Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hoppy's Pals

When a classic movie fan hears the name "Topper" they can go in one of two directions. Either they instantly think of Roland Young beset by the ghostly George and Marion Kirby or they have the image of Hopalong Cassidy's white horse of that name and bad guys being chased through Lone Pine, California. Fond though I may be of the screwball comedy antics of ghosts, my first thought goes to the cinematic range.

Windy Halliday and Hopalong Cassidy (William Boyd)

George "Gabby" Hayes (1885 - 1969) was a vaudeville veteran who was considering retiring when Wall Street laid that colossal egg and his wife and show business partner, Olive Ireland, suggested he cast his lot with Hollywood. Talented character actors were in demand and George was kept busy in B pictures with occasional A parts coming his way such as the down-on-his-luck farmer who confronts Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.

Seeing a niche for himself in B westerns, George learned to ride at the age of 50. In 1935 he played a sympathetic barkeep in the Hopalong Cassidy outing The Eagle's Brood, sporting a moustache and assaying a twangy way of speech that would soon become familiar to movie fans. That same year he sprouted whiskers and perfected his "durn tootin" persona in Bar 20 Rides Again. Windy Halliday had come to stay! A comic foil, the dupe of lovelorn ladies and teased by those young whippersnappers, Windy was also savvy and brave - a fellow you could trust in a tight spot.

After 3 years and 23 pictures, Gabby parted ways with Windy when producers failed to appropriately acknowledge his popularity by increasing his bank statement. As "Gabby" the character remained the same and George backed up the likes of Roy Rogers, John Wayne and Randolph Scott. Mr. Hayes was inducted into the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Hall of Fame Museum in 2000. Next to Charlie Chaplin or Mickey Mouse can you think of a more recognizable film character staple? And the man was going to retire!

Hoppy and California Carlson

Andy Clyde (1892 - 1967) was born in Scotland and was also a vaudeville veteran when he came to Hollywood and started working for Mack Sennett. He worked his way up from extra to a featured player and married one of the famous bathing beauties, Elsie Tarron. If this had been the sound era perhaps Andy would have become Hollywood's resident Scot, but with old age make-up, he created a successful curmudgeonly silent screen clown.

Like Stan and Ollie, sound only added to Andy's comedy and bankability. For over 20 years starting in the 1930s he made comedy shorts for Columbia, mostly as "Andy Clyde" beset by sitcom plot difficulties. Mrs. Clyde was played by a favourite around these parts, Esther Howard. Andy joined the Hopalong team in 1940s Three Men from Texas, replacing Windy but not playing that role. California Carlson is as brave as his predecessor, but he's a little more gullible, apt to rush in where angels fear to tread, has a way with a double take that is sheer delight and a giggle that makes me grin.

Scripts (38 of them, plus radio and television) provide ample opportunity for Andy to display his well-honed comic abilities. Andy Clyde became as familiar a face to television audiences as he was to movie-goers in programs such as The Real McCoys, Gunsmoke, The Andy Griffith Show and Lassie. A total of 373 movie and television credits from 1921 to 1966! I don't imagine Mr. Clyde ever considered retiring.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An 1858 Birthday Remembered

May Robson
April 19, 1858 - October 20, 1942

Mary Jeanette Robison was born in Melbourne, Australia. Her father, Capt. Henry Robison of the Royal Navy, died when May was six, and her mother decided to take the children to Europe. After attending schools in Paris and Brussels, May eloped to Texas in 1880 with a young American inventor named Edward Gore. He died suddenly in 1883, leaving May a widowed mother of three. Moving to New York, she struggled to support herself painting china, but it was not enough and two of her children died during this terrible period. Her surviving son, Edward Jr., eventually made her a grandmother and "the only great-grandmother in the movies", a tag of which she was especially proud.

In desperation May turned to acting, making her debut at the Madison Square Theatre, September 17, 1883, with a small part in a drama called The Hoop of Gold. By 1889, when she married New York physician Dr. Augustus Brown the tall golden-haired actress was firmly established as one of the busiest and best-loved character players on the stage. Dr. Brown passed away in 1922. The marriage was childless.

May had the hit of her career in the title role of a 1907 comedy called The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary. Forming her own stock company, she toured with it and other plays for years, eventually logging some 500,000 miles and boasting that there was "not a town in the US or Canada with a theatre, in which I have not appeared". Tours in that show would bring her to Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre many times between 1908 - 1922. An 1895 production of The Importance of Being Earnest found her in the delightful role of Miss Prism. Can't you just picture her?

It is said that when May ran her own company salaries were paid on the dot, stagehands got overtime, extra meals and "sleepers" on overnight jumps. Such treatment was unheard of in those days but paid great dividends during the actors' strike of 1919 when Robson's company was the only one that could play any theatre without picketing and trouble.

She appeared in a silent picture in 1916, but really hit her Hollywood stride in 1926 appearing in 63 movies. 1927 even saw a version of The Rejuvenation of Aunt Mary. I'd like to highlight some of my favourite May Robson pictures and roles. Perhaps they are yours as well.

Jean Parker, Warren William, Glenda Farrell, May Robson, Guy Kibbee

Who can't relate to 1932's If I Had a Million? May won the audience over in that film's final segment as a nursing home resident given a new lease on life. She was busy in 1933 with George Cukor's Dinner at Eight as the harassed cook Mrs. Wendel and received an Academy Award nomination as Apple Annie in Frank Capra's Lady for a Day. The other ladies nominated that year were Diana Wynyard for Cavalcade and, the winner, Katharine Hepburn for Morning Glory.

She's the moral center of William Wellman's 1937 classic A Star is Born as Janet Gaynor's understanding grandmother. May is a genuine hoot as Katharine Hepburn's leopard loving Aunt Elizabeth in Howard Hawks' 1938 Bringing Up Baby!

May as movie fans remember her.

In Michael Curtiz's 1938 feature Four Daughters, May portrays Aunt Etta to the Lane sisters and Gale Page in the first of a popular series that included Four Wives (1939), Four Mothers (1941) and Daughters Couragous (1939). Four Daughters was the film debut of the movies' original rebel, John Garfield, and his scenes with May are a highlight of this well-remembered film. Warner's would reteam the pair in the following year's They Made Me a Criminal.

I'm particularly fond of a goofy little movie from 1940 called Granny Get Your Gun written by Erle Stanley Gardner. At 82, May is a feisty frontierswoman taking on the bad guys the local law can't handle. Her co-star is the wonderful Harry Davenport (Gone With the Wind, Meet Me in St. Louis), a debonair 70. What a pair! Between the two of them, there is a century's worth of theatrical experience.

May Robson, Alec B. Francis
Alice in Wonderland

Who but May would be cast as Aunt Polly in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina, and the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland?

May passed away from natural causes in 1942 still in demand for movies. May had been blind for two years before her death, but that hadn't stopped her acting - she had simply learned her last roles in movies and on the radio from having them read to her until she knew the scripts by heart. This lady from the 19th century and a far-flung continent still entertains and delights movie fans in the 21st century.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Her Easter Bonnet

Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, Helen Broderick
A successful 1933 - 1934 Broadway season

Broadway was in the dumps in 1933, as was a good portion of the world dealing with the Great Depression. Irving Berlin wasn't having the best of times either with the failure of Face the Music the previous season. All that was about to change. Irving and Moss Hart fashioned themselves a major hit with As Thousands Cheer. Their satirical revue spoofed the tabloid journalists and their society targets. It was, by contemporary accounts, a funny, biting show with Berlin's best songs as he once again climbed to the top of the show business heap.
Ethel Waters scored big time with Heat Wave and Supper Time. Marilyn Miller's beauty and a knack for comic impersonation won over the critics. Helen Broderick stole scenes with her sass and style. Clifton Webb sang the hit of the revue.

Irving rightly predicted that the hit of the show would be one of his trunk songs. Fifteen years earlier, Irving came up with Smile and Show Your Dimple that went nowhere. Retaining a fondness for the melody he refashioned the lyric and as each skit in the show revolved around some aspect of the newspaper game, Her Easter Bonnet brought to life the rotogravure or Sunday photo feature. The effect was spectacular and a standard was born.

Never saw you look quite so pretty before
Never saw you look quite so lovely what's more
I could hardly wait to keep our date this lovely Easter morning
And my heart beat fast as I came through the door, for
In your Easter Bonnet with all the frills upon it
You'll be the grandest lady in the Easter Parade
I'll be all in clover and when they look you over
I'll be the proudest fellow in the Easter Parade
On the Avenue, 5th Avenue, the photographers will snap us
And you'll find that you're in the rotogravure
Oh, I could write a sonnet about your Easter bonnet
And of the gal I'm taking to the Easter Parade

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Happy 92nd Birthday!

R.G. Armstrong

Born in Alabama in 1917 and the possesser of a Masters in English from the University of Northern Carolina (Chapel Hill), Robert Golden Armstrong left behind his early writing ambitions when he studied at The Actors Studio. Broadway claimed his talent in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Orpheus Descending, but Hollywood gave him steady work for four decades and a special place in the hearts of movie and television viewers.

He possessed the ability to bring a natural realism to a variety of roles, sometimes menacing and sometimes friendly. Is your favourite the religous zealot in Ride the High Country, the straight-thinking blacksmith in No Name on the Bullet or maybe Pruneface in Dick Tracy? Does one of his many television roles on Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, The Fugitive, War and Remembrance, Quantum Leap or L.A. Law stand out for you? Maybe it's Farmer Flint who has trouble recognizing his daughter's needs in the episode Ellie Saves a Female from The Andy Griffith Show. Maybe it's every time you see R.G. Armstrong on screen that you appreciate his talent and the longevity of his career.

Speaking of The Andy Griffith Show, here is an R.G. Armstrong contribution to the cookbook, Aunt Bee's Delightful Deserts. It's a winner. Trust me.

Robert Golden's Chocolate Chip Cookies

3/4 C butter
1C brown sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 C flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
1-1/2 C oats
1/2 C nuts (your choice)
1/2 C coconut
1/2 C raisins
A whole lot of chocolate chips

Cream butter/sugars. Add vanilla/eggs. Sift dry ingrediants & add to creamed mixture. Combine remaining ingrediates. Drop by teaspoonful about 2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 10 minutes in a pre-heated 350 degree oven.

Wouldn't some of those cookies and a western with that familiar face go good about now?

Happy Birthday, Mr. Armstrong.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Guiding Light (1937 - 2009)

Irna Phillip's The Guiding Light premiered on radio in 1937. My mother listened to the program with her grandmother. I remember watching the program on television in its 15-minute format in the early 60s. I remember when the show went to a half hour format and then an hour. I remember the Bauer family. I remember hospitals, churches, kitchen tables, Christmas trees. I remember secrets, sorrows, lies, traumas. I remember doctors, lawyers, millionaires, housewives, secretaries, veterans, grandparents. I remember heartbreak, marriages, divorces, deaths. I remember accidents, murders, trials, mystery. I remember proms, boarding houses, daydreams, princes, mobsters, clones. I remember when St. Nick would visit Springfield with a yearly miracle.

Guiding Light is something of a miracle having survived so long in the competitive media industry. It is a show spanning and entertaining generations. Serialized stories have delighted and enthralled audiences for centuries and the loss of this landmark series is cause for mixed emotions. Joy at the longevity and melancholy at the loss.

The network cites low ratings for the cancellation thus blaming a changing or fickle audience. The audience blames executives who alienated core fans with a disregard for a solid storytelling legacy. Daytime audiences are a savvy lot. They understand the machinations of the industry and the styles of different producers and writers. Daytime audiences are a loyal and hearty lot. If you have touched them emotionally, they will put up with a lot. They understand that every episode of a daily program cannot be a gem. They enjoy and praise a top-flight storyline, and put up with the inevitable lulls with the certain hope that things will improve.

Just over a year ago Guiding Light celebrated its history with a marvelous episode drawing on the radio beginnings of the series. They "found their light" through charitable works in Katrina ravaged New Orleans. They excitedly touted a new production format.

The new format included digital filming on location in a New Jersey town and it sounded good on paper, but how it looked on screen was another matter. Poor lighting and shaky camera work could almost be overlooked as the hearty Daytime fan waited out the transition period, and tried to ignore their churning stomachs. Ill-concieved, poorly executed storylines and callous manipulation of characters could perhaps be put up with for a while in that long-held hope that eventually the writers would find their footing with the new format.

The reality hoped for with the location actually led to a disconnect with the audience as characters spent their time in tacky salons or outside of buildings in all kinds of weather. Most disturbing to me was the overuse of annoying and badly sung pop ballads to create emotion. A technique which can work if used sparingly. I once counted three different songs in a ten minute period! The mainstay of a well-done serial is casting and trusting the actors. They can make a good storyline soar, and can take less than stellar dialogue and make you believe it.

Whether it was budget constraints, fear of the changing face of television, disregard for history or lack of true understanding of the serial and its fans, decisions were made from which there could be no turning back. Guiding Light burned brightly for decades and, for some of us, the memories will still glow. It is bitter to lose something so integral to the fabric of popular culture, that has been a daily part of so many lives through our own births, deaths, secrets, sorrows and triumphs.


Terence Towles Canote at A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting The 8th Annual Favourite TV Show Episode Blogathon . The popular blogathon is runn...