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.


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