Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Silent Singing on Sunset

Recently Sam Staggs' book about Sunset Boulevard arrived in the Film Gab library, and among the many interesting tidbits about the film and its aftereffects is star Gloria Swanson's long held desire to recreate the role of fallen silent star Norma Desmond in a Broadway musical.  According to Staggs, she spent thousands on lawyers' fees, promotions, and on the salary of her young composers Richard Stapley and Dickson Hughes, only to have the project fall apart long before it reached the Great White Way.  (Of course Sunset Boulevard did reach Broadway many years later, but with an Andrew Lloyd Webber score.)  

One of the most intriguing remnants of Swanson's quest is her appearance on The Steve Allen Show in 1957, singing what she hoped would be the opening number to the show.  It's strange to see Swanson's Desmond erupt into song, even more strange to hear the tragic movie queen warble in a trilling soprano that seems better suited to Jeanette MacDonald.  It's hard to say whether a singing Swanson would have been a success, but it's fun to imagine what her performance might have been like. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Are the Stars Out Tonight?

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  

Werth:  Good evening, sir.  May I offer you a cocktail?  

Wise:  I'll take the booze, but what's with the penguin suit?  

Werth: Lee Daniels' The Butler opens today and I'm getting ready for the juggernaut of Hollywood talent that plays presidential dress-up in a fictionalized version of the life of White House domestic Eugene Allen.  Alan Rickman plays Reagan, James Marsden plays Kennedy, Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan—

Wise: But will any of them be as good as Oprah?  

Werth:  Not if she has a scene where she marches through a cornfield. Hollywood realized the scratch to be made by lumping together their top stars early on, and when the silents turned to talkies, MGM tried the tactic to beat its competitors to the musical punch with The Hollywood Revue of 1929. It's one of those cases where the title says it all. Mimicking the Broadway and vaudeville stage shows of the time, MGM put together a group of musical numbers, comedy sketches, and dance routines using a "galaxy of stars" both known and relatively unknown.

Wise: It's one way to keep idle stars off the skids. 

Werth: Master of Ceremonies Jack Benny had been a vaudeville regular, but his violin-toting, deadpan act was still in its infancy for Revue. Benny mugs and puns as he introduces the acts, including then matinee idol Conrad Nagel as the evening's Interlocutor.

Wise: Evidence of Nagel's long and successful career in film, television and radio can be seen in his three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

Werth: Fame seemed to haunt Revue. Buster Keaton shimmies as an Egyptian dancer in "The Dance of the Sea" but the stoic-faced comic's most notable years were behind him. Meanwhile Laurel and Hardy perform a magic act complete with a cake-in-the-face pratfall while they were moving from silent short stars to feature-length comedy stars. 
Other silent luminaries who transitioned to sound successfully in Revue are Norma Shearer, William Randolph Hearst's main squeeze Marion Davies, and a young Joan Crawford who dances and sings like her life depended on it. But some counted Revue as the sunset of their careers with both dashing William Haines and handsome but prissy-throated John Gilbert ending their careers by 1936. 
Marie Dressler's career was supposedly over by 1929, but a year later this vaudeville veteran would be seeing a career re-birth by starring with Garbo in Anna Christie and getting an Oscar for Min and Bill.

Wise: Nothing like a little song and dance to jumpstart a comeback. 

Werth: Revue is one of those early sound films that's best watched like it's a filmic cave drawing. Sound was only two years young at this point, and many directors, including Revue's, were unskilled at moving the camera. The dialogue is stilted, numbers seem to go on interminably and most scenes are shot with a static camera facing the stage as if you were sitting in the audience of George White's Scandals. 
But cinematic touches appear in a couple numbers with a strange film negative minstrel show, a special effects shot of dancer/singer Bessie Love miniaturized (twice), the use of two-strip Technicolor for a couple scenes, and kaleidoscopic, overhead shots of the not-so-precise dancers dancing in fear to "Lon Chaney's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out." 
These shots must have been informed by choreographer Busby Berkeley's earlier Broadway work, but he was not involved with the filming. He would start revolutionizing film a year later when he staged the dances for Samuel Goldwyn's Whoopee! 

Whatever the primitive flaws of Revue, it was a hit and earned an Oscar nomination that year garnering a lot of attention for the song, "Singin' in the Rain," and its lyricist, future musical mogul Arthur Freed.

Wise: The success of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and its long list of La-La-Land luminaries prompted a surge in adaptions of Agatha Christie penned mysteries, and one of the most enjoyable is The Mirror Crack'd (1980).  Elizabeth Taylor and Kim Novak play Marina Rudd and Lola Brewster, two long-time rival actresses who descend on a tiny English village to film a lavish costume picture based on contretemps between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots.  
Adding to the pressure cooker atmosphere is Marina's husband Jason (Rock Hudson), the director of the film, and Lola's husband Marty (Tony Curtis), who's the producer.  At a village reception, a gushing fan brags about her devotion to Marina, only to wind up dead after sipping from her idol's cocktail.  
Marina spirals out of control after this attempt on her life, and order is only restored upon the arrival of Angela Lansbury as Christie's beloved Miss Jane Marple in sensible shoes and a tightly curled wig.  

Werth: From Miss Marple to Jessica Fletcher. No one should commit a crime around Angela Lansbury.

Wise: Part of the pleasure of these big ensemble films is the opportunity they give big stars to play outsized versions of themselves.  Taylor as Marina gets to be both more extravagantly beautiful (she arrives on screen wearing a helmet made of lilacs) and more dramatic (the hysterics of her breakdown would have sunk a less starry film).  
She and Novak trade a few delicious barbs whenever they're in the same scene, taking full advantage of the public's endless appetite for the kind of cooked up, bitchy antagonism that sells a lot of movie magazines even to this day.  Tony Curtis plays a seedier version of his character in The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).  
Only Rock Hudson seems a little subdued; his supportive husband lacks the winking charm that made him so great in so many films.  

Werth: For a second, I read that last line as if Rock Hudson had a supportive husband... which he should have.

Wise: Lansbury's performance is a little less broad than her co-stars' efforts, but she still gets to have a lot of sly fun as Christie's grandmotherly know-it-all.  She always has a bit of business to perform—knitting, cooking, pulling a Mackintosh more securely about her shoulders—that distracts both the audience and the criminals from observing her deductive powers at work.  Like the most satisfying whodunnits, the identity of the murderer is the least likely suspect, but the pleasure of the revelation comes from the clever, cat-like way that Lansbury's Marple unravels the mystery in the final reel.  

Werth: Well, Wise, I guess we should reveal that this is something of the final reel for Film Gab.  

Wise: Right.  After almost three years and several hundred movie recommendations, we're going to be taking a little break from our weekly updates.  

Werth: But fear not, loyal Gabbers. We'll be popping in from time to time comment on new films, Hollywood trends, and to salute the passing of our Tinsel Town heroes.  

Wise: In the meantime, why not take a sentimental journey back to the beginning of Film Gab and catch up on any of the flicks you may have missed? 

Werth: And if you ever need a little live Film Gab in your life, just remember that our extensive love of Hollywood lore can be had for the price of a couple drinks.  Cheers!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Where the Goblins Go

There's an all-new mystery afoot in the Merry Old Land of Oz, and Chris Hicks of the Deseret News is ready to investigate: 
You may have read that “The Wizard of Oz” has been rejiggered for IMAX and 3-D, and will play a one-week theatrical run next month at some 400 IMAX theaters around the country (to include Utah) before the Oct. 1 release of a 75th anniversary 3-D/Blu-ray box set. (Although this year marks the 74th anniversary of the film; go figure.)

What you may not know is that “The Wizard of Oz” has also been re-rated, and the board, in its infinite wisdom, has overturned the film’s G rating and marked it with a PG!
We here at Film Gab are generally suspicious of histrionic claims, so we keep a spare magnifying glass and deerstalker cap in the archive for cases just like this.  A bit of Googling reveals the website for The Classifications and Ratings Administration which lists two versions of Oz: the version that's been in theaters and on home video for decades and the upcoming 3-D version.  

Hicks uses this unexpected revision as further evidence of Hollywood's lack of concern for families (he has a book to peddle after all), but perhaps there's something much less sinister afoot.  Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch and her crew of flying monkeys have been terrifying kids for ages, and no matter how beloved a film may be, without the grit of a considerable antagonist, the rainbows and singing Munchkins would fall flat in a morass of treacle.  Maybe the real mistake was saddling Oz with a G rating in the first place, and the happy result of Warner Bros.' 3-D cash grab finally acknowledges the millions of nightmares fed by a remarkable witch. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

The Big Screen in the Sky

Werth here. I am heartbroken to announce that actress Karen Black has passed away after a long battle with cancer. Black came to prominence in the game-changing Easy Rider (1969) and her stardom seemed somehow linked to the new era in movies. She excelled at playing flawed characters, her unique looks masking deeper, more complicated psyches. She worked with some of the great directors, including Hitchcock (Family Plot (1976)) and Robert Altman (Nashville (1975)) and held her own opposite screen legends like Jack Nicholson (Five Easy Pieces (1970)), Robert Redford (The Great Gatsby (1974)), and Bette Davis (Burnt Offerings (1976)). As the wild era of the Seventies faded, so too did Black—almost as if this amazing creature could not breathe the stale air of corporate Eighties Hollywood. She was too complex to symbolize anything as broad as "The Seventies Woman," but for me, she will always represent the ecstatic possibilities that the Seventies brought to cinema.

Jodie! Jodie! Jodie!

Werth: Hello, Doctor Lecter.

Wise: Did I eat someone and not know it?

Werth: I'm practicing my Jodie Foster imitation for this week's Film Gab.

Wise: She and Matt Damon headline one of the most-hyped releases this week, Elysium. Looking at her, it's hard to believe she's been a movie star for over forty years.

Werth: One of her earliest successes was 1976's The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Foster plays the ultimate latch-key kid, Rynn, a bright 13 yr. old who doesn't seem to have any parental supervision. She spends her time combing the beach, doing the NY Times crossword puzzle, learning Hebrew, and reading Emily Dickinson.

Wise: That sounds like my perfect summer vacation. 

Werth: Soon uppity landlord Mrs. Hallett (the domineering Alexis Smith) begins to suspect that Rynn's poet father is not taking a nap or working in his office and confronts the self-reliant, Rynn. 
Rynn has an ace up her sleeve, however, in that Mrs. Hallett's son Frank (Martin Sheen keeping it creepy) is a suspected pedophile, and he's been stopping by to compliment Rynn's hair a little too often.

Wise: I love a good hair compliment.

Werth: The film is a great slow-burn thriller that unfolds as we find out what Rynn is hiding, and how she's going to continue to hide it. A little romantic spark is added by Mario (Scott Jacoby before he played Dorothy's son Michael Zbornak on the Golden Girls) a crippled magician who seems overeager both as a character and an actor. 
What really makes this film watchable is 15 yr. old Foster, who plays Rynn as a little adultwise beyond her years and more clever than the grown-ups around her. '76 was a big year for Foster. She starred in Disney hit Freaky Friday and got an Oscar nom for Taxi Driver, cementing her image as a young actress who wasn't afraid of a challenge. 
And she courted controversy in Little Girl by getting naked on camera before sliding into bed with her boyfriend. It's shocking to see someone so young take that kind of risk, but it wasn't really Foster. Her nude scenes in both Little Girl and Taxi Driver were performed by her body double, older sister Connie Foster.  

Wise: Strong family resemblances also inform one of Foster's later movies Panic Room (2002).  She stars as Meg Altman, a recently divorced woman who buys a brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where she and her daughter Sarah (a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart) hope to reside in peace.  The house previously belonged to a reclusive millionaire whose grandson, Junior (Jared Leto), believes that the old man had millions of dollars hidden in the titular safe room.  He assembles a crew—Forest Whitaker as Burnham and Dwight Yoakam as Raoul—to break into the house and steal back the money.  His plans are disrupted by the presence of Meg and Sarah, and what was planned as a simple breaking and entering erupts into an all-out war.  

Werth: Breaking and entering: the gateway drug to crime.

Wise: The film is David Fincher's follow-up to Fight Club (1999), and he uses some of the same visual tricks—sinuous
camera moves, jump cuts, and off-kilter angles—to keep the tensions rising, although Panic Room lacks some of the humor of its predecessor.  Leto has some amusing bits as a spoiled rich kid, but once the action gets going, almost all sense of lightness is lost.  He and his henchmen gradually become more and more bloodthirsty as Meg prevents them from getting the money and eventually they devolve into chaos.  There's something deeply horrifying about these bad guys that taints the rest of the movie, and no matter how righteous Meg's revenge, their depravity lingers like a bad aroma. 

Werth: I'm still trying to get over the corn rows.

Wise: Some critics have hailed Panic Room as a feminist breakthrough; instead of being a victim of home invaders, Meg fights back.  It makes sense with Foster in the part, although the film could have turned out very differently.  Nicole Kidman was originally cast as Meg, but she had to drop out of the production because of an injury, prompting a major rewrite of the script to reflect the change from Kidman's glamorous and fragile characterization to Foster's more stouthearted one.  Foster is
always best when her characters are driven into some untenable situation and she has to assert her own powers to claw her way back to normalcy.  Panic Room seems to provide the perfect opportunity for that, although the movie never quite gels.  Foster's kick-assery will have you cheering even if she doesn't quite save the rest of the film.  

Werth: Chicka chicka chickabee.  

Wise: Maybe you better save your Nell impersonation for next week's Film Gab. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Big Screen in the Sky

Margaret Pellegrini, one of the last remaining Munchkins from The Wizard of Oz, passed away at her home in Phoenix, Arizona, yesterday.  She was 89.  At age 15 she left her home in Alabama to journey across the country to the magical land of Hollywood where she joined a troupe of 124 little people who were enduring the rigors of dance rehearsals and costume fittings to portray the colorful denizens of Oz.  Pellegrini, being so young and full of personality, was well used by the production team, popping up all over Munchkinland, sometimes in multiple costumes, but always with a big smile.  Her time at the film colony was short, and she soon returned to an ordinary civilian life, but in the 1980's she became a beloved guest at many of Oz festivals
around the country.  Along with her fellow cast mates, she happily reminisced about the making of the picture and about her enduring respect for the talent of Judy Garland.  When the Munchkins received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2007, she was on of the thrilled recipients at the ceremony.  Not simply an extra, Pelelgrini became an ambassador to a beloved movie classic, making that magical, faraway place seem close at hand.  She will be missed tremendously by her family, friends and fans.  


Sunday, August 4, 2013

When the Werth's Away...

Late summer in New York is a beautiful time in the city.  The July heat has mostly dispersed, although not before driving off the beach crowd to their shore-side homes.  The traffic on the avenues has lessened, and while Times Square still throbs with tourists, the city can feel almost empty on a quiet Sunday morning.  Even Film Gab is unusually quiet as Werth has taken his gargantuan trove of movie knowledge down south to visit friends, leaving this humble Gabber to ponder over silver screen explorations of the solitary life.  

In Bridget Jones's Diary (2001), Bridget (Renée Zellweger) would do just about anything not to be single.  Based on Helen Fielding's runaway best seller, both the film and the book depict a woman in her thirties, slightly plump, clumsy, and besotted by romantic notions that obscure the fine qualities of her childhood acquaintance Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) in favor of the rogue sexiness of her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant).  The film is full of pratfalls and cringeworthy embarrassments heaped on Bridget, but somehow Zellweger's bouyancy transforms her character's awkward strivings into something heroic.  (At least the Acadamy thought so;
Zellweger nabbed a Best Actress nomination.)  Of course her co-stars have a lot to do with the success of the picture: Grant deploys his matinee idol looks to make Daniel's toxic charm nearly irresistible, while Firth creates a character so bound up by honor that he appears priggish until Bridget discovers his heart of gold.  

Cast Away (2000) is more properly a film about loneliness.  Tom Hanks stars as Chuck Noland, a FedEx executive so caught up in the rat race that he eschews both family and friends—including his long-suffering fiancée Kelly (Helen Hunt)—in favor of pursuing the corporate grind.  A plane crash lands him on an uninhabited island where for four years he confronts the sequestered life he had always seemed to choose over the people he cared for most.  Hanks does something miraculous here, quieting his comedic impulses and finding the circumspect dignity of a man who has achieved hermetic perfection.  He even does double duty by creating a second character in his volleyball companion Wilson;
when the two face separation, it's as heartwrenching as even the most tragic Hollywood ending.  Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and deservedly so.  His performance, mostly without words and barely with co-stars, is a riveting tour-de-force.  

While not properly a film, William Luce's dramatization of the life of Emily Dickinson, The Belle of Amherst (1976), was filmed for PBS, and even though star Julie Harris appears alone for the full length of the production, she populates the stage with an ensemble of over a dozen other characters in telling the life of this singular American poet.  Directed nimbly by Charles S. Durbin (the primary helmer of TV's M*A*S*H and the Lesley Anne Warren version of Cinderella (1965)), the film escapes the ordinarily flat-footed interpretations of stage-to-screen by focusing primarily on Harris's luminous eyes ("like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves" as Dickinson would have it).  Harris created her performance on Broadway under the direction of Charles Nelson Reilly (yes, that Charles Nelson Reilly), and while Luce's play is full of references to the since-discredited notion of Dickinson as the victim of a tragic romance,
Harris's Dickinson full of the fire and self-possession of an artist at the height of her powers.  Still, she is "small, like the wren," giving a clear idea with her physical performance how a determined woman could elide the chauvinism of the 19th Century world.  

Whatever your summer plans, we here at Film Gab hope you're having a blast, but still saving time to enjoy the pleasure of the silver screen.  Join us again next week when Werth returns and I leave behind my solitary musings for more rollicking adventures of next week's Film Gab.