Saturday, May 31, 2014

gojira


This is the real Godzilla

Against my better judgment, I ventured out to see yet another IMAX 3-D extravaganza - namely, the latest incarnation of "Godzilla."

This one by Indie fave Gareth Edwards.

Given that the "Godzilla" franchise dates back to 1954, I reasoned that this would be surefire. Wrong. What struck me, once again, is how much big money handily dilutes the simple pleasure of moviegoing.

The pre-CGI wonders of "King Kong," "The Wizard of Oz" and the original "Godzilla" (make that "Gojira") may seem amusingly primitive these days but they somehow remain sublimely jaw-dropping in performance.

My initial, most immediate, response to the new "Godzilla" was just how boring it is.  A good half-hour into the film, I still couldn't decipher the hand-wringing rants of the on-screen experts.  The film careens all over the globe, there's a lot of hysterical talk and yet nothing happens.

My second response was how much Edwards managed to make Bryan Cranston, the chief hysteric here, look uncannily like an animé character.

Which, in and of itself, is pretty nifty.

Finally, there's the venerable monster himself (herself?), who doesn't look at all like your great-grandfather's Godzilla but rather like a svelte, giant Praying Mantis. A fashion model almost.  Or is that one of God's cronies that I saw on screen? Naturally, this being a modern horror film, the monster(s) is/are continually shot in shadows and darkness, turning him/her/them into a filtered blur. OK, one final question...

Is it a requisite now that all IMAX 3-D films be completely joyless?

Just asking.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

"The Children's Hour," eight decades later

Credit: Johan Persson
 Elizabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in the 2011 London revival

Come November, Lillian Hellman's landmark play, "The Childlren's Hour," will be 80 years old.

The story of two teachers - Karen Wright and Martha Dobie - whose lives are ruined by a student named Mary Tilford, by a lie about their sexuality that turns out to be possibly half-true (or maybe not), "The Children's Hour" has been admired, acclaimed, dismissed, condemned, ostracized and rediscovered since it opened on Broadway at Maxine Elliott's Theater on November 20th, 1934, with Anne Revere and Katherine Emery in the lead roles.  It's been revived many times, although less frequently in recent decades, and filmed twice - by the same moviemaker.

Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins in the 1936 film

William Wyler first tried to get the material on screen in 1936, with Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins as Karen and Martha and Bonita Granville as Mary.  Retitled "These Three" and with all hints of homosexuality excised, the first film version revolved instead around infidelity (with Joel McCrea coming between the two friends) and, somehow, it worked. And quite beautifully. On its own terms, "These Three" is a solid film.

But it isn't "The Children's Hour."

Wyler's 1961 adaptation of Hellman's play, with the original title and lesbianism restored, is one of those extremely rare - and fortunate - films whose reputation has grown, belatedly, with age.  There are precious few of them.  I've no idea if this version was simply underrated in its day or if it has improved with advancing years.  Perhaps a little of both.
 Audrey Hepburn, James Garner and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film of "The Children's Hour"

It certainly boasts two stellar lead performances. Audrey Hepburn, as Karen, uses her face most expressively, subtly redefining it as the story progresses, and Shirley MacLaine is a revelation as Martha, flawlessly reciting a bravura monologue/confession, carefully written by Hellman, in a concluding sequence. It is nearly impossible to notice anything else about the film when these two are on screen, whether in tandem or alone.

But next time out, pay attention to other crucial contributions to the film, such as Franz Planer's evocative black-&-white cinematography (which makes sure that the material, which is essentially still stagebound, is never static) and the gorgeously spare music score by Alex North.
Balkin with director Wyler and MacLaine

 There is also remarkable ensemble work here by the film's younger actresses, particularly the always good Veronica Cartwright (also of Hitchcock's "The Birds" and, many years later, Philip Kaufman's remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") and, in the difficult central role of Mary, the courageous Karen Balkin who, alas, would make only one more film - Peter Hyams' "Our Times" in 1974. Balkin may have been a little too convincing as the brat who destroys several lives in Hellman's drama.

A sad waste.

And then there's the terrific supporting work by two seasoned Grand Dames, the singular Miriam Hopkins (Martha in Wyler's original film; Martha's aunt here) and the commanding Fay Bainter, who was Oscar-nominated as Mary's monied grandmother and, from where I sit, should have won. The sublime Rita Moreno, essentially too old for "West Side Story" (she was 30 at the time) and only adequate in the role, took home one of the supporting awards that year. But it was a WSS sweep in 1962.

There are few scene more quietly scorching than when Bainter silences Balkin's hysterical excuses for her behavior with the demand, "Be still!" 

James Garner essayed the McCrea role.

Playbill for the 1952 Los Angeles revival 

Among the various revivals, the most notable - and controversial - was the one staged in New York in 1952 at the Coronet Theater, starring Kim Hunter and Patricia Neal as Karen and Martha, respectively, and  Iris Mann, a talented child actress who had just played a troublesome teen in the film "Room for One More" opposite Cary Grant and Betsy Drake, as the disruptive Mary.

This version, staged by Hellman herself, raised some dust as the playwright used her material as a commentary on the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Hellman always contended that "The Children's Hour" was less about homosexuality than about destructive gossip.

MacLaine's big scene

But, in recent years, there have been fewer revivals as the gay community has distanced itself from the material which has been construed as less well-meaning than misleading, particularly the shame and self-loathing voiced in the aforementioned monologue that's so passionately and indelibly read in the '61 film by MacLaine.

Such misgivings, however, didn't stop director Ian Rickson from mounting a London revival in 2011 and with a starry cast in tow -  Keira Knightley as Karen, Elizabeth Moss as Martha and Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Tilford.  It opened to mixed reviews on February 9th at the intimate Comedy Theater.  At the time, there were talks for moving the production to New York, but three years later, that has yet to happen.

"The Children's Hour" was, and always will be, a period piece.  It is of its time and, as such, it works. 

Note in Passing:  When Wyler filmed his '61 remake, United Artists dickered with the idea of also changing the title a second time - to the nondescript "The Infamous."  The brass thought that "The Children's Hour" would mislead audiences into thinking it was a family film. Wyler balked.

The play's title stayed.

Friday, May 23, 2014

making a case for Logan's "Ensign Pulver"


Guilty pleasure, anyone?

Joshua Logan, who directed "Mister Roberts" on stage and helmed certain uncredited sequences for the John Ford-Mervyn LeRoy 1955 film version, got the bright idea of continuing Thomas Heggen's beloved story by speculating on what happened to Ensign Pulver (the Jack Lemmon character, natch) after Mister Roberts (Henry Fonda) died in combat.

The result was 1964's immediately forgettable but strangely likable "Ensign Pulver" with the Lemmon-esque Robert Walker Jr. (the lookalike son of Robert Walker) assuming the title role.

In this incarnation of the life aboard what Heggen affectionately dubbed "The Bucket," Walter Matthau inherits the William Powell role of Doc and Burl Ives takes over for James Cagney as Captain Morton (a character that was simply billed as "The Captain" in the '55 film).

The plot is negligble, but wait!  Get this incredible supporting cast:

-Kay Medford, always wonderful, this time as a tough head nurse who meets her match in Matthau's Doc.

-Millie Perkins as a young nurse and potential love interest for Ensign Pulver.

-Diana Sands and Al Freeman, Jr., hilarious as two rather worldly south-seas natives.

-Jack Nicholson (yes!), James Coco, Tommy Sands, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, George Lindsey, Gerald O'Loughlin, Peter Marshall and Dick Gautier as assorted sailors on The Bucket.

"Ensign Pulver" is an excellent example of a film that's not especially good but that has a cast that makes it worthwhile.

Case in point: Matthau and Medford,who have impressive comic/sexual chemistry in a ship-to-shore sequence which doesn't even have them in the same frame together. They make a dream team. It's too bad that they never got to make a film in which they sparred face-to-face.

"Ensign Pulver" marked a reunion of sorts for Medford and Gautier, both of whom appeared in the original 1960 Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie" - Medford as Mrs. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke's mother) and Gautier as Conrad Birdie.  They were passed over a year earlier by George Sidney for his 1963 film of the musical. Maureen Stapleton (quite good) and Jesse Pearson (quite bad) replaced them in the movie version.

Logan's movie may be negligable, but I will forever appreciate his nimble casting of "Ensign Pulver" - and particularly for correcting Sidney's slight and coming through for both Medford and Gautier.

Note in Passing: Dick Gautier would also be reunited with Dick Van Dyke for Bud Yorkin's astute, hilarious marital comedy, "Divorce, American Style," in which he essays the role of Van Dyke's divorce attorney.

fonda versus "roberts"


It's been well-documented that Henry Fonda was not happy while committing one of his most iconic roles to film in Warner Bros. 1955 movie version of his hit play, "Mister Roberts."

And it pretty much shows in what I see as an indifferent performance in the film.  He seems distracted throughout which, arguably, might make dramatic sense, given that he's playing a career Navy man who feels trapped during World War II because he isn't actually participating in the war.

When the film went into production, the popular thought was that this was the movie that would win Fonda his Oscar. He had been nominated many years earlier for his role in John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940).  Tellingly, Fonda wasn't even nominated for "Mister Roberts."

And at 50, he was perhaps a little old for the role.  (He was 43 when the play opened on Broadway in 1948 and, of course, in the theater, there's some physical distance between the performer and the audience.  Not so with the leering eye of the camera.)  That may explain why Jack Warner actively wanted 30-year-old Marlon Brando for the role.  Brando was Warner's first choice, followed by William Holden, then 37.

The film's director, on the other hand, had his eye on John Wayne.  Which was curious as the director was ... John Ford who directed Fonda in the aforementioned "On Golden Pond" and several other titles.

Ford had worked often with Wayne, as well as Fonda - and was friends with both - but even though Fonda had played the role to acclaim on stage, rumor has it that Ford had his heart set on Wayne.  This could not have been a good start for Fonda who of course was ultimately signed for the role. He deserved more enthusiasm from his director and the studio head.

Fonda was the only performer from the Broadway production retained for the film.  Ironically, Brando's sister Jocelyn originated the role on stage of the Navy nurse played by Betsy Palmer in the film.  (Jocelyn Brando had replaced Eva Marie Saint in the role during an out-of-town tryout.)

When I interviewed Henry Fonda back in the '70s, I asked him about the "Roberts" situation and, although he was typically discreet and private, he did share two reservation that he had about the film.  For one thing, Fonda disliked  how Ford had turned the seabees on Roberts' cargo ship into a bunch of grinning overgrown kids and I couldn't agree more.  They're sailors by way of The Bowery Boys.  This is especially true of the performances of Nick Adams, Tige Andrews and Harry Carey, Jr.
Fonda (center), seemingly happy with his co-stars (from left) James Cagney, William Powell, Ward Bond and Jack Lemmon

Fonda also objected about how Ford was beefing up Dowdy, the role played by another Ford stalwart, Ward Bond.  This complaint struck me as curious because Fonda, Ford and Bond collaborated often and because, well, could there ever really be too much of Ward Bond in anything?  (Fonda reportedly parted ways with the actor because Bond, with whom he had political differences, had supported McCarthyism.)

According the Hollywood legend, Ford became so fed up with Fonda that, one day, he slugged the actor.  Did that really happen?  Who knows?

One fact is certain: Ford suddenly took ill during production and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy who completed the film. Both are credited with its direction and, according to Jack Lemmon, who plays Ensign Pulver in the film, Joshua Logan was recruited to shoot a couple of additional scenes after principal photography was completed.  (Logan had directed Fonda in the play.) "So, we actually had three directors on the film.  Which can be fascinating but can give one a small stomach ache," Jack quipped.  

Note in Passing:  Fonda finally won his Oscar in 1981 for Mark Rydell's "On Golden Pond," 41 years after his first nomination.

Friday, May 02, 2014

the contrarian: Billy Wilder's "Irma La Douce"


"This, then, is the story of Irma La Douce..."

So starts Louis Jordan's opening narration of Billy Wilder's songless film version of "Irma La Douce," whose source was a piece of flirty material that was an international sensation (in the truest sense of that expression) in the mid-1950s/early-1960s, moving from the French stage to acclaim in translated form in both London and New York, and finally to Hollywood.

The move, in retrospect, wasn't an easy one for Irma the Sweet.  And for years, I wondered exactly what happened to her/it.  Why did she disappear?  Not Wilder's film, which still survives on home entertainment, but rather some incarnation of the stage phenomenon.

Why has it never been revived?

Well, "Irma" - the musical -will be back on stage in New York, if only temporarily, and with any hope, the old girl has lost some of that saucy flirtiness.  It is being presented by Encores!, under the direction of the estimable John Dolye, at the City Center (131 West 55th Street) for an extremely limited engagement - for five days, May 7-11. Brief and unexpected as it is, Irma's comeback presents me with an opportune reason to consider her history.

The musical - spoken and sung in French, both saucy and soulful - opened November 12th, 1956 at the Théâtre Gramont in Paris, where it played for four years. It boasted music by Marguerite Monnot (famed for "The Poor People of Paris") and book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort.

 
The London production opened at the Saville Theatre on July 17th, 1958 and ran for a whopping 1512 performances. It retained Monnot's melodies, with Breffort's book and lyrics translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman. This production was later optioned for New York by David Merrick and opened September 29th, 1960 at New York's Plymouth Theatre, running for 527 performances. Sir Peter Brook ("Marat/Sade") directed both the London and New York productions of the musical, and his cast from London - Elizabeth Seal, Keith Mitchell and Clive Revill - recreated their parts for Broadway. (Elliott Gould, Stuart Damon, George S.Irving and Fred Gwynne were also in the Broadway production, playing various pimps.)

Then came the Wilder movie version, filmed in 1962 and released in 1963.

Wilder, in New York in 1960 to see Jack Lemmon in the play, "Face of a Hero," caught the Broadway production of "Irma" and immediately saw it as an ideal vehicle for Lemmon.  The premise - nonsense about a guy so deluded and desperate to keep his prostitute-girlfriend as pure as possible  that he dons a disguise and pretends to be her most valuable (and sole) client - had potential to be another winning Wilder-Lemmon collaboration, following "Some Like It Hot" (1959) and "The Apartment" (1960).

With Lemmon signed on, Wilder went into in negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor to play Irma. (Lemmon to the New York Times during an interview at the time: "Lucky girl!")

Enter Marilyn Monroe. She, reportedly, wanted the role. Desperately. But Wilder was still recuperating after their problems on "Some Like It Hot."

Meanwhile, Taylor got caught up in a little number titled "Cleopatra" and Monroe went into George Cukor's ill-fated "Something's Got to Give."

Enter Shirley MacLaine, who of course worked with both Wilder and Lemmon on "The Apartment" and who was perfect for the role.

She became Wilder's Irma.

During this period, it was never mentioned in the press that the film of "Irma La Douce" would not be a musical. (Two years earlier, in 1961, Joshua Logan dropped all of Harold Rome's songs from his film version of "Fanny." Logan had also directed the original New York production.)

One has to wonder if Wilder may have entertained thoughts of actually making a musical, given MacLaine's song-and-dance background and the fact that Lemmon had starred in a few film musicals early in his career. Also, one of Wilder's supporting players, cast in the role of Irma's pimp, was Bruce Yarnell, who was a rising young star in the musical theater at the time and had just starred on Broadway in "The Happiest Girl in the World," opposite Cyril Ritchard and Janice Rule. (Yarnell was also under consideration by Richard Lester to play Captain Miles Gloriosus in his 1966 film of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," but the role went to Leon Greene. Bruce Yarnell would died young in 1973.)

Wilder also finally got a chance to work with Lou Jacobi on "Irma."  Jacobi was Wilder's original choice to play Dr. Dreyfuss in "The Apartment," having admired his work in George Stevens' film version of "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959). But Jacobi was committed to a play at the time - Paddy Chayefsky's "The Tenth Man" - and the role of Dreyfuss was ultimately played by Jack Kruschen, who nailed the role.
 
OK, full disclosure: I loved Wilder's film of "Irma"... as a kid.  And, I guess, it helps to be 12 to truly appreciate it. No matter what measure one might use, Wilder's "Irma La Douce" looms as a major embarrassment - a leering piece of "tired businessman's entertainment" that's sexed-up and yet decidedly, strangely, unsexy.

Most upsetting of all, in Wilder's hands, "Irma La Douce" had lost its innate soulfulness.

What's odd is that the material, as mentioned, seemed like perfect pairing for Wilder and his cast, but the filmmaker somehow managed to take what was a light soufflé on stage and turn it into an obvious, leaden and, at 147 minutes, elephantine mess - 147 minutes and that's without all the songs.

  Monnot's clever, likable melodies were promptly deleted from the Wilder-I.A.L. Diamont script, relegated (as with "Fanny") to the background as incidental music, scored by André Previn. Even reduced, however, Monnot's contribution remains the only worthwhile thing about the film. That and designer Alexandre Trauner's sprawling soundstage recreation of Paris' Les Halles district - a "Disneyland for adults," Wilder quipped.

The play's rousing showstopper, "Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc," was retained - well, sort of - as a dance number for MacLaine, a moment in the film which seems to lead up an intermission break that never comes.
 
"Irma" was shot largely on a soundstage in Hollywood, but by the time the crew got to France for some location work, a lot had happened: Monroe had died from an overdose, Taylor and Richard Burton had started their affair on the set of "Cleopatra" and Lemmon had married Felicia Farr (with both Wilder and director Richard Quine serving as his best men in a Paris ceremony).

On the basis of the wild success of "Irma La Douce" and his two films that followed it - "Under the Yum Yum Tree" and "Good Neighbor Sam," both directed by David Swift - Lemmon was the Number One box office star of 1964. He would ultimately disavow both "Yum Yum," which makes sense (it's pretty base; it needed Frank Tashlin's touch and sensibility) and "Sam," which makes no sense (it's an engaging comedy).

Jack would have done well to have distanced himself from the adolescent smirk of "Irma La Douce" as well.

In retrospect, I wonder where Jacques Demy was when the decision was made to film "Irma."  The maker of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourgh" (1964) and "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (1967) seemed like a natural fit for "Irma La Douce."  At least, with Demy at the helm, the material would have returned to its source - as a French musical.  And I see the fabulous Bernadette Lafont as Irma. Another missed opportunity.  Oh, well...

C'est la vie.