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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Up on the Roof' (1984) & 'Any Portrait in a Storm' (1985)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 9 — Up on the Roof; Broadcast on November 21, 1984

Story by John Tinker and Charles H. Eglee; Teleplay by Steve Bello and Channing Gibson

Directed by Eric Laneuville

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Jlewis:

Up on the roof…is Shirley who confesses murdering Peter with her gun. The detective had been hot on her trail as he started putting puzzle pieces together. We are given some backstory information of her feeling frustrated about his best friend Jack never wanting to date her and also defending Peter more than necessary. Earlier she also informed Cathy of what she did, the latter gradually recovering her emotional trauma and set to get back to work soon.

I have often wondered if Jack had a crush on strictly heterosexual Peter.

My curious ideas about these characters, which are likely not true, brings me to the arrival of Caroline McWilliams as a bone marrow expert named Christine Holtz who is assisting on a major surgery. So…as I was informed, she was initially planned to be a girlfriend for Dr. Annie Cavanero, but actress Cynthia Sikes objected?

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Aside from what may have happened behind the scenes, I am not sure how far things would have progressed on network TV in 1984, aside from just the discussion of her being a lesbian. Doubtful same gender affection would have been displayed at the time anyway, although it occasionally happened on TV but rarely.

Minor lines of importance on Elsewhere

Mrs. Hufnagel is asked how she got downstairs from her room. She points to her wheelchair: ”What does this look like? A washing machine?”

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Later, she socializes with another fellow patient named Murray Robbin played by…who else?…Murray Rubin. ”I changed my name.” Hufnagel: ”You must have been in trouble with the law.”

Dr. Mark Craig, after all of the fuss he made last time on the subject, says matter-of-factly ”You wouldn’t believe the dream I had last night.” No, Mark, we don’t want to hear about it after you complained about everybody else having them.

This week’s batch of episodes have multiple Golden Girls connections, an intriguing fact since that series would begin within a year these shows were broadcast.

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Aside from Herb Edelman a.k.a. Stan Zbornak playing love interest to nurse Helen Rosenthal (Christina Pickles), we also get a guest appearance by veteran character actor Harold Gould (as a bone marrow recipient) who later played Rose’s boyfriend Niles…and, in an upcoming show, we get his dating interest, Rose’s Betty White herself.

***

TopBilled:

This was Shirley Daniels’ last regular episode. She returns as a special guest later. I consider this a good “send off” for her after the death of Peter White. Someone had to be given the task of offing Peter, and she did seem the most dramatic choice.

When Ellen Bry returns later this season, the character of Shirley Daniels is much more hardened, so there is some progression with her, though she will be off screen for awhile.

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I should also add that Ellen Bry was married to producer-writer John Masius. And in real life, they had not one but two children with autism, born after she left St. Elsewhere. This is rather ironic, since Tommy the son of Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) is autistic and figures prominently in the series finale at the end of season six. There are quite a few instances of life imitating art on this show.

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Re; Caroline McWilliams as the lesbian doctor…She was supposed to be a love interest for Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes). But Sikes cried to the bosses at NBC, literally, because she didn’t want to do any same-sex kissing scenes. The St. Elsewhere writers were forced to rewrite the plot, and executive producer Bruce Paltrow fired Sikes at the end of the season for going over his head.

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 18 — Any Portrait in a Storm; Broadcast on January 30, 1985

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Lyle Kessler

Directed by Leo Penn

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Jlewis:

Jumping ahead to this season’s episode 18, aired January 30, 1985.

A lot going on in this show. Perhaps too much going on. As the title suggests, there is a storm raging outside of the hospital and a new portrait of Dr. Daniel Auschlander is in the works for his retirement, which he isn’t fond of.

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A black gerbil is loose and we discover that Mrs. Hufnagel is quite fond of rodents, but she is less so about how she is charged for so many little things at Hotel St. Eligius such as rubber gloves worn by nurses instead of her. Note that I have not been commenting on Denzel Washington’s character lately since the writers haven’t been giving him much to do lately, but he is convincing enough delivering a baby. Also there is a bit of drama in a flooded room and somebody getting electrocuted.

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This one has a Peter connection as Myra (Karen Landry), his widow, gives birth to his last child, also named Peter. Also having a baby is teen Maddy (Lycia Naff) and this baby’s daddy must leave for Florida to escape his street gang connections. Sadly, hers does not survive, partly due to her drug past. Spoiler: Myra gets an insulting gift of a little ski mask for her baby (since Peter allegedly wore them in his crimes), while the deceased baby gets a teddy bear that I thought brought this episode to a touching finish.

***

TopBilled:

As Jlewis mentined, we skipped ahead a few episodes, so we can cover the rest of Peter White’s long-term story arc. In this episode, Peter’s widow Myra gives birth to their third child. She names her newborn son Peter, which seems logical. But Jack Morrison’s son is also named Pete, after his late friend Peter White. So there are two Peters that will carry their fathers’ legacies forward.

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Myra White receives a very sinister gift for the new baby. And one can’t help but wonder if that is foreshadowing, to suggest this new offspring is a demon child that will grow up to be like his father.

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We find out in a future episode who sent the gift.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Red White Black and Blue' & 'Amazing Face' (1985)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 19 — Red White Black and Blue; Broadcast on February 13, 1985

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Channing Gibson

Directed by Bruce Paltrow

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Jlewis:

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Betty White did this episode a couple months before starting her big gig with three other leading TV ladies, but her role is mostly serious here. She is Captain Gloria working for the White House staff and an old chum of Donald. First Lady Nancy Reagan is visiting the area and this requires more security issues than St. Eligius can deal with. 

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At the same time Dr. Mark Craig learns that his wife supported the Black Panthers 16 years earlier as everybody on staff have been, ahem, researched by the government.

Meanwhile Helen and Richard (Herb Edelman’s character) decide to move in together but he must pass the test with her (partly) grown up kids. He bonds well with little Jeff and this gets him accepted.

Another subplot…Nurse Shirley returns, first appearing at a bar to greet and kiss Wayne on the lips. I guess they are more than just ”friends,” unlike Shirley and Jack. Apparently she is getting out of jail on some technicalities (namely that her case can be read as self defense from assault since nobody saw what Peter was doing with her in that room).

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Even apart from his scenes with Gloria, Dr. Donald Westphall gets plenty of coverage in this episode, dealing with Mrs. Hufnagel (who loves giving advice to everybody including him, pretending that she knows everything about everybody). There’s also a mother prevented from seeing her son because of a false abuse accusation.

***

TopBilled:

Betty White is in prime form as a guest star in this episode. Her role is interesting…it is not quite Sue Ann Nivens or Rose Nylund that she is playing. I think she was also appearing on Mama’s Family at this time, as another type of character.

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Betty was close friends with Ed Flanders, and Ed often persuaded executive producer Bruce Paltrow to hire his friends to do guest roles. Another one of Flanders’ buddies was Jack Dodson (of The Andy Griffith Show) and he has a recurring role across several seasons. 

Betty’s character reappears the following season, and that episode must have been filmed during a week she had off from The Golden Girls which would have already been in production. In her second episode, a patient at St. Eligius (named Mary Richards!) will ask Betty if she is Sue Ann Nivens…an inside joke, since The Mary Tyler Moore Show was produced by MTM Productions, which also produced St. Elsewhere.

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 20 — Amazing Face; Broadcast on February 20, 1985

Story by John Masius and Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Charles H. Eglee

Directed by Janet Greek

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Jlewis:

Nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry) suffers a urinary infection and is being treated. She is still eager to go back to jail and even brags about killing Peter. She also admits to providing Myra the, um, present (of the baby ski mask) in the episode Any Portrait in a Storm.

A memorable moment occurs at the very end when she wanders into the room where her crime was committed and studies the autopsy report handled by Jack.

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The title for this episode spotlights Dr. Robert Caldwell (Mark Harmon) the plastic surgeon, although he seems less important to the writers here than other characters featured. I did enjoy his touching scene with a lady getting her amazing face and understanding her hesitations going back into the world. I also enjoyed the earlier story involving the fire fighter whose life he saved.

Other stories:

Donald Westphall is moving out of his house, along with his son Tommy.

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Meanwhile Wayne says he is in love with Cathy, but Victor (Yee Hypercritical One who won’t stop talking even if you stuck a plunger in his face) reminds him about the various abuses she suffered and that she may not be ready for intimacy yet. However, after saving Wayne’s life from a teenage punk getting his leg treated, Cathy herself admits that she was back to sex with strangers and Wayne no longer thinks he has the chance to be her special one anymore.

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In related side-story material, Helen Rosenthal (Christina Pickles) and Richard (Herb Edelman) think they are expecting a baby and agree to get married, but Helen discovers later that it is just menopause…and this prompts him to confess that his little swimmers are limited in number. Awwwww. They sure know how to make the other feel better.

Mrs. Hufnagel invades the surgery room before she is scheduled to get surgery herself, which I guess was a very funny story idea at the time but would more likely freak most modern viewers out today. When she gets surgery herself, Victor and Mark bicker their usual way during it.

Again, I liked the final scene with Shirley revisiting the autopsy file the best.

***

TopBilled:

Shirley’s story isn’t over yet. And neither is Peter White’s, since Peter will appear in a future episode.

I agree that some characters like Bobby Caldwell (Mark Harmon) and Phillip Chandler (Denzel Washington) do not always receive prominent storylines during this particular season. But the following season, Bobby is diagnosed with AIDS, which is a huge plot plot. And Phillip is given a girlfriend, played by Alfre Woodard, who was nominated for two Emmys for her work on St. Elsewhere.

They can’t all be featured prominently at the same time.

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I should also mention that sometimes Eric Laneuville only has one or two brief scenes as Luther Hawkins, the orderly. Though that is usually because he is working behind the camera as an episode director. Laneuville went on to have a very prolific career directing in television, and his acting took a backseat to his directing.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'Murder She Rote' (1985) & 'Cheek to Cheek' (1986)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 3, Episode 21 — Murder She Rote; Broadcast on February 27, 1985

Story by Tom Fontana and John Masius and Steve Bello

Directed by Mark Tinker

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Jlewis:

Patient Andrea (Ann Hearn) struggles to leave after face treatment (she was suffering physical effects from a bone disease) due to fears returning to the outside world. Dr. Robert Caldwell (Mark Harmon) loses patience with his patient, but she warms up gradually through his guidance. It is suggested that she is infatuated with him and, heck, since he is on the market as indicated in an earlier conversation and has no other love interests, why not?

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This show features the death of Mrs. Hufnagel (Florence Halop), who never leaves the surroundings she now considered ”home.” The actress makes great use of her final scenes. Her departure from this world is justifiably unusual, as she uses the bed controls and gets trapped when it closes up on her, prompting a post-surgery heart attack. The coldness that multiple characters, surprisingly not Mark Craig, who blames himself for her death, display after her passing did bother me a bit. I understand that she got on everybody’s nerves, but she was not THAT despicable.

Dr. Eliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst) gets a new girlfriend but acts like a Nervous Nelly when she tries to get him into bed. There is a dramatic (and overblown in a TV sort of way) fire sequence at a Hawaiian restaurant which prompts the owner to sue Eliot for using the expensive aquarium and its exotic residents to put it out. As amusing as this side-story involving this Woody Allen-ish character is, it literally goes nowhere and isn’t resolved as it should be. Sometimes the writers come up with novel ideas to keep viewers watching and then just simply forget about them as they continue with this next dramatic or comic focus.

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Shirley tells Jack that she wished she had killed him back ‘Up on the Roof,’ as he tries to prove her innocence on an insanity clause. Her lawyer tries to get her to defend herself better by emphasizing the Peter-assaulted-me angle but she refuses and fires her assistance.

Everybody wants to keep her out of jail except her and she is even back to her old job, as she humorously quotes Bette Davis in ALL ABOUT EVE with the classic ”fasten your seat belts, it is going to be a bumpy night” line. Eventually she leaves on her own with a fake pop gun that is essentially her middle finger ”see ya’all later” statement for everybody. Oh-kay… well, we can’t say this character wasn’t memorable.

***

TopBilled:

Jlewis mentioned Mark Harmon’s character. I should add that a year later Harmon would be selected by People magazine as the most sexiest male on the planet. (This would become an in-joke in a later episode of St. Elsewhere.)

HarmonPeople

Re: Nurse Shirley Daniels (Ellen Bry), she returns for one more guest appearance the following season. We will learn that Shirley did indeed go to prison (more her own choosing, since she could have easily beaten the charges against her). When she comes back to St. Eligius, it is as a patient, which I think is an interesting way to wrap up the character’s long-term arc.

As for Mrs. Hufnagel, this isn’t her last episode either. She appears once more. We find out that she bequeathed her estate to Dr. Elliott Axelrod (Stephen Furst), the only resident on staff that she developed any sort of real bond with, during her various stays at the hospital. She has a very funny bit in a videotaped will, in which she informs Elliott, after her death, that he’s her sole heir. Of course, there is a silly complication, because Mrs. H has a good-for-nothing nephew who thinks the old woman was off her rocker, and that he should have inherited everything.

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The powers that be at NBC were so impressed with Florence Halop’s work on St. Elsewhere, that she was suggested for a role on the network’s popular sitcom Night Court. She replaced Selma Diamond who died of lung cancer. Though ironically, Halop would also die of lung cancer a short time later herself, and she was replaced by Marsha Warfield.

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 4, Episode 21 — Cheek to Cheek; Broadcast on March 12, 1986

Story by John Masius & Tom Fontana; Teleplay by Eric Overmyer

Directed by Helaine Head

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Jlewis:

A popular comic strip artist, Eric Christmas as Jersey Piker, makes a more interesting than usual patient. He makes note of the budding affections between still single Dr. Donald Westphall and the younger (by 18 years), attractive Dr. Carol Novino (Cindy Pickett).

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Later Carol makes a trivia reference to a then 21 year old oldie after he says ”you were on my mind” that shows how wonderfully geeky the two are together:

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbuzEjEHso0

We also have a rare scene of Mark calmly singing ”Old MacDonald” to his infant granddaughter Barbara, but he initially passes off his wife’s health concerns over her ”female” issues. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley Jr.) is nervous about examining her in the hospital since his relationship with ”Daddy” is so often in jeopardy. Love Bonnie Bartlett as the actress telling it like it is: ”Victor, am I going to have perform this exam myself?!”

A couple familiar character actor faces, whom you likely won’t remember the names of, appear at a prison that Jack visits. Nicholas Pryor is a resident doctor and Paula Kelly is a talkative nurse assistant Sylvia. She is the latest in a long line of Golden Girls connections; playing the hilarious one-time housekeeper Marguerite in an episode one year after this.

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Another future Golden Girl-er, but not until 1992, is the more sinister Jack Bannon returning as a murderer featured in previous episodes from Elsewhere (as shown in flashbacks).

Jack gets sexually assaulted by a fellow felon; John Dennis Johnston being yet another familiar face to me. This is a typical I’m-not-sure-if-it-was-necessary-and-even-less-sure-if-it-was-all-that-realistic climax that often occurs on primetime TV. Jack returns to his home hospital all bloody in a rather harrowing scene, but it makes me question such things that I normally don’t, such as…don’t they have enough security cameras at the prison? Why isn’t the nurse doing anything, like calling for additional help, when she is nearby? 

***

TopBilled:

OR

The subplot with Victor (Ed Begley) performing the exam on Mrs. Craig (Bonnie Bartlett) becomes a long-running “joke” on the show. Victor continues to bring this up in future episodes, often in the operating room, reminding Dr. Craig (William Daniels) that he has seen Mrs. Craig in a vulnerable position and knows how difficult that must be for Dr. Craig. Is Victor saying this sincerely, or is he sticking the knife in, to get back at Dr. Craig, who has often been harsh during the times when Craig is mentoring Ehrlich? It’s amusing.

Speaking of vulnerability, this episode is a turning point in the life of Dr. Jack Morrison (David Morse) for obvious reasons. He hasn’t been this vulnerable since his wife Nina died at the beginning of the second season.

Jack

The scenes at the men’s prison are part of an outreach that Jack is doing during his residency at St. Eligius. As Jlewis points out, there is some dramatic license taken in terms of security (guards and cameras), but a riot has occurred, and surely there would be a great deal of pandemonium. And probably a coverup too, by prison officials, afraid of losing their jobs.

I found the scene where Jack returns to St. Eligius, all battered and now a rape victim, to be very powerful. This is Jack’s last episode during season 4. He is temporarily written out as having gone back to his parents’ place in Seattle. But when he returns at the beginning of season 5 to start his last year of residency, he has a new wife in tow (Patricia Wettig) and two stepkids who know nothing of his harrowing experience at the prison. The inmate who assaulted him gets out on parole at the end of season 5 and comes to where Jack, his wife and kids live. 

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Along with Peter White’s story, the rape of Jack Morrison was one of the more groundbreaking storylines on St. Elsewhere. This was a program that wasn’t afraid to tackle difficult subjects on network television.

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Essential: St. Elsewhere -- 'After Life' (1985) & 'Women Unchained' (1987)

St. Elsewhere

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Season 5, Episode 9 — After Life; Broadcast on November 26, 1986

Story by Tom Fontana, John Masius & John Tinker

Directed by Mark Tinker

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Jlewis:

This is one of the more famous episodes.

We begin with Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) chasing fireflies…or fairies…or Tinker Bell since he is like Peter Pan in his juvenile personality. It is interesting that he gets accidentally shot right after his little speech about catching fireflies and saying he loves having control over their lives once he catches them. His life seems to be controlled by…somebody. Under surgery, he goes through his out of body experience to see what life after death is like…

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(TopBilled needs to make an inventory of how many characters employed by St. Eligius have also been patients struggling to survive in ER themselves. I have lost count, but it must be an interesting number.)

Much of this story is patterned after other heavenly comedies of the 1970s and ’80s, which combined a little New Age rhetoric to old fashion religion, while still paying homage to old-time Hollywood fantasies of the HERE COMES MR. JORDAN and A GUY NAMED JOE kind.

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What I find interesting about these period pieces is how they showcase where many average Americans’ state of mind were in regards to such unanswered subject matter. In the ME decade, people became less critical of themselves and what ”sins” they were committing that the religious authorities of old used to burn them at the stake for. However these decades were still full of uncertainty in life so everybody was still questioning ”am I making the right decisions?”

Usually our perceptions of death and life after death are colored by what others in our family and community tell us, which is why Wayne is the perfect character for this kind of TV-recreated ”heaven.” Like Victor, he is always focused on what others have to say.

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In Death Valley or some place like it, he meets patients who died. Then he joins a country estate with Marian Mercer playing a role similar to Audrey Hepburn’s in Spielberg’s subsequent (released later that decade) movie ALWAYS.

Then he meets Peter in Loch Ness, a key reason we are discussing this show since it ties in with our previous Peter-centric stories. Peter has put on some weight since we last saw him alive and is also mighty angry in his row boat, tossing Wayne overboard with the lady mannequins in the water. Wayne returns to Peter for repeated crazy talks, after visiting other areas in his peculiar setting. There is lots of talk talk talk in this episode but not much that I personally found particularly enlightening or different than other fantasies of this type. Patients in Death Valley behave like they are stand-up comics up in the Catskills.

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Wayne meets God, who looks just like him. After all, those raised Judeo-Christian believe they were created in ”His” image. Interrupting my Dailymotion video and extending it past to the 90 minute mark were previews of ABC’s When Nature Calls with Helen Mirren. Is God also taking the image of every furry and feathered critter featured on that show too? Humans think they are so special, but they are merely another species sharing the same planet in the solar system.

A moderately interesting experiment that tries to be different than the others. By the way, Wayne survives his surgery.

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***

TopBilled:

This was the last episode in which Peter White appeared. St. Elsewhere featured memorable final episodes for all of its most popular characters.

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These residents died during the show’s run:

Wendy Armstrong (committed suicide at the end of season 2)
Peter White (murdered at the beginning of season 3; appeared in hell with Wayne Fiscus in season 5)
Bobby Caldwell (diagnosed with AIDS in the middle of season 4, he went to California to work and live at an AIDS hospice, and was reported to have died from AIDS off screen in the middle of season 6)
Elliott Axelrod (heart attack at the end of season 6)

Phil,Elliot&Wayne

These residents left:

Annie Cavanero (not seen again after season 3, no explanation of where she went)

Phillip Chandler (went to Missouri in the middle of season 6 for management training, and came back for a few episodes near the end; he then gave up his career as a doctor and joined his girlfriend in Mississippi in the penultimate episode)

Jack Morrison (went to live with family in Seattle in late season 4 after the rape at the prison, came back at the beginning of season 5 to finish his residency, then returns to Seattle at the end)

Wayne Fiscus (leaves for Nicaragua in the last episode, because he feels there are a lot of emergency cases he can help with in a third-world country).

These residents stayed at St. Eligius:

Dr. Jacqueline Wade (continued as surgeon, promoted to management)

Dr. Victor Ehrlich (also continued as a surgeon)

Victor

***

St. Elsewhere

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Season 5, Episode 20 — Women Unchained; Broadcast on March 4, 1987

Story by Tom Fontana, John Masius & Eric Overmyer; Teleplay by Russ Woody

Directed by Michael Fresco

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Jlewis:

Our final episode dates to March 4, 1987: Ellen Bry’s Shirley Daniels returns in this one, relating it to our previous discussions. Bruce Greenwood is among the newer stars on this later season of the show, probably replacing Mark Harmon. Denzel Washingon is still on the show and still not doing much, but this may just be a coincidence: the couple of episodes that we have profiled simply don’t showcase him much.

Dr. Elliot Axelrod (Stephen Furst) is all excited that ”celebrity” Shirley Daniels is back as a patient at the hospital.

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Calm down, Elliot. There is an awkward get-together in the cafeteria with Shirley and her former co-workers, with somebody mocking her time in jail with a file included in a Boston cream pie. Victor and others suspect that she may have killed another patient, an elderly woman in terminal condition whom she felt sorry for.

Although her story does not amount to much, I do feel that Ellen Bry is a very talented actress who makes the most of her character. Her declaration to Jack about her death-till-we-depart love for him is wonderfully unhinged.

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Mark’s wife Ellen meets an old flame (Gerald Hiken) in this one, but not much story is developed there except that he is now down and out and Mark is predictably judgmental of his ”bum” life.

The episode ends with a patient receiving a lethal injection from a strange hand, but this is a story arc that I will allow TopBilled to cover since I have not followed this season carefully.

***

TopBilled:

The story about the patient receiving a lethal injection is part of a season 5 arc, where a series of mercy killings take place at the hospital. The first one of these deaths occurs when Shirley is there as a patient, and everyone naturally assumes she did it, since she was guilty of killing Peter.

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But after some sexy talk with her old pal Wayne Fiscus, Shirley returns to prison (never to be seen again on the show)…and another mercy killing occurs a short time later. This means Shirley cannot be the culprit since she’s no longer there and back behind bars. Someone else on staff is putting sick elderly patients out of their misery. I won’t spoil who it is, but it is revealed near the end of season 5.

Before we close, I would like to thank Jlewis for being a good sport and looking at episodes of this highly esteemed series with me. I hope people reading our reviews this month will watch the episodes.

Here’s a link for a good website that has some trivia and other items about the show:

http://www.stelsewhereweb.com/

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Coming Up in August:

Jlewis has kindly agreed to review four interesting films for us in August.

compilation documentaries

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August 7

PARIS 1900 (1947)

August 14

WHEN COMEDY WAS KING (1960)

August 21

THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974)

August 28

THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1996)

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Essential: PARIS 1900 (1947)

TopBilled:

A quick reminder that Jlewis is handling the reviews this month. He has chosen some very interesting documentary compilation films.

***

Jlewis:

In French, original version:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=itll-GyFlmg

In English, 1948 U.S. version:  https://archive.org/details/paris1900_201705/paris1900_201705reel1.mov

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This month, I am attempting a rather peculiar topic rarely discussed in the entertainment literature: the historical montage documentary. That is, if I have the proper title for it. It is a genre that we pretty much take for granted today since anything historical and educational shown on TV or YouTube makes full use of previously released material, much of it in public domain as copyright control lapses over time. Yet there isn’t much discussion of it in print or online.

First, an attempt at a history lesson is in order.

I don’t know exactly when movies started borrowing clips from earlier movies with a conscious, historical perspective rather than just recycling footage in order to save money in re-filming a particular stock scene. Yet the weekly one-reel short film series, the silent PATHÉ REVIEW (1919-1930) and all-talkie PATHÉ AUDIO REVIEW (1929-1933) produced in the United States and the PATHÉ PICTORIAL that was its British counterpart but ran a staggering 51 years uninterrupted (1918-69), are good starting points for the discussion.

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The Pathé Frères company that the brothers Charles, Émile, Théophile and Jacques had launched in Paris back in 1896 had plenty of material in their vaults by the time Terry Ramsaye, in particular, decided to make nostalgic trips down memory lane with such segments within the PATHÉ REVIEW reels such as “Dirty Work on the Crossroads” (Series 28: No. 31, a July 29, 1928 installment) snipping highlights from older multi-chapter serials THE SHIELDING SHADOW and THE TIMBER QUEEN, “We Remember” (Series 29: No. 23 from April 27, 1929) covering pre-war news items, the PATHÉ AUDIO REVIEW No. 9 (June 7, 1929) with 1890s footage in “Bygones” and No. 28 (October 22, 1929) covering a history of baseball with valuable footage of Babe Ruth and Tyrus Cobb in their youth.

Pathé probably made the more of these types of films over a four decade period than anybody else, but there was plenty of competition in the 1930s as other major Hollywood studios investigated their silent film vaults to see if anything was worth recycling for the Talkie Era, even if just for a short subject topic to be shown with the latest two reel comedy, cartoon or travelogue.

Fox Movietone had a rarely seen today (if any prints are still available) TINTYPES series produced by Truman Talley (1933-34). Paramount’s SCREEN SOUVENIRS (1931-1935) and its later special spin-off shorts such as MOVIE MILESTONES are vitally important for film historians due to their inclusion of long lost Paramount Famous Players-Lasky titles, such as the only remaining three minutes of Lon Chaney in THE MIRACLE MAN (1919). In 2010, the Warner Archive produced an excellent (costly, but worth the price) six disc DVD set VITAPHONE CAVALCADE OF COMEDY SHORTS COLLECTION that included some wonderful “Pepper Pots” like THE CAMERA SPEAKS (1934) featuring the legendary Billy Bitzer talking to his camera as we examine vintage footage from the Vitagraph (now Vitaphone) and other studio vaults.

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Back to Pathé, two other short subject series were collaborations with RKO Radio and Warner Brothers respectively. The former were the FLICKER FLASHBACKS (1943-48) directed by Richard Fleischer, a future feature director who also happened to be the son of cartoon producer Max Fleischer of Betty Boop and Popeye fame.

These tended to be comical and slightly mocking of the material presented but also included plenty of old Biograph material directed by D.W. Griffith that kept his name relevant in filmdom during his last years of life. In contrast, Robert Youngson’s multi-Oscar winning 10-20 minute Warner “novelties” and “varieties” of 1948-56 were much more serious and nostalgic in tone. (I will get into more Youngson in a future review.)

About the time Fleischer started his final season of FLICKERS and just before Youngson got started on his, French moviegoers attending the Cannes film festival of September 1947 were given a special treat…

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PARIS 1900 a.k.a. PARIS MIL NEUF CENT.

The title is inaccurate since its clever montage of clips spans a whole span of time from 1895 (earliest Lumiere footage) through the war years of 1914 and even a bit later. It shares many similarities both with the Warner Youngson shorts (he was obviously influenced by its success) and another key U.S. produced  featurette (about 50 minutes) made exactly ten years later: NBC’s television series PROJECT XX included an episode called  THE INNOCENT YEARS (aired November 21, 1957) that also covered the 1890s through 1917, the key U.S. wartime year.

The producer of PARIS 1900 was the very prolific Pierre Braunberger, who also backed two documentaries covering Vincent Van Gogh, one of them an Oscar winner, that involved the great Alain Resnais, who also serves as assistant supervisor here. Three big names were also credited for their cooperation: veteran director-actor-playwriter Sacha Guitry, the famous antique specialist Jacques Damiot and Henri Langlois of La Cinémathèque Française, legendary in his obsession to preserve just about anything he could get his hands on since he felt that the only way anybody could judge the value of art was to have it available to see for himself or herself.

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The director and writer in charge was a woman who had a far smaller filmography in comparison. Perhaps because the ladies always had fewer opportunities in a male dominated profession? Nicole Védrès is best known for this title and also a semi-controversial drama LA VIE COMMENCE DEMAIN (LIFE BEGINS TOMORROW) that garnished an “X” rating in the UK four years later.

As we open, the first lines in English are “Those were, so it seemed, the happy times.” Since we are rather light hearted here (even though we do learn later that these years were not always happy), the narration and some songs sung in the French original were done by popular comedy star Claude Dauphin, whom we’ve discussed fleetingly in an earlier review of TALE OF A FOX as a key animated character voice. When Arthur Mayer and Edward Kingsley acquired the U.S. distribution rights the following year, they chose an equally humorous voice to narrate John Mason Brown’s English translation: a great snooty Monty Woolley.

The Eiffel Tower opens our trip, along with the Paris World Exhibition of 1900, but surprisingly not the Olympic Games of that same year. 1900 was also the year of the first subway, the Métro, but it doesn’t get focused on until a second one is constructed a few years later and with a succeeding president overseeing it. Apparently the president of 1900, Émile Loubet, was too devoid of cinematic action for the screen to get any mention here, so we jump ahead to the more colorful Armand Fallières who dominated the country between the years 1906 and 1913, preening with visitors and becoming a visitor himself to Tunisia and other locales overseas. In Monty’s narration, he’s compared to Santa Claus.

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It was very much a man’s world, but you know our female director/writer has plenty to say about the “weaker sex” and all of their great strides in suffrage and their right to wear trousers. Fashions change with the times as Monty our English guide states: “Liberation is the slogan of the day. Liberation not only from male dictatorship but also from the restraints of that more painful tyrant, the corset.”

Predictably there are more key female figures in fashion and acting, not so much politics or running the country. Most important are Sarah Bernhardt and singer Polaire, the former appearing in one of the earliest “talkies” documented here with good matching of lips with soundtrack voice.

Some of the gender oriented fads get ridiculed and I am sure Védrès wrote much of the material with her tongue in her cheek. For example, we see proper ladies making sure they get vaccinated in public with as many spectators as possible. Slightly creepy is the early century fetish of husbands having their wives photographed by a professional cameraman while sleeping!

Much focus is put on the many ways people entertained themselves at the time, particularly at amusement parks and at the beach. July 14th was that nation’s version of this nation’s July 4th and the French/American connection of having fun is further enhanced by the circus scenes featured, including Yank visitor Buffalo Bill Cody in all his glory.

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Technology and its many marvels also influences the entertainment customs of the time with a dance craze inspired by the latest novelty, the airplane (and we see footage of Louis Blériot flying across the English Channel here), but the stretched arms resembling wings is counter-productive for many couples’ sense of intimacy on the dance floor.

Of course, no documentary on Paris would be complete without The Arts. The footage of Impressionist painters are a key highlight, with Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir shown at work along with sculptor Auguste Rodin. I was surprised at how much Renoir smoked like a locomotive. There is also quite a bit of coverage concerning the major wars in artist styles, with Leon Bonnat (shown painting the portrait of Fallières) being the great “enemy of the Impressionists.”

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Guillaume Apollinaire, the famous poet and art critic, is seen in a rare “animated” sequence with André Rouveyre (which you can also find on his Wikipedia page), while other famous names of the art world such as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso are only seen in stills or represented by paintings since virtually all of (if not all of) their cinematic footage post-dates the time frame here.

Among the writers profiled are quite a number who were women (since our film’s creator chose to spotlight them) and, of course, Marcel Proust. Art also finds its expression in stage acts, some involving acrobatics with a breathtaking skill that is still impressive today.

One key advantage of France being the nation profiled here is the wealth of motion picture footage available, since it was THE top movie making nation in the pre-Hollywood era. Early on, we get slapstick moments coming from some unidentified early comedy-reel with a Keystone-ish group of cops. The material is presented as if it is “real” life rather than “reel” life to emphasize a certain funny innocence of the Parisians.

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Later we gets clips from key serials and swashbuckler dramas but, unfortunately, no title information for the cinematically curious. I am also a bit disappointed that, despite the wealth of material presented, very little is mentioned of the creators apart from Ferdinand Zecca and Charles Pathé getting a brief nod. No mention of Georges Méliès even though some of his productions are recognizable here. I am guessing the film footage of early Maurice Chevalier comes from PAR HABITUDE (1911), but who knows for sure?

Despite the overall easy-going tone of it all, we are occasionally reminded that they were not always the best of times. The great flood of 1910 is presented with a rather ominous orchestration, again reminding me of THE INNOCENT YEARS covering San Francisco’s earthquake of 1906 and the Ohio floods of 1913. There is also Franz Reichelt performing an aerial stunt from the Eiffel Tower that accidentally turns suicidal in 1912, as covered by the early newsreel cameras.

There are also a few glimpses of slum life, showing that not everybody was enjoying the care free life a.k.a. “This is the Paris that tourists do not see.”

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Socialism and other then radical political ideas are pushed forth in an effort to bring bread to many a table. One stunning sequence of newsreel clips involve the police chase and killing of anarchist and gang leader Jules Bonnot and the bombing of his hide-out. His last words are written in blood: “So much the worse for society. So much the worse for you.”

There is sense of doom that starts to creep in during the final act. All of the leaders of France’s neighboring nations insist that there will be no future wars and a who’s who of international heads visit Paris to negotiate with each other, including statesman Aristide Briand, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Alfonso XIII, Tsar Nicholas II and even U.S. tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

Meanwhile we see a war machine gradually in the making with a few industrialists making a fortune in the process. To those watching this in 1947, it was all eerily familiar. We close with soldiers embarking on trains as Monty in English groans “Even as they say a farewell to one another, they are also saying goodbye to those peaceful, carefree years.”

Again, it is fun to compare this to its NBC alternate remake of sorts. THE INNOCENT YEARS was far more optimistic, being about the United States and its constant use of rose-colored glasses to get it through the worst of times. Narrator Alexander Scourby closes with a 1917 military parade “every heart beats true with the red, white and blue.” Yup, the Yanks will pull through this war like they do everything else.

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Great photo selection here. It is a challenge finding good ones online for films like these. Had never seen the poster for the Cannes '47 one or the image of Nicole Védrès before.

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On 8/8/2021 at 3:40 PM, Jlewis said:

Great photo selection here. It is a challenge finding good ones online for films like these. Had never seen the poster for the Cannes '47 one or the image of Nicole Védrès before.

Thanks. I was curious to see what Nicole Vedres looked like.

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Essential: WHEN COMEDY WAS KING (1960)

Jlewis:

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If you google the name Robert Youngson, you will most likely find misidentified images of a popular physician and medical writer with the same name. The movie maker Robert Youngson…curiously…did not get his picture taken often, despite building a career involving the images of others. Suffering from various weight and medical issues late in life, he died in 1974 at the still relatively young age of 56.

He may not be a household name, but he was nonetheless quite influential in the field of documentary compilation films during his own lifetime; a bit of the Youngson influence carried over in subsequent films of the sixties through nineties that include MGM’s musical extravaganza THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, Alex de Renzy’s A HISTORY OF THE BLUE MOVIE, THE CELLULOID CLOSET and, to some extent, even the many theatrical and TV historical documentaries by Ken Burns.

On the surface, his eight compilation features made between 1957 and 1970 brought to light a memorable era full of laughter, populated by his favorite cinema clowns of his childhood years: Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, among others.

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Yet underlying them is a sense of melancholy resembling the kind I described earlier with PARIS 1900. That was because so many of these clowns had passed away or were about to. THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY was, in fact, released after Oliver Hardy’s passing so he was not one to experience the great revival of his works as Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton did…and they only reaped the attention for a relatively short time, passing on within a decade later.

Liza Minnelli stated in THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! (the first of that series, 1974): “Thank God for film. It can capture a moment and hold it there forever. If anyone ever asks you,’Who were they?’ or ‘What made them so good?’ I think a reel of film answers that question.”

While that quote is partly true, a performance can only last as long as the source it is recorded on. Just as your own digital images on an iPhone or laptop may not last forever since computer software is constantly changing over time, old fashion photography and motion pictures are only slightly more durable. With a movie, there is always the danger of nitrate decomposition, fire and overall neglect.

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(TopBilled’s note: Youngson supposedly used 2500 existing reels to get eight reels for the feature length WHEN COMEDY WAS KING.) In several Youngson features, we are frequently reminded of how many old films are now lost and what we are seeing on screen has only been spared by a miracle.

In probably the only major book dedicated to him, the fittingly titled The Vanished World of Robert Youngson (BearManor Media, 2018), Jim Manago notes a few similarities between him and the infamously cranky critic James Agee, who shared a similar affection for the great silent comedy stars and also died too soon before his time.

Youngson’s widow Jeanne Keyes was a great resource for the author in interviews she did in her nineties and, in a curious twist of fate resembling Robert’s, she too shares a name with a writer who is more famous with photos online confusingly misidentified. Prior to Manago, Leonard Maltin profiled Youngson extensively in his classic 1972 book The Great Movie Shorts.

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Youngson entered the business as a newsreel editor for Pathé, which distributed its newsreels in the U.S. through RKO at the time he joined in 1941 and was later taken over by Warner Brothers. It was with the latter studio and the friendly support of sales associate Norman Moray that he blossomed with a long running series of one and two reel short subjects covering the history of America through newsreel clips; two of which were awarded Academy Awards and four more were nominated.

SPILLS AND CHILLS (1949) is probably my favorite and it is easily accessible in the TCM DORIS DAY SPOTLIGHT COLLECTION, covering the wild aerial stunts of the 1910s and ’20s that were blatantly “lifted” in an extended sequence in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s HOLLYWOOD series decades later.

I believe just four titles made the DVD cut through Warner home video while most received rather limited VHS coverage back in the 1980s through Video Yesteryear. More recently, his one early Warner feature film, FIFTY YEARS BEFORE YOUR EYES, a June 1950 release covering the history of newsreels themselves, was uploaded on YouTube by PersicopeFilm using a 16mm print reissued for school use by Films Incorporated and is a rather interesting, if also dated in a Cold War era sort of way, historical piece itself.

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He started work on THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY, his salute to the comedy stars backed by Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, after Warner decided to pull the plug on several of their short subject departments, including the newsreel. The studio showed limited interest in his effort because, I guess, they had already made a few Mack Sennett reels in previous years and didn’t see much of a market for it.

It was only after it scored successfully at a few showings in late 1957 that 20th Century Fox assisted in distribution (initially Distributors Corporation of America). Fox also assisted on WHEN COMEDY WAS KING (completed in 1959 and released March 1960), while MGM helped out on some later efforts. The fact that these Hollywood majors showed great interest in these at a time when documentary films tended to be independent productions indicates just how much Youngson’s work was valued by the industry as a whole.

What I love about WHEN COMEDY WAS KING is its extensive opening segment. It lifts footage of Charley Chase in…what else?…but MOVIE NIGHT, a classic 2 reeler from 1929 that features him attending a movie theater with some kids.

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Again, the THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! films borrow a bit from this inspiration with equally creative credits sequences, particularly the second film of that series.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF COMEDY focused on a specific five year period (1923-28) and included a few classics like Laurel & Hardy’s TWO TARS and vintage Will Rogers spoofing Douglas Fairbanks and other stars of the period in UNCENSORED MOVIES, but this second film expands its time period with a broader menu of out-and-out classics that may be more familiar to the casual movie fan of today due to their extensive coverage in more recent years.

KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE was Charlie Chaplin’s most famous early film of 1914, but I personally feel that Roscoe Arbuckle may have been an even better talent had scandal not destroyed his career in 1921.

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FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT (1916) is given thoughtful cinematic commentary with Dwight Weist’s narration, including the artful camera tricks showing Fatty’s affectionate “shadow” kiss of his wife Mabel Normand while she sleeps.

Gloria Swanson is featured in another Sennett favorite, TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE (1917), with Teddy being the canine star. COPS (1922) is perhaps Buster Keaton’s most famous short film. Meanwhile the climax involves Laurel & Hardy’s battle with a would-be-customer of Christmas trees in BIG BUSINESS (1929); this feature pretty much resurrected that film from almost obscurity into the critical CITIZEN KANE-ish limelight it now enjoys.

Lesser offerings that are still highly regarded include Ben Turpin in YUKON JAKE (1924) and Edgar Kennedy in A PAIR OF TIGHTS (1928), in addition to the great “sad clown” Harry Langdon in THE FIRST 100 YEARS (1924).

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Thanks to Youngson, the 1960s saw a silent comedy two-reeler boom of sorts, with increased airings on TV. The emerging, rebellious Baby Boom generation particularly enjoyed the outlandish and often reckless antics of these old-time stunt comics that certainly contrasted to the more sedated humor that their parents were currently enjoying in their comfortable living rooms with prime-time domesticated sitcoms.

There was also a noticeable increase in the number of publications on the subject during that decade; I have a great little hardback that Kalton C. Lahue did in 1966, World of Laughter, that includes rather complete filmographies of all of the major stars that were my go to source prior to imdb.com. Even Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine got into the act with frequent articles on silent film comedy, interspersed with the usual men’s entertainment articles and buck-naked centerfolds.

In closing, narrator Dwight Weist tells us “So ends our visit to the era of the great silent clowns who mass-produced laughter and sold happiness and who passed into oblivion just before the years when the world needed them the most.”

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Some additional fodder...

Years ago, I bugged the Warner Archive in their “requests” sites for a DVD set of Youngson shorts (1948-56) and his one feature for that studio, but I think the response was one big, long yawn. Youngson just isn't as marketable as Harry Potter and the DC franchise.

As biographer Jim Manago noted, the vast majority of his subject matter predates the year of 1930. A few of his Warner films cover material both preceding and following, but they still tend to be far meatier with earlier times. A key exception to the rule is MGM'S BIG PARADE OF COMEDY, focused on the 1930s and '40s,  and that was his one big flop. (Nonetheless MGM still backed him on the subsequent LAUREL AND HARDY'S LAUGHING TWENTIES and that one was a big hit. Yet note the title: Laughing Twenties, not Thirties.)

Manago suggests that Youngson just wasn't all that interested in anything that happened after his 13th birthday. Was he that turned off by the Talkies? Or were his teen and adult years so much less enjoyable than his childhood? Even the period before he was born held far more interest to him.

Ken Burns reminds me a lot of Youngson in his documentaries since the 1980s (and he is still making them, unlike Youngson who would have liked to have continued had he not died suddenly). He too tends to favor lengthy stretches of time that sometimes include the present but mostly are focused on periods before he was born (in 1953) or during the first two decades of his own life (through the '70s). Some like those dealing with the Civil War, WW2 and Vietnam showcase the dark side of history, but it is still history that was long ago and observed from the safety of a Time Machine viewer.

I debated on whether or not to profile Alex de Renzy's A HISTORY OF THE BLUE MOVIE since it borrows heavily from the Youngson narrative formula and would be a natural follow-up. Made in 1970 on the eve of the Golden Age of Porn, the producer-director avoided obscenity laws by making it all historically “educational”.

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4 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

Some additional fodder...

Years ago, I bugged the Warner Archive in their “requests” sites for a DVD set of Youngson shorts (1948-56) and his one feature for that studio, but I think the response was one big, long yawn. Youngson just isn't as marketable as Harry Potter and the DC franchise.

As biographer Jim Manago noted, the vast majority of his subject matter predates the year of 1930. A few of his Warner films cover material both preceding and following, but they still tend to be far meatier with earlier times. A key exception to the rule is MGM'S BIG PARADE OF COMEDY, focused on the 1930s and '40s,  and that was his one big flop. (Nonetheless MGM still backed him on the subsequent LAUREL AND HARDY'S LAUGHING TWENTIES and that one was a big hit. Yet note the title: Laughing Twenties, not Thirties.)

Manago suggests that Youngson just wasn't all that interested in anything that happened after his 13th birthday. Was he that turned off by the Talkies? Or were his teen and adult years so much less enjoyable than his childhood? Even the period before he was born held far more interest to him.

Ken Burns reminds me a lot of Youngson in his documentaries since the 1980s (and he is still making them, unlike Youngson who would have liked to have continued had he not died suddenly). He too tends to favor lengthy stretches of time that sometimes include the present but mostly are focused on periods before he was born (in 1953) or during the first two decades of his own life (through the '70s). Some like those dealing with the Civil War, WW2 and Vietnam showcase the dark side of history, but it is still history that was long ago and observed from the safety of a Time Machine viewer.

I debated on whether or not to profile Alex de Renzy's A HISTORY OF THE BLUE MOVIE since it borrows heavily from the Youngson narrative formula and would be a natural follow-up. Made in 1970 on the eve of the Golden Age of Porn, the producer-director avoided obscenity laws by making it all historically “educational”.

I'm glad you chose THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT and THE CELLULOID CLOSET for the next two weeks. In fact I really like this group of four you picked because it's so diverse in terms of genre and history. Plus with the CELLULOID CLOSET you are reaching up through the mid-90s.

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Essential: THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! (1974)

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Jlewis:

“Boy do we need it now!”

So read the slogan on the original posters put out in the spring of 1974. No, it was not exactly the best of times for America as a whole, with Watergate bringing down a presidency, the humiliation of the Vietnam War that had yet to be resolved and a Middle East crisis prompting a gas shortage. Nostalgia was reining supreme about this time with hits like The Waltons and Happy Days on TV. Anything set in simpler times decades ago was an ideal way to escape the present.

Even the studio that made this ensemble piece down memory lane had seen better days itself. There were only three other feature length theatricals aside from this one (and roughly the same number of TV productions) planned for that year’s release schedule. MGM’s head mogul Kirk Kerkorian was much more focused on his hotel in Las Vegas. As one reviewer in Variety declared: “While many ponder the future of MGM, none can deny that it has one hell of a past.”

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Frank Sinatra, the first of our hosts, is pretty direct about that past which both he and fellow host Jimmy Stewart subtly suggest on screen was not always the best of times. “Musicals were fantasy trips for the audiences of their day. For instance, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy sings a song and gets girl. The plots were that simple.”

… and this compilation piece basically prevents us from having to sit through these predictable plots and, instead, focus on what is most important: the elaborate musical numbers. “Some studios can claim they made the finest gangster films or the greatest horror movies, but when it came to musicals…MGM, they were the champions.”

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Of the trio of THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! vehicles, I have always enjoyed them equally but will admit that THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT, PART II (1976) is slightly weaker than the others despite reuniting Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire together on screen (appearing separately in the first film but praising the other) and featuring an impressive assortment of non-musical clips that even includes James Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks.

The third one, released 18 years after the second, is arguably the best simply because the 1990s saw considerable fine-tuning of this kind of montage documentary to a state of perfection. More importantly, it includes the many fascinating outtake numbers not utilized in the final films (this being some years before DVDs began regularly including them as “extras”).

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The first one, however, gets credit for having the most stellar cast. Aside from the chairman of the board and Stewart, we also get as hosts Elizabeth Taylor, Peter Lawford, Mickey Rooney, Gene Kelly (paying a salute to Astaire), Donald O’Conner, Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire (paying a salute to Kelly), Liza Minnelli and even Bing Crosby, despite the fact that he only made two films for the studio prior to this one that were made a full 23 years apart!

It also showcases the final cinematic shots of many back-lot sets used in the movies, much of it destined to be bulldozed to the ground to make way for housing developments. Sony now operates what is left of the old Culver City lot, much reduced in size.

With Jack Haley Jr. supervising, we get a pretty good sampling of the great Arthur Freed unit and the more economical offerings from Joe Pasternak and others, with the 1929 Oscar winning BROADWAY MELODY leading us off.

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Among the highlights: Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in ROSE MARIE, the over indulgent Oscar winning THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, Eleanor Powell in ROSALIE, the Andy Hardy vehicles, THE WIZARD OF OZ, Esther Williams and her “aquamusicals,” MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES with Gene and Fred together, ANCHORS AWEIGH (with Jerry Mouse dancing with Gene Kelly), THE HARVEY GIRLS, THE PIRATE, TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME, ON THE TOWN, Mario Lanza belting it out in TOAST OF NEW ORLEANS, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, THE BAND WAGON, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS and the many widescreen CinemaScope productions reformatted for 70mm here, HIGH SOCIETY with Bing and Frankie together, GIGI and others.

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As Jimmy Stewart admits, not all of the musicals were that good, but the highlights were always engaging, such as Clark Gable singing and tap dancing in IDIOT’S DELIGHT and Judy Garland dedicating “You Made Me Love You” to Mister Gable in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938. Plus Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, Cary Grant and others trying their musical best. There is also some attempt to show racial diversity on screen even though old time Hollywood may not have presented it in quite the same proportions we have come to expect today, with Lena Horne in THOUSANDS CHEER, William Warfield in SHOW BOAT and the Nicholas Brothers dancing with Gene Kelly in THE PIRATE.

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A trivial note involves a little boo-boo in Liza’s tribute to mommy Judy Garland. As part of the Gumm Sisters, mom did not make her debut in the 3-strip 1935 Technicolor short film LA FIESTA DE SANTA BARBARA even if that marked her MGM debut, but in a 1929 indy 2-reeler THE BIG REVUE. This was followed by a trio in early 2-strip Technicolor that were put out during the next year by Warner Brothers-Vitaphone; one surviving title, BUBBLES, is only available in black and white.

There is the problem of time restraints, which the two sequels helped rectify with additional footage. For example, we do not see the title tune presented in this first feature even though we hear it nonstop as theme background material (with the great Henry Mancini involved). We do get two other clips from THE BAND WAGON which made the song famous.

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Leonard Maltin rightfully complained about how the impressive ballet of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS was edited down quite a bit in the finale, but the third feature recovered a couple scenes missed there too. The main point of this film is, of course, to encourage you to seek out all of the originals, complete in their musical numbers and, as Frankie admitted, their predictable boy-meets-girl plots.

I, for one, was influenced by this film even though I did see a couple of the features excerpted here before, not just THE WIZARD OF OZ. I probably first saw it on PBS late night in the early 1980s or so. By the time I saw the third compilation film a year or two after its theatrical release in VHS, I had seen many more of these musical features. Like the Robert Youngson silent comedy spectaculars, THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! does get you hooked and reeled-in with its icing on the cake presentation of the best of the best.

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4 hours ago, TopBilled said:

 

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The famous train used in Fred's THE BAND WAGON was in shambles then. It was a wonderful stock train used in so many MGM movies since, I guess, the 1920s? I am trying to think of the famous Joan Crawford movie from the early '30s where she watches all kinds of activities in the passing windows.

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5 minutes ago, Jlewis said:

The famous train used in Fred's THE BAND WAGON was in shambles then. It was a wonderful stock train used in so many MGM movies since, I guess, the 1920s? I am trying to think of the famous Joan Crawford movie from the early '30s where she watches all kinds of activities in the passing windows.

Not sure which Crawford film you are referring to. But I think the train was also used in scenes with Ethel Barrymore as part of her segment in THE STORY OF THREE LOVES (1953).

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You said one of the reasons why they made these compilations was so people could seek out the original films but I would imagine that would have been a hard challenge in 1974? I don’t believe movies were released on VHS and Betamax yet. Unless they knew ahead of time home videos were going to be the future and they were thinking of the future as being more accessible to older movies someday. 
 

Old timey MGM musicals also weren’t popular amongst the young people in 1974 so I’m wondering if these were nostalgia films that also catered to the aging “greatest generation” crowd that were kids in the 40s when these films were popular.

 

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18 hours ago, MerryPickford said:

You said one of the reasons why they made these compilations was so people could seek out the original films but I would imagine that would have been a hard challenge in 1974? I don’t believe movies were released on VHS and Betamax yet. Unless they knew ahead of time home videos were going to be the future and they were thinking of the future as being more accessible to older movies someday. 
 

Old timey MGM musicals also weren’t popular amongst the young people in 1974 so I’m wondering if these were nostalgia films that also catered to the aging “greatest generation” crowd that were kids in the 40s when these films were popular.

 

I am sure Jlewis will come by and explain what he meant. But in my view, I think MGM made a compilation film like THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!, because it was going through changes (like dismantling the backlot) and the studio was in a reflective mood. It was a chance for the company to document some of its history.

However, we should mention that in the mid-50s, they had George Murphy host a weekly television series called MGM Parade which showcased clips from its classic film library.

While these films were not yet being released on video, they were being run on television and in some cases were being re-released into theaters.

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You are both right. I was thinking of the film's importance today in terms of the "seeking out" part more so than in 1974.

The "Late, Late Show", in various formats, would occasionally show old movies on TV and this is why Leonard Maltin and others were putting out TV Movie Guides. Yet Betamax and VHS didn't arrive until 1975 and '77. Now... around 1972, there was a more experimental, primitive home video tape system that began reissuing a small number of studio movies including Columbia's FUNNY GIRL, which was a four year old "recent release" at the time.

(Totally off topic: Did you know that the cell phone was invented in April 1973, as reported in a recent CBS Sunday morning edition this past week?).

Apart from the occasional art house theater revival, the 16mm format was the most common method for seeing movies at this time even though it was expensive in rental fees. I had a few catalogues back in 1978-79 when I first became interested in that topic, but have sadly lost them in time. They were charging  $60-200 per movie rental, which would inflate quite a bit in today's dollars. Of course, you saw these in schools, businesses and libraries. Not your living room unless you had the projector and money.

In the seventies, it was mostly just Disney that was reissuing old films to theaters so, yes, much shown in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! had not been reissued in decades and were quite the revelation at the time. When Robert Youngson made MGM'S BIG PARADE OF COMEDY in 1964, the last retrospective film clip fest that MGM put out was back in 1950. It took another decade for this one to come out.

While the Baby Boom generation in their teens and early 20s probably found a lot of entertainment from their parents' era a trifle "square", this film had so much going for it due to the bombastic production numbers that I am certain pleased audiences in all age groups. Liza Minnelli was selected as a host due to her age, being born at the borderline year of 1946 and despite her only credit here being as a toddler in THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME.

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Essential: THE CELLULOID CLOSET (1995)

Jlewis:

Introduction

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One of the films excerpted in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s THE CELLULOID CLOSET is THE HUNGER, featuring Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon in cahoots in a key bedroom scene. I recall watching that on VHS with my mother in the mid-1980s. Her response: “I don’t care what they do as long as we don’t have to see it.”

At the time (as a teenager), I thought she was being very civil and kind-hearted since previous comments by her on such matters were not quite so nice. Later I often heard the exact same line from co-workers and others I associated with daily but, in these later times, my opinion was that this line was getting…well…pretty old and not so civil.

My mother intensely disliked THE CRYING GAME, also excerpted, which I took her to see in a theater in early 1993 when it was a key Oscar nominee, but I admired her for sticking it out and keeping her comments at a whisper level.

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This contrasted from a rather loud woman sitting behind me during BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN thirteen years later whom I felt should have just left if she didn’t want to see it.

Needless to say, neither of my parents were all that sympathetic to the whole el-jee-bee-tee movement but they were not completely obstinate either. After my mother died, one of her own sisters (by then in her sixties) married a woman and my father was quite open to it, attending a cruise with them after he remarried himself (to a woman, of course).

Point made: we should never sell people short, even if they are family members whom we think we know all too well. They are a microcosm of a nation at large and the United States, as a whole, underwent a lot of change during the last century and is still undergoing change.

Part 1

Something like THE CELLULOID CLOSET may hopefully become a museum piece in the future as newer viewers chancing upon it will ponder what all of the fuss was about. When it was released in February 1996, it is important to remember that same sex marriage was still over 19 years away into the future and even certain physical acts that are now taken for granted (mostly between men, not so much lesbians) were still illegal and subject to potential jail sentences in several states.

Even the terminology changed over time, both then and now. For example, the movie title was shortened from the book it was based on: Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies which was published initially in 1981 by Harper & Row when that H-word was regularly used.

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By the ’90s, the H-word was being weeded out of the vocabulary because an increasing number fighting for equal rights were against being defined on “sexual” terms. After all, the rest of the population is generally not labeled hetero-sexual unless there is a specific discussion made about what they do with others behind closed doors.

Then again, those enforcing society norms in the past were generally less concerned about closed doors than what was happening outside of them. As Russo originally noted in a full chapter of his book, much focus was put on the “siss-y”– a man who behaves too much like a woman. Since most characters tended to behave as very non-sexual on screen, they posed little threat in that regard, yet were still carefully monitored by the Production Code and allowed on screen as comedy relief for moviegoers who needed characters to feel superior towards and better about themselves.

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This was especially true during the dark days of the Depression in the early 1930s when many heterosexual men felt most vulnerable in their own masculinity since they could no longer hold down a job and be financial providers for their own family.

However Hollywood itself tended to be a gay friendly business town and a haven to a great many closeted actors and personnel who operated behind the cameras. Just that a huge chunk of the paying public was less friendly and, at best, didn’t care as long as they didn’t have to see “it.” A great deal of subject matter involving heterosexuals was also carefully monitored as well, but at least they got plenty of kissing scenes and romantic fade-outs of happily ever after.

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Only on the rare occasions would you see a same gender kiss and there had to be a specific reason for it. Examples include the two buddies surviving a war together but one dying (before anything detrimental happens between them) in WINGS, Gary Cooper’s Tom Brown taking full charge of Marlene Dietrich’s Amy Jolly in MOROCCO and, despite John Gilbert’s Antonio dying, Greta Garbo’s QUEEN CHRISTINA remembering her queenly duties.

One rather depressing note was made in the book that got repeated in the screen version but in altered words. In 28 films that Russo analyzed that were released between 1962 and 1978, during and after the period in which the Production Code lost control, 22 of them featured a major gay character who either dies from suicide or dramatic violence. While the death rate among gays back then might have been higher than straights simply due to society pressure, this screen emphasis was certainly not good for the burgeoning gay rights movement.

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Lily Tomlin, a friend of Russo’s who narrates the film that he never saw on account of his own passing five years prior, maintains an even keel throughout. We start out with a humorous montage that suggests what we are about to see may resemble WHEN COMEDY WAS KING with some hilarious highlights– like Cary Grant flapping about “going gay” in his feminine robe in BRINGING UP BABY, but the bulk of the running time involves lots of stereotyping and harsh censorship.

In regards to all of the effeminate male characters dating back to ALGIE THE MINER (1912), Harvey Fierstein admits “I liked The Siss-y. Is it used in negative ways? Yeah, but, my view has always been visibility at any cost. I’d rather have negative than nothing.” The lesbian characters were often a sinister villainess, vampire and prison inmate but Susie Bright still enjoys how “Mrs.” Danvers fondles the lingerie in REBECCA (1940).

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Some films that utilized stereotypes were actually pretty positive and forward advancing, including the Astaire-Rogers musicals such as THE GAY DIVORCEE and TOP HAT; the Production Code making sure there were no sexual references made but occasional one-liner jokes could slip through, hinting to audiences about the characters’ orientations.

Surprisingly there is no Cowardly Lion from THE WIZARD OF OZ featured here, even though Bert Lahr’s memorable song was profiled in depth in the book. Doris Day’s vehicles get a bit of mileage in this regard, whether she is dealing with Rock Hudson as a gay man playing a straight man posing as gay in PILLOW TALK or singing about secret love in CALAMITY JANE.

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Part Two

One positive if predictable stereotype that rose in popularity after THE CELLULOID CLOSET was released was the gay best friend that dominated rom-coms in the mid 1990s through mid 2010s. You see so many examples from MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING to CRAZY RICH ASIANS. Usually these were male and were important in their roles of helping the female star find her proper heterosexual soul mate, while not posing any threats since, after all, he was her boy friend in two separate words and not boyfriend as one word.

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A quick rundown of other highlights, a great many clips borrowed wholesale in too many YouTube history videos to count:

- Peter Lorre’s creepy Cairo nibbling on his joy-stick in THE MALTESE FALCON

- the memorable westerns RED RIVER (just the one questionable male scene) and JOHNNY GUITAR (a great female example)

- the boyfriend killers in ROPE

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- Lauren Bacall’s ominous and very peculiar ambiguity in YOUNG MAN IN THE HORN, also with Doris Day

- the predatory lesbian guards in CAGED and their male counterparts in the much later MIDNIGHT EXPRESS

- Sal and Jimmy’s bro-bonding in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE… and we all know who must die in the end since he is not the one dating Natalie Wood

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- Tony Curtis commenting on both SOME LIKE IT HOT and SPARTACUS

- Gore Videl cheekily commenting on how he and director William Wyler pulled the wool over Charlton Heston’s eyes in BEN-HUR

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- Shirley MacLane on THE CHILDREN’S HOUR, one of the most depressing lesbian dramas ever made, but eventually topped by others later in the sixties such as THE FOX

- Susan Sarandon on THE HUNGER and its continuation of the female vampire type

- the way many popular books often got toned down quite a bit in the ’80s and ’90s in their screen adaptations despite all of advancements made previously, such as THE COLOR PURPLE (with Whoopi Goldberg commenting) and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES.

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Going back and forth in time, there are backtracks to the ’70s after the ’80s with clips that include SUNDAY, BLOODY, SUNDAY, John Schlesinger’s progressive follow-up to MIDNIGHT COWBOY (curiously not shown) with its just-accept-as-normal romantic triangle. However we only see the famous male kiss shown and not much commentary on that one (much to my surprise) even though it is as equally important to its era as CABARET.

By the early eighties, with the culmination of so much gay rights progress, an increasing number of straight actors took on positive gay roles such as Harry Hamlin, here commenting on MAKING LOVE which received high profile promotion by 20th Century Fox until a change of studio hands prompted an unfortunate curtailing of promotion and distribution.

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Another important trend that took over in the later 1980s and ’90s was the AIDS drama, most notably represented by PHILADELPHIA with Tom Hanks (again, commenting accordingly). These allowed further representation in mainstream movies while also continuing the decades-old cookie cutter formula of little to no sex or affection shown on screen and the inevitable death end result. On the plus side, it did continue the sympathetic, need-to-be-accepted theme that can be traced back to VICTIM, the landmark British 1961 breakthrough.

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One genre that is overlooked here is the porn film, which exploded in popularity during the seventies and tended to be very gay positive with its anything goes and to-each-their-own mentality. I was rather disappointed that we don’t get any scenes from Wakefield Poole’s BOYS IN THE SAND to follow the much discussed BOYS IN THE BAND or Radley Metzger’s excellent bisexual satire SCORE. Some of the art house European imports that were not always as graphic in that regard, but still pushed the envelope further than their American contemporaries, would have been nice additions as well.

During the final portion, there is a light at the end of the tunnel full of hope and enthusiasm for the future. The early 1990s sees the full rainbow emerge with a simply fabulous selection that includes MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, THE CRYING GAME, THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT and BOYS ON THE SIDE.

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In this respect, this compilation piece is a nice follow-up to the previous three. PARIS 1900 and WHEN COMEDY WAS KING were engaging flashbacks to the fun times of yesteryear even though both end on a sad note: either soldiers leaving on trains for the war front or clowns getting a fade out, never to return.

THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT! is all about the joy of singing and dancing, with a satisfying ending featuring Gene Kelly picking up his love-rose in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS and Frank Sinatra giving us a send-off. Yet it too relates to an era that has passed, with the most recent movie featured in that compilation being 15 years by 1974.

THE CELLULOID CLOSET gives us dark clouds throughout much of its running time as we look backward, but then moves forward to demonstrate just how much progress has been made and still will be made in the future.

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I'd like to thank Jlewis for doing such a splendid job on the August reviews. It was nice to sit back for a change and learn something new. It's always fun to see what he comes up with...his choices are different than mine!

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Coming Up in September:

We covered FRIED GREEN TOMATOES in June, but we've been wanting to do a whole month on this lady:

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September 4

A WOMAN'S VENGEANCE (1948)

September 11

THE DESERT FOX: THE STORY OF ROMMEL (1951)

September 18

THE BIRDS (1963)

September 25

DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989)

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Essential: A WOMAN'S VENGEANCE (1948)

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TopBilled:

The title for this classic Universal film could just as easily have been SCORNED or A WOMAN SCORNED. I am sure those titles have been used for other thrillers with a melodramatic slant. In this case Jessica Tandy, our focus for the next four weeks, plays a woman who feels cast aside and neglected by the handsome male protagonist (Charles Boyer). And as we know, hell hath no fury like this type of woman.

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The story might have worked better if Tandy was playing a mentally unstable wife or hostile ex-wife. Or if there had been a huge backstory where she was his first love, things didn’t work out, and he moved on but she never got over it. Instead, Boyer has a perfectly refined wife played by Rachel Kempson who becomes ill and dies. After a sufficient period of mourning, Boyer realizes he has gradually fallen in love with a much younger woman (Ann Blyth).

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While their May-December romance is unconventional to say the least and it sets tongues wagging in the couple’s upper crust community, he seems happy with her. This drives Tandy’s character to emotional extremes since she secretly hoped he would have chosen her after his first wife’s death. She is harboring her own unrequited feelings. But since there is no real backstory, we don’t really learn how these intense feelings on her part, even came about in the first place.

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In spite of the various inadequacies of the plot, Tandy has more than enough skill to etch out a strong characterization. She gives us a portrait of a despondent woman who only wants to be loved. It is the curse of her character, Janet Spence, to be in the same socio-economic circle as Henry Maurier (Boyer). She wouldn’t have been able to avoid him if she tried, since they share a lot of the same friends and acquaintances. We’re not really supposed to root for Janet, but Tandy does such a good job drawing us in, that we cannot help but feel total sympathy for her, even when her more heinous deeds come to light.

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Ann Blyth, lovely as she may be, is the weakest link in the cast. She does not have the acting chops or experience that Boyer or Tandy bring to the proceedings. And when you put her alongside other supporting players like Mildred Natwicke, Cedrick Hardwicke and John Williams, plus Kempson, she pales even more by comparison. Still, I think Blyth projects the requisite amount of naivety.

I should add that Rachel Kempson, who plays the ill-fated wife, was married to Michael Redgrave; she being the mother of their famous offspring Vanessa, Corin and Lynn.

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The Kempson-Redgraves had left England and came to America after the war to try their luck in Hollywood. Redgrave was working on SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR at this time with Fritz Lang and Joan Bennett, also at Universal. Redgrave had met an American named Bob Michell with whom he had a long-term affair. So not only was Kempson playing a character that was replaced by her husband on screen, this was happening in real life as well…though Kempson would remain married to Redgrave until he died in 1985.

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Getting back to Jessica Tandy, she gives an electrifying performance here. And it is no surprise that she would go on to great things on Broadway, as Blanche Dubois in Elia Kazan’s original stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Tandy and husband Hume Cronyn had already been contract players at MGM in the mid-40s. In fact, both appeared in Metro’s THE GREEN YEARS (1946) where Cronyn played Tandy’s father!

In the 50s, 60s and 70s Tandy would turn up occasionally in films or on television shows. She experienced a career resurgence in the mid-80s through early-90s. And eventually received an Oscar for DRIVING MISS DAISY (1989) which we will review at the end of the month. But I think she gives her very best performance as jilted, demented Janet whose ability to exact vengeance makes Cruella de Vil look like an amateur.

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Jlewis:

Sir Cedric Hardwick, one of the most prolific character actors of Hollywood’s golden age, ties this with another Jessica Tandy vehicle we will be profiling, THE DESERT FOX. He plays Dr. James Libbard who reports to Henry Maurier (Charles Boyer) that his hypochondriac wife Emily (Rachel Kempsen) has died. Poor Boyer. He is often the eternal womanizer and love-interest of millions and, here, he is caught in a love triangle with two other ladies: Ann Blyth’s Doris Mead and Jessica’s Janet Spencer.

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He remarries the latter because she is younger and supposedly prettier, although Janet is pretty too here in my opinion. Janet starts out as a sympathetic sounding board in a “forgive me. Henry…oh poor Emily” sort of way, but another side of her emerges later. When Henry is arrested for potential foul play regarding his first wife’s death, everybody pretends to be supportive of him.

Aldous Huxley is the author of our story here and we also get the great Zoltán Korda, a brother of Brit movie mogul Alexander, as director. Pretty prestigious billing behind the cameras here. Not that the latter’s batting average in the post-war years matched the period that begot THE FOUR FEATHERS and THE THIEF OF BAGDAD. With that said, this is one of his better later offerings, if maybe less critically acclaimed at the time than CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY.

This is your standard ladies noir-ish mystery melodrama, light on plot but heavy on the drama, but it is a fun piece of entertainment vintage of the times and gives us a chance to see a younger Jessica Tandy in her prime. The Universal-International production was filmed between July and September of 1947.

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On December 3rd, her career mushroomed when she took on the role of Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Ironically, her Tony Award win and long experience with the British stage did not get her the Blanche role in the UK version of the play later. The supervisor-in-charge, Laurence Olivier (who also, ironically, worked with Jessica earlier in at least one Shakespearean production of Henry V), cast his wife Vivien Leigh. When Warner Brothers decided to make the movie adaptation in 1950, Vivien was chosen over Jessica since she was the movie actress with the bigger box-office appeal at the time, ultimately winning the Oscar.

It is a shame that we don’t have a good film record of Jessica as Blanche, but we get a good tease of it here as she plays a tormented woman deluding herself a lot.

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A couple other tidbits about Jessica, whom we remember these days from her most famous roles in the decade preceding her passing in 1994, DRIVING MISS DAISY and FRIED GREEN TOMATOES included. She was born in London and her accent occasionally trickles into her all-American characters. She became a U.S. citizen a decade after she married Canadian Hume Cronyn.

Their marriage lasted 52 years until her death, with Cronyn living another nine years as practically foreshadowed in their co-starring TO DANCE WITH THE WHITE DOG. Although her first movie was made back in 1932 (THE INDISCRETIONS OF EVE, British), much of her career was still spent on the stage. Hollywood started giving her supporting roles in various films starting in 1944.

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Mildred Natwick plays nurse Caroline in a wonderful supporting role, deviously suggesting that Henry might have bumped off his wife with poison and Janet at first refuses to think such a thing. Or so we think. Actually I was suspecting initially that the real woman’s vengeance was Caroline’s rather than Janet’s since she is the one who is overly gleeful about Henry’s fate.

Ann Blyth isn’t bad as the new wife who knows she isn’t the only object of Henry’s affections and is at first against having their baby, attempting suicide.

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The actress is still around today, now in her nineties. She and Boyer both reprised their roles for the airwaves on Lux Radio Theatre in an episode covering the movie on March 22, 1948. Sadly this episode may be lost, even though many others from the long running series do survive.

Nice use of four leaf clovers. In 1947-48, the song “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover” was enjoying a come-back on Your Hit Parade two decades after its published introduction with Russ Morgan, Alvino Rey, the Three Suns, the Uptown String Band and even Arthur Godfrey having hit versions. It also starting popping up in Warner Brothers cartoons about this time, with Bugs Bunny singing it on more than one occasion. Yes, the clover does bring Henry good luck in the end.

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Essential: THE DESERT FOX: THE STORY OF ROMMEL (1951)

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TopBilled:

I am not too well-versed on Rommel’s career or the German military strategies that were waged against the British and its allies during the second world war. But I don’t think a casual viewer watching this film needs to know all these things. The film is fairly easy to follow. Producer-writer Nunnally Johnson provides us with a nicely paced script, which is based on a biography about the famous field marshal of the third reich. The book was a bestseller and had been written by Lt. Col. Desmond Young.

Young was a member of the British Indian Army who crossed paths with Rommel, and he appears as himself in this carefully mounted 20th Century Fox production. Key passages of the story are narrated by Fox contract player Michael Rennie, who is supposed to be speaking in Young’s “voice” since these are Young’s own studies and thoughts about Rommel. Young had interviewed Rommel’s widow Frau Lucie, played by Jessica Tandy, our focus this month.

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For her part, Tandy does an effective job conveying a housewife who stands by her man all the way, even if he is standing by Hitler and they have their doubts about Hitler. Lucie and Erwin Rommel are depicted as high-ranking members of the Nazi party who ironically oppose Nazism. This characterization by Young, which is developed through dialogue by Johnson, has led to a myth of Rommel which is a subject of considerable discussion.

After all, this could be a postwar propaganda piece. A piece about a “good” German who was a close friend of Hitler’s in the early days and still led troops that defeated the Allied forces on several important battle fronts.

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But maybe it is easier to glorify the Rommels here, because we want to believe that there had to be at least one German officer and his wife who were not exactly Hitlerian puppets. One couple that was able to think critically and decide on their own terms not to support the barbarism of Der Fuhrer. Therefore, a major component of this film and its portrayals is that the Rommels are committing treason. However, it’s a form of treason that British and American movie audiences in 1951 would applaud.

Part of the film’s purpose is to generate sympathy for the Rommels. And the way James Mason and Jessica Tandy choose to play their scenes does help elicit sympathy, especially when they are interacting with a doctor (Cedric Hardwicke) who wants them to endorse a plan to kill Hitler (Luther Adler).

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Going along with such a plan would undoubtedly put the Rommels at odds with their closest associates within the Nazi party. There is even a suggestion in an early scene that the Rommels’ son might be under the thumb of the Nazis, which would make him an enemy of his parents.

This is a different sort of role for Tandy, certainly not like the venomous creature she played in A WOMAN’S VENGEANCE which we discussed last week. Also, she is the only credited female in the entire cast…though there is one uncredited woman with limited dialogue who plays the Rommels’ maid. Tandy gets a chance to stand out a bit because she is providing the only real vantage point for women that may be in the audience watching.

Shot in a semi-documentary style, we get newly staged scenes intercut with the realia of newsreel footage…all of it emphasizing the seriousness of war. At first I found this a bit gimmicky and tedious, but as the story continued I decided that I liked the flavor of actual history that the news clips provide.

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Do I think the Rommels are heroes? Well, I don’t exactly think they are like the Von Trapps in THE SOUND OF MUSIC. But from a dramatic standpoint, I enjoy the irony their situation brings to the screen. Incidentally, the studio made a sequel two years later, THE DESERT RATS (1953), which is really more of a prequel. And in that later film Mason returns as Rommel, in active battle along the northern part of Africa. He speaks more German in the second film, and he is a bit more villainous. I guess we could say that’s because he hadn’t yet become a treasonous hero.

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Jlewis:

“The truth is that a soldier has but one function in life, one lone excuse for his existence, and that is to carry out the order of his superiors. The rest, including government, is politics.”

So was Rommel’s motto, even as he meets his fate with the hereafter, as a possible accomplice of Hitler’s failed assassination.

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It had been ages since I saw this one and I greatly enjoyed revisiting it, even though it is no masterpiece of wartime drama. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was, of course, the primary asset of the German army in The War a.k.a. “the most celebrated German soldier since word war one.”

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James Mason gives him quite the debonair persona with no German spoken, but sophisticated Queen’s English here. Even if he was technically The Enemy, the fact that he was critical of Hitler and may-or-may-not have been involved in an attempt on his leader’s life are enough to make him a complicated villain-hero of sorts that even Winston Churchill praises in the final moment before “The End.”

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This is a very Hollywoodized biopic that still makes sure you know which country is backing it (cue all of the flamboyant patriotic music whenever American and British soldiers are on screen and over an extensive five minutes of D-Day invasion newsreel clips) but tries to present the German people and their commander in a rather sympathetic light.

This is significant since Germany was now split between the capitalistic west and the Soviet east at the time and all war movies needed a little objectivity to maintain the peace. Hitler himself, as portrayed with great hysteria by Luther Adler, was more the problem than the people under him (i.e. not that we today should hold this belief literally but it was the belief that Hollywood needed to promote at that time). Many like Rommel disliked being “clowns” in Hitler’s “circus.”

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Michael Rennie offers great narration as Lt. Col. Desmond Young of the opposing Allies side, trying to present this more temperate perspective of Germany’s greatest soldier and commander.

One wonderful aspect to many of these post-war tributes filmed in black and white is that newsreel footage, all supplied by Fox Movietone of course, can be seamlessly edited in for additional realism. Only eagle eyes can detect where the Arizona and California desert locations change over to the mighty Sahara of the North Africa campaign.

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Since the success of THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET back in 1945, 20th Century Fox had made a trademark with a distinctive you-are-there look to their cinematography, regardless whether or not actual locations for the events depicted were used. It contrasted pleasingly with the more studio-bound look of the contemporary productions of MGM, Warners and Paramount that generally just inserted a couple location clips among shots done within a set of four walls. Two years later, Fox’s stock look would change again with the arrival of CinemaScope and a return to a more studio-like, less outdoorsy look.

Occasionally, however, the studio and supervising director Henry Hathaway take the easy way out. The D-Day sequence is one primary example since little is done to recreate anything there with new sets and/or actors; instead we just get the usual extended stock footage.

Curiously the recreation of the July 1944 bombing that almost kills Hitler was shot in the early spring with limited foliage on the trees and apparently the production crew was not terribly concerned about those details. An earlier key scene shows Rommel inspecting an Atlantic shoreline fortress in November 1943 and it is obvious Mason the actor is standing in front of a huge back-screen. Good thing Technicolor wasn’t used here to make it all the more obvious.

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A most British Cedric Hardwicke is top-billed as Dr. Karl Strölin, who was still alive at the time this film was made (and would still be around for a dozen more years) since he was considered one of the “lesser” Nazis in terms of his crimes. During Rommel’s occasional “ill health” retreats at a hospital, Strölin tries to coax him into the assassination plot.

Also prominent in the cast is Everett Sloane, who is brilliantly straight-faced as Gen. Wilhelm Burgdorf delivering Rommel a choice of suicide or public execution after accusations have been made against him.

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Others featured here include Leo G. Carrol (a familiar face in many Hitchcock films) as Gerd von Rundstedt, with George Macready, Richard Boone and Eduard Franz among the other higher-ups in command.

Jessica Tandy plays Rommel’s wife. To be honest, I don’t feel she is all that different in her performance here than in, say, THE BIRDS apart from the key shock scenes in that one. Don’t get me wrong. She is very professional in her role, if a bit poker-ish. My favorite moments of her are in the end when she realizes that she will never see her husband again and must pretend she doesn’t know for the sake of her own safety and that of their grown-up son.

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A few additional comments...

I did like THE DESERT FOX but felt it had Jessica's least interesting performance of the five films we are profiling, including the previously mentioned FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. Not that she isn't good at her role. Just that it only allowed her so much to work with and probably any number of other actresses could have done just as well. It was really more James Mason's film anyway.

Backtracking... too bad the LUX RADIO THEATRE radio adaptation of A WOMAN'S VENGEANCE is not available since it may be quite good. In some ways, the story is better suited to the shorter 50+ minute format with less padding involved. Despite some good cinematography and a few visual touches, the basic story can easily be told with dialogue alone.

I personally did not have any issue with the limited backstory but maybe it was because I just made assumptions based on what cookie-crumbs the prudish Production Code was allowing to slip through the cracks. Had it been made decades later, a lot would be more obvious and straight forward. One flaw may be the slight miscasting of Rachel Kempson as Emily, who was a little TOO sympathetic. She and Janet, despite the latter claiming they were best friends initially, were essentially competing for the same man. Although Emily married him, she later no longer wanted any intimacy in her marriage and likely used "illness" (whether it was a genuine physical handicap or just something mental) as the excuse. Of course, Janet and Henry both had, ahem, needs. What Janet had not bargained for was that Henry's needs did not involve her.  He favored younger Doris instead. So... we basically have a repeat of so many romantic revenge plots utilized in a great many 1940s movies and radio suspense dramas (I can think of several from SUSPENSE and THE WHISTLER resembling this one). You could also count as an influence, in a roundabout way, DOUBLE INDEMNITY with that wife not satisfied with her husband and getting an insurance salesman to help boot him off so that she can get "some"... only he no longer wants it with her later on, even without another woman in the picture.

I forgot Ann Blyth was Oscar nominated as the bratty daughter of Crawford in MILDRED PIERCE. Guess she had to be more goody two shoes here to compensate.

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One thing I didn't include in my review of THE DESERT FOX-- there is an interesting scene in the Rommels' living room about halfway into the film where director Henry Hathaway has the wife and son with their backs to the camera the whole time, while Rommel (Mason) is seen in a medium shot pacing and gradually coming towards the camera. We glimpse Tandy and the actor playing the son (from the back, as they sit on the sofa) and hear them deliver their dialogue, but there is no reverse shot. So we never see their faces in that scene.

I just found it interesting that Tandy was still able to register in that scene though she did not really have the camera aiding her. 

Most of the time she had equal coverage, and she certainly had some good close-ups, especially from the balcony as she watched her husband leave (two different times). But in this particular scene the visual focus is all on Rommel/Mason. To Tandy's credit, she doesn't use any tricks to get Mason to glance over at her. She just delivers it realistically, like a wife would normally be talking to her husband while sitting on the sofa.

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I also wanted to add that I found it interesting to watch Tandy in a film like THE DESERT FOX where she is working alongside several other Brits-in-Hollywood (Mason, Hardwicke, Carroll and Cavanagh)-- since she was British herself. 

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Incidentally, I think Luther Adler is rather prone to chew the scenery as Hitler. A case of Adler being a little too "Method" and putting too many facial gestures into his performance. He gave the least natural performance.

Tandy gave the most natural performance.

Meanwhile Mason & Hardwicke were excellent in their scenes together but they were still somewhat stylized compared to Tandy. I just thought Tandy knew how to wisely underplay it and make it more about the humanness of the situation.

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