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.


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