Posted by highhurdler on October 28, 2012
Have you ever gone to the theater expecting to see a movie (or play) about one thing but, once there, were then completely surprised – pleasantly or unpleasantly – with what transpired on the screen (or stage). For me, it used to happen more frequently before the explosion of the Internet (where spoilers abound), but it can still happen today when I adopt an intentional approach to such entertainment. For instance, when I watch a classic film, it happens more often because I tend to seek, find and view lesser known films on TCM or, in this case, the Fox Movie Channel.
As you may know I was one of the original four Morlocks – along with Medusa, Jeff and the (still active as ever) infamous RHS– but am now an infrequent contributor to this site. There have been a lot of changes in my life over the past several years and the main reason I stopped contributing regularly was that I haven’t been able to watch TCM every day, week or even month, like I did during most of the last decade. As such, I didn’t have very much material to write about and, when I got the opportunity to write for last Sunday and today, I found myself rather blocked. A quick peruse of the channel’s schedule yielded nothing of interest, neither did TCM On-Demand – DirecTV channel 1256 – but the satellite’s Fox Movie Channel (which I found when I accidentally typed 1258 into my remote) was featuring a couple of intriguing titles, so I downloaded them in hopes of fomenting a fresh idea.
The first one I watched was Seven Thieves (1960), which is a pretty good caper – directed by Henry Hathaway – that features a terrific cast: Edward G. Robinson, Rod Steiger and Eli Wallach, with Joan Collins thrown in for eye-candy, and few other recognizable faces except for Sebastian Cabot. While the film was released 5 years after Jules Dassin’s much celebrated Rififi (1955), it was just 6 months before the better known Rat Pack classic Ocean’s Eleven (1960) – which led to the 2001 remake (upon remake, upon remake) – and may therefore be unknown or have been forgotten among capers. Plus, the fact that the ‘genre’ then exploded in Technicolor over subsequent years – The Pink Panther (1963), Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), Gambit (1966), even The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) – probably also contributed to the Seven Thieves (1960) loss of notoriety, despite its Academy Award nomination (B&W Costume Design). I thought about expanding this by perhaps writing an entire article on “Amateurs that have attempted Great Heists on Film” to include the above and other movies like The Ladykillers (1955), but found that I wasn’t sufficiently interested in the topic to continue. On to the next download …
Woman’s World (1954) is a Jean Negulesco-directed drama about big business which, unlike Seven Thieves, actually followed its better known counterpart – Executive Suite (1954) – from that same year. The film was a relatively early CinemaScope production that followed the director’s earlier and more successful use of the technology: How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) and Three Coins in a Fountain (1954). Therefore, it begins with some lavish, sweeping aerial shots of New York City (specifically Manhattan) and includes several other impressive sequences from within the city, e.g. of its skyscrapers from the street level “looking up”. For what it’s worth, director Robert Wise and his cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp would later provide some even better (than Negulesco and his cinematographer Joseph MacDonald), and more breathtaking helicopter shots of these same man-made mountains and canyons (using Super Panavision 70) – earnings Academy Awards for their work – in West Side Story (1961). I thought about writing a piece titled “The Magnificent Camera Views found in CinemaScope movies”, however I’d need to do a lot more research before feeling comfortable enough to tackle it, so perhaps some other time;-)
Similar to Executive Suite (1954), and later Patterns (1956), it’s a story about picking a successor to head a big conglomerate; in this case, it’s a fictional auto company named Gifford Motors. Top billed Clifton Webb narrates the opening and plays Ernest Gifford, who has just invited his top three district sales managers – and their wives – to New York for an all-expense paid (and tax deductible) meet-and-greet during which he’ll size up each man and their wife in order to make the decision. Ironically, one of these managers is played by Van Heflin and one of the wives is played by June Allyson, both of whom played key roles in the aforementioned corporate dramas. There’s another irony here, but you’d need to see the conclusion of each to appreciate it (and I won’t spoil it).
So here is June Allyson, playing a role that’s very similar to her part in Executive Suite (1954) – she’s the wife of the man that may be best suited for the job, but he’s not sure he wants it, and her character isn’t really the corporate wife type (though that fact is much more obvious in this one than the former) – while Van Heflin plays a man in line for the top job, just as he would in (the latter) Patterns (1956).
The other roles that complete the all-star cast of Woman’s World (1954)(in order of billing) are: Lauren Bacall, who’s beautifully and appropriately dressed as the fashion conscious wife of Fred MacMurray, whose ambition is costing him both his wife and his health (he’s fighting an ulcer); Arlene Dahl, who plays Texan Heflin’s overly ambitious and showy wife – she’d do “anything” to secure the job for her husband – and Cornel Wilde, Allyson’s husband, who’s not afraid to speak his mind even if it conflicts with Webb’s Gifford, and costs him the top job. The cityscape views referenced earlier are most impressive to Allyson’s character; she and her husband hail from Kansas City, and clearly have the best marriage of the three. For example, on their drive (from Philadelphia) to the hotel, Bacall’s assures MacMurray’s that she’ll keep secret their impending divorce so as not to hurt his chances to win the job, even though she believes it’ll kill him.
Was this it? Was this the thread of the storyline that meshed enough with my own that I could build upon it and write this Sunday’s blog? After all, although I didn’t begin on the plant floor at an auto manufacturer like MacMurray’s character, I did begin my career at the relative bottom of a computer manufacturer and did climb the corporate ladder by succeeding at and therefore rising within every level attempted until … MacMurray has a realization that his wife, family and health are too important to continue his ambitious journey to the top. I actually realized at the end of a yearlong executive education course, while listening to a closing speech by a corporate VP in White Plains, New York, that the man had no family life whatsoever, that he didn’t know his children and they didn’t know him, that I’d rarely be home etc. Whereas MacMurray’s character had an ulcer, I’d had a brain tumor removed just two years prior. I had an 8 year old and a 5 year old, so what the heck was I doing 900 miles from home in late December? That’s when I pulled the ripcord. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to … My Life.
But actually, that’s not the end, nor is it the only “funny thing that happened”. In fact – back to the movie – it is shortly after MacMurray has his realization that the men and their wives are invited to a weekend retreat – taking Gifford’s yacht to his huge mansion appropriately dubbed “the castle” – where his sister, a former top executive’s wife (played by Margalo Gillmore), can play hostess and have an opportunity to assess the wives and provide her brother the input he needs. Once there, the “Funny Thing Happened”: an uncredited Eric Wilton carried a tray across the room; he was playing the butler.
Eric Wilton didn’t start acting until he was 47 years of age, yet he appeared in over 200 movies before his death in 1957, a year in which – at age 74 – he played Jeanne Crain’s butler in Charles Vidor’s biopic The Joker is Wild (1957), starring Frank Sinatra as Joe E. Lewis. In the vast majority of films that Wilton appeared, he played a butler and almost never received a screen credit. And yet, you know him when you see him. Unlike Bess Flowers, who according to IMDb is “probably the most well-known and prolific extra to work in Hollywood films” and appeared in both Executive Suite (1954) and Seven Thieves (1960), most classic film fans could probably pick Wilton out of a lineup. He appeared as a butler in well-known movies from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), the Academy Award winning Best Picture Cavalcade (1933) and After the Thin Man (1936) to A Place in the Sun (1951), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and the aforementioned How to Marry a Millionaire (1953).Though I don’t remember where it was (and can’t seem to find it), I’ve read an article about Bess Flowers, but have never seen one written about Wilton or any number of other nameless background character actors. Sure, you can find information about many of the “What a Character” actors that had speaking lines, those with unique physical characteristics or memorable quirks, but what about these other “wall” flowers? Has any ever written about them? Is there even any information available other than their (oftentimes incomplete) filmographies or some blogger’s interpretation of the actor, derived entirely from their body of work? What about their personal lives, their pay, how they lived or what they did off-screen. Anything? Had Wilton been a butler previously, or did he “learn his trade” on the job in Hollywood. Were butlers even authentically portrayed? I don’t know about you, but it seems that most people had domestic help back then, even middle class families! When I was growing up, we used to watch The Brady Bunch on television and, though we were middle class, we couldn’t afford a live-in housecleaner/cook … and it didn’t appear that Robert Reed’s character was a super successful, highly paid architect (and I don’t think Florence Henderson’s character worked outside the home, did she?).
While trying to find a topic for today’s blog post, I took a couple of different paths which led – funny enough – to a small handful of options worthy of further exploration, as well as this one. Hope you enjoyed the journey.
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