On May 2, 1955, Van Johnson appeared as himself in “The Dancing Star,” an episode of I Love Lucy. I Love Lucy was the pioneering and now-iconic television sitcom starring his old friends, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. In this episode, Lucy’s character, Lucy Ricardo, finally realizes her dream of show business success. Van Johnson is appearing in a show at the hotel where the Ricardos and Mertzes are staying while Ricky (Desi) makes his film debut. Van’s partner is sick and Lucy ends up getting the chance to fill in. In this episode, Lucy Ricardo is finally given the opportunity to perform in a musical number where she doesn’t screw it up, whether purposefully or inadvertently. For a more detailed synopsis about “The Dancing Star,” click here.
Van Johnson’s relationship with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did not start with I Love Lucy. He actually made Desi’s acquaintance first back in 1939 on Broadway. Desi had recently arrived in New York City as part of Xavier Cugat’s touring orchestra. Previously, he’d lived in Miami after emigrating there from his birthplace of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. Desi had been performing as part of the Siboney Septet. He was discovered by Cugat and hired as a singer and conga drum player. Desi’s natural charisma and talent as a showman led to him forming his own orchestra. He was discovered by director George Abbott who wanted to cast Desi as Manuelito, the Argentinian football player. Van was cast in the same play as a college student and also as an understudy for the three male leads. He later understudied Gene Kelly in the Broadway production of Pal Joey which eventually led to Kelly’s discovery and subsequent Hollywood stardom.
In 1940, Van came out to Hollywood to appear in the film adaptation of Too Many Girls. Van’s role is very small. He has an uncredited role as a fellow college student and appears as part of the chorus in some of the musical numbers. Van is near Lucille Ball in the big celebratory conga number (led by Desi Arnaz and Ann Miller) at the end of the film when Pottawatomie wins the big game. Watch Lucy screw up the choreography, she very noticeably comes in early or late in every single one of the moves. However, Van’s role in Too Many Girls did not lead to any big breaks. Disenchanted, he was ready to return to New York and back to Broadway where he had experienced more success.
However, before Van left for New York City, he had lunch with Lucy at Los Angeles’ famed Chasen restaurant. She introduced him to MGM’s casting director who just happened to be sitting at a nearby table. This led to a series of screen tests at many of the big studios. He ended up scoring a $300/week ($5452/week in 2022) contract at Warner Brothers. Van made his debut as a leading man in 1942’s Murder in the Big House opposite Faye Emerson. Unfortunately for Van, this contract did not lead to big success at Warner Brothers and his contract was dropped after six months.
Eventually Van was signed to MGM where his friend, Lucille Ball, had recently signed with after leaving RKO. Van’s big break was in the 1943 film, A Guy Named Joe, which starred Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. During production, Van was in a car accident which left him with a metal plate in his forehead and numerous scars on his face. For most of his career, Van would hide his scars under heavy makeup. However, in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny, he opted to not wear the heavy makeup. His large forehead scar is prominently displayed in that film. MGM wanted to replace Van in A Guy Named Joe, but Tracy advocated for him. Thanks to Tracy, Van became a star after their film was a big success at the box office.
Van continued to appear in one hit film after another. In 1946, Van appeared with his friend Lucy in Easy to Wed, a remake of the 1936 hit, Libeled Lady. Van took on the role of Bill Chandler, which was played by William Powell in the original film. Keenan Wynn, Lucille Ball and Esther Williams take on the roles played by Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, and Myrna Loy, respectively. Bill Chandler is hired by Warren Haggerty (Wynn) to marry his girlfriend Gladys (Lucy) and then romance and woo Connie Allenbury (Williams), a socialite who is suing Warren’s newspaper for a large sum of money after they publish a false story about Connie being a homewrecker. To save the newspaper from financial ruin, Warren wants Gladys to charge Connie with alienation of affection after word gets about Connie’s romance with her husband, Bill. Curiously enough, perhaps in an instance of life imitating art, Keenan Wynn’s wife, Evie, married Van Johnson on THE DAY (!) of their divorce.
Easy to Wed is not nearly as good as Libeled Lady, but it is amusing. Lucille Ball is definitely the highlight and steps into Harlow’s shoes very well. Van asserts himself nicely as the straight man and is good at portraying the All-American young man. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Van continued to appear in films in every genre from war to film noir to musicals to comedy. At the time of his 1955 appearance in I Love Lucy, Van was at the height of his fame. In one of the episodes of I Love Lucy leading up to the big cross-country drive, Lucy asks her friend Marion Strong if she’d like Lucy to give a message to “the gang.” “The Gang” being Clark (Gable), Cary (Grant), or Van (Johnson), or Marlon (Brando)?” Later while the Ricardos are celebrating their wedding anniversary in Hollywood, Ricky name-drops Van and his wife Evie to a Hollywood newspaper about a (fake) party he’s throwing at the Mocambo. Van continued to appear in films and television. In 1968, he appeared in another film with Lucille Ball, Yours, Mine and Ours. Desilu had purchased the rights to the story in 1967, right before Lucy sold the studio to Paramount. Desilu had been founded in 1950 by Lucy and Desi. Desi retired in 1962 and sold his shares to Lucy.
Van’s role in Yours, Mine and Ours is fun. He appears as Darrell Harrison, a fellow officer who works with and is friends with Frank Beardsley, played by Henry Fonda. Lucy appears as Helen North, a nurse who works in the dispensary at the base. Darrell thinks that Frank and Helen are perfect for one another, the only hitch being that Frank has 10 children and Helen has 8. To prove his point, he fixes Frank up with a young Hippie woman who is half Frank’s age and is very sexually aggressive. Frank is more modest and finds her sexual appetite off-putting. Darrell then fixes Helen up with a doctor who specializes in obstetrics and is at least half a foot shorter than she is. Darrell effortlessly brings the two characters together. For much of the rest of the film, he is used for comic relief and is delightful.
Van continued to work with Lucy. He appeared as himself during the first season of her third sitcom, Here’s Lucy, in 1968. In the episode, Van plays himself and plays a Van Johnson doppelganger. In the episode, the Van Johnson doppelganger and Lucy (as Lucy Carter), talk about Yours, Mine and Ours. The fake Van Johnson, imitating the real Van Johnson, says that he loved working with the “kooky redhead.” Lucy Carter says that she thought that she (Lucille Ball) was much too young for Henry Fonda. Later, Lucy Carter compliments the real Van Johnson on his appearance in The Romance of Rosy Ridge, which was the film debut of Janet Leigh. Eventually, Lucy remarks that she was glad Van was court-martialed in The Caine Mutiny after he refuses to go along with her schemes.
Van and Lucy continued to appear in various specials together and remained friends. After Ball’s passing in 1989, Van continued to give interviews and appear in various documentaries and retrospectives about Lucy and Desi. He was one of the interviewees in PBS’ American Masters episode about Lucille Ball, “Finding Lucy.” It is apparent that Lucy, Desi, and Van all held each other in great esteem. It is obvious through their professional and personal collaborations and the way in which Van continued to talk about his friends long after their respective passings. Van Johnson passed away in 2008 and it is nice to think that he is now back with his friends.
“They (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz) were soulmates. They knew it. The whole world did.”
“I am the luckiest guy in the world. All my dreams came true. I was in a wonderful business and I met a lot of great people all over the world.”
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
Van Johnson isn’t a name that often comes up when people think about figures from the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, that isn’t to say that he wasn’t a star. He co-starred alongside many of Hollywood’s more legendary actors; but he never got that one film that would catapult him into the echelon of “legend.” Some of the “legendary” actors Van co-starred with: Gene Kelly (Brigadoon), Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (State of the Union), Judy Garland (In the Good Old Summertime), Humphrey Bogart (The Caine Mutiny), and Elizabeth Taylor (The Last Time I Saw Paris). However, despite not ever making “the film” to propel him to legend status, Van was a big enough star to appear as himself alongside two of television’s biggest legends: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, on an episode of I Love Lucy.
The I Love Lucy episode, “The Dancing Star,” was not Van’s first experience working with Ball and Arnaz. In 1939, while trying to make it as a young actor in New York, Van scored a gig as understudy to the three male leads of George Abbot’s hit Broadway play (featuring the music of Rodgers and Hart), “Too Many Girls.” One of the main cast members (whom I’m going to assume that Van did not understudy) was the young 23-year old Cuban musician, Desi Arnaz. The play was a smash hit and Arnaz along with co-star Eddie Bracken were brought out to Hollywood to reprise their roles in the RKO film adaptation of the play.
In Hollywood, Van joined the cast as an uncredited part of the chorus. He can be seen in the background of a few scenes, but most prominently in the front of the crowd dancing during Desi Arnaz’ big conga number. Another new member of the cast of the RKO production was Lucille Ball. Ball was the star of the film and would play the role of the ingenue college student, Connie. Ball and Arnaz were introduced prior to the start of filming. However, their first meeting did not go well as Ball was still wearing the makeup and costume from her current film, Dance, Girl, Dance, which co-starred Maureen O’Hara. Ball’s makeup and costume was a black eye and a torn gold lamé dress that she wore while shooting a catfight scene with O’Hara. Looking at Ball’s black eye and torn gown, Arnaz could hardly envision her as the virginal ingenue of Too Many Girls. Later that evening, Arnaz and Ball were re-introduced. During this meeting, Ball had cleaned herself up and sported her own clothing and makeup. It was love at first sight for Ball and Arnaz and the rest, as they say, was history.
Anyway, back to Van. After Too Many Girls, he got more understudy work, including as Gene Kelly’s understudy in the Broadway play, Pal Joey. Kelly would soon be starring in his first Hollywood film, For Me and My Gal, with Judy Garland. Discouraged, Van was about to quit Hollywood when friend Lucille Ball took him to the famous Chasen’s restaurant to meet an MGM casting director. This meeting led to Van getting a screen test at Columbia and Warner Brothers. Columbia didn’t pan out, but Van scored a few roles with Warner Brothers. After his contract with Warner Brothers ended, Van was signed to MGM. MGM is where Van finally got a break and soon was appearing in films. In 1943, Van got his big break when he appeared in A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. He continued to appear in many quality films throughout the 1940s.
In 1946, Van was re-teamed with friend Ball in Easy to Wed which also co-starred Esther Williams and Keenan Wynn. Through the remainder of the 1940s, Van continued to appear in many great MGM films. By 1950, Van was freelancing, which freed him up to appear in films in other studios. During the 1950s, Van also started appearing in shows on the burgeoning medium known as television. In 1955, Van was invited to appear in a guest spot as himself on his friends’ (Arnaz and Ball) sitcom, I Love Lucy. By 1955, I Love Lucy was a massive hit and big stars were willing to appear on their show for free just to get the chance to be part of the program.
Van appears during the Hollywood story-arc of I Love Lucy in the episode, “The Dancing Star.” Ricky Ricardo (Arnaz) has been offered a role as Don Juan in Hollywood. He along with wife, Lucy (Ball), and their best friends Fred and Ethel Mertz (William Frawley and Vivian Vance) all head to California. While in California, wacky Lucy has various run-ins with stars (William Holden, Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Harpo Marx, Rock Hudson, Sheila MacRae, Eve Arden, and CORNEL WILDE IN THE PENTHOUSE), often with disastrous results. One such star who did not suffer at the hands of Lucy however, was Van Johnson.
In “The Dancing Star,” Lucy’s old frenemy, Carolyn Appleby (Doris Singleton) shows up unexpectedly to pay Lucy and Ethel a visit while she’s on her way to Hawaii to meet-up with husband Charlie. Carolyn says that she’s going to stop over for a couple days so that she can meet all the stars Lucy’s been hobnobbing with per the postcards Lucy’s been sending out to her friends in Hollywood. Obviously, Lucy didn’t expect her friends to show up wanting to be part of the action. As Lucy is panicking, Ethel tells her that Van Johnson is appearing in a show at their hotel, The Beverly Palms. Ethel spots Van sleeping next to the pool and tells Lucy to go down there and pretend that she’s talking to him. Ethel will then casually bring Carolyn up to the window, point out Lucy and Van and all will be well.
The plan goes off, somewhat, except that Carolyn has forgotten her glasses. Apparently Carolyn Appleby must wear contact lenses and has lost them, because in her previous appearances on the series, she’s had no issues with her eyesight. However, when Carolyn is in California, she’s blind as a bat. Carolyn can only make out two red-headed blurs and just has to assume that that is Lucy and Van. Of course, Lucy can’t leave well enough alone and brags to Carolyn about all the other stars that were also down at the pool. She then further ups the ante by telling Carolyn that she’s throwing a big soiree tomorrow evening where tons of stars will be in attendance. Conveniently, Carolyn’s flight to Hawaii is supposed to depart tomorrow evening. Aw shucks.
And because it’s Lucy and she has to be the object of envy of The Wednesday Afternoon Fine Arts League (who usually meets on Tuesdays, never on Thursdays, but occasionally on Fridays), she tells Carolyn that she’s “chummy” with Van. Lucy’s fib is based on the fact that Carolyn can’t see and that Van’s partner is a tall red-headed woman. With Carolyn’s blurred vision, she won’t be able to tell that Van’s partner is not Lucy. However, Lucy’s “great” plan is foiled when Carolyn’s airline finds her glasses and returns them to Carolyn at the hotel. Desperate, Lucy approaches Van and begs him to dance with her. She finally gets him to agree when she flatters him by saying that she’s seen his show 14 times and knows it backwards and forwards. Ethel and Carolyn see Lucy dancing with Van and all is well.
(VAN JOHNSON in response to LUCY RICARDO’S constant proclamations of not having much time and that “she’s” going to be here any minute)
VAN JOHNSON: “Who’s going to be here any minute?”
LUCY RICARDO: “Carolyn Appleby! Who do you think?!”
Van Johnson and Lucille Ball (Lucy Ricardo) in “The Dancing Star,” I Love Lucy
Later that evening, Lucy gets her big chance: Van’s partner is sick and he needs someone to replace her last minute. Seeing that Lucy knows the routine, Van thinks that she’s the perfect choice. And with this set-up, we finally get to see Lucy Ricardo in one of her rare performances where she’s allowed to perform a dance number without purposeful or accidental mishaps. In the “How About You?” number, Lucy and Van perform a beautiful, simple song and dance number. Lucy looks beautiful in her feather-covered gown. She and Van are a sensation. Ricky watches his wife dance this wonderful number with a deep adoration. Ethel and Fred watch their friend, proudly. And Carolyn is overjoyed.
Wait? Carolyn?! Wasn’t she going to Hawaii?
Apparently, Carolyn has decided to put off her flight to Hawaii one more day to attend Lucy’s big Hollywood party. Yikes.
Cue the famous “Lucy Meets Harpo Marx” episode, the unofficial second part of “The Dancing Star.”
Everyone remembers the big stars: Bogart, Hepburn, Monroe, Gable, etc. but not enough attention or praise is given to the character actors. Character actors are performers who often played supporting parts, but weren’t expected to carry the film. A film’s failure wasn’t blamed on the character actor. They weren’t “the name” that brought in the crowds. These actors were hired for the types of characters they portrayed. Some actors, like Claude Rains, for example, could play leading parts, supporting (but lead) parts, and character roles.
One of the all time best character actors is SZ Sakall, or as I like to call him: “International Treasure SZ Sakall.” SZ was born Gründwald Jakob in Budapest, Austria-Hungary (now present day Budapest, Hungary) on February 2, 1883. As a young man, he wrote vaudeville sketches under the pen name Szőke Szakáll. In the 1910s and 1920s, SZ was working on the Hungarian stage and screen. In the 1920s, he moved to Vienna. By the 1930s, he was living in Berlin. He continued to appear in German cinema and plays. He also ran his own production company.
SZ returned to Hungary in 1933 after the Nazis gained power in Germany. He started appearing in Hungarian cinema and performed in over 40 films. In 1940, SZ and his wife Anne moved to Hollywood after Hungary joined the Axis powers. Many of SZ’s relatives, including three sisters, were killed in the Nazi concentration camps. SZ started appearing in films almost right away. He made his American film debut in It’s a Date (1940) with Deanna Durbin. He also shortened his name to the much easier to pronounce, SZ Sakall.
SZ or “Cuddles” as he was dubbed by Jack Warner, specialized in playing befuddled, but loveable European shopkeepers, uncles, restaurant owners, etc. He was usually in a small part, some more critical than others. SZ was popular with actors like Errol Flynn, who loved him. But he was unpopular with other actors, like Alan Hale Sr., who claimed that SZ was a scene stealer. Flynn tells a story in his memoir, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, about how he liked to invite Cuddles and Hale to the same get togethers over and over:
Over his Hollywood career, SZ appeared in over 40 films. He appeared in a variety of different roles and genres. His most famous role is arguably Carl, the waiter in Casablanca (1942). SZ appeared in dramatic films, comedies, musicals, westerns, he was everywhere. His last film was The Student Prince (1954). Sadly, SZ suffered a heart attack and passed away on February 12, 1955, 10 days after his 72nd birthday.
SZ will always be remembered for his colorful film appearances. His loveable, flustered persona is endearing as is the way he delivers his lines in mangled English. I absolutely love him and am always excited to see him when he pops up in a film.
My Top 5 SZ Sakall Appearances:
“Carl” Casablanca (1942). In the classic film to end all classic films, SZ plays “Carl,” the head waiter and maître d’ at Rick’s Cafe American. He is loyal to Rick and watches in admiration as Rick (Humphrey Bogart) lets the young Bulgarian couple win at Roulette. He also delivers a funny line when asked if the gambling is honest.
CUSTOMER: “Are you sure this place is honest?”
CARL: “Honest?! As honest as the day is long!”
2. “Luigi” Never Say Goodbye (1946). SZ appears with buddy Errol Flynn in one of my favorite Christmas films. In this film, Flynn and ex-wife Eleanor Parker are divorced. Their daughter, Flip, hates spending 6 months with one parent and then 6 months with the other. She desperately wants to get them back together, as does her father Errol, who it seems was blindsided by the divorce. SZ plays Luigi, the owner of the restaurant where Errol and Eleanor frequented while they were dating. Luigi is also a family friend. Errol pulls him into his schemes and Luigi does all he can to follow along, often to disastrous results. There is a funny scene where he and Errol wake up after having spent the entire night bar-hopping while dressed as Santa.
PHILLIP (Flynn): “I don’t care about Nancy. But I don’t want her to start making a scene. You know how she is.”
LUIGI: “Sure. You take a girl out to dinner two or three hundred times and right away she thinks you’re interested in her.”
3. “Felix Bassenak” Christmas in Connecticut (1945). SZ appears as Barbara Stanwyck’s uncle who is enlisted to help his niece cook a delicious Christmas dinner for a visiting soldier, Dennis Morgan. Stanwyck’s character, Elizabeth Lane, works as a magazine columnist. She’s concocted this entire persona as the perfect wife, cook, mother, everything. She describes her gorgeous Connecticut farmhouse to her readers. On paper, Elizabeth looks like she’s living the dream and everything’s perfect. In reality, Elizabeth is single, lives in New York, and has just purchased an absurdly expensive mink coat. Her publisher, Sydney Greenstreet, is unaware of her charade and insists that Elizabeth host Christmas at her farmhouse for visiting soldier Dennis Morgan, who is so fond of her articles, that he writes to Greenstreet expressing his wish to meet her. Aside from being the chef who cooks all the food, SZ gets involved in Stanwyck’s shenanigans–at one point, he insists that the baby swallowed his watch.
FELIX: “Watch now. I show you how to flip-flop the flop-flips.”
4. “George” The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) . In this film, SZ plays Charles Coburn’s butler. Coburn is Thomas Merrick, “the richest man in the world.” Merrick owns a department store whose employees want to unionize. Merrick goes undercover as “Thomas Higgins” to find the source of the union talks. As he spends more time with the employees, the more he sympathizes with their desire to form a labor union. SZ is so put upon as Coburn’s butler–he only serves Coburn graham crackers and milk due to Coburn’s constant stomach issues. SZ does almost everything for Coburn to the point where he’s so out of touch with reality, that he fails at even the easiest of tasks. At one point, in an attempt to show up his nemesis, Coburn asks SZ to bring in a small child and sell her 12 pairs of shoes. Coburn tries the ugliest shoes on the little girl and the whole scheme falls apart.
GEORGE: “Dr. Schindler made up your pepsin in to sticks of chewing gum sir. He thought that you would like the change. You are to have one every hour on the hour. You will find them in your lower left breast pocket.”
5. Otto Oberkugen “In the Good Old Summertime” (1948). This film is a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 film, “The Shop Around the Corner.” In ‘Summertime,’ Judy Garland plays Veronica who gets a job at Otto Oberkugen’s music shop. One of the other salesmen, Andrew (Van Johnson), is threatened by her potential competition for sales, but he also develops a crush on her. Both Veronica and Andrew begin corresponding and falling in love with their respective secret pen pals. Little do they know that they’re corresponding with each other.
OTTO: “Don’t call me Uncle Otto. In the store, I am Mr. Oberkugen.”
May 16th is National Classic Movie Day. And what would be better to watch during these trying times than a classic film? This year, the Classic Film & TV Cafe’s annual blogathon is devoted to the 1960s. All participants have been asked to list their favorite films of this decade.
The 1960s are an interesting time for classic film as the Production Code and Studio System were all but gone. Sandra Dee, 50s/60s teen queen, was Universal Studios’ last contract star. Most of the classic film stars of the studio system were either retired, and unfortunately, many were deceased. Some of the younger stars of that era, e.g. Doris Day and Lauren Bacall, to name a couple, were still active, but even then their stars were waning. The 1960s brought a new crop of stars: Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway, to name a few. Some child stars, like Natalie Wood, had successfully transitioned out of juvenile roles and into ones for adults.
This year, the Classic Film & TV Cafe has asked bloggers to name their six favorite films of the 1960s.
Without further ado:
I’m sure everyone is familiar with this film. The violent shower scene where Janet Leigh meets her demise is iconic. Norman Bates’ name is synonymous with “mommy issues.” The fictional Bates Motel is infamous. I love Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. This is probably my second favorite Hitchcock film after Rear Window. I am not a big horror movie fan, but this film is more psychological than slasher and in true Hitchcock fashion, there are even some funny, albeit, macabre parts as well.
Janet Leigh stars as Marion Crane, a secretary for a local real estate company in Phoenix. On a Friday afternoon, she meets with her boyfriend, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), for a quickie during lunch. Their rendezvous is complicated when Sam announces that he cannot marry Marion because of debts he incurred after divorcing his first wife. Marion, disappointed, returns to work. When she arrives, her employer is in the middle of settling a large real estate deal. The client ends up giving Marion’s boss $40,000 cash as a down payment. Marion, seeing an opportunity to solve Sam’s money woes, so that they can marry, feigns a headache. Her boss, not wanting such a large sum of cash in the office over the weekend, asks Marion to deposit the cash on her way home. Marion absconds with the money instead and drives to California where Sam lives.
While enroute, there’s a fantastic scene (with Bernard Hermann’s amazing score) where Marion is driving and she imagines her boss’ conversation after he discovers that she’s stolen the money. Marion trades in her vehicle after a weird encounter with a police officer who keeps questioning her when she acts odd and suspicious after he wakes her up from a roadside nap. During a heavy rainstorm, Marion comes across a motel off the beaten path– The Bates Motel. The proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is a little odd, but seems harmless.
Unfortunately, Marion is never seen again.
The remainder of the film deals with her sister, Lila (Vera Miles), Sam, and Detective Arbogast (Martin Balsam), trying to find out what happened to Marion. It becomes clear to all involved that Norman has a weird relationship with his mother. Lila and Arbogast decide that Mrs. Bates might hold the key to the whole mystery.
***SPOILER*** These are my favorite scenes:
Marion’s infamous shower scene
Lila tapping on the shoulder of “Mrs. Bates” and having the chair spin around only to see a skeleton wearing a wig.
“Mrs. Bates” stabbing Arbogast and him falling down the stairs.
Norman Bates’ reveal as “Mrs. Bates” That scene is funny, if anything.
The last scene featuring a close-up of Norman Bates’ face with “Mrs. Bates” providing the internal monologue. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Cape Fear (1962)
I saw this film for the first time a couple years ago. Prior to that, my only experience with Cape Fear was the Simpsons parody with Sideshow Bob assuming the Robert Mitchum role. I saw Scorsese’s 1991 remake last year and while it was okay, I preferred the original. Scorsese’s version was too graphic and gross. I liked the subtlety of the original. Cape Fear, in my opinion, is very progressive for 1962. It might be one of the first sexual thrillers. This film is terrifying and Robert Mitchum deserves all the credit for imbuing the film with the creepy and uncomfortable atmosphere present through the entire film. In Scorsese’s 1991 remake, Robert DeNiro assumes Mitchum’s role, and in my opinion, Mitchum was much more effective. DeNiro was just creepy, gross, and a complete psychopath. Mitchum, on the other hand, was creepy, but also possessed that dreamy quality (which also makes him excel in romantic roles). He was believable as a man who could charm a potential victim into spending time with him–only for her to realize his true character when it was too late. DeNiro is just a creep from the start.
The original Cape Fear takes place in contemporary 1962 Georgia. Max Cady (Robert Mitchum), has just been released from prison. He has just completed an 8-year stint after being convicted of rape. What’s interesting in this film is that Max’s crime is never explicitly stated, but is implied. After leaving prison, Max travels to the hometown of Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), a lawyer who assisted in delivering the eyewitness testimony that sealed Max’s case and got him convicted and incarcerated. Max is determined to get revenge on Sam. He promptly discovers where he lives. The remainder of the film deals with Max stalking both Sam and his family. It gets even worse when Max sets his sights on Sam’s 14-year old daughter, Nancy.
There is a terrifying scene between Max and a woman he picks up at a bar, Diane Taylor (Barrie Chase). This scene is made even more disturbing in the 1991 Scorsese version.
The highlight (and scariest part) of the film is the famous houseboat scene–parodied perfectly on The Simpsons. Sam’s family heads to their houseboat in Cape Fear, North Carolina, in an effort to lure Max. The scene between Max and Sam’s wife, Peggy (Polly Bergen) on the houseboat is so disturbing– it just gives me the willies thinking about it.
This film is fantastic and highly worth watching. I recommend watching it in the dark to get the full effect. In fact, I may watch this movie tonight in honor of National Classic Film Day.
Yours, Mine, and Ours (1968)
Full disclosure: I love The Brady Bunch. I can watch it all day long and I never tire of it. However, other family sitcoms, e.g. Full House, I can only take an episode or two at a time. Both sitcoms have overly sappy moments, both can be saccharine at times, there are lessons to be learned in each episode… so what’s the difference between the two shows? I have no idea, except the The Brady Bunch is superior.
In 1968, when Sherwood Schwartz was looking for a new project, he came across a newspaper column offering the statistic that 30% of marriages involve children from a previous marriage. He created a pilot for a series involving Mike Brady, a widower with three children, falling in love with and marrying Carol Martin, a divorcee with three children. Due to objections from the network, Carol’s marital status was made more ambiguous. Schwartz presented his pilot to all the major networks. Each network liked the project, but requested multiple changes. Then, two films about mixed families premiered– With Six You Get Eggroll (Doris Day & Brian Keith), and Yours, Mine and Ours (Lucille Ball & Henry Fonda), the latter film turning a major profit. The success of ‘Yours,’ served as the impetus for one network, ABC, to take a chance and greenlight The Brady Bunch.
Yours, Mine and Ours is based on the true story of Frank Beardsley and Helen North, two widowers who, between the two of them, have enough children to play an entire baseball game–defense and offense. They meet and marry and then try to unite their families and manage their massive household. Lucille Ball’s production company, Desilu, purchased the rights to Helen Beardsley’s (nee North) autobiography, Who Gets the Drumstick? Ball enlisted her I Love Lucy writing dream team, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh to write the screenplay. Ball, of course, would play the role of Helen North. She enlisted her friend (and former beau), Henry Fonda, to play her husband, Frank Beardsley.
Frank works in the Navy and has recently left his post on the USS Enterprise. He has taken on a new role (one that presumably keeps him at home) working as a project officer. One day, at the commissary, he meets Helen North, a nurse on the base. They have a friendly, cordial meeting. But nothing comes of it. Later, Frank and Helen reunite when Frank has to bring 12-year old daughter Louise in for an exam. Frank and Helen hit it off and decide to go out on a date. The trouble? Frank and Helen are both single parents to a large number of children. Frank has 10 children, Helen has 8.
While on the date (at a VERY crowded club), there’s a funny scene where Helen practices nonchalantly telling Frank about her 8 children. Since she’s practicing out-loud, the men around her think that she’s coming onto them. Later, there is another funny scene where her fake eyelashes (courtesy of her daughters) keep falling off and later her pinned up slip falls down (her girls also shortened her dress, making her slip too long).
Finally, the truth comes out when Frank and Helen make their respective broods known to one another. After some funny scenes with the children including a manic Lucille Ball crying/drunk scene, and a near break-up, Helen and Frank marry and then work on combining their respective households–but not without help from Frank’s buddy, Darrel (Van Johnson).
My favorite scene is when Frank is doling out bedroom and bathroom assignments. Each bedroom is assigned a letter. The bathrooms are assigned a color. The children are assigned a number, based on their position within the group of children. There’s a funny quote when one of the younger children (11/18) walks down the hallway, repeating the mantra over and over: “I’m 11, red, A.” For the record, in my house, I’m 1, red, A. My husband is 2, red, A. My sister/boarder, is 3, red, B.
I’m not usually a big fan of children-centric movies/shows or actors (which probably makes my love of The Brady Bunch and Yours, Mine and Ours, even more bewildering)–but both The Brady Bunch and Yours, Mine and Ours are free of the annoying, precocious child with a catch phrase–so that’s probably why I like them. For the record: My favorite Brady kid is Marcia (close second: Greg), and my favorite Yours, Mine and Ours child is Phillip (perhaps the Jan Brady of the Beardsley household), close second: Veronica)
For the record, these are the children in their order of rank:
Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961)
I know that this is not the best movie in the world. It’s not even the best of the Gidget franchise. However, I love this movie. It’s so ridiculous in the best possible way. First of all, we’re supposed to believe that this is a continuation of 1959’s Gidget–just look past the fact that Deborah Walley (Gidget in Gidget Goes Hawaiian) looks absolutely nothing like Sandra Dee (the original Gidget in Gidget). The sequel even went as far as to film “flashbacks” of scenes from the first film, with Walley wearing some of Dee’s costumes! Gidget’s parents in the second film–Carl Reiner as Russ and Jeff Donnell as Dorothy, are completely different. Arthur O’Connell and Mary LaRoche assumed the roles in the Dee film. In the first film, only the surfer boys refer to Gidget by her nickname. Gidget’s parents refer to her by another nickname, “Francie,” based on her real name: Frances. In the second film, everyone calls Gidget by her nickname. The one constant in both films? And really the only constant that even matters? James Darren’s Jeff “Moondoggie” Matthews.
In Gidget Goes Hawaiian, Gidget and Jeff are still together. At the end of the first film, Gidget turns 17 and is entering her senior year of high school. Jeff is a college student, who is on summer break and planning to return to school in the fall. We can assume that Jeff is either a year or two older than Gidget. In Gidget Goes Hawaiian, the timeline is a little fuzzy. Presumably, this is a year or so after Gidget, based on the fact that Jeff is on summer vacation, returning to college again in the fall. At this point, Gidget is presumably at least 18, and perhaps Jeff is 20-21 (He’s still in college in 1963’s Gidget Goes to Rome. Super senior? Pursuing a MA?) He gives Gidget his pin at the beginning of the film, something that he did at the end of the Dee film. Is this a continuity error? I’m not sure. I choose to believe that perhaps Jeff got another pin and is giving it to Gidget. I really don’t know. Regardless, in Gidget’s world, Jeff has just proposed marriage, and they’re basically engaged now.
After an idyllic summer of surfing, bonfires on the beach and romantic dates, Gidget and Jeff reach their last two weeks of vacation together, before Jeff has to leave for school. Then Gidget’s dad drops a bombshell–he’s booked a two-week trip to Hawaii for the family. Most people would be ecstatic at this news, but not Gidget. She’s devastated, as two weeks is all she and Jeff have left together until he leaves for school. Her father is understandably both upset and bewildered at Gidget’s unhappiness. Gidget tries to get sympathy from Jeff, and he tells her that this trip is an opportunity of a lifetime (because it is) and that she’d be nuts not to go. Gidget, because she’s bonkers, takes Jeff’s encouragement as a sign that he’s indifferent to her leaving or not, gets mad, and breaks up with him. Meanwhile, Gidget’s parents have decided to turn their family trip into a romantic trip and cancel Gidget’s adjoining room. Gidget then announces that she’s coming on the trip after all, and her parents scramble to re-book her room. Her adjoining room is gone, but they’re able to book her a single room down the hall. Gidget and her family are on their way to Hawaii.
While on the plane, Gidget and her parents become acquainted with another family on board–Monty (Eddie Foy, Jr.) and Mitzi (Peggy Cass) Stewart and their daughter Abby (Vicki Trickett). Abby and Gidget are the same age. While seated on the plane together, Gidget and Abby get to talking. Gidget bares her soul to Abby about Jeff and how lost she is without him. The whole group is staying at the same Hawaiian hotel together. While at the hotel, Gidget and Abby meet Eddie Horner (Michael Callan), a dancer who is appearing at the hotel. The girls, Eddie and his friends all spend time together during the trip.
Gidget is miserable during the beginning of the trip. She just sits and mopes in the hotel, refusing to take in the sights of Hawaii. Her parents are understandably concerned. Gidget’s dad arranges to have Jeff fly to Hawaii as a surprise for Gidget. Between Gidget’s moping and Jeff’s arrival in Hawaii, she comes out of her shell and quickly wins over Eddie and the guys. Abby is jealous of Gidget’s popularity and appeal to the boys and quickly resents her.
I really like this film because it’s fun and has amusing moments. I do feel bad for Deborah Walley–only because I feel the costume team did her a real disservice. Gidget is presumably at least 18, but is dressed like she’s 12. Walley is not chubby by any means, but her tight, short waisted, twee dresses greatly undermine her figure. She looks best in her swimwear and when Gidget imagines that she’s a streetwalker. I also don’t know what’s up with the half up, half down hairstyle she sports–it’s not appealing. But I’ve seen it on other women during the early 60s, so I’ll assume that it was the style.
Where the Boys Are (1960)
If there’s one thing I love, it’s teen beach movies. I love all of them: Gidget, Beach Party, everything. One of the best films of this genre is Where the Boys Are. This film has more in common with the coming of age story in Gidget (1959) and less with the wackniess of the Frankie and Annette Beach Party movies. Much like Gidget, this film is progressive in its discussion of not only teenage sexuality, but the sexuality of young, unmarried, women. Where the Boys Are tells the story of four young college women (Freshmen) who travel to Fort Lauderdale, FL for a two week spring vacation.
Merritt Andrews (Dolores Hart) is a young woman who talks a good game when it comes to young women being free to date, makeout and have sex (aka “backseat bingo”) with whomever she wants. This progressive attitude of course scandalizes the professor of the “Courtship and Marriage” class. It is obvious that the four main characters in the film attend an all-female university. Merritt’s outspoken views have her kept under close watch by the school’s dean. At the conclusion of the school day, Merritt and her friends Melanie Tolman (Yvette Mimimeux), Tuggle Carpenter (Paula Prentiss), and Angie NoLastName (Connie Francis) set off for Fort Lauderdale.
While on the road, the girls come across TV Thompson (Jim Hutton) who is looking to hitch a ride to Florida. After being impressed by his height and shoe size, Tuggle (who stands 5’10.5 and desperately seeks a taller man) invites him into the car. They arrive in Florida and check into their apartment. As the events of the film unfold, it becomes apparent that each girl has a different viewpoint when it comes to sex.
MERRITT: Outspoken advocate of pre-marital sex. Talks a good game, but might not be as experienced and confident as she lets on. She meets Ryder Smith (George Hamilton), a senior at Brown University. He’s wealthy and his intelligence is on-par with Merritt’s. It becomes clear that he probably actually has the experience that Merritt talks about and it seems that he may have been led on by her at first.
TUGGLE: Strives to become a wife and mother “the chaste way,” she says. Tuggle believes that her height and build has her destined to become the mother to multiple children. She is more traditional and doesn’t particularly share Merritt’s opinion about sex. She wants to meet a man, marry and then have sex after marriage. TV ends up becoming her beau throughout the film and at first seems to be upset about her wanting to be a “good girl.” However, TV seems like a good guy.
MELANIE: She’s insecure about her lack of experience and takes Merritt’s outspoken views to heart. Her main goal while in Florida is to meet a “Yale-ie” and lose her virginity. Unfortunately for Melanie, she might be dealt the worst hand in this film. She meets a couple Yale-ies in the film.
ANGIE: Angie is your classic tomboy. She’s a pretty girl, but isn’t tall like Tuggle, or blonde like Melanie and Merritt. She’s short and brunette and a little curvier than the other girls. Angie is the captain of her school’s field hockey team. Nobody worries what Angie is doing on vacation or while at school. It is implied that everyone just assumes that Angie won’t have to worry about pressure to have premarital sex. The one asset Angie does have is that she has a killer voice. Her voice attracts the attention of Basil (Frank Gorshin) a didactic jazz musician.
This film has some very funny scenes such as at the club when the gang watches Lola Fandango (Barbara Nichols) perform an Esther Williams-esque underwater number; and when Angie and Merritt attempt to save money by ordering hot water (and dipping in their own contraband tea bag) at a restaurant. I also love the scenes showing the mob at the beach and in their hotel room (the girls end up sharing their 2-bed room with 7 other girls). There are also some very serious scenes as well as some sweet ones.
This is an excellent film for anyone who loves coming of age stories, teen beach movies, or movies with killer title theme songs.
Valley of the Dolls (1967)
Last but not least, one of my other favorite films of the 1960s is the cult classic, Valley of the Dolls. This film is so ridiculous in all the best ways possible. Prior to watching this film, I was unaware that “dolls” was a term for pills. I always thought that the “dolls” in the title referred to the women in the film. Oh how I was wrong.
This movie is amazing. Everyone in this film has a million problems. The most sane person is probably Susan Hayward’s Helen Lawson, and even she’s a piece of work. Based on Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel of the same name, this film tells the story of Anne Welles (Barbara Parkins) a recent college graduate who takes a job as a secretary at a theatrical agency. Their number one client is Helen Lawson–an aging, and cutthroat Broadway star. Helen is appearing in a new show, which is featuring a young ingenue, Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke). Neely is very talented and Helen fears that Neely will overshadow her performance. In an effort to get Neely to quit the show, Helen orders for all of Neely’s best scenes, including her big musical number, cut. The ruse works and Neely is out. Anne is immediately disheartened with show-biz after witnessing Helen’s cruel behavior toward Neely, but is convinced by her employer to not quit and stay with the company.
Anne and Neely befriend another young woman, Jennifer North (Sharon Tate). Jennifer is gorgeous, but her talent is limited. Neely’s agent at the theatrical agency (which employs Anne) lands her an appearance on a telethon, which leads to a nightclub gig, and so-on. The audience is treated to an amazing 1960s montage of Neely’s rise to success. Neely is offered a Hollywood contract and off she goes. Unfortunately, the pressure of the business and instant success gets the best of Neely and soon she’s a glorious, alcoholic, doll-addicted disaster. In all honesty, Neely’s complete collapse and self-destruction is the highlight of the film. I know it’s campy, over-the-top, and absolutely absurd, but I love it. Neely O’Hara was my hero in this film. One particular highlight is when a drunk, drugged out of her gourd Neely goes to a bar. She plays her own song on the jukebox and plays the “don’t you know who I am?” card. Nobody knows who she is because she’s a shell of her former self.
Unfortunately, the other two ladies, Anne and Jennifer, don’t fare much better, though Anne’s plight lasts all of 5 minutes. I wish she’d self-destructed a little bit more.
The absolute best part of the entire film is the showdown between Neely and Helen. It is amazing and one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. I absolutely love this movie from start to finish. It is worthy of its status as one of the all-time best campy, cult films. Lee Grant has an appearance as the sister to Jennifer’s beau. Dionne Warwick sings the very melancholy theme song.
Now I want to watch this movie. Valley of the Dolls / Cape Fear double feature? Is that weird?