Sunday, 27 November 2016

Friday, 25 November 2016

Film Friday: "Broadway Melody of 1936" (1935)

In honor of Eleanor Powell's 104th birthday, which was on Monday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring you the first of her films that I ever saw.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) begins when newspaper and radio columnist Bert Keeler (Jack Benny) is told by his managing editor (Paul Harvey) that he has to stop writing about "Blessed Events" and start digging up dirt, he goes after young Broadway producer and songwriter Bob Gordon (Robert Taylor). Gordon's new musical, Broadway Rhythm , is getting its backing from heiress Lillian Brent (June Knight), who also wants to star in the show, and Keeler's column won't leave them alone. Gordon resorts to punching Keeler in the nose several times, but as the paper's circulation, and Keeler's salary, rise he keeps at it.

During rehearsals, Bob's childhood sweetheart, Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell), comes to his office, but he doesn't recognize her. She goes away, but when he finds the fraternity pin that he once had given her in his office, he tells his secretary, Kitty Corbett (Una Merkel), to find her. She auditions for his show, but, even though he is attracted to her again, he tells her that Broadway isn't for her. She dreams of being a hit in his show, but Bob won't give her a chance and instead buys her ticket to go back home. Meanwhile, Lillian has gotten Bob to agree that if he doesn't find a prominent star for the show within two weeks, she can play the lead. As a gag, Keeler has been planting phony stories about a French musical star named Mlle. La Belle Arlette, and when Kitty uncovers the ruse, she helps Irene assume that identity. As Arlette, Irene wins Bob's enthusiastic approval to star in his show, despite Lillian's anger. Just as Irene's dreams are about to come true, however, Keeler calls, knowing that she is an impostor, and reveals that there is a real Arlette who is planning to sue the paper if the publicity does not stop. Irene convinces him to help her, though, and they go to Bob's cast party. When Arlette never shows up, and Irene dances, Bob realizes they are one and the same and that Broadway is where he and Irene belong.

Bob Gordon: I'm going to Hollywood. I'm going to find a star for this show if I have to steal Garbo!

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1912, Eleanor Powell began taking dance lessons at the age of eleven, learning ballet and acrobatics. Two years later, she was discovered by vaudevillian and entrepreneur Gus Edwards, who gave her a summer job in one his revues at the Ritz Grill of the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City. In the fall of 1927, while still a teenager, Powell headed to New York to try her luck on Broadway and soon landed a small part in Melville Gideon's The Optimists (1928), a musical revue that ran for only 24 performances. She continued to audition for shows, but discovered that she needed to become a tap dancer in order to find work. As formal training, she signed up for a package of ten lessons at dance studio of Jack Donahue, who tied two sandbags around her waist to force her to resist her natural impulse toward high-stepping. (As incredible as it may seem, these were the only formal tap lessons she had during her entire career.) On her own, Powell shaped her precise and innovative footwork by dancing to boogie-woogie records. After the completion of her lessons, Laurence Schwab and Frank Mandel offered her a specialty number in their new show, Follow Through (1929), which was a huge success and led Powell to being named "The World's Greatest Feminine Tap Dancer" by the Dance Masters of America.

In mid-1933, while touring in the roadshow of George White's Scandals, Powell was approached by the producer with the idea of appearing in motion pictures. Noted for his countless editions of the Scandals on Broadway, White was planning his second film version of the same and felt that Powell would be perfect for a specialty number in the picture. Her apperance in George White's 1935 Scandals (1935) was undistinguished at best, but her extraordinary dancing skills caught the attention of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who offered her the female lead in Broadway Melody of 1936. Taking its name from Metro's Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody (1929), the new backstage musical was Mayer's response to the successful Warner Bros. Gold Diggers series

Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor and June Knight
Broadway Melody of 1936 was designed to show off Powell's unique talents. For instance, "You Are My Lucky Star," conceived as a dream sequence, gave Powell a rare film opportunty to show off her early training in ballet. The number begins with Powell (dubbed by Marjorie Lane) singing the song in an empty theater and imagining herself the star of a production that also features the Albertina Rasch Ballet. The ballerinas reportedly were forced to remain on point for such long periods during filming that blood was seeping through their slippers. Between takes they took off their shoes and put on ice on their feet although Powell refused to do this because she feared she would not be able to force her swollen feet back into their slippers. Apparently, Powell lost four toenails on her right foot during the filming.

Broadway Melody of 1936 premiered in New York City on August 25, 1935 and in Los Angeles on September 18. Critical reviews were largely positive. Andre Sennwald of The New York Times, for instance, described the film as a "reliably entertaining song and dance show," praising Powell as "a rangy and likable girl with the most eloquent feet in show business." The film was also hugely successful at the box-office, earning $1,655,000 in the US and Canada and $1,216,000 elsewhere. At the 8th Academy Awards held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in March 1936, Broadway Melody of 1936 won the Oscar for Best Dance Direction and received additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Story. It lost Best Picture to Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Best Story to The Scoundrel (1935). The popularity of the film gave way to two sequels, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), both of which starred Powell.

A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts by Liz Sonneborn () | American Classic Screen Profiles edited by  John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh () | Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 by Tino Balio () | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) |

Monday, 21 November 2016

Happy Birthday, Eleanor Powell!

ELEANOR POWELL (November 21, 1912 February 11, 1982)
Whenever you hear the beat of my feet, it is really the beat of my heart saying, «Thank You and God Bless You!»

More Eleanor Powell-related articles HERE

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Picture of the Week

Grace Kelly and Rock Hudson at the 11th Golden Globe Awards on January 11, 1954.
Kelly won Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Mogambo (1953).

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Happy Birthday, Gene Tierney!

GENE TIERNEY (November 19, 1920 November 6, 1991)
It was the fashion of the time, still is, to feel that all actors are neurotic, or they would not be actors.

More Gene Tierney-related articles HERE.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Film Friday: "All That Heaven Allows" (1955)

In honor of Rock Hudson's 91st birthday, which was yesterday, this week on "Film Friday" I bring one of the very first films I saw with him. This is also one of my personal favorites.

Original release poster
Directed by Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows (1955) tells the story of Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), a wealthy widow living in a small New England town. Now that her two children, Kay (Gloria Talbott) and Ned (William Reynolds), are grown up and in college, Cary is becoming increasingly aware of her loneliness. While everyone expects her to marry staid bachelor Harvey (Conrad Nagel), Cary instead finds herself attracted to Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), a significantly younger gardener who rejects social artifices. When Ron invites her to a dinner party at the home of his friends, former suburbanites Alida (Virginia Grey) and Mick Anderson (Charles Drake), Cary realizes how much she admires his down-earth lifestyle and the two soon begin a passionate romance.

Although she is supported by her close friend Sara Warden (Agnes Moorehead), Cary becomes distressed when her neighbors and children express their disapproval of her relationship with Ron, which they consider socially unacceptable for a woman of her standing. Eventually, she succumbs to the pressure and decides to leave Ron. Weeks later, Cary's friends and family have welcomed her back into their fold, but she remains despondent and suffers headaches. At Christmas, Kay reveals that she is engaged, while Ned announces that he is moving to Paris. When Cary sees their gift, a television set, she breaks down, realizing that her rejection of Ron was pointless and that her future holds only loneliness. The following day, she visits Dr. Dan Hennessy (Hayden Rorke), who tells her that headaches are caused by depression and that she should marry Ron. Although she drives to Ron's cabin, she hesitates at the door and returns to her car. Ron, who has been hunting, spots her from atop a hill and, in his rush to stop her from leaving, falls off a cliff and suffers a concussion. Learning that Ron is unconscious, Cary races to his cabin, where she realizes how wrong she had been to allow other people's opinions and superficial social convictions to dictate her life choices. When Ron wakes the next morning, he is delighted to see Cary, who tells him that she has come home.

Dr. Hennessy: Cary, let's face it: you were ready for a love affair, but not for love.

Born in Germany to Danish parents, Douglas Sirk studied law, philosophy and art history before joining the theatre in Hamburg in the early 1920s. He started out as a dramaturg and then moved on to become a director, staging the work of such notable playwrights as Bertolt Brecht, William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw. In 1934, he signed a film contract with UFA, where he helmed his first motion picture, a comedy titled April, April! (1935). Following the release of the hugely successful melodrama La Habanera (1937), Sirk was forced to leave Germany because of his political views and his Jewish wife, actress Hilde Jary. He stayed in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, until Warner Bros. invited him to come to Hollywood to remake his film To New Shores (1937). Those plans fell through, however, and he ended up directing the stridently anti-Nazi Hitler's Madman (1943) for MGM instead. He then helmed various pictures for Columbia and United Artists, work that led him to join Universal in 1950. 

Teaming up with producer Ross Hunter, Sirk finally had his breakthrough as a film director with Magnificent Obsession (1954), a remake of the 1935 melodrama of the same name, which itself was an adaptation of a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. Starring Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson and Agnes Mooreheard, the film was a massive hit, earning its lead actress an Academy Award nomination. The popularity of Magnificent Obsession encouraged Universal to reunite Sirk, Hunter, Wyman, Hudson and Moorehead in another similarly-themed picture. The vehicle they chose was All That Heaven Allows, based on a story by Edna and Harry Lee originally published in Women's Home Companion in 1952. To write the script, Universal hired newcomer Peg Fenwick, who retained the original story's plot outline, the basic traits of all the main characters and even some of the dialogue.

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman
A World War II veteran, Rock Hudson began his acting career with a bit part in Raoul Walsh's Fighter Squadron (1948). He continued to appear in bit parts until Sirk discovered him and shaped his screen persona. Sirk's account of his discovery of Hudson is as follows: "Well, there had emerged a kind of B-picture creation at Universal against the trend of the time, as I thought, and as I was proven right later. This was partly caused by the lack of house-owned stars. The only thing to do in these circumstances was to manufacture a star, because getting more money depended on having a name in your picture. So I looked around, and I saw a picture Rock was playing in, with Jeff Chandler in the lead [Iron Man (1951)]. He had a small part, and he was far inferior to Chandler, but I thought I saw something. So I arranged to meet him, and he seemed to be not too much to the eye, except very handsome. But the camera sees with its own eye. It sees things the human eye does not detect. And ultimately you learn to trust your camera." Hudson became one of Sirk's most commonly used actors in the 1950s, appearing not only in All That Heaven Allows, but also in Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952), Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Captain Lighfoot (1955), Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1957).

All That Heaven Allows was filmed between early January and early February 1955. The shoot was not easy for Wyman, as she was in the process of divorcing from her third husband, composer Fred Krager. Still, production went along smoothly. Hudson acknowledged that "help" that Wyman gave him, praising her for being "a wonderful girl." For her part, Wyman stated, "After working with Rock Hudson, I say he's got to be the biggest thing to hit the industry." When Hudson told her, "You really went out of your way to be nice to me when you didn't have to," Wyman replied adopting the philosophy of the doctor in Magnificent Obsession: "Let me tell you something. It was handed to me by someone. And I handed it down to you. And now it's your turn to hand it to someone else."

Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Douglas Sirk and Agnes
Moorehead on the set
For All That Heaven Allows, Sirk worked with cinematopgrapher Russell Metty to revive his favorite color scheme, with bluish bedrooms, walls and windows. Blue was his way of sanctifying a relationship that, if it ever turned physical, would have made sex a sacrament. Frank Skinner provided his own brand of spirituality with a soundtrack consisting of Franz Liszt's popular solo piano piece Consolation No. 3 in D Flat Major, which can be heard during reflective moments, and Brahms's First Symphony, which serves as a love/regeneration theme.

All That Heavens Allows premiered in Los Angeles on December 25, 1955. Variety characterized the film was one which is "guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of all middle-aged women who, occasionally, must think of the possibility of such a romance." The reviewer adds: "Director Sirk keeps things rolling along and manages to get his actors to make trite dialogue sound less so." As if afraid to admit directly that he liked the film, critic Hollis Alpert cleverly disguised his review as a letter from his "Aunt Henrietta" to Universal, prefacing it with, "She wishes me to thank you for giving her the kind of heartfelt emotional experience she rarely gets from movies these days." Less kindly, the reviewer for Time magazine wrote: "The moviegoer often has the sensation that he is drowning in a sea of melted butter, with nothing to hang on to but the cliches that float past." Despite mixed reviews, All That Heaven Allows was a great commercial success, establishing Rock Hudson as Universal's biggest box-office attraction in the mid-1950s.

The President's Ladies: Jane Wyman and Nancy Davis by Bernard K. Dick (2014) | Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk by Barbara Klinger (1994) | TCMDb (Articles)