Friday, 29 April 2016

Film Friday: "The Gazebo" (1959)

To celebrate Glenn Ford's 100th birthday, which is on Sunday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you what is probably my second favorite of his films. In case you are wondering, my first favorite is The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963).

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Marshall, The Gazebo (1959) tells the story of Elliott Nash (Glenn Ford), a television writer and director who is being blackmailed by a man named Dan Shelby (voice of Stanley Adams) over old nude photographs of his wife Nell (Debbie Reynolds). Elliott does not tell Nell, the star of a Broadway show, about this situation, but works feverishly to make enough money to pay off Shelby's demands. Finally, Elliott decides that murder is the only way out. He makes preparations, incorporating some advice from a friend, District Attorney Harlow Edison (Carl Reiner). When the blackmailer shows up at the Nashes' home as arranged to collect his payment, Elliott shoots him and then hides the body in the concrete foundation being poured for the antique gazebo Nell has bought.

The next day, Harlow brings the news that Shelby has been found dead in his hotel room, leaving Elliott wondering who he killed. Moreover, he has to keep Sam Thorpe (John McGiver), the contract hired to install the gazebo, and Miss Chandler (Mabel Albertson), the real estate agent trying to sell the Nashes' home, from stumbling across his scheme. As Nell's name was on a list of blackmail victims belonging to Shelby, both she and Elliott are suspects. However, they are cleared when the murder weapon is identified as belonging to Joe the Black, Shelby's associate. Soon after, the two members of Joe's gang the Duke (Martin Landau) and Louis the Louse (Dick Wessel) abduct Nell and drive her to her home, explaining that they want the briefcase (containing $100,000) with which Joe was seen entering the house. When the gazebo suddenly collapses due to unexpected rain, the gangsters find Joe's body, take the money and leave. Elliott then arrives home to find Nell tied to a chair and is forced to tell her the truth. While they are trying to figure out what to do next, Lieutenant Jenkins (Burt Freed) shows up with Duke and Louis. From what they have told him, Jenkins is sure that Elliott is a murderer. Just as Elliott is about to confess, he sees that the bullet he fired missed Joe and ended up lodged in a book. As it turns out, Joe actually died of a pre-existing heart problem. Elliott's pet pigeon Herman flies off with the bullet, so no evidence ties him to the death.

Elliott Nash: Now, it seems to me that the only thing I can be held for is burying a body without a permit. Now how many years can I get for that?

Born in Australia in 1907, Alec Coppel moved to England in the 1920s to study medicine at the prestigious Cambridge University. However, he abandoned his studies before graduating and subsequently found employment in an advertising agency, writing in his spare time. Coppel's first big success came in 1937 with the play I Killed the Count, which saw him receive screenwriting offers from the British film industry. After earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Story with the comedy The Captain's Paradise (1953) the first Australian screenwriter to do so Coppel moved to Hollywood, where he wrote a number of films, notably Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), starring James Stewart and Kim Novak. In between, and before his death in 1972, Coppel also authored over a dozen plays and a handful of books.

One of Coppel's most popular works is a play called The Gazebo, "a lightly amusing crime escapade about a writer of television whodunits, Elliott Nash," who decides to murder the man who is blackmailing his wife. Directed by Jerome Chodorov, this comedy in two acts opened at the Lyceum Theatre in New York on December 12, 1958, with Walter Slezak and Jayne Meadows as Mr. and Mrs. Nash. In contrast to their devastation of the Broadway production of I Killed the Count, the critics were generally favorable in their assessement of The Gazebo. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times found it "as real as a TV crime play and a thousand times more diverting," while John McLain of the New York Post believe "it was suspenseful and funny and should succeed." The Gazebo did indeed succeed, running for 218 performances until it closed on June 27, 1959.

Debbie Reynolds and Glenn Ford
In early 1959, Danish-American producer Frederick Brisson (Rosalind Russell's husband), who is credited on-screen as "presenting" The Gazebo on stage, sold the rights to the play to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The studio then hired George Wells, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Vincente Minnelli's Designing Woman (1957), to pen the script and veteran director George Marshall to helm the film. A Hollywood extra from 1912, Marshall graduated by way of larger roles to writing and directing, specializing in comedy and action shorts. Throughout his 60-year career in which he directed over 140 films Marshall experimented with various genres and worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in the Western Destry Rides Again (1939), Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in the noir The Blue Dahlia (1946), Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the comedy My Friend Irma (1949) and Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in the fictionalized biopic Houdini (1953).

To play Elliott Nash, MGM cast Glenn Ford, who had just collaborated with Marshall in It Started With a Kiss (1959). The son of a Canadian railroad exective, Ford was born in Quebec and moved to California with his parents when he was eight years old. After graduating from Santa Monica High School, where he acted in several plays, Ford performed on stage with a travelling theatre company. In 1939, he signed a contract with Columbia Pictures, who loaned him out to 20th Century Fox for his screen debut, Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence (1939). In December 1942, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps Reserve, training at the same San Diego base as Tyrone Power, but health problems prevented him from going overseas. Instead, he served as a photographic specialist at Quantico, Virgina, before being assigned back to San Diego to work on the Marine's weekly radio show, Halls of Montezuma.

Glenn Ford as Elliott Nash in The Gazebo
It was his first post-war film, Gilda (1946), a racy noir co-starring Rita Hayworth in her signature role as the ultimate femme fatale, that made Ford a major star in his own right. For the remainder of the 1940s, he alternated between light roles in romantic comedies, such as The Mating of Millie (1948), and intense crime dramas such as The Undercover Man (1949). His career faltered briefly in the early 1950s, but quickly regained momentum after he was cast in Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955), a landmark film of teenage angst. In 1958, Ford was voted the number one male box-office attraction in America. Besides The Gazebo and It Started With a Kiss, Ford and Marshall, whom he considered his favorite director, worked together in five other films: Texas (1941), The Sheepman (1958), Imitation General (1958), Cry For Happy (1961) and Advance to the Rear (1964).

With Marshall and Ford on board, the natural choice for the role of Nell Nash was Debbie Reynolds, who had played the female lead in It Started With a Kiss and starred in the director's The Mating Game (1959). A former gymnast, Reynolds made her screen debut in the comedy June Bride (1948), before rising to fame as Gene Kelly's leading lady in Singin' in the Rain (1952). By the time she started working on The Gazebo, she had emerged from a rather turbulent year in her life. Her divorce from crooner Eddie Fisher, due to his affair with the recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor and his abandonment of Reynolds and their two young children, grabbed worldwide headlines for months. As it turned out, Ford's thirteen-year marriage to dancer-actress Eleanor Powell had also recently broken up. During the making of The Gazebo, Reynolds and Ford helped console each other and apparently he even proposed to her, but she was not ready to commit again so soon. They remained lifelong friends instead, although they never appeared in another film together.

Glenn Ford and his son Peter on the set
The supporting cast in The Gazebo included Emmy Award-winning television actor Carl Reiner, making his motion picture debut (he also enjoyed prolific career as a screenwriter and director); popular character actor John McGiver, best known for his performances in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Midnight Cowboy (1969); and Martin Landau, an alumnus of the Actors Studio, where he befriended James Dean, in his third film role. Ford's 14-year-old son, Peter, was given a small spearking part as a page boy working at the television studio where Elliott Nash is employed. Although renowned director Alfred Hitchcock is mentioned in the story (Elliott calls him to ask for advice on how to dispose of a body), he is neither seen nor heard in the film.

Finishing production in late August, The Gazebo opened on December 16, 1959 to generally mixed reviews from critics. Variety described it as a "frisky blend of suspense and tomfoolery," which George Marshall "puts [...] together with a bright, well-timed hand." The same reviewer also praised the two leads, writing, "The film is nearly all Ford, and he's up to every scene, earning both sympathy and laughs as he muddles through his farcical 'crime'. Reynolds is excellent, but her talents are beyond what her limited role requires." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, on the other hand, did not like the film and considered Glenn Ford miscast: "Perhaps if Mr. Ford were a better or, at least, less wooden comedian than he is, some of this blundering and blathering would seem a little brighter than it does. [...] But we're afraid Mr. Ford hasn't got it. He is not a comedian." Despite the mixed critical response, The Gazebo was popular at the box-office, grossing $1.8 million for MGM. At the 32nd Academy Awards, Helen Rose received a nomination for Best Costume Design (Black and White) for her work in the film, but lost to Orry-Kelly for Some Like It Hot (1959).

Carl Reiner, Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds

After watching It Started With a Kiss and loving the dynamics between Glenn Ford and Debbie Reynolds, I was obviously interested in seeing The Gazebo. As it turned out, I loved this one even more. It is such a kookie little film and Ford was actually quite good at comedy. There is just one thing that bugs me a little about it: if Elliott was sure he shot the supposed blackmailer, then why was there no blood when he wrapped the body in his shower curtains? Despite this tiny incongruence, The Gazebo is brilliant fun. It is like an Alfred Hitchcock film high on sugar.

Blood on the Stage, 1950-1975: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery and Detection by Amnon Kabatchnik (2011) | Encyclopedia of Film Noir by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell (2007) | Glenn Ford: A Life by Peter Ford (2011) | The Rough Guide to Film: An A-Z of Directors and Their Movies by Jessica Winter, Lloyd Hughes, Richard Armstrong and Tom Charity (2007) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review