On February 13, 2022 the fabulous Kim Novak turned 89 years young! I’ve always been a fan of Ms. Novak, especially since she lives in my home state of Oregon. It is somewhat exciting to think that an icon of Hollywood’s Golden Age lives a mere 4.5 hours away!
Kim Novak very well could have become a footnote in Hollywood history. She made her film debut in the film noir, Pushover, in 1954. Her co-star was Fred MacMurray. Kim made an indelible impression on audiences and her home studio, Columbia. Columbia went to work grooming Kim as a successor for their big star, Rita Hayworth, whose star was on the decline. The studio hoped that Kim’s blonde hair would bring them the same success as Marilyn Monroe had for Fox. However, what Columbia didn’t count on was that Kim had no desire to be a Monroe copycat.
Kim Novak’s most famous role is probably her dual role as both Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton in Vertigo. Right before Vertigo however, she appeared in the 1957 film, Pal Joey, where she was third billed after Rita Hayworth and Frank Sinatra. Kim was re-teamed with Sinatra after their triumph in 1955’s The Man With the Golden Arm. By the time Pal Joey was released, Kim had succeeded Rita as Columbia’s biggest box office draw. It is interesting that Rita received top billing over both Sinatra and Kim. Despite playing the title character, and having won an Oscar for his role in From Here to Eternity, Sinatra graciously ceded top billing to Rita, stating that she made Columbia what it was. Plus, he added, being “billed in between Rita and Kim was a sandwich he didn’t mind being stuck in the middle of.”
Pal Joey was a Broadway show which starred Gene Kelly in 1940. He was actually performing the titular role in this play when he was discovered. Gene made his way to Hollywood to appear in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland in 1942. By 1944, Gene was a big star and made the film Cover Girl at Columbia, starring their biggest star, Rita Hayworth. Cover Girl was a sensation and Columbia boss, the infamous Harry Cohn, promised to adapt Pal Joey for the screen to re-team Gene and Rita. However, nothing came to fruition and by the time the story was ready for the big screen, Gene was contracted to MGM. Rita was also deemed too old (at 37, my age ::sniffle::) for the role of the younger woman and took over the part as the older woman who acts as a “keeper” for Joey. Columbia cast their biggest star, Kim Novak, in the role of the younger woman.
Pal Joey takes place in San Francisco. Sinatra plays the titular role of Joey Evans, a so-so singer (we just have to take the film’s word for it), who is more interested in women than he is having a career. He ends up falling for a young chorus girl, Linda English (Kim Novak), and actually may feel real feelings for her! Joey tries all his old tricks to seduce Linda, but she seems impervious to Joey’s “charm.” She is also presented as being somewhat naive to the fact that Joey is interested in her romantically, but she eventually catches on.
Eventually, Joey manages to finagle his way into escorting Linda home after an evening together. After spotting a “For Rent” sign in the window, Joey is able to worm it out of the landlady, Mrs. Trumbull (Elizabeth Patterson), that the empty apartment (with a shared bathroom) is next door to Linda. Joey, excited, rents the apartment immediately, and he gets to share a bathroom with Linda. She gets sick of his constant advances towards her and ends up tricking him into adopting a dog, which he names “Snuffy.”
Later, Linda ends up taking Snuffy when she discovers Joey’s partnership with his ex-flame and ex-stripper, Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth). It is obvious that Linda has developed feelings for Joey. Despite his budding romance with Linda, a girl whom he really likes, Joey ends up taking up with Vera, who has since hung up her “vanishing veils,” and settled into life as a society matron and widow. Joey’s ulterior motive for romancing Vera is that he wants her to finance “Chez Joey,” a nightclub that he can own and perform at. Eventually it becomes apparent that Vera is hoping for more than a business partnership with Joey as she treats him like a “kept man.” This is obvious after Vera finally shows up to Chez Joey, she and Joey share a passionate kiss, and in the next scene we see Vera grinning in a negligee. Joey has mad skills, he hooked up with Vera after singing “The Lady is a Tramp,” which was very blatantly about Vera.
Once Chez Joey opens, Vera’s holding all the power. Joey is forced to submit to her every whim and demand. Vera becomes insanely jealous when she observes Joey watching Linda’s rehearsal of “My Funny Valentine.” Joey intently watches Linda, unable to take his eyes off of her. Vera learns that Joey is planning on featuring Linda as the main attraction at Chez Joey. She demands that he fire Linda. Not wanting to hurt Linda, Joey tells Linda that he’s removing her from the “My Funny Valentine” number and assigning her to a strip tease. Linda, rightfully, is angry and tells Joey that he should rename the club “Chez Vera.” Eventually, a drunk Linda shows up to Joey’s yacht and accepts the number.
The time comes for Linda to rehearse the strip tease. She starts the number dressed in a Marie Antoinette-type dress, sans the powdered wig. As she removes the skirt, then the crinoline, then other pieces of the costume, she looks absolutely mortified. Eventually, Joey cannot handle seeing all the men staring at Linda and demands that she stop performing before her remaining clothes come off. At this point, Joey has to make a decision. Does he stay with Linda, the woman he loves, and lose Chez Joey? Or does he keep the club and stay with Vera, a woman who he doesn’t love?
I read other reviews of this film online, specifically reviews that reference Kim Novak’s performance. Many carry the same complaints, that she’s stiff, awkward, etc. I can understand those complaints, however, I think that she performed her part very well. Linda is a young woman who is presumably new to the world of show business. She suddenly finds herself the object of affection of a man who is a known womanizer. He is/was involved with a more worldly woman who knows not only the ins and outs of show business, but the ins and outs of everything else too. In the scene when Linda is rehearsing the strip tease, she is very awkward and looks completely mortified. However, Linda didn’t want to do the strip tease, nor is she the type of person who’d want to do a strip tease! Of course, she would be awkward and mortified. Kudos to Joey for recognizing this and stopping it; however, his kudos are a moot point because he’s the one who put her into this position in the first place.
While I can understand some of the complaints about Novak, I find her completely fascinating. She fits the cool, blonde mold; but there’s more to her. She always seems to have a vulnerability about her, like a woman who is about to break. She also has the most gorgeous green eyes; but there’s something behind those eyes. Behind those eyes are a sensitivity, a yearning. Kim Novak is not just a replacement Rita Hayworth. She is not a Marilyn Monroe copy. She is a very unique screen presence. She wants to show the audience a piece of herself, the real Kim Novak, or rather the real Marilyn Pauline Novak (Kim’s birth name). While I don’t know Ms. Novak personally, I feel like she deeply identified with her character, Madge, in Picnic. All Madge wants in life is to be thought of as more than just being pretty.
2021 is (finally) coming to a close. While the year wasn’t so hot as a whole, except for my fabulous trip to Southern California in October, it was another year of discovering new favorite films. One of the best thing about being a fan of film, especially classic film, is that you never run out of “new” movies to see. As Lauren Bacall says in an episode of Private Screenings with Robert Osborne, “It’s not an old movie, if you haven’t seen it,” and I couldn’t agree more. There is an entire world of movies to discover, a world of films just waiting to become someone’s favorite.
Without further adieu, in no particular order, here are some of my new favorites that I watched for the first time in 2021:
#1 Road House (1948) This was a fabulous film noir that I watched right at the start of the new year. It is the final volume in the Fox Film Noir DVD series (I own the entire collection). I decided to take a look at it, because I’m a big fan of Ida Lupino. In addition to Lupino, it also starred Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark, and Celeste Holm. At first, it seems like Ida is going to be the femme fatale, but it is soon revealed that she is a woman who will not be made a pawn in the games of the men, Wilde and Widmark. Even though she was originally brought into the Road House by Widmark to be another of his fly by night floozies, she refuses to be used and becomes a big star and later saves the day. In a time when every woman who wasn’t Judy Garland or Doris Day was dubbed, Ida uses her own voice to warble out “One for my Baby (And One More For the Road)” and it was fabulous.
#2 Mrs. Miniver (1942). I know. This is a big Oscar winner. A major classic of the studio era, but I hadn’t seen it yet. I absolutely loved this movie and actually bought the blu-ray literally right after watching it. That’s how much I loved it. Greer Garson won an Oscar playing the titular Mrs. Miniver and infamously delivered the longest acceptance speech, a record which still stands today. Long-winded speech or not, Garson deserved her award. In Mrs. Miniver, Garson portrays a very stoic woman and mother who stays strong and protects her family even directly in the line of fire during the German invasion of Britain. She puts humanity above all else, even when directly threatened by an injured German pilot. The scene with Mrs. Miniver and her husband and children hiding in the shelter while bombs fall all around them is heartbreaking. This family does not know what they’ll find when they emerge, or whether their house will still be standing. Despite everything, Mrs. Miniver remains a calm influence even in the middle of a tumultuous event, like a World War. I cannot say enough good things about this film, it was fantastic.
#3 Girl Happy (1965). Like the esteemed Mrs. Miniver, this Elvis movie is another film that I purchased immediately after watching it. I loved it. For years, with the exception of Viva Las Vegas (my favorite Elvis movie), I wrote off Elvis’ movies as pure fluff, and not fluffy in a good way, and many of Elvis’ movies are ridiculous, like Girl Happy, but if you can suspend disbelief and just go along with whatever plot is presented, I’ve found that many of Elvis’ movies are enjoyable diversions. In Girl Happy, Elvis plays a musician (a premise setting up lots of opportunities for Elvis to sing) who, along with his band, is hired by his boss to indirectly chaperone his 18-year old daughter, Shelley Fabares. Shelley is traveling to Florida for Spring Break and her overprotective father is worried. Elvis happily agrees, because he gets an all expenses paid trip to Florida. Like how most movies with this plot go (see Too Many Girls), Elvis starts to fall in love with the girl whom he’s chaperoning, and the girl discovers that he was hired to watch her and gets upset. Regardless, this movie was charming, fun, and I loved it.
#4 History is Made at Night (1937) This was a movie that I’d never even heard of until I heard that Criterion was restoring it and releasing it as part of their esteemed (at least among the boutique label community) line of films. I first watched it on the Criterion Channel and must have seen a pre-restoration print, because it was pretty rough. After watching it, I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of it. It had one of my faves, Jean Arthur! And Charles “LUCY! RAWWWR” Boyer. How has this movie been hiding from me this entire time? In this movie, Jean Arthur plays Irene, a woman who leaves her husband, Bruce, (Colin Clive) after he falsely accuses her of having an affair. To prevent the divorce from being finalized, Bruce tries to manipulate a situation to frame Irene for infidelity. He hires his chauffeur to pretend to be Irene’s lover, so that a private detective walks in and catches them in a compromising position. While this is taking place, Paul (Charles Boyer) is walking by Irene’s window. He overhears the ruckus and comes to Irene’s rescue, pretending to be an armed burglar. It’s a weird set-up, but ultimately leads to a beautiful love story with an ending that I was not expecting.
#5 Naked Alibi (1954). This was another film noir that I’d never heard of until I was reading Sterling Hayden’s filmography and discovered that he’d made a film with one of my faves, Gloria Grahame. Fortunately, my library had this film available and I was able to borrow it. This was a great movie. Hayden plays a police chief who tails a suspect, Willis, to Mexico. Willis is suspected to be the mastermind behind a series of crimes in the small town from which he and Hayden hail. While in a border town on the Mexican border, Hayden meets Grahame, a singer with whom he becomes smitten. Unfortunately, Grahame is the girlfriend of Willis, despite the shoddy treatment she receives from him. Hayden and Grahame’s connection with one another continues to grow until the very end of the film. This was a wonderful film and I thought that Gloria Grahame looked absolutely gorgeous.
#6 Dead End (1937). Despite the appearance of the Dead End Kids, whom I cannot stand (I don’t get their appeal), I thought this was a great movie. This film is a story about social classes and the privileges that are afforded to those of a higher social standing. The neighborhood in the film is a “dead end” both figuratively and literally. The rich live in high rise apartments that overlook the slums and tenements. Those who are not privileged to live in the high rises literally have the rich looking down upon them. If you have the misfortune to be born into the slums, it is all you can do to get out. Some try to do so honorably, like Dave (Joel McCrea), who dreams of making a career as an architect. However, he can’t just seem to book the right gig, so he has to survive by doing odd jobs. Others, like Drina (Sylvia Sidney) have slightly less honorable means to get out of the tenement, she wants to marry a rich man. Then, there are those like Hugh “Baby Face” Martin (Humphrey Bogart), who did manage to get out of the slums, but he did so by becoming a big-time mobster. The Dead End Kids represent the next generation who most likely will remain in the slums, unless they can somehow be guided into making a better life for themselves. Marjorie Main has a heartbreaking role as Baby Face’s mother. Claire Trevor is fantastic as Baby Face’s old girlfriend, who was never able to get out of the slums.
#7 Klute (1971) This was the first film in Alan J. Pakula’s “Paranoia Trilogy,” which unfortunately I watched all out of order. I don’t think the films in the trilogy have anything to do with one another, so I think I’m okay. Anyway, there’s just something about the 1970s thrillers that I find fascinating. There’s a grittiness, a seediness, combined with the earth tones aesthetic that I just love watching. Anyway, in this film, Jane Fonda gives an Oscar-winning performance as Bree Daniels, a prostitute who aids police detective, John Klute, in investigating a murder. After finding an obscene letter addressed to Bree in the murder victim’s office, Klute rents an apartment in Bree’s building and begins tracing her. Concurrently, Bree is working as a freelance call girl to support herself while she tries to make it as a model/actress. Bree is also trying to find meaning in her life through sessions with a psychiatrist. This was such a fantastic movie and I was on the edge of my seat waiting to find out who was responsible for the murder.
#8 Thunder on the Hill (1951) I am a big fan of Ann Blyth and this was a film of hers that I hadn’t heard of until I purchased Kino Lorber’s Film Noir: The Dark Side of Cinema box sets. Thunder on the Hill, by the way, is on the second collection in the series. In this film, Blyth plays Valerie, a young woman convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. However, on her way to the gallows, Valerie and the police officers accompanying her, are forced to spend the night in the hospital ward of a convent due to massive flooding. Running the hospital ward is Sister Mary (Claudette Colbert), a woman who is also battling with her own mental troubles involving her sister’s suicide. Valerie is understandably combative and angry, but confides to Sister Mary that she is innocent of the crime of which she was convicted. Sister Mary, who has been warned in the past about meddling in other people’s affairs, is convinced of Valerie’s innocence and sets to save her before she is executed. This was such a wonderful film. It was interesting to see Blyth in such a different role than that of Veda in Mildred Pierce or the mermaid in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid. I loved the suspense of the story and the cinematography was gorgeous. I am also a big fan of Douglas Sirk, so this film fit the bill.
#9 King Creole (1958) A second Elvis film on the list? Yes! I watched a lot of Elvis movies this year according to LetterBoxd, so it was bound to happen. This was an excellent film. It was much higher brow fare than Elvis would be offered once he returned from his stint in the army. In this movie, Elvis plays super senior Danny, who has failed high school once and looks like he’ll fail it again due to his behavior. He is offered a chance to graduate if he agrees to take night classes, but Danny turns it down, much to the chagrin of his father, Dean Jagger. There is drama between Danny and his father, in that Jagger lost his job as a pharmacist after his wife died. The family is forced to leave their nice home outside of New Orleans for a much more modest flat in the French Quarter. To help make ends meet, Danny was working before and after school. Now with school out of the way, Danny starts working at a club. As how most Elvis movies go, he is coerced into singing and is offered a job performing at the club, much to the chagrin of the club’s main act. Danny is soon a sensation. Eventually his connection with the local gangs threaten to affect his family, his relationship with a young woman named Nellie (Dolores Hart), and his life. This was such a great movie with a stellar cast. Aside from Elvis, Dean Jagger and Dolores Hart, Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Vic Morrow, and Paul Stewart also star in this film… and it was directed by none other than Michael Curtiz!
#10 Private Lives (1931) This was a fabulous pre-code starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. In this film, Shearer and Montgomery play Amanda and Elyot, two ex-spouses who end up staying at the same hotel while honeymooning with their new respective spouses. Both honeymoons are NOT going well. Amanda and her new husband Victor (Reginald Denny) are already fighting due to Victor’s incessant need to talk about Elyot. Because yes, let’s talk about your new bride’s ex-husband on your honeymoon. Great idea, Victor. Elyot is dealing with the same thing from his new wife, Sybil (Una Merkel) who won’t stop asking about Amanda. Eventually, Amanda and Elyot find each other and begin to reminisce about “the old times.” They end up leaving the hotel together and head to a new place in St. Moritz. This was a fabulous pre-code that had plenty of racy moments. I am not as big a fan of Shearer in her production code movies like The Women, but I love her in pre-code. She and Montgomery also make a great pairing. Poor Una Merkel is wasted in her role, but she is wonderful in her scenes.
#11 Hold Back the Dawn (1941) This was an amazing movie. One that I’d always wanted to see but it seemed like it was never on TCM–then finally it was and the movie was everything I’d hoped it would be. In this film, Charles Boyer stars as Georges Iscovescu, a Romanian immigrant who is stuck in a Mexican border town. Per immigration laws, he is looking at up to an eight year wait to obtain a quota number for entry in the United States. Georges then runs into an old flame, Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard), an Australian who married a US citizen purely to obtain US citizenship. As soon as she could, she divorced the man and retained her citizenship status. Anita suggests that Georges do the same thing, then he and she could be free to start a new life together in New York. Georges immediately goes to work and spots Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a California school teacher whose bus has broken down. The bus is set to be repaired shortly, but Georges manipulates the situation (by “losing” a vital piece of the bus’s machinery) and forces Emmy and her class to stay overnight. This gives Georges enough time to woo Emmy and they are married after a whirlwind romance. However, Georges is required to wait in Mexico a few weeks before he can join Emmy in California. Emmy returns unexpectedly and Georges takes her on a trip (under the guise of a honeymoon, but in reality he is trying to hide from an immigration officer who is looking for con artists like Georges and Anita). Georges’ plans are complicated when he finds himself falling in love with Emmy. This was such an amazing film. Even though we’re supposed to dislike Georges, it’s hard to do because it’s Charles-freaking-Boyer. It’s easy to see why Emmy falls for him. I love true, legitimate romantic films (with no contrived plot points), and this is one of the best that I’ve seen.
#12 Gaslight (1944) Another Charles Boyer film! Third one on the list! Surprisingly Boyer was not on my top 10 actors watched in 2021, per Letterboxd. This was an amazing film. I don’t know how I went so long without seeing it. This is the film that gave the name to a form of psychological abuse, where one partner mentally manipulates another into thinking that they’re losing their mind. In this film, Boyer plays Gregory Anton, a pianist who marries Alice Alquist (Ingrid Bergman), a famous opera singer. Gregory works as Alice’s accompanist. At first, Gregory seems sweet, he convinces Alice that they move into her deceased aunt’s old home #9 Thornton Square in London, seemingly under the guise that Alice loved her aunt so much and that her aunt would want her home to be lived in. However, Gregory has ulterior motives which are revealed throughout the film. To keep Alice from catching onto Gregory’s motives, he gaslights her by manipulating situations and then making her think she caused them. Alice begins to think she’s going insane. And while she begins to question Gregory’s actions, he’s gotten her mind so messed up that she can’t convince herself that she’s right. A young, 17-year old Angela Lansbury makes her film debut as Nancy, a tart of a maid who takes pleasure in observing Gregory’s manipulation of Alice. Nancy even plays along to exacerbate the situation. Ingrid Bergman’s performance was a tour-de-force and she deserved every piece of the Oscar that she received.
#13 I Want to Live! (1958) If there are two things I love, it’s classic film and true crime. I Want to Live! has both. This film is a biopic of Barbara Graham, a prostitute who was executed in California in 1955 for her part in the murder of a wealthy widow. Susan Hayward gives an Oscar-winning performance as the doomed woman who at the beginning of the film, works as a prostitute who is arrested for soliciting sex across state lines. She then receives jail time after providing a false alibi to two friends who committed crimes. Despite her growing rap sheet, Barbara continues to “make a living” by committing petty crimes and turning tricks. Eventually, she hits the big time when she gets a job working with a big time thief, Emmett Perkins. Her job is to lure men into his illegal gambling parlor. Meanwhile, her husband has a drug addiction and is unemployed–leaving Barbara as the breadwinner. Eventually Perkins ends up becoming involved with criminals, John Santo and Bruce King. Barbara returns to Perkins’ establishment which is soon raided by the police. Barbara surrenders to the police for her involvement in the gambling ring, but soon learns that she is being accused in being complicit with Santo and King’s murder of a wealthy widow. Barbara tries to give her alibi, saying that she was home with her husband and son, but her husband has skipped town. Unless he can be found, Barbara is toast. This was such an amazing film. I know that there was controversy regarding how Barbara Graham was portrayed in the film, versus the real life events. I can’t comment on that; but what I can say is that real facts or not, this was a great movie.
#14 Suspense (1946) I went into this film noir not knowing entirely what to expect. It starred Barry Sullivan whom I like and Albert Dekker who always turns in a good performance. Sullivan and Dekker’s co-star was British figure skater, Belita. Often when athletes are put into films, especially athletes whose sport is exploited on screen, the results can vary drastically–especially if the athlete has limited acting talent. Sometimes this is good, such as the case with Johnny Weissmuller in the Tarzan series. Other times, it can be limiting like is the case with Belita in another film of hers that I’ve seen. However, in this film, I was pleasantly surprised. I’m not saying Belita was amazing; but she was asked to play a figure skater, and Belita delivers on that front. In this film, Sullivan plays schemer, Joe Morgan, a newcomer to New York City who ends up taking a job at a theater as a peanut vendor. Belita plays the star performer, figure skater, Roberta. Albert Dekker plays Leonard, the owner of the theater and Roberta’s husband. Joe ends up suggesting a new act for Roberta, which revitalizes the show–as a reward he is made a manager. When Leonard leaves for a business trip, he puts Joe in charge. Joe and Roberta end up striking up a romance which Leonard soon discovers. This was a fantastic film. I actually was in suspense and couldn’t wait to see what would happen next.
#15 The China Syndrome (1979) This was another 1970s thriller that I watched which I really enjoyed. In this film, Jane Fonda plays television reporter, Kimberly Wells, who keeps getting stuck with the fluff stories during the local news segments. There is chauvinism present at the station, as it is thought that she couldn’t possibly handle a serious story. Her cameraman is the hot-tempered Richard Adams (Michael Douglas). One day, Kimberly and Richard end up getting a plum gig: doing a report from the Ventana, CA nuclear power plant. While visiting, they witness a malfunction in the nuclear power plant turbine operation and emergency shutdown protocol. Richard, despite being asked not to film, covertly records the entire incident. The incident is played off as not a big deal, but it becomes clear that the plant was thisclose to a meltdown. Jack Lemmon gives a fantastic performance as Jack Godell, the supervisor of the plant. Wilford Brimley was also excellent as the long-time employee, Ted Spindler, who battles with knowing what is right and his resentment over being passed up for promotion opportunities. I loved this movie. This isn’t normally my type of thing, but as a fan of 1970s thrillers and Fonda and Lemmon, I gave it a try. I’m glad I did. I was captivated from beginning to end and I especially loved Lemmon’s performance in the second half of this movie.
A Cry in the Night (1956). Raymond Burr, Natalie Wood, Edmond O’Brien.
Jane Fonda in Five Acts (2018). A fabulous documentary on HBO Max.
The Caine Mutiny (1954). Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Van Johnson, Jose Ferrer.
Once a Thief (1965). Alain Delon, Ann-Margret, Van Heflin.
Walk on the Wild Side (1962). Laurence Harvey, Jane Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Anne Baxter, Capucine.
Moonrise (1948). Dane Clark, Lloyd Bridges, Gail Patrick.
The Glass Wall (1953). Vittorio Gassman, Gloria Grahame.
The Big Combo (1955). Richard Conte, Cornel Wilde, Jean Wallace.
Muppets Haunted Mansion (2021) The Great Gonzo, Pepe, Will Arnett.
Die Hard (1988) Bruce Willis, Bonnie Bedelia, Reginald VelJohnson.
Confession (1937) Kay Francis, Basil Rathbone, Ian Hunter.
Three Days of the Condor (1975) Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Max Von Sydow, Cliff Robertson.
I’ll Cry Tomorrow (1955) Susan Hayward, Richard Conte, Eddie Albert.
Possessed (1947) Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey
August 8, 2021 marks the 100th birthday of MGM swimming superstar, Esther Williams. Williams’ remains one of the Golden Age of Hollywood’s best known musical stars, despite her stardom only lasting about a decade or so. I’ll admit that I used to not be a huge fan of Williams’. Not that I disliked her, but I thought she was stiff and somewhat bland. However, I think that I watched the wrong film as my introduction to Williams–Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949). I had originally watched ‘Ballgame’ to see Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. In this film, Williams plays the owner of a baseball team who does not initially get along with Kelly. Her character in this film is somewhat a stick in the mud and we’re only treated to a shoehorned-in swimming scene.
However, as someone who likes to give everyone another chance, because honestly as a classic film fan, I want to like everyone and everything. Luckily, my second introduction to Esther Williams was in the biopic, Million Dollar Mermaid, one of Williams’ best-known films.
In Million Dollar Mermaid, Esther plays real-life Australian swimming star, Annette Kellermann. We’ll look past the fact that Esther does not even attempt an Australian accent. The film starts in the late 19th century with polio-stricken Annette expressing her desire to swim as a means to improve the strength in her legs and overall health. Her father, Frederick (Walter Pidgeon) runs a music conservatory. We’re then treated to a montage of the young Annette taking swimming lessons, and later winning competitions. The montage also serves as a means to advance the timeline. Finally, we see a grown Annette (Esther Williams) accepting her latest trophy in the regional championship.
Later, Frederick accepts a teaching position that will take he and his daughter to England. While on board the steamer, Annette meets American promoter James “Jimmy” Sullivan, who is taking a boxing kangaroo to England. Thinking that Annette’s swimming talents will net them more funds than the boxing kangaroo, Jimmy begins to schmooze Annette and talks her into allowing him to promote her skills. As a promotional stunt, Jimmy announces that Annette will make the six-mile swim across a body of water. Annette ups the ante and announces that she will swim for 26 miles. Word gets around about Annette’s swim. However, she is unable to complete the swim.
Determined to figure out a way to market Annette’s skills, Jimmy suggests that they go to New York City to perform in an aquatic show in the famed Hippodrome. However, the owner of the Hippodrome does not see Jimmy’s vision and he is unable to get the deal. Annette then tries to go for a swim in Boston, but her “scandalous” one-piece piece bathing suit (versus the baggy dress with bloomers bathing suit that was worn at the time). The beachgoers are irate at seeing Annette’s body and repeatedly declare their disgust with being able to see her legs and shoulders. Annette ends up being arrested and goes to trial for indecent exposure.
In court, Annette pleads her case, stating that the one-piece men’s racing suit that she wears is much more practical for swimming than the big baggy things that women at the time were expected to wear. Annette’s occupation as a competitive female swimmer was unusual for the time as well. In the trial, Annette pleads not guilty to the indecent exposure charge. However, she offers a compromise: She has augmented her short, one-piece bathing suit by adding leggings to the bottom, thus covering her legs. Her new bathing suit basically looks like a cross between footie pajamas and a leotard. The judge is convinced and all charges are dropped. Annette is permitted to wear her custom swimwear.
Annette and Jimmy’s aquatic show is given the greenlight and is a big success. As these films typically go, Annette begins to fall in love with Jimmy, leading to amazing dialogue like this:
(Annette has finished her show and is drying off. Jimmy enters and pulls her into an embrace)
ANNETTE: Please, I’m soaking wet
JIMMY: Good, maybe it’ll put the fire out
Esther Williams and Victor Mature in “Million Dollar Mermaid.”
And like how these films often go, Annette and Jimmy have a misunderstanding which causes their romance to fizzle out… at least temporarily. During her separation with Jimmy Annette’s star begins to get bigger and bigger as her Hippodrome shows get more extravagant. Busby Berkeley directed the large, insane and extravagant water sequence, complete with Esther being dropped 50-feet and then rising above the surface on a platform.
After my lukewarm introduction to Esther in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, Million Dollar Mermaid proved to be a much better initiation into Esther Williams’ stardom and filmography. I’ve found that no matter how corny, contrived and/or formulaic Williams’ movies can be, they are first and foremost entertaining. I love the spectacle of her films. Her underwater ballet sequences are fascinating and Esther’s dives and stunts are also impressive. Now, I find myself enjoying Williams’ films–even yes, Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
May 16th is upon us again. It’s National Classic Movie Day. Though honestly, I’m sure for many of us, EVERYDAY is National Classic Movie Day. For this year’s event, Classic Film and TV Cafe has asked us to list six favorite films, each from a different decade–starting with the 1920s through the 1970s. We were also given another option of the 1930s-1980s, but since my husband I have been trying to watch more silent films, I’m going to take the original challenge. To ease ourselves into silent films, we’ve started with the classic comedians–an obvious and easy jumping off point. Good comedy is universal and timeless. Since I’ve written about a lot of my favorite films over the years and have a tendency to be verbose and not wanting to bore everyone with yet another dissertation detailing my love for The Long Long Trailer, I’m going to try and change things up a bit by selecting some favorites that I don’t *think* I’ve talked about yet.
1920s- The Freshman (1925)
Starring: Harold Lloyd & Jobyna Ralston
Plot: Lloyd stars as “Harold Lamb,” an incoming freshman who is eager to begin his studies at Tate University. He has saved up quite a tidy sum, $485 ($7400 in 2021 dollars), to use as spending money while enrolled in college. While on the train, Harold meets Peggy (Ralston) and the two are smitten with one another. While at Tate, Harold decides that the best way to fit in is to emulate his favorite movie star, known as “The College Hero” in a series of films. Upon introducing himself to a potential friend, Harold performs The College Hero’s jig and adopting the nickname, “Speedy.” However, unbeknownst to Harold, his attempts to be cool and fit in make him the object of everyone’s jokes, especially the college bully. The students’ laughter makes Harold think that he’s fitting in and he’s unaware that he is the school laughing stock. His only true friend in the film is Peggy, his landlady’s daughter. Harold ends up trying out for the football team, but his obvious lack of athleticism does not impress the coach. The star football player, wanting to continue to make fun of Harold, convinces the coach to hire Harold as the waterboy, hereby making Harold think that he’s made the team. The star football player’s ruse may end up haunting him and the team later.
My Favorite Part: My favorite part of this film is when Harold is at the Fall Frolic in an unfinished suit. His tailor has all the pieces of the suit attached with some very loose stitches. Harold opts to wear the suit while the tailor hides behind a curtain, hoping to casually finishing sewing Harold’s suit. While Harold tries to partake in the Fall Frolic activities, his suit starts falling apart.
1930s- Alice Adams (1935)
Starring: Katharine Hepburn & Fred MacMurray
Plot: Hepburn stars as the titular Alice Adams, a young woman from the “wrong side of the tracks,” at least from Alice’s perception. In reality, there’s nothing wrong with the Adams’ home. It is a nice, clean home. It’s not fancy, but it’s functional and well-maintained. However, it is obvious that the Adamses are unhappy with their lot in life. Mr. Adams (Fred Stone) is an invalid and works as a clerk at Mr. Lamb’s (Charley Grapewin) glue factory. Mr. Lamb as been very nice and patient with Mr. Adams and his illness. However, Mrs. Adams (Ann Shoemaker) is frustrated with her husband’s lack of motivation or ambition to do anything to improve their financial situation. Alice’s brother, Walter (Frank Albertson), is a gambling addict and is unable to hold down a job. He also fraternizes with African-Americans, which at the time, was seen as unseemly (and embarrassing) behavior.
Alice is invited to a dance hosted by a wealthy peer of hers, Mildred Palmer (Evelyn Venable). Alice tries to put on airs, despite being escorted by her brother and carrying a bouquet of violets that she harvested outside. In an attempt to prove herself worthy of attending this party, she tries to impress her peers with haughty behavior and conversation, but they are not impressed and she is essentially shunned. While at the dance, she meets the wealthy Arthur Russell (MacMurray) who sees through her shtick but is nonetheless charmed. He makes it known that he wishes to see her more often and Alice, worried that he won’t be interested in her if he knew her true social standing (though he already does), tries to continue her charade.
My Favorite Part: The family dinner is hilarious and heartbreaking all at once. Alice invites Arthur to have dinner with her family. Alice hires a maid, Malena (Hattie McDaniel), to keep up the charade. Despite being blistering hot outside, the entire family dresses in formal attire. Alice plans this absurd (and very hot and heavy) meal made up of fancy delicacies, but Malena’s poor cooking skills are not up to par with the food Alice wants to serve. Malena provides the comic relief of the dinner with her unimpressed facial expressions and genuinely uncouth behavior. Poor Alice is collapsing emotionally with each and everything that goes wrong. Arthur, bless his heart, stoically carries on despite the disastrous evening.
1940s- Gilda (1946)
Starring: Rita Hayworth & Glenn Ford
Plot: Johnny Farrell (Ford) is an American gambler, newly arrived to Buenos Aires, Argentina. When the film opens, Johnny is hustling some gangsters outside during a game of craps. Johnny wins a large sum of money using loaded dice. When the gangsters discover Johnny’s ruse they are about to beat him up when Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a stranger, steps in and rescues Johnny. Ballin owns a fancy casino and brings Johnny there, but warns him not to cheat. However, once a cheater, always a cheater and Johnny is caught cheating at blackjack. After Ballin catches him cheating again, Johnny convinces him to give him a job and soon becomes the manager.
One day, Ballin comes back from a trip announcing that he’s taken a new wife, despite having only known her for a day. He takes Johnny to meet his new wife, Gilda (Hayworth), and Johnny is shocked. The smile on Gilda’s face quickly fades. It is obvious that these two know each other and have a past. What kind of past remains to be seen. Ballin assigns Johnny to be Gilda’s keeper of sorts. Gilda and Johnny have a very intense love/hate relationship. Gilda at one point says to Johnny: “I hate you so much, that I would destroy myself to take you down with me.” However, in spite of how much they say they hate each other, they’re also always about 5 minutes away from jumping into the sack with one another. To irritate Johnny and get his goat, Gilda begins cavorting with various men at all hours of the evening. Johnny has to keep intervening out of loyalty to Ballin. However, at some point, the tension between Gilda and Johnny begins to take over and they’re unable to contain themselves. Ballin observes his manager and wife’s lust for each other and takes matters into his own hands.
My Favorite Part: My absolute favorite part is Gilda’s floor-length sequin coat. But plot wise, the classic “Put the Blame on Mame” song is definitely a highlight. I also really love the scenes at Carnival. Gilda’s gaucho outfit is amazing.
1950s- His Kind of Woman (1951)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, Vincent Price & Raymond Burr
Plot: Robert Mitchum plays Dan Millner, a professional gambler. At the beginning of the film, he is very much down on his luck. One night, after being ambushed by a group of thugs, he is brought to one of the more senior thugs and is offered a “too good to be true” job. For $50k, Dan has to spend a year in Mexico. Figuring that there’s got to be a catch, but also figuring that he has nothing to lose, Dan accepts a $5k advance and takes a chartered flight to the isolated Morro’s Lodge in Mexico. While on his flight, Dan meets Lenore Brent (Russell). Lenore very matter-of-factly tells Dan that she has a million dollars. Dan is attracted to her but disappointed to learn that she’s involved with another guest at the resort, famous actor Mark Cardigan (Price). While milling around the resort, Dan overhears two guests: Martin Kraft and a man by the name of Thompson (Jim “Thurston Howell III” Backus) discussing a plot that Dan suspects is related to the $50k he was offered. The two men give Dan $10k hush money and tell him that someone will be arriving soon to go over the plan with him.
Around the same time, an undercover agent from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service shows up stating that underworld boss, Nick Ferraro (Raymond Burr) is scheming to try and get back into the US. Four years prior, he’d been deported to Italy. At this point, as far as I can tell, Ferraro is planning a “Face/Off” situation where he and Dan, supposedly of similar height and build, will literally switch faces. It seems that Martin Kraft is a plastic surgeon, who is armed with some sort of anesthesia that will allow him to perform the face switching procedure. At some point, Dan is kidnapped and under duress on Ferraro’s boat and it becomes up to Mark Cardigan to head an expedition to save Dan.
My Favorite Part: The entire scene involving Mark Cardigan heading up the rescue mission. Vincent Price’s hamminess makes the scene and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as interesting or funny without Price. Price brings some much wanted levity to the film, especially while Robert Mitchum faces the idea of having to literally have his face ripped off and switched with Raymond Burr’s. I love the scene where Mark valiantly boards a small boat, only to have it sink immediately because it’s overloaded. I love the hilarious super long (and I imagine, heavy, especially water-logged) cape that he wears while he mans the (larger) rescue boat.
1960s- Girl Happy (1965)
Starring: Elvis Presley & Shelley Fabares
Plot: Elvis plays Rusty Wells, a nightclub singer (duh) who along with the other three members of his quartet have just ended their gig at a nightclub in Chicago. They plan to travel to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for Spring Break before moving onto their next job. However, the nightclub owner, “Big Frank,” messes up their plans when he extends their contract and they have to cancel their trip.
At the same time, Big Frank’s 18-year old college-aged daughter, Valerie (Fabares), is also planning on traveling to Fort Lauderdale for spring break. Despite his daughter’s legal adult status, Big Frank is terrified at the idea of letting his daughter travel so far away with just her friends in tow. Rusty sees his boss’ worry, and still wanting to go to Florida, comes up with the brilliant idea of offering to chaperone Valerie. Big Frank likes the idea and offers to bankroll Rusty and his friends’ trip. While in Fort Lauderdale, Rusty struggles with keeping an Italian playboy from lusting after Valerie and maintaining a semblance of a relationship with a “good time girl” (i.e. loose girl) Deena (Mary Ann Mobley). Rusty has to keep bailing on Deena when duty calls and she quickly grows tired of him. But because it’s an Elvis movie and he has to find himself in some sort of love triangle, Deena continues to maintain an interest in Rusty throughout the entire film.
And because this is an Elvis movie and because it’s a tried and true plot with one party being hired to chaperone or hang out with (or what have you) the other. You know that they’ll fall in love and you know that the person being chaperoned will find out. Despite the formulaic Elvis movies and plotlines, I still love it. His movies are fluffy, but they’re fun. And sometimes a fun movie is all that is needed.
My Favorite Part: I love the part when Elvis dresses up in Nina Talbot’s dress to escape from Officer Jackie Coogan’s jail. Elvis had dug a large hole and burrowed himself into the jail cell so that he could save Valerie and the other women.
1970s- The Muppet Movie (1979)
Starring: Kermit the Frog & Fozzie Bear
Plot: The film opens with all of the Muppets sitting together in an auditorium, waiting to watch their film. This film shows how all the Muppets met. We meet Kermit the Frog sitting in a boat in a pond, singing “Rainbow Connection” while strumming his banjo. A talent agent (Dom Deluise) who just happens to be at the same pond, hears Kermit’s song and says that he could be a Hollywood star. I mean obviously, it’s a singing frog playing the banjo! What more could anyone want? Kermit loves the idea of making millions of people happy and sets off for Hollywood. Along the way, he meets a terrible (but awesome) stand-up comedian, Fozzie Bear. Kermit invites Fozzie to Hollywood and the two set off in Fozzie’s Studebaker. This brings about my favorite quote from the film, “A frog and a bear, seeing America.”
Along the way, Kermit and Fozzie meet Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem (which includes Animal), the band’s manager, Scooter, Gonzo and his girlfriend (Camilla the Chicken), Sweetums, Miss Piggy, Rowlf, Bunsen Honeydew, and Beaker. There are a million of celebrity cameos: James Coburn, Madeline Kahn, Telly Savalas, Milton Berle, Bob Hope, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman, and perhaps the greatest cameo of them all… ORSON WELLES.
My Favorite Part: This entire film is hilarious. But I really love the part where Kermit the Frog and Miss Peggy go out for a romantic dinner. They are greeted by a snarky and rude waiter (Steve Martin) who wears shorty shorts, offers them a straw for their bottle-capped Idaho champagne (after offering to let them smell the bottlecap, of course).
Doris Day would have celebrated her 99th birthday on April 3, 2021. Miss Day passed away almost two years ago on May 13, 2019 at the age of 97. Up until the day she passed away, Doris had devoted the last half of her life to animal welfare–forming multiple non-profit organizations whose intent was to support both animals and other like-minded organizations. Through Doris’ non-profits, she also protected animals’ well-being through her Spay and Neuter program, and support at other legislation aimed to give animals the respect and dignity they deserve when facing illnesses and injuries that could potentially prolong their suffering and pain. With all that I’ve read about Doris and from what I’ve seen of her in interviews, I’m sure that she’s most proud of her animal welfare work and is what she’d like to be her legacy.
For major classic film fans like myself and others, Doris Day will forever be known for her pretty, perky girl next door persona, which later evolved into the persona of a sophisticated career woman. She ended her career playing mother roles. However, in all of these roles, no matter the setting, Doris Day was always a cute, personable woman with a gorgeous singing voice and effortless charm. She, much like the younger Sandra Dee, ended up being saddled with a reputation for being virginal–which really doesn’t make sense considering that she often played a mother toward the end of her career. This “virgin” label is often used as some sort of an insult, as if to discount Day’s work as being trivial or fluff. To this I say, what’s wrong with fluff?
I like fluff.
In a pair of my favorite fluffy films, On Moonlight Bay (1951) and its sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), Day plays eighteen-year old, Marjorie Winfield. We’ll look past the fact that Doris was 29 and 31 in the two films. Day’s youthfulness and effervescent personality more than makes her believable as an eighteen-year old. She was also paired up with frequent co-star, Gordon MacRae, who is adorable in both films. On Moonlight Bay starts the Winfield Family’s story in the mid-1910s. The Winfields have just moved into a larger home in a more affluent neighborhood in their small Indiana town. Marjorie has recently graduated high school and since she’s not getting any younger, her father, George (Leon Ames), is eager to have her meet a suitor and marry. Much to his chagrin however, Marjorie is a tomboy and would rather play baseball than wear dresses and look for a suitable husband.
Lucky for Marjorie however, she soon meets neighbor Bill Sherman (MacRae), an Indiana University student. He is at home while on a break from school. Marjorie is smitten with him and soon is all about being a proper young woman, wearing dresses and the like. At first George is overjoyed, but soon is dismayed when Bill shares his unconventional thoughts regarding marriage and finances. Bill’s thoughts on finances is especially upsetting since George makes his living as a banker. Marjorie’s mother, Alice (Rosemary DeCamp), likes Bill as does Marjorie’s precocious younger brother, Wesley (Billy Gray). The Winfield’s maid, Stella (Mary Wickes), is too busy dealing with Wesley’s hijinks to be concerned about Marjorie and Bill’s relationship.
At some point, George tries to fix Marjorie up with his idea of a suitable suitor, Hubert, but Hubert is lame and dull. Nobody except George likes him. Marjorie reluctantly follows along, but Wesley has no qualms about making his opinions on Hubert known. By the end of the film, the US has entered WWI and Bill leaves to fight in the war. In the sequel, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, it is 1918. WWI is over and Bill returns to his small Indiana town to pick things up with Marjorie. Thankfully, Marjorie has been waiting for Bill and the two resume their relationship.
Marjorie and Bill’s relationship really hits its stride. Except, the now nineteen/twenty-year old Marjorie is ready to marry Bill. However, Bill is reluctant to commit to Marjorie, because he has yet to find a good job. He does not want to marry Marjorie if he is not gainfully employed. Of course, because every movie needs to find a reason for the romantic couple to break up so that they can triumphantly reunite towards the end, Marjorie and Bill breakup over his not wanting to marry Marjorie. They are reunited thanks to one of Wesley’s schemes, which involves Bill disguising himself (with a fake mustache, of course) as a horse and carriage driver. There’s also an odd subplot involving the family thinking that father George is having an affair. Wesley also has a fantasy sequence where he’s a detective. Those sequences are fine, but honestly this film is all about Doris Day and Gordon MacRae.
On Moonlight Bay and By the Light of the Silvery Moon never seem to be mentioned among Day’s more well known titles like Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Send Me No Flowers, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Calamity Jane, Love Me or Leave Me, etc. This pair of films deserve to be mentioned along Doris’ other wonderful films. Both films capture Doris’ wonderful girl next door persona, she’s cute as a button and it’s easy to see why Gordon would be so enamored by her. She is so cheery and charming. As is Gordon. Why that guy wasn’t a bigger star is beyond me. These films are very much in the same vein as Meet Me in St. Louis (even with the same dad), but they are different enough to not be considered a knock-off. I don’t even usually like child actors, but Billy Gray is able to imbue his character Wesley, with enough charm and personality that he comes off as funny, rather than obnoxious. At no point is Wesley cloying, or trying to manipulate the audience into feeling affection toward him. He is legitimately funny and sweet towards his sister in the film.
It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street are often listed as “must-see” films every year on various lists of classic Christmas films. And these films are fine. But they hardly rank on my list of films that I have to watch each year. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these films, I own these films; but honestly, they’re usually at the bottom of my pile when I exhaust all other possibilities and decide to not re-watch my absolute favorite Christmas film–White Christmas (1954) for the millionth time during the season. I usually end up watching White Christmas at least 3-4 times during the season. One year, I think 2018, I even saw it in the theater! That was amazing.
I absolutely love White Christmas. It is funny, it has great music, a great cast, a great plot, and great dancing! And, if that weren’t enough, it was also filmed in gorgeous Technicolor and presented in Paramount’s revolutionary (for 1954) VistaVision widescreen format. There were other technological innovations used in the production of this film including using larger negatives and prints that I don’t really understand, nor do I care. What’s important is that this film is absolutely gorgeous to watch.
The film opens on Christmas Eve, 1944 during World War II. Former Broadway star, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and aspiring Broadway star, Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) are entertaining their fellow soldiers of the 151st Division. Bing (Bob) sings the perennial Christmas standard for which Bing Crosby will forever be associated and all other Christmas songs will be judged against–Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.” “White Christmas” was originally introduced in 1942 for Holiday Inn, also starring Bing Crosby. In this film he co-stars with Fred Astaire. While “White Christmas” was introduced ten years prior, I believe that it is more associated with the 1954 film of the same name.
After Bob finishes singing, the troop receives word that their beloved General Waverly (Dean Jagger) is being relieved of his command. General Waverly arrives and says goodbye to his men. The men send him off with a song and then are bombed. Phil saves Bob from being crushed by a falling wall; but his arm is wounded in the process. This sets off a funny running gag throughout the film where Phil uses his arm injury as a means to guilt trip Bob into following his plan. Bob asks Phil what he can do to repay him for saving his life and Phil responds with the idea that he and Bob should team up as a Broadway duo. Bob is hesitant, but agrees.
PHIL: “My dear partner, when what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting whatever it is you’ve got left.”
BOB: “When I figure out what that means, I’ll come up with a crushing reply.”
National Treasure Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby in “White Christmas” (1954)
After the end of World War II, Bob and Phil go on the road and are a huge sensation. After a string of successes as performers, Bob and Phil turn to producing their own shows. They develop a new musical, called “Playing Around” and set off to cast it. One day, Bob and Phil travel down to Miami, FL to view “The Haynes Sisters,” a sister-act starring Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen) Haynes. It seems that the Haynes Sisters’ brother, Ben “Freckle Face” Haynes (Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer) was an old Army buddy of Bob and Phil’s and he wrote to them asking them to check out his sisters’ act.
After watching Betty and Judy sing “Sisters,” both Bob and Phil are smitten. Bob has his sights set on Betty and Phil has a crush on Judy. Phil, liking to play matchmaker, notices that Bob is ogling Betty. After the sisters’ performance, he arranges for the four of them to meet. Phil and Judy hit it off immediately and sing and dance a gorgeous duet, “The Best Things Happen When You’re Dancing.” It also comes out that it was Judy who wrote to Bob and Phil, not her brother.
PHIL (Looking at the Haynes’ Sisters’ brother’s photo): “How can a guy that UGLY have the nerve to have sisters?”
BOB: “Very brave parents, I guess.”
National Treasure Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby in “White Christmas.”
Between sets, the sisters’ landlord shows up and announces that he is suing them for the cost of a damaged rug. The sisters claim innocence, but the landlord isn’t having it. He’s even gone as far as to get the police involved. To get Betty and Judy away from the police, Phil gives them his and Bob’s train tickets (in a compartment, naturally) to New York. However, Betty and Judy need to perform one more set at the club. Bob and Phil go on in their places in a very funny, lip-synced rendition of “Sisters.” One can’t help but see how much fun Danny Kaye was having hitting Bing Crosby with the feather fan. At this moment, I am going to start referring to Danny Kaye as “National Treasure Danny Kaye” because imo, he is what holds this entire film together.
Bob and Phil escape to the train, where Bob discovers that Phil has not only given away their train tickets, but he’s also given away their beds. Much to Bob’s chagrin, he and Phil will have to spend the evening in the club car. Bob, Phil, Betty, and Judy reunite on the train. Betty and Judy inform Bob and Phil that they’re on their way to Vermont to perform at a ski lodge over the Christmas holiday. The girls invite the boys to come along. The boys agree and the foursome sings about snow.
When they arrive at the Inn, they discover that Vermont has received exactly 0″ of snow. So much for skiing or tourism. For me personally, I welcome any winter without snow, but I can understand how the lack of snow would hinder people’s ski holidays. Bob and Phil are shocked to discover that their beloved General Waverly is the proprietor of the Inn and sunk his entire life savings into it. If he can’t turn a profit on it this holiday season, he will go bankrupt. Seeing their friend in trouble, Bob and Phil set off to save the Inn.
BOB: “We came up here for the snow. Where’re you keepin’ it?”
EMMA: “Well, we take it in during the day!”
Bing Crosby and Mary Wickes in “White Christmas” (1954)
I can’t get enough “White Christmas.” I’ve seen it at least two dozen times and I never tire of it. All the music is fantastic. Aside from the title song, “White Christmas,” I also really love Rosemary Clooney’s solo number, “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” and the Haynes Sisters’ song, “Sisters.” And though I detest snow, I love the “Snow” song that the group sings on the train. And like many of these films where they put together a show, none of the musical numbers seem to make any sense in the context of the show that they’re supposedly putting together.
In rehearsals, we see a Minstrel show with Vera-Ellen dancing to “Mandy.” Later, we see National Treasure Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen dance to a song called “Choreography” where Kaye is some sort of flamboyant choreographer. Vera-Ellen dances to an instrumental version of the controversial “Abraham” song from “Holiday Inn.” Finally, we see the foursome perform “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army” behind oversized, exaggerated cutouts of people in typical professions. All of these lead us into the fantastic, emotional finale where we hear a reprise of “White Christmas.”
None of these songs could possibly fit together into any sort of cohesive narrative. But it doesn’t matter. Because all the songs are fantastic and the dancing is fantastic.
PHIL (After kissing Judy): “You know, in some ways, you’re far superior to my cocker spaniel.”
National Treasure Danny Kaye in “White Christmas” (1954)
This film is so much fun to watch. It is funny, emotional, sad, happy, romantic, this movie has everything. I love National Treasure Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen. Rosemary Clooney has such a beautiful singing voice and such a great style. I love Bing’s singing as well and I especially love his musician slang that he incorporates throughout the film. I love when he asks Betty to “bring the cow” (grab the pitcher of milk) over to the table where they are sitting. Mary Wickes, who plays General Waverly’s housekeeper, Emma, is hilarious. She’s often seen eavesdropping on phone calls and spreading misinformation.
EMMA: “Oh, my word. If I wasn’t such a mean old biddy, I’d break down and cry.”
Mary Wickes in “White Christmas” (1954)
Now excuse me, I’m off to watch “White Christmas” and National Treasure Danny Kaye.
August 8th would have been Esther Williams’ 99th birthday. I’ll admit that in the past, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Williams. Not that I thought she was bad or anything, but I hadn’t been impressed by her in the films of hers that I’d seen (Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Easy to Wed). I unfairly dismissed her “aqua-musicals” as ridiculous.
Then, it all changed when I saw Williams in Neptune’s Daughter. I watched this film and found that I really enjoyed it. Williams looked beautiful and there was a great aqua-musical number towards the end. Leading man, Ricardo Montalban was handsome, and supporting players, Red Skelton and Betty Garrett were funny.
Art imitates life in Neptune’s Daughter, where Esther Williams portrays Eve Barrett, an aquatic ballet dancer and then swimsuit fashion designer. After retiring from movie-making in the mid-1960s, Williams started her own line of fashionable swimwear. In Neptune’s Daughter however, Williams’ character, Eve, is an aquatic ballet dancer, who is asked to become a business partner at the Neptune swimwear company. She is reluctant at first, but then agrees when she realizes the publicity value of the position.
Williams’ role as a swimsuit designer allows a foray into one of my favorite things about classic movies, the mini-fashion show. Singin’ in the Rain, The Women, How to Marry a Millionaire, Cover Girl, Easter Parade, Designing Woman… all feature fashion shows.
Back to Neptune’s Daughter… Eve’s business partner, Joe, learns that the South American polo team will be in town for a big match. He and Eve decide that this event would be the perfect opportunity to market their swimwear via a big swimming spectacle. Eve informs her man-crazy sister, Betty (Betty Garrett) about the South American team’s upcoming visit, and she decides that she needs to score a date with one of the players.
During polo practice, the captain of the South American team, Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalban) is injured and seeks relief from the club’s masseur, Jack Spratt (Red Skelton). Jack is awkward and clumsy. He laments his lack of success with women to Jose. Jose gives Jack advice on how to attract women, including this gem: speaking to women in Spanish because it is the “language of love.”
Because when you think Spanish lover, you instantly think of Red Skelton.
A comedy of errors occurs when Betty, looking for the famous team captain, mistakes Jack for Jose and pursues him, aggressively. Jack decides not to tell Betty her mistake and accepts her invitation to visit her at home. He brings along a Spanish instruction record so that he can pretend to speak romantic Spanish phrases to Betty. Betty excitedly tells Eve about her date and Eve tries to encourage her to date outside of the visiting polo team.
Meanwhile, the real Jose is interested in Eve, however, at first, Eve isn’t aware that he isn’t the man whom Betty dated the night prior. Eve tells Jose to stay away from Betty, and he is understandably confused as he did not date Betty. But, he pretends to agree (because why not) and then asks Eve out. Eve reluctantly agrees to the date, because she thinks she’s keeping Jose away from Betty. On the date, Eve tries to ruin the date by being standoffish and disinterested, but ultimately Jose wins her over and they have a wonderful date.
The next morning, the mistaken identity motif persists when Eve’s maid advises her that Betty and “Jose” (i.e. Jack) have gone on another date. Furious, she goes down to Jose’s hotel room and is confused when Betty is nowhere to be found. At the same time, a crooked nightclub owner plots a scheme to kidnap Jose when he learns that he is the team’s most valuable player. He has money on the game–removing the opposing team’s best player will surely help him win the bet. However, he kidnaps “Jose” rather than the actual Jose.
Then, as classic Hollywood films typically go, the main characters have known each other for a week, so obviously a marriage proposal and subsequent engagement is the most realistic next step. Jose proposes to Eve and she accepts.
Further hijinks ensue when Eve tries to share her engagement to Jose with Betty, who tells her of her engagement to “Jose.” Meanwhile, the real Jose is kidnapped as “Jose” escapes.
The film ends with Eve and Jose and Betty and “Jose” reunited. We see the big water spectacle that Eve and her business partner have planned. Dozens of girls dive into the water from varying heights. Eve and Jose “dance” in the water. Obviously, you had to be a good swimmer to be Esther Williams’ leading man in her aqua-musicals.
This is an absurd but fun film. You have to look past the ridiculous plot points (e.g. anyone mistaking Red Skelton for a South American polo star) and roll with it. This is also the film that introduced the annual Christmas classic (despite not having anything to do with Christmas), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Despite popular (and uninformed) opinion, this song is not about date rape.
I liked how the lyrics of the song were presented in two fashions: In the duet between Montalban and Williams, Montalban takes on the male part of the song and pursues Williams. In the Garrett and Skelton duet, Garrett takes on the role of the male pursuer with Skelton on the defense. The version between the two leads plays out more traditionally and romantically; whereas the duet between the supporting leads is more comical.
Mel Blanc (aka Bugs Bunny, Speedy Gonzales, Porky Pig, etc.) appears as “Pancho” one of the assistants to the polo team. His face might not be recognizable, but when he speaks, he’s instantly recognizable–it’s Speedy Gonzales! Ricky Ricardo’s nemesis, Xavier Cugat, also appears in the film at Casa Cugat, Xavier Cugat’s Mexican restaurant. Apparently, he also provides the live entertainment!
Esther Williams’ aqua-musicals aren’t the greatest films in the world, they are no Singin’ in the Rain, but they’re fun. The plots can be contrived at times, especially when they have to figure out how to insert a swimming musical number. Her films can also be repetitive, again, how to insert a swimming musical number and have it make sense within the context of the film, but they’re fun to watch. The thing I like about Williams’ films is the spectacle. The aqua-musicals are so elaborate. Williams wears such gorgeous bathing suits and her hair and makeup are never out of place. Obviously in real life, when swimming, you look like a mess!
The best thing about Neptune’s Daughter and Esther Williams’ other films is that they serve as a fun diversion from the monotony of day-to-day life–especially now. These films allow you to escape from the world and relieve a little stress. And honestly, I think we could all go for a stress reliever.
On July 1, 2020, Dame Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 104th (!) birthday in Paris, France. Aside from being the last surviving cast member from Gone With the Wind, she is also one of the last surviving figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Olivia is a two-time Oscar winner, having won the Best Actress Academy Award for her roles in Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and The Heiress (1949). However, aside from being known for her age and status as an Oscar-winner, Olivia is probably best known for her nine (!) collaborations with the incomparable Errol Flynn.
Full Disclosure: I LOVE Errol Flynn.
In his autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways*, Errol admits that he fell in love with Olivia during the making of his (and her) first big studio film, Captain Blood. However, despite his infamous reputation as a panty-dropping ladies man, Errol does not kiss and tell. In fact, he states that his propensity for playing juvenile pranks on Olivia probably lost him his chance at a relationship with her. Olivia on the other hand, admits that the two of them had some sort of passionate romance, however, their relationship was never consummated. What is the real truth? The only people who know that for sure are Errol and Olivia. Errol unfortunately is no longer around (passed in 1959) and Olivia is remaining tight-lipped on the subject.
*My Wicked, Wicked Ways is an amazing book. It, along with Desi Arnaz’ A Book, is the most entertaining book I have ever read. During my first read, when I got toward the end, I actually read just one page a night because I didn’t want it to stop!
What we do know is that on-screen, Errol and Olivia’s chemistry is off the charts.
Errol and Olivia appeared in the following films together:
Captain Blood (1935). Errol and Olivia’s big break. This film made an overnight matinee idol out of Errol and opened the doors for Olivia. Errol appears as the title character, Dr. Peter Blood aka “Captain Blood.” Peter is arrested for treason while treating a patient who participated in the recent rebellion. Peter is given a break (maybe?) and instead of execution (after being sentenced to death), he is sold into slavery. Peter, along with other future slaves, are shipped off to the West Indies.
Olivia appears as Arabella Bishop, the niece of the local military commander, Colonel Bishop. Arabella fulfills every woman’s fantasy and purchases Errol… err… Peter for 10 pounds to be her slave. You got one heck of a deal, Arabella. You will not be unhappy. Peter of course, resents being sold into slavery and is cold to Arabella. Eventually Peter and the other men revolt, seize a Spanish ship and become pirates.
Peter and Arabella’s relationship follows a similar trajectory that many film romances share. Boy meets girl. Boy and girl don’t get along. Boy or girl spend much of the movie trying to get the other to like them. They fall in love at the end. However, unlike most of the romantic fluff out there, Captain Blood is exciting, entertaining, and fun. Errol and Olivia’s playful flirtation and rapport is one of the big reasons for this film’s success.
The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936)
I’ll admit that I’ve only seen this film once. It features Errol and Patric Knowles as brothers living in India during the mid-19th century. Errol is a Major and Patric is a Captain with the 27th Lancers of the British Army. The main conflict is that Patric has betrayed Errol by taking up with his fiancee, Elsa, played by Olivia.
Much of this film features battles (blah) and the love triangle between Errol, Patric, and Olivia (ooh I love love triangles). However, the animal abuse by the film production crew, and Errol’s subsequent outrage is my biggest takeaway from this film.
In his autobiography, Errol details in length the cruel tactics used to make the horses trip for the battle scenes. An animal lover and accomplished horseman, Errol was disgusted and outraged by what he saw on set. He was further incensed by director Michael Curtiz’ nonchalant attitude toward the numbers of horses injured and killed by his stunts. Errol reported the production to the ASPCA. This action led to the US Congress implementing measures to ensure that animals used in film production were not injured or killed–thus the “no animals were harmed in making this motion picture” statement that is featured in most movies today.
The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
This is probably Errol and Olivia’s best known film collaboration, as well it should be. This film is perfect from start to finish. It is exciting, funny, has a great cast, fun characters, beautiful costumes, everything that one wants in a film. And this film, in its glorious Technicolor, is absolutely gorgeous.
I don’t think much plot is necessary, as most people, I imagine, are familiar with the Robin Hood legend. Errol plays the titular character, Robin Hood. Robin and his gang of merrymen have been banished to Sherwood Forest after opposing Prince John (Claude Rains)’s tax raise and voicing his opposition to Prince John’s usurping his brother, King Richard the Lionheart (Ian Hunter)’s throne and his intention to restore Richard’s place in the kingdom when he returns from fighting in the Crusades. Olivia plays Maid Marian and she’s disgusted by Robin’s insolence and vigilante behavior. She also doesn’t like that Robin and his gang regularly rob the rich to pay the poor.
However, as the film progresses, Marian begins to see Prince John for who he truly is, and also realizes that Robin is a good guy and begins to fall in love with him–much to the chagrin of Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone).
Four’s a Crowd (1938)
This is one of Olivia and Errol’s lighter fare. After appearing in back to back swashbucklers, Flynn was eager to do something else. Warner Brothers appeased their star by placing him in this light comedy. Honestly, this isn’t the greatest film, but it has a fantastic cast, Errol looks great, it’s amusing, and it’s fun to see Errol in a comedic part. He shows a flair for comedy. It’s a shame that he wasn’t given more opportunities.
Olivia in this film is adorable, but honestly, her character is annoying. The best pairing in this film is Errol and Rosalind Russell.
In this film, Errol plays Bob Lansford, the former editor-in-chief of the local newspaper where Jean Christy (Russell) works as a reporter. Jean is concerned that her new boss, Pat Buckley (Patric Knowles) is running the newspaper into the ground. Since leaving the paper, Bob has formed a new PR firm. Jean appeals to Bob to return to the helm of the newspaper. While initially uninterested, Bob becomes interested in this prospect when he learns that Pat’s fiancee is Lori Dillingwell (Olivia). Lori is the granddaughter to John P. Dillingwell (Walter Connolly), a millionaire who has developed a poor reputation. Bob hopes to use Lori to gain access to John P. so that he can obtain his business for his PR film.
Errol is his usual charming self in this film. Olivia on the other hand, while pretty and adorable, acts like a giggly airhead and has an irritating laugh. Patric Knowles’ character isn’t much better. The two of them together can be a little annoying at times. However, if you love Errol and love Rosalind Russell (like I do), then they are worth the time spent watching this film. I’ve watched this film numerous times, so obviously Olivia and Patric’s characters don’t keep me away from this film too much.
Dodge City (1939)
I’m not a big Westerns fan, but I love this movie. In this film, Errol plays Wade Hatton, an Irish cowboy who has ties to Dodge City is enlisted by Colonel Dodge to clean up the town. It has been overrun by Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) and his gang. Wade brings his friends, Rusty (Alan Hale) and Tex (Guinn “Big Boy” Williams) to assist. Olivia plays Abbie Irving, a settler who is traveling to Dodge City with Wade and his companions. She is planning on living with her aunt and uncle who reside in Dodge City.
After initially turning down the sheriff job, Wade agrees after witnessing the tragic death of a young boy in town. Wade, Rusty and Tex are doing a good job of clearing out the riff raff, but obviously are met with opposition by Surrett and his cronies. Abbie, meanwhile, has taken a job writing for the local newspaper, headed up by Joe Clemons (Frank McHugh).
Despite being a Western, I think this is a really fun film and Olivia and Errol once again light up the screen. Alan Hale is hilarious, especially when he inadvertently joins a temperance movement. Frank McHugh is always a delight.
Ann Sheridan’s talents and personality are wasted in this film. She appears in a small part as a saloon girl. Someone of Sheridan’s caliber was not needed for this role.
The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)
At this point in her career, Olivia was tired of playing Errol’s girlfriend in all her films (there are worse things you could be, imo). She wanted a chance to play more challenging parts and stretch her acting chops. She had just completed one of her most famous roles, Melanie in Gone With the Wind, and hoped that this was her chance for more meaty parts. However, Jack Warner, the bigwig at Warner Brothers was afraid that this experience would go to her head. To keep her grounded, he cast her in a small part in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex starring Errol and Bette Davis.
‘Elizabeth and Essex’ is Bette’s film. Olivia’s part is so insignificant, that it could have been given to anyone and not made much of a difference. Olivia is completely lost in this film, especially in the shadow of Bette’s performance as Queen Elizabeth I. This film details Elizabeth I’s relationship with the much younger Lord Essex, played by Errol. While in love with Elizabeth I, Essex also yearns for power and is frequently at odds with his lover/Queen when he defies her orders. Elizabeth I struggles with her age, vanity, and her love for Essex, but also wants to retain her power.
Olivia plays Lady Penelope, Elizabeth I’s lady in waiting. The main conflict with her character is that she’s in love with Essex as well. Elizabeth I fears losing Essex to the much younger and prettier Penelope. Penelope also schemes to break Elizabeth I and Essex up so that she can pursue him. This could possibly be a meaty part, but Bette’s performance as Elizabeth I is so intense and, frankly, it’s A LOT, that one almost forgets that Olivia is even in the film until she’s seen again.
While I love Bette, I cannot decide if I like this performance. Sometimes I think it’s amazing and other times, I can’t get past Bette’s constant fidgeting. What does make this film worth watching are the gorgeous costumes, a young Nanette Fabray in her film debut, and Errol’s thigh-high boots.
Santa Fe Trail (1940)
This film must be Errol and Olivia’s least popular. I only say that because this film is in public domain. As far as I know, it’s never received a proper studio release. I’ve only seen it a couple times, it’s not bad, but it’s not my favorite either.
In this film, Errol plays Jeb Stuart, a recent West Point graduate. He, along with his friend George Custer, played by Ronald Reagan, are sent to Fort Leavenworth, the most dangerous assignment in the Army. Both Jeb and George relish this assignment. On the way to Kansas, Jeb and George meet Cyrus Holliday who is building the railroad to Santa Fe, NM. His daughter, Kit, played by Olivia, is also accompanying him. Both Jeb and George are smitten.
Most of the remainder of the film features Raymond Massey as the villain, John Brown, and lots of battles and such. I don’t really remember the particulars.
They Died With Their Boots On (1941)
This is technically Olivia and Errol’s last film together. They have a very fitting goodbye scene toward the end of the film. While Errol’s dialogue is given within the context of a husband (who knows he will most likely die) saying a final goodbye to his wife (who knows deep-down that she won’t see her husband again), the words could apply to Errol and Olivia as well.
“Walking through life with you, ma’am, has been a very gracious thing.”
George Custer (Errol Flynn) to wife, Elizabeth Bacon Custer (Olivia de Havilland)
In this film, Errol plays General George Custer. At the beginning of the film, he is arriving at West Point in a ridiculous uniform that he designed himself, with the intention of looking like a visiting foreign general. While at West Point, George racks up a series of demerits for pranks and general disregard for any protocol and rules. Despite being at the bottom of his class, George and his class graduate early so that they can report immediately to Washington, D.C. at the onset of the Civil War.
Prior to graduation, George had met Libbie Bacon (Olivia) when she approached him, asking for directions. He asks her out on a date, but is unable to meet up with her when he is forced to report to DC for his war assignment. When they finally meet up again, George has made himself very unpopular, after making a joke at Libbie’s father’s expense. Libbie and George have to meet up in secret. Libbie’s maid, Callie (Hattie McDaniel), helps the couple keep their secret.
Through a miscommunication with the War Department, George is mistakenly promoted to Brigadier General. Despite this however, his regiment, the Michigan Brigade, wins at Gettysburg.
The remainder of the film features George and Libbie’s lives leading up to that fateful day at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where the audience knows George will meet his fate.
This is a very sweet film, though not one that I re-watch very often. War and Westerns aren’t my favorite genres, but Errol and Olivia and Hattie make this film very re-watchable. Errol’s appearance at he beginning in his outlandish military garb is hilarious.
Thank Your Lucky Stars (1942)
Errol and Olivia appeared in this film together, but they weren’t together. Both appeared as themselves in separate numbers. Thank Your Lucky Stars was made during WWII and created to serve as a fundraiser for the war effort. Every star who appeared in the film donated his or her salary to the Hollywood Canteen.
The Hollywood Canteen was an organization opened by Bette Davis and John Garfield. It was intended to serve as a club that catered only to servicemen fighting in WWII. In addition to the US servicemen, servicemen of Allied forces and women in any branch of service were invited to attend. The idea of the Hollywood Canteen was that servicemen (and servicewomen) could enter the club using their uniform as a ticket. All amenities within the club were free. The club was staffed by countless members of the entertainment industry. Everyone from the big A-list stars down to the key grips volunteered to work at the Hollywood Canteen. A serviceman could enter the canteen and have Rita Hayworth serve him lunch, only to dance with Betty Grable afterwards.
The plot of Thank Your Lucky Stars is very thin. Basically, Edward Everett Horton and SZ Sakall are trying to stage a “Cavalcade of Stars” wartime charity show, but star Eddie Cantor’s ego is threatening to take over the production. Aspiring singer Tommy (Dennis Morgan) and his songwriter girlfriend, Pat (Joan Leslie), conspire to join the production by coaxing Horton and Sakall into replacing Cantor with their look-a-like friend, Joe.
Throughout the initial part of the plot, Hollywood stars like Humphrey Bogart make non-musical appearances. At the end of the film, we’re treated to what is presumably Horton and Sakall’s “Cavalcade of Stars.” It is in this section where we’re treated to Olivia and Errol’s only on-screen musical performances. They do not appear in the same production number. Olivia is paired with Ida Lupino. Honestly, their number isn’t really that great. Errol on the other hand, has a solo number and his song is one of the best in the show. His natural charisma and good looks are on full display, despite the silliness of the number.
By 1939, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had made nine films together at RKO studios. Their first film together, Flying Down to Rio (1933), featured the duo in supporting roles. This wasn’t even supposed to be a vehicle for Fred and Ginger, the film starred Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. However, they excited audiences so much in “The Carioca,” that RKO was quick to re-team the duo in their second vehicle, The Gay Divorcee. When ‘Rio’ was made, Ginger was the bigger star. She had already appeared in almost two dozen films, including: 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Fred on the other hand, was primarily a Broadway performer and had only appeared in one other film (Dancing Lady, where we’re treated to Joan Crawford’s awful dancing), where he played a fictionalized version of himself.
The Gay Divorcee was a huge hit and RKO was quick to keep teaming Fred and Ginger up in picture after picture. Between 1933 and 1939, the duo had appeared in nine films: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). By this point, both Fred and Ginger were ready to move onto other projects. Ginger, especially, was ready to prove herself as more than just a dancer in fluffy romantic films. She had achieved some success in the ensemble dramatic film, Stage Door (1937), and wanted to do more in this realm.
Fred, I don’t believe had acting aspirations as lofty as Ginger, but I believe he did want to try some more inventive dance routines. Not that Ginger held him back, but seeing his performances where he dances solo, Fred seems to have more fun dancing–perhaps because he can do a more technical routine. After his initial partnership with Ginger ended, Fred appeared in a few more musicals with a variety of dancers: Broadway Melody of 1940 (w/ Eleanor Powell), You’ll Never Get Rich (w/ Rita Hayworth), You Were Never Lovelier (also w/ Rita Hayworth), and Yolanda and the Thief (with Lucille Bremer). By 1946, Fred was tired of making films and retired.
Meanwhile, Ginger’s career was only getting bigger and bigger. In 1940, Ginger appeared in one of her first major dramatic roles, Primrose Path with Joel McCrea. I really like this film. In this film, Ginger plays a woman who hails from a family whose tradition is prostitution. Both Ginger’s grandmother and mother are prostitutes. Ginger, understandably, does not want to follow in the family business. She ends up meeting and marrying McCrea who is unaware of her family’s history. Later in 1940, Ginger gets the role of a lifetime, the title role in Kitty Foyle.
When Ginger was first given the book for Kitty Foyle (for which RKO had just purchased the film rights), she was not impressed. As she says in her 1991 autobiography, Ginger: My Story:
“As Howard [Hughes] and I were driving toward his residence, I glanced at my copy of Kitty Foyle. There were explicit love scenes in it that were quite disturbing to me. As I read these passages, I found myself passing judgement on them. “That could never pass the censor board. So what good is it for me to spend time reading it?” I was really embarrassed that RKO would send me something like this. I snapped the book shut and quite deliberately, through it in the corner of Howard’s car.”
Ginger spoke to her mother, Lela, about the trashy book. Lela very matter of factly, told Ginger that the studio would obviously have to tone down the sexual content as it would be impossible to film it. The entire story would essentially have to be re-written. After speaking with Lela, the producer and writer Dalton Trumbo (who was hired to write the script), Ginger’s qualms about accepting the part had been squashed. Kitty Foyle ended up being a major hit, winning Ginger the Best Actress Oscar.
After Kitty Foyle, Ginger continued to act in dramatic films but also dabbled in comedic and noir roles as well. Ginger even went back to her roots and appeared in more musicals. One of my personal favorites of Ginger’s 1940s career is her turn in Billy Wilder’s directorial debut–The Major and the Minor. This film is hilarious. However, you really have to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the premise. If you can accept co-star Ray Milland believing that Ginger’s character is “eleven, twelve next week” then you will enjoy this film.
The Major and the Minor gave Ginger the opportunity to show off her broad comedy skills. The premise of this film is that Ginger has been trying to make a-go in New York City for a year but to no avail. She decides to return home (to Stevenson, Iowa) via train. However, she finds out that she doesn’t have enough money to pay an adult fare. She does however have enough money to purchase a children’s ticket. She gives herself a “makeunder” by removing her makeup and putting her hair in pigtails. She modifies her clothing to make it look like something a child would wear. She purchases her ticket.
On the train ride, Ginger attracts much attention from the conductor and train staff who are not buying her story that she’s “eleven, twelve next week” and that she’s tall because she’s “from Swedish stock.” Ginger has some very funny scenes trying to rationalize her grown-up appearance to the adults. Ginger does take her child shtick a little far as she’s supposed to be 12 but she acts 5. On the train, Ginger meets Ray Milland, a major who teaches at an all boys’ military school. Milland can not see out of one eye. With his blurred vision, he buys Ginger’s story that she’s 12. Ginger ends up staying with Milland, Milland’s fiance and her sister for a few days. Complications ensue when Ginger attracts the attention of the male cadets at the military academy and Milland’s fiance who is just not buying Ginger’s story.
I gave The Major and the Minor a lot of space in my article about Fred and Ginger, because it is probably my favorite of all of Ginger’s post-Fred films. She also made one of my favorite Christmas-time films, I’ll Be Seeing You, where she plays a woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter and is serving time in prison. She is given an eight-day furlough so that she can spend Christmas with her family. During this furlough, she meets and falls in love with Joseph Cotten who is on a 10-day leave from the military hospital he’s been staying at. I’ll Be Seeing You is a sweet, romantic film and is perfect for the holiday season.
In 1948, Gene Kelly was all set to appear opposite Judy Garland in Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade. However, right before filming was to begin, Gene broke his ankle playing volleyball. Feeling bad, Gene coaxed Fred into coming out of retirement and replacing him in Easter Parade. Fred agreed and this began a renaissance of some sorts of Fred’s career. Easter Parade is one of my favorite films and as much as I love Gene, I cannot picture anyone else in this film other than Fred.
Easter Parade takes place in 1912-1913 New York City. Fred plays a dancer who is part of a popular dance team. His partner, Ann Miller, casually drops a bombshell on Fred: she’s been offered a solo show and has accepted. Ann it seems, wants to be thought of as more than just Fred’s dance partner (Sound familiar?). Upset, Fred goes down to a restaurant/bar to figure out a game-plan for his career. While at the restaurant, Fred spots Judy, a singing waitress. He makes a “My Fair Lady” type bet with the bartender. He will pick Judy out of the lineup and turn her into his next dance partner. The problem is Judy can’t dance.
Fred tries to teach Judy how to dance and she does okay, but is struggling. It finally occurs to Fred that perhaps they should base their act around their respective talents. Fred will dance and Judy will sing. Perfect! With this change, Fred and Judy are a sensation and are soon auditioning for the famed Florenz Ziegfeld’s Ziegfeld Follies revue. There is some drama between Ann and Fred and Judy and Fred that threatens to break up the act. However, like all these films go, the drama is resolved and all is well by the end.
Easter Parade was a smash hit and MGM was eager to re-team Fred and Judy for another film: The Barkleys of Broadway. However, by this point in her life, Judy was in bad shape and ended up being fired from production. In perhaps a bit of a publicity coup for the film, MGM hired Ginger to take Judy’s place. It had been ten years since their last pairing. I don’t know if this is true, but I read somewhere that Judy, upset at being replaced, sent Ginger a shaving kit as a passive aggressive “congratulations” gift. It seems that Ginger had a lot of peach fuzz on her face and used makeup and filters to hide it on screen. I hope this story is true, because it is hilarious.
The Barkleys of Broadway very much resembled Fred and Ginger’s real professional relationship: except in the film, they played a married couple. In the film, Fred and Ginger are at the peak of their popularity, a sensation. While at one of their shows, Ginger meets a playwright who suggests she take up dramatic acting. Ginger tries to keep it a secret, but Fred finds out and the couple separate. The Barkleys of Broadway was a big hit and continued to revitalize Fred’s career. Curiously enough, Ginger’s career was starting to wind down. She didn’t really make many big films in the 1950s, except for one of my favorites, Monkey Business with Cary Grant and a young Marilyn Monroe.
Starting with Easter Parade, Fred was becoming more innovative in his dance routines. In Easter Parade, Fred used trick photography in “Steppin’ Out with my Baby” to make it appear like he was dancing in slow-motion. In Royal Wedding, Fred again uses trick photography to make it look like he was dancing on the ceiling. The Barkleys of Broadway features Fred’s “Shoes with Wings” routine where he dances with a bunch of shoes.
My other absolute favorite film from the later part of Fred’s career is Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn. In this film, Fred plays Dick Avery, a fashion photographer for Quality magazine. He is tired of photographing the same vapid models, who are pretty, but don’t really bring anything to his photograph. His editor, Maggie Prescott (hilariously played by Kay Thompson, whom I wished had made more films), agrees that the magazine needs a new look. They want to find someone who is as smart as they are beautiful. They end up barging into (and destroying) the Manhattan bookstore: Embryo Concepts. While at the bookstore, they find Audrey Hepburn, the shy shop clerk.
Fred and Kay photograph the comic book reading model, Marion, but she’s just blah. All beauty but no substance. Fred ends up getting a photo of Audrey during the shoot. Back at the magazine office, Fred is developing his photo of Audrey and sees that she has that je ne sais quoi that he and Kay have been looking for. Kay calls up Audrey’s shop and orders some random books as a pretense to get her to come down to their office. Audrey shows up and before she knows it, she’s been swept up in the world of modeling. Audrey accepts the modeling work, as she’s informed that she’ll get to go to Paris. Paris is where the renowned philosopher, Emile Flostre, regularly holds lectures about empathicalism–a philosophy that Audrey is very interested in. Complications ensue when Audrey prioritizes her personal interests above those of her employer’s. One of my favorite scenes of Funny Face is Fred and Kay’s dance at the beatnik hangout–“Clap Yo’ Hands.”
By the 1960s, both Fred and Ginger appeared infrequently in films but kept busy pursuing other interests. Fred had his own television show for awhile and Ginger was a hit in theater, even appearing on London’s famed West End for a period. Fred’s television career was very successful, his programs won numerous Emmys and revived an interest in dance. In 1985, Ginger realized a lifelong ambition–to direct a play. She directed an off-Broadway production of Babes in Arms. Fred passed away in 1987 and Ginger in 1995.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.