Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Manchurian Candidate 1962

The Manchurian Candidate, once a political bad dream...

The Manchurian Candidate was considered a provocative political shocker when first released November 24, 1962. Like A Face in the Crowd five years before and Network 14 years after, The Manchurian Candidate, while applauded as audacious, was also considered a farfetched political scenario. However, the new political reality emerged swiftly, when the controversial Kennedy assassination shattered the United States on November 22, 1963. From then on, assassinations, unending scandals, and the ever-polarizing politics of the last 55 years have left this country cynical.

  • Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?
Aside from satirical targets that are current as ever—campaign mudslinging, faux-patriotism, commie-baiting, politicized torture, controlled-pawn candidates, strange political bedfellows—The Manchurian Candidate remains relevant because of its lean storytelling and almost documentary style black and white filming. For that, credit goes to television-trained director John Frankenheimer, faithfully following Richard Condon’s satiric and prophetic novel.
While The Manchurian Candidate works as a suspense melodrama or political drama, it’s really a black comedy, though the humor admittedly is the gallows variety. It’s no accident that George Axelrod, famed for sexy comedies like The Seven Year Itch, wrote the script. But then, some people don’t get the nightmare humor of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, either.

Director John Frankenheimer in 1962,
I’d like to do my part to dispel the myth that Frank Sinatra had The Manchurian Candidate pulled from distribution after the Kennedy assassination, so disturbed was he by the film’s echoes of the actual tragedy. I watched it on TV as a child of the ‘70s. I watched it on VHS in the ‘80s. And I have watched it on DVD ever after. It’s been said there was a distribution rights tangle somewhere between TV showings and the advent of home video. To Sinatra’s credit, the often irascible singer was full of praise for the film’s story and director. When it first came out on video, Sinatra even sat for an interview, to discuss The Manchurian Candidate.

The plot of The Manchurian Candidate has many truly twisted turns, which I’ll try not to reveal too much about, for those who haven’t seen this cult classic turned true film classic.
During the Korean War, a group of American soldiers are captured by Soviets and taken to Manchuria. Let’s just say that part of their stay at the Hotel Manchuria includes free brainwashing. Cut to the film’s present—very early ‘60s USA—the soldiers who returned are experiencing horrifying dreams and display inexplicable behavior. Major Marco Bennett, deeply affected, is determined to figure out why these nightmares are occurring and how it is tied to Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw. He is a fellow soldier that the regiment feels compelled to automatically express admiration for, though he was universally despised by them.

Raymond is a priggish rich kid, determined to break away from his mother, Eleanor Shaw Iselin, and her political tool of a husband, Johnny Iselin. Eleanor’s ambition is to get Johnny on the ticket as the vice-president nominee at that summer’s presidential convention. The political wife from hell is willing to use any means necessary, including using her son’s war hero status, and oh, so much more. The film is a hair-raising race for Ben Marco to get to the bottom of what happened in Manchuria and what it is currently doing to Raymond Shaw.

Despite appearances, Frank Sinatra's aces as Bennett Marco.
The Manchurian Candidate features one of the most eclectic ensemble film casts ever. Frank Sinatra gives one of his strongest dramatic performances as the troubled but determined Ben Marco. Two older friends in my life have told me that they preferred Sinatra as an actor rather than a singer! At first, I thought that was absurd, but came to see why, watching his movies over the years. Sinatra at his best is naturalistic, low-key but charismatic, much like his friend and idol, Humphrey Bogart. Also, like some of the great actors of that era, Sinatra has a marvelous speaking voice. John Frankenheimer, a young hot shot director from TV’s “golden era,” knew how to work fast, and that Sinatra gave his best in the first couple takes. At this point in his career, the ‘Rat Pack’ image was rapidly taking over, and this was one of the last serious movies Frank Sinatra made. 
Frank Sinatra as Ben Marco, fighting sleepless nights with some heavy reading!
That’s not to say there isn’t some fun “inside” Sinatra stuff in The Manchurian Candidate: There’s a scene where brainwashed Raymond is “set off” in a bar called Jilly’s, as in Jilly Rizzo, a friend of  Frank’s; that swanky‘60s plane the Iselins campaign in belonged to Sinatra. This was also the period when Frank was cultivating a “serious” side to offset his swinger image. So, when Ben Marco can’t sleep, he’s reading classic tomes the size of cement blocks. Sinatra also played a “serious” writer in Some Came Running, with the female lead exclaiming over his “exciting talent.” I’m sure many women did!

Laurence Harvey as the tortured Raymond Shaw.
I’ve always been confounded by Laurence Harvey. Off-screen, he was a boy toy to aging showbiz folk in his youth, the life of the party, and someone who didn’t seem to take acting too seriously. On-screen, however, Harvey was always cast as the heel or uptight jerk. In movie after movie, Laurence was always cold, snippy, humorless, stiff, wooden, glowering—I’m running out of adjectives—but let’s just say Larry made Charlton Heston look like Jerry Lewis in the cut-up department. As the boorish Raymond Shaw turned brainwashed, robotic assassin, Laurence Harvey is perfectly cast. This is the best role Harvey ever had. The character of Raymond is truly pathetic, with the hand he has literally been dealt, crushed by an overbearing mother at every turn. Harvey conveys this in the movie’s quiet moments quite well. Off-screen, Harvey was one of the most disliked actors in Hollywood, for being very difficult to work with. But Sinatra, like Elizabeth Taylor, always stood up for the underdog. Sinatra usually said it his way, too: direct, if politically incorrect. When Frank’s personal valet complained, saying that the actor kept hitting on him, Sinatra replied, “Larry has the handicaps of being a homo, a Jew, and a Polack, so people should go easy on him.” Awww, Frank!

Remember this actor from Hawaii Five-0? Scary here, too!
James Gregory, one of the most familiar character actors of his era, is a scene stealer as Johnny Iselin, the buffoon who is indeed the Manchurian candidate. An obvious take-off on mudslinging Joseph McCarthy, Gregory is a symbol for every cardboard cutout politician who has aspired to higher office by taking the low road every step of the way. Gregory is the satiric comedy relief as the boozy political hack, who can never remember how many commies he’s supposed to claim there are in the Defense Department.
John McGiver, another great familiar face, seemed to be in every TV show and movie of my childhood. Here, he plays Thomas Jordan, the Iselins’ political nemesis. McGiver is both slyly humorous, with that great, distinctive voice of his, and also the voice of decency, as he denounces the sleazy Iselins.
Leslie Parrish, an unfamiliar face to me, was a popular starlet in the early ‘60s. She is appealing as Jocelyn Jordan, Thomas’ daughter and Raymond’s true love. Parrish offers some rays of romantic light when Raymond rediscovers her, and some heartfelt tragedy with her fate.

Henry Silva and Frank Sinatra pulling some pretty smooth martial arts moves!

In typical Hollywood old-school style, Henry Silva, who is Italian and Spanish, was cast as Chunjin, a North Korean agent! Equally as dicey is Silva’s infamous martial arts scene with Sinatra’s Ben, busting up Raymond Shaw’s apartment in the process. Allegedly, they did their own stunts, but I’m not totally convinced. Still, as the commie agent posing as Raymond’s manservant, Silva is suitably unnerving with his intense gaze and soft-spoken voice. And Khigh Dheigh, famous as one of Hawaii Five-O’s best villains, is creepily humorous as the puppet master villain, Dr. Yen Lo.

Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh having some very awkward first date chat!
Janet Leigh is another breath of fresh air in this hot house atmosphere of villains and diabolical corruption. As Rosie, Leigh comes out of nowhere, to first offer Ben Marco comfort, and then falls in love with him at warp-speed. Their first scene together on a train is infamous for its bizarre dialogue. Some viewers believe that their conversation is so stilted as to be coded, and that Leigh’s Josie is an agent for the U.S., assigned to keep tabs on Marco. That doesn’t pan out as the film progresses, but it’s an interesting theory. My thought is that since movie dramas must always have a romantic interest, director Frankenheimer turned the classic “meet-cute” of the hero and leading lady on its ear. Whatever the case, Sinatra and Leigh have a warm rapport that off-sets the movie’s cool toughness. I once watched TCM’s Robert Osborne interview Janet Leigh. Janet recalled with great emotion, despite decades that had passed, how then-husband Tony Curtis announced that he was leaving her, the morning before she filmed the train scene. Leigh said that Frank was great, gently guiding her through that extended, dramatically tricky scene. When I watch Janet Leigh in movies from this era—warm, intelligent, no-nonsense, talented, lovely, with that crisp, unique voice—I wonder why the hell Hitchcock didn’t use her again after Psycho.

James Gregory as the doltish politician &Angela Lansbury as the scheming wife. Why, that's never happened in real life!
I saved the best for last: the greatest performance in The Manchurian Candidate is Angela Lansbury as Eleanor Shaw Iselin. As the ultimate political wife, Lansbury got one of the great supporting actress roles ever—and Angela gives it everything she’s got. People who think of Angela Lansbury as kindly, owl-like Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote or Teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast will be in for a surprise. Lansbury was only 36 when she played Laurence Harvey’s monster mommie—and only three years older than Larry! Movie and theater critics have always lamented that Lansbury should have been a big movie star, but frankly, I can see why she didn’t. Do I smell the Internet torches being lit? Here’s the deal: Angela always looked older and was not conventionally beautiful in golden age Hollywood, where youth and beauty were all. And is showbiz really all that different today? Lansbury always reminded me of Bette Davis, who fought a similar casting bias by sheer strength of personality and will. Angie was often cast older—she played Hedy Lamarr’s older sister in Samson and Delilah and had just played Elvis’ mother in Blue Hawaii the year before. Lansbury most definitely looks matronly and motherly in Manchurian, especially next to whippet-lean Laurence Harvey.
Lansbury checked her ego at the door when she played Larry's mother.
I’ve always been fascinated how women in Hollywood were cast in terms of age. By all rights, an older actress like Bette Davis would have been awesome as Harvey’s awful mother. But the surprise factor would have been nil, since Davis was renowned for playing villains. Sinatra suggested Lucille Ball—a fascinating thought, since Ball was domineering off-camera. But audiences only knew her as lovable Lucy, and such casting could have blown up in the Manchurian makers’ faces. Frankenheimer had already worked with Lansbury in All Fall Down and decided Angela’s acting would carry her.

The rest is showbiz history, as Lansbury gave an instantly legendary supporting actress performance. Angela surely would have won an Oscar that year, but like Bette Davis, was shut out by a performance from the screen version of The Miracle Worker—with Lansbury, it was for Patty Duke’s remarkable turn as young Helen Keller.

Angela Lansbury was 36 when she starred in 'The Manchurian Candidate.'
Lansbury is quoted as saying The Manchurian Candidate is the most important film in her career. Angela is brilliant, and like Bette, was great at being both villainous, yet riveting. As Eleanor, the power behind the politician, Angela Lansbury is ambitious, crass, loud, domineering, funny, and as the master plan is revealed, utterly chilling.

For me, The Manchurian Candidate is one of the best films of the 1960s. I’ve seen it at least a dozen times, always amazed at how this dark satire predicted our nation’s political future. Or perhaps The Manchurian Candidate just pulled back the curtain on what was already happening in the Cold War political scene. Either way, The Manchurian Candidate paints a scary picture, in the guise of satire, of what politicians will do for power.
Frank, Janet, Larry: The stars of 'The Manchurian Candidate.'

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!