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Archive for the ‘Gig Young’ Category

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”.

THE MOST FRIGHTENING SCENE IN MOVIE HISTORY!

THE MOST FRIGHTENING SCENE IN MOVIE HISTORY

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.

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Gig Young in 1943
WB headshot of Gig Young in 1943

Time hasn’t been kind to Gig Young. For most casual movie fans, his place in film history will be “that guy who killed himself and his wife”. Some may remember him for his role in a Doris Day movie or even for his fantastic performance in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, but otherwise, every article I read about him always makes note of that fatal incident. It’s impossible not to. But very rarely do I ever read about what a fine actor he truly was. Sure, he’s always mentioned in reviews of movies he appeared in, but briefly, as though he were an afterthought.

For me, seeing Gig Young’s name in the cast list usually seals the deal on a movie for me. If he’s in it, I’ll watch it. It’s that simple. He’s one of my favorite supporting actors, usually starring in films of very good quality. The problem was that he was overshadowed by the films leads: Ida Lupino and Glenn Ford, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Doris Day, Cary Grant, Sinatra, Clark Gable–the list goes on and on. He was a popular supporting actor throughout the 50’s and was finally rewarded with an Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1969 for his work in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Cursed by the Oscar win, his personal demons took over, leading him to the murder/suicide that ended not only his life, but that of his fifth wife as well. I’ve seen posts where people say they can’t watch a movie of his without thinking of this and it depresses me. He’s a wonderful actor and to ignore his work because of that is a shame. It also lead me to write this and to shed a little light on a career that deserved more accolades than it received.

After receiving a scholarship to the prestigious Pasadena Community Playhouse in the early 40’s, Gig was spotted by a Warner Brothers talent scout and was signed to a contract with the studio. Using his real name of Byron Barr, most of his early work was in bit parts that usually went uncredited. As he gained more visibility, the powers that be decided he needed a name change since there was already another Byron Barr in the business. The solution was simple: use the distinctive name of the character he just played in The Gay Sisters (1942). And with that Byron Barr became Gig Young.

Front of WB postcardBack of Postcard
A promotional postcard of Gig sent to a fan during his years at WB.
The back reads like a form letter.

Bette and Gig (Old Acquaintance)1943 was a good year for Gig. He appeared in two major releases, the first being Howard Hawks’ excellent war film, Air Force, while the second was the Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins woman’s picture, Old Acquaintance. His career was interrupted by WWII and like other actors, Gig served his country with a stint in the Coast Guard. When he returned to Hollywood, he began gaining momentum by appearing in all sorts of movies, some high profile (MGM’s The Three Musketeers – 1948) to the lackluster (Escape Me Never – 1947, Wake of the Red Witch – 1948). One of the best from that period was the western, Lust For Gold (1949) in which he plays Ida Lupino’s scheming husband. It’s a fantastic role for Gig, one where he gets to play a truly nasty guy, unlike the nice guy parts he was usually given. Gig displays an edge that I’ve never really seen in any of his other films and it’s refreshing to see. In 1951, Gig returned to home studio of Warner Bros. and appeared with James Cagney in the drama, Come Fill the Cup. The part landed him his first Oscar nomination in a role he’d come to know too well: that of an alcoholic.

Cagney and Gig in “Come Fill the Cup” (1951)
Cagney and Gig in Come Fill the Cup (1951)

Throughout the 50’s, Gig seemed to take over “The Ralph Bellamy Role”: that of the handsome, yet somewhat bland guy who always finds himself getting dumped for the film’s leading man. In 1954, Gig appeared for the first time with Doris Day in Young at Heart, where he gets ditched for the surly, yet talented pianist played by Frank Sinatra. Doris and Gig would go on to star in three more films together: Teacher’s Pet, The Tunnel of Love (both 1958) and That Touch of Mink (1962).

Cary Grant and Gig in “That Touch of Mink” (1962)

Oddly enough, That Touch of Mink has what I think is one of Doris Day’s most asinine roles, yet it’s my favorite movie of Gig’s. In it he plays Roger, Cary Grant’s neurotic financial analyst who holds a grudge against his boss for making him into a rich man. Roger was once a respected teacher of economics at Princeton, but gave it all up when Philip Shanye (Grant) offered him $50,000 and he’s never forgiven himself for selling out. He feels humiliated when Phillip raises his salary and gives him stock in the company for Christmas. “Like rubbing salt in the wounds,” Phillip deadpans after one of Roger’s diatribes.

When the playboy Phillip is rejected by the virginal Cathy Timberlake (Doris Day), Roger is elated at seeing his boss finally get shot down. In a scene where Cathy sends back all the clothes Phillip bought for her, Roger gives one of my most favorite movie speeches ever:

Roger: “When she sent this back she became a symbol of hope for all of us who sold out for that touch of mink.”
Phillip: “Roger!”
Roger: “You give us good salaries, paid vacations, medical insurance, old age pensions. You take away all our problems and you act like you’ve done us a favor. Well you haven’t! We enjoyed our problems and someday there’s going to be an uprising and the masses will regain the misery they’re entitled to!”
Philip: “Neurotics of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your psychiatrists.”

Gig in “That Touch of Mink” (1962)What I love so much about Gig in this role is that he plays Roger with a kind of quirky, wide-eyed enthusiasm and naivety. Despite being constantly cast in light comedies, Gig plays this unlike any other of his supporting roles. The scenes between him and Cary Grant are absolutely priceless and it gets even better when Roger is constantly mistaken as Phillip by Cathy’s roommate, Connie (a feisty Audrey Meadows). When he goes to visit Cathy, Roger gets slapped by Connie, beaten up with a broom, and then chased into a car by a gigantic dog. Elated, Roger shows Philip his battle wounds before heading to the hospital: “It’s the most satisfying day of my life!” Roger exclaims. “They thought I was you….and you deserved everything I got!” It’s hands down one of my favorite performances ever, by any actor and definitely in my top ten of all time.

Gig in Teacher’s Pet (1958)
Nobody likes a show-off: Gig as Dr. Hugo Pine in Teacher’s Pet (1958)

Gig also excelled in Teacher’s Pet (showing on TCM on Sunday, March 9 at 4:00 pm), the movie that garnered him his second Oscar nomination. As the attractive and knowledgeable Dr. Hugo Pine, Gig is once again the bright spot in the movie. I’ve always felt that Teacher’s Pet has a tendency to drag at times and I find the romance between Doris Day and Clark Gable a bit unbelievable (and I’m usually all for May-December romances). Gig doesn’t show up until halfway through the film, but when he does, the movie finally perks up. He turns in another great performance here. The nightclub scene where he proves what an expert he is at everything never fails to make me laugh. I love how Hugo Pine can do it all all, much to Gable’s chagrin: dance with Doris, play the bongo drums, speak Watusi and even hold his liquor–until the cool night air hits him, that is. Another funny scene occurs when Hugo is in his apartment, mixing up a homemade hangover remedy. When the doorbell rings, Hugo holds onto his head for dear life as though it’s about to fall off. I particularly enjoy how he moves the huge doorbell chimes apart, one by one, preventing them from clanging against each other. He’s hilarious. In that scene alone, Gig proves that he’s just as good at subtle physical comedy as he is verbal. It’s a really outstanding supporting performance (And on an unrelated note, you have to wonder why Doris never got her props either).

For the best all-around movies that Gig appeared in, I’d have to go with either the Tracy-Hepburn technological comedy, Desk Set (1957) or William Wyler’s tense hostage drama, The Desperate Hours (1955). In the former, he plays another victim of love, losing out to Spencer Tracy for Katharine Hepburn’s affections while in the latter, he plays a worried boyfriend who figures out that his girlfriend is being held hostage by escaped convicts. It’s a fine ensemble drama with excellent performances put in by every member of the cast, especially Humphrey Bogart and Fredric March. In one of my favorite books, Arthur Kennedy: Man of Characters, Kennedy remembers the hell director William Wyler put Gig through:

“I had a very difficult scene with Gig Young, a charming guy. It ran seven or eight pages. Gig initially had to act fresh. I tell him that the family written about in the newspaper is his girlfriend’s family. That has to register–and at the same time, he has to conceal his fear. We went through the whole scene and Wyler says, ‘The look on his face stinks! Do it again!’ We got up to 27 takes. I suggested we stop for a coke and then we did another 13! Wyler said “Print six, eight and 23. Then he said, ‘Move in for a close-up of Gig’s look.’ Gig was a damn good actor. After three or four takes, he was perfect–and Wyler printed it.”

Very rarely did Gig get to ever play a leading man part, and when he did, they came off with mixed results. One of my favorites is the 1963 MGM comedy, A Ticklish Affair, where Gig is a naval officer who falls hard for navy widow, Shirley Jones. Not only does he get her at the end, but he plays hero to her young son after a mishap with some giant weather balloons. It’s not going to be on any Top Ten lists in the future, but watching it is a good way to spend an afternoon.

Rita and Gig (The Story on Page One)Yet for all his talent, Gig could also be horribly miscast in roles that weren’t right for his style. Take the courtroom drama, The Story on Page One (1959) where Gig is a lonely divorcee who finds love with an abused and neglected housewife, played beautifully by Rita Hayworth. By this time, Rita was no longer the sexy, pin-up girl of the WWII era. She was, however, a fine dramatic actress that people failed to take seriously. Rita more than holds her own in this film, but Gig? Not so much. In so many scenes, such as where he tells Josephine (Hayworth) about the loss of his child, his acting rings false and throughout the whole movie, he’s merely adequate. It wasn’t that he couldn’t do serious work–because he definitely could. Maybe it’s the direction by Clifford Odets, but I just didn’t like him in this film. I feel that he was just completely wrong for the part, although he and Rita do compliment each other physically. And when Gig shares a scene with the great character actress, Mildred Dunnock (as his overbearing mother) she leaves him in the dust. Otherwise, it’s a good movie, with an exceptional performance by Tony Franciosa, as the lawyer who defends Gig and Rita. Another case of miscasting would occur a few years later in 1963’s Five Miles to Midnight--but then I think everyone–Gig, the stunningly gorgeous Sophia Loren, Anthony Perkins and especially the screenwriter–were miscast in that one. It’s not a good movie by any stretch.

Elizabeth Montgomery and GigWhile he turned in some of his best work during the late 50’s and early 60’s (The Story on Page One notwithstanding), his personal life was a mess. In 1956, Gig married Elizabeth Montgomery (daughter of actor Robert and of Bewitched fame). It was a stormy marriage, marred by Gig’s chronic drinking and Elizabeth trying to keep up with him. And since Gig had a vasectomy earlier in his life due to some health problems, children were also out of the picture. They wound up divorcing in 1963 and nine months later, Gig married his fourth wife, a real estate agent named Elaine Whitman. She bore him a child Jennifer, that he initially pronounced as a “miracle”, but later denounced her when he realized that he had to pay child support. Like Cary Grant, Gig also tried out LSD therapy to help him straighten out his life, but always found himself turning back to the bottle. In the book, Final Gig, it’s said that he had a habit of relying on women throughout his entire life. As a child, Gig was aware that he was the result of a “leak in the safe”. His father would constantly introduce him as “a little dumbbell” and both parents were emotionally unavailable, causing him to rely on his sister, Genevieve, for support. I’m not saying this is an excuse for any of his behavior, but it does give you a clue into what his mental state may have been like. You’d never guess that behind all those fantastic comedic perfomances was a man with a dark, turbulent, emotional state of mind.

Gig, Charles Boyer and David Niven on TV GuideBy the mid-60’s, the type of light comedy/sex farce movies that Gig usually nabbed supporting roles in were becoming out of fashion. He appeared in few movies during this time, mostly concentrating on work such as the sophisticated tv series, “The Rogues” (1964 – which also starred David Niven, Charles Boyer and Gladys Cooper). However, Gig’s luck would change in 1969. His former agent, Marty Baum, became the head of ABC Pictures, the company that was producing the depression-era drama, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Baum insisted that Gig take the role of Rocky, the emcee who presides over the dance marathon. Not many people were thrilled with this decision, since Gig was primarily known for comedies, not serious drama.

However, he proved them wrong. Gig’s acting ability is a revelation. You would never guess that this was the same man who starred in all those Doris Day movies. As Rocky, Gig manages to be both sleazy and boastful. To the public, he appears sympathetic while exploiting the participants’ troubles for the crowd’s entertainment. But behind the scenes he’s emotionless, caring more about the finances than the health and emotional well-being of the people involved. But there are glimpses into his character that contrast sharply with his slick, ruthless persona. Take the scene where one of the contestants begins to hallucinate from lack of sleep. As she screams that bugs are crawling all over her body, Rocky rushes forth and takes control of the situation. After the incident has died down, Gloria (Jane Fonda) sarcastically remarks, “I thought you would have put that on display.” To which Rocky soberly responds, “No. It’s too real.” Gig gives a layered, nuanced performance here, with an emotional depth that he never had the chance to display in any other movie before. Yes, Rocky is cold and callous, but he’s doing what he needs to do in order to survive during the Depression. While the rest of the cast is fantastic (Fonda, Michael Sarrazin, York and Red Buttons) and the direction by Sydney Pollack is excellent, it’s Gig’s performance that really stands out. He definitely deserved the Oscar that year.

Gig and Jane Fonda in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” (1969)

Gig with his Oscar (1969)Gig always had apprehensions about winning or being nominated for an Oscar. As he once told Louella Parsons, “So many people who have been nominated for an Oscar have had bad luck afterwards.” And while being nominated certainly didn’t hurt his career, winning one most certainly did. His fourth wife, Elaine, says that what Gig wanted most “was a role in his own movie, one that they could finally call a ‘Gig Young movie.'” But that never happened and his seventies filmography proves it. No leading parts ever came his way after his win, and the movies he appeared in are of middling quality (some may argue about Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia though. I’ve never seen it, so I can’t comment). Gig’s alcoholism turned even more self-destructive than before. He was fired from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles after showing up on the set suffering from delirium tremens. And if that weren’t enough, Gig was also fired as the voice of “Charlie” on the 70’s crime drama/jigglefest, “Charlie’s Angels”, because he was too intoxicated to read his lines. It’s a pretty terrible way to end such a great career.

Which brings us to the final note in Gig’s life, the horrible murder-suicide that will dog his name whenever you read about him. It would be impossible not to mention it because it’s a culmination of a very sad and very tragic life. For all the wonderful performances Gig put in throughout his career, he suffered miserably due to his life-long battle with the bottle. It’s noted that at the time of the incident, Gig was under the psychiatric treatment of Dr. Eugene Landy, the same “doctor” who treated Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys (and we all know how he turned out, the poor guy).

Despite all this, Gig is still one of my favorite actors. He was an excellent subtle comedian and in my opinion, I think that’s even harder than being an over-the-top one. It’s difficult to walk that fine line between making the audience believe in your character, while laughing at the same time and Gig always managed to pull it off. He not only had a flair for light comedic parts, but the charm to pull them off as well. And when the right script came around, he excelled in serious roles as well. I think it’s a shame that his tragic end overshadows his work and possibly keeps people from viewing his movies. I’ve seen a good majority of them and let me tell you, those people have no idea what they’re missing.

Links:

• An article on the marriage between Elizabeth Montgomery and Gig, plus a gallery of pictures.

• Gig Young’s Wikipedia entry

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