“Duel In The Sun” (1946) comes on in prime time on TCM tonight. Whether or not you consider it a good or bad movie may depend on your own personal preferences, but it’s famous as a disappointment.
You see, it’s the first epic-scale movie David O. Selznick produced after World War II, which means it was considered his followup to a movie he’d made in 1939, right before the war. You may have heard of it: “Gone With The Wind.” Obviously, anything would pale in comparison to “Gone With The Wind.”
The movie also takes some criticism for the performance of Jennifer Jones. Selznick was enamored of Jones – in fact, they were married. She was a popular classic-era star, and has her fans even today, but she doesn’t really have the charisma to carry this movie the way Vivien Leigh carried … well, you know. This movie, like GWTW, has some cheesy, over-the-top melodramatic elements. GWTW was strong enough to make you overlook those; “Duel” … isn’t, really.
The movie has a western setting as contrasted with the Civil War setting of GWTW. Jones, a mixed-race foster child, is at the center of a love triangle between two men – idealistic Joseph Cotten and nasty, self-centered criminal Gregory Peck. In a plot reminiscent of “King Lear,” father Lionel Barrymore disowns Cotten while continuing to forgive and enable Peck’s bad behavior.
Definitely worth seeing if you’ve never done so, if only for the curiosity / film history aspect of it.
When I was a young person, before I had discovered the wonders of the golden age of movies, I knew of some golden age movie stars as boring old people appearing on television. The Bob Hope who appeared on TV specials a few times a year was a far cry from the quick wit of a few decades previous. Never having seen the genius that is “Make ‘Em Laugh” from “Singin’ In The Rain,” I had no idea why I was supposed to be impressed by pudgy old Donald O’Connor as a guest passenger on “The Love Boat.”
Barbara Stanwyck was the grand matriarch of “The Big Valley,” a show that looked like it was probably boring and which my family never watched. Even as a child, I could tell it was supposed to be a copy of “Bonanza,” which would make Barbara Stanwyck the female equivalent of Lorne Greene.
Later, when I became slightly more aware of classic film, I learned that Stanwyck was the star of “Double Indemnity,” a classic film noir. I have since developed some appreciation for “Double Indemnity,” but I have to admit I’m not one of these noir fanatics, and so that didn’t really impress me either.
Then, over the past seven or eight years, and largely thanks to TCM, I’ve discovered Stanwyck the comedienne, especially in three terrific comedies I’ve blogged about here before.
“The Lady Eve,” which aired tonight on TCM, pairs Stanwyck with Henry Fonda under the direction of one of my all-time favorites, Preston Sturges. He is a brewery heir, more obsessed with science than anything else, returning from an African expedition in the company of his valet/bodyguard (William Demarest, who’s always wonderful, especially in a Sturges film), and his pet snake. She is a con artist who happens to be on board the same ocean liner and sets her sights on him. It’s funny – and it compresses what would be the normal story arc into the first half of the movie, taking an unexpected but equally funny left turn for the second half.
I missed seeing “Christmas in Connecticut” this holiday season; TCM didn’t air it, although I think it may have been on another channel and I missed it. Stanwyck plays a Martha Stewart-like magazine columnist (the real Martha Stewart was four years old at the time) who is actually a fraud. She can’t cook, and she doesn’t have the Connecticut farm, husband or baby about which she writes with such charm. Her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) doesn’t know she’s a fake, and asks her if she and her husband can host a recuperating war hero (Dennis Morgan) at the farm for the holidays. If you know anything about Hollywood, you know where this story is headed, but that doesn’t make the journey any less hysterical.
One of my brothers recently saw “Ball of Fire” for the first time after reading my previous blog posts about it. Gary Cooper and a phalanx of character actors play ivory-tower academics, living together in a big house as they work on a reference book. When they begin to talk about slang, they realize their cloistered lifestyle has left them completely ignorant of modern-day culture. By happenstance, they end up taking in a nightclub singer (Stanwyck, of course) who is in hiding due to a mob connection. Director Howard Hawks thought of the story as a sort of grown-up version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” and there’s even a publicity still of the professors (other than Cooper), each one standing in front of his Disney counterpart.
Taken together, these movies show that Stanwyck was a lot funnier and more vital in her prime than the western matriarch I remember from my childhood.
I was watching “Good News” on Turner Classic Movies – the college setting, plot and characters are unbearably cheesy, but the music is great, and Joan McCracken, with whom I was unfamiliar until I saw parts of this movie a few months ago, is absolutely terrific.
Anyway, Mel Tormé sings “The Best Things In Life Are Free,” which reminded me of the scene in “Top Secret!” in which Val Kilmer’s Elvis-like character, Nick Rivers, is approached by young fans in a German restaurant, and denies being Nick Rivers. Instead, he tells them his name is Mel Tormé, leaving the girls disappointed. Later, some of the French Resistance characters, questioning whether Nick has betrayed them, point out that they know little about his background. “How do we know you’re not Mel Tormé?” the leader of the resistance asks Nick.
It then occurred to me that the Venn diagram of “people who are watching ‘Good News’ on TCM right now” and “people who can quote a million lines from “Top Secret!” must have very little overlap.
I told Harriett Stewart today that I have eclectic tastes in music. I guess that applies to movies too.
TCM just ran a little short subject of “The Man Without A Country” to fill time between two excellent movies, “The Guns of Navarone” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
I hadn’t heard or thought about the short story for many, many years. I think I had it in the back of my head that it was based on actual events, but I see from the Wikipedia page that it’s not, although it was couched in many true-life details to give it verisimilitude. I also see that it was written to rally support for the Union cause in the Civil War. I blame the memory of a 50-year-old man for failing me.
In case you didn’t read this story in school, Phillip Nolan is a fictional character who gets involved with Aaron Burr’s actual attempt to start his own country. When Nolan is arrested and tried for treason, he becomes so emotional during the trial that he loudly proclaims that he wishes he could never hear the name of the United States again. The judge makes that his sentence – Nolan is to be imprisoned at sea on naval vessels for the rest of his life, with his jailers under strict orders never to mention the United States, or anything about it, in Nolan’s presence. Over the years, Nolan develops an appreciation for the homeland he portrayed, although the true extent of his feelings isn’t made known until he is on his deathbed.
Corny? Manipulative? Sure. But also quite moving, and even seeing the moldy old Warner Brothers short just now my eyes welled up a little.
I am taking a vacation day today. Turner Classic Movies started its annual “31 Days of Oscar” festival today, emphasizing movies that won or were nominated for Academy Awards all month. This year, they’re grouping the movies by studio — starting with Warner Brothers. I love, and have mentioned here before, the book “The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of the Movies” by Ethan Mordden. I learned a lot about classic movies from this book, and I re-read it every few years, each time having seen more of the movies it references.
Each studio had its own unique style, and that’s what Mordden sets out to explore. The reasons that led to that style might include the mogul who ran the studio, the demographics in the neighborhoods where that studio happened to own theaters, and – of course – the unique creative talents who wound up at that studio. RKO, with most of its theaters in big cities in the Northeast, could be a little more daring in style and content than Universal, which had most of its theaters in small towns. Universal was the last studio to stop releasing silent movies because so many of its theaters couldn’t afford to install sound equipment.
MGM had a sexy, glamorous look in the early 1930s when Irving Thalberg was head of production and stars like Garbo and Gable were at the top of the roster, but shifted its emphasis to Andy Hardy-approved Americana and Freed Unit musicals after Thalberg died and Louis B. Mayer, who had given Thalberg a free hand, had more direct control over his successors. Paramount gave a certain amount of freedom to directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch and comedy talent like the Marx Brothers, Hope and Crosby, Mae West and W.C. Fields.
Warner Brothers tended to be more urban, with gangster movies (Cagney, Bogart and Edward G. Robinson were WB contractees) and backstage musicals like “42nd Street” (which I’m watching right now). It also tended to give writers more leeway, not out of respect but because the studio’s production schedule moved so quickly. Jack Warner’s famous quote was “I don’t want it good, I want it Tuesday.” That didn’t leave much time for producers and directors to rewrite the script. So WB movies sometimes had more of a political message – whether it was a swashbuckler like “Captain Blood” or a social-problem movie like “I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang,” both of which will air in prime time tonight.
The Mordden book is, sadly, out of print, but worth looking for at your local library or used bookstore. I think it’s also on Audible.
Later today, one of my favorite Warner Brothers movies: “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn. My all-time favorite Warner Brothers movie airs tomorrow night, however. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine….
I happily recorded one of my favorite movies, the 1950 version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring José Ferrer, which aired on TCM late last night. Had I started watching, I probably would have kept watching, and I haven’t been sleeping well lately as it is. Anyway, I’m watching it now.
I can think of few movies that have such a perfect match between actor and character, and that are so much fun to watch. “Cyrano” has been well-referenced in popular culture, and I certainly like Steve Martin’s modernized version of it, “Roxanne,” but there’s something about Ferrer in the part that is just perfect. For me, Ferrer is Cyrano, and Cyrano is Ferrer.
In case you have somehow missed it, the title character of Cyrano is a larger-than-life hero. In the beginning of the movie, he engages in a swordfight while reciting a poem, promising to kill his opponent exactly at the end of the poem. And he does! Of course, people associate Cyrano with his comically overlong, Pinocchio-like nose, and another terrific scene from the movie comes when some smart-aleck tries to mock Cyrano’s appearance. Cyrano then humiliates the man for his feeble wit by coming up with a long list of much-more-clever ways to ridicule someone with a big nose. (Steve Martin’s version of this scene is also quite funny.)
Ferrer is so great in the part because he’s believable in the larger-than-life aspects of Cyrano’s character, but also in his weakness: an insecurity which prevents him from declaring his passion for the lovely Roxane. Roxane, a distant cousin who thinks of Cyrano only as a friend, asks him to look after a young swordsman named Christian, to whom Roxane is attracted.
Cyrano is so dedicated to keeping his word, and to Roxane’s happiness, that when Christian stumbles in his wooing of Roxane, Cyrano writes words of love for Christian to recite to her outside her window. The words are actually an expression of Cyrano’s feelings, of course, and Roxane recognizes the beauty of them right away but only later discovers their true source.
Many of the pop culture references to Cyrano focus on the idea of one man writing words for another to use in wooing a beautiful lady. Many sitcoms, especially those with teenage protagonists, have done some version of a Cyrano story. But for me, the appeal of the story is the character – gloriously confident with both a sword and a pen, but somehow unable to tell the lovely Roxane how he really feels.
Robert Osborne said in his introduction that Ferrer is one of only eight actors to win both the Tony and the Oscar for playing the same character. (I’d love to see the full list.) It’s a majestic performance, and a wonderful movie.
I spent a wonderful afternoon and evening over at Dad’s house with my brother and sister from North Carolina and their kids – the side of the family I don’t get to see so often. (My sister and my other brother both live here in Tennessee.)
For various reasons, we had the TV on TCM most of that time, and there were several terrific movies on during that time:
“3 Godfathers” – a classic John Ford western with a twist. John Wayne, Harry Carey Jr. and Pedro Armendáriz are bank robbers who encounter a woman, abandoned by her wagon train, on her deathbed from childbirth. She makes them swear to take care of her newborn baby, and they try to do that – despite desert conditions and being pursued by law officers.
“Fitzwilly” – Dick Van Dyke plays the title character, a butler for a sweet but somewhat dotty old dowager. Unbeknownst to her, her wealth ran out years ago, but Fitzwilly and the household staff have discovered various ways to scam, swindle and steal furnishings, food, and enough money to cover the old lady’s lifestyle and her frequent gifts to charity. But when the old lady hires a grad student (Barbara Feldon of “Get Smart” fame) as her new secretary, the interloper threatens to spoil everything.
“The Bishop’s Wife” – You already know about this one, so here are a couple of IMDb trivia bits: Shooting began with Cary Grant playing the bishop, David Niven playing the angel, and Teresa Wright in the title role. Mogul Samuel Goldwyn fired the director, and he and the replacement director decided to start over again, a quite costly proposition, with the men switching parts. By that time, Wright was pregnant, which wouldn’t have suited the storyline, and so Loretta Young was hired instead. Also, the actress playing Niven’s and Young’s daughter is the same one who played Zuzu in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” making her a part of the cast of two classic holiday movies.
I just finished watching “Carol For Another Christmas” on TCM, and it’s fascinating. It was funded by Xerox and presented on commercial TV (but without interruption) in 1964 as a pro-UN, anti-isolationist message. It’s an updated story with a “Christmas Carol” structure that has a script by Rod Serling (!!!) and is directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. The all-star cast includes Sterling Hayden as the Scrooge surrogate; Steve Lawrence, Pat Hingle and Robert Shaw as the ghosts; Ben Gazzara; Eva Marie Saint; and Peter Sellers, playing a loony post-apocalyptic warlord preaching a gospel of self-interest that would make even Ayn Rand blush.
The script, with its references to nuclear war and global poverty, is a bit heavy-handed at times (as some “Twilight Zone” episodes could certainly be), but fascinating and with its heart in the right place. It apparently hadn’t been seen on TV in years until TCM showed it just a few weeks ago.
Amusingly, according to IMDb, Serling wanted to name the main character “Barnaby Grudge,” so that the sign on his door could be B. Grudge, but the network thought that, given the references to nuclear war in the script, the audience might take the initials “B.G.” as a swipe at Barry Goldwater, who had just been defeated in a presidential election, in part because of a perception he was too hawkish. So the character ended up as Daniel Grudge instead.
Coming up next, as I pointed out on Facebook, is “The Man Who Came To Dinner,” one of my favorite comedies, but I’m going to have to DVR it. My brother and sister-in-law and the kids have just arrived from North Carolina, and I’m meeting them, Dad and Ms. Rachel at Bocelli’s.
I’ve seen it a million times, but I can watch it over and over again. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the greatest musical ever made, a title frequently bestowed upon it, because the term “musical” is so broad, encompassing both comedy and drama. But it’s unquestionably one of the greatest.
It’s goofy, of course – but intentionally so, at least in most places. Remember, this movie was made in the 1950s but set in 1927, so they’re looking back patronizingly at the 20s the same way we might look back patronizingly at the 80s, or the 70s, or – for that matter – the 50s.
I sat down here intending to write a blog post, not about the whole movie, but about Donald O’Connor’s incredible showcase number, “Make ‘Em Laugh.” When I was a kid, Donald O’Connor was an old man who turned up on variety shows or, later, on “The Love Boat.” I had no idea what had made him famous, and nothing he did in his golden years impressed the young me all that much. But “Make ‘Em Laugh” is one of the biggest achievements in physical comedy ever, and probably the biggest achievement in comedic dance. O’Connor, a heavy smoker, threw himself into it so completely that he was bedridden for a week afterward – and then, due to a technical problem with that footage, he had to do it all over again.
The song, of course, is another source of controversy, and had the movie been made today it would have resulted in a lawsuit.
Arthur Freed, a producer at MGM, led the so-called “Freed Unit,” his own staff of technicians, who were responsible for what most people think of as the “MGM musical” – movies starring Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire in his MGM years, Judy Garland, Leslie Caron and so on. Earlier in his career, in the late 20s and early 30s, he had been a songwriter, partnered with Nacio Herb Brown. The original idea behind “Singin’ In The Rain” was a cost-saving measure; rather than pay a lot of money to buy the rights to a Broadway play or commission a new score, Freed asked screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden to build a musical around the old Freed and Brown catalog. Many of the songs, including the title number, had already been used in previous MGM movies from the early days of sound. Since the songs dated from the era when talkies began, Green and Comden had the brilliant idea to set the movie during a period when the songs would sound in place (even though, for the movie, they’re jazzed up with then-current arrangements).
Anyway, they ended up needing a couple of extra numbers, and so producer Freed was called out of his songwriting retirement and asked to co-write one with Brown. He wrote “Make ‘Em Laugh” – except that big chunks of the melody, and the basic idea put forth by the lyrics, are almost identical to “Be A Clown,” from Cole Porter’s score to another Gene Kelly movie, “The Pirate.” It’s not clear whether Freed realized what he was doing at the time – although he certainly realized it later, and quickly changed the subject when Irving Berlin asked him about it. But he was such a revered and powerful figure, and had done so much for Porter and so many others, that no one dared challenge him or seek legal action.
Obviously, the most amazing thing about “Singin’ In The Rain” is a soaking-wet Gene Kelly performing the title number. But in any other movie, “Make ‘Em Laugh” wouldn’t have to settle for second place. And I haven’t even mentioned the “Broadway Rhythm Ballet.”