Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Help

This post also appeared on sister blog Shadow of a Doubt.

Actress Celeste Holm died last week at the age of 95. In my opinion, she had both the talent and the looks to be a leading lady, yet with the exception of one, possibly two, films, she spent most of her brief Hollywood career (by her own choice; she preferred New York and the theater) in supporting roles. She won an Oscar supporting Gregory Peck in Gentleman's Agreement. She also supported Olivia De Havilland in The Snake Pit. As an uncredited, disembodied voice, she supported Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Southern, Kirk Douglas, and Paul Douglas in Letter to Three Wives. On TV in the 1960s, she supported (with a wave of a wand) Leslie Ann Warren in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.

These days, Celeste Holm's best known movie may be All About Eve (1950), where she supported Bette Davis. Watch:

Well? Did you see her? Did you see Celeste Holm? She was the blond standing to the left of Davis. She said, "We know you. We've seen you like this before. Is it over, or is it just beginning?"

Not to give you the wrong impression, there are plenty of instances in Eve where Holm really does get to show off her thespian skills. She turns in a good performance in a movie full of good performances. However, the particular scene that I just showed you happens to be most famous one in the movie (as well as the most available scene on YouTube.) Probably because it contains the most famous line in the movie, uttered by Miss Davis: "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." But Holm set Davis up to say that line! You know, when she said, "We've seen you like this in the beginning. Is it over, or do we know you?" Something like that. Holm supported Davis.

OK, this may not be the best argument on behalf of Miss Holm. So I'll give you another clip from a lesser known but hardly obscure film, High Society, a musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. Holm could sing as well as act, and here she supports Frank Sinatra, who could act as well as sing. Sinatra was a big star in 1956, and was billed above the title, along with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. Louis Armstrong had a much smaller role, but was prominently featured on the film's poster anyway. As for Celeste Holm, you have to kind of look for her name. Yet in this particular scene, Sinatra dominates at first, until Holm's contribution increases, it all balances out, and both stars end up supporting each other:

Unfortunately, this equality doesn't last the whole picture. Celeste Holm was, after all, just a supporting actress. One of the best.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Vital Viewing (Girl Next Door Edition)

(This post originally ran on sister blog Shadow of a Doubt--KJ)

Actress Ann Rutherford died Tuesday at 94. Never a major Hollywood star, most obituaries emphasized her small role in Gone with the Wind as Scarlett O'Hara's youngest sister Carreen. However, as popular as that movie was when it premiered in 1939, she probably was better known at the time for the thankless part she played in what was officially called the Judge Hardy's Family film series as Andy's on-again-off-again girlfriend Polly Benedict. Why thankless? Gamely played by Mickey Rooney, and by far the most popular character in the series, Andy Hardy was a typical all-American horny teenage boy, within the bounds of late '30s-early '40s movie morality (such as, you couldn't use the word "horny".) Let's just say he fell in love a lot. Since it wouldn't make much dramatic or comedic sense to have him fall in love with the same girl in film after film, MGM assigned such up-and-coming contract starlets as Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson, Donna Reed, and Esther Williams to play targets of Andy's lustful affections. A typical movie would begin with Andy breaking up with Polly in the first 15 minutes, then getting in some romantic misadventure, then getting lectured by his old fart of a father for said romantic misadventure, before finally hooking up again with Polly. Like I said, thankless.

Those of you who know what Lana Turner, Kathryn Grayson, Donna Reed, and Esther Williams looked like in their primes may be saying to yourselves, "I don't blame Andy leavin' Polly for those babes! Why'd he always go back?" That's very unfair to Ann Rutherford, who was a very capable comic actress...OK, comic capability may not mean much when stacked (no pun intended) against Esther Williams in a bathing suit. But Ann-as-Polly had considerable other charms as well. If you don't believe me, just watch this:

Wooo-wooo is right! The bigger question should be, why did Polly always take him back?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Blinds Drawn

This is my first posting in three years, and it may be another three years before I post again, as I have another blog that I do, as well as an off-line life to lead. So why have I, for the moment, pulled this neglected web site out of mothballs? For the worthy cause of film preservation: 

Today, I want to talk about Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock's classic on voyeurism. This isn't a full-blown critique or analysis. I'll do that later, when I'm able to post more regularly (three years say?) No, this post is really about me, how I recently made an ass of myself over this film, an explanation of how this came to pass, and, finally, a plea for understanding.

Self-Styled Siren, one of the sponsors of the "blogathon" that the link in the first paragraph refers to, recently did an analysis of Rear Window on her fine blog. It was well-written and insightful, with several observations that I hadn't previously considered. As well as one great, big, fat, glaring observation that not only hadn't I previously considered, I hadn't observed, period.

You have to understand that Rear Window is my favorite Hitchcock film, my favorite classic Hollywood film, maybe my favorite film ever. I've seen it at least ten times. I consider myself something of an authority on it. If you've never seen this movie, in which case you've led an empty and meaningless life, I'll give you a brief sketch. Jimmy Stewart is laid up with a broken leg. Bored, he's been spying on his neighbors, including one who may have killed his wife. But that's not important to this conversation. Rather, it's two other neighbors, a middle-aged couple played by Sarah Berner and Frank Cady (Sam Drucker, to all you Petticoat Junction and Green Acres fans out there), and their little white dog, which they lower in a basket from from their upper floor apartment so he can romp and play in the courtyard. In a pivotal scene, the dog is found strangled to death. Self-Styled Siren describes the whole scene and its aftermath, including this observation that caused me to recoil when I first read it:

"...Miss Lonelyhearts, tenderly placing the dog's body in his basket for the last time..."

That's not how I remembered it, and told Siren so in the comments section:

"Please excuse my nitpicking, but I've seen this film many, many times, and I'm positive it was the lady sculptor, who lived at ground level, who put the murdered canine back in the basket."

Hmm, used "who" one too many times. Anyway, the Siren was quick in responding:

"Hm, I don't have this on DVD, but that isn't my memory. Anyone able to check? Or Kirk, did you?"

Um, no, I hadn't. Why should I, when I was, like, positive and all? But seeing as she asked, I would check, and I wouldn't need no DVD, either! I went straight to YouTube, and, sure enough, the scene was there, and, sure enough...Miss Lonelyhearts, not the lady sculptor, places the dog's body in his basket one last time. Sigh.

How could I have been so wrong? I quickly came up with an explanation, which I passed on to Siren:

"...I've always found that scene a little disturbing. Animals (unlike humans) dying in movies always makes me a bit queasy, and I tend to turn away whenever that scene plays."

And it's true. I don't know if it's their utter innocence or what, but animal deaths in movies disturb me much more so than humans. I've only seen The Yearling and Old Yeller once, and it's going to remain once, unless when I die and go to Hell, Satan subjects me to a 24-hour showings of both films.

The fate of giant gorillas probably doesn't affect me as much as deer and dogs, as I've seen King Kong more than once, and surely will again. Still, I find his fall from the Empire State Building rather saddening. Not just the fall itself, but what leads up to it, the way those machine guns on the WWI airplanes gradually weaken the poor simian. No amount of modern-day computer animation can equal the poignancy of the big guy's stop-motion plunge to the streets of Manhattan .

I saw this odd mid-1960s sci-fi flick not too long ago called Village of the Giants, in which Ronny Howard, as he was known back then, invents a potion with his chemistry set that causes two ducks to grow to a size of about 7 feet. A group of teenagers led by Tommy Kirk happen upon these ducks and end up making a grand feast of them. I found that rather unsettling, and I'm not even a vegetarian!

Sometimes the animal doesn't even have to die. I thought it sad in The Diary of Anne Frank when the cat ran away. Really, I should have saved my sympathies for Anne herself, who was taken away.

OK, I'm stalling here with all the morbid movie memories. Yes, I was disturbed when the dog was killed, but that hasn't kept me from seeing Rear Window at least ten times. Also, I really should despise Raymond Burr, who kills the canine, or at least his character did. However, later on during the film's climax, I find myself feeling sorry for the guy, even more so than when Tokyo collapsed on top of him in Godzilla.

So if it's not the dog's demise that made me forget, what was it? Well, there is a lot going on in that scene. First the woman who owns the dog screams, followed by a speech lamenting neighborly indifference as Mr. Drucker sadly looks on. But the neighbors are anything but indifferent at that particular moment. Everybody runs to look--Miss Torso, the people at the party, etc. The lady sculptor runs out of her house. In fact, other than Miss Lonelyhearts, she's the closest one to that dog. Had the lady sculptor just been a little more proactive, she could have pushed Miss Lonelyhearts out of the way, and put the pooch in the basket herself, saving me a lot of grief in the process.

Finally, did I even forget what happened? When I viewed the scene again, it's not like I said to myself, "Oh, yeah, now I remember! Miss Lonelyhearts picked up the dog!" You can't forget something if you didn't notice it in the first place. And I didn't notice, because, in spite of all the times I've seen this movie, I just wasn't paying close enough attention.

I'd make a lousy voyeur.