Monday, 26 November 2012

So Long, Major Nelson

Larry Hagman in a promo pic for I Dream of Jeannie 
On Saturday morning, I learned the news that we lost one of America's most underrated actors. I can't quite process the fact that Larry Hagman, one of my first teenage crushes, Major Nelson himself, is gone. Yeah, sure, he was J.R. Ewing on Dallas, and he himself would probably want to be remembered more as the love-to-hate Ewing than slapstick Major Tony Nelson of I Dream of Jeannie fame. (He once said in an interview that Dallas was undoubtedly the highlight of his career). But, as a woman who, as a teenager, watched I Dream of Jeannie religiously in the early 2000s, and became enchanted by the show and Larry Hagman's special brand of humour, he will always be Tony Nelson to me.

I had the privilege of meeting Larry at a fan event in August 2011. It's hard for me to believe that the healthy, easygoing, fist-bumping man I met that day would be dead just over a year later. I will now treasure even more the personalized autograph I have of Larry, and am thankful I had the chance to tell him how huge a fan of I Dream of Jeannie I am.

You may be wondering: why such a big fan of Larry Hagman? Why the love for an antiquated 1960s sitcom, and why do you love Tony Nelson so much? After all, he was in many ways the straight man, the man who had to deal with Jeannie (Barbara Eden), Roger (Bill Daily) and Dr. Bellows' (Hayden Rorke) hijinks, and keep the existence of his beloved Jeannie a secret. Why such intense love for Larry? I'll tell you why. The show never would have gelled without the chemistry Eden and Hagman shared. Think about it... Jeannie without Tony? It wouldn't have worked! Frustrated with director Gene Nelson during Season 1 of the series, Hagman was almost dismissed from his role. Eden, the only cast/crew member with foresight, said the show would go off the air without Larry. How right she was. The effortless, playful, natural rhythm of the two lead actors is what kept the show on the air for 5 years, amidst frequent and repetitive under par scripts and budget cuts. But audiences kept tuning in-- yes, of course to see Eden's beautiful bod. But, also, because they knew that at its heart, I Dream of Jeannie is a love story of Jeannie and Tony.

Tony may not have been able to admit his feelings fully until the fifth season, but we always knew... Tony adores Jeannie! She adores him! She makes him happy! She prevents him from becoming a workaholic astronaut, and shows him how to have fun! The moments where Hagman as Tony would melt and tell Jeannie how he really feels about her are the ones avid fans tune in for and watch over and over again! This is all thanks to Hagman's skill as an actor... he made moments in one of the cheesiest, most fantastical TV shows ever made believable!

In addition to his skills as an actor, Hagman also constantly fought to make I Dream of Jeannie better. The great slapstick moments of the show were usually the improvised brainchild of Hagman to enhance a mediocre script. We can't help but laugh at when Tony trips as he walks through a door, or falls over when Jeannie unexpectedly blinks herself out of a room. But, a lot of the time, those weren't in the script. Hagman and Bill Daily would work on their feet in between shots to add slapstick to a humourless moment in the script. I love watching those moments. Hagman was a fearless physical comedian! How many times is he praised for that? Not enough.

Sure, Hagman got to show his dramatic chops on Dallas, but, in my opinion, Dallas has dated worse than I Dream of Jeannie. The air force uniforms in Jeannie are still worn today, and Eden rarely veered from her Jeannie outfit. Therefore, I Dream of Jeannie's comedy is still fresh and enjoyable today, whereas reruns of Dallas are sometimes painful for the dated 1980s fashion and the outrageous plot points.

We also forget that Hagman had roles in legendary director Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964) and The Group (1966). Hagman was a serious, legitimate actor. It's all to easy to forget that when audiences only know him from his TV roles. The son of legendary stage actress Mary Martin, Hagman had acting in his bones, and was also at home on the stage, including a special tour of the play Love Letters with Barbara Eden. Also, take a look at him in the 1971 TV movie A Howling in the Woods, again, costarring Eden. His character is a far cry from Major Nelson. Hagman's performance is captivating and chilling.

As a teen reading about the real lives of the I Dream of Jeannie cast, it sometimes broke my heart to know that Hagman, once he landed Dallas, turned his back on I Dream of Jeannie for many years. It seemed like he wanted to erase those 5 years as our beloved astronaut from his memory, and enjoy his new-found wealth and happiness playing TV's most famous yet loveable villain. He refused to reprise his role of Major Nelson for 2 I Dream of Jeannie TV movies in 1985 and 1991, and almost completely lost contact with his Jeannie costars.

However, when Barbara Eden did a guest-starring arc on Dallas in the early 1990s, I feel like nostalgia finally started to kick in for Hagman, and he started to talk publicly about his experience and contribution to one of the most beloved sitcoms of all time. He also started to do TV interviews frequently with Eden and Bill Daily, and spoke quite fondly about his experience. I think becoming a grandfather also proved to soften Hagman's view of the show, when his grandkids started watching the show. He would play a game with them on the phone where he would pretend he was talking to Jeannie. He also did many fan events with Eden and Daily over the last 8 years or so, and spoke with much humour and enthusiasm about memorable moments on the set and his favourite episodes. How glad I am that he seemed to finally understand how beloved the show (and his role) was.

My heart goes out to Hagman's family (including his wife of almost 60 years, Maj) and his actor colleagues for the grief they are no doubt experiencing. But, I am also thankful that, with every episode of I Dream of Jeannie now available on DVD, new generations will discover the joy of the series. Teenagers will undoubtedly continue developing crushes on the young, funny, and handsome Larry Hagman.  I can say for a fact that in the stressful years of university, watching I Dream of Jeannie was always a bright spot. For 30 minutes I could escape into a completely unrealistic world, and be enchanted by the onscreen magic of Barbara and Larry. I didn't care if I was watching a show that was almost 40 years old. I loved these characters and I laughed, and nothing else mattered.

Thank you, Larry, for your perfect portrayal of Tony Nelson, for the years of laughter you have provided in my life, and will doubtlessly continue to provide to me and to countless future generations. So long, Major Nelson.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Vincente Minnelli: MGM's Most Versatile Director


He was the unique directorial force behind the following classic movies, to name a few: An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Bad and the Beautiful, and Gigi. 

He also directed the lesser-known but equally worthy of attention The Pirate, The Clock, Cabin in the Sky, The Long, Long Trailer, Lust for Life, Brigadoon, Bells are Ringing, Madame Bovary, and The Cobweb. 

Since my childhood, I've always been drawn to the work of Vincente Minnelli. Growing up on the MGM musicals, I saw many of his films before really even knowing who Minnelli was. As a teen, I started to delve in more detail into his films, and even did a directorial study on him for a high school media studies class. Never mind Spielberg and Tarantino like the other students were studying... I wanted Minnelli! I won't mention here that I had to tell my teacher who Minnelli was and what he directed....

Looking at Minnelli's filmography, now with the lens of an adult, I can't help but notice the versatile breadth of genres in his creative output: musicals (of course), dramas, melodramas, and straight comedy. Liza Minnelli once said of her famous father that he was the only director at MGM to be assigned such varied types of films, and to direct each style equally well. While Liza is rightfully proud, she is also very accurate. While we tend to think of Minnelli as the most creative MGM musicals director of all time, to not consider his forays into straight dramatic pictures would be criminal. Minnelli's trademark visual eye translated beautifully into every style of movie he made. My goal here is to draw attention to Minnelli's immense versatility and unparallelled unique talent.

EARLY MINNELLI

Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky (1943)
Born Lester Anthony Minnelli in Chicago, Minnelli's first jobs included being a window dresser for a department store, and a photographer of actors. I think this is important to note, given that it demonstrates Minnelli's flair for the visual, which he would later translate brilliantly on film. He then moved to New York and moved up from set designer to stage director at Radio City Music Hall and on Broadway before he was discovered by MGM musicals producer Arthur Freed. Freed, a man with a knack for noticing talent, gave Minnelli his first chance at directing on film, with the all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943). Viewed today, it is obvious that no one had, up to that point, had ever created a "look" on film quite like Minnelli. While it is not one of his best films, it is significant to his output in the sense that it reveals a uniqueness, a new sophistication and touch of visual class that Minnelli brought to the MGM musical. 

Judy and Vincente in joyful times, their wedding day, June 1945
It is impossible to discuss the early Minnelli films without talking about Judy Garland. Besides the obvious events of Vincente falling for Judy, courting her, marrying her, and then creating their famous daughter Liza, he also directed his best early films with her as the star. Perhaps even more importantly, he transformed Garland into an adult screen beauty and legitimate screen star.

Garland, as seen through Minnelli's loving and sensitive eyes in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
When Arthur Freed approached Garland about taking the starring role of Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), she viewed the role as a step back in her career. Having finally been given the chance to play adults on screen (Jo Hayden in 1942's For Me and My Gal with Gene Kelly and the glamorous Lily one year later in Presenting Lily Mars), Judy didn't want to play the teenage Esther. Agreeing reluctantly, she also didn't respond initially to Minnelli's directorial style of "take-after-take for perfection." She wasn't used to being corrected or coached so frequently on her performance, especially for what seemed like the simplest of scenes. However, she was soon falling for her new director, and he for her. Liza Minnelli says in the introduction to the initial DVD release of this film that Minnelli's love for Garland fills every frame of film that she is in. How right she is. Garland has rarely looked so radiant than in this film (wacky hairdo aside!). Who can forget her final few bars of "The Boy Next Door" as she closes the sheer lace curtain, and Minnelli pans into her gorgeous, longing face, or the delicate lighting as she sings 'Over the Bannister" from the top of the staircase to her sweet and young John Truitt. These images have remained so detailed in my mind ever since my childhood, probably more so than any other film I watched frequently during my early years. Not only is Meet Me in St. Louis one of Garland's best performances, it is also an effortless directorial turning point for Minnelli. Visually and atmospherically, he captures early 20th-century small-town America, and paints a sentimental and vivid portrait of the Smith family. It is no surprise it has remained such a musical classic. 

Garland, Robert Walker, and Minnelli discuss a scene on the set of The Clock (1945)
Minnelli's first foray into dramatic pictures also came to fruition because of Garland. Judy was working on her first straight drama called The Clock (1945) with director Fred Zinnemann, and was less-than-satisfied with the way in which he was directing the film. She suggested to producer Arthur Freed to bring Minnelli onto the project, convinced he would bring a sensitivity and subtlety to the film that Zinnemann wasn't grasping. Garland, with her star power, won, and for the betterment of everyone (including movie audiences), Minnelli took the helm. An under-seen film with wonderful performances by Garland and her leading man Robert Walker, the wartime story of Alice Mayberry falling for Corporal Joe Allen and marrying him after knowing him 48 hours is a plot that could have only been written during WWII. However, Minnelli's direction, and decision to make the setting of New York City a third main character, gives it a modern flavour that audiences can still relate to today. The overwhelming metropolis of NYC gets in the way of our lovers as the city seems to conspire against them in every possible way... they lose each other on the subway, they can't get a marriage license soon enough, and the judge's office is minutes away from closing when they finally do arrive to tie the knot. NYC is almost the villain of the piece, and this idea was purely Minnelli's. It is clear that despite Garland's romantic feelings for Minnelli (they were engaged by the end of the shoot), she knew that Minnelli had what it takes to make the film more than a corny love story. The scene at the beginning of the film when Walker's Joe Allen first arrives in NYC and is overcome by the tall skyscrapers and unkind atmosphere is easily Minnelli's best camera work to date, as Walker is made to look like a very small and insignificant part of this grand, impersonal city. While Garland fans love the film as it's her first movie without singing a note and her first chance to truly demonstrate her acting chops, Minnelli fans will appreciate his delicate and sensitive handling of the material. 

Beautiful Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
Producer Arthur Freed was one who let his creative talent take artistic risks, even if it meant losing money at the box office. Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945) is certainly one of these examples. One of Fred Astaire's rare box office failures, it's still worth viewing. Sure, the dialogue scenes are sometimes painfully slow, the plot leaves much to be desired, but Minnelli's visual touches reach a new maturity and risk-taking creativity that makes this film worth watching at least once. We get a special sense of Minnelli's past experience as a set designer in this film, from the seemingly uneven black and white floor in the "Coffee Time" dance duet with Astaire and his partner (lovely Lucille Bremer), to the otherworldly "Dream Ballet" full of fanciful imagery that could only be a product of Minnelli. While Minnelli may have made this film too "out there" for the mass audiences, it shows his maturing signature directorial style.

MID-CAREER MINNELLI

Gene Kelly and Garland at their comedic best in The Pirate (1948)
The Pirate (1948) may be Minnelli's most misunderstood film. It certainly was at its initial release. Who would have thought a movie starring movie giants Judy Garland and Gene Kelly would be a box office flop? Well, Judy Garland herself had an inkling. Despite the film being directed by her (estranged) husband, she believed that the tongue-in-cheek script would elude the public, and that audiences wouldn't understand the swashbuckler satire of 1920s Hollywood actors with purposeful over-acting. But, Garland, with her ever-increasing personal troubles, let Kelly and Minnelli (an eager-to-revolutionize-the-movie-musical team) take the creative reins on the film. (No, Kelly and Minnelli were not sleeping together as certain under-researched sources state). While 1948 audiences were shocked at the casting choice of Garland as Manuela (a woman fascinated with a murderous pirate) and didn't understand Kelly's brilliant comedic take-off of Douglas Fairbanks as strolling player Serafin, it is now a cult film with a loyal following. To me, The Pirate is a movie that gets better with each viewing. Garland and Kelly are always the perfect match for each other on film, but here their comedic timing is especially delightful. The famous crockery-throwing fight, with Manuela throwing everything (with perfect aim!) she can find at Serafin when she learns his true identity, is comedic gold. Furthermore, Kelly's choreography, in partnership with Robert Alton, reaches new creative heights, particularly in the visually stunning and ever-modern "Pirate Ballet." Plus, Garland gets to truly display her amazing comedic gifts for the first time in this film, and while Kelly has more screen time and the more grandiose role, Garland steals every scene she is in. It's a film way ahead of its time, and Minnelli's inventive and artistic direction is one of the main reasons it has such a strong cult following today. 

Jennifer Jones as the much-desired Emma Bovary in Madame Bovary (1949)



Aside from 1946's Undercurrent, Madame Bovary is Minnelli's first foray into straight dramatic films. It seems odd, somehow, to view a black-and-white Minnelli film, since colour is such an integral part of Minnelli's visual style. Think of that amazing Minnelli red in the "Pirate Ballet." It's hard to imagine Kelly's choreography without the stunning red background, or the beautiful Technicolor framing in every shot of Meet Me in St. Louis. Minnelli still brings his signature style to the "Madame Bovary Waltz," as Emma (Jennifer Jones) dances with Louis Jourdan's sophisticated Rodolphe Boulanger, and, as the music becomes more frantic, so too do Emma's reactions (resulting in her fainting) and the increasing speed of Minnelli's camera. Emma's psychological and sexual thoughts are exposed through Minnelli's smart direction. Sadly, it is the one truly effective scene in a film that is otherwise a misfire.

THE MINNELLI MASTERPIECES

Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly in the brilliant An American in Paris (1951) ballet, with a typical Minnelli yellow in the background
A conversation about Minnelli would be grossly incomplete without a discussion of the 1951 Best Picture winner, An American in Paris. Beating out such classics as A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire, Minnelli's visual stamp has never been stronger than in this film. From the black and white costume party (pure Minnelli), to the most realistic looking Paris ever created on a Hollywood sound stage, to the beautifully designed sets that make existing paintings come to life in the ballet sequence, this film screams "Directed by Vincente Minnelli" like no other, with the exception, perhaps, of Gigi. It is interesting, then, to note that according to Gene Kelly's widow Patricia Ward Kelly, Gene himself directed the ballet sequence. Minnelli, called upon to direct Father's Little Dividend, had to abandon the project and leave the ballet for Kelly to helm. However, there is no question, from sources that link Minnelli back to this project as early as 1949, that his creative and visual ideas infiltrate every frame of the ballet. While Kelly too had a fascination with France and with visual art, the colours and overall atmosphere in the ballet (including that unforgettable "Minnelli Red" rose) are unmistakably Minnelli. Minnelli and Kelly prove themselves to be an amazingly matched creative team, and yet each possessing very different skill sets and approaches. Minnelli's creative ideas may have been too "artsy" without Kelly's stunning and trademark "everyman" choreography. Yes, it's a ballet, but it's a Gene Kelly ballet, and therefore, designed for audiences to enjoy. Together, Minnelli and Kelly create something far more than mere entertainment. It's art, but art that almost everyone can appreciate. The Academy certainly did, by bestowing upon Gene a statuette for his achievement in choreography. While An American in Paris is not Minnelli's best musical (in my humble opinion, anyway), it marks a landmark achievement for the American movie musical. Who would have thought that a 16 minute ballet tacked onto the end of a film, with no plot-advancement device, would then earn the Best Picture Oscar of that year? Minnelli and Kelly's risk-taking paid off. 

Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner heating up the screen in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Soap opera has rarely been classier than in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Minnelli's melodramatic (yet relevant) comment on Hollywood and the film industry. It seems that Kirk Douglas gave some of his finest performances in Minnelli's films, and his portrayal of filmmaker Jonathan is one of his best. Lana Turner, too, creates one of her most effective characterizations as actress Georgia who is essentially used by Douglas' Johnathan to make money at the box office. Minnelli somehow transcends melodrama here to create an intriguing look at Hollywood of his own era. You can research what real-life figure of Hollywood each character is based on, or you can just read into it yourself, with the clues Minnelli (and the script) gives us. While some maintain that this film is a second-rate version of Sunset Boulevard (1950) or that it's pure soap opera, for me, it's Minnelli turning soap opera into art. You can't help but be drawn into this fictionalized Hollywood world, and the famous scene when Lana Turner drives away from Douglas' house and has a breakdown could be construed as over-the-top, but Minnelli knows that it is. That's what makes the scene so effective. It's a larger-than-life comment about a larger-than-life industry. For me, it's one of Minnelli's most captivating dramas. It's also full of nuanced, subtle moments, like Turner's scenes with Douglas where she reveals her troubled past, or the inventive way in which Minnelli chooses to introduce the character of Georgia. You can dismiss this movie as melodrama, but if you do, you haven't watched it with enough depth or attention to Minnelli's enormous detail.

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in the musical masterpiece The Band Wagon (1953)
 For my money, The Band Wagon is Minnelli's musical masterpiece. Why? It combines everything that makes a Minnelli musical great. First off, there's a wonderful cast, with Fred Astaire at the helm, and a gaggle of scene-stealing and very humorous supporting actors like ever-depressed Oscar Levant and "The British Astaire," Jack Buchanan. Secondly, there is so much attention to detail that you always notice something new each time you watch it. Minnelli said in an interview once that there should be a "hundred or more hidden things" in each film. This movie, to me, is the movie that typifies Minnelli's statement. Just watch the "Shine on Your Shoes" scene, and how each extra is a defined character, reacting in many different ways to Astaire's song and dance. It's a brilliant little moment in movie musicals. Third, the classic Minnelli elegance is present in almost every scene, with the elegance made even more obvious given that the most elegant man of cinema, Fred Astaire, is his leading man. Fourth, Minnelli finally makes Cyd Charisse a leading lady on this film, and she, of course, is Astaire's most elegantly matched dancing partner. Think of their duet to "Dancing in the Dark"... to me, it's essentially the most perfect dance ever put on film. Finally, I think the reason that makes The Band Wagon so wonderful is the fact that it takes place on the New York stage, where Minnelli got his start. You can just sense that he was drawing from his own first-hand experiences for this film, which adds a charmingly realistic humour to the doomed musical that Buchanan's company is trying to get on Broadway. There is also realism in Fred Astaire's Tony Hunter, a song-and-dance man past his prime. The Band Wagon presents Astaire with one of his best and most sympathetic characters. Minnelli brings out in Astaire a beautiful, vulnerable quality that tugs at your heart, when, combined with Michael Kidd's modern choreography, gives us a new and relevant Astaire for the 1950s. Each time I watch this film, I can't believe I didn't enjoy it the first time. It's the most charming Minnelli film out there. It's no surprise to me, therefore, that it's Liza Minnelli's favourite work of her father's. How can you not love it? It's infectious and joyful. 

An overdue sight: Minnelli with an Oscar, for Gigi (1958)
Critics call Gigi (1958) the last great musical of MGM's Golden Age. I would call it one of Minnelli's most signature pieces: glorious set design, vivid characters, a great Lerner and Loewe score, a Parisian setting, and that unmistakable "Minnelli touch." The cast is uniformly excellent: Leslie Caron is the only woman who ever could have played Gigi, Maurice Chevalier brings his always-charming self  as HonorĂ©, Louis Jourdan is the appropriately handsome male sophisticate who eventually falls for Gigi, and Hermione Gingold and Isabel Jeans are pitch-perfect as comedic relief and Gigi's female family influences. While it is the film that brought Minnelli his well-deserved Oscar, I always feel when watching this film that while Minnelli's visual and atmospheric flair is no doubt at its peak, that we are perhaps already past the Golden Age of MGM musicals. In some scenes, the movie seems to be trying too hard to be sophisticated... I can't quite pinpoint what it is, but Minnelli's direction doesn't appear as effortless as in The Band Wagon, for example. It could be too that the plot of Gigi training to be a courtesan hasn't dated well, and neither have the lyrics for "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," though we all know that Chevalier's character means no harm. Flaws aside, the film is still a treat, and improves with each viewing. 

THE UNDERRATED MINNELLI

The following is a quick analysis of Minnelli's films that I feel deserve more attention.

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as Tacy and Nicky in The Long, Long Trailer (1953)
Those who know The Long, Long Trailer (1953) will probably first think of it as the movie Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz made while on hiatus from their hugely successful sitcom, I Love Lucy. And it is, but it's also a film that shows us Minnelli's flair for comedy. Minnelli quietly and subtly reins in the Lucy-Ricky TV archetypes for this film, and creates a milder but still funny Tacy and Nicky who are more suited for the sophisticated big screen. The result is a comedy with many charming moments, and a fine supporting cast including the always-hilarious Marjorie Main. The tension Minnelli builds in the scene where Tacy and Nicky ascend up the mountain, and Nicky is clueless about all the rocks Tacy has secretly left in the trailer, is comedic gold, yet also truly suspenseful. Minnelli is also unafraid of slapstick, in the scene where Tacy is victim to Nicky's clueless, song-filled driving as she attempts to make dinner in a moving trailer. The movie is an insight into a very different Minnelli, yet still very effective. 

Kelly and Charisse in the dream world of Brigadoon (1954)
For my money, Brigadoon (1954) is the most underrated of the Minnelli musicals. I grew up loving this film and being completely captivated by the fantasy of it all. It was only when I reached my late teens that I discovered I was in the minority of people loving this film (at least among critics and academic sources). I'm sure many people know that by 1954, the budget for musicals wasn't what it used to be, and they weren't bringing in the box office returns that they used to. Therefore, while Gene Kelly envisioned this musical to be a Scottish answer to Oklahoma!, with MGM cast and crew going on location to Scotland for the film adaptation of the hit Broadway play, the MGM powers-that-be (and Minnelli) had a different idea): shoot the film entirely on a sound stage. The result? The first real disagreement among the creative team of Minnelli and Kelly. I must say though, staunch Gene Kelly fan that I am, that I believe the film benefited from being shot only on the MGM lot. Why? Because the fantastical story lends itself to being on a set, and not in a real location. Plus, I believe Vincente Minnelli was a true dreamer. He conceived many films with truth or fears being realized in dreams. Think of Spencer Tracy's dream in Father of the Bride, or Fred Astaire's fantastical dream in Yolanda and the Thief, or the dreamlike state Joe and Alice fall into as they listen to the sounds of New York City in The Clock. Kelly's character of Tommy Albright finds his preferred reality, or his truth, in this dream-like world of Brigadoon, and with Charisse's Fiona Campbell. To me, this realization in Kelly's character wouldn't be nearly as effective on authentic heather hills. Instead, Minnelli makes us believe that Brigadoon is real, but doesn't look it... it's too beautiful and wonderful to even appear real. Sure, the movie is sometimes cheesy, and the sets aren't up to the usual MGM standard, but Kelly and Charisse's duets are among their best work, especially with "The Heather and the Hill" dance. Minnelli's direction is also brilliant in the moment where Kelly leaves Brigadoon and then suddenly we are rushed back into the hustle-bustle of a crowded New York City bar, complete with businessmen, drunkards, and overly made-up women. The fact that Minnelli knew New York City so well gives this scene an extra dose of authenticity. I find the film to be a repeatable treat, and a gem among movie musicals, even if it's far from perfect. 

Lauren Bacall and Richard Widmark in The Cobweb (1955)

OK, The Cobweb (1955) is melodrama, and there's no other way to categorize it. But it has impressive performances from an all-star cast including Lauren Bacall, Gloria Grahame, Richard Widmark, Charles Boyer, Lillian Gish, Susan Strasberg, and Oscar Levant in a straight dramatic role. Yes, there is an all-too prominent subplot about draperies, and the plot is sometimes confusing, but it is very interesting to see Minnelli explore a world and a directorial style that almost resembles the work of Douglas Sirk. Plus, Minnelli's fine direction of the actors allows the material to transcend the melodrama, and become an absorbing character study of these troubled characters: the patients and doctors of a psychiatric clinic. 

Dean Martin and the one and only Judy Holliday in Bells are Ringing (1960)

 Minnelli's swan song for the Freed Unit, Bells are Ringing (1960) is a charming-as-can-be film. I must confess, I think I prefer it to Gigi-- not for its visual style, but for its overall enjoyment factor. Judy Holliday is darling as Ella Peterson, a woman who works for an answering service and is in love with a man she only knows over the phone. Dean Martin is his usual natural charming self as Jeffrey Moss, the man who falls for Ella, while not knowing her true identity. Adapted from the stage musical in which Holliday starred, Minnelli retains a lot of the "stagy" feel of the film, and this is what most critics find distracting about the film. I personally find it to be an interesting approach to this particular story, and, since Holliday was such a brilliant stage actress, she excels in this format. Sadly, the Minnelli sophistication is absent from the film except in the party scene, where Ella attempts to name-drop celebrities with a bunch of theatre folk. There is no mistaking the lack of energy in this film, since it is usually abundant in a Minnelli musical. However, it's still a charming film with a strong score that deserves at least one viewing. 

FINAL WORDS

Fans of Minnelli's filmography are highly encouraged to read A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin. A wonderful mix of biography and film analysis, the book is guaranteed to be a treat for any Minnelli fan. 

Thanks for reading, and please let me know your thoughts on your favourite Minnelli films! Let's keep discussion about this great director alive!

Vincente and Gene Kelly on the set of An American in Paris (1951)

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Great Fred Astaire Book


I recently came across a beautiful tribute to the great Fred Astaire, in the form of a small coffee-table sized hardcover book entitled Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk. I felt lucky to find a copy of this book at such a reasonable price, as it appears to be out of print. However, if you can get your hands on a copy of this treasure (the debut book from Sarah Giles, previous editor-at-large for Vanity Fair), you will find the most loving tribute I have ever seen in print for Mr. A. 

The primary feature of the book is the interviews Giles conducted around the world with Astaire's friends and colleagues, including leading ladies Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, and Audrey Hepburn, choreographer and kindred spirit Hermes Pan, director Stanley Donen, actress/singer/friend Liza Minnelli, daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie, and many more. Giles includes interview excerpts word-for-word, and as a result, we feel like we're getting a true and well-rounded portrait of the legendary star. 


Adorned with a healthy amount of photos (many that I had never seen before, and from all eras of his life), and divided into themed chapters ("The Artist," "The Astaire Women," "His Private World," and "Finale,"), the book is a well-organized and lovingly presented tribute to a legend. I'm surprised the book has never gotten a re-release.

Highlight anecdotes of the book include Leslie Caron saying that in the rehearsal hall in movie pre-productions, even during a break, Astaire would constantly keep dancing. Caron recalls going out for a breath of fresh air and coming back to Astaire dancing with a coat rack. I guess he didn't tire of his coat rack partner in Royal Wedding! Stanley Donen also mentions how Astaire had copies of all of his dance routines on film, sans the singing. Donen asked to borrow these treasures, Astaire obliged (he kept them in his basement), and it took Donen 4 days to get through all the material!

Friends also mention Astaire's devastation at the loss of his first wife, Phyllis, his finding his heart again with dancer Barrie Chase (some friends and colleagues claim Chase was Astaire's personal favourite dancing partner), and how his grace, kindness, and complete lack of ego was not just something we saw onscreen. According to Jack Lemmon (his costar in The Notorious Landlady), that was the true offscreen Astaire as well. 

I don't want to spoil much more of this book for Astaire fans, since reading through all the anecdotes is such a lovely and personal experience. I urge any Astaire cinephile to track down a copy of this loving book tribute to the screen's most iconic song and dance man. 




Tuesday, 18 September 2012

One-Year Anniversary Post! A Bette Davis Appreciation


First of all, I am sorry to have been away from the blogging for so long! I have missed writing, but life got in the way for a little while. But, with the fall season creeping in, it's easier to get back into a writing routine, and I am sure my more regular blogposts will resume!

Secondly, I am celebrating a Classic Movie Moments milestone! September 5th marked the one year anniversary of the blog. It's been such a great opportunity to write my thoughts down about classic film and have audience response from my readers! It's great to know that there are so many Old Hollywood film fans out there. So, thank you, or else Classic Movie Moments wouldn't exist!

And now for the "post proper." Over the past few weeks, I have been watching Bette Davis movies non-stop, and have gained a whole new appreciation for this great actress. I have also just started reading her second autobiography entitled This 'n' That, and through her honest words, have gained a love for this self-confident, forthright, yet vulnerable woman.

While before a few weeks past I had watched quite a few Davis films, watching so many new films (new for me anyway) so close together made me realize the amazing versatility Miss Davis possessed in film. I will talk about each film separately, to best organize my thoughts.

Davis Viewing #1: A Stolen Life (1946)

When I first read the plot summary of this film, I thought it would be a typical melodrama. Woman falls in love with man, man falls in love with twin sister, twin sister dies, and woman assumes life of twin sister to get her man back. Sound ridiculous and totally not plausible? Of course. But does the plot become irresistible and even believable with Davis taking on the roles of both sisters? Absolutely. Davis' performance as sisters Kate and Patricia Bosworth displays some of her most nuanced and understated acting. Her characterizations of "good girl Kate," "not so good girl Patricia," and then "good girl Kate trying to be not so good girl Patricia" are very defined, without being over the top. 

On this film, Warner Brother studio head Jack Warner gave Davis a role in addition to her twin sister performance: producer. With this film, Davis was finally given some of the creative license she had yearned for in her previous years at Warner Brothers. Clearly, she did an admirable job, as the film's special effects, especially for the year 1946, are excellent. While A Stolen Life is a less famous Davis title, it is a must-see for Davis fans. 

Davis Viewing #2: The Catered Affair

When I finally got around to watching The Catered Affair, I had been meaning to see it for a few years. I was not disappointed. In fact, the movie far exceeded my high expectations. Davis, again, gives one of her most understated and beautiful performances as Agnes Hurley. Davis brings vividly to life her portrait of Agnes: a woman whose entire life has been raising children and keeping house, while sharing little affection with her husband Tom, played by the great Ernest Borgnine. When Agnes' daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) becomes engaged, Agnes is committed to giving Jane an extravagant wedding, even if it means putting Tom in the poor house. 

As Agnes, Davis is at once heartbreaking, irritating, laughter-inducing, and, in the end, completely sympathetic. Davis never feared appearing "unattractive" on film, and her courage to not wear makeup in the film makes her Agnes even more honest. She was a true character actress, with no glamour girl vanity about her. Two scenes in particular stand out: her monologue when she talks to Jane about what the reality of marriage (or, rather, her marriage) is, and a scene with Borgnine where she confesses the pain of her marriage over the years, and then her immense guilt that builds when Tom finally unloads on her the feelings he has been holding back their entire marriage.

A revelation for me watching this film was Debbie Reynolds' impeccable and layered performance as Jane. It is the most beautiful performance I have ever seen her give on film, and she essentially steals every scene she is in. Her scene with fiance Ralph (Rod Taylor), where she asks her to promise that they will always be in love, is one of the most real and heartbreaking scenes she ever played on film. This movie is a must for fans of Davis, Borgnine, and Reynolds. Plus, the teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky (of Marty fame) is pitch perfect. 

Davis Viewing #3: Dangerous
I've read lots of opinions of this film, which one Davis a Best Actress Oscar. Most people seem to believe (including Davis) that the Oscar was a consolation prize for her amazing performance the previous year in Of Human Bondage. While this very well may be true, Davis' Joyce Heath is scene-stealing, complex, and mesmerizing. The scene where she seduces Franchot Tone's Don Bellows by improvising a script to a play is one of the best scenes I have ever seen her play on film. While the Production Code prevents us from a satisfying ending, it is still fascinating to see a young Davis portray such a multi-faceted character, and not being afraid to be a character we love to hate.

Davis Viewing #4: The Sisters

This film is a change of pace for Davis. She gets to be a romantic heroine, and the object of Errol Flynn's affection. But, as Louise, Davis still shows a strength and independence that her audience loved her for. She shares a surprising amount of chemistry with Flynn, and makes him look like a much better actor than he actually is. The scenes where she survives the San Francisco earthquake right after Frank (Flynn) leaves her is melodramatic to be sure, but Davis handles the material with her usual professionalism that we can't wait to see if Louise and Frank will be reunited. 

To have this film round out my mini Bette Davis marathon was proof to me at how versatile Davis as an actress was. To play an alcoholic siren in Dangerous, a frustrated housewife in The Catered Affair, a heartbroken woman and a vindictive sister in A Stolen Life, and a true leading lady in The Sisters, and to play each role with equal believability, is no easy task. However, Davis immerses herself in each role, and makes each film a delight and treat to watch. 

While modern audiences and critics tend to pick Katharine Hepburn as the greatest screen actress of all time (the AFI put Katharine Hepburn as the #1 Female Star of film, with Davis one spot behind), my vote would go to Davis any day. Davis had an ability to create fully developed characters by stealing the show but never chewing the scenery. That is the sign of a true talent. Davis said herself that an actor should look like they're "trying a little" on film. But, Davis, never tried "too much." She is a strong presence on film, a characteristic that audiences still love when watching her films today. She is an independent, female powerhouse, and her ever-modern traits will never date her movies. Every generation needs a Bette Davis.


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

An Evening with Lucie Arnaz

Lucie Arnaz
Lucille Ball

This past Monday, I was lucky enough to be at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto, where Lucie Arnaz took the stage to give an eloquent speech and Q and A with a very enthusiastic audience of Lucy fans. 

Lucie's appearance, part of a series entitled "Unique Lives and Experiences," was a 100th birthday tribute to her famous mother, Lucille Ball, as well as touching on her own unique life. Lucie's life has been one of show business success, despite living in the shadows of her legendary parents, Lucy and Desi Arnaz. 

Lucie with her parents on her first birthday

From the minute she took the stage, Lucie captivated the nearly sold-out audience with her charm, wit, laid-back attitude, and effortless eloquence. She discussed her mother's difficult growing up in Jamestown, NY, and the fact that she was deemed by a Jamestown photographer as not photogenic. Thank goodness Lucy didn't take the photographer's words to heart, because her success as a model for Hattie Carnegie gave her enough money to move to California, get into the movies, and move her whole beloved family with her to California. And that, as they say, was just the beginning.

Lucille Ball, blonde and modelling



Once Lucy met Desi on the set of Too Many Girls (1939), they began a whirlwind courtship and love affair, and married in 1940. However, by 1950, they had barely seen each other, due to Lucy's movie career and Desi's touring schedule as a bandleader. Lucie said that Lucy told her later, "You can't have children that way, Lucie." The answer? An offer from CBS to bring Lucy's radio show, My Favorite Husband, to television. Lucy agreed, but only if Desi got to play her onscreen husband. It took a successful vaudeville tour by Lucy and Desi to convince CBS that audiences would "buy" the Cuban-born Desi as Lucy's onscreen husband, and in 1951, the couple had two births to celebrate: the birth of their daughter Lucie, and the birth of I Love Lucy, the most beloved sitcom of all time.

 
Lucy and Desi Arnaz become Lucy and Ricky Ricardo


 Lucie then went on to talk about the "Red Scare" in 1953, when her mom was accused of being a communist. Luckily, Desi's winning over of the press caused for the whole situation to blow over, but it proved that even Lucy, the most popular TV star of the time, was not immune to the McCarthy era.

When Lucy divorced Desi in 1960, she moved the family (Lucie and Desi Jr.) to New York City where she made her Broadway debut in the musical Wildcat. She soon met and married comedian Gary Morton. However, Lucie was quick to point out that Lucy and Desi remained lifelong friends, despite their tumultuous relationship and divorce. Lucie said that Lucy spoke to Desi on the phone days before he died, and they said "I Love You" to each other one last time. In a letter Desi wrote for Lucy for the Kennedy Center Honors, an honor bestowed to her just days after Desi's death, he wrote, "I Love Lucy was never just a title." Lucy and Desi were soulmates who could never make it work living together, but the love between the two never disappeared.

Lucy and Desi years after their divorce and still affectionate, with Lucie and her husband Laurence Luckinbill

In the 1970s, Lucie started coming into her own, as she co-starred with her mother on her sitcom Here's Lucy, and started to prove herself as both a comedic and musical talent. Lucie said that Here's Lucy was her training ground, as she learned from her mother and co-stars, and also got to participate in four or five musical production numbers for the show each year. It was Vivian Vance (Ethel on I Love Lucy and a woman Lucie considered her aunt) who convinced Lucie to start doing summer stock theatre each summer while on hiatus from Here's Lucy. This allowed Lucie to hone her triple threat talent even further, and landed some very good parts in musical and plays like Seesaw, They're Playing Our Song, the film The Jazz Singer, and more.

Promo picture for Here's Lucy: Lucie, Lucy, and Desi Jr.

To this day, Lucie continues to use her musical talents, touring and singing songs off her newest album Latin Roots, a tribute to her father and his music. While Lucie says she will never be able to emotionally comprehend her parents' complicated relationship, the love she holds for both her parents are very evident. Lucie currently lives in Connecticut with her husband Larry, and has three grown children and two stepchildren.

The Q and A portion of the evening was extremely entertaining, as Lucie answered questions from comment cards submitted by audience members. I was so happy to hear my question read aloud and answered, which was, asking her about her involvement with the Lucy-Desi Center for Comedy in Lucy's hometown of Jamestown, NY. Fans will be pleased to know that there will be an addition this July to the center, with the train station being converted into a Museum of Comedy. There will also be a Festival of New Comedy, highlighting new comedic talents following in Lucy's footsteps.

Other anecdotes gleaned from the Q and A portion: Lucy was actually not that funny in real life... she was a serious woman who had severe trouble relaxing and was happiest and most fulfilled while working. However, days before her death after a heart operation, she woke up from the surgery and said to her daughter: "To think, this was the day I was supposed to get my roots done." Clearly, the woman possessed at least a little bit of the sitcom Lucy persona in real life. Lucie also shared a delightful story of Desi teaching a very young Lucie and Desi Jr. Spanish at Lucy's request, but keeping the learning down to learning the Spanish words for bread, butter, and shoe, and then telling them to go play.



All in all, the evening with Lucie Arnaz was a great success, demonstrated by the enthusiastic standing ovation at the close of the show. Anyone who ever has an opportunity to hear Lucie speak in person about her legendary mother and father (or see her perform her musical act!) should jump at the chance. You won't be disappointed!

Lucie






Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Timeless Style of Classic Cinema: Part 1

When I'm not watching classic film, I'm vintage-clothing obsessed, and constantly trying to recreate the vintage look for myself. The looks are so feminine, flattering, stunning, and timeless...  the classic lines of the clothes just never age. How can I help myself? (I was born in the wrong era, I know!)

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, some of the most timeless, intricately crafted, and fabulous clothing was showcased in film. As a result, many style icons are classic film stars.

This post will be a two-parter. Part 1 of this Vintage Style in Cinema Tribute focuses on the top timeless fashion icons of Hollywood's Golden Age... the men and women who wore the clothes and made them famous. Part 2 will focus on the amazing designers (Edith Head, Helen Rose, Adrian, Jean Louis, Hubert de Givenchy, and more) that made these stars style icons. While the stars wore the clothes and made the designers and styles famous, the designers are the ones who are responsible for the looks that we still love today.

Here are my picks for the essential timeless style icons of classic film. Feel free to weigh in with your faves!

THE TOP WOMEN

1) Grace Kelly: Ultimate Style and Grace 

Stunning in To Catch a Thief
Grace represents the "classic" look: clean lines, simple, ever timeless. We envision her as a the master of the casual scarf and sunglasses, the ultimate blushing bride, a Grecian goddess, and, if that weren't enough, a perfect formal dress wearer. Ultimately, movie star-turned-Princess Grace is an icon of both casual and formal style. She never wore lots of makeup, she was happy to wear her prescription glasses in public, and yet, we envision her as perhaps the class act of all time. Her lesson for all women: keep it simple, be yourself, and it will be classy.

Goddess Grace in her final film, High Society
Neutral colours with the pop of red in the kerchief: divine... not to mention those sunglasses!





















2) Audrey Hepburn: The Effortless Everywoman

Beautiful in black: Audrey in Sabrina

Audrey: the proponent of modern chic. The master of the Little-Black-Dress phenomenon. The phrase "That's so Audrey" is uttered all the time today as women strive to create outfits that Audrey would be proud of. Working hand in hand with clothing designer Hubert de Givenchy from 1953 to the end of her life, the two crafted a look that can only be called "Audrey." While Grace Kelly represented the style of  a Princess that was almost unattainable, Audrey came along and made outfits seem possible for every woman. Today, every time we wear that perfect black dress, tailored capri pants, and flat shoes, we can thank Audrey for introducing them to the world and making us believe we could dress like her.

Adorable in Funny Face (look at those white flats!)

The first (and most perfect) LBD: Breakfast at Tiffany's



THE TOP MEN
3) Cary Grant: Classic Timelessness

Jacket-less and still completely modern today

Cary Grant's look on film never seems old or dated. He could wear his grey suit from North By Northwest or his tux from Notorious, and fit right in today. Women want to date Cary Grant because of his perfect style, and men want to be Cary Grant because of his constantly immaculate image. His impeccable style, paired with his charming wit and sense of humour, are what make him a lasting style icon. These qualities made his perfect style approachable; we always knew he was our onscreen friend even if he always looked otherworldly. It has been said that Cary could effortlessly pick a suit off the hanger and wear it perfectly. He knew what looked good, he had the foresight to know that classic lines, patternless clothes, and simple looks would always be timeless.

Black suit, black tie, white shirt: perfection.



The essence of Cary: Impeccable, approachable, relaxed, joyful.




























4) Gene Kelly: Ever-Modern Casual

GAP Ad: "Gene Kelly wore khakis." Did he ever!

Gene Kelly's classic and clean casual looks are ageless: he was one of the first men to wear jeans on film, and boy, did he wear them well. He represented the everyman, and, as a result, danced in street clothes on film all the time. It's no wonder GAP did a series of ads with him as their poster boy for khakis a few years back. Gene's looks transcend time due to their simplicity and modern feel. He made casual sexy on film, and must be part of the reason Gene still has such a huge fan base of young women. Gene said he used to receive mash notes in the 1990s from women in their 20s thinking he was their age... in no small part due to his fab casual and ageless fashion sense! His clothing has never aged, and so, neither has he!

Gene rockin' jeans on the set of Summer Stock









Sweater and khakis: relaxed, casual, ageless.
























Who are your timeless film style icon picks? I want to hear them! And stay tuned for Part 2: The Timeless Designers for Classic Film.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Evenings with Cary Grant: Book Review


OK, so it's not a brand new book (the first edition was released in 1991). However, it looks like this gem of a book by Nancy Nelson will get another printing in September (see new cover below), and is certainly more than deserving of a shining book review.

 

In addition to daughter Jennifer Grant's portrait of her father in Good Stuff: A Reminiscence of my Father, and Dyan Cannon's (Jennifer's mother) book entitled Dear Cary, Evenings with Cary Grant is far and away the finest book tribute to Grant. Less a biography and more a compendium of quotes about Grant from people who knew him best, the book is a beautiful insight into the real Cary Grant. 

It seems that to those who knew him most, Grant wasn't unlike his legendary screen persona. He was witty, sophisticated, humble, and a kind and loving man. However, his darker side caused him to be unsettled and not truly satisfied in his life until his final years: once he had Jennifer (he called her his "greatest production") and met his final wife Barbara Harris, who he called his "best piece of magic." 

Author Nancy Nelson got to know Grant when he began his one-man tour called "An Evening with Cary Grant." Across the United States and Canada, Grant enchanted audiences as he answered questions, and shared anecdotes and film clips. Nelson was the woman who finally convinced Grant to embark on these presentations. He didn't believe that the public would be interested in him anymore, since in the early 1980s when the "evenings" began, Grant was pushing 80. Boy, was he wrong. Every session was always sold out, and Grant, not wanting the price to be unreasonable, never charged more than $25 a ticket. 

Nelson's close relationship with Grant reflects in her honest, heartfelt, and accurate book tribute. She also calls upon passages from many of Grant's closest friends and colleagues: Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, Irene Dunne, Deborah Kerr, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Quincy Jones, Prince Rainier, Virginia Cherrill (Grant's first wife), Betsy Drake (Grant's third wife), Jill St. John, and more. Other less famous friends also speak fondly of Grant and feature prominently in the book with wonderful anecdotes about Cary Grant away from the camera. 

Grant fans will delight in reading excerpts of his own letters to his friends and family (often full of wonderful wisdom and much humour) and reading Grant's own words, including some of his best answers from "An Evening with Cary Grant." A true treat, so we feel like we had the pleasure of seeing and hearing his wonderful presence in person. One particular letter that stands out is his letter to daughter Jennifer, right before she went off to college. The obvious love and admiration he had for his daughter fills the page. In the book Nelson states that Grant regretted never having more children, calling himself too self-centered in years past, and therefore, not becoming a father until he was over 60. 

Despite having Jennifer so late in life, Grant's friends said that he never seemed to age. Even at the time of his sudden death on November 29, 1986, friends said that he still acted (and looked!) like a young man. Friends are also quick to point out that despite the huge age difference between he and fifth wife Barbara, it was never the kind of relationship that required Barbara to dote on Grant. Burt Reynolds said, "They were like two kids together." 

I don't want to give away too many more anecdotes since the book is so deliciously full of them. But, I do want to encourage you to get your hands on a copy of this book. Whether you wait til September or find an existing copy now, you won't be disappointed. It's a breezy, heartfelt, and lovely read that makes you feel like you got to love and know the real Cary Grant.

Grant and daughter, Jennifer, 1970s.