Is This Really the Same Actor?

actordouglasWhile researching a film from the 1930s costarring Melvyn Douglas, I was reminded of how suave and handsome he was when he was a young star of romantic comedies (at left). This was not the Melvyn Douglas that I knew when I became an avid movie goer in the 1960s. Bespectacled and white-haired, the elder Douglas was a respected character actor during the Film School Generation, often playing the difficult, hard-line patriarch. He won an Academy Award as the stern, honorable father of Paul Newman’s Hud, the ultimate cad. It is hard for me to reconcile the two ends of Douglas’s career. The handsome charmer who could make even Garbo laugh in Ninotchka is miles removed from the stubborn, scowling old men in I Never Sang for My Father and The Candidate. For me, it’s as though Melvyn Douglas is really two separate actors, equally as talented but with little in common. I have dubbed this incongruity the Melvyn Douglas Syndrome. [...MORE]

Happy Birthday, Torchy Blane

glendaopenerToday, June 30, marks the birthday of one of Warner Bros.’s brassiest blondes, Glenda Farrell. Farrell was a working actress from the age of 7 until she died in 1971 at age 66. She began her career in the theater, playing Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and she ended it there, starring as the lead in 40 Carats on Broadway. However, Farrell made her greatest contribution to popular culture during the 1930s, when she was one of several tough-talking blondes under contract to Warner Bros.

The studio that used Depression-era headlines as a source for scripts catered to a traumatized working class, specializing in tales of gangsters, kept women, working stiffs, and tough-talking dames—especially blondes. Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Una Merkel, and Glenda Farrell all played characters described as wise-cracking dames, with each star putting their own spin on this archetype. Farrell was perhaps the brassiest—a fast-talking, bleached blonde who could never be accused of naiveté.

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Pirates 101: Intro to Hollywood Buccaneers, Privateers, and Swashbucklers

pirateblackswanAvast, ye buckos and scallywags! Prepare to pillage and plunder with pirates and privateers as TCM’s Friday Night Spotlight offers 21 pirate pictures during the month of June.  One summer long ago, I read Treasure Island and saw The Buccaneer with Yul Brynner in the same month, which left me with a life-long obsession with pirates, exotic tropical locales, and buried treasure. As fate would have it, I suffer horribly from seasickness, which makes me a landlubber and prevents me from joining one of those crews that search for buried treasure and sunken pirate ships around Key West. Instead, I content myself with watching celluloid pirates and ruminating over the reasons for their periodic popularity in popular culture.

I have collected articles and notes on pirate stories and movies with a vague notion of writing a book or teaching the pirate subgenre in class. TCM’s “Pirate Pictures” fest on Friday nights has given me an opportunity to try out my ideas on TCM viewers and blog readers in a three-part series that I am christening Pirates 101. I promise to keep the pirate lingo to a minimum, though that will be a challenge for me.

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“I’m Not an Actor, I’m a Movie Star”: Notes on ‘My Favorite Year’

MFYbenjyTonight and tomorrow evening, TCM presents six movies produced through Brooksfilms, the production company headed by Mel Brooks. In addition to Brooks’s comedies, the company has been responsible for a variety of movies not associated with the comic mind that spawned Blazing Saddles, including my favorite David Lynch film, The Elephant Man, and a gothic horror flick called The Doctor and the Devils.

Tomorrow night, TCM airs the Brooksfilms production My Favorite Year, which happens to be my favorite Peter O’Toole movie, though fans of his more lauded signature roles might disagree. Set during the Golden Age of Television, when prime-time programming was produced live in New York, the story unfolds from the perspective of Benjy Stone, a junior writer on the comedy series The King Kaiser Show. O’Toole plays Hollywood movie star Alan Swann, who is guest-starring on the show because he needs the money. Benjy is assigned to watch Swann throughout the week of preparation and rehearsal, because the star lives as large as his image, chasing women and drinking at every opportunity. As a result of their week together, Benjy, who is both disillusioned and awestruck by Swann, grows from a wise-cracking kid into a mature young man.

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What, Harold Lloyd Worry?

haroldposterWhile Chaplin and Keaton remain the giants of silent comedy to modern-day movie lovers, Harold Lloyd was the most popular film comedian and the biggest box-office draw during the 1920s. His movies out-grossed Keaton’s comedies, and after Chaplin began to fret over his features, Lloyd out-produced the Little Tramp. In 1927, Lloyd was the only performer on Variety’s list of the top 20 wealthiest people in show business (see An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture by Richard Koszarski.) Having seen many of his feature films, including Safety Last, Speedy, Girl Shy, and The Freshman, I can understand his appeal. Youthful, optimistic, and persevering, Lloyd’s so-called “glass” or “glasses” character suited a decade in which Americans sought to better themselves economically, acquire consumer goods, and partake of the American Dream. Lloyd’s comic persona, who was always called Harold in his films, was not disenfranchised like Chaplin’s Little Tramp nor a misfit like Keaton’s Great Stone Face. Instead, he was akin to the hapless boy next door who worked hard to get ahead and win the hand of the girl. Even his costume was “normal” in that it was purchased off the rack and not an exaggerated ensemble from the costume department of Hal Roach’s studio.

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Six Degrees of Elvis Presley

elvissammyFor the third and final post in my informal and unintended series on Elvis Presley, I was inspired by the documentary Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which airs on TCM on Tuesday, April 15, at 5:00am (actually Wednesday, but it is listed as Tuesday night on the TCM schedule). Elvis: That’s the Way It Is chronicles Presley’s engagement at the International Hotel in the summer of 1970. The film airing on TCM is the 2001 special edition, a reworked version of the original. A producer named Rick Schmidlin discovered unmarked cans of unused footage for the film in MGM’s storage facilities in an old salt mine in Kansas along with the original 16-track recordings. The tracks were digitally remixed for the special edition, and unseen footage of Elvis in rehearsal and on stage replaced non-concert scenes from the original. For me, one of the most interesting parts of this documentary is the show of celebrities and stars who lined up to see Elvis at the International, including Juliet Prowse, Charo and her husband Xavier Cugat, Dale Robertson, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Cary Grant.

Elvis knew and admired a variety of stars and performers throughout his career. This makes sense considering his success in different arenas of show business (recording; films; live performance and his eclectic personal tastes in entertainment and music. The latter served him well in developing a unique musical style and sound not once but twice—in 1954 and in 1968-1969. Below are just a few photos of Elvis’s show-biz acquaintances, associates, and admirers. You are not likely to find a more diverse circle of celebrities associated with one entertainer.

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Reel Elvis: The King in Hollywood

elvisopener2After writing about the Elvis Presley musical Kissin’ Cousins for last Monday’s post, the King was on my mind—and in the ether. I couldn’t help notice how many times Elvis’s name or music popped up in conversation, on television, or on the radio. Maybe it was just one of those weeks, but I was impressed that someone who has been dead for 37 years still has that much cultural cache. I was also pleased that readers responded to the Kissin’ Cousins post with their own favorite Elvis flicks and observations about his often-maligned movies. With that in mind, I thought I would offer some tantalizing tidbits, astute asides, and fascinating facts on Elvis’s film career.

He Wasn’t Always a Singing Race-Car Driver, Plane Pilot, or Boat Captain. Critics are quick to poke fun at the musical comedies, which Elvis dubbed “Presley travelogues,” but there is more variety in his 33 films than detractors realize. Elvis made three westerns (including the Civil War drama Love Me Tender), one straight drama, five musical dramas, two satires, and two documentaries. Even the musical comedies vary in tone and approach—from the sublime Viva Las Vegas to the ridiculous Harum Scarum.

What’s in a Name? Films often go through title changes during production, but Elvis’s movies were downright notorious for this. In 1958, 20th Century Fox purchased the novel Brothers of Broken Lance by Clair Huffaker before it was published. The studio wanted a title change, so the publisher agreed to release it as Brothers of Flaming Arrow. The studio changed its mind again, and the book was finally published as Flaming Lance. Publicity for the upcoming western claimed that Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra had signed for the key roles, but that was premature. Neither actor agreed to the film, so the property was shelved for two years. In 1960, Fox signed Elvis for the main role, and shooting began in August for Flaming Heart, which was changed almost immediately to Black Star, thent Black Heart. In September 1960, everyone finally agreed to Flaming Star.

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A Salute to ‘Kissin’ Cousins’—Sort Of

kissinopenerOver the years, Kissin’ Cousins has grown on me—sort of.  Elvis Presley’s fourteenth feature film, which airs next Sunday (March 30) on TCM at 8:30am, is a musical comedy that is even more ridiculous than most of his films. And yet, Kissin’ Cousins manages to be interesting—sort of. It is the only one of his 31 narrative films to feature the King in a dual role. In KC, Elvis stars as dark-haired Josh Morgan, a member of the Air Force aerobatic team the Shooting Stars, and blonde Jody Tatum, a member of the hillbilly Tatum clan of rural Tennessee. Josh finds out that he is a distant cousin to Pappy Tatum, so he is assigned to persuade the stubborn patriarch into allowing the Air Force to build a missile base on his mountain. While the story doesn’t seem like it would inspire much to sing about, the 96-minute film includes eight musical production numbers.

Kissin’ Cousins marks an important but dubious point in Elvis’s Hollywood career. The musical is his first film with Sam Katzman, known as “the King of the Quickies.” Katzman had been producing low-budget, rock ‘n’ roll musicals since the 1950s, and he was notorious for his short shooting schedules and penny-pinching methods. Of course, this doesn’t mean that his films are not entertaining or enjoyable; I love his teen musicals (Get Yourself a College Girl; Twist Around the Clock) as well as some of his other productions (Your Cheatin’ Heart). But, when Elvis’s manager, the equally notorious Colonel Tom Parker, teamed up with Katzman, it represented a turning point for Parker’s approach to Elvis’s film career.  Parker was unhappy with Elvis’s previous film, MGM’s Viva Las Vegas—which would be released after Kissin’ Cousins—because its budget surpassed a million dollars, and it went over its shooting schedule. He felt that the money spent to ensure high-quality production values was unnecessary. Though Elvis would make only two films for Katzman, thereafter, Colonel pursued deals with other small production companies, because he was determined to keep production costs down and increase Elvis’s salary by asking for a percentage of the profits. He also learned other methods for decreasing production costs, which he employed on Kissin’ Cousins. While on location near Big Bear Lake in California, he struck deals with local hotels and restaurants to put up the cast and crew at a cut rate in exchange for promotional opportunities.

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Joan Crawford in ‘Flamingo Road’: The Face of Melodrama

flamingoposterA few years ago, I consulted on a film reference book filled with star bios, movie trivia, lists, and fun facts. The group of writers responsible for the content was divided into two camps: experienced freelancers, who were accustomed to using libraries, biographies, and reference books, and newbies who thought the Internet could supply all their needs. Not surprisingly, the work submitted by the latter camp was riddled with errors, unsubstantiated assumptions, and age-old myths about Hollywood legends long shattered by legitimate biographies. The whippersnapper responsible for the bio on Joan Crawford used only a single web article as his primary source, which I discovered when I fact-checked his work.  Both the whippersnapper’s bio and the web source painted Crawford in broad brushstrokes, exploiting her string of romances to sensationalize her life story and emphasizing the “no more wire hangers” portrayal created by Christina Crawford in Mommy Dearest. The experience saddened me, because I realized that Crawford’s remarkable, decades-long career had been overshadowed by this cartoonish persona.

Not only is the sheer length of Crawford’s career impressive but her ability to reinvent herself decade after decade is a more telling view of her personality  than the Mommy Dearest image that has tainted her in death. This month, TCM is airing 63 Crawford films, covering her career from The Boob (1926) to Trog (1970). As TCM’s star of the Month, Crawford receives the respect she is due as a major contributor to Hollywood’s Golden Age, and the Movie Morlocks are proud to make her the subject of a week-long blogathon, exploring the various phases of her career. The blogathon begins today and concludes next Sunday. Crawford’s films will air every Thursday, sometimes over a 24-hour period.

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A Celluloid Revolution – James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

jamesdean

“In sixteen months of acting, he left a more lasting impression on the public than many stars do in thirty years.”
- Henry Ginsberg (GIANT producer)

The original rebel, the first rock star, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, an American legend and the Sphinx of Youth. These are just a few of the labels that have been used to describe James Dean but I like to remember him as a one of our greatest actors. I lost count of how many times I’ve seen EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) long ago but I never get tired of watching Dean and each time it’s a revelation. There’s always something new and invaluable to discover in his performances. His critics like to complain about his line delivery and often refer to his “mumbled dialogue” but like any great actor, Dean didn’t need words to express what his characters were thinking and feeling. He understood the power of silence and with a sudden twitch of his boyish body or a gentle tilt of his cowboy hat he could reveal his character’s fears, fervors and focus without uttering a single word. You can see entire worlds illuminated in his eyes when they’re lit up by studio lights and the shadows that dance across his face speak their own distinct language. James Dean may have followed in the footsteps of Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando but he was a wholly unique talent who managed to carve out his own individual path in Hollywood during a few short years with a handful of notable films that have recently been collected into a beautifully packaged Blu-ray DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
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