Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Audrey of the Month

I haven't posted an Audrey of the Month in several months! Shame on me, and I hope she forgives me for this Classicfilmboy lapse. Here she is, looking glorious as always.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

1940s Blogathon: 'Since You Went Away'

“Since You Went Away” is a 1944 drama starring Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotton, Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Monty Woolley, Robert Walker, Hattie McDaniel, Lionel Barrymore and Agnes Moorehead.

It’s an impressive cast, but it’s producer David O. Selznick who drove this production from beginning to end. It’s his show, and he pulled out the stops for this, the ultimate World War II homefront saga.

Colbert plays Ann Hilton, whose husband Tim (whom we never see except in photographs) has left for the war as the film opens. She must raise her two daughters, Jane (Jones) and Brig (Temple), on her own and keep her home, despite being on a limited budget. This means letting go of their maid Fidelia (McDaniel) and taking in a border, Col. Smollett (Wooley), whose grandson Bill (Walker) falls for Jane. Family friend Lt. Tony Willett (Cotton) looks in on the family from time to time, while snooty friend Emily Hawkins (Moorehead) tries to maintain Ann’s spirits.

Directed by John Cromwell and with a screenplay by Selznick, the three-hour epic hits upon every facet of homefront life. Film scholar Thomas Schatz writes that this movie “was quite clearly a war film, tracing the conversion of home and family – the American community in microcosm – to the war effort.”

I love this film, both in story, in acting and in how it’s presented. Its history is also intriguing because it brought Selznick back to filmmaking after he abandoned production when his back-to-back triumphs of “Gone With the Wind” and “Rebecca” caused tax problems. During the early 1940s he acted more as a power broker by making deals for his contract talent, both in front of and behind the camera, with other studios.

But his infatuation with Jones, an unknown actress he put under contract, began to grow. While he was as much of a micromanager regarding her career as he was with the other actresses working for him, Selznick believed Jones had an untapped reserve of emotions that would lead to a versatile career. He also fell hard for her. Combined with his frustration at not helping the war effort more, he bought the rights to Margaret Buell Wilder’s book and proclaimed it as his first production in nearly four years. 

Selznick worked on the script for months and continued working on it even after shooting began. He enlarged the role of Jane specifically for Jones, although her marriage to Walker was crumbling. They would separate before filming ended, and the two actors had great difficulty portraying a couple falling in love.

As for Colbert, she came to this film after making the popular “So Proudly We Hail,” but it took a $150,000 paycheck to convince her to play the mother of two teenage girls.

The film cost $2.9 million and reportedly was the most expensive film made since “Gone With the Wind.” It contained more than 200 speaking parts and 5,000 extras. Selznick, who was forever chasing another “Wind”-sized hit, was crushed when the reviews were respectful but lukewarm. However, he was buoyed by the audience response, which put it among the biggest hits of 1944.

Critics may not have appreciated its sentiment, but “Since You Went Away” weaves the perfect amount of sentiment into the drama, comedy and romance. I love the opening, which starts with a literal nod to the home fires by showing the fireplace, as well as many objects in the Hilton home, especially Tim’s, as Ann talks about this being the time she’s dreaded most. The opening sets up the drama beautifully, as Ann presents a reassuring fa├žade for her daughters while she fights to maintain her composure every day. 


If the movie is a Hollywood-ized look at the homefront, it touches upon the emotions that people would be feeling. One of my favorite scenes shows Ann reading a letter from Tim to Jane and Brig, the three clustered around the fireplace, happy to have word from Tim but worried that perhaps this may be the last time they hear from him. We can only guess today how many people were going through the same ritual, yet this lovely scene captures the yearning that anyone has for a loved one who is far from home.

Almost every possible homefront issue is touched upon. You have a wartime romance that blossoms  between Jane and Bill, with the most affecting train-station goodbye scene ever made, again touching the hearts of so many people then and yet emotionally still hits hard today. You have a large dance at nearby hanger to raise money and morale. It’s beautifully shot and features actual kids from around L.A. because Selznick didn’t think the extras looked real enough. You have Ann taking a wartime job at a nearby manufacturing plant, while Jane studies to become a nurse’s aid. And yet each scene is woven into the story to create a cohesive narrative.

Max Steiner’s marvelous score is interspersed seamlessly with familiar melodies that accentuates – not dictates – the mood.

“Since You Went Away” is a big production that often feels intimate because it manages to capture the mood of the homefront so beautifully. If critics were unmoved – such as Bosley Crowther, who called this “a rather large dose of choking sentiment” – Selznick knew what his audiences wanted, and they were rewarded by a film that spoke to them. I have one book that states that because of shortages during the war, many pieces of furniture used in the Hilton home came from Selznick’s own house.

The performances are all excellent. It was Colbert’s biggest hit in years, while Jones (a favorite of mine) followed up her Oscar-winning role from “The Song of Bernadette” with her portrayal of Jane. Temple successfully bridged her child star days with more roles throughout the decade. And a new star was born. Selznick wanted a real sailor for the small role of Harold Smith, so his staff found U.S. Navy sailor Robert Mosley at a radio presentation. Selznick signed him to a contract and changed his name to Guy Madison after seeing a Dolly Madison sign. Madison filmed his scenes during a weekend pass and was shocked by the popularity he received from the film. He eventually gained fame as TV’s Wild Bill Hickock.

Since You Went Away” received nine Oscar nominations, including best picture, actress, supporting actor for Woolley, and supporting actress for Jones. Its sole award was for the deserving Steiner. This is a marvelous film. If it allows us a glimpse into the mindset of the World War II homefront, it holds up today because it’s easy to identify with the emotional journey that these characters are taking. It’s Selznick’s last great epic (I don’t consider “Notorious” an epic) before he lost his sense of proportion. And while this may not match “Gone With the Wind,” “Since You Went Away” is memorable on its own terms.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Classic Movie Blog Association: Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon

The Classic Movie Blog Association's latest blogathon, "Fabulous Films of the 1940s," starts today. 

Click here to view a schedule of the more than 40 blogs taking part in the blogathon this week. Please take a few moments to read some of the excellent posts being written. 

My post on "Since You Went Away" will go up on Wednesday, so check back in then. I'd love to hear from as many people as possible!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Fred and Ginger: 'The Barkleys of Broadway'

“The Barkleys of Broadway” would not have happened without Gene Kelly.

Gene was starting to work on “Easter Parade” with Judy Garland when he injured himself. When it was clear that he couldn’t continue on the movie, Gene and MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer called upon Fred Astaire, whose last movie was “Blue Skies” released in 1946. Fred was ready for retirement, but he graciously agreed to step in for the injured Gene.

Fred and Judy got along extremely well, and “Easter Parade” was a big hit in 1948. As a follow-up, the two were assigned to “The Barkleys of Broadway.” However, due to her illnesses, she could not proceed. Ginger Rogers was called, and she was delighted at the opportunity to reunite with Fred. The two picked up where they left off 10 years earlier, and they began rehearsing for their first film in a decade and their first together in color.

Ironically, even though this film was meant as a vehicle for Fred and Judy, the story actually reflects upon Fred and Ginger’s careers. In the film, Josh and Dinah Barkley (Fred and Ginger) are a successful Broadway musical team. However, she yearns to be a dramatic actress. Sound familiar? When Fred and Ginger broke up, Ginger started a successful solo career as an actress.

Unfortunately, the screenplay for Barkleys – which is by the usually strong Betty Comden and Adolph Green – isn’t terribly good. In a word, it’s silly. While this is the only Fred and Ginger film that starts with the two married, it still turns into a boy-chases-girl movie, and it’s pretty tired this time around. Josh and Dinah bicker, then there’s a handsome playwright courting Dinah and a beautiful understudy with eyes for Josh. It’s all very contrived and unconvincing. What it needs is a more sophisticated wit.

For once, the supporting cast in a Fred and Ginger film fails to enliven the proceedings. Sourpuss Oscar Levant plays friend Ezra Millar with none of the panache of Edward Everett Horton or Eric Blore, while Billie Burke is barely seen as Mrs. Livingston Belney, a patron of the arts. Gale Robbins is the pretty but one-note Shirlene, the understudy, while Jacques Francois has all the personality of plywood as the playwright.

So what’s to recommend? Fred and Ginger. The two have such an easy charm together that they could make burnt toast seem like caviar. And boy does this film need their chemistry.

The movie opens with the credits rolling over the duo dancing the “Swing Trot.” Rogers looks lovely in a gold lame dress, and it’s too bad the credits are blocking our view. Still, right off the bat, the film shows us that they still have it. 


“You’d Be Hard to Replace” is a lovely little tune that is sung as Josh and Dinah apologize to each other after a fight. “Bouncin’ the Blues” is a rehearsal number much along the lines of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from “Roberta.” If “Blues” isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, it’s still an energetic, highly enjoyable number performed with verve. However, instead of playing to each other, you get the feeling they are playing to the movie audience. 

“My One and Only Highland Fling” is a light and charming soft-shoe bit that’s very different from past numbers. “A Weekend in the Country” features Fred, Ginger and Oscar walking from a train station to their friend’s country home, and it’s an upbeat if unmemorable piece. One book states that Fred makes the simple act of walking a joyous event, and he does walk to music in several of his films. 

“Shoes With Wings On” is the big Fred solo in the movie, a hybrid of “The Red Shoes,” which was released a year earlier, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” with a bit of “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” thrown in for good measure. Fred ends up dancing with many pairs of shoes that dance on their own. Perhaps it’s just me, and while I admire its creativity, this number doesn’t dazzle. Perhaps I find the dancing shoes a bit creepy, and I kept thinking that shattering glass in the middle of a stage production isn’t such a great idea for the next group of performers. In all seriousness, Fred often used props in his dances without needing special effects, so why use them here? 

However, I love “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” the Gershwin song from “Shall We Dance” that should have featured Fred and Ginger but didn’t. In “Barkleys” they finally get to dance to it, and it’s even more perfectly used in this movie. The lyrics sum up the duo’s popularity, and nothing can take their memory away from us, the audience. Ginger looks stunning in a white dress – an odd selection for a color film but one that works – and the two dance with feeling. This really is their swan song, even if everyone was hoping for one more outing together.
Unfortunately, the movie’s big climactic moment is Ginger in a dramatic scene as young Sarah Bernhardt, a play that we’re told is going to be a hit but looks pretty darn dreary. The final number is “Manhattan Downbeat,” a standard group number that Fred and Ginger enliven.
“The Barkleys of Broadway” is important because it reunites the great movie team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Perhaps if this had been a planned reunion, a better vehicle could have been found. Instead, it’s a routine MGM musical elevated by the two great and beloved stars. Sadly, it would be their final pairing on film. But what a legacy the two leave today. Even though these films were made so long ago, people still know who “Fred and Ginger” are. And no one ever topped them.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my look at the 10 films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. It took me long enough to finish this series, but finish it I did and I enjoyed every moment of it.