Thursday, May 23, 2013

Summer-Gab, Summer-Gab Sum-Sum Summer-Gab

Wise: Howdy, Werth.  It's Memorial Day weekend and the beginning of summer.  Do you have your flip flops, towels and sunscreen ready?  

Werth: Um, don't you mean my mosquito repellant and travel wine?  

Wise: I forgot that while I'm taking in some seaside sun, you'll be headed to the mountains.  But there's one thing we can always agree on: Great Summer Movies!

Werth: My pick this week might have been great, but too many choice ingredients made Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) a sweaty hodge podge of a movie. Suddenly's pedigree certainly pointed towards greatness. You could have swung a dead cat and hit a legend. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, with a script written by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal, and starring Katharine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Mercedes McCambridge, producer Sam Spiegel must have smelled Oscar gold. But his nose would wind-up smelling something less fragrant.

Wise: Maybe that dead cat you're swinging around. 

Werth: Suddenly opens in the moist setting of New Orleans where brain surgeon Dr. Cukrowicz (Clift) is summoned for an audience with hospital benefactress and all-around rich bitch, Violet Venable (Hepburn). Venable descends in a two-floor elevator to tell the good doctor that she will give money to his failing hospital if he retrieves her niece Catherine (Taylor) from a nun-run mental institution and promptly give her a lobotomy so she will stop saying crazy things about Venable's beloved dead son, Sebastian. 

Wise: Because nothing says "I love you" more than severing the frontal lobe. 

Werth: As Venable gives Cukrowicz a tour of the Eden-ic garden that her son designed, we get the sense that Sebastian and his mom were a little too close for comfort. And when Cukrowicz meets Catherine to find not a raging lunatic, but a fragile, willful beauty who has been shocked into amnesia regarding Sebastian's mysterious death, Cukrowicz smells something fishy. It doesn't help that Catherine's own mother (McCambridge) urges her to get the lobotomy so that they won't be written out of Violet's lucrative will. 

Wise: I'm sure that fishy smell wasn't her White Diamonds perfume. 

Werth: Cukrowicz of course falls in love with Catherine because it's impossible not to fall in love with the luminous, young Elizabeth Taylor, and has a final showdown in front of the family where a little sodium pentothal reveals what really happened to dear Sebastian... kind of. 
The ending of Suddenly was as ripe for parody as it was for head-scratching and contributed to the overall sense of audience and critical confusion about the film. The offscreen history probably didn't help. Clift was still in recovery from a car accident that messed up his face and found it difficult to perform long takes. Mankiewicz was rumored to have been so cruel to Clift, that at the end of shooting, Hepburn spit in Mankiewicz's face. 
And troubles with the Production Code meant Williams and Vidal (but apparently entirely Vidal) had to write the script so it dealt with incest, cannibalism and homosexuality without pissing off the Legion of Decency. The film wound-up garnering Oscar noms for Hepburn and Taylor and for the art and set design of Sebastian's gothic garden. But overall, this summer film landed in the winter of Hollywood's discontent.

Wise: Summer Stock (1950) is not Judy Garland's best film, but it may be her sunniest.  As farmer Jane Falbury, she reluctantly allows her younger sister Abigail (Gloria DeHaven) to bring a theater troupe to stay at the farm to rehearse a new show; in return, the actors promise to lend a hand around the struggling farm.  The director of the troupe, Joe Ross (Gene Kelly), notices Jane's singing and dancing talent and encourages her to perform in the show the troupe is rehearsing, 
much to the chagrin of Jane's stodgy fiancé Orville (Eddie Bracken) and his even stodgier father Jasper Wingait (the always wonderful Ray Collins).  The town fathers attempt to drive off the theater folk, but eventually cooler heads—and some swinging dance numbers—prevail.  

Werth: Dance numbers always prevail.

Wise: The plot may be silly, but Summer Stock is chock full of great music and performances.  Kelly performs a career defining solo in a darkened barn, using a creaky board and an old newspaper as props.  The concept doesn't sound very promising, but Kelly's ability to transform the ordinary into something transcendent became part of his signature style. 
He and Garland share one of their best dance duets in "Portland Fancy" by turning an old folk tune into swing.  Phil Silvers has some fun comic moments as Kelly's sidekick, but the best laughs go to Marjorie Main as Garland's housekeeper.  

Werth: Don't forget handsome MGM musical chorusboy Carleton Carpenter. He's a delightful gentleman who can add old school glamor to a night at Marie's Crisis.

Wise: In some ways, it's surprising that Summer Stock is Garland's last film at MGM, the studio that had nurtured (and occasionally tortured) her from adolescence and into stardom.  She sings with gusto and brings both her crack comic timing and her tender vulnerability to a role that was designed to be an easy fit after her spectacular flame-out in the preparation for Annie Get Your Gun.  But off-screen, all the familiar problems plagued the production, and once the shoot was over, Garland and MGM parted ways.  
Even so, Summer Stock contains some memorable performances, including an impeccably timed number on a tractor and the legendary "Get Happy" which proved that Garland could sizzle hotter than the August sun.  

Werth: All this talk about summer is making me want to turn on my AC and strip down to my unmentionables.

Wise: Tune in next week for more fun in the sun with Film Gab!

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