Friday, March 17, 2017

The King of TV 50 and His Most Loyal Subject

I got turned on to Detroit’s WKPD-TV 50 from Upper Michigan, as a nerdy 7th grader in the early ‘70s. Cable television was like Christmas morning 365 days a year, and TV 50 was the best present of all.

WKPD-TV 50 reigned as Detroit’s superstation during the ‘70s and ‘80s. Endless reruns of beloved sitcoms—The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, and The Brady Bunch—were after school treats. Star Trek and William Shatner’s over-acting was out of this world compared to Perry Mason’s precision formula and Raymond Burr’s fierce stare. I gobbled up all this pop culture—along with Chips Ahoy!, Little Debbies, buttery popcorn, all washed down with Faygo’s Rock N’ Rye cream soda—also from Detroit. I was not just a babysitter for my aunt and uncle’s kids—I was also a tubby TV fan.

Bill Kennedy was Detroit's top TV movie host.
His sets got more elaborate as time went by!
For me, the best was Bill Kennedy at the Movies. Before Turner Classic Movies (TCM), local TV stations ran afternoon movies, often with a host. TV 50 showcased Bill Kennedy, a one-time actor and life-long ham. Bill loved reliving his glory days as a contract player at Warner Brothers. Sometimes, Kennedy featured a film where he played a bit part, like Now, Voyager or Mr. Skeffington, as one of Bette Davis’ suitors in both classic soaps. In Kennedy’s scenes, his cameraman put a halo of light around Bill’s head, a Hollywood deity at last. Kennedy had substantial scenes in Cary Grant’s only war movie, Operation Tokyo and he played the executioner who lit a fire under Ingrid Bergman in Joan of Arc. Kennedy’s last claim to fame in Hollywood was the announcer on the 1950s’ Superman series: “Faster than a speeding bullet…”

Voice-overs and radio work got Bill Kennedy through the lean years. Then Kennedy got a break as a movie host, first in Windsor and finally, Detroit. Kennedy joked that his show’s theme song was Just in Time because he was in dire need for a gig. Bill’s new audience wanted their daily dose of his memories and movies, which later included me.

Bill kisses Bette Davis' hand in 'Mr. Skeffington.'
I was an indifferent school student, and Bill Kennedy at the Movies was my reel education. Cozy on my aunt and uncle’s plaid sofa, candy and pop within reach, I’d enter a world of Technicolor or shimmering black-and-white. I learned about each studio, their directors, and stars. Gradually, I noticed the films’ cinematographers, screenwriters, music composers, and costume designers. Instead of doing my homework, I’d consult my best friend, TV Guide, for more movies to gorge on. Old-time flicks were a world filled with snappy dialogue, plot twists, and dramatic confrontations that made real life in Manistique, Michigan look dull.

Bill Kennedy, far right, in his biggest role, 'Operation Tokyo,' with Cary Grant.
Sometimes I watched movies at my aunt and uncle’s house alone. Afterward, I’d walk home. The scenery was stellar: Indian Lake and the summer greenery of pines mingling with maples, later a kaleidoscope of fall leaves; the fields, clover or hay, along the secondary roads home. Yet my mind always drifted, as I replayed movie moments, often involving co-stars kissing, slapping, or shooting each other in beautiful black and white.

Bill with Debbie Reynolds, both getting photobombed by Bette Davis!
When Bill Kennedy’s young self popped up in old pictures, he looked like the typical handsome actor of his day: square-jawed, strong brow, and distinguished profile. When I started watching Bill Kennedy at the Movies, he wore suits and wire rim glasses, and looked like an aging ad man. Business suits were eventually retired for leisure variety. He later wore glasses the size of welder shields, the norm for that era. Kennedy sometimes sported a nautical-themed jacket to go with his boating cap, reminding me of Thurston Howell on Gilligan’s Island. My own ‘70s style mainly was growing shaggy hair and getting “husky.” I faithfully watched Bill’s show through high school and was growing up to be a big—in every sense—film buff.

Bill showing one of his own movies, this one starred Robert Alda--yes Alan's dad!
Kennedy’s set underwent periodic makeovers, but my favorite featured pillars, wrapped in mock-celluloid frames of stars in their greatest roles, like Bette Davis in All about Eve or Bogart in Casablanca. And that huge yellow desk phone, which he worked like a prop: “Hello, Bill Kennedy at the Movies! Your question, please!”

I marveled at Bill’s bravado. I hated answering the phone, especially when my uncle’s work crew called the house, and I’d get mistaken for my aunt. As a kid, I’d quietly lurk around rowdy relatives at family gatherings, eavesdropping while making myself useful, like emptying ashtrays and on one memorable night, topping a glass of beer with a few shakes of salt!

Bill loved big stars like John Wayne and Clark Gable.
Bill Kennedy was like those aging relatives, one-time pistols who were still good for a few more explosive rounds. Bill constantly had a cigarette going, smoke wafting from his ashtray, while he rambled on. Sometimes Kennedy seemed tipsy—my suspicions sparked by isolated news stories about him getting pulled over for drunk driving.

During breaks, Bill’s showbiz stories ran from sentimental to sassy to sometimes sour. I was in stitches when Kennedy recited quotes from movie star memoirs, grandly emoting with each syllable. If a phone caller hemmed and hawed while asking a showbiz question, Bill got irate, as if he had received a solicitation call, barking: “Why are you calling?”

Bill Kennedy was in Hollywood hog heaven when celebrities visited his show!
Kennedy’s imitations of movie stars were a hoot, bellowing as Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh: “Mr. Christian!” Or Bill’s droll take on Bette Davis’ camp classic line in Beyond the Forest: “Whaaat a dumppp!”

Gable's acting wasn't as good as
my Grandma Leone remembered!
My Grandma Leone couldn’t stand Bill Kennedy. She thought Bill was a showboater—I thought he was a showman. Grandma was a high school secretary between marriages when she fell down the icy steps of her upstairs apartment, and broke her leg. My grandmother hated the soaps, so I suggested that she enjoy the movies Kennedy showed, and ignore him.  Recovering that winter, the ice broke between Grandma and Bill Kennedy. She realized that beneath his bluster, Bill was a softie who loved movies, stars, and his audience. From then on, Grandma chuckled at his antics.

Grandma and I compared our favorite movie stars. She was amazed that some of her once-favorite actors now seemed hammy, laughing about Clark Gable’s cartoonish persona. My grandmother was reserved, so it was no surprise that she didn’t care much for alpha actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, acting with a capital A. Grandma thought Cary Grant was utterly charming and adored Frank Sinatra not just as a singer, but also his natural acting style. Grandma enjoyed revisiting the movies of her youth, a respite from her dreary circumstances as a financially struggling divorcee.

Grandma Leone was amused by my knowledge of old time movies, stars, and singers. The nostalgia boom was just kicking in during the early ‘70s, so imagine Grandma’s surprise when her oldest grandchild started asking what folks in her heyday thought about Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s ricochet romance or Bette Davis and Joan Crawford’s infamous feud.

Before there was TCM, syndicated stations like TV 50 showed the classics.
In 9th grade, I joined The Nostalgia Book Club. Making my book binge a double feature, I joined The Movie Book Club, where I received a dozen free books. When that big box arrived by mail, my siblings surrounded me. After I opened the package and they only saw books about old movies, they quickly scattered. My school books now took second-billing to film books. I even snuck movie memoirs with my textbooks to school, though I was careful to hide them from teachers or fellow students.

Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton were in their "breaking up/together again" heyday, which gave Bill Kennedy a field day!
Thirty years later, I owned over two dozen large boxes of books. When I moved to Portland, OR, I sold all but two boxes. The contents of every single memoir, film genre book, coffee table tome, and movie magazine that I ever read was imbedded in my head.  I yearned for none of the many other possessions I sold, but later missed holding actual copies of my favorite film books. In researching Bill Kennedy, I found that the books, magazines, and papers he often used on his show have been donated to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA). Maybe someday, I will hold Bill’s books and papers in my hands.

Bill Kennedy at the Movies was a starring part of my coming of age. I was not an outdoorsy boy growing up in rugged Upper Michigan. The men in the family worked and hunted out in the northern cold, while my brothers and male cousins played in the woods and rode snowmobiles. I stayed toasty warm in front of the television. I preferred warmth, books, baking, snack foods, and most of all, TV shows and movies.

In my research of Bill Kennedy, I found that many baby boomers associate Bill Kennedy with being home sick from school, under blankets on a sofa, and watching old movies with grownups. Others wrote about watching Bill’s Sunday film classics, while listening to their parents’ movie memories, with smells of dinner cooking wafting from the kitchen. People repeatedly said that their love of classic movies started with Bill Kennedy.

Bill Kennedy and toupee heading into their last hurrah!
As the ‘70s ended, I was out of my cinematic cocoon and in the real world—downstate Traverse City—and only occasionally watched Kennedy’s show. Over the next few years, I’d get a bit of a jolt checking in with Bill. The panda print pants and nautical-themed jackets were now joined by tropical floral shirts and pastel leisure suits. This was most appropriate for his later move to Palm Beach, where he hosted movies weekly instead of daily for Detroit TV 50. He wore the most bald-faced lie of a toupee, which looked like a lapdog napping on his noggin. All of this made Bill look like a potential suitor for one of The Golden Girls. Kennedy presented his last movie in December 1983. There were no more comebacks and Bill Kennedy remained retired until his death, January 27, 1997.  I hope those last dozen years were as blissful for Bill as the dozen that I watched Bill Kennedy at the Movies.

Bill Kennedy, easing into retirement from Palm Beach.
Looking back on the past is like a funhouse mirror. You get the distorted feeling that it was only yesterday, yet it also seems so long ago, like it is someone else’s life. Was it really over 40 years ago that I first watched that old hambone Bill Kennedy, when he was rumored to have had hair plugs? Was it over 30 years ago that I spiked my hair like Duran Duran or slicked back, like retro Elvis? Or 17 years ago when I faced the new millennium head on by shaving my balding scalp? No plugs or rugs for me, like my old movie buddy Bill.

Movies comforted and entertained me as a kid, and inspired me to live a creative life as an adult. For that, I owe thanks to Bill Kennedy, my movie mentor, who once ruled the airwaves every afternoon on WKPD-TV 50.

Bill Kennedy, lookin' good back in his Hollywood days.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Joan Crawford Commands 'The Best of Everything'

Joan Crawford IS tough, driven book editor Amanda Farrow in 'The Best of Everything."
Here’s a classic, sometimes clichéd, Hollywood plot premise: A trio of young women set off in search of riches and romance, only to find hardship and heartache—surprise! Whether it’s Hollywood or Broadway, New York City, Italy, or heck, even Fort Lauderdale, the gal pals inevitably learn tough lessons about life and love. The results are often box-office bonanzas: How to Marry a Millionaire, Valley of the Dolls, Three Coins in a Fountain, and Where the Boys Are, to name just a few.

Fresh from her Oscar-nominated farm girl Selena Cross in 'Peyton Place,' Hope Lange goes to NYC as Caroline Bender.
The deserve the best of everything, but seem to get the worst thrown at them!
The Best of Everything depicts, 1959-style, three young career women who set out to succeed in the Big Apple. The setting is sophisticated Fabian Publishing, but the girls’ goals are pure soap opera. Caroline (Hope Lange) is determined to become a book editor before she becomes a bride. April (Diane Baker) wants to work only to land a husband. Gregg’s (Suzy Parker) dream is to become a stage actress, but gets romantically blindsided. Warning signs of the rocky path ahead: Aging, hard-as-nails editor Amanda Farrow (Joan Crawford) and damaged goods divorced mother, Barbara (Martha Hyer).

Hope Lange, Suzy Parker, and Diane Baker as the "three girls" in the big city!
As with most ‘50s and early ‘60s movies, Hollywood tries to have it both ways: the girls seek to fulfill their ambitions and desires, as they titillate audiences. Then they suffer the consequences, courtesy of Hollywood’s censorship code. Sleeping with playboys will make you crazy or pregnant. Climbing the corporate ladder will only attract married jerks or criticism for not being a “real woman.”

Rona Jaffe was 25 when she wrote 'The Best of Everything.'
Despite promoting it as “In the outspoken tradition of Peyton Place,” like Wald’s most recent big-screen adaptation, The Best of Everything was “cleaned up” for the big screen. The most notable example was when April’s abortion was changed to a movie miscarriage, much like the screen version of Selena Cross in Peyton Place. However, hot young The Best of Everything writer Rona Jaffe insisted that realistic details of her “girls” personal and office lives be kept. Producer Jerry Wald, interested in depicting modern working women, listened.

The “movie-smart” dialogue in this movie has so many clinkers, I’m surprised that The Best of Everything hasn’t hit the camp status of Valley of the Dolls. When despicable Dexter is pressed by April whether he has gotten other girls pregnant, his gallant response is, “Not that I know of.” And when April wakes up in a hospital bed after losing the baby, she turns her head away: “I’m so ashamed…now I’m just somebody who’s had an affair!”

I know my various workplace cafeterias weren't this swanky, but then I wasn't working at 'Fabian Publishing!'
For me, what makes The Best of Everything so watchable is to know that such stereotypes were once archetypes. Now, they are a snapshot of another era—but I know not all people feel that way. Movies like this are also a tribute to studio era filmmaking at its best. The lush score by Alfred Newman is intoxicating. William C. Mellor’s cinematography is stellar, particularly the NYC locales, capturing it in all its mid-century glory. Director Jean Negulesco was an old pro in utilizing Cinemascope and driving the “three girls” story, as director of How to Marry a Millionaire and Three Coins in a Fountain. The look of the film, from recreating Pocket Books’ offices for the fictional Fabian Publishing, to the various apartments of its characters, is Fab Fifties at its best. Technically, The Best of Everything really is the best. The reality that the makers were selling, even for its time, was fast becoming dated.

Hope Lange is moving on up as the bright young thing in publishing.
There are two acting standouts in this movie. The first is Hope Lange, who gives the one natural performance in The Best of Everything. Lange is lovely but real, a strong presence. It's a shame Hope’s career didn’t take off beyond promising newcomer. However, Hope Lange’s star rose just as the studio system was waning, and a lot of promising newcomers ended up on television, rather than the big screen.

"I'll get the cards out on time, okay?!" Joan as bossy Amanda Farrow, hazing Hope Lange's Caroline on her first day at work!
The second is Joan Crawford, in full veteran star mode. Crawford makes her entrance as the dragon lady editor by opening her office door and announcing to Lange’s Caroline, “I’m Amanda Farrow,” in a manner akin to movie space aliens pronouncing their dominance over hapless earthlings. Crawford was well into the next phase of her career: Pepsi spokesperson. So the role of business pro Amanda Farrow was a perfect fit. Crawford plays a variation of the same role that Susan Hayward later immortalized in Valley of the Dolls, Broadway barracuda Helen Lawson—a role Joan expressed interest in! And like hard cookie Hayward, Crawford steals the movie with her withering delivery. Time has stood on Joan Crawford’s side: When The Best of Everything was first released, Joan’s name and image was at the bottom of the film’s posters. Now, on DVD covers, Joan is prominently displayed, despite the brevity of her role.

Joan was not in the best of spirits during filming. Photo by legendary Eve Arnold.
It's really a shame that Joan's part was later trimmed, because she was lured into the part with a showy drunk scene, depicting her lonely personal life. Crawford’s return to film wasn’t under the best of circumstances. Her hoped-for “happy ending” of a marriage to Pepsi executive Alfred Steele ended with Joan cast as a widow. Also, Crawford was short on cash. So, for the first time in 30 years, Joan Crawford took a secondary role. Imagine her mood on the set. There was a clash with co-star Lange over which actress a scene ended on. Joan no longer held sway over Jean Negulesco, who directed her a dozen years earlier in Humoresque, right after her Oscar win. The director, a well-known art collector and artist, also mocked Crawford in front of the cast, over her taste in art—those Keane paintings!

In contrast to Lange’s fresh take on a starlet role was Martha Hyer as Barbara, the slightly older, single mother. Hyer’s obsolete delivery only calls attention to her own sell-by date as a starlet. Despite her inexplicable best supporting actress Oscar nomination the prior year, for Some Came Running, her part was cut as much as co-star Crawford’s. While Hyer was at her short-lived peak and Crawford then considered passé, both got a trim job from a movie brimming with plot and characters.

Diane Baker is gullible April; Robert Evans is greasy Dexter.
Most of the characters are hilariously hopeless. Diane Baker, usually a good actress, is stuck with April, who is a total dip. The small town girl, apparently was dropped on her head as a baby, finds Mr. Perfect in Robert Evans as playboy Dexter. Evans, who looks like a greasy gigolo, is so repellent that he later found the perfect career, as a sleazy movie producer! April is so gullible that Dexter dupes her into getting dolled up for their “wedding” day, and instead takes her to an abortionist.

Suzy Parker starts off all breezy banter as “Gregg,” the aspiring actress whose day job is secretary. Then she goes all Fatal Attraction over Louis Jourdan, the womanizing director, David Wilder Savage—that name alone should have sounded off alarms. Jourdan, unlike Evans, was an established star, so he’s given the chance to look sadly repentant when Parker plunges from a fire escape, after spying on him.

Suzy Parker as Gregg & Louis Jourdan as the aptly named David Wilder Savage!
 Former Crawford leading man Brian Aherne is Mr. Shalimar, the “charming” old office letch. Every time I hear someone say his name, I think of that ‘80s one hit wonder singing Dancing in the Sheets—which is most appropriate for this movie. Despite his pinching and cornering the vulnerable office females, Shalimar always has a quip or quote to deflate his own sails.

The nicest guy in the movie is a self-hating office lush named Mike Rice, played by Stephen Boyd. He tries to warn Lange’s Caroline off the career track so she doesn’t end up bitter like Crawford’s Amanda. Ironic, since Rice is pretty cynical himself. Boyd’s attempt at hiding his Irish accent to play an American is right up there with Sean Connery’s Scottish brogue in Marnie. Like Sean, Stephen is such a fine specimen that he could speak Pig Latin for all I care.

A decade later, life got even harder for a young woman in NYC!
The Best of Everything is a look at life in the Big Apple during the Mad Men era, filtered through the lens of studio era Hollywood. The Old Hollywood glamour and the glimpses of a new reality that shine through are fascinating, if not heartwarming reminders of the ‘50s era. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Hitchcock’s 'Marnie': Misunderstood Masterpiece or Fascinating Failure?

Is 'Marnie' ...a sex story? ...a mystery? ...a detective story? ...a romance? Don't know about that last one, Hitch!
The making of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie has become as much a part of the 1964 movie’s legacy as the film itself. I will review Marnie here; I’ll post soon about the accounts of its controversial creation. It’s key to keep the two separate, though the troubled production certainly informs the film. Revisionists have muddied the waters in elevating Marnie’s status by denigrating Hitchcock’s personal reputation, and not by judging the picture’s artistic merits.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery looking terrif as Marnie and Mark!
Marnie is fascinating to watch—I’ve seen it about a half dozen times in my life—where beautiful moments mix with absurd ones. Viewing Marnie as a story feels cold, and is probably why it underperformed at the box-office. Yet, it’s always intriguing to watch Hitchcock, even at his most uneven. The “What if?” scenarios in my mind bump up against “What the hell?” moments when I see Marnie. What Hitchcock excels at still works beautifully. What doesn’t is Hitchcock’s clinging to conventions that were dated even in ‘64. At Marnie’s worst moments, I feel as if I am watching Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock parody, High Anxiety.

Tippi Hedren as 'Marnie,' a frigid thief who meets her match...
The tale of a frigid thief on the fly is dark and more than a bit dicey. This subversive type of material always turned Hitchcock on. Yet, Marnie is dressed up with a lushly romantic score, gorgeous photography, and lavish Edith Head clothes and elaborate Alexandre of Paris hairstyles for Tippi Hedren. Even Sean Connery is high style in his suits, toupee, and waxed eyebrows! But the story and the presentation feel at odds with each other—and not in way worthy of the Master of Suspense. Is Hitchcock trying to dish this up as traditional romantic suspense movie? Or is the seamy story his way of pumping new blood into a genre he helped create decades ago?

Hitchcock seems to have had a love-hate attitude toward actors. He was self-conscious around beautiful actresses and actors. Yet, he was highly aware that he needed them to ensure his films’ financial backing and box-office success. Later, with the erosion of the studio system, Hitch became frustrated with actors who now had the audacity to make financial and family demands, or worse, have artistic ideas of their own.

Grace Kelly, circa early '60s, when 'Marnie' was filmed.
Grace Kelly and Cary Grant were two of Hitchcock’s favorite actors. By the time Marnie came up, Hitch had been deeply disappointed by actors a in the last seven years or so. Hitch’s first protégé, Vera Miles, kept getting pregnant. Audrey Hepburn, poised to be the first ideal Hitchcock brunette, dropped out of a proposed film because of script issues and then, pregnancy. Then there was Grace Kelly, now Her Serene Highness of Monaco. Grace was eager to return to the screen. Several things prevented Princess Grace’s comeback: Marnie’s script was considered distasteful; Prince Rainier had big policy problems in tiny Monaco; and Grace had retired from MGM—if she returned, she would have to honor her old contract. So, she re-retired.

Tippi Hedren, toiling away on The Birds, was chosen as Marnie. Cary Grant was now too old to play Marnie’s husband, Mark. But in choosing young Sean Connery, then known for two James Bond films, Hitch was obviously trying to recreate his most famous Hitchcock blonde and brunette in Hedren and Connery.

Tippi Hedren as compulsive thief Marnie...and about as warm as that safe!
The stars are the first big problem with Marnie. Though they each have their moments, Hedren and Connery are flat through most of this film. The recent revisionism of Marnie claims that Tippi was unfairly compared to past leading ladies of Hitch. My thought is: What Hitchcock blonde hasn’t been compared to previous ones? Another revisionist rationalization is that Hedren’s inexperience actually works for Marnie, which I agree with—to a point. It’s also been said that Tippi and Sean only seem wooden because they were judged by the over-emoting styles in vogue back then. Well, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant weren’t known for over-acting, but they did have charisma, charm, and confidence in front of a movie camera.  I would not describe Tippi and Sean with any of those terms in this film. Their acting is like bad acting from the golden era: they are stiff and artificial movie mannequins. Watching it twice recently, I’d say that Connery is worse than Tippi, partly because his character is downright inexplicable.

Scottish Sean Connery as an Philadelphia old-money millionaire, with an eye on Marnie. And we got our eyes on him!
Tippi Hedren certainly looked like the epitome of a Hitchcock blonde, but she lacked the softer, perfect looks of Grace Kelly, and had little underlying warmth. Hedren is adequate in the early scenes, with Marnie pretending to be a secretary or a happy wife. Tippi’s detached air works—but I don’t think it was intentional—it was likely the best Hitch could get from Hedren.

Tippi Hedren as Marnie, trying very hard to remember what happened suddenly last...oh, wait, that's another movie!
The scenes where Tippi is supposed to crack and emote are cause for eye rolling. Hedren’s voice, when pushed, sounds nasal and metallic, and her line readings limp. The climactic scene, where Tippi recalls her haunted past, is reminiscent of Elizabeth Taylor’s in Suddenly, Last Summer. Taylor, not a well-reviewed actress in her time, and often criticized for her voice, yet she gives Tennessee Williams’ tongue-tying monologue emotional depth and variety. The difference is Taylor started acting at age 10, whereas Hedren had zero acting experience when she started just two years prior at 32. Typically, Hollywood gave promising actresses the build up when they were in their late teens or early 20s. By the time they were Tippi Hedren’s age, actresses like Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, or Marilyn Monroe, were at the height of their careers—not just starting out.

There was a cool new blonde in town that made Hedren look even colder-Deneuve!
The other big problem when Marnie was released was this: the Hitchcock blonde, along with many other Hitchcock conventions, had quickly become passé. The only star at this point with a cool, classic blonde image was French actress Catherine Deneuve, who once said she’d liked to have played Marnie. Instead, she went ahead of the curve with Hitchcock’s heir apparent, in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and Luis Bunuel’s Belle du Jour—which ironically have themes Hitch admired.

Two years later, this was what a sexy suspense film looked like!
 Vanessa Redgrave was the cool new reddish-blonde mystery woman in Blow-Up, two years after Marnie. Instead of dated “daring” dialogue and two perfect Hollywood specimens posturing, Blow-Up offered audiences two androgynous actors who matter-of-factly undress and copulate in exchange for incriminating information. A far cry from Marnie or To Catch a Thief, but surprisingly, Hitchcock screened Blow-Up and loved it!

Hey Hedren, Crawford called and wants her wig back for 'Strait-Jacket 2!'
With Marnie, Hitchcock wants to shock and awe with the tawdry story of a frigid klepto who perversely turns on a rich guy, who wants to possess her—but then presents it in the most obvious, old-fashioned way. This also happened to director Billy Wilder and his sexy comedies. Wilder often took risqué material like The Seven Year Itch or The Apartment and put it over with edgy but tempered by an appealing, charismatic cast. Wilder also hit a wall in 1964, with Kiss Me, Stupid, which has a tasteless plot, smutty dialogue, and sitcom star Ray Walston feebly filling in for Jack Lemmon and catatonic Kim Novak playing a role meant for Marilyn Monroe. Of course, some film fans now say Kiss Me, Stupid is a misunderstood masterpiece. If enough time goes by, Showgirls will be considered a masterwork.

Since his huge American hit Rebecca in 1940, Hitch refined his skills, gathered a great technical team, and was considered an iconic filmmaker by the end of the 1950s. To audiences, Hitchcock started off well enough at the dawn of the ‘60s. Psycho and The Birds were huge hits with Hitch’s fans, if not all critics. Then came Marnie, Hitchcock’s lowest-grossing movie since its thematic bookend, 1958’s Vertigo. And the reviews were as cold as Marnie.

"Is Hitch ever going to let us out of this mock car and rear projection hell?"
Despite Hitchcock’s crew gently urging him to jettison geriatric conventions like phony painted backdrops and over-reliance on rear projection. Watching this movie twice in a row, I realized how much time Hedren and Connery spend in a car—at one point, they stop at a Howard Johnson’s—to break up the monotony or expository dialogue? I half expected them to run into Mad Men’s Don Draper!

Is Tippi Hedren seeing red over the script of 'Marnie?'
Hitchcock apparently couldn’t be dissuaded from using heavy-handed effects in which to hit audiences over the head—like the red light special filter whenever Marnie literally sees red! Or the zoom lens, in and out, whenever Marnie is under great stress. What’s it all about, Alfie? We get it, we get it—it’s SIGNIFICANT!

Marnie, the master of disguise, sports wigs and/or dye jobs, the worst of which is a jet-black number perhaps borrowed from Diane Baker’s Strait Jacket co-star, Joan Crawford.
There’s a scene with prim secretary Hedren working overtime, taking dictation from dashing boss Sean, when a storm comes out of nowhere. Marnie’s freaking out, and it all climaxes with a tree crashing through the office window, and ends with a romantic kiss in extreme close-up—one of the creepiest love scenes I’ve ever seen.
This is a rape scene in 1964.

This is the reaction to a rape in 1964.

The later rape scene comes out of nowhere and makes no sense at all, but Hitchcock wanted the voyeuristic value, and later fired screenwriter Evan Hunter, when he objected. Finally, the climactic scene between Marnie and her mother is painstakingly shot, but is undercut by Hedren’s amateurish acting. Morally, this is one of those movies that has one foot stuck in the ‘50s and the other in the ‘60s, and suffers accordingly. If Marnie had been filmed in 1966 or later, after the end of Hollywood’s censorship code, it would have been a whole different story.

Yet, there’s much that works wonderfully. The Bernard Herrmann score, which Universal and Hitchcock criticized, gives Marnie much-needed warmth. His score is one of the best things about Marnie. The movie’s shots are incredibly detailed and imaginatively staged. The cinematography by Robert Burks is stunning—even that strange office kiss is technically a wow.

Diane Baker as Lil, in one of those wonderfully framed Hitchcock shots.
Strong supporting casts are often the saving grace of bad movies. In Marnie, Diane Baker is tartly appealing as the jealous young sister in law. Louise Latham, slathered in old age makeup, but only eight years older than Hedren, is cast as Marnie’s mother. Though they live in Baltimore, Hedren’s cultured diction slips to a southern dialect when stressed, and Latham sounds like Carol Burnett in her TV show’s “Mama & Eunice” skits. Still, Latham gives the uptight, religious Berniece empathy, especially as she reveals long-held secrets about herself and Marnie.

The ridiculously phony backdrops of 'Marnie' did not help stave off rumors that Hitchcock was past his prime.
Director Douglas Sirk added subversive and stylish elements to the studio soaps he made at Universal in the 1950s. As a view, you respond to that undercurrent of emotion, while suspending disbelief that what you’re watching is artificial and from another era. In the cutthroat ‘60s, this isn’t what Universal or Hitchcock was aiming for. That’s why the “pure cinema” or “expressionistic” rationale that Hitchcock historian Robin Wood pompously cites doesn’t wash. Hitchcock deliberately made Psycho four years earlier to prove he could do a down and dirty modern thriller, after being criticized for his elaborate, expensive suspense films.

Louise Latham as Marnie's cold mother; she was only 8 years older than Hedren.
Frankly, even his masterwork Vertigo has similar elements of questionable taste, but it is helped enormously by Stewart’s stellar performance and Novak, who is perfectly cast as the insecure object of obsession. But Hitchcock attempts to revisit similar material six years later and the ‘60s were a changin’. Hitch’s brand of sex and suspense, performed in Marnie like an upscale Ross Hunter movie, looked very dated—and still does.

The Hitchcock style still could be successful, like Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in 1963’s Charade—seeing these stars cast elsewhere must have made Hitch’s blood boil! Or Gregory Peck and Diane Baker in ‘65’s Mirage or Peck and Sophia Loren in Arabesque in ’66. These faux-Hitchcock films succeeded where his started to fail because they were escapist films, without Hitch’s heavy-handed psychology and perverse plot points.

One of those crazy zoom shots in 'Marnie' that is fraught with meaning!
Hitchcock historians did some heavy lifting in trying to justify the dated and artificial aspects of Marnie after its release. But now, certain writers and film buffs have concocted the theory that when Tippi Hedren rejected Alfred Hitchcock, he just gave up on Marnie. It makes a great Hollywood story, especially to hang an essay or a book deal on. I think there’s a much simpler reason: Hitch was set in his ways, at a time when movie-making was swiftly changing, and he fell behind the times. This happened with nearly all of the directors of his generation: Billy Wilder, John Ford, George Stevens, George Cukor, Vincente Minnelli, to name but an illustrious few.

To me, there is much to enjoy in Marnie, but the film is no Hitchcock masterpiece. Yet, sometimes, flawed films say much more about their creators or an era than a classic.
Enjoy the awesome and absurd mashup that make 1964's Alfred Hitchcock camp classic 'Marnie' so much fun.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Bette Davis’ and Joan Crawford’s 1962 Memoirs Revisited

A Portrait of Joan by Michael Vollbracht
Bette Davis with  caricature of Margo Channing: 'All About Eve.'
Bette Davis on Joan Crawford: “No actresses on earth are as different as we are, all the way down the line.”

Davis offered many variations of that quote after starring—and sparring—with Crawford. Yet the similarities in the lives and careers of Bette and Joan were greater than either cared to admit. Director Vincent Sherman, who worked with both legends, said they were “sisters under the skin.” Still, the divas had a few key differences that made their legendary feud inevitable.
A key comparison of the two film icons was provided in early 1962—just before their legendary teaming in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?—when both Bette and Joan’s memoirs were published.

Even the titles speak to their self-image: Davis dubbed hers The Lonely Life and Crawford’s selectively framed as A Portrait of Joan. Bette gives a bazillion reasons why her life and career was such an ongoing battle. But Bette Davis freely owns up to All about Eve director Joseph Mankiewicz’ epitaph of her: She Did It The Hard Way. By contrast, A Portrait of Joan paints a pastel of Crawford’s life and career. Joan’s tome is a very entertaining read, especially between the lines, but Bette’s book is a more realistic look at life as an actress and woman during Hollywood’s golden era.

Crawford camera-ready, signing copies of "A Portrait of Joan."
Both divas had daddy issues. Bette’s father Harlow Davis, distant even when with his family, abruptly left. Joan adored her “Daddy Cassin,” who disappeared after a business scandal. Crawford found out as a child that her real father was Thomas LeSueur, but they never had a strong connection. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford both had love/hate relationships with the men in their personal and professional lives. They tended to spar with alpha males and mop up the floor with yes-men. However, both stars were sentimental about the men who made them widows. Bette was just 35 when second husband Arthur Farnsworth collapsed on the street. Joan’s last husband, Alfred Steele, died during the night of a heart attack, marring the happy ending Crawford was always seeking.

Filled with drive and need, both stars were the breadwinners for their families, though Davis seems to have done so less grudgingly. Still, Bette joked that when she played Santa Claus in a school play, “I had no idea that I would play him all my life!”
"Why, I think I'll call my memoirs 'A Portrait of Joan!'
"What?! I can paint a portrait, too! A lonely one!"

Joan’s story of working her way up through school, out of poverty, and on to stardom was part of her legend. I was surprised to read that Bette had to do much the same, waiting tables in exchange for tuition. However, Bette had a close relationship with her family. Davis doted on mother Ruthie and credited her success to her unwavering support and belief, a luxury Joan never had. Bette called Ruthie, her sister Bobby, and herself “The Three Musketeers.” However, Davis is candid throughout about the mixed feelings toward her self-indulgent mother and emotionally fragile sister—and the weight of their expectations on her. When Davis arrived, a great actress, Mama Ruthie played the diva. Davis wrote, “That I took it seems incredible now.”

Joan’s journey to stardom was solo and when her mother Anna and deadbeat brother Hal join her in California later, Crawford admits she found it stressful. Some Crawford critics thought Joan didn’t want reminders of her hard luck past, but she recalls, “After Daddy Cassin left, Mother, Hal, and I were never able to communicate.”

The Lonely Life of Bette rails throughout about tough Hollywood moguls and weak-willed leading men, on and off the set. As for her reputation, Davis is most definite—even defiant: “I do not regret one professional enemy that I have made.”

Joan’s remembrances go to great pains to create uplift, expressing gratitude and platitudes. If you play the drinking game, knocking back your flask of vodka every time Crawford refers to someone as “dear” or “darling,” you’ll be blotto by page 50!

A portrait of Bette Davis as  beautiful Fanny in 1943's 'Mr. Skeffington.'
Still, fans of the two legends will see their essence in these memoirs, though both are penned by ghost-writers. You sense the fine hand of both stars in the telling of their respective tales. In Joan’s case, it’s the steel beneath the velvet glove of her self Portrait. Davis might as well be wearing boxing gloves in her memoir, though she’s presenting an idealized version of her scrappy Yankee self—much like Kate Hepburn’s “casually” created persona.

 Later books and interviews offered more candid looks at stars like Davis and Crawford. Most golden era stars didn’t take creating the perfect image to the extreme of Joan Crawford. Yet, nearly all saw the long-term benefit of burnishing “legendary” aspects of their personas: “passionate” Liz Taylor; “unsinkable” Debbie Reynolds; and “no-nonsense” Kate Hepburn—to label just a few. These were famed facets of their personalities, but not the whole person. In regard to “blunt” Bette Davis and “disciplined” Joan Crawford, even 1962 readers weren’t naïve enough to think they were getting the deep dish in The Lonely Life or A Portrait of Joan.

A portrait of Joan painted especially for one of her last
acting gigs: the 1969 'Night Gallery' pilot, directed
by newcomer Steven Spielberg.
Crawford’s memoir may read like a Disney version of Hollywood stardom, but Davis, despite her fabled directness, was also known to tell tall tales. In The Lonely Life, she claims to have been Oscar-nominated for her breakthrough film, Of Human Bondage. Not true. While there was a write-in campaign regarding the oversight, Bette didn’t get an actual Oscar nom. Bette writes that Jack Warner optioned Gone with the Wind, as perfect for her. Not believing him, she turned him down flat—there’s no record of Warner doing this. Later, she states that she was perfect for Scarlett O’Hara, but now Jack Warner would only loan her out if MGM also took fellow WB star Errol Flynn as Rhett Butler. Davis balked at the notion, and lost the role of a lifetime. Great story, except not true. Warner may have floated the idea, but MGM’s Clark Gable was producer David Selznick’s #1 star choice from the start. Selznick played the publicity game, stoking interest by invoking the top leading ladies of the day. In reality, he was looking for a fresh-faced beauty as Scarlett—not Crawford, Davis, or Hepburn, etc. Yet, Davis kept dishing these tales practically ‘til the day she died!

Bette, with a portrait of herself, in  '64's 'Where Love Has Gone.'
Like a movie opening scene, both books recall Joan and Bette’s respective arrivals in Hollywood by train. Both sat waiting a very long time upon arrival—neither looked like the typical actress. Joan was picked up by MGM rep at long last, but Bette was on her own. Davis recalled, “They should have known I was an actress—I had a dog with me!”

Joan—prettier, sexier, and more vivacious than Bette—climbed the showbiz ladder quickly.  Aside from dancing as a chorus “pony,” Joan had no particular talent, and knew it. Always the workhorse, Joan was game to do anything MGM asked of her. Crawford haunted the various departments, looking for ways to create an image. Joan’s focus is fascinating to read, straight from the star. In 1925, Joan started as Norma Shearer’s double; by 1928, Crawford cemented her stature with Our Dancing Daughters. At times, Joan Crawford’s years at Metro reads like Dorothy in Oz, all wide-eyed wonder. But Crawford’s attention to movie detail gives you an inside view into what makes a great star.

A portrait of Joan for 1937's 'The Last of Mrs. Cheney."
As for her equally storied personal life, Crawford’s romances and marriages are filled with music, books, romantic getaways, long walks on the beach, and sharing star-crossed dreams. Rich boy Michael Cudahy and first husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. each played Prince Charming to Joan’s Hollywood Cinderella. Despite balancing beaus, dancing up a storm in speakeasies and nightclubs, Crawford’s tale is rated G for gooey. Crawford writes at length about herself, as all the rage in Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties, but deflects the wild rumors: “Maybe I did play harder than anyone else—I worked harder, too!”

No mention is made of later husbands or lovers boozing and brawling with her; no mention is made of Hollywood lawyer Greg Bautzer, with whom Joan had a long-term on-again, off-again romance. One eyebrow-raising tidbit is when Joan recalls second husband Franchot Tone counseling her, on her easily hurt feelings and nagging insecurity that she had about her friendships. Joan wrote, “Franchot was as knowledgeable as any psychiatrist and I’m sure the reason I never needed one was because of him.”

In The Lonely Life, Bette surprises the reader by admitting that her four husbands hit her, and feeling ashamed for being afraid—a taboo not talked in her era. Bette the breadwinner wrote: “But they all settled, my husbands, and enjoyed the fruit while they tried to cut down the tree.”

A quote from 'The Lonely Life.'
Bette, the young East Coast stage actress didn’t bloom right away in Hollywood. Davis got off to a false start at Universal—then a B movie studio. Dubbed “the little brown wren,” nobody saw Davis’ talent because they couldn’t get past her unglamorous façade. Six months later, Warner Brothers picked up Bette’s contract and thus began her long term association with them. Ironically, Bette toiled 18 years at WB, about the same time that Joan worked at MGM.

Though Davis was all about the work, she admits to jealousy over the star treatment Crawford got at Metro, while Bette had to constantly duke it out with Jack Warner over roles, salary, and promotions. While the grass was certainly greener at MGM, Joan still had to wrangle with “Papa” L.B. Mayer over similar issues.

Despite starring in mostly movie hits during her decade of stardom at Metro, Crawford somehow ended up on the infamous list of stars dubbed “box office poison.” Joan quotes a line that Clark Gable tells her in Dancing Lady: “Okay, you’re in the top spot, where you’ve got twice as far to fall.”

From the late 1930s on, Joan had to battle for good roles.
Crawford recalled, “By 1938, that’s where I was for real.” With The Ice Follies of 1939 waiting in the wings!

As a Warner’s starlet, Bette Davis made 8 movies in one year! Davis writes of trying to cope with a demanding mother and over-sensitive husband on the home front. Just about the time Bette broke through as a star, she became pregnant. Davis was shocked when both her husband and mother insisted on an abortion, for her “career’s sake.” And their meal ticket, as Bette writes at length about juggling roles as an actress, breadwinner, wife, and daughter. I was surprised that Davis put this taboo topic in her 1962 memoir. Later in life, she admitted to two more. Joan’s world is filled with lovely but ill-fated romances and miscarriages, though a recent Vanity Fair article cites that her pregnancy while making Rain didn’t end in a miscarriage, but an abortion.

Joan's colorful 'Portrait of Joan,' signed copy.
Joan, tired of fighting for better roles during the last five years of her MGM tenure, asked for her contractual release in 1943. Crawford claims L.B. Mayer didn’t want her to go, and blames the studio execs. Still, the timing seems uncanny, since Metro let two of Joan’s greatest contemporaries “retire,” Greta Garbo in ’41 and Norma Shearer in ‘42. Crawford recalled what ex-star and best pal Billy Haines once told her: “When you start to slide in this business, it’s like walking on nothing, the career of no return.”

Though the studio suits may have thought so, Crawford wasn’t done yet. Joan signed with Warner Brothers for less money and sat off-screen for two years—unheard of at the time—until Joan won the role of Mildred Pierce in 1945—and an Oscar for her career-defining performance.

Once back on top, Joan was grander than ever. Crawford writes: “It has been said that onscreen, I have personified the American woman. This is probably because from the time of Mildred Pierce I was cast, in picture after picture, as all varieties of her…” My favorite from her list is “the woman tremulously mature…”—I’ll let Joan fans decide which roles those were!

Bette claimed this ad, run in  Sept. '62, was a pointed joke. Some thought otherwise!
 However, Davis' memoir was out and she had just wrapped 'Baby Jane.'
Leaving WB after 18 years, Bette is forced to make a comeback herself. Luckily, 1950’s All about Eve was her next movie. Unluckily, the critical and commercial smash did nothing for Davis’ career. My opinion is that Bette’s bold decision to actually look her age, along with her reputation as a royal pain to work with, weakened her entry into the ‘50s as a freelance actress.

Like Joan, Bette was no stranger to grand self-assessments, but this one is apt: “I suppose I’m larger than life. That’s my problem, created in a fury, I’m at home in a tempest.” And aging, tempestuous Bette was less than appealing to modern-era Hollywood, especially when actresses of all ages became increasingly obsolete.

This later memoir settled a few scores! The photo was
taken by actor James Woods, a big Davis admirer.
Davis gets off some zingers about the Hollywood mentality, which still rings true. Bette vents about Hollywood producers and directors who dismissed her confidence and ambitions—George Cukor, John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, Michael Curtiz, most prominently—because they were used to “empty, passive slates they could scribble on.”

Bette’s take is on target regarding “mature” male stars, with “children as mates and co-stars!” Or the evolution of youth culture, Davis sarcastically notes, “All the pulling and taping and scrapping has produced some incredible results.” Then Davis tells about the first time she got her face “taped.” Bette ran home to show the results to husband Gary Merrill, whose response was, “What in hell happened to you?” Both burst into laughter, as Davis’ tapes pop.

Surprisingly, both Bette and Joan’s memoirs focus on their early years, are light on the glory years, and have quick, life-changing finales. Bette’s ending is bittersweet, her All about Eve comeback and marriage to co-star Gary Merrill at that point a dim memory. Davis admits that she ran a house like a drill sergeant. For once, a husband scolded Davis for NOT playing the star, when Merrill referenced a Crawford role: “You’re not Mrs. Craig, you’re Bette Davis!”

Bette, middle-aged here—with men a memory, the kids in school, and her beloved mother Ruthie recently deceased—carries on. Davis believed that work was the one constant in life, a mindset she shared with Crawford. Some passages will still make fans misty-eyed, after all these years—such as when Davis fights back tears when son Michael says he doesn’t like that she’ll be alone once he and sister B.D. are off to boarding school.

A Keane portrait of Joan Crawford from the late 1950s.
Joan, long a single mother, then a freelance star after leaving WB, proves to be a brave new world for her, too. Then she meets Alfred Steele, promotional genius of Pepsi Cola. Yet, their fabled union was swift, lasting only four years before Joan found him collapsed by his bed.  Though a number of quotes here feel like fan magazine fodder, especially near his demise, but you feel Joan’s admiration for the man leap off the pages.

This looks like Joan’s last shot at romance, too, and the memoir ends with Joan carrying on her duties as spokesperson for Pepsi Cola. Joan’s final closeup shows her raring to conquer new horizons, whereas Davis finds herself back onstage in Rochester, where she started, but without Ruthie in the front row.

Both Davis and Crawford have become synonymous with the word “feud.” Well, even back in ’62, Davis was not shy about voicing her displeasure with certain tough directors, vain leading men, and scene-stealing actresses. Looking back at Bette’s entire life, Davis never ceased fire when it came to fights and feuds.

With the notable exception of MGM queen bee Norma Shearer, young Joan Crawford didn’t indulge in feuds. But when Joan was facing the ‘50s without a studio contract or husband, her insecurities intensified, along with her drinking. Chapter 9 of Portrait deals with Crawford’s adopted children. Even during this era, Joan feels compelled to fend off criticism that she is too strict. And though Joan tries to put a happy ending over her “disappointments” with Christopher and Christina—they are barely mentioned once she meets Al Steele.

Chapter 10 covers her middle years in Hollywood and it is fascinating, again—by what is said and what’s obviously omitted. Joan goes into laborious detail to show you how hard she’s working to maintain her star status in Sudden Fear, Torch Song, Johnny Guitar, and the rest of her vanity ‘50s vehicles. But it’s mashed up with Joan’s dignified “explanations” over her on-set clashes with Janice Rule, Jack Palance, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, etc. The oddest of all is when Crawford offers her side of losing long-time writer friend Katherine Albert. Despite her friend’s disapproval, Crawford hosts Albert’s 18-year-old daughter Joan Evans’ wedding in her home behind her back—calling a judge to do the honors and then the press afterward. Albert and her husband never spoke to Joan again, yet Crawford refers to her as a “dear friend” through the entire book!

When The Lonely Life and A Portrait of Joan were published, both actresses were working, but both Bette and Joan had to scratch as hard for roles as they did when starting out in Hollywood. Baby Jane was just around the corner, which led to another round of roles for both stars, though mostly in horror movies.

The difference in these two memoirs is precisely the same as in the two women. Bette’s book is an unsentimental look at Davis’ Hollywood career; Joan’s look back is a rose-colored view of Crawford’s Cinderella story. As actresses, Davis was put off by Joan’s pretentious persona, with Joan being equally repelled by Bette’s irascible manner and superior attitude. The Lonely Life and A Portrait of Joan—while neither is definitive of these divas’ stories—offer a primer of two extremely charismatic and complicated women.