Saturday, December 21, 2013

Favourite Movies: Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Acclaimed cinematographer Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express, Nightmare Alley, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) varied his Oscar-winning career with producing and directing credits. In 1940 he co-produced with Oscar-nominated (Three Smart Girls, Christmas in Connecticut) writer Adele Comandini, a screenplay adapted from her original story called Beyond Tomorrow. It is a lovely little film directed by A. Edward Sutherland (The Flying Deuces, One Night in the Tropics, Mississippi) that has found its share of fans through television screenings during the Christmas holiday season.

The film was colorized in the early part of this century and released by Twentieth Century Fox as Beyond Christmas, perhaps in an effort to heighten its appeal. I don't know if this has been successful because I have noticed that there seems to be a proliferation of made-for-TV romantic comedies with "Christmas" in the title and this old-fashioned charmer might be getting lost in the shuffle.

Harry Carey, Maria Ouspanskaya, Charles Winninger, C. Aubrey Smith, 
Richard Carlson, Jean Parker

The stars of Beyond Tomorrow are all familiar and favourite actors to film buffs. We are introduced to three wealthy and successful engineers who are partners in a business and roommates in a rambling New York City mansion. Michael O'Brien is the heart of the group as played by Charles Winninger (Show Boat, State Fair, Destry Rides Again). Allan Chadwick is a lonely widower played by C. Aubrey Smith (And Then There Were None, Five Came Back, Another Thin Man). George Melton is the cynic of the group, a man acquitted of a crime that the audience can only guess about, and he is played by Harry Carey (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Angel and the Badman, So Dear to My Heart). Their housekeeper is a former Russian Countess, Madame Tanya played by Maria Ouspenskaya (Love Affair, The Wolf Man, Kings Row). The words may be unspoken, but through their actions, we see that this is a household of affection and kindness.

Jean Parker, Richard Carlson

When Christmas Eve guests beg off at the last moment, warm-hearted Michael comes up with a plan to fill their lives with new and interesting people. The three gentlemen toss wallets containing $10 and a business card into the snow and see what the bait returns. Pessimist George scoffs at the idea. His is the first wallet found by a sophisticated entertainer who gives the money to a taxi driver and tosses the wallet away. Her companion notes that she is very generous with other people's money.

Michael's wallet brings their first guest of the evening. James Houston is a cowboy who came to the city months ago to appear in a rodeo and is now down on his luck. Honest enough to return the wallet and money, the group takes a liking to him and convinces him to share a holiday meal. Richard Carlson (The Little Foxes, All I Desire, Creature from the Black Lagoon) plays Houston. The stage-trained actor and writer made an appealing film debut in 1938s The Young in Heart, and after service in WW2 would find work in television and the sci-fi craze of the 1950s.

Allan's wallet is returned by Jean Lawrence, a social worker played by pretty Jean Parker (Little Women, The Ghost Goes West, Black Tuesday). The artistic Ms. Parker, who painted and designed fashions, had a very interesting film career in the 1930s and a permanent place in Caftan Woman's Hall of Fame for 1939 when she played the object of Oliver Hardy's unrequited love in The Flying Deuces and his lovesick daughter in the same year's Zenobia. James and Jean form a strong mutual attraction and together with their three newfound friends, an odd yet strong family is formed.

Charles Winninger, C. Aubrey Smith, Harry Carey

I believe that the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life, respecting its conduct in this.
- Benjamin Franklin

The above quote appears after the opening credits of the film and if the audience has forgotten it as the story unfolds, its meaning becomes clear with the death of the three kind gentlemen in a plane crash. Their spirits return to the NYC abode where they observe the life they have left and wonder about what is to come. Madame Tanya alone senses their presence. "I know you are here. I cannot see you or touch you, but I know you have come home."

The human interest story surrounding the deaths of the high profile businessmen and the young couple makes for great copy. James appealing personality and singing ability thrust him into the spotlight, a very bright spotlight. I can find no evidence that Carlson's voice was dubbed so assume that he did his own singing in the story and it's a very nice voice. Michael is thrilled that James has a chance to do something with his talent, making people happy and providing a good future for himself and Jean. George remains cynical, even in the afterlife. "A chance to get mixed up with a lot of cheap people. They'll turn his head and make a fool of him. He'll drink too much and he'll laugh too much. He'll lose his way."

George's prophecy comes true as James falls under the spell of singing star Arlene Terry played by Helen Vinson (Torrid Zone, The Kennel Murder Case, The Power and the Glory). She's the gal who discarded George's wallet. Arlene is a dishonest narcissist who comes between James and Jean for the fun of it. If I have one complaint with Richard Carlson as James it is that in his scenes with Arlene/Ms. Vinson his lack of guile makes him seem almost too dumb for words. Nonetheless, he is not the first man to fall for her line. Arlene's distraught and drunken ex-husband played by James Bush (You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, Internes Can't Take Money) is out for blood. By this time, two of our three spirits have been called to their destiny. Michael remains fighting Heaven and endangering his immortal soul in a bid to intercede and help his young friends survive the tragedy he sees coming their way. "Sometimes you have to go through the darkness alone before you can see the light."

The fantasy aspects of Beyond Tomorrow are written and played with a gentle sincerity that fits in perfectly with a Christmas theme. Christmas, despite its festive trappings, is not a season of unremitting joy. It is also a time of sweet and sad memories of our good times and bad, and of those no longer with us. This sensitive drama affirms the connection of souls across the borders of time and space in an unpretentious and satisfyingly sentimental manner.

On Christmas Eve, Michael (Charles Winninger) insists on imbibing and sharing a "Tom and Jerry" with all and sundry. The celebratory punch dates back to the 19th century and every year I promise myself I will try it, but haven't gotten around to it yet. It sounds warming and sweet, two things of which I highly approve.

This recipe makes 24 servings of the eggnog-like concoction.  It should be fairly easy to amend to suit a smaller party.

12 eggs
1-1/4 cups confectioner's sugar
20 ounces of brandy
24 cups of milk
1 pinch of ground nutmeg

Separate the eggs and beat the whites until frothy.  Whisk in 3/4 cup of confectioner's sugar to form stiff peaks.  Beat the yolks with the remaining sugar adding 4 or 5 tablespoons of brandy.  Fold the egg whites into the mixture and refrigerate.

Heat the milk until hot, but not boiling.  Reduce heat to simmer.  

Place 2 tablespoons of brandy plus 1 tablespoon of the egg mixture in a mug then fill with the steaming milk, topping with more egg mixture and a dash of the nutmeg.  Declaim an appropriate seasonal toast.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Who's watching "It's a Wonderful Life"?

Christmas traditions include stories. It starts with the Gospel of Luke and the first Christmas story. From 1843 we have Dickens' immortal tale of redemption and charity in A Christmas Carol. Over the years many movies have added to our emotional connection to the holiday and none more so than 1946s It's a Wonderful Life.

The first post-War project for director Frank Capra and star James Stewart had great meaning for them. After the harrowing years of WW2 where Capra's Army work included the documentary series Why We Fight, and Stewart's honoured years with the Air Force, it was in the spirit of both men to create something that would celebrate hope and optimism without ignoring the sombre realities of life.

It's a Wonderful Life would also be the first film from Liberty Films which Frank Capra formed with producer Samuel Briskin and William Wyler and George Stevens in an effort to break free of the creative control of the major studios. Upon its release, the film received five Oscar nominations and was a top ten film from the National Board of Review. The movie was placed on the National Film Registry in 1990.

For many people It's a Wonderful Life, through its annual television showings throughout the 1970s, has become as natural a part of Christmas as decorating a tree. Set at Christmastime, a time when many of us take stock and learn to deal with our regrets and count our blessings, It's a Wonderful Life tells the story of one George Bailey accepting that although he is not living the life he dreamed, it does not mean that his life isn't truly wonderful. It is a simple truth that one life touches so many others.

I have heard some people proclaim that It's a Wonderful Life is the only "black and white" or "old" movie that they watch. Of course, how they could watch the magic of Capra's directing, the involving Hackett and Goodrich screenplay and the emotionally truthful performances and not want to watch more "old" movies is beyond me, but at least they have It's a Wonderful Life. Or do they?

"And here's the jewel of my collection, purchased for a king's ransom
from a one-eyed man in Istanbul. ... I give you Zuzu's petals."

When I worked in offices I was that girl who decorated her desk in wrapping paper and obnoxiously sang Jingle Bells at the photocopier. Part of my decorating included placing the above Gary Larson tribute to It's a Wonderful Life from The Far Side in a prominent place on any handy bulletin board. There was one particular boss who was a woman who required delicate handling, if at all. It was best to avoid her if possible and most tried their best to stick to that plan. She was the sort of woman that when she finally parted ways with the company Security was asked to deny her access to the building. She stared at the Larson panel, shaking her head in disapproval of my sense of humour. 

"I don't get this," she said. "Is it supposed to be funny?"

I was shocked that she didn't get the reference, so helpfully began an explanation. "There's a Frank Capra movie from 1946 called It's a Wonderful Life..."

"I know It's a Wonderful Life", she snapped. "I watch it every year."

Where do you go from there? I think I waved my hand around and mumbled "Zuzu's petals" ineffectually as she sighed heavily and stomped off to her office, slamming the door. The other employees smiled sheepishly at each other. We shrugged our shoulders in silence and tiptoed to our desks and offices. Sensing that discretion was indeed the better part of valour I removed the offending Far Side and it was never mentioned again.

H.B. Warner
1875 - 1958

The Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto has been operating as a legitimate theatre for 106 years and is truly a gem of a venue. The theatre's hallways and stairwells are filled to overflowing with head shots of the notables who have appeared on its stage for over a century. It is my greatest joy during intermissions to stroll among the stars of bygone eras. On this particular evening, a friend and I were attending a production of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs. My friend is not a theatre buff and was getting a little bored so I searched for someone on the wall that she might know and spotted the kindly, sympathetic face of H.B. Warner. I first ascertained that my friend did indeed watch It's a Wonderful Life every year with her family. They wouldn't miss it.

"This gentleman", I said, "is H.B. Warner. He played Mr. Gower."

"Who?" she asked.

"Mr. Gower, the druggest," I replied. My friend still looked puzzled so I continued, "Mr. Gower, the druggest. George's first boss. The man who got drunk when his son died and almost sent the wrong medicine and slapped George." Still no recognition from my friend. "In Pottersville he was the rummy that got thrown out of Nick's place."

My friend offered that I must be getting confused with one of the other old movies that I watch because she didn't remember anything like that in It's a Wonderful Life. She then returned to our seats. A solicitous usher had observed the exchange and the two of us spent the rest of the intermission in search of Cornelia Otis Skinner. Her picture. Her ghost. We were prepared for anything under the watchful gaze of the kindly, sympathetic face of H.B. Warner.

When your friends, co-workers, neighbours or the chatty lady in line at the supermarket talk about how much they look forward to It's a Wonderful Life every year, simply smile in agreement. Do not mention Zuzu's petals or Mr. Gower or Uncle Billy's late wife's name or Sam Wainwright's catchphrase. Do not start to sing Buffalo Gal and expect them to join in. It might crush your soul.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A New Christmas Memory

Artistic Director Heather Dick formed the Sirius Theatrical Company in 1989 and, based in the Toronto neighbourhood of Mimico, the company produces plays and trains young and old to participate in the theatre.  Last year I participated in a play writing workshop with the company in conjunction with the project Forgotten Voices: Beyond the Conflict of the War of 1812.  It was a pleasure to confer, converse and otherwise hob-nob with my fellow writers in the flesh.  It was an even greater kick to hear my words spoken by genuine actors who were involved in the concurrently running acting workshop.

Recently, Sirius celebrated their third annual reading of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol as a fund raiser for the company and an opportunity to collect food for the outreach program of a local church.  At loose ends this holiday season, I mulled over the opportunity of attending the performance when I saw a Facebook notice for auditions for readers.  Hey, I can read!  In fact, in my younger years I used to read Dickens' Mr. Pickwick's Christmas to my younger sisters until someone got the bright idea of hiding the book. 

Chris Kelk, Fran Raymond, director Heather Dick, Alex Strauss
Patricia Nolan-Hall, Caitlin Robson, David Cairns
Carolers: Kathleen Molto, Margaret Kurek, Glen Molto, Jaime Redford
Christa Weber (hostess, clarinet), Jane Ubertino (cello)
My red sweater has been in the closet for years waiting for a night out.

It was my happy privilege to be one of six presenters of this most popular of Christmas stories this past Saturday, December 7th.  Please, no jokes about a date that will live in infamy.  A small and talented group of musicians and singers provided lovely carols and the story was related so thrillingly by the assembled actors that, even as a participant, I felt as if I were hearing the story of Ebenezer Scrooge for the very first time.

Niece Lenny, with the hoisting help of my daughter Janet, meets the cast

The evening was an opportunity for all of the Nolan girls, even those offspring whose names are Hall and Clayton + my hubby to get together and enjoy some holiday cheer.  Brother-in-law Jim Clayton had an out-of-town gig.  One thing must be distinctly understood about the Nolan girls + the hubby; they are snobs.  They are great big theatre snobs, and they showed up because I was there and the location was convenient.  Well, those great big theatre snobs had the time of their lives.  

While there is much to admire in the diverse aspects of stagecraft, Sirius Theatrical Company's A Christmas Carol was a reminder that to create effective and entertaining theatre all that is required is a compelling story and committed storytellers.  We have a beautiful new Christmas memory.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

CMBA Film Passion 101 Blogathon: Shane (1953)

Award winning filmmaker and American Film Institute founder George Stevens Jr. was a teenager working for his father as a reader when he brought him Jack Schaefer's novel Shane as a film prospect.  It was journalist Schaefer's first novel and it's a dandy.  A western tale with the well-worn premise of cattleman vs. homesteaders, but filled with epic emotion.  Western novelist A.R. Guthrie Jr. adapted the novel for the screen, his first screenplay.  Director George Stevens took his company to Wyoming for location filming.  Original casting included Montgomery Clift as Shane and William Holden as Joe Starrett, but when they turned down the roles or were unavailable Stevens selected Alan Ladd, Van Heflin and, in what would be her final film role, Jean Arthur.  George Stevens had previously directed Miss Arthur in The More the Merrier and The Talk of the Town. 

Shane was placed on the National Film Registry in 1993.  In 1954 it received six Academy Award nominations with its sole win for Loyal Griggs colour cinematography.  In all other categories, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor (Brandon de Wilde and Jack Palance), Shane lost to the Oscar juggernaut that was From Here to Eternity

In Schaefer's novel, Bob Starrett recalls the time in his youth when the mysterious and dangerous stranger Shane came to their valley, changing everything forever and becoming a part of his family.  A story of memory, we see all the incidents through Bob's innocent eyes and his adult understanding.  In the film Bob becomes young Joey Starrett played by 10-year-old Brandon de Wilde, already a veteran performer from Broadway's Member of the Wedding.

Joe and Marian Starrett (Heflin, Arthur) are creating a life for their family in the valley.  Joe is a natural leader and the other farmers in the area rely on him when dealing old-time rancher Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer).  Ryker is not a man eager to change with the times.  He wants to run his cattle on open range and the homesteaders are in his way.  Joe Starrett, and others like him, see Ryker's time as passed with his inefficient use of the land and feudal attitude.  Starrett has the courage to stand up to Ryker, but will it be enough.

Alan Ladd as Shane

One day Shane rides into the valley.  He's a loner from somewhere heading to nowhere.  With the Starretts Shane finds acceptance and a peace that has been missing in his life.  Shane's quiet confidence confuses some in the valley who underestimate his power.  In the novel much is made of Shane's slight stature and especially of his powerful voice.  In that regard, Alan Ladd should have been the first choice and it is a gift from the movie gods that he took on the role.  Ladd had close to 100 movie roles, with 10 years of bits and uncredited walk-ons prior to his break out role of the killer, Raven in This Gun for Hire.  He had plenty of time to hone the craft of screen acting.  Like Shane, Ladd is deceptive.  You think you know him up there on the screen, but you know only what he lets you know and that voice is an amazing instrument.  Listen to his radio program Box 13 or just close your eyes and listen the next time you watch an Alan Ladd movie.

Brandon de Wilde, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Alan Ladd

Shane's presence shakes up not only the valley and burgeoning settlement, it causes complications in the Starrett household with an unspoken attraction develops between Shane and Marian Starrett.  Life is complicated for Joey as he struggles to find a way to love and respect both his father and the stranger.  Also unspoken is the life of a gunfighter that Shane has left behind, but cannot run away from when Ryker brings a gunman, Wilson (Jack Palance) to the valley.

I saw Shane "at the movies" in the mid-60s when I must have been around 10 or 11.  I now assume it was in theatrical re-release, but that didn't occur to me at the time.  It was a movie and that was enough.  If the movie was on television in black and white with strange cars and fashions that was fine.  If the movie was at the theatre on Saturday afternoon that was fine as well.  Movies had no release date and no expiration date in my mind.

It started with the music, with Victor Young's score.  I remember physically sitting up straighter in my seat.  The music had such a power and a melancholy and the screen was filled with such beautiful scenery that it pulled me into the story.  Years later when I read Shane I realized that I lived the movie the way the character of the young boy lived those weeks - observing, sensing, understanding.  I felt Shane's loneliness, Joe's ambitions, Marian's conflict, Joey's hero worship.  I felt Ryker's frustration, Wilson's swagger and Torrey's bravado.  I had laughed and cried at movies before, but never had the emotions felt so crystallized.

Strangely, the experience of Shane wasn't purely an emotional response.  One part of my brain was buzzing with the revelation that movies didn't just happen.  Movies had a how and a why to them.  I reasoned that those "hows and whys" must be the choice of the director.  Directors names always seemed to have a place of honour in the credits.  Aha!  That must be why my dad always made us read credits.  It was as if a switch was flipped and it made the whole movie experience more alive than ever.  I understood why the music moved me, why Shane was often framed away from the other characters, and why Joe was fenced off from Shane and Marian during the dance at the party.  What else?  What had I missed?  When would I see it?  It was all too thrilling. 

I remember the approving murmur of the patrons after the film and being surprised that the outside world looked the same as when we'd entered the theatre.  Did everybody else already know about these "hows and whys"?  How sad if they didn't know, but how exciting when they found out.  Every movie was better after Shane, but it still stands alone as the movie that made me truly love movies.

The Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) blogathon Film Passion 101 runs from December 2 - 6 and provides wonderful insights into movies and the people who love them.    

Monday, December 2, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for December on TCM

Perhaps you plan to have under your tree a box of chocolates for that unexpected guest or unplanned for gift exchange. It's not the most expensive candy touted in flashy ad campaigns, but familiar, satisfactory and gussied up for Christmas with a bow. TCM has such a box of treats waiting for us under their tree on Christmas Eve.

Twentieth Century Fox's 1941 release Sun Valley Serenade is directed by H. Bruce Humberstone with a script by Helen Logan and Robert Ellis, the team that brought us, among others, Charlie Chan at the Olympics, Charlie Chan at the Race Track, Three Little Girls in Blue, and Hello, Frisco Hello.

Sonja Henie, John Payne, Lynn Bari

The smooth milk chocolate coating of this romantic comedy follows the mixed-up love life of Ted Scott played by John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street, 99 River Street). He's a musician with Phil Corey and his Dartmouth Troubadours, actually the popular Glenn Miller Orchestra in their film debut. Ted has a thing for name singer Vivian Dawn played by Lynn Bari (Sleepers West, Margie). As luck and scriptwriters would have it, the band finds themselves backing Miss Dawn at an upcoming engagement in Sun Valley. Ted flashes Vivian a winning smile. Vivian gives Ted the once over during a love ballad. Bam, instant couple!

Well, after all, Ted is played by John Payne and he's the perfect romantic comedy leading man with his handsome face, athletic build, and light baritone. In time Payne becomes the perfect film-noir protagonist as his handsomeness grew more rugged and the eyes more soulful. As producer and star of TVs The Restless Gun, Payne also showed his grit as a western actor. Why Lynn Bari never became a top-flight A level star is a mystery to me. She's one of the most likable of actresses to watch from this era, especially when she plays one of those high-handed gals. Lynn was one of the movie actresses my late father had a thing for, but don't let on. We wouldn't want to make my mom, Barbara Hale or Susan Hayward jealous. 

Things are going well for our once struggling musicians, but before they head to Sun Valley they must follow through on a publicity stunt dreamed up by their quipster manager, "Nifty", played by Milton Berle. He has signed Ted up to sponsor a European refugee. After all, kids make great copy. Only this Norwegian refugee is no kid. No. 36 at the Port Authority is Karen Benson played by three-time Olympic Gold Medalist Sonja Henie, star of a dozen movies for Fox in a twelve-year Hollywood career. Karen's plans for a new life in a new world are to find a man to care for and marry. She gazes upon the perfection that is Ted. Bam, instant triangle!

The Glen Miller Orchestra

The delicious nugat filling of this treat is the music of "The World Famous Glenn Miller Orchestra" as the organization is currently billed. Yes, there is still a place in the world for the tunes and arrangements that were so popular in the 1930s and 1940s. Glenn Miller was at the height of his fame and popularity when he signed with Fox and made two films prior to volunteering to "modernize the Army band". Tragically, he would be lost during the conflict flying over the English Channel in 1944. But in 1941 we have Glenn and his guys on screen playing their hits In the Mood and Moonlight Serenade. They would also play four Harry Warren and Mack Gordon songs: Chatanooga Choo Choo, I Know Why and So Do You, The Kiss Polka and It Happened in Sun Valley. Bam, instant standards!

Chatanooga Choo Choo was nominated for Best Original Song by the Academy, losing to Jerome Kern's The Last Time I Saw Paris from Lady Be Good.  Emil Newman was nominated for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture with the winner being Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace for Dumbo.

Harold Nicholas, Dorothy Dandridge, Fayard Nicholas

Chatanooga Choo Choo was a top seller for the Glenn Miller organization and to commemorate the selling of over a million copies, RCA awarded the band the first Gold Record. In the film, the tune is presented with a specialty dance number featuring the mind-boggling virtuosity of the Nicholas Brothers and the simmering star wattage of 19-year-old Dorothy Dandridge. 

Location filming at the Sun Valley resort must have done wonders for its business. Never has snow looked more inviting. On one hand, I would have liked to have seen the movie in Technicolor, but I imagine black & white works better for the process shots of actors skiing. Have no fear, the black and white cinematography turns out to be one of the great strengths of the film. Cinematographer Edward Cronjager received the second of his six Academy Award nominations for the film. Travis Banton was the costume designer for the film and nobody made ladies look more elegant yet at ease in their fashion. Lynn Bari wears a checked coat with a hood that makes me salivate. 

The cinematography is used to particularly fine effect in the skating sequence finale. After all, you don't have an Olympic champion and keep her on the bench. The stark and lovely set with skaters reflected in black ice is like the most wonderful Christmas window display you could ever imagine. Sonja Henie and her signature spins is like the beautiful ballerina in a music box brought to life. The music used for the dance, which was staged by the great Hermes Pan (Swing Time, Top Hat), is a musical reprise of I Know Why and So Do You combined with the lovely melody of At LastAt Last had been filmed by Lynn Bari dubbed by Pat Friday, but was cut from the film. The song would officially debut in the 1942 release Orchestra Wives with the Bari/Friday combination.

TCM is giving us Sun Valley Serenade at 10:00 pm on Christmas Eve. It may not be the fanciest present under the tree, at least it doesn't proclaim itself as such, but it's one you will enjoy and recall with much fondness.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Baker's Song

Fry's Cocoa smells like Christmas
Stir together flour, baking powder, and salt in small bowl.

Vince Guaraldi on the stereo
Melt butter in a large saucepan.  Remove from heat.  Stir in cocoa.

Snow encrusted home-made woolen mittens
Blend in sugar, eggs, and vanilla.

Jack Benny Christmas shopping on the radio
Blend in dry ingredients.

Plenty of wrapping paper, but never enough scotch tape
Pour batter into greased baking pan.

The parlour maid's encouraging nod to Alastair Sim's Scrooge
Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until done.

This could be any time; this is now

A calming pause before a nativity display

Christmas smells like Fry's Cocoa

Sunday, November 10, 2013

What a Character! blogathon: Joyce Grenfell

Joyce Grenfell
(1910 - 1979)

Looking back on the days when I trod the boards of community theatre, those occasions where I got the part or at the very least got a callback where the times when I used one of Joyce Grenfell's monologues as an audition piece.  Shaky though my accent gene may be or however much I may have lacked in the area of finesse, it was the solid material that impressed artistic staff.  In the case of open auditions, other actresses would chase me down asking excitedly where I found that wonderful piece.  Joyce combined her observant nature, understanding and talent for mimicry to create real characters that came to life.  She used delicate brush strokes and pinpoint precision to skewer pretensions and elevate the mundane, finding humour in all.  The effect is rather like singing a Cole Porter song, immediately you are one hundred percent smarter and more witty than in reality.

Joyce Grenfell would have been the dream guest on one of those popular programs that probe a celebrity's family tree.  Her family included British peers and eccentric, wealthy Americans with ties to well-remembered names of the 19th and 20th century.  Her mother was Nora Langhorne, whose father made a fortune in the railway business and whose sister Nancy became the first female British Member of Parliament, Lady Nancy Astor.  Their sister Irene married the artist Charles Dana Gibson and the elegant sisters were the inspiration for his famous Gibson Girls.  If the name Langhorne sounds familiar, it is because the family was related to Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Born in London on February 10, 1910, Joyce grew up an observant and thoughtful youngster with a sense of humour, nurtured and shaped by her intermittently devoted mother and dependable, stolid father.  Not an overly committed student, Joyce could be called the class clown who delighted in spot-on impersonations of staff and creating games with her lifelong friend Virginia Graham.  Joyce loved the idea of being on stage and took the idea as far as completing one term at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  There, she balked at the training, but made another lifelong friend in Celia Johnson (Brief Encounter, The Holly and the Ivy).  At 20, Joyce married Reggie Grenfell and the union would last 50 years until her passing.  The couple were not blessed with children, but with deep affection and support for each other.

The young married lady was drawn into the political activism of her aunt Lady Nancy Astor, as well as caring for her own husband and home, and cultivating her friendships.  The creative longing was deeply seeded.  Her younger brother Tommy would eventually become a writer in Hollywood contributing to screenplays such as A Yank at Eton and several television dramas.  Joyce's first forays into publication were light verses for Punch.  Eventually, this led to radio criticism for The Observer and she is credited with helping to form that branch of professional journalism.

Joyce unsuccessfully auditioned as a singer and actress for the BBC Radio.  Through her radio and journalistic contacts, Joyce's amusing take-offs on different character types began to garner notice and she was asked to write for Herbert Farjeon's popular Light and Shade revue.  Joyce was only too happy to do so, but demurred when first asked to appear on stage.  The producer felt that no one could do justice to Joyce's work like the author herself.  The professional cast of the revue rebelled at the thought of an untried amateur in the ranks.  The lure of the spotlight and the application of a strong work ethic marked Joyce's stage debut.  The 1939 opening night reviews were glowing in their praise of Joyce Grenfell.  One remarked "These monlogues are the best thing of their kind since Miss Ruth Draper, the difference being that Miss Draper's are too long and Miss Grenfell's are too short."  The revered American monologist Ruth Draper was a cousin by marriage to Joyce's Reggie.  The mind boggles at these coincidences.

During the turbulent years of WW2 Joyce Grenfell toured the Middle East, India and North Africa entertaining troops. This also was in her family blood.  As a youngster during WW1 she had witnessed first-hand the medical care, and the entertainment provided for troops at the Astor's estate which had been turned into a convalescent home.  Joyce's popularity as a stage performer and as a radio personality convinced movie producers that there might be something there for them and in the 40s Joyce made the first of her 25 motion picture appearances, with bits leading to progressively larger roles.  Let's look at a few of them.

A Run for Your Money (1949)

This gentle Ealing comedy is a particular favourite of mine.  Donald Houston and Meredith Edwards play Welsh brothers who have won a prize trip to London.  Alec Guinness is the newspaper reporter detailed to chaperone the two fish out of water who have a myriad of adventures in the big town.  Joyce is a very posh boutique manager anxious to make a sale.

Stage Fright (1950)

In Alfred Hitchcock's backstage murder mystery, Joyce is a volunteer carnival barker at a fund raiser who exhorts one and all to "Come and shoot the lovely ducks".  She is ever so sincere and ever so helpful, and ever so detrimental to Alastair Sim's obvious haste.

Another great favourite.  Joyce is gawky games mistress Miss Gossage, employed by a girl's school that is forced to reside with a boy's school due to bureaucratic ineptitude.  Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim as the respective school heads have too much to deal with, including poor, over-worked, never-does-anything-right Miss Gossage.

The Pickwick Papers (1952)

In this perfectly cast adaption of Dickens classic comedy, Joyce is Mrs. Leo Hunter, the pretentious hostess and authoress of Ode to an Expiring Frog.  Surely Joyce was just as author Dickens and illustrator "Phiz" envisioned.

Genevieve (1953)

Joyce's hotel proprietress is nothing if not the perfect embodiment of "the customer is always right".  She tried to explain the deficits of the only room for let to the couple with the poorest showing in the vintage car rally.  Is it her fault they didn't listen?

The Belles of St. Trinian's (1954)

In the first of five films based on cartoonist Ronald Searle's fevered imagination Joyce is Sgt. Ruby Gates.  Sgt. Ruby Gates is placed undercover as a teacher to investigate the possibly illegal activities at St. Trinian's girl's school.  The headmistress' (Alastair Sim) brother (also Alastair Sim) is a sharp bookie who has found more than willing accomplices in the wild students of St. Trinian's.  They are the original "girls gone wild".  Imhotep (1932s The Mummy) thinks he suffered for Ankh-es-en-amon!  No one ever suffered for love like Ruby Gates, trying to bust this case for her beloved Supt. Bird, who is seemingly oblivious to her torment.  Joyce played Sgt. Gates again in Blue Murder at St. Trinian's (1957) and The Pure Hell of St. Trinian's (1960).

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

The classic, biting, thoughtful screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky provides many opportunities for the cast to shine, especially Joyce Grenfell as Emily's (Julie Andrews) mother, Mrs. Barham.  Joyce's touching performance of a not-so-dotty woman coping with life and death is one for the ages.  Surely it was worthy of an Academy Award nomination and, just as surely, the Academy missed the boat.  Pictured above with James Garner.

In 1955 and 1958 Joyce appeared on Broadway in presentations of her One Woman Show.  During those times she appeared eight times on The Ed Sullivan Show.  She continued with stage programs, including two successful tours in Australia throughout the 60s.  Joyce also continued to be a popular radio and television guest and panelist.  Surrounded by family and friends, Joyce Grenfell, a staunch Christian Scientist, passed from cancer in November of 1979.

First Flight is one of Joyce's excellent character studies, full of life, humour and understanding.   

Joyce Grenfell's monologues, poems and songs have been collected in several volumes including Stately as a Galleon, George Don't Do That and Hats Off.  Recordings of her delightful songs, written in collaboration with the celebrated Richard Addinsell, are still available for our enjoyment.

A candid and enthusiastic letter writer, you can learn about Joyce through her own words in the collections Darling Ma (Letters to Her Mother 1932-1944) and Joyce and Ginnie (The Letters of Joyce Grenfell and Virginia Graham), edited by Janie Hampton, family friend and author of the biography Joyce Grenfell.

Joyce wrote two volumes of autobiography Joyce Grenfell Requests the Pleasure and In Pleasant Places.  Also of interest is The Time of My Life: Entertaining the Troops - Her Wartime JournalIn the 1990s actress/comedienne Maureen Lipman performed Joyce's monologues in Re-Joyce! A Celebration Of the Work Of Joyce Grenfell.  Her deft impersonation can also be found on YouTube.  The world cannot have enough Joyce Grenfell.

The What a Character! blogathon hosted by Kellee (Outspoken and Freckled), Aurora (Once Upon a Screen) and Paula (Paula's Cinema Club) is a chance to find out about some of the screen's greats and the bloggers who love them.  It runs on November 9, 10 and 11.    

Friday, November 1, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for November on TCM

Director Anthony Mann had the noir touch. It was evident in his early films such as Strangers in the Night, Two O'Clock Courage and The Great Flamarion, blossoming in the late 40s with T-Men, He Walked by Night and Side Street and highlighting his exemplary 50s westerns such as Winchester '73 and Devil's Doorway.

Border Incident, released by MGM in 1949, fits in with the cycle of procedural crime dramas popular at the time. The premise of exposing the murder and exploitation of illegal migrant farm labourers (Braceros) from Mexico is established with a daring undercover operation involving both Mexican and American agencies. Ricardo Montalban as Pablo Rodriguez will pose as a man desperate to enter the States. George Murphy (Bataan, Tom Dick and Harry) as Jack Bearns will be tracking and baiting the greedy men behind the organized crime.

Ricardo Montalban
1920 - 2009

TCM is presenting Border Incident as part of a birthday salute to Ricardo Montalban on the occasion of his late November birthdate. Born in Mexico, Montalban moved to Los Angeles to live with an older brother while in his teens and began a stage career as he entered his 20s. Returning to Mexico he found work in films there which brought him to the attention of MGM who touted him as a "latin lover" with his debut in the Technicolor Fiesta in 1947. Somewhat pigeon-holed in roles by the studio, he also had roles which gave him the opportunity to display his versatility in films such as Battleground, Across the Wide Missouri, Sayonara and Mystery Street.

Away from the studio, Mr. Montalban enjoyed a strong stage career which included a Tony nomination for Jamaica in 1957 along with assisting in the founding of Nosotros, a theatre company with the goal of encouraging the talents of Latin performers and artists.

In his 70 year career, Ricardo Montalban enjoyed the affection of generations of fans. My daughter first discovered him as "the cool guy" doing the voice of Senor Senior Sr. in Kim Possible and then she met Khan in Star Trek! Mr. Montalban's only acting award was a 1978 Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Series as Satangkai in How the West Was Won. His 1970 Gunsmoke episode Chato was introduced by James Arness on a DVD release as "his all-time favourite episode."  Off-screen,  Ricardo Montalban's 63-year marriage to Georgiana Young is inspirational.

Arnold Moss, Arthur Hunnicutt

Along with our laudable leads, Border Incident is filled with outstanding characterizations. In Mexico, we have James Mitchell (Stars in My Crown) as a sympathetic bracero and Alfonso Bedoya (The Big Country) as a mean-spirited thug. Sig Ruman (Stalag 17) is the ruthless leader of the pipeline of human misery. Stealing every scene he is given is Arnold Moss (Gambit) as an ambitious criminal too smart for his own good.

North of the border Howard Da Silva (1776) is the pretentious and avaricious gang boss. He has no trouble keeping underlings Arthur Hunnicutt (El Dorado) and Jack Lambert (Bend of the River) in tow. Can the same be said for second-in-command Charles McGraw (Armored Car Robbery)?

While most of the film plays without music, Andre Previn's insistent, pulsating score at the opening prepares the audience for the non-stop action to commence. The dirge-like finale increases the tension of the events. The jazzy score is an interesting contrast to Previn's other 1949 releases, Challenge to Lassie and The Secret Garden.

George Murphy, Charles McGraw, Howard Da Silva

Anthony Mann's vision and cinematographer John Alton's artistry combined on six motion pictures, T-Men, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, Reign of Terror, Devil's Doorway and Border Incident. In Border Incident most of the action occurs clandestinely at night. The beauty of the images in glorious black and white give the people and the surroundings of the heinous actions a poetic quality that highlights both the humanity and depravity on display.

MGM was entering an era under Dore Schary where films had something to say about the world, as well as entertain. Border Incident fits that profile as well as providing an opportunity for some of the studio's brightest lights to shine.

TCM is screening Border Incident on Monday, November 25th at 12:00 pm. You must see this tough, uncompromising film.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Favourite movies: Genevieve (1953)

Genevieve is -

  • The best Ealing comedy not to come from that studio.
  • A quintessentially British film written by an American.
  • A  film about motor cars whose leading man did not hold a driver's license.
  • A beloved classic that flopped at previews.
  • An Oscar nominated score whose composer's credit did not air on screens in America or could be mentioned at the ceremony.

William Rose was born in Jefferson, Missouri and prior to America's entry into WW2 he joined the fracas by way of Canada's Black Watch.  He found a home in England after the war and a market for his screenplays such as Genevieve, The Ladykillers, The Maggie and The Smallest Show on Earth.  Later films would include The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, The Flim Flam Man, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and his Oscar winning Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Director Henry Cornelius had a great success at famed Ealing Studios with Passport to Pimlico and left the studio to set up his own company.  He was enthused about Rose's project concerning vintage car enthusiasts and the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Rally, but couldn't get it off the ground as his first independent film, The Galloping Major hadn't reached the level of success of "Pimlico".  Eventually "Corny" found backing from the Rank Organisation, but only if he put up some of his own money.

For their patient co-operation the makers of this film express their thanks to the officers and members of the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain.  Any resemblance between the deportment of our characters and any club members is emphatically denied—by the Club.

The above disclaimer featured at the opening credits let us in immediately on the amused and amusing tone of Genevieve.
Dinah Sheridan, John Gregson
Kenneth More, Kay Kendall

John Gregson (The Holly and the Ivy, Titfield Thunderbolt, Hand in Hand, TVs Gideon C.I.D.) plays Alan McKim, a barrister with a pretty wife and a beloved 1904 Darracq.  His father drove in all the rallies prior to the war and Alan all the years after.  He lives for the vintage car rally and the time he spends tinkering with the car named Genevieve.  At the time of filming, Gregson was learning to drive and had yet to receive his license.  Dinah Sheridan (Breaking the Sound Barrier, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Railway Children) is lovely as Alan's wife Wendy.  Wendy is not so enamoured of bouncing around the countryside in an outmoded form of transportation.  Wendy and Alan have words, but being a young married couple they can't stay angry for long and the trip is on.

Joining in the annual tradition is family friend Ambrose Claverhouse played in his brightest manner by Kenneth More (Reach for the Sky, A Night to Remember, TVs The Forsyte Saga and Father Brown).  Ambrose is the proud owner of a Spyker.  Ambrose also is accompanied on each rally by a different young lady.  It is this playboy's dream to combine the London to Brighton with a "truly memorable emotional experience", but something always goes wrong.  For instance, the year he escorted Wendy, and introduced her to Alan, she locked Ambrose out of her room.  Ah, but this year Ambrose is bringing a model he has just met.  The fashionable Rosalind is played by vivacious Kay Kendall (Les Girls, The Reluctant Debutante, Doctor in the House), who is joined by her neurotic St. Bernard, Suzy.

Ambrose Claverhouse (1980 - 2000)
Beloved Nolan family pet named for Kenneth More's character in Genevieve.

We stop now to applaud Marjory Cornelius, the wife of the director and costume designer for the film.  Rosalind is so very, very chic and modern in her suit, floppy hat and sunglasses.  Wendy is pretty as a picture in a vintage costume suitable for the occasion.  Both ladies get a chance to wear more formal wear for dinner and, again, Rosalind looks like a dream and Wendy as if she never, ever put a foot wrong in the fashion department.  Applause.

Joyce Grenfell as the hotel proprietress, with Dinah Sheridan

Due to that little misunderstanding between Wendy and Alan that was mentioned earlier, they are without a hotel reservation when they finally (Genevieve was acting up) reach Brighton.  Beggars can't be choosers and they take what accommodation they can, although a cranky Wendy does not endear herself to the solicitous landlady played by Joyce Grenfell.  Bad feelings simmer throughout the night, not the least of which is Alan's sudden jealousy toward Ambrose.  An ill-considered bet is the outcome with a secret race on the return trip to London between Alan and Ambrose with nothing less than Genevieve on the line.

Arthur Wontner as an old gentleman

If the journey to Brighton was filled with comic mishaps, the return trip is filled with comic dirty tricks.  Near the finish line there is a charming cameo with Arthur Wontner as an elderly Darracq fan.  Wonter is  most famous for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in 5 films in the 1930s.  The best of those Holmes films is The Sign of Four and the best thing about all of the films is Arthur Wonter.

The shooting of the film on location and in Technicolor adds immensely to the delightful feel of this comedy, although the weather and logistics of the cameras made the movie a chore for its actors who came down with all sorts of colds and illnesses.  However, what truly distinguishes Genevieve is its Oscar-nominated score by harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler.  The talented Mr. Adler had moved to England in 1949 to escape the black list, although he retained his U.S. citizenship.  His agent advised against turning down the job to score Genevieve as they could not reach his price.  Instead, Adler agreed to a portion of the profits.  His certificate of nomination from the Academy was presented 31 years after the ceremony.  Adler's score for Genevieve is sprightly and keeps the action moving, always moving.  At the same time, there is a nostalgic, sentimental feel that leaves a warm glow long after the movie has finished.  

Along with Larry Adler's Oscar nomination for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (winner - Dimitri Tiomkin, The High and the Mighty), William Rose was nominated for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (winner - Budd Schulberg, On the Waterfront).  Genevieve won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Picture, a BAFTA for Best British Film and BAFTA nominations for Best Film from any Source (winner - Forbidden Games) and for Kenneth More for Best British Actor (winner - John Gielgud, Julius Caesar).

There is something very comfortable about Genevieve.  Even if you are seeing it for the first time, you feel at home and that home is a place you'll want to revisit.


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon: Charlie Chan in Hollywood (1940)

The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon hosted by Diana and Connie, the Metzinger Sisters, at Silver Scenes is underway.  Classic film bloggers will never be accused of not having great imaginations!  Check out the amazing movies that never were yet should have been.

Released by 20th Century Fox in 1940
Starring Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan
Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan
Special appearance by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy
Director - Norman Foster
Writers - Earl Derr Biggers (character)
Patricia Nolan-Hall (screenplay)

The renowned detective, Inspector Charlie Chan of Honolulu has a large family that is generally divided into two groups.  Half of his children want to be detectives like their old man.  The other half are movie crazy.  Both characteristics are currently found in beloved number 2 son, Jimmy.  Jimmy is employed at Mammoth Studios as a "best boy" or electrician's assistant.  He has told his parents that the job is only during the summer and that he will be returning to his university studies in the fall.  Charlie decides to check out matters for himself as Jimmy's job is related to the new girl in his life, Linda Li played by Iris Wong (Charlie Chan in Reno).  She's a script girl at Mammoth and was instrumental in Jimmy's employment.

Sen Yung as Jimmy Chan

Sidney Toler was the surprising yet excellent choice to succeed the late Warner Oland in the role of Charlie Chan for 20th Century Fox.  More new world than old in his approach to Earl Derr Biggers creation, he sustained the character's popularity throughout the decade.  His partnership with the wonderful Sen Yung (The Letter, Across the Pacific) as the ebullient Jimmy Chan added immeasurably to the continued success of the series.  In his 60s at the time, Toler had a long career in the theatre as an actor/writer and appeared in small roles in several films.  When the studio dropped the series in 1942, Toler purchased the rights to the character from Derr Biggers' widow and continued playing the role in less expensive productions released through Monogram.

Kane Richmond as Bill Dixon

The head of Mammoth Studios, Miles Trent, is played by George Zucco (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan and the Mermaids).  He is a friendly, warmhearted sort of boss who has the trust and affection of his employees.  Trent is most pleased that Jimmy wants to show his Pop around the studio as Mammoth would love to produce a film based on one of Inspector Chan's exploits.  Although aware of his international reputation, the Inspector does not see himself as a screen character.  Trent's partner, Grant Randall, played by Robert Barrat (Heroes for Sale, The Last of the Mohicans) is more the wheeler dealer type.  His bulldozer reputation is accurate and currently he's engaged in some particularly rough negotiations with the studio's popular leading man Bill Dixon played by Kane Richmond (Charlie Chan in Panama, The Shadow Returns).  The leading man gig is okay for what it is, but Bill is a flyer and he's keen on breaking his contract with the studio to go to Canada and join the Royal Air Force.  Randall is not about to let the studio's money maker do a fool thing like that.

Marjorie Weaver as Lois Williams

Bill's desire to be part of the war is of great concern to his girlfriend, Mammoth's ingenue Lois Williams played by Marjorie Weaver (Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise, Michael Shayne, Private Detective).  Lois and Linda Li have been friends since childhood so, naturally, her and Bill's problems become Jimmy's as well.

Mary Beth Hughes as Catherine Thomas

Lois also has career issues in that her latest role had originally been intended for another actress on the lot, Catherine Thomas played by Mary Beth Hughes (Charlie Chan in Rio, The Great Flamarion).  Mary Beth could lob sarcastic barbs with the best of them.

 James Ellison as Steve Brannigan

Catherine's stock has gone down considerably due to her involvement with the head of a notorious gambling ring, Steve Brannigan played by James Ellison (Vivacious Lady, I Walked With a Zombie).  The handsome and affable Ellison brings a very dark tone to the character that should have changed the trajectory of his career if this had been an A production.  Catherine's decline is most worrisome to her overbearing stage mother, Evelyn Thomas played by Esther Howard at her most elegant and officious (Sullivan's Travels, Born to Kill).  Evelyn has no difficulty making her displeasure felt at Mammoth Studios.  Harold Huber (The Thin Man, Beau Geste) plays Lou Mason, the head of studio security.  What's his connection with the shady Mr. Brannigan?  Huber keeps you guessing about his character.  Is he really that dumb or that sly?

Hamilton MacFadden, the director of the Chan film The Black Camel, has a featured role in Charlie Chan in Hollywood as film director Roger King.  He's been with Mammoth since the early days when Trent and Randall started the company.  He knows where the bodies are buried, so to speak.  The outstanding treat in this movie is the appearance of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy playing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy or, at least, two very nice actors whom we imagine Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy to be in real life.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as themselves

It is a shocking day at Mammoth when Jimmy discovers the body of Grant Randall with a knife in his back.  Inspector Chan has a corpse, a studio full of suspects, and more assistants than one world famous detective can handle.  Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy consider themselves amateur detectives and are champing at the bit to be part of the excitement.  

Babe Hardy:  "It will work out great, Inspector Chan.  Stan sounds like Sherlock Holmes and I have the brains."

The scene where Jimmy, Stan and Babe sneak into the studio at night to search for clues is played mostly without dialogue and rightfully deserves its reputation as a gem in 40s cinema.  In later years Stan would recall Charlie Chan in Hollywood as the team's happiest time at Fox.  He was most fulsome in his praise of Sen Yung whom he called an inventive and instinctive comic, and a bright young man.

Clocking in at 88 minutes, the movie is longer than the usual Chan feature, but director Norman Foster (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, Woman on the Run) keeps all the comedy and thrills seamlessly paced and perfectly timed.  The well-drawn characters and behind the scenes atmosphere will leave you wishing it were longer. 

I won't give the ending away except to say that I did not see it coming.  Wow!  Inspector Chan's tried and true "If you want wild bird to sing do not put him in cage" comes into play big time.  Charlie Chan in Hollywood is a dandy.


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