Saturday, December 17, 2016

'It's a Wonderful Life' Still Has Wonder 70 Years Later

'It's a Wonderful Life' opens and closes with a Christmas theme.
It’s a Wonderful Life has been revered—and occasionally reviled—from about every angle. What’s left to say about this 1946 film, about a suicidal man and his guardian angel, which went from half-forgotten to holiday favorite?

The Baileys wonder if they should go back to the bank!
I can only add that It’s a Wonderful Life, along with a few other favorite films, was an important part of my childhood. As an adult, I haven’t watched the movie every year like I did as a kid. When I do watch, I see Hollywood storytelling at its best. And that beneath the story’s sentiment is the slightly melancholy message that each person matters in this world.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that started popping on local TV across the US in the early 1970s, when the rights fell into public domain. Our family first started watching it in on the afternoon movie. Our Upper Michigan TV channel ran old films during the week for 90 whopping minutes, before the local news. Since It’s a Wonderful Life ran 130 minutes, it had to be aired on two days.

George & Mary Bailey of Bedford Falls. This was Donna Reed's first starring role.
During my upbringing, Life was a welcome tradition in our family. Our Manistique family related to small-town Bedford Falls, with its poor, working-class people. We loved the familiar faces of the cast—hey look, there’s Grandma Walton playing a bank customer! We loved to hate Bedford Falls own Scrooge, Mr. Potter. And we really loved the fantasy look at Bedford Falls as Potterville, when George Bailey gets his wish that he’d had never been born. And like The Wizard of Oz, us smarty pants Gould kids never tired of the story, in fact, we enjoyed the repetition and pointing out the movie’s miniscule details.

Drew Barrymore's great-uncle Lionel as Mr. Potter, one of movie's great villains!
As an adult, I fell away from watching It’s a Wonderful Life because it hadn’t yet been hailed as a re-discovered holiday classic, and was still run on afternoon movie shows. I have caught Life a few times in the last couple decades, and while nostalgia certainly figures into my feelings, I still find It’s a Wonderful Life an incredibly moving as well as entertaining movie. The film is the American counterpart of A Christmas Carol.

Director Frank Capra has often been criticized as a filmmaker version of artist Norman Rockwell. While there’s truth to that comparison, both men were meticulous artists and suffered from depression, which made their optimistic work a bit dark around the edges at times. In Capra’s case, both he and star Jimmy Stewart had come back from World War II changed men. They weren’t sure what kind of films they wanted to make. Capra was intrigued by a story about an ordinary man who still had a great impact on the people around him. Stewart was interested, but no longer wanted to play the folksy good old boy roles that made him famous.

Gloria Grahame played Violet, Bedford Falls bad girl with a heart of gold.
It’s a Wonderful Life had its critics upon its Christmas 1946 release and beyond, citing Capra’s sentimental whimsy as naïve in post-war America. Ironically, though Life wasn’t the flop that legend has it—as was said of The Wizard of Oz—yet audiences found the story depressing. Like Oz, Life was a costly film to make, and despite some good reviews and Oscar nominations, was not a great comeback movie for the director and star. And as the case with Oz, television is the medium that made Life a classic, a perennial favorite.

What I enjoy about It’s a Wonderful Life is that the film has the greatest qualities of old-time Hollywood film-making. Yes, it’s sentimental and the plot hinges on chance—every time George Bailey tries to bail out of Bedford Falls, something life-changing happens and he gets pulled back home. But I have no patience for today’s movie watchers who criticize past cinematic conventions by today’s standards, as if to demonstrate their coolness. I find it ridiculous that at least two generations of moviegoers, whose movie diet is mostly big-screen cartoons, can’t tolerate another era’s movies, because they’re not believable. It’s called suspension of disbelief, people.

George Bailey is not feeling so wonderful about his life.
In fact, in It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey is not always such a wonderful guy. George is bored with small-town life and longs to travel the world. But Bailey’s sense of obligation keeps him tied to the family banking business due to his father’s death, financial mismanagement, and WWII. Stewart truly should have won an Oscar for his multi-layered portrayal of George Bailey, a decent everyman frustrated by his lot in life. Stewart is not always saintly. Think of the scene where George calls upon Mary, at the insistence of his mother. With interference from her mother and rival Sam Wainwright calling, Bailey rails at poor Mary about not getting tied-down to the same small town and woman. The scene is emotionally heart-felt, despite being one of the least romantic proposals in movie history. Or how about the scene where George’s befuddled Uncle Billy loses the bank’s money? Again, Stewart is no saint, ranting that he won’t take the fall. This is capped by the disturbing domestic scene—especially for a ‘40s movie—where Jimmy’s George Bailey takes his frustrations out on his entire family, before bailing to the nearest bar.

Thomas Mitchell, Scarlett O' Hara's dad, plays Uncle Billy.
Life is a great example of old-style filmmaking where all the threads of the story come together and create a beautiful piece of storytelling. All the strands of George Bailey’s life and the people who know him come together memorably. Which is the point of It’s a Wonderful Life: each person’s life has an effect on another.

H.B. Warner & Robert J. Anderson as the bereaved druggist and young George. 
What I’ve always loved about this Frank Capra classic is that the brilliant casting. Capra was famous for starring American icons like Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper in his films and surrounding them with great character actors. It’s a Wonderful Life has one of the best ensembles in film history. Aside from Stewart in his signature role, Life gave Donna Reed her first starring role. Reed’s ideal as the girl next door, warm and real. Lionel Barrymore is one of movie’s great villains as Bedford Falls’ rich and rotten Mr. Potter. Thomas Mitchell, famous as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind, plays his other most famous role as alcoholic, forgetful Uncle Billy. Beulah Bondi, often cast in maternal roles, has her most famous mother as Mrs. Bailey. Her warm presence makes the later scene where she harshly doesn’t recognize son George most startling. Gloria Grahame got her first break as small town vixen Violet. H.B. Warner, famous in the silents as Jesus in King of Kings, does a heartbreaking turn as Mr. Gower, the drunk druggist. The intense scene where young George Bailey makes Gower realize he’s accidentally poisoned a prescription always makes me tear up. Robert J. Anderson is naturally appealing as young George—unlike many child stars of the era. Ward Bond and Frank Faylen were so likeable as Bedford Falls’ Bert and Ernie that Sesame Street named two of their puppets in their honor!

Henry Travers' turn as Clarence didn't even get an Oscar nomination!
Of course, the scene stealer of It’s a Wonderful Life is Henry Travers as Clarence, the angel in need of wings. Travers was a popular working actor, but Life was the cherry on top of long career—he retired from acting just three years later.

To George Bailey, the richest man in Bedford Falls!
Given the acting style of classic Hollywood, the film’s entire cast, from the stars down to the bit roles, is remarkably natural. This great acting ensemble, along with Frank Capra’s superb storytelling, is why It’s a Wonderful Life has stayed in the hearts and minds of audiences for 70 years.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Giant: 1956's Timely and Timeless Epic

'Giant' with '50s icons Jimmy Dean, Liz, and Rock. Please don't remake this, Hollywood!

Giant is often described as sprawling. Released Thanksgiving weekend in 1956, the Texas-sized saga certainly has one foot in Hollywood’s golden era and the other in modern film-making. Yet, it’s due to director George Stevens’ stellar storytelling that Giant is both entertaining and intelligent. The more traditional movie epic moments cause some critics to dismiss the film entirely, missing the sharp social message in the tale of the super rich Texans.
Bick and Leslie, either bickering or loving up to each other!

The Edna Ferber behemoth bestseller was snapped up by Warner Brothers, intended as the Texas answer to Gone with the Wind. The book had it all: A hard-headed hero, a charismatic bad boy, and a feisty female that they both love, set against three decades of changing times and fortunes in colorful Texas cattle and oil country. Director George Stevens cast Rock Hudson in his best role, James Dean in his last, and Elizabeth Taylor in the film that made her a superstar. Stevens cannily mixed the crowd-pleasing aspects of Giant with an honest look at the downside of the American Dream: poverty, politics, racism, sexism, materialism, and greed.
This famous still from 'Giant' was not even in the movie.

Some critics at the time, even now, sometimes focus on Giant’s epic aspects, citing it as a super soap opera. Giant came out in an era when epics about strong, self-made men and their imported brides were all the rage.
I also happened to catch 1954’s The Naked Jungle as well as Giant over Thanksgiving. This cinematic turkey starred comatose Charlton Heston and posturing Eleanor Parker as at-odds newlyweds who finally bond over fighting soldier ants that invade their Brazilian chocolate plantation. That’s it, that’s the whole story! Also in ’54 was Elephant Walk starring Elizabeth Taylor, in a dry run for Giant. Taylor played a British bride swept off her feet by moody Ceylon tea plantation owner Peter Finch. The couple also has a rocky honeymoon, but team up while fighting off rampaging elephants, headed right through their plantation. These films are typical of their era, empty escapism with none of Giant’s three-dimensional characters and dramatic realism.
Giant aims for the greater picture. After a whirlwind romance with over-aged bachelor Bick Benedict, Leslie Lynnton is whisked off to Texas as his bride. No angry elephants or relentless ants here.  However, Leslie encounters a hard-ass sister-in-law, rowdy ranchers, prejudice toward Mexicans, greed, and macho men who resent strong-minded women.

George Stevens was at the peak of his cinematic skills with Giant. Intimate moments mix with scenes of grandeur. The opening Virginia fox hunt racing with a locomotive mingles with Liz’ belle alternately flirting and tangling with visiting Texan Rock over breakfast: “We really stole Texas, didn’t we? I mean, away from Mexico.”
Liz as Leslie: Both star and character were outspoken!

Upon returning to their Texas ranch, Reata, Bick and Leslie’s differences are obvious. As the bride gushes over the bouquet his Mexican workers gave her, the rancher’s racism comes out.
Bick: “Leslie, don’t behave like that… Here we don’t make a fuss over those kind of people. You’re a Texan now.”
Leslie: “Is that a state of mind? I’m still myself.”
Not only is the frank exchange still startling for a ‘50s movie, but so is a wife who doesn’t simper over her manly husband like a June Allyson.
Leslie about to give Bick and his buddies a piece of her mind!

The set-piece of Giant’s first half is when liberal-minded Leslie squares off with Bick after electing to join the men folk talking politics, instead of the wives’ sewing circle. When told that she’d be bored by their “men stuff,” Taylor is in fine fiery form: “Men stuff! Lord have mercy! What is so masculine about a conversation that a woman can’t enter into it?”
Later the debate is taken upstairs, with a funny shot of the guest rooms’ lights popping on as Leslie and Bick continue their fight. The next morning, after the bickering Benedicts have kissed and made up, their banter heats up again when Bick pronounces that their Reata ranch will be run his way, and by his future son, as well.
Bick: “Everything that has a Reata brand on it is run by me!”
Leslie: “Does that include me?!”
This is Stevens neat way of letting Leslie tell her husband a baby is actually on the way, but also letting us know that their differences will not be easily solved. As Leslie consolingly cradles Bick’s head, the scene ends with a closeup of her saying that their son will be “a boy very much like his father. In many ways. But not all.”
Dennis Hopper as Liz and Rock's son in 'Giant'...what a family!


Giant was one of those ensemble epics that were a spring board for promising stars Taylor, Hudson, and Dean and newcomers Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor, and Earl Holliman, yet also benefited from great character actors such as Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, and Jane Withers. Wills is especially good as Benedict family confidante Uncle Bawley.

The aging makeup seems basic today, but it was a departure from depicting age with merely a silver streak running through the stars’ hair or trying to make a “mature” star look young. Of the three leads, Hudson is the most convincing as middle-aged. Rock was beefy and laid-back even then, plus wardrobe padded his middle and outfitted him a weighted belt. Rock’s steady persona and resonant voice were well-suited for the old-school Bick. Often mocked as the typical studio-created movie star and obsolete as an Edsel by the time ‘60s movie realism took hold, it’s important to remember that there’s always been a crowdpleaser cinema star. Today’s version of Rock Hudson is now the equally memorably-named Channing Tatum.
Leslie is a tough Texan with attitude, with Bick looking on.

At 23, Taylor’s make-up as middle-aged Leslie is the most noticeable, but Stevens tapped into Taylor’s strong maternal quality and simmers down her younger, outspoken self. Though Taylor later received accolades for more theatrical roles, Elizabeth is actually at her best when she is under-stated. There are many scenes that show film skills Taylor began learning as a child star: the subdued confrontation with her overbearing sister-in-law; the son’s birthday party where Leslie watches with increased exasperation at Bick’s insistence that their boy ride his new pony; and especially when parents’ Bick and Leslie are at cross purposes while discussing their children’s futures. Notice in this scene, Stevens filmed the scene with the couple in twin beds, Hudson’s newspaper blocking out Taylor. Stevens made Taylor rely on her voice in her performance, an attribute Liz was often criticized for.
James Dean as Jett Rink: His well comes in at last!

James Dean starred in only three movies, yet his name conjures up many myths, might seem overrated. Watching Giant again, Jimmy practically jumps out from the screen as stubborn, sexy, and ultimately sad, as Jett Rink. Often observing from the sidelines, Dean steals nearly every scene he’s in.
Mooning over his former boss’ wealth and wife, Leslie stops by Rink’s ramshackle ranch for tea. Jett also pours out his dreams for riches.
Leslie: “Money isn’t all, you know.”
Jett: “Not when you’ve got it.”
Leslie is dismayed to find underdog Jett not all that different than her husband.
Jett: “I'm just as much a Texan as Bick Benedict is. I'm no wetback.”
Leslie: “You're very like Jordan in that respect. Attitude, everything.”
When Rink strikes it rich, Jett becomes top dog at last. The latter scenes require Dean to play Rink as a dissolute drunk, which some criticized as a caricature. Considering the flamboyant character, Dean does just fine. And it was while finishing up work on Giant back in Hollywood that James Dean died in show biz’ most famous car crash.
James Dean, in front of Reata, the Benedict ranch. This was actually a three-sided facade.

Giant was Warner’s biggest hit until Christopher Reeve’s Superman. The film received 10 Oscar nominations, including best actor for both Hudson and Dean. Giant confirmed Hudson’s leading man status; Dean’s nomination was posthumous. In fact, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant came out after Dean’s demise. Taylor was overlooked by Oscar, despite getting excellent reviews and rising to top leading lady status. However, this was the same year that Marilyn Monroe was passed over for her praised performance in Bus Stop. Taylor could take consolation when she won the first of four consecutive nominations the following year for Raintree County.
There are so many memorable moments in Giant: Jett Rink hitting a gusher on his tiny property, rushing over to Reata covered in oil, to boast to the Benedicts; a military funeral for the first soldier from Reata, a Mexican boy Leslie once nursed to health; the showdown between middle-aged Bick and Jett; and finally the epic fist fight between Bick and a racist diner owner over not serving Mexicans.
Bick: “Look here, Sarge. I'd sure appreciate it if you were more polite to these people.”
Sarge: “You would, eh?”
Bick: “I'm Bick Benedict. Your neighbor, you might say.”
Sarge: “Does that give you special privileges?”
Bick: “The name Benedict's meant something to people around here for a long time.”
Sarge: “That there papoose down there...is his name Benedict, too?”
Bick looks at his family, then turns back to Sarge: “Yes. Come to think of it, it is.”
The brawl is on, memorably set to The Yellow Rose of Texas, blasting from the jukebox. The excruciating match ends with Bick losing the fight, but winning wife Leslie’s admiration at last.
Leslie and Bick, happy at last, 25 years later!

I have seen Giant many times since childhood, but haven’t watched the film in a decade. The story and stars were as enthralling as ever, but I was amazed at how sharp the social commentary was still, after all these years. What’s even more amazing is Giant was made 60 years ago and we’re still fighting over the same issues today.
'Giant' ends with a close-up of the next generation of Benedicts.











Giant: 1956's Timely and Timeless Epic

'Giant' with '50s icons Jimmy Dean, Liz, and Rock. Please don't remake this, Hollywood!

Giant is often described as sprawling. Released Thanksgiving weekend in 1956, the Texas-sized saga certainly has one foot in Hollywood’s golden era and the other in modern film-making. Yet, it’s due to director George Stevens’ stellar storytelling that Giant is both entertaining and intelligent. The more traditional movie epic moments cause some critics to dismiss the film entirely, missing the sharp social message in the tale of the super rich Texans.
Bick and Leslie, either bickering or loving up to each other!

The Edna Ferber behemoth bestseller was snapped up by Warner Brothers, intended as the Texas answer to Gone with the Wind. The book had it all: A hard-headed hero, a charismatic bad boy, and a feisty female that they both love, set against three decades of changing times and fortunes in colorful Texas cattle and oil country. Director George Stevens cast Rock Hudson in his best role, James Dean in his last, and Elizabeth Taylor in the film that made her a superstar. Stevens cannily mixed the crowd-pleasing aspects of Giant with an honest look at the downside of the American Dream: poverty, politics, racism, sexism, materialism, and greed.
This famous still from 'Giant' was not even in the movie.

Some critics at the time, even now, sometimes focus on Giant’s epic aspects, citing it as a super soap opera. Giant came out in an era when epics about strong, self-made men and their imported brides were all the rage.
I also happened to catch 1954’s The Naked Jungle as well as Giant over Thanksgiving. This cinematic turkey starred comatose Charlton Heston and posturing Eleanor Parker as at-odds newlyweds who finally bond over fighting soldier ants that invade their Brazilian chocolate plantation. That’s it, that’s the whole story! Also in ’54 was Elephant Walk starring Elizabeth Taylor, in a dry run for Giant. Taylor played a British bride swept off her feet by moody Ceylon tea plantation owner Peter Finch. The couple also has a rocky honeymoon, but team up while fighting off rampaging elephants, headed right through their plantation. These films are typical of their era, empty escapism with none of Giant’s three-dimensional characters and dramatic realism.
Giant aims for the greater picture. After a whirlwind romance with over-aged bachelor Bick Benedict, Leslie Lynnton is whisked off to Texas as his bride. No angry elephants or relentless ants here.  However, Leslie encounters a hard-ass sister-in-law, rowdy ranchers, prejudice toward Mexicans, greed, and macho men who resent strong-minded women.

George Stevens was at the peak of his cinematic skills with Giant. Intimate moments mix with scenes of grandeur. The opening Virginia fox hunt racing with a locomotive mingles with Liz’ belle alternately flirting and tangling with visiting Texan Rock over breakfast: “We really stole Texas, didn’t we? I mean, away from Mexico.”
Liz as Leslie: Both star and character were outspoken!

Upon returning to their Texas ranch, Reata, Bick and Leslie’s differences are obvious. As the bride gushes over the bouquet his Mexican workers gave her, the rancher’s racism comes out.
Bick: “Leslie, don’t behave like that… Here we don’t make a fuss over those kind of people. You’re a Texan now.”
Leslie: “Is that a state of mind? I’m still myself.”
Not only is the frank exchange still startling for a ‘50s movie, but so is a wife who doesn’t simper over her manly husband like a June Allyson.
Leslie about to give Bick and his buddies a piece of her mind!

The set-piece of Giant’s first half is when liberal-minded Leslie squares off with Bick after electing to join the men folk talking politics, instead of the wives’ sewing circle. When told that she’d be bored by their “men stuff,” Taylor is in fine fiery form: “Men stuff! Lord have mercy! What is so masculine about a conversation that a woman can’t enter into it?”
Later the debate is taken upstairs, with a funny shot of the guest rooms’ lights popping on as Leslie and Bick continue their fight. The next morning, after the bickering Benedicts have kissed and made up, their banter heats up again when Bick pronounces that their Reata ranch will be run his way, and by his future son, as well.
Bick: “Everything that has a Reata brand on it is run by me!”
Leslie: “Does that include me?!”
This is Stevens neat way of letting Leslie tell her husband a baby is actually on the way, but also letting us know that their differences will not be easily solved. As Leslie consolingly cradles Bick’s head, the scene ends with a closeup of her saying that their son will be “a boy very much like his father. In many ways. But not all.”
Dennis Hopper as Liz and Rock's son in 'Giant'...what a family!


Giant was one of those ensemble epics that were a spring board for promising stars Taylor, Hudson, and Dean and newcomers Carroll Baker, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor, and Earl Holliman, yet also benefited from great character actors such as Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, and Jane Withers. Wills is especially good as Benedict family confidante Uncle Bawley.

The aging makeup seems basic today, but it was a departure from depicting age with merely a silver streak running through the stars’ hair or trying to make a “mature” star look young. Of the three leads, Hudson is the most convincing as middle-aged. Rock was beefy and laid-back even then, plus wardrobe padded his middle and outfitted him a weighted belt. Rock’s steady persona and resonant voice were well-suited for the old-school Bick. Often mocked as the typical studio-created movie star and obsolete as an Edsel by the time ‘60s movie realism took hold, it’s important to remember that there’s always been a crowdpleaser cinema star. Today’s version of Rock Hudson is now the equally memorably-named Channing Tatum.
Leslie is a tough Texan with attitude, with Bick looking on.

At 23, Taylor’s make-up as middle-aged Leslie is the most noticeable, but Stevens tapped into Taylor’s strong maternal quality and simmers down her younger, outspoken self. Though Taylor later received accolades for more theatrical roles, Elizabeth is actually at her best when she is under-stated. There are many scenes that show film skills Taylor began learning as a child star: the subdued confrontation with her overbearing sister-in-law; the son’s birthday party where Leslie watches with increased exasperation at Bick’s insistence that their boy ride his new pony; and especially when parents’ Bick and Leslie are at cross purposes while discussing their children’s futures. Notice in this scene, Stevens filmed the scene with the couple in twin beds, Hudson’s newspaper blocking out Taylor. Stevens made Taylor rely on her voice in her performance, an attribute Liz was often criticized for.
James Dean as Jett Rink: His well comes in at last!

James Dean starred in only three movies, yet his name conjures up many myths, might seem overrated. Watching Giant again, Jimmy practically jumps out from the screen as stubborn, sexy, and ultimately sad, as Jett Rink. Often observing from the sidelines, Dean steals nearly every scene he’s in.
Mooning over his former boss’ wealth and wife, Leslie stops by Rink’s ramshackle ranch for tea. Jett also pours out his dreams for riches.
Leslie: “Money isn’t all, you know.”
Jett: “Not when you’ve got it.”
Leslie is dismayed to find underdog Jett not all that different than her husband.
Jett: “I'm just as much a Texan as Bick Benedict is. I'm no wetback.”
Leslie: “You're very like Jordan in that respect. Attitude, everything.”
When Rink strikes it rich, Jett becomes top dog at last. The latter scenes require Dean to play Rink as a dissolute drunk, which some criticized as a caricature. Considering the flamboyant character, Dean does just fine. And it was while finishing up work on Giant back in Hollywood that James Dean died in show biz’ most famous car crash.
James Dean, in front of Reata, the Benedict ranch. This was actually a three-sided facade.

Giant was Warner’s biggest hit until Christopher Reeve’s Superman. The film received 10 Oscar nominations, including best actor for both Hudson and Dean. Giant confirmed Hudson’s leading man status; Dean’s nomination was posthumous. In fact, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant came out after Dean’s demise. Taylor was overlooked by Oscar, despite getting excellent reviews and rising to top leading lady status. However, this was the same year that Marilyn Monroe was passed over for her praised performance in Bus Stop. Taylor could take consolation when she won the first of four consecutive nominations the following year for Raintree County.
There are so many memorable moments in Giant: Jett Rink hitting a gusher on his tiny property, rushing over to Reata covered in oil, to boast to the Benedicts; a military funeral for the first soldier from Reata, a Mexican boy Leslie once nursed to health; the showdown between middle-aged Bick and Jett; and finally the epic fist fight between Bick and a racist diner owner over not serving Mexicans.
Bick: “Look here, Sarge. I'd sure appreciate it if you were more polite to these people.”
Sarge: “You would, eh?”
Bick: “I'm Bick Benedict. Your neighbor, you might say.”
Sarge: “Does that give you special privileges?”
Bick: “The name Benedict's meant something to people around here for a long time.”
Sarge: “That there papoose down there...is his name Benedict, too?”
Bick looks at his family, then turns back to Sarge: “Yes. Come to think of it, it is.”
The brawl is on, memorably set to The Yellow Rose of Texas, blasting from the jukebox. The excruciating match ends with Bick losing the fight, but winning wife Leslie’s admiration at last.
Leslie and Bick, happy at last, 25 years later!

I have seen Giant many times since childhood, but haven’t watched the film in a decade. The story and stars were as enthralling as ever, but I was amazed at how sharp the social commentary was still, after all these years. What’s even more amazing is Giant was made 60 years ago and we’re still fighting over the same issues today.
'Giant' ends with a close-up of the next generation of Benedicts.











Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bette and Joan's Acting Duel: 'Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?'


A rare color shot from 'Baby Jane.' B&W signified drama.
Can you imagine 'Pyscho,' 'Manchurian Candidate,' or 'Virginia Woolf' in color?
What more can be said about Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Well, here’s my two cents. The 1962 film classic has been loved and loathed, quoted and parodied, badly remade for TV and periodically threatened with a big-screen remake starring God knows who. Don’t bother, Hollywood! Baby Jane’s original stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, are the kind of movie lightning that doesn’t strike twice.
Davis and Crawford on the set of 'Baby Jane.' All smiles here.
Like Psycho, which came out two years prior, Baby Jane was a bleak, black-and-white flick shot on a low budget with big stars, and upturning plot conventions that threw audiences for a loop. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? gave the careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford a new lease on life.
It’s also movie legend that Bette and Joan absolutely loathed one another. I believe the rivalry/jealousy/disdain between these dueling divas is what gives Baby Jane its incredible tension. Just as their real-life marital tensions ignites Richard Burton and Liz Taylor’s George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Davis and Crawford’s animosity is most apparent. On its own, Baby Jane is a top-notch, well-crafted suspense thriller, with a terrific supporting cast. However, it’s the two Hollywood legends, as twisted sisters in sibling rivalry, who take this film into another realm. Their rivalry turned into a grudge match two years later when they tried to re-team in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. But that’s another showbiz story!
Baby Jane Hudson was the star of the family--at first!
For the uninitiated, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is the gothic showbiz saga of sisters Jane and Blanche Hudson, played by Davis and Crawford, respectively. Jane is the vaudeville child star and breadwinner of the Hudson family. Flash forward to the 1930s and now Blanche is a big, fat movie star and Jane is a no-talent lush. Coming home from a party one night, there is a car accident—“incident” would be more accurate—leaving Blanche crippled.
No, Joan isn't re-writing her will! Blanche sees Jane's handiwork.
A quarter of a century later brings Baby Jane to the present. Blanche is still in that wheelchair and Jane is now not only a drunk, but deranged to boot.  And when Jane gets a whiff of Blanche’s plan to downsize, which includes putting Jane away, she puts the boots to Blanche, figuratively and literally.
Baby Jane is a cat-and-mouse suspense film of the highest order. The plot plays off the real stars’ careers. For the scene of a director moaning over Jane’s latest bad film, clips of Bette’s actual early acting efforts were shown. Watch Joan as Blanche gaze in rapture while watching one of Joan’s real ‘30s reel hits. Or the scene where Jane tries to order a bunch of booze from the liquor store, then impersonates Blanche to clear the order. It is obvious Joan’s voice was dubbed in, but one wonders how director Aldrich got Joan to lay on her cultivated MGM English thicker than Bette’s Baby Jane makeup. Watch Bette, then at a career low, as Jane, asking strangers if they remember who she is! Actual portraits and photos of Bette and Joan’s career litter the Hudson mansion as props.  
Jane works her Blanche Hudson imitation to her advantage throughout 'Baby Jane.'
The dialogue in Baby Jane has some of the most famous one-liners in film history—do I really need to repeat them? The one-liners that allude to Bette and Joan’s real life feelings for one another are especially entertaining. At the very end of Baby Jane, after two hours of sisterly warfare, Bette’s Jane plaintively says to Joan’s Blanche: “You mean all this time we could have been friends?”
Davis and Crawford rehearsing for the beach scene finale of 'Baby Jane.'
All of this is all just delicious frosting on a cinema cake. What makes Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? memorable are the performances of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. Film fans love to argue about who was the greater actress, but in this instance, Davis and Crawford were both great in polar opposite roles. Joan had less obvious mannerisms than Bette; still, Crawford tones down the latter day dramatics that beefed up some her ‘50s vehicles, and made them camp classics. As wheelchair-bound Blanche, Joan underplays and wins our sympathy, watching her old movies on TV, grateful for a new generation of fans that they’re generating. As the tension between the two sisters amps up, while we’re still rooting for Joan/Blanche, but start noticing Joan’s insinuating threats, coated with grand insincerity. Joan’s last vestiges of on-screen glamour slowly get stripped away as she is mentally and physically tortured by her character’s crazed sister. This was brave of Crawford, the eternal glamour star. The last scene, on the beach, with dying Blanche finally telling the truth to Jane, is beautifully performed by both Joan and Bette.
Davis pointedly took out a classified ad for acting work before 'Baby Jane.'
As for Bette Davis, her turn as Baby Jane Hudson was as huge a comeback. Only two years before, Bette had jokingly put a classified ad seeking acting work in the Hollywood trades. Still, some critics and moviegoers rolled their eyes at what they thought was Bette Davis at her most over the top as Jane. To me, Bette went for broke as Baby Jane—and won. Bette is terrifying at times, but also funny, sad, dramatic, and finally, child-like. Davis hits all these notes in her best scene, when Jane is alone, drinking. She hears her childhood hit, “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” in her head. With no one but her Baby Jane Hudson doll as company, Jane sings along in her raspy voice. Putting the doll’s bow up to her head, Jane walks to the mirror, singing coyly. Seeing her now-ravaged self, Bette lets out a pathetic moan as Jane. Upstairs, Blanche starts laying on the buzzer like a game show contestant, Jane slowly lifts her head and launches into a bellowing tirade, starting with, “Whaddya want, Blanche?!” Bette knocks this virtuoso scene out of the park.
IMO, Davis' most brilliant scene in 'Baby Jane.'
For Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Davis received her 10th and last Oscar nomination. Davis had some tough competition at the Oscars that year—Anne Bancroft in The Miracle Worker, Kate Hepburn in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Geraldine Page in Sweet Bird of Youth, and Lee Remick in The Days of Wine and Roses.
I think Bette should have taken her 3rd Oscar home for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Maybe my criteria are not the benchmark of great acting, but of the five performances, Bette’s the one that people remember best and still talk about. Davis took some big risks and they paid off. And Joan should have been nominated for at least best supporting actress as Blanche. Crawford truly supports Davis, supplying sympathy and reality, her Blanche underplaying to Davis’ Jane’s baroque descent into madness.

The beach scene finale; Davis and Crawford are both brilliant.
In the end, awards mean nothing. Hardly anybody remembers who won an Oscar for what movie. But everybody who has seen this frightening film will never forget Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
"You mean all this time we could have been friends?"



Friday, October 14, 2016

Bill Bryson's Sharp Snapshot of 'One Summer: America, 1927'


Fascinating little-known facts and warm humor
make 'One Summer' a great read!
When you read or watch the news, do you ever feel that life in the USA is a never ending cycle of crazy celebrities, sleazy politicians, egomaniacal millionaires, and tabloid twits, interrupted only by natural disasters and tragedies? Bill Bryson focuses his literary lens on all of this and more, from nearly a century ago, in One Summer: America, 1927.

The summer of '27 was the creation of Mount Rushmore.
During the summer of 1927, the country was riding high with the Roaring Twenties. On the upside, Bryson maintains that the era’s unbridled profits influenced innovations, feats of accomplishment in sports and other fields, and prosperity for nearly every class of people. The author also notes how financial attitudes and social mores drastically changed accordingly, along with the country’s fortunes.

Babe Ruth had a swingin' summer in '27!
Charles Lindbergh became a world-wide hero with his trans-Atlantic flight.
Heroes like Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, and Henry Ford play prominent roles in Bryson’s snapshot of a specific time in American history. The greatest public figure of the time plays a prominent part throughout this nearly 500 page book: Charles Lindbergh, who made his legendary transatlantic flight, which instantly made him a heroic icon. Bryon offers post-scripts to his subjects’ glorious summer, and in Lucky Lindy’s case, his later admiration for Hitler made him instantly unlucky. Murders dominated newspaper headlines during this time; so did inept politicians and powerbrokers who led America into the Great Depression two years later. Money was often the root of both personal and political scandals. You will be astounded by the ineptitude of our government’s handling Prohibition. One Summer proves that going back to “the good old days” won’t automatically make America great again!

The U.S. government throwing profits down the sewer with Prohibition.
The author deftly weaves legendary events and players from the summer of ’27 with telling details and now-forgotten people, all of whom helped shape our country into the America we’ve become. Bryson’s straightforward style and humor make the reading engrossing, but his real gift is restraint. Bill Bryson subtly draws comparisons of actions and events that were the beginnings of certain modern day American attitudes toward money, politics, celebrity, and power. Bryson’s recapping of natural disasters, scandals, and misfortunes from that storied summer, is the underlying belief that there is nothing new under the sun.


Author Bill Bryson.
For those of you who can manage about 20 to 30 pages of reading at bedtime before the book falls out of your hands, One Summer is the perfect read, with its stand-alone stories within each chapter. And for those who love history written by a great storyteller like Bill Bryson, you will roar through One Summer: America 1927.