Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy Birthday Radio City!

Werth: How do, Wise?

Wise: I do well, Werth. I see you're baking another cake. Who's the lucky star? Rod Taylor?

Werth: While it is the dashing Aussie actor's 83rd birthday, today also marks the 80th Anniversary of the first movie shown at what was once New York's most famous movie theater, Radio City Music Hall. It's hard to believe what with all the concerts and Cirque de Soleil antics that currently go into Radio City, that until 1979 you could actually watch movies at the opulent landmark.

Wise: Did the Rockettes sell jujubes between showings of Burt Reynolds flicks?

Werth: The first film shown was The Bitter Tea of General Yen starring Barbara Stanwyck and it was an auspicious start to 1933 for the budding actress. In July of the same year, Stanwyck starred in what would become one of her most notorious classics, Baby Face. Stanwyck plays Lily, a girl from the mining town side of Erie, PA, who works in her father's rundown speakeasy slinging drinks and dodging come-ons from the sometimes shirtless clientele. 
After her father tries to pimp her out for police protection and is karmically blown-up by his own still, Lily hikes up her garters and heads to New York City to use her feminine charms to get everything she never had.

Wise: You mean a gay best friend and Louis Vuitton bag?

Werth: A very clever cinematic device is used to show how Lily climbs the corporate ladder man by man (including a young, un-western John Wayne) until she is using her sexy gaze to woo the president of the bank and living high on the hog. But like the stock market crash that haunted the era, Lily's success doesn't last and she is forced to face the consequences of using love to manipulate people. 
Stanwyck's ability to play hard-edged dames that were eminently likable made her the perfect actress for Lily. Stanwyck played Lily's sexuality like a cat, aggressive when she sees something she wants, but reluctant once she is finished to do anything other than curl up in a ball and lap at her milkbowl. It's the kind of multi-layered performance that she became legendary for, with explosive outbursts of anger and tenderness that exposed the human side to this hard-edged tramp. 
But in case you thought Stanwyck was all smart-mouth and come hither glances, Orry-Kelly's posterior-hugging gowns also remind us that Stanwyck was a beautiful woman. In one particular scene she is given the Garbo-look, with swept back hair and penciled eyebrows that show this spunky gal from Brooklyn was one of Hollywood's great lookers as well as one its best actresses.

Wise: I know a few Brooklyn gals who could use a little Orry-Kelly in their lives. 

Werth: Baby Face became a lightening rod for controversy due to its explicit display of immoral character and was altered after its initial release to include strange German moralizing from a cobbler (Alphonse Ethier) and a new ending. Once the Production Code began being enforced by Joseph I. Breen and Company in 1934, the likes of Baby Face would not be seen again in American film until the dismantling of the Hays Code in the mid-1960's.

Wise: 1933 also saw the premiere of Paramount's all-star film extravaganza of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.  An amalgam of both Alice books, the film was adapted by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and was based in part on the successful stage version of the Carroll's classic by Eva LaGallienne and Florida Friebus.  In our contemporary world where fantasy has become box office bread and butter, it's strange to see the filmmakers struggling to bring Great Britain's classic fairy tale to the screen.  

Werth: Looking at some of the stock photos, I'm actually terrified of these characters

Wise: The film scrupulously tries to recreate Sir John Tenniel's famous illustrations through clever use of sets, make-up and costumes, and lifts dialogue wholesale from Carroll's text, but despite this fidelity to the source material, the film lacks the sourball pleasure of the original.  
The all-star cast—including W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen and May Robeson as the Queen of Hearts—works hard to capture the book's absurdity, but are hampered by Norman McLeod's static direction and utter lack of pace.  Part of the problem also lies with Charlotte Henry's Alice: she looks the part, but is completely unable to summon the occasional prickly impatience of Carroll's heroine. 

Werth: I'm often described as prickily impatient.

Wise: There have been many claims over the years that the film's failure at the box office was caused by audiences unable to recognize their favorite stars under the heavy character make-up, but it seems to me that the real problem wasn't so much Wally Westmore's cleverly designed prosthetics as it was the entire production's effort to be laboriously faithful to the books without injecting the kind of madcap zip that Depression era films were capturing so well.  
There are plenty of moments just aching to leap off the screen—particularly Fields' cantankerous turn and the always genius Edward Everett Horton's Mad Hatter—but just never make it.  It was a film carefully studied by the powers at MGM as they began production on The Wizard of Oz
and it's probably no coincidence that the latter movie eschewed Baum's turn of the century setting and plainspoken dialogue in favor of contemporary Kansas and the zing of Tin Pan Alley swing.  

Werth: It's nice to see how you always bring it back to Judy.  

Wise: As long as we both bring it back for next week's Film Gab.

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