Saturday, January 19, 2019

When Sinatra Met Simon: 'Come Blow Your Horn' 1963

'Come Blow Your Horn' lets 1963-vintage Sinatra toot his own horn as a swinging bachelor!

 There’s something fascinating about '60s Sinatra, his legend already in place, as Frank’s film roles rapidly morphed into his off-screen persona. 
I'm of the school who thinks Frank Sinatra was a refreshingly natural actor, especially in an era when movie acting was still theatrical. Sinatra could be cynical yet romantic, wise-cracking, sincere, with a tough but tender approach that was most appealing—not unlike his idol, Humphrey Bogart. Though he possessed great eyes and smile, I never thought Frankie was that handsome and for most of his career, he was a runt of a guy. Yet, watching him in his heyday, I totally get why women were wild for Old Blue Eyes. My maternal grandmother was one of them!
Frank has all of "Horn's" horny ladies under his spell. Barbara Rush, left, is the good girl with footie jammies!

Once the Rat Pack era reigned, films like The Manchurian Candidate were fewer, and lazy genre movies that were self-referential were the name of the game. And like many post-war superstars who started resting on their laurels later, Sinatra’s movie star status dropped fast after mid-60s cinematic game changers like Blow Up and Bonnie and Clyde.
Sinatra on the set of  'Horn': Note the bike's signature. Nobody ever said Sinatra was PC!

Come Blow Your Horn was Neil Simon's first hit play, and the only one for which he didn't write the screenplay. Though commercially successful, Simon wasn't pleased with the way Horn was shoe-horned into fitting Frank's own living large bachelorhood. After this, Simon wrote a string of smashes, starting with Barefoot in the Park, and “Doc” was able to main control over subsequent screen adaptations of his plays.
Sinatra as the swinging bachelor, with Barbara Rush as the patient good girl friend.

Not that the role of freewheeling bachelor wasn’t suited to Frank. Sinatra seems to be having fun here, shows his flair for comedy, and is warm and sexy as hell. But the role of Alan Baker, a Jewish guy, as played by the world's most famous Sicilian, Francis Albert Sinatra?! The discrepancy is more obvious when Lee J. Cobb and Molly Picon excruciatingly play Sinatra’s cliché Jewish parents, who worry about their swinging older son, as he takes his “kid” brother under his wing. It’s strange enough that swinger Sinatra has a kid brother who's just turned 21 and he’s supposed to be in his late 30s. This is compounded by the fact that Frank was actually in his late 40s—and looking it. Any time callow Tony Bill shares a scene with Sinatra, one thinks of Frank Jr., with a little of junior playboy Warren Beatty thrown in!
Even artful lighting couldn't hide the fact that Sinatra wouldn't get away with playing "younger" much longer.

Even stranger still is Lee J. Cobb as the father, who was only four years older than Sinatra. And Jill St. John, as the bimbo bombshell, like Tony Bill, was a quarter of a century younger than Frank. With Sinatra the Superstar dropped into the middle of all this Simon sitcom silliness, it feels like a future SNL sketch.
No, this isn't Frank Sinatra starring in 'Fifty Shades of Orange!' It's just Old Blues favorite color.

Also, the Baker family business is plastic fruit sales, yet the family lives in a lavish '60s modern house, and Frank lives in a swanky pad worthy of Sinatra himself, right down to the Chairman of the Board's favorite shades of orange. 
All of this did not go unnoted at the time, especially by the New York Times’ resident grumpy critic, Bosley Crowther. However, a number of critics gave it a passing grade at the time—and a few even now!—but Come Blow Your Horn seems blaringly obvious, dated, and nonsensical today.
There's a lot of talent here: Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin at the helm; a great cast; William Daniels' cinematography and Edith Head costumes;  a lavish set design; some snappy lines; even Frank’s stopping the picture while singing the title tune. Still, it's all so over the top, that it smothers Simon's simple story.
Jill St. John sports this Edith Head get up as she phones in a Marilyn Monroe impersonation for 'Horn.'

The women are all Playboy-era stereotypes, wearing tons of hair and makeup: Jill St. John, doing a one-dimensional Marilyn Monroe impersonation (much better later as the wisecracking divorcee in Sinatra’s Tony Rome); Phyllis McGuire, looking and acting like a fierce drag queen, as the Texas store shopper; and lovely and intelligent Barbara Rush, as the simpering girlfriend, waiting for Frank propose. Rush is so goody-goody, she even sleeps in pajamas with footies! This was also one of the first films where EVERY woman who crosses Sinatra’s path is entranced by him.
The cast of  1963's 'Come Blow Your Horn.'

The sexual attitudes and social humor of Come Blow Your Horn are the last hurrah of a more “innocent” time, when this farce was released in the summer of ‘63. In fact, there's a party scene where a guest is hypnotized into seeking out John F. Kennedy. She approaches Sinatra as JFK, to berate him about some of his policies, with Frank replying in a clever Kennedy impersonation. This was the last gasp of the post-war ring-a-ding era—when good times meant drinking, smoking, living large, and chasing women. To me, Come Blow Your Horn is more of a perversely fascinating time capsule, than timeless entertainment.
'Come Blow Your Horn' is Frank's show all the way.

Monday, January 7, 2019

It's Curtains for 'The Cobweb' 1955

One flew away from the cuckoo's nest!

“The trouble began…” So begins the fevered film version of William Gibson’s novel, The Cobweb. Gibson, best known as the playwright of The Miracle Worker and Two for the Seesaw, wrote the story, inspired by his psychotherapist wife's tenure at The Menninger Clinic. I’ve never read the book, but somehow I don't think the brilliant Gibson plotted The Cobweb like another MGM Grand Hotel-style, all-star soap opera. 
Pulp fiction? Playwright William Gibson's novel.

The original casting for the film’s romantic triangle was MGM mannequins Robert Taylor, Lana Turner, and Grace Kelly—this was more apt for the super-glam soap opera. Instead, familiar film noir faces Richard Widmark, Gloria Grahame, and Lauren Bacall assumed the roles of the idealistic clinic head, dissatisfied wife, and the lonely art therapist—which gives the film a bit of grit.
Sensitive Stevie Holte talks about flowers, art, and life with sultry and sweaty doctor's wife, played by Grahame.

Widmark’s Dr. McIver has the cockeyed notion that patients should be treated like people, not caged animals, which has the old guard gunning for him, natch. On the home front, his wife Karen is bored in EVERY way. Since the doc is an idealist, Meg, the other woman who pines for him, is also so very noble.
Chaos over curtains for the library!

The film depicts the institution's staff and family as neurotic as the patients. At one point, Widmark declares that he feels they are all trapped—yes—in a cobweb! Only in the melodramatic world of Vincente Minnelli would a film's drama hinge on drapes. And it's curtains for The Cobweb characters, as the various contingents are determined to have their way over the patient lounge's new decor: Lillian Gish as the domineering Miss Inch is aptly named, as she never gives an one, and wants the curtains made cheap; Gloria Grahame's Vicki needs a project, with money or permission no object; and Lauren Bacall's art therapist Meg has the progressive idea of letting an angst-ridden artist/patient design them. Who will prevail?
Susan Strasberg & John Kerr play two patients, attracted to each other, who venture to the outside world on a date.

MGM's then-resident sensitive young man John Kerr plays the troubled Steve Holte, who runs away from the clinic at the start and near the end of the film! While his performance is as good as the rest of the cast, Kerr's feral look and lack of charisma make it easy to see why his career was short-lived.
One of many strange moments, when Richard Widmark tucks in his unbuttoned shirt without unbuttoning his pants!

Richard Widmark was one of those golden era actors who seemed so natural on the screen and makes the preposterous proceedings almost believable here. Gloria Grahame's natural brass as his wife gives the soapiness some much needed humor. Also, was it in Gloria's contract that she always must look slightly sweaty? I was getting a Maggie the Cat vibe from Grahame here, as the frustrated wife who needs to cool off.
Lauren Bacall got second billing, but fourth-billed Gloria Grahame got all the scenes!

The movie is so overstuffed with characters and situations that Lauren Bacall has nothing to do but look lovely and lonely from the sidelines. Bacall doesn't even have a scene of her own until thirty minutes in and her first kiss with Widmark comes near the film’s finale. Then-rising star Susan Strasberg has it even worse. Aside from a few scenes with Kerr toward the end, Strasberg’s always in the group scenes. Surprising, since Susan broke out big in Picnic the same year.
Gloria grabs the fabrics situation by the horn in this climactic curtain scene!

Lillian Gish is amusingly hammy as the firebrand Victoria Inch. And whoever thought of Charles Boyer for Dev, the clinic's former head honcho, must have been out of their mind. As the deluded, drunken, ladies man, Boyer, with his inimitable French accent, is somehow stuck out in the Kansas cornfields. He comes across like Pepe LePew, especially when drooling over Grahame’s character. Was it considered clever to cast Hollywood's most famous neurotic, Oscar Levant, as a mother fixated patient? For me, while rightly famed for his wit, his screen presence always escaped me. 
Fans of golden era Hollywood melodrama will probably enjoy The Cobweb, but most movie watchers will draw the drapes on this florid film.
Gloria Grahame brings the fever AND the floral curtains to 'The Cobweb!'

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy New Year from Rick!

Happy New Year to all my film friends here! This still is from "Made for Each Other," a lovely 1939 soap opera starring Jimmy Stewart and the great Carole Lombard, who was just as adept at drama as she was at comedy. Check it out, the movie is available for free all over the internet. I promise to be writing more in 2019, than the last few months. I'm looking to write with more frequency, but shorter posts...stay tuned!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Christmas Memory 1966

Geraldine Page won an Emmy as eccentric but loving Cousin Sook in Truman Capote's 'A Christmas Memory.'

Truman’s Capote's classic A Christmas Memory, based on his boyhood, was first a fondly remembered television special aired in December of 1966. Truman was at the height of his literary career with his crime classic, In Cold Blood. A Christmas Memory is the total opposite of that epic piece of work, and is a sweet remembrance inspired by Capote’s childhood time spent with poor relatives. 
Donnie Melvin is naturally appealing as "Buddy," so nicknamed by Page's Sook after a childhood friend.

The slight story, told with great feeling, shows the bond between the precocious little boy, Buddy, and his much older, eccentric cousin. Together, they prepare for their annual ritual of making fruitcakes, gifted to acquaintances and strangers that they admire. Cousin Sook, played by Geraldine Page in one of her greatest roles, has the memorable opening line: “Oh, my… it’s fruitcake weather.”
The unlikely pair head off with their dog, Queenie. They ignore the “No Trespassing” sign and pilfer pecans from a neighbor's farm, filling an old baby buggy. Later, with money earned throughout the year, they go to town to buy ingredients for their fruitcakes. Just listening to Geraldine Page recite her grocery list to the storekeeper alone is worth watching this story.
On the way home, they buy whiskey from Ha Ha Jones, an Indian who seems fearsome at first, but gives them the booze for free, in exchange for a fruitcake.
Sook and Buddy pay a visit to Ha Ha Jones to buy some hooch for their fruitcakes!

It's really a two character story, with Donnie Melvin quite appealing as little Buddy, but it is Geraldine Page's show all the way. Page was a born actress, no doubt, but she could also be an outrageous ham. As Sook, Geraldine gives one of her greatest and most subtle performances. Page is effortlessly believable as a child-like woman who has lived a small life, but with great heart. Amazingly, Page was only 42 when she played this heart-warming woman. She has a number of sweet moments, as when she refuses to sell the Christmas tree she and Buddy have cut down, to a snooty local. Or when Sook and Buddy finish off the bit of whiskey left over from baking. The lovely last scene, with Buddy and Sook flying their handmade kites on Christmas Day, with Capote’s narration and snippets of Page’s dialogue, offers a postscript to this last happy day together that is simple, yet still so touching.
The bittersweet ending to 'A Christmas Memory,' with Buddy and Sook carefree as they fly their handmade kites. 

A Christmas Memory was directed by Frank Perry, back when he made artistic films, like David and Lisa and Last Summer, before moving on to camp classics like Mommie Dearest and Monsignor. His wife Eleanor Perry helped write the teleplay with Capote. Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood) was one of the cinematographers and the score by Meyer Kupferman is both sweet and melancholy. This was filmed on location in Snowdoun, Alabama, a small town that passed for the Depression-era setting, was suggested by Truman's lifelong friend, Harper Lee.
Geraldine Page, at 42, playing a 60-something year-old spinster.

A Christmas Memory has been told in every way, from audio books to Broadway to opera. But the most memorable telling is still the Geraldine Page television version. You can find faded but watchable versions on YouTube, as well as an audio reading of A Christmas Memory by author Capote, where you can savor Truman’s way with words. Either way, enjoy.
Geraldine Page with Truman Capote.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Boom! 1968

Elizabeth Taylor as the dignified, understated Flora "Sissy" Goforth!

"Boom! The shock of each moment of still being alive." So says Richard Burton’s Chris Flanders to Elizabeth Taylor’s Flora “Sissy” Goforth, explaining his repeated intonation “boom” to the sound of the ocean crashing against the shore of her fabulous estate.
I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor but there’s no denying that 1968’s Boom! was a commercial and critical bomb. By the film’s finale, all that most critics and cinemagoers felt was the shock of still being awake!
'Boom!' was the Burtons' big flop that signified they were over, suddenly that summer in '68.

When the film was dropped into theaters during the summer of '68, the blasting reviews and the empty theater seats confirmed that ‘The Burtons’ were no longer the box office sure thing. I won't fall into the revisionist trap that every famous past film flop is now a misunderstood movie masterpiece. But Boom! is not bottom of the barrel filmmaking, where it’s been relegated to since its release. Yes, this Tennessee Williams drama is wildly uneven. Yet, Boom! has some genuine merits, and also some myths that deserve to be dispelled. 

The kneejerk negative reaction to Boom! remains so strong that you may ask, what are its positive points? For starters, John Barry (of James Bond fame) composed a remarkable score that may be the best thing about this film. The Boom! soundtrack is wistful, haunting, romantic, menacing, melancholy, and most of all, gives this erratic film an emotional anchor. I own and love this soundtrack. A close second is the eye-popping set that depicts Mrs. Goforth’s luxurious white villa, backed by the stunning Sardinia scenery. The set design is by Richard MacDonald, which is beautifully and insinuatingly photographed by Douglas Slocombe. With these brilliant artists, director Joseph Losey brings the look and sound of this film together masterfully.
Music for lovers? Composer John Barry, of  James Bond fame,
delivers one of his best scores in 'Boom!'

I know this is second-rate Williams, but even second tier Tennessee is better than most. This was also a rare opportunity when Williams got to write the screenplay to his own work. There are some sharp lines and thoughtful musings on people, life, and mortality. Williams, who transferred his own feelings onto his female characters, had lost his longtime partner while writing this play, as The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. This was exacerbated by the playwright’s fears that after a string of hits, his time may have passed, just like that milk train. Five years later, writing the piece as Boom!, Williams was acutely aware that he was no longer in vogue. A shame, since the premise of Milk Train/Boom! is initially intriguing: One of the world’s wealthiest women, who appears to be terminally ill, is visited by a mysterious stranger, a poet who may be her next lover or really just an escort to her last hurrah.
The Burtons and Noel Coward on location.

Elizabeth Taylor once said that "nobody ever set out to make a bad movie." Even that quote gets mocked, but I think ET was sincere. Though the Burtons collected their usual million dollar fee, plus another quarter million each in overtime, in his later published journals, Richard wrote at length about Boom! From his entries, it was obvious that the Burtons thought this picture was worth doing and took it seriously.
It was Elizabeth's idea to wear nearly all white, as dying Sissy, like death shrouds, throughout 'Boom!'

Most critics cite that the biggest problem with Boom! is that the Burtons were miscast—Elizabeth far too young, and Burton too old—for their roles as the rich bitch and the ambiguous poet. Taylor certainly undercuts Flora “Sissy” Goforth by looking robust and radiant, since she's only got two days to live. When I read the play, I put Sissy somewhere in her 60s, whereas ET was then only 36. Yet, I can see why Elizabeth was chosen, beyond her box office allure. Taylor was prone to precarious health, and nearly died six years earlier, at age 29. Like Sissy, ET sported a string of husbands and gems. Also, Taylor was already a legend, with a fearsome reputation. But instead of aging up, as she did as Martha two years before, she looks like Mrs. Burton at a jet set ball. Taylor's played comic bitches well, and serious bitches with empathy. But Sissy Goforth is one bitch who becomes a bore fast.
And the blame for that goes to Tennessee Williams. He inadvertently pinpointed the biggest problem with this piece, namely, society types like the “heroine,” Sissy Goforth: “These are very tiring women, but fascinating.”  Well, fascinating for a while, anyway. Sissy is totally self-absorbed and doesn't offer a bit of sympathy to anybody else, interested only in her empire. And Sissy is just as much of an unrelenting bitch in the play as in the movie, that by the finale of both, you’re ready to scream, “Die, already!”
Richard Burton as Chris Flanders. Poet? Angel of Death? Hustler? Hard to say!

Richard Burton is always described as too old for poet Chris Flanders, which is not quite true. In the play, Flanders is 35, “hardly a chicken,” as Sissy wryly notes, when she finds his passport after rifling through his belongings. Burton was 43 but not aging well—still, Chris wasn't a twink. Perhaps this perception started when boyish Tab Hunter played him on Broadway. The play’s notes describe Chris as looking like an embattled boxer. Does Burton fit the description, or was he merely punch drunk? Burton seems restrained, but compared to the howling tornado that is Taylor, who wouldn't? He has some sly moments and gives an intelligent reading, but somebody menacingly handsome, like Terence Stamp, would have been marvelous. Burton seems a bit weary at times, but the accusation of being drunk or hung over is just a cheap shot. For those who think Burton was on alcohol-induced autopilot, compare his performance in Boom! with Hammersmith is Out or Bluebeard five years later.
The other big problem with Boom! is that the story expires long before Mrs. Goforth. Once the Witch of Capri leaves and Sissy realizes the end is near, it's not exactly a race to the death... more like a caterwauling crawl to the crypt. It also doesn’t help that Williams had reduced himself from intoxicating rhetoric to intoxicated repetition, with too many lines like: "What's human or inhuman is not for human decision!"
Tennessee Williams and Elizabeth Taylor  on the set of 'Boom!' This was a career crossroads for both of them.

Williams was facing his unhappy fifties during the ‘60s, which he called his ‘stoned age.’ Famed stage actress Marion Seldes, who played Sissy’s secretary, Blackie, in the original Broadway version, said, “It's an imperfect play, but it's beautifully imperfect.'' Ah, Tennessee couldn’t have put it better himself!
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’s title didn’t have that late ‘60s film pizzazz. So the movie’s opening title became Boom. When the film was released, the posters added boundless excitement by calling it Boom! My suggestion: Suddenly, Sissy's Last Summer!
Gossip has had it that everyone involved was bombed on Boom! These tales are often repeated by film writers or Internet talking heads with no real proof or even a sense that they have actually seen the movie. The film’s history is not helped by John Waters, who has made a cottage industry with his fatuous comments on the film, such as Elizabeth was so drunk that she didn't realize that the Boom! set was not a real house. I realize there are people who truly want to believe this kind of nonsense. Come on—Elizabeth had been making movies for 25 years, I think she could tell a set from a home—no matter if Taylor was tipsy or not. I'm not saying that what went on the leisurely Boom! shoot was like bible school, but Taylor’s performance is too sharp to be called drunken bumbling. Gossips cite ET's stumble while telling Coward's Witch of Capri about a typhoon benefit as she performs some kabuki moves, saying tycoon instead, while stumbling slightly. The word switch was probably a fluffed line, but the stumble is straight out of the original play, a signal to the Witch of Capri that the rumors of Sissy’s ill health are true.
No, that's not Audrey Hepburn showing pal Elizabeth some exercise moves. ET's getting kabuki instruction, really!

Other critics have seized on Taylor's grand accent that occasionally slips into bellowing broad when barking orders. Again, this is right out of the play: Sissy is a swanky dame who likes to give the airs of a great lady. Mrs. Goforth came from poor white trash from Georgia when she met her first millionaire hubby, as a chorus girl. She has married and buried a string of tycoons, and is now a world-famous, wealthy widow. Sissy grandly recites her memoirs to Blackie, which sounds like a cross between Patrick Dennis’ Little Me and Joan Crawford’s A Portrait of Joan.
I'm hardly saying this is a great Taylor performance—while energetic, it's ultimately one-note. ET’s Boom! broad is too broad. Sissy Goforth is hell on wheels and could use some typical Taylor empathy. One quiet moment occurs when Sissy tells Blackie what she really needs is some summer lovin', and Elizabeth is amusing, droll, world weary, and a bit sad. 
My favorite scene and quote from 'Boom!' And I dig those shades, especially indoors!

Taylor biographer Alexander Walker wrote that director Losey had a London doctor write up a diagnosis for Sissy Goforth’s illness, so that Taylor could gradually depict her decline. Sissy’s malady was a form of leukemia, with symptoms of euphoria intermingled with depression, exacerbated by the shots and booze that she constantly intakes. Mrs. Goforth’s circumstances—"Urgentissimo... like everything else this summer!"—were not unlike those of Vivien Leigh, who long suffered from tuberculosis (and later leukemia complications), along with manic depression, and had recently died. Taylor, a huge admirer of Leigh, was said to have been inspired by her later unhappy years as Sissy.
"Husbands...lovers...everything...a memory!" Noel Coward, the world weary Witch of Capri, looks on.

Sissy to the Witch of Capri: "Has it ever occurred to you that life is all memory? Except for each present moment that goes by so quickly you can hardly catch it?" Director Losey suggested Taylor play the scene where she’s dictating memories of her many husbands for laughs, and Elizabeth snapped back, “I do not find such a life funny.” Taylor reconsidered, because Sissy reciting her list of hubbies is grandly campy. Despite Losey’s tips, it doesn't seem he was a strong director of star actors. Some humor—and humanity—might have lightened this role, because the character is just as churlish on the printed page as in Taylor’s performance.
Elizabeth Taylor, like Sissy Goforth, shared memories of her favorite late husbands. ET appeared on TV shortly after 'Boom!,' in a special marking the 10 year anniversary of Mike Todd's death in a plane crash. Taylor was subdued and slightly melancholy here. Toward the end of her life, ET's memories became nearly as dramatic as Mrs. Goforth's.

Elizabeth was then coming up on the ten year anniversary of third husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash, and he was very much on her mind during shooting Boom! And some of Williams’ lines echoed at least the tabloid version of Taylor’s life: “Well, well. I've escorted six husbands to the eternal threshold and come back alone without them. Now it's my turn. I've no choice but to do it, but I want to do it alone. I don't want to be escorted. I want to go forth alone. And you... you counted on touching my heart because you knew I was dying. Well, you miscalculated with this one. The milk train doesn't stop here anymore.”
Given that Taylor was plump pretty much after 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' I think ET looks stylish here, a decade later.

There were a lot of knocks on Taylor's weight here, but frankly she doesn't look overly heavy, no more than she had in her last few movies, including the early scenes of Virginia Woolf. Her weight problem showed in her fabled face soon after, in Losey's Secret Ceremony. Aside from her crazy kabuki getup—again from the play—Taylor's clothes suit her full figure and are quite simple. Karl Lagerfeld was the lead designer for Tiziani of Rome, who John Waters laughingly “wondered” who or what the heck that was. Waters should have tried Google.
ET's motto: More is better!

I found it amusing that the dying Sissy changed her costumes and hair in nearly every scene. This is certainly how Cher would ‘go forth’ into the good night! For those who think Taylor's look was over the top, think late '60s Priscilla Presley, Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Valley of the Dolls, or Monica Vitti in Losey’s previous camp fest, Modesty Blaise.

Elizabeth Taylor at this point reminds me of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. Both were in their late 30s, both were miscast, both working with cerebral directors in their baroque phase. Both are playing full blast, with nary a nuance, to overcompensate. Ironically, Taylor had recently played Martha, a role that parodies Davis in Forest. The difference was that while both were overweight, over-made up and wigged out, Taylor was supposed to be older and Davis younger. The other difference was that Taylor, despite her weight, still looked lovely, whereas Davis looked prematurely aged. Both roles set them firmly on the path of caricature forever after.
"I don't bray!" Whoops, wrong movie! 

The supporting cast is negligible. Noel Coward is just as one-note campy here (in reverse gender casting) as the Witch of Capri as he was in Bunny Lake is Missing. I kept thinking how wonderful Bette Davis would have been as the Witch of Capri. Hell, she would have been a great Sissy Goforth, and the right age! Joanna Shimkus is bland as long-suffering secretary Blackie and the most interesting thing about Michael Nunn as sadistic guard Rudy is that he’s short.
"We've got Virginia Woolf in color!" crowed one Universal executive at the time. Not quite! After the unlikely hits of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Taming of the Shrew, more than a few critics were waiting for them to fail. Boom! provided the perfect vehicle.
"The sea is full of medusas...and film critics!"

Richard Schickel fired the opening volley that the Burtons were over. Life magazine’s Schnickel claimed that their clout as superstars caused arrogance to set in: “They get to thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that they can dare us to reject anything they feel like shoveling out. The Burtons are particularly afflicted with this malaise… There is a slack, tired quality to most of their work that is, by now, a form of insult. They don’t act so much as deign to appear before us and there is neither dignity nor discipline in what they do. She is fat and will do nothing about her most glaring defect, an unpleasant voice which she cannot adequately control. He, conversely, acts with nothing but his voice, rolling out his lines with much elegance, but no feeling at all. Perhaps the Burtons are doing the very best they can, laden as they are by their celebrity.”
But the critics had a point. Here's the Burtons partying with
Claudia Cardindale. Note ET's wearing a Boom! costume.

I think Schickel’s criticism was actually more apt in regard to the last lap of their first marriage, during the Divorce His/Divorce Hers and Hammersmith is Out era. But Boom! certainly marked the beginning of the Burtons’ decline.
Judith Crist, who made her name as a critic blasting Cleopatra as “a monumental mouse,” continued to carp on the Burtons non-stop. About Boom!, Crist critiqued: “Taylor is 20 years too young and 30 acting eons away from the role.” The acerbic film critic also razzed Richard Burton, citing he looked more like “a bank clerk on a campy holiday, kimono and all, than a poet.”
As far as ET was concerned, Crist was wrong on both counts. Sissy is well into her 60s, which would make Taylor 30 years too young; however, Elizabeth had triumphed in two prior Tennessee Williams roles, plus ET had just played a 52-year-old alcoholic shrew in Virginia Woolf. Aside from age, Sissy Goforth was not outside Elizabeth Taylor's range. She is indeed too young and there's no attempt made to hide the fact. The real problem with casting ET was that she had a weak acting director in Joseph Losey. Taylor had subtlety and variety when working with Richard Brooks, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Mike Nichols in theatrical-originated roles. But here, Taylor turns up the screen diva stereo up full blast, with no filter.
Wilfred Sheed wrote a huge Esquire piece titled “The Burtons Must Go!” Though “LizandDick” gave them plenty of ammo, some critics were also self-serving, making a name by tearing down the Burtons.
A then fledgling Roger Ebert wrote at the time, perhaps the most accurately: “There are different kinds of bad movies. Some are simply wretchedly bad, like well, you know. Others are bad but fascinating and Boom! is one of these.”
One of the film’s many cuckoo moments includes just how many times Mrs. Goforth orders people off her patio. Even her pet gets banished in a key moment, with the much quoted line: “Monkey…off…balcony!”
Another running gag is that Sissy is so self-absorbed that just because she can't eat, never offers anybody food, and what is offered by others, she orders to be taken away. This could be taken as symbolic of Boom!, a film that promises a feast, but doesn’t deliver. Boom! is ultimately a failure but still fascinating to watch, whether as camp or as fans of the film’s participants.
The shock of that moment when they realized 'Boom!' was going to bomb?
ET looking very chic and casual, while visiting with Burton, who's in costume as Chris Flanders.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Man with the Golden Arm 1955

'The Man with the Golden Arm' poster, with great graphics that put Saul Bass on the map in Hollywood.

Nelson Algren’s gritty novel, The Man with the Golden Arm, got great reviews and won the National Book Award in 1950. Though somewhat sanitized, the movie version received raves in 1955, as the first film to deal with drug abuse. Some film fans and critics today refer to The Man with the Golden Arm as “dated.” Since the film is over 60 years old, that’s a given. And the Otto Preminger film isn't perfect, for sure. However, while the film seems tame by today’s standards, it was made under strict censorship, yet took an honest look at a taboo subject. The film's makers chose to release the film without the Production Code's Seal of Approval, rather than to compromise any further—a gutsy move for a '50s film.
This is Frank Sinatra's brain on drugs: his girlfriend checks out his pupils by match light.

The story is straightforward: Former card dealer and drug addict Frankie Machine (Majcinek) is released from rehab, ready to make a fresh start, with dreams of becoming a drummer. Just one problem, though. Frankie returns to the same set of circumstances that drove him to drugs in the first place: a gambling boss who wants his ‘man with the golden arm’ to deal; a drug dealer who dangles the bait and snatches it away; a nagging wife who guilt trips him for her accident; a lost love who is still tantalizingly around; and most of all, Frankie’s tendency to fall back on drugs when life gets tough.

Interestingly, though it’s commonly thought that Frankie is hooked on heroin, his drug of choice is never named in the film version. And though the novel is famously set in Chicago, the movie’s locale isn’t mentioned. This is odd and adds an air of artificiality. The film’s depiction of drugs is discreet: Every time Frankie gets high, the camera cuts away. While Sinatra gives it his all in the climactic cold turkey scene, it goes by so quickly, it's like Frank has the 24 hour flu! However, what is shown is portrayed in an honest, non-exploitative way.
The street where Frankie lives...looks like a movie set!

What does date this film for me is not so much the drug depiction, but the artificiality of the slum sets and to a lesser extent, the two female stars. Perhaps the film’s tight budget dictated this, but while its attempt to come off as Actors Studio fifties modern, it looks more like the Warner Brothers’ 1938 Angels with Dirty Faces set. Much of 1954’s On the Waterfront was filmed on location and feels authentic. The Man with the Golden Arm sets are artfully detailed, but you never forget for a minute that you’re looking at a movie sound stage. And though token attempts are made to tone down the glamour, Kim Novak still looks studio styled as the working class bar hostess. And Eleanor Parker, as a wife stuck in a wheelchair, sports luxurious shoulder length curls and false eyelashes. The filmmakers strive for realism with the dingy clothes and apartments, but the two female stars stick out like stylish sore thumbs. 
Eleanor Parker blows as Zosh, Frankie's whining, 'crippled' wife. Parker's performance is like this throughout!

Aside from the artful sets is the equally artificial—and awful—performance by Eleanor Parker. In a part that would have been perfect for career whiner Shelley Winters, Parker comes off like a demanding movie star rather than a slum dweller. Parker plays Zosh, a wheelchair-bound wife whose accident was caused by her drunk driver husband, Frankie. Let’s just say that the guilt-mongering, teary-eyed Zosh is the most duplicitous damsel in distress since Joan Crawford’s Blanche Hudson. I’ve always thought Eleanor Parker was neck in neck with Anne Baxter as the throaty-voiced, arched-eyebrow grande dame of the ‘50s. With a mane of hair that would be perfect if Parker was starring in The Gift of the Magi, perhaps Zosh could have cut off her mammoth mane and sold it for Frankie's next fix. Parker has given strong performances elsewhere. Here, Eleanor is so over-the-top, which hits the heights of absurdity when the fake cripple is caught by drug dealer Darren McGavin, or when she takes her final swan song/dive. The real-life Sinatra probably would have smothered her with the nearest pillow after five minutes of Eleanor’s overwrought emoting. When Parker leaps out of her wheelchair and gives herself away at inopportune moments, it’s like watching a Carol Burnett movie spoof.
Though Kim carries much of her Columbia gloss to this United Artists film, Novak is affecting as Frankie's true love.

In her time, Kim Novak was regularly panned as the worst type of studio-created actress. Kim’s "creation" was part of her publicity, but also became her cross to bear. Still, Novak had her moments, especially in films that exploited her self-consciousness and vulnerability. Kim’s big breakthrough was 1955’s Picnic, and Hitchcock cannily exploited this quality in ‘58’s Vertigo. While Novak wasn’t the most versatile or dynamic actress, those sad qualities Kim possessed work for Molly, the beaten down working girl. Also, Novak and Sinatra share a sad, loners’ rapport that offers some much-needed reality.
Director Otto Preminger rehearsing with Kim Novak and Frank Sinatra.

What’s fascinating is looking at pictures of director Otto Preminger working with Novak and Sinatra. Preminger could make mincemeat of new actors, and yet he seems to have treated the oft-uncertain Kim kindly. And Otto, who was an autocrat on the set, miraculously got along fine with frequently temperamental Frank, who liked to do things his way, such as not doing more than one take. Bob Willoughby’s set photos show them all working intensely and happily.
Frank Sinatra as Frankie Machine, returning home from rehab. Sinatra is so expressive in even the still shots.

Like his singing, Frank Sinatra is subtle and naturalistic when he was at his best as an actor. However, Frank’s acting style got him the rap that he wasn't doing anything onscreen, in some quarters. As an actor, Sinatra always reminded me of his idol Humphrey Bogart—always making it look easy—though obviously Bogie was more dedicated to his craft.
To me, Frank is the one thing that's truly real in The Man with the Golden Arm. This movie came soon after Frank’s legendary comeback in From Here to Eternity. As the down on his luck Frankie, I think the real Frank used some of his recent troubles to convey his character’s pain. His character wears his heart on his sleeve, and that was one of Sinatra's gifts as a performer. Whether Frankie Machine is boyishly optimistic or almost child-like when the chips are down, Sinatra is at home playing this character, and is subtle and superb.
Frankie getting his fix, in 'The Man with the Golden Arm.'

The nifty opening titles by Saul Bass made him a Preminger favorite and the go-to movie titles person in Hollywood for a decade. There’s some stylish, evocative photography by another long-time Otto associate, Sam Leavitt. The bombastic score is by the love him or hate him Elmer Bernstein. I usually enjoy Elmer on a soundtrack, but he’s awfully intrusive here—just as much as that other Bernstein—Leonard—was On the Waterfront! That said, Bernstein did snag an Oscar nod.
Frankie waiting on wheel-chair bound wife Zosh (Eleanor Parker) literally hand and foot.

Overall, this was one of Otto Preminger’s stronger efforts as a director. Though some elements are hokey, he elicits strong performances from most of the cast, and pushed the envelope as far as he could in regard to the drug story line. Plus, Preminger’s modern dramas were more adult and realistic than typical Hollywood fare, even in just the way the male and female characters related to one another. And though The Man with the Golden Arm's author was unhappy with the film's changes, most of them were pretty sound for mid-century film making, and nearly none of them were related to the narcotics aspect of the story.
The Man with the Golden Arm is noteworthy and deserves to be seen, for how Hollywood first dealt with drug addiction on the screen, but especially to watch the heartfelt performance by Frank Sinatra.
Amazingly, Frank Sinatra was fine with a firebrand director...and rehearsing!