Friday, November 21, 2014

World Television Day 2014


The United Nations’ (UN) World Television Day was created by a resolution in 1996 and is annually observed on November 21st in many places around the world recognizing that television plays a major role in presenting different issues that affect people.

From the United Nations website:  "World Television Day is not so much a celebration of the tool, but rather the philosophy which it represents. Television represents a symbol for communication and globalization in the contemporary world."

That's all well and good and I admit that my life has been enriched by news, current affairs programs and documentaries available to me on television.  However, I am also a North American baby boomer and it is a wonder that my generation has not evolved into a creature with one square eye in the middle of our foreheads considering the overwhelming presence of television in our lives.  

My celebration of World Television Day is a look at a baker's dozen of my favourite television themes.  It was tough limiting the list, because there are plenty more where these came from.  It is music that instantly recalls my telelvision friends and the real life people who shared the laughter, the tears and the discussion around our viewing.  This is music that, although inextricably wound up in the fictions they represent, still stand on its own.  Many became radio hits.  I understand in more recent history it is radio hits that become theme songs, if there is a theme song at all.  This is an entertainment evolution that makes no sense at all to me.

   
PERRY MASON (1957 - 1966)
Fred Steiner's Park Avenue Beat grabs you and doesn't let go.



PETER GUNN (1958 - 1961)
Henry Mancini.  'Nuff said.




WAGON TRAIN (1957 - 1965)
Jerome Moross' lovely, stirring theme used from the 3rd season on.  Melody first heard in 1959s The Jayhawkers!


BONANZA (1959 - 1973)
The team of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans (Silver Bells, Mona Lisa, Que Sera Sera) gave us this joyous, iconic theme.



IRONSIDE (1967 - 1975)
Quincy Jones and one of my favourite shows of the 60s/70s.  A perfect combination.



MANNIX (1967 - 1975)
Maybe you like one of Lalo Schifrin's other themes better, but I'm a Mannix gal from way back.



HAWAII FIVE-O (1968 - 1980), (2010 - )
I defy anyone to keep still while listening to Morton Stevens evocative theme.



ROOM 222 (1969 - 1974)
If your life had a theme song wouldn't you have wanted it to be composed by Jerry Goldsmith?




ELLERY QUEEN (1975 - 1976)
Elmer Bernstein being cheeky and cool.



HILL STREET BLUES (1981 - 1987)
It would be too easy to have posted a list of favourite Mike Post themes.



ST. ELSEWHERE (1982 - 1988)
Dave Grusin's theme is irresistible.




JEEVES AND WOOSTER (1990 - 1993)
Anne Dudley perfectly captures the era and the whimsey.

and, the one, the only -


CAR 54, WHERE ARE YOU? (1961 - 1963)

The amusing and memorable song with lyrics by show's creator (and certified genius) Nat Hiken and music by Grammy and Emmy winner John Strauss.

I know you're aching to share your favourite TV themes.  My apologies in advance for pushing into the time sucking vortex of YouTube, but you know you love it!




Monday, November 17, 2014

What a Character! blogathon: Esther Dale

ESTHER DALE
November 10, 1885 - July 23, 1961

Esther Dale was born in the smallish city of Beaufort, South Carolina in 1885, but it seems her heart was in her father's New England birthplace.  As a young woman Esther studied at the Baptist institution, The Leland Gray Seminary in Townshend, Vermont.  Adventurous and determined to succeed in a musical career, Esther pursued vocal training in Berlin, Germany.  She enjoyed success as a concert singer specializing in lieder, as well as an educator as the head of the vocal department at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Esther's show business career was managed by her husband Arthur J. Beckhard, 14 years her junior, who was also a producer/director/writer.  Arthur enjoyed success as a Broadway producer (Goodbye Again), summer stock in Woodstock, New York and the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts (incubator for Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Margaret Sullavan).  While none of the eight Broadway shows Arthur and Esther collaborated on proved to be hits, the starring role in 1932s Carry Nation established Esther as a dramatic performer with a new lease on her show business career.


Esther Dale
CONCERT SINGER

In Axel Nissen's Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids - Twenty-five Character Actresses of Golden Age Hollywood, published in 2012, actress Blanche Yurka is quoted:  "One source of warm comfort to me was the growing friendship and devotion of producer Arthur Beckhard and his wife, the singer Esther Dale.  These two sturdy, courageous human beings pulled me through many a trying time in the ensuing years.  They had the gift of laughter and an abundance of patience and understanding."  Esther and Arthur sound like people worth knowing.

Esther Dale's Hollywood career began in 1934 with an uncredited role (secretary) in 1934 with Hecht and MacArthur's Crime Without Passion.  Her final film role was uncredited (woman at picnic) in 1961s John Wayne hit North to Alaska.  In between there were far too many uncredited bits, although Esther had the ability to take even a few seconds of screen time as a housekeeper or prison matron and turn it into something memorable.  I feel her acting prowess is directly related to her musicianship.  She could take the notes on the page and imbue them with all the emotion intended, plus that indefinable something extra which draws us to certain performers.  Let's remember a mix of these roles, the ensemble pieces and the solos, that have made Esther Dale such a favourite with classic movie fans.


Esther Dale, Shirley Temple, John Boles, Rochelle Hudson
CURLY TOP

The Shirley Temple vehicle 1935s Curly Top features Esther Dale as wealthy John Bole's warm and dignified Aunt Genevieve.  Perhaps this is how Esther's husband Arthur, co-screenwriter of the film, saw her.

Some of those indispensable movie housekeepers, played with aplomb by Esther, include Lilian in the wacky household in Easy Living, Marta in the heartbreaking The Mortal Storm, sympathetic Anna in My Reputation and exasperated Miss Bragg in the Ball of Fire remake, A Song is Born.


James Burke, Esther Dale
DEAD END

Mrs. Fenner in William Wyler's Dead End from 1937 is blowsy, careworn and defiant.  She'll steal candy from a baby and talk back to cops.  She typifies life in the poor part of town and transcends it with personality. 


Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Esther Dale
THE AWFUL TRUTH

When exes Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) rekindle their romance, shutting out Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) in 1937s The Awful Truth, poor Dan is left with only one conclusion, "Well, I guess a man's best friend is his mother.".  Esther Dale plays Mrs. Leeson, dressed to the nines and over-protective of her baby boy.  She doesn't trust that Warriner character as far as she can throw him, and she could see right through Lucy from the beginning.


Esther Dale, Jeanne Crain
MARGIE

The 40s and 50s bring some of my favourite Esther Dale appearances.  Henry King's ever-popular 1946 film Margie is a delightful nostalgic story of high school life in the 1920s.  Jeanne Crain stars as Margie MacDuff.  Her widowed father (Hobart Cavanaugh) has left Margie in the care of his mother-in-law, Grandma McSweeney.  Grandma is a suffragette!  And proud of it!  Displayed on her mantelpiece is the length of chain she used to chain herself to politician's carriage in protest.  Margie is horrified at such unladylike behavior and more than a little taken aback that Grandma's plans for Margie include her becoming the first woman president.  Someday Margie will learn what a privilege it is that her grandmother was such a pioneer.  During her school days Margie does appreciate Grandma Sweeney's understanding and tact.  A girl needs support as well as inspiration.


Esther Dale
HOLIDAY AFFAIR

The quietly charming Holiday Affair from 1949 is the story of a young widowed mother played by Janet Leigh deciding between two beau (Robert Mitchum and Wendall Corey) at Christmastime.  Isobel Lennert's screenplay features many truths about relationships, grieving and moving on.  The relationship between Connie and her in-laws, played by Griff Barnett and Esther Dale, is heartwarming.  Both Mrs. Ennis's are coping with loss and are devoted to their sons, one deceased and one a youngster.  Both look to their present and future with the best that it is in them and learn to live with and beyond the past.  

Warner Brothers finest entry in Hollywood's nostalgia sweepstakes were two movies based on Booth Tarkington stories that featured Doris Day, Billy Gray, Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as the Winfield family in 1951s On Moonlight Bay and 1953s By the Light of the Silvery Moon.  Uncredited in On Moonlight Bay, Esther Dale has a delightful "cameo" as Aunt Martha Robertson, whose surprise visit and front porch talk with young Wesley (Gray) smooths troubled waters between father and son.


Isabel O'Magden, Esther Dale, Claudette Colbert
THE EGG AND I

Betty MacDonald's extremely popular novel The Egg and I was brought to the screen in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.  The breakout characters from the movie were Ma and Pa Kettle played by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride.  Frowzy Ma and lazy Pa were comedic gold and spun off into their own popular series of films. Naturally, every hero needs their archenemy and in Ma's case her opposite number is Birdie Hicks played by Esther Dale.  Where Ma was the epitome of easy-going, Birdie set certain standards as to cleanliness and proper conduct.  In order to really enjoy Ma, the series needed Birdie Hicks and you'll find both formidable ladies in 1949s Ma and Pa Kettle, 1952s Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair and 1955s Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki.

Classic TV fans may spot Esther Dale on anthology series of the 1950s as well as episodes of Maverick, Wagon Train, M Squad, The Donna Reed Show, Thriller, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and Checkmate.

Esther and Arthur died within months of each other in 1961.  Esther Dale's remains were interred in Townshend, Vermont.  Esther Dale's acting career is available for us to enjoy through the magic of  film.


It's my favourite time of year, the time of the What a Character! blogathon hosted by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula's Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen.  Join in the fun, the memories, the admiration.

Friday, November 14, 2014

THE BRITISH EMPIRE IN FILM BLOGATHON: The Last of the Mohicans (1936)

"The British Army has always adapted a new country to England, Sire."

So speaks Major Duncan Hayward, played by Henry Wilcoxon, in 1936s The Last of the Mohicans.  In a few words the dedicated Major summed up the British Empire.  At the time of our story it is early in the Seven Years War, known in North America as the French and Indian Wars.  The end of the conflict would see Great Britain gaining control of New France and the bulk of the North American continent.  

James Fenimore Cooper's wrote his Leatherstocking Tales in the 19th century, but his character of "Hawkeye" (Natty Bumpo), a woodsman of the turbulent mid-1700s typified a new American character - confident and independent.  Cooper's contribution to the new country's psyche is immeasurable, however I find his novels a bit of a slog.  Nature is singularly important to the stories as the environment determines character and plot, but must we hear of every footfall on every fallen leaf?

The movie's adaptation is by John Balderston (Dracula, The Prisoner of Zenda) with the screenplay by Philip Dunne (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, How Green Was My Valley).  Subsequent treatments, including the popular 1992 version, harken back to Dunne's treatment.

The afore mentioned Major Hayward has arrived in Albany with dispatches for Colonel Munro, played by Hugh Buckler, and to become his aide.  Duncan is also hoping that the Colonel's eldest daughter Alice, played by Binnie Barnes, has grown fonder of him in his absence.  She has not, although her reluctance to succumb to his romantic advances does not deter the Major.  The Colonel's younger daughter Cora, played by Heather Angel, is bereaved by the loss of her naval officer fiance.  

Ordered to Fort William Henry on Lake George, Colonel Munro has no qualms about bringing his daughters to the Fort as they are "old campaigners".  Munro trusts his top scout Magua, played by Bruce Cabot, to see to his daughter's safety.  Munro "had to whip" Magua once, but "it made a man out of him".  Magua is a Huron, pretending allegiance to the Mohawk and the British, while he patiently waits for vengeance.

Robert Barrat, Randolph Scott, Philip Reed
Chingachgook, Hawkeye, Uncas

The colonist volunteers have agreed to accompany the British soldiers, but only after heated discussion.  The terms are that they must be allowed to return to protect their families when needed.  Major Hayward is shocked at the outspoken behavior of these colonists, particularly a woodsman named Hawkeye, played by Randolph Scott.  Alice also refers to Hawkeye's arguments as "treasonous".  Hawkeye does not see his actions that way.  His way is that of his Mohican brothers Chingachgook, played by Robert Barrat, and his son Uncas played by Philip Reed. 

Departing from the main party to take a shortcut, Magua and a group of Hurons kidnap Alice, Cora and Major Hayward.  Hawkeye, Chingachgook and Uncas, who are naturally suspicious of Magua, follow and thwart the plan.  After many dangers they arrive at Fort William Henry which is under siege by the French under General Montcalm played by William Stack.  The harrowing journey has opened Alice's eyes and brought her close to Hawkeye.  Uncas has fallen for the delicate Cora.  Chingachgook is disgusted with both his companions.  He admonishes Uncas that "Mohican chief does not wait on squaw" and bemoans the fact that "Hawkeye's heart weak like water."

One thing that holds an empire together, or any group of people, is their rules of conduct or code.  There are moving examples of such fidelity to honour in The Last of the Mohicans.  It is historically accurate that the British were forced to surrender to the French at Fort William Henry and following the surrender, the Huron raided the fort to be driven back by the French.  In our story, Magua is the instigator of the attack and uses the confusion to capture the Munro daughters.  True to his sense of honour, Montcalm begs the forgiveness of the fatally wounded Colonel Munro, offering the return of his sword and amnesty to British officers who wish to participate in the search for Alice and Cora.  The Colonel is equally gallant in his acceptance of the offer.  Try as I might to put a cynical edge to the scene, it moves me still as it did years ago.

Bruce Cabot, Heather Angel
Magua, Cora Munro

The search for the girls separates Hawkeye and Chingachgook from Uncas and Duncan.  Magua has taken Alice and Cora to the Hurons with a request to take Cora as his wife and to kill Alice.  "This one like warrior, she die by fire."  Cora says she would rather perish with her sister and the Chief, (the Sachem) played by William Mong, says that it is her right to choose and she may have until sundown to consider her action.  The feisty Alice is contemptuous of Huron law and is put in her place by Sachem.

Sachem to Magua:  My son, she is not willing.  Manitou has given us a law.

Alice:  What kind of a law could you have?

Sachem:  White squaw, listen.  Our fathers planted corn, hunted deer in these forests many moons before white man's war canoe crossed great salt water.  Our law is good.  It is squaw's right to choose between Magua and fire.

Uncas succeeds in taking Cora from the village.  Duncan has waylaid Hawkeye and disguises himself as the woodsman offering himself in exchange for Alice.  When the genuine Hawkeye appears, the Sachem settles the dispute with a contest of marksmanship which Duncan comes close to winning.  Fortunately (only in the movies!), the fleeing Duncan and Alice come upon colonial volunteers who save Hawkeye from the fire.

Sadly, Uncas and Cora have been pursued to a clifftop by Magua where Uncas is killed and Cora leaps to her death.  Chingachgook and Magua, according to tribal laws, battle in hand-to-hand combat to the death.  Hayward needs to be cautioned by Hawkeye that it is not their prerogative to interfere.  Chingachgook vanguishes Magua, but there is no look of triumph on his face, only sadness at the loss of Uncas.

Ceremonies different in custom, but similar in the search for comfort is the burial of Cora under a cross and Uncas' funeral pyre.

Duncan Hayward:  Father in Heaven, we ask you to receive into your mercy and wisdom this girl who died far from her native shore and the boy who perished to save her.  Amen.  

Chingachgook:  Great Spirit, a warrior goes to you swift and straight as an arrow shot into the sun. Let him take his place at council fire of my tribe, for he is Uncas, my son. Now all my tribe is there, but one - I, Chingachgook - last of Mohicans.

Binnie Barnes, Henry Wilcoxon, Randolph Scott
Alice Munro, Major Duncan Hayward, Hawkeye

The Last of the Mohicans is a grand adventure film that wraps up neatly with our romantic leads coming to an understanding, and former adversaries Hawkeye and Hayward reaching mutual respect.  Hawkeye even signs up to work for the British cause.  We'll talk to him in twenty years to see how he feels about that decision.

For some of the actors in this cast, they played "the" role which always comes first to my mind.  No matter how many crazy Russians (Heroes for Sale), murder victims (The Kennel Murder Case) or military men (They Were Expendable) he has played, Robert Barrat is first and foremost Chingachgook in my heart.  No matter how many times I have and will watch King Kong, Bruce Cabot will always be the Magua of my nightmares.  As for Henry Wilcoxon, someday I may forgive him for arresting Jimmy Stewart in The Greatest Show on Earth


Jeff of The Stalking Moon and Clayton of Phantom Empires have taken over the world!  The blogathon world, that is.  From November 14th - 17th they host The British Empire in Film blogathon.  Day 4 line-up.  Enjoy reading about all of the fabulous movies and the mad dogs and Englishmen. 


  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

FAIRY TALE BLOGATHON: Shirley Temple's Storybook - The Little Mermaid (1961)



Fritizi of Movies Silently is hosting the Fairy Tale Blogathon running from November 9 - 11.  Bloggers are looking at filmizations and adaptations of classic fairy tales that have inspired generations of artists and audiences.  Enjoy.

Hans Christian Andersen's story of The Little Mermaid was part of a collection published in 1837 which included The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's New Clothes and Thumbelina.  The youngest of six mermaid daughters of the ruler of the sea is an introspective youngster who longs to experience the world above the waves.  She become enamoured of a young prince whose life she saves during a storm.  She is also intrigued by the concept of an immortal soul which she can only obtain if a human loves her.  If she becomes human she will lose the long life of a mermaid, but that is something she is willing to trade.  The girl makes a bargain with an evil sea witch giving up her power of speech and song for a draught that will exchange her fish tail for legs.  Each step she takes is excrutiating, but she endures the pain for the sake of the prince and her hoped for soul.  When the prince marries another she is to die upon the morning and this can only be averted by killing the prince with a magic knife.  Refusing to kill her beloved, the mermaid prepares to die, but her good action is rewarded by the daughters of the air who take her as one of their own.  After performing good deeds for humans for three hundred years, a daughter of the air may gain a soul and entry to Heaven.

Children are warned at the end of the story that their bad behavior adds an extra day to the travels of the daughters of the air, while good children lessen their journey by a year.  Such are the stuff of guilty nightmares.



The Little Mermaid has inspired an operas (Dvorak, Tailleferre), ballets (Auerbach) and a number of films including Jules Bass' The Daydreamer (1966), a Russian short from 1968, a Reader's Digest animated short in 1974, Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre episode of 1987, Disney's Oscar winning film of 1989 and novels, poems, symphonies, and the internationally recognizable statue by Edvard Eriksen in Copenhagen.



The anthology series Shirley Temple's Storybook aka The Shirley Temple Show ran first on NBC in 1958 with a second season in 1960 - 61.  Classic children's literature was imaginatively adapted for hour long television episodes.  Among the titles included were Beauty and the Beast, The Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Winnie-the-Pooh, Madeline, Babes in Toyland and The Reluctant Dragon.  The episodes were presented with great care in production details.  Especially those in color transported young audiences to fantasy lands come to life with remarkable sets, costumes and guest casts working their charm.  The Little Mermaid, adapted by Oscar nominee (Caged) Bernard Schoenfeld, first aired in March of 1961.



Our lovely hostess, 33-year-old Shirley Temple, appears on screen in a lovely pink, sparkly gown.

Hello.  In just a moment we're going to present one of Hans Christian Andersen's immortal fairy tales.  Our play is based on one of the most beautiful, best-loved stories he ever wrote, The Little Mermaid.  This is a special occasion for me.  Ever since I was a child I've wanted to play the role of the innocent little mermaid who loses her heart to a land prince and tonight my dream has finally come true.

Shirley is the Mermaid who saves the life of a handsome Prince tossed from his ship during a storm.  She falls deeply in love with the human.  In turn, the Prince believes the pretty girl from a nearby sanctuary to be his rescuer and falls in love with her.  She is a Princess under the guardianship of a fussy and domineering keeper played by Nancy Kulp (The Beverly Hillbillies).  Don Harron plays the Prince.  The Canadian actor/writer is probably best known for his comic Charlie Farquharson character.  Francine York, familiar to TV audiences from the 60s to today, is the princess.


Shirley Temple, Cathleen Nesbitt

J. Pat O'Malley (The Adventures of Spin and Marty) is the Merking who loves his daughter and does not understand the depth of her feeling for the prince.  Cathleen Nesbitt  (The Parent Trap) is Granny Mermaid who understands only too well what her Little Mermaid is going through.  Years ago she fell in love with the prince's grandfather, but love between a human and mermaid was an impossible dream.

Ray Walston (Damn Yankees) plays the Sting Ray, an intermediary to the Sea Witch played by Nina Foch (Executive Suite).  They are a malicious pair who offer the Mermaid the means of growing legs and winning her prince.  Payment must be made and the consequences will be great including banishment from the sea forever, almost unendurable pain and, ultimately, death should the Little Mermaid not marry her Prince.

Prolific movie and TV actor John Hoyt (Spartacus) is the prince's aide and only confidant until the Little Mermaid arrives in the kingdom.  She becomes the prince's dearest friend, and a buffer between the prince and his father.  Torin Thatcher (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) plays the king who cannot fathom his son's fidelity to a girl he saw only once.  Eventually, the prince must acquiesce to an arranged marriage to save his people from war.  His joy is great upon discovering that he is to marry the girl he saw that day on the beach.  She also has loved him since that time.

Granny Mermaid makes a bargain with the Sea Witch by trading 50 of her 400 years for the chance that her granddaughter will live and be happy.  The ideas put forth in the bargaining have stayed with me for years.  Granny says that her granddaughter deserves happiness to which the Sting Ray responds that nobody deserves happiness, and only the lucky get it.  When Granny hesitates at the thought of giving up any of her 400 years she is admonished by the Sea Witch who reminds her that years ago she lost her Prince because of her fear and now her selfishness will do harm to her granddaughter. 

Swimming to the shore, Granny Mermaid gives her Little Mermaid a magic dagger which she must plunge into the heart of the Prince turning him into a Merman.  The couple will live out their 400 years allotted Merpeople under the sea.  Our Little Mermaid cannot do this thing and waits on the shore the next morning to die and become nothing but foam on the sea.

The Little Mermaid:  Neptune, great god of the sea, I am ready to die.

Voice of Neptune:  Beloved daughter of the gods, have no fear.  You are blessed.  Love such as yours is as priceless as the perfumed (unintelligible) on the green sea.  It is only in giving that we receive.  Live.  Return to your family.  Go home to the sea.

Shirley as hostess:  The Little Mermaid returned to her family beneath the sea.  Someday perhaps she would fall in love agian, but already she had learned a profound lesson, that bringing happiness to those you love can be the most important way of loving them.

The story of The Little Mermaid and her sacrifice for love has spoken to generations.  Life and decisions are not easy for anyone and the stories that last are those that speak to our human frailties, fears and greatness.  

   

 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for November on TCM



...No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member--
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
November!
- Thomas Hood

Yes, indeed!  It is that time of year again.  Have you started your Christmas shopping?  No?  Well, get cracking.  Time's a-wasting.  You'd better start on that list of favourite Christmas movies and specials as well.  No need yet to go full-on White Christmas or Scrooge, but ease yourself into the season.  Start with the office Christmas party in Desk Set or the festivities in the psych ward in Captain Newman, MD.  Better yet, enjoy Larceny, Inc. the 1942 film based on Laura and S.J. Perelman's short-lived 1941 Broadway play The Night Before Christmas.

Edward G. Robinson (The Sea Wolf, Double Indemnity) stars as J. Chalmers Maxwell aka "Pressure", a criminal mastermind.  When we meet "Pressure" he has masterminded his gang into Sing Sing.  Said gang consists of Weepy Davis played by Edward Brophy (Dumbo, All Through the Night) and Jug Martin played by Broderick Crawford (All the King's Men, Down Three Dark Streets).  Weepy is the guy who puts Pressure's ideas into action and Jug is the fellow who consistently "takes one for the team".  Once freed from the confines of Ossining and the dubious association of the cold-hearted Leo Dexter played by Anthony Quinn (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Warlock) Pressure and pals are free to pursue their next get-rich-quick scheme. 

Jane Wyman (Here Comes the Groom, Stage Fright) plays Denny Costello.  She is Pressure's unofficial adopted daughter and is determined to see him go straight.  Pressure would be happy to oblige Denny, but he needs capital and bank's require a little thing called collateral.  Is there another way to get money out of a bank?  You bet!  Located next to the bank is a luggage shop whose elderly owner played by Harry Davenport (Meet Me in St. Louis, The Ox-Bow Incident) is convinced to enjoy retirement and sell his interests to Pressure.  Once established as merchants it is a simple enough matter for Jug to start digging a tunnel from the shop to the bank. 

Pressure, however, did not reckon on the disruption of customers and his neighbouring shopkeepers, including John Qualen, Fortunio Bonanova and Barbara Jo Allen (Vera Vague).  His efforts to be left alone to deal with his preferred occupation inadvertently make Pressure a business success and a hero to his neighbours.  Denny does her bit to keep Pressure on the straight and narrow with her new beau, luggage line salesman Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce, The Strawberry Blonde).  Their courting takes place at a local drugstore under the watchful and bemused eyes of a soda jerk played by 25-year-old Jackie Gleason.

Barbara Jo Allen, Broderick Crawford, Edward Brophy
Edward G. Robinson, Jack Carson, Jane Wyman

The question of the bank's security and Pressure's changing heart become moot on Christmas Eve when Leo escapes from Sing Sing and demands his piece of the action.  Christmas and good will mean nothing to someone of Leo's temperament.  Neither does a well-made leather case or the return of Harry Davenport.  It will take nothing less than a Christmas miracle to get the gang out of this mess.

Directed by Lloyd Bacon (Brother Orchid, 42nd Street), Larceny, Inc. features typical Warner Bros. fast-paced quips and an ensemble skilled at creating memorable, likeable characters.  Keep your eyes and ears peeled for Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd) near the end of the movie.

TCM is screening Larceny, Inc. on Saturday, November 22nd at 8:30 am.  Not only will it be a nice way to kick off holiday movie season, you may even get some ideas for gifts from Pressure's shop.   

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

CMBA Forgotten Stars Blogathon: Robert Montgomery

Robert Montgomery
1904-1981

"If you are lucky enough to be a success, by all means enjoy the applause and the adulation of the public. But never, never believe it."

This post is part of the Forgotten Stars blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association where names of yesteryear come alive.

The family was watching Bewitched when my father mentioned to my mother, "She's Robert Montgomery's daughter".  The name meant nothing to me then, but by 1974 when That's Entertainment was released and Jimmy Stewart pointed out an "uncomfortable Robert Montgomery" trying his best as a vocalist in Free and Easy, Mr. Montgomery was a very familiar actor.  He was that squealer in The Big House and Joe Pendleton in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, who made me cry, and Lt. Brickley in They Were Expendable

Born to privilege, Robert Montgomery exemplified the young dandies and playboys he was cast as early in his years at MGM in films such as The Divorcee, Our Blushing Brides, Private Lives and When Ladies Meet.  However, Robert Montgomery showed a lot more gumption than some of the callow youths he was asked to portray.  The family fortune was lost and Robert set about making a place for himself in the world giving it the old college try as a railroad mechanic, oil tanker deckhand, short story writer, and settling on actor as the most promising avenue for a satisfying and financially rewarding profession.  Broadway shows in the 1920s with titles like Bad Habits of 1926 and The High Hatters give some indication of the type of roles Montgomery played.  Signed by MGM in 1929 his first job at the studio was as an uncredited "Party Boy" in The Single Standard

In 1928 Robert and British born actress Elizabeth Allen (died 1992) were married.  They met during the run of the 1924 play Dawn.  Their first child, Martha, was born in 1930 and sadly passed at 14 months of spinal meningitis.  Daughter Elizabeth was born in 1933 (died 1995) and son Robert Jr. in 1936 (died 2000).  Elizabeth and Robert's marriage lasted 22 years and they divorced in 1950.

Robert Montgomery, Chester Morris, Wallace Beery
The Big House

Proving himself a more than competent supporting light comic type such as the flirty drunk with a conscious in Norma Shearer's Oscar winner The Divorcee, Montgomery lobbied for grittier stuff.  He got it in 1930s The Big House with its Oscar winning screenplay by Frances Marion.  In the granddaddy of all prison pictures, Montgomery plays another profligate youth.  "Kent" is sent to prison for vehicular manslaughter (drunk driving).  Kent is unprepared for the harshness of life behind bars and he is a coward.  The combination is dynamite behind bars and the role gave possibilities which Montgomery seized, and he delivered a memorable performance.

James Cagney, Robert Montgomery

Montgomery was a born organizer and in the 30s was one of the driving forces behind the Screen Actors Guild, first being their president from 1935 to 1938.  It was through that work that Robert Montgomery and James Cagney became lifelong, stalwart friends. From John McCabe's biography Cagney, published 1997:  The two complemented each other effectively.  Montgomery envied Cagney his elemental toughness and common touch; Cagney admired his friend's easy and natural gentility.  "They were a pair," Willie (Mrs. Cagney) said in her old age.  "One supplied the other with what he had and the other hadn't."

McCabe also quotes Cagney on Montgomery's SAG activities:  Lots of screen actors may well not know how much they owe Bob.  It's sometimes said that Republicans are anti-union.  Malarkey.  Our union, Screen Actors Guild, wouldn't have gained what it did as fast as it did without Bob.  He became our leader in the fight against the producers, and Bob fought them no holds barred, knowing full well he was putting his career right on the line.  It was Bob who bearded those all-powerful producers in their comfortable den.

Robert Montgomery, Rosalind Russell
Night Must Fall

During the 1930s Robert Montgomery made five films with Rosalind Russell, including the Joel and Garda Sloane mystery Fast and Loose, the Robert Louis Stevenson story The Suicide Club as Trouble for Two, and a couple of romantic comedies Forsaking All Others and Live, Love and Learn.  They made a fine screen team and the best of their features is 1937s Night Must Fall based on Emlyn Williams still popular play.  Montgomery is riveting as "Danny", a murderous psychopath who charms and seduces those in his orbit.  Hired as a handyman by a spoiled and wealthy wheelchair bound woman played by Dame May Whitty, Danny intrigues her live-in companion played by Rosalind Russell.  The psychological thriller has a tense atmosphere and bravura performances from Montgomery and Whitty which were nominated in the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories.  Their final scene together in the film is unforgettable.  The awards were given that year to Spencer Tracy in Captains Courageous and Alice Brady in In Old Chicago.  Who am I to cast aspersion on the Academy's choices?  According to Rosalind Russell's autobiography, during film of Night Must Fall Robert Montgomery took over the directing chores from Richard Thorpe who couldn't quite grasp the material. 

Robert Montgomery, James Gleason
Here Comes Mr. Jordan

Robert would receive another Oscar nomination as Joe Pendleton, the boxer taken before his time in the after-life fantasy Here Comes Mr. Jordan.  The film was popular with the Academy garnering seven Oscar nominations.  It won for Best Original Story and Best Screenplay, but lost in the Picture, Director, Black and White Cinematography and Supporting Actor categories to a little film called How Green Was My Valley.  Gary Cooper would take the Best Actor award for Sergeant York.  Through the years I am troubled but what seem to be logic or plot holes in Here Comes Mr. Jordan, yet retain warm feelings for the film.  The comedy still makes me laugh and the sentiment leaves me bawling.  James Gleason is a riot as trainer Max Corkle and Robert Montgomery as Joe is so single-minded and sincere that I just love him.

After that 1941 release Robert Montgomery was off screen due to involvement in the war effort.  He enlisted as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in France.  After Dunkirk he joined the Navy.  He served at Guadalcanal and off Cherbourg on D-Day.  He received the Bronze Star for meritorious service.

Ward Bond, Robert Montgomery, John Wayne
They Were Expendable

Robert Montgomery's return to motion pictures was John Ford's 1946 film They Were Expendable based on the true life story of Medal of Honor holder Lt. John Bulkeley and the book They Were Expendable by William L. White concerning the battle for Bataan.  During filming Robert Montgomery defended co-star John Wayne from Ford's perverse bullying of the actor who had not served and, once again, Montgomery took on some of the directing chores when Ford was felled by ill health.  They Were Expendable is a leisurely paced and emotional tribute to those valiantly fighting in the face of impossible odds. 

Robert Montgomery was once again president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1946-1947 and was invited to speak at the the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee as a friendly witness.  From National Screen Actor, 1998 publication:  He stated that he had become aware, in the late 1930s, of "a very active Communist-front organization" in the film industry and "an organized minority" within SAG. He accused that minority of inciting labor strikes and then strongly opposing their settlement. Montgomery wanted to keep the Guild completely out of politics and "strictly an organization which represented the economic status of the members of our profession."

After all those times pinch-hitting, Robert Montgomery finally got the chance to direct his own feature choosing an adaption of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake.  Philip Marlowe was the perfect character to experiment with the use of the subjective camera.  We see the action unfold through Marlowe's eyes and while I can't say the device is overwhelmingly successful, it is such a game try and the story so fun and convoluted that the movie has become a holiday staple in the family.

Robert Montgomery, Thomas Gomez
Ride the Pink Horse

Also released in 1947 is a film I think can truly be considered a film-noir classic, Ride the Pink Horse based on Dorothy B. Hughes novel and directed by and starring Robert Montgomery.  Montgomery is "Lucky" Gagin chasing his destiny to Mexico, although he doesn't know it.  The atmospheric film of oppressive fate sticks in your gut, especially the Oscar nominated performance of Thomas Gomez which lost to Edmund Gwenn's twinkly Kris Kringle.

In 1950 Montgomery moved into television as producer and host of Robert Montgomery Presents where he gained the reputation as a frugal producer, but also a fighter.  From Cagney:  He had begun his successful series, Robert Montgomery Presents, for NBC in 1950 and was very pleased by the results.  But his future with the TV networks was seriously compromised by their establishing an unwritten law; in order to continue a series, one had to sell 50 percent of the show to the presenting network.  He appealed to the FCC, appeared before Senate committees, and denounced the networks for their monopoly tactics.  This did little good at the time, but it is generally agreed that his testimony before influential boards and committees provided an important stimulus toward freeing the television air.

Elizabeth Montgomery, Robert Montgomery
Robert Montgomery Presents

Robert Montgomery Presents ran from 1950 to 1957 and won one out of three Emmy nominations for Best Dramatic Program.  Montgomery acted in three of the episodes as Alan Squier in The Petrified Forest, Lucy Gagin in Ride the Pink Horse and a spy story, Mr. Top Secret co-starring daughter Elizabeth, who appeared in 30 episodes of the program.  Our producer even got James Cagney to appear in one episode, the 8th season kickoff Soldier from the Wars Returning.  Jimmy discovered that live TV was definitely not his thing.  Predating the image consultants of today, Robert Montgomery advised presidential candidate Eisenhower on how best to present an image on television.  During the 1950s Robert Montgomery turned his hand to directing on Broadway and won the Tony as Best Director for the successful melodrama The Desperate Hours in 1955.

Robert Montgomery, "Bull" Halsey, James Cagney

Robert Montgomery's last film was a labour of love with Montgomery and James Cagney co-producing, Montgomery directing and Cagney starring as Admiral "Bull" Halsey in 1960s The Gallant Hours.  An unusual war film with no battle scenes, the director and actor wanted to portray the complexities and loneliness of leadership.  The Gallant Hours succeeds in creating a memorably  emotional and thoughtful mood.

In 1950 Robert Montgomery married Elizabeth Grant and that marriage lasted until his death from cancer in 1981.  During the 1960s Robert Montgomery's energies were devoted to business, serving on corporate boards such as that of R.H. Macy.  While not a name familiar to the casual movie fan of today, classic fans retain their admiration for Robert Montgomery, a talented actor and director worth remembering or discovering. 


Friday, October 17, 2014

The Jack Webb Blogathon: Pete Kelly's Blues (1955)


This one's about Pete Kelly.  If you've ever taken the steps down to Rudy's speak over on Cherry Street to hear Kelly's Big 7, you know who I'm talking about.  If you've been there, you've only gone for the music.  Straight up Dixieland with soul that will divert you from the so-so food and weak liquor.  Blues?  Yeah, Pete Kelly's got 'em.  Some say he was born that way.  Some say he brought it back from the war.  The one that was supposed to end them all.  Pete Kelly's always in a war.  1920s Kansas City has plenty of them - band wars, mob wars.  The liars, the schemers and the broken-hearted all end up on Pete Kelly's doorstep.  If there's trouble he's in it up to his neck.  

Pete Kelly's Blues
Ray Heindorf and Sammy Cahn

If it's going to rain, it might as well pour and pour it does one night at Rudy's.  Flighty society dish Ivy Conrad sets her sights on Pete.  She's looking for kicks.  She's lonely.  She always gets her way.  Racketeer Fran McCarg also has plans for Pete Kelly's Big 7.  McCarg is a political boss/racketeer with controlling interest in bands and joints across the state and he's ever-expanding.  He's cutting himself in for 25 percent.  McCarg always gets his way.  Nobody likes it, but most of the guys have been around long enough to know the score.  Young drummer Joey Firestone is the exception.  Joey shoots his drunken mouth off to McCarg.  Joey gets it in the alley back of Rudy's from a Chicago typewriter.  Pete goes along to get along, but long-time pal Al Gannaway can't stomach knuckling under and is off to better places out of McCarg's reach.

Surprisingly, Ivy turns out to be the one bright thing in Pete's life.  McCarg brings the trouble as promised by muscling a spot on the grandstand for his alcoholic girlfriend, even though it's not that sort of band.  Rose Hopkins was a singer when McCarg found her, but that was ten years and a river of booze ago.  McCarg doesn't like it when Rose drinks, but doesn't seem to care that he's the reason.  George Tennell, a cop with an agenda, pushes Pete from the other side looking for help in bringing down McCarg.  Yeah.  Pete's conscience is getting a real working over.  It all leads to treachery, brutality and a showdown.  Things change and things will always be the same for Pete Kelly.

Pete Kelly's Blues was a summer 1951 radio series created by Richard Breen, Oscar and Writers Guild of America nominee/winner behind Pat Novak for Hire on radio and films such as Titanic, Niagara and A Foreign Affair.  The script, particularly the narration, is brimming with the wry, cynical humour that Jack Webb puts over so well.

Than Wyenn, a welcome and familiar face to those of us who grew up watching television of the 50s, 60s and 70s, plays Rudy Shulak the bottom-line focused owner of the speakeasy.  According to internet sources, still with us at 95, I hope he is enjoying good health and fine companions.  21-year-old Jayne Mansfield's first film credit is as a cigarette girl in Pete Kelly's Blues.  You can't miss the pretty girl with the dark hair.  Martin Milner plays the hotheaded Joey Firestone and Lee Marvin steals scenes as reed man Al Gannaway.  Andy Devine is unusually chilling as a determined cop.

Jack Webb, Janet Leigh
Party like it's 1927!

Janet Leigh was a very busy actress in the 1950s appearing in comedies, musicals, costume dramas, epics and film-noir.  Pete Kelly's Blues falls in the middle of that busy time and Janet is extremely fetching in her 1920s fringed gown and cloche hats.  Ivy's character is that of heiress, madcap.  Ivy is an outsider in Pete Kelly's world and Janet Leigh does yoeman's work giving her character audience appeal.  There are enough hints about motivation in the script to make Ivy's choices feel more organic than they ultimately do, but limiting her interactions to Pete also limits the character.

Edmond O'Brien was also very busy in the 1950s with crime pictures taken up the prime spot in his filmography.  At that season's Academy Awards O'Brien won the Best Supporting Actor trophy for The Barefoot Contessa.  This time around he is a nasty piece of work who bullies his way through life and "business".  A master of intimidation, even whatever feeling he has or once had for his girlfriend Rose is expressed only through his brutality.

Jack Webb, Peggy Lee, Edmond O'Brien
Some nights everything goes wrong.

Singer/songwriter Peggy Lee added "Oscar nominated actress" to her list of accomplishments with the role of Rose Hopkins in Pete Kelly's Blues.  Rose is a woman at the end of her rope.  She's only alive when she sings.  The rest of the time she drinks to escape the torment of her lover, Fran McCarg.  Eventually she escapes into the depths of her mind and soul.  Peggy is subtle and heartbreaking with the dialogue and with the emotional songs by Arthur Hamilton, He Needs Me and Sing a Rainbow.  That more roles of this calibre did not come Peggy's way is a loss to audiences.

Jack Webb is Pete Kelly.  Of course, he was Pete Kelly on radio and his success with Dragnet is all encompassing and legendary.  Jack looks perfectly at ease on the bandstand, having played cornet as a youngster.  The tailor-made dialogue is a pleasure to hear, dripping attitude.  He has some lovely moments in the movie conveying vulnerability, fear and anger.  However, solid skills are not alone in creating a memorable lead character and there have been times (a few) when I have imagined Jack not spreading himself so thin on this project.  I imagine him sticking to the directing and the producing, and perhaps playing Al Gannaway and maybe (just maybe) promoting Lee Marvin to lead.  A part of this could be hindsight.  Perhaps Marvin wasn't quite ready to be that guy that he slowly became over his career.  In all likelihood, Warners would have balked at the idea.  Not let one of the biggest names in the business play the character he created?  Really?  Sometimes I think someone with a bit more of the old screen charisma was needed to give the movie that extra indefinable something.  At any rate, I think it would have amped up the Pete and Ivy scenes.  We wouldn't have cared if they made sense or not.  Silly musings?  Probably.  Jack Webb is Pete Kelly and I guess I really wouldn't want it any other way.

My first impressions of Pete Kelly's Blues back in my teen years was of the look and the sound of the movie.  Cinematographer Harold Rossen and art director Harper Goff created a nighttime world filmed in WarnerColor.  The hue is almost pastel-like, yet dark and smoky where there is no smoke.  I can think of no other film quite like it.  The sound is the music.  The lush background score by Ray Heindorf and David Buttolph utilizing Heindorf's theme and Ted Fio Rito's I Never Knew is haunting.  And then there's Pete Kelly's Big Seven.  Matty Matlock arranged the classic 20s tunes and doubled for Marvin on clarinet.  Dick Cathcart was the cornet lead.  George Van Eps, guitar.  Moe Schneider, trombone.  Ray Sherman, piano.  Nick Fatool, drums.  Jud De Naut, bass.

  
The original soundtrack was nominated for a Grammy for Best Soundtrack Album.  Songs from Pete Kelly's Blues featured the work of Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald.  An album was released featured music from the subsequent 1959 television series produced by Webb and starring William Reynolds.  A garage sale find that enjoys a place of honour in my collection.

An older friend told me that he was in high school when Pete Kelly's Blues was released and it turned him and his group of friends into old-time jazz fiends who thought it would have cool to live in the 20s.  I could look up how well the movie did at the box office or with the critics, but I think my friend's story says it all.


Don't miss any of The Jack Webb Blogathon sponsored by Toby Roan at The Hannibal 8.