Sunday, October 15, 2017

'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' Peggy Ann Garner

Peggy Ann Garner and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1943 20th Century Fox version of 'Jane Eyre.' Garner played young Jane, and Taylor, her school chum Helen, who dies of pneumonia. Amazingly, Taylor received no billing! Taylor later became the world's highest paid movie star for 'Cleopatra,' for Fox, and nearly died of pneumonia. Life imitating art?

Peggy Ann Garner passed away Oct. 16 in 1984, at age 52. Garner gave a vivid, naturalistic performance as Francie Dolan in 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Sadly, starring in this classic didn’t lead to greater things.
Garner and Taylor's scenes are the emotional highlights of 'Jane Eyre.'
Both Peggy Ann Garner and Elizabeth Taylor got noticed in 20th Century Fox’s ’43 version of Jane Eyre. Garner was under contract with Fox, and Taylor was loaned from MGM. Garner was a plaintively emotional young Jane, contrasted by a remarkably poised Taylor as Helen, the schoolmate who dies of pneumonia. Peggy Ann and Elizabeth were both born February of 1932. They became child stars in ’45 with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and National Velvet, respectively, with critics and audiences applauding their intense performances. Garner and Taylor were natural performers, far superior to the era’s typical child actors. Garner received a special Oscar for her work, Elizabeth Taylor became Metro’s favorite child performer.
What’s a shame is that 20th Century Fox continued to treat Peggy Ann Garner as just another child performer, back to playing small roles. MGM created vehicles for their similarly intense child star, Margaret O’ Brien. And with National Velvet, MGM treated Elizabeth like a prized jewel, carefully guiding her through any gawky phases. By the late ‘40s, Garner was freelancing, stuck in B-movies like Bomba, the Jungle Boy.
Peggy Ann Garner with her special Oscar for 'Tree.'
Still, Garner persevered and found work as a television actress in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Peggy Ann Garner’s career ended on a high note, when her one-time TV director Robert Altman cast her in his 1978 comedy, A Wedding. Garner seemed plucky, working as a realtor during the dry spells of showbiz, weathering three failed marriages. Peggy Ann Garner died of cancer, at the Hollywood Motion & Television Country House and Hospital, survived by a daughter, who died over a decade later herself. Stardom seemed to come easily to Elizabeth Taylor, but fans know that her real life was not. And it seems that neither came easy for Peggy Ann Garner. If nothing else, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn stands as a tribute to Garner’s talent.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Pajama Game 1957

Doris Day's Got 'Game' in this High-Energy Musical

The Pajama Game, the delightful 1957 Doris Day musical, was released two years prior to Pillow Talk. That glossy sex comedy, with Rock Hudson, set Doris’ image stylishly in stone for the next decade. For me, Day is more naturally appealing in The Pajama Game. That’s not a revisionist knock on Pillow Talk, which re-invented Day and the rom-com genre. But Doris Day is a down-to-earth delight in this underrated Broadway adaptation.

Doris Day plays Babe and is a babe in 'The Pajama Game.'
Doris Day was 35 and filled with snappy energy, smarts, not to mention natural sex appeal, in The Pajama Game. Though Doris sports several shades of gingham as a small town Iowa girl, she also looks fetching in sleek ‘50s dresses, Capri pants, and DA hairdo that Day helped make popular.
The story is as lightweight as those jammies they make Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, where the workers’ call for a seven-and-a-half cent raise is turned down by the boss. He then hires a tough guy to become the factory superintendent to keep everyone on task. John Raitt plays Sid, the new man on the job; Doris plays Babe, the head of the grievance committee. Guess what happens next?

Some internet nitpickers have complained that Doris is loud and unsubtle in her musical numbers. Well, Doris was a big band singer and movie studios back then strongly encouraged their musical stars to belt out their numbers. And stars with small voices often found themselves dubbed. Yes, Doris is brash and boisterous in “There Once Was a Man,” but Babe is supposed to deliriously in love, at this point. Imagine Betty Hutton performing this number, and the difference is obvious.

Doris and John Raitt duet on 'There Once Was a Man.'
If the ‘one-note’ performing criticism applies to anyone, that would be John Raitt. His stage-like projection belongs on Broadway, where Raitt originated the role. Raitt was just not made for movies. His acting has the broad feel of musical theater, not the real feel of film. Raitt’s booming voice and energy come alive in the Day duet, “There Once Was a Man.” But the baritone falls painfully flat in his solos. Rait’s bit of business is to sing the great standard “Hey There” into a Dictaphone, with a call and response to his own performance. Contrast that to Doris’ reprise of “Hey There,” after Babe has broken up with Sid. Getting ready for bed, she sings as the mirror catches her reflection. Babe is eventually overcome with emotion, as Doris’ subtle singing dissolves into tears—it’s one of her best moments, totally movie-style natural.
It’s no surprise that The Pajama Game didn’t lead to more film roles for Raitt. True, musicals were waning in popularity, but they were still being made. The problem was Raitt wasn’t versatile enough to perform in a variety of genres like Sinatra, Dean, Bing, Judy, and Doris Day. Raitt fell into the category of Gordon MacCrae and Harve Presnell… one-dimensional actors with a big voice.

Carol Haney gets to shine in the outdoor dance, 'Once a Year Day.'
The rest of the cast is a delight down to the smallest parts. Vaudevillian Eddie Foy, Jr. and character actress Reta Shaw have a great song and dance number, “I’ll Never Be Jealous Again.” For Carol Haney, this would be her only film role with dialogue, but she’s a scene stealer as the bookkeeper who keeps the numbers close to her heart! Her big number, “Steam Heat,” is a stellar Bob Fosse choreographed number, and Haney’s moves are marvelous. Haney also leads the cast in the exuberant company picnic number, “Once a Year Day.”

It’s noteworthy that The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees were both by the same creative team, words and music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, with books by director George Abbott and Richard Bissell. A sad footnote to the stellar Adler/Ross collaborations was that they were cut short when Ross died suddenly at 29, after Damn Yankees opened. Stanley Donen, co-director for both movies, commented that Abbott let him do the directing. George Abbott was on board only to ensure faithful film adaptations of his stage musicals. The famed Broadway writer, producer, and director was 70 when he teamed up with his one-time protégé Donen. Amazingly, Abbott lived to be 107, working up to the end of his life.

'The Pajama Game' is filled with fun, clever numbers put over by a fine ensemble cast.
I love musicals like The Pajama Game, smaller in scope, unlike the spectacles that were taking over Broadway, and eventually Hollywood, when they became movies. Though I don’t mind The Sound of Music or My Fair Lady, I prefer the less overblown, understated The Pajama Game, Funny Face, or Damn Yankees. I don’t need my musicals to be epics. There is such simple joy in The Pajama Game, like the slinky Hernando’s Hideaway, where the greatest special effects are matches struck to illuminate the dancers’ faces and body parts. For me, imagination trumps over-the-top any day.

Though The Pajama Game debuted 60 years ago in 1957, and it looks like a snapshot of an era, the film still feels fresh. Aside from the great material, credit must go to Stanley Donen, whose body of work is filled with some of the most stylish, imaginative musicals and comedies of the post-war era: Take Me Out to the Ballgame, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, Indiscreet, Charade, Two for The Road, and Bedazzled.
The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees may not be true classics, but considering Donen was working under the scrutinizing eye of stage director Abbott, he presented the material in a both faithfully and lively way, unlike so many other leaden Broadway to Hollywood adaptations.

'The Pajama Game' featured much of the Broadway cast, but Doris was the star.
Both musicals were Broadway smashes—each played over a 1,000 performances—and George Abbott got his way, with most of the stage cast brought to the screen. I think The Pajama Game has the slight edge over Damn Yankees because the former has a versatile movie star to sell the show, whereas the latter relies on a teen idol’s modest talents. Both movie versions starred All-American blondes, but Doris Day was the star who shined brightest.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn' a Powerful Story Still

Whenever I think of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—the book or movie—I think of my late pal, Alice Crosby. She was born October 2, 1922.  A life-long movie fan, Alice was born the same year as one of her favorites, Doris Day.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s slice-of-life story of a hard-working mother, hard-drinking father, and their poverty-stricken family, as told through a dreamy-eyed young girl, stuck with Alice. Also an Irish Catholic, Alice grew up in Depression-era Detroit under similar tough circumstances.

My friend Alice as a teenager.
I knew of the gist of Betty Smith’s novel and had Alice’s beat up copy for years, but never put it on my reading list until I got my MFA in creative writing a few years ago. Even though we had a love of old movies in common, Alice and I never watched 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It was never intentional, but now I wish we had, to hear her thoughts on the story versus her own upbringing.

I love how someone’s personal story can affect so many different people. Director Elia Kazan’s first take on A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was that it was too sentimental. Then Kazan realized how close the story was to that of his own immigrant family. In The Glass Castle, when Jeannette Walls writes about her wild card of a drinking dad, she cites Tree as a childhood favorite. In my family, my mother suffered a similar family dynamic, a drunken father who pulled disappearing acts, except he wasn’t a good man, like Tree’s Johnny Nolan or Alice’s father.

How ironic that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was made at 20th Century Fox. All the studios in Hollywood’s golden era peddled nostalgia and fantasy, but Fox had the market cornered on gaudy and gooey Technicolor turn of the century musicals. While warm-hearted, the story of the Nolan family is a surprisingly straightforward look at the poor people of early 20th century New York City. I wasn’t surprised to find that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was first written as a memoir. An editor asked author Betty Smith to rewrite it as a novel—today, with the trend toward memoirs, it would be the exact opposite story. The book still has a strong ring of truth, much like another story of a girl and her father, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Joan Blondell, right, as Sissie, in a heart to heart with Dorothy McGuire's Katie.
The cast is terrific in Tree. Dorothy McGuire, a naturally pretty actress, never minded deglamourizing herself for a role. As hardworking and increasingly hardhearted cleaning woman Katie Nolan, McGuire has one of her best roles. One of the most touching scenes is when Katie’s sister gently tells her she’s becoming hard. Carrying the burden of poverty can do that, though Alice told me her mother Della was always a gentle woman, no matter how dire their circumstances.

Peggy Ann Garner and James Dunn as daughter and father.
James Dunn was cunningly cast by director Kazan as the feckless father, Johnny Dolan. Like the character, Dunn was handsome, charming, and an alcoholic. Dunn is effortless, going from gaiety to hopelessness, as the singing waiter who loves his family but can’t help going on benders. Alice never had anything bad to say about her father, despite his drinking and disappearing—though she admitted the family was frantic when one of his benders stretched into weeks.

Joan Blondell made her segue into character parts as Katie’s sister, flirtatious Sissy. Blondell’s best qualities fit this good-hearted broad; she’s warm, natural, and appealing. The often grim story of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is given its levity from Blondell’s breezy presence.

Lloyd Nolan gives a great supporting turn as McShane, the neighborhood cop with a soft spot for Katie. Nolan, with that instantly recognizable voice, was always a bracing presence on screen. As the strong cop with a sweet side, Nolan is one of those character actors who should have been given more chances as a leading man, along the lines of Bogart or Cagney.

Peggy Ann Garner in a heart-tugging moment as Francie Nolan.
Peggy Ann Garner got a well-deserved special Oscar for her heartrending turn as the sad-eyed, yet plucky girl who yearns to be a writer. Francie has a great curiosity about the world, though often bewildered by its harsh realities. Garner has the role that runs the gamut of emotions, and she hits all the right notes.

The scenes between Garner and Dunn, as daughter and father, are the film’s highlights. Johnny’s final disappearance—desperately looking for work upon finding out Katie’s pregnant—and his subsequent death, are painfully moving: the funeral, where Francie stands apart from her family; the grueling birth scene, with Francie and her mother reconciling; or when Francie graduates from the school her father helped her get in to. That bouquet scene…flowers on the daughter’s desk, delivered by Aunt Sissy, but paid for by her late father, with the card in his handwriting…sigh. Your heart would have to be made of stone not to be moved by Francie’s cathartic tears.

Throughout the movie, every time I saw Garner’s Francie reading or writing on the fire escape, I thought of Alice as a child. Alice once told me that she had to stay on her family’s front porch, where her mother or brothers could keep a protective eye on her. With a laugh, she said they did their job a little too well! Alice surely wasn’t out on the streets with her brothers, catching Christmas trees, like Francie and brother Neeley.

The wonderful cast of "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn."
James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner received Oscars, but except for a best screenplay nomination, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn received no other nods. This seems odd, since Tree was a highly anticipated movie, based on a huge bestseller. A look at the various posters shows that Fox sold the movie on the strength of the book. The movie was popular enough, yet all you have to do is look at what was tops at the box office that year and compare it to that year’s Oscar nominations. They’re pretty much one and the same—typical of the era. While the best picture nominees The Lost Weekend and Mildred Pierce still stand as classics, fluff like The Bells of St. Mary’s, Spellbound, and Anchors Away—really? And McGuire shouldn’t have had to wait until her ’47 reunion with Kazan for Gentleman’s Agreement for her first nomination. Though Joan Crawford rightly won Best Actress for Mildred Pierce, the rest of the nominees were merely popular stars in glossy vehicles. Twentieth Century Fox threw their studio votes to Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven, which compared to McGuire’s real character and acting, seems laughable today. For me, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn holds up beautifully, far more realistic than most films from the ‘40s. I just re-read the book and am again surprised by its frank look at early 1900’s NYC. Betty Smith creates a loving, but realistic look at bygone era.

As for Alice, the ‘40s and ‘50s was her heyday as a movie-goer. Late in her life, Alice told me, that as a teenager, she daydreamed of being a movie star. I was caught off-guard at the time, and remember thinking, “Thank God you didn’t!” Alice certainly had the face, figure, and personality to get into movies, but she was also far too sweet to have survived Hollywood.

Alice Crosby in one of her most memorable roles: Mother.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’s Francie is obviously based on the author, Betty Smith. Well, my pal Alice grew up to be a wife, housewife, mother, and later, a waitress. That last role is how I met her, when I first moved to Traverse City, MI, working at the same restaurant. Alice had moved up there from Detroit, after her second divorce, for a fresh start and to be near her two sons. In true movie fashion, when Alice was pulling out of Detroit with her belongings, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was on a movie marquee.

Alice in her Lana Turner phase.
We became fast friends, though she was nearly my grandmothers’ age. And we remained the best of friends until she died. On countless evenings at her home, we talked about everything, but often family, films, and the past. A big idol from her youth was Lana Turner. Alice sometimes adopted Lana’s blonde hair, tan, and white outfits ala The Postman Always Rings Twice for Michigan summers. Alice once told me that as a young mother, she and her next door neighbor had a routine: They would clean their houses and tend their yards during the day. After getting dinner going, they’d both put on swimsuits and sun in the backyard. While their kids were playing, they’d chat and relax. Then they’d get ready for their husbands’ arrival. Alice would give the boys a bath, then she’d shower, and everyone put on fresh outfits. Dinner almost done, the husband almost home. I remembered smiling when Alice told me that she’d take a look around her house and yard, then at the boys and herself—everything and everyone looking great—and feel good about her life. It seemed kind of frivolous to me. Later, walking home, I thought about what Alice’s childhood was like. She wasn’t telling a silly story. Alice was recalling her gratitude for when life was good.
A Life magazine advertisement for 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.' The studio heavily promoted the book to sell the film.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

'The Hard Way' is Marvelous Melodrama, Warner Bros. Style

I watched The Hard Way, a 1943 Warner Bros. showbiz saga, for the first time recently.  Starring Ida Lupino, the Vincent Sherman-directed drama is a surprisingly tough film for Hollywood’s golden era. Perhaps that hardness is why it's not as well remembered as Mildred Pierce or other “women's pictures.”

De-glamourized WB dolls Lupino and Leslie plotting their way out of poverty.
The opening flashback scenes are gritty and authentic. “Greenhill” is a stand-in for every USA Midwestern industrial town. No MGM version of poor folk at working class WB in The Hard Way. As sisters Helen and Katie, Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie are make-up free and dressed-down dowdy in the film’s early scenes. Helen’s harried husband Jack is a decent man, burnt out as a miner, with no patience for their dreams of better things. Guess how long he’s in the picture?

Jack Carson and Dennis Morgan, teamed for the first time here, are travelling entertainers Albert Runkel and Paul Collins. Carson’s Albert comes off nearly as green as starry-eyed Katie, while Morgan’s Paul is the slick-talking player. Albert is taken both by Katie both professionally and personally; Collins does not want any souvenirs from their tour stops. This time, however, the easy-going Runkel prevails. Katie, with older sis Helen as manager, joins their act. And that’s when The Hard Way truly earns its title.

The film’s framing of the successful but suicidal woman's tale, told in flashback, was later lifted by Mildred Pierce. The older woman, who projects her ambitions onto the younger woman, is also echoed in Pierce. The Hard Way, based on a short story by Irwin Shaw, came out the same year as the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce.

Ida Lupino is fierce as Helen, the working class woman who claws her way up.
WB queen bee Bette Davis turned down the role of Helen, which she later regretted. As Lupino was a decade younger than Davis, this was better casting, since Bette was 17 years older than Joan Leslie. If the roles were mother-daughter, Davis or especially, Joan Crawford, would have been great as the grasping Helen. Storywise, it might have made sense if they had, since it was rumored that the characters were based on Ginger Rogers and her legendarily scary stage mother, Lela. Ida Lupino and Joan Leslie were well-suited for the roles. Both came from theatrical families, so they were familiar with stage life. Lupino’s family had roots in theatre that dated back centuries. Leslie, starting as a child, was part of a vaudeville sister act. Joan sang, danced, did impersonations, and even played the accordion.

As the ruthless stage sister, Ida Lupino is just as no-holds-barred as Bette Davis at her best. But during the war years, the Academy Awards seemed to prefer uplift. Much was made of the fact that Lupino got a New York Film Critics Circle award but no Oscar nomination. Considering that perennial WB nominee Davis didn’t make the cut that year for her hits, Old Acquaintance or Watch on the Rhine, Lupino should have been a shoo-in. However, that year's Oscars lauded Jennifer Jones, Greer Garson, and Ingrid Bergman, all starring in glossy uplift: The Song of Bernadette, Madame Curie, and For Whom the Bells Toll. Joan Fontaine and Jennifer Jones, both in their mid-20s, played dreamy-eyed 14-year-olds in Bernadette and The Constant Nymph. (Jean Arthur’s comedic The More the Merrier was the fifth nominee). No room for Ida's gritty, unsentimental performance in this group!

Joan Leslie was only 17 when she played Katie, from schoolgirl to great star.
Usually ingénues who played sweet in Hollywood’s golden age were gooey. Joan Leslie is warm and sympathetic, a dramatic contrast to Ida’ Lupino’s lone wolf sister. Noteworthy too, in these showbiz sagas, a starlet is usually played by a well-established star. I recently commented on this, in the various A Star is Born remakes, where the rising stars Gaynor, Garland, Streisand, and Lady Gaga are already in their early 30s. Watching teenager Joan Leslie blossom into a star is striking, especially as Leslie starts going all Lindsay Lohan, rebelling against Lupino’s controlling character.

The Hard Way also features one of Jack Carson's great dramatic performances. In his serious roles, Carson had a laughing on the outside, crying on the inside quality. In The Hard Way, Mildred Pierce, 1954’s A Star is Born, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Tarnished Angels, Carson is both funny and sad. Carson’s suicide scene, after his character is given the brush-off by his now-bride Leslie, is both genuinely shocking and moving.

The climb to the top leaves a few casualties along the way. L: Dennis Morgan.
As the ladies man turned one-woman man, this is one of Dennis Morgan's better acting efforts. Harboring a secret crush on Katie, Paul gradually becomes more vocal in his feelings toward her, and in his disdain for hell-on-wheels Helen. One of The Hard Way’s most striking scenes is when Lupino’s Helen lets down her guard and admits her own attraction to Morgan’s Paul. He sarcastically flings his standard pick-up line at her, causing hard-bitten Helen to revert to her stone-cold self.

Gladys George is great as the boozy star egged on by Lupino.
Gladys George has a great cameo as washed up stage star Lily Emery. George has only a few scenes, but she runs the gamut as the drunken diva mowed over by Helen, who offers up starlet sister Katie in her place.

Though The Hard Way has a following for Lupino’s performance, I've noticed certain critics and film fans still knock this movie. Specifically, the criticism is directed at the hardness of Lupino’s character/performance and Joan Leslie's perceived lack of talent.

I think Lupino is fantastic in The Hard Way, but this criticism may tie in with my question: Why didn’t Ida Lupino become a bigger star? She seemed lovely, charismatic, talented, intense, and more. But was Lupino a little too real, rather than larger than life, like Crawford and Davis? Was Lupino to Davis akin to Robert Mitchum when compared to Bogart? Excellent, yet earthbound, rather than mythic? Lupino had Davis’ intensity, but perhaps needed a few hits playing sympathetic roles, like Bette’s Now Voyager and The Great Lie. And Ida’s hard-boiled persona didn’t get the redeeming soft side that Crawford’s hard-edged characters usually did. The Hard Way is like Mildred Pierce, but without the mother love gloss.

Lupino as Helen, when she becomes successful as starmaker.
I think Ida’s second best status to Bette couldn’t have helped matters. The big problem perhaps was that Jack Warner seldom did well by his actors. Bette became the studio’s top female star—and film fans know what a battle Davis pitched to get good roles. Also, top star Barbara Stanwyck had a part-time contract with Warner Bros. Then, along came Joan Crawford, making a comeback from MGM. So, popular leading ladies Lupino, Olivia de Havilland, Jane Wyman, and Ann Sheridan were first up for the leftovers. And WB mostly wasted the next tier of younger actresses like Eleanor Parker, Alexis Smith, Lauren Bacall, Patricia Neal, Janis Paige, Dorothy Malone, etc.

So, here’s my shout-out for Joan Leslie, an actress I only knew by name until recently. Detractors of The Hard Way have labeled Leslie as a no-talent. Well, she ain't Judy Garland, but she's a decent musical performer and her acting is just fine. What armchair internet critics don’t realize is that one, Leslie was only 17 here, and second, Joan actually was a popular vaudeville performer. What seems corny today was entertaining back in the day. Think of the more typical musical stars of the time—Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Ruby Keeler, etc. Or even great Broadway legends like Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, or Carol Channing. They were hugely popular, but not versatile talents. (Yes, I know I’m opening a can of worms here!) What I found most striking about Leslie’s Katie was her vulnerable, appealing performance, with hints of steeliness as she soars to stardom.

Joan Leslie, as Katie, achieving her dreams of stardom.
Off-screen, Joan Leslie showed some steel, too. Leslie was the third actress to sue Jack Warner in a contract dispute. Bette Davis famously sued Warner Bros. in 1936 to get out of her contract—over bad roles. Davis lost the battle, but won the war, finally getting great parts. Olivia de Havilland sued Warner Bros. in 1944, for having suspensions from turning down roles added on to her contract. Olivia won, and though she didn’t work for two years, soon won two Oscars as an independent actress. Joan Leslie also won her suit with Warner, citing that she was a minor when she signed her contract. However, despite her popularity, her status as a starlet instantly ended. Like Olivia, Leslie claimed Warner blackballed her with other studios. Not unlikely, since Jack Warner was notoriously petty. Yet another popular starlet, Teresa Wright, more trained and versatile, and seven years older, found her expiration date as ingénue was also1946. Wright’s star swiftly diminished after The Best Years of Our Lives.

Looking back at Leslie’s film credits, it’s easy to see why Joan was getting fed up with WB. Joan Leslie started off with such films as High Sierra with Bogart, Sergeant York with Gary Cooper, Yankee Doodle Dandy with Cagney, followed by The Sky’s The Limit with Fred Astaire, The Hard Way with Ida Lupino, and The Male Animal with Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda. But by 1946, she was stuck playing characters in frothy comedies with names like Judy Jones and Sally Sawyer. Still in ‘46’s Two Guys from Milwaukee, teamed with Hard Way co-stars Morgan and Carson, Leslie’s appeal was still intact.

When writing movie reviews, I am often reminded of how often film stars, particularly from the golden era, seldom got happy endings off-screen. Well, Joan Leslie did. In 1950, Leslie married a doctor, and had twin daughters. She became a full-time wife and mother, and a part-time actress. Joan enjoyed a 50 year marriage and was proud of her daughters, who became college instructors. Joan Leslie lived to be 90, passing away in 2015.

Jack Carson, who only has eyes for Leslie. Lupino keeps an eye on Carson!
Vincent Sherman, whose tour of duty as a Warner Bros. director included wrangling Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, considered The Hard Way his most personal work. Sherman felt the story, on the toll that climbing the ladder of fame takes, was a cautionary tale. Viewers of The Hard Way find it either strong stuff or a bitter pill—I think it’s a great example of studio era filmmaking, with both style and substance.
Heaven help the mister, who gets between these sisters!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Barbra Streisand's 'A Star is Born': Still Cheesy After All These Years

Streisand and Kristofferson are two rockers in love in 1976's 'A Star is Born.' No, this isn't a science fiction flick!

Way back when I was a teenager, before 24-7 media and the Internet, the making of 1976’s A Star is Born was still a major showbiz scandal. Barbra Streisand and her hairdresser-turned boyfriend-turned producer Jon Peters received reams of unflattering publicity for turning A Star is Born into an expensive ego trip. Though a typical Streisand commercial success, the reviews were scathing. As a junior old movie buff, I stuck with the ‘54 Judy Garland version and never saw Streisand’s Star until this summer, 2017!

At least Kris LOOKS the part of a rock singer. Barbra, in hippie chick mode.
The leap of faith it takes to believe country songwriter/croaking singer Kris Kristofferson as a legendary Jim Morrison-type rock star seems reasonable when later faced with Barbra Streisand as an aspiring rock star. I will keep calling them Kris and Barbra, because they pretty much bring their own personas to the film. Not to mention that their characters have the most non-musical star names ever: John Norman Howard and Esther Hoffman. The ’76 version was supposedly striving for realism, but they sound like people who work in an office cubicle.

The opening scenes of Kris’ huge concert, pre-CGI era, are awe-inspiring. The buildup of the impatient fans, the frantic entourage, and the late-arriving superstar is a promising start. But when Kris' starts caterwauling, it's all over.

Gettin' down with her bad self. As 1/3 of The Oreos, guess what part Babs plays?
After a debacle performance, Kris decides on an afterglow at a club where Barbra performs. Streisand at 34 is the world's oldest up-and-coming singer, following in the footsteps of a 32-year-old Judy Garland (looking far from fresh) as a singing starlet, and similarly aged Lady Gaga in the upcoming remake. Odd that A Star is Born always picks huge, established stars to play showbiz newcomers. In this 70’s version, Streisand as Esther is part of a trio, flanked by two black chicks, called The Oreos! After a fight caused by a fan of Kris’ breaks up the show, the two flee in his limo. Not wanting to be a one-night stand, Streisand invites him to breakfast.

We only get one look at Esther's apartment, but it’s divine, as those voice-over jingles and nightclub gigs must really provide plenty of dough for a 1930’s era pad with plenty of antiques. Streisand's never-ending wardrobe changes run the gamut, straight from her closet, according to the credits. Some are shabby chic, the tailored suits are Ralph Lauren, while others look like Laura Ingalls meets Frida Kahlo, with one hippie getup that makes her look like Luke Skywalker.  And Streisand, a huge fan of that ‘70s backlighting trend, often looks like she’s either sporting a halo or is on fire.

Streisand Skywalker in a wardrobe test from 'Star.'

At least Babs didn't have a light saber!
The oft-filmed A Star is Born story gets the Cliff Notes version here: Kris and Babs fall immediately in love for no apparent reason, but their careers and fame thwart their happiness. Kris literally flames out, and Streisand musically soars without him.

'A Star is Born' remake is about an addicted southern rock star
and his pop star wife, who wants to rock...hey, that's us!
Even worse, is when he later pushes Streisand onstage to sing at an Indian fundraiser. Expecting to rock out to Kris, Streisand wins the unruly crowd over with her over-emoting power ballad. Rock and pop didn’t exactly work in real life for Cher and Gregg Allman, when they attempted to tour together in the ‘70s. But in Barbra’s movie reality, a star is improbably born.

With the exception of the undeniably catchy superhit Evergreen, Star’s music ranges from elevator variety to cringe-worthy. Streisand's endless power ballads don't exactly rock, and Kris' rock anthems are anemic, even more so when Streisand sings his signature tune Watch Closely Now at the finale. Babs rocking out is like watching a drunk mom at karaoke night.

Like most Streisand movies, Babs is surrounded by big talent, but they are often reduced to background scenery. Kris seems there only for Streisand to obsess over. The motivations for Kristofferson character’s behavior are barely explored. Why does his character drink so much? Habit? Boredom? Insecure? Why didn’t somebody just ask Kris, who was still drinking and drugging at this point? His alcoholism is used only to set up dramatic confrontations for Streisand to show off in.
Kris Kristofferson was the real star that was born in this movie.
 Kristofferson actually gives a naturalistic, charismatic performance. It would be easy to say Kris is just playing himself, but he’s not just going through the motions. Kristofferson is the anchor to reality here. Ultimately, it's all about Barbra: her mugging, her rapid-fire line delivery, her tears, her singing, etc. Even during Kris' death scene, the camera’s focus is on her, with her face and hands obscuring him.
At the end, she comes out and rouses the audience with a seven-minute take of two songs, ending with Watch Closely Now, Kris’ signature song. Tribute, or Barbra’s version of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better?

Who's death scene is this, anyway? Look hard and you might see Kris!
Don’t get me wrong. While I am not a huge Barbra Streisand fan, I respect her great talent and versatility. Streisand is in great voice here and her musical finale, sung live, is technically a musical marvel—especially in our current era of lip-synching and auto-tune. Certain singers are natural actors—and this includes Barbra. Streisand won an Oscar for her debut in Funny Girl. I think Barbra should have won her second for a great dramatic turn in 1973’s The Way We Were. By the time Streisand filmed A Star is Born, less than a decade after Funny Girl, she had already become an over-acting and over-singing egomaniacal movie star.

'A Star is Born' was Barbra's first bonafide vanity project.
In an unprecedented move, Pierson wrote a blow by body blow account of the making of Star BEFORE the movie was released, for New West and New York magazines—which infuriated everyone involved. Streisand later claimed to feel professionally betrayed. The article actually praises Streisand’s talent to the heavens and Pierson is glowing when the star is aligned with the rest of the production. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen often and he was worn down by Streisand’s ego, temper, self-centeredness, constant meddling, indecision, and stubbornness. 

Ego maniac? Who, me?
And it wasn’t like Barbra was working with hacks here: Kris went on to become a popular movie star for the next decade. A platoon of well-regarded writers came and went. Director Pierson won an Oscar for his Dog Day Afternoon screenplay during Star’s production. Streisand complained that cinematographer Robert Surtees was too old (a three-time Oscar winner, 16 times nominated) and ran roughshod over highly-regarded Polly Platt’s production design. Numerous songwriters were subjected to Streisand’s “collaborating” on their songs, including the late, great Leon Russell.

Robert Englund aka Freddie Krueger, as Kris #1 fan!
Here’s some amazing Barbra Streisand’s Star Wars trivia… I mean A Star is Born trivia: Revered essayist Joan Didion had a hand in writing this, with husband/author John Gregory Dunne. I bet that Didion’s contributions were buried early on, given the flurry of rewrites and “contributions” courtesy of Streisand and Peters. Director Paul Mazursky acts, and gives one of the film’s best performances as Kris’ manager. There are some cool, uncredited cameos. Robert Englund aka Freddie Krueger, is the unruly fan who hassles superstar Kristofferson during Streisand’s show. And Maidie Norman, Baby Jane's antagonist/housekeeper Elvira, is the Justice of the Peace presiding over Kris and Babs’ wedding!

Is this version of A Star is Born watchable? Hell, yes—especially if you have low expectations or enjoy high camp. Bab’s A Star is Born is not like buttah…it’s like Velveeta.
No! Watch ME Closely Now!