Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kate as Mildred? Really? Tell Me What You Think

I'm a little late in posting this. After all, this news broke in mid-August, so timely I'm not. But I wanted to share, so indulge me.

I read that the glorious Kate Winslet is possibly signing on for a five-hour miniseries adaptation of James M. Cain's novel "Mildred Pierce." Now, I think Kate's right up there with Meryl Streep, as both could play a phone booth convincingly. But "Mildred Pierce"?

What's startling about the announcement is that the 1945 film version of "Mildred Pierce" is great stuff and features Joan Crawford in an iconic role, the one that signaled a comeback and won her an Oscar.

Still, I won't try to judge, as Kate will surely bring her own fine interpretation to the role. But my gut reaction is "why?"

So, let's hear from you. Take my poll and tell me if you think it's a good idea. Once the poll closes and I know the results, I'll write at length about the movie, which I saw again over the summer.

If this remake happens, the next question I have is, "Who will play Mildred's spoiled daughter, Veda?" Despite the perfect typecasting, please don't let it be Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How the 'West' Was Shown -- in Cinerama!


We happened to be driving on Sunset Boulevard a few weeks ago and passed the Cinerama Dome. It went unoticed by everyone except me, and in the back of my mind I thought, "Hmmmm ... I wonder what's playing there."

It turns out that "How the West Was Won" was playing there, and when I discovered this I began drooling. And why, you may ask, should I salivate at this? Because the 1963 move was filmed in Cinerama, and the chance to see it as originally intended was too much to pass up.

And boy, am I glad I decided to do so! It turns out that "West" is shown during one week every year at the Cinerama Dome -- and it happened to be while I was there. What kind of luck is that?

Now that you understand why my shirts are sometimes stained with drool, you may be asking yourself, "What is Cinerama?"

Well, to keep it short, it's a unique wide-screen process in which a piece of equipment with three cameras on it shoots the movie. Then each of the three strips of film is projected from its own booth and shown in unison on a large, curved screen to create a giant widescreen effect, with the curve adding another dimension to it. Cinerama also has a fourth strip that contains the sound for a multi-channel sound experience. (You can find much longer, technical descriptions of the process online or in books.)

Now, imagine where filmmaking was in the early 1950s. Most films were still in black and white, although color was becoming more popular. No widescreen processes yet. Movie attendance was way down; after a banner 1946, the returning veterans settled down, went back to school, got married and began having families ... thus the beginning of the baby boom. Then TV became a popular fixture in living rooms, and the movie studios were scrambling to come up with ways to compete with TV and woo audiences back to the theater.

When "This Is Cinerama" debuted in 1952, the effect was immediate. Audiences could now see and hear something unique.

"This Is Cinerama" was a travelogue, without a storyline or stars, that took audiences on a trip they'd never experienced on film before: a ride on the Atom Smasher, the world's fastest and steepest roller coaster, as viewed from the front car; the canals of Venice; a helicopter ride over Niagara Falls. In these days before color TV, a gazillion TV channels like the Travel network or National Geographic specials, "This Is Cinerama" was a unique adventure.

And it made lots of money. Even though most theaters were not equipped for Cinerama, enough were located in the major markets to make this profitable. In fact, these movies could run for years.

But it wasn't long before other widescreen processes began showing up. In 1953, "The Robe" made its debut as the first movie in CinemaScope, and others quickly followed. Still, Cinerama remained wildly popular throughout the decade through a series of travelogue films, including "Cinerama Holiday," "Seven Wonders of the World" and "South Seas Adventure."

By 1960, though, the popularity of the travelogues was waning. So it was time to take it to the next level. Now, according to one source, only two traditional Hollywood movies were made using Cinerama. Another source cites only one, which is "How the West Was Won." Regardless, the point is few were made using this unique three-camera process.

I had seen "West" on TV a number of years ago. I enjoyed it despite rolling my eyes at some of the dialogue. The movie has an all-star cast, including Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, George Peppard and Carroll Baker; has super narration by Spencer Tracy; and is told in three segments, each shot by a different director: Henry Hathaway ("The Rivers, The Plains, The Outlaws"), John Ford ("The Civil War"), and George Marshall ("The Railroad"). In tackling the various real events of settling the west, such as the wagon trains, the transcontinental railroad and various outlaws terrorizing small towns, the fictitious story follows one family, centering mostly on sisters Reynolds and Baker and Baker's son, played as an adult by Peppard.

If you've ever watched "West" on TV, you've probably noticed the seams that break up the picture into three equal-sized blocks. If you look closely at the picture below with James Steward, you can see the seams (hint: look first at the sky):

As I always say, movies were meant to be seen on a big screen. I don't care if you have a 70-inch plasma in your media room; it doesn't compare to an actual theater. And with "West," it was meant for a curved screen, and flattening it out for a smaller TV does take something away.

I'm happy to report that this movie improves dramatically when seen the way it was meant to: in Cinerama. In fact, my drooling nearly started with the first frame. The vistas are magnificent, and the audience can fully appreciate the point-of-view shots -- the buffalo stampede, the train shootout, the river rapids encounter. On the gigantic, curved screen, you feel like you are there on that train or on the river. Plus, because of the seams, the directors took great care in how they placed their actors. You couldn't have someone delivering lines while a seam cut them in two, so it's clear why so many shots have the actors in the center frame.

But the curve adds another dimension, and I often found myself turning my head from one side of the screen to the other to capture everything. This film is larger than life, and Cinerama gives it justice.

Yes, the dialogue can be corny. When Jimmy Stewart is trying to explain to Carroll Baker that his carousing days are not over, using a metaphor: "But I still went to see the varmint with that pirate girl. I'll always be goin' to see the varmint, Eve." As the 1960s progressed, films began to push hard against the production code, so code-friendly wording like this seemed laughable to some then and even more now.

Still, as giant, star-studded, wide-screen spectacles filled movie theaters during this era, "How the West Was Won" is so much fun and so expertly told that you can forgive its code-satisfying dialogue. Plus, when you see it in Cinerama, it's clear why this was a huge success. "West" made tons of money and played at one Cinerama theater in LA for nearly 90 weeks.

The film received eight Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. I'd always questioned whether the nomination was deserved, based upon my television viewing. But the Cinerama experience has changed my mind: not only do I understand the nomination but I'd probably put it in my top 5 for that year. Considering its Oscar competition included the overblown "Cleopatra" (it's doubtful seeing this on a big screen could make it any better), "West" makes far more sense.

As for the Cinerama Dome, it opened in 1963 and was restored and reopened in 2002. Thank goodness for that. This original venue, with the gorgeous honeycomb-style ceiling, usually shows first-run films on the curved screen.

After the "West" screening, audience members were invited to the projection booth, where John Sittig, director, Cinerama Inc., explained how the process worked. He said it cost a quarter million dollars to restore "West" so it could be shown in Cinerama.

As for Cinerama itself, this unique process was not used on another film after "West." The single-strip Ultra Panavision apparently could be shown on the curved screen for a similar experience, and it was used in the 1960s to shoot such films as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." This makes sense, as I can imagine watching that crazy comedy on a large curved screen.

In addition, it was Cinerama that inspired Walt Disney to pursue creating what would become his 360-degree films for his theme parks. I believe two are still running at EPCOT in Florida, in the China and Canada pavillions.

Today, a handful of theaters in the world can show Cinerama. If you live near one of them, find out when the next showing of "West" or "This Is Cinerama" will take place. And then go. Cinerama is an important chapter in film history and one that should be preserved. I am so grateful that we drove past the Cinerama Dome; otherwise, I would have missed a grand moviegoing experience.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Audrey of the Month

I'm feeling all '50s at the moment, so here's Audrey from the 1950s. I'm guessing 1954 -- when she made "Sabrina." I love that movie. Sigh. Enjoy!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Facing the Lion

It was like visiting holy ground.

For a classic movie lover like myself, a visit to the former MGM studios was like a cinematic pilgrimage. I wanted to walk the same grounds that were once covered by Thalberg, Mayer, Garbo, Gable, Crawford, Shearer and Dressler.

So on our recent trip to California, we took a tour of Sony Pictures Studios. Sony purchased Columbia Pictures in 1989 and the old MGM lot. So, a tour of Sony includes a history of Columbia Pictures, which did not get its start on this site, and of MGM, which did.

You have to wonder if Louis B. Mayer is rolling in his grave over the fact that Harry Cohn's Columbia now occupies his studio.

Regardless, I must thank Sony. Online reviews (some a few years old) had unfairly indicated that the Sony tours ignored the lot's past. But Sony should be expected to promote its interests, and the fact that the tour mentioned MGM as much as it did is a credit to the company. Besides, it's doubtful that most people taking Sony tours love the classics as much as I do and crave to know everything about MGM.

If you read my blog regularly, you know I've been writing about a number of MGM films this summer and discussing the great producer Irving Thalberg. Check out my posts on "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," "The Merry Widow" and my account of visiting Ten Chimney, home of the Lunts who made one film together -- and it was at MGM.

But first a little history. This was the first studio built in Culver City. The colonnade I showed in my last post was erected in 1915 as an entrance to the Ince/Triangle studio. Samuel Goldwyn bought the fledgling studio in 1918 but was later ousted from his own company. In 1924, Marcus Loew bought Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures to create a studio that would make product for his theater chain. Metro-Goldwyn was formed, with Louis B. Mayer brought in as head of studio production. Within a year, his name was added to the title to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM. One of his heads of production was Thalberg, who became known as the "Boy Wonder." Only in his 20s, he would go on to become, in my opinion, the greatest producer of the studio era.

As a side note, Goldwyn was never part of MGM, even though his name stayed in the title. He formed his own independent studio, Samuel Goldwyn Productions. But more on that in another post.

So, the lot in Culver City grew to be the Cadillac of studios. It was considered the biggest and best, boasting that it had more stars than in the heavens. Leo the Lion became its classic symbol. Unfortunately, when the studio system died in the 1960s, MGM was hit hardest. Quite a bit of land and a few stages were sold off, and it changed hands a few times before Sony bought it. Thankfully, Sony does honor its history.

Our tour started off with a short film before we proceeded to the Irving Thalberg Building, built and dedicated to Thalberg after his sudden death in the mid-1930s. Inside the building, we walked through a lobby that contained the best picture Oscars for Columbia Pictures, including those for "It Happened One Night," "From Here to Eternity," "On the Waterfront" and "Lawrence of Arabia." The building is still used for offices and where Mayer's was once located.

Walking around the grounds, I felt like I could feel all of the ghosts, particularly with buildings named after the legends who once worked in these sound stages -- Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Mickey Rooney Judy Garland (although I find it ironic that Adam Sandler's production company is located in the Garland building). It was interesting that the studio where Esther Williams shot her water-filled musicals still contains the tank used for her swimming numbers and is put to use for various films.

Our terrific tour guide, Kelly, was gracious enough to answer my questions about MGM's history during a break. He identified a building that currently contains offices but was built to handle some of MGM's large-scale musicals, including those directed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. Without records in front of us, I'm guessing these included "Girl Crazy," "Ziegfeld Girl" and "Strike Up the Band." I also wonder if this is where "The Great Ziegfeld" was filmed, particularly the enormous set piece "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody."

Being there ended too soon. Perhaps others got a thrill out of visiting the new "Jeopardy" set or the TV set for "Rules of Engagement," which was fun. But the spirit of MGM is what I felt, and it was two hours of bliss. I heartily thank Sony for allowing MGM to live on as it continues to run Columbia Pictures, which has its own storied history.

Note to Kelly: Invite me back so I can explore some more. Ask more questions. Go through archives. Take an old map and really walk the grounds. I promise not to disturb anyone. Cross my heart and hope to die. Stick a needle in my eye ... oh, you get the point.

May the lion roar forever.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hooray for Hollywood

Hello everyone! Just returned from a week in sunny CA, where the sunshine is plentiful. And the wild fires ... the smoke looked like a mushroom cloud in the sky. It was fascinating, shocking and unsettling when you think of what's being destroyed.

My apologies to any LA friends we missed seeing while there. Our itinerary was tight, and either everything was scheduled or spur of the moment. Hope to see more people next time we visit.

We took a few Hollywood excursions and I will share three of them during the next few weeks. The photo above provides a hint for the first post this weekend. Any guesses??

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Strangers on a Tennis Court

Happy belated Labor Day to all my movie peeps! OK, so much for the lingo. Will have another post later this week. Until then, go Melanie Oudin at the U.S. Open! An unknown making it to the fourth round at Wimbledon and now in the quarters of the U.S. Open. Would love to see a Serena Williams/Melanie final on Saturday. Until then, here's a film with a tennis scene ... Alfred Hitchcock's wonderful "Strangers on a Train." Go Farley!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Design for Living: Ten Chimneys and the Lunts

A few weeks ago, we had the great fortune of traveling up to Genesee Depot, Wisconsin, to tour Ten Chimneys, the former home of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Who, you might ask, are Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne? They were the most respected and greatest Broadway acting duo of the 20th century. During their heydays of the 1920s through the 1950s, they starred together in numerous classics, including "Design for Living," "Elizabeth the Queen" and "Taming of the Shrew." One of their biggest hits, "The Guardsman," was made into a movie released in 1931.

During their long reign on Broadway, the couple -- married for 55 years -- made two demands: that they always appear together on stage and that they have summers off to return to Ten Chimneys, their beloved estate in Wisconsin.

Alfred, who was born in Milwaukee, had bought the land. After marrying Lynn, the original house was added onto until it be came a lovely country estate (above, on the day of our tour). With several other buildings on the grounds, it came by its name for the number of chimneys found throughout the estate.

We had a marvelous guide, whose name I cannot remember at the moment. She provided much history and detail to this wonderful home, which the Lunts (above) enjoyed until their deaths -- his in the late 1970s and hers in the 1980s. Since they had no children, the house was closed up. It eventually was slated to be sold and torn down so that condos could be built. But thankfully, it was saved at the last moment, along with all of their belongings. So walking through the home is like a trip back to another era -- undisturbed by the passage of time.

What struck me about the home was its combination of comfort, style and "wow" factor. Our guide explained that, as theatrical people, they designed rooms as if they were stage sets, so it is surprising to see the richness of the decor and eye for detail in the rooms. And yet these were people who used this home, grew their own food and cooked for themselves. It's clearly a place where people lived and enjoyed themselves. Plus they never considered themselves above their neighbors. They respected the people in town and, in return, the people respected them.

Ten Chimneys also played host to several high-profile stage and screen stars, such as Helen Hayes, Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward (one of their best friends). Olivier once said everything he knew about acting he learned from Alfred.

Ten Chimneys is a spectacular place, and I highly recommend a trip to see it.

As for the Lunts and their movie career, it was a brief one. Alfred had made a few silent pictures, but it was the great producer Irving Thalberg, who I've been discussing on this blog in several posts, who wanted the Lunts. Thalberg had brought Helen Hayes from Broadway to MGM with great success, and he was always looking for more stage stars in these early years of talking films. So, Thalberg and wife Norma Shearer traveled to Chicago to meet the Lunts, who were on tour, and offered them a contract. Watching them in "Elizabeth the Great," Thalberg was impressed. Director Sidney Franklin also was so impressed with that play that he wrote a scene from "Elizabeth" into "The Guardsman," a film version of one of the Lunts' greatest stage triumphs.

In "The Guardsman" (video box above -- don't you love how it says "In Glorious Black and White" yet the picture is in color???), the story is pretty simple: The pair play a married acting couple. The husband, vain and jealous, poses as the title character to woo his unsuspecting wife and prove that her affections are not true to him.

People who don't know the Lunts may be put off by this sophisticated comedy that can be lightweight. For some it may even feel long despite its short running time. But if you are aware of the Lunts and their history, then watching them on film is a joy. In fact, see it once and then watch it a second time just for the performances. They're that good.

The film was made efficiently. Since they had performed this on stage, the two came to the set every day prepared. In fact, at one point Thalberg wanted one scene reshot, which the Lunts didn't agree with. However, they did the reshoots, which Thalberg didn't like because Lunt's eyes didn't match the other takes. Lunt explained that because of the late hour when the retakes were shot, his eyes were tired. Whether that's true or not, who knows. But Lunt did cut his hair so that additional retakes would be difficult to do.

The film received great critical acclaim, not surprising since Thalberg and MGM were the top studio of the era. Lunt and Fontanne received Academy Award nominations for their work. Unfortunately, the film was not a huge commercial success. Despite Thalberg's attempts to keep them in Hollywood, the Lunts refused (one reason is reportedly they would not be able to pick their material). The Lunts also enjoyed performing in front of an audience and missed that. Outside of cameos in 1943's "Stage Door Canteen," they never appeared in another film.

For fans, that's a shame. Because we should have more records of their work to enjoy. One film is not enough. Still, while not a great film, "The Guardsman" is worth seeing. My suggestion: Make a trip to Ten Chimneys, learn about these wonderful people, view their magnificent home, and then enjoy the film. It a journey worth taking and two lives worth remembering.