Tag Archives: 1950s

National Classic Movie Day–Top 5 Favorite Actors

So sorry I missed my last two advertised Blogathon events.  Frankly, I’ve been really busy at work and at the time I signed up for the events, I wasn’t anticipating how busy we’d be.  Inventory Control in the warehouse has been crazy and everyone (myself included) have been working mandatory 10-hr shifts + OT on Saturdays.  We’re halfway through the month, so if I can get through May, I should have more time to dedicate to writing.  I did not want to miss National Classic Movie Day.  This year, we’ve been asked to discuss our Top Five Favorite Actors, which believe me, is was quite an arduous task just to narrow down my favorites.

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Without further ado…

1954 photo of actor Errol Flynn.
Errol and I have the same sunglasses!

My boyfriend, Errol Flynn.  He’s the whole package: unbelievably attractive, charming, athletic, gifted, great accent, tall, he’s got everything.  Aside from his physical attributes, Flynn is a highly underrated actor.  One of Warner Brothers top stars of the 1930s-1940s, Flynn provided a nice alternative to the gangster and “weepy” films that also permeated the movie landscape at the same.  Though dozens of actors have tried, nobody can top Flynn’s portrayal of the legendary Sherwood Forest outlaw, Robin Hood in The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Flynn was born to steal from the rich and give to the poor.   He is one of the few male performers who completely steals the viewer’s gaze (or maybe the female viewer, lol) from the female lead.  Who even notices “her” when he’s on the screen? Did I mention that he’s super cute? And that accent! ::swoon::

Best Known FilmsThe Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Dodge City and They Died With Their Boots On.

My Favorite Films: Gentleman Jim, Uncertain Glory, The Sisters, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Never Say Goodbye and Footsteps in the Dark.

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Alan Hale and Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim.  ‘Jim’ is a great Errol eye candy film by the way… you know, if that’s what you’re into 😉

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The Star Who Introduced Me to Classic Film: Lucille Ball.  In 1995, when I was in the sixth grade, I discovered Nick at Nite.  How I ended up on the channel, I don’t know and I don’t care.  The first show I watched was I Love Lucy.  I was immediately hooked.  I thought this show was hilarious.  Then, I ended up falling in love with the shows that came on after I Love Lucy, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch and The Munsters.  But ‘Lucy,’ was always my favorite.  On weekdays, I made sure to have all my homework and such completed, so that I was ready to go at 8pm to watch “my shows” uninterrupted.  On Saturdays, Nick at Nite had the “Whole Lotta Lucy Saturday” which was my favorite day, because you got to watch two episodes of I Love Lucy and an episode of The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.

From my love of Lucy and my natural curiosity, I started borrowing books about Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy from the library.  It was from these books that I learned that Lucy had been a movie actress prior to being on I Love Lucy.  Soon, I needed to watch all the Lucy movies that I could get my hands on.  Lucille Ball appeared in dozens of films before hitting it big in radio and television–she could never seem to find her niche in film.  At this same time, TCM was in its infancy and soon I was scouring the TV Guide (remember the paper TV Guide that used to come in the Sunday newspaper?) looking at TCM’s schedule to see what Lucille Ball films were airing.  I would rig up the VCR and cross my fingers that 1) The recording actually worked; and 2) The tape didn’t run out!

From my exposure to Lucille Ball on TCM, I was exposed to other actors which led me to learning about other actors and so on.  I discovered Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers through Stage Door (which also featured Lucy); I discovered Gene Kelly through Du Barry Was a Lady (featuring, you guessed it, Lucy).  From Gene Kelly, I discovered other favorites like Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse.  I Love Lucy started me down the glorious wormhole that is classic film.  I never tire of classic film.  I never tire of Lucille Ball; and I never tire of I Love Lucy.

Best Known Films: Stage Door, The Long Long Trailer, Yours Mine and Ours, Mame and The Big Street.

My Favorite Films: The Long Long Trailer (My #1 favorite film of all time), Stage Door, The Affairs of Annabel, Miss Grant Takes Richmond, Five Came Back, Next Time I Marry and Beauty For the Asking.

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My spirit twin, Lucy Ricardo

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Judy looks longingly at “the boy next door” Tom Drake, in Meet Me in St. Louis.  I don’t blame her, he’s cute!

The Star to Whom I Just Want to Give a Big Hug: Judy Garland.  Poor Judy.  She had such a sad, tragic life.  She had a lot of problems that unfortunately affected her work.  However, you would never know of her problems from watching her on screen.  She is so charming and such a joy to watch.  She was a very unique performer.  She wears her emotions on her sleeve.  As an audience member, you feel every feeling she’s emoting on screen. She’s very underrated as an actress and only appeared in a handful of films where she didn’t sing.  One of her greatest performances is as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester in A Star is Born.  Frankly, as much as I like Grace Kelly, Garland was robbed of the Best Actress Oscar in 1955.  Her performance is brilliant and also features one of her greatest musical performances, the torch song, “The Man Who Got Away.”

I find it tragic that MGM (allegedly) treated her so poorly when she was under contract.  Louis B. Mayer referred to her as “[his] little hunchback” and frequently made unkind comments about her appearance.  As a teenager, Judy was often cast as the less attractive buddy to the male star.  This is most evident in her films with Mickey Rooney.  Judy was Mickey’s friend, but she was never the object of his affections.  It didn’t help that Judy competed with the likes of Lana Turner and Ava Gardner who were all her peers when she was at MGM.  I think Judy was very pretty.  She had a unique beauty.   Frankly, I find Judy prettier than Lana Turner, only because Turner seems to have a bit of a generic blonde starlet look about her.  Judy is her prettiest in Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade.

Judy’s performances and songs often have an underlying sadness about them and that’s why I want to give her a hug.

Best Known Films: The Wizard of Oz, A Star is Born, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, and the Mickey Rooney films (Babes in Arms, Girl Crazy, Babes on Broadway and Strike Up the Band).

My Favorite Films: Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, The Clock, The Pirate, The Harvey Girls, Summer Stock and Presenting Lily Mars

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Perhaps Judy’s greatest number: “Get Happy,” from Summer Stock

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“Dignity, always, dignity.” From Singin’ in the Rain

Star Who I Could Watch Dance ALL DAY LONG: Gene Kelly.  I love Gene Kelly.  I love Fred Astaire too, but I love Gene Kelly and would venture to give him a slight edge over Astaire.  I would never compare the two men as dancers, as they have two completely different styles, but in terms of films, I love Gene’s films just a wee bit more.  I have found that some people are not fans of Gene’s because they find him too hammy or what not.  I don’t.  I find his smile endearing and also enjoy the massive musical numbers he puts on.  The ballet in An American in Paris is exquisite and a real joy to watch.  The Broadway Melody in Singin’ in the Rain is amazing.  Gene’s greatest on-screen moment may be his performance of the title song from Singin’ in the Rain.  Gene’s joy and enthusiasm is contagious in this number.  I defy anyone to watch it and not instantly feel happier.  If it doesn’t move you, then you’re made of stone and I don’t know if I want to watch movies with you anymore.

Each of Gene’s movies are so innovative and so different from one another.  They really are a work of art and demonstrates how much Gene loves dancing and showcasing the artistry of dance.  His films, like On the Town, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, elevated the musical film as an art form.  One of his greatest contributions to the musical is forming the plot around the music and dancing so that it makes sense within the context of the film.  Many opponents of musicals dislike them because they find the musical interludes random and they cannot suspend their disbelief.  I’ve found that Gene’s musicals (and many of Astaire’s as well) so beautifully incorporate the music and dance into the film and the dance numbers seem natural and not random at all.

I remember when he died.  I was in the seventh grade and so sad– I watched Singin’ in the Rain in his honor.

Best Known Films: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Brigadoon, On the Town, Anchors Aweigh, For Me and My Gal

My Favorite Films: Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, On the Town, The Pirate, Summer Stock, What a Way to Go!, Cover Girl, Xanadu

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My favorite moment of the ballet from An American in Paris

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“Fasten your seat belts, it’s gonna be a bumpy night.” All About Eve

Actor Who I’d be Terrified of, but Also Fascinated By: Bette Davis.  I love Bette Davis.  She is amazing.  She seems like she would have been completely intimidating in person, but also a joy to listen to.  She is compelling in her 1971 Dick Cavett interview (I highly recommend watching it on You Tube or Hulu if you have a chance).  I could listen to her recollect about her life and career all day.

Bette Davis has an interesting career trajectory.  She started out with small parts in a variety of pre-code films.  Many of these films are not good, but she has a few early films here and there that show that Bette had that certain something.  Her big break was Of Human Bondage in 1934.  Many felt that Bette was robbed of the Oscar for her performance in that film, and that her 1935 Oscar win for Dangerous was a consolation prize for having lost to Claudette Colbert the year prior.  Bette had to fight for good roles at Warner Brothers, which was very male driven.  She was on suspension many times, which paid off in the end, when she finally became Warner Brothers’ top female star.  The tides turned for Bette in 1938 when she won her second Oscar for Jezebel.  From then on, through the end of the 1940s, Bette churned out one hit film after another.  By the end of the 1940s, Bette’s star was waning. She left Warner Brothers after filming ended on the hilarious (albeit, unintentionally, I think) Beyond the Forest. She had a bit of a comeback with the amazing All About Eve, however this didn’t end up materializing with any other huge parts. By the 1960s, her career had segued into “psycho-biddy horror films” (as they’re known). I for one, really enjoyed her small role as an elderly aunt in 1976’s Burnt Offerings.

I love Bette because she really gives her all in her roles–she sacrifices glamour in name of the character.  In The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, Bette had no qualms about playing a 60 year old Queen Elizabeth I to Errol Flynn’s 30 year old Lord Essex.  She shaved her hairline to mimic the real Elizabeth I’s balding and studied very hard in an attempt to play the Queen as true to life as possible.  In Mr. Skeffington and Now, Voyager, Bette allows herself to appear very unattractive as it fits within the confines of the plot.  In ‘Skeffington,’ Bette’s character is very vain and goes through great lengths to maintain her appearance.  After a bout of diphtheria, Bette’s character’s looks are ruined and she must cope.  In Now, Voyager, Bette appears as a frumpy, overweight, bushy eyebrow-ed spinster who undergoes a makeover which changes her life.  Even when Bette is completely bonkers, like in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, she commits.  “Go big or go home” seems to be her motto.

Best Known Films: Jezebel, Now Voyager, Mr. Skeffington, All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Dark Victory

My Favorite Films: Now Voyager, All About Eve, Mr. Skeffington, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, The Sisters, Three on a Match, June Bride, The Letter, Little Foxes and Beyond the Forest.

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If you ever get a chance to see Beyond the Forest, do it.  Bette is hilarious.  She is the queen of camp.
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Villain Blogathon–Eve Harrington, “All About Eve” (1950)

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All About Eve, the showbiz drama to end all showbiz dramas, starts in the present time at an annual theater award banquet.  Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the evening’s recipient of the most prestigious award–The Sarah Siddons Award (for distinguished achievement), is set to take the stage.   The evening seems like a pleasant affair, but the narrator Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), quickly informs us that all is not what it seems.  As Eve ascends the steps and is about to take the award from the presenter, the picture freezes.  In a knowing and almost sarcastic tone, we are advised that we will “learn all about Eve” shortly.  The film quickly segues into a flashback, where we, as the viewer, assume that we will be taken on a journey to find out how Eve earned herself the prized Sarah Siddons Award trophy.  When I first saw this film, I knew that Eve had to have done something scandalous or nefarious to get there–and if you’re like me, this premonition will only hook you into wanting to take the ride to learn ALL ABOUT EVE.

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Eve accepts the Sarah Siddons Award

Trust me.  It’s worth it.  That Eve is a real piece of work.

We first meet Eve outside of a theater on a dreary evening in New York City.  It is pouring outside and Eve, wearing a raincoat and bucket hat is huddled next to one of the side doors.  She has just come from seeing her idol, Margo Channing (Bette Davis), perform in her latest play, “Aged in Wood.”  Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), a friend of Margo’s and wife of the play’s author, Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), spots Eve outside.  Karen remarks to Eve that she’s seen her outside of the theater every evening after a performance.  Eve (who at this point seems like a genuine, starstruck young woman), comments that she loves Margo Channing and has seen every performance of this play.  She even remarks that she’d first seen Margo perform in San Francisco, where she became an instant fan.  Karen invites Eve inside to meet her idol.

The wheels are in motion…

Inside the theater, we meet Margo and all of her other theater friends and colleagues.  Aside from Karen and husband Lloyd, there’s Bill Sampson (Gary Merrill) (Margo’s boyfriend and director of the play) and Margo’s assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter) (also a former vaudevillian).  They’re laughing about an interview Margo gave and Karen introduces Eve to Margo and appeases to her ego by gushing over her.  After prompting her to tell the group how she found Margo and ended up in New York City, Eve gives her first of many excellent performances.  Eve tells a sob story about how she came from Milwaukee, WI and worked in a dead end career as a secretary in a brewery.

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Eve the starstruck fan, meets her idol, Margo Channing.

EVE: “When you’re a secretary in a brewery, it’s pretty hard to make believe you’re anything else.”

She then discusses how she dabbled in theater in her town, but of course, Eve with her fake humility, says she was awful.  It was at this theater where she met “Eddie” who was a radio technician, but was also in the Air Force.  Then Eddie was sent into combat when “The War” came.  Eve went back to work at the brewery and lived for Eddie’s once a week letters.  She saved her vacation time and money to be able to meet Eddie in San Francisco for a vacation.  Eddie never showed up.  He was killed in combat.  Now in San Francisco, Eve decided to look stay in town and look for work.  One night, Margo Channing came to town to perform “Remembrance” at the Shubert Theater, which Eve attended, and ultimately led to her following Margo back to New York and brings us to the current events.  The group is sympathetic to Eve’s story and instantly feel compassionate toward her plight.  The only person who is not convinced is Birdie.

BIRDIE: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end”

After accompanying Margo and Bill to the airport so he can catch his flight to Hollywood, Eve ends up being invited to live in Margo’s home and work as her assistant.  For awhile, Eve dotes on Margo and Margo is in bliss.  However, Eve has an ulterior motive.  By taking care of Margo and all her affairs for a few weeks, she can learn all there is to learn about Margo Channing and her friends and colleagues.   At the theater, Margo catches Eve on the theater stage, modeling Margo’s costume and pretending to bow and accept applause from an invisible audience.  When Eve realizes that she’s been caught, she has a look of terror on her face, but Margo chalks up Eve’s reaction to embarrassment and assumes that Eve’s actions are those of a wannabe theater actress.

Later that evening, Margo receives a phone call at 3:00AM.  Apparently, she had placed a call from New York to California at 12AM (Pacific Time) to wish Bill a Happy Birthday.   Margo assumes that Eve placed the call on her behalf.  It is apparent that Margo is confused and not sure if Eve’s intentions were pure or if there was some underlying motive. The next morning, Margo and Birdie discuss Eve and Birdie’s instinctive dislike of her.

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Birdie is suspicious of Eve’s true intentions

MARGO: She (Eve) thinks only of me, doesn’t she?

BIRDIE: Well let’s say she thinks only about you, anyway.

MARGO: How do you mean that?

BIRDIE: I’ll tell you how: like…like she’s studying you, like you was a play or a book or a set of blueprints–how you walk, talk, eat, think, sleep…

MARGO: I’m sure that’s flattering.  There’s nothing wrong with it.

Margo asks Eve about the phone call.  Eve admits that she forgot to tell Margo about the phone call.  She then nonchalantly mentions that she also sent a telegram to Bill for his birthday and smirks as she leaves and closes the door. The musical score then pops in with its wonderful shrieking violins and loud crescendos.  This music is a continual theme and is heard throughout the film each time Eve does something else nefarious.

From this point on, Eve’s behavior just gets more brazen as she works to take over Margo’s career.  Some of the things she does:

  • Eve finds out Margo’s understudy is pregnant and under the guise of humility, manages to manipulate Karen into asking Max into giving the role of Margo’s understudy to her.
  • Margo arrives late for an audition with another Addison DeWitt protegee, Miss Caswell (Marilyn Monroe).  Eve, Margo’s understudy, auditions with Miss Caswell instead.  She gives a brilliant performance (according to Addison).  Later, after Margo feuds with Lloyd about Eve (and Lloyd vents to Karen), Karen decides to play a joke on Margo to teach her a lesson and cause her to miss a performance (and help out Eve at the same time).  This will later backfire on Karen big time.
  • Eve goes on stage in Margo’s place and wins rave reviews. Just by “sheer coincidence,” Addison and all the other top theater critics in town just happened to be in the audience when Eve made her stage debut. Hmm.  Isn’t that curious?
  • Having taken over Margo’s role, Eve tries to take over Margo’s boyfriend Bill,  the director of “Footsteps on the Ceiling.”  It doesn’t work.  “Just score it as an incomplete forward pass,” he tells her.  From here on, Bill is suspicious of Eve.  Addison also witnesses Eve’s attempt to seduce Bill.
  • Eve then has a friend call Lloyd in the middle of the night to tell him that Eve is having some sort of emotional breakdown and that he needs to come over right away.  He comes to her hotel.  Eve then presents this as Lloyd leaving Karen in the middle of the night and coming to her.  She is convinced that she will marry Lloyd and he will write plays and she’ll star in them.
  • Addison, under the pretense to find out more about Eve’s background, states that he is going to write a column about her.  Actually performing a fact-checking mission, Addison asks Eve about her backstory.  He also does end up writing a column about his interview with Eve where he (and Eve) tear Margo apart.
  • Eve blackmails Karen into convincing Lloyd to give her the coveted role of Cora (the role written for Margo) in “Footsteps on the Ceiling.” Eve threatens to expose Karen’s scheme and how it caused Margo to miss the performance that allowed Eve to be “discovered.”
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Addison and Eve–“champion to champion.”

Margo however, has the last laugh.  During Bill’s welcome home party, already feeling irritated and upset with Eve, Margo introduces Eve to Addison, the acerbic theater critic who writes very blunt and sometimes scathing newspaper columns about the theater world.  Margo knows that if there is anything to find out about Eve’s true intentions, Addison will find out.

At first Addison appears to have been taken in by Eve.  He takes her under his wing (along with Miss Caswell) as a protegee.  He’s present for her audition with Miss Caswell and he is present when Eve goes on in Margo’s place.  It is assumed that he probably helped to arrange for all the local critics to be present.  However, Addison catches on to Eve and works to expose her for the fraud and sociopath she really is (takes one to know one, right?).

Then comes one of the best, most delicious scenes in the film.  Eve, after all her backstabbing, lying, selfishness, etc.  is finally exposed for the fraud she is and Addison uses her manipulation tactics against her.  He exposes the fact that Eve didn’t leave Milwaukee willingly.  She was having an affair with the boss and the boss’ wife had her husband followed by detectives.  Eve and the boss’ affair wasn’t proven–but she was given $500 to get out of town.  She never went to San Francisco.  She used the $500 to go to New York.  There was no Eddie.  No Shubert Theater (it doesn’t even exist in San Francisco!).  He exposes her real name.  It’s not Eve.  It’s Gertrude.  She has parents whom she hasn’t seen or talked to for three years.

Then Addison delivers the gut punch:

ADDISON: “That I should want you at all suddenly strikes me as the height of improbability.  But that, in itself, is probably the reason.  You’re an improbable person Eve and so am I.  We have that in common. Also a contempt for humanity, an inability to love or be loved, insatiable ambition–and talent.  We deserve each other.”

Addison blackmails Eve and states that she now belongs to him.  She has no choice but to acquiesce, otherwise, she’ll lose the theater career she worked so hard for (worked hard in a different way, but it was probably hard work nonetheless).

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Bette Davis, in that inimitable Bette Davis way, rips Anne Baxter a new one.

Back in the present day, the screen unfreezes, and Eve accepts her award.  She gives some fake praise to her “friends” and colleagues thanking them for helping her get the Sarah Siddons Award.  After the ceremony, Margo gives Eve a pretty good burn and pretty much tells her exactly what she thinks of her.  This is also one of my favorite parts of the movie.

MARGO: “Nice speech, Eve.  But I wouldn’t worry too much about your heart.  You can always put that award where your heart ought to be.”

Yikes.  You go, Margo.

Finally, it’s karma’s turn.

Eve returns home from the ceremony to discover a young girl asleep in her room.  The girl wakes, introduces herself as “Phoebe,” and informs Eve that she’s president of the “Eve Harrington Fan Club” at her high school.  She idolizes Eve and wants to be a theater actress.  Hmm… sound familiar? Phoebe continues to appeal to Eve’s ego and soon finds herself working as Eve’s assistant in the hotel room.  Hmm… Addison quickly stops by to bring Eve back her award that she left in the back of the limo.  Eve has Phoebe answer the door.
ADDISON (to Phoebe): “Hello there. Who are you?”
PHOEBE: “Miss Harrington’s resting, Mr. DeWitt. She asked me to see who it was.”
ADDISON: “We won’t disturb her rest. It seems she left her award in the taxicab. Will you give it to her?”
(Phoebe holds the award and looks at it with the awe of a stage struck fan girl.  Addison knows this look)
ADDISON: “How do you know my name?”
PHOEBE: “It’s a very famous name, Mr. DeWitt.”
ADDISON: “And what is your name?”
PHOEBE: “Phoebe.”
ADDISON: “Phoebe?”
PHOEBE: “I call myself Phoebe.”
ADDISON: “Why not? Tell me Phoebe, do you want some day to have an award like that of your own?”
PHOEBE: “More than anything else in the world”
ADDISON: “Then you must ask Mrs. Harrington how to get one.  Miss Harrington knows all about it.”
(Addison closes the door with a smirk on his face, knowing the fate that awaits Eve).

Game. Set. Match.

Phoebe takes Eve’s award to the bedroom to pack it in Eve’s trunk (per Eve’s request) and spots Eve’s rhinestone studded cape draped across the trunk.  She puts it on, grabs the award and practices accepting the award in Eve’s three-way mirror.  In the closing scene, the mirror’s reflection shows a bunch of Phoebes.  This is a very effective scene and provides the film’s motif: “There is always someone smarter, more attractive, funnier, etc. waiting in the wings.”

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There’s always someone waiting in the wings–entering Phoebe!

Unrelated to Eve:

What happens to Birdie? She goes to deliver the sable coat to the owner and never returns.  One can assume that perhaps Eve was so efficient that Birdie wasn’t needed and lost her position.  However, she appears to have been a good friend of Margo’s, so that seems unlikely.  Thelma Ritter, where did you go?

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The last time we ever see Birdie

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Holden Blogathon–“Picnic” (1955)

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“I gotta get somewhere in this world. I just gotta.” -Hal Carter, Picnic.

And so sums up William Holden’s character in Picnic.  I’ve written about this film previously in this blog, but I thought that this time I would focus on William Holden and his character in the film.  Holden thought that he was miscast in this film and in many ways, he is right.  Hal is clearly supposed to be in his early to mid-twenties, as he’s a college classmate of Alan Benson’s (Cliff Robertson).  Holden himself was 37 and looked every bit of it.  From an age perspective, Holden is right.  He is too old.  However, from a personality standpoint, he is perfectly cast.

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Who cares how old he is supposed to be in this film? Hubba Hubba!

Holden made his screen debut in 1939’s Golden Boy, co-starring Barbara Stanwyck.  Holden was nervous and ill at ease and it was affecting his performance.  Columbia Studios bosses were unhappy with his performance and were on the verge of firing him.  Stanwyck, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, employed her star power and demanded that Holden remain in the film.  She coached him and helped him get through the filming of Golden Boy.  While Holden’s “green-ness” shows in this film, he’s not terrible (that honor goes to Lee J. Cobb, then 27, who was inexplicably cast as 21 year old William Holden’s father.  Cobb is horrible and very annoying in this film).  While Holden got steady work, it would take eleven years to finally “make it” and be a big star.

In 1950, Holden won the leading role in Sunset Blvd.  As “down on his luck” screenwriter, Joe Gillis, Holden developed his signature brand of cynicism, world weariness, but an overall good guy.  He would play this character in most of his films from here on out.  One of the best applications of “The William Holden” persona is his portrayal of Hal Carter in Picnic. A film in which, like I mentioned earlier, Holden felt he was miscast.  Yes, age-wise, Holden is too old.  He knows it and the audience knows it.  But personality-wise, Holden is perfect as Hal Carter.

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In Picnic, Hal Carter is a drifter who winds up in Kansas in hopes to reacquaint with an old college friend, Alan Benson.  Hal is unemployed and has jumped from job to job and city to city since dropping out of college.  He is trying to get his life back together and hopes that Alan will give him some sort of job.  Alan’s family owns a large grain mill and Alan promises Hal a job scooping wheat.  This job is not exactly what Hal has in mind–he wanted to be an executive.  Hal ends up meeting and falling for Madge Owens (Kim Novak), a 19 year old woman who is known to be one of the prettiest “girls” in the area.  But, oops! Madge is already involved with Alan.  This will drive a wedge between Hal and Alan.

Hal is just trying to find a niche for himself in a community where he can thrive.  He is tired of the drifting lifestyle and just wants to fit in somewhere.   From Hal’s expository dialogue, we learn that he is responsible for his previous failures.  Alan, believing that Hal is sincere in getting his life together, invites him to the town’s annual Labor Day Picnic.  At first, everything’s going great and Hal is charming everyone.  After Alan senses that Hal may have his sights set on his girlfriend, Madge (and Madge has her sights set on Hal), Alan begins giving Hal the cold shoulder.

Madge is facing a similar situation to Hal.  She is known for being beautiful and that’s it.  Her mother and boyfriend think that Madge can skate by on her looks and nothing matters except for her to “be pretty.”  It is apparent that Madge’s mother, Florence, wants Madge to use her beauty to land a boyfriend with a high social standing, so that by proxy, the Owens women (Madge, sister Millie, and mother “Flo”) will have high social standings as well.  It is apparent that Alan is really only interested in Madge so that he can have a pretty trophy on his arm.  Nobody takes Madge seriously because it is assumed that someone so beautiful couldn’t have any problems, right? Hal on the other hand, has made so many previous mistakes in his life, that his sincere actions are dismissed by others, thinking that he’s just a ne’er do well bum.  Both Madge and Hal are trapped by other people’s perceptions and expectations (or lack thereof) of them.

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Madge (Kim Novak)

Holden incorporates a raw sensuality and a brashness into Hal that is in direct contrast to Novak’s Madge who exhibits an uneasy and inhibited sensuality.  Hal knows what he wants and isn’t afraid to speak up.  Madge on the other hand, is conflicted.  For her entire life, she’s had people telling her what to do.  Finally, she finds herself feeling something for a man whom is the complete opposite of anyone she’s ever known.  Her mother doesn’t approve.  Her boyfriend doesn’t approve (well obviously I guess), not because he loves her, but because she’d look good on his arm.  Rosemary (Rosalind Russell), a boarder at the Owens’ home, goes off on Hal–not because she doesn’t like him, but because she resented him falling for younger Madge and not her middle aged self.  Rosemary is having her own personal crisis.  She is worried that she’s getting old and that she’ll be a spinster her whole life.  The only characters in the film who like Hal are: Millie (Susan Strasberg), Howard (Arthur O’Connell) and elderly neighbor Mrs. Potts (Verna Felton).

A powerful moment in the film is when Hal returns to the Owens home the day after the picnic (and a day after his and Madge’s rendezvous at the river bank) and makes one last plea for Madge to run away with him.  He proclaims his love for her and she realizes that she feels the same for him–so does Hal.  He yells “you love me! you love me!” repeatedly to Madge as he departs for the train.  Their feelings for one another are so expertly depicted in the now classic “Moonglow” dance–one of the sexiest scenes in film.  No words. No nudity. Nothing explicit–yet Hal and Madge’s feelings for one another are so explicit during the dance.  The sexual tension had already been building in the scenes preceding the dance and it explodes during the first moments when Madge hijacks sister Millie’s (more innocent) dance with Hal.

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“Moonglow,” one of the sexiest dances in film and a pivotal moment for the two characters in the story.

Holden was uneasy with the idea of dancing on screen.  Holden demanded $8,000 “stunt pay” to do the dance scene.  He figured the studio would balk and replace him with a dance double.  Well, that backfired.  The studio ponied up the money and Holden was on the hook to perform the dance. The director tried having Holden and Novak, with a few drinks in them, practice dancing to music from jukeboxes in the local bars, but they were too awkward and the end result was not sexy.  When it came time to shoot, Holden was allowed to have a few drinks beforehand.  The camera work was set up in a way to allow the stars to do minimal movement.  The camera would move around Holden and Novak on a dolly.  A bunch of lights were also added to change colors as the stars moved around which added visual interest to the screen.  Whatever hang ups and issues there were and whatever workarounds the crew had to incorporate in order to complete this scene worked, because the end result is gorgeous.  With each swivel of the hip, the audience can watch Holden and Novak slowly fall for one another.  This is where the audience begins to root for Holden and Novak to end up together.

Holden was able to so effortlessly bring sexiness, charm, humor, but at the same time, common sense and cynicism to his parts, that it really made him feel like an everyday person.  He lacked pretension.  You don’t feel like he’s putting on any type of facade.  He’s a “what you see is what you get” type of person.  He isn’t a distinct persona like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone do a “William Holden impression.”  But that’s not to say he’s lacking in any personality.  It’s just that he’s so approachable and real.  He isn’t larger than life.  While I like Grant, Bogart and Cagney, I find Holden’s realism refreshing and enjoyable.  Whereas, someone like Marlon Brando (to me), always seems like he’s using a shtick (don’t get me wrong, he’s excellent in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire), he’s a bit too intense.  Holden seems like a guy you could go out for a beer with and not feel intimidated or nervous that you wouldn’t have anything to say to him.  He (and his characters) is a real person.

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This looks like the cover of a trashy romance novel

To use the words of Madge to describe Hal, and in effect, describe an audience’s view of Holden himself:

“You don’t love someone because he’s perfect.”

“Rain” Blogathon–“Singin’ in the Rain” (1952)

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Rain in movies is often used to evoke feelings of depression, despair, unhappiness, etc.  Film noir often uses rain to set the mood of the film.  In Key Largo (1948), the constant rain storm keeps the action contained onto the ship and gives the film a claustrophobic feeling.  While, noir and other more serious types of films tend to use rain as a way to make the scene dreary, scary, what not, other genres of film use rain for other purposes.  Romantic films like The Notebook (2004) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) use rain to create romantic kissing scenes.  Often times, in romantic films, the characters will be somewhat on the outs, only to realize their love for one another during a horrific rainstorm.  Their romantic feelings for one another will culminate with a passionate clinch and kiss in the pouring down rainstorm.  Other films, such as Pleasantville (1998) and Beauty and the Beast (1992) may use rain to symbolize change.  It is the idea of change that is represented so beautifully in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).  Gene Kelly in an iconic scene, memorably dances down the street in the pouring down rain.

“…doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo, doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo…” 

And so starts one of the most memorable rain scenes in film.

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Gene Kelly’s joy is infectious in one of the most delightful musical number ever to appear on screen

Singin’ in the Rain is quite simply one of the best (if not the best) musicals ever made.  It tells the story of Hollywood’s transition from silent films to “talkies.”  Stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are great romantic stars and are also involved in an off-screen romance–at least according to Monumental Pictures’ publicity department.  In reality, Don cannot stand Lina.  She on the other hand, cannot allow her ego to believe that someone doesn’t love her.  Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) is in charge of the studio’s music department and is also Don’s best friend.  Don ends up involved with an aspiring actress, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) who Lina is intensely jealous of.  Not only is Don in love with Kathy and not Lina, but Kathy also threatens Lina’s career.  Kathy can sing and dance–two things Lina can’t do.  After the hilarious failure of Monumental Pictures’ first talkie, Cosmo, Kathy and Don come up with the idea to turn their turkey of a movie into a musical.  After dropping his love Kathy off at home and excited about their new venture, Don is on Cloud Nine.  Not even a torrential downpour can dampen (pun intended) his spirits.

Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number is simply put, one of the greatest things to ever grace the silver screen.  His excitement over his new romance and the new direction his career is heading is infectious.  Even though he starts out carrying his umbrella, he quickly puts it away.  Kelly’s character Don, is so happy about his life that he doesn’t even care that he’ll be soaked on the way home.  He gleefully taps and skips his way down the sidewalks with a big smile on his face.  Don sees a lamp post, jumps up and twirls around.  He pretends his umbrella is a guitar, and playfully tips his hat to the woman in the store window advertisement.  He taps into his inner child, without a worry in the world during his magical walk down the street.  Don throws and catches his umbrella and allows water from the downspout dump on his head.  He pretends to balance on a curb.  Don’s rain dance culminates with him splashing around in the massive puddles.  A cop finally ends the number when he stops and stares at this guy essentially playing in the road.  Don unconcerned, croons “I’m singin’ and dancin’ in the rain” and walks down the sidewalk, arms still swinging happily.  His glee and enthusiasm is contagious.  It is impossible to not feel happier after seeing this scene.  In a way, the rain represents a new life.  It washes away all the unhappiness and annoyances of his previous life and now he can start anew, with his new film persona and lady love.

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A party pooper stops all the fun

The song “Singin’ in the Rain” was not written for Singin’ in the Rain.  In fact, all the songs in the film, except “Make ‘Em Laugh” (which sounds exactly like Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown”) were used in past musicals.  “Singin’ in the Rain” was crooned by Cliff Edwards in the 1929 musical, The Hollywood Revue of 1929.  Judy Garland gives a rousing rendition of the song in the 1940 musical, Little Nellie Kelly.  In 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, the song was used in a more disturbing fashion.  Star Malcolm McDowell hums the iconic song while raping a woman.  Gene Kelly’s rendition of the song plays over the closing credits.  Kelly himself was not pleased to be associated with this film. In 2007, Usher re-created the famous musical number in an homage to Kelly’s famous number, complete with the same style suit and everything.

Even though “Singin in the Rain” was more than 20 years old by the time it was used as the title song for the 1952 classic and had been performed multiple times by different artists, even by big star Judy Garland, it is Gene Kelly’s rendition that is the most famous.  The image of Gene Kelly twirling on the lamp post while ‘singin’ in the rain’ will forever be a part of American pop culture.  In an era where the word “iconic” is thrown around too often and too loosely to the point where it doesn’t really mean much, the image of Gene Kelly singing and dancing in the rain truly meets the definition.  The song itself has such a catchy tune, it’d be hard to find someone who at least doesn’t know the main part of the chorus.  Even Cary Grant was humming it in the shower in North By Northwest.

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One of the most famous scenes in film history

Jack Lemmon Blogathon–“Some Like it Hot” (1959)

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“I’m Daphne!”

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And thus begins one of the all-time funniest screen performances.  Jack Lemmon, who landed the role of Jerry/Daphne in Some Like it Hot after Jerry Lewis turned it down (thank goodness), delivers an Oscar-nominated performance and frankly, just one of the best portrayals ever to grace the silver screen.  His little cackles, facial expressions, mannerisms, everything he implements to create “Daphne,” are fantastic.  He makes the film.  Without him, it might have been funny, but not hysterical.  Don’t get me wrong, co-stars Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Joe E. Brown had their moments, but Some Like it Hot belongs to Jack Lemmon.

In other hands, like original choice Jerry Lewis’ for example, the role of Daphne could have easily evolved into something absurd and obnoxious.  Lemmon’s portrayal is absurd, but in a good way.  What makes his portrayal so successful is that he commits to the role.  He is in no way self conscious about dressing in drag.  What makes his introduction of Daphne so funny is how he suddenly embraces his persona while being introduced to Sweet Sue.  Jerry and Joe had already agreed that they would be Geraldine and Josephine, respectively, and suddenly Jerry blurts out “Daphne.” “I never did like the name Geraldine,” he says.  His enthusiasm is a contrast to the scene just a minute prior where complains about his outfit and shoes and then sees lead singer, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), walk down the train platform and is disillusioned that their charade is even going to work.

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JERRY: “Look at that. Look how she moves. That’s just like Jell-O on springs.  They must have some sort of built-in motor or something. I tell ya, it’s a whole different sex.”

The train ride from Chicago to Miami is one of the funniest scenes in the film.  Jerry is painfully aware that he’s supposed to be a woman–an awareness that only gets more cumbersome when he’s partying with a dozen girls inside his upper berth.  When Sugar invites herself into his “room” (if you can call it that), he has to remind himself “I’m a girl. I’m a girl” only to lament, “I wish I were dead.”

Another of my favorite scenes is when Sweet Sue (the band manager) emphatically states “There are two things I will not put up with during working hours: liquor and men!” To which Jerry (as Daphne), who has completely embraced his female alter ego (and is bordering on trying too hard to be believable as a woman), says:

JERRY: “We wouldn’t be caught dead with men! Rough, hairy beasts with eight hands. And they all just want one thing from a girl!”

The funniest part of that exchange is the disgusted look he makes afterward. Pretty much everything “Daphne” says is hilarious.

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Daphne’s feeling about men

The best part of Some Like it Hot is Daphne’s budding romance with Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), the oft-married (and oft-divorced) mama’s boy millionaire, who spends his time hanging out at the Seminole Ritz Hotel in Miami, always looking for his next ex-wife.  When Sweet Sue and Her Society Syncopaters enter the hotel lobby, Osgood immediately has his sights set for Daphne.  While the subplot featuring the budding romance between Shell Oil-heir “Junior” (Tony Curtis doing his Cary Grant impression) and Sugar is amusing, the Daphne/Osgood courtship is comedy gold.

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While the audience and Jerry know that this relationship has no future, watching the millionaire become more and more enamored with Daphne is hysterical.  The tango scene where they literally tango until dawn (originally meant as a scheme for Joe bring Sugar to rendezvous in Osgood’s yacht, without Osgood being present, of course).  Jerry is really into their dancing and is having the time of his life.  The tango night leads to Osgood proposing to Jerry and giving him a diamond bracelet as an engagement present.  The scene where Jerry announces his engagement is one of the best parts of the film:

JOE: “What happened?”
JERRY: “I’m engaged.”
JOE: “Congratulations. Who’s the lucky girl?”
JERRY: “I am!”
JOE: “What?”
JERRY: “Osgood proposed to me. We’re planning a June wedding.”
JOE: “What are you talking about? You can’t marry Osgood.”
JERRY: “Do you think he’s too old for me?”

When Joe tries to talk some sense into Jerry by asking the obvious question (well obvious in 1959 that is), “why would a guy want to marry a guy?” Jerry answers, “Security.” Then goes on to say:

JERRY: “I don’t expect it to last.  I’ll tell him the truth when the time comes.”
JOE: “Like when?”
JERRY: “Like right after the ceremony. Then we get a quick annulment, he makes a nice settlement on me and I keep gettin’ those alimony checks every month.”

Throughout this entire scene, Jerry is shaking maracas and humming the tango.  He is excited about his proposal, even though he knows that he can’t really marry Osgood. Though as someone who hocked his overcoat to gamble money on a dog at the track (and lost), the prospect of being financially secure is probably an enticing one and he’s probably considering it, even though realistically, it can’t happen. Jerry’s maracas weren’t originally in the script; however, they were added after preview audiences laughed so hard that much of Jerry’s dialogue was lost.  Director Billy Wilder added the pauses and maracas and re-shot the scene so that the humor and the dialogue would remain intact.

The ending scene between Jerry and Osgood is one of the funniest (and most perfect endings) in film.  The moment has come when Jerry really needs to come clean about his true identity and call off the engagement.  He tries to hint to Osgood the reason why he can’t marry him:

Osgood wants Jerry to wear his mother’s wedding gown:

JERRY: “I can’t get married in your mother’s dress…she and I, we are not built the same way.”
OSGOOD: “We can have it altered.”

Jerry tries again:

JERRY: “I’m not a natural blonde.”
OSGOOD: “Doesn’t matter.”
JERRY: “I smoke. I smoke all the time!”
OSGOOD: “I don’t care.”
JERRY: “I have a terrible past. For three years, I’ve been living with a saxophone player.”
OSGOOD: “I forgive you.”
JERRY: “I can never have children.”
OSGOOD: “We can adopt some.”

Exasperated, Jerry finally lays it all out on the table:

JERRY: “I’m a man”

Then, one of the greatest lines and endings of all time:

OSGOOD: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

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How will Jerry ever get out of this mess?

Nothing to do with Jack Lemmon, but this is one of my favorite lines from “Some Like it Hot,”

DOLORES: Have you heard the one about the one-legged jockey? 
…then later, we hear the punchline…
DOLORES: “Don’t worry about me baby, I ride side-saddle!” 

Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon!

I Love Lucy, Ep. 79 “The Million Dollar Idea” January 11, 1954

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This weekend, “A Shroud of Thoughts” is hosting a blogathon.  The theme is “Favorite TV Show Episode.”  I knew that I would have to write about an episode from my favorite television show of all time–“I Love Lucy.”  But which episode?! They’re all so great.  It was difficult to narrow it down.  I didn’t want to write about “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (aka “The Vitameatavegamin Episode”) or “Job Switching” (Lucy & Ethel work in the chocolate factory) or “Lucy’s Italian Movie” (Lucy stomps grapes) because I feel like those are the episodes that are always trotted out when someone discusses the best “I Love Lucy” episodes.  While I adore these episodes, there are many other great episodes that deserve recognition.  I settled on “The Million Dollar Idea.”  A hilarious episode that features one of my favorite quotes.  On paper, it’s not really that funny, but Lucy’s delivery of the line makes it.

“The Million Dollar Idea” opens with the Ricardos and Mertzes having dinner in the living room.

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Ethel (Vivian Vance) and Fred (William Frawley) rave about Lucy’s (Lucille Ball) homemade salad dressing.  Lucy admits that it is her Aunt Martha’s recipe.  Fred tells Lucy that she should consider bottling and selling it.  Ricky (Desi Arnaz) on the other hand, takes this opportunity to remind Lucy that her bank account is overdrawn…again.  They have an off-screen battle over the household accounts.

The next morning, Lucy decides that she’s going to take Fred’s idea and bottle and sell her Aunt Martha’s Salad Dressing.  She enlists Ethel’s help and the ladies are in business.  They come up with a product name: Aunt Martha’s Old Fashioned Salad Dressing.  To market their product, Lucy decides to take advantage of her friendship with “frenemy” Carolyn Appleby (not seen in the episode) since she remembered that Carolyn’s husband Charlie works at a television station.  “[We’ll] cut her in, to the tune of, say, three cents a bottle,” Lucy tells Ethel.  “Yeah. She likes that kind of music,” Ethel agrees.  They decide to go on The Dickie Davis Show.

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On the show, Ethel appears as “Mary Margaret McMertz,” a parody of popular radio show host Mary Margaret McBride who dispensed household advice to women for over 40 years. Ethel touts the salad dressing and asks an “average housewife, picked at random, from [the] audience” to come up on stage.  Of course, this wasn’t a random selection at all.  It is Lucy, disguised as average housewife Isabella Klump.  Ms. Klump raves about the salad dressing, to the point where she’s literally drinking it from the jar!  Ethel asks her viewers to write (623 E. 68th Street) or call (CIrcle 7-2099) to place their orders.  Of course, Ethel holds the cards backwards and then upside down, but that doesn’t hurt orders.  By the end of the show, Lucy and Ethel have 23 orders–at the bargain price of 40 cents a quart!

Back at home, Lucy and Ethel get to salad dressing production.  As far as I can tell, the ingredients in the salad dressing are: oil, salt and onions.  One has to assume there must be some vinegar in there? But the dressing isn’t a vinaigrette–it looks more like mayonnaise.  Perhaps the dressing has eggs in it and when emulsified, it becomes more of mayonnaise type dressing? Then there are the onions.  Big pieces of onion only cut into quarters.  Maybe it goes into the blender next? Not sure.  Regardless, Lucy and Ethel have horribly under-priced their  product.  Ricky, who obviously has more business acumen than Lucy (he does manage the Tropicana Club, after all), decides to calculate Lucy and Ethel’s profit.  After calculating the cost of the ingredients, the cost of the jars and the cost of the labels and dividing it by their 23 orders, Ricky determines that they’ll churn out a 3 cent per jar profit–the same profit that was promised to Carolyn Appleby.  He tells Lucy that that figure doesn’t even include shipping, mailing, insurance, taxes or overhead.  “Oh. Well. If you’re going to figure all that stuff,” Lucy tells him.  Ricky urges Lucy and Ethel to get out of the salad dressing business.  Fred then enters the kitchen carrying an enormous bag of mail, one of three bags that were delivered. “We must be terrific television salesmen!” Ethel declares.

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Dismayed at the thought of having to produce so many jars of non-profit salad dressing, Lucy and Ethel decide to return to The Dickie Davis Show.   They figure if they’re so good at selling the dressing, that they’ll be good at “un-selling it.” The next day, Mary Margaret McMertz is back.  She once again advertises Aunt Martha’s Old Fashioned Salad Dressing and invites “an average housewife, picked at random, from [the] audience.”  Of course, Lucy comes up on stage, this time as country bumpkin, “Lucille McGillicuddy.”  Mrs. McGillicuddy smells the dressing and is immediately disgusted.  “Smell it” she tells McMertz.  McMertz smells it and is taken with the same bad smell.  “How about that? Looks like Aunt Martha had too many old-fashioneds” Mrs. McGillicuddy says. McMertz asks Mrs. McGillicuddy to taste the dressing.  After getting over her initial repulsion and the promise of a new jar, Mrs. McGillicuddy takes a swig.  She’s overcome with disgust and looks for a place to spit it out.  “What’s Aunt Martha trying to do? Poison me?” she asks.

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Under great duress, Mary Margaret McMertz says, “Friends, I can no longer endorse this product.  If you have ordered it, send in your cancellations.”

Which brings me to my favorite part of the episode. Falling to the floor after drinking the vile salad dressing, Mrs. McGillicuddy pops up and says:

“CANCEL! CANCEL!”

McMertz once again shares the cancellation phone number and address.

Mrs. McGillicuddy reappears.  “AND DO IT NOW!” she pleads.

After the show, the girls are sure that they’ve succeeded in getting out of making all the salad dressing.  Fred brings in more sacks of mail.  Lucy and Ethel excitedly start reading the postcards.  “Cancellations!” they think.  Except they’re not.  They’re more orders! 1133 more orders to be exact.  Lucy and Ethel decide to purchase salad dressing from the store, remove the labels and attach their own labels.  It’s not entirely honest and costs 50 cents a quart (10 cents more than their product), but they can get their scheme over and done with in the shortest amount of time.  Lucy and Ethel, decked out in matching outfits, some sort of apron vest like thing (looks like something that a newspaper delivery boy would wear), roller skates and shopping carts (that they got from somewhere.  I doubt that people with minimal storage, like in an apartment, would have shopping carts lying around) get ready to deliver their wares.  “You take the east side, I’ll take the west side and I’ll be in Jersey a-fore ya!” Lucy tells Ethel.

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Happy 100th Birthday Desi Arnaz!

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Desi Arnaz, no doubt playing “Babalu”

100 years ago today, one of television’s great pioneers was born–Desi Arnaz.  Desi was born in Santiago de Cuba, the second largest city in Cuba, behind Havana.  Desi’s family was well off and he enjoyed a happy, carefree and idyllic childhood.  Desi’s father was the mayor of Santiago.  In 1933, when Desi was 16, his entire world came crashing down when the Batista Revolution came crashing into town.  Desi’s father was imprisoned.  All three of the Arnaz family’s homes were destroyed during the Revolution.  Six months later, the Arnazes fled to Florida, now penniless.

Now living in Miami, Desi finished his last year of high school.  His best friend was Al Capone, Jr. Desi and his father, the former mayor of Santiago, lived in an unheated warehouse where they ate beans from a can for dinner.  They regularly took turns chasing rats out of of their living space.  Desi found work cleaning canary cages.  Desi’s father ended up starting a small business building mosaic art pieces (fireplace mantels, for example) after capitalizing on broken tile that came from a nearby business.  Barely speaking English, Desi also attended English language courses in Tampa.

At the age of 19, Desi found work performing in a small musical group–The Siboney Septet (even though there were only five members, maybe they hoped for more?).  Desi was now earning $50/week.  Not a lot of money, but was more than he had been earning for quite some time.  The Siboney Septet regularly performed at a hotel in Miami.  It was at one of these performances where famous bandleader Xavier Cugat (whom you’ll remember as a rival of Ricky Ricardo’s in I Love Lucy) spotted Desi and offered him a job with his orchestra.  Desi actually had to take a $15/week pay cut, but was willing to gamble, because Xaxier Cugat’s band had the “name” and prestige that could open doors.  This is one of the first glimpses of Arnaz’ innate business acumen that would serve him well in about fifteen years.

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Desi Arnaz leading the conga line.  Who is that I spy in the white dinner jacket? Is that Errol Flynn?

After about a year with Cugat’s band, Desi decided to take another gamble–he was going to form his own orchestra.  The Desi Arnaz Orchestra started playing in small clubs and developed a following.  Eventually the Orchestra ended up in New York City.  Desi is also credited with starting the Conga craze in the United States.  In 1939, while performing with his orchestra, Desi was spotted by Broadway director George Abbot.  Abbot was casting his new play, Too Many Girls and was looking for a someone for the role of Manuelito, the Argentinian football player.  Desi won the role and was soon performing on the stage.  In 1940, RKO purchased the rights to the story and soon a film version was in the works.  Many of the Broadway cast members, including Desi, were brought to Hollywood to appear in the film.  Too Many Girls (1940), a B-movie musical at best, may be largely forgotten today and in all honestly, isn’t all that great of a film, may perhaps be one of the most important films ever made–not because of anything that happened on screen, but for what happened off screen.  Without this film, television could be very different today.

When casting the ingenue role in Too Many Girls, RKO bosses settled on 28-year old Lucille ‘Lucy’ Ball.  Lucy who started as an extra and bit player in 1933 at RKO, had steadily moved up the ladder, getting bigger and better parts with each passing year.  She managed to score some supporting roles in A-list films, like 1937’s Stage Door with Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers, but she was nowhere in the same league as either star.  In 1938, Lucy finally scored a leading role in The Affairs of Annabel, but this was a ‘B’ film.  The film was a modest success and Lucy had proven that she could carry a film.  By 1940, after starring in numerous ‘B’ films, Lucy was known as “Queen of the Bs” at RKO.  Too Many Girls was just another ‘B’ to her.

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Lucille Ball pictured here in “Dance Girl Dance” in roughly the getup she had on when first meeting Desi Arnaz.

During a pre-film meeting, in June(ish) of 1940, the future of the world was changed when Lucy met 23-year old Desi Arnaz.  Fresh off the soundstage after filming a cat fight scene with Maureen O’Hara in Dance, Girl Dance, Lucy looked worse for the wear.  Dressed in a torn gold lamé gown, while sporting tousled hair and a big, fake black eye, Lucy looked a fright and Desi was not impressed.  Lucy, on the other hand, took one look at the young, very attractive Cuban singer, and said in her autobiography, “It wasn’t love at first sight, it took five minutes.”  Later that evening, at a cast party, Lucy returned, all cleaned up and Desi was smitten.  After a whirlwind six months of filming their movie, traveling back and forth across country for their respective film and music commitments, and of course, dating when they were able, Lucy and Desi married on November 30, 1940.

Their marriage is famously tempestuous.  Both Lucy and Desi had their respective careers–two very demanding careers that kept them apart much of the time.  Desi tried a film career, but in 1940s America, his thick Cuban accent prevented him from getting many film roles.  His best film is arguably 1944’s Bataan, where he plays Felix Ramirez, a Mexican soldier during World War II.  In this film, (spoiler alert!) he plays an excellent death scene. By the end of the 1940s, Lucy’s film career was really not going anywhere, even after two studio changes (MGM and later Columbia).  In 1948, she was appearing on radio in CBS’ My Favorite Husband, playing Liz Cugat (later renamed to Liz Cooper), a character very similar to Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy.  In 1950, CBS wanted to move My Favorite Husband to the burgeoning new entertainment medium, television.

Lucy was very eager to take on this new opportunity, but with one provision, she wanted husband Desi to appear with her on the new show.  Lucy and Desi were tiring of their routine and were looking for a project that could keep them together.  They also wanted children and after a series of miscarriages, that dream looked to be finally coming true by the end of 1950, Lucy was pregnant with daughter Lucie Arnaz.  CBS balked at the idea of a Latin being married to an American girl like Lucy and were hesitant to take on the project.  Lucy and Desi, in an effort to prove CBS wrong, formed a vaudeville act and took their show on the road.  For anyone who is a big fan of I Love Lucy (like me), their act consisted of “The Professor” bit from Ep #6, “The Audition,” and the “Sally Sweet/Cuban Pete” bit from Ep #4 “The Diet.” Their road show was a massive success and CBS was successfully won over.

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Cuban Pete and Sally Sweet, part of Lucy & Desi’s vaudeville roadshow

By early 1951, Lucy and Desi had formed their own production company, Desilu Productions.  Desi was President and Lucy held the Vice President position.  After successfully selling their pilot (basically their Vaudeville show), they went to work on their weekly series.  They assembled their crew using the writing staff from My Favorite Husband, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Karl Freund, (who was interested in the novelty of television) and a variety of other professionals.  They also hired their supporting actors, Vivian Vance and William ‘Bill’ Frawley, who would forever be linked together for eternity (I’m sure much to both Vance and Frawley’s chagrin). With all the players in place, I Love Lucy was born.

Early on, before the first episode was filmed, Desi made one of the shrewdest business deals in television history–CBS was hesitant to pay all the extra costs accrued by the film, live audience, etc., so Desi offered to have Desilu pay all the extra fees in exchange for the rights to all the episodes.  CBS, obviously not knowing what they were doing, laughed and said (and I paraphrase): “Sure.  You can own the episodes.”  Desi, Lucy and Desilu made millions from the residuals of I Love Lucy.

Desi Arnaz ended up being one of the most powerful television producers of the 1950s.  He is credited, along with Freund, with inventing the three-camera filming technique that became standard practice for all scripted comedy shows.  This invention became a necessity when CBS wanted I Love Lucy to be filmed in New York, live.  Desi and Lucy balked, stating that they lived in Los Angeles and intended to stay in Los Angeles.  Desi also did not want to film I Love Lucy live, as it used kinescope film which was of very poor quality.  While the East Coast feed looked decent, the West Coast would be treated to a blurry and fuzzy picture.  Desi decided he wanted to film the show on 35mm film same way that films were produced.  The three camera filming technique is just one of the innovations that emerged during Desi’s fifteen year tenure as one of the top producers in America.

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The “I Love Lucy” stage from the audience’s point of view

In addition to filming the series, Lucy and Desi also wanted to film the series in front of a live audience.  Desi argued that Lucy needed a live audience to do her best work.  He retrofitted a soundstage with bleachers that could accommodate an audience.  He arranged the lighting and other necessary production equipment in a way that would not obstruct the audience’s view.  Finally, of course, he had to install or modify parts of the soundstage to up to various fire and city building codes.

In addition to the filming technique and the live audience-equipped soundstage, Desi is also credited with inventing the rerun while simultaneously challenging the social mores of the day.  During the show’s second season, Lucy found out she was pregnant.  Pregnancy depicted on screen was taboo.  Lucy and Desi were worried that their show was done.  Desi decided that Lucy Ricardo should be pregnant too.  CBS was horrified.  Desi made a deal with CBS: They will let three members of the clergy (priest, rabbi and minister) review each of the “baby” episodes to determine whether any of the content was objectionable.  Obviously, they didn’t find anything “bad,” in fact, they told CBS (and I paraphrase), “What’s wrong with a married couple having a baby?”  The only concession the I Love Lucy crew made was that the word “pregnant” would not be used in an episode.

To accommodate Lucy’s condition, the cast and crew produced as many episodes as they could before Lucy was unable to work any further.  While Lucy was on maternity leave, Desi decided to re-air previous episodes.  CBS again, playing the negative nelly role, said “who is going to want to watch something they’ve already seen?” (oh how little they know, I’ve probably seen every episode of I Love Lucy 100+ times).  To appease them, Desi, Vivian and Bill filmed new flashback segments that will set up the rerun.  After the rerun episodes aired, CBS discovered that the rerun episode got a higher rating the second time around than it did the first time.  After this, the flashback segments were dumped and CBS aired reruns of I Love Lucy during the show’s hiatus in the summer.  As a result, the cast and crew were also able to shorten their seasons (30 episodes/season vs. 35).

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Lucy and Ricky Ricardo are having a baby! Scene from episode #45, “Lucy is Enciente”

I Love Lucy ran from 1951-1960 (The last three seasons were a series of weekly specials, titled The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.  The official last episode of I Love Lucy, #179 “The Ricardos Dedicate a Statue,” aired in 1957).  In that time, it was one of the most popular shows on television.  In 1953, it was the most popular show, garnering staggering ratings.  Episode #51, “Lucy Goes to the Hospital” got higher ratings than President Dwight Eisenhower’s inauguration.  Almost 72% of the television sets in America were tuned to I Love Lucy, when Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Ricky Ricardo, Jr. Lucille Ball had also given birth to real-life son, Desi Arnaz IV on the same day the episode aired.  Since I Love Lucy’s debut in 1951, the show has never been off the air.  It regularly airs all over the world, every single day. The show won numerous Emmy Awards including accolades for both Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance.  William Frawley received multiple nominations, but never won.  Desi on the other hand, was never nominated.

By the mid to late 1950s, Desilu Productions was a thriving enterprise producing multiple television shows, including The Untouchables, Make Room For Daddy and Our Miss Brooks.  In the 1960s, Desilu went on to produce The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Star Trek.  Desi retired from Desilu in the early 1960s.  He dabbled in television here and there and even taught a college course on television production in San Diego in the 1970s.  In 1976, Desi published his autobiography, A Book (Excellent book by the way, if you can find a copy, it’s out of print).  In 1982, Desi appeared in his last film, The Escape Artist.  In early 1986, Desi was diagnosed with lung cancer.  By the end of 1986, Desi was nearing the end.  On November 30, on what would have been their 46th wedding anniversary, Lucy called Desi.  While he was too ill and weak to speak on the phone, daughter Lucie (who was caring for him) held the phone up to his ear. Lucy told him “I Love You” over and over again.  That was the last time they spoke.  Desi passed away a couple days later, on December 2.  He was 69.

Desi Arnaz was a television pioneer.  While he lacked any sort of formal business training, he was one of the most powerful television producers in the country.  What he lacked in education, he made up for in intuition, willingness to take risks, negotiating skills and simply an unwillingness to take “no” for an answer.  He didn’t receive the appreciation or accolades in his lifetime (simply, I Love Lucy would not exist were it not for him.  Even Lucy herself would attest to this) and was often just thought of as “the Cuban bandleader,” “Lucy’s husband,” or even “Ricky Ricardo.”  But he was much more.  Finally, some thirty years after his passing and sixty-plus years since I Love Lucy, he is finally being recognized for his contributions to television.  In 1990, he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences inducted Desi into their Television Hall of Fame. In 2009, a statue of Desi was added to the plaza in front of the Television Arts and Sciences Headquarters in Hollywood.  His statue joins the Lucy statue that was installed in the early 1990s.

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Statues of Desi and Lucy in the plaza at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in Hollywood

In his autobiography, Desi says: “If we hadn’t done anything else but bring that half hour of fun, pleasure, and relaxation to most of the world, a world in such dire need of even that short a time-out from its problems and sorrows, we should be content.”

Thank you for everything Desi.  Feliz Cumpleanos!

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