Thursday, May 29, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for June on TCM


Some stories strike a chord with audiences and creators alike and find expression again and again throughout generations. Author Robert L. Fontaine was born in Illinois, but spent part of his childhood in Ottawa, Canada, the setting for his 1945 novel The Happy Time, which began life as several magazine short stories.

In 1950 Samuel Taylor (Sabrina Fair, No Strings) adapted the stories for a Broadway play which had a successful run of 614 performances. Earl Felton (The Narrow Margin, Armored Car Robbery) received a Writers Guild Award nomination for his 1952 screenplay adaption for the Stanley Kramer production of The Happy TimeThe Happy Time once again went to Broadway in 1968 as a Kander and Ebb musical winning three Tony Awards out of eight nominations. Thanks to DVDs and the astute TCM programmers, the winning film continues to find an accepting audience.



Director Richard Fleischer was keen to work on the project for his friend Stanley Kramer and recounts in his 1993 memoir Just Tell Me When to Cry:

"The making of The Happy Time was an unadulterated delight, and we were all pleased with the result. In the 1950s Radio City Music Hall was to movies what the Palace Theater used to be to vaudeville. To play the Palace was to achieve the pinnacle of success. To play the Music Hall was something to be proud of. The Happy Time played the Music Hall."

Springtime in Ottawa, circa 1921 is full of confusion and joy for Robert Bonnard, known affectionately to his large and loving family as Bibi. It is the springtime when Bibi will grow in understanding and from short pants to long. Bibi is played by 15-year-old Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan, So Dear to My Heart, special Oscar winner for The Window). His performance is sincere and amusing showing a young man with natural gifts who needed only guidance and material to fulfill his potential.

Bibi's Anglo-Scot Presbyterian mother is played by lovely Marsha Hunt (Raw Deal, The Valley of Decision). Madame Bonnard sees herself as the voice of reason and discipline in a family of crazy francophone males. For all her protestations she is as open-hearted and fun-loving as the rest of the Bonnards. 

Bibi's father Jacques is an artist, the music director at the local vaudeville theatre. His philosophical nature may be the greatest influence, not only on Bibi, but on his whole family. Four time Oscar nominee for Best Actor Charles Boyer (Algiers, Love Affair) is charming in the role of family man. He wears it like a glove.

Grandpere, played by versatile character actor Marcel Dalio (Casablanca, Tip on a Dead Jockey), lives with Bibi and his parents. He is, for all his years, a man whose hobby, avocation and reason for living is "the ladies". The dapper skirt chase is frowned upon by his daughter-in-law and accepted with a smile by his eldest son. His youngest son is the infamous Uncle Desmond played by Louis Jourdan (Gigi, The Swan). Desmond is a chip off the old block and, as Mme. Bonnard fears, a bad influence on Bibi. Ah, Louis Jourdan!


Kurt Kasznar, Jeanette Nolan, Ann Faber

In a neighbouring house resides Uncle Louis played by Kurt Kasznar (Lili, The Ambushers). Like his older brother Jacques, Louis is a philosopher, but one whose wisdom comes from a water cooler filled with wine. He is well-meaning, but more than a little cock-eyed. Louis' wife Felice is played by Jeanette Nolan (MacBeth, The Big Heat) and perhaps one of these days she will wear out from yelling at him. Perhaps not.

Kurt Kasznar played the role of Uncle Louis in the Broadway production and while Kramer and Fleischer agreed he was brilliant in the role at first they balked at paying the requested price for his service. They offered the role instead to Zero Mostel, but Harry Cohn of Columbia Studios who was backing the project refused to hire the blacklisted Mostel.  

Another neighbour of the Bonnard's is Peggy O'Hare aka "The Fighting American" played by Marlene Cameron, also from the original Broadway production. Peggy is Bibi's classmate and fervent admirer.


Kurt Kasznar, Charles Boyer, Bobby Driscoll, Marsha Hunt, Louis Jourdan

Into this mix of high spirits comes Linda Christian (Battle Zone, The V.I.P.s) as the beauteous Mignonette. Eva Gabor played this role in the play. Mignonette is the refugee from a handsy vaudeville magician. The stranded showgirl is hired by Jacques to help his wife with the housework. Her charms are not lost on either Desmond or Bibi, although the proper young woman only has eyes for Rudolf Valentino.

Bibi's infatuation with Mignonette is not lost on Peggy and this inadvertently leads to a school crisis which requires the combined forces of the Bonnard to solve. The Happy Time is filled with charming and nostalgic episodes. It is amusing and touching in surprising and frank ways. Be prepared as the last scene will burst your heart.

Charles Boyer as Jacques Bonnard in The Happy Time is one of my all-time favourite movie dads. Perhaps someone at TCM agrees with me as they are screening the movie as part of their Father's Day Salute on Sunday, June 15th at 8:00 am.










Sunday, May 25, 2014

CMBA Fabulous Films of the 50s blogathon: Champagne for Caesar (1950)


The Classic Movie Blog Association sponsors the Fabulous Films of the 50s blogathon from May 22 to May 26.  So many great movies and so many great posts. 

Ronald Colman stars as Beauregard Bottomley, the last scholar, in the delightful 1950 comedy Champagne for Caesar.  As always, Colman is perfect in his role.  He was a perfect Sidney Carton, a perfect Robert Conway, a perfect George Apley, a perfect Rudolf Rassendyll, etc.  Beauregard Bottomley is a head-in-the-clouds and rather naive sort of fellow who devotes his time to higher learning and Greek translations, which doesn't pay very well.  He lives in a friendly bungalow court with his younger sister Gwenn, a piano teacher played by pretty Barbara Britton (The Virginian, I Shot Jesse James, TVs Mr. and Mrs. North).  The abode is also shared by a parrot named Caesar.  Caesar's former owner taught him a number of colourful phrases and encouraged a taste for the grape.  Caesar is voiced by Mel Blanc.

A stroll on a pleasant, warm evening to join others gathered in front of a storefront to watch television will irrevocably change not only the lives of the Bottomley siblings, but of the nation!  Beauregard is anxious to watch the broadcast of a scientific experiment and is prepared to return home at its conclusion when the popular radio/TV hit "Masquerade for Money" hosted by "Happy" Hogan begins.  This is the program which has drawn the rest of the crowd and Gwenn wants to check it out.  Perennial host Art Linkletter is cast as "Happy" and does a credible job.  Certainly he is on his mettle as a TV host and handles his "off" scenes well.  The premise of "Masquerade for Money" is that the contestant dresses up as someone or something and is asked questions about their assumed identity.  The first correct answer is a $5 win and the money increases to the top prize of $160.  The program is the brainchild of and sponsored by Milady's Soap ("the soap that sanctifies").  Milady's Soap is run by Burnbridge Waters.  In Vincent Price's mad and hysterical performance as the mastermind you will see the genesis for his Professor Ratigan from The Great Mouse Detective, 35 years in the future. 

Beauregard is appalled by what he sees on the television.  "This man is the forerunner of intellectual destruction in America.  If it is noteworthy and rewarding to know that 2 and 2 make 4 to the accompaniment of deafening applause and prizes then 2 and 2 making 4 will become the top level of learning."  Gwenn, on the other hand, thinks "Happy" is cute.

Beauregard's ongoing efforts to find meaningful employment are a problem for both himself and Mr. Brown of the Department of Employment.  "If you know everything, you're not wanted around for long."  Perhaps at long last they have found the way Beauregard can "make a buck" and he eagerly attends for an interview at a firm that is looking for someone to do something with a research survey.  The company is Milady's Soap ("the soap that sanctifies") which is housed in an office complex that looks as if Dr. Seuss was hired as interior designer.  There is a hushed atmosphere, an obelisk with disembodied arms holding soap, disembodied voices greet and offer commands and eventually Beauregard is ushered in to see the top man.  Burnbridge Waters is currently in a trance.  It's how he thinks up things like "Masquerade for Money".  Coming out of the trance, he questions the applicant and finds Beauregard Bottomley not to his liking.  "You are the intellectual type.  I despise intellectuals types."  Beauregard's attempts at injecting humour into the interview are also met with strong disapproval and insults.  Beauregard does not take the rejection from the "pompous ass" lightly.

Art Linkletter, Ronald Colman

Beauregard enters "Masquerade for Money" as the Encyclopedia Britannica.  His appearance causes a sensation.  The audience cannot get enough of the "overgrown wiz kid".  Waters plays along.  After all, it's great publicity for Milady's Soap ("the soap that sanctifies").  Soon enough is too much!  Beauregard refuses to leave the game and they cannot stump the genius.  They try pulling the plug on the show, but there is outrage and sales plummet.  Beauregard's revenge is taking shape.  He wants to win the entire company.  "Happy" Hogan is sent to influence Beauregard through Gwenn, but instead falls for the girl.

Waters resorts to his secret weapon in the feminine form of Celeste Holm as Flame O'Neill.  What a name!  What a woman!  Ostensibly a nurse hired by one of the many Beauregard Bottomley fan clubs that dot the country, to help him recover from a cold, the brainy and beautiful Flame puts a plan in action to upset the equilibrium of the corporate raider.  Beauregard is smitten.  Two romances, the fate of a prominent company and television history all rest with Beauregard Bottomley, the last scholar. 

Champagne for Caesar was produced by Harry Popkin.  Harry and his brother Leo were film distributors who got into the producing line and whose titles gladden the hearts of old movie buffs.  Along with Champagne for Caesar there is the great Christie adaption And Then There Were None, the classic film-noir Impact and D.O.A., and the social conscience drama The Well, among others.

The director of Champagne for Caesar is former actor Richard Whorf (Yankee Doodle Dandy, Blues in the Night).  He began directing in the early 40s and movie credits include It Happened in Brooklyn and Luxury Liner.  As of 1952 Whorf's work would be entirely for television including many episodes of My Three Sons, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Barbara Stanwyck Show and Gunsmoke.  The sprightly score by Dimitri Tiomkin hits all the right notes.  Tiomkin would also work with Harry Popkin on D.O.A. and The Well.

Vincent Price, Vicci Raaf

The supporting cast of this film are a delight.  John Eldredge and Lyle Talbot are beleaguered Milady's Soap ("the soap that sanctifies") executives.  Vici Raaf as Waters' secretary is a quiet riot and Ellye Marshall as a Monroe-like starlet is charming.  Byron Foulger adds a droll touch as one of Gwenn's piano students.  Bess Flowers can be found backstage at the Hollywood Bowl during the finale of "Masquerade for Money". 

Champagne for Caesar is one of those movies that could very easily be translated from 1950 to 2014.  The gadgets have changed, and some of our TV viewing habits, but the habit is still there and the advertisers still have us by the throat.  Game show contestants become celebrities, whether their knowledge exceeds that of 2 and 2 making 4 or not.  Side note:  my sisters and I once saw Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings on a street in Toronto and we pointed and screamed.  I think we frightened him.  The comedy in Champagne for Caesar is relatable and played with elan by a cast that truly delivers the good natured and hearty laughs.


Friday, May 2, 2014

The Romantic Comedy Blogathon: Footlight Serenade (1942)

A BOY.     A GIRL.     A BOXER.     ON BROADWAY!

THE BOY

Bill Smith came to the big town to make his mark, but the only success he's met with has been the romantic kind.  However, he is willing to temporarily leave his girl, Pat, to fend for herself while he looks for greener pastures elsewhere.  Pat convinces Bill to stop by a theatre where she is auditioning so they can have one last goodbye.  He'll be staying put!

John Payne plays Bill.  The former Warners contractee had been with Twentieth Century Fox for two years at this point and had proven himself with his good looks, fine voice and easy chemistry with leading ladies.  Tin Pan Alley, Week-End in Havana and The Great American Broadcast with Alice Faye, Sun Valley Serenade with Sonja Henie and To the Shores of Tripoli with Maureen O'Hara (they would meet up later with a fella called Kris Kringle) were solid hits.

THE GIRL

Pat Lambert is like hundreds of dancers looking for work on Broadway.  The big difference is she has Bill in her corner.  Pat's talent and personality also catch the eye of the Boxer.  Well, a job is a job and a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do!

Betty Grable plays Pat.  The bubbly and talented Grable had been around Hollywood for ten years in small, but showy parts.  It took a role on Broadway in Cole Porter's Du Barry Was a Lady to bring her back to Tinseltown where she would become one of the most popular performers of the 1940s.  Down Argentine Way was the colourful Fox musical co-starring Don Ameche would really put her on the map.

THE BOXER

Tommy Lundy is the champ.  The ladies love him almost as much as he loves himself.  He can't sing and he can't dance and he can't act, but that won't stop him from starring in a Broadway show.  After all, the ladies love him!

Victor Mature plays Tommy.  The physically imposing actor self-deprecatingly maligned his own talents to go along with the critical catcalls.  However, he was a trained professional whose performances in such films as My Darling Clementine, Kiss of Death, Cry of the City and I Wake Up Screaming belie his "not an actor" reputation.  The larger-than-life, exuberant and extremely confident Tommy is a particularly fun characterization.

ON BROADWAY!

Phil Silvers as the comic "Slap" convinces producer Bruce McKay played by James Gleason that a show starring the ring's latest heartthrob will be a surefire hit.  A hit, he wants.  What he gets is ulcers when the swell-headed Tommy takes over.  Tommy's not malicious, it's just that he's always right so why shouldn't people do what he says?  He wants someone to box in the last act and Bill seems like the right guy, so he gets Bill.  He thinks Pat is darn cute, and she sure can dance, so he gets Pat in the show.

Betty Grable, Jane Wyman

Also along for the fun is Pat's best friend Flo played by Jane Wyman.  I don't know why this Warner Brothers gal was at Fox for one picture in 1942, but I know what she was doing.  She was doing the Eve Arden bit, that of sardonic best friend, and she nails it.  Flo sees nothing but trouble in the cards for Pat.  "You have as much chance of going on as I have of becoming First Lady!"

The supporting cast is a movie buffs delight featuring Irving Bacon, Mantan Moreland and Frank Orth.  Tommy's current girlfriend, society singer Estelle Evans played by society singer Cobina Wright, is not right for a Broadway show so naturally Tommy wants her for his leading lady.  Miss Evans is immediately jealous of the attention Tommy pays Pat.  There's a lot of that going around.  Bill isn't too pleased either.  Pat uses this to her advantage.  Some guys have to be dragged to the altar or municipal city hall.  Love is in the air, but has to be kept a secret until opening night as everyone is afraid of upsetting Tommy before the show is declared a hit, Pat becomes a star and the money starts rolling in.

The director of Footlight Serenade is Gregory Ratoff (Intermezzo: A Love Story, Rose of Washington Square, The Corsican Brothers), Max Fabian of All About Eve fame.  He gives us a nicely paced show and some memorable tracking shots through the backstage areas of our Broadway theatre setting.  The black and white cinematography is by Lee Garmes (Scarface, The Furies, A Big Hand for the Little Lady) who would also produce and direct in his Hollywood career.

I like my romantic comedies with generous helpings of music.  Cupid's arrow is often greatly helped by the right love song or a passionate dance.  Hollywood obliged with many great examples starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at RKO, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald at MGM, and Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler at Warner Brothers.  The Great American Songbook is filled with movie standards from Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Harry Warren and others.

Songs for Footlight Serenade were composed by Oscar winners (Thanks for the Memory) Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin.  The tunes are peppy and humourous befitting this lively story, and the dance routines are fun and polished.  Choreography is by Hermes Pan (Top Hat, Swing Time, Silk Stockings) who plays a dance director in the movie and performs Land on Your Feet with Betty.    The shadow boxing number I Heard the Birdies Sing is a very nice showcase for Betty.  The number I'm Still Crazy for You shows why Bill and Pat are perfect for each other.

John Payne, Betty Grable, Victor Mature

Betty Grable has a very appealing screen personality.  She's attractive and energetic.  She knows what she wants and goes after it.  She doesn't suffer fools lightly.  She's a gal that can take care of herself.  John Payne is one of those performers who always seems just right in whatever he is doing, a musical-comedy, a film-noir or a western.  He makes it look easy. 

You know going into a romantic comedy what the ending will be.  The story told must entertain and amuse.  The actors must be personable and professionally committed to putting over the script.  There has to be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding before that final clinch or production number, and the audience has to enjoy the ride.  Footlight Serenade is one enjoyable ride.

Lara of Backlots and Vince of Carole & Co. have brought love to the blogosphere with The Romantic Comedy Blogathon running from May 1 - 4.

THE JOAN FONTAINE CENTENARY BLOGATHON: Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)

Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Virginie of The Wonderful World of Cinema are co-hosting The Joan Fontaine C...