A year in Hollywood: 1964

Since Darryl Zanuck had reassumed control of 20th Century Fox, the studio’s situation drastically improved. Not only had CLEOPATRA been making back its costs at the box office, but Twentieth Century Fox Television experienced an upswing.

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Adapting the 1957 melodrama PEYTON PLACE into a regular series with Dorothy Malone and a young Mia Farrow proved to be a good idea. The program aired several nights each week on ABC-TV, and it was an immediate hit with audiences. Its success, combined with the popularity of another Fox-produced television show, Daniel Boone, indicated strong financial gains for the studio. By the end of 1964, Zanuck announced to shareholders a profit of $11.5 million.

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Worried about taking risks on big-budget epics, most studios decided to focus on what they considered sure bets. In 1964, the sure bet was now a big-budget musical. Executives were encouraged by the fact that recent adaptations of Broadway hits like WEST SIDE STORY and GYPSY had done very well with audiences. So Warners forged ahead with its film version of MY FAIR LADY. Though it cost over $5 million to secure the rights, the picture easily made that amount back thanks to George Cukor’s direction and Rex Harrison’s performance as Professor Henry Higgins, a role he earlier played on the New York stage.

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Harrison’s costar from the Broadway production, Julie Andrews, was passed over in favor of Audrey Hepburn. But Andrews quickly bounced back by signing on with Walt Disney, who made a big budget musical of his own, MARY POPPINS. Andrews would earn the Best Actress Oscar for her work as P.L. Travers’ title character.

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Meanwhile, there was a shift in how studios were promoting actors. The old star system of the 1940s and 1950s had radically changed. Performers like Clint Walker who had developed substantial followings on television were all the rage. And actors who had done well for years in character or supporting roles were given opportunities they never had before. These less expensive “movie stars” were cast in expanded B-pictures that often used recycled scripts, and were shot in color and widescreen.

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The more expensive stars of yesteryear were being eased off the big screen. They either retreated to television or into early retirement. A few of the more stubborn ones, like Bette Davis, refused to call it quits. She used what drawing power she still had left to make horror films. A new sub-genre was born– the psycho-biddie. It was a last moment of glory for the actress whose status was diminishing. Her power as a movie star was inevitably slipping away from her.

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Coming up in June

Not quite a household name…Everyone knows who Cary Grant is; but what about his leading lady?

Movies that build up a sweat…characters do the darnedest things to get in shape.

Recommended films vol. 9…a few titles to see when you’re under the weather.

Father’s Day…Stanley T. Banks is still dealing with his daughter Kay’s marriage.

Eve Arden has class…Getting schooled in the ways of comedy by Miss Arden.

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Join me in June!

 

A year in Hollywood: 1963

Old studio films were showing up on late night television with increasing frequency. This was good news for viewers who enjoyed looking at movies from an earlier generation. But it was bad news for directors, writers and actors who received small residuals for the broadcasts.

In the meantime, 20th Century Fox released its much-anticipated remake of CLEOPATRA. Though the project was initially slated for studio stars Joan Collins and Stephen Boyd with a million dollar budget, the main roles ended up cast with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the budget was increased to $5 million. Filming took nearly three years, and during that time, studio heads rolled (Spyros Skouras and his appointees); costs zoomed out of control (forcing Fox to sell parcels of the backlot); and a real-life love story, as dramatic as anything seen on the screen, developed between the leads (causing them both to leave their respective spouses for each other).

After all the dust had settled, Fox actually had a hit on its hands. The big budget epic needed time to earn its costs back, which it eventually did; and critics praised some of the performances– notably Rex Harrison, who reveled in his occasionally witty lines. Some of the script seemed as if it was rewritten on the spur of the moment, but reviewers noted that the scene where Caesar experienced an epileptic fit was well-staged and played, showing remarkable imagination.

Another film that hit the screen in 1963 was a romantic thriller called CHARADE. It featured a reverse May-December romance where a younger woman chased after an older man. Cary Grant initially turned down his role in the picture. He reconsidered when he learned that he would not play the chaser, but the one being chased. His pursuer was played by Audrey Hepburn, who incidentally had been on the short list at Fox to play Cleopatra. The Grant-Hepburn pairing worked with audiences, and the storyline, which borrowed heavily from previous efforts by Alfred Hitchcock and his writers, seemed fairly plausible.

With hits like CLEOPATRA and CHARADE in theaters, Hollywood was selling an average of 42 million tickets per week. Another picture that went over with the movie going public was David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, with Peter O’Toole in the title role. Columbia released it at the tail end of 1962, qualifying it for the Oscars, and it did strong business in the early part of 1963. When it earned seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it did even better.

Other significant British productions dotted the cinema landscape. In September, United Artists released Tony Richardson’s TOM JONES, starring Albert Finney. Produced on a budget of $1.4 million, the picture eventually earned $37 million. Its success was even more notable considering one important fact– before United Artists took over and arranged funding, the project had been rejected at every other major Hollywood studio. With a runaway hit on his hands, Richardson received many offers to work in Hollywood. However, none of his later films would do as well.

 

12 o’clock for a man of the west

Gary Cooper gives his second Oscar-winning performance in 1952’s HIGH NOON. He stars as retired Marshal Will Kane, forced to face a killer without help from former deputies and friends. The script, by writer-producer Carl Foreman, contains a lot of symbolism about conditions surrounding the blacklist. And the events unfolding on screen are supposed to be as closely aligned to real time as possible.

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Since the film is 85 minutes, one can assume the story begins at 10:35 a.m. And in early shots where we see Kane about to marry Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) the clock on the back wall does read 10:35. When the Hadleyville ticket agent receives a telegraph about Frank Miller’s pardon, the clock behind him also says 10:35. We cut back to the wedding, as Kane finishes marrying Amy. Then he learns about Miller. It is now:

Kane and Amy head out of town, but he decides to go back and deal with Miller. He looks at his pocket watch. Soon they return to Hadleyville and he puts his badge back on. He looks at the clock, and it is 10:50. This is followed by scenes with Deputy Pell (Lloyd Bridges). Pell and Kane have it out over the choice of a new marshal, and Pell quits in anger. Kane checks the clock again. It’s 11:02.

As the story progresses, there are other shots of clocks around town. At one point, the manager of the hotel fixes the grandfather clock in the lobby. The repeated references to time and Kane mentioning Miller’s arrival to Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) are meant to generate suspense. Later, when Kane goes into the church to ask for volunteers, we witness conflicting points of view about the impending battle between Kane and Miller. It only adds to the tension.

Also building tension are closeups of various characters in key scenes. Along with more shots of nearby clocks, it becomes clear that time itself is a character too.

As we hurry towards the action-packed climax, there are precious few minutes left, and still nobody will help Will Kane. He knows the street confrontation is inevitable, and he might have to face it alone.

 

A year in Hollywood: 1962

Not every Hollywood studio focused on television to the extent United Artists, Columbia Pictures and Universal did. Fox was in the process of selling off chunks of its valuable back lot. This helped keep the company going while several productions– THE LONGEST DAY and a remake of CLEOPATRA– experienced numerous delays and went seriously over budget.

As CLEOPATRA’s costs spiraled out of control, Darryl F. Zanuck began to worry that his investment in the company was threatened. He stepped back in to oversee day-to-day production, and Spyros Skouras was forced out. Also, many of the men Skouras had appointed to various divisions and subsidiaries during Zanuck’s exile in Paris were let go. Zanuck was determined to return the studio to its former glory.

Meanwhile, MGM focused on overseas productions. But there was trouble when the studio attempted to re-film an earlier classic, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. A lengthy location shoot in Tahiti was rife with problems. Director Carol Reed ended up quitting, and was replaced by Lewis Milestone. Also, the film’s star Marlon Brando was using set designers to decorate a friend’s wedding and borrowed company planes to haul supplies for private parties. When the film finally opened, Brando’s performance was largely jeered and the picture flopped.

Due to MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY’s disappointing performance at the box office, MGM barely broke even in 1962. The company only turned out eleven other motion pictures during the year, and most of them did lukewarm business. At one point in ’62, MGM had nothing in production—the first time ever since operations began in 1925.

Several important films released in 1962 were directed by John Frankenheimer. Though Hollywood auteurs were a bit overshadowed by their European counterparts in the early 1960s, Frankenheimer was one who received special recognition. As a storyteller, he relied on instincts he had developed during his days in live television. With ALL FALL DOWN and BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, he crafted compelling social message dramas. But his crowning achievement would be THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, a movie that hit close to home for many about the chilling effects of the Korean war.

At Paramount, the trend of epic filmmaking continued. The studio decided to green-light CIRCUS WORLD, a big budget spectacle starring John Wayne and Rita Hayworth. It did not premiere until two years later because of on-going production issues. Frank Capra was initially assigned to direct, but he fought with Wayne over script rewrites and left; Henry Hathaway soon took over. In addition to this, Wayne did not get along with Hayworth on set. Plus several of the original cast members bowed out, when they realized their roles were being reduced so Wayne’s could be more prominent. Among those who walked off were David Niven and Rod Taylor.

 

 

 

Appreciating Julie London

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As a young starlet, Julie London first appeared in poverty-row films. Her luck changed after the war, when she signed a contract at Universal and went to work for producer Walter Wanger. Later, she became a singer and continued her movie career while recording hit songs. Julie’s popularity with audiences didn’t go unnoticed– it led to better roles in films and opportunities on television.

1. NABONGA (1944).  This is the one that started it all.  Julie was cast as a jungle witch in an adventure thriller that paired her with Buster Crabbe.  Made at poverty-row studio PRC, it has developed a cult following over the years.

2. TAP ROOTS (1948). George Marshall directed the intriguing Civil War drama about Tennessee’s attempts to secede from the Union. It was Julie’s first film under contract at Universal, and she was fourth-billed as Susan Hayward’s sister. The male leads were played by Van Heflin and Richard Long. In 1968, Julie would guest star on Long’s television series The Big Valley. 

3. RETURN OF THE FRONTIERSMAN (1950). Julie appeared in a western on loan out to Warner Brothers. In the story, a sheriff’s son (Gordon MacRae) was falsely accused of murder and tried to clear his name. While tracking down the real killer, he managed to have time for some romance. Julie played the love interest.

4. THE FIGHTING CHANCE (1955). For several years, Julie was on hiatus from films (as she focused on motherhood and her music career). But she returned to screens in a new production from Republic Pictures. The action adventure story teamed her with the studio’s popular leading men, Rod Cameron and Ben Cooper. In the story both guys fell in love with Julie, and the usual complications occurred.

5. CRIME AGAINST JOE (1956). An independent production released through United Artists. Julie played a gal mixed up with a Korean war veteran. He was implicated in a murder, and she helped him solve the case. John Bromfield costarred in the absorbing film noir.

6. DRANGO (1957). Julie had the lead female role in an exciting western released by United Artists. She acted opposite Jeff Chandler, who also produced. He played an army major tasked with setting up a temporary governorship in a southern town immediately after the Civil War. In the picture below, she has a scene with Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard).

7. SADDLE THE WIND (1958). She headed over to MGM for this production with Robert Taylor and John Cassavetes.  Donald Crisp, who also costarred in DRANGO, was again one of her cast mates. Taylor and Cassevetes portrayed brothers with competing agendas, and Julie was the woman caught up in their emotional war.

8. A QUESTION OF ADULTERY (1958). The subject matter for the film was a bit shocking for its time. It was about whether artificial insemination could be regarded as grounds for divorce. Julie was listed first in the credits, and her costars included British actors Anthony Steel and Basil Sydney.

9. VOICE IN THE MIRROR (1958). She was at Universal again, paired with Richard Egan. Egan portrayed a chronic alcoholic, and Julie was his long-suffering yet patient wife. The production preceded DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES by several years and is worth checking out. Walter Matthau and a young Troy Donahue round out the cast.

10. MAN OF THE WEST (1958). Julie’s most well-known film role. She played a woman mixed up with a reformed outlaw and assorted bad guys during a botched train robbery. Gary Cooper was cast as the hero in Anthony Mann’s excellent psychological western, while Lee J. Cobb and Jack Lord took on more villainous roles.

A year in Hollywood: 1961

Weekly movie attendance was down around 41 million, and production costs were rising in Hollywood. Studios tried to find new ways to offset their increasing expenses and maintain profitability. One solution was to sell off buildings that were not being used anymore and only lease space as needed for new productions.

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Some of the studios were able to survive because of recent diversifications into music and television. For example, Columbia Pictures had begun a television arm called Screen Gems that produced a sitcom version of the popular comic strip Dennis the Menace. In 1961, the Screen Gems subsidiary also began episodes of Hazel with Tony and Oscar winner Shirley Booth. It was an instant success and ranked fourth during its inaugural season.

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But not every studio had lucrative TV ventures to offset rising costs. And if films were going to continue to make money for the major Hollywood companies, new ideas had to be implemented. Citing the success of European films, American filmmakers decided that a change in stories needed to occur. It was the only way they could compete with foreign productions.

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Foreign films seemed to be attracting audiences for a variety of reasons. First, the content seemed more sophisticated. And second, the films seemed to have a more stylized approach when it came to specific storytelling conventions. One director who garnered a lot of attention was Michaelangelo Antonioni. His hit LA NOTTE had starred Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni as an unfaithful married couple dealing with the deteriorating state of their relationship. The picture became highly regarded and earned top honors at the Berlin Film Festival.

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Another one of the year’s most important films came from Universal. It was a follow-up to 1959’s PILLOW TALK, a raucous sex farce that first paired virginal Doris Day with smooth talking Rock Hudson. The studio decided there would be great value reuniting them, with third wheel Tony Randall, in LOVER COME BACK. It repeated the same basic formula with a few slight variations. Again, the premise relied on Day’s aggressive femininity, as well as Hudson’s rakish childlike vulnerability, played for laughs. Audiences were thoroughly amused, and Universal had another hit.