Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Fredric March!

FREDRIC MARCH (August 31, 1897 April 14, 1975)
Keep interested in others; keep interested in the wide and wonderful world. Then in a spiritual sense, you will always be young.

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Happy Birthday, Joan Blondell & Fred MacMurray!

JOAN BLONDELL (August 30, 1906 December 25, 1979)
There's a very fine line between underacting and not acting at all. And not acting is what a lot of actors are guilty of.

FRED MACMURRAY (August 30, 1908 November 5, 1991)
I once asked Barbara Stanwyck the secret of acting. She said, «Just be truthful and if you can fake that you've got it made

Monday, 29 August 2016

The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon: «Spellbound» (1945)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Spellbound (1945) begins when Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives at a mental hospital in Vermont to replace its elderly director, Dr. Murchison (Leo G. Carroll). Headstrong psychoanalyst Dr. Constance Petersen, who also works there, soon notices that Edwardes has a peculiar phobia about sets of parallel lines against a white background. As Constance and Edwardes begin to fall in love with each other, he confides to her that he killed the real Dr. Edwardes and then assumed his identity. He suffers from massive amnesia and does not know who he is. Believing that the man is innocent and suffering from a guilt complex, Constance resolves to use her psychoanalytic training to break down his amnesia and discover what truly happened.

To protect him, Constance takes the impostor — calling himself «John Brown» — to the New York home of her beloved mentor, Dr. Alex Brulov (Michael Chekhov). There, the two doctors try to unravel Brown's guilt about the murder by analysing his dreams and through an acting out of his experiences. In the process, Constance and Brulov discover that Brown has witnessed the killing of the real Dr. Edwardes on a ski slope and that he believes he is responsible for pushing him from a cliff. Pressing deeper into his psyche, they resurect two extremely important memories. First, he remembers that behind the two skiers there was a man on a hill with a gun who shot Edwardes. Secondly, Brown — who recalls that his actual name is John Ballantyne — relieves a childhood experience wherein he slid down a hand rail with his brother at the bottom, accidentally killing him by knocking him onto sharp-pointed railings. Constance concludes that the real killer has used Ballantine's guilt over his brother's death to convince him that he also killed Edwardes. Returning to the hospital, she finds out that the murderer is actually Dr. Murchison, who was trying to save his position. After vainly trying to intimidate her with a gun, Murchison turns the weapon on himself and fires. Later, at Grand Central Station, Burlov sees newlyweds Constance and Ballantine off to their honeymoon.

John Ballantine: Will you love me just as much when I'm normal?
Dr. Constance Petersen: Oh, I'll be insane about you.

In late 1943, independent producer David O. Selznick became interested in the idea of making a picture that dealt with the theme of psychoanalysis, a subject that truly fascinated him. Although he had only spent a year in therapy, he was overwhelmed by the healing possibilities of the method developed by Austrian physician Sigmund Freud in the early 20th century. As a result, Selznick asked British director Alfred Hitchcock, whom he had under contract, to craft a pshycological thriller grounded in Freundian theory. Hitchcock suggested they adapt The House of Dr. Edwardes, a 1927 novel written by British authors John Palmer and Hilary Saint George Saunders, under the pseudonym «Francis Beeding.» The director already owned the rights, which he then sold to Selznick for $40,000. Set in the Swiss Alps, the story focused on a maniac named Geoffrey Godstone, who imprisons the chief of a mental home and then takes over the management of the facility himself. One of the staff psychiatrists, Constance Sedgwick, discovers who Godstone really is, but is powerless in her efforts to stop him. Finally, the head of the hospital, a distinguished psychiatrist named Dr. Edwardes, arrives and sets matters to right. In an interview with François Truffaut, Hitchcock remarked that the original novel «was melodramatic and quite weird. In the book even the orderlies were lunatics and they did some very queer things. But I wanted to do something more sensible, to turn out the first picture on psychoanalysis.»

In January 1944, while working on war-related short films in England, Hitchcock hired Angus MacPhail to co-author a treatment with him. A former editor for the literary magazine Granta, MacPhail entered the film business in 1926, writing subtitles for silent pictures. He subsequently became the head of the scenario department at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, where he met Hitchcock on the set of The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), the director's first thriller. Hitchcock and MacPhail, who consulted prominent British psychoanalysts before composing their treatment, altered the novel radically. Instead of having a maniac take over the asylum, they created a character with amnesia who thinks he has killed Edwardes and stolen his identity. The staff and patients accept him as such and Constance, the female doctor, even falls in love with him. Then, upon discovering his amnesia, she uses psychoanalysis to cure him and, at the same time, also unmasks the murderer of the real Edwardes.

Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman and Alfred
Hitchcock on the set of Spellbound
After Hitchcock turned in the treatment, Selznick hired Ben Hecht, also a veteran of psychoanalysis, to pen the screenplay in collaboration with MacPhail. A prolific storyteller who never took longer than eight weeks to complete a script, Hecht was generally believed to the highest paid screenwriter of his day. After winning the first ever Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Underworld (1927), he wrote such acclaimed pictures as Viva Villa! (1934), Gunga Din (1939), Wuthering Heights (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940).

Upon being assigned to the project, Hecht suggested that they focus «The House of Dr. Edwardes» — as the film was still titled — on the female psychiatrist and the amnesiac patient with whom she falls in love. Since psychoanalysis had proven successful as the theme of Moss Hart's hit Broadway musical Lady in the Dark (1941), Hitchcock and Selznick immediately approved of this approach to the material. As research, Hitchcock and Hecht toured mental hospitals in Connecticut and New York, before focusing on the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. In addition, Selznick hired his own analyst, Dr. May E. Romm, a prominent Beverly Hills psychiatrist who had worked in the producer's Since You Went Away (1944), to serve as technical advisor.

Initially, Selznick wanted Joseph Cotten — who had starred in Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) — and Dorothy McGuire to play the two lead characters, with Paul Lukas as the villainous Dr. Murchison. Ultimately, however, Selznick decided to team contract players Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck for the film. As an independent, he had produced only a small number of pictures each year, loaning his contract talent out to other studios. He had not yet produced any of Peck's films and he had not produced a Bergman film since her Hollywood debut opposite Leslie Howard in Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), or a Hitchcock film since his Best Picture winner Rebecca (1940). With all three names growing in popularity and demonstrating solid box-office appeal, Selznick saw this as the perfect opportunity to join his biggest assets in the same project. The role of Dr. Murchison was eventually assigned to Leo G. Carroll, who had appeared in Rebecca, as well as in Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941). Russian-born actor and theatre practitioner Michael Chekhov, nephew of the acclaimed playwright Anton Chekhov, was cast as Dr. Alex Brulov, a Freudian analyst and Constance's former mentor.

Shot from the dream sequence created by Dalí
As originally scripted, Peck's character's dreams, which hold the key to the film's mystery, were only described in the dialogue. During pre-production, however, Hitchcock decided that it was essential to show them on screen — and in a way that would «break with the traditional way of handling dream sequences through a blurred and hazy screen.»

To achieve the effect he desired, Hitchcock asked Selznick to hire Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who was already famous for his dreamlike creations. According to the director, Selznick agreed to the hiring, «though I think he didn't really understand my reasons for wanting Dalí. He probably thought I wanted his collaboration for publicity purposes. The real reason was that I wanted to convey the dreams with great visual sharpness and clarity, sharper than the film itself. I wanted Dalí because of the architectural sharpness of his work.»

Under his original agreement, Dalí was to sketch out the dream sequences for Hitchcock's approval, then turn their agreed-upon images into a series of paintings that would be used in the film. He would receive $1,000 for each of his creations, which could not be altered without his permission. He handed in five paintings in June 1944, after which Selznick's financial department budgeted the dream sequence at $150,000. Refusing to spend that much money, Selznick wanted to removed the dream sequence, but Hitchcock devised a plan to use special effects and projections of Dalí's paintings that ultimately lowered the cost to $20,000. With that, Selznick gave the director the go-ahead.

Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman on the set
The film began production on July 7, 1944. Though initially puzzled by Hitchcock's «breezy disdain,» Bergman worked very well with the director. She did, however, have problems with one of the film's more emotional scenes and told Hitchcock she just could not build up the appropriate feeling to do it. His advice: «Ingrid, fake it!» She would later call this response the best piece of direction she had ever received. Throughout her career she would remember his advice whenever she was faced with similar problems.

On the other hand, Peck's relationship with Hitchcock was tricky. A disciple of the Stanislavsky or «Method» school of acting, Peck was somewhat disdainful of the director's «clever shell games.» At the same time, he was doing everything he could to meet Hitchcock's high expectations. «I felt I needed a good deal of direction,» Peck said, but when he asked for assistance, Hitchcock was not forthcoming. «My dear boy,» he replied in answer to a question about motivation, «I couldn't care less what you're thinking. Just let your face drain of all expression.» Despite Hitchcock's lack of specific acting pointers, Peck found him clever and ingenious. «He was full of jokes and quips and puns,» Peck recalled. «I always thought of him a little bit as an overweight English schoolboy with some obvious complexes, but with an uncanny talent for building suspense and holding an audience in the palm of his hand.»

Although working with Hitchcock could be frustrating for an actor, Peck found Bergman a joy. «I think you fall in love a little bit with a woman like Ingrid Bergman,» he told a journalist, «and I don't think there's any way to avoid it, for she was incredibly beautiful, and a very sweet person. [...] Her lovely skin kind of took your breath away, and her whole radiance was something to behold.» Over the years, there have been persistent rumors of an affair between the co-stars. In fact, according to an unnamed cast member, one day «Ingrid and Peck came in late and disheveled, and there was a lot of speculation.» In an interview for his biography of Bergman, Laurence Leamer questioned Peck about the rumors, but he replied, «That is not the kind of thing I talk about.» However, in 1987, when Brad Darrach of People magazine asked Peck about his favorite leading ladies, he did allude to a deeper relationship with Bergman, noting, «All I can say is that I had a real love for her, and I think that's where I ought to stop. [...] I was young. She was young. We were involved for weeks in close and intense work.»

Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman and Salvador
Dalí on the set of Spellbound
Hitchcock completed principal photography on October 13, 1944 and left for London. Selznick was completely dissatisfied with the dream sequences the director had filmed from Dalí's scenario. He found them «pedestrian, like something out of a Poverty Row quickie.» With Hitchcock out of the country, Selznick turned first to director Josef von Sternberg, who declined his invitation to film the dream sequences. Then he approached designer William Cameron Menzies, who had directed the visionary British science fiction film Things to Come (1936) and supervised the visuals on Selznick's Best Picture-winning epic Gone With the Wind (1939). Menzies devised a new scenario for the dream sequence, which was approved by Dalí and Hitchcock, when the latter returned to the U.S. in December 1944. Selznick still was not happy with what came out on film. Eventually, the dream was cut to about two minutes and Menzies declined any screen credit.

As he was preparing the film for previews, Selznick decided that he did not care for the title The House of Dr. Edwardes. As he had done in the past, he held an in-house competition to rename the film, with the $50 prize going to secretary Ruth Batchelor, who suggested Spellbound. The film performed well in previews, with the biggest surprise being audience reaction to Peck in the male lead. By this point in time, he had scored a hit in 20th Century-Fox's religious drama The Keys of the Kingdom (1944). That and his publicity had turned him into a major sex symbol. As Selznick reported in one of his famous memos: «We could not keep the audience quiet from the time his name came on the screen until w ehad shushed them through three or four sequences and stopped all the dames from 'oohing' and 'ahing' and gurgling.»

With the delays in finishing the dream sequence and the glut of wartime product, Spellbound was held up in post-production for over a year. It finally opened at the Astor Theatre in New York on November 1, 1945. Selznick was concerned that Bergman's other release that year The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), completed after Spellbound was set to premiere the same month. So he turned the event into a plus by advertising 1945 as «The Year of Bergman.» Spellbound ended up grossing $7 million, making it Hitchcock's biggest hit to that date. The fim was a critical success as well. Howard Barnes of the New York Herald-Tribune called it a «fascinating chase through the labyrinth of a man's tortured mind,» while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times pronounced it «the most mature of the many melodramas Mr. Hitchcock has made.» Spellbound was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Michael Chekhov), Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Score. It won in the latter category for Miklós Rózsa's combination of lush romantic themes with a pioneering use of the electronic instrument the theremin.

This post is my contribution to The 2nd Wonderful Ingrid Bergman Blogathon hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema. To view all entries, click HERE.

Gregory Peck: A Biography by Gary Fishgall (Scribner, 2002)
Gregory Peck: A Charmed Life by Lynn Haney (Da Capo Press, 2003)
Hitchcock/Truffaut by François Truffaut (Simon & Schuster, 1984) 
TCM's article on Spellbound by Frank Miller 
TCM's notes on Spellbound

Happy Birthday, Ingrid Bergman!

INGRID BERGMAN (August 29, 1915 — August 29, 1982)
I have no regrets. I wouldn't have lived my life the way I did if I was going to worry about what people were going to say.

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Picture of the Week

Gene Kelly after enlisting in the U.S. Naval Air Service with a commission as Lieutenant Junior Grade (1944)

Friday, 26 August 2016

Film Friday: «Brigadoon» (1954)

This week on «Film Friday,» I have decided to celebrate both Gene Kelly's 104th and Van Johnson's 100th birthdays by telling you about one of the only two pictures they made together. Incidentally, this was the first Van Johnson film I ever saw.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Brigadoon (1954) begins when New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson) become lost in the highlands of Scotland while on a hunting trip. Upon the clearing of the mists, they discover Brigadoon, a village that only materializes once every century. If any villager ever leaves, the enchantement will be broken for all and the whole town will vanish forever. If, in contrast, an outsider wishes to stay, then they must prove to love someone in the village strongly enough. Cynic Jeff becomes increasingly bored with the town's peculiarities, while dreamer Tommy falls in love with both Brigadoon and village lass Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse), whose younger sister Jean (Virginia Bosler) is about to marry Charlie Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson).

That evening, Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones), the village schoolmaster, officiates at Jean and Charlie's wedding, which Tommy and Fiona attend. Interrupting the festivities, the jealous Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing) announces that he is leaving Brigadoon to make everything disappear, since the girl he loves, Jean, is marrying another man. Harry's words create mass chaos among the townspeople, who all rush to stop him. Harry fights off his pursuers, including Tommy, but while hiding in a tree, he is accidentally shot to death by Jeff, who skipped the wedding to hunt. Afterwards, Tommy and Fiona confess their love to each other and decided to marry, thus allowing him to stay in Brigadoon. When Tommy tells his plan to his friend, however, a drunk and remorseful Jeff admits that he killed Harry. Shaken by Jeff's words, Tommy apologetically changes his mind and bids Fiona farewell just before Brigadoon disappears. Four months later, in a New York bar, Tommy tells Jeff that he is still in love with Fiona and had been avoiding his fiancé, Jane Ashton (Elaine Stewart). At dinner that evening, Tommy abruptly calls off his engagement and calls Jeff, instructing him to get the first flight back to Scotland. He and Jeff return to same place where Brigadoon once stood and suddenly see the village reappearing. As Tommy finally reunites with Fiona, Brigadoon fades back into the mist.

Mr. Lundie: It's the hardest thing in the world to give everything. Though it's usually the only way to get everything.

Lyricist and book writer Alan Jay Lerner first met Austrian composer Frederick Loewe in 1942 at the Lamb's Club, a theatrical organization based in New York City. Since Loewe was looking for a partner, he and Lerner soon collaborated on a musical adaptation of Barry Conners's farce The Patsy called The Life of the Party for a Detroit stock company. Although the show ran for only nine weeks, Lerner and Loewe decided to continue acting as team for the foreseeable future. Back in New York, they got to work on What's Up? with Arthur Pierson, who co-wrote the musical with Lerner. Opening at the National Theatre on Broadway in November 1943, What's Up? received negative reviews from critics and closed after 63 performances. Undeterred by a second disappointment, Lerner and Loewe set about writing their next piece, The Day Before Spring, which debuted at the National Theatre in 1945. In spite of the mixed reception, the show ran for 165 performances and finally brought Lerner and Loewe some attention.

Inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein's successful collaborations Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), Lerner and Loewe next created Brigadoon, a romantic fantasy set in a mystical village in the Scottish Highlands. Directed by Robert Lewis, Brigadoon opened at Ziegfeld Theatre on Broadway in March 1947 to excellent critical reviews. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it a «beautiful orchestrated Scotch idyll,» while Ward Morehouse of the New York Sun declared it to be «by far the best musical play this season has produced.» The production, which ran for 581 performances, starred David Brooks as Tommy Albright, George Keane as Jeff Douglas, Marion Bell as Fiona MacLaren, Virginia Bosler as her sister Jean, James Mitchell as Harry Beaton and William Hansen as Mr. Lundie. A West End production of Brigadoon premiered at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in April 1949 and lasted 685 performances. It featured Philip Hanna as Tommy and Patricia Hughes as Fiona.

Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse
In February 1951, British producer J. Arthur Rank acquired the rights to Brigadoon, but sold them a month later to MGM's Arthur Freed, who «paid a fortune» for the property. Soon, the studio announced that Gene Kelly and Kathryn Grayson, the stars of Thousands Cheer (1943) and Anchors Aweigh (1945), would play the lead roles of Tommy and Fiona in the film version of Brigadoon. However, Kelly's other commitments stalled the production for almost two years, by which point the studio's contract with Grayson had lapsed.

MGM then decided to cast Moira Shearer, who had come to international attention for her first screen role as a ballerina in the British film The Red Shoes (1948). Whereas Grayson hailed from North Carolina, Shearer was an authentic Scottish lass and thus perfect for the part. But, as fate would have it, Sadlers Wells Ballet, of which Shearer was a member, refused to release her for the length of the picture's shooting schedule. Having lost Shearer as their ideal Fiona, Metro finally settled on contract player and Freed Unit favorite Cyd Charisse, who had risen to fame as Kelly's sexy dancing partner in Singin' in the Rain (1951).

For the role of Jeff Douglas, the protagonist's best friend, MGM initially considered British actor Alec Guinness and Singin' in the Rain co-star Donald O'Connor, but eventually assigned the role to Van Johnson, who had appeared with Kelly in the propaganda war film Pilot #5 (1943). Known as MGM's «Golden Boy,» Johnson began his show business career in 1935, singing and dancing in an off-Broadway production called Entre Nous. The following year, noted producer Leonard Sillman cast him in New Faces of 1936, which was a huge hit among audiences and critics alike. That led to small featured parts in Rodgers and Hart's Too Many Girls (1939) and Pal Joey (1940), wherein he also served as Kelly's understudy. In 1942, Johnson signed a long-term contract with MGM and quickly became one of the studio's most popular leading men during and right after World War II, appearing in such successful pictures as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), Thrill of a Romance (1945) and Battleground (1949). Brigadoon ended up being Johnson's penultimate film for MGM; he was dropped from his contract following the release of The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954).

Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Vincente
Minnelli between takes
To helm Brigadoon, the studio selected Vincente Minnelli, who had previously worked with Kelly in The Pirate (1948) and the Best Picture winner An American in Paris (1951). The son of a musical conductor, Minnelli started out as a costume and set designer at the Chicago Theatre, before transitioning to stage director at Radio City Musical Hall in New York. The first play he directed was the hit musical revue At Home Abroad, which opened in October 1935 and featured soon-to-be Hollywood stars Eleanor Powell and John Payne. Minnelli continued to enjoy great success on Broadway until Freed brought him to MGM in 1940. His other credits include Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Father of the Bride (1950) and The Band Wagon (1953), which gave Charisse her first leading role. Lerner described Minnelli as «the greatest director of motion picture musicals the screen has ever seen.»

Kelly and Minnelli originally planned to shoot Brigadoon on location in Scotland, where the story is set. However, the country's unpredictable climate and the high cost of overseas production made this unfeasible. According to Kelly, he and Freed actually travelled to Scotland to scout locations, but found that «the weather was so bad that we had to agree with the studio. So we came back to the United States and started looking for locations here. We found some highlands above Monterey [in Northern California's Big Sur] that looked like Scotland. But then the studio had an economy wave, and they clamped the lid on that idea.» Much to the disappointment of the cast and crew — and the delight of newly-appointed studio head Dore Schary, who disliked musicals and always pushed for films to be produced on a low budget — Brigadoon was ultimately filmed on the soundstages at the MGM facilities in Culver City. Art director Preston Ames, who had won an Oscar for An American in Paris, devised a way to build the entire village of Brigadoon, as well as the surrounding heathered hills, on a single, gigantic stage, in order to allow the camera to move through it more easily and shoot in a full 360-degree angle.

Van Johnson and Gene Kelly
Principal photography on Brigadoon took place between early December 1953 and late March 1954. From the beginning, Minnelli and Kelly disagreed on how the film should be shot. «Vincente and I were never in synch, I must confess,» Kelly admitted. Minnelli envisioned the film as «'more of an operetta' — the type of 'theatrical artifice' that was less like An American in Paris and more like The Pirate." Kelly, however, saw Brigadoon as a «'Scottish Western' — Arhur Freed meets John Ford.» When the entire production veered more in Minnelli's direction, Kelly was not shy about voicing his unhappiness. Minnelli later said that he «had many talks with [Kelly], trying to impress on him the need to show exuberance in the part.» Nevertheless, Kelly remained remote and grim-looking throughout filming.

Adding to the already palpable tension on the set was the fact that once the performers finally managed to produce whatever effect their exacting, non-verbal director was looking for, they were obliged to do it all over again. As Johnson recalled, «They were going from Widescreen to CinemaScope, so when we got a take, Vincent would say, 'Now we're going to do one for CinemaScope.' So I watched him. It took another 45 minutes to put his big camera on and relight and widen the thing. So, finally, I said, 'I'm shooting two pictures!' I went to see Dore Schary and I said, 'I'm shooting two movies. I should have two salaries,' but Dore said, 'Yes, you're shooting two versions. That's right. And you're getting one salary, Van, and be glad that you're getting it,' and I walked out very meekly. I never did that again.»

Brigadoon premiered on September 8, 1954 and was moderately successful at the box-office. Critical reviews, however, were not as favorable, with many complaining about the film's stagy quality. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, described the film as «curiously flat and out-of-joint, rambling all over creation and seldom generating warmth or charm.» Crowther admired the costumes, sets and decor, but deplored the omission of several musical numbers. He also found fault with the film's two stars and its director: «the personable Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse have the lead dancing roles. Even so, their several individual numbers are done too slickly, too mechanistically. What should be wistful and lyric smack strongly of trickery and style [...] Mr. Kelly's [performance] is as thin and metallic as a nail; Miss Charisse's is solemn and posey [...] Vincente Minnelli's direction lacks his usual vitality and flow.» He concluded his review by noting that the film was «pretty weak synthetic Scotch.»

If my memory serves me right, Brigadoon was one of the first classic films I ever saw. At that point, I was still very much obsessed with Gene Kelly and tried to watch as many of his films as I could possibly find. When I read the plot synopsis of Brigadoon, I thought it sounded really interesting a kind of story I never really seen before. As I started watching it, however, I was immediately put off by the blatant artificiality of the settings and ended up not enjoying the film as much as I thought I would. I truly wish the film had been shot on location in Scotland or at least in Big Sur, as Kelly suggested. In my opinion, real «live» surroundings would made Brigadoon an excellent film instead of just an okay one. Brigadoon was also the first Van Johnson picture I ever saw, although I barely noticed him at the time. It was only several months later when I watched Thrill of a Romance and Easy to Wed (1946) that I realized that Esther Williams's adorable leading man and Gene Kelly's sardonic sidekick were the same person. At that point, I went back and re-watched Van's scenes in Brigadoon and that made me like the film I little bit more. My favorite sequence is definitely «I'll Go Home With Bonnie Jean,» which he performs with Gene. Van was actually a really good dancer and it is a shame that MGM did not give him more opportunities to showcase his dancing skills.

A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (Da Capo Press, 2010)
Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer by Emanuel Levy (St. Martin's Press, 2009)
TCM's article on Brigadoon by Margarita Landazuri 
TCM's notes on Brigadoon

Thursday, 25 August 2016

Happy 100th Birthday, Van Johnson!

MGM's «Golden Boy,» also known as Van Johnson, was born Charles Van Dell Johnson on August 25, 1926 in Newport, Rhode Island. He was the only child of Loretta (neé Snyder), a housewife from a Pennsylvania Dutch background; and Charles E. Johnson, a plumber and later real-estate salesman of Swedish descent. From the beginning, the free-spirited Loretta felt miserable in her marriage to Charles, a tough-minded, pragmatic man who valued thrift over material comfort. The arrival of a son merely added more pressure to the young couple's dismal relationship and drove Loretta to alcoholism. When Van was three years old, she abandoned the family and fled to Brooklyn, New York in pursuit of a livelier and more fulfilled existence. Van would not see her mother again until he was a late teenager. Commenting on his parents' divorce years later, Van said, «I was too young to comprehend it then and today I deliberately don't try.»

Van Johnson at age 11
After Loretta left, Van continued to reside in Newport with his father and grandmother, who were both strict disciplinarians. Young Van was instructed in good manners, neatness of appearance, honesty and respect for older people. As he grew up, he was expected to take care of his own clothes, instilled with a keen sense of duty and taught the importance of production work. Van respected and admired his father, but he also feared him. «There was a rumour around,» Charles later said, «that I was a strict sourpuss father. I was strict about a few things, and one was [Van's] health. I never spanked him in my life. He was my buddy [...] and all it took was a hard look to straighen him out.»

However, the austere environment in which Van was raised created a long-lasting emotional distance between him and his father. Charles did not believe in expressing personal feelings, teaching his young son to divert displays of joy, anger and sorrow into some less demonstrative behavior and not to act on impulse. For a sensitive, introverted child like Van, this led to inhibitions, fundamental insecurity and repression. «I've often wished my childhood had been a little different,» Van confessed early in his Hollywood career, and «that I had a mother's guidance like other boys.»

When he entered Cranston-Calvert Grammar School, Van received good grades, as his teachers «made me interested in what I was supposed to learn.» But the red-headed, freckled-faced kid was shy with girls and very much a loner. For a special outing one day, Charles took his son to nearby Providence to see a circus, an excursion that made Van decide that he wanted to be in show business, preferably as a trapeze artist or a tightrope walker. His determination was such that he began doing odd jobs after school, including mowing laws and delivering groceries, so that he could earn enough money to buy a trapeze and rings. «It wasn't that I loved work so much,» Van later explained, «but that I loved possessions more. Dad had one rule: I could have what I wanted if I earned the price of it myself.» Once he purchased the trapeze and rings, he suspended them from a large tree limb in the backyard and practice on them for hours with two young neighbors.

Teenager Van Johnson
Van's interest in the world of entertainment broadened when he discovered silent pictures. The first film he remembered seeing was The Galloping Fish (1924), a comedy directed by Del Andrews, starring Louise Fazenda and Sydney Chaplin. He subsequently spent most of his Saturday afternoons and any evening he could get away from his studies at the movies, mesmerized by the magical world that he secretly longed to join. He also started reading fan magazines and cut out pictures of his favorite stars, which he would then pin to the wall of his room. In addition, he sent handwritten letters to various Hollywood actors and actresses asking them for pictures and exchanged fan magazines with the girl next door.
Soon, it became obvious to his family and schoolmates that Van had a desire to turn himself into a performer. By the time he was eight years old, he and his friends were putting on shows in the Johnson's backyard for the neighbors, charging a penny for admission. However, the humorless Charles did not support his son's ambition to pursue a career in show business. «The only stage you'll ever be on will be a [house] painter's stage,» he would snort. But the rebuff fell on deaf ears; entertaining people brought Van the attention that he so desperately needed.

During his years at John Clarke Middle School, Van attended whatever stage plays came to Newport and «decided I wanted to be one those people up there entertaining people.» To his father's irritation, Van used the three dollars he was earning every month from doing odd jobs to enroll himself in Dorothy Gladding's dancing school, where he quickly showed a talent for tap, adagio, soft-shoe and ballroom dancing. Before long, Van was performing with an amateur group at social clubs, church gatherings and any other place that requested free entertainment. He even created his own song-and-dance routine, which proved a big hit in the annual variety show at the Colonial Theatre, Newport's main vaudeville house. Meanwhile, Van found time to take violin lessons, for he played in the orchestra at Rogers High School during his last three years there. He was also in the Dramatic Society in his freshman year, although he never got a part. «I chewed up plently of scenery at the tryouts,» he remembered, «but I could never make the grade.» After repeated reading, the teacher in charge of school plays told him most emphatically, «You'll never make an actor.»

Van in the early 1940s
Over six feet tall and nicknamed «Red,» Van was miserable throughout his first two years of high school. Painting was the only class he truly enjoyed and he showed no interest in ever going to college. He was never part of the elite crowd and he did not date, finding relief only by losing himself in the fantasies he saw on stage and screen. By the time he became a junior, however, Van had shed some of his shyness and became more self-confident, mainly through the skill he demonstrated on the dance floor. He took his first girl to a dance that year and soon became a popular partner at proms and social gatherings where records were played.

Van graduated from Rogers High School in the spring of 1934. The class profecy for him in the yearbook read: «Van Johnson will be a dancer, / For his snake hips he'll be known, / You'll soon see him performing / Before the English heir to the throne.» For a year after graduation, Van joined his father in the plumbing business, working as an accountant and stenographer. However, he found his job extremely dull and continued to dream, as he put it, of «something shadowy, dreamy, and dramatic.» The movies remained Van's primary source of solace and excitement. Spencer Tracy became his favorite leading man and he found the Busby Berkeley musicals and those featuring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers so dazzling that he almost danced his way home after seeing them.

In the summer of 1935, Van took a job as a waiter and part-time cook at a clam restaurant, where he befriended an attractive, red-headed girl named Lois Sanborn. Ambitious and worldly-wise, Lois belived that people should try to fulfill their dreams and encouraged Van to pursue his. If show business was his ambition, she told him, then he must go to New York. Although he was eager to leave Newport, Van was unwilling to leave his father, who had no other family now that his grandmother was gone. However, over the summer he warmed up to the idea of moving away; Hollywood was his goal, but New York was closer. That fall, Van informed his father that he was going to try to find work on the stage and wanted to move to New York. Charles reluctantly agreed to let his son go, but told him to come home when he had gotten his fill of «such silly notions.» As long as Van could support himself, his father said, he was free to live the life he wanted. Van left Newport in September 1935, wearing a brown sports coat over white flannel pants and an old straw hat, with five dollars in his pocket. He had just turned 19 years old.

Van Johnson in Too Many Girls
Within weeks of his arrival in New York, Van realized that competition for jobs in the entertainment industry was fierce and he remained unemployed for months. One evening in December, just as he was about to wire his father for money to return home, Van walked past a talent agency and noticed a light still on. He went inside and found an agent's wife waiting for her husband in an outer office. Van's smile was enough to convince the woman to introduce him to her husband, Murray Phillips, who asked the aspiring entertainer what shows he had been in. Van lied and said he had played juvenile leads in stock in Newport, done some understudying in New York and was a seasoned song-and-dance man. Phillips was not fooled, but he told Van to go the next morning to the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, where the agent would be casting an intimate revue. At the audition, he sang Duke Ellington's 1934 composition «(In My) Solitude,» which, to his amazement, earned him a place singing and dancing in Phillips's show. The off-Broadway production was called Entre Nous and it lasted four weeks.

Although Entre Nous proved that Van was a skilled performer, offers for new shows were not forthcoming. With his money running out, he accepted an offer to tour as a substitute dancer with a theatre troupe bound for New England. He welcomed the money and the experience, but he stayed with the company only for a short while. Back in New York, he continued auditioning for every part available, finding once again that competition was extremely strong. One day, on his way home from an audition for a dancing job he did not get, he heard a piano in a rehearsal hall and stepped inside to see what was going on. A man on the stage noticed Van standing around with his tap shoes and assumed that the youth had been sent by an agent in answer to a casting call. The man motioned for Van to come forward and told him to get into his tap shoes and show what he could do. «I felt as if someone had run a blow torch up and down my spine,» Van later recalled. Sensing that this was his big moment, he performed double time, triple time and wing time. «Nobody had to give me a pep talk to make me knock myself out,» Van said. «I was kicking through with everything I had.»

With June Havoc in Pal Joey
As it turned out, the man was Leonard Stillman, a noted Broadway producer who had already given an early career boost to actors Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda, comedienne Imogene Coca and dancer and future Hollywood director Charles Walters. Sillman was currently in the second week of rehearsing New Faces of 1936 and needed a replacement for a male dancer who had sprained an ankle. The producer remembered Van as «a husky blond boy,» so shy that he blushed and stammered when he talked. «He showed me some of his light fantastic stuff,» Sillman recalled, «and he was unquestionably a brilliant hoofer.» Sillman hired Van on the spot and told him to start learning the routines, which he did in short order. Premiering at the Vanderbilt Theatre in Manhattan in May 1936, New Faces was a big hit among audiences and received excellent reviews from critics. Van stayed with the revue through its entire forty-week run.

During the run on New Faces, Van befriended Keenan Wynn and his future wife Evie, as well as castmate Mildred Burns, who was then rooming with Judy Abbott, daughter of the great Broadway stage director and play doctor George Abbott. In the late summer of 1939, after working in hotel resorts and nightclubs, Van was cast in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's musical comedy Too Many Girls, which Abbott was directing. He appeared in the chorus as a college boy and served as understudy for all three male leads: Desi Arnaz, Eddie Bracken and Richard Kollmar, whom he eventually replaced. The following year, Abbott was hired by RKO to helm a screen adaptation of Too Many Girls as a vehicle for Lucille Ball. The director brought in Arnaz and Bracken to reprise their Broadway roles and also found a bit part for Van, who made his motion picture debut in an uncredited role as a college boy. Shortly after the release of Too Many Girls (1940), Abbott hired Van as a chorus boy and Gene Kelly's understudy in the new Rodgers and Hart's show, Pal Joey, a controversial musical based on a series of short stories written by John O'Hara.

Van Johnson and Jean Rogers in
 The War Against Mrs. Hadley
The success of Pal Joey earned Van a contract at Warner Bros. and the male lead in Murder in the Big House (1942), a low-budget feature co-starring Faye Emerson. His role as a young reporter investigating the murder of a death-row inmate required him to dye his eyebrows and hair black. Soon, it became evident that Van's all-American good looks and easy demeanor were ill-suited to the gritty melodramas Warners made at the time, which led the studio to drop him at the expiration of his six-month contract. Discouraged, Van prepared to move back to New York.

Having heard that he was about to leave Hollywood, newlyweds Ball and Arnaz whom Van had befriended during the making of Too Many Girls invited him to dine with them at Chasen's restaurant to say goodbye. Seated at the next table happened to be Bill Grady, for many years the head of talent at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Through Ball's intercession, Grady agreed to schedule a screen test for Van at MGM studios in Culver City. A few days later, he tested opposite Donna Reed, a newly signed MGM player, and a contract was quickly negotiated for Van, with his salary starting at $350 a week. As part of the «grooming process,» he was provided with classes in acting, speech and diction.

After small roles in Somewhere I'll Find You (1942) and The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942), Van was chosen to replace Lew Ayres in the continuation of the popular Dr. Kildare series, beginning with Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (1942). He reprised his role as Dr. Randall «Red» Adams in three other installments: Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case (1943), 3 Men in White (1944) and Between Two Women (1945). Van subsequently appeared in Pilot #5 (1943), which reunited him with Gene Kelly, and The Human Comedy (1943), before receiving his big break in A Guy Named Joe (1943), a sentimental wartime drama starring his idol Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne. Midway through the movie's production in 1943, Van was involved in a serious car accident that left him with a metal plate in his forehead and a number of scars on his face that the plastic surgery of the time could not completely correct or conceal; he used heavy makeup to hide them for years. MGM wanted to replace him in A Guy Named Joe, but Tracy insisted that Van be allowed to finish the picture, despite his long absence. The injury exempted Van from service in World War II.

With Robert Walker and Spencer Tracy
in Thirty Second Over Tokyo
With many actors serving in the armed forces, the accident greatly benefited Johnson's career. He later said, «There were five of us. There was Jimmy Craig, Bob Young, Bobby Walker, Peter Lawford, and myself. All tested for the same part all the time.» Johnson was very busy, often playing soldiers; «I remember [...] finishing one Thursday morning with June Allyson and starting a new one Thursday afternoon with Esther Williams. I didn't know which branch of the service I was in!» MGM built up his image as the all-American boy in war dramas and musicals, with his most notable starring role as Ted Lawson in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), which told the story of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo in April 1942.

In 1945, Van tied with Bing Crosby as the top box office stars chosen yearly by the National Association of Theater Owners. But he fell off the list as other top Hollywood stars returned from wartime service. As a musical comedy performer, Van appeared in five films each with Allyson and Williams. His films with Allyson included the musical Two Girls and a Sailor (1944) and the mystery farce Remains to Be Seen (1953). With Williams, he made the comedy Easy to Wed (1946), which also featured Ball and his old friend Keenan Wynn, and the musical comedy Easy to Love (1953). He also starred with Judy Garland in In the Good Old Summertime (1949), and re-teamed with Gene Kelly as the sardonic second lead of Brigadoon (1954). Johnson continued to appear in war movies after the war ended, including Battleground (1949), an account of the Battle of the Bulge, and Go for Broke! (1951), in which he played an officer leading Japanese-American troops of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe.

The Caine Mutiny
After the advent of television in the early 1950s, MGM began suffering financially and as a result, the studio began streamlining its roster of stars and contract players. Johnson was one of several major stars dropped by MGM in 1954. His final appearance for the studio were in The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) with Elizabeth Taylor. Moving to Columbia, he enjoyed critical acclaim for his performance in as Lt. Steve Maryk in The Caine Mutiny (1954). He refused to allow concealment of his facial scars when being made up as Maryk, believing they enhanced the character's authenticity. One commentator noted years later that «Humphrey Bogart and José Ferrer chomp up all the scenery in this maritime courtroom drama, but it's Johnson's character, the painfully ambivalent, not-too-bright Lieutenant Steve Maryk, who binds the whole movie together.» Time commented that Van Johnson «was a better actor than Hollywood usually allowed him to be.»

As middle-age dawned, Van's features became heavier and acquired a slightly worried look, but he did well in offbeat entries while free-lancing. His films during this period include The Bottom of the Bottle (1956), 23 Paces to Baker Street (1956) and the British-made Beyond This Place (1959). He was also a regular in homes during the Thanksgiving holidays, thanks to his turn as The Pied Piper of Hamlin (NBC, 1957), a musical TV-movie based on the poem by Robert Browning.

Yours, Mine and Ours
As the 1960s began, Van found it increasingly harder to find good movie roles. He continued to appear on television and worked frequently in nightclubs and musicals. In 1961, he traveled to England to star in Harold Fielding's production of The Music Man at the Adelphi Theatre in London. The show enjoyed a successful run of almost a year with Van playing the arduous leading role of Harold Hill to great acclaim. He also appeared in Come on Strong in Broadway's 1962 season.
Operations for skin cancer and the removal of a lymph gland took him out of the picture in the mid 1960s, but he was back on television and in features by the end of the decade. Now firmly established as affable support, he appeared in family comedies like Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), thrillers such as Company of Killers (1970) and even several genre pictures in Europe.

A late career high came in 1976 with an Emmy nomination for Rich Man, Poor Man (ABC), which led to more work on the small screen in Superdome (1978) and Glitter (1984). Throughout the 1980s, he was busy in dinner theater and the straw-hat circuit. In 1985, he received critical and box-office acclaim when he returned to Broadway as one of original star Gene Barry's replacements in the flashy but warm gay-themed musical, La Cage aux Folles, and he gave an amusing turn as one of the stars in the film-within-a-film that highlighted Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).

The 1990s saw Johnson on stage in productions of No, No, Nanette and Show Boat, though he was forced to abandon the latter due to health concerns in 1991. A regular on television documentaries about the Hollywood of yore, he was a genial and informative interview subject, most notably for Burt Reynolds' Conversations With (CBS, 1991), for which he was joined by the likes of James Stewart, Ricardo Montalban and his Human Comedy co-star Mickey Rooney. After retiring to an assisted living facility in the new millennium, Johnson died Dec. 12, 2008 at the age of 92. His legacy was a true rarity in movie circles - he had outlasted virtually all male actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood and had managed to work solidly way into his golden years, unlike many of his peers.