Wednesday, February 28, 2018

CAFTAN WOMAN'S CHOICE: ONE FOR MARCH ON TCM


Poets inspire TCMs daytime lineup on Wednesday, March 21st.


Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861) and Robert Browning (1812-1889) lived lives of extraordinary creativity and literary success. Their work has inspired poetry in others, and scholarly study.


In 1931 the Brownings were the inspiration for Rudolf Bessier's most successful play, The Barretts of Wimpole Street. That success came when Katherine Cornell produced and starred on Broadway opposite Brian Aherne in the play. Elizabeth Barrett Browning became a signature role for the star, and she and Aherne revived the play often.

The 1934 film version was given MGMs best treatment with the play adapted by Donald Ogden Stewart (Holiday), Claudine West (Random Harvest) and Ernest Vajda (The Guardsman), and directed by Sidney Franklin (Private Lives). William H. Daniels (Romeo and Juliet) was the cinematographer and Adrian (Marie Antoinette) designed the glorious gowns.


When it came to casting, only the best and top stars would do for the production. Norma Shearer had won the Oscar for The Divorcee, and the role of Elizabeth Barrett Browning would number among her five other nominations. Fredric March had won the Oscar for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and would win again for The Best Years of Our Lives, with five nominations overall. Shearer and March had recently starred in the successful romantic melodrama Smilin' Through. Charles Laughton had won the Oscar for The Private Lives of Henry VIII and would be nominated twice more in his film career.


Edward Moulton-Barrett views his family as his personal fiefdom. None of his nine adult children  (twelve in reality) are allowed to marry. All are under his sway, and years of being browbeaten by a tyrant have made them slaves to Pa's will.


Eldest daughter Elizabeth has become a successful poet although plagued by illness and a spinal injury. Her status in the household as an invalid is perpetuated by the treatment of her overbearing father. She is his favourite and it is not a healthy relationship.

The tyranny under which the Barretts of Wimpole Street live will break during the course of the play. Also a successful writer, Robert Browning has reached out to Elizabeth with his heart and patiently waits for her to find the strength to respond in kind. His joy and positivity open Elizabeth's eyes to her desire to live a fuller life, away from the stifling influence of her father. 

The studio assembled a fine cast to support the three leading players, Maureen O'Sullivan, Una O'Connor, and Leo G. Carroll among them. Marion Clayton and Ian Wolfe are amusing as a flirty cousin with a speech impediment and her fiance. Ralph Forbes is a lovesick soldier smitten with Maureen as the youngest sister.


I love the opportunity to see the famous plays of earlier days, both in new interpretations and filmed closer to the time of their original productions. I read this play long before I ever saw this film. The language is, at times, quite fulsome which befits the poetic minds of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. The sincerity of the actors is important in the emotional reality they convey.

The character of Edward is another of Laughton's great villain portrayals. His admission to Elizabeth near the finale is shocking, as is his plan for a final revenge when his authority is tested. The following movie season Laughton's Inspector Javert will pursue Fredric March as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. Take that Robert Browning!


Whether you're a fan of greeting card verses, the subject of the early morning screening of Three Men on a Horse, or your own poetic endeavours lead to A Fine Madness, a late afternoon screening; consider the fine films on TCM on Wednesday, March 21st, especially the Best Picture and Best Actress nominated The Barretts of Wimpole Street at 10:30 a.m.








Monday, February 26, 2018

THE ELIZABETH TAYLOR BLOGATHON: The Mirror Crack'd (1980)


Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood is hosting The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon from February 25 - 27th. Click HERE for all the tributes.

"Why, Miss Marple, you were right!" A young neighbour is surprised that Miss Marple has deduced the ending to a mystery film. She shouldn't have been shocked. After all, Jane Marple has spent her entire life in St. Mary Meade, and life in the village has presented the entire world to the keen observer.

Bond film director Guy Hamilton (Evil Under the Sun) directed this 1980 film based on Agatha Christie's 1962 novel The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side. Ms. Christie's inspiration for the plot was the tragic circumstances surrounding Gene Tierney's child's disability due to an encounter with a fan suffering from rubella. Ms. Tierney herself bravely recounted the events in her 1979 autobiography (written with Mickey Herskowitz) Self-Portrait.

Ms. Lansbury's portrayal of Jane Marple veers more toward the bluffness of Margaret Rutherford's interpretation rather than the delicate pointedness of Joan Hickson. Angela adds an extra large helping of an uncanny ability to annoy. This Aunt Jane is quite the bothersome know-it-all.


Elizabeth Taylor, resplendently costumed by Phyllis Dalton.

Elizabeth Taylor plays Marina Rudd, a British born Hollywood film star who has returned home with her loving husband, a director, for a new film and a new lease on life after a tragedy robbed her career of years.Her child from an earlier marriage had been born disabled and placed in an institution. Marina's husband, Jason Rudd played by Rock Hudson is very protective of his fragile wife.

Twenty-five years after their pairing in Giant, it is a pleasure to see Taylor and Hudson reunited on the screen, but also a shame that there hadn't been more opportunities to see them together in the intervening years.

In Christie's novel the character of Jason is described as homely, but with a deeply soothing voice. Rock would never be described as homely, but he does indeed have a most soothing voice. The novel also includes the back story of Marina having adopted several children before the birth of her own, and this was not used in the adaptation.

The Rudds have bought an estate near everyone's favourite garden spot, St. Mary Meade. Miss Marple's dear friend Dolly Bantry (The Body in the Library), the previous owner of the estate still maintains a residence on the property and is an honoured guest at a fete which is a tribute for a local charity and movie star Marina. Tragedy occurs during the celebration, and although laid up with an injury, all details are reported to Miss Marple.


Kim Novak, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor

Marina: "Lola, dear, you know, there are only two things I dislike about you."
Lola: "Really? What are they?"
Marina: "Your face."

During a receiving line, Marina deals with many surprises. One is the arrival of a vapid movie queen Lola Brewster played by Kim Novak, and her brash producer husband Martin Fenn played by Tony Curtis. Neither Marina nor Jason are happy to see them, but it gives our players a chance at some high dudgeon. The screenplay by Jonathan Hales (Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones) and Barry Sandler (The Other Side of Midnight) augments the story with a generous dose of Hollywood bitchiness between the actress characters who are always vying for the spotlight whether on or off the screen.


Maureen Bennett plays a gushing film fan.

The other shock to Marina on the day of the fete comes in the form of a babbling fan, Heather Babcock played by Maureen Bennett, who goes on and on in a story of how once, years ago, she disobeyed orders to stay in bed due to illness so that she could see her favourite star perform. She even got to kiss her! Putting the timing of the earlier encounter together with the birth defect of her child, Marina realizes that this "fan" caused her greatest heartbreak. Before the end of the party, this fan dies of poisoning.


Rock Hudson, Geraldine Chaplin

During the investigation, there are many suspects and other murders. Jason's assistant, Ella, played by the always watchable Geraldine Chaplin, is both. Her romantic attachment to her boss is the inescapable fact that makes her a suspect and a victim.


Angela Lansbury, Edward Fox

Inspector Craddock of Scotland Yard, here given the honour of being able to call Miss Marple "Aunt Jane", is played with a subtly wry intelligence by Edward Fox. He appreciates the insight Miss Marple can provide in wading through the myriad of emotional motives and linking them to the physical evidence. However, you certainly don't get the feeling that he relies on her completely. They are more partners in crime, if you will.

The story and characters are always the main interest of a Christie story and in this adaptation there is much to enjoy, primarily the performances of Elizabeth Taylor and Edward Fox. The interrogation scene between detective and movie star is beautifully played and memorably entertaining.

The Mirror Crack'd was the end of a fairly prolific time for Elizabeth during the 1970s. She would make only two more feature films, 1988s Young Toscanini for Franco Zeffirelli and a fun outing in 1994s The Flintstones as Fred's mother-in-law. Television would provide fans a chance to enjoy the great star and actress in everything from The Simpsons to These Old Broads in 2001 with Debbie Reynolds, Joan Collins and Shirley MacLaine. It is a shame Kim Novak wasn't also cast so she and Liz could revive the diverting Marina vs. Lola feud.










Friday, February 23, 2018

31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON: Best Dance Direction nominee, She (1935)


It's that wonderful time of year! Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen are our hosts for the 31 Days of Oscar BlogathonDay 1Day 2, Day 3.  


During his Hollywood career, Merian C. Cooper produced a variety of quality films, but is most revered for the creation of King Kong. 1935s She follows in that adventure mode, being an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's 1886 lost world novel. The first film version of the story was an 1899 short by Georges Melies, and numerous adaptations have followed including one in 1925 on which Haggard collaborated. Our version from RKO changes the setting from Africa to the top of the world, beyond the ice caps, and was directed by Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game) and designer Lansing C. Holden (The Garden of Allah).

Note: Screen captures are from the colourized version released in 2006 by Legend Films, supervised by Ray Harryhausen. The film was originally designed to be filmed in colour until RKO withheld the funds from the budget.

Nigel Bruce, Samuel S. Hinds, Randolph Scott
An unbelievable story on a dark and stormy night.

On a wild night in England, a wild tale is told by a dying man to his nephew. It is the legend of a long ago, look-alike ancestor who was destroyed after finding the sought for flame of immortality. An ancient letter and a golden statuette are tokens of the truth in the tale. The young man is intrigued and Leo embarks on his own quest retracing the steps in the story. He is accompanied by Professor Horace Holly. On their journey through the inhospitable polar region they pick up a greedy and foolish prospector Dugmore and his adopted daughter Tanya. Only Leo, Holly, and Tanya will reach their goal.

Nigel Bruce, Helen Mack, Randolph Scott
Strangers in a strange land.

Our party reaches the land of Kor and in the cave entrance are beset upon by cannibals. Rescued by the ruler's guards, the trio finds things much different at the palace. The land is ruled by She aka She Who Must Be Obeyed. She has ruled for centuries through terror and imagination. Her will is all.

Helen Gahagan
If She looks familiar, yes, production designer Harold Miles also worked on Walt Disney's 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

She is convinced that Leo is her lover of time past reincarnated and returned to her side. Upon the advice of her high priest played by Julius Adler, She will allow the outsiders, Leo and Holly, to observe a secret ceremonial dance in the Hall of Kings. Leo and Holly are not aware that the dance culminates with a human sacrifice, and the intended sacrifice is Tanya, of whom the queen is justifiably jealous.

I enjoy Ms. Gahagan's sense of entitlement as an immortal, Mr. Scott's stalwart adventurer torn between reality and fantasy, and Ms. Mack's sincerity and spunk. 

1936 award nominations: Best Dance Direction, Benjamin Zemach for Hall of Kings from She


The set designers at RKO, under Van Nest Polglase, outdid themselves on this production. A breathtakingly beautiful art deco world is ours to enjoy. Eleanor Fieldhouse is credited for the wardrobe which is truly magnificently highlighted by the colour treatment given She. The Hall of Kings is a massive and impressive setting and Max Steiner's score provides an ominous and rhythmic background for the dance created by Oscar nominee Benjamin Zemach.


We begin in the Hall of Kings with masked dancers surrounding a cauldron holding what we assume is symbolizing the Flame of Life. Max Steiner's score of minor chords, draws us into the spectacle and the horror.


Hundreds of dancers are used in the number and their work is mesmerizing.


It is not only the choreography, but the way the dance is shot that adds to its intensity.


I am hoping this shot gives an accurate impression of the massive and impressive set which Benjamin Zemach used and filled to great effect.


A dancer is lowered on a rope into the cauldron where the flame will be retrieved and shared.


An athletic dancer swings from the top of the statues that surround the hall.


The beautifully costumed processional moves to the great entrance to the hall.


As the sacrifice comes closer to her fate, the music quickens in joyous anticipation.


Groupings of dancers in different costumes, with various routines which tell the story behind the dance are presented in the great hall.


Tanya, her identity hidden from Leo and Holly, is brought to the cauldron.


Come the dawn! Leo finally clues into She's plan.
Note: the flames that array the bottom of She's gown.


All Hell breaks loose!

---///---

Learn about the fascinating creative life and soul of Benjamin Zemach in these excerpts from the New York Times obituary for She's Oscar-nominated dance director (February 1, 1901 - June 18, 1997).


Benjamin Zemach, 95, Dancer; Worked in Theater and Films

Benjamin Zemach, an American modern dance pioneer who specialized in Jewish themes, but also worked on Broadway, in the theater, and in films, died on June 18 in Jerusalem. He was 95.

Mr. Zemach was a young actor in the Habima Theater of Moscow when the American impresario Sol Hurok brought the company's Hebrew language production of The Dybbuk to New York in December 1926. The troupe founded by Mr. Zemach's brother, Naum Zemach, was reorganized in what was then Palestine after this engagement, but Benjamin remained in New York. He later worked in Los Angeles as a choreographer, play director, and teacher. Among the actors who studied with him were Lee J. Cobb, Alan Arkin, Herschel Bernardi, Sam Jaffe and Adeline Gibbs.

In the late 1920s Mr. Zemach quickly became part of a circle of dancers including Martha Graham and Michio Ito who were involved in experimental productions at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. He also went on to work in the commercial theater. In the 1930s he choreographed the musical Pins and Needles and directed plays including Salome at the Pasadena Playhouse. In 1941 he directed Natural Man for the American Negro Theater.

During his first stay in Los Angeles, from 1932 to 1935 he created two dance pieces for the Hollywood Bowl, Fragments of Israel and Victory Ball which aroused debate because of its antiwar message. In 1935 he did the dances for the films She and Last Days of Pompeii.

After working in Los Angeles, Mr. Zemach returned to New York in 1936. While continuing to dance he concerts, he choreographed Pins and Needles and a Max Reinhardt production The Eternal Road. In 1945 he coordinated a festival African Dances and Modern Rhythms which Eleanor Roosevelt attended as guest of honor at Carnegie Hall.

Mr. Zemach was based again in Los Angeles from 1948 until his move to Israel in 1971. In 1989 at the age of 87 he directed and choreographed an English version of Abraham Goldfaden's musical The Witch for the Jewish Repertory Theater in New York. Richard F. Shepard in The Times called it "a treat for the eyes, particularly eyes attuned to graceful movement."

Mr. Zemach is survived by a daughter, Amielle, and five grandchildren.

---///---

Oscars Best Dance Direction Award

This was the first year for the category of Best Dance Direction. The category would be dropped after two more film seasons. In 1937 the award was given to Seymour Felix for A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody from The Great Ziegfeld. The 1938 ceremony would see the prize going to Hermes Pan for the Fun House number from Damsel in Distress. Musicals would continue to be an important genre in Hollywood, so I don't see the sense in eliminating such a category. However, the history of the Oscars is filled with bizarre decisions.

Best Dance Direction, 1936 ceremony

Winner:
Dave Gould for I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling from Broadway Melody of 1936 and Straw Hat from Folies Bergere de Paris

Nominees:
LeRoy Prinz for Viennese Waltz from All the King's Horses and Elephant and It's the Animal in Me from The Big Broadcast of 1936
Bobby Connelly for Playboy of Paree from Broadway Hostess and Latin from Manhattan from Go Into Your Dance
Busby Berkeley for Lullaby of Broadway and The Words Are in My Heart from Golddiggers of 1935
Sammy Lee for Lovely Lady and Too Good to be True from King of Burlesque
Benjamin Zemach for Hall of Kings from She
Hermes Pan for Piccolino and Top Hat from Top Hat









Tuesday, February 20, 2018

THE SMALL SCREEN BLOGATHON: The Snoop Sisters (1972 - 1974)


Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is hosting The Small Screen Blogathon on February 20th dedicated to our favourite television programs. Click HERE to see what everyone is writing about.


The pilot for The Snoop Sisters called The Female Instinct aired on NBC on December 18, 1972. The network may have been inspired by a 1971 telefilm called Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate which starred Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy, Mildred Natwick and Sylvia Sidney as seniors with time on their hands who both cause and solve a murder. There appeared to be a TV market for veteran actresses.

Mildred Natwick, Art Carney, Helen Hayes, Lawrence Pressman, Jill Clayburgh
Hail, hail, the gang's all here.

Theatre legend and two time Oscar winner Helen Hayes was cast as Ernesta Snoop, a successful mystery writer. Mildred Natwick, Oscar nominee for Barefoot in the Park who made her film debut in John Ford's 1940 classic The Long Voyage Home, plays her sister and assistant, Gwendolyn aka "G" Snoop Nicholson. The ladies live in a Gramercy Park townhouse with their driver/handyman, an ex-cop named Barney played by Art Carney. Their nephew Lt. Steven Ostrowski, played by Lawrence Pressman, works for the New York Police Department. Convenience is all in the cozy mystery world!

Mildred Natwick, Helen Hayes
A quiet evening's work.

Ernesta and G are fun gals with whom to spend a lazy hour or two. They truly seem to enjoy everything they are doing, whether it is working on one of Ernesta's novels or keeping their nephew out of their unofficial investigations for his own good. Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick work well together as the elegant G and the eccentric Ernesta, two very close sisters who can finish each other's sentences.


The 1974 Primetime Emmy Awards saw The Snoop Sisters receiving three nominations and one win. Mildred Natwick won the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Limited Series in a category that also featured her co-star Helen Hayes, and Lee Remick for The Blue Knight. Grady Hunt was nominated for Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design and lost to Bruce Walkup and Sandra Stewart for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.

Paulette Goddard
Enough presence of mind to leave a dying clue.

The Female Instinct concerns the murder of a famous movie star played by Paulette Goddard in her final screen appearance. Suspects include her estranged daughter played by Jill Clayburgh, some exes played by Kurt Kasznar, Fritz Weaver and Ed Platt, an eccentric writer played by Bill Dana, and a publisher played by Craig Stevens. Throw in Charlie Callas as a pickpocket, Ed Flanders as a private eye, and Kent Smith as an old flame of G's and you've got a lot of fun. There's even a car chase starring the ladies' 1926 Lincoln Model L.

A blistering tell-all by the glamorous star is at the bottom of all the trouble and presumed to be the cause of her murder. Having worked with the actress is the long ago past, Ernesta and G feel obligated to ferret out the answers to the mystery. They are especially emboldened when shots are fired in their direction!


Clips from Paulette's 1940 movie The Ghost Breakers are used in the solution of the case which comes in a classic gathering of the suspects finale.


Four episodes of The Snoop Sisters would follow as part of NBC Mystery Movie series featuring Tenafly with James McEachin, Banacek with George Peppard, and Faraday and Son with Dan Dailey. Banacek, which ran for three seasons, is the only segment of the program with staying power. It is my belief that the network didn't give the shows proper publicity and a solid spot in order to find their audience.

Helen Hayes, Bert Convy, Mildred Natwick
Lt. Steve Ostrowski loves his aunts. Really.

The series replaced two actors from the pilot. Bert Convy became Lt. Steve Ostrowski and Barney, now played by Lou Antonio, is no longer an ex-cop, but a parolee. Corpse and Robbers aired on December 19, 1973. The plot involves the disappearance of an old friend of the ladies, and the confiscation of his toy factory. Sam Jaffe is a very eccentric inventor, Neva Patterson a suspicious character, Donald Moffatt an industrialist, and Logan Ramsay a drunken doctor. Victor Buono is a genial physician, and Geraldine Page a major hoot as a not-so-grieving beneficiary.

Helen Hayes, Lou Antonio, Mildred Natwick
Barney will do anything for the ladies.

Everyone believes the old gentleman who keeps phoning Ernesta actually died some months ago. If Ernesta and G have to disguise themselves as cleaning staff to break into a factory in the middle of the night, then so be it. An amateur detective must do what an amateur detective must do. Luckily, the Ostrowski cavalry arrives in the nick of time.

Helen Hayes, Bernie Casey
A mystery author and a basketball player guest on a talk show.

Fear is a Free Throw aired on January 29, 1974. It guest starred Bernie Casey as a basketball star, Bo Svenson as a friend, Steve Allen as talk show host Steve Allen, and Walter Pidgeon as the team's owner, an old flame of G's.

Walter Pidgeon
He misses the old days. He misses G.

G is a particular fan of this player and team, so it is truly galling when she is a suspect in the attempted poisoning of the sports star. The authorities claim her prior relationship with Walter Pidgeon as a motive. It is up to Ernesta's sharp eyes and instincts to save G from a framing or worse.

Helen Hayes
Ernesta subdues a suspect.

The ladies learn lessons regarding what shoes to wear on a gymnasium floor and who to trust when the stakes are really high.

Lou Antonio, Mildred Natwick
When in Rome...

Who doesn't love a mystery with a hint of the supernatural? The Devil Made Me Do It! aired on March 5, 1974 and concerns a mysterious NYC coven that is involved in murder and drug smuggling. Their latest murder victim had been sitting next to Ernesta on a plane, and had slipped a much sought after relic into her suitcase. The ladies got involved in this case without even trying.

Cyril Ritchard
Supernatural advice? $50 should cover it.

Greg Morris is a police expert on the occult and George Maharis a member of the coven. Cyril Ritchard is a hoot as a purveyor of witchly supplies - eye of newt, anyone? Joan Blondell is a phony fortune teller who puts G on the spot. Alice Cooper is a supposed witch who sings a very boring song while providing a handy clue.

Joan Blondell
She doesn't seem impressed with G.

Perhaps if the ladies had let their nephew, the Lieutenant, in on some of their suspicions earlier, they wouldn't have come so close to disaster. I don't believe if the series had continued, that they would have changed their ways one little bit.

Vincent Price, Helen Hayes, Mildred Natwick
Dracula with the Bride, and the world's shortest Frankenstein's monster, unmasked.

The final episode, A Black Day for Bluebeard aired March 19, 1974. The era of classic Hollywood provides the background for the story. Vincent Price guests as Michael Bastion, a star of horror films who is hoping a film festival would revive his career. Tammy Grimes is his wealthy wife whose murder puts him in the hot seat. Other suspects include a cousin played by Roddy McDowall, a secretary played by Katherine Helmond, William Devane as the wife's boyfriend, a lawyer played by David Huddleston, and our actor's agent played by Mort Sahl.

Mildred Natwick, Vincent Price's reflection, Helen Hayes
Looks like good news being delivered behind the bars.

Can Ernesta and G solve the case without hurting Michael's feelings? Ernesta has come to the conclusion that the movies they worked on so long ago weren't quite of the quality he believes and actors can be so sensitive. Vincent Price delivers a deliciously hammy performance as Michael Bastion.


Here are our stars of A Black Day for Bluebeard, Helen Hayes and Vincent Price in the 1936 Broadway production Victoria Regina as Victoria and Albert.

Mildred Natwick, Helen Hayes
They just heard that NBC canceled the show.

Observation:

In 2014 NBC announced they would be rebooting Murder, She Wrote as a vehicle for Octavia Spencer and there was an outcry throughout the land. The idea quietly disappeared. While I would have welcomed and would welcome still, a cozy mystery starring Octavia Spencer, I understand the reaction. Rebooting a show that still has a following and whose beloved star Angela Lansbury is still with us, seemed unnecessary. A popular actress and a strong premise would require no tie-in to an earlier show.

On the other hand, The Snoop Sisters was a show that I don't believe received its due. It could certainly be reworked for another stellar team of actresses, perhaps Octavia Spencer and fill-in-the-blank. If Octavia reads this, don't worry about the age thing. Little old ladies aren't quite what they used to be, if they ever were.


Bonus picture: Ernesta and G rocking their caftans like nobody since Karloff in The Mummy!











THE GREATEST FILM I'VE NEVER SEEN BLOGATHON: Modern Times (1936)

Debbie Vega at Moon in Gemini is hosting the genius blogathon  The Greatest Film I've Never Seen  from November 16th to 18th. What ...