: CBS 1956/2019©

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

drawing out ms. aniston

Jen has moved beyond being an actress to producer, businesswoman, humanitarian, feminist, entrepreneur, spokeswoman, philanthropist, animal activist, millionaire.

Nearly ten years ago, I devoted a column to some well-deserved praise of Jennifer Aniston, whose on-screen persona perfectly matched the spirit of this site.  A string of Aniston-driven "double-bills" was listed to illustrate her place in my solipsistic movie world of the underrated and neglected.

She is an actor who is attractive, companionable and blessed with crack comic timing and also what The New Yorker's TV critic Emily Nussbaum recently described as "vulnerable warmth." All of which produce a terrific chemistry. Both on-screen and off-. With actors and audiences alike.

Aside from these qualities, the list of films themselves underlined the playfulness and diversity of her decisions ("The Good Girl"! "Friends with Money"! "Office Space"!) and had me wondering exactly why Aniston has been perpetually underrated. Also, she had - and still  has - the potential to revive the kind of breezy movies popularized by Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day in the 1960s, that's if anyone in Hollywood these days is resourceful or creative enough to even consider such a retro revival.

Surprisingly, I was not alone in my assessment: The essay drew in excess of 5,000 hits and 79 comments (to date). Companionable. Yes.

But since then, Jen has moved on, as evidenced in a piece written by Rachel Simon for NBC News, titled "How Jennifer Aniston has stayed America's sweetheart - when so many rivals failed." Being a "movie star" is the least of it these days. There is now so much more to consider and celebrate. Yes, she remains ever-companionable. There's that word again. 

In the interim, other words and expressions have gathered, applying crucially to Jennifer Aniston - words and expressions that go beyond the ease of being an "actress" or "team player" or, yes, even, "friend."

The Jennifer Aniston of the new millennium now commands attention as a producer, businesswoman, humanitarian, feminist, entrepreneur, spokeswoman, philanthropist, animal activist, millionaire.

She has positioned herself as one of the leading, highest-paid, and richest actresses and, more impressively, as an animal devotee. Aniston's new "friends" (apart from her TV besties) have included dogs of all breeds.

And some of these friends have come and gone. There was Norman, her Welsh Corgi-Terrier who was with Aniston during her run on "Friends" and who died in 2008 at age 15. Given that he always slept near her feet, Aniston had his name tattooed on her right ankle after he passed.

When Dolly - the white German Shepherd that she shared with her ex, Justin Theroux, and who appeared on the Aveeno TV commercials with her - passed, Aniston reunited with Theroux to mourn her death, with two other Aniston/Theroux pooches attending - Sally, a Pit Bull mix, and a Hobo Terrier named Clyde who can be seen squeezing his snout into photos during Dolly's funeral. Added to the Aniston/Theroux mix after the funeral, an absolutely adorable Pit puppy named Sally was adopted.

 ~Sophie, Jennifer's Choice~
~The quintessential Jennifer Aniston~

In the 20 years since she's become an actress, Aniston has amassed 64 credits (including television), many of which are essentials. Anyone contemplating a Jennifer Aniston Film Festival would do well to consider these ten (listed in no particular order):

"The Good Girl"

"Office Space"

"The Break-Up"

"He's Just Not That into You"

"Friends with Money"


"The Object of My Affection"

"Marley & Me"

"Love Happens"


 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. -J

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(from top) 

~Jen and her Friends~

Friday, December 06, 2019

lonesome rhodes goes viral

“I’m an influencer, a wielder of opinion, a force — a force!”
 -Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd"

Well, now, it turns out that the word "influencer," most closely associated these days with the ambitions of contemporary self-made celebs such as Olivia Jade, is not exactly a current expression linked to the social media.

No, it was coined by Budd Schulberg sometime back in the early 1950s and is invoked by Andy Griffith on screen in Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," released in 1957. Towards the end of the film, suddenly aware of the power produced by his money-making popularity, Griffith's Lonesome Rhodes screams out, “I’m an influencer, a wielder of opinion, a force — a force!” But exactly when Schulberg came up with the word merits a little research.

"A Face in the Crowd" was adapted by Schulberg from a collection of short stories published by Random House in 1953 under the title "Some Faces in the Crowd."

The story source from the book was one titled "The Arkansas Traveler," which was the working title for the movie. In fact, Kazan filmed all the initial scenes in "A Face in the Crowd" in a rural northeast Arkansas town called Piggott in August of 1956. Bottom line: "Influencer" may date back to '53 or '56, invented for either the short story or the film. It depends.

And I doubt if Olivia Jade was there for either.

 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. -J

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(from top)

 ~Andy Griffith in a scene from "A Face in the Crowd"
 ~photography: Warner Bros. 1957© 

 ~Dust jacket for "Some Faces in the Crowd" and a page from the story, "The Arkansas Traveler"
~photography: Random House 1953©

~Opening title card from "A Face in the Crowd"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1957©

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

m. m. m.

Having interviewed an incredible number of film personalities during my years as a movie critic, I am inevitably asked who were the nicest.

Easy. Jack Lemmon comes to mind immediately, of course. After that, I surprise even myself because two encounters of which I have particularly fond memories involved John Wayne and David Niven, especially Niven.

But more about David Niven later, in another essay. Today, I'll share my John Wayne reminiscence, a situation that was unexpected and wholly memorable. It was July 1976 and Wayne was visiting Philadelphia to promote what would be his final film, Don Siegel's "The Shootist."

Paramount welcomed Wayne, celebrating his arrival by staging the event in the massive John Wanamaker department store, specifically with a luncheon in the store's glittery eighth-floor Grand Crystal Tea Room.

The place was packed, overwhelmingly so. (For a time, the Grand Crystal Tea Room was the largest dining venue in Philadelphia, accommodating sit-down receptions of up to 1,000 people.) The late Linda Goldenberg, who was the Paramount rep in Philly at the time, was in charge of seating and sat me next to Wayne, whom I had interviewed a bit earlier in a more subdued location in the store, Wanamaker's Board Room.

Hold on. Lunch with John Wayne. (Which turned out to nothing like my unfortunate encounter with Shirley MacLaine which was covered here a few essays ago.) Lunch with a mythical screen presence, a situation which made it difficult for the person sitting opposite him to be professional and controlled.

It is here that he became Marion Mitchell Morrison (his real name).

For a while, it was just the two of us sitting at the table, making largely small talk. Wayne was soft-spoken, relaxed and courtly. Uncommonly modest and deferential. An actor and man whom critic Richard Schickel once astutely described as "the unacclaimed hero." The Quiet Man.

It wasn't long before we were approached by a Wanamaker executive who I recognized as Benjamin H. Doroff, the store's Executive Vice President, who asked me to move to another chair or table so that he could sit with Wayne. Doroff was a nice man but he was getting adament. Would there be a scene? To quash that possibility, I simply referred him to the table's place cards. "Perhaps you want to check this out with Linda," I said. This is when Wayne intervened. "She's over there," he said, pointing at Linda.

After Doroff left, John Wayne patted me on my hand and said "Well done."

Other people were now sitting at our table. One woman showed up with the July issue of Cosmopolitan to have Wayne autograph one of its stories - a piece titled "Wayne, Westerns and Women" by the feminist film critic Molly Haskell.

Wayne was surprised that the piece was positive. "She likes me?," he asked of Haskell.

Before we got around to lunch, there was another autograph request - of a terrific (and, again, unexpected) 1979 Phil Stern shot of Wayne vacationing in Acalpulco, providing a side of the actor removed from The Duke and closer to Marion Mitchell Morrison. Softer.

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. -J

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(from top)

 ~John Wayne between interview sessions in 1976
 ~photography: Clayton Davis/Getty images1976©

 ~One of the logos for The Grand Crystal Tea Room
~poster art: Wanamaker 1976©

~A different John Wayne
~photography: Phil Stern 1959©

Monday, November 25, 2019

everybody has one

Bosley Crowther covered film for The New York Times for a whopping 27 years. My one encounter with him was in 1967, the year he retired. I was in college, reviewing for the campus newspaper, and had been invited by Paramount to a New York critics' screening of "Barefoot in the Park."

Encounter is a misleading word. We never actually met and my only recollection of the legendary critic was that he sat in the aisle in front of me, to my right, and that he could be heard ... snoring. Disillusioning.

Flashforward to 2019 and I'm watching Phil Karlson's "Kansas City Confidential," an installment of Turner Classic Movies' "Noir Alley," hosted by the utterly thorough Eddie Muller. Without missing a beat, Muller invokes the name Bosley Crowther during his post-screening discussion, referencing the critic's near-irrational pan of an otherwise solid film.

After quoting a lengthy portion of Crowther's scathing attack on Karlson and his star John Payne in particular -  with the venomous quote also superimposed as an on-screen caption (Chyron) - Muller digs into his bag of words and accurately designates Crowther a "gasbag."

At long last.

Like a certain body part, everybody has one, as the old saying goes (cleaned up here). An opinion, that is. But there are educated opinions, the kind smoothly espoused by Muller - and the kind that seem to evade most professional, working critics, represented by critics like Crowther. 

Finally, the impressively knowledegable Muller, who is nothing less than sophsticated, erudite and astute in his taste and brings panache and snap to his presentations, then flings himself into a long overdue critique of Bosley Crowther, equally scathing. Well done. There's a reason why Muller self-describes as "wordslinger, impresario and noirchaelogist."

Muller is an esoteric wordsmith, refreshingly idiosyncratic at times.

As for Crowther, in many other quarters, he was dismissed as "unnecessarily mean" and was particularly questioned about the cluelessness of his take on Arthur Penn's ”Bonnie and Clyde”and his refusal, unlike other reviewers, to re-evaluate it following the controversy of his attack. Instead, he doubled down and retired not long after that.

Yes, Eddie Muller nailed Bosley Crowther with "gasbag."

Note in Passing: Furthermore, any noir whose cast includes Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand in supporting character roles, as "Kansas City Confidential" demonstrates,  has at least three elements worth recommending. Crowther also ignored the film's contribution of leading lady Coleen Grey. Nothing on Preston Foster either. Unprofessional. 

FYI:  The 2019 Noir City 71 / 2020 Noir City Program kicks off Sunday, January 25 with screenings of Richard Fleischer's "Trapped" (1949) and Robert Siodmak's "The File on Thelma Jordan" (1950) at the Castro Theater and concludes on February 3, 2020 with Samuel Fuller's "Underworld, U.S.A." (1961) and Allen Baron's "Blast of Silence" (1961) 

The September 3rd, 1967 New York Times page containing Bosley Crowther's review of "Bonnie and Clyde"
~click on image to enlarge~

 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. -J

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(from top)

 ~Eddie Muller, TCM's host of "Noir Alley"
 ~photography: Turner Classic Movies 2018© 

 ~Poster art for Phil Karlson's "Kansas City Confidential"
~photography: United Artists 1952©

~N.Y. Times tear sheet containing Bosley Crowther's review of "Bonnie and Clyde"
~news page: New York Times 1967©

Thursday, November 21, 2019

the hissy fit

Those who read this site with any regularity are aware that Mervyn LeRoy's 1962 adaptation of "Gypsy" is my all-time favorite movie musical - and a favorite film in general - with much space devoted to finer points.

Case in point: A 60-plus-year hissy fit ensued when the play's star, Ethel Merman, was passed over in favor of movie icon Rosalind Russell.

This casting was - and remains - one of the more contentious aspects of the movie, haunting it ever since and prompting columnist Dorothy Kilgallen to put "Gypsy" under a microscope during its production with regular criticisms. Kilgallen even questioned the inspired decision to bring in Jack Benny for a cameo as a vaudeville comic. "Jack Benny has been hired for a role in the film of 'Gypsy,'" Kilgallen wrote. "Must be in trouble."
A year later, Merman got a consolation prize (so to speak) - and the last word - when she was hired by Stanley Kramer to play the harridan, Mrs. Marcus - mother of Dorothy Provine and Dick Shawn and mother-in-law of Milton Berle - in Kramer's 1963 "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

Anyway, Jack Benny, perhaps not coincidentally, popped up for another cameo scene - which leads to a very inside joke.

Merman and company are stranded, their car having broken down, when Benny happens to drive by and asks if they're having trouble.

"NO!" screams Merman as only she could, adding ... "And we don't need any help from you!"

The scene isn't the least bit funny and seems pointless - until you think about Benny's "unclean" participation in Merman's beloved "Gypsy."

I don't know but that throwaway line, "And we don't need any help from you!," always takes on a deeper meaning for me.

Finally, it can be safely presumed, I think, that Jack Warner wasn't stupid: Like everyone else, he had seen the Merman movies, "Call Me Madam" and "There's No Business Like Show Business," and knew that she was no screen personality. Instead, he went for a world-class actress who would bring psychological depth to the character. Rosalind Russell. Terrific.

But, nevertheless, he managed to acknowledge Merman in his film of "Gypsy." It's a small tribute and it occurs in the scene in which Natalie Wood is preparing to perform as Gypsy Rose Lee for the very first time. She's backstage, in her dressing room, and thinks aloud, "I'm a pretty girl, Momma." If you pivot towards Natalie's right shoulder and look closely, you'll see a framed caricature on the wall - a caricature of ...  Could it be?

Ethel Merman!

  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 (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

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(from top)
~Jack Benny in a scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" 
~photography: United Artists 1963©

 ~Dorothy Provine and Ethel Merman in a scene from "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World"
 ~photography: United Artists 1963© 

 ~Benny with Mervyn LeRoy on the set of "Gypsy"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Natalie Wood in a scene from "Gypsy"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Benny performing in "Gypsy"
~Film clip: Warner Bros. 1962©

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

cinema obscura: two robert preston gems

Following his incredible success on Broadway in "The Music Man," Robert Preston went on to give his defining performance in the 1962 film version of Meredith Willson's fabulous musical - a performance which should have earned him at the very least a shot at an Oscar nomination but didn't.

Gregory Peck won the Oscar that year for Robert Mulligan's "To Kill a Mockingbird." Preston's is the better performance of the two, but really, where does one begin to compare? However, with the Willson musical, director Morton DaCosta provided Preston with an awesome second act.

Preston went on to do the incredible work in a dazzling array of films - Sam Peckinpah's "Junior Bonner," Sidney Lumet's "Child's Play," Michael Ritchie's "Semi-Tough," Gene Saks' "Mame," Nick Castle's "The Last Starfighter" (his final film) and, of course, two with Blake Edwards, "Victor/Victoria" and "S.O.B." Then there are two titles that bookend his performance in the movie version of "The Music Man' - the film versions of two other stage productions, both films apparently now lost.

They would be "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," based on the William Inge play and shot immediately prior to "The Music Man" (and for the same studio, Warner Bros.), and Tad Mosel's "All the Way Home," adapted from James Agee's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "A Death in the Family."
There are those who thought that William Inge would enjoy the household-name status of Tennessee Williams, given that in the 1950s, he wrote such plays as "Come Back, Little Sheba," "Picnic," "Bus Stop" and, in 1957, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," all of which were adapted into films. His 1959 play, "A Loss of Roses," became the 1963 film,”The Stripper” and he also wrote the screenplay for Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass" (1961), in which Inge also plays the small on-screen role of a minister who counsels Natalie Wood.

Kazan also directed the Broadway version of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs," which opend at the Music Box Theatre on December 5, 1957, with a cast including of Pat Hingle (in the role that Preston would play on film), Teresa Wright and  Eileen Heckart. Once again, we have another dysfunctional family drama about a man who, in middle age and out of work, tries to compensate for a lack of self esteem by cheating on his wife with another woman in another town.

The 1960 movie version, directed by Delbert Mann from Harriet Frank, Jr.'s adapation, cast Dorothy McGuire in the part created on stage by Wright, and replaced Heckart with Eve Arden. Angela Lansbury has a supporting role in the film, and a young Shirley Knight was an Oscar nominee for her debut performance.

Preston, meanwhile, walks the tricky, balance-testing demands of a man teetering between our sympathy and disregard. He's likable but do we like him? (One could stretch this part, seeing it as a somewhat lighter variation on "The Music Man.") It's a testament to Preston's talent that he pulls it off.

"All the Way Home," meanwhile, has something of a legendary history. Based on Agee's Pulitzer Prize book, it was first adapted by Tad Mosel for the stage in 1960. It opened at the Belasco Theater on November 30th of that year, with a cast headed by Arthur Hill, Colleen Dewhurt and - now get this - Lillian Gish and Aline MacMahon. Actors' heaven. Arthur Penn directed.

Set in Tennessee in the early 1900's, "All the Way Home" revolves around a man's sudden, accidental death and the ramifications that it has on his family, especially his young son.

The 1963 Paramount film version, directed by Alex Segal from a Philip H. Reisman Jr. adaptation, starred Preston as the father and Jean Simmons as his wife; Pat Hingle (again) as his brother and, recreating her Broadway role, the great MacMahon as Aunt Hannah. Michael Kearney played the boy, a role performed on Broadway by John Megna, a New York child actor best known for his role on film as Dill in "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Due to its narrative arc, Preston has a smaller role here, but even when he is not on screen, his presence is always felt, a crucial quality for a play/film that examines the process of mourning and the heartache that makes it almost impossible to heal. Another piece of lost filmmaking art, and yet another performance by Robert Preston, that begs to be seen.

Note in Passing: Re my earlier reference to the history of "All the Way Home," the material was filmed twice more, both times for televison - first in 1971, with Fred Coe directing Richard Kiley, Joanne Woodward and (again) Hingle from a teleplay by Mosel. The second TV version, shot in 1981 by Delbert Mann (again), stars William Hurt, Sally Field, Ned Beatty and Polly Holliday as Aunt Hannah. Between Mann and Hingle, there are a lot of cross-connections shared by these two plays and films.

 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. -J

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(from top) 

~Preston with his wife Catherine Craig backstage at the Majestic Theatre where "The Music Man" had opened in 1957 
~photography: Friedman-Ables 1957© 

 ~Preston with Dorothy Maguire in a scene from Delbert Mann's film of "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs" 
~photography: Warner Bros. 1960©

~Playbill from the stage version of the William Inge play, "The Dark at the Top of the Stairs"

~Preston with Jean Simmons and Michael Kearney in Alex Segal's "All the Way Home"
 ~photography: Paramount Pictures 1963©

~Poster art for "All the Way Home"
~Paramount Pictures1963©

~Preston and Simmons in a scene from"All the Way Home"
~photography: Paramount Pictures1963©