Werth: Good to be back, Wise. I see you held down the fort with your in-depth review of the new Oz flick.
Wise: It had everything except Mila Kunis' viral BBC Radio interview.
Werth: Now that I'm back, I thought we could wish a happy 100th birthday to Hollywood agent icon Lew Wasserman.
Wise: He repped a Film Gab's who's who of stars: Bette Davis, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, Henry Fonda, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Gregory Peck, Billy Wilder and Gene Kelly
Werth: Wasserman became just as famous as many of his clients when, in the 1950's as head of MCA, he helped change the film industry through the practice of film packaging where Wasserman would gather a roster of talent across the spectrum of film specialties (actors, directors, writers, production designers, costumers, you name it!) and then pitch them out on projects as a whole. Not only did this make certain that MCA made a lot of money, but it also kept production teams together, ensuring that these hit-making artisans worked on more than one movie together.
Wasserman's relationship with Alfred Hitchcock is a perfect example. With MCA since the early Fifties, Hitchcock had become a household commodity through his television show and hit movies, but in 1959, with Wasserman's help, he would make one of his most iconic and popular films, North by Northwest.
Wise: Spy capers were a lot more thrilling in the days before Google Maps.
Werth: From the Saul Bass opening with vivid animation and Bernard Herrmann's sprinting score, North by Northwest flies (pun intended.) Cary Grant is Roger Thornhill, a bachelor advertising exec who accidentally interrupts a page at the Oak Room in the old Plaza Hotel who is calling for George Kaplan. This one quirk of fate sets into motion a cross-country, mistaken identity, cat-and-mouse game between Thornhill and criminal mastermind Phillip Vandamm (James Mason).
It's a literal planes, trains and automobiles adventure as Thornhill attempts to find the elusive George Kaplan and clear his name before Vandamm or his nefarious "secretary" Leonard (performed with gay, jilted-lover relish by Martin Landau) snuff him out.
Wise: Fey henchmen love to snuff.
Werth: While riding the Twentieth Century train to Chicago, Thornhill winds up bunking with Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), a cold, mysterious Hitchcock blond if there ever was one. The chemistry between Grant and Marie Saint nearly burns the celluloid.
Their dinner scene on the train and subsequent makeout session is one of the sexiest bits in classic film that just barely goes under the censors' radars. It's that type of energy that whisks this film through its twists and turns with only small moments to stop and catch our breath and appreciate Grant's Foster Brooks imitation.
Wise: That makes me thirsty for a bourbon, a sports car and a cap gun.
Werth: Hitchcock puts the Vistavision film format to its most spectacular use, creating horizons and heights that fill the widescreen with a desolate Indiana cornfield and the top of Mount Rushmore.
The post-Vertigo use of technicolor is a shade less overt, but still the siennas, salmon pinks, blue greens, and reds punctuate settings and costumes, earning the film a Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar nomination. Many of the sets start off as real exterior shots, but the cornfield, Mount Rushmore, and the U.N. all become meticulously crafted sets or dreamy matte paintings under Hitchcock's direction.
At the beginning of the film Thornhill says in advertising, "there is no such thing as a lie." In a Hitchock film, everything, from the blonde to the Vandamm house set on top of Mount Rushmore is one thrilling, cinematic lie.
Wise: There may not be quite so many lies in The Band Wagon (1953), but it does involve some fancy footwork from another of Wasserman's clients, Fred Astaire. Considered by many as one of the best musicals from old Hollywood, The Band Wagon casts Astaire as fading movie star Tony Hunter who absconds to New York where he hopes to revive his film career by starring in a Broadway show written by his old pals Lester and Lily Marton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). Hoping to make a sensation, the trio convinces Broadway wunderkind Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct the show; instead he transforms the Martons's madcap musical into a grim update of Faust.
Werth: I know when I think of Faust, I think of tap numbers.
Wise: Buchanan's one brilliant coup is casting ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) as the female lead despite the reservations of her manager/boyfriend Paul Byrd (Thomas Mitchell). Beyond that, his grandiose ideas prove to be a flop, and the highly anticipated tryout in New Haven bombs so badly that all the financial backers flee the production. To save the show, Tony sells his art collection to fund an overhaul and ends up with both a Broadway smash and the girl.
Werth: The art market was very good in 1953.
Wise: Screenwriting team Betty Comden and Adolph Green have obvious fun spoofing their own reputations—Fabray and Levant brilliantly capture the team's sophistication and its neuroses—as well as director Vincente Minnelli in the over-the-top campiness of Buchanan.
Of course Minnelli brings his own signature use of color and deft camera moves to the mix, although he wisely allows Astaire's genius to take center stage. The sparks never really fly between
Astaire and Charisse, nevertheless Astaire's dancing is impossibly romantic whether with a shoeshine man (Leroy Daniels) in a Times Square penny arcade or with Charisse in a soundstage version of Central Park that's almost better than the real thing.
Werth: It's all thanks to the late, great Lew Wasserman—who was better at picking movies than he was at picking eyewear.
Wise: Check back with Film Gab next week for more of our favorite picks.