Thursday, October 22, 2009

'Damsel' Distressed

"A Damsel in Distress" is the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical that Ginger never made.

Not that it was meant for the two of them originally. It's just that this otherwise-bubbly 1937 film contains all of the elements of a Fred/Ginger musical except for her. And boy, is she missed, because without her what's left is a romance that's short on ... well, romance. In fact, the leading lady -- a very young Joan Fontaine, who turned 20 one month before the film's release -- is billed fourth and really a supporting player. In a romantic comedy, in which the title refers to her, how can this be?!?

That's one of the big head-scratchers in this movie. The other is why Fred would use his time away from Ginger to make a film just like the ones he was making with her.

A little history: When "Shall We Dance?" was released in early 1937, it was Fred and Ginger's seventh movie together in a little more than four years. They then embarked on what would be an 18-month sabattical from each other. Ginger, yearning to start a non-musical phase in her career, made three non-musicals during this time -- "Stage Door," "Having Wonderful Time" and "Vivacious Lady." Although she starred in the latter two, it was her supporting role in the critically acclaimed "Stage Door," featuring Katharine Hepburn," that proved she could mix strong drama with musical comedy.

As for Fred, he made one film during this break: "A Damsel in Distress." Yet this musical relied on the talents of those who had participated in past Fred/Ginger films -- director George Stevens ("Swing Time"), choreographer Hermes Pan, the Gershwin Brothers ("Shall We Dance?"), producer Pan Berman. It's no wonder that you expect Ginger to waltz out as the damsel rather than Joan Fontaine.

The plot is lightweight nonsense about British Fontaine to marry, the household betting on whom she'll marry, and Astaire the visiting American who falls for her. Because the plot is thin, it requires instant chemistry between Fred and Joan -- which sadly doesn't happen.

I like Joan (above), yet this is very early in her career. In fact, she'd made mostly B movies up until this point, and her acting isn't where it would be three years later. Watching this film makes her triumph in "Rebecca" even more stunning. Plus she's not a singer or a dancer, so why she ended up in a musical is beyond me. Joan's one musical number with Fred is a stroll through a park, in which she is given simplistic movements such as dashing up a hill or around a tree.

Pairing them is like pairing caviar and a Ritz cracker.

Fred instead spends his time dancing either by himself or with other people, who turn out to be the film's other stars, George Burns and Gracie Allen (above). And thank goodness for them. While Gracie's schtick can be annoying at first, I found myself looking forward to her crazy one-liners at the expense of George's perfect straight-man routine. The two also acquit themselves nicely in several musical numbers with Fred.

In fact, the musical numbers in this film are quite good. Hermes Pan' work on the "Fun House" number, featuring Fred, Gracie and George, is so exhuberant that it won an Oscar (back when Oscars were awarded for Best Dance Direction). Add in some classic Gershwin songs like "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Foggy Day in London Town," and you have top-notch music in the film.

So you have all of these super elements in place. But when a musical is called "A Damsel in Distress," and said damsel is played by a non-musical actress still learning her craft and has less screen time than her co-stars, you can see why this can be a disappointing affair.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October Audrey of the Month

Was thinking about "Wait Until Dark" today and decided to find a late 1960s shot of Audrey to enjoy. Sigh. Will never tire of this monthly feature :)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

'Mildred': Fierce Indeed

It was Joan's comeback role and scored big at the box office.

And I really should thank Carol Burnett for introducing me to "Mildred Pierce." As any fans of Burnett's variety show know, she grew up going to movies with her grandmother and loved them. She translated that into super sketches that parodied film classics, from "Gone With the Wind" to "Rebecca." As I began getting into old movies, I'd come across one that, halfway though, I'd say, "Oh yeah, Carol Burnett did a parody of this."

Apparently, she did two of "Mildred Pierce" called "Mildred Fierce." But it's the one from the mid-'70s that I love, with Carol in classic '40s hairstyle and shoulder pads, Vicki Lawrence as selfish daughter Veda, and Harvey Korman as Monte. The parody may be short, but for anyone who's seen the 1945 film, it's 10 minutes of brilliance -- and remains one of my favorite Carol Burnett movie parodies.

I also want to thank the three people (three? am I losing my touch?) who voted in my recent poll to say that they don't mind Kate Winslet tackling the role. While I worship Kate, I'm still hesitant to believe the 2010 miniseries will work, as my love of the original still remains strong.

To understand the original's importance in film history is to know more about its star, film noir's popularity and what I like to think of as this film's own unique spin on the genre.

Joan Crawford was a star. She spent 18 years at MGM, and her persona embodied everything from carefree youth roles in the late 1920s to hard-working shop girl-type roles during the Depression. In 1938, the Independent Theater Owners of America labeled Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as box-office poison. Within two years all were back in fine form, with Crawford in the all-female ensemble "The Women." But it was a momentary bump in popularity, and she left MGM. Warner Brothers snapped her up in 1943, but outside of an appearance in "Hollywood Canteen," she refused all scripts, waiting for the right one to come along. Bette Davis, then under contract at Warners, turned the role down of Mildred. However, Joan snapped it up. Even though she had resisted playing mothers during her career so far, seeing herself as the star and leading romantic love interest, she loved the role and wisely realized it could start a new chapter to her career.

Director Michael Curtiz wasn't so sure. He didn't want to work with a person known to be difficult. So she consented to a screen test for him, and he acquiesced.

"Mildred" is based upon a 1941 book by James M. Cain (who also wrote "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice"). Although I have not read the book, apparently all of the characters are unpleasant, but each has a redeeming value. For the movie, the story was changed to turn Mildred into a self-sacrificing mom who becomes a victim of circumstances. Daughter Veda and second husband Monte lose their redeeming values to become antagonists.

"Mildred Pierce" has the uncanny knack of combining elements of a woman's picture and film noir, with a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. In fact, the movie opens with Monte being shot, and after falling to the ground, he utters one dying word, "Mildred." Then we see Mildred walking along a dock late at night, hugging her massive fur coat close to her in the swirling mist. As she stops along a railing, looking down at the water, despondent, fighting back tears, we know she wants to jump. But a police officer stops her. As Mildred and other suspects are hauled down to the police station, the story unfolds in flashbacks -- Mildred's unhappy marriage breaking up, her desire to give both daughters everything she never had, resulting in her working night and day to do so. Mildred's oldest daughter, Veda (the devilish Ann Blyth, above two photos), grows up to be spoiled and ungrateful. Mildred ends up in the restaurant business with Ida Corwin (a wonderfully wisecracking Eve Arden, above at far right) and falls in love with cad Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Throw in sleazy lawyer Wally Fay (the underrated Jack Carson), who hounds Mildred even while married, and you've got one doozy of a story.

Film noir is one of the most famous genres of the 1940s. Certainly Billy Wilder's adaptation of Cain's "Double Indemnity" proved its value at the box office and an Oscar magnet in 1944. But when most people think of film noir, they think of the jaded detective, or a jaded hero, or a sexually charged situation between the leading man and woman. It's rare to find a female-centric story falling into the film noir category. Which is why some people may consider this a darker version of a woman's picture.

But it's squarely film noir. And it's great to see a story within this genre that favors its female characters. Without a doubt, Mildred and Veda are locking horns at every step, and watching their personal drama unfold powers the plot. Ida could just be the wisecracking supporting player, but she's also wise, the one character who can step back and see exactly what's going on. And beneath her verbal lobs is a loyal friendship with Mildred. She's got Mildred's back, even if Mildred thinks she can handle everything on her own. These three female characters own the film.

The story is dark, which keeps this from becoming camp. In addition to the motherly devotion, you have a murder mystery that uncovers fiscal and sexual wrongdoings. The sexual politics alone are intriguing. When we first meet Carson's Wally, for example, Mildred is still married, and he makes a play for her. This taints him in our minds right away, yet he keeps coming back, likable yet slimy, although he's fully aware of who he is. Monte's devotion to Mildred and Veda pits the mother against the daughter as they begin vying for the attention of the same man. This is pretty sensational stuff to be seeing during a time when the Production Code was being enforced.

I also want to point out that Jerry Wald was the producer. Strong producers during the studio era had a big hand in shaping their productions, and Wald is no exception. He conceived this in his head, and the project went from one writer to another before he was satisfied.

But in the end, "Mildred Pierce" became Joan Crawford's comeback. The ingenious marketing campaign simply stated "Don't tell what Mildred Pierce did!" And the movie was a hit, earning six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Actress and two for Supporting Actress (Blyth and Arden). This was Crawford's first nomination, and while people were hoping she would win, she was less sure of the outcome. On Oscar night, she couldn't bear to attend the ceremonies and claimed to be sick. While 1944 winner Ingrid Bergman was her closest competition, with some believing she would take back-to-back Oscars for her performance in "The Bells of St. Mary's," it was Joan's name that was called out. Crawford, listening at home on the radio, immediately got out of bed and prepared for the arrival of the press. Curtiz had accepted the Oscar upon her behalf and rushed to Crawford's house to present it to her. The result? Photos of Crawford, at home in bed, cradling her Oscar, became the lasting moment and image of that year's awards. In the end, she had the headlines all to herself, the comeback complete. She would earn two more Oscar nominations -- for "Possessed" in 1947 and "Sudden Fear" in 1952.

How will Kate fare in the remake? I'm not sure. But I hope people never forget the original. It's a classic, has a great back story, and contains one of the greatest comebacks of all time by one of Hollywood's biggest legends.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Paramount Tour


Catching "How the West Was Won" in Cinerama was the unexpected delight of our recent trip to LA. The second unexpected experience was taking two studio tours. We had not planned on it, but I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity. So, on the last day of our trip, before heading to the Cinerama dome, we found ourselves at the historic Paramount Pictures lot.

Or I should say lots, because Paramount and RKO were next-door neighbors. But after Howard Hughes ran RKO into the ground in the 1950s, Desilu -- the company formed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz -- bought and moved into the RKO studio. Paramount eventually bought the property to form one large lot, so the tour takes you through both Paramount and the former RKO.

As always, a little history: Adolph Zukor founded Famous Players in NYC. In 1916, Famous Players merged with Hollywood's Jesse Lasky Company to form Famous Players-Lasky. Paramount was the company formed to distribute the films made at this studio, and eventually everything just became known as Paramount.

The studio opened at its current location in 1926, with the famed Bronson Gate (shown above), seen in such films as the great "Sunset Blvd," which was made at Paramount. Writer/director Billy Wilder was under contract at Paramount, and "Sunset Blvd." is arguably one of studio's most famous films from the golden era. It was a thrill to see the famed gate, although it's no longer the main entrance to the studio.

Since this was our third studio tour in two years, it's worth pointing out that they all share similarities -- walking through a few sound stages, learning about history, discussing the current projects. Yet despite this final point, visiting a studio is like slipping into the past. For example, when our wonderful guide, Lauren, pointed out a former RKO building where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rehearsed their musical numbers, I was in heaven. I resisted the urge to tap dance (mainly because I can't dance), but in my mind I was seeing images of "Cheek to Cheek" from "Top Hat."

Lauren also slipped us into the RKO theater where Howard Hughes barricaded himself for one month (an episode that Martin Scorsese put in "The Aviator" with Leonardo DiCaprio, although the scenes were filmed elsewhere). Lucille Ball's former office overlooks a grassy area that she had made to resemble the back yard of her Beverly Hills home. For all of you 1970s TV geeks out there, we got to see the building exterior used as the high school for both "The Brady Bunch" and "Happy Days." We also wandered around the set of "Monk," which wasn't filming that day.

But for the movie fans, the trip to the back lot buildings was a highlight. One building contained a space used both as a restaurant for "The Godfather" and the dime store in "Breakfast at Tiffany's"! This is also the lot of Billy Wilder, who made films like "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend" and "Sunset Blvd."; the great Preston Sturges, creator of such comedy classics as "Sullivan's Travels" and "The Lady Eve"; Mae West; Marlene Dietrich; famed costume designer Edith Head; and so many others, too numerous to name here.

Lauren shared so many terrific details. But rather than print them here, just make sure to book a Paramount tour the next time you visit LA. If my recent week in CA taught me anything, it's to continue looking for the movie history that exists on each visit.