Sunday, October 27, 2019

thoroughly awful

The sublime Julie Andrews has a new book to pitch - "Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years" (Hatchett Books) - and, not surprisingly, for the occasion, she'll join Ben Mankiewicz on Tuesday evening  for what I anticipate will be another swell Turner Classic Movies conversation.

Four titles from those Hollywood years will be screened, starting with George Roy Hill's dismal "Thoroughly Modern Millie," an unwatchable 1967 pseudo-musical that TCM disinters with (thankfully) only limited regularity. The movie was made during Andrews' brief reign in the '60s as Roadshow Queen (it was filmed back-to-back with Hill's "Hawaii), and its brand of forced fun apparently still enjoys her embrace and enthusiasm.

It remains an affront that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, an outfit known for thoughtlessly throwing away Oscars, saw fit to reward this mess with seven - count 'em - seven Academy Awards nominations, including one for Carol Channing's screeching, amateurish supporting turn.

There's a reason why some stage performers never make it in movies.

And it remains jaw-dropping that Universal was oblivious to its film's batant racism. The presentation of Asians here, as personified by the wince-producing performances of Jack Soo and Pat Morita, is unacceptable, a brand of racist entertainment tossed off as innocent fun by Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s.

t was a different culture back then but times had supposedly changed by the time "Thoroughly Modern Millie" was made in the so-called, enlightened late '60s - a prevalent theme these days unlikely to be addressed during Ben and Julie's pre- and post-screening discussions.

If Julie was to celebrate one of her other roadshow films during the same period, I'd have nudged her towards Robert Wise's brilliant, hugely underrated "Star!" (1968) or Blake Edwards' troubled "Darling Lili" (1970).

The three other titles selected for screening are Arthur Hiller's "The Americanization of Emily" (1964), with a screenplay by Paddy  Chayefsky, and two by Edwards, the urbane "Victor/Victoria" (1982) and the little-seen family affair, "That's Life!" (1986), starring Jack Lemmon, Sally Kellerman, Robert Loggia, Felicia Farr and all the Lemmon, Edwards and Andrews children. The film was a last-minute addition to the 1986 Toronto Film Festival and it was the first - and only - time that I met Andrews.

She was one of the singularly nicest movie people I met and perhaps the most beautiful. I was struck by her incredibly dreamy complexion.

 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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~The poster art for "Thoroughly Modern Millie"
~photography: Universal 1967©

~ Julie Andrews in "Star!"
~photography: Twentieth Century-Fox 1968©

~Andrews with Jack Lemmon in "That's Life!"
~photography: Sony 1986©

Friday, October 25, 2019

marriage a la mode

The title of this essay is not original.  It was coined by the late film critic Richard Schickel back in 1962 for his landmark coffeetable book, "The Stars" (Houghton Mifflin) to describe the united perfection of the stars of the six-film MGM series, "The Thin Man," William Powell and Myrna Loy.

The duo made a total of 14 films together, sharing the pleasure of their company with us, but only a half dozen were devoted to the marital bliss and playful sleuthing of "The Thin Man" collection. Only six? Really?

There seems to have been so many more.

The moniker Marriage a la Mode handily summons up a union very much in place, balanced and perfected, but doesn't conjure the possible messiness of arriving at that point - namely, the courtship.

But recently, Turner Classic Movies picked up the slack in a wholly clever way. It generally airs the "Thin Man" series during one long afternoon or evening. And during a prime-time night earlier this month, TCM considered the courtship of Nick and Nora Charles with a clever difference. In preamble to an evening with The Charles, Turner scattered other Powell-Loy titles throughtout the daytime, along with clips and shorts to demonstrate the chemistry that the studio heads may have deemed necessary for any commitment to the eventual series.

It played like an audition - a collection of tryout bits in which Loy and especially Powell do turns that are nothing remotely like what they do as Nick and Nora.

The humor is much broader, often flat-out hilarious.

Among the other full-length titles showcasing the team's versatility were "Evelyn Prentice," "Manhattan Melodrama," "I Love You Again" and "Love Crazy." 

Clips from other films included "G: Men," "Don't Tell the Wife," "Libeled Lady," "The Tell-Tale Heart" and  "Surprise Parties,"and the shorts, "Better Say Goodbye"and "Angry Marbles."

In a way, we got to see Nick and Nora behind closed doors and how their inimitable chemistry came to produce Marriage a la Mode.

 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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~Powell/Loy - Nick/Nora
~photography: MGM 1930s©

Saturday, October 19, 2019

who's that girl?

They weren't stars, but when they were on screen, they managed to attract attention, no matter the limitations of their screen time.

The invaluable character actor.

But beyond the likes of Eric Blore, Margaret Dumont, Connie Gilchrist, Franklin Pangborn and, of course, Thelma Ritter, there were other sub-sections of of small actors breathing big life into movies.

Case in point: The esoteric breed of actor known as The Dress Extra - performers who specialized in playing swells at swank dinner parties, always decked out in gowns, pearls, sable and white tie and tails.
When one of them was on screen, you could smell the money. And there was no one more representative of this group than Bess Flowers, who appeared in no fewer than 500 titles, regal as ever in all of them. It's impossible to watch an old movie and not spot her. She was  rightly dubbed The Queen of The Dress Extras by the ever astute Vienna on her site, Vienna's Classic Hollywood.

But much more compelling to me is Larri Thomas, largely because she was every bit as present as Flowers in films but even less well-known.

The wildly statuesque Larri was one of the many Goldwyn Girls to appear for Sam on stage and screen. I remember her largely for her trademark platinum ponytail and ligament-straining high kicks.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, I also  remember myself frantically looking to spot her in movie after movie - she made only 38 - and asking "Who's that girl?" The answer never came; to this day Larri Thomas remains a mystery. (She died in 2013 at age 81.)

 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)

~Larri Thomas's hand on Marlon Brando' right shoulder for a publicity still for "Guys and Dolls"
~photography:Samuel Goldwyn 1955©

  ~The ubiquitous Bess Flowers
~photography: RKO 1942©

 ~Larri's brief bit during the "Marian the Librarian" production number in "The Music Man"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©  

~The definitive Larri publicity still
~photography: Samuel Goldwyn 1956©

Monday, October 14, 2019

when bad things happen to good movies

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."

 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)

~Director John Huston with his film's little girls, including title star Aileen Quinn (right of Huston) and the late Amanda Peterson (next to Quinn).
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Quinn with Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks 

~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Ann Reinking in the "We Got Annie" production number
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Carol Burnett as Miss Hannigan
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Burnett with Bernadette Peters and Tim Curry perform the second, revised version of "Easy Street"
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Huston does his bit
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Quinn shows her stuff
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Lois DeBanzie, Finney, Quinn and Edward Hermann as FDR perform a toned-down version of "Tomorrow"
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982 ©

~Quinn confers with Finney and Huston
~photography: Sony Pictures 1982©