Happy Birthday, Michael Callan!

Michael Callan in Cat BallouToday, November 22nd, is the 72nd birthday of versatile stage, screen and TV star Michael Callan.  He’s done it all, including a stint during the early 1960s as a genuine teen idol, and it doesn’t get much better than that.  It’s almost hard to say what he’s best known for, since he’s such a versatile actor and has done everything from musicals, to westerns, to comedies, to science fiction, to gangsters and good guys.  I would wager that he’s appeared in many of your favorites over the years, as he has mine.

Pennsylvania-born (birth name Martin Calinieff) Michael’s natural singing abilities led to a childhood vocal lessons which eventually extended into dancing instruction, too.  It wasn’t long before Mickey (as he was known then) began to work professionally in nightclubs and soon in New York on Broadway primarily as a dancer, which he parlayed into the opportunity to play “Riff” in Michael Callan in The Flying Fontainesthe first production of West Side Story.  (You can hear him on the original Broadway cast album, particularly on the tracks for “The Jet Song,” “Cool” and “Tonight.”).  The groundbreaking musical debuted on Sept. 27, 1959, and it wasn’t long before Hollywood–in the form of Columbia Pictures–came knocking on Mickey’s dressing room door.

The first thing they cast this talented singer and dancer in was a Gary Cooper western They Came to Cordura, and then they dressed him in spangled tights and put him on a trapeze in The Flying Fontaines, both from 1959.  Harkening at least a little to his stint in West Side Story, the now-named Michael Callan co-starred as a juvenile delinquent in Because They’re Young, with Dick Clark as a sympathetic teacher and Warren Callan and Deborah Walley in Gidget Goes HawaiianBerlinger and Roberta Shore (sort of reprising their roles as teenagers like they had both played in Blue Denim the year before.)  A small dancing role in Pepe, Columbia’s all-star showcase for the talented Mexican star Cantinflas (some four years after he had co-starred as Passepartout opposite David Niven in Around the World in EightyCallan is a Beach Boy Days) was next. 

Callan donned swim trunks and flip-flops for his co-starring role in Columbia’s 2nd Gidget movie called Gidget Goes Hawaiian, starring the pert Deborah Walley as Gidget (taking over from Sandra Dee) and James Darren as Moondoggie.  Probably my favorite Callan movie is the legendary fantasy classic Mysterious Island, where famously he and Beth Rogan and Callan in Mysterious Islandthe lovely Beth Rogan find themselves walled up alive in a giant bee’s humungous honeycomb.  (He also is the one who jumps on the giant chicken, so he gets to do all sorts of fun stuff!)  As a matter of fact, it’s Mysterious Island DVD Cover ArtMichael Callan’s excited face which adorns the cover of the DVD release of this amazing film

Callan gave a great and likeable performance in the 1962 ensemble drama The Interns, and also Poster for The New Intermsstarred in its sequel The New Interns a couple of years later.  He also appeared in several TV series episodes and more movies around this time, then in 1965 he landed the co-starring role of Clay Boone, title heroine Jane Fonda’s boyfriend, in the raucous Cat Ballou.  Co-starring Lee Marvin, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his dual role, Cat Ballou was one of the first spoof westerns and continues to amuse Callan with Jane Fonda in Cat Ballouafter repeated viewings and more than forty years later.

Michael Callan settled into a constantly busy career, including a stab at his own sitcom in Occasional Wife in 1966, starring Patricia Harty, who would become his 2nd wife.  (Check out the snazzy Callan and Harty in Occasional Wifetheme song with great bongos here–scroll down to the show’s listing.  Sidenote:  For some crazy reason I seem to be able to remember every theme song from approx. 1963 to about 1967; obviously those were my formative years!).  More movies, including the ripped-Callan and the Sensuous Lion Frasierfrom-the-headlines Frasier, the Sensuous Lion, based on the real-life exploits of Lion Country Safari’s horniest big cat, and lots and lots of TV kept Callan top-of-mind and well-regarded in all entertainment circles. 

In addition to his performing prowess, Michael Callan has done behind-the-scenes producing duties and kept his hand in all aspects of Hollywood.  (There’s also an interesting and weird story about his involvement with alleged-crackpot A Mature and Handsome Michael CallanUFO informant William Cooper in the late 1980s!). 

Never typecast and always a pro, let’s hope forA Serious Michael Callan many more appearances by Michael Callan in the future!  Be sure to visit his official website where you can purchase autographed photos and learn more about him!

Best Wishes and Happy Birthday, Michael Callan!

Wanted for Grand Theft: Ruth Donnelly

WANTED
For Grand Theft
-Ruth Donnelly-
(1896-1982)

Modus Operandi:
A Foil, Serio-Comic, Always pragmatic, Amusingly Insolent, Occasionally Wistful—and, oh, yeah, naturally a bit “Ruthful.”

Criminal Activity:
Scene-Stealing in the First Degree from the 1930s to the 1950s (with a few drive by appearances on tv in the ’60s). Most recently spotted in the vicinity of Moira Finnie’s dvd player in Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), Private Detective 62 (1933) and Autumn Leaves (1956).

Known Associates:
Some of the justly celebrated members of this “gang” are Eve Arden and Thelma Ritter, though Connie Gilchrist, Mary Wickes, Lee Patrick, and Hattie McDaniel also performed “yeo-woman” duty as well when filling the niche occupied by Donnelly and her criminally talented companions. [...MORE]

Logorrhea

There are some movie logos—all old, none in use anymore except for nostalgic reasons—that I love so much I never want the movie to begin. While not literally true, this lie does speak an emotional truth. Movies give us more than entertainment. For movie lovers, the whole process is charged with romanticism in the same way that we take delight from the littlest things our loved ones do… the way they wear their hat, the way they sip their tea. These incidentals are the first things we love about someone and what continues to haunt us long after the party's over.

Fox Fanfare!

I think my first logo, the spark that started my flame, was Fox’s. That big 20th Century Fox carving, with those search lights shooting up into space, looked like the top of the Empire State Building. Maybe I thought it was the building those movies came from, I can’t even remember. All I know is, I desperately wanted to climb up and lose myself between those numerals and letters, an ant among giants. The logo has aged well over the years and filmmakers have incorporated it into the features. Hal Needham raced a couple of cars around it in The Cannonball Run (1981) and Tim Burton laid a lovely snowfall over it in Edward Scissorhands (1990).

Universal logo circa 1931

When I began to watch the old Universal classic monster movies, I became an aficionado of the studio logo as it changed over the decades. I have a soft spot for the old airplane-circling-the-globe version that prefaced Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931) and The Mummy (1932), to name but a few; it’s simple yet elegiac and brokers in the very wanderlust that draws us again and again to the movies.

Universal logo 1936

Yet as fond as I was of that original design, I liked the replacement, too… Alexander Golitzen's revolving Art Deco globe (photographed by John Fulton), which was put to use after Universal was passed to new owners in 1936. Over the decades, this logo would be trucked out for modern movies set in that era, such as The Sting (1974).

Universal logo 1960s

I even liked the later, color Universal logo put into use after the merger of the studio with International Pictures Company, which graced films from 1964 on. There was something awesome about the look of the Earth, something kind of gritty, even dirty… you had the sense of space chunks revolving around the planet as if the world we were seeing had just been belched out of The Big Bang and was spinning in the vacuum of space, ripe with possibilities. My sense memory of seeing this version of the logo is hardwired to crime thrillers and adventure tales, although the same logo prefaced love stories and comedies, too. It's literally awesome. I can't work up much enthusiasm for the new Universal logo, which is so full of itself with its thousand-points-of-light effect. It's cold and corporate and probably wowed the PowerPoint audience who thumbed it up. Feh.

RKO Radio Pictures logo

Coming in a strong third, after 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios, was flinty little RKO Radio Studios, which I learned about from King Kong (1933). I just loved the look of those sound waves radiating off the tower. I had the logo on a navy blue tee shirt when I was in college, one I’d special-ordered from the back pages of American Film magazine. It was my signature shirt and I wore it proudly until I made the romantic choice to give it to a girl who was leaving school to move to Florida. She kept it as best she could but the Tampa humidity took its toll and the shirt began to deteriorate. There was talk of preserving it in an air-tight memory box but like the independent studio itself my RKO tee couldn’t last and now exists, like all good things, only as a memory.

To be continued…

PS: While this post was percolating in my brainpan over the last month or so, a like-minded thread sprouted up at the Mobius Home Video Forum.

Imogene’s Image

Miss Imogene CocaNovember 18th would have been the 99th birthday of legendary actress/comedienne Imogene Coca.  Probably best known to younger audiences as the crabby Aunt Edna in 1983’s National Lampoon’s Vacation, Coca achieved her greatest fame in the early days of live television with her spectacularly successful teaming with comedian Sid Caesar.  A multi-talented show business veteran from childhood, Coca was a classic clown, a delicate and attractive woman who would–and could–do anything for a laugh.

Imogene was born into showbiz; her mother was a dancer and magician’s assistant and her father was an orchestra conductor.  Born and raised in Imogene on TopPhiladelphia, Coca’s natural performing talents were honed through dance, piano and voice lessons, and she got her first paying singer job when she was just thirteen.  At fifteen she moved to New York to pursue her career, and soon got a job dancing at the Silver Slipper night club owned by Jimmy Durante.  At seventeen she made her Broadway musical debut in the chorus of a Jeanette MacDonald show, but up until this time Coca was a singer and dancer, and not yet known for her comedic skills. 

Her comedy chops came to light a few years later while co-starring in the "New Faces of 1934"–a too-chilly theater prompted Coca to don an oversized Imogene Onstage with Danny Kaye at Tamimentovercoat during rehearsals, and her subsequent antics and natural clowning abilities bubbled to the surface, and a comedienne was born.  She honed her musical comedy skills during many seasons at theatrical producer Max Liebman’s Catskills resort Tamiment,Imogene in Bashful Ballerina where she worked alongside a young Danny Kaye and his composer wife Sylvia Fine.  Imogene and Danny made it to Broadway together in Liebman’s “Straw Hat Revue” as well as co-starring in a comedy two-reeler, and she also starred in her own short titled Imogene as the Bashful BallerinaBashful Ballerina

Her association with Liebman also led to her biggest triumph, her job as Sid Caesar’s co-star on TV’s Your Show of Shows in the early 1950s.  Sid and Imogene were the toast of the new medium.  The petite and attractive Coca knew that she could get more laughs by downplaying her good looks, and so sheSid Caesar and Imogene Coca became a master at a kind of knockabout comedy that had audiences and critics equally charmed.  She and Caesar were especially hilarious (and poignant, too) as the battling married couple the Hickenloopers, as well as many other characters they would create together.  After the four year run of Your Show of A Pert Imogene CocaShows ended in 1954, Imogene went on to guest star on musical, comedy and dramatic TV programs, as well as having her own eponymous show soon after YSoS left the air.  She was a frequent name on stage as well, often co-starring with her second husband King Donovan, whom she met while touring.  (Donovan was a show biz vet, forever beloved by science fiction King Donovan, Imogene Coca's Husbandaficionados for his role as the friend of Kevin McCarthy in the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) 

Aging baby-boomers might recall her short but memorable run–probably mostly due to an inordinately catchy theme Imogene Coca stars as Grindlsong–in the CBS sitcom It’s About Time, as well as her own short-lived series Grindl.  While movies weren’t her primary focus, Imogene Coca appeared in many throughout the years, including Under the Yum Yum Tree, Rabbit Test, Nothing Lasts Forever, and of course National Lampoon’s Vacation.  She also had a tremendous triumph with her Tony-nominated role in 1978’s smash Broadway musical comedy "On The Twentieth Century," based on the 1934 screwball comedy film Twentieth Century starring John Barrymore and Imogene in Under the Yum Yum TreeCarole Lombard. 

Imogene Coca 1908 - 2001Often cited by contemporary female comedians as a role model and inspiration, Imogene Coca’s varied career spanned the decades and she was deeply mourned when she died on June 2, 2001.  There are some compilations of her work with Sid Caesar out on DVD, and students of comedy would be well served to revisit them.  Certainly styles and tastes in comedy change, but artistry is forever, and Imogene Coca is, too. 

Cameo Extravaganzas – Part 1 of 2

Now that TCM is more than halfway through its celebrity strewn Guest Programmer Month, it seems apropos to remember that long ago Hollywood era when movies stuffed with countless performances – or frequently just appearances – by film and/or stage actors, comedians, singers, and other personalities could be found in theaters. While the formula was used to sell tickets (and sometimes war bonds), the resulting movies are largely curios that captured the spirit of their times which serve to introduce or remind us of some lost or forgotten talents and stars.

Not to be confused with dramas (etc.) that include more than a handful of recognizable actors like Twelve Angry Men (1957), Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Longest Day (1962), Ship of Fools (1965), Airport (1970) - and all the other (special effects laden) disaster movies that followed it, Murder on the Orient Express (1974) or even That’s Entertainment! (1974) - and its sequels, these star-studded musicals, comedies, and revues are held together with paper thin, nonsensical or just passable plots that serve to connect their different acts:

The Goldwyn Follies (1938) – at 2 hours, it’s one of the shortest movies in the bunch; a Musical that has the fewest credited and least recognizable performers in its cast. It was producer Sam Goldywn’s attempt to recreate the kind of revue that made showman Florenz Ziegfeld famous, but it failed to attract an audience and lost money. It features a Ben Hecht script that actually pokes fun at the legendary producer: the story involves a film producer (Adolphe Menjou) that falls in love with someone who’s unaware of his affections. Goldwyn himself was infatuated to the point of obsession with one of the film’s leading performers – Vera Zorina, unbeknownst (only) to the ballerina, according to A. Scott Berg’s excellent biography about the producer. As for the rest of the film, unless you love ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummy Charlie McCarthy, or even more improbably the Ritz Brothers (Al, Harry, Jimmy) and their antics, you’re unlikely to enjoy much of this movie; both acts are used as filler between the main plot and its musical performances which include Zorina’s stunning Water-nymph ballet (it begins with her rising out of a pool of water and ends with her disappearing down into it). Kenny Baker’s radio performance of the Academy Award nominated Gershwin brothers song (“It’s very clear, our love is here to stay”) is also memorable, as is its (early) Technicolor presentation, Richard Day’s Art Direction and Alfred Newman’s Score (both of whom received Oscar nominations).

Stage Door Canteen (1943) – 2h, 12m – this World War II era musical features a fictional lightweight romantic story about a soldier who visits one of the real USO-like dance halls (labeled canteens) that were staffed by stars from Broadway and/or Hollywood to make our servicemen and women feel special during their leaves. Written by Delmer Daves and directed by Frank Borzage, it received Oscar nominations for its Score and one of its songs, “We Mustn’t Say Goodbye” (though “Good Night Sweetheart”, which plays at the end of every night, is much more memorable!). The story involves several soldiers from the same company, who’ve yet to see action, that stop in New York on their way overseas. They are fortunate to receive three consecutive 24 hour leaves during which several interweaving stories play out against a backdrop of performances and appearances by stage and film actors. What makes this one unique are the Broadway stars that appear, some in their first and only movies. Among the most memorable are Ray Bolger’s song & dance, Gypsy Rose Lee performing a striptease, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne doing dishes and serving sandwiches, and Katharine Hepburn’s “keep your chin up” and “do your job” bit at the end.

Bogie and CuddlesThank Your Lucky Stars (1943) – 2h, 7m – this Warner Bros. product is another example of the wartime movies produced that allowed soldiers overseas to see their favorite stars in locations where a movie projector could be set-up but a (e.g. Bob Hope) USO-tour could not. Entertaining fluff for the home-front as well, directed by David Butler and featuring a full slate of the studio’s stars and more. The razor thin story – scripted by Melvin Frank, James Kern, & Norman Panama – is about an undiscovered singing talent (played by Dennis Morgan) who’s hoping for a chance to sing at a “Cavalcade of Stars” charity event produced by Edward Everett Horton’s and S.Z. Sakall’s characters. The producers are “trapped” into letting ham Eddie Cantor (as himself) be their show’s chairman because they want Dinah Shore to sing in the show; Cantor also plays Joe Simpson, a bespeckled dramatic actor whose career is cursed because he looks so much like the highly recognizable comedian. As a friend of Morgan’s, Simpson and a wannabe (but awful) songwriter, played by Joan Leslie, try to help the singer get discovered. The film’s Oscar nominated song – “They’re Either Too Young or Old” – is performed by Bette Davis. Besides songs sung by Shore, some other highlights include a song & dance routine by Jack Carson and Alan Hale and a comedy gig performed by Ida Lupino, Olivia de Havilland and George Tobias.

Bette Davis serves her countryHollywood Canteen (1944) – 2h, 4m – this one was not only written by Daves, but directed by him as well; it received Oscar nominations for the original song “Sweet Dreams Sweetheart”, its Score and Sound. The story, which revolves around the real titled nightclub that was a refuge for soldiers on leave during World War II, is about a soldier (played by Robert Hutton) who gets to meet and be kissed by his favorite starlit (Leslie again) at the establishment. Because he’s also the one millionth soldier to walk through its doors, he gets a dream date with the starlit of his choosing (guess who?). John Garfield and Bette Davis, who opened the actual canteen, are the host and hostess among the many other stars included, from Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, the Andrews Sisters and Roy Rogers with Trigger, to a Jack Benny-Joseph Szigeti violin duel.

For more about the real canteens and their stars, read this series of articles written on the subject.

Ziegfeld Follies (1946) – 1h, 50m – released after World War II (an appropriate bookend to the Goldwyn musical that began this article), this MGM production featured a plethora of its stars putting on a revue similar to those that the legendary showman (Flo Ziegfeld) used to do; it won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Musical Comedy award for that year. The most memorable bits involve the pairing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, pool bound Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, and pink clad Lucille Ball on a white horse.

Part 2 begins with the movie that was produced by the man who’s been credited with inventing the cameo performance, and the focus of the article will be the handful of comedy dramas that were released within a ten year period beginning a decade after World War II had ended.

EL ORFANATO – In the Tradition of “The Innocents” and “The Haunting”

The OrphanageScheduled for a U.S. opening in December, Juan Antonio Bayona’s elegant ghost story EL ORFANATO has already been generating a great deal of positive – and some negative -  word of mouth responses from its many festival showings at Cannes, Toronto, Sitges, Austin and New York. I had the opportunity to see the film recently during a visit to Girona, Spain where it was playing at a multiplex just a few blocks away from the wonderful Museu del Cinema which houses the Tomas Mallol collection (visit the web site for more information about this amazing repository devoted to the beginnings and earlier origins of the medium known as the cinema – http://www.museudelcinema.org/).

Produced by Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), EL ORFANATO definitely shares similarities with some of Del Toro’s work, especially “The Devil’s Backbone”, in its depiction of children robbed of their innocence and subjected to soul crushing inhumanities. There are also homages and references to other great supernatural thrillers from the films of Val Lewton to “The Innocents” to the more recent “The Others” and even the short stories of M.R. James (“Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” “Casting the Runes”).

The film, however, has a distinct personality of its own, despite some criticisms of it being too derivative and sedate to work as an effective chiller. I see the film more as a tragedy with elements of the supernatural but there are still some spine-tingling moments amid the immense sadness of the story. It all takes place in a beautiful old mansion on a sprawling estate near the ocean which has just been purchased by a couple, Laura (Belen Rueda) and Carlos (Fernando Cavo) with an adopted child Simon (Roger Princep). Their plan is to turn it into a home for handicapped children and for Laura, who was also adopted, the place has a sentimental attachment – it was the orphanage where she spent some of the happiest days of her childhood.

Belen Rueda & Fernando Cavo

The story takes a dark turn almost as soon as Laura and her family move in starting with the unexpected arrival of Benigna (Montserrat Carulla), a suspicious-looking character with coke-bottle glasses who delivers a dossier with some disturbing information on their son. Meanwhile, Simon retreats into a fantasy life with his imaginary playmates Watson and Pepe which causes some concern for Laura. Her anxiety increases when he meets a new “playmate” named Tomas in a cave on the beach and leaves a trail of seashells so Tomas can follow him home. It gets creepier from here on and I won’t reveal any more except to say that the chain of events which occur compell Laura to uncover the terrible secret of the house and to try to exorcise the evil that has taken hold of the place. The film ends on a note of redemption and salvation but is far from a happy one and in its own way is just as dark and despairing as that of “The Descent.”

On a visual level, EL ORFANATO is stunning and much of the film’s mood and atmosphere is due to Oscar Faura’s cinematography which was also the highlight of several similar genre exercises: “Los Sin Nombre,” (1999) aka The Nameless, “Intacto” (2001), “The Abandoned” (2006). But the burden of the film falls on Belen Rueda (“The Sea Inside”) who is really the central focus and not Simon. Her gradual transition from apprehension to terror to a final death-defying course of action is beautifully sustained and absorbing.

As a director,  Juan Antonio Bayona has only made one previous theatrical feature (“El Hombre Esponja”) and dabbled in music videos but EL ORFANATO bodes well for a promising future. It’s refreshing to see restraint and subtlety in a contemporary ghost story when CGI overkill, excessive gore, and MTV-style editing seems the norm. Some of the most chilling moments in EL ORFANATO employ no special effects at all. There’s a sequence with a medium (Geraldine Chaplin in a cameo appearance) and a team of poltergeist experts that is truly unsettling but we never really “see” anything. Even a kids’ game of “knock on wood” takes on a more ominious tone here. And there is a children’s party sequence that seems inspired by Diane Arbus’s final photographs of Down Syndrome children in Halloween masks. The scene that raised the hair on my neck though was the scene where Laura is in bed and is awakened by her husband getting under the covers with her and snuggling….except that it isn’t her husband.

Look for EL ORFANATO to open in most major cities on December 28th from Picturehouse Entertainment. Here is the official web site – http://www.theorphanagemovie.com/

The Orphanage poster

 

Dummy up!

10 Little Indians

I don't know, maybe there's something wrong with my head, but I get a special thrill from a dummy death in a movie. No, I'm not speaking of the death of a stupid person but rather the use of an articulated dummy to perform a stunt that no sane stuntman would agree to… falling off a glacier, being blown up by a bazooka, having one's head removed by dint of shotgun blast, being run over by a train, etc. I'm sure this is something only 1% of the movie-going demographic actively thinks about… but once the topic is broached I'll bet people will flash, with the clarity of a repressed memory of Satanic abuse, to their favorite dummy death.

The New Barbarians

There's a new blog in town… Destructible Man . A corruption of the title of a homely, cut-price sci-fi crime thriller that Lon Chaney, Jr. stumbled through late in life (as the sublimely named "Butcher Benton"), this blog celebrates the use of dummies in all manner of movies, from the silent era straight through Hollywood's Golden Age and beyond… in exploitation fare, in Euro-Cult product, and presumably to the present day… although the employment of CGI has greatly diminished the number of available gigs for articulated dummies these days… and that's a pity.

The Crackdown

A few months back I rhapsodized about The Zen of Fakery and of how patently artificial elements in movie storytelling once drew the viewer into the process. The unreality of the staging assumed a tacit agreement between the filmmakers and the audience, as if to say "we all know this isn't real but…" and made the experience a shared one, as ritualistic as a village fertility rite or a demon-cleansing. These days, great pains (and millions of dollars) are spent to make special effects look as though they are really happening. On one hand, I applaud the technical advancements and the intelligent design (cough) behind these advancements. On the other hand, the fake one that's sculpted in the act of clutching, I miss the dummies. There was always something special about the way a falling dummy's legs bent upward as it drifted downwards that telegraphed, like a flash-forward, the full body bone shattering to come.

Hangover Square

Destructible Man is the brainchild of "The Maciste Brothers." Named for the hard-bodied hero of Italian mythology, the Macistes are in reality award-winning documentary filmmaker Howard S. Berger and special effects man (and occasional actor) Kevin Marr. In their hands, what could have been a one-note joke has been transformed into a thoughtful and amusing concordance of essays on the use of dummies in cinema. They've just gotten started but have already waxed insightful on the use of destructible men in John Brahm's Hangover Square (pictured above), George Pollock's 10 Little Indians (top), Enzo G. Castellari's The New Barbarians (second from top), the Charles Bronson vehicle Death Wish IV: The Crackdown (third from top), to name just a few.

Dawn of the Dead

I'm hoping the Macistes get to some of my favorite dummy deaths: the apartment dweller who loses his head in Dawn of the Dead (above – I always got a kick out of the fact that he had his hands in his pockets), the mannequin who stands in for Susan OFlannery's window dive in The Towering Inferno, the rapidly descending plastic surrogate of the killer in Lucio Fulci's Don't Torture the Duckling and the patently fake Mummy head (standing in for the Indestructible Man himself, Lon Chaney, Jr.) that takes a flaming torch to the kisser in The Mummy's Tomb.

Drop in on Destructible Man today!

The Sad End of Irene

Costume Designer Irene, 1900 - 1962Yes, once again I go into the darkness, this time to commemorate the life of renowned Hollywood costume designer Irene.  The date of November 15th has significance here, because it was the day that in 1962 Irene jumped out of a window at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles and fell to her death, a suicide victim at the age of 61.  An immense talent, and both a creative genius and a shrewd businesswoman, Irene had an incredibly fruitful career both in and out of the Hollywood spotlight, and her list of credits is astounding.

Born in Montana on December 8, 1900, Irene Lentz made her way to Los Angeles with aspirations of becoming an actress, and did manage to land a handful of minor roles in silent films beginning in 1921.  She married the director of her first movie role, but after his untimely death in 1930, Irene turned away from acting and fell back on one of her other well-developed skills.  An accomplished seamstress all her life with the added taste and panache necessary to move into dress designing, Irene opened a small dress shop in Los Angeles.  The success of her business brought an offer from the Irene's Designs for Dietrich & Colman in 1944's Kismetultra-swank Wilshire Blvd. Department store, recently moved into luxury Art Deco digs, to join them on staff as designer in their high-class, high price tag Ladies Custom Salon.  Movie stars and the wives of movie stars were her frequent customers, as well as well-heeled society ladies, all of whom fell in love with the classy gowns that were Irene’s specialty.

Putting clothes on the backs of movie people brought her to the attention of studio brass, leading to her first movie costume design job in 1933.  At this point Irene, as she billed herself, was freelancing for both independent producers and working at various studios, often working under other costume supervisors but brought specially in to design the gowns for the female stars such as Hedy Lamarr, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard and many more.  For ten years she worked all over Hollywood, amassing over forty major design credits, but after meeting and marrying writer Eliot Gibbons, brother of MGM art and production direction head Cedric Irene Put Lucy in Pink for Ziegfeld FolliesGibbons, she soon found herself at that studio, taking the place of the designer Adrian who left MGM to work for Universal.

The next ten years at MGM were busy andIrene's Women's Costumes for Meet Me in St. Louis prestigious for Irene, who worked as costume designer and costume supervisor on over one hundred and fifty films.  Her glamorous fashion imprint was found on prestigious dramas, Judy Garland musicals, raucous comedies, Esther Williams swim and song fests, and nearly every other movie that MGM released until the end of the 1940s.  She received an Academy Award nomination for her costumes for the 1948 Barbara Stanwyck drama B.F.’s Daughter.  It was the first year that Oscars were given in that category; actually two awards were given, for black and white and also for color movies, until 1957.  Undoubtedly Irene would have been honored many more times had the category existed earlier. 

Though she had incredible respect at MGM, she found the strain of working for Irene Dressed Ginger Rogers for Barkleys of Broadwayher somewhat autocratic and old-fashioned (though incredibly talented) brother-in-law Cedric Gibbons was wearing on her, and in 1950 she decided to leave MGM and dedicate herself to her own fashion studio which she had founded some years earlier.  She didn’t return to films until Irene Dressed Judy Garland for The Pirateshe responded to a plea from her old friend Doris Day to design her wardrobe for some movies she would be doing at Universal.  Irene acquiesced to her friend’s request and returned to Hollywood to create Day’s stylish ensembles for the thriller Midnight Lace (her second Oscar nomination) and the NY advertising world comedy Lover Come Back, the second of three Day made with Rock Hudson.  During 1962 she worked on the Rock Hudson aviation adventure A Gathering of Eagles.

At this time things began to turn sad in Irene’s life.  Doris Day noticed that her friend was unhappy and preoccupied, and she learned that Irene had been Irene Did Friend Doris Day's Lover Come Back despondent since the 1961 death of actor Gary Cooper.  Irene confessed to having been madly in love with Cooper and when he died she fell into a deep depression.  Come November 15, 1962, Irene checked into the Knickerbocker Hotel under an assumed name and began drinking heavily.  After writing several notes to friends, including caring references to her husband Eliot who recently had a stroke and apologies for what she was about to do, Irene (according to some accounts) tried to slit her wrists, unsuccessfully.  Failing that, at shortly after three in the afternoon, Irene opened her hotel room window on one of the highest floors and jumped out, landing on the lobby roof that jutted out from the hotel’s entrance. Irene's Look for Lana Turner in Postman...(Contrary to some reports, her body was discovered quickly and not days later.)

Irene left a legacy of imaginative costume design, creating looks that ranged from Lana Turner’s now-iconic white shorts set from The Postman Always Rings Twice, to opulent over-the-top creations for lavish MGM musical extravaganzas.  You will be astounded when you read over her list of credits, and we will always remember all the beauty and wonder that she helped bring to the movies.

Revisiting a classic conspiracy thriller.

Last Saturday night the film series I program screened an archive 35mm print of The Parallax View (1974). It was an original Panavision print that was in perfect condition. As the film makes inspired use of space it was truly a joy to behold on the big screen. I’d only seen it before on dirty and battered 16mm prints in smaller venues and on laser-disc via a home unit. The last time I saw it was over 15 years ago as part of Jim Palmer’s class, here at the C.U. Boulder campus, in a course that was titled “Film and the Quest for Truth.” Other films that were part of the syllabus were Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), 12 Angry Men (1957), and Prince of the City (1981).

The screening was made possible by the 30th Starz Denver Film Festival and was one of six films being generously shared with Boulder as part of a yearly satellite program. Making a special appearance at this screening was Steven Bach, the head of worldwide production for United Artists who oversaw the making of The Parallax View and many other films, such as Manhattan (1979), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Raging Bull (1980). Bach is also the author of Final Cut: Dreams and Disasters in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, and also penned biographies for Marlene Dietrich, Moss Hart, and Leni Riefenstahl. Bach had interesting things to say about The Parallax View – I just wish we’d had a bigger audience for both him and the film: in the 400-seat auditorium there were less than 20 people.

As with all pristine, archive prints – the experience afforded viewers the opportunity to experience a stunning work on the big screen as if though for the first time with vivid colors and undamaged emulsion; making something older seem fresh and current. Well, almost: Warren Beatty’s hair doesn’t quite hold the test of time. But the film’s primary message regarding powerful corporations that control the political machine still rings true.

Pic from Shampoo, actually, but same hair...

The story starts out with the assassination of a Presidential hopeful and Senator in Seattle at the Space Needle. Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is a journalist who investigates the assassination, and several other suspicious deaths that surround it. He comes across a mysterious organization, the Parallax Corporation, that actively seeks out sociopaths for assassination assignments. Frady tails Parallax operatives to a political event where another U.S. Senator is getting ready for a rally. Things get messy and Frady finds himself in the middle of it.

The Parallax View
is a film that succeeds despite the source material. It’s based on a 1972 novel by Loren Singer that Bach referred to disparagingly as a cheap paperback thriller, the kind you might buy in an airport for a quick read. Palmer has even stronger words: “The novel is appalling!” Bach pointed out that director Alan J. Pakula changed the beginning and star Warren Beatty (who also produced) changed the ending. Adding immeasurably to the final outcome were the talents of cinematographer Gordon Willis, who also worked on The Godfather: Part II (which was released the same year as The Parallax View). The Parallax View is considered one of three films in Pakula’s loose trilogy of suspense thrillers, preceeded by Klute (1971) and followed by All the President’s Men (1976) – all of which were lensed by Willis.

Giving credit where credit is due.

Personal revelations for me upon seeing this archive print on the big screen relate to what I remember Palmer saying about the ingenious ways in which The Parallax View plays with scale. In one scene we can barely hear or see Beatty beneath a roaring dam where he is targeted for a kill while he is fishing. I’d completely forgotten the moment from my previous screenings because, on smaller screens, the setting didn’t come across the way it did now. On the big screen our protagonist is completely dwarfed by an impressive and monolithic creation that unleashes jarring alarms alongside an unsettling rush of water, the timing of which has figured into the plans of the man suddenly pointing a gun at Beatty’s character. There is also an odd scene wherein Beatty’s character rides a small train as he gets information from another operative which visually ties into the final scene with the senator riding a golf cart to his political rally. One slow shot lingers on an escalator, allowing the traveler time to ascend into the illuminated rectangular patterns above with both Kubrickian patience and artistry. These are but part of the visual sums within a cinematic whole that conspired to produce something that far exceeded their humble beginnings.

I just put in a call to Palmer to ask if I might read his article on The Parallax View, titled “America’s Conspiracy Syndrome: From Capra to Pakula” (co-written by Michael M. Riley). He called back and promised to give me a copy soon. He says he had fun writing the piece, especially when it comes to the bit about the Parallax Corporation’s six-minute-long test film, which surely ranks as one of the all-time most memorable films-within-a-film ever made. If time and inspiration allow, perhaps another report will follow.

Pakula.

 

You Can’t Go Home Again: Revisiting the Films of Childhood

Maybe Thomas Wolfe had a point. You can’t go home again, but thanks to technology, you can revisit films that once beguiled you as a youngster. Sometimes, of course, this is a mistake.

As a little kid in the ’60s, television, or “the idiot box” was what our parents called “an insult to your intelligence”. Of course, being American kids, we were dying to have our intelligence insulted and would cultivate friendships in hopes of glimpsing some mind-numbing tv shows at a playmate’s house. Since forbidden fruit was often most appealing, I do remember relishing my glimpses of the misadventures of such inappropriate entertainment as The Three Stooges and longed to visit that imaginary universe where the Our Gang kids could somehow fashion an entire Art Deco nightclub out of leftover boards, a few scraps of costumes and the talent of such individuals as Buckwheat and a most annoying and demanding girl, Darla. In retrospect, I understand that my parents hoped to give their children a broader, more imaginative view of the world’s possibilities than old repeats of anarchic vaudeville acts or the Disney corporation was offering children–but, while they certainly couldn’t deny the power of these cinematic siren songs, they did make us aware of more than one form of entertainment, even if we didn’t always appreciate it at the time. [...MORE]

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