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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.

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