Sunday, March 31, 2019

C'mon Get Happy


Before she was the matriarch of a family of pop singers including a son who once successfully negotiated a record contract in a treehouse in The Partridge Family; before she was a River City librarian wooed by a con man attempting to unload a bunch of children's band uniforms by warning the small town citizenry about trouble that starts with a T and rhymes with P and that spells pool in The Music Man; before she was an Academy Award-winning prostitute who uses a bunch of incriminating photos to exact revenge on a religious huckster who once jilted her in Elmer Gantry; before she was a farm girl who falls for a juvenile delinquent played by Pat Boone (WTF?) in April Love; before she was a mill worker widowed by a carnival barker who sings "You'll Never Walk Alone" while home on a 24-hour leave from Heaven in Carousel; and before becoming the center of a frontier love triangle that leaves one man dead but has everyone else singing about what a beautiful morning it is in Oklahoma, Shirley Jones was Miss Pittsburgh of 1952.

Well, you didn't think she got her start playing for the Steelers, did you?

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Circle of Aquaintences Edition)

 Elvis Presley gave me the only dinner party I've ever heard of his giving, in Las Vegas. I had a house in Palm Springs and he had a house there--he and his manager, Colonel Parker. So I used to see Elvis occasionally. He lived very near me and he was going to open at this big hotel in Las Vegas. He was making a sort of comeback. He hadn't appeared in public in a long time and he invited me to come up to see it, 'cause I had never seen him. In fact, I really had never heard any of his records, either. So he said if I would come up he would give this dinner party for me. I was more curious as to who in the world he would invite to this dinner party than I was about anything else, so I went with a friend. The one and only time I've ever been to Las Vegas.                                                                                   

We saw the opening show and the dinner party was in between shows. I can't say that I was at all impressed by his performance. So we went down to this apartment he had there in the hotel and the dinner party consisted of about eight young men [Presley's entourage, the so-called Memphis Mafia]  and one old friend of mine who had flown in all the way from Honolulu to come, mainly because she was a fan of Elvis'. She loved Elvis, and guess who it was? [Tobacco heiress] Doris Duke! So we had this dinner party. This table was full of orchids up and down and everything looked very fancy in a gauche, peculiar way. But the dinner was incredible. It was all kinds of different things, fried pork and fried chicken and fried catfish....He was nice, I sort of liked Elvis.

--Truman Capote

Monday, March 25, 2019

Vital Viewing (First Things First Edition)

British filmmaker David Lean was born on this day in 1908. A year before his death in 1991, Lean returned to Leighton Park, his old boarding school where he spent his teen years, to help the present-day students shoot a movie about that institution's founding a century earlier: 

Lean is best known these days for such cinemathon epics as Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Dr. Zhivago (1965), and A Passage to India (1984), but since the above clip involved a return to beginnings of sorts, I've decided to go to the beginning of Lean's film career, his first two movies. Or, if you will, his first movie-and-a-half. So what do I mean by that? Well, you see, it's all a bit complicated thanks to this dude:

In 1942, playwright, actor, director, composer, singer, and, arguably, standup comedian Noel Coward decided to do his bit for Britain's war effort, so he wrote a movie about a British warship that, um, sinks at sea. Trust me, it's more patriotic than it sounds. You know, stiff upper lip and all that. To star in this drama--he was just as adept in that format as he was in his signature drawing room comedies--Coward successfully cast himself against type as an unaffected, stoical Naval captain, said to be based on Lord Mountbatten (though in it he looks more like a skinny Dwight D. Eisenhower.)  Coward also decided that this would be the film in which he made his motion picture directing debut. Or part of a debut. He knew he could direct the actors, as he had done on the stage, but was less confident about the film's action scenes, of which there were several, so he enlisted the effort of...

...David Lean, at the time a highly regarded film editor. Coward soon became so bored with the technical aspects of filmmaking that he only directed the scenes that he himself appeared in and left the rest to Lean. The result of this collaboration was one of the finest (and least histrionic) movies to come out of World War II, 1942's In Which We Serve:

Coward never directed another film, but must have liked Lean's contribution, for he let him helm three other works of his, the railway romantic drama Brief Encounter (1945) and the supernatural drawing room comedy Blithe Spirit (1945). But before either of those movies, Lean made his solo filmmaking debut in 1944's This Happy Breed, based on Coward's stage drama about a British working-class family between the years 1919 and 1939. This might seem like surprising subject matter for a man whose self-styled image was that of an aristocratic bon vivant, but in reality, Coward was born into the lower-middle class and might have spent his life there had the theater not provided a nice little escape hatch. As for Lean, he had a somewhat more upscale upbringing, but as the son of Quakers probably wasn't spoiled too much, and was able to present a largely sympathetic view of Britain's proletariat:


So even if you're more familiar with Lean's later films, you may enjoy this early effort. And you won't have to get up to go to the bathroom as much. After all, it's two decades in 115 minutes. Lawrence of Arabia is almost twice as long, and only covers two years!

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Hollywood and Vine

Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of a series of novels about a man named Tarzan who was raised by apes, is seen here on an MGM set with a motion picture Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, and Maureen O'Sullivan, who played the lost Greystoke heir's girlfriend, Jane. Judging by how each of them are dressed, there seems to be a difference of opinion as to just how warm it is outside.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Quips and Quotations (Rising to the Occasion Edition)

It was involuntary. They sunk my boat.

--John F. Kennedy, explaining how he came to be a war hero.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sol Music

Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right 
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
Little darling, the smiles returning to the faces
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been here

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting
Little darling, it seems like years since it's been clear

Here comes the sun

Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right

Here comes the sun

 Here comes the sun, and I say
It's all right
It's all right

Throughout much of the United States, Daylight Savings Time begins today. Did you remember to set your clock ahead one hour?

Why, you may ask, am I getting so giddy about Daylight Savings Time, treating it as the end of winter, when the first day of spring is still a week and a half away? Well, here in Ohio at least, there's often no perceptible difference between the first day of spring and the day before the first day of spring. Or, if something does change, that change is often for the worse. I'm not saying it's going to happen this year, but in the past that first day has been cloudy, or rainy, or there's been a snowstorm, or the temperatures were in the teens. True, spring technically arrives because of something that has to due with Earth's orbit around the sun, but you'd have to live in a space station to appreciate it. Ah, but thanks to the human construct known as Daylight Savings Time, that change is immediately apparent. Spring, or at least one aspect of spring as well as summer, is put on the fast track. No matter what. Even if it's cloudy, even if it's rainy, even if there's a snowstorm, even if temperatures are in the teens, night is still going to come one hour later than it did just yesterday, and, after several months of dark-to-dusk-to-dark again, that, for me, is reason enough to celebrate.

Now, if you'll--yawn--excuse me, I'm going to take a little nap. For some reason, I didn't get enough sleep last night.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

This Day in History

On March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin, the 74-year old leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics--hmm...You know what? 

I think I'll let Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Herbert Block tell you just what happened that day:

Friday, March 1, 2019

In Memoriam: Stanley Donen 1924-2019

Donen's show biz beginnings includes a stint as a chorus dancer in Rodgers and Hart's 1940 Broadway musical Pal Joey, where he first met the man who played the show's title character, Gene Kelly. The two were united in another show, Best Foot Forward, in which Kelly not just starred but also did the choreography, and asked that Donen be his assistant (that's a little like God summoning Moses.)  Pal Joey and Best Foot Forward were both hits, and Kelly got the call from Hollywood. It's not clear whether Donen specifically got the call as well, but he eventually moved out west himself, did well at an audition, and signed a one-year dance contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, not a bad way to start out a film career. He also reunited with another Metro contract player, Kelly, who was doing well but not yet the star he was on Broadway. Which brings us to one of the more ironic developments in the history of popular culture. The two men who would come to be seen as architects of  the postwar movie musical, and who were on the payroll of the leading architectural firm of the postwar movie musical, the aforementioned MGM, were loaned out without nary a thought to Columbia Pictures, at the time a studio more interested in copying other firms architecture than coming up with anything original on their own. Except for now. On the movie to which he was assigned, Kelly was allowed to do something he wasn't allowed to do at MGM, choreograph (and basically direct) his own dance numbers, and he again used Donen as an assistant. The film, 1944's Cover Girl, was a bigger hit than anything else Kelly had done in motion pictures up to that date. He was finally a star, and Donen's co-choreography didn't look too shabby either. Back at Metro, Kelly and Donen co-choreographed Anchors Away, and Living in a Big Way. Both hits, and the two were given a chance to co-direct the postwar film version of a Broadway wartime hit On the Town. After that they co-directed Singing in the Rain (more about that in a moment), and, finally, in 1955, It's Always Fair Weather, a box-office flop. The two never worked together again. In fact, they're believed never to have spoken to each other again.


So what happened? Should one flop movie really end a friendship? Well, it likely wasn't just that. Some say the breakup was over a personal matter. Donen and Kelly took turns marrying dancer and actress Jeanne Coyne. However, the nuptials were over a decade apart, and Kelly's only after he Donen called it quits. What really ended the friendship more a professional clash of egos than any extended romantic triangle. Collaborating as they did led to confusion as to exactly who did what, who should take credit for what, who should be recognized for what. Obviously, if Kelly is dancing in front of the camera, it's his feet an no one else's. But before the camera is turned on? Who came up with what dance innovation? What camera trick? Partisans for Kelly argue that Donen rode in on the Broadway/Hollywood star's coat tails (or sport shirts, his favorite onscreen attire), while Donen's partisans argue that the assistant choreographer/director was a musical muse for Kelly, and without him the latter would have been merely a freckles-less Van Johnson. I like both Kelly and Donen and rather not take sides in this debate. I will say that I've seen Donen give several interviews over the years, and he always seemed to be his own man. Also, he directed 25 movies without any help from Kelly, including the critically acclaimed and/or commercially successful films Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, and the non-musicals Indiscreet, Charade, Arabesque, Two for the Road, and Bedazzled (the Dudley Moore-Peter Cook version.)

As far as the musicals go, film historians these days believe Donen's principle achievement, both by himself and in concert with Kelly, was the total integration of dance and film. What that basically means is that a movie musical can be something more than merely a Broadway show  that had a camera placed in front of it. Actually, a number of years before Donen, Busby Berkeley had created cinematic dance numbers that in no way would have been possible on the Broadway stage (even when the movie had "Broadway" in the title.) But he was more a choreographic Cecil B. DeMille, his films extravaganzas with a cast of fishnet stocking thousands. Donen took a much more intimate approach. A man dances with his reflection, a man dances on the ceiling, a man dances in a torrential downpour, a man dances with a cartoon mouse. Every so often when the mood struck him and the prospect didn't utterly bore him, Donen even had a man dance with another human being.

In a 1997 speech he made when accepting an honorary Oscar, Donen explained his technique:


Love that soft shoe! And did you catch Donen say the word "titanic"? That's because this was the same year the movie about the sinkable unsinkable ship smashed its way through the Academy Awards like an iceberg.

 Before I go any further, I should explain that I've decided to do these "In Memorial" posts a little differently than I have in the past. I used to do an all-encompassing review of a person's life and career with every photo and video I could find. The problem with that is, one, it can take an all-encompassing amount of time. Famous people don't always die when my schedule is free. A couple of years ago it took me a whole month and a half to do an obituary on Mary Tyler Moore (and I never did find the time to fit in Ordinary People.) Two, by revealing everything there is to reveal, I have nothing left for the future, when I might want to revisit that person. It's like I buried, or killed, him or her twice. I don't want that on my conscience!  So, what does that mean for Mr. Donen? Only that I'm not going to show you every single clip from every single film he was involved in. I'm just going to show you three. Which three? Well, what I've done is gone back and listened to Donen's Oscar speech (where he comes across as more lighthearted than in some interviews I've seen him do.) He mentions three kinds of people that a director needs in order to make a good movie, or at least a  good movie musical. Let's see who they are:

 We'll start with the screenwriter, in this case Peter Stone, with whom Donen worked with on this movie:

 Charade (1963) a comedy-thriller that for many brought to mind Hitchcock, a comparison that Donen found annoying, but was nonetheless meant as a compliment

 And for a musical, Donen said you need a good songwriter. Well, here's two, Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, whose songbook was turned into this musical:

The aforementioned Arthur Freed didn't just provide the songs for Singin' in the Rain (1952) but actually willed it into being. A mildly talented lyricist whose success in that field really depended on what melodies his words were put to, he made the switch in midlife to phenomenally successful movie producer. The Freed Unit, as his roster of composers, directors, dancers, singers, actors and set designers were known, is today synonymous with the MGM musical in all its alternative reality glory, responsible for not just advancing the careers of Donen and Kelly but also Judy Garland, Vincente Minnelli, Cyd Charisse, Lena Horne, Ann Miller Esther Williams, Howard Keel, June Allyson, Jane Powell, Vera-Ellen, and Kathryn Grayson. So Freed can be excused for looking for some way to advance the legacy of his own former career as a songwriter. And what an advancement it turned out to be! Singin' in the Rain is today considered by many to be the greatest movie musical of all time, not just because of the Brown-Freed songs but even more for the inventive dance numbers and riotous satire of 1920s Hollywood that Donen, Kelly, and screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden wrap around those songs.

(I should point out that since Freed's death in 1973 a disturbing casting couch story has emerged that, if true, would mean that however great his contribution to motion picture history, it was matched, even exceeded, by an exceptionally sordid contribution to Hollywood's long history of sexual harassment. But keep in mind that he wasn't around to defend himself.)   

Let's quickly get back to Donen's Oscar acceptance speech:

Finally, Donen needs an actor. Here's one, Fred Astaire, who, like Gene Kelly, also danced a little. In fact, he both acted and danced in this:

Royal Wedding (1951) has as its backdrop the real-life UK wedding of then-Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip Mountbatten. In case you're wondering, the Sarah Churchill mentioned in the above trailer was indeed related to the famed World War II Prime Minister. His daughter, in fact.

Well, those people made the films, and Stanley Donen, by his own admission, just showed up and took the credit. But I suspect he more than deserved it.