Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Oscar Levant’ Category

Sheet music for “Only Forever”A few weeks ago, I bought myself the Bing Crosby double feature dvd, Rhythm on the River/Rhythm on the Range. Now, I’m not a huge Bing fan–I like him in High Society (1956) and of course with my love for Fred Astaire, Holiday Inn (1942) ranks pretty high on my list (But not Blue Skies (1946)–I think that one is pretty dull).

I mainly wanted to see Rhythm on the River because of Oscar Levant. Yes, I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll mention it again: I love him. Even though he’s more of a personality than an actor, he’s still one of my favorites. With the exception of one or two movies, I think I’ve seen most of his filmography.

Oscar and Bing

Bing Crosby, Mary Martin, Oscar LevantRhythm on the River (1940) is a cute little movie, and surprisingly it’s co-written by the great Billy Wilder. It’s plot revolves around a “brilliant” singer-songwriter named Oliver Courtney (Basil Rathbone), who in reality, can’t write music or lyrics to save his life. The real geniuses behind his popular hits are Bob Sommers (Bing Crosby) and Cherry Lane (Mary Martin). Of course, neither know each other exist and when the finally meet, they fall in love. Together, Bob and Cherry defect from Courtney’s employment and try to strike out on their own, only to be rejected by every publisher in town because their songs sound too much like Courtney’s. Oscar Levant plays Courtney’s musical assistant, Starbuck (when you needed a sarcastic, wisecracking piano player, Levant was your man) and there’s a cute little joke revolving around a bed and breakfast inn that Crosby’s folks own called, “Nobody’s Inn.” Get it? Nobody’s In? Ha ha! Anyway, Rhythm on the River predates Holiday Inn by two years, so it seems like they took the idea from this movie and just expanded on it.

Besides Oscar, it was Mary Martin who intrigued me the most. While she’s a good singer, I didn’t find her to be an outstanding actress. But she’s cute enough and the interaction between her and Bing was realistic. However, the most striking thing about her was her resemblance to Jean Arthur.

Back when the lovely and talented Ms. Arthur was TCM’s Star of the Month (in January ’07, I believe), I bought a biography on her called The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller. It was certainly a page-turner, filled with all kinds of interesting information that spanned her entire career. Believe it or not, she and Oscar Levant were once an item in the late 20’s! Jean had called him, “The only brain in Hollywood” and when they went out, he accompanied her to speakeasies and prize fights, that is, if they weren’t cozied up in the corner at a party.

However, one of the most interesting stories in the book is her supposed relationship with Mary Martin. They first met in 1939 at a small dinner party, shortly after Mary came to Hollywood. The meeting wasn’t exactly a happy experience for her–Jean spent the evening in deep conversation with Paramount story editor, Richard Halliday and completely ignored Mary. Despite this, Halliday married Martin a short while later and soon enough, they became good friends and neighbors to Jean and her husband, Frank Ross.

The friendship between Jean and Mary quickly grew. Not only did they spend a great deal of time together, but they also shared an obsessive love for Peter Pan. The women would endlessly discuss their dream of playing the character one day and when they planned to attend costume parties, Jean and Mary would fight over which one would get to dress up as Peter Pan. Both ladies would get to play the part: Jean would play it on Broadway in 1950, and Mary in 1954 but through the years, it’s Mary who’s mostly associated with the role.

Jean as Peter PanMary Martin as Peter Pan
Jean and Mary as Peter Pan

Jean and Mary…which is which?Hollywood gossips noted the close friendship between the two ladies, and soon enough, rumors that they were romantically involved began to swirl around town. Not helping matters was Mary’s startling resemblance to Jean! If you’re a classic movie fan with only a smattering of knowledge, you may think that it’s Jean Arthur in Rhythm on the River, not Mary Martin! And if that weren’t enough, Mary’s career seemed to follow Jean’s: both ladies would play female western legends (Jean was Calamity Jane, while Mary was Annie Oakley on stage) as well as the Billie Dawn role in Born Yesterday (Jean briefly played it on stage, while Mary did the tv version).

In late 1966, Hollywood thought the rumors were practically confirmed when an obscure publisher released a novel entitled, The Princess and the Goblin (not having anything to do with the fairy tale of the same name). Written by Paul Rosner, the story described the intertwining lives of two actresses, Maureen and Josie. Like Mary, Maureen was a star on Broadway and arrived in Hollywood in the late ’30’s. She then falls in love with Josie, her female idol. Josie, like Jean, is a publicity shy actress, whose husky voice and comedic talent elevated her as one of Hollywood’s top leading ladies. The two women soon have an affair, which causes Josie to have a nervous breakdown and therefore become a recluse. After its publication, the rumors spread like wildfire. Everyone in Hollywood assumed that Rosner was confirming the gossip about Jean and Mary (it doesn’t help that their fictional characters even share the first initial of their names!).

But there was one glitch–Rosner had created a total work of fiction. Yes, he had based the character of Josie on Jean and Maureen on Mary, but only through his own viewing of Jean’s films and his observation on how Mary had seemingly usurped Jean’s identity. When Rosner saw Mary as Peter Pan, a light bulb clicked. The physical similarities (minus the husky voice) between Jean and Mary were downright eerie. After the novel’s publication, he was surprised by the amount of phone calls and feedback he received: people had assumed that he was writing a thinly veiled story of truth, not fiction. Rosner once commented, “I had no way of knowing when I wrote it that any of it was true.”

The lovely Jean Arthur circa 1937If Jean knew about the book, she never let anyone know. The only reference she made towards it’s existence was during her teaching days at Vassar college in the early 70’s. While heading a drama class, Jean had her students recreate a scene from Lillian Hellman’s controversial play, The Children’s Hour, in which a vicious child falsely accuses her two female teachers of being lovers. When the students finished the scene, Jean was visibly upset and explained to her class on how gossip can ruin one’s life. Was she referring to The Princess and the Goblin and/or the Mary Martin rumors? No one will ever know. While many books written after her death state that Jean was a lesbian (despite being married to Frank Ross for seventeen years!), it seems as though she was asexual. In a 1975 interview, Jean stated that sex was something she could live without. Her friend and one time agent, Helen Harvey, claimed that Jean’s passions were more geared towards her strict ideals, while another male friend said that she had little interest in romance, since most of the time her head was in the clouds. Jean’s world wasn’t one that was firmly rooted in reality. She chose her own path and did her own thing. And for some reason, people love to speculate about those who are uninterested in following the standards of society–especially if an unmarried woman chooses to live her life alone.

Mary Martin circa 1940As for Mary Martin, she was married twice–first to Ben Hagman, before marrying Richard Halliday, whom she remained with until his death in 1973. Despite this, rumors about her sexuality have always dogged her, even claiming that the great love of her life was actress, Janet Gaynor. The two women were close friends, and both were involved in a tragic car accident that occurred in 1982. While it left Mary bruised and injured, Janet was critically hurt and the multiple injuries led to her death in 1984.

What I always find odd about classic Hollywood rumors are the fact that they seem to come out after a person has died. It tends to be awfully convenient, since it’s hard for a ghost to defend itself. I’ll be the first person to admit that I enjoy reading about my favorite actors and actresses, and yes, that includes the gossipy bits. I don’t think this makes me less of a fan though–I’m just a nosy person! Still, I don’t base my love of certain actors/actresses/directors on gossip. I judge them by their performances. For example, I dislike Grace Kelly not because of all the men she hopped into bed with, but because I think she’s mostly a lousy actress (Dial M For Murder an exception – please direct all your hate mail to the email address at the top of the sidebar! Thank you!).

In Rhythm on the River, I admit that I loved Oscar Levant’s Starbuck character the most, but since that was to be expected, I can also add Mary Martin to my list. As I mentioned before, I don’t think she was an outstanding actress, but she was pleasant to watch. I’ve read some fan postings which claim that her talent never translated well to the big screen and in order to really see her shine, one had to see in her element–that is, Broadway. I can fully understand that. Most stage actors don’t translate well to motion pictures, which is why they stay on the stage. Still, if I saw Mary Martin’s name in the opening credits of a film, I certainly would watch. Mary’s acting style was fun and cute and for the type of breezy musical comedies Paramount cast her in, her personality was a perfect fit.

Read Full Post »

Annie is ready to party!Last year for my birthday, I received the That’s Entertainment! box set. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the That’s Entertainment box set is made of up the three eponymous titles devoted to MGM musicals of the past. It includes all three movies and a special bonus disc filled with outtakes and extra bonus footage, including some really fun excerpts of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, as well as other MGM musical stars on a 1976 episode of the Mike Douglas show. Ann Miller looks so awesome. She certainly came ready to party!

Out of all three movies, my favorite would be That’s Entertainment III (1994), mainly because that’s the one with all the deleted scenes as well as a credit-less version of Fred and Ginger dancing the Swing Trot from one of my favorites, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). However, there was one number on there that was so disturbing, so horrible–I wound up screaming in horror: Joan Crawford lip-synching to “Two Faced Woman”.

THE MOST FRIGHTENING SCENE IN MOVIE HISTORY!

THE MOST FRIGHTENING SCENE IN MOVIE HISTORY

It’s from the 1953 musical, Torch Song. Thanks to TCM, they’re showing it on Sunday night at 11:30 pm as a part of a 24 hour Joan Crawford birthday lineup. Her age varies–some people say that she’s going to be 100 years old, while others say that she’s was born in 1904. I like to go with the latter, since it feeds into one of the reasons why Bette Davis hated her so much (Joan was looking good compared to Bette during the shoot of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Even if you go with the idea that Joan was born in 1908, she still looked a hell of a lot better than Bette–scary Baby Jane makeup notwithstanding. That’s what smoking will do to you, I guess.)

Split screen comparison

In That’s Entertainment III, Debbie Reynolds’ explains that the original version of “Two Faced Woman” was to be originally lip-synched by Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). However Cyd’s version was cut for time and I guess the powers that be thought, “Hey! Let’s use this in the new Joan Crawford musical! And while we’re at it, let’s do it as an ‘island’ number so we can put Joan in blackface!” YIKES.

It’s pretty easy to see where “Two-Faced Woman” was to be used in The Band Wagon. It would come sometime after the lovely Astaire-Charisse “Dancing in the Dark” number and right before the scene in which Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) starts directing around the stage props, only to be lifted into the air himself. I can see why they would cut it for time–I think it would have considerably disrupted the flow of the backstage mayhem.

Click for larger imageJoan’s legs
Cyd’s legs Vs. Joan’s legs: no contest!

Joan’s version is downright scary and it’s not just due to the horrific makeup and bad wig. India Adams’ voice just isn’t right for Joan (and to be honest, I don’t think it’s right for Cyd either). It almost makes her sound possessed, like she’s singing in a range that’s way too low for her. While Joan would have loved to do her own singing, MGM claimed that there was not enough time on the schedule to do so. Joan didn’t complain. Not only was she happy to dance again, she was back at her old home studio of MGM. Joan was terrified that no one would remember her, but the moment she stepped on the soundstage, she was thrilled–all the old technicians did in fact, remember her.

Since I’ve never seen Torch Song, I can only go by reviews that I’ve read off IMDB and on various Joan Crawford sites. And the consensus is that it’s BAD. The kind of bad that makes you laugh and laugh for hours on end. Since this was Joan’s first color movie, you get to see her dyed, flaming red hair in all it’s glory. The cast includes Michael Wilding as the blind pianist who falls in love with Joan, as well as Gig Young (Yay!), who plays Joan’s drunken, cheating boyfriend who winds up disappearing halfway through the film (Boo hiss). Torch Song was directed by Charles Waters, who was more than competent to direct a musical, having previously helmed such classics as Easter Parade (1948) and Summer Stock (1950). I’m really excited to see this movie, since I LOVE bad films just as much as I love good ones.

Also of note are the other fantastic Joan Crawford movies that TCM is showing:

Dancing Lady (1933) – 3/24 at 4:45 am – a fun musical with Clark Gable and in his screen debut, Fred Astaire–who plays a man named…Fred Astaire. Go figure. Light, fluffy entertainment.

The Women (1939)- 3/24 at 10:00 am – where Crawford plays a gold-digging, husband stealing bitch. She also gets the best line in the film, which comes at the very end of the movie.

A Woman’s Face (1941 – 3/24 at 12:15 pm) and They All Kissed the Bride (1942 – 2:15 pm – both notable for her pairing with the fantastic and always forgotten, Melvyn Douglas! I don’t know why more people don’t enjoy him today. He’s great at screwball comedy, but just as adapt in a drama as well.

Humoresque (1946) – 3/24 at 3:45 pm – A top-notch WB drama about a violinist (John Garfield) who falls in love with Joan, much to the dismay of his family. Plus, it has Oscar Levant in it. I don’t think I’ve fully expounded my love for him in this blog, but just you wait. That day will come.

Oscar Levant in “Humoresque”
My favorite neurotic: I love you, Oscar Levant!

Links: The “Films of Joan Crawford” site has a page on Torch Song here, while “Joan Crawford Best” has reviews, lobby cards and posters over here.

Read Full Post »

Joan in “Today We Live”
A gorgeous, young Joan in Today We Live (1933)

Like most people in my age bracket, if you mention the name “Joan Crawford” two words will come to mind: “Mommie Dearest”. And then five more: “No More Wire Hangers EVER!”

When I was a child, Mommie Dearest was my favorite movie. It came out in 1981, two years after I was born. By the time it made it’s appearance on HBO, I was probably four years old and it quickly became my favorite film. The glamorous opening shots of Joan (Faye Dunaway) getting dressed and ready for the day was how I wanted to live my adult life. A huge shower. Gigantic closets filled with beautiful clothes. Ice water facials. To my four-year old mind, this was the ideal life of a grown woman. I don’t think I really got the main plot of the story though: Joan’s drunken rampages, various affairs and child abuse, although I fondly remember myself grabbing a wire hanger and repeatedly smacking the rear end of my favorite Care Bear with it. Children are highly impressionable creatures.

It would be years later when I would see my first Joan Crawford film, Mildred Pierce (mainly because of the Sonic Youth song of the same name). I remember it being a good film, but I was a teenager and I was more concerned with collecting 7 inch singles by my favorite indie bands and the guy I worked with, than with classic movies and dead actresses. One day in my high school library, I found a dusty copy of Mommie Dearest tucked away in the back shelves. I tried to read it, but apparently I needed the visual aide of a crazed Faye Dunaway choking her daughter–it an was unbelievably boring book. I put it back and went back to listening to my discman through my messenger bag.

Fast forward to my early 20’s and my newfound obsession with classic movies. My love for music had inexplainably dried up and I found myself obsessively watching TCM, taping movies and researching them on the internet. I’m not sure what my first Joan Crawford movie was, but I remember thinking: “She’s really not as good as Bette Davis.” I had become a film snob after one month of viewing movies!

And now I come to the present. Four years later and suddenly, I’ve become highly interested in the films and life of Joan Crawford–the real Joan Crawford. Not the monster that Christina Crawford wrote about, but the woman who made movie after movie and proved herself as a damned good actress. It was A Woman’s Face that made me realize this. I watched it for Melvyn Douglas and wound up going, “Wow! Joan was great in this!” I’ve been recording her movies ever since then and in each one, I marvel at her beauty (okay, she went way, way overboard with the eyebrows in the 50’s and 60’s) and her talent. I bought a copy of Mildred Pierce just for the documentary, Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star and was struck by how bitchy the grown Christina was. If I could have reached through the screen and slapped her, I would have. For someone who despises her mother so much, she was sure eager enough to latch herself onto the gravy train.

A few days ago, I bought a copy of Not the Girl Next Door, Charlotte Chandler’s biography on Joan and walked away with an entirely different impression of her. It would be nice if this book was packaged with dvd copies of Mommie Dearest, just to let you know that there are two sides to every story. The Joan in Chandler’s book is kind and giving. There are anecdotes from another one of Joan’s children, Cathy. If you only watch Mommie Dearest, you get the impression that Joan only had two children, but she had four: twins named Cathy and Cindy and they were both humiliated after the publication of Mommie Dearest. According to Cathy, there were no wire hangers and no beatings. And yes, she was sent to bed without dinner as well, but that was her punishment for refusing to eat it. Joan taught them to work hard for the things they wanted in life, just as she had and in the end, they were left in her will while Christina and Christopher were left out.

In Chandler’s book, Christopher is described as a problem child, constantly running away from home and Christina was a spoiled brat. I’m sure Joan didn’t help matters by asking them to call her “Mommie, Dearest”, which she soon learned they used as a way of mocking her to her face. Myrna Loy was a good friend of Joan’s and comments that seeing the way Christina and Christopher acted made her glad she didn’t have children(!), adding that Christina was “vicious, ungrateful and jealous”. Ouch.

On the flip side of this are people who also believe that Joan abused the children. In Oscar Levant’s biography, A Talent for Genius, his wife June discusses the time she and Oscar were invited to a party at Joan’s house during the filming of Humoresque. That night, Joan invited the guests upstairs, ushered Christopher out of bed, announced that he was a problematic thumbsucker and forced him to show the big, rubber cap that covered his thumb–humiliation at it’s finest. If my mother had ever done something like that to me, I’m sure I’d come away hating her as well.

One of my favorite stories in Chandler’s book is how Joan always answered her fan mail. She was devoted to her fans. She felt that if they had taken the time out to write her, she surely had enough time to write them back. It was the least she could do. Any movie fan, classic or modern, has to appreciate that. Joan felt that without her fans she would be nowhere. Their letters were like applause and as a movie actress, she never heard the applause that a stage performer did. There’s also another story in the book centering around David Niven and the death of his first wife, Primula, who fell down a flight of stairs during a game of hide-and-go seek at Tyrone Power’s house. Even though she wasn’t at the party, the first thing Joan did was call up and offer to watch their newborn child.

There are so many conflicting stories out there and the problem is that most of the people involved in them are dead. There is no way of finding out the truth, unless you lived in Joan Crawford’s house during the years that Mommie Dearest took place. If one it to believe the movie, you’ll get the impression that Joan Crawford was a crazy, child abusing lush. But honestly, if I chose the right words and built up the right tone, I could make up a fantastic, exaggerated horror story about my parents. I could tell you about the time I got spanked with a spoon, but conveniently leave out the fact that I had just made a huge mess in the family room after my mother slaved for hours by cleaning it. Years later in college, I would be talking with my friends and it somehow came out that we had all gotten spanked with a spoon at some point in our lives. And I’m not even going into the “Joan Crawford is an alcoholic” thing that was played up so succulently in the movie–if you read up on classic Hollywood, a great deal of actors and actresses liked to hit the sauce. It’s not like Joan should have been the only one attending AA meetings, so shut it Christina. I’m not saying that some of the events didn’t happen, because they might have–but it all depends on how one presents the facts and how much they’re willing to fabricate. Money helps.

But what is most important is that Joan Crawford was a great actress, something that is shamefully ignored today. A good part of the problem is that for every movie like The Women or Grand Hotel, there’s a clunker like Above Suspicion or the absolutely dreadful, not even campy-in-a-good-way, Trog. She didn’t make that many great movies like Bette Davis or Katharine Hepburn did. MGM gave her the scripts and she did them as she was told. She didn’t have the moxie to fight the studio like her rival, Bette Davis. For the most part, Joan was just happy to work.

mommie dearest
Crazy Like a Fox: Faye Dunaway as Joan in the climatic “Wire Hanger Scene”

I still like to watch Mommie Dearest, because let’s face it, who can resist a scenery-chewing Faye Dunaway, crossed eyed and slathered in cold cream while banging around a can of bathroom cleaner? Or swinging an axe while dressed to the nines? But it’s not fact. It’s a great fictional biographical film like They Died With Their Boots On or Night and Day. A one sided look at a great actress written by her money hungry, vindictive daughter. I still long for a huge closet full of designer clothes and a gigantic shower, but I’ve learned that if you want to know the real Joan Crawford, you need sit down and watch her films. If every classic actor or actress were given their own biographical movie, I doubt we’d like them by the end. In fact, Joan Crawford may come out as the tamest of them all.

Read Full Post »