Sunday, April 28, 2013

Audrey of the Month

It's Audrey of the Month time. I thought this lovely photo would put everyone in a spring mood, especially with May just around the corner.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Young and March in 'Bedtime Story'

“Bedtime Story” is a charming romantic romp that was the third of a three-picture deal that Loretta Young had with Columbia Pictures.
As I mentioned in my review of “The Doctor Takes a Wife” a few weeks back, Young had refused to extend her contract at 20th Century Fox and became a freelance artist. But her agent, Myron Selznick, confirmed that the major studios were steering clear of her in a gentleman’s agreement with Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, whom they did not want to cross. Columbia’s Harry Cohn, who loved a bargain, did sign Young at half her price, and the deal kept her working.
While the three movies she made at Columbia may not be classics, they are solid romantic comedies that proved Young’s worth in the marketplace among fans. With “Bedtime Story,” she was paired with the terrific Fredric March, and the two are perfectly matched in this story of a playwright, Luke Drake (March), who refuses to believe that his wife and stage actress, Jane (Young), is ready to retire. Even on the night of Jane’s final performance, a preoccupied Luke announces at her retirement dinner that he’s created his next masterpiece, perfect for Jane. When she reminds him that they bought a home in the country specifically for retirement, he replies that he sold it to finance the new production.
An incensed Jane decides to go to Reno for a divorce, all while a disbelieving and scheming Luke attempts to win her back – and get her to play the lead in his next play.
Columbia had so much faith in this film that it was the studio’s big Christmas day release in 1941. The down side is that it was just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entering World War II. The initial mood of the country was somber, but as 1942 began, it became clear that films like this were a perfect escape from reality, and this film ultimately did well enough for Columbia.
Unfortunate, Young and Cohn had a falling out during the making of this film. According to the book “King Cohn,” Young was allowed to select a gown for a particular scene on her own. The base price was $155, but the designer suggested about $400 in changes. The total cost was not unreasonable, but Cohn saw the initial price of $155 and thought Young was trying to make money off of the deal by claiming there were changes. He removed her top billing (which March had generously given her) and refused to allow her to wear the dress. In retaliation, she worked with the studio seamstress on the dress after hours, meaning overtime pay, and ordered unnecessary changes so that the ultimate cost of the dress was in the thousands! Many years later, Young apologized to Cohn for her behavior, which he accepted, and while Cohn wanted her to make another movie for him, it never happened. 

It’s worth noting that Young looks stunning throughout this film. She and March had wonderful chemistry together, and I believe it’s the only time the two worked together, which is a shame. I have been a huge fan of the versatile March for many years, and it’s amazing to watch him play a character who can be so unappealing and yet he manages to make us all like Luke and root for him to win back Jane.
The fine supporting cast includes Robert Benchley; Allyn Joslyn, a delight as Jane’s snooty, buffoonish admirer William Dudley (how funny to hear Young refer to “Dudley” when that was the name of Cary Grant’s character in “The Bishop’s Wife” made several years later); Eve Arden, wonderful as Virginia Cole; and Helen Westley in one of her last screen appearances.
Young’s tenure at Columbia was fairly brief. Oddly enough, she did make a fourth film there, “A Night to Remember,” for producer Sam Bischoff, which is not mentioned in “King Cohn” nor in a few other books I use for research. Bischoff operated much like George Stevens did when he was at Columbia, which was with no interference from Cohn. It also may have been an oversight from Thomas. Regardless, whatever gentlemen’s agreement was in place before Young signed with Columbia, she had no difficulty finding steady work after leaving the studio and continued to produce some fine work throughout the rest of the decade.
“Bedtime Story” is a thoroughly enjoyable film thanks in large part to Young and March. If the story grows more improbable as the ending nears, the stars keep everything lively and fun.  

Friday, April 12, 2013

James Cagney Blogathon: 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'

Through the years, I’ve read some criticisms regarding James Cagney’s musical work in 1942’s “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” 

Perhaps in an era where dancing was defined by the timeless elegance of Fred Astaire, Cagney’s “hoofing” didn’t compare. Gene Kelly would soon appear on the scene, and in retrospect Astaire and Kelly are considered the epitome of male dance on film. 

But it’s an unfair comparison, and one that is rather insulting to Cagney’s talents, who worked hard to mimic Cohan’s style of dance. Although Cagney skyrocketed to stardom based upon his gangster roles, which represent some of his most beloved films, he himself always thought of himself as a song-and-dance man. In his autobiography, he talks about how he rarely watched his old movies when shown on TV except for the musicals he made. At 75, he still loved to dance and did so for exercise. 

And “Yankee Doodle Dandy” – Cagney’s favorite film – is such a rousing piece of entertainment, and Cagney a bundle of energetic joy, that any criticisms of his dancing can best be contributed to a preference of style. His early days in show business consisted of a lot of dancing in vaudeville. And while his time at Warner Brothers during the 1930s is marked by tough guy roles, he did make the occasional musical, such as the Busby Berkeley extravaganza “Footlight Parade” and the lesser-known “Something to Sing About.” For the latter, he said he was thrilled to be working with two dancing idols from vaudeville, Harland Dixon and Johnny Boyle, and that they were carrying on the style and tradition of one George M. Cohan, the legendary entertainer who wrote more than 500 songs, created more than 40 stage productions and produced 130 more. In fact, Boyle would become one of Cagney’s coaches for many years. 


Cagney said: “Many people think I learned to dance for ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ the prevailing impression being that when a fella gets up and does a dance routine, he learned it the day before yesterday. Not so. A song-and-dance man, which is what I am basically, becomes one over many years of unrelenting work.” 

When Cohan was shopping his story to studios, he had offered it to Sam Goldwyn and Paramount. Astaire reportedly turned it down because it wasn’t right for him. Cagney’s brother, Bill, aggressively sought this story. Despite Cagney’s film stardom, he also felt he had been unfairly portrayed by some as a radical, and he was looking for a property that would prove that he wasn’t. Cohen finally was convinced that Cagney was indeed a song-and-dance man like himself and took the property to Warners. Cagney didn’t like the original script and asked that Julius and Philip Epstein provide rewrites. Then Cagney went into intense rehearsals and learned Cohan’s stiff-legged style and how he would run up the side of the proscenium arch during a routine. 

Cohan himself was dying of cancer (he would pass in November of 1942), and Cagney did not meet him. When Cohan saw the film before its release and gave it his blessing, Cagney was proud of the job he had done. 

While “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is a biography of Cohan (with a fair number of liberties), it’s also a big slice of Americana, a film that for some is a July 4th staple. In this first year of U.S. involvement in World War II, it was a patriotic way of lifting spirits. And Cagney seems at ease with the role from the very beginning, in which Cohan is still performing even in middle age. After portraying the President Franklin Roosevelt in his latest stage show, Cohan is summoned to the White House. Cohan is nervous, but he soon discovers there are no hard feelings between himself and the President. During his meeting, Cohan reminisces about his life, from his birth on July 4 (which, in real life, was July 3), through years on the road with his family, and finally to his own stardom.  


The cast includes Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp as Cohan’s parents; Cagney’s real-life sister, Jeanne, as his on-screen sister Josie (brother Bill Cagney was an associate producer on the film); and Joan Leslie as Mary, the woman who would become Cohan’s wife (in reality he had two but only one in the film). Directed with flair by Michael Curtiz, the film is filled with wall-to-wall music. Familiar tunes like “Over There” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” certainly boosted morale of audiences dealing with WWII. 

But the film belongs to Cagney. In some ways, his performance is the Cagney we know and love, a fast-talker with that distinctive voice and patter. Regardless, he’s given many moments to shine, especially in the big “Yankee Doodle Dandy” production number, in which he rarely seems to catch his breath – nor does the audience. As a showman, Cohan was unstoppable; as an actor, so is Cagney. 

The movie was a box-office bonanza, and it earned eight Oscar nominations, with Cagney winning his only Oscar as Best Actor for this film. And he was the first actor to win for a musical performance. The movie also won for sound and scoring. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to review a film that is beloved by so many people. But perhaps the best way to end is with the finale of the film itself, when Cohan does wings down the stairs of the White House. Cagney himself said that’s one moment from his movie career that he particularly enjoys, and it’s a fitting ending to this marvelous film – Cohan sailing down those stairs followed by the audience sailing away on their own wings, thoroughly entertained by both film and actor, one of the all-time greats. 

This post is part of the terrific James Cagney Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector. Click here to read the other entries in this event. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

James Cagney Blogathon

Hi All ... I am participating in the Cagney Blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector beginning on Monday. I will review "Yankee Doodle Dandy" on Friday, April 12. Please click on the link below to see a list of all participating bloggers and the schedule of postings. Looking forward to seeing you next Friday! 

Cagney Blogathon