Wednesday, August 25, 2021


Click HERE to access the tributes to the popular actor. The contribution from this corner of the internet is a look at Van in the 1954 film version of Brigadoon.

Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man. After making his Broadway debut in New Faces of 1936, Van Johnson was a featured dancer in Rodgers and Hart's Too Many Girls in 1940. The play starred the new sensation Desi Arnaz and Johnson was one of the Broadway imports to the RKO film where Desi met leading lady Lucille Ball.

Van Johnson, June Havoc in Pal Joey

Back on Broadway, Van appeared in another Rodgers and Hart sensation Pal Joey starring Gene Kelly. Signed by MGM, Van became a matinee idol and, surprisingly, not that his musicality was ignored, but the studio known for its musicals didn't take full advantage of Van's talents in that area. After all, they did have Gene Kelly for that sort of thing.

Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon opened on Broadway in 1947 and ran for 581 performances. The popularity of the musical fantasy has never wanned. MGM's movie of the property was not produced until 1954. The studio balked at director Vincente Minnelli's planned Scottish location shoot for Brigadoon, as well as Stanley Donen's plan to shoot Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in Oregon. Subsequently, budgets for both films were cut, and, apparently, Minnelli's enthusiasm for the project dropped considerably. 

Van Johnson, Gene Kelly, Elaine Stewart

Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and his pal Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson) are ad men from NYC taking a hunting trip in Scotland. They stumble across a mystery in a quaint village that seems quite out of time with their contemporary world. It is in the village of Brigadoon that Tommy, who has been searching for meaning in his life beyond his fine career and his fine fiancee, discovers love with Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse). 

Jeff, who discovered the bottle years ago instead of bothering with any deep search for meaning in life cannot come to grips with the story of a little town that only comes to life for one day every hundred years as a means of protecting it from evil outside influence. Jeff will find only more things to bury deep in his subconscious in the place Tommy finds magical.

Van Johnson, Dody Heath

Songs from the play were cut from the film as the Breen office found the lyrics offensive to two of lusty Meg Brockie's songs My Mother's Wedding Day and The Love of My Life performed by Pamela Britton (My Favorite Martian) on Broadway. Unfortunately, this cut much of the comic byplay between Van Johnson's Jeff and Meg, played by Dody Heath in the movie.

Brigadoon does retain the lovely melodies, the moving romance, some impressive sets to replace the location shooting, and sincere performances. I find Cyd Charisse quite moving. Van Johnson delightfully steals the show with his sardonic personality as well as proving he hadn't lost a step considering his last big musical number on-screen was I Won't Dance in Till the Clouds Roll By in 1946.

Van only participates in one number in Brigadoon, and I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean has always been a highlight of the movie for me. The song itself is memorable fun, but it is Van's involvement that makes it stand out. 

Of note:

Van Johnson, Patricia Lambert

Van Johnson starred opposite Patricia Lambert in the 1961 London production of The Music Man. Yet, when Hollywood twiddled its thumbs about letting Robert Preston repeat his Tony Award winning role on screen and contemplated many other performers, I have not read that Van Johnson was among their number. What's a guy gotta do? Note: the original London cast album is a treasure. Listen to Van perform 76 Trombones. Once a song and dance man, always a song and dance man.

Monday, August 16, 2021

The Joyful Goofiness of Red Garters, 1955

First, the plot: a stranger rides and sings his way into Limbo County looking for the man who shot his brother. It is the "Code of the West." Romance and its inherent troubles are exemplified by a saloon singer who is fed up with her politically minded boyfriend, and with the townsfolk who seem to live for killing and bloodshed followed by a celebratory barbecue. The stranger falls for the pretty ward of the town boss and a staid Bostonian is intrigued by a notorious and handsome bandit.  

Frank Faylen, Jack Carson, Rosemary Clooney, Guy Mitchell, Gene Barry

Why this apparently standard, cliche-ridden plot? It is necessary upon which to hang almost a dozen Livingston and Evans songs, Nick Castle's energetic choreography, some fancy quickdraws, and a lot of handshakings. It also gives the cast of familiar faces and old pros the opportunity to spout some witty dialogue poking fun at the venerable western genre. The script is by Michael Fessier (That's What Happened to Me) and an uncredited animator turned director Frank Tashlin (Artists and Models), whose distinctive comic touch is evident.

George Marshall directed Red Garters and his way with adventure and comedy was well-established by this time. See also Destry Rides Again, The Ghost Breakers, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, Murder He Says, The Sheepman, and more. 


The most individual achievement of Red Garters, originally filmed in 3D but released in 2D, is the unique and Oscar-nominated Art direction by Roland Anderson and Hal Pereira, and Set decoration by Sam Comer and Ray Moyer. The award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color was presented to Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The other nominees in that movie season were Brigadoon, A Star is Born, and Desiree.

The look of Red Garters is highly stylized and accomplished with garish colours and false fronted buildings. It is as if we are watching a live-action cartoon. The performers match the sets with their mastery of the dialogue and their seamless breaking of the fourth wall. 

Rosemary Clooney

Rosemary Clooney is top-billed as Calaveras Kate, the saloon singer with the problematic boyfriend. Rosie looks great in the Edith Head costumes and handles the acting as well as the vocals with her customary warmth and polish. Fan favourite Jack Carson is the town boss Jason Carberry, overly protective of his pretty ward and prone to flirt with all the girls in town despite being in love with Kate. Rosie sings Red Garters.

Pat Crowley, Guy Mitchell

Popular recording star Guy Mitchell is Reb Randall who came to town seeking vengeance ("It's the Code of the West.") and singing A Dime and a Dollar. Guy is quite appealing in this role as he falls in love with Carberry's ward Susan, a pert young woman played by Pat Crowley. Reb also strikes up a friendship with Rafael Moreno played by Gene Barry. Hollywood should have taken more advantage of Barry's musical talent.

Jack Carson, Joanne Gilbert

The bandit Moreno may or may not be the man who killed Reb's brother (who was no good anyway, but the "Code of the West"). Moreno has his own romantic entanglement with an icy gal from Boston. Sheila Winthrop is played by singer/actress Joanne Gilbert. Sheila came west with her bombastic uncle Judge Wallace Winthrop played with all sails flying by Reginald Owen.

Cass Daley, Buddy Ebsen

Truly, the entire cast is in comic support mode but we can add to the ensemble Frank Faylen as the buttinski Billy Buckett, Buddy Ebsen as the dancing Ginger Pete, and Cass Daley as Minnie Redwing. Cass was a popular big band singer who added comedy to her repertoire and found even greater success.

I am assuming that the Minnie Redwing character and character make-up are the reason for the channel's "product of its time" disclaimer prior to my recent television viewing of Red Garters. On one hand, I can't imagine anyone taking anything in Red Garters seriously. On the other hand, I can understand those who would not see the humour in the character. I am one with an inordinate amount of admiration for those who toil for our laughs, and beyond the mugging, Minnie has some potent things to say about Limbo County and its citizens.

Cass Daley and Dorothy Lamour with Whistling in the Light from the western musical Riding High, 1943 directed by none other than our pal George Marshall.

Every movie buff has that period where nothing is working; each new movie seems to disappoint you in the first ten minutes and you don't know what to watch. Channel surfing I came across Red Garters about to start. I hadn't seen it in ages. Did I like it? I must have, after all - George Marshall.

Red Garters, a box office flop in its day proved to be just what I needed. I don't know how long ago I had last seen it, but I must have been dazzled by the design because I had forgotten how pleasant and fun the songs were, how funny the dialogue, and how smooth the performances. It jump-started my movie nights. Perhaps Red Garters will do the same for you when needed, if you are fond of westerns, musicals, laughing, and spending time on the far side of quirky.

The original soundtrack album:

Connect the dots:

Jack Carson worked with George Marshall previously in the 1939 classic Destry Rides Again which the director remade in 1954 as Destry with Audie Murphy, who starred in the 1961 television series Whispering Smith with Guy Mitchell!

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

REMAKE AVENUE: Life Begins, 1932 and A Child is Born, 1939

It is time for another stroll down Remake Avenue. Life Begins written by Mary Macdougal Axelson was presented at the Selwyn Theatre in New York in April of 1932 for a brief run of eight performances. Among its stars were Mildred Dunnock, Frank Wilcox, and as pictured on the program, Glenda Farrell (Florette) and Joanna Roos (Grace). Warner Bros. purchased the rights to the play and under its subsidiary First National, the film was made in that same year, adapted by Earl Baldwin (The Mouthpiece) and co-directed by Elliot Nugent (The Male Animal) and James Flood (The Mouthpiece).

Nurse Bowers: "Having a baby is no joke."

Ringer Banks: "I'll tell the world it isn't."

Aline MacMahon, in her second year at Warners plays Nurse Bowers in Life Begins. The head charge nurse at the Woman's Waiting Ward for potentially difficult cases in a Lying-In Hospital has some busy shifts, and the audience is part of the drama.

A cross-section of patients and anxious fathers give us an idea of what to expect. Frank McHugh is Ringer Banks, who is a nervous wreck as we hear his wife played by Gloria Shea having a tough time. Banks' anxiousness is exasperated throughout the labour and we also see the tact of Miss Bowers in action. Her compassion and professionalism are a comfort to her patients and the audience.

Aline MacMahon, Helen Phillips Evans, Loretta Young, Eric Linden

Life Begins is a true ensemble, but Loretta Young playing Grace Sutton is our star character. Grace has been transferred to the ward from a penitentiary. The young woman is serving a 20-year sentence for murder. The other women in the ward agree that, in their eyes, Grace's crime was justified but the dead man's political connections resulted in her heavy sentence. Eric Linden is her husband, Jed. They are a young couple in love and at what should be an exciting and wonderful time of their lives they are overwhelmed with worry about the future. 

Glenda Farrell is Florette Darien, recreating the role she played for that week on Broadway. Florette is a showgirl who goes by "Mrs." but that title is probably as phony as her attitude. Twins are on the way and Florette agrees to sell them to a childless couple known to her doctor. Florette sneaks booze into the ward and laughs at the sentimental saps with whom she has been forced to associate.

Ruthelma Stevens, Aline MacMahon, Clara Blandick, Glenda Farrell

Clara Blandick is Mrs. West, an older woman having her seventh child. Her eldest child is the same age as her fellow patients. She is a kind and instinctive parent. Ruthelma Stevens is recreating the role of Rose, who intends to raise her child following the cold psychological instructions from a book. 

Mrs. West: "You never know. He might grow up to be president of the United States."

Rose: "Maybe, but I'm going to raise him right."

Dorothy Peterson is a psychiatric patient whose baby was stillborn. Dorothy Tree and Gilbert Roland are an immigrant couple and bereaved parents of another stillborn child. 

The play/film gives many actresses the opportunity to play interesting characters at major crossroads in their life. Life in the ward is a rollercoaster ride of emotions built around the anticipation of the life-changing event of childbirth.

I was disturbed by the attitude of most of the medical practitioners in this film; forcing medication and procedures without fully explaining the reasons to the patients. Only Miss Bowers seemed willing to display empathy and act on that feeling.

I would recommend this pre-code film for its unique and interesting subject matter and fine acting troupe. When Warner Brothers re-released Life Begins in 1936 many local censor boards in America plus the British Board of Film Censors banned the film. 

Warner Brothers Studio was never shy about reusing the material at its disposal and in 1939 Life Begins was remade as A Child is Born. Robert Rossen (A Walk in the Sun) wrote the screenplay and Lloyd Bacon (Brother Orchid) directed.

Eve Arden, Gale Page

Gale Page (Four Daughters) takes on the role of charge nurse Miss Bowers. I appreciate her aura of calm professionalism, but miss the forceful persona Aline MacMahon brought to the role. Miss Bower's underling Miss Pinty is played with her customary acerbic wit by Eve Arden (Cover Girl). The doctors in charge of the cases are Henry O'Neill (Stage Door) and John Litel (Dodge City). Keep your eyes on the interns to spot John Ridgely and William Hopper. 

Gladys George (Madame X) takes on the role of the showgirl Florette, only this time her character is married. George Meeker (High Sierra) plays the heel who dumps Florette for a new partner in their put-on-hold entertainment act. The ward's veteran in this outing is played by Spring Byington (You Can't Take It With You). Fay Helm (Phantom Lady) is the deranged woman whose child was stillborn. She frightens the other patients but her presence gives us a chance to see Grace Sutton as the mother she might have been.

Nanette Fabray, Johnny Downs

In place of the young mother of the earlier film who plans to raise her child according to experts and books, we have a teenage couple who are fearful of their mothers' reaction. Nanette Fabares (Fabray), herself still a teenager, plays the role.

Gloria Holden (Dracula's Daughter) and Louis Jean Heydt (Gone With the Wind) play a working-class couple whose only chance at parenthood is a dream that doesn't come true. They replace the immigrant couple played by Dorothy Tree and Gilbert Roland in the earlier film. A twist involving Florette and her twins occurs in this storyline. 

The main character of Grace Sutton, the convicted murderer, is played by Geraldine Fitzgerald (Wuthering Heights). Jed Sutton is played by Jeffrey Lynn (The Roaring Twenties). The characters are emotionally delicate as they face overwhelming obstacles. This script seems to be a little harsher on Grace with only her husband pointing out that the courts cared more about the wealthy victim than the young woman forced to defend herself. The stress of the trial and imprisonment has left Grace physically weakened and the doctors anticipate a "difficult time." Grace fatalistically sees the end to her troubles and a new start for the girl she is certain she will bear. Jed is fighting with all he has to keep his wife with him. 

Perhaps it was the ban faced by the re-release of Life Begins that led to, even if slight, the condemnation of Grace that I didn't feel in the pre-code version of the play. Mary Macdougal Axelson's play could be reworked for this century. If some may complain of melodrama, I would counter there is nothing more melodramatic than bringing a child into the world and your family. 

Agnes Moorehead, Eve Arden

If my memory is correct I believe Miss Pinty in A Child is Born is the only nurse Eve Arden played on-screen until Nurse Kelton in Bewitched: And Then There Were Three in 1966 when the character of Tabitha was born.

Note: other movies in the Remake Avenue series


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