Tuesday, May 26, 2015

really?

"The Japs don't understand the love we have for our women. They don't even have a word for it in their language." 

The dialogue is from Delmer Daves' "Destination Tokyo."  And the actor reciting it is Cary Grant, of all people.  Grant was never the most macho of actors.  In fact, he seemed to purposely work against machismo in his films.  But in this piece of 1943 World War II propaganda, he made like John Wayne. As the captain of a U.S. submarine attempting to infiltrate Tokyo Bay, Grant spends most of the film pontificating negatively about Japan, not just as an unworthy enemy, but also as an awful culture.


The film itself demonstrates America's misguided sense of superiority at its worst and it was part of one of Turner Classic Movies' recurring events - its annual Memorial Day Weekend film marathon, during which one war movie after another is relentlessly screened. Usually, I pass. Not interested.

But, this year, I took notice - which wasn't difficult, given that Turner is always beaming somewhere in our house. What I saw - or, rather, heard - was jaw-dropping and disturbing but, in all honesty, not entirely surprising.

Most of the titles screened, like "Destination Tokyo," were filmed and released during the WWII years, and it seems that every time I walked past our television, some supporting actor was salivating about killing "Japs." Of course, it was a different culture decades ago, but still: Really?

While I'm a self-confessed bleeding-heart liberal who would never condone book burning, I also can't understand why blatantly racist films are routinely screened or why even Memorial Day needs to be "celebrated" with a film festival.  Yes, I was offended.  Just as I am offended by Mickey Rooney's notorious Oriental schtick in Blake Edwards' irrationally overrated "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961) or by the shameful and demoralizing "blackface" production numbers that mar both MGM's "Babes in Arms" (1939) and Warner Bros.' "My Wild Irish Rose" (1947).

Turner Classic Movies unreels movies breathlessly, 24/7.  It's like a repertory house, only it never closes and it's more convenient, operating non-stop out of our living rooms - or family rooms or bedrooms or dens.

Its programing is rather free-form and appealingly unpredictable.  But, several times a year, it interrupts its flow with one of its recurring "events," such as the Memorial Day weekend marathon.

Then, there's "31 Days of Oscars," which hauls out the usual, ubiquitous suspects ("Lawrence of Arabia" and "West Side Story," chief among them), and also its Easter Sunday line-up, which offers several titles that make it possible to watch Christ being crucified six or seven times in a row.

Really?

Note in Passing:  I could do without the annual Oscar marathon, not only because it rather shamelessly panders to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but also because it eschews the usual monthly birthday tributes. Full disclosure: My favorite actor, Jack Lemmon, was born on February 8 but, because of "31 Days of Oscar," his birthday has never been celebrated. Both can't be be accommodated?  Really?

Friday, May 22, 2015

cinema obscura: George Seaton's "Little Boy Lost" (1953)

George Seaton's hugely affecting "Little Boy Lost," one of the most impressive and personal films in star Bing Crosby's screen career, remains lost.  It is one of several black-&-white Paramount titles from the 1950s that have remained neglected on some shelf at the studio.


Shot on location in Paris in 1953 with a gritty feel for the place, Seaton's film - based on a novel of the same title by Marghanita Laski - is a wartime drama of dislocation, loss and regret, all of which are summed up in Crosby's poignant performance as Bill Wainwright, a star journalist - a major American correspondent (think Edward R. Murrow) stationed in Paris during World War II.

While there, he meets a singer Lisa Garret, played by Nicole Maurey, and they marry and have a son, named Jean.

Bill's work takes him to Dunkirk for a long stretch and, when he returns to Paris, neither his wife nor his little boy (Christian Fourcade) is there. Lisa has been murdered by the Nazis and Jean is homeless, stranded somewhere. Perhaps in an orphanage. After a stressful seach, that's exactly where Bill finds Jean but too much time has gone by.  He's uncertain if this Jean is his son or another sad little lost boy.

This remains a question that haunts Bill, one exacerbated by his grief over the loss of his wife. The boy needs a family.  Bill needs a son.  Does it matter that this little boy may not be his?  Writer-director Seaton is sensitive to this idea and his movie's resolution of it is entirely satisfying without ever pandering or being contrived.

 "Little Lost Boy" earns its tears.

And it certainly helps that the film feels more like a European production than a shiny big-studio effort - a quality that Seaton, as writer-director, brought to another compelling WW 2 film from Parmount, 1962's "The Counterfeit Traitor," starring William Holden and Lili Palmer.

Note in Passing: Crosby and Maury would be romantically teamed again seven years later in Blake Edwards' campus lark, "High Time" of 1960.

Monday, May 18, 2015

façade: elizabeth hartman

Frail and incredibly touching, Elizabeth Hartman was arguably the most promising film actress of the mid-1960s, appearing in four diverse films in the space of three years, and then she disappeared, popping up in movies and on TV only occasionally until, sadly, she went away completely.

Time moves on and we tend to forget elusive people like Elizabeth Hartman. My thoughts returned to her when I read of the May 13th death of screen writer Gill Dennis, who was married to her from 1968 to 1984.  She was a footnote in his obiturary.  At the time of his death, Dennis was married to Kristen Peckinpah, a daughter of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah.


Hartman made her film debut in Guy Green's "A Patch of Blue," an unusually depressing film about a young blind woman (Hartman) who has an almost accidental relationship with a man (Sidney Poitier) who, unknown to her, is black.  Shelley Winters as her cruel mother, Wallace Ford as her cruel grandfather and Elisabeth Fraser as her mother's cruel friend make the film almost unwatchable.  But the role brought Hartman an Oscar nomination as best actress.  At age 22 (and at that time), she was the youngest person in that category to be nominated for an Oscar.

 

A year later, Hartman was part of Sidney Lumet's impressive ensemble in his film version of Mary McCarthy's ”The Group,”  playing the key role of Priss. At this early point in her film career, Hartman could do anything she desired.  Hollywood wanted her.  But she responded instead to a young filmmaker named Francis Ford Coppola who needed a "name" for his New Wave comedy, "You're a Big Boy Now."  The role was Barbara Darling, a go-go dance, a vamp and a sadist.  And Elizabeth Hartman, to her credit, signed on.  It was the only time that Elizabeth Hartman looked glamorous in a film.

And, reportedly, Coppola was forever grateful.

Hartman then went on to do John Frankenheimer's ”The Fixer” in 1968 as part of a British ensemble that included star Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Ian Holm, Hugh Griffith and Georgia Brown. Around this time, Coppola was preparing "The Rain People" and wanted Hartman for the role of Natalie Revenna, a fed-up housewife who runs away from her marriage.  But Hartman, always insecure, wasn't emotionally ready for the role and Coppola had to opt for one of Hartman's co-stars from "The Group," Shirley Knight, who rewarded her director with a brilliant performance.

After taking off for a few years, Hartman returned to the screen for Don Siegel in his Clint Eastwood-Geraldine Page psychological Western, "The Beguiled" in 1971.  It would be her last role in an important film.

Her next film, had she made it, would have been even more important - and perhaps crucial to her career and her health.  She was Coppola's first choice for the role of Kay in his 1972 adaptation of Mario Puzo's "The Godfather."  But, again, life got in the way; Hartman remained insecure and emotionally fraught.  (The director was reportedly so grateful for her participation in "You're a Big Boy Now" that he wanted to reward her with a showcase female role in a big, largely all-male film.) The part of Kay eventually went to Diane Keaton who is the one weak link in "The Godfather," although in Keaton's defense, it's a poorly written role.

Frankly, I'm not sure that even an actress of Hartman's talent could have made it memorable.

The latter part of Hartman's career included only two film roles - in the original "Walking Tall" (1973), a red-neck drama starring Joe Don Baker, and, a decade later, as a voice in the animated "The Secret of NIMH" (1982), made by MGM - the studio that produced "A Patch of Blue."

Hartman went full circle, ending up where she had begun.

Before her death in 1987, she worked in a museum in Pittsburgh.  Elizabeth Hartman died on June 10th of that year, a victim of suicide.  She jumped to her death from a fifth story window.  She was 44.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

the brothers bridges

In one of her many reviews, Pauline Kael once wondered exactly what Lloyd Bridges fed his two sons, Beau and Jeff.  I guess she speculated because they both seemed so hearty as young men and so natural as young actors. You could never catch either of them "acting."

Not even for a second.

I like both, although my alligance has always been with Beau who seems a tad less ambitous and more freewheeling than Jeff who has accumulated a trio of Oscar nominations (plus one win) throughout his career.

The boys acted together only once - in Steve Kloves' "The Fabulous Baker Boys" in 1989 - but their careers crossed paths many years before that.  Both of them played essentially the same role earlier in their careers - the struggling, wannabe writer - in two striking, underrated period films.

In Norman Jewison's ”Gaily, Gaily” (1969), based on the book by Ben Hecht, Beau played Hecht's alter ego, Ben Harvey, a farm boy who hightails it to bustling Chicago, lands a job on one of the city's dailies and falls in a disreputable lot (Brian Keith and Melina Mercouri, both memorable, among them) who take the cub reporter under wing.

Meanwhile, in Howard Zeiff’s "Hearts of the West" of 1975, Jeff plays the author of dime novels about the Old West who finds himself among movie people who actually make films about the Old West, working with an impatient director (Alan Arkin) and a jaded older actor (Andy Griffin).
Note in Passing: Jeff's leading lady in "Hearts of the West" is Blythe Danner who, coincidentally, had acted opposite Beau a year earlier in Sidney Lumet's (also underrated) "Lovin' Molly" (1974), which contains Danner's most luminous screen performance to date, hands-down.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

character counts: elizabeth wilson

Elizabeth Wilson reminded me of my favorite aunt.  I would like to think that was her appeal - that she reminded everyone of their favorite aunt.  It's an attraction that's difficult to pinpoint, but she was maternal without being motherly - a trusted relative you could confide in without judgment.

And so I feel her loss in an acute way - in a way that I've never felt when a  more well-known or more "important" star passed.  She's someone who truly can't be replaced.  I'll miss her simplicity, her reassuring presence.

My earliest recollection of Elizabeth Wilson on screen was her performance as one of Rosalind Russell's teaching cronies in Joshua Logan's 1955 film version of William Inge's "Picnic," a recreation of the role she originated in her Broadway debut on stage two years earlier.  She followed that with memorable bits in John Cromwell's "The Goddess"(drama) and Gene Kelly's "The Tunnel of Love" (comedy), both from 1958.

Then there was her role as one of the waitresses in the wonderful restaurant sequence in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" (1963), a scene that's dotted with other terrific character actors - Lonny Chapman, Ethel Griffiths, Charles MacGraw, Doreen Lang, Karl Swenson, Malcolm Atterbury and Joe Mantell, among them - who wittily debate the notion of birds gone wild. Wilson has little to do in the scene, but neither does anyone else.  They are all simply part of a jaw-dropping ensemble.
Wilson became an in-demand character actress during the exciting New Wave of American filmmaking in the late 1960s and early '70s, appearing in Arthur Hiller's "The Tiger Makes Out" (1967), Alan Arkins' "Little Murders" (1971) and Melvin Frank's "The Prisoner of Second Avenue" (1975).  She made three films with Mike Nichols during this period - "The Graduate" (1967), "Catch-22" (1970) and "The Day of the Dolphin" (1973).
And in the early 1980s, Wilson made two back-to-back films with Lily Tomlin - Colin Higgins' "Nine to Five" (1980), in which she played Roz, Dabney Coleman's evil office henchman, and Joel Schmacher's "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" (1981) as a character named Dr. Ruth Ruth.

Her work on stage and as guest star on assorted TV series were both vast.  Wilson's final screen role was in 2012 as Sara Delano Roosevelt, President Roosevelt's mother, opposite Bill Murray in Roger Michell's "Hyde Park on the Hudson."  She was 91.  My aunt was old now.

But, arguably, her most enduring role remains Mrs. Braddock, Dustin Hoffman's status-conscious, trend-conscious mother in Nichols' "The Graduate." She and William Daniels made perfectly awful parents.

Elizabeth Wilson died yesterday (May 9), at age 94, at her home in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Friday, May 08, 2015

façade: richard fleischer

Although never fully appreciated in his lifetime, filmmaker Richard Fleischer does have a loyal cult following. And with good reason.

Actually several good reasons. And they are ... "The Narrow Margin" and "The Happy Time" (both 1952), "Violent Saturday" and "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" (both 1955), "The Vikings" (1958), "Compulsion and "These Thousand Hills" (both 1959), "Barabbas" (1962), "The Boston Strangler" (1968), "10 Rillington Place" (1971), "Soylent Green" (1973) "Mandingo" (1965) and "Tough Enough" (1983).

Fleischer, of the famed Fleischer dynasty ("Popeye," "Betty Boop" and "Koko the Clown"), directed about 50 films in his lifetime, most of which tended to come in under the radar, despite their accomplishments, and were given left-handed references at best by the critics during his lifetime.

He died at age 90 in 2006, about six months before Robert Altman passed.  But Fleischer never commanded attention as an auteur, as Altman did.  At the time of their deaths, my mind was filled with elusive thoughts about how much I admired (and perhaps overrated) Altman when I was a young Turk - and how I too often took Fleischer for granted as so many other critics had.

That could be because Fleischer didn't make the same movie over and over again, à la Altman.

Altman's chatty ensemble films all began to seem like undisguised variations on each other, while each Fleischer film, even the disposable, inferior ones, showcased the filmmaker's knack for trying different things, different genres - to change and keep growing.

I mean, Altman's "Nashville" and "A Prairie Home Companion" may have been separated by 30 years, but they could have been made back-to-back. (I like them both, however, and think that "Prairie" is an especially effective rumination on death.)

But enough about Altman. I am here to praise Richard Fleischer - and not at the expense of another filmmaker - and reminisce about all the joy he gave me.

A Richard Fleischer Film Festival would be incomplete without such idiosyncratic titles as "The Girl in the Red Swing" with Joan Collins as Evelyn Nesbit, "These Thousand Hills" (1959), a fine Western with Don Murray and Lee Remick, "The Last Run" (1971), a crime flick with George C. Scott; the nifty "Soylent Green, "The Incredible Sarah" (1976) with Glenda Jackson as Sarah Bernhardt and Daniel Massey as Victorien Sardou, and "Tough Enough," an engaging Dennis Quaid boxing film.

And in a league by itself is Fleischer's sublime anti-Biblical epic, "Barabbas," with the perfectly cast Anthony Quinn in the title role.

If I had to pick what I think is the best Fleischer, it would be "10 Rillington Place," the third side of Fleischer's first-rate crime trilogy that also includes "Compulsion" (1959) and "The Boston Strangler" (1968), both equally fine films. But for what it's worth, "Rillington" is my hands-down favorite Fleischer.

One of those rare crime thrillers that is not only frightening but genuinely unnerving and disturbing, Fleischer's movie stars Richard Attenborough in a thoroughly creepy performance as John Christie, a muderer who posed as a doctor, performing illegal abortions and going a step further by drugging, raping and then strangling his patients. He murdered eight women in London between 1940 and 1953.

John Hurt (and never did a name fit an actor so well) matches Attenborough every step of the way in a sadly wrenching performance as Timothy Evans, the husband of one of Christie's victims, who is falsely accused of killing his wife (Judy Geeson) - while Christie stands by and watches his arrest.

"10 Rillington Place"is an award-worthy film.

And yet the only Fleischer title nominated for a best picture Oscar was, of all things, the original movie musical "Dr. Dolittle" (1967). Fleischer himself was not nominated. (Herbert Ross staged the musical numbers for him.) He was the only director of the five nominated films that year not to get a nod; his slot went to Richard Brooks for "In Cold Blood," which was not nominated for best picture that year.


Actually, "Dr. Dolittle" is much better than its unfairly tainted reputation suggests. The film expresses an urgently empathetic regard for animals and boasts a tricky, literate song score by Leslie Bricusse, one of whose numbers posits the nifty observation that "a veterinarian should be a vegetarian." And his "When I Look In Your Eyes" is one of the most affecting, heart-breaking love songs to grace any movie musical.

And given that title star Rex Harrison (pictured above with a game co-star) had already taught linguistics to a guttersnipe in "My Fair Lady," it seemed like a natural progression for him to ply his skills on ... animals.

For more on this unhearalded filmmaker, check out Dave Kehr's astute New York Times essay, "In a Corrupt World Where the Violent Bear It Away," which was timed to coincide with a Fleischer tribute at New York's Film Forum in 2008.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

#hitch

Grace and Cary, between shots, tweeting

Monday, May 04, 2015

life imitating art

Inconceivable as it is to the logical mind, but back in 1986 when he directed his first and only film, the brilliant new-style musical, "True Stories," David Byrne somehow anticipated the fashion trends of 2015.

In a wildly memorable sequence, Byrne staged a wacky fashion show at a shopping mall in Allen, Texas wherein each outfit became weirder and more deranged - but not that different from what major celebrities wore to this year's Met Gala (that would be New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art for all you yokels out there), as overseen by the ubiquitous Anna Wintour.

Above, that's SJP (that would be Sarah Jessica Parker for all you yokels out there), wearing a compelling design by Philip Treacy at the Gala.

And, below, are the runway models in Byrne's witty film.

I knew that Byrne is something of a Renaissance man, but I never realized to exactly what extent.

Note in Passing: In all fairness, the attendees at the Met Gala were advised to wear costumes to the event, and not the usual couturier garb.  And for the record, the fashion show in "True Stories" was the brainchild of Byrne's scenarists, playwright Beth Henley and actor Stephen Toboloswsky (Henley's then-boyfriend), and it's staged while one of the film's game stars, Annie McEnroe, sings Byrne's lilting "Dream Operator."

Friday, May 01, 2015

façade: zeme north

The legend goes that Jack Warner was so impressed by the reception to Metro's 1960 spring-break frolic, "Where the Boys Are," that he decided to duplicate it, moving the action from the East Coast to the West - from Ft. Lauderdale to Palm Springs. He would populate his version with Warner house players whom he had kept imprisoned largely on television.

Hence, "Palm Springs Weekend" of 1963.

Connie Stevens, Troy Donahue, Robert Conrad and Ty Hardin were appealing contract players to whom Warner infrequently tossed a feature-film crumb.  Much like the cast of "Where the Boys Are," they were way too old to play college-age students, but at least their film was a genuine frolic.  Unlike "Boys," there was no disconcerting gang rape at its center. These "kids" merely partied in bikinis and Speedos (a time when men didn't wear Bermuda shorts for swimming), swigging a lot of beer.

"Palm Springs Weekend" is a lot more fun than "Where the Boys Are," a more companionable throwaway movie, and as a bonus, it had a neat cameo appearance by show-biz columnist Shirley Eder - as herself, of course. (That's Shirley, who would become a colleague and a good friend, on the right.)

Warner, meanwhile, complimented his players with a few outsiders - Stefanie Powers (on loan from Columbia), Jerry Van Dyke, child star Billy Mumy and, as the adults, Andrew Duggan, Carole Cook and the always invaluable Jack Weston, he of the inimitable lisp.

Plus one more - an adorable newcomer named Zeme North who handily walks away with the film as its so-called wallflower.  For all intents and purposes, North is the real star of "Palm Springs Weekend."  (Sorry, Connie and Stefanie.)  Warner and his director, Norman Taurog ("Room for One More"), showcased North here (even though she had co-star billing), teaming her not just with Van Dyke, but with Mumy as well.  I've no idea who came up with the idea but both Zeme North and Billy Mumy have the same hair color and haircut in "Palm Springs Weekend."

Kindred spirits, see.

For reasons that remain bizarrely evasive, "Palm Springs Weekend" was Zeme North's second and final film.

I'd like to think that she left the biz voluntarily - that perhaps she went home to Corpus Christi, Texas and opened an acting school for kids.  Based on her chemistry with Mumy, she was great with kids.

Full disclosure:  I first encountered North when I was a kid myself and she came to Philadelphia in the tryout engagements of two big Broadway musicals.  In "Take Me Along," Bob Merrill's 1959 musical version of Eugene O'Neill's "Ah, Wilderness!," North played the daughter of Walter Pidgeon and Una Merkel, the younger sister of Robert Morse and ...

The niece of Jackie Gleason.  What a cast.

A year later, she came back to Philadelphia (and to the same theater, the Shubert) as Anthony Perkins' leading lady in Frank Loesser's eagerly anticipated "Greenwillow."   It was 1960 and Perkins had just finished shooting Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho."  He had not yet become an icon.

The show's director was George Roy Hill and its choreographer was the great Joe Layton. North came to it rather late in the game, having replaced the original female lead, Ellen McGowen, during the Boston tryout.  From what I've read, Hill, Layton and Loesser all liked McGowen but thought she might be the wrong age for the part.  North, who reportedly auditioned with 100 other actresses, was 10 years younger and got the role, a plum one.  But during the Philly tryout, where the reviews were less than enthusiastic, North herself was replaced.

By McGowen.

Two actresses demoralized by the process.  No one said show business was easy. Or kind.  However much this was a setback, North moved on to another musical, "Fiorello!," by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, during its Broadway run (the show was a personal triumph for its star, Tom Bosley) and, a year later, made her first movie - William Castle's 1962 comedy with Tom Poston, "Zotz!"  And then came "Palm Springs Weekend."

Too bad that Jack Warner, a smart cookie, didn't snap her up and nurture her.  I would have loved to have seen her progress on screen. Zeme North had the potential to be a terrific screwball comedienne and movie musical star. But by this time, the studio system was dying and promising talent was no longer being personally groomed for stardom by moguls.

Note in Passing: I hasten to note that "Greenwillow," a hugely underrated show and now a cult musical, featured one of Frank Loesser's grandest scores, including the huanting "Never Will I Marry" which, of course, was subsequently recorded by Barbra Streisand.

Monday, April 27, 2015

david robert mitchell's "it follows"

 credit: Radius-TWC

David Robert Mitchell's commanding sophomore effort, "It Follows," is a superior sex thriller anchored by what should be a breakout performance by a singular young actress named Maika Monroe and by Mitchell's unstinting focus on his material.  The director and his star never flinch.

While this kind of movie is open to any interpretation, it was immediately apparent to me that "It Follows" is an unusually unforgiving cautionary tale about first-time sex, particularly when the participants are young and unformed.  Teenagers.  In their efforts to protect teens from sex, disapproving adults (who essentially want to selfishly keep sex all to themselves) create a web of guilt. Actually, they conveniently invented it.

And in "It Follows," this guilt is personified by visions of horrific stalkers intent on tormenting the foolish young fornicators. The assorted visions that haunt Monroe's character, named Jay, resemble post-coital zombies.

They are the naked undead (full-frontal naked).

And they all look as if they've just had sex and then died horribly.

Jay is advised by the guy who took her virginity that the only way she can rid herself of these guilt-produced demons is to have sex with another person, passing on the curse.  That's what he did in order to keep his sanity and pursue future intercourse. What follows makes sex look creepy, accompanied by a terrifically offbeat, discordant music score by Richard Vreeland/Disasterpeace which, at one point, includes some artistic static.

"It Follows" astutely indicts the hypocrisy of a confused, sex-addled America that continues on its unsuccessful, puritanical journey.

Note in Passing: The time in which “It Follows” is set is enticingly vague, never made clear.  It feels contemporary.  The kids look like budding millennials. However, none of their homes have flat-screen TVs.  There are several scenes of the kids watching television and all the sets are old-fashioned “box” sets.  Also none of the kids seem to have cell phones, although one girl plays around with a gizmo shaped like a seashell.  So is the film set in the present – or possibly as far back as the ‘70s?