Wednesday, July 25, 2012

cinema obscura: Four with June Allyson

When the eternally youthful June Allyson died at age 89 on July 8, 2006, most of the coverage was devoted to her work at MGM and the various “wife” roles that she played in a string of biopics.

Missing from all career appreciations was any mention of Jean Negulesco's shrewdly pre-feminist, all-star "Woman's World" (1954), a Fox film, and three from Universal - José Ferrer's compelling “The Shrike” (1955), which dramatically cast Allyson against type; Henry Koster's remake of "My Man Godfrey" (1957), which teamed her with David Niven, and Douglas Sirk's version of "Interlude" (1957) with Rossano Brazzi.

Today, we'll correct that. As well as something else: All four jtitles are virtually lost, impossible to see, although "Woman's World" has been popping up of late on what's left of the Fox Movie Channel. Also, "Interlude" has been scheduled twice - and canceled twice - by Turner Classics. Hmmm.
Jean Negulesco's
"Woman's World" is a hugely entertaining, rather scathing little number that works as a variation on the "three-gal" flicks that the filmmaker perfected at 20th Century-Fox during the 1950s. Negulesco was responsbile for "How to Marry a Millionaire," "The Best of Everything," "Three Coins in a Fountain" - the grand-daddy of them all - and its '60s remake, "The Pleasure Seekers."

"Woman's World" is sly subversion of the formula but every bit as affable and slick as its siblings. The plot - which could easily lend itself to a topical remake - follows the efforts of Clifton Webb, the powerful CEO of Gifford Motors, an auto manufacturer, to find a suitable replacement when he retires. To accomplish this, he wings in his company's three top branch managers - different men from different parts of the country - and their wives for a week of wining and dining and interviewing in New York. You need not ask why the film isn't set in Detroit. New York is clearly more glamorous.

The candidates include ambitious Van Heflin and his grasping wife Arlene Dahl, from Dallas; the contentious Fred MacMurray and Lauren Bacall, a Philadelphia couple on the verge of divorce, and Cornel Wilde as a down-to-earth guy from Kansas City and Allyson as his ditzy wife.

What no one catches on to is the fact that the boss is scrutinizing the wives as much as the men themselves, perhaps even more so.

Webb is at his sauve, sarcastic best - he was the original Kevin Spacey - as he taunts and tests his co-stars and generally has them squirming. The excellent, deliciously sexist ending comes with a twist that was daring for its time but that was totally in keeping with Webb and the advanced mindset he brought to his films.

BTW, the script was written by playwright Russell Crouse (father of Lindsay Crouse) and Claude Binyon, who also wrote Allyson's "You Can't Run Away from It" (1956), the Dick Powell-directed "It Happened One Night" musical remake for Columbia, which has been popping up recently on Turner Classics following many years of absence.

Anyway, the next time Fox screens "Woman's World," watch it. Better yet, tape it.

The disappearance of “The Shrike” is particularly odd, given its credentials. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1952 play by Joseph Kramm, the stage production won two Tony awards for José Ferrer – as best actor in a play and best director of a play. On stage, Ferrer co-starred with Judith Evelyn, best known as Miss Lonelyheart in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”

However, when Ferrer decided to transfer the play to film, his first as a director and with himself again in the male lead, he did the unforeseeable and hired Allyson to play the role of an unrelenting wife who pecks and pecks at her husband – much like the bird of the title – until she has effectively beaten him down.

With this film, Ferrer explored what critic Richard Schickel called Allyson’s “vaunted sweetness,” as well as the perilous state of marriage when one of its partners fairly drips and seduces with venom. “It was a delicious combination,” continues Schickel in his book “The Stars” (1962) – "her surface sweetness and the inner viciousness of the role.”

"My Man Godfrey," of course, is Henry Koster's remake of the Gregory La Cava 1936 classic farce about class differences that starred Carole Lombard (at her most irresistible) and the pitch-perfect William Powell (also irresistible).


Koster's version is amazingly faithful to the original, sometimes slavishly so, and yet it seems rather pale in comparison. Allyson, a true ordinary girl-next-door, is as miscast here as she was in "You Can't Run Away from It." This apple-pure actress was not meant to play screwball heiresses.

David Niven, on the other hand, fills Powell's shoes quite well and, as he proved so often in studio films around this time, he was the most urbane of good sports, embracing the best of both the reserved British and looser American cultures.

James M. Cain concocted the story for Douglas Sirk's "Interlude," which was remade a decade later in 1968 under the same title by director Kevin Billington - although, for some bizaar reason, Cain goes uncredited in the Billington version. Oddly, Cain only supplied the story to Sirk. He didn't pen the screenplay. That was done by a collection of other writers.

Both films are European-based soap operas about a young, impressionable woman (Allyson in the Sirk version, Barbara Ferris in Billington's) who falls for a married orchestra conductor (Rossano Brazzi and Oskar Werner, respectively). The heroines both suffer in achingly beautiful surroundings, although neither film is exactly an emotional knockout. And the remake is as difficult to see as the original

The Sirk version has those matchless Sirkian qualities that he so freely exhibited at Universal during this ripe, productive period, while the Billington's take on it is kept afloat largely by the mesmerizing, mournful Werner, the wonderful Virginia Maskell as his wife and a classic Georges Delerue score. Lots of harpischords. (Frank Skinner scored Sirk's film.)

Sirk opens his film with a song by the MacQuire Sisters; Billington and Delerue use the inimitable Timi Yuro for the remake's haunting title song.

You know, I'd actually like to see both films again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

the storyteller

"Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them" (HarperCollins/$25.99/356 pages), Frank Langella's compulsively readable debut as a writer, is the ideal beach book.

Langella, who is every bit as inventive a writer as he is an actor, calls this tome "a memoir," but that's a stretch. It's a series of encounters that Langella had with a number of notables - 66 in all - and all of them, except for one (Rachel "Bunny" Mellon), are deceased. Langella wittily presents them, his "Cast of Characters" (his words), "In Order of Disappearance."

That's why Whoopie Goldberg, Langella's longtime companion, is not included.

Only dead folk here. And I have a theory on that: The dead can't challenge what's written about them. Consequently, I doubted much of what I read here. I'm not questioning Langella's veracity, I'm not calling him a fabulist, but rather, I'm exhibiting my own dark, cynical skepticism.

Case in point: His reminiscence of his fleeting encounter with Marilyn Monroe, the first celeb in the book, seems like a fantasy. It was the winter of 1953 and the young Langella was "aimlessly looking for something in New York - unaware of what I was looking for." Then he encounters "a long black Limousine from which a white-gloved had appeared." It's ... Marilyn Monroe.

"She turned briefly to her right, saw me standing there, smiled like a sunbeam, and said in a soft whisper: 'Hi.'

"An indefinable yearning to free myself from a life I instinctively felt was killing my soul had caused me to venture forth that day without guidance or direction ... Marilyn Monroe had, I'm certain, awakened that morning yearning for something she too could not define; a tortured soul that I saw only as a beautiful woman and a Movie Star."

I love it, but I don't believe it for a second.

To Langella's credit, he confesses his own flights of fantasy up front. Of his remembrances, he writes: "I admit they are most likely prejudiced, somewhat revisionist, and a tad exaggerated here and there. But were I offered an exact replay of event as they unfolded, I would reject it. I prefer my memories."

Indeed.

Of a fractious backstage situation between Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, which isn't pretty, Langella describes it as "an incident not recalled by either."

Hmmm.

But who cares? This stuff is fun to read, preferrably with a gin-&-tonic in hand. His take on Anne Bancroft is particularly delicious: "Potentially one of the greatest actresses of her generation, she was consumed by a galloping narcissism that often undermined her talents."

He writes of an incident at Bloomingdale's perfume counter where Bancroft "saw a woman across the way smiling at her. She smiled back. The other woman returned hers with an even broader smile. And Annie said she felt inextricably drawn to this woman, wanting to go around the counter to embrace and kiss her passionately, until she realized she was looking into a mirror."

Great stuff.

What's really interesting is Langella's description of Coral Browne's relationship with columnist Radie Harris who apparently was obsessed with Browne. Harris, Langella writes, "had a bum leg, walked with a cane and wore a brace."

And doesn't that description exactly fit the columnist character that Browne played in Robert Aldrich's "The Legend of Lylah Clare"?

Read this book. Now.

Note in Passing: Curiously, Langella makes little mention of "Diary of a Mad Housewife," the film that put him on the map, or its director Frank Perry, and nothing of his beguiling co-star in the film, Carrie Snodgress.

Strange, given that both of them are ... dead.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Manchurian Candidate Redux"

"I am United States Senator John Yerkes Iselin, and I have here a list of two hundred seven persons who are known by the Secretary of Defense as being members of the Communist Party!"

-James Gregory, as a clueless but ambitious politician addressing the Senate in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962), a film, written by George Axelrod and directed by John Frankenheimer, that has proven to be quite prescient.

Jump to a dialogue between Gregory and Angela Lansbury as his machiavellian wife:

Lansbury: "I'm sorry, hon'. Would it really make it easier for you if we settled on just one number?"

Gregory: "Yeah. Just one, real, simple number that'd be easy for me to remember."

Jump to Gregory, addressing the Senate again:

Gregory: "There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist Party in the Department of Defense at this time!"

Excuse me, but does any of this sound vaguely familiar?

I've been waiting for months for someone, anyone, to link the recent deranged rants of Rep. Allen West (R-FL) - "I believe there’s [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party that are members of the Communist Party ... No, they actually don’t hide it. It’s called the Congressional Progressive Caucus” - to James Gregory's tirade in "The Manchurian Candidate" 50 years ago.

Yes, fifty years.

But then former GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann came along, alledging that Huma Abedin, longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, may have ties to - gasp! - the Muslim Brotherhood. Oy!

Since no one else has picked up on the connection or made the comparison or offered an opinion, I'll do - and add the unsolicited comment that the professional Republicans, seemingly more desperate than ever, have lost it.

Pathetic.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

a fan's notes: catching up

France's "Une vie de chat" preserved the fleeting, precious felicity of modern-day moviegoing - a rarity these days

I'm back!

Having exhausted all mental energy in April with my (admittedly self-indulgent) tribute to movie dance sequences that no one else cares about, I decided that I needed a respite from the sound of my own voice reverberating in my head.

But that didn't stop me from keeping up with what is euphemistically referred to these days as popular culture. So here are twenty thumbnails of what I saw...

"Snow White and the Huntsman" - A prime example of the aggressive masculinization of modern movies. Even fairy tales aren't safe from testosterone poisoning. Exacerbating matters is Charlize Theron's one-note performance of the wicked queen who intones ad infinitum "Bring her to me!"

"Bernie" - Delicious. The ever-evolving Richard Linklater brings the best of juicy fiction to the sordid true story of an awful woman and the sweet guy she nags into murdering her. Jack Black, Matthew MacConaughey and Shirley MacLaine, as the wealthy old shrew, turn in companionable performances, and isn't it fascinating how, in her career, Shirl has gone from victim to victimizer?

"Modern Family"/"Keeping Up with the Kardashians" - The enthusiasm for ABC's most beloved possession, "Modern Family," evades me. It's strictly a conventional sitcom (boob dad, smart wife, chauvinist granddad, bratty kids) with a new paint job (a couple gays, plus a Latina) for the illusion of topicality. No, the real "modern family" is E!'s "Keeping Up with the Kardashians," a lively sitcom (with Scott and Kourtney playing role-reversed Lucy and Ricky, respectively), disguised as Reality TV. It's the best guilty pleasure going.

"Dark Shadows" - Johnny Depp was once a singlar fringe actor who lived in France and made alt films with intriguing filmmakers. Then, he became a pirate, moved to L.A. and sold out. He's entertaining as hell (and as game as ever) in Tim Burton's take on the cult '70s soap opera, but he's given one gimmicky performance too many (and always for Burton). I just wish he'd go away.

"A Cat in Paris"/"Une vie de chat"- A cat burglar who's literally a cat (actually, he's the feline sidekick of the human thief). Très charmant.

"Magic Mike" - If Burt Reynolds made a male-stripper flick in the 1970s, it would look like this affable Steven Soderbergh concoction. (It even comes replete with the much-reviled Warner logo from the '70s.) Star Channing Tatum, apparently playing himself, is all charisma, and Matthew MacConaughey (again) throws himself with gusto into the role Reynolds might have played.

"Rock of Ages" - Talk about throwing oneself into a role, catch Tom Cruise's revelatory turn in Adam Shankman's musical, a kinda update of "42nd Street." Ditto for Alec Baldwin. Anthony Lane, who is paid by The New Yorker to review movies, complained about the film's characters breaking into song. With influence peddlers so lame, it's no surprise the film musical is stone cold dead.

Lena Dunham- Like most Flavors of the Month, Dunham has been wildly overrated. HBO's recent "Girls," her edgy take on clueless young women of the new millenium who don't even get pleasure from sex, had its moments but, if I absolutely have to watch people having sex, can't they be remotely attractive?

"Moonrise Kingdom"- Wes Anderson being Wes Anderson (read: arch and precious). The critics felt obliged to love it, sight unseen, with the result being a bunch of reviews that make even less sense than the movie itself which (for all its archness and preciousness) is curiously watchable and enjoyable.

"The Amazing Spider-Man"- Amazing? Hardly. It's the same joyless superhero film that Hollywood feels compelled to make for its braindead core audience every few months. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are adorable (up to a point), but once the talented Rhys Ifans was turned into a reptile, I walked out.

"Savages"- Oliver Stone returns to form - impressively - with this sumptuous film lumiere, a delirious, sun-struck stoner film crossed with drug-war darkness. Game performances from Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek, John Travolta and particulary Blake Lively, Aaron Johnson and Taylor Kitsch. A movie this good deserves the two socko endings that Stone playfully devised for it.

"The Newsroom"- Aaron Sorkin's witty and urbane dialogue, as alert as ever, is trumped by the bloated, pervading self-importance here. I worked with journalists for 30 years and this HBO series captures them accurately, inadvertently illustrating exactly why I personally liked so few of them.

"The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"- Like taking a tiny vacation with terrific companions (Dench! Wilton! Smith! Wilkinson! Imrie! Nighy! Pickup!).

"Darling Companion"- Lawrence Kasdan has made his first "old man's" film, a listless ensemble piece in which Kevin Kline trots out his imperious Fraiser Crane schtick (he isn't very good) and in which Elizabeth Moss's trademark odd line readings are revealed to be simply bad line readings (she isn't very good either). But Diane Keaton, as always, is like an old, reliable friend. She redeems the film.

"The Five-Year Engagement"- One those titles you enjoy and then immediately forget. Actually, there are a lot of films like this these days.

"Take This Waltz"- A naggingly flirtatious affair is finally consummated, but is it all a fantasy? We'll never know. This Sarah Polley-directed film benefits mightily from star Michelle Williams' seductive, playful otherness.

"Ted"- Genuinely hilarious and, for once, the token female character (played by Mila Kunis who makes the most of it) is no token. Mark Wahlberg is slyly funny here the way he was in "I ♥ Huckabees," for which he deserved more acclaim.

"To Rome with Love"- Minor but enjoyable. Woody Allen on autopilot. Am I the only one who thinks the Alec Baldwin character makes no sense whatsoever?

"Your Sister’s Sister"- Lynn Shelton's novel take on the ménage à trois. Emily Blunt and Rosemarie DeWitt play the (they-don't-)lookalike sisters, one a widow, the other a lesbian; Mark Duplass is the guy who sleeps with both. Yeah, novel.

"The Dictator" - All I remember about this nonentity from provocateur Sasha Baron Cohen is a birth sequence as disgustingly unfunny as it is gratuitous.