Thursday, December 11, 2014
Turner Classic Movies is celebrating the publication of a long overdue biography of unsung (and openly gay) musical director Charles Walters by airing practically his entire filmography throughout the month of December. Andrew Sarris included him in his "Lightly Likable" category, and wrote, with a mere hint of praise, "If the adjective 'nice' could be defined with any precision, it would apply to most of his films. At the very least, his films almost invariably turn out being more entertaining than their subject and title would indicate." Uh, thanks, Andy...? There might be a certain sense of shame in enjoying the films of Charles Walters, but the time for sheepish admissions of the joy in watching his work is long over. Walters, who died in 1982 of lung cancer, doesn't seem to have had the chance to experience the renewed interest in his oeuvre as a result of the "auteurist age" of film study. Interviews with him are scarce and while other musical auteurs like Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and Busby Berkeley have their defenders and biographers, Walters has been largely overlooked, despite his being responsible for some of the most beloved MGM musicals of classic Hollywood. I simply must pick up the Walters bio, or better yet, perhaps some kind soul among my family or friends will get it for me for Christmas. Until then, there are the films, being shown every Friday night this month by TCM, and I am having a ball revisiting some and seeing others for the very first time.
The 1930s saw a surprisingly large number of college-based musicals hitting theaters, but the trend disappeared after a few years. Walters' debut feature, Good News (1947), harkens back to these early genre efforts, which isn't surprising considering the source material was a Broadway play from 1927, which was then turned into a long-forgotten musical in 1930 (in which future director Delmer Daves played musclehead Beef!). It somehow feels vintage and fresh at the same time, and is one of the most purely entertaining musicals, from start to finish, to come from any of the Hollywood studios of the era. I'll go out on a limb and say that it's practically impossible to dislike Good News. The project was initially planned as yet another Judy and Mickey "put on a show" musical in the pre-war 1940s, specifically as a sequel to 1939's Babes in Arms, but it didn't go before the cameras until after the war, when Judy and Mickey had definitely outgrown this kind of material. Walters had proven himself a more than capable director and choreographer of song and dance as part of the Freed, Cummings, and Pasternak musical units on the MGM lot, assisting on musical numbers for films by other directors after making an impression as a dancer on-screen in films like Girl Crazy (1943) and Presenting Lily Mars (1943). His audition piece as official director was the black-and-white MGM short Spreadin' the Jam (1945), a test he ably passed; a second audition in Technicolor appeared in the form of a segment in Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Apparently still not convinced of his abilities as a director, MGM assigned him to remake one of their not-so-golden oldies, with no real bankable musical stars. Even with Technicolor on his side, the cards looked to be stacked against the success of Walters' debut outing. But his magic touch made the film a hit, even with its lame-o story of a college football star learning French to woo a spoiled gold-digger and falling in love with his tutor.
There is an almost unprecedented energy level in this film; the songs are performed at break-neck speed, and it seems every kid on this college campus has an endless supply of pep flowing through their systems at all times. It's easy to overlook the simple threadbare story when it's been replaced by the kind of vibrant performances on display here. While the film was a hit, Good News really developed its cult following in later years as fans and admirers ignored the lack of musical star power (no Judy, no Fred, no Eleanor, or anyone else of major note) and instead focused on the sheer breathless exuberance captured by Walters and his ace team of performers, technicians, and musicians. June Allyson, who MGM claimed at this point to be considerably younger than she really was, became a star because of this film, and she personally held it as one of her favorite films. As the lovable librarian who goes through heartbreak before getting her man, it's not any surprise that the movie-going public fell in love with her, too. Peter Lawford is a thoroughly average singer and dancer, but he has presence and personality, that's for sure, and for a time was doubtless the best-looking guy on the MGM lot. It should be illegal to be as handsome as Peter Lawford. Considering his lack of musical training, his snappy duet with Allyson, "The French Lesson", is doubly impressive. Threatening to steal the movie out from under everybody is Joan McCracken, an incredibly endearing comedienne and singer wooed away from Broadway for this, one of her only Hollywood films. She has two major spotlighted numbers, the comic "Lucky in Love" and the major production "Pass That Peace Pipe". She later married Bob Fosse, who left her for Gwen Verdon, and died prematurely of a heart attack at 43. You'll wish she'd done more after seeing her in this! Popping up is jazz vocalist Mel Torme, who I remember most fondly as the heavy in Girls' Town (1959), as a seductive crooner with a smooth highlighted solo number, "The Best Things in Life Are Free", leaning on a piano. Say what you will about his looks, but Mel had a voice like butter. The rest simply doesn't matter. And I have to mention Connie Gilchrist's masterful performance as Cora the sorority house cook, asked in the final act to play-act with Allyson and landing laughs with her solid wood line readings of a prepared script. It takes talent to play someone without any! It's hard to pick highlights of the musical action, as every moment is a winner, but in addition to the aforementioned numbers, the closer "Varsity Drag" is a breathless production up there with the best of them. According to biographer Phillips, Walters choreographed every musical sequence except for "Pass the Peace Pipe" and "Varsity Drag", which were the work of Robert Alton, another Broadway transplant to Hollywood who would die merely 10 years later, though not before choreographing the next film to be discussed.
Originally conceived as a Vincente Minnelli-Judy Garland pairing to follow their previous collaborations (1944's Meet Me in St. Louis and 1948's The Pirate), Easter Parade (1948) was a surprisingly prestigious second outing for Walters, reuniting him with Garland after being her dance partner in two films before he began directing. To go from June Allyson and Peter Lawford to Judy Garland and Fred Astaire? Nuffsaid. In fact, Easter Parade is a film notorious for its many replacements: in addition to Walters stepping in for Minnelli, Astaire replaced Gene Kelly and Ann Miller replaced Cyd Charisse, as both the original performers were injured before production began. This was, oddly enough, the sole pairing of Garland and Astaire, but considering their very different work ethics, it's perhaps appropriate that they weren't subjected to each other more than once. Astaire is Don Hewes, a legendary dancer whose partner (Ann Miller) has decided to pursue a solo contract, leaving Don in the lurch when he has a contract to fulfill as a duo. The solution appears in the form of Judy Garland as Hannah Brown, a chorus girl Don drunkenly invites to be his new dance partner, not realizing he is going to have to teach her everything he knows in order to capably fill Miller's shoes. Sound familiar? That's because Dirty Dancing basically lifted the premise wholesale. Peter Lawford reunites with Walters to play a decidedly dull part as a pal of Astaire's who is pursued by Miller, but has his eyes on Garland, and his vocal duet with Judy is a low point of the film. A highlight, though, is the opening number, following Astaire strolling, singing, purchasing an Easter hat from singing models (including Lola Albright and Joi Lansing!), and then performing a mind-blowing routine to "Drum Crazy" in a toy shop, beating on drums, a xylophone, every surface in the place! This is pure Astaire, while his other solo spotlight number, "Stepping Out With My Baby", with its choreography and visual story, seems much more obviously designed for original star Gene Kelly; Astaire still nails it, as usual.
So what of Garland and Astaire, in their one cinematic pairing? Well...Astaire's strength was his athletic dancing, and Garland's strength was her vibrant, soulful singing...these two talents don't necessarily mesh well when combined for musical numbers. Astaire's dancing was on a level of its own, so he was forced to simplify things when performing with Garland, who was perfectly acceptable as a dancer, but nothing more. In fact, Garland's singing isn't even that impressive in this effort; where she excels is in her comic timing in dialogue and stage sketch scenes. Garland got precious few opportunities to demonstrate she could do more than sing. The Clock showed she could be a melodramatic leading lady (to those who actually bothered to see it). Easter Parade reveals the rarely seen physical comedy talents of Garland, when she isn't caught in a pretty by-the-numbers romantic triangle. It's interesting to note that while Easter Parade is a step up in star power, budget, and musical pedigree (plentiful Irving Berlin standards), it was a major step down in energy and visual storytelling. The aforementioned "Drum Crazy" number bubbles and explodes with the vivacious thrills of Good News at its best, as does "Steppin' Out With My Baby". Ann Miller dazzles with her astonishing tap dancing, natch, and while dancing sultrily (twice) with Astaire to "It Only Happens When I Dance With You". But the rest of the film's musical sequences don't live up to the promise Walters exhibited in his previous feature. "A Couple of Swells" has become the film's signature performance and it's sure amusing, but for sheer camp value, "The Girl on the Magazine Cover" is priceless and much more memorable, like a Busby Berkeley showpiece, MGM-style. Easter Parade isn't a full-blown sophomore slump, as it's still one of the key Freed unit films and there's more than enough here to please died-in-the-wool musical fans. It's just not a favorite of mine. Asides: Character actor Clinton Sundberg, who had a memorable bit in Good News for Walters, returns for the director as a world-wise bartender here, and the very amusing Broadway musical star Jules Munshin steals his scenes as a snooty waiter.
The success of Easter Parade led MGM to pursue another film bringing Walters, Astaire, and Garland together again. Thus The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) was born. However, Garland's personal problems ensured she would not be appearing in this film, giving Arthur Freed the inspired idea to reunite Fred and Ginger in their first film together in 10 years. Many of the songs were removed from the initial production after Judy's departure, leaving more room for dancing by the most famous dance team in film history. Imagine being a fan of Fred and Ginger, thinking Ginger had departed musicals for good and you would never see them dance together again...and then MGM releases this hotly-anticipated reunion, and in Technicolor to boot! With that kind of potential audience excitement surrounding the project, it's a relief that it lives up to expectations. The magic is still there while watching Fred and Ginger dance, trade barbs, and get romantic as Josh and Dinah Barkley, a famous dancing team threatened with a split when Dinah develops a desire to try being a dramatic actress. It's hard to believe that the script wasn't written for Fred and Ginger initially, as this is exactly what happened to split up the pair 10 years earlier. Ginger departed the musical genre and won an Oscar almost immediately for Kitty Foyle (which I don't feel she deserved, especially not for that film when she was much stronger in the same year's Primrose Path for her Stage Door director Gregory LaCava). Here, she is inspired by the snooty encouragements of a French theatrical director who loathes musical comedy and envisions Dinah as the perfect Sarah Bernhardt in his next play about the great thespian's early life. Following the split, Astaire performs one of his signature pieces, the "Shoes with Wings On" number, proving he doesn't need Ginger at all, really, shown to be true in film after film without her. But naturally this will never do and the two must reunite; he tries to win her back to the tune of "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (calling back to their previous film Shall We Dance(1937) before a more bombastic "Manhattan Downbeat" finale. Sigh, swoon, it's lovely. Walters is clearly having the time of his life directing this legendary duo, whom he had adored and admired for years.
Funny, romantic, and with a more balanced bunch of musical numbers, Barkleys is a marked improvement on Easter Parade and an all-around much more satisfying musical experience. The script was penned by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who also wrote Good News' screenplay. Is it a coincidence that both films are essential Walters pictures and MGM musicals? Not at all. Their future screenplays include On the Town (1949), Singin' in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953). Their films just got better and better. Clearly this was a powerhouse pair in the genre, just as important as any director on the lot. The established Fred and Ginger chemistry is improved by clever marital squabbles, playing to both their strengths as actors, and by Robert Alton's dance choreography, which took into account Ginger's decade away from the genre, yet still gave her ample opportunity to show she had the hoofing skills to make her routines with Astaire look effortless. Adding to the fun is the supporting cast. Oscar Levant is, as always, hilarious as the couples' wise-cracking composer friend, and even gets to show off his astonishing pianist skills. Hans Conreid, unbilled, is very amusing as pretentious artist Ladislaus Ladi, who creates a portrait of Dinah as a pancake in a frying pan shaped like Josh's head. Billie Burke, given very little to do, makes the most of yet another dizzy socialite role, the type which she could do in her sleep at this point. Cult horror icon George Zucco is seventh-billed yet has one brief scene in the Sarah Bernhardt play, hidden behind a fake mustache. And of course Walters' apparent favorite character actor (lover? fellow gay?) Clinton Sundberg is back in a bit as the producer of the Barkleys' show.
Fred and Judy were again supposed to have teamed for The Belle of New York (1952), though MGM had planned that pairing way back in 1943. Judy had been canned from the studio in a very publicized severing of ties with the troubled actress, so there wasn't a chance in Hell she would return for this Walters picture. Not even she could have saved it. This is one of my least favorite musicals of the period for a variety of reasons. One is Vera-Ellen, who apparently Walters was unhappy with as well. Vera-Ellen, a pretty terrific dancer of the era, was hardly an actress and has her singing voice dubbed by Anita Ellis, which is not a good sign for a musical (though it didn't hurt Eleanor Powell in the 1930s). She always struck me as cold and aloof in her screen performances and this film is no exception. Where were Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson, two other MGM musical players? Either would have been a far more appropriate and striking leading lady in this part. But then again, the script is so weak that it's doubtful anyone, regardless of talent or screen appeal, could have saved this from derailing soon after the credits.
The titular belle is Angela Bonfils, a beautiful blonde welfare worker courted by apparently every man in town, as seen in the opening sequence where she is serenaded at the window by a street full of crooning gentlemen. Enter Charlie Hill, played by Astaire in a role for which he was far too old. Hill is a wealthy playboy with a long list of lovers and fiancees who sees Angela and decides she's the one. Of course she's not interested, except by the possibility of reforming him of his sinful ways. The concept of a conservative religious dame reforming an immoral city boy was tackled much more successfully in Guys and Dolls, both the play and the film. The pair have zero chemistry, even when the script practically demands them to, and if that core romance is a failure, the rest of the film can't help but follow suit. Even the musical numbers aren't as enjoyable as they should be in a Walters film. The idea of Astaire dancing on the Washington Square monument must have seemed great on paper and in preparation, but its execution leaves a lot to be desired. It's clearly attempting to echo Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding the year before, but lightning rarely strikes twice in the musical genre, especially with something as unique as that set piece. I liked the visual style of the Currier and Ives picture postcard montage, especially the skating on the ice in winter, and that's about it. Vera-Ellen's atrocious dubbing mars what should have been an enticing number ("Naughty But Nice"). All of the film's best moments come from the wonderful supporting cast of character actors, but even they are mostly wasted. Marjorie Main does her trademark blustery schtick as the leader of the welfare organization who just so happens to be Astaire's aunt. Alice Pearce, best-known for her later work in television as nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on "Bewitched", is probably the funniest thing about the picture as Vera-Ellen's earnestly singing co-worker. She gets the very few genuinely hilarious lines and a very funny comic song sequence. She sadly died prematurely of ovarian cancer in 1966. Keenan Wynn, always reliable but criminally underused, is Astaire's exasperated lawyer. And yet again, Clinton Sundberg pops up. I hope Phillips' biography delves into just who Sundberg was and why Walters cast him in practically everything.
Before the train wreck of Belle of New York, Walters departed from his musical roots and made a sprightly, amusing comedy starring Jane Wyman, Three Guys Named Mike (1951). It's perhaps the first film to focus on the exciting life of a stewardess, in this case Oscar-winner Wyman in a role that some actresses would consider slumming, especially considering it was written for June Allyson, someone perhaps more suited to romantic comedies. But playing a woman juggling three male suitors isn't your typical B-picture studio assignment. Perky (but thankfully not too perky) Marcy Lewis is one of the new graduates from American Airlines' stewardess school and, despite her first flight being a comedy of errors at 37,000 feet, she develops a rapport with the pilot Mike (Howard Keel, the hunkiest heart-breaker at MGM). It isn't long before she also makes a strong impression on a scientist passenger who moonlights as a bartender, also named Mike, this one played by Van Johnson, whose boy-next-door good looks certainly do give Keel competition. Yet another passenger, an advertising salesman, played by Barry Sullivan, becomes her third suitor. The trio finally meet when they all assist Marcy in moving into her new house, and it's only then that she realizes she's snagged three Mikes!
If this all sounds silly, it is, but in the hands of Walters, it's also charming, snappy, and often laugh-out-loud funny. Here is a studio B-picture serving as A+ entertainment, with a very solid cast and plenty of hearty chuckles thanks to reliable screenwriter Sidney Sheldon. As Hollywood was dealing with the threat of television, studios began focusing most of their budgets on extravagant spectacles while also producing modest little programmers like this one. This wasn't an unusual production system; in fact, every major studio had adopted the production unit format of moviemaking decades earlier. But in the early 1950s, it took on slightly greater importance as cinema butted heads with TV. In 1951, for example, the year Dore Schary replaced Louis B. Mayer as MGM's studio head, larger films like Quo Vadis, An American in Paris, Show Boat, and The Red Badge of Courage took the lion's share (pun intended) of the studio's attention, while smaller films like this one, Cause for Alarm, Bannerline, Angels in the Outfield, and Too Young to Kiss kept contract players and directors busy and delivered product to theaters anxious to draw audiences out of their living rooms. For my money, the smaller films are more interesting to view today; they're often unassuming entertainments without pretensions or lofty ambitions, yet are able to provide engrossing stories with underrated performers. Sometimes they were produced independently and simply picked up for distribution by studios like MGM, making them slightly more interesting for being made outside of the system. Walters seems an odd choice for this picture, with his established pedigree in Technicolor musicals, but his experience with romantic comedy in rather ridiculous scenarios surely makes him the right man for the job. Look fast for "Leave It to Beaver" mom Barbara Billingsley as the head instructor at the stewardess school, and 30 years before she spoke jive in Airplane! (1980), too! No Sundberg this time around, how strange...but you do get Phyllis Kirk (House of Wax) and Jeff Donnell (In a Lonely Place) as two of Marcy's stewardess pals. And King Donovan (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is a riot in a two-scene bit as the airlines' passenger agent.
Before Walters struck out on his own as a director, he tested the waters as a dance director on various films, first for RKO before moving over to MGM, where he spent the majority of his career. The first film he ever worked in any capacity was Seven Days' Leave (1942), the unofficial entry in what would become a long-running series featuring Harold Peary as "The Great Gildersleeve", a character he made famous on the radio show "Fibber McGee and Molly". RKO had several radio personalities they brought to movie screens; maybe the most noteworthy was Kay Kyser. In fact, the radio plays a huge role in this film, as it did in many RKO features. The Gildersleeve films are mildly amusing when seen today, but this is easily the highlight of the series because it works as a stand-alone film. Victor Mature stars as playboy soldier Johnny Grey, who learns that he has inherited the estate of a long-lost relative. However, there is one catch found in the will: he has to marry a member of a specific family with a history of feuding with the Greys, in this case Lucille Ball as Terry Havelock-Allen, whose engagement to another throws a wrench into the money-seeking courtship.
The Walters-choreographed sequences kick off near the opening, as Mature and company look over the shoulder of heart-sick soldier Arnold Stang as he writes a letter to a guy back home, begging him to "leave my girl alone". This turns into a song-and-dance number as they transform his letter into a catchy tune, which seems ridiculous, but in the hands of Walters this is a grand spectacle that is hard to resist and ranks as the musical highlight of the picture. Mature was always the last person one would expect to see in a song-and-dance number, but he's in several here and is surprisingly good in all of them. Stang's patented goofball schtick is often legitimately funny, 16-year-old Marcy McGuire makes a strong impression as Ball's jazz-singing baby sister, Wallace Ford (Freaks) is a no-nonsense sergeant, Peter Lind Hayes (as Mature's second banana) does dynamite Ronald Colman, Lionel Barrymore, and Charles Laughton impressions to lure Ball's fiancee away so Mature can move in for the kill, and band-leaders Freddy Martin and Les Brown and their orchestras contribute some swingin' numbers. You also get to see radio personality Ralph Edwards and a recording of his show "Truth or Consequences" involving Ball and Mature, as well as dancers Lynn, Royce, and Vanya in a comic ballroom dance sequence (courtesy of Walters).
Walters was brought over to MGM by Arthur Freed for Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), which reunited the director with Lucille Ball in a film that is decidedly less brazen comic fun than Seven Days' Leave, but has plenty of memorable Technicolor moments of music and whimsy. This was also the first film featuring Lucy with her trademark flaming red hair, courtesy of MGM hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff, and photographed lushly by the accomplished Karl Freund. Red Skelton stars as Louie, a hat and coat check clerk at a swanky nightclub. Ball, as nightclub star May Daly, is the objection of his affections, but her heart beats for sincere but poor singer and pianist Alec Howe (played by Gene Kelly, breathlessly sexy as ever, in one of his first MGM musicals). Comic relief is supplied by a pre-Producers Zero Mostel as Rami, a fake Swami (his Charles Boyer impression is spot-on and hilarious), criminally unsung comedienne and singer Virginia O'Brien, with the best deadpan in the business since Buster Keaton, as cigarette girl Ginny, who pursues clueless Louis with proposals of marriage, and former boxer Rags Ragland as a hot-tempered telegram delivery boy. Things begin looking up for Louis when he wins the lottery (this being wartime, he makes sure to buy war bonds with his acquired dough) and proposes marriage to May, who begrudgingly accepts for her financial security. In a variation on "Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", Louis is knocked out and wakes up as French monarch Louis XV, with all the people in his life appearing as other characters in a costume masquerade, most notably May as Madame Du Barry.
This picture represents pretty beautifully what classic movie devotees love about MGM films, especially the studio's color musicals, and it's one of my very favorites. All of the music is dynamite, Kelly dances up a storm and you naturally can't take your eyes off him, the costumes and sets are extravagant, and the laughs come regularly from a gang of talented performers and a fine script. Just about the only place where the film falters badly is in the romantic department. The love triangle between Skelton, Ball, and Kelly just feels half-hearted, and how could it not when there's so much mouth-watering Technicolor entertainment surrounding it? Typical for MGM musicals, the story is secondary to everything else, which is fine by me when it all looks and sounds this good. Ball is dubbed by Martha Mears for the title song, but she also gets some good comic business in her costuming for the opening number, and does legitimately sing during the fun "Friendship" finale. It must have been interesting for Walters to work with Kelly as his dance director, considering Kelly's reputation not only for his talent and perfectionism, but his headstrong ego. Also take into consideration that Walters played Kelly's part in the original 1939 Broadway version of Du Barry! Walters and Kelly worked together only one other time, on the very troubled Summer Stock (1950). Most of the dance numbers are simple efforts, considering the talents of the performers in other departments. Louise Beavers, in another domestic role, is typically stellar, and even gets to dance a little with Gene Kelly! Clara Blandick, best-known as Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz (1939), appears in one of many uncredited and hilarious character parts as a world-wise old biddy on the subway with Skelton and Ball. Lana Turner appears as herself as a fun punchline to the spectacular "I Love an Esquire Girl" number, which also features the marvelous Pied Pipers (with Jo Stafford) splendidly vocalizing as 12 gorgeous gals represent the calendar months in centerfold-type poses. The Pied Pipers return for "Katie Went to Haiti" in Versailles. I also really enjoyed The Three Oxford Boys, singers who resemble The Chad Mitchell Trio from the later folk movement; in addition to rather standard vocal harmonizing, they also do impressions and the mimicking of Tommy Dorsey's trombone segues into Dorsey and his orchestra playing in a nicely done sequence. MGM musicals are some of the best places to see popular musical groups of the swing and jazz era, and Dorsey's group, including drummer Buddy Rich, really scorches here! The film stops cold for their lengthy performances and you almost wish there was an entire concert film of them somewhere.
Broadway Rhythm (1944) is another Technicolor Roy Del Ruth effort, and a considerable step down from Du Barry Was a Lady. Not only is the star power diminished, but some of the music and practically all of the comedy simply isn't up to snuff. The production history of this misfire reveals it features musical numbers intended for other aborted projects and began as a new installment of the Broadway Melody series. Perhaps this explains why so little of the film works, and at almost 2 hours it really starts to drag. It opens with a number by Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, getting things off to a rousing start. But as soon as we're introduced to the film's hero, we're in trouble. George Murphy, not one of MGM's top stars, is Broadway producer Johnny Demming, desperate for a famous name to star in his new show. He ignores the talents of his kid sister Patsy (Gloria DeHaven, another second-tier MGM musical performer) and opts to pursue superstar Helen Hoyt (Ginny Simms, serviceable but most likely cast because she was Louis B. Mayer's mistress at the time). That's basically the whole story, and there are precious few great musical numbers to distract from a lacking script. Ignoring the racism of seeing her perform at the Jungle Club (groan), Lena Horne is pure magic as always; weirdly enough, the "Jungle Boogie" number wasn't meant for this film, inserted here after Broadway Melody of 1943's production fell apart. The sultry "Somebody Loves Me", contrary to popular opinion, was obviously shot for this film's production, as she actually interacts with the film's cast. Her MVP title is seriously challenged by the Ross Sisters, a trio of backwoods girls who perform "Solid Potato Salad" before breaking into one of the most jaw-dropping gymnastics-filled routines I've ever seen. Walters sure must have had fun with this one! Jazz pianist Hazel Scott dazzles with her orchestra, ripping apart her piano with delicious fury! Scott actually briefly had her own television show on the doomed DuMont network in 1950. These guest performances are all marvelous...but any time the three leads show up, it's snoozeville.
Character actor great Charles Winninger is the best part of the picture as Murphy's dad with roots in vaudeville. He even gets to sit in with his trombone in the opening Dorsey performance, joins Dorsey again for a duet, and basically holds the whole movie together. Bold and brassy Nancy Walker, years before Bounty paper towels and "Rhoda", is shot in particularly unflattering lighting and makeup in comparison to her other female co-stars. Sure, she's supposed to be the comic relief, but surely Del Ruth and crew didn't mean for her to look like Lou Costello in drag. Thankfully her big number "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet" is pretty fabulous. Eddie "Rochester" Anderson is wasted in a throwaway part, considering his popularity on the "Jack Benny Show" on the radio at the time, not to mention his starring role in the studio's Cabin in the Sky two years prior. At least Ben Blue gets some noteworthy moments as stage manager Felix, but the less said about "impressionist" Dean Murphy the better. Otherwise, this is one to skip. It's a disappointing MGM musical and, as far as Walters' input, it's all about the Ross Sisters, nothing more.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
Of all the male superstars of classic Hollywood, Cary Grant has endured as my very favorite. He's ridiculously good-looking, effortlessly charming, and one of the most versatile actors of the period, feeling right at home in ribald romps or earnest melodramas. His bisexuality off-camera naturally adds extra appeal to me, but when examining the stars of golden age, it's their on-camera persona that's most important in evaluating their lasting popularity. Grant possessed impeccable comic timing, a talent which took some time for Hollywood to notice before he became the virtual face of screwball comedy in the 1930s and 1940s. He could play cads, family disappointments, and suspected murderers and still charm the pants off the audience, which could possibly also be seen as a hindrance to his career. By the 1950s and 1960s, Grant's graying but still very good looks kept him working in romantic comedies opposite women considerably younger than him, but unlike others of his era like Gable and Cooper, one could understand why younger ladies would fall head over heels with Cary. He had that voice, that smile, those dimples, those sincere eyes. I'm hard-pressed to think of a film in which I didn't fully love Cary Grant, even if the film itself was a dud, and that's one of the great signs of a star.
With my shameless gushing wrapped up, let's get down to business. TCM has selected Cary Grant as their Star of the Month for December, programming pretty much every single gem of his career over the course of four Mondays this month. I could not be happier with their choice of spotlighted superstar! The first selection highlighted some of Grant's earlier work, before 1937's The Awful Truth truly made him a star to be reckoned with, though some later-period Grant did pop up in the wee hours of the morning. It's rather surprising that it took so long for Grant to become a superstar, especially because his first studio put a considerable amount of publicity into building him into a matinee idol. The problem is one that plagued several stars during the first years of their careers: the studio developed the concept of the star persona without necessarily taking all the star's talents and interests into consideration. Watching his early films, one can see Grant's comic sparkle, but only in bits and pieces. His dashing British
Born Archibald Leach in 1904 in Bristol, England, Grant took to show business at an early age, assisting magicians in his adolescence and leaving school to join a vaudeville troupe in his teens. It was there where he learned the arts of pantomime and dialogue-free performance, talents he brought with him to the silver screen (his facial expressions, especially in comedies, were always peerless), as well as theatrical acrobatics, seen in his more athletic performances. This stage experience is what brought him to America in 1920, where he took up residence in New York and toured with several different theatre troupes before hitting Broadway and making strong impressions with his performances in musicals for Arthur Hammerstein and the Shuberts. His first screen test was for Fox Film Corporation in 1929, which he failed, but after appearing in a 1931 short subject for Paramount (Singapore Sue), the studio offered him a contract and put him to work immediately upon signature.
Grant liked to pretend Singapore Sue didn't exist, preferring to acknowledge This is the Night (1932) as his first film. Being cast in the second romantic lead in his debut feature indicates Paramount's strong faith in his audience appeal and hopes for box office success with their new star. Shot at the same time was Sinners in the Sun; Grant went back and forth between sound stages during his first weeks at the studio, hitting the ground running as Paramount rushed to push him into stardom. Other than functioning as Grant's first feature film, This is the Night also has an interesting opening, tinted blue (all of the night scenes are) and knowingly ripping off the musical comic confections of Paramount's own Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian. Nothing like a major studio cannibalizing its own. Grant makes his first cinematic entrance singing off-stage, entering the screen carrying javelins and singing his first lines to Charles Ruggles. It's certainly a memorable debut, and Grant projects sexual thrills from the get-go. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the somewhat promising start, which is oddly similar to Grant's later, far better Awful Truth. In the film, our Cary plays the husband of Thelma Todd, who is indulging in an affair with Roland Young (seriously? she'd ditch Cary Grant for Roland Young?). When the two are almost found out, he hires ingenue Lili Damita to play his wife and throw Grant off the scent of infidelity. Damita takes a bit to warm up, but when she indulges in a clothes-ripping tease number and her character's name inspires some good Ruggles business, sparks fly and you get the makings of an enticing pre-Code classic. It's only when the film tries to mime Lubitsch/Mamoulian that it spirals into embarrassing territory. Director Frank Tuttle nails the naughty innuendo, but the musical motifs simply draw poor comparisons to his other studio contemporaries. As asides: Grant and Young would reunite five years later in the very enjoyable Topper, to be discussed later in the month; Damita would later become the first Mrs. Errol Flynn, after being married to director Michael Curtiz from 1925-1926; and of course poor Todd would die prematurely and very mysteriously a mere four years after this film's release. She is regrettably given little to do here. It's really Damita's show.
She Done Him Wrong (1933) was the first of two films pairing Grant with Mae West, the studio's controversial bombshell who was to Paramount in the 1930s what Clara Bow was to the studio in the 1920s: guaranteed sexy box office. Bow was, as I've maintained for some time, peerless, but then so was West, in a very different way. While Paramount had two other notable blonde femmes under contract, brassy (Carole Lombard) and exotic (Marlene Dietrich), both of whom also co-starred with Grant, West was in a class by herself, translating her famous titillating Broadway shows and persona into a series of films allowing her to be both a vamp and a comedienne. This combination was rarely attempted and never equaled by Paramount, or any other studio, for that matter. Legend has it that West personally requested Grant be her romantic lead in this film after "discovering him" as an extra on the lot. While West was a one-woman powerhouse with unheard-of control over her projects, even within the studio system, this is a story that Grant vehemently denied, and the truth is less interesting: Paramount's B.P. Schulberg thought Grant's smooth persona and the bodacious West would be a good match. He wasn't necessarily right. Grant makes no impression at all as a goody two-shoes mission captain trying to save West from her decadent existence in the Gay Nineties. The rest of the film finds West caught between a swarthy Latino gigolo, her escaped convict ex-boyfriend, and Grant's offer of moral redemption, and soon mixed up in an accidental murder. Wait until you see what she does with the body!
Directed by actor Lowell Sherman, whose career both on- and off-screen was cut short by an early death of pneumonia in 1934, this is one of the quintessential pre-Code comedies. Mae West's Lady Lou is one of the dirtiest broads the cinema has ever seen, and you love her balls and bravura every second she's on-screen. She slithers all over any available man in sight, disrobes for costume changes often, and revels in her sinfully slutty lifestyle, no rules, no regrets, until of course a body turns up and she ends up in a prison potentially worse than the one with bars. Surprisingly, this film, which functions solely as a Mae West vehicle with barely any story surrounding her (it was essentially a retread of her stage show "Diamond Lil"), received a Best Picture nomination! It's interesting to see Clara Bow's husband, Gilbert Roland, playing here opposite his wife's obvious bombshell replacement at Paramount, and the same year as her final film, Hoop-la, over at Fox Films. I also greatly enjoyed seeing Rochelle Hudson, ever underrated, as the young ward of Lou's who is saved from a suicide attempt and turned into a showgirl (in the original play she was sold into white slavery!), and Louise Beavers is fabulous as always, even stuck in thankless domestic roles as she often was.
I'm No Angel (1933) reunited Grant and West for the second and last time. As might be evident by their interactions in both of their pairings, there was no love lost between the two superstars. West, at 40, was desperately clinging to her youth with caked-on makeup that she would continue to use well into her 80s, and Grant didn't care for her brazen artificiality. She was all image, the Lady Gaga of her time. This doesn't detract from her accomplishments, of course; Hollywood was built on its stars and their personae. In the case of West, it simply becomes difficult to separate the woman from the illusion, and she clearly wanted it that way. She Done Him Wrong did such stupendous box office, often credited as saving Paramount from bankruptcy that year, that this next star vehicle was released not long after. West is Tira (pronounced Tyra, as in Banks), a carnival tramp who sings and struts on-stage for packs of thrill-seeking gents. Her stage act is touted as "the only show on earth where the tickets are made of asbestos," and you better believe that hoop-la. Speaking of Hoop-la...this bears a striking resemblance to Clara Bow's film of that name made this same year. But I digress... if it's possible, West's stage show in this film is even more salacious and packed with leering pervs than in her previous feature. But the fun and games are over when her seedy boyfriend busts in on her turning a trick and brains the Texas rube with a bottle, sending her scurrying for money to skip town. She earns it by sticking her head in a lion's mouth, earning her fame, fortune, and a ticket to New York where, once again, she finds herself sandwiched between two potential suitors. Where She Done Him Wrong had no plot, I'm No Angel is almost too plot-heavy for a West vehicle. That said, it's also possibly even more fun than the preceding film. But wait...where's Cary Grant in all this? The same place he was before: in the dull romantic interest role, competing with handsome Kent Taylor for Mae's affections. Another vastly underrated character actress, Gertrude Michael, is a welcome addition to the cast, as are character greats Edward Arnold and Gregory Ratoff, plus muscle hunk Nat Pendleton, perhaps the sexiest beefcake of 1930s cinema. No Louise Beavers this time, but Hattie McDaniel has a bit as a manicurist, giving no hint of being a future Oscar-winner.
Yet another unsatisfying role for Grant is found in The Eagle and the Hawk (1933), a quite good war picture that really offers Fredric March, who won the Oscar the year before for the studio's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, more promising material than anyone else. Paramount had won one of the industry's first two Academy Awards for Best Picture (for Wings; the other went to Fox Films for Sunrise), and while this WWI saga is not at all up to the level of Wellman's silent classic, there are some moving and well-done moments once the film gets going. This is primarily because of March, one of the screen's finest thespians of the era, playing the hero to Grant's semi-villain. The two butt heads in flight training before March is stationed in France and Grant is grounded indefinitely as a result of March reporting his unpreparedness for battle. That, of course, changes when March loses five flight observers in two months before Grant requests the chance to work with his nemesis. It's hard enough fighting the enemy without a partner gunning for you, too. The film has obvious similarities to Howard Hawks' The Dawn Patrol (1930), and some of the war footage is lifted from Wings, as Paramount was known to do (who can blame them? it's astonishing stuff), but this is entertaining enough to recommend, with a truly shocking pre-Code conclusion. Grant tries his hardest in a role unlike anything he had played to date, but Carole Lombard, as a vamp with no name, doesn't really fit into this picture at all. Paramount clearly still didn't know what they had in either of them. At least March would get to comically spar with her in Wellman's Nothing Sacred a few years later, and Grant got his Lombard fix a short while later in In Name Only. Third-billed Jack Oakie provides the laughs here, though he did better work later in the decade. Little Douglas Scott is memorable as a rather bloodthirsty British tyke. Kenneth Howell, as a young whippersnapper observer, is surprisingly effeminate and looks like he's wearing make-up. Future unsung director Mitchell Leisen receives prominent billing as the film's "associate director"; he would prove to be one of Paramount's hidden gems behind-the-scenes.
Hot Saturday (1932) is one of Grant's more interesting early programmers because it co-stars him with his longtime companion Randolph Scott, his most publicly acknowledged male lover who had actually been living with him for some time when production started on this picture. Rumors swirled around the lot that the pair were cast together to dissuade any gossipy publicity about their, ahem, roommate situation. The two are on opposite sides here, Grant playing a notorious ladies' man in a small town (who makes his entrance in a blinding white suite) and Scott a knight-in-shining-armor geologist come home on the train to visit. Caught in the middle of this manwich is Nancy Carroll, virtually forgotten today despite her Oscar nomination for The Devil's Holiday (1930). At the time of this production she was reportedly receiving the most fan mail of any star in Hollywood, though that may just be typical studio-era hoop-la. She wouldn't last long at Paramount after this, though she did one more movie with Grant, Woman Accused, in 1933; her contract expired that year and her demands for better material led the studio to not renew her option. She must not have been the box office draw that fan mail story would imply, but is still pretty darn wonderful in everything I've seen her in. Carroll's character is youthful, fun-loving, and carefree, but has her limits, and through a series of misunderstandings involving Saturday date Edward Woods and notorious Grant, the whole town thinks she's tramped it up with the worldly lover. Quel scandale! Small town gossip will getcha. Upping the gay quotient of the film substantially is character actor Grady Sutton, a robust Dom DeLuise type who was often cast as chubby Southern-fried comic reliefs with no luck in the lady department (shocking, I know); you may remember him as the rich simpleton Carole Lombard claims to be engaged to in My Man Godfrey to inspire jealousy from William Powell. Sutton was, like Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn, one of several unashamedly homosexual character actors working in the studio era; unlike Grant and Scott, Sutton was never a star, sometimes appearing in films without receiving any credit, and didn't give the studio any sleepless nights about covering up his personal activities. Jane Darwell, a decade before her Oscar win for Grapes of Wrath, also appears as Carroll's exasperating mother. As a Grant picture, it's a no-go, though this was one of the first movies to really capture the persona we all know and love. As a pre-Code studio picture, it's worth your time, especially with that great triumphant finale celebrating decadence over chastity. It's appeared on DVD as part of a Pre-Code Hollywood Collection of other Paramount classics, including another Grant pre-Code feature, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932). In one of the kinkiest pre-Code scenes of the era, Carroll finds her sister (Rose Coghlan) has taken a pair of her undershorts without asking and wrestles her down to rip them off of her. It's this kind of scene that would appear in 8mm fetish shorts projected at stag parties for the next few decades.
Suzy (1936) matched Grant with yet another blonde bombshell comedienne, in this case MGM's only superstar of that type: Jean Harlow. One can tell it's going to be another female star vehicle by looking at her co-stars, in this case the underwhelming Franchot Tone and Grant, still in search of a star persona. By 1936, Harlow had done bombshell schtick for some time and Suzy feels like a departure for her while also feeling mildly familiar, an odd sensation to be sure. As the title character, she is a flighty American chorus girl in pre-WWI London who decides to quit the show when it leaves town in the hopes of landing a rich aristocrat as a husband. Enter Tone (whose silly accent comes and goes), who hits her with a borrowed Rolls-Royce, giving her the impression she's hit the jackpot. Naturally she hasn't, as he is a struggling inventor, but love is love...for some reason; Tone has never appealed to me and I find it hard to believe he ever did to women like Harlow and, off-screen, Joan Crawford. Their brand-new romance is tested when it's discovered that Tone's office is a front for German spies; he is seemingly gunned down for knowing too much, Suzy is accused of the deed, and she flees to Paris where she shacks up with gal pal Maisie (Inez Courtney, superb), develops a nightclub act (apparently laying low wasn't on her itinerary), and falls for smarmy French pilot Grant (with no accent) after WWI breaks out. It all becomes a little soap sudsy and melodramatic for my tastes, which is saying something considering what a sucker I am for women's pictures of the era. Harlow is the right girl for the part, but the script feels slightly undercooked and neither romance gels satisfactorily. At least we get a taste of the Grant we know and love, the irascible rapscallion with a sharp tongue, a teasing nature, and a veneer of smarm that is still somehow lovable. Suzy was one of the last films Grant made while on his Paramount contract (loaned out here to MGM) before not renewing his option and pursuing freelance work, a risky move in the studio era. He was one of the first stars to take the plunge into this relatively uncharted territory, and while he wasn't entirely a free agent (he signed a three-year contract with Columbia allowing him to pick and choose outside projects as he wished), it proved a wise decision on his part. But more on that later... Even after the Code began being enforced, there were still a few eyebrow-raising scenes in films of the era. Here, Harlow spends a large part of a conversation topless (hidden) in her dressing room, making you forget this was 1936 and not 1933. Una O'Connor, the go-to actress for British kook parts, is a lot of fun as Suzy's landlady in a one-scene appearance.
The Toast of New York (1937) brought Grant to RKO, arguably the least of the Hollywood major studios, and reunited him with his Eagle and the Hawk co-star Jack Oakie. RKO is where Oakie flourished as a comic actor and box office presence in delightfully watchable pictures like this one. Here, he and Grant are rather equal in their support of Edward Arnold in a rare leading role as Jim Fisk, the real-life opportunist who profited on cotton smuggling during the Civil War and pulled fast ones on wealthy targets until he climbed into control of the nation's gold market. I won't go into the factual inaccuracies in the film, as classic Hollywood was not known for sticking to the truth without embellishing some elements of a person's biography and ignoring others. The first half of the film, with a quick pace and a great sense of humor as we follow the trio of con men successfully scheming to line their pockets with cash, is superior to the second half, which becomes bogged down by a love triangle between Grant, Arnold, and Frances Farmer (before her breakdown) as aspiring actress Josie Mansfield. The story becomes needlessly confused and tough to follow, making one pine for the simple pleasures of the film's enjoyable first act. RKO spent a considerable amount of money on the film, but alas didn't recoup its investment when the film bombed at the box office. It's certainly a confused narrative, but is far from a complete failure and wouldn't be a waste of your time. Anyone with an appreciation for classic Hollywood would find something to enjoy in this picture. In addition to the very capable leading men, some of Arnold's fellow character actor greats of the era contribute their fair share of memorable moments, including Donald Meek as stingy Daniel Drew, Clarence Kolb as cocky Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Billy Gilbert as a flustered German photographer.
Night and Day (1946) doesn't fit in at all with the films preceding it, as it was produced by Warner Brothers a full decade after the rest of them. That said, it is one of Grant's more enduring fan favorites, shot in beautiful Technicolor (a rarity for Grant in the 1930s and 1940s) and featuring lots of Cole Porter music. Frankly, it's one of my least favorite Grant pictures, but there's no denying its importance in his filmography. Preparing to play Cole Porter in this film was stressful for the actor, who hadn't worked for a year when the production of the biopic began, but it wasn't only the studio who wouldn't take no from him for an answer. Porter himself insisted that no one else play him! How interesting that a closeted actor was tapped to play a closeted version of a gay composer's life. Yale 1914: Cole Porter has decided to abandon his studies and become a composer, joining forces with Monty Woolley (playing himself) in putting on stage revues. WWI takes him to France before he returns, begins composing again, marries the society lady who nursed him back to health, and encounters the age-old conflict of love vs. career.
As with Toast of New York, don't come to the table expecting a solid biography of Porter's real life story (see De-Lovely for that). If you want a swoon-worthy Grant, shot for only the second time in Technicolor (the first was for the 1935 MGM short Pirate Party on Catalina Island) and plentiful music, then you won't be disappointed. One can't complain too much about the state of the the facts in the script. Porter himself worked with director Curtiz and his three screenwriters in bringing his story to the screen, and must have realized that his magnificent adventures as a gay composer in America were not going to be embraced by Hollywood or the public, so settled on having his favorite movie star play him in a fabricated tale of romance and songs. Three writers, Curtiz, and Porter came up with this nonsense? The film's production was not a pleasant experience for Grant or seemingly anyone else, save Alexis Smith who got to kiss her youthful matinee idol crush while playing Porter's wife...before he screamed at her for almost getting body make-up on a British-made suit he couldn't get replaced during wartime. Personal problems at home with his then-wife, Barbara Hutton, might have inspired his outrageous diva behavior on the set. Grant demanded and got final cast, costume, and set approval, giving him power superseding studio professionals with years of experience under their belt. He clashed with Curtiz regularly, complaining about the script (which was rewritten regularly during production), insisting on multiple retakes after revising the script himself on the spot, going into fits over what he perceived to be incorrect set dressings or historically inaccurate costumes on extras, whining about the film's three (!) cinematographers and their color photography of him, firing a child actor and sending him crying from the set, etc., etc. Jack Warner himself had to intervene to guide the ship to shore! Did Grant not realize the entire story was a fabrication? None of it really happened except in Hollywood dreamland. Smith believes he was irritable the entire time because he had gone from working with acclaimed playwright Clifford Odets and an Oscar nomination for None But the Lonely Heart to making this pointless biopic garbage; others theorized he was taking out his frustrations with Hutton on everyone else around him. I might lean towards the former. It may have been all worth the nightmares on-set if the film were any good; the final product is strictly average, maybe even worse.
Grant later called his performance "inept", which is unfairly self-critical but not entirely wrong, either. It's hard to play a true-life character in entirely fictional scenarios. The conflict as an actor must have been quite something. There are a few memorable sequences, like a stage audience gradually emptying during a performance when news of the Lusitania's sinking spreads, and the supporting cast has some nice surprises. Eve Arden hams it up with a French accent in a typically fun Arden part. It's easy to forget Jane Wyman began her ingenue career as a blonde; after her Oscar win for Johnny Belinda in 1948, she rarely deviated from the brunette look. She's a personal favorite with any hair color. Woolley was a great presence in all of his film work, and is lucky to have survived the shoot. He was suffering from a bladder infection during most of the production, and had to rush to complete his scenes before undergoing an important operation to save his life.
To be continued...