Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Hedy’s Last Hurrah: ‘The Female Animal’ 1958


Hedy Lamarr went out with a bang as the aging movie star obsessed with her young male starlet stud.

The Female Animal is a 1958 tawdry Tinseltown tale, dreamed up by producer Albert Zugsmith and screenwriter Robert Hill, who seems to have researched his story from the ‘50s scandal rag, Confidential.
No surprise that this was the same Universal team that brought film fans Female on the Beach, starring Joan Crawford as a catty cougar with a beach pad, who falls for a suspect young stud. In The Female Animal, Hedy Lamarr is Vanessa Windsor, a cinema cougar with her eye on a male starlet, (George Nader), and sets him up at her beach pad! Unfortunately, Lamarr’s adopted daughter, Penny (Jane Powell), also wants to sink her claws into Mommie’s latest boy toy. Why Universal just didn’t ask Joan and Christina Crawford to play these roles is beyond me. Why, Penny’s even gotten into trouble at school! And Joan knew a thing or two about ‘50s male starlets.
Hedy is Vanessa Windsor, aging showbiz star living in the past, with Jane Powell as her bratty adopted daughter. Penny for your thoughts?

The acidic accusations between the movie star mama and antagonistic offspring certainly would have had more resonance if La Crawford had played the role. Vanessa berates her daughter for acting like a tramp, “rolling in the gutter,” while daughter Penny retorts that she should know, mockingly calling her the perfect mother. When Penny accuses Vanessa of adopting her just to fill out her personal cast, later sending her off to boarding school when she grew older—this seems like Joan Crawford territory! When the star tells her daughter of the sacrifices that she’s made to give her the chances Vanessa’s never had, Penny replies, “What makes you think being your daughter is the easy way?”
'Hedy who?'
asks the Female on the Beach!

Instead, we get Hedy Lamarr, lovely but lost, as she tries to rattle off her movie star repartee, sounding zonked instead of zingy. I kept wondering during the coy Lamarr and earnest Nader’s stilted delivery of their “sexy” banter what Joan Crawford and her favorite Universal stud, Tony Curtis, would have made of this—maybe Janet Leigh could have played Penny!

Luckily, there’s Jan Sterling as the hard-boiled, former child star. Did Sterling ever play anything but hard-boiled?! Sterling already tangled with Crawford on Female on the Beach, but with this Female, Jan comes up the winner. Sterling sports a platinum wig that resembles the stiff do that Barbara Stanwyck wore in Double Indemnity. Dripping furs, jewels, makeup, and sarcasm, Sterling steals the spotlight as the real female animal! As Lily Frayne, Sterling beats out her bitchy observations on showbiz stardom and studs like a bongo drum player, making Lamarr and Powell look even more inept. Frenemy Lily advises Vanessa: "Never let them have a career. That's the one thing I've really learned about men in Hollywood. Success goes to their little heads. Keep 'em sharecropping, dear, it's the only way. Tote that barge, lift that bale." And Lily even makes her own bid for Nader’s housesitter skills: "If he's not taking care of your cottage as you like, send him over to me. I have a little property too."
Jane Sterling plays a former child star who is apparently wearing Barbara Stanwyck's 'Double Indemnity' wig!

More odd-ball casting is George Nader as the struggling cinema stud. Nader wasn’t the typical Universal pretty boy and he wasn’t exactly a kid, either, at 37. The drama, such as it is, is defused by a too-young Lamarr, and a too-old Powell and Nader, in their respective roles.
George Nader IS Chris Farley!

Nader’s straightforward but dull delivery doesn’t help convince as the sizzling man meat that the ladies fight over. His muscular body is on display constantly, in tight clothes and skimpy bathing suits. All this is undercut by his sincere but starchy acting.
The most memorable thing about muscle man George Nader is that his character is named Chris Farley. After you chuckle the first time, Nader is constantly introduced to the other characters. You could play a drinking game and die drunkenly laughing at the same time: 
Studio flunky: “This is Chris Farley, Miss Windsor.”
Vanessa Windsor: “What did you say your name is?”  “Chris… Chris Farley.”
Mabel Albertson as Nader’s landlady takes a call: “Who? Farley. Yes? Oh, Chris Farley!”
And on it goes, until Chris Farley is introduced to every character in the movie, and you’re envisioning SNL’s Farley in his classic Chippendale’s sketch with Patrick Swayze… who, by the way, would have made a fine Chris Farley, Nader-style, in The Female Animal!
I kept envisioning this every time some introduced George Nader as Chris Farley! 

What’s head scratching about The Female Animal is why either of the Windsor females would fight over boring hardbody Nader. Yet, they both fall madly in love with him on first sight. Lamarr’s character first sees Nader as a boy toy, but her delivery is equally as flat as Nader’s. The insinuating dialogue for Hedy’s diva is so wanly recited that there’s no conviction, either for her lust or love for Nader’s Chris. As for Jane Powell’s Penny, she plays the part of the party girl so amateurishly that your attention is directed at her awful acting and not her character’s predicament. It doesn’t help that Powell is nearly 30 as the drunken adopted daughter, who Nader asks if she’s even 21 yet!
One of the dramatic tussles between Nader and Powell!

Powell is equally inept in her inebriated scenes and coping with the catty, campy dialogue. Her tussles with Nader are laughable, especially given that he towers over petite Powell. What’s really ridiculous is when Chris, not knowing who Penny is, brings her back to Vanessa’s beach house that he’s “caretaking,” and the daughter doesn’t even recognize it!

However, Lamarr and Powell look great, photographed by female-friendly cinematographer Russell Metty, a Ross Hunter favorite. Lamarr was 43when Female was filmed, still slim and quite beautiful, despite the stylized make up meant to recall her glory days. Drawing outside the lines, so to speak, Hedy’s make up looks much like her look-alike Vivien Leigh’s later visual style. Still, in Hedy’s film finale, Lamarr went out looking lovely. Powell, nearly 30, sports her curves in sexy clothes and a polka dot swimsuit, and by now, officially platinum blonde, which brought out her beautiful blue eyes as she got older.
Hedy Lamarr and Jan Sterling compare their 'color outside the lines' makeup!
Look-alikes Hedy Lamarr and Vivien Leigh started sporting make up that became more stylized as they got older.

Despite the cartoon plotting of The Female Animal, there are some stylish elements here and there. The opening credits take you right into the movie, introducing the main characters on a film set. It’s not until you settle into the first real scene that the opening was really a flash forward, a bit of circular storytelling predating Pulp Fiction.
'The Female Animal' and its movie within a movie...both of which are pretty bad!

And when you come back to the movie within a movie opening, the motivation for Windsor’s drunken distress becomes clear. The ending is nobly soapy, with Lamarr’s Vanessa giving up Chris to her daughter, getting all teary-eyed into her hospital pillow.
Hedy Lamarr as Vanessa Windsor, surveying her latest boy toy, Chris Farley!

There are a few lines that seem aimed directly at the real life Lamarr. When Chris asks Vanessa when was the last time she was married, multi-married Lamarr looks at him wide-eyed and momentarily speechless. At the end, the outspoken nurse comments that Lamarr’s star was always better than the parts she was given. Fair enough. But the nurse goes on to say that the one thing Hedy’s actress had going for her was “believability.” Talk about pushing credibility.
Nader's Chris Farley is injured rescuing Lamarr's movie star. Check the outline of his scar!

Just as unbelievable is the huge gash on Chris’ arm, from when he rescues Vanessa from a falling piece of lighting equipment on the set, prompting their fateful meeting. When he shows the wound, the latex outline around the cut is clearly obvious. Also amusing is the big movie premiere, which Vanessa corrals Chris into going as her escort. The theater façade is festooned with bouquets of balloons, making it look like a children’s birthday party. Let’s just say the budget looked a bit tight.
30-ish Jane Powell as Penny, the drunken, trampy, college kid who is also nuts for Nader' Chris Farley!

As clichéd and corny as The Female Animal plays, this movie about movies is still fun to watch, with its asides on a changing Hollywood and its off-camera behavior. Somebody should get the bright idea to run The Female Animal and Female on the Beach as a double feature!
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest star of all? Hedy Lamarr still looked lovely in her film farewell.


Thursday, June 13, 2019

‘Somewhere In Time’ and Its Timeless After Life 1980

'Somewhere in Time': Christopher Reeve & Jane Seymour are at the height of their youth and beauty in this 1980 time travel romance.


Somewhere was a rare movie that was filmed totally on location in the summer of 1979 on Mackinac Island, MI and Chicago. I had just moved to Traverse City, MI from Upper Michigan and everyone agog that Superman himself was making a movie on the popular summer resort island. I heard a few stories about girls going up to the island to catch a glimpse of Christopher Reeve, and maybe more! Traverse City TV movie host Don Melvoin talked about Somewhere in Time non-stop on his show since he had a bit part in a dining room scene as Diamond Jim Brady. This was the biggest movie made in Michigan since 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, also filmed entirely on location, in Upper MI.
Mackinac Island and its beautiful Grand Hotel provide a dramatic backdrop for 'Somewhere in Time.'

Without spoiling the story, Somewhere in Time begins with college grad Richard Collier (Reeve) celebrating the performance of his first play. At the after party, an aged woman approaches him, and clasps a watch into his hand, saying, “Come back to me.” Eight years later, Collier is a playwright living and working in Chicago. Suffering through a breakup and writer’s block, Richard goes to a Michigan summer island getaway. Feeling a connection there, he sees a photo of a long ago actress that fascinates him. There seems to be clues of a strong connection between him and the mystery woman. With the help of a professor who’s believes in time-travel, Richard seeks to self-hypnotize, to go back in time, and meet his dream girl. Once he goes back to the island circa 1912, Richard indeed meets the actress, Elise McKenna, but finds more than he bargained for.
Christopher Reeve as love-struck Richard travels back in time and finds himself in a romantic triangle.

The first thing I noticed watching Somewhere in Time is how the overall scenario resembles 1997’s Titanic. Think about it: The year is 1912. A struggling artist falls in love with rich dream girl, thwarted by the villainous other man. The leading lady is first presented as aged version of herself, with a plot device piece of jewelry. The love-struck young man dies, but meets the woman in the afterlife. Apparently, I’m not the only one who noticed, because a Google check found many writers who felt the same. Here’s the best Time/Titanic comparison I found: https://dejareviewer.com/2011/09/27/movie-matchups-titanic-vs-somewhere-in-time/

Christopher Reeve's playwright finds himself drawn to a portrait of a long-ago actress, Jane Seymour.

The story is from the novel Bid Time Return, by sci fi/fantasy legend Richard Matheson, whose many stories that were turned into films include I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Duel. Matheson was inspired by his haunted reaction to a photo of famed stage actress Maude Adams at a museum, while on a family vacation. Matheson used his feelings toward the photo and Adams situation, an actress who had a Svengali-type manager and later became a recluse, as the basis for his novel. The author’s version sounds more in-depth than the film’s story; Matheson also wrote the screenplay to the film.
Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour between scenes, on location at Mackinac Island, MI.

Director Jeannot Szwarc wanted to do this project, and it was his reward for doing such a good job in continuing the Jaws franchise while Steven Spielberg went on to other projects. A solid utility director for Universal, he was disappointed when they allotted Szwarc a smaller budget than originally promised. The upside was that it required some creative thinking, which turned out to work for the film’s advantage.

The realism of the ‘70s filmmaking was still powerful, though waning. Yet, Spielberg/Lucas type blockbusters were taking over. And sleeper films like Somewhere in Time got lost in the shuffle. However, with cable TV gaining prominence in the ‘80s, Somewhere in Time became a staple. This led to its popularity at video stores as a perennial favorite. Today, it is considered a genuine cult classic, with a fan club that meets each year.
Composer John Barry's score made the 'Somewhere in Time' soundtrack an unexpected hit.

An added bonus was the great composer John Barry (of James Bond fame) agreed to compose the score for the small budget film at the behest of friend Jane Seymour. In exchange, Barry took a small fee and a cut of the soundtrack profits. With his original score and use of Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody of a Theme of Paganini,” the soundtrack became a surprise hit and backdrop to many a wedding for at least a decade. While not a success at first, Somewhere in Time later reaped dividends for Universal and the makers of the film for decades to come.
Christopher Reeve wanted his post-Superman movie to be deliberately smaller in scale.

Christopher Reeve was keen on making this movie as he wanted a departure from the Superman series, and liked the old-fashioned love story and the chance to be a leading man. Reeve performed at reduced pay, against his handlers’ advice, as they had their eyes on post-Superman salaries.
Well, who wouldn't feel that way looking at Jane Seymour closeup for the first time?

Jane Seymour later commented that no one seemed to believe in Somewhere in Time except the people actually making the movie. The studio and critics gave scant attention and initially Somewhere came and went, and an actors’ strike prevented the stars from even promoting the film.
Christopher Reeve, as Richard, in his modern day life.

Aside from the fanciful romantic story and the lovely location, the cast gives Somewhere in Time its suspension of disbelief.
Christopher Reeve is a bit much as the boyishly enthusiastic playwright besotted with the memory of Jane Seymour's Elise. Reeve's actually better in the dramatic sections, as his character becomes desperate to make the fantasy a reality.
Jane Seymour, as Elise McKenna, star of stage and gilded cage.

However, Jane Seymour is quite good as Elise McKenna, the star in a gilded cage. If Seymour didn’t live up to the reality of Reeve’s fantasy, this film would fall apart. Jane Seymour is a more capable actress than I remember. The fact that Jane is a classic beauty also helps a great deal. In another era, Seymour would fall somewhere between Gene Tierney and Vivien Leigh in their period films. I forgot how lovely Jane was, as opposed to later; while still attractive, Seymour became fashionably thin and a bit overdone style-wise, a bit like Susan Lucci. In Somewhere in Time, Seymour radiates old-time movie glamour, warmth, intelligence, and charisma.
Christopher Plummer as the supercilious villain, Robinson.

Though Somewhere focuses almost exclusively on Reeve and Seymour, and their characters’ romance, they get able support. As Elise’s manager, Robinson, Christopher Plummer always made a better villain than leading man, and he’s perfectly cast here. While you hate him, Plummer skillfully creates empathy for losing his prized possession to young upstart Reeve.
Teresa Wright, '40s favorite from 'Mrs. Miniver,' 'The Little Foxes,' and more, as the housekeeper of the secrets.

There is also ‘40s star Teresa Wright as the older Elise’s faithful housekeeper. As Arthur, the bellhop, Bill Erwin is a familiar face who has appeared in over 250 movies and TV shows. Susan French, as the elderly Elise, was a stage actress who got into films in her ’50s! And Fargo’s William H. Macy made his film debut as the theatre critic in Somewhere’s opening scenes.
Susan French and Jane Seymour as the older and younger Elise McKenna in 'Somewhere in Time.'

Somewhere in Time was special for Christopher Reeve. Aside from Reeve’s belief in the film, which was validated by its belated success, during filming the actor found out that he was going to be a father for the first time. Also, Reeve loved his time on Mackinac Island. From his 1998 biography, Still Me: "The location quickly cast a spell on our entire company. The real world fell away as the story and the setting took hold of us. I've rarely worked on a production that was so relaxed and harmonious. Even the hard-boiled Teamsters and grips from Chicago succumbed to the charms of the island and the mellow atmosphere on the set."
Jane Seymour recalls Christopher Reeve, a licensed pilot, kept a plane and planned day trips from Mackinac Island.

The Somewhere in Time fan club meets annually for a convention each October on Mackinac Island at the Grand Hotel. Fans dress like the characters or the period, special events are held, and of course, a big-screen showing of the film. Jane Seymour has made several appearances there, as did Christopher Reeve. One touching visit came after his horse riding accident. From his wheelchair, Reeve acknowledged what the film’s lasting legacy meant to him, while not living in the past. Reeve’s speech was touching then, but since he passed away in 2004 at age 52, Christopher’s comments are especially moving now.
Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour are pretty lovely young lovers!

Somewhere in Time isn't a classic by any means, but a deliberately old-fashioned movie that's genuinely sweet, bolstered by a skilled cast, led by two gorgeous young stars at the start of their fame. A love story with Michigan’s beautiful Mackinac Island as backdrop, Somewhere in Time is place you will want to stay forever should you ever visit.
"Come back to me."


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

What if Judy Garland Hadn’t Gone Over the Rainbow?

Imagine a long life and film career for Judy Garland, on the 50th anniversary of her passing.



When Doris Day found out in 2017 that she was actually born in 1922, not 1924 as she thought, Day became officially born the same year as Judy Garland.
How ironic that Doris Day passed away May 13, 2019, having celebrated her 97th birthday April 3, as we commemorate 50 years since Judy Garland’s passing on June 22, 1969. This connection made me wonder: “What if Judy Garland had lived a happy and healthy life? What if she had kept on working? What if Judy had lived as long as 97?”
Doris Day and Judy Garland on the set of 'A Star is Born,' with James Mason.
It's amazing to think that Doris outlived Judy by 50 years!

Don’t laugh. Judy’s Harvey Girls co-star Angela Lansbury was born just three years later than Garland and still works. There’s Tony Bennett, who was born four years after Judy, and has worked with generations of younger performers.
Tony Bennett with Judy on her 1963 TV series. Just four years younger than Judy, Tony is still going strong as of 2019!

It’s interesting that Doris Day essentially retired in 1975, after her TV special, Doris Day Today. This was a mere six years after Judy Garland died. However, like Elizabeth Taylor, Day found a mid-life cause that was close to her heart, and it became her second career: advocate for animals. Doris certainly could have continued working in show business, had she chose. And if Judy had lived a stable life, she could have, as well.
MGM stars Lena, Frank, and Judy when they were young. If Judy had lived a happy & healthy life,
Garland would have enjoyed as long a career as both Horne and Sinatra did.

I started thinking, what roles could Judy Garland have played had she kept her health, looks, and most importantly, her voice?  I’m just riffing on “What if?” For those who say that her tragedies were part of her persona, let’s imagine that Judy was just your average long-lived superstar with the usual amounts of dry spells and comebacks—like Garland pals Frank Sinatra or Lena Horne, for instance. Just play along and pretend that Judy had enjoyed a long life and career. Please don’t take my film role suggestions as perfect only for Judy Garland, or as a slam to the actresses who played the parts—though in some cases, Judy would have been an obvious improvement! I just think that Garland would have been a viable possibility for the films I bring up, especially if she had retained her superstar status, like the later Barbra Streisand.
This is said to be Judy's last publicity photo for MGM. If only the reality of Garland's life matched this lovely photo.

In reality, it is a jolt to think that Judy Garland was just 28 when she was finished at MGM. Or only 34 when Garland made her first and greatest comeback, the ‘54 remake of A Star is Born. (Doris Day would have been much fresher as the up and coming star, than Judy at this point—yes, I know I’ll catch hell for writing that!) Or that Judy was just over 40 when she made her last big comeback, on her legendary TV variety show.
An elegant shot of '50s Judy Garland by Richard Avedon. THIS is how I picture Judy as a '50s film star.

Yet, if Judy Garland had been of sound mind and body, she would have not been replaced on two Fred Astaire movies, 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway and ‘51’s Royal Wedding, both varying successes. The biggie that Judy was dismissed from was 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun. A Broadway smash for Ethel Merman, this should have been a guaranteed Garland hit. If Judy had been stable, she would have been in a strong bargaining position over issues that upset her, namely director Busby Berkeley. Instead, Garland’s never-ending issues got her fired. The part of Annie Oakley would have given Judy a fine opportunity to show off her raucous humor and sing the hell out of Annie’s classic tunes. I wonder why MGM borrowed Paramount’s high-strung Betty Hutton as a replacement, rather than Doris Day, who later played her own western gal at WB, as Calamity Jane!
The ’51 remake of Showboat was a property earmarked for Garland, though MGM was concerned about how to beef up the secondary role of Julie Laverne for Judy. Regardless the size, it was a juicy part, with two great torch songs, “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill.” Julie would have been a change of pace for Judy, with glamour and tragedy. It became a huge MGM hit, with Ava Gardner giving a great performance as the tragic singer. (PS- I never believed Lena Horne’s oft-repeated tale that she was to play Julie, until MGM got cold feet.)
Here is my own “what if?” list for Judy Garland:
A more dramatic but still musical Judy for "I'll Cry Tomorrow?"

I’ll Cry Tomorrow, 1955. If Garland had still been at Metro, Judy would certainly have been given the role of troubled alcoholic singer Lillian Roth. The songs, the men, the mother-daughter drama, would have been a field day for Judy. And casting Judy in Cry could have been the same dramatic departure for her that MGM’s same year musical drama Love Me or Leave Me was for Doris Day.
South Pacific, 1958. I always found Mitzi Gaynor as Nellie Forbush a bit of a puzzler, since she wasn’t really big box office, or even in films much longer after this film. Again, I wonder why Doris Day wasn’t sought out, though I have read questionable Hollywood anecdotes as to why. Had Judy maintained her film status, she might have been a great Nellie Forbush, too. This also would have been a great chance for Judy to play a mature romantic, instead of the gushing ingénue. I can just imagine Garland performing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair.” And who wouldn’t want to hear Judy sing “Some Enchanted Evening?” Though some dismissed her as too old, Judy was just 36 at the time, the same age as when Mary Martin played it to acclaim on Broadway.
Picture Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli as Mama Rose and Gypsy.

Gypsy, 1962. Mama Rose is THE film role Judy should have played. She was about the same age as the real Mama, vaudeville was her background, and she had a stage mother of her own as a reference point. And how mind-blowing if daughter Liza Minnelli had played Gypsy—again the right age for the role—imagine that! Aside from the talent of the mother-daughter duo, the dynamic would have been so powerful. To those who claim Merman was robbed of a chance to recreate her greatest role on film, they don’t call it show business for nothing. Ethel already had two chances at Hollywood stardom and never really went over with movie audiences. Too broad, in every sense! If Judy had it together, instead of creating off-stage drama on WB’s A Star is Born, Jack Warner certainly would have picked her for Mama Rose over Rosalind Russell, who had just recently given WB a big hit with Auntie Mame. While Rose was The Merm’s finest hour on Broadway, Judy at her acting and vocal best would have been just as great, on film.
I see this photograph and imagine Judy belting out "Rose's Turn" from 'Gypsy!'

Hello, Dolly! 1969. Imagine if Judy had kept her box office clout—remember that Doris Day was then still playing leading ladies. 47-year-old Judy Garland could have made a great Dolly Levi, the middle-aged widow matchmaker, instead of 27-year-old Barbra Streisand, who had just ONE movie under her belt. Ironically, this came out the year that Judy died, when in an alternate reality, she could have been the go-to star with box office prestige to carry one of these behemoth ‘60s musicals, when studios were routinely miscasting stars like Babs, Clint Eastwood, and Vanessa Redgrave in the name of box office insurance. Judy’s droll humor, warmth, big personality and voice would have taken the sting out of Carol Channing not getting to play her Broadway role on film.
This elegant shot of Judy Garland makes me think she'd have made a fine 'Mame!'

Mame, 1974.  I can visualize Judy at her most Kay Thompson-esque elegant as Auntie Mame. At 52, Garland still would have been younger than Lucille Ball! I read comments by fans who still wail over the fact that Angela Lansbury was robbed of her Broadway triumph, proving that she could be a leading lady. Yes, onstage. At the time, Angela had not yet become a household name with Murder, She Wrote, and all the lovely work that followed because of that new-found fame. Lansbury recalled Judy visiting her backstage during Mame’s Broadway run, saying, “Angie, I’d give anything to play this part.” Lansbury tried to be encouraging, but they both knew why it could never be. I recall reading that the show’s producers wanted Judy to do a touring production, but were wary because she was such a reliability liability. I bet if Garland had been still around and on her best game, she would have nailed the movie Mame.
Here's Judy, looking more like Vera Charles than Mame, with former co-star Angela Lansbury in NYC. Judy was performing in concert and Angela in her stage triumph, 'Mame.' Just three years younger than Judy,
Lansbury is still working in 2019!

A Little Night Music, 1977.  Picture Judy Garland at 55, as a sophisticated actress of a certain age: romantic in beautiful period gowns, bittersweet and wistful, and singing Send in the Clowns. Personally, I’d also imagine someone other than director Hal Prince, fine onstage/failure on film, directing this cinema version of Stephen Sondheim’s classic. Could Vincente Minnelli have mustered one more charming musical? Stanley Donen? Or, how about Mike Nichols?
A sophisticated Judy as Desiree Armfeldt, singing 'Send in the Clowns?' YES!

Just think of how many miscast musicals alone Judy could have saved! But let’s not forget that Judy was also a strong dramatic performer. And that Garland had a flair for comedy, too. It’s been written that Judy was considered for The Three Faces of Eve. What about Judy in Tennessee Williams, as Alexandra Del Lago, in Metro’s Sweet Bird of Youth? Would Judy have been teamed with Jack Lemmon? Dick Van Dyke? Both were just three years younger than Garland. Judy certainly would have re-teamed in the ‘50s with Gene or Fred in some Metro musical. What about a Judy movie with Sinatra or Dino? The trio was so great together on the TV special that got Garland her TV series. Would she have worked with Fosse or Sondheim? Would Bob Fosse have cooked up a musical for Judy and Liza? Would Judy have been singing “I’m Still Here” in Follies? Would Judy have teamed up with Barbra again on a TV special, after Streisand had made one of her early appearances on Garland’s show? The possibilities seem endless.
Imagine Judy Garland without all the emotional baggage from having been a show biz baby, born in a trunk, and singing for her (and everyone else’s) supper. Imagine Judy not addicted to pills and booze. Imagine Garland not prematurely aged and deceased. Some say that tragedy was a key part of the Judy mystique. Maybe, but I prefer my legends long-lived, creative, and happy. I’m not a fetishist for stars who die young and tragically. I always wonder what could have been.
Happy endings often happen only in Hollywood movies, not in real life. Doris Day was one of the lucky few to get hers. I just wish that Judy Garland had got happy, and got a happy ending, too. To quote Hemingway’s unhappy ending in The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
A lovely daydream: A long life, on camera and off, for Judy Garland. Luckily, she's still remembered and revered.

 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Ginger, Reagan, & Doris Day VS the KKK in ‘Storm Warning’ 1951

Wholesome Ginger Rogers, RR, & DD are up against the wicked KKK in this WB melodrama.



Storm Warning is a watchable, well-acted 1951WB melodrama—that could have been so much more. The story of a woman who visits her younger sister and witnesses a Ku Klux Klan killing was inexplicably watered down. Warner Brothers, renowned for their hard-hitting social dramas of the ‘30s, diluted the drama by not calling out the Klan for what they are and setting the story in generic anywhere, USA.
I love the cliche cast arm-in-arm publicity photo, when in most movie dramas, characters are at each others' throats!

Other studios were making pictures dealing with race. Stuart Heisler was a gutsy director and screenwriters Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs had already written about the topic, so the decision must have come from Jack Warner. WB’s Storm Warning, made in ’49, but released in early 1951, depicted the Klan killing of a white reporter, for nosing around their shady financial dealings. Uh, okay, who knew that money laundering was the Klan’s claim to fame? The Ku Klux Klan is only called the Klan, and the fictional town of Rock Point is even vaguer, referred to as “down here!” While the Klan was in many parts of the US, it’s implied the town is southern, despite the lack of accents. The only blacks to be seen are in the crowd scenes at the inquest. The lack of locale and whitewashing the Klan’s true purpose defuses what could have been a powerful social drama.
*Some spoilers ahead!
Travelling dress model Marsha Mitchell (Rogers) stopped in town to visit her kid sister before Christmas.
Is she wondering why the townspeople are wearing white after Labor Day?

Marsha Mitchell, a New York dress model travelling by bus to her next gig, decides to stop over night in Rock Point, where her young married sister Lucy lives with trucker husband Hank Rice. As Marsha attempts to get a cab to the local recreation center where her sister works, the locals seem unusually unfriendly, and are closing everything up early. Marsha the model heads off on foot—in high heels—to the center, she happens upon an outbreak from the local jail. Men in hooded sheets are corralling a bound and gagged man from the building when he breaks away. One of the men shoots him, and Marsha witnesses it all, unseen by the KKK. She sees two men who are unmasked.
"I Saw What You Did"with the KKK. Rogers' visiting sister lets brother-in-law Hank (Steve Cochran) know what's up!
Doris Day is the kid sis and young wife, Lucy. 

Marsha high tails it to the local recreation center and Lucy, spilling her story. She recognizes some of the men (by their shoes?) and points them out to her sister, who knows them. When they get back to Lucy’s house, who has told Marsha that she’s pregnant, her husband Hank arrives. Marsha instantly recognizes him as one of the KKK. Awkward! Let’s just say it’s a helluva icebreaker. When DA Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) finds out that Marsha was in the vicinity of the killing, he wants her on the witness stand at the inquest. Charley Barr (Hugh Sanders), Klan big Kahuna and Hank’s boss, wants Marsha to keep quiet. Though inquest is a success for the Klan, Hank can’t leave well enough alone, namely Marsha, and follows her back to the house to “celebrate” with her. What follows is a near-rape interrupted only by his wife. After he roughs up both women, he drags Marsha off to the KKK meeting as a mystery guest.  Ginger’s Marsha now refuses to keep quiet, which then makes her the evening’s entertainment: getting horsewhipped by a Klan member while the others watch, agog… and so will you. Reagan’s Rainey arrives with Doris’ Lucy and Hank once again makes things worse, by trying to shoot his sister-in-law, which leads to the tragic finale.
The opening scenes of 'Storm Warning' are filmed in unsettling film noir style by director Stuart Heisler.

Director Stuart Heisler, who should have gotten more prestige projects, has a powerful point of view in Storm Warning. The storytelling is strong, especially the opening scenes, where Marsha arrives. Visually striking and eerily foreboding, Rogers’ Marsha gets rebuffed by everyone she meets as the small town seemingly shuts down in unison. And when she stumbles upon the outbreak with the Klan and their victim, hiding in the shadows, is stunning. The direction, cinematography, and score all heighten the tension in the best film noir style.
Heisler’s take on small town life feels authentic, and the supporting cast and extras look like real people from that era, not a glam film version of local life. The viewer feels a part of the crowd scenes in the recreation center, the inquest, and the Klan rally. These scenes are intense and claustrophobic.
The KKK is about to show NYC model Marsha Mitchell what they think about outspoken women!

What director Heisler seemed to have is a knack for getting good performances from actors, especially when the acting style of film’s golden era was often theatrical. Ginger Rogers, while quite versatile as a musical, comedy, and dramatic performer, could often be quite arch and overstated as her stardom went on. Here, Rogers gives one of her best dramatic performances. The scene when she witnesses the murder by the Klan could have been very melodramatic. But it’s all in Rogers’ eyes, with shadows surrounding her face, and the fear, followed by revulsion of what she’s witnessed. Surprisingly for an old movie, after she’s made her escape, she stops to get her bearings, and turns away to vomit.
Ginger Rogers lets rip as the sister-in-law who's had it with her boorish brother-in-law.

Rogers’ character, initially shown to be strong-willed but rather shallow, grows in strength and is not cowed when she recognizes her sleazy brother-in-law as one of the Klan. In fact, in the scenes after the inquest, Rogers’ Marsha shoots down his seduction ploy with ferocity that I didn’t know Ginger possessed. She’s strong and straightforward throughout, with very little posturing. While researching this film, I noticed more than a few film buffs and fans referred to Ginger as “old.” Rogers was 40 at the time. While she didn’t look like the dancing star of the mid ‘30s anymore, Ginger looked like a mature woman with an incredibly slim, toned figure. Clean living Ginger Rogers (a Christian Scientist) certainly looked far better than most of her male contemporaries, who entered the 1950s looking puffy and paunchy, from drugs and/or booze and cigarettes.
Doris Day, in her first dramatic role, is the small town house wife who's about to have her eyes opened.

Doris Day, as the small town wife who wakes up to what’s going on with her husband and community, is incredibly natural. Storm Warning was one of Day’s first films and the only one where she dies. Day wears little makeup, simple clothes, and performs in an unaffected manner, with none of the hysteria that at times marred her few later dramatic performances. Day got some great notices from Storm Warning, but the best one was from Alfred Hitchcock, who complimented her on the performance—and later asked her to star in his remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Doris and Ginger make believable sisters and have a nice, no-nonsense rapport.
Doris Day & Ginger Rogers act well together as the two sisters, one young & naive, the other older & street smart.

Ronald Reagan, not an inspired actor in my opinion, is actually very good as DA Rainey. While Reagan fans like to point to Kings Row (“acting” in quotation marks as the town playboy), I think Reagan was competent in the old Hollywood style of posturing, but rarely with any true emotion or heart. But as Rainey, Reagan’s acting is understated and direct, and he is the most natural that I’ve ever seen him on screen.
Ronald Reagan gives a natural, solid performance as the weary but dedicated DA, Burt Rainey.

Steve Cochran, as Rock Point’s Stanley Kowalski, has a field day as the childish brute of a husband, Hank. WB gave Cochran the build up, but buried him by typecasting him as the sexy slime ball. Cochran did have an animal sex appeal that attracted fans, but his version of Streetcar’s Stanley shows that Cochran was to Brando what Mamie Van Doren was to Marilyn Monroe!
While Steve Cochran makes a sexy thug, let's just say he doesn't fill out the role
of the brutish brother-in-law the way Brando does in 'Streetcar."

The supporting cast is great, especially Hugh Sanders as the ominous villain Barr, who frames his evil actions as for the good of the community. Ned Glass is fine as the sympathetic recreation center owner. Sadly, his Hollywood career was sidelined by the Hollywood blacklist.
If the movie pulls the toughest punches, one thing it gets across is the mob mentality from a community that is divided. Many of the stock rationalizations that are bandied about in the film are still heard in today’s political arena. There’s lots of derisive and defensive comments about “outsiders,” “troublemakers,” “we clean up our own messes,” and women being “safe on the street at night.”
Steve Cochran's KKK version of Stanley makes his move on Ginger's infinitely more kick ass version
of a sister-in-law than 'Streetcar's' Blanche!

Many movie critics and fans also noticed the similarity between the visiting older sister Marsha, the naïve younger sister Lucy, and her thug husband Hank, as clones of A Streetcar Named Desire’s legendary Blanche, Stella, and Stanley. Moguls during the studio system were notorious for recycling material. Still, it was shameless of WB to recycle before the original was even released! I wonder if Tennessee Williams realized that he gave WB a two-fer! Just the thought of Williams’ iconic characters tangling with the KKK gives me the giggles.
Steve Cochran's brother-in-law Hank even tries to force the issue with his sister-in-law, like 'Streetcar's' Stanley.

Another amusing thought is that Joan Crawford turned down the Ginger Rogers’ part, reportedly telling Jack Warner that nobody would buy Doris Day as her sister. True, but the thought of Joan getting horse whipped by the KKK would have been high camp.
The bottom line is, as far as Storm Warning goes, it is strong stuff. But by not taking a stronger, direct stand against the Ku Klux Klan, viewers are left with is a melodrama with its convictions undercut.  
Ginger Rogers was a role model for Doris Day when she aspired to go into show business. The two stars
had much in common, starting with that they were Christian Scientists. Both were clean living,
athletic, hard-working, multi-talented,  loved their fans, and sustained long careers in show biz!