A scene from Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Barbara Stanwyck pretends to be an expert cook in Christmas in Connecticut (1945)

Anyone who knows me, knows that one of my biggest passions (besides classic movies and music) is cooking and baking. I’m big on making baked goods and meals from scratch. Perhaps it’s the Merry Homemaker-1950’s Housewife that lurks deep in my soul, but I love spending hours in the kitchen. Really. I’m not too big on pre-packaged items, except for frozen pizzas (because everyone has their guilty pleasures, right?). My specialties are various lasagnas, risotto, cinnamon raisin bread, and fruit pies with crumb topping. I’m not bragging (really!), I just love to cook. My mom taught me when I was a kid and as I grew older, I just kind of ran off with it. I’m really thankful for her teaching me the basics.

But enough about me. Since I do a bit of research for upcoming posts (stop looking at me like that), awhile back I stumbled upon two soup recipes from Fred Astaire and Myrna Loy off the…Find-A-Death site. Yeah, that’s great, isn’t it? It really makes you want to try them out. In all honesty, I was looking up the mysterious death of Albert Dekker (which is really, really messed up), saw the link for Fred Astaire’s page and wound up searching the site for the next hour or so. I love getting sidetracked!

Fred Astaire’s Old-Fashioned Chicken Soup - Click For Larger ImageMyrna Loy’s Chicken-Pimento Soup - Click For Larger Image
Fred and Myrna: Culinary Experts!

Both the Fred and Myrna soup recipes seem to have come from some kind of celebrity soup book that had to be published in the 70’s. Mr. Astaire’s recipe is somewhat reminiscent of the soup and homemade noodles my mom taught me to make (minus the chicken feet–I once saw those in an international supermarket and nearly ran screaming out of the place), but you can tell that Myrna was an “open the can and heat it up” kind of gal. I asked Fred Astaire fanatic (I wouldn’t hesitate in calling her his number 1 fan!), Chris, where the recipe came from. Apparently it popped up in Parade or some sort of 70’s news magazine and it’s his mother’s recipe. It makes sense, because it’s pretty old fashioned and my mom got hers from her mother (my grandmother). It’s kind of complicated though, and I’ve now learned how to make mine in a pressure cooker. It eliminates the hours needed to boil, boil, boil the chicken and skim, skim, skim the froth off the top of the liquid.

Meal planning with Mrs. Damon RunyonIn other fun classic cooking news, I happened to find this mid-40’s ad proclaiming Mrs. Damon Runyon’s love for Swift Frankfurt’s. Although after reading the small print, I’m not sure if I’d really enjoy a night at the Runyon household, no matter how much I enjoyed A Slight Case of Murder (1938) or The Big Street (1942). Perhaps meal planning was different in the 40’s?

“Frankfurts. Not ordinary ones but the big, tender juicy Swift’s premium kind are a frequently-enjoyed dinner favorite at the Runyon’s house. “They’re a delightful change and really taste wonderful,” says Mrs. Runyon. Here’s a delicious combination she likes especially well: Swift’s Premium Frankfurts (simply simmer 5-6 minutes and serve immediately), Creamed Diced Carrots in Onion cups, Parsley Potatoes, Citrus Salad and Butterscotch Pudding.”

I can think of nothing more disgusting than a meal consisting of hot dogs, citrus salad and butterscotch pudding. And let’s not even mention the creamed carrots in onion cups! Did people really eat like this in the WWII era? Can you imagine the stomach indigestion and heartburn from that combination?

But then, I like Turkey and Peanut Butter sandwiches on Rye, so who am I to complain?

Richard Widmark circa 1950’s
December 26, 1914 – March 24, 2008

Years ago when I first got a cell phone with text capabilties, I signed up for entertainment text alerts from a news company. Since then I’ve switched phones, but not numbers, so I continue to get them–and it’s through these text alerts that I found out Richard Widmark had passed away today. Via text message. Ahh, technology, how you manage to depress me.

Click for larger imageI’ll admit that I haven’t seen as many of Richard Widmark’s movies as the average classic movie fan, and with many of his greatest films available on dvd (Kiss of Death, No Way Out), I really have no excuse. However, I didn’t particularly enjoy him when I first started getting into the classics. His characters were too mean, too vicious and I found him cold and unlikable. It took awhile for me to warm up to Richard Widmark, but in time, I did. I wouldn’t call him one of my favorite actors, but I’ve always enjoyed his performances.

I think the first film I saw him in was The Bedford Incident (1965) in which Widmark portrays the ruthless and stubborn captain that eventually leads his crew to their deaths. It’s an excellent cold war drama, highlighting the paranoia that many Americans felt at the time. There are fantastic performances by all the actors involved (Sidney Poitier, James MacArthur and Martin Balsam to name a few), but it’s Widmark that steals the film. His turn as Captain Eric Finlander is amazingly frightening. He’s insane with power, not caring about the health and well-being of his men. The only thing he cares about is attacking the Soviet’s submarines. It’s this determination that leads to his downfall, but by the time he realizes it, it’s way too late. The final scene where Widmark and Poitier just stare at each other, with the realization of what is about to happen…it’s chilling. And it was with this film that I started gaining respect for Widmark. Could any other actor besides him pull such a role off? Widmark not only had the acting chops, but he looked like a villain: that menacing stare and cold, heartless expression made him perfect for the part.

As I began watching more films and gained interest in other actors and actresses, I saw more of Richard Widmark as well. There were comedies like The Tunnel of Love (1958) where he’s oddly matched with the wholesome Doris Day, as well as westerns such as Yellow Sky (1948) and How the West Was Won (1962). Romantically paired with Shirley Jones, Widmark outshined Jimmy Stewart in John Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961) and years before, turned in a top-notch performance as a military investigator in Time Limit (1957), Karl Malden’s only directorial effort. Time Limit is a lesser known film that centers around a group of Korean War POW’s who are guarding a terrible secret and it’s up to Widmark to find out what happened. I’ve only seen TCM air this film once, which is a shame because it really deserves to be better known.

Richard Widmark in “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)However, my favorite movie of his also happens to be one of my all-time favorites: 1974’s all-star mystery, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. While small, Widmark’s role is also one of the most important: that of Mr. Ratchett, the somewhat mysterious, but wealthy American who is murdered aboard the Orient Express.

While Widmark’s scenes are few, he certainly makes an impact when he graces the screen. As Mr. Ratchett, he’s not only extremely rude to his assistant, Hector (Anthony Perkins) but fails to make an impression on the flamboyant Poirot (Albert Finney), whom he asks for help after receiving some threatening letters. In showing Poirot the gun he keeps with him for protection, Ratchett suddenly takes on an air of suspicion. There’s no doubt in one’s mind that he’s involved in something devious, and therefore, will deserve his fate. After turning down Ratchett’s offer and passing through a darkened tunnel, Poirot finds that he has disappeared, the only trace of his presence marked by a wildly swinging door. And with that, you know Ratchett is up to no good. Even in that short scene, Widmark proved why he was so adapt at playing bad guys: he took their characteristics and made them his own. He never just went through the motions–he became the character, and ultimately, made them completely believable.

Having a drink with his fanclub!
Richard Widmark has a drink with his fanclub! From l. to r.: June Cornetta, President of the Richard Widmark Fan Club; Nan Douglas, Widmark and Adrienne Siegal.

It’s interesting to note that Widmark was the complete opposite of his on-screen persona and in fact, was a caring, non-violent man. Yet, strangers and fans who met him on the street expected him to be exactly like one of the tough psychopaths he portrayed. It just goes to show you how good of an actor Widmark really was, to play so many characters that were unlike his own personality. In all the movies I’ve seen him in, he’s never turned in a bad performance. Sure, the script may have been weak (such as in The Tunnel of Love), but his acting was always strong.

Perhaps one of the saddest realizations that Mr. Widmark’s passing brings, is that classic Hollywood is becoming extinct. There are still a few big names living, as well as lesser known character actors and actresses (I’m not jinxing anyone by naming them here!), but in time, they’ll be gone as well. And when they go, so will the last remaining links to Hollywood’s illustrious past. Yes, we’ll still have their movies on TCM and various other cable outlets, as well as dvd’s, but it’s depressing to think about. And it’s even more depressing to realize that there are people out there who simply do not care about the past. I’m sure there are folks who didn’t have a clue to who Richard Widmark was, but thankfully, there are people out there who did. Classic movie fans who have watched his many performances knew what a terrific actor he was and what great work he was capable of. And it’s because of that work and his acting skills, that Richard Widmark will be truly missed.

Doris Day and Richard Widmark in “The Tunnel of Love”His Lengthy and Informative New York Times Obituary

TCM will be altering their prime-time linup on Friday, April 4th in honor of Mr. Widmark’s passing:

8:00 pm ALVAREZ KELLY (1966)
10:00 pm TAKE THE HIGH GROUND (1953)
12:00 am THE TUNNEL OF LOVE (1958)

Sheet music for “Only Forever”A few weeks ago, I bought myself the Bing Crosby double feature dvd, Rhythm on the River/Rhythm on the Range. Now, I’m not a huge Bing fan–I like him in High Society (1956) and of course with my love for Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn (1942) ranks pretty high on my list (But not Blue Skies (1946)–I think that one is pretty dull).

I mainly wanted to see Rhythm on the River because of Oscar Levant. Yes, I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll mention it again: I love him. Even though he’s more of a personality than an actor, he’s still one of my favorites. With the exception of one or two movies, I think I’ve seen most of his filmography.

Oscar and Bing

Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Oscar LevantRhythm on the River (1940) is a cute little movie, and surprisingly it’s co-written by the great Billy Wilder. It’s plot revolves around a “brilliant” singer-songwriter named Oliver Courtney (Basil Rathbone), who in reality, can’t write music or lyrics to save his life. The real geniuses behind his popular hits are Bob Sommers (Bing Crosby) and Cherry Lane (Mary Martin). Of course, neither know each other exist and when the finally meet, they fall in love. Together, Bob and Cherry defect from Courtney’s employment and try to strike out on their own, only to be rejected by every publisher in town because their songs sound too much like Courtney’s. Oscar Levant plays Courtney’s musical assistant, Starbuck (when you needed a sarcastic, wisecracking piano player, Levant was your man) and there’s a cute little joke revolving around a bed and breakfast inn that Crosby’s folks own called, “Nobody’s Inn.” Get it? Nobody’s In? Ha ha! Anyway, Rhythm on the River predates Holiday Inn by two years, so it seems like they took the idea from this movie and just expanded on it.

Besides Oscar, it was Mary Martin who intrigued me the most. While she’s a good singer, I didn’t find her to be an outstanding actress. But she’s cute enough and the interaction between her and Bing was realistic. However, the most striking thing about her was her resemblance to Jean Arthur.

Back when the lovely and talented Ms. Arthur was TCM’s Star of the Month (in January ’07, I believe), I bought a biography on her called The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller. It was certainly a page-turner, filled with all kinds of interesting information that spanned her entire career. Believe it or not, she and Oscar Levant were once an item in the late 20’s! Jean had called him, “The only brain in Hollywood” and when they went out, he accompanied her to speakeasies and prize fights, that is, if they weren’t cozied up in the corner at a party.

However, one of the most interesting stories in the book is her supposed relationship with Mary Martin. They first met in 1939 at a small dinner party, shortly after Mary came to Hollywood. The meeting wasn’t exactly a happy experience for her–Jean spent the evening in deep conversation with Paramount story editor, Richard Halliday and completely ignored Mary. Despite this, Halliday married Martin a short while later and soon enough, they became good friends and neighbors to Jean and her husband, Frank Ross.

The friendship between Jean and Mary quickly grew. Not only did they spend a great deal of time together, but they also shared an obsessive love for Peter Pan. The women would endlessly discuss their dream of playing the character one day and when they planned to attend costume parties, Jean and Mary would fight over which one would get to dress up as Peter Pan. Both ladies would get to play the part: Jean would play it on Broadway in 1950, and Mary in 1954 but through the years, it’s Mary who’s mostly associated with the role.

Jean as Peter PanMary Martin as Peter Pan
Jean and Mary as Peter Pan

Jean and Mary…which is which?Hollywood gossips noted the close friendship between the two ladies, and soon enough, rumors that they were romantically involved began to swirl around town. Not helping matters was Mary’s startling resemblance to Jean! If you’re a classic movie fan with only a smattering of knowledge, you may think that it’s Jean Arthur in Rhythm on the River, not Mary Martin! And if that weren’t enough, Mary’s career seemed to follow Jean’s: both ladies would play female western legends (Jean was Calamity Jane, while Mary was Annie Oakley on stage) as well as the Billie Dawn role in Born Yesterday (Jean briefly played it on stage, while Mary did the tv version).

In late 1966, Hollywood thought the rumors were practically confirmed when an obscure publisher released a novel entitled, The Princess and the Goblin (not having anything to do with the fairy tale of the same name). Written by Paul Rosner, the story described the intertwining lives of two actresses, Maureen and Josie. Like Mary, Maureen was a star on Broadway and arrived in Hollywood in the late ’30’s. She then falls in love with Josie, her female idol. Josie, like Jean, is a publicity shy actress, whose husky voice and comedic talent elevated her as one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies. The two women soon have an affair, which causes Josie to have a nervous breakdown and therefore become a recluse. After its publication, the rumors spread like wildfire. Everyone in Hollywood assumed that Rosner was confirming the gossip about Jean and Mary (it doesn’t help that their fictional characters even share the first initial of their names!).

But there was one glitch–Rosner had created a total work of fiction. Yes, he had based the character of Josie on Jean and Maureen on Mary, but only through his own viewing of Jean’s films and his observation on how Mary had seemingly usurped Jean’s identity. When Rosner saw Mary as Peter Pan, a light bulb clicked. The physical similarities (minus the husky voice) between Jean and Mary were downright eerie. After the novel’s publication, he was surprised by the amount of phone calls and feedback he received: people had assumed that he was writing a thinly veiled story of truth, not fiction. Rosner once commented, “I had no way of knowing when I wrote it that any of it was true.”

The lovely Jean Arthur circa 1937If Jean knew about the book, she never let anyone know. The only reference she made towards it’s existence was during her teaching days at Vassar college in the early 70’s. While heading a drama class, Jean had her students recreate a scene from Lillian Hellman’s controversial play, The Children’s Hour, in which a vicious child falsely accuses her two female teachers of being lovers. When the students finished the scene, Jean was visibly upset and explained to her class on how gossip can ruin one’s life. Was she referring to The Princess and the Goblin and/or the Mary Martin rumors? No one will ever know. While many books written after her death state that Jean was a lesbian (despite being married to Frank Ross for seventeen years!), it seems as though she was asexual. In a 1975 interview, Jean stated that sex was something she could live without. Her friend and one time agent, Helen Harvey, claimed that Jean’s passions were more geared towards her strict ideals, while another male friend said that she had little interest in romance, since most of the time her head was in the clouds. Jean’s world wasn’t one that was firmly rooted in reality. She chose her own path and did her own thing. And for some reason, people love to speculate about those who are uninterested in following the standards of society–especially if an unmarried woman chooses to live her life alone.

Mary Martin circa 1940As for Mary Martin, she was married twice–first to Ben Hagman, before marrying Richard Halliday, whom she remained with until his death in 1973. Despite this, rumors about her sexuality have always dogged her, even claiming that the great love of her life was actress, Janet Gaynor. The two women were close friends, and both were involved in a tragic car accident that occurred in 1982. While it left Mary bruised and injured, Janet was critically hurt and the multiple injuries led to her death in 1984.

What I always find odd about classic Hollywood rumors are the fact that they seem to come out after a person has died. It tends to be awfully convenient, since it’s hard for a ghost to defend itself. I’ll be the first person to admit that I enjoy reading about my favorite actors and actresses, and yes, that includes the gossipy bits. I don’t think this makes me less of a fan though–I’m just a nosy person! Still, I don’t base my love of certain actors/actresses/directors on gossip. I judge them by their performances. For example, I dislike Grace Kelly not because of all the men she hopped into bed with, but because I think she’s mostly a lousy actress (Dial M For Murder an exception – please direct all your hate mail to the email address at the top of the sidebar! Thank you!).

In Rhythm on the River, I admit that I loved Oscar Levant’s Starbuck character the most, but since that was to be expected, I can also add Mary Martin to my list. As I mentioned before, I don’t think she was an outstanding actress, but she was pleasant to watch. I’ve read some fan postings which claim that her talent never translated well to the big screen and in order to really see her shine, one had to see in her element–that is, Broadway. I can fully understand that. Most stage actors don’t translate well to motion pictures, which is why they stay on the stage. Still, if I saw Mary Martin’s name in the opening credits of a film, I certainly would watch. Mary’s acting style was fun and cute and for the type of breezy musical comedies Paramount cast her in, her personality was a perfect fit.

Click for larger imageFor most people, the 1955 version of The Desperate Hours is remembered as the film that features Humphrey Bogart’s last tough guy role. For myself, it’s the film that reminds me of Fredric March. I watched The Desperate Hours when I was first getting into movies, so none of the actors involved–with the exception of Bogie–were familiar to me. A few years later and I’m a huge fan of Fredric March, Arthur Kennedy and Gig Young! How about that?

The Desperate Hours is a taut, exciting crime drama, expertly directed by William Wyler. The plot revolves around an ordinary suburban family, whose life is shockingly disrupted when three escaped convicts break into their home and hold them hostage while waiting for some getaway money to arrive. Bogie plays Glenn Griffin, the leader of the convicts, while March is the levelheaded, yet tense, father who attempts to hold his family together. As a criminal, Bogie is always good. I’ve never really seen him phone in a performance (although the bizarre 1939 horror flick, The Return of Dr. X, ranks pretty high on that list) and the character of Glenn is what Duke Manatee (from The Petrified Forest) would be like had he grown older. Yet, it’s Fredric March who really made the movie for me.

Studio issued still of Fredric MarchI owe my love of Fredric March to this film. A few years later when I viewed The Desperate Hours again, I realized what a powerful actor March was. As Dan Hillard, he appears cool under pressure–yet, you know that it’s all an act. He’s terrified that one wrong move will affect the fate of his family, and he does all he can to protect them. Can you imagine going to work while your wife and kids are back home, being held hostage by three gun-toting nuts? In one particular scene, March’s talents are on full display. After being visited by son Ralphie’s schoolteacher, March must pretend that the convicts lurking in the house are old friends that he met that afternoon in the bar. Adding to that, Ralphie has given his teacher a note describing the situation, disguised as homework. When March spots it, he must take it away before she leaves the house. And if that weren’t enough, he leeringly asks the teacher to “join the party!” as a cover for his nervous state. It’s marvelous, layered acting on March’s part.

The family and the convictsThe cast of “The Desperate Hours”
A family in crisis: Scenes from ‘The Desperate Hours’

Surprisingly though, March’s participation in The Desperate Hours almost never happened. The role of Dan Hillard was originally meant for Bogie’s good friend, Spencer Tracy. Since both of them were used to top billing, neither wanted to concede that first above-the-title spot to the other. And so, Tracy was out and March (who was pretty much second or third billed in all his later movies) was in. And thank goodness for that! While I love Spencer Tracy, there’s just something about Fredric March that grabs me. He’s a brilliant actor who always manages to find the heart of his characters, no matter what the situation. While he’s notable for so many wonderful films (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, A Star is Born, The Best Years of Our Lives and Inherit the Wind to name a few), one of my favorite performances is his portrayal of Jean Valjean in 1935’s Les Misérables, a movie I thought I would never like. Yet, it’s March’s skills as an actor that draw me in and make me care about this escaped French prisoner who creates a new life for himself. I’m not one for historical epics, but I love Fredric March in them. Go figure.

The paperback novelOddly enough, the backstory of The Desperate Hours originated from a real life hostage situation that took place in 1952. After reading about it in the papers, writer Joseph Hayes then turned the story of the Hill family into a 1953 novel and then wrote the script for the Broadway play. Directed by Robert Montgomery and starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman in the March and Bogie parts, The Desperate Hours won Tony awards for Best Director (Montgomery) and the Best Play of 1955.

Using the real house of the Hills (who had since moved away after the incident) and the cast of the Broadway play, Life magazine published an article that recreated many scenes from their ordeal. However, the Hills then sued Life magazine for falsifying the article. The magazine stated that the Hills were assaulted and sworn at–claims that the family’s patriarch chalked up to being false. In fact, the Hills were treated rather civilly by the convicts (but that wouldn’t make a good story now, would it?). The case wound up bouncing back and forth in court–at one point, the Hill’s attorney was future president Richard Nixon–with both sides winning and losing at different points. In the end, the case just fizzled out and the results were unknown. Either the Hills abandoned the suit or settled out of court with Time, Inc., the publishers of Life magazine.

Life magazine - Page 1Life magazine - Page 2Life magazine - Page 3

the Broadway cast of “The Desperate Hours”Newman and Malden of Broadway’s “The Desperate Hours”
Top row: 3 pages from the controversial Life magazine article; bottom row: two stills from the Broadway version of The Desperate Hours, starring Karl Malden and Paul Newman

Despite the real life drama, the film version of The Desperate Hours turned out to be a hit. Much of the credit is due to William Wyler, who has a knack for making the most mundane scene interesting. A few weeks ago, I wrote about Gig Young’s experience in this film. While exhausting for an actor, Wyler’s strict attention to detail and demands of multiple takes pay off in the end. In the wrong hands, The Desperate Hours could have flopped, becoming boring or mundane during the middle section–but it doesn’t. If anything, the tension builds from the moment the convicts enter the Hillard’s home. There are also some interesting subplots that give the story even more emotional weight: the history between Deputy Sheriff Jesse Bard (Arthur Kennedy) and Glenn Griffin, Dan’s dislike of his daughter Cindy’s (Mary Murphy) Robert Middleton waves a gunboyfriend Chuck (Gig Young), and the tragic relationship between brothers Dan and Hal (Dewey Martin), which ultimately leads to Hal’s death. From the supporting cast, Robert Middleton plays the slimy, unhinged convict, Sam. Of the three, he’s the loose cannon, the one to watch out for. Sam is almost childlike in nature, yet he’s the first one to resort to extreme violence which culminates in the murder of an innocent bystander. In so many films, Middleton excels at playing heinous criminal types and here he’s no exception. You find yourself despising him throughout the film and cheer when he finally gets his just desserts.

Wyler also knew how to lighten the tension, albeit briefly. By using one of Ralphie’s friends, he interjects little slices of humor throughout the first half of the film. After picking up Middleton from an afternoon excursion, March pulls into the driveway. Noticing that Ralphie’s football playing friends are there, he then swats them away, causing one of the kids to turn to the others and whine, “Guys, what did I do?” It’s gives the viewer a brief chuckle before turning back to the situation at hand. In another tense drama, 1951’s Detective Story, Wyler employed the same technique with the shoplifiting character played by Lee Grant. Without the slight humor that these characters offer, the tension throughout both films would be practically unbearable. After all, it is a movie–not real life!

Bogie and Bacall at the Premiere of The Desperate Hours (10/5/55)It’s also interesting to note that in the script, the part of Glenn was aged considerably so that Bogie could play it. On Broadway, Paul Newman created the role–yet in 1955, he didn’t have much of a film career and I’m sure Wyler wasn’t willing to take a risk on a virtual unknown. Until that point, Newman had done mostly television and Broadway work (he made his Broadway debut in 1953’s Picnic). The only film on his resume was 1954’s historical drama, The Silver Chalice, which embarrassed him so much, Newman took out an ad in a trade paper apologizing for his performance. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if Paul Newman was cast in the part of the Glenn. Can you imagine being taken hostage by him? Seriously, now!

Gratuitous shirtless shot of Paul Newman - because I CAN
While its addition is suspect, I’ve included a photo to show you what Paul Newman looked circa mid-50’s. Ahem.

Despite my silly meanderings, The Desperate Hours is a great film and one that’s well worth your time. It was remade in 1990, but as with all remakes, they’re somewhat trite and meaningless when you compare it to the original. And the original has it all: a great script, well-thought out characterizations of three desperate men and a family in crisis, as well as a nail-biting conclusion. And of course, there’s the wonderful acting between Bogie and March, who play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse near the end of the film. Unlike so many movies that I write about, I refuse to spoil the ending here. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

Godspell movie poster

Since tomorrow is Easter, I thought it would only be fitting to talk about a movie of the religious variety and since TCM is showing Godspell on Easter afternoon (3/23 at 3 pm), it was kind of a no-brainer.

I saw Godspell (1973) for the first time sometime last summer. This may sound a bit flippant, but I only watched it because I wanted to see what Victor Garber looked like, or as I called him, “The guy who played the girl’s father on Alias.” No, I’m not an Alias fan, but on a few occasions, I was forced to sit through a couple of episodes with my friends. My plan was to see what he looked like when he was younger (doesn’t everyone like to play that game?) and then watch something else. The idea of hippies dancing around and singing about the Bible wasn’t exactly my cup of tea.

Much to my surprise, I found that I couldn’t tear myself away from the film. I changed it once and then flipped right back. The opening intrigued me–a bunch of normal people, working everyday jobs and walking around the streets of New York City. And then suddenly, they’re drawn by the call of John the Baptist (David Haskell) and before you know it, they’re shaking off their working clothes, dancing in Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain and putting on face paint and wild clothes. Victor Garber is Jesus, although he’s not outfitted in the traditional robe and sandals. Instead, he’s dressed in a Superman shirt, a timely ‘fro and complete with slight clown makeup. It’s not surprising that there are people out there who claim this is blasphemy, but I never got that vibe from the film. It’s message is joyful and uplifting–Godspell was simply adapted for the hippie, peace-loving audience at the time. Here’s a bit from a 1972 Toronto review that explains it perfectly:

“Blasphemous? Balderdash! The only thing blasphemous about Godspell is the way some people feel threatened, too insecure in their own beliefs, to accept a novel and joyful expression of love for religion…They do not make gags about God. They do not laugh at the intention of the parables or the universal ideas they were meant to illustrate. They make the parables fun; but they don’t make fun of the parables.”

As a side note: I should state here that I do identify myself as a Roman Catholic, although I’m not a very knowledgeable one. I went to public school and was forced to take some religious classes when I was around 7 years old. I took Religious Philosophy when I was in college, but quickly dispensed everything I learned once my exam was over. Not much has stuck with me, although I know the basics. It’s not very popular to talk about God in some circles, and I can fully admit that I flirted with atheism about two years ago during a very rough patch in my life (although it was more of the “Are You There God, it’s Me, Margaret I’m not talking to God, so there” variety). Things have happened in my life that have changed that opinion and I can proudly say that I believe in God now. But I also believe in not shoving your beliefs down people’s throat and being overly judgmental about things. One of my favorite sayings is the old standard: “He who is without sin, shall cast the first stone.” I hope no one thinks less of me because of this.

Thankfully, I do like religious movies–King of Kings, Barabbas and Godspell are my favorites. But John Huston’s version of The Bible (1966) has always creeped me out and whenever I see it on tv, I run screaming from the room. Mainly because I was stuck somewhere two years ago and that was the only movie being shown on the in-house tv station. Not once, twice or three times. But FOUR times a day!

Godspell album coverAnyway back to Godspell. Part of its appeal is the music, which was all written by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz. While the songs sound distinctively 70’s (they wouldn’t sound out of place on your local lite FM station), they’re also really catchy. One of the most popular songs, “Day by Day” (sung by Robin Lamont, who was also in the original cast) is particularly beautiful. There are some other great songs as well, like the two I’ve included in this post: the upbeat, “Light of the World” and the gorgeous, “Beautiful City.” The latter was specifically written for this film version, while two other songs, “We Beseech Thee” and “Learn Your Lessons Well” were omitted. Also, look out for the ending of “All For the Best” which ends with the cast members dancing atop of the World Trade Center. My aunt has a copy of the original soundtrack and every time I would flip through her albums, the cover scared me. I’m not sure why, although it’s worth noting that everything scared me when I was a kid.

One really interesting note is that Victor Garber came from the legendary 1972 Toronto production, which is also notable for launching the careers of Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Gilda Radner and Paul Shaffer of David Letterman fame. This site is completely devoted to the Toronto production and it’s really worth checking out. Lots of reviews and pictures ahead.

Godspell certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, there are some people out there who will probably roll their eyes and recoil in horror at a movie like this. Like a lot of 70’s movies, it’s certainly dated, but if you’re into religious movies and give it a chance, I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s fun, has a good message and has a great soundtrack–there’s a lot to like.

And for those who celebrate it, Happy Easter! And don’t go overboard on the chocolate.

Download: “Beautiful City” (2.8 MB) and “Light of the World” (2 MB) from the Godspell soundtrack (links will open in new window and download it from there)

Annie is ready to party!Last year for my birthday, I received the That’s Entertainment! box set. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the That’s Entertainment box set is made of up the three eponymous titles devoted to MGM musicals of the past. It includes all three movies and a special bonus disc filled with outtakes and extra bonus footage, including some really fun excerpts of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, as well as other MGM musical stars on a 1976 episode of the Mike Douglas show. Ann Miller looks so awesome. She certainly came ready to party!

Out of all three movies, my favorite would be That’s Entertainment III (1994), mainly because that’s the one with all the deleted scenes as well as a credit-less version of Fred and Ginger dancing the Swing Trot from one of my favorites, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). However, there was one number on there that was so disturbing, so horrible–I wound up screaming in horror: Joan Crawford lip-synching to “Two Faced Woman”.



It’s from the 1953 musical, Torch Song. Thanks to TCM, they’re showing it on Sunday night at 11:30 pm as a part of a 24 hour Joan Crawford birthday lineup. Her age varies–some people say that she’s going to be 100 years old, while others say that she’s was born in 1904. I like to go with the latter, since it feeds into one of the reasons why Bette Davis hated her so much (Joan was looking good compared to Bette during the shoot of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Even if you go with the idea that Joan was born in 1908, she still looked a hell of a lot better than Bette–scary Baby Jane makeup notwithstanding. That’s what smoking will do to you, I guess.)

Split screen comparison

In That’s Entertainment III, Debbie Reynolds’ explains that the original version of “Two Faced Woman” was to be originally lip-synched by Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). However Cyd’s version was cut for time and I guess the powers that be thought, “Hey! Let’s use this in the new Joan Crawford musical! And while we’re at it, let’s do it as an ‘island’ number so we can put Joan in blackface!” YIKES.

It’s pretty easy to see where “Two-Faced Woman” was to be used in The Band Wagon. It would come sometime after the lovely Astaire-Charisse “Dancing in the Dark” number and right before the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) starts directing around the stage props, only to be lifted into the air himself. I can see why they would cut it for time–I think it would have considerably disrupted the flow of the backstage mayhem.

Click for larger imageJoan’s legs
Cyd’s legs Vs. Joan’s legs: no contest!

Joan’s version is downright scary and it’s not just due to the horrific makeup and bad wig. India Adams’ voice just isn’t right for Joan (and to be honest, I don’t think it’s right for Cyd either). It almost makes her sound possessed, like she’s singing in a range that’s way too low for her. While Joan would have loved to do her own singing, MGM claimed that there was not enough time on the schedule to do so. Joan didn’t complain. Not only was she happy to dance again, she was back at her old home studio of MGM. Joan was terrified that no one would remember her, but the moment she stepped on the soundstage, she was thrilled–all the old technicians did in fact, remember her.

Since I’ve never seen Torch Song, I can only go by reviews that I’ve read off IMDB and on various Joan Crawford sites. And the consensus is that it’s BAD. The kind of bad that makes you laugh and laugh for hours on end. Since this was Joan’s first color movie, you get to see her dyed, flaming red hair in all it’s glory. The cast includes Michael Wilding as the blind pianist who falls in love with Joan, as well as Gig Young (Yay!), who plays Joan’s drunken, cheating boyfriend who winds up disappearing halfway through the film (Boo hiss). Torch Song was directed by Charles Waters, who was more than competent to direct a musical, having previously helmed such classics as Easter Parade (1948) and Summer Stock (1950). I’m really excited to see this movie, since I LOVE bad films just as much as I love good ones.

Also of note are the other fantastic Joan Crawford movies that TCM is showing:

Dancing Lady (1933) – 3/24 at 4:45 am – a fun musical with Clark Gable and in his screen debut, Fred Astaire–who plays a man named…Fred Astaire. Go figure. Light, fluffy entertainment.

The Women (1939)- 3/24 at 10:00 am – where Crawford plays a gold-digging, husband stealing bitch. She also gets the best line in the film, which comes at the very end of the movie.

A Woman’s Face (1941 – 3/24 at 12:15 pm) and They All Kissed the Bride (1942 – 2:15 pm – both notable for her pairing with the fantastic and always forgotten, Melvyn Douglas! I don’t know why more people don’t enjoy him today. He’s great at screwball comedy, but just as adapt in a drama as well.

Humoresque (1946) – 3/24 at 3:45 pm – A top-notch WB drama about a violinist (John Garfield) who falls in love with Joan, much to the dismay of his family. Plus, it has Oscar Levant in it. I don’t think I’ve fully expounded my love for him in this blog, but just you wait. That day will come.

Oscar Levant in “Humoresque”
My favorite neurotic: I love you, Oscar Levant!

Links: The “Films of Joan Crawford” site has a page on Torch Song here, while “Joan Crawford Best” has reviews, lobby cards and posters over here.

Young, Mitchum and Ryan

Like my previously discussed Arthur Kennedy obsession, my love for Robert Ryan is just as great. It’s odd to think that less than a year ago, I barely knew who he was. But seeing The Wild Bunch (1969) changed all that. Ryan captivated me as the reluctant bounty hunter, Deke Thorton. to the point where I lit up every time he appeared on screen. While I love everyone in that film, I found myself concerned about his character the most. He intrigued me like you wouldn’t believe (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also really handsome) and therefore, my newfound obsession with Robert Ryan was born.

Besides his involvement in The Wild Bunch, Ryan is perhaps best known for his portrayal of the murderous anti-Semite, Montgomery, in Edward Dmytryk’s excellent 1947 film-noir, Crossfire (showing Saturday March 22nd at 8:15 am on TCM). Take one look at his filmography and you’ll see that more often than not, Ryan played psychotic heavies in about 80% of the films he was cast. This is probably due to Crossfire, in which he plays Montgomery as a man brimming with anger and hate, but in measured doses. He doesn’t, as they say, chew the scenery. Monty seems to be good-natured, until someone pushes the right buttons and his psychotic side comes forth. One of Ryan’s strengths was playing villains. No matter what the part, Ryan brought an intelligence to them. His villains were never over the top–instead, Ryan characterized them as thoughtful and quiet, never one dimensional cardboard cutouts. They thought before they spoke or lashed out. And while you hated them, you also felt a bit of sympathy towards them for being so evil. In movies such as Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) or House of Bamboo (1955), Ryan always stole every scene he was in. His mere presence was enough to capture your attention.

Robert Young as FinlayThe plot of Crossfire deals with the murder of Samuels (Sam Levene), who also happens to be Jewish. Investigating it is Captain Finlay (Robert Young), who suspects Mitchell (George Cooper) of committing the act, while another GI, Keely (Robert Mitchum), goes out on a limb to prove his friend’s innocence. Others getting tangled up in the mess are Mitchell’s wife, Mary (Jacqueline White), “nightclub hostess”, Ginny (the always sexy Gloria Grahame) and her dishonorably discharged husband (Paul Kelly). The missing piece of the puzzle is Montgomery, who not only killed Samuels at the beginning of the film, but also murders another GI, Floyd (Steve Brodie), the only witness at hand.

Crossfire first emerged as a novel entitled, The Brick Foxhole. It was written in 1945 by Richard Brooks, who would go on in later years to direct such classics as Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and my personal favorite, Elmer Gantry. In the book, Conversations With the Great Moviemakers, Brooks, an ex-marine, explains that his novel was inspired by the group of men he was stationed with: “In my outfit, marines didn’t like black people, didn’t like Jews, didn’t like homosexuals, didn’t like Catholics. They didn’t like anybody except marines, Protestant marines, especially if they came from Texas or Atlanta.” In The Brick Foxhole, the character of Samuels was a homosexual and since the Hayes code disallowed “sex perversions”, he became Jewish. However, it turned out to be a timely change, especially with the horrors of the concentration camps beginning to surface.

Robert RyanLike other actors of the era, Ryan enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1944, and while he never saw combat, he did become a drill instructor at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. It was during these years that Ryan read The Brick Foxhole. Afterwards, he got into contact with Brooks and told him that he would like to be considered for the role of Montgomery if it were ever made into a film. Brooks agreed. At that point, Ryan’s film career was rather short. He had been signed to Paramount for a brief period in 1940, but was dropped by the studio when they claimed that he was unsuitable for films. Now he was signed to RKO, where he appeared in second billed parts of a general nature. Perhaps Ryan saw Montgomery as a huge step forward–and it was. It not only garnered him rave reviews, but nabbed him the only Oscar nomination in his entire career. Ironically enough, Ryan would look back at the part with mixed feelings. While it did bring him to the public’s attention, it also lead to his being typecast as a villain. The public’s enthusiasm for Montgomery always mystified him, as he failed to see “the bone chilling evil I presumably projected.” Perhaps because in real life, Ryan was the complete opposite of his crazed characters. To say he was tolerant of other nationalities would be an understatement. Ryan despised racism, and was a supporter of many liberal political causes. He and his wife Jessica also founded a school, Oakwood, as they felt their children weren’t getting a proper education from the public and private systems. Whether through his acting or his social causes, Ryan wanted to make some kind of contribution to the world.

Mitchell’s flashbackCrossfire succeeds because of Ryan’s psychotic portrayal. When Keely (Mitchum) finds Mitchell (Cooper) and drags him into a darkened theater, Mitchell recalls a flashback from earlier in the night. Since he was drunk, his memory is hazy–yet, we see Montgomery and Samuels standing together, drinking. There’s a bit of an argument between the two and suddenly, Montgomery snarls, “No Jew is going to tell me how to two drink his stinking liquor!” It takes just the slightest word to set him off and expose the ugly hatred that lurks beneath. This is in contrast to the public persona of Montgomery that we see at the beginning of the film. When talking to Capt. Finlay, Monty has an almost wide-eyed and earnest innocence about him. But as the story progresses, more and more of Monty’s true nature is revealed. Right before the pivotal scene where Monty kills Floyd, he lashes out at him, yelling, “I don’t like Jews and I don’t like anyone who likes Jews!” For him, guilt by association is just as bad as being Jewish. But the one point that Crossfire lacks is the reason of why Monty hates the Jews so much. The most we ever get about his background is courtesy of Keely (Mitchum), who mentions that not much is known about him, except that Monty was a loner from all the way back. Did a Jewish person do something to him in the past? Or was he brought up to hate them? We’ll never know. Perhaps the book expounds on his character more, but for the film, it’s a pretty big flaw.

Gloria Grahame as Ginny

Besides Ryan’s standout performance, also of note is Gloria Grahame. Like Ryan, she was dumped by her old studio (MGM) and picked up by RKO. As Ginny (because she’s from Virginia–a fact that will be proven false later in the film), she’s both tough and vulnerable. As the “nightclub hostess” who gets involved with Mitchell, she lets her guard down when he offers to dance with her in the garden of the club where she works, The Red Dragon. Grahame is not only perfect for the role, but she’s also the perfect noir femme fatale. She’s sexy and seductive, with a bit of innocence thrown in for good measure. I absolutely love her in every movie of hers I’ve seen and her role in Crossfire is no exception.

Ginny and Mitchell share a danceFour’s a Crowd - Grahame, White, Young and KellyGinny’s husband
3 Scenes of Trouble: the innocent dance, the investigation and Ginny’s husband

One of my favorite scenes in the whole film occurs when Capt. Finlay and Mitchell’s wife, Mary, arrive at Ginny’s apartment to question her. Taking Ginny out of her nightclub element brings out her defensive side, only softening to admit that she did like Mitchell because she felt sorry for him. Finlay’s questioning is further complicated by the sudden appearance of Ginny’s husband, who admits that he had a conversation with Mitchell earlier in the evening. While he’s a slight character and their relationship is only a subplot, I find Ginny and her husband (I don’t think he was given a first name in the film)the staircase scene to be fascinating, a perfect example of how pre-war marriages failed when the men came home. It’s a subject examined more thoroughly in 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives (the failing marriage between Dana Andrews and Virginia Mayo), but here it’s sort of a postscript, albeit an interesting one. In one of the most disconcerting scenes, Ginny’s husband continues to talk about his failing marriage while Capt. Finlay and Mary walk away, leaving him alone. He admits that he still loves Ginny, although she despises him. But no one cares about his words or him. It’s as though the war has turned him into a lost soul.

Robert Mitchum as KeelyWhich brings me to the other air of sadness that pervades Crossfire: the adjustment to normal civilian life that the returning soldiers faced. In the beginning of the film, when Keely tells Capt. Finlay about Mitchell, he explains that his current occupation is that of a printer and mentions that instead of the Purple Heart, he now works with purple ink. It’s a good example of how heroic men who once fought for our country are now reduced to menial jobs, since they received no formal job training afterwards. It really depresses the entire film. No matter what the “happy” ending is for Mitchell and his wife, their future is still going to be bleak. Not only is there his involvement with Ginny (as innocent as their relationship is, I would hate to find out my husband went to a “nightclub hostess”!) but he’s just a lowly painter as well. I’m sure his salary is hardly enough to support a wife on. It’s for these reasons that I find post-war movies to be interesting, since I think all the disillusionments really shaped the nation for the years ahead, finally culminating rebellious spirt of the 1960’s.

Robert Ryan as Montgomery

When it was released, Crossfire was a hit. Not only did it win Best Social Film at the Cannes Film Festival and the Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Picture, but it was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor and Actress for Ryan and Grahame, Best Director for Dmytryk, Best Picture for Adrian Scott (producer) and Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay. Grahame, Dmytryk and the film itself lost out to the year’s other “social” picture, Gentleman’s Agreement (Celeste Holm won the Best Supporting Actress statue and Elia Kazan won for Best Director), while Ryan lost to Edmund Gwenn in Miracle of 34th Street. A snarling killer is no match for a lovable man masquerading as Santa Claus!

Sadly, the success of Crossfire brought negative attention to the people involved: Dmytryk, RKO producers Paul Jarrico and Scott, and Robert Ryan. The head of RKO at the time, Dore Schary, quickly dismissed any claims against Ryan by using his Marine Corps background to get him off the hook. The others weren’t so lucky–while Dmytryk rebounded after his inclusion on the Hollywood Ten list and Jarrico went on to make the only blacklisted film, Salt of the Earth, Scott found himself completely ruined.

Robert Ryan as MontgomeryGloria Grahame as Ginny
Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame make Crossfire a classic

Despite this, Crossfire is still a movie that manages to hold up today. While many people say that it’s a bit heavy-handed in it’s handling of racism, I tend to think of it as an excellent film noir murder mystery first and an anti-racism film second. As with many films, it’s the fantastic performances by the entire cast that make Crossfire worth watching. But it’s especially due to Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame, who were so rightly nominated for Oscars. They’re what gives the film it’s punch, creating two characters who try to suppress their true feelings, only to wind up wearing them on their sleeves. I’m not sure if any other actors/actresses could be good in those roles–both Ryan and Grahame give their characters that extra something that elevates them above the rest. It’s especially uncomfortable to watch Ryan’s Montgomery, since he’s such a hateful person, but it’s countered by knowing that he was the complete opposite of that persona in real life. That’s the mark of a great actor–to take yourself out of your element and make it completely believable.

In a curious side note, that brings this article together in a really roundabout way, The Brick Foxhole was reprinted and reissued in 1952 as a cheap paperback. However, the actor that graced the cover was not Robert Ryan, but…Arthur Kennedy. How about that?

Link: Another vintage magazine advertisement for Crossfire (large, good quality)