Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Overlooked - 1953

For the past ten days or so I’ve been popping out posts at a furious (for me) clip. They’ve all been about 1953. Each intended as a modest sidebar to Stinkylulu’s upcoming Supporting Actress Smackdown. But since these posts were all so full of digressions and detours, I never did arrive at my intended destination. Which was to be a discussion of the overlooked performances from ’53. The ladies who didn’t get so much as a look-in. Not even a chance to say they were happy just to be nominated. ‘Cause Oscar didn’t do right by them . I have a list of deserving ladies for ’53. And one actress on that list actually did have an Oscar win in her past. As for the rest, they may have enjoyed various degrees of fame, fortune and fulfilment – but they all wound up with just as many Oscars as you and I have. Unless, of course, there are some Oscar winners reading this. Which I somehow doubt. Anyway, I dragged myself in from work late tonight only to realize that the Smackdown goes into orbit tomorrow morning. And I still haven’t written a thing about my intended subject. So, now, fuelled by diet Coke and Lipitor, I make an eleventh hour stab at it. The clock’s ticking – and I may fade out. But here goes.
First of all, in 1953, movie musicals were still going full-tilt. I mean in a year that produced something as perfect as "The Band Wagon", can you tell me anyone seriously believed that the entire genre would soon be more or less consigned to the scrap heap? A whole generation of musical film stars seemed to go out of style overnight – most of them in their prime. Suddenly a legend like Gene Kelly couldn’t get a lead. Ladies who’d been ruling the roost at Metro just seemed to vanish. Esther Williams’ pool was drained. Kathryn Grayson made her last film in ’56. She was only 33. Jane Powell left movies a year later. At 28. Nowadays, so many of the "serious" pictures that helped dethrone these stars seem dated and naïve, actually trivilalizing important issues with pat solutions and lots of pussyfooting, 50’s style. The musicals had an intentional innocence but the best ones managed to express that quality with wit and charm; the musical elements took you places words couldn’t go, of course. But a generation of pros before the camera and behind it, people who understood and loved the genre, often managed to bring all the facets together, creating bubbles that seem more iridescent as the years go by. As timeless as something out of the Arabian Nights. 1953 produced a bumper crop of blithely entertaining musicals. Besides "The Band Wagon", there was "Calamity Jane" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes". Not to mention breezy, under-rated pleasures like "Dangerous When Wet" "The Farmer Takes a Wife" " I Love Melvin"and "The Beggar’s Opera". All films I never get tired of. Even the ones that disappointed me a little like "Kiss Me Kate" had incredible things going for them – great casts, sensational scores – beautifully orchestrated and performed. No surprise that Kathryn Grayson rocked that Eleanor Parker wig from "Scaramouche". But who knew Howard Keel would look so good in tights? And, oh what I’d give to see that "Kiss Me Kate" choregraphy in its original 3D!
But the Academy rarely liked to nominate musical performers. And - I mean - in what year during the 40’s wasn’t Judy Garland nomination worthy? Yet during that whole decade her name never once made it to the ballot. Yes, I know Jean Hagen pried a nomination out of the Academy for "Singin’ in the Rain". But she has little or nothing to do with the film’s musical segments. I certainly don’t think of her as a musical performer. I believe Debbie Reynolds has gone on record as saying she’ll never quite come to terms with the fact that Donald O’Connor wasn’t nominated for that picture. Me neither. And could Fred Astaire have possibly been more sublime than he was in "The Band Wagon"? What did he have to do to get a nomination? Oh, right. I forgot. Totter around near a towering inferno .
Anyway, the "overlooked" choice I’m spotlighting here is a musical lady who provided additional snap crackle and pop to one of the year’s very best films. That would be Nanette Fabray in "The Band Wagon". This was a picture that made a big impression on audiences and critics in 1953. And quite deservedly. As I said, the golden age of the movie musical was nearly over, even if nobody knew it then. And that observation’s especially poignant when you re-watch "The Band Wagon", probably the greatest of all Metro’s musicals. Certainly I’d rank it that way. Just as people often say silent films were reaching a climax of achievement when sound came in to deliver the death blow, so musicals were enjoying a rich, creative heyday in the early 50’s. Nowhere more so than at MGM. And there was no finer director of musicals anywhere than Vincente Minnelli. He and the famous Freed unit seemed to find special inspiration in The Band Wagon" ’s Comden and Green script about putting on a show. A new theme by no means. But no musical ever had a better screenplay. In this case performed and mounted with passion and affection by people who really were the best in the world at what they did. Dialogue and musical sequences achieve – and sustain - a kind of zen show-biz serenity that makes it almost impossible for a lover of movie musicals to watch it without smiling and/or tearing up. Liza Minnelli has commented on her father’s awesome ability to combine a sense of reality with theatricality. "The Band Wagon" illustrates that from beginning to end. You really care about the characters. Certainly, Astaire never had a better written role. And though it might not be right to say he rises to the occasion, considering his permanently buoyant state of grace, he does seem to play Tony Hunter, aging (and fading) musical comedy legend with an extra level of personal investment. If Norma Desmond had had a sense of humour about herself, and had reacted to changing times by covering up the insecurities with a little rueful insouciance and modesty , well I guess she wouldn’t be Norma Desmond anymore. But she’d be an awful lot like Astaire’s Tony Hunter.
Nanette Fabray is joined at the hip for most of her scenes in "The Band Wagon" with Oscar Levant, a classical musician who had about the same connection to acting as Zsa Zsa Gabor does. In the 40’s and 50’s he parlayed his celebrity into a small string of movie appearances, inevitably the cynical Sad Sack, alternately courting and deflecting approval. Fabray and Levant play Lily and Lester Allen, a kind of affably frantic version of Comden and Green. Irascible Levant wasn’t known as a high energy team player, so I’d have to guess that a great deal of the vim and vigor generated by Lily and Lester comes from Fabray and Minnelli. However they got it, they got it. Lily and Lester get progressively (and hilariously) more shell-shocked as they watch wunderkind director Jeffrey Cordova, (Jack Buchanan, another nomination that shoulda been) turn the little musical comedy they wrote into a combination Greek tragedy/ Wreck of the Hesperus. From her first appearance at the train station, brandishing a slapped-together " Tony Hunter Fan Club" sign, Fabray’s a joy. One of those people who can mug and make you want more. Then dial it down ever so nicely. And - largely thanks to Fabray’s authentic warmth - you genuinely believe, right off the bat, that Lester, Lily and Tony really are old friends. The whole picture communicates a feeling of camaraderie, a sense of community and shared purpose, in the face of chaos.
Fabray isn’t, of course, the leading lady. That spot’s reserved for willowy Cyd Charisse. No, Fabray’s definitely a second banana here. Plucky –and similar in some ways to earlier MGM examples of the type. Though not as man-crazy as Betty Garrett . And definitely not as sour as Nancy Walker, who often came off like some kind of shrunken head hanging from the belt of whatever musical she was attached to. Like them, Nanette Fabray was no glamour-puss. But she was cute enough to have been considered viable as a Warner Brothers starlet in the late 30’s. You can see her - in vintage Technicolor - as one of Bette Davis’ ladies in waiting in "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex". After that initial Hollywood foray, Fabray headed for the stage, eventually becoming a much admired musical comedy star on Broadway. She was a gifted comedienne that didn’t have to sing at all to be terrific. But sing she did. Her speaking voice is easy to recognize. There’s a certain quality that makes you think she’s not getting quite enough air. Or maybe someone’s pumped just a little bit of helium into her. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But it’s distinctive – and definitely part of her appeal. When she sings, you get the sense of a great big Broadway voice coming through a funnel. But it sounds great. Fabray is down-to-earth , one of us. Attractive but no picture perfect beauty queen. Her clothes in "The Band Wagon" suggest the housewife down the block, 1953 style. Yet, at the same time, it’s crystal clear she’s a Broadway Baby through and through.
Onscreen she’s an eager beaver – but one you’d definitely want to spend lots of time with. Considering it’s a supporting part, it’s amazing how many highlights one remembers from Fabray’s performance. That fabulous scream in the back alley behind the theatre! Her conflicted reaction as Cordova woos the backers with his one-man version of the show. This is great!/ Help! Get me out of here. And of course, she shines in the musical numbers. Can you believe how quickly she arranges that kerchief on her head in the "I Love Louisa" number? The camera's only off her for moments. Plus, of course, she carries off every bit of musical comedy business like it’s no sweat. That "Triplets" number couldn’t have been easy to do. But she makes you want to get up there with her. I’m glad she gets the spotlight firmly on her for one number. It’s "Louisiana Hayride". I’ve always loved the song – and I’ll forever associate it with her. Of course, the Technicolor’s a dream. But so’s she. In great voice, too. And I love every single piece of comic schtick she pulls out during that roll call bit. "Sweet Pea Oglethorpe" "Ah is hyuh" "Jonquil Jezebel" " Mmm hyuh" . Moving through the whole thing with the unerring instinct and assurance of a Broadway legend.
The entire performance is warm, funny, smart, resourceful, charismatic. And she hits bull’s-eyes in every one of her musical sequences. Yet never once tries to stop her co-stars from shining too. If all this isn’t worth a supporting actress nomination, what is? I love this woman. I also love "The Band Wagon". And the fact that if Nanette Fabray could only be in one MGM musical, it was the best one ever.

That’s it. I’ve run out of steam. No energy left right now to properly praise my other "overlooked" ladies of ’53.

Check out Stinkylulu’s Smackdown tomorrow ( I mean, later today)

The nominees that year were:
Grace Kelly "Mogambo"
Geraldine Page "Hondo"
Marjorie Rambeau "Torch Song"
Donna Reed "From Here to Eternity"
Thelma Ritter "Pickup on South Street"

Reed was the eventual winner. See who gets to wear the Smackdown crown.
My guess would be Ritter. But who knows?

And finally, my 1953 ballot would have read this way
Nanette Fabray "The Band Wagon"
Grace Kelly "Mogambo"
Allyn McLerie "Calamity Jane"
Jeanette Nolan "The Big Heat"
Teresa Wright "The Actress"

Now I lay me down to sleep..

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Happy Just to Be Nominated

My last post turned out to be not so much Last Post as 21 Gun Salute to Grace Kelly’s work in 1953’s "Mogambo". The general idea being that - of the five supporting actress performances nominated that year – hers was the only one to merit that level of recognition. Even situated as it was – in a pretty ordinary jungle potboiler –it’s impressive . Nervous energy, cleverly informed and shaped by instinct, discipline and a certain amount of daring. Definitely work of considerable promise. And the mere three years of career she had left were hardly enough to fully deliver on that promise. Still, it would be wrong to say the other four nominated performances were bad. They were actually all quite okay. But, honestly, not much more than that.
For instance, Geraldine Page in "Hondo". As in Grace Kelly’s case, the picture was an early screen credit for her. But Page’s movie career lasted decades and left us with a raft of memorably etched performances. F.Murray Abraham may have been the only one kneeling onstage on Oscar night, 1986, when Page picked up her trophy for "The Trip to Bountiful". But discerning audiences and most of her professional peers had been doing it – figuratively - for years. She was, by common consensus, the definitive actor’s actor. When you heard Page was in a film, you automatically started thinking Oscar nomination. And though the Academy limited her to a merely sensational eight nominations, several more wouldn’t have been out of order ("Toys in the Attic", "Dear Heart","I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can" are titles that spring to mind immediately). Even more impressive when you realize that Page was primarily a stage actress – one of the theatre’s most admired. And though her filmography isn’t all that extensive, really just a number of thrilling punctuation marks in a long stage career, what she did manage to commit to film stands as enduring proof of an amazing talent. How incredible it would have been to see her onstage! I wonder if she ever did "The Glass Menagerie"? Every time I think of that play, I imagine what a wonderful Amanda she’d have made.
"Hondo" wasn’t technically her movie debut. Alert viewers will notice her brief appearance in a Fox programmer called "Taxi" with Dan Dailey But her screen credit in "Hondo" read "introducing Geraldine Page". And for most movie-goers this was their first look at her. The picture was hardly an indicator of the actress’ future film career. For one thing it was a western. And she didn’t make many of those. And it’s always a little surprising to realize that an actress who was to become so celebrated made her official film debut in a 3D movie. Then again, come to think of it, so many of her later performances were a lot like 3D, providing audiences with simultaneous multiple perspectives. If you hankered for the giddy pleasure of a heightened movie experience, Page was the lady who could give it to you. The tics, the mannerisms, vocal and visual, the quicksilver transitions, the unique, eccentric energy – they were Page trademarks. But she knew when to use them and when not to. When to dole them out and when to drown you in them. For "Hondo", she kept them pretty close to her vest. Tennessee Williams it wasn’t. But it was a well put together western, handsomely shot, skilfully written and very entertaining, charged with a nice forward momentum. Page plays a frontier wife and mother – basically on her own with a young son (her husband’s a chronically absent gallivanter). Leaving her to run a homestead and raise a child in remote Apache country. Page makes a solid impression – straight, clean and stalwart – with few hints in her performance of the dramatic filigree she’d become famous for in later years. And if there are no great fireworks with John Wayne (Maureen O’Hara was pretty much the only one to ever pull that off), the teaming was smooth and believable. And though the performance didn’t convey the compelling promise that Kelly’s did in "Mogambo" – or give much indication of the heights Page would later scale, it was, nevertheless, assured and appropriate. Still, I’d say it was a little over rewarded with that Oscar nomination.
Which brings us to the 3 R’s. Not, in this case, "Readin, Ritin’ and ‘Rithmetic" but rather the three other ’53 nominees who weren’t Grace Kelly – Rambeau, Ritter and Reed. The Joan Crawford curio "Torch Song" - unlike "Mogambo" – was no box-office smash. It’s intriguing to speculate what audiences who did go made of it in 1953. The whole point of the exercise seems to have been to celebrate the – at this point - Medusa-like charms of its star. But it’s a doggedly glum celebration . And Marjorie Rambeau is little more than a splash from the mud puddle as Crawford storm-troops her way through a series of airless drawing rooms and grim musical numbers. Rambeau’s contribution – quickly checking off a few standard blowsy mother-of-the-star cliches

– was competent but hardly stood out. Years before, she’d played a similar part - and one that gave her a lot more opportunity to shine. That was in "The Primrose Path"(1940). And she was best thing in the picture (though, admittedly, the film itself was only marginally better than "Torch Song"). That netted her an Oscar nomination too. A deserved one, I’d say. But, here, the nomination’s a real puzzler. Was it backstage studio politicking at work? Was Rambeau really that well liked by her colleagues? Or was it just another example of the vagaries of the Academy’s odd multi-tiered nomination process at work? Whatever the case, speculations on how this nomination even happened remain more interesting than the performance itself.
Thelma Ritter’s work in the goodish (but not that goodish) "Pickup on South Street" provided more likely nomination fodder. The beloved character actress was already developing into a perennial Oscar bridesmaid . And voters were eager to hand her a trophy. (They never quite succeeded – 6 nominations, 6 losses). Yet, oddly enough, they often ignored her finest accomplishments ("A Letter to Three Wives", "A Hole in the Head" and – above all – her sublime contribution to "The Misfits")
Except for a touching final scene, Ritter’s Apple Annie style character in "Pickup" doesn’t really rank with her best work. She’s a kind of urban Mammy Yokum, not so much a believable character but , rather, a walking slice of contrived local color. It doesn’t help that she’s presented as a shady street peddler who basically supplements her income by regularly informing on fellow con-artists. Everyone seems to know it, yet, for the most part, they all stay pretty chummy with her. Doesn’t make sense. One wouldn’t have thought that the distance between Ritter’s patented Bronx-y wisecracks and Damon Runyon would be that great. Yet the faux Runyon dialogue she’s saddled with here boxes her up , constricting her normal speech patterns just enough to rob them of their usual naturalness. Admittedly, the studio could have found even less hospitable roles for her. Someone once asked her why she left Fox in the mid-fifties and Ritter reportedly quipped, "I don’t look that good in a toga". So, no, this wasn’t as extreme as ,say, plunking her down into the Coliseum with Demetrius and the Gladiators. But it still wasn’t an entirely comfortable fit. That pretty much comes down to the writing, I think. But the end result’s that a role meant to spotlight Ritter only succeeds in diminishing her a little. Too bad. Still, as I said, she asserts her distinctive talent beautifully in that final scene, breaking through the role’s constraints to give the picture its one thoroughly effective emotional jolt. Me, I’d still withhold the nomination though, on the basis that the performance remains essentially compromised by those earlier scenes.
I don’t like "From Here to Eternity" – a dull soap opera chock full of its own ( supposed) importance. The Oscar for Sinatra’s unexceptional performance at least re-ignited his professional confidence and popularity, inspiring him to a series of performances that really were Oscar calibre – "Man with the Golden Arm", "The Joker is Wild", "Some Came Running". Burt Lancaster does another of his overstated takes on understatement. Clift’s in early haunted mode. I really don’t think he got that right till ’61 in "The Misfits" and "Judgment at Nuremberg". Here it’s just agitated navel gazing. Donna Reed actually won the trophy that year for her Alma, dance-hall

hostess (read hooker). It’s a sensible performance, and Reed ‘s conscientious about conveying Alma’s mix of steely determination and vestigial sweetness. But though her work represents one of the film’s better features, it’s not particularly memorable. This is an earlier example of the Shirley Jones/"Elmer Gantry" syndrome. An actress identified with virginal good girl roles accepts a racy bad girl part and is rewarded – not so much for playing it well – but just for playing it at all. Audiences and voters seemed over-awed by the celebrated reputation of James Jones’ novel. That certainly played a part in the film’s popularity. And it may have been a contributing factor to Reed’s Oscar win. Oddly, the parallels between Reed and Shirley Jones didn’t end here. Both later achieved their greatest success as stars of innocuous but wildly popular TV sitcoms. And in spite of the essentially flimsy nature of their respective vehicles, both blossomed beautifully as actresses during the course of their long runs. Beyond revealing impressive reserves of charm and beauty, the two became experts at comic timing and droll line readings. And both ladies could bring off a quiet, reflective moment with the best of them. I know I’m talking about "The Partridge Family". But check it out sometime. Jones is really good in it. As is Reed in "The Donna Reed Show". Two classy and talented ladies who, for years, conveyed more about the joys of good acting – and on a weekly basis, too – than pretty much anything I’ve been able to extract from either "From Here to Eternity" or "Elmer Gantry".
At any rate, for a wider range of opinions on the Oscar nominated ladies of 1953, be sure to visit Stinkylulu’s next Supporting Actress Smackdown this coming Sunday (April 27).

Friday, April 25, 2008


Fond as I am of 1953, I don’t think the Academy managed to spotlight many of its actual highlights when they chose their
supporting actress nominees that year. With one exception.
Though "Mogambo" ’s a pretty pedestrian effort (action-wise, this particular African safari’s about as exciting as a trip to a water-cooler), up-and-comer Grace Kelly manages to turn it into something of a personal triumph. Ava Gardner’s role - wise-cracking any port in a storm play-girl - is certainly larger and showier. And – on the surface of it – the more dominant part. But maybe not. ’Cause in the script’s original incarnation ("Red Dust"{1932}), Mary Astor played the Kelly role and carried off a similar coup, turning an ostensibly supporting part into the picture’s real acting showcase. To her credit, Gardner is less cartoonish than Jean Harlow had been. For openers, the onscreen Ava generally projects a languorous, laid-back quality that’s easier to live with than most of Harlow’s shenanigans. The platinum blonde kewpie-doll exterior – candy-floss hair and three coats of paint – presents its own obstacles. But then there’s the curious diction – at once crass and high-falutin’. And the frequent onscreen tantrums – frantic mazurkas of charmless squawking. Harlow’s odd attributes were never more unconvincing than in the (all too frequent) outings when she played (if that’s the word) a socialite. At least in "Red Dust", she’s cast in a more down-market guise. Still, after all the Harlow bashing , let me add that she managed to balance her effects quite nicely in the excellent pre-coder "Red Headed Woman". And her work in "Wife vs. Secretary"(1936) – unexpectedly warm and rich - proved once and for all that there’d been real talent there all along. Making one wish Metro had used her more judiciously in the years preceding it. Still, whatever Jean Harlow was selling in the early 30’s, it was obviously something the public couldn’t get enough of. ’Cause at the box-office she was gangbusters. And a mellower, more realistic Harlow probably wouldn’t have raked nearly as much money into Leo the Lion’s coffers. Getting back to Gardner, I’d say the popularity of "Mogambo" is what finally cinched her status as a major league movie star . But it’s still not a very interesting performance. Yes, the beauty and the voice - with its powdery sensuality - are hard to ignore (and who’d want to?). But there’s a curious lack of spontanaiety in most of her dialogue. She often seems to be reeling off bits of some mildly raunchy class assignment. Delivered with more duty than conviction. The only snippet that really works for me is her wryly delivered re-entry line part way through the picture - something to the effect of, "Yeah, it’s me. The Return of Frankenstein". But, mostly, it’s just paint-by-number stuff. Ava had already played the bruised glamour girl - with less emphasis and greater effect - in "Show Boat" (She was a genuinely touching Julie). And would get it just right again – in the 60’s – in "Seven Days in May". But here it’s pretty much skin-deep. The film’s mammoth success and Gardner’s obvious upward mobility on the Hollywood scene – might explain her Best Actress nomination that year. But she’s not half as fascinating as onscreen rival Grace Kelly who, noticing the rest of the cast is half asleep, takes the opportunity to whip up an intriguing little cocktail of her own , equal parts prim and primitive. The picture’s a kind of Hemingway-lite soap opera with Gable as a safari guide, casually hooked up with stranded ( but adaptable) good time girl Gardner. He’s hired by a naïve young Brit – a kind of amateur scientist with more money than brains. The guy’s all gung-ho about some vaguely defined research project that involves tape recorders and gorillas. He’s a kind of Dian Fossey - but without the brains. What he does have, though, is a beautiful young wife, Linda (played by Kelly, a triumphant twenty-three at the time). She arrives, cheery and gracious – fully expecting to play young Lady Bountiful. But Hubby promptly takes to his bed with some sort of jungle fever. Leaving Linda to face about a dozen consecutive emotional and cultural blind-sides, not the least of which is the steadily escalating sexual attraction between her and Gable. I love how quickly Kelly’s flawless face goes from tabula rasa to rapidly changing emotional barometer. Expertly registering confusion, anger, jealousy, distress, desire and any number of variations thereof. There’s a fluidity of expression that’s quite startling . Really resourceful – and way beyond the call of duty for what amounts to a safari soap opera . Certainly beyond what might reasonably be expected of a young socialite dabbling in the movies, which is how Kelly was generally perceived up until "Mogambo". She hits every note she has to – with real aplomb. The imperious streak. The cattiness with Gardner. The progressive irritation with hubby, increasingly inneffectual in her eyes next to Gable’s elemental he-man. And there’s no shortage of stunning images capturing Kelly’s beauty blooming like a hot pink rose in the African landscape. Kelly even makes Linda likable. You catch yourself rooting for her. I love her embarrassed silence when Gable is forced to come to the rescue after she gets herself into a pickle with a panther. And when a coy question to The Great White Hunter gets a blunt response, her reaction’s beguiling.– a bit of smart, self-deprecating humour. "Not very gallant", she chuckles, "but understandable". Later as things between them heat up, she has no trouble handling her end of some sexually charged verbal fencing (as they sail suggestively down a fast-moving river). Linda knows what she stands to lose. A wealthy, comfortable, life. A secure future. But Gable represents excitement, adventure and probably lots of hot sex. And when nice, clueless Hubby urges her to live every minute and make the most of it, he probably means she should set up a tape recorder of her own near Gorilla Town. But it’s clear Linda’s putting an entirely different construction on his words. She’s pretty much decided to take the plunge. In the end, it’s Gable who just can’t bring himself to hurt Hubby. And when he gives Linda the kiss-off, she caps off her performance with a neat little display of hysteria, complete with gunfire. In the end, she quietly retreats with Hubby ( still blithely clueless). But Linda’s future is a toss-up. Has she been sufficiently burned that she’ll opt for permanent respectability in sleepy Devonshire? Or are the newly acquired perspectives and sharpened appetites going to make her increasingly restless? There never was a "Mogambo 2". So we’ll just have to go on guessing. Clark Gable may have put up gamely with the hardships of location shooting in Africa, but doesn’t seem to have extended his efforts to the point of stretching himself acting-wise. Except in his scenes with Kelly, where he seems genuinely surprised, impressed and – I don’t know – turned on, maybe, as Kelly finds increasingly creative ways to make her performance captivating. Interestingly enough, Gene Tierney was originally cast as Linda in "Mogambo". When she dropped out for health reasons, Kelly came onboard. Tierney would’ve been good. She usually was. But we’d have had to do without the striking blonde-brunette contrast the Kelly - Gardner combo provided. And more importantly, Tierney wouldn’t have been as stunningly youthful or as fluidly expressive. Nature wasn’t stingy, as far as young Grace Kelly was concerned. A striking beauty. Born to wealth and privilege. Smart. Charming. But who’d have guessed there’d be so much talent, too?. Grace Kelly was a very good actress. Besides the Academy Award nomination, she also won a Golden Globe for her work in "Mogambo". Oddly, I don’t think she ever had a richer showcase for her emotional versatility than this glorified jungle programmer. Certainly not " The Country Girl", drab talk periodically interrupted for some godawful musical numbers – even if it did win her an Oscar. Amazingly, her legendary career, just beginning to hit its stride with "Mogambo" was over three years later. Before her 27th birthday. The famous marriage in Monaco. The immediate and permanent withdrawal from films. A lot of actresses owe Kelly big-time for that decision. Elizabeth Taylor, say. Or most of the post ’55 Hitchcock heroines . It’s clear that with her phenomenal fame – and equally impressive qualifications – physical and artistic, Grace Kelly would have been the go-to girl for most of the big projects of the late 50’s and probably on through the 60’s. What’s more, it was a talent that may well have grown and deepened as she reached middle age and beyond. Grace Kelly’s career may have been brief, but she seems to have secured permanent status as one of Hollywood’s iconic figures. Not just beautiful. But special.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


Later this month (Sunday, April 27 to be exact), the destination of choice is definitely Stinkylulu’s Online Palace of a Thousand Delights. Occasion? The kick-off of a new season of Supporting Actress Smackdowns. Wherein Lulu and panel (of which I’m honored to be a member) mull over a specific year of supporting actress Oscar nominees, sniffing around the pros and cons of each performance – and either reaffirming the Academy’s choice or crowning a new winner. A kind of George Cukor rumble – essentially decorous but frequently barbed. With Jets and Sharks led by Mary Haines and Sylvia Fowler.
In the meantime I’ve got a lot of related rambling to do. Because 1953 is the Smackdown target this time out – and movie-wise, that’s a year I just can’t stop talking about. I was actually around in ’53. But not quite old enough to know what year it was. Though I wasn’t actually aware it was ’53 in ’53, I do remember things that happened then. And I can even recall a year or two earlier when my parents gave me a plastic wrist-watch. In response to any adult who'd humor me with a "Kenny, what time is it?", I’d stare intently at the face of that thing, then announce , "It’s a quarter to time." I’m not sure whether I thought I was hoodwinking them – or actually believed I was imparting legitimate information.
The first time I actually remember being conscious of its being such and such a year was in 1955. Mainly because of ads for ’55 cars. Plus my parents took a trip to some American Emerald City (Minneapolis, I suspect) and brought me back a souvenir. A toy Car of the Future. Streamlined, spacey and colored a vivid chartreuse. In order to make me understand the concept of a future year, I expect someone must have clued me in as to exactly what year we were in. At any rate, for all its supposed futurity, that car remains fully linked in my mind with 1955. There was also Cinemascope 55 – garden variety Cinemascope, I imagine, dressed up in the year’s movie ads to suggest startling new dimensions – presumably the nearest thing , thrill-wise, to a trip to Mars.
Cinemascope was one of the weapons in Hollywood’s battle to woo defectors back from their TV sets. By ’55 I realized it meant widescreen. But in ’53, when it first arrived, I apparently wasn’t too sure. Because one of my 1953 memories is of sitting in a theatre watching "The Robe". The publicity mills had made it clear even to a four year old that this picture was in Cinemascope. And, whatever that was, it clearly constituted a substantial addition to the wonders of the world. Stereophonic sound must have been part of the package too. Because I can remember being scared bug-eyed by a sudden theatre-rattling trumpet blast announcing the onscreen arrival of wicked Emperor Jay Robinson. Thereafter, I made my official policy on the new phenomenon clear to anyone who’d listen. "I hate Cinemascope. It’s too loud!"
I came to terms with Cinemascope soon enough. And widescreen movies did come to stay. But the process wasn’t enough to turn back the clock. The old Hollywood system – with its comfortably ritualized genres and enormous, loyal audience was in for a jolt
Among the gimmicks Hollywood hauled out to combat audience attrition, 3D remains the one most inextricably linked to 1953. The technique, which provided a pleasantly giddy optical sensation, had been around in some form since the 1800’s. Stereoscopic images, looked at through special viewers, were a diverting novelty in homes across the country. But no one had figured out an effective and commercially viable way to transfer the experience to the motion picture screen. That is, until a tireless Hollywood promoter called Arch Oboler purchased an option on a new Polaroid process called Natural Vision which not only provided 3D motion picture images, but could do it in full color. As far as I can tell, the filming process – cumbersome and time-consuming – involved two cameras shooting scenes from different angles. Theatre showings required a pair of projectors which – perfectly synchronized (and this was vital) – superimposed both images onscreen together. Special polaroid glasses (provided by the theatre}–one lens red, one green - allowed audiences to see a different image through each eye. A trick of the brain enabled viewers to combine the two pictures into one. The resultant separation of background and foreground – startling and quite fascinating – made it apparent that the 2D images audiences had been long conditioned to accept were, in fact, severely limited perspective-wise. And - properly photographed and projected –onscreen objects aimed (sometimes hurled) toward the audience seemed to leap right out of the screen. Hence the 3D slogan "A Lion in Your Lap! A Lover in Your Arms!" The picture that slogan was initially attached to was Arch Oboler’s "Bwana Devil", which he’d convinced United Artists to release late in 1952. It was a routine jungle adventure with no particularly big names in the cast. But audience response to the picture – and more specifically to 3D - was stupendous. Box-office records were shattered in city after city, as people lined up for blocks waiting for a chance to don the red and green glasses. Hollywood execs looked up from their hand-wringing, smelling a solution to the industry’s woes.
Immediately studios were falling over each other, announcing 3D projects. Titles previously planned for normal filming were re-tooled as 3D productions. Within six months, the 3D boom was in full swing and initial box-office results were colossal. Warner Brothers’ "House of Wax" with Vincent Price generated the kind of profits usually associated with De Mille blockbusters. A Guy Madison western called "The Charge at Feather River" was held over everywhere. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a genre that wasn’t suddenly awash in 3D – sci-fi (the marvelous "It Came from Outer Space"), swashbucklers ("Sangaree" with Fernando Lamas and luscious Arlene Dahl), crime thrillers ("I the Jury", a Mickey Spillane slugfest), musicals (the lavish "Kiss Me Kate" from Metro). Martin & Lewis got into the act ("Money from Home"). As did John Wayne ("Hondo") and Hitchcock ("Dial M for Murder"). Assuming the profits would continue unabated, studio heads confidently stated that in future, all films would be in 3D. But there were flies in the ointment. Not the least of which were the technical problems inherent in the proper exhibition of 3D films. Perfect projection synchronization was necessary to assure proper 3D performance. And it was impossible to monitor every showing across the country. Equipment breakdown and projectionist error turned show after show into disasters. For neighborhood theatres, the costs of outfitting for 3D capability were often out of the question. What’s more, even after successful screenings, people were complaining about the 3D glasses – common charges: inconvenient, clumsy, uncomfortable, impractical for people who already wore glasses . And beyond that, there were widespread complaints of eye-strain everywhere 3D was shown. Viewers seated toward the side sometimes grumbled about not getting the full 3D effect. Some people got to the point where they preferred to stay home if they found out a movie they’d planned to see was in 3D. Plus it was still widely perceived as a novelty. And novelties have a habit of wearing off – of suddenly becoming "so yesterday". What’s more, censorship was relaxing. Audience tastes were undergoing a change. The incoming tide of heavy, increasingly frank black and white dramas, the Method acting, the restricted films and foreign art-house items hardly seemed compatible with 3D. Many considered 3D a gaudy huckster’s trick – meant for hyping the visual entertainment value of Saturday matinee potboilers. But unseemly, undignified and thoroughly inappropriate when attached to serious Cinematic Art. No single reason was responsible for 3D’s demise. But the combination was enough to bring the 3D era to a grinding halt. By the end of ’54, the process had been all but scrapped. The final 3D features were sneaked into theatres in flatscreen format. And 3D was quietly swept away to join other cultural dust-bunnies like the charleston and the snood.
I assume our town must have had 3D movies in ’53. But I never saw them then. Not until I was in my 30’s – and living in a big city. That’s when a spate of limited 3D revivals cropped up. I thought they were fabulous. Completely undisappointing. I remember "Inferno" with Robert Ryan and Rhonda Fleming was a particular 3D bull’s-eye. But the second-run theatre I went to as a child probably wasn’t equipped to show 3D. Still, I did know about 3D then. And I did have a couple of 3D comic books which I was crazy about. With the red and green glasses (not so) firmly in place, I perused and pondered these items as if they were pieces from the Shroud of Turin. One was Little Lotta. The other was Richie Rich. I remember a particular page showed somebody coming down a slide right at me – and I was endlessly delighted and boggled by it. I had 3D view-master reels too. Queen Elizabeth’s wedding, Niagara Falls, the Greatest Show on Earth and some fairy-tales with Gumby-like protagonists who were supposed to be Snow White and Cinderella, but looked more like the Golem. Still, the 3D was pretty good.
There have been periodic attempts to revive 3D. But none have quite caught on. In spite of the undying – almost hypnotic – appeal of the process itself. As I write, a new 3D boom seems imminent. The old-fashioned 3D glasses have been replaced by a light, comfortable apparatus, largely indistinguishible from designer sunglasses. Soon, it seems, there’ll be no need for glasses at all. And with technology growing by leaps and bounds, IMAX 3D presents images that are frankly jaw-dropping. Box-office returns for the 3D editions of films like "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf" have been enormous. 3D concert films have also made tons of money. Exhibitors around the world are spending fortunes equipping theatres to show future IMAX 3D productions. New 3D titles are announced regularly. The current slate includes Disney’s projected 3D remake of its 80’s sfx classic "Tron". This new 3D age may or may not pan out. But, for my generation, 3D will always mean 1953D.
Now, as anyone who’s ever read this blog knows, I love old Hollywood – and old Hollywood movies. Even so, I’d like to think I can appreciate what’s come after. Don’t – I repeat, don’t – lump me in with the cobweb and crinoline crowd who think good movies died with Louis B.Mayer. I can still feel nostalgic, though, for the innocent adventure films, knights and bandits, pirates and pashas – cynicism-free and decked out in mouth-watering color. The endless stream of war-bonnet westerns. And the musicals – those twinkling dream-factory creations where a 3-strip Technicolor breeze was all it took to transform ordinary dialogue into buoyant song and dance. I remember nodding in agreement when I read someone’s fond recollection of the time when a new musical – with something wonderful in it – opened every other week
Looking back, it’s clear 1953 was the Indian summer of that era.
I lived in a small Canadian town. And my mother took several years off work when I was born – mainly to focus on Baby. She started taking me to the movies before I could walk or talk. And you’d better believe it - the movies played a part in teaching me to talk. Those big beautiful technicolor faces, those voices – dulcet, dramatic – speaking directly to me in the dark. Demanding a response of some sort – awe, affection, emulation. All erupting sooner or later in words. My mother was young – and probably looked younger. I can remember, when I was six or so, walking with her near the train station. And some pint-sized smart-alec called out, "Hey, kid! Is that your mother or your sister?" She was my first movie-going confederate. And little more than a kid herself.
It was – as I said – a small town. And safe. I never heard of anything really bad happening to a child. By the time I was five, the next-door kids and I would trek downtown ( it wasn’t far} nearly every Saturday to the Royal Theatre for a Saturday matinee. Fifty cents tops would cover the cost – refreshments included. There were similar second-run theatres in other parts of town – the Lake and the Fort. But these we rarely visited. A grown-up would have to drive us there. And pick us up around five when the show let out.
Occasionally my parents would take me along to a night-time movie. Usually at the Capitol or the Odeon. These would be more sober and sophisticated events. But thrilling in their own "so this is what adults do" way. Even more rare were forays to the Drive-In. An especially exotic destination. A kind of combination theme park and Katmandu. Where hot dogs and french fries achieved cordon-bleu levels of delectability. And Mom and Dad always had to be careful to remove the speaker from the car window before they drove away.
But, above all, the movie-going experience meant Saturday afternoon at the Royal. Kids were not only welcome. That one day a week, they seemed to have exclusive rights to the place. I don’t recall ever seeing a grown-up actually occupying a seat on a Saturday afternoon. It’s unlikely they’d have relished the experience. What with the intermission – frantic onstage games and contests plus occasional special appearances by dignitaries like Elmer the Safety Elephant and the Planters Peanut Man. I seem to remember a real celebrity horse onstage once, though which cowboy he belonged to I couldn’t tell you. The adult world was pretty much represented by a manager (who doubled as MC), a box-office lady, a candy-counter operator, an usher or two. How did they all cope?
Certainly the Saturday afternoon noise levels would have scared away most voting age patrons. I can still remember the tumultuous audience response to onscreen events. I have an idea we weren’t always clear as to exactly what features we’d be seeing. The tiny foyer was so crammed with exciting lobby cards and posters. Some current. Some forthcoming. Some just there for pure razzle-dazzle. But the most ecstatic moments of all would come when the onscreen credits revealed the names of a favorite comedy team (Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys). The shriek of approval would be deafening. And then, if the next frame started in with spooky music and eerily wavering graphics, indicating that our comic heroes would be encountering a ghost or a monster or anything haunted or headless, the place just went nuts. The only thing that kept a roof on the building was the presence of the ever-patrolling matron , a Jane Darwell type – uniformed, stern, sturdy – armed with a flashlight that carried the implied authority of a cudgel. Like a grandmother who meant business. It was her job to see that the situation never morphed into full-on prison riot mode. Unfailingly – and amazingly - she accomplished her mission. Even the tough kids didn’t want to cross her. And – as far as I know – never did. And at the end of the afternoon, when sated audiences spilled out onto the streets, like cap-guns exploding, the place was still standing.
The Royal Theatre and the Saturday matinees are only memories now. But in ’53 the fun had already been going on for decades. And – without really thinking about it – most people just assumed it would go on forever. But the writing was already on the wall.