Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘movies’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

If you can believe it, there was once a time when I disliked musicals. I’m crazy about them now, but back when I first started watching classics, I just didn’t get the point. Yeah, dancing and singing, big whoop. I say this with a bit of shame now, but it’s the truth. I just didn’t like them–or I didn’t allow myself to like them. A closed-minded film addict is the worst thing ever.

The movie poster for “How to Succeed…”So it was always a bit odd that one of my favorite movies was How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying (1967). It’s airing Saturday, March 8 at 10:15 pm on TCM as part of their “How to Climb the Corporate Ladder” nightly theme. I fell in love with it from the second I saw it. How to Succeed… (as it will be written throughout) is one of those films that doesn’t take itself too seriously and I’ve always recommended it to people as “a musical for people who don’t like musicals.” It has a very “modern” feel to it unlike the MGM spectaculars from the 40’s and 50’s or the Rodgers and Hammerstein epics. How to Succeed… is a satire of the business world, in which lowly window-washer J. Pierpont Finch amusingly schemes himself into a top level executive position, all thanks to a little paperback book he buys at the beginning of the film.

Finch reads the book for the first time

Since How to Succeed… started as an actual book, it’s transition to one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time is something of a miracle. Written by Shepherd Mead (an advertising executive at Benton and Bowels), How to Succeed… was a satire of the ups and downs of the 1950’s business world in the form of a self-help manual. The book proved to be so popular that the writing team of Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert bought the rights to it and adapted it for the theater. When it went unproduced for the next five years, they brought it to the attention of successful writer/director of many Broadway hits, Abe Burrows and composer Frank Loesser and the rest is history.

Robert Morse and Rudy ValleeFrom the start, Burrows and Loesser had Robert Morse in mind for the role of J. Pierpont Finch. Morse’s first notable role in both Broadway and Hollywood, was in The Matchmaker, where he played the role of Barnaby Tucker. It was on the opening night of another Broadway play, Take Me Along (1959, with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidegon) that Burrows and Loesser sent Morse a telegram saying, “Have a good time. But in two years, when you get out of that show, we’re doing How to Succeed… and you’re playing Finch.” Morse was thrilled with the news. For the part of World Wide Wicket company president, J.B. Biggley, Burrows and Loesser originally sought the British comedian, Terry-Thomas, but when negotiations fell through, Rudy Vallee was cast instead. This was to be his first Broadway performance in 26 years, when he last appeared in George White’s Scandals of 1935. Charles Nelson Riley was to play Finch’s nemesis, Bud Frump, while Bonnie Scott was cast as Rosemary, the love interest.

A Playbill from the Broadway runThe cover of Newsweek from November 27, 1961Robert Morse with other Tony award winners
From left to right: the 1961 Playbill for How to Succeed…, Making the Cover of Newsweek and Robert Morse with other Tony award winners

Opening on October 14, 1961, the first Broadway performance of How to Succeed… was met with rave reviews. The cast was top-notch and critics were praising it’s smartly written script, catchy songs and exciting dance numbers choreographed by Bob Fosse. It became one of Broadway’s most successful shows, winning seven Tony awards — Best Musical, Best Author, Best Composer, Best Actor for Morse, Best Supporting Actor for Reilly, Best Direction, Best Conductor and Best Producer — and the prestigious 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s quite a feat for a show that went unnoticed for five years! When it finally closed, How to Succeed had racked up 1,417 performances and became the fifth longest running musical of all time.

The cast of “How to Succeed…”

As with all successful Broadway productions, a movie version was inevitable. Of course there were some major cast changes. Since Michele Lee had taken over the part of Rosemary on Broadway, she was cast in the film version instead of Bonnie Scott. Taking the place of Charles Nelson Riley was Anthony “Scooter” Teague as Bud Frump, while Maureen Arthur, who had played sexy secretary Hedy LaRue on the road, would also appear in the movie. Otherwise Morse, Vallee, Sammy Smith (as Wally Womper) and Ruth Kobart (as Biggley’s secretary who has a soft spot for Finch) all reprised their roles for the 1967 film version. And If you happen to be a die-hard Monkees fan like myself, keep an eye out for Carol Worthington as the gawky secretary, Lucille Krumholtz. Worthington had just appeared as a tough biker chick on one of my favorite episodes, “The Wild Monkees”, that same year.

From the “I Believe In You” numberNot only were there cast changes, but some of the songs were dropped as well. All of Rosemary’s songs–“Paris Original”, “Cinderella Darling” and “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm”– were cut from the film. Instead, Rosemary sings “I Believe In You” to Finch, while in the Broadway version, Finch sings this song to himself in a mirror. Also deleted from the print was the musical number, “Coffee Break”, since it’s footage was deemed unusable. Some stills do exist, but it explains why there’s an abrupt cut right after the arrival of the coffee cart was announced.

A still from the deleted “Coffee Break” numberA still from the deleted “Coffee Break” number
Two stills from the deleted “Coffee Break” number

I love that How to Succeed… is really a product of the late 60’s. The sets are brightly colored, almost garish in their use of bold, strong colors. While David Swift did a wonderful job in both directing and adapting the film for the big screen, what I really love about How to Succeed… are the musical numbers, particularly the hilariously saucy, “A Secretary is Not a Toy”. Although another choreographer was used for the movie, Bob Fosse’s original style resonates throughout.

From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
Scenes from number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”

In “A Secretary is Not a Toy”, the clicking keys of a typewriter are used as a form of percussion, while the shuffling sound of shoes and numerous finger-snaps also add to the mix. The dancers move in a decidedly modern style, shuffling back and forth, shaking their hips and wiggling their heads. More than anything else, it draws from the world of jazz. “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also boasts one of the best lyrics ever: “Her pad is to write in and not spend the night in!” How can you not love a song that says that?

The panned version - UGH!From the musical number “A Secretary is Not a Toy”
To pan or not to pan: the answer is “NO!”

The final moments of “A Secretary is Not a Toy” also has one of the most unique set-ups–the dancers come into the picture from opposite ends of the screen. Because of this, it’s essential to watch How to Succeed… in it’s original letterbox format. I once saw this movie on the Flix channel in the panned-and-scanned version and nearly had a coronary. During this number, you see nothing but a completely empty space for at least ten seconds while waiting for the dancers to enter the picture! It’s infuriating to see the movie butchered like that. I’m getting angry just thinking about it!

From the “Brotherhood of Man” finale numberAnother musical highlight is the rousing finale number, “The Brotherhood of Man”. This really shows my age, but I first came to know it from an episode of “The Drew Carey Show “(remember how they used to do musical numbers?). I had no idea that “The Brotherhood of Man” was from a Broadway production, so I was more than surprised to see it in How to Succeed… Anyway, it’s the first song that I ever really loved from a musical–so much, that I went and bought the soundtrack after seeing the movie. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve lip-synched Ruth Kobart’s part in the mirror while getting ready for the day. Really. Now stop laughing at me.

Download: “The Brotherhood of Man” sung by the Original Broadway Cast – 5.6 MB (link will open in new window and download from there)

1967 Smirnoff Vodka Tie-in Ad for the Movie ReleaseEven with all the fantastic musical numbers, the real the star of How to Succeed… is Robert Morse as J. Pierpont Finch. By 1967, Morse had already racked up numerous movie credits (the biggest one at that point was the 1965 black comedy, The Loved One), so he definitely had screen experience. I’m so glad the powers that be allowed him to recreate the role of Finch on the big screen. So many times you hear that the original Broadway actor was passed over, because they weren’t commercially viable enough for the film version. Thank goodness they had enough sense, because Morse is absolutely perfect as Finch. I can’t imagine anyone else playing the part. He’s mischievous and sly in his slightly underhanded dealings, but still possesses a lovable boyishness that makes you root for him–especially when it comes at the expense of Bud Frump. One of my favorite scenes is when Finch rushes to work on a Saturday morning, runs to his desk, begins dumping cigarette butts, empty styrofoam coffee cups and other pieces of assorted trash all over it, and then collapses as though he had just pulled an all-nighter. Just as he finishes this routine, J.B. Biggley walks in, sees the “exhausted” Finch at his desk and compliments him on what a hard worker he is. Not only is it hilarious, but it also leads to the “Groundhogs!” duet in which Finch pretends to have attended the same alma matter that Biggley did.

Groundhogs!

I love you.I also love the sweet relationship between Finch and Rosemary. In her first film appearance, Michele Lee is as cute as a button and she’s a perfect match for Robert Morse. Rosemary’s love for Finch is earnest. I love when she sings, “I Believe In You” to him. The look in her eyes and the expression on her face says everything that the lyrics don’t. She *does* believe in him. And despite a mishap between Finch and Rosemary in the middle of the film, one of the sweetest moments occurs when he realizes that he loves Rosemary just as much as she loves him–and of all things, after being kissed by Hedy LaRue!

As I’ve gotten deeper into the classics, I’ve found other musicals to love and oddly enough, they’re the ones that I detested so much at the beginning: The Band Wagon, An American In Paris, Ziegfeld Follies, Top Hat, The Barkleys of Broadway and the one that really started it all, On the Town. I’ve come to love the MGM musicals that I once found so corny and silly. Rodgers and Hammerstein, not so much. But I still adore How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Yes, it’s a little kitschy at times, but it’s got a great story, strong acting and songs that will stick in your head for days. It’s a very well-made film and even though the business world has certainly changed some forty years later, How to Succeed… still stands the test of time. It’s great entertainment. Even if you’re a person who doesn’t enjoy musicals, I suggest you give How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying a chance. It’s different than any other classic musical out there. And who knows–like myself, it may start you down the slippery, addictive slope of watching and enjoying more musicals. And you know what? That’s not such a bad thing after all.

Note: A lot of the information presented here is from the liner notes and interview tracks off the Deluxe Collector’s Edition CD of How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. It’s a great listen.

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

Arthur Kennedy as Barney Castle

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I absolutely adore Arthur Kennedy. This is going to sound a little weird, but out of all the classic movie actors I love, he is the one I spend the most time obsessing over (watching his films, reading about, collecting memorabilia, etc.) Not only do I think he’s a wonderful actor, but he’s one of the most handsomest, attractive actors that I’ve ever seen.

What? Stop looking at me like that.

It was after seeing his performance as Jim Lefferts in Elmer Gantry (1960) that I became interested in his work and from then on, I started taping and watching every movie of his I could get my hands on. I figured it would be just a phase–after all, I went through my Joseph Cotten, Martin Balsam, and Alan Arkin phases and came out fairly unscathed. That was two years ago and Arthur Kennedy still holds a high place in my heart, only slightly challenged by my relatively newfound love for Robert Ryan. One day, I’ll bore everyone with nice, long entries about both of them in “Classic Movie Actors I Obsess Over” posts.

trial1955_small.jpgBut instead of that, I’d like to recommend for you the 1955 courtroom drama, Trial, which airs February 29 at 8 am on TCM. Set those VCR’s or DVD/DVR Recorders! Although it boasts an impressive cast that’s headed by Glenn Ford and Dorothy McGuire, it remains a relatively obscure film today. Directed by Mark Robson, Trial is the story of a young Mexican boy named Angel Chavez (Rafael Campos), who gets caught up in the murder of a caucasian girl. Racial tensions already run high through the town and the accusation against Chavez only adds fuel to the fire. Enter David Blake (Glenn Ford), a law professor who finds out that he needs more courtroom experience in order to keep his job at the University. Blake goes from lawyer to lawyer and is rejected by all–except for Barney Castle (Kennedy), who is also handling the controversial Chavez case. Working for Castle is his attractive assistant, Abbe Nyle (Dorothy McGuire), who has a somewhat shady past of her own. As Chavez’s case gains momentum and his trial begins, Castle heads off to New York City with Mrs. Chavez (Katy Jurado) to raise money for his defense fund. Soon after, Blake joins them, only to find out that Castle is using Angel as a cover to raise funds for the Communist Party. I’m not going to spoil the rest of the story for you though–you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Rafael Campos and Glenn FordDorothy McGuire, Katy Juardo, Arthur Kennedy
The cast of Trial: Rafael Campos, Glenn Ford, Dorothy McGuire, Katy Juardo and Arthur Kennedy

Trial is directed by Mark Robson, a director who has been forgotten over time except by die hard classic movie fans. But one look at his filmography and you’ll see that he directed many important classics: Peyton Place, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness and The Harder They Fall as well as the late-60’s cult classic, Valley of the Dolls. Despite it’s obscure status, Trial is probably one of his best works. Before filming, Robson insisted his actors attend rehearsals and I’ve noticed that it always pays off in the end, especially in an ensemble movie like Trial. Everyone works off one another seamlessly and the dialogue is sharp. It’s as though you’ve stepped into a real-life situation, not a Hollywood movie.

And of course there’s Arthur Kennedy. As the slick, manipulative Barney Castle, there’s no doubt that he has the best role in the movie. There are so many facets to his character. At first, he comes across as the overbearing lawyer who seems to have Chavez’s best interests at heart. But by the time Blake arrives in New York City, Castle’s cover is blown: he’s really a card-carrying Communist who only cares about raising money for the “All People’s Party.” When Blake finds out, he’s livid. He argues that the majority of the All People’s Party are Communists, to which Castle flippantly replies that it’s actually “about 60% and some of them are cheating the party out of it’s dues.” Blake tells him he wants none of the Party’s money for Chavez’s defense fund and without missing a beat, Castle sneers, “You want nice honorable American money, not dirty Commie money.” He’s heartless. It suddenly becomes clear: Angel Chavez has ceased to be a human being. He’s strictly a commodity. Castle has dollar signs for eyes and he’s completely soulless. Kennedy plays the character to the hilt, making him equal parts despicable and smarmy.

Barney Castle, crowd charmer

The backdrop of the Free Angel Chavez rallyHowever, it’s Kennedy’s performance at the “Free Angel Chavez” rally that shows the true test of his acting skills. With banners boasting messages like “Peace” and “Freedom”, Castle works the assembled crowd of thousands before him like an old pro, winning them over with his charm and charisma, but not before launching into what he calls (in private, of course) “The Sea of Green bit.” He asks the entire audience to hold up one dollar bills, and then tells them to close their eyes, promising the money will still be there when they open them back up. He’s lying of course. A man like Barney Castle has never told a truth in his life. And when the disgruntled crowd finds out that they’ve been had, Castle just laughingly tells them, “Don’t trust anybody!” and they eat it up. It’s amazing to watch Kennedy work the volunteers that quickly move around to collect the money. He hustles them, quickly moving back and forth from each side of the stage, while clapping his hands to encourage them. It’s an amazing performance to watch–one that simultaneously impresses and angers you.

Taking on a such a role in the 50’s was fairly dangerous: thanks to McCarthyism, Communist paranoia was still rampant. The liberal Kennedy once donated money to the New York Post, supporting editorials that lambasted McCarthy for all the damage he was doing. After seeing his name attached to one of these anti-McCarthy advertisements, a man contacted Kennedy thinking he was giving money to the Communist Party. Luckily, Kennedy’s cousin was a leading man in the New England chapter of the FBI and this cleared him. Or was it the fact that he was Irish and served in WWII’s Motion Picture Unit? It seems that other liberal Irish actors who served in the war (Gene Kelly and Robert Ryan first come to mind) also escaped the era unscathed based on the fact that they were Irish and Catholic, therefor no Irish Catholics could ever be Communists. The mindset of that era boggles my mind sometimes.

Barney Castle, working the crowd into a frenzyRobson was what Kennedy called “his lucky rabbit’s foot”. This would be his third Robson-directed performance to be nominated for an Oscar, the other ones being Champion (1949) and as a lead actor, Bright Victory (1951). Kennedy would lose the Oscar to Jack Lemmon for Mister Roberts, and would be nominated for one more Robson directed picture, Peyton Place (1957). His final supporting actor nomination came for his turn as a philandering husband in Vincent Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958). However, Kennedy did win the Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for Trial, so it was nice to see that the Hollywood Foreign Press recognized his outstanding work as Barney Castle. I’m not sure if any other actor could pull such a smarmy characterization off like Kennedy did. There was something so real about him. It wasn’t just in the delivery of his lines, but the expression on his face, the movement of his body–not to mention his arrogant nature. By the end of the film, Castle turns out to be such a horrible person, you’re practically hissing at the screen.

Of course this review might be somewhat biased since I’m such a huge fan of Arthur Kennedy. I could rattle off at least 10 other films where I think he put in outstanding work, but I won’t. I’ll save those for other posts. But if you’re into well-written and acted courtroom dramas from the 50’s or want to see one of Hollywood’s most popular supporting actors doing some of his best work, I wholeheartedly suggest you give Trial a chance. And if you don’t like it, you can come here and tell me that I have lousy taste in movies.

Information about Kennedy taken from Arthur Kennedy, Man of Characters by Meredith C. Macksoud, with Craig R. Smith and Jackie Lohrke. One of my all time favorite biographies!

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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!

Read Full Post »

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.)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »