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“We have a great deal in common…”
“You’re an improbable person, Eve, and so am I. We have that in common. Also, a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved, insatiable ambition, and talent. We deserve each other.” — Addison DeWitt

All About Eve movie poster - Click for Larger VersionThere’s no doubt that All About Eve is one of Hollywood’s most iconic films. And while I can attest that it has top-notch performances by all the cast members involved (even Marilyn Monroe, who I can tolerate on a good day) and a knockout script filled with line after line of bitchy, witty comebacks, although I have to admit that when I need a Bette Davis fix, I prefer Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte which is one of my all time favorite movies.

Still, I can’t deny that All About Eve is a damn good movie and still remains extremely watchable after all these years (it’s showing tonight, on TCM at 8 pm EST.) It has that certain sophisticated *glow* that all 20th Century Fox movies have (at least from the Golden Era of Hollywood), which only adds to it’s mystique. But All About Eve wouldn’t be the classic it is today if it weren’t for the performances of Bette Davis, Anne Baxter and the always underrated Celeste Holm. It sounds cliched, but these actresses breathe life into the characters–you’re never bored by them, and they make the script work. Claudette Colbert was supposed to have played Margo Channing, but threw out her back while filming Three Came Home. A tragedy for Ms. Colbert, but can you imagine how radically different Margo Channing would have been? Bette Davis has that supreme ego (I mean this as compliment) that makes her Margo Channing the diva she was meant to be. I don’t think Claudette could have pulled it off.

Margo Channing, Diva.Eve (Anne Baxter) and Margo (Bette Davis)
Diva vs. Diva: Davis as Margo Channing and watching Bill Simpson leave with Eve (Baxter)

I first watched All About Eve about three years ago. As a classic film newbie, I knew it was one of the movies that I had to see, and after I watched it, I felt a bit let down. Perhaps I wasn’t mature enough to appreciate it. I’m really showing my age here, but I think I expected a good old fashioned chick fight that included lots of bitch slapping and name calling. Having been in one myself (a long, long time ago), let me tell you–they’re much more fun to watch than to be in. It’s the hair-pulling that hurts the most, although the name calling is a close second.

A telling sceneAnyway, when TCM premiered All About Eve during last month’s Oscar lineup, I decided to give it another go. After all, I’m older, wiser and can appreciate the subtlety of a well-timed quip now. Watching it through new eyes, I was surprised by certain “clues” to Eve’s character that director and writer, Joseph L. Mankiewicz sprinkled throughout. Eve (Anne Baxter) seemed a bit…manly, with her poise being the most telling clue. She didn’t move around the screen like the other women–no, there was something rough about her walk. She lacked femininity. But perhaps the most telling trait is in the way she and her female friend ascend the staircase after placing a phony sick call to Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe). I’m always wary of people who “look” for homosexuality in films, since I think some of it is just pure speculation and projection, so I did a little research afterwards.

The truth finally comes outMy suspicions were confirmed: according to Mankiewicz biographer, Ken Geist, the character of Eve Harrington was originally conceived as a lesbian. When you know this little bit about Eve, the film suddenly takes on a whole new light–especially where her relationship with Addison DeWitt is concerned (an Oscar winning perfromance by the marvelous George Sanders). There are lines in the “reveal” scene that throw the viewer for a loop, particuarly in the statement where Addison proclaims, “You realize and you agree how completely you belong to me.” Perhaps Mankiewicz wrote this line so it appears that Eve and Addison are having a sexual relationship–but I find it hard to believe, since neither has ever been affectionate towards one another. Yes, Eve has passion running through her veins, but Addison doesn’t. He gets more excitement out of making sarcastic comments and watching everyone in the theater world stab each other in the back. For all that’s been written about his character, I’ve never gotten the impression that Addison was gay. If anything, I felt that he was somewhat asexual. For him, sex just came with the job, like overtime and health benefits. I’ve always thought that Marilyn Monroe’s character had a relationship with him, and if the code allowed it at the time, I’m sure he would have attempted to play Svengali to a man as well. Yet, I feel the proper description for both Addison and Eve is “chameleon”–they both adapt to the people surrounding them, calculate the situation at hand and sense who they can best use to their advantage. Except that Eve lacks the finesse and wisdom that Addison has. She thinks in the moment, while Addison considers the whole picture and this leads to Eve getting beautifully played at the end.

Meet Eve Harrington
Out of the shadows: Karen meets Eve

Another interesting characterization of Eve is her appearance. When we first see her, she’s emerging from the shadows dressed in a man’s trenchcoat and hat, giving off the impression that they once belonged to her deceased husband. Eve wants to come off as a girl who’s just making do with what’s at hand. But when you find out the truth–there was no husband!–you realize that Eve is a master at costuming herself for the situation at hand. That innocent-looking trenchcoat and hat make her look drab enough to gain sympathy from Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), who first spots her in that darkened alley (now film scholars note that homosexual characters in classic Hollywood films are “coded” this way–lurking in the shadows). Upon first inspection, Eve seems like a shy, sweet theatergoer who has nothing but admiration for Margo Channing. Since it’s all an act, you have to imagine the amount of planning and preparation Eve had to do in order to make her sob story work. In order to seem legit, you need to look the part as well as make it believable.

Addison’s Watchful EyeThe failed seduction

Later, when Eve attempts to seduce Bill Simpson (Gary Merrill), she’s again in costume after taking over for Margo. It’s as though Eve cannot play herself–everything she does is a performance for the secret play going on in her mind. Unlike Karen, Bill doesn’t buy it–he flat out rejects Eve. Having seen and worked with all types of actors and actresses, Bill is much more cynical and hardened to the world around him. It’s an interesting comparison to Karen, who spends her free time painting and only observing the theater world from a wife’s viewpoint. She’s not actively involved and while it makes her a bit more naive, it also makes her susceptible to Eve’s plans.

Noticing PhoebeThe Real Eve?Phoebe Meets Addison
The Seduction Theory: Eve and Addison meet Phoebe, an “innocent” schoolgirl

Many people would say that the final scene between Eve and the mysterious Phoebe is the crowning moment of All About Eve. The main point is to let the audience know that in future years to come, Eve will be replaced by Phoebe and other aspiring, cutthroat actresses just like her. But those last five minutes or so tell more about Eve’s true personality than the entire film did. Not only is it the first time we see Eve smoking, but while talking with Phoebe, she drapes herself languorously on the couch. Clearly, Mankiewicz wanted the lesbian side of Eve to be finally revealed and when it is, it’s a bit off-putting. While she’s cold to others, she’s almost leering in her invitation to Phoebe. It’s obvious that she’s attempting to seduce the young woman by asking her to stay the night–yet, it’s Eve who’s being taken in for a sucker. Phoebe is pulling the same routine that she pulled on Margo. The two women even share physical similarities: the same husky tone of voice, a no-nonsense haircut and plain jane clothes. Phoebe is a chameleon as well. The only difference is that she reveals her cards to Addison when he drops off Eve’s forgotten award (and in the process, admits that “Phoebe” isn’t even her real name!). Her ambition is clear-cut. For all you know, Phoebe may be lying about her involvement in the “Eve Harrington Club”–after all, Eve lied about her non-existant husband and who says Phoebe can’t do the same?

The future and beyond…

While some critics claim that Mankiewicz’s portrayal of Eve is supposed to be an attack on lesbians, I only believe that to be a half-truth. Eve is just a terrible person. She may prefer the company of women in her private life, but it’s clear that in her public one, she’d sleep with anyone to get ahead. If anything, I think Mankiewicz succeed in showing us that the life of an ambitious actress is a lonely one. Even in the closing shot, where Phoebe stands among reflections of herself, I take that as a comment on being alone. Eve has no true friends. Addison considers her his “property”, a puppet he can use when he needs her. Margo and Karen have each other and Phoebe is just using Eve to get ahead in the world. Eve winds up with no one. Her ruthless ambition has cost her any close friendships. She will spend night after night alone, with only herself as company. On a related note, Is there any wonder why Bette Davis titled her first autobiography, “The Lonely Life”? Success certainly comes at a cost.

Margo + Bill = True LoveIn the scene where Margo rejects the role in Lloyd’s play, she bases her decision on her upcoming nuptials to Bill, saying, “It means I finally got a life to live. I don’t have to play parts I’m too old for just because I have nothing to do with my nights.” Margo has realized that true love is more important that the adoration of nameless, faceless theatergoers. Bill’s love is the only applause she wants now. She has put her own ambition aside to become a wife. In a case of fiction mimicking real life, Bette Davis and Gary Merrill eloped during the filming of All About Eve, where after, Davis put her career shortly on hold to become a housewife. The marriage, filled with bouts of drunken arguring, didn’t last and both parties would later say that Margo and Bill, not Bette and Gary, fell in love.

Of all the performances in All About Eve, my favorite comes courtesy of Celeste Holm. As Karen, the wife to the famous playwright, Lloyd Richards, she lives a very good life rubbing elbows with the theater elite. It’s a happy marriage. But when Eve gets hold of a cruel joke that Karen played on Margo, her happiness finally becomes threatened. Karen finally feels the sting of loneliness, albeit in a different fashion from Margo. Since Eve is now the new leading lady of Lloyd’s new play, the reheasals only bring them closer together, therefore pushing Karen out of the picture. Right before that fateful phone call, we see Karen lying in bed, musing about their relationship: “Everything Lloyd loved about me, he’d gotten used to, long ago.”

On the telephone

As an observer to the ups and downs of the theater, Karen knows how easily aging actresses are replaced. What makes an aging wife any different? It’s a scary thought, especially after witnessing exactly how manipulative Eve truly is. When Eve finally thinks she has Lloyd in her clutches, she tells Addison about her plan to steal him away from Karen, throwing in a few lies for good measure. This is what finally causes Addison to snap. Knowing that Karen is a good woman and also because Lloyd is a successful playwright whose plays can make or break actresses, Addison blows the roof off Eve’s plans, setting her straight. Attempting to upstage an aging, past-her-prime actress is one thing. To destroy a marriage is another. One wonders what he would have done if Bill gave into Eve’s temptations backstage.

Mankiewicz’s portrayal of the men in this film is especially positive–both Bill and Lloyd stay true to their ladies, and when you include Addison in that group, none of them are easily swayed by Eve’s poisonous charms. Lloyd only wants to do the best for his writing, Bill is madly in love with Margo and Addison is in love with his career. Since all three hold positions of power, they’ve seen every dirty trick in the book. Combine that with the male ego, and you’ll understand why they refuse to be undermined by a up-and-coming actress. It was easier for Eve to worm her way into Margo and Karen’s circle–she could pretend to identify with them, comfort them and offer compliments when needed. Men and woman are equally insecure, it’s just that women tend to wear their emotions on their sleeve. And for someone like Eve, this is all the bait she needs.

At face value, All About Eve is a great movie, but when you dig a little deeper, you find that there’s so much more to it than just backstabbing, betrayal and Margo’s famous line, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night!”. It’s about actresses and their vulnerabilities, a married woman facing her worst nightmare and how cruel and low some people can stoop to in order to get ahead in the world. It’s also about love, for it’s love that saves Margo Channing from herself and love that saves the marriage between Lloyd and Karen Richards. Without love, you wind up like Eve Harrington. Successful and adored, but lonely and used. And who wants to live a life like that?

This week’s MP3 doesn’t have to do with All About Eve, per se, but “Backstabbers” by The O’Jays could be the theme song to Eve’s devious plans. I love 70’s R&B/Funk and while it’s not classic movie related, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to post such an appropriate song.

Download: “Backstabbers” by the O’Jays 2.8 MB – Link will open in new window and download it from there.

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I’ve been on a big Gregory Peck kick as of late, which after four years or so, I’d say I’ve waited long enough. I’ve always read a lot of reviews where people complain that he’s somewhat of a “wooden” actor. I’ve never thought that about him, but I can understand where people are coming from. He has that stoic, clipped manner of speaking and what other people take as wooden, I take as calm and collected. To each his own though.

Gregory Peck shirtless
Gratuitous shirtless shot of Gregory Peck–because I can.

But for those people who do find him “wooden”, I’d highly recommend William A. Wellman’s 1948 western, Yellow Sky, where he’s anything but. He’s dangerous and sexy, while Anne Baxter matches him moment for moment. Its plot revolves around a gang of bank robbers that make their way through the desert, only to wind up in a deserted town called Yellow Sky. Soon after, they meet its only inhabitants, a woman nicknamed Mike and her Grandpa. However, when the gang realizes the two are hiding gold, they decide to make quick fortune by robbing them.

For all the William A. Wellman movies I’ve seen, this quickly became one of my favorites. Not only is it a solid western, but the relationship between “Mike” (Anne Baxter) and “Stretch” (Gregory Peck) is fascinating. Yellow Sky isn’t just a western–it’s a psychological one. Hands down Anne Baxter’s characterization of Mike steals the show here. Yes, she’s mainly known as the backstabbing bitch in All About Eve, but in Yellow Sky, she shows a great range of emotion. It’s sounds a bit trite, but Mike wants to prove that she’s just as tough as one of the guys, even favoring a men’s nickname instead of using her real name, Constance Mae. She lives by her own strict moral code. And while Mike is a tomboy, she’s a Hollywood tomboy. Petite in size, her hair is neatly coiffed and even though she spends the entire film in a non-nonsense blouse and black jeans, they show off her best assets. It’s no wonder that she elicits lust in most of the gang.

Since they’re the focus of the story, the main relationship is between Mike and Stretch. While Mike hates all the men, it’s Stretch that she seems to hate the most. Gregory Peck is fantastic in this role (but then I love when he plays bad boys). He constantly pursues Mike despite warning all the other men in his gang to stay away from her and Grandpa (John Russell). It’s almost as though he feels he has first dibs on her because he’s their leader. In their first meeting, Stretch asks her what she’s so afraid of, to which Mike defiantly answers, “Nothing.” It’s a lie of course, but there’s no way Mike can show any other emotion besides “tough.” She feels that even the slightest hint of femininity would be a sign of weakness and with the six men who just intruded their lives, Mike intends to be just as tough as them.

baxter_rifle.jpgIn addition to giving Stretch a mean right hook when he attempts to steal her rifle, she’s ready to shoot anyone at a moment’s notice. But what’s nice about the character of Mike is that she’s not a caricature of a tomboy. For example, she isn’t anything like Doris Day in Calamity Jane. Wellman was smarter than that. In less assured hands, the character of Mike could have easily been one to laugh at. You take Mike seriously because she is serious and Anne Baxter manages to bring her to life in a wonderful way. There’s nothing humorous about her. You don’t doubt for a second that Mike’s first instinct would be to shoot a man right below the belt. The only person she cares about is her Grandpa and she’d fight to the death to keep him safe. Her loyalty towards him isn’t just because he’s her Grandpa, but because he treats her with respect. In a conversation, he proudly tells Stretch that not only is Mike as “tough as a nut”, but that she was raised by Apaches. In so many westerns, anyone who is raised by Indians is immediately treated as though they have the plague. Not only do Grandpa and Mike have a good relationship with the Apaches, but Mike has turned out to be a real fighter. Her Apache upbringing is a source of pride, not shame, for him.

There are plenty of interesting scenes and one of them occurs at the watering hole, which is to be a source of trouble for Mike. After being accosted by the men, Stretch steps in and tells them to stay away from her and Grandpa. Immediately, Mike rewards him with a look of tenderness. It’s the first real emotion (besides anger) that we see from her. Is it because she sees Stretch respects not only her, but her Grandpa as well?

However, Stretch refuses to take his own advice and treks over to the house to see Mike. After tackling her to the ground and kissing her, Mike repeatedly headbutts(!) him and tells him “You stink!”, but not before wiping her mouth as though his kisses were poison. It’s interesting to see that Mike’s first reaction after physical violence is to verbally assault him. It’s a one-two punch of hitting him below the belt. She then ends their “rendezvous” by shooting at his head–although she aims to miss. Later, when she and Grandpa are Illustration of a Womanwalking back to the house, Mike tells him, “He made me feel..I don’t know.” But she does know. Mike has made her feel like a woman for the first time in her life. Wellman then cuts to Mike’s room, in which a picture of an elegantly dressed lady is pinned onto her wall. Seeing it fills her with disgust and causes Mike to angrily tear it into pieces. It’s a great moment of self-loathing–she hates herself for feeling something that she’s been trying so hard to suppress. Although having such a picture on her wall in the first place clues us into the fact that Mike longs to be as pretty as any other woman out there. In that one short scene, we sense Mike’s vulnerability for the first time. It’s easily one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie.

A famous Wellman shadow shot
Wellman was known for odd angles and shots. Here, Grandpa and Mike stand in near darkness.

What makes Yellow Sky so interesting is how the relationship between Mike and Stretch progresses. It’s not a full blown love affair–there are things that Stretch does and says that are questionable–yet it’s enough to gain Mike’s trust. Stretch is the first man besides her Grandpa to treat her with a respect. He doesn’t look down at her. It’s clear that even after their first kiss (albeit a forced one), Stretch is bothered enough by Mike’s disgust, that he appears the next day wearing a fresh shirt while his face is clean shaven. Upon seeing his efforts to impress her, Mike’s facade begins to crumble.

Bull Run saves the dayWhile the relationship between Mike and Stretch grows, the one between her and the rest of the gang is precarious. When she goes down to the watering hole a second time, she’s physically attacked by Lengthy (John Russell) while Half Pint (Henry Morgan) and Walrus (Charles Kemper) cheer him on, with the latter yelling, “Ride her cowboy, ride her!” It’s a particularly disturbing scene, especially for 1948. Since the code was in effect, the most you see is Lengthy pushing Mike against a tree while she tries to beat him away. But it’s clearly a prelude to rape. It’s even more disturbing when Walrus tells Stretch afterwards that she was asking for it. This scene also lets you know that Lengthy sees right through Mike’s tough act. He doesn’t see her as an equal. For Lengthy, she’s just another woman to take advantage of.

However, it has to be noted that the youngest member of the gang, Bull Run, (Robert Arthur) does respect Mike. When he sees Lengthy attacking her, he’s the only one to step in and pull him off, only to need saving by Stretch in the end. In some respects, both Bull Run and Stretch are somewhat alike. While they try to keep up their tough facades, their basic sense of decency hasn’t been corrupted yet and after such a particularly brutal scene, it’s refreshing to see. The only difference is that Bull Run is naive to the ways of the world, while Stretch has seen it all and is wise to the ulterior motives of his gang. This certainly affects the fates of their characters at the end of the movie.

Widmark, always the villianThe relationship between Stretch and Dude (Richard Widmark) is probably second to that of Mike and Stretch. When Dude sees that Stretch is falling for Mike, he knows that he’s of no use to the gang anymore. Women mean absolutely nothing to Dude. He was burned by an old girlfriend in the past and he’s nothing but bitter towards them now. Not only does he make numerous attempts to overthrow Stretch as their leader, but he’s also a silent witness to many moments where both Mike and Stretch let their guards down. He revels in their downfalls, knowing that the more Stretch becomes emotionally attached to Mike, the sooner he can make off with the gold. Greed is Dude’s only motivation in life. He and Lengthy are both soulless in their pursuit for the gold and when Stretch finally backs out of a deal that would wipe out Mike and Grandpa for good, the gang finally turns on him. It’s interesting to see that Mike is the only one who immediately tries to protect him. As the gang attempts to shoot him down, Mike covers him, therefore risking her own life so they can make their way back to the house together. It’s a nice twist, especially seeing the malevolence she had towards him when they first met.

Peck and Baxter

It’s another facet that makes Yellow Sky so interesting to watch–the gender lines become blurred when it comes to Mike and Stretch. In two separate, but pivotal scenes (the rape scene and the aforementioned shootout), they both save each other from possible death. Unlike most westerns, Mike’s character doesn’t suddenly turn into that of “damsel in distress.” If anything, it’s Stretch who becomes the damsel! Once he falls in love with Mike, therefore respecting her, his gang loses respect for him. Without Mike’s protection, he would be a dead man since it’s hard to fight when there are five against one. The roles have reversed and it’s an interesting path for Wellman to go down, but it’s certainly one that he treaded down before. Although the genres and situations are different, his 1937 film, A Star is Born is another movie that has similar gender relations. The up-and-coming actress (Janet Gaynor) becomes a star, while the once-famous husband (Fredric March) is reduced to the role of Mr. Vicki Lester. In order to save him, she must give up her own career and she doesn’t do it because she has to–she does it because she loves him. Yet, the literal death of her career becomes a figurative one for him. It’s heartbreaking to watch and for a director that was nicknamed, “Wild Bill”, he certainly had a sensitivity for relationships and how they work.

While Yellow Sky is a rough western with a love story thrown in, it’s not too sappy. In fact, it’s presented in such a way that you think Stretch is saving Mike from herself. Audiences back then may have thought that all Mike needed was the love of a good man to change her mind, but there’s so much more to it than that. It’s the proof in the final scene (which I hate to spoil, since it’s so good) that Mike saved Stretch from himself as well. The building of their whole relationship was based on seeing each other as equals and in the end, that’s exactly what they are. Love saves the day and all that sappy stuff notwithstanding. They saved each other from themselves by letting their facades down and admitting that they needed love. What’s that old saying–No man is an island? I think it applies here perfectly.

It’s a shame to see that despite a dvd release, Yellow Sky isn’t that well-known today. Especially when you compare it to Gregory Peck’s other bad boy western, 1946’s campy Duel in the Sun. While the basis of that was a soap opera-type love story, Yellow Sky is so much more than just a love story between Mike and Stretch. It’s about the survival and relationships between people, no matter what the odds are against them. And that’s always a timeless topic.

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For some reason, Hollywood keeps remaking classic movies. This summer they’re releasing a new version of the 1939 MGM classic, The Women. And back in 2004, Hollywood saw fit to remake Robert Aldrich’s 1965 masterpiece, The Flight of the Phoenix.

phoenixtitlecard.jpg

The premise is simple: A plane filled with passengers from different walks of life, crashes in the Sahara. After a few deaths and no rescue attempts, the remaining survivors attempt to rebuild the plane from the wreckage and fly themselves to safety.

I saw the original version last year on the Fox Movie Channel and I expected a good movie–what I got instead was a great movie, filled with interesting characters and a plot twist near the end that will either make you laugh or gasp in horror. For weeks after my initial viewing, I became obsessed with this movie. I must have watched it six times in two weeks. I just couldn’t stop. I loved the characters, their problems and the way they banded together despite some serious personality clashes. The story unfolds beautifully, leading to an ending that you won’t forget. Some people say The Flight of the Phoenix is a bit too long, but I don’t know what you could cut out to make it shorter. All the parts are important.

The majority of the film is mostly dialogue-based and while you might expect a movie of that nature that to be boring, it’s not. It’s exciting because of the top notch performances put in by Jimmy Stewart, Hardy Kruger, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine and Ian Bannen. My personal favorite of the bunch is Dan Duryea, who portrays a meek, religious businessman (a far cry from his villainous days opposite Stewart in many Anthony Mann westerns). This film was also my introduction to Richard Attenborough, an actor I’ve really come to enjoy over the past year of my ravenous movie consumption. And as always, Aldrich keeps the energy of the film afloat with many different subplots that focus on the personalities of each character. I love Robert Aldrich. Very rarely am I ever disappointed with one of his movies.

Director Robert Aldrich felt that rehearsals were an important process for his movies. In this behind-the-scenes picture, Aldrich stands in the center while the entire cast takes their spots in an outline of the doomed plane. His son, Bill, is seated at the top left.*

Sadly, stunt pilot Paul Mantz lost his life during the filming of this movie and if that weren’t disheartening enough, The Flight of the Phoenix bombed at the box office when it was released in December of 1965. In a 1974 interview, Aldrich lamented about it’s misfortune: “There are failures you never think are right or justifiable or understandable. For example I put Too Late the Hero, Flight of the Phoenix, and The Grissom Gang in a category that says these are all fine movies, very well made. People understood what they were about, what they aimed to say. They were entertaining and exciting and should have been a success. That they weren’t means that something else was wrong besides the way the picture was made. Maybe in another five years Phoenix will break even. I think it deserved to do infinitely better than it did.”**

I saw the 2004 remake a few weeks ago and was disheartened by how it lacked in comparison. There are (of course) CGI effects for the plane crash and the PC casting adds a woman to the crew. There’s a “music video” sequence to Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and somehow, the crew has working power tools in the middle of a desert. But mainly Dennis Quaid is no Jimmy Stewart. The one reason why I loved the original Phoenix so much was because Stewart wasn’t a very likable guy. In fact, his Captain Frank Towns is a stubborn jerk whose old methods are being replaced by modern ones and I liked that, mainly because Stewart is always the hero. I love when actors are cast against type because they’re fun to watch. Aldrich had plans to use him and John Wayne in a comedy called …All The Way to the Bank***, but that fell through when Phoenix bombed and Aldrich went on to making The Dirty Dozen instead. A good twist of fate!

One of the highlights (in a film of many highlights) is during the scene where everyone is stuck inside the plane during a sandstorm and Trucker Cobb (Ernest Borgnine) is playing around with his radio. And as he fiddles with the knobs, a faint love song comes across the airwaves. The injured Gabriel (Gabriele Tinti) hears it and perks up; he’s desperately missing his sick wife. With a bit of prodding from Towns, Cobb begrudgingly hands the radio over to Gabriel, but smiles as soon as he sees how much happiness it brings to him. See the You Tube Clip here.

Connie Francis

The ballad in question is called “Senza Fine.” It’s sung by perky 60’s singer and actress Connie Francis and it has an absolutely gorgeous and haunting melody. The snippet used in the movie doesn’t do the song justice. While she’s best known for songs like “Who’s Sorry Now” and “Where the Boys Are”, “Senza Fine” is one of those lost treasures that seem to be forgotten by record companies today. A search on Amazon brings up only one item, an out-of-print cd that includes the soundtrack to both Phoenix and Patton (one copy is selling for almost $160!).

This site discusses it a bit:

“The English version of the LP “Movie Greats” has the song Senza Fine (means Without End) from the movie Flight of the Phoenix. Senza Fine was only done in two versions that is known. There is a single version which is a beautiful release from England on a single and also released on CD there a few years ago. The other is on the LP “Movie Greats of the 60s.” Connie did one whole version in English and one in Italian and they spliced in and out different versions.”

I found my copy through a file sharing service. This is the version that combines both the Italian and English verses and it has a running time of 3:12 (the version on the Patton soundtrack runs at 2:14 seconds). It took me a long time to find, but when I did, I was beyond thrilled. It’s a gorgeous song, one of my favorites and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did when I first heard it:

Download MP3: “Senza Fine (Love Song From The Flight of the Phoenix)” – Connie Francis

Do not direct-link download. Page will open in another window and follow the link from there.

* The picture is scanned in from the book, What Ever Happened to Robert Aldrich: His Life and His Films by Alan Silver and James Ursini. Much of this information comes from this book as well. It’s a great read.

** From the book, Robert Aldrich Interviews edited by Eugene L. Miller Jr. and Edwin T. Arnold.

*** …All The Way to the Bank centered around “two retired safecrackers who steal money from a mob boss’s safe deposit box to benefit an old folks home.” Aldrich attempted to sell this project to 20th Century Fox, but fell through when he decided to make The Dirty Dozen instead.

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Webb - acid tongued

One actor I’ve always loved is Clifton Webb. The first movie I ever saw him in is probably the movie he’s best known for: Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). I wanted to see it because of Vincent Price, but afterwards, it was Clifton Webb that intrigued me. His Waldo Lydecker was the most interesting character in the film: typing in the bathtub, obsessed with the beautiful Gene Tierney and cold and calculating enough to commit murder. What else could you want?

The problem with Clifton Webb’s movie career is that he didn’t make that many and when he did make them, it was only for 20th Century Fox. His movies will rarely (if never) show up on TCM, which means you’ll have to rely on either HBO/Cinemax or the Fox Movie Channel to see his work. The closest he came to being loaned out was for the 1953 MGM musical, The Band Wagon. He was offered the role of Broadway’s jack-of-all-trades, Jeffery Cordova, but turned it down because he didn’t take secondary parts (he was however, gracious in recommending England’s answer to Fred Astaire, Jack Buchanan, for the role). Webb was strictly an above-the-title, first billed actor and with good reason: in 1950 he was listed seventh on the annual Motion Picture list of Box Office Stars.

What interests me the most about Webb is that he’s not your typical star. Looks-wise, he’s not Cary Grant. He’s small in stature (his bathtub scene in Laura proves he was one of the skinniest men to ever grace the silver screen) and while he is handsome, he’s certainly not a teenybopper heartthob. Another factor is age: by the time he took on the persona of Waldo Lydecker, Webb was about 55 years old. For most actors in Hollywood, you could forget about having a career at the age, let alone start a successful one.

Titanic - WebbIt was the film Sitting Pretty (1948) that changed Clifton Webb’s career. Instead of being an uptight, know-it-all murderer that the audienced booed at, he became the uptight, know-it-all babysitter that audiences laughed along with. Watch him take control of Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara’s children (and dog!) and you’ll find yourself rooting for him as he dumps a bowl of oatmeal on a child’s head. From this movie he went from being a third-billed supporting player to a first-billed leading man (he was Oscar nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Laurence Olivier). There would be no more murderers in his future. Seeing they had a hit on their hands, 20th Century Fox turned out two more Belvedere sequels, Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). He became the actor that the whole family could enjoy and that was fine with him. In Jeanine Basinger’s book, The Star Machine, Webb is quoted as saying: “I love Hollywood and the chance to make more and more money. I love money.” Well said.

The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (small art)In the 50’s, the majority of Webb’s filmography consists of light comedies where he was cast as a family man. In Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), he cuts a mean rug with the oldest of his twelve children, Jeanne Crain, while in The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959) he’s a bigamist with two families and 17 kids. There’s a twist of irony, since Webb was gay in real life. It was known by most of Hollywood and throughout his life, his mother was his constant companion and business manager. When she died in 1960, Webb went through a deep depression, causing Noel Coward to make his famous quip that Webb was the world’s oldest living orphan.

But 20th Century Fox continued to place Webb in romantic leading man roles and the audience–even if they knew about his sexuality–didn’t seem to care. Even with a weak script, Webb’s unique personality manages to trancend lousy material. He did get the chance to star in a few dramas–one standout is 1956’s The Man Who Never Was, where Webb is cast against type as an Admiral who concocts a plan to trick the Nazis from attacking Sicily. There are no love interests for Webb, just a good old fashioned game of cat-and-mouse between Webb and Nazi sympathizer, Stephen Boyd. It also features a great supporting performance by Gloria Grahame who is inadvertently brought into the plot via her boyfriend.

Titanic movie poster - colorHowever, my favorite role of his by far is in 1953’s Titanic. I know it’s an odd choice, especially with all the movies Webb did. A lot of people are down on this version since the script plays fast and loose with the facts of the real Titanic. But to me, it doesn’t matter. I can watch the excellent A Night to Remember (1957) if I want facts. No, the reason I love the 1953 version of Titanic is because of all the different stories that are weaved together, making their way towards the disastrous climax. Besides Webb, you have Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Thelma Ritter, Brian Aherne and Richard Basehart (who’s performance as a disgraced priest is my second favorite storyline in the film). It’s hard not to like this version, even with all the factual inaccuracies.

Webb plays opposite the tough-as-nails Barbara Stanwyck and at first, they first seem like a mismatched couple. Stanwyck’s Julia Sturges is described by her husband, Richard (Webb) as someone who bought her hats out of a Sears and Roebuck Catalog (while it made me laugh when I first heard it, that was probably one of the ultimate put-downs of the rich). Her husband’s behavior and high standards of living is exactly why Julia packs up her belongings and takes the kids to America via the Titanic.

While Stanwyck is good (she’s always good), Webb is even better. Titanic is an excellent showcase for his range–one second he loves and adores his son, Norman and the next, he’s treating him like absolute dirt once a devastating secret comes out. It’s amazing how much hatred Webb can convey with a simple icy stare. And while he breaks the hearts of Julia and Norman, he broke mine as well. It’s one thing to watch actors going through their lines on screen, but it’s another to feel it. Even 50 some years later, Webb’s actions still manage to hurt. And it’s terrible to watch Norman visit his father at the card game, only to be cruelly rebuffed. Knowing the terrible tragedy that lies ahead only makes it hurt more.

But my favorite scene in Titanic has to be when Julia and Richard are saying their final goodbyes, right before she and the children board a lifeboat. Webb gives a monologue, that in the wrong hands, could be viewed as sappy and melodramatic. However, he elevates it to something deeper and much more emotional:

Titanic - Goodbye

“We have no time to catalog our regrets. All we can do is pretend 20 years didn’t happen. It’s June again. You were walking under some Elm trees in a white muslin dress, the loveliest creature I ever laid eyes on. That summer, when I asked you to marry me, I pledged my eternal devotion. I would take it as a very great favor Julia, if you would accept a restatement of that pledge.”

It’s an amazing, heartwrenching scene. Words can’t even do it justice. It’s one thing to read the dialogue, but it’s another to watch Webb deliver the words with tears brimming in his eyes, right before passionately embracing Stanwyck for the final time. There’s none of Webb’s trademark mannerisms. No sarcasm, no witty quips. It’s a heartfelt, emotional speech. Yes, the Webb/Stanwyck pairing seemed completely mismatched at the beginning to me, but by the end, it’s absolutely believable. The look in Webb’s eyes conveys all his love for a woman that he will never see again. And hearing him go through the memory of first seeing her, you know exactly why he fell for her. You can close your eyes and feel the warmth of the sun, as Julia strolls down the street in her white dress and you know that it was love at first sight for him. It’s a simple line, but you can imagine all the happiness they shared upon first meeting and why Richard wanted to marry her–all this from one simple monologue. It takes a talented actor to summon that kind of emotion by reciting someone else’s writing and Webb does it splendidly. For days after, I just couldn’t get this scene out of my mind. For anyone who’s prejudiced against this version, I’d recommend that you give it another chance. And if you haven’t seen it, do so immediately.

There are other movies of Webb’s I would love to see–the 1952 John Philip Sousa biography, Stars and Stripes Forever and the all-star, 1954 drama Woman’s World just to name two. But I am thankful for what movies of Clifton Webb’s that I have seen. Like most classic movie actors, he’s shamefully forgotten today and each time I watch one of his movies, I marvel at what a terrific actor he really was. Any actor could take on Webb’s prissy, acid-tongued act, but he took it and made it his own. It’s a treat to watch him whether he’s plotting Laura’s murder, taking on an angelic cowboy persona in For Heaven’s Sake (1950) or as the object of Dorothy McGuire’s affection in Three Coins in the Fountain (1954). There are no actors like Clifton Webb in today’s Hollywood–studios would never take a chance on someone like him now. But in a way that’s good, because no one could ever replace him. Clifton Webb was a one of a kind actor and for that, us classic movie fans are that much richer.

Links:

• For information on his pre-Hollywood life, Wikipedia (how did I ever live without it?) has a very detailed page on him here.

• Also, there’s also a Hollenback Genealogy page on Clifton Webb here (His real name was Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck. In the 1957 drama, Boy on a Dolphin, Webb’s character is named Victor Parmalee as a tribute to his original name.)

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