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Film Friday: «Who Was That Lady?» (1960)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Sidney, Who Was That Lady? (1960) begins when chemistry professor David Wilson (Tony Curtis) is caught by his wife Ann (Janet Leigh) kissing one of his female students. To stop her from divorcing him, he asks for help from his good friend, television writer Michael Haney (Dean Martin), who invents a crazy story that David is working undercover with the FBI and kissed the student a foreign agent in the line of duty. To convince Ann, Mike tricks Schultz (William Newell), a prop man at the TV studio, into fabricating an FBI identification card for David and supplying him with a gun. Ann is so thrilled by the idea of being married to a secret agent that she forgives David.

Meanwhile, Mike sets up a date with the Coogle sisters, Gloria (Barbara Nichols) and Florence (Joi Lansing), and takes David along, telling Ann that the girls are foreign agents. Just as Ann realizes that her husband has left without his gun and races out to give it to him, she encounters FBI operative Harry Powell (James Whitmore), who has been sent by his boss, Bob Doyle (John McIntire), to investigate David for impersonating a federal agent. She drags Powell to the restaurant, where a misheard conversation ends with David's gun being fired and Ann telling the press that her husband is an FBI agent. Believing this story to be true, Russian spies Belka (Simon Oakland) and Orenov (Larry Storch) kidnap the Wilsons and Mike and take them to the basement of the Empire State Building, where they inject David with truth serum to make him reveal the names of the scientists working a secret government project. David reveals nothing to the Russian agents, but confesses everything to Ann, who runs out in a fury. Mistaking their surroundings for a submarine, David and Mike proceed to sink it, while the Russians flee. Powell then arrives with the news that the spies have been apprehended and forces a reconciliation between David and Ann.

David Wilson: Me, an FBI man? I couldn't even be an Eagle Scout, you jackass!

Norman Krasna first discovered that he had a passion for writing while working as a copy boy for The New York World in the late 1920s. With the collapse of that newspaper in 1931, he moved to the movie trade journal The Motion Picture Exhibitor's Herald World, before being offered a job in the publicity department at Warner Bros. During this period, he wrote his first play, Louder, Please!, which enjoyed a successful run on Broadway between November 1931 and January 1932. Upon his return to Hollywood, he began penning screenplays for various studios, including MGM and RKO. His comedy The Richest Girl in the World (1934) earned Krasna his first Academy Award nomination and introduced the mistaken identity motif that was to become his trademark. Among his subsequent accomplishments were the romantic comedies Hands Across the Table (1935), Bachelor Mother (1939) and The Devil and Miss Jones (1941); and an Oscar for writing the script of Princess O'Rourke (1943), which he also directed.

After World War II, Krasna divided his time between Hollywood and Broadway, achieving his greatest stage success with the comedies Dear Ruth (1945) and John Loves Mary (1947), both of which were later adapted into films. In 1958, he wrote Who Was That Lady I Saw You With?, a comedy in two acts about a man who pretends to be an FBI agent in order to get back into the good graces with his wife, with whom he has had a misundertanding. Produced by former talent agent Leland Hayward, the play opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on Broadway on March 3, 1958 and closed after 208 performances on August 30 of the same year. Peter Lind Hayes and his wife Mary Healy starred as David and Ann Williams, whose surname was later changed to Wilson, while Ray Walston played David's best friend, Michael Haney. John Chapman of the Daily News found "considerable amusement in the performance" and Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times agreed, though he qualified that by saying, "The actors are more entertaining than the script."

Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis
Lew Wasserman, president of the talent agency MCA of which Krasna was a longtime client sold the rights to Who Was That Lady I Saw You With? to Columbia Pictures for $350,000. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby expressed interest in starring in the film, while Debbie Reynolds was announced as the female lead in March 1959. However, the project was ultimately offered to the married couple Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, who had previously appeared together in Houdini (1953), The Black Shield of Fallworth (1954), The Vikings (1958) and The Perfect Furlough (1958).

A California native, Leigh was discovered in the winter of 1945 by actress Norma Shearer while vacationing at Sugar Bowl ski resort. Leigh's father, an employee at the lodge, had his daughter's photograph sitting at the front desk when Shearer checked in. She was so impressed by Leigh's "fascinating face" that she took the photo back to Hollywood and showed it to Wasserman, who then secured a contract for the 18-year-old girl at MGM, where Shearer's late husband Irving Thalberg had been head of production. Leigh made her screen debut opposite Van Johnson in the big-budget rural drama The Romance of Rosy Ridge (1947) and went on to co-star in such popular films as Little Women (1949), Scaramouche (1952) and The Naked Spur (1953).

In early 1950, while filming Jet Pilot (1957) for Howard Hughes at RKO, Leigh met Curtis at a cocktail party at a restaurant located across the street from the studio. The two soon began dating, making their first public appearance as an official couple at the touring show Ice Follies of 1950 in December of that year. Leigh and Curtis were married at the Pickwick Arms Hotel in Greenwich, Connecticut on June 4, 1951, a day after his 26th birthday. They had two daughters together, Kelly (born June 1956) and Jamie Lee (born November 1958), both of whom became actresses. By the late 1950s, the Curtises' marriage was already falling apart and the joy of a new baby did not improve their sinking relationship. Despite their uncertain marital situation, Leigh and Curtis agree to appear as husband and wife in Who Was That Lady?, as the film also written by Krasna was now called. This was their last picture together before their divorce in 1962.

Tony Curtis and Dean Martin
When Curtis was cast in Who Was That Lady?, he was at the top of his career. After arriving in Hollywood in 1948, he was cast in a series of mediocre films designed only to showcase his good looks. He finally achieved recognition as a skilled dramatic actor in Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957), co-starring Burt Lancaster. The following year, he received his only Academy Award nomination for his performance in The Defiant Ones (1958), before appearing opposite Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe in Billy Wilder's hugely popular comedy Some Like It Hot (1959). His next picture, the epic historial drama Spartacus (1960), was another major success for Curtis; in fact, it was the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios' history up to that time.

For the role of Michael Haney, Columbia hired crooner Dean Martin, who had previously appeared with Leigh in the comedy Living It Up (1954). The son of an Italian immigrant in Ohio, Martin worked as a roulette stickman and blackjack croupier in a speakeasy, before local bands started engaging him as a singer in the late 1930s. He performed in several nightclubs until making his acting debut in George Marshall's My Friend Irma (1949), the first of seventeen screen collaborations with comic Jerry Lewis, with whom he had formed a partnership in 1946. Following the release of the duo's final project, Hollywood or Bust (1956), Martin received much praise for his dramatic performances in The Young Lions (1958), Some Came Running (1958) the first of six films he made with friend and fellow crooner Frank Sinatra and Rio Bravo (1959). Martin sang the title song in Who Was That Lady?, which was written by the Academy Award-winning team of lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jimmy Van Heusen.

Dean Martin, Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh
To helm Who Was That Lady?, the studio engaged George Sidney, who had directed Leigh twice before in The Red Danube (1949) and the aforementioned Scaramouche. A former vaudeville performer, Sidney began his Hollywood career as an assistant at MGM in 1932, a position he held until being assigned to direct the Our Gang short comedies six year later. After helming the Oscar-winning shorts Quicker'n a Wink (1940) and Of Pups and Puzzles (1941), he was promoted to feature films as part of the Arthur Freed Unit, becoming MGM's most successful directors in the 1940s. During this period, he delivered such hits as Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946) and Show Boat (1951). In 1955, Sidney left MGM to sign a seven-year contract at Columbia, where he directed the popular The Eddie Duchin Story (1956) and Pal Joey (1957). Who Was That Lady? marked the only joint project of Ansark-Sidney, a production company formed by Krasna (his name spelled backwards) and Sidney.

Who Was That Lady? was filmed over the course of 27 days between July and August 1959. Leigh thoroughly enjoyed working again under Sidney's direction and with Martin, who had become one of the Curtises' closest friends. "This was a romp from start to finish," she later wrote in her autobiography. "We really rolled with this one. The personal familiarity of the three of us allowed absolute freedom, and the interplay was wild and woolly and inventive." The three leads infused the set with an atmosphere of playfulness on the set that lent itself to practical jokes, attempts to make each other laugh in the middle of takes and even water fights. Although he was not entirely satisfied with the film, Sidney also remembered the making of Who Was That Lady? as a pleasurable experience. "I have never had so much fun on a picture," he said, "but the finished result never seemed to me quite to make it. It's almost a very good farce indeed, but there's something wrong. Too little real feeling, too much real feeling. [...] I don't know. But it was a real ball to do."


This week on "Film Friday" I am celebrating Janet Leigh's 89th birthday, which was on Wednesday, by telling you a little bit about one of my favorite films of hers.


Tony Curtis and Dean Martin
Leigh, Curtis, Martin and the crew of Who Was That Lady? worked for six days on a flooded set that portrayed the basement of the Empire State Building for one of the last scenes of the film. There were more than 10,000 gallons of water in a massive tank on Columbia's Stage 9 and the "tidal wave" that hit them at the climax was a real flash flood of 6,000 gallons. When the sequence was over, the stars celebrated by tossing Sidney into the tank. Leigh narrowly escaped serious injury during this part of the shooting. One particular scene required her to throw a bucket of war on Curtis and run away. She slipped on the wet floor and fell on an iron grating, sustaining bruises, a cut to her knee and a wrenched leg. After emergency treatment on the set, she managed to complete the day's work without causing any delays.

Who Was That Lady? opened at the Criterion Theatre in New York on April 15, 1960 to generally positive reviews from critics. Howard Thompson of The New York Times described the film as "a breezy, free-wheeling little romantic farce," adding, "The real fun is watching the two bland schemers as they whip up their fantastic yarn about the husband's sideline 'career' [...] Mr. Martin, especially, is fine as a highly season bachelor and a glib concocter of video shows." Cue magazine considered that "Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh [are] at the top of their form," while Harrison's Report called Leigh "superb as the bubbly, effervescent wife who complicated the impersonation by becoming overenthusiastic about it." For their part, Variety wrote, "Who Was That Lady? is perhaps not the rouser it might have been, but it is an often hilarious romp made somewhat sedate only in a compromise between farce and romantic comedy. [...] Curtis and Martin work nicely together, and much of the film depends upon their teamwork." Who Was That Lady? was the 19th biggest moneymaker of 1960, grossing over $3 million at the box-office.

Three months after completing Who Was That Lady?, Janet Leigh began work on what became her most iconic film, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Co-starring Anthony Perkins, this psychological horror thriller centered on the fatal encounter between a woman on the run and the disturbed manager-owned of a secluded motel. Despite initial mixed reviews, Psycho was a massive success at the box-office and earned Leigh an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. There followed two other major hits for the actress, John Frankenheimer's Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and George Sidney's musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Leigh's screen career slowed down in the mid-1960s, though she enjoyed great success as an author beginning with her memoir, There Really Was a Hollywood (1984), which became a New York Times best-seller. She continued to write and act occasionally on film and television until her death from a heart attack in October 2004, at the age of 77.

 

 


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SOURCES:
Backstory: Interviews with Screenwriters of Hollywood's Golden Age edited and with an introduction by Pat McGilligan (1986) | Janet Leigh: A Biography by Michelangelo Capua (2013) | The Villainous Stage: Crime Plays on Broadway and in the West End by Marvin Lachman (2014) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review | Variety review

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  1. I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!!! And I love Norman Krasa!!! So many of my favorite films are written by him!

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