Thursday, January 2, 2014

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for January on TCM

It is starting out to be quite the chilly January. Perfect weather for a nice, cozy little murder mystery. Perhaps a backstage murder. Something in comforting black and white. Something with one of those great leading ladies from the Golden Age. Something with an amusing and endearing detective. Lots of atmosphere with the familiar faces of favourite character actors popping up in scene after scene. I've got it! Let's watch The Velvet Touch.

The Velvet Touch was the first of five films produced by Frederick Brisson starring his wife Rosalind Russell. Following this 1948 film, their collaborations would include 1953s Never Wave at a WAC, 1955s The Girl Rush, 1962s Five Finger Exercise and 1971s Mrs. Pollifax - Spy from Dorothy Gilman's popular book series.

Rosalind Russell as Valerie Stanton

A spirited and resolute New England gal, Rosalind Russell studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and trained with a repertory group at The Copley Theatre run by E.E. Clive (The Invisible Man, Libeled Lady, the Bulldog Drummond series) before heading to Hollywood where she was signed by MGM in 1934 as a back-up leading lady to keep Myrna Loy in line.

Roz's screen career is a testament to her vitality and versatility.  The light of intelligence was a part of her make-up, but Ms. Russell could be exceedingly glamorous and dramatic or as gawky as all get-out in striving for our laughs. Her dramatic skills were used to great effect in 1936s Craig's Wife and 1937s Night Must Fall. Her comedic talents started to garner notice in 1939 with the comedy-mystery Fast and Loose. In that fabled year, she was cast as Sylvia Fowler in the screen version of The Women, a role that had been played on Broadway by Ilka Chase. The overbearing and hysterically funny Sylvia is just one of the many roles that would become ever associated with Rosalind Russell.

In 1940 Hildy Johnson of The Front Page was reborn as a female for His Girl Friday. The trenchant and still timely Hecht/MacArthur play worked beautifully with estranged couple Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell battling corruption and each other in pursuit of headlines. A lot of big-name actresses including Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck had turned down the role before Rosalind Russell snapped up the part and made it all hers.

The first of Roz's four Oscar nominations was as Ruth Sherwood in 1942s My Sister Eileen. Shirley Booth had played the role on Broadway. Roz was nominated for the Oscar and the winner that year was Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver. In 1953 Roz would revive "Ruth" in the Bernstein/Comden and Green Broadway musical version Wonderful Town and she was awarded a Tony. In 1947 the Academy nominated Rosalind Russell for her role as real-life nurse and polio treatment pioneer Sister Kenny. The winner was Olivia de Havilland in To Each His Own.

Rosalind was considered a lock for the award in 1948 for Mourning Becomes Electra, but the award instead went to Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter. In 1957 Rosalind Russell won another Tony Award for portraying the open-hearted eccentric Mame Dennis in Auntie Mame. Thankfully, she recreated the role for the screen in 1958 insisting that her stage co-star Jan Handzlik join her as young Patrick. It is a performance for the ages captured for us all. Auntie Mame would give Roz her final Oscar nomination with the award going to Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!.

In 1973 Rosalind Russell was presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy. From the desperate Rosemary Sydney in Picnic to the down-to-earth real-life heroine Louise Pierson in Roughly Speaking and all those ladies in between, Rosalind Russell gave us women to inspire, to understand and to make us laugh.

Rosalind Russell as Valerie Stanton
Leon Ames as Gordon Dunning

In The Velvet Touch, Rosalind Russell plays stage star Valerie Stanton. One fateful night her complicated professional and personal relationship with her producer Gordon Dunning played by Leon Ames (Charlie Chan on Broadway, Meet Me in St. Louis, Testament) comes to an end, as does his life. Valerie Stanton had wanted to take her theatrical career away from comedy and her affections away from Dunning to Michael Morrell played by dreamy-eyed Leo Genn (Quo Vadis, The Snake Pit, Moby Dick). Enter Captain Danbury of Homicide played by Sydney Greenstreet (The Mask of Dimitrios, Christmas in Connecticut, The Maltese Falcon). In an appealing Columbo-like manner the Captain insinuates himself into the theatrical world to determine the truths hidden therein.

Rosalind Russell as Valerie Stanton
Sydney Greenstreet as Captain Danbury

As the story unfolds we are treated to the inestimable Claire Trevor (Stagecoach, Dead End, Key Largo) as Marian Webster, a dear friend of the deceased Mr. Dunning. Welcome turns are provided by Frank McHugh (Going My Way, The Roaring Twenties), Walter Kingsford (the Dr. Kildare series), Dan Tobin (Woman of the Year, TVs Perry Mason), Theresa Harris (Baby Face, I Walked With a Zombie) and Caftan Woman Hall of Famer Esther Howard (Born to Kill, Sullivan's Travels). In one of her first credited roles you will spot 24-year-old Martha Hyer (Some Came Running, The Sons of Katie Elder).

Rosalind Russell as Valerie Stanton
Leo Genn as Michael Morrell

The screenplay for The Velvet Touch is by Leo Rosten (All Through the Night, Captain Newman MD). Four-time Oscar nominee and frequent Frank Capra collaborator Joseph Walker (It Happened One Night, Only Angels Have Wings, Theodora Goes Wild) was the cinematographer. The Velvet Touch was the eighth of ten films Walker shot starring Rosalind Russell. Helping Roz to look every inch the glamourous stage star in a series of eye-popping and jealousy-inducing black and white outfits was Travis Banton (Raffles, Tin Pan Alley, Moon Over Miami). This was the seventh film in which he dressed Ms. Russell.

TCM is screening The Velvet Touch on Monday, January 27th at 3:15 pm.  Gently kick the cat out of the favourite chair and settle in with a mug of your favourite warming drink and enjoy a mid-winter treat.


  1. You sold me on this film! How shameful, I have not seen any of the Brisson/Russell films ( was Mrs. Polifax Spy ever released? )but this movie sounds too good to pass up. I can't resist a Martha Hyer film either, even if it is only a bit part for her.

  2. I saw "Mrs. Pollifax - Spy" on TCM a couple of years ago. I didn't enjoy it as much as the books, but there was nice chemistry between Roz and Darren McGavin. It's definitely a Saturday matinee kind of a movie. There's something to be said for each of the movies because obviously it was material that spoke to the star, and that alone makes them interesting.

  3. Love Roz, one of my favorites, and a great choice for January. I liked "Mrs. Pollifax" too, but then Darren McGavin is also a favorite. He's got great chemistry with everybody. It's just him.

  4. JTL, McGavin was just that kind of guy.

    I think the money men should look into reviving Mrs. P. Can't think of for whom at the moment, but she is lots of fun.

  5. I just adore Roz Russell -- she should definitely have won the award for Auntie Mame! I think her performance in Picnic was stellar, and always brings me to tears and laughter. In The Velvet Touch, I have such a thing for Leo Genn -- he's handsome and has one of my favorite things in men, a wonderful voice. I haven't seen this in a while -- gotta do that!

  6. In addition to your spot-on review, I enjoyed the concise, illuminating summary of Roz's film and stage career. Her performance in PICNIC, as a woman desperate to be married, is one that lingers with me. As for kicking the cat off the sofa, I'll have to ask our canine girl politely to make room for me in her sofa.

  7. Ah, Becky, I'm with you on the Genn front. Those eyes! That voice! Now there's a fellow who'd have me at hello.

  8. Rick, I'm sure that lovely canine would step aside cheerfully. On the other hands, my cats are always so huffy about moving themselves from one comfy spot to another.

    There are certainly lots of memorable scenes in "Picnic", but it is Roz's performance that resonates through the years.

  9. Caftan Woman, I've been meaning to catch up with THE VELVET TOUCH, but never got around to it. Thanks to your Red Alert, I've added it to my calendar! Besides, who doesn't love Rosalind Russell? By the way, I happened to catch up with MRS. POLLIFAX, SPY with Darren McGavin on TCM some time ago, and I rather enjoyed it, though I unwittingly deleted it afterward. If I come across it again, I'll pounce! Thanks for the heads up for THE VELVET TOUCH tip, C.W., you're a pal, we all thank you! :-D

  10. My pleasure, Dorian. The combination of Roz and the setting makes "The Velvet Touch" a late night favourite of mine.

  11. Sydney Greenstreet as a Columbo-like detective? I am so there. Thanks for the heads up on this one.

    As much as I love Roz, MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA is an awful slog to sit through. Maybe Academy members didn't make it to the end?

    1. Kevin, I shouldn't be surprised if Academy members treated "Mourning Becomes Electra" like spinach on their plate.

      Greenstreet is a treasure!

    2. CW,
      When I first saw Roz's black and white gown I wondered who designed it. You covered everything here! ha ha Is it wrong that every time I see Russell I picture her in that crazy 'seeing eye' sweater' from The Women?

      I'll watch anything with Claire Trevor and I love a good suspense/mystery but somehow this one has escaped me. I'll see if I can find it. Love Greenstreet as well.

      Oh, before I forget. Have you seen (Do you even get HBO in Canada?) the new crime/drama that premiered over the weekend on HBO, True Detective? WOW! It is one hell of a show. Gritty, lots of slow building suspense and some fantastic writing. I think it's right up your alley. Great cast too.

    3. Page, there is an HBO Canada, but not part of the package we have. Sometimes these shows make it unto one of our channels so I'll certainly be on the lookout.

      Poor Roz! Will she never be rid of the scourge of that seeing eye sweather?

  12. Caftan Woman, Page, your mention of Roz Russell's quip about those crazy eyeballs in THE WOMEN makes me think it would be a swell double feature with that and SPELLBOUND; remember Dali's work; we could call it "The Eyes Have It" :-) Kidding aside, I'm looking forward to THE VELVET TOUCH!



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