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Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Edmund Gwenn and Clark Gable on the set of Parnell. Is it just me, or does
Clark seem underwhelmed by this experience???


Despite the fact that he won his only Oscar for a screwball comedy (It Happened One Night), Clark Gable hardly seems like the King of hee-haw. Yet, while his tough guy roles typically produced the ultimate identity of cocky male cynicism, he did have a good sense of humor in his private life, even when he was the butt of the joke. His dominating onscreen presence hid a sensitive and humble soul that had come up the hard way, and while he appreciated the benefits that came with his stature and movie star paycheck, he too was grateful when a kidding friend brought him back down to the earth he was much more comfortable in. Spencer Tracy was one of these guys. The two bonded almost immediately when they started filming on San Francisco, despite the fact that they had both just survived scandalous affairs with Loretta Young. Surprisingly, there was no competitive, macho energy about their former shared paramour. In fact, Spence once took a swat at a guy who had cracked about Loretta's "adopted" daughter's (Judy Lewis) "big ears," a jab at Gable, whom all Hollywood knew to be the true father. Over the course of a few movies, the duo got close. In fact, they once went off to lunch together and disappeared for two days. Even sober, neither could remember where they'd been. After Spence started the good fight to maintain his sobriety, his relationship with the still hard-drinking Gable grew less intense, but their sturdy respect and friendship remained. Clark admired Spence's talent, and Spence was envious of Clark's leading man power at the box office... which is why he so enjoyed bringing up Parnell.

Clark was no fool about his talent. He could do "intense." He could do "smoldering." But all of his characterizations were mere exaggerations of himself. He shied away from character roles or true life figures for fear that he wouldn't be able to carry them. When handed the role of Irish politician Charles Stuart Parnell in 1937, he was not surprisingly a nervous wreck. He had hoped that friend and lover Joan Crawford would too jump on board as a co-star in order to help him through it, but when she turned the role down, Clark read it as a betrayal. Joan would insist that this was the official end of their romance (though they would allegedly remain friends with benefits over the years). Joan wasn't wrong to back out. The film was a flop, Clark was panned, and his death scene was so thoroughly mocked that he would refuse to play dead again until 1958's Run Silent, Run Deep. But, while Clark was humiliated, Spence was thrilled! Spence had originally been offered the role of Parnell, but had turned it down, which made Clark's misery even funnier to him. While filming on Test Pilot in 1937 after Parnell's release, Spence continued to kid his friend about his failed venture in acting. When Clark and co-star Myrna Loy arrived to set one day, they were abruptly greeted with a coronation ceremony for the press regarding their recent status as the "King and Queen of Hollywood." Spence howled with laughter as publicity photos of Clark in a crown were taken. He then addressed his embarrassed friend as "Your Majesty." Clark got red in the face and retaliated by calling Spence a "Wisconsin ham." Spence stuck in the final pin with "What about Parnell?" End game. So it would continue over the years. Whenever Clark got a little boyishly cocky, Spence would shoot out a Parnell jab. In 1939, when Gone with the Wind went on to break box-office records, further cementing Clark's unbreakable reputation, Spence still wouldn't let it lie. He sent Clark the following telegram: "Gone with the Wind may be this year's greatest picture, but I still remember Parnell." Clark, as always, laughed. (The chums perform in their undergarments in Boom Town left).

Clark's lady love Carole Lombard (right) too had a hand in the Parnell gags. As with Spence, Clark latched onto Carole's down to earth demeanor and humor, finding her better company than the majority of the pretentious hangers-on in Hollywood. The multiple ways that this romantic pair kidded each other over the years is, in itself, legendary. Carole too had no qualms about taking Clark down a peg or two when he started getting a little high on his pedestal or ornery, but her gags were mostly just an effect of her kooky sense of humor and meant to cheer people up, not poke fun. Carole understood Clark, and beneath his front-- where he was able to freeze people out and shut off internal emotions-- she knew that he was deeply upset by the Parnell blunder. Insecure about his acting in general, to have his performance universally panned was a hard thing for him to endure, especially after being crowned the "King." The King of what? With apparently no talent, it made him feel like a phony. So, one day, Carole decided to earn back a few points for Clark's self esteem. Thus followed what became known as Carole's "Rain" of Terror: Carole paid a pilot to fly over MGM and drop thousands of fliers over the studio with the following text: "Fifty Million Chinamen Can't Be Wrong!" You see, regardless of America's reception of Clark's Irish hero, his performance as Parnell was hailed as genius in China. When Clark-- and everyone in Culver City-- got the message, he flashed his old grin. The boy was back!

Moving backward a few years to that business between Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young (left)... The two met on the set of 1934's Man's Castle and quite quickly thereafter began a romance. It would be the first major relationship to threaten Spence's marriage to wife Louise. Loretta had a habit of falling in love with her co-stars, a result of growing up in front of the camera and never being able to separate fantasy from reality. Spence was taken by Loretta's great beauty and confused innocence. Ironically, the two also had faith in common and even attended mass together. For a time, it was discussed between them that Spence really would end his marriage and wed Loretta. The drama of the impossible love made it all the more enticing to Loretta, who was just turning 21. However, the tide turned when the teetotaling actress became acquainted with her suitor's bad side aka his alcoholism. The dating duo often went out on the town with John and Josie Wayne, with whom Loretta had been good friends since John's football days at USC. They celebrated Loretta's birthday together, took a vacation in Palm Springs, went dancing, the usual. As with Clark Gable, Spence kidded John: "It's a good thing you're good looking, because you can't act your way out of a paper bag." Duke would respond: "That's right, fats. I'll catch on, then you watch out!" Good times... But, as Spence's guilt-ridden conscience got the better of him for his latest dalliance, so too did his drinking increase. Duke could keep up pretty well with the bottle, but the ladies did not imbibe and thus were left staring in horror at their drunken, sloppy men making asses of themselves. Of the two, Spence was always much worse than Duke. Duke was a fun drunk, whereas Spence could become hostile. On one particular evening, the foursome was dining at the Beverly Wilshire's Gold Room, the usual chaos ensued, and Spence became so belligerent in his drunkenness that Duke had to escort him from the premises, against much protest. Luckily, Spence was blotto or he would have been quite embarrassed at the ruckus he was making before the likes of fellow diners George and Gracie Burns. Duke finally got Spence to his room, but even there Spence made trouble and tried to get back to Loretta. He was causing such a disturbance that Duke was left with few options, so... he decked him. After that powerful "Whop!" Spence was down for the count and spent the night draped over his bed snoozing like a baby. The relationship with Loretta ended soon thereafter, but Spence would still get a wistful look in his eyes whenever he saw her in public.

When one thinks of Hollywood horror, images of Frankenstein's monster, Bela Lugosi's Dracula, or the countless terrors of Vincent Price flicker in the brain. These anti-heroes were all born in the days of sound, however. In the silent days, there was but one film villain that could turn the blood cold: Theda Bara. Theda Bara's career is a flash-in-the-pan phenomenon that is both indicative of the power films have to both make a star and break one. Over the course of a career that spanned just a little over a decade, this actress from Cincinnati, OH was built up publicly as the pinnacle "Vamp": a man-eating seductress with dangerous sexual powers, at once threatening and alluring (see right). Films like The Tiger Woman, The She Devil, Salome, and-- of course-- Cleopatra, solidified her forever as cinema's favorite temptress. But, this version of Theda Bara, (an anagram for "Arab Death") was a far cry from the true Theodosia, who was an accomplished actress renowned among friends like King Vidor and Ethel Barrymore for her delectable potluck dinners. Theda gratefully played the part Hollywood, and Fox in particular, assigned her, but in time, both she and the public grew tired of the gimmick. Before she knew it, her career was over, and the caricature that she had created was left to the history of film. But, her identity remains a fascinating topic, if only to illustrate how powerful a cinematic persona can be. Particularly in the early days of film, when Hollywood was so mythic and its stars so revered, the line between fantasy and reality was not so easily tread by viewers. Thus, what Theda was onscreen was what people believed she was in life. Shop keepers actually had to ask Theda not to come to their stores for fear of the stampede of women that would follow-- grabbing at any piece of clothing Theda had touched in the hopes of collecting some of her magic aura. Not all in the public were fans. Adela Rogers St. Johns would recall a very telling story regarding this subject. A mother and child were wandering the streets of New York City. At one point, the child ambled off, and the mother noticed her son talking to a darkly garbed woman with a pale, ghostly face. As she drew nearer, she realized that the woman was... Theda Bara! The mother suddenly became hysterical. "Save him! Save him! The vampire has my child!" Certain that Theda was hypnotizing her babe and intent on sucking his blood, the terrified mother even went so far as to call the police for assistance! One imagines that, at this moment, Theda got a hefty reality check: "What have I gotten myself into?"

Ginger Rogers loved to throw a good party. As she wasn't a drinker, she knew that she had to create a certain over-the-top environment to make her get-togethers enticing to those chronically parched individuals who only considered a party a party if there was plenty of swill. One of her outrageous shenanigans was contrived with the help of her boyfriend at the time-- some guy named Alfred Vanderbilt. I hear he was "loaded" in another way. After filming the superb roller-skating dance sequence with Fred Astaire in Swing Time, Ginger enlisted Alfred's help in staging a roller-skating party of their own. So, on March 6, 1937, they rented the Culver City Rollerdome and invited a few pals along-- you know, every day folk like Joan Crawford, Kay Francis, Franchot Tone, Chester Morris, Harold Lloyd, Simone Simon, Cary GrantCesar Romero, and the "battling Bogarts," Humphrey and Mayo Methot. Everyone was having a swell time, cavorting like children and sucking down hot dogs, hamburgers, and Coca-Cola. It was nice to see people dressed down, away from studio mayhem, and having pure unadulterated fun (emphasis on the un-adult). Ginger was pleased with her party's success, but at one point, in the midst of the laughs, she noticed some commotion going on in the center of the rink. She approached Joan Crawford to ask "What's the haps," and Joan indicated Bogie lining up a row of chairs. He was about to perform a dare-devil feat of jumping over one chair after the other. Ginger and Joan exchanged the "uh-oh" look, but before anyone could stop him, Bogie was up and rolling. Against George Murphy's warning, "Ah no, not again," Bogie cleared one chair... Two... He prepped to somersault over chair number three... Oof! Ow! He landed right on his keister and kept sliding. Half the audience howled, and the other half slapped their foreheads in "Oy vey" fashion. The movie tough guy didn't seem embarrassed, however. He simply dusted off his rump and defended his faux pas: "I used to travel with a circus... I just haven't done it in awhile." Even Sam Spade needs to play the little boy every now and again.

Franchot, Ginger, Alfred, Joan, and Chester suit up to skate down.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Can You Imagine...

Spencer Tracy was ecstatic about receiving the role of J. Aubrey Piper in 1934's The Show-Off. The film was to be a reincarnation of the earlier silent success starring Ford Sterling and Louise Brooks of 1926, which in turn was adapted from the Broadway play that hit the boards in 1924. Revolving around an obliviously arrogant "entrepreneur" who blows his girl's money and thus his own faulty reputation, the role of Piper allowed Spence to indulge in his comedic side while rounding out a complex and convoluted character. But the role initially was to go to another Tracy: Lee Tracy. Lee had performed in the play on Broadway, so it was only natural that Metro purchase the title to bolster their growing star's career. Lee had experienced recent cinematic success in Dinner at Eight and Bombshell, and a reprisal in The Show-Off seemed to be just the ticket to push him over the edge into super-stardom. Unfortunately, Lee had a bit of a drinking problem. When shooting Viva Villa! in Mexico, Lee got hammered and urinated off his hotel balcony, which was doubly unfortunate, since it occurred during (and on top of) the Revolution Day Parade. Needless to say, the Mexican Cadet Corp. was insulted, and MGM was thrown into publicity mayhem. With Lee suddenly ostracized to No-Man's-Land and his contract terminated, Spence nabbed his role in The Show-Off-- allegedly via the support of Irving Thalberg and Frank Morgan, who encouraged MGM to borrow him from Fox. It would be his first time on the lot, but not his last. Ironically, the alcoholic addictions that lost Lee the lead in The Show-Off would be shared by Spence, and MGM would be in constant uproar trying to cover-up his own bender shenanigans once he signed with the studio.

Lee Tracy, giving his best "thirsty" face.

Spencer Tracy and Laurence Olivier (left) had a mutual respect for each other's talents. Spence marveled at Larry's intricate characterizations, and Larry envied Spence's natural fusion and delivery. They had long wanted to work together, having struck up an acquaintance around the time that Spence handed Larry's wife Vivien Leigh her Oscar for Gone with the Wind at the 1940 ceremony. Spence had even helped coach Larry in his Midwestern accent for the film Carrie (1952). However, time, distance, and Burt Lancaster separated them. The Hecht-Lancaster-Hill production team approached Larry to perform in the ensemble cast of Separate Tables of 1958 in the role of Major Angus Pollock. Larry read the script and was highly intrigued, particularly since he thought Spence would too be superb in the role of John Malcolm. He alerted Spence to the project, and Spence equally became excited, but he worried that producer/actor Lancaster would want the role for himself. Larry assured him that Burt had indicated his support of Spence in the role, so it seemed like a done deal. Thus, Larry accepted the role of Pollock with the stipulation that Spence perform opposite him in the cast. Unfortunately, Burty had a little change of heart and did in fact decide to take on the role of Malcolm himself. Thus, both Larry and Spence were out. The role Larry was to play went to David Niven instead and earned him an Academy Award.

Burt Lancaster gives Rita Hayworth a light in Separate Tables. Working
with Hayworth was probably reason enough for him to swipe the role 
from Spence.

Nonetheless, the denied duo hoped to reconnect on a later project, and 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg seemed to be their chance. Stanley Kramer had approached Spence about taking the role of  Judge Dan Haywood early on, as the two had successfully collaborated previously on Inherit the Wind. Imagine Spence's double pleasure when he learned that Kramer had approached Larry about taking on the role of guilt-ridden Judge Ernst Janning. Finally! As the conflicting moral compasses and counterpoints in the piece-- mirrored by the opposing counsels of Richard Widmark and Maximilian Schell-- the project would pit the greatest American actor against the greatest British one, who would be employing a noteworthy German accent no less. Unfortunately, Larry was unavailable. He was performing on the stage in New York in "Becket" at the time. In addition, he was insecure about taking on the role of the aged Judge because of his relationship with the much younger Joan Plowright, whom he would marry the July before the film's release. Thus, Burt came on the scene and snagged the role out from under Larry yet again. It was regrettable for many concerned, including Kramer, who was not overly pleased with Burt's performance in the role. When imagining Spence and Larry going mono e mono, it is easy to see why. Spence didn't let it bother him too much, though he did kid Burt about his overpriced salary and credit demands. He and Larry never did work together.~~~~ In addition, Julie Harris was almost cast in the role of Irene Hoffman until Kramer opened a newspaper, saw Judy Garland's face, and handed the role to her instead. He too thought of writing in a role for romantic duo Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to add an edge of sympathy to an otherwise heavy piece of filmmaking. Instead, he wrote in the character of Mrs. Bertholt and gave that role to Marlene Dietrich. The relationship she would have with Spence's Dan Haywood added just the layer of humanity Kramer was looking for.

Spence objects! "Stop plot-blockin' my pal, Burt!"

Speaking of Paul and Joanne, when the decision was made to turn the musical sensation Oklahoma! into a film, both of their names were thrown into the pool of possibilities for the characters of Curly and Laurey respectively. James Dean was also a Curly candidate. In addition, both Eli Wallach and Marlon Brando were suggested for the sinister role of Jud. Mamie Van Doren also campaigned for the role of Ado Annie, but when her acting coach casually mentioned the part to her own daughter, Gloria Grahame, she went after and received the role-- tone deaf though she was. This original, hypothetical Method cast seems a bit absurd in retrospect, for they would have put quite a different spin on rural life in the central U.S. Marlon would ironically perform in another musical the same year, Guys and Dolls, but I think it can be agreed that singing was not his forte. Certainly, the casting of any of these earthy actors would have given the film a more dangerous edge, but since the overall attitude of love, farm life, and spontaneous singing asks us to engage in a blissful sort of fantasy, it is perhaps best that the film was cast as it was. Shirley Jones made her screen debut as Laurey after Mike Todd saw her perform in the stage version. (This too was the first film produced in Todd-AO). And while Gordon MacRae had a little trouble keeping his Curly locks "curly," and Rod Steiger as Jud struggled with Agnes DeMille's choreography in the dream dance sequence, Fred Zinnemann's big budget tribute to the staged version has remained a classic. I mean, I love Jimmy as much as the next person, but I have trouble imagining him crooning about a "pretty little Surrey with a fringe on top." (Shirley Jones is with Gordon MacRae, left).

James Dean and Paul Newman screen-test for East of Eden. Jim would nab
 the role of Cal Trask, but Paul would miss out on brother Aron. Both 
would miss out on Oklahoma!

Another musical, Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), proved to be tough to cast. When George M. Cohan set about putting his life story on the screen, he was very particular about whom he wanted to play him. The notorious, patriotic song and dance man originally set his sights on the elegant and supremely talented Fred Astaire (right). After all, Fred could both sing and dance well. Too well. Fact was, George wasn't really much of a singer so much as he was a melodic talker. And his dancing, well... Let's just say that he moved rhythmically. He was not the accomplished technician of taps that Fred was. As such, Fred couldn't see himself in the role, if only because what he possessed in swagger he lacked in pomposity, a necessary feature in duplicating Cohan. When Ed McNamara heard about Cohan's plight in finding his perfect twin, he suggested friend James Cagney. George was not sold. First of all, Cagney was known as a fiendish gangster onscreen. For a man who was known for toting Tommies to suddenly be twirling a baton seemed... unlikely. Secondly, Cohan didn't think Jim was enough like himself, as good an actor as the latter may have been. Still, Ed knew his pal's talents and continued to prod Cohan. "Can he sing?" Ummmm.... More or less. Finally, after meeting Jim and talking over the character, Cohan accepted. Jim was a gifted dancer, so Cohan's moves were simple for him to recreate, and he mimicked his pointed toe stroll perfectly. Jim's so-so vocal skills also worked well, since they echoed Cohan's own sub-par voice. The film turned out to be a triumph for both men. Jim remembered the dance scene in which a single firework lights up the stage as the pinnacle moment of his career. (Ironically, Jim tried and failed to get a project going with friend and personal hero Fred Astaire about a vaudeville duo and their ups and downs. He approached Sol Siegel about the idea, but it never came to fruition).

James Cagney makes beautiful music with attitude as George M. Cohan 
in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Joan Leslie is to his left.

The film Ball of Fire of 1941 needed a leading lady who possessed all that the title implied. With Gary Cooper already signed on to play the highly intellectual and sexually innocent lexicographer on the hunt for the latest American slang, a polar opposite was needed to shake up his world. The role of Sugarpuss O'Shea was that of a showgirl on the run from the cops, who in turn are after her no good boyfriend, Joe Lilac (Dana Andrews). She holes up with Cooper's Betram Potts and his fellow professors, seduces him for safety, and winds up falling in love. Top draws Ginger Rogers and Carole Lombard were offered the plum part, but both turned it down. Then Betty Field and Lucille Ball (left) were tested. Ball seemed perfect! A fiery redhead, who up to this point was known for her roles as gangster molls and showgirls, she definitely had the look and persona to pull off the part. However, Coop had other plans. He recalled co-star Barbara Stanwyck, with whom he had just worked on Meet John Doe. She had been a level-headed pro with the chops to match, and she had impressed him on the set. As such, he suggested his friend for Sugarpuss and... voila! Having just starred in The Lady Eve, Babs had already proven that she knew her way around comedy. After turning Henry Fonda in the earlier film into a befuddled lost puppy, there was no doubt that she would be able to run circles around Coop's similar character in Ball of Fire. Barbara's mix of sensuality and smarts made her role more than just a pretty, talking prop, and her delivery of Billy Wilder's dialogue was cinematic gold. In the end, the combo of witty wordplay and Babs's able seduction of Coop proved to be "yum-yum" to audiences everywhere.

Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck make an example of
explosive, comical, screen chemistry in Ball of Fire.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

DIDJA KNOW: Didja See?

Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne play lovers split asunder and 
reunited in a spiritual way in A Guy Named Joe. 

Didja ever notice a glaring similarity between a modern movie and an earlier predecessor? Sometimes, the latter-made films are direct remakes; other times, they just bear a strange plot resemblance to earlier fare. I normally discuss this double-take analysis in my "Take One, Two, Three" articles, but today's offering is less in depth. Instead of re-hashing storylines and how they mutate from film to film, I instead offer up a new game of: If You Liked This, You Should Watch This. Since not all of the following original films were hits, it makes one wonder why studios would decide to reinvest in an already failed clunker; since some of the originals were great box-office successes, it makes one wonder why studios would want to desecrate an already perfect vehicle by re-doing it-- sometimes to disastrous results. In any case, here is the latest conglomeration of my congested, media-soaked head. You be the judge:

Angels in the Airfield

Steven Spielberg's film Always was fairly well received upon its 1989 release. An atypical romance with an otherworldly quality, it told the story of a renegade pilot (Richard Dreyfuss) who squelches forest fires. Due to his risky job, his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) is constantly in emotional turmoil with worry over his safety, and rightly so. He goes on one mission too many, and the cost is his life. However, he returns as a spirit, looking over his grieving love and getting mighty jealous when she starts falling for another guy (Ted Baker). An appearance by Audrey Hepburn as a helpful angel (left) also tipped the scales on this one, making it a well-acted, well-crafted love story for adults. BUT...

Didja see A Guy Named Joe? The plot is practically identical! Released in 1943 and directed by Victor Fleming, this film tells the tale of ace WWII bomber pilot (Spencer Tracy) who loses his life in the line of duty, much to his girlfriend Irene Dunne's despair. He is soon back as a guardian angel, who too is forced to watch his young mentor (Van Johnson) as he rises in the ranks as a pilot and falls for his girl. In both versions, the returning guardian learns with bitterness the love he took for granted in his life, overcomes his overzealous penchant for danger, and coaches the new, younger pilot into a better flier. He too overcomes his own personal envy in pushing his mourning girlfriend toward a love that he was unable to fulfill for her himself in life. The later film is admittedly a remake-- though, as 45 years had passed between pictures, few people know it! (Spence and Irene embrace next to Ward Bond, right). 

Two Little Mermaids

In 1984, the fantastical romantic comedy Splash hit theaters thanks to director Ron Howard. The unconventional tale of a young man (Tom Hanks) who falls in love with a mysterious woman (Daryl Hannah, both left)-- who turns out to be the mermaid who saved him from drowning as a child-- was an unlikely sensation that helped seal Hanks's reputation as the comic leading man of his generation. The mermaid, known as Madison, comes to land, sprouts legs, and hides her tail by avoiding water. As she acclimates to human life, she is forced to keep her true identity a secret from the man she loves, but eventually the truth comes out, and the befuddled (and a little grossed out) suitor is left with a harsh decision to make. With the help of his brother (John Candy), he decides that love is the only answer, and he forsakes his life on the land for an eternal swim with Madison. (It goes without saying that a massive suspension of disbelief is necessary to enjoy said picture). BUT...

Didja see Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid? It was produced in 1948 and directed by Irving Pichel. It too tells the unlikely tale of a girl with a tail. (Haha). This time, William Powell is the surprised recipient of aquatic affection, however, he is aware that the girl of his dreams (Ann Blyth) is a fish from the get-go. To boot, he is middle-aged and unhappily married. Hence, when he accidentally catches a mermaid when out fishing on vacation (right), he is both struck dumb and pierced with Cupid's arrow. He takes his prize home, where he moves her from the bathtub to the outdoor coi pond and tries to keep her existence a secret, though his shenanigans increasingly make him look as mad as a hatter to his friends. Though man and fish fall in love, in this case they admit defeat: their two worlds can never be one, and besides, Powell's character needs to go back to his wife and patch all that matrimonial business up. Because of the differences in plot, this is clearly not a remake, but with such an interesting spin on romance (or should I say, "fin"), you can't help but draw a comparison.
Knock Outs

There are a great many films out there surrounding the passion and the pain of athletic combat: Rocky, Cinderella Man, The Fighter, Golden BoyWarrior, Million Dollar Baby, etc. All of these films have some level of similarity in plot-- the underdog is put through the mill to overcome insurmountable odds and become a champion. Details vary, endings add new interpretations, but they all evoke the emotions of sympathy and aggression in the audience-- hearts with fists-- that makes this genre a continuing, surefire hit-maker at the box-office. The excitement of competition itself is enough to keep audiences coming back for more. Hence, much was made of Darren Aronofsky's recent take on the subject in The Wrestler in 2008. In this film, Mickey Rourke portrays an aging wrestler (left) of the comical yet intense WWF style, who struggles with the decision to give up the ring for a safer, more respectable life. The estranged relationship he shares with his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) and the complicated and not fully reciprocated attraction he has for a stripper (Marisa Tomei) adds to his personal frustration. At the end, a broken, wreck of a man, he decides that the only place he belongs is in the ring, where he accepts the mask of his caricatured self and faces daily, painful atonement for his sins. The brutally nuanced performance of Rourke brought the film a great deal of attention, and it was hailed as a creative and moving contribution to the genre, BUT...

Didja see Requiem for a Heavyweight? Though this earlier movie by Ralph Nelson (1962) revolves around boxing, the plot is uncannily similar in many ways to The Wrestler. Adapted from a televised production, the film stars Anthony Quinn as the aging boxer Louis "Mountain" Rivera (right) who is clearly on the way out. Battle-worn and suffering from punch-drunk dementia, he too considers surrendering a life of pain in the ring for a more simplistic career-- as a camp counselor. An impossible romance enters his life too with the lovely Grace Miller (Julie Harris), for though her heart goes out to him, she is intimidated by his aggressive presence and too frightened for his safety to truly fall for him. Torn between his manager (Jackie Gleason) and his trainer (Mickey Rooney), Mountain vacillates between his feelings of duty to pay off the former's gambling debts and the latter's concern for his personal safety and support of his retirement. After having his heart broken and humiliating himself in his failed attempts at normal, civilian life, Mountain accepts his fate as a puppet of the ring. He even sacrifices his dignity to do so, sells out, and becomes a gimmicky, cartoon-ish wrestler known as "Big Chief Mountain Rivera." He enters the ring to jeers and laughs, but is too numb to hear them or feel the punches anymore. While different in details, this earlier offering proves that The Wrestler may not have been the super-creative endeavor that we  origianlly assumed.


In 2008, the all-American nice guy Kevin Costner appeared in the film Swing Vote (left) directed by Joshua Michael Stern. In it, he plays Bud Johnson, an immature and under-driven father whose daughter holds the reins of responsibility in their small family. Disappointed by his apathetic approach to life, she tries to vote for him at the latest presidential election in their home state of New Mexico, however, a technological mishap causes his ballot to go uncounted. This minor occurrence causes big waves when it is discovered that NM will hold the deciding vote in the electoral college and-- with a 50/50 tie between the Republican and Democratic candidates-- Bud's un-tallied vote alone will make the national decision. Suddenly swarmed by the media and forced to take a stand for the first time in his life, Bud is politically seduced by both flip-flopping candidates-- played by Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper-- and he finds himself interested and asking questions on behalf of the American people. In the end, he must step up to the plate and make a decision, but the process changes the man he was and makes everyone else question their own political and social stances. Pretty interesting concept. BUT...

Didja see The Great Man Votes of 1939 starring John Barrymore? Directed by Garson Kanin, this film is a nearly identical precursor to Swing Vote. In it, Gregory Vance (Barrymore) is a washed up widower and fallen intellectual who has found solace in alcohol. To his children, he is a sad genius, but to the world, he is a faceless night watchman. His life is turned upside down even further when it is discovered that he is the only registered voter in his district left to solve the latest ballott dilemma. A big mayoral election comes to the fore, and the politicians come calling with their governmental flirtations, trying to win his deciding vote. Just as in the later picture, Vance is forced to remember himself as a man, embrace his duty as a patriot, and emerge as an integral part of his community. He garners a self-respect that has been absent for years, and thus the respect of his children, though their presence in his life is being threatened by un-trusting relatives who want to take them away. Confident for the first time in a long time, Vance fights back the only way he knows how and manipulates the system that is trying to manipulate him, inevitably refusing bribes, turning on the wooing candidates, and making up his own mind. The final victory is a dual one in that he wins back his self respect and his children. Swing Vote (as far as I know) is not an admitted re-make, but the close resemblance of the stories makes it and The Great Man Votes at least fraternal twins.

Several Brides for One Brother

In 1999, Gary Sinyor directed the romantic comedy The Bachelor, (no, not the TV show). In it, Chris O'Donnell plays Jimmie Shannon opposite Renee Zellweger as Anne Arden. Jimmie and Anne have been dating for some time, and while all of their friends get married around them, Jimmie finds it difficult to commit. Begrudgingly, he admits that maybe it is time for him too to settle down, but when he proposes to Anne with the phrase "sh*t or get off the pot," she gives him the heave-ho despite her love for him. Unfortunately, Jimmie discovers immediately afterward that his grandfather has died and left him a $100 million fortune-- wth the slight draw-back that in order to collect, he must be married by 6:05pm on his 30th birthday... which is tomorrow. Jimmie tries to win back Anne, but she's still miffed, so he is forced to go through his little, black book and approach any ex that will have him-- but his proposal skills are so poor that none will. When word gets out that he is to inherit a fortune, suddenly he finds himself attacked by every woman within driving distance and literally chased down the street by thousands of females in wedding dresses (left). Long story short, he and Anne reunite, but not before he has learned that it is she he wants and not the cash, which is thankful, since they have run out of time. At least they have each other and are rich in love. Cute enough, BUT...

Didja see Buster Keaton's classic Seven Chances??? Released in 1925, this hysterical hit of visual mayhem revolves around Buster's James Shannon, who is a struggling broker and romantic underdog. Suddenly, he is alerted to the fact that his grandfather has died, and he will inherit $7 million if he is married by 7pm on his 27th birthday... today! Uh-oh. He quickly proposes to his girl, Ruth Dwyer, but she turns him down when his proposal insinuates that he has to marry any girl he can find and not her in particular. Offended, she leaves him to his typical bad luck, aided only by his partner and the lawyer who initially broke the news. He proposes to every girl in sight, but as he is not exactly the prototypical ladies' man, he is consistently turned down. His pals line up seven girls for him to propose to, but still no luck. While he takes refuge at the church, unbeknown to him, the word of his upcoming fortune is leaked. Awakening from a nap, he is suddenly surrounded by frothing females in wedding gowns (right), but he is too overcome and intimidated to deal with the situation. He runs, the ladies take chase, but he finds salvation in Ruth's arms-- she has forgiven him. The two are married at the stroke of 7:00 and live happily, and richly, ever after. Since Keaton and O'Donnell's characters share the same name, it is pretty clear that the later film is a remake. While both are entertaining, there is no match for Keaton, so if you are going to see either, see Seven Chances!

Since I start to implode if I don't mention Lon Chaney at least once a month, I have a few past-present film comparisons to go over in relation to his work. For starters: Didja see Ace of Hearts? Produced in 1921 and directed by Wallace Worseley, the plot involves a group of insurgents who, having for various reasons become disenchanted with the court system, take matters of retribution into their own hands in the name of justice. They choose various subjects, whom they deem despicable, and engage in a game of chance in order to decide which member of their tribe should kill the immoral infidel. Another member, Lilith, played by Leatrice Joy, deals from a stack of cards. The man who receives the Ace of Hearts is the chosen assassin (left). In the midst of the latest caper, a love triangle ensues. Lon's Mr. Farrallone is in love with Lilith, but so too is Mr. Forrest (John Bowers), whom she, of course, chooses. Chaos follows, with Lon as per usual sacrificing himself for his beloved, while the obvious questions of right and wrong and the hypocrisy of man are brought to the fore. BUT, you may recognize the storyline in 1983's The Star Chamber, in which Michael Douglas joins a band of fellow judges who are determined to bring justice to the criminals that they were unable to punish in a court of law. They meet secretly, dole out verdicts, and condemn men to death by their own means. Both films beg the question, What is justice?

Didja see Tell It to the Marines? In 1926, George W. Hill directed this masterpiece with Lon starring as the intimidating Sergeant O'Hara (right) who has been tasked with bringing latest enlistee Skeet Burns (William Haines) up to snuff. Hard-boiled, rugged, and self-sacrificing, O'Hara consistently butts heads with Burns over the latter's insubordination and their shared affection for base nurse Norma Dale (Eleanor Boardman). In the end, Skeet overcomes his own selfishness, toughens up, and fights alongside his mentor in a pivotal battle, proving once and for all that he is a man, and thus, a man worthy of Norma's love. After the younger man has served valiantly, O'Hara bids him and Norma adieu, and continues on, training the next chapter of weak enlistees. In this film, Lon forever set the unsurpassed bar on military tough guys that would be frequently repeated in various films, from Full Metal Jacket to Stripes. BUT, you may notice an uncanny similarity between the plot lines of Tell it to the Marines and 1982's An Officer and A Gentleman. Minus the love triangle, they are very similar in that Lou Gosset, Jr's Sergeant has to train and mature the headstrong and crooked new soldier, Zack Mayo (Richard Gere). Both films present the strange, macho love-hate relationship between the superior officer and his trainee and the arduous process the underling must go through to embrace maturation, responsibility, and eventually love, (in the latter film via Debra Winger).

Didja notice how many of Lon's early gangster films centered around Chinatown? In Outside the Law (1920), his dastardly character of Black Mike Sylva cooks up trouble for fellow crooks Dapper Bill Ballard (Wheeler Oakman) and Molly Madden (Priscilla Dean) in this neck of the woods. In addition, Lon makes his first appearance as a Chinaman in a dual role as Ah Wing, thanks to director Tod Browning. ~ In The Shock, Lon portrays Wilse Dilling, a crippled con, again from Chinatown (left), forced to do some undercover work for Queen Ann (Christine Mayo). He switches locales to a small town, where he consequently falls in love with good girl Gertrude Hadley (Virginia Valli) and changes his ways. Turning his back on the criminal life, he returns to the dirty underbelly of Chinatown only to save his beloved's life. ~ In addition, the gang of cons in The Miracle Man were assembled from Chinatown. Lon, of course, plays Frog in this picture, which-- thanks to his abilities of contortion as a salvaged cripple-- would be his big breakthrough. ~ And finally, one of the working titles for Lon's cop drama While the City Sleeps, in addition to "Easy Money," was "Chinatown." ~ BUT, did this influence the eternal movie on this geographical subject, 1974's Chinatown starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway? Director Roman Polanski's take on the city presents just as many diabolical components as these Lon predecessors, including corruption, violence, and incest. What is it about this place that brings out the worst in people, anyway? Whether in NYC or L.A, early Chinatown comes across as a today's Compton!

See what happens? Ya' go to Chinatown and ya' get Jack'd (aka Nicholson).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

MENTAL MONTAGE: Thanks, but No Thanks.

Give it up, guy. She ain't havin' it. Myrna Loy gives Spencer Tracy the
rebuff in Whipsaw.

In the land of Hollywood, where pretty people reign supreme, the tabloids would have us believe that sexual rendezvous among the stars is a casual, intramural sport. This only serves to feed into our imaginations, perpetuating the myth that Tinsel Town is overflowing with sensual excess. However, despite the fact that celebrities seem to live a privileged, naughtier-than-thou lifestyle, they too occasionally hear the most cutting and unbending word in the English language: "No." Here are a few examples of when a disgruntled Cupid's arrow missed the desired mark, and the target got away.

It's no secret that Spencer Tracy was one of the greatest lady chasers in Hollywood history. Despite a 43 year marriage to Louise Treadwell, he was very easily tempted by the opposite sex. Late in life, he was caught smiling while perusing an old MGM roster photograph. Observers thought he was mulling over fond memories, but then a glint of mischief started twinkling in his eye, and he started to point to various female stars: "Her... and her... and her..." Now, such things are truly no laughing matter. Unfaithfulness is not an admirable quality, but somehow, when it comes to men, people tend to excuse the behavior because, "They can't help themselves." If this is true, I suppose it is necessary that these hypothetically helpless individuals occasionally be smacked back to reality by strong females. Spence happened to come across a few in his day. While filming The Mad Game, Spence had his eye on the beautiful Claire Trevor (left), most remembered for her role as the harlot-with-a-heart-of-gold in Stagecoach. However, when Claire noticed the attention, she appreciated but was having none of it. Finally, Spence laid it all on the line and made his play. Claire respectfully retorted: "I don't go out with married men." Surprisingly, Spence's ego was not bruised. He simply smiled and said, "Stay that way." Since he knew he was a "dirty sinner," I suppose the good Catholic in him was impressed with Claire's superior moral standards. They remained friends and worked together several times more.

Myrna Loy (right) would not get away so easily. Spence and Myrna first worked together on Whipsaw. Spence, not surprisingly, thought Myrna was beautiful but was put off a bit by her distant exterior. He considered her aloof, probably because she was more concerned with doing her work than flirting. Nonetheless, this only made him want her more. She resisted his advances, but his attraction to her became an ongoing joke. When they were re-teamed on Libeled Lady, Myrna had just wed producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. As such, a jealous Spence jokingly set up a "Hate Hornblow Table," where he dined at lunch every day with any other envious man who chose to join him. Myrna got a kick out of it. As the duo had became casual friends on the set, Myrna was called upon by MGM to check in on Spence when he went on one of his benders in New York. As she happened to be in town at the time, the studio was hoping that she could locate him and calm him down. Not wanting to get in the middle of anything, her maternal instinct finally got the better of her, and she reached out to Spence who came to her at her hotel. He was blotto and started reigniting his old intentions. When Myrna resisted his advances yet again, Spence became disdainful and shouted at her, "You don't have to worry about me anymore! I've found the woman I want!"-- referring to Katharine Hepburn, with whom he had just wrapped working on their first picture, Woman of the Year. It was his affair with Kate that had instigated his latest, guilty drinking bout and thus this interchange with Myrna. Luckily, it was Kate too that saved Myrna from Spence's advances, for after this declaration, he calmed down and passed out. 


Errol Flynn was another notorious ladies' man, but despite evidence to the contrary, he was not predatory, merely... overly eager. The ensuing, unfulfilled romance between him and frequent co-star Olivia DeHavilland has become one for the ages. Their infatuation for each other had grown over the course of three films-- from Captain Blood to Charge of the Light Brigade (left), to Robin Hood-- and reached a fever pitch with the latter picture. Errol's marriage to Lili "Tigerlil" Damita was on the verge of crumbling, and Olivia's warmer, more direct demeanor seemed like safe harbor from Errol's tempestuous marriage. He told Olivia that he was in love with her and wanted to marry her, but Olivia was adamant that they not do anything unsavory until his divorce from Lili was final. Sober, Errol agreed. Drunk... it was another story. After having a few cups one night after shooting, Errol was "feeling no pain" and decided to storm the battlements, broke into Olivia's room-- still in tights no less-- and vowed that he had to have her then and there! Her eyes bulged in surprise, but she still denied him... entry, as it were. Finally, Errol had to be pulled from the premises. After this overly dramatic show, the film wrapped, Errol's marriage ended, but Olivia remained the one that got away. They would perform together in 5 more films-- 6 if you count Thank Your Lucky Stars-- but the passionate frenzy of their earlier days had simmered to a mutual friendship and respect.

Another lovely to give Errol the passover was Veronica Lake (right). Ronni was never a  frequent guest at Errol's soirees up on Mulholland Drive-- it just wasn't her thing-- but she did finally attend one party. Her cynical way of looking at life and Errol's mischievous nature gelled well and made it easy for them to get along, even if the giggling and lash-batting of the other female guests made Veronica internally roll her eyes. Despite the many distractions, it hadn't escaped either star's notice that they were mutually, exceptionally attractive, but since Ronni was going through a divorce from first husband John Detlie and was in no mood for frivolity, things never escalated to a sexual place. But they could have... This particular night, despite Errol's charms, Ronni soon became bored with the pretentious, hangers-on company and decided to call it a night. She went for the exit, and Errol gentlemanly ushered her to the door. As he prepared to say goodbye, a moment passed between them, and their eyes locked. "I think we should go make use of a special bedroom I have, Ronni," he said. For a moment, looking into his seductive eyes, Ronni was probably tempted to accept the offer, but her brains got the better of her. She replied, "I have a special bedroom I'm going to make use of... It's my own, and I'm going to sleep in it." Errol took the shot nobly, kissed her cheek, and said "As you wish, Ms. Lake." Sure, it could have been fun, but with so many women caving in to his charms, Ronni probably did the boy some good by showing him it ain't always that easy. At future parties, he would behave more brotherly, even protecting her from other annoying Lotharios.

Marlene Dietrich was notorious for her lustful ways, and she had a slew of liaisons with the likes of John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Gabin, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and John Gilbert. However, there was one man that she failed to sink her teeth into. Fred MacMurray caught her eye while they were working together on The Lady is Willing (left). Needless to say, Marlene was attracted to the handsome leading man, who had proved his talents in romantic comedy roles wherein he wooed the likes of Carole Lombard and Jean Arthur. Once Marlene turned on the charm, it seemed that Fred would, like all the others, fall under her spell. Such was not the case. Fred reported to work, did his job, and went home, not succumbing to Marlene's come hither gaze, flirtations, or famous German cooking. Finally, director Mitchell Leisen stepped in to put an end to the shenanigans: "Listen, Marlene... Fred's so in love with his wife, Lilly, he couldn't care less about any other woman, so you lay off. Just make the picture." Marlene accepted defeat-- just because she indulged in an open marriage (to Rudi Sieber), didn't mean everyone else did. She could live with that.

Another woman not easily dissuaded was Susan Hayward (right), who found herself smitten by John Wayne while filming The Conqueror. The two had worked together previously on Reap the Wild Wind and The Fighting Seabees, but with a bigger role, a romantic storyline, and more screen time together, Susan found that the old crush she had been nursing had turned into an all out mission for heat. The one hiccup, of course, was that John was married to his 3rd wife Pilar at the time, who had accompanied him on location. While John shied away from Susan's off-camera flirtations, which he found at once entertaining and awkward, her desire for him only seemed to grow. One night, after imbibing a bit too much, a drunken Susan, who was in a gay and uproarious mood, charged right into the rented house where John and Pilar were staying. Man and wife started blinking in amazement at the lacquered starlet, uncertain what to make of her appearance. Susan thusly kicked off her heels and challenged Pilar to a dual for the Western hero's affections: "Take off your shoes and fight me for him!" While Susan put up her dukes for Duke, Pilar just sat bewildered. Finally, John embarrassedly escorted Susan home where she finally conked out. She held no grudges and always remembered John as her favorite leading man. (The fact that Susan's seduction failed seems to be yet another piece of evidence that The Conqueror itself was cursed. In addition to Susan's empty bed, the film was a flop, and because footage was shot in St. George, Utah, near a nuclear weapons test site, it is believed that the exposure caused the cancerous diseases many members of the cast and crew later succumbed to, including Susan and John).

Merle Oberon (left) too made a play for tough guy James Cagney. The fact that he was notoriously faithful to his wife "Willie" only made him more enticing prey for the Indian-born beauty. She found herself becoming increasingly attracted to the shy but fun-loving actor when they went on a WWII tour by train with the Hollywood Victory Caravan. Jim was no fool, and he could sense her arousal, but he laughed it off and went about his business... that is until Merle made it impossible for him to ignore her. Jim came back to his cabin one night to find Merle, stark naked, lying in his bed. Before he knew what was happening, she was all over him, and they were horizontal. Suddenly, as the heated make-out session started entering more serious territory, Merle screamed out, "Oohhh! Jimmy Cagney's f*cking me!" Her exhilarated screech howled some sense back into Jim, because he leapt up and started getting dressed before any permanent damage was done. A bit miffed, when Merle pressed him for a reason, he simply uttered, "I guess I'm not the type." The two continued to be cordial to each other and remained friends, but many of his buddies gave him Hell about giving up such a chance. He'd just shake his head-- an eternal guilty conscience wasn't worth a few moments pleasure, as enticing as Merle was. Thus, Merle remained unsatisfied, and Jim remained married.

When Katharine Hepburn was filming her first picture, A Bill of Divorcement, it was her great privilege to be performing opposite another acclaimed thespian, John Barrymore (right). John had actually seen Kate's screen test for the role and had been impressed. He even offered her eye drops when he thought she was suffering from a hangover, not realizing that she had three, tiny pieces of steel rail caught in her eye and had done her performance half blind-- hence, the pink eye. A trip to the doctor and an eye patch would solve that problem, but Jack would be another. As a man, as an actor, Kate liked him. He was electric, passionate, gifted, funny... and supremely sexual. It was as if he couldn't help it-- he came onto nearly everything that moved, though Kate recalled that he didn't seem the least bit insulted when he was rebuffed. She would learn this first hand. He invited her to his dressing room one day, and she went, assuming he wanted to run lines, chit-chat, etc. She knocked, he called her in, and she entered to find a nude Jack in a bundle of disarrayed blankets. Since Kate was known for her articulation, the sound of her stuttering at this apparition must have been something to hear. She mumbled an apology and high-tailed it outta there. Jack didn't take offense to the refusal, and was-- as Kate herself would say-- an "angel" thereafter. He was especially helpful in teaching her to act for the camera and getting her to give good face.


Ava Gardner was one of the most beautiful women to ever come to Hollywood. She was one of the most beautiful women period. So, for a man, any man, to resist her seems unfathomable. Yet, it did happen... for good reason. She and Robert Mitchum engaged in a brief but heated affair when they filmed together on My Forbidden Past (left), oh irony or ironies. However, the emotional entanglements of the fling were a bit much for Robert's style. Ava's passion in the bedroom extended to a fairly fiery temper in her private life, and unlike Ava's favorite sparring partner, Frank Sinatra, Robert didn't take to the drama. Thus, they parted ways. Certainly, Bob never forgot the better parts of their fling, but while he thought well of Ava, he was not inclined to reignite their amor. Years later,  Ava's friend, Betty Sicre, bumped into Bob in a hotel lobby in Madrid. They exchanged pleasantries, but when Betty mentioned that she was waiting for Ava, Bob became atypically nervous and fidgety. He hustled out of there as quickly as he could. He seemed... scared! "Ava Gardner! No, no-- don't tell her I'm here! If I get together with Ava, I'm done for..." Perhaps he was simply nervous about seeing his old lover, or perhaps he was terrified of being caught once more in her web. What was clear was that he was in no mood for another ride on her chaotic merry-go-round. He took refuge behind a palm tree, and Ava was never the wiser.

Another Robert-- Stack (right)-- would too get an invitation for a play date with Ava. However, while the young up-and-comer was understandably excited about the opportunity to rub up against one of Hollywood's sexiest women, fortune was not on his side. Bob met the luscious Ava at the Naples Restaurant in Hollywood. She overheard him from another booth as he discussed his latest picture, The Bullfighter and the Lady. As a lover of all things matador, Ava made her way into the conversation, where she realized that the orator wasn't just interesting, but kinda cute. No shy violet, Ava invited the young actor back to her house for drinks, which he, of course, accepted: My God! I'm going to Ava Gardner's! It was a dream come true for any man. As Bob mixed martinis, Ava disappeared to-- in cliched fashion-- slip into something more comfortable. The two continued talking, but as the conversation became more sexual, Bob got a sick feeling in his gut. Literally. Either he was suffering from food poisoning, or he was coming down with the flu. Then again, maybe he was intimidated by Ava's assertive sensuality: "How does it feel to face an animal that wants to kill you?" She was referring to the bull, of course, but she may as well have been talking about herself. In any case, Bob was in no shape to make love to one of the leading love goddesses of film. Feeling queasy, he made a hasty exit, leaving Ava flabbergasted. For years, he would kick himself for missing out on the opportunity of a lifetime, but with Bob Mitchum's story, it seems fate may have done him a favor. Yet, he always wondered, "Is this the reason I wasn't cast in The Sun Also Rises?"