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Archive for the ‘Gregory Peck’ Category

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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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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