Monday, May 22, 2017

Written on the Wind: Soapy and Subversive

Written on the Wind: Sirk du Soleil!

What more can I write about Written on the Wind? So much has already been said about the films of director Douglas Sirk. The super soap opera about superrich Texans was a big hit in 1956 and a cult favorite to boot. What gives Written on the Wind staying power is Sirk’s subtle critique on post-war America and strikingly visual storytelling style.

Dorothy as Mary Lee works those arched eyebrows in this sexy Texas saga.
Sirk is the model of storytelling economy, epitomized in the opening credits of Written on the Wind. Over the sweet sounds of The Four Aces, the story is succinctly set up: Rich boy Kyle Hadley is drunk and racing his sports car back home, for a showdown with his best friend, Mitch Wayne, who booted him out. Roaring into the driveway, he smashes his bottle against the brick mansion. Waking the servants, alerting his sleazy sister, Mary Lee Hadley, long-suffering wife Lucy, and pal Mitch, the plastered prodigal son has returned. Door left wide open, Kyle lumbers into the library. His sister flits down the staircase and follows. From outside, a gunshot is heard, Kyle Hadley staggers out, and collapses in the driveway. The camera cuts to his bedroom, where his wife faints, and a calendar’s pages fall back to the story’s beginning. All this in just three minutes and six seconds!

Douglas Sirk’s postwar films are the ones on which his reputation rests. On their surface, Sirk’s cinema seems over-the-top glamorous, slickly soapy, and artificially emoted. Audiences then and even now take such films as Magnificent Obsession, All that Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life at face value, as guilty pleasure wallows. Others have deconstructed the work of Douglas Sirk, for what lies beneath his glossy facades, sometimes to the point of absurdity.

Malone as Mary Lee, seeking comfort with a miniature oil derrick ?
Still, moviegoers today easily see that there is more than meets the eye to Sirk’s ‘50s films. I’ll never forget watching Written on the Wind with my folks and its infamous finale—the rich sister all alone, caressing her father’s miniature oil derrick—Mom and Dad burst into laughter. Sirk took the disadvantages of censorship and confining studio system film making and worked it to his advantage. Social and sexual issues were played out in the guise of a soap opera: The older woman-younger man relationship of All That Heaven Allows; the disillusioned breadwinner of There’s Always Tomorrow; the hedonistic playboy in Magnificent Obsession, or the racial issues of Imitation of Life. Written on the Wind tackles unchecked wealth and power, sexuality and sterility.

Mary Lee Hadley's mambo of death.
Some of the cited examples of Sirk’s genius can be a bit of a reach. One such claim is that Written on the Wind’s visuals were deliberately and blatantly artificial. To me, Wind doesn’t look any different than other ‘50s films. Rear projection, matte scenery, backlot outdoor sets, and interior sets were all standard issue then. Sirk skillfully used the devices in his films, heightened with his expressive lighting and camera angles.

Rock Hudson in leading man mode as Mitch Wayne.
Written on the Wind is twice the soap, in half the time, as Giant, George Stevens’ take on Texas, also came out at the end of ‘56. The two epics have interesting parallels. Rock played steady Eddie Bick Benedict in Giant to James Dean’s Jett Rink, the wildcatter who cracks up. In Written on the Wind, Hudson’s Mitch is a strait-laced version of Jett, the outsider looking in. And Robert Stack’s dissolute rich jerk Kyle is how Jett Rink ends up in Giant.

The eternal triangle, as viewed by Douglas Sirk in 'Written on the Wind.'
Since the release of Written on the Wind, many film critics, fans, and historians criticized Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall as boring, while praising Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone for their showy performances. I beg to differ. If all four stars had engaged such scenery chewing, the Hadleys’ mansion would have been reduced to rubble. Somebody had to be the straight man—ironically, that fell to Rock Hudson. As Mitch Wayne, Rock meets the pre-requisites for a top tier leading man: Hudson is at his handsomest, along with his warm personality, intelligence, and one of the best speaking voices of his movie generation. Robert Stack, who had the killer role of Kyle, later praised Hudson for not pulling rank as the star and ordering Stack’s star-making role reduced. Frankly, I think Rock might have played the rich boy better than stone-faced Stack.

Lauren Bacall as Lucy, pondering her future as wife of a rich playboy. 
Instead of playing her usual snarky tough cookie here, Lauren Bacall is Lucy, the leading lady—which I found a refreshing change of pace. Watching Bacall, chic in a grey suit during the film’s NYC scenes, I thought it a shame Alfred Hitchcock never gave Betty Bacall the nod as one of his famed blondes. Naturally, not the fragile ones of Vertigo or Marnie, but Bacall would have been the bomb in North by Northwest with Cary Grant. My sister, when watching Hollywood movies from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, has commented how matronly the shellacked hairdos and cartoonish makeup makes the leading ladies look. In Written on the Wind, Lauren Bacall sports stylish hair and makeup, but it’s subtle, and she rarely looked better onscreen after her sexy starlet days. Lauren Bacall brings her usual pragmatic personality to Lucy, but it is tempered with warmth, something that wasn’t always present in her screen roles.

Even Kyle's sister snidely comments on his 'electric personality!'
I’m not the first to point this out, but the big problem with Written on the Wind is why anyone would put up with Kyle Hadley for a New York minute. As the poor little rich boy given to grand gestures, he flies from Texas to the Big Apple for lunch. This is where Robert Stack’s Kyle meets Bacall’s Lucy, snagging her away from Hudson’s Mitch. Kyle is drinking and showboating, which puts Lucy off. She attempts to get away from him, but the rich kid reveals his real self, which makes the city girl view him in a different light. The problem is Kyle, as written and performed, does not inspire awe or sympathy. Kyle is either drunk and obnoxious or sober and morose. 
I grew up watching Robert Stack sporting a trench coat and acting like a dull detective in Unsolved Mysteries. Stack was a grade B Charlton Heston, deadpan sneer and broadcasting boom of a voice. Robert Stack gives his all as the lost soul playboy, but that’s not saying much. He does have his moments. One that I found affecting is when wife Lucy tries to find out why Kyle is back on the bottle, after a year of sobriety. When Kyle feels he’s failing Lucy as a husband, Sirk cleverly makes sterility Kyle’s issue, though a probable closet case might be closer to the truth. Sitting at his bedside the morning after, she asks, “Do you love me?” Stack as Kyle replies, “I don’t even love myself.” With that, he rolls over and pulls the covers over his head—a stunning moment for a he-man actor in a ‘50s movie.

Like Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone spent over a decade paying her showbiz dues. As Mary Lee Hadley in Written on the Wind, Malone plays the “nymphomaniac” rich girl who pines for Hudson’s Mitch, a childhood friend to both her and the brother. She resents Kyle for “taking away” Mitch as they grew up.

What would a Douglas Sirk movie be without a mirror scene? Sisters-in-law Malone and Bacall having a catty reflection.
As Mary Lee, Dorothy Malone cashes in on her showy role and pulls out all the stops. Whether taunting her family, picking up men in dive bars, getting the dirt on others, or dancing with deadly abandon, Malone is all sexy moves and mugging. Unlike stone-faced Stack, Malone was an expressive actress who could be just as stunning when she took it down a few notches. Her scenes of expressing her unwavering love for Mitch are touching. The big courtroom scene, with Malone as Mary Lee in a big black hat, gives Stack’s Kyle a moving epitaph: “He was sad, the saddest of us all. He needed so much and had so little.”

Douglas Sirk suddenly retired after his biggest hit, 1959’s Imitation of Life. I wonder how Sirk would have fared in the ‘60s, when realism in film quickly became the norm. My guess is that had Sirk stayed in Hollywood, he would have struggled much like Hitchcock, who found his similarly stylized storytelling obsolete by the middle of that decade. Still, Hollywood was cranking out glossy soap operas well into the 1960s. Some featured past Sirk collaborators like producer Ross Hunter and aging star Lana Turner. For those who think Douglas Sirk overrated, compare Imitation of Life to Ross and Lana’s Madame X. Or compare Sirk’s work to director Delmer Daves, who picked up the soap mantle when the veteran director retired—Magnificent Obsession or Youngblood Hawke? And all those sexy ‘60s soaps with Liz Taylor, Carroll Baker, Ann-Margret, etc. offer none of the emotional impact for their stars or audiences. 
Douglas Sirk was obviously doing something more than blowing cinematic soap bubbles.

High octane melodrama: Note the monogram on Mary Lee Hadley's caddy car door.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

'Bunny Lake is Missing' the Original Gone Girl

Bunny Lake is Missing is one of those flawed or fake—depending on your point of view—cinematic gems from the ‘60s, such as Marnie or Reflections in a Golden Eye. Or a rediscovered treasure, if you’re a revisionist. For me, while there’s much to recommend about Bunny Lake, the 1965 suspense film misses the mark.

Director Otto Preminger was a master of creating cinematic mood, his strong suit here. Bunny Lake begins with Saul Bass’ strikingly simple titles, over Paul Glass’ melancholy score. The set-up is powerfully simple: an American mother in London drops her four-year-old daughter at school; upon her return, nobody there has actually seen Bunny. The big question becomes: Has Bunny gone bye-bye or is this woman cray-cray?

Carol Lynley as the distraught mother and Keir Dullea is her supportive brother.
The leads are played by two perennial ingénues from the ‘60s. Carol Lynley, famed for lip-synching “The Morning After” in hot pants in The Poseidon Adventure, is Ann Lake. Keir Dullea, famous for dueling wits with Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey is her brother Steven. Two of England’s most revered theatrical greats support the brother-sister act: Laurence Olivier is the detective determined to get at the truth and Noel Coward plays Ann Lake’s nutty new landlord.

Once the cops are called and the investigation begins, Bunny Lake deflates instead of escalates. Preminger, who had a tendency toward the over-the-top showmanship, like stunt casting and titillating stories, uses diversionary tactics here. Since the villain is obvious and revealed early, there’s nowhere for the story to go. So, Preminger takes Lynley’s character and audiences on a joy ride via several set pieces that, while eerily effective, are a smokescreen for the lack of actual plot. Supporting characters, who range from quirky to bizarre, offer atmosphere but are really just red herrings.

Noel Coward as the nutty landlord  and alleged ladies' man!
First, Ann Lake and her brother Steven find the founder of the school stashed away, living on the third floor. She is played by Martita Hunt, memorable as Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations. Apparently, Otto thought it would be an homage hoot to cast her as the dotty ex-school teacher, rattling on about recording children’s dreams and nightmares.
Back at home, Ann’s scenes with the lecherous landlord, an elderly poet crassly putting the make on the distressed mother, feels like a badly told dirty joke.

Lynley as Ann Lake, looking for her daughter, and here, her doll.
Bunny’s belongings seem to have gone missing, too. To prove that Bunny is real, Ann impulsively goes into downtown London on a busy night to retrieve a doll that’s under repair. Her visit to the “doll hospital” is eerie—of course! The owner appears to be out of his mind, and also electricity, since Ann is forced to look for her doll with a kerosene lamp. How dramatic for the distraught mother, to look for her doll among hundreds of others, by lamp light.
China doll Lynley’s character ends up in a hospital herself and her escape is almost as creepy as the doll’s rest home. These scenes all feel like detours, a delay to an absurd showdown.

Saul Bass created many memorable opening credits, several for  Otto Preminger films.
What makes Bunny Lake worth watching despite its shortcomings is the talent involved. Husband and wife screenwriting team John and Penelope Mortimer try hard to create suspense in a story where even the source material was stumped for a plausible resolution. Aside from Saul Bass’ brilliant titles and Paul Glass’ score, Denys N. Coop’s cinematography captures not only the mood, but 1960s London beautifully. One of Otto Preminger’s strengths as a director was his later preference for shooting entirely on location, with as few sets as possible. I wonder what Alfred Hitchcock’s more stylized storytelling, with his in-studio visual effects, would have made of this story. Interestingly, Preminger moved ‘65’s Bunny Lake’s story from New York City to London and Hitchcock transplanted ‘64’s Marnie from England to East Coast America.

Amusingly, MAD magazine's parody of 'Bunny Lake is Missing' nails all of its nagging flaws.
Bunny Lake is Missing is another of those films that was a failure upon its release, but now has revisionist fans and critics who claim it is an unappreciated masterpiece, much like Marnie. True, many films are underappreciated in their time and just as many hit films of their era now seem overrated. Movie-watching is a personal experience, but I read over-the-top accolades for famously uneven films or infamously lackluster actors with amused disbelief. I wonder if film historians/writers have been mining the same celluloid territory for so long that there’s nothing new to write about. Watching with rose-colored glasses, they try to convince everyone—and themselves—that a movie lemon is actually a cool cinematic drink of lemonade.

Laurence Olivier as the detective who has doubts about the Lynley's story.
Now, I can appreciate a film’s virtues, even if the parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. Despite being in perverse awe of its stupefying flaws, I am intrigued by Hitchcock’s Marnie. John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye and Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony are two other ‘60s psychological dramas that while uneven, offer stunning visuals, strong performances, and a fine sense of dread. However, I don’t mistake them for unsung classics, but think that film “failures” can be just as fascinating as cinema classics.

Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea: Lovely to look at, listless to watch.
While researching this film, I noticed that today’s champions of Bunny Lake is Missing are noticeably silent about the stars’ performances. Though bolstered by an excellent cast of British character actors, the lead performances in Bunny Lake range from bland to bananas. Carol and Keir, as sister and brother, with their huge blue eyes and angelic features, are lovely to look at. But their acting is wan, shallow, and a bit precious, which may be why neither starlet sustained a noteworthy film career. Latter day Laurence Olivier is usually pure ham, but here, Larry walks through this like a sleepwalker instead of a sleuth. Noel Coward makes up for that, as the landlord, Wilson. Coward is so flamboyant that he should be hitting on Keir, not Carol. Still, Noel hit on Dullea in his own way, with his renowned wit. When asked about the actor in an interview, Coward famously replied: “Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow!”

The biggest mystery of this movie is why British pop group The Zombies got co-starring billing when they only appear as themselves—on a pub television set.
Bunny Lake is Missing has atmosphere and A-team talent to spare—the only real thing missing is a story.
Headscratcher: The Zombies get co-star credit for this appearance in 'Bunny Lake!'

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Lillian Hellman and Her 'Little Foxes'

Lillian Hellman's 'The Little Foxes.' This 1941 film, with Bette Davis, is the only film version.
Lillian Hellman’s most famed play, The Little Foxes, is not revived as regularly as Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Perhaps that’s how the perception began that Foxes was dated. Quite the opposite, its similar themes about corruption and greed are timely as ever.

Tallulah Bankhead was the first Regina Giddens.
The Little Foxes debuted in 1939, with Tallulah Bankhead in her best role as Regina Giddens. In 1941, Bette Davis gave one of her most restrained performances as ruthless Regina, with the Broadway cast, in William Wyler’s screen version.

Tallulah Bankhead couldn’t have been thrilled to see Bette Davis play Regina, especially after Davis recently had one of her greatest successes in a film version of a Bankhead stage flop, Dark Victory. Later, Bankhead “jokingly” accused Bette of borrowing her mannerisms when playing Broadway diva Margo Channing in All About Eve, or as Tallulah dubbed it, All About Me. However, Bankhead did get to recreate Regina Giddens in a radio adaptation, as did Davis.
Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon are winning raves in a 2017 Broadway revival of The Little Foxes. What’s unique is the two stars are alternating the juicy roles of rapacious Regina and fragile Birdie. Given the chance, I don’t think Tallulah and Bette would have ever done this!

Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney are doubly dynamic in 'The Little Foxes.'
Lillian Hellman was inspired by her mother’s greedy relatives to write The Little Foxes. Foxes’ family is ruled by the pursuit of riches, no matter what the cost. Regina Giddens is a woman staring at middle age, reliant on her husband Horace Giddens’ staid financial decisions. Regina’s brothers, Ben and Oscar Hubbard, have used the family fortune to finance their own business ventures. Regina, as a woman of her time, has no authoritative power. A Yankee developer proposes to build a cotton mill in their town, making them all partners. The brothers say yes, but Regina must get her estranged husband’s consent. She brings Horace home from the hospital—weak heart, beware—to get him on board. Once he’s home, Regina’s motives are obvious. Horace wants no part of the venture, which will exploit their townspeople, and refuses to participate. Let’s just say this decision doesn’t bring out the best in Regina or her brothers.

Tallulah Bankhead in her best stage role.
The Little Foxes is Hellman’s indictment on America’s mindless greed and exploitation of the working class. Hellman was a lifelong political and social activist, finding herself blacklisted during the McCarthy era, after famously testifying, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions…”
The notoriously persnickety Hellman kept tight reins on her plays’ revivals—and apparently this has continued after her death. Still, it may be surprising to know about a few other versions of The Little Foxes.

Ann Blyth as young Regina Giddens: 'Another Part of the Forest.'
In 1948, Universal released Another Part of the Forest, based on Hellman’s stage play “prequel” to The Little Foxes. Forest focuses on the Hubbard clan when Ben, Oscar, and Regina were young vipers, and their father Marcus conniving to capitalize even further on the loot made as a post-Civil war profiteer. Papa Hubbard’s parenting skills trained his children early on how to be rotten adults. Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives) plays patriarch Marcus. Ann Blyth, who played Veda, the daughter from hell, in Mildred Pierce, won kudos as a young Regina.  Edmund O’ Brien plays Ben; fittingly, Dan Duryea plays Oscar, since he played Oscar’s son seven years earlier in The Little Foxes. Betsy Blair, aka Mrs. Gene Kelly, plays young Birdie. John Dall, of The Corn is Green and Rope, plays her cousin. And Dona Drake, famous as Bette Davis’ trashy maid in Beyond the Forest, plays Oscar’s trampy “dancer” girlfriend. Critics highly praised the screen adaptation and cast when Another Part of the Forest was released, but it’s a rather forgotten film today.

Greer Garson & Franchot Tone in '56 'Foxes.'
In 1956, NBC’s Hallmark Hall of Fame presented their version of The Little Foxes, with MGM’s noble Greer Garson as Regina and Franchot Tone as Horace (once married to Joan Crawford when they were MGM stars!) Eileen Heckart, who made a splash as bereaved and boozy Mrs. Daigle in The Bad Seed, gets to be boozy and bravura again as Birdie. Sidney Blackmer (Rosemary’s Baby) and E.G. Marshall (12 Angry Men) are Regina’s bad brothers Ben and Oscar. One of famed TV director’s George Schaefer’s early efforts, he later directed the only film “fox,” Bette Davis, in two of her best latter day TV films: A Piano for Mrs. Cimino and Right of Way.

'67 'Foxes': Ben (George C. Scott) implores his sister Regina, Anne Bancroft.
In 1967, fresh off The Graduate, Mike Nichols again directed Anne Bancroft, as another scheming mother in a stellar revival of The Little Foxes. As the shyster brothers, George C. Scott played Ben and E.G. Marshall repeated his role as Oscar. British actress Margaret Leighton played Birdie and Richard Dysart (L.A. Law) played long-suffering Horace.

Actor Austin Pendleton, who played the nitwit nephew in the ’67 Mike Nichols production, got a rare opportunity in 1981. Now a director, as well, Pendleton guided Elizabeth Taylor as Regina Giddens, in her Broadway debut. As with all about Liz, the production received a tsunami of publicity. Taylor had recently helped husband John Warner get elected senator in Virginia. Post-election, the junior senator left Liz down on the farm, and went to Washington. Home alone, the actress ate and drank, and her figure and self-esteem went south. Taylor quickly tired as the target of comics’ fat jokes, and started losing weight. 
Elizabeth Taylor played another southern belle in the hit '81 revival of The Little 'Foxes.'
A chance meeting with Broadway producer Zev Buffman led to an offer to star on stage. Several plays were considered, with Elizabeth deciding on The Little Foxes. A canny choice, since Taylor’s best film work was theatrical adaptations of strong dramas, often playing Southern women. Taylor showed her famed determination by putting down the fork and the bottle, knocking off 40 pounds and working hard on her debut.

Lillian Hellman, at the center of attention!
Lillian Hellman, who had a formidable ego, didn’t like the notion of her play becoming The Elizabeth Taylor Show. Luckily, Elizabeth was as much of a strategic charmer as Regina Giddens. Taylor used great diplomacy in deferring to Hellman’s demanded changes in the production, mostly over Liz looking too lavish in the role. Lillian, who gave Bette Davis a run for her money in the cantankerous department, ceased complaining when the money came rolling in. In the pre-internet era, Taylor’s Foxes sold almost $1 million in tickets the first week. Another crusty broad that Taylor won over was the great Maureen Stapleton, who played Birdie. Like Hellman, Stapleton was no beauty. But instead of being envious over Taylor’s beauty, “Mighty Mo” and ET became fast friends. The production received mostly good reviews, with surprise raves from The New York Times and even Taylor’s old nemesis, Time magazine.

Stockard Channing looking very Liz-like in the '97 revival of 'Foxes.'
In 1997, Stockard Channing, looking very Elizabeth Taylor-esque, played Regina, with Frances Conroy of Six Feet Under and American Horror Story, as Birdie. The reviews were mixed and it’s one of Channing’s few stage roles where she didn’t receive a Tony nomination.

And now, we have two great character actresses, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon, burning up Broadway in both roles. This production has a “that 70’s show” quirky footnote by casting Michael McKean, Lenny of Laverne and Shirley as Ben Hubbard and Richard Thomas, John-Boy from The Waltons, as Horace Giddens. Lenny and John-Boy as brothers-in-law, together on Broadway!

The latest success of The Little Foxes reminds me of one of Regina Giddens’ big lines: “I’ve always been lucky…I’ll be lucky again.”
The latest Foxes, 2017!

Friday, April 21, 2017

Bette Davis: Double Bad in 'The Letter' and 'The Little Foxes'

“Nobody’s as Good as Bette When She’s Bad!”
“Nobody’s as Good as Bette When She’s Bad!”
***Spoiler alerts ahead***
That Warner Bros. advertising slogan for Bette Davis took on an extra meaning when she became older, crankier, and campier. I hadn’t watched The Letter and The Little Foxes, two from her heyday in ‘40 and ’41, since my teens. Re-watching recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see Bette’s tendency to overact kept in check by her favorite director, William Wyler.

Bette's bad medicine in 'The Little Foxes.'
Davis overplayed hot-headed, hard-hearted dynamic divas, like In This Our Life, Mr. Skeffington, and Beyond the Forest. Perhaps Davis downplayed the pyrotechnics in The Letter and The Little Foxes because Bette’s a cool customer as both “bitch” characters.

Leslie Crosbie in Letter and Regina Giddens in Foxes are two of her greatest roles. And both of Bette’s characters take extreme actions to control of their destiny in a man’s world: murder.
In The Letter, Bette takes on another M. Somerset Maugham anti-heroine, after her breakthrough in 1934’s Of Human Bondage. Leslie Crosbie runs hot and cold as the ex-pat plantation wife who plugs a man full of lead while leaving her house—not exactly the perfect hostess.

The setting is a Singapore rubber plantation. Leslie’s husband Robert blindly adores her and they are popular in their upper-middle class set. She claims self-defense, saying the man, a family friend, “tried to make love to me.”
Yes, but didn’t Leslie pump a full round of bullets into his carcass as he staggered off her front porch?
Howard, their family friend—and lawyer—agrees to take the case. Soon enough, an ambitious young Asian lawyer sidles up to Stephenson’s character and tells him there’s a letter—and since that’s the title of the movie, it must be pretty juicy!

Gale Sondergaard & Bette Davis have a memorable confrontation in 'The Letter.'
Leslie and the gentleman caller were lovers. The letter by Leslie wasn’t a casual invite, but a summons. The holder of the incriminating note is the playboy’s Asian wife. The letter comes with steep postage: $10,000. Behind the husband’s back, Howard the lawyer and Leslie the adulteress use the family savings to buy the note back. This easily paves the way for the “proper” British wife’s acquittal. Today, Leslie Crosby would be considered the perfect example of white privilege.

Wanting a fresh start elsewhere, Robert is devastated to learn just why he is financially wiped out. Leslie comes clean, but to a painful degree. After her painful confession, Leslie soon pays for her sins. Leslie Crosbie may have been acquitted, but she’s not off the hook.

Bette played it director William Wyler's way, but she wasn't happy about it!
Davis and Wyler, who had a volatile professional and personal relationship, fought over Leslie’s telling her husband that she still loved the man she killed. Wyler wanted Bette say it to movie spouse Marshall’s face; Davis felt the wife could never look him in the face and say such a thing. When they came to an impasse, Bette walked off the set. This was a preview for coming attractions on The Little Foxes set.

What prevents The Letter status as a true classic is the censorship-mandated, tacked on ending where Leslie is killed by the vengeful wife. Otherwise, William Wyler weaves this tale of murder, passion, sexual frustration, class, and white privilege with skillful ease. Tony Gaudio’s photography is truly stunning, especially during the film’s opening and closing night scenes. Gaudio actually makes the moon a mesmerizing character. Max Steiner, composer for many Davis dramas, offers a haunting and romantic score.

Bette with Keye Luke and James Stephenson, going to retrieve 'The Letter.'
Herbert Marshall goes his first round with Davis as Bette’s put upon husband, Robert. Marshall is empathetic as he goes from sure to sorrowful, regarding his marriage. James Stephenson as Howard made his film debut and won a best supporting nomination, to boot. Stephenson plays the lawyer’s ethical entanglement well. The supporting standout is Gale Sondergaard, genuinely chilling as Mrs. Hammond, the widow of wife’s lover. When she forces Leslie to meet her in person to retrieve the letter, the tension is incredible, with barely a word or gesture wasted by either actress. It’s all in the eyes. Despite the forced ending, their final, fatal meeting is still eerie.

Bette giving the moon a baleful look, which haunts her through 'The Letter.'
As for Bette, she’s subtly brilliant. Maugham’s Leslie Crosbie is a tricky role: She’s both sympathetic and a bitch; she’s passionate and stone-cold. It amazes me that Davis could play this type of role in the ‘30s and ‘40s and still win audiences over. An old female friend of mine, Alice, a moviegoer from that era, once commented that there were three actresses that men couldn’t stand: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Katharine Hepburn. I’ll amend that to straight men! All were strong-willed, smart, not conventionally beautiful, and the first two often played roles that bedeviled the male characters. Davis, as the cool English “lady” with fire underneath, required a finesse which Bette employs to terrific effect.

Bette as Regina in 'The Little Foxes,' photo by George Hurrell.
Davis and Wyler re-teamed for the last time with Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. (Their first was Bette’s second Oscar winner Jezebel.) This time, their collaboration was so combative that they never worked together again, though they remained friends. Tallulah Bankhead originated the role of Regina Giddens on Broadway. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn bought the property for William Wyler to direct. Wyler requested Davis for Regina, who just turned 33, to play the 40-something mother of a 17-year-old girl.

The Little Foxes was Lillian Hellman’s indictment on American greed and capitalism, which ironically became a huge commercial success. Regina Giddens relies on her invalid husband Horace for finances to remain comfortable; Regina’s crooked brothers, Oscar and Benjamin Hubbard, have already amassed fortunes. Still, they all want more. A visiting investor offers to make them partners in a cotton mill. The brothers have their share and count on Regina to get her estranged husband to put up the third share. The mill, which promises to exploit the locals, gets a prompt no from her noble husband. Once again, he is played by long-suffering—literally, this time—Herbert Marshall. The brothers put up Oscar’s dimwit son to steal the funds from Horace’s bank deposit box. When Mr. Giddens finds out, he refuses to press charges, to thwart the deal. Naturally, Mrs. Giddens is livid.

Oh, did I mention Horace Giddens has a serious heart condition?

Bette as Regina, watching her husband crawl in the background, dying.
And Regina is serious as a heart attack that she will hold the cards in this deal. Regina and Horace have a showdown. She whips him for foiling her attempt at good fortune, and for good measure, tells Horace that their entire marriage a failure and she never loved him. Well, that has him reaching for the heart medicine, which he promptly knocks over. Whoopsy! Regina gets up to help, then hesitates. Opportunity knocks for the opportunistic southern belle. This famous onstage scene was made even more legendary on film by Citizen Kane’s cinematographer Gregg Toland’s renowned deep-focus photography. In the background, Herbert Marshall, acting out the throes of a heart attack, crawls across the room and up the staircase for help; in the foreground, Bette bolted to her chair, her wide eyes their widest, as she waits for the perfect moment to strike. The scene is still a showstopper: kudos to Wyler, Toland, Marshall, and Davis. Also, when I think of that grueling scene, I recall that poor Herbert Marshall wore a wooden leg, due to a war injury.

Patricia Collinge is great as poor Aunt Birdie, trampled by her greedy family.
Most of the Broadway cast was brought in to recreate their roles. They are all terrific, especially Patricia Collinge, as tragic Aunt Birdie. Miserably married to Regina’s brother, Oscar, Birdie gradually became an alcoholic. Birdie’s scene of recalling her life’s journey—belle of the ball, bartered bride, and finally, the bottle—is a stunning piece of acting by Collinge.

Bette’s performance was controversial. There’s a confusing history of quotes as to whether William Wyler wanted Bette to play Regina like Bankhead or that he thought Davis’ own interpretation was too unlikeable. Whatever the case, Wyler hated Davis’ portrayal. And Bette despised his direction of her. Tensions peaked where Bette walked off the set and production was shut down for several weeks. This is one of the key points in Bette Davis’s career when the “difficult” label was applied. Who was right and who was wrong?

A rare shot of Bette as Regina in color. Davis was made to look older in B&W.
It’s hard to say, since Davis and Wyler were equally hard-headed. For me, what matters in the end is what’s up onscreen. Bette powdered her skin, thinned her lips, and narrowed her eye makeup to look pinched, weary, and older. Which Wyler also hated. Only 33, Davis plays a scene where Regina dolls up for her husband’s return home, to butter him up. Regina catches an unexpected glimpse of herself in the mirror, at an unforgiving angle. The belle gets a reminder that she’s no longer the sweet young thing, but bitter and hard. Imagine another actress of that era willing to submit to such a harsh close-up. As with Leslie in The Letter, Bette’s Regina is bad, with no excuses as to how she got that way. Bette’s Regina is restrained, for such a show-stopping role; Davis is also a team player, this isn’t just a vehicle for her.

Bette with two directors: Frank Capra & William Wyler on 'The Letter' set.
The Letter and The Little Foxes are films that dealt with tough topics in an adult way, but still entertained. That’s why they still hold up today. Finally, despite their combustible chemistry, Bette Davis gives two of her best performances, playing bad to the bone, under the tough, strong direction of William Wyler.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Latter-Day Doris Day Fan 'Fesses Up

Doris Day was the All-American girl for 20 years.
I confess. As a ‘70s teen, I thought Doris Day was a dork.
To me, Doris Day was like Debbie Reynolds, a middle-aged star who acted like a perky ingénue. I was allergic to their mugging in movies and cutesy charms on talk shows. As time went by, I learned more about their lives and careers. I came to appreciate both mid-century movie girls next door, but I’m writing here to sing the praises of Doris Day.

There are still big parts of Doris Day’s career that I can’t stomach. Doris Day and sweet go together like apple pie and ice cream, dished up by Hollywood. For me, watching Doris Day in her first musicals or later TV show is like taking a big swig of fresh orange juice—right after brushing my teeth!

Doris gets the Warner Bros. makeover in 1948's  'Romance on the High Seas.'
The string of Warner Bros. musicals that started Doris’ career are pure saccharine. Doris is the 30-ish tomboy/ingénue, slathered in pancake makeup to hide the most famous freckles since Joan Crawford’s. Depending on the movie’s era, Doris sported frilly or silly costumes, wigs or her trademark DA ‘do. Watching these flicks, Doris Day reminds me of a singing and dancing kewpie doll. That’s just my personal taste. Day is at the peak of her youth, energy, and bell-like voice—the Warner/Day musicals are still fan favorites.

The Doris Day Show ran from 1968-73, her graceful segue from film. Many golden era big names had a hard time finding suitable film vehicles in New Hollywood. So stars like Doris, Debbie, Shirley MacLaine, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and others headlined series built around them. Most of them failed—except Doris.

A perpetually sunny Day!
Cast members, locales, and plotlines changed each season, but Doris Day was always the same. Day was TV’s favorite career girl, after Marlo Thomas’ That Girl but before The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Day was 15 years older than either of THOSE career “girls.” But there was Doris, pushing 50, in false eyelashes and falls, high fashion and soft focus, working hard and fighting off the fellas! Me and my sister would roll our eyes and laugh at the sappiness—and we were in grade school. My mother always had a low tolerance for Day, calling her “Dodo.” Just hearing Day trill “Que Sera, Sera” over the opening credits was a siren song that sent my Mom out of the room or into a book. Watching clips online today, the show is even more absurd. Yet, I gotta say—Doris looks great! Plus, the show was hit, a testimony to Day’s devoted fan base.

Doris Day was a success as a movie and TV star.
In Doris’ fine memoir, co-written with A.E. Hotchner, Day was direct about those repetitious early roles and the studio’s cookie cutter house style. Later, Day found herself tied to a husband, instead of a studio head. Thanks to her producer hubby, Doris not only lost her money, but was committed for the schlocky TV series, which she found out about after his sudden death. My opinion of Doris Day the person changed after I read her straightforward book.

Doris was a top film star for 20 years, with no long climb to the top, no slow downward slide. She was a popular big band singer for a decade when Warner Bros. biggest director, Michael Curtiz, deemed Day the ideal “all-American girl.” Curtiz starred her in his next movie, 1948’s Romance on the High Seas. Day won audiences’ hearts from the start.

Doris as a '50s movie and musical fave!
The singer-actress’ music career continued to soar. A Billboard poll of the country’s top DJs voted Doris Day the top female singer 9 years out of 10 during the 1950s. During her WB years, while her movie musicals were popular, but not yet blockbusters, their soundtracks were big sellers, a double dip of Doris Day bucks for Jack Warner’s studio.

Doris left WB in1954, making the smart move to freelance. From there, she stretched her range with Love Me or Leave Me in ’55 and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much in ’56. At the end of the fifties, Doris Day struck superstar status with Pillow Talk. From there, Day did a string of sex comedies, mixed with the occasional musical. Despite the swiftly changing ‘60s, fans flocked to Doris Day movies through much of the decade.

Doris Day’s career had several phases—musical starlet, leading lady, comedic superstar—with fan favorites from each. Here are six of my favorite Doris Day films:
Frank and Doris with Ethel Barrymore on the set.
Young at Heart. This1954 musical drama is Day’s last movie on her WB contract. What lifts this soap opera with songs is her pairing with Frank Sinatra, hot off his From Here to Eternity comeback. Is this a great film? No. It is highly entertaining, however. A great supporting cast is led by Ethel Barrymore. The story is a remake of the WB classic Four Daughters, with Frank’s bad boy singer/songwriter bonding with Day’s musical family. Doris and Frank are at their musical best. Sinatra’s spice is a savory mix with Day’s sweetness, which also blended well with Debbie Reynolds the next year, in The Tender Trap.

Doris Day displays her tough side in this '55 musical drama.
Love Me or Leave Me. Musical film bios were all the rage in the ‘50s and this is one of the best. It seems amazing that Doris Day didn’t get an Oscar nod for her applauded performance as ‘30s singer Ruth Etting, controlled by a crazy mobster, played by James Cagney. But MGM put all their musical marbles with Susan Hayward for I’ll Cry Tomorrow. Plus, Eleanor Parker also scored an Oscar nom in Interrupted Melody that year. Still, it may be the only movie Day played where her edge shows. Doris sings all the old songs in a sassy, stylized style and acts up a helluva storm against one of WB’s greatest gangstas.

A happy family in a Hitchcock movie? Think again!
The Man Who Knew Too Much. This ’56 Alfred Hitchcock picture is epic entertainment; Doris gets another classic leading man, Jimmy Stewart.  They play a vacationing couple in Morocco, where doc Jimmy hears a murdered man’s last words. When their son is kidnapped to ensure Stewart’s silence, it becomes torture for the film’s couple and taut suspense for audiences. Doris Day makes a fine Hitchcock blonde, with that all-American sex appeal Hitch loved. Day initially found his lack of direction toward her work puzzling. Hitchcock’s response was he didn’t need to, because she was doing fine!

Doris Day filled movie seats and sold soundtracks in her heyday.
The Pajama Game. Thanks to smart direction by Stanley Donen, snappy choreography by Bob Fosse, this 1957 musical is still as fresh and fun as ever. Based on the Broadway hit, it teams Doris with the original cast. Rare for a musical, there’s actually a story, too. Day is in fine form here, as the Union leader determined to get her co-workers their raise. There’s a ton of fun tunes, but Day’s rendition of “Hey, There” is right up there with her other signature songs.

America's Sweetheart & The King.
Teacher’s Pet. This ’58 comedy teamed Day with The King, Clark Gable. Doris and Clark have a nifty rapport as a journalism teacher tangling with an old school reporter, who thinks teaching news is a bunch of hooey. A great cast and smart dialogue make this smooth fun.

Pillow Talk. The 1959 classic re-wrote the playbook for romantic comedies. Pillow Talk was considered risqué in its time, with its plot of party line hang-ups and hook-ups. Doris is the career woman and Rock is the randy wolf. Backed by a great cast, racy dialogue, plus stylish clothes, sets, and photography, Pillow Talk made Doris Day a bonafide superstar. This is Day’s biggest-grossing movie ever, and it gave Doris her only Oscar nomination.

Doris with Rock on the set of 'Pillow Talk,' their game-changing comedy.
After Pillow Talk, Day reteamed with Rock twice more, and starred in fluffy comedies opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest male stars: Cary Grant, David Niven, Rex Harrison, Rod Taylor, and James Garner. Doris played well with all of them. Day’s box office ride cruised on autopilot until 1967. This was a defining year in ‘60s cinema, after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Bonnie and Clyde broke the censorship mold. Day’s last couple films were disappointments, when she just stopped, after nearly 40 movies, in 1968. Out of those movies, only a handful lost money—an incredible achievement.

It’s a shame that somebody couldn’t convince Doris to take up the offer of Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate.  To me, it would have been the next logical step after Pillow Talk. Yes, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Anne Bancroft playing the rich bitch housewife. Nothing against Annie! However, Day would not have been improbable. In the novel version of The Graduate, the characters are all yuppie, smiling California blondes. I think that if Doris had shed or spun her image, under Mike Nichols’ direction, Mrs. Robinson could have done for Doris Day what Virginia Woolf did for Elizabeth Taylor.

Doris Day, are you trying to seduce us?
Hear me out. Doris Day is by all accounts a nice woman, but you don’t survive as a band singer on the road for a decade, in Hollywood for two decades, and on television another decade, without having a tough side. And letting that side show comically could have opened a whole new career for Doris Day.

Whatever the reasons, Doris chose not to play Mrs. Robinson. And when you look back on her vast work and cultural impact, Day didn’t have to. Doris Day left Hollywood on a high note and has lived a peaceful life with her many dogs in Carmel, CA. She turned 95 on April 2, 2017 and I hope Doris makes it to 100 like Kirk and Olivia.

So, here’s to you, Doris Day. Some fans love you more than they ever knew.
Doris Day at age 54 on Johnny Carson's show in 1976. Doris had better bod than most of Hollywood's sex symbols!