What a Character! Blogathon–Elisha Cook Jr.

WILMER COOK: Keep on riding me and they’re gonna be picking iron out of your liver.

SAM SPADE: The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

Elisha Cook Jr. as Wilmer Cook and Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon.”

HELEN: I must warn you though, liquor makes me nosy. I’ve been known to ask all sorts of personal questions after four cocktails.

MARTY: ‘s alright. I’ve been known to tell people to mind their own business. Cold sober too.

Claire Trevor as Helen and Elisha Cook Jr. as Marty in “Born to Kill.”

GEORGE PEATTY: This couple, sittin’ in front of me, oh, they weren’t young, exactly. I guess the woman was about your age.

SHERRY PEATTY: A little senile, you mean? With one foot and a big toe in the grave?

GEORGE PEATTY: You want to hear this or not? Do you or not, Sherry?

SHERRY PEATTY: I can’t wait. Go ahead and thrill me George.

Elisha Cook Jr. as George Peatty and Marie Windsor as Sherry Peatty in “The Killing.”
“Well Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you. But I want you to know I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. But well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.”

Elisha Cook Jr. carved out a very unique niche for himself in Hollywood. He often played a villain, but never a outwardly scary villain. He was no Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in Kiss of Death or Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) in Cape Fear. Cook Jr.’s portrayal was much different. He was mild-mannered, timid even, but was still able to make the action of the film seem uncomfortable. To me, he comes across as someone who seems like they could crack any time now. In The Maltese Falcon, he trails Sam Spade all over San Francisco and makes threats along the way, but Spade never takes him seriously. Even at the end of the film, Cook Jr.’s boss, Kasper Gutman, sells him out and makes him the fall guy. Kasper does this to save his own neck.

When I first learned about Elisha Cook Jr., I did what I always do for every new film and new actor I discover: I looked up his Imdb and Wikipedia pages. I was astonished to learn that Cook Jr. was born in 1903! 1903! In ‘Falcon,’ he looks like a kid compared to Bogart and company. However, he was only four years younger than Bogart! Save for Sydney Greenstreet, Cook Jr., was older than the other members of his gang: Mary Astor and Peter Lorre. This was insane to me. He had such a baby face that it was astonishing that he was almost 40 when he appeared in ‘Falcon.’

It is partially Cook Jr.’s baby face that lends to his ability to play these meek, timid characters who provide a duplicitous nature to his characters. He didn’t always play the villain, but he often played someone who was pretty much on the up-and-up, but got in over his head due to his naiveté and inability to stand up against a stronger personality. In The Killing, Cook Jr., works at a large horse track as a cashier. He is married to the very domineering (physically and personality-wise) Marie Windsor, who treats him like garbage because he hasn’t provided her with the lifestyle to which she feels accustomed. To make his wife like him better, Cook Jr., gets involved with criminal Sterling Hayden who wants to pull off one last heist. Cook Jr., offers to use his position as an employee of the horse track to help Hayden pull off the heist. In exchange, he is supposed to receive a large sum of money. Unfortunately, Cook Jr. ends up paying for his involvement with his life.

Probably the most action Elisha Cook Jr. ever got in one of his films–Phantom Lady.

In contrast to his wimpy weaklings, Elisha Cook Jr., did turn in a very uncharacteristic (yet entirely typical) performance in Phantom Lady. In this film, Ella Raines is trying to prove the innocence of her boss who is sitting on death row for murdering his wife. He has an alibi, but the alibi cannot be located. Raines is trying to follow the clues to find the alibi and exonerate her boss before it’s too late. Nightclub drummer Cook Jr., is one of the people who can help lead her to the alibi. To convince him to give her the details, Raines tries to emulate the type of woman that a musician would be interested in. Donning fishnet stockings, a slinky dress, and stilettos, hepcat Raines’ ruse works. Cook Jr., invites her to this seedy private club away from the nightclub.

Here’s where Cook Jr.’s uncharacteristic performance comes in. Obviously wanting to seduce Raines and “make it” (as they say in old movies back then) with her, he presents the most erotic, sexually charged drum solo ever committed to celluloid. This is as close as filmmakers could get in having characters have sex on screen in 1944. Cook Jr.’s drumsticks hit the drumheads with such an intense, rhythmic beat. Close-ups of his sweaty face, eyes widening, smile tightening are juxtaposed with shots of the drumsticks. As the beat intensifies, so does the intensity in Cook Jr.’s face until the scene climaxes, and he and Raines slink out the door when she offers a come hither look. Like in most of his films, Cook Jr., doesn’t survive Phantom Lady, but at least he had some fun before his murder.

Elisha Cook Jr. is one of my favorite character actors. He brings such a unique presence to screen and you never know what you’re going to get, while knowing exactly what you’re going to get when he’s on screen.

My favorite Elisha Cook Jr. performances:

  • The Maltese Falcon
  • The Killing
  • Born to Kill
  • Phantom Lady
  • House on Haunted Hill
  • The Big Sleep
  • The Gangster
  • Don’t Bother to Knock
  • Love Crazy
  • I Wake Up Screaming
  • Ball of Fire

WATSON PRITCHARD: They’re coming for me now… and then they’ll come for you.

Elisha Cook Jr. as Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill

In Memoriam: Dame Olivia de Havilland 1916-2020

Olivia, looking amazing

Just a few weeks ago, I participated in the Olivia de Havilland blogathon, celebrating her 104th birthday on July 1. In that post, I discussed her nine films with her most frequent co-star, the gorgeous Errol Flynn. It brings me great sadness to have to write a memorial post about Olivia. Last weekend, she passed away in her sleep of natural causes in her Paris townhouse at the age of 104.

While this news is not unexpected, I cannot help but feel sorrow over Olivia’s passing. She was the last surviving major Hollywood star from the golden age. When I was growing up in the mid-80s through early-00s, many of the classic Hollywood stars were still alive. Some were even still working! While I am too young to remember the passings of Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in 1987 (I was in preschool then), and thank god I wasn’t aware of Lucille Ball at the age of 5 when she passed in 1989 (if that had happened just a few years later, or even now, I would have been devastated). I remember being in middle school when Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers, Robert Mitchum, and James Stewart passed.

Olivia and sister Joan Fontaine

People like Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope were old when I was born, they were still old throughout all of my formative years. When they both died within a month of one another, I was sad as they were enduring symbols of old Hollywood, immortal as far as I was concerned. Kirk Douglas was always there. Doris Day was too. Joan Fontaine seemed like she would last forever. Shirley Temple was just a child! Surely she would be around forever. Then, there was my queen, Olivia de Havilland.

Now, they’re all gone.

It is moments like this when people start making lists of people from the Golden Age who are still alive. I cannot bring myself to make such a list. To me, that seems like bad luck. It seems like chronicling those who are blessed with longevity is just asking to have a hex placed on them. So I will refrain.

Olivia, looking fierce

Olivia de Havilland’s death represents the final door closing on the Golden Era. She was the last tangible link to this amazing period of filmmaking where everything was in its infancy, numerous techniques, camera angles, acting styles, etc. were pioneered every day during this period of great innovation. Olivia de Havilland was a woman who could recall working with people like: my boyfriend Errol Flynn, Montgomery Clift, Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, the amazing Hattie McDaniel, James Cagney, Rita Hayworth, Rosalind Russell, Dick Powell, Charles Boyer, Bette Davis… legendary Hollywood personalities who had long since passed.

Olivia had an infamous feud with her sister, Joan Fontaine. It’s a shame that the two ladies could not get along and share their respective good fortunes with one another, but that isn’t anyone’s business but Olivia and Joan’s. What was the feud about? Who knows? Both ladies must have had their reasons.

Can you imagine if What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? had been made with Olivia and Joan instead?

Olivia was also not afraid to put herself on the line to speak out about perceived injustices both she and her peers faced. In 1943, Olivia sued Warner Brothers for violating California Labor Codes. During the early days of the studio system, contract players were signed to seven-year contracts. The studios viewed actors as employees, they were no different than the cameraman, the set designer, the electricians, or the propmen. The actors would be assigned to specific projects and were expected to fulfill their end of the contract and make the film.

L to R: Hattie McDaniel, Olivia, Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind.”

However, many of the performers believed that they should have a say over their projects–especially if their appearance in a film was proven to make money for the studio. Many actors, such as Bette Davis, were trying to hone their craft and also take on challenging parts. These performers didn’t want to hurt their box office clout and essentially, their marketability by taking on crappy parts. The studios believed that they were allowed to suspend actors for refusing parts. Then, after the film was completed with a different actor, the length of the production time would be added to the actor’s existing contract.

In 1943, Olivia reached the end of her 7-year contract at Warner Brothers. She was then informed that she owed them an additional 6 months time to make up for the parts she refused. Olivia sued Warner Brothers to be released from her contract and won the lawsuit! Warner Brothers tried to appeal, but lost. The California Superior Court upheld the “seven-year contract” labor ruling and named this law the “de Havilland Law,” a law that is still in place today. Even sister Joan Fontaine gave Olivia kudos stating “Hollywood owes Olivia a great deal.”

Of course, Warner Brothers, being petty, managed to get Olivia blacklisted in Hollywood for two years.

In 1945, Olivia signed a two-picture deal with Paramount. She immediately went to work on To Each Her Own.

She won the Best Actress Oscar.

Olivia as Catherine Sloper in “The Heiress.”

In 1949, Olivia made The Heiress with Montgomery Clift. I just watched this film the other day. I’d seen it once prior, but didn’t really remember much about it, except for the ending. Olivia’s performance in this film is nothing but fantastic. Her transformation from meek, proper, shy Catherine to a cynical, bitter, hardened woman is nothing short of remarkable. Not only does Olivia’s portrayal change, but her entire look, her voice, the way she carries herself, everything changes. I absolutely loved it.

Olivia won a second Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Heiress.

In the 1950s, Olivia moved to Paris, married, had two children, and continued her film career and started appearing in the theater and on television. Her career continued until 1988 when she retired. From then on, Olivia stayed active appearing in various career and film retrospectives. As the last surviving major cast member (since 1967, with the death of Vivien Leigh) of Gone With the Wind, Olivia served as an ambassador for that film. She also received numerous accolades and honors, including being appointed Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.

Goodbye Olivia. We will miss you.

I will miss Olivia immensely. Knowing that she was still alive, healthy, and active was such a consolation–the Golden Age of Hollywood was alive and well. Now, another piece of it is gone. However, Olivia has achieved immortality. Her films, along with everyone else’s, will live on forever.

We’ll always have Paris.

Current Kick- Edmond O’Brien

Full disclosure, I’ve been known to be on simultaneous kicks at a time. Some are short-lived, others go on for awhile. Last year, I was on an Edmond O’Brien kick and watched a ton of his films. Then, I briefly moved onto a Burt Lancaster kick. Then, I moved onto Robert Ryan. More recently, I was obsessed with Ralph Meeker, then I moved onto Joel McCrea.

The Ida Lupino-directed film noir that ignited my first Edmond O’Brien kick

With my recent purchase during the Kino Lorber Summer sale (still going on, through August 3), I may have reignited my Edmond O’Brien kick. during the Kino sale, I purchased the Ida Lupino Filmmakers 4-movie set for $29.95 (regular retail price $79.98). In this collection, there are two O’Brien films: The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist, both from 1953. I’ve seen both films and they are excellent. Not everyone can make you sympathize with a man who knowingly commits bigamy, but O’Brien manages to do so.

Edmond O’Brien

I don’t know what it is about Edmond O’Brien that I like. He’s nowhere near Errol Flynn when it comes to looks and charm. He doesn’t have extraordinary dancing ability like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. He isn’t an amazing singer like Judy Garland. He isn’t adorable like Sandra Dee (ridiculous comparison, I know). Perhaps it has something to do with his everyman persona (displayed to perfection in 1949’s D.O.A.). Whatever it is, O’Brien is definitely underrated and deserves to be better known.

The Hitch-Hiker definitely served as the catalyst to my kick. From there, I pretty much watched a different O’Brien film each night for weeks. Prior to seeing The Hitch-Hiker, I’d seen O’Brien in A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob (1941). And the only reason I watched that film was because it stars my girl, Lucille Ball. I didn’t think much of him in this film, only that I thought he was more attractive than George Murphy and I wanted Lucy to end up with him. I recently just watched this film again–okay, I watched it today–and I just love him. I think I may embark on another O’Brien kick.

Edmond O’Brien and Lucille Ball in “A Girl, A Guy and A Gob.”

A Girl, A Guy and A Gob (produced by Harold Lloyd) stars Lucille Ball, George Murphy and Edmond O’Brien. Lucy plays Dorothy ‘Dot’ Duncan, a secretary who hails from an eccentric family. One night, Dot treats her parents to an anniversary present–box seats at the opera. However, her box seats actually belong to the affluent Stephen Herrick (O’Brien), his fiancee and her mother. It seems that Stephen accidentally dropped his tickets and Dot’s brother (who was sent to the box office by Dot) picked them up. He fails to tell Dot how he obtained the box seats, he let her pretend that these were the seats he’d purchased with the money she gave him.

Stephen and his guests are understandably upset by the guests sitting in their seats. However, not wanting to make a scene or be conspicuous, Stephen drops the matter and relinquishes the seats to Dot and her family. Stephen’s fiancee, Cecilia, is furious.

The next day, Stephen discovers that his secretary, Miss Comstock, has eloped with her fiance and has quit her job. Dot enters the room and is introduced to Stephen as his new secretary. He is furious and tries to fire her, but Dot pleads her case and explains the previous night’s ticket mishap. Stephen agrees to put the night behind him and agrees to hire her as his secretary.

Stephen soon finds himself enamored of Dot and charmed by her eccentric friends and family. He also meets Dot’s beau, “Coffee Cup” (George Murphy) a sailor who returns to town after his latest stint in the Navy. He makes it known that he is planning on settling down and marrying Dot.

The only person on this poster who looks like themselves is Lucy. Supposedly though, George Murphy is the sailor on the left and Edmond O’Brien is the businessman on the right. This poster looks like they used the same man to represent both male leads.

One day, Stephen awakens to find himself lying, trouser-less, in the Duncan’s living room. It seems that he was knocked out in the fracas in front of the pet shop after getting involved in the brawl that erupted after Coffee Cup bet onlookers $5/a piece that his friend Eddie couldn’t make himself grow 4-inches. Eddie’s talent for faking elongation and the money-making con that ensues is a running gag throughout the film.

Stephen finds himself completely charmed by Dot and her family and later accompanies her and Coffee Cup to a dance hall. He completely loses all sense of time and congas the night away, much to the chagrin of his fiancee, with whom he had a date. Oops! It’s okay though, because she sucks anyway.

One of my favorite motifs: The love triangle

As the film progresses, Stephen and Dot find their feelings for one another growing, all while Coffee Cup blissfully plans a life together for himself and Dot. This film features one of my favorite themes: the love triangle. It is obvious that Dot more than likely needs a man who is a little more serious and a little more dependable. Coffee Cup seems a bit flakey and truly loves the Navy. Whether or not he would truly be happy on land is questionable.

I actually thought that Edmond O’Brien was very attractive in this film. This is only his second film, he was only 26 when it was made. Unfortunately, bad habits led to him aging prematurely and affected his health. He had a heart attack at 45. He won the 1954 Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his performance in The Barefoot Contessa (which I haven’t watched yet. It’s on my DVR though).

Edmond O’Brien films that I’ve watched and recommend:

A Girl, A Guy, and A Gob (1941)

The Killers (1946)

A Double Life (1947)

Another Part of the Forest (1948)

White Heat (1949)

D.O.A. (1949)

Backfire (1950)

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The Bigamist (1953)

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

I’ll probably end up re-watching all of these and hopefully more.

Current Kick: Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea, my current kick

Lately, I’ve been on a Joel McCrea kick. It started when I decided to watch a Criterion that I had purchased a while back–it was a blind buy. The film? Foreign Correspondent.

Joel McCrea stars in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) as Johnny Jones, aka “Huntley Haverstock.” It’s 1939 and Johnny is a crime reporter at the local New York Morning Globe. His employer, Mr. Powers (Harry Davenport) is concerned about the situation in Europe and Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime’s growing power. He is searching for someone who is tough and could report the situation in Europe with a fresh take.

When Johnny arrives in London, his first assignment is to interview Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), the leader of the Universal Peace Party. He is supposed to interview Fisher at an event honoring the Dutch diplomat, Van Meer (Albert Bassermann). At the event, Johnny meets Fisher’s daughter, Carol (Laraine Day).

George Sanders, Laraine Day, and Joel McCrea in “Foreign Correspondent.”

At first, Johnny and Carol don’t get along, but as the film progresses, they fall in love. Johnny meets Van Meer through a chance encounter, enroute to the event. While at the event, Van Meer disappears and does not make his planned appearance. Later, Johnny witnesses Van Meer’s assassination and commandeers a car and chases the culprit to a windmill farm outside of Amsterdam. The car he commandeers just happens to have another reporter inside–Scott ffolliott (George Sanders).

The remainder of the film involves Johnny trying to find out the truth about Van Meer and later, trying to figure out Stephen Fisher–as it becomes clear that he isn’t what he seems.

This was a fantastic film. I absolutely loved it. It definitely was worth the blind buy. Joel McCrea is fantastic at playing an everyday guy who just seems to be fed up with everyone. He’s a very attractive man as well, which makes him even more fun to watch.

The Judy Garland Blogathon–Judy & Gene

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The Gumm Sisters. Judy is bottom center. Mary Jane is on the left and Virginia is on the right.

96 years ago today, one of the world’s best entertainers was born.  Judy Garland was born Frances Gumm in 1922 in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.  As a young girl, she performed with her two sisters, Mary Jane and Virginia as part of the Gumm Sisters vaudeville act.  Frances was the youngest and most talented in the group.  When Frances was five, the Gumm family moved to the Los Angeles area.  Mrs. Gumm tried to keep her daughters in the minds of show business executives by having them appear in various short films.  The Gumm sisters toiled in short films, dance classes and schooling for a few years until 1935 when Frances was discovered by MGM.  The Gumm sisters had changed their last names to “Garland” at the end of 1934.  In addition, Frances changed her name to Judy.

MGM studio head, Louis B. Mayer, saw Judy performing with her sisters and was immediately impressed with Judy’s talent.  He requested that Judy and her father come down to MGM and meet with him in his office.  Judy sang “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” for Mayer.  She was immediately signed to a contract.  However, soon MGM found that Judy was difficult to cast.  She was thirteen–too old to be a child star and too young to be an adult star.  Judy spent a few years playing the girl next door parts, co-starring with huge MGM star Mickey Rooney in his Andy Hardy series.  In 1939, Judy was cast in her star-making role: Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz.

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Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.” In her most memorable screen moment. singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

After ‘Oz,’ Judy was seventeen and was eager to move onto more mature parts.  MGM however, kept her pigeonholed into girl next door parts.  She appeared as a goody goody teen in Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band with Mickey Rooney.  In 1940, Judy finally snagged her first adult role in Little Nellie Kelly, playing a dual role to boot!  By 1940, much to MGM’s chagrin, there was no doubt that Judy was grown up.  She had already been embroiled in a hot and heavy affair with bandleader Artie Shaw until he ran off with Lana Turner.  Judy was devastated.  She then got together with musician David Rose, whom she married in 1941.  By 1942, Judy was a huge star at MGM and was transitioning into adult roles.  One of her major adult roles was as a vaudeville star in For Me and My Gal.

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Gene Kelly making his film debut with star Judy Garland, in “For Me and My Gal.”

For Me and My Gal is notable for not only being one of Judy’s early adult roles, but also for being Gene Kelly’s film debut.  Gene had been making a name for himself on Broadway, first as a choreographer and then as the star of Pal Joey.  MGM objected to Gene’s casting, but Judy supported him and campaigned for him to get the part.  Throughout production, movie veteran Judy supported Gene and gave him acting tips, especially when it came to adjusting his stage acting for the silver screen.  Gene always remembered Judy’s kindness when he made his first film and continued to support her throughout the rest of her life.

By 1948, Judy and Gene were huge musical stars.  It was also by this time that Judy was having her well-documented personal issues.  Judy initially was excited about shooting The Pirate, she thought it would be fun.  Director Vincente Minnelli (and Judy’s husband) also thought it would be a nice change of pace for he and Judy.  However, the production was in trouble as soon as it began.  Production was delayed two months because of Judy’s mental health.  She was then worried that co-star Gene would steal all her thunder.  Gene would regularly assist in choreographing the routines–he saw The Pirate as a way to make the dancing more ballet-like, a dance style that Gene was very familiar with.

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Hypnotized Judy screams out for Macoco in “The Pirate.” MACOCO!

Judy experienced multiple paranoia episodes during production and barely even showed up to shoot her scenes.  She was only present about 35 days out of the 100+ days of production.  When Judy was absent, the filmmakers would shoot around her.  During Judy’s absences, Gene would work closely with Minnelli on coming up with ideas for scenes and such.  When Judy would show up for work, she’d notice Gene and Vincente’s close relationship and become jealous.  She also thought that her husband had developed a crush on Gene (By all accounts, Gene was straight and did not reciprocate the crush).  Judy’s paranoia, combined with her addiction to pills, led to a nervous breakdown.

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Gene Kelly’s shorty shorts in “The Pirate.”

Judy’s mental health issues caused production to stretch from the planned two months to six.  In the end though, Judy pulled out a great performance–like she usually did.  Judy’s Manuela is one of her funniest performances–especially when she is hypnotized and starts crying out for Macoco.  “Mack the Black” is one of Judy’s most memorable songs.  The Pirate ended up losing money at the box office and was considered one of Judy, Gene and Minnelli’s worst films.  However, now The Pirate has found its audience and it is considered one of the classic musicals.   If you only watch one part of The Pirate, watch the scene where Gene dances with fire while wearing shorty shorts.  You won’t regret it.

In 1948, MGM wanted to re-team their two biggest musical stars, Judy and Gene, in another film, this time Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade.  Judy was supposed to play a waitress whom Gene’s character discovers and molds into his new dance partner.  Gene’s partner, played by Cyd Charisse, has decided to leave the act and strike out on her own. Just prior to production however, Gene broke his ankle during a heated volleyball game at his home.  Gene managed to coax Fred Astaire out of retirement and asked him to take his place.  Cyd Charisse ended up tearing a ligament in her knee and she was replaced by Ann Miller. If you can’t get Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, I guess Fred Astaire and Ann Miller will have to do (lol).  Easter Parade was a smash hit and soon MGM was eager to pair Judy and Fred up in The Barkleys of Broadway.

The Barkleys of Broadway was supposed to feature Judy and Fred as a successful husband and wife musical comedy team.  However, Judy’s character meets a famous playwright who suggests that she take up dramatic acting.  Fred’s character of course is upset.  Judy started production on the film but was soon fired after it was apparent that she had a serious addiction to prescription pills and alcohol.  MGM fired Judy from the film.  They then had the brilliant idea of reuniting Fred with his old RKO dance partner, Ginger Rogers.  Judy fumed at being replaced by Ginger.  It was known that Ginger had an unusually high amount of peach fuzz on her face.  Judy, feeling vindictive, sent Ginger a shaving mug and brush to “congratulate” her on the role (I don’t know if this anecdote is true, I read it somewhere, but if it is, it’s horribly petty on Judy’s part.  But it’s also hilarious).

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Judy and Gene dance the “Portland Fancy” in “Summer Stock.”

In 1950, Judy was cast and then fired from Annie Get Your Gun, due to her normal attendance issues and mental problems.  Busby Berkeley had also been hired to stage the musical numbers and Judy absolutely loathed him.  They had had their run-ins on previous Judy films.  MGM gave her one last shot and re-teamed her with co-star Gene in Summer Stock.  By this point, Gene was a huge star and he didn’t want to appear in a typical “let’s put a show on in the barn!” musical.  And in fact, Summer Stock does feature the gang putting a show on in the barn, albeit, a very large and fancy barn.  Neither Gene, nor director Charles Walters wanted to do the film, but both men did so as a favor to Judy, whom they liked and wanted to help.

In Summer Stock, Gene appears as the director of a small-time musical theater troupe.  One of the members of this troupe happens to be Judy’s sister, Gloria DeHaven.  Gene is also dating Gloria.  The theater troupe has been looking for a place to practice and hold their show.  Gloria suggests sister Judy’s barn on the family farm.  It is apparent that Judy is working hard to keep her family farm going, even through hard times.  Gloria on the other hand, doesn’t want to be a farmer, she wants to be an actress.  Eventually, Gloria ends up leaving the show and Gene ends up coaxing Judy to join the show after seeing that she has singing and dancing talent.  The conflict is that Judy is dating Eddie Bracken, the son of a very boisterous and bossy man who only wants to unite the two oldest families in town.  Eddie however, is such a wimp, that it’s hard to see why Judy even tolerates him.  By the end of the film, she doesn’t and has fallen for Gene–who in return, has fallen for her.  It’s a simple story, nothing groundbreaking, but it features a lot of memorable songs and dances.

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The horrible “Heavenly Music” number featuring Phil Silvers and Gene Kelly. I hate this number so much, I wish it would just die and go away. Judy apparently was supposed to be in this number too, but called in sick and they went ahead with the number anyway. I think Judy knew what she was doing. Shrewd move on her part, I say.

During production, Judy experienced her usual issues, but MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer pressured the film crew to keep going and to accommodate Judy’s issues.  He didn’t want to see her get fired from her third consecutive film.  In one incident, Judy did show up for work, but wasn’t up to filming.  To take the heat off of her, Gene feigned an ankle injury, so that he would be the cause of the production delay.  Gene choreographed two of the most memorable numbers in the film: “You, Wonderful, You” which he performs with simply a squeaky floorboard and a newspaper, and “The Portland Fancy” which features Judy and Gene in a fun dance-off.  Spoiler Alert: Gene wins! Thankfully, Gene was not responsible for creating the god-awful “Heavenly Music” number.  He only had the misfortune of appearing in it.  Supposedly, Judy was supposed to appear in it too, but called in sick that day.  It was decided to go on without her and film it with just Phil Silvers and Gene.  I don’t think Judy was sick, she knew what she was doing.  She didn’t want to have any part of that terrible number.

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Judy Garland in “Get Happy” in “Summer Stock.”

After filming completed, it was decided that Judy needed a big solo number.  By this point, she had taken a well needed vacation and had lost 15-20 pounds.  “Get Happy” was the number that was selected.  Judy looks noticeably thinner in this number and looks and acts more like the Judy Garland that everyone knows.  “Get Happy” is one of the highlights of Summer Stock and is one of Judy’s best numbers.  Summer Stock was released and was a big hit.

Judy was then re-teamed with Fred Astaire and assigned Royal Wedding.  Judy was replacing June Allyson who had to drop out of the film due to pregnancy.  However, Judy’s demons once again re-surfaced and she was replaced by Jane Powell.  At the end of 1950, MGM and Judy made the mutual decision to terminate Judy’s contract.  Judy wouldn’t return to the silver screen until 1954’s A Star is Born.  Judy’s performance as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester is tremendous, especially her rendition of “The Man That Got Away.”  Judy was nominated for the Oscar and in my opinion, she should have won.  However, Grace Kelly ended up walking away with the award for her performance as Bing Crosby’s plain and disgruntled wife in The Country Girl.  Judy was devastated by the loss.

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Because this gif from “An American in Paris” featuring Gene does not get featured nearly enough on this blog.

While Gene Kelly’s star soared even higher after Summer Stock (his last pairing with Judy), Judy’s collapsed except for her brief renaissance in A Star is Born.  Gene went on to create two of the most influential and highly regarded musicals of all time: An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.  Gene’s rendition and dance to “Singin’ in the Rain” is probably the most famous musical number of all time.  Judy herself had sung “Singin’ in the Rain” in Little Nellie Kelly (1940).  The famous “Good Morning” song performed and danced by Gene, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds was also performed by Judy and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939).  These songs were used in the film to show the development and transition of silent to talking pictures.  I would argue that Judy was one of the major players in helping the transition.  Gene’s contributions were important of course, but films had transitioned by the time he came on the scene.  Judy was right there almost from the beginning.

Without Judy Garland, there might not have been a Gene Kelly.

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Judy and Gene are “Ballin’ the Jack” in “For Me and My Gal.”

Reel Infatuations Blogathon–James Darren, “Moondoggie” from Gidget (1959)

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When I heard about the “Reel Infatuation” Blogathon by Font and Frock and Silver Screenings , I knew that I needed to join.  How can I resist writing about some of my favorite movie crushes? I’ll never turn down an opportunity to post some beefcake photos!  For my entry, I decided to write about one of my favorite teen idols, James Darren, aka “Moondoggie” from the first three Gidget films: Gidget (1959), Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961) and Gidget Goes to Rome (1963).  He is so cute and for me, he makes the film–even though I also love Sandra Dee too.  For all intents and purposes, I am going to focus on his first Gidget film co-starring Sandra Dee.  But don’t think you won’t be treated later to an entry about Gidget Goes Hawaiian co-starring Darren with Deborah Walley as the spunky surfer girl.  I can’t help it, I love the 1950s/1960s teen beach movies.

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James Darren as Moondoggie

Gidget is a coming of age story about 17-year old Frances “Gidget” Lawrence, portrayed by 50s/60s teen queen Sandra Dee.  The film takes place during Frances’ summer vacation between her junior and senior years of high school.  Her friends: Nan, Patti and Mary Lou are pressuring Frances to go with them on a “manhunt” to attract a boyfriend.  Apparently, if a girl hasn’t found a man before senior year of high school, she might as well become a nun.  The girls all go down to the beach and try to flaunt their stuff in front of the group of surfer boys, one of which is superhunk James Darren, aka Moondoggie.  Moondoggie is about 1-2 years older than Frances, he is starting college at the end of the summer.

The girls are trying too hard to attract the boys’ attention, except for Frances.  She’s a bit of a tomboy and ends up shunning the manhunt in favor of snorkeling.  Her friends think she’s hopeless.  Frances, in the first of multiple incidents, ends up getting tangled in some kelp.  Moondoggie sees her, grabs his surfboard, and fishes her out of the water.  From that moment on, we as the audience know that Moondoggie and Frances are going to end up together.  Moondoggie, though acting standoffish and too cool for school towards Frances, actually has a crush on her though he won’t admit it until the luau later in the film.

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Left to right: Sandra Dee (Gidget), Yvonne Craig (Nan) and Jo Morrow (Mary Lou). Craig’s bathing suit is hideous. I love Dee and Morrow’s bathing suits. I also love that Gidget couldn’t care less about impressing the boys–she’s going snorkeling.

Moondoggie’s crush on Frances is obvious.  He is the one who nicknames her “Gidget.”  Gidget is a portmanteau of “girl” and “midget.”  Basing her nickname on “midget,” might not be seen as being very endearing, but this action shows that Moondoggie is accepting Gidget into the group.  Earlier in the film, while talking to the group leader, Kahuna, Moondoggie vents about Gidget’s presence in their group.  Kahuna, at least a decade older than the other boys in the group, knows that Moondoggie has a crush on Gidget and easily accepts her into the group and suggests that the others do the same.  Kahuna, I think, also doesn’t take the surf group as seriously as the other boys, and doesn’t really care if Gidget’s there.  He just wants to surf.

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Moondoggie has fun teaching Gidget how to surf. As an aside, I love Gidget’s orange bathing suit.

Moondoggie’s infatuation with Gidget is also apparent when he sees Lover Boy (another boy in the surf group) giving Gidget surf lessons.  Lover Boy is getting very “handsy” with Gidget and it is very visibly making her uncomfortable.  It is obvious that Lover Boy has some other goals in mind besides teaching Gidget how to surf.  Moondoggie looks on at the lesson, and is very visibly irritated and jealous.  He intervenes when Lover Boy really gets carried away with the lesson.  Moondoggie not only wants to protect Gidget, he also doesn’t want other the other boys getting that up close and personal with her. He later takes Gidget surfing himself and gives her lessons on his board.  Moondoggie places his hands on her waist to help her stay up right on the board.

When Gidget gets tangled up in the kelp (again.  Come on Gidget!) and nearly drowns, Moondoggie saves her (again) and nurses her back to health in Kahuna’s tent.  As Nurse Moondoggie croons the movie’s theme song, “Gidget,” Gidget looks up at him adoringly and smiles.  She can’t keep her eyes off of him.  Moondoggie also smiles at her as he prepares a hot water bottle to warm her up.

“A regular tomboy, but dressed for a prom
Boy, how cute can one girl be?
Although she’s not king-size, her finger is ring-size
Gidget is the one for me…”

Later, Gidget finds out about the upcoming luau and convinces Kahuna to let her come.  It seems that the surfer boys think she’s too innocent to attend their annual shindig.  Gidget has an ulterior motive for attending the luau: she wants to get together with Moondoggie.  Because Gidget is awkward and can’t just tell Moondoggie, she puts together a scheme to make Moondoggie jealous.  She’s going to attend the luau with another one of the surfer boys and pay him to act friendly with her within sight of Moondoggie.  However, her plans are messed up when the surfer boy she hired ends up bailing and giving the job to Moondoggie!

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Gidget makes cow eyes at Moondoggie as he sings to her.

Moondoggie shows up to earn his money and also out of amusement after being told of Gidget’s scheme.  Now instead of doing the smart thing and admitting to Moondoggie that he was the boy she wanted to make jealous, Gidget pretends that she’s in love with Kahuna, despite him being twice her age.  Gidget has Moondoggie hold her tight while they sway to the music.  Entranced and in love, Gidget is soaking up every moment in Moondoggie’s arms.  One can’t help but notice that Moondoggie has the same facial expression as Gidget.  Both are holding each other, swaying to the music, eyes closed.

Moondoggie then brings out the big guns and serenades Gidget with “The Next Best Thing to Love.”  As Moondoggie sings, Gidget looks at him with big cow eyes.  Moondoggie is holding Gidget close and is just as smitten with her as she is with him.  He goes in for the big kiss and Gidget accepts it willingly… because, duh! Then of course, one of the surfers has to come over to remind Moondoggie that its past midnight and he no longer has to pretend with Gidget anymore.  Embarrassed, Gidget runs off.

Seeing that Gidget is leaving, Kahuna approaches Gidget for a ride to a friend’s beach shack.  Wanting to keep up the facade that she’s in love with Kahuna, Gidget agrees to give him a ride home and follows him into the beach shack for “one of his private parties.”  It is apparent that Gidget is hoping to get together with Kahuna, intimately.  Kahuna plays along and almost falls under her spell until he comes to his senses and tells her to go home.  Moondoggie, not trusting Kahuna and wanting to protect Gidget, shows up at the beach shack and has it out with Kahuna.

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Gidget’s dad plays matchmaker and inadvertently sets his daughter up on a blind date with Moondoggie, despite warning her to “never again go near those beach hoodlums.”  Don’t look so upset Gidget! He’s gorgeous! Your dad could have done a lot worse!

Gidget ends up being picked up by the police when her car breaks down.  She’s picked up by her parents and is grounded for the rest of the summer.  Had she just told Moondoggie about her scheme to make him jealous, she could have just avoided the whole Kahuna/beach shack debacle.  Fortunately for Gidget, the young man whom her father has been trying to fix her up with throughout the entire film turns out to be Moondoggie! Of course, to Gidget’s parents, he’s Jeffrey Matthews, the son of one of Gidget’s dad’s colleagues.

Gidget and Moondoggie on their “blind” date, end up going back to the beach.  They manage to get to the beach just as Kahuna is dismantling his shack.  They find out that Kahuna aka Burt Vail, has accepted a job as a pilot and is giving up the beach bum lifestyle.  Kahuna, knowing the whole time about Gidget and Moondoggie’s infatuation with one another, gives Moondoggie a reminder:

“Just remember, [Gidget] might be pint-sized, but she’s quite a woman.”

Gidget and Moondoggie embrace and Moondoggie asks Gidget to wear his pin:

GIDGET: “Oh boy, would I? Just wait until the girls get a load of this! Honest to goodness, it’s the absolute ultimate!”
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The Gidg has got her man!

I don’t blame Gidget for being such a nerd when Moondoggie “pins” her.  This is the ultimate symbol of “going steady.”  Moondoggie has essentially asked Gidget to be his girlfriend and she wholeheartedly accepts.  Her friends, the ones who were flaunting themselves trying to attract a boyfriend, are still single at the end of the film.  Gidget, who didn’t try hard at all, and was just herself, has managed to not only snag a boyfriend, but a super hot one to boot! You go girl.

Moondoggie shows up two-years later in Gidget Goes Hawaiian.  The story is presented as a continuation of the first film, despite having a different Gidget.  Moondoggie and Gidget are a year or two older, but are still madly in love.  Moondoggie is hands down, the best part about Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

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He’s so dreamy!

Favorite Performers: Kim Novak

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Kim Novak is someone who I discovered when I saw Picnic (1955) for the first time.  I had heard of her and knew what she looked like, but I had never actually seen any of her films until I saw Picnic.  She wasn’t my original draw to the film either.  I originally recorded it because I was a fan of co-star William Holden and I also love the overwrought melodramas of the 1950s.  My initial impression of Novak was that she was very pretty but she seemed somewhat stiff.  I began wondering if it was all style and no substance when it came to Novak.  However, as I kept watching her in Picnic, I noticed that she didn’t seem as stiff as she had in the opening scene.  I found myself warming up to her.

In Picnic, the crux of Novak’s character, Madge, is that she feels that she is only wanted and appreciated for her looks.  Her mother insists that Madge seal the deal with her rich upper crust boyfriend Alan, before her looks begin to fade.  Madge is 19, by the way.  Alan talks about and treats Madge like she’s a trophy on his arm.  Madge begins to resent everyone only focusing on her looks and not showing any regard for her wants, needs and desires.  Novak was very skilled in bringing the conflicted Madge to life.  On one hand, Madge doesn’t want to disappoint her mother; but on the other hand, she wants to live her own life and not skate by on her looks, even if that path looks uncertain.  Madge spends much of the film battling with her own wants and needs, versus those of her mother, boyfriend and the hot, mysterious, and exciting drifter William Holden.

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Kim Novak and William Holden dance in “Picnic”

After Picnic, I remember making a point of seeing Novak in some of her other films.  I saw Bell, Book and Candle co-starring James Stewart.  This film allowed the audience to see Novak as another type of character–a beautiful woman afraid to fall in love.  In this film, Novak plays a beautiful witch who lives in Greenwich Village in New York City.  Novak develops a crush on Stewart and ends up casting a love spell on him when she discovers he’s engaged to marry another woman.  The love spell causes Stewart to fall in love with Novak instead.  Soon Novak finds herself falling in love with Stewart and she’s faced with a choice to make: Fall in love with Stewart and lose her magical powers or keep her powers and let Stewart go.  Novak plays it cool in this film and is very adept at showing the progression of her character falling in love.  Despite being very beautiful and being labeled as one of the 1950s sex symbols of Hollywood, Novak’s characters are never overt in their sexuality, unlike someone like Marilyn Monroe.

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Kim Novak as “Madeline” in “Vertigo”

One of Novak’s most famous films is her turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.  Novak is cast as one of Hitchcock’s typical icy blondes, but she brings so much to her complicated, somewhat dual role.  In this film, Novak must portray the beautiful and tragic Madeline who Stewart meets and falls in love with.  Later, she portrays the small-town girl, Judy, who of course resembles Madeline, and agrees to allow Stewart to transform her into his lost love.  As Madeline, Novak plays the wispy blonde, who is so beautiful but with an underlying vulnerability.  As Judy, Novak plays a more average looking woman (more like a gorgeous woman wearing too much heavy makeup) from Kansas who is trying to make it in big city San Francisco.  She is brassier and more no-nonsense than Madeline. Of course there is more to the story than meets the eye and Novak was fascinating to watch.

Novak is a highly underrated actress who I believe wasn’t taken seriously because she was so beautiful.  In all her films, she brings charm and also an underlying vulnerability that makes her a joy to watch on screen.  Today, Kim Novak lives on a ranch in a small town in Southern Oregon.  It’s exciting to think that one of my favorite Classic Hollywood stars is still alive and thriving in a town only about 3.5 hours south of me.  Maybe someday, I’ll make it back down there and maybe run into Kim Novak on the street or something.  I can always hope!

My favorite Kim Novak films:

-Picnic (1955).  I already talked about this film above; but this film deals with a drifter (William Holden) who interrupts the tranquility in a small Kansas town.  Most of the action occurs at the town’s annual Labor Day picnic.  Novak portrays Madge, a beautiful nineteen year old woman who is dating Alan Benson (Cliff Robertson), one of the town’s most eligible bachelors.  Novak falls for Holden, much to the chagrin of Robertson and her mother (Betty Field).

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Kim Novak and her cat, Pyewacket in “Bell, Book and Candle.”

Bell, Book and Candle (1958).  Described above as well.  This film depicts the story of a beautiful witch (Novak) who casts a spell on a man (James Stewart) whom she’s been admiring from afar.  Soon, she must decide whether to fall in love with Stewart and give up her magical powers, or let Stewart go in order to retain her powers.

Vertigo (1958).  Mentioned briefly above.  This film is so complex that it would be hard to describe it and do it any justice.  This is a film that has to be watched and watched intently, not casually.  A couple weeks ago, I watched this film in the theater and was fascinated by how much of the film I had forgotten or hadn’t pieced together the pieces of the story.  Once I had the story figured out, I found it amazing and captivating.  In a nutshell, this film tells the story of a man, James Stewart, who falls in love with a mysterious blonde and loses her in a tragic accident.  He meets another woman, Kim Novak, who resembles his lost love.  Stewart goes to work transforming his new girl into the girl he lost.

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Howard Duff and Kim Novak in “Boys’ Night Out”

Boys’ Night Out (1962).  This 1962 comedy is silly and definitely not worthy of any sort of award, but I love it.  There’s just something about early 1960s comedies.  In this film, Novak plays a college student who rents an apartment from a group of men (James Garner, Tony Randall, Howard Morris and Howard Duff).  The men are all married, except for Garner.  The husbands are bored with their wives and their day-to-day routine and want to set up an apartment to have a fling.  They base their plan on the same tactics their boss uses to have his fling.  Novak rents the apartment not knowing of their plan to commit adultery and the men don’t know that Novak is pretending to romance them as a means to gather material for her college thesis on the sexual life of the middle class male. Hilarity ensues.

-Pushover (1954).  This is a really great noir and is Novak’s film debut.  Novak portrays the beautiful girlfriend of a man who robs a bank and both of them are now on the lam.  Fred MacMurray co-stars as an undercover cop who is tasked with setting up a stakeout in an apartment across the street from Novak’s.  While watching her, MacMurray ends up falling in love with Novak.  Soon Novak is trying to corrupt him to join her side and MacMurray is conflicted between his love for Novak and his duty to his job and the police department.

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Kim Novak and Fred MacMurray in “Pushover.”  She’s only 20 here!

Pal Joey (1957).  This is a musical starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Novak.  Sinatra portrays Joey, a singer and charmer who can make pretty much any woman fall for him.  The only problem is that he’s a complete cad.  Sinatra meets Novak, a chorus girl in one of his shows.  He genuinely seems to have real feelings for her. Sinatra dreams of opening his own nightclub but needs money.  He appeals to an old flame, Hayworth, who used to also work as a stripper.  She married a wealthy man and is now widowed.  Sinatra decides to romance Hayworth in order to convince her to give him money for his nightclub.  Throughout the film, Sinatra and Hayworth use each other and continues to romance Novak.  The love-triangle continues throughout the film until Sinatra is forced to make a decision.

 

Blogathon (Belated) Clark Gable & Joan Crawford’s affair

I kind of missed the boat on this blogathon, as my entry was due two weeks ago.  Well better late than never, right? I thought I would write my entry even if ultimately it doesn’t end up as part of the official blogathon event.  I will be better with my future events.  I think I also over-commit because everything sounds so great!

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Without further ado…

Joan Crawford and Clark Gable starred in eight, count ’em, eight films together: Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners, Possessed (all in 1931), Dancing Lady (1933), Forsaking All Others and Chained (both in 1934), Love on the Run (1936) and Strange Cargo (1940).  Prior to that, both appeared as extras (uncredited) in 1925’s The Merry Widow.

By the time the early 1931 rolled around, Crawford had become MGM’s top star and Gable had just been signed a short term one year contract by Irving Thalberg, MGM’s top producer who was famed for his youth and ability to select good scripts and find new stars. Gable’s first role at MGM was a small part as a villain in Crawford’s Dance, Fools, Dance.  Thalberg, sensing that he had something special with Gable, ordered that the script be re-written and Gable be given some steamy scenes with Crawford.  During their first clinch, sparks flew.

After Dance, Fools, Dance, Crawford and Gable made two more films together and many films apart.  By the end of 1931, during the filming of Possessed,  Crawford and Gable were involved in a full-fledged steamy affair.  However, Crawford was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. at the time and Gable was married to Maria Langham.  Both couples’ marriages were stormy, but due to morality standards of the time, it was imperative that Crawford and Gable kept their relationship on the down low.

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Crawford and Gable mostly kept their relationship contained to working hours.  They’d arrive to work early and stay late.  They rendezvoused in Crawford’s fancy trailer, which incidentally was a gift from her husband, Fairbanks Jr. He was still even making payments on it! They also occasionally lunched together in the commissary,  but only a couple times a week as to not arouse suspicion among their co-workers. Any breaks Crawford and Gable received were spent in the bed of a local hotel room. As we all know, the more a couple attempts to hide their relationship, the more people that know about it.  Despite Crawford and Gable’s attempts at discretion, their steamy affair was a well known secret around the studio.

Louis B. Mayer got wind of Crawford and Gable’s torrid romance and threatened their careers if they carried on.  Gable was to have made Letty Lynton with Crawford, but was removed when news of their affair broke.  He was replaced with Robert Montgomery. Crawford and Gable kept apart for awhile but still managed to appear in five more films together.  They continued their romance despite being married to other people.  Crawford divorced Fairbanks Jr. in 1933.  She remarried to Franchot Tone in 1935.  Gable remained married to Langham until 1939, when Gable fell in love with Carole Lombard and was forced to pay Langham a pretty penny in order for her to agree to divorce him so that he could marry Lombard.  Apparently, Crawford was jealous of Lombard’s relationship with Gable (whom everyone said was the love of her life and vice versa).  During the filming of Strange Cargo in 1940, Crawford would continually whisper things to Gable, presumably about Lombard, that irritated him.  However, in 1942 when Lombard was tragically killed in a plane crash, Crawford and Gable seemed to bury the hatchet.  Crawford was one of Gable’s closest confidants during his mourning.

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After Gable’s marriage to Lombard, and even after her passing, his relationship with Crawford carried on, but was never as steamy as it had once been.  They were good friends, perhaps “friends with benefits.”  Both Crawford and Gable remarried to other people.  They carried on until Gable’s death in 1960.  Even in interviews later life, Crawford referred to Gable lovingly, referring to him as her favorite leading man.  When asked why she found Gable so attractive, Crawford put it succinctly, stating: “…Balls! Clark Gable had balls.”  Crawford herself also had “balls,” figuratively speaking, which is perhaps why she and Gable got along so well.  In many ways Crawford and Gable were cut from the same cloth: similar meager childhood backgrounds, similar struggle to make it to the top of the heap in Hollywood, similar insatiable sexual appetites and so much more.

Favorite Performers: Gene Kelly

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Even with the scar, Gene is pretty cute!

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of Gene Kelly’s passing at the age of 83.  I remember hearing of his death in the sixth grade and feeling so sad.  I was a few months shy of twelve at the time.  I had just discovered Nick at Nite the year prior and had just discovered Gene Kelly by way of his appearance with Lucille Ball in DuBarry Was a Lady (1943). While ‘DuBarry’ wasn’t his best film, I liked Gene.  He just had that je ne sois quoi about him.  After seeing him with Lucy, I was hooked.  I religiously checked the TCM listings (then in its infancy) for Gene’s movies and tried to set the VCR to record them.  With each recording, I’d cross my fingers hoping that I’d set up the recording correctly and that the tape wouldn’t run out before my recording was complete.  Between TCM and the ever reliable Hollywood Video, I managed to see a few of Gene’s films.  When I heard that he had died, I remember watching Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Pirate (1948) with my friend who also loved him.

While I love Fred Astaire, I would never compare him with Gene.  Honestly, they’re like apples and oranges.  Sure, they’re both dancers and both men, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.  In the end though, I think I have to give Gene the edge–if only because I love the fabulous elaborate dance numbers he put together in his films.  Astaire, to his credit, did do some pretty fantastic numbers in his post-Ginger Rogers films.  However, Astaire never put together such productions like the ballet in An American in Paris (1951) and the “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain–two of my favorite numbers of any musical ever made.   Gene was a pioneer and an innovator not only in musicals but in the world of film itself.

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Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in “Ziegfeld Follies (1945)”  Two fantastic, yet very different dancers.

Gene was born in Pittsburgh in 1912.  As a child, he was reluctantly enrolled in dance classes with his brothers.  Gene dreamed of playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team–not being a world renowned movie star, dancer, choreographer and director.  At some point, Gene had a change of heart and gave up on his dream of being a professional baseball player.  Lucky for us, he decided to dedicate himself to dancing. By the early 1930s, Gene was a teacher at his own dancing school. By the late 1930s, Gene had established a very successful dance studio and decided to move to New York City to find work as a choreographer.  He didn’t find much success during his first stint in New York.  By 1940, he was back in his hometown starring in and choreographing local theater productions.  It was in one of these productions where he was discovered and given a larger part.  That part led to an even larger part in a bigger production and so on.

By 1940, Gene was back in New York appearing on Broadway in Pal Joey–a play which was later made into a 1957 film starring Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth and Kim Novak. During Gene’s appearance in Pal Joey, he was approached by Hollywood mogul David O.Selznick for a Hollywood contract.  By the time Gene made his film debut in 1942 in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland, Selznick had sold Gene’s contract to MGM.  During the next couple of years, Gene appeared in a few dramatic films and even appeared in a musical with Lucille Ball who had recently signed with MGM after a long stint at RKO as “The Queen of the Bs.”

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Gene Kelly, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, Tommy Dorsey, Rags Ragland and Zero Mostrel in “DuBarry Was a Lady.”

Gene’s big big break was when he was loaned to Columbia to appear with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944).  It was this film where he finally started to show glimpses of what he would achieve later.  One of the best dance numbers in this film is when Gene dances with his own reflection.  For the next decade or so, Gene appeared in a remarkable series of films that gradually built upon one another and showcased the innovative film and storytelling techniques and dance routines that Gene would become known for.  Gene was lucky to come around at just the right time–the Golden Era of the Hollywood musical from the mid-1940s through the mid to late 1950s.

By the late 1950s, the public’s tastes had changed and intense dramas and issue driven films were more popular.  The musicals of the 1960s and beyond definitely have a different feel about them and feel gritty and grim–which is a definite contrast to the glamorous and sparkly looks of their predecessors.  By this point in his career, Gene had mostly retired from dancing and turned into a director.  One his biggest films was 1969’s Hello, Dolly! which was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three. In 1980, Gene returned to the big screen in the musical Xanadu.

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Gene Kelly and Olivia Newton-John in that cinematic classic, “Xanadu.”

Despite its reputation as one of those “so bad, its good” movies, I love Xanadu.  It has everything you’d want in a film: Gene Kelly, Gene Kelly roller skating, Gene Kelly playing the clarinet, Olivia Newton-John singing catchy 80s pop songs, a big roller skating dance number, flashbacks, Greek Gods, magic, neon… This film has everything.  When asked about why he made this film, Gene stated that the film had a great concept, it just didn’t quite turn out.  I think it turned out great.  This is truly one of the gems from 1980.  After Xanadu, Gene was pretty much retired and spent the remainder of his life making the award show circuits (picking up a Cecil B. DeMille award in 1981, Kennedy Center Honors in 1982, AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1985, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 1989, just to name a few of the honors he received).  By the late 1980s-early 1990s, Gene’s health steadily declined until his passing in 1996.

My favorite Gene Kelly movies:

Words and Music (1948),”Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.” Gene and Vera-Ellen only appeared in a segment of this musical biopic starring Mickey Rooney and Tom Drake, however, they are definitely the highlight.  “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” is definitely a sexy number, a trait that is unusual in the goody two shoes MGM movies of the 1940s.  Vera-Ellen’s character is killed and she dies on the staircase, on her back, right in front of the camera.  All we see of Vera-Ellen’s character is her chest and legs.  This number also has great music that I really like.

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Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in “Words and Music.”

On the Town (1949). This film is the final film that Gene made with Frank Sinatra and I feel that it is their best.  I like Anchors Aweigh but cannot stand Kathryn Grayson, so that film pales a little bit in comparison with ‘Town.’  I thought Gene had a great rapport with not only Frank but love interest Vera-Ellen.  My favorite number in this film is actually the “Prehistoric Man” number that mainly features Ann Miller, but Gene provides some amusing backup.  However, for Gene’s best number in this film, that honor would have to go to “A Day in New York” where all his co-stars, save for Vera-Ellen (who had ballet training, which non of the actor cast members had).  Vera-Ellen and Gene make a great duo–which is interesting because I don’t typically think of Gene as being part of a dancing team.


An American in Paris
.  This film is widely considered Gene’s masterpiece and won the 1951 Oscar for Best Picture over the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun.  While I like ‘Desire,’ and ‘Sun,’ give me ‘Paris,’ any day.  This film is so much fun and such a delight to both the eyes and ears that it makes an enjoyable experience each time I see it.  The best number in this film is of course the seventeen minute ballet at the end of the film.  This was a huge gamble for Kelly, director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed.  Not only was the ballet expensive to produce, but it was unknown whether the audience would respond to it.  Well the audience did and the film was a huge hit, winning six Oscars, including the aforementioned “Best Picture” Oscar.  Gene was also given an Honorary Oscar for his versatility and achievement in choreography on film. My favorite part of the entire ballet is the Toulouse Lautrec part.  Could anyone else but Gene Kelly wear a flesh colored leotard?

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Gene Kelly’s flesh colored leotard in the Toulouse Lautrec part of the ballet in “An American in Paris.”  I’m not going to lie, this gif was the whole reason for this post.

Singin’ in the Rain.  This is probably Gene’s best known film and honestly, it is probably the best musical ever made.  I love this movie.  From the amazing cast (Gene, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen) to the great music, fun storyline, great costumes, everything.  This film is almost perfect.  The only thing marring this fabulous film, in my opinion, is the fact that Debbie Reynolds’ character has three different singing voices.  O’Connor is hilarious and has his amazing “Make ‘Em Laugh” dance routine.  Has there ever been a dance that looked so physically exhausting? Jean Hagen is hilarious as Lina Lamont, Gene’s delusional co-star and Hollywood-manufactured love interest.  Lina has a horrendous voice that is fine in silent film (because obviously you can’t hear her), but in a talkie… ugh.  And Debbie is just adorable as Gene’s love interest and the studio’s new discovery, threatening to supplant Lina’s status as top female star at the studio.  Pretty much every number in this film is fantastic, but my favorite would be the “Broadway Melody” number toward the end of the film.  It is colorful, has great dancing, a storyline, and fun music.  My favorite part of it is the part where Gene dances with Cyd Charisse, who is wearing a fringed and beaded green flapper dress.  The music is fantastic and Gene and Cyd just sizzle on screen.  This is one of the sexier musical numbers during the production code era.  The best part is when Gene lifts Cyd up with just one arm.

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The most famous moment in Gene Kelly’s entire career, singing (and dancing) the title song from “Singin in the Rain”

Other favorite Gene Kelly films:

Summer Stock (1950). “Get Happy” is probably one of the best numbers in Judy Garland’s career.  On the flipside, “Heavenly Music” is probably one of the absolute worst numbers in Gene’s career.  I loathe that number.  The only good part is when the dogs run out on stage.

The Pirate.  This film failed at the box office in 1948, but it’s a great film.  Perhaps it was ahead of its time.  Gene has all kinds of great athletic numbers, including one where he dons shorty shorts and dances with fire.  Judy is great and looks gorgeous and there is a fantastic number at the end where Gene dances with the amazing Nicholas Brothers.  They sing “Be a Clown” which suspiciously sounds like “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain.  Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” came before Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s “Make ‘Em Laugh.”  However, both The Pirate and Singin’ in the Rain were produced by Arthur Freed. Hmm…

-Les Girls (1957).  Gene dances with Mitzi Gaynor in a fantastic number called “Why Am I So Gone (About That Gal?).”  Mitzi looks great and she and Gene have a great dancing chemistry.

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Gene Kelly and Shirley MacLaine spoofing the big 1940s musicals in “What a Way to Go!”

What a Way to Go! (1964) This film stars Shirley MacLaine as an inadvertent black widow who just wants to live a simple life, free of material possessions.  The present day part of the film features her telling the story of how she met and married each of her husbands and how money led her husband to his eventual death–the kicker being that it was Shirley who in trying to help her husband’s psyche, ends up leading him to riches.  With each death, Shirley inherited her husband’s fortune.  She’s worth millions upon millions of dollars and just wants to give it all away.  She’s sent to a psychologist (Robert Cummings) because who wouldn’t want all that money? In this film, Gene plays Shirley’s fourth husband, Pinky Benson.

When Shirley meets Gene, he is working as a two-bit clown in a small club. His act is lame and nobody in the club pays attention to him.  She feels sorry for Gene because he’s a very nice man and she senses that underneath the clown getup, he does have some talent.  One night, Gene is running late and doesn’t have time to put on the clown costume.  She convinces him to go out without the costume and just perform his act.  Well, Gene’s simple soft-shoe routine is a sensation and soon he’s off to Hollywood.  We are then treated to a send up of the big flashy MGM musicals as Shirley describes her life with Gene to the psychologist (each of her stories about her different husbands is a spoof of a different genre of film).  Shirley is up to the task of dancing with Gene and they do a really great and funny number together.  Gene’s character eventually becomes a huge, egotistical star who lives in an all-pink mansion (his character’s name is “Pinky” after all), and by all-pink, I mean ALL-PINK.  He eventually meets his fate when he is crushed to death by a stampede of adoring fans.

KELLY, GENE

 

 

Favorite Performer: Ann Blyth

One of the best things about watching classic film is discovering new favorite performers.  Sure, there are the well-known legends of classic film: Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, etc. and I love many of them too and can completely see how and why these men and women have endured decades after their last film; but there are a whole crop of other actors in these films that deserve to be just as well known.  Many of my favorite performers were steadily working actors and were even stars in their day, but over the years, they’ve been all but forgotten.  Thankfully, through vehicles like TCM, the internet, the TCM/Fathom classic film events and other film revivals all over the country, these actors are once again getting their day in the sun.  It is my hope that through TCM and the classic film events that these actors will once again be in the limelight.   Often for me, it is the films with the big name that leads me to discovering these other performers, many of whom are just as good as the big name to whom they’re lending support, or even sharing a star billing with them!

One such performer who was a star in her day and whom deserves more recognition is Ann Blyth.

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Ann Blyth, 1940s

My first exposure to Ann Blyth was her star-making turn as the daughter-from-hell, Veda Pierce in the 1945 classic, Mildred Pierce.  ‘Mildred,’ starred Joan Crawford as the title character, a recently divorced mother who is determined to give her spoiled teenage daughter, Veda, everything she wants.  This film was a comeback vehicle for Crawford whose contract at MGM had been terminated two years prior, after eighteen years with the studio.  In 1945, Crawford signed with Warner Brothers and immediately embarked upon a string of hit films, mostly in the melodrama genre, where her career thrived for the next decade or so.  As an aside, frankly, I prefer this short period of Crawford’s career.  I’ve never been a huge fan of Crawford, but I absolutely love Crawford during her Warner Brothers era–plus I really love melodramas.  But I digress…

Back to Ann Blyth.

Prior to ‘Mildred,’ Blyth was under contract with Universal, mostly appearing in musicals that took advantage of her singing talent.  She was paired often with Donald O’Connor as Universal hoped that they could replicate the success of MGM’s Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals that were popular a few years prior.  The Blyth/O’Connor musicals were successful enough, but Blyth’s star skyrocketed after she was loaned out to Warner Brothers to appear in ‘Mildred.’ Blyth was cast after Shirley Temple, Virginia Weidler, Bonita Granville, and Martha Vickers were considered.  Frankly, the idea of Shirley Temple slapping Joan Crawford sounds intriguing.  I believe Granville could also have done a pretty good job as she played a horrible child in 1936’s These Three.  But after seeing Blyth’s performance (and having seen it multiple times as Mildred Pierce is one of my favorite movies of all time), it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part.

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Veda tells Mildred what she really thinks about her in Mildred Pierce

Blyth’s portrayal of Veda, I believe, is one of the all-time most “femme-fataly” of all femme fatales in noir.  On the surface, she looks harmless.  She’s got a sweet face and a very nice sounding voice.  However, under the surface, there lies one of the most shallow, despicable characters in classic film.  Veda is brazen and unapologetic about what she wants and what she’s willing to do to get what she wants.  In some ways, I find that admirable, because she knows what she wants and she doesn’t care what she has to do to get it.  On the other hand, the way she goes about it is questionable.  Veda can show moments of kindness and sympathy, but one has to wonder how genuine it is when the next scene has her saying/doing something awful to Mildred.  My favorite moment of the entire film is Blyth’s “f-you” speech to mother, Mildred, which culminates with Mildred ripping up Veda’s windfall (in form of a check that Veda received after some mild extortion), Veda slapping Mildred, and Mildred kicking Veda out of the house.

VEDA (to MILDRED): “With this money, I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men who wear overalls. You think just because you made a little money, you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t. Because you’ll never be anything but a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money, I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!”

Damn.  I’ll have to say that Veda deserves everything she gets in this film.  Her monologue above pretty much sums up Veda’s entire character.  There is nothing redeeming about Veda.  Mildred does everything for her, even jumping into the incredibly difficult restaurant industry, and despite after much success, really has nothing to show for it at the conclusion of the film.

After ‘Mildred,’ Blyth appeared in a variety of different film genres.  One such film was 1948’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid with William Powell.  This fantasy film is a lot of fun.  Powell portrays a middle-aged psychiatrist, Arthur Peabody,  who is experiencing a bit of a midlife crisis when it occurs to him that his fiftieth birthday is quickly approaching (we’ll look past the fact that Powell already looks 50 and then some).  While on vacation, Peabody hears some singing coming from a distant island.  Taking his fishing boat, Peabody travels to the island and discovers the source of the singing.  It’s a mermaid, Lenore, played by Blyth.

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Ann Blyth and William Powell in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid

While Lenore is mute and does not speak, she does sing.  Throughout the rest of the film, Peabody spends a lot of time with Lenore.  Lenore is mischievous and charming which Peabody finds exciting as it is pulling him out of the rut he feels he is in.  Lenore is also young and likes Peabody, which he also finds exciting as a man nearing fifty.  Peabody even ends up teaching Lenore how to kiss.   Much of the film involves Peabody trying to hide Lenore, first in the bathtub of his hotel room and later in the insanely large fish pond at the hotel.  Other characters in the film, overhearing snippets of Peabody’s conversations with Lenore and seeing Lenore’s face (not her mermaid body obviously) immediately think he’s having an affair.

While Blyth has no lines in ‘Peabody,’ she is completely enchanting as the mermaid.  Between her beautiful face and her gorgeous singing voice, it’s no wonder that Peabody is instantly smitten.

Blyth’s Hollywood career wasn’t incredibly long, though longer than some.  Over the course of thirteen years (1944-1957), she appeared in about thirty or so films.  While I believe Mildred Pierce represents the apex of her career, Blyth makes an impact in every films of hers that I’ve seen.  In addition to the two films I mentioned above, I also recommend Blyth’s last film, The Helen Morgan Story.  Despite her voice being inexplicably dubbed, Blyth’s performance as tragic torch singer, Helen Morgan, is excellent.  She portrays a woman who was at the top of her career, only to lose it to alcohol addiction.  While this may not be the best biopic, Blyth shines in a performance that was different than the many musicals that she made prior to this film.

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Ann Blyth Today

Today Blyth lives near San Diego, California.  At 89 years old, she still answers her fan mail and is known to journey up to Los Angeles occasionally to appear at film related festivals.  In 2013, Blyth appeared at the TCM Film Festival to be interviewed by late TCM host, Robert Osborne.  In this interview, she showed that she still had the charm and lovely demeanor that she showcased in all those films decades prior.  Fortunately, the real Ann Blyth is nothing like her best known role, Veda Pierce.