When Fact Mirrors Fiction: AGATHA (1979)

agathatposterOn December 3, 1926 the popular mystery author Agatha Christie vanished following an argument with her husband who was demanding a divorce. Agatha was devastated by his decision but he responded to her distress by leaving the lavish home they shared together with their young daughter to meet up with his mistress. No one knows for certain what prompted Christie to pack her own bags and follow him into that cold winter night but the next morning her abandoned car was found with the hood up and the lights on. Christie’s coat and suitcase were still in the car but the author was missing. The authorities were called in while massive search parties were organized and the mysterious disappearance of Agatha Christie captured the world’s attention. Was it a prearranged publicity stunt? Had she committed suicide? Or had Christie become the victim of a murder plot similar to the crimes outlined in her fiction? Speculation ran rampant in local as well as international newspapers until 11 days later when the missing writer was suddenly discovered unharmed at the posh Hydropathic Hotel in North Yorkshire. Christie claimed she’d suffered a head injury while driving and had temporarily lost her memory but she refused to discuss her disappearance with reporters. And when her posthumous autobiography was published in 1977, the author was suspiciously quiet about the strange event that had captured the public’s imagination some 50 years earlier. So what exactly happened to Agatha Christie in December of 1926? We’ll probably never know the entire truth but Michael Apted’s curiously engrossing film AGATHA (1979) does a superb job of dramatizing this fascinating event.

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Edison, the Man-ipulator

Edison_the_Man__1_This month, TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight is devoted to “Science in the Movies,” which showcases flicks with at least a nominal connection to science, including biopics of famous scientists. Let’s face it, most viewers, including myself, can name only two or three scientists at best, and, topping that list would have to be Thomas Edison. This Friday, January 24 at 8pm, TCM airs Edison, the Man, a 1940 biopic of the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park.

Edison, the Man is the sequel to Young Tom Edison, and I wish both films were part of “Science in the Movies,” because they were conceived at the same time. Mickey Rooney stars as the scientist in Young Tom Edison, while Spencer Tracy plays the role in the sequel. In 1938, Rooney and Tracy had costarred in Boy’s Town, the biography of Father Flanagan, which had been a hit for MGM. While the double Edison flicks did not exactly reteam Rooney and Tracy, they did take advantage of their successful pairing from Boys Town in a unique way. The Edison biopics were released only three months apart in 1940, which explains the less-than-exciting titles. The studio wanted to avoid potential confusion over two films about the same subject, while telegraphing to audiences that the second film continues from the first. MGM’s strategy proved sound: sequels rarely did big business at that time, but Edison, the Man drew a bigger box office than Young Tom Edison.

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Once Again, Remembering Vera-Ellen

vera three little words

Those of us who can’t resist a good MGM musical are no doubt now and again thinking about the great screen dancer Vera-Ellen, a sparkling screen presence in an number of films yet someone whose memory is overwhelmed by the passage of time and a peculiar lack of the proper respect paid to her accomplishments. On the occasion today of the 92nd anniversary of her birth on February 16, 1921, and although I wrote about her once already (way back in 2007, check out the post by clicking here), and though she’s been gone for over thirty years — she passed away from cancer on August 30, 1981 at only 60 years old – it’s a perfect time to remember again this most charming and talented actress.

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Reel Presidents: Lincoln the Man, the Politician, and the Vampire Hunter

lincolnopenerFor my last in a series on movie presidents, I return to the cinematic interpretations of the life and career of Abraham Lincoln for a look at the major biopics. The biopics are not a window into Lincoln’s life and times; instead, they are mirror reflections of the issues and problems of the decades that produced the films. Sometimes that mirror is cracked or warped, resulting in fractured or distorted history. But, that is precisely why I like biopics and have a high tolerance for even the ponderously pompous ones.

The Depression era was flanked by three major biopics of Lincoln. D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln was released in 1930, while John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois concluded the decade. Released in 1940, Abe Lincoln in Illinois was adapted from Robert E. Sherwood’s Pullitzer-Prize-winning play, which covers Lincoln’s early years in Kentucky, his Illinois law practice, his ill-fated romance with Ann Rutledge, and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Raymond Massey, who originated the role on stage, was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. Like Frank McGlynn, Massey became identified with the character of Lincoln. He appeared in two television versions of Abe Lincoln in Illinois– an episode of Pulitzer Prize Theater in 1950 and an episode of Lux Video Theater in 1951. Five years later he played the 16th president in a small-screen version of The Day Lincoln Was Shot for another drama anthology, Ford Star Jubilee. As late as 1962, Massey was still appearing as Lincoln, making a cameo in the epic How the West Was Won. Legend has it that Massey loved the role so much that he appeared at parties and Hollywood social events dressed as Lincoln, prompting playwright George S. Kaufman to quip, “Massey won’t be satisfied until someone assassinates him.”

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Reel Presidents: Searching for Lincoln

lincolnbilltedAs a follow-up to last week’s commentary on movie presidents, I intended to devote this week’s post to  Abraham Lincoln, wrapping up with a discussion of the recent cinematic odes to the 16thpresident, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tim Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. However, after sifting through sources and tracking down interesting asides, I discovered that there is way too much on Mr. Lincoln to fit into one post. Being such a movie-president enthusiast, especially when it comes to Lincoln, I just couldn’t bear to omit some of my favorite tantalizing tidbits, surprising suppositions, and ornery opinions. My two-part series on movie presidents has expanded into three parts. This week, I offer the unusual, the obscure, and the forgotten; next week, I will revisit the familiar, the celebrated, and the (in)famous.

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Reel Presidents: From JFK to Millard Fillmore

Given Daniel Day Lewis’s heralded performance and the stellar work of a bevy of character actors, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will undoubtedly sweep the acting categories during this awards season. The fanfare surrounding the film reminded me that Honest Abe has been the president most often depicted on film, and it prompted me to investigate other cinematic depictions of iconic presidents. The result is a two-part series, Reel Presidents. Next week I will focus exclusively on celluloid Lincolns, including the axe-wielding action hero in one of my favorite movies of the year, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Killer. This week, I offer a run-down of other movie presidents and the actors who played them.

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Vincente on Vincent

Today, the films of Anthony Quinn are spotlighted as part of TCM’s Summer Under the Stars. Lust for Life, one of my favorite movies featuring the earthy, expressive actor, airs this evening. However, this biopic of artist Vincent Van Gogh is not really Quinn’s movie. Nor is it star Kirk Douglas’s film, despite his intense, show-stopping performance. Instead, Lust for Life belongs to director Vincente Minnelli, who not only identified strongly with Van Gogh’s tortured life but also translated the artist’s techniques, palette, and compositions into cinematic equivalents.  Minnelli was inspired and influenced by painters throughout his entire life career, from his days as a set dresser on Broadway to his years as one of MGM’s most talented directors. He filled notebooks with photos and illustrations of paintings, ornamentation, architectural details, and other imagery, which he used as references for set and costume design. He approached his work in Hollywood like an artist, and he strove to collapse the distance between fine and popular art. Alongside the 17-minute ballet at the end of An American in Paris, Lust for Life is his finest achievement in that regard.

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How about a “big screen” tennis biography?

It was over 5 years ago that I wrote on these pages about my other passion and its relation to this one, and referred to an ‘essay’ that I’d written on the topic for my site. (The article is really just a compilation of movies that contain at least one scene – or even a glimpse – of my favorite sport “in action”). Since then, I’ve added dozens of additional “tennis-related” films – some foreign but mostly domestic – the most recent being the seventieth title added to the list: last year’s Academy Award winning Best Picture The Artist (2011), which has a brief scene featuring Bérénice Bejo on a tennis court, coming to the net to shake hands after a mixed doubles match.
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My Afternoon with Eddie Foy

I love vaudeville and old-time vaudevillians, probably because I grew up watching Hollywood musicals that romanticized that heady era when the underprivileged, the penniless, and the disadvantaged used any speck of talent they had to get on to the stage and out of poverty. Yesterday, I caught The Seven Little Foys, featuring Bob Hope as Eddie Foy, a huge star in vaudeville, in musical revues, and on Broadway. The entertainer died in 1928, but “Eddie Foy” remained a well-known name for decades because his children continued in show business, particularly Eddie Foy, Jr., a character actor in films and stage musicals, and Bryan Foy, the main producer in MGM’s B-unit during the Golden Age.

The Seven Little Foys tells the story of Eddie Sr.’s decision to bring his brood of boys and girls into show business. In the film, Foy forms the act to keep his family together after wife Madeline Morando Foy dies, but in actuality, he formed the Seven Little Foys about 1912 or 1913. Madeline did not die until 1918. In the movie, the kids sing and dance onstage dressed in matching yellow or red suits, providing Hope as Foy the opportunity to crack asides and one-liners with his exquisite timing. Some of the wisecracks spoken by Hope had been used by Foy onstage, including the line he always uttered after introducing the kids onstage: “It took me a long time to put this act together.”

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Seriously?

It’s been a little over a year since I debuted here, and in that time I’ve stirred up a handful of firestorms–but weirdly, not the ones I expected.  I posted a clip of Buster Keaton as a sympathetic Nazi general, and nobody chirped a word of protest.  I ran a whole blog about blackface comedians, and the comments thread it initiated was reasoned, intelligent and low-key.  I facetioustly pretended that The Thing was a Christmas movie, defended Popeye, and praised Charlie Chaplin imitators.

But the one time I provoked serious anger and acrimony was the time I suggested that William Haines–William Haines!–wasn’t all that funny (I got called “hateful” for that one!)

When I wrote last week’s post about the Muppets, I figured I was running a risk.  Critics say nice things about heavily hyped contemporary movies at their own peril.  But my positive thoughts on the new Muppets wasn’t what kicked up dust–heavens, no.  The vitriol came out in my offhanded reference to Orson Welles having appeared in the 1979 Muppet MovieSomehow, this prompted the comments thread to start to tear into F for Fake. (how?)

To be fair, it was just one lone voice, wailing into the ether about how much he hated the Muppets, and F for Fake.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a put-on, somebody simply trying to bait me.  But I’m not above being baited.  I won’t stand by and let anybody talk smack about F for Fake, one of my 10 favorite movies of all time.  Consider the battle joined.

Let's get in on!

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