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Archive for the ‘great scenes’ Category

Okay, so the title is a little misleading because in every interview I’ve read or seen, people have nothing but glowing words for Fred Astaire. He was a gentleman through and through. The worst thing I’ve ever read was that he was a…perfectionist.

I figured now would be a good time to profess my love for Mr. Astaire since he’s one of the stars in Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach–which is showing February 27 at 8 pm on TCM. Nuclear war has broken out across the nation and Australia is one of the last places where people are still alive. Before we go any further, I should warn you that it’s an extremely depressing movie. It’s not good to watch if:

1. You’ve had a terrible day. You’ve lost your job. Your dog or cat died.
2. You are a woman who’s currently going through PMS.
3. You spent the entire afternoon searching through myspace, checking out your old classmates profiles, only to find out that a good majority of them are all married with kids and now you realize that yes, you are going to die alone. If you were cast in a classic movie, you’d be the “Spinster.” And since you’re terrified of cats, even the title of ‘crazy cat lady’ is now out of your future.

Ahem.

Not only is On the Beach depressing, but it’s a bit draggy at times. It’s a good solid story though, which should be more than enough reason to tune in and at least give it a chance. The other members of the cast include Gregory Peck as Towers, the commander of the USS Sawfish and Ava Gardner as Moria Davidson, who (of course) fall in love with each other. Rounding out the cast are Donna Anderson and Anthony Perkins (when he could still be viewed as a sweet and innocent actor instead of a nutjob) as a young married couple.

And of course there’s Fred Astaire. Legend has it that Astaire got the part of the scientist, Julian Osborne, because of Mrs. Stanley Kramer. She happened to be watching an Astaire movie on the late show and knowing her husband’s search for an actor to play the scientist, she turned to him, pointed at the tv and said, “There’s your scientist.” Kramer was dismissive at first, but he soon realized that she was right. When they met, Astaire was curious to why he was chosen for such a role. Kramer answered, “You’ve got something most actors don’t have, Fred. Integrity. It shines out of you.” And Astaire accepted the part.

Fred, Ava and Greg
In a wink-wink moment, Ava coyly remarks: “I could sing and dance.” 

It’s seems like a bit of stunt casting at first. Fred Astaire in a non-dancing role! But he’s absolutely wonderful. It’s because of this movie that I became a huge Fred Astaire fan. Kramer was right on the money when he said Astaire had “integrity.” That’s why his characterization of Julian is so terrific. We first see him at a local get together, where he’s downing drinks and feverently discussing the nuclear war with another partygoer. Since he’s a scientist, he feels that people are blaming him for the mass destruction and ends his drunken rant by concluding that everyone is doomed. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you want at your party, but Astaire’s acting ability is a revelation. Anyone thinking that he was strictly a song-and-dance man is proven wrong. There’s none of that lighthearted joy that’s so prevalent in his musicals. Something is seriously bothering Julian Osborne. There’s a bitterness that he’s trying to mask by consuming alcohol. You want to know what’s going on his mind and why he’s like this.

Another pivotal scene for Astaire takes place later in the film. By this time, Cmdr. Towns has asked Julian aboard the USS Sawfish, hoping to find out who (or what) is sending a mysterious morse code signal that’s based in San Francisco. When all the crew members are sitting around and joking with one another, one of them asks Julian who started the war, to which he sarcastically answers, “Albert Einstein.” He then delivers a guilt-ridden monologue which explains where his mind is at: “Everyone had a bomb, an atomic bomb, a counterbomb, countercounterbombs–the devices outgrew us, we couldn’t control them. I know. I helped build them. God help me.”

Serious Fred Astaire
A close up on Astaire’s face during his monologue 

During this scene, Kramer closes in on Astaire’s face, allowing us not only to hear the pain in his voice, but see his tortured look as well. And as you watch him, you forget that he ever danced with Ginger, Rita and Cyd. You believe that these thoughts, these terrible guilty thoughts have been weighing on his shoulders for the longest time and after seeing San Francisco, only now is he able to get them out. It’s not really his fault. It’s the fault of the people who chose to use these weapons so carelessly, but Julian doesn’t care. He feels that he’s specifically to blame.

What’s great about Astaire’s delivery of the lines is that he doesn’t over act. Each word is carefully thought out and spoken with such heartfelt sincerity, you see him as Julian Osborne, not Fred Astaire acting as Julian Osborne. He doesn’t just step into the role, he becomes it. And that’s what makes his performance so fresh and interesting. He even holds his own with Peck–and even, dare I say it, surpasses him (And I LOVE Gregory Peck, so this isn’t a putdown).

I always wondered if Astaire’s casting opened the door for Gene Kelly in Inherit the Wind, which was released the following year. To be honest, I prefer Inherit the Wind to On the Beach, but competing with giants like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March–well, Kelly is outshined. He’s good though, but not as good as Astaire. I know it’s said that comparing them is like comparing Apples and Oranges, but you can trace their acting styles right to their dancing styles. While Kelly was creative in so many wonderful ways, I feel Astaire managed to convey more emotion through his dances. The draw of Kelly’s routines is how unique they’re set up, whereas Astaire conveyed creativity through the grace and fluidity of his movements. That’s why he puts in an outstanding performance in On the Beach. His sensitivity for his character shines through. He’s in touch with Julian’s inner emotions. While it’s mentioned earlier in the movie that he once had a relationship with Moria (Gardner), he left her behind and forged ahead with his work. Now he regrets it. There’s also another scene where Julian and Peter Holmes (Perkins) have a conversation. Holmes is bemoaning his life, worrying about his wife and children and the cyanide pills that he left her with. After giving him a cool look, Julian comments that he feels so sorry for him, being saddled down with a family. He’s a rather sarcastic fellow, but you can understand why–he’s alone in this world. Holmes has his wife and children. Moria and Towers managed to connect amidst all this sadness. And Julian is alone. He gave everything up for a career that’s now to blame for the destruction of the world. It’s another moment into the dark regrets of Julian’s mind that Astaire allows us to see.

I’m surprised that Astaire wasn’t Oscar nominated for this, especially since the Academy loves when actors play against type. Perhaps they couldn’t see past his musical past. He was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actor, but lost out to Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur.

astaire_ryan1.jpgIn the final words of his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire mentions that he never used dancing as a way to express himself. He just did it. Maybe he didn’t dance to personally express himself, but he did a hell of a job expressing his character’s emotions. And no better example of this is in the little-known, 1943 RKO musical, The Sky’s the Limit. It’s an odd movie. Not only are there some plot holes, but there’s the casting of RKO contractee Robert Ryan as one of Astaire’s Flying Tiger buddies as well as funnyman, Robert Benchley. And if that weren’t enough, both Astaire and his co-star Joan Leslie (fresh off her success in Yankee Doodle Dandy) keep their real first names: Fred and Joan. It’s an odd choice, especially when Hollywood was so keen on creating illusions.

Fred Astaire and Joan LeslieThe premise of The Sky’s the Limit could have been lifted from any old Astaire/Rogers script: Fred is a decorated Flying Tiger who’s about to go on leave, but instead of enjoying it, he’s forced to make personal appearances. Fed up with the situation, Fred rebels, jumps off a train and heads to a New York nightclub where he meets and instantly falls in love with Joan. He never tells her that he’s part of the Air Force. Instead, he allows her to think he’s a bum who can’t keep a job. There are some scenes where you could say he’s stalking her (moving into her apartment building about an hour after he meets her, making her breakfast, visiting her in the darkroom at work), but since it’s the 40’s, that behavior is fine. It’s a little annoying, but it’s sweet, I guess. I’d have a guy following me around like that and you bet I’d be calling the cops or arming myself with a gun.

But what’s really weird is that there’s no reason given to why Fred doesn’t tell Joan who he really is. “Because the script says so!” isn’t an adequate response. Is it because he wants Joan to love him for who is he and not as a celebrated war hero? Or perhaps he doesn’t want become too attached, knowing there’s a chance he may die in the war. Or is Fred just nuts? It’s never discussed. Were the bosses at RKO afraid to inject too much psychological drama into a Fred Astaire movie, thinking that moviegoers wouldn’t want to see him grappling with dark thoughts? Even Astaire knew there were weak points in the movie, yet it wasn’t in his nature to argue and fight with studio executives or directors. He listened to them. Except for an incident on The Band Wagon (where tensions ran high throughout the entire cast), Astaire was a total professional with the cast and crews he worked with. When you read about all the spoiled brats in today’s Hollywood, you have to love a story like that.

Despite these complaints, The Sky’s the Limit is one of my favorite Astaire movies. It’s fun to watch Fred and Joan sing and dance together. Robert Ryan gives the movie a bit of an edge, especially in the scene where he forces Fred to dance on a table, while he pounds on it. It’s a strange, yet hilarious moment, almost as though it were taken out of a western.

table dancesnake dance
Images from the “Snake Dance” scene

But the real kicker of the film comes near the end when Fred thinks he lost Joan forever. In the number, “One For My Baby”, Fred sits at a bar and drinks and then suddenly begins a routine where he winds up kicking glasses in anger. He combines physical violence with an edgy dance routine and it works. It’s nothing like his comical drunk dance routine in Holiday Inn. No, he wants us to know that he’s disgusted with himself for losing a woman he’s just fallen head over heels in love with and if that weren’t bad enough, he has to go back and fight in the war. He may die and never even see her again. It’s a serious plot turn in a lighthearted movie. There was never a routine like this in an Astaire/Rogers vehicle because his characters never had to express such extreme anger or depression. Sure, Ginger might have rejected him, but it was always done with a knowing wink. Here Astaire is so angry, he caps off the number by hurling a bar stool through a mirror. He’s dejected, broken-down and there’s nothing he can do about it. It’s also interesting to note that Astaire choreographed his own routines in The Sky’s the Limit, so this number was all his own idea. One wonders how other future dance numbers would have been if Astaire choreographed them by himself.

Drinkingbartop.jpgsmashingglasses.jpg
barstool.jpgsmash.jpg
Images from the “One For My Baby” Number. In order: Fred drinks, dance, kicks glasses and then hurls the barstool into the mirrored backdrop. Hooliganism! 

As I read this over, I’m still awed by the fact that it took a movie like On the Beach to make me realize that Fred Astaire was a great actor and entertainer. I used to think “He just a dancer!” Thankfully, he put in that splendid performance in On the Beach and managed to change my opinion. Yes, he dances, but that was his method of acting and how he conveyed emotion to the audience. Whenever I watch him now, I can’t take my eyes off the screen and when he finishes a number, I find myself smiling like crazy. He’s just so good.

It’s a shame that Astaire was never cast in a role like Julian Osborne again. I think he could have had a great career as a serious actor, but deep down his number one love was dancing. Even as styles changed, Astaire stayed true to himself and the public continued to adore him. I think a lot of it has to do with that integrity Stanley Kramer was talking about. It’s one thing to just go through the motions of acting, but when you put your heart and soul into it, everyone knows. And that’s what Astaire did. He loved what he did and we loved him for it.

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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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Last night (this morning?), I wound up falling asleep in front of the tv while Equus was showing on TCM–not because I was bored, but because I was just flat out tired. I woke up in time to record Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams and since Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) immediately followed it, I figured I’d watch it.

Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a DoubtShadow of a Doubt is my favorite Hitchcock movie, mainly because of the strong performances by Joseph Cotten (who was my first, big classic movie star obsession) and Teresa Wright*. If you’re a movie fan, classic or modern, you probably know the story: Uncle Charlie (Cotten) comes back to his old hometown of Santa Rosa to visit his sister and her family. There’s also “Little” Charlie (Wright), who loves and adores her Uncle. As the movie progresses, Charlie discovers that her beloved Uncle might not be what he seems to be–is he the notorious Merry Widow strangler that preys on old, rich women? Or is he an innocent man, wronged by the law?

I’ve seen this movie countless times and one scene in particular always catches my eye: it occurs in the garage, when Charlie is alone with Jack Graham (Macdonald Carey), a detective who was sent to Santa Rosa in search of Uncle Charlie.

Teresa Wright and Macdonald Carey in Shadow of a Doubt

In the scene, Graham asks Charlie if she’d be interested in pursing a relationship after the whole Merry Widow mess has passed over. Charlie doesn’t jump at the chance. If anything, she rejects him–she tells him she’d like to be friends though (a modern response in 1943!). While it’s not a flat out rejection, there’s certainly a sense of hesitation and even trepidation at the idea. Every time I talk about this scene, I like to imagine that Charlie is thinking, “Are you nuts? You’re thinking about romance at a time like THIS? My psychopathic uncle is on the loose and you’re thinking about ways of getting into my dress!” And how in the world would Charlie tell her kids about how they met? “I met your father when he was trying to arrest Uncle Charlie for strangling widows.” Yeah, that will go over really well.

What I always find odd about this scene is that, yes, Charlie does reject him. In most classic movies, the heroine immediately falls in love with the man who becomes her savior and right before “The End” pops up on the screen, you’re usually treated to a scene where the new couple get married or passionately embrace. Shadow of a Doubt is one movie that goes against the standard idea of Hollywood romance.

I’ve always felt that Teresa Wright was an odd leading lady for a Hitchcock film. She’s not sexy or dangerous like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious or a cool, detached blonde in the Grace Kelly vein. But that’s what makes Wright essential to the plot. She’s cute and all-American–the kind of girl you could bring home to meet your parents. Santa Rosa is the kind of town where you can imagine a girl like Charlie and her family living. Innocent, sweet suburbia where the biggest scandal might be a controversy at a pie-eating contest. By all means, Charlie is the type who should immediately fall in love at the drop of a hat. After all, that’s what happens to those girl-next-door types. They fall in love, get married and pop out some kids.

Teresa Wright in Shadow of a DoubtBut unlike other hometown girls, Charlie is now suddenly faced with the idea that her favorite Uncle (and one that she’s named after!) may be a murderous psychopath. She’s agitated–she asks her mother not to hum the “Merry Widow Waltz” because it bothers her so much. How can Charlie fall in love when a family member thinks that strangling rich, fat women is a good idea? Love pales in comparison to murder. Her whole world is shaken and nothing will ever be the same, even if Uncle Charlie is innocent. As he tells her, “I brought you nightmares…How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it? Wake up, Charlie. Use your wits. Learn something.”

Thanks to Uncle Charlie, her brush with the darker side of life will always lurk in the back of her mind. Every time she thinks about her Uncle, Graham, the Merry Widow Waltz or even some of the various situations that are sprinkled throughout the film, Charlie will always be reminded of how much pain this whole situation brought into her life. In the garage scene, Graham is fully aware of this scenario but he can’t help himself: he tells Charlie that he loves her. And yet, she can’t reciprocate. She knows she likes him as a friend, but it’s just too soon to move forward romantically. There’s just too much going on in her mind.

Or is Charlie beginning to distrust the men in her life? Her father and next door neighbor, Herbie (played by Hume Cronyn) constantly play games of imaginary murder with one another. While this was humorous in the past, her sudden discovery of Uncle Charlie’s secret life now brings those innocent games into a sinister light. Who wants to joke about murderers and their evil ways when you have the real thing sitting right there in your living room?

And how does she know that Detective Graham can be trusted? After all, she trusted her Uncle and now her world is upside down. By posing as someone he’s not, Uncle Charlie has betrayed her and the family. He’s an impostor. How does she know that Graham isn’t an impostor as well? She’s only known him for a few days and his business revolves around murderers and criminals. He’s associated with the seedier side of life and while he doesn’t seem to be affected by it, can Charlie be assured of a good future with him? Thanks to her Uncle, she’s learned that you can know someone your entire life and not really know them at all.

the staircase scene

It’s ironic that it’s emerald ring that Uncle Charlie presents to Charlie at the beginning of the film, is what severs the final ties between them. As she comes down that staircase, ring on her finger and defiantly staring Uncle Charlie in the eye, he knows that his niece has had it with him (what else do you want after two murder attempts?). Charlie doesn’t want his help or his friendship–she just wants him out of her life forever. He has brought her nightmares, terrible ones at that, as well a permanent scarring for life. His secret will never be safe as long as Charlie is alive. She’s taken his advice, used her wits and learned something: that her once beloved Uncle is nothing to her anymore. The only reason Charlie is keeping quiet is because she doesn’t want to break her mother’s heart. Why should her life be ruined as well?

What I love about Shadow of a Doubt is the atmosphere of the entire film. The shattering of innocent suburbia as well as Charlie’s womanly awakening. She knows that everything is in life isn’t going to be wonderful and perfect like your parents or the movies want you to believe. Life is hell. There will be rough patches and everyone goes through tragedy at some point in their lives. But you have to adapt and find ways to survive because if you don’t, you’ll wind up at the lesser end of it all.

For most filmgoers, movies are a sense of escapism from real life. You want to see that happy ending, the girl getting her man or the innocent criminal being saved from the electric chair at the last second. Hitchcock brought the idea of small town tragedy and scandal to the screen in a beautifully sophisticated way. It’s a movie that delivers time after time not only in part to the writing and direction, but because of the characterizations brought forth by Joseph Cotten and Teresa Wright.

Speaking of which, I like to think that Teresa Wright’s portrayal of Charlie is one of the first modern feminist heroines to ever grace celluloid. She didn’t need Graham or anyone else to save her. No, thanks to Uncle Charlie and his dark view on life, all she needed was herself.

*Sadly, Wright never appeared in another Hitchcock production, but Cotten** appeared in one more–the 1949 period drama, Under Capricorn. According to his biography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, Cotten mentioned that he accidently called this film “Under Cornycrap” right to Hitchcock’s face and therefore, never worked in another of his films again. Oops.

**Also, it’s CottEn. Cotten. Not Cotton, like the fabric. There’s an E in his last name. It drives me nuts whenever I see it misspelled.

Note: Over on archive.org there are numerous pages for the old time radio show, Lux Radio Theater. Here is the page for the 1944 episode of Shadow of a Doubt, which features William Powell (who was rumored to be the original choice for Uncle Charlie!) and Teresa Wright.

Also, I should be getting my links sidebar up this weekend, but I wanted to post a link to this “Blog Carnival” that I’m participating in. It gathers up a bunch of different blog posts and lists them in one place. This week, I chose my “Dirty Dozen” post to be featured and the host of the blog also chose a great You Tube clip from the movie to go with it. Thanks!

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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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I’ve come to realize that part of the problem of updating this blog is, well, me. For the past few entries, I’ve been trying to write substantial entries and it’s slightly hard because I’ve been trying to supress my somewhat rough-around-the edges nature. Combine that with the fact that like, two people, visit this on a daily basis (not counting the person who found this site by looking up the phrase “Trog stories + spanking”. Seriously, are there people looking for that kind of stuff? If you’re still hanging around–who are you? And are there really stories like that? Really? Joan Crawford delivering a good ol’ fashioned wallop on Trog’s furry behind? Let me know who you are and where the goods are to be found. Not that I’m interested in that kind of stuff. Really.)

Anyway, I found that I can’t be that kind of blogger anymore. It’s like a “nightclub hostess” (wink wink) trying to reinvent herself as a grand lady. You can take the girl out of the nightclubs, but you can’t take the nightclub out of the girl. So if there’s a shift in narrative, you now know why. Congrats, give yourself a cookie.

Original movie poster for The Dirty DozenWhich leads me to something that both Paris Hilton and I have in common (it’s not a sex tape, appearing in movies that leave theaters empty or performing in burlesque shows with the Pussycat Dolls–although the latter kind of sounds like it would be fun, as long as I don’t have to take it all off): making lists. I know a lot of people say lists are for lazy people and I know that others out and out despise them, but I love them. And with that, I give you 5 Good Reasons on Why The Dirty Dozen Isn’t Just a Movie For Guys. It’s on TCM tomorrow night–Thursday, February 21st at 8 pm–and if you’re a girl who has ever skipped over this because you’re thinking about that scene in Sleepless in Seattle where Tom Hanks and some other guy are crying over this movie, while Rosie O’Donnell and Tom Hanks’ real life wife (her name escapes me now. I’m not even sure if it’s those two. I saw that movie when I was a teenager. I can barely remember what happened yesterday) are bawling over An Affair to Remember, it’s time to clear your memory and start fresh.

(For the record, I would watch The Dirty Dozen over An Affair to Remember any day. I’m not that big on chick flicks, mainly because I wind up crying and I HATE crying in front of other people. You should have seen me after The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. You would have thought my dog just died. I usually have to lie that I’m getting something to drink and then run into the kitchen so I can bawl silently into a dishtowel and dishtowels aren’t tissues. They really leave your skin raw. Towel burn. It’s a really unattractive look.)

Anyway, 5 Good Reasons Why The Dirty Dozen Isn’t Just a Movie For Guys:

Kicking ass and taking names!1. Lee Marvin. Not only is he an awesome actor, but he’s probably the granddaddy of men with prematurely grey hair (Oh please, everyone swoons over Anderson Cooper and his grey hair. Lee Marvin totally beat him by what? 30 years? Take that, Anderson). Director Robert Aldrich originally wanted John Wayne to take on the Major Reisman role, but The Duke turned him down and went on to make The Green Berets instead. And since Aldrich has a knack for using the same actors in his films, Lee Marvin took the role instead. To which I say, Thank God! I have nothing against John Wayne, but Lee Marvin has that quiet intensity. He doesn’t come out and say he’s going to kick your ass, he just does it. And that’s hot.

2. The credits. I know you’re thinking, “The Credits?” But Robert Aldrich has a knack for making the credits into a work of art (also see: The Flight of the Phoenix and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte). As Reisman walks past “The Dirty Dozen”, the names of the cast roll past the screen. Okay, they’re not in order of how he announces them, but it’s still visually pleasing. It really grabs your attention and as someone with undiagnosed ADD, this is important. Of course, credits alone aren’t going to make the movie. It helps that…

3. The Dirty Dozen a really funny movie. Originally, it was supposed to be a flat-out adventure movie. Aldrich and Lukas Heller (who co-collaborated on many of Aldrich’s scripts) remade the movie into a comedy/action picture. And it works! Would The Dirty Dozen be legendary without Donald Sutherland impersonating a General or without the Dozen taking on Col. Everett Dasher Breed’s (played by one of my favorites, Robert Ryan) squad in a war game? Oh, hell no. When I first watched it, this exchange between Reisman and the psychopath Maggot (Telly Savalas) completely won me over:

Reisman: Any questions?
Maggot: Sir? Do we have to eat with N******?

(Maggot is then jumped by Jefferson (Jim Brown) while Reisman leaves the room. He closes the door and you can hear a huge fight beginning to break out.)

Sergeant Clyde Bowren (Richard Jaeckel): What’s going on, sir?
Reisman: Oh, the gentleman from the South had a question about the dining arrangements. He and his comrades are discussing place settings now.

Now, that’s original screenwriting. It was also my first clue to how The Dirty Dozen wasn’t just an ordinary war movie. Good dialogue wins me over and if you can make me laugh within the first half hour of a war movie, then you’ve probably earned a spot on my all-time favorites movie list. Good job.

4. It boasts great performances by the other cast members: Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, Ralph Meeker and Richard Jaeckel (all favorites of Aldrich) give good, solid performance as higher-ups in charge and as members of the Dozen, Charles Bronson, Jim Brown, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Clint Walker (who really doesn’t like to be pushed and he’ll be happy to tell you that–repeatedly) and in a bit of WTF? casting, Trini Lopez (according to the trailer, his character Jiminez is “filled with hate”, which he’s totally not. He’s the only member of the Dozen who cracks a smile. Give the man his guitar strings!), Of course, there’s also John Cassavetes as the somewhat insane, crazy eyed Franko. He was the only cast member to receive an Oscar nomination (Supporting Actor, lost to fellow Dozen cast member George Kennedy for Cool Hand Luke), which is a shame. The Academy could have certainly started giving out group nominations, which is exactly what this cast deserves.

5. The climatic scene where The Dozen finally infiltrate the Nazi castle. It’s the whole point of the story, but it’s sure fun to get there. This is where the majority of the action lays and while it’s exciting, it’s also heartbreaking to see the members of The Dozen go down one by one. I’m not going to say which ones live or die. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself going “NO!” as each member gets killed. You can thank that reaction to good character development. borgnineryan.jpgIf Aldrich and Heller had just left the script as it was, you probably would have a had a bunch of cardboard cutouts and you wouldn’t have cared if they lived or died. But by the end of this movie, you feel for each of the guys. You cheer them on. During the war games section, you’re rooting for them to show up the tyrannical rule of Col. Breed. Once unified by their hatred for Reisman, they’re banded together by the end using the “mess with one of us, and you mess with ALL of us” philosophy (this theme would be further explored to a much more violent extent in Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western classic The Wild Bunch. Oddly enough, Borgnine and Ryan could thank The Dirty Dozen for their roles in that movie–they were both cast on the strength of their performances in this film).

And of course, I failed to mention that the final moments of this movie have a really, really awesome explosion scene. I know how odd it is for me, as a woman, to cheer on this type of movie making–but I can’t help it. I love a really good explosion scene. Other ones of note are in Castle Keep (1969) and Catch-22 (1970). The dynamite factories must have been working overtime in the late 60’s/early 70’s.

It’s also interesting to mention that Aldrich was repeatedly told “Save the women, get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and Director” and he refused. His answer was “War is Hell”. It’s a pretty fair conclusion. The Nazis didn’t discriminate gender when they were throwing Jews into the concentration camps, did they? There’s a reason Robert Aldrich is my favorite director and his decision to keep the final scene intact is one of them.

So there you have it. A somewhat short list (I actually could have gone on forever, but I didn’t want to give all the good stuff away) of why I love The Dirty Dozen. You don’t have to be a guy to enjoy this movie. No, you just have to be someone who enjoys good moviemaking, great character development, witty dialogue and have a sense of humor while your at it. Movies shouldn’t be gender-specific. True movie lovers ignore genres and look for a substantial plot instead. And if you limit your genre watching, you’ll grow stagnant! And who wants to do that?

And come on, what woman doesn’t like to sit around and watch a bunch of guys kicking ass? The guys that make up The Dirty Dozen are MEN–give me that over the modern, sensitive pretty boys any day*.

*Okay, I wouldn’t go for any of the nutjobs like Maggot or the rapists. But Bronson’s Wladislaw wasn’t that bad. He shouldn’t have gotten caught doing what he did, that’s all. And I’m sure Jiminez would sing you love songs. Maybe. Unless he got really ticked off and decided to strangle you with a guitar string.

Tomorrow, Why I Love Clifton Webb.

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Oscar month on TCM is always a source of debate for devoted followers of the channel since Oscar month = More modern movies = More complaints. However, compared to years past, I think this years lineup is pretty damned good. The daytime hours consists of movies grouped together by theme, while the nighttime movies are lumped together by decade. It should also be of note that a good chunk of the movies shown during February may fall under the category of “One Time Leases”, which is great because they’re shown in the letterbox format instead of pan-and-scanned. Another site I read, Popdose, has five of their own selections. But here are mine:

Tuesday Feb. 19
9:30 pmDuel in the Sun (1946) – Selznick’s answer to Gone With the Wind, Western-style. Upon it’s release, it was deemed “racy”–no doubt in part to Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck’s lusty, outlaw romance. There are some unintentional moments of hilarity thrown in for good measure. I won’t spoil it for you, but wait for the scene with Lionel Barrymore and Lililan Gish that comes nears the end of the movie. It’s tragically hilarious.

Thursday Feb. 21
5:45 pmKing Rat (1965)
I have never seen King Rat, so I’m hoping it’s good. However, I tend to enjoy war movies. This synopsis from the TCM guide: A U.S. officer in a World War II Japanese POW camp tries to raise money to buy his fellow prisoners’ freedom. I have high hopes for this one.

8:00 pmThe Dirty Dozen (1967)
10:45 pmThe Great Escape (1963)
The Dirty Dozen is one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m so thrilled to see it back on TCM, since it’s been on AMC for the last few months (which means no letterboxing and tons of commercials. UGH). I always take offense at the idea that this is just a movie for men. Pshaw. It’s funny, it’s action filled and it’s got great character development. What more could you want? The Dirty Dozen is a masterpiece. It’s funny and smart with a kick ass performance by Lee Marvin and directed by one of my favorites, Robert Aldrich.

Everyone knows what The Great Escape is about. The Simpsons spoofed it in the episode “A Streetcar Named Marge” (Two classic movie references for the price one, three if you include the Hitchcock “cameo” as well). But for me, the standout performance comes from Charles Bronson, “The Tunnel King”.

Saturday Feb. 23
5:45 amSummer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973)
Another movie I haven’t seen, but has been VERY high on my must-see list. IT features the greatly underrated Joanne Woodward as a wife who goes through a midlife crisis and the even more underrated Martin Balsam as her husband. I’ve been dying to see this one. I’m hoping it doesn’t get taken off the schedule at the last minute.

7:30 am – 8:00 pm: Hitchcock movies all day long.
The majority have been off TCM for the past two years, but now a good portion of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies are back (they were last on in October 2005 when TCM devoted an entire week to his movies). The marathon kicks off with my personal Hitchcock favorite, Shadow of a Doubt (1943) with Joseph Cotten (love!) and Teresa Wright, and then is followed by Notorious at 9:30 am, The Man Who Knew Too Much at 11:15 am (it’s the 1956 version with James Stewart and Doris Day), North by Northwest at 1:30 pm (a TCM owned network staple), Psycho at 4:00 pm and finishing off with The Birds at 6:00 pm. Fantastic!

Sunday Feb 24.
5:45 pmAnnie (1982)
I needed to include this since Annie was a huge part of my childhood. I can’t tell you how many times I saw this when I was a child, but I remember loving it. I’ll be seeing this for the first time in about 20 years, so I can’t wait to see what I think of it now. I thought Carol Burnett’s character was funny, not a lush. See how innocent I used to be?

And veering off the TCM topic: today would have been Arthur Kennedy’s 94th birthday. Those of you who know me (even just slightly) know how much I love him. It’s a safe bet to say that he’s my favorite actor, even though he did mostly character work with one or two turns as a leading man. Still, it’s kind of disappointing to any classic movie fan who’s b-day falls in the months of February or August (Summer Under the Stars), since you know they won’t be getting a day long TCM birthday salute. And of course, Arthur Kennedy falls in that category.

One of my favorite Kennedy movies is Bend of the River (1952)–which also happens to be my favorite Stewart/Mann western. It’s the first one I saw and you always remember your first. One of my favorite scenes comes right after the start of the bar brawl, where Rock Hudson, Kennedy and Stewart start slowly backing out of the bar…

bendoftheriver.jpg

It’s just a great scene. And according to his biography, Arthur Kennedy: Man of Characters, it was one of his favorite movies as well. I have to admit one of my other favorite scenes comes right after Julie Adams tries to pull a gun on him and Kennedy says with a twisted, mischievous grin, “I like a woman who’s not afraid to kill”. This–I have to say–is kinda hot.

Oh stop looking at me like that.

Anyway, Happy Birthday to one of the greatest, 5 time Oscar nominated character actors to ever grace the silver screen.

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It’s of my opinion that The Apartment is one of the greatest love stories ever made. I know that’s a pretty broad statement to make, especially when there are so many great classic love stories, but I think many people would agree with me on this one. It’s romantic and tragic, filled with great dialogue and direction by Billy Wilder. A friend once asked me, “If you could go back and rewatch a movie again for the first time?”, my immediate answer was “The Apartment“. It’s magical.

The Special Edition dvd was released just in time for Valentine’s Day and it’s certainly a movie that warrants this treatment. So when I was checking out Amazon to see what the special features were, I absolutely recoiled in horror at the cover art.

The Apartment - new cover
The Special Edition Cover Art

And you’re probably asking yourself: what’s wrong with it? It’s certainly pleasing to the eye and the pictures of the three principal cast members are lovely.

But if I were checking out this dvd for the first time, I would think that The Apartment was one of those silly, fluffy 60’s screwball comedies. And come to think of it, Shirley MacLaine could be the one of the poster girls for that genre (for the ultimate in wacky 60’s fluff, see her and her many husbands in 1964’s What a Way to Go!). All the cast members look happy–you would never think that Fred MacMurray is the ultimate slimeball just by looking at the cover, would you?–and Shirley is holding her arms out in a sort of “Oh my, which one do I choose?” pose.

But The Apartment is not a fluffy comedy. Sure, there are comedic elements–the opening where C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) describes his workday and even the misadventures of his bosses using his apartment elicit a chuckle. But as the movie moves forward, the plot turns into something more serious and heartbreaking. One of the saddest scenes occur in Baxter’s apartment on Christmas Eve, where Sheldrake (MacMurray) tells Fran (MacLaine) to buy herself something nice for Christmas and then gives her a hundred dollar bill. It’s not only depressing, but infuriating that he could trample over Fran’s heart in such a crass manner, treating her like a tramp. It would be easy to play this character as a dim witted elevator girl, but I’ve always felt that Shirley is a better dramatic actress than a comedic one. When she opens up her broken mirror at the Christmas party, you just want to reach through the screen and give her a hug. She has this ability to make you care about her characters, no matter how dense they may be (See also her portrayal as Ginny Moorehead in 1958’s Some Came Running). It’s a shame she didn’t win the Oscar for this role, but was sidelined for Elizabeth Taylor’s “Pity Oscar” for Butterfield 8.

Old Cover Art for The Apartment
The Old Cover Art for the Regular Edition

At it’s heart, The Apartment could be classified under comedy-drama, but light on the comedy and heavy on the drama. All which brings me back to that pesky dvd cover art: maybe I feel so protective over this movie because it was one of the first movies that I fell in love with. To be honest, I thought the old cover art for the regular edition was quite lovely. I would be sad if someone bought this and was slightly disappointed because it wasn’t what they expected (a great film is a great film, but when you’re in the mood for a comedy, a drama doesn’t quite do it). But to go by the old saying, you should never judge a book (or in this case) a dvd by it’s cover, especially when it comes to The Apartment.

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