Friday, July 25, 2014

ron & jason

Some trivia...

Both Jason Robards and Ron Howard made their film debuts in the 1959 Anatole Litvak drama, "The Journey," about a group of travelers from the West stranded at a Budapest airport, detained by an intimidating Major Surov (Yul Brynner, of course) and his seriously armed men.

Robards, then billed as Jason Robards, Jr., played the love interest of the film's female lead, Deborah Kerr, and Howard, age five and then billed as Ronny Howard, was one of the sons of Anne Jackson and E.G. Marshall.

Some 20 years later, after spending those years acting on television and in movies, Howard would become a filmmaker - and he would ultimately direct his former co-star Robards in not one, but two films, "Parenthood" (1989) and "The Paper" (1994). Robards would be the only actor from Howard's past who would appear in any Ron Howard movie.

Andy Griffin?  No, he was never directed by Howard, despite their long-standing professional relationship.  Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, who appeared with Howard in Morton DaCosta's "The Music Man" in 1962?  Nope.  (It's something that Jones complains about - jokingly - in her cabaret act.)  Henry Fonda, the star of "The Smith Family," a short-lived TV series that he did with Howard in the 1970s?  Absolutely not. No, only Jason Robards.

The connection has never been acknowledged or addressed by the media, arousing my curiosity.  What was it like for Robards to be directed by someone he first met when that person was a just five-year-old?  I had a chance to broach the subject with Robards shortly after "The Paper" was made.  He answered with only one word: "Surreal."

I never had a chance to interview Howard during my career but I've often wondered why Robards was the only person from his professional past who he'd direct.  Was there a special connection?  Was it the experience of making "The Journey" so many decades before? I'd really like to know.

"The Journey" airs on Turner Classic Movies at 10 a.m. on Sunday (July 27).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

the film musical: overlooked gems

Once upon a time, a hit Broadway musical would automatically be made into a big movie musical. Perhaps the richest time for stage-to-film transferals was the early 1960s when "Bells Are Ringing," "West Side Story," "Flower Drum Song," "The Music Man," "Gypsy," "Bye Bye Birdie" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" all made it to the screen.

In fact, the "film version" of a stage hit was seen as some kind of validation, much to the chagrin of Broadway types who would invariably complain about the bastardization of one of their own.

Exacerbating this was the fact that certain bona fide hit musicals somehow fell through the cracks, also inciting the Broadway community.

You're damned it you do and damned if you don't.

Some shows finally made it to the screen after a long delay - "Chicago," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Dreamgirls," "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" and "Les Misérables."

But there are other titles that have been neglected for several decades.

Say, five decades.

Instead of doing remakes (new versions of "Gypsy," "Carousel" and "My Fair Lady have been threatened), why not be adverturous and committ some longgone, once-legendary stage musical to celluloid?
I'm thinking specifically of two superior shows by composers Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fiorello" and the endlessly enchanting "She Loves Me"; John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Zorba" and "70 - Girls - 70"; Frank Loesser's masterwork, "The Most Happy Fella," adapted from Sidney Howard's "They Knew What They Wanted," and his underrated "Greenwillow," and Robert Merrill's hugely popular hit "Take Me Along," based on Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," which caused quite the stir in its day, thanks to Jackie Gleason's star power.

Prior to his death, Bobby Darin had talked about buying "Fiorello" as a starring film vehicle for himself, and Tony Perkins, who starred in the Loesser show on Broadway, wanted to film "Greenwillow" with Jane Fonda (his "Tall Story" co-star) as his leading lady.

And, saddest of all, "She Loves Me" was once the dream project of Blake Edwards who hoped to film it at MGM with Julie Andrews in the Barbara Cook role, but MGM's long-time instability was starting up at the time.

Missed opportunities.

Meanwhile. producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were once so committed to filming the stage musical of "Zorba," with the original film star, Anthony Quinn, encoring in the title role, that they even 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 Alan Bates role.

It never happened, natch. And neither did the others.

Film them already!

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

the film musical: just for the fun of it


Last October, my wife and I trekked to the Papermill Playhouse in cozy Millburn, New Jersey to see the stage musical version of  Andrew Bergman's 1992 film comedy, "Honeymoon in Vegas," entirely motivated by Ben Brantley’s enthusiastic review in The New York Times.

I could barely remember the film (except for the bit with The Flying Elvises), but the production promised songs by the estimable Jason Robert Brown, who wrote the scores for the much-admired cult musical, "Parade," and the then-imminent "The Bridges of Madison County."

Anyway, the encounter was sheer bliss - and a reminder of exactly what's been missing from musicals both on-screen and on stage.  It came to me that the light, fluffy musical - the musical comedy - was long gone, replaced by sober, serious fare in which characters suffer to songs that can't hummed. I'm thinking specifically of "Dreamgirls" and "Les Misérables," shows that decidedly do not invite toe-tapping.

With a cast headed by Tony Danza (in the James Caan role) and terrific newcomers Rob McClure and Brynn O’Malley (standing in for Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker), "Honeymoon in Vegas" was a throwback to joys of "Bye Bye Birdie" (the stage production, not the infantilized 1963 film) and "Bells Are Ringing" (both the play and film), musicals that made you feel good.  We've had only two film musicals of that sort in recent years - Adam Shankman's "Hairspray" and Phyllida Lloyd's "Mamma Mia!"

Typically, the critics complained.  The miserables, indeed.

Note in Passing:  There's been no word about the retro "Honeymoon in Vegas" opening on Broadway so far, but with Ben Brantley behind it, I'd say that it's future is fairly certain.  I can't wait to see it again.

Monday, July 21, 2014

the film musical: reconstructed steps

 The "A Secretary Is Not a Toy" number from "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" - Dale Moreda recreated Bob Fosse's trademark moves for the film.

One of the more annoying curiosities of the modern film musical is that, save for Rob Marshall's "Chicago" (2002) and Adam Shankman's "Hairspray" (2007), dance has been all but removed from the genre. But then both Marshall and Shankman are former choreographers.

There are "dancicals," of course, a separate film form wherein characters sway, spin and skip to music but don't sing. They only dance.

Actual movie musicals, however, now routinely eliminate the moves. If you listen to the soundtrack of Alan Parker's film of "Evita" (1996), your imagination runs wild with visions of dust-raising choreography.  But watch the film and the only dancing on screen is a brief waltz shared by stars Madonna and Antonio Banderas.  And that's about all that  Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter do in Tim Burton's "Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" (2007).  (Burton not only dropped all the dances, but for some bizarre reason, also eliminated the musical's chorus as well.)

There's precious little dancing in Phyllida Lloyd's toe-tapping "Mamma Mia! (2008) and none whatsoever in Tom Hooper's funereal "Les Misérables" (2012), even though a choreographer is listed in its credits.

Gone are the days when a film musical's choreographer was as important as its, with Agnes DeMille given carte blanche by Fred Zinnemann for his version of "Oklahoma!" (1955) and Jerome Robbins translating his stage dances to film for "West Side Story" (1961).

And then there are those films whose choreographers meticulously recreated dances from the stage originals - Rod Alexander who restaged Agnes DeMille's moves for Henry King's "Carousel" (1956); Robert Tucker who traced over Jerome Robbins' choreography for Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy" (1962), and Dale Moreda who recreated Bob Fosse's trademark moves for David Swift's "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying."  (Hugh Lambert also contributed choreography to the stage "How to Succeed," but his contribution was not used in the film version.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

the film musical: getting "serious"

John Huston with his younger cast members, including title star Aileen Quinn (center), on the set of "Annie"

As the popularity of the film musical continued to wind down, the studios picked up on an added trend: Not only was the public ostracizing musicals, but critics as well - professionals who, one would assume, have adventurous, open-minded tastes and should know better.

But as they say, never assume.

It became apparent that whenever a new movie musical opened, it would be compared - unfairly - to "Singin' in the Rain," a film which, for some bizarre, irrational reason, became the template to which all subsequent movie musicals would be compared. Yeesh!

So how do the few remaining denizens in Hollywood who actually like musicals combat critics who, sight unseen, declare every new movie musical "an unmitigated, unwatchable disaster!"?

Well, you bring in the Top Guns.  Which is exactly what the studios did.  You hire respected filmmakers, honchos, who critics would never question.

Serious filmmakers.

And so it begun, in the late 1970s and early '80s...
  • John Huston signed on to direct a really terrific film version of "Annie."
  • Sidney Lumet did his part on behalf of "The Wiz."
  • Milos Foreman - Milos Foreman! - brought his considerable skills to what is arguably the definitive version of "Hair."
  • Sir Richard Attenborough - the operative word here being "Sir" - was given the delicate task of bringing that Broadway darling, "A Chorus Line," to the big screen.
  • Francis Ford Coppola, who in his youth did "Finian's Rainbow," pursued the provocative "One from the Heart."
  • Martin Scorsese, a veritable savior among critics, dared to try his hand at an original movie musical, "New York, New York." 
  • Peter Bogdanovich developed his "new Cole Porter Musical," "At Long Last Love."
  • Hal Prince, who delighted critics with his off-beat debut movie, "Something for Everyone," decided to follow it up with a little Sondheim piece that he directed on stage - "A Little Night Music."
In the past, the critics loved these guys, but guess what.  Right!  They were all accused of making musicals that weren't ... "Singin' in the Rain."

The ploy didn't work.  In fact, it backfired.  If critics weren't going to accept a musical directed by the venerable John Huston (abetted by the very qualified Joe Layton), exactly what would they accept?

Friday, July 11, 2014

the film musical: palatable

While the film musical has generally been dismissed, disparaged and ridiculed - largely by those who don't understand it or would even bother to sit through one - there are those precious few that have enjoyed wide popularity.   These tend to be musicals in which music itself is inherent to the narrative, in which singing, dancing and performing drive the plot.

These musicals are naturally ... musical.

The most obvious case-in-point is Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), which ostensibly chronicles the transition of silent moviemaking to sound films but actually revolves around the making of a film musical.  George Cukor's remake of "A Star Is Born" (1954), although not a book musical, also chronicles the production of soundstage musicals.

Other musical/musical films that the public have accepted include Morton DaCosta's "The Music Man" (1962), about a con man selling small-town denizens on a boys' band; Mervyn LeRoy's "Gypsy," (1962), about vaudeville and the early days of burlesque; Robert Wise's "The Sound of Music" (1965) about the von Trapp family singers, and George Sidney's "Bye Bye Birdie" (1963), about a rock star's induction into the military.

The respective subjects of each of these films make all the singing and dancing palatable, even to people who say they don't like movie musicals.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

the film musical: too gay?

It's "Guys and Dolls," Jerry, not "Guys and Guys"

Exactly when did men begin to define their masculinity by the movies they watch?

I ask because my wife and I both had fathers who loved musicals, either on stage or on film.  No big deal.  Both took their families to tryouts of new musicals in Philadelphia and loved "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific" and "The Music Man" on screen.  A musical was just another type of movie to see.  This week, a Western.  Next week, a musical.  And the week after that, a comedy with Clark Gable and Doris Day.  It simply didn't matter.  A movie was just a movie - and some variety made movies even better.

The decline of the movie musical can be directly blamed on men who refuse to see one with their wives or girlfriends, who worry that "the guys" might find out and who think their sperm count or testosterone level will shrink if they watch Meryl Streep and company cavort in "Mamma Mia!"

This phobia was driven home by Larry David who wrote an episode of "Seinfeld" - episode 17, season four, to be specific - titled "The Outing," in which Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and her friend Sharon (guest star Paula Marshall) overhear a curious conversation between Jerry and George (Jason Alexander), who are sitting in an adjoining booth in Monk's.  They sound like a gay couple and Elaine decides to milk that impression for all its worth, even though Sharon is interested in Jerry and vice versa.

Matters come to a head when George purchases two tickets to a "Guys and Dolls" revival for Jerry for his birthday. One for him, one for Jerry.

Already uptight that Sharon thinks he's gay, Jerry screams in his unique Seinfeldian way, "Isn't that a lavish Broadway musical?"

To which George responds, "It's 'Guys and Dolls,' Jerry, not 'Guys and Guys'!"

That episode first aired February 11, 1993 and matters haven't changed.

Friday, July 04, 2014

the film musical: by the book

Sinatra, on stage, in "Pal Joey" 

More on film musicals! The previous essay - "preferable in black-&-white? - generated a response from wwolfe who brought up the idea of "the book musical."  That's a musical in which songs are carefully woven directly into the narrative, replacing dialogue to advance the film's plot.

Zita-Jones and Zellweger, fantasizing, in "Chicago"

For me, a book musical is the only authentic musical.  "Flashdance," "Footloose" and "Dirty Dancing" have all been referred to as musicals.  They aren't.  They're dancicals.  Rob Marshall's 2002 film of "Chicago" is a shrewd redefining of the book musical.  Yes, characters sing on screen, but all the musicals numbers are presented as daydreams, fantasy, a way to make all the singing and dancing palatable.  It's a musical made for people who don't like musicals - a bastardization of the book musical.

Liza, on stage, in "Cabaret"

On stage, "Cabaret" was a book musical.  But when Bob Fosse filmed it in 1972, all the songs were restricted to the stage of the Kit Kat Club.  They were performances.  The songs sung off-stage in the play were either eliminated or reconfigured for Liza Minnelli to sing at the club.

Fosse wasn't breaking any new ground.  Way back in 1957, director George Sidney and his scenarist Dorothy Kingsley turned the Rodgers and Hart musical,"Pal Joey," into "An Evening with Frank Sinatra."  Except for Rita Hayworth's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" number (which she lip-syncs in a shower), all the songs in "Joey" are performances, sung before an audience. Plus there's one dream sequence.  An iconic Broadway show, finally a film, was no longer a book musical.

So, let's get something straight - a film musical isn't a musical unless its characters burst out into song, and not on a stage or some dream.

Got that?

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

the film musical: preferable in black-&-white?


The movie musical is, innately, the most artificial of film genres. 

Characters suddenly bursting into song!   Or dancing unabashedly in parks and on sidewalks!  Really?  Nobody does that in real life.

The form, arguably, had its widest acceptance when filmmaking itself was somewhat artificial.  During the Depression and the years immediately following, the films of Shirley Temple and the RKO musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were shot in black-&-white, a format which, by its very nature, divorced the story being told on screen from any hint of reality.

We had black-and-white figures set against black-&-white landscapes and living in homes with black-&-white décor.  Not at all like real life. 

The black-&-white cinematography made it easier to suspend disbelief and, by extension, to accept all the carefree singing and dancing.

This was "make believe" in the truest sense.

But as movies matured and became technologically advanced, the artificial was replaced by something closer to reality.  With the advent of color, the characters on screen were no longer stick figures but real people and everything that surrounded them was less primitive and simplistic. Or seemed so. Audiences began to bring a different perspective to movies. 

What was clearly a fantasy now seemed real.  

Initially, the movie musical was the chief beneficiary of all these advances.  Color cinematography, the widescreen format and stereophonic sound all seemed to be invented with musicals in mind and, in the 1950s, these adornments were exploited to the hilt by the studios, particularly MGM.  But as film progressed and became more aggressively realistic, some moviegoers were starting to notice the ridiculousness of film musicals.  Street toughs doing pirouettes on dirty New York streets!  A young nun twirling and trilling high up on the Swiss Alps! Really?

Again, nobody does that in real life.

Of course, this stuff works well on stage precisely because of the stage setting which keeps us always aware of the artifice - of the play-acting.

Die-hard musical fans (count me in) may have orgasms over such moments, and some movie critics and Academy members, too.  But you can sense the average moviegoer becoming clenched and pulling away. While the films of “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music” were both hits, they marked the beginning of the end of the movie musical. 

Tellingly, their success didn’t generate more movie musicals, but fewer.

Monday, June 30, 2014

cinema obscura: two with don murray

As anyone familiar with this site well knows by now, cinema obscura is a recurring feature devoted to titles that have been underrated, neglected or completely ignored.  Well, there are neglected films and there are those films that are so obscure that no one is even aware of their existence.

Two examples of the latter extreme will be showcased at San Francisco's invaluable Roxie Theater (3117 16th Street) during "A Special Weekend with Don Murray," which was curated by the Roxie's ever-resourceful Elliot Lavine and will screen there the weekend of July 11-13.

First, a little background about Murray, a classically handsome, rugged actor who was nominated for an Oscar for his film debut opposite Marilyn Monroe in Joshua Logan's "Bus Stop" (1956).  Jack Lemmon, who had briefly worked with the director when Logan was brought on to do some backup work on the film of "Mister Roberts" (1955), was a serious contender for the role of Beauregard Decker, the headstrong cowboy in "Bus Stop," but the part went to Murray and it is impossible to image anyone else in the role.

Although Murray did some serious screen acting in the 1950s, particularly in film versions of demanding plays (Michael V. Gazzo's "A Hatful of Rain") and teleplays (Paddy Chayfesky's "The Bachelor Party"), and made two particularly fine Westerns for his home studio, Twentieth Century-Fox (Richard Fleischer's "These Thousand Hills," with Lee Remick, and Henry Hathaway's "From Hell to Texas," with Diane Varsi),  he never quite made the A list, either by design or lack of luck.  Murray (below with Inga Swenson) had a mid-career memorable role as the closeted young Senator Brigham Anderson in Otto Preminger's "Advise and Consent" (1962), but by this time he had branched out as something of an auteur of social-issue films.
He was the driving force behind Irvin Kershner's "The Hoodlum Priest" (1961), which he co-wrote (with Joseph Landon), and Denis Sanders' "One Man's Way" (1964), a biopic of Norman Vincent Peale. Other fascinating projects followed - including Herbert Danska's "Sweet Love, Bitter" (1967, again with Varsi), and Mark Robson's "Happy Birthday, Wanda June" (1971), based on the Kurt Vonnegut play (with a screenplay by Vonnegut) - but Murray seemed to remain a handsome, talented blur in the minds of both critics and moviegoers. Not fair.  He's a strong, impressive actor

The two obscure titles being screened during the Roxie's well-deserved tribute to Murray are "The Confessions of Tom Harris" and "Call Me by My Rightful Name" (both dated 1972), films that Murray made (apparently with friends) but, for reasons not entirely clear, that were never released theatrically or on home entertainment. Information on both is lacking; neither is listed among Murray's credits on IMDb.

The first, "The Confessions of Tom Harris," was in production from 1966 to 1972, with both John Derek and David Nelson listed as its directors.  (Nelson, coincidentally, had worked with Murray's first wife, Hope Lange, on Robson's film of "Peyton Place.")  It is described as "the spiritual awakening of a bad man," with Murray (pictured above in a scene from the film) in the lead role, supported by Linda Evans (Derek's wife at the time) and veteran character actor David Brian.

Much more interesting is "Call Me by My Rightful Name," based on Michael Shurtleff's much-admired 1961 off-Broadway play which was directed on stage by Milton Katselas (who helmed "Butterflies Are Free" on stage and film).  Adapted by Shurtleff from a story by S.F. Pfoutz, the play, lauded for being "honest, moving and courageous," is a race relations story about two men, Columbia students rooming together in New York. Doug is white and rebellious and Paul is black. When the two disagree on their definitions of love, a fight ensues, forcing a young woman, Chris, the object of their disagreement, to referee.

On stage, the stars (pictured above) were Joan Hackett as Chris, Robert Duvall as Doug and, yes, Alvin Ailey (before he became an acclaimed dancer-choreographer) as Paul; Hackett won several acting awards (the Theatre World, Obie and Drama Desk trophies) for her performance.  "An exciting new play by a new American dramatist," New York Newsday reported in its review, adding "The Best off-Broadway play of the year."  The New York Times wrote that "Mr. Shurtleff has the feel of theatre in his blood.  His play is bright, truthful."
Murray reportedly was so taken by "Call Me by My Rightful Name" that he saw it twice and had hoped to film it immediately - in 1962 - with Sidney Poitier starring opposite him.  Scheduling conflicts prevented this and, instead, it took ten years before the play was finally filmed - with Otis Young and Cathy Lee Crosby starring with Murray (all pictured above) and playwright Shurtleff directing his own adaptation.  (Shurtleff, who was also a major casting director, died of lung cancer at age 86 in 2007.)

There are no plans to release "Call Me by My Rightful Name" on DVD, but I for one wish Don Murray would reconsider.  I'd love to see it, if only for the opportunity to watch Murray act again.

Note in Passing: OK, a bit of Don Murray trivia...  As noted, Murray was married for years to Lange, whom he met on "Bus Stop."  After they divorced, Lange married Alan J. Pakula who, at the time, produced films directed by his partner, Robert Mulligan. Anyway, Paklua cast Muarry, his wife's ex, in "Mulligan's "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" (1965).