Tuesday, June 06, 2017

six degrees of roger smith

Among other things, Hollywood is a workplace crowded with curious connections, past and present, and Roger Smith - who sadly passed this week, at age 84 - experienced a few of his own throughout his career.

First, however, a little about Smith, an affable actor with collegiate good looks who was also a trained singer and dancer. But who would know that, considering how ill-used he was by the studios where he was a contract player?  Hollywood is also often at a loss about nurturing and showcasing certain talents, which is odd considering that "talent" is what drives it.

And exacerbating matters for Smith was a debilitating neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis, which prematurely ended his acting career.

He was in his mid-30s when his life changed.

Smith was always prepared for an acting career and made the decision to actively pursue it at the advice of James Cagney, whom he happened to meet while in Hawaii in 1955.  Smith was on a 30-month Naval tour of duty with the reserves there and Cagney was on location, filming "Mister Roberts." ("Mister Roberts" - Keep that title in mind. It's the first of a few connections to be covered here. There will be a Blue Book quiz following.)

Two years later, Smith went to Hollywood and appeared in several TV series before being signed by Columbia Pictures - where he appeared in such titles as "Operation Mad Ball" and "No Time to Be Young" and where he met his first wife, the Australian actress Victoria Shaw.

Unlike Smith, Shaw was groomed for stardom at Columbia.  In 1956, she was given the second female lead in George Sidney's "The Eddy Duchin Story," starring Tyrone Power and Kim Novak, playing Duchin's second wife, Chiquita. (George Sidney - keep that name in mind. A connection.)

The film is divided into two acts, with Novak dominating the first half (as Duchin's ill-fated first wife, the society queen Marjorie Oelrichs ) and Shaw the second half.  (Kim Novak - keep that name in mind, too.) Shaw impressed the critics and was named "Most Promising Actress of 1956" by the editors of Modern Screen.

Smith, meanwhile, ended his lackluster association with Columbia and was eventually put under contract by Warner Bros., which promptly cast him in the TV series "77 Sunset Strip."  There was a double-edge to this. "77 Sunset Strip" was hugely popular and ran for years, making Smith something of a celebrity, but then there was Jack Warner.

In his mind, Warner had only two sets of stars on his lot - movie stars and television stars. They never mixed and there was rarely a crossover. The movie stars at Warners made feature films exclusively; its TV stars made movies only occasionally and usually in small roles in quality films or lead roles in minor films. Smith's one major film role for Warners was 1958's "Auntie Mame," in which he played Mame's nephew Patrick as an adult.

Shaw, meanwhile, languished at Columbia, where she was oddly relegated to B-movies which were half-heartedly released. (Some were pretty good: Sam Fuller's "The Crimson Kimono.")  Finally, the studio announced that Shaw would be the title star of "The Notorious Landlady," a comedy slated for a big summer release in 1962, but by the time that film reached the screen in '62, the lead was ... Kim Novak, Shaw's "Eddy Duchin" co-star.

Roger and Victoria, who had three children together, divorced in 1965. Shaw, who would go on to marry and divorce actor Elliott Alexander, died in her native Sydney, New South Wales, Australia in 1988 of emphysema.

The year of his divorce from Shaw, Smith was cast by Warners in another TV series ... "Mister Roberts."  He played the title role created on stage and film by Henry Fonda.  Yeah, that was the movie James Cagney was making years earlier in Hawaii where he encouraged Smith to try acting.

Smith met and married his second wife, Ann-Margret, in 1967 and they were together exactly 50 years, until his death on June 4. When Smith developed myasthenia gravis and his career ended, he devoted his attention to his talented wife whose career he managed throughout their marriage, giving her the courage to expand her goals and challenge herself, guiding her into such films as "Carnal Knowledge" and "Tommy," both of which brought her Oscar nominations - as well as "Joseph Andrews," directed by Tony Richardson, "The Outside Man" with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Richard Attenborough's "Magic" opposite Anthony Hopkins and the TV version of "Dames at Sea."

Ann-Margret, of course, had two huge back-to-back hits at the start of her career - "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Viva Las Vegas." Both movies were directed by - ta-da! - George Sidney.

That's right - George Sidney, the director who showcased the first Mrs. Roger Smith in "The Eddy Duchin Story." Perfectly circuitous, right?

Note in Passing: One final connection... Roger Smith actually got to appear opposite James Cagney in two films, both for Universal-International: "Man of a Thousand Faces," the Lon Chaney biopic, and "Never Steal Anything Small," a musical with Shirley Jones.

Naturally, Smith was not called upon to either sing or dance in that.

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~top: Roger Smith with Joanna Barnes in a scene from "Auntie Mame"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1958 ©

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~middle: Smith and Victoria Shaw at the Coconut Grove in the 1950s

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~bottom: Smith and Ann-Margret in the 1970s

Friday, June 02, 2017

"it looks like a good day for a hangin', gil, and gettin' us some god-fearing prairie justice!"

Not surprisingly, William A. Wellman's brilliant 1943 film, "The Ox-Bow Incident," came to mind as seemingly everyone in the media - and anyone who has access to a computer - gleefully piled on the comedienne Kathy Griffin for her adolescent prank involving the severed head of Donald J. Trump. The media just stopped short of suggesting tar and feathers.

"The Ox-Bow Incident," based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, is a tight, 75-minute attack on America's deeply-seated intolerance and its lynch-mob mentality, both of which are clearly alive and well in 2017.

Americans thrive on hero reduction and especially love to place blame.

In the past couple days, ugly words have been enthusiastically tossed about in response to Griffin's act:

 "Disgusting!"  "Stupid!" "Immature!"

But aren't these the same, exact words, used by the same, exact people, against Griffin's alleged victim for the past 100-plus days?
The worst offender has been CNN, whose suits seemingly tripped over their feet to announce that CNN was firing Griffin.  Huh?  Since when is Kathy Griffin an employee of CNN?  She appears on CNN only once a year - co-hosting a New Year's Eve bash with CNN's Anderson Cooper.  So she was fired seven months before her next single appearance on CNN?

How convenient for CNN, which has been the primary target of the current administration's war on the media.  I mean, CNN and the new, invented expression, "fake news," are now irrevocably linked, thanks to Donald J.

"Hey, guys, a good way to break this link is to throw Kathy Griffin under the bus. Let's fire her and impress the administration." To exacerbate matters, Griffin's good friend, Anderson Cooper, made a statement distancing himself from her.  You know, guilt by association.  Not good.  Media people know that it's smart to lick the hand that feeds them.

Much of the chaos of the past two days is emblematic of Donald J.'s reign, which is designed to incite people and then attack them for being incited.

Kathy Griffin is a stand-up comic, noted for doing and saying the inappropriate and going over the edge. But when she does or says something that's poorly-thought-out, it has no real consequences. Her target, on the other hand, is also noted for doing and saying the inappropriate and going over the edge - and the consequences of his actions, also poorly-thought-out, have the power to reverberate for decades.

OK, Griffin joked about a severed head (which, I think, will be a popular Halloween prop this year) and Donald J. joked about "grabbing pussy."  So which is worse?

The last time I checked, Kathy Griffin isn't our Commander in Chief.

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~top: Dana Andrews as Donald Martin, Paul Burns as Winder and Henry Fonda as Gil Carter in "The Ox-Bow Incident"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1943 ©

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~middle: Donald J. Trump

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~bottom: Kathy Griffin

Thursday, May 25, 2017

character counts: John Goodman

Although he had early screen roles in "Sweet Dreams" and "Revenge of the Nerds," I first took note of the remarkable character actor John Goodman in David Byrne's still-fabulous 1986 new-style film musical, ”True Stories,” a movie that Goodman made after having scored big on Broadway the year before as Pap Finn in "Big River," Roger Miller's musical version of Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Choice supporting roles followed.

Among them were "Raising Arizona," "The Big Easy," Punchline," "Burglar" and "Everybody's All-American," quintessential, laid-back '80s films that make one deeply appreciate - and, yes, seriously miss - the 1980s.

Hollywood seems incapable these days to produce straightforward, no-frill films of this variety. 

Anyway, the rest of America discovered Goodman in 1988 as Dan Conner on the excellent sitcom, "Roseanne." The show's creator, Roseanne Barr, may have trained as a stand-up comic but she was no slouch as an actress.  Still, she was savvy enough to surround herself with talent from Broadway (Goodman, Laurie Metcalf, Estelle Parsons and John Randolph), venerable movie people (Shelley Winters, Ned Beatty and even Tony Curtis), an up-and-coming hunk who could actually act (George Clooney), smart, cutting-edge comics (Martin Mull and Sandra Bernhardt) and terrific kid actors (Lecy Goranson, Sara Gilbert, Michael Fishman, Johnny Galecki and Stephen Dorff).

But, for me, Goodman's smooth, naturalistic performance as an average husband and dad was the titanic supporting structure of "Roseanne."

Now something of a household name, thanks to "Roseanne," Goodman continued to moonlight in supporting movie roles, but in the early '90s, something happened: Goodman started to score lead roles, beginning with Frank Marshall's "Arachnophobia" (1990). His name was suddenly above the title - for a while, at least.

I was reminded of this when I spotted a cable showing of "The Babe" in a TV listing. Goodman plays Babe Ruth in the 1992 Arthur Hiller film and it is inarguably his biggest screen role.

Around this time, Goodman had another lead role in Joe Dante's ”Matinee,” as well as starring parts in David S. Ward's "King Ralph" (opposite Peter O'Toole, no less), Brian Levant's "The Flintstones" and the Melanie Griffith-Don Johnson remake of "Born Yesterday" (in which Goodman replaced Nick Nolte in the Broderick Crawford role), directed by Luis Mandoki. He was also Bette Midler's leading man in "Stella," the now-forgotten re-do of "Stella Dallas."

And I can't ignore his star vocal turn as the furry James P. Sullivan, the imaginary friend of little Boo, in the heartwarming "Monsters, Inc." animation. Much like Dan Conner, Sullivan underlines Goodman's appeal as an actor - someone who inhabits a role so fully that he brings a cozy, lived-in feel to his line-readings, facial expressions and his movements which often seem almost choreographed.

For a big man, Goodman is incredibly light on his feet.

As dazzling as Goodman has been in his few starring roles, he's more in his element in smaller turns, particularly those for the Coen Brothers - the aforementioned "Raising Arizona," "The Hudsucker Proxy," "Barton Fink," "The Big Lebowski" and "O Brother, Where art Thou?" Exceptional.

But, currently, he seems comfortably ensconced back in supporting roles again.

More recently, Goodman has demonstrated just how invaluable he is in these roles in  such titles as "The Artist," "The Monuments Men" (working for and with his "Roseanne" co-star, George Clooney), "Trumbo," the Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis" and "Argo," for which he deserved an Oscar nomination every bit as much as his co-star Alan Arkin. What? A mere piddling Oscar nomination? Heck, give this man his own golden statuette already.

Note in Passing: When I was reviewing out of Sacramento, filmmaker David Zucker made a stop in 1988 to promote the film "Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad." He said that he was hoping to find material that would suit John Candy and I suggested a remake of the 1968 Philippe Noiret French charmer, ”Alexander” (aka "A Very Happy Alexander" / "Alexandre le bienheureux"), directed by Yves Robert. But I hastened to add that it would be a better fit for Goodman. Anyway, Zucker had never seen it. I had an old Beta copy and he still had a Beta player. So, Zucker borrowed my tape, later returning it by mail and confessing that he was unable to find financing for it with either Candy or Goodman in the role.

A missed opportunity.
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~top: John Goodman as Dan Conner on "Roseanne" 
~photography: ABC 1988 ©
still shot of Goodman in "True Stories"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1986 ©

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~middle: movie poster for Universal's "The Babe"

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~bottom: still shot of Sullivan and Boo in "Monsters, Inc." 
~photography: Disney/Pixar 2001 ©
still shot of Goodman in "The Big Lebowski"
~photography: Gramercy Pictures 1998 ©

Friday, May 19, 2017

indelible moment: "North by Northwest"

Hitchcock's compulsively watchable masterpiece, "North by Northwest" (1959), contains any number of memorable moments.  Hell, the entire film is a memorable moment. But one scene, in particular, stands out for me.

It occurs rather early in the film when Cary Grant returns to the Plaza Hotel - accompanied by the fabulous Jessie Royce Landis, playing his glib, eye-rolling mother - to search the room of one George Kaplan, for whom Cary's Roger O. Thornhill, an advertising executive, has been mistaken.

Snooping around in the suite's bathroom, Cary examins a hairbrush.

Walking back into the bedroom, he announces to mother (in a deadpan manner patented by Grant), "Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Grant's body language, telegraphing disgust with the idea of dandruff, perfectly complements his line reading.  He hunches his shoulders and slightly flails his arms, making spindly movements with his fingers:

"Bulletin! George Kaplan has dandruff."

Brilliant, just brilliant.

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~image: still shot of Cary Grant and Jessie Royce Landis in "North by Northwest" / MGM 1959 ©

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

"Our special tonight is roasted partridge with a lemongrass coulis, served with a goat cheese marmalade": "the dinner," acerbic and brutal

With his highly polarizing new film, "The Dinner," Oren Moverman has handily fashioned a rather brutal, fully-deserved attack on current American values that's at once elegant, acerbic and refreshingly languid.

And so it's no surprise that, after attracting much attention and admiration at the Berlinale (the Berlin Film Festival) in February, where it premiered, "The Dinner" is now at the mercy of provincial American movie critics who just don't "get it" and conservative movie audiences who clearly do.

At the performance I attended, the half dozen or so patrons sat there quietly throughout the entire film, only to boo and hiss when it was over.

One misguided woman actually demanded her money back.

These few moviegoers picked up on the film's message, perhaps only subliminally, but they caught what was clearly oblivious to the professional critics reviewing it, including - surprisingly - the almost always reliable Jeannette Catsoulis who wrote one of those brief, "let's get this one out of the way" reviews that The New York Times runs regularly these days.*

From where I sit, all this agitation over "The Dinner" isn't a negative at all.  It only means the film is clearly doing something right, pushing buttons.

And Moverman takes his time before he strikes, introducing us to Paul and Claire (Steve Coogen and Laura Linney) as they prepare for a night out with another couple at one of those comically pretentious restaurants that fetishizes food.  Paul, a contrarian and malcontent (after my own heart) really doesn't want to dine with "those people" - who happen to be his brother and sister-in-law, Stan and Kate (Richard Gere and Rebecca Hall).

He calls them "leeches."

The restaurant itself is a dark monstrosity - a cavernous villa, with all sorts of intimate nooks and crannies, where the specials are recited as if they were florid Shakespearean sonnets and where the servers (dressed like Bob Fosse dancers) walk, four to six in a line, carrying the treasured food in one hand, with the other hand tastefully pressed against their backs.

This is waitering as performance art.

The first offering, served on huge white plates, looks like strands of grass sitting on an artful drizzle of snot, topped with a miniature heirloom radish. This penchant for dining minimalism was perfectly captured in a hilarious 2012 essay titled "Tiny morsels arranged with tweezers," written by San Francisco chef /author Joyce Goldstein for the San Francisco Chronicle. 

The comic recitation of a restaurant's menu is something that director Mary Harron nailed in the opening scene of "American Psycho" in 2000 and that has seemingly been aped (and with a straight face) by newspaper restaurant critics. Although clearly not intentional, your average restaurant review in a big-city paper now reads like a humor column, what with its hilariously poetic description of dead fowl and bizarre sauces.  It's difficult to believe that anyone could top the absurdity of today's trendy, monied restaurants, but Moverman extends the joke, lacing it throughout his film.

Once the four principals are seated, we're given the impression that "The Dinner" might be a variation on Louis Malle's "My Dinner with Andre" (1981) - you know, a dinner conversation done in real time. But Coogan's troubled Paul instigates interruptions that guide us through a series of flashbacks which strive to explain the alarming reason for the dinner.

Gere's Stan is a U.S. Congressman who is accustomed to being in charge but can't control his mentally-ill brother's outbrusts.  The conversation takes forever to get started - or rather the revelation behind it takes forever to come out. Much like preparing a meal, Moverman slowly peals away layers, slicing and dicing his narrative. His source material is a 2009 novel by Dutch author Herman Koch, but Moverman doesn't divide his story into chapters but into food courses - L'Apéritif,  L'Entrée, Le Plat Principal, et al.
Moverman is testing our patience, just as Paul is testing Stan's.  The obsequious maitre d' and his staff are told to go away and we finally learn that these two couples have indulged children who did the unspeakable.

Stan, who is willing to sacrifice his career, wants his son and Paul's to own their horrible crime, but the others all are adamant about protecting the teenage boys at all costs, particularly Linney's Claire whose no-nonsense tiger mom devolves into a disturbing Lady Macbeth.  Now completely exposed, "The Dinner" can be seen for what it really is - a scathing, unapologetic attack on bad parenting that produces entitled monsters.

This is not exactly something that Americans want to hear, particularly during a night out at the movies, which explains the hostile reaction at the screening that I attended.  But Oren Moverman is not one to pander or coddle. And that's why "The Dinner" is never less than compelling.

And while all four leads are excellent, the film belongs to Steve Coogen, who turns in a major performance driven by both bravado and nuance.

BTW, this is the third time that Gere and Linney have starred together in a film.  Their previous films are "Primal Fear" (1996) and "The Mothman Prophecies" (2002).

Also, this is the third film version of Koch's book - the second remake of a movie originally made in The Netherlands in 2013 and, a year later, in Italy - all three films titled "The Dinner." The subject apparently is not unique to America but Moverman made his version uniquely American.

* Not all reviews of "The Dinner" have been tone-deaf.  Critics who have appreciated Moverman's bravado include Justin Chang of The Los Angeles Times, Owen Gleiberman of Variety and Boyd van Hoeij of The Hollywood Reporter. And full disclosure Jeannette Catsoulis is my favorite Times movie critic - not because we agree but because she's genuinely good.

Note in Passing: My good friend Marvin, who has seen all three films of the material, tells me that the mental state or instability of the brother (the Coogen character) is not addressed at all in the Netherlands version and that, while the Netherlands film is more plot-driven, the American film is much more political. Of the three, the Italian version is apparently less impressive than the other two.  Marvin is a huge fan of the Netherlands film but he "adored, adored, adored" (his words) Moverman's film.

I should add that Marvin has exquisite taste in movies.

And as for that woman who demanded her money back, she sat through every minute of the film and certainly got her money's worth.  One doesn't deserve a refund just because one is displeased with what's on screen.
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~Top: The cast of "The Dinner" in a scene from the film
 ~photography: The Orchard 2017 ©

~Middle: Steve Coogan and  Rebecca Hall

~Bottom: Laura Linney and Richard Gere at an even for the film

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

not a major motion picture!

Once upon a time, in a place now far, far away, the major movie studios would aggressively bid for the rights to a best-selling book or a hit Broadway play, hauling out the ubiquitous and over-heated advertising slogan, "Now a major motion picture!," for the finished product.

But with the advent of CGI, the Marvel/D.C. Comics franchises and saturation booking, Hollywood no longer cares about the prestige of filming a play or book. Strike that. If it's a book pitched to Young Adult readers or a crime thriller, it's chances of becoming a movie are actually very good.

But Broadway plays and musicals are another matter. Quick!  Name the last major movie you saw that was based on a Broadway play. Time's up! I could remember only David Lindsay-Abaire's Rabbit Hole," Yasmina Reza's "Carnage" (né "God of Carnage") and Tracy Letts' "August: Osage County," and none of these is very recent. More to the point, although all three were very good, not one was much of a success on screen.

Broadway musicals have it much worse, given that Hollywood has been willfully ignoring them for several decades now. The last great run of filmed stage musicals came between 1955 and 1965.  These were movies based on must-see shows that flourished in New York from the late 1940s through the 1950s, arguably the peak of the "musical comedy" form.

"The Pajama Game," "Carousel," "Damn Yankees," "The King and I," "Bells Are Ringing," "Oklahoma!," "Li'l Abner," "Flower Drum Song," "Pal Joey," "South Pacific," "Hit the Deck," "The Music Man," "Guys and Dolls," "Silk Stockings," "Gypsy," "Bye Bye Birdie,""Porgy and Bess,"  "Funny Face," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," "Can-Can" and "My Fair Lady" all made it to the screen during the aforementioned ten-year span. And, of course, there were "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music." Neither one could accurately be called a "musical comedy" - both are way too serious in intent - but, in tandem with "Oklahoma!" and "My Fair Lady," they are representative of what is inarguably the richest period for stage-to-film transferals.

At one time, the "film version" of a stage musical was a validation of the show in question, much to the chagrin of Broadway types who would invariably complain about the "bastardization" of one of their own by crass Hollywood. Now they can complain - and with good reason - about the studios' utter lack of interest. In other works, with theater people, "(You're damned it you do and you're damned if you don't."

And I'm sure exacerbating matters is the fact that certain bona fide hit musicals somehow fell through the cracks, never making it to the screen and, thereby, also inciting the Broadway community. Case in point: Rodgers and Hammerstein. Yes, films of their musicals were all major releases but, hey, where are "Allegro," "Pipe Dream" and "Me and Juliet"?  Seems that not all Rodgers and Hammerstein shows were worth filming.

During the period when "West Side Story," "Gypsy" and "Bye Bye Birdie" were all Broadway hits, there were titles that were equally successful, popular with both critics and theatergoers but that are now forgotten, largely because there was no drive to commit the to film. In recent years, there have been rumors of remakes of "Carousel" (with Hugh Jackman), "Gypsy" (with Barbra Streisand in charge), "My Fair Lady" (with an Emma Thompson rewrite) and even "Oliver!" But why rehash material that's been done, while worthy shows from the distant past continue to be ignored?

Like these:
"Take Me Along," produced in 1959 by David Merrick and directed by Peter Glenville, comes immediately to mind. A musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness" (with music and lyrics by Bob Merrill), it starred Jackie Gleason, Walter Pigeon, Eileen Herlie, Una Merkle, Robert Morse, Zeme North, Susan Lockey and Arlene Golonka. It was a monster hit in its time, along the lines of the current Bette Midler/"Hello, Dolly!" revival.

There's something of a crazy folk legend attached to the show:  Broadway musicals were so hot in the late '50s that Gleason wanted to be in one - and he was perfectly cast here as Uncle Sid, an incorrigible charmer. But, once the show opened, Gleason got bored with it and started calling in sick. He also wanted to annoy the combative Merrick.

But Merrick didn't bite.  He didn't care because he had apparently taken out an insurance policy, so he got paid every time Gleason didn't work. This never made any sense to me - it could have been a P.R. stunt - but it was rich fodder for the gossip columns at the time (think Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell).

Once Gleason got wind of this, presto! He was back on the job with regularity.

Bob Merrill's hummable title song was extremely popular (again, much like the song "Hello, Dolly!") but the pick of the score for me is the haunting "Staying Young" and Pigeon's soulful rendition of it. This is one show should have been a movie.It's a natural.

It should be noted here that, years before, MGM filmed its own musical version of "Ah, Wilderness" - the 1948 "Summer Holiday," directed by Rouben Mamoulian and with original songs by Harry Warren and Ralph Blane. Mickey Rooney starred in the role played in "Take Me Along" by Robert Morse, Walter Huston (in the Walter Pidgeon role) as his father and Frank Morgan as the affable drunk, Uncle Sid.

"The Most Happy Fella," a major hit in 1956, was also composer Frank Loesser's most ambitious undertaking - a three-act musical adaptation of the Sidney Howard play, "They Knew What They Wanted," about the "love affair" between a middle-aged Italian immigrant, who operates a vineyard in Napa, and a younger woman who has agreed to be his mail-order bride (even though she is eventually sexually attracted to the vineyard's young foreman).

The material is highly cinematic and screamed to be filmed.

 Loesser came up with a commanding hybrid here - a musical comedy with the contours of an opera. There are about 40 songs in the show, not including the overture, the two entre'acts and a few reprises.  It took four years for Loesser to complete.  He not only composed all the songs but he also wrote the script, a huge undertaking which involved omitting the political, labor, and religious material originally in Howard's play. Joseph Anthony directed the production, which was so intimidating that Columbia released two original cast albums of the show's score - one a three-record set that included the entire libretto and one a single recording of selected songs.

And then there's the marvelous "Fiorello," which was staged in 1959 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for its authors - Jerome Weidman and George Abbot (book), Jerry Bock (music) and Sheldon Harnick (lyrics). It won the Pulitzer but was never filmed.  It opened the same year as "Gypsy" and was just as popular - and yet it has never been filmed. There was such excitement about this show that Capitol recorded the cast album six days after "Fiorello" opened.

And yet is was never filmed. 

Directed by Abbott (with choreography by Peter Gennaro), "Fiorello" introduced Tom Bosley as the legendary New York City major Fiorello H. LaGuardia, a reform Republican who challenged the Tammany Hall political machine.

The show was a personal hit for Bosley who quickly moved on to do films ("The World of Henry Orient," "Love with the Proper Stranger" and "Divorce American Style") and, of course, television ("Happy Days").

There have been occasional revivals of "Fiorello" since its Broadway opening, most notably one for the Reprise! productions in 1999 that starred Tony Danza, which had a limited run but which Danza took to the Freud Playhouse in Los Angeles for a longer engagement.

Also, it was rumored that prior to his death in 1973, singer Bobby Darin expressed a desire to produce and star in a film version of "Fiorello," that it was a dream project for him. And he would have been great in the role.

But ... it was never filmed.

There have been other Broadway musicals that, although not filmed, came very close to being movies. Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the musical of "Zorba," with the star of the original non-musical film, Anthony Quinn, that they took out one of those "production about to begin" ads in Variety. John Travolta was listed in the ad as Quinn's co-star, presumably in the role Alan Bates played on film.

The idea ended with that Variety ad.

And getting back to David Merrick, in the early 1970s, he decided to expand his horizons and produce movies.  His first was Sidney Lumet's 1972 film version of the Robert Marasco that he had produced on Broadway two years earlier.  The stars were James Mason, Robert Preston and Beau Bridges (in the roles created on stage by Fritz Weaver, Pat Hingle and Ken Howard). His next planned film was of another one of his stage hits, the Burt Bacarach-Hal David musical, "Promises, Promises," with a Neil Simon script based on Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

Merrick wanted a potentially well-cast Bridges for the role played on stage by Jerry Orbach (by way of Jack Lemmon), but decided to "temporarily" place "Promises, Promises" aside for something way bigger - the Robert Redford-Mia Farrow version of "The Great Gatsby."  Merrick produced two more films, both with Burt Reynolds" - "Semi-Tough" and "Rough Cut" - but never returned to "Promises, Promises" and Beau Bridges.

Another musical with a Neil Simon script, "They're Playing Our Song" (with music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager), was also momentarily considered for the movies - with Gilda Radner and Bill Murray (more good casting) in the roles played by Lucie Arnaz and Robert Klein.

Again, it never happened.


Much more compelling was Twentieth Century-Fox's plans to film Stephen Sondheim's iconic "Follies" with a dream cast - Doris Day in the role created on stage by Alexis Smith and Debbie Reynolds in the Dorothy Collins part. The idea was referenced in a gossip column - where else? - but nothing came of it.  Too good to be true. Another missed opportunity, an unfortunate one.

Finally, there's the case of "She Loves Me," another Harnick-Bock musical that opened on Broadway in 1963 as an era was coming to a close.  This irrisistible musical confection was one of many adaptations of a Hungarian play titled "Parfumerie," by Miklós László. It was predated by the films "The Shop Around the Corner" (a straight comedy by Ernst Lubitsch) and "In the Good Old Summer Time" (also a musical by Robert Z. Leonard) and succeeded by "You've Got Mail" (another straight comedy by Nora Ephron).
"She Loves Me" was directed by Harold Prince and choreographed by Carol Haney and its cast was led by Barbara Cook (a few years after she played Marian the Librarian in "The Music Man") and Daniel Massey, son of Raymond and anticipated at the time as the next big thing (given his role as Noël Coward opposite  Julie Andrews as Gertrude Lawrence in "Star!").

And in support ... Barbara Baxley and Jack Cassidy.

Enter Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews who wanted to film "She Loves Me" in the early 1980s, after having scored a big success with "Victor/Victoria."

Andrews was perfect for the Cook role and the plan was for it to be an MGM film, which makes sense as Metro always fancied itself the movie-musical factory and that's where both "The Shop Around the Corner" and "In the Good Old Summer Time" were made.

Again, never made.

But in 2016, the Roundabout Theater Company staged an excellent revival starring the fabulous Laura Benanti and which, according to Wikipedia, was presented via BroadwayHD live stream on June 30, 2016, marking the first time a Broadway show had ever been broadcast live. The same performance was screened in movie theaters on December 1, 2016.

Notes in Passing: Recently, there have been shows that finally made it to the screen after a long delay (and long after fans had given up hope) - "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dreamgirls," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street," "Into the Woods" and "Les Misérables."  And there are four that became movies in a more timely manner - "Mamma Mia!," "Hairspray," "The Producers" and "Rent," although the latter two tanked on screen big time which seems odd, given that each had a huge, loyal Broadway fan base. Which didn't turn out for either one.  Go figure.

In his posted response, Kevin Deany reminded me of the stage musical version of "La Cage aux Folles," jogging my memory.  The late Allan Carr ("Grease") had wanted to film it with Jack Lemmon in the role of Albin and Frank Sinatra as Renato.  When Frank decided to stay retired from acting, Tony Curtis's name was mentioned as a possible co-star with Lemmon.

Another missed opportunity.

As for the future of stage musicals on screen, Universal already owns the rights to the popular "Wicked" and Trey Parker and Matt Stone plan to produce their own film version of their hit musical, "The Book of Mormon."

And is there any doubt that Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" will be filmed?

* * * * * 
~images / from top~ 
~Poster art for "Mister Roberts" and "Gypsy"

~Poster art for "Take Me Along" and Jackie Gleason in a scene from the production

~Poster art for "The Most Happy Fella" and Robert Weede and Jo Sullivan in a scene from the productiion

 ~Poster art for "Fiorello" and Tom Bosley as the title character, and Tony Danza, and Bobby Darin, both with "Fiorello" connections

 ~Beau Bridges, on the set of "The Landlord," was considered for a planned film version of "Promises, Promises"

 ~Doris Day and Debbie Reynolds at a studio event in the 1950s; they were once considered for a film version of "Follies"

 ~Time magazine cover of Alexis Smith in "Follies"

 ~Barbara Cook and Daniel Massey in a scene from the original production of "She Loves Me" and the cover art for the cast album of the show

 ~Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews; they never got to film "She Loves Me"

 ~Laura Benanti in the 2016 revival of "She Loves Me"
 ~photography: Sara Krulwich / The New York Times 2016 ©

Friday, April 21, 2017

what ever/whatever

As Ryan Murphy's "Feud," arguably the quintessential Guilty Pleasure, winds down, there are questions and concerns that have yet to be broached anywhere - neither by the series itself (which, sadly, celebrates its finale on Sunday) or by anyone in the entertainment media covering it.

So here goes...

First, there's a concern with the way director Robert Aldrich is being portrayed. In my initial essay on "Feud," titled when the legend becomes fact, print the legend, I questioned the veracity of the series, wondering exactly how well researched it is versus how much of it is facile speculation.  A good deal of the time, it plays like juicy gossip.

Which is what makes it such a hoot and so entertaining.

But until this show, Aldrich had a place in movie history as a solid craftsman, an effective storyteller and a nurturing director of actors.  Three of his earliest films were "Vera Cruz" (1954) and the two noirs, "The Big Knife" and "Kiss Me Deadly" (both from 1955).  All terrific films.  Before filming "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," he helmed the very good Kirk Douglas-Rock Hudson Western, "The Last Sunset" (1961).

Aldrich was no hack, as "Feud" consistently implies. True, immediately prior to "Jane," he had a elephantine flop, "Sodom and Gomorrah" (1962), but he was far from washed-up. His befuddled desperation, as played by Alfred Molina, seems a tad exaggerated. And more than a little insulting.

"Autumn Leaves" - Aldrich's first collaboration with his "Baby Jane" star, Joan Crawford, and a really fascinating dual-character study - won him the best director award at the 1956 Berlin Film Festival. Later in his career, Aldrich directed "The Flight of the Phoenix" (1965), "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), "The Killing of Sister George" (1968),  "Too Late the Hero" (1970), "The Grissom Gang" (1971), "Ulzana's Raid" (1972), "Emperor of the North" (1973), two with Burt Reynolds, "The Longest Yard" (1974) and "Hustle" (1975) and my favorite Aldrich - the camp classic, "The Legend of Lylah Clare" (1968).  And, of course, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" (1964), his sturdy "Baby Jane" encore.

Secondly, the Jack Warner character (a horrible monster as delineated by Stanley Tucci) and others continually refer to "Jane" as a B-movie, even after it's completed and on the screen - where it looks like anything but a B-movie. What it looks like is an artful psychodrama, enhanced by witty (and wicked) comic touches. The final image of Bette Davis doing her little Baby Jane dance on a beach is powerfully evocative.  A B-movie?  Right.

Number Three. Aldrich and Warner aren't the only characters being bashed and debased here. Frankly, no one in "Feud" comes off looking good.  Not one character is redeeming, although Jessica Lange's Joan Crawford is borderline sympathetic.  But this negativity may have more to do with the show's makers than with the people that "Feud" depicts.

Nombre Quatre. The past episode of "Feud," devoted to the early filming of "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte,"depicts several scenes shot by Crawford, reunited with Davis, before bailing from the film.  And here I always believed that Crawford dropped out of "Charlotte" without filming anything, before she was replaced by Olivia DeHavilland. That said, where is her footage and why hasn't it materialized as an extra on any "Charlotte" disc?

Just asking.

Then there's the bit of trivia that I brought up in the essay bette & joan & anne & faye, namely that Crawford's connection to Anne Bancroft extended beyond the 1963 Oscarcast, where Joan accepted Anne's Oscar for "The Miracle Worker." Two decades later, Bancroft would be Paramount's first choice to play Crawford in its tell-all biopic, "Mommie Dearest" (1981). Faye Dunaway, of course, got the role and ran with it.

Finally, there's the 1991 TV remake of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," directed by David Greene ("The People Next Door" and "Godspell") and starring no less than the Redgrave sisters as the Hudson sisters - Vanessa as Blanche and Lynn as Jane. Does anyone else remember it?  Seems not.  The film has seemingly disappeared but not before its title was shortened (for some inexplicable reason) to "What Ever Happened to...?" for its home-entertainment release.

It originally aired on ABC on February 17th, 1991.

Note in Passing:  But wait! You can view the 1991 remake, courtesy of You Tube, here.

*  *  *  *  *
~top: Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave in the ABC 1991 television remake of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
* * * * *
~middle: publicity shot of  Robert Aldrich; a shot of the director on location for "Autumn Leaves" with Joan Crawford and Cliff Robertson, and companion shots from "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," comparing Crawford with Olivia De Havilland (in a scene with Agnes Moorehead).
* * * * *
~bottom: Aldrich directing Crawford and Bette Davis on the set of "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Sunday, April 16, 2017

horton's affection for life's unremarkable people

Arguably, Horton Foote (1916-2009) was America's premiere regional playwright, a poet who appreciated the underdog and the forgotten, small men and women with limited vocabularies and even fewer hopes.

He wrote innumerable heart-breaking plays, often in cycles, but is perhaps best known by the moviegoing masses for his faithful adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" for director Robert Mulligan in 1962.

His other film scripts include Arthur Penn's "The Chase" (1966) and Otto Preminger's "Hurry Sundown" (1967), both all-star affairs, and many of his plays have been filmed, usually with Foote himself attached as scenarist.

Two of these films are based on lesser-known Foote plays - "The Traveling Lady," written for the stage, and "Tomorrow," written for television.  These are works which share a gnawing sense of desolation felt by characters who have been overlooked, written off and often condescended to - and they also shared the same leading lady, the singular Kim Stanley (right), who may or may not have been Foote's muse for a while. Stanley herself was seen far too infrequently on screen but was showcased brilliantly in two of her films, John Cromwell's "The Goddess" (1958), based on a Paddy Chayefsky script (with Stanley's character reputedly modeled on Marilyn Monroe), and Bryan Forbes' intellectual creep show, "Seance on a Wet Afternoon" (1964).

If "The Traveling Lady" is unfamiliar, it's because it was retitled "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" when Mulligan filmed Foote's play for Coumbia Pictures in 1965. For the record, the stage production opened on October 27th, 1954 at New York's Playhouse Theatre and closed after only 30 performances. Stanley played the show's delicate, yet tough-willed heroine, Georgette Thomas, and Jack Lord ("Hawaii Five-0") co-starred as her incorrigible convict husband, Henry. Vincent J. Donohue ("The Sound of Music" on stage and "Sunrise at Campobello" on stage and film) directed.

"Baby, the Rain Must Fall" fits rather snugly into the satisfying output of Mulligan and his partner, produce Alan J. Pakula.  It was the fourth of seven titles made by the prolific team, who collaborated on films for about 10 years. Some of their other titles include the aforementioned "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Love with The Proper Stranger" (1963), "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) and "Up the Down Staircase" (1976). How their output has managed to evade a major retrospective is beyond me.

Lee Remick more than meets the daunting challenge of standing in for Stanley on screen as Foote's traveling lady, a young transient mother who seeks out a new life in Harrison, Texas, which is close to where her husband Henry is imprisoned. Steve McQueen, in one of his smaller, straight-acting roles, is perfect as the rough-edged, troubled Henry.

McQueen's singular (albeit, not single) contribution to the screen was that he brought his Method Acting background to the action genre, as evidenced by his moody yet muscular work in "The Great Escape" (1963), "Bullitt" (1968), "Le Mans" (1971) and particularly Sam Peckinpah's "The Getaway" (1972). But he also lent his estimable talents to more intimate, lesser-known efforts - "Junior Bonner" (another '72 film with Peckinpah), "The Reivers" (1969), "The Sand Pebbles" (1966), "The Cincinatti Kid" (1965) and ... the Mulligan-Pakula "Love With the Proper Stranger."

As the film begins, Henry is already out of the penitentiary on parole and and performing in a local saloon with a band. Trying to escape from the disapproving grip of Miss Kate, the indomitable woman who raised him, and also avoid the demands of Georgette and their young daughter Margaret Rose (Kimberly Block), he drinks too much and self-destructs a little more.

The acting here is of first order, dominated by Remick who really has the lead role, and by McQueen who slips into the role of Henry as if it might have been written for him specifically. Remick is especially wonderful in her scenes with the charming Block (a plainspoken, unprecocious child actress) as they make tentative plans to settle in Harrison and talk of planting a Chinaberry tree in the front yard of their future dream house.

There is nothing wrong with "Baby, The Rain Must Fall," which was casually dismissed by both its studio and critics in its day - nothing except its title.

The film was rather hastily released in January of 1965, with most of advertising hinged to a song that was written for it. Somewhere along the way, Columbia Pictures had become disenchanted with the title, "The Traveling Lady," and went with the song title. It's a good song but it had a double-edged affect:  It brought the film a modest amount of popularity but it also seriously marred it. And as a title, it flatly misrepresents the movie and even undermines the moody opening credits (designed by Vance Jonson) superimposed over a long, extended shot of a highway speeding by, accompanied by some vintage Elmer Bernstein music. These titles were clearly designed when it was called "The Traveling Lady."

There were also two television productions of "The Traveling Lady," both starring Kim Stanley that aired a year apart in the 1950s. A "Studio One" version of the play, directed by Mulligan, aired on April 22nd, 1957, and a version for something called "Armchair Theater," directed by Dennis Vance, aired August 3rd,  1958. I've no idea if a kinescope still exists of the "Armchair Theater" telecast, but the "Studio One" version has been preserved and is available (in five parts) on You Tube.

And a bit of trivia: Pakula was married to Hope Lange and hired his wife's first husband, Don Murray, for a supporting role in "Baby, The Rain Must Fall."  Lange and Murray met while filming Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop" in 1956 and were married for six years.

The film "Tomorrow" had a fascinating journey to the screen.  Foote adapted it, originally for television, from a William Faulkner short story that first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on November 23rd, 1940 and is included in Faulkner's anthology of stories, "Knight's Gambit."

The TV production aired on Playhouse 90 on March 7th, 1960, with Stanley and Richard Boone performing the lead roles, under the direction of, yes, Robert Mulligan (again). "Tomorrow" remained dormant for about a decade before Foote adapted it for a curious stage production, performed in a New York church in 1970 with Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin starring for Joseph Anthony, an underrated, now-forgotten stage and film director ("The Rainmaker," "Mary, Mary," "The Best Man" and "Under the Yum Yum Tree" on stage; "The Rainmaker," "The Matchmaker," "All in a Night's Work" and "Career" on film).

Duvall plays the monosyllabic dirt farmer Jackson Fentry,  illiterate and remote, who befriends Bellin's pregnant and homeless Sarah Eubanks and ends up raising her son after she dies. (I've never read the Faulkner story but, on the page, Sarah apparently was a black woman.)

In the work's most piercing scene, Sarah's brutish kin come to claim the child, almost literally swooping down and scooping him up, returning Jackson to his sadly solitary life. The twist in this story is truly original, heart-breaking and cathartic.

The aforementioned TV production of "Tomorrow," starring Kim Stanley and Richard Boone, has also been preserved and is also available (in seven parts) on You Tube.

If you ever wondered where Billy Bob Thornton got his idea for his Karl Childers character in "Sling Blade" (1996), look no further. He was obviously inspired by Fentry. And, curiously, Duvall did a cameo in "Sling Blade" for Thornton as Childer's father.

There are other Duvall/"Tomorrow" connections.  Duvall's role in Aaron Schneider's "Get Low" (2009) owes a great deal to Jackson Fentry as well. (And guess what. Lucas Black from "Sling Blade" is in it.)

And you could also say that Foote himself appropriated a good portion of "Tomorrow" for his original screenplay for Bruce Beresford's "Tender Mercies" (1983), which, of course, starred Duvall and won him the Oscar that he rightly deserved for "Tomorrow."  This is Duvall's best film performance ever, period.  But, surprisingly, even some of his most ardent fans are unfamiliar with this singular film and his work in it.

The supporting cast includes the invaluable character actress Sudie Bond ("Cold Turkey," "They Might Be Giants," "Silkwood" and "Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean") and, as a lawyer, the actor-director Peter Masterson, father of Mary Stuart Masterson and Foote's cousin. As an actor, Masterson starred as Katherine Ross's husband in Bryan Forbes' "The Stepford Wives" and, as a director, he helmed Foote's "A Trip to Bountiful" on screen (the 1985 version which won Geraldine Page an Oscar) and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" on stage.

And then there's the haunting Bellin, who matches Duvall every step of the way in Anthony's sad, heart-breaking love story. (Bellin's husband, producer Paul Roebling, originally presented the play on stage and, with Gilbert Perlman, produced the film version.) The actress, who could have been a silent-movie heroine, made no other films. Bellin passed in 1987.

Note in Passing: This is a revised compilation of two previous essays.

*  *  *  *  *
~top: Horton Foote at New York's Booth Theater
~photography: Carolyn Cole / The Los Angeles Times 2008 ©
* * * * *
~middle: publicity shot of the fabulous Kim Stanley; still shot of  Steve McQueen and Lee Remick in "Baby, the Rain Must Fall"; Playbill for "The Traveling Lady," and McQueen and Kimberly Block on the set of "Baby, The Rain Must Fall"
* * * * *
~bottom: title card for "Tomorrow"; Robert Duvall in an ad for the film, and Olga Bellin in a scene from the film