Thursday, December 28, 2017

Deception 1946

1946 'Deception' recap: Bette with a gun and shoulderpads, conductor Claude clutching, & Paul Henreid as a jealous cellist!

I often watched 1946’s Deception, a twisted triangle set to classical music, on the afternoon movies while growing up. This Warner Brothers melodrama seemed very grownup to a ‘70s high school kid.
After not seeing Deception for decades, I re-watched the sudsy drama recently, and managed to make it half way through, before giving up in exasperation.
Claude Rains steals 'Deception' as the catty conductor, Alexander Hollenius.
Deception has a dazzling cast—Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, and especially Claude Rains—tangling with one another in a jealous triangle that leads to murder. The acting is fine, but the trio is done in by a premise that is patently unbelievable.

Bette Davis is Christine Radcliffe, a struggling pianist who lost her lover, cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), in Europe five years ago to a concentration camp. Relocated in post-war NYC, Christine rediscovers Karel after the war, when she sees his name in a concert review. Speaking of names, Christine tells Karel that she took Radcliffe as her “professional name.” I guess Christine Sarah Lawrence sounded too pretentious!
Bette Davis and Paul Henreid as musical lovers reunited in post-war NYC.
Christine’s first line is as declarative as only Davis can be: “I thought you were dead!” Equally subtle is when Karel takes her hand, and Christine holds both up: “No rings.” Reunited, they return to her apartment. On the way up the stairs, Christine tells Karel that she struggles to make ends meet as a pianist, by giving lessons. Unfortunately, once they walk through the door, her apartment is actually a luxurious loft. Hanging up his jacket, Karel notices several fur coats in the closet. Looking around the loft, the cellist sees lots of lovely paintings and sculptures. Christine soft pedals all this obvious luxury. However, Karel is not just a cellist, but a jealous cellist! He attempts to choke her to stop her barrage of non-stop lies. 
After apologies, Henreid’s Karel decides the best thing for them to do is marry as quickly as possible. Bette turns her big eyes away from Henreid, and pops them for the camera…uh-oh.

The deadly...dull triangle that is 'Decption.'
You see, Bette’s been living large due to a beau, egomaniacal maestro Alexander Hollenius. And the maestro is mad as hell about getting dumped by Christine, on her impromptu wedding day, practically. Despite Karel telling her that it tortures him when he feels she’s not telling the truth, and with numerous opportunities to do so, Christine refuses to fess up.
What transpires is a prolonged cat and mouse game: Can Christine keep piling on lies to pacify jealous and insecure Karel? Can she keep equally jealous and self-centered Hollenius from spilling the beans? Can Christine keep the cellist and the conductor from killing each other as they collaborate? About half way through, I decided I didn’t care anymore and ditched Deception.
The most fascinating part of this film is the loft that Bette's character tries to convince Henreid's is paid for by piano lessons!
I’m pretty good at suspending disbelief and not imposing today’s social mores onto old movie conventions and morality. Here’s the big problem I have with Deception: the premise makes ZERO sense. This was also the critics’ problem with Deception over 70 years ago. Why should Christine try to hide a lover from Karel? They weren’t married when the war separated them. She thought he was dead—for five years! Was she supposed to become a nun? First off, Christine’s living situation is suspect. Also, all the people that she invited to her and Karel’s wedding know…because they were her and Hollenius’ friends! What’s to keep any of them from spilling? Plus, the maestro crashes the couple’s reception and acts absurdly jealous. Finally, Hollenius threatens to tell Karel from the get-go.
Paul Henreid's Karel is constantly jealous; Bette's Christine endlessly lies!
Most importantly, Bette’s character has NOTHING to feel guilty about, even by 1940s standards. Still, many film write-ups I’ve read about Deception refer to Christine as the conductor’s mistress. According to good old Merriam-Webster, a mistress is a woman who is having extra-marital relations, usually with a married man. Neither character was married during their affair. Yet Davis’ Christine lies her head off, just to keep two hot-headed men appeased. 
Specifically, I gave up after Deception’s famous “dinner scene.” Claude Rains as Hollenius has a field day here. The conductor treats the couple to dine at a fancy French restaurant and proceeds in taking great delight in showing off his talents as a gourmand. The maestro’s game becomes so protracted that Karel becomes unglued—perhaps he was just “hangry.” Though devilishly performed by Rains, and with increased agitation by Davis and Henreid, the whole scene feels as forced as the film’s premise. There’s no story to go forward, so Deception is just all snarky cocktail party chat.
Joan Crawford loved to talk about Bette's B.O.! 'Deception' was Davis' first 'disappointment' for WB,
and the beginning of her slide in box office standing with her studio.
If you can get past the major plot obstacles—there’s fun to be had. The three leads, who all worked together in far better films, do well with the rather unappealing characters they’re playing. The dialogue is sharp—especially the digs by the catty conductor. The sets that depict upscale NYC life are marvelous, especially Bette’s loft with a skylight that covers the entire living room. The classical music and film’s score, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, set the mood.
Bette's character tries everything to soothe Claude's maestro...even grovelling!

Claude Rains does a delicious turn as Alexander Hollenius: childlike, sexy, jealous, devilish, sarcastic, egotistical, spiteful, and funny. Despite an intense performance by Paul Henreid, his character frequently comes off as peevish. Even with fits of violent jealousy, he ultimately just stews. In the original play, the Henreid’s character rises to the occasion and kills Hollenius. Wait just one minute! Since this a Bette Davis movie, where nobody is as good as Bette when she’s bad, Davis gets to do the dirty deed. Even so, Christine is a thankless character and Davis can’t do much more than to work herself up in a dither of denial.
Irving Rapper, who always seemed good with actors, does what he can with his collaborators, and gives Deception a smart visual style. The screenplay moves heaven and earth to compensate with occasional sharp dialogue to make up for the lack of story. My favorite credit for Deception is Jack Daniels listed as dialogue director—indeed!

Bette Davis as Christine Radcliffe: pianist with the Rita Hayworth pompadour!

Bette Davis often played older and in period pictures. But when Bette essayed modern roles, she kept her look simple. Here, for the only time in her career, Davis sported shoulder pads, a hugely popular but short-lived trend. In fact, in the climactic scene, Bette sports a white fur over her shoulders, and I thought of Carol Burnett’s “curtain dress” take-off on Scarlett O’Hara. And through most of the movie, Bette sports a WWII-era pompadour, with an uncharacteristically lush mane that Rita Hayworth would have envied.
Bette Davis praying that Ernest Haller's film noir-style lighting hides everything that's going on off-camera!
Perhaps Bette overcompensated because she wasn’t looking her best. Davis’ character is amusingly described as a music student when she met the maestro four years earlier—struggling and taking “rich, untalented students” to get by…and pushing 40! Pregnant and ill during Deception, plus her new marriage was to jealous, violent artist William Grant Sherry—life imitating art? Davis’ favorite cinematographer, Ernest Haller, did what he could. Note that in certain scenes, especially evening shots, Bette’s face is totally surrounded by shadow. Bette admitted later that she wasn’t at her best here. Perhaps driving Davis was that Joan Crawford was following up her Mildred Pierce comeback in a romantic melodrama with a classical music backdrop, Humoresque. Neither films were smash hits, but Joan’s came off better and also turned a better profit, since Bette ran up her film’s budget by her pregnancy, plus emotional and health issues.

Deception isn’t a dud, just an exercise in style—great style, for sure—but no substance. 
The happy newlyweds being taken out for dinner by the maestro, not realizing that they're the first course!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas in Connecticut 1945

You know why I think movie fans have a soft spot for the 1945 romantic comedy Christmas in Connecticut? Because we all want to live in that lovely country home! So what if it’s only a set? As 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon likes to say: “I want to go to there!”
Christmas in Connecticut is no It’s a Wonderful Life, but I still enjoy watching this war time Warner Brothers’ comedy every holiday season—it’s fast-paced fun, and filled with a great cast of stars and character actors.
If all the world's a sound stage, I'd like it to look like the set to 'Christmas in Connecticut!'

A rescued navy hero, Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) wishes to have Christmas with all the trimmings at home. Not just any home, but the country Connecticut cottage of Martha Stewart-esque writer Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck) and her family. This also inspires Lane’s boss, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), that he invites himself along, too. One problem…okay, several: Lane lives in a NYC apartment, is single, has no children, and can’t cook!
Dennis Morgan as the navy hero with food and romance on his mind.

Lane’s sort-of boyfriend, John Sloan, is an architect and offers his awesome abode to carry out the charade of Lane as queen of country living. Sloan also uses this opportunity to propose marriage. They bring Lane’s Uncle Felix, who has been feeding her all the recipes for her column, to do the actual cooking.

Well, when soldier Jones meets lifestyle queen Lane, sparks fly and they fall immediately in love. The rest of Christmas in Connecticut is a comedy of errors with Lane and her team trying to pull off the “perfect family” Christmas, with Jones and Yardley wanting to see Lane pull out all “the hostess with the mostess” moves. What ensues is farfetched, frothy fun.
Barbara Stanwyck as the city girl who writes about country living and cooking.

What I really love about Christmas in Connecticut is watching Barbara Stanwyck as no-nonsense but high-spirited Elizabeth Lane. Stanwyck later became renowned for all the tough cookies she played in film noirs and westerns, especially later on The Big Valley. However, in the ‘30s and ‘40s, Stanwyck played well in every genre. I watched Barbara and Henry Fonda in the classic The Lady Eve for the first time recently—and it confirmed what I already knew from Connecticut—that Stanwyck was skilled at comedy.
Writer Lane finds herself falling in love with hero Jones, in 'Christmas.'

Barbara rarely looked better than in Christmas in Connecticut. Unlike some movie divas, Stanwyck, while golden era glamorous, looked like a real person: simple make up, hair that actually moved, and clothes by Edith Head that looked like they didn’t belong to a drag queen.

I never thought much about Dennis Morgan until I saw him in1943’s The Hard Way this year on TCM. Morgan put a bit of an edge to his usual charm and it played well. In Connecticut, as the navy hero on the mend, Morgan is a charmer, all twinkling eyes and dimpled grin. Not hard to see why he was a wartime favorite!

To see Sydney Greenstreet, one of WB’s great movie villains, in a comedy, always throws me off. I always expect to see Stanwyck go into tough grrrl mode and butt heads with ominous Greenstreet. Here, Greenstreet’s got game as the increasingly confused magazine mogul Yardley.
S.Z. Sakall shows Barbara how to do the "flippety-flop" to show off her skills!

A special shout-out to S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as Uncle Felix. Sakall was one of Warners’ great character actors and he really steals the show here. Sakall is such fun as the Hungarian chef who can barely keep up with the pretense taking place. What I find touching about watching Sakall is that he’s so endearingly funny, yet in real life, he was a European refugee from Hitler’s regime. Sakall lost three sisters, his niece, and his wife’s brother and sister to the concentration camps. Talk about a trouper.
Dennis Morgan at the height of his boyish appeal as hero Jefferson Jones

The rest of the cast is stellar: Reginald Gardiner as dull boyfriend Sloane, Una O’Conner as the touchy housekeeper, Joyce Compton as southern comforting nurse Mary Lee, and funny characters right down to the bit parts.

Watch Christmas in Connecticut, nostalgic, yet poking knowing fun at the attempts to create a “perfect” Christmas.

And if all the world's a stage, why can't I get better lighting, like these two great stars? See the top of this shot!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Imitation of Life 1959

To my movie fan mind, Imitation of Life is really Imitation of Lana.
The 1959 remake is a soap opera as grand opera: every emotion is emblazoned, every scene is elegant pageantry, and the leading lady is an eyeful. Lana Turner’s glamorous face and figure mightily sold Imitation of Life, but ultimately, Juanita Moore was the movie’s heart.
Imitation of Life, once considered merely a slick soap opera, has been massively written about since its release. The movie has more facets than those diamonds in the opening credits: stylish soap opera; camp classic; early depiction of racism; tabloid take-off on Lana Turner; or director Douglas Sirk’s signature film.
Juanita Moore as Annie Johnson, the heart of 'Imitation of Life.'

The major focus on Life has been its look at racism, with reactions that range from praise for its subversiveness to scorn for its saccharine sentimentality. My take is that Imitation of Life is a product of its time. For 1959, a film about a young woman trying to pass as white was daring, especially in the guise of a soap opera. The dual storylines of Imitation of Life reminds me of that song from Mary Poppins: “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down!” Producer Ross Hunter cannily knew that audiences would flock to see scandalous Lana as superstar eye candy, which would make the tragic tale of a black maid and her daughter easier to swallow.
Lora's the star, Annie is still taking care of her!

Annie Johnson to Lora Meredith: “I like taking care of pretty things.”
For me, the first half of Imitation of Life is best. When the two women bond as they struggle to keep body and soul together, these are the film’s warmest moments. When Lora gamely does the flea powder commercial with the slobbering dog, it shows Lana at her most playful. The scenes with their young girls give Lana a chance to be vulnerable, and Juanita to be warmly appealing. Some have said that changing the dynamic between the two women’s characters, with the pancake business cut from the original, leaves their relationship lopsided. Why would Annie stay with Lora for so long? Why would Lora treat her any different than a maid? My thought is that Lora took them off the street when she saw Annie’s dire situation, and was grateful by how giving Annie was. The two bonded and created a home for their girls. Yes, it’s corny and dated, by today’s standards. Their relationship is like a ‘50s marriage: Lora brings home the bacon, and Annie’s keeps the home fires burning.
Lana is material girl Lora Meredith!
Lora Meredith: "I'm going up and up and up, and nobody's going to pull me down!"
Lana’s film career in the 1950s was basically a series of bombs, punctuated by crucial comebacks. Her last big hit was 1948’s The Three Musketeers. Turner then stayed off-screen for several years while married to tippler millionaire Bob Topping. When Lana left him, she came back to MGM, only to be stuck in a series of lackluster musicals and melodramas. Turner made her first comeback in 1952, in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. Just as MGM rewarded their stars Liz, Ava, and Grace for movie hits by sticking them into formula flops, Metro did the same with Turner, casting her in more costume potboilers. MGM and Lana Turner parted ways in ’56. This led to comeback #2 in Peyton Place, based on a bestseller as scandalous as Lana’s own life. With her biggest hit ever, Turner turned her career around, and scored Lana her only Oscar nomination.
Lana’s biggest scandal occurred on Good Friday, 1958. The Reader’s Digest version: Turner had taken up with gangster Johnny Stompanato, and was now trying to cut him loose. Their violent quarrels climaxed one evening in the star’s pink bedroom. Lana’s 14-year-old daughter Cheryl tried to intervene. When that didn’t work, the girl returned with a butcher knife and fatally stabbed the hoodlum. What ensued was one of Hollywood’ greatest scandals and Lana feared that she’d never work again.
Steve comes back into the picture, adored by Annie, Susie, and Miss Lora!

Shutterbug Steve Archer to Lora: "My camera could easily have a love affair with you."
Enter Ross Hunter, offering comeback #3. Hunter, a producer who adored golden era glamour girls, took a chance on Turner. For a reduced fee and a large cut of potential profits instead, Lana agreed to star in a remake of Imitation of Life. The ’34 original had Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers pairing up, to parlay the black woman’s secret pancake recipe into riches. As the ‘50s civil rights movement was under way, Hunter realized that a grinning black woman flipping pancakes would not go over big in ‘59. Audiences would also not find Lana peddling pancake syrup riveting, either. So, Lana’s Life re-cast her as an aspiring actress and Juanita Moore as the black woman who now heads up the home front with their daughters.
The opening scenes of 'Imitation of Life,' when adversity brings the women and their girls together.

While the soap is super slick, the most substantial story is the struggle of the black mother and daughter. Imagine Imitation of Life without Annie and Sarah Jane. Life would be just another light weight Lana Turner soap opera. By the same token, 1950s Hollywood would hardly make a movie just about a long-suffering black maid whose daughter tries to pass for white.
Some critics crow that Douglas Sirk tricked Lana, using Turner’s star power while undercutting her storyline, to emphasize the supporting characters’ more compelling story. I think Sirk was far classier than that. Douglas Sirk’s work always depicted the comparison of what should bring his film characters happiness, but never does. In Imitation of Life, Lana’s Lora becomes a huge star, but that doesn’t help with troubles at home. With Annie and Sarah Jane, homeless in the movie’s start, now living large with Lora, but they are as miserable as ever. Sirk’s ‘50s films always questioned the post-war American dream and conformity that was part of the package.
Lana as Lora, telling a predatory agent off. In real life, it wasn't so easy to say no in Hollywood's 'golden era.' Or now!

Agent Allen Loomis to actress Lora: “I’m in a position to do something for you.”
Lana agreed to play the errant actress in Imitation of Life, but she thought it hit a bit close to home. Indeed, stories circulated that Cheryl had a crush on Turner’s lover, Stompanato. Life’s original storyline had a triangle between the mother, her lover, and daughter. So, Hunter softened this by casting squeaky clean Sandra Dee as Susie and good guy John Gavin as photographer Steve Archer.
More damning was the lack of Lora’s parental skills. In the film, Annie essentially raises Susie, while Lora’s conquering Broadway and cozies up with the prolific playwright. In real life, Lana turned daughter Cheryl over to her mother’s care. This and a platoon of servants ran Turner’s home, while Lana reigned in Hollywood and reveled in her love life. But after the Stompanato scandal, harsh scrutiny was cast on Lana’s fitness as a parent. Yet, she faced all this down on film, along with other comparisons to her personal life.
Lana’s Lora Meredith is a post-war widow at the film’s opening, getting a late start as an actress. This is a nod to the fact that Lana was pushing 40 here. When Robert Alda—Hawkeye’s dad!—as slimy agent Allen Loomis, takes Turner on as a client, he expects more than 10 percent from Lana.
Here’s Life’s hootiest line, agent Loomis to struggling actress Lora: "If the dramatist's club wants to eat and sleep with you, you'll eat and sleep with them. If some producer with a hand as cold as a toad wants to do a painting of you in the nude—you'll accommodate him—for a very small part."
Lana as Lora tells him off and throws back his mink from whence it came. I think Joan, Lana, and Ava could attest, with a couple of drinks under their belts, that it wasn’t always so easy fighting off the wolves at MGM!
When Lora comes home from the “business date” with the slime ball agent, she tries to put on a brave face, but collapses in tears, at Annie’s knee. Annie offers to make her a glass of hot milk! Somehow, I think Lana would have requested something stronger.
Later, Lora catches a break as a model for a flea powder ad. Amazingly, this leads to an audition for a pivotal part in a Broadway play. Sounds absurd? Maybe, but Lauren Bacall was spotted in a magazine ad for the Red Cross, by director Howard Hawks’ wife. From that came To Have and to Have Not, and Humphrey Bogart, too.
Lana Turner and Sandra Dee in a rare happy moment as 'Imitation of Life's' mother and daughter Lora and Susie.

You can tell David Edwards is a playwright because he wears a cable knit turtleneck sweater. Lora’s audition is awful, made worse by her sparring over the playwright’s lines. But guess what? He likes her spunk, unlike Mary Tyler Moore’s Lou Grant! Lora not only gets the part, but wows audiences and critics alike. From there, a dozen years fly by, in one minute of montages, as Lora accepts bouquets and ovations. Thankfully, we are spared Lana Turner’s “acting” in plays that all seem to have the word “happy” in the titles. Lora becomes the playwright’s “protégé” in exchange for an empire, New York City. Still, like every movie character who’s ever desired fame and fortune, but once they climb Mount Everest… Hum a few bars of Dionne Warwick’s Dolls’ tune. That was never a problem for Lana Turner, who enjoyed every minute of being a superstar—minus the scandals, of course. Fortunately, Annie reminds Lora that she needs show business as much as it needs her.
Trouble in paradise. Sandra Dee's Susie is not the enthusiastic bartender that Christina Crawford was for her Mommie!

Like the real life Lana, Lora is a spend thrift who wants to give her daughter “everything I missed.” Lora doesn’t exactly miss much in the luxury department, either. Once Lora is a star, Lana is gorgeous in her Jean Louis outfits, while draped in one million dollars worth of jewels, on loan for Life. And Lora’s country home is gaw-geous, too, even with that mural passing as the picture window’s scenic view.
Lora’s latest dilemma is that she now wants to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress. In real life, Turner had to be talked into the few game changer performances she gave. You think Lana asked to play a hard drinking, floozy actress in The Bad and the Beautiful? Producer Jerry Wald wooed Turner into playing the mother of a teenager in Peyton Place, reminding Lana what it did for Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. And Hunter the diva whisperer soothed Turner’s Life jitters. In Imitation, Lora decides it’s time to do a serious play. Her playwright lover scoffs, "It's drama. No clothes, no sex. No fun." That would have stopped Lana right in her tracks! Naturally, Lora’s a hit, and takes her bows with hair pulled back, sporting a black turtle neck, with a grey skirt—you know, the typical social worker uniform.
Lora wants to finally relax, but then that hot new Italian director, whose name sounds suspiciously like Fellini, wants her in his next film. Off to Italy, the heck with a hiatus.
"Don't you act for me!" Whoops, wrong movie!

"You've given me everything a mother could but the thing I wanted most...your love!"
Meanwhile, Annie’s raised the girls, who are now teenagers. Photographer Steve’s back in the picture, with a touch of gray in his temples. Lana as Lora looks glamorously laminated, with shellacked hair, heavy makeup in every situation, with soft lighting and artful shadows. Lana was only 38 at the time, but two decades of drinking, smoking, and tanning took their toll. Though Turner had cosmetic touch ups later, it’s a jolt seeing 40ish actresses from the golden era looking much older than the plumped up pusses of today’s actors of the same age.
Lana’s got her game face on here, all posturing star insincerity some scenes, surprisingly authentic in others. Lora offer to give up Steve for her daughter’s sake reminds me of Faye Dunaway’s cry of “I’m not acting!” when Uncle Greg leaves Mommie Dearest. Here, Dee’s Susie cries, "Oh, Mama, stop acting!"

Annie Johnson: “It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are.”
I’ve never seen Shelley Winters in her best supporting actress turn in The Diary of Anne Frank. But I think Juanita Moore should have won the Oscar that year in Imitation of Life.
Near the end of the film, Annie Johnson talks about her tight-knit community, and Lora replies she never knew that she had outside friends. Annie softly, but evenly replies, “Why, Miss Lora, you never asked.” The camera goes back to Lora, a bit taken aback. Touché!
The scenes where Annie and Sara Jane are in constant conflict over the daughter’s struggle about her origins are the film’s dramatic high points. How can a viewer ever forget the scene when Annie brings her daughter’s red boots to school in a snowstorm, and the classroom is shocked to find out that she’s Sarah Jane’s mother? Or their final scene, where Annie flies across the country just to see her “baby” one more time? That scene, where Annie promises never to bother Sarah Jane again, is beautifully performed by Moore and Susan Kohner. Annie’s deathbed scene, with both Moore and Turner matching each other in emotion, is heartfelt. Juanita Moore’s character is the voice of reason and reality, as all the other characters are assuming roles or personas in their pursuit of happiness. Juanita Moore rises to the occasion to bring Annie to life.
'Imitation of Life's' infamous funeral finale...better have a box of tissues handy!

Young Sarah Jane Johnson: "Why do we always have to sleep in the back?"
Susan Kohner gives an intense portrayal as the adult Sarah Jane. She can pass for white, but if she stays home, she’s on the sidelines of mainstream white society. Kohner’s mother was Mexican actress Lupita Tovar and father was white, agent Paul Kohner. Kohner’s sultry appeal is knowing, especially when she escapes from home to find work in night clubs, as opposed to living under Turner’s antiseptic abode.
The film’s most startling scene is when Sarah Jane runs off to see her white boyfriend. Sirk stages it brilliantly: The two meet on a dark, rainy street corner. When Frankie, played by Troy Donahue, confronts her, Sarah Jane is seen in reflection on a store front window. When he asks about her mother, towering over her, Sarah Jane shrinks back. The two then share the screen. Frankie’s voice rises when he says, “Just tell me one thing. Is it true? Is your mother a _____? Tell me. Tell me!” As she screams in denial, he gives a beat down that is shocking for a ‘50s movie, especially this genre. The soundtrack goes wild, as Sarah Jane crumples onto the street, against a wall.
Susan Kohner, as Sarah Jane. Both Susan and Juanita Moore won Oscar nominations for their performances.

Sarah Jane Johnson: "I'm white. White! WHITE!"
Turner and Moore are backed by a strong supporting cast, but the two liabilities are John Gavin and Sandra Dee as Steve and Susie. For critics who think Rock Hudson was a wooden actor, try watching Gavin, a genuine block of wood. Hudson became a big star five years earlier in another Sirk film, Magnificent Obsession, with mature leading lady Jane Wyman.  Universal was obviously hoping the same would happen with Gavin in Lana’s Life. Rock, though not versatile, was a warm screen presence, and a huge fan of Lana’s. They would have had great screen chemistry, but Rock was now too big to appear alongside Lana. Another plus: Hudson was only four years younger than Turner, compared to Gavin’s 1l year difference.
 Imitation of Life was huge in Sandra Dee’s rise to stardom. I think Dee could be quite good. However, Dee’s persona, as dictated by Hollywood, was so dated and absurd that it makes Sandra very hard to take. Hyper, shrill, and at times, downright dippy—Sandra Dee was a cartoon of the American teenager. Sadly, she had a horrible personal life, suffered from drinking and eating disorders, and was cast aside by Hollywood when her brand of cute was out of date by the mid-60s.
A star's dilemma. Maybe a director's, too?

Lora: “Maybe I should see things as they really are… and not as I want them to be.”
I recently watched Torch Song and The Opposite Sex, two ‘50s MGM films with mature actresses. Re-watching Imitation of Life after these two was like a thunderbolt. Anyone who thinks that Douglas Sirk is overrated, watch some of these other stodgy films from the same era. The difference is obvious. Sirk had an artist’s eye, was a natural storyteller, and skilled at subtly weaving in his point of view, under the guise of a soap opera. Sirk is also sly at conveying what’s unsaid: Lora still does business with the agent who put the blatant make on her; or how Lora rationalizes her going relationship with playwright David; or Sara Jane’s forays into the “nightclub” world.

Sirk, a German who fled Nazi Europe with his Jewish wife and came to Hollywood, looked at American life with mixed feelings. He never fit in the Hollywood scene and his work was looked down upon at the time. Amazingly, after Imitation of Life, his biggest hit, Sirk left Hollywood and filmmaking, retiring to Switzerland. Douglas Sirk died in 1987, but lived long enough to enjoy a renaissance in his work, beginning in the late 1960s. Unlike most of its residents, Douglas Sirk left Hollywood on a high, and left behind a lovely legacy.
Juanita Moore, unlike Annie Johnson, lived a long happy life. Moore died in 2014 on New Year's Day, at age 99.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Opposite Sex 1956

The Opposite Sex is MGM’s 1956 misguided musical remake of their ‘39 classic, The Women. The re-told comic tale of a catty circle of women and their marital misadventures, though slightly tweaked, is basically the same. The major differences are that MGM decided to add music and men to the recipe—and the resulting concoction is one flat cinematic cake.

Yes, these dolls like to get the dish!
I don’t have a problem with remakes per se. But they are often Hollywood’s way to make a quick buck, and remakes rarely improve upon the original. MGM was on a remake rampage during postwar Hollywood, when studios were devastated after they were forced to divest themselves of their theaters and especially, by the competition of television. The fact that studios were slow to change with post-war audience tastes didn’t help, either. Especially, MGM, who seemed intent on remaking their entire film library—they just added color, widescreen, and zero creativity.
The big confrontation in 'The Opposite Sex.'

After leaving MGM in ’53, June Allyson had a good run of playing noble wives to Jimmy Stewart, William Holden, Alan Ladd, Cornell Wilde, etc. Then she came back to MGM in ‘56 to film The Opposite Sex, to play Norma Shearer’s role of the long-suffering wife. June should have heeded fellow former MGM star Joan Crawford’s mistake, in returning to her alma mater to film Torch Song!

June Allyson as the good wife in this remake of 'The Women.'

Speaking of remakes, June Allyson herself appeared in three in a row. In 1956, Allyson headlined The Opposite Sex, a musical remake of MGM’s The Women. The same year, June appeared opposite Jack Lemmon in You Can’t Run Away From It, a musical remake of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. Finally, in ’57, June took over Carole Lombard’s most famous role as the scatterbrained society girl in My Man Godfrey, opposite David Niven. Amazingly, this wasn’t a musical remake! This tepid trio, plus a few ill-advised attempts at heavy drama pretty much demolished Allyson’s film career. June, who was pushing 40 during this time, had already outlasted many contemporaries, and soon got her audience back on television.

Ann Sheridan was already past 40 when she appeared in The Opposite Sex. As the writer who acerbically notes the society women’s shenanigans, the role captures Sheridan’s no-nonsense side. However, “Amanda” doesn’t possess Sheridan’s sassy good humor that made her renowned in the ‘40s as the “Oomph Girl.” And since The Opposite Sex doesn’t play to most of this great cast’s strengths, this movie lacks oomph, as well.

Joan Blondell as the always pregnant Edith and Dolores Gray's gossip Sylvia.
Joan Blondell plays Edith Potter, the always pregnant pal with a platoon of kids. Blondell is a bright spot in any movie, but here, she’s 50 and looks it, and not particularly believable as a 30-something society woman.
Ann Miller, who plays the sassy Paulette Goddard role, doesn’t get to sing and dance in this musical—okayyy… Annie’s big scene is the catfight at the Reno divorce ranch, and then she’s on the sidelines for the movie’s remainder. The Opposite Sex and The Great American Pastime, a minor league comedy about Little League baseball, ended Miller’s contract at MGM.
Agnes Moorehead, MGM’s great character actress, plays a surprisingly more straightforward version of the Duchess role, played to the hilt by Mary Boland in ‘39. Though Moorehead’s contract ended with Metro in ’51 after Showboat, she freelanced with the studio for another 15 years. In the ‘60s, Agnes gained a whole new audience on television as Endora, the witchy mother-in-law on Bewitched.

Delores Gray as Sylvia Fowler.
RuPaul as the opposite sex!

Dolores Gray plays the showy role of Sylvia Fowler, the cattiest of the characters. One of those “big” Broadway personalities who didn’t fare well in Hollywood, Gray gives her all, but comes off preening like RuPaul. The fact that Dolores always looked like she just sucked on a lemon didn’t help her screen image, either. Gray’s short-term contract with MGM ended the next year with Designing Woman, yet another Metro remake, of the fabled Tracy-Hepburn comedy, Woman of the Year.
In a cast of mature actresses, there’s 23-year-old Joan Collins as Crystal Allen. The husband-stealing vixen role had helped Joan Crawford regain her footing at Metro back in ’39. Collins, once called “the poor man’s Elizabeth Taylor,” certainly is dolled up at Taylor’s home studio to look as much like Elizabeth as possible. Yet, as soon as Collins opens her mouth, the effect is ruined. Joan’s attempt at an American accent, to hide her British accent, gives her slightly nasal voice an artificial tone. Joan’s way with brittle bitchy humor is evident even here, but there’s none of the conviction or empathy that is the mark of a great star, like Joan Crawford or Elizabeth Taylor. Though she’s occasionally amusing, there’s no reason to care about Collins’ Crystal. Joan comes off as cartoonish and flat as she previously did in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, Fox’s greatest effort to make her a star. Collins never looked better on film, but great movie careers aren’t built on looking like another star, as many ‘50s Marilyn imitators can attest.
Don’t get me wrong. While the cast of The Opposite Sex doesn’t have the pedigree of Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell, they are all stellar stars in their own right. But I can’t help but feeling that this movie must have seemed dated even in 1956, when so many stars in this cast were already considered past their sell by date.

MGM was selling 'The Opposite Sex' as hot stuff when the cast was actually past their sell by date by 1956.

Collins' Alexis and Evans' Krystal faking it on 'Dynasty!'

Side note to Dynasty fans: Joan Collins hated those Alexis/Krystal “catfight” scenes and stuntmen were routinely used. The Opposite Sex may just be why Joan hates fight scenes. When June’s wife confronts Joan’s homewrecker, the scene culminates in a slap. Apparently, director David Miller told June to not pull her punches and really slap Joan. He then told Collins that Allyson would stop just before connecting. Well, 5’1” June was a powerhouse, because she wallops Joan so hard that Collins’ earring goes flying. Joan was not happy.

Allyson slaps Joan's Crystal Allen for real in 'The Opposite Sex.' Note that Collin's earring goes flying!

For a musical, The Opposite Sex’ songs are utterly awful. Except for “The Young Man with a Horn,” a June Allyson hit reprised from Two Girls and a Sailor a dozen years before, the “original songs” feel anything but. They are mostly mock show tunes are right up there with Valley of the Dolls in the cringe-worthy department.
June's jumpsuit musical number, tastefully color-coordinated!
Was Jack June's fashion inspiration here?

June Allyson as a singer is an acquired taste. If you enjoy her raspy, flat singing, you’re in for a treat. If not, you might puzzle over June Allyson singing about needing sex “Now, Baby, Now,” dressed in a blue jumpsuit that makes her resemble Mrs. Jack LaLanne. Most odd is a teary ballad, sandwiched between her sandpapery-voiced, swingin’ numbers. June lip synchs badly to a Doris Day-type singer named Jo Ann Greer, in a key dramatic moment—so obviously not her. At least it wasn’t India Adams, Joan Crawford’s dramatic dubber from Torch Song!

Dick Shawn and his dolls putting over the title musical number.
Dick Shawn, an insufferable Broadway comedian, sings the movie’s title number as a psychiatrist’s patient—which seems especially apt for this film. Shawn’s hung up on beautiful women, yowling about them, and makes like Jerry Lewis in over-aged juvenile mode. The women he dreams about end up on the office’s fire place mantel, gyrating along. And Jim Backus is the shrink, treating us to a few Mr. Magoo mannerisms to emphasize Dick’s horniness. 

Joan Collins' bananas musical number!
“Yellow Gold (The Banana Song)” features some calypso singing guy, along with Joan Collins and Morticia Addams herself, Carolyn Jones, in dark makeup as tropical island beauties. At least these gals makeup looks closer to the “Light Egyptian” makeup MGM created for Lena Horne than the “Mocha Mommie” look that Joan Crawford sported in her camp classic number “Two-Faced Woman.”

Aside from the mind-numbing musical numbers, there’s other big difference in The Opposite Sex from The Women. The much-talked about men are actually seen and not just talked about. However, when the only two male characters that even register are Leslie Nielson as Allyson’s straying hubby and Jeff Richards as singing cowboy Buck Winston, you wonder why the screenwriters even bothered.

Aside from the “improvements,” the big problem is that this movie feels 100 percent artificial and from a past era. Except for establishing shots in NYC, everything is shot on a sound stage and looks like it.
Is Leslie Nielsen calling his agent?

Another pet peeve: Why are most of MGM’s sets in their ‘50s and early ‘60s comedies and dramas seem to be visions of pale pink and blue? Their watercolor-like Metro Color only emphasizes the baby nursery color palette.

The Helen Rose costumes are so over the top that they range from drag queen-friendly to flat out fug-llly. The movie’s color schemes try hard to be “modern” but also suggest the influence of director Vincente Minnelli’s renowned use of unusual color combos. Here, in lesser hands, they just look nausea-inducing, especially in the musical numbers: hot pink costumes surrounded by bananas; June’s powder blue jumpsuit surrounded by purple bass instruments and aqua stage curtains; and the casts’ rainbow connection costumes whenever they come together in a group scene.
A rainbow connection of MGM fashion...and Buck Winston, too!

The Opposite Sex is still watchable for star-gazing, but there’s also something sad here, knowing that this cast was on their way out as top Hollywood movie stars. Even young Joan Collins had to wait another 25 years before TV’s Dynasty finally made her a star.  The only thing sadder was another remake of The Women in 2008. This version featured the same mixed bag type of stars as The Opposite Sex. Murphy Brown’s Diane English’s attempt to update the original story was even more misguided than the ’56 version, with most of its wit and vitality stripped away.

Joan Collins getting the Taylor treatment at home girl Liz' studio MGM.

Here’s a recap for all these women: 1939’s The Women is a must-see; ‘56’s The Opposite Sex is a musty maybe, and ‘08’s The Women is a must-avoid!
The cast of 'The Opposite Sex' pose on their leaning boards to keep their Helen Rose gowns wrinkle-free!